The British were the first to develop the tank during the Great War. At the time they were great lumbering, slow moving beasts and their aim was to support the infantry during the attack and as such able to cross the standard German trench. When first utilised during the battle of the Somme (1916) they took the Germans completely by surprise and enabled the infantry to make gains hitherto thought impossible. In retrospect, it has been argued that the tank, as a new 'wonder' weapon, should have been used later in the war when sufficient numbers would have been available, thus exploiting their novelty. I'm not going to consider the arguments for and against this view. For in this post I would like to discuss why the British struggled to produce a really effective Second World War tank.
The problem began prior to the war. During the 1920s and 1930s the money available to fund the military was greatly reduced. In the late 1930s, the reemergence of Germany as a military threat was realised, and belatedly, funding for the British military increased. However, the majority of the funds were allocated to the navy and air force. This funding priority underlined the British strategy of defence. The austerity during these desperate times should not be understated. Britain was only able to prosecute the second conflict by mortgaging the nation to the Americans.
The first tank to see combat during those hectic days of June 1940 was the Matilda Mark II. This was conceived as a heavy tank in keeping with British doctrine of the time. It was thought that two classes of tank were required. A heavy, slow moving tank to support the infantry and a fast moving light tank to act as a break through tank. It was thought that the light tank would infiltrate and rapidly exploit gaps in the enemy line, therefore replacing the role of horsed cavalry. This doctrine was based on First World War concepts and the second war was envisaged as a repeat of the first. As such, it was considered that defense would reign supreme and static trench warfare would prevail after the initial offensive flurries. The British thought they could repeat the successful strategy of the Great War allowing the navy to strangle German sea commerce forcing a German defeat, but only after several years of conflict. The Germans had other ideas. To avoid a long drawn out war the Germans came up with the plan of 'Blitz Krieg' (lightning war). The battle field would be fluid with tanks out striping the infantry causing chaos and disruption behind Allied lines. In a way the main weapon would be one of psychology where the British and particularly the French would be subject to 'battle field' uncertainty. In fact Blitz Krieg, as practiced by the Germans, was deeply flawed. The concept was sound, however, the Germans lacked effective battle tanks in large numbers. The majority of the force consisted of light tanks and the British and French tanks, of 1940, were qualitatively better than the Mark I, II and III tanks fielded by the Germans.
At the debacle of Dunkirk the British, by necessity, had to leave most of their heavy equipment behind including their tanks. Thus the British, at a stroke, were denuded of their armour. Perhaps it should have been an opportunity for the British to develop innovative and effective tank designs. In reality a series of rushed tank designs, of dubious utility, were hastily produced and all suffered from the same defects. In general they, where under armed, under powered and under armoured and therefore obsolete before they rattled off the production line. Also they were incapable of sequential modification. Contrast this with the German Mark IV which was continually upgraded in armour and weaponry as the war progressed. This 'work horse' of the German Army was still an effective fighting machine in 1945 and judged by the Russians as a better tank than their much vaunted T34.
It has been argued that the turret ring of British tanks was restricted in size to accommodate constraints imposed by rail transportation. This limitation stifled turret ring size and in turn this limited the size of the turret and hence the size of the gun the turret could contain. For some reason this never seemed a problem faced by the Russian and German tanks.
The British tanks were initially successful during the early battles of the Desert War as they were only facing Italian tanks that were of dubious quality, even when compared to British tanks. Once the Germans intervened the problem was clearly rendered in stark revue and British armour suffered greatly against German armour and anti-tank guns. The American Mark IV Sherman started to appear in 1943 and thereafter became the mainstay of American and British armour. The Sherman was not a perfect weapon of war and its introduction in late 1942 was considered obsolete by German standards, however it had several fundamental redeeming qualities that would make the tank perhaps the best war time tank the Allies could muster, excluding the late war introduction of the British Comet and American Pershing. Firstly, it could be produced quickly and in large numbers by American industry. When production of this tank ended in 1946 the Americans had produced over 30,000 Sherman's of various types. It was a reliable tank and when first introduced it proved highly popular with British tank crews, notwithstanding its reputation of burning once hit. The Sherman could be and would be improved as the war progressed. Limitations of the Sherman became apparent during the initial Normandy fighting in June/July 1940 when confronted by German Panther and Tiger tanks. The British hastily replaced the ineffective American 75mm gun with the long 76. This was not an easy fit and the gun had to be placed at right angles making reloading a painful process. At least this Sherman variant, the 'Firefly', was able to defeat enemy armour at long range. This variant was never manufactured in large numbers and the modified tank was simply integrated, in small numbers, within the ranks of their shorter gunned brethren. The Germans soon became fearful of the longer gunned Sherman and instructed tank crews, and anti-tank gunners, to prioritise their efforts against this variant. In mitigation, the Allies began to camouflage the gun so it appeared shorter, at least at a distance.
Toward the end of the war the Allies finally constructed a 'modern battle tank' in the guise of the Pershing and Comet. These weapons where more than capable of taking on the German big cats however, they were never present in large numbers. Quixotically the British did not utilise sloped armour on the Comet even though the advantages of a sloped frontal glacis was well recognised by all sides; this remains an enigma wrapped in mystery.
This is my take the on situation as faced by the British with respect to their armoured forces during the great conflict. It is recognised that this brief critique of British armour is an over simplification of the problems faced by the British military during the Second World War and there are certainly other salient factors at play. That said, I can't but help feel that the British could have done a lot better. What do my readers think? Am I overly harsh in my assessment. Anyway let me know of your thoughts, opinions and criticism in the comment field below.