Last of its Kind
This “Super Churchill” marked the end of the British Infantry tank era. An era that started on a rather weak footing 5 years prior in the shape of A11 Matilda I. It continued with the A12 Matilda II and the Valentine, before culminating in the A22 Churchill.
The Black Prince began life at Vauxhall Motors in 1943, the General Staff designating it as A43. It was one of the first tanks designed to carry the high velocity 76 mm (3 in) Anti-Tank Gun, the Ordnance QF 17-Pounder, from the outset without needing any modifications. The A43 was seen as interim design, pending the availability of the ‘Universal’ or ‘Main Battle Tank’ that would replace both Infantry and Cruiser tanks. This, of course, would be Centurion.
Over the years, a number of military vehicles have born the name of Black Prince. The name originates from the famous 14th century Prince Edward, The Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall. This tank was not the first military vehicle to bare the name of Black Prince. During the First World War, there was HMS Black Prince, a Duke of Edinburgh-Class Cruiser that took park in the battle of Jutland. There was also an Experimental Matilda Mk.II variant that bore the name.
The King of the Churchills
The Black Prince was to be the final, ultimate form of the A22 Infantry Tank Mk.IV, better known as the Churchill. The A22, Mk.I to VII became the workhorse heavy/infantry tank of the British army during WWII. Churchill Mk.IIIs were even well received by the Soviets during the military aid scheme. The tank had a baptism of fire in the form of the disastrous Dieppe Raid, but soon proved its worth on the battlefield.
As it’s armor increased over the Marks, it became more and more resilient to the most powerful of German weapons, even the dreaded 88mm by the time of the Mk.VII. It was not able to exploit such ricochets, however. The Churchill, of course, suffered from the same weakness as most Allied vehicles of the War. A lack of firepower.
The Churchill started life equipped with the Ordnance QF 2-Pounder (40mm) gun. Later Marks would carry the Ordnance QF 6-Pounder (57mm), which was then followed by the Ordnance QF 75 mm (2.95 in) gun. All of these guns lacked penetration and punch against the likes of the infamous Tigers and Panthers. The first attempt to mount a more powerful armament on the Churchill chassis resulted in the A22D Churchill Gun Carrier, developed in 1941. This was a canceled endeavor, however, as the 3-inch gun it was equipped with proved to be hopelessly outmoded and outdated.
Come 1943, designers began work on a “Super Churchill”, under the designation of Tank, Infantry, A43 Black Prince. It would keep the same, legendary hard-headedness of the A22, but with the added ability to hand back the German Panzers a “damn good thrashing” in the form of a potent 17-Pounder shell.
The A43 was similar to the Churchill in almost every way. It used the same independently sprung bogie suspension and was powered by the same Bedford 12 cylinder engine. This 350-horsepower engine in a tank that was 10 tons heavier, lead to the vehicle being even more underpowered and slow than the standard Churchill. There were plans to introduce the 600hp Rolls-Royce Meteor engine, however, this never came to fruition.
A side image of Prototype No. 3. Photo: www.panzeroperations.com
The main upgrade this vehicle gained over the Churchill was the mounting of the Ordnance QF 17-Pounder cannon in a new larger pentagonal turret. The gun, produced in 1943, was a much-needed boost to the anti-armor capabilities of the British Armed Forces. It could fire 2 types of armor penetrating rounds. Either APCBC (Armor-Piercing, Capped, Ballistic-Capped) or APDS (Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot) shells. The APCBC shell could penetrate 163 mm of armor at 500 meters, while the APDS could penetrate 256 mm of armor at 500m. Secondary armament consisted of 2 BESA 7.92mm (0.31 in) machine guns. One was coaxial, while the other was in the traditional bow gunner position on the left front of the tank.
The turret, an unused design for the Centurion, was a considerable upgrade from the standard A22. Instead of having a sunken mantel behind a cutout slot in the front of the turret, it had a curved plate on a traditional pintle, a similar design to that used on the A34 Comet. Plans would later be made to mate the Centurion Mk.I’s turret to the Black Prince chassis, but for unknown reasons, this never happened. The hull was made 10 inches wider than the standard Churchill to accommodate the larger turret and its ring.
To cope with the increased weight of the new features, the running gear and hull were strengthened. The suspension was typically Churchill. It consisted of 12 separately sprung wheels with idler at the front and drive wheel at the back. In testing, it was found that Black Prince retained the Churchill’s excellent cross country and climbing abilities.
The commander’s “birdcage” atop the turret. Photo: tank-hunter.com
The Black Prince shared the same tank commander’s “bird cage” gun laying sight that was used on the Comet. It was given the nickname ‘the birdcage’ but was a distant target blade-vane gun sight. It was used by the commander to help lay the gunner onto a target.
Another feature the Black Prince shared with the Comet was the canvas cover used on the turret front. During trials, it was found that dirt and small stones could get stuck in the gap between the mantlet and the main turret, preventing it from moving up and down. The solution to this problem was the fitting of a strong canvas cover. Sometimes the canvas cover would get stuck in the top gap between the mantlet and the gun when it was elevated. To solve this problem, long thin pockets were added to the top of the cover and metal strips inserted inside to add rigidity.
A poignant photo, showing the beginning and the end of the Infantry Tank concept, the Matilda I next to the Black Prince. Photo: – The Tank Museum/Haynes Publishing.
A face-on image of the 3rd Prototype, showing the canvas cover over the mantlet, the open drivers port, stowage on the left of the turret, and for some reason, a missing fender above the tank’s left idler wheel. Photo: weaponsandwarfare.com
This is an image of a factory-fresh prototype with the turret fully traversed, pointing backward, and the main armament in the “gun-crutch” or travel-lock as it is more commonly known. “Gun-crutch” is the British term. Photo: – weaponsandwarfare.com
The Black Prince would never have the chance to contest the reign of the Tigers and Panthers. Whether it would’ve usurped these armored Kings is open to conjecture. In its standard configuration, the regular Churchill workhorse would keep on trotting, doing great service into the Korean War. Like the A39 Tortoise and many mid-war British armored vehicle designs, the Black Prince became outdated almost as soon it was designed.
By 1945, just 6 prototype vehicles had been built. At this time, the 17-Pounder armed Sherman Firefly had already proved itself more than capable in combat, and the A34 Comet armed with a derivative of the 17-Pounder began to be deployed.
To add to this, the new FV4007 “Universal/Main Battle Tank” Centurion was also in development. This surpassed the Black Prince in almost every way. It had the same amount of armor protection, with the added bonus of it being sloped at the front. It carried the same 17-Pounder main armament and was 12 mph faster.
Bovington’s running Black Prince being towed back into the Museum after its demonstration during Tank Fest.
Of the 6 prototypes, only the 4th now survives. It resides at the Tank Museum, Bovington, U.K, as one of the exhibits. The tank is in running condition and is occasionally displayed during the museum’s famous Tank Fest.
The 4th Prototype as it sits in the Tank Museum, Bovington. Photo: Author’s Photo
Various parts of the other prototypes do still survive, however. The gun and mantlet of one can be found at the Imperial War Museum’s site in Duxford, U.K. It was on display until at least 1991. It has since been taken off display, and is now in storage at the museum. An incomplete hull was discovered in 1980s that was previously dumped on Salisbury Plain in the UK. It was given to vehicle restorers, the Cadman Brothers. What has happened to it since is unknown.
A43 Black Prince
|Dimensions L-W||7.7 x 3.4 m (24ft 3in x 11ft 2in)|
|Total weight||50 tons|
|Crew||5 (driver, bow-gunner, gunner, commander, loader)|
|Propulsion||350 hp Bedford horizontally opposed twin-six petrol engine|
|Speed (road)||10.5 mph (16.8 km/h)|
|Armament||Ordnance QF 17-Pounder (3in/76 mm) Tank Gun
2x BESA 7.92mm (0.31 in) machine-guns
|Armor||Up to 152 mm (6 in)|
|Total production||6 Prototypes|
Links & Resources
The Black Prince on the Tank Museum’s website.
The Black Prince on www.militaryfactory.com
The Black Prince on War Drawings
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #7 Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51
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.
Tank Encyclopedia’s own rendition of the Black Prince by David Bocquelet