Cruiser Tank Breakdowns and the Battle of Uadi al Faregh

Cruiser Tank Breakdowns and the Battle of Uadi al Faregh


In previous posts (at this link, at this link, and at this link), I had written something about the reliability of the Crusader tank, and the other cruiser tanks used in the desert.

Tank Losses at El Haselat

I have now come across a letter to the Brigade commander of 22 Armoured Brigade, presumably a response from an office in Cairo to what might have been a complaint about the mechanical reliability of the Cruiser tanks. 

The letter (in WO169/1294 – WD 22 Armoured Brigade 1941) deals with the impact of the long-distance  approach march of 22 Armoured Brigade from the re-organisation area south of Gabr Saleh, where new tanks were drawn, to the operational area south of Agedabia.


While the letter has the sound of a poor workman blaming his tools, there is some truth in the matter. Tank casualties to breakdowns were heavy, accounting for about 1/3rd of the fighting strength of the Brigade during the approach march and battle, considering the total number of tanks, but almost half of the Cruiser tanks (the American M3 Stuarts were much more reliable, but not considered fit for mainline action anymore).

As the crow flies, the approach march was at least 600km (ca. 400 miles) rom the railhead at Sidi Barran, and in reality considerably more since the Brigade had taken a rather convoluted approach to the battle area. 

Regardless of the cause, by the end of the year, 22 Armoured Brigade, which had started out a week before with 76 cruiser tanks and 40 M3 Stuarts, retained 8 cruisers and 21 of the original Stuarts (9 Stuarts rejoined from a detached squadron during the battle). The last week of the year had been a disaster for the Empire tank forces. 


Approach March, 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, December 1941. TNA Kew, W)169/1397 2 RGH War Diary. Collection

Subject: Reconditioning of Cruiser Tanks

To:- Bde Commander, 22 Armd Bde

From:- B.O.M.E. [1]

4 Jan 42

The reason for the large number of cruiser tank casualties due to mechanical troubles in the last battle and approach march[2] was undoubtedly due to the fact that 90% of the tanks have exceeded the designed mileage before a complete overhaul becomes necessary. This overhaul mileage was assessed at 1200 miles and prior to the last battle most of our tanks had exceeded 1200 miles and many 1500[3].

The above fact reacted in two ways. First, there was a large scale failure of water pumps, air compressors, and main fan drive sprockets due to wear or length of service. Secondly, owing to inadequate supply of new parts for the above assemblies, “cannibalisation” was carried out among parts which although at the time still function had already performed as many hours of service as the parts they replaced.

This method could only afford temporary relief and obviously in the case of tanks still operating with the Brigade fitted with such parts, no estimate of remaining life can be given with any degree of confidence.

Furthermore, at this stage, it is doubtful if fitting new water pumps assemblies etc., will appreciably lengthen the present life of the tank as cases are occurring more frequently of tanks becoming Z casualties repeatedly with different fault on each occasion.





R.A.O.C. [4]

[1] Presume this to be ‘Bureau of Ordnance, Middle East’, but happy to be corrected

[2] The ‘last battle’ was the battle in the Uadi al Faregh between Christmas and New Year in the Uadi al Faregh, in which 22 Armoured Brigade received a savage beating at the hands of the Axis forces.

[3] Puts the service interval on my A4 in perspective. Although it too has coolant pump issues!

[4] Royal Army Ordnance Corps – the branch of the British army dealing with keeping stuff functioning (there was a reorganisation in 1942).

Some more on the mechanical reliability of Crusader Tanks

In an older post (at this link), I had provided some information that Rich had found on mechanical issues affecting Commonwealth tanks during CRUSADER. Working my way through the Queen’s Bays war diary for January 42, I have now come across a statistic of tank breakdowns for mechanical reasons during the Axis counter-offensive of January 1942. The Queen’s Bays were one of the three armoured regiments of 2 Armoured Brigade, 1 Armoured Division, and were equipped with a mix of 31 Cruiser Mk. VI (Crusader), 1 Cruiser Mk. IV, and 19 M3 Stuart tanks.

Over the course of operations, 22 Cruiser tanks (21 Mk. VI, and 1 Mk. IV) broke down, three developing two separate faults. One tank broke down due to a collision. Ignoring the latter, the failure rate was 77% including the three twin-failures.

Two M3 Stuart’s broke down, or 11%, one of them due to having towed broken down Cruisers, and being worn out in consequence, and the other due to faulty electrical wiring. Five M3 Stuarts were lost due to lack of petrol (the high petrol consumption of the aerial engine used in the tank was responsible for this), and one was unaccounted for.

The reason for the breakdown of Cruiser tanks was very varied, but can be grouped as follows:

5 tanks – Fan-related problems, including overheating

4 tanks – Undefined engine issues (which could be caused by fan or ignition failures)

3 tanks – Ignition failures

2 tanks – air compressor failure

2 tanks – piston rings worn, oil issues

1 tank each – various issues, see below

Failure Item Number of tanks
Ignition 2
Front idler broken in collision 1
Engine seized 1
Fan broken, engine seized 1
Engine trouble 1
Steering 1
Starter bendix drive shaft seized 1
Fan sprocket broke, engine seized 1
Fan chain broken, engine seized 1
Engine trouble, failure to start 2
Engine piston rings badly worn 1
Valve trouble 1
Engine oiling up. Due possibly to worn piston rings. 1
Engine clutch gone 1
Air compressor failure 2
Water pump leaking. Carburation trouble. 1
Oil leaks and faulty oil pump 1
Engine overheating 1
Ignition fault due to cracked distributor cap 1
Fan jockey wheel spindle bearings 1

On the whole, I would see the mechanical performance of these tanks as appalling. I am wondering if the regiment had been given insufficient time to acclimatise, or indeed what other reason could have been responsible for this. In any case, it is clear that the British tankers of the Bays were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

The Confused Arrival of 22 Armoured Brigade

The repeat delays to the start of CRUSADER was quite unpalatable to Winston Churchill, who had sacked Wavell over his reluctance to move faster as much as over his failure in BATTLEAXE. As has often been pointed out, Churchill had a layman’s appreciation of war, which was largely unbothered by any understanding of logistics and the needs of keeping a 1940s fighting force operational. Partially behind the delay to the start of CRUSADER was a classic case of misunderstanding and miscommunication, relating to the technical state of the new Crusader tanks (Cruiser Mk.V) of 22 Armoured Brigade, as set out in the documents in WO216/15.

The Brigade took 45 tanks which had been used from the UK, 10 for each of the regiments, and another 5 which were transferred to 3 CLY from 1 Amroured Brigade. This indicates that 121 tanks were factory fresh, and as was pointed out to me, it is likely that it was these new tanks  which had arrived in the Middle East with some vital equipment uninstalled, but nevertheless included on the ships they arrived in, in specially marked boxes. In the expectation of the ministry of supply, the complete installation of the equipment in the base workshops should have taken 3-4 days. The missing equipment was:

  • Oil filters (missing on 40 tanks)
  • Track guard inserts (missing on 39 tanks)
  • Modified fuel tank cock (missing on 8 tanks)
  • Gear lever extension (missing on 26 tanks)
  • Fan drive assembly (missing on 86 tanks)

The first items being fixes that could be implemented by the units themselves, while the last one necessitated a trip to the base workshops, of which there were two in Egypt.

What was not foreseen however was that someone in Egypt had decided that all axles needed to be reinforced, because of some failures that occurred shortly after arrival. This was in fact a known problem in England, and traced back to metal manufacture errors. But it had been decided that since the problem affected not all axles, that strengthening of them as a matter of course was not required. Not knowing this, Middle East Command presumed all axles were faulty, and subjected all tanks to a reinforcement programme, which ate up time.

On top of this, time was required for the desertification not of the tanks, but of the troops. Desert driving and navigation were skills that Middle East Command assumed would take two weeks of training to acquire.

So a simple calculation, from arrival on 2 October, has 22 Armoured Brigade ready by 2 November (two weeks of unloading, two weeks of desert training). The re-fitting of the tanks would not take extra time as it could be done while drivers train. The same for desert tactical training of tank crews. Quicker unloading (the two weeks required brought another rebuke from Churchill complaining about taking this long to unload ‘150 vehicles’) were defended by Middle East Command on the grounds that to unload the large number of wheeled vehicles took the time, not the 166 tanks, and that in any case this was not its responsibility, but that of civilian authorities. Maybe a week could have been gained here – I don’t know enough about the unloading of ships and the harbour facilities in Egypt in late 1941 to make a call either way. So on the outside 2-3 weeks might have been gained by avoiding the axle reinforcement and unloading more quickly.

But it needs to be kept in mind that 22 Armoured Brigade was not the only reason for the delay. 1 SA Division also suffered from shortcomings in desert navigation and tactical/operational training, and based on the semi-official history these were just about made up by 18 November (see Agar-Hamilton ‘The Sidi Rezegh Battles’). But in fairness it never played much of a role in the battle, so it is doubtful if this by itself would have sufficed to hold back the decision to attack. Another reason was a lack of fighter pilots, of which there weren’t enough to man the existing aircraft, and consequently there was also no operational reserve on which to draw (see AIR 20/2109, Tedder’s appreciation of 13 October).

It is of course interesting to speculate what would have happened, had CRUSADER been launched 2-3 weeks earlier. My guess is that not much would have changed. In fact, the Axis supply situation by mid-November was probably worse than it had been a fortnight before, due to the failure of the Beta convoy to make it across the Med. Also, the fortuitous intervention of the weather Gods in the form of the tempest of 17 November which not only grounded much of the Axis air force but maybe more importantly severely disrupted its communications would not have helped the Commonwealth gain air superiority.

On the other hand, the almost six weeks it took from 18 November to entering Benghazi would (presuming a similar course of the campaign) have led to Commonwealth forces entering the town at or just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, giving Middle East Command a valuable breathing space and maybe the possibility to push on to defeat the remnants of the Axis forces before having to relinquish forces for the Far East and India. It would also have left the Axis forces without the important supply convoys of late December and early January, which replenished German tank strength to a point that the counter-attack of 21 January became possible. Furthermore, two weeks earlier large parts of the German air transport fleet and Luftflotte 2 were still fully engaged in Russia, and would probably not have been able to intervene so quickly.

Finally of course it would have soothed Churchill’s nerves, and who knows what effect that might have had…