Wildly considered to be one of the most successful post World War Two tank designs, the Centurion proved it’s worth over and over again being on the front lines for over thirty years. Having served in basically all main engagements up until the 1980’s from Korea and Vietnam to the Middle Eastern and South African conflicts, the Centurion is one of the most battle hardened tanks of the past era.
Work on the design of the Centurion started during the Second World War in 1943, with the specific goal to create a heavy cruiser tank that could withstand a direct hit from the much feared German 88mm guns, and yet be as maneuverable as the Comet. The tests showed the potential of the design already early on, even outperforming the Comet in places, and thus production began in 1945, with the tank entering service in 1946.
During its extremely long life cycle (the tank being in service even today in some countries, although in a heavily modified state) the Centurion underwent a series of modifications and upgrades, creating 13 production marks and a huge number of variants. The original Mark I Centurion (which only did see a handful of produced units) used a 17 pounder gun, replaced soon by a 20 pounder as of Mark 3 and finally a 105mm as of production version Mark 5.
The Centurion was not only the main battle tank of the British army in the post war era, but with over 4400 units built it was also a highly successful export product. Many of the foreign operators did extensively upgrade / rebuild it to fit their needs, creating new variants of it. Most notably are the Sho’t variant used by Israel, the Olifant in service with South Africa and the Stridsvagn by the Swedish Army.
The Centurion first did see action during the Korean War as part of the British Army in 1950. The tank performed well, having played a crucial role during the Battle of the Imjin River and also during the Battle of the Hook, even if it was put to the test by extreme conditions. The sub zero temperatures meant that the tanks had to be parked on straw to prevent the tracks from simply freezing to the ground, and the engines had to be started every half an hour with all gears being engaged to prevent them freezing in place too.
It’s next major engagement was during the Indo-Pakistani Wars in 1965, when India deployed Centurion Mk 7-s against Pakistani M47 and M48 Pattons. The Centurion proved to be more than a match to their American counterparts, though both sides were capable of destroying each other. In 1967 Centurions were deployed by both Israel and Jordan during the Six Day War, when Israel finished the war with more tanks then they started with, as they captured most of Jordan’s Centurions in a decisive strike.
As from 1968 Centurions were also used in the Vietnam War by the Australian Forces, and the tank did not disappoint once again. Their most notable performance was during the Battle of Coral-Balmoral, when they helped greatly in destroying two enemy infantry regiments. During the long years of jungle warfare 42 out of 58 Centurions suffered battle damage, most of them could be repaired however. In order to adjust to the extreme conditions, the side skirts had to be removed to prevent vegetation and mud building up around the tracks as they moved through the jungle.
In 1971 it was back to the Indo-Pakistani wars, where in the largest armored engagement of this drawn out war, two Pakistani tank regiments engaged the Indian First Armored Corps. India once again deployed their Centurions, just as last time though both sides suffered considerable casualties. In 1973 Israel deployed about 100 Centurions during the Yom Kippur War, when in a legendary battle on the Golan Heights they managed to repel a massively overwhelming force of 500 attacking T-55s and T-62s.
Centurions did see plenty of action in South Africa as well, who purchased it in the hundreds. With the help of Israel they modified the early Centurion models heavily, creating the variant Olifant, that was then deployed during the Border War in Namibia and Angola, and the Angolan Civil War – both of which lasted for 20+ years. The Olifant proved to be the superior force to anything the other African countries could muster (mostly old T-34-85s and T-55s).
The most famous Centurion tank must be The Atomic Tank (AKA a Centurion Mk 3 with registration number 169041), used by the Australian Army. This tank was part of a nuclear test in 1953, being placed less than 500 meters from the blast zone. Not only did it survive the massive explosion, it could actually be driven from the site and continued to serve for another 23 years. It was deployed in Vietnam for over a year where it suffered a direct RPG hit, but still remained in action. Talking about a tough design… The tank can be seen today at Robertson Barracks in Palmerston, Northern Territory – a testament to the Centurions capabilities.