The Cruiser Tank Comet (A34) was probably the best British tank of the Second World War and was a reliable cruiser tank armed with a high velocity 77mm gun. Unfortunately it entered service far too late to have any significant impact on the fighting, seeing combat for the first time after the Rhine crossings. It was rare amongst British tanks of the period in that it was purpose-built to carry its gun, rather than being an unsatisfactory conversion of an existing design, as was the case for the A30 Challenger.
While the A30 Challenger had been modified to allow it to carry the standard 17pdr gun, on the A34 Comet the gun was modified to fit into a smaller turret. This gun was developed by Vickers as a 50 calibre high velocity 75mm gun. By the time it entered service it was a 76.2mm gun, the same as the 17pdr, and could take modified 17pdr ammo, using the smaller 3-in cartridge case with the projectile from the 17pdr ammo. It was officially designated the 77mm Ordnance Quick Firing Mk II gun, to distinguish it from the 17pdr and the 75mm guns in use in the Cromwell and Churchill, as the ammo wasn't interchangable. The new gun was only slightly less powerful than the 17pdr, and was more accurate when firing HE shells.
The A34 was designed to carry the new Vickers gun, but on 20 July 1943 the Tank Board decided to investigate the possibility of using the American 76mm gun or even the original 17pdr, but eventually the Ministry of Supply decided in favour of the Vickers 77mm gun.
The gun was carried in a well-designed welded turret, with a cast front that included the mantlet. This was the most advanced feature of the tank, and resembles post-war turrets. An all-round vision cupola was carried as standard.
Leyland Motors were the parent company, but at first they weren't keen on the type, viewing it as insufficiently advanced to be worth putting into production. Instead they favoured concentrating on the more advanced A41 while the Sherman Firefly filled the role envisioned for the A34. Despite these doubts Leyland did a good job of getting the tank into production, and it eventually arrived only six weeks late, despite a number of major changes to the design. The mild-steel prototype was completed in March 1944. In September it was decided to adopt a welded hull and composite cast and welded turret. Eventually 143 were completed by the end of January 1945, and it was expected that all 2,000 on order would be complete by the end of the year. Production was then scaled down.
The Comet was mechanically identical to the Cromwell, with the same engine and transmission. The Christie suspension was also very similar, although it did use return rollers which slightly reduced the range of movement for each road wheel. The Comet clearly benefited from all of the effort that had gone into making the Cromwell a reliable tank, and was a reliable tank right from the start. The tank had 18in tracks, up from the 15.5in on later Cromwells and Challengers, and this change accounts for the slight increase in width. The basic layout of the tank was also similar to that of the Cromwell, although by the time it entered production roughly 60% of the Comet was new.
The Comet entered service with the 29th Armoured Brigade, 11th Armoured Division. It entered combat after the crossing of the Rhine. In its short combat service the Comet proved to be surprisingly reliable, and it was popular with its crews who finally had a fast, manoeuvrable and well armoured tank with a good gun, and one that was a match for the Panther and could take on the Tiger at reasonable ranges. The 15th/ 19th Hussars, who used both the Challenger and the Comet greatly preferred the Comet, although they still reported that it was vulnerable to the German 75mm and 88mm tank guns.
After the war the Comet was rapidly replaced by the excellent Centurion, but it was used by the Territorial Army, and also saw service in the Irish Republic.
Cruiser Tank Comet (A34)
Hull Length: 25ft 1.5in
Hull Width: 10ft
Height: 8ft 9.5in
Weight: 32.5 tons
Engine: 600hp Meteor
Max Speed: 29mph
Armament: One 77mm gun, two 7.92mm machine guns