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Valentine tank: What’s in a name?

An affectionate look one of the most important British tank designs in history.

No other tank bears such an unwarlike name as The Valentine.  But despite its somewhat ironic nomenclature, the Valentine Infantry Tank was an inspired, if not risky, development which bore fruit just when the Army needed it most.

During the interwar years, there was just one firm in Britain building tanks aside from the government supported Royal Ordinance factories, which had not produced a decent tank in years. On the other hand, Vickers-Armstrongs had been enjoying commercial success in tank design and production since 1923, with customers at home and abroad.

One reason for this was that, until he died in a plane crash in 1935, Vickers-Armstrongs had Sir John Carden on their staff-probably the best tank designer Britain ever had. Another reason was their experience in this new field, understanding that there was little point in designing something that their own factories would struggle with or, in retooling for production, find too costly to build.

Valentine in action.
Valentine in action.

By 1938, Vickers-Armstrong had already built the successful A9 and A10 Cruiser tanks for the War Office. But as the preparations for war gathered pace, the Vickers-Armstrongs refused to accept a share in the production of any design that had not originated in their own drawing office.

The normal practice in Britain was for the War Office to issue specifications for a new tank and then contract with industry to manufacture it. This is what made Valentine unusual. Having refused to participate in the government scheme, Vickers-Armstrongs boldly proceeded to design and build a prototype tank in 1938 that adhered to few, if any, of the War Office’s approved features and proceeded to offer it for sale.

On the one hand, Vickers-Armstrongs had produced an inherently reliable machine based on the engine, transmission, and suspension of the tried and tested A9 and A10. On the other hand, this factor gave the tank a 16 ton weight restriction that limited the thickness of armour. Worst of all from the War Office point of view was that the turret was so small that it could only accommodate a crew of two, going directly against the doctrine that each gun tank turret should accommodate a gunner, loader, and commander.

Valentine II A Sqn, 50RTR, 23 Armoured Brigade, Tunisia 1943
Valentine II A Sqn, 50RTR, 23 Armoured Brigade, Tunisia 1943

Yet the War Office had little option but to accept the Valentine, albeit with a few minor tweaks. In 1939, tank production was in arrears, and other new designs, such as the Matilda II, were an unknown quantity and unlikely to be available in any significant number before the war started. The Valentine was also a much simpler design, and Vickers estimated that two Valentines could be built in the time required to manufacture one of the competing Matilda IIs. Even so, the War Office was far from sold on the idea.

At this point, it would have been difficult to imagine that the Valentine would become the most produced British tank of World War II, even exceeding the production run of the successful Churchill tank.

By 1944, 8,300 tanks had been produced in Britain and Canada, accounting for 25% of total British tank production. Not an enormous figure when compared with American or Russian output, but higher than the German Panzer III, which might be seen as a close contemporary. Interestingly, just under 4,000 were delivered to the Red Army and used on the Eastern Front, and a number served with New Zealand forces in the Pacific.

The Valentine arrived too late to play a role in the Battle of France, but it was soon available in sufficient numbers to re-equip a British Army that was facing the threat of invasion and desperately short of hardware. It was June 1941 before the 1st Army Tank Brigade arrived in Egypt and took the Valentine into action for the first time. It was far from perfect, but they were plentiful and mechanically reliable; on both counts, it was unlike other British tanks of the time, such as the Crusader.

Whilst the Valentine had the flexibility to be continually upgraded, it was effectively obsolete as a gun tank by 1944.  The ready availability of surplus hulls meant that they were widely used in other roles, such as command vehicles and for training.   By the end of World War Two, Valentines had disappeared from the British Army, but they remained in service with the New Zealand Army until the 1960s.

Valentine Mk II North Africa
Valentine Mk II North Africa

So why the name Valentine? Like all good yarns, the origin of this title remains obscure. It may be derived from Vickers’ telegraphic address or it may be a tribute to the then recently deceased Sir John Valentine Carden, as Vickers did use a W to indicate those products designed by Barnes Wallis. It has also been suggested that it was named Valentine because the design was first presented to the War Office on February 14th, 1938, St. Valentine’s Day. In fact, the meeting was held on February 10th. There may be an even more mundane suggestion: that it was simply an internal Vickers project name, like the name `Matilda`.

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