The Empire’s Largest Tank Force in Two Wars – Operation CRUSADER

Background

The origin of this information is WO216/15, which contains a number of minutes addressed to Churchill in relation to Operation CRUSADER. It is a treasure trove of information.

The table maybe dated from mid- to late October, although the document in which it was contained was sent to Churchill on 16 November. It may reflect that information present in Whitehall was outdated. On the other hand, it could be reasonably up-to-date, with only other elements of the table (such as commanders’ names) not having been updated. There is simply no way to tell.

Hoisted

US-built M3 Stuart light cruiser being unloaded at Port Suez, Summer 1941. IWM

Operation CRUSADER in Context

Commencing on 17 November 1941, Operation CRUSADER marked a sea change in the ability of the Empire to concentrate armoured forces. With over 800 battle tanks in the first line or immediate reserves, and another almost 900 armoured fighting vehicles, this was the largest tank force an Allied army had assembled for a single battle in either the First or Second World War. In the Empire, the tank force would not be substantially exceeded until the battle of El Alamein in October 1942, almost a year later. It was about matched at the Gazala battle in May 1942.

Nevertheless, the stealthy beginning of Operation CRUSADER meant that the tanks were dispersed over a wide area of the desert, instead of concentrated, and it is unlikely that more than 200-250 Empire tanks ever fought in the same engagement, if that many. Instead, from 19 November onwards, two days from the crossing of the wire fence that marked the Libyan/Egyptian border, Empire tank units suffered losses from combat and breakdowns that exceeded the ready reserve, and very quickly hollowed out the tank force.

Valentine1

Disabled Valentine infantry tank undergoing repair, 8 R.T.R., 1 Army Tank Brigade, Operation CRUSADER, unknown date/location. IWM

While the battle of Sidi Rezegh is most famous, heavy tank losses were incurred at Bir el Gobi on 19 November, at Libyan Omar on 21 November, and at the breakout from Tobruk on 21 November. The impact of these combat losses was enhanced by the steady drip of technical losses, and the loss of smaller numbers of tanks in minor engagements. By the end of November, the once proud armoured force of over 450 cruisers in the three brigades of 7th Armoured Division had dwindled to just about 1/4 of the original force in a single brigade.

Failures of leadership, failures of doctrine, and failure to set up a robust and rapidly acting tank recovery system coalesced in a critical moment, with the daily tank return driving home the brutal nature of an attrition battle. Despite these failures, the 2:1 superiority at the outset of the battle, and the capability of the infantry commanders told for the Empire forces and ensured a narrow victory. Rescued by the RAF/Royal Navy interdiction campaign in the Mediterranean, the army commanders prevailed outside Tobruk and by 7 December forced the Axis into a retreat that would take the frontline to where it was in March 1941.   

Crusader 6

Two Crusader tanks of an unknown unit, Marmarica, 26 November 1941. IWM

The Data

The document identifies just over 1,000 tanks with Middle East Command, of which 826 were in the Western Desert, for Operation CRUSADER. Importantly, this included an immediate reserve which the Axis did not dispose of. This means that the superiority of the Empire tank force in terms of numbers was over 2:1, excluding light tanks on both sides.

Location/Type ‘I’ Tanks Cruisers UK Light Cruisers US Total Cruisers Total Tanks
Western Desert  

Operational with units

189

372

166

538

727

Immediate Reserve

38

29

32

61

99

Subtotal Western Desert

227

401

198

599

826

Under repair or inspection in workshops, in Delta, not unloaded

48

66

98

164

212

Total in Egypt/Western Desert

275

467

296

763

1,038

 

Location or Type Light Tanks Light Recce Vehicles Armoured Cars Total Light Armoured Vehicles or Tanks
Western Desert  

Operational with units

94

701

75

870

Immediate Reserve

0

0

0

0

Subtotal Western Desert

94

701

75

870

Under repair or inspection in workshops, in Delta, not unloaded

14

132

22

168

Total in Egypt/Western Desert

108

833

97

1,038

A13Cruiser1941

A13 Cruiser Mk. IV, unknown unit and location, summer 1941. This type still was present in substantial numbers with 7th Armoured Brigade. IWM

Notes

  • ‘I’ tanks are Matilda II and Valentine tanks.
  • British cruisers are containing all marks of cruisers, with a large number of the latest model, the Crusader, but also some .
  • US light cruisers (this is the text in the document) are M3 ‘Honey’ tanks.
  • Light tanks are Vickers Mk. VI
  • Light armoured vehicles would be Marmon Herrington armoured cars and similar, armed with light machine guns and anti-tank rifles.
  • Armoured cars, I have no idea.

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