The British Tank Churchill served the British Army and allied forces as the most important of its type during World War 2 (1939-1945), rivaling even the famous American M4 Sherman and fabled Soviet T-34 medium tanks of the conflict.
Such was its value that the chassis served as the basis for a slew of variants to follow, both direct-combat and non-combat forms, that made it one of the more classic tanks ever adopted despite its appearance akin to a World War 1 (1914-1918) steel beast.
Only the Infantry Tank Valentine was produced in more numbers than the British Tank Churchill though none could match Churchill’s multi-role capabilities that helped it to see an extended service life in the post-war years.
By this point in its military history, the British Army had adopted a doctrine centered around the use of light, fast “Cruiser Tanks” coupled with slow, better-armed-and-armored “Infantry Tanks”. Infantry Tanks would be used to smash enemy defensives to which Cruiser Tanks would then be sent in to exploit enemy flanks.
The classic British Tank Churchill belonged to the Infantry Tank way-of-thinking in this arrangement, hence its large dimensions, overall weight, and very capable turret armament.
The request for a new Infantry Tank came through specification “A20” appearing September 1939, a time when the British Empire was under increasingly direct threat from invasion from Axis forces.
The initial approach was for a heavy battlefield tank designed for the concept of trench warfare seen in the bloody fighting of World War 1 and a large shape was adopted to break any possible stalemate across a given battlefield.
However, early evaluation of the design approach quickly showed such a vehicle’s inherent limitations – particularly where the German fast-moving battlefield concepts were concerned. As such, the decision was made to flesh out a more lightweight offering and this came under the specification of “A22”.
Vauxhall Motors was charged with its design and development to which originated the classic “Churchill” tank, formally recognized under the long-form name of “Infantry Tank Mk IV”.
Due to time constraints and the ever-evolving war across the Channel, Vauxhall worked from a pressed schedule which forced the vehicle into army hands as quickly as possible. This sort of haste then allowed real world use to showcase the design’s mechanical unreliability which led to a quick revision. Some 1,000 tanks were eventually affected by this production push and only the later revisions saved the line from complete failure.
Initial British Tank Churchill marks were outfitted with the 2-pounder main gun, a relatively small 40mm caliber weapon found across both the Churchill Mk I and Mk II. Mk Is also featured a 3″ howitzer fitted to the front of the hull as well as a coaxial 7.92mm Besa machine gun – the 3″ gun was given up in the Mk II. The following British Tank Churchill Mk III and Mk IV were fitted with a serviceable 57mm main gun while the Mk VI and Mk VII were given more appropriate armament in the 75mm main gun.
Other forms then followed and carried various caliber armament including 95mm howitzer flavors intended as “close support” fighting platforms. The definitive production model became the aforementioned Mk IV with 1,622 produced and this was followed, in numbers, by the Mk VII (A22F) with 1,600 examples and then the Mk II seeing 1,127 units produced.
Initial actions of Churchills were rather unspectacular, particularly during the Dieppe landings of 1942 where many failed to reach the shore and those on shore were pinned and doomed to fail. The raid was a concerted effort to retake the vital French port of Dieppe through a 6,000-strong infantry force backed by armor coming ashore by way of a brazen amphibious landing operation.
However, the large vehicles required landing craft for the assault and then additional engineering support to even cross the beach. The German defenses held the upper hand and the Dieppe Raid was a complete failure for the Allies. Much of the decimated force was made up of Canadians.
It was in the fighting across North Africa that Churchills began to showcase their worth, providing much-needed protection through their thick armor and strong firepower through their now 6-pdr main guns.
They operated alongside infantry formations as well as other tank elements and cross-country capabilities proved sound. If the large tank suffered one noticeable limitation it was in its overall speed which made it hard to keep up with faster-mechanized formations.
Many improvements were also being made as battlefield experience allowed including riveted and hybrid construction of the original cast turret designs. Other improvements were added to help “tropicalize” the tank in the desert fighting. Additional armor was also eventually added and in-the-field fixes saw extra track sections, wheels, sandbags, and lumber used to further bolster protection.
Churchills played a crucial role in the October 1942 “Second Battle of El Alamein” which claimed a decisive (and much-needed) Allied victory. One action involving a Churchill tank led to the capture of the new German “Tiger I” heavy tank, allowing Allied war planners a complete example from which to learn its strengths and weaknesses.
The tank was then pressed into further service during the Italian campaign in the march to Rome and made up a major component of the British and Commonwealth armor push northwards. Throughout northern France, Churchills were also used during the June 1944 “D-Day” landings in Normandy, which proved critical to Allied success in Europe, and beyond. Through Lend-Lease, the Soviet Army was also able to utilize British Churchills during its actions near Kursk, though this resulted in a German tactical victory.
Churchills did not see combat service in the Pacific Theater but did go on to earn more combat experience during the Korean War (1950-1953). These actions marked the end of British support for its Churchills as worldwide armor doctrine now focused on the “Main Battle Tank” concept.
The British Tank Churchill served in many non-direct combat forms which helped to solidify its place in armored warfare history.
Variants included dedicated engineering versions, bridge layers, charge-layers, mine clearance vehicles (flails), flame tanks and converted Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) under the “Kangaroo” name – Churchill offshoots ranged from the purposeful to the odd.
Despite its bygone appearance, the British Tank Churchill proved highly valued in the fighting of World War 2, helping to bring about complete Allied victory and an end to the war in Europe. Churchill tanks served the British from 1941 to 1952 with 7,368 produced of all marks and variants. Operators included (beyond the British) Australia, Canada, Iraq (Kingdom of), Ireland, Poland and the Soviet Union (via Lend-Lease). Irish Churchills were not retired until 1969 and the arrival of wartime Cruiser Tank Comets.
Australia, Canada, and Iraq all replaced their Churchills with Centurion Main Battle Tanks and Soviet Churchills were replaced by incoming stocks of Josef Stalin IS-3 and IS-10 series heavy tanks.
British Tank Churchill was manufactured by Vauxhall Motors, Woolwich Arsenal and Harland and Wolff of the U.K.