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

Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade, January 1942

Following the retreat behind the Gazala line, it was a time for 8 Army to review the experience of the previous three months of fighting. Reports were written, and lessons learned prepared in a systematic way. These are today held at the UK’s National Archives at Kew.

On 20 February, Brigadier R. Briggs of 1 Armoured Division’s 2 Armoured Brigade (he would later rise to command the division) issued his report on the experience of his brigade in the short but violent counter-offensive of January/February 42. This battle will be the subject of our first book. Below are some interesting views on the performance of his brigade’s main armament, the Crusader Mk. VIa and the US-built M3 Honey tanks.

The clear view that the Crusader is a better tank then the M3 Honey is of interest, when compared to the report of 4 Armoured Brigade on 3 December 41, which states that the M3 Honey had held up ‘splendidly’ after 15 days of fighting, while the A13 and A15 British cruiser tanks (the A15 being the Crusader tank) were ‘not so good’ (message GD8 GHQ Liaison Sqdrn. to GHQ, 3 Dec 1941, TOO 1440 TOR not given).

[…]

5. Equipment

(a) Crusader Mk. VIa

This proved itself satisfactory as a battle tank, within certain limitations. These limitations are as follows:-

(i) The inadequacy of the 2 pdr gun.

(ii) Insufficient thickness of armour, especially in front.

(iii) A variety of leaks in oil, water, and air systems, many of which occur in places so inaccessible as to require Workshops resources and many hrs for repair. Neither are available in the desert.

(iv) Failure of the engine cooling fan drive to stand up to the work required.

(v) Relatively short life of certain components, notably compressors and swash pumps.

(vi) The Cruiser tank can be, and was, overdriven beyond its capacity; several engines seized while tanks were used for essential fast recce.

(b) General Stuart

The General Stuart proved itself more sound than the Crusader, and required far less maintenance. The air-cooled engine did not overheat, and naturally, gave no anxiety about water leaks. It stood up well to fast work. Its limitations are:-

(i) The inadequacy of the 37mm gun.

(ii) Insufficient armour, especially in front.

(iii) Its design for use by a comd who is also a gunner makes it a dangerous battle tank. It is considered that one offr and a crew of 9 L were lost for this reason. In Cruiser action a tank must have a separate comd and gunner. In this respect the Valentine fails.

(iv) No platform to the fighting compartment makes a crew slow to fire, except to the front.

(v) A bad gun platform on the move. Inadequate telescope sight.

Conclusion

The Crusader is considered to be a better battle tank than the General Stuart. Armd regts should consist entirely of Crusaders until a better tank is produced.

(c) Scout Cars

[…]

(d) Armament

Both 2 pdr and the 37mm gun are inferior to German guns. Until this disparity is rectified, we must be prepared for the inevitable heavy casualties. This is applicable in action against both German tanks and German A Tk guns.

The disparity has led to the inclusion of 25 pdr guns in an Armd Bde in an A Tk role. As the accurate range of the 25 pdr in this role is limited to 1500 yards by their inferior telescope sights, their co-operation with tanks has not been as successful as was hoped. In all three cases, 2 pdr 37 mm and 25 pdr – the telescope sights are inferior to German instruments. If full advantage is to be taken of the 75 mm in the General Grant tank, and of the 6 pdr gun when it arrives, better telescopic sights are essential.

(e) Amn

All out amn is solid. It is therefore designed solely for tank v tank action. In many cases our tanks were engaged at long range by A Tk guns before German tanks came into action. We have no accurate long range reply to this. A proportion of HE for use against A/Tk gunners would have helped.

All forms of smoke were used with success. […]

There are a few interesting points in this report:

1) Only solid shot on issue, also for the 37 mm. Until now I believed that this gun was issued with both solid shot and HE.

2) The need for fast recce, and consequent overdriving of the Crusader. That’s an interesting tactical insight, and shows the ‘need for speed’ in the desert.

3) The points about the quality of the gun sights are important, particularly in the desert where long-range engagements were regularly possible.

Abbreviations:

Amn = ammunition

A Tk A/Tk = anti-tank

Bde = Brigade

HE = high explosive

Mk. = Mark

pdr = pounder