In Defense of a “Bad” Tank

By Robert M. Citino
9/14/2009 • Fire for Effect

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?


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