Middle East Kaleidoscope

Brilliant sunshine suddenly blotted out by black rainclouds, clear air all at once hazy with sandstorms, hot days followed by bitter cold nights; above all, on a huge empty plain the flash and smoke of marching armies moving fast in complex patterns, suddenly advancing or retreating, meeting or veering off—this was the kaleidoscope of warfare in the Western Desert. Scarcely less kaleidoscopic were the changes in the direction and scale of the American effort in early 1942 to support Allied forces in the vast expanse known as the Middle East.

At the outset, it seemed clear that a major part of the American effort should be to keep the British lend-lease tanks and trucks in operation, especially the tanks. In the fall of 1941 Lt. Gen. Sir Claude J. E. Auchinleck, British commander in chief in the Middle East, was preparing to move into the Libyan desert to challenge Rommel's Afrika Korps. During the buildup for the operation, Auchinleck had received some 470 British tanks (300 of the cruiser type, 170 of the more heavily armored "I" or Infantry type), and 300 American Stuart light tanks, but he was still below the strength he thought necessary. Every tank counted, for it took many weeks for a new tank to come from England and longer still for one to arrive from the United States.1

After spending a morning in the desert near Cairo watching a British brigade demonstrating its new American Stuart tanks, Auchinleck reported to Prime Minister Churchill that the men were delighted with the reliability and endurance of the Stuarts "when compared with our own tanks, and are frankly amazed at the length of time they can be kept in work without having to go into the shops to be overhauled."2 The British tanks required frequent overhauls, and when a tank landed back in the shops, it was usually out of action for about three months, since the Royal Army Ordnance Corps workshops were short of experienced tank mechanics and had no repair equipment other than what had been brought from England. There was no engineering industry to speak of in the Middle East.3

Following the President's Middle East Directive, the British submitted in October 1941 a list of tasks that they would like the U.S. Army to undertake in the Middle East. They put at the top of the list the overhaul of tanks. For this, two plants were required—one was to be in Egypt and


the other possibly at Bombay or Port Elizabeth in South Africa. The second task was the overhaul of motor transport vehicles, and for this shops were required not only in Egypt and South Africa but also in Palestine. The third was the construction of a plant in Egypt to service "warlike" American equipment, including armament, instruments, and so on. These were immediate requirements for North Africa. More than a month later, after General Wheeler had gone to India and conferred with the British commander in chief, the British outlined the tasks to be performed in aid to the USSR and Great Britain in Iraq and Iran. The first was a base at Karachi to repair tanks; the second was an Ordnance depot and workshop at Tehran to service arms and equipment being shipped from Indian and Persian Gulf ports to the Soviet Union.4

The Ordnance planning was the work of Col. Francis H. Miles, Jr., who had been designated Ordnance officer for both the North African and the Iranian missions, an arrangement that permitted a single plan for the entire Middle East and the placing of a contract for all activities (except motor transport) with a single contractor, since all tasks would be performed by a commercial contractor, as the Middle East Directive ordered. Miles approached several engineering companies with experience in foreign construction, and also the Chrysler Corporation, which had been producing tanks for the Ordnance Department. Contractors generally seemed reluctant to undertake the job, some suggesting that it ought to be a military enterprise; Chrysler declined outright. The firm finally chosen was the J. G. White Engineering Corporation. For automotive vehicles, General Motors Overseas Operations (a division of General Motors Corporation) accepted a separate contract for all vehicles except Fords, which required a separate contract with the Ford Motor Company.5

The OMET's

Using the British requirements as a blueprint, Colonel Miles planned seven installations, which he called OMET's (Ordnance Middle East Tasks) : OMET 1 —a base depot at Bombay to serve the North African and Iranian advance depots and to act as the principal distribution, transfer, and assembly point for all material of all services being sent to the Middle East; OMET 2—a base depot at Port Elizabeth, South Africa, for the overhaul of tank and motor vehicle assemblies; OMET 3—an intermediate depot at Asmara in Eritrea to overhaul tanks and aircraft armament; OMET 4—an intermediate depot at Karachi in India to overhaul tanks and motor vehicles; OMET 5—a large advance depot in the Cairo area to repair not only tanks but also artillery, small arms, and instruments, and Signal and Engineer equipment; OMET 6—an advance depot in Palestine


primarily to repair instruments and optical apparatus, but also to overhaul tanks; OMET 7—the depot and workshop at Tehran for equipment destined for the Soviet Union. The White Corporation estimated that the seven OMET's, some of them underground to be bombproof, and air-conditioned, would cost approximately $71,000,000.6

Colonel Miles's plan, which the men in the theater considered a "rather elaborate scheme," objecting particularly to the time involved in placing the OMET's underground, was hardly on paper before the Pearl Harbor attack and other developments made revisions necessary. Miles, flying via Hawaii to the Middle East, and en route on 7 December, returned to the United States. From Washington he sent a cable to Cairo suggesting that Major Colby, recently appointed acting Ordnance officer for MIM and MNAM, conduct a survey to determine whether changes were necessary, primarily whether Karachi rather than Bombay should be the main point for Ordnance supply and repair in the Middle East. After on-the-spot investigation by Colby and a survey by Miles upon his arrival in Cairo in late January 1942, after the fast-moving tactical developments in the Western Desert in late 1941, and after a more careful assessment of the problems posed by the President's Middle East Directive, the OMET plan was drastically revised.7

The fluidity of the warfare in North Africa, beginning 17 November when Auchinleck moved into the Western Desert to challenge Rommel, raised questions not only as to the feasibility of attempting to support the operations by large fixed installations but also as to the wisdom of doing so. When the battle was going well, as when the British advanced far into Cyrenaica in December 1941, the evacuation of damaged armor from Tobruk to shops in Egypt, for example, meant a 1,500-mile round trip over primitive railways and sand-choked roads. When the battle was going badly, as when Rommel made a counterthrust into Egypt, there was the possibility that the elaborate shops would fall into enemy hands. It is not surprising that the plans for the Port Elizabeth OMET were soon quietly dropped; that the Palestine depot, located near Tel-Aviv at Tel-Litwinsky, was relegated to a minor role; and that the depot at Asmara, about 1,100 miles south of Cairo, was scaled down from a large, specially built intermediate depot to a small arsenal housed in Italian shops and used for the repair of small arms, trucks, motorcycles, and tires and the manufacture of tools, parts, buckets, and other small items. Only at Heliopolis, the OMET near Cairo, was there eventually a tank shop of any size in the Red Sea area.8

In the Persian Gulf area, the main base depot (OMET 1) was located at Karachi rather than at Bombay because Bombay


was not being used as a port of entry on account of the Japanese naval threat; moreover, Bombay was already overloaded with supply activities and was in a monsoon area that made open-air storage and shops impractical. The intermediate base planned for Karachi was changed to Umm Oasr, a Persian Gulf port designated as the point for unloading Ordnance equipment. OMET 7 at Tehran was canceled because the Russians did not want tanks delivered there, preferring Archangel; instead, a mobile Ordnance unit would be sent to Baghdad, where the British were organizing an armored division equipped with American tanks.9

When Colonel Miles arrived in Cairo he was faced with the immediate problem of obtaining enough spare parts to keep the American tanks operating. There were then 505 M3 Stuart light tanks in Egypt and Palestine (writing off 75 lost by enemy action) and 70 M3 Grant mediums in Egypt. The British controlled spare parts, a function given them by the Middle East Directive—to Ordnance one of the most frustrating aspects of the President's directive—and the system they had set up seemed to the Ordnance people extremely cumbersome. From British Middle East depots, on which the American depots would draw, requisitions went to London and thence to Washington, and supplies returned through the same channels. The differences in nomenclature and stockkeeping methods added to the confusion, for when the Americans came to the British depots to pick up the parts, the British often did not know what they had in stock. Miles made strenuous efforts to get spare parts shipped direct from U.S. depots to American shops in the Middle East, but got nowhere. On their right to control spare parts, the British remained adamant, and the main American tank shop at Heliopolis was never able to obtain enough spare parts to permit full-scale operation.10


The War Department directive of 18 February 1942 that all mission activities be militarized as speedily as possible gave the Ordnance Department the opportunity to terminate the contract with the J. G. White Engineering Corporation, which up to that time had done no more than initiate some procurement and recruit a partial staff. No contract workers had reached the theater. The opportunity to terminate the contract was welcomed, for by then Ordnance was well aware of the problems it posed. The corporation was inexperienced in Ordnance operations; its letter of contract to operate supply and repair depots for tanks and miscellaneous Ordnance, Signal, Engineer, Chemical Warfare, and other military equipment also implied duplication of effort and confusion as to responsibility. More important than either of these considerations was the fact that there were inherent dangers in assigning to a civilian contractor tasks that were essentially military.


The contractor might abandon the work, or the employees could leave when they saw fit. Civilian workers in a combat area might be captured, in which case they did not have the protection of military status, or they might be killed. And the very nature of Ordnance matériel argued against contract operations, for the storage, issue, and repair of munitions was essentially too vital an operation, and too vulnerable to sabotage and security violations, to be entrusted to civilians.11

Yet the possibility that any Ordnance troops could arrive in the Middle East immediately was very slim because of the shipping and men needed in the buildup in England in early 1942. It was even impossible for the Ordnance Section of the Military North African Mission to obtain its quota of 80 officers that spring, though Lt. Col. Earl S. Gruver, who headed the section after Colonel Miles went home because of ill health on 10 March, protested strongly that the twenty officers on duty with the mission were too few to handle the heavy work load.12

The first Ordnance unit sent to the Middle East, the 525th Heavy Maintenance Company (Tank), did not arrive until 22 June 1942, debarking from the Queen Mary along with 12,000 British reinforcements picked up in Scotland, after a long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. Gruver reported that "all of us here in the Middle East were thrilled at their arrival," but there was considerable disappointment when it was discovered that the company had arrived without its hand tools or any transportation, the latter a most serious lack since the company had been designed as a mobile maintenance unit to support the British in the desert operations. While waiting for its trucks to arrive, the company was sent to the British Tel-el-Kebir tank shop on the outskirts of Cairo, quartered in tents dug into the sand, with a mess hall described by the company historian as "a large, canvas-covered building addicted to tea, corn beef, and flies." But the stay at the Tel-el-Kebir shop was short. Rommel, having taken Tobruk on 21 June and won a brilliant victory at Matruh a week later, was at El 'Alamein at the beginning of July, posing so serious a threat to Cairo that many units were evacuated from the city, including the American Ordnance company. On 2 July the company was sent by ship to Asmara Arsenal in Eritrea and remained there about two months. Then it was flown back to Cairo to open the Heliopolis tank shop. After the British breakthrough at El 'Alamein in November 1942, the 525th was sent out with Lt. Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery's Eighth Army in the pursuit of Rommel and helped the British considerably in advanced workshops at Benghazi and Tripoli. The 525th was the only American company attached to Eighth Army at the time.13 (See Map1)


Not until mid-November 1942 did an Ordnance unit designed especially for base maintenance arrive in Egypt, the 1st Battalion of the 303d Ordnance Base Regiment. It was an innovation, for only in the spring of 1942 had the Ordnance Department been able to get General Staff approval for regimental organization. The battalion commander set one company to work in the Heliopolis tank shop, reinforcing it with about fifty civilians; he employed his other three companies in setting up a spare parts depot, an artillery and fire control shop, and a small arms shop. Though conditions were primitive at first—shops not yet built and the men quartered in tents—the shops were in operation by the end of November. But the shops were hardly shaken down and ready to produce when the volume of work fell off sharply. By the spring of 1943, thanks to the success of the Eighth Army's desert campaign, the sources of both damaged vehicles and replacement parts had moved so far away that the shops could get nothing to work with; in May the Heliopolis tank shop closed down. Tank maintenance men moved into vehicle maintenance, which in mid-1942 became an Ordnance responsibility and continued to be a rather heavy task in support of the Ninth Air Force's operation until early fall of 1943.14

As air operations also dwindled and the war swept on and away from Egypt, the only remaining Ordnance activity of any importance in the area was the manufacture of cans and drums for oil and water, undertaken for the British and performed by the Overseas Steel Container Corporation under contract to the Ordnance Department. The contract, reminiscent of the earlier arrangement with the J. G. White Engineering Corporation, was signed on 8 February 1943, but the plant equipment did not begin to arrive in the Middle East until the following July and the operation was on the whole so unsuccessful that it was terminated on 1 November 1943. Responsibility for the container plants passed from Ordnance to the Quartermaster Corps on 9 February 1944.15

The tank shops and depots in the Persian Gulf area, planned at the time when, as one Ordnance officer put it, "the Mission bubble was being inflated,"16 hardly got beyond the planning stage. At first designed to support the British line of communications in Iraq, with a main base at Karachi, an intermediate base at Umm Qasr, and an advance base at Baghdad, the mission was changed in early 1942 to supplying the Soviet Union through Iran. The Iraqi projects at Umm Qasr and Baghdad were returned to the British in April 1942. Be-


Photo:  Captain Jarrett


cause the Iranian route overland from Karachi was not acceptable to the Russians, Karachi was also eliminated as a base for USSR supplies and henceforth would be concerned only with supply to the China-Burma-India Theater.17

The Russians had very early made it plain that they did not want a depot at Tehran. To comply with their wishes, the American planners late in 1941 decided that the port for supply to the USSR would be Bandar Shahpur, at the head of the Persian Gulf and at the beginning of the Trans-Iranian Railway. When American tanks began to arrive in numbers at Persian Gulf ports in the summer of 1942, Ordnance officers established a school at Bandar Shahpur to teach Russians how to repair them. It lasted only a few days. Word came from Moscow that the tanks could not be delayed but must be forwarded to the front. An attempt to move the school to Baku failed when the USSR refused to grant visas to the three instructors.18

The Desert Proving Ground

Whatever the accomplishments and frustrations of the Ordnance men in the Middle East missions in attempting to provide base support to the Allies, Ordnance was able to assist the British very materially with technical information on their lend-lease weapons and ammunition. This effort, begun when Captain Colby and the four sergeants were sent out to Egypt late in the summer of 1941, was intensified in February 1942 with the arrival in Cairo of Capt. George B. Jarrett, who constituted the one-man technical section of the MNAM Ordnance Section. Early assigned as ammunition adviser to British GHQ, he conducted demonstrations of new U.S. ammunition and weapons and, at General Maxwell's request, established a


school to train the British on American ordnance.19

The Ordnance Section of MNAM rendered even more important service in the long run by providing expert firsthand information to the technicians in the United States on friendly and enemy equipment at a date early enough to permit improvements in American weapons destined for Europe in 1944. The great battles of 1941 and 1942 in the Western Desert, beginning with the so-called Winter Battle around Sidi Rezegh airfield near Tobruk between late November 1941 and January 1942, were an excellent proving ground.

Some early information was sent to the United States by the American military attaché at Cairo, Col. Bonner F. Fellers, who witnessed the beginning of the Winter Battle and talked to British commanders, but his reports were based largely on British sources—unofficial sources for the most part, because the British were reluctant to release official records on such touchy matters as the performance of American tanks as compared with their own.20 The Ordnance members of the Military North African Mission, on the other hand, carefully studied the crippled tanks brought back to the British shop at Tel-el-Kebir, visited the battlefields, and even managed to send important German equipment to the United States for testing by Ordnance at Aberdeen Proving Ground.21

The Famous "88"

The most important enemy weapon shipped to the United States from North Africa at this early date was the multipurpose German 88-mm. gun. Developed primarily as an antiaircraft (Flugabwehrkanone or Flak) gun at the end of World War I, the 88 with its long range, its flat trajectory, and its excellent sights was also extremely useful as a weapon against ground forces, especially as an antitank (Panzerabwehrkanone or Pak) gun. It had been tested in various employments in 1938-39 during the Spanish Civil War, but under such good security that foreign observers (including American) could learn little about it.22

In its antitank role the gun made its first real impression on the British when Rommel used it to repel tank attacks in the June 1941 Eighth Army BATTLEAXE operation at Halfaya Pass. The British discovered then that it could penetrate the thick-skinned Matilda infantry tank at distances up to 2,000 yards. After the battle a member of Rommel's staff overheard a captured British tank driver under interrogation expressing his indignation:

"In my opinion," said the Englishman, with an unfriendly glance at a nearby 88, "it is unfair to use flak against our tanks."

A German artilleryman who was sitting on his haunches near by, listening to the interpretation, interjected excitedly, "Ja, and I think it most unfair of you to attack with


tanks whose armour nothing but an 88 will penetrate."23

A diabolical employment was made possible by the fact that the Germans could fire the 88 from its wheels. Several times (until the ruse was discovered), Rommel enticed the British to attack the gun by using as bait an innocent-looking convoy composed of a few trucks, with an 88 hidden among them under a paulin. Unmasking the 88, the Germans would fire it from its wheels, still limbered up, and destroy the attackers.24 After BATTLEAXE, the Germans provided the 88 with a half-tracked tow vehicle that enabled it to get into action against ground targets very quickly. They also became even more adept at camouflaging it—no easy matter for such a big gun.25

With only forty-eight of these guns, Rommel in the first three days of the Winter Battle used them with murderous effect against the British armored forces. Major Colby, after a trip to the Western Desert in late December, reported that the most dangerous weapon to tanks was the 88-mm. gun, firing armor-piercing (AP) ammunition. In a single action, the attack on Sidi Omar 22 November 1941, a British brigadier with 51 thick-skinned infantry tanks lost 47, most of them to 88-mm. antitank fire. By the end of the Winter Battle, out of 1,276 tanks sent to Libya, 674 were damaged and 274 were destroyed. Rommel's Afrika Korps had so crippled the armor that the British could not resume the offensive until May 1942.26

During the lull in the desert warfare, Jarrett (now a major) visited the wreckage-strewn battlefield near Sidi Rezegh and discovered an 88-mm. gun that Rommel had been forced to leave behind. Well aware of the importance of his find, he became even more interested when he paced off the distance from the gun position to a destroyed Matilda tank and recognized the 88 for the menace it undoubtedly was. The big problem was to get the 88 sent to the United States. All captured equipment went to British shops in Alexandria, and the British usually refused to release any of it, being so short of weapons that they repaired and reused all that they could. Somehow Jarrett managed to obtain the gun at the yards in Alexandria, and with the help of Capt. William E. Summerbell of the Military North African Mission and a gang of mechanics he took it apart, carted it in trucks to Cairo, and got it aboard two DC 3 (0-47) airplanes bound for Accra. There it was transferred to new C—54's, just then coming into service, and flown to the United States via Ascension Island. When it arrived at Aberdeen Prov-


Photo:  The U.S 90-mm. and the German 88-mm. antiaircraft guns (left and right, respectively) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, 1943.

(left and right, respectively) at Aberdeen Proving Ground, 1943.

ing Ground the 88 was put together and carefully studied. The findings contributed to one of the most important weapon developments on the Allied side—the conversion of the American 90-mm. antiaircraft gun to antitank use.27

Tank-to-Tank Battles in the Desert

On the relative merits of the German and Allied tanks used in the desert campaigns, discussion raged at the time in bivouacs and messes and on the terraces of Cairo, and continued long after the war to rage on paper. A great deal of the argument concerned the penetrative power of the tank guns employed in the Winter Battle: the 2-pounder (40-mm.) guns on the British tanks and the 37-mm. on the American Stuarts versus the short-barreled, low-velocity 50-mm. tank gun, Kwk (Kampfwagenkanone) on the main German fighting tank, the Pzkw ((Panzerkampfwagen)) III. Less was said about the short-barreled, low-velocity 75-mm. Kwk on the Germans' secondary tank, the


Pzkw IV, because it normally fired high-explosive (HE) rather than antitank ammunition.

Writing in 1959, Capt. B. H. Liddell Hart, a British authority on tanks, concluded that the 2-pounder was a shade superior to the short 50-mm. Kwk and that the 37-mm. had considerably better penetration. He based his conclusion on figures published in 1956 in Volume II of the official British history, The Mediterranean and Middle East, by Maj. Gen. I. S. O. Playfair.28 But General Playfair in his Volume III, after further work on captured German documents, revised his figures to show that the 2-pounder was not superior to the short 50-mm. Kwk and that the 37-mm. (using capped ammunition) was only slightly better than the 2-pounder.29 All figures on which these various calculations were made were for penetration of homogeneous armor plate. Beginning in late 1941 many of the Pzkw Ill's and some of the Pzkw IV's had extra face-hardened plates that would defeat the 2-pounder except at very short ranges. At the time of the Winter Battle, Eighth Army tank gunners complained that their 2-pounder shot bounced off German armor. Major Jarrett, who tested all German and Allied tank guns while he was in Egypt, contended that except at very short ranges the British and American guns were ineffective against both the Pzkw III and the Pzkw IV, while the short 50-mm. Kwk and the short 75-mm. Kwk as well, whose HE shells were capable of damaging tracks and bogeys at 2,000 to 3,000 yards, did much damage to all Allied tanks except the Matildas.30

When the desert battles were resumed at the Gazala Line with Rommel's attack in late May 1942, Eighth Army had 167 new American tanks of a type far more effective than the light Stuarts, which by then had come to be employed mainly as reconnaissance and observation vehicles. The new tank was the M3 Grant. Its appearance was rather singular. Mounted in the sponson (with very little traverse) was the M2 75-mm. field gun with excellent high-explosive effect; mounted in the turret was the 37-mm. antitank gun. The Grant was the only tank to fire both HE and AP ammunition. The British crews liked it, and the Germans were surprised by the thickness of its armor, which enabled it to get close enough to inflict deadly shell-bursts on infantry and gun crews with its 75-mm. gun. One German antitank officer at Gazala considered the tank more nearly a match for the Pzkw III and IV of the time than anything the British had yet sent into the desert. And the supply seemed inexhaustible. In the British retreat—the "Gazala Gallop" that enabled Rommel to enter Tobruk on 21 June 1942 —nearly half the 167 Grants were destroyed, mostly by 88-mm. guns, but more Grants continued to arrive in Egypt, and by the time of the battle of El 'Alamein in October 1942 there were 210 Grants in Eighth Army. By then, Montgomery also had 270 of the best American tank yet


Photo:  Two Sherman M4 tanks moving toward the front.


produced—the M4 Sherman, mounting the MS 75-mm. gun (with a somewhat longer barrel, though little more velocity, than the Grant's Ms). The 75-mm. gun was mounted in the first American 360-degree turret. Because of its rather high silhouette, Rommel's men referred to it as the "high-domed" Sherman, but they soon learned to respect the "incredibly good" armor on its turret.31

New German tanks had also begun to arrive in the desert by May 1942. The first was the Pzkw III Special, which had more firepower and better armor and which arrived in sufficient numbers to participate in the fighting at Gazala. It had the long-barreled 50-mm. Pak 38 antitank gun, now designated the Kwk 39; it also had "spaced armor" (an extra 20-mm. plate bolted four inches in front of the basic 50-mm. plate on the mantlet), which made it remarkably resistant to armor-piercing shot. By mid-June the Germans also had a few Pzkw IV Specials, mounting the long-barreled, high-velocity Kwk 40 75-mm. gun—the ominous forerunner of the formidable gun on the Panther tank that was to be introduced in Italy. The guns on both the "Specials" had considerably higher muzzle velocity than those on either the


Grant or the Sherman, and also better ammunition. But these new tanks were very scarce. At the start of the battle of El 'Alamein on 23 October 1942 the Germans had only 88 Pzkw III Specials and 30 Pzkw IV Specials.32

After El 'Alamein Major Jarrett spent considerable time examining wrecked tanks. He concluded that most of the German tanks destroyed in the battle had either been hit during Montgomery's "colossal" artillery barrage at the start or had been set afire by their own crews when they ran out of gas. Finding only a few German tanks showing evidence of Allied tank gun hits, he was convinced that in tank-to-tank battles "the Germans had outgunned us."33 However, German tanks at El 'Alamein had been badly outnumbered. Eighth Army started the battle with more than 1,100 tanks and brought up 200 more during the action, while Afrika Korps had barely 200 gun-armed German tanks, plus 280 poorly armed, thin-skinned Italian medium tanks that had little effect on the outcome. Moreover the German tanks did not have complete freedom of maneuver because of a gasoline shortage, and their power plants were inferior to those on American tanks. The mechanical reliability and mobility of the American tanks were highly praised by the British, and Montgomery's skillful use of the plentiful Shermans in his desert victories at El 'Alamein and after, backed by massive artillery barrages, was so impressive that the U.S. Army became committed to the Sherman as the main American tank of World War II.34

Antitank Weapons and Ammunition

Whatever the differences of opinion regarding the tanks in the desert battles, there was general agreement then and later that the German antitank weapons were superior to those of the Allies. The 88-mm. was Rommel's most spectacular weapon of this type, but it was by no means his only effective one. Beginning in May 1941 and continuing through 1942 the standard equipment of German antitank batteries was the Pak 38, a long-barreled, high velocity 50-mm. gun with a penetration nearly half as much again as the British 2-pounder antitank gun, and a range in proportion. It also had an excellent sight that gave it great accuracy and was so low to the ground that it became almost invisible when dug a foot deep into the sand and covered with a camouflage net.35

The British brought to the desert warfare in May 1942 a 6-pounder (57-mm.) antitank gun, which had a performance about 30 percent better than that of the Pak 38. Much was hoped from "these venomous little cannons"; but because there had been too little time for men to train with them, the weapons did not always live up to expectations.36 In any case, by the time the


Photo:  Aiming a bazooka


-pounder appeared the Germans had a new antitank gun that considerably outmatched it. Major Jarrett, riding with a British patrol between the British and German lines near Bir Hacheim in March 1942 was fired on by a German patrol with a gun that seemed remarkably accurate. After Rommel was driven off, leaving some of his weapons behind, Jarrett found that the gun was a 76.2-mm. Russian piece that the Germans had captured by the thousands in the early part of the war and adapted to their own use, primarily as a Pak gun. By-May 1942, 117 of them had arrived at Cyrenaica, and some appeared at Gazala in a self-propelled version mounted on 5-ton half-tracks or on tanks. At El 'Alamein the 76.2 effectively supplemented Rommel's dwindling supply of 88's—he was down to twenty-four 88's in late October 1942. This light and efficient gun, sometimes referred to as the 76.2-mm. Putilov, was sent to Aberdeen Proving Ground and led to the serious study there of all Russian matériel.37


The ammunition used in German antitank and tank guns contributed much to their success. Calibers of 50-mm. and larger had armor-piercing caps to help penetration and ballistic caps to reduce air resistance—a virtue possessed on the Allied side only by the shot used in the American 37-mm. gun. Adapting captured 75-mm. APCBC (armor-piercing-capped, ballistic-capped) ammunition for use in the American Grant tank's 75-mm. gun, which meant reworking the rotating bands, was a major effort in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps workshops in preparing for the May 1942 offensive, an effort to which Major Jarrett contributed so largely that he was decorated by the British Government. Other very effective German antitank rounds were the AP-HE (armor-piercing, high-explosive) fired by the 88, which had an explosive as well as a "hole-punching" effect, and the Panzergranate (Pzgr) 40, a tungsten-carbide-cored AP shot fired by most German guns, though in small proportions because of its scarcity.38

In the summer of 1942 the Germans began using "hollow charge" ammunition to increase the effect of their low-velocity guns. This type of ammunition (which the Americans called "shaped charge") depends on its own explosive action rather than the kinetic energy of the projectile. It improved the armor-piercing action of the short-barreled 75-mm. Kwk on the Pzkw IV, and of the old French 75's of World War I vintage that the Germans had captured in large quantities at the beginning of World War II and converted to antitank use by mounting them on the Pak 38 carriage.39

In September of 1942 a ship from America docked at Suez with some highly secret cargo—600 bazookas, the first the men in the theater had seen. Then known only under the code name of THE WHIP, the bazooka (so called because of its resemblance to a musical instrument improvised by a popular radio comedian of the time) was a shoulder projector launching an effective 2.36-inch antitank rocket. For the first time in history a foot soldier had a weapon specifically designed to penetrate armor. When Jarrett took a sample to the big British ammunition dump along the Suez Canal and dissected it, he was amazed to find in the rocket the German hollow-charge antitank principle; the secret had been so well kept that he had not known of the similar American shaped charge. During a demonstration the bazooka proved that at very close ranges it could penetrate the 50-mm. armor plate of a Pzkw III.40


Photo:  The Priest, a self-propelled howitzer, Egypt


After the demonstration, the British concluded that the bazooka was unsuitable for desert warfare, since the desert provided none of the concealment, such as trees or bushes, that the bazooka operator needed to hide him from small-arms fire until the tank came close enough for his rocket to be effective. Therefore they decided, reluctantly, not to employ bazookas in the Middle East, and the shipment was presumably placed in storage. The first use in North Africa was in the Tunisia Campaign in the spring of 1943. By then the new weapon was no longer a secret to the Germans. At the first demonstration in Washington, D.C., in May 1942 Soviet observers had requested bazookas. Consequently, a large shipment arrived in the USSR about the same time as the arrival of the shipment to Egypt. Apparently the Germans captured a bazooka in the Soviet Union very soon thereafter and copied it in a larger size, providing it with an 88-mm. rocket. This copy, known as the Panzerschreck, was superseded by the Panzerfaust, which was to do much damage in Europe in 1944-45.41


Applying the Lessons

Thanks to very early reports on Rommel's use of antitank guns in the desert battles, Montgomery had at El 'Alamein an American self-propelled antitank gun, which the British called the "Priest" because of its pulpitlike machine gun platform. It had been hastily devised in the United States by mounting a 105-mm. howitzer on an M3 tank chassis. Information from the desert gave great impetus to the "tank destroyer" program already initiated by the Ordnance Department; also, it convinced Army Ground Forces planners, including Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commanding general of AGF, that the proper adversary of the tank was the antitank gun rather than another tank, a conviction that to some extent hindered Ordnance in developing a more powerful tank than the Sherman. This was one example of a tendency among U.S. Army planners to apply the early experience of the Allies without enough imagination or flexibility. To cite another example, the British experience with the Germans' deadly antitank Teller mines in Libya led to an ambitious program in the United States for developing an effective mechanical mine exploder along the lines of the British Scorpion, a program that consumed much money and effort and contributed little toward solving the mine problem.42

On the other hand, Americans learned valuable lessons in the desert. First tested in the desert were not only tanks and antitank guns and ammunition but also new developments such as gyrostabilizers that enabled the tank to fire while moving. Some of the Shermans that arrived in Egypt in the fall of 1942 were equipped with the gyrostabilizers—an early model not yet tested in combat. Also, Americans gained useful experience on trucks and tank transporters, the latter an early British invention that was to play an important part in Europe, not only as a tank transporter but as a cargo carrier. And the desert continued to be most productive in captured enemy matériel; for example, shells of the 170-mm. gun, which was to inflict much damage later in Italy, were first examined after El 'Alamein. Following Jarrett's pioneer efforts, an Ordnance seven-man team went to Cairo in the summer of 1942 and sent by ship to Aberdeen Proving Ground about 3,000 tons of assorted matériel for study. This team was the forerunner of the Ordnance Technical Intelligence Teams later sent to all theaters, beginning with North Africa in December 1942.43


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