Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade, January 1942

Following the retreat behind the Gazala line, it was a time for 8 Army to review the experience of the previous three months of fighting. Reports were written, and lessons learned prepared in a systematic way. These are today held at the UK’s National Archives at Kew.

On 20 February, Brigadier R. Briggs of 1 Armoured Division’s 2 Armoured Brigade (he would later rise to command the division) issued his report on the experience of his brigade in the short but violent counter-offensive of January/February 42. This battle will be the subject of our first book. Below are some interesting views on the performance of his brigade’s main armament, the Crusader Mk. VIa and the US-built M3 Honey tanks.

The clear view that the Crusader is a better tank then the M3 Honey is of interest, when compared to the report of 4 Armoured Brigade on 3 December 41, which states that the M3 Honey had held up ‘splendidly’ after 15 days of fighting, while the A13 and A15 British cruiser tanks (the A15 being the Crusader tank) were ‘not so good’ (message GD8 GHQ Liaison Sqdrn. to GHQ, 3 Dec 1941, TOO 1440 TOR not given).

[…]

5. Equipment

(a) Crusader Mk. VIa

This proved itself satisfactory as a battle tank, within certain limitations. These limitations are as follows:-

(i) The inadequacy of the 2 pdr gun.

(ii) Insufficient thickness of armour, especially in front.

(iii) A variety of leaks in oil, water, and air systems, many of which occur in places so inaccessible as to require Workshops resources and many hrs for repair. Neither are available in the desert.

(iv) Failure of the engine cooling fan drive to stand up to the work required.

(v) Relatively short life of certain components, notably compressors and swash pumps.

(vi) The Cruiser tank can be, and was, overdriven beyond its capacity; several engines seized while tanks were used for essential fast recce.

(b) General Stuart

The General Stuart proved itself more sound than the Crusader, and required far less maintenance. The air-cooled engine did not overheat, and naturally, gave no anxiety about water leaks. It stood up well to fast work. Its limitations are:-

(i) The inadequacy of the 37mm gun.

(ii) Insufficient armour, especially in front.

(iii) Its design for use by a comd who is also a gunner makes it a dangerous battle tank. It is considered that one offr and a crew of 9 L were lost for this reason. In Cruiser action a tank must have a separate comd and gunner. In this respect the Valentine fails.

(iv) No platform to the fighting compartment makes a crew slow to fire, except to the front.

(v) A bad gun platform on the move. Inadequate telescope sight.

Conclusion

The Crusader is considered to be a better battle tank than the General Stuart. Armd regts should consist entirely of Crusaders until a better tank is produced.

(c) Scout Cars

[…]

(d) Armament

Both 2 pdr and the 37mm gun are inferior to German guns. Until this disparity is rectified, we must be prepared for the inevitable heavy casualties. This is applicable in action against both German tanks and German A Tk guns.

The disparity has led to the inclusion of 25 pdr guns in an Armd Bde in an A Tk role. As the accurate range of the 25 pdr in this role is limited to 1500 yards by their inferior telescope sights, their co-operation with tanks has not been as successful as was hoped. In all three cases, 2 pdr 37 mm and 25 pdr – the telescope sights are inferior to German instruments. If full advantage is to be taken of the 75 mm in the General Grant tank, and of the 6 pdr gun when it arrives, better telescopic sights are essential.

(e) Amn

All out amn is solid. It is therefore designed solely for tank v tank action. In many cases our tanks were engaged at long range by A Tk guns before German tanks came into action. We have no accurate long range reply to this. A proportion of HE for use against A/Tk gunners would have helped.

All forms of smoke were used with success. […]

There are a few interesting points in this report:

1) Only solid shot on issue, also for the 37 mm. Until now I believed that this gun was issued with both solid shot and HE.

2) The need for fast recce, and consequent overdriving of the Crusader. That’s an interesting tactical insight, and shows the ‘need for speed’ in the desert.

3) The points about the quality of the gun sights are important, particularly in the desert where long-range engagements were regularly possible.

Abbreviations:

Amn = ammunition

A Tk A/Tk = anti-tank

Bde = Brigade

HE = high explosive

Mk. = Mark

pdr = pounder


The Battle for 1 Army Tank Brigade’s Repair Shop

The ‘Dash to the Wire’, with which Rommel aimed to win the battle, produced many curious incidents. One of the stranger ones was a tank battle for a repair shop, between 16 Matildas in various stages of repair, and the full strength of German Panzerregiment 8 of 15. Panzerdivision, with a strength of 16/34/6 Panzer II/III/IV, and supported by 88mm AA guns.

The first few days of Operation CRUSADER had been hard on the Brigade, and it had lost almost half of the 132 infantry tanks in the initial assault on the frontier strongpoints and in support of 2 New Zealand Division. On 22 November, the assault by 42 RTR (minus C Squadron, with B Squadron 44 RTR under command) on ‘The Omars’ (see this contemporary analysis) had cost the Brigade 46 out of 51 tanks participating, and caused severe personnel losses of 5 officers and 22 men killed, and 1 offier and 21 men wounded, with 3 more men missing. The proportion of almost 1.3:1 killed to wounded might indicate the ferocity of the fighting, and that many of the tanks which were shot up were being hit by the very powerful German 88mm AA gun. Many of the tanks were recoverable though, and had been brought to the L.R.S. (local repair shop – thanks to Wills on WW2 Talk for this). On 23 November, 8 RTR lost 2 tanks in B Squadron when this supported the attack by 5 NZ Brigade on Sollum, and 16 in C Squadron in support of 6 NZ Brigade when Point 175 was taken – this was equivalent to the strength of the whole squadron (see also this older post). On 24 November, another Matilda of 42 RTR was lost, and Squadron Commander Major R.M. Rawlins killed, when the remaining 5 Matildas of the regiment engaged (and seriously delayed) the advancing Panzerregiment 5 of 21. Panzerdivision at the Bir Sherferzen gap in the wire. Total losses therefore amounted to at least 65 of 132 tanks by 23 November.

Located in a convenient and supposedly safe location west of Sidi Omar, was the repair shop of 1 Army Tank Brigade. The fitters were busy, with 16 of the recoverable Matilda II tanks standing around in various stages of repair/unfitness for service. Of these, 6 had been brought to runner status, and another was expected to be ready by the evening.

Before this was achieved however, Panzerregiment 8 hit the L.R.S. and destroyed it. The entry in its war diary reads as follows:

West of Sidi Omar Panzer Regiment 8 reports strong enemy grouping with Mk.II [Matilda].

In an energetic attack, Lt.Col. Cramer leads the regiment against it. The 1st Battalion attacks frontally, while the 2nd Battalion hits the left flank of the opponent.

The Flak is tasked on the right wing. After a tough fire fight, carried out on shortest distance, all 16 attacking Mk. II are shot up, and a number of prisoners are brought in, which belong to the 6th English Army Tank Regiment.[1]

What really happened was slightly different. It is reported in an account by the R.A.O.C. commander of 1 Army Tank Brigade, written on 10 December 1941:

On afternoon of 25th, a mobile enemy column with tanks made a concentrated attack on the L.R.S. The tanks were manned by R.T.R. personnel, and a battle for 1 ½ hours ensued, during which 2 German Mk. III tanks had been knocked out and also a large ammunition lorry. Seven R.T.R. personnel were killed, and the remainder of the personnel of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. managed to disperse with their vehicles. The L.R.S. anti-tank rifle was in use for most of the battle. Very few of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. have been located beyond the O.C. L.R.S. and 42 men, and the O.C. O.F.P. and 10 men; it is therefore assumed that on dispersal with their vehicles, these men must have met other portions of the enemy column and were captured.

The German column apparently made camp in the L.R.S. area (6 miles west of Sidi Omar) and created further destruction to the tanks and equipment of the L.R.S.

Attempts were made to contact the L.R.S. site but A.F.V’s of the enemy were met; on 30th November the Bde O.M.E. made contact and with a small party surveyed the damage and buried one R.T.R. driver who had been locked inside a tank.

The war diary of 15. Panzerdivision confirms the loss of 2 Panzer III and 1 Panzer II during the day. Since it did not engage in other tank combat, it is probable that the claim by the L.R.S. is correct. It is also interesting to note that the German regiment made a text-book attack, which of course came off very successfully, since the opponent was fighting with both arms tied behind his back.

The incident was quickly recounted, already during the war in the book ‘With Pennants Flying’, which deals with combat by army tank units. Bryan Perrett in his book ‘Through the Mud and the Blood’ also recounts this episode. This contains an eyewitness account by Trooper Leslie Bowie of 7 R.T.R. (a veteran of Dunkirk, COMPASS, and the summer battles around Sollum), who was engaged in tank delivery, and on wireless watch at the site.

It was very hot and all I wore was boots, shorts, beret, and my revolver around my waist. Suddenly I heard a series of shells exploding. I whipped off the headphones and ran to the back of the lorry I was in. There were black puffs of shell-bursts everywhere, men were frantically throwing equipment into lorries and trucks, and in the distance, hull down, were German Mark III’s and IV’s who’d really caught us napping. The tank crews of the 42nd‘s non-runners were jumping aboard their tanks to fight it out, even though much of their ammunition and equipment was stacked outside to facilitate the repair work. Our truck was first off, closely followed by every vehicle that could be got out, and the first 2-pounders started firing back. These crews fought a very gallant action with no hope at all, but they saved us.

Bowie came back shortly after and found no survivors, and the dead in a position that made him believe they had been shot in cold blood, maybe because of the unnecessary casualties their resistance had caused to the Germans. As in his account, in ‘With Pennants Flying’ it is also claimed that it looked as if the Germans had shot R.T.R. personnel who had surrendered. But the primary sources I am looking at do not confirm this, and I am inclined to discard this view of events.

Apart from the loss of the tanks, 42 RTR also suffered heavily in personnel. Lt. M.C.Ebutt was wounded, while Lt. J.B.Wrangham, 2/Lt. L.J.Hotson and 40 other ranks were missing. Also captured were 2/Lt. D.J.Slingsby of Bde. Coy RASC, and 2/Lt.R.L.Bertram of the O.F.P. Capt. R.Nixon of Bde. HQ was captured while travelling from HQ to the RASC.

In total, the regiment had managed to lose, in just three days in action, almost 90% of the tanks it started with (the arrival of ‘C’ Squadron on 25 November made up for about half the losses), and about 10-15% of its total personnel, and 20% of those it went into battle with. A brutal welcome to the realities of war for the regiment.

 

[1] It is notable that the Germans thought they were being attacked by these tanks, and more so given the fact that they must have noticed afterwards that they had been in combat with semi-hulks. It is also interesting that they believed the POWs to be from 6 RTR – while it is possible that members of that regiment were at the L.R.S., if they had been dispersed and joined in the general rush east on 23 November – the 6 RTR war diary nevertheless states that the regimental remains moved along the divisional axis (i.e. south, not east) on 23 November.