In Defense of a “Bad” Tank

Picture the scene:  it is May 1942, at an obscure desert location called Gazala, and General Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika has just landed one of the great operational-level blows of the war.  Operation Theseus has opened with the “Desert Fox” carrying out the most audacious move of this career:  an entire mechanized army driving deep into the desert, circling around the open flank of the British 8th Army, then turning sharply to the north and northeast and, quite literally, erupting into the British rear in the first ten minutes of the battle.

The British were in trouble.  They’d been badly beaten in the game of maneuver, their carefully prepared defensive line from the sea to Bir Hacheim had proven to be worthless, and their confidence in their own commander, General Neil Ritchie–not all that high to begin with–had just suffered a body blow.  Now they had a huge Panzer force securely ensconced in their rear, blocking their retreat route.  If ever an army were ripe for dissolution, it was this one.

They didn’t dissolve, however.  They fought, and fought hard.  Rommel’s Panzer divisions were supposed to drive clear to the sea, but they didn’t  get anywhere close.  Rommel himself learned a lesson that day:  being in the rear of an intact enemy army meant that you, too, were surrounded.  Soon he was under attack from all compass points, in a position that became known as “the Cauldron.”  Despite all their troubles, no one could ever say that the men of 8th Army lacked guts.

But there was one other factor on that hot desert day in May 1942.  As the lead units of Rommel’s spearhead burst into the British rear, they encountered something new:  the strangest-looking tank they had ever seen, an ungainly creature that seemed to be as tall as a house.  But it could fight!  Most German shells had no effect at all on the things.  And when the hulks began returning fire, they drilled one German tank after another at seemingly impossible ranges.

The M-3 “Grant’ doesn’t get a lot of respect from historians nowadays.  It really was tall and ungainly and slow, it really did have all the design elegance of a boxcar, and its twin armament (a 37mm in the turret and a limited-traverse 75 mm in a fixed “sponson” in the hull) turned out to be a design dead-end.  But maybe every dog does have its day.  For a brief, shining moment in the desert war, the M-3 dominated the battlefield.  Indeed, in that awful moment when 8th Army found itself utterly compromised, the Grant might well have constituted a margin of survival for the British.

So here’s to the Grant!  What about it?  Are there any other World War II weapons/vehicles that you feel have been unjustly judged?


11 Responses

  1. paul penrod

    For once the British had something bigger than a two-pounder to answer back with, a tactical surprise for the Germans. Of equal importance was the quantity factor. US lend lease was making it’s presence known

  2. Dennis Largess

    Years ago, I think at the Bovington Museum, there was the prototype of the Bates Bottle Thrower.
    In the dim days after Dunkirk, the Army solicited anti-tank weapons that were to be quickly built. One solution came from a Mr. Bates.
    Inspired by the Molotov cocktails that the Finns used in the Winter War, he found a suitable weapon in Coca-Cola bottles. They were omnipresent and had a fairly aerodynamic shape. Testing them in his garden (to the chagrin of Mrs. Bates) he determined they were able to hold a good portion of gasoline, and strong enough to be a launched projectile.
    Taking a 25lbr gun as a model, he designed a tube like weapon with a defensive shield to protect the crew.
    Utilising industrial strength rubber bands (I’m not making this up), he found that the Coca-Cola molotovs could be propelled, oh a good hundred yards (with a following wind).
    Desperate the army gave them a try, but I really doubt they went into production.

  3. Bas Kreuger

    The Brewster Buffalo is a fighter plane with a very bad name with the Western Allies. In the hands of the US Navy/US Marine Corps, it made a bad showing in the Pacific, also the Brits and Dutch were soundly beaten in their Brewsters against the nimble Japanese fighters.
    But at the other side of the world, in Finland, the Finns used their Brewsters with great effect against the Russians, first in the Winterwar of 1939-1940 and later in the Continuation War of 1941 – 1944 where Capt. Hans Hasse shot down no less than 41 Soviet aircraft. All in all, the Finish Brewsters claimed some 490 Soviets against losing 19 of their own.

  4. Rob Citino

    Here’s to the Marder (further proof of the brilliance of Czech tank chassis design) and to the oft-maligned Brewster Buffalo. And thanks to Dennis for a heads up on the “Bates Bottle Thrower”!

  5. Jacob DeWitt

    I feel that the Red Air Force and their equipment is often looked down on. The Yak-9 and 3, and the La-5 were aircraft that had their quirks (Plywood on the wings and tails coming unglued under high G’s being one of them) but were more than capable of taking on 109’s and 190’s. As for the Buffalo, I think its faults lay more with the British officers who threatened to court martial any pilots who used the “hit and run” tactics that allowed the American’s to shoot down the manueverable Zero. It could have been worse; the Chinese shot their pilots who disengaged from a dogfight.

  6. David Ilse

    Two under-rated weapons:

    The Hs 123, which served beyond it’s call to 1944.

    Sturmpanzer III/PzKpfw. III ausf.N which served up to April ’45 in the OOB of the 26. Panzer Division in Italy along side Pz IV Kz and Pz IV Lgs.

  7. Rob Citino

    Hello to Jake, and I agree: props to the Yak-9! David, any version of the Mk. III still around in April 1945 deserves our respect. I guess you are all proving my point: abstract discussions of when a particular piece of technology becomes obsolete” are just that: abstract. I remember keeping a computer than ran Windows 3.1 for YEARS after more modern stuff came out. It still ran the word processing software I used, and so, to me, it wasn’t at all “obsolete”!


  8. GeraldS

    The late collector of armored vehicles, Jacques Littlefield, did a podcast with HistoryNet in which he gave his reasons for why the much-maligned M-4 Sherman deserves more respect:

  9. Ross

    For me one aircraft I have always liked is the Westand Whirlwind. Much maligned by writers, however, by the end of its service life it was proving to be an effective platform. Unfortuanatly the problem with its engines took too long to solve and eventually it was overshadowed by, and replaced by, the Hawker Typhoon. I always wonder what 2TAF would have done with at least a wing of these aircraft.


  10. Mike H.

    If I had to pick, I’d choose the much-maligned P-40 Warhawk. Here’s a fighter that the AVG, and later the CATF, used to blow the Japanese Air Force in China out of the sky; and, used in Italy by the USAAF, RAF, and many other allied air forces, racked up a HUGE kill ratio against the Germans in their ME-109G’s. Not too shabby for a plane that’s been called \Second-rate\, \obsolete\, and \Unable to out-turn a hot-air balloon\, eh?


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