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The Steel Wall Queen Part Two

 

This week we continue our look at the history of the Matilda in this series submitted by ‘Listy’.

 

Hammer to Fall


After the battle for France, the standard Matilda was completely retired from frontline service. The 7th RTR was re-equipped with 48 Matilda Seniors and sent to join the North Africa campaign. They found that in the desert the tank performed better than in Europe. With softer terrain in the form of sand, the suspension was at the height it was designed for, and with less need for turning and manoeuvring, the Matilda Senior’s reliability improved massively. Throw in the invulnerable thickness of the Matilda Senior’s armour and the A12 earned its famous name - Queen of the Desert.

The 7th RTR's first action was facing off against the Maletti group. This consisted of two battalions of armour, and six battalions of infantry.

With air and artillery support, and accompanied by the 11th Indian Division, the Matilda Seniors managed to get behind the Maletti group’s positions and then attacked en masse. In the first ten minutes, the 7th RTR had destroyed most of the Italian armour. The tanks then set about reducing the rest of the position. Despite resistance from the Italians, including point blank hits on the Matilda Seniors from Italian AT guns, the defences crumbled and the operation was completed in just 5 hours. After fighting overnight, the 7th RTR had taken part in crushing most of the enemy resistance in the area.

The next major engagement was supporting the Australian troops attacking the Bardia fortress. To aid in this, the RTR had been experimenting with methods of dealing with the minefields, barbed wire and anti-tank ditches. One such device was a bridge pushed on tracks that had been cannibalised from Universal Carriers ahead of the tank. The bridge was place in position by pushing it into the ditch. It was then detached and the Matilda Senior could drive over it. 

At Bardia, the 7th RTR found many Italian bunkers. Lacking a HE round for their 2 pounders, the crews resorted to ramming their tank through the bunkers. The 25 ton demolition ball of the Matilda Senior proved most effective at this, although the strains added to the fatigue caused by the long distances the tanks had already travelled. By the time the 7th RTR took part in the battle for Tobruk, it had been reduced to just a single squadron of working tanks. However, despite all the fierce close action experienced, only one of the losses had been caused by enemy action.

The Matilda Senior continued to serve with 7th, 4th, 42nd and 44th RTR's throughout Operations Battleaxe and Crusader. However, a number of flaws were beginning to show. Despite the fact that even the German 50mm PAK-38's couldn't reliably hurt the Matilda Seniors, the mobile nature of desert fighting meant that infantry and hence the infantry tank doctrine was not applicable. This meant that by the time of the battles of the Gazala line, the Matilda was becoming increasingly rare in British service. 

 

Running away to join the circus

The terrain had been to the Matilda Senior’s favour in the desert, but in the CBI Theatre (China-Burma-India) it was even more suited to the tank’s properties. In the jungle, the infantry tank doctrine was still viable. The small size, good engine power and thick armour made the Matilda Senior a most welcome addition to the Australian forces.

 

The Australians adapted the Matilda Senior for a great many roles. Because of the number of odd conversions, they often referred to the 4th Australian Armoured Brigade as "The Circus". Many of the conversions were made to normal gun tanks, such as adding extra armour to the rear hull and engine deck. However, the conversions also included flamethrowers and engineering equipment. The most spectacular has to be the Hedgehog.

The Hedgehog mounted an armoured box that could be carried flat against the hull. A hydraulic system elevated this box into a launching position. The box contained seven spigot mortar rounds, each shot weighing 65 pounds. The tank was pointed at the enemy and the required numbers of projectiles were fired. Each projectile carried twice as much explosive than the KV-2's 152mm howitzer, so their effect on hitting a bunker can only be assumed to be devastating.

Although tested in 1945, the Japanese surrendered before any could be employed operationally.

 

The Polish Connection

Recently photographs have been found showing an A11 Matilda in Poland. 

 

This has led to some questions. Some sources have claimed that a single Matilda was shipped to the Polish army before the war started, but these have not been verified.
It’s certainly known that the Germans captured 97 Matildas from the British in France. If you're wondering why more tanks were captured than actually served in the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the difference is explained by spares held at depots which the Germans would have overrun.
Two of the captured Matildas were sent for testing at Kummersdorf, and one was dissected for evaluation. Beyond these exceptions, there was little tracking of what became of individual tanks. It is likely that the few spare hulls were used for internal security tanks, as this was often the case for tanks captured by the Germans. It could be that the Polish Matilda was one of these.

What may surprise many is the Matilda remained in service until as late as 1955, albeit as equipment for the Australian reserves.

 

References:

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