FV215 – The 183 mm Death Star
In this article we will be taking a look at a fan-favourite vehicle, the mighty FV215. This British tank is essentially the tougher, better fed sibling of the iconic FV4005, with both vehicles being armed with the biggest direct-fire, dedicated anti-tank gun ever mounted on a tank.
This insane tank was developed in the 1950s when there were fears that even the Conqueror heavy tank was not powerful enough to take on the latest Soviet tanks. Not wanting to be left out, they created the FV215, armed with a huge 183 mm gun and up to 250 mm of armor.
Many of you will know this tank from video games like World of Tanks, where it is incorrectly named the FV215b (183) (it never received that name) and affectionately nicknamed Death Star. However today we will be taking a closer look at the real-life version and why it came to be.
The story of the FV215 is directly linked to the Conqueror, so to fully understand how Britain went from 17-pounders to 183 mm guns in just a few years, we will start at the very beginning.
The impetus for such a powerful beast came at the end of the Second World War during the Berlin Victory Parade. At this parade, the Soviets brought along their newest heavy tank, the IS-3, unveiling it to the world for the first time. While today this vehicle may look like an angry upside-down frying pan, back then it was a force to be reckoned with, or so the Allies thought, at least.
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It had a low silhouette, a massive 122 mm gun, thick, well-angled armor, and good mobility. In addition, it was assumed that the USSR’s massive manufacturing capabilities would be honed in on the IS-3 to produce thousands upon thousands. We now know that this was far from the case, as the IS-3 was actually a rather sickly machine built in relatively small numbers – it was the T-54 that posed the true threat.
But at the time the existence of the IS-3 set off something of a panic among Allied planners (although not all), as they doubted they had anything capable of going toe-to-toe with this beast. Its thick armor was of particular concern.
It was deemed at the time that the best way to counter the IS-3 heavy tank was with a heavy tank. Thus, the Americans, French and British set to work creating powerful tanks specifically to tackle the IS-3 and similar, resulting in the M103, AMX-50 and Conqueror, respectively.
The Conqueror wasn’t a completely ground-up new design, it was based on the A45 Universal Tank. The Centurion is often said to have been the first Universal Tank, but this title actually goes to the A45. As the name suggests, universal tanks were designed to do a bit of everything (simply put), rather than being specialised to a certain role.
A45 to FV215
The A45 began life in the later-half of the Second World War as a competitor to the A43 Black Prince (the suped-up Churchill). The A43 was obsolete before it had even began, with some seeing the A41 Centurion (which was also in development at the time) as a more future-proofed design.
Outwardly the A45 was similar to the Centurion, however it was longer, had slightly better armor and had a power take-off unit, which Centurion did not. The most noticeable difference was the suspension, which consisted of 8 smaller steel roadwheels with internal rubber tires. From early in the project it was planned to be armed with a 20-pounder gun.
Both the A45 and Centurion would miss the war. After the war, Britain replaced the “A” designations for their vehicles with FV, for Fighting Vehicle, and a number ranging from FV100 to FV900. The number (100, 200, 300 etc) would signify the class of vehicle, while additional numbers, would signify the exact type of vehicle in that class.
The class based on the A45 was the FV200 series, with the gun tank of that series being designated FV201.
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While the FV201 showed great potential, it was too wide to be easily integrated into Britain’s existing military infrastructure. Another big problem was Centurion. This tank did most of the job of FV201, but was smaller, cheaper and more mobile. Then, when the Centurion was fitted with the 20-pounder, the FV201 was essentially made redundant.
The final nail in the coffin for the FV201 came in 1949, when in a meeting with the UK, the US pushed for a standardised system of light, medium and heavy tanks, armed with 76 mm, 90 mm and 120 mm guns respectively. The 76 mm and 90 mm standardisations were rejected, but Britain did agree with a 120 mm-armed heavy tank.
This vehicle was to be created from FV201, saving a lot of development hassle. FV201 was converted into a 120 mm-armed heavy tank and given the designation Tank, Heavy No. 1, 120 mm Gun, FV214, better known as Conqueror.
This conversion saw the FV201’s power take-off removed, the hull shortened, a crew member removed and extra armor added. The 120 mm gun was based on the T53 going into the US’ M103 (known then as the T43).
While the Conqueror’s turret was being developed, the hull was fitted with a Centurion Mk III turret for testing, resulting in the FV221 Caernarvon.
Britain was fearful that they would be dragged into war with the USSR before the Conqueror was ready, so to get the all-important 120 mm gun into service quicker, an ad-hoc vehicle was made based on the already-serving Centurion.
The 120 mm was mounted into a simple, boxy turret and placed onto a Centurion hull, resulting in the FV4004 Conway. If war did kick off, the FV4004 Conway would ensure Britain had 120 mm guns at the front until Conqueror arrived.
That is a lot of tanks, so to recap:
- The project began in 1944 with the A45.
- The A45 was renamed to FV201 after the Second World War ended.
- FV201 is cancelled in 1949, and the hulls used as the basis for the FV214 Conqueror.
- To test the FV214 chassis, it is fitted with Centurion turrets and named FV221 Caernarvon.
- The Conqueror’s 120 mm gun was mounted in a large turret on a Centurion, as a stop gap until the Conqueror arrived. This was the FV4004 Conway.
Yet despite all that, we still aren’t done. Britain wanted a tank gun that could penetrate 152 mm (6 inch) of armor angled at 60 degrees from a range of 2,000 yards. Although it was one of the most powerful tank-mounted weapons in the world at the time, some feared that the 120 mm wouldn’t be able to punch holes in the newer Soviet tanks.
Enter the FV215.
FV215 was created to absolutely, positively, definitely be able to kill anything the Soviets could field.
It would turn out that Allied intelligence had overestimated the IS-3’s armor and was not aware that the Conqueror’s 120 mm was enough, but of course this wasn’t known at the time so the FV215 went ahead. There was debate over whether it would use missiles or conventional guns, but in the end a conventional gun tank was chosen.
The armament was to be a massive 180 mm gun firing HESH (high-explosive squash head) ammunition.
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This gun was to be mounted on the FV200 chassis, with either a Meteor-derived or gas turbine engine providing power. Many layouts were investigated, but in the end designers settled on a heavily armored, rear mounted, fully traversable turret.
As this vehicle would take some time to develop, a simpler, more lightly armored tank with the 180 mm gun that could enter service quicker was also requested. This resulted in the Centurion-based FV4005.
Meanwhile on FV215, the design was mostly complete by summer 1954, with an order for two prototypes being placed. This vehicle was named Tank, Heavy No. 2, 183 mm Gun, FV215.
The 180 mm gun was dropped, with designers instead opting to modify the pre-existing BL 7.2 inch (182.9 mm) field gun for use inside a tank. One of the most notable additions was a large fume extractor mid-way down the barrel.
This new tank gun was named the Ordnance, Quick-Firing, 183 mm, Tank, L4 Gun and was to fire the L1 183mm HESH round weighing in at just under of 200 lbs. No armor-piercing or high-explosive anti-tank rounds were made for this gun, it was to fire HESH only.
The FV215 came in at 61 tons and was a big, heavily armored vehicle. Three drawings were made by Vickers, and although they have been lost to time they were recorded as a front-mounted, center-mounted, and rear-mounted layout with a fully rotating turret. The last of these was chosen as it provided the best overall balance and travel arrangement. A full-size wooden mock-up was then built.
The tank was to have a 5-man crew with the commander on the turret left, the gunner to his right, two loaders in the rear and the driver situated to the front. The engine was located in the middle of the hull, between the turret and the driver. The suspension was the same as on FV214.
The large turret was originally quite boxy in design with welded plates and a large hatch to the rear – possibly for open firing – however this disappeared on the full-size mock-up. Mounted on a large 2.4-meter wide turret ring, it featured 254 mm of well angled and shaped armor, which would have been cast on the front and welded in place.
On the turret roof was a 6-foot wide coincidence rangefinder for use by the gunner. The commander was provided with a large rotating cupola. Secondary protection was provided by a 0.50 caliber Browning machine gun on the roof, a coaxial .30 caliber machine gun, and two banks of smoke dischargers fitted on either side of the turret.
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The 183 mm L4 gun weighed some 10 tons and could depress/elevate -7/+15 degrees. Unlike World of Tanks’ portrayal, the turret could rotate 360-degrees and the gun could fire at any point on this arc – although this was not advised when on an angle or slope due to stability issues.
Power was to be provided by an 810 hp Rover Meteor M120 V12 engine, a variant of the Rolls-Royce Meteor that was also used in the Conqueror.
Power was then delivered via a Merritt-Brown Z5R gearbox, providing 2 reverse and 5 forward gears, with a top speed of 20 mph (32 km/h). As with the Conqueror, a small 4-cylinder petrol engine was provided to drive a generator that would supply the vehicle with electrical power, with or without the main engine running.
The tank looked promising, but toward the end of the 1950s the project was no longer as necessary as it once was, for a number of reasons. The IS-3 was now known to not be the threat the Allies thought it would be, nor was it made in enough numbers to be a real problem.
In addition, advances in other technologies, such as missiles, which were more accurate and had longer range, had made the job of an old school big gun redundant.
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The FV215 project was cancelled in 1957, with only a mock-up and a few parts being built.