Known officially as the Infantry Tank Mark II, and less formally as the Matilda Senior or Matilda 2, this 27-ton tank wreaked havoc among the Italian forces in the deserts of Egypt in late 1940. With only two in service in 1937, demand for these armoured machines quickly rose with the outbreak of war; from 1939, orders for thousands were suddenly being placed.
The model itself was a difficult one to manufacture. The pointed nose of the tank, as a single casting, would often emerge from the mould thicker than any other section. In order to avoid unnecessarily adding more weight to the already heavy frame, these thick areas were manually ground down: a lengthy process that required skilled workers. The suspension, too, was complex enough to hinder production time, as were the multi-piece hull side coverings.
A 2nd/9th Australian Armoured Regiment Matilda II firing its three inch gun at Japanese positions during the Battle of Tarakan. (www.awm.gov.au)
Despite these hiccups, however, once the Matilda II did finally emerge from the factory, it was a formidable machine. The three-man gun turret housed a QF 2-pounder tank gun that could rotate 360 degrees, thanks to a hydraulic motor. A machine-gun was located to the right in a rotating internal mantlet, and two cut-down Lee-Enfield rifles provided the mechanisms for two smoke-grenade launchers on the right of the turret.
The Matilda’s armour was notoriously effective: 78mm at the front, it was considerably thicker than its rivals. The turret armour was 75mm thick, the hull side armour was 65mm to 70mm, and the rear armour was 55mm. The design was based on the US Christie, with its sharp, narrow front, and storage compartments on either side.
Success in the desert battlefields of the 1940-1941 North African Campaign earned the Matilda the alternative nickname ‘Queen of the Desert’. Its armour proved impervious to the fire of Italian tanks and anti-tank guns. The only way to combat them seemed to be to use 88mm calibre anti-aircraft guns, which were scarce, or to fire a 75mm PaK 40 anti-tank gun from dangerously close range. Both solutions were problematic.
But the Matilda II was not without its faults. The weight of its armour combined with the rather weak twin-engines made it difficult for the vehicle to reach any considerable speed. A Matilda could muster an average speed of 6mph in the deserts of North Africa. There was also a serious shortage of high-explosive rounds for the main gun, meaning that the tank had to rely heavily on the machine gun when operating with infantry units.
That aside, the Matilda II was an excellent infantry support tank – a heavily-armoured, slow-moving vehicle capable of providing solid protection and fierce attack. Its triumph in the desert proved its worth, stoppable only with the arrival of long-range German anti-tank guns. But its presence on the battlefields of WWII coincided with a turning point in British military thinking. The idea of the tank as merely an infantry support weapon or reconnaissance tool was starting to fade. The tank was now a weapon capable of taking on and defeating enemy armour before creating and exploiting breakthroughs.
Did you know?
Following Operation Battleaxe in June 1941, a dozen Matildas that had been left behind the Axis lines, were picked up, repaired, and put into service by the Germans. The Matilda II’s were well respected by their new German drivers, who had faced them in the Desert Campaign. However, despite extra, prominent marking painted onto the tanks, their use in battle caused confusion on both sides.