THE CENTURION AND ME
Neil Hill relates the first installment of his experiences of seven years of training on, commanding, and a love/hate relationship with the Centurion Tank in the Canadian Army.
Other than in a movie (my favourite is "They Were Not Divided") I had never seen a tank when I enrolled in the Regular Officer Training Plan (ROTP) as a student at Queen's University at Kingston Ontario, in September 1957. Thinking back on it, I cannot imagine why I asked for allocation to the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps (RCAC) since enrolment in ROTP in those days was almost always done in the spring and summer for a Fall academic start, and I enrolled after my arrival at the university. The system took a very long time to "process" me, but I was finally accepted by April of 1958 and received my first army pay. It was a whopping $530.00; all in ten dollar bills! I was impressed, although most of it was reimbursement for tuition fees I had already paid, books, a living allowance, and back pay, which was $53.00 a month.
The first summer was essentially "grunt" training at the RCAC (School), Camp Borden Ontario in a combined troop with COTC candidates. It certainly convinced me I had made the right decision not to ask for Infantry. Although I got to see my first tank that summer, I wasn't allowed into one. At that time the Militia was equipped with the M4A3E8A1 Sherman, while the Regulars used Centurion. Also that summer, there were one or two M41 Walker Bulldogs around the School, together with a number of Staghound armoured cars that were being brought in from various Militia units. We were told both vehicles were to be used in equipment trials for the formation of a divisional reconnaissance regiment. When I left the Forces in 1994 at retirement, Canada still had not acquired specialized equipment for a divisional reconnaissance regiment.
My training on the Centurion began in the summer of '59. The syllabus for Officer Cadets at the time provided for roughly 3 weeks communications, 3 weeks driving/maintenance and 3 weeks gunnery training.
"Communications" covered the duties of the "loader/operator" who loaded the main weapon (then the 20 pdr/84mm gun), loaded and maintained the co-axially mounted .30 cal Browning machine gun, and operated the tanks radio set(s). The ANPRC 510 set was a man-pack for patrol, sentry, observation post work etc, and a second set when needed for the tank to operate on a second radio net, such as when working with the infantry. The main tank radio was the No 19 set of WW2 vintage. Many of ours had been manufactured for supply to the Chinese and still had Chinese characters on the dials. It was a fairly effective set with a realistic range of about 5 miles by day. At night, courtesy of a variety of atmospheric phenomena, one could regularly get a C & W AM station out of Wheeling, West Virginia. It also provided the inter-com for the crew, although a sound-powered Tannoy system was also available.. Other than the operation of the set, one learned "voice procedure" and simple codes. Training on the Browning involved the ever-popular stripping & assembling, clearing jams and of course cleaning and adjustment.
"Driving & Maintenance" was basically just that: learning to drive the Centurion and to do daily maintenance. This of course was a condensed version of the training given to trade Driver/, Mechanic,Track troopers. Centurion had a 5 speed standard transmission with 2 reverse gears. The lowest forward and reverse gears were only used for starting off in difficult terrain such as on a very steep hill etc. Otherwise, 4 forward gears and "high reverse" were the norm. The gear shift lever was between the driver's legs which took some getting used to.
The pedals were arranged conventionally with the clutch on the left, with the brake and accelerator pedals to the right. The gearshift lever is located in the centre and the steering levers are visible on either side of the seat. The parking brake is positioned to the right of the righthand steering lever. The large guages in the instrument cluster are, from the left; the speedometer and to the right is the tachometer. The smaller oil pressure and engine temperature guages are above them.
One looked primarily to the tachometer to know when to shift. The engine had a mechanical governor that cut out ignition at maximum desirable rpms. If a driver over-revved above 2100 rpm, the ignition would cut out, but fuel would continue to be drawn into the cylinders resulting in violent back-firing with foot long flames eminating from the mufflers often resulting in damage thereto: a sure sign to a driving instructor that you weren't watching those revs! Another engine "quirk" was that if the engine were allowed to idle for more than a few minutes, it would emit a large cloud of white exhaust smoke when revved up as when moving off; a sure give-away of position to a watching enemy. Maintaining high revs would eliminate that problem, but that was hard on gas consumption and not encouraged in training. Keep in mind the Centurion got about 1 mile for every 3 gallons of gas used, and until the later addition of an auxiliary fuel tank (only in Germany), carried just 10 gals.
Automotively, Centurion was typical, to me at least as an unhappy owner of a MG car, of British automotives. Over-sensitive, over-engineered, over-complicated, under-powered and impractical. Just to check the oil in the Morris auxiliary generator engine meant opening 3 engine compartment doors in a non-sequential manner requiring traversing the turret. The engine was the 625 bhp Rolls Royce Meteor which was essentially a "detuned" Merlin of Spitfire fame. The complex (Horstmann) suspension, using a combination of springs and hydraulics while complex, was very good. It has been specifically engineered to level out cross country travel to work in conjunction with the gun stabilization features. Incredible to me was how much the all steel tracks "stretched". After all these years, I may be off a digit or two, but it is my recollection that a newly issued track had about 110 pads. In use the track would have to be tightened almost daily via a large nut at the front idler wheels. There was a limit to the amount of travel the nut had and once this was reached, a track pad would have to be removed and the track re-joined to reduce any further slack. Again by my recollection, a track was replaced when it was reduced to 102 pads and still required tensioning. Considering that each pad was about 8 inches across, you can see why I was impressed!
If the ground was rocky, as it was at the Meaford training centre, road wheels rapidly shed their bonded on solid rubber tires. Typically, one or two would have to be replaced after a full days running in such country. Road wheels were mounted in pairs. SOP when the outside road wheel was damaged, was to take off both wheels, place the new one on the inside and the existing inside one on the outside of the pair. I was never certain why this was done unless it was because "in action" it was likely that the most "used" wheel would need to be replaced first and it would be speedier to just to whip off the outer one and replace it rather than have to do the inner. To change a road wheel required jacking up its suspension arm which was under considerable tension. This was necessary so that the inner road wheel could clear the vertical "teeth" on the track pads. The "rules" provided a small hydraulic jack that had to be manouvered under the hull, behind the road wheels, and under the suspension arm and then "pumped up" by some lucky lad lying in the mud under the tank. Reality provided what the old soldiers called the "torpedo". It was a sturdy length of solid steel bar about 2 feet long, and 3 inches diameter, "sharpened" at one end with an up-turned bar (the "hook") welded on about 2/3 of the length from the "point". The "point" was fitted into the concave inner face of the track pad adjacent to the suspension arm to be raised, and the "hook" slipped under the arm. With engine started, the tank would be moved ahead/back very, VERY carefully. The bar would move towards the vertical and the suspension arm would be forced up by the "hook". This cut replacement time and effort immensely but was considered officially unsafe and its use was never taught nor provided for officially. During Borden/Meaford training, one of the Senior NCO instructors usually kept a "torpedo" in his vehicle. At the regiment one was available from the RCEME LAD. Fortunately, neither Camp Petawawa nor Germany had this kind of rocky ground and in the 4 years or so I actually spent around Centurion on regimental duties, I think I only had to change one or two road wheels, and I saw few others done..
Crew commander's "official" commands to drivers, were supposedly always pre-fixed with "Driver" and are as follows:
"Prepare to Start"
Driver would, if the engine was not "hot", pull out the hand choke, and either engage "neutral" or depress the clutch pedal.
Driver presses "start" switch
"Prepare to Advance"
Driver depresses clutch, engages appropriate gear and releases hand brake.
Away we go.
Driver turns by pulling on steering lever. The command could be prefixed with "hard"/"easy", or replaced with "go left at the corner" etc. for a trained driver.
"Prepare to Halt"
Driver would slow down and prepare to apply the brake pedal.
Done. A considerate commander would try to indicate how long a halt so the driver would know whether to keep in gear (very hard on the left, clutch leg muscles as that pedal had a very heavy spring) or engage neutral and perhaps apply the hand brake.
"Prepare to Reverse/Reverse"
Like "advance" but in other direction. Once moving in Reverse, there was a real potential for a miscue. If the commander turned around to watch where he was going, he had to remember that "left" as he faced the rear, was really the driver's "right" steering lever. A fair amount of working together by the commander and driver was required to "get it together".
"Neutral Turn (left or right)"
Centurion was steered not by brakes on the final drives/tracks, like the Sherman and many other tanks of the time, but by braking the transmission. When the right steering lever was pulled, it not only caused a slowing of the drive to the right track, but a corresponding speeding up of the left track. This would be accentuated by increasing engine revs. One unique attribute of this system was the ability to execute a "neutral turn". For example, by putting the transmission in neutral, and pulling the right steering lever while revving the engine, the tank would literally pivot at the mid- point of the right track. Usually this manoeuvre was only used from a stationery position on a hard surface, but skilled drivers could do a neutral turn on the move, at a fairly low speed. The result was really quite spectacular as the beast would appear to almost instantly shoot off at a right angle. Of course it was even more spectacular if the ground was a bit soft as vast amounts of dirt/paving/cobble stones would fly, and one or both the tracks would shed.
"Advance tactically (more usually "make your own way") to..." (a designated feature such as tree line, ridge, etc" )
Although not part of basic driving syllabus, once in an operational crew, drivers were coached by commanders to move tactically. That is to take maximum advantage of ground features to avoid being seen or shot at. Most learned fairly quickly (if being actually shot at, I'm sure they learned faster). A good driver who could do this was a boon as it allowed the commander to concentrate on other things like orders to the gunner and commanding other tanks in troop, etc.
"Driver - prepare to advance under control of the Gunner. Gunner - take over."
The Gunner would give the command to slow and halt. This was done when the tank was moving up to, say, a crest line and the intent was to go no further than necessary to allow the gunner to engage the target. He looked through his sight and would give a "halt" order to the driver. See also "Check crest clearance" under the "gunnery" section.
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© Chris Johnson, 1997