An Assessment of the M3 Stuart Tank

From June 1941 onwards US-built M3 Stuart (nicknamed ‘Honey’ by their British crews) were issued to the 7th Armoured Division. They equipped only 4th Armoured Brigade. The documents below are from the records of US Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US Military Attaché in Cairo. They are an interesting insight into how the M3 Stuart was perceived after its first battle.

It should be noted that Bonner Fellers was a critical observer of the British operations, although it is worth noting in this instance that his views on the M3 are echoed by British sources, e.g. at this link. Nevertheless, in my view the second para of the second note is slanted and highly misleading about the comparative performance of the British and US tanks.

It is also worth noting that whereas contemporary British documents refer to the M3 as ‘Cruiser, American’, i.e. giving it the same designation as e.g. the Crusader, Bonner Fellers correctly refers to it as a ‘Light tank’.

It is also noteable, if only by their absence, that the Italian tanks and guns are not mentioned at all.

No. 279

Milid, Washington from Duke.

Part 1. Following is based on notes brought in from Libya by Mente, who collaborated with Cornog and Piburn.

On 18 November at 05:30 a.m. the 4th Armoured Brigade consisting of the 8th Hussars and 3rd and 5th Tank Regiments began approach march from Alam el ta Lab, equipped with 166 American Light tanks M-3. They covered approximately 70 miles to bivouac that night at point on Trig el Abd near Gabr Meliha. One tank was delayed by clogged fuel line but it rejoined its column at next halt. From various sources it is reported that 22nd Brigade, equipped with English cruiser tanks, lost by mechanical failures anywhere from 7 to 41 tanks in an approach march of 20 miles.

4th Armoured Brigade was attacked on 19 November by approximately 100 tanks of 21st German Panzer Division in vicinity of previous night’s bivouac. Germans had heavy anti-tank guns accompanying each wave of tanks during attack, British had none. Panzer division driven off. There were no casualties in 3rd and 5th tank regiments; unreliable casualty reports list 22 tanks of 8th Hussars missing, of which 15 are known to be destroyed and 7 unaccounted for.

Damage to vehicles consists mainly of broken tracks, tank fires, broken turret rings and damaged suspension system. Apparently armour plate quality superior to that of Germans.

30 November 1941

Part 2. Following interesting facts revealed from all personal observations.

No observed complete penetration to front sloping plate, front tank doors, nor gun shields. Final drive housing struck by what is believed to be 6-pounder armor piercing projectile was dented with no effect on operation.  One penetration reported by armor piercing 6-pounder on edge of door next to T member, numerous penetrations of side plates and back plates with no effect on operation of vehicles. A number of tanks damaged by hit on the sprocket, breaking the teeth; damage to suspension system on the bogie saddles, side plates, and springs. Several tanks were observed with punched rivets. Vehicles were able to return for repair on own power in most cases. Radio performance has been satisfactory although some tanks which were struck by anti-tank fire had radio put out of commission immediately.

All personnel enthusiastic about 37 MM gun. Best range under 1200 yards which gave Germans with heavier weapon slight fire power advantage. The 37 mm will penetrate front sides and rear of German Mark III and Mark IV tanks.

1st December 1941

[…]

It is obvious that American tanks carried the brunt of attack during the first three days of fighting. Personnel of 4th Armoured Brigade are enthusiastic in their praise of American tanks and they have developed confidence in thier vehicles never before known in British Army. This action has conclusively demonstrated to all concerned that the American light tank for its weight is the most mobile, the best armored amd by far the most reliable vehicle in the Western Desert. End of message.

Fellers

So from this, it appears that the M3 was really the little tank that could. Within a few days however, which presumably included the receipt of additional information on what actually happened around Sidi Rezegh, the picture darkened a bit.

No. 309

Milid, Washington.

Part 1. With 8th Army, 2 December.

To include 29 November, 58 American M-3 tanks had been recovered from battlefields. Of these 36 have been repaired in the field. Fourteen of the 22 disabled tanks remaining are a total loss from thermite shell; status of remaining 8 is undetermined. Sixty American tanks have been sent forward; 40 more are in Libya awaiting crews. Including 30 November actual loss of American tanks is estimated at 88.

British have not disclosed their tank losses to me. However, 7th Armored Brigade is out for at least 3 months; on 23 November 7th Brigade had naught tanks battleworthy, on 25 November 6 were battleworthy. 22nd Brigade is refitting in rear area; on 22 November 22nd Brigade had 30 tanks battleworthy, on 25 November 46 were battleworthy. The presumption is the American M-3 has stood up far better under fire and field service than have the British tanks, since American tanks in 4th Brigade have undergone more combat than did 7th or 22nd Brigades.

[…]

Part 2. It is the belief of the British that American M-3 is the fastest, soundest mechanically and most maneuverable tank in Libya. It is outranged, however, by German tanks with 50 mm and 75 mm guns. German tanks shell effectively the M-3 tank from positions beyond effective range of the 37 mm gun, place it at a costly disadvantage.

The 37 mm gun, in a gunnery test with tanks stationary, was slightly superior to British 2-pounders in accuracy, penetration, and rate of fire. However, because the British tank has better internal communications and a power traversed gun platform which rotates with the gun, British claim their tank fire is more effective in battle than that of the American M-3. Automatic breech block is recommended by the British as imperative safety precaution.

German 88 mm anti-tank guns and 75 mm thermite projectiles were most effective against American tanks. Thermite projectiles penetrate, explode inside tank, burn for hours, destroy tank.

Fuel capacity of American M-3 is lower than British and German tanks. Fuel capacity for a minimum of 100 miles is necessary for offensive sweeps which are likely to be followed by combat under conditions which prohibit refueling.

[…]

It is my belief that the M-3 tank is fundamentally sound and when employed with a balanced tank force it needs no basic change in design. British have M-3 as an assault weapon against tanks with superior fire power in the absence of other tanks.

Conclusion: the 37 mm gun has proven to be too light against German Mark II [sic!] and IV tanks.

Fellers

5 December 1941

The conclusions here appear confused. On the one hand the tank needs no change in design, but on the other it can’t be used against tanks with better guns (which would be about any enemy tank it was likely to encounter in the desert), because its gun is too light. Which essentially makes it a short-ranged armoured car, or the equivalent of the German Mark II tank, which had been relegated to protection of supply columns against roving British columns at this stage, but was no longer fielded on the battle field.

bellman

‘Bellman’, an M3 Stuart tank of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, knocked out near Tobruk, 15 December 1941. IWM Collection (Object 205203664)

 

Further information relevant to the M3 can be found in earlier posts at this link and at this link.

Here is an interview with a 3 R.T.R. veteran, Alan Wollaston, who was at Sidi Rezegh. The part relating to the Western Desert begins at 22:45 mins. He was with the regiment when it was re-equipped with M3 tanks, describing them as wonderful, fast, even though only equipped with a 2-pdr gun, but which they made up for by developing tactics to flank the enemy tanks. He says the crews were ‘very very pleased after the slower English tanks’.

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80011648

There is a very vivid description of how he became POW at Sidi Rezegh, and his subsequent escape.

9 thoughts on “An Assessment of the M3 Stuart Tank

  1. Although touched upon in the report by Fellers, the low range and high re-fuelling needs of the M3 Stuart far outweighed any advantages gained in speed or manoeuvrability. It was a logistical bugbear that unchecked could have haunted the vehicle throughout it’s career in the desert.
    It would be interesting to see if it was addressed by the addition of auxiliary fuel tanks at all.
    Does anyone know?

    • Hi David, that’s an important point too. So apart from having a weak gun and insufficient range, and not being able to stand up to German tanks, it needs no re-design. 🙂 I think later marks of the M-3 had an auxiliary set of fuel tanks on the back. There is a very good overview of the evolution of the tank here: http://afvdb.50megs.com/usa/m3stuart.html

      All the best

      Andreas

  2. Interesting to see the photo of BELLMAN (IWM negative no E7044)
    This tank was one of several studied for a report on fires in British AFVs carried out by Lt Col J A Barlow and Maj R D Neville in late December 1941-early January 1942 which is included in the “Half Yearly Report of the Progress of the Royal Armoured Corps No 5” covering the first half of 1942
    It is described as “USA M3 Light Tank” and identified as T28037. It had been hit several times on the left hand side by 50mm rounds as well as one HE hit and once on the right side of the turret by a 50mm. Its fighting compartment was burnt out but the petrol tanks were intact which would suggest an ammunition fire and not one in the engine compartment.
    The final remark states “No bones inside” as with another Stuart examined but three partially burnt bodies were found in T28077. May they now rest in peace.
    Anyone who wants to read the full report and examine the photos can find copies in the Tank Museum Library & Archive and the National Archives at Kew under file reference WO.165/131

  3. Pingback: On American Armour | For the Record

  4. “The conclusions here appear confused.”

    What exactly is confusing about him saying that as a light tank intended for the roles of a light tank such as recon or force protection the design is mostly sound, but that attempting to use it as a medium to directly engage heavier armored vehicles and artillery in the assault role as the British were for lack of anything better is a fundamentally unsound doctrine? A design can absolutely be sound for it’s intended role, but deficient if forced into another.

    The Stuart was not to be the main battle tank of the US army by this point. This was after all why the Lee and Sherman were already being designed and built before the US even entered the war (and in fact the later had just started production at this time). Thus it’s (in)ability to directly confront enemy medium tanks on a wide open plain is not necessarily a deal breaker, or even a major concern given that the much heavier M4 was in the pipeline for that task.

    The fact it was mechanically sound, reasonably speedy, and could be mass produced while being basically protected enough against lighter weapons was sufficient. One would think his mention of employment within a ‘balanced tank force’ ought to make all this clear enough. There’s also the fact that availability and mechanical soundness is CONSTANTLY underrated by arm chair generals and a light tank that’s on hand in large numbers and actually in battle is worth more then a bunch of nominally superior tank broken down on the side of the road or arriving at the front in a trickle.

    In it’s role which wasn’t intended to include high intensity direct confrontation with other tanks the 37mm gun being inadequate in a direct battle with medium tanks wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but the fact it had become obsolescent against current medium tanks was still something to take note of. If a better weapon could’ve been squeezed in without compromising the vehicles other good characteristics then it’s unlikely anyone would’ve complained, but as with many early war vehicles the ability to easily up-gun the chassis proved limited.

    • Thanks for posting that.
      I think that the Honey’s greatest drawback in any role, but especially in reconnaissance was its limited range.

    • What I meant by ‘confused’ is the ‘fundamentally sound’ following a listing of issues, internal communications, lack of power traverse, lack of automatic breech block, and insufficient fuel capacity, and a glossing over the insufficient armour to keep the German 50L42 out. So what exactly is ‘fundamentally sound’? The suspension? Did it have cup holders? 😉 And fundamentally sound for which job? Apparently not ‘assaulting’ stronger tanks, which I have some sympathy for. But given that the British didn’t have the luxury of maintaining a 200-strong tank force designed not to fight tanks, that rather limits its utility.

      All the best

      Andreas

  5. Hi Andreas. Could you post the archive references for the Bonner Fellers messages? Or contact me at gershomg [at] gmail.com?
    Thanks!

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