Thursday, April 16, 2015

Armed and Armoured Willys MB-Jeeps

Much work was carried out in the USA and Britain to design special airborne vehicles to drop behind the enemy lines. Willys MB-Jeeps engaged in helping the Infantry by clearing snipers and other commando tasks. Generally manned by a sergeant and a trooper this vehicle was modified in many respects. It was armed with no fewer than five machine guns and had additional tanks for 135 l. of fuel.

The most frequent combination encountered in the field. They were fitted with medium-range radios, and armed with the M1919 air-cooled Browning placed on the central pintle mount (fired by a standing gunner), but in some occasions, a heavier M1917A1 liquid-cooled was placed above the engine hood and fired by the co-driver. The M1920 often replaced the M1919 for added firepower. Usually the crew was two or three, the spare seat being utilized for ammo racks and gasoline jerrycans, allowing extra range. In practice, a large blackout headlamp was also mounted on the left front fender. 

Armored Jeep
In reconnaissance operations, the Jeep proved fast, but clearly unprotected. This led to field adaptation of armored plates and, after some time, formulated and officialized as the "1/4 ton 4x4 armored truck". This was an attempt by the army to set regulations of field modifications, consisting of adding a kind of "armored box" made of three plates (actually a single plate folded in three) protecting the front and sides of the driver compartment, with two small sight openings. The front plate replaced the windshield. The protection was sufficient against small arms fire.

The Jeep in action

About 144 Jeeps were provided to every infantry regiment in the U.S. Army, so it was the most currently available vehicle. This explains why it was used for so many tasks and so extensively, marking a deep and durable imprint on simple soldiers. Since it was involved in every possible operations performed by the US Army and Marines in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, it would be pointless to detail specific assignations. It was used as personnel carrier, staff transportation, medevac, liaison, reconnaissance, patrol, spearheading advanced columns or deep into enemy territory. It was used as light artillery tractor, ammo, water, food, fuel supply vehicle, mortar tractor, infantry support vehicle and even fast antitank vehicle, armored and equipped with bazookas. 30% of the production, mostly Ford GPAs, were turned to the Lend-Lease effort, largely distributed among British & Commonwealth, Free French, Free Polish forces and the Soviets, which ultimately derived a vehicle from it, the GAZ-67B. The production of this Soviet version started in September 23, 1943, and lasted until 1953, after 92,843 had been delivered.

One of the most thrilling uses of the Jeep, was performed by British and Allied LRDG units, "Long Range Desert Group" in North Africa. Often paired with Chevrolet WB trucks, they were heavily armed and received a lot of extra fuel. Their task was to navigate deep and far into enemy territory, gathering intelligence and operating covert reconnaissance. But they also hit depots, camps or even airbases, sometime at night or dawn, striking hard and fast, and creating havoc in rear line sectors reputedly "quiet", and therefore weakly defended. They made such an impression on the Italians in particular (which called it the "Pattuglia Fantasma" or "Ghost Patrol") that they developed a special vehicle, the AS-42 Sahariana, derived from the AB-41 armored car for the same tasks and missions. 

                                                           The AS-42 Sahariana

Infantry Tank Mks I and II Matilda

A Malta-based Matilda II with unique camouflage.

The Matilda was the only British tank with enough armour to withstand German tank guns in the early years. After a brief moment of glory at Arras, it won its real reputation with the 8th Army in the desert.

A requirement for a British army 'Infantry' tank was first made in 1934 and the immediate result was the All Infantry Tank Mk I, later nicknamed Matilda I. This was a very simple and small tank with a two-man crew but with armour heavy enough to defeat any contemporary anti-tank gun. The small turret mounted a single 7.7-mm (0.303-in) Vickers machine-gun and the engine was a commercial Ford V-8 unit. Orders for 140 were issued in April 1937, but when the type was tried in combat in France in 1940 it revealed many shortcomings: it was too slow and under armed for any form of armoured warfare, and the small numbers that remained in service after Dunkirk were used only for training.

The Matilda I was intended only as an interim type before the A12 Infantry Tank Mk II became available. This project began in 1936 and the first examples were completed in 1938. The Mk II, known later as Matilda II, was a much larger vehicle than the Matilda I with a four-man crew and a turret mounting a 2-pdr (40-mm/1.575-in) gun and liberal belts of cast armour (varying from 20 to 78 mm/0.8 to 3.1 in in thickness) capable of defeating all known anti-tank guns. The Matilda II was slow as it was intended for the direct support of infantry units, in which role speed was not essential. Overall it was a good-looking tank and it turned out to be far more reliable than many of its contemporaries. And despite the light gun carried it was found to be a good vehicle in combat. The Matilda IIA had a 7,92-mm (0.312-in) Besa machine-gun instead of the Vickers gun.

The main combat period for the Matilda (the term Matilda II was dropped when the little Matilda I was withdrawn in 1940) was the early North African campaign, where the type's armour proved to be effective against any Italian or German anti-tank gun with the exception of the German '88'. The Matilda was one of the armoured mainstays of the British forces until El Alamein, after which its place was taken by better armed and faster designs. But the importance of the Matilda did not diminish, for it then entered a long career as a special-purpose tank.

One of the most important of these special purposes was as a flail tank for mine-clearing. Starting with the Matilda Baron and then the Matilda Scorpion, it was used extensively for this role, but Matildas were also used to push AMRA mine-clearing rollers. Another variant was the Matilda CDL (Canal Defence Light), which used a special turret with a powerful light source to create 'artificial moonlight', Matildas were also fitted with dozer blades as the Matilda Dozer for combat engineering, and many were fitted with various flame-throwing devices as the Matilda Frog, There were many other special and demolition devices used with the Matilda, not all of them under British auspices for the Matilda became an important Australian tank as well. In fact Matilda gun tanks were used extensively by the Australian army in New Guinea and elsewhere until the war ended in 1945, and they devised several flame-throwing equipments. The Germans also used several captured Matildas to mount various anti-tank weapons of their own.

It is doubtful if a complete listing of all the many Matilda variants will ever be made, for numerous 'field modifications' and other unrecorded changes were made to the basic design. The first Matilda was produced in 1937 but only two were in service when war broke out in September 1939. Some 2,987 tanks were produced by John Fowler & Co., Ruston & Hornsby, and later London, Midland and Scottish Railway, Harland and Wolff, and the North British Locomotive Company. Production was stopped in August 1943. But the Matilda accommodated them all and many old soldiers still look back on this tank with affection for, despite its slow speed and light armament, it was reliable and steady, and above all it had good armour.


    * Matilda I (Infantry Tank Mk II)

    First production model.

    * Matilda II (Infantry Tank Mk IIA)

    Vickers machine gun replaced by Besa MG.

    * A few non-armored 'mild steel training tanks' were produced.
    * Matilda III (Infantry Tank Mk IIA*)

    New Leyland diesel engine.

    * Matilda III CS (for Close Support)

    Variant with 3 inch (75 mm) howitzer.

    * Matilda IV (Infantry Tank Mk IIA**)

    With improved engines.

    * Matilda V

    Improved gear box and gear shift.

    * Baron I, II, III, IIIA

    Matilda chassis with mine flail.

    * Matilda Scorpion I / II

    Matilda chassis with a mine flail.

    * Matilda II CDL / Matilda V CDL (Canal Defence Light)

    The normal turret was replaced by a cylindrical one containing a searchlight (projected through a vertical slit) and a BESA machine gun.

Australian variants:

    * Matilda Frog (25)

    Flame-thrower tank.

    * Murray and Murray FT

    Flame-thrower tank.

    * Matilda Hedgehog (6)

    A naval Hedgehog 7-barrel spigot mortar was mounted in an armoured box on the rear hull of several Australian Matilda tanks. The mortars were hydraulically elevated and electrically fired either individually or in a salvo of six, the fifth tube could not be fired until the turret was traversed to move the radio antenna out of the bomb's path. Each bomb weighed 30 kg and contained 14 kg of high explosive, the range of the bombs was up to 400 metres and aiming accomplished by pointing the entire tank as the mortars had no traverse independent of the hull of the tank.[2]

A Close Look and Personal Experience

The Matilda Mk II was highly feared by the Germans and Italians in the early North African campaigns. Its main gun, the 2pd was very effective against the Italians throughout the war, and could penetrate German tanks until they added "face-hardened" steel plates to their tanks. The added plates had the effect of shattering the 2pdr shell. Still there were few German tanks that could penetrate the Matilda II until the introduction of the HEAT rounds or the 75mm L/43 in the Pz. IV. The APCR rounds could also penetrate the Matilda, but since these rounds used critical Tungsten steel the sights for the round were set ONLY for short ranges, at which a hit was a near guarantee.

German respect for the Matilda can best be illustrated in an exchange between a German soldier and a British prisoner. The British prisoner said, "It is unfair for you to use an anti-aircraft gun (the 88) against tanks." To which the German replied, "It is unfair for you to have tanks that only the 88 can penetrate."

The Matilda was not a perfect tank, it had its drawbacks. I got into the driver's compartment years ago. It wasn't so much that I was entering a tank, but that I would putting on a tank. It was a tight fit. In the turret the crew varied from one to two. One crew member meant it shared the same disadvantage as the French tanks. That crew member had to be the commander, loader and gunner. In addition the cannon in the early British tanks lacked a geared elevating mechanism, instead had a shoulder pad that you fitted to your shoulder and adjusted the elevation by moving your body up and down. There was a tightening clamp that allowed you to adjust the tension and allowed you to lock in once you were on target, but it was still not a very desirable solution. Two people in the turret was an improvement of your duties, but it made the room for those men very tight. The Matilda was a small vehicle. Another disadvantage was the slow speed of the tank, generally 8 mile per hour. It didn't allow for rapid reactions to a mobile enemy. Still in attack the Matilda II was a formidable weapon. They were well armored and rather impervious to German 37 mm and Italian 37 mm AT fire. Though designed for infantry support they sported small caliber 40mm/2lb AT gun. Though better than the German 37mm and Ital 47 mm in armor piercing they were not produced with a HE shell. (Some ammunition was converted to use the Bofor's 40 mm HE AA shell though). I understand it was not as mechanically reliable as the Pz III but better than the M13/40 and overall not bad.

M3A1 Stuart in Operation

The light tank M-3 Stuart began to equip U.S. Army since the beginning of 1941. Powered by a 250 hp air-cooled engine was able to reach 60 km/h. It was used in a large numbers on the Mediterranean theater of war during Operation Torch, the American landing in North Africa. The M-3 was characterized by a relatively light armor of only 45mm. and an armament consists of a 37mm. main gun too small to penetrate the armor of Axis medium and heavy tanks. After the failures obtained against the German tanks, it was used almost exclusively for reconnaissance tasks flanking medium tanks like Shermans. In the theater of war of Pacific characterized by particular environmental conditions and the presence of a lower number of enemy tanks, M-3 was able to provide a good service level in infantry close support duties.

There's an interesting little anecdote about the 2 RTR Stuarts that couldn't cross the Chindwin. In 1945, as the Allies were chasing the Japanese out of Burma, one Regt found the Stuarts abandoned in 1942. They proceeded to cannibalize them to repair and "rejuvenate" their
own heavily worn tanks, and motored on to Rangoon.

The first U.S. light tank introduced after the start of the war in Europe was the M3 series of light tanks. Based on the M2A3, the M3 was designed at Rock Island Arsenal in the spring of 1940 and incorporated lessons learned in the early European fighting. Approved in July 1940, the M3 entered production in March 1941. The M3 saw extensive service in North Africa with the British (who called it the General Stuart) and then the Americans. 

Taking into account weight and armament factors, the M3 Stuart tank was a remarkably viable project, serving with distinction throughout the Second World War. Based on the pre-war M2A4 design, it had a better armour protection and a modified suspension system, with the idler wheel lowered, increasing stability and decreasing ground pressure. The first M3 tanks were manufactured in March 1941 by the American Car & Foundry and powered by Continental and Guiberson engines.

It was a considerable improvement over previous American designs, however, even before the declaration of war on Japan and Germany by the U.S.A., the Light Tank was only a very temporary patch on the abysmal neglect of U.S. tank development during the inter-war years. Light tanks already ceased to be the primary weapon of armoured divisions on both sides of the developing conflict, giving way to medium or cruiser tank designs, which offered better protection and heavier armament.

After the Lend-Lease Act came into force in March 1941, considerable numbers of M3 Light Tanks were provided to help Britain to arm its growing army. Not to confuse the M3 Light Tank with the M3 Medium Tank, names of Civil War generals were used to simplify vehicle identification. While the M3 Light Tank became known as the Stuart Light Tank (the British 7th Armoured Division also supplied another, more familiar nickname, calling the vehicle 'Honey' due to its superior reliability and agility), while the Medium Tank was named after General Lee.

Due to the Stuart's incompatibility with the British standards, changes were made to the original design to make the vehicle more suitable for the British Army and, above all, desert warfare. Sand shields, a water container rack, a ration box and other adjustments were made, as well as a number of internal modifications. While the American M3 tanks had two fixed machine guns on each side of the hull, the British had them deleted in favour of additional storage space.

In combat, the tactics used by the British against Rommel's Afrika-Korps were often a greater disadvantage than the natural disproportion of the vehicles armour and armament to actual battlefield conditions. Conditions were for the most part similar for Germans and British alike, however, the lay-out of the fighting compartment, the roles of each member of the crew, as well as tactics used during tank battles proved to have decisive influence on the success of each engagement. The short range of the Stuart also proved a considerable deficiency, often forcing crews to abandon undamaged vehicles only because it ran out of fuel. The arrival of M3 Medium Tanks (General Lee) and the performance of the light tank in battle caused the Stuart to gradually shift to other roles, never to regain the status it enjoyed with the British Army again, at least not in the European Theater of Operations.   It is very difficult to make a clear distinction between versions as some adjustments were retroactively introduced for older versions as well. A gradual shift from riveted armour to welded turrets and later hulls could be seen throughout the development of the M3 and the M5. Variants included the M3A1 with a modified turret and a new traversing periscope and the M3A3 with further improvements to the turret and three additional periscopes to improve the crews vision. Prototypes were produced with a Maxson quadruple .50 machine-gun turret or a T2 mine-exploding device, both were soon rejected.

The M3 went through three different models, eventually incorporating a gyro-stabilizer for the main gun, a diesel engine, and an allwelded turret and hull (the first being riveted). It also received two jettisonable 25-gallon fuel tanks to increase its range in the desert. The problem with its riveted armor was that even a glancing shot to the hull by an enemy shell could sheer the heads off rivets and send the remainder flying around the inside of the tank, causing serious personnel injuries and/or igniting ammunition or damaging the engine.

The M3 weighed some 27,400 pounds, had a crew of four, maximum 51mm armor, and was armed with a 37mm gun in the turret and 3 x .30-caliber machine guns. The M3A1 version of 1942 eliminated the turret cupola to reduce overall height and also did away with the two sponsoned machine guns, fired remotely by the driver. These had proved of limited use, and doing away with them reduced the tank’s weight and increased its internal storage.

The final version M3A3 entered production in early 1943. Weighing some 31,800 pounds, it had a new all-welded hull that was enlarged by extending the sponsons and increasing the driver’s compartment forward and upward. This extra room allowed for additional ammunition storage and fuel tanks.

Although the M3 in its various models performed well in its primary reconnaissance role, the tank was both undergunned and underpowered. The M3 proved a welcome addition to British armor assets in North Africa in 1941–1942, and its crews there thought highly enough of the reliable M3 to refer to it as “Honey.” The U.S. Army declared the M3 obsolete in July 1943; it remained in the service of other nations through the end of the war and beyond.