The Centurion Main Battle Tank

The Centurion, introduced in 1945, was the primary British main battle tank of the post-World War II period. It was a successful tank design, with upgrades, for many decades. The chassis was also adapted for several other roles.

Development of the tank began in 1943 and manufacture of the Centurion began in January 1945, six prototypes arriving 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 they 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 used its Centurions in Angola.

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 Defence Forces employed heavily modified Centurions as armoured personnel carriers and combat engineering vehicles. South Africa still employs over 200 Centurions: The vehicles of the SANDF were modernised in the 1980s and again in the 2000s, and the resulting model is known as the Olifant.

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.

Development

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 88mm 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 88mm gun and providing greater protection against mines, while remaining within a maximum weight of 40 tons. Top speed was not vital, while agility was to be equal to that of the Comet. A high reverse speed was also required.

Centurion in the hands of the 14th/20th King's Hussars

Centurion in the hands of the 14th/20th King’s Hussars

The department produced a larger hull by adapting the long-travel five-wheel 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 as the main gun and a 20mm 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.

Shortly after the programme commenced, it became clear that the requirement to withstand 88mm weapons would be impossible to meet within the permitted weight. The original specification had been set so that the A41 could be carried on the existing Mark I and Mark II transport trailers, which were limited to a 40-ton load. The War Ministry decided it would be wiser to build new trailers, rather than hamper what appeared to be a superb design. Even before prototypes of the original 40-ton design were completed, the design of a heavier version was well under way. 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 A41 was the first British tank that could “do it all”, leading to the new designation “universal tank”.

The design mockup built by AEC Ltd was viewed in May 1944. Subsequently, 20 pilot models were ordered with various armament combinations: ten with a 17-pdr and a 20mm 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 77mm gun and a driver-operated hull machine gun.

Prototypes of the original 40-ton design, the Centurion Mark I, had 76mm of armour in the front glacis, which was thinner than that on the then current infantry tanks (the Churchill), which had 101mm. But 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 152mm. The tank was also highly mobile, and easily outperformed the Comet in most tests. The up-armoured Centurion Mark II soon arrived; it had a new 118 mm-thick glacis and the side and rear armour had been increased from 38mm to 51mm. 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 at Leeds and Woolwich, 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 Ordnance QF 20 pounder (84mm) tank gun. By this point, the usefulness of the 20mm 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 gunsight and gun stabiliser.

The 20 pounder gun was used only for a short time before the Royal Ordnance Factories introduced the 105mm L7 gun. All later variants of the Centurion, from Mark 5/2 on, used the L7.

The Centurion was used as the basis for a range of specialist equipment, including combat engineering variants with a 165mm 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.

Service history

Korean War

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, with engines having 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 their tanks 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.”

Vietnam War

In 1967, the Royal Australian Armoured Corps’ (RAAC), 1st Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) Squadron transferred to “A” Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment Vietnam. Although they successfully conducted combat operations in their areas of operations, reports from the field stated that their light-armour (M-113 ACAVs) were unable to force their way through dense jungle limiting their offensive actions against enemy forces. The Australian government, under criticism from Parliament, decided to send a squadron of Australian Centurion tanks to South Vietnam. The 20-pdr armed Australian Centurions of ‘C’ Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment landed in the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) on 24 February 1968, and were headquartered at Nui Dat in III Corps (MR3).

Colonel Donald Dunstan, later to be governor of South Australia, was the Deputy Task Force Commander of the Australian Forces in South Vietnam Col. Dunstan had quite possibly been the last Australian to use tanks and infantry in a combined arms operation during World War II, during the Bougainville campaign. And, for the first time since World War II, Col. Dunstan would be commanding Australia’s tanks and infantry in combat. When he temporarily took over command during Brigadier Ronald Hughes’ absence, he directed that the Centurions be brought up from Nui Dat to reinforce the fire-bases at Coral and Balmoral, believing that they were a strong element that were not being used. Besides adding a great deal of firepower, Dunstan stated, he “…couldn’t see any reason why they (Centurions) shouldn’t be there…” His foresight enabled the 1st Australian Task Force (1 ATF) to inflict approximately 267 enemy casualties during the six-week-long Battle of Coral–Balmoral, as well as capturing 11 prisoners, 36 crew-served weapons, 112 small arms, and other miscellaneous enemy weapons.

After the battles at fire-bases Coral and Balmoral, in which the 1 ATF defeated the 141st and 165th NVA Infantry Regiments in May 1968; a third Centurion troop, which included two tank dozers, was formed. By September 1968, ‘C’ Squadron was brought to its full strength of four troops, each equipped with four Centurion tanks. By 1969, ‘B’ Squadron, 3rd Cavalry; ‘A’ Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment; ‘B’ Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment; and ‘C’ Squadron, 1st Armoured Regiment, had all made rotations through South Vietnam. Originally deployed as 26 Centurion tanks, after three and a half years of combat operations, 58 Centurions had served in country; 42 had suffered battle damage with six beyond repair and two crewmen had been killed in action.

The Centurion crews, after operating for a few weeks in country, soon learned to remove the protective armoured side skirts from both sides of the tank, to prevent the vegetation and mud from building up between the track and the mudguards. Each Centurion in Vietnam normally carried a basic load of 62 rounds of 20 pounder shells, 4,000 rounds of .50 cal and 9,000 rounds of .30 cal machine gun ammunition for the tank commander’s machine gun as well as the two coaxial machine guns. They were equipped with petrol engines, which necessitated the use of an extra externally mounted 100-imperial-gallon (450 L) fuel tank, which was attached to the vehicle’s rear.

Middle East

Israel’s formerly British Centurions, first delivered in the late 1950s, were renamed “Sh’ot” (“scourge” or “whip”) by the Israelis and heavily upgraded following their purchase. When the Six-day War broke out in 1967, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had 293 Centurion tanks that were ready for combat out of a total of 385 tanks. During the war, Israel captured 30 of Jordan’s 44 Centurion tanks.

The Israeli version of the Centurion earned its legendary status during the Battle of “The Valley of Tears” on the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Fewer than 100 Centurion tanks of the 7th Armoured Brigade defeated the advance of some 500 Syrian T-55s and T-62s. The Sh’ot became emblematic of Israeli armour prowess.

The original Centurions had 20 pounder main guns, but these were quickly up-gunned to the British 105mm L7. The vehicles went through a number of both major and minor modifications, culminating in the Sho’t with blazer package seen in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and retired with honour during the 1990s. The biggest modifications were the upgrade of the engine, sights and blazer packages.

The engine has been changed to a more efficient diesel design, fire control has been modernised, armour has been thickened, and an improved ammunition layout allows more rounds to be carried. An improved fire extinguishing system, better electrical system and brakes, and an increased fuel capacity complete the modifications. The Sh’ot can be distinguished from the Centurion by its raised rear deck, to accommodate the bigger engine. They have American radios and either have the original 7.62mm calibre MG on the commander’s cupola or have it replaced by a 12.7mm calibre HMG.

Many different variants were bought by Israel over the years from many different countries. Many components of these would find their way into the Merkava.

1991 Gulf War

In the 1991 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.

South Africa

The Centurion tank was in use by the South Africans since 1957 – at first, 250 Mk 2 and Mk 3 Centurions bought directly from the UK, but later, South Africa bought Mk 5 Centurions from India and Jordan. Starting in 1970, the UN imposed ever-more-restrictive arms embargoes on South Africa, due to its apartheid practices and human rights violations. This forced South Africa to develop its own arms industry (with surreptitious help from Israel, France and the United States) and this included upgrading the Centurion tanks. Until the 1980s or so, South Africa’s enemies had nothing to compare to the tanks that the South Africans were fielding at any particular time. The South Africans improved and upgraded their tanks throughout the Border War in Namibia and Angola.

The first upgrades made to the Centurions were simple, and primarily for test purposes. In 1972, the Centurion was fitted with a V-12 fuel-injected petrol engine developing 810 hp coupled to a new three-speed (two forward and one reverse) automatic transmission. This project was called the Skokiaan, but only eight conversions were made. This was followed by the Semel project in 1974, which involved fitting the eight Skokiaan vehicles and some unconverted Centurions with a modified engine and some other improvements and these were called the Centurion Mk 5A or Semel. A total of 35 of these vehicles was produced and some were used in the then-Southwest Africa.

The South Africans undertook a much more ambitious upgrade program in 1976, producing the Olifant (later the Olifant Mk 1 after further-upgraded versions were built). The Olifant Mk 1 entered service with the South African Armoured Corps in 1978. The Olifant program benefited greatly from the Israelis’ Sho’t program (the Israeli rebuild of the Centurion). Olifant Mk1 had an upgraded engine, better suspension, turret drive, and night vision equipment. The commander had a hand held laser rangefinder.

The Olifant Mk 1 later received a major upgrade as the Mk 1A entered production in 1983 and entered service in 1985. This was because it was discovered that the Olifant Mk 1 and its 20-pounder main gun could not match the T-55. Production stopped in the mid-1980s. Nonetheless, despite the numbers produced and the fact that the Mk 1A was meant to be an interim solution for use until the advent of the Mk 1B version.

In the Mk 1A, the main gun was replaced with the 105mm L-7 rifled gun and eight smoke grenade dischargers were installed on either side of the turret. A new engine was also installed and the armour was upgraded. The laser range-finder was incorporated into the gunner’s sight, and the night vision equipment was upgraded.

The Mk 1B was a new production vehicle, rather than an up-grade of existing Centurions or Olifants. Development of the Mk 1B started in 1983 and it entered production in 1991. The tank carries 68 rounds of ammunition for its 105 mm L7 rifled main gun, which is fitted with a thermal sleeve. The tank is also fitted with a co-axial 7.62mm general purpose machine gun and a 7.62mm anti-aircraft machine gun. The driver’s station is equipped with a day and night sight and the gunner’s station is fitted with day and night sights and an integrated laser rangefinder.

Because of the high number of mines deployed in neighbouring African countries, its belly armour was doubled and new side skirts added. The glacis plate and nose of the hull have been upgraded with the addition of passive armour and the turret has been fitted with stand-off armour. The vehicle can generate a smoke screen by injecting fuel on the engine’s hot exhaust and a fire suppression system was added to the crew fighting compartment. A computerised fire control system was added and a searchlight over the main gun. In October 2003, Alvis OMC was awarded a contract for the upgrade of a number of Olifant Mk 1B MBTs. It included upgrades in the power pack, fire control and training systems.

Up to the end of 1987, South Africa was involved in a full intervention in the Angolan Civil War, and Olifant tanks were sent into combat, participating with success against Angolan forces near the Lomba River. On 1 September, tank combat occurred. Olifants ran across Angolan T-55s and T-34/85s, destroying some of them. At Cuito Cuanavale, Olifants and Ratel infantry fighting vehicles fought T-55s and T-34/85s, claiming that the only losses to the Olifants came from mines. The Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces claimed that, during the same battle, the 50th Cuban Division T-62s halted South African tanks at the Chambingi River.

The Mk 2 is an up-armoured and fire control equipment turret which can be fitted with a 120 mm smoothbore cannon on the Mk 1B chassis.

Sweden

At the end of World War II, it was clear that the mix of tanks in service with the Swedish Armed Forces was not just obsolete but also presented a large logistical problem. Kungliga Arméförvaltningens Tygavdelning (KAFT, the weapons bureau of the army administrative service) conducted a study that concluded that the most cost-effective alternative would be to purchase the newly developed Centurion Mk 3, which while quite modern was judged to also have upgrade potential for future requirements. A request of purchase was sent to Great Britain, but the reply was that no deliveries could be made before the needs of the British army had been satisfied which was deemed to take between five and fifteen years. Thus, in 1951, the vehicle bureau of KAFT was set to develop a Swedish alternative project, E M I L. Parallel with this, negotiations were initiated with France about buying the AMX-13.

The British stance altered in early December 1952, due to the economic necessity of increasing exports to earn scarce foreign currency. Britain offered to sell the desired Centurions immediately. Minister of defence Torsten Nilsson arbitrarily placed an order of 80 Mk III around new year 1952/1953, with first delivery in April 1953. A few years later, Sweden ordered a batch of 160 Centurion Mk V, followed by a third batch on 110 Centurion Mk X around 1960. The Centurions formed the backbone of the Swedish armoured brigades for several decades. The Mk III’s and the Mk V’s were upgraded with a 105mm gun in the 1960s.

In the years 1983–1987, the Centurions had a midlife renovation and modification (REMO) done, which included among other things night vision equipment, targeting systems, laser range finders, improved gun stabilisation, thermal sleeves on the barrel and exhaust pipes and reactive armour developed by the Swedish FFV Ordnance.

The Swedish army gradually phased out its Centurions during the 1990s as a consequence of its extensive reorganisation after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. They were replaced by the Leopard 2.

Nuclear tests

An Australian Army Mk 3 Centurion Type K, Army Registration Number 169041, was involved in a small nuclear test at Emu Field in Australia in 1953 as part of Operation Totem 1. Built as number 39/190 at the Royal Ordnance Factory, Barnbow in 1951 it was assigned the British Army number 06 BA 16 and supplied to the Australian Commonwealth Government under Contract 2843 in 1952.

It was placed less than 500 yards from the 9.1kt blast with its turret facing the epicentre, left with the engine running and a full ammunition load. Examination after detonation found it had been pushed away from the blast point by about 5 feet, pushed slightly left and that its engine had stopped working, only because it had run out of fuel. Antennae were missing, lights and periscopes were heavily sandblasted, the cloth mantlet cover was incinerated, and the armoured side plates had been blown off and carried up to 200 yards from the tank. Remarkably, though, the tank could still be driven from the site. Had it been manned, the crew would probably have been killed by the shock wave.

169041, subsequently nicknamed The Atomic Tank, was used in the Vietnam War. In May 1969, during a firefight, 169041 (call sign 24C) was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). The turret crew were all wounded by shrapnel as the RPG entered the lower left side of the fighting compartment, travelled diagonally across the floor and lodged in the rear right corner. Trooper Carter was evacuated while the others remained on duty and the tank remained battle worthy.

The Atomic Tank is now located at Robertson Barracks in Palmerston, Northern Territory. Although other tanks were subjected to nuclear tests, 169041 is the only tank known to have withstood atomic tests and to go on for another 23 years of service, including 15 months on operational deployment in a war zone.

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