Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Hail to the King

Imagine if you will, you are in North Africa in 1942, and an anti-tank gunner. This is at a time when most of the tanks you've seen are Panzer III's or IV's, and Sherman's are the pinnacle of tank design so far. Then suddenly, clanking over the hill comes this absolute monster of a heavy tank, with over 100mm of armour, and it appears to be utterly immune to anything you can do to it. Today I'll be talking about just such a first encounter.
In late 1942 a small batch of Churchill Mk.III's (were you expecting Tigers?) were sent to North Africa. Accompanying the tanks were crews, these were inexperienced at warfare, having come direct from training units, but did have some slight experience with the tank. In Africa they met up with NCO's who were to lead them, who had more experience in combat, but none in operating the Churchill's. The six tanks were formed into a unit called Kingforce, after the commander, Major Norris King. Kingforce was also short of supplies for essential maintenance, for example the hydraulic traverse systems used a liquid called Lockheed Racing Green Fluid. The unit could only lay its hands on one gallon of the stuff, which quickly vanished in topping up the six tanks, and refilling the system of a tank that sprung a leak.
Trying to free the running gear from wire.
Kingforce was formed on the 14th of October 1942 at Cairo. Total strength was just fifty-eight personnel, six of whom were officers. On between the 18th and 20th the unit moved by road and rail to Burg El Arab, then onto El Imayid. They then followed the front line into the opening attack on the 23rd. The unit had been in existence for just nine days, two of which were used for movement to the front. Thus, one should not expect much from such a green inexperienced unit in combat. For the following four days the unit followed the battle, before entering combat for the first time on the 27th.
Three Churchill's went forward in the afternoon, to secure the flank of the 2nd Dragoon Guards. As they appeared a large number of Axis tanks and anti-tank guns began firing at long ranges against the Churchill's. One Churchill fired a shot at the irritating enemies, and its gun jammed in the recoiled position, rendering it inoperable. Thus, the tank was ordered to withdraw.

The second Churchill of the troop continued its advance and disappeared over the ridge, in the face of all the German fire. Shortly afterwards, with AP tracer from multiple anti-tank weapons skipping into the sky the tank was seen to be reversing back over the ridge. As she cleared the lip of the ridge she shuddered to a halt and the rear of the tank caught fire. Interestingly, at least on the matter of psychology, Maj King in the last tank said the Churchill was knocked out by an 88mm. He submitted that account to the war office, however, a detailed study on the tank had been carried out and had shown no such weapon involved.
The knocked-out Churchill had suffered a whopping forty six hits. Six from 75mm's and thirty-one from 50mm weapons. One of each had penetrated the armour. There was also one HE impact recorded. One 75mm had penetrated the front turret (killing the gunner and wounding the commander), one 50mm had bounced off the turret face, and penetrated the roof armour on the hull. A final non-critical hit had damaged one of the radiators.
The battered and destroyed Churchill. the 75mm hit clearly visible.
Sadly, the remaining impacts had been from 6-pounders, and had struck the rear of the tank. A likely culprit was an Australian anti-tank battery nearby. Unfamiliar with the silhouette of the Churchill, they had seen the British tank driving in reverse from behind the ridge and interpreted it as a German tank "advancing" on them and reacted accordingly. The fire being seen to start at the rear of the tank also indicates that this was the cause of the loss. Even then, the Churchill had suffered eight 6-pounder hits to its rear, and even then only half had penetrated! Of the crew two were dead, one was injured and two were missing.
Then around thirty Axis tanks attempted to advance on the Commonwealth position, starting at a range of over 2,000 yards. Luckily the tanks of the 2nd Dragoon Guards were on hand to join in with Maj Kings Churchill, and the German counterattack was blunted in a hail of gunfire.
As darkness fell, the last remaining Churchill had taken a further eight hits, two HE, two 75mm and four 50mm. In return Maj King's tank had fired some forty-five rounds, claiming four German tanks. The destroyed Churchill was salvaged for spare parts, including draining a small quantity of Lockheed Racing Green Fluid.

The second engagement, on the 3rd of November that Kingforce was involved in involved all five of the surviving Churchill's. A British attack during the night had become bogged down in front of the German strong point. As it became day the Germans were able to bring increasingly deadly and accurate fire onto the bogged down attack. Then they began to prepare for a counterattack to wipe the attackers out. Kingforce was ordered into action. One tank broke down instantly with its traverse gear failing (possibly due to lack of fluid?) and was ordered to stay out of contact. When Kingforce arrived just behind the Commonwealth front lines, they found themselves at the base of a small hill, with ten German tanks and at least five anti-tank guns dug in at the top. The Germans outnumbered the British tanks by three to one, were in prepared positions, and had the height advantage. One Churchill had its turret jammed almost immediately after receiving nine hits from a 50mm, one of which penetrated 2" into the turret ring, but did not penetrate the fighting compartment. The surviving three Churchill's were able to fire a further seventeen rounds during the engagement, finding targets difficult to pick up. They destroyed one tank and two anti-tank guns.
The cloth screen hung between the tracks was an attempt to mitigate dust. If you look at other pictures it is not always present.
In return they took a ferocious battering, receiving between them fifty-three hits. One, on Maj Kings tank, managed to strike the driver’s visor, which was insecure, and the round threw it open injuring the driver although the round did not enter the fighting compartment. The second of the tanks was unharmed, albeit with many dents and scrapes, one gouge was 4" deep, but the armour had held (although one crew member is listed as injured). The final Churchill, however, took the majority of the fire, receiving thirty-four of the total hits. Thirty-one of which were 50mm rounds which shot off the track and damaged the gun, rendering it useless. Later the immobilised tank was hit in the cupola by a HE round that knocked off one of the commanders hatches, and smashed the cupola periscope injuring the commander in the eye. Maj King's crew dismounted for a short period, then reconstituted crews from the rest of the tanks and re-joined the fight.

Eventually, with some support from Sherman's shooting up the guns, the Germans broke on the armoured anvil that was the Churchill and withdrew at darkness. In total Kingforce had suffered four injured, despite sitting under the German guns for an entire day. All repairs were achieved at unit workshops.

In total the tanks had been hit 106 times, with one loss (likely due to friendly fire), one immobilised and one turret jammed. The hits were from both 75mm, 50mm and HE rounds. The biggest problem was lack of spares and maintenance training and routines that had likely caused several breakdowns that withdrew a much-needed tank from each battle. The Churchill had acquitted itself well, and deeply impressed the crews. The Churchill was well on its way to building its fearsome reputation for hardiness, that would only improve with time.

Now, onto the current situation with COVID-19 that is flying around the world. First a quick update from myself, as that impacts on what I'll say about your situation in a moment.
My work has sent me home due to being an asthmatic. Apart from a bit of boredom I'm fine. I am hoping, and have been told, this banishment from work will be reviewed next week so maybe I can get back to my job. Especially good news as I work for the local government, and we're likely to get retasked to social cohesion and support tasks to make sure as many people as possible survive. Even if this doesn't happen I've got a work laptop and phone so maybe working on the above from home.
Now for my readers, I realise several of you are stuck at home bored out of your skulls at current. Some extra fun and games to pass the time might be needed. If I am still free (and not working) over the next few weeks I'm willing to try organising some entertainment for you. However, I have no idea what you lot would want to see, or even take part in. So please, any suggestions down below and we'll see what we can do.