The current mainstay British Army is FV432, CVR(T), Warrior and Challenger vehicles. Before can can look at their current fate and the efforts to either replace or upgrade them, we need to start at what they replaced. The story can be reasonably traced back to the post war era.
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By the close of WWII Germany remained convinced that wheeled vehicles were best for reconnaissance tasks, while the US preferred tracks. The British Army rejected further development of the two-axle Coventry armoured vehicle and retained in service the Daimler MkII and AEC Mk III until a new vehicle could be introduced. With this in mind, work started on defining a requirement for a high mobility wheeled fighting vehicle design that could operate in all environments and offer a high degree of commonality between variants. With wartime pressures to maximise production from different manufacturers gone the demand for standardisation and a reduction of vehicle types was a key requirement of the Ministry of Supply. Indeed, the lack of commonality across components and standards in such seemingly mundane items as screw threads had resulted in large quantities of equipment being abandoned in North Africa between 1941 and 1942.
The General Staff specification was issued in 1946 for what would become Saracen and Saladin. One of the first issues to resolve was the number of axles; a two-axle design was discounted because of mobility and weight carrying concerns, and an eight-wheel design discounted because of the weight and complexity. A 6×6 design was ultimately thought to be the best compromise. The US T19 (based on the T18E1), the T28 and T66 were all examined and generally considered to be a good series of general design concepts to emulate, especially the T28 with its independent suspension, although there is no direct link.
The requirement envisaged a 3 or 4 man crew, 6×6 vehicle armed with an improved version of the 39mm 2 Pounder. Weight rose slightly during later versions of the requirement, creating an opportunity for using an emerging concept in standardised military engines; the Rolls Royce B series. This standardised engine series design also meant the elimination of different thread types and the resultant need for two sets of tools and fastenings. High reverse speed, ease of servicing, mobility and vision were also key elements of the requirement. Protection was defined as the ability to withstand 7.93mm Armour Piercing from all angles, 25 Pounder (equivalent) shell splinters at 9m and a 9kg mine under any wheel, close to Level IIIa in today’s standard, STANAG 4569. The image below shows an early wooden mock-up, produced by the newly renamed Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE).
A contract was placed with Alvis in 1947 for the production of two prototypes of the FV601, one of which was sub-contracted to Crossley Motor. In a foreshadowing of more recent defence development work, doubts about the specification began to set in almost as soon as Alvis had started work, specifically in relation to the main armament. After much back and forth the decision was made for the Armaments Design Establishment (ADE) to develop a brand new gun specifically for the vehicle; the 76mm L5A1. This larger gun displaced the third crew member from the earlier turret design. Other requirement changes resulted in modifications to the turret layout, along with more delays. During the development phase, Saracen was prioritised over Saladin in order to provide protected mobility vehicles for Malaya. By the mid-fifties Malaya had been stabilised to a point where the large numbers of Saracens originally envisaged were no longer required and the focus shifted back to Saladin. Production of the Saracen was then slowed to allow export production orders to catch up.
It wasn’t until 1958 that the FV601 Saladin Mk2 entered production, 13 years after the initial requirement was defined and the design work had started. Production of Saladin ran from 1958 to 1972, with 1,177 built.
Two other vehicles were originally envisaged as part of the FV600 series; the FV602 Command Post and the FV603 Armoured Personnel Carrier. Both were thoroughly modern concepts for the time, but the vehicle design limited the practicality of the Command Post variant and it was soon dropped, although other command post variants would appear later. The FV603 was entirely a different matter.
In 1948 a state of emergency was declared in Malaya and by 1950 plans were being formulated by Lt Gen Harold Briggs to direct the anti-communist campaign. This evolved into a concerted anti-terrorist campaign that would have no need for tanks or artillery. The battles would instead be fought in terrain that favoured the ambush. Therefore, dismounted infantry – supported by small armoured cars – was the preferred option. Something more substantial than a truck would also be needed to provide some measure of protected mobility to the infantry. Step forward the FV603 Saracen.
Despite still being in development it was thought to be an ideal vehicle. It is often stated that Saracen was designed to be no wider than 8ft (2.45m) so as to fit between the rows of rubber trees on Malayan plantations, a key specification that also reportedly carried through to CVR(T). Development of Saracen was therefore prioritised over Saladin. The first delivery of the prototype was made in June 1951, with two delivered directly to Malaya for field trials in the actual field it would be used in! Testing revealed a number of problems, but for the most part, these were resolved in subsequent iterations before large-scale production commenced.
In 1952 the FVRDE issued a production specification that comprised a number of sub-variants; FV603a Personnel and Load Carrier, FV603b Regimental Command Vehicle, FV603c ASSU ‘Tentacle’ or signals, FV603d Armoured Ambulance, FV603e Royal Artillery Radar Vehicle, FV603f Royal Artillery Sonic Detection Vehicle, and the FV603g Infantry Command Post. The first production order was for 250 of the FV603a variant, later designated Personnel Carrier Mk1, shown below in Coventry and Malaya.
The Alvis team returned to Malaya in 1953 to continue testing and evaluation. Later Mk2 versions would incorporate the experience captured in Malaya, much of it do with operations in hot weather. If the hot weather was problematical, cold weather was not. The trials vehicles were tested in Canada at -37 degrees Celsius with no problems. Although Saracen always suffered from having a distinct transmission whine, it was highly mobile and could keep moving even with two wheels blown off (as long as they were on different sides). The two front steering axles also provided excellent manoeuvrability.
In some ways, there are similarities between both Saracen and the more recent Mastiff; both vehicles were required to provide protected mobility in a counter-insurgency campaign where existing Army vehicles were totally unsuited, and both vehicles were obtained with as much haste as possible once the procurement decision had been made.
Main Battle Tank
By the end of WWII the British Army had both infantry and cruiser tanks in service, the former being the heaviest, in the form of the Cromwell, Comet and Churchill. As the war drew to a close, a more universal tank design emerged, one that could cover all roles and also form the basis for a number of engineering variants.
The Centurion entered service in late 1946 and it would go on to become one of the most numerous post War designs with a very long service life, and one which was hugely influential on subsequent designs. Early designs had a 17 pounder (of Sherman Firefly fame) and a 20mm Polsten cannon although this would give way to a 20 Pounder (83.4mm) and 7.92mm BESA machine gun by the time Centurion Mk. 3’s were deployed to Korea with the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars in the early fifties. The 600hp Rolls Royce Meteor engine was combined with the Merritt-Brown Z15R transmission and external Horstmann suspension to provide excellent mobility.
The 65 ton FV214 Conqueror was conceived as a heavy tank destroyer and although the Anglo-American 120mm main gun was extremely powerful, the vehicle only carried 35 rounds for it. In a past echo of modern hunter-killer type fire control, the commander sat in a contra-rotating cupola, able to override the gunners controls and lay the main gun onto a target. Despite this advanced fire control system (shown in the video below), less than two hundred entered service by, serving alongside the much more numerous Centurion from the mid-fifties until 1968.