Monster Machines: We Find Out What It’s Like To Ride Inside An Authentic WW2-Era Tank

Monster Machines: We Find Out What It’s Like To Ride Inside An Authentic WW2-Era Tank

The Matilda II Mark IV was an Allied infantry tank of the Second World War. Noted for its formidably armored hull, it was one of the primary tanks used by Australian Army regiments during New Guinea, Bougainville and Borneo campaigns. Last week, we stepped inside one of these 25-tonne death machines for an authentic taste of World War II driving. Here are the photos.

To celebrate the home video release of WW2 tank drama Fury starring Brad Pitt, Universal Sony invited Gizmodo to step inside a genuine Matilda Mark IV tank based in Bilpin, NSW. Originally deployed in 1945, the Mk IV we rode in had been painstakingly restored by private collector Peter Ray. During the event, we got to ride inside the gun turret like scores of our forefathers at the Battle of Huon and countless other land skirmishes. It was an experience that was both exhilarating and sobering.

Say hello to the Matilda II Mark IV! Equipped with a 76mm Howitzer cannon and a single 7.92mm Besa machine gun, the Mark IV did not possess the most formidable armament on the WW2 battlefield. However, it more than made up for this with its armoured hull. Boasting a 78mm frontal glacis and turret, it was one of the toughest tanks of World War II. At the time of production, it was virtually immune to most AT guns and shells from enemy tanks.

Like countless other decommissioned tanks of the era, this imposing weapon ended up being used as a makeshift tractor in rural NSW. It was a task that the Matilda Mark IV was poorly equipped for due to its problematic engine and poor steering. In 1980, our host Peter Ray purchased this model, along with another tank, for the princely sum of $700. Today, it’s worth around five hundred thousand dollars: not a bad investment! (Getting one into your garage could be a problem though.)

The Matilda II was originally outfitted with a fairly weedy QF 40mm gun. This was considered powerful enough to deal with most tanks of the time. While it had good accuracy and a fast rate of fire, the absence of high-explosive rounds compromised its effectiveness in battle.

The 7.92mm Besa mounted machine gun was the Matilda II’s chief weapon against un-armoured targets. It was capable of firing 800 rounds per minute.

The machine gun used 75 gram bullets from a 15x104mm cartridge with a muzzle velocity of 818.3 m/s. Ammunition was fed via a 225-bullet metal link belt. Interestingly, the ammunition used by the Besa was indistinguishable from that used by German rifles and machine guns of the same calibre. This allowed British forces to use stocks of captured enemy ammunition (and vice versa).

Compared to other tanks of the era, the Matilda II was quite slow moving with a top speed of just 25km/hr. This was deemed sufficient as it matched infantry marching speeds (the Matilda was primarily used in infantry support roles.) On the plus side, this allowed soldiers to keep up with the tank and provided them with extra protection when advancing on the enemy.

The rear armour which protected the engine from the sides and rear, was 55 millimetres thick. The Matilda Mk IV used a twin Leyland 6 cylinder 180 hp diesel engine. The “double decker” bus-style engine proved problematic for technician crews, who were forced to service each engine separately.

The tank treads were a formidable weapon in their own right: indeed, attempting to drive one on a regular road would result in the tarmac being completely chewed to pieces; especially when turning.

The Matilda’s hydraulically-powered three-man turret was cast in one solid piece of hardened steel. It was tall enough to accommodate the main gun and a coaxial machine-gun, as well as the commander.

The view from inside the crew compartment. This cramped space housed three crew members: the gunner, loader and commander. (The driver sat separately, below the turret.) It presumably wasn’t an ideal place for sufferers of claustrophobia — especially during the heat of combat.

The crew compartment included a box of hand grenades: handy for when shit gets real.

As you’d expect, tanks generally aren’t fitted out with windows. Instead, the crew mostly relied on periscopes and radio support while picking targets and navigating terrain.

The steel boxes on the turret stored .303 ammunition for the Bren light machine gun which was carried inside the tank. This was used in an anti-aircraft role and fired from the turret hatch door.

As mentioned, the Matilda II was renowned for its durable armour; especially in the early years of the war. It was affectionately dubbed the “Queen of the desert” during North African campaigns due to its seemingly impenetrable hull. The introduction of larger enemy guns and tanks eventually reversed its fortunes, but it continued to serve until the very end of the war.

Here I am in the driver’s compartment. In wartime, my smiling face probably would have been shot off by a sniper in seconds.

Even after taking the era into account, the tank’s controls look rather primitive.

The No. 19 Wireless Set included an A set and B set radio (one for talking to other tanks in close range and the other for long-range communication.) It also included an intercom for talking to the rest of the crew. The small unit on the top is the PSU for the Wireless Set. The haversack beside it was for storing the headset and microphone when not in use.

No. 19 Wireless Set control boxes used by the crew commander and radio operator.

The tank’s owner Peter Ray also showed off his photo collection of the Matilda in action.

Riding inside the crew compartment was exceptionally noisy: and that was just the engine! We can’t begin to imagine what it must have been like to have bullets rattling against the hull and explosions all around. Hopefully we will never have to.

Fury is available to buy from today on Blu-ray, DVD and digital formats including Ultra Violet.