Tested and proven from Korea to Sinai, this British-made battle tank still does good service around the world
The British Royal Armoured Corps emerged from World War II shaken by the relative lack of success of the various British pre-war and wartime tank designs Not one tank had combined all the virtues or had even approached a reasonable compromise The early designs had been under-gunned and unreliable, while of the later models the Cromwell was limited to the 75mm gun by the size of its turret ring and the Churchill, although well-armed, thickly armored and agile, was desperately slow Consequently, there was heavy reliance on American equipment and numerous Stuarts, Lees, Grants and Shermans had done sterling service with the British tank regiments These experiences resulted in a determination that never again would the troopers of the Royal Armoured Corps be sent into battle in tanks which were in any way inferior This meant above all. having a gun which would penetrate any armor with sufficient protection to defeat the enemy’s gun. all mounted on a reliable and durable vehicle, preferably British-made In 1945 the RAC possessed two classes of tanks Cruisers — Cromwell, Comet and the A41 Centurion just entering service; and Infantry tanks — with the Churchill in service and the Black Prince about to go into production The plan was for all of these to be replaced by the FV201 Universal tank, but. despite an initial assessment to the contrary, it was finally decided that the Centurion could be developed to meet most of the tasks of the Universal The large, heavy and ponderous (55 tons) FV201 was shelved, only to reappear later as the highly specialized Conqueror Since that decision to opt for one Main Battle Tank (MBT) the British Army has been served by just Centurion and Chieftain (see ‘War Monthly’ Issue 40) with a number of wartime tanks (Cromwell, Comet and Churchill) remaining in service into the 1950s A minor deviation from the master-plan came in the form of the tank killers Conqueror and Charioteer It is a story of considerable success, both in terms of equipping the British Army and of exports to many foreign countries and that success began with a great tank, the FV4000 Centurion, and a great gun. the L7 1 05mm The birth of Centurion was described in War Monthly’ Issue 1 5 and we take up the story with the vehicle’s entry into service in December 1946. The first major production versions were the Mark II (100 built) and the Mark III (600 built). These were similar vehicles, except that the Mk II had the 17-pounder gun. while the Mk III mounted the brand-new 20-pounder, as well as having slightly thicker turret armor The Mk III was the first Centurion to go to war — in Korea — where it distinguished itself and was generally acknowledged to be superior to both the US M46 and the Communist T34/85. The situation of the war years had thus been reversed and the men of the RAC no longer looked enviously at other nation’s tanks The Mk III was also the first Centurion to be exported in any numbers, with sales to Australia. New Zealand. Sweden and Switzerland
Next came the Mark IV. one of a number of attempts to produce a self-propelled artillery version of the Centurion It mounted a specially developed 95mm howitzer, but only one prototype was produced Next a 5-5in gun was mounted on Centurion (FV3805), but this, too, was Alandone when NATO decided to standardize on 155mm for heavy artillery
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the old wartime alliances with the USSR were quite clearly at an end and there was a very great danger that the Russians would try to fight their way across Western Europe to the Channel ports The armored spearhead of such a thrust would have comprised the T34/85 and the Josef Stalin II and III heavy tanks While the Comets and Centurions could have held their own against the T34/85 there was considerable doubt about the West’s ability the halt the III. with their 1 22mm guns and very thick armor The RAC needed a tank killer quickly to deal with these and whole variety of expedients was examined The FV4004 Conway was a clumsy attempt to mount a 120mm tank gun on the Centurion, hull but the turret was both too high and too thinly armored Two really massive anti-tank guns were also mounted on the Centurion, both prototypes being designated FV4005 The first was a 180mm (7-1 in) in a very advanced mounting with automatic loading and con¬centric recoil system in an open turret. The second was a 183mm (7-2m) with manual loading and orthodox recoil, mounted in a conventional gun house Neither of these passed the prototype stage The Charioteer was introduced as a stop-gap. being a marriage of the new 20pdr gun to the obsolescent Cromwell hull; some 200 were built. They were in the front line for only a few years and were progressively retired as the Conqueror entered service With the advent of the 105mm L7 gun it was realized that the Centurion was fully capable of dealing with anything that the Russians possessed and so the Conqueror, too. retired from the scene The era of the one, all-round MBT had arrived
The Mark V was basically a tidy-up of the Mk III and was produced in large numbers It had a 20pdr with the Type B barrel ( with a fume extractor), improved ammunition, two Browning M1919 3in machine-guns and other more minor modifications. This was followed by the Mark VI which had increased armor and which introduced the brilliant 105mm L7A1 gun. By now the Centurion’s combat range had dropped from a barely adequate 85 miles on roads for the Mk III to an embarrassing 63 for the V and VI. Various cures were tried, including a 200-gallon mono¬wheel trailer and fuel tanks, but these were only palliatives and British Leyland conducted a major redesign of the hull which increased fuel capacity from 120 to 228 gallons This virtually doubled the road range to 1 18 miles. The new vehicle appeared in 1 953 as the Mark VII
As each new mark appeared from the factories, older Centurions of earlier marks were returned for reworking to the latest standards. Thus, some Mk Ms were converted first to Mk III and later to Mk V, while in another case the Mark IX was simply the Mark VII to Mark VIII standard The most significant change in the later models was the fitting of a 5in ranging machine-gun coaxially with the 1 05mm gun The final production standards with the 105mm gun 5m RMG and active infra-red night vision equipment were the Mark XI (modified Mk VI). Mark XII (modified Mk IX) and the Mark XIII (modified Mk X)
The man who claimed in 1945 that the A41 Centurion would not be a suitable base for specialized tanks must have regretted his rash words, because as many funnies’ have been based on this adaptable and versatile tank as on any other
For the Sappers the Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE) was developed Based on the Mk V hull the AVRE mounted a 165mm (6 5in) L9A1 gun, which fired a dustbin-shaped demolition charge On the front of the tank was a dozer blade and a frame for carrying fascines or rolls of metal roadway. The AVRE also towed the Giant Viper trailer. This device comprised a rocket which pulled out a long length of explosive-filled canvas hose Stopping short of a minefield the rocket was fired and then, with the help of parachutes, the hose fell onto the ground were it detonated and blew up the adjacent mines, thus hopefully clearing a path through the minefield It was a performance which inspired awe in friend and foe alike.
There were two bridge laying versions, one developed in Britain and the other in the Netherlands The British version has a one-piece bridge which rested inverted on the hull In operation the front end was brought down to the ground and, using this as a pivot, the bridge was pushed over past the vertical and lowered onto the far side of the gap This process took 100 seconds and when vertical the 63ft-long bridge was very obvious and could be seen from a great distance The Dutch adapted the American folding bridge and used it on their Centurion bridge layers; although shorter (45ft) they believed that it was less vulnerable
For the fitters there was the Armoured Recovery Vehicle (ART). This had a large ground anchor and a very powerful winch (90-ton capacity) whose cable could be deployed from either end of the vehicle. An even more specialized vehicle was developed for use in amphibious landings — the Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (BAR) This had a very high superstructure and was fully waterproofed It was used on beaches to recover drowned vehicles and had a rope-covered front plate for pushing stranded landing-craft back into deeper water The ARK was a special form of bridge layer which was designed to drive into a ditch, from where its bridge sections opened out This could span a greater gap (75ft) than the normal bridgelayer but. of course, the ARK had to be able to descend the side of the gap and where there was water this could not exceed the height of the hull
Well over 2,000 Centurions have been sold abroad earning Britain at least £1 50 million A few Mk Is were sold to Jordan, but the first version to sell widely was the Mk III, no doubt as a result of its impressive performance in Korea Subsequent marks sold well, both in brand-new vehicles coming straight off the production lines and then (as Chieftain came into service) ex-British Army Centurions were snapped up as they became available Naturally, countries tend to be reticent about major weapons pur¬chases. but it is reported that the Centurion is currently in service with Australia (143), Canada (226), Denmark (200), India (180), Israel (1.000) Jordan (200), Kuwait (50). Netherlands (340), South Africa (1 50), Sweden (350) and Switzerland (320)
Many users are now involved in major modification programs to fit their Centurions for service into the mid- 1980s. In Israel a Continental 750hp diesel is being installed, together with a General Electric hydraulic gear¬box; this combination leads to a major increase in range, some increase in speed and much improved reliability At one stage the Israelis were reported to be fitting the French 105mm tank gun onto the Centurion, the modified vehicle being called the Ben Gurion’. Nothing more has been heard of this tank and presumably the idea has been dropped.
The other major program is that planned by Vickers This offers a number of options, including, among others, a new powerpack, modified final drives, the Chieftain gearbox, new cupola and other improvements The Swedes and the Swiss have decided to collaborate in evaluating this program, it is interesting that both these countries have tanks of indigenous design and yet persist in keeping their Centurion fleets going Two of the modified tanks have already been delivered by Vickers to Switzerland The Canadians, too. are examining the updating of their Centerions, an option which they apparently consider preferable to replacing them with Leopards
The A41 and Centurions Mk I and II were armed with the 1 7-pounder gun (76 2mm) This was succeeded on the Mks III. V. VII and VIII by the 20-pounder (83 4mm) The 17 could penetrate 3in (76 2mm) or armor at 60° at 1,000 yards, but the 20pdr improved this to 3 7in (95mm) at the same angle and range, a substantial increase. The 20-pounder came in two versions the Type B with a fume extractor and the Type A without.
The most important development was the L7A1 105mm gun, which was first fitted to the Mk VI This gun. with a penetration of 4 96in (1 26mm) at 60° at 1.000 yards (just greater than the thickness of the glacis pl^te of a JS III), is fitted with a fume extractor and a thermal sleeve which minimizes the temperature variations along the barrel and thus increases the accuracy Despite the increased volume of the ammunition a rearrangement of the stowage in¬creased rounds carried from 63 for the 20pdr to 70 for the 105mm The gun is capable of firing Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS), a High Explosive Squash Head (HASH). canister and smoke rounds.
The great importance of the L7 105mm gun is that it has virtually become the standard tank gun of the Free World, and every contemporary MBT except the French AMX30 and Chieftain is armed with this British weapon:
If to this impressive list is added all the Centurions in service around the world, most of which now have the 105mm gun. it can be seen that, apart from France, the only current Western MTBs not using the British L7 gun are the Chieftains of the British and Imperial Iranian Armies which are fitted with the British L1 1 A3 1 20mm gun!
One of the essential requirements of a tank is the high chance of a first round hit: this depends upon the right type of ammunition and a reliable and accurate method of finding line and range Optical range-finders are delicate, subject to poor visibility and virtually unusable on the move. To overcome this the British developed a ranging machine-gun (RMG) technique, which first saw service on the Centurion Mk XI. Mounted coaxially with the 105mm gun the RMG fires special rounds identical ballistically to the 105mm shells All the gunner has to do when a target is seen is to make a very rapid and rough estimate of range and crosswind and then fire two rounds on the RMG All rounds are off target (which, in the case of flat trajectory APDS is unlikely) a quick correction is made and a second burst fired As soon as a hit is observed the main gun is fired.
Centurion’s firing system does all the work without troubling the gunner
The process sounds slow and unsophisticated, but many a sceptic has returned from a demonstration astounded by the speed with which that first 105mm round has hit the target The elegance of the system, of course, is that it makes full allowance for all the variables (range, crosswind and trunnion tilt) without the gunner having to concern himself with them This process has been overtaken by the advent of the laser range taker, but there can be no doubt that it was a superb and simple idea in its day
The primary armor-defeating round of the L7 gun is APPS. This sub-calibre round has a very high muzzle velocity (4.823ft per second) resulting in a very flat trajectory, which means that once the first round has hit a target other targets in a wide range band can be engaged without altering the range setting. The APPS round is also very effective in penetrating the target since its high density — it is made of tungsten carbide — coupled with high velocity give it exceptional powers at ranges out to about
70,1 yards The second round is HUSH This has a good performance against armor and is also fully effective against troops in the open, as well as bunkers and buildings. Its effective range is in excess of 5,000 yards Finally the 105 can fire the usual smoke rounds and canister’ — a mass of metal slugs used as a last resort against mass infantry attack
The Centurion first fought in Korea in 1951 Since then it has fought in the Arab-Israeli wars, the India-Pakistan conflicts and in Vietnam In every case it has emerged covered with praise and has set the standards by which the other tanks, on both sides, have been judged It first came into front-line service in December 1946. and now, 31 years later, it is still in the front line with many armies It is still a tough, hard-hitting and dangerous fighting vehicle, which has so far proved easy to adapt to incorporate the latest technical advances. It looks likely, therefore, that the Centurion will be around for many years to come.