In the 1930s Britain created the Matilda I, a little two-man tank that was around the size of a car yet one of the most heavily armored tanks on the planet.
But while it could withstand hits from most anti-tank weapons available at the time, it had virtually zero offensive capabilities, with its armament consisting of a single .303 machine gun.
Still, it played a major role in the Battle of France, where the Germans found it a tough nut to crack. This would be its first and last taste of combat though, as it was withdrawn from frontline service shortly after.
How did this small British tank find itself in the path of Blitzkrieg?
In September 1939 4th Royal Tank Regiment was sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). With them were 50 Tank Infantry Mark I AIIs – The Matilda I.
As the German Blitzkrieg swept into France in the summer of 1940, the relatively new Matilda I got its first – and last – test in battle.
It proved to be the wrong kind of tank for the wrong kind of war.
In 1939 Britain went to war with what it had rather than what it wanted. In the 1930’s the priority had been economy over military expediency.
Exercises conducted in 1929 implied a need for a slow, heavily armoured tank that could absorb heavy punishment whilst tackling defensive positions.
This presented the choice between a small tank which would be deployed in large numbers to overwhelm the enemy, or a larger cannon mounting vehicle that could withstand field artillery.
The smaller cheaper option (…each tank could cost no more than £5,000) was preferred, although the Army were ultimately presented with the worst of both worlds.
The Matilda I was certainly small, mounting a single Vickers machine gun and requiring a crew of two. With a top speed of 8mph it was also slow but well armoured.
Yet with a total production run of 139 there were never enough of them to deploy in the numbers required to overwhelm the enemy as originally intended.
Those who devised the Matilda I thought that any future war would resemble World War I – an illusion that was violently dispelled by the German Army in May 1940.
Just days before the German attack commenced, 4th RTR were joined by 7th RTR, who brought with them 27 Matilda Is and 23 of the new and far superior Matilda IIs.
The British force left their prepared positions to meet the German attack in Belgium, but the relentless pace of the campaign quickly put the Allies on the back foot.
The British Army fell back to the coast to protect its supply lines, from where the decision was made to evacuate the BEF.
To buy time for the withdrawal, a counterattack was devised to capture high ground Southeast of Arras.
It was to be led by the 4th & 7th RTR, who would test their Matilda Is in a confrontation with Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division.
BATTLE OF ARRAS
The attack began on the 21st May 1940. The hurriedly assembled plans were not fully disseminated to tank crews, whilst other tanks encountered the enemy before they had even reached their start lines.
Despite the confusion, the initial phase of the attack was successful with the Matildas’ encountering large parties of truck-borne infantry, which provided ideal targets for their machine guns.
Their thick frontal armour was able to withstand the standard German 37mm anti-tank gun, but the machine guns had no impact on the enemy Panzers when they finally appeared.
The slow speed of the Matilda I made evasion impossible, and its exposed tracks were a vulnerability.
The attack faltered when the Germans discovered that the 88mm Flak 18 gun could pierce the Matilda’s armour when firing in the anti-tank role.
British losses were heavy. In total, almost 50 tanks were lost in contrast to the dozen lost by the Germans. Many of those that survived were badly damaged.
However, the attack at Arras achieved its objective in stemming the German advance on the coast as the BEF retreated.
General Von Rundstedt later wrote; “A critical moment came as my forces reached the Channel. It was caused by a British counter stroke southwards from Arras… for a short time it was feared that the Panzer divisions would be cut off… none of the French counter attacks carried the threat of this one.”
The Matilda I had played a major role in helping the BEF escape, but its career as a fighting vehicle was over.
RETREAT & RETIREMENT
In the evacuation of France, all the Matilda tanks were left behind along with thousands of tonnes of military hardware and 40,000 soldiers of the BEF.
8th RTR were the only other regiment with a complement of Matilda Is, and they had remained in England in reserve.
For some time after the evacuation, they were the only full-strength Tank Regiment that would have been able to assist in repelling a potential German invasion.
Production of the Matilda I was halted in August 1940 and the stock that remained became instructional vehicles.
Today, The Tank Museum houses the only Matilda I tanks known to exist – one of which has been restored to running order.
One of them was used at Bovington Camp for training. The other was recovered from an army firing range in the northeast of England – a place where many obsolete vehicles have met their demise.
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Both have now been painted to represent the 4th RTR in memory of their bold spoiling action at Arras.