Cruiser Tank MK VIII Centaur (A27L)

Next in the Cruiser line was Centaur. As part of their proposals for the, then, A24 project, leyland Motors had suggested using a modified version of the Cavalier chassis, powered by the Rolls-Royce Meteor V12 engine, which was derived from the Merlin aero engine. However supplies were not available because all production was required for aircraft. Consequently the old Liberty V12 engine was fitted instead together with a Merritt-Brown five-speed gearbox. The work was carried out in such a way that the liberty engine could subsequently be replaced by the Meteor with the minimum of re-engineering.
Named Centaur, and designated A27L – to differentiate it from the subsequent Rolls-Royce engined version, which was identified as A27M. Tests showed that the overworked Liberty engine had an even shorter lifespan and was less reliable in the Centaur than it had been in the Crusader. Its basic problem was that the Liberty engine wasn’t powerful enough for the weight of the tank, and as a result struggled to cope. Despite this failure large scale production continued, nearly 950 Centaurs were built, but, once the development work for the Meteor engine had been completed, many were retrofitted with the new engine, and were identified as Cromwell X or, later, as Cromwell III. Others were converted to various roles, including artillery observation post (OP); anti-aircraft tank; dozer; armoured recovery vehicle; and armoured personnel carrier, in all cases, with the turret removed.

The Full range of Centaur variants:

Centaur I
The first production version, armed with the Royal Ordnance QF 6 pounder (57 mm) gun (with 64 rounds of ammunition). It was used only for training. 1,059 produced.

Centaur II
Designation given to a proposed version of the Centaur armed with the 6pdr gun but with 15.5in wide tracks (in place of the 14in wide tracks that were standard) and no hull machine gun. None were built.

Centaur III
The Centaur III was a production version re-armed with the 75mm ROQF Mk V gun in place of the 6-pounder. In 1943, some 223 Mark I s were converted to this standard. Some were given Meteor engines, turning them into Cromwell IVs. Many Centaurs had the front hull gun position plated over but by no means all, though the RM Centaur IVs all seem to have been.

Centaur IV
The Centaur IV was a close-support version, with a 95mm howitzer (with 51 rounds of ammunition) and a more powerful engine.  Experience in the desert showed that the old concept of close-support, with a breech-loading mortar firing only smoke rounds, was antiquated. In 1942 was created a new gun by combining the breech of the 25-pdr with the barrel liner of the 3.7in anti-aircraft gun. The result, known as the 95mm howitzer, proved to be a remarkable weapon. Firing a respectable HE shell it had a maximum range of 6,000 yards; firing High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) rounds it could theoretically penetrate 110mm armour at any range it could reach.
The vehicles were fitted with wading gear to get them ashore. Trunking waterproofed the engine inlets and covers were fitted to the guns. 114 produced.

A Centaur with Type A hull being used to test the new 95mm howitzer (without its counterweight).

The Centaur IV close support tank was used in combat during the D-Day landings. The Royal Marines Assault Regiment had been formed to provide heavy fire support for the Royal Marine Commandos, and was mainly equipped with Centaur IVs. The original plan was for the tanks to operate from the decks of tank landing craft. The engine was removed and no driver was carried. This worked well in tests, but close to D-Day the Marines (with encouragement from Montgomery) decided to re-install the engines, train drivers and prepare to use their tanks inland. Eighty tanks were prepared for this role, although only 48 were landed on the morning of D-Day. The unit remained in combat with its Centaurs until 24 June. The Marines were then withdrawn for a rest while their tanks were probably passed on to the French.

Abandoned on Gold Beach on D-Day, this Centaur of 1st Armoured Support Regiment, Royal Marines, has been selected to display the Deep Wading trunking and the Porpoise reserve ammunition sledge that it towed ashore behind it.

A Centaur Mk IV tank of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group near Tilly-sur-Seulles, Normandy, 13 June 1944.

Centaur Observation Post (OP)
The Centaur OP was an observation tank, with a dummy gun fitted to make room for extra radio equipment in the turret. It was for use by artillery observation officers or as a command post.

Centaur, AA Mk I
Tanks fitted with anti-aircraft guns to provide air defence for armoured formations were not a new idea, but experience in France in 1940 stimulated development and, following experience with Light Tanks, this became a Cruiser Tank role that devolved upon the Crusader. Centaur was regarded as the natural successor and in October 1943 a prototype was inspected. It was similar to the Crusader AA Tank Mark III, but with Polsten cannon replacing the 20mm Oerlikons of the former. Since the turret was cramped, and liable to quite violent movement in action, the wireless set with its operator was installed in the hull. In Crusader the AA turret was powered by the tank’s engine, but the Centaur employed an auxiliary generator located in the nose of the tank with its own exhaust pipe situated on the nearside trackguard.
Centaur AA tanks should have replaced the unreliable Crusaders with the armoured divisions in Europe, but as Allied air superiority was undisputed, by October 1944 the order for Centaur AA tanks Mark I had been cut back from 450 to 100 and its replacement, the Mark II, probably only existed as a single example. Ninety five Centaur AA tanks were produced by converting existing vehicles, all during 1944. Were originally deployed in Normandy, but withdrawn as unnecessary due to Allied air superiority.

Centaur, AA Mk II
The Mark II mounted an enlarged turret that included an extra man, a gunner, sitting alongside the tank commander who now tracked the target for him.

According to contemporary reports Centaurs were due to replace Crusader tanks in the anti-aircraft role in time for the invasion of Europe, but this never happened.
In addition to the gunner/commander the turret contained two loaders who sat in very cramped positions, vulnerable to injury from the rapidly moving guns and the difficulty of handling large ammunition drums in confined spaces. Thus the No. 19 wireless set was located close to the driver and the aerial base may be seen on the glacis plate. Directly behind it is the exhaust pipe for the auxiliary generator, which was also situated close to the driver’s position. Rate of fire per gun was 450 rounds per minute.

Centaur, AA Mk III

There is one report of a Centaur AA Mark III, which also existed in prototype form and featured a new design of turret. All of these improvements went by the board when the AA tank programme was cut back.

Centaur Kangaroo
A Centaur with turret removed to make space for passengers were used as the basis for Kangaroo armoured troop carriers. Few were produced.

Centaur Dozer
A Centaur with the turret removed and given a simple dozer blade operated by a winch. Since the winch passed over the top of the hull it was not possible to retain the turret. One of “Hobart’s Funnies”. 250 produced.

Centaur Armoured Recovery Vehicle (ARV)
The ARV had its turret removed, and an A-frame jib and associated equipment fitted in.

Centaur Gun Tractor

Centaur Taurus 17-pdr Gun Tractor, one of nine converted by MG Cars of Abingdon. The full-length sand guards were designed for Cromwell, but were very rarely seen on gun tanks.