British Armour in World War II
|Mk. VIII||A25||Harry Hopkins||10||2pdr||100|
|Mk. E||Type B||Vickers 6 Ton||7||47mm||153|
|Mk I||Deacon AEC||12||6pdr||175|
By 1942 an assumption which most leaders in the British Army and particularly in the armored units made was that German tanks were technologically superior to British tanks. A closer examination of the facts shows that these assumptions were incorrect. Tanks can be compared in many different ways. A few of these ways include; armor, radius of action, speed, size of gun, armor penetrating capability of the gun at various ranges, ammunition capability and mechanical reliability. Armor protection is not uniformly the same over the complete tank so this comparison could be made in terms of frontal, side or turret. No tank was superior in all features. Each side had several types of tanks with each tank having advantages and disadvantages when compared with tanks of the other side, except possibly the Italian tanks which were uniformly disadvantaged in all categories. Additionally modifications to correct specific faults or to make improvements occurred constantly so it was impossible to know the complete status of the opposing tanks at any given time.
In the North African campaign which began May, 1942, the principle British tanks were Valentines and Matildas; infantry support tanks, several models of Crusaders, Grants and Stuarts. The last two types were American design and manufacture. The Germans had Marks II, III, and IV with two types of Mark III.
The most important items of comparison were the armor protection and the penetrating power of the guns which the various tanks mounted. The British made tanks were still armed with 2 pounder guns, the Stuart had a 37mm gun and the Grant had a 75mm gun. On the Axis side, the German Mark II's had no gun, the Italian tanks had a 47mm gun, the Mark III(H) had a short 50mm gun, the Mark III(J) had a long 50mm gun, and the Mark IV had a 75mm gun. The Grant's 75mm gun had the greatest penetrating power, closely followed by the Mark III(J)'s gun. The penetrating power of the Stuart's 37mm was better than the British 2 pounder guns which were slightly better than the Mark III(H)'s and Mark IV's. The 75mm of the Mark IV was a low velocity weapon which fired only high explosive which accounted for its low penetrating power.
The German Mark III's fired an armor-piercing type shell which gave it greater penetrating power than the British 2 pounder but only at shorter ranges. This shell's muzzle velocity tapered off rapidly so that at 1000 yards, the 2 pounder gun was still better. The Germans.carried only a small number of armor piercing shells which were primarily to defeat tanks at close range as a self-defense measure.
It must be remembered that German doctrine at this time did not call for tanks to defeat other tanks. In terms of armor protection, the Valentine and Matilda were the most heavily armored and were relatively invulnerable to all Axis tanks at 1000 yards. The long-barrel, 50mm gun was powerful enough to penetrate parts of the Valentine tank at this range. The Grant was the next best armored tank, closely followed by the Mark III, Mark IV and Crusader. The British Crusader, German Mark III(H), and Mark IV had rough equivalency in armor protection. The hull armor of the Mark III and IV was greater than the Crusader, but the turret armor of the Crusader was thicker. With only 35mm of armor in the turret, the Mark III(H) and Mark IV were extremely vulnerable in this area; however, because of the training level of many British tank crews this vulnerability was never exploited.
The Mark III(H)'s short 50mm gun or the Mark IV's 75mm gun could not penetrate any portion of the British Crusader tank's front at 1000 yards, but the British 2 pounder could penetrate the Mark III(H)'s and Mark IV's turret front at 1000 yards. (This was not true of the Mark Ill(J) which had more armor protection in its L turret). The Stuart tank was lightly armored but still considerably better protected than the German Mark II or the Italian tanks. Its 37mm gun had an armored-piercing, capped shell which gave it the capability to penetrate the Mark III(J) turret and hull at ranges of 1,000 yards. The Italian and Mark II tanks were not a threat to the British or American made tanks. At ranges of 500 yards or less all tanks, except the Valentines and Matildas, could be penetrated almost anywhere by any of the tank guns. Only the long-barrel, 50mm of the Mark III(H) could penetrate the British support tanks at this range. This was the primary reason the Germans developed armored-piercing ammunition for close ranges.
If just these two criteria were compared, the British tanks had a considerable qualitative advantage over the "Afrika Korps." The Grant tanks were new to British 8th Army and combined with the Crusaders and Stuarts, the mix of tanks in the British Army was clearly better than that of the Germans and Italians. The Mark III(J) was the only tank which could offset the Grant tank in both armor and gun power. The Germans, however, had only 19 of these tanks while the British had 167 Grant tanks.
There were other factors which degraded the British advantage in these two areas. The optical sights of the British tanks were inferior to those of the Germans. Also the armor of many German tanks was strengthed with face-hardened plates. This caused the British 2 pounder shell which was not protected by a cap to shatter against the plates without penetrating. The Stuart tank's radius of operation was only 70 miles which limited its capability, although the range of the other 8th Army tanks was better than that of the German tanks.
The Grant tank was not without some disadvantages. The 75mm gun was not mounted in the turret but in a sponson on the right side of the tank. This limited traverse to a few degrees left and right. A more serious disadvantage was that the gun was mounted too low in the tank and consequently could not fire from a "hull down position. Finally the most serious problem was the mechanical unreliability of the Crusader tank. This had serious repercussions during Rommel's counteroffensive of January 1942 when the British retreated to the Gazala line. The shortcomings of the Crusader tank had a serious effect on the confidence the men had in their equipment. This was why the arrival of the Grant was so important. They finally had a weapon in which they had confidence.
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