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The Steel Wall Queen - Part One

This week I hand over the keyboard to “Listy” for a fascinating look at the history of the “Matilda”, a rather special Tank. 


May, 1940, France. Enemy armour surges forward in an attack. Friendly infantry weapons prove utterly ineffective.

Friendly armour is committed, but proves unable to stop the attacking armour. The divisional commander starts to panic, and reports hundreds of tanks.

Infantry begin to flee or surrender en masse.

A fairly normal story from the battle of France, if popular history is to be believed. But the symbol on the side of the tanks isn't a German cross, but a British white square. The infantry routing are German, and the commander who panics is one Erwin Rommel.
You might think this is a fantasy, but it did happen at a place called Arras. The sole cause of these events was a tank. Uniquely in British army service, for the first time this tank had a name. That name was Matilda.

What’s in a name?

There are two stories on how the Matilda tanks got their name. The first is that Major Hugh Elles upon seeing the tank’s size and motion named it after a cartoon duck. The more likely story is this was the code name given to the project by John Carden, the chief designer at Vickers. The name is certainly written on the designs for the tank.

Before we go any further it’s important to note something on names. The modern designation of “Matilda MKI” and “Matilda MKII” is wrong, although Infantry Tank MKI and Infantry Tank MKII is right. In British army terminology of the time the mark (written as "MK") system is used to denote an evolution of an item.

As the two Matildas are utterly separate designs, calling them Matilda MK I and Matilda MK II is incorrect. It’s like calling a Tiger tank a “Panzer III Mark II”.
In the British army, the A11 was called the Matilda, and the A12 was called the Matilda Senior. Of course if we're talking about "Infantry Tanks" as a class, then it is an evolution of the idea, so Marks are applicable to the term "Infantry Tank". To help explain it, here's a table.

 

 

 

General Staff Number

Popular Name

Class Number

A11

Matilda

Infantry tank MKI

A12

Matilda Senior

Infantry tank MKII

None given

Valentine

Infantry Tank MKIII

A22

Churchill

Infantry tank MKIV

Hatching The Egg

In 1935, the British army produced a specification for a new type of tank. One that was heavily armoured and would support the infantry. Speed was not a major criteria, the ability to travel where the infantry went was. In addition to this, the tank had to be delivered fast. Production lead time was to be completed in six months.

The resulting design was a fairly compact body with 60mm of armour all round, while the turret was cast, the hull had the armour bolted on. Weaponry was either a Vickers .303 HMG or the larger .50 version mounted in an armoured sleeve in the turret.
All the Matildas had fittings for a mine plough.

After trials in 1936, and some minor modifications to the design, the army accepted the tank into service. The Matilda became the first of the new concept of infantry tanks.

One of the modifications was the fitting of a wireless set to the tanks. However, the only place to mount the radio was against the firewall at the back of the crew compartment. This meant to use the radio the commander had to lie flat on his stomach with his feet resting on the driver’s back.

The show must go on

Although the Matilda was originally designed to be a cheap mass produced tank that was to be used in huge numbers to overwhelm the enemy in a local area, this was never realised. Only about 140 Matildas in two production batches were produced. This is in part due to the infantry tank concept evolving. In 1936, the idea for a heavy infantry tank came into being. Design work started that year. Originally the tank was to be armed with two machine guns. However, the infantry tank concept took another step and a 2-pounder gun was fitted. Now the tank was to defend infantry formations from enemy armour as well as provide an armoured machine gun. And so the Matilda Senior was born. 

As the A12 was to be at the time the heaviest tank in British service, the tank’s engine was a problem. Most tanks of the time weighed about 13 tons; the Matilda Senior weighed nearly double that.  To solve the problem, the designers at Vulcan looked to an idea from the First World War. They took two AEC diesel London bus engines and linked them together to provide the power requirements.
The prototype was delivered for trials in 1938, and no faults were discovered during those trials, so production was started in the same year. By the time production ceased in 1943 nearly 3000 Matilda Seniors had been produced.

Most of the construction was of the tank was cast armour. However, this caused some problems. The casting process gave some components excessive armour on facings where it wasn't needed, which in turn would increase the overall weight for no gain. The only solution was to hand grind those areas down to the correct thickness. This obviously impacted in on the ease of mass production.

In the run up to France, the Matilda Seniors received some modifications. A trench skid was fitted to the rear of the tank, and the suspension was raised. Some tanks had a wire cutter built into the rear of the track covers. However, these modifications proved unnecessary and in the case of the suspension down right detrimental. The increase of angle on the suspension meant it was under significantly more stress than before.

 

Wire cutting device fitted to a Matilda Senior

The other big difference was in the machine gun armament. For France, the Matilda Seniors all had the same Vickers Gun that the Matildas had. After France, it was replaced by a normal air cooled Besa Machine gun. The other post-France modification was to replace the two AEC engines with a pair of Leyland engines which provided more power. The easiest way of spotting these tanks was the number of exhausts, as the Leyland had two, while the AEC engines had one.

 

BEF up the line

Two tank regiments equipped with infantry tanks accompanied the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France on the outbreak of war, forming the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The 4th RTR had 35 Matildas, while the 7th had 23 Matildas and 16 Matilda Seniors. This brigade of just 74 tanks carried out one of the most impressive Allied success of the campaign, the counter-attack at Arras.

 The original plan called for the attack to start at 0500 on May the 21st. However due to logistical problems the attack wasn’t launched until 1430. Only two battalions of Durham light infantry were able to reach the front, having force-marched to get there. Despite being exhausted, they acquitted themselves well.

The force launched itself into the flank of the German spearhead. The German defenders consisted of Rommel’s 7th Panzer division, along with a SS regiment. Much to the horror and awe of the Germans, their anti-tank weapons couldn't damage the infantry tanks, and with no way to save themselves they began to surrender.


As the line crumbled, the Germans’ last line of defence was their heavy artillery and flak units. Although these caused heavy losses on the attacking British armour, they also took heavy casualties. Finally, they managed to halt the 1st Tank Brigade's attack.
In the savage fighting, the durability of the infantry tanks was aptly demonstrated. Two stories will illustrate the Matilda's resilience. One Matilda had most of the exposed suspension shot away. Despite that it continued to function, albeit at a much reduced speed.
Another account tells how one Matilda took a direct hit to the gun. The impact of the shell rammed the gun back into the commander’s chest. Despite this injury, the commander freed himself. While under enemy fire, he dismounted, cleared the gun mount, and continued the attack.
However, the German fears were never going to be realised, and the German attack would have survived due to the size of the area it occupied and the amount of forces it had. 

The counter-attack did have a knock on effect out of all proportion to its size.

Germany's Field Marshal Von Rundstedt would later call it 'a critical moment'.

 Upon hearing of the counter-attack, Hitler ordered the dash to the coast to be halted, and at least two Panzer divisions were re-routed to help the 7th shore up its flank. This undoubtedly caused a delay in the German's attack, which in turn contributed to the later success at Dunkirk by giving the Allies some breathing space. 

 

In Part 2, we follow the Matilda on the North African Campaign and beyond.

 

References:
  • David Fletcher's osprey on the Matilda.
  • Richard Holmes interview with an A11 Matilda commander
  • Public Domain
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