World War II Was a Testing Ground for British Anti-Tank Artillery

July 29, 2021 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINazi GermanyAfrika KorpsArmorArtillery

World War II Was a Testing Ground for British Anti-Tank Artillery

The often see-saw action across the North African littoral from 1940-1942 was fostered in part by both the British and Axis forces racing to innovate and implement novel tactics and upgraded weaponry.

Key Point: The British desert commanders needed to drastically change their field gun tactical doctrine because of the disadvantage under which the Eighth Army operated.

From December 1940 through February 1941, British and Commonwealth forces under General Archibald Wavell were highly successful against the Italian Tenth Army in Cyrenaica, utilizing both surprise and the most heavily armored tank of its time, the Matilda Infantry tank. During Wavell’s Operation Compass, the Matilda, deploying a 2-pounder gun as its main armament, successfully engaged and defeated the more thinly armored Italian vehicles as well as infantry and artillery sangars in fortified positions.

After German General Erwin Rommel entered the Libyan battlefield in March 1941, tactics changed dramatically. As author Niall Barr has noted, “The Royal Artillery’s [2-pounder] anti-tank [AT] regiments provided the backbone of AT defence for infantry and armoured divisions….When the [2-pounder] gun was formally approved in January 1936, there was little doubt that it was the best AT gun in the world…. By 1940, the gun’s performance was less impressive and by 1941, once German tanks had been up-armoured, it was dangerously obsolete.” In combat against the Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK), British and Commonwealth AT gunners could only knock out German panzers at extremely close range with the 2-pounder.

As a DAK tactical modification, for example, during Operation Crusader, Nazi tanks stayed well outside the effective range of the 2-pounder, while their own vaunted 88mm antiaircraft gun deployed in an antitank role destroyed the recklessly charging British armored squadrons that had to close the distance with the German panzers for their 2-pounder or 37mm tank guns to be effective.  After the Germans destroyed the British armor, their artillery and advancing panzers, impervious to the 2-pounder armor-piercing shot at customary combat range, knocked the British guns out quickly. After decimating much of the British forward AT artillery, the DAK would then typically attack just before dusk with the sun at their backs with tanks and infantry close behind to overrun British positions.

An improved British 6-pounder gun was not due to arrive in North Africa in appreciable numbers until April 1942. A major reason for this delay rested on the sobering fact that over 500 2-pounder AT guns had been lost in France in 1940. The 6-pounder AT gun was ready to go into production after the Dunkirk evacuation; however, the munitions overseers were confronted with the quandary between retooling the factories or continuing production of 2-pounders to make good the loss first. Gun manufacturers were ordered to comply with the second option to avoid an interval in which the Home Isles would be devoid of a requisite number of AT guns of any kind.

The decision to continue manufacturing the 2-pounder, although expedient, was indeed problematic. The main deficiency with the 2-pounder as an AT weapon after Dunkirk was its lack of penetration at long range unless it could hit the enemy tank’s turret or be presented with a shot at the less-armored flank or rear of a panzer.

British Antitank Gun Stop-Gaps

Thus, the British desert commanders needed to drastically change their field gun tactical doctrine because of the disadvantage under which the Eighth Army operated. Once the Germans had learned to stand off and suppress the 2-pounders with machine-gun and artillery fire, the guns ceased to be of much value. Until the 6-pounders arrived, an alternative AT weapon would be needed. The British addressed the problem by increasingly employing their excellent 25-pounder field gun, the mainstay of the field artillery regiments, in an AT role. Thus, the 25-pounder field gun was drawn into the desert battles as a direct-fire weapon to protect the infantry.  Fortunately, its indirect fire role was not abandoned; however, every British formation commander demanded a share of the artillery guns, which, in fact, did dissipate the barrage artillery effort of the 25-pounder.

Not only did this tactic often deprive the British field artillery of its ability to develop concentrated fire, but it also increased losses among the 25-pounder guns and crews from their often forward positions as AT weapons.   The 25-pounders were not deployed in a purely AT pattern, but in a dual role with the guns situated forward in open positions, sometimes in front of the infantry. Another tactical modification was for frontline British commanders to requisition tanks to be detached from the armored brigades for use with desert infantry columns. Likewise, this maneuver, although affording the infantry some much-needed protection, lessened the firepower of the armored brigade.

AA as AT?

One glaring question along tactical lines then is why the British did not use an AA gun in a similar AT fashion as the Nazis employed their 88mm guns.  Some have argued that there was an alternative solution to the deficiencies of the 2-pounder AT gun while Eighth Army awaited the debut of the 6-pounder. The arrival in service of the 3.7-inch heavy AA gun made the older 3-inch 30-cwt medium AA gun, with an excellent AT potential, redundant.

According to author Michael E. Haskew, “The grandfather of British AA weapons was the venerable Ordnance QF, 3-inch 30 cwt, which had been in service with the army as early as 1914. The 3-inch weapon was, by 1939, widely in use as a static and mobile gun, and it was deployed to the continent with the British Expeditionary Force in 1939. By the beginning of WWII, the 3-inch gun existed in numerous configurations, including a variety of breechblocks and carriages. While troops in the field preferred the lighter weapon over its proposed replacement, the 3.7-inch cannon, most of the guns were abandoned during the evacuation at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940 and captured by the Germans who renamed them the 75mm Flak Vickers (e). Some of the 3-inch guns found extended life in Home Guard units and coastal defenses, few of them remaining active by the end of the war.”

A conversion plan, in England, was in fact underway to fit 50 3-inch pieces onto Churchill tank chasses to provide a self-propelled model and 50 other such guns onto field carriages.  Unfortunately, this refitting process was so slow that it was eclipsed by another upgraded ordnance modification, namely, the production of the 17-pounder AT gun. Thus, the project was abandoned. Critics have claimed that it would have been better to have shipped as many unmodified 3-inch 30 cwt guns as possible on their wheeled mountings to Egypt for deployment as AT direct-fire guns. It has been argued that these weapons would have been no more vulnerable than the unmodified German 88mm guns used in an AT role or the British 2-pounders, which were habitually fired over the tailboards of their portee trucks.

A number of issues to such a tactical paradigm shift immediately arose, however. First, from a theoretical standpoint dual-purpose guns were problematic because of the difficulty in blending the requirements for each type and because each was deployed differently on the battlefield. Second, from a logistical perspective, the 4.5-inch gun for use in fixed emplacements and a mobile 3.7-inch, both with effective ceilings of 25,000-30,000 feet, were available when the war broke out. However, the decision to refit these modern AA weapons as AT guns was deferred since the use of these weapons was almost strictly prioritized for the defense of the home air space. Although the dark days of the Battle of Britain and the Operation Sea Lion scare had passed, the Blitz on Britain’s civilian population was still in full throttle.

According to authors John Bierman and Colin Smith, “For the British tank crews the odds against survival were alarmingly shortened by the range and accuracy of the German 88s, and there was considerable resentment within the Eighth Army at the failure of their superiors to give them a comparable weapon, which many believed was already at hand if only the general staff had the wit to adapt it and press it into service. This was the British 3.7-inch (94-mm) anti-aircraft gun, and Lieutenant (later Major) David Parry of the 57th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, for one, felt there was ‘no excuse for the sheer stupidity of the General Staff’ in not allowing it to be used in an anti-tank role…. He recalled in a post-war memoir: ‘During all this time over a thousand 3.7-inch AA guns stood idle in the Middle East…. Many never fired a shot in anger during the whole of the war.’”

Developing the 3.7-Inch Gun

In the late 1930s, the British Army was researching the idea for a weapon between the 3-inch and 4.7-inch guns. After gunners had done some investigation, it was found that a 3.7-inch gun firing a 25-pound shell could fill the gap, and so in 1933 a specification for a 3.7-inch gun weighing eight tons, capable of being put into action in 15 minutes and being towed at 25 miles per hour, was issued. A design by Vickers in conjunction with the Woolwich Arsenal was accepted, and the prototype passed proof in April 1936 with production being authorized a year later.