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Burning Down the House

 

The British and Commonwealth Army of the Second World War was the biggest user of flamethrowers, with a huge collection of designs and ideas. These culminated in the Churchill Crocodile, one of the best and most iconic flamethrower tanks from the war.  The next biggest user was the US Marine Corps; however, their forces were much smaller than the British and Commonwealth contribution. So here is the story of British flamethrower tank development in World War Two, and a look at the fearsome Crocodile.

 

The First Spark

During the inter-war period and the first year of the Second World War, the British Army showed almost no interest in the flamethrower. A flamethrower’s short range and the difficulties of transporting fuel made it unpopular. However, all this changed in 1940 after Dunkirk. With the threat of invasion looming, Britain moved to resist with every means at her disposal. Despite the utterly doomed nature of any invasion by Germany, the threat was taken seriously, including what was to be done about Britain's fuel reserve?

In 1939 Britain's fuel stocks amounted to 7 million tons. To put in context for you how much that is, in 1941, despite two years of full-scale war, 4.5 million tons still remained. That's why you never hear about petrol supply worries for Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic. There was no question about what would happen to those reserves if Germany successfully invaded - they would have to be destroyed. So the logical idea was, if the stocks of petrol had to be disposed of, that they might as well set it on fire and shoot it at the Germans.

Therefore the south of England was flooded with petrol, a wild assortment of flame traps, fougasses and incendiary devices were installed. To give you an idea of the scale of these preparations, around 50,000 of just one sort of device were installed. They were so common that road repair crews in Kent still occasionally find a rusting barrel filled with petrol, together with explosives attached. These culminated in the fearsome-looking flame barrage installed along some sections of the coast. A series of sprays that would lay a curtain of flame out to sea in front of the beach.

 

 

After the flame barrage, the idea of flamethrowers had arrived. The first two vehicles were trucks with fuel tanks and flamethrowers mounted on the body, and some armour plate attached. During a demonstration, one such vehicle managed to accidentally burn down the gardens at Leeds Castle. The first vehicle to be produced was called the Cockatrice. It was an armoured Bedford or AEC 6x6 truck with a flamethrower in a small turret. 60 were ordered for the Royal Naval Air Service to use to protect their airfields. Another six were ordered for RAF use.

 

 

The next vehicle was called a Basilisk. It was an AEC MKI Armoured car with a tiny turret mounted with a machine gun and flamethrower. However, that vehicle never left the prototype stage.

At about the same time, an army officer and a civilian invented a device that was bolted to a Universal Carrier and could be used to project flames a short distance as a sort of temporary barrier. This was known as the Adey-Martin Drainpipe. One of the designers of the earlier flame-throwing trucks started working on the design and it evolved into the Ronson Carrier.

 

 

Not long after that it developed into the Hornet Flamethrower, which burst into flames at one of its early tests in 1942. The design was again modified and became the WASP Universal Carrier. The kits to create ‘Wasps’ were supplied to infantry forces and the installation could be done in the field. This led to some interesting conversions including Wasp kits fitted to a Jeep and to an M29 Weasel. Towards the end of the war a pair of Wasp kits were officially installed in an LVT-4, creating the Sea Serpent. The Sea Serpent was eventually given the number FV502. There were plans for flame tank versions of both the Centurion and A45/FV200 series of tanks. However, these came to nothing and after that interest for flame weapons burnt itself out.

 

The Burning Question

But what about the flame-throwing tanks? Well, in 1938 the War Office issued a request for a flame-throwing tank. The initial idea was an A12 Matilda Senior armed with a flamethrower and pulling a two wheeled trailer, although nothing came of it.

In 1942 the British government once again became interested in flame-throwing tanks. This started the development that ended in the Churchill Crocodile. The first flame tank to be built was a Churchill MKII with two Ronson flamethrowers mounted on the forward hull. This was found to be cumbersome to use, so the number of flamethrowers was dropped to just one. This final design was named the Churchill Oke. The only time these tanks saw action was in the Dieppe landings, where a single troop of tanks were landed. This was the first time Commonwealth flame tanks had seen combat, but they failed to use their flamethrowers. One threw a track, one was swamped when launched and the final one knocked its flamethrower off when it landed.

 

 

Meanwhile, development continued in the UK throughout 1942. Several test vehicles were built, nearly all on Valentine tanks, and most had a towed trailer. On the 23rd of June the British Government decided that all future developments of flame tanks should be on the Churchill chassis.

 

 

In December 1942 the prototype of the Churchill Crocodile was built. It was a MKII Churchill with a 2Pdr gun. The tank towed a 6.5 ton trailer, which carried 400 gallons of fuel. The prototype had both a flamethrower and machine gun in a single mounting on the hull. It was originally planned to convert MKIV Churchills into Crocodiles, but the design was refined and the tank actually converted was the MKVII. At the same time, the flamethrower was changed to the same model as the one fitted to the Wasp Carrier and the hull machine gun was removed.

Production was limited due to the scarcity of MKVII hulls. The first Crocodile regiment was formed just ten weeks before D-Day, which was to be a Crocodile’s first taste of combat. On D-day at Gold Beach, three Crocodiles were landed but in an odd coincidence one Churchill threw a track, one was swamped and the other bogged in a crater. Despite this poor start, the Crocodiles soon showed their power.

 

The Top Predator

By the 13th of June the elite German Tank division, Panzer Lehr (equipped with Panthers), was dug in from Tilly Sur Suelles to La Senaudiere. Fierce fighting happened all along that line, including the fighting at Lingerves. At La Senaudiere a battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was to attack the village with a troop of Crocodiles in support. 15 Troop, 141 Royal Armoured Corps, was the Crocodile troop selected for the attack. 15 and 16 Troops had had an event-filled time in Normandy. On D-Day a Radio operator from 15 Troop was washed overboard, but was amazingly picked up by the Royal Navy. 16 Troop was the ill-fated troop that bogged down on Gold Beach. Since then they'd been sharing the Crocodiles between the two platoons.

 

 

For some unknown reason the Crocodiles didn't meet at the agreed point. Watched by the Hampshires the three Crocodiles stormed towards the town. Laying a curtain of smoke as they went. As the Crocodiles went past a house, less than a gun width away lay a Panzer III. Two Crocs and the Panzer III fired simultaneously. The Panzer III missed and the Two Crocodiles rounds hit but bounced off, as due to the speed of the tanks and the close range there hadn't been time to aim properly. Startled by the hits, the Panzer III retreated.

Lurking round the corner of another house lay a much more fearsome opponent, a Panther tank. The three Crocodiles had made it into the village. By chance, the Panther could only see the trailer of one of the Crocodiles. He quickly put two point-blank rounds into it. However, contrary to popular myth and the imagination of Hollywood, flame-thrower fuel tanks don't burn or explode when hit.

Suddenly the Panther found itself looking at the other two Crocodiles as they stormed out of the cover given by the smoke. One Crocodile fired its 75mm at point-blank range, bouncing a shot off the Panther’s front. The other Crocodile was much more successful. It fired its flamethrower. The Panther was engulfed by flame from the flamethrower, shooting out 4 gallons per second of fuel. The drenched Panther was immediately immobilised.

 

 

All of a sudden a round blew off one of the Crocodiles tracks. The Panzer III had returned. It didn't get another shot, as it was quickly destroyed. As the Crocodiles continued to push into the town another Panther appeared, destroying a Crocodile. With most of the village destroyed and only one fully operational Crocodile remaining, the Troop withdrew. A few hours later, the Hampshires captured the devastated village.

 

Healing Flame

Crocodiles were used in every corner of Europe, even supporting US troops. The most impressive use of Crocodiles would probably have been in the crossing of the River Senio in Italy. 28 Crocodiles and 127 WASPs were assembled for the operation. One of these flame vehicles was stationed every 70 yards. At the start of the landings they fired all at once. The result was spectacular. Along the five-mile front, the attacking New Zealand Division didn't suffer a single casualty.

As the Second World War drew to a close, the Crocodiles had one last target for their flamethrowers, possibly their most worthwhile target. Crocodiles were used to incinerate the Bergan-Belsen concentration camp.

 

 

There was one last fight for the Churchill Crocodile. A single squadron of Crocodiles was sent to Korea to take part in the fighting. The opportunity to use their flamethrowers never presented itself, and before long the Crocodile kits were removed and the hull gun was replaced by a machine gun. C Squadron, 7 RTR, fought for over a year with almost no spare parts for their Crocodiles in harsh, demanding terrain. After the Battle of Imjin River they were withdrawn from service.

The final note in the Crocodile story is a very strange beast that appears in Australia. In 1944 the Australians took delivery of some Churchill tanks for trials. By war's end they had received 51 Churchills, consisting of both MKVII and MKVIII models. They also had a large number of Crocodile kits. One of those kits was fitted to a Churchill MKVIII, and that particular tank now resides at the RAAC museum at Puckapunyal.


The_Challenger  took a look at various guises of the Churchill some time ago, including the crocodile:

 

 

Written by David Lister aka Listy.

References:
  •  Churchill Crocodile Flamethrower-New Vanguard
  • Andrew Wilson's Flamethrower
  • Interviews: David John Warren-OC C Coy 1st Royal Hampshire Regiment 1944
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