The Allied tank strength at the Second Battle of El Alamein was composed of a profusion of designs as a result of the coming together of British and American production plans. The Italians had only the one design, while the Germans relied on their Mark III and Mark IV, which, unlike earlier British tanks, had been designed from the outset to accommodate upgrades in armour thickness and gun power.
1. Italian M13/40
The M13/40 was best tank available to the Italian Army in 1940 but by 1942 it was totally outclassed by the latest British and American designs.
Powered by a Fiat diesel engine, it was reliable but slow. The frontal armour thickness of 30mm was inadequate by the standards of late-1942 and also had the disadvantage of being bolted on in some areas, a potentially lethal arrangement for crew members when the tank was hit. The main gun was a 47mm weapon.
Most Allied crews regarded the M13/40 as a deathtrap.
2. British Mark lll Valentine
The Valentine was an ‘infantry tank’, designed to accompany the infantry in the assault in line with British pre-war doctrine. As such it was slow but well-armoured, with 65-mm thick frontal armour. But by 1942 its 40mm/2-pounder gun was obsolete. It wasn’t able to fire high explosive shells and was totally out-classed and out-ranged by German guns.
The Valentine was powered by a bus engine and was very reliable, unlike many other contemporary British designs, but the design was also small and cramped, making up-gunning it difficult.
3. British Mk lV Crusader
The Crusader was a ‘cruiser’ tank, designed for speed. The first Crusaders carried the standard 2-pounder gun, but by the time of Alamein the Crusader lll had been introduced which had the much better 57mm/6-pounder gun.
However the Crusader lll still suffered from the same chronic unreliability problems that had plagued the design from the start. Plus, the tank’s small size meant the turret crew had to be reduced from three to two to accommodate the larger gun.
4. M3 Grant
Derived from the American M3 Lee medium tank, the Grant carried both a turret-mounted 37mm anti-tank gun and a dual-purpose 75mm gun. The British modified the 37mm turret to give the tank a slightly lower profile and re-christened the altered design with a measure of historical logic as the Grant.
For the first time, the Eighth Army now had a tank armed with a 75mm gun capable of firing a high explosive round, so vital to deal with dug-in German anti-tank guns. The Grant was mechanically reliable but the 75mm gun was mounted in a side sponson instead of a turret which imposed some tactical disadvantages, including exposing the majority of the tank’s considerable bulk before it could engage a target.
5. M4 Sherman
The M4 was the American development of the M3 medium design. It mounted the 75mm gun in a proper turret and combined it with a versatile and reliable chassis and engine. The Sherman was designed for mass production and at last provided Eighth Army with a good all-round tank capable of duelling with the best German tanks available to the Afrika Korps.
It inevitably still had some faults. The main problem being a propensity to catch fire easily when hit. This earned it the nickname ‘Ronson’ among British troops because of the advert for the famous lighter that boasted: ‘Lights First Time’. The Germans grimly christened it ‘The Tommy Cooker.’
All tanks have a tendency to catch fire when hit hard but the Sherman suffered more than most in this respect. Not all British tanks crews welcomed the Sherman and Corporal Geordie Reay of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment remarked on its considerable height, saying: “It was too big for my liking. Jerry wouldn’t have trouble hitting it.”
The Churchill was a new British design for a infantry support tank, a small unit of which arrived in time to be deployed at Alamein.
The Churchill was slow and heavily armoured, but the Mark used at Alamein was at least equipped with the more potent 6-pounder/57mm gun. However the Churchill had suffered a troubled development and was plagued by teething troubles, particularly with its complex engine transmission. It would go on to become a successful design, especially in its ability to climb steep slopes.
7. Panzer Mark lll
An excellent pre-war German design, the Mark III showed a capability for development sadly lacking in contemporary British tanks. It was initially intended to take on other tanks and armed with a high-velocity 37mm gun but it was later up-gunned with a short-barrelled 50mm gun, and then a long-barrelled 50mm. The design could also take a short-barrelled 75mm gun, used to fire high explosive shells for infantry support. Originally built with frontal armour of 30mm, this also was increased on later models.
8. Panzer Mark lV
The Panzer IV was yet another superior and adaptable German design. Originally intended as an infantry support tank, the Mark IV was first armed with a short 75mm gun. However development ‘stretch’ meant that the Mark lV could be easily up-gunned and up-armoured.
The Mark IV ‘Special’ was fitted with a long-barrelled high-velocity 75mm gun, an excellent anti-tank weapon that out-ranged the 75mm gun on both the Grant and the Sherman. This version of the Mark IV was arguably the best tank in North Africa until the arrival of a few Mark VI Tiger tanks later in the campaign, but the Germans never had enough of them.
Moore, William 1991 Panzer Bait With the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment 1939-1945
Fletcher, David 1998 Tanks in Camera: Archive Photographs from the Tank Museum The Western Desert, 1940-1943 Stroud: Sutton Publishing