The first production "tank" (then known as a "landship") was born in the UK during World War 1. In the conflict, the tank proved a mixed bag of results, fielded to break the stalemate of trench warfare by simply running over defenses, passing over open trenches and overwhelming enemy positions through brute strength while in support of infantry offensives. By this time, tanks were either all-machine gun-armed or fitted with more powerful howitzer-type weapons set within a "lozenge" shaped hull. Interestingly, the primary enemy of the tank at this time was not other tanks but instead long-range, large caliber artillery. It was the French that introduced the concept of the conventional tank arrangement with a 360-degree traversing "turret" (in the Renault FT-17 light tank) mounting the primary armament. The British, however, adopted several variations of their lozenge-shaped types and these went on to see extended service in the years following the war.
During the interwar years (that is the years spanning World War 1 and World War 2), the British Army developed a new armored warfare doctrine that made use of two distinct combat tank types. The first type was to be fast and lightly armored, intended to break through enemy defenses and attack the more vulnerable rear and flank areas, causing as much disruption as possible. The tanks were accordingly named "cruiser tanks" due to their speed requirement. The bulk of the battle force would, therefore, be a type of complementary tank known as the "infantry tank". These vehicles could afford to be larger in overall dimension and sport heavier armor protection. Infantry tanks would be required to directly support accompanying infantry forces in the move to take enemy positions. This "one-two punch" on paper certainly held some merits for the time when combat experience was based in World War 1 armored warfare outcomes. However, combat in the upcoming world war would render such thinking obsolete.
The first infantry tank developed for the British Army became the "Tank, Infantry, Mk I, Matilda" under the project designation of "A11" and this served to fulfill an official British Army requirement listed in 1934. Engineer Sir John Carden of Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd was charged with its design and development though he was forced to work within financial constraints. The type would therefore have to rely on many existing automotive components taken from various sources to promote a logistically-friendly and cost-effective solution. As the threat of war in Europe loomed ever greater in these days, the design would serve as an interim solution until a more purpose-designed vehicle could be developed (this became the "Matilda II"). The development constraints would prove something of the type's undoing for the resulting design became limited in scope, seeing very limited production. Work on the new initiative began as early as 1935.
The end-product was a small tracked vehicle fitting two crew and modest armament. The hull was centered between a pair of tracks which were narrow in their width and ran along completely exposed running gear. Eight small road wheels were divided along two suspended bogies with two track return rollers. The drive sprocket was held at the rear near the engine with the track idler at the front. The hull utilized slab sides with frontal armor 60mm inches thick. The Matilda was given a cast steel turret, however, which made it something of a modern design though armament was limited to a single machine gun. The crew was made up of the driver in the front hull center with the vehicle commander/gunner/loader/radio operator in the turret (note the compounded roles). Power was supplied by a single Ford V8 liquid-cooled gasoline fueled engine of 70 horsepower allowing for a top speed of no more than 8 miles per hour over ideal surfaces and a range of 80 miles. The vehicle could ford up to 28 inch deep water sources allowing for some amphibious capabilities. Overall weight was 12.3 tons, putting her more on par with "light tank" systems of the time.
In practice, the Matilda was something of a disappointment as modern armored warfare goes. Her combination of running gear, gearbox and powerplant made her quite slow on-the-march to the point that accompanying infantrymen could simply outrun the beast if needed. The machine gun-only armament was a throwback to the days of World War 1 and wholly unsuited for the battlefields of the world war which became dominated by armor-penetrating cannon (the Germans and Soviets also learned this from their early light tank systems). Perhaps the Matilda's only saving grace became her 60mm thick frontal armor which ultimately proved difficult for enemy guns to counter.
Despite the seemingly obvious limitations, British authorities took deliveries of the Matilda beginning in April of 1937 and it was only ever intended as a stop-gap initiative during the preparations for another war in Europe. A first-batch of 60 vehicles was ordered in April of 1938 and, within these, armament varied from a single 7.7mm Vickers machine gun to a heftier 12.7mm Vickers heavy machine gun - though neither would prove adequate in combat.
In 1940, some 139 total Matildas were in circulation though only 23 were in France at the time of the German invasion in May (these with the 7th Armored Division). During the fighting, the Matilda acquitted herself quite well for the most part despite the inherent limitations of the design. However, all available Matildas were either lost or captured in the fighting. Her armor proved a major strength as German tankers and anti-tank teams found out when attempting to counter her with small-caliber field and anti-tank guns. The tank only proved susceptible to the famed German "88" anti-tank gun and large-caliber field howitzers at the time. Regardless, the Matilda still held several tactical disadvantages that would ultimately prove her limiting in the long run: her exposed running gear made her extremely vulnerable to enemy fire along the sides and her machine gun-only armament did not allow her to engage enemy armor or fortifications. The commander was required to multi-task to the extreme and this inevitably rendered their vehicles ineffective for crucial periods in the fighting. Furthermore, the radio set was mounted within the hull as opposed to within easy reach in the turret, forcing the commander out of his position when attempting communicating.
Despite the valiant defensive measures, France was lost and, with it, most of Western and Central Europe to the Axis powers. Interestingly, the German Army did not reconstitute captured Matildas into their own inventory stocks - a practice accomplished with most every other tracked vehicle they captured. It seems that even the German Army found little value in these obsolete machines. Production of Matildas ran into August of 1940. Any remaining Matildas in service back home after the Dunkirk evacuation were relegated to training new British tanker crews or reserved for secondary and tertiary military roles.
Despite carrying the name of "Matilda II", the A12 project of 1939 was wholly unrelated to the original Matilda/Matilda I design detailed here - carrying forward only the name. Once the Matilda II came online, the original Matilda was referred to as "Matilda I" to avoid confusion. Matilda I and Matilda II series tanks fought side-by-side in the Battle of Arras. The "Matilda" name itself was based on a senior military observer's comment upon seen the tank perform, stating that the vehicle "waddled like a duck". The duck mention was in reference to a popular cartoon duck of the time.