Inside the Matilda I: Examining the specifications and operations that defined a battlefield

Despite its limited speed and weaponry, the Matilda I played an important role in WWII’s early phases, particularly in the Battle of France. Its heavy armour, powered by a V8 Ford engine, provided essential protection.

The Tank Infantry, Mk I, Matilda I (A11) was a British infantry tank that served during WWII. Despite its flaws, such as being slow, cramped, and armed with only a single machine gun, the Matilda I saw considerable success during the Battle of France in 1940. Its fortitude stemmed from its strong armour, which proved effective against the typical German anti-tank guns of the day. However, the Matilda I’s offensive capabilities were limited by its meagre armament, making it ineffective in action against enemy armour. The tank became obsolete before it even entered active service, and its combat participation was limited to the Battle of France.

 

Specifications:

The Matilda I tank weighs 11 long tonnes (12 short tonnes; 11 t), has a length of 18 feet 5 inches (4.85 m), a width of 8 feet 6 inches (2.28 m), and a height of 8 feet 3 inches (1.86 m). Its crew consists of two people: the commander/gunner and the driver. The tank’s armour thickness varies from 10 to 60 mm, providing critical protection in combat situations.

The Matilda I is equipped with either a Vickers.303 or Vickers.50 machine guns and can carry an astonishing 4,000 rounds of ammunition. The tank is powered by a 3.6-litre V8 Ford Model 79 petrol engine, which produces 70 horsepower (52 kW). This arrangement produces a power-to-weight ratio of 6.36 hp/ton.

The Matilda I’s suspension system has a sprung bogie design, which improves stability and mobility on a variety of terrains. The tank has an operational range of 80 miles (130 km) and can reach a maximum speed of 8 mph (12.87 kilometres per hour). When travelling off-road, the speed drops significantly to 5.6 mph (9 km/h). This combination of specifications makes the Matilda I a strong presence in combat operations, blending firepower, defence, and mobility effectively.

 

Operations:

The Matilda I tanks played an important role in World War II’s early phases, particularly during the Battle of France in 1940. When the war broke out in September 1939, the 4th and 7th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) were dispatched to France as part of the British Expeditionary Forces. They created the 1st Army Tank Brigade in May 1940, making them the sole British armoured force on the continent when the Battle of France began on May 10, 1940. On May 21, the 58 Matilda Is and 16 Matilda IIs led a counterattack in the Battle of Arras, demonstrating their durability against the basic German 37 mm anti-tank gun. Despite their efficacy, the attack was halted by a hurriedly built gun line by German soldiers led by Rommel himself. The Matilda tanks suffered devastating losses, with just 26 Matilda Is and two Matilda IIs remaining operational the following day.

Following the Battle of Arras, tanks from the 7th RTR took part in a rearguard fight at Souchez before joining the overall withdrawal to Dunkirk on May 23. The remaining tanks from both battalions formed a composite unit and took part in a counter-attack at La Bassée. Unfortunately, just two tanks arrived at Dunkirk near the end of Operation Dynamo. Meanwhile, as part of the Beauman Division, five Matilda Is and other tanks protected the British logistic facilities at Rouen and Dieppe in southern France. On June 8, these tanks assisted the primary infantry army in their futile defence of the Andelle and Béthune rivers. The division was eventually evacuated from Cherbourg during Operation Aerial, although no infantry tanks were among the 22 tanks returned to the United Kingdom. Abandoned Matilda I tanks in France were withdrawn for training, leaving 77 Matildas in the United Kingdom.

According to current evidence, some of the German-captured Matilda I tanks may have been used as internal security vehicles, particularly in Poland. This shows that, in addition to their role in conventional warfare, Matilda I tanks could have been repurposed for internal security and occupation operations in the locations where they were taken.