About 15,000 armoured vehicles 1947-90.
Main Battle Tanks
- Chieftain Casement Test Rig (CTR) SPG
- Chimera 1984
- Excalibur Light Airborne Tank Destroyer
- FV215 Heavy Gun Tank
- FV3805 Centurion SPG
- FV4005 Stage I & II
- FV4201 Chieftain/90mm Gun Tank T95 Hybrid
Starting under the best auspices
While UK’s economy was seriously in jeopardy after the war, tank development reached a peak in 1944-45 with the Comet and the Centurion, both cumulating all the hard-learnt lessons from encounters with German tanks. The Comet, the last of a long line of cruisers was fast, better protected and better armed, with a long 17-pdr, than most allied tanks. The Centurion, largely based on the latter received an extra pair of roadwheels and longer chassis for increased protection. At that time previous heavy tanks projects failed and it was thought that a heavier cruiser could provide the armoured divisions with the “universal tank” concept which emerged from the war. This tank, only tested in Belgium during the last days of ww2 in Europe, would became immensely famous during the cold war not only for its long, successful and battle-proven career as to be regarded by most experts today as the first main battle tank.
The last “heavy”
The real threat posed by postwar heavy soviet tanks like the IS-3 and others asked for an even better protected/better armed tank than the Centurion and led to design the Conqueror. Indeed, while the Centurion was rearmed with the 20-pdr (83 mm), the 120 mm of the IS-3 was still superior, supposedly in range, and at least on impact. It was not known at that time the poor rate of fire and accuracy of the gun compared to Western standards. The master ace of the Conqueror was its massive 120 mm L1 rifled gun and a formidable frontal armour of 180 mm or 7 inches of solid RHA. But this was paid by pachydermic dimensions and 65 tons that took their toll on the Rolls-Royce Meteor M120 810 hp (604 kW), resulting in a speed of only 34 kph at best on flat, and serious reliability issues. The mobility however equalled the famous ww2 Churchill on all terrains. The range of fire or ammunition carried were not impressive either due to the use of separate charge and projectile, a common practice for those caliber rounds. A transitional serie armed with the 20-pdr was called FV 221 Caernarvon. In all, 165 were built. There was even a planned tank with an 183 mm gun. But the arrival of the 105 mm armed Centurion led to rapidly retire the Conquerors posted in Germany and the heavy tank concept was definitively buried.
NATO’s gun: Story of the Royal Ordnance L7
Probably the most famous piece of ordinance on the Western Hemisphere, and in Asia (with both Chinas and South Korea), the Royal ordnance L7 was a new generation main tank gun designed to replace the 20-pounder (83 mm) with a truly modern rifled gun concept, providing more muzzle velocity than ever while retaining a moderate recoil due to several innovations. It was researched already in the early 1950s by the Armament Research and Development Establishment at Fort Halstead, and the design was refined after obtaining a T-54 which ended on the British Embassy gardens at Budapest during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The T-54 main gun was indeed of an almost similar caliber, and had superior performances compared to the 20-pdr. This new gun received a Horizontally-sliding breechblock for loading the fixed cartridge cases. Recoil was approximately 29 cm, and the return motion automatically opened the breech and ejected the empty cartridge case. Moreover the 52 cal. lengths barrel was the first fitted with a bore evacuator (in the west, the T-54A and T-55 both have one muzzle mounted) approximately halfway down its length and eccentrically mounted. The rate of fire was 10 rounds per minute on average, for a practical range in direct fire of 2500 meters and an indirect fire (as proven by Israeli gunners on the Golan heights) of nearly 4,000 meters. It could defeat 120 mm of sloped armour with HEAT ammunitions, but many more were used afterwards. The L7 helped the Centurion to be upgraded and maintained in service well until the late 1980s, but it also equipped the German Leopard I (licence-built by Rheinmetall), well distributed among other European countries, by the US M48, M60 Patton and M1 Abrams, by the Swiss Panzer 58/61/68 series, and most Chinese tanks from the 1970s.
Great Britain Forces in NATO
Great Britain joined NATO early on the creation of the treaty and is still seen as one of the original founding members. Lord Ismay was instrumental in the establishment of the Treaty of Brussels in 1948 which was later extended to other countries, including the USA in 1949. British bases in West Germany were active for years, including four armoured divisions until 1990, but was much reduced afterwards. The BFG was known in the origin as the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR), placed on the British zone of occupation. The original forces comprised the Ist (BR) Corps and four divisions, the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions. This presence was located in the North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony. The divisional HQ is located at Herford, near Bielefeld. Garrisons were posted at Gütersloh, Hohne, and Paderborn. The administrative support was given by the United Kingdom Support Command responsible for the four garrisons. The liaison branch was called the British Forces Liaison Organisation (Germany), responsible of the maintaining relations with German civil authorities. After 1990, these forces were curtailed by 30 000 personal, and only the 1st Armoured Division, and supporting elements was left, while the administrative branch was simplified and fusioned as the HQ BFG, formed in January 2012. All military presence in Germany is planned to end in 2019. There are indeed pressures by the local Authorities to slow down the retirement of these forces, as they generating an economic income estimated to 1.5 billion Euros annually.
Other military presence areas include famously the Falklands (mostly armoured cars), the British Forces in Cyprus, in Gibraltar and Ceylon. In all these three areas, presence is limited to light armoured vehicles. Germany indeed took the bulk of the British military presence overseas.
The Suez Crisis (1956)
The Suez canal was a vital artery for Great Britain, that motivated the whole North African campaign. An area of strategic importance, it was still considered as such by both powers (Great Britain and France) for their assets in Asia but mostly oil from the Persian gulf. Indeed two third of the oil consumed in Western Europe came from this area, and tankers represented half the traffic on the canal. When Gamal Abdel came to power, the principal target of his speeches became been Britain. After the Anglo-Egyptian agreement on evacuating the Canal Zone, Israel emerged as one of Nasser’s main enemies. Nasser played both superpowers rivalry purchasing first military hardware (mostly ww2-era Shermans) to the United States, but this was soon put to the halt as Egypt actions against Israel rose. Egypt later turned on Soviet military hardware via Czechoslovakia, while the Israelis were mainly armed by France. Tensions reached a peak when the nationalization of the Suez canal was operated on On 26 July. Egyptian Forces seized the canal to implement the measure, which infuriated Western powers. A tripartite alliance emerged three month later (Protocol of Sèvres) with Israel, and both French and British Armies prepared to mount an expedition.
Despite the lack of landing crafts, the British forces had an excellent air support provide both by the Royal Navy’s carriers and the “V” long range bombers recently entered in service. General Hugh Stockwell was the task force commander and believed that methodical and systematic armored operations using the Centurion battle tank could do the job, while its French counterpart and subordinate General André Beaufre believed in fast-pace operations, using light AMX-13s and his experienced paratroopers. Opposed to them, the Egyptian forces counted T-34, SU-100s and IS-3 tanks, as well as some M4(76) Shermans. Although good assets on the paper, the leadership provided by a close appointee of Nasser, Field marshall Abdel Hakim Amer proved not up to the task. After the air superiority phase, Operation Musketeer was to provide the cover for the capture of Alexandria, followed by landings of the bulk of the armoured forces and followed by a push into the Canal zone. After some arguments between the French and British head of staff, the operation was replaced by Revise, which goal was to capture Port Said indeed, less well defended. At the same time, Israeli’s forces launched operation Kadesh, poised to conquer the Suez canal and control the east bank of the Suez canal. The ground operations involved the Royal Marines 40 and 42 Commandos, which landed at Port Said, supported by several Centurions landed from ww2 LVTs. However the “people’s war” ordered by Nasser, involving civilians manning guns and strong defence points resulted in the fear of the First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Louis Mountbatten and Anthony Eden of being accused of being labelled as civilian killers. Fierce fightings took place around Port Said’s Customs House and Navy House the between Egyptian SU-100s and Centurions from the British 6th Royal Tank Regiment. Their decisive action was a complete success overall on the military side, but a disaster on the diplomatic side. As we know today, USSR and USA both condemned the intervention along with the international press. Lessons drawn from the war came from encounters with ww2 era Egyptian vehicles and from urban combat.
Great Britain took back the lead with the Chieftain (1965)
To replace the centurion with an even better tank was not an easy task, but it was accomplished with a great deal of success with the FV 2010 Chieftain. This second generation MBT received a better armor than before, the hull itself had a subtle recess which allowed the frontal armour slope to be even flattened than before. The turret integrated for the first time a better armour, dissipating energy though several layers of steel, and some add-ons with rubber and concrete embedded in plastic cells.
The main gun was also a leap forward, with a 120 mm rifled gun that could fire bigger rounds, and improved optics systems. By the standards of the same year, both the French AMX-30, German Leopard-I, and M60 on NATO’s side were found inferior, while the T-62s and T-64s in USSR were not as well protected and their main gun certainly not as accurate. The achilles heal of this model was the mobility however, with teething problems at the beginning due to a massive weight, and underpowered, badly managed multifuel powerplant. These were solved with the Mark.III and especially the Mark.Vs in the early 1980s and the Chieftain remained into service well into the early 1990s. It was also exported to Iran, Jordan, Oman and Kuwait. The Jordanian version was refined to such point that it became the basis for the next gen. MBT, the Challenger.
The Falklands War (1982)
The second intervention of British armour during the cold war was linked to the Argentinian invasion of the Islands, in a bid to bolster national resolve and divert the Argentinian opinion of the state of internal affairs; While the invasion was a flawless success, for the Argentinians, this was the first serious test for 1st minister Margaret Thatcher. A full mobilization was followed by the departure of a task force bound to Port Stanley. On the Falkland islands themselves, the British Garrison only counted light forces, with armoured cars like the Ferret.
But reinforcement came with two brigades, the 3th Commando Brigade (Royal Marines and other units) and the 5th Infantry Brigade (UK’s main overseas quick reaction force). The Blues and Royals fielded FV101 Scorpions, FV107 Scimitar, and FV106 Samson CRVTs. They were opposed to several amphibious LVTP-7s, five LARC-Vs and several Panhard AML-90s armoured cars. However these grounds operations saw few armoured vehicles encounters.
The fall of USSR (1990)
The fall of the Soviet Union was of some consequence on British Forces. Noteworthy, the British Armoured division deployed in Germany were repatriated in UK. However if military spending were reduced, there were no spectacular cuts in programs. In 1988, the IFV Warrior was launched by Alvis (now BAE systems), and declined into six variants. The BAE Stormer family of vehicles was introduced, as well as the new British self-propelled howitzer, the AS.90. More importantly the new Challenger II main battle tank was also introduced in service and replaced the Challenger 1. Read more on the UK modern tanks page.
The Centurion main battle tank was the most recognisable postwar tank of Great Britain, encompassing the best lessons learnt from ww2 into a “universal tank” package, mid-way between the old cruisers and the heavy tanks. The fame of this model made it a landmark in tanks history.
Austrian Charioteer. This little known transitional tank was a compromise, destined to rearm reserve units stationed in Great Britain with a more potent tank in the 1950s. This was done by fitting a new turret armed with the 20 pdr to the existing Cromwell chassis.
The FV4005 at Bovington museum. This tank hunter, with a 180 mm main gun under casemate was built upon the Centurion chassis to deal with the heavy soviet tanks like the IS-3. For the same reasons, the Conqueror was built later.
The Conqueror heavy tank was the last of its kind in British service. Built on purpose to defeat heavy soviet armour like the IS series, this model was only built to a few numbers. Because of its weight and being underpowered, mobility was poor and never compensated for its heavy armour and big rifled gun. Advanced ammunitions of less calibers like on the Centurion armed with the 105 mm L7 rendered the concept obsolete over time.
The Humber Hornet Malkara was a response to the growing threat of massive soviet tank fleets poised for invasion on the borders. The vehicle was designed for quick deployment, air-dropped in operations with a couple of wire-guided AT missiles that had the biggest military warhead of their time.
The Ferret was the main British light recce/scout car, worthy of the famous Dingo scout car of ww2 fame. It was well-exported and declined into a multitude of version with various weapons, the most potent being swingfire AT missiles.
The Alvis Saladin from a private collection spotted in Texas. This was probably the best known coldwar British armoured car, fast and well-armed. This vehicle was well exported and built in significant numbers. It was the replacement for the ww2 massive AEC armoured car.
The Alvis Saracen was built on the same FV600 serie chassis shared with the 6×6 Saladin. This was the APC version, equipped with the same turret shared by the Ferret, and armed with one or two LMGs.
The Chieftain set a brand new standard in NATO for main battle tanks, introducing a sophisticated RHA armour (Stillbrew armour package) and a very efficient 120 mm rifled gun. The Chieftain’s early teething problems were solved when doubling the power of its main engine and general reliability of the multifuel system and transmission. A derivative of the Chieftain for export to Jordan (Shir II) was used as a basis for the Challenger.
The FV 432 built by GKN Sankey from 1962 was the British equivalent to the American M113. Both models shared similar configuration, however the British model was better protected and lower in height, but also slower and less powerful.
Challenger MBT : The last coldwar British MBT was based on the latest evolution of the Chieftain originally intended for Iran, which entered service in 1982. It was lighter and much faster than the former, and better protected with a new generation of composite armour, the famous “Chobham” armour also used by the M1 Abrams. The first Challenger was produced to 480 vehicles until 1990 before being replace by the even faster Challenger II. The latter introduce a whole range of improvements in several directions, starting with a new FCS, digitalized central battle management system among others, and of course a new gun, the 120-millimetre (4.7 in) 55-calibre rifled L30A1.
Cold War Tanks