The A13 Mk III Cruiser Tank Mk V Covenanter was the worst British tank of the Second World War, and due to chronic unreliability was never used in combat despite being produced in large numbers.
The London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company first became involved in tank design with the Cruiser Tank A14. This tank was designed by the Chief Superintendent of Tank Design but developed and built by the LMS. The prototype was ready by the summer of 1939. It turned out to be several tons heavier than expected, over-complicated and unreliable. Nuffield's A16 was also judged to be unsatisfactory, and in 1939 both organisations were asked to work on new tanks based on the A13. Nuffield produced the A15 Crusader while the LMS came up with the A13 Mk III Cruiser Tank Mk V Covenanter.
The Covenanter certainly looked the part. Just about every surface on the tank was sloped at an angle, giving it a sleek appearance, while the four large road wheels of the Christie suspension gave an impression of speed. The three man turret was a new design but resembled that on the A13 Mk II Cruiser Tank Mk II, with V-shaped sides giving it a diamond profile from the front. The first prototype used a Wilson transmission and steering system, but the second prototype and every tank that followed had Wilson epicyclic steering bolted directly onto the output shafts and a Meadows crash gearbox.
The weight of the tank kept going up during the design process. First the General Staff decided they wanted 40mm armour instead of the 30mm originally asked for. Next the aluminium road wheels had to be changed to heavier steel because all available aluminium was needed for aircraft. Finally the LMS wanted to use riveted construction instead of welding because they didn't trust the strength of a welded tank. All of these changes meant that the tank was already at the maximum weight its suspension could handle and there was thus no capacity to increase armour or firepower later. The prototype demonstrated that the air-assisted steering was too responsive, making it hard to go in a straight line, while the original gearbox also needed to be redesigned.
The main cause of the Covenanter's problems was its purpose-built Meadows Flat-12 engine. This was a perfectly good engine in its own right, but because it was flat it was also wide, and this mean that the cooling radiators didn't fit at the back of the tank. Instead they had to be mounted at the front of the tank. The driver was at the front-right of the tank, with the radiators to his left. The radiators rarely worked properly, and the oil cooler was no better.
Despite the tank's obvious flaws orders were placed for 2,000. Production was split between the LMS at Crewe, English Electric at Stafford and Leyland at Kingston. The first production tanks began to appear after Dunkirk, and it was this timing that lead to it being kept in production. In June 1940 the BEF returned from France with six light and seven cruiser tanks, having lost 691 tanks in France. There were only 340 reasonably modern tanks and armoured cars in Britain. The German army was waiting on the far side of the channel, and an invasion seemed inevitable. There were a limited number of new tanks available for production – the Valentine and Churchill infantry tanks, the Covenanter and Crusader cruiser tanks and the Tetrarch light tank. The next generation of cruiser tanks weren't close tobeing ready for production until 1942. The Tetrarch was a light tank, the Valentine a private venture and neither the Churchill nor the Crusader were that reliable when they first appeared. In the desperate situation Britain was in in the summer of 1940 even the time needed to move individual factories from production of the Covenanter to production of a different unproved tank might have proved fatal.
Churchill had to choose between continuing to produce the existing designs or disrupting production in an attempt to develop better designs. We now know that there was little danger of a German invasion after the autumn of 1940, but that wasn't obvious at the time. Even the invasion of the Soviet Union didn't end the danger, for the initial German successes were so dramatic that many assumed the Soviets would be defeated by the end of 1941, allowing the Germans to turn west to deal with Britain. It was only with the American entry into the war and the arrival of the first US troops in Britain that Churchill felt secure. In this situation it would have been foolish to cancel production of the Covenanter. By the standards of 1940 it had a good gun and its armour was better than that of existing cruiser tanks. If the Germans had invaded then the Covenanters wouldn't have had to travel far to find their opponents, while their presence in the armoured divisions at least gave an impression of increasing strength.
These comments only apply to the situation in 1940 and 1941. Sadly production didn't just continue in 1942 – it accelerated, with just over half of the total number of Covenanters delivered during that year, by which time they were genuinely no longer needed.
Although the Covenanter never saw combat it did enter service with armoured units serving in Britain, initially as a front line tank to defend against any possible invasion and then as a training tank. This role lasted until 1943. Soon after being withdrawn from the training role most of the Covenanters were scrapped.
Cruiser Mk V Covenanter I
The original version, with 2pdr gun and serious mechanical problems, especially with the cooling.
Cruiser Mk V* Covenanter II
This was the designation given to tanks that had been modified in the field in an attempt to improve the cooling system. Several different methods were used to achieve this, amongst them the removal of the armoured covers for the radiators.
Cruiser Mk V** Covenanter III
The Covenanter III was the designation given to tanks built from new with improved cooling, including vertical air louvres.
The Covenanter IV saw even more changes made in an attempt to improve the engine cooling, including air intakes on the rear deck.
The close support version of the Covenanter was armed with a 3in howitzer in place of the 2pdr gun on the standard tank.
Hull Length: 19ft
Hull Width: 8ft 8in
Height: 7ft 4in
Weight: 18 tons
Engine: 300hp Meadows Flat-12
Max Speed: 31mph (road), 25mph (cross-country)
Max Range: 100 miles road radius
Armament: One 2pdr gun, one .303in machine gun