Before the start of the Second World War, British armoured doctrine was in a terrible muddle.
Opinion had been divided between the proponents of the tank who saw it as the weapon of break-in, using it as an infantry support weapon, and those who saw it as the weapon of break-out, using it to restore mobility and to destroy the enemy’s forces behind the frontline. In many ways it was a division between those who saw the tank solely through the prism of the experience of the First World War, and those who saw it a decisive weapon for the future. Britain was also conscious of the continuing requirements for imperial policing, in which small tanks and armoured cars had already proved their worth. As a consequence, it was decided that Britain needed three different classes of tanks: Light tanks for the policing role that could also be used for reconnaissance duties in a general war; fast and lightly armoured Cruiser tanks for break-out and exploitation, and heavily armoured but slow Infantry tanks for the break-in.
Unfortunately, what the policy makers had failed to realise was that the use of tanks in a future war would be very different from the experience of WW1: it would prove to be impossible to neatly segregate the battlefield in both time and space to suit the three different types of tanks, and that what was required was a single tank that was heavily armoured enough to support the infantry, but also fast and reliable enough to conduct more mobile operations, including break-out and pursuit. In time – well after the war - this would come to be called the Main Battle Tank, and would be supported by a host of other specialised armoured vehicles, including Armoured Personnel Carriers, reconnaissance tanks, and not least, a range of engineering variants. It should be noted at this point that Germany started the war with a similar method of classifying tanks, but realised quicker than Britain that the artificial division was unhelpful on the battlefield and crucially, was faster and more successful at doing something about it.
It can of course be argued that in Britain the technology of 1939 was not capable of producing such a tank, but as it was not attempted until around 1943, it is difficult to know for certain. What is clear is that Britain went to war with a small fleet of different tanks divided artificially into the three very separate classes, and this book will look at one of those classes, the Infantry Tank. In particular, whilst mentioning briefly some of the variants and failed designs in that class, we shall concentrate on the four main types that saw battlefield service as Infantry tanks (sometimes called I-Tanks): the Matilda I, the Matilda II, the Valentine, and the Churchill. These were known officially as the Infantry Tanks Marks I to IV respectively, and this designation reflects the order in which they were designed, produced, and entered service. They were the basis of many experimental and specialised variants, but due to space considerations we shall concern ourselves here mainly with the major tank versions.
Despite the artificial compartmentalisation of British tanks that was eventually to be exposed as a dreadful mistake, there is no doubt that all these tanks, and particularly the last three, performed sterling service in different ways during the conflict; all saw combat, which is more than can be said for many of the designs produced in the Cruiser class, particularly the Covenanter and Cavalier. None were without their faults, and the crews seem to have operated them with a mixture of admiration and exasperation, but all contributed to final victory and are thus deserving of recognition. It should be noted that this book is intended to serve as a “primer”, and space precludes an expert discussion on every aspect of every mark of each tank discussed – some 25 in all! We shall start with the first, least known and least successful of the four, the Infantry Tank Mark 1 or Matilda.
A11 Infantry Tank Mk I Matilda