Tugging at the Reader's Heartstrings

The Korean War saw the first operational action for the Centurion Tank. The Centurion Mk 3 was fitted with a sophisticated gun stabilization system and there was a fear that any tank knocked out by the North Koreans (or, later by the Chinese) might be, captured and the secrets of the stabilizer would then be passed to the Russians. (We now know that they were developing their own tank gun stabilizers so may or may not have gained help from the design of that in the Centurion).
Tank recovery in Korea still relied on the Churchill ARV Mk 2 which was a competent machine but very slow. To ensure no Centurion fell into the enemy's hands there was an urgent need for an ARV which could keep up with the battle and drag off a damaged tank before someone else thought they had a better right to it.

The original concept for the Centurion then called the A41, envisaged a long list of variants including an ARV. The 'Cold War' demanded the rapid replacement of Britain's remaining World War II tanks, so the design, trials and production of Centurion variants slipped. The Royal Ordnance Factories and civilian contractors concentrated on building gun tanks.
In Europe some early Centurions had already been stripped of their turrets and converted to 'Tugs', similar to the earliest World War II ARVs. These tugs had used up most of the early Mkl and Mk2 Centurions made obsolete by the production of the 25 pounder gun armed Mk 3. The tugs were converted to a common design by 7 Armoured Workshop in BAOR and 27 Command Workshop in UK. In place of the turret a shallow drum was fitted and could be rotated by the turret traverse mechanism to wind on a towing cable. This was just a convenient way of carrying the cable and was not substantial enough to serve as a winch. The tugs carried hollebone drawbars, a form of A frame, plus the usual snatch blocks, gun planks, earth anchors and other recovery gear. The turret aperture was covered by a steel plate with access hatch. There was no main winch which limited the vehicle's recovery potential unless there was plenty of time to spare.
In 13 Command Workshop at Aldershot a programme for converting wartime Churchill gun tanks to ARV Centurion Mk 2 was still in progress in 1950/51.


The first of these winch equipped ARVs had reached the troops in Germany a few months before the War in Europe ended and there was an obvious improvement on the earlier ARVs. The economics of peacetime and common logic led to a plan for the standardisation of military equipment as far as possible including using fewer different types of tank. Those supplied by the USA could only be provided with spares now by the expenditure of dollars at a time when Britain had a vast balance of payments deficit. The plan was therefore to quickly dispose of most US built tanks and to retain the British built Comet and Cromwells and the Churchill for most specialist roles until all could be replaced by the full Centurion range. The Churchill ARV was to be the interim standard which was why it was necessary to go on converting Churchills five years after the end of the War. Wars rarely time themselves conveniently for military planners. The Korean War created a need for a Centurion ARV - NOW! The short term solution was to change the conversion programme at Aldershot from Churchills to Centurions. The design for the conversion leant heavily on the former version but, whereas the Churchills winch had been driven via a clutch from the main engine, the engine could not be adapted to use the Centurion's Meteor in the same way. Instead a separate winch engine was used. For the REME designed ARV this was the six cylinder Bedford petrol engine as used in the ubiquitous Bedford QL. The rear spade was virtually the same as on the earlier conversion but proved to be too weak in service on the Centurion and had to be modified with extra steel reinforcing. The winch capacity of 18 tons was inadequate but a rush job demanded compromises. These ARVs were designated Centurion ARV Mk 1 but were sometimes known as the 'Aldershot Pattern' They were based on recalled earlier Tug conversions or on any available Mk 1 or 2 gun tanks which remained unconverted. While the urgency was to provide ARVs for Korea, the first arriving in about March 1952, there was no sense in returning to the production of outdated Churchills so conversions of Centurions at Aldershot continued until most Armoured Regiment workshops and LADs in BAOR had their quota.

One of the REME workshops deployed to Korea was 5 Medium Workshop. Its role was to undertake repairs beyond the capacity of an Infantry' Workshop but not severe enough to be rated as a base repair. This was soon deemed impractical and early in 1951 the workshop moved to Japan to become part of the Commonwealth Base Workshop at Kure. Serving in the unit was then Capt, later Maj Jack Watson. He was overseeing repairs to badly knocked about Centurions when he was given four weeks to produce a Tug. A suitable candidate vehicle was chosen but needed about ten days of automotive repair work before the conversion could start. The turret was removed and the aperture covered with two hinged steel plates, one opening forward and one to the rear. For speed of production no attempt was made to shape the plates to fill the circular turret space. The plates were oblong in shape and overlapped the turret ring. The forward plate had two hatches so the crew could get in and out without having to lift the main plate. The Tug was delivered to Korea by June 1951 and further conversions followed. Eventually the resident Armoured Regiment had one Tug per squadron. The regiment was supported most unusually by a Heavy Aid Detachment (HAD) which amounted to a reinforced LAD equipped to carry out field repairs. Since this was the sole British armoured unit there was some logic but there are photos to prove that many Centurions did in fact end up in Infantry Workshops. There are accounts which suggest that other Tugs were used by the RE. So far no written evidence has appeared to show that any Tugs were operated by the Infantry Workshops in Korea. Although the concept was for an interim ARV the regiment saw the vehicles as multi-role. They were used to ferry supplies to forward locations where many tanks were dug in as virtual artillery pillboxes and the tugs were used as ambulances as well as recovery vehicles. They remained in use even after the first Centurion ARVs arrived.
At about this time REME was on the throes of Phase 2 taking over the roles of regimental tradesmen who had been excluded from the original reorganisation of the Army's repair resources in 1942. As unit establishments were rewritten for armoured regiments and their LADs the ARVs were transferred to the latter. The Tugs in Korea probably remained regimental vehicles even though pictures show them with at least partial REME crews.
So far it has not been possible to work out just how many Tugs were created for use in Korea nor what became of them. Whereas redundant Churchill ARVs are known to have been dumped at sea, the Centurions, unless totally destroyed by enemy action, were too valuable an asset to be discarded lightly. They may have been restored to their original state as gun tanks or returned to the UK for conversion to proper ARVs.