Churchill Tanks in NW Europe 1944-45 (Part 2)

‘C’ Squadron, 9 RTR, 31st Tank Brigade, Normandy 1944

As if the lockdown weren’t already tedious enough, here I am again with the second part of my Churchill tank waffle!  And there was much rejoicing.  Yay.  If you’re still here, this time I’m looking in a bit more detail at organisations and vehicle markings.

As discussed in Part 1, there were three Tank Brigades in 21st Army Group (i.e. NW Europe from 1944-1945 – Normandy to Germany); the 31st Tank Brigade, 34th Tank Brigade and 6th Guards Tank Brigade.  Theoretically distinct from Armoured Brigades, the Tank Brigades were equipped with ‘Infantry Tanks‘, which were thickly-armoured and designed to provide close support to infantry in the assault over difficult terrain.  By 1944 this role was filled exclusively by the Churchill series (a.k.a. Infantry Tank Mk IV).  Armoured Brigades by contrast, were meant to be massed in Armoured Divisions and filled with ‘Cruiser Tanks‘ (which by 1944 meant the Cromwell series), designed to exploit the gaps in enemy lines and flow through en masse to exploit the enemy’s vulnerable rear.

In reality, the production of both Churchill and Cromwell tanks fell far short of the numbers required.  Only two Armoured Brigades were equipped with Cromwell (22nd Armoured Brigade & 1st Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade) and only five Tank Brigades (the 6th Guards, 31st & 34th in NW Europe and the 21st and 25th in Italy) were equipped with Churchill.  The 1st Armoured Engineer Brigade were also equipped with a Churchill variant, the AVRE.

The remaining 25 (or thereabouts) Tank & Armoured Brigades under Commonwealth command worldwide were equipped with American Sherman Medium Tanks (except for two Tank Brigades in Burma, still equipped with Lee/Grant Medium Tanks).  The Sherman had much the same firepower as the Cromwell and Churchill, though had the potential to be upgraded to ‘Firefly‘ standard with the superb 17pdr gun.  However, like the Cromwell, it had mediocre armour-protection.  In terms of mobility the Sherman had superb mechanical reliability, though was slower than Cromwell and a lot faster than Churchill.  Nevertheless, the stoic Churchill could go places that other types simply could not (as amply demonstrated in the Battle of the Reichswald).

A pair of Churchill Mk VIIs belonging to 107 RAC push through the Reichswald mud, 1945

Five independent Brigades in 21st Army Group (2nd Canadian, 4th, 8th, 27th and 33rd Armoured Brigades) were equipped with Sherman and were therefore designated as Armoured Brigades, even though they were there to provide close infantry support and do the exact same job as the Tank Brigades…  The Armoured Brigades assigned to Armoured Divisions also often found themselves employed in the infantry support role…  It’s therefore safe to say that the doctrinal lines between ‘Tank’ and ‘Armoured’ Brigades became extremely blurred in the later half of the war.

Here’s a basic organisational diagram for a Tank Brigade (though I’ve only included the ‘teeth’).  Note that they would never fight as a unified brigade, but instead existed as a ‘holding formation’, allocating individual Regiments and Squadrons (sometimes as little as a Half-Squadron) to support infantry formations.  There was therefore no organic Motor Infantry, Field Artillery, etc.:

Notes on Tank Brigade Organisation

(a)  The 31st Tank Brigade differed slightly from this organisation, in that it had only two ‘normal’ Tank Regiments.  The third regiment was equipped with Crocodiles and operated on a semi-independent basis.  In September 1944 the brigade was reorganized as two Crocodile Regiments and in November 1944 was brought back up to full strength with a third Crocodile Regiment.

(b)  Command Tanks could be Churchills of any 6pdr or 75mm-armed type, but were increasingly upgraded to Mk VII. 34th Tank Brigade arrived in Normandy with 24x Mk VIIs, all of which were allocated to Regt, Sqn and (some) Troop Commanders.  In Crocodile-equipped Squadrons, Sqn HQ tanks tended to be Mk IV (75mm) or Mk VI.

(c)  OP Tanks were mainly Churchill Mk III or Mk IV.  They were armed with a 6pdr or 75mm gun and had an extra radio for the use of an attached FOO.

(d)  The Intercom Troop (sometimes known as the Liaison Troop) was equipped with Humber Scout Cars.  These would be embedded with neighbouring unit HQs, in order to provide a direct radio link and liaison officer.

(e)  Recce Troops were very large – 11x Stuart Light Tanks and almost the size of a Squadron in their own right and often referred to as the ‘Recce Squadron’ in many accounts.  The Recce Troops of 31st & 34th Tank Brigades were equipped with Stuart Mk III Light Tanks (M3A1), while 6th Guards Tank Brigade had Stuart Mk V (M3A3) and Mk VI (M5).  Some of these were ‘jalopied’ as the campaign went on. Details are difficult to obtain, but a typical pattern was to retain one turreted Stuart in each ‘Patrol’ of three (this was the system used by 7th Armoured Division).

(f)  Regimental Anti-Aircraft (AA) Troops were equipped with Crusader AA Mk II Tanks, armed with twin 20mm Polsten Guns.  However, the AA Troops were disbanded during the Normandy Campaign.  Nevertheless, some regiments retained one or two Crusader AA Tanks as part of the HQ Troop.

(g)  Close Support (CS) Tanks were all Churchill Mk V.

(h)  Two tanks in each Troop were typically armed with 75mm guns (Churchill Mk III*, Mk IV (75mm) or Mk VI, with possibly a Mk VII for some lucky Troop Commanders).  The third tank was armed with a 6pdr (Mk III or Mk IV).  There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that some units of 34th Tank Brigade managed to retain enough 6pdr tanks to deploy to Normandy with the ratio reversed – 1x 75mm to 2x 6pdr.  However, heavy combat losses during Operation GREENLINE and the Battle of Grimbosq meant that the ratio soon settled out to the normal ratio and this is reflected in their 1st December 1944 strength return.

A Churchill Mk IV OP of 9 RTR’s HQ Sqn, together with a Humber Scout Car of the Intercom Troop.

31st Tank Brigade

The badge of the 31st Tank Brigade was a green ‘diablo’ (i.e. the up-ended bow-tie symbol shown above). Some units (such as 33rd Armoured Brigade, which had a green and black diablo sign) would paint a thin white line around the diablo to make it stand out against the olive drab, but 31st Tank Brigade do not appear to have done this. With their transfer to 79th Armoured Division in September 1944 they adopted the triangular Bull’s Head badge of that division (above), though some crews appear to have painted the green diablo on their tanks in addition to the Bull.

A Churchill Mk IV (75mm) or Mk VI of 7 RTR in Normandy (note the ‘991’ serial)

A Crocodile of 7 RTR after their incorporation into 79th Armoured Division.

The white diagonal slash through the Arm-of-Service sign, going from top-left to bottom-right indicates Army Group Troops (i.e. units and formations reporting directly to an Army Group Headquarters, in this case 21st Army Group).  The observant will have noticed that I painted mine wrong – from top-right to bottom-left, which actually indicates Lines-of-Communication Troops.  That SHOULD have taught me to stop relying on my faulty memory, but articles on this blog clearly demonstrate that I have not learned my lesson…

* In September 1944, 9 RTR transferred to 34th Tank Brigade and was replaced in November 1944 by 1st Battalion, Fife & Forfar Yeomanry (1 F&FY), who adopted the markings formerly carried by 9 RTR.  Thankfully, they slotted into the same seniority slot, so 7 RTR and 141 RAC did not have to repaint their markings to make way for 1 F&FY.

A Crocodile of 141 RAC supporting US troops at Brest, September 1944.  This photo gives an excellent indication of the remarkable range of the Crocodile’s flame-projector (roughly 200 yards).

34th Tank Brigade

The white bar beneath the Arm-of-Service sign indicates Army Troops (i.e. units reporting directly to an Army HQ, in this case British 2nd Army.  A white bar above the AoS sign would indicate Corps Troops.

The vehicles of 34th Tank Brigade were painted with both the ‘mailed fist and mace’ badge of the brigade and with the shield of 2nd Army.

* In September 1944, 9 RTR transferred from 31st Tank Brigade to 34th Tank Brigade, replacing 153 RAC.  9 RTR now became the senior regiment in the brigade and therefore took the markings previously carried by 107 RAC (156 serial with red squadron signs).  107 RAC and 147 RAC were bumped down the pecking-order and similarly had to repaint their markings.

To explain the concept of ‘seniority’, regiments on parade line up in order of seniority and the same applies to brigade markings, as shown on this list (senior at the top, junior at the bottom):

1. Dragoon Guards (seniority by number)
2. Cavalry of the Line (Hussars, Dragoons and Lancers – seniority by number)
3. Regular RTR Regiments (1-12 RTR – seniority by number)
4. Yeomanry Regiments (i.e. Territorial Cavalry Regiments – seniority by date of formation)
5. Territorial RTR Regiments (40-51 RTR – seniority by number)
6. RAC Regiments (infantry battalions converted to armour – seniority by number)
7. Indian Cavalry Regiments (seniority by number)

Where the Foot Guards Battalions converted to armour fitted into all this is anyone’s guess, but thankfully they were never brigaded with anyone else, so seniority was as per the Foot Guards:

1. Grenadier Guards
2. Coldstream Guards
3. Scots Guards
4. Irish Guards
5. Welsh Guards

A column of Churchills of various marks in Normandy, being led by the No.7 Troop Leader’s Mk VII of ‘B’ Sqn, 147 RAC. Note the ‘157’ serial on the lower hull and the Troop number helpfully painted within the ‘B’ Sqn square on the canvas muzzle-cover.

6th Guards Tank Brigade

The Foot Guards had various unique, quirky and non-standard designations for companies and squadrons.  The 4th Grenadiers and 4th Coldstreamers each numbered their squadrons 1, 2 & 3, while the 3rd Scots opted for the rather bizarre ‘Right Flank’, ‘Left Flank’ and ‘S’ Squadrons.  This led to some strange conversations with officers from other regiments, who were easily (and understandably) baffled by statements such as “Right Flank Squadron is over there, on the left flank.”

A Churchill Mk IV of 3rd Scots Guards in Normandy (note the ‘154’ serial).

A Churchill Mk IV (75mm) or Mk VI of 4th Grenadier Guards (‘152’ serial) during the Winter of 1944/45.

A Churchill Mk III, IV, V or VI of 6th Guards Tank Brigade carrying US Paratroops of the 17th Airborne Division after crossing the Rhine in 1945.

Sometime shortly after the end of the Normandy Campaign, all independent Armoured Brigades and Tank Brigades were ordered to adopt the standard marking scheme shown here, which was already in use by the Armoured Brigades of Armoured Divisions.  However, this order was only sporadically obeyed.  There is photographic evidence to show that 6th Guards Tank Brigade obeyed the order, though kept the white ‘Army Troops’ bar beneath the sign.  I don’t know if 34th Tank Brigade ever obeyed the order.

31st Tank Brigade by that stage belonged to 79th Armoured Division and were no longer independent.  In any case, the 1st Armoured Brigade (Sherman Crabs) was already using this scheme within 79th Armoured Division.  31st Tank Brigade therefore kept their old markings, even though the diagonal stripe indicated Army Group Troops, which they had ceased to be since joining an Armoured Division.

A Churchill Mk IV of 3rd Scots Guards in 1945, displaying the new ’53’ serial (with white ‘Army Troops’ bar).

The Troop number was commonly painted inside the geometric squadron sign and was usually painted in the same colour.  White was also sometimes used.  Troop numbers were sequential through the regiment, so ‘A’ Sqn had 1-5, ‘B’ Sqn had 6-10 and ‘C’ Sqn had 11-15.  Sqn HQs typically used ‘HQ’.  Regt HQ tanks did not normally have anything within their diamond symbol, though there were unit exceptions (I’ve not seen anything specific for Churchill units).

Tanks within each troop were further differentiated by a callsign.  The Troop Commander would simply be identified by the troop number, while his two subordinate tanks would add the suffixes ‘A’ and ‘B’.  These suffixes were sometimes painted alongside the troop number within the squadron sign, but this was not common.  Callsigns were sometimes painted on the turret rear or on a removable plate attached to the turret rear.

Squadron signs were commonly in-filled with black while training in the UK, but this was rarely seen in NW Europe.

* This example was seen on a Churchill Mk III* of ‘B’ Sqn, 153 RAC in Normandy.

Wargaming Representation

In game terms, as a player of Battlefront: WWII, all my armies are organised at a ratio of 1:2 or 1:3.  A Churchill Squadron of 19 tanks therefore boils down to 7 models – five models each represent a Troop of three tanks and two models each represent a pair of tanks in the SHQ, like so:

1x Churchill Mk III*/IV/VI 75mm Command Tank
1x Churchill Mk V 95mm Close Support Tank
3x Churchill Mk III*/IV/VI 75mm Tanks*
2x Churchill Mk III/IV 6pdr Tanks*

* Alternatively, for 34th Tank Brigade in Normandy, the ratio of 75mm to 6pdr tanks could be reversed.

‘C’ Sqn 9 RTR, 31st Tank Brigade, before the arrival of Mk VII on 12th July 1944.

Following the introduction of Mk VII tanks, the squadron looks like this:

1x Churchill Mk VII Command Tank
1x Churchill Mk V 95mm Close Support Tank
1x Churchill Mk VII Tank
2x Churchill Mk III*/IV/VI 75mm Tanks
2x Churchill Mk III/IV 6pdr Tanks

‘C’ Sqn 9 RTR, 31st Tank Brigade, with Churchill Mk VII included

If you prefer to use a blanket 1:2 ratio, you could add another two tanks.

Models & Painting

All the Churchill models shown above are Flames of War/Battlefront Miniatures models, painted by me.  The Humber Scout Car is by Peter Pig.

All Churchills of the period were painted all-over in Standard Camouflage Colour (SCC) 15 Olive Drab.  You can find recipes for EXACT matches of this shade online and some paint-manufacturers are now producing perfectly-hued paint, but I’m a wargamer, not a modeller (I’m also a lover, not a fighter; which is ironic, as she doesn’t ‘alf put up a struggle…), so I find standard Humbrols to be a good enough match for me.

I start with a thin black undercoat, then paint the tank all over in Humbrol 75 Bronze Green.  I then do a second coat with Humbrol 159 Khaki Drab, leaving some Bronze Green in the deeper shadows.  I tend to find that the Bronze Green base deepens the final colour.  I then paint on the markings and do a final dry-brush with Humbrol 72 Khaki Drill.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  I mentioned AVREs earlier, so I might talk about those next time…

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.

6 Responses to Churchill Tanks in NW Europe 1944-45 (Part 2)

  1. jemima_fawr says:

    I was going to edit this post to include a link to the excellent ‘Tank Tracks: 9th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment At War’ by Peter Beale, which used to be available for free, online at the Royal Tank Regiment Association’s website. However, the link is now dead. 🙁

    Nevertheless, the book is still widely available, so do go and buy a copy if you’re remotely interested in the subject. However, I did find this link to a page devoted to Sgt Trevor Greenwood of ‘C’ Sqn, 9 RTR, whose diary was published as the excellent ‘D-Day To Victory’: https://trevorgreenwood.co.uk/tg/

  2. Mark says:

    Great article. I made up a trio of Churchills for Tunisia using PSC models. The PSC come with a good number of options to represent the various marks of Churchill.

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Cheers Mark. Yes, I’ve got a box of PSC Churchills but only made one of them and never painted it due to my butterfly-mind wandering off somewhere else! 🙂 They’re great models (fit perfectly with my old FoW models) and perfect for doing them festooned in track-links. My one criticism however, is that the box-art shows a Mk VII, which is about the only version that CAN’T be made from the kit! 🙂

  3. Jonathan Smith says:

    A question about your info for the 6th Guards Brigade 3rd Scots Battalion, You have it listed as LF, RF and S Squadron, But the WD has it listed as LF, S Squadron and then RF. What information did you use?

    • jemima_fawr says:

      You’re absolutely right and I’ll amend it accordingly. I’ve no idea why I got that wrong, as the War Diary is quite clear. For example the orbat for Op BLUECOAT looked like this:

      Order of Battle at the start of the Caumont attack on 30 July 1944 (War Diary Appx C)

      Battalion Headquarters
      Commanding Officer: Lieut-Colonel CIH Dunbar
      Second in Command: Major SJ Cuthbert
      Adjutant: Captain VF Erskine Crum
      Intelligence Officer: Lieut PB Fraser
      OIC Bn HQ Tanks: Lieut DL Bankes

      Headquarter Squadron
      Squadron Leader: Major Sir CHF Maclean, Bt
      Squadron 2IC: Captain AJC Seymour
      Technical Adjutant: Captain ISR Bruce
      Liaison Officer: Captain RWO Burnett
      OC Recce Troop: Lieut RCG Pember
      Signal Officer: Lieut HW Llewellyn Smith
      OC AA Tanks: Lieut ECH Warner
      Quartermaster: Captain WJ Dorman MBE

      Right Flank
      Squadron Leader: Major the Earl Cathcart
      Squadron 2IC: Captain JP Mann
      Squadron Recce Officer: Captain DG Mathieson
      Troop Leader No 1 Troop: Lieut DW Scott-Barrett
      Troop Leader No 2 Troop: Lieut RAK Runcie
      Troop Leader No 3 Troop: Lieut H Laing
      Troop Leader No 4 Troop: Lieut AID Fletcher
      Troop Leader No 5 Troop: Lieut IL Thorpe

      “S” Squadron
      Squadron Leader: Major WSI Whitelaw
      Squadron 2IC: Captain WP Bull
      Squadron Recce Officer: Captain NW Beeson
      Troop Leader No 6 Troop: Lieut R Humble
      Troop Leader No 7 Troop: No 2692032 Sgt E Thorn
      Troop Leader No 8 Troop: Lieut EP Hickling
      Troop Leader No 9 Troop: Lieut CRT Cunningham
      Troop Leader No 10 Troop: Lieut ARG Stevenson

      Left Flank
      Squadron Leader: Major the Hon M Fitzalan-Howard
      Squadron 2IC: Captain CO’M Farrell
      Squadron Recce Officer: Captain PEG Balfour
      Troop Leader No 11 Troop: Lieut JM Barne
      Troop Leader No 12 Troop: Lieut HWS Marshall
      Troop Leader No 13 Troop: Lieut The Lord Bruce
      Troop Leader No 14 Troop: Lieut CJR Duffin
      Troop Leader No 15 Troop: Lieut G Cameron

      Attached Officers
      Chaplain: The Rev GTH Reid, CF, RAChD
      Medical Officer: Captain AT MacKnight RAMC
      EME: Captain CE Pring REME

      Fascinating to note that there is a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Defence Secretary and a few MPs in that list!

    • jemima_fawr says:

      Updated! 🙂

      Thanks very much for the correction!

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