As a result of Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviets lost large numbers of their tank forces. From June to December 1941, sources suggest the losses range from 5000 to as many as 15,000 tanks, up to half of the USSR’s approximate 30,000 tanks in service at the time.
In an attempt to fill the large gaps left by these losses, Great Britain, along with the United States, started a Lend-Lease relationship with the Soviet Union. This would allow the stricken Soviet military to bolster its forces while its tank production recovered. Along with the Churchill III, Tetrarch, Valentine and Universal Carrier, the famous ‘Queen of the Desert’ Matilda II soon found itself in the USSR, provided by Britain.
Between 1941 and 1943, some 1084 Matildas were shipped to the Soviet Union. Only 918 were received by the Red Army, however, as the others likely never made it to the end of the Arctic Convoys as a result of German Attacks. The Soviets received one-third of the entire 2987 vehicle production run of the Matilda.
A Matilda II Mk. III fresh of the production line is prepared for shipment to the USSR with a number of Slogans painted on by the factory workers, September 26, 1941. Photo: warspot.ru
The Matildas that arrived in the Soviet Union were mostly Mk. IIIs and IVs, with Leyland diesel engines. Diesel being the preferred fuel of the Soviets. They arrived painted in the standard G3 Khaki color, with various instructional markings, including red stripes running the length of the tank to signify its maximum fording depth. British representatives were sent with the first batch of tanks in 1941 to teach Soviet crews how to operate the vehicles. This took place at the Kazan and Gorkiy (Modern day Nizhni-Novgorod) Tank Schools. The British reported how adverse the Soviet crews were to using some methods and favored their own system of flags to communicate rather than the wireless set. They also preferred using the manual turret traverse to the powered traverse.
The Matilda, or the “British Mk.2” as it came to be called, received mixed reviews from the Soviets. Its armor, comparable to that of their own KV-1 Heavy Tanks, was much appreciated. One Soviet Matilda crew member claimed his tank received 87 non-penetrating hits. Its general reliability was also highly regarded. At the time, the Matilda and the Valentine were considered to be light tanks and actually fell in between the Soviet definition of Light and Medium tanks. They had less firepower than the Soviet’s medium and heavy Tanks, but more armor than their light tanks. The Matilda certainly didn’t have the speed of a light tank, which Soviet crews were not too happy with.
A major problem with tank, the Soviet crews found, was how ill-suited it was too harsh winter conditions. The tank was designed to operate down to 0 Degrees C, but temperatures in Russian could drop as low as -50 Degrees C. Indeed, even during shipping across the Arctic route, the coolant in the tanks radiators would freeze. Following complaints by the recipients, later tanks were shipped with an antifreeze solution in the radiators. The cold weather also affected the mobility of the tank. Snow and mud would frequently clog the drivetrain and suspension, making it hard to shift when built up behind the armored side skirts. It was found that just 30 cm (12 in) of snow was enough to stop the tank. Matildas shipped to the USSR were equipped with the T.D.5910 “Spud” tracks. Its narrow tracks with smooth, rounded metal treads were also an issue when crossing icy terrain, as they provided little to no grip. Crews devised a simple solution by welding sections of steel to each link for better grip in the snow.
The Matilda’s 2 Pounder (40 mm) gun was also a problem. The Soviets saw it as no improvement over their own 45 mm 20-K tank gun (found on the BT tanks for instance) and were disappointed that it wasn’t equipped with a HE (High-Explosive) round. One attempt to provide a solution was the re-casing of the 40 mm Bofors anti-aircraft rounds but was not successful.
There was a more extensive proposal, however. The Soviet’s turned to one of their best weapons engineers, Vasily Grabin, who came up with a design to introduce a 76 mm anti-tank gun into the Matilda’s turret. This gun was the F-96, a specially designed variant of the ZiS-5. Not only would this have increased the vehicles anti-armor capability, but also granted it an effective High-Explosive round. This project did not go far, however, with just one prototype built.
The HE problem would prove to rectify itself, however, with later deliveries of the tank bringing the Close-Support Matilda armed with an Ordnance QF 3 inch (76 mm) Howitzer. This gun fired both an effective HE round and smoke shells. A total of 156 of this version were sent, but only around 120 were received. They were not very common, with only a few units being equipped with them. The 5th Mechanized Corps of the 68th Army were one such unit for example. The 5th Mechanised was the only Soviet armored corps to be entirely equipped with British tanks.
Matilda CS tanks of the 5th Mechanized Corps, 68th Army. Photo: Osprey Publishing
The Desert Queen in a Winter War
The Soviet Army had formed six tank battalions by late November 1941 out of 20 Matildas and 97 Valentines, or the “British Mk.3” as they called it. These battalions were deployed on the Western Front for the defense of Moscow. The 146th Tank Brigade (146-ya tankovaya brigada) of the 16th Army fought here. This brigade consisted of two tank battalions with a total of 40 Valentines and two Matildas. The first unit to be equipped with the Matilda was the 136th Separate Tank Battalion (136-y otdelniy tankoviy batal’on).
The tanks played an extremely important frontline role in the defense of Moscow as the Soviet’s own tank supply was running thin due to the heavy losses in the summer of 1941. Put in perspective, there were between 607 and 670 tanks at the Soviet’s disposal for the defense of the city and only 205 of these were indigenous T-34 Medium Tanks and KV-1 Heavy Tanks. The rest were a mix of light tanks and Lend\Lease vehicles.
By the end of 1941, some 182 British tanks had been committed to combat operations, of which around 80 would be lost in action. By this time, there were only 46 Lend/Lease tanks still operational on the Western Front, this consisted of 38 Valentines and only eight Matildas. Many Matildas were pulled back from frontline service due to the Matilda’s shortcomings in harsh winter weather.
A Matilda freshly covered in the White-Wash winter camo. You can see just how roughly it is applied, with drips running down the head lamps and even the tracks. Photo: Osprey Publishing
The 1942, Operation: Blau was the next major combat operation that Soviet Matildas would see action in. This operation was a direct response to the drive towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus oil fields. The 10th Tank Corps, formed in Moscow’s military district in April had six tank battalions at its disposal, two of these battalions were made up solely of Matildas, with a total of 60. The 11th Tank Corps formed in May also had four of its six battalions equipped with Matildas. This corps was joined to the 5th Tank Army and took part in the July battles on the Don River. They began the campaign with 181 tanks, 88 of which were Matildas. After 10 days of hard fighting, the Corp lost 51 Matildas, had 22 under repair, and just 37 still in operational condition.
As mentioned above, the 5th Mechanised were the only Corps to be fully equipped with British Tanks. The 5th was formed in September and November 1942 in the Moscow Military District. The Corps was equipped exclusively with Valentine and Matilda (Including the Close Support variant) tanks. It first saw combat in that December 1942 in Stalingrad, but was almost completely wiped out by Manstein’s February 1943 counter-offensive. The Corp was rebuilt, however with a force largely comprised of Valentines.
By 1943, most Matildas had been withdrawn from frontline service on the Western Front. Thanks to the restart of the USSR’s own tank production, they were churning tanks by the battalion load. Some remaining Matildas did see action late in the war against the Japanese on the Manchurian front.
Two unfortunate Soviet Matilda II Mk. IIIs that have somehow flipped onto their turrets. Date and location unknown. Photo: warspot.ru
Russian Matilda of the 38th Armored Brigade, southwest front, May 1942.
A Matilda with provisional washable white paint used for winter cammo, Leningrad sector, winter 1942/43.
Illustration of a Matilda II Close Support, based on the tank in the photo in the left column, of the 5th Mechanized Corps, 68th Army.
The lend-lease Matilda Mk II the Soviets re-armed with the ZiS-5 gun. All illustrations are by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
A Soviet Hero
It is believed that a well-known Soviet hero, Andrei Fokin, was part of a Matilda crew in a tank named Tank chetyrem geroyev (Tank of Four Heroes) of the 182nd Separate Tank Battalion, 202nd Tank Brigade. Fokin was later awarded the “Hero of Soviet Union” decoration for his actions in a KV-1 with the 6th Tank Brigade, where he took out 16 German Tanks in may 1942.
Crew of the “Tank chetyrem geroye” with their vehicle, the man on the extreme right is Andrei Fokin.
The lend/lease military aid program, and the Matilda’s role in it, was hardly decisive to the Soviet Union’s subsequent victories on the Eastern or Western front. The political fog of the Cold War often marred the truth about the vehicles received.
It was said that the Matilda was inferior to the T-34, and in truth it probably was. But it should not be forgotten that the British sent the best tanks they had at the time to the USSR. The Matilda was certainly a much better tank than the troublesome T-60 and T-70 light tanks. 14 Percent of Britain’s entire tank production went to the Soviets.
As stated in this article the Matilda, and the other lend/lease vehicles for that matter, fought hard where it was needed. If nothing else this bought time for the USSR to restock its own tank force in the huge numbers that helped them to win their campaigns later in the War. Regardless of post-war politics, the tanks were an important aid to the Soviets.
Beutepanzer and Czechoslovakia
One Soviet Matilda was captured and used by SS units in their military training area at Benešov near Prague. After the War, the tank was acquired by the new Czechoslovak army. It is believed it was scrapped. Other tanks were found in the Benešov training area along with it such as an M4 Sherman, M3 Lee, Churchill, Valentine and even a Crusader. They were also scrapped.
Despite the publicly apparent loathing of the Matilda by the USSR after the Second World War, a large number of the tanks still survive in Russia to this day. They can be found in museums such as the Kubinka Tank Museum, and the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War.
Matilda II MkIII CS Close Support Tank in the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War 1941 – 1945, Park Pobedy, Moscow. The turret is a reproduction, only the hull is original. Photo: www.Tank-Hunter.com, Craig Moore
Matilda II MkIV CS Close Support Tank in the Kubinka Tank Museum Russia. Photo: www.Tank-Hunter.com, Craig Moore
|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)|
|For information about abbreviations check the Lexical Index|
Links, Resources & Further Reading
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #8: Matilda Infantry Tank 1938-45
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #247: Soviet Lend-Lease Tanks of World War II
Davis-Poynter Publishing, Comrades in Arms: British Aid to Russia 1941-45, Joan Beaumont.
Soviet Matildas on www.tank-hunter.com
The upgraded Matilda in an article by Yuri Pasholok. (Russian)
Report from British Pathe on tanks being sent to the Soviet Union.