Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Operation CRUSADER saw the first use of an American-designed tank in battle, the M3 Stuart tank[1]. I have written about the experience with this tank in prior posts, at this link, and this link. This short article provides an insight into the building up of 4 Armoured Brigade as a fighting formation with the new US-built tanks.

Background – Design and Delivery of the M3 Stuart

In terms of overall design, the M3 Stuart was a very fast tank, compact, if with a slightly high profile, and had relatively weak armour, compared to other contemporary tanks[2]. A major drawback was the short range of the very thirsty aero engines which drove it. The Stuart would continue to serve until the end of the war as both a frontline tank in a reconnaissance role, and in various support versions, including as an armoured personnel carrier. In 1941 the M3 was considered a cruiser tank by the British army, designed for mobile warfare. The tank was equipped with an M5 37mm gun, a reasonably well-designed piece for its calibre. It was about equal to the British 2-pdr gun[3], but the US tanks had been provided with HE shell and possibly also cannister anti-personnel rounds in addition to the AP shot, and thus had additional capabilities compared to the British tanks which relied on their Besa machine guns for infantry/anti-tank gun defense.

The first production version of the M3 Stuart was ready in March 1941, and from July to the end of October 1941, over 300 M3 Stuarts, including four predecessor M2 models, had arrived in Egypt under the lend-lease arrangements between the UK and the US. Four convoys had come directly from the United States between July and October, bringing 36, 69, 52, and 154 M3 tanks respectively, including the four M2A4 light tanks in the first, and also two M3 Medium Grant or Lee in the last. By the end of October, other than the 188 tanks issued to 4 Armoured Brigade, 90 M3 tanks were with ‘B.O.W.’ ‘Board of Ordnance Works’, i.e. undergoing modifications at central workshops in the Nile Delta region. Most of these were probably tanks that had come off the October convoy being made fit for the desert. Four more M3 tanks were held with 4 Hussars in the Delta, used for training crews[4], and 16 with school/training units, for a total of 315 tanks[5].

Honey

R.T.R. tank crews being introduced to the new American M3 Stuart tank at a training depot in Egypt, 17 August 1941. Note the Matilda in the background and the A9 Cruiser in the foreground, still sporting a machine gun in the secondary turret. IWM Collection E3438E.

4 Armoured Brigade Converts

As part of XXX Corps’ 7 Armoured Division, 4 Armoured Brigade at the start of Operation CRUSADER fought exclusively in the M3 Stuart. Substantial desert testing had occurred over the summer, leading to some modifications to the vehicles. Training on the new tanks continued throughout the summer, while the regiments were brought up to strength in other articles, such as trucks, and absorbed replacements.  Overall the crews considered the tank a good, very reliable machine, earning it the nickname ‘Honey’, and the experience with the tank in Operation CRUSADER seemed to bear that out.

Bringing 4 Armoured Brigade to operational readiness in the space of four months from July to October 1941 was a remarkably fast build-up by all standards, since it included the rapid conversion from British to US cruiser tanks for the three regiments to which the M3s were issued, 3 and 5 R.T.R.[6] and the 8 Hussars. The fact that all three regiments had been in operations since the beginning of the war against Italy in 1940 almost certainly helped with the speed of the conversion. The pictures below show 8 Hussars putting their new mounts through their paces.

Hussars august

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. (IWM Collections E5065)

Hussars

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. This picture nicely shows the attached kit, including the .30 Browning anti-aircraft MG, and the US tank helmets worn by the crew. The officer signaling is probably a commander. Flag signals were widely used – one advantage being that they could not be intercepted. (IWM Collections E5085)

Running Short of Tanks

Despite the undoubted qualities of the M3 Stuart, combat experience quickly showed the need to provide for substantial reserves of both tanks, but also ammunition, a particular challenge when the ammunition used in a tank is not the same standard as that used on all the other tanks in an army. Thus, while the availability of 188 tanks for a 156-tank Armoured Brigade may seem a generous number of tanks, at the end of the first two days of battling Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November 1941, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the Brigade’s M3 Stuart tank reserve of 30 tanks and had also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure[7]. This prompted a set of phone conversations given below.

 

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.[8]

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[9] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for< American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[10] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[11]

Footnotes

The featured picture shows an M3 being hoisted out of a ship onto the quayside at Alexandria, 19 July 1941. IWM Collection E4310

[1] Nicknamed ‘Honey’ by the crews because of the smooth and untroubled ride they provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.

[2] In fairness though, given the overall combination of weight, size, gun equipment, and armour, Stuart’s may have had one of the best gun/armour/weight combinations in the Western Desert at this stage.  Older German Panzer IIIG models without uparmouring could not compete. The more recent H version or the uparmoured G were better however, at least over the frontal arc.

[3] A 40mm gun with reasonable performance in 1940, but rapidly approaching obsolescence. Unlike the M3 Stuart’s 37mm M3 gun, no HE rounds were provided to British tanks with the 2-pdr at this stage of the war.

[4] The regiment was used to train replacement crews and to act as T.D.S. (Tank Delivery Squadron), whence fighting regiments could draw new crews and tanks ready for battle.

[5] WO169/952, 11 November 1941 tank statement – note that this is one more than the 314 M2/M3 that came off the convoys

[6] Royal Tank Regiment

[7] An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks of A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each. If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’

[8] Deputy Director Supply Department (or Division)

[9] Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.

[10] Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles

[11] Railhead

Totensonntag–the Experience of 3 R.T.R.

I have previously written about the experience of 6 New Zealand Brigade on Totensonntag, Sunday 23 November 1941 (see this link), the day that 5 South African Brigade was annihilated by the Axis forces on the airfield of Sidi Rezegh.  I have also written about the Italian Ariete armoured division’s fight on the day, at this link.

The entry below is dealing with the experience of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment (3.R.T.R.), two officers of which left excellent literary testimony (see also this older entry). While their accounts are more entertaining to read, I still believe in having a look into the primary sources, also because they help clear things up in terms of what happened and what the intent was. When I went through this one, I was quite astonished by the detail, and in particular the riveting story of A Squadron’s day, and how it was rescued by Lt. Johnson.

What is interesting about this is the severe petrol problem faced by the high-consuming, but low tank-volume US-built M3 Stuart tanks, who essentially seem to have been good for a day’s fighting, but then had to be refilled.

Below, the original diary is in the left and centre column, while my comments and analysis based on researching other sources are to the right.

In the Field

Ref. Map 1/250,000 SALUM – TOBRUK

Editor’s Notes

Time

Events

Day 6, 23 November B Echelon
0700 Moved to area 446368. Shelled near 446375, no casualties. NW of Gabr Saleh
A and B1 Echelons This covers only HQ, B and C Squadrons. For A Sqdrn. see below.
0530 Ten tanks then with Bn HQ moved on bearing 210 until reaching right flank of a S. African Bde in area HAAREIFAT EN NBEIDAT 435399 Location is just south of the airfield. This was 5 S.A. Bde., and is the first time it appears in the War Diary.
0745 Following orders, moved to join 4 A.B. in area HAGFET EL ZGHEMIL EL GARBIA 432392 About 8km south of Sidi Rezegh, so away from the battle. It is not clear who gave these orders. Orders to 4 Armoured Brigade were to guard the right flank of the force of Sidi Rezegh. 4 Armoured Brigade War Diary doesmention 3 R.T.R. was ordered to protect the leaguer of 7 Support Group, which was located at 428393. This appears to be close enough.
0800 While passing through S.African column were suddenly confronted with mass rush N.W. of our own troops and found ourselves in action against large enemy tank force, at least 50 in number. Engaged with assistance of artillery and A/T guns and found that 2 i/c 3 R.T.R. had joined us with a few tanks. This battle was fought with 15. Panzerdivision. It is possiblethat the CO of the 1st Battalion Panzerregiment 8, Major Fenski, died in this fight.
1130 Enemy driven off – much jubilation – our total force was ten tanks – only 8 “runners” and ammunition and petrol very low. Filled up partially with Grade III petrol. Kept constant watch during rest of morning and early afternoon. Support Group came through – intermittent shelling on both sides. There is nothing on this fight in the combat reports of the Germans, but the war diary entry of 15. Panzerdivision indicates that this wasn’t an easy fight.

Grade III petrol was the one with the lowest octane number, while the M3 tank required avgas for its aero engine.

1600 Large enemy column observed approaching from S.W. at least 100 tanks. This was the main body of the D.A.K. and the Ariete Division attacking from the south.
1630 3 R.T.R. engaged until ammunition ran out – little heavy fire from enemy.
1700 We withdrew East and contacted New Zealand Bde. where we spent the night. ATLAS was endeavouring to replenish us on orders from General Gott. Approx. location 443400 – South of CARMUSET EN NEBIDAT. About 10km east of Sidi Rezegh. Probably 6 N.Z. Brigade, but nothing about this in its records.
In the field
23 November Report by O.C. “A” Squadron – separated from Bn. on 22 Nov.
Only about 10 miles of petrol left at dawn. Formed a composite Sqn. with five of my Sqn. tanks and five of 5 R.T.R. Moved to take up a position right of 4 R.H.A. at about 0700 hrs. Very large column of tanks and guns seen on right flank, ordered to stop lead of column, shelled heavily and accurately. Column after running half a mile had a further line of half a mile running at 90 degrees to the right. Turned right to stop lead. Still shelled. Informed our “A.15” Sqn. of cavalry on the way of the position, who said they would help. This never happened. Engaged enemy tanks on their left flank but was shelled out of it, had to withdraw. Now only about 4 miles of petrol left. Then chased by 12 to 15 German Mk. IV tanks and shelled heavily from three sides. Withdrew being shelled and chased. At this stage four of my tanks (5 R.T.R.) did not follow. Was joined by some tanks of Major Witheridge’s (“C” Sqn.) composite Sqn. Three tanks fell out with no petrol. As soon as the enemy tanks stopped, two more tanks ran out of petrol, came on a “B” Sqn. tank with Sgt. Blackwell (“B” Sqn.) badly wounded inside it. The C.O. of this Squadron was Major Wilson. The tank commanders of 6 5 R.T.R. tanks presumed to be with 3 R.T.R. were:
Capt. S.J. Hennings
Sgt. Meyler
Sgt. Ford
Sgt. James
Sgt. Hall
Sgt. Feys

Only Sgt. Meyler was lost on the day, two of the tanks returned (Hennings and Hall), the remaining three crews returned without their tanks.

approx. 1045 Stopped the party – found all tanks had only about 1 to 2 miles of petrol in them – total strength of tanks was 8. I decided that as we were completely surrounded and had no petrol and only a stumped (?) amount of ammunition to try and save the tanks and personnel if possible. Plan was to leave the tanks to look like derelicts and the crews to lie down about 800 yds. from their tanks and to remain still. This was done. The Germans then sent up an armoured O.P. which came within 300 yds. and we were very heavily shelled, but no damage was done. Shelled again in about 3/4 of an hour – no damage. Lay still until dark. German patrols and artillery were within 800 yds. of us all day, but must have considered tanks derelict. At darkness called up Bn. on the wireless and eventually got a reply from Sgt. Ward, Bn. Signal Sgt. I told him I wanted petrol and talked to Lt. Johnson. He brought it to us arriving at about 0115 hours having come through enemy territory and travelled 25 miles being guided by very lights fired by me and talking on the wireless. We filled up and left at 0300 hours 24 Nov. (see D.7 24 Nov.).
In the field
23 November B Echelon
Remained in area 446368
Report by Lt. Johnson B. Echelon
During the morning I was sent by Cmdr. B Echelon with a replenishing party for the 3 R.T.R. in a northerly direction towards Sidi Rezegh area. After travelling about three quarters of the distance I was unable to proceed further owing to the battle situation. I could not find HQ 4 A.B., but contacted HQ 7 A.B. who gave me the general direction of where 4 A.B. might be found. I eventually found Bde. H.Q. but they did not know where 3 R.T.R. were. At that moment some German tanks attempted to break through and I was instructed to commend all the replenishing vehicles that were there ( 3 R.T.R., 5 R.T.R., detached (?) Scots Gds and R.A.M.C.) and to stay there until an escort of tanks arrived to stay there to guard me. The tanks never arrived. When darkness fell I formed a  close leaguer and posted sentries. Meanwhile I had instructed Sgt. Ward (R.C. of Signals) who was in my party to try and contact Bn. H.Q. on the wireless. At 1900 hrs. he made contact with A Sqn. and after establishing an identity we learnt that they were stranded with eight tanks without petrol and had been like that all day. They did not know their position, but by means of a fire which we both could see I was able to take bearings and roughly estimate their position which from our calculations was about twelve miles away and near Sidi REZEGH aerodrome. I started out at 2030 hrs. with 2/Lt. G.H. Barker (whom I had picked up earlier in the day) as my wireless operator and Sgt. Ward as driver of the wireless truck and one ammunition and one petrol lorry. I left the remainder of the vehicles under command of an officer of the Scots Guards. I reached the first objective (the fire) after travelling about 10 miles and then I asked “A” Sqn. for a verey light so as to get a bearing on their position. We saw the flare a very long way away so we continued on our course. We had to deviate from our course several times so as to avoid passing through enemy leaguers and tanks. After we had crossed a landing ground we asked for another verey light and while waiting for it I found that we had stopped within 75 yds. of two German tanks with what appeared to be the crews sleeping by them. I debated whether or not to shoot the crews, but decided it would make too much noise and attract attention, this lessening my chances of getting “A” Sqn. out of their position. I finally located “A” Sqn. at midnight after travelling twenty five miles and found Major Wilson, Major Witheridge, Lt. Denning, 2/Lt. Deer, and S.S.M. Dean with eight tanks and crews and badly wounded Sgt. Blackwell who had a fractured skull.

 

A Literary Field Return

The picture below is a bit unusual. It’s a picture those of us spending too much time going through war diaries see often, it is a battalion field return of officers, by rank (actual/temporary), name, and whether they are with the unit or not. So far, so boring (unless you happen to have a relative on the list). But this one is from October 1941, for 3 R.T.R., and it is a bit special, at least to us nerds, and maybe to those who were boys in the sixties, and lapped up anything that was written about the desert war.

3rtr

This return contains two names that many will recognise, first that of Captain Cyril Joly, at the time Adjutant of the battalion, and author of Take These Men, a fictionalised, but realistic, novel of tank men in the desert war (you can find it at this link). Second is Acting Captain (actual 2nd Lieutenant) Robert Crisp, author of Brazen Chariots, a first-hand account of Operation CRUSADER, and The Gods Were Neutral, a first-hand account of the disastrous campaign in Greece in 1941 – the books can be found at these links: The Gods Were Neutral (wrong tank on the cover, never mind) and Brazen Chariots (and whoever designed that cover should be severely chastised!).

Happy reading!