Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)
The Tank War on Other Fronts: 1941–45
ALTHOUGH THE FOCUS OF MOST TANK FIGHTING in World War II was on Europe, and especially the Russian Front, there was notable combat use of tanks in peripheral theaters. The two most important of these theaters were the North African desert in 1941–43 and the Pacific in 1941–45. This book will not devote a great deal of detail to either theater because they were relatively small scale and had marginal impact on World War II tank design.
TANKS IN THE PACIFIC WAR
Japan had an active and prolific tank program in the late 1930s to support its army in China, but after a brief use of tanks at the outset of the enlarged Pacific War in December 1941, its tank force was allowed to atrophy due to a lack of resources. By December 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) was forming more than a dozen new tank regiments intended to act as the shock force of offensive operations. The army’s ten main infantry divisions each had a tank company. In the autumn of 1941, with the Red Army crippled by Germany’s Operation Barbarossa, the Imperial General Headquarters decided to shift the strategic focus of Japan’s military operations from the Kwantung Army in China to the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Southern Army against objectives in the South Sea region—the possessions of United States, Britain, and the Netherlands. This bold and ambitious plan intended to seize the Philippines, Malaysia, Burma, and the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) and to cripple Allied military power in the Pacific by attacks on the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor and Britain’s main fortified garrison in Singapore. The attacks began on 7 December 1941 with carrier-borne air strikes against Pearl Harbor followed by air attacks on the other key targets. The IJA planned to make extensive use of its burgeoning tank force during these operations even though it had no experience in jungle warfare.1
Most western armies considered the Asia–Pacific Theater to be unsuitable for the use of tanks until the Japanese demonstrated otherwise in 1941. This Type 89B medium tank of Col. Seinosuke Sonoda’s 7th Tank Regiment is seen here crossing an improvised bridge erected to bypass Highway 6 north of Manila on 3 January 1942 during the fighting in the Philippines. This company used a white star as its unit insignia.
The British army felt that the rough terrain around Singapore made it impassable to tanks and difficult if not impossible to traverse by any large military formations. The Japanese disagreed and staged amphibious landings at the northern neck of the Malay Peninsula on 8 December 1941. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita’s Twenty-Fifth Army deployed 211 tanks in the three tank regiments. The most important tank battle of this campaign took place on 7 January 1942 when the Japanese 6th Tank Regiment overcame the Slim River line north of Singapore. Singapore fell on 15 February, due in no small measure to the effective use of tanks.
Spearheaded by two tank regiments, the IJA struck into Burma, hoping to fight all the way into India. The British 7th Armoured Brigade had recently arrived from North Africa and was tasked with stopping the Japanese advance on India. Equipped with M3 Stuart tanks, the British 2 Royal Tank Regiment fought a series of costly rearguard actions in Burma, including several tangles with the Japanese 14th Tank Regiment. By the time the survivors reached British lines in India, only one Stuart tank remained in action.
The Japanese assault on the Philippines took place at the Lingayen Gulf on Luzon in December 1941 and included the two tank regiments. The first tank-versus-tank engagement of the Pacific War occurred on 22 December 1941 when Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks of the 4th Tank Regiment ambushed a patrol of M3 light tanks from the U.S. Army’s 192nd Tank Battalion near Damortis. These two opposing tank units continued to skirmish as the U.S. forces retreated toward the Bataan peninsula. Following the fall of Bataan, a special Japanese tank unit was formed and was instrumental in overcoming the island fortress of Corregidor.
Japan’s early victories in the Pacific War displayed a skillful and imaginative use of tanks in terrain that the British and American commanders thought prohibited their use. Having won critical early victories against the Allies, Japanese strategy now shifted to a defensive orientation. Industrial priority was given to the warships and aircraft that bore the brunt of the new defensive naval campaigns. In spite of their important role in the 1941–42 victories, tank production fell after its peak in 1941.
Not only did tank production suffer, new tank design stagnated as well. Japan had been dependent on European influences to help direct their technological advancement. The Allied tanks encountered in 1941–42, notably the M3 Stuart light tank, did not particularly impress the Japanese and were little better than Japan’s most modern tank, the Type 97-kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha. Japan attempted to learn about newer trends in European tank design from their German allies, but technology transfer was so slow as to be almost useless. Germany sold Japan a pair of PzKpfw III in 1943, one with the 50mm gun and one with the short 75mm gun, but by the time they arrived in Japan they were already obsolete. Germany later sold Japan a Panther and a Tiger in September 1943, but by the time they were ready in 1944 it was no longer possible to ship them to Japan due to Allied naval interdiction.
The most widely used Japanese tank during the Pacific War of 1941–45 was the Type 95 Ha-Go light tank. Armed with a 37mm gun, it was competitive when faced with tanks such as the M3 Stuart in 1941. However, by 1944 it was hopelessly outgunned by the M4 Sherman.
The best Japanese tank deployed outside Japan was the Type 97-kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha armed with a 47mm. It was no match for contemporary American medium tanks such as the Sherman. The largest tank-versus-tank battles of the Pacific War were fought in the Philippines in January–February 1945, pitting the Japanese 2nd Armored Division against several U.S. Army tank companies and infantry units. Here, an M4A3 tank named “Classy Peg” of the 716th Tank Battalion passes a smoldering Type 97-kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha of the 7th Tank Regiment knocked out during the fighting around Binalonan on 17 January 1945.
The Type 97-kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha used the classic three-man turret configuration and had a cupola for the commander. Japanese tanks often lacked radios, and hand flags remained in common use for inter-vehicle communication.
The U.S. Army and Marine Corps made extensive use of tanks in the Pacific War. Following the use of two tank battalions in the Philippines campaign equipped with M3 light tanks, the next major use occurred on Guadalcanal in 1942. There was seldom any tank-versus-tank fighting in these early campaigns since neither side had large numbers of tanks. There was some small-scale skirmishing by Marine Corps M4A2 Sherman tanks with Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go tanks on Tarawa in November 1943. The IJA committed a tank regiment on Saipan and Guam in the summer 1944 campaign, but it was overwhelmed by the growing U.S. Marine Corps tank force, which eventually numbered six battalions. By this stage of the war, the contest was unequal with the obsolete Type 97-kai Shinhoto Chi-Ha facing Army and Marine M4 Sherman tanks. During the fighting on Luzon in the Philippines in 1944–45, the IJA committed an entire armored division, but its tanks were deployed in static fashion as pillboxes and the division was overrun by the U.S. Army.2
The Japanese tank force was also subjected to the Red Army in 1945 when the Soviet Union entered the Pacific War in August 1945. This was the largest tank operation of the Asian war, and one of the least known outside of Russia. The Red Army overran the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in two weeks with a rapid, three-pronged pincer movement involving over 5,000 armored vehicles—more than at Kursk. There was very little tank-versus-tank fighting during this campaign, as the war ended before the Red Army reached the main defense line where the IJA tank brigades were stationed. The Red Army captured 369 Japanese tanks and 35 armored cars during the August 1945 campaign.
The Japanese ultimately developed medium and heavy tanks, but the few that were completed were kept in Japan for the final defense in 1945. The Type 3 Chi-Nu was armed with a long 75mm gun and attached to the 4th Tank Division in 1945 at the time the war ended.
TANK COMBAT IN NORTH AFRICA
The North African desert was the scene of prolonged tank combat, taking place from 1940 through 1943. However, the scale of the fighting was small compared to the Russian Front. As far as this book is concerned, its significance is further diminished by its lack of influence on world tank design. The technological momentum in much of the fighting after 1941 came from Germany, and most of the tank types used in North Africa had been based on the lessons from the Russian Front. The campaigns in North Africa were a technological backwater as far as tank development was concerned.
Italy had made extensive use of tanks in its colonial adventures in North Africa in the 1930s including Ethiopia and Libya. Most of these early campaigns were fought with the L.3 tankettes, which had been proven obsolete in European warfare as early as the Spanish Civil War in 1937.3 By 1940, the Italian forces in North Africa had been reinforced with new medium tanks including the M.11/39 and M.13/40. These tanks were strongly influenced by the British Vickers 6-Ton tank and its foreign offshoots such as the Soviet T-26. The M.11/39 had an unfortunate layout with a hull-mounted gun supported by a small turret with machine guns. It was quickly redesigned with a more conventional turret and armed with an effective 47mm gun. By the standards of the late 1930s, it was not a bad design, with 30mm frontal armor and a 42mm gun mantlet. This was not proof against the British 2-pounder, but the armor was better than that on most British cruiser tanks of the day.4
In September 1940, the Italian army launched an offensive into Egypt with extensive tank support. There was some expectation that it would be an easy campaign, as the Italians substantially outnumbered the British garrison in Egypt. The British armored force in Egypt included the 7th Armoured Division, and the various British formations had 175 light tanks, mainly the machine-gun-armed light tank Mark VI, 73 cruiser tanks, and about 50 Matilda infantry tanks.
The Italian M.11/39 had its main 37mm gun located in the hull, supplemented by a pair of machine guns in the small turret. It fared poorly against British tanks in the fighting in late 1940 in Libya.
The M.13/40 began to arrive in Libya in late 1940. Although armed with a better 47mm gun and having a more practical configuration than the M.11/39, it did not do well in the initial 1940–41 battles. The M.13/40 and its derivatives such as the M.14/41 remained the backbone of Italian armor in the desert through 1943.
The Vickers Cruiser Tank Mark I (A9) was built in two armament configurations.5 The baseline version was armed with the 2-pounder (40mm) tank gun. Since this weapon was only issued armor-piercing ammunition, a portion of the tanks were fitted out as “close-support” tanks and fitted with a 3.7-inch (94mm) howitzer, actually a breech-loaded mortar. For reasons that remain obscure, high-explosive rounds for the 2-pounder, though available, were not issued to tanks in the Western Desert. One of the oddities of British tank doctrine at this point in the war was the use of a shoulder pad to elevate and depress the gun instead of the usual geared system. This was linked to British tactical doctrine that favored firing on the move. Although peacetime tests suggested that good results could be obtained, the results in wartime were more likely to be very poor.6
The Cruiser Mark I had an armor basis of 14mm, enough to protect it against light machine guns. It was followed by the Cruiser Mark II (A10) with a 30mm armor basis, enough to protect against heavy machine guns. A parallel Cruiser Tank Mark IV was built by Nuffield and used a Christie suspension and a Liberty aircraft engine. Tanks of this era had an engine life of around 100 hours in desert conditions and about 1,000 miles of travel, after which mechanical problems quickly multiplied. During the opening moves of the first battle for Tobruk, the 2nd Armoured Division lost forty-nine cruiser tanks, of which thirty-nine were abandoned due to mechanical faults or fuel shortage.7
A view inside a Matilda II turret on the gunner’s side to the left. The leather-covered shoulder brace seen in the lower right was used to elevate and depress the 2-pounder.
The initial tank battle of Operation Compass at Nibeiwa camp in December pitted the Matildas of the 7 RTR (Royal Tank Regiment) against most of the forward-deployed Italian armor, including 35 M.11/39 and 35 L.3/35 tankettes. The battle was entirely one-sided, with the British force overrunning the Italians and capturing or knocking out 73 tanks and tankettes. Further fighting in January pitted cruiser tanks of the British 4th Armoured Brigade against Italy’s newest tanks, the M.13/40. This was less one-sided than the initial fighting against the Matildas since the cruiser tanks’ armor was not proof against the Italian 47mm guns. A few cruiser tanks were knocked out, but the Italians were forced to withdraw. Britain’s Western Desert Force pushed into Libya and made short work of the Italian forces, taking the vital port of Tobruk in late January 1941 along with a further 87 Italian tanks and tankettes. British tank combat losses during the campaign were light—5 cruiser tanks, 13 light tanks, and 1 Matilda—while Italian losses were heavy, about 400 tankettes and tanks.
The Matilda was the “Queen of the Battlefield.” Although it was intended to be used as an infantry support tank, its excellent armor and potent 2-pounder gun proved very effective against the poorly prepared Italian forces in Libya. At the same time, the fighting also revealed the Matilda’s lingering mechanical problems. On the first day at Sidi Barrani on 9 December 1940, there were 44 Matildas in use; by the third day there were only 17. At the time of the fighting for the Bardia fortress on 5 January 1941 the Matilda force was only 23, falling to 8 by the third day of fighting due to mechanical breakdowns. Days later at Tobruk, the 7 RTR started with 18 Matildas but was down to 10 by the second day. The desert was a harsh environment, but British tank forces in France in June 1940 also had experienced rapid exhaustion of their tank strength due to poor reliability. At the end of the short campaign, 7 RTR had to send all of its Matilda tanks back for rebuilding. In March 1941, British strength in the Middle East was 368 light tanks, 258 cruiser tanks, and 65 Matilda infantry tanks, but many of them were mechanically exhausted. This strength fell rapidly in March 1941 when the 1st Armoured Brigade was sent from Egypt as part of the doomed Operation Lustre to reinforce the Greek army.
Enter the Afrika Korps: March 1941
The conduct of the desert war changed dramatically in March 1941 when Hitler decided to reinforce his hapless Italian allies with the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK) led by Erwin Rommel. In its initial form in March 1941, the DAK included Panzer-Regiment.5 with 45 PzKpfw II, 71 PzKpfw III, and 20 PzKpfw IV. It was followed later by the 10.Panzer-Division. In comparison to the British tanks available at the time, the German 50mm gun on the PzKpfw III offered better antiarmor performance and was regularly issued with high-explosive ammunition; the short 75mm gun on the PzKpfw IV could demolish any of the British tanks other than the Matilda, but its role was fire support. Many of the tanks arriving in Libya in 1941 had upgraded armor based on the lessons of the French campaign. German tanks had adequate reliability for the time, but the desert conditions were a maintenance nightmare. During the 700-kilometer forced march by Panzer-Regiment.5 toward Tobruk at the end of March 1941, 83 out of 155 tanks broke down and had to be repaired. Existing air filters were inadequate; fine dust penetrated into the crankshaft, freezing the engine. Shock absorbers and transmissions were also vulnerable to desert conditions.8
The arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps in early 1941 changed the course of the war in the Western Desert. Tank equipment such as this PzKpfw III Ausf. H was not well suited to desert conditions, and the German panzers had to be “tropicalized” for better performance.
The Matilda had been the “Queen of the Desert” in early 1941 against the poorly prepared Italian forces. The tide changed when faced with the Afrika Korps in the spring of 1941. In the background of this scene from the Gazala battles is a PzKpfw III Ausf. H armed with the short 50mm gun.
The first major equipment improvement for British forces was the new Crusader cruiser tank, which began to arrive in the Western Desert in 1941.9 This design could be traced back to the A13 Covenanter heavy cruiser, a new design by Nuffield aimed at providing the cruiser tanks with a higher level of armor protection. The Covenanter also aimed at fielding a more compact design than the boxy Vickers Cruiser tanks and unwisely used a horizontally opposed piston engine for the design. It was further compromised by the decision to place the radiator in the front of the tank to the side of the driver due to the small size of the engine compartment. On top of this, production of the first batch was approved before a prototype had been built because of the war crisis in 1939. At an early stage in its development, Nuffield began to have an inkling that there might be trouble ahead and offered to develop a parallel design, the Crusader, which used the same Liberty engine as the existing Cruiser Mark IV. When it finally reached production in 1940, the Covenanter proved to be an engineering nightmare. Out of desperation after the loss of so many tanks in France in the summer of 1940, production contracts continued. However, it was quickly appreciated that the Covenanter’s engine and cooling system were ill suited to the desert, and all of the tanks remained in Britain for training. The Crusader began to be deployed with the 6 RTR in May 1941 and in larger numbers with the 22nd Armoured Brigade later that year. Although a significantly better tank than the earlier cruisers in terms of armored protection, it was still armed with the same 2-pounder. Furthermore, it suffered from congenital durability problems that were exacerbated in the desert conditions.
The early cruiser tanks were found wanting in the 1941 desert battles. The Cruiser Mark III suffered from reliability issues in the harsh desert climate, and its armor was overmatched by German tank and antitank guns.
The Crusader introduced a more modern hull design to improve armor protection compared to the earlier cruiser tanks. Its service use proved troublesome due to mechanical unreliability of the power-train. This example with the 2-pounder gun is seen on exercise in Britain in October 1942.
One new arrival in late 1941 was a new Vickers design, the Valentine.10 This was based on the earlier Cruiser Mark 1 type of suspension, but the hull and turret were new and much more heavily armored. It was an infantry tank by British definition but still plagued by a small turret, a two-man turret crew, and the 2-pounder gun. Based on a sound and mature suspension and power-train, it was the most durable of the new British tanks—some of the 40 RTR’s tanks reached 3,000 miles by the time of the Tunisia campaign.11
The composition of the British tank force in the Western Desert began to change in the summer of 1941 with the arrival of the first American Lend-Lease M3 light tanks, a type soon called the General Stuart after Winston Churchill’s earlier admonition to name British tanks in some recognizable fashion instead of the usual army gibberish. (British designations for tanks—including development designations such as A9 and army designations such as Light Tank Mark VI or Cruiser Tank Mark I—were very confusing to Churchill. As a result, in 1941 he ordered that tanks be given names such as Crusader, Covenanter, Cromwell, etc. Likewise, when Lend-Lease American tanks appeared with their equally confusing names, such as M3 light tank and M3 medium tank, these two were called Stuart and Lee.) The Stuart was an awkward fit for the British army, neither fast enough to be considered a cruiser tank nor well-enough armored to be considered an infantry tank; it was usually deployed as a cruiser tank. Its 37mm gun was inferior to the British 2-pounder in armor penetration but it was regularly issued with high-explosive ammunition, making it more versatile. Like the British tanks, it used a shoulder pad for gun elevation, not a geared wheel. Its profusion of machine guns did not fit British doctrine and they were removed.
An impressive display of armored might at a training ground in Britain in December 1941. The Valentine fell between the usual infantry and cruiser tank categories, not having the speed of a cruiser nor the armor of an infantry tank, yet was the most dependable British tank of its generation.
This Valentine fell victim to a volley of antitank fire during the 1941 campaign, as is evident from the multiple hit on the sand shields and elsewhere.
The arrival of the M3 light tank in the autumn of 1941 prior to Operation Crusader was welcomed by British tank crews for its automotive reliability. It was nicknamed the “Honey” in desert service, though its official British name was the General Stuart after the Civil War cavalry commander. These two are from the 8th Hussars on a training run in September 1941.
The main feature in favor of the Stuart was its automotive durability. This was due both to U.S. Army policy and design maturity. The American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918 had suffered from the dreadful dependability of American trucks, and this led to a very strict policy afterward to insist on automotive reliability. U.S. tanks were subjected to rigorous testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground’s automotive test tracks, and newly manufactured tanks were subjected to 50-mile trials at factory test tracks before their acceptance. The Stuart also benefited from design maturity. It was the latest iteration of a family of light tanks and combat cars dating back to the mid-1930s that used the same basic power-train and suspension. By 1941, it was a well-proven design. As tank historian David Fletcher has noted, British tank units in the desert “considered themselves lucky not to lose six Crusaders each day to mechanical problems while the Stuarts just trundled on and on.”12
The Stuarts first saw combat in Operation Crusader, the November 1941 attempt to recapture Cyrenaica and relieve Tobruk. There were 165 Stuarts on hand at the start of the operation, and 7th Armoured Division’s other two brigades were equipped with 287 tanks, mainly Crusaders, for a grand total of 452 tanks. Including the other tank units, British forces had about 700 tanks at the beginning of the offensive. The Afrika Korps’s two panzer divisions (15. and 21.Panzer-Divisions) at the start of Operation Crusader had 260 tanks, including 77 light PzKpfw II, 145 PzKpfw III, and 38 PzKpfw IV, plus about 135 M.13/40 tanks with the Italian Ariete Division.
German tactics stressed the need of commanders leading from the front. As a result, panzer units received specialized Panzerbefehlswagen with additional radio equipment but a dummy gun. This is a PzBefWg Ausf. H based on the PzKpfw III chassis.
The decimation of the 7th Armoured Division in the initial fighting at Sidi Rezegh had more to do with tactical deficiencies than with technical deficiencies. The German armor units were able to overcome their more numerous opponent by superior tactics, including a skilled use of tanks in coordination with the highly effective 50mm PaK 38 antitank gun and the legendary 88mm gun. Rommel remarked to a captured British officer: “What difference does it make for me if you have two tanks to my one? You send them out and let me smash them in detail. You presented me with three brigades in succession.” The British army was slow to adopt combined-arms tactics, a problem that would linger into 1944.13
The congenital durability problems with the Crusader had a direct impact on the battlefield. Col. Norman Berry, the chief mechanical engineer for Eighth Army, lamented:
The lack of mechanical reliability was a very different matter and had a profound effect on the whole of the desert fighting in 1941 and 1942. Like the Matilda, the engine of the Crusader tank engine was not developed as such. It was a 12-cylinder 400 hp aero engine left over from the 1914–18 war . . . Unfortunately the cooling problems in a tank are very different from those in an aeroplane, and here the troubles began . . . In the Crusader the engine was modified by the fitting of two fans and two water-pumps driven from the engine crankshaft by a long chain. This was a disaster. As soon as the tank was used in the desert, sand got into the chain, the chain stretched and started to jump the crankshaft driving sprocket. It was a three-day job to change the sprocket. Worse still, the water-pump would not stand up to the sand and the heat of the desert and soon leaked very badly. A re-design was necessary but unfortunately the manufacturing facilities did not exist in Egypt. In January 1942, we had pushed Rommel right back to El Agheila and he seemed to be nearly finished. I think he would have been finished if we had not had two hundred Crusader tanks under repair . . . The reply had come back: “Regret not available in UK.” If those water-pumps had been available, Rommel’s counter-attack could never have succeeded and would not have been a battle of Alamein, first, second, or third.14
The fighting showed that the Stuart and Crusader tanks were barely adequate for tank fighting. This was not simply a matter of gun and armor. Although many accounts of the desert fighting suggest that the German tanks were better armored and had longer-ranged guns, this was not the case. The 30mm superstructure front armor of the PzKpfw III Ausf. G. could theoretically be penetrated by the Honey’s gun at 1,500 meters, while the PzKpfw III Ausf. G’s 50mm gun could penetrate the Stuart’s 38mm superstructure front at similar ranges. Most engagements took place at closer ranges where both tanks were vulnerable to each other’s fire, and shots were often against the side armor of opposing tanks, where there was no clear advantage to either side.
The German advantage was in less-appreciated factors such as tactics, training, command and control, and tank fightability. The PzKpfw III was better laid out for tank fighting than the Stuart, having a turret crew of three—commander, gunner, and loader—allowing the commander to concentrate on directing his tank and coordinating its actions with those of neighboring tanks. The German tank periscope was also superior, using an early form of stadiametric range-finding. Gun elevation was geared so that after firing the first shot, the German gunner could adjust his fire with precision.
In the Stuart, the commander had to double up as gunner. This seriously distracted him from his function of observing enemy actions and made the tank almost blind in combat. When operating the gun, the commander had no means of vision other than the tank’s telescopic sight or a small pistol port. The British realized this shortcoming and, as an expedient, shifted crew functions. During combat, the commander moved to the rear of the turret while the redundant hull co-driver moved into the turret and served as gunner. To accommodate the tank commander, an armored car-pattern sling seat was added under the turret cupola. British doctrine of the time still recommended firing from the move, but Stuart crews found that the most effective tactic was to close on the enemy as quickly as possible, make a quick halt, and then fire the main gun.
In early 1942, both sides began to receive upgraded tanks. The German innovations were heavily influenced by developments on the Russian Front. There was a continual increase in tank armor, first in the form of appliqué panels on the hull and eventually with thicker integral plate. Due to the appearance of the T-34 and KV in 1941, there was a steady escalation in German firepower. Shipments in early 1942 included the first of the PzKpfw III with the new 50mm L/60 gun. The most welcome addition was the arrival of the first ten PzKpfw IV Ausf. F2 with the long L/43 gun in May 1942. Larger shipments of the PzKpfw III Ausf. L with the long L/60 gun and additional appliqué armor arrived that summer. An inspection team sent from Berlin in the late summer of 1942 concluded: “The new PzKpfw III with the 50mm KwK L/60 and the new PzKpfw IV with the 75mm KwK 40 L/43 are rated above all other weapons as the best in meeting the modern requirements in desert warfare . . . [they] are rated as superior to all enemy tanks including the American Pilot (M3 Grant/Lee). It is the opinion of the troops that the PzKpfw IV with the 75mm KwK L.24 is not usable in tank versus tank battles in this theater of war.”15
The Crusader underwent firepower improvements with the substitution of the 6-pounder for the earlier 2-pounder. However, the Crusader turret was so compact that the new gun meant the turret crew was reduced from three to two, not an ideal situation in 1942. The Crusader also had not lost its earlier reputation as mechanically unreliable, and units preferred receiving the new Lend-Lease tanks.
An Afrika Korps PzKpfw IV on the road near Chechiban, Libya, south of Derna on 13 April 1942.
British troops recover a PzKpfw III Ausf. L with the added appliqué armor on the gun mantlet.
The Grant tank was the M3 medium tank with the British-designed turret. The new turret had a rear bustle to permit locating the radio near the tank commander, as was standard British tactical practice. This Grant belongs to the Royal Scots Greys in Egypt in September 1942.
The most important new arrival for British forces in early 1942 was the Lend-Lease M3 medium tank. The type with the original American turret was dubbed the Lee, while the British-inspired version with the enlarged turret with radio bustle was called the Grant. The first Grant and Lee tanks arrived in the Middle East in November 1941 and were initially used for trials and training; most British records refer to both types as Grants. Shipments were slow to arrive, and the first unit equipped, the 5 RTR, had only thirty-two at the beginning of February 1942. The Grant and its dual-purpose 75mm gun was a welcome addition to the British arsenal following the serious losses endured during Operation Crusader in November 1941. This gun finally gave the British army the ability to deal both with tank threats and antitank guns. A gunnery instructor with the 3 RTR recalled that “the crews were overjoyed to be able to fire a large 14 pound shell at the Panzer tanks.” The British were not keen on the Grant’s archaic configuration, however. The 75mm gun was mounted in a side sponson, and there was a supplementary 37mm gun in the small turret. The location of the 75mm gun made it difficult to take advantage of hull-down positions, using terrain to protect the bulk of the tank. U.S. Army Ordnance accepted the design as a compromise until there was enough industrial capacity to manufacture a cast turret and turret ring large enough to accommodate the 75mm gun in the turret. This would emerge later in 1942 as the M4 Sherman. For the time being, the Grant/Lee was the best available, even if its configuration was no one’s first choice.
The M3 medium tank, known as the Lee in British service, had a smaller turret surmounted by a machine-gun cupola. This is an M3 of the 1st Armoured Division on exercise in Britain in the summer of 1942 prior to its deployment to Tunisia.
Like the Stuart, the Grant’s other significant advantage was its automotive reliability. It was based on the earlier M2 medium tank, a mature design though even more archaic in configuration than the Grant/Lee. Overall, the Grant was well received by British tankers. A tank officer recalled that “it was fairly fast with a possible road speed of about 25 mph, well-armoured, and considered capable of out-shooting an enemy tank or anti-tank gun except the 88mm. The Grant crews also found their new tank and armament ideal and we looked forward to meeting the panzers more or less on even terms.”16
By March 1942, there were about 340 Grants and Lees in Egypt along with American liaison teams to provide training and maintenance assistance. Prior to the Gazala battles, the Axis side had about 560 tanks, including 332 German and 228 Italian. By this stage of the war, the Italian army was depending primarily on the M.14/41 tank, a modestly improved version of the earlier M.13/40 and roughly comparable to the Stuart in technical features. Small numbers of the new Semovente 75/18, an assault gun with a short 75mm gun in a fixed casemate on an M.14/41 hull, were arriving. Although intended for infantry support, it was as often as not used as a substitute tank due to the modest firepower of the M.14/41.
At the time of the Gazala battles in May 1942, British units had 167 Grants and Lees with the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions, with more in Egypt equipping other units or being used for training or reserve. This made it the second most common tank type in the armored divisions, compared to 257 Crusaders and 149 Stuarts. At the time, the Grant was the best tank in the desert, offering better antitank punch than the 50mm gun on the PzKpfw III and better armor protection. However, despite the new Grant tanks, the May–June Gazala battles went badly for the Eighth Army. The problems were not technical, but tactical. The Afrika Korps continued to display greater combat effectiveness despite technical and numerical shortcomings due to better combined-arms tactics. Rommel’s offensive succeeded in pushing the Eighth Army back into Egypt to El Alamein. The performance of the Grant during the battle was good, and its 75mm gun proved an unpleasant surprise for the Germans in numerous encounters. A staff officer who inspected the several knocked-out tanks from the 22nd Armoured Brigade afterward commented, “It is apparent that the Grant tank can take a great deal of punishment.” One Grant had been hit no fewer than 31 times with the only damage caused by two 50mm hits on the front visors and a rear hit by a 37mm gun. Another had been hit 12 times with no penetrations. Larger-caliber artillery was particularly lethal, with two of the inspected tanks penetrated and burnt out by 105mm field gun hits and another by an 88mm round that set off an internal fire.
Tank losses at Gazala were heavy on both sides, and July was spent rebuilding for the next encounter. Nevertheless, by mid-1942 Britain had an enormous advantage in tanks, having shipped almost half its tank strength to the Mid-East. The August fighting at Alam Halfa again saw the Grant as one of the mainstays of the British armored force, with 164 Grants and Lees among the 713 tanks in the forward-deployed units. The battle was fought from defensive positions and the Grants were often emplaced with the help of engineers and bulldozers to reduce their high silhouette. On the German side, the Alam Halfa battle represented the arrival of the long-barreled 75mm gun on the PzKpfw IV Ausf. F2 tank, an echo of the arms race taking place on the Russian Front since 1941. Alam Halfa was the last of Rommel’s offensives against the Eighth Army. At the time, the Afrika Korps had only 238 tanks on hand, of which 73 were the PzKpfw III with the long L/60 gun and 27 were the PzKpfw IV with the long L/43 gun. With British command rejuvenated by the arrival of a dynamic new leader, Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery, the initiative shifted to the British side with preparations for an offensive at El Alamein.18
Due to the weak firepower of the M.13/40 and M.14/41 tanks, the Italian army began to use their Semovente 75/18 assault guns as surrogate tanks. This vehicle was based on the standard tank chassis but had a fixed casemate and a short 75mm gun.
Churchill pressured the U.S. government to speed the shipment of new tanks, especially the new M4A1 Sherman. This was essentially the same chassis as the M3 Grant/Lee but with the 75mm gun mounted in a new three-man turret. From a technical perspective, it was close to the PzKpfw IV Ausf. G in technical features, but more importantly it was available in substantially greater numbers. When the second battle of El Alamein started on 23 October 1943, Lend-Lease tanks made up the backbone of the British armored forces with 270 Shermans and 210 Grants. The Grant was still a viable battle tank in the autumn 1942 fighting since the Afrika Korps still had few of the long-barreled PzKpfw III Ausf. L or PzKpfw IV Ausf. G. British losses through 10 November included 53 Grants, of which 30 were complete write-offs. In total, 350 Grants and Lees were lost in combat in 1942. Rommel lost over 50 tanks and by November 1942 had only 126 tanks on hand.
With Rommel on the run after El Alamein, the North Africa campaign exploded in a new direction. The U.S. Army staged the Operation Torch amphibious landings on the coast of French North Africa. This led to some small-scale tank-versus-tank fighting with Vichy French forces, but this fighting was short-lived when the French army switched sides. Portions of the American forces along with Commonwealth forces formed Anderson’s First Army, which set about to occupy Tunisia, striking Rommel from behind. The Germans struck first, deploying the 5.Panzer-Armee to Tunisia before the Allies arrived. The Axis reinforcement of the Tunisian bridgehead in November 1942–January 1943 included 428 tanks, 271 German and the remainder Italian. This included the first two companies with 20 of the new Tiger tank; a third company with 11 more Tigers arrived in March–April 1943.
The U.S. armored force in Tunisia consisted of the 1st Armored Division and several separate tank battalions. The 1st Armored Division at the time still contained a mixture of M3 and M4 medium tanks, as well as the M3 light tank. In February 1943, 5.Panzer-Armee launched a surprise offensive, concentrating on the thinly spread and inexperienced U.S. sector near Kasserine Pass. The German offensive overwhelmed two tank battalions and a tank destroyer battalion.
The T6 medium tank used the same chassis as the M3 medium tank, but with the gun in the turret. There were many changes to the T6 design before it emerged as the definitive M4A1 Sherman tank in early 1942.
The Sherman saw its baptism by fire in British hands during the second battle of El Alamein in October 1942. This is a Sherman II (M4A1) of the 9th Lancers, 1st Armoured Division, during training prior to the battle.
The Sherman tank followed the German pattern of a three-man turret crew but shifted the layout with the gunner on the right rather than left side.
The U.S. Army recovered after a change of leadership. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton took command of the U.S. II Corps and led it to its first major victory at El Guettar in March 1943.
Although the Tiger tank proved to be a deadly opponent in Tunisia, it was not available in the numbers needed to have a critical impact on the battlefield. The first two companies were seldom able to put more than ten tanks in the field at any given time due to mechanical problems and the difficulty of supporting such a heavy vehicle on a remote battlefield. The battalion claimed the destruction of more than 150 tanks during the campaign.20
The British also received a new heavy tank in Tunisia with the arrival of the first Churchill infantry tanks, which focused on armor over firepower. They originally had a 2-pounder, but by the time of Tunisia the Mark III was equipped with a 6-pounder. The first six Churchill saw action with Kingforce in November 1942.21
The conjunction of Anderson’s First Army and Montgomery’s Eighth Army led to the eventual rout of the German and Italian forces in North Africa, with their last stand on the Mediterranean coast near Tunis and Bizerte in May 1943.
The Churchill suffered significant teething problems in its early days before turning into one of the better British tanks. This Churchill II is in training with the Polish 65th Battalion, 16th Tank Brigade, in Scotland in 1942.
THE MYSTERIES OF BRITISH TANK DESIGN
This chapter raises an intriguing question: Why was British tank design so bad for so long? As British historian David Fletcher put it some years ago, “That mistakes were made is understandable; that they should be repeated on a regular basis is almost beyond belief.” The title of some prominent studies of British tank development—“The Great Tank Scandal” and “Death by Design”—give a flavor of controversy.23 This is all the more perplexing due to Britain’s central role in the early development of the tank in 1916–18 and its prominence in tank development through the 1930s. It is easy enough to understand the poverty of Italian tank design in World War II: Italy suffered from wretchedly poor industrial resources. But Britain?
From a bird’s-eye view, the British situation can be described as the polar opposite of Soviet tank design. Britain’s premier services were the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Priority went to these services in terms of engineering and production resources. Britain had some of the finest aircraft engines of World War II; British tanks received the dregs. The best British engineering resources went to warship and aircraft design. Britain was a pioneer in many technologies, but especially in aviation and aviation electronics. Britain’s resources were not limitless, but Britain had a far more rational distribution of resources than Germany.
The Soviet situation was precisely the opposite. The Soviet Union excelled in tank development and production in World War II because the Red Army had the priority. Funding for the Soviet Navy in World War II was miniscule. The Soviet Air Force was funded to serve as an adjunct of the army; little money was given to heavy bombers for autonomous air force operations. Aluminum was needed for the V-2 diesel engines in the Soviet tanks; Soviet fighter aircraft were mostly built from wood and minimal amounts of aluminum.
The Covenanter cruiser tank proved so mechanically flawed that it was never sent into combat. One of its unusual design features was the radiator location in the front of the tank under the armored louvers. This example was used by elements of the Polish 1st Armored Division during training in Scotland in the summer of 1942.
The Valentine infantry tank, built by Vickers, benefited from their trademark durability and reliability. However, the design was undermined by a small two-man turret and the use of the inadequate 2-pounder gun. This example is seen on display in London in 1942 during a parade through Leicester Square.
The Crusader was improved with the substitution of the more powerful 6-pounder gun, as seen on this example in Tunisia in 1943. However, it never escaped its reputation for poor reliability.
TOP TANK OF 1941–43 ON OTHER FRONTS
The war in the Western Desert spanned two and a half years. At various points in time, different tanks were supreme: the Matilda in early 1941, the PzKpfw III later in 1941, and the Grant for a time in 1942. I would give the Tanker’s Choice award to the PzKpfw IV Ausf. G. It offered a slightly better gun than the Sherman’s, and its commander’s cupola and telescopic sight provided better situational awareness. I am slighting the Tiger in this chapter as it was available in puny numbers and played a marginal role in the campaign.
For Commander’s Choice, I would give the nod to the Sherman. At this stage in its career it had excellent firepower and armor, was available in large numbers, and was dependable.
The PzKpfw IV Ausf. G, known by the British as the Mark IV Special, was the best German tank in service in the summer of 1942 and introduced the new long 75mm KwK 40 gun. This captured example was photographed at an exhibit in Washington, D.C., in 1944 with U.S. soldiers in German uniforms.
The Sherman became the predominant Allied tank in the Mediterranean Theatre in 1943, used by the U.S. Army as well as by British and Commonwealth forces. This is an M4A1 of the 2nd Armored Division during the Operation Husky landings on Sicily in July 1943.