The beloved Bob Semple tank usually tops the lists of the worst tanks, but was the A38 Valiant really as bad as its made out to be? As an experimental vehicle that never saw service, perhaps it is unfair to give it the title of “the worst tank ever built”.
The Valiant was a British tank and an example of the country’s frustrating struggle to build good tanks during WWII.
A lack of focus and direction on tanks before the war had limited Britain’s ability to get capable fighting vehicles to the frontlines. Many British vehicles that served during the war were underpowered, under-armored or under-gunned – some were all three at once.
Fortunately, this losing streak came to an end in 1945 with the Centurion, a vehicle that is widely considered to be one of the greatest pieces of tank design ever.
Before getting to that point though, Britain experimented with a number of weird, ugly, cool and interesting vehicles; one of which is the A38 Valiant.
Research into what would become the Valiant began in 1942 when the British government awarded Vickers Armstrong a contract to design a new assault tank.
Assault tanks were designed to attack heavily fortified enemy positions. This task required them to be heavily armored to survive the onslaught of enemy fire that would likely come their way.
Powerful guns were useful too, but speed was much less of a priority.
The requirements given to Vickers detailed a vehicle that was small yet heavily armored. As with other assault tanks, its speed was not critical to its success.
Instead of starting completely from scratch, Vickers burrowed some features from its other vehicles, namely the Vanguard. The Vanguard was a Vickers project that nearly replaced the Valentine, but due to the delays and inteferances that would have been involved with this switch, the Valentine was retained.
Still, the Vanguard would serve as the basepoint for what would become the Valiant. In fact, for a while, the project retained the name Vanguard for the new vehicle.
In these early stages Vickers drafted a vehicle that was armed with the British 6 pounder, a gun that was capable against armor and infantry. It was to be covered by thick armor all over.
They also proposed a pre-angled glacis, which is more commonly known as a “pike nose”. This was an advanced feature for the time and one not seen on a large scale until the Soviet IS-3 in 1945.
To keep a vehicle with such thick armor at such a low weight required some compromises, and this was mostly done with the tank’s physical size. Vickers planned for it to have a two-man turret to keep its size down.
At this stage, the project showed some promise.
However just a few months into the project Vickers chose to hand the assault tank project over to Rolls-Royce in Belper so it could focus on more pressing matters. During its time at Rolls-Royce it was given the name Valiant.
Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon took over development for a while and made some changes to the design. Then, two months later, the project in its entirety was transferred to Ruston and Hornsby (R&H). This company was experienced in heavy industry, but had not designed a tank before.
A single prototype was constructed in 1944. It carried a 75 mm gun and very thick armor. As it was a prototype it was built from mild steel and lacked many internal fittings.
By this point it was clear that the Valiant wouldn’t see service, but work continued (albeit at a very slow rate) to evaluate some of its more unique features, in particular its suspension.
As an assault tank the Valiant was very well protected.
It had 114 mm of steel on the front, 100 mm on the sides and 76 mm on the rear. This little tank had more armor than the mighty German Tiger, but weighed less than 30 tons.
The tank retained its pike nose as originally specified by Vickers, but R&H added a large superstructure on top of it for unknown reasons, although it was likely to increase internal space for the driver.
This superstructure was completely flat and became a serious weak spot directly in front of the driver.
The turret was changed from the original specification too; it now contained three men and as a result was much larger. There was also an attempt to increase gun depression to as much as -15 degrees, which is quite an incredible amount.
This new turret was too wide to fit into the original turret ring, so bulges in the sides of the hull were introduced to make space for a larger turret ring.
Despite its thick armor, the Valiant’s curved turret face was a significant design flaw, as rounds hitting this area of the turret had a high chance of being deflected downwards into the tank’s thin roof armor.
The Valiant could have received a few different engines. One of these (and the one that was actually fitted) was a 210 hp 6-71 diesel engine from General Motors. This was the engine that made up the 6046 twin-diesel in the M4A2 Sherman.
Another engine that could have gone in the Valiant was a 400 hp V8 Meteorite engine. As indicated by the name, this engine was a V8 derived from the V12 Meteor, and if fitted, would have had the power to give the Valiant good mobility. The engine and a 5-speed synchromesh gearbox were located at the rear of the tank. The tested top speed was 16 mph.
When it was still in blueprints designers simulated increasing the armor around the engine compartment by adding an additional mild steel plate below the hull floor. This was done according to new up-armouring requirements.
As a result, the belly of the tank now had a large lip due to the extra plate extending down.
The rear of the tank sat lower than the front- partly because of the extra weight and partly because this area hung lower. The rear ground clearance was abysmal at just 9 inches (23 cm).
To make this worse, the ledge produced by the extra plates would have gotten caught on rough terrain.
The tank’s suspension was something of interest at the time, and was one of the sole reasons the project lasted for as long as it did. The Valiant used a double wishbone suspension setup similar to the type sometimes found on cars.
It had proven to be a good system on lighter vehicles, but the Valiant pushed it to its limits. Each unit had its own lubricating lines to keep them functioning properly. However, these were literally stuck on the units and exposed to the environment.
The single Valiant built in 1944 didn’t undergo testing until 1945. By this time the tank was obsolete and there were no serious plans to introduce it into service, but its suspension was still a point of interest so the project kept going.
The true extent of the Valiant’s flawed design was found during its trial. The trial were so bad that they inadvertently propelled the Valiant to fame for all the wrong reasons.
The tank arrived at the Fighting Vehicle Proving Establishment at Chertsey, Surrey in May 1945. The vehicle was inspected, with the team noting it was overweight and had worryingly low ground clearance. It then headed for cross-country trials, but these didn’t take place as the Valiant was unable to make it there safely.
The trials were cancelled after just 13 miles of driving on paved roads because the driver was fatigued and at risk of injury.
The tank required every ounce of the driver’s strength to control. This was in part due to inadequate controls for a tank of its weight, having its origins in the much lighter Vanguard.
The weight of the steering clutches meant the tillers were far too heavy for practical use. Due to the poor ergonomics in the pike nose, the driver had to operate the foot brake with his heel.
It was said that if his foot slipped it would get irretrievably stuck between the peddles.
Changing gear was a nightmare too, as when in first gear the gear stick would get wedged up against the tank’s hull and had to be dislodged with a crowbar.
Fifth gear popped out with tremendous force and could break the driver’s wrist against the steering lever, although this was a problem found on the Valentine too.
With an exhausted driver at risk of injury, the officer in charge called an end to the trials before they had even properly begun and recommended that the tank be abandoned.
There were many other issues too, mostly related to the vehicle’s underpowered drivetrain and a lack of access for maintenance.
Thankfully, the Valiant project was cancelled shortly after.
It is often said that the vehicle was sent to the School of Tank Technology after the war, where it was then used as an example for students to learn how not to design a tank. However, while it was indeed at the school, there is no official evidence of the Valiant being used for this purpose.
Ultimately, the design itself was flawed, but this is not as bad as it seems, as the Valiant was essentially a Guinea pig for ideas and concepts. To call it the “worst tank ever” implies that it was finished and presented as a tank ready for trials, which it was not. The very purpose of these tests was to root out problems which could then be fixed.
A truly bad tank is one that makes it though all these processes and reaches combat, only to have a lot of issues and get people killed. The Churchill, upon entering service, had a life of just 50 miles and over 100 serious faults, while the Cromwell entered service with poor armor, a weak gun and hatches you could not escape from. These are far more serious design flaws as they killed their crews.
So was it the worst tank ever designed? No. Was the concept obsolete by 1944? Yes. Did it have a much more exciting and interesting origin story than depicted? Certainly.
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The Valiant was transferred to The Tank Museum, Bovington in the 1950s, where it can still be seen today.