A complete overhaul of the infantry tank concept
The former Infantry Tank Mk.I was a product of the 1929 financial crisis, a rather limited and compromised vehicle, badly suited to real battlefield operations. In 1936 it entered production. During the very same year, another parallel specification (A12) asked for a larger, better-armed model, derived from the A7 prototype. In fact, the A12 was completely different from its “little brother” in terms of size, weight, drivetrain, armament and crew.
Development at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich (which already designed the A7) lasted until 1938 when war seemed highly plausible. The final A12 prototype trials were passed with urgency. A production order came soon after, Vulcan Foundry having to build the first batch of 140 units until mid-1938.
The Matilda II?
Many sources claim that the Infantry Tank Mark I was also known as the Matilda, with several name variations being given, like Matilda Mk.I, Matilda I or Matilda Junior. However, there is little proof that such designations were used for this vehicle officially before 1941. By that time, the Infantry Tank Mark I was out of production and relegated as a training vehicle only.
There are similar designations used for the Infantry Tank Mark II as well, being called the Matilda Mk.II, Matilda II or Matilda Senior.
There is a document, “‘Cabinet Officer Papers 120/354 August 1940 to September 1942: Tank Nomenclature and Classification”, that shows the Infantry Tank Mark I as being named the Matilda after June 1941 and proposing the use of Matilda I instead. It similarly shows the Infantry Tank Mark II being named Matilda, with the proposal to redesignate it as the Matilda II.
The two vehicles shared almost nothing from the design or development points of view. They are completely different vehicles. All that can be said is that they share a vague visual resemblance.
This article will use the Matilda designation for the Infantry Tank Mark II (A12). The A11 will be called Infantry Tank Mark I.
Design of the Matilda
Three prototypes of the A7 Medium Tank were built by Vickers, requested internally for potential Army contracts. They were built from 1929 to 1933, incorporating elements which largely influenced the A9 Cruiser Mk.I (notably the turret), and the A12 Matilda, including the drivetrain, suspension, and part of the armor design. It also had an impact on the A14, A16 and ultimately the Valentine.
The third and last prototype, the A7E3 (1933-37), probably had the biggest influence on the Matilda. It incorporated twin diesel AEC C1 engines and a QF 3-pdr (47 mm/1.85 in) antitank gun. However, it was too lightly protected to serve as an infantry tank.
The Matilda was a 60,000 lbs (27 tonnes) machine, armed with the new Ordnace QF 2-Pounder (40 mm, 1.57 in) gun. This was one of the many derivatives of the licence-built Swedish Bofors gun, which had an excellent rate of fire. The caliber seemed sufficient against most tanks of the time. Generally, tanks of the time were equipped with a 37 or 47 mm (1.46-1.85 in) gun.
The hydraulically-powered three man fully traversing turret was cast in one solid piece of hardened steel. It was almost cylindrical (slightly sloped) and large enough to accommodate the main gun and a coaxial machine-gun, as well as the gunner, loader and commander. The gun elevation was -15 +20 degrees. It was only supplied with anti-tank rounds.
The lack of HE ammunition was somewhat compensated by the machine-gun. But the emphasis was clearly put on armor. And indeed, this compensated easily for all its drawbacks during the war. With a 78 mm (3.07 in) thick frontal glacis and turret, far beyond any tank produced at the time (and even late into the war), the Matilda was thought immune to most antitank guns, and naturally other tanks as well.
This tank became legendary precisely for this rare quality. By comparison, the contemporary Panzer III and IV had only 30 mm (1.18 in) of armor at the time. and The French B1, the most heavily armored tank on the continent, sported “only” 60 mm (2.36 in) of protection.
The Matilda glacis was completed by thinner but sloped nose plates, a design feature largely influenced by the Christie tanks. The sides were 65-70 mm (2.56-2.76 in) thick, while the rear protection was 55 mm (2.17 in) strong. The turret roof, hull roof and engine deck were all 20 mm (0.79 in) thick.
The weight of such armor imposed important conditions on the other features of the design. It had a rather peculiar engine arrangement, with two AEC diesels. They were coupled to a Wilson epicyclic pre-selector gearbox, 6 speed transmission, with a Rackham clutch for steering. The weight also imposed the numerous double wheel bogies, with paired bellcranks with a common coil spring suspension. This was a rather classical solution based on the old Vickers Medium C design, which was intended to distribute the sheer mass of steel with moderate ground pressure while sacrificing speed.
Quite logically, its overall performances were quite limited. It could only achieve infantry pace, which was precisely suited to the task given to the A12 type, infantry support. However, the most troublesome piece of equipment were the paired “double decker” bus engines, linked to a common shaft. This solution which proved complicated to maintain, with many redundancies which often prevented movement when one of the two engines was damaged or broken down.
Production of the Matilda
The very first models formed a sort of preseries. They were equipped with several features which would disappear with the production Mark II version. First, the suspension had three return rollers. They were replaced later by track skids, to ease production and maintenance. The turret was equipped (on the right) with a set of three smoke grenade launchers, in fact modified Lee Enfield mechanisms. On the left side of the turret was placed a set of leather belts, meant to suspend a large protecting, rolled canvas. Later, these were replaced by a simpler metal tubular structure.
When the war broke out in September 1939, only two Matilda IIs were serviceable. The other deliveries were pressed into service quickly after training.
The same year, another order was placed to Ruston & Hornsby. In 1940, John Fowler & Co. of Leeds was also contracted, and later, in 1941-42, so were London, Midland and Scottish Railway, Harland & Wolff (Belfast, the famous shipbuilder of the Titanic), and, eventually, the North British Locomotive Company in Scotland. Production ended in August 1943 after a total of 2,987 units. It was a relatively costly tank and difficult to manufacture, requiring some special skills.
Evolution from the Mk.II to the Mk.V
The Mk.I was never really officialised, being the first, early batch delivered in 1939. Most were lost during the French campaign, in May 1940. They were characterized by a massive trench-crossing tail, as it was thought that a stalemate style warfare was still to be expected. This feature proved useless, and the tail was never mounted on the first large-scale production variant, the Mark II. Like the Mark.I, it was equipped with a Vickers machine-gun, characterized by a large armored mantlet.
By late 1940, this model was replaced by the lighter and more recent Besa model, of the same caliber, without a mantlet. This was known as the Matilda Mk.IIA. The Besa was a British version of the Czechoslovak ZB-53. It was compact, air-cooled and belt-fed.
The next model, the Mark III, saw the replacement of the old AEC engines for more modern twin Leyland diesel engines. These were sturdier and increased the range significantly.
The Mark IV (1941-42) introduced an improved Leyland diesel, and the turret leather belt fixation replaced by a fixed tubular mounting. The turret lamp was also removed. It was the main production version, with perhaps 1200 units built throughout 1942.
The Mark V (1943), was the last version, fitted with an improved gearbox and Westinghouse air servo. Some attempts were made to replace the old QF-2pdr (40 mm/1.57 in) with a more efficient 6-pdr (76 mm/3 in) high-velocity gun, already tested on the Cromwell, Cavalier and Centaur. In this hope, a Cromwell turret was tested with the Matilda hull, but production never materialized.
Despite promising characteristics, combining firepower with an efficient armor, the age of the model, suspension design and lack of speed led to the cancellation of any other developments.
Matilda chassis adaptation and derivatives
The sturdy and largely available chassis of the Matilda seemed ideally suited to be adapted in many variants. However, in fact, its slow speed and small turret ring prevented the development of many upgrades. Although, through special adaptation, the Matilda survived in many forms until the end of the war, it was retired from active duty in Africa by the end of 1942.
Matilda CS: (Close Support): a variant produced in small quantities and generally attached to mobile HQs. It was equipped with a 6-pdr (76 mm/3 in) howitzer, firing innocuous smoke shells. It was also capable of firing HE shells. The number of conversions is unknown. They were widely used in Europe, and later in Asia by Australian forces.
Matilda Scorpion: an operational mine-flail version, produced in two sub-versions, used at El Alamein, and in some British and Canadian operations in 1943 and 1944.
Matilda CDL: (Canal Defence Light), a late conversion, in mid-1944, with a new cylindrical turret containing a powerful searchlight. The CDL were converted either from a Mark II or a Mk.V chassis.
Matilda Hedgehog: an Australian regular Mk.V fitted with a folded 7-chambered spigot mortar, mounted on the rear engine hood. 6 were built, tested in May 1945, but never used operationally.
Matilda Frog & Murray, Murray FT: Australian flamethrower versions used in the Far East. Only 25 Frog conversions. Murray figures are unknown.
Matilda Tank-dozer: An Australian bulldozer variant, mostly used by genie units to clear road obstacles and forested areas.
Other experiments : the Matilda Baron, three prototypes, mine-flail version; the Matilda MK.IV ZiS-5, a Lend-Lease Soviet prototype equipped with the high velocity ZiS 76 mm (3 in); the Matilda with A27 turret, to test the Ordnance QF 6 pounder (57 mm/2.24 in); and the Black Prince, a radio-controlled planned to be used for spotting antitank gun positions and demolition tasks. The conversion cost surged because of the fitting of a Wilson transmission, and the 60 ordered was cancelled.
Matilda II with A27 turret (Black Prince)
The Matilda Black Prince prototype:This vehicle features a 6-pounder gun fitted in the A27 turret. Only one prototype was produced, after which development was discontinued due to complications with the turret mounting. The vehicle never entered service. Called the Matilda II with A27 turret. It is sometimes wrongly called the Matilda Cromwell (because of the A27 Cromwell turret).
So far no documentation has been found, only this photograph of the prototype. It is commonly called the Matilda Black Prince but that name relates to a different radio-controlled prototype produced in 1941 using A12E2 with Wilson transmission. Planned uses included use for this RC Matilda was as an operational battlefield mobile target, for drawing fire and so reveal hidden enemy anti-tank gun positions, or for demolition missions. Planned order for 60 cancelled as it would require conversion of Rackham clutch transmission to the Wilson type. Fitted with a QF 6-pdr Mk. V A gun.
Although the turret did not enter production a number of hulls were produced and subsequently sent to Australia fitted with standard turrets and guns. The hulls can be identified by the raised rectangular armour collar around the turret ring. Speed, range and weight of this new prototype would have been an issue. The original Matilda II was already slow but the bigger turret, gun and ammo would add 3-5 tons – ie 20% plus to the weight. This would reduce the tanks speed and manoeuvrability even lower.
Australian Matilda IIs with the rectangular Black Prince chassis armoured collar from the 2/4th Armoured Regiment, 4th Armoured Brigade Group, in New Guinea in 1944. (Photo – Australian War Memorial)
The Matilda’s parent manufacturing factory was the Vulcan Foundry in Warrington. Vulcan (who were set up in the 1840s to produce railway locos) were taken over by English Electric in the late 1950s. In 1962, EE had a literal bonfire of Vulcan’s paperwork going back over a century, including the wartime documents relating to the Matilda. Sadly, there may be no remaining documents to be found. The Vucan works itself was shuttered shortly afterwards, and demolished in the 1970s. The site is now a housing estate.
The Matilda in action: The campaign of France
When war broke out, only two pre-series Matildas had been barely put in active service. They were soon joined by 20 others, passing the year in drilling exercises, before being shipped to France. There they came to serve with the 7th RTR, part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) Armored Division.
They represented a minority of this unit’s strength, the bulk of infantry tanks companies being taken by the older A11 Infantry Tank Mk.I. However, their armor was superior to the formidable French B1 bis, and they proved it during a single battle, at Arras.
The entire Matilda force available was committed during the hopeless attack of Arras, during the afternoon of May 21, 1940. After some success owed to the lack of an efficient German response, they were ultimately terminated by a handful of German 88 mm (3.46 in) FlaK 18 and 105 mm (4.13 in) field guns.
Rommel had remembered how these AA guns were used in Spain years before. The surviving units withdrew from the field and were abandoned along with hundred of trucks and light vehicles at Dunkirk. They were sabotaged, but the Germans captured two of them, later repaired for tests.
The “Queen of the desert”
When the war enveloped North Africa, the Matilda truly became legendary, being nicknamed the “Queen of the desert” by its crews. The Matilda’s armor was a powerful advantage in all tank-to-tank engagements against Italian armor and AT guns during the early stage of the war (Operation Compass, late 1940). After that it proved itself time and time again against the DAK XVth Panzerdivision, still largely equipped with light Panzer IIs and early models of the Panzer III and IV, using inadequate guns.
But Rommel’s imaginative ambush tactics using AT guns proved a serious threat for the Matilda. It was hampered by its slow speed, a somewhat troublesome, overheating engine and troublesome steering under the harsh conditions of this specific theater of war. The already famous 7th RTR, reborn in Britain, fully reequipped with Mark IIs, took part both in the late 1940 campaign, and still ruled the battlefield until late 1941. Battle records included the conquest of Libya, seizing of Tobruk and Bardia, and later, Operation Battleaxe.
The Germans used well-placed AA batteries of 88 mm (3.46 in) guns with full efficiency against the Matilda. No less than 64 were lost during a single day of attack. Such a heavy toll raised questions about Matilda’s fighting capabilities, but, nevertheless, it still proved efficient were opposing forces had nothing to respond with. The Pak 36, Pak 41, Pak 97/38 and sPzB-41 were all but useless. But the rapid-firing, accurate 88 mm (3.46 in), served by skilled crews and taking full advantage of the flat ground with good visibility and the Infantry Tank Mk.II’s limited mobility, condemned large-scale frontal attacks using the Matilda.
Another factor led to its demise. Like the Crusader, it was armed with a 1939-standard AT gun, good against 20 to 30 mm (0.79-1.18 in) armor, but not against the upgraded versions of the Panzer III and IV, which came in Africa in late 1941. However, with their limitations well-understood by the British command, they were once more successful during Operation Crusader, especially the 1st and 32nd Army Tank Brigades, which were pivotal in the battle.
By mid-1942, the Germans had devised efficient infantry tactics using the Pak 38 and the long-barrel 50 mm (1.97 in) version of the Panzer III (Ausf J), which could deal with the Matilda. One solution for the British design was to upgrade the main gun, but with a turret ring of only 1.37 m (4.49 ft), no superior gun could be mounted without a major overhaul of the entire hull.
Such a project was attempted in 1942, but after a single prototype was tested, the production was dropped in favor of more modern late-generation cruiser tanks. In Africa, the Matilda was gradually phased out by the Valentine. Damaged and worn out Matildas were retired and replaced by other models. Some were shipped to less threatening theaters, like in South and Eastern Africa, for operations against Italian Somaliland and Eritrea, in 1941.
They were part of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, taking part in the battle of Keren and all other operations in this sector. But the mountainous terrain prevented any efficient large-scale use. Others were shipped to Greece (during the Balkan campaign), Crete and Malta, to prevent any German landing there.
Matildas took part in the battle of Gazala (summer 1942) and the first battle of El Alamein, with further losses, and, just like the Crusaders, which were their opposite (fast, lightly armored, low silhouette), many were converted for other uses. It was no surprise that, when the second battle of El Alamein began in October 1942, around 25 Matilda Scorpions (equipped with mine-flail) were the only ones used in the front-line. When the M3 Lee and the M4 Sherman, faster and equipped with more potent guns, became available in numbers, the remaining Matildas were shipped back to Britain. Some were employed for training, others as a reserve for further conversions.
Already, by early 1942, the British were supplying the Red Army with Matildas. As many as 1084 Mk.II, III and IVs were shipped on the perilous Arctic sea trip to Murmansk. Mines, submarines, E-boats and the Luftwaffe sent 166 of them to the bottom of the sea. Most were of the diesel type, a kind of propulsion favored by the Russians. The first batch is reported to have taken part in the battle of Moscow in January 1942.
Others fought around Leningrad, with Group North, others with the Center, and gradually South Groups, were weaker German allied armored forces were more common. Their crews disliked it for its slow speed and unreliable propulsion, and it compared badly to the KV-1 or the T-34. One of its major flaws was the abundance of snow and mud which gradually clogged the drivetrain and suspension.
Its narrow tracks was also an issue during the winter and the Russians devised a simple expedient, welding sections of steel to each link for better grip in the snow. As the losses rose and were not replaced, the Matildas practically disappeared by 1943 on the Eastern Front. However, the “Queen of the Desert’s” career was not over yet.
An official Soviet document dated 24th September 1941 that lists the technical characteristics of this new British supplied tank, records the tank’s designation as Infantry Tank Mk IIa (“Matilda”). The Document is marked Top Secret and has a TSAMO (Soviet Ministry of Defence Archive) stamp on it. The Soviet Army called this tank by that name.
Matildas in Europe
The bulk of the last version, Mark V, was shipped to Eastern Asia by 1943, where they had a second active life, serving well until the end of the war. However, in Europe, surviving units were converted to other uses. In Italy, specialized versions for mine-warfare (Scorpion Mark.I and II) and HQ close defense versions armed with a smoke-firing howitzer, took part in the Allied offensive, and again during D-Day. During late 1944, modified Matilda CDLs (Canal Defense Light versions) were posted along canals, for night patrols against possible German counter-attacks. But they were a rare sight.
At the later stage of the war in Africa, plans were drawn for a heavy artillery support version, equipped with a 152 mm (5.98 in) howitzer protected by a half-turret, like the Bishop. But its slow speed and large supplies of US-built Priests stopped the project before any prototype were built.
The Matilda in Asia
The last chapter of the Matilda’s wartime career came in 1943 when Allied forces were once more on the offensive. Large supplies of the Mk.IV and Mk.V were shipped to Australia. They took part in many operations throughout the reconquest of the south-eastern Pacific, favored by the lack of adequate Japanese AT guns or tanks.
The Australian 4th Armoured Brigade took advantage of its sturdiness in the battle of Huon (October 1943), but also 1944 and 1945 during the Wewak, Bougainville and Borneo campaigns. The Australian forces also modified many of them for other purposes, like the flamethrowers Frog and Murray, or the genie tank-dozer. A heavy rocket-carrying version came too late for active operations. They also extensively used CS (close support) conversions.
In May 1940, the Germans seized two Matildas hastily sabotaged during the days of Operation Dynamo, and shipped them to the Kummersdorf Heer Test Center. They were fully aware of its armor thickness and devised appropriate tactics. An experimental conversion, the “Oswald“, fitted with a shielded 5 cm KwK L/42 gun and two MG 42s. It was used for training at some point, but its fate is unknown. Later, with the war in Africa turning in their favor, the DAK managed to capture a dozen more in May-June 1941. They were repaired and affected to the 5th Pz.Rgt. of the 21st Pz.Div., and the 8th Panzer-Regiment of the 15th Panzer-Division.
They were popular with their crews because of their armor, but caused confusion on the battlefield, despite the profusion of large painted crosses, large Nazi and army flags, and makeshift camouflages in some cases. Under the crude light of the desert, its silhouette was unmistakable, but the associated symbols difficult to spot. Those captured in too bad shape for repairs were kept as reserves for spare parts.
At least two or three had their turrets removed and mounted in concrete pillboxes, guarding strategic road junctions. On the Eastern Front, records of captured tanks are even more difficult to appreciate. But at least a dozen or so were seen with the Balkan cross in 1942-43, as testified by photographs of a German facility in Budapest, and in the field, or in Russian archives.
Main Gun penetration figures
Official British War Department test figures show that the 6pdr Mk.III anti-tank gun firing armor piercing AP rounds would penetrate the following thickness of homogeneous armour plate and these distances: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 79.5 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 66.5 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 55 mm. When firing armor-piercing capped (APC) rounds at face-hardened armor plate these are the test results: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 87.5 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 72 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 57.4 mm. When firing armour piercing capped ballistic capped (APCBC) rounds at face-hardened armor plate these are the test results: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 89.6 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 79.6 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 70.7 mm. When fired at slopped armour it was estimated there would have been 80% success at 30 degrees’ angle of attack.
Official British War Department test figures show that the 6pdr Mk.V anti-tank gun firing armor piercing AP rounds would penetrate the following thickness of homogeneous armour plate and these distances: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 85.5 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 72.5 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 60.4 mm. When firing armor-piercing capped (APC) rounds at face-hardened armor plate these are the test results: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 93.8 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 76.3 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 61.25 mm. When firing armour piercing capped ballistic capped (APCBC) rounds at face-hardened armor plate these are the test results: 500 yrds. (457 m) = 95.9 mm; 1000 yrds (914.4 m) = 86 mm and 1500 yrds (1371.6 M) = 76.7 mm. When fired at slopped armour it was estimated there would have been 80% success at 30 degrees’ angle of attack.
|Dimensions||15.11 x 8.6 x 8.3 ft (5.99 x 2.60 x 2.50 m)|
|Total weight, battle ready||25 tons|
|Crew||4 (driver, gunner, loader, commander)|
|Propulsion||2 diesel 6-cyl AEC/Leyland 94/95 hp|
|Speed (on/off road)||16/9 mph (26/14 km/h)|
|Range||160 mi (257 km)|
|Armament||2-Pdr QF (40 mm/1.575 in), 94 rounds
Besa 7.92 mm machine-gun, 2925 rounds
|Armor||From 20 to 78 mm (0.79-3.07 in)|
Links & Resources
The Matilda II on Wikipedia
The Matilda II on Tank-Hunter.com
About captured Matildas (and other British tanks) in German service: Beutepanzers
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #8, Matilda Infantry Tank 1938-45
Infantry tank Mk.II (A12) Matilda Mk.I pre-series, “Gamecock”, 7th RTR, 1st Armoured Brigade, British Expeditionary Force (BEF), western Belgium, May 1940. This is an early “long” version, equipped with the trench-crossing tail, mufflers, and Vickers coaxial machine-gun, protected by a large armored mantlet.
Matilda Mk.I, “Good Luck”, 7th RTR, 1st Armoured Brigade, British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The “Good Luck” was not true to its name for its crew. It blew up after a direct hit through the frontal hull from a German 88 mm (3.46 in), during the counter-attack at Arras, on May, 21, 1940.
Matilda Mark II, Libya, 1941 (one of the first delivered with the new compact Besa machine-gun, without mantlet). This is a vehicle from the First Armoured Division, the blue lozenge identifying it as a tank of a major of a junior regiment.
Matilda Mk.III, Lybia, fall 1941. This a tank from the 7th RTR, the white and red markings identifying the Royal Armoured Corps. The three color pattern with straight separations became mandatory. Such schemes, adapted to desert warfare, were adopted after visual disruption tests.
Matilda Mk.II in Libya, 1941, now preserved at Bovington. Notice the dark olive green variant three-tone camouflage.
Infanterie-Kampfpanzer Mark II 748(e) (captured Matilda), 8th Panzer-Regiment, XVth Panzerdivision, Libya, 1942. Notice the makeshift camouflage and the absence of any Balkankreuz. In some cases a simple flag was displayed instead.
Matilda Mk.III at Malta, 1942. These tanks had a unique livery, with large sand color spots over the olive green factory color. The best known is the “Griffin”, of the 4th Independent Tank Platoon of the Malta Tank Squadron, RTR.
Many Matildas had been lost during the battle of Gazala, Operation Crusader, and the first battle of El Alamein. Surviving ones were placed in the reserve or used as reinforcements, like this Mk.IV (late production) “Defiance” of the 4th Royal Armoured Regiment, part of the VIIIth Army. The second battle of El Alamein, October 1942.
Matilda CDL of the 49th RTR – 35th Tank Brigade, north-eastern France, September 1944. The CDL (Canal Defence Light) was fitted with a new turret housing a powerful carbon-arc searchlight, for night operations. They served during the crossing of the Rhine, together with US Army LVT-4s.
Matilda Frog (flame-thrower version), ANZAC 1st Tank Battalion (support) at the battle of Huon (New Guinea), October 1943.
Matilda II CS (close support), ANZAC 1st Tank Battalion, battle of Huon (New Guinea), January 1944. CS versions were also used in North Africa before, but they were used more extensively, together with Frog and Murray flamethrower versions, during this merciless campaign.
The Modified Matildas
The lend-lease Matilda Mk.IV the Soviets re-armed with the ZiS-5 gun.
The Infanterie PzKpfw MK II 748(e) “Oswald”, a Matilda captured by the Wermacht, and modified for use as a training vehicle.
Matilda tank on its way into Tobruk, displaying an Italian flag, 24 January 1941, during Operation Compass.
Surviving British Infantry Tank A12 Matilda Mk.III called Defiance at the French Tank Museum
Preserved Matilda British Infantry Tank A12 Mk.V at the Imperial War Museum Duxford
1940 desert camouflage
The official British tank livery camouflage Caunter Colours’ shown in an official document dated July 1940 were Portland Stone (BSC No.64), Light Grey (BSC No.28) or Silver Grey and Slate Grey (BSC No.34). The grey paints were apparently originally from Royal Navy paint stocks in Alexandria, Egypt.
There is no Blue shown in the official document. The Imperial War Museum in London painted their Matilda II tank light blue instead of Light or Silver Grey by mistake. Because the museum used this colour scheme it was copied by the French tank Museum and many Model kit companies.
The confusion may have come from veterans accounts. A tank crew member who had served with 7th RTR in 1940-41,recollected that their tanks being “a god awful shade of blue”. I suspect that given a few weeks in the dust, heat and high UV of the desert, the paints would weather to a very different appearance to their “official” tone.
Another way of hiding your tank was to change its shape. This type of deception tactic had been used by the Royal Navy in WW1. They changed the outline of destroyers to look more like merchant ships. When the WW1 German U-boat surfaced to attack the ship with its main gun the screens would drop to enable a full broadside of high explosive shells to be fired at the submarine. These type of ships were called ‘Q’ boats.
During Operation Bertram in the months leading up to the second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in September – October 1942 camouflage and dummy vehicles were used to deceive the Germans where the next attack was going to come from. Real tanks were disguised as trucks, using light “Sunshield” canopies. To achieve the deception, trucks were parked openly in the tank assembly area for some weeks. Real tanks were similarly parked openly, far behind the front. Two nights before the attack, the tanks replaced the trucks, being covered with “Sunshields” before dawn.
The tanks were replaced that same night with dummies in their original positions, so the armour remained seemingly two or more days’ journey behind the front line. Interviews with captured German senior officers showed that this type of deception was successful: they believed the attack was going to come from the south where they had seen the dummy tanks and vehicles and not in the north. The idea for the Sunshield came from Commander-in-Chief Middle East, General Wavell.
The first heavy wooden prototype was made in 1941 by Jasper Maskelyne, who gave it the name Sunshield. 12 men were needed to lift it. The Mark 2 Sunshield was made of canvas stretched over a light steel tube frame. On 11th November 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced victory at El Alamein in the House of Common. During his speech he praised the success of Operation Bertram, “By a marvellous system of camouflage, complete tactical surprise was achieved in the desert. The 10th Corps, which he had seen from the air exercising fifty miles in the rear, moved silently away in the night, but leaving an exact simulacrum of its tanks where it had been, and proceeded to its points of attack.” (Winston Churchill, 1942)