The Cruiser Tank Mk VI Crusader (A15) was the main British-built tank used in the Western Desert from 1941 until late in 1942. It earned a justified reputation for being unreliable, and was eventually replaced by the American M3s and M4s.
The Crusader evolved from a specification for a '1938 Class Medium' tank which was to use Christie suspension and be better armoured than the existing cruiser tanks. Nuffields produced the A16, but this design wasn't a success. In April 1939 the General Staff examined a number of designs produced in response to this specification, including the A16 and an alternative Nuffield design for an enlarged version of the A13 Mk III Cruiser Tank Mk V Covenanter, which had itself only just been produced in mock-up form.
Nuffield didn't want to use the Meadows engine used in the Covenanter (indeed they would prove to be unusually resistant to anything but the Liberty, an attitude that eventually saw them produce a large number of unsatisfactory A27L Centaurs). Instead they chose to use the Liberty engine from the original A13 Mk I and Mk II. The radiators were located on either side of the engine, removing one of the main problems with the Covenanter. The vacant space at the front-left was initially used to fit an auxiliary machine gun turret (carried on the Crusader Mk I but not on later models). The Crusader was a little longer than the Covenanter, and so was given a fifth road wheel on each side. This increased the potential carrying capacity of the suspension and allowed the Crusader to be up-gunned and up-armoured. It was similar in appearance to the Covenanter, with a similar faceted turret and rectangular fuselage.
The Crusader was ordered off the drawing board in July 1939 as the Cruiser Tank Mk VI (A15). 200 production tanks and the pilot were ordered at that date. This was increased to 400 in the summer of 1940 and then to 1,062. The pilot was ready by March 1940. Tests with this machine proved that the auxiliary turret was unusable, although it remained on the Mk I.
The Crusader was desperately needed after the loss of all but thirteen of the BEF's tanks in May-June 1940. At this date the 2pdr gun was generally superior to any German tank gun, so a reliable Crusader would have been of great value. Unfortunately it wasn't expected to appear in large numbers until early in 1941,
Early in 1941 it was realised that the A27M Cromwell, which was to be armed with the new 6pdr gun, wouldn't be ready in the spring of 1942. In March 1941 the Ministry of Supply decided to produce a mock-up of a new 6pdr turret for the Crusader. It isn't entirely clear who designed this turret, but when it was shown to Nuffields in September 1941 they found so many flaws that they decided to produce their own. Nuffield found the task rather easier than the Ministry, producing a modified 2pdr turret with a larger mantlet, and a pilot 6pdr armed Crusader was ready by December. Unfortunately the bigger gun meant that there was only room for two men in the turret, so the loader was eliminated. This made the tank a much less effective fighting machine.
The first 6pdr armed Crusader III was delivered in May 1942. Production built fairly rapidly and about 100 took part in the battle of Alamein in October 1942. The confused state of British tank production was clearly demonstrated in 1943 when 771 Crusader IIIs were produced, even though the type was no longer seen as a useful gun tank. This was more than the total production of the Meteor powered A27M Cromwell in the same year! Eventually over 5,000 Crusaders were built. Nuffield served as the parent company while seven other companies also built the tank.
The first Crusaders reached North Africa on the 'Tiger' convoy, a fast convoy that was sent through the Mediterranean instead of around the Cape. They were allocated to the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, and were eagerly awaited. Tests in British conditions had not revealed the unreliability problems that would soon strike
Its combat debut came early in Operation Battleaxe in the summer of 1941. The cruiser tanks were sent to outflank the main Axis line. Their immediate objective was the Hafid Ridge. A first attack, with A9s, A10s and A13s came close to success. Later on the same day two squadrons of the new Crusaders attacked the same position, but Rommel had reinforced the troops on the ridge. The Crusaders were forced into a long-range gunnery duel and eventually withdrew having lost half of their tanks. Ominously most of these losses were caused by mechanical failures.
By November 1941 the Crusader equipped the 22nd Armoured Brigade and most of the 7th Armoured Brigade and was expected to play a major part in Operation Crusader (November-December 1941). Just as during Battleaxe the cruiser tanks were allocated to the Allied left wing and were expected to cut around the German right wing. The battle ended as a narrow British victory and Rommel pulled back to Beda Fomm. During the careful British pursuit the 22nd Armoured Brigade was surrounded at Agedabia on 26 December and suffered very heavy losses.
After Operation Crusader it was clear that the Crusader tank was not reliable. The two main faults affected the radiator fan drive and the water pump. The fans wore out too quickly and were time consuming to replace or repair. The seals on the water pump were easily damaged by the all-pervading sand. Some damage might have been done in Britain, and not enough care was taken on the trip to North Africa, so the tanks didn't arrive in good condition. The tank also suffered from persistent oil leaks. By the time these problems were solved the tank crews had lost faith in the Crusader and were happy to move into American M3 Grants and M4 Shermans.
Around 100 Crusader IIIs with the 6pdr gun were present during the Battle of Alamein in October 1942, although by then they were being replaced by the American tanks. In 1943 the remaining gun tanks were declared obsolete, but a number remained in use as Observation Posts, Anti-aircraft tanks or other special purpose vehicles.
Crusader I Cruiser Tank Mk VI
The Crusader I had 40mm of frontal armour, was armed with a 2pdr gun and carried an auxiliary machine gun turret.
Crusader I C.S. Cruiser Tank VI.C.S
The Crusader I C.S. was a close support version of the tank, armed with a 3in howitzer.
Crusader II Cruiser Tank Mk VIA
On the Crusader II the frontal armour was increased from 40mm to 49mm and the machine gun turret was normally removed. The Crusader II was also produced in a C.S. version.
The Crusader III was the last production version of the tank and was armed with the 6pdr gun. It entered production in May 1942 but was produced in largest numbers in the following year.
Crusader III AA Mk I
The Crusader III AA Mk I was the first of three anti-aircraft conversions of the basic Crusader III. The AA Mk I carried a single 40mm Bofors gun. Early conversions used the standard Bofors shield, later conversions had a four sided open topped shield.
Crusader III AA Mk II
The Crusader III AA Mk II had a new purpose-built fully enclosed anti-aircraft turret, armed with two 20mm Oerlikon AA cannon.
Crusader III AA Mk III
The Crusader III AA Mk III was similar to the Mk II, but with the radio moved from the turret to the hull.
Hull Length: 19ft 8in
Hull Width: 7ft 4in
Height: 8ft 8in
Crew: 5 (Mk I) 4 (Mk II without auxiliary machine-gun turret) 3 (Mk III)
Weight: 42,560lb (Mk I and II), 44,240lb (Mk III)
Engine: 340hp Nuffield Liberty V12
Max Speed: 27mph road, 15mph cross country
Max Range: 100 miles road radius
Armament Mk I: 2pdr and two machine guns
Armament Mk II: 2pdr and one machine gun
Armament Mk III: 6pdr and one machine gun
Armour: 7-40 (Mk I), 7-49 (Mk II), 7-51 (Mk III)