The Chieftain: Britain’s Main Battle Tank

During the 1960’s and 70’s, the FV 4201 Chieftain was Britain’s flagship battle tank. Its heavy artillery, strong armor, and other design innovations made it one of the most powerful tanks of its time.

During the Second World War, Britain’s tanks were often outgunned by the heavily-armored and well-armed German tanks. The Centurion line was developed during World War II, but it was finished just months too late for combat. Even so, the British knew they had to develop a stronger tank, or they could expect more casualties in the field.

In 1958, Leyland Motors Limited-a vehicle manufacturer that had been involved in designing the Cromwell and the Centurion-turned its attention to a new, bigger and better tank for Britain. What they came up with was the Chieftain: a heavily-armored tank based on the Centurion design. This tank had a sloped hull and a 120-mm rifled cannon. The Chieftain was powerful and well-protected, but its heavy armor made it slower and less maneuverable than other tanks.

The Chieftain did several things differently. Its hull and turret were heavily sloped, and the driver had to lie on his back inside to operate the tank. This made the tank’s profile lower and more difficult to hit. The original engine could use petrol, diesel, and several other types of fuels. The 120-mm gun mounted on the Chieftain actually incinerated spent shells; other tanks either had to store or eject them. The Chieftain’s design also included an infrared search light and side plates to shield the tracks and protect against side attacks.

In addition to the 120-mm main gun, the Chieftain was fitted with a co-axial machine gun. This gun could originally fire up to 1,000 rounds per minute. This was later judged to be too high, and the rate was reduced to around 800 rounds per minute. The machine gun could be used to aim the cannon; when the gun started to hit the target, the gunner would know that his cannon would also hit.

The Chieftain was designed to withstand the heavy firepower of enemy tanks-and to give as good as it got. The problem was that it took a very powerful engine to move such a heavy tank. The first multi-fuel engines were problematic. They were underpowered, and they were technically unreliable in the field. Common problems included fan drive malfunctions, constant leaks and damage from the vehicle’s vibration, and cylinder liner problems.

Eventually, the multi-fuel engines were upgraded to stronger, more dependable diesel engines. Although the Chieftain never became as maneuverable as lighter tanks, its mobility did improve with time and innovation.

The Chieftain entered military service in 1967, and was used in active duty until 1995. That year, Britain replaced the Chieftain with the Challenger, a line of tanks with a design heavily based on the Chieftain. The tank also found plenty of buyers in foreign markets, particularly in the middle east. Chieftains have been sold to Kuwait, Jordan, Iran, and Oman. Israel helped develop the first Chieftains, but Britain cancelled their partnership before they could set up an Israeli Chieftain production plant. Instead, Israel developed their own indigenous tank: the Merkava MBT.

Iran placed one of the biggest orders of Chieftain tanks: 1,000 before the Iranian Revolution in 1979. After the revolution, Britain cancelled all further sales of the tank to Iran.

Over the years, many variations were made to the original Chieftain design, some by Britain and some by foreign countries that bought the tank. Some variations included heavy fire and mine protection, and the Iranians allege to have added a snorkel so that the vehicle could ford bodies of water up to five meters in depth. Others had bulldozer blades, thermal imaging systems, bridge-laying and mine-clearing capabilities, and anti-aircraft weaponry.

The Chieftain was a strong, powerful tank that saw many years of solid service in the British military. For decades, it was one of the strongest tanks in the world. You can still see Chieftain tanks at war museums, and even drive one at a tank driving experience event. If you get a chance to drive one of these proud old vehicles, don’t miss out-it will be an experience to remember.

Why not treat yourself and experience the trill of driving a Chieftain tank with our fabulous military-mayhem experience. Or any of our other tank driving experiences

About Evie Stacey

Marketing Assistant and Chief Experience Reviewer at Experience Days
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