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Text by BRYAN PERRETT, colour plates by PETER SARSON and TONY BRYAN
BRITISH TANKS in N. AFRICA 1940-42

The Plates (Research and captions by David List)

A1: Light Tank Mk VIB, 'C' Sqn., 1 RTR, 7th Armoured Division; May 1940

Shipped to Egypt in 1938 in overall sand colour with random orange patterning, 1 RTR's tanks were overall sand by the outbreak of war; they carried the Mobile Division Egypt formation sign and the divisional unit serial number in white on red on right and left front dustguards respectively, as viewed. The jerboa was added to complete the now-famous formation sign after May 1940. Squadron tactical markings were of the solid colours specified for tank battalions, in red for 'A', yellow for 'B' and blue for 'C'; battalion HQ marked in battalion colour, i.e. red. Black bridge signs on yellow were carried on the nose, and tank WD numbers in white or black on each hull side, although these were often obliterated during painting. Tanks of 1 RTR were named with the initial letter 'A', following First World War tradition, in white on the battalion's red.

5 RTR Grant crewman in second pattern US tank helmet, giving the 'Rally' signal with semaphore flags.

A2: Light Tank Mk VIB, 'C' Sqn., 1 RTR; August 1940

May 1940 saw several experiments in camouflage by 7th Armoured Div. which culminated in the 'Gaunter Scheme' devised by Brig. Caunter, CO of the old Heavy Armoured Bde. which became 4th Armoured Bde.; this was in slanted horizontal areas of Black, Green and Light Stone, from top to bottom. WD numbers were overpainted, and often bridge signs also. By August the jerboa had been added to some but not all tanks. The old civilian registration plates were sandblasted clean - see rear view - but in 'Aberdeen's' case it has been retouched in black. Squadron signs were unchanged. (Cavalry units seem to have favoured an outlined style, with white troops numbers alongside - the patch view shows that of a tank of 8th Hussars, whose unit serial number was '25'.) Pennants followed troop colouring for troop leaders and were plain red on other tanks, and were flown in the 'position of the day' to indicate friendly forces-here, 'two top'. Aerial bases were sometimes white for night recognition, sometimes natural black.

B1: Cruiser Mk I (A9), Brig. A. C. Willison, HQ 32 Army Tank Bde.; Operation 'Crusader', November 1941

Following rough handling in the first German offensive of March 1941, 3rd Armoured Bde. was withdrawn into the Tobruk perimeter where, in October, it was renamed 32 Army Tank Bde., under the command of Brig. A. C. Willison. The brigade was built up into a potent force in the months before 'Crusader'; and two old A9s dug in on Derna Road airfield after mechanical breakdown during the March operations were recovered by the Brigade Light Repair Section and refitted by the Workshops as command tanks. Willison's tank is finished in Slate and Silver- Grey over Light Stone, and seems to have retained its old markings without additional insignia: the 'A' Sqn. triangle and the number '9' on the turret. Ahead of this is seen the white and red recognition flash ordered for this operation on both turret sides and the front dustguards. Blue pennants were flown in the 'position of the day' for 17-26 November ('two top'); and below them is the brigade command pennant in brown, red and green with the brigade's marguerite flower insignia in white, yellow and green. Note that a woman's stocking is also flown from the base of the aerial!

B2: Cruiser Mk IIA (A10), 2 RTR, 7th Armoured Bde., 7th Armoured Div.; Operation 'Brevity', May 1941

Detached from 3rd Armoured Bde. in the UK and sent to reinforce 7th Armoured Div. in time for Operation 'Compass' in December 1940, 2 RTR landed in UK camouflage with their full range of markings. They were overpainted in 'light sandy coloured paint with black-grey camouflage patterns'. T.9224 was a replacement tank collected on 16 April 1941 and later handed over by 2 RTR to 7th Hussars on 9 July 194 u No attempt has been made to add markings. The tank seems to have been finished in Light Stone with Purple- Brown and Silver-Grey overstriping. The WD number has been repainted in black and the aerial mounting in white. Yellow pennants, one top, one middle, were ordered for 14 May.

Well-known but previously unidentified shot of Sherman IIIs at the time of Second Alamein. Originally issued to 47 RTR for the battle, they were handed over to The Queen's Bays in and Armd. Bde. at the end of November to replace casualties. All are painted Desert Pink, with or without Green overshading; the two nearest are T.74308 and T.74275. Note camouflage netting, and the usual litter of cans and empty cases after replenishment. (RAC Tank Museum)


C1: Cruiser Mk IVA (A13 Mk II), Advance HQ, 2nd Armoured Div.; February 1941

The division arrived in the Middle East in December 1940 with the 1st and 3rd Armoured Brigades. Advance HQ was formed in January 1941 with five ACVs, two 'chargers' (one for the GOC and one for his ADC), three Cruisers and three Light tanks for the Protection Troop, and eleven Scout Cars. Before ever seeing action the Cruisers were transferred to the 7th Armoured Div., and 1st Armoured Bde. was sent to Greece. When the depleted division was sent into action it was caught and smashed by Rommel's first offensive, two of the ACVs being appropriated by Rommel and Streich for their own use. This A13 Mk II of the HQ Squadron carries the divisional formation sign, a white knight's helm on red, on the left of the turret rear plate, and the divisional unit serial number '40' in white on black on the right. The personal name 'Evelyn' and the WD number (unconfirmed) are both in white. The tank is finished in overall Light Stone with over- striping of Slate and Silver-Grey.

C2: Cruiser Mk VI, Crusader I (A15), 'C' Sn., 10th Hussars, 2nd Armoured Bde., 1st Armoured Div.; February 1942

The Crusaders of the 10th Hussars were painted overall Light Stone without overstriping. The divisional unit serial number was carried in white on red on the left front dustguard, as viewed, and the division's formation sign, a white rhino on a black oval, on the right; they were repeated in reverse order on the rear of the tank. Squadron tactical markings and names were in blue throughout the regiment, and pennants were normally in the same colour; the example illustrated is the recognition sign lor 2nd Armoured Bde. in the period before Operation 'Lightfoot'. The WD number T. 15750 is in black.

Orders Group round a Sherman III of HQ, 24th Armd. Bde., masquerading under its 'truck' disguise.

C3: Cruiser Mk VI, Crusader II (A15), 9th Lancers, 2nd Armoured Bde., 1st Armoured Div.; Operation 'Lightfoot', October 1942

Unlike the Shermans of the rest of the regiment, which were camouflaged by an RE Camouflage Unit, the Crusaders grouped together in 'A' Sqn. and RHQ seem generally to have retained their old Light Stone overall finish; some at least had wavy white lines painted at random over the hull sides, indicating the borders of the new camouflage scheme which was about to be applied when the Camouflage Unit was called away, leaving them unfinished. The tank name is in black, flanked by the divisional unit serial number in white on red, and by an obliterated formation sign suggesting that this is a replacement tank. The 'A' Sqn. marking is painted in yellow on the right turret side, as viewed. One red and one white pennant are flown centrally, the sequence for 26 October 1942. The black signboard with a chalked '401' indicates the tank's place in the column for the passage of the minefield gap. We illustrate a possible regimental pennant in red and black, indicating either a squadron leader or a navigator's tank.

D1: Infantry Tank Mk II, Matilda (A12), 'A' Sqn., 4 RTR, 32 Army Tank Bde.; Operation 'Crusade', November 1941

Regular battalions of the RTR maintained a tradition of naming their tanks with the initial letter which corresponded to their own number. When 4 RTR arrived in the desert in 1941 the majority of their 'D-names' were painted on the hull sides, although in some cases the name also appears on the front plate as well. 7 RTR painted their 'G-names' on the sides of the driving compartment, although an unusual style seen during 'Battleaxe' was 'Gamecock II' commanded by Maj. J. Holden, OC 'A' Sqn., and driven by Cpl. Les Bowie, a former film special-effects man-hence the artistic licence! We also illustrate the normal lettering, e.g. 'Grimsby'. At Nibeiwa one 7 RTR Matilda carried a skull centrally on the nose; the WD number is unfortunately unknown. 'Duck' and 'Donovan' show typical slight variations in the style of marking names on front and rear plates of 4 RTR Matildas.

All the Army Tank Bde. battalions retained individually coloured squadron insignia enclosing the troop number, in white for the squadron leader and in squadron colour for other tanks. For the defence of Tobruk and the break-out to join up with 13 Corps white numbers were painted on the hull sides of 4 RTR and 'D' Sqn. 7 RTR squadron leaders' tanks. For 'Crusader' 4 RTR flew blue recognition pennants, with command pennants below them where appropriate. A tin sheet 'pennant' in blue with a white 'i' is fixed ahead of the cupola on 'Drake'. White and red recognition flashes were ordered specifically for 'Crusader' because the enemy were known to be using some captured British tanks; they proved highly unpopular as they offered the enemy an excellent aiming point, and were scrubbed over with sand and oil soon after the link-up had been achieved.

D2: Infantry Tank Mk II, Matilda (A12), 42 RTR, 1 Army Tank Bde.; Operation 'Crusader', 25 November 1941

While attacking successfully at Omar Nuovo and Libyan Omar with two squadrons of 42 and one of 44 RTR, 1 st Army Tank Bde. lost heavily to the German anti-tank guns; their 'crocks' were collected at the brigade's Light Recovery Section in the Sidi Azeiz area. On the morning of the 25th 16 Matildas were concentrated there, some on their tracks and some on Scammell transporters, with ammunition and stowage removed and piled alongside in readiness for repair work on the tanks. It was then that a German Panzer group caught them by chance, and advanced for a quick 'kill'. The dismounted crews of 42 RTR at once manned their 'dead' tanks, and managed to fight off the enemy long enough for the technical personnel and stores trucks to escape. On their return some hours later they found all the Matildas and several Panzers wrecked and smoking, and the British crews dead around their 'lame ducks'.

Grainy but classic study of the cast-hull M4A1 Sherman lis of The Queen's Bays at Second Alamein. Camouflage is Green over Desert Pink, and although the censor has been at work, the fronts of the dustguards bear (left as viewed) the rhino sign of 1st Armd. Div. and (right) the unit serial '85' in white on red - a reversal of the usual positions. T. 145063 is nearest the camera; names are not visible in photos of these tanks, but the regiment usually called its vehicles after racehorses. Note .50 cal. turret guns. (RAC Tank Museum)

Both 42 and 44 RTR were Territorial battalions, and named their tanks from the initials of the alphabet 'second time around', giving 42 'P-names' and 44 'R-names'. ('Phantom', T.6968, was the CO's tank of 42 RTR in the battle for the Omars.) The brigade's red diabolo sign and unit serials were carried by some but not all tanks - 'Phantom' did display it, and we have shown it on this tank. Many had the slanted horizontal straight-edged camouflage pattern, and the AFV identity flashes for 'Crusader'. We have illustrated this example in a scheme of Light Stone with Green and Purple-Brown overstriping.

E1: Infantry Tank Mk III Valentine II, 'C' Sqn, 40 RTR, 23rd Armoured Bde., 8th Armoured Div.; Operation 'Splendour', 22 July 1942

23rd Armoured Bde. was shipped to the Middle East pre-painted and partially ready for battle, although much remained to be done in the way of tropicalising their radios and acclimatising the crews. Tanks from both 23rd and 24th Armoured Bdes. were assembled to bring 23rd up to strength. 2/Lt. E. L. Wiard, commanding 10 Tp., 'C' Sqn., was mounted in his own 'Culloden', however. Note that the 'Go' sign of 8th Armoured Div. was still displayed. The Middle East scheme had been applied over the temperate pattern camouflage, with traces showing through, and an area of green exposed in the squadron/troop mark on the turret. No pennants were flown on 22 July. This gallant officer actually reached the brigade's final objective under a hail of fire from the DAK's HQ screen of anti-tank guns before being knocked out and made prisoner. The blue pennant, 6ins. × gins., was flown on the tank of the brigadier at this date; for details of other command pennants see F2.

Beneath the censor's marks the original contact print of this shot reveals the ist Armd. Div. rhino above the unit serial '71' on the nearest trackguard - identifying a Sherman II of HQ, 2nd Armd. Bde. The Desert Pink finish of T. 145029 has been marked with a white guideline by a Camouflage Unit, who were called away before completing the painting of the Brigade's tanks, leaving some of them to fight at Second Alamein like this. The far tank is named 'Antick'. (The white lines suggest a probable origin for other well-known colour- schemes of the period involving apparent white trim around the darker of two or more camouflage colours - this is noticeable on Priests and Grants.)

E2: Infantry Tank Mk III, Valentine II, 'C' Sqn., 40 RTR, 23rd Armoured Bde,; September 1942

After the disaster of 'Splendour' 40 RTR were quickly brought up to strength to save the battalion from being disbanded - the fate of 24th Armoured Bde. after Operations 'Lightfoot' and 'Supercharge'. There was little time and less inclination to maintain a full set of markings, with the regiment continuously in the forward area either in action or on 'schemes' in preparation for 'Lightfoot', This is probably a replacement tank completed in Light Stone and Green by Ordnance. The only marking is the name 'Cheetah' carefully painted in red shadowed with black on the nose plate; it was repeated in slightly smaller characters centrally on the hull rear plate. Two red pennants are flown, as a recognition mark; and as the tank is fitted with a sun compass the other is probably the blue flag indicating a navigator's vehicle, a known alternative to the long, square-ended black streamer which often identified a navigator.

Matilda Scorpions were first used to gap minefields during Operation 'Lightfoot' and performed well, although all 12 became casualties. Note station-keeping lights on rods behind turret.

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