A Descendant of the Funnies
Brainchildren of General Sir Percival Hobart, the “Hobart Funnies” were a series of tanks with unique modifications to deal with the various mines and beach defenses the Allies would battle through on D-Day. There were a number of various vehicles produced, with the Flail coming out on top as the most successful tool.
The Flail tank was originally thought up in 1942 by a South African officer named Capt. Abraham du Toit, the first of these being the Matilda Scorpion. Flail Tanks consisted of a large rotating drum, with a number of long chains attached to it mounted to their hull. Spinning at fast speeds the rotating flail would rip apart the ground under it, any mines struck by would blow in situ, or be beaten into deactivation. Equipped on the famous Sherman Crab, it was put into action on the beaches of Normandy and go on to clear minefields until the end of the war.
The Toad was not the only Churchill able to fill the mine clearing role. The Churchill Mk.IV AVRE CIRD was equipped with a mine exploding roller device. These vehicles served in Italy, 1944.
Photo: Courtesy of Ed Francis
The Mighty Toad
The Flail tank idea continued postwar, into the 1950s with plans to make a Flail-equipped variant of the FV200 Universal Tank. With the cancellation of the entire FV200 project, however, designers turned to a faithful old workhorse.
By the early 1950s, the A22 Churchill was now considered obsolescent in the mainstream as a fighting tank, despite doing great service in the Korean War. The tank, with its heavy armor and low speed, became a perfect candidate for a new flail vehicle, the most powerful yet. Three separate companies helped to produce the Toad. The Distington Engineering Company of Cumberland were charged with drawing up the design, Robinson and Kershaw Ltd of Dunkinfield undertook conversion of the existing hulls, and fabrication of the new superstructure. British Railway workshops at Horwich in Lancashire were contracted for the Flail mechanics. Together, they successfully manufactured 42 Toads, for service with the Heavy Armoured Assault units of the Royal Engineers. A number of Mk.VII Churchills were also accepted for conversion into Toads, and went through extensive modification.
Like it’s amphibious namesake, the Churchill Toad certainly looks like it would be at home in a swamp. Quite why and how the Toad got its name is unknown, apart from that fact its origins lie with the Army.
The Churchill Toad with flail assembly partially raised, showing the full length of the chains. Photo: Courtesy of Ed Francis
The Fasted Flail in the West
The huge flail was, and still is, the most powerful ever mounted on a vehicle. Equipped on the Toad, it required its own engine, that of a Rolls-Royce M120 Meteor. These engines had previously been used on the Crusader and Cromwell tanks. This 650 horsepower engine was more powerful than the Churchill’s own 350 hp Bedford engine. The Meteor was mounted mid-hull, at the rear of the large armored cabin that made up the tank’s superstructure. The engine’s non-muffled exhaust vented through the vehicle’s roof. One can only imagine the noise this would make inside the crew compartment.
The Rolls-Royce engine would power the drum to 150-revolutions per minute, as the tank rolled forward at around 5 mph. The Flail assembly was supported when in the active position by heavy duty rollers, and 2 huge coil spring counterbalances mounted on the sides of the vehicle helped to keep the rig at a constant level. The flail chains were approximately 1½ meters long , ending in a 2½ lb (1.13kg) ball. This is what struck the mine.
When not in use, and for transportation, the flail assembly would rest it on its roof. The Flail could be raised into travel position by a number of ways, one of the earlier models used a hydraulic winch system, this was a feature deleted from final production models. The method of raising the flail on the final model was slightly less mechanical. The tank was equipped with 2 towing cables, one way to raise the flail was to tie one end to an immovable object then simply drive in the required direction. Another way was for a separate vehicle to forcibly pull the flail into position. The process is reversed to put the flail into operational position.
The crew, of which there were only 2 consisting of the Driver and Commander, were safe in the large 140mm (5.5 in) thick box-like superstructure, well protected from any mine explosions or errant flail links. The floor of the tank was vastly strengthened after live mine testing, it was found that the welded seams on the floor of tank split and cracked when struck by a mine. The driver’s position was raised substantially from the original position, to increase the driver’s visibility. Later models were also equipped with a splash board that stretched across the front of the vehicle, this helped to reduce the amount of debris striking the front of the Toad.
The Churchill Toad with Flail Assembly in transport position. This is one of the earlier models, identified by the pully system on the flail arms. Photo: Courtesy of Ed Francis
The Churchill Toad was equipped with a sophisticated flag marker system, housed in the large box on its rear. The box housed 59 marker poles on an endless chain. The chain was driven from the left final drive. They were automatically dispensed every 50 feet, propelled by a .303 caliber blank cartridge in each pole. The blank fired the pole into the ground, the flag then telescoped up, extended to four times its stowed length. The poles were painted red and yellow and the driver could select left, right or both sides discharge. If 2 were working together for instance, one vehicle would deploy on the left, and one on the right. This was an important feature for a mine clearing device, as it would display a safe route for any following troops to follow. Aside from various smoke-grenade launchers dotted around the superstructure, the tank had no defensive capabilities.
This image shows the Flag marker system on the back of the vehicle. Photo: Courtesy of Ed Francis
An original schematic of the Churchill Toad. Photo: – Wheels & Tracks Maganzine.
This rear view of the Toad shows the 2 horns the Flail assembly rests on, the larger Counterbalance chambers, and the marker system. Photo: Courtesy of Ed Francis
This image shows the roof of the Toad, the commander and driver hatch, and 4 groups of smoke grenade launchers. Photo: Couresty of Ed Francis
A grand total of 42 vehicles were produced between 1954 and 1956. This composed of 2 prototypes, 6 interim designs, and 34 finalized designs. The mine clearers would be posted to units of the Royal Engineers, but would never get a chance to chew up a battlefield in a combat situation. It would go on to be used in training exercises, however. Alongside the FV3903 AVRE, The Toad would be one of the very last uses of the Churchill tank in the British Army.
As for the job mine-clearing, plows and rollers would become a more flexible method, and in most cases did not require the use of a specific vehicle, but instead had the ability to be mounted on various types of armored vehicles. Flails are still used to this day, however, but mostly in humanitarian operations clearing mines from long ago conflicts.
A photo from the demonstration in 2008, with the working flail. Photo: Samuel Penhallow/John Blackman (www.milweb.net)
Only one Churchill Toad survives today, with the designation “4A”. For many a year, it sat on various Army Bases open to the elements and rotting. Between 2006 and 2008 RR Services in Kent, England began a long process of restoring the vehicle. The now fully operational vehicle was unveiled on 16th May 2008 and demonstrated before an audience. As a safety precaution, the chains were shortened, and the flail was run at half-speed. It was then handed over to the late Jacques Littlefield, of the famous Littlefield Armor Collection in California, USA.
This vehicle was part of the Littlefield Collection until it was auctioned off on Saturday, July 12, 2014. It was then bought for 80,500 USDs by the Australian Armor and Artillery Museum, where it is now exhibited.
The Toad now at the Australian Armor & Artillery Museum. Photo: David Barlow
Churchill Toad specifications
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||9.38 x 4.01 x 3.20 m (30’7” x 13’2” x 10’5”)|
|Total weight||54 tons|
|Crew||2 (Driver and Commander)|
|Propulsion (Tank)||Bedford twin-six petrol, 350 hp (261 kW) at 2,200 rpm|
|Propulsion (Flail)||Rolls-Royce M120 Meteor, 650hhp at 2400 rpm|
|Armor||Front: 140 mm (5.5”)
Sides: 95 mm (3.75”)
Links & Resources
Details of the Restoration of the Toad on www.milweb.net
Details of the Littlefield auction on Auctions America
The Australian Armor and Artillery Museum
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #7 Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51
Wheels & Tracks Issue #20, Article by David Fletcher pages 36-43, April 1987, ISSN 0263-7081
Haynes Owners Workshop Manuals, Churchill Tank 1941-56 (all models). An insight into the history, development, production and role of the British Army tank of the Second Wold War.
A video of the 2008 reveal and demonstration of the Churchill Toad, before it was handed over to the Littlefield Collection.
Tanks Encyclopedia’s own Illustration of the Churchill Toad by David Bocquelet