Contains threads on British Army equipment of the past, present and future.
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The Centurion was the primary British main battle tank of the post-Second World War period. Introduced in 1945, it is widely considered to be one of the most successful post-war tank designs, remaining in production into the 1960s, and seeing combat in the front lines into the 1980s. The chassis was also adapted for several other roles, and these have remained in service to this day.
Development of the Centurion began in 1943 with manufacture beginning in January 1945. Six prototypes arrived in Belgium less than a month after the war in Europe ended in May 1945. It first entered combat with the British Army in the Korean War in 1950, in support of the UN forces. The Centurion later served in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, where it fought against US-supplied M47 and M48 Patton tanks and it served with the Royal Australian Armoured Corps in Vietnam.
Israel used Centurions in the 1967 Six-Day War, 1973 Yom Kippur War, and during the 1978 and 1982 invasions of Lebanon. Centurions modified as armoured personnel carriers were used in Gaza, the West Bank and on the Lebanese border. The Royal Jordanian Land Force used Centurions, first in 1970 to fend off a Syrian incursion within its borders during the Black September events and later in the Golan Heights in 1973. South Africa deployed its Centurions in Angola during the South African Border War.
It became one of the most widely used tank designs, equipping armies around the world, with some still in service until the 1990s. As recently as the 2006 Israel–Lebanon conflict the Israel Defense Forces employed heavily modified Centurions as armoured personnel carriers and combat engineering vehicles. The South African National Defence Force still employs over 200 Centurions, which were modernised in the 1980s and 2000s as the Olifant (elephant).
Between 1946 and 1962, 4,423 Centurions were produced, consisting of 13 basic marks and numerous variants. In British Army use it was replaced by the Chieftain.
In 1943, the Directorate of Tank Design, under Sir Claude Gibb, C.B.E., F.R.S., was asked to produce a new design for a heavy cruiser tank under the General Staff designation A41. After a series of fairly mediocre designs in the A series in the past, and bearing in mind the threat posed by the German 88 mm gun, the War Office demanded a major revision of the design requirements, specifically: increased durability and reliability, the ability to withstand a direct hit from the German 88 mm gun and providing greater protection against mines. Initially in September 1943 the A41 tank was to weigh no more than 40 long tons (45 short tons; 41 t); the limit for existing Mark I and Mark II transport trailers, and for a Bailey Bridge of 80 ft (24 m) span. The British railway loading gauge required that the width should not exceed 10 ft 8 in (3.25 m) and the optimum width was 10 ft 3 in (3.12 m). A high top speed was not important, while agility was to be equal to that of the Comet. A high reverse speed was specified, as during the fighting in southern Italy, Allied tanks were trapped in narrow sunken roads by the German Army. The modified production gearbox had a two-speed reverse, with the higher reverse speed similar to second gear.
The department produced a larger hull by adapting the long-travel five-wheel Christie suspension used on the Comet with the addition of a sixth wheel, and extending the spacing between the second and third wheels. The Christie suspension, with vertical spring coils between side armour plates, was replaced by a Horstmann suspension with three horizontally sprung, externally mounted two-wheel bogies on each side. The Horstmann design did not offer the same ride quality as the Christie system, but took up less room and was easier to maintain. In case of damage by mines, individual suspension and wheel units could be replaced relatively easily. The hull was redesigned with welded, sloped armour and featured a partially cast turret with the highly regarded 17 pounder (76.2 mm/3 inch) as the main gun and a 20 mm Polsten cannon in an independent mounting to its left. With a Rover-built Rolls-Royce Meteor engine, as used on the Comet and Cromwell, the new design would have excellent performance.
But even before the Outline Specification of the A41 was released in October 1943, these limits were removed and the weight was increased from 40 tons to 45 long tons (50 short tons; 46 t), because of the need for heavier armour and a wider turret (too wide for the tank to be transported by rail) with a more powerful gun. The new version carried armour equal to the heaviest infantry tanks, while improved suspension and engines provided cross-country performance superior to even the early cruiser tanks. The War Office decided it would be wiser to build new trailers, rather than hamper what appeared to be a superb design. Historian David Fletcher states, "But was Centurion, after all, a Universal Tank? The answer has to be a qualified negative."
The design mockup, built by AEC Ltd, was viewed in May 1944. Subsequently, twenty pilot models were ordered with various armament combinations: ten with a 17-pdr and a 20 mm Polsten gun (of which half had a Besa machine gun in the turret rear and half an escape door), five with a 17-pdr, a forward Besa and an escape door, and five with a QF 77 mm gun and a driver-operated hull machine gun.
Prototypes of the original 40-ton design, the Centurion Mark I, had 76 mm of armour in the front glacis, which was thinner than that on the then current infantry tanks (the Churchill), which had 101 mm or 152 mm on the Churchill Mk VII and VIII being produced at the time. However, the glacis plate was highly sloped, and so the effective thickness of the armour was very high—a design feature shared by other effective designs, such as the German Panther tank and Soviet T-34. The turret was well armoured at 152 mm. The tank was also highly mobile, and easily outperformed the Comet in most tests. The uparmoured Centurion Mark II soon arrived; it had a new 118 mm-thick glacis and the side and rear armour had been increased from 38 mm to 51 mm. Only a handful of Mk I Centurions had been produced when the Mk II replaced it on the production lines. Full production began in November 1945 with an order for 800 on production lines at Leyland Motors, Lancashire the Royal Ordnance Factories ROF Leeds and Royal Arsenal, and Vickers at Elswick. The tank entered service in December 1946 with the 5th Royal Tank Regiment.
Soon after the Centurion's introduction, Royal Ordnance finished work on the 84 mm calibre Ordnance QF 20 pounder tank gun. By this point, the usefulness of the 20 mm Polsten had been called into question, it being unnecessarily large for use against troops, so it was replaced with a Besa machine gun in a completely cast turret. The new Centurion Mark III also featured a fully automatic stabilisation system for the gun, allowing it to fire accurately while on the move, dramatically improving battlefield performance. Production of the Mk 3 began in 1948. The Mk 3 was so much more powerful than the Mk 1 and Mk 2, that the earlier designs were removed from service as soon as new Mk 3s arrived, and the older tanks were then either converted into the Centurion armoured recovery vehicle (ARV) Mark 1 for use by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers or upgraded to Mk 3 standards. Improvements introduced with the Mk 3 included a more powerful version of the engine and a new gun sight and gun stabiliser.
The 20 pounder gun was used until the Royal Ordnance Factories introduced the 105 mm L7 gun in 1959. All later variants of the Centurion, from Mark 5/2 on, used the L7.
Design work for the Mk 7 was completed in 1953, with production beginning soon afterwards. One disadvantage of earlier versions was the limited range, initially just 65 miles (105 km) on hard roads, hence external auxiliary tanks and then a "monowheel" trailer were used. But the Mk7 had a third fuel tank inside the hull, giving a range of 101 miles (163 km). And it was found possible to put the Centurion on some European rail routes with their larger loading gauges.
The Centurion was used as the basis for a range of specialist equipment, including combat engineering variants with a 165 mm demolition gun Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers (AVRE). It is one of the longest-serving designs of all time, serving as a battle tank for the British and Australian armies from the Korean War (1950–1953) to the Vietnam War (1961–1972), and as an AVRE during the Gulf War in January–February 1991.
Deployment in Western Europe
By early 1952, with the Cold War heating up, NATO needed modern heavy tanks to meet the T-34 versions with the Warsaw Pact countries, and to deter Soviet forces by stationing them with the BAOR in West Germany, where the French had just the light AMX-13, and the Germans had none. America was keen to have Centurions supplied to Denmark and the Netherlands under the Mutual Defence Assistance Program, as production of the M48 Patton would not start until April 1952. A Mk 3 cost £31,000 or £44,000 with ammunition. The Royal Canadian Armoured Corps deployed a regiment of Centurions to Germany to support the Canadian Brigade.
British Service History
On 14 November 1950, the British Army's 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, equipped with three squadrons of Centurion Mk 3 tanks, landed in Pusan. Operating in sub-zero temperatures, the 8th Hussars learnt the rigours of winter warfare: their tanks had to be parked on straw to prevent the steel tracks from freezing to the ground. Engines had to be started every half hour, with each gear being engaged in turn to prevent them from being frozen into place. During the Battle of the Imjin River, Centurions won lasting fame when they covered the withdrawal of the 29th Brigade, with the loss of five tanks, most later recovered and repaired. In 1953, Centurions of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment were also involved in the Second Battle of the Hook where they played a significant role in repelling Chinese attacks. In a tribute to the 8th Hussars, General John O'Daniel, commanding the US 1st Corps, stated: "In their Centurions, the 8th Hussars have evolved a new type of tank warfare. They taught us that anywhere a tank can go, is tank country: even the tops of mountains."
During the Suez Crisis, British ground commander General Hugh Stockwell believed that methodical and systematic armoured operations centred on the Centurion would be the key to victory. The Egyptians destroyed Port Said's Inner Harbour, which forced the British to improvise and use the Fishing Harbour to land their forces. The 2nd Bn of the Parachute Regiment landed by ship in the harbour. Centurions of the British 6th Royal Tank Regiment were landed and by 12:00 they had reached the French paratroopers. While the British were landing at Port Said, the men of the 2 RPC at Raswa fought off Egyptian counter-attacks featuring SU-100 tank destroyers. After establishing themselves in a position in downtown Port Said, 42 Commando headed down the Shari Muhammad Ali, the main north-south road to link up with the French forces at the Raswa bridge and the Inner Basin lock. While doing so, the Marines also took Port Said's gasworks. Meanwhile, 40 Commando supported by the Royal Tank Regiment remained engaged in clearing the downtown of Egyptian snipers. Colonel Ewen Southby-Tailyour arranged for more reinforcements to be brought in via helicopter.
1991 Persian Gulf War
In the 1991 first Gulf War, 12 FV4003 Centurion Mk5 AVREs were deployed with 32 Armoured Engineer Regiment as part of British operations during the war. Three were lost in training in two separate incidents involving vehicle fires and detonation of munitions. One AVRE was destroyed on 5 February 1991 and two were destroyed in a second incident the next day. Four minor injuries were sustained.
* A41 [20 mm] - Centurion prototype with coaxial Polsten cannon.
* A41 [Besa] - Centurion prototype with coaxial Besa MG—later fitted with experimental CDL.
* Centurion Mk 1 - 17pdr armed version.
* Centurion Mk 2 - Fully cast turret.
* Centurion Mk 3 - Fitted with 20pdr, 2 stowage positions for track links on glacis.
* Centurion Mk 4 - Projected close-support version with 95 mm CS howitzer.
* Centurion Mk 5 - Browning machine guns fitted to coaxial and commander's cupola mounts, stowage bin on glacis.
* Centurion Mk 5/1 a.k.a. FV 4011 - Increased glacis armour, two coax machineguns: one .30 Browning & one .50 caliber Browning for ranging the 84mm (20 pounder) main gun.
* Centurion Mk 5/2 - Upgunned to 105 mm.
* Centurion Mk 6 - Upgunned and uparmoured Mk 5.
* Centurion Mk 6/1 - Mk 6 fitted with IR equipment.
* Centurion Mk 6/2 - Mk 6/1 fitted with ranging gun.
* Centurion Mk 7 a.k.a. FV 4007 - Revised engine decks, and a third internal fuel tank.
* Centurion Mk 7/1 a.k.a. FV 4012 - Uparmoured Mk 7.
* Centurion Mk 7/2 - Upgunned Mk 7.
* Centurion Mk 8 - Resilient mantlet and new commanders cupola.
* Centurion Mk 8/1 - Uparmoured Mk 8.
* Centurion Mk 8/2 - Upgunned Mk 8.
* Centurion Mk 9 a.k.a. FV 4015 - Upgunned and uparmoured Mk 7.
* Centurion Mk 9/1 - Mk 9 with IR equipment.
* Centurion Mk 9/2 - Mk 9 with ranging gun fitted.
* Centurion Mk 10 a.k.a. FV 4017 - Upgunned and uparmoured Mk 8.
* Centurion Mk 10/1 - Mk 10 with IR equipment.
* Centurion Mk 10/2 - Mk 10 with ranging gun fitted.
* Centurion Mk 11 - Mk 6 fitted with IR equipment and ranging gun.
* Centurion Mk 12 - Mk 9 fitted with IR equipment and ranging gun.
* Centurion Mk 13 - Mk 10 fitted with IR equipment and ranging gun.
* Centurion [Low Profile] - Variant with Teledyne Low-profile Turret
* Centurion [MMWR Target] - Cobbled together radar target tank.
* Centurion Marksman - Fitted with Marksman air defence turret.
* ^ Centurion Ark ( FV 4016) - Assault Gap Crossing Equipment (Armoured ramp carrier).
* Centurion ARV Mk I - Armoured Recovery vehicle.
* ^ Centurion ARV Mk II - Armoured Recovery Vehicle with superstructure.
* Centurion AVLB - Dutch armoured vehicle laying bridge.
* Centurion AVRE 105 - Combat Engineer Version armed with 105 mm gun.
* ^ Centurion AVRE 165 - Combat Engineer Version armed with 165 mm L9A1 gun.
* Centurion BARV - Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle
* Centurion Bridgelayer (FV 4002) - Class 80 bridgelayer
* Centurion Mk 12 AVRE 105 - Ex-Forward Artillery Observer vehicles converted to AVRE role.
* Centurion Target Tank - A Gun tank with most items removed from turret and dummy gun fitted(?), much thicker (1 inch?) Bazooka plates fitted and extra armour in places. Used on Lulworth Ranges (perhaps others?) c1972-5 to train GW missile crews using inert missiles. Nominally driver only.
Fighting Vehicle (FV) numbers
* FV 3802 - Self-propelled 25-pdr artillery prototype based on the Centurion—engine at the rear as in the gun tank, but only five road wheels per side. The gun was fitted in a barbette with 45° traverse to each side. Accepted in principle in 1954, but abandoned in favour of FV3805 in 1956.
* FV 3805 - Self-propelled 5.5in artillery prototype, again based on the Centurion—engine at the front and driver over the trackguard. Project stopped in 1960 in favour of the FV433 105mm SP Abbot. The single surviving prototype of the FV3805, which had its 5.5 inch gun removed, is known to be located on the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England. This prototype was converted into an artillery observation vehicle. As of August 2015, there is currently a crowd-sourced restoration project in process, with the intent to have the vehicle in fully operational and running capacity by 2017, where it is hoped to be capable of driving in the 2017 Tankfest celebration at the Bovington Tank Museum.
* FV 4002 Centurion Mk 5 Bridgelayer - (1963) – Mk 5 chassis with a No 5 Tank Bridge. The 52 ft by 13 ft bridge can be launched in less than two minutes, can span a gap of 45 ft (14 m) and with a height difference of up to 8 ft and can bear up to 80 tons.
* FV 4003 Centurion Mk 5 AVRE 165 - (1963) – AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) vehicle with a 165 mm demolition gun with a range of about 2,000 yards and firing a 60 lb HESH projectile for breaching obstacles. It was fited with a hydraulically operated dozer blade or a mine plough and could carry a fascine bundle or a roll of metal Class 60 Trackway, tow the Viper mine-clearance equipment or a trailer. This variant had a five-man crew and was used in the 1991 Gulf War.
* FV 4004 Conway - FV 4004 Self-propelled gun, 120 mm, L1 gun, Mk 3" prototype based on a Centurion 3 hull with a larger calibre 120 mm L1 gun in a turret made from rolled plate. To be an interim design until Conqueror tank entered service. One built before the project was cancelled in 1951.
* ^ FV 4005 Stage 2 - An experimental tank destroyer with a 183 mm gun, which was a modified version of the BL 7.2-inch howitzer. Project started in 1951/52 and developed in July 1955. It used a lightly armoured, fully enclosed and traversable turret on a Centurion hull. By August 1957, the tank destroyer was dismantled.
* FV 4006 Centurion ARV Mk 2 - (1956) – Mk 1 / Mk 2 / Mk 3 hull with the turret replaced by a superstructure housing a winch. The winch is powered by an auxiliary engine and is capable of pulling of up to 90 tons using a system of blocks. Armed with a single .30 inch machine gun on the commander's cupola.
* FV 4007 Centurion Mk 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8/1, 8/2
* FV 4008 Duplex Drive Amphibious Landing Kit - 12 lightweight panels forming a skirt around a permanently fixed deck; the panels are jettisoned with explosive charges.
* FV 4010 a.k.a. Heavy Tank Destroyer G.W. Carrier - Malkara Anti Tank Guided Missile launcher vehicle
* FV 4011 Centurion Mk 5
* FV 4012 Centurion Mk 7/1, 7/2
* FV 4013 Centurion ARV Mk 1 - (1952) – Based on Mk 1 / Mk 2 hull. Turret replaced by a superstructure housing a winch driven by a 72 hp Bedford QL truck engine. About 180 units were built, some of them were used in the Korean War. After 1959, they were used solely as training vehicles.
* FV 4015 Centurion Mk 9
* FV 4016 Centurion ARK - (1963) – Armoured Ramp Carrier. Built on a Mark 5, the vehicle itself is part of the bridge. It can span a gap of up to 75 feet, and can bear up to 80 tons.
* FV 4017 Centurion Mk 10
* FV 4018 Centurion BARV (1963) - Beach armoured recovery vehicle. The last Centurion variant to be used by the British Army. One vehicle was still in use by the Royal Marines until 2003. Replaced by the Hippo, which is based on a Leopard 1 chassis.
* FV 4019 Centurion Mk 5 Bulldozer (1961) – Centurion Mk V with a dozer blade identical to that of the Centurion AVRE. One such tank was usually given to every Centurion-equipped squadron.
* FV 4202 40 ton Centurion - Used to develop various concepts later used in the Chieftain.
Unit cost: £35,000 (1950), £38,000 (1952)
No. built: 4,423
Weight: 51 long tons (52 t)
Length: Hull: 25 ft (7.6 m) Overall 32 ft (9.8 m) with 20pdr
Width: 11 ft 1 in (3.38 m) with side plates
Height: 9 ft 10.5 in (3.01 m)
Crew: 4 (commander, gunner, loader, driver)
Armour: 51–152 mm
Main armament: 105 mm L7 rifled gun, 20 pdr (84mm) rifled gun, 17 pdr (76.2mm) rifled gun
Secondary armament: Co-axial .30 cal Browning machine gun
Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor; 5-speed Merrit-Brown Z51R Mk. F gearbox 650 hp (480 kW)
Power/weight: 13 hp/t (9.2 kW/t)
Suspension: Horstmann suspension
Ground clearance: 1 ft 8 in (50.8 cm)
Operational range: 50 miles (80 km) Mk 2/Mk 3
Speed: 22 mph (35 km/h)