Centurion Tank Circa 1954
Elephantine and Explosive Manoeuvres
By Martin Ough Dealy
Their names mostly begin with "C" like Cromwell, Churchill, Comet, Centurion, Conqueror, Chieftain and Challenger. They were all heavy weights, some more so than others. For example the Churchill weighed in at about 30 tons, whilst the Centurion tipped the scales at about 50. Chieftain and Challenger are surprisingly nimble despite weighing over 60 tons. Cromwell was a light weight at about 20 tons and the Comet at 30 was a beauty in the eyes of the cognoscenti.
Have you not yet guessed what they were? Well they were all tanks used by the British Army. Several other national forces like Israel and Iran also bought them especially the Centurion.
I have never discovered why the Army gave them names beginning with "C". My wild guess is that they were linked somehow with the idea of mobile castles but that is really a bit farfetched. More likely it was just a practice that became a tradition. But there are exceptions to every rule as I know of at least two British tanks named differently. These were the Tortoise and the Valentine. The former being well named because it was so slow and ponderous. The Valentine may have been named that way because it was light fast and with a gun so small that being hit by one of its missiles was perhaps akin to a kiss rather than anything more vicious. So perhaps the Army used the "C" to denote a successful design but I just speculate there.
I was brought up on the Centurion. This required a crew of 4 - Driver, Gunner, Loader and Commander. The driver sat behind the 6 inch front armour plate of the hull whilst the other three roosted above him in the turret. The turret, itself a heavily armoured piece of iron and steel carried a machine gun as well as the main gun and could be rotated through a complete circle even while the tank was moving over the ground.
I won't bore you with too many technicalities except to give you an idea of what was involved. The Meteor engine in the rear of the hull produced nearly 700 hp and was a development of the Merlin engine used in the Spitfires of Battle of Britain fame. The gear box was a very complicated affair that was placed right at the back of the tank driving the track sprockets. It was larger than a motorcycle sidecar.
The driver had a steering lever on each side of his tiny compartment. Between his legs there was an enormous gear lever, with a clutch pedal for his left foot and brake and throttle pedals for his right. When the tank was closed down for action the driver lowered his seat to close the hatch above him and steered by looking through a periscope set in the hatch. This was rather like peering through very dirty spectacles with over sized blinkers on either side of your eyes. In such circumstances one is somewhat disinclined to steer other than straight ahead which I suppose is what you are expected to do anyway when you are attacking or retreating!
Anyhow, steering involved pulling on the right or left lever and being in the correct gear. The lower the gear, the smaller became the steering circle. That sounds easy enough but the problem was being sure of choosing the correct gear for your turn and a gear change involved double declutching. In normal circumstances double declutching is fairly straight forward, but you try doing that in a really heavy tank that looses speed very quickly between gears, is hot, smelly and very noisy inside , with your head pressed hard up against the eyepieces of your periscope and having to do everything by feel in the darkness of the tiny driver�s compartment let alone needing to use both hands on the gear lever to move it....... drivers also had to contend with three very critical passengers who not only sat above him but who used the intercom to abuse him for their discomfort and his mistakes.
I graduated to the Chieftain when it was being first produced as a prototype in the 60's I was posted to the Royal Ordnance factory in Leeds Yorkshire as SIO/E. I discovered soon after that the acronym meant Senior Inspecting Officer/Erection. Needless to say I was more than somewhat diffident about using the title in full and avoided trying to explain it to the uninitiated!
The testing range was mainly open hilly countryside, with one sealed access road and a number of dirt tracks. The fields were still demarcated by stone walls and the scattered remains of old fashioned stone buildings of abandoned farms and one small village. All showed the destructive effects of enthusiastic tank testers let loose to do their worst. Everywhere walls and buildings showed great gaps where tanks had passed through.
Chieftain Tank under Test Circa 1966
I was really enjoying myself in the driver's seat and I was fortunate (so I thought) in being told to "Have a Go". So I got the tank going across some rough ground and aimed for a distant track past some old buildings on the horizon. The turret crew were doing their own thing having laid the gun on a distant target to the right of the tank. Because there were only three of us the commander was doubling as gunner and being buried inside the turret he became oblivious to where the tank was heading.
Apart from scratches on the gun barrel the tank seemed OK so we continued. But not before the tank commander and I had a somewhat heated discussion over responsibilities......
Chieftain Tank under Test Circa 1966
By the end of the day we had really put the tank through its paces and had found a lot of things wrong with it. All of these we could put down to faulty design, poor assembly or careless production, except one. We were quite unable to explain how the gun had acquired an unacceptable bend in its barrel. It was ever so slight mind you...it takes a lot to bend the barrel of a 120mm main tank gun. But somehow we had managed to do it.
Thankfully nothing further happened. The factory authorities appeared to have accepted the damage as one of the consequences of the enthusiastic testing they had commissioned us to do.
In this instance the motto of the RTR:
"Through Mud and Blood to the Green Fields Beyond", could more appropriately have been:
"Over open fields through stone walls to the bent gun beyond"
Copyright M.& M.M. Ough Dealy 2007-2011