The Centurion in Combat

Photographed in the Valley of Tears in the Northern Golan Heights, this 105mm L7-equipped Sho’t Kal Centurion of the Israeli 7th Armoured Brigade provides a memorial to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. During this action 150 Israeli tanks faced more than 1,400 Syrian tanks across the Golan Heights. Although the Centurions fought well, this was to be their last combat before being replaced by the Israeli-designed Merkava

The Centurion entered regular service with the British Army in December 1946, when a small number of Mk 1s and 2s were delivered to the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Brigade, which at the time was based at Hamm in Germany. By the end of 1948 the new tank was also in the hands of the other two regiments of 7th Armoured Brigade, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Ultimately, as well as being based in Britain, there were Centurions with British armoured regiments in Aden, Hong Kong and West Germany. An armoured regiment of the day was generally equipped with forty-eight Centurions in three squadrons of fifteen, with the remaining three assigned to the headquarters; a squadron consisted of four tank troops and a headquarters, each with three tanks, and each squadron also normally included a ‘dozer tank in its complement. From the mid-1950s, in West Germany, six of the Centurions were replaced by Conquerors.

In the gun tank role, the Centurion enjoyed a more than twenty-year career with the British Army, but by the early 1970s most had been replaced in service by the new Chieftain, albeit some Centurions were retained for driver training. It was not quite the same story for the engineer variants, and both ARVs and BARVs, as well as ‘dozer tanks, AVREs, bridgelayers and ARKs, remained in service into the 1970s and, in some cases, well beyond … astonishingly, a small number of AVREs actually saw active service in the Gulf War in 1990.

The Centurion arrived too late to see action during the Second World War but nevertheless many of the tanks still spent their working lives in Germany, where they were assigned to the 1st, 3rd and 4th Armoured Divisions of BAOR until their replacement by Chieftains, a process which began in November 1966. Fortunately, there was no live action in Europe, and instead the tanks of BAOR spent their working lives endlessly training for a Soviet invasion that never came; the first significant BAOR exercises in which Centurions were involved were Operation Broadside 1 and Operation Broadside 2. Involving 7th Armoured Division and 2nd Infantry Division, the exercises were carried out in late September 1950, and were intended to ‘practise movement and concentration in the face of enemy air superiority, and to carry out operations on wider fronts entailing movement laterally and from front to rear, and quick concentration for attack and dispersion afterwards’. Little was said of the performance of the Centurions, but it was stated that the length of the barrel made the tank difficult to conceal.

The tank saw its first combat during the Korean War, with a number of Mk 3s, originally destined for Australia, being diverted to the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars – generally simply described as the 8th Hussars – towards the end of 1950, where they joined US Army M26 Pershings facing the Chinese and the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) at New Year 1951. Centurions went into action at the Battle of Imjin River in April of that year, where they were famously used to provide cover for the withdrawing infantry of the 29th Brigade. By May 1951 the British Army had sixty-four Centurions in Korea and by the end of the year, when the Hussars were relieved by the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, the Centurions were dug in amongst infantry positions on high ground facing the enemy. There was little movement as the British Centurions and the Chinese and North Korean T-34/85s exchanged fire across no-man’s-land. During the following year the tanks were involved in limited armoured raids across the unfavourable terrain, some of which took place in sub-zero temperatures. In late 1952, with the war grinding on and neither side able to gain the upper hand, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were relieved by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and the Centurions played a significant role in repelling Chinese forces during the second Battle of the Hook in 1953. During one night’s action 504 high-explosive (HE) 20-pounder rounds were rained down on the enemy.

Centurion ARVs were also first deployed in Korea, replacing older vehicles based on the Churchill infantry tank. Their performance was described as ‘excellent’.

The Centurion was highly praised for its all-round performance, and particularly for its apparent ability to go anywhere, while the minimum elevation (-10 degrees) of the main gun allowed the Centurion to operate almost completely concealed in a ‘hull down’ position. Its lack of vulnerability under fire provided a real boost to the morale of the fighting men … one official report specifically singled out the lack of internal effect from a hollow charge from a 3.7in Russian bazooka or a captured US Army recoilless rifle which created a 3in deep hole in the back of the turret but failed to penetrate. Several tanks also received multiple direct hits that caused little damage to the tanks and no injuries to the crews … there is a story of two Centurions that had to be abandoned in Korea, with unsuccessful attempts being made to destroy them using 20-pounder armour-piercing shot to prevent them falling into enemy hands; undestroyed, they were eventually recovered, more or less intact. Another story described a Centurion in the 29th Brigade’s sector during March 1952, sliding sideways from the top of a razor-edged ridge, gathering speed down the slope as the tracks failed to grip the frozen ground. Eventually the tank somersaulted three times, landing in a minefield, in which it caused considerable mayhem, before arriving at the bottom, on its tracks, but with the gun barrel severely bent and the turret off its ring – indeed, as the contemporary report put it, the ‘tank generally was in considerable confusion’. All of this happened in full view of the enemy! The crew was shaken and embarrassed but generally uninjured and the tank was abandoned. However this wasn’t the end of the sorry saga and it was decided that recovery was impractical since it would require two ARVs, one of which would have to be lowered down by the other The Royal Engineers were asked to destroy the gun-stabiliser equipment to prevent it falling into enemy hands but, overestimating the size of charge required, managed to ‘set everything off’. The report of the incident ended by stating that the ‘tank will be of no value to the enemy’!

Hostilities in Korea came to an end on 27 July 1953 with no proper resolution of the conflict. All things considered, the Centurion was an extremely capable machine, able to fire accurately even at its maximum range, and able to traverse the most rugged and challenging terrain … even in the stickiest mud, the tracks never sank more than 12in into the ground and cross-country performance was always considered to be excellent. The extreme cold of the Korean winter sometimes caused problems with tracks failing to gain traction on the frozen ground and, on occasions, the track brakes, which were entirely mechanical, became inoperative due to icing leading to at least one runaway. However, the Centurions had proved themselves to be worthy opponents.

Little more than three years later, British Army Centurions of the 1st and 6th Royal Tank Regiments were deployed to Egypt in November 1956, as part of the joint Anglo-French-Israeli operation intended to wrest back control of the Suez Canal Zone out of the hands of President Nasser. Despite a shortage of landing craft, which restricted the number of vehicles available to ninety-three, Centurions were successfully landed and fought alongside the French AMX-13 light tanks, capturing Port Said in November, before the governments involved finally bowed to UN pressure and withdrew the troops on 23 December.

In September 1960, along with 80,000 soldiers from four nations, Centurions took part in the largest land, sea and air exercise staged in the northern Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) during the Cold War era. Dubbed Operation Holdfast, the exercise was designed to test the effectiveness of NATO defences in the Jutland peninsula. Tanks of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were put ashore from German and British landing craft in Eckenforde Bay in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, while others were brought up by transporter to a holding area south of the Hamburg Lubbeck autobahn. The defenders made mock nuclear strikes against the attacking troops but British armour, forming part of the attacking force, pushed inland to reach within 2 miles of the crucial Kiel Canal. At the end of the nine-day exercise the conclusion was that NATO was well prepared to withstand such an assault from the joint forces of the Warsaw Pact … and the Centurion was seen as a valuable element of the exercise.

Centurions of the Royal Scots Greys were also deployed in Aden (Radfan) during the 1963/64 uprising against British control.

Although most of the Centurion gun tanks had been replaced within twenty years, it was not quite the same for the engineer variants and both ARVs and BARVs, as well as ‘dozer tanks, AVREs, bridgelayers and ARKs, remained in service into the 1970s and beyond. In July 1972 four Centurion AVREs of 26 Armoured Engineer Regiment were deployed to Northern Ireland aboard HMS Fearless and were used to clear Republican roadblocks that had been erected around the Rossville Flats on the Creggan Estate in Derry-Londonderry. The roadblocks were believed to be booby-trapped. Described as Operation Motorman, the exercise was considered to be extremely sensitive for obvious reasons and was conducted during the early hours of the morning; in order to minimise the danger of sensationalist headlines, the tanks were operated with the guns covered and traversed to the rear.

In 1982 a pair of surviving Centurion BARVs were operated from the two LPD (‘landing platform, dock’) vessels HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid during the Falklands War. One broke a drive chain and remained unused for most of the conflict. More recently, both of these BARVs were also deployed to Iraq, fighting in both Gulf Wars before being retired from service in 2002; at least one has survived in private hands.

Astonishingly, a small number of ARVs and AVREs, fitted with additional passive and explosive reactive armour (ERA), saw active service during Operation Granby, the British contribution to the liberation of Kuwait during 1990/91. Despite the Ministry of Defence (MoD) having lost a large percentage of the remaining Centurion spares in a fire at the Donnington stores in 1988, AVREs of 32 Armoured Engineer Regiment played their part in helping to move some 850,000 tons of earth, and in blasting through Iraqi defences. Some spares support was drawn from Aviation Jersey Ltd, who had acquired the entire stock of Centurion parts from the Netherlands in 1990.

In 1968 and 1969 Royal Australian Armoured Corps Centurions, including tank ‘dozer variants, saw action in Vietnam, where most were equipped with 100-gallon auxiliary fuel tanks attached to the rear of the hull, giving the designation Centurion Mk 5/1 (Aust). The decision to send Australian Centurions, consisting of more than twenty gun tanks, two bridgelayers, two ‘dozers and two armoured recovery vehicles, had been taken in October 1967 as part of Australia’s increasing involvement in this ugly conflict. Operating under US command, the Centurions were involved in the Tet Offensive in January 1968, and during their service in south-east Asia they acquitted themselves well in the difficult terrain, including rice paddy and jungle. The Centurions were returned to Australia at the end of 1971.

Australian Centurions were never involved in combat elsewhere. However; back in October 1953 the British and Australian armies had exposed what has been described as a ‘near brand-new’ Leeds-built Centurion Mk 3 of the Australian 1st Armoured Regiment (06BA16, Australian Army number 169041) to a nuclear blast test at Emu Field as part of Operation Totem One. The tank was parked less than 500 yards from the epicentre of the blast, with its engine running. Although it had run out of fuel by the time the test was concluded, and had sustained minor damage, for example to antenna and stowage bins, once it had been decontaminated it was capable of being driven from the site. The tank was subsequently repaired and used in the Vietnam War; in May 1969, during a fierce engagement with the enemy, it was penetrated by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) that wounded all of the crew in the turret. The RPG entered the lower left side of the fighting compartment, travelled diagonally across the floor and came to rest in the rear right corner. 169041 was given its third base overhaul in 1970, spending some time in storage before being reissued to the 1st Armoured Regiment. By 1976 Centurions had been phased out of Australian service, having been replaced by the West German Leopard, but 169041 survived and is currently located at Robertson Barracks in Australia’s Northern Territory, where it has been restored to running condition. Nicknamed ‘the atomic tank’, it is occasionally brought out for ceremonial duties.

Three more Centurions were involved in nuclear testing in Australia during the British government’s Operation Buffalo tests held at Maralinga in September/October 1956. The operation involved the detonation of four separate nuclear devices, code-named One Tree, Marcoo, Kite and Breakaway two of which (One Tree, with a yield of 12.9 kilotons, and Breakaway at 10.8 kilotons) were Red Beard tactical bombs exploded from towers, while Marcoo (1.4 kilotons) and Kite (2.9 kilotons) were Blue Danube bombs, the first exploded at ground level, and the second released by an RAF Valiant bomber from a height of 35,000ft. This was the first aircraft launching of a British atomic weapon. During one of these trials the three Centurion Mk 3s were placed at roughly 440 yards, 880 yards and 1760 yards from ground zero. Even at 440 yards the blast damage was only superficial, being largely confined to the external sheet metal, and was not sufficiently serious to have prevented the vehicles fighting again. The report of the trial stated that the Centurion ‘was capable of taking heavy punishment at the range, and with the weight of bomb used, without being disabled to a non-fighting state’. One vehicle (05BA60) was quickly made serviceable and drove some 80 miles after the blast; the gun was also test fired with no recorded loss of accuracy. The fate that might have befallen the luckless crew had this not been an exercise was not recorded.

Egyptian Centurions saw action during the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, with most being captured by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Ironically, the Egyptian Army captured a similar number of 105mm-equipped Centurions from the IDF during the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, although by this time Egypt was operating predominantly with Soviet tanks and equipment.

In India Centurions were deployed during both of the border wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. The 1965 war lasted five weeks and is considered by many to include the largest tank battle in military history since the Second World War. A total of 186 Indian Centurions fought alongside some 340 ageing M4 Sherman tanks of the Indian Army, with both Shermans and M47 and M48 Patton tanks of American origin opposing them on the Pakistani side. The Centurions proved themselves to be superior in most respects to the more modern (and more complex) American tanks, and were able to withstand 90mm armour-piercing shells fired from the powerful M63 guns of the Pattons.

Jordanian Centurions went into action in 1970 to counter Syrian border incursions during the conflict with the Palestinian guerrilla organization Black September that ended in July 1971 with the expulsion of the PLO to Lebanon. In 1973 Jordanian Centurions were in action again in the Golan Heights.

South African Centurion-based Semel tanks were deployed in Namibia (South West Africa) against the military wing of SWAPO (South-West Africa Peoples Organisation) during the fight for independence that endured between 1966 and 1988. The more heavily modified Olifants were deployed against Angolan forces during the Angolan civil war in 1987, where they were fighting against Soviet-built T-34/85s and T-55s.

Outside of Britain, Israel was not only the largest user of Centurions, but was also the nation with the most experience of using the tank in combat. Although only around 250 Centurions were supplied new to Israel, many more were acquired as surplus or were captured during various campaigns with Israel’s neighbours: during the 1967 Six Day War, for example, Israel captured thirty Centurion tanks from Jordan. At one time the IDF was able to deploy a total of around 1,000 Centurions, some 25 per cent of the total production figure, all of which were eventually equipped with the 105mm L7 gun. Poor maintenance and abuse of the tanks in the Israeli deserts by the largely conscripted crews initially gave the Centurion a poor reputation. A company of Israeli Centurions was fired on by Syrian T-55 and T-62 tanks at Nukheila in 1964; despite firing some eighty-nine rounds of 105mm ammunition in an exchange that lasted ninety minutes, not one Syrian tank was hit. Things began to improve when General Israel Tal took command of the Israeli armoured corps towards the end of 1964, and standards of training, maintenance and discipline rose significantly. In a second border incident at Nukheila one Israeli Centurion destroyed two Syrian Panzer IVs. A year later Israeli Centurions destroyed Syrian earth-moving equipment that was being used to divert the Jordan River. Centurions were among some 800 Israeli tanks successfully deployed against assembled Arab forces in the Six Day War of 1967, the tanks being called upon to fight again in the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, where they were exploited to advantage in a hull-down position against the largely Soviet tanks of the opposing Arab forces. Although no longer deployed as gun tanks, small numbers of Israeli Centurions continue to survive, re-equipped as heavily armoured armoured engineers’ vehicles, designated Puma, NagmaSho’t, Nakpadon and Nagmachon.

Many of the Centurions sold to customers around the world saw no active service with their original owners, including those vehicles supplied to the Danish, Netherlands, Swedish and Swiss Armies. However, a few Centurions certainly remained in service into the 1990s, and many, including some British AVREs, were able to be maintained by virtue of the large strategic reserve of parts that had been purchased from the Netherlands government by Aviation Jersey Ltd on behalf of the NATO powers. In a huge operation, every case of parts was opened, quickly examined and then marked as fit for keeping or to be scrapped before being moved to the island of Jersey, where they were held for redistribution within NATO as required.

However, it is impossible to hold back the march of time indefinitely, and improvements in automotive performance, tank guns, and target acquisition and sighting equipment inevitably meant that the Centurion was effectively obsolete. No longer suitable for front-line service, those British Army Centurions that were not scrapped would have certainly suffered the ignominious fate of being used as range hard targets or being sold to more impecunious nations. It was the same story elsewhere, with many similarly superseded by more modern equipment and surplus vehicles sold to other nations. The situation in Denmark was typical. Many of the nation’s 216 Centurions remained in service into the 1990s, serving alongside 120 Leopard IA3 main battle tanks that had started to enter service in February 1976, but the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), signed in 1990 by NATO members and the Warsaw Pact nations, restricted Denmark to 300 main battle tanks and some 146 remaining Centurions were destroyed or taken out of commission between 1993 and 1995.

However, a handful of Centurions have survived in museums around the world, and the relatively low cost of surplus Centurions in the 1990s means that there are also more than a few in private hands.

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