Officially called the Infantry Tank Mark II, the Matilda II was a British tank from the Second World War. Also known as Matilda Senior or Waltzing Matilda, it was famous for the havoc it wreaked among Italian forces in the North African Campaign of 1940.
Although it had limited speed, the Matilda was an excellent infantry support tank. It served from the outset of the World War and continued till the end—the only tank to accomplish this feat.
The first suggestion for the Matilda was made in 1936. It was designated A1 and its design was assigned to Royal Arsenal. After its design, Vulcan Foundry would manufacture it.
Although it was heavier and had far more powerful armor, its mechanical layout was based on the A7, a medium tank that was built in the 1930s in limited numbers.
The first set of Matilda II tanks were produced in 1937. However, only two were in service when the Second World War broke out.
The outbreak of the war forced the British military to order a rapid production of the tanks. By 1943, about 2,987 tanks were delivered by Vulcan Foundry and other companies such as Ruston & Hornsby, John Fowler and Co., North British Locomotive Company, and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Company.
The Matilda had a weight of 27 tons, with space for a four-man crew—the commander, loader, driver, and gunner. It was armed with a 40 mm Ordnance QF 2 Pounder gun in a three-man turret which could traverse through 360 degrees using a hydraulic motor or manual energy. A high explosive shell was designed for the Matilda II, but it was for reasons untold, never implemented. This was one of Matilda’s major weaknesses.
Its secondary armament comprised a 7.92 mm Besa machine gun.
It was powered by 2, AEC straight-six water-cooled diesel engines generating about 87 hp each. Its power-to-weight ratio was 7.5 bhp, and it used a coil spring suspension.
Like other British Infantry tanks, it was heavily armored, with a thickness of 78 mm at the front, 75 mm at the turret, 70 mm at the hull side, and 55 mm at the rear.
The Matilda II was first used in France 1940 by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. Due to its thickness, it was almost impenetrable to German tanks and anti-tank guns at the time.
During the counter-attack of Arras in May 1940, Matilda IIs were briefly effective in keeping the Germans disrupted, but with 88 mm anti-aircraft guns changed for use against tanks, the Germans sufficiently engaged the Matildas with devastating results.
The Matilda II recorded successes in the North-African Campaign. During Operation Compass, it wreaked havoc among Italian forces in Egypt.
The Italian L3 tankettes and M11/39 medium tanks stood no chance against the heavily armored Matilda, which bullied them out of Egypt. It earned the nickname: The Queen of The Desert.
Despite its outstanding armor, the Matilda had its faults. Its low speed was a major problem in the rapid maneuver attack held in the open desert of North Africa. Lack of a high-explosive shell was another hitch.
During Operation Battleaxe, the German Afrikan Korps, although on the defensive, used their 88 mm anti-aircraft gun along with the 50mm Pak 38 and 75mm Pak 40 anti-tank guns against the Matildas, and again, they inflicted heavy losses on the British tanks. 64 Matildas were lost. Seized Matildas were used by the Germans in subsequent fights.
However, the Matilda II was very crucial in the break out from Tobruk and the seizure of the Axis fortress of Bardia.
The arrival of a faster tank, the Valentine saw the beginning of the end of Matilda’s era.
Before its retirement, the Matilda II fought some minor battles namely: the Battle of Keren, and the German Invasion, and was used by other nations such as Australia, the Soviet Union, and Egypt, in several variants.