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Meet the Chieftain (1963 Footage)

Photo: A still from the newsreel footage.

 

In this newsreel from British Pathé, the FV4201 Chieftain is introduced in an upbeat preview of Britian’s then-newest tank. The footage showcases a large, thickly-armoured, well-armed behemoth, capable of going almost anywhere.

An advancement on the superb Centurion, the Chieftain was a step-change in capability and in many respects was well ahead of both competing Soviet designs, and some NATO developments. First designed in 1958, production began in 1961 with the first tanks accepted in 1963.

By 1966, three years after this footage, the first Mk.I Chieftains had fully entered service. The new tank looked to be excellent and in many ways it was. The Chieftain featured a well-sloped hull and turret, upgraded armour (more than 15 inches effective thickness in places) and a potent 120mm main gun (designed specifically for the Chieftain, and which soon became the NATO standard calibre).

Later variants, with additions such as Stillbrew, were even better protected. Chieftains used as a test platform for Chobham armour later helped to develop the Challenger I tank.

 This powerful gun was accurate and hard hitting, it could hit a target with precision at an effective maximum range of 2,400 metres –
far outside the maximum range of its ranging
machine gun.

This powerful gun was accurate and hard hitting, it could hit a target with precision at an effective maximum range of 2,400 metres – far outside the maximum range of its ranging machine gun. This method of ranging finding was soon superseded by more advanced methods, further enhancing accuracy.

The tank could shift, too. Despite the increased weight over its predecessor, the Chieftain was relativity fast and mobile over rough ground thanks to its a new transmission system and engine, which gave the vehicle its distinctive growl. The tank was better than the Centurion off road, and a rival to the lighter Leopard I.

Chieftain tanks lead a column of the ‘Berlin Brigade’ down the 17th of June Street during a parade in Berlin, in 1989. (Department of Defense)

However, this engine was also the FV4201’s crippling weakness. The innovative Leyland 60 multi-fuel engine was supposed to offer high-performance and to run on any available fuel. However, while fine in theory, in practice the engine proved to be notoriously unreliable – with, initially, First World War levels of serviceability. In early variants, the breakdown rate could be as high as 90%.

Despite improvements, the Leyland engine rarely generated the power ever intended – especially as later variants of the Chieftain were significantly heavier – and the speed and mobility of the tank were therefore reduced.

However, a combination of improvements to the engine and changes to support and tactics worked to an extent, allowing the British Army to make good use of the tanks best – borderline world-beating – strengths.

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