Crusader tank

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For the US self-propelled gun, see XM2001 Crusader.
Tank, Cruiser, Mk VI, Crusader
IWM-E-17616-Crusader-19421002.jpg
A Crusader II tank in the Western Desert, 2 October 1942. Image: Imperial War Museum, London.
Type Cruiser tank
Place of origin United Kingdom
Service history
In service 1941–1945
Wars Second World War
Production history
Designer Nuffield
Designed 1939/1940
Manufacturer Nuffield Mechanizations and Aero Ltd
Produced 1940–1943
Number built 5,300
Specifications
Weight 18.8 to 19.7 long tons (19.1 to 20.0 t)
Length 20 ft 8.5 in[1] (5.97 m)[note 1]
Width 9 ft 1 in (2.77 m)[note 2]
Height 7 ft 4 in (2.24 m)
Crew Mk III: 3 (Commander, gunner, driver)
Mk I, II: 4 or 5 (+ Loader, hull gunner)

Armour Mk I: 40 mm
Mk II: 49, III: 51[note 3]
Main
armament
Mk I, II: QF 2 pdr (40 mm) 110 rounds
Mk III: QF 6 pdr (57 mm) 65 rounds
Secondary
armament
1 or 2 × Besa machine gun
4,950 rounds[2]
Engine Nuffield Nuffield Liberty Mark II, III, or IV
27-litre V-12 petrol engine
340 bhp (254 kW) at 1,500 rpm
Power/weight 17.2–18 hp/tonne
Transmission Nuffield constant mesh
4-speed-and-reverse
Suspension Christie helical spring
Ground clearance 1 ft 4 in (0.41 m)
Fuel capacity 110 Imperial gallons in 3 fuel tanks (+30 auxiliary)
Operational
range
200 mi (322 km) on roads
146 mi (235 km) cross country[3]
Speed 26 mph (42 km/h) (road)
15 mph (24 km/h) (off-road)
Steering
system
Wilson epicyclic steering

The Tank, Cruiser, Mk VI or A15 Crusader was one of the primary British cruiser tanks of the early part Second World War and perhaps the most important British tank of the North African Campaign. The Crusader's mobility made it a favourite of British tank crews and once upgraded with the Ordnance QF 6 pounder main gun made it more than a match for the early Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks it faced in combat. Retained in service because of delays with its replacement, by late 1942 the lack of armament upgrade combined with the presence of Tiger I Tanks among the Afrika Korps and reliability problems due to the harsh desert conditions, led to the Crusader being replaced in the main line of battle by US-supplied M3 Grant and Sherman medium tanks. The next British cruiser in combat would be the Cromwell heavy cruiser.

Design and development[edit]

In 1938, Nuffield Mechanizations and Aero Limited produced their A16 design for a heavy cruiser tank based on Christie suspension. Looking for a lighter and cheaper tank to build, the General Staff requested alternatives. To this end the A13 Mk III cruiser tank design which would enter service as the "Tank, Cruiser Mk V" and known in service as "Covenanter" was designed. Nuffield were, in 1939, offered the opportunity to take part in the production of Covenanter.

Nuffield, however, preferred to work on its own version of the A13—though they still provided design work for the Covenanter's turret. This new tank was adopted as "Tank, Cruiser, Mk VI Crusader", under General Staff specification A15. Although Crusader is often referred to as an improved version of the Covenanter, in fact it was a parallel design. Both tanks were ordered "off the drawing board" without building prototypes first. Despite a later start, the pilot model of the Crusader was ready six weeks before the first Covenanter.

Unlike earlier "Christie cruisers" (A13, Marks III and IV and the Mark V Covenanter) that were built with 4 road wheels, Crusader had five road wheels each side to improve weight distribution in a tank that weighed almost 20 tons instead of the 14 tons of the previous cruisers. The 32 in (810 mm)-diameter wheels were of pressed steel with solid rubber tyres. The hull sides were built up of two separated plates with the suspension arms between them.

It had a different engine from the Covenanter, different steering system and a conventional cooling system with radiators in the engine compartment. At the left hand side of the front hull—a place occupied by the engine radiator in the Covenanter—was mounted a small hand-traversed auxiliary turret armed with a Besa machine gun. The auxiliary turret was awkward to use and was often removed in the field or remained unoccupied.

Both the A13 Mk III and the A15 designs used the same main turret. The turret was polygonal—with sides that sloped out then in again—to give maximum turret space on the limited turret diameter. Early production vehicles had a "semi-internal" cast gun mantlet, which was quickly replaced in production by a better protected big cast mantlet with three vertical slits—for the main gun, for a coaxial Besa machine gun and for the sighting telescope.

There was no cupola for the commander who instead had a flat hatch with the periscope mounted through it.

The main armament, as in other British tanks of the period, was balanced so the gunner could control its elevation through a padded shaft against his right shoulder rather than using a geared mechanism. This fitted well with the British doctrine of firing accurately on the move.[4]

When it was understood that there would be delays in the introduction of successor heavy cruiser tanks — what became the Cavalier, Centaur and Cromwell — the Crusader was adapted to use the 6 pounder gun.

Service history[edit]

North Africa[edit]

Crusader I tanks in Western Desert, 26 November 1941, with "old" gun mantlets and auxiliary Besa MG turret

With the Axis forces in North Africa having pushed the British back to the Egyptian border and the remaining British armour being a mixed force of older tanks with a few Matildas, tanks were hurriedly shipped via the Mediterranean arriving on 12 May 1941. There were sufficient Crusaders to equip the 6th Royal Tank Regiment which with the 2nd RTR (with older cruiser tanks) formed the 7th Armoured Brigade. The rest of the tanks were Matildas for the 4th Armoured Brigade giving the 7th Armoured division only four tank regiments.

Although there was pressure from London for the reconstituted Desert Rats to go into action, outfitting for the desert and training delayed their first use until Operation Battleaxe, an attempt to relieve the siege of Tobruk in June. As the brigade swept round the flank, the Crusaders were caught by concealed anti-tank guns and lost 11 tanks. The 6th RTR lost more tanks, to action and defects, in the fighting withdrawal of the next two days.

The 7th Brigade was re-equipped with further Crusaders, but as the brigade had been expanded by the addition of 7th Hussars there were not sufficient to replace the older cruiser tanks.

The 22nd Armoured Brigade, effectively an advance force of the 1st Armoured Division, which was three inexperienced Yeomanry units[note 4] equipped with Crusaders transferred to North Africa to bring the 7th Armoured up to three-brigade strength. The 8th Hussars was added to the 4th Armoured Brigade but these had to be equipped with M3 Stuart light tanks as there were still insufficient cruisers. The 22nd was able to take part in Operation Crusader of November 1941 which was named after it.[citation needed]

In Operation Crusader the two British Corps were disposed such that they could not support each other, but it was expected that as the British outnumbered the German and Italian forces in tanks, the tank against tank battles would be decided in their favour. However in the resulting encounters, Rommel did not put his tanks en masse into action against the British ones and the large numbers of German anti-tank guns working offensively with the tanks and infantry proved effective.[5] The Germans had a few 88 mm guns but were mostly equipped with the PaK 38, a long-barrelled 50 mm gun, with a range of 1,000 yards. This superiority in quality and tactical deployment of AT guns was to be a feature of the Afrika Korps throughout the Desert War. The Crusader's 2 pdr (40 mm) gun was as effective as the short-barrelled 50 mm of the Panzer III although it was outranged by the short-barrelled 75 mm of the Panzer IV.[6]

Although the Crusader was faster than any tanks it opposed, its potential was limited by a relatively light QF 2-pounder gun, thin armour and mechanical problems. A particular tactical limitation was the lack of a high explosive shell for the main armament—these existed but were never supplied. Axis tank forces developed an extremely effective method of dealing with attacking tank forces by retiring behind a screen of concealed anti-tank guns. The pursuing tanks could then be engaged by the artillery. With the German anti-tank guns out of range of the tanks' machine guns and without a high explosive shell to return fire, the tanks were left with the equally unpalatable options of withdrawing under fire or trying to overrun the gun screen.

Cleaning the barrel of the 6-pdr in Tunisia

The Crusader proved prone to catch fire when hit, a problem that was identified as due to the ammunition being ignited by hot metal penetrating the unprotected racks. The angled underside of the turret created "shell pockets" that acted as a lever for lifting the turret from its mounting when struck by a shell.

The Crusader proved unreliable in the desert. This started with their transport from the UK to North Africa. Poor preparation and handling caused problems that had to be rectified before they could be passed to the regiments, and ate into the supply of spare parts. Once in use the sand caused erosion in the cooling system[7] and the stresses of hard cross-country travel caused oil leaks in the engine blocks. Since there were few tank transporters or railways in the desert, the tanks had to travel long distances on their tracks causing further wear.

By the end of 1941, there was only one brigade, the 2nd, which was operating only Crusaders. In March 1942, US-built Grant medium tanks arrived: these replaced one in three Crusader squadrons.[8] While the inclusion of the Grant with its effective 75 mm gun gave better firepower against anti-tank guns and infantry they were slower, limiting the Crusaders when they had to operate together.[9] From May 1942, the Mark III were delivered. Of the 840 tanks available to the British, 260 were Crusaders. The German tanks they were facing were improved types with improved frontal armour which caused the Crusaders' 2-pounder shot to shatter rather than penetrate.

As part of British deception operations, Crusaders could be issued with "Sunshade" which was a metal framework with canvas covering that disguised the tank as a lorry to German aerial reconnaissance. Dummy tanks were also deployed.

Later in the campaign shipping was improved, Nuffields had put an engineering team in Egypt, and crews were better at preventing problems, but the reputation of the Crusader could not recover.

After Montgomery took over command, the imbalance between British armour and German was redressed by better control and the addition of more American-supplied Grant and Sherman tanks. The Crusader was replaced in the main line of battle and used for "light squadrons" trying to flank the enemy when it engaged the heavier units.[10] The Australian 9th Infantry Division operated Crusaders for reconnaissance and liaison.

The British 1st Army landed as part of the Allied operations in Tunisia; some of its units were using the Crusader and these saw action from 24 November. These were not solely Crusader regiments but mixed Crusader and Valentine tanks; within each squadron two troops were Crusader IIIs and there were Crusader II CS attached to the Squadron HQ. These units[note 5] of the 26th Armoured Brigade were used as an independent armoured column, "Blade Force", with the 78th Infantry Division. The operations of Blade Force were on terrain different from the desert of the earlier campaigns and the fighting took place with smaller numbers of vehicles. These actions were similar to what would be seen later in Europe.[11]

The 1st Army converted to Shermans during Tunisia, but Crusaders remained in use with the 8th for longer. The last major action for Crusaders was the Battle of Mareth. The North Africa campaign finished shortly after.

Other use[edit]

Crusader tanks in Yorkshire, 1942

After the completion of the North African Campaign, the availability of better tanks such as the Sherman and Cromwell relegated the Crusader to secondary duties such as anti-aircraft mounts or gun tractors. In these roles it served for the remainder of the war.

The Crusader, along with the Covenanter, equipped regiments at home particularly those of the 11th Armoured Division.

A Crusader bulldozer was developed but not used operationally. One of these bulldozer tanks was converted for removing munitions following a fire at Royal Ordnance Factory Kirkby.

The Crusader anti-aircraft guns were designed for use in North West Europe. However with the Allied domination of the air they were largely unneeded and the AA troops were disbanded. The Crusader gun tractors operated with 17-pounder regiments attached to armoured divisions and with XII Corps.

Variants[edit]

Crusader I (Cruiser Mk VI)[edit]

Crusader I with its auxiliary turret in place

Original production version. The auxiliary turret was often removed in the field, eliminating the hull machine gunner position.

  • Crusader I CS (Cruiser Mk VI CS) (Close Support) mounted a 3 inch howitzer in the turret instead of the 2-pounder.

Crusader II (Cruiser Mk VIA)[edit]

The Crusader II had increased armour on hull front and turret front. As with the Mk I, the auxiliary turret was often removed.

  • Crusader II CS (Cruiser Mk VIA CS) mounted a 3-inch howitzer in the turret.
  • Command tank version existed with dummy gun and two No. 19 radios.

Crusader III[edit]

Crusader Mk III

Due to delays with the Cruiser Mark VII Cavalier and the need for cruiser tanks, the Crusader was up-gunned with the 6-pounder, the first British tank to mount this gun. Design work for a new turret started in March 1941 but Nuffield was not involved until late in the year when they adapted the existing turret with a new mantlet and hatch. The turret also received an extractor fan to clear fumes from the firing of the gun. The larger gun restricted turret space so the crew was reduced to three, with the commander acting also as gun loader—the loader was already the wireless operator. The auxiliary turret space was given over to ammunition stowage. The Crusader III first saw action, with about 100 participating at the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942.[12]

  • Observation post
This was a tank converted to a mobile armoured observation post for direction of artillery. The turret was fixed in place, the gun was removed and a dummy barrel fitted to give it the same outward appearance of a regular tank. With no requirement for ammunition the interior was given over to the radios, two No. 19 radios and No. 18 radio, map boards and related equipment. The Royal Artillery could then operate the OP tank up front among the fighting units directing artillery fire in their support.[13]

Crusader III, AA Mk I[edit]

The 6-pounder was replaced with a Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft gun with an autoloader and powered mounting in an open-topped turret. The crew numbered four: gun commander, gun layer, loader, and driver. However, those Crusader III, AA Mk I used in NW Europe from D-day on did not have the turret, but a 40 mm Bofors gun mounted directly on the hull top with its standard shield.

Crusader AA with 40 mm Bofors gun, at the Armoured Fighting Vehicle School, Gunnery Wing at Lulworth in Dorset, 25 March 1943

Crusader III, AA Mk II / Mk III[edit]

A Crusader armed with twin Oerlikon 20 mm guns for anti-aircraft use and a single .303 Vickers GO.[14] Mk III only differed from the Mk II by the position of the radio, which was moved to the hull in order to free some space inside the turret. A variation with triple Oerlikons was produced in very limited quantities. Due to Allied air superiority none of the AA versions saw much action against aircraft but a few - especially with the Polish Armoured Division - were used against ground targets.

Crusader AA comes ashore from an LST on to the pierhead at the Mulberry artificial harbour at Arromanches, August 1944
Crusader AA tank mounting a triple Oerlikon gun in a hull-down position, 19 July 1944

Crusader II, Gun Tractor Mk I[edit]

Crusader gun tractor

The Crusader gun tractor came out of a need for a vehicle to tow the heavy QF 17 pounder anti-tank gun. It was a Crusader tank hull with a simple boxy superstructure replacing that of the gun tank. The 14 mm thick structure protected the driver and the gun crew of six. The tractor also carried ammunition on the rear and within the crew area.

Although nearly as heavy as the gun tank it was still capable of high speed and was officially limited to 27 mph (43 km/h). This was still hard on the towed 17 pounder guns. They were used in northwest Europe from the Normandy landings of 1944 to the end of the war in 1945.

One such unit was the 86th Anti-Tank Gun Regiment, Royal Artillery, part of XII Corps. In the 86th the Crusader gun tractor replaced earlier Morris C8 gun tractors in two out of the four batteries. Unit veterans reported that the Crusader was popular with the crews and were often driven by former Armoured Corps drivers seconded to the Royal Artillery because of their driving experience. 86th veterans claimed that they removed the 'governors' which normally limited tank speeds. Thus adapted, they credited an empty Crusader with speeds up to 55 mph (89 km/h) and claimed to be able to outrun Military Police motorcycles which were limited to a wartime speed of just 50 mph (80 km/h) due to low grade petrol.

Some vehicles were also used by battery commanders as armoured command and reconnaissance vehicles.[15]

Crusader ARV Mk I[edit]

Armoured recovery vehicle based on turretless Crusader hull. One prototype was built in 1942.

Crusader ARV

Crusader self-propelled guns[edit]

Crusader self-propelled gun of the Argentine Army
  • A post-war modification was built, probably for testing purposes only, with a 5.5-inch Medium Gun installed at the front of the vehicle, facing back.
  • Some Crusader gun tractors sold after the war to Argentina were converted to self-propelled guns, with French 75 mm or 105 mm gun installed in a large, boxy superstructure.[16][17]

Additional equipment[edit]

  • Anti-Mine Roller Attachment (AMRA) Mk Id: a mine clearing device consisting of four heavy rollers suspended from a frame. Weight of the rollers could be increased by filling them with water, sand etc.
  • Flotation kit, consisting of two pontoons attached to hull sides, special blades attached to tracks to propel the vehicle in water and a cowl over engine air intakes and cooling louvres.

Operators[edit]

Surviving vehicles[edit]

Around 21 tanks survive in various degrees of preservation, ranging from running-condition museum vehicles to wrecks. Eight survive in various collections in South Africa.[19]

Notable examples include the Crusader III in running condition at the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom. The Musée des Blindés in France preserves a Mk III anti-aircraft Crusader and the Overloon War Museum in the Netherlands owns a gun-tractor variant.

Notes[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ overall including auxiliary fuel tank
  2. ^ with sand shields
  3. ^ Maximum on turret mantlet
  4. ^ 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, 3rd County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) and 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters)
  5. ^ the 17th/21st Lancers, the remaining regiments of the Brigade the Lothian and Border Horse and 16th/5th Lancers did not arrive until December
Citations
  1. ^ Boyd 2008
  2. ^ Boyd 2008
  3. ^ Bingham[page needed]
  4. ^ Fletcher The Universal Tank[page needed]
  5. ^ Sanders p33-34
  6. ^ Neillands, p. 79
  7. ^ Neillands, p. 72
  8. ^ Sanders p40.
  9. ^ Sanders p43
  10. ^ Sanders p47
  11. ^ Sanders p48
  12. ^ Fletcher p65-66
  13. ^ Fletcher Great tank Scandal p 131
  14. ^ Bingham[page needed]
  15. ^ Crusader Cruiser Tank[clarification needed] p. 43
  16. ^ Fogliani[page needed]
  17. ^ Crusader Cruiser Tank[clarification needed] p. 44
  18. ^ Carruthers, Bob (2011). Panzers at War 1939–1942. Wootton Wawen: Coda Books. ISBN 1906783888. [page needed]
  19. ^ Pierre-Olivier (1 November 2010). "Surviving Cruiser Tanks". Surviving Panzers website. Retrieved 3 November 2010. 

References[edit]

  • Bingham, James, Crusader-Cruiser Mark VI, AFV Profile, No. 8, Windsor: Profile Publishing, OCLC 54349416 
  • Boyd, David (2008). "Crusader tank". WWII Equipment. wwiiequipment.com. Retrieved 2009-05-11. 
  • Fletcher, David; Sarson, Peter (2000). Crusader and Covenanter Cruiser Tank 1939–1945. New Vanguard 14. Botley: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-85532-512-8. 
  • Fletcher, David (1989). The Great Tank Scandal: British Armour in the Second World War. Part 1. HMSO. ISBN 978-0-11-290460-1. 
  • Fletcher, David (1989). Universal Tank: British Armour in the Second World War. Part 2. HMSO. ISBN 0-11-290534-X. 
  • Fogliani, Sigal; Jorge, Ricardo, Blindados Argentinos, de Uruguay y Paraguay (in Spanish), Buenos Aires: Ayer y Hoy Ediciones, ISBN 978-987-95832-7-2 
  • Milsom, John; Sanders, John; Scarborough, Gerald (1976), Crusader, Classic AFVs, No. 1, Patrick Stephens Ltd, ISBN 978-0-85059-194-1 
  • Neillands, Robin (1991). The Desert Rats: 7th Armoured Division, 1940–1945. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 978-0-297-81191-6. 

External links[edit]