Though requested as early as 1943 and entering production in January of 1945, the British Centurion Main Battle Tank arrived too late to see combat actions in World War 2. The war in Europe had ended in May of 1945 to which only six complete pilot vehicles were stationed in Belgium to undergo British Army evaluation. Despite missing the global conflict, the new British tank went on to see its fair share of actions in subsequent wars spanning the globe and became one of the most successful Cold War-era tank designs for the West. In terms of combat, the Centurion became the most experienced tank in the Western inventory, being used in more wars than any other comparable frontline main battle tank system. The chassis also proved highly suitable for a myriad of other battlefield oriented designs that extended the Centurion family line for decades to come - some seeing use as recently as 2006.
The Centurion Arrives in War Torn Europe - Too Late
With war across Europe in full swing, the British War Office issued a requirement - under the designation of "A41" - for a new heavy cruiser tank in 1943. The excellent German "88" flak gun - at this point in the war now being used just as effectively as an anti-tank gun - forced the British to rethink their tank design formula and request a combat system that could withstand a direct hit from such a weapon. Additionally, the requirement called for a reliable battlefield implement with a maximum weight no greater than 40 tons to operate in conjunction with the 40-ton transport trailers available to the British Army at the time. As such, the new tank design would have to be well-protected along its critical facings with an appropriate displacement of armor which, in effect, would make for a heavier tank. Due to the carrying limitations of existing transport trailers (designated Mark I and Mark II) in the British Army inventory, the original 40-ton weight limit proved somewhat unfeasible for the armor requirement and was thusly expanded. Instead of limiting the design of their new tank proper - a tank the War Office believed would be a complete success from the beginning - it was decided to build all-new, heavy-class trailers instead.
The Centurion Mk I
The new design took the base 5-wheel suspended track system of the original Comet cruiser tank. The Comet was a relatively new design entering service only in 1944 and seeing additional combat in the upcoming Korean War. She was produced by Leyland Motors Ltd to the tune of 1,186 examples and was armed with a 77mm high-velocity main gun in a traversing turret. However, the tracked component of the Comet for the purposes of a new design was further extended to include a sixth road wheel and the original Christie suspension system was dropped in favor of a Horstmann suspension system. The coil-spring based Horstmann system saw its origins in an original British 1922 design by engineer Sidney Hortsmann. An all-new hull was affixed between the track installations that was specifically designed in such a way as to help with ballistics protection against the newer threats of the modern battlefield. Main armament would come from the proven 17-pounder (British 76.2mm) main gun. Interestingly, the designers fitted a 20mm Polsten cannon as secondary armament. The Polsten series was a cheaper - yet still effective - Polish-designed version of the excellent Swiss 20mm Oerlikon series cannon. To ensure excellent performance for the weight, the aircraft-based Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled V12 engine was reworked to become the Rolls-Royce Meteor powerplant. The Rover Company handled production of this new engine (later becoming the Leyland Motor Corporation) for the new British tank.
The Centurion Mk II
While construction of the original 40-ton pilot vehicles were already underway, a newer and heavier version was already in the works. The early pilot (prototype) vehicles emerged as 40-ton end-products and were designated simply as "Centurion Mk I". These early forms were armed with the aforementioned 17-pounder main gun. Production of the Centurion Mk I proved quite limiting however for the improved and uparmored Centurion Mk II was soon unveiled, this version with a cast turret. The Centurion Mk II promised better battlefield protection through use of more armor and serial production from a 800-strong government order was underway by the end of November of 1945. Production would be handled out of several British factories. The Centurion was formally accepted into British Army service in December of 1946 with the first proud recipients becoming the men of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment.
The Centurion Mk III
By the time the Centurion Mk II was finding its footing in the British inventory, the Centurion Mk III was developed thanks to the arrival of the new 20-pounder (84mm) tank gun furnished by the Royal Ordnance Factory. The addition of the more powerful weapon rendered the original Polsten 20mm cannon fitting of the previous Centurion designs moot and these were therefore replaced by a Besa tank machine gun instead. The Centurion Mk III was also a major upgrade to the preceding Mk IIs for it fitted a fully-stabilized gun control system for "firing on the move", further broadening the tactical scope of the new British tank. A new engine with more power was introduced as was a new improved gunsight. Production of the improved Mk IIIs commenced in 1948 and replaced all previous production marks in the field. Once in service and in available numbers, the Mk III was quick to replace the essentially outmoded Mk I and Mk II marks. Surplus Mk Is and Mk IIs then became subject of upgrade programs to Mk III standardization or converted into useful battlefield engineering vehicles to serve the new Mk IIIs and other heavy armored vehicles.
The Centurion Receives the L7 105mm Main Gun
While the new 84mm main gun proved a substantial upgrade to the original 76.2mm system, the Centurion was not done with its metamorphosis in becoming one of the finest tank weapons in the world. The Royal Ordnance Factory completed work on the all-new, revolutionary 105mm L7 rifled main gun which promised improved firepower through better penetration values than all other preceding British tank guns. The 105mm gun system was then quick to replace the 84mm in future Centurion production examples. The Centurion Mk 7 soon emerged with the L7 in place as production commenced and these were followed by the Mk 8/1 and Mk 8/2. In all, thirteen major Centurion marks would ultimately exist.
Centurion Mk I marked the early 17-pounder armed tanks based on the 40-ton prototype. The Mk II was fielded with its fully-cast turret. The Mk III was first given the newer 84mm main gun but this later gave way to the even newer 105mm L7 gun with gun stabilization and new sights. The Mk IV existed as a proposed close-support model fitting a 95mm CS howitzer cannon but never entered serial production. The Mk V/Mk 5 was the first to feature Browning machine guns at the coaxial and commander's cupola positions. Stowage bins along the glacis plate were also introduced with this mark. The Mk 5/1 brought about an increase to glacis armor thickness as well as introducing 2 x coaxial machine guns. One was a typical 7.62mm anti-infantry fitting while the other was a 12.7mm ranging heavy machine gun to help train the main gun (the the 84mm version) on a target. The Mk 5/2 utilized the 105mm L7 main gun. The Mk 6 was an uparmored version of the Mk 5 with the 105mm L7 main gun in place. The Mk 6/2 sported a ranging gun for improved accuracy. The Mk 7 saw its engine compartment rood redesigned. The Mk 7/1 was nothing more than an uparmored Mk 7 while the 7/2 was an upgunned Mk 7 (105mm L7). The Mk 8 was given a new mantlet and revised commander's cupola. The Mk 8/1 sported more armor and the Mk 8/2 was fitted with the 105mm L7 main gun. The Mk 9 was an uparmored Mk 7 with the 105mm L7 main gun. The Mk 9/1 fitted infra-red equipment while the Mk 9/2 sported a ranging gun. The Mk 10 was an uparmored Mk 8 with the 105mm L7 main gun. The Mk 10/1 was fielded with infrared equipment and the 10/2 was given a ranging gun. The Mk 11 was an Mk 6 model with the ranging gun and infrared equipment. Similarly, the Mk 12 was an Mk 9 model with the ranging gun and infrared support. The Mk 13 was an Mk 10 with the ranging gun and infrared support.
Armored recovery vehicles were designated as Centurion ARV (Mk I and Mk II) while the Centurion Ark (FV 4016) was a bridgelayer type implement as was the Centurion AVLB (Dutch Army service) as was the Centurion Bridgelayer (FV 4002). The Centurion AVRE 105 and AVRE 165 were combat engineering vehicles each armed with a 105mm and 165mm demolition gun respectively. The Centurion BARV was a "Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle". Other British Army variants further expanded the Centurion family line.
Centurion Global Operators
Complete operators of the Centurion main battle tank (beyond the British Army) became Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, India, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Netherlands, New Zealand, Singapore, Somalia/Somaliland, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerland.
The Centurion Oliphant of South Africa
The Centurion was rebuilt in South Africa with French assistance (due to a 1970s UN military embargo on the African nation) as the "Olifant". First versions appeared in 1974, this as the Semel with a 810hp engine. The primary versions then became the Olifant Mk I of 1978 (with a 750 horsepower engine), the Olifant Mk 1A of 1985 (laser-rangefinder and image-intensifier), the Olifant Mk 1B of 1991 (with torsion bar suspension, longer hull, improved armor, digital fire contol, laser rangefinder and 950 horsepower engine) and the Olifant Mk 2 (new turret and fire control system, 105mm or 120mm main gun as needed). To date, the Olifant is still considered the most advanced combat tank on the African continent - and few could argue that. South African weapons engineers had made a habit of modernizing existing systems into more potent forms - even in the face of imposed sanctions on weapons and technology.
The Centurion Sho't of Israel
The Israelis designated their Centurions as the Sho't. This included the Sho't Meteor to signify this Mk V's use of the original Rolls-Royce Meteor engine and several modernization attempts that spawned the Sho't Hal Alef, Bet, Gimel and Dalet. The Nagmashot, Nagmachon and Nakpadon were armored personnel carrier conversions of the base main battle tanks. The Puma designated combat engineering vehicles while the Eshel ha-Yarden was a proposed Centurion development fitting 4 x 290mm launch tubes for battlefield rockets.
The Swedish Army operated the Centurion under its own in-house designations as the Stridsvagen 81, 101, 101R, 102, 102R, 104, 105 and 106. The Bargningsbandvagn 81 was the armored recovery vehicle.
Centurion: Ultimate War Tank
The Centurion series went on to become one of the most successful Cold War tank designs in the history. British allies were quick to take the excellent post-war tank into their inventories and the tank - once in action - did not disappoint. The British Army themselves fielded their Centurions for the first time in the Korean War (1950-1953) in support of UN actions against the communist North Korean invasion into the South and against subsequent Chinese involvement in the theater. The Centurion saw further deployment in the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Indo-Pak War of 1965 (with the Indian Army), the Six Day War fighting for both Israel and Jordan, the Liberation War of Bangladesh of 1972 (with the Indian Army), the Yom Kippur War for both Israel and Jordan, the Vietnam War with the Australian Army, in the Angolan Civil War (South African Army), Operation Motorman (British Army anti-IRA operations in Northern Ireland), the Falklands War of 1982 (single BARV example only) and in the 1991 Gulf War during Operation Desert Storm (AVREs with the British Army).
British Centurions in the Korean War
After North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, beginning the three-year long Korean War on the Korean Peninsula, the Centurion was called into play with the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars of the British Army fighting under a coalition UN force. While the air war was of particular historical note - it featured the first aerial combat between jet fighters - the war would still be hard fought on the ground across unforgiving terrain and environments. Three Centurion squadrons arrived at Pusan and were forced to operate in the Korean temperature extremes - particularly the cold, frozen winters that created havoc on most any mechanical device. At least five Centurion tanks were lost in the retreat of friendly forces during the Battle of Imjin River but the tanks proved critical in providing cover for friendlies. By the time the UN had recovered from the North's invasion and pushed back across the 38th Parallel, the Centurion was put up against the Chinese who had become involved on the side of the beaten North. In either case, the Centurion left a positive and lasting impression of her first true combat involvement and made a name for herself for decades to come as a proven, go-anywhere main battle tank system in the new age of modern warfare.
Australians, Centurions and the Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War, the Centurion was called into combat but this time with the Royal Australian Armored Corps. After their American-made M113s failed to do much in the thick Vietnamese jungles, the Australian government committed their powerful Centurion tanks into the fray. Centurion tanks with their 84mm main guns arrived in the region in February of 1968. After some practice, the side armor skirts were removed to prevent the buildup of torn vegetation and mud on the tank tires. External fuel stores were also added to help increase cross-country operational distances. Success found Centurion crews once more as Australian combined actions with supporting infantry netted at least 265 enemy deaths as well as the capture of hundreds of enemy weapons while covering firebase Coral and Balmoral. In all, some 58 total Centurion tanks participated in the counter-communist actions during the conflict.
Israeli Centurions as the Sho't - Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War
Israel received outdated Centurions in a package deal with Britain to help fund the development of the new and upcoming Chieftain main battle tank. The Centurion was relabeled as the Sho't in Israeli Army service and nearly 385 tanks were in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) stable at the outbreak of the Six Day War of 1967 against Arab states. Similarly, Jordan was fielding the British Centurion tank against Israel in same conflict but lost 30 of these (out of 44) to the IDF during combat - further increasing the Centurion count in the IDF inventory.
The Sho't was forced back into action at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Despite facing a Syrian armored force numbering some 500 tanks (made up primarily of Soviet T-55 and T-62 systems), less than 100 Sho't tanks succeeded in turning the tables on the Arabs once again, this through superior tactics and training and forever solidifying the expertise of the Israelis in modern mechanized ground warfare. Israeli Sho'ts earned their keep after the Battle of the Valley of Tears in the Golan Heights. The Israeli Army also took the design a step further and modified Centurion hulls to become specialized armored personnel carriers which served actively as recently as 2006.
Last Centurion Actions - Operation Desert Storm
The last notable use of the Centurion was in its armored engineer form during Operation Desert Storm in early 1991 with British Army forces.
End of the Road
In Australian, Canadian, Danish and Dutch army service, the Centurion was replaced by the Leopard 1 tank from Germany. Austria set their outdated Centurions as defensive fixed gun emplacements. Egypt took on deliveries of newer American M60 Pattons and (later) M1 Abrams as well as Soviet T-55s and T-62s to replace their outdated Centurions. India, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, New Zealand all retired their World War 2-era Centurions with other comparable modern types. In Swiss Army service, the tank was eventually given up for good for the newer German Leopard 2 series. In British Army service, the Centurion eventually gave way to the aforementioned Chieftain main battle tank.
Production of all Centurion marks ended by 1962 to which some 4,423 example had been delivered. In all, manufacturing was tackled by Leyland Motors out of Leyland, the Royal Ordnance Factory of Leeds, Vickers of Elswick and the Royal Ordnance Factory of Woolwich - all based in the United Kingdom.
Centurion Tank Walk-Around
If taking the Centurion Mk III as our focus, the type weighed in at 52 tons, notably well above the original 40-ton specification. She maintained a running length of 25 feet with a width of just over 11 feet and a height of 9 feet, 10.5 inches. The tank was crewed by a standard grouping of four personnel made up of the driver, commander, gunner and loader. Main armament was supplied by the 105mm L7 rifled main gun which proved a drastic upgrade over the original's 17-pounder (76.2mm) mounting (and later, the 20-pounder/84mm). Self-defense was supplied via a coaxially-mounted Browning 7.62mm machine gun for anti-infantry duties where the main gun could be considered "overkill". Power was supplied by a Rolls-Royce Meteor Mk IVB 12-cylidner, liquid-cooled gasoline engine of 650 horsepower at 2,550rpm. The engine exhausted through a pair of exhaust systems mounted to each side of the engine compartment roof. Both the engine and transmission system were fitted to the rear of the vehicle. This supplied the chassis with a maximum speed of 21 miles per hour and an operational range within 280 miles.
Design of the Centurion yielded a rather modern appearance in comparison to other previous British World War 2 tank design attempts even the late-war Comet cruiser tank). The design was characterized by its six large road wheels to a track side. The idler was fitted to the front of the hull with the drive sprocket to the rear. Track return rollers were present. The track sides were most often covered over in side skirting armor. The hull featured no superstructure and made use of a low profile with a sloped glacis plate and slightly raised engine compartment. The turret was fitted to the middle of the hull roof and sported sloping armor for inherent ballistics protection. 2 x 6 smoke grenade dischargers were mounted to the turret front sides for self-defense as were external stowage boxes. A large stowage box was identifiable at the turret rear face as well. The driver maintained a position in the front right of the hull with a personal hatch for entry/exit. The commander sat under a cupola access fitting on the turret right side roof. The lower left side face of the turret featured a circular hatch to accept additional projectiles by the loader from a nearby ammunition carrier. Overall, armor protection for the crew and critical systems totaled 6 inches (about 150mm) at its thickest levels.
Centurion Tank Armament
The main gun extended out over the hull front and was protected with a thick armored mantlet, the gun mounting its own non-centric fume extractor and - more often fitted than not - a thermal sleeve. The main gun featured an elevation of -10 to +20 degrees with a fully traversing, 360-degree turret design. The weapon was designed to fire a variety of ready-to-fire projectiles that included APFSDS (Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot), APDS (Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot), HESH (High-Explosive Squash Head) and standard smoke rounds. Beyond the 7.62mm coaxial machine gun fitting, future Centurions also made good on mounting trainable 7.62mm machine guns at the commander and loader hatches for improved anti-infantry and anti-aircraft defense to which one of these could also be changed out to a 12.7 heavy machine gun type. 64 x 105mm projectiles were carried aboard for the main gun as were up to 600 x 12.7mm ammunition for the heavy machine gun when equipped. The 7.62mm machine gun was afforded up to 4,750 x 7.62mm rounds of ammunition.
The Centurion Tank Today
As it stands, the Centurion still maintains a presence (albeit limited) in the modern world. Her derivatives are still in play which promote the original Centurion hull as a superior and successful design. Service of all systems utilizing the Centurion hull essentially ran from 1945 to about the 1990s, covering over 60 years of faithful service and clearly marking her as one of the best of her time.