Grants – Fire Now!!!

Because British factories proved unable to build a sufficient number of tanks for their own forces, the British government received permission from the United States government to have a modified version of the M3 series of medium tanks built for use by their own army. The British-ordered M3 series medium tanks, named the “Grant,” arrived in North Africa in the standard U.S. Army olive drab. As seen here, the British Army quickly repainted over the olive drab with a more appropriate light tan color known as Light Stone (British Standard Colour No. 61). There would be variations between units in the manner of its application. The tank’s registration numbers, seen here in white, remain on their original olive drab background. Also visible on the vehicle pictured, belonging to the 22nd Armored Brigade, in May 1943, are the red tactical markings employed by the unit with which it was assigned to serve.

During World War II Lieutenant-Colonel George Witheridge served with the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, 4th Armored Brigade, 7th Armored Division. In his letter to author Richard Hunnicutt he describes the events of May 27, 1942, when the M3 Grant tanks of his unit first engaged their German counterparts in North Africa:

“We ran for about ten minutes in the ordered direction, which was towards the Bir Hacheim area. The Stuarts (American M3 light tanks) well out ahead at about 2,000 yards; Cyril’s Grant Squadron, on the left of the line, ‘Pip,’ who at all times was in the thickest of any show which ever it was, a tank battle or horse play in the officer’s mess was in the center of the line and my squadron on the right. Except for the outposts of Bir Hacheim there was nothing between us and the approaching fast mobile enemy, who, as yet, was still out of sight to us. We believed that we would clash with a reconnaissance force in strength. There was no information to the contrary. Brigade told us that it would not be a serious threat to us.

“If there was nothing between us and the enemy, what had happened to the two Motor Brigades southeast of Hacheim, I thought? Surely there is something wrong. Some information is missing. Now as I reflect, I believe this earlier message of the day was correct in every detail and that at least one German armored division was turning our southern flank…

“Vast dust clouds were now to be seen ahead. Wireless messages came in fast, establishing that many enemy tanks were moving with purpose – never have I seen such confidence for they moved en mass[e] without protection front; not using the eyes and mobility of lighter armored vehicles ahead. They came ‘flat out.’ Here were the Panzer III and IV we knew so well. They came on without reducing speed and on a wide front at close interval of about 30 yards between tanks and in depth beyond vision. The latter was not entirely due to sand storms churned up by movement of hundreds of tanks, but to the enormous area these tanks occupied in depth. I could not possibly see them all.

“Gradually, I could see more clearly the leading tanks, each carrying infantry, clinging like flies on something sweet. Our light squadron by this time had been ordered not to engage the enemy but to protect the regiment’s right flank. The desert was flat and wide open, with no hull down positions to be found anywhere. There was not even time to break to the right to take up positions on the enemy’s flank. Heavens, a whole enemy armored division in tight formation was almost upon us…

“In our gunnery training we had zeroed our guns at 1,000 yards, and we knew that our shooting would be accurate and that we could penetrate most of the heavy frontal armor with our new 75’s at that range; while we could also create havoc amongst all their tanks by rapid fire from our 37mm guns into their armored mass. Both the 75mm and 37mm were told to stand by to engage the targets as indicated. I thought to myself – thank heavens these are American guns as they can fire indefinitely, without the frequent necessity of ‘topping up’ the buffers with oil which was essential when firing the 2-pounder (40mm) gun with which British tanks had been equipped. As long as my tanks remained in action, they must, and I knew they would, keep those guns working smoothly-but-faster than ever before because the occasion called for extreme attention to danger from without and the need to destroy before being destroyed. We must stop this headlong German drive to the north.

“‘Hullo Cambrai – Cambrai calling – Fire now!’ ‘Cambrai out.’ This was the order for 75mm guns to open fire, the enemy then being within 1,000 yards of our guns. Immediately my small world seemed to vanish in the madness of the moment. We caused chaos in the German ranks, here plain to see were Panzers turning desperately to avoid the hail of death-dealing 75mm solid shot from the Grants, soon to be augmented with shot from the higher velocity 37mm guns. Some German tanks appeared to run into each other and the infantry clinging to their hulls were being thrown off their backs. Three German panzers were on fire, crews bailing out and great indecision seemed to reign. They were brought to a halt at about 900 yards. Now the famous Chestnut troop of 25-pounders, which had been close behind us, too close perhaps, joined in the slaughter of the panzers. Colored tracers from the several guns crisscrossed the space between the contestants, the air was full of flying metal; noise and confusion and brave men were dying.

“A flash inside my tank – ammunition on fire – would explode any moment – I had experienced being ‘burned up’ in other battles and knew at most I had but about two seconds to get my crew out. ‘Bale out’ I yelled. Like lightning my crew were out and taking cover behind the tank, I then explained the bearing and direction they should take to the brigade’s center line. Then singly they moved off trying to dodge the frightening tracers of armor-piercing shot which flew in all directions.

“Mounting the next tank I was just about to throw a leg over the cupola when there was a terrific crash and the tank burst into flame with greater fierceness than the one I just left. My other tank was already glowing red along its side. Bursting ammunition from within was popping out the cupola soaring into the sky like fireworks. Soon, this, my second tank would be doing the same. I then ran to the third tank where the crew was working at tremendous speed pumping shot from both guns. The gunner with the 75mm was having his own battle fight, with but an occasional correction from me, which was only necessary when I saw a particularly dangerous enemy – dangerous to me and my crews. The panzers had recovered from the first shock and were moving forward again but bearing away slightly to our right flank. Targets abounded.

“Wireless again. ‘Hullo Cyril, Cambrai calling, why are you moving back, over.’ Looking to my left I saw Cyril’s squadron or what was left of it, moving slowly in reverse. No answer from Cyril. ‘Hello Cyril, tell your chaps to switch off and stay where they are, over.’ ‘Hullo, Cambrai, Cyril answering. Sorry but I can’t see a dammed thing for blood in my eyes. I’m out of bricks (ammunition) and my turret gun damaged – over.’ ‘Hullo, Cyril, Cambrai, O.K. well done – carry on.’

“Many of our tanks were silenced, some burning to my right and left. The whole situation seemed that we were about to be overrun and trampled by the mass of German armor, which by now appeared to be speeding up their move leaving many of their dead tanks behind.

“Now the shooting was even better for us as the enemy tanks gradually steered away exposing their thin flanks. We had just 19 Grants, 16 Stuarts at the start, since we were under strength in tanks due to the need to share the Grants with other deserving regiments. The German tanks, as they went past us were being hampered by our Stuart light tanks, like terriers against wild boars. The range was closed to 300–400 yards on our right as the Germans swarmed past on their drive to the north. They had now made a complete envelopment of the Bir Hacheim area, Eighth Army’s southern end of the Gazala Line.

“The inter-com crackled again. ‘37mm traverse right, 400 right, right – steady fire.’ Over the vane sight I had laid the 37mm gun in the turret onto the leading German tank which we hit – it stopped – then immediately began to move again and continued on its way. The heat and flame shot past my face and the next thing I remember was being pulled off the engine covers to the rear of the turret. Again, I told the men where to go to reach the brigade center line to our rear.

“How long it took me to recover I will never know, but as soon as the crew were away I looked for another tank to mount. That on my right had a shattered side plate. The tank on my left was on fire then for some unaccountable reason I started to look for Cyril Joly, the Commander of C Squadron, a young officer whom I looked on more as a father, although the years in age between us was no more than ten years. I ran to his tank and removed the Homolite fuel container which was on fire, left front of the turret. Then I saw that his 37mm gun had been knocked askew in its mount and that the tank had been hit by 50mm shot. It had received many hits, none of which had penetrated its frontal armor. Many had hit the turret, again without penetration.

“Cyril was out on his feet. A 50mm round had parted his hair putting him out of action for some time. I sat on the glacis plate and directed the driver to reverse the tank out of battle – then I got the crew together, directing them to what I had hoped would be safety. They carried Cyril with them. Doing this I had reversed some one hundred yards so I went back towards our other tanks. Then, either through confusion or tiredness or both I found myself trying to avoid the projectiles, whose tracers indicated their paths over the whole area, by attempting to jump over them. Of course this was a ridiculous action but I found it hard to stop as I forced myself to return to my tanks. All but five remained out of the total. I climbed up on a tank next to Pip’s my C.O. and took up the fight again, but soon realized that Rommel’s boys had either had enough of us or they decided to spare us for they flowed past on our right flank… For every penetration on a Grant there were twenty to thirty which did not. Crew members of dead tanks had either burned in their tanks or were taken away. Most of our wounded had got away but three still remained. After an injection of morphine and first aid we made them as comfortable as possible, while awaiting assistance from brigade.”