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New Vanguard 68: Centurion Universal Tank 1943–2003

by Simon Dunstan

Iillustrated by Mike Badrocke & Peter Sarson

Osprey Publishing Ltd.

ISBN 1-84176-387-X

With a 60-year service life the Centurion bids fair to overtake the T-34 as the longest-lived battle tank. In this book Simon Dunstan gives the story of the Cent in a very readable way.

Design work started on 7 October 1943, recognising that earlier British tank designs had failed to meet battlefield needs – either too slow, or unable to carry enough armour and gunpower to survive on a late-war battlefield. This is not to denigrate the Sherman, which was mobile, mechanically reliable and (as the Firefly) capable of knocking out almost any opponent – but couldn’t carry the armour that was felt to be needed.

The new tank was to carry the proven 17 pounder gun and have 3 inches of sloped frontal armour, with an intended weight of 45 tons. The original intention was to mount a 20 mm Polsten cannon beside the main gun, not co-axially but in an independent mounting to be handled by the loader. This would have been useful against unarmoured vehicles, but feeling among crews when their comments were invited was that a normal co-ax machine gun would be more useful and that anyway the loader had quite enough to do in feeding the 17 pounder.

So although some early prototypes carried the Polsten, others had the machine gun and troop trials settled on the latter. The Mark I Centurion carried this armament in a welded turret, with deliveries starting in February 1946. Meanwhile a new 20 pounder gun and a new cast turret had been developed, resulting in the Mark 2. At this point the Centurion had assumed the shape we all recognise, and subsequent changes other than the introduction of the 105 mm gun with the Mark 7 can be hard to recognise in photographs unless you know what to look for. What makes it even more complicated is that the later 20 pounders carried a fume extractor, making them look like the 105 at a quick glance, and that the earlier Marks were upgunned to the new standard. Mr Dunstan talks us through these incremental changes, explaining the differences between Marks very clearly right up to the final Mark 13 and its upgraded stablemates now fitted with infrared gear.

British Army use in the Korean War is dealt with, and so is Israeli use with its associated upgrades. Other users are mentioned, but not covered in such detail. An additional section covers the special-purpose variants – armoured recovery tanks, Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicles, Royal Engineer AVRE tanks, and bridgelayers. As a general guide to the Centurion, its upgrades and variants, this book is invaluable.

The photographs are excellent in showing the changes from Mark to Mark, and include British active service in Korea and the Suez action, Israeli use on the Golan Heights and in Sinai, and even the upgraded Oliphant of the South African Defence Force. The colour plates are just as good, with a fine selection of Marks and markings including the ARV and AVRE. Users shown include the British Army of course, from Germany in 1947 to an AVRE in Iraq in 1991, plus an Australian ARV in Vietnam, 1968, and an Indian army Mark 7 in 1965.

Highly recommended.

Osprey Publishing website, New Vanguard 68 page

John Prigent