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. The tanks official designation was ‘Tank, Infantry, A43, Black Prince’. This 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 member of the British Royal Family; Prince Edward, The Black Prince, Duke of Cornwall, son of Edward III. 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. There was even a Class 9F Steam locomotive named after him.
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.
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.VI. 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 ‘Tank, Infantry, A43, Black Prince’. The last of the infantry tanks and the ultimate form of the Churchill tank series. Photo: Public Domain
The A43 was similar to the Churchill in almost every way. Especially in the overall shape of the hull and incorporated running gear. The crew hatches in the sides of the hull were also kept. The bow of the tank retained the same stepped design from the lower plate up the Driver and bow Machine Gunner’s positions. Armor in this area was identical to the later model Churchills, such as the Mk. VII, at 152mm (6 inches). The front end was slightly lowered and the Driver’s position moved slightly forwards. This was meant to improve the Driver’s vision past the track ‘horns’, an issue from the original Churchills.
A side image of prototype No. 3. Photo: www.panzeroperations.com
To cope with the increased weight of the new features, the running gear and hull were strengthened drastically compared to the Churchills. The suspension was typically Churchill, consisted of 12 separately sprung wheels with the idler at the front and drive wheel at the back. It used the same independently sprung bogie suspension, though the tracks were widened slightly to help weight distribution. The vehicle 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. This resulted in an abysmal top speed of 10.5 mph (16.8 km/h) and, even though it retained the Churchill’s climbing ability, speed when climbing was even more atrocious. There were plans to introduce the 600hp Rolls-Royce Meteor engine. This would’ve propelled the tank to around 22 mph (35 km/h). The only way it would have fitted would have been to put it in at a leaning angle however as there wasn’t enough clearance between the floor of the tank and the roof of the engine bay. For whatever reason, the plan never came to fruition. In later years, a similar plan was hatched by the Irish in an attempt to increase the service life of their Churchill Mk. VIs.
Black Prince prototype No. 4 at fall speed during mobility trials. Photo: Schiffer Publishing
The tank also had a rather tricky five-speed gearbox, where previous Churchills only had a 4-Speed. It was found that the gears were far too close together. To avoid stalling the engine, not hard in a tank much to heavy for it, the driver had to change from one gear to another in just 1.5 seconds. As the Driver went up the gears, he would have to do it quickly to retain some momentum in the vehicle between shifts to avoid it stalling.
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. Armor on the face was the same as the hull at 152mm (6 inches). 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.
The commander’s “birdcage” atop the turret. Photo: tank-hunter.com
The Black Prince shared the same tank commander’s “birdcage” 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 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 period diagram of the interanl layout of the turret, looking at the breach of the 17-Pounder. Photo: The Tank Museum.
Main Armament, 17-Pounder
The main upgrade that this vehicle gained over the Churchill was the mounting of the Ordnance QF 17-Pounder Mk. VI cannon in a new larger pentagonal turret. The Mk. VI was an improved version of the gun with a shortened breach, allowing more operating room inside the turret of the tank. The 17-Pounder, which was produced from 1943, was a much-needed boost to the anti-armour capabilities of the British Armed Forces. For a short while, consideration was given to the introduction of the 32-Pounder gun, a 94mm bore cannon, also used on the A39 Tortoise. While being more powerful than the 17-Pounder, it would have necessitated the employment of a larger turret. This, in turn, would’ve meant a wider turret ring and hull. As such, these plans were discarded.
For use on the Black Prince, the gun was equipped with three shot types. These were APCBC (Armor-Piercing, Capped, Ballistic-Capped), APDS (Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot) and HE (High Explosive). 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.
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 Kings of armoured warfare is open to conjecture. In its standard configuration, the regular Churchill workhorse would keep on trotting, doing great service to the end of the Second World War and 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, there were numerous 17-Pounder armed tanks either on the battlefield or in development. The Cromwell-based 17-Pounder armed Cruiser Mk. VIII, A30, Challenger had entered service in 1944, but was not well liked by crews. To add to this, the more successful and famous Sherman Firefly had proved itself more than capable in combat, and the A34 Comet armed with a derivative of the 17-Pounder began to be deployed.
By War’s end, the Heavy Cruiser Tank A45 (later designated FV4007 “Universal/Main Battle Tank”) Centurion was nearing the end of it’s 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 (20 km/h) faster.
One of the Black Prince prototypes sits asside the rather sorry remains of a Churchill Mk. I while in trials. Photo: The Tank Museum.
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.
Bovington’s running Black Prince being towed back into the Museum after its demonstration during Tankfest 2012. Photo: Nicholas Moran
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.
The 4th Prototype as it sits in the Tank Museum, Bovington. Photo: Author’s Photo
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 Mk. VI (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
Schiffer Publishing, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, David Fletcher
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 World War.
Tank Encyclopedia’s own rendition of the Black Prince by David Bocquelet