The Cruiser Tank Mk VIII Centaur (A27L) was a version of the Cromwell tank powered by a Liberty engine. It was not a great success itself, but many Centaurs were converted into or completed as Cromwells and in that configuration used in combat in north-western Europe.
The Centaur was really a tank that should never have been built. Late in 1940 W A (Roy) Robotham, a senior Rolls Royce designer, led a team that converted the Merlin engine into the Meteor tank engine. This work was triggered by a October 1940 meeting between Robotham and Henry Spurrier, the general manager of Leyland Motors, an old school friend. Spurrier was worried about the low power of the Liberty engine being used in new British tank designs. At first Leyland agreed to produce the Meteor, but they then backed out and decided to continue building Liberty engines. At this point the Ministry of Supply should have stepped in to force Leyland to build the much more powerful Meteor, but instead they produced a compromise. English Electric and the Birmingham Carriage & Wagon Company would produce the Meteor powered A27M Cromwell III while Leyland would produce the Liberty powered A27L, then known as the Cromwell II. The design of the A27 would be modified to allow it to take either engine. It is unclear how many Centaurs were later re-engined, but a significant number of tanks were built from scratch with Centaur hulls and Meteor engines and were designated as Cromwells.
The first Centaur was competed in July 1942 (the Centaur name was adopted in November 1942). Tests showed that the overworked Liberty engine had an even shorter lifespan and was less reliable in the Centaur than it had been in the Crusader. In August 1943 the Centaur and Cromwell went up against the Sherman M4A2 and M4A4 in Exercise Dracula, a 2,300 miles trip around various armoured units to test their reliability. The Sherman did best, the Cromwell was next and the Centaur was a poor last, often arriving at the night's base hours after the other tanks. After several months of further modifications the Cromwell and Centaur were put through another hard test in November 1943. This time the Cromwell proved reliable, but the Centaur still struggled. Its basic problem was that the Liberty engine wasn't powerful enough for the weight of the tank, and as a result struggled to cope. Despite this failure large scale production continued, with eight different industrial groups producing the Centaur.
Sources disagree (often quite wildly) on the total number of Centaurs that were produced. This is probably because a large number of tanks were built with Meteor engines but Centaur hulls, and counted under different names in different places. Most sources place the overall production at around 1,750-1,800 Centaurs. Over half of these tanks were armed with the 6pdr gun, and thus not suitable for front line service as re-engined Cromwells.
The Centaur IV close support tank was used in combat during the D-Day landings. The Royal Marines Assault Regiment had been formed to provide heavy fire support for the Royal Marine Commandos, and was mainly equipped with Centaur IVs. The original plan was for the tanks to operate from the decks of tank landing craft. The engine was removed and no driver was carried. This worked well in tests, but close to D-Day the Marines (with encouragement from Montgomery) decided to re-install the engines, train drivers and prepare to use their tanks inland. Eighty tanks were prepared for this role, although only 48 were landed on the morning of D-Day. The unit remained in combat with its Centaurs until 24 June. The Marines were then withdrawn for a rest while their tanks were probably passed on to the French.
Some of the special purpose conversions of the Centaur saw use during the campaign in north-western Europe. The Centaur Dozer, which had the turret removed and a bulldozer blade installed was developed by a unit in Belgium, produced in Britain and issued in small numbers before the end of the war.
The first production version, armed with the 6pdr gun
Designation given to a proposed version of the Centaur armed with the 6pdr gun but with 15.5in wide tracks in place of the 14in wide tracks that were standard. None were built.
The Centaur III was armed with the 75mm gun. Some were given Meteor engines, turning them into Cromwell IVs. Others were used as the basis for special purpose or anti-aircraft tanks
The Centaur IV was a close-support version, with a 95mm howitzer and a more powerful engine.
The Centaur OP was an observation tank, with a dummy gun fitted to make room for extra radio equipment in the turret. It was for use by artillery observation officers or as a command post.
Centaur, AA Mk I
The Centaur AA Mk I carried two Polsten cannons in a purpose built enclosed turret. The same turret was also used on the Crusader AA Mk II.
Centaur, AA Mk II
The Centaur AA Mk II used the same turret as the Crusader AA Mk III (but with Polsten cannons). This was similar to the turret used on the Centaur AA Mk I, but with the radio equipment moved from the turret into the main body of the hull. Ninety five Centaur AA tanks were produced by converting existing vehicles, all during 1944.
A small number of Centaurs were used as the basis for Kangaroo armoured troop carriers.
Cruiser Tank Mk VIII Cromwell II (A27L) (to November 1942)
Cruiser Tank Mk VIII Centaur (from November 1942)
Hull Length: 20ft 10in
Hull Width: 9ft 6in
Height: 8ft 2in
Weight: 27.5 tons
Engine: 395hp Liberty
Max Speed: 27mph road, 16mph cross country
Max Range: 165 miles road radius