New British Grant tanks attack in the desert

29th May 1942: New British Grant tanks attack in the desert

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.

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.

5 thoughts on “New British Grant tanks attack in the desert”

  1. Leakey’s graphic account reveals the bankruptcy of the British Army’s armored tactics at this point in the Desert War. Unlike the Germans who had thought through the force multipliers of adding infantry, anti-tank guns and artillery to tanks, the British viewed armor more like cavalry, operating mainly independently and relying on the charge, just like the olden days. And the Germans, on defense and dug in, were hard to see, engage and hit. Fortunately the British eventually learned from their mistakes, got upgraded and improved weapons and equipment, and lost some of their tribalism, so that by August they were fighting a smarter war with better awareness of the power of coordinated all-arms defense and attack.

  2. Tank combat has always fascinated me. To hear a such a vivid first hand account is so intense. I just wish there were some more visuals to go along with this story.

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