The Crusader tank was one of the most used British cruiser tanks in North Africa during the Second World War. The Crusader was designed to be faster than infantry tanks and were, therefore, more lightly armored, though it had a more powerful engine than its infantry tank counterparts. The Crusader was also one of the fastest tanks in North Africa, but it suffered from several serious design shortcomings.
One serious drawback to the Crusader’s design was the turret. In order to incorporate a larger main gun into a smaller turret, the Crusader’s turret was polygonal, which maximized internal volume. While this turret shape did allow a larger 6 pounder (or 57 millimeter) gun to be installed in later Crusader models, the lower angle of the turret acted as a shot trap, deflecting some enemy rounds downwards and into the tank’s hull, rather than away from the tank.
The Crusader’s engine had been modified into a more compact design to allow the entire engine to fit inside the tanks’ armored compartment — unlike the Covenanter, which absurdly had an exposed radiator. The engine’s 340+ horsepower output was good for the time, giving the Crusader good on and off-road performance.
Though the Crusader’s engine block fit inside the tank, it compromised the radiator and radiator fan design — a crucial issue in hot North Africa. Crusaders also suffered from a high amount of wear and tear on their tracks and suspension due to the lack of available in-theater rail and truck transport.
The Crusader’s initial main gun, a 2 pounder, or 40-millimeter gun, was inadequate against German tanks, which were both better armed and had thicker armor. Though the 2 pounder’s main ammunition was an armor-piercing round, the smaller 40-millimeter diameter shell lacked the penetration needed to reliably take on German tanks. In addition to the 2 pounder’s more limited penetration, tank crews were not issued high-explosive ammunition for use against unarmored targets.
This ammunition shortcoming was exploited by German armor in North Africa, which would retreat behind hidden anti-tank gun emplacements after briefly engaging British armor. British tanks including the Crusader suffered many losses against hidden German anti-tank crews when they gave chase. Later Crusaders were outfitted with the heavier 6 pounder gun, increasing both ammunition penetration and range.
The Crusader’s secondary armament was a Besa medium machine gun mounted in an auxiliary turret on the Crusader’s front right corner. The turret was more of an armored box and lacked a turret ring. It was therefore stationary and could not traverse, limiting the Besa’s direction of fire, though the Besa was prized both for its reliability in dusty North African conditions. Captured German ammunition was extensively used to supplement British ammunition supplies since the Besa used the same cartridge as the standard German rifle and machine-gun cartridge.
The Crusader was one of the fastest and most maneuverable tanks of the North African campaign and was particularly suited to the long, relatively flat terrain. By the end of the North African campaign, however, the Crusader’s shortcomings — thin armor and an underpowered main gun — were a big concern. Eventually, Crusaders were relegated to flank positions by American Grant and Sherman tanks, which had better armor and heavier guns. The Crusader did not serve outside of North Africa.
Caleb Larson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of PublicPolicy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics, and culture.