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Vehicle Designations, United Kingdom

 

British Army (1920s-1945)

During most of the interwar period as well as World War II, the British Army used a designation system that consisted of an ordinance number and a descriptive item name. The ordinance number, or A-number (due to it being usually prefixed with the letter A), was given to combat vehicle projects which originated from a War Office specification and was a single sequential series. Prototype variants were further distinguished by an E-number suffix. Thus, the A2E1 referred to the original prototype of the Vickers Medium Mark I tank, while the A2E2 referred to the prototype of the Mark I CS close support variant. Occasionally, non-standard suffixes were also used as was the case of the A22D and A22F prototypes of a particular version of the Churchill tank. It is important to note that vehicles that originated as private designs were not given an ordinance number. This included some notable vehicles such as the Light Tank Mk III-VI and Valentine tanks, all of them from Vickers.

Production vehicles were given an item name that consisted of the vehicle type, subtype, mark number, and its colloquial name if applicable. Thus, the Tank, Cruiser, Mk I (A9) was the first cruiser tank design whose project was designated A9. A slightly more legible way of rephrasing this designation (and which is used more extensively on this site outside this page) was to simply write out the subtype of vehicle in full, as in Cruiser Tank Mk I. As wartime vehicles were gradually upgraded, the designation system lent itself to considerable confusion due to the inclusion of two different mark numbers, one for the type of vehicle and the other for the model of the vehicle. The Tank, Infantry, Mk IV, Churchill Mk VII therefore referred to the seventh variant of the fourth infantry tank design which was the Churchill (the previous three infantry tank designs being the Matilda I and II, and Valentine). One particularly egregious example of the overuse of mark numbers was the Covenanter tank, whose A-number uncharacteristically featured a mark number. The full name of this tank was Tank, Cruiser, Mk V, Covenanter Mk I (A13 Mk III). Note that new vehicle marks were determined largely on the basis of changes to the chassis rather than turret. This explains why the Tank, Cruiser, Mk VIII came to be used to refer to three distinct named vehicles, the Centaur, Cromwell, and Challenger which differed mainly in terms of engine and armament. Towards the end of the war, vehicle mark numbers were dropped altogether, with the Tank, Cruiser, Comet Mk I of late 1944 being the first to rid itself of what was arguably unnecessary nomenclature.

Much like the US system, combat vehicles which borrowed the chassis from another made reference to the original design in their full designation as well as the caliber of its gun. This was particularly the case with self-propelled guns and tank destroyers. For example, the Bishop self-propelled gun developed from the Valentine tank was designated Carrier, Valentine, 25pdr gun, Mk I, Bishop. Later in the war, the term 'carrier' was no longer used and instead, the designation directly referred to the new role of the vehicle while maintaining a reference to its original chassis. Another Valentine development, the Archer tank destroyer, was therefore known as the SP 17pdr, Valentine, Mk I, Archer (SP referring to self-propelled).

Towed artillery consited of simply the ammunition loading mechanism and the gun caliber either in inches or, as was more common British practice at the time, in terms of the weight of the shell in pounds. Only two loading mechanisms were in widespread use during World War II, these being breech-loading (BL) and so-called quick firing (QF) which in practice simply meant that the propellant charge was loaded in a metal case rather than a cloth bag (in other words, both were breech-loading). The widely used 87.6-mm field gun/howitzer was therefore known as the Ordinance, Quick Firing, 25-pounder Mark I (or simply QF 25-pdr Mk I). The full designation also included the carriage used, resulting in the Ordinance, Quick Firing, 25-pounder Mark I on Carriage, 18-pounder Mark I (this particular carriage was that of an 18-pounder gun). There was no distinction between field guns, howitzers, anti-tank, or anti-aircraft guns, though it was far more common for the latter to be designated in inches rather than pounds. Foreign artillery originally designated in milimeters retained that unit of measurement in British service, for example the QF 40-mm Bofors Mk I Swedish-designed anti-aircraft gun.

Variants

Modifications that were not deemed significant enough to merit a new mark number were designated in various ways, typically with a letter suffix or in the case of more minor modifications, one or more asterisks. Confusingly, many tanks were given different designations for their vehicle mark numbers and their model mark numbers. For example, the first three versions of the Covenanter tank were known as the Tank, Cruiser, Mk V, Covenanter Mk I, the Tank, Cruiser, Mk V*, Covenanter Mk II, and the Tank, Cruiser, Mk V**, Covenanter Mk III. It is also worth noting the special case of the Matilda infantry tanks, known colloquially as the Matilda I and Matilda II. These were not mark numbers attached to the name but part of the name itself and in both cases unofficial: the Matilda II was mostly referred to as simply Matilda once its predecessor was removed from service early in the war. As such, the Tank, Infantry, Mk II, Matilda Mk I referred to the first variant of the tank commonly known as the Matilda II (which was the second infantry tank design). Lastly, modifications that resulted in a change of role to the vehicle were added after the name and mark number. So, for example, the first anti-aircraft variant of the Crusader Mk III tank was known as the Tank, Cruiser Mk VI, Crusader Mk III, AA Mk I.

Names

There was no formal convention for assigning vehicle names and, in fact, this was rare for most interwar designs. However, there began a trend of baptizing cruiser tanks with names beginning with the letter 'c' that had some reference to British history, such as Crusader, Covenanter, and Cromwell. Infantry and light tanks followed no such convention and in many cases, the origin of their names is somewhat apocryphal. One notable name was the Churchill, a rare case of a piece of military equipment named after a living protagonist of the very war it served in. This was, however, less to do with Churchill's role as Prime Minister but rather, by his lifelong encouragement of tank development since World War I. Another trend was to give self-propelled guns ecclesiastical names such as Bishop and the (Canadian-designed) Sexton. However, one of the most notable naming contributions of the British Army was to christen nearly every US tank of World War II, as they were all provided as lend-lease at a time when the US did not name its vehicles. In recognition of their US origin, all US-built tanks were given the names of famous US Civil War generals such as (J. E. B.) Stuart, (Robert E.) Lee, and the (William Tecumseh) Sherman which ended up being the most widely used tank by both armies. Note that the 'Firefly' name used on Shermans equipped with the British 17-pdr gun was always informal, the official designation being a C-suffix to the mark number (as in Sherman Mk IC and Mk VC)

A list of all ordinance numbers that resulted in production vehicles (or which were cancelled in an advanced prototype state) is provided below, with A46 being the last number assigned. Numbers not included remained in the project or pilot stages:

Ordinance designations
A1 Vickers Independent Tank
A2 Vickers Medium Tank
A4 Light Tank Mk I, Mk II
A5 Vickers Light Tank
A6 Medium Tank Mk III
A9 Cruiser Tank Mk I
A10 Cruiser Tank Mk II
A11 Infantry Tank Mk I, Matilda (I)
A12 Infantry Tank Mk II, Matilda (II)
A13 Mk I Cruiser Tank Mk III
A13 Mk II Cruiser Tank Mk IV
A13 Mk III Cruiser Tank Mk V, Covenanter
A15 Cruiser Tank Mk VI, Crusader
A17 Light Tank Mk VII, Tetrarch
A22 Infantry Tank Mk IV, Churchill
A22F Infantry Tank Mk IV, Churchill VII
A24 Cruiser Tank Mk VII, Cavalier
A25 Light Tank Mk VIII, Harry Hopkins
A27L Cruiser Tank Mk VIII, Centaur
A27M Cruiser Tank Mk VIII, Cromwell
A28 Uparmored Cromwell (A27M)
A30 Cruiser Tank Mk VIII, Challenger
A34 Cruiser Tank, Comet
A38 Infantry Tank, Valiant
A39 Heavy Assault Tank, Tortoise
A41 Cruiser Tank, Centurion
A42 Redesignated Churchill VII (A22F)
A43 Infantry Tank, Black Prince
A45 Universal Tank (later Conqueror)

 

British Army (Postwar)

The British Army's wartime designation system would gradually evolve into a more simplified (at times) system that remains in place to this day. The first major change involved the abandonment of the ordinance A-numbers after the A46. In its place was established a three- or four-digit FV (Fighting Vehicle) number, the name likely referring to the Fighting Vehicle Design Department (FVDD) that was established in 1946, later renamed to the Fighting Vehicle Design Establishment (FVDE) in 1948 and Fighting Vehicles Research and Development Establishment (FVRDE) in 1952. Strangely enough, the FV numbers began with the FV200 series which based on the A45 project, and followed with the FV300 series based on the A46, thus ensuring some overlap between the two nomenclatures. In contrast to the relatively sequential nature of the A-numbers, the FV series was assigned in blocks which represented the same chassis, or developments from a particular chassis. For example, the FV400 series were personnel carriers which led to the FV420 series and, later, the much better-known FV430 series which included the widely produced FV432. Strangely, the FV numbers would frequently jump into the four-digit range, skipping many three-digit series; indeed, most postwar tanks were in these ranges such as the FV4000 (Centurion) and FV4200 series (Chieftain). Even stranger was the fact that the FV numbers were often not sequential. For example, the FV100 series was known as the Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) or CVR(T) family and was developed in the late 1960s, over two decades after the FV200 series. Another example is the successor of the FV4200 Chieftain, the Challenger 1, was assigned the FV4030 designation (and the follow-up Challenger 2 was assigned FV4034). Perhaps the most baffling is the FV4333 Stormer which was another vehicle in the CVR(T) family yet strangely not given an FV number in the 100s range like its counterparts.

If the FV system ended up being more complicated than the one that preceded it, the naming and mark number conventions were thankfully more simple. Postwar vehicles were almost always named and given a mark number which swapped the traditional roman numerals for arabic ones, thus the Tank, Heavy Cruiser, Centurion Mk I became the Centurion Mk 1. The earlier classification of 'cruiser' and 'infantry' tanks was also discarded in favor of 'medium gun' and 'heavy gun' tanks, the former referring to the Centurion's successor, the Chieftain (Tank, Medium Gun No. 2, Chieftain), while the latter was used on the only British heavy tank to see service, the Conqueror (Tank, Heavy No. 1, 120 mm Gun, Conqueror). Subvariants were designated with a number following a slash, such as the Centurion Mk 5/1 and Mk 5/2. Occasionally, subvariants were designated with a letter or a number/letter, as was the case with some export versions such as the Chieftain Mk 5/5P for Iran (then Persia) and Mk 5/5K for Kuwait.

Naming conventions for postwar vehicles have remained somewhat similar to those in wartime, as evidenced by the recurrent use of tank names that start with 'c'. Others like the CVR (T) family all began with the letter 's', such as Scorpion, Scimitar, and Spartan. Although the practice of naming vehicles was by now almost universal, there were some notable exceptions like the FV432 which despite being Britain's workhorse APC of the Cold War, was never named (coincidentally, nor was its US counterpart, the M113). And unlike World War II, imported vehicles retained their country of origin designations such as the M109 self-propelled gun or the M277 multiple rocket system and also remained unnamed. One oddity in postwar vehicles was the AS-90 self-propelled gun whose project designation ('Artillery System for the 1990s') became its de facto name, the full designation being Gun Equipment, 155mm L131. It also lacked an FV number due to the fact that it was a private venture by Vickers (VSEL). The Warrior IFV was also frequently referred to as the MCV-80 ('Mechanised Combat Vehicle for the 1980s'), which was also its project designation.

There has been a dearth of new British Army combat vehicles since the end of the Cold War and it is unclear to this author if the standard designation systems still exists; the FV numbers for example, appear to have been discontinued following the 2001 privatization of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) which succeeded FVRDE. Most current combat vehicles therefore do not have any alphanumeric designation and largely use their company designations. Evidence of this is the use of non-standard subvariant designations such as the Challenger 2E export version of the current main battle tank in service.

A list of FV numbers known to be used can be found at Arcane Fighting Vehicles.

Last modified: 20 January 2023