The design of the Centurion was begun in June 1943 under the designation as Cruiser Tank A41 with a General Staff's requirement for a tank not to exceed 40 tons and not wider than the 10'8" of a Bailey Bridge. In addition durability, agility and reliability were to be the essential factors. At this stage in the Second World War however, it was felt desirable to fit the new design with a gun capable of defeating the German Tiger tank, and to provide protection against the 88mm AP round, hollow charge ammunition and mines. To achieve these requirements the designers recommended that the weight limit be increased to 60 tons.

The original plan was to fit the 77mm gun from the Comet cruiser, but this was later changed in favour of the 17-Pdr. The first 10 prototypes were also fitted with the unsuccessful Polsten cannon to the left of the 17-Pdr, but this was found to occupy too much turret space, and so the 7.92mm Besa Coaxial machine-gun was installed in the next batch of 10 prototypes (the final three also having an additional driver operated Besa in the hull, though this was not incorparated in production versions).

Six of the Prototypes developed by AEC Ltd were shipped to Germany in 1945 to undertake troop trials, but arrived to late to see active service in the Second World War, and it was not until the Korean War that the Mk.3 with 20-Pdr gun and Meteor IVB powerplant saw action for the first time (The Mk.1 with Meteor III or IV engine being the first 100 production machines and the 700 17-Pdr Mk 2s produced in 1946 which were powered by the Rolls Royce Meteor IVA engine were later upgunned as Mk.3). The first overseas purchaser of the Centution Mk.3 was Australia whose tanks were later upgrated to Mk 5/1 specifications armed with the 20-Pdr gun and with the Besa replaced by an American .30" Browning machine-gu.. These tanks were to see service in Vietnam. Other early purchaser of the Mk 3 were Canada and Sweden, who received their first batch of 100 in 1952 and 1953 respectively. An experimental version (Mk.4) with a 95mm Howitzer was at the same time proposed as a close support tank but was never built.

Throughout its production run the Centurion was constantly upgraded and older marks brought up to the latest specifications. The Mk.5 introduced in 1956 was to find many overseas buyers. This model was to contain a number of refinements including a modified 20-Pdr and with a revised commander's cupola mounting a second machine gun. The glacis plate armour was also increased later on the Australian specification Mk 5/1 model. The Mk 5/2 used by Canada and Denmark (modified Mk.3s) were the first to receive the newer L7 105mm rifled gun as its main armament.

The Mk.6 had extra fuel storage on the rear hull plate and later in the Mk 6/1 received IR night fighting equipment, and in the Mk 6/2 a .50" range finder gun. All Mk.6s seem to have been equiped with the 105mm gun.

In 1952, Leyland Motors had introduced another version of the Centurion which became known as the Mk.7. Early Mk.7s had been armed with the 20-Pdr gun but were better armoured than the MK.3 and Mk.5. Additional fuel storage was incorporated to compensate for a loss in range caused by the weight of the increased armour, and increased ammunition storage was another principle change. Like the Mk 6 a later version, the Mk 7/1 had IR night fighting equipment, and in the final variation, the Mk 7/2, it was upgunned with the 105mm gun and supplied with a .50" Range finder gun. A major export customer for the Mk.6 and 7 was Jordan, whose later tanks were renamed as the TARIQ (1972) with the addition of a laser range finding system in place of the RF gun.

The final versions of the Centurion began with the Mk.8 which introduced a new main armament mantlet. The original Mk.8 again began life with the 20-Pdr which it retained throught the uparmoured Mk 8/1 variant. The Mk 8/2 increased armour yet again and was also re-armed with the 105mm. This brought the total weight of the Centurion up to
51 tons.

The Mk.9 and Mk.10 were basically re-modelled Mk 7s and Mk 8s respectively. Both were later fitted with IR night fighting equipment as the Mk 9/1 or the Mk 10/1, and with the .50" Range finder gun as the Mk 9/2 and Mk 10/2. The Vickers L7 gun as fitted to the Mk 10 had a range of 1,800 metres when firing APDS and 3,000-4,000 metres when firing HESH (High Explosive, Squash Head).

The final three models of the Centurion came with IR and .50" RF as standard equipment. The Mk.11 being based on the Mk.6; the Mk 12 being based on the Mk.9; and the Mk.13 being an improved Mk 10. Despite all the many variations in specifications all Centurions from the Mk.3 on were powered by the reliable Rolls Royce Meteor IVB engine developing 650 bhp at 2,550 rpm which gave the Centurion a maximum speed of 21.5 mph .

Manufactured by Leyland Motors and later by the Royal Ordnance Factory, Leeds between 1949 and 1961 when production ceased, over 4,000 Centurions were built of which around 2,500 went to export. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Ghana, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Neterlands, Somalia, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland were, in addition to the British Army, all customers for the Centurion.

Long after production had officially ceased , and the Centurion had been replaced in British Army service by the CHIEFTAIN MBT, the Centurion was still in full employment by most of its export customers. The Centurion gained considerable success in Israeli hands on the battles on the Golan heights during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war where its survivability when faced with more modern Soviet designed tanks has become ledgendary. Local modifications to the original tanks has also been undertaken in a number of countries which has maintained the life span for many years.

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