HC Deb 15 December 1942 vol 385 cc1771-5
47. Mr. Stokes

asked the Prime Minister whether he will give the names of the members of the Tank Board at the time of his consultation in the summer of 1940 when the decision to produce the Churchill tank without trial was taken; and which of them had any experience of tanks in action prior to becoming a member of the Board?

The Prime Minister

On account of persistent mischievous attempts to undermine the confidence of the troops in these weapons, which play an important part in the defence of this Island, I propose to make a statement at the end of Questions.


The Prime Minister

On 11th June, 1940, I summoned a meeting at which the following were present:

  • Sir James Grigg, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for War.
  • Major-General L. Carr, Assistant Chief of the Imperial General Staff.
  • Mr. (now Sir R.) Sinclair, Director-General of Army Requirements.
  • Mr. Herbert Morrison, Minister of Supply.
  • Mr. (now Sir P.) Bennett, Director-General of Tanks and Transport, Ministry of Supply.
  • Sir Walter Layton, Director-General of Programmes, Ministry of Supply.
  • Brigadier J. S. Crawford, Director of Mechanization, Ministry of Supply.
The object of the meeting was to consider our tank production programme. We had at that time in the hands of the troops in the United Kingdom less than 100 tanks. These and those under production at the time were of a type which had been proved in battle in France to be too weak to stand up to the German tank guns. Invasion of this country was expected, if not in the autumn of 1940, at any rate in the spring of 1941 or even in 1942. The problem, therefore, was to produce the maximum number of tanks of a sufficiently powerful kind for home defence. As a result of the meeting, I called for a plan which would provide 500 or 600 such tanks if possible by March, 1941; these were to be over and above the existing programme and were not to interfere with it.

The same people met again on 20th June, and considered a specification and preliminary production programme for the new heavy tank. I gave directions that the specification should be considered by the Tank Board, but that in the meanwhile all preparations for production should proceed. The Tank Board consisted at that time of the following:—

  • Sir Alexander Roger (Chairman).
  • Mr. Durrant (Chief Mechanical Engineer (Roads) London Passenger Transport Board, later Director of Tank Design).
  • Mr. Moyses (Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, Limited).
  • Mr. Thompson (Secretary, Union of Shipbuilding and Engineering Draughtsmen).
  • 1773
  • Mr. Geoffrey Burton (Deputy Chairman, Daimler Company, and B.S.A., then newly appointed Director General of Tanks and Transport, Ministry of Supply).
  • Major-General J. S. Crawford (Director of Mechanisation, Ministry of Supply).
  • Major-General Pope (Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles, War Office).
  • Brigadier Pratt (Commander of the First Army Tank Brigade).
Major-General Pope, who was later unhappily killed in the Middle East, had been Senior Royal Armoured Corps Adviser to the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in France, and Brigadier Pratt had commanded the First Army Tank Brigade in France; thus both had up-to-date experience of the conditions of modern war. Action proceeded accordingly.

On 20th July, we met again, Major-General Pope also being present. The Tank Board had approved the specifications subject to certain modifications, and it was agreed to go forward with the utmost rapidity with the production of what became known as the A.22 Tank. The general staff expressed themselves entirely in favour of the project. Work proceeded with the utmost enthusiasm. We could not afford the time to wait to carry out exhaustive trials with pilot models. This would have set us back at least six months; our paramount aim was to get the maximum number we could into the hands of the troops in 1941. The pilot model was running on 12th December, 1940. Production began to flow in May, 1941, and by the autumn 400 were available for battle.

Meanwhile, the German armies had been launched against Russia and the danger of invasion had lessened. The possibility of using the A.22 tank in an overseas offensive role was therefore considered, and modfications were introduced to make the tank more suitable for extended operations abroad. That winter we began re-working these tanks, and large numbers are now in a fit condition for use in the assault of strong positions for which their armour fits them. Reports have been received from the brigades in this country now armed with these tanks which are on the whole strongly favourable. There are between one and two thousand in the hands of troops. They are said to be the best weapons yet received by the units concerned.

It will be seen that this tank was never intended for the fast-moving long-range warfare of the desert. However, a certain number were sent to the Middle East in the autumn of 1941 for trial. It will interest the House to hear that a small number took part in the attack on Rommel's lines at Alamein, and reports show that they gave a good account of themselves, and stood up to very heavy fire.

I am glad to have had this opportunity of informing the House of the history of this tank and of publishing the names of those who took the bold decision to introduce it. No one would go back on that, decision now. The A.22 is naturally surpassed by the latest types, but the production in large numbers in less than a year of an entirely new tank of much heavier pattern than anything we had before and thoroughly capable of going into action in Home Defence is highly creditable to the British engineering industry and to all concerned.

Mr. Stokes

May I ask the Prime Minister whether it is not the fact that His Majesty's Government were aware before the war of the existence of the German Mark IV tank, and why was no counterpart proceeded with earlier; and, secondly, whether a letter from responsible officials in the Ministry of Supply was not sent to the Minister of Supply in May, 1940, saying the Churchill tank would be a failure if it was proceeded with without test?

The Prime Minister

I have nothing to add to the full statement I have made.

Commander Locker-Lampson

The Churchill tank is a great success.

Mr. A. Bevan

In view of the fact that there have been innumerable opportunities for a statement of this sort to be made to the House at a time when it could be debated, when are we to have an end of these pronunciamentos at the end of Questions when we have no chance of debating them?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has been answering a Question which was on the Paper.

Mr. Bevan

The answer, in my submission, goes far beyond the Question on the Paper. Are we to have an opportunity of debating the significance of what the Prime Minister has said?

Mr. Granville

May it not be that it is because this tank is called the Churchill tank that it has received so much publicity, and can the right hon. Gentleman say why it was called the Churchill tank?

The Prime Minister

I had no part in that decision, but I can well believe that the fact that it was called by this particular name afforded a motive to various persons to endeavour to cover it with their slime.

Mr. Stokes

In view of the most unsatisfactory statement by the Prime Minister [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—it is indeed—I wish to give notice that I shall take the earliest opportunity of presenting the true facts to the House on the Adjournment.

Commander Locker-Lampson

Is not the tank very well named and very successful?