The Centurion has made its TY and plastic kit debut, but not its debut to the battlefront family of wargames. In this article we’ll take a look at this stalwart of mid-late 20th century warfare and how that fits into the Battlefront range of games.
Design and Prototypes
The Centurion started its development mid-way through WW2. British tank doctrine of the inter-war years had led to a bifurcated fleet of Cruiser and Infantry tanks but the folly of this thinking was quickly shown as cruiser tanks were shown to be too lightly armoured to fight their peers and infantry tanks were too lightly armed to even fire HE in support of the infantry. By 1943 both fleets had overcome these challenges with the Cromwell being as good as the Sherman as an all-rounder and the Churchill, whilst slow, was a tough tank able to support the infantry and lay down useful HE and smoke fire whilst engaging enemy light and medium armour. However, it was clear that the Cruisers still couldn’t withstand the high end German anti-tank guns and the Infantry tank couldn’t knock out the top-end enemy armour.
The answer to this was initially treated as a heavy cruiser tank but would become to be known as a universal tank, the precursor to the modern main battle tank. It would have sufficient armour to withstand fire from the dreaded 88mm whilst being able to both support the infantry and maintain a breakout. It would be as agile as the Comet tank, though top speed could be sacrificed to meet the survivability goals.
By the start of 1945 what emerged was a well-protected tank, powered by the same Meteor petrol engine as the late Cruiser tanks but equipped with Horstmann suspension to increase internal space compared to Christie suspension, and armed with a 17pdr main gun. Due to the perceived issues with the 17pdr HE round, this was backed up by a 20mm Polsten cannon to engage soft targets, the cannon be able to elevate separately to the main armament. The deletion of the hull gunner allowed the glacis late to well sloped, increasing the effectiveness of the front armour to exceed that of the late pattern Churchills. The first prototypes were rushed to the front but arrived with the Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards in May 1945, too late to see action.
This late arrival to the front means the Centurion misses the established Flames of War books but is supported by parts on the new plastic sprue as we can see with the upcoming World of Tanks starter set. Battlefront have talked about a Late war Levitations/Operation Unspeakable book to bring these into flames of war so I wouldn’t rule out an appearance on the tabletop quite yet.
With the end of WW2, there was some breathing space to refine the design. The few Mk.1 were quickly supplanted by a Mk.2 design that increased the armour thickness and dropped the 20mm in favour of a conventional BESA 7.92mm MG and would serve as the initial type adopted formerly by the British Army.
However, the appearance of the IS3 at the Berlin Victory Parade signalled that the 17pdr was not going to be suitable as WW2 gave way to the cold war. By the late 40s a new gun emerged, the 84mm “20 pounder”. Firing Armour-Piercing Discarding Sabot rounds it was capable of penetrating 300+mm of RHA, as well as High Explosive Squash Head (HESH) and smoke rounds. The gun was introduced on the Mk.3 variant, which also saw some modifications made to the hull arrangement and the introduction of a turret mounted 2” mortar for smoke laying. The Mk.3 started a wave of export successes; Australia and Canada both purchased the model as did Sweden (who were somewhat exasperated by its imperial measurements on the instruments). The US also funded sales to support European allied re-build after WW2. The Patton lines were maxed out to meet US needs and the Centurion Mk.3 offered a similar capability so the type was quickly adopted by the Danes and the Netherlands amongst others.
The Mk.3 would be the first version to see action, deploying with the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars (including one Trooper Parnell, my Grandad) into Busan, South Korea in November 1950, who fielded three full squadrons of the tank, plus a recce troop of Cromwells, as well as a squadron of Churchill Crocodiles from 7RTR, all in support of the 29th Independent Infantry brigade. By December they would by outside Pyongyang, covering the withdrawal of UN forces south as the Chinese entered the war. The Centurion proved to be as adept at covering adverse terrain as the Churchill before it and the 20 ponder was demonstrated to be an accurate tank gun, being used to “snipe” bunkers as the war settled into a static defence. The lack of an AAA MG proved to be a short coming against the human wave attacks and the tankies quickly adopted a tactic of shooting enemy off a friendly tank by hosing them down with the coaxial gun. Tank on tank combat was scare, though the Centurion did knock-out a captured Cromwell pressed in North Korea service.
The Mk.3 also saw service with 6th RTR in “Operation Musketeer”, otherwise known as the Suez crisis. 6RTR was landed in the fishing harbour of Port Said before linking up with French paratroops and supporting in anti-sniper operations as the Port was cleared.
As it stands, there isn’t a Battlefront game dealing with either conflict (and there probably isn’t enough conflict to make the Suez crisis a game in its own right. That said, I’d like to think a Korean War version of Flames of War has to be on the cards given most the armour of both sides is in plastic and all it really needs is some Super Bazooka and 57mm recoilless sculpts for the US and a Chinese range. The Mk.3 does make an appearance in Fate of a Nation as the Egyptians used this earlier variant before Nasser decided his hatred of the British made buying their tanks somewhat unteniable.
Finally, some in game stats! We can see the 2+ cross that makes this thing cross paddy fields and mountains in Korea and a front armour that can stop an 88mm shell so long as its not one of the really high velocity ones and I suspect the Mk.1 will be lower given as the Mk.2 upped the armour and the Mk.3 did so again! The movement stats are not especially speedy but it still has a tactical 10″.
The Jordanians also used the Mk.3 in the Six Day War and October War, albeit upgraded with some of the Mk.5 trappings such as the ranging gun and improved Meteor engine as we can see in their weapon notes and dash speeds. They were also used versus the Syrians and PLO in the Black September crisis.
We don’t talk about the Mk.4
Anyway, the Mk.5
So, Mk.3 is selling like… things that sell very well. What happens next? Two things.
NATO standardisation, otherwise known as Uncle Sam’s Military Industrial Complex slams his dick on the table, means that weird Czech rifle calibres are out and 7.62mm is in.
The Mk.5 replaces the BESA co-ax with a Browning 7.62mm MG. It also takes lessons learned from the Korean War and makes a number of improvements including ditching the 2″ mortar in the turret roof. This would reach its conclusion in the later Mk.7 that finally replaced most the fixings of the tank with standardised UNF screw threads rather than whatever Vickers randomly decided to do in the thirties. They also turn the wick up on the Meteor and extract some more power from the engine,
The Mk.5/1 further improves on the standard Mk.5 by adding a 0.50 cal ranging rifle to allow the gunner to lay on target, fire a burst from the ranging rifle and then adjust his fire before firing the 20pdr. This is stated as being a way of ensuring a first hit kill, but, knowing how much the 1950 UK economy was sucking, it was likely a treasury measure to save on wasting expensive tank rounds.
The appearance of the T-54/55 also came as a nasty shock to the British. The hemispherical turret design and well sloped glacis plate provided protection that the 20pdr would likely struggle with. Thankfully Hungarian revolutionaries were helpful enough to park a captured example in the grounds of the British embassy in Budapest! By reboring the 84mm 20pdr barrel to 105mm, the L7 was created and a legend was born…
The Mk.5 continued to be an export success. Most Mk.3 customers either bought more Mk.5 or upgraded their Mk.3 to Mk.5 standard. Australia was a big buyer and took theirs to Vietnam as we can see in the ‘Nam book.
As we can see, the Mk.5 ups the front and side armour compared to the Mk.3, but still gets a little bit more on the road dash. The gun stats are largely unchanged other than the introduction of an AA MG which the Aussies likely “acquired” as they have a tendency to do. They also took the side skirts off as they tend to get clogged up with mud, undergrowth and VC so the tank does not have “Bazooka skirts”. Good thing the Vietnamese don’t have RPG!
Oh. Oh no.
The Middle East were also eager customers. In addition to the Mk.3 purchased by Egypt, both Israel and Jordon purchased Mk.3 and Mk.5 variants. The Israeli were quick to realise that the WW2 era Meteor engine was limiting the potential of the Centurian and replaced it with the Continental Diesel used by their Magach tanks, vastly improving its endurance. They also set about upgrading to the 105mm gun, and had largely completed that by the time of launching the Six Day War. The up gunned, re-engined “Sho’t Kal” proved devastating to Syrian and Jordanian armour as it fought mainly in the Golan Heights and Jerusalem theatres. This would continue into the Yom Kippur war, with the Centurions defending the Golan Heights versus a determined Syrian assault.
The Israelis would use the Centurion into the 80’s albeit equipped with ERA, thermal sleeves and new FCS, serving in the Lebanon war of 1982. They could have been present in Oil Wars and maybe the new plastic kit may give an avenue to their appearance (with an upgrade sprue ala T-64B/72B). They eventually ended up being converted into Heavy APC and engineering vehicles so its fair to say the Israelis got everything they could from the tank!
As noted above, the British continued to improve the design, even as its replacement, the Chieftain left the drawing room. The design continued on to the Mk.13, although these all end up being upgraded of previous marks.
The Jordanians took their beating in the Six Day war and poor performance in the September crisis to heart and ordered shiny new Mk.10 Centurions. Fitted with the L7 105mm main gun from the get-go and with improved Meteor engine, the tank matches the Sho’T in many ways. The Jordanians made a token showing to aid Syria and maintain face with the arab world but largely kept their noses clean.
After the war, the Jordanians would go on to upgrade their Centurions with new FCS, engines and transmissions and various survivability improvements, being named the Tariq tank. As the Chieftain and Challenger entered service, the Centurions would go on to be used as Temsah heavy APC.
[All I’m saying is that Jordon would be an interesting inclusion for Oil Wars v2, Battlefront]
The Last Centurions in Europe
The Centurion in Europe would largely be replaced by the Chieftain in British service and the Leopard 1 and 2 in most the rest of NATO (including the Canadians). Austria’s Centurions still see service of a sort, emplaced as bunkers. The last Centurions users still using them as tanks were the Danes and Swedes.
The Danish examples were Mk.3 examples, upgraded to Mk.5 standard then upgraded one last time with night vision equipment and laser range to be titled the Mk.V 2DK. These tanks were used to guard the Danish islands whilst the ones on Jutland were replaced by leopard 1.
Reservists still used older examples sporting the 20pdr but featuring the other Mk.5 upgrades such as better armour and a spotting rifle.
Interestingly this is the only time I’ve seen the spotting rifle get a shot!
The Swedish were far more far-reaching in their upgrade. Taking their later mark 10 Strv 101 Centurions (the mark 3s, Strv 81, having been upgraded to a near Mk.10 Strv 102 standard) and adding new engines, transmission, FCS, a thermal sleeve and Swedish ERA armour and 105mm ammo. What came out the Strv 104 upgrade was almost an entirely new tank. The Swedish tanks would give sterling service, ending their days defending Gotland from an attack that, thankfully, never came.
This is really scraping the iceberg with this article. We haven’t covered the Indian Centurions fighting Pakistani Patton tanks or the various South African modified examples in the bush wars of the eighties.
It’s going to be interesting to see what the new plastic kit can build. We have evidence of a Mk.1 with Polsten (world of tanks), a Mk.5 (with 20pdr and 105mm for Denmark) and the heavily updated Swedish STRV103. The latter has the raised engine deck for the US diesel powerplant which a Sho’T would need so that is likely possible too. On the face of it, I think it may build every variant in a Battlefront book with the possible exception of a Mk.3 depending on turret detail.
This of course raises the question; how many boxes do I buy?
Centurion Universal Tank 1943-2003, S Dunstan
Fate of a Nation, Scott Elraurant, Phil Yates
‘Nam, Mike Haught, Phil Yates
Nordic Forces, Wayne Turner
Tank Encyclopaedia: https://tanks-encyclopedia.com/coldwar/uk/fv-4200_centurion
Mike’s research: https://mikesresearch.com/2021/12/26/centurion-tanks-in-korea/ (really interesting article on Centurion in North Korea)
Danish army vehicles past and present: https://www.armyvehicles.dk/centurion.htm
Gotland Defence Museum: https://gotlandsforsvarsmuseum.se/fordon/81-105.htm
Tank Nut Dave: https://tanknutdave.com/jordanian-tariq-tank/