The Stuart - One Honey of a Light Tank

By John Dudek 28 Jul 2015 0

As the hot North African desert sun began to set on the night of 20 November 1941, two battered tanks, all that remained of a squadron of American built Stuart M-3 light tanks were laagered in a defensive position for the night.  Three exhausted gritty, dust-covered British tankers were seated, leaning against the side of their tank nick-named "Old Bill" while the fourth crewman sat up in the turret providing over watch and monitoring the radio.  They'd had the devil's own day after a fierce day long battle with the German 15th Panzer Division.  The British took heavy tank losses due to enemy anti tank fire from guns they never saw and the superior German tank battle tactics that left the British 4th Armored Brigade with but two thirds of the tanks they'd entered battle with.  While the three men quietly discussed the harsh and bitter events of the day, they ate directly from tins of corned "bully" beef, pausing only to blow the hordes of desert flies away from the open food tins.  The fourth crewman up in the tank turret caught sight of a dust plume far off in the distance and raised his binoculars to see it better.  Three Italian tanks from the Ariete Division must have gotten lost and were quickly headed in their direction, trailing rooster tails of dust.  The fourth tanker shouted:  "Scramble!" and the three man below threw away their food tins as they quickly piled into their tank and fired up its Continental air cooled engine.  The second Stuart tank's crew followed suit and the pair moved towards the oncoming Italian tanks trying to take them under fire from the flank.

 

 

Reaching a suitable ambush position, the two Stuarts halted and sighted in on the oncoming enemy armor through their gun sights.  The Italian tanks had still not seen them.  "Old Bill" fired first and its 37mm round was high, but it got the attention of the Italians, who now wheeled to face the new threat.  The second Stuart fired, hitting an enemy tank in its engine compartment, causing a huge fire to break out.  "Old Bill" and another Italian tank fired at each other simultaneously with the enemy tanks 47mm shell missing by a matter of inches.  However, this time "Old Bill" was right on target and the Italian tank began burning or "brewing-up" from a direct hit that set off its ammunition storage.  Seeing the third tank at near point blank range and sighting in on them, Old Bill's driver slammed the Stuart into reverse and dug in one track to quickly spin the Stuart backwards into a low draw and out of a direct line of sight of the enemy tank.  The Italian tank's next round went high without hitting anything as the second British Stuart fired.  The enemy tank's turret hatch opened and its commander tried to get out of the now blazing tank but failed in his attempt.  After examining the three burning Italian tanks and determining that any survivors must have run away into the deepening desert twilight, the two British tanks returned to their laager. As the two tank crews climbed down, they were still high on adrenaline and happily talked a mile a minute about the short, sharp battle. A bottle of rum was found and passed around between the two crews.  “Old Bill”'s driver animatedly remarked about his quick reverse tactical movement that saved the tank from certain destruction.  He crowed loudly and raised the bottle, toasting the tank while lovingly patting its steel hulled side saying. "Here's to the Stuart!  One Honey of a Light Tank!"

 

 

The British 8th Hussars of the 4th Armored Brigade had mixed feelings when first issued lend-lease M-3 Stuart light tanks in late 1941 well before the start of their North African "Operation Crusader" offensive. Most soldiers would have preferred to be issued the tried and true Matilda or the newer but less reliable Crusader cruiser tanks, but sufficient numbers were not then available. Therefore the 8th Hussars had the unenviable job of taking a wholly untried and foreign built tank into battle for the first time.  The Stuarts emerged from Operation Crusader blooded and badly battered from the superior training and battle tactics exhibited by the Afrika Korps rather than the design flaw characteristics of the American built tank.  Like any new tank there were "bugs" and other problems that needed correction. The British didn't like the tank's 37mm main gun which was marginally smaller than the standard British tanks 40mm 2 pound main gun. In addition, the British weren't happy with the tank's two man turret or overall internal lay-out and took steps to correct and convert the tank into one more to their liking.  The Stuart's range was also lacking. However this was soon corrected by field-mounting a large jettisonable drum of high octane gasoline to the rear deck of the tank. This effectively doubled the Stuart's range. 

The one aspect of the tank that the British absolutely loved was its ease of maintenance while in the field and its mechanical reliability on the road.   Out of the 167 Stuart tanks issued to one British Armored Brigade, only 16 were lost from mechanical problems.  Given the crankier, less reliable nature of most of their other tanks, the British were ecstatic about the mechanical soundness of the tough, little Stuart. Another aspect the British respected was the Stuart's high speed, which was ten miles per hour faster than their German counterparts.  With eight forward gears and two reverse, the Stuart could get out of trouble almost as fast as it got into it.  However by early 1942 and with the advent of newer and better armed German tanks entering the battles of North Africa, the M-3 Stuart was seen as being incapable of going toe to toe against the enemy.  Instead, they were relegated to the secondary role at which they excelled; that of armed reconnaissance scouting and quick movement. Before World War II was over, Stuart tanks would fight in every theatre of conflict within every embattled Allied army the world over, while giving good account of itself in battle.

Following the end of WWI the U.S Army's new armor corps was abandoned in a series of severe cost cuttings in defense appropriations money. With the end of the war, and especially more so during the years of the Great Depression of the 1930's, numbers of active duty troops and officers within the army were slashed to the bone. Badly needed appropriations money necessary for training and new equipment were even more harshly cut by a parsimonious, penny-pinching isolationist-minded U.S Congress.  Many army units existed only on paper; almost all had only skeletonized strength. Instead of the called-for nine infantry divisions deemed necessary for the nation's defense, there were actually only three. In May 1927 one of these divisions, a cavalry brigade, and 200 planes participated in a combined arms maneuver in Texas, but for the most part Regular units had to train as battalions or companies.  By the mid 1930's the U.S Army was the size of Portugal's and about as adequately well armed to do battle around the world. 

There were only about 400 tanks in the entire U.S Army; virtually all of them slow, long obsolete WWI vintage French Renault or British tanks. These were spread throughout the country in penny packet sized units in both Regular Army and National Guard units, to be used solely as infantry support vehicles. The U.S. Cavalry of the day was still largely mounted on horseback although by then some mechanization was in the works. However, it was here in the cavalry branch of service that the rebirth of the U.S Armored Corps would take place over the next several years.  This was started through the design and building of a series of machine gun armed, fully tracked "combat cars" designed for infantry support and rapid reconnaissance duties. The concept of the Stuart light tank would later come out of those "Starvation Years" of the 1930's U.S. Army.

In the middle years of the 1930's, the drums of war were already echoing across Europe and the Pacific. America slowly began to take notice of what was happening overseas and actively looked with interest at the readiness level of its own armed forces. The Stuart's predecessor the M-2 Light Tank was built by the Rock Island Arsenal in limited numbers starting in 1935.  The use of tanks in the Spanish Civil War showed how woefully out of date the US Army's concepts of armored warfare and its equipment were. Steps were taken to correct this discrepancy.  Tanks armed solely with machine guns proved to be ineffective in modern battle, and the M-2 light tank was seen as a way of bridging the gap to improve upon these new tactical beliefs.  Armed with a 37mm main gun and five .30 caliber machine guns, it  would prove its worth in battle and served with the US Marine Corps on Guadalcanal in the Pacific and with British armored units in the China, India and Burma Theatre.

 

 

Germany's revolutionary Blitzkrieg "Lightning War" armored campaigns of 1939-40 utterly and quickly defeated Poland, France and much of the remainder of mainland Europe.  Seeing this, America ramped up its war production seven fold during its remaining days of peace. This was done in the forlorn hope of buying back some time which had been so callously squandered during the previous ten years. The M-2's successor, the M-3 Stuart began its production run in March 1941, with shipments of the new tanks being shipped that July as "Lend-Lease" to the UK and to its armed forces already in the field in North Africa. Meanwhile, a provisional tank battalion of 108 Stuarts and crews were shipped to the Philippines that autumn to equip and reinforce General Douglas MacArthur's rapidly expanding Filipino-American Army there.  The tanks would soon prove themselves priceless in battle during the coming five month long campaign.  MacArthur knew full well of Imperial Japan's warlike intentions throughout the Far East and especially its feelings towards the Philippine Islands, an American protectorate. 

The Philippines were a natural choke point and a barrier between Japan and the natural resources rich countries and colonies of the Far East.  The Japanese looked upon them with envy and made plans to seize them once war broke out. MacArthur had long advocated the US arming the Philippines to turn it into a "Switzerland of the Far East", an island nation strong enough to persevere in any war against Japan.  It was only at the eleventh hour of the latter part of 1941 did America seriously begin doing so.  What began as a mere trickle of reinforcements soon assumed flood-like proportions as the U.S. Military opened its stocks of weaponry, both new and WWI vintage and began sending men and material in massive arms convoys to the islands.  MacArthur envisioned an army of ten well trained Filipino infantry divisions, backed up by two U.S. Infantry and one armored division to defend the Philippines against the Japanese.  With the recent arrival of 108 Stuart tanks, plus half tracks and support vehicles to the Philippines he now had the core nucleus of that armored division.  However, what MacArthur needed most was time to fully train his green and inexperienced legions of Filipino troops.  He believed his new combined army would be fully equipped and combat ready by April 1942 and fervently hoped the Japanese wouldn't attack before then.  Unfortunately the Japanese were operating on a different time table and attacked the Allies on 7 December 1941 starting WWII in the Pacific.  MacArthur and the Allies would have to make do with what they already had at hand.

 

 

The original defense plans for the main Philippine island of Luzon was known as War Plan Orange-3 and had been US Military standard operating procedure since its inception in 1924.  The plan was, upon any Japanese invasion of the Philippines, a gradual retreat would be made into the Bataan Peninsula by the US Military to await deliverance by a resurgent American Army-Navy counter attack from the U.S. mainland no more than six months later.  Possession and ownership of Luzon's Manila Bay was the key to the operation as it is the greatest natural ship anchorage in the Far East.  The combination of an American military occupation of Bataan, while holding the fortified islands of Manila Bay, would act as a cork in a bottle and a literal "castle keep"  to deny the Japanese any use of this key harbor.

However, when the Japanese invaded on 22 December 1941, MacArthur erroneously believed that his half-trained Filipino Army was then fully able and ready to do battle. He discarded WPO-3 and instead deployed his troops to meet and defeat a Japanese attack on the landing beaches near Lingayen Gulf.  The predictable results occurred and when the half trained North Luzon Force Filipino troops first encountered the Japanese invaders; they dropped their rifles and ran away. At the same time a second Japanese invasion landing was taking place against the South Luzon Force at Lamon Bay on the other side of Luzon with the same results.  MacArthur's remaining Filipino-American army was in danger of being caught between the two invading Japanese forces and systematically destroyed.  He had no other choice than to put War Plan Orange-3 back into effect and withdraw into Bataan. 

In any military, there is no more difficult a military operation to carry out than executing a fighting retreat in the face of an advancing enemy.  This is known as a "retrograde maneuver."  MacArthur's men had to instead simultaneously execute a "double retrograde maneuver" of two widely separated wings of his army and while using inexperienced troops, slowly fall back all the way to Bataan.  This involved holding a series of several defense lines and roadblocks for as long as possible.  This would allow the main body to troops to occupy the next defense line before the friendly tanks, motorized troops and cavalry leap-frogged back to join them once Japanese army pressure increased.  The keys that kept the long retreat from turning into a quick, bloody rout over the next few weeks were the gallant efforts of the horse mounted U.S. 26th Cavalry Regiment and the M-3 Stuart tanks, half tracks and other support vehicles of the Provisional Tank Battalion.  Time and time again whenever the Filipino-American defense lines were in danger of breaking, a sudden, savage tank or cavalry counterattack would momentarily save the day and allow the next phase of the double retrograde operation to continue.  Tank vs. tank fights were common in the early days of the fighting retreat. The first tank vs. tank action took place on 22 December 1941 just north of the town of Damortis, Luzon against Japanese Type 95 tanks of their 4th Tank Regiment. In this case the Stuarts of the 192nd Tank Battalion came off second best.

Both the M3 and Type 95 light tanks were armed with a 37 mm gun, but the M3 was better armored, with 32 mm (1¼ inches) thick turret sides, vs. the Type 95's 12 mm thick armor. However, based upon the Army's Ballistics Research Lab (BRL) which conducted the first large study of tank vs tank warfare in 1945, the conclusion was that the single most important factor in a tank duel was which side saw first, shot first, and hit first. In this very first engagement the IJA reacted first, destroying the lead M-3 as it tried to leave the road. The four remaining American tanks all suffered hits as they retreated.

Nine days later, the Stuarts got their revenge at the town of Baliuag - a town of rambling houses and nipa huts scattered along Route 5 and the north bank of the Angat River.  Its importance lay in the series of intersecting roads and secondary roads leading to the vital Calumpit bridges across the deep and unfordable Pampanga River.  Beyond the bridge lay the comparative safety and refuge of Bataan.  These crucial roads and bridge had to be kept open for as long as possible to allow the remaining Filipino-American forces to cross into Bataan. Several large detachments of Japanese troops and a number of their tanks were already then entering Baliuag.  At about 1700 hours, two platoons of Stuart tanks grimly entered the abandoned town under friendly covering artillery fire like so many armor clad mounted knights of old.  The fight that followed was both bitter and somewhat comedic. The American tanks rolled through the streets, firing into bahas, smashing through the nipa huts as if they were so many toy houses, and scattering hostile infantry right and left.  A wild tank vs. tank fight erupted with American tanks chasing Japanese tanks through the narrow alley ways, up and down the town's streets, shooting and sniping at each other at point blank range like so many children playing "Cowboys and Indians”.

 

 

When the fighting ceased, eight Japanese tanks lay broken and burning inside the town, while a number of others limped slowly away. The Stuarts suffered no losses.  As they withdrew, friendly artillery resumed firing, raining down shells upon the shattered town, keeping the Japanese at bay and allowing the remaining Filipino-American forces to cross the Calumpit Bridge into Bataan. 

Early on New Year’s Day morning both the Calumpit railroad and highway bridges across the Pampanga river were blown up with dynamite, allowing the bulk of the Filipino-American troops to escape into Bataan. During the long, ensuing siege, the Stuart's were the "fire-brigade" that was rushed from one threatened sector to another.  These aggressive fighting efforts were so successful, that by the end of the fighting on Bataan and the Japanese victory in April 1942, the Japanese were thoroughly convinced the Americans possessed 2,000 Stuart tanks rather than the 108 actually carried on their rolls.  Stuarts would enter battle in the tangled jungle oftentimes with friendly half naked Filipino head hunters of their 11th Infantry Division perched atop the gun turrets, calling out targets for the tank gunners, all the while shrieking and twirling their long, head cutting bolo knives over their heads. The Japanese were unable to deal with such strange fighting tactics as these.  However, the Japanese knew a decent tank when they saw one.  Following their conquest of the Philippines, they were able to salvage a large number of Stuart tanks and put them to their own use.  These tanks were later used against the Americans when General MacArthur's American Army returned to the Philippines in 1944.

 

 

Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, and the fighting that followed, soon showed the Americans that the Stuart was no longer capable of effectively doing battle with the new generation of front line heavy German armor.  The Americans too relegated them to secondary reconnaissance and infantry support duties. This remained their primary role for the remainder of the war in Europe.  However, in the China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations, the Stuarts continued to be used by the British as a main battle tank for the remainder of the war.  They remained superior in battle against the lighter Japanese tanks found there.  

In the Pacific, the Stuarts continued in its role of a main battle tank for another year until being largely replaced by heavier and better armed Sherman medium tanks.  The biggest complaint regarding the Stuart remained its relatively small 37mm main gun.  Attempts were made to re-engineer the Stuart, giving it a larger turret armed with a 57mm main gun while keeping its successful and proven suspension and drive train intact.  Potentially it was a win-win situation with the US Army gaining a fast, modern light tank capable of fulfilling numerous roles, but the Army was not satisfied, claiming it wanted a tank armed with a 75mm main gun and one that could fill-in for the much larger Sherman.  As a result, the idea of an improved Stuart was dropped and the Army was forced to make-do for another year with the current generation of Stuarts until the new and unproven M-24 Chaffee light tank began arriving in Europe in late 1944. 

However the battle proven, tough little Stuart continued to fiercely soldier-on until the end of the war.  There was even one recorded case of a Stuart light tank knocking out two massive German Tiger tanks with its puny 37mm. gun in the latter days of the war. 

In the spring of 1945, an American reconnaissance platoon of Stuarts atop a hill spied a road column of German tanks and half tracks advancing on their position.  The U.S light tanks wheeled and quickly withdrew to the rear.  Somewhere during the retreat, one of the Stuarts became separated from the platoon and quickly drove into a still un-liberated German town.  As the Stuart rounded a tight corner, they slammed on the brakes at the blood curdling sight of two massive, stationary King Tiger heavy tanks with a tanker truck parked between them refuelling the pair.  The Tiger's crews frantically tried to climb into their tanks to deal with this upstart American light tank.  Knowing full well the sheer impossibility of causing the two German heavy tanks any appreciable damage with their 37mm pop gun, the Stuart's gunner instead fired a single round of HE (High Explosive) into the gasoline tanker truck, sending all three vehicles up in a blazing flash of flaming white hell.  It could be said that once again "David slew Goliath."  High praise indeed for a light tank that was by then greatly feeling its age, being a bit "long in the tooth."  The Stuart, "One Honey of a Light Tank."

 

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