Without question the Centurion was the most successful post-World War II British tank and is arguably the most successful British tank design of all time. Conceived in the middle of World War II the tank was intended to be the next in Britain’s series of cruiser tanks. British and Commonwealth success in North Africa had hidden the fact that British generals and tank manufacturers were way behind the Germans and indeed the Russians and Americans for a long time. Previous British tanks always seemed to suffer from having underpowered weapons or poor armour. By 1942 British crews and designers knew the limitations of the tanks they were churning out to face the might of the Germans but there was little they could do because Churchill’s government issued a directorate that all new tanks must be built using the existing (inadequate) tooling because changing the factories to build all-new designs would result in both a delay and a significant drop off in output.
In 1943 the fortunes of war were changing and finally Churchill allowed the factories to start designing and building all new designs incorporating the lessons of the previous three and a half years. Some of these lessons included sloping armour the effectiveness of which had been dramatically proven by the near-legendary Soviet T-34 and the importance of welding the tanks together as opposed to rivets which offered a structural weak point. One such tank design put forward by the Department of Tank Design was the A41 and this would be the evolutionary father of the Centurion line.
The tank was required to have good off-road performance and this required a powerful engine which was provided by Rolls-Royce who modified their famous Merlin 12-cylinder aero-engine to produce the Rolls-Royce Meteor. This was downgraded in overall power compared to its aviation forebear but was geared such that it could churn out more horsepower per tonne which is what was need to move the 40 tonne vehicle. The US designed Christie suspension which had proven successful on previous cruiser tanks and even the Soviet T-34 was dropped in favour of a new coil based system known as the Horstman system which helped achieve the good cross country performance sought after by the Army. This system allowed the vehicle to ride well on six road wheels as opposed to the more common five wheel arrangement in earlier designs. Actual armour depth was smaller than most other main tanks but its effectiveness was actually better thanks to the way in which it was applied, it being well sloped and therefore providing deeper armour that a shell would have to traverse. It also meant it was more prone to shells ricocheting off.
Centurion Mk 1 (First Generation)
The initial service variant of the newly named Centurion tank was the Mk 1 which sported a 17-pounder (76.2mm) main gun. This was a good weapon that had been mated to the US Sherman in 1944 to produce the Sherman Firefly. The 17-pounder was able to penetrate some 140mm of armour at 500m (550 yd) and 131mm at 1,000m (1,100 yd) using standard armour piercing rounds. Unusually, it was armed with a Czech designed version of the Swiss 20mm Oerlikon cannon mounted coaxially with the main gun. A small number of Mk 1s (still known as A41s as the vehicle was considered a pilot-vehicle for the new type) were sent to Germany but failed to see any action as the war came to an end. Only a handful of A41s/Mk 1s were produced.
Centurion Mk 2
Even as construction of the Mk 1 was starting, work was already underway to improve it with the fitting of a fully cast turret. This further reduced the structural weak points inherent with welding and with its side destructible stowage lockers the Centurion was now beginning to adopt its distinctive look. Elsewhere, armour on the front of the hull was increased to 110mm which coupled with its high degree of slope made it an extremely tough vehicle.
Centurion Mk 3 (Second Generation)
The Centurion Mk 2 was making its presence known within the ranks of the British Army in the immediate post war years and while it was certainly an advance over many wartime vehicles there were still questions being raised over the gun which was of smaller calibre than the equivalent T-34 which was armed with an 85mm gun (as opposed to the Centurion’s 76.2mm). It was feared that this weapon would prove insufficient to penetrate the armour of the T-34/85 and the IS-3 heavy tanks that the Soviets were fielding in Eastern Europe. Therefore in 1948 a new model Centurion was introduced which featured a 20pdr (84mm) main gun which offered far superior hitting power and range than the 17pdr. While the main gun was upgraded the co-axial 20mm was downgraded to a 7.62mm machine gun as it was seen as a better weapon for defending against infantry or smaller ‘soft’ vehicles. Another feature of the Mk 3 that was carried over onto following variants was the fitting of stowage positions for track links on glacis. It would be the Mk 3 that took the brunt of the fighting in the Korean War.
Centurion Mk 4
During the Second World War a number of tanks were modifed as close support vehicles for fighting alongside the infantry. This continued in the Centurion line with the Mk 4 which featured a 95 mm CS howitzer. However the vehicle existed in prototype form only and was never put in to production.
Centurion Mk 5 (Third Generation)
The Mk 5 introduced a host of improvements that saw the Centurion mature in to a world beater. A further increase in armour that this new Centurion enjoyed over previous variants meant that the performance offered by the Meteor engine was beginning to drop off requiring replacement by a more powerful version. Machine gun armament was improved with the fitting of two Browning 7.62mm machine guns; one to replace the previous co-axial weapon and a second mounted on the commander’s cupola. This arrangement was changed again by the fitting of two co-axial machine guns; the aforementioned 7.62mm version and a single 50.cal weapon intended to be used for ranging 20pdr gun. Centurions configured this way were designated as Mk 5/1.
Even as production of the Mk 5 and Mk5/1 was underway plans were on the board to change the gun yet again with a weapon the vehicle would become synonymous with; the L7 105mm rifled gun. This was perhaps the best tank gun in the world throughout the 1950s and 1960s and gave the Centurion a punch that would earn it a near legendary status. It was so successful that nearly every western main battle tank that followed had either a British-built version or a license-built version fitted to it with one of the last vehicles to mount it being the US Army’s superlative M1 Abrams in the late 1980s! Perhaps its most unexpected usage was by the Chinese who illegally copied it and fitted it to their own versions of the T-55 tank – one of the very tanks it was designed to destroy in the first place. The L7-equipped version of the tank was designated the Mk 5/2 and this variant would be the benchmark by which all other variants were compared and based.
Specifications (figures may vary depending on version)
Crew 4 (commander, gunner, loader, driver)
Top Speed 22mph
Armament (see text)
Armour 33mm (min) 195mm (max)
Weight 51 tons
- Hull: 25 ft (7.6 m)
- Overall: 32 ft (9.8 m) with 20pdr
- Width 11 feet 1 inch (3.38 m) with side plates
- Height 9 feet 10.5 inches (3.01 m)