The Crocodile flamethrower was a successful piece of equipment and is probably best well known for being used by the Churchill tank, and to a lesser extent the M4 Sherman, during World War 2. Immediately after the war, however, a new Universal tank, the A41 Centurion, was being delivered and was replacing the A34 Comet and other tanks as the mainstay of Britain’s tank fleet for a generation to come. The Centurion was significantly faster and a modern tank compared to the ponderous and archaic design of the Churchill, and it makes good military sense to have a single platform for a variety of weapons rather than multiple specialist single-role platforms.
One role the Churchill had performed well was that of the Crocodile, where its slow speed was not a hindrance. If the Centurion was going to replace all the older types of vehicles completely, it would need to be evaluated in the Crocodile role as well. With a view to this, in April 1946, the British military took a standard A34 Comet and having made minor modifications for the purposes of towing – namely the fitting of the Crocodile towing link – and attached a Crocodile fuel trailer to it.
The previous Crocodiles. The famous Churchill on the left with the lesser known Sherman version on the right.
There is no information to suggest that the flame projector itself was ever fitted, and photographs of the project show that the test vehicle retains the hull BESA machine-gun mount rather than the flame projector. This confirms that this vehicle was a non-functional flamethrower prototype and just a test vehicle for towing rather than an actual flamethrowing tank in its own right. This is because the key aspect of the Comet which the Churchill lacked was speed. This was to be a speed trial to test the trailers being towed by a fast tank, like the Comet, and indeed, to be later towed by the Centurion which was already in production at the time.
The Trial A34 Comet fitted with Crocodile Flamethrower trailer. Photo: The Tank Museum.
A34 Comet serial number ‘T.336092’ was used for the trial. It had been fitted with 15 ½″ wide tracks and a new final drive with the ratio 4.5:1. This was to be a speed and endurance trial for tank and trailer alike along Long Valley, Surrey, in Southern England.
Trials commenced in April 1946 as the modified A34 ‘Crocodile’ set off on its 500 miles (805 km) journey along the course at top speed of which half was to be on the road and a half to be across country.
Close up view of the Crocodile flame projector during trials on a Churchill tank, April 1944. This is notably absent on the Comet indicating that a conversion to a flamethrower did not take place. Photo: IWM
Close up of the coupling as fitted to the A.34 (seen here on a Churchill). The notable difference is the fuel pipe with is not believed to have been fitted to the A.34 as it had no projector. Photo: Mark Nash
The tests proved too extreme. While it is not known if the trailer was even loaded, it is likely it was ballasted to match the weight of a full trailer. Hauling one full of fuel was probably just too hazardous. The ground was hard and dry to start with, becoming progressively muddier with occasional stops to check on the condition of the trailer and hitch. At the 148-mile point, the problems began. The bolts securing the coupling started to work loose from the vibration and had to be re-tightened. This happened again at the 191-mile point with loosened bolts and one which had completely sheared off, and again a retightening after 260 miles.
After 100 miles of off-road driving (300 miles of the 500 miles total), the entire coupling failed. The Tank Museum at Bovington recounts that the tests ended when the trailer broke its axle and damaged its tires “while crossing a half-timbered trench against a 26″ step”.
Army Trials Report No. 1771 however, provides an alternative account. The shock, vibration, and forces on the coupling during the journey meant that the entire coupling link sheared its securing bolts and came off the trailer, causing damage to the bottom housing plate. Whichever account is correct, the trials for that trailer were over.
A photograph taken during the trials shows the trailer completely off the ground towed over a timber beam at high speed by the Comet, something inadvisable full of fuel. Photo: David Fletcher
The tank too had suffered from the severity of the tests with the steering brakes being severely scored (deep radial scratches indicating severe wear) and damaged, but the remainder of the mechanicals remained in good condition. Despite the high speeds, long journey, and towing a trailer, there was no evidence of the wheels or wheel bearings being badly worn, and despite the high wear on the steering brakes, the drivers reported that the steering was normal with no adverse effects on- or off-road. With a completely broken coupling though, the trial had to end before it had been completed.
Close up of the Crocodile trailer being towed by a Churchill tank in August 1944. Photo: IWM
The test of the A34 with the Crocodile fittings was neither a success nor a failure. The tank survived the extreme tests rather well and the trailer had never been intended for such rough treatment, yet survived 300 miles of the roughest possible handling. Other than the mechanical strength of the coupling there was nothing, in theory, preventing the use of the trailer at high speed other than the terrifying nature of it going wrong.
A report following the test concluded that the standard Crocodile trailer was not capable of withstanding fast towing or normal cross country towing, but that a fix was already in the works. A new one-piece fully cast connecting link was designed to replace the existing bolted type and it was suggested that a further trial of a trailer with that link should be tested, although it does not appear to have taken place.
Centurion Crocodile tank during trials. Photo: Tank Museum
The Centurion tank was also eventually trialed with the Crocodile trailer equipment as well, building on the work done on the Comet Crocodile trailer towing trials. The A34 Comet Crocodile was, therefore, not a true flamethrowing tank in its own right although there was nothing to prevent the flame equipment being fitted if the military had chosen to do so. She was really just a towing modification test rig for the Centurion Crocodile but flamethrowers had mostly fallen out of favor with the British military by then anyway. There is no information to suggest that the Comet tank was ever even planned to be fitted with a flame projector unit and no special name or mark was applied to the modified A34 used.
L x W x H
|6.55 m (w/o trailer) x 3.04 m x 2.67 m
(21ft 6in x 10ft 1in x 8ft 6in)
|Total weight, battle ready||33.53 tonnes (32.7 long tons)|
|Crew||5 (commander, driver, gunner, loader/radio op, hull gunner)|
|Propulsion||Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.III V12 Petrol/gasoline engine, 600 hp (447 kW)|
|Top speed||32 mph (51 km/h)|
|Range (road)||155 miles (250 km)|
1x 7.92 mm (0.31 in) BESA machine guns
1x Flame thrower
|Armor||From 32 to 102 mm (1.26-4.02 in)|
Links & Resources
Tank Museum, Bovington
A.34 Comet – A Technical History, PM Knight (LINK)
British Battle Tanks, David Fletcher
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #136: Churchill Crocodile Flamethrower, David Fletcher
The Comet Crocodile trial vehicle. Illustrated by Alexe Pavel, based on an illustration by David Bocquelet.