British tanks still outgunned in the desert

There had been high hopes for the new Stuart 'Honey' tanks
when they arrived in the desert in August 1941

The fighting to relieve Tobruk continued in the desert. Although the British had built up their forces for Operation Crusader, they yet again learnt that the quality of their armour was still not a match for the Germans.

The new ‘Honey’ tanks did not have the range to take on the Panzers, they had to rely on their speed to advance rapidly to get in close enough to let their inferior guns have some chance.

It wasn’t always possible to adopt these tactics. Late on one of the days of Crusader, Cyril Joly, commanding a tank squadron, found himself in one of the awkward, unplanned encounters with German armour:

Closer and closer the German tanks came, and miraculously our line held. Again, somehow, the enemy had been able to muster almost fifty tanks. Against the inferior armour and gun-power of our only slightly more numerous Honeys it was almost enough to give victory.

I was by now forced to watch my supply of ammunition carefully, and warned my squadron to do likewise. There would be no time to arrange any sort of gradual refill before darkness fell, but equally there was still some fifteen minutes before it would become so dark that the Germans could be expected to call off the battle.

They too, however, were probably suffering the same difficulties, so that it was only as the last vestige of fighting light lingered that they launched another determined assault. It was too late to carry them far, but this last fling gave them isolated successes here and there.

Suddenly my own tank was struck twice on the front, without apparent serious damage, until I ordered the driver to reverse slowly to confuse the Germans by an alteration of range. Then the grinding and crunching of metal along the side of the tank showed that the track had been hit and distorted.

At the instant that I realised that we were immobilised Kinnaird [his commander] ordered, “ Hello, all stations Peter; Peter calling, withdraw now. Do not wait and invite further casualties. Withdraw out of range, and in figures five, when it is dark, we will rally. Over.”

Before I could acknowledge in my turn, the tank was hit again and penetrated. The shot entered the lower part of the front plate of the turret on the loader’s side, missed Turner the loader, by inches and crashed into the wireless set, which was left a tangled mass of broken valves and wiring.

This was indeed disaster. A crippled tank, no wireless, the squadron out of sight and the Germans so close as to be still visible. My heart sank at the apparent hopelessness of the situation.

It was the second time Joly had survived having his tank hit and penetrated. The story of how he just managed to extricate his tank from this situation can be found in Cyril Joly: Take These Men .

The overall situation in the desert remained equally precarious. The overall effects of highly mobile warfare were difficult to picture, as the official Military Situation Report for the week concluded:

It is impossible to give anything in the way of a firm estimate of the opposing tank forces remaining in the field. Returns of the strengths of our own units and of vehicles recovered have not yet been collated, while reports of the enemy’s casualties and strengths in the various engagements have been made in the heat of battle and cannot be regarded as accurate.

At the time of writing, the opposing forces have fallen apart without a decision having been reached.

The enemy was evidently surprised by our preliminary moves and General Rommels armoured forces have been brought to battle and a great part of them destroyed. On the other hand, the fighting has been bitter and casualties heavy and the enemy has been able to cover the Tobruk corridor and reconcentrate those parts of the two German armoured divisions which have survived the first fourteen days of the campaign.

From the Military Situation Report for the week, as reported to the British War Cabinet, see TNA CAB 66/20/20

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