The Republic of Ireland Defence Forces didn’t have much experience with Tanks. In 1929, they acquired a small number of Vickers Mark Ds, a derivative of the Vickers Medium Mk II. In 1935 these were joined by a delivery of 2 Swedish Landsverk L-60 Light Tanks. The Irish continued to acquire various types of armored vehicles in the following years.
By the end of the Second World War, the British Churchill Infantry Tank had made a name for itself as being tough and reliable in hostile environments. Wanting to bolster their arsenal, the Republic of Ireland Defence Forces, specifically the Cavalry Corps (Irish: An Cór Marcra), set their sights on adopting some of the UK’s surplus tanks.
In 1948, following a brief period during which several Cavalry Corps officers trained in England, the Defence Forces of Ireland (IDF. Irish: Fórsaí Cosanta, officially: Óglaigh na hÉireann) rented three Churchill Mk.VIs from the British War Office. A fourth tank was delivered in 1949. The tanks were bought out-right in 1954.
Churchill ‘1B’ of the 1st Cavalry Squadron. Photo: An Cosantoir
The Mk.VI Churchill
Officially designated as ‘Tank, Infantry, Mk.IV, A22’, the Churchill entered service with the British Armoured forces in 1941. It was named, contrary to popular belief, after an ancestor of then serving Prime Minister, the famous Winston Churchill. Not the man himself. It was the last ‘Infantry Tank’ to serve in the British Military.
The specific model procured by Ireland was the Mk. VI Churchill, which was produced from December 1943. It had armor of up to 102mm thick over the frontal arc. The turret was a cast type and mounted the tank’s main armament of an Ordnance Quick-Firing 75mm Gun Mk. 5. This gun could fire Armor-Piercing (AP) and High-Explosive (HE) rounds. Though the HE round was rather effective, the AP was dismal. It could only penetrate 68mm (2.6in) of RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armor) at 500 yards (460 m).
Secondary armament consisted of a coaxial and a bow mounted 7.92mm BESA machine gun. The tank was crewed by 5 men. These were the Commander, Gunner, Loader, Driver and Bow Machine Gunner/Wireless Operator.
A speed-demon the Churchill was not. A lumbering beast at approximately 40-tons, its top speed was only 15 mph (24 km/h). It was powered by a Bedford 12-cylinder engine producing 350 hp. The tank was supported on a complicated suspension with 11 small wheels per side, each one attached to an independent coil spring. The drive wheel was at the rear with a sprocketed idler at the front. Though it was slow and heavy, the Churchill made a name for itself as being one of the best cross-country tanks ever built and could climb higher gradients or cross harder obstacles than most other tanks then in service.
The Rental Agreement
Originally, the plan was to rent four Churchill tanks for £5,000 for a period of five years, starting the 25th of January 1949. Conditions were drawn up and agreed on between the Irish Government and British War Office. The Irish Government would have to meet all transport and freight costs, indemnifying the War Office for any loss or damage. There was also an agreement that the tanks would be returned to the UK immediately if requested.
As the tanks remained the property of the British War Office, strict conditions were put in place that would keep the Churchills painted with the standard British Olive Drab paint, and retain the War Department numbers painted on the hulls. 1,000 rounds of Armor Piercing (AP), 2,000 rounds of High-Explosive and 500 rounds of Smoke Shells were also ordered separately for the 75mm gun.
All four Churchill tanks on the way to the Glen of Imaal for one of their first shoots, November 1950. Photo: Aaron Smith
The Churchill was considered the perfect tank for Ireland, as Defence Force heads considered their country unsuitable for tank warfare and always saw the tank as an infantry support weapon. A role the Churchill was born to fulfill. No two of the tanks were identical and had been extensively refitted and repaired. At least one had seen action with the British army and was drastically repaired after being knocked out.
The tanks were what is commonly known as REME (Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers) “Salads”. The rebuilding process saw vehicles from all units and different manufactures stripped to component parts and reassembled using refurbished parts off the shelf. Once a vehicle has been through a re-manufacturing process it will end up with very few original parts put back in. Finding matching numbers in such vehicles is incredibly rare. When rebuilt the vehicles are brought up to or as close to as possible the current standard. This will include up-armoring and up gunning. For instance, It is common to find a 1944 tank with a 1943 engine and a 1945 gearbox.
The tanks served with the 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron based at Curragh Camp, Kildare. The four tanks were alphabetically organized as follows: ‘1A’, 1B’, ‘1C’ and ‘1D’. It is reasonable to suggest that the ‘1’ is representative of the 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron. To begin with, these markings were found as large stencils on the sides of the turret. Later, these markings were changed. The 1A, B, C or D marks were moved to the left of the gun on the turret cheek. They also gained nicknames, presumably given by the crews, as is traditional. ‘1A’ was called ‘Fionn’ and ‘1D’ was originally called ‘Vampire’, but this was later changed to ‘McḊiarmuid’. The other two were given names, but unfortunately, they are not recorded, and the visual evidence we do have is not clear enough to identify the names. The name of ‘1C’ appears to be something along the lines of ‘Cothad’.
Though the tanks were never used in combat, they took part in training for the entirety of their service. Twice a year, the Churchills drove under their own power to the remote Glen of Imaal (Irish: Gleann Uí Mháil) in the Wicklow Mountains. 5,948 acres of the Glen had been used by the Irish Military as an artillery and gunnery range since 1900. Here, the Churchills took part in gunnery, infantry cooperation, and cross-country trails.
Churchill 1B ‘Bit Special’ scales an obstacle with 1D following. Scaling steep inclines was one of the best qualities of the Tank. Photo: An Cosantoir
The Problem with Mud and Councils
Ireland was inexperienced with heavy armored vehicles such as the Churchill, and as such were ill-equipped with recovery and transport vehicles. The need was amplified by an incident that occurred in training at the Glen of Imaal. One of the tanks broke down and became stuck in heavy mud. The military, at this point, had no way to rescue the tank or tow it back for repairs. The military elected to abandon the tank and leave it where it stood to expect for the gun which they were able to take back to base. For the following years, instead of towing the tank too-and-fro, they simply took the gun to the tank every time it was required for gunnery training. In 1967, this process was given up. In the following years it was buried where it stood to prevent public access to it.
Aside from such incidents, there were also issues raised by Civilian organizations. Complaints soon arose from the Kildare and Wicklow County Councils, who were displeased at the amount of damage the all-metal tracks of the Churchill were causing to public roads.
Such issues led to the Cavalry Corps purchasing a World War Two, ex-British Army M19 Tank Transporter. This was the combination of the 12-ton 6×4 M20 Diamond T Model 980 truck and a companion M9 12-wheel trailer. American in origin, this transporter was considered one of the best ever built, some are even privately used today. They only bought a single vehicle, however, meaning that only one tank could be transported at a time.
Churchill Tank ‘1D’ scales an incline. Another of the tanks is visible in the background, designation unknown. Photo: An Cosantoir
In 1954, the British asked the Irish Government whether they would be renewing the lease on the Churchills. The Irish Authorities, instead of offering to renew the lease, offered the War Office the sum of £1,000 for each tank to purchase them out right. It is not clear whether this amount was the final one agreed, but nonetheless, the Churchills became 100% Irish Defence Force Property.
The Rolls-Royce Merlin
Even before the fourth Churchill arrived in 1949, the Transport Corps, who were responsible for maintaining the tanks, had reported that spare parts for the tank’s engines and other vital components were quickly running out. In an effort to keep the tanks going, a new development was considered.
On the 14th of February 1955, Captain Collier of the Cavalry Workshops came up with a plan to replace the Churchill’s old 350hp Bedford engine with the powerful 600hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engine which had been used in many British aircraft. A derivative of the Merlin, the Meteor, had been had been used on other models of British tanks such as the Cromwell and Comet.
The plan grabbed the attention of Captain Collier’s superiors who agreed to the proposal and suggested that the proposal be tested on one of the four Churchills. The Merlin engine was to be procured from the Air-Corps and was previously installed on one of their Vickers Supermarine VS.506 Seafire LF III fighters which were being withdrawn from service. As such, there was a plentiful surplus of spare parts.
Progress on the project was slow and continued into 1956. Tests were carried out with the engine installed. These tests were an apparent success but, for reasons unrecorded, the program stopped. None of the other Churchills would see the addition of the engine.
Due to the stoppage of the Merlin trials, spare parts for the Churchills inevitably ran out. By 1967, only one Churchill remained in a serviceable condition. In 1959, the Irish tank arsenal was refreshed with the arrival of four Comet Tanks, again purchased from the UK. A further four arrived in 1960. In 1969, all Churchills were retired. Research suggests that two of the Churchills were scrapped. One in 1963, the other in 1967.
The two tanks that were not scrapped still survive today. The tank that was buried in the Glen of Imaal in 1967 was excavated and recovered in 2002/3. The tank was cleaned and presented to the UK’s North Irish Horse Regiment, based in Northern Ireland, as a goodwill gesture. It is on display at Dunmore Park in Belfast. The tank was recently repainted and received the name ‘Castlerobin III’.
In 2006, the other surviving Churchill, having been repainted a solid green, became an exhibit (along with a Comet) at the Curragh Camp Museum. It has been refitted with new fenders over the tracks that are not accurate to the original vehicle. These were fabricated locally.
Though it does not pertain to the Irish Mk. VIs, there is another restored Churchill on the Emerald Isle. In the North, a Churchill Mk. VII has been placed as a monument on the Carrickfergus seafront. It has also been named ‘Carrickfergus’. It stands as a monument to the town’s military and industrial links. The famous shipbuilders, Harland & Wolff, even built the A20 prototype in their factory in the town.
One of the Surviving Churchills as it sits today as an exhibit of the Curragh Camp Museum. Note the false, locally produced fenders. Photo: Defence Forces Irland (DFI)
For our U.K. readers, this article can also be found in the May 2018 issue of ‘Classic Military Vehicle‘ Magazine.
|Dimensions||24ft 5in x 10ft 8in x 8ft 2in (7.44 x 3.25 x 2.49 m)|
|Total weight, battle ready||40 tonnes|
|Crew||5 (commander, driver, co-driver/hull gunner, gunner, loader/radio)|
|Propulsion||Bedford twin-six petrol, 350 hp (261 kW) at 2,200 rpm|
|Transmission||Merritt-Brown 4 speed constant mesh epicyclic gearbox|
|Suspension||22 vertical coil spring bogies|
|Top speed||15 mph (24 km/h)|
|Range (road)||56 mi (90 km)|
|Armament||Ordnance QF 75 (75 mm/2.95 in)
2x 0.303 (7.7 mm) Besa machine-guns
|Armor||From 25 to 102 mm (0.98-4.01 in)|
Archive film of the Cavalry Corps displaying their tank arsenal.
Links, Resources & Further Reading
An Cosantóir, The Irish Defence Journal
Irish Army Vehicles: Transport and Armour since 1922 by Karl Martin
Tiger Lily Publications, Irish Army Orders of Battle 1923-2004, Adrian J. English
Mushroom Model Publications, AFVs in Irish Service Since 1922, Ralph A. Riccio
Schiffer Publishing, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, David Fletcher
Churchill Tank ‘1D’, 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron. This tank started out with the nickname ‘Vampire”, but later received the name “McḊiarmuid” from its crew. Illustrated by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet