Crocodile

The Crocodile was a British tank based on the Churchill Mk. VII, and modified to incorporate a flamethrower in the hull, replacing the bow machinegun. The vehicles were used by the British 79th Armoured Division in North-West Europe during the Second World War. They were tasked to different formations of 21st Army Group as needed, including Canadian units on occasion.

The vehicle towed an armoured trailer with 400 Imperial gallons of fuel. The flamethrower had a range of over 120 yards.

History

British research into flame tanks dated back to 1938, though the first prototypes were not produced until 1942. Three Churchill Oke conversions were ready for Dieppe, but they proved unsuitable for consideration for mass production. A reluctant acceptance of the need for a fuel trailer led to the conceptual basis for the Crocodile. A trailer had been produced for a flamethrowing Valentine variant and in early 1943, the first Churchill tanks underwent conversion to Crocodile configuration.

Six Churchill IV tanks were fitted with lightly armoured trailers which included projector mechanism, tanks and gas bottles. The trailer had a sophisticated hitch assembly, which had to be able to transfer fuel from the trailer to the actual projector nozzle fitted in the bow of the tank, replacing the Besa machinegun there. The trailer did not hinder mobility to a great degree, and a rush order for 250 production models was placed in Aug 1943, based on the Churchill VII.

The trailer was connected to the tank by a link unit which acted both as a towing connection and as a flexible pipeline for the flame fluid. If the trailer was hit by enemy fire or otherwise damaged, the link could be severed by a quick-release device and the trailer dropped, after which the tank could continue in action as a normal combat tank.1

The Crocodile carried a standard 75mm gun-armed turret. The Churchill was more heavily armoured than the Sherman used by armoured regiments, though the top speed was much less.
Employment

By the time of the D-Day landing in Normandy, only a handful of tanks were available, and plans to equip all Churchill-equipped British army tank brigades with a proportion of Crocodiles (in the same manner as Fireflies were distributed among Sherman-equipped armoured regiments) were changed. The Crocodiles were eventually issued to special purpose regiments; in Normandy this was the 141st Regiment (The Buffs), Royal Armoured Corps. Just three vehicles landing on D-Day itself.

The Crocodile was not faultless: it was prone to gas and fuel leakages, needing careful control and filling-up of the bottles before each action...the trailer proved vulnerable...when directly hit (and) Crocodiles also brewed up when hit near the flame nozzle itself, on the hull front. But it was a terrifying, formidable and effective weapon: vehicles, tanks, buildings, bunkers were all vulnerable to its flaming jets, and the soldiers' death was dreadful. It was therefore an important means of dissuasion and persuasion, and many surrenders occurred after a simple demonstration of the Crocodile's firepower. On the other hand, the vehicle was hated by the enemy and with experience the Germans took them as primary targets, especially trying to hit the trailer. It has also been reported that Crocodile crews were executed on the spot after their capture, with at least one confirmed occurrence: that of Lieutenant Harvey and his men, from "A" Squadron, The Buffs on the Caen-Tilly-sur-Seulles road in mid-July 1944.2

The 141st Regiment was moved to the British 79th Armoured Division (a formation devoted to specialized armour including engineering vehicles such as bridge layers, AVsRE, and mineclearing vehicles as well as eventually including the APCs of 1st Canadian Armoured Carrier Regiment) and was later joined by two more Crocodile regiments (the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment). Crocodiles were also used in Italy by the 51st Battalion, RTR. A troop was composed of four vehicles, later changed to three in some units. In all, about 800 sets of flame equipment were produced to convert Churchills into Crocodiles, but not all were employed in combat.

Notes

  1. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of 20th Century Weapons and Warfare (Purnell & Sons Ltd., New York, NY, 1969) p.654

  2. Fortin, Ludovic British Tanks in Normandy (Histoire & Collections, France, 2005) ISBN 2915239339

 


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