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Saturday, February 11, 2012

British Tanks

The British went into the war reasonably well equipped in terms of tanks. Their Mark II tank was better armored than its German counterparts, and for the first few years it held its ground even though it was slow and did not carry a big gun. The faster Crusader with a bigger gun was an even better match for the Panzer IIIs and IVs. Eventually the need for more and better tanks led the British to use a combination of British and American vehicles as we shall see in this post. Not all British tanks have been produced as scale models, but we do have a few representative ones. It would be great if in the future we could see other British models such as Valentines, or Crusaders produced. But for now we will have to be content with the following:

Forces of Valor UK Infantry Tank MK II Matilda - El-Alamein 1942

Also known as the Infantry Tank Mark II, or A12, it was designed and prototyped starting in 1936 and it was ready for manufacturing by the time hostilities broke out. It was equipped with a 2 pounder / 40mm gun and was thickly armored for its time, with up to 78mm of frontal armor. None of the early German tanks was capable of penetrating such armor, and only the heavier German PAKs or the 88s pressed into service as anti-tank weapons could deal with it. But its armor also made it twice as heavy as its predecessor, the Mark I, and also made it slow with a speed of 6 mph. This was by design however as British doctrine at the time envisioned using tanks to support infantry. The Matilda first saw -limited- action in the 1940 campaign in France where all 23 tanks were lost. It was later, during the early phase of the North African campaign that it became famous, dominating the battlefield against an Italian army equipped with inferior weapons. However this changed with the arrival of the Afrika Korps and their superior anti-tank guns and faster tanks, better suited for the great open expanses of North Africa. Unable to upgrade the gun of the Matilda due to the limited turret space, production stopped by mid-1943. Up to that point, just under 3000 had been built, and the remaining Matildas continued to fight on until the end of the war in places like the Pacific with Australian units where they could still outmatch the Japanese weapons. About 1000 Matildas were also delivered to the Soviet Army through Lend-Lease beginning in late '41, but it was considered too slow and under-gunned compared to other tanks in the Soviet arsenal. Eventually the Matilda was replaced in the British army by the Infantry Tank MK III Valentine. In terms of model tanks, Forces of Valor has brought us several options. The one pictured is the El Alamein version, but it was also released it in two additional color schemes. One all in tan, and the other in a tan, green, brown mix with white and red vertical stripes on the turret and front side.

Forces of Valor British UK M3 Grant Tank, El Alamein, 1942

The Grant tank was a special version of the American Medium Tank M3 (aka Lee) built and used by the British. The M3 began to be produced towards the end of 1940, becoming operational one year later. It was designed in response to the German panzers encountered in France. It was armed with two guns: a 37 mm high velocity gun mounted on the turret to be used against armored vehicles, and a hull-mounted 75mm low velocity gun to be used against infantry and soft targets. The fact that the 75mm gun was mounted in the hull gave it limited traversal capabilities. The Grant was essentially a British order of custom-built Lees with the radio set in the turret and thicker armor. Placing the radio in th turret also allowed the crew to be reduced from 7 to 6 men. The M3 saw action first in North Africa, where it proved to be a reliable tank, but it did expose a few problems. The armor was installed with rivets instead of being welded, which resulted in the rivets popping when hit by enemy shells, sometimes causing injury to the crew inside. The high profile made it easier to hit, and this was not helped by the fact that the hull-mounted 75mm gun prevented it from fighting from a dug-in position or behind cover. The M3 saw little action in the Pacific, but it did see more combat in China and Burma, primarily in support of infantry and fighting Japan's light tanks. Of the approximately 6,250 M3s that were built about 2/3 went to Britain and the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program. The M3 was replaced in the US forces by the M4 Sherman as soon as the M4 became available, with the existing M3s being transferred to other allied units. In terms of models we have one Grant version courtesy of Forces of Valor. Painted in a good desert color and well detailed as usual. Note how the rivets are visible on the armor. Forces of Valor also released the Grant in a tan/green cammo color scheme labeled as the North Africa model.

Frontline Figures Cromwell Tank

The Cromwell was a cruiser-type tank. Cruiser tanks were meant to exploit the gaps in the enemy front created by the infantry and their heavier tanks. Early cruiser tanks were fast but lightly armored and did not have a strong enough gun, so in practice their exploits were not so hard to stop, even by infantry with anti-tank weapons. The Cromwell, which was introduced in time for the Normandy invasion, addressed these shortcomings. It was equipped with a 75mm gun and had 3 inches of frontal armor -one more than the Sherman. Another advantage over the Sherman was its lower profile. All this, along with its speed allowed the Cromwell to perform reasonably well in combat. The Cromwell eventually evolved into the Comet tank. A related tank, the Centaur was basically a Cromwell with a different engine. This model from Frontline Figures is a nice reproduction of the original. It looks quite good, but I have to say though that for its price I expected more. This model has only one moving part, the turret and that is because it comes as a separate piece that simply sits on top of the hull. The tracks and wheels for instance, do not move at all. The material seems to be some kind of thick paste, which makes it heavy, but it's not a die cast vehicle. The figures are metal, and complement the tank well. But still, I won't be rushing to buy any more Frontline tanks.

Airfix Cromwell Tank
Here is another Cromwell model courtesy of Airfix. It is made entirely out of plastic. The turret rotates and the main gun can  move up and down a bit. The tracks do not turn. Instead, it comes with some small wheels underneath that allow it to roll forward like a car. For its time it was a very realistic model and for a long while it was the only Cromwell available. Even today it is a very highly sought-after collectible. The model here is missing the hull MG, and I believe it also used to have two antennas. That's the only reason why I could get it at an affordable price. 

Airfix Churchill 'Crocodile' Tank

The Churchill was a heavy 'Infantry' tank. Initially designed to move slowly in support of infantry advances similar to those of WWI, it was heavily armored and did not carry much firepower. It was designed prior to WWII, but after the fall of France it was realized that tanks would need greater mobility and higher caliber weapons so adjustments were made. Over 11 models of the Churchill were produced plus some minor variations. Eventually the Churchill carried a 75 mm gun and was able to face on equal terms German heavy tanks. In terms of operational history, the Churchill first saw action during the failed Dieppe raid, followed by North Africa where it proved its value. It then saw most of its action in Italy and Western Europe, although some also saw combat on the Eastern Front through Lend-Lease. The Crocodile model depicted here was a variation of the Churchill VII which replaced the hull machine gun for a flamethrower. The fuel was towed behind the tank and it could shoot fire up to 150 meters. This model was initially released by Airfix, and today it can be purchased through Classic Toy Soldiers as a reissue. It comes in plain unpainted plastic. The turret comes as a separate piece that has to be 'mounted'. The fuel tank also comes as a detachable part. It is definitely not on the same level as a FOV or 21C vehicle, but one has to keep in mind that this was originally released by Airfix probably in the 70s or 80s, so for its time it was a very nice model. Hey, it still looks quite good and it you paint it I am sure it will look much better as it does have a good amount of detail and it is well proportioned.

21st Century Toys Sherman Firefly VC

The Sherman Firefly was a British variation of the American Medium Tank M4 which carried a more powerful 17 pounder main gun than the usual 75 mm or 76 mm gun of the American Shermans. Fitting the 17 pounder gun, with its greater recoil, into the Sherman's turret required some creative thinking and several adjustments had to be made, like placing the radio in a bump out behind the turret, placing the gun breech on the left side, adding a second hatch for loader to exit. It was produced in time for the Normandy campaign in which it proved to be only allied tank capable of dealing with the heavier German tanks. The Germans reacted by trying to knock out the Fireflies first when the battle was joined, and the British reacted by adopting some unusual paint schemes to make the gun appear shorter, as in a normal Sherman. The M4 tank in general offered a good balance of speed, armor and gun power, while at the same time, being reliable and easy to service in the field. With the gun upgrade and a slightly thicker armor on the gun mantlet, the Firefly was even better. The only downside was its high profile which made it an easy target particularly when it was silhouetted against the sky. About 2200 of them were produced. This model from 21C Toys is made of plastic, did not feature any figures with it and has a very light feeling to it, but its appearance is still fairly decent. If they had made the paint scheme a bit dirtier it would have been better. The long gun does give it a more impressive look than that of the normal Shermans. Given that it is a British variant, I suppose I should have used British guys for this picture.
Forces of Valor U.K. Sherman Firefly - 7th Armoured Division
FOV must be in cost cutting mode because this is the first vehicle that I come across which is pretty much made out of plastic entirely. The level of detail is still very high. For instance, the armor surface is all nicely pockmarked, but for the prices that they command these days, it was a bit disappointing that it was all plastic. Good thing that I found it on sale...

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