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].


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)


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.



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]


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

Personal Diary – Major Ling 44 R.T.R.

Came across this one today through a link on ww2talk. Very good read. The CRUSADER section starts on page 5, where he has lost the date (second column). Can be found at this link (pdf).

I have previously posted about the 44 R.T.R.’s role in the famous night attack on Belhamed at this link. I will post accounts on the battle outside Tobruk in the coming days.

A brief history of the regiment during the war can be found at this link.

Major Ling has his own entry in Tank Men by Robert Kershaw, at this link. He was promoted to Major on 13 December 1941,

His private papers are preserved at the IWM with a description at this link.

Happy reading!

DIARY of COMPOSITE SQUADRON 2 RTR (NEMO) from date of joining 4 ARMD BDE

First a bit of context. 2 RTR was orignally in 7th Armoured Brigade, and was one of the experienced tank regiments (i.e. battalion) in 8th Army. Its tanks were older Cruiser Mk. IV, which had reliability problems (the squaddie assessment would probably be that they were ‘shagged’). Like the rest of 7th Armoured Brigade, this regiment was hard hit in the initial tank battles of Operation Crusader, losing many vehicles due to enemy action and breakdown, and it was withdrawn to the Delta for rebuilding on 2 December, with the exception of a squadron (company) made up of the remaining tanks of the regiment. It was not to return to the desert for a while, since it was sent to the Far East in January 1942.

Thanks go to the Tank Museum in Bovington for making the transcripts of the war diaries available. They are an invaluable help to researchers, and I would like to encourage anyone looking for war diaries to contact their library.

The operations outlined below are quite interesting in the context of Crusader. Neither involved heavy fighting for the tanks, and there we have the problem of both of them. The first, on 1 December, aimed (as far as the 4th Armoured Brigade was concerned) to “extricate the New Zealand Division from its predicament at Belhamed. What they failed to realise was that Freyberg, the New Zealander’s commander, was not interested in being extricated, but in tank support to smash the attack on his division. When this was not forthcoming, he withdrew into Tobruk. The second, 6 December, was in the opinion of the tanks to “cover” the attack of 11th Indian Brigade (4th Indian Division) on Bir el Gubi. This attack failed in its main aim, to dislodge the Italian forces in el Gubi, with very heavy losses in the face of resistance by a battalion of Young Fascists (Giovanni Fascisti). This stand has become to Italians what Rorke’s Drift is to the British. And rightfully so – the utter failure by the British command to concentrate a Brigade of infantry and a Brigade of tanks to deal with a battalion of infantry is still difficult to believe. While 2 RTR talks about a successful attack, this only refers to one part of the attack, on the supply dump.

Nov 30
On this morning Composite Regiment, 22 Armd Bde was formed under the command of Major J W Dickens 3 CLY, consisting initially of a Regimental HQ of 3 tanks, and two squadrons each of 15 tanks, under the command of Major Yule and Major Rudkin MC respectively.
Lt Davidson with A Echelon, excepting three 6-ton lorries and one 8-cwt truck, left the field on this day. On arrival at 4th Armd Bde HQ. The Composite Regt formed third regiment. On this afternoon the regiment was in reserve and Bde leaguered as a whole south of Sidi Muftah (438394).

Dec 1st.
4th Armd Bde moved north to aerodrome area with the object of extricating the NZ forces. Composite ?Regt carried out the duties of protection left, while 5 RTR contacted the NZ Bde NE of the aerodrome. The operation which involved heavy engagement by 5 RTR was not however carried out, and the Bde drew south to its former area later in the day.
At 1630 hrs NEMO was ordered to move to Bir Berraneb (443374) via Bir Regham (440380), in order to intercept a force of MET with A/Cs which had been reported west of that area.

Dec 2nd and 3rd. No activity.

Dec 4th.
At 0500 hrs the Bde moved to area NE of El Gubi and in the afternoon moved north to Esc-Scerghi (421398 ) to take up a defensive position against a threat which did not materialise, although slight shelling was encountered from NW. At dusk the Bde moved back to El Haid where the composite regiment was reinforced by a further squadron from 22 Armd Bde under Major Lord Cranleigh, bringing the total strength of the Regt to 49 tanks.

Dec 5th.
4th Armd Bde moved back to Bir Berraneb owing to reports that enemy tanks had moved east towards Bardia. The day uneventful and that evening regiments went into separate leaguers for the first time.

Dec 6th.
4th Armd Bde moved into area pt 181 (427377) to cover the attack of 11 Indian Bde. on El Gubi. Composite Regt was moved protection right and an enemy column was encountered in the area pt 181. A successful attack was made by NEMO threatening the right flank of the column, and ARTHUR the left and centre. Only slight contact was made and the enemy made off hurriedly in a NW direction.
In the afternoon the Regt moved N to Esc-Scherghi and to assist him in the area NW of that place. No contact was made with the enemy except through the medium of shellfire.

Dec 7th.
4th Armd Bde moved to harass the enemy column now on the defensive in the area Bir el Gubi. At 1100 hrs NEMO was detached to 3 RTR in order to carry out a flank attack from the south.
The attack was fairly successful, was covered by Artillery fire very accurately placed from the east. NEMO was able to close in to 1000 yds at the nearest point, and to get in 10 mins of comparatively unimpeded fire before heavy artillery fire forced the squadron to withdraw. Distinguishing targets was difficult, as there were a number of derelict tanks, including one Mk IV, placed probably intentionally in position. At 1500 hrs, NEMO was sent on along offensive patrol south of El Gubi to Bir Reuid (399383). Owing to the necessity for replenishing petrol and ammunition and the difficulty in distinguishing friend from foe in the half light, the move was a complete failure, and the squadron rejoined the regiment in leaguer at about 2230 hrs at Bir El Dleuna (424371).

Dec 8th.
The Bde continued its harassing role, moved N W from Bir el Gubi to the area (404378 ). NEMO was not engaged.

Dec 9th.
Bde continued moving NW to Pt 185 (381407) in order to cover the western approaches to El Adem while the main attack was progressing. Later in the day the Bde moved east and then north to area 399409 where late in the evening contact was made with the enemy at long range by 3 RTR. The Bde leaguered 3 miles north of this place, which was then occupied by the Indian ?Div.

Dec 10th.
Bde moved to area 380412, composite regiment was now reduced to 21 effective tanks, NEMO being 9 tanks strong, and the following morning all personnel of 2 RTR were relieved by personnel of 4 CLY.