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A15 Crusader

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The Cruiser, Mk.VI or A15 Crusader is a British cruiser tank that was developed in parallel with the Mk.V Covenanter since 1940. It was one of the primary British cruiser tanks of early World War II and formed the bulk of armoured vehicles assigned to British forces in North Africa. The tank was designed based on a request for the development of a heavy cruiser tank to lend support to the A13 Cruiser tank.

The Crusader series first started with the MKVI/I and II, equipped with a 40mm weapon. The Crusader II tanks had slightly increased armour protection and other minor modifications while the third version finally carried a 57mm gun. It represented the heaviest weapons mounted on a British battle tank used in Africa. The tank first saw action during Battleaxe with the 7th Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division. The brigade’s tanks came straight off the transport ships and had been sent specially to Egypt from England by orders of Churchill.

It was favoured by the British tank crews due to its mobility and its Ordnance QF 6 pounder main gun more than made up a match for the early Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks it faced during combat. Better known as the “Desert Rats”, so called named after their insignias, they reinforce the saying of “Dust means Death” as the cloud of dust thrown up by the vehicles in the desert allowed enemy observers to detect the presence of incoming enemy forces, thus allowing a reception to be prepared.

The original specifications for the Crusader tank indicated that the tank should have a 40mm frontal armour standard and 30mm elsewhere, and have a weight of no more than 18 tons. To keep production as simple as possible, it was decided the Crusader and Covenanter should share as many components as possible.

The first Crusader tank prototype that was delivered around April 1940 was found to have serious defects. One of the more serious issues reported was that there was a danger of the driver’s head being lopped off by the rear of the turret or hit by the gun should the turret rotate, as his head was exposed above the cabin when opened up. Other issues reported was the driver sustaining injury when going over uneven or rough terrain, lack of cooling and its unreliability in combat. By September 1940, although improvements were made in regards to the driver’s position, the tank still remained impossible for service use.

Later, the tank was modified as there were frequent break-downs due to overheating caused by the high temperatures of the desert. The thickness and length of the body was slightly larger due to the changed location of the radiator and the number of wheels has also been increased to five on one side. The Crusader remained in production well into 1943 but by late 1942, the lack of armament upgrade and the presence of Tiger I tanks among the Afrika Korps resulted in the design being phased out in favour of the new Sherman medium tank supplied by the US.

Due to the grave situation at that time, every vehicle was required and so the Crusader tank was pushed into production. In November 1940, the first Mk I version of the tank was completed. In December 1940, the production model underwent firing and stowage trials at Lulworth and these trials found the vehicle to be most unsatisfactory.

  • No attempt had been made to incorporate any additional equipment which had been found essential by units who served in France.
  • The auxiliary turret was too small for an ordinary man to fit in it and there was no room to operate the gun.
  • With the auxiliary turret opened, the main turret could not be transverse.
  • There was no look-out in the auxiliary turret.
  • The driver had only a limited vision.
  • The gassing trial showed that the auxiliary gunner would only last ten minutes while the rest of the crew would be asphyxiated in approximately half an hour.

The Mk II Crusader tank was an improved armoured version of the Mk I as the frontal armour was increased by up to 10mm and the roof by 3mm. The auxiliary turret was used on both vehicles but due to some of the major problems found during the trials, some Mk I versions and most Mk II versions did not have this turret. By late 1941, there was a need to increase the power of the Crusader’s gun and for this reason the 6pdr guns were produced. Most of the 6pdr guns produced in 1941 were the tank version but these could also be mounted on the anti-tank carriage. Nuffield's version of the turret with a 6pdr was tested in October 1941. Although it was not an ideal solution, the design was approved. Production was authorised in December and the first Crusader tank Mk III was produced in May 1942.

The 2pdr with a 3" howitzer capable of firing both HE and Smoke shells were replaced by close support versions of the Crusader, as the 3" howitzer has been specifically designed to fit in the same mounting as the 2pdr. Thus, fitting it inside the Crusader was no problem. The main issue faced was ammunition stowage as the size of the 3" howitzer rounds reduced the capacity from 130 rounds with the 2pdr to 63 with the 3" howitzer.

The Crusader tank’s armour arrangement was complex with composite, spaced, cast and single plate armour. Generally, the armour was composed of a quality plate with a carbon manganese steel backing plate. This combination offered slightly less ballistic resistance compared with a single plate. However, on non-penetrating rounds, the backing plate stopped fragments from entering the vehicle. In 1942, 14mm quality plates were added to the front of the Crusader to improve protection. There were hopes of adding on another 6mm to this 14mm but the suspension was not able to handle this additional weight.

The Crusader tank performed well against the Italian tanks but was largely inferior to the German vehicles of the time which were better armed and had slightly thicker armour. Reliability was a major problem throughout and this was not largely solved until 1942. The 6pdr gun improvement was greatly welcomed by crew members who at last could deal with any German tank of that period in range fights. By the end of 1942, the Crusader tank had been declared obsolete and was replaced by Shermans.

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