Rolling Through History: The Tale of the EXCELSIOR TANK—A Forgotten Warrior?

Tanks are famous for making and breaking front lines. When they’ve made the headlines, they’ve been machines of armour and ambition. New designs of tank and the stories they were used to tell excite. However, there are some tales of tanks that are lesser-known – perhaps none more so than that of the EXCELSIOR. This story offers a rare chapter in the history of tanks and, more importantly, it illuminates the dreams and realities of wartime engineering.

The Dream of a Universal Tank

War-time urgency to surpass enemy armoured capability and rapid prototyping technologies saw rapid developments in that field. Led by the United Kingdom which provided most of the design work, the aim was to design a tank flexible enough to be used as both infantry and cruiser one. The EXCELSIOR tank was an attempt to create a vehicle which could serve as a both infantry and cruiser tank. It was envisaged as being based on the chassis of the Mk VIII A27M Cromwell and could be the ‘universal tank chassis’, allowing for economies of access in production and battlefield but, if accomplished, would have resulted in an ideal development.

Two Prototypes, But No Production Run

And English Electric (the company that made the Cromwell) was handed the baton with their development of two prototypes of a new tank called the EXCELSIOR, officially designated as the A33. The EXCELSIOR was the product of the mindsets that wanted to replace the Churchill and Cromwell with something better. The aspirations were promising but fleeting because this was the beginning of the end of the EXCELSIOR. Development of the A33 was dropped before the programme got off the ground – and the two prototypes made themselves footnotes in history.

What Was Right With the EXCELSIOR?

From the purely technical standpoint, the EXCELSIOR wasn’t lacking in potential. It weighed around 40 tons and was on the lighter side of the ‘heavy tank’ category, in keeping with the British vision of how tanks should be used to aid infantry operations. It was reasonably armed – a 75mm main gun and two 7.92mm BESA machine guns – and it possessed quite thick armour, up to 114mm in the most critical areas. The tank was powered by a Rolls-Royce ‘Meteor’ engine and, on paper, was capable of speed of up to 24 mph on the highway. On paper, it was a decent fighting vehicle for the time.

The Roadblocks to Success

These were impressive specifications, yet the EXCELSIOR tank proved troublesome in practice. Testing demonstrated its poor performance in rough terrain and a combat range far short of specifications, severely impairing its operational viability. As development continued, an existing tank, the Churchill, a candidate for replacement by the EXCELSIOR, also received substantial improvements from the Vauxhall Motors.

The Impact of What Could Have Been

But the EXCELSIOR tank remains a fascinating ‘if only’ in military technology. Had it survived and its problems been overcome, it could well have found a niche on the battlefields of Europe. But its cancellation shows that innovation – even during the heat of war – can be a lot more unpredictable than it might appear from the movies.

Legacy and Lessons Learned

One of the two EXCELSIOR prototypes still exists, at the Bovington Tank Museum in Britain, in storage in its vehicle conservation centre — waiting, in the odd double-meaning of the expression, for the day when it might one day be taken out for a spin. But why not keep them both? These tanks never saw the battlefield, but they still serve as a reminder that the history of armoured warfare might have been, and could still be, very different. The EXCELSIOR tank’s real legacy, then, is found not in its non-existent battle honours but in the truths about adaptability and innovation, and indeed about grim necessity in the development of military technology, that it reveals.

Understanding the EXCELSIOR TANK

Looking beyond the propaganda, and back at the stories and the surviving prototype, the EXCELSIOR tank forces us to appreciate the difficulties of tank development, and invites us to feel the excitement and the futility of military innovation, the whims, hopes and caprices that govern the fortunes of such projects. In its phantom hum one can hear not the sound of a failure but the faint strum of a what-might-have-been of the emergence of armoured warfare.

Jun 16, 2024
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