The Matilda II was the iconic early-war tank of the British Army. When it was first encountered by the Germans in France, and the Italians in North Africa, it was very bad news to them, since none of their standard AT guns did a good job at dealing with it. By the time of Operation CRUSADER however, it had gone past its heyday in fighting the Germans, and it was about to be replaced by the Valentine, which continued to serve in Europe until the end of the war if not as a main-line battle tank then as a chassis for specialised conversions, such as bridgelayer. The Matilda II however served as a main battle tank in the Pacific until the end of the war. Nevertheless, even in November 1941 in the desert the Matilda was still potent enough to be a real headache for Axis infantry and tankers, as one can see in this prior post, and it was arguably the Matildas of the Royal Tank Regiment that helped the infantry win the battle in December, while their cruiser colleagues were licking their wounds in the desert, a point well made by Bryan Perett.
The views below come from the late Major Alexander McGinlay MC and Bar (see this post about how he got his first MC), a Matilda commander in 7 RTR and while not representative, are certainly quite interesting. I would like to thank his family for allowing me to auote them here. Then Lieutenant McGinlay arrived in Egypt in time for Wavell’s (really O’Connor’s) counteroffensive against the Italians in late 1940, and commanded the first tank into Tobruk. He then served in the area until the fall of Tobruk in 1942, when he was injured and captured, and again at the end of the war in a Churchill in Italy, after his escape. In the course of his service he gained the MC and bar, one during the breakout from Tobruk in November 1941, the second during the battle for Rigel Ridge.
Some of the points made:
- The Matilda had a high quality of workmanship going into it, the case in point here being that all tanks of the regiment started up without problems after their 5-week sea voyage to Egypt.
- The armour protection was very good, with the officer in question surviving a direct hit at short-range by a 105mm field gun, with the armour only splitting open at the welding seam.
- Until the introduction of a “new” 50mm solid shot round by the Germans, the Matilda crews seem to have been relatively unbothered by this gun. (maybe a reference to the introduction of sub-calibre rounds with higher penetration, or maybe the officer is referrring to the first encounters with the more capable 50L60 anti-tank/tank gun). In one incident a 50mm round partially penetrates the tank, cutting the hydraulics of the power traverse on the turret, leading to the crew being well covered in hot oil.
- The only drawback is seen in the 2-pdr gun which is giving the Germans a big advantage
- Crews had practiced and executed fire on the move tactics, which the officer sees as an advantage compared to the German tactic of firing only when stopped (see below)
- The most surprising statement is that on arrival in Egypt in 1940 the tanks had some high-explosive (HE) rounds available. It is generally accepted that no 2-pdr HE made it to the desert. (I have followed this up with David Fletcher from the Bovington RAC Tank Museum, who suspects that maybe it was an error in remembering – there is no evidence for 2-pdr HE being delivered in the desert, but the stowage diagrams show only AT supposed to be in the tank)
Below an interesting excerpt from the papers on how the German gun advantage was overcome by the British tankers:
The enemy had the gun advantage, but things were evened up a bit by the fact that we were better trained, in that we could, and did, fire our main gun on the move. They had to stop. So, by putting down smoke, either ourselves, or our back-up artillery, we could use the smoke to cut down the distance between them and us. When the smoke cleared, we were in among them, firing on the move. They did not like it. Our lighter armoured divisions especially took good advantage of this tactic.
A few comments on this very interesting passage:
- German tactics were very different, and trained the tankers to stop before firing the main gun. This was seen to improve effectiveness by the Germans. The main issue with firing on the move is keeping the gun on target – with lighter guns, provided a shoulder mount was installed (as it was in the Matilda)
- Smoke from the supporting artillery depended on good co-operation between the tanks and the guns. Not something the Commonwealth forces were proficient in until much later in the desert war, although it appears that the Tobruk fortress forces did very well in this regard.
- Smoke from tanks could be provided by the close-support tanks of which two were on strength in every squadron, normally attached to Squadron HQ. These tanks were equipped with 76mm howitzers instead of 2-pdr guns, and carried almost entirely smoke rounds.
A fine book on the Matilda is Bryan Perett’s “The Matilda Tank”. Good luck getting a copy at a reasonable price – I failed and paid a lot.