The Grant tank.

The U.S. built Grant tank had its main 75mm gun mounted in a side turret. This gun was a significant improvement for British firepower at the time but had limited traverse.

When Rommel had launched his new assault in the desert on 26th May Captain Rea Leakey had been on leave in Cairo. He had been ordered to transfer to another unit in Iraq, a move he had tried to resist. Now he decided to use up his remaining 10 days leave by returning to his unit of the Royal Tank Regiment, now fighting in the desert. After an eventful journey by jeep he eventually found them.

Finding that there were no spare tanks to command Leakey found himself as a gun loader on one of the new ‘General Grant’ tanks.

The battle was now entering a period of intense and confused fighting. His Squadron was ordered to mount an attack against a German line, consisting of mainly anti-tank guns, all well dug in. It was hoped to ‘crash through’ the Germans lines. His commander protested vehemently at this tactic and was removed from his post for his troubles. The attack went ahead as ordered:

As we approached the crest of the rise, the order was given to speed up and the tanks on either side of us followed suit. But we were the first to reach the skyline, at least of those in our immediate vicinity, and as we came into full view of the enemy so the shells arrived.

Clouds of smoke and dust soon blinded my vision and I never saw one of the many anti-tank guns that now started to take their toll. In the first second we must have received at least four direct hits from armour piercing shells. The engine was knocked out, a track was broken and one shell hit the barrel of the 75 mm gun and broke it.

Then quite a heavy high explosive shell dropped on the mantlet of my 37 mm gun and pushed it back against the recoil springs. That shell landed inches above my head but the armour plating held firm, and I suffered nothing more than a ‘singing in the ears’. But a splinter hit the subaltern in the head, and he fell to the floor of the turret dead. I found that my gun would not fire.

Almost every tank in that battle met with the same treatment, and the whole line was halted on the crest of that small ridge. I half climbed out of the gunner’s seat so that I could see over the top of the turret, and the sight that met my eyes was terrifying. These Grant tanks carried a large supply of ammunition for the 75 mm gun stowed underneath the main turret. If an armour piercing shell happened to penetrate the armour and hit the ammunition, the result had to be seen to be believed.

Sgt Adams’ tank was halted less than 10 yards from me, and as I looked across I saw him and his crew start to bale out. He had one leg out of the cupola when suddenly his tank just disintegrated; the turret, which weighed about 8 tons, went sailing into the air and landed with a dull thud in front of my tank, the sides of the tank split open with the force of the explosion and exposed what remained of the inside – a blazing jumble of twisted metal. Not a member of the crew had a chance of survival.

Benzie’s squadron went into this action with a strength of twelve tanks. In under a minute all but one were in flames, and all along the line it was more or less the same story. Why my tank was not on fire was a mystery to me, we had been hit often enough. But we were now manning a useless lump of metal, we could not move, and our guns were out of action. Our orders were clear, ‘No baling out unless the tank is on fire.’

Anyhow, by now it was almost safer to stay where we were, because the whole area was still under heavy shell fire, although the anti-tank gunners were blinded by the pillars of black smoke that swirled up from each burning tank.

I bent down and removed the wireless headphones from our dead tank commander, and put them on. At least the wireless was still working, and I called up Regimental Headquarters. ‘Why, are you still alive? Thank God somebody is? I explained our position, and the Adjutant said he would send up a tank to try and tow us back when things had quietened down.

See Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives.

Grant tanks of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert, 24 March 1942.

The driver of a Grant tank takes a closer look at a gouge in the armour plate made by a 50mm anti-tank round, Libya, June 1942.

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May

28

1942

A guessing game U-boat hunt in the Mediterranean

28th May 1942: A guessing game U-boat hunt in the Mediterranean

The searchlight was immediately illuminated showing the U-Boat wallowing gently in the slight swell which was pouring off her hull and sparkling in the moonlight. Speed was increased to fifteen knots to counter a surface escape and the guns ordered to open fire. But use of the main armament was an error because the vivid flash of the four-inch guns temporarily blinded everyone on the upper deck.

May

27

1942

Returning to duty on the Eastern Front

27th May 1942: Returning to duty on the Eastern Front

Behind our truck hung a long cloud of dust in great whorls, and in no time there was a thin grey coating on uniform, hair and face. The dust clogged your nostrils, got into your mouth, parched your throat. Rushing through the air made our eyes water and the tears which trickled cut furrows into that dust down our cheeks. Everything was shimmering with the heat.

May

26

1942

Rommel attacks the Gazala Line

26th May 1942: Rommel attacks the Gazala Line

Half an hour later, the first of the enemy tanks rolled into view – eighty of them all advancing together, firing indiscriminately as they came, the squeaking of their tracks adding to the fearful cacophony now surrounding Bir Hakeim. They were immediately followed by an impressive number of trucks carrying infantry and artillery.

May

25

1942

Convoy PQ16 comes under air attack

25th May 1942: Convoy PQ16 comes under air attack

The tracer-bullets from our Oerlikons were rushing at the yellow belly of the Junker 88 as he swooped over us. A loud squeal, growing louder and louder, and then the explosion, as a stick of bombs landed between us and the destroyer, on the port side. Three pillars of water went high up in the air, and the ship shook.

May

24

1942

Public wants a Second Front to help Russia

24th May 1942: Public wants a Second Front to help Russia

It’s apparently useless for them to point out that the R.A.F. is regularly battering Germany’s production bases, that the steady stream of British war material to Russia continues at considerable sacrifice to this country, and that Britain is already fighting on three fronts – the Pacific, the Middle East, and the Atlantic.

May

23

1942

Blind-flying duel over southern England

23rd May 1942: A blind-flying duel over southern England

The Heinkel banked steeply over to the left and came running back at us, the gunners firing broadsides as they flashed past only a hundred yards away on the beam. John had the Beaufighter already staggering around after them, the force of the turn pressing me down outrageously into my seat.

May

22

1942

British and Soviets argue over ‘Second Front’

22 May 1942: British and Soviet governments argue over ‘Second Front’

if any further effort could be made or plan devised, provided it was sound and sensible, for drawing the weight off Russia this year, we should not hesitate to put it into effect. Clearly, it would not further either the Russian cause or that of the Allies as a whole if, for the sake of action at any price, we embarked on some operation which ended in disaster and gave the enemy an opportunity for glorification at our discomfiture.

May

21

1942

Spitfire vs Messerschmitt 109 over Malta

21st May 1942: Spitfire vs Messerschmitt 109 over Malta

The 109’s scatter like spray. Twisting in my seat; my companions can’t have heard my order – I’m alone. Enemy fighters every-where. Two race low overliead; four more on my right. As three more 109s dive head-on under my nose I watch the fourth turning towards me; in a few seconds he will pass below to my left. There’s plenty of time to shoot him down.

May

20

1942

Evading enemy aircraft in the desert

20th May 1942: Evading enemy aircraft in the desert

I had gone about fifty miles inland before I was spotted by an enemy fighter. The method of foiling aircraft attack in the open desert is quite simple. The plane, or planes, would generally attack from behind. What you had to do then was a complete 180-degree turn to face the oncoming attacker. This put the plane at a distinct disadvantage: he couldn’t dive towards you as he would finish up diving into the ground.