When Major du Toit first posited the idea of a flail tank, Lieutenant Colonel (Lt Col) Norman Berry REME was brought in to evaluate its feasibility. He deemed the project possible, so once du Toit was sent to the UK to begin work on the Baron, Berry took up the mantle in the Middle East. Major Girling (REME) was also later tasked with producing and developing the concept further. Although the initial concept came from du Toit, both designs moved forward independently, up until the decision to focus on the Scorpion and to begin work on the UK version.

Black and white image. A truck pictured in the desert with attachment to the front creating a cloud of dust, soldiers stand nearby watching on.

Very early tests of the flail concept involved a stripped and modified chassis mounted on a lorry.

One of the major advantages of the Scorpion was that it was a simpler tank than the Baron. This was mainly as its rotator was set at a fixed height rather than able to be adjusted to match the terrain. Whilst this had its own problems, which would be addressed in later flail tanks, it did mean that the lack of visibility was not as large a problem – the crew only had to worry about not being able to see where they were going, rather than having to set the rotator to the correct height to detonate the mines.

Captain Young, OC (Officer Commanding) of the LAD (Light Aid Detachment) operating the Scorpion in the Middle East, noted the complete blindness of the tank commander in his report. Since they couldn’t see, and the mileometer wasn’t sufficiently sensitive for purpose, the crew had to estimate how large the minefield was and how long it would take to cross. They would of course add a margin for safety. Whilst sweeping, the tank driver could not turn or he would ‘almost certainly blow his own track off’. Instead, he should release both tillers and leave them ‘severely alone’ until they were safely through - although they had no way of definitely knowing whether they had got their estimations and/or counting right.

Black and white image. Side view action shot of a tank in the desert, visible is a large cloud of dust surrounding the tank which is slightly blurred from movement.

A Middle East Scorpion in action.

Black and white photograph of a flail tank in the desert (tank with rotator fixed to an arm out the front, chains attached to rotator), crew are sitting on the front of the tank.

The Middle East Scorpion with crew.

They also would not know how successfully they had detonated mines on their sweep as the explosions could not be felt or heard from inside the tank whilst it was flailing. This admittedly was preferable to the tank being affected by the explosions. Indeed one Scorpion is reported to have detonated 40 mines without any visible sign of damage to the tank, other than the flail links being used up as expected. It does however reinforce quite how cut off the crew were from the world they were trying to navigate.

The main problem with the Scorpion was still overheating. When they were first earmarked for use at El Alamein, they managed to trial them for only 10 to 15 minutes at a time before the engine overheated and seized. Lt Col Kerswell, of 2 Armoured Brigade Workshop, was brought in to troubleshoot and soon identified the issue as a lack of air supply to the cabin in which the engine was mounted. He therefore arranged for holes to be strategically cut into the armour plate. The Sapper inside controlling the engine must have appreciated the extra air as well! Although one Scorpion suffered mechanical failure before the battle and another was unfortunately largely destroyed by 88mm guns before it could begin flailing, one did manage to clear roughly 450 yards, the first field, before its flails were used up. The Scorpion, and Kerswell’s modification, were deemed a success.

Out of focus black and white photograph of a side view of a flail tank, tank with rotating attachment at front with chains attached. Another photo is inset in top right corner appearing to show the back view of the same tank.

Side view of Middle East Scorpion showing the flail driver's compartment. A:1969.0974.

The UK Scorpion built heavily on the experience gained by the Middle East Scorpion and the Baron. As such, prototypes were ready by the end of April 1943, based this time upon a Valentine tank. The Middle East Scorpions had a tendency to form furrows and so miss mines but this was much reduced with the UK type, which had a different arrangement and type of chains used. As with the Baron, cooling was still an issue in the first prototype, but largely resolved by the second, and visibility was improved simply by having a taller periscope, which was therefore out of range of the worst of the debris.

Black and white photo of a tank from a diagonal front perspective, with rotating attachment fixed onto crane at front, chains attached to the rotator.

The UK Scorpion (based on a Valentine). E:07.0038.14.

The rotator arm was adjustable like the Baron, something requested by Captain Young in his assessment of the Middle East Scorpion. However, it had fixed positions rather than being controlled on the move by hydraulics. Ultimately, this was judged insufficient in user trials since it necessitated getting out of the tank - not always an appealing prospect in a minefield. User trials highlighted other concerns with the UK Scorpion, a lack of wire cutting equipment for example, but, like the Baron, development was shifting towards a different design and so modifications to overcome these issues were never put in place. They were instead noted for the next design.

The Scorpion was not fully efficient when first produced. It was intended initially for road clearance but was found to be far more useful as an ‘assault weapon’ which could pierce into enemy minefields where the covering fire would otherwise make things very difficult for Sappers. Through much experimentation and development however, it was used successfully at El Alamein and Mersa Brega, and was claimed to have achieved 100% efficiency, destroying all mines that it passed over. Also, importantly, it led the way for the Sherman flail tank, also known as the Crab, which was used on D-Day and which will be the subject of the next article.

Information and pictures in this article are taken from E.05.0177.01, E:08.0121.11, E:03.0412.09, E:07.0038.14, A:1969.0974 and A:1969.0974.01.

Zoe Tolman, Assistant Archivist. Published in The Craftsman, February 2023.