When war broke out, only two pre-series Matildas had been barely put in active service. They were soon joined by 20 others, passing the year in drilling exercises, before being shipped to France. There they came to serve with the 7th RTR, part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) Armored Division.
They represented a minority of this unit’s strength, the bulk of infantry tanks companies being taken by the older Matilda mkI.
However, their armor was superior to the formidable French B1 bis, and they proved it during a single battle, at Arras.The entire Matilda force available was committed during the hopeless attack of Arras, during the afternoon of May 21, 1940. After some success owed to the lack of an efficient German response, they were ultimately terminated by a handful of German 88 mm (3.46 in) FlaK 18 and 105 mm (4.13 in) field guns.Rommel had remembered how these AA guns were used in Spain years before. The surviving units withdrew from the field and were abandoned along with hundred of trucks and light vehicles at Dunkirk. They were sabotaged, but the Germans captured two of them, later repaired for tests.
The “Queen of the desert”
When the war enveloped North Africa, the Matilda truly became legendary, being nicknamed the “Queen of the desert” by its crews. The Matilda’s armor was a powerful advantage in all tank-to-tank engagements against Italian armor and AT guns during the early stage of the war (Operation Compass, late 1940). After that it proved itself time and time again against the DAK XVth Panzerdivision, still largely equipped with light Panzer IIs and early models of the Panzer III and IV, using inadequate guns.
But Rommel’s imaginative ambush tactics using AT guns proved a serious threat for the Matilda. It was hampered by its slow speed, a somewhat troublesome, overheating engine and troublesome steering under the harsh conditions of this specific theater of war. The already famous 7th RTR, reborn in Britain, fully reequipped with Mark IIs, took part both in the late 1940 campaign, and still ruled the battlefield until late 1941. Battle records included the conquest of Libya, seizing of Tobruk and Bardia, and later, Operation Battleaxe.
The Germans used well-placed AA batteries of 88 mm (3.46 in) guns with full efficiency against the Matilda. No less than 64 were lost during a single day of attack. Such a heavy toll raised questions about Matilda’s fighting capabilities, but, nevertheless, it still proved efficient where opposing forces had nothing to respond with. The Pak 36, Pak 41, Pak 97/38 and sPzB-41 were all but useless. But the rapid-firing, accurate 88 mm (3.46 in), served by skilled crews and taking full advantage of the flat ground with good visibility and the Infantry Tank Mk.II’s limited mobility, condemned large-scale frontal attacks using the Matilda.
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Supplied unpainted and may require some assembly.