From 1941 through early 1943 epic tank battles raged across North Africa.
Join me for a brief look at a British tank from late in that campaign.
Early in World War II British tanks conformed to one of two major categories; either Infantry or Cruiser tanks. Infantry Tanks were heavily armored but slow, while Cruiser tanks were lighter and faster.
The Crusader tank was a Cruiser. It entered service in 1941 and served as a tank for two years (the chassis being later reused for auxiliary functions like prime mover or anti-aircraft). That means it was in use during the North Africa campaign and would be the most important British fast tank. The parallel Infantry tank during this time was the Matilda.
Early versions of the Crusader used a 2 pdr (40 mm)* main gun. This was found to be inadequate against later models of the Panzer III and Panzer IV, the main German tanks in North Africa. So the Crusader III was upgraded to a 6 pdr (57 mm) main gun. This was a much better weapon and was effective until late in the campaign when German Tigers first appeared.
Crusader armor was also inadequate. This was increased some from the Mk I to Mk II, but it would always be light.
And the Crusader’s mechanical reliability was poor. This was particularly bad in early versions, partly due to poor packing for shipping. But reliability was never good, and this was particularly clear compared to American armor.
This particular Mk III is from the Tamiya kit and represents a tank that served from El Alemain (10/1942) to the end of the campaign. At this time the British had several tanks in use. The Matilda and Crusader were the major British made types, but American Lee/Grant tanks were found more effective. They were bigger, better armored, more reliable and had a 75 mm hull mounted gun that was effective against any German armor until the Tigers appeared. American Shermans, basically an improved Lee/Grant with the 75 mm gun moved from a hull mount to the main turret had also entered use in limited numbers.
The Crusader was eventually moved to light armored units until it was supplanted by American supplied Stuart tanks.
* British guns are listed by the weight of their shell.
Hey is anyone else having problems downloading pictures to Word Press now?
They’ve made a lot of cosmetic changes to the site recently (grumble, grumble…)
So now I have a disturbing number of pictures that just won’t download correctly from my iPad to my archive. They LOOK right at first, but then nothing displays! And if I try to just re-edit from my photo archive they still don’t display. I have to re-load the picture again to get it to display. And sometimes I have to repeat this more than once. Very frustrating.
Hi Dave, I heard a few people have been getting similar issues. The only thing I can suggest is contacting WordPress – especially if you are a premium customer. Terrific Crusader by the way, I love those cruiser tanks, I read stories that the 2pdr shell only had a range of 600 yards and would often fall short of its intended target! – even when it did hit, it would harmlessly bounce of. The Brits weren’t great with armour in WWII, at least not until the Comet came along. Just one small point, you have a typo just above the third picture, it reads ‘mitilda’ as opposed to ‘matilda’. Thanks again for an informative article, Rich.
It encourages me some just if I’m not the only one! Hopefully we’ll see a fix soon.
You know I love building some of the less known subjects, and Crusader tanks sure count! Yeah the 2 pdr was not a great gun; not a lot of muzzle velocity, and apparently only solid armor piercing rounds were ever issued in North Africa. I don’t know if there was a production bottle neck or what the story was, but apparently high explosive shells DID exist, they just weren’t shipped to Africa. So they were left with a gun that could only punch holes. High Explosive would have been far more useful against soft targets.
I don’t think there was an appropriate HEAT round until later either. I don’t think anyone was using those at first. But it was part of the escalation seen in North Africa (presumably used in Russia first) and the bigger guns would have all sorts of more diabolical shells.
I will fix that typo, thanks!
I must confess I knew absolutely nothing about tanks but, thanks to this article, I know a little bit more now. I wonder why the Allies never asked the Soviets to allow licence production of the T-34? After all, they were given a lot of aircraft to be going on with.
I am willing to bet that the U.S.Army would look down on the crude T-34 and it probably wouldn’t fit in the U.S. tanker doctrine.
Yeah the T-34 manages to be crude and sophisticated all at the same time. One of its best systems, the Christie suspension, was actually designed by an American engineer! The Soviets bought the license but the US Army did not. To be fair, the suspension and drive train on the Sherman was very good too. Better than anything the Germans were using.
I think to break down the T-34 you’d have to say; excellent suspension and drive train, good armor, good gun.
That sounds like a lot. But it was clearly behind the game on targeting optics, radio and other electronics.
So often the western allies get knocked for the quality of their tanks. But I think that’s largely the product of the modern sensationalized TV documentary. British and American tanks were generally smaller, with smaller guns and less armor than their Wehrmacht opponents. But they were VASTLY SUPERIOR In terms of automotive reliability (well, at least American tanks were!) and electronics. That includes radio and land lines for communicating with infantry.
I’m sure we’ll all discuss this more as I build more armor in the months ahead. The balance of qualities is fascinating stuff to me.
One of the lingering myths of allied armor’s inferiority is that they caught fire more easily than other tanks. In fact the Sherman and the Panzer IV had very similar rates of fires from “catastrophic hits”. When the Sherman’s were upgraded with an amo storage compartment their rates dropped dramatically.
Another problem was that since it was Army doctrine that tanks were not for engaging other tanks, but for attacking vulnerable rear areas and supply trains they were never issued the advanced armor piercing rounds the tank killer battalions were issued, but an older less effective round.
It really comes down to the Western Allies encounters with the few Panther, Tiger and Tiger II tanks as the source of inferior allied armor being cut to pieces by invulnerable German tanks.
I think the vulnerability of ammo storage was a recurring problem, and I saw it mentioned specifically again here when doing research on the Crusader. But as you say, statistically the problem is often over stated, and it was even fixed from there with armored ammo storage.
There is no doubt the heavy German tanks could dominate a locality. They were well armored, with good guns and optics. But strategically the Sherman was a better asset. It could drive wherever it was needed and still be effective when it got there.
If I were tank crew I can see where I might prefer a Tiger. But if I’m a General I’d rather have the Sherman.
Well in reality the choice was never a Tiger or a Sherman, it was between a Tiger and 20 Shermans. I think even the Germans would have made the same choice had they the ability to do so.
Oh I don’t doubt many German Generals would have! But the Wermacht chose expensive heavy units with poor reliability.
When I say the ability to do so I don’t just mean the industrial capacity. There was a strong and self destructive strain of German superiority baked many of their decisions.
Yeah that was an institutional problem.
Just out of curiosity, since you mentioned institutional problems, any guesses about who was behind not issuing advanced armor piercing rounds to the tank battalions?
It’s usually safe to blame Leslie McNair!
Seriously I don’t really know, but the problem may not really have been that big. As I understand it, they usually had two or three HVAP rounds for each tank. It’s not hard to see why tankers may have always felt they needed more, but given the scarcity of actual German heavy tanks that may have practically been “enough”. Especially when you consider how much more HE was in demand, it may have caused trouble to reduce the immediate supply of those in tanks.
I guess I should add I know there some delay initially in getting the Hyper Velocity shells to front line units. I understand this was several weeks from when they first arrived in Europe. I don’t know the whole story but there were a number of such delays fall of ’44.
While I suppose I should concede that given the western front ( allowing that Italy was it’s own beast and we’re talking about France and Germany) only lasted about 9 months, some deference should be given to said scapegoat given communications available at the time. Yet when contemporary reports, even if they are several weeks or months removed, paint a picture of decreased moral and effectiveness as stark as was evident ( and I rely on my mother’s memory of contemporaneous public mood for that) one would expect some reflection on how strict policy should be enforced in the face of experience.
But yeah, Mc Nair gets the credit again.