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The Churchill Tank and the Canadian Armoured Corps

The Churchill Tank and the Canadian Armoured Corps Book Review

By Cookie Sewell

Date of Review March 2012 Title The Churchill Tank and the Canadian Armoured Corps
Author Mark W. Tonner Publisher Service Publications
Published 2012 ISBN 1-894581-66-0
Format 126 pages, softbound MSRP (CDN) $39.95

Review

Most of the Service Publications books have followed a standard format: they cover a single weapons system or area of equipment used by the Canadian Army and present it in a 24 page 6" x 9" format. While handy and useful for reference and modeling, it cannot by its nature cover a specific vehicle or weapon in precise detail. Mark Tonner has now expanded his very nice and useful “Weapons of War” volume on the Churchill tank in Canadian service with a full size 8½” x 11" big format book on it with absolutely tons of information on the tanks.

Using material from a wide variety of sources and helpful historians and modelers to include David Fletcher of the Tank Museum, Roddy de Normann, Peter Brown and Steve Guthrie, Mark has presented an incredibly detail accounting of the use of the Churchill in Canadian service and their problems with the tank.

As I noted in my review of the first book, th Churchill tank always struck me as something of a hybrid between the rhomboid WW I tanks and more modern vehicles that defined the Second World War. Here it notes that it was – based on the A20 design offered by Harland & Wolff of Belfast (the builders of the RMS Titanic) it was originally designed with two sponsons, each with a 2-pdr gun. Vauxhall changed it by lowering the sponsons, adding a turret and a host of other changes to produce the A22 or what we now recognize as the Infantry Tank Mk. IV or Churchill.

The 1st Canadian Army Tank Brigade or 1 CATB was formed of three battalions - regiments in the British sense - and was the first and only formation equipped with the Churchill. They would have experience with only the first four marks of the tank, and then only served with them for one combat operation - Dieppe on 19 August 1942.

But the Churchill was rushed straight from drawing board to production, and as a result suffered from a huge number of shortcomings and failings due to its raw state of development. Early tanks even came with a disclaimer from Vauxhall asking for patience and also pleading for users to tell them what was wrong so they could fix or replace the problem parts.

1 CATB became the primary user of the tank in the early days of the war. Originally planned to be fitted out with Canadian built Valentines, the brigade swapped them out once they arrived in England. Under the command of the legendary Brigadier F. F. Worthington, the three armoured regiments – Ontario, Three Rivers, and Calgary – trained aggressively on the new tanks.

Originally the brigade had a mixture of Mark I and Mark II tanks. The former had a 3" howitzer in the center of the hull and a 2-pdr in the turret along with a coaxial 7.92mm Besa; the Mark II did away with the clumsy howitzer in favor of a second Besa.

But as the early model Churchills left a lot to be desired, before any were committed to action most of them had to go back to Vauxhall for upgrading and correction of problems. Five tanks a week were cycled through the program. As a result 1 CATB was constantly in flux with tanks being rotated, tanks on deadline with inoperative systems, and new tanks arriving to be worked up.

In April 1942 these early tanks began to be replaced with the improved Mark III variant. As each regiment had an authorized strength of 58 tanks, it took some time before all tanks could be replaced. Practice was carried out with assault landings from tank landing ships on the Isle of Wight, and it continued as the initial start of the workup for what became the Dieppe raid - Operation Jubilee.

The units had trained hard for the operation and were even receiving some of the nascent vehicles which would evolve into the famous 79th Armoured Division for D-Day two years later. These included carpet layers, bobbin vehicles, and the Oke flamethrower variant. But first came Dieppe.

The ill-starred raid on Dieppe was carried out on 19 August 1942 with tanks from the Calgary Regiment being the only ones to make it ashore. This proved to be a disaster with only 27 of 30 Churchills making it ashore (two sank and one never left its transport) and all of them being knocked out or broken down over the course of the operation. 15 made it to the seawall and 10 were able to return after attempting to take the town, but the shale beach was more than the tracks of the tanks could take and most of them broke down right on the beach itself. Four tanks were knocked out by enemy fire, and the rest either broke down or had their tracks snapped.

The good news was that the armor protection of the Churchill turned out to be very reliable and none of the crews were injured inside the vehicles. But the Calgary Regiment suffered heavy losses and it was not until the end of October it was fully reequipped, but mostly by hand-me-down Mark I and II tanks.

The special versions of the Churchill also had their problems at Dieppe, one Oke surviving but not adding to the combat power of the regiment. The “Carpet Laying Devices” did try to provide beach passage and two actually did succeed in laying their matting at Dieppe (out of five so equipped) but to no avail.

Given the constant problems with the Churchill the Canadian Army quickly soured on the type, opting to refit with the Canadian built Ram Mk. II. By the end of May 1943 the Churchill was no longer in Canadian service.

This expanded book provides tons of tables on data about the Canadian Churchills as well as what is probably close to all of the Census Numbers (registration numbers in US parlance) of the tanks provided and used. Many of the tanks are shown with markings and names as well as the details for each one and as such will be a real boon to any modeler wanting to build an early (Mark I to Mark IV) Churchill tank.

Most useful is a complete description of Canadian markings and insignia used on these tanks and a rundown of how the markings were generated and assigned to each vehicle. A color illustration shows the markings in full color and will help get modelers pointed in the right direction.

A list of preserved Churchills in Canada with photos of each one are also provided.

Overall, while some modelers may be disappointed no plans of the fittings used at Dieppe are provided, the tremendous selection of photos as well as the written text and tables should permit them to build any one of the vehicles which participated in the operation as well as many of the trainers used by the 1 CATB.

Thanks to Clive Law of Service Publications for the review copy.

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