Categories
Irish Cold War

M113 APC in Irish Service (Congo Crisis, 1960 – 65)

IrelandRepublic of Ireland (1960-64)
Armored Personell Carrier – 6 Used

Militarily speaking, the Republic of Ireland is officially a ‘non-aligned state’. This means that the country is mostly neutral but it will engage an enemy if necessary, or if the country is threatened. The Republic of Ireland is, however, an extremely active member of the United Nations (UN), and has taken part in numerous UN peacekeeping missions.

In the early 1960s, Irish Troops, under the UN flag, fought with distinction during the Congo Crisis as part of UNOC (United Nations Operations in the Congo). It was during this time that the Irish would get a chance to utilize a small number of the ubiquitous American Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), the M113.

This poor quality photo is thought to be the only visual record of the M113’s in Irish use, in the Congo. The vehicle is parked next to three of Ireland’s own Ford Mk. VI Armoured Cars. The soldier crouching atop the nearest armored car is an Irish Serviceman. Photo: Sgt. John ‘chubby’ Griffin.

The M113

The M113 is one of the most famous armored personnel carriers ever built and continues to serve in not only the US Military but also in the inventory of many of the world’s militaries. The vehicle has been in service for 60 years, making it one of the longest-serving armored vehicles in history.

Developed and built by the Food Machinery Corporation (FMC), the M113 is a basic vehicle, little more than an armored box on tracks. It is 15 ft 11.5 in (4.8 m) long, 8 ft 9.7 in (2.6 m) wide, and 8 ft 2 in (2.5 m) tall. The vehicle’s structure is almost completely fabricated from aluminum, including the armor, which is between 0.4 and 1.4 inches (12 – 38 mm) thick. The vehicle started out with a Chrysler 75M petrol engine, although this would later be changed to a General Motors 6V53 diesel type. The power plant is located at the front of the vehicle, along with the transmission. The vehicle is supported by torsion bars connected to five road-wheels. The idler wheel is at the rear with the drive sprocket at the front.

The APC has a crew of two, a Driver and a Commander, who are located at the front of the vehicle, with a passenger compartment taking up the rear of the vehicle. Eleven passengers can be carried in the vehicle. The APC’s usual armament would be a single Browning M2 .50 Cal (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun, located at the commander’s position.

The American M113 Armored Personel Carrier (APC). Photo: Wikimedia

The Congo Crisis

The Congo Crisis (also known as the Congo Civil War) was a period of political unrest and violence which began in the Republic of Congo (the largest country in the center of the African Continent) in 1960. It began soon after the country gained its independence from Belgium.

In June 1960, Belgium negotiated mining rights with the future independent ‘Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’. Within days of this, Congolese troops mutinied, demanding increased pay and removal of white officers. Belgium launched a military retaliation, resulting in the rebellion of more Congolese troops. Then, with Belgian support, Katanga seceded from the DRC. Congolese President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Lumumba asked and received a peacekeeping force from the United Nations (UN).

Five years of conflict would follow this, eventually resulting in the rise of the Democratic Republic of Congo under the rule of a dictator, and 100,000 deaths. This was also a proxy war between the USA and USSR. Both super-powers were supporting opposite sides during the conflict; the Congo was sympathetic to the Soviets, while the US favored the Kantangese due to its mineral exports, one being Uranium.

Irish Involvement

Irish troops arrived in the Congo between 1960 and 1961. Their most famous engagement during the conflict was the Siege of Jadotville on September 13th, 1961, when “A” Company, 35th Battalion (UN service) of the Irish Army UNOC contingent was attacked by Katangese forces. Despite a valiant, four-day stand, the Irish troops were overwhelmed. Remarkably, no Irish troops were killed in the battle, although they were all taken prisoner for a month.

Irish Ford Mk. VI Armoured Cars in the Congo: militaryimages.net

There were other Irish engagements during the conflict, such as the Ambush at Niemba in November 1960, and the Battle of the Tunnel in December 1961. A total of 6,000 Irish troops served in the Congo from 1960 to 1964. Of this number, 24 men lost their lives.

Irish M113s

The story behind Ireland’s procurement of the M113’s is not very well documented. While in the Congo, the Irish Contingent obtained six M113s. Allegedly, these vehicles were US Army vehicles, donated to the UNs armored vehicle inventory sent to the Congo. It is from here that the vehicles were subsequently loaned to the Irish. It is unknown as to when the UN received these M113s but it would have to have been after 1961, as that is when the vehicles first entered service with the US Military. The Congo Crisis, therefore, may well prove to be one of the first combat deployments of the M113. When the Irish deployment came to an end in 1964, the vehicles were returned to the UN inventory. The Irish would never use the M113 again, although it would become a staple UN vehicle.

The M113 would have been a quantum leap compared to what the Irish Military was used to at this time. It was the only tracked APC to ever see use by the Irish. The only previous experience the Irish had with a tracked APC-like vehicle would have been the long-outdated Universal ‘Bren’ Carrier which was, remarkably, only just leaving service with the Irish at the time of the Congo Crisis. The M113 was a far cry from the only armored vehicles that Irish Military deployed in the Congo, the archaic Ford Mk. VI Armoured Cars which had been in service since 1941. These were little more than Ford commercial trucks up-armored by the Irish military, who also installed a machine gun turret.

Due to a lack of photographic and literary records, it is unknown what markings would have adorned the M113s or whether it was even painted white like most UN vehicles. It is known that the US markings were painted over. There is no evidence to suggest that the Browning M2 .50 Cal (12.7 mm) machine gun being installed, though a .30 Cal (7.62mm) may have been.

Conclusion

The six M113s utilized by the Irish Contingent would be the only time an American-built combat vehicle would be used by any element of the Irish Military. The Ford Armoured Cars, despite their archaic nature, served the Irish well in the Congo. They may just have been little more than up-armored trucks with a mounted machine gun, but they were more than capable of dealing with an enemy armed almost exclusively with small arms and no heavy, or anti-tank, weaponry.

The blend of mobility and armor protection granted by the M113 were unparalleled by anything in Ireland’s own arsenal, which was still full of outdated vehicles such as the Universal Carrier and Comet tank. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Irish Military would have a modern Armoured Personel Carrier. This came in the shape of the wheeled 4×4 Panhard M3 VTT (Véhicule de Transport de Troupes) armored personnel carrier, a wheeled vehicle built by the French.

The M113 became a staple UN vehicle after the Congo, as this Canadian Operated vehicle shows. Photo: captmondo.com


The American M113. It is unknown what markings adorned the vehicle while it was in Irish use. All that is known is that the US markings were painted over, and the vehicle was without its Browning .50 Cal (12.7mm) Machine Gun. Illustration by David Bocquelet, modified by Leander Jobse.

Specifications

Dimensions (L-w-H) 4.86 x 2.68 x 2.50 m (15.11 x 8.97 x 8.2 ft)
Total weight, battle ready 12.3 tonnes (24,600 lbs)
Crew 5 (Commander, Driver, 11 infantry)
Propulsion Detroit 6V53T, 6-cyl. diesel 275 hp (205 kW) P/w 22.36 hp/tonne
Transmission Allison TX-100-1 3-speed automatic
Maximum speed 42 mph (68 km/h) road/3.6 mph (5.8 kph) swimming
Suspensions Torsion bars
Range 300 miles/480 km
Armor Aluminum alloy 12–38 mm (0.47–1.50 in)
Used 6

Sources

Karl Martin, Irish Army Vehicles: Transport and Armour since 1922
Adrian J. English, Irish Army Orders of Battle 1923-2004, Tiger Lily Publications,
Ralph A. Riccio, AFVs in Irish Service Since 1922, Mushroom Model Publications] www.theirishstory.com

Categories
Irish Cold War

FV101 Scorpion in Irish Service

Ireland Republic of Ireland (1980)
Light Tank – 14 Purchased

In the late 1970s, the Irish Cavalry Cavalry Corps (Irish: An Cór Marcra) decided to retire their small fleet of Comet tanks purchased from Great Britain in 1958. These Second World War tanks had served well with the Cavalry corps, but by this point were on their last legs with constant breakdowns and a lack of spare parts. A replacement was required that shared the same qualities; mobility and firepower.
In the early 1980s, such a replacement was soon found in the shape of the compact, highly mobile and air-deployable light tank, the British FV101 Scorpion CVR(T). The Scorpion would be the first tracked vehicles purchased by the Defence Forces of Ireland (IDF. Irish: Fórsaí Cosanta, officially: Óglaigh na hÉireann) since those Comets some twenty years prior. They became the last tracked vehicles in operation, and also the last vehicles to be bought from Great Britain.

Scorpion in training on the Glen of Imaal. It is an earlier example, signified by the .50 Caliber machine gun mounted on the roof. Photo: Getty

The FV101 Scorpion

The officially named FV101 Scorpion Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle (Tracked) was designed by the Alvis Car and Engineering Company Ltd in the early 1960s. After a long trial period, the Scorpion entered service with the British Army in 1970. It was a three-man tank, with a crew consisting of a Driver, a Gunner, and a Commander.
Mobility was the Scorpion’s strong point. It was powered by the 4.2 litre, 6-cylinder, Jaguar J60 petrol engine. Usually, this engine produced 269 hp but was de-rated down to 198 hp for military use. This power plant could propel the tank to a top speed of 50 mph (80 km/h). This top speed allowed the tank to gain a Guinness world record for the fastest production tank (It was recorded doing 51.10 mph (82.23 km/h) at a test track on the 26th of January 2002). It used a ‘flat track’ suspension (track return supported by road wheels, as used on tanks such as the Soviet T-54) with five road-wheels. The idler wheel was at the rear while the drive sprocket was at the front.
For a small tank, the Scorpion’s armament was rather potent and consisted of the Royal Ordnance 76mm L23A1 Gun. This gun could fire a range of ammunition including HESH (High-Explosive Squash Head) and Canister. Secondary armament consisted of a coaxial 7.62 machine gun. Maximum armor thickness was 12.7 mm (0.5 in).
Although removed from service in the British Army in the late 1990s, the Scorpion and its variants remain in service across the globe. It can also be found in the arsenals of Bolivia, Indonesia, Chile, Thailand, and many others.

Irish Service

The Scorpion’s small size, good speed, and a relatively potent gun made it an attractive vehicle for the Irish Defence Forces’ Cavalry Corps. Subsequently, the Irish Military purchased a total of 14 of the tanks between March 1980 and December 1985. The numbers were thus: 4 in 1980, 4 in 1981, 4 in 1982, 2 in 1985.
The Scorpions were delivered in their standard British configuration armed with the 76mm L23A1 and equipped with wading gear that was soon removed. The 76mm gun proved to be somewhat of a problem as there was no fume extractor. When the gun was fired the turret compartment would fill with smoke and fumes. Should the gun be fired with turret closed down, the effect was even worse. One way the British and other armies dealt with this was by removing the 76mm turret and replacing it with the turret of the FV107 Scimitar armed with the 30mm Rarden Cannon. The Irish Military, on the other hand, wanted to keep the larger caliber 76mm. As such, they developed their own fume extraction system (FES) which kept the tank safe to operate.

Scorpions conducting a night shoot on the Glen of Imaal. Photo: IDF Archives
Scorpions assigned as Troop Commander’s tanks were originally equipped with a .50 Cal Browning M2HB heavy machine gun on a pintle mount upon the turret roof. These were later replaced with a 7.62 GPMG (General Purpose Machine Gun) as the .50 increased the silhouette of the Scorpion.
The Scorpions entered service with the 1st Tank Squadron in March 1980 and were used primarily in an armored reconnaissance role. This is the combination of infantry based recon with the support of armor. The FV101s remained part of this squadron until 1998, when the 1st Tank Squadron ceased to be a separate body, and became a part of the 1st Armored Cavalry Squadron (1 ACS). They were based at Curragh Camp, Kildare.
A standard camouflage pattern of black, brown and green was applied to the tanks, including the wheels in some cases. Unit markings were applied to the mantle on the right of 76mm barrel.
Over the course of their service, the Scorpions have taken part in many training exercises at the Glen of Imaal (Irish: Gleann Uí Mháil), in the Wicklow Mountains. 5,948 acres of the Glen has been used as an artillery and gunnery range since 1900. The vehicles also took part in a number of public and military parades.
In 2004, Seven Scorpion tanks were stationed as a ‘Guard of Honour’ at Shannon Airport, County Clare for a visit by the then serving US president, George W. Bush.


Irish FV101 Scorpion, showing the camo pattern that included coverage of the road wheels. Illustration by Tank Enyclopedia’s own AmazingAce, based on work by David Bocquelet.

Fate

The Scorpions stayed in service for 37 years, only being stood down in 2017. The role of the tank has largely been taken over by Ireland’s main armored vehicle, the wheeled 8×8 MOWAG Piranha IIIH, 80 of which have been in service since 2001.

Irish Scorpion taking part in a military display in June 2007, it is parked next to its successor, the Piranha III. Note the two-tone camo on the road wheels. Photo: Paul McMenamin

A Scorpion taking part in an Easter Sunday parade in 2016. Photo: William Murphy

An article by Mark Nash

FV-101 specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 15’7″ x 7’3″ x 6’9″ ft.in
(4.79m x 2.23m x 2.10m)
Total weight, battle ready 8.07 tons (17 800 ibs)
Crew 3 (Driver, commander, gunner)
Propulsion Cummins BTA 5.9-litre (diesel) 190 hp (140 kW) – pwr 22,9 hp/t
Suspension Independant torsion bars
Speed (road) 45 mph (72,5 kph)
Range 470 mi (756 km)
Armament Main : ROF 76mm L23A1
Sec. coaxial 7.62mm GPMG
Armor 12.7 mm front and sides (0.5 in)
Total purchased 14.

Links, Resources and Further Reading

www.curragh.info
www.historyireland.com
www.geocities.ws/irisharmoredvehicles
An Cosantóir, The Irish Defence Journal, March 1983 issue.
Tiger Lily Publications, Irish Army Orders of Battle 1923-2004, Adrian J. English
Irish Army Vehicles: Transport and Armour since 1922 by Karl Martin
Mushroom Model Publications, AFVs in Irish Service Since 1922, Ralph A. Riccio

Categories
Irish Cold War

A34 Comet in Irish Service

Ireland Republic of Ireland (1958)
Medium Tank – 8 Purchased

The tanks that the Republic of Ireland Defence Forces Cavalry Corps had previously operated could not be more different to the Comet. The Landsverk L-60, 2 of which were operated from 1934, were small and lightly armed. The tanks to follow these, four Mk. VI Churchills, were slow thick-skinned leviathans.

In 1958, the Cavalry Corp (Irish: An Cór Marcra) began to receive a small number of A34 Comets which, like the preceding Churchills, were purchased from the British War Office. The Comet was the polar opposite of both vehicles, and was the most technically advanced tank then in service with the Irish cavalry.

Cavalry Officer trainees are taught about the Come by an instructing Lieutenant, early 1960s. Photo: The Curragh

The Comet

Essentially, the officially named “Tank, Cruiser, A34, Comet”, was an upgrade to the Cromwell cruiser tank. It was designed in 1943 and entered service in 1945, towards the end of the Second World War. It set a trend in tank design that would be followed by the world’s next generation of tanks, the Main Battle Tank or ‘MBT’, as it had a balanced blend of armor, mobility and firepower.

It was powered by the Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.III 600hp V12 petrol engine. This engine was derived from the Merlin engine which was used on the famous Spitfire fighter plane and gave the tank a top speed of 32 mph (51 km/h). The Comet weighed 33.53 tonnes (32.7 long tons). This weight was supported on a Christie type suspension with five road-wheels. The drive sprocket was at the back while the idler was at the front. The track return was supported by four rollers.

The main armament consisted of the Vickers 77mm (3.03 in) High-Velocity Gun, which was derived from the famous 17-Pounder anti-tank gun. Firing APCBC (Armor-Piercing Capped Ballistic-Cap), the specific type of anti-armor round given to the Irish Army, the gun could penetrate up to 147 mm (5.7in) of armor. Secondary armament consisted of coaxial and bow-mounted 7.92mm BESA machine guns. The tank had up to 102mm (4in) of armor.

There were two versions of the Comet, designated as ‘Types;’ Type A and Type B. Both of these versions were sold to the Irish. The major difference between the two was the exhaust arrangement. The Type A had a ‘Normandy cowling’ over the exhaust ports. The Type B did away with this, replacing it with standard nozzles. The Type B also saw the addition of smoke-dischargers to the turret cheeks.

The Comet had a crew of five, consisting of Commander, Gunner, Loader, Bow-Machine Gunner, and Driver. The tank served with the British Army until 1958 when it was replaced by the famous Centurion Main Battle Tank. The Comet stayed in service with a number of other countries however, including Cuba, Burma and Finland.

Comet of the Curragh Command, note the symbol on the side of the turret. Photo: Curragh Camp Museum

Purchase

It is often queried as to why the Irish government did not acquire tanks from the United States, who had plentiful stocks of surplus tanks such as the famous M4 Sherman medium tank and the M24 Chaffee light tank. The fact is the Irish thought the Comet superior to both vehicles. The Comet had better speed and cross-country performance than the M4, and better armament than the M24. As to the question of why the Defence Force didn’t purchase America’s new light tank, the M41 Walker-Bulldog, it was simply a matter of cost.

The Irish Defence Department had a budget of just 80,000 Irish Pounds/IE£ It was planned to purchase just four Comets for this amount in 1954/55. In 1958, the cost of the vehicles had fallen to IE£22,000 each, so four were purchased in September 1958. Ireland received these first four Comets in December of 1958. The tanks arrived at North Wall in Dublin, and with the help of accompanying handbooks, were driven to the Curragh. It was planned that further eight tanks would be purchased to bring the 1st Cavalry Squadron’s tank force up to full strength which, including the four Churchills, would have been a grand total of 16 tanks. This was scaled back to just another four tanks for the same amount of IE£22,000. These four were delivered in early 1960, two late-January, two early-March. This brought the strength of the 1st Cavalry Squadron to a combined strength of 8 Comets and 4 Churchills (12 tanks).

All eight Comets of the Cavalry Corps. Photo: The Curragh

Service

As previously stated, the Comets served with the 1st Cavalry Squadron who were based at Curragh Camp in Kildare. For their initial years in service, the Comets remained in the standard British green paint. At some point in their history, the tanks were repainted in a light grey, similar to the L-60s.

The tanks were used extensively in training operations at the Curragh and at the Glen of Imaal (Irish: Gleann Uí Mháil), in the Wicklow Mountains. 5,948 acres of the Glen has been used as an artillery and gunnery range since 1900. The vehicles also took part in a number of public and military parades.

The Comet is taken down a steep slope while in training on the Glen of Imaal. Note the last road wheel is not touching the ground. Photo: MMP Publishing

Compared to other vehicles, the Comets had a relatively short service life with the Cavalry Corps. This is despite being a very popular vehicle with the Irish armed forces. Its short service is largely due to a lack of foresight by the military in not purchasing enough spare parts to accompany the tanks. To add to this, the caliber and cartridge type of the Comets gun was unique, meaning resupplying was not an easy task. Supplies of ammunition grew even lower when it was discovered that HE (High-Explosive) rounds provided to the military had faulty fuses.

In the 1970s, the Comets were on the ropes. By 1970, just 55 APCBC shells remained in stocks. There were plans to turn the vehicles into turretless personal carriers, along the lines of the ‘Kangaroo’ vehicles used by the Allies in WW2. However, It became increasingly hard to maintain the tanks which were breaking down, overheating or throwing their tracks on an almost daily basis.

The final Comet shoot took place in 1973. The force was retired when ammunition and spare parts had completely run out. They were replaced in service by the more up to date FV101 Scorpion CVR(T), 16 of which were purchased, once more, from the United Kingdom.

The “Headless Coachman”

On the 11th of August 1962, one of the Comets suffered a catastrophic fire which destroyed the turret. With no spares to repair it, it was considered for scrap but, as the rest of the vehicle remained in a serviceable condition, it was decided to make use of it. The tank became known as “The Headless Coachman” and was used for a while to ferry tar barrel targets too and from the range area in the Glen of Imaal.

However, a Captain by the name of Roger McCorley soon came up with a better use of the vehicle. McCorley had recently finished a course on the operation of the Swedish Bofors PV 1101 90mm Recoilless Rifle, a small number of which were in service with the Irish Military. The rifle could fire a High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) shell, capable of penetrating up to 380mm (15in) of armor, to a distance of 900 meters (985 yards). This weapon was on a wheeled base and was usually towed. A plan was hatched to mount this weapon onto the turret ring of the damaged Comet, turning into a something of an improvised tank-destroyer.

The idea was passed to the Director of Cavalry, Colonel J. Stapleton, who formally approved the concept for trials. With this, the Cavalry Corps engineers fashioned an attachment point on the turret ring to mount the Recoilless Rifle upon. Plates were welded over the apertures leading to the driver and bow gunner compartment to avoid back-blast from the gun entering their position.

The only known photo of the “Headless Coachman”, mounting the 90mm Recoilless Rifle, at Curragh Camp. Photo: MMP Publishing

It was taken for testing at the Glen of Imaal on the 27th of January 1969. Tests were successful, with the gun performing well and providing accurate fire from all angles of traverse. The tests led to the approval of further development. Plans were made to incorporate ammunition racks in the walls of the turret basket, and a shield around the gun to protect the exposed crew. There were also plans to introduce another 90mm rifle, or use another Comet to mount an 81mm or 120mm mortar. Unfortunately, funds could not be provided to continue with any of these projects. The gun was returned to the Infantry and “The Headless Coachman” was turned into a target on the gunnery range at the Glen.

Survivors

Of the eight Comets used by the Cavalry Corps, six survive as two were destroyed after accidents (One of these became the ‘Headless Coachman’). Four of the tanks remain in Ireland. These can be found at the Curragh. Two are used as gate guardians, one is on display alongside a surviving Churchill Mk. VI. The fourth Comet still runs and is kept under cover, it is sometimes run in parades.

The remaining two found their way back to England. One of which one is at The Muckleburgh Military Collection in Norfolk. The museum received it in 1987 in exchange for a Peerless lorry. B 2012, the Comet had been restored into a working condition. The second Comet was first acquired by the long-closed Budge Collection, and was later sold to the Jacque Littlefield Collection in California. It is now presumably with the Collings Collection in Massachusetts.

Curragh Camp’s surviving and running Comet. It was recently repainting in this Olive Green, after sitting in peeling grey paint for many years. Photo: The Curragh Museum
An article by Mark Nash with research assistance from Aaron Smith

For our U.K. readers, this article can also be found in the November 2018 issue of Classic Military Vehicle‘ Magazine.



A Sandard A34 Comet, specifically a ‘Type B’, in the standard British Olive Drab paint it arrived in. Illustrated by David Bocquelet.
A34 Comet of the Curragh Command, circa 1960s. By this time, all comets had been painted this light grey colour. Illustrated by David Bocquelet.

The Symbol on the side of the turret of the above illustration represents Curragh Command. It depicts gold oak leaves and acorns on a red background. There are two theories to its origin. 1: The oak leaf and acorns reflect the name of the county the camp is situated; Cill Daire, ‘The church of the oak’, anglicised as Kildare. 2: It depicts the oak leaf and acorn represents the oak trees that abound the perimeter edge of the Curragh military camp.
The headless Coachman
The improvised ‘Headless Coachman’ with 90mm Recoilless Rifle. Illustrated by David Bocquelet.

Specifications

Dimensions
L x W x H
6.55 m x 3.04 m x 2.67 m
(21ft 6in x 10ft 1in x 8ft 6in)
Total weight, battle ready 33.53 tonnes (32.7 long tons)
Crew 5 (commander, driver, gunner, loader/radio op, hull machine gunner)
Propulsion Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.III V12 Petrol/gasoline engine, 600 hp (447 kW)
Suspension Christie system
Top speed 32 mph (51 km/h)
Range (road) 155 miles (250 km)
Armament 77 mm (3.03 in) High Velocity gun, 61 rounds
2x 7.92 mm (0.31 in) BESA machine guns, 5,175 rounds
Armor From 32 to 102 mm (1.26-4.02 in)
Total Used 8

Links, Resources & Further Reading

www.curragh.info
www.historyireland.com
www.geocities.ws/irisharmoredvehicles
News reel footage of the Irish Comets in training on the Glen of Imaal
An Cosantóir, The Irish Defence Journal, March 1983 issue.
Tiger Lily Publications, Irish Army Orders of Battle 1923-2004, Adrian J. English
Irish Army Vehicles: Transport and Armour since 1922 by Karl Martin
Mushroom Model Publications, AFVs in Irish Service Since 1922, Ralph A. Riccio

Categories
Irish Cold War

Churchill Mk. VI in Irish Service

IrelandRepublic of Ireland (1949)
Infantry Tank – 4 Purchased

The Republic of Ireland Defence Forces didn’t have much experience with Tanks. In 1929, they acquired a single Vickers Mark D, a derivative of the Vickers Medium Mk II. In 1935 this was joined by a delivery of 2 Swedish Landsverk L-60 Light Tanks. The Irish continued to acquire various types of armored vehicles in the following years.

By the end of the Second World War, the British Churchill Infantry Tank had made a name for itself as being tough and reliable in hostile environments. Wanting to bolster their arsenal, the Republic of Ireland Defence Forces, specifically the Cavalry Corps (Irish: An Cór Marcra), set their sights on adopting some of the UK’s surplus tanks.

In 1948, following a brief period during which several Cavalry Corps officers trained in England, the Defence Forces of Ireland (IDF. Irish: Fórsaí Cosanta, officially: Óglaigh na hÉireann) rented three Churchill Mk.VIs from the British War Office. A fourth tank was delivered in 1949. The tanks were bought out-right in 1954.

Churchill ‘1B’ of the 1st Cavalry Squadron. Photo: An Cosantoir

The Mk.VI Churchill

Officially designated as ‘Tank, Infantry, Mk.IV, A22’, the Churchill entered service with the British Armoured forces in 1941. It was named, contrary to popular belief, after an ancestor of then serving Prime Minister, the famous Winston Churchill. Not the man himself. It was the last ‘Infantry Tank’ to serve in the British Military.

The specific model procured by Ireland was the Mk. VI Churchill, which was produced from December 1943. It had armor of up to 102mm thick over the frontal arc. The turret was a cast type and mounted the tank’s main armament of an Ordnance Quick-Firing 75mm Gun Mk. 5. This gun could fire Armor-Piercing (AP) and High-Explosive (HE) rounds. Though the HE round was rather effective, the AP was dismal. It could only penetrate 68mm (2.6in) of RHA (Rolled Homogeneous Armor) at 500 yards (460 m).

Secondary armament consisted of a coaxial and a bow mounted 7.92mm BESA machine gun. The tank was crewed by 5 men. These were the Commander, Gunner, Loader, Driver and Bow Machine Gunner/Wireless Operator.

A speed-demon the Churchill was not. A lumbering beast at approximately 40-tons, its top speed was only 15 mph (24 km/h). It was powered by a Bedford 12-cylinder engine producing 350 hp. The tank was supported on a complicated suspension with 11 small wheels per side, each one attached to an independent coil spring. The drive wheel was at the rear with a sprocketed idler at the front. Though it was slow and heavy, the Churchill made a name for itself as being one of the best cross-country tanks ever built and could climb higher gradients or cross harder obstacles than most other tanks then in service.

The Rental Agreement

Originally, the plan was to rent four Churchill tanks for £5,000 for a period of five years, starting the 25th of January 1949. Conditions were drawn up and agreed on between the Irish Government and British War Office. The Irish Government would have to meet all transport and freight costs, indemnifying the War Office for any loss or damage. There was also an agreement that the tanks would be returned to the UK immediately if requested.

As the tanks remained the property of the British War Office, strict conditions were put in place that would keep the Churchills painted with the standard British Olive Drab paint, and retain the War Department numbers painted on the hulls. 1,000 rounds of Armor Piercing (AP), 2,000 rounds of High-Explosive and 500 rounds of Smoke Shells were also ordered separately for the 75mm gun.

All four Churchill tanks on the way to the Glen of Imaal for one of their first shoots, November 1950. Photo: Aaron Smith

Service

The Churchill was considered the perfect tank for Ireland, as Defence Force heads considered their country unsuitable for tank warfare and always saw the tank as an infantry support weapon. A role the Churchill was born to fulfill. No two of the tanks were identical and had been extensively refitted and repaired. At least one had seen action with the British army and was drastically repaired after being knocked out.

The tanks were what is commonly known as REME (Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers) “Salads”. The rebuilding process saw vehicles from all units and different manufactures stripped to component parts and reassembled using refurbished parts off the shelf. Once a vehicle has been through a re-manufacturing process it will end up with very few original parts put back in. Finding matching numbers in such vehicles is incredibly rare. When rebuilt the vehicles are brought up to or as close to as possible the current standard. This will include up-armoring and up gunning. For instance, It is common to find a 1944 tank with a 1943 engine and a 1945 gearbox.

The tanks served with the 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron based at Curragh Camp, Kildare. The four tanks were alphabetically organized as follows: ‘1A’, 1B’, ‘1C’ and ‘1D’. It is reasonable to suggest that the ‘1’ is representative of the 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron. To begin with, these markings were found as large stencils on the sides of the turret. Later, these markings were changed. The 1A, B, C or D marks were moved to the left of the gun on the turret cheek. They also gained nicknames, presumably given by the crews, as is traditional. ‘1A’ was called ‘Fionn’ and ‘1D’ was originally called ‘Vampire’, but this was later changed to ‘Ḋiarmuid’. The other two were given names, but unfortunately, they are not recorded, and the visual evidence we do have is not clear enough to identify the names. The name of ‘1C’ appears to be something along the lines of ‘Cothad’. ‘Ḋiarmuid’ and ‘Fionn’ were characters from Irish Mythology. So it is likely that ‘1C’ and 1B’ followed suit. To this end, the closest name to ‘Cothad’ is a character called ‘Cathbad’. The only known name of ‘1B’ is ‘Bit Special’, what its mythological name was (if it had one) remains a mystery, however.

Though the tanks were never used in combat, they took part in training for the entirety of their service. Twice a year, the Churchills drove under their own power to the remote Glen of Imaal (Irish: Gleann Uí Mháil) in the Wicklow Mountains. 5,948 acres of the Glen had been used by the Irish Military as an artillery and gunnery range since 1900. Here, the Churchills took part in gunnery, infantry cooperation, and cross-country trails.

Churchill 1B ‘Bit Special’ scales an obstacle with 1D following. Scaling steep inclines was one of the best qualities of the Tank. Photo: An Cosantoir

The Problem with Mud and Councils

Ireland was inexperienced with heavy armored vehicles such as the Churchill, and as such were ill-equipped with recovery and transport vehicles. The need was amplified by an incident that occurred in training at the Glen of Imaal. One of the tanks broke down and became stuck in heavy mud. The military, at this point, had no way to rescue the tank or tow it back for repairs. The military elected to abandon the tank and leave it where it stood to expect for the gun which they were able to take back to base. For the following years, instead of towing the tank too-and-fro, they simply took the gun to the tank every time it was required for gunnery training. In 1967, this process was given up. In the following years it was buried where it stood to prevent public access to it.

Aside from such incidents, there were also issues raised by Civilian organizations. Complaints soon arose from the Kildare and Wicklow County Councils, who were displeased at the amount of damage the all-metal tracks of the Churchill were causing to public roads.

Such issues led to the Cavalry Corps purchasing a World War Two, ex-British Army M19 Tank Transporter. This was the combination of the 12-ton 6×4 M20 Diamond T Model 980 truck and a companion M9 12-wheel trailer. American in origin, this transporter was considered one of the best ever built, some are even privately used today. They only bought a single vehicle, however, meaning that only one tank could be transported at a time.

Churchill Tank ‘1D’ scales an incline. Another of the tanks is visible in the background, designation unknown. Photo: An Cosantoir

Purchase

In 1954, the British asked the Irish Government whether they would be renewing the lease on the Churchills. The Irish Authorities, instead of offering to renew the lease, offered the War Office the sum of £1,000 for each tank to purchase them outright. It is not clear whether this amount was the final one agreed, but nonetheless, the Churchills became 100% Irish Defence Force Property.

Churchill ‘1C’ of the Cavalry Corps and three of its crew members. In the left-rear of the photo you can see what appears to be Churchill ‘1D’. Churchill ‘1C’ was commanded by Trooper James ‘Mul’ Mulcahy (straddling the gun barrel). He recalled that “…it was a handful to drive and had a 5 man crew. [It] was tight inside…”.’Mul’ enlisted in 1948 and served in the Irish Military for 42 years, retiring in 1991. This photo was provided by James’ son, Nicky. Photo: Nicky Mulcahy Personal Collection.

The Rolls-Royce Merlin

Even before the fourth Churchill arrived in 1949, the Transport Corps, who were responsible for maintaining the tanks, had reported that spare parts for the tank’s engines and other vital components were quickly running out. In an effort to keep the tanks going, a new development was considered.

On the 14th of February 1955, Captain Collier of the Cavalry Workshops came up with a plan to replace the Churchill’s old 350hp Bedford engine with the powerful 600hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engine which had been used in many British aircraft. A derivative of the Merlin, the Meteor, had been had been used on other models of British tanks such as the Cromwell and Comet.

The plan grabbed the attention of Captain Collier’s superiors who agreed to the proposal and suggested that the proposal be tested on one of the four Churchills. The Merlin engine was to be procured from the Air-Corps and was previously installed on one of their Vickers Supermarine VS.506 Seafire LF III fighters which were being withdrawn from service. As such, there was a plentiful surplus of spare parts.

Progress on the project was slow and continued into 1956. Tests were carried out with the engine installed. These tests were an apparent success but, for reasons unrecorded, the program stopped. None of the other Churchills would see the addition of the engine.

Fate

Due to the stoppage of the Merlin trials, spare parts for the Churchills inevitably ran out. By 1967, only one Churchill remained in a serviceable condition. In 1959, the Irish tank arsenal was refreshed with the arrival of four Comet Tanks, again purchased from the UK. A further four arrived in 1960. In 1969, all Churchills were retired. Research suggests that two of the Churchills were scrapped. One in 1963, the other in 1967.

The two tanks that were not scrapped still survive today. The tank that was buried in the Glen of Imaal in 1967 was excavated and recovered in 2002/3. The tank was cleaned and presented to the UK’s North Irish Horse Regiment, based in Northern Ireland, as a goodwill gesture. It is on display at Dunmore Park in Belfast. The tank was recently repainted and received the name ‘Castlerobin III’.

In 2006, the other surviving Churchill, having been repainted a solid green, became an exhibit (along with a Comet) at the Curragh Camp Museum. It has been refitted with new fenders over the tracks that are not accurate to the original vehicle. These were fabricated locally.

Though it does not pertain to the Irish Mk. VIs, there is another restored Churchill on the Emerald Isle. In the North, a Churchill Mk. VII has been placed as a monument on the Carrickfergus seafront. It has also been named ‘Carrickfergus’. It stands as a monument to the town’s military and industrial links. The famous shipbuilders, Harland & Wolff, even built the A20 prototype in their factory in the town.

One of the Surviving Churchills as it sits today as an exhibit of the Curragh Camp Museum. Note the false, locally produced fenders. Photo: Defence Forces Irland (DFI)

For our U.K. readers, this article can also be found in the May 2018 issue of Classic Military Vehicle‘ Magazine.


Churchill VI
Churchill Tank ‘1D’, 1st Armoured Cavalry Squadron. This tank started out with the nickname ‘Vampire’, but later received the name ‘Ḋiarmuid’ from its crew, named after a charecter in Irish Mythology. Illustrated by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet, with corrections from Leander Jobse.

Specifications

Dimensions 24ft 5in x 10ft 8in x 8ft 2in (7.44 x 3.25 x 2.49 m)
Total weight, battle ready 40 tonnes
Crew 5 (commander, driver, co-driver/hull gunner, gunner, loader/radio)
Propulsion Bedford twin-six petrol, 350 hp (261 kW) at 2,200 rpm
Transmission Merritt-Brown 4 speed constant mesh epicyclic gearbox
Suspension 22 vertical coil spring bogies
Top speed 15 mph (24 km/h)
Range (road) 56 mi (90 km)
Armament Ordnance QF 75 (75 mm/2.95 in)
2x 0.303 (7.7 mm) Besa machine-guns
Armor From 25 to 102 mm (0.98-4.01 in)
Purchased 4


Archive film of the Cavalry Corps displaying their tank arsenal.

Links, Resources & Further Reading

www.curragh.info
the.shadock.free.fr
www.geocities.ws
www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk
An Cosantóir, The Irish Defence Journal
Irish Army Vehicles: Transport and Armour since 1922 by Karl Martin
Tiger Lily Publications, Irish Army Orders of Battle 1923-2004, Adrian J. English
Mushroom Model Publications, AFVs in Irish Service Since 1922, Ralph A. Riccio
Schiffer Publishing, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, David Fletcher