Churchill Tanks in NW Europe 1944-45 (Part 1)

In my (unpaid) role as historical consultant for Dave Brown Esq, I was this week discussing with him the various marks of Churchill tank used by the British 21st Army Group (i.e. NW Europe from 1944 (Normandy) to 1945 (Germany)) , how they were organised, who used them and when.  It occurred to me that this is a perennial internet forum question and one I must have discussed a hundred times or more, so a blog-post is probably long overdue…

Marks of Churchill Tank in 21st Army Group 1944-45

Churchill Mk III

Churchill Mk III with Mk 3 gun without counterweight.

The Churchill Mk III had a very squarish, welded turret and was armed with a 6pdr (57mm) gun.  It retained the hull-design of the Mk II, with rectangular side-doors and MG-port.

Early production Churchill Mk III (and Mk IV) tanks had the shorter (L43) 6pdr Mk 3 gun, while later production tanks had the slightly longer (L50) 6pdr Mk 5 gun.  The Mk 5 gun used the same ammunition as the Mk 3, but had slightly improved muzzle-velocity and therefore slightly improved range and armour-penetration.  Those tanks fitted with Mk 3 guns were eventually upgraded to Mk 5 guns and there were probably no Mk 3 guns remaining on tanks sent to NW Europe.  However, as there was no special mark-number for tanks fitted with Mk 5 guns, they are not differentiated in unit strength-returns and it is therefore very difficult to be certain, so never say never!

Unlike their towed cousins, 6pdr guns fitted to tanks did not have a muzzle-brake.  There was normally just a slightly thicker collar around the muzzle (as shown on my model and the photo above). Depending on the elevation-system used, some 6pdr guns could also have a muzzle counterweight-collar fitted, which can look like a muzzle-brake at a distance, but lacks the holes at the sides.

Churchill Mk III with Mk 3 gun and muzzle-counterweight

Further improvements to armour-penetration were gained when the revolutionary 6pdr Armour-Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) was introduced in June 1944.  Although this ammunition was unstable at longer ranges, it gave 6pdrs a significant advantage at closer engagement-ranges.  The 6pdr Mk 5 gun already had a very slight advantage over the 75mm gun in terms of armour-penetration, but the APDS round was a game-changer.

Although 6pdr APDS was prioritised for those Royal Artillery Anti-Tank units still equipped with 6pdr, some supply was made available to Infantry Battalion Anti-Tank Platoons and Tank Regiments.  Consequently, Tank Regiments suddenly halted their 75mm upgrade programmes and where possible, started to retain a 6pdr tank in each Troop of three tanks.  However, as their primary role was infantry support, the superb HE effect of the 75mm was still the primary gun-type (no matter how much us wargamers want the better anti-tank capability!).

Churchill Mk III with Mk 5 gun and counterweight, plus applique armour on hull-sides and turret-front.

A number of Churchill Mk III were up-gunned with 75mm guns, creating the Churchill Mk III* (‘Mark Three-Star’).  This upgrade also included an additional 37mm of applique armour on the turret-front and hull-sides.  Roughly half of the Churchill Mk III in the 31st and 34th Tank Brigades (around 30 in the 31st and 50 in the 34th) had been upgraded to Mk III* before June 1944.  Some 6pdr tanks also received the applique armour upgrade, as shown above.

Churchill Mk III*. Note the muzzle-brake of the 75mm gun.

Being rather long in the tooth, the Mk III gradually disappeared from the order of battle throughout 1944 & 1945, being replaced by Mk IV, Mk VI and Mk VII.  They were virtually all gone by the time the Rhine was crossed in 1945.

Churchill Mk IV

The Churchill Mk IV had exactly the same armament and the same hull as the Mk III, though had a cheaper, cast turret with a distinctive rounded profile.  This turret would also go on to be used in the Mk V and Mk VI (as well as Mks IX-XI, which were up-armoured Mks IV-VI but never saw active service during WW2).

As with the Mk III, early-production Mk IVs had the Mk 3 gun and later models had the Mk 5 gun.  Again, these could be fitted with muzzle-counterweights, depending on the type of elevation system fitted.  It is highly unlikely that any tanks fitted with Mk 3 guns saw service in NW Europe.

A column of Churchills is led by a Mk IV (Mk 5 gun with counterweight)

As with the Mk III, many Churchill Mk IV were upgraded with 75mm guns, though there was no applique armour upgrade and no special mark-designation.  These upgraded tanks were absolutely identical to the Churchill Mk VI and were either known as ‘Mk IV (75mm)’ or as ‘Mk VI’, although strictly-speaking the designation ‘Mk VI’ indicates a factory-built 75mm tank.

Some Mk IV tanks (typically 8 per brigade – 2 in each Tank Regt HQ and Tank Bde HQ) were designated as ‘Mk IV OP’.  In this instance ‘OP’ means ‘Observation Post’.  These were fitted with a second radio set and the loader would double as a second radio-operator (the co-driver being the primary radio-operator).  These would be made available to attached artillery Forward Observation Officers (FOOs), who would replace the tank commander, while their radio operator would replace the loader.  Contrary to popular wargames-lore, these DID NOT have dummy-guns and were fully armed, though ammunition stowage was reduced in order to accommodate the extra radio.  If ‘proof of armament’ is needed, 6th Guards Tank Brigade recorded upgrading its Mk IV OP tanks to 75mm guns (I’ll discuss OP tanks more fully in another article).

The 6th Guards Tank Brigade had 164x Churchill Mk IV in June 1944 and all had been upgraded to 75mm guns.  However, around one tank per Troop of three had been converted back to 6pdr by the time they deployed to Normandy in mid-July 1944.  I’ve no idea if this was by physical re-conversion or was done by swapping them with 6pdr-armed tanks from depots.  31st and 34th Tank Brigades each had around 20-30 Mk IVs in June 1944, some of them converted to 75mm guns.  However, the numbers of 6pdr-equipped Mk IVs increased markedly as the campaign went on as they replaced lost obsolete 6pdr-armed Mk IIIs.

Churchill Mk V

The Churchill Mk V was essentially the same tank as the Mk IV, though had a 95mm Close Support Howitzer as its main armament.  Each Tank Squadron HQ had a pair of these and this remained essentially unchanged throughout the campaign.

The role of Close Support tanks was to provide heavy HE and smoke support to the tanks, primarily providing overwatch to suppress and destroy enemy anti-tank guns.  There are many misunderstandings and myths regarding British Close Support tanks and it’s important to understand that they are there to support their fellow TANKS, not the infantry; the other tanks in the squadron are supporting the infantry… I hope that’s clear! 🙂

A restored Churchill Mk V at Overloon War Museum in the Netherlands. Marked as ‘B’ Sqn, 4th Coldstream Guards, 6th Guards Tank Bde.

Another myth that often pops up in wargames literature and discussion is that ‘they were only armed with smoke’.  This is completely untrue and is also untrue of the 3-inch Close Support Howitzer that came before the 95mm (as fitted to Churchill Mk I/II, Matilda, Crusader, Valentine and Tetrarch CS tanks).  It’s also untrue to a certain extent of the early-war 3.7-inch Close Support Howitzer fitted to A9 & A10 Cruiser Tanks.

The myth stems from the early days of the war and the fact that the standard ammunition load-out for A9 & A10 CS tanks only included two rounds of HE – the rest being smoke.  To add further insult, the A9s & A10s arrived in France without any 3.7-inch HE rounds whatsoever!  The 3-inch CS Howitzer that followed proved to be a decent enough weapon and proved invaluable when supporting 2pdr and 6pdr-armed tanks with little or no HE capability.  However, it was made obsolete by the advent of 75mm main tank guns and superb US 75mm HE ammunition, hence the move to a more powerful 95mm weapon.

Churchill Mk VI

The Churchill Mk VI, as mentioned above, was the 75mm-armed variant of the Churchill Mk IV.  Many Mk IVs were upgraded with 75mm guns and are commonly referred to as ‘Mk VI’, but proper Churchill Mk VI tanks were factory-built as such.  Factory-built Mk VI tanks eventually became the majority Churchill type in NW Europe as they replaced Mk III* and Mk IV (75mm) combat-losses.

Churchill Mk VI (or possibly a Mk IV (75mm)) of 31st Tank Brigade, Operation EPSOM, June 1944.

Churchill Mk VII

The Churchill Mk VII was a significant improvement on earlier Churchill marks, with a completely redesigned composite (part-cast, part-welded) turret and an improved hull.  The turret looked somewhat similar to that of the Mk III, but had a thick ‘rim’ around the bottom edge and ‘cheeks’ either side of the gun-mantlet.  The hull’s rectangular side-hatches and MG port were now replaced by circular versions.  The biggest improvement was in terms of armour-protection, which exceeded that of the Tiger I.  However, the main gun was still the standard 75mm, which meant that if two Churchill Mk VIIs squared off against one-another, they would struggle to knock the other out…

While this considerable improvement in armour-protection was welcome, the Mk VII remained rare as a battle-tank.  The primary reason for this was that Mk VIIs were prioritised to Crocodile units, which (aside from a few older types used as Regt HQ, Sqn HQ and CS tanks) were completely equipped with Mk VII Crocodiles and used up a large chunk of the production capacity.  For example, 9 RTR (31st Tank Brigade) only received its first ten Mk VIIs on 12th July 1944, as part of the replacements for the horrific losses suffered by the regiment on Hill 112 during Operation JUPITER (10-11 July).  When Mk VIIs were delivered they almost always went primarily to the Regt HQ, Sqn HQs and occasionally filtered down to Troop Commanders.  I’ve never come across one in NW Europe that wasn’t an officer’s mount.  By contrast in Italy, they did try to form complete Troops of Mk VIIs to act as a spearhead.

A further development of the Churchill Mk VII was the Churchill Mk VIII, which used exactly the same turret and hull, though like the Mk V was armed with a 95mm Close Support Howitzer.  These were certainly in production during 1944 and 1945, but I’ve been able to find no evidence whatsoever for their combat use or even deployment in NW Europe.  The same goes for the upgraded Mks IX-XI.

Churchill Mk VII Crocodile

The Churchill Mk VII Crocodile was a further development of the Mk VII to create a formidable flamethrower tank.  The most obvious difference between a standard Mk VII and a Crocodile was that the Crocodile was equipped with an articulated armoured trailer to keep the flamethrower-fuel and propellant gas safely OUTSIDE the tank… The other difference was that the hull machine gun was replaced by the superlative flame-projector.  This meant that the Crocodile, unlike most other flamethrower tanks, retained a turreted main gun that could be used for long-ranged engagements.

The fuel and gas was fed from the trailer to the projector via an armoured pipe that ran beneath the hull, thus keeping the dangerous materials firmly outside of the crew compartment.  The trailer’s armour was proof against small-arms fire and fragments, but vulnerable to fire from anything heavier.  The crew therefore had to use the heavy armour of their tank to shield the trailer as best they could.  Things were complicated further by the fact that the trailer made reversing out of trouble somewhat awkward!  The trailer could therefore be ejected and abandoned at the press of a button.

Late production runs of Churchill Mk VIIs were all fitted with the fittings (trailer coupling, fuel-pipe, etc) for Crocodile equipment, so that any Mk VII could be quickly and easily turned into a Crocodile simply by replacing the hull MG with the flame-projector.  This does NOT mean that ordinary tank regiments could refit their Mk VIIs – it just means that combat losses of Crocodiles in Crocodile units could easily make good their losses from a generic pool of Mk VII replacement tanks.

One regiment of 31st Tank Brigade (141st Royal Armoured Corps or ‘141 RAC’) was equipped with Crocodile in time for the D-Day Landings, though only two Crocodile Troops were landed on 6th June and they only fired some 75mm and MG ammunition – no flames!  141 RAC spent the entire Normandy Campaign largely divorced from their parent brigade, being split up into Squadron, Half-Squadron and Troop-sized detachments, supporting various units.  On one occasion they even supported the Americans in assaulting a Napoleonic fortress at Brest.  This meant that 31st Tank Brigade had to soldier on with only two Tank Regiments (7 RTR and 9 RTR).  Note that 141 RAC was NOT a part of 79th Armoured Division at this time, although it would often work alongside the ‘Funnies’.

However, in September 1944 the 31st Tank Brigade was formally absorbed into 79th Armoured Division as an ‘All-Crocodile’ Brigade.  7 RTR was also now converted to a Crocodile regiment and both they and 141 RAC now wore the triangular yellow badge with the bull’s head of ‘Hobart’s Funnies’.  9 RTR had transferred out to 34th Tank Brigade, but 31st Tank Brigade was finally brought up to strength in November 1944 with the addition of 1st Fife & Forfar Yeomanry as its third Crocodile regiment.

Crocodiles of ‘A’ Sqn, 7 RTR

Models and Painting

All the models here are Flames of War models (Battlefront Miniatures) from my own collection, painted by me.  I’ll cover painting and marking in more detail later.

I’ve suddenly realised that what was going to be a short blog-post has turned into a mahoosive one (again), so I’ll talk about organisations next time!

‘C’ Sqn, 9 RTR (31st Tank Brigade) in Normandy

 

This entry was posted in 15mm Figures, Battlefront: WW2, Painted Units, World War 2, World War 2 - British Commonwealth Armies, World War 2 - Netherlands & Germany Campaign 1944-45, World War 2 - Normandy 1944. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Churchill Tanks in NW Europe 1944-45 (Part 1)

  1. Patrick says:

    Great article – thank you

  2. Rhys says:

    Well it’s only 8:11 am and I’ve learnt something (well several things) today Mark. Very interesting read.

    All the best,
    Rhys

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Ta. At 0811hrs this morning I learned that the wife will eventually let the dog out if I ignore it and pretend to be asleep for long enough…

  3. DB says:

    Great article Mark – many thanks!

  4. Jonathan says:

    Do you have any info on the makeup of B Squadron NIH Tunisia 1943, for the battle of Long Stop Hill?

    • jemima_fawr says:

      I don’t, sorry. I used to rely on Gerry Chester’s wonderful NIH website, but the site lapsed and he then sadly passed away and like a fool, I never wrote any of it down. Racking my brain, I seem to remember the regiment was mostly Mk III, possibly with a few Mk II still hanging on and Mk II CS tanks (2x 3-inch CS Howitzers – one in the turret AND one in the hull).

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