Click to go back to Home Page.

THE OTHER CHALLENGER

1/76th scale A30 models from S&S and Milcast resin kits, click to goto larger file - 49kb. S&S wargames model is on the left in white winter camo and the Milcast one is on the right in the more common Khaki drab No 15. MMS's Sherman IC Firefly is behind them

In 1999 Challenger means the British Armyís MBT, both in its CR1 form and the new CR2. Some, however may not be aware that there was another Challenger, a vehicle that like its modern namesake had its fair share of problems, but went on to become a reliable and relatively successful tank. This is the story of that vehicle

Challenger was the result of a 1941/2 War Office development programme. The aim of, which was to produce a 17 Pdr armed tank to combat the new German tanks encountered by the British in North Africa and Italy. Western Allied medium and heavy tanks had at that time inadequate 75mm or 6 Pdr guns. Challenger was based on the new A27M Cromwell cruiser tank, but with reduced armour, an extra road wheel and a huge new turret for the 17 Pdr. The 17 Pdr was the most effective Allied anti tank gun of WW2, comparable in performance to the famous German 88mm gun mounted in Tiger I and II. Its only problem was accuracy at longer ranges, where the German 75mm L70 of Panther and the 88mm KwK 36ís and 43 of Tiger I and Tiger II were never bettered. Discarding sabot ammunition was a particular problem and in early tests was ineffective at much over 600m due to its inaccuracy! Ė it did get much better over time though. For a tank gun it also lacked a decent HE round, a problem that was never fully resolved before the war ended.

First used on 25 Pdr field gun mounts under the Pheasant programme it came into its own in Normandy, but the problem was that it needed to be mounted on a tank and no Allied tank was big enough to handle it due to their small turret rings. Challenger was thus designed in 1942 as the way forward. It was an innovative design with provision for two loaders for the huge 17 Pdr fixed rounds and a novel system that allowed the turret to be raised and freed in the event of a shot jamming it. The enlarged hull allowed for a turret ring just wide enough to mount the 17 Pdr (66(some sources say 70 inches) as opposed to 57 inches in Cromwell). The turret was however high and ungainly, which made the vehicle a little unstable on slopes. The lengthened hull made steering difficult, due to there being no commensurate increase in chassis width and initially there were problems with a weak idler wheel mount (common to Cromwell and the later A34 Comet). The vehicle was basically built in two batches of about 60 and 140 vehicles, which differed in that the later batch had thicker armour and a redesigned gun mantlet of greater thickness taking the initially thin turret up almost to the same standard as the normal Cromwell. The June RAC Progress Report states that the batches were of 40 and 160 with 40 having a 40mm mantlet, and the others 102mm. Also an additional 25mm of applique armour was applied from the 101st vehicle.

Challengers genesis was as the second from last of a type of tank peculiar to the British called a Cruiser. Most readers of Tracklink will have far more knowledge than I on this subject, but to recap for anyone not familiar with the issue. The Cruiser was born from the WW1 theories of Liddle Hart and Fuller, where by light tanks scouted, infantry tanks supported infantry and cruiserís fought other tanks in massed break throughís reminiscent of Napoleonic cavalry charges crossed with a naval engagement. The most famous cruiser was the 1941 Crusader used in three versions in North Africa, from this fast (up to 40 mph) thin skinned tank powered by a WW1 Liberty engine came the Cromwell via the Cavalier and Centaur which were mechanically similar to Crusader, but with a new thicker slab sided construction. Cromwell was distinguished from Cavalier and Centaur by a R.R. Meteor engine that developed over 600 hp, derived from the R.R. Merlin aero engine. Cavalier can be viewed as a Crusader with a new Cromwell like hull. Centaur was in fact a Cromwell baring the engine and many Centaurs became Cromwells, when the new engine was fitted (but thatís another very long story as is the whole story of British WW2 tanks!). Cromwells problem was that it had been designed to use a 6 Pdr gun, which was perfectly adequate in 1942, but then came the Tiger 1 in 1942 and 6 Pdr could barely scratch this vehicle until discarding sabot ammunition was produced in time for D Day. Cromwell was then up gunned to a 75mm QF gun (a bored out 6 Pdr firing US M3 75mm ammunition for commonality with the US Sherman series). This was a great all round gun (based on the French 75mm M1897 field gun), but was virtually useless against the heavier German tanks at anything over suicidal ranges (400m or less for Panther and Tiger I side on, point blank side on if at all for Tiger II). The 57 inch turret ring could not mount the 17 Pdr, so Challenger was born. Eventually Cromwell was redesigned into Comet with a 64 inch turret ring and a Vickers 77mm gun that fired 17 Pdr rounds at lower velocity from shorter cases.

So what happened to Challenger? From its inception it suffered delays and by late 1943 had fallen behind schedule and was proving to be barely acceptable as a tank on account of itís height and thin armour. In WO 165/136 (available at Bovington and at the Public Records Office) state the case against Challenger "further production not contemplated due to high silhouette and thin armour." DCIGS (Deputy Chief Imperial General Staff) R M Weeks is recorded as commenting It was "a temporary and rapid means of putting a 17 Pr into Cromwell formationsÖIt is not considered as a suitable mass production job; it is also too thin skinned." (July 1944). Thus only 200 were ordered. Far fewer seem to have made it into combat. Another comment made was that it was a "stop gap".

 

When Challengerís problems became apparent in early 1944 the Sherman 17 Pdr C (often called Firefly) assumed greater importance than it had done and became officially sponsored with an almost frenzied conversion programme of available Shermans. Attempts had been made to fit a 17 Pdr into the Sherman by various British officers since mid 1943, by January 1944 they had succeeded and this tank became the standard 17 Pdr armed tank of WW2, with over 2000 being produced by April/May 1945, when conversions seem to have ceased. Challenger was not ready for D Day and had no wading gear, so was left behind during the assault. Some gradually came ashore as the Normandy battles wore on and over the next few months several units became equipped with their quota. All Sherman equipped units used Firefly with one tank per troop (later two), while a similar ration was issued to Cromwell units due to the unavailability of Challengers. Eventually as Challengers became available some units operated a mix of 17 Pdr Shermans and Challengers or Challengers alone as their 17 Pdr support until Comet came along for some lucky units.

The logistical problems were enormous and there were tactical problems. The Sherman was slow and had poor flotation compared to Cromwell, which had a huge surplus of reliable power in its Meteor engine (some Shermans had only 60% of the horse power for a similar weight). Despite its problems Challenger could keep up with Cromwell, while Sherman notably the radial engined Sherman I and IIís (Iís were used for 17 Pdr conversions as Sherman ICís and IC Hybrids, but most were Sherman Vís until later in the war when ICís became more common) was under powered and could not.

The exact usage of Challenger has been in dispute, but during research at the PRO on the Sherman 17 Pdr for a forth coming book (hopefully!) I found some records in a US file G4 file series (WO 219/3350-53) that shed some light. This is (I believe) the first time this information has been published anywhere. I hope you find it interesting! Regrettably these reports only cover January to June 1945, with a little information being available in other files for mid 1944 and October (when Guards Armoured had 6, 7th Armoured had 12, the Poles had 1 and 11th Armoured had 13 to a total of 40 vehicles from WO 205/151), but in a less detailed format. Presented below is a snap shot for 21st Army Group for sample weeks in 1945:

Unit

Week ending 13th January

Week ending 3rd February

Week ending 24th February

Week ending 24th March

Week ending 7th April

Week ending 21st April

Week ending 5th May

Week ending 12th May

Week ending 16th June

7th Armoured Division (8th Hussars)

-

-

1

15

12

11

11

11

11

Guards Armoured Division

13

14

16

14

13

12

12

12

-

1 Polish Armoured Division

-

-

-

-

8

7

7

7

13

4th Armoured Brigade

-

-

-

-

6

-

-

-

-

Czech Armoured Brigade

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

22

11th Armoured Division

10

14

10

9

8

7

-

-

-

Total Unit Holdings

23

28

27

46

47

33

30

30

46

Total Unit Establishments

64

64

64

45

45

45

45

45

12

Other Holdings

37

32

33

24

44

80

63

63

47

Total number

60

60

60

62

91

113

93

93

93

The Six Monthly RAC Progress Reports available at the Tank Museum and PRO show that in June 1944 the UE was 18 with none issued. In December 1944 21 Army Group had 21 with 11 in depots (10 with 11th Armoured Division and 11 with Guards Armoured Division). There were also 13 in the UK. Another note states that there were a total of 133 Challengers on charge to 21 Army Group, of which obviously only a few had been issued or were even remotely capable of being issued. At the end of June 1945 23 Challengers were on charge to units (7th Armoured Division 11 and the Poles had 13), none were listed as being in depots. In addition a list of Base Stocks on 16th June 1944 list 41 Challengers in various states at Calais/Antwerp and Hamburg areas. This would appear to be in addition to the 93 listed with units and depots in the main table above.

Production records for Challenger are available from March 1944 to February 1945 at the PRO in the Prem series files and show that 172 had been produced in that time. It varied from 3 in June 1944 to 22 in August and September 1944. Production was winding down by February when only 13 were made. As the records end at this point it is not clear if and when other 28 were made for the total order of 200. Indications are that they were from the June 1945 RAC Progress Report. This set of figures is verified by another file that reports that 145 were made in 1944 (all 200 should have been in fact made in 1944 according to the order). This compares to the 1783 Sherman 17 Pdr C conversions that had been made and the 816 M10 conversions) From the above table it can be seen that no more that about 47 examples were ever used by front line units at any one time and 113 being available overall in mid to late April (also none went to 15th Army in Italy or to the far east, wherein the latter case 17 Pdr was not required against weak Japanese armour). Loses for Challenger during its short combat career were 39 examples with October 1944 being the heaviest I have found with 11 examples destroyed during the month. By way of comparison in August 1944 about 547 Shermans were lost during the climactic battles in Normandy. See the monthly figures presented below.

The table of monthly production is as follows:

Month

Challengers Produced

Cumulative Total

March 1944

8

8

April 1944

12

20

May 1944

11

31

June 1944

3

34

July 1944

12

46

August 1944

22

68

September 1944

22

90

October 1944

19

109

November 1944

20

129

December 1944

16

145

January 1945

14

159

February 1945

13

172

Loses for the months I have figures for were:

Month

Number

June 1944

-

July 1944

-

August 1944

2

September 1944

-

October 1944

11

November 1944

-

December 1944

1

January 1945

4

The official verdict on Challenger is recorded in file WO 165/134 (RAC Six Monthly Progress Report); "This vehicle is a Cromwell with scaled down armour and a 70 in turret ring. It mounts a 17 Pdr gunÖIt has an additional suspension assembly on either side." This was December 1943 just before production started. There were "a number of defects, which still require attention before the tank is issued to units." This took about seven months. The RAC reports show that by the end of June none had been issued with 18 authorised for the unit establishments. The first confirmed issues are in July and by December 1944 the next report shows that 21 were in use with 11th Armoured Division and the Guards Armoured Division with 11 in depots. At the wars end on 30th June 1945 24 were in service with the 7th Armoured Division (11) and with the Poles (13), plus 26 in depots and 5 in the UK.

File Avia 11/30 records "After a period of unpopularity, mainly due to trouble with front idlers, the Challenger is now generally popular. One or two instances of this tank withstanding an attack by Faustpatrones without damage have given it a reputation for immunity which is probably not justified" Note that a Faustpatrone is more commonly known today as Panzerfaust.

Today a complete vehicle survives at Overloon in the Netherlands, with a cut away turret at the Tank Museum and I understand that a hull exists in store there as well.

To my knowledge no book has been published on this vehicle, only snippets in books on British tanks. Thus references other than the files quoted above are rare. There is a little on the Internet in tank enthusiast sites and the Tank Museum, and IWM, London have a number of photos in their collections. The best book on UK tank problems in WW2 is by the Tank Museums Curator Mr David Fletcher in his HMSOís works "The Great Tank Scandal" and "Universal Tank". My thanks go to Peter Brown for his help with this article.

 

M Hayward

Click to go back to Home Page.