United Kingdom (1943)
Cruiser tank – 1,186 built
The Stop-gap Tank
The British Comet was essentially an upgraded Cromwell tank. In 1943, it was realized that a new British tank was needed that had a high-velocity gun that could take on and knock out the new Panther and Tiger tanks, but was also fast and had a low profile. The Churchill tank had good armor but was slow and had a weak gun. The Sherman tank was tall. The Cromwell tank was fast and low but its turret could not take a larger gun.
The A43 Centurion tank was under development but it would not be ready until 1945. The British Army needed a stop-gap tank that could quickly be introduced into production. The answer was to fit a new up-armoured turret with a high-velocity 77 mm (3.03 in) gun onto late version modified Cromwell chassis. It was called the A34 Cruiser Tank Comet Mark I Type A.
Design work started in May 1943. The Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company was the design parent of the British Cromwell Tank and the A34 Cruiser Tank Comet. Other companies were involved in the construction of this AFV, the biggest being English Electric, Fowlers, Leyland and Metropolitan-Cammell.
Production was dispersed around Britain because of the threat of German bombing. Orders for 3,000 Comet tanks were issued and they were to use chassis numbers in the range T334901 to T337900. The end of the war resulted in the early cancellation of part of this order. Only 1,186 were produced. Only 26 were recorded as lost in action during WW2.
When you look at the hull of the Comet and compare it with the Cromwell tank it was replacing, there are more similarities than differences. This was because there was a conscious decision by the wartime tank designers to avoid complications in production when the new Comet tank was introduced. This design restraint meant that a fully sloped armored front was not introduced even though it would have improved protection from enemy AP shells.
A larger turret ring was fitted to cope with the bigger wider turret. It was now 64 inches (1629 mm) in diameter. The turret traverse was powered by the tank engine but there were hand wheels for the final fine adjustments.
The hull of the Comet was of a welded construction rather than a one piece cast. It was faster to produce and lighter weight. No rivets were used and this reduced the risk of metal fragments flying around the interior of the tank after a non-penetrating hit.
The tow cable was intended to be stowed in a figure of eight around two semi-circular plates welded to the top hull plate either side of the driving headlights. A third plate was welded to the front to stop the cable dropping down and fowling around the track.
There appears to be a handle fitted to the front bulkhead to the right of the hull machine gun. It is ideally placed as a hand hold for a crew member climbing up the front of the tank. That is not the reason it was fixed in that location. It is designed to allow the end of the tow cable to be secured using a webbing strap.
There is a raised armored panel just behind the turret on the engine deck. It covers the engine air intake. Behind that is the rear gun clamp lock for the 77 mm (3.03 in) gun barrel. When the tank is traveling long distances in non-hostile areas the crew turn the turret to the rear and lock the barrel into position over the rear gun deck. This effectively reduces the length of the tank by 1.37 m (4’6”). This is helpful when being loaded onto railway flat backed tank transportation wagons. The Comet was the first British tank to be fitted with a gun barrel lock. They had been fitted to American tanks for a number of years earlier.
The square box fitted to the rear of the Comet tank is the infantry-tank telephone and a first aid box. It enabled the infantry to talk directly to the tank commander. The two slightly smaller boxes either side of the phone box are the rear smoke dischargers. They would be used to cover a retreat. The driver would reverse into the cloud of smoke to prevent the enemy gunners locking onto their next target.
At the rear of the tank, there was a large tow hook designed to be capable of towing a 17 pdr (75 mm/3 in) anti-tank gun.
The British tank designers had used the Christie suspension system on most of their cruiser tanks used in action during World War Two. The Comet tank was the last to use this system. It gave a fast and smooth ride compared to other tank suspension systems but it took up much-needed space inside the tank. Space that could have been used for the storage of additional ammunition or larger fuel tanks. If it was damaged the long torsion bars were often difficult to remove and replace out in the field.
The rubber rimmed road wheels were 31.5 inches (800 mm) in diameter. There were five pairs fitted either side. After testing of the A34 Comet prototype with and without top track rollers, it was found that the track worked better with them fitted. Four pairs of rubber rimmed top rollers were added to control the top section of the track on production models to keep the track in line and help prevent track slap and slippage.
These were not fitted on the Cromwell. Different types of top rollers were used in the course of the production process at different factories. This is why some Comet rollers look different from others.
Tracks and Track Guards
The Comet tank had a lower ground pressure and better grip than the Cromwell tank it was designed to replace. Its tracks were 18 inches wide (45.7 cm). The Cromwell tank’s track was 15.5 inches wide (39.4 cm)
Track mudguards are fitted to the front and rear of the Comet tank. They were made of thin metal and were very easily damaged. What looks like two runs of steps at the back of the track guards are in fact two metal strips that are designed to strengthen them. The tank crews also used them to help get on top of the tank.
The Comet was vulnerable to Panzerfaust infantry side attacks. It is strange that side skirt panels were not issued and fitted to add extra protection.
The New Turret
The crew in the turret was protected by 4 inches (102 mm) or armor at the front, 2.5 inches (63.5 mm) on the sides and 2.25 inches (57.2 mm) on the rear. The roof armor was 20 mm (0.79 in) thick. The turret was not cast in one piece. It was made from rolled homogenous armor welded together. The gun mantlet was cast as one item.
During trials, it was found that dirt and small stones could get stuck in the gap between the mantlet and the main turret, preventing it from moving up and down. The solution to this problem was the fitting of a strong canvas cover. Sometimes the canvas cover would get stuck in the top gap between the mantlet and the gun when it was elevated. To solve this problem, long thin pockets were added to the top of the cover and metal strips inserted inside to add rigidity.
The commander could also use a spotlight attached to the left-hand side of the turret. The spotlight had grip handles on the back to move it towards the desired direction. There was a dial at the back that could be rotated to focus the beam.
The rear armor of the turret was angled but this was normally hidden by the large rectangle sheet metal storage bin fixed to the rear of the turret. There were internal compartments inside the bin. It was designed to store: a Bren gun; jack and jacking points; chemical protection equipment; water and rations; camo net and muzzle covers for the main gun and machine guns.
The Driver’s Position
British Comet tank drivers sat on the right side of the tank. The driver had a hinged circular forward opening armored visor. It was 3 inches thick (76.2 mm). When in the open position, it gave the driver a good field of vision. In combat situations, the hatch was closed and locked in position by a T-shaped plunger.
The driver and co-driver/hull machine gunner had periscopes fitted with rain covers. The driver had a No.6 periscope and the co-driver had a 1.9x No.57 periscope. They were not in a fixed position. The crew could turn them.
The tank had two shielded driving lights. The one on the right was hinged to allow the flap to be opened and increase the light output. Both were protected from damage by the addition of two armored bars either side of each headlight.
Just like the Cromwell tank, the driver and co-driver hatches were side opening to help the crew get out a quick as possible. When the side panel was opened the top hatch came away as well. The circular armored cover between the two hatches and periscopes was used to protect the electrical extractor fan. When the BESA 7.92 mm (0.31 in) machine gun No.1 Mk.1 was fired, it gave off toxic gasses from the expelled bullet cases. These fumes needed to be evacuated as fast as possible to stop the crew getting sick.
The driver had a box to his immediate right which had the controls for the rear mounted smoke discharger.
The Machine Guns
A BESA machine gun was fitted in a gimbal-mount on the left side of the front hull. It was produced by the Birmingham Small Arms company. It was produced under license. The design was based on a Czechoslovakian ZB53 (model 37) machine gun. Unusually, the British version of the gun kept the original 7.92 mm (0.31 in) caliber. It used the same sized ammunition as the German Army machine guns. Captured enemy ammunition could be used to resupply the tank. It was simple and mechanically reliable.
The co-driver aimed the weapon using his periscope that was fixed just to the left of the gun. To stop the gun jumping around when it was fired the barrel was mounted in a metal cradle to improve its accuracy. The only drawback was that it reduced the angle of fire. A metal triangular block was fitted under the cradle to stop the gunner depressing too low and blasting away at the back of the tank’s headlights.
There was enough machine gun ammunition storage in front of the co-driver for eight spare ammunition boxes. Each box contained 255 rounds fitted in a webbing belt.
A second 7.92 mm (0.31 in) BESA machine gun was mounted to the right of the 77 mm (3.03 in) main gun. It protruded through the gun mantlet and was supported by a metal cradle to improve accuracy. To deal with the toxic gasses produced when the main gun and coaxial BESA machine gun were fired in the turret an electrical extractor fan was fitted. A circular armored cover was fitted to the turret roof to protect the electrical extractor fan. Just like on the hull, it was mounted between the two forward-looking periscopes.
On the roof of the turret, on the right side, just behind the periscope, was a 2-inch bomb thrower No.1. The gun loader had the firing controls near him inside the turret.
The 77 mm Gun
To avoid confusion with the 76.2 mm (3 in) 17pdr gun and the American 76.2 mm (3 in) tank gun, the new 3 inch (76.2 mm) high-velocity tank gun that was fitted to the Comet was called the 77 mm HV gun. It was very accurate and as well as firing high explosive and smoke shells, it could fire a number of different armor piercing rounds, like the armor piercing capped ballistic cap (APCBC) shell. There was only room for 61 rounds for the main gun to be stored inside the tank.
The 77 mm HV gun was a modified version of the powerful British 17 pdr (76.2mm) gun, redesigned by Vickers-Armstrong to fit inside the Comet tank turret. It was shorter than the 17 pdr gun with a reduced breech and recoil. This meant that it lost around 10% of its stopping power compared to the 17 pdr gun. It was still a very powerful gun that could knock out German Tiger and Panther tanks in the right circumstances. Although the 77 mm HV gun had a slightly poorer armor piercing capability than the 17 pdr, it was found to be more accurate at longer distances.
Firing trials started in March 1944 at the Army firing range at Ludworth Cove in Dorset, Southern England. A few problems were found that needed rectifying before production could start. This took time and the factories were only given the green light in October 1944. Shipping to the war zone only started in November. In December 1944 only 31 Comet tanks had been delivered to North-Western Europe. They were not used in the Battle of the Bulge German offensive of 16th December 1944. British armored units had to use Cromwells, Shermans and Achilles.
Capped armor piercing shells (APC) were introduced near the end of the war. The cap transferred energy from the tip of the shell to the sides of the projectile, thereby helping to reduce shattering. The cap also appeared to improve penetration of German tank sloped armor by deforming, spreading and “sticking” to the armor on impact. This thereby reduced the tendency of the shell to deflect at an angle but the cap structure reduced the aerodynamic efficiency of the round with a resultant reduction in accuracy and range.
A second aerodynamic streamlined cap was added to the shell to correct the range and inaccuracy defects. These improved armor piercing shells were called APCBC, armor piercing capped ballistic cap.
It could fire the newly developed armor-piercing discarding sabot (APDS) round with an extremely fast muzzle velocity of 3400 fps (1036 m/s). This speed added around 50% more penetration power to the round. When supplies arrived in Europe they were added to the range of shells carried by Comet tank crews.
The Birdcage gun sight
In front of the commander’s cupola was a strange looking contraption that looked like a small birdcage but without the wire mesh fitted. It was given the nickname ‘the birdcage’ but was a distant target blade-vane gun sight. It was used by the commander to line up the turret on the target. With the hatches in the locked down position, the commander had 360-degree vision in his rotating cupola.
A British WS No.19 Mark.III and an infantry WS No.38B wireless (radio) were installed in the turret. The two aerials were mounted on the rear of the turret roof. The short range very high frequency (VHF) B set antenna was fitted in the middle of the turret roof at the rear. It was used to communicate with infantry units. The tank to tank high frequency (HF) A set antenna was on the right-hand side of the turret roof behind the loader’s hatch. The loader was also the radio operator but the tank commander could access the controls if necessary.
Two Versions, A and B
There were two versions of the Comet Mk.I tank: Type A and Type B. The easiest way to tell the difference between the two is that the later Type B had ‘fishtail’ exhausts at the rear. Smoke dischargers on the side of the turret were added to the Type B tank. The top track rollers and rubber-tired idlers were later replaced with a different steel design as they tended to get clogged and packed with mud too easily. There were a number of other less obvious modifications like a new engine breathing system. The type ‘B’ tanks were introduced after the war.
Tanks sent to north-west Europe during 1944-45 were given the ‘Normandy modification’. They were fitted with a Normandy cowling on top of the vertical exhaust box at the back of the tank. It was a long semi-circular cover that went on the top. It was designed to reduce the visibility of smoke and flames from the engine. Some exhaust covers came in two parts. These were slightly larger.
The split Normandy cowlings enabled the gun to be locked to the rear for long distance road travel or transportation by rail. The one piece Normandy cowling prevented the gun barrel being locked to the rear. It had to be removed for rail transportation.
An added advantage of these cowling covers was that around six troops could be carried on the flat back of the engine covers without them choking on exhaust fumes.
After the war, the exhaust system was modified. It ended in a pair ‘fishtails’ at the end of the exhaust box. It is this version of the Comet tank being called the type B and the wartime original Comet tank called the type A. It had always been the intention to use this ‘fishtail’ exhaust system but it was not ready by 1944-early 1945. Planking plates had been fitted to the earlier models.
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 11th Armoured Division was issued with Comet tanks. The white Allied air recognition star and circle was painted at the rear of the turret between the commander’s cupola and the loaders hatch, covering the rear storage box. The tanks were painted British SCC No.15 olive drab green.
The squadron markings would be painted in yellow on the side of the turret: A squadron triangle, B squadron square, C squadron circle and the HQ unit diamond marking. Their arm of service serial number was a white 52 on a red rectangle.
The 23rd Hussars, 29th Armored Brigade squadron markings would be painted in red on the side of the turret. Their arm of service serial number was a white 51 on a red rectangle. The 29th Hussars was a war-raised cavalry unit.
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment tank names were painted on the front hull lower glacis plate. Other regiments painted them above the hull machine gun or on the side of the turret. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment was a regular unit of the RTR.
The Scottish Territorial Army Regiment 2nd Fife and Fofar Yeomanry were also issued with Comet tanks. Armored Brigade squadron markings would be painted in blue on the side of the turret. Their arm of service serial number was a white 53 on a red rectangle.
The C Squadron, 15th/19 Hussars Reconnaissance Regiment received a few Comet tanks.
Not all Comet tanks used the same components. They were built at different factories around Britain with separate supply chains. Some underwent battlefield modifications. There are two different type of idler wheels. The original wheel was found to have a tendency to get packed with mud so a plain metal spoked one was introduced.
There were five different road wheels and hubs. Two different types of top track rollers were used. Fittings on the engine deck differed. During the war, only one rear red light was mounted in a holder on the right side of the tank. After the war ended a second was fitted on the other side.
95 mm Comet tanks
A few photographs exist showing what looks like a close support (CS) Comet tank armed with a 95 mm gun. No records of this conversion have been found. In the book ‘A34 Comet Tank: A Technical History’ by P. M. Knight. On Page 55 he says, “A Close Support (CS) version with a 9 5mm was considered as Cromwell production would be turned over to Comet production. It was not proceeded with though.”
It is believed that Comet tanks fitted with what looks like a 95 mm gun is in fact a dummy gun used on a Command Tank. But why wasn’t a 77 mm dummy gun used? A short 95 mm dummy gun would be lighter than a 77 mm dummy gun and would not over hang the front of the tank as much. It would also be easier to control going over rough ground as it would not be able to elevate. The Bovington Tank Museum’s David Fletcher in an article “Classic Military Vehicles April 2016” states that – “More surprising still was the number of converted Comets that were listed, although we think these were all post-war conversions; 40 Command tanks, 131 Control tanks and 25 OP tanks. There was also one such tank converted for the HQ of 6th RTR in Italy. When its 77mm gun was damaged the tank was rebuilt with a dummy 95mm howitzer and fitted out to suit the regimental commanding officer, although this was also, strictly speaking, a post-war conversion.”
There would have been no gun inside the turret. This would have given more room for additional radios and maps. The Tank Museum archives has a photograph of the 12th Lancers 95 mm Comet. It is listed as a ‘Mk IB Control’. The staff at the archives also made the following observation, “The interesting thing about all the images I have seen of these 90 mm Comets is that the stowage bin on the rear of the turret is a slightly different shape at base compared to those fitted to the gun tanks turret. The gun tanks all have a squared off base, the Control (or Command, depending on who filled in the Card!) have the slightly angled bottom corner.”
The 1st Royal Tank Regiment (1 RTR) certainly had at least one in Germany possibly holding on to it when they went for a tour of service in Libya after WW2. The only known photograph shows it with two Centurion tanks rather than other Comets. The photo would have been taken in the late 1940s. These tanks are easy to identify. The barrel length is different and it has a muzzle counterweight with the distinctive cut on the lower half rather than a muzzle brake.
Post-war Comets in the British Army
After the war, a flamethrower prototype was produced but never entered production. Comet tanks were deployed to the Canal Zone in Egypt and amongst those which were keeping the peace in Palestine. By 1949 Comets were starting to be replaced by Centurion tanks. Comets remained in regular British Army Service in Berlin until 1957 and British Hong Kong until 1959.
Comets in British Hong Kong
A number of Comet tanks were sent to British Hong Kong where they remained in service until 1959. When the new Queen Elizabeth visited they took part in a drive-by parade and salute. Peter Lebus was a National Service 2nd Lt in Hong Kong commanding 3 Comets in a tank troop, 7th Royal Tank Regiment RTR. These are his recollections – “There were no tanks on Hong Kong Island – only infantry, artillery etc. We were based at Sek Kong in the New Territories. There were 2 Squadrons in Hong Kong, the third was in Korea. Each Squadron had 3 Troops and each Troop had 3 tanks. The word “Company” is the same as a Squadron but applies to infantry.
“Each Squadron would be commanded by a Major or a Captain. A Troop would be commanded by a Lt or 2nd Lt. The 3 tanks within a Troop would be commanded by the Troop commander (Lt or 2ndLt), the Troop Sgt and another Sgt or Cpl. We were supposed to defend Hong Kong from the Chinese hordes – I don’t think that we would have lasted more than 15 minutes. In practice we were not able to be very active as so much of the countryside was either paddy fields or roads which we had to avoid if possible during the middle of the day to stop the tarmac being ripped up by our tracks. The tropical heat would make the tarmac soft. If we had to move along a road it was done in the early morning or late at night when the temperature had cooled down.”
“Most of our “defending” was done in scout cars patrolling the border with the HK police. The Comets were kept at base for emergencies and training. My only claim to glory was when I was scouting for an off road route to the border ended ignominiously when my tank slipped sideways on a hill side. The lower track slipped and jammed underneath the tank body. It took us 3 days to dig out by hand a flat area in front of the tank prior to getting it supported from above and in front. We were then able to break the lower track, lay it out in front and tow the tank onto it again and then reconnect it. All in all a steep and rather embarrassing learning curve. A little later I returned to Catterick to teach the next intake all about Centurion tanks”
In May 1960, Finland was sent a British Comet tank (13ZR12) for trials. They liked the tank, kept it and ordered 40 more with a lot of spare parts. They were given the Finnish Army registration numbers PS-252-1 to PS-252-41. They were fitted with the German Fu 16 radios that had been fitted to their StuG III Ausf.G assault guns. The British antennas were removed and replaced with the German radio aerials. The British infantry telephone box at the rear of the tank was replaced with a Finnish Army model.
Union (later Republic) of South Africa Army
In 1954 the South African government ordered 26 Comet Tanks. Later on, some were converted into armored battlefield maintenance and repair vehicles.
Republic of Ireland Army
The Irish Army purchased eight Comet tanks in 1958 and they were delivered between 1959 – 1960. Due to limited budgetary resources, spares were bought in limited quantitates. This caused problems as time went on. Spares became difficult to locate.
They used armor piercing APCBC shells and not high explosive HE ones, as the British Army had discovered a flaw in the HE fuse. A test was carried with one of the tanks having its turret replaced by a Swedish Bofors 90 mm recoilles gun. The experiment was not pursued. Lack of ammunition led to a reduction in the amount of live firing exercises the tank crews were allowed to conduct. The final exercise at the shooting range took place in 1973. They were withdrawn soon afterward.
The Burmese army purchased 25 comet tanks. They remained in service until 1995.
In 1957, Cuba was sold 15 Comet tanks.
A34 Comet tanks only remained a front line tank for a short time. When they were replaced by the Centurion tank they were sent to tank training units or Territorial Army units where they nearly served for the next 20 years. They started to be sold off in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s to foreign armies.
L x W x H
|6.55 m x 3.04 m x 2.67 m
(21ft 6in x 10ft 1in x 8ft 6in)
|Total weight, battle ready||33.53 tonnes (32.7 long tons)|
|Crew||5 (commander, driver, gunner, loader/radio op, hull machine gunner)|
|Propulsion||Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.III V12 Petrol/gasoline engine, 600 hp (447 kW)|
|Top speed||32 mph (51 km/h)|
|Range (road)||155 miles (250 km)|
|Armament||77 mm (3.03 in) High Velocity gun, 61 rounds
2x 7.92 mm (0.31 in) BESA machine guns, 5,175 rounds
|Armor||From 32 to 102 mm (1.26-4.02 in)|