The Centaur and Cromwell originated in July 1940, when specifications were issued for a new heavy cruiser tank with 75mm of frontal armour and a turret able to take the new 6pdr gun. Experience in France had shown that although speed was an advantage, adequate armour protection and a powerful gun were even more vital considerations. The two cruiser tanks then under development, the A13 Mk III Covenanter and the A15 Crusader, were unfortunately inadequate in both regards. Vauxhall Motors and BRCW - Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company - both offered designs for the new tank, but the company that won the day was Nuffield Mechanisation and Aero with a development of its own Crusader. Six pilot models were ordered by the Ministry of Supply's Tank Board in January 1941 under the designation A24 Cruiser Mk VII.

A24 Cruiser Mk VII Cavalier
Meanwhile, Leyland Motors and Rolls-Royce had been co-operating on adapting the renowned Merlin aircraft engine for tank use. Known as the Meteor, this un-supercharged 600hp V12 unit offered a huge power increase over the standard tank engine of the day, the Nuffield Liberty, which dated back to the First World War. Tests in a Crusader were dramatically successful, and in April 1941 it was adopted for the new cruiser tank programme. The Meteor wouldn't be ready immediately though, so the first A24s would be fitted with the Liberty. As for transmission, the Tank Board favoured an efficient system designed by Henry Merritt of the David Brown tractor company (as used in the Churchill), over the Crusader's more primitive Wilson epicyclic system.

Meteor Engine being installed during training (Cromwell)
By 1943 the Cavalier was a dead duck, to be used solely for training as an artillery observation post (AOP) vehicle. Only the Centaur and Cromwell were considered as gun tanks. The designated 57mm 6pdr had by now been superseded by a version re-bored to 75mm, able to take American ammunition and also fire an effective high-explosive round, but production delays meant that both tanks were initially fitted with existing 6pdrs. In addition, a proportion of tanks would be armed with the promising new 95mm close-support howitzer, based on the 3.7inch AA gun and 25pdr field gun.

A Cromwell of 1st RTR passing through the village of Canteloup
The first tanks were delivered to 9th Armoured Division in the UK in April 1943. The Cromwell showed promise and was well-regarded by the troops, but reliability issues still plagued the Centaur. Production was again cut back, and the decision made that, like the Cavalier, it would be demoted to auxiliary roles. Yet despite its limitations, production carried on until early 1945, the last ones built as AA tanks. In the end, 1,821 Centaurs and 2,494 Cromwells were produced between 1942 and 1945. Only the Cromwell would go to war as a gun tank in the armoured divisions, armed with either the 75mm or the 95mm gun. There were just enough to equip the regiments before D-Day, and their baptism of fire in Normandy.

The qualitative disparity between German and Allied AFVs has sometimes been overstated, but there is no doubt that by the time it entered service the Cromwell had been outclassed by the latest German tanks.

Cromwells of A Squadron, 10th Mounted Rifle Regiment
Typically for Polish vehicles both carry spare track for extra protection on the hull front, and the Mk VI in the lead also has sections of Sherman track welded to the turret. Such measures were rarely seen in Normandy, but became more common during the advance into Germany.

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