Viewing the public debut of the Soviet Union’s IS-3 heavy tank at the Berlin Victory Parade of September 1945, the Western powers – including Great Britain – were shocked. As heads of the British, American, and French Armies watched these machines clatter down the Charlottenburger Chaussee, they saw the shape of a new generation of heavy tanks. From the exterior, the IS-3 was a tank with well-sloped and – apparently – heavy armor, a piked nose, wide tracks, and a gun at least 120 mm in caliber. At least in appearance, this was superior to anything being fielded by the other victorious Allied powers at the time.
The respective officials knew that they had nothing in their arsenal capable of potentially combatting this menacing tank that was now in service with an increasingly aggressive USSR. In response, the militaries of these countries began to develop heavy tanks that – they hoped – would be able to combat the IS-3. The United States would develop the M103 heavy tank, while the French experimented with the AMX-50. Britain went in a different doctrinal direction and created a ‘Heavy Gun Tank’. This was a uniquely British designation that was not governed by weight, but the size of the gun. This vehicle was based on the experimental FV200 ‘Universal Tank’ chassis and given the official and somewhat long-winded title of ‘Tank, Heavy No. 1, 120 mm Gun, FV214’. This vehicle would be better known as the ‘Conqueror’.
Weighing in at 65 long tons* (66 tonnes) with armor up to 13.3 in (340 mm) thick, the Conqueror was one of the largest and heaviest tanks Britain would ever field. Like the M103 and AMX-50, the Conqueror was armed with a powerful 120 mm Gun, specifically the ‘Ordnance, Quick-Firing, 120mm, Tank, L1 Gun’. This gun could punch through an impressive 17.3 inches (446 mm) at 1,000 yards (914 meters) firing Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) ammunition. This was more than enough to combat the IS-3 but, at the time, this was unknown to the British War Office (WO). As such, even greater firepower was investigated.
What followed was the FV215. With its monstrous, 183 mm gun, this vehicle has become something of a legend among enthusiasts of a particular age, largely due to a popular video game. Unfortunately, this has meant a number of falsehoods have been spread about the vehicle. This article will highlight the truth behind this uniquely British vehicle.
*As this is a British vehicle, mass will be measured in ‘Long Ton’ otherwise known as the ‘Imperial ton’. It will be shortened to ‘ton’ for ease with a metric conversion alongside.
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The FV200 Series
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the War Office reviewed the future of the British Army’s tank arm. In 1946, it did away with the ‘A’ designator used on tanks such as the Churchill (A.22) and Comet (A.34). The ‘A’ number was replaced by the ‘Fighting Vehicle’ or ‘FV’ number. In an attempt to streamline the tank force and cover all the bases, it was decided that the military needed three main families of vehicles: the FV100, the FV200, and FV300 series. The FV100s would be the heaviest, the FV200s would be slightly lighter, and the FV300s would be the lightest. It should be noted that the rest of the FV series 400, 500 etcetera were not in weight order although these first 3 serials were. All three projects were almost canceled due to the complexity that would have been involved in producing the respective series. In the end, both the FV100 and FV300 series were canceled. The FV200 hung on in its development, however, as it was projected that it would eventually replace the FV4007 Centurion.
The FV200 series included designs for vehicles that would fill various roles ranging from a gun tank to engineering vehicles and Self-Propelled Guns (SPGs). It was not until later years that the other uses of the FV200 chassis were explored, such as with the FV219 and FV222 Armoured Recovery Vehicles (ARVs). The first of the FV200 series was the FV201, a gun tank that started development in 1944 as the ‘A45’. This tank weighed around 55 tons (49 tonnes). At least two or three FV201s were built for testing, but the project went no further than that. Work on the project ceased in 1949.
As the ‘Heavy No. 2’ part of its designation implies, the FV215 was intended to be a follow up to the FV214 Conqueror – ‘Heavy No. 1’. The vehicle was also known as the ‘FV215, Heavy Anti-Tank Gun, SP’ (SP: Self Propelled). The project started life in mid-1949, and was aimed at increasing the firepower of the ‘Heavy Gun Tanks’. A requirement was formulated for a tank armed with a gun capable of defeating a 60-degree sloped plate, 6 inches (152 mm) thick, at up to 2,000 yards (1,828 meters), a feat impossible even for the powerful 120 mm L1 gun of the FV214. By 1950, Major General Stuart B. Rawlins, Director General of Artillery (D.G. of A.) had concluded that there was no such gun available with that level of ballistic performance. Initially, the British Military looked at the development of a 155 mm gun that would be standardized with the USA. However, even this lacked the required punch and, as such, 6.5 and 7.2 inch (165 and 183 mm respectively) High-Explosive Squash Head (HESH) shells were looked at.
At this time, the British Army was of the non-doctrinal opinion that a ‘kill’ did not necessarily mean the complete destruction of an enemy vehicle. For example, a blown-off track was also seen as a kill as it took the enemy vehicle out of action; today this is known as an ‘M’ (Mobility) kill. A ‘K’-Kill would be the destruction of a vehicle. The term used for this method at the time was ‘disruption not destruction’. The 6.5 in/165 mm HESH was not thought to be powerful enough to ‘kill’ a heavily armored target in this manner unless it hit bare armor plate. Attention therefore turned instead to the larger 7.2 in/183 mm shell which – Maj.Gen. Rawlins thought – would be powerful enough to render the target inoperable, and therefore ‘kill’ it, wherever it impacted.
The projected gun was designated the 180 mm ‘Lilywhite’. The background of this name is unknown. It may be an interpretation of the ‘Rainbow Code’ used by the WO to identify experimental projects. The ‘Red Cyclops’ flame gun attachment for the FV201, and the ‘Orange William’ experimental missile are examples of this. If this was the case, however, the name should be ‘White Lilly’. It may even simply be named after a Lieutenant Colonel Lilywhite of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. It must be said that this is all speculation, and no evidence exists to support the theory.
It was not until December 1952 that the designation of the gun was officially updated to 183 mm. The design of the gun was accepted and was serialized as the ‘Ordnance, Quick-Firing, 183 mm, Tank, L4 Gun’. The 183 mm L4 became one of the largest and most powerful tank guns in the world. With the gun developed, the rest of the vehicle had to be designed around it. It is estimated that the vehicle would have cost between £sd44,400 and £sd59,200 (£1,385,662 – £1,847,549 in today’s Pounds) per unit.
The FV215 in Detail
Based on the Conqueror adaption of the FV200 chassis, the hull of the FV215 would have shared some similarities. For example, the hull would have been 25 feet (7.62 meters) long. It would have been slightly narrower than the FV214 at 12 feet (3.6 meters) compared to 13.1 feet (3.99 meters). With a planned height of 10.6 feet (3.2 meters), the FV215 would have been slightly shorter than the FV214. Unladen, the vehicle would weigh 61 tons (62 tonnes) while being in ‘battle order’ – i.e. fully equipped – would have seen the weight climb to 65 tons (66 tonnes).
The FV215 would have been operated by a 5-man crew consisting of the commander (turret left), the gunner (turret front right), two loaders (turret rear), and the driver (hull front right).
While the basic chassis and running gear remained the same as the FV214, the layout of the rest of the vehicle was completely changed. Three turret layouts were considered – front, middle, and rear. A rear-mounted turret was chosen as was considered more advantageous to balance. The power plant was also moved to the center of the vehicle.
The driver remained at the front right of the hull. Like on the Conqueror Mk. 2, he had a single periscope – in this case, a No. 16 Mk. 1 periscope with a 110° field-of-view – mounted at the top of the upper-glacis plate for vision. He would have had a large hatch above his head that would pop up and swing to the right. As with the FV214, two traditional tiller bars would have been used to operate the vehicle. Also, the driver’s seat could be placed at various heights and positions, allowing the driver to operate head-out or under the protection of a closed hatch. Extensions atop the tiller bars would allow easy operation when driving head out.
The glacis is listed as being a 4.9 inch (125 mm) thick steel plate, sloped at 59 degrees. Side armor was to be 1 ¾ inch (44 mm) thick plus the 6 mm thick ‘bazooka plates’ added over the running gear. The floor would have been 0.7 inches (20 mm) thick, with an extra 0.6 inch (16 mm) ‘mine plate’ installed below the driver’s position. The roof of the hull would have been 1 ¼ inches (32 mm) thick.
Mounted at the rear of the hull, the new turret was large and boxy. Unlike the Conqueror’s cast turret, the FV215’s turret was to be of welded construction. Existing dimensions list the turret as 12 feet (3.6 meters) wide sitting on a 95 inch (2.4 meter) diameter turret ring. Overall, the turret would have weighed 20 tons (20.3 tonnes). Unfortunately, the exact thickness of the turret armor is unknown as records list the turret face only as “will protect from a 100 mm gun in a 30-degree arc”. The rear of the turret and the roof would have been 0.6 inches (17 mm) thick.
A feature carried over from the Conqueror was the rangefinder. On the FV215, this would have been used by the gunner, not the commander as with the FV214. This was placed laterally across the front of the turret roof, and was made by the York-based company of Cook, Throughton & Simms. The rangefinder had a 6 foot (1.8 meter) sight-base and used the ‘coincidence’ method of ranging. This method consists of laying two images on top of each other. When the two images completely overlap, the range measurement is taken. This information is then used by the gunner to accurately range the gun.
The commander – located on the left of the turret – would have been equipped with a large rotating cupola designated the ‘Cupola, Vision, No. 5’ mounting a ‘Sight, Periscope, AFV, No. 11’ along with a ‘Periscope, Tank No. 20’ and ‘No. 21’ providing an uninterrupted view of 140 degrees. A collimator was also provided that would display the view of the gunner’s main sight.
Two smoke dischargers, presumably the ‘Discharger, Smoke Grenade, No. 1 Mk. 1’ as on the Conqueror, would have been placed on the sides of the turret. Each launcher featured 2 banks of 3 tubes and were fired electrically from inside the tank. Atop the roof, on the hatch for the two loaders, was an air-defense mounting point for a machine gun. This was set to be a .50 Cal (12.7 mm) Browning M2 heavy machine gun – known simply as the .5 Browning in British service. This was an uncommon choice for British vehicles of this era. The machine gun could elevate to +70 degrees and depress 5 degrees. Four boxes totaling 950 rounds were carried for the .50 Cal.
The ‘Ordnance, Quick-Firing, 183mm, Tank, L4 Gun’ was one of the only parts of the FV215 that was built and tested. A small number of the guns were built, but it is unclear just how many. Records suggest at least 12 were built. In an effort to get it into service before the development of the FV215 had finished, the W.O. explored the idea of mounting it on the Centurion chassis. This resulted in the development of the experimental FV4005, a vehicle that would have been rushed into production should the Cold War have turned hot. A similar connection can be found with the Conqueror and the FV4004 Conway. Unfortunately, the exact length of the 183 mm gun is currently unknown to the author, but it was somewhere in the region of 15 feet (4.5 meters) long. It was fully rifled with a large ‘bore-evacuator’ (fume extractor) placed roughly half-way down its length. The gun alone weighed 3.7 tons (3.75 tonnes) while its mount weighed 7.35 tons (7.4 tonnes). Although the turret was capable of full 360-degree traverse, firing was physically limited to a 90-degree arc – 45 degrees over the left and right of the vehicle. It could also fire directly to the rear. A safety lockout prevented the gun from firing over the ‘broadside’ position. The gun would have a vertical traverse range of +15 to -7 degrees, however, it is unclear whether – as with Conqueror – it would have been fitted with a limiter that halted it at -5 degrees.
The gunner sat on the left of the gun, in front of the commander. This was unusual for British tanks as it was more common for the gunner to be located on the right of the gun. He had hand controls for elevation and traverse, both of which were electrically powered. Duplicate controls were also available to the commander, but only the gunner was equipped with manual backups. The elevation controller also featured triggers for the main gun and coaxial machine gun. The gunner would aim the main armament via the ‘Sight, Periscope, AFV, No. 14 Mk. 1’.
High-Explosive Squash Head (HESH) was the only ammunition type to be produced for the 183 mm gun. Both the shell and the propellant case were of gargantuan proportions. The shell weighed in at 160 lbs. (72.5 kg) and measured 29 ¾ inches (76 cm) long. The propellant case weighed 73 lbs. (33 kg) and measured 26.85 inches (68 cm) long. The case contained a single charge that propelled the shell to a velocity of 2,350 fps (716 m/s). When fired, the gun produced 86 tons (87 tonnes) of recoil force and recoil length of 2 ¼ feet (69 cm).
HESH shells have an advantage over regular kinetic energy rounds as their effectiveness does not decrease with distance. This shell works by creating a shockwave on detonation. Once this wave reaches a void, it reflects back. The point at which the waves cross causes tension feedback which rips apart the plate, carrying a scab with approx half the energy forwards, scattering shrapnel around the interior of the target. Test firing of the L4 against a Conqueror and a Centurion proved how powerful the round was. In 2 shots, the 183 mm HESH shell blew the turret clean off the Centurion, and split the mantlet of the Conqueror in half. HESH could also serve as a dual-use round just as capable of engaging enemy armor as for use as a high-explosive round against buildings, enemy defensive positions, or soft-skinned targets.
This oversized ordnance is the reason the vehicle would be manned by two loaders. Between them, they could achieve a rate of 2 to 2 ½ rounds per minute. Also, due to its size, ammunition stowage was limited to just 20 rounds. Twelve of these would have been ‘ready-rounds’ stowed in the turret against the interior of the walls.
The size and power of the gun were also why the rear-turret design was chosen for the FV215. Because of its – estimated – 15 foot length, the gun would overhang the front of the vehicle considerably should it have been placed in a centrally mounted turret. This could lead to the gun being buried in the ground when approaching or descending steep inclines, fouling the barrel. Having the gun at the rear also made the vehicle a more stable firing platform as the front half of the vehicle acts as a counterweight to the recoil force, preventing the vehicle from tipping too far backward.
As well as the roof-mounted machine gun, secondary armament consisted of a coaxial L3A1 .30 cal (7.62 mm) machine gun – the British designation of the US Browning M1919A4. This was not coaxial in the traditional sense, as it was not integral to the main gun mount. Rather, the machine gun was placed in a blister, cast into the roof with the range-finder and located on the top-right corner of the turret. The L3A1 had the same vertical traverse range as the main gun at +15 to -5 degrees. Six boxes totaling 6,000 rounds were carried for the ‘coaxial’ machine gun.
While the Conqueror was equipped with the Rolls-Royce Meteor M120 petrol engine, it was planned that the FV215 would use the Rover M120 No. 2 Mk. 1. This 12-cylinder, water-cooled petrol engine produced 810 horsepower at 2,800 rpm. This would have propelled the vehicle to a top speed of 19.8 mph (32 km/h). A Merritt-Brown Z5R gearbox would also be installed, providing 5 forward gears and 2 reverse. Due to the turret being relocated to the rear of the vehicle, the power plant was placed centrally in the hull, separating the driver’s compartment from the fighting compartment. The engine was also placed 6 inches (15 cm) off the centerline, but whether this was to the left or right is unknown. The exhaust pipes would emerge from the sides of the hull roof, just in front of the turret and terminate in large trumpet-like tubes. The reason for these are unknown. The Rover engine would be fed by 250 UK gallons (1,137 liters) of fuel. As with the Conqueror, a small, auxiliary 4-cylinder petrol engine was provided to drive a generator that would supply the vehicle with electrical power, with or without the main engine running.
Like the FV201, Centurion and Conqueror before it, the FV215 was set to utilize a Horstmann suspension system with 2 wheels per-bogie unit. The wheels were made of steel, measuring approximately 20 inches (50 cm) in diameter, and constructed from 3 separate parts. These consisted of an outer and inner half, with a steel rim in contact with the track. Between each layer was a rubber ring. The idea behind this was that it would be more efficient on the rubber and would not need to be replaced as often. The Horstmann system consisted of three horizontal springs mounted concentrically, guided by an internal rod and tube. This allowed each wheel to rise and fall independently, although the system did struggle if both wheels rose at the same time. Four bogies lined each side of the hull of the vehicle, giving it 8 road-wheels per side. There were also 4 return rollers, 1 per bogie. The advantage of using bogies lies in maintenance and crew comfort. Having externally mounted bogies means there is more room inside the tank and also, should the unit become damaged, it is relatively easy to remove it and replace it with a new unit.
Despite the engine being repositioned, the drive sprockets remained at the rear of the running gear, with the idler wheel at the front. Going by the pre-production imagery, it would appear the spoked idler of the FV214 was replaced with a solid wheel. The track was 31 inches (78.7 cm) wide and had 102 links per side when new. The suspension gave the vehicle a ground clearance of 20 inches (51 cm), and the ability to climb a 35 inch (91 cm) vertical object. It allowed the tank to cross trenches up to 11 feet (3.3 m) wide, negotiate gradients up to 35 degrees, and ford water obstacles up to 4.5 feet (1.4 m) deep without preparation. The vehicle had a turning circle of 15 – 140 feet (4.8 – 42.7 m respectively) depending on gear selection. It could also pivot or ‘neutral’ steer on the spot with each track turning in opposite directions.
So Close, Yet So Far
In 1951, the company of Vickers had filed a report on the concept of the FV215 and, by June 1954, a contract had been signed for the production of a prototype vehicle known as ‘P1’ (Prototype No.1). In October that year, it was also clear that the AA mount for the .50 cal machine gun would not be ready, and as such an L3A1 was substituted. In March 1955, the same year the FV214 entered service, the order had increased to include two pre-production vehicles. A full-scale mock-up – including interior components and a faux engine – was completed between July 1955 and January 1957, with 80% of accompanying schematics also produced. Work started on P1 in September 1955 with a selection of spare parts. The two pre-production vehicles were canceled in early 1956, but work went ahead on P1 which was set to be completed at some point in 1957. Troop trials would then take place by the end of that year. This, however, is where the FV215 story ends.
In 1957, with just the gun, a couple of turret faces, and a number of other smaller parts built, the FV215 project was officially canceled. This decision was largely down to the Army. From the outset, the Army was not keen on the concept of the vehicle, mostly due to the fact that large-caliber weapons provide a number of logistical issues, mostly caused by the sheer dimension of the weapons. One only has to look at the Conqueror and the issues its size presented to operators during its time in service to understand this hostility to the FV215. At the same time, there was a new contender in the race to find an opponent for the USSR’s heavy armor. Of course, by the mid-1960s, the FV215’s intended opponent, the IS-3, would prove to be a far less threatening tank than the Allies had imagined roughly 12 years prior in 1945.
The new contender was the FV4010, a heavily modified, turretless vehicle built on the Centurion chassis and armed with the newly developed Malkara Anti-Tank Guided Missile (ATGM). This vehicle offered the same damage potential as the 183 mm gun, but in a lighter vehicle and with better accuracy at long ranges. Even though this vehicle also went through full-scale development, it too would not see production or service. The Malkara missile, however, was accepted for service.
Had the FV215 entered service, it would have filled the role much the same as the Conqueror. Its role on the battlefield would have been to support other friendly troops, rather than strike out on its own. It was designed to destroy enemy tanks from afar, covering the advance of the lighter tanks such as FV4007 Centurion. In offensive operations, the FV215 would be placed in overwatch positions and fire over the heads of the main force as it advanced. In defensive operations, the vehicle would again take an overwatch role, but this time from key, pre-set strategic positions to meet an advancing enemy.
Busting a Myth: FV215A & B
Over the years, a couple of erroneous designations have emerged concerning this vehicle. These are the ‘FV215A’ and ‘FV215B’. The ‘FV215A’ is the false designation, probably mistaken for the planned AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers) vehicles of the FV200 series. The FV215B is simply a fictional designation for the FV215 Heavy Gun Tank.
‘FV215b’ is also used as a vehicle in Wargamming’s ‘World of Tanks’. This vehicle is an FV200 chassis with a rear-mounted Conqueror turret and the 120 mm L1A1 gun, and is almost certainly a fake vehicle.
Had it entered service, there is no doubt that the FV215 would have been one of the most deadly gun-tanks to have ever existed. At the same time, it is not hard to see why it was not accepted for service. The Conqueror on the other hand, would end up staying in service for 11 years, finally being retired in 1966. It was Great Britain’s first and last ‘Heavy Gun Tank’.
The logistical and high-cost nightmare of the Conqueror would have only continued with the more heavily armed FV215. Heavy vehicles are expensive, not only to build, but to maintain. The heavier a vehicle, the harder the wear and tear on parts, so parts have to be replaced more often increasing maintenance time and burden and so on.
On top of this there was another issue: the feared Soviet heavy tanks like the IS-3 were not being made in the massive numbers expected indicating a shift in policy to lighter, more maneuverable, and more lightly armored tanks. The need for the Conqueror and FV215 from this perspective was simply becoming absent. Other changes were also taking place as technology-wise, larger caliber guns with their huge ammunition were becoming obsolete by the improved anti-armor performance of smaller guns and by the appearance of a new generation of accurate Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM).
It is perhaps ironic that the Soviet tank which perhaps started this fear, the IS-3, was itself found to be seriously wanting in combat. Losses during the invasion of Prague to little more than lightly armed civilians showed serious tactical failings in the way in which tanks were handled along with the utter disaster of their use in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel. Here, Egyptian IS-3s were lost in large numbers to mechanical failures and to ‘inferior’ lighter tanks like the British-supplied Centurion and American-supplied M48. The paper-tiger had had its day and the IS-3-smashing Heavy Gun Tanks were as obsolete as the tanks they were designed to counter.
An article by Mark Nash, assisted by David Lister, Andrew Hills & Ed Francis.
Illustration of ‘Tank, Heavy No. 2, 183mm Gun, FV215’. The representation of a 6 ft (1.83 m) gives some idea of the scale of the vehicle and its 183 mm L4 gun. The vehicle is represented in the standard British Army green. As the vehicle never entered service, some of the smaller details – such as the wire reel and lifting eyes – are speculative. This illustration was produced by Brian Gaydos, based on work by David Bocquelet, and funded by our Patreon campaign.
|Dimensions (L-W-H)||25 feet x 12 feet x 10.6 feet (7.62 x 3.6 x 3.2 meters)|
|Weight||61 – 65 long tons (62 – 66 tonnes)|
|Crew||5 (Driver, commander, gunner, 2 loaders)|
|Propulsion||Rover M120 No. 2 Mk. 1, 12-cylinder, water-cooled, 810 hp|
|Speed (road)||19.8 mph (32 km/h)|
|Armament||Ordnance Quick-Firing (QF) 183 mm Tank L4 Gun (20 rounds)
Sec. 1 – 2 L3A1 (Browning M1919A4) .30 Cal (7.62mm) Machine Gun (6000 rounds)
.5 Browning (Browning M2) .50 Cal (12.7 mm) heavy machine gun (950 rounds)
Front (Upper Glacis): 4.9 inch (125 mm) @ 59 degrees
Sides: 1 ¾ in (44 mm) + 0.2 in (6 mm) ‘Bazooka Plates’
Roof: 1 ¼ in (32 mm)
Floor: 0.7 in (20 mm) + 0.6 in (16 mm) ‘Mine Plate’
Face: “protection from a 100 mm gun in a 30-degree arc”
Rear: 0.6 in (17 mm)
Roof: 0.6 in (17 mm)
WO 185/293: Tanks: TV 200 Series: Policy and Design, 1946-1951, The National Archives, Kew
E2014.1520: Heavy Gun Tank No. 2, FV215, FVRDE Specifications, 25th August 1954, Second Issue, The Tank Museum Bovington
2011.2891: Ministry of Supply: Fighting Vehicle Division, AFV Development Progress Report, 1951, The Tank Museum, Bovington
2011.2896: Ministry of Supply: Fighting Vehicle Division, AFV Development Liaison Report, 1955, The Tank Museum, Bovington
2011.2901: Ministry of Supply: Fighting Vehicle Division, AFV Development Liaison Report, 1957, The Tank Museum, Bovington
Vickers Ltd. Account Records, 1928 to 1959 (Provided by researcher, Ed Francis)
Rob Griffin, Conqueror, Crowood Press
Maj. Michael Norman, RTR, Conqueror Heavy Gun Tank, AFV/Weapons #38, Profile Publications Ltd.
Carl Schulze, Conqueror Heavy Gun Tank, Britain’s Cold War Heavy Tank, Tankograd Publishing
David Lister, The Dark Age of Tanks: Britain’s Lost Armour, 1945–1970, Pen & Sword Publishing