Infantry Tank Mark II A-12 (Matilda II)
The Infantry Tank Mark II A-12 (Matilda II) was a vast improvement over the original.
The machine gun was replaced by a two-pounder (40mm) gun. Armor thickness was increased to 3 inches and speed from eight to 15 miles per hour through the installation of two diesel engines.
The one-man turret was retained because the tank's narrow body did not allow a wider turret.
The Mark II's first engagement with Nazi German armored forces occurred south of Arras, France. The 4th Royal Tank Brigade and the 7th Royal Tank Brigade, with the 7th Brigade's Mark IIs evenly distributed between the two brigades and both brigades supported by two reinforced infantry brigades, struck against Erwin Rommel's 7th Panzer Division and the SS Totenkopf Motorized Infantry Division.
The Mark II's armor was proof against the 20mm guns of the Panzerkampfwagen IIs and the Nazi German 37mm antitank guns.
Unfortunately, Rommel was able to order up 88mm and 105mm antiaircraft and artillery guns, and the British attack, which was unsupported, was turned back.
The clash helped convince Adolf Hitler that his Panzer units were dangerously exposed, and he ordered them to halt short of the coast of the English Channel at Dunkirk. The British thus had enough time to build deep defenses that endured until most of the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from the beaches.
Improved versions of the Infantry Tank Mark II A-12 were built. Notable were the Mark IV, which was given a better engine, and the Mark V, which had an upgraded transmission. Modified for desert warfare, they served well in the seesaw North African battles from 1940 to 1943.
Perhaps the most famous of all the British armored units, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment was sent to join the Western Desert Force in September 1940. Italian tanks were no match for the more heavily armored and gunned Mark IIs, and the Italians were forced back across Cyrenaica (modern Libya).
In 1941 the 7th Royal Tank Regiment's old opponent, Erwin Rommel, arrived in North Africa to take charge of the Axis forces. In June 1941 the 7th and the 4th regiments were combined to form the Fourth Armored Brigade. The Mark II's lack of firepower now began to tell.
While it remained superior to Nazi German tanks in one-on-one fighting, Nazi German long-range antitank guns were able to penetrate the Mark II's armor from beyond the range of the Mark II's two-pounder gun.
The 7th Royal Tank Regiment lost its last Mark IIs during the gallant defense of Tobruk in 1942.
The Infantry Tank Mark II A-12 served throughout the Mediterranean with British forces, with Soviet tankers on the eastern front, and in the Far East. But it was not fast enough nor heavily enough gunned and armored to survive after 1943.
The Mark II marked a turning point in British thinking. The concept of the tank as only an infantry support weapon or reconnaissance tool slowly changed to that of a weapon capable of taking on and defeating enemy armor before creating and exploiting breakthroughs.
To learn about Infantry Tank Mark II A-12 specifications, see our final section.