The NA 75, a workshop improvised Churchill variant, is a testament to the ingenuity of one British officer, Captain Percy H. Morrell. An officer of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), Captain Morrell served in Tunisia and was charged with disassembling and breaking down battle damaged tanks, in particular, M4 Shermans.
The Captain noted that many of the 75 mm (2.95 in) M3 guns equipping the Shermans were still in an operational condition. As such, he began formulating a plan to make use of them by mounting them into the turret of Mk. IV Churchills.
These tanks would be designated as the Churchill NA 75. This was attributed to the vehicle’s place of birth, NA – North Africa, and the transferred 75 mm M3 gun.
Percy Hulme Morrell enlisted at Leeds on June 29th, 1940. He rose through the ranks to be granted an emergency promotion to Second Lieutenant on February 6th, 1943. He was posted to North Africa in the April of that year – Photo: track48.com
Morrell aimed to achieve 2 goals with one action. A noted weakness with the Churchill was the inability of its main armament to fire an effective HE (High Explosive) round. This was a problem faced by the Mk.I and II with their 2-Pounder guns, and the Mk. III and IV with the 6-Pounder. Both of these guns lacked a powerful HE round, so anti-infantry and emplacement operations were difficult. Because of this, ironically, an Infantry Tank was not able to properly support infantry. The Sherman’s 75 mm (2.95 in) M3 gun did not have this issue, as it was able to fire quite a potent HE round.
Morrell had also noted that many Churchills lost in battle around the Medjerde Valley and similar engagements, had received hits to the gun area. It was apparent that in the bright sun of the desert, the recessed mantlet caused a visible shadow, providing a clear aiming point for German gunners. High-velocity 75 mm (2.95 in) or 88 mm (3.46 in) shells hitting this area would either jam the weapon in place, pass straight through the mantlet or knock the whole thing clean off its trunnions.
The Sherman’s external mantlet, specifically the M34 type, provided a quick fix to this problem, giving this weak area a much need boost in armor protection. It was hoped that its curved shape might induce a ricochet and also obviously remove the dark recess aiming point.
Captain Morrell’s concept drew enough interest for Major General W.S. Tope, Commander of REME in the Mediterranean theater, and John Jack, a civilian engineer from Vauxhall Ltd. to join him in Tunisia. They would assist Morrell with the project at the workshops in Bone. It was classified as “Top Secret” under the codename of “Operation Whitehot”.
A turret with the face re-cut for the adoption of the new mantlet and gun. The extra piece cut on the right is for the coaxial machine-gun – Photo: Haynes Publishing/Morrell Family Archive
Some 48 Mk.IV Churchills were the first to undergo the modification in North Africa. The method of inserting the gun was thus:
1: The Churchill Mk.IV’s standard issue armament, the Ordnance QF 6-Pounder (57mm), was removed. The removed 6-Pounder guns were returned to Ordnance Stores.
2: The original mantlet hole on the turret was widened.
3: The gun was rotated 180 degrees to suit the crew positions in the turret, and inserted, complete with the M34 mount.
4: The gun was welded in place, including the new external mantlet.
The turret also saw the addition of a counterweight in the rear due to the increased size of the armament. Room was also made on the left of the gun for the addition of the Sherman’s coaxial 30 cal. (7.62 mm) Browning M1919 machine gun. The machine gun only had a limited range of motion due to the cramped conditions. As such, it could not elevate as high as the main armament.
Almost complete turrets waiting to be mounted back onto their hulls. The mantlet is not yet added – Photo: Haynes Publishing/Morrell Family Archive
The tanks were tested under the supervision of Major ‘Dick’ Whittington, Gunnery Instructor at the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) Training Depot at Le Khroub. The Major commandeered a deserted Arabic village, which was ranged at 8,000 to 8,500 yards. The tanks, now armed with an effective HE round, rained shell after shell on the abandoned buildings. The tests were a success. It was surmised that the Churchill provided a much more stable firing platform which, unlike the Sherman, stood fast to the recoil of the gun, meaning the fire would be much more accurate.
The crew of a Churchill NA 75 with the name “Boyne”, take a break in the Italian sun. Boyne was part of 1 Troop ‘B’ Squadron. Commander Lieut B.E.S.King MC. The crew in the photo: Gunner, L/Cpl Cecil A.Cox with Operator, Cpl Bob Malseed. Boyne was later knocked out by a Panzer IV – Photo: www.ww2incolor.com
A group of Churchill NA 75s in Italy await action while the crews perform basic maintenance – Photo: Imperial War Museum
One of the first Churchill NA 75s photographed at the workshops in Bone, Tunisia. Note how limited the elevation of the coaxial MG is. At full elevation, it is still a few degrees away from being inline with the 75 mm (2.95 in) – Photo: Haynes Publishing
In total, 200 Churchill Mk.IVs were upgraded to the NA 75 standard. These would go on to serve in the Italian campaign, where Major General Tope commended their service with the 21st and 25th Tank Brigades in the month-long fighting between Arezzo and Florence.
A shortage of tanks meant that the Churchills would work alongside Shermans. Because of this, the Churchills would, for once, be used in their intended role as infantry support tanks. The Churchills would blast their way through the battlefield, while the faster Shermans and infantry exploited any breakthroughs.
Witnessing their success first hand, Tope sent a letter back to Morell: “I should be glad if you would congratulate the REME concerned on doing a quick job which had been most valuable to this brigade.” The NA 75 would go on to serve in Italy until the end of the war in 1945.
A Churchill NA 75 of the 25th Tank Brigade passes through the narrow streets of Montefiore, 11 September 1944.
Following the success of his upgrades and the flood of praise accompanying it, Captain Morrell was awarded the Military MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and received the promotion to Major.
Despite the lessons learned with the external mantlet, the Churchill would see out its career with its original recessed mantlet design. Had it have gone into service, the Churchill’s intended replacement, the Black Prince, would finally have done away with the recessed mantlet and used an external curved one.
It is not known whether any of the NA 75s survive today, but the vehicles remain a testament to “British Ingenuity”, and one man’s work to improve the fighting capabilities of his army.
Churchill NA 75
|Dimensions||24ft 5in x 10ft 8in x 8ft 2in|
(7.44 m x 3.25 m x 2.49 m)
|Total weight||Aprox. 40 tonnes|
|Crew||5 (driver, bow-gunner, gunner, commander, loader)|
|Propulsion||350 hp Bedford horizontally opposed twin-six petrol engine|
|Speed (road)||15 mph (24 km/h)|
|Armament||75 mm (2.95 in) M3 Tank Gun|
Browning M1919 .30 Cal (7.62 mm) machine-gun
BESA 7.92mm (0.31 in) machine-gun
|Armor||From 25 to 152 mm (0.98-5.98 in)|
|Total production||200 upgraded|
Links & Resources
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.
Schiffer Publishing, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, David Fletcher
Article about the NA 75
Tanks Encyclopedia’s own rendition of the Churchill NA 75 by David Bocquelet. This particular vehicle, “Adventurer”, is from A Company, as represented by the yellow triangle. A box would represent B company, A circle would be C company and a Diamond would be a HQ vehicle.