To quote Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery – in not so few words – “the REME keeps the punch in the Army’s fist”. To do this, the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME) utilize specially adapted versions of existing vehicles. The Churchill Armoured Recovery Vehicle (ARV), developed in the middle of the Second World War, was one of the first of these REME-specific vehicles.
The Churchill ARV was one of the first tank-based ARVs to serve in the British Army. The vehicle first appeared in 1942, the same year that the REME was created. The initial ARV was simply a turretless Churchill outfitted with various pieces of towing equipment – this became known as the Mk.I. A second version, equipped with a faux turret, lifting jibs, and a powerful winch, appeared in 1944 – this became the Mk.II.
Both the Mk.I and Mk.II ARV served until the end of the Second World War, with the Mk.II’s service continuing into the Korean War of the early 1950s. It wasn’t long after this that it was finally replaced by the FV4006 Centurion ARV.
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.
The armament of the Churchill evolved during its time in service, starting off with the 2-pounder (40 mm) gun (Churchill Mk.I & II). It then progressed to the 6-pounder (57 mm) gun (Mk.III & IV), before progressing to a 75 mm gun from the Mk.VI onwards. Armor protection also evolved, progressing from 4 to 5.9 inches (102 – 152 mm). The crew consisted of the commander, gunner, loader, driver, and bow machine-gunner/wireless operator.
The Churchill was not fast. A lumbering beast at approximately 40 long 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 and cross harder obstacles than most other tanks then in service.
The Mk.I Churchill ARV appeared in 1942. This initial model was based on the Churchill Mk.I and Mk.II. Initially, both of these Churchill types shared the same turret and 2-pounder (40 mm) gun main armament. The difference was that the Mk.I featured a bow-mounted 3 in howitzer, while in the Mk.II this was replaced by a BESA 7.92 mm machine gun.
For the ARV Mk.Is, conversion into a recovery vehicle was relatively simple as the only major modification was the removal of the turret. This allowed more stowage room for recovery equipment. A simple, shallow conical tower – for want of a better word – was built over the turret ring with a large rectangular hatch built into it. This tower was often used for the stowage of tow cables, which were loosely wrapped around it. Also installed on this ‘tower’ was a mounting point for two .303 Bren light machine guns in an anti-aircraft mount. Boxy, more angular fenders were also installed over the idler and sprocket wheels, replacing the standard rounded fenders of the gun tanks.
Recovery equipment on the Mk.I consisted of an A-frame jib with an approximately 7.5 long ton (7.6 tonnes) capacity that could be mounted on the front or rear of the hull via eyelets. It was anchored to the hull via a length of high-tensile cable. The jib did not use a powered winch-line; rather it would be used in conjunction with a block and tackle or chain hoist, either of which would be carried aboard the ARV. The jib was used to assist in engine lifts and other lighter-duty lifts. The ARV’s main method of recovery was the raw torque of the engine. The vehicle was equipped with a drawbar to facilitate the towing of fellow Churchills or other armored vehicles. When not in use, both the jib and drawbar were carried on the hull.
A three-man crew operated the vehicle, consisting of the driver, bow gunner (the bow-mounted BESA machine gun was retained on the ARV), and commander. All three men would have been REME engineers. The lack of a turret also provided enough room to carry the crew of any tank being recovered.
To meet the needs of British forces fighting in Europe from 1944 onwards, a new version of the Churchill ARV was produced on the hulls of the Mk.III and Mk.IV tanks. Both tanks carried the same 6-pounder (57 mm) gun main armament but had different turrets. The Mk.III had a welded turret while the Mk.IV had a cast turret. Mk.III and IV Churchills were also used as the bases for the famous Churchill AVRE.
The ARV Mk.II conversion process was far more extensive than that of the Mk.I ARV. Rather than the ‘make do’ nature of the original ARV, the Mk.II was much more of a purpose-built machine. Like the Mk.Is, the original turret of the Churchill was removed, but instead of the simple ‘tower’, a faux turret was installed. This faux turret was large, boxy, and constructed from welded steel armor plate. It was also completely fixed in place and had no horizontal rotation. Placed atop the turret were two simple hexagonal cupolas with two-part hatches. There were no viewports anywhere on the ‘turret’. On the rear of this structure, a large stowage box was added. A dummy gun was fashioned from a length of pipe, which was also added to the face of the faux turret. This was put in place to make it look like a standard Churchill gun tank, as there was a fear that the enemy would mercilessly shoot at the vehicle if it was visibly unarmed. The addition of the dummy gun was an effort to deter possible attackers. The gun was mounted slightly off to the right so it didn’t interfere with the forward jib.
The purpose of the faux turret was to serve as a protective housing for the 3-man crew as well as the crew of any vehicle being recovered. A new piece of equipment was also housed within – a winch. With a capacity of 25 long tons and a 250 foot (76 meter) long cable, the winch made the Mk.II ARV a far more effective recovery vehicle, as it could now pull vehicles or heavy equipment from a static position. The winch also worked in conjunction with another new addition, a permanently affixed A-frame jib placed on the rear of the vehicle. This was rooted directly to the hull with a large pulley wheel at the top. This jib had a capacity of 15 long tons (15.2 tonnes) and was mostly used to pull vehicles or heavy equipment. It could also be used to lift, but due to its relatively low height, this wasn’t practical.
The winch also worked with a feature carried over from the Mk.I ARV, the erectable A-frame jib. This could be attached to the bow of the vehicle. When not in use, it was broken down into its component pieces with one section of the tubular arms carried on each side of the hull, just above the suspension bogies. The pulley wheel that sat at the top of the jib was carried in a cradle on the left side of the bow. As its primary role was to pull from the rear of the vehicle, the winch cable emerged from the rear of the ‘turret’. To get the cable to the forward jib, the cable was passed through a fairlead, over the rear jib’s pulley, and over the ‘turret’ roof. It then passed over a smaller pulley in between the two cupolas and down to another pulley at the front of the bow. From here, it finally passed up and over the pulley atop the jib.
The forward jib had a lift capacity of 7 ½ long tons (7.6 tonnes) and was much longer than the rear unit, thus higher off the ground. This made it perfect for engine and equipment lifts. The jib was anchored to the vehicle via a high-tensile cable, attached to an eyelet beside the roof cable pulley. The cable was also brought to the front like this to facilitate pulls from the front without the use of the jib. The engine deck was modified to allow passage of the winch cable. It was completely flattened, cleared of any obstruction. This included the exhaust system which was altered from the single, horizontal bar which ran the width of the deck on the standard gun tank. For the ARV, the exhaust pipe was split into two separate pipes mounted over the sprocket wheels. Protective cowlings were placed over the mufflers. To anchor the vehicle during lifts and pulls, a large ‘spade’ was placed on the rear of the vehicle. When needed, this was lowered by the winch. When not in use, it was folded up against the rear hull plate.
Other Details and Equipment of the Mk.II
Like the Mk.I, the Mk.II ARV’s fenders were more angular and boxy than that of the standard Churchill’s. On both the Mk.I and II, however, the air intakes towards the rear of the vehicle on the sides of the hull were vastly simplified and stripped back. On later models of the Mk.II, they were even more basic, taking the form a simple, shallow rectangular box with a thin layer of mesh covering the intake aperture. Another feature carried over from the Mk.I was the retention of the bow 7.92 mm BESA machine gun. Unlike the Mk.I, however, there was no mounting point for the twin Bren LMGs.
While the dimensions of the Mk.I matched those of the standard Churchill (barring the lack of a turret), the Mk.II was slightly larger in a few respects. With the introduction of the rear jib, the vehicle’s length increased to 27 feet 6 in (8.38 meters) from the original 25 feet 5 inches (7.74 meters). The faux turret also increased height from 8 feet 2 inches (2.49 meters) to 9 feet 9 inches (2.96 meters).
The ARV also housed various other items used for repair or recovery tasks. These included jacks, hoists, pulleys, snatch blocks, tow bars, spare track links and lengths of steel cable up to 100 feet (30 meters) long. All of these were stowed on various points around the exterior of the vehicle via simple steel hooks which were welded to the chassis and ‘turret’. New, large stowage boxes were added behind the exhaust mufflers. In some cases, a vice was even added on the left of the bow plate for small-scale repairs.
Numerous sets of wooden blocks were also carried on both the Mk.I and Mk.II. These were used for several purposes. If winching a vehicle from a steep embankment, the wooden blocks were piled on the crest of the embankment so the cable would not bite into the earth. They were also used in conjunction with jacks, either to support the vehicle or give the jack a firm base to stop it sinking into soft ground.
Some of the only items carried on the now barren engine deck were a couple of pioneer tools, consisting of a pick-axe and a sledge hammer. Two shovels were also carried and were stowed on the exterior of the large stowage bin on the back of the ‘turret’.
Much of the equipment carried by the Churchill was shared by the Sherman ARV. The Sherman ARV was a unique British conversion, developed independently of the American M32 variant of the M4 Sherman medium tank. Like the Churchill, the Mk.I Sherman ARV was a turretless tank with an erectable jib. The Mk.II Sherman ARV featured a similar faux turret with a dummy gun and the same fixed 25 long ton capacity rear jib.
Unfortunately, there is not much detail out there regarding the Churchill ARV’s time in service. Initially, the ARV was designed to support armored units equipped with the Churchill tank. At the time it entered service, no other vehicle was capable of pulling the 40 long ton tank. From 1942 onwards, both the Mk.I and Mk.II were in operation with REME troops attached to armored units, and served through the Italian and North West Europe campaigns. The Mk.I was also used heavily in training exercises in the UK.
We do know that the ARV played a crucial role during the March 1945 crossing of the Rhine. As part of 835 Heavy Recovery Section REME, at least two Mk.II ARVs were present. The ARVs were among the first heavy vehicles to be rafted across to the enemy occupied bank. Working alongside the Sherman Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle (BARV) – another REME specific vehicle – as well as Scammell trucks, D4 and D8 Tractors, the Churchill ARVs were put to use recovering Sherman DDs (Amphibious, Duplex-Drive Sherman tanks) that had become bogged down while emerging from the Rhine. At least 8 Sherman DDs were recovered in this manner. The Churchill was also used to pull lighter vehicles such as the DUKW up the steep banks of the river.
The Churchill ARV’s service continued into the 1950s and it was even deployed in support of British Armoured units fighting in the Korean War (1950-1953). It is often forgotten that the Churchill, specifically the Churchill Crocodile, was deployed during the Korean War. That conflict was the last active combat deployment of the Churchill Tank. It was not until 1956 and the emergence of the FV4006 Centurion ARV that the Churchill ARV was finally retired. However, it hung on in service into the late 1950s with British forces stationed in Hong Kong. Further information on its deployment there is scarce, unfortunately.
The ARV version is a testament to the versatility and flexibility of the Churchill tank. It is also an important vehicle in the history of the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, being one of the first vehicles specifically converted to be operated by their personnel.
Unfortunately, not many of the vehicles survive today. It is possible that only three are still in existence, all Mk.IIs. One of these can be found at the REME Museum in Lyneham, UK. For many years this served as a range target at Borden Camp in Hampshire before being retrieved in the late 1970s and semi-restored and placed in the REME Museum collection. Two others can be found in India, one at the Cavalry Tank Museum, Ahmadnagar and the other at the Military College Of Electronics And Mechanical Engineering (MCEME) in Secunderabad.
Churchill ARV Mk.I. Based on the Mk.I and II Churchill gun-tank, the Mk.I ARV was simply a turretless ‘tug’. It was equipped with a jib that could be erected at the front of the vehicle but its main role was towing. The red, yellow, and blue tri-color on the side of the vehicle is the REME flash.
Churchill ARV Mk.II. The upgraded ARV was based on the Churchill Mk.III and IV. The turret was removed and replaced with a fixed, welded superstructure housing a powerful winch. It had the same erectable forward jib, but was also equipped with a fix rear jib. So the winch cable could be used at the front of the vehicle, the cable had to be threaded around a series of pullies.
These illustrations were produced by Pavel Alexe, based on work by David Bocquelet, funded by our Patreon campaign.
|Dimensions||24ft 5in x 10ft 8in x 9 ft 9 in
(7.44 m x 3.25 m x 2.96 m)
|Total weight||Aprox. 40 tonnes|
|Crew||3 (driver, bow-gunner, commander – all REME)|
|Propulsion||350 hp Bedford horizontally opposed twin-six petrol engine|
|Speed (road)||15 mph (24 km/h)|
|Armament||BESA 7.92mm (0.31 in) machine-gun|
|Equipment||25-ton capacity winch with 250 ft (76 m) cable
15-ton (15.2 tonne) capacity rear jib
7 ½-ton (7.6 tonne) erectible forward jib
|Armour||From 25 to 102 mm (0.98 – 4 in)|
David Fletcher, Churchill Infantry Tank 1941-51, Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #7
Nigel Montgomery, 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
Mike Sibbons, From the Archives: An Eclectic Mix of Stories from the History of REME, Osprey Publishing
John Dutton, The Forgotten Punch in the Army’s Fist: Korea 1950-53- Recounting REME Involvement, Las Atalayas Publishing
The REME Museum, Lyneham, UK