Sunday, 15 May 2016

Cruiser IV: A Bit More Armour

The adoption of the Cruiser Tank Mk.III in 1938 didn't mean that the British were fully satisfied with it. Armour that was only 14 mm thick made the tank vulnerable to anything bigger than a rifle. High caliber machineguns that were one of the most popular anti-tank weapons during the Spanish Civil War made the military seriously think about improving protection. It was impossible to do anything radical with the Cruiser Tank Mk.III, since a whole new tank would be needed. It was decided to go down the road of minor modernization. The resulting tank became one of the best and longest lasting pre-war British tanks.

Local Reinforcements

Work on modernizing the Cruiser Tank Mk.III began in 1938, the same year as it was accepted into service. The Cruiser Tank A13E3 became a test lab for ideas for the new vehicle. No serious changes would be made to the hull, suspension, or engine, all of these were satisfactory to the British. Changes were confined to the armour, and applique armour at that. The only part that became thicker was the driver's hatch, increased to 28 mm.

The turret had some changes done to it. The commander's cupola became round instead of hexagonal (similar to the cupola of the Light Tank Mk.VIB). The observation device to the left of the gun mantlet was moved to the applique armour, and the four sections of front applique armour were installed parallel to the hull. The configuration of the side applique armour was similar to that used on the Cruiser Tank Mk.III*. The gap that was characteristic for field modifications disappeared.

Production of the Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA at Nuffield Mechanizations & Aero, 1940. These tanks will later be sent to Africa.

Applique armour tested on the Cruiser Tank A13E3 showed that an extra half ton of weight did not have a serious impact on the tank's performance. Of course, the extra armour was just a half-measure. As it became more and more evident that a large war was brewing up in Europe, delaying production could become more costly. In December of 1938, an order for 65 tanks was made, indexed Cruiser Tank Mk.IV. These vehicles were also called A13 Mk.II.

Since the order for new tanks surpassed the capabilities of Nuffield Mechanizations & Aero, the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company (LMS) was given a part of the order. It is worth mentioning that the railway company played an important role in British tank building. For example, the Matilda infantry tank was assembled there. With the combined efforts of Nuffield and LMS, the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV became the most produced pre-war cruiser tank.

Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA turret.

The volume of production deserves its own mention. Often, numbers of 655 and 430 tanks are quoted, but archive data shows that these numbers are overestimated. The registration numbers for tanks of this type were given out in the following ranges:
  • T.7030-T.7094 (65 tanks)
  • T.9096-T.9190 (95 tanks)
  • T.15215-T.15294 (80 tanks)
  • T.18096-T.18160 (65 tanks)
In total, the ranges add up to 305 tanks. A report received by Soviet intelligence in 1942 gives an even smaller number. According to it, 630 Cruiser Mk.I through Mk.IV tanks were made, 121 Mk.I, 170 Mk.II, 65 Mk.III, 270 Mk.IV. A comparison with registration numbers and official data regarding the production of Cruiser Tanks Mk.I, II, and III makes this data seem reliable.

Early Cruiser Tank Mk.IV. These tanks did not have extra armour of the gun mantlet.

According to the same intelligence data, most cruiser tanks were built in 1940 (454 tanks), and in 1941, only 16 Cruiser Tanks Mk.IV were assembled. This explains why early types of cruiser tanks did not receive a name (for example, the Cruiser Tank Mk.V was called "Covenanter"). By the time that the new system of titles was in place, the tanks were no longer in production.

Changes to the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV design were made soon after production began. The applique armour, as with the Cruiser Tank Mk.III*, did not apply to the gun mantlet, which remained 14 mm thick. This problem was solved with additional spaced armour that covered the gun mantlet. These tanks were the most numerous among those equipped with a Vickers Mk.VI machinegun.

Cruiser Tank Mk.IV with spaced armour on the gun mantlet.

The next change was connected with the machinegun. In 1939, the British army introduced the BESA machinegun. The new machinegun was a Czechoslovak ZB.53 heavy machinegun modifies by the Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA). The compact machinegun that did not need water cooling was immediately adopted by the tank branch. The Cruiser Tank Mk.IV was no exception. The modification with an altered gun mantlet and a BESA machinegun was called Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA. The mantlet and observation device were attached to the main applique armour plate on the front of the turret, which now consisted of three pieces instead of four. The mass of the tank grew to 15 tons.

Early Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA in Africa, 1941. This is vehicle T.15219, the same one as was seen in the Nuffield factory photo.

A little later, a second version of the Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA appeared. The biggest change was the cast gun mantlet, much easier to manufacture, but not devoid of drawbacks like gaps that "caught" shells and bullets. Later, this gun mantlet migrated to the Covenanter and Crusader. It's important to point out that changes made to the tanks did not result in a different numbering system. For example, tanks from three of the four modifications of the tank can be found within the range T.9096-T.9190.

Late Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA, the most numerous modification.

Some sources mention a Cruiser Tank Mk.IV CS armed with a 94 mm OQF 3.7" Mk.I howitzer, the same weapon as was used on the Cruiser Tank Mk.I CS and Cruiser Tank Mk.II CS. There are, however, some doubts about its existence, as there is no information about this modification aside from a text description. There was also a commander's version of the Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA, equipped with an additional antenna on the front right part of the turret roof.

Battles on Two Continents

As of May 1940, the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV was the second in number after the Light Tank Mk.VI among British tanks. These tanks were used by nine tank regiments in the 1st and 2nd Armoured Divisions. In the middle of May of 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force was deployed in France, 65 tanks of this type were sent there. Vehicles of all modifications were used, mostly late Cruiser Tanks Mk.IV with additional gun mantlet armour. The tanks were spread out among regiments in the 2nd and 3rd Armoured Brigades.
  • 2nd Armoured Brigade: 2nd Dragoon Guards Regiment, 9th Her Majesty's Own Royal Lancers Regiment, and 10th Royal Hussars Regiment.
  • 3rd Armoured Brigade: 2nd, 3rd, and 5th Royal Armoured Regiments.
The vehicles used by the Royal Armoured Regiments were very heterogeneous. For example, the 3rd regiment had Cruiser Tanks Mk.III, Cruiser tanks Mk.I, and Cruiser Tanks Mk.I CS aside from Cruiser Tanks Mk.IVA.

Cruiser Tank Mk.IV from the 2nd Dragoon Guards Regiment, 1st Armoured Division, abandoned due to mechanical failure. France, May 1940.

The French Campaign turned out to be longer for the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV than for the Cruiser Tank Mk.III. Aside from battles for Abbeville and Pas-de-Calais, tanks of this type also fought in defense of Dunkirk during the evacuation, where most of the vehicles were lost. During battles in France, the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV was a worthy opponent for German medium tanks. Its armour was comparable, as both the Pz.Kpfw. III and Pz.Kpfw. IV were protected with armour designed to resist high caliber machineguns and autocannons. Anti-tank guns used by France, Germany, and Britain made this armour ineffective. The speed of German and British tanks was also comparable. However, the British cruiser tanks had very picky engines, which often caused losses.

Unlike the Cruiser Tank Mk.III, its younger brother was destined to return to Europe. In March of 1941, the 1st Armoured Brigade from the 2nd Armoured Division was sent to Greece from Egypt. It contained two regiments, 4th Her Majesty's Own Royal Hussars and the reformed after losses in France 3rd Royal Armoured. The 3rd Royal Armoured Regiment contained Cruiser Tanks Mk.IV in addition to Cruiser Tanks Mk.IIA and Cruiser Tanks Mk.IIA CS, a part of which was taken from the 5th Royal Tank Regiment.

The fate of the 1st Armoured Brigade was even sadder than that of the BEF. The attempt to stop a German invasion of Greece failed, and most tanks were lost due to mechanical failure. After defeat in the Balkans, the 3rd Royal Armoured Regiment was reformed in July of 1942, but armed with other tanks.

This tank was lost due to a broken engine. It was a part of the 1st Armoured Brigade and fought in Greece in the spring of 1941.

Unlike in Europe, the African career of the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV was long. The first tanks arrived in early 1940, when Percy Hobart's mobile division (one of the creators of the cruiser tank doctrine) was reformed into the 7th Armoured Division, also known as the "Desert Rats". By June of 1940, the division included two armoured brigades which used Light Tanks Mk.VIB and cruiser tanks, the majority of which were Cruiser Tanks Mk.IVA.

Tanks fighting in Africa had tropical modifications. Several vehicles had long boxes attached on the left side of the turret, and mounts for 2-gallon cans were added to the rear of the hull. Side skirts were also added.

Despite Italy's official entry into the war on June 10th, 1940, active combat in Africa began in September. A month later, reinforcements were sent from Britain to Egypt: the 2nd Royal Armoured Regiment from the 1st Armoured Division and the 3rd His Majesty's Own Hussars from the 2nd Armoured Division. Two more brigades from the 2nd Armoured Division arrived in January of 1941. All glory of battle with the Italians fell to another unit that came to help in October of 1940: the 7th Royal Armoured Regiment, which consisted of Matilda IIA and Matilda III infantry tanks. While Italian artillery could fight British cruiser tanks, it was powerless against Matildas.

During Operation Compass, infantry tanks from the 7th Armoured played an important part. Nevertheless, the Cruiser Tank MkIVA was still the backbone of most British tank units. This situation persisted until the landing of the German Africa Corps in Libya in February of 1941. The first victim of the Germans was the 2nd Armoured Division, a part of which was sent to Greece in March of 1941. As of early April, the division included the 3rd Armoured Brigade, consisting of the 3rd His Majesty's Own Royal Hussars Regiment as well as the 5th and 6th Royal Armoured Regiments. The Cruiser Tank MkIV was the most popular among those units, including both early and late types. The 2nd Armoured Division was defeated in battles against the German 5th Tank Regiment and the Italian 132nd Ariete Tank Division, and by April 8th, 1941, it was disbanded.

Knocked out Cruiser Mk.IVA from the 2nd Armoured Division, Africa, March 1941.

By June 1941, the career of the Cruiser Tank MkIV was coming to an end. Operation Battleaxe was the last major battle where tanks of this type were used. By that time, the 7th Armoured Division began receiving large amounts of Crusader I tanks. Arrival of the American M3 Light Tank, known as the Stuart I in the British army, spelled the end of the Cruiser Tank Mk.IV. Its firepower was equal to the British cruisers, and its armour was superior. Most importantly, it was much more reliable. Single Cruiser Mk.IVA tanks continued serving in Africa until early 1941. Vehicles on Malta served longer than the rest. At least one Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA (serial number T.18117) remained in that garrison until at least late March of 1942.

Under a Foreign Flag

The Cruiser Tank Mk.IV was the only cruiser tank included in the BEF that was massively used by the Germans. Its new masters tried it out during the French campaign of 1940. The Kreuzer Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV 744 (e) was used as it was captured, without even a new paint job. Cosmetic changes were limited to painting over the British identifying marks and addition of the Balkenkreuz. After the French Campaign, the Germans no longer used Cruiser Tanks Mk.IVA and B, at least in Western Europe.

Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA that was captured and put into battle immediately in France, June1940. The engine betrayed its new masters.

After the 1940 campaign, several tanks (up to six) made it to the proving grounds at Kummersdorf. The other tanks were spread out between training and active units. In February of 1941, 9 tanks were transferred to Beutepanzer-Kompanie (e) within Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100. There is also information about the use of the Kreuzer Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV 744 (e) by police units.

Tanks that were used by training units were not changed significantly. Some tanks even retained British camouflage. Tanks from Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100 were also mostly unchanged from the fall of 1940 to spring of 1941. Notek night lights were installed, the tanks were painted in a German grey, and unit markings were added. As for tanks that were sent to the front lines, that story is more interesting. The modernization was systematic: all tanks were altered in the same way.

Kreuzer Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV 744 (e) from Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100.

First, tanks from Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100 received new tracks, borrowed from the Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf. D1. The change might seem strange if one does not consider that the donor tank was essentially the German vision of a cruiser tank. The cause of this replacement was unknown, it was possible that the new tracks were simply longer lasting.

A bigger change compared to the original design was the addition of wooden shelves along the sides for fuel canisters, located behind the skirt armour. Holders for canisters were also added on the fenders. Front and rear mudguards were replaced with simplified ones. At the same time, the side elements of the fenders were removed.

In addition to standard lights, Notek night driving lights were added to the front and rear. The muffler was partially covered by a screen, and a mount for an unditching log was added. At least one tank from Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100 (turret number 265) received a movable tow hook for a Renault UE trailer. Almost all Kreuzer Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV 744 (e) in Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100 were of the later type, and only tank #142 was from the early series.

Typical Kreuzer Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV 744 (e) at the end of its career. The removed engine compartment roof indicates a broken engine.

Converted tanks were used in the first days of the Great Patriotic War. Tanks from Pz.Abt. (Flamm) 100 of the 18th Tank Division were included in the 2nd Tank Group of Army Group Center. The battalion participated in the assault on Brest Fortress and later fought in Belarus. However, the combat career of the Kreuzer Panzerkampfwagen Mk IV 744 (e) was not long. By July 11th, 1941, three weeks after combat began, the battalion no longer had a single tank of this type. Most were lost due to breakdowns.

Aside from Europe, the Cruiser Tank Mk.IVA fought under a foreign flag in North Africa. As of July 23rd, 1941, the German 5th Light Division had two Cruiser Tanks Mk.IVA. These vehicles were lost by September 12th. Aside from the Germans, the Italians used captured tanks, both as tanks and as immobile pillboxes. Unlike tanks that fought on the Eastern Front, the African trophies were not altered at all. They did not even have new markings.

1 comment:

  1. Leaving aside the problems of the "cruiser" doctrine itself, given the level of operational mobility it called for the depressingly consistently poor automotive reliability of the Brit Cruisers always struck me as a particularly severe shortcoming.