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Centurion tank


By Sakhal

Already in the summer 1943, the British Ministry of War was preparing the draft of the specification A41 for a new heavy cruiser tank (cruiser tanks were those tanks built for being agile, thus sacrificing protection and firepower in their design) and the specification A45 for a much heavier assault gun for the infantry, both of them fitted with the liquid-cooled gasoline engine Rolls- Royce Meteor. The project for the assault gun was never started, but the cruiser tank would achieve a clamorous success. The Tank Project Department declared the project as "internal": it was the first time since its creation that this organism assumed full responsibility in an armored vehicle; previously, it had always shared it with the contractor. The development was entrusted to AEC ( Associated Equipment Company), based in Southall, Middlesex; this company had built some of the best heavy trucks used by the British Army, albeit its experience with armored vehicles was limited to armored cars and command vehicles and to build minesweeper "whips" for the tanks Valentine and Sherman. Despite of this relative lack of experience, at the end of that same year was already being built a real-size model of the A41, which was completed the following May. Then it started the unavoidable discussion about its armament. The best high muzzle speed cannon available was, undoubtedly, the 17-pounder (77 millimeters), the one that had been mounted in the Sherman Firefly and the A30 Challenger; but, except when it fired piercing ammunition, it was deficient. The 95 millimeters howitzer was excellent when firing high explosive ammunition, but this kind of projectiles could not break the enemy armor except from very short distances. There was also a shorter 17 -pounder, known as the 77-millimeter cannon and developed for the Comet; it was inferior to the two aforementioned in their optimal role, but at least it could comply both reasonably. It was taken a compromise choice: 15 of the 20 development models would be equipped with the 17-pounder and the other five with the shorter and double-purpose 77-millimeter cannon. It was also considered to mount the 95-millimeter howitzer - and in fact it was given a name to the version of the tank that would equip it - but the project came to nothing.

It was discussed as well the secondary armament. On the one hand was the Polsten 20-millimeter cannon and on the other the already consolidated Besa 7.92-millimeter machine gun. The discussion was focused in the much more destructive capacity of the first one versus the higher flexibility and capability to keep fire and the lesser requirement for ammunition storage of the second one. It was debated as well the necessity of mounting a second machine gun in the rear of the turret. The A41 was not fitted with hull machine gun; actually there was no space for one nor for a fifth crew member to operate it. And since the normal would be that the tank traveled most of the time with the cannon looking backwards, given its length, it was argued that a machine gun installed in the rear of the turret at least would give some forward protection against enemy infantry attacking in a reduced space. The matter was settled only when someone pointed that if that machine gun were installed, would not remain space inside for a smoke grenade launcher, which was a more important need. As in the first case, the discussion of cannon versus machine gun was solved with a compromise: the first five development models armed with the 17-pounder would carry a Besa co-axial machine gun and the other ten would carry a Besa machine gun or a Polsten cannon in an orientable mounting to the left of the turret front. But the Polsten cannon was disliked by the crews that tested the development models and hence promptly suppressed, samely as the orientable mounting. In turn, in time the Besa would give way to the Browning 12.7-millimeter machine gun, being adopted the same weapon as anti-aircraft defense.

The suspension of the Christie type was almost the only element in the design of the British tanks of the previous decade that had been resulted satisfactory for everyone: projectists, manufacturers and crews. It was a bit ironic that it was intended to dispense with it, but there were serious doubts about the possibility to develop it for a tank that initially would weigh almost 45 tonnes and, inevitably, would become heavier along the development. Instead of this system, the engineers from AEC adopted a suspension of the Hortsmann type - as it was used for the first time in the light tank Vickers Mk I from 1929 - with pairs of medium-sized road wheels joined by horizontal concentric springs, along with six return rollers. Not adopting the Christie system meant to lose the second layer of armor that protected good part of the suspension; to compensate this, it was proposed to equip the new tank with removable and easy to replace armored skirts, to counteract the shaped charges fired by the anti-tank weapons carried by the infantry. When the finished model was shown to the director of the Royal Armored Corps and to the Committee of Tanks, it was received with certain suspicion; but it was accepted only after some small modifications. With its 43 tonnes and almost 10 meters in length with the cannon looking forward, the new tank made it seem like dwarves the Cromwell and other cruiser tanks and it achieved that even the Churchill seemed little thing. Also, it had good presence, with its well sloped glacis and its barge-shaped hull. Once baptized as Centurion, it was ordered its experimental production in the factories Royal Ordnance in Woolwich and Nottingham, while the series production would be carried by Vickers- Armstrong in Elswick and Leyland Motors in Leyland, besides the factory Royal Ordnance in Leeds. In April 1945 four prototypes had been already delivered and there were two more ready to leave the factory. Instead of following the normal routine of submitting the new vehicles to a long trials program in the maneuvers fields, it was decided to send them to a mixed unit of the Guards Armored Division - which in that moment was breaking through towards Berlin - to test them in real combat. The Operation Sentinel, as it was called this attempt to bring the tanks into combat prematurely, came to nothing: when the 14th May 1945, the six Centurion tanks left Southampton towards Belgium, the war in Europe had finished almost two weeks ago.

The first thing that the six tanks had to do when they left Antwerp five days later was a road march of 650 kilometers to the headquarters of the 7th Armored Division in Gribbom. Since then until late July, the tanks visited practically all the British armored units in Germany and the Netherlands. They were unanimously well received and were closer than any other tank to become the "universal tank" in the Allied arsenal. Practically all the crews that tested them agreed that it was the best one that they had ever manned. The Centurion was a very heavy vehicle, with nothing similar to assisted steering or gearshift, which was usually made with the two hands. When it finally entered service in 1949, the Centurion was certainly an aspirant to the title of best tank in the world. But if their projectists had said that the Centurion would still be in service, albeit in a very modified form, after its 50th birthday, surely they would have been mocked. Still in the 1990s, Denmark, Jordan, Singapur and Sweden had a thousand of modified tanks Centurion in their order of battle. In October 1973, the Centurion tanks of Israel had subdued a superior armored force equipped with much more modern tanks in the Golan Heights, in occassion of the Yom Kippur War. It is a tribute to the integrity of the original idea, the fact that this tank were susceptible of being progressively improved on its engine, armor and armament, continuing firmly in competition. It is not strange that the Centurion appeared in any type of shape and configuration, some of them impulsed by their producers and others by their users in their own development programs. This tank had defects, of course, but these were related only with their mobility: a speed not higher than 35 kilometers/hour and an operational range of only 160 kilometers, due to their 650-horsepower engine and their 460-liter fuel tank, respectively. While these two components remained the same and the total weight of the tank were increasing, speed and operational range would be perforce worse. Eventually, as a desperate measure, it was made a towing with a sole wheel containing 910 liters of fuel, which was towed by the tank. Actually the Centurion was to be replaced in the early 1950s by the denominated "Universal Tank" but this program was abandoned and the only other British tank developed in that time was the heavy tank Conqueror.

Centurion tank

Centurion from the Israeli Army fitted with the 105-millimeter cannon (note the fume extractor) and other improvements, as they were used in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The Centurion was built with a welded hull, with a cast turret whose upper part was welded with the rest. The driver was placed in the front right part in the hull and the other three crew members in the turret, the commander and the gunner to the right and the loader to the left. The engine and the transmission were conventionally installed in the rear part in the hull. The engine was a development of the aircraft engine Rolls-Royce Merlin used during the Second World War by the fighters Spitfire and Hurricane. Thirteen versions of the Centurion were made; from the Mk 5, every one was made in two variants. During the course of this development, the Centurion passed through two changes of cannon. To the 17-pounder followed the 20-pounder (83 millimeters) L/64 and to this one followed the L7 105 millimeters, fitted with fume extractor unlike the previous models. It is maybe worth of mention that the British kept the old denomination of the cannons by the weight of their projectiles until so modern date as the 1950s, when it was no longer in use in the rest of countries. It was also increased two times the armor of the tank, being installed infrared driving and search lights, including a "black light" searchlight. It was also mounted a 12.7-millimeter machine gun with the same ballistics than the cannon to calculate the aiming ranges; later it would be replaced by a laser telemeter. Among other modifications were a remodeled commander's cupola, increased fuel capacity and more external storage. In its final form - the Mk 13, even if the total number of versions was not less than 25 - the Centurion weighed almost 52 tonnes, in order of battle with tracks 61 centimeters wide. This version mounted the cannon L7 105 millimeters, an artillery piece of exceptional characteristics which was used by almost all the western medium tanks during the 1960s and the 1970s. This cannon had an elevation angle between +20 and -10 degrees and it was stabilized in elevation and azimuth. The ammunition carried was 64 projectiles for the 105-millimeter cannon, 600 for the 12.7-millimeter machine gun and 4750 for the 7.62 millimeters machine gun.

When the Mk 13 appeared, the internal fuel capacity surpassed already 1000 liters, but its operational range was not higher than 190 kilometers. With a Diesel engine, there was a big difference, improving much the mobility of the tank. The Israeli Defense Forces installed a 750-horsepower Diesel engine American Continental and a new transmission system in their Centurion, rebaptized by them as Sho't; also Vickers mounted a General Motors V-shaped 12-cylinder Diesel engine in the tanks that they remodeled. The Centurion could ford streams of up to 1.45 meters high without any preparation; several flotation equipments were developed that would allow it to cross deeper streams, but none of them was adopted. As aforementioned, apart from serving as combat tanks, the Centurion were used as well as the base of a wide range of support tanks. There were two types of Centurion AVLB (Armoured Vehicle Laying Bridge) based on the hull of the Mk 5. The FV 4002 had a bridge kept normally in horizontal position; then it was rotated about 180 degrees to deploy it, which took about two minutes, while recovery required four minutes. There were as well vehicles Centurion AVRE (Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers), fitted with a hydraulically operated bulldozer blade and a 165 millimeters demolition cannon to be used against fortifications. The AVRE could carry as well a platform destined to cross anti-tank trenches. The Centurion were used as well to make vehicles ARV (Armoured Recovery Vehicle) and ARK (Armoured Ramp Carrier), that could work as bridges or ramps with a span of 23 meters - when used individually - or much larger - when used in tandem -. The ARV had a windlass with a maximum force of 91445 kilograms, a crew of four and one 7.62-millimeter machine gun. The BARV (Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle) was capable of operating in the water up to 2.9 meters deep.

Centurion tank

Upper vehicle: Centurion AVRE 105. Lower vehicle: Centurion AVRE 165 FV 4003, the demolition version fitted with a 165-millimeter cannon and bulldozer blade.

The Centurion was tested as well as flamethrower tank and as chassis for self-propelled guns and tank destroyers. There was a self-propelled gun fitted with a 25-pounder (87.6 millimeters) cannon and five road wheels instead of six, while another one had instead a 5.5 inches (139.7 millimeters) cannon. There was a tank destroyer, the Conway, armed with a 120-millimeter cannon and another one armed with a 183-millimeter cannon. The Israeli modified one of their Centurion to house a 155-millimeter cannon in the turret but this vehicle did not enter service. The rest of the Centurion tanks acquired by them had the 83.4-millimeter cannon replaced by the 105 millimeters one. Albeit it was liked by the crews, the Centurion never reached the production levels of its rivals in United States or the Soviet Union. In total, about 4000 units were produced, of which about 1500 were suplied, either in a form or another, to the British Army. The last models produced costed about 50000 pounds each. The Centurion, with its multitude of models, lasted in service with the British Army enough to "enter" into two denomination systems. It was conceived as "armored" with the old denomination system "A" and it was converted into a "fighting vehicle" following the newer denomination system "FV" adopted by the British Army in 1948. The Centurion entered combat in Korea, India, southern Arabia, Vietnam, Middle East and Suez. Outside United Kingdom the Centurion was used by Australia and Canada - being replaced in both countries by the German Leopard -, Denmark, Egypt, India, Irak, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland. With such career the Centurion demonstrated to be one of the most remarkable tanks produced after the Second World War.

Centurion tank

Centurion from the Swedish Army fitted with the 105-millimeter cannon (note the fume extractor).

Specifications for Centurion Mk 13

Crew: 4

Armament: One L7 51-caliber 105-millimeter cannon; one L7 7.62 millimeters co-axial machine gun; one L7 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the commander's cupola; one auxiliary 12.7 millimeters machine gun for aiming tracing; six smoke launchers in each side of the turret

Ammunitions: 64 x 105-millimeter cannon; 600 x 12.7-millimeter machine gun; 4750 x 7.62-millimeter machine guns

Armor: 17-152 millimeters

Length (total): 9.854 meters

Length (hull): 7.823 meters

Width (including protective skirts): 3.390 meters

Height: 3.009 meters

Weight: 51.82 tonnes

Ground pressure: 0.95 kilograms/square centimeter

Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor Mk IV B gasoline engine with 12 cylinders and a maximum power of 650 horsepower at 2550 revolutions per minute

Maximum speed (in road): 34.6 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 190 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 3.352 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 0.914 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 60 percent

Maximum fording: 1.450 meters



Specifications for Centurion AVRE 105

Crew: 4

Armament: One L7 51-caliber 105-millimeter cannon; one L7 7.62 millimeters co-axial machine gun; one 12.7-millimeter machine gun in the commander's cupola; six smoke launchers in each side of the turret

Armor: 17-118 millimeters

Length (total): 9.854 meters

Length (hull): 7.823 meters

Width (including protective skirts): 3.390 meters

Height: 2.940 meters

Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor Mk IV B gasoline engine with 12 cylinders and a maximum power of 650 horsepower at 2550 revolutions per minute

Maximum speed (in road): 34.6 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 105 kilometers



Specifications for Centurion AVRE 165

Crew: 5

Armament: One 165-millimeter cannon; two L7 7.62-millimeter machine guns

Armor: 17-152 millimeters

Length: 7.550 meters

Width (including protective skirts): 3.390 meters

Height: 2.940 meters

Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor Mk IV B gasoline engine with 12 cylinders and a maximum power of 650 horsepower at 2550 revolutions per minute

Maximum speed (in road): 34.6 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 102 kilometers



Specifications for Sho't (Israeli modified Centurion)

Crew: 4

Armament: One L7 51-caliber 105-millimeter cannon; one L7 7.62 millimeters co-axial machine gun; two L7 7.62-millimeter machine gun in the turret roof; one 12.7-millimeter machine gun

Armor: 17-118 millimeters

Length (total): 9.854 meters

Length (hull): 7.823 meters

Width (including protective skirts): 3.390 meters

Height: 2.940 meters

Engine: American Continental AVDS-1790 Diesel engine with 12 cylinders and a maximum power of 750 horsepower

Maximum speed (in road): 43 kilometers/hour

Maximum operational range (in road): 205 kilometers



Categories: Tanks - Cold War - 20th Century - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-12-21


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