Swinton’s Tank Tips – The First Guide to Tank Warfare

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One of the problems of introducing a revolutionary new form of warfare to the battlefield is that there is no previous experience with which to build on. Such was the case with the tank in 1916. There had been nothing like it before and this meant that within the ranks of the very first tank units long-serving soldiers, officers and NCOs had the same experience in the tank as the rawest recruit.

Ernest Swinton

Lt. Col Ernest Swinton

What they did have however was a cadre of dedicated officers who believed in their newest weapon and the potential it offered to break the enormous stalemate of the western front. One such officer was Lt. Col. Ernest Swinton who is remembered in the British Army as the “Father of the tanks”. Swinton did more than simply push through the concept of the tank. He outlined the first operating principles for the tank in how it should be used and devised a set of “tank tips” written in plain language so that everyone from a Private to a public schoolboy Colonel could understand them.

Incredibly these tips are still taught in modern tank schools around the world.

Swinton’s Tank Tips

  1. Remember your orders.
  2. Shoot quick.
  3. Shoot low. A miss which throws dust in the enemy’s eyes is better than the one that whistles in his ear.
  4. Shoot cunning.
  5. Shoot the enemy while they are rubbing their eyes.
    (Refers to taking advantage of the enemy’s surprise by the sight of these metal monsters trolling towards them. Indeed in the tank’s first use the Germans appeared to stare at them for several minutes before reacting!)
  6. Economise ammunition and don’t shoot a man three times.
  7. Remember that trenches are curly and dugouts deep – look round the corners.
  8. Watch the progress of the fight and your neighbouring tanks.
  9. Remember the position of your own line.
  10. Shell out the enemy’s machine guns and other small guns and kill them first with your 6pdrs.
    (Relevant to “male” tanks armed with 6 pounder guns whose job it was to suppress the machine gun nests that had killed so many infantry in previous battles. “Female” tanks were armed with machine guns and were designed to tackle the enemy infantry directly.)
  11. You will not see them for they will be cunningly hidden.
  12. You must ferret out where they are, judging by the following signs; Sound, Dust, Smoke.
  13. A shadow in a parapet.
    (Refers to an enemy laying in wait)
  14. A Hole in the wall, haystack, rubbish heap, woodstack, pile of bricks.
    (Again refers to possible enemy positions)
  15. They will usually be placed slantways across the front and to shoot across the wire.
  16. One 6pdr shell that hits the loophole of a MG emplacement will do it in.
  17. Use the 6pdr with care; shoot to hit and not to make noise.
  18. Never have any gun, even when unloaded, pointing at your own infantry, or a 6pdr pointed at another tank.
  19. It is the unloaded gun that kills the fool’s friends.
    (18 & 19 refer to cases of negligent discharges and these rules were carried over from the cavalry.)
  20. Never mind the heat.
  21. Never mind the noise.
  22. Never mind the dust.
    (20, 21 & 22 refer to conditions inside a World War I tank.)
  23. Think of your pals in the infantry.
  24. Thank God you are bullet proof and can help the infantry who are not.
  25. Have your mask always handy.
    (The tank crews were at just as much risk of gas attack as the infantry.)
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Centurion Mk 1-5

Centurion Cover

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)

Centurion Mk1

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

Centurion Mk2

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)

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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.

Centurion 5 2

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
Length

  • 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)

Longest Tank Kill In History

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One thing that is undeniably “British” is the love of a good underdog story and British military history is filled with examples of just that. The Harrier in the Falklands. The Swordfish bomber attack on Taranto harbour. The evacuation of Dunkirk. That’s to name but a few. In 1991 on the eve of the ground war to liberate Kuwait and destroy Iraq’s mighty army one of the underdogs was certainly the British Challenger tank.

221 Challenger tanks were eventually deployed to Saudia Arabia to liberate Kuwait and operated under the guise of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division supporting the US Army’s VII Corps. As the tanks deployed there were worried muffles in the Ministry of Defence and amongst military analysts about how well they would perform especially in the face of Iraqi armoured forces who were superior in number and had extensive tank vs tank combat experience following the Iran-Iraq War.

The reason for this is that the Challenger had developed quite an unenviable reputation at the start of the 1990s. In service it had displayed very poor reliability and this was the source of much frustration amongst crews and commanders. Even worse however was the stigma of having finished last in the prestigious Canadian Army Trophy tank competition held in West Germany in 1987 against tanks and crews from all over NATO. Despite the MoD highlighting several key factors for this poor performance the stigma remained and so when the Challenger deployed to the Gulf it had a lot to prove.

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Prove itself it did. During the course of the 100 hour ground war the Challenger had completely reversed its reliability problems and achieved an enviable serviceability record; a testament to the hard work and dedication of the support crews who keep these vehicles going. In combat it was the superior of anything it came up against and by the end of the three day offensive Challengers accounted for some 200 Iraqi tanks destroyed or captured along with numerous armoured and ‘soft’ vehicles.

During the offensive one Challenger finally laid to rest the doubts anyone had over the capability of the type with a single shot. That shot was made over a staggering range of 5,100m (3 miles) with a Depleted Uranium (DU) round – the longest confirmed tank kill in history!

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Ian Stewart, said after the poor showing of the Challenger at the Canadian Army Trophy in 1987;

I do not believe that the performance of tanks in the artificial circumstances of a competition, such as the recent Canadian Army Trophy, is a proper indication of their capability in war.

Less than four years later he was proven right.