The Crusader was ordered off the drawing board in July 1939 as the Cruiser Tank Mk VI (A15). 200 production tanks and the pilot were ordered at that date. This was increased to 400 in the summer of 1940 and then to 1,062. The pilot was ready by March 1940. Tests with this machine proved that it suffered from overheating, inadequate ventilation and problems with the gearchange.
Described as a heavy cruiser, the Crusader utilised components of the A13 series but was featured a lengthened hull. Unlike earlier “cruisers” (A13, Marks III and IV and the Mark V Covenanter) that were built with four road wheels, Crusader had five road wheels each side to improve weight distribution in a tank that weighed almost 20 tons instead of the 14 tons of the previous cruisers. The 32 in (810 mm)-diameter wheels were of pressed steel with solid rubber tyres. The hull sides were built up of two separated plates, with the suspension arms between them. The Liberty 27-litre V-12 petrol engine engine produced around 340bhp, and in combination with a Nuffield four-speed crash gearbox, gave a top speed on the road of 27mph (44km/h). At the same time, the Christie suspension provided a high standard of off-road performance. It had an operational range of around 200 miles (322km) on roads and 146 miles (235km) cross country. The driver was housed beneath a box-shaped armoured cover and the prototype featured an extra Besa machine gun, operated by the driver, in the right hand side of the cab. In practice this proved unworkable. The breech end of the gun and ammunition took up valuable space in an already tightly confined area and, when it was fired, the resulting fumes made conditions unbearable and potentially dangerous. In production tanks the mounting was replaced by a simple revolver port which the driver could use in an emergency as a last resort. At the left side of the front hull was mounted a small hand-traversed auxiliary turret armed with a Besa machine gun. The auxiliary turret was awkward to use and was often removed in the field or remained unoccupied. The turret was polygonal—with sides that sloped out then in again—to give maximum space on the limited turret ring diameter. Early production vehicles had a “semi-internal” cast gun mantlet, which was quickly replaced in production by a better protected larger cast mantlet with three vertical slits for the main gun, a coaxial Besa machine gun and for the sighting telescope. There was no cupola for the commander who instead had a flat hatch with the periscope mounted through it. In practice, it was open most of the time. It was armed with a 2 pounder quick firing main gun that only fired AP Armour piercing rounds. The main armament, as in other British tanks of the period, was balanced so that the gunner could control its elevation through a padded shaft against his right shoulder rather than using a geared mechanism, making pointing easier and more accurate, and allowing efficient fire on the move. This fitted well with the British doctrine of firing accurately on the move. On the very flat terrain encountered in the Libyan plains, this feature was of great proficiency.
The Cruiser Tank Mk VI Crusader (A15) was the main British-built tank used in the Western Desert from 1941 until late in 1942. The type first went into action at Capuzzo in June 1940 and was used in most of the major engagements in the North African desert.
Initially, the heat of the desert brought an inevitable toll of breakdowns, including failed fan drives and clogged air cleaners.
The Crusader suffered from chronic reliability problems in desert use as a result of several factors. A rapid ramp-up in manufacturing within the UK caused quality issues as inexperienced workers began assembling tanks. The reconfiguration of the Mk. III Liberty engine into a flatter format to fit into the Crusader engine compartment had badly affected the tank’s water pumps and cooling fan arrangements, both of which were critical in the hot desert temperatures. Several official and unofficial in-theatre modifications were applied in attempts to improve reliability and conserve water, which otherwise had to be prioritised on keeping the vehicles running. This placed further pressure on the receiving base workshops who had to carry out the necessary re-work.
Tanks arriving in North Africa were missing many of the essential tools and servicing manuals needed to maintain operation—stolen or lost in transit. As tanks broke down, a lack of spare parts meant that many components were replaced with worn parts recovered from other tanks. When the tanks were returned to the base workshops upon reaching service intervals, many were serviced with components that had already achieved their design lifespan. As time moved on, more and more were being returned to base workshops, leading to a shortage of battle-ready tanks and a massive backlog of repair works to be completed. The number of vehicles available on the frontline dwindled.
Rectification of these issues took a very long time, by which time confidence in the Crusader had been lost.
It earned a justified reputation for being unreliable, and was eventually replaced by the American M3s and M4s.
Although withdrawn from front-line service in mid-1943, the tank continued to be used as a training aid. Many were also converted to other roles, including anti-aircraft, gun tractor, armoured recovery vehicle (ARV), dozer, and crane.
A close-support version (cruiser Mk VI CS) was produced, in which the main gun was replaced by a 3in howitzer.
Pilot model of the Cruiser tank Mk VI Crusader I
Cruiser tank Mk VI Crusader I
Original production version. The auxiliary turret was often removed in the field, eliminating the hull machine gunner position. Early production vehicles had a “semi-internal” cast gun mantlet, which was quickly replaced in production by a better protected larger cast mantlet with three vertical slits for the main gun, a coaxial Besa machine gun and for the sighting telescope.
Crusader I with “semi-internal” cast gun mantlet.
Crusader I with cast mantlet.
Crusader I CS (Close Support)
(Cruiser Mk VI CS) mounted a 3-inch howitzer in the turret instead of the 2-pounder.