By Rob Morgan
Here is a photograph I took in Normandy on a drab May afternoon three years ago. The tank is a Centaur Mark IV, one of 80 of these AFVs used by the Royal Marines Support Group at Sword Beach between D-Day and D+14, when the group was disbanded and the tanks distributed to other units. I’m not sure about the fate of the tank-trained Royal Marine crews.
The Free French were given a number of the tanks and one of these survives intact at the great Saumur Museum. The unfortunate Centaur in the photograph is on a plinth a few miles away from Pegasus Bridge at the Lion-Sur-Mer, where it was knocked out. I didn’t encounter any others.
You’ll notice the numbers painted around the tank turret – these are degrees of a compass – 360 at the rear, 180 on the front, It was intended that the 95mm howitzer should be fired from a landing craft as it approached the shore. A spotter (heroically) would call out the degrees and distance, and the gunner would fire blindly over the bow of the craft. Unusual, to say the least, but was it effective? In any case, a rather different use for an AFV in an assault wargame, though frankly I wouldn’t relish the prospect of painting the compass markings. They do provide a visible target for an anti-tank gunner too.
The gun was an astonishing but inventive lash-up of other weapons. The barrel was a section of a 3.7-in. AA gun barrel; the breech came from a QF 25-pdr. howitzer, and the recoil mechanism from a QF 6-pdr. A/T gun! An imaginative combination of parts of effective guns already in production. The barrel’s heavy counterweight can clearly be seen in the photograph. The weapon was a “bunker buster,” of course, with a range of some 8,000 yards, could fire 7 rpm of fixed-round 25-pdr. shells. One suggestion I found was that the Centaur’s gun was largely used to lay down smoke in the landings.
It seems that there was an intention mid-war to provide infantry with a conventional towed version of this useful 95mm howitzer, and that a number of them were manufactured before the war ended. Perhaps someone will know of a surviving example, or a photograph? Were any issued, I wonder.