In the early stages of WWII, Great Britain started a lend-lease relationship with the Soviet Union. Along with the Churchill III, Tetrarch, Valentine and Universal Carrier, the famous Queen of the Desert Matilda II soon found itself in the USSR.
Between 1941 and 1943, some 1084 Matildas were shipped to the Soviet Union. Only 918 were ever received by the Red Army, however. It is suggested that the others never made it to the end of the famous Arctic Convoys. This is one-third of the entire 2987 vehicle production run of the Matilda.
Fighting Under the Red Flag
The Matilda IIs that found their way to the USSR were mostly Mk.IIIs and Mk.IVs, with Leyland diesel engines. Diesel being the preferred fuel of the Soviets. The Soviets identified the Matilda as the “British Mk.2”. The 170th and 171st Tank Battalions of the South-Western and Kalininsk fronts were the first units to receive the tank. At the time of the Battle of Moscow, their first action under the Soviet flag, only 145 Matildas had been received. Along with the Valentine, the Matildas only made up 2 percent of all Soviet armor used. The 170th only had 13 of them at the time.
Soviet crews fell in love with the Matilda, however, and up until 1942 they deemed it “the toughest tank on the western front”. To the Soviets, of course, the German front was the “Western” front. The only thing they didn’t like were the tracks, that were ill-suited to icy conditions. The tank fought on several fronts under Soviet use, mostly on Western Front, but also at North Caucasian Front and Bryansk Front until at least early 1944. In December 1943, the 5th Mechanized Corps of the 68th Army, fighting on the Western front, still had 79 fully operational Matildas.
The Red Army soon realized that the standard 40mm 2 pounder cannon of the Matilda was becoming less and less effective against German armor. As such, in December 1941 at design office number 92, Vasiliy Grabin, the famous designer of the ZiS-3 gun, made plans to mount the Soviet’s own 76mm tank gun M1941 ZiS-5 (76-мм танковая пушка обр. 1941 г. ЗиС-5), on the Matilda.
This was the same gun found on early war KV-1s. It was re-designated as F-96 for the project. The weapon was a substantial improvement over the 40mm/2-pounder. The 76mm shell could penetrate up to 61mm of armor at 1,000 meters and could fire numerous types of ammunition including HE-F (High Explosive – Fragmentation), APCR (Armor Piercing Composite Rigid) and APHE (Armor Piercing High Explosive). The gun could elevate to roughly 20 degrees, but could only depress 2 degrees. 120 guns were originally put-by for the project, however this was later cut down to only 40.
Just one Matilda, still having its British War Department (W.D) numeral markings, was experimented on. Extensive modifications of the turret were implemented to allow the larger gun to fit, requiring a complete redesign of the mantlet. The new mantlet was based on the KV-1’s, and to grant a little extra room inside the turret, a gasket roughly an inch thick was placed in-between the mantlet and turret face.
The turret of the Matilda was cramped to begin with, so one can only imagine how much more uncomfortable it would’ve been with the 76mm inserted. It is unknown as to whether this Matilda would’ve kept the same amount of crew as the stanard tank. If so, the loading and general operating of the gun would likely have been an awkward task.
In January of 1942, the modified tank was sent to Moscow for testing. Come March 1943, the Commissar for Tank Industry, V. Malysheva and Commissar for weapons D. Ustinovu contacted the design team in a letter basically telling them the project was canceled as the guns were needed for the USSR’s own tanks, which were rolling off the assembly line by the battalion load. Because of this, the project was canceled with just the one prototype built. The prototype was likely scrapped soon after. It is possible that the component parts were put back into circulation. The guns may have been re-installed on their respective vehicles with the F-96 going back to a KV, and the 2-Pounder going back onto the Matilda hull.
There is, however, and unverified German intelligence report that the 36th and 37th Tank Brigade were equipped with 76mm armed Matildas. There is no concrete evidence to back this up though. It may be that the tanks were mistaken for Matilda CS versions, of which there was 130 sent to the Soviets.
The Soviets were not the first to attempt an up-gunning of the vehicle. As well as the experiments on using the Littlejohn adapter for the 2-pounder, the British army attempted mounting the QF 6 pounder gun in a new turret taken from the A27 Cromwell. Like the Russian concept, this too was scrapped with one prototype built.
The ZiS-5 armed Matilda. This illustration was produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own by David Bocquelet.
Matilda II specifications
|18 ft 9.4 in x 8 ft 3 in x 8 ft 7 in (5.72 x 2.51 x 2.61 m)
|Total weight, loaded
|25.5 tons (25.6 tonnes)
|4 (driver, gunner, loader, commander)
|2x Leyland E148 & E149 straight 6-cylinder water cooled diesel 95 hp engine
|Max. Road Speed
|15 mph (24.1 km/h)
|Operational Road Range
|50 miles (807 km)
|76mm ZiS-5 Gun
|15 mm to 78 mm (0.59-3.14 in)
|Infantry Tank Mark II Specifications, by J.S. DODD The Vulcan Foundry Ltd, Locomotive Works, August 1940
Infantry Tank Mark IIA* Specifications, The Vulcan Foundary Ltd by designer Sir John Dodd August 1940
Infantry Tank Mark II manual, War Department
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #8, Matilda Infantry Tank 1938-45
Soviet Matildas on FTR
Matilda Mk.IV on Panzernet.net (Czech)
A live journal entry on the Matilda IV (Russian).
An article by Yuri Pasholok on Warspot.ru.
Osprey Publishing, New Vanguard #247: Soviet Lend-Lease Tanks of World War II