December 31, 2019
It’s easy to start a lively discussion among any group of history enthusiasts. All one has to do is make a blanket declaration and then just brace for the returning barrage of responses. However, one must be careful in framing those statements. The Allies longest combat serving tank during World War II is the famous Matilda II. This design was used in every major combat theater in the war. In the opening months of the war Matilda IIs landed with the British Expeditionary Force in France and some were still fighting in the Pacific when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. Several examples were even shipped to the Soviet Union and fought on the Eastern Front. So what made this tank special?
The Matilda’s official designation was the Infantry Tank Mark II (A12) and its design dates back to 1929. The economic crisis of that period restrained the British Army, which was able to fund only very scaled back concepts to cover their needs. The United Kingdom was financially ruined by the Great War and the Air Force and Navy received the biggest portions of money for research and development. This was a major reason why the British Army tank designs were so limited in the early years of the war. Another contributing factor was the insistence of Army’s leadership to use the cruiser/infantry tank doctrine. This system used fast moving light tanks to hunt and destroy enemy tanks while heavier and slower designs would be used in a breakthrough role supporting the infantry.
Roll all of these factors together and you have a 25 ton tank at 15ft in length and 8.5ft wide with a crew of 4. The A12 could only reach a top speed of 16mph on roads while cross country speeds topped out at 9mph from her two Associated Equipment Company diesel engines. As a side note AEC has powered the famous London double deck buses for years. Her turret was from a single casting with 78mm of armor to the front and very little reduction on the remaining sides. The hull was equally impressive with armor 70mm thick and an integrated side skirting. Her German contemporaries were mostly carrying armor values less than half of that. Early models were equipped with a coaxial .303 Vickers machine gun but this water cooled option was removed when the air-cooled 7.92x57mm BESA became available.
Now the main gun it carried during the war was the famous 2-Pdr (40mm) quick firing gun with 94 rounds of ammunition. The British 2-Pdr was a license derivative of a design from the famous Swedish Bofors firm. Now even though the turret was hydraulically-powered, the gun was not mechanically manipulated. The gunner manually adjusted the elevation by moving their padded shoulder rest up or down. An unusual characteristic considering that British tank crews did train to fire on the move. Why was such a small main gun fitted? The 2-Pdr did have excellent armor penetrating qualities, for its time, so it could deal with any contemporary vehicle it came across. As an infantry support tank its main weapon was actually the coaxial machine gun for which it carried nearly 3,000 rounds! The British did experiment with a 2-Pdr high explosive round, but its poor performance and the demands early in the war kept that from going anywhere. Now as the war progressed and the British knew they needed to upgrade, they also tested a squeeze-bore adapter called the Little John. The adapter increased the muzzle velocity but even so the penetration at distance still proved insufficient to counter newer and more heavily armored German tank designs.
The Matildas first saw action in France with the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. They were assigned to the 7th Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) and played a crucial role in trying to stop the German offensive. Most notably at the Battle of Arras in May of 1940, the Matilda almost carried the Allies to victory. The German Anti-Tank guns of the time were 37mm and lower velocity 50mm and 75mm guns. The Matilda was nearly invulnerable to these guns and rolled through the German lines undeterred despite taking hit after hit. Seeing their anti-tank gun shells having no effect on the Matildas created panic among the German troops. It was only out of dire necessity that elements of the 7th Panzer Division, commanded by General Erwin Rommel himself, tapped into their high-velocity 88mm anti-aircraft guns and used them to turn the tide. Eventually the remaining Matildas had to be abandoned during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The Matildas were not only studied by the Germans, which helped create their own monsters, but some were converted into a 50mm self-propelled gun carrier named the Oswalt.
The performance of the Matilda II tank was one of the few bright spots of the French campaign. They were ordered to North Africa to carry on the only fight that Britain could mount at the time. It was there in the mixed nationalities of the Commonwealth Army where the A12 received the moniker “Matilda” as well as being called the “Queen of the Desert”. From late 1940 till mid 1942 the Matilda was the linchpin in all of the British victories culminating in their spearhead charge to lift the siege of Tobruk and foiling Rommel’s first major offensive. Their nemesis would be General Rommel and his continued use of the vaunted 88mm AA gun. Yet the sun set on the Matilda as newer panzers arrived with higher velocity guns and the effective PaK 40 anti-tank gun. Now the slow speed and small caliber gun proved to be its undoing. It’s also important to note that during this same time about 1,000 Matildas were shipped to Russia. Even though the Russians used them it was not a popular tank. The narrow tracks and skirt panels trapped mud or snow too easily and seized them up. When both countries found the gun lacking they independently tried to mount a better gun. The British made their attempt with the 6-Pdr gun while the Soviets experimented with their short 76mm. Both attempts failed. The remaining Matildas were altered for specialized support roles.
The Australians though were happy to take the remaining examples and use them against the Japanese until the end the war. This was impressive because production of the tank ended in 1943. The Matilda had several advantages that made it an excellent fit in jungle warfare. Its slow speed was not an issue in the dense foliage. It was smaller and lighter than the Sherman which made it easier to maneuver. Plus, it often found itself engaging Japanese fortifications at point blank ranges where its heavy armor provided better protection for its crew. Again the only issue was with its small main gun. The Australians utilized as many Close support (CS) Matildas as they could. These carried a large 3-inch howitzer in place of the 2-Pdr and had similar HE performance as the 75mm gun on the Sherman. Not to be outdone by their Crocodile counterparts, a flamethrower equipped version was created called the Frog. This replaced the main gun and the fuel load was carried internally. Another variant, the Hedgehog, loaded a 7-shot launcher of the famous 62 pounder anti-submarine mortars on the back.
While eclipsed by far more famous tanks of the Second World War there is no doubt that the A12 Matilda II was an important tank. Few tanks can even come close to its service record. The fact that so many individual Matilda II tanks were on the battle lines for years show it was a solid design. Today most Matildas peacefully rest in museums across Australia while one that’s been recently restored to be fully operational calls the Bovington Tank Museum home. Here it shares space with another tank found in the North African desert that it inspired, Tiger 131.