The beloved Bob Semple tank usually tops the lists of the worst tanks, but the A38 Valiant may actually be the single worst tank ever built. The Bob Semple was crude, but it didn’t actively try to harm its crew like the Valiant did.
The Valiant was a British tank and an example of the country’s frustrating struggle to build good tanks during WWII.
A lack of funding and focus on tanks before the war had limited Britain’s ability to get capable fighting vehicles to the frontlines. Many of their vehicles were underpowered, under armored or under gunned – some were all three at once.
This loosing 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 designs.
However, before that point, Britain had a long list of rather ineffective tanks. The A38 Valiant is perhaps the worst of them all.
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.
Vickers burrowed some features from its other vehicles – namely the Valentine – but it was mostly a whole new design.
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 light 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 point the vehicle showed some promise.
However just a few months into the project Vickers chose to hand the assault tank project over to another company so it could focus on more pressing matters.
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.
It was from here that the Valiant project went downhill.
The design was modified by different companies and finalised by one that had never designed such a vehicle.
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, probably to increase internal space for the driver.
This superstructure was still thick, but it 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.
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.
Rounds hitting this area of the turret had a high chance of being deflected downwards into the tank’s thin roof armor.
The Valiant’s 210 hp diesel engine and transmission were located at the rear of the tank and gave it a top speed of just 12 mph. When it was still in blueprints designers increased the armor around the engine compartment.
They did this by simply adding armor plating onto the belly of the tank. While this did increase protection, it caused an imbalance of weight towards the rear.
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 armor 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. Furthermore, each unit had its 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 trials until 1945. By this time the tank was beyond obsolete, but as mentioned, its suspension was still a point of interest.
The true extent of the Valiant’s flawed design was found during its trials. The trials 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.
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 leaver.
With an exhausted driver at risk of injury, the officer in charge called an end to the trials before they had even properly began and recommended that the tank be abandoned.
There were many other issues too, mostly related to the vehicles underpowered drivetrain and a lack of access for maintenance.
Thankfully, the Valiant project was cancelled shortly after.
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The vehicle was sent to the School of Tank Technology, where it was used as an example for students to learn how not to design a tank. The Valiant was transferred to The Tank Museum, Bovington in the 1950s, where it can still be seen today.