United Kingdom (1944)
Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle – 52-66 Built
In the mid-1940s, with amphibious landings becoming ever more prevalent during the Second World War, it became evident to the British that specialized vehicles were required to help clear the way or assist in vehicle recovery. In such a landing, it was important to keep a constant flow of traffic to allow rapid disembarkation from landing craft and the subsequent withdrawal of said craft from the area of operation. This allows the landed units to begin the fight, and continue a constant momentum in the assault.
A prime example of such a landing was looming on the horizon. This was Operation Overlord, the Allied Landings on the beaches of Normandy in 1944; D-Day. These were the largest amphibious landings to have ever been attempted, and the Allies were under no illusion that such vehicles would be necessary during the operation.
These vehicles were given the title of ‘Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles’ or ‘BARVs’. Initially, the concept was tested with modified Caterpillar D8 Tractors. The main modification was the introduction of a new superstructure with the shape of a ship’s bow. This superstructure was enclosed, and watertight. It allowed the tractor to partially submerge itself in deep waters to pull any stranded vehicles from the beach. These D8s were a relative success, but they were slow, even more so in water. They were also poorly armored.
A BARV pulls a stranded jeep from an LST (Landing Ship Tank). Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
Further tests utilized waterproofed Churchills and Shermans with simple box structures added in place of their turrets. The tests proved that an all-welded hull was the best option as it was simpler to make watertight. For this reason, the Sherman was chosen, at first in the form of the Sherman V (M4A4). Work started on the Sherman V BARV November 1943, and it was fitted with a welded, armored superstructure. An internal air intake for the crew and a bilge pump was added to pump out any water taken on. This prototype proved capable of operating in the 3-meter surf. The vehicles were needed urgently, as such certain features were negated such as a winch and beach-anchors. Therefore all recoveries were in the form of straight pulls.
An order was placed for 50 BARVs, later raised to 66. The production version would be based on the plentiful Sherman III (M4A2).
M4A2, The Sherman III
The M4A2 appeared in 1942 and, like the M4, was of a completely welded construction. The major difference between the A2 and other models of the tank was the GM 6046 twin diesel engine. The tank weighed 32 tons, with the weight supported on a Vertical Volute Spring Suspension (VVSS). Top speed was around 22–30 mph (35–48 km/h). Usual armament consisted of a 75mm gun in the turret, a coaxial and a bow mounted .30 cal machine gun. The tank was manned by a five-man crew; commander, gunner, loader, bow gunner/assistant driver, and driver.
The M4A2 was rarely used by forces of the United States, though a few did see service in the Pacific with US Marines fighting the Japanese. It found a home in the British Army where it was known as the Sherman III. It was also used by the Soviets and the French.
One of the reasons the A2 was chosen for the BARV project was its diesel engine. It was believed that this engine would be less affected by rapidly alternating temperatures due to plunging in and out of the ocean. As discussed above, the welded construction made the hull easier to waterproof.
The design of the BARV was developed by the Experimental Beach Recovery Section of the Corps of Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME), working with the Mechanical Engineering (ME) Directorate of the War Office. The design replaced the tank’s turret with a large superstructure shaped like a ship’s bow. The superstructure stretched the length of the tank’s hull, right over the engine deck. The structure would allow the BARV to be stable while submerged and allowed it to operate in water up to 9 feet (2.7 meters) deep. A large vent was added at the rear of the structure to allow the escape of exhaust smoke and gases. In front of this was an extendable snorkel. This allowed air into the engine bay to keep it cool and allow it to breathe. When not in use, the snorkel could be retracted so the vehicle wasn’t too tall for transportation.
Two Sherman BARVs and one D8 BARV attempt to recover a stranded Churchill Mk.IV in a training situation on the English coast. Photo: HMSO, Vanguard of Victory: The 79th Armoured Division
The superstructure was armored enough to withstand small arms fire and cannon fire. The best defense, however, was to simply sit the tank in deep water as the amount of the tank exposed would be very small and the water surrounding it would help to shelter it from incoming fire.
On each side of the superstructure, atop the sponsons, heavy-duty wire mesh catwalks were added. The wire mesh allowed water to pass straight through. These reduced the vehicle’s floatation but still to allowed the crew to walk along the length of the vehicle. A folding ladder was attached to the back of the right-hand catwalk to allow the crew to climb up onto the towering vehicle. Ropes were looped through small struts attaching the catwalk to the sponsons to assist crewmen mounting the tank while exiting water.
A BARV towing a small truck up a beach. The commander, standing on the catwalk, is communicating with the driver via a microphone and headset. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
A winch was deleted from the BARV’s design. Even though the winch would be internal, it was considered too much of a hassle to try and waterproof the winch cable aperture. Because of this, the BARV would have to use brute force alone to tow stranded vehicles off the beach. There was also a large, rope covered wooden buffer block mounted at the front of the hull. This was used to shunt landing craft back out to sea, or assist in pushing other vehicles up the beach if they were having trouble finding traction. Shunting is also faster and does not require a crewman to exit the vehicle.
Visibility was poor for the driver who had only a glass vision port to look through, and in deep water, it was next to useless. The commander had a hatch at the top from which he would guide the driver. It was recommended that in hostile situations the commander navigate ‘under-armor’, but as with other tanks, the BARV’s commanders operated mostly head out. Being quite high up, this gave him better vision all around although he was exposed to enemy fire in doing so.
Three of the BARVs crew members ride atop their vehicle as it passes Sherman Tanks of the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, during that regiment’s move from Petworth to Gosport in preparation for D-Day. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
The BARVs had a unique crew make up of men from the Royal Engineers which included a trained diver. Equipped with breathing apparatus, it was his job to attach tow lines to submerged vehicles. It was a five-man crew including the diver, the other crewmen being the commander, driver and two mechanical engineers. These members of the crew also had access to the breathing apparatus.
Diver Assisted Recovery: The BARV would reverse up to the front of the stranded tank. Before diving, to reduce buoyancy, the diver would enter the water and open a small valve in his sleeve, allowing water pressure to push air out through it. He would then climb aboard the vehicle once more to attach his lifeline and put on his breathing mask and goggles.
The diver then went overboard, taking a tow line with him. The tow line was then attached to any of the towing shackles at the front of the stranded vehicle. Once the diver returned aboard the BARV, a brute force tug got the stranded tank to shore. Clearing LST Launch Ramps: A tank getting stuck at the end of a launch ramp of an LST (Landing Ship Tank) would hold up the disembarkation of following vehicles. A BARV, following signals from the stranded tank commander, would approach backward. A tow line would then be attached. A good deal of slack was granted, with the BARV moving about 10 meters away from the stranded tank. This was to avoid the stranded tank suddenly rolling down the ramp and rear-ending the BARV. Once ready, the slack would be taken up, and the BARV would pull the tank up the beach. Shunting: Should a tank be having trouble getting up the beach, the BARV would approach from the rear and use its wooden buffer block to push the tank up the beach. As mentioned above, the block was also used to push off empty landing crafts that have become beached.
The Wooden blocks on the Front of the BARV at the D-Day Story in Portsmouth, UK. Photo: Author’s own
The Sherman III (M4A2) based Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (BARV). The blue, yellow and red tri-colour flag is that of the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME). Illustration by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin, funded by our Patreon Campaign.
The BARV is often referred to as one of ‘Hobart’s Funnies’. However, this is not strictly correct as Major General Percy Hobart was not involved in the project, and it did not serve in his famous 79th Armoured Division. It is a ‘Funny’, as in a strange looking vehicle with a unique purpose, but it is no one of Hobart’s.
One of the D8 BARVs in Normandy, 1944. A Sherman BARV can be seen operating in the background. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
Around 52 BARVs were deployed on D-Day, providing crucial assistance in getting vehicles on and off the assaulted beaches. The BARVs, along with tractors and wheeled recovery vehicles formed REME Beach Recovery Sections. These were some of the first units of the beach. It is known that at least one BARV was used to carry two motorcycles onto shore. These were attached to the side of the vehicle’s superstructure.
After the landings, they were kept in reserve, helping out at pop-up harbors and landing sites. They did serve in action once more during the war, however, being called on to assist in the Rhine crossings of March 1945.
The Sherman BARVs remained in service well into the 1950s. By this time, it was becoming clear that the old Sherman was having trouble towing the heavier landing craft and vehicles coming into service. Work on a replacement would begin in 1956/57. The replacement was based on the ever reliable FV4200 Centurion tank, specifically the Mk.3 version. This new BARV would enter service in 1963, fully replacing the Shermans.
Other Nation’s BARVs
Seeing the success of the British Sherman BARV, the Australians began developing their own version based on the M3A5 Grant, upgraded with the M4 Sherman’s VVSS suspension. It was equipped with all the same equipment, including the ‘ship’s bow’ superstructure, wooden buffer block, and towing ropes.
The vehicle was designated the ‘Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (AUST) No.1 Mark 1’ (AUST for Australia). It had a shallower operating depth than the Sherman, only able operate in up to 2 meters of water with a 1-meter swell. Just one of these conversions was produced, and it served up to 1970. The vehicle survives today, and is on display at the Army Tank Museum, Puckapunyal.
Australia’s Grant BARV, on display at the Army Tank Museum. Photo: Wikimedia
The Canadian Military attempted to create a BARV on the hull of their Ram Cruiser Tank. The asymmetrical cast hull of the Ram made it hard to completely waterproof. As such, only one prototype was created, and it does not seem to survive today.
Canada’s Ram BARV. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
A number of these unique Sherman modifications do survive. Perhaps the best example can be found at the ‘D-Day Story’ Museum in Portsmouth, UK. Another can be found in the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME) Museum in Wiltshire, UK. One is also in the private collection of military vehicle restorer Rex Cadman. It is in running condition, and often even takes part in amphibious demonstrations. A slightly less fortunate example can be found as a rusting hulk outside the Tank Museum, Bovington, near the car park. This was an ex-range target from Salisbury Plain. One more BARV can be found as far afield as India, at the Cavalry Tank museum, Maharashtra.
Sherman BARV ‘Vera’ at the D-Day Story Museum in Portsmouth, UK. Looking at casting marks on the hull, it appears this BARV was converted from an M4A2, and is a Pullman Standard. The tread plate attached between the wooden buffers and hull is a post war addition. Photo: Author’s own
Rex Cadman’s running BARV in an amphibious demonstration. Photo: Rex Cadman
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United Kingdom (1942)
Engineering Vehicle – Approximately 700 Built
The disastrous Dieppe Raid of August 19th, 1942, forced a great deal of reevaluating as to how combat engineers would operate on the battlefield. A Canadian Officer of the Royal Canadian Engineers, John James Denovan, began work on developing an armored vehicle that would allow them to carry out their objectives, but remain protected.
Denovan worked at the Special Devices Branch of the Department of Tank Design (DTD) in England alongside the Assistant Director of the Branch, Lieutenant Colonel George Reeves. Reeves had been an observer at the Raid on Dieppe, and noted just how difficult it was for engineers to clear the anti-tank obstacles on the beach under heavy fire, which kept the attacking tanks pinned down on the beach. The Lieutenant Colonel decided to base this new armored vehicle on the Churchill Infantry Tank. With this idea, the ‘Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers’, or ‘A.V.R.E.’ was born.
Wounded soldiers taking shelter behind a Churchill AVRE on Juno beach. Photo: www.tank-hunter.com
The Churchill Tank
Officially designated as ‘Tank, Infantry, Mk.IV, A.22’, the Churchill entered service with the British Armoured Forces in 1941. It was named, contrary to popular belief, after an ancestor of the famous Winston Churchill, not the man himself. It was the last ‘Infantry Tank’ to serve in the British Military. Churchills were well armored. The thickness of the armor would increase with subsequent models of the tank. At its thickest, Churchill Mk.I had 102mm (4.in) of armor. This increased to an impressive 152mm (6in) with the Mk.VII.
The Churchill went through a number of upgrades to its main armament throughout its service. Churchill Mk.I and IIs were armed with a 2-Pounder (40mm) gun, the Mk.III and IVs were armed with a 6-Pounder (57mm) gun and the Mk.VI and VIIs were armed with a 75mm (2.95in) gun. The Mk.V and VIIIs were designed as Close Support (CS) tanks, so they were exclusively armed with a 95mm (3.7mm) Howitzer.
The Churchill was not fast. 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 impassible to most other tanks then in service.
The Churchill served for the remainder of the Second World War, and even saw action in the Korean War. The Infantry Tank version of the Churchill was officially removed from service in 1952.
Development of the A.V.R.E.
Development started on modifying the Churchill in October 1942. To demonstrate the basic layout of equipment and stowage areas, the inside of a standard Churchill was completely stripped out. These areas had to hold explosives, charges, fuses, and various other pieces of equipment essential for Royal Engineer operations.
Plans for the tank escalated quickly. It was decided not only to make the vehicle a kind of armored personnel carrier but also give the Engineers the ability to project a large high-explosive charge, giving the crew the ability to destroy targets without having to dismount the tank. For it to be effective, the propelled charge would have to be a large one capable of cracking concrete or clearing a large gap in any obstacle. The resultant weight of such a charge was a problem, however, and was beyond the capacity of any available gun. Trying to fit a large, traditional type howitzer into the rather small turret of the Churchill would also be a hard task.
The Petard 29mm Spigot Mortar was chosen for the main armament of the Churchill A.V.R.E. The bomb contains a hollow tube that fits over a 29mm diameter rod, known as the spigot. There is a propelling charge and cartridge at the end of the tube and a firing pin within the spigot. When the charge is detonated the bomb is fired off, with the propellant gas expanding between the spigot and the hollow tube. Many books, Museum information boards and websites wrongly state that it was armed with a 290mm spigot mortar but in 2023 the correct information was discovered by Military Historian Ed Webster in the National Archives at Kew. His findings were verified by Tim Issacs, the owner of the Cobbaton Combat Collection military museum in North Devon. He measured the spigot rod on the A.V.R.E. turret in his collection and confirmed it was 29 mm in diameter. The correct specification of the A.V.R.E. is a Petard 29mm Spigot Mortar (290mm is 11.41 inches: having a firing pin that is nearly one foot in diameter is obviously not correct but for many years this incorrect fact was not questioned).
This is the No.1 Demolition Bomb filled with 40lbs of explosives that was fired by the Churchill A.V.R.E.’s 29mm Spigot Mortar. It was 636.1mm long and had a diameter of 230.6mm. This spigot mortar was given the official code word “Flying Dustbin,” it was not a nickname. The British word ‘Dustbin’ is ‘trash can’ in American English. (Source: War Office document found by Ed Webster in the National Archives at Kew)
On the cut-away diagram on the right the long thin black area is where the 29mm diameter spigot rod is inserted into the No.1 Demolition Bomb. (Source: War Office)
Tim Issacs, runs the Cobbaton Combat Collection in North Devon. He has a Churchill Mk.IV A.V.R.E. turret fitted with a Petard 29mm Spigot Mortar. He took measurements of the loading trough of the mortar. It was 26 inches (660.4mm) long and the inside diameter was 9 1/2 inches (241.3mm). The spigot rod was 12 1/2 inches (317.5mm) long and 1.14 inches (29mm) in diameter. (Photo: Mark Nash)
A crew member cleans the Mortar trough of a Mk.III A.V.R.E.. Note the size of the 40lb No.1 Demolition Bomb ‘Flying Dustbin’ on the man’s left. Photo: IWM
The name ‘Petard’ is a 16th-century word of French origin describing ‘a bomb to breach’. It was designed to blow through roadblocks, bunkers, pillboxes and other concrete, brick or earthen obstacles and defences.
This large projectile would be pushed into the short barrel of the motar. The weapon was specially designed to fit the existing mantlets of either 6-Pounder (57mm) or 75mm Gun armed Churchills. This greatly simplified production as no alterations would have to be made to accommodate the new weapon.
A disadvantage to the weapon, however, was the fact that the loader’s hands would have to be exposed when reloading the mortar. Not ideal in combat situations. To begin loading, the turret would be traversed so the Petard was over the bow gunners position. This man would then slide open his hatch (which replaced the two-part hatch on standard Churchills) and reach up to the barrel of the Petard. Like a giant shotgun, the barrel would be broken in half, and a fresh round inserted.
This photo shows the loading sequence of the Petard. Photo: The Tank Museum
Firing the round was achieved via a large spring loaded rod. Upon the trigger being pulled, this large firing pin would strike and ignite the propellant charge in the back of the mortar bomb, sending it flying out of the stubby barrel.
The A.V.R.E. retained the standard secondary armament of a coaxial and a bow mounted BESA 7.92mm Machine Guns.
Following a successful demonstration of the weapon, the War Office approved the production of the vehicle on the 14th January 1943. The A.V.R.E.s would be based on the Mk.III (welded-turret) and IV (cast turret) Churchill. Military Historian Ed Webster found a letter marked Secret in the National Archives at Kew dated 10 November 1943 from the War Office to the Ministry of Supply confirming that 475 Churchills were be converted into the first batch of A.V.R.E.s (War Office ref AR2/AFV/27)
A.V.R.E.s would also carry various other pieces of equipment to assist their comrades on the battlefield. These included fascines. Fascines had been carried by tanks since their earliest days on the devastated battlefields of the First World War, most notably at the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Fascines are used to fill wide trenches or ditches to allow tanks to cross. They are usually fabricated from brushwood, bound tightly together into a cylinder. These wooden fascines were around 8 feet (2.4 meters) in diameter and approximately 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide.
The Fascines would be carried on the front of the tank over the driver and co-driver position on a wooden cradle. The Turret had to traverse to the left or right to facilitate this. It would be tipped off into the offending ditch when required. Sometimes, the bundles would be carried on the engine deck, but this wasn’t recommended practice as the bundles could catch fire.
A fascine is loaded on to an awaiting Mk.IV A.V.R.E.. The muzzle of the Petard is tilted up in the reloading position. This photo shows both side-hatches of the Churchill open. You can see right through the vehicle. Photo: SOURCE
Small Box Girder Bridge
The A.V.R.E. was also able to carry and place the ‘Small Box Girder’ bridge. This bridge was 30 feet (9.1 meters) long and could support a 40 ton (40.6 tonne) tank. A cable and winch were attached to the engine deck, with an A-frame attached to the front of the tank. The bridge was carried hanging at the front of the tank at an angle of around 60-Degrees. The weight of this bridge hanging off the bow compressed the forward suspension bogies and lifted the rear ones off the ground. As such, driving while carrying it was not easy. The bridge would be lowered via the winch over small rivers, craters or other obstacles to allow other tanks and vehicles to pass.
There were attempts at carrying the bridge in other ways. These included folding the bridge in half (like a modern scissor bridge) and towing the bridge behind the tank with wheels added to the bottom of the bridge. Bridge carrying A.V.R.E.s were not very popular with Captains and helmsman of landing ships as the bridges caught the wind. Having them at the front of landing ships made them hard to steer, so they were often loaded as far back on the deck as possible.
Churchill A.V.R.E. carrying a bridge. Photo: The Tank Museum
‘Bobbin Carrier’ or ‘Carpet Layer’
Another famous role for the A.V.R.E. was as the ‘Bobbin Carrier’. There were two types, the Type C and the Type D. The Type C was the smaller of the two and was carried hanging in front of the tank single arms. The Type D is the larger and most famous of the two, a was supported by a larger frame over the front end of the A.V.R.E.. Both of the Types were carried utilizing special universal mounts on the sides of the Churchill. The frame supported a large reel (or, hence the name, bobbin) of canvas matting or wooden beams. The tank would drive over the matting, laying it as it drove.
The Type D would be employed on soft beaches and would lay down a secure surface for following troops and vehicles to advance on. The Type C was designed to flatten down barbed wire and similar obstacles. Once the ‘carpet’ was laid, the crew could detach it from inside with blow out pins. Used ‘bobbins’ were simply discarded on the battlefield.
Churchill A.V.R.E. with the Type D ‘Bobbin Carrier’. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Bull’s Horn Mine Plow
Many mine plows were designed, tested and used with the Churchill A.V.R.E.s. The Bull’s Horn, in particular, is named here because, 1: it was one of the only successful designs, and 2: it is named after the Bull’s head logo of the 79th Armoured Division. The Bull’s Horn Plow, specifically a Mk.III, was only used once in the War. This was on D-Day, on Sword Beach.
The plow consisted of a large frame carried at the front of the tank. It was connected to a winch that allowed it to be lifted for travel. There were two blades on it, each with six teeth. At the front of the of the frame was two large skids that kept the plow from digging too far into the ground. The plow lifted mines out of the ground and pushed them to the side of the tank, creating a safe lane.
The Bull’s Horn equipped on a Churchill during testing. Photo: Weapons and Warfare
Canadian Indestructible Roller Device (CIRD)
The A.V.R.E. was also able to be fitted with the interestingly named ‘Canadian Indestructible Roller Device’, also known as the CIRD. This was a mine exploding device carried on the front of the tank. It consisted of a large, simple frame. At the center, two heavy rollers were attached to tightly sprung levers. Should the rollers detonate a mine, the springs would absorb the impact.
A Mk.III A.V.R.E. with the CIRD equipped. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
Conger Mine Clearing Line Charge
The COnger was perhaps the most dangerous (to everyone) piece of equipment carried by the A.V.R.E.s. The Conger, named after the Eel, was what is now known as a ‘Mine Clearing Line Charge’. It was based on the chassis of a Universal Carrier with its engine removed so it could be towed as a trailer. The clearing device itself consisted of a 5-inch (12.7 cm) rocket and a long hose.
At a minefield, the rocket would be launched taking with it the empty hose, which would then fall over the length of the minefield. The hose would then be pumped end-to-end full of Nitro-Glycerine and detonated it. Mines in the vicinity would then detonate as result of Sympathetic detonation, clearing a path through the minefield. The Conger was one of the first of such devices to be used. Following the Conger, the British developed the Giant Viper. The US Military still uses a similar device called the M58 ‘MICLIC’. This is towed but is also mounted directly to the Assualt Breacher Vehicle (ABV).
A Mk.IV A.V.R.E. towing the Conger. Photo: The Tank Museum
Service in Brief
The A.V.R.E.’s first action would come on D-Day, the storming of the beaches that was at the core of their design. One such account from the 5th Battalion of the East Yorkshire Regiment describes one of the first actions the A.V.R.E. would engage in. The 5th Battalion had a hard fight over on the extreme left-hand side of Gold Beach at La Riviére on D-Day, where the concrete defenses had survived the shelling. After several armored vehicles had been knocked out, an A.V.R.E. appeared. A forty-pound Petard bomb was soon launched from the maw of the stubby barrel. It was a direct hit, destroying the emplacement containing the anti-tank gun which had inflicted so many losses.
A Churchill Mk.III A.V.R.E. leads a Sherman Firefly through the Bocage, 1944. Photo: NAM 1975-03-63-19-55
But the East Yorks, amid the dust and smoke from the bombardment, still needed several more hours to clear La Riviöre, house by house. Churchill Crocodiles, flame-throwing tanks, also helped, while the flail tanks of the Westminster Dragoons soon cleared the minefields.
A.V.R.E.s would see service during Operation Astonia. Starting on the 10th of September 1944, the objective of this operation was to capture the French town of Le Havre. In this heavily mined area, the A.V.R.E.s worked closely with Sherman Crab flail tanks which cleared a safe path. Various equipment was fielded by the A.V.R.E.s in this operation, including the Small Box Girder bridge.
In action, the A.V.R.E. would work closely with the dreaded, fire-breathing, Churchill Crocodile, to combat bunkers and dug-in positions. More often than not, the psychological effect of the vehicles would be enough to beat the foe. One can only imagine the dread felt by the Germans who were being stared down by the mortar of the A.V.R.E. and the flaming nozzle of the Crocodile.
When facing a stubborn enemy bunker or position, the Crocodile would lay some flame in visual range to showcase its deadly breath. Should the position continue to stand, the accompanying A.V.R.E. would crack it open with a mortar round. The Crocodile would then proceed to cover the breached area in the flaming liquid which would then flow into the position. This method of ‘Bunker Busting’ is often to referred to as ‘Corkscrew and Blowtorch’, a phrase coined by American forces fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.
This very tactic would be employed by A.V.R.E.s and Crocodiles during the Fall of Goch, a German border town, on the 20th February 1945. Goch was the final objective in Operation Veritable, and a number of bunkers and pillboxes were proving to be stubborn opponents. The 79th Armoured Division, working with the 107th Regiment of the Royal Armoured Corps (107 RAC), methodically dealt with these targets, following closely the method outlined above. Stage 1: The Bunkers would be assailed by a barrage of fire from 75mm gun armed Churchills, and 95mm Howitzer fire from Churchill Vs. Stage 2: Should the target refuse to yield, A.V.R.E.s would be brought up, under cover from the gun tanks due to the limited range of the A.V.R.E.s Petard. Stage 3: Should the enemy continue to stand, the Crocodiles would be called in. If the enemy did not surrender after the first burst of flame, they would never get another chance.
Two A.V.R.E.s taking part in Operation Veritable in 1945 crossing boggy ground. Photo: SOURCE
A.V.R.E. vs Panther
Near Tilly-sur-Seulles in Normandy, on the 17th of June, 1944, an interesting altercation took place between a Churchill A.V.R.E., and one of Germany’s most feared tanks, the Panzer V Panther. Fierce fighting had erupted as Allied tanks and infantry pushed down the village’s main road. One A.V.R.E. was nearing a crossroads. Its gunner, Sapper Sydney Blaskett, was spraying machine gun fire into bushes thought to be occupied by enemy infantry. Suddenly, just in front of the tank, a Panther appeared at the short range of only 50 yards.
Under orders from his commander, Spr Blaskett traversed the turret around. The cavernous maw of the 29mm Spigot Mortar was stuffed with the 40Lb “Flying Dustbin”. With a bang, the heavy projectile was hurled towards the Panther. It whirled through the air, arching straight towards the point of aim. Spr Blaskett had aimed his shot at the Panthers turret ring. The round exploded after hitting a telegraph pole three feet away from the Panther. When the explosion had cleared the Panther was still, and never moved again. The blast from the round had put it out of action.
On 20th October 1944, at IJzendijke, a small city in the Netherlands near the Belgian border, the Conger showed just how deadly it could be. There were four A.V.R.E.s being resupplied in a depot here in a lull during action in Operation Switchback, part of the Battle of the Scheldt. Troops were unloading Jerry Cans full of the extremely unstable and volatile Nitro-Glycerine used in the Conger from two Bedford supply trucks. During the process, the Nitro detonated. The resulting, colossal explosion vaporized the supply trucks, completely destroyed the two A.V.R.E.s, claimed the lives of 47 troops, wounded 37, and also resulted in the death of the civilian inhabitants of a nearby farmhouse. As a result of this, the Conger was never used again.
This is claimed to be a photo of the aftermath of the Conger explosion, though this cannot be corroborated. In the picture though, the remains of one of the destroyed Bedford trucks. Photo: Source Unknown
Proposed Upgrade, ‘Ardeer Aggie’
Two of the major problems with the A.V.R.E. was the Petard Mortar’s limited range of 100 yards (91 meters) and the fact that it had to be loaded externally. In 1943, a new, more powerful weapon was tested. The bore was increased to 300mm, with a barrel length of 3 meters and the weapon could be loaded from inside the turret. This prototype is often erroneously referred to as simply “Ardeer Aggie” when a more accurate name would be ‘Churchill Mk.III with Ardeer Aggie’
The prototype Churchill with ‘Ardeer Aggie’ mortar. Photo: The Tank Museum
Post War, the FV3903
Such was the success of the original vehicle in the Second World War, that between 1947 and the early 1950s, 88 of the later Mk.VII Churchills were converted into a new, improved version of the A.V.R.E., which was designated the FV3903. Even with this new generation, though, the Petard armed A.V.R.E.s continued to serve until 1964. The designation of the vehicle was changed, however. The original nomenclature, ‘Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers’ would be replaced with ‘Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers’.
A Churchill Mk.VII FV3903 A.V.R.E. named ‘Mars’, carrying a wicker fascine. Note the reward facing loudspeaker on the back of the turret. These A.V.R.E.s had one of these speakers on each side of the turret so the Commander could communicate with infantry following the tank. Photo: Haynes Publishing
The biggest change came with the weaponry. The trusty 29mm Petard mortar was replaced with the new Ordnance BL 6.5″ Mk.I. This 165mm bore demolition gun was a breach loader, a vast improvement over the Petard. The gun fired a 64 lb (29 kg) High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) shell at up to 2,400 m (2,600 yd). This was a huge range increase compared to the 100 yard (91 meter) range of the Petard. The round had no shell case in the traditional sense. Instead, the charge was placed inside a perforated base connected directly to the warhead.
The new A.V.R.E.’s primary role would not differ from the original. It would use its gun to breach and destroy obstacles and fortifications. Also, like the original, it could fulfill a number of other roles and carried various pieces of equipment, such as individual demolition charges carried which the crew could place by hand. The A.V.R.E. could be used as mobile crane, fascine carrier, bridge layer, bulldozer and as a tractor.
Despite work beginning in 1947, this new A.V.R.E. did not enter service until 1954. The A.V.R.E. was one of the last types of Churchill to serve with the British Army, superseded only by the mine-clearing Churchill Toad which was produced up to 1956. As far as it is known, they were never used in combat, and in 1955, work began on its replacement, the Centurion A.V.R.E..
Fortunately, quite a large number of A.V.R.E.s survive today. The most famous is the ‘Graye-sur-Mer A.V.R.E.’ in Normandy, France. This A.V.R.E., called ‘Avenger’, belonged to the 26th Engineer Squadron, which landed on the morning of D-Day. It sank into a 4-meter deep bomb crater, concealed from its driver by the shallow flooded area that surrounded it. Four members of its 6 man crew were killed by German machine gun and rifle fire as they tried to escape. The other two were seriously injured and had to be evacuated later in the day. A bridge was laid over the sunken Churchill tank to allow Allied troops across the flooded land. The tank was used as a bridge support.
It remained buried for 32 years. In November 1976, a team of British Army soldiers and engineers extracted the Churchill A.V.R.E. tank from its wartime grave. The two surviving members of the tank crew, Tank Driver Bill Dunn, and Bill Hawkins were present when it was lifted back onto the beach. The D-Day tank unit commander General A.E. Younger was also present. Once it had been restored it was erected on a concrete plinth as a memorial to all the brave soldiers who had died or were wounded on that section of the coast on D-Day. It is situated only a few meters from where it sunk into the large flooded bomb hole.
This Churchill Mk.IV A.V.R.E. tank war memorial can be found Lion-sur-Mer 14780, Boulevard Anatole France at the junction with Avenue de Blagny. It was the idea of General Sir Ian Harris who commanded the 2nd R.U.R. (Royal Ulster Rifles) infantry battalion on D-Day. On this western end of Sword Beach, Lieutenant-Colonel GRAY and his men of 41st Commandos were met with accurate fire from the moment they set foot on land. Besides their human casualties, they found themselves with no radio until the afternoon and were bombed by the “Luftwaffe” the following morning. Elements of the German 21st Panzer Division slipped between British 3rd Division and Canadian 3rd Division. “Sword” and “Juno” that had not linked up at that stage. The Allied beachhead was under threat. At 8 pm, the Germans reached the French seaside towns of Luc-sur-Mer and Lion-sur-Mer. The Germans were not reinforced and had to withdraw. They had seen the English Channel for the last time. The survivors of 41st Commando were reinforced by the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment and the Royal Ulster Rifles, and they then went back onto the attack and liberated Lion-sur-Mer then marched on to liberate Luc-sur-Mer. This tank has the classic Churchill tank ribbed ‘catwalk’ upper track guard. The Churchill A.V.R.E. at Graye-sur-Mer has a smooth metal upper track guard. This protective paint is not the correct wartime colour.
For a time, one of the later Churchill Mk.VII FV3903 A.V.R.E.s was part of the Littlefield collection, along with a Churchill Toad. However, since the collection was sold off in 2014, it is unknown what happened to the A.V.R.E.. The Toad ended up in the Australian Armor and Artillery Museum.
An article by Mark Nash, assisted by David Lister
ARVE in action on D-Day
Gun Emplacement Wn.33 – Boulevard de la Plage, Ver-sur-Mer, Gold Beach
On 6 June 1944, D-Day, trooper Jim Smith of B Squadron, Westminster Dragoons, was a gunner in a Sherman Crab tank fitted with an anti-mine flail device on a 10-foot boom at the front. His gun was pointed to the rear of the tank as they approached Gold Beach near La Reverie, in a tank landing craft LCT. This would prevent the barrel from getting caked in sand and mud as the chains on the circular boom arms started to pound the ground to explode any buried German mines. At about 7.25am the landing craft ramp went down, and two 82 Squadron, 6 Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers, Churchill A.V.R.E. tanks drove off onto the sand. There were two large explosions. Both tanks were hit in the side by armour-piercing shells fired from a German beach defence 8.8-cm Pak 43/41 anti-tank gun situated in a concrete casemate, numbered Wn.33. This gun emplacement had survived the initial bombing and shelling. Its gun pointed along the length of the beach not out to sea.
The gun crew had never seen a Sherman Crab before. It must have appeared to them to be less of a threat compared to the other tanks starting to land further down the shoreline. They turned their attention to them. This gave Jim Smith the chance to turn his gun towards the German bunker. He fired two high explosive shells at the gun aperture, but the German gun kept firing down the beach. He then loaded an armour piercing round and fired it at the enemy gun. It went straight through the aperture and knocked out the gun, enabling other tanks to land on this section of Gold beach.
The British Army first used mine clearance flail tanks in the deserts of North Africa in 1942. The design was modified and went into production to be ready in time for D-Day. The Sherman tank was chosen to have a permanently mounted flail system fitted. The Sherman Crab’s flail was powered by the tank’s engine. The rotor was fitted with 43 long chains that were spun at 142 revolutions per minute. This speed could be altered when the tank slowed down to clear an obstacle or go uphill. If an exploding mine damaged a chain, a new one could be added later. Cutter blades were added to the rotor. These cut barbed wire and stopped the flail from getting entangled. An armoured blast shield between the flail chains and the front of the tank helped protect the crew from the effects of mine detonation. Unfortunately, there is no surviving example of a Sherman Crab in Normandy.
Gun Emplacement Wn.37 – Le Hamel East defences, Boulevard de la Mer, Asnelles-sur-Mer, Gold Beach
Gold Beach was the central beach of the five designated landing beaches on D-Day 6 June 1944. It was more than 10 miles wide and ran from Port-en-Bessin to Ver-sur-Mer. Only certain parts of it were attacked. When the first wave of British Churchill A.V.R.E., Centaur and Sherman Crab tanks landed on the Jig-Green section of Gold beach, east of Le Hamel, many were knocked out by an 8.8-cm Pak 43/41 anti-tank gun situated in a type 677 concrete casemate, numbered Wn.37. It had a clear field of fire down the beach. The coastal defences at ‘Le Hamel East’ had been missed by the initial bombardment from the sea and bombing from the air. This caused problems. The DD Sherman swimming tanks of the second assault wave tried to destroy the gun with their 14-pound, 75-mm high explosive shells but failed. Most of them were knocked out and littered the beach. The enemy gun was also damaging landing craft. A few 25-pdr Sexton artillery self-propelled guns on the next wave were also knocked out but several made it up the beach and past the sand dunes along with some other tanks and infantry.
The Hampshire Regiment’s objective was the defences at ‘Le Hamel East’, but the strong longshore drift current had pushed their infantry landing craft east. They landed opposite the gun emplacement Wn.36. Although being fired upon by the soldiers manning the gun emplacement Wn.37 at ‘Le Hamel East,’ they managed to overcome the German defenders in Wn.36 as they were groggy from the after-effects of the successful early morning bombardment at this location. Company A of the 1st Battalion, Hampshire Regiment, 231st Brigade then moved west along Gold beach to attack their primary objective, the coastal defences Wn.37 at ‘Le Hamel East.’ The attack came to a halt as they came under heavy fire. It was decided to stop the beach attack and mount a new attack from inland.
Company B of the Hampshire Regiment, with help from a Churchill A.V.R.E. tank, called Loch Leven, commanded by sergeant Bert Scaife RE, circled around Asnelles-sur-Mer (pronounced “an-ell”) and headed back north towards the coast at Le Hamel. The tank crew fired two 29mm Petard spigot 40-pound mortar rounds, each containing a 25-pound high explosive warhead, at the old sanitorium hospital that had been converted into a sniper and machine gun infested strongpoint. The defenders surrendered. The Churchill A.V.R.E. tank then got close to the back of the gun emplacement and fired another 29mm Petard spigot mortar round at the back door.
At the same time sergeant Robert E. Palmer of the 147th (Essex Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery, who commanded a 25-pdr Sexton artillery self-propelled gun called ‘Foxholes,’ attacked the front of the gun emplacement. A Sexton only had thin armour and was not intended to be used as a front-line assault weapon. They got within 300 yards of the location by driving towards the coast from inland, along a line of trees. He instructed the driver to turn a sharp 45 degrees as soon as they past the last bit of cover and the gunner to open fire. Two 25-pound high explosive shells were fired at the gun aperture. The second one went in and exploded. The attack from the front and the rear put the gun out of action. This happened at around 3.30 pm. Some of the defenders survived. Most were German, but a few were shouting, “Russkis! Russkis!” as they surrendered. These enemy soldiers had fought with determination and courage, holding up the beach landings for nearly eight hours. They were told the 21st Panzer Division was fighting its way to the beaches. The successful attacks by the Sexton, Churchill A.V.R.E. and men of the Hampshire Regiment, allowed the 231 Infantry Brigade to continue their advance inland. Sergeant Palmer was awarded the Military Medal, and sergeant Bert Scaife received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for their actions on D-Day.
24ft 5in x 10ft 8in x 8ft 2in
(7.44 m x 3.25 m x 2.49 m)
Aprox. 40 tonnes
5 (driver, bow-gunner, gunner, commander, loader)
350 hp Bedford horizontally opposed twin-six petrol engine
15 mph (24 km/h)
Petard 29mm Spigot Mortar (firing a 40lb No.1 Demolition Bomb)
2 x 7.92mm (0.3 in) BESA machine guns
From 25 to 152 mm (0.98-5.98 in)
Links & Resources
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #7 Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51
Haynes Owners Workshop Manuals, Churchill Tank 1941-56 (all models). An insight into the history, development, production and role of the British Army tank of the Second Wold War.
Schiffer Publishing, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, David Fletcher
Pen & Sword, Churchill’s Secret Weapons: The Story of Hobart’s Funnies, Patrick Delaforce
David Fletcher, Vanguard of Victory: The 79th Armoured Division, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office www.historyofwar.org
Churchill Mk.III A.V.R.E., identified by the square, welded turret
Churchill Mk.IV A.V.R.E., identified by the rounded cast turret, with attached ‘Canadian Indestructible Roller Device’ or ‘CIRD’.
Illustrations by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet
The later FV3903 A.V.R.E. based on the Churchill VII that saw the Petard Mortar replaced with a 165mm Demolition Gun. Illustration by Tank Encyclopedia’s own AmazingAce, based on work by David Bocquelet.
British Churchill Tank – Tank Encyclopedia Support Shirt
Sally forth in with confidence in this Churchill tee. A portion of the proceeds from this purchase will support Tank Encyclopedia, a military history research project.Buy this T-Shirt on Gunji Graphics!
United Kingdom/United States of America (1942)
Infantry Support Tanks
At the time of its conception, the Canal Defence Light, or CDL, was a Top Secret project. This ‘Secret Weapon’ was based around the use of a powerful Carbon-Arc lamp and would be used to illuminate enemy positions in night attacks as well as disorient the enemy troops.
A number of vehicles were converted to CDLs, such as the Matilda II, the Churchill, and the M3 Lee. In keeping with the highly secret nature of the project, Americans designated vehicles carrying the CDL as “T10 Shop Tractors.” In fact, the designation “Canal Defence Light” was intended as a code name to draw as little attention to the project as possible.
Looking at the CDL tanks, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were one of the famous ‘Hobart’s Funnies.’ but in fact, the man credited with the creation of the Canal Defence Light was Albert Victor Marcel Mitzakis. Mitzakis designed the contraption with Oscar De Thoren, a naval commander who, like Mitzakis, had served in the First World War. De Thoren had long championed the idea of armored searchlights for use in night attacks and the project continued under the supervision of the venerable British Major General, J. F. C. “Boney” Fuller. Fuller was a noted Military historian and strategist, credited as one the earliest theorists of modern armored warfare. With Major General Fuller’s backing, and even the financial support of the Second Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, the first CDL prototype was demonstrated to the French Military in 1934. The French were not keen, thinking the system was too fragile.
The British War Office had refused to test the device until January 1937 when Fuller contacted Cyril Deverell, the newly appointed Chief of the Imperial General Staff (C.I.G.S.). Three systems were demonstrated on Salisbury Plain in January and February 1937. Following the demonstration which took place on Salisbury Plain, three more of the devices were ordered for tests. There were delays, however, and the War Office took over the project in 1940. Tests finally began and orders were placed for 300 devices that could be mounted to tanks. A prototype was soon constructed using a spare Matilda II hull. A number of Churchills and even Valentines were also supplied for the tests.
The turrets were manufactured at the Vulcan Foundry Locomotive Works in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire. Components were also produced at the Southern Railway workshops in Ashford, Kent. The Ministry of Supply delivered the Matilda hulls. The turrets were identified by Type, eg. Type A, B & C. The Ministry of Supply also established an assembly and training site known as the CDL School at Lowther Castle, near Penrith, Cumbria.
The CDL was demonstrated to United States officials in 1942. Generals Eisenhower and Clark were present for the demonstrations. The American’s became intrigued by the CDL, and decided to develop their own version of the device. Designers chose the then outdated and plentiful M3 Lee Medium tank as a mount for the light.
For the purposes of extreme secrecy, production stages were split between three locations. The Arc-Lamps being provided by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the American Locomotive Company, New York, worked on modifying the M3 Lee to accept the CDL turret and the Pressed Steel Car Company, New Jersey, constructed the turret as “Coastal Defence Turrets.” Finally, the components were united at the Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois. 497 Canal Defence Light equipped tanks had been produced by 1944.
Crews were trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and in the huge Arizona/California maneuver area. Crews training with the vehicles – codename “Leaflet” – went under the codename “Cassock.” Six Battalions were formed and would later join British CDL tank regiments, covertly stationed in Wales.
American crews came to call the CDL Tanks “Gizmos”. Tests would later begin to mount the CDL on the newer M4 Sherman chassis, developing their own unique turret for it, which will be explored in a subsequent section.
Let There Be Light
The Carbon-Arc searchlight would produce a light as bright as 13 Million candle-power (12.8 million candela). Arc-Lamps produce light via an arc of electricity suspended in air between two carbon electrodes. To ignite the lamp, the rods are touched together, forming an arc, and then slowly drawn apart, maintaining an arc. The carbon in the rods vaporizes, and the vapor produced is extremely luminous, which produces the bright light. This light is then focussed by a large concave mirror.
Using a series of mirrors to reflect it, the intensely bright beam of light passes through a very small vertical slit on the left of the turret face. The slit was 24 inches (61cm) tall, and 2 inches (5.1cm) wide and had a built in shutter that would open and close two times per second, giving the light a flickering effect. The theory was that this would dazzle enemy troops, but also had the added bonus of protecting the lamp from small-arms fire. Another tool to dazzle troops was the ability to attach an amber or blue filter to the lamp. Coupled with the flashing, this would increase the dazzling effect and could still illuminate targets areas effectively. The system also allows for the use of an infra-red illumination bulb so that IR vision systems can see at night. The field covered by the beam was a 34 x 340 yards (31 x 311 m) area at a range of 1000 yards (910 m). The lamp could also elevate and depress 10 degrees.
“…a source of light placed at the focus of a parabolic-elliptical mirror reflector [made from aluminium] is thrown by this reflector near the back of the turret which directs the directs the beam forwardly again to focus at or about an aperture in the wall of the turret through which the light beam is to be projected…”
An excerpt from Mitzakis’ patent application.
The device was housed in a special one-man cylindrical turret that was squared off on the left, and rounded on the right. The turret could not rotate 360 degrees as the cabling would snag so could only rotate 180 degrees left or 180 degrees right but not all the way around. The turret featured 65 mm of armor (2.5 in). The operator inside, listed in the vehicle design as “observer”, was positioned on the left side of the turret, partitioned off from the lamp system. The commander was issued with a pair of Asbestos gloves which were used when the carbon electrodes that power the light burned out and needed changing. He also had the role of operation the tank’s only weapon, a BESA 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine gun, which was positioned on the left of the beam slit in a ball mount. The device was also designed to be employed on small naval vessels.
The faithful “Queen of the Desert,” the Matilda II, was now a largely considered outdated and outclassed in the European theatre, and as such there was a surplus of these vehicles. The Matilda II was the first tank to be equipped with the CDL Arc-Lamp turret, identified as the Type B turret. The Matildas were as reliable as ever with reasonable armor, however they were still extremely slow, especially compared to the more modern tanks entering service. As such, the Matilda hull gave way to that of the M3 Grant, which could at least keep up with the majority of Allied vehicles as well as sharing a lot of component parts with other Allied vehicles, making supply easier.
Another variant of the Matilda came out of this project, the Matilda Crane. This involved a Matilda using a specially designed crane attachment, that could lift off the CDL or standard turret as required. This allowed an easy conversion, meaning that the subject Matilda could be used as a gun tank, or a CDL tank.
The Churchill is the rarest of the CDLs, with no pictorial records whatsoever, barring a cartoon from a newspaper. The 35th Tank Brigade, as well as being issued with Matildas, were also issued with Churchills, forming the 152nd Royal Armored Corps. It is unclear whether these Churchills were ever equipped with the CDL. The turret ring for the Churchill was only 52″ (1321mm) compared to 54″ (1373mm) on the Matilda and the later M3 Grant. The turrets, therefore, were not interchangeable from Matilda or M3 CDLs. Armor on the turret was also increased to 85mm.
There is a written record for the existence of the Churchill CDL in the form of a report by a member of the 86th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, stating that he witnessed Churchills equipped with CDLs deployed on the 9th February 1945 near Kranenburg, Germany.
An excerpt from his report: “A Churchill tank carrying a searchlight took up position at the rear of our position and at night floodlit the area, pointing its beam over the town. They turned night into day and our gunners working on the guns were silhouetted against the night sky.”
In the long run, the M3 Grant was always the intended mount for the Canal Defence Light. It was quicker, able to keep up with its compatriots, and retained its 75mm tank gun allowing it to defend itself much more effectively. Like the Matilda, the M3 Grant was largely considered obsolete, so there was quite a surplus of the tanks.
The CDL replaced the secondary armament turret atop the M3. The M3s, originally, were also fitted with the Type B turret of the Matilda. Later, the turret was changed to the Type D. This welded up some of the ports and openings, but also saw the addition of a dummy gun next to the beam slit to give it the appearance of a normal gun tank. The Americans also tested the M3, known as the Lee in their service, as a CDL tank. The tanks used were mostly of the M3A1 type with the cast super-structure. The turret was mostly identical to the British pattern, the major differences being a ball mount for a Browning M1919 .30 Cal. as opposed to the British BESA.
After the M3 CDL, the M4A1 Sherman was the next logical choice for a variant. The turret used for the M4 was much different than the British original, designated the Type E. It consisted of a large round cylinder, that featured two shuttered slits in the front, for two Arc-Lamps. The lamps were powered by a 20-kilowatt generator, driven by a power takeoff from the tank’s engine. The commander/operator sat in the middle of the lamps, in a central sectioned off compartment. In the middle of the two beam slits, there was a ball mount for a Browning M1919 .30 Cal. machine gun. There was a hatch in the middle of the turret roof for the commander. A few were also trialed using the M4A4 (Sherman V) hull. The use of the M4 did not get past prototype stages, however.
The Prototype M4 CDL
Matilda CDL of the 49th RTR – 35th Tank Brigade, north-eastern France, September 1944. Churchill CDL, western Rhine bank, December 1944.
M3 Lee/Grant CDL, other wise known as a “Gizmo”. Medium Tank M4A1 CDL prototype. All illustrations are by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet
As it would happen, the Canal Defence Lights saw extremely limited action and did not operate in their intended roles. Due to the secret nature of the CDL project, very few armored commanders were actually aware of its existence. As such, they were often forgotten and not drawn into strategic plans. The operational plan for the CDLs was that the tanks would line up 100 yards apart, crossing their beams at 300 yards (274.3 meters). This would create triangles of darkness for attacking troops to move forward in while illuminating and blinding enemy positions.
The first CDL equipped unit was the 11th Royal Tank Regiment, formed early in 1941. The regiment was based at Brougham Hall, Cumberland. They trained at Lowther Castle near Penrith at the specially established ‘CDL School’, set up by the Ministry of Supply. The Regiment was supplied with both Matilda and Churchill hulls, with a total of 300 vehicles. British CDL equipped units stationed in the United Kingdom could later be found as part of the British 79th Armored Division and 35th Tank Brigade, they were joined by the American 9th Armored Group. This group trained in their M3 CDLs at Camp Bouse, Arizona, before being stationed in the United Kingdom. They were then stationed in Wales, in the Preseli Hills of Pembrokeshire where they would also train.
A Grant CDL testing its beam at Lowther Castle
In June 1942, the battalion left the UK, bound for Egypt. Equipped with 58 CDLs, they came under the command of the 1st Tank Brigade. The 11th RTR set up their own ‘CDL School’ here, where they trained the 42nd Battalion from December 1942 to January 1943. In 1943, Major E.R. Hunt of the 49th RTR was detailed in late 1943 to lay on a special demonstration for the Prime Minister and op Generals. Major Hunt recalled the following experience:
“I was detailed to lay on a special demonstration with 6 CDL tanks for him (Churchill). A stand was erected on a bleak hillside in the training area at Penrith and in due course, the great man arrived accompanied by others. I controlled the various maneuvers of the tanks by wireless from the stands, ending the demo with the CDLs advancing towards the spectators with their lights on halting just 50 yards in front of them. The lights were switched off and I awaited further instructions. After a brief interval, the Brigadier (Lipscomb of the 35th Tank Brigade) rushed up to me and ordered me to switch on the lights as Mr. Churchill was just leaving. I immediately ordered the 6 CDL tanks to switch on: 6 beams each of 13 million candlepower came on to illuminate the great man quietly relieving himself against a bush! I immediately had the lights extinguished!”
Back in the UK at Lowther, two more tank battalions had converted to CDL units. These were the 49th Battalion, RTR, and 155th Battalion, Royal Armoured Corps, and were equipped with Matilda CDLs. The third battalion to arrive was the 152nd Regiment, RAC, who were equipped with Churchill CDLs. The 79th Armored Division was the first Canal Defence Light force to see deployment in Europe in August 1944, the other units were retained in the UK. Rather than let the remaining crews sit idle, they were assigned to other roles, such as mine clearance or assigned to regular tank units.
In November 1944, Canal Defense Lights of the 357th Searchlight Battery, Royal Artillery provided light for the mine-clearing flail tanks clearing a path for Allied armor and infantry during in Operation Clipper. This was one of the CDLs first uses in the field.
An M3 CDl on the Bank of the Rhine, 1945. The device is concealed under a tarp. Photo: Panzerserra Bunker
The Canal Defence Lights only real action, however, was at the hands of United States forces during the Battle of Remagen, specifically at the Ludendorff Bridge where they assisted in its defense after the Allies captured it. The CDLs were 13 M3 “Gizmos,”, from the 738th Tank Battalion. The tanks were perfect for the task, as they were sufficiently armored to stand up to the defensive fire coming for the German controlled East Bank of the Rhine. Standard searchlights would have been destroyed in seconds but the CDLs were successfully used to illuminate every angle to deter surprise attacks. This included being shone into the Rhine itself (fitting the vehicle’s name), which helped reveal German frogmen trying to sabotage the bridge. After the action, without the need to defend against incoming fire, captured German spotlights took over the role.
After the action, a captured German officer reported in questioning: “We wondered what those lights were as we got the hell shot out of us as we tried to destroy the bridge…”
British M3 Grant CDLs were used as their forces crossed the Rhine at Rees. The CDLs drew heavy fire with one of the tanks being knocked out. More were used to cover British and US forces as they crossed the Elbe River Laurenburg and Bleckede.
Some Canal Defence Lights were ordered for the Pacific Campaign in 1945 by the US 10th Army for the attack on Okinawa, but the invasion was over by the time the vehicles arrived. Some British M3 CDLs did make it to India under the 43rd RTR and were stationed here for the planned invasion of Malaya in February 1946, the war with Japan came to an end before this of course. The CDLs did see a form of action however, by assisting the Calcutta Police in the riots of 1946 with great success.
To no surprise, CDL survivors are rare today. There are only two on public display in the world. A Matilda CDL can be found in The Tank Museum, Bovington, England and an M3 Grant CDL can be found at the Cavalry Tank Museum, Ahmednagar in India.
The Matilda CDL as it sits today in The Tank Museum, Bovington, England. Photo: Author’s Photo
The surviving M3 Grant CDL at the Cavalary Tank Museum, Ahmednagar, India.
An article by Mark Nash with research assistance from Andrew Hills
United Kingdom (1944)
Flamethrower Tank – ~800 Built
Few Allied weapons struck fear into the hearts of the German infantrymen more than the fearsome Churchill Crocodile. Built on the chassis of the ever-reliable Churchill Infantry Tank, the Crocodile flamethrower was one of the most deadly weapons in the British Army’s arsenal as they fought through Europe during the latter stages of the Second World War.
The Crocodile is one of the most famous of ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, and served with the famous 79th Armoured Division.
A Crocodile demonstrates it’s fiery breath
British Flamethrowing Tanks
During the early stages of World War 2, the British saw the flamethrower tank as a crucial weapon to defeat the predicted fortifications of a Europe that would once more be locked in a stalemated war. Prior to the work on the adoption of the Churchill, various other vehicles had been tested with flame equipment. These included the Universal Carrier, Valentine and even unarmored lorries.
The first attempt at turning a Churchill into a flamethrower tank came in 1942 in the shape of the Churchill Oke, named after Major J. M. Oke who designed the conversion. Prior to the upcoming raid on Dieppe, Major J.M. Oke devised a flame-throwing modification, applied to three prototype vehicles, named “Boar”, “Beetle” and “Bull”. A pipe apparatus, with the fuel tank fitted at the rear, was linked to the front left hull Ronson flame projector, leaving the right-hand side hull machine-gun unobstructed. The Oke was only produced in limited numbers before being superseded by the Crocodile, though the three test vehicles were part of the first wave at Dieppe.
“Tintagel” of the 48th Royal Tank Regiment fitted out as an “Oke”. This tank was renamed Boar before it went ashore at Dieppe with the Canadian 14th Army Tank Regiment. Photo: Osprey Publishing
Preacher of Fire and Brimstone
The Churchill Crocodile was one of the famous “Hobart’s Funnies”, named, of course, after Major General Percy C. S. Hobart. Along with the Petard Mortar armed AVRE, the Crocodile’s development was a highly confidential endeavor. So much so that great lengths would be taken to destroy disabled Crocodiles in the field to prevent capture.
The Crocodile’s flamethrower system – Photo: Haynes Publishing/Nigel Montgomery
The Churchill chassis used was that of the Mk.VII A.22F, though some early versions were based on the Mk.IV. The A.22Fs were specially built to be easily convertible into Crocodiles. The tanks kept their standard weaponry. This included the Ordnance Quick-Firing 75 mm (2.95 in) gun and coaxial 7.92 mm (0.31 in) BESA machine gun. Crocodiles based on the Mk.IV still carried the Ordnance Quick-Firing 6-Pounder (57 mm/2.24 in). Armor of up to 152mm (5.98 in) thick also remained. The major difference from the original vehicles, of course, was the flamethrower equipment.
‘The Link’ at the back of the Cobbaton Combat Collection’s Churchill Crocodile. Note the various articulated joints that allowed the trailer its wide range of movement, and the pipe that runs under the tank that carried the flame fuel to the projector at the front of the tank. Photo: Authors Photo.
The flamethrowing nozzle was mounted in place of the Churchill’s regular hull machine gun. A pipe ran from this through an opening in the hull floor to a coupling on the rear of the vehicle officially known as “The Link”. Attached to this was a wheeled trailer weighing 6.5 tons with armor up to 12 mm (0.47 in) thick. “The Link” was made up of 3 articulated joints which allowed it to move up, down, left or right and swivel on the horizontal axis to allow it to navigate rough terrain. The trailer carried 400 gallons of flamethrower liquid and 5 compressed bottles of nitrogen (N₂) gas and could be jettisoned from inside the tank.
The first wave of vehicles was nearing completion by October 1943. By the end of the production run, around 800 Crocodiles had been built or converted to the standard.
Loading of the fuel trailer. The fuel is poured in by hand on the left. The nitrogen gas bottles are loaded into the rear on the right -Photo: Osprey Publishing
Following the depression of the trigger, the nitrogen gas would propel the flammable liquid through the piping and out of the nozzle at 4 gallons a second. The liquid was ignited by an electrical spark at the tip of the nozzle. The thrower could spray to a maximum distance of 150 yards (140 m), though 80 yards (75 m) was more realistic in combat circumstances. The nitrogen would provide pressure for up to 80 one-second bursts. Longer bursts were optional. As well as being lit at the nozzle, the liquid could be sprayed on “cold” and then ignited by a subsequent lit burst.
The Crocodile’s flame projector. Photo: Imperial War Museum. H37937.
Lieutenant Andrew Wilson, wrote an account of seeing a demonstration of the Crocodile in September 1942:
“A little burst of fire, like a struck match above the nozzle, tested the spark and the tank began to move forward. It went towards the first target, a concrete pill-box. Suddenly there was rushing in the air, a vicious hiss. From the front of the tank, a burning yellow rod shot out. Out and out it went, up and up with a noise like the slapping a thick leather strap. The rod curved and started to drop, throwing off burning particles. It struck the concrete with a violent smack. A dozen yellow fingers leapt out from the point of impact searching for cracks and apertures. All at once the pillbox was engulfed in fire – belching, twisting red-roaring fire. And clouds of queer-smelling grey-black smoke. Then another rushing. This time the rod went clean through an embrasure, smacking, belching, roaring. The flame shot out through the back of the pillbox, fanning like a blow-torch.”
Churchill Crocodile “Stallion” of A Squadron, 141st Regiment, Royal Armoured Corps (The Buffs, Royal East Kent Regiment). Photo: Tauranga Memories
A Crocodile lies disabled among 2 M4 Shermans. The tanks, knocked out during the Assault on Boulogne, are from the 3rd Canadian Division – Photo: 3rdweal of Reddit
The Crocodile saw widespread service during the Allied push through Italy and North-West Europe. 13th Troop, C Squadron of the 141st Regiment Royal Armoured Corps (The Buffs, Royal East Kent Regiment) put their Crocodiles to bare on the first day of the Normandy invasion.
The 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment used them as well. Members of the 7th RTR would famously have their photograph taken on a Crocodile outside of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, which they helped to liberate. Crocodiles would go on to assist the U.S. Army in a number of engagements, such as at the Normandy bocage and the Battle for Brest. They would also fight alongside them in the Anglo-American assault on Geilenkirchen, known as “Operation Clipper”. Crocodiles supported the 53rd Welch Division in their assault on s’Hertogenbosch in the October of 1944. In Italy, the Crocodiles saw action with the 25th Armoured Assault Brigade.
In these actions listed above, the Crocodile would frequently operate in conjunction with the Petard mortar-armed Churchill AVRE. More often than not, the psychological effect of the vehicles would be enough to beat the foe. One can only imagine the dread felt by the Germans who were being stared down by the mortar of the AVRE and the flaming nozzle of the Crocodile.
When facing a stubborn enemy bunker or position, the Crocodile would lay some flame in visual range to showcase its deadly breath. Should the position continue to stand, the accompanying AVRE would crack it open with a mortar round. The Crocodile would then proceed to cover the breached area in the flaming liquid which would then flow into the position.
Churchill Crocodile with blown off turret, Schilber, Limburg. Photo: 3rdweal of Reddit
The success of the Crocodile was also its curse. Once the German army learned how to identify a Crocodile, anti-tank fire was often concentrated on it. It was also not unknown, and there is at least one recorded instance of this happening, for crews of disabled Crocodiles to be executed on the spot as revenge for their attacks.
In 1944, as part of the Lend-lease program with the Soviet Union, three Crocodiles were sent. It is unknown whether these vehicles were ever fielded by a combat unit, or what happened to them after the War
Post War Service
Some 250 Crocodiles were earmarked for use in the Eastern theater against the Japanese. These most likely would’ve been used had the war not ended. In 1946, the Crocodile was tested on the hills of Chaklala in India to see how it would’ve performed in the eastern environment. Though the tank kept its great cross-country and climbing abilities, the Crocodile was thought impractical due to its wheeled trailer.
Even after this though, the Crocodile saw service alongside the standard Churchill into the Korean War from 1950 until their withdrawal in 1951. They served with C Squadron in the 7th Royal Tank Regiment’s 29th Brigade. Crocodiles were formally removed from service not long after this.
In the UK, surviving Crocodiles can be found in a number of locations. Several are owned by the Muckleburgh Collection in Norfolk, the Cobbaton Combat Collection in Devon, Eden Camp Museum in North Yorkshire, the D-Day museum in Portsmouth, the Wheatcroft Collection, and, of course, The Tank Museum in Bovington. Some are also in the hands of private collectors.
A few can be found elsewhere in the world as well. The Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia has one, the Museum of the Regiments, Calgary, Alberta Canada has another, with one more at the Royal Australian Armoured Corps Museum.
Two can be found in France, one without a trailer is on display at the Bayeux Museum of the Battle of Normandy. A Crocodile gifted to France by Queen Elizabeth II is displayed at the Fort Montbarey parade ground in Brest, Brittany.
The Churchill Crocodile at The Tank Museum, Bovington, England. Photo: Author’s Photo
The Churchill Crocodile at the Cobbaton Combat Colection, North Devon, England. Photo: Author’s Photo An article by Mark Nash
Dimensions (not including trailer)
24’5” x 10’8” x 8’2”
7.44 x 3.25 x 2.49 m
Approx. 40 tons + 6.5-ton trailer
5 (driver, bow-gunner, gunner, commander, loader)
350 hp Bedford horizontally opposed twin-six petrol engine
15 mph (24 km/h)
Ordnance QF 75 mm (2.95 in) Tank Gun
BESA 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine-gun
From 25 to 152 mm (0.98-5.98 in)
A recorded interview with Ernest Edward Cox, surviving crew member of “Stallion”, the Crocodile pictured above. Interview by Jeena Reiter. Read HERE.
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #7 Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #136 Churchill Crocodile Flamethrower
Haynes Owners Workshop Manuals, Churchill Tank 1941-56 (all models). An insight into the history, development, production and role of the British Army tank of the Second World War.
David Fletcher, Mr. Churchill’s Tank: The British Infantry Tank Mark IV, Schiffer Publishing
David Fletcher, Vanguard of Victory: The 79th Armoured Division, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office
The Churchill Crocodile with its trailer – Illustrated by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
British Churchill Tank – Tank Encyclopedia Support Shirt
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