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.

The first US Army Soldier to die in Ground Combat in WW2?

In the reports from 8th Army HQ submitted by Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US Military Attaché in Cairo, I came across a short entry about what could be the first US soldier killed in ground combat in World War 2:

Part 5. 25 November. At dawn situation was very obscure. Axis raiding force moved into Egypt at Sheferzen. Attack by RAF on column met heavy anti-aircraft fire from square 49-35; later area was bombed. Axis column overran British water point in square 50-34 captured personnel; had no transportation for prisoners, ordered them to walk west to Libya. British personnel returned to water point after column moved on, continued to function.

[…]

Our American Sergeant Delmer Parks was killed at water point square 50-34 by Axis mobile column.

8 December 1941

Location 50-34 places this location roughly at the border between Egypt and Libya, on the Egyptian side, quite far south at Sheferzen.

This incident is also covered in the official US Army history of the medical service in the Middle East, which can be found at this link:

Military personnel, although not yet engaged in actual combat, were not immune to combat wounds. The first U.S. battle casualty in the Middle East occurred less than a week after Major Sams’s arrival. S. Sgt. Delmar E. Park, a Signal Corps observer and instructor with a British combat unit, was killed by German machine-gun fire near Sidi Omar, Libya, on 27 November 1941, ten days before the United States entered the war. The Signal Corps has erected a plaque to Sergeant Parks memory at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Annual Rpt, Med Dept Activities, USAFIME, 1942, with confirmation from a Signal Corps historian.

Interestingly, nothing can be found about this soldier on the American Battle Memorial Commission website, which should be able to find his grave.

UPDATE 01-10-14

Orwell1984 from the Axis History Forum dug up the following items, for which I am very grateful:
It’s worth noting that his first name is correctly spelt Delmer and a search under this spelling brings up more information. S.Sgt Delmer Park is buried in Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery Phoenix Maricopa County, Arizona, USA, info at this link.

Link to contemporary article in St Petersburg Times, November 28 1941 detailing death of Sgt Delmar Park, 21, of Phoenix Arizona.

Link to Gettysburg Times May 30 1942 brief article explaining that an American camp in the Middle East “has been named for Sergeant Delmar Park of Phoenix Arizona, American Army tank technician”

Detail on his unit affiliation at this link:

Staff Sergeant Delmer E. Park, US Army Signal Corps ASN 6281980
142nd Armored Signal Company
Killed in Action
Sidi-Omar, Egypt
27 November 1941

Article in the Nevada State Journal Dec 1 1941 (Middle of page):

“He Deserved It”
Italians are Ired over Park’s [sic] death
Rome Nov 30
A United States Sergeant who was killed in Libya last week was fighting with the British and he ‘got what he deserved’, newspaper said today.
La Domenica, the Sunday edition of Lavera Fascista (sp?) said the sergeant’s death proved that President Roosevelt did not keep his promise of not sending an expeditionary force abroad….

It’s interesting to note an earlier article (at this link) in the same paper dated Nov 26 1941 which attributes his death to a mishap and notes his mother has been informed:

Observer Killed In Egypt Mishap WASHINGTON, 26. The war department today received word of the accidental death in Cairo, Egypt, yesterday of Staff Sgt. Delmer E. Park, U. S. army signal corps observer. His mother, Mrs. Gertrude Blanche Maddy, Box 702, Phoenix, Ariz., has been notified of his death. No further details are available at present.

The first B-17C missions in North Africa

I have previously written a bit about the use of No. 90 Squadron R.A.F.’s B-17C Fortress I heavy bombers by the R.A.F. in the run-up to CRUSADER. at this link.  Below is a bit more history on this, including the initial exchanges that led to the dispatch of the planes, at the request (and insistence) of the Air Officer Commander in Chief (A.O.C. in C.), Air Marshal Tedder. There is some interesting insight in the perception of the early versions of the B-17 and their estimated combat value in these.

So first the exchange between the Air Ministry Chief of Staff (C.A.S.) in London, and Tedder:

X.251

SECRET

CYPHER TELEGRAM

Recd. A.M.C.S. 1815 hours 29/9/41

Desp. A.M.C.S. 2055 hours 29/9/41

To: A.O.C. in C. Middle East

From: Airwhit

X.251 29/9 (Personal to A.O.C. in C. from C.A.S.)

Referring to your letter to me dated 17/9 suggesting that some of the Fortresses might be sent out to extend your daylight operations in Central Mediterranean am not clear with your proposal is prompted by view of General Brett who may have exaggerated ideal capabilities of Fortresses as seen through American eyes.

Our experience is briefly as follows:

Fortress is well-designed aircraft and Turbo-supercharged engines give her outstanding performance at height but she suffers from many tactical and technical difficulties.

Her average bomb load of 4000 lbs. makes her offensive value small and uneconomical by our standards in relation to the crew and technical maintenance requirements to keep her manned and operating.

Her defensive armament although large in terms of guns is badly mounted and extremely difficult to control. Her chances of success depend entirely on her ability to evade fighters by superior performance at height. Once intercepted Fortress has no chance against modern fighter.

Sperry sight can be used with great accuracy by trained bomb aimers up to 20,000 feet but quality of bombing falls off with height owing to physical and mental strain of operating this complex equipment as cold and rarefied air conditions increase.

Both oxygen and and petrol supplies set limits to operational range and we set this at about 500 miles radius if tactical conditions force aircraft to maintain 25,000 feet or over for any length of time.

We still have only limited experience of operating Fortress at 30,000 feet or over and she is still going through a period of teething troubles and modifications.

Maintenance difficulties are continuous and her high wing and wheel loading make it essential for her to operate from good aerodromes if frequent failures and accidents are to be avoided.

Cannot say how tyres will stand up to hard desert aerodromes but possible that runways will be essential for consistent operations.

In view of these factors would like you to reconsider extent and scope of operations for which Fortress might be used in your Command.

Agree that we could send up to 4 aircraft with trained crews for period of experimental trial. Your better weather and reduced opposition compared to Western Front should favour her employment but maintenance difficulties likely to be limiting factor.

I feel you should not expect too much of the Fortress. Our experience suggests that her value will be mainly in harassing operations for moral effect but material results will be largely fortuitous. Both are likely to be small against effort involved.

Am examining administrating and maintenance projects at once but equipment and spares are on limited scale in U.K. and duplicate sets may have to be sent you from U.S.A. Unlikely therefore that aircraft could be made available fit for full scale trial under one month.

Let me have your further views with these considerations in mind.

T. of O. 1715 GMT

And the response by Air Marshal Tedder:

WX.4769

SECRET
CYPHER TELEGRAM

To:- Air Ministry, Whitehall.

From:- H.Q. R.A.F. M.E.

Received A.M.C.S. 0450 hrs 1/10/41

AOC 257 30/9 SECRET

Personal for C.A.S. from Tedder

Your X.251 of Sept. 29. My suggestions re Fortresses based on hope that teething troubles would be nearly over. Brett has only raised question heavy bombers last few fays and is Liberator-minded, not Fortress.

Agree operational limitations are disappointing but even so average bomb load which can be delivered by day is nearly twice what 2 Wellingtons can deliver by night on Benghasi.

I feel that even spasmodic interruption at port by day would greatly increase our effect on enemy supplies added to which would be increased possibility of hitting shipping with precision day bombing.

As regards operating conditions, we have certain large landing grounds in desert where surface is good and run almost unlimited.

I think I am a realist as to what can be expected from new aircraft but would welcome experimental trial as you suggest.

Time of origin: – 1636 hrs. 30/9/41

The planes dispatched to the Middle East on the basis of this were operated by a detachment of No. 220 Squadron of R.A.F. Coastal Command. The picture below shows one of them – the caption is copied from the Imperial War Museum page hosting this photo, and contains errors.

b17

Boeing Fortress Mark I, AN532 ‘WP-J’, of No. 90 Squadron RAF/220 Squadron RAF Detachment on the ground at Shallufa, Egypt. Following the Fortress’s unsuccessful period of operations with 90 Squadron in the United Kingdom, four aircraft were detached to the Middle East in November 1941, for night bombing attacks on Benghazi and enemy shipping in the Mediterranean. On 1 December 1941, the Detachment was renamed No. 220 Squadron Detachment and AN532 was returned to the US Army Air Force shortly afterwards. From the IWM Collection (205208879).

Another piece in the puzzle can be found in the reports sent by the US military attaché in Cairo, and one of these is a 1-page memo about the initial missions of the Fortresses against targets in Libya. The missions were daylight missions, so the planes gave the R.A.F. in Egypt another tool, since the existing heavy bomber force, comprised of Vickers Wellingtons, only operated at night.

The memo on the experience is reproduced below:

No. 436

To Milid, for Arnold from Atkinson, with reference to your cable 198.

On November 1, 1941, four B-17-C airplanes arrived Middle East. Three high altitude missions have been performed since then.

November 8: Two planes took off with Benghazi, approximately 1240 miles, as a target. One plane force-landed in enemy territory 200 miles short of return base because of lack of fuel. Crew unhurt. Flying time 5 hours and 55 minutes. Plane and bombsight destroyed. Believe that errors of servicing crew and pilot largely responsible for loss of planes.

November 14: One plane with Benghazi approximately 720 miles as a target. Flying time 4 hours.

November 19: With Derna approximately 860 miles as target, one plane took off. Flying time 4 hours and 25 minutes.

1400 Imperial gallons of fuel and eight 500-pound bombs were carried by all planes.

Troubles encountered were:

1. Excessive use of oil by No. 2 and No. 3 engines, as high as 19 quarts from cause undetermined as yet.

2. One engine frozen from gummy substance which analysis revealed to be self-sealing compound from fuel tank.

3. Loss of power in engines caused by leak in exhaust manifolds.

4. Bombs hanging in racks – this has been adjusted by putting sleeves on British bombs and using American racks.

In another report dated 26 November, a short mention is made of a raid on Benghazi on 19 November, with a Fortress dropping 3x 1000 pound bombs, with results unobserved. Since that report is from the field, it is possible that there is some confusion and instead of Benghazi it should read Derna.

Finally, there is this concluding communication from Cairo to London, which confirms the issues raised initially by C.A.S.:

WX.2739

SECRET

CYPHER TELEGRAM

TO:- Air Ministry, Whitehall (R) Malta

From H.Q.R.A.F.M.E>

Received A.M.C.S. 1950 hrs 11.12.41

IMMEDIATE

AOC 425 11/12 Secret Personal for C.A.S. from Tedder

Your X.395 10/12 had this in mind and will send Fortresses to Malta as soon as possible.

Engines much overdue overhaul and in view of persistent oil consumption trouble which has made it impossible use them for operations has been necessary overhaul.

Engines overhaul being pressed on but first Fortress cannot be operational for 1 week.

Time of origin:- 1547/11 hrs

It is not clear to me then when the planes returned to the UK, but there is an indication that at least one was still in the Middle East when it was lost on 10 January to an engine fire (see this discussion).

There is some additional information on 12 o’clock high though, thanks to udf_00, at this link. Also, information at this link provided by udf_00 indicates that the last two planes hung around the Middle East until April 1942, when they went to India. Furthermore, there is a recent book (which I haven’t read or held in my hands), which I presume would have some of the operational history of these planes prior to their dispatch to North Africa.

To conclude a colour picture of a No. 220 Squadron B-17 Fortress II in flight over the beach of an island in the Hebrides.

hrbides

 A Boeing Flying Fortress Mk IIA, FK186 ‘S’, of No 220 Squadron RAF, based at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides, flying past a Hebridean island May 1943. Cropped from the original in the IWM Collection (205018261)