Friday, 15 December 2017

Lady with a Thick Skin

The Matilda, or MK-II, as it was called in Soviet documents, became one of the best known foreign vehicles used by the Red Army. Appearing in the USSR in the fall of 1941 along with the Valentine, these tanks made it in time to defend Moscow and participate in many operations in the first half of 1942. This vehicle earned a mixed reputation among Soviet tankers. It was loved for its reliable armour, but cursed for its slow speed and weak gun. Either way, the last large scale application of Matilda Tanks on the Eastern Front was in the summer of 1944, and some vehicles kept fighting until the end of the war.

Armour of a heavy, mass of a medium, gun of a light

The Soviet military learned of the existence of the Infantry Tank Mk.II in September of 1941. A report on British tanks written on September 17th refers to it as "medium tank mod. 1940". Its mass was estimated as 32 tons, and armour thickness at 70 mm. The engine power was overestimated at 300 hp. Its armament was listed as one 47 mm gun and one machinegun. This vehicle was considered the most interesting among British tanks.

Three days later, it was known that these vehicles, now referred to as "British mark 2 tank", were en route to the USSR. The PQ-1 convoy arrived in Arkhangelsk on October 11th, 1941. The first shipment was somewhat of a trial. Only 20 Matilda III and Valentine II tanks arrived. Larger shipments began at a later date.

Preparation of a Matilda III for shipment to the USSR.

More precise information about the British tanks quickly made it to the USSR. By September 21st, the GABTU received a summary of the tank's characteristics. However, there were still mistakes. The tank's top speed was claimed as 30-35 kph, an impossible figure for the Infantry Tank Mk.II. However, for the first time in print, it was mentioned that the Infantry Tank Mk.IIA was called "Matilda". This is just another piece of evidence pointing to the fact that the naming system was used unofficially before it was approved. According to British documents, the Matilda only received its name on September 22nd, 1941.

According to an announcement made by the head of the British military mission, General Frank Noel McFarlane, Great Britain planned to send a convoy with tanks to the USSR every 10 days. This claim was far too optimistic. PQ-2 was expected to deliver 140 tanks of both types. In reality, PQ-1 and PQ-2 delivered 49 Matilda and 84 Valentine tanks by October 30th. The next 70 Matilda III tanks arrived in Arkhangelsk on November 22nd, 1941, with PQ-3. The transport ship Briarwood was scheduled to deliver 50 tons of spare parts, but took damage on the way and had to turn back.145 Matilda and 216 Valentine tanks arrived in the USSR by the end of 1945.

With a mass of a medium tank and as much armour as the heavy KV-1, the tank had the armament of a light tank. In the Red Army, it was classified as a medium.

Loading Matilda III and Valentine tanks onto PQ-4 ships.

Aside from Arkhangelsk, ships with British tanks arrived at Murmansk. Military acceptance facilities were set up in these cities. The tanks were then loaded onto trains and taken to Gorkiy, where a tank center was set up. Repairs were also performed here. As for training, a tank school was organized in Kazan from the Kazan Armoured Forces Improvement Courses (KUKS). 420 crews arrived for training. A brigade of six British instructors arrived with PQ-2 to assist the Soviets. Tankers were trained for Valentines at the start, since many more of those tanks arrived than Matildas.

Although the maintenance instructions were quickly translated, the tankers often had to study their tank on the front lines at first. This happened with the 136th Tank Battalion, which was the first unit to receive British tanks. On December 1st,  the battalion was deployed, and some of the tanks broke down during training. There is nothing strange here. The French experienced similar issues in 1940, when units were hurriedly formed from tankers who were not trained on modern tanks.

Matilda CS tank. Due to a lack of armour piercing shells, the USSR received few of these tanks.

Issues with British tanks began long before they arrived at the front. A report from the chief of the 1st Department of the BTA, Military Engineer 1st Class Pavlov about the technical condition of arriving British tanks was composed in November. Most issues recorded with Valentines, no doubt due to there being more of them, but even the Matilda had plenty of issues. Out of the 49 tanks that arrived by then, 6 were "defrosted", since water was used for coolant instead of antifreeze. In the cold, the water froze, which led to significant damage. The electrolytic fluid in the batteries had low density, oil tanks leaked, some of the tanks had ruptured radiators.

There were also issues regarding equipment. 35% of the tanks had no tarps, documentation and manifests were missing. Some tanks had no tools at all, and no Matilda came with towing cables.

A shipment of Matilda IV tanks on the way to the front lines. The commander's cupola is noticeably lower.

Even more issues were discovered when the tank was accepted at Gorkiy. According to the report dated December 2nd, 1941, 58 tanks out of the 137 that arrived broke down. They had to be repaired using the spare parts that arrived, but there were not enough spare batteries and engines for all tanks. There were complaints about the compressor for the gearbox control rods working poorly in the cold. The traction of the tracks was deemed insufficient. A proposal was made to equip them with spurs.

Finally, there was a serious issue connected with the unusual shape of the front hull. The sides of the hull, which housed additional toolboxes, were not very rigidly attached to the front of the hull. Not everyone knew that the front part of the Matilda was not composed from one piece, like it was on many tanks. The tow hooks were attached to these side parts. It's not surprising that the side parts were often torn off during towing.

Repair factory #82 in Moscow was allocated to repair foreign tanks damaged in battle. Initially, it spent more time working on German vehicles than British ones. In addition, tanks had to be prepared before they could even reach the front lines. That was the job of the employees of the Gorkiy Automotive and Armour Center.

Loading of spare parts onto the Matilda IV tank with WD number T.27778. England, summer of 1942.

There were issues with supplying the British tanks with ammunition. Both the Matilda and Valentine were armed with 2-pounder (40 mm) guns. Thanks to the popular interbellum concept of using tank guns to primarily fight tanks, the guns only fired armour piercing shot. The USSR somehow received information that the British had AP-HE shells, but in reality they did not exist. The tanks only came with 5-6 loads of AP. Spare barrels for guns were not supplied.

There was an idea to arm the Matilda tanks with the ZIS-5 76 mm gun. The project made it to the prototype stage, but, despite the successful result of the trials, British tanks were not re-armed with Soviet guns. There were no free factories to assign this tank to. The supply situation with ZIS-5 guns was also far from ideal. Finally, the GABTU spoke out against this rearmament.

The turret carries a warning that the coolant contains ethylene glycol. The warnings were written in English and Russian. 

The British were not sitting still. On December 3rd, General Mason-McFarlane sent word that the PQ-5 convoy carried 10 Matilda III CS tanks with 76 mm howitzers. 20 more tanks were sent with PQ-7. The tanks were accompanied by 2500 HE rounds and 5000 smoke rounds. This strange ratio can be explained by the tactics of howitzer tanks in the British army. There were no armour piercing shells for the howitzers, and the Matilda CS was used only as a support tank. After a Soviet request, the British started sending 750 HE and 250 smoke rounds with each tank.

As for regular Matilda tanks, the requested amount of ammunition was 1200 rounds per tank. On December 7th, MacFarlane met with a GABTU representative. The Soviet request was granted. At the British military mission's request, the Soviets composed a report on the use of British tanks in the Red Army. Both tanks received positive reviews, but the Valentine was rated higher. The document also listed issues that arose during use in winter. After receiving many complaints about mass defrosting of engines, the tanks were filled with ethylene glycol, and suitable lubricants were used,

The same tank being loaded onto the transport ship.

The Matilda III CS was somewhat delayed, and only arrived in the USSR on December 20th, 1941, with the PQ-6 convoy. This convoy was also the first to bring Matilda IV tanks. The USSR received 113 Matilda III tanks. This number was so small because production ended in the fall of 1941. According to British data, 915 Matilda IV and Matilda IV CS tanks were sent to the USSR. These numbers need to be corrected. The number of Matilda IV CS tanks clearly includes some number of Matilda III CS tanks. The British also lumped the Matilda V in with the Matilda IV. These tanks looked identical to the Matilda IV, but were equipped with a Westinghouse servo mechanism.

Slow but tough

In the fall of 1941, the Kubinka proving grounds were evacuated to Kazan. This was the cause of a delay in testing of the Matilda III. The trials began in January of 1942, after the tanks have not only arrived on the front lines, but already saw battle. Matilda III with registration number T.6886 was chosen for trials. This tank was built by the Vulcan company, built in the second half of 1941 in a batch of 40 tanks. It was among the first 49 Matilda III tanks to arrive in the USSR in October-November of 1941.

Matilda III with WD number T.6886 at the NIBT proving grounds. Kazan, January 1942.

Shortly before the trials of the Matilda III, the Valentine II was tested at Kazan. Since the armament and radio were identical on these tanks, these features were not tested on the Matilda. The shortened program only included the study of the tank's design and a 1000 km drive, 300 of which were on a highway. A user manual was composed based on the results of the study of the tank.

The same vehicle from the front.

Aside from a widespread use of casting and blunt bolt connections, Soviet specialists pointed out that the number of access hatches was reduced as far as possible, which positively impacted the protection granted by the armour. On the other hand, the hull had few sloped sections. The use of skirt armour to protect the suspension was also recorded.

Later, the composition of the armour was studied at NII-48, but nothing interesting was learned.

Armour diagram, composed at NII-48.

Gunnery was not a part of the trials, but the armament was still studied. The free aiming gun mount was judged to be simple and reliable, but a note was made that it was nothing new. The visibility from the tank was much more interesting. Despite a small amount of observation devices, the tank's visibility was better than that of the Soviet T-34 and KV-1. This was due to the fact that the tank used MK-IV observation devices with a wide range of vision. At this time, Soviet specialists only remarked on the good visibility. The observation device was not copied until the Churchill was studied. 

Visibility diagram of the Matilda III.

Russian literature often describes the Matilda's suspension negatively, but the evaluation of NIBT specialists was different. While pointing out the drawbacks, they did find some advantages of the design. For instance, the skirt armour didn't just make the tank heavier and maintenance more complicated, but made it easier to cross obstructions and anti-tank hedgehogs. The armour also protected the suspension from shells. The testers also praised the design of the drive sprockets, which had long lasting crowns.

The review of the track links and road wheels was mixed. The testers correctly determined that they were designed to function in areas without icy or slippery terrain. Overall, the Matilda's suspension was not described as bad, just very specialized.

This suspension diagram was largely copied from the British manual. By this point, the return rollers were replaced with rails.

The transmission and engine group was also deemed odd. The tank used a pair of diesel engines, which disappointed the Soviet engineers, rather than surprising them. Their combined power was only 180 hp, and their weight was 1000 kg, more than the Soviet V-2 engine (750 kg), which put out 500 hp. However, the design had its advantages. The tank could keep moving with only one functional engine, which could be an important advantage in combat.

Transmission diagram.

Soviet specialists were interested in the Wilson planetary gearbox. It made up for the drawbacks of the engine. During trials, the gearbox showed itself so well that an idea for an analogous transmission for Soviet tanks was pitched. Two variants were developed for the KV-1 heavy tank in April of 1942, which was experiencing serious difficulties with transmissions. Neither was built, but work continued.

One of the two KV-1 transmission designs influenced by the Matilda.

Mobility trials ran in January and February of 1942. They were rather different from what was initially planned. The tank drove for only 95 km off-road. The amount spent on a snow-covered cobblestone road was much larger: 813 km. This highway was not the greatest in quality, which impacted the tank's top speed. The tank only reached a speed of 21.1 kph on four snowy stretches of road. It took 24.7 seconds to reach this top speed on average. The testers explained the fact that the tank could not reach  its claimed top speed of 24.7 kph by poor road conditions.

A sketch of spurs on the tank's tracks.

The long road march can be explained by reports from the front lines. They spoke of many cases where the driver lost control of the tank and ended up in a ditch, sometimes flipping over. Poor traction on snowy roads was also observed during the trials. The solution was spurs welded onto the tracks. After their installation, the tank became much more controllable. The turning radius decreased from 10-13 to 4-5 meters. There was one problem, however: the spurs were quickly ground off when driving on roads. The British came to the same conclusion when they switched to Ford tracks.

Crossing a snowy field.

The average speed on a bumpy and snow covered road was 14.5 kph. The tank used 169 L of fuel in 100 km. The speed dropped to 7.7 kph off-road. The fuel expenditure also increased, reaching 396 L for 100 km. In these conditions, the tank only had a range of 55 km. It's not surprising that the Matilda IV included an additional fuel tank. It was noted that the cooling and ventilation systems were clearly designed to function in hot climates, which introduced problems in the winter.

On the other side, the British tank drove well in the snow. It could drive in snow up to 600 mm deep, which were impassable for some medium tanks. There were issues with traction, however: the tank could not climb a hill steeper than 12 degrees in the snow.

Climbing over a snowy slope.

During trials against three snow obstacles, the Matilda managed to cross them in 21 minutes. The same obstacles were crossed by the Valentine II in 14 minutes, PzIII Ausf. H in 16 minutes, and the T-34 in 10 seconds.

The overall conclusion regarding the foreign tank was as follows:

"Compared to the medium tanks of the USSR, USA, and Germany, the MK-IIa combines powerful all-round protection with relatively small dimensions and weight.
The same thickness of armour in the front, on the sides, and in the rear is also an advantage of the design.
The tank's armament (a 40 mm gun) is capable of penetrating most enemy tanks: the T-1 and T-2 in any part of the hull or turret, and the T-3, T-4, and Praga 38T in any section aside from the front applique armour.
The tank has satisfactory visibility.
The combat mass of the tank is acceptable from the point of view of railroad transport and crossing bridges.

The drawbacks of the MK-IIa include the following:
  • Unsatisfactory maneuverability of the tank, due to its low engine power. This drawback prevents the tank from satisfactory crossing of obstacles.
  • Limited mobility. The tank is an infantry tank in the full sense of the word, as its low speed and small range make it impossible to use far away from bases and other types of forces.

The tank during comparative obstacle trials.

The trials resulted in complete information regarding the tank's characteristics. It's not surprising that the Matilda was left out of comparative trials against foreign tanks in the summer of 1942. It was clear that the Matilda was the slowest tank in the Red Army's arsenal. At the same time, the tank was not considered bad. It spent quite a long time at the front lines.

Flipped over Matilda III tanks from the 170th Independent Tank Battalion. Interestingly, the photographers were mistaken, thinking that these tanks were German.

One of the first units to review the tank's application was the 23rd Tank Brigade. The unit rated the tank highly. The Matilda could confidently drive in 40-45 cm deep snow in third gear. The brigade also had Valentine tanks, which received a positive evaluation as well. On the other hand, the T-60 was scolded for being unable to drive in snow deeper than 25 cm.

The North-Western Front was the home of the 170th and 171st Independent Tank Battalions, which received 12 and 13 tanks respectively. Here, the review of the British tanks was different. The 170th OTB was the one to complain about the Matilda's poor handling on snowy roads.

These tanks showed their strength in the battles in the winter of 1942. The thick armour, comparable to that of the KV-1, compensated the poor coordination with infantry, which was not always eager to support tank attacks. Often, the 170th OTB's tanks ended up one on one with the enemy. The thick armour came in handy, as it was often too much for German 50 mm Pak 38 guns. The battalion only lost 8 tanks of this type in 2 months of fighting. Considering the conditions they were fighting in, this was a small number.

Matilda III tank during the filming of a movie about the counteroffensive near Moscow. The movie was filmed at Kazan.

Despite the Soviet requests for more Valentines, the number of Matildas received grew. This was the most numerous tank among the northern arrivals from January to March of 1942. The most tanks were received in March, when 170 Matildas arrived. The number dropped off, and only 6 tanks were delivered in June due to the loss of PQ-17. More Matildas arrived in September (84) and November (56). 771 Matilda tanks were delivered in 1942 in total. The number increased again in 1943, peaked in March, but then ended. The USSR received 916 Matilda tanks overall, all of them through northern convoys.

Matilda tanks from the 192nd Tank Brigade preparing to attack.

Most Matilda IV tanks arrived in the USSR in the first half of 1942, which impacted the numbers of these tanks used in battles at the time. For instance, 117 tanks took part in the unfortunate attack near Kharkov in May of 1942. Many tanks fought in the summer of 1942. The 201st Tank Brigade, which fought at Blokhovo in July of 1942, had 23 tanks of this type. The 10th Tank Corps, which contained this brigade, had 44 Matildas. The 196th Tank Brigade had 36 tanks while they were fighting at Rzhev in August of 1942.

Fighting near Kharkov.

The poor results of the summer of 1942 led to the decline of the number of Matildas in use. The Germans began receiving 75 mm Pak 40 anti-tank guns in the spring of 1942. The Matilda's armour offered little resistance to them. Meanwhile, the 2-pounder gun was quickly becoming obsolete.

Despite this, the British infantry tanks kept fighting. For instance, the aforementioned 201st Tank Brigade had 7 tanks of this type in July of 1943. By January of 1944, the Red Army had 315 Matilda tanks, just over a third of the total number supplied by the British. This was a fairly typical ratio for foreign vehicles in the Red Army.

The Germans loved to pose for photos next to knocked out British tanks.

201 Soviet Matildas were in repair factories as of June 1st, 1944. Only 48 were still in running order. In June of 1944, repair factory #82 put out a large batch of repaired tanks. They did not sit around idly. A number of these slow British tanks ended up in cavalry division tank regiments. FOr instance, the 61st Independent Tank Regiment had 4 MK-2 tanks as of July 1st, 1944. They fought alongside the 1st Guards Cavalry Division. 5 Matildas were assigned to the 87th Independent Tank Regiment on July 4th, 1944, when it fought alongside the 7th Guards Cavalry Division. Both regiments took an active part in the Lvov-Sandomierz offensive.

This was not the end of the Matilda's career. As of January 1st, 1945, the Red Army still had 218 of these tanks. 10 of them were lost in battle before the end of the war. On June 1st, 1945, 37 were still listed in action. Only 7 of them were on the front lines (in the 2nd Belorussian Front), 5 of which were in running order.

These tanks are from either the 61st or 87th Tank Regiments. Western Ukraine, July 1944.

Only one Matilda from the Red Army survives to this day. This is a Matilda IV CS with WD number T.29908, built at the Vulcan factory in 1942. It arrived in the USSR in April of 1942. The story of the tank is unknown, but it turns up in the Kazan school in the fall, where it was repaired, and then a request was made to keep it for training. Looks like the tank was stuck there, arriving in Kubinka only after the war. Today, the tank is on display in Patriot Park.


  1. That weird position and shape of the mantled always let me think, whether it had the problems with small projectile leaking inside. That big opening between the frontal part of the mantled and turret mask beats my eyes.

    1. I haven't read anything about that issue, but catching an HE shell in that slit is probably a guaranteed bad time.

  2. "During trials against three snow obstacles, the Matilda managed to cross them in 21 minutes. The same obstacles were crossed by the Valentine II in 14 minutes, PzIII Ausf. H in 16 minutes, and the T-34 in 10 seconds."
    10 seconds sounds odd, perhaps a writing error?

    1. Nope, seconds. Other comparative trials show similar discrepancy.