The last Vickers prewar light tank
The Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI was elaborated by Vickers, alongside its best export seller, the Carden-Loyd Mk.VI tankette. Vickers produced light scout tanks in limited numbers for the needs of the Royal Army. These started with the Mk.I (1929), the Mk.II and III (1931-34).
Then came the Mk.IV, largely inspired by the former (1934) and followed by the next Mk.V, which marked a real step forward with a three-man crew and the larger hull required to operate an improved armament, the Vickers cal.50 (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun. The Mk.VI was logically based on this model, with a higher degree of standardization, which allowed moderately low prices.
The Mk.VI design
Although sharing most of its components (hull, tracks, drivetrain, suspensions, fittings, armor and armament) with the Mk.V, the Mk.VI, designed in 1935, received a roomier turret, extended at the rear, and able to house a No.7 wireless radio set, which gave new tactical perspectives. The weight, due to the turret, rose to 4900 kg (10,802 lbs), which in return required a better engine.
This was an 88 hp Meadows air-cooled six-cylinder gasoline engine mounted on the right side of the hull, served by a new transmission (5 forward, 1 reverse, Wilson pre-selector gearbox), with a redesigned engine clutch, which would prove troublesome. As in previous models, the drive sprockets were at the front. The overall speed was even better than previous models, a precious asset in future desert warfare engagements.
The old Horstmann coil-spring suspension system was kept unchanged, as it was found reliable and easy to maintain, although the pitch was quite violent during rough drives, rendering any aiming of the gun useless. However, the engineers managed to move the center of gravity forward, allowing a smoother ride.
The crew of three was somehow lodged in the cramped interior, the driver sitting on the front left while the commander (also radio operator) and gunner stood on a platform that revolved with the turret. Above it towered a smoothly shaped cupola. The main armament was kept unchanged. The heavy cal.50 (12.7 mm) Vickers had some armor piercing capabilities against armored cars and other light tanks, mostly protected by up to 16 mm (0.63 in) of armor at the time.
The Mk.VI’s protection was unchanged, still capable of stopping small shrapnel fragments, light machine-gun, rifle and small arms fire. When the first prototype passed all trials in 1936, the Imperial General Staff considered this model superior to any other in service worldwide.
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VIa of the 3rd King’s Own Hussars.
The Mk.VIa (1936)
Soon after production began, it appeared that the initial series had some flaws to fix. The return roller, initially over the top of the leading bogie, as in the Mark V, was displaced to the back and attached to the hull sides instead, while the cupola was a new hexagonal model, and the turret octagonal. Ground pressure was lowered from 7.54 psi to 6.9 psi, and would decrease to 0.53 kg/cm2 with the Mk.VIc model. The armament was unchanged, the main Vickers heavy machine-gun being supplied with 400 rounds, and the secondary machine-gun by 2500. The engine was now the improved Meadows ESTB.
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VIb
The Mk.VIb (1937)
This model was nearly identical to the former, but with some production simplifications, like the one-piece armored louver over the radiator (instead of two-piece), and the return back to the circular commander cupola model, but with a plainer shape. The turret was fitted with a mounting for a Bren AA gun. The radio set was upgraded to the N.9, and the weight rose to 5 tons. At the end of production in 1939, a new, more compact BESA heavy machine gun (15 mm/0.59 in) was installed, and the coaxial one was upgraded to the new Besa 7.92 mm (0.31 in).
Armor thickness was also increased to 15 mm (0.59 in), and 16 mm (0.63 in) on the hull front. The Meadows ESTB/A or ESTB/B engine developed 88 bhp at 2800 rpm, which gave a 16.9 hp/ton power-to-weight ratio and a 200 km range (125 mi). The steering was done through clutches and annular spur reduction on the final drive. This was the overall most produced version. A sub-variant, called the “India pattern” (as most were sent to serve with the British Indian Army) had a single periscope mounted in the turret hatch for the commander instead of the usual cupola.
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VIc in France, June 1940
The Mk.VIc (1939)
This wartime variant was also the last production version of the entire series. The most obvious change was the removal of the commander cupola, replaced by two domed hatches with a commander periscope. It also had wider bogie wheels and tracks and three carburetors for the engine, slightly improving its performances. The cover now had one inlet louver. Top speed was still 35 mph (56 km/h) and 25 mph (40 km/h) cross-country. The standard armament consisted of two Besa machine-guns, one heavy and one light coaxial. On many vehicles, a bullet deflector plate was also added to the driver’s vision block.
The Besa heavy machine gun, produced at Birmingham Small Arms Limited (BSA), was essentially a scaled-up version of the common 7.92 mm (0.31 in) model, originating in a Czech design (ZB60). Its long barrel gave an excellent muzzle velocity. It could be fired on repetition (single shot) at a rate of 450 rpm, and employed an unusual method of cocking. It was not overall successful, nor did it have the punch of a 20 mm (0.79 in) caliber and, subsequently, production was limited. It was declared obsolete in 1944.
The Vickers Light Tank Mark VI in action
This model was first intended for reconnaissance and colonial warfare, and many were sent abroad, to India, Africa, and Palestine. The cheap Mk.VI was by far one of the most numerous tanks in the British Army when the war started, with approximately 1000 in service, compared to only 79 Cruisers I/II and 67 Infantry Tank Mk.Is. It was still largely available during the French campaign. For the 1st Armored Division, 108 of its 321 tanks were Mark VIs. Inside of the BEF there were 550 Mk.VIA and 200 Mk.VIB Vickers Light Tanks. Each divisional cavalry regiment was equipped with 28 Mk.VIs.
Wartime operations proved disastrous against equally fast and far better armed tanks like the Panzer II and Panzer 38(t) and, of around 400, only 6 made it out of France. This left mainland territory devoid of any sort of armor when the battle of Britain began. However, they showed better qualities and were found up to the task in North Africa, when the counter-offensive began against the failed Italian invasion (Operation Compass), where 200 Mk.VIs (chiefly with the 3rd Hussars and the 7th Armoured Division) formed the backbone of the British armor, together with 75 Cruisers and 45 Matildas.
Australian Vickers Mk.VIb tank crews taking a rest in the desert
Despite their feeble protection and machine-gun armament, they performed well against lightly armored Italian vehicles and tankettes, being particularly suitable for fast outflanking maneuvers against the retreating Italians, capturing many prisoners.
The British lost many tanks, but the 2nd RTR was probably the most successful during these kind of operations, retaining most of its forces until February 1941. Mark VI tanks in active service gradually degraded with the arrival of the Afrika Korps. They soldiered on until early 1942, many being sent to Greece, where they formed the bulk of the 4th Hussars and other units, and again in Crete (3rd The King’s Own Hussars), and Malta.
Others served in Iran, with the Anglo-Soviet Invasion of August-September 1941, or were part of the landing force which fought in Syria against Vichy France. A handful of Mk.VIs were sent in 1939 to Australia and manned by Australian crews. The South Africans and the Canadians also received some light tanks, and the former successfully operated these in Abyssinia throughout 1941. During the siege of Tobruk, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment had only 16 of these but managed to move them on a daily basis, giving the Germans the impression of a much more impressive tank force. By mid-1942 and prior to the first battle of El Alamein, surviving Mark VIs still in service had been withdrawn and were used as mobile observation posts and local AA defense versions. The M3 Stuart had replaced them and was now largely available.
Light Tank AA Mark I (late 1940).
This model had a new redesigned turret, housing a quad-7.92 mm (0.31 in) Besa or a twin 15 mm (0.59 in) Besa heavy machine-gun AA mount. Because of this new turret, the traverse was now done by hand, which severely limited its speed and the effectiveness of the entire solution. The crew was only two. Production of this model is unknown and ceased by 1941.
Light Tank AA Mark II (1941).
An improved version of the first, now with fully powered traverse, wider and more accessible turret, and better quality sights.
Vickers 2pdr SPG prototype
This photo is of a 2 pdr /40 mm Vickers gun mount on the Mk.VI light tank chassis. It was an anti-tank self-propelled gun (SPG) not a tank. It had an open topped turret in keeping with later WW2 design ideas for SPGs. It was felt that in a revetment a wide view was essential. Such weapons were primarily defensive in nature. If the finance and the fore-sight had been available in the British War Office this could have been an excellent asset during the invasion of France, Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940. Unfortunately it did not enter into production.
Vickers Mark VI 2pdr SPG prototype. Notice the open roof and folded tarpaulin canvas cover.
Vickers Light Mk.VI specifications
|Dimensions||4 x 2.8 x 2.26 m (13.12 x 9.18 x 7.41 ft)|
|Total weight, battle ready||4.93 – 5.28 tonnes|
|Crew||3 (commander, driver, gunner)|
|Propulsion||Meadows 6-cylinder petrol, 88 hp@2600 rpm|
|Speed||35 mph (56 km/h) road only|
|Range/fuel||130 mi (210 km)/30 gal (140 l)|
|Armament||Vickers 0.5 in (12.7 mm) Vickers/Besa 15 mm (0.59 in) machine-gun
Vickers 0.303 (7.7 mm)/Besa 7.92 mm (0.31 in) coaxial machine-gun
|Armor||From 4 to 14 mm (0.16-0.55 in)|
|Total production||1682 (1936-1940)|
Light Mk.VIb of a C.A.F.V.T (Canadian Armoured Fighting Vehicle Training) unit, late 1940.
Light Mk.VIc, Malta, June 1942. This late version, produced until mid-1940, was reequipped with a high-velocity 15 mm (0.59 in) Besa machine-gun. The Besa heavy machine-gun had a better punch and accuracy than the Vickers cal.50 (12.7 mm). However, it also had poorer performances compared to the German 20 mm (0.79 in) that equipped the Panzer II. Its unusual method of cocking was tricky and needed careful maintenance.
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI in North Africa, 1940
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VIc, Malta, 1942
Vickers Mk.VIb Light Tanks of 7th Armoured Division on patrol in the desert, 2 August 1940.
Vickers Mk.VI light tank of 13/18th Royal Hussars, France 1940
Vickers Mk.VIb Light Tank at the Bovington Tank Museum, England. Photo: Mark Nash
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI at the Imperial War Museum Duxford, England
Vickers Light Tank Mk.VI at the French Tank Museum in Saumur, France