Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, visited Moscow in August of 1942. But other Churchillies had already arrived in the USSR a month earlier to another Soviet city, Arkhangelsk, with a PQ-17 caravan.. These, of course, were Churchill II and III infantry tanks. 301 tanks of this type were sent to the USSR, 253 of which arrived at their destination. Despite a rather small volume of shipments, the prime minister's namesake played an important role on the battlefields of the Great Patriotic War. Suffice it to say that these tanks, along with the KV-1S, were the primary heavy tanks of the Red Army during the Battle for Prokhorovka.
Discredited by its own
The USSR learned of the existence of Churchill tanks in October of 1941. According to the information prepared for the Information Department of the Red Army General Staff Intelligence Service, the British began producing the Infantry Tank Mk.IV or Churchill since the spring of 1941. Later Soviet documents refer to this vehicle as the MK-IV. The report contained correct characteristics of the tank, including information on the mass and armament. Soviet intelligence also learned that the British were planning to install a 57 mm gun in place of the 40 mm 2-pounder in the turret. The production volumes were also correctly estimated. The top speed, estimated at 35-38 kph, was incorrect. The Churchill could only reach that speed from the top of a very steep hill.
Aside from the Churchill, the report mentions a British 70 ton heavy tank armed with three cannons and six machineguns, with a crew of 11. This could have been an echo of the TOG.
The issue of shipping tanks Churchill to the USSR was not raised until the spring of 1942. However, these vehicles were mentioned frequently in correspondence. In addition, Soviet military representatives toured factories where these tanks were built. Among others, a Soviet delegation visited the Old Park Works Wednesbury factory in Birmingham. This factory was owned by the Midland Railway Carriage and Wagon Company. According to the commission's findings, 6-7 Churchill tanks were made here per week. In February, the Soviet military representatives visited Vauxhall, the chief developer and producer of Churchill tanks. This factory built 10 Churchill tanks per week. The commission also visited the Leyland factory on April 28-30th, which they estimated produced 7 tanks per week.
The Soviet commission ended up visiting three of the four factories that Churchill tanks were built at. In addition, they were able to attend Churchill IV trials, even though the tank was just entering production.
The first negotiations regarding shipment of British heavy tanks to the USSR began in March of 1942. The volume of supplied parts and ammunition per tank was discussed. Interestingly enough, the Churchill III was supposed to come with 135 HE rounds. This kind of ammunition was not in production in Great Britain at the time. Later, this deficiency will come up in documents regularly.
The British finally settled the volume of shipments towards the end of April. Churchill tanks would replace shipments of the Matilda. Initially, the USSR would receive 25 tanks. Of those, 23 were Churchill II tanks, equipped with 2-pounder guns. One can say that the British were getting rid of outdated tanks with armament that was worthless by the spring of 1942. Production of the Churchill III, a greatly improved model with a roomier turret and a 57 mm 6-pounder gun, began in February of 1942. Gradually, the amount of Churchill III tanks supplied would increase. The second shipment would only contain 21 Churchill IIs.
The tanks sent to the USSR would also be modernized to correct discovered defects. On these tanks, the five digit registration number was followed by the letter R (Remanufactured). Interestingly enough, Soviet representatives declined reception of British instructions along with the tanks. First of all, Major (later Colonel) Kovalev already familiarized himself with the tanks when he was touring British factories. He was urgently recalled to the USSR to participate in the acceptance process. Second, the instructions and documentation for these tanks were already translated.
Shipment of the first batch dragged on for several months. In that time, the ratio of the modifications changed. 10 Churchill III and 15 Churchill II tanks were sent. Convoy PQ-17 departed on June 27th, 1942, carrying 25 British heavy tanks. The German assault on this convoy directly impacted the number of Churchill tanks that arrived. Out of all transports that were carrying tanks, only the Ocean Freedom survived. It arrived in Arkhangelsk on July 11th, carrying 5 Churchill II and 5 Churchill III tanks.
A long pause in shipments followed the destruction of PQ-17. The next batch of tanks arrived with PQ-18, which arrived in Arkhangelsk on September 21st, 1942. This time, 74 Churchill tanks reached their destination. This convoy was the last to carry Churchill II tanks. British sources claim that 45 Churchill II tanks were sent to the USSR, of which 26 made it to their destination. This figure is not entirely correct. Out of 74 tanks that came with PQ-18, only 15 were Churchill II. Overall, 20 tanks of this type arrived, 19 of which were sent to the 50th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. One tank was sent in the 194th Training Tank Brigade.
The destruction of PQ-17 was just the first of a long series of misfortunes to befall the Churchill in the USSR. Troubling news began coming from England just as the first tanks were unloaded in Arkhangelsk. Engineer-Colonel Kovalev reported that 6-pounder tank guns have issues with their elevation mechanism. One vehicle had this issue discovered during unloading. While driving in Bakharitsa, the vibration resulted in a cracking of the case of the turning mechanism. Formally, the fault fell on Military Technician 2nd Class I.F. Lolenko, but the real culprit was the British, who did not warn about this known defect. Another issue was with the fenders. They were dented on half of the tanks that were unloaded.
The constant breakdown of the engines was a bigger issue. This problem was caused by the modernization of the tanks, and the British knew about it. The destruction of PQ-17 meant that there was a shortage of spare parts, which resulted in one of the tanks becoming unserviceable by the end of August. Another issue was that a British Churchill expert never arrived. Even though the Soviets protested, the British appointed Captain Remington to accompany the tanks, but he was captured by the Germans. Captain Cox was appointed in his stead, and arrived in the USSR with convoy PQ-18.
The British themselves caused additional issues with the tank. In October, the Soviets were given access to correspondence regarding the development and evaluation of the tank by the British military. The tank was built through considerably difficulty. This is not unusual for any tank built from scratch, but it's hardly a wise decision to make this information available to your customer. Soviet specialists also obtained correspondence regarding further development of the tank. It considered various variants, including the development of a completely new tank.
This kind of information did not increase the level of trust from the Soviet side. In addition, it was discovered that 55 Churchill III tanks delivered on PQ-18 had recoil brake defects. Soviet military acceptance counted 9 distinct defects in the shipment. Factory #92, among others, was tasked with correcting them. It's not surprising that Churchill tanks only went into battle in 1943.
Despite these unflattering reports, shipments continued. On January 27th, 1943, convoy JW-52 arrived in Murmansk, carrying 40 tanks. This delivery was counted for February. It included both Churchill III and Churchill IV tanks. The difference of the latter was its cast turret. It turned out that casting was a more efficient method of production.
The biggest delivery of 121 tanks was received in March. These tanks arrived with convoy JW-53 in the end of February 1943. Shipments ceased after that, with another 8 Churchills coming in through Vladivostok only in August of 1943. Aside from these last few tanks, all other Churchills were delivered through the northern routes. Overall, 253 Churchill tanks were received, of them 105 Churchill IV.
The Churchill redeemed itself in British eyes in the spring of 1943. These tanks made an impact on the fighting for Tunisia. Churchill tanks could confidently drive in mountainous terrain, supporting British infantry. In addition, tanks of the 48th Royal Tank Regiment knocked out a Tiger tank, which is now on display in the Bovington tank museum. Because of these battles, the Churchill was the only British production tank that remained on the front lines. They remained the most numerous British-built tanks until the end of the war, and even the Cromwell did not outnumber them.
Nevertheless, the British themselves influenced the cessation of shipments to the USSR. However, recall that the next Arctic convoy, JW-54, only arrived in the USSR in November of 1943. The significant break between convoys was the real reason that orders for the Churchill stopped. In addition, the Battle of Kursk made it clear that the tanks had insufficient armour and firepower.
Slow, thick-skinned, and powerful
One of the five Churchill III tanks that arrived in the USSR with PQ-17 was sent to Kubinka for trials. These were some of the first trials at these proving grounds since the NIBT relocated back to Kubinka from Kazan. The tank with W.D. number T.31222R was put through trials. However, they started out poorly. The tank broke down during a march from warehouse #511 to the proving grounds. It turned out that the liner between the upper right cylinder head and cylinder block was faulty. The damage was not discovered in time, since the tank was driving at night. As a result, the coolant leaked out, and the head and block cracked. This defect was also well known to the British.
This serious engine defect put the rest of the trials in jeopardy. The tank was sent for repairs, where it was bogged down due to a lack of spare parts. As a result, it was decided to give another tank to the proving grounds, with W.D. number T.31221R. Since this tank would later be sent to the front, the trials program was shortened. Mobility and gunnery trials took place from August 30th to September 5th, 1942. The tank returned to the Gorkiy training center afterwards, where it was assigned to the 47th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment.
The tank was already used by the time it arrived at the proving grounds. It came from the Gorkiy training center, where it travelled for 200 km. Since it was known that it would return to service after the trials were completed, the amount of trials was minimized. Overall, the tank travelled 97 km on a highway and 87 on dirt roads, including a small section designed to test obstacle crossing. The tank used domestic B-70 gasoline with R-9 aircraft additives to boost the octane value. British instruction suggested using at least 75 octane gas.
The tank's performance on the highway didn't surprise anyone. It was clear that this heavy vehicle, built to support infantry, could not drive very quickly. Nevertheless, the tank reached a top speed of 28 kph on a straightaway, which was acceptable for this kind of tank. This performance was 4 kph better than the official top speed. The average speed of the tank was 25.4 kph, which was comparable with the average speed of the KV-1 tank. The British tank was not all that slow.
One of the tank's features was the doubled driving controls. The Churchill also had hydraulic servos, which made driving it easy. Testers commented that the tank turned smoothly. The engine consumed 325 L of fuel for 100 km of travel, which was deemed acceptable.
The tank behaved well on dirt roads. The average movement speed was 17.5 kph, with an average total speed of 16.8 kph. This was also comparable with the KV-1, which had an average speed of 18 kph. Fuel consumption was 382 L per 100 km. This meant that the range of the tank was 246 km on the highway and 166 km on dirt roads, which was also comparable with the KV-1.
Maximum grade testing was the last stage of the trials. Ravines near Agafonovo village on the Moscow river were picked for the trials. It was determined that the maximum grade on sand was 27 degrees, after which the tracks lost traction. On grades covered with grass and small shrubs, the maximum was 30 degrees. Testers noted that the tank maxed out its engine power in these conditions.
Driving on inclines was a whole different story. The maximum tilt was 20 degrees, after which the track slipped off. In general, the tank's suspension did not allow for this kind of driving. Two bogeys broke during testing, the gearbox selector rod broke several times, and track links broke a few times. Overall, Soviet specialists deemed the suspension weak for this kind of tank.
The tank's visibility received top scores. The driver was the blindest of the crewmen, as his vision was restricted by the protruding fenders. The assistant driver was in the same boat. However, the turret crew was a whole different story. Thanks to the Mk.IV observation periscopes, the crew could see perfectly, especially for such a large vehicle. The Vickers Mk.IV observation device was copied in the USSR after these trials, under the name «periscopic device MK-IV». Interestingly enough, in this case the new name did not refer to the original index, but to the fact that it was used on the MK-IV tank.
Another part of the trials was firing on a German PzIII tank. An early production tank with 30 mm of armour was used. The 6-pounder shell penetrated the side from 950 meters and came out of the other end. It's worth mentioning that this was an early 6-pounder gun, the Mk.V, with a 43 caliber barrel. The trials were not without accidents. Gases from the barrel smashed the left headlight and bend the left fender. The semiautomatic mechanism broke on the 26th shot.
Trials also showed that the 50.8 mm bomb thrower on the tank could accept ammunition from the domestic 50 mm mortar.
Despite a number of drawbacks, the «MK-IV heavy tank» was comparable with Soviet tanks. The commission called the Churchill unfinished, and this is a fair assessment. On the other hand, along with obvious drawbacks, the tank had its advantages. This primarily includes its visibility, which was superior to that of the KV-1.
The firepower of the British tank was also underestimated. Firing on a captured Tiger tank in the spring of 1943 proved that. Soviet 76 mm F-34 and ZIS-5 guns could not penetrate the side of the Tiger from 200 meters. At the same time, the British 57 mm anti-tank gun, with identical ballistics to the tank gun, managed to penetrate the side of the hull from 1000 meters and the turret from 800 meters. Overall, the armament of the British tank was comparable to that of the Soviet ZIS-2 gun.
From Stalingrad to Tallinn
The destruction of PQ-17 had an impact on the formation of units that were supposed to receive British heavy tanks. Churchills were confined to the 194th Tank Training Brigade until the end of September of 1942. It was formed in April of 1942 to train crews for British tanks. Aside from Churchills, it trained Valentine and Matilda crews. All Churchills that arrived at the Gorky center passed through the 194th brigade. In addition to training crews, it also revealed the tanks' defects.
Formation of new units began in October of 1942. British tanks of this type were included in Independent Guards Tank Regiments, formed to TO&E 010/267. The authorized strength of this regiment was 21 tanks and 3 armoured cars. The first regiments of this type were the 47th, 48th, 49th, and 50th Independent Guards Tank Regiments, formed on October 8th, 1942. The 50th regiment initially only had Churchill II tanks, but was later reinforced with two Churchill IIIs.
The process of preparing the Churchills for battle was further proof that the evaluation of the tanks as «unfinished» was correct. The British tank had to be wrestled into fighting condition. For starters, defects of the 6-pounder gun were corrected at factory #92. Springs were replaced and recuperator cylinders bored out. All Churchill III tanks that arrived in 1942 had this modification performed.
Issues with engines did not go away, and had to be fixed at another factory in Gorky: GAZ. Cast tracks broke, as well as drive sprocket and idler axles, and the fuel lines. Another issue discovered in November of 1942 was the poor traction on ice and snow. These issues were solved in the field by the 47th regiment, which welded grousers onto the tracks of tank T.68768. Trials performed on December 21st, 1942, proved that this idea was correct. An order was given to convert all other tanks in a similar fashion. Another winter issue was the packing of snow into the fenders. After 8-10 km of driving, there was usually enough snow to tear the fender off completely.
Overall, the number of tanks with defects was not encouraging. In the 47th Guards Tank Regiment, 12 tanks had one issue or another, 16 tanks in the 48th regiment, 15 in the 49th, and 8 tanks in the 50th. It's not surprising that delivery to the front lines took so long.
The 48th Guards Tank Regiment was the first to be battle-ready. It was assigned to the Don Front on December 31st, 1942. On January 16th, the tanks arrived at Kochalino station. On the 19th, they reached Pitomnik station, where they were placed at the disposal of the 21st Army. On January 21st, the regiment supported an attack by the 216th and 218th Rifle Regiments on the Gumrak station. The result of the first day of battles was the capture of the Gonchara homestead, 5 enemy tanks, 70 guns, 15 mortars, 20 motorcycles, and about 800 cars. The regiment's losses were 4 damaged tanks, 1 man dead, and 3 wounded.
The regiment attacked German positions at the outskirts of Gumrak on the next day. After a loss of two tanks burned up and 5 knocked out, the regiment returned to its original positions. January 23rd was spent repairing the tanks, and the attack was repeated on the next day. This time, the regiment, assisted by the 216th Guards Rifle Regiment, managed to complete their objective and take Gumrak. The Churchills capitalized on their success and chased the Germans for another 9 kilometers.
On January 29th, the regiment was assigned to the 93rd Guards Rifle Regiment. The new objective was to clear Stalingrad of German forces. Street fighting broke out, where the Churchills were often forced to crush enemy tanks with their tracks. The regiment destroyed 4 German tanks, 20 guns, 45 machineguns, and about 100 cars on January 30th alone. The regiment fought until February 1st in this fashion, capturing a total of 9 tanks, 50 planes, 1900 cars, and 90 guns. The regiment lost 12 men killed and 29 wounded during the fighting in Stalingrad. The losses in materiel were small: only 2 tanks were irreparably lost, the ones that burned up during that attack on Gumrak. 6 more required major repairs, and 13 needed light repairs. Considering that these tanks were mastered with great difficulty, it is not surprising that so many of them were in need of repairs.
The 48th was not the only regiment with Churchill tanks to fight at Stalingrad. The 47th Guards Tank Regiment, a part of the 65th Army since January 9th, was fighting nearby. It fought alongside the 91st Tank Brigade, 33th Rifle and 67th Guards Rifle Divisions. Towards the end of January, the regiment was fighting at the Barricade factory, with only 3 vehicles remaining in service. As with the 48th regiment, most of the vehicles were not lost completely, and just needed to be fixed up.
The next unit to fight on Churchill tanks was the 50th Guards Tank Regiment. It completed a march to the railroad station in Gorky on March 8th, and arrived at the Voybokalo station in Leningrad Oblast on the 16th. The tanks went on the offensive on March 19th. However, the tankers had to fight with their tanks more than the enemy. The first tank broke down on the march, the second burned up its clutch, two were bogged down in a swamp. 12 more tanks became bogged down during the attack, 2 of which hit mines. 2 tanks were knocked out by artillery. Two tanks reached enemy positions, one of which got stuck in a trench, and was later burned by the enemy. The attack was repeated on the next day with some of the tanks that were freed. In the first days of fighting, the tanks and infantry managed to push the Germans back.
The attack was repeated on the 22nd, and this time it became a real trial. Three tanks of five were disabled by mines. Guards Captain N.D. Belodub, the commander of the attack, remained in his tank with his crew. The crew fought from their disabled tank for four days, causing considerable damage. On March 26th, the tank was recovered from the battlefield. For his heroism, Captain Belodub received the Order of Suvorov 3rd class.
As of March 25th, the regiment lost 5 tanks irreparably, 2 were stuck in a swamp, 6 were under repairs, and 8 were functional. Later, the number of functional tanks increased to 11, and the difference was made up with 6 KV-1 tanks. Later, these Churchills took part in Operation Brusilov, which began on July 22nd, 1943. Overall, the British tanks were evaluated positively, and fought well alongside infantry. However, the 2-pounder was much weaker than the KV-1's gun. The regiment received KV-1 tanks in place of Churchills in December of 1943, and later IS-2 tanks.
Churchills held out the longest in the 49th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment. This regiment arrived at Obukhovo station on March 14th, but entered battle much later. It remained in reserve throughout 1943, and only saw battle on January 15th, 1944. The 49th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment took part in the final lifting of the blockade on Leningrad. To make up for its losses, the regiment received 23 BT-5 and 3 BT-7 tanks. This strange situation continued until mid-February, when the regiment had 13 Churchills and 16 BT tanks left. After that, the regiment was sent to Tula to receive IS-2 tanks.
A new wave of Churchill regiments began forming in the spring of 1943. This was connected with receiving over 150 tanks through the Arctic convoys. Tanks of this type were sent to the 10th, 15th, 34th, and 36th Guards Heavy Tank Regiments. In addition, the tanks of the 47th and 48th Heavy Tank Regiments were refreshed. Two of the above regiments (36th and 48th) fought at Kursk. The 48th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment entered battle on July 6th, 1943, losing 8 tanks on the first day (one was knocked out by German aircraft), claiming 23 tanks and 13 SPGs knocked out. The regiment retreated to Prokhorovka on the next day, acting alongside the 21st Tank Brigade. 7 more tanks were lost during the retreat, but the regiment claimed 5 enemy tanks and 7 SPGs. Over the next several days, the 6 remaining Churchills were transferred to the 21st Tank Brigade. The regiment received Churchill tanks once more on September 9th, 1943, which they used to liberate Kiev.
The 36th Guards Tank Regiment had a different experience. The regiment moved out to its positions on July 9th. 5 tanks broke down on the way. The regiment took up defensive positions to the north of Prokhorovka. The regiment took an active part in the battle on July 12th. The commander was wounded by enemy aircraft on the morning of the battle. The regiment began the fight with 15 functional tanks. 7 burned up and 4 were knocked out on July 12th. The regiment claimed 6 German tanks, two of which were Tigers. The regiment had 10 Churchills left after the battles of July-August. On August 23rd, they were sent off for repairs, and 13 SU-152 and KV-1S were accepted in exchange. The regiment received Churchills once again in late December. Some of them were the same tanks they used earlier. The regiment received 14 Churchills in total, which it used to fight at Pskov until early April of 1944. In June, the regiment was re-equipped with IS-2 tanks.
Intensive use of Churchill tanks left its mark. By January 1st, 1944, 160 tanks were lost irreparably. 27 more were lost by June 1st. Of 66 remaining tanks, 31 were issued. They were mostly concentrated on the Leningrad Front, where they were actively used. For example, the 260th Guards Heavy Tank Regiment received 6 Churchill tanks, which were used during the fighting for Wyborg. The 82nd Tank Regiment, which had 10 Churchill tanks and 11 KV-1S tanks, participated in the liberation of Tallinn in September of 1944. 63 tanks of this type remained by January 1st, 1945. 9 of them were lost before the end of the war. By June 1st, the Red Army had 54 leftover Churchills, only 3 of which were in any active unit.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence;
- Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents;
- Author's archive;
- Andrew Hills's archive.