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 30 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

More late arrivals

More late arrivals


42 R.T.R. was a battalion of territorial army soldiers equipped with Matilda Mk. II Infantry Tanks. It formed part of 1 Army Tank Brigade, together with 44 R.T.R., also with Matilda Mk. II tanks and 8 R.T.R, with Valentine Infantry Tanks Mk. III, the successor to the Matilda, and arguably the best tank of the war. (kidding – or am I?)

In a prior post (at this link) I have written about what happened to the tanks of the regiment undergoing repair during Rommel’s ‘Dash to the Wire’. It’s task was to support the infantry of 7 Indian Infantry Brigade in its assault on the border fortifications of Sidi Omar, in the starting phase of Operation CRUSADER. This was a critical assignment in that it would threaten the main installations of Panzerarmee and put pressure on the Axis tank forces to come to the rescue of the border fortress.

Given this, it is astounding to see the preparation that the battalion was given. I knew that it was incomplete at the start of the operation, with C Squadron only arriving in the battle area on 25 November. What I had not realised was that the battalion had in fact only received a full squadron of tanks (albeit missing a lot of equipment) by 12 October, six weeks before the start of the operation, and the tanks needed to equip the second squadron were only received by 11 November, one week before the start of the operation. In consequence, there was no opportunity for this battalion, which had never seen action, to prepare for its task by training with the infantry it was to support.

Moreover, many tanks had been taken over from 8 R.T.R., which itself had been equipped with the new Infantry Tank Mk. III, the Valentine. These tanks were not only missing equipment, but some of them seem to have been mechanically a bit worn out, leading to breakdowns during the approach march. One has to wonder if this contributed to the extremely heavy casualties (22 out of 28 I tanks were lost) suffered in the assault on Sidi Omar. But in any case, this supports the view of General Auchinleck, that the operation had to be postponed, something which Churchill was unwilling to accept.

Details of tank arrivals

B Squadron reported to be completely equipped by 12 October 41, although many tanks were missing equipment.

A Squadron was supposed to be equipped in the ‘near future’ on October 29, and began equipping on 7 November.

C Squadron joined 1 Army Tank Brigade with all tanks by 25 November.

The battalion (minus C Squadron) came under command 1 Army Tank Brigade on 11 November, by which time A Squadron had been partially equipped.

4 November – 7 light tanks were received. These were Vickers Mk.VI, and were used for liaison and reconnaissance duties.

7 November – 2xMk. IIA+, 1xMk.IIA for A Squadron
8 November – 8xMk. IIA+, 1xMk.IIA, from 8 R.T.R., 1 Mk.IIA+ from T.D.S.
On the same day, B Sqdr. is reported with 15 I tanks.

9 November – 24 bottles of Whiskey are arriving for the officer’s mess, leading to ‘scenes of great jubilation’

11 November – Nine I tanks arrive from 8 R.T.R.
12 November – Three more tanks arrive on transporters. A and B Squadrons now have 15 I tanks each.

14 November – C Squadron has been issued transport, but does not have tanks yet. A Squadron has 16 I tanks, B Squadron 15 I tanks, Battalion HQ has 2 I tanks, and 6 light tanks are with the battalion. Distributed as follows: HQ – 4; A – 1; B – 1.

25 November – C Squadron is arriving, fully equipped.

The two pictures below are of great interest. They were almost certainly both taken in the vicinity of Bir Sherferzen, on the border. The first shows the RHQ of 42 R.T.R., with the five remaining tanks of the regiment. Major Rawlins had spent 24 hours trying to recover tanks and wounded who were left close to Axis positions after the attack of 22 November, and burying the dead. I would be grateful if anyone could identify the officers in the picture, in particular if one of them is Major Rawlins, who was killed the next day while engaging a German armoured column. I will write a separate post on that battle later.

The second picture almost certainly shows the lorries of the two columns of the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment moving up to Bir Sherferzen, with the Matilda tanks of C Squadron 42 R.T.R. under command. Note the very poor dispersion.


Matilda tank, named ‘Phantom’, of 42nd Royal Tank Regiment, 24 November 1941. The white/red/white special recognition sign for CRUSADER is clearly visible on Phantom. Courtesy of the IWM Collections.


Indian troops move forward in lorries, supported by Matilda tanks, 24 November 1941. Central India Horse with C Squadron 42 R.T.R. Courtesy of IWM Collections.


War Diary 42 R.T.R. for June – November 1941;

War Diary HQ 1 Army Tank Brigade for November 1941;

War Diary Central India Horse for November 1941.

All are held at the UK National Archives at Kew.

Many thanks to Tom for providing me with the war diary of 42 R.T.R.


German tanks sent in 1st half of Jan. 42

Until now I believed that a total of 54 tanks  tanks had been sent from Italy to the Afrikakorps on the M.43 convoy on 5 Jan 42. Jan very kindly sent me the loading lists for the convoy. From these, I can ascertain that the actual number was 56 tanks, not 54. Of these there were 47 mediums (37 Mk. III, 10 Mk. IV), and 9 light (Mk. II) tanks. So far, so good in the accounting errors department.

Now however, until today I believed that the next tank shipment was the operation T.18, which delivered a similar number of German tanks. Instead, in the loading lists I have now come across the lists for the German navy lighters (Marinefaehrpraehme, MFPs), which operated out of Palermo, where they were constructed. On 5/6 Jan, MFPs 152 – 159, a total of 8 lighters, were loaded with 24 medium tanks, 15 Mk. III, and 9 Mk. IV, to go to Tripoli.

The trip took them maybe 2-3 days, so this would mean that by about 10 January, a total of 71 new medium tanks had been received in North Africa.

UPDATE 15 June 2012: The MFP convoy was delayed due to a lack of escorts and weather, and only arrived at the end of February, after staying at Palermo for a while. The Panzer III on this convoy were the first ‘Specials’, with the long 50mm gun to be sent to Africa.

For the next trip, operation T.18, and the single runners Wachtfels, Atlas, and Trapani (which carried 10/4/4 tanks for a total of 18) it appears that tanks sent were 3/60/15/2 (Mk. II/III/IV/command tanks), plus 4 undefined, for a total of 84 tanks, of which 66 were on T.18. This convoy is normally given with 71 tanks for the Germans, and a total of 98 tanks (presumably including the Italian tanks).

UPDATE 15 June 2012: Atlas did arrive on 23 January, while Wachtfels only arrived on 23 February, and Trapani only on 7 February probably again due to lack of escorts.

In any case, this would make the reinforcements to Panzergruppe during January 12 light tanks, and 152 mediums/others (112 Mk. III, 34 Mk. IV, 4 undefined, and 2 command tanks).

Update 15 June 2012: given the above corrections, the number would drop back to the original 56 tanks sent with operation M.43. 

I would like to see if this can be confirmed?

Below the document with the chassis numbers:

German loading document for tank transfer Jan 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 Tobruk Garrison on 18 November 1941

On 18 November the Tobruk garrison mostly consisted of units which had only seen relatively little of the siege. With the exception of 2/13 Battalion (the ‘2’ indicates the war, since the Australian army decided to raise battalions with the same numbering as in the Great War. Kiwi wits have it that Australians require it to be reminded of which war they were fighting.) all the Australian units of 9 and 6 Division had departed, to be replaced by the renamed 6 British infantry division, which had become 70 Division, under Major-General Scobie, with 14, 16, and 23 Brigades (a good overview of the history of the division can be found at this link).

This British force was strengthened by the Polish Brigade, which consisted of late inmates of Stalin’s Gulag who had left the Soviet Union via Persia, and which in turn had a Czech battalion attached to it.

There was also an Indian reconnaissance unit, and three elements of the Royal Tank Regiment under 32 Army Tank Brigade, Nos. 1, 4, and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR, the first of which with old cruisers, and the other two with Matildas and light tanks. 4 RTR had been brought in during the relief of the Australians, while 1 RTR and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR had been in the fortress from the start (in case of the cruisers) or very early on (‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR).

There was also a considerable amount of Royal Artillery units in the fortress.

In terms of equipment, the following was reported present to Churchill on 16 November (WO216/15):

  • 10 Coastal Defense guns (could be Italian)
  • 4 medium guns (probably 60-pdr)
  • 88 field guns (25-pdr, maybe some 18-pdr, and captured Italian ‘bush’ artillery)
  • 59 anti-tank guns (2-pdr, excluding those on the tanks themselves)
  • 24 heavy AA guns (3.7″)
  • 64 light AA guns (Bofors 40mm, and maybe some captured Italian)
  • 28 cruiser tanks (old varieties)
  • 67 ‘I’ tanks (Matilda II – 52 in 4 RTR, 15 in ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR)
  • 40 light tanks (Vickers Mk.VI)
  • 30 carriers

It consisted of the following major combat units:

70 Division

  • 14 Brigade
  • 16 Brigade
  • 23 Brigade
  • Polish Brigade
  • Czech Battalion and Australian 2/13 Battalion
  • 32 Army Tank Brigade
  • Royal Artillery units

The strength of the garrison was given as 22,000 men.  While this may sound substantial, it really wasn’t for a perimeter of about 24 miles (38km), which could easily absorb such a force, and meant that (given Axis air superiority) movement during the day was severely restricted, reducing the ability of the garrison to take advantage of the internal lines of communications. It is no wonder that in the September appreciation of the situation in Tobruk, Middle East Command was quite negative on the chances of the garrison withstanding a determined assault on its own.

Losses of 15. Panzerdivision during CRUSADER

Losses of 15. Panzerdivision during CRUSADER


I am in the fortunate position to have a copy of the whole of 15. Panzerdivision’s war diary for the period thanks to a fellow researcher. At the end of it, there is an overview of the losses suffered by the division during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive. It is quite instructive, especially in terms of officer losses, which seem very heavy to me.

Overview of Losses of the Whole Division
Time Period Killed Wounded Missing Comment
18 Nov to 31 Dec 435 (43) 1,361 (52) 1,820 (35) Main battle, loss of Tobruk, retreat to Agheila
1 Jan to 12 Jan 2 5 1 Establishment in Mersa el Brega Position
13 Jan to 20 Jan 1 4 (2) 9 (1) Static Defense in Mersa el Brega Position
21 Jan to 26 Jan 11 (2) 41 (4) 1 Counter-Offensive towards Msus
27 Jan to 2 Feb 8 (1) 23 (2) 7 Battle for Benghazi & the Jebel
3 Feb to 10 Feb   4 4 Move up to the Gazala line
Halfaya Pass     280 (3) 1./SR104
11 Feb to 20 Feb 23 (1) 48 (1) 15 (1) Static Defense in Gazala Line
Total 480 (47) 1,486 (63) 2,137 (40) Total for division 4,103 (150)

Number in brackets officer casualties, contained in total number.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 784 0208 32A Nordafrika Erwin Rommel Alfred Gause Erwin Menny

North Africa.- Erwin Rommel mit Generalmajor Alfred Gause und Oberst Erwin Menny; PK “Afrika” Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv Bild 101I-784-0208-32A – while the picture is dated June 1942 (itrelease date), I am reasonably certain it dates to the counteroffensive in January 1942, or even earlier during Operation CRUSADER. The clothes are what Rommel wore during the winter period. The Bundesarchiv label says it shows Rommel during a visit to Italian troops. This is almost certainly a mislabelling, and it is far more likely to show a visit to the HQ of either 15. Panzerdivision or 15. Schuetzenbrigade. 


Of particular note is the very small number of officers in the battalion lost at Halfaya when the position surrendered on 17 January 1942. In total the division lost six battalion commanders, one regimental or battalion commander (Lt.Col. Zinke – maybe someone can confirm his command?), and its General Officer commanding, killed, wounded or missing.

Of further note is the very high share of officers killed, compared to those wounded, or missing (10%/4%/2%). Probably something about officers leading from the front.

On 10 February the unfilled positions compared to war establishment in the division amounted to 6,201 (159 officers). The discrepancy could be due to sick/evacuated, and maybe the division was a bit understrength before the start of the battle.

On 11 February the division reported a ration strength (this includes sick and those on holidays, as well a subordinated units drawing supplies from the division I believe) of 5,354. If this number is combined with the understrength figure, we arrive at a war establishment of 11,555, which is probably not unrealistic, and of which 54% were not present. Indeed, on 11 November the division reported a ration strength of 12,160.

Five Knights Crosses seem to have been awarded for the battle, to Colonels Menny and and Crassmann on 26 December 41, Captain Wahl on 6 January 42, First Lieutenant Struckmann on 21 January 1941, and posthumously to Major Fenski on 2 January 42 (he fell on Totensonntag).

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…