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From Little Willie to the Crusader – iconic tanks that put firepower in UK’s military amid fears they could be scrapped

THESE iconic tanks put firepower into the British military – but there are fears they could be scrapped to make way for a new age of battle.

Defence chiefs are planning to dump Army tanks in order to prioritise cyber warfare instead.

Government officials are reportedly exploring the idea of getting rid of the armoured vehicles as costs to upgrade the 227 Challenger 2 tanks and 366 Warriors soars.

Tanks have been crucial to British military successes since their invention a year into the Great War.

Although initially the vehicles were crude and unreliable, they eventually became a mainstay of ground armies – and ushered in a new era of mechanised warfare.

Here’s the history of seven of our best-known war machines.

The concept of an armoured vehicle with caterpillar tracks, rather than wheels, was first devised by British Army colonel Ernest Swinton and the secretary of the committee for imperial defence, William Hankey.

They believed it’d be better at crossing difficult terrain and breaking through enemy lines.

Winston Churchill, then a British Navy minister, backed the plans, and a committee was established to begin building a prototype.

The government didn’t want their enemies to know about the project – so workers were told they were building ‘water tanks’ to bring onto the battlefield.

The first tank prototype – Little Willie – was unveiled a year later.

It weighed 14 tonnes and moved at a speed of two to three miles per hour – but it couldn’t cross large trenches.

The tank never made it into battle, but designers were convinced their idea could work with a better design.

Tanks were first used in warfare at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15 1916.

The Mark 1 prototype, which featured a steering tail at the rear of the vehicle, was slow and unreliable.

In total, 49 were deployed for the battle – but only 25 moved forward at the start of the attack.

By 1918, tanks were a common sight during the fighting, with some 2,600 in operation.

During the Second World War, the Crusader became the British Army’s primary tank.

More than 5,000 of the cruiser tanks were manufactured.

They were particularly important to British victories during the campaign in North Africa, particularly in the Battle of El Alamein in 1942.

However, the first version – Crusader I – was felt to be under-armed, and so the Crusader II, with improved armour thickness, was introduced.

The tanks were used against the German Panzer III and Panzer IV models.

After the Second World War, the main tank model used by UK forces was the Centurion.

It was introduced in 1945, but was widely used into the 50s and 60s, even seeing combat on frontlines into the 80s.

It was first used in combat during the Korean War in 1950.

During that conflict, it was used against US-supplied M47 and M48 Patton tanks.

Between 1946 and 1962, 4,423 Centurions were produced, and it’s been used – although heavily modified – as recently as 2006 during the Israel-Lebanon conflict.

The Chieftain was the UK’s main battle tank for three decades.

It introduced a reclining driver position, which allowed for a heavily sloped hull and reduced height.

The commander, gunner and loader sat in the turret of the vehicle.

It was also faster than the Centurion, despite being heavier.

Chieftain was used during the Cold War to defend West Germany against potential attacks.

The tank was famously taken for a spin by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 – but there were major concerns over its reliability during desert warfare.

Nevertheless, 21 were deployed to Saudi Arabia for Operation Granby, the UK initaitive in the 1991 Gulf War.

Before the commencement of the deployment, only 22 per cent were operational because of faults and a lack of spares.

But in total, British Challengers destroyed roughly 300 Iraqi tanks without suffering a single loss in combat.

And in 1991, a Challenger achieved the longest range confirmed kill of the war, destroying an Iraqi tank with a round fired a distance of 2.9 miles – the longest tank-on-tank kill shot recorded.

The redesigned model which is still in use, was initially used in peacekeeping missions and exercises.

It was first used in combat in March 2003 during the invasion of Iraq.

It saw extensive use during the siege of Basra, providing fire support to the British forces and knocking out Iraqi tanks.

During the invasion, Challenger 2 tanks suffered no tank losses to Iraqi fire, although one was penetrated by an improvised explosive device, and its driver was injured.

At one point, one of the tanks came under attack and was hit by 14 rocket-propelled grenades from close range, as well as an anti-tank missile.

But the crew were unharmed and the tank was back in operation six hours after it was recovered.

Another of the tanks survived being hit by 70 of the grenades.

In 2017, a Challenger 2 suffered an ammunition explosion during live firing exercises in Wales.

Four were critically injured, with two servicemen dying of their injuries.

Over the course of the model’s history, just one has ever been destroyed.

It happened in Basra in 2003 during a ‘friendly fire’ incident in which two crew members were killed.

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