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Driving a Matilda II.
This article, as with my previous "driving AFV" ones is written for those who have never had the experience. I welcome any contributions for this website on this subject.
The Matilda II was popularly known as "The Queen of the Desert" until the Germans decided they needed to use their 88mm anti-aircraft gun as an anti-tank weapon to combat it.
When you look inside an empty Matilda hull the most noticeable aspect is the very nice ballistic shape of the nose. I am guessing it was copied directly from a Christie or Russian BT design. At the very front, it would be around 2' in width. This is not as noticeable from outside due to the armoured storage boxes that fill in between the nose and the tracks on each side. The more you look at this vehicle, the more you realise that a lot of effort went into making it as refined (and doubtless very expensive) a design as possible.
The first thing you notice with a Matilda is its classic good looks. Especially those track guard mud chutes which work well with sand, less so with mud. The turret shape complements the hull and does not look out of place the way the turret does on say a T-34/85. Attention to detail includes spring assist on the Commander's hatch flaps, the springs are covered so these devices have the appearance of small car shock absorbers. The periscope mounted in one of the flaps breaks on a hinge line in the middle to make entry and exit less cluttered.
The vehicle is reasonably easy to climb on to from most directions thanks to the mud chutes and low glacis plate.
Driving preparation requires lifting the oh so heavy engine and transmission covers in order to access the engines and transmission. The transmission is covered by the radiators, which have clever pivoting water connections. The radiators pull up and over through about 120° so that they stand out of the way. When this is done, the fans are obvious, they are of a most curious appearance and look for all the world to be 3 bladed propellers in need of a boat.
To drive the vehicle you enter via the driver's hatch hole, much better than with the later Valentine (bizarre, one hatch each side of a fixed roof) or Comet (you thread yourself through a Comet hatch - which are side mounted). The hatch is unique in that it is in appearance a curved piece of armour plate running in 2 track ways. Think of a toilet roll cut in half long ways. In the open position it mostly cuts off any view back into the fighting compartment. In the process of getting in, just as with a Bren Gun Carrier, you maneourve your way around the gear stick and numerous control rods. The pedals are located such that you need to visually locate them first after disentangling your feet from the various protuberances. Once you have done this and have seen the layout, you are okay from then on.
The gear stick as with the Centurion is located between your legs but in a notched pedestal.
I was not in the Matilda when the engines were started, so did not experience the procedures involved in a twin engine installation.
We rode out on the Matilda to a large paddock. In the process a herd of cows faced off, standing their ground until we got within about 25m, at which point they decided moving out of the way was a better idea.
Then it was my turn. After a briefing on how to drive it and the idiosyncracies of this 76 year old vehicle I slid into the driver's seat. Immediately noticeable is that you have to lean forward in order to grasp the tillers. Each tiller has a traditional locking handle on it as a parking brake function - of the type that you can squeeze with your whole hand.
Gear selection was in a linear layout, push the stick away from you to go up each gear. 1st gear is a crawler gear so is not normally needed. Due to decades of wear, each gear selection required going half way past the required gear, then pulling back to the correct indent. Something that required attention, but not demanding due to the pre-selective Wilson gearbox, just a quirk.
As with all Wilson boxes, the GCP (Gear Change Pedal) has 2 positions = in or out. With the Matilda, the pedal is air assisted, so it does not give the feedback that a Ferret GCP does. It also moves much slower and effectively lets itself out to engage the gear. The process being, select the gear, crisply push the pedal to the floor, wait 1 to 2 seconds, then take pressure off the pedal and it returns to the "out" position of its own accord. The engagement is no where near as harsh as I was expecting given my Ferret experience as I was mentally scaling up the forces involved with a 25 ton tank compared to a 4 ton Ferret. I am told that the heaviest GCP on a Wilson design box is in the Czech Hetzer Tank Destroyer, at 15 tonne, with no air assist.
When at rest, the air system provides a unique background ambience making a crisp "prrrrt" sound every few seconds as a pressure relief pops.
Given the shape of the Matilda, the driver's field of vision is excellent.
Steering the vehicle is by way of pulling back on the appropriate tiller on the side desired. The higher the gear, the less responsive the steering. I perceived this to be that if standing still, a skid turn happens: when moving, the track on the side to which the turn is occurring still moves. ie. the track does not have to stop in order to turn. Power wastage because of steering corrections was not remarkable, given the braking function of a turn, I find that most odd as I had been expecting a major reduction in speed and that the engines would bog down. The Matilda is a true skid steer vehicle. The tiller de-couples drive to the track on the side to which the turn is directed and applies the brake to that side.
Due to the track return skids (not rollers) the Matilda engines have to overcome considerable friction, this means stopping the vehicle is fairly effortless, just a matter of easing up on the throttle and pulling both tillers if needed.
The steering brakes decided to stick on my last stop, so they had trouble getting it to move again. Once things unstuck, all was well.
When reading the above comments it is necessary to keep in mind the time period in which the Matilda design came about, the severe monetary problems facing the British military, (political disinterest in armoured vehicles) and the technological limitations of that time. Despite all that, the Matilda did represent a high technology product and the mechanical design is much less physical to drive than say a Centurion. With a Centurion you are very aware you are driving a massive tank, I found the Matilda to be more compact and less daunting. However I will point out that I am familiar with the Wilson pre-select system so could take that in my stride.
Riding the Matilda I was too busy to notice the sensations, which is a statement in itself. I have seen other people comment about the rough ride but have no recollection of that myself. I do recall that I could feel the suspension had very little travel, but we were in a farmer's field and other than some rocks which were avoided, it was undulating rather than bumpy. This particular vehicle is running straight through exhaust pipes with no mufflers due to the risk of a scrub fire from the low mounted exhaust outlets of the original design. So engine noise was rather loud. I could detect the dry pin track clanking, which with mufflers would probably be the dominant sound.
So there you have it, a first time exposure to one of the classic tanks of the world!
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