|Opening Salvo: Crusader II|
|by Michael J. Canavan, Sr|
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)
The Crusader has many similarities to the Covenantor. The Covenantor was a pre-war design, started in 1937, which fathered the Cruiser series of British tanks. The Crusader followed the same design as the cruiser tanks but was intended to act as a heavy cruiser. Its specifications were difficult for designers to meet because of weight/size limitations and the main armament was only a 2-pounder gun. The specifications did, however, try to address the faults and limitations of earlier tanks. The Crusader was built by a consortium of manufacturers under the leadership and guidance of Nuffield Mechanizations, Ltd. 5300 Crusaders were built before production ended in 1943.
Initially armed with the 2-pounder gun in the Mk I, the Crusader was originally manned by a crew of 5 (4 or 5 in the Mk II) and by the time of the Mk III, was equipped with a 6-pounder gun and a crew of 3. A few Crusader IIIs were outfitted with a 3” Close Support Howitzer instead of the 6-pounder gun. Additionally, the Mk I had two 7.92 mm BESA machineguns, the Mk II had one or two machineguns and the Mk III was armed with only one machine gun. The Mk I and some Mk IIs had a machine gun mounted in a small auxiliary turret on the left front deck, which is eventually removed. The removal of this small turret allowed more room for storage of ammunition. The main turret was manned by the commander and gunner and, as was often the case in a two man turret, proved to be less than ideal. The commander had to act as loader and radio operator.
Weighing upwards of 20 tons, dependent upon version, the Crusader exerted a ground pressure of over 14 pounds per square inch. It had a road speed of 27 miles per hour as fielded and a range of 100 miles. It could climb vertical obstacles of 2”3”, cross an 8’2” trench and climb a gradient of 60 percent.
The hull was a long, flat deck with a well sloped glacis, similar to the Covenantor. It was divided into the standard three compartments. The driver shared the front compartment with a hull machine gunner in the Mark I and II. The tank had Christie suspension with an extra wheel station and the spring units were contained inside the hull. This suspension was the strongest feature of the Crusader and allowed it to move much faster than its official top speed. Crusader drivers and mechanics often opened up or removed the engine governors to realize the full potential of the Liberty engine, resulting in speeds as high as 40 miles per hour. The Nuffield Liberty engine, basically a World War I aircraft engine, was a 12-cylinder, water-cooled, inline, gasoline engine which could produce 340 horsepower. Naturally, once the engine was field modified it became prone to malfunction, though the suspension could take the extra abuse. Early Crusaders often had trouble with the engine, due to cooling configurations. The shaft driving the cooling fan often broke and the air filters were difficult to keep clean. Eventual modifications and good maintenance resolved some of the engine difficulties.
The tank was fielded before all of the development problems were fixed and in its first engagement, Operation Battleaxe, June 1941, more Crusaders fell into enemy hands because of mechanical failure than due to battle damage. The tank did go on to fight in all of the major Desert Campaign actions. By the time of El Alamein, the Crusader III had arrived with its 6-pounder gun. Only 144 Crusader Mk IIIs were built between May and July 1942. The Crusader was popular in the desert because of its speed, but the armor proved to be too thin and its armament too weak. The Afrika Corps respected the Crusader for its speed but the PzKpfw III gunners and German antitank gun crews had no fears in confronting it. The Crusader was outdated by the end of the North African campaign, although a few fought later in Italy. Some hulls ere modified to be self propelled anti-aircraft vehicles which carry either 20 mm Oerlikon guns (Crusader III AA Mk II) or Bofors 40 mm guns (Crusader II AA Mk I). Some were also used as gun tractors for the 17-pounder antitank gun.