In June 1942, a small American tank detachment arrived in Libya and joined the British Eighth Army during the battle of Gazala to get experience in desert warfare under actual battlefield conditions. In combat, they destroyed a number of panzers. Time Magazine recorded this unit as being the first Americans to engage German ground forces in WWII.
After Operation Crusader (18 November to 10 December 1941) ended, Tobruk was relieved after an eight month siege and Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika began to withdraw eastward with the British Eighth Army in pursuit. On 24 December 1941, the British captured Benghazi and by 1 January 1942, the Axis forces were driven back to El Agheila (southwest of Benghazi.) While probing the Allied lines in January, Rommel encountered little opposition and began a limited offensive to the east. After retaking Benghazi on January 28 and Timimi on February 3, he continued to push on towards Tobruk. The British Eighth Army was forced to withdraw back to prepared positions at the Gazala line, 40 miles (64 km) west of Tobruk.
From February to May 1942 was a period of rest and replenishment for both sides as they prepared for the next offensive. Both sides replaced their losses and received new weapons. During this period, the British Eighth Army received shipments of the new US built M3 Grant tank. The Grant was the British version of the M3 Lee tank which mounted a 75mm gun in a sponson on the right side of the hull with limited traverse and a 37mm gun turret located on the left side of the upper hull. It was able to engage beyond the effective range of the German towed 50mm Pak 38 AT gun, and the 50mm KwK 38 L/42 gun on the Pz.kpfw. III, their main medium tank at the time and was also vastly superior to the Italian Fiat M13/40 and M14/41 tanks whose 47mm gun was effective only at point-blank range. The US 75mm gun was able to fire high explosive (HE) shells to eliminate enemy infantry and other soft targets which other British tank guns at the time were not able to do. Based on a British requirement, the size of the turret was increased to allow the radio set to be mounted in the turret behind the tank commander instead of being located on the left side of the hull next to the driver’s position as in the M3 Lee. With the radio in the turret, the crew of the Grant was reduced to 6 compared to the Lee which had a crew of 7. A group of American advisors and crews were sent to Egypt to train British armour units on the operation of the M3 Grant but no American manned tanks had fought with the British in combat.
General Sir Claude Auchinleck, (farthest from the camera) and Major General Campbell, VC, standing on a M3 Grant tank, watching as it test fires its sponson-mounted 75mm gun on 17 February 1942.
This front view of another Grant tank shows the WE210 rubber double-I tracks which were used on British Commonwealth M3 Lee and Grant tanks. Upon delivery, the British workshops added the sand shields to the tanks which are unpainted on these tanks.
This is my close up of the Grant tank above. An early feature of Lee/Grant tanks were two holes in on the left side of the front armour plate just above the transmission housing . These are for mounting two fixed forward firing air cooled M1919A4 .30 Caliber Browning machine guns which the muzzles can be seen on this tank.
Film: M-3 General Lee (Tank)
The British Eighth Army established Gazala line to protect Tobruk. It was a series of defensive boxes accommodating an infantry brigade each, laid out across the desert behind a screen of minefields, barb wire, artillery and AT guns with infantry patrolling between the boxes. The 1ère Brigade Française Libre (1st Free French Brigade) under Marie-Pierre Koenig was located at the most southern point of the line at the Bir Hakeim box, 13 miles (21 km) south of the 150th Infantry Brigade box, which was 6 miles (9.7 km) south of the 69th Infantry Brigade box. The 50th and 1st South African divisions held the northern section of the line around and south of the port of Gazala. Behind the line just west of El Adem was the British 1st Armoured Division (2nd Armoured Brigade, 22nd Armoured Brigade and 201st Guards Motor Brigade) and to the south was the British 7th Armoured Division “Desert Rats” (4th Armoured Brigade, 7th Motor Brigade and 3rd Indian Motor brigade). At the time, the British Eighth Army armoured units had around 843 tanks out of which 167 (about 20%) were M3 Grants.
To avoid detection by the enemy, the British disguised the new M3 Grant tanks as lorries. Rails for the “Sun Shield” lorry camouflage were mounted on sides of the tank above the side fenders. When the disguise was dropped before entering combat, the side rails remained and were handy for hanging crew gear, rolled up camouflage nets or canvas on. Note the British 7th Armoured Division markings on the front fenders.
On 26 May 1942, Rommel’s Afrika Korps and the Italians launched Operation Venezia (Venice in Italian), the assault on the Gazala line. Following an artillery barrage, the Italian divisions made a feint advance towards the northern and central sections of the British Gazala line. Early in the morning of May 27, Rommel lead his mobile armoured force consisting of the the 90.leichte, 15. Panzer, 21. Panzer and the Italian Ariete Panzer Divsions south around the Bir Hakeim box and then swung north to attack the British armour units behind the line from the south.
A Pz.kpfw. III Ausf. H armed with a 50mm gun advancing through soft sand while moving up. The crewman wearing the great coat standing behind the turret indicate that it was probably early dawn since nights in the desert were rather cold.
The British 4th Armoured Brigade was ordered to move south to intercept the enemy mobile force but ran directly into the 15. Panzer Division. After taking heavy losses, the 4th Armoured Brigade withdrew towards El Adem. On May 28, Rommel’s planned move to get behind the bulk of the Eighth Army began to fail as British tanks and guns slowed his forward advances. Rommel then withdrew his mobile force to regroup and prepare for another attack.
On May 29, Rommel decided to move his armour into an area of the line which later was called the Cauldron. The position was virtually surrounded by the Eighth Army but it allowed him to strike eastward at the right time. As he maneuvered his units into the position, the rear of his force came into contact with the defended box manned by the 150th Infantry Brigade southwest of Sidi Muftah. On May 30, Rommel attempted to eliminate the 150th Brigade’s position to open supply routes to the west through the British minefields. The British, believing Rommel was trapped, launched new armour attacks from the east to crush Rommel’s units in the Cauldron, but they lacked enough strength and were easily repelled. Into the next day while Rommel continued to batter away at the 150th Brigade “box”, the British planned another attack on the Cauldron. On June 1, the CO of the 150th Infantry Brigade was KIA and the survivors of the brigade surrendered. The British made the mistake of not attacking the Cauldron in force which allowed Rommel to open a direct supply route eastward through the mine fields and the Cauldron was no longer surrounded. While the British armour were pinned down in the center of the Gazala line, Rommel dispatched a mobile force south again to attack the Free French outpost at Bir Hakeim.
On June 5, the British launched Operation Aberdeen which attempted to crush the Rommel’s armoured forces in the Cauldron but it was poorly coordinated. Rommel held off the attacks and then launched a counterattack against the British, chasing away three armoured brigades and captured a large number of British infantry.
A M3 Grant of the British 1st Armoured Division passes a burning Pz.kpfw. I on June 6. The triangle on the turret indicates A squadron of either the 2nd or 22nd Armoured Brigade. Note the camouflage pattern on the Grant and size difference compared to the smaller panzer.
A squadron of Grant tanks sweeps across the desert on June 8 during an attack on the Cauldron. Note the camouflage pattern and the stowage on the nearest tank.
The driver of this M3 Grant takes a close look at a gouge in the armour plate just above his view port made by a 50mm round, June 1942.
Not all the tanks were so lucky. There is at least one side penetration on this burnt out Grant tank which probably was hit by a 37mm or 50mm round, most likely fired from a panzer.
Between June 2 to 10 while the British were taking a beating around the Cauldron, the 1ère Brigade Française Libre at Bir Hakeim were cut off and were repeatedly attacked by the 90. leichte Division and an Italian infantry division supported by Italian M13/40 tanks (47mm guns). Only armed with infantry AT guns and mortars, the French heroically repelled each attack. Ammunition and supplies were running out, medical facilities were over-stretched and the re-supply by units of the 7th Motor Brigade that were able to slip through the Axis surrounding the desert fortress was becoming impossible. The Afrika Korps repeatedly asked for surrender, but each time the French rejected. On June 10, the British high command finally gave the order for the French to abandon the position and to withdraw during the hours of darkness. By this time, Rommel had enough and personally moved down to the Bir Hakeim area to take control of what he expected to be the final assault. The Germans and Italians finally overran and captured
First American Tank Detachment
A small group of 15 volunteer US tank men – officers and soldiers – from various armored units were selected to be sent to Libya to observe and participate in the fighting that was going on. The commander of the group, US Army Major Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., was on active duty with the US 2nd Armored Division and at the time was also a sitting US Senator from Massachusetts. Major Lodge was the first US Senator to go to war since the American Civil War.
The Allied ferry command flew the group from the USA, across the Atlantic and over the continent of Africa. After several days of flight, they landed in Cairo, Egypt and reported for duty. The next day, they moved up to the front on a crowded train carrying British, Free French, Indian and Australian soldiers. At Capuzzo, on the Libyan-Egyptian border, most of the men went on to Bardia for a week of training with British units. Major Lodge went forward to make observations of the overall combat situation in the area.
One day, Major Lodge and other British officers were riding in a command car driving from Tobruk to Bardia when Stukas suddenly appeared overhead. After the car skidded to a stop, they jumped out and dived headlong for a slit trench just about the time the Stukas had dived on a column of British supply lorries en route to the front. After the Stukas blasted the entire line of lorries, they swept back and strafed their abandoned command car with machine gun fire.
Back in Bardia, the American tank men made rapid progress in their training and were ready for combat. The group named the First American Tank Detachment (Training) was assigned three British M3 Grant tanks and was attached to the British 4th Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Division. The unit went into action on 11 June 1942 but Major Lodge did not accompanied them since the Allied high command probably did not want risk a US Senator being KIA or be captured by the enemy.
Lodge stated in a Time Magazine article that they had swung their tanks along side the British manned tanks and were later attacked by German panzers at the range of 4,000 yards (3658 meters). The engagement started at about 0300 hours (on June 12). All day the American crews kept up a withering fire that held the Germans back some 700 yards (640 meters) away. Although it was difficult to keep an accurate score during the engagement, the American crews had knocked out at least 8 German vehicles before the Germans moved up their 88mm guns and the British gave the order for them to withdraw. The American crews had been through their baptism of fire and had acquitted themselves well. The next day, the American crews turned in their Grant tanks and prepared to return to report on what they had learned.
By the middle of the afternoon on June 11, Rommel had his forces on the move again. The advance of the 90. leichte Division northeastward towards El Adem was subjected to weak flank attacks by what was left of the 7th Motor Brigade and then RAF aerial reconnaissance had spotted the advance of the 15. Panzer Division. The 4th Armoured Brigade was sent south to intercept the enemy forces and halted for the night on the high ground around a withered fig tree at Naduret el Ghesceuasc. The 15. Panzer Division halted for the night just a few kilometers to the south.
Rommel in his Befehlsfahrzeug Sd.kfz. 250/3 “Greif” (or Griffin) near Bir Hakeim on 11 June 1942.
Early in the morning of June 12, the British 2nd Armoured Brigade moved south along side the 4th Armoured Brigade. The 15. Panzer Division then attacked the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades and, at first, was repulsed. Rommel himself moved up to the 15. Panzer’s front positions to drive the attack forward again. A second attack in the afternoon did heavy damage to the British armour units. The 4th Armoured Brigade was hit in its right flank by elements of the 21. Panzer Division forcing the brigade to retreat north to a position along the escarpment west of El Adem.
Allied battle casualties are brought to a RAMC ambulance field dressing station on 12 June 1942.
The following photos were taken west of El Adem on 13 June 1942.
The American soldiers posing on top of a M3 Grant tank. The two holes just above the transmission housing on the right do not have the two .30 Caliber MGs fitted. Often one or both MGs were removed and the holes were usually plugged or plated over. The tank probably is painted in either sand or stone colour.
The Americans standing behind one of their Grant tanks. A number or all of the American soldiers are NCOs (Non-commission Officers – Sargeants) and in the center is a British officer probably their liaison or chaperone. Note that the tank does not appear to have any markings or camouflage pattern on it.
This is my close up of the engine deck of the Grant tank above. The box structure with the protruding pipe section was probably added for supporting the rear section of the lorry “Sun Shield.”
Two American crewmen posing with their Grant tank. This tank had claimed two kills during the battle. Behind the right foot of the crewman sitting next to the 75mm gun is the rail frame for the lorry “Sun Shield.”
This is my close up of the area where the American Sargeant on the right is pointing to. A German shell hit just below the 75mm gun and failed to penetrate the rotor shield.
The Americans are boarding a British lorry to be transported out of the combat area. If they had stayed and fought the advancing Axis forces, their combat experiences and information would maybe never reached the US units who were training and preparing for Operation Torch at that time. Note the camouflage netting on the front fender of the Grant tank to the left.
Rommel broke out of the Cauldron and on June 13, the 201st Guards Brigade was forced to retreat from the Knightsbridge defensive position. Rommel’s forces began to pick off the isolated Allied positions west of Tobruk. The 50th and 1st South African Divisions began to withdraw and the line was in danger of collapsing. On June 17, the Axis forces reached the sea to the east of Tobruk and once again the port was surrounded by the enemy. All the Eighth Army units that were able to retreated towards the Egyptian border. On June 20, the Africa Korps attacked Tobruk from the east. A break-in was achieved and they quickly spread out within the fortress area. On 21 June 1942, the 2nd South African Division garrison at Tobruk had surrendered.
On June 28, the Mersa Matruh line (east of Tobruk) was abandoned and all Eighth Army units again retreated eastward. By June 30, all surviving Eighth Army units were behind the El Alamein line waiting for Rommel to launch his next offensive.
Sahara 1943 Film
The movie’s story line was originally based on a 1927 war novel “Patrol” by British writer Philip MacDonald and an incident depicted in the 1937 Soviet film “The Thirteen” by Mikhail Romm. The movie was written as a patriotic war film for WWII roughly based on the First American Tank Detachment mission which was altered to fit the story line where the Germans had overran the unit and a surviving American tank had became part of the Allies retreat during the battle of Gazala. The real mission probably would not had made an exciting or interesting movie.
The director was Zoltan Korda and actor Humphrey Bogart was Master Sergeant Joe Gunn, the main character in the movie. Production began on 29 January 1943 and it wrapped up filming on 17 April 1943. The cast and crew spent 11 weeks on location in Imperial County, California, portion of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, west of the Salton Sea Lake, about 80 miles (129 km) northeast of San Diego.
The War Department and the US Army had given their consent and their blessing in the making of the movie. At the time, the 4th Armored Division (attached to the 4th Armored Corps) was undergoing exercises in tank warfare at the US Army’s California Desert Training Center and supplied the tanks and other vehicles used in the movie. The German fighter plane used in the movie was an early Allison-powered North American P-51 Mustang. Company C, 84th Reconnaissance Battalion (later re-designated as C Troop, 25th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron) was ordered to supply 100 enlisted men to serve as extras in the movie. The US soldiers were billeted in tents at the location while the cast and crew stayed at the Planter’s Hotel in Brawley, California about 50 miles (80 km) southeast of the filming location.
The production had the usual difficulties at a desert location: sunburn, sandstorms, and the extreme heat. Korda had 2,000 tons of sand transported to the set to cover an area of hard packed soil. Ripples and swirls in the sand were enhanced by painting the sand and then was blown with a wind machine. Similarly, shadows were spray-painted on the hills which made them stand out. Makeup artist Henry Pringle devised a technique to imitate facial perspiration by coating the actors’ faces with Vaseline and then sprayed water on them.
The US soldiers were dressed in German uniforms (which they thought to be comical) for a number of scenes in the movie. In the scene where Joe Gunn (Bogart) and his surviving crew member Osmond ‘Ozzie’ Bates (Patrick O’Moore) made their last stand at the supposedly dry well holding off the horde of thirst-crazed German soldiers, Bogart persuades the Germans to surrender as they pleaded, “Wasser, wasser…” (Water, water…) with reasonably good accents. That was their only line in the movie.
The movie was Columbia Picture’s largest money maker in 1943 earning $2,300,000 in its first three weeks. That would be close to $35,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Behind the camera scene at the filming location. In the foreground is a movie camera and a sound boom pole with a covered microphone is hanging over LULUBELLE. During the filming, Bogart had disputes with director Korda and many times had questioned his directions.
In this early scene of the flim, LULUBELLE was moving out while under an enemy artillery barrage. The left hull door was open for a brief moment in the scene giving a good view of the lower part of the 37mm turret basket while in the background an enemy shell had exploded.
In this early scene, Joe and Waco were getting an engine part from a knocked Allied tank to repair LULUBELLE. This tank is a US M3A1 Lee with a cast hull. Production of the M3A1 Lee began in February 1942 ending in August 1942 with only 300 built and were only used for training in the USA. Note the upper hull hatch positioned on an angle and the large dent or gouge on the left rear corner of the hull.
This is the scene at the end of the film when the German prisoners marching in front of LULUBELLE linked up with a British armour column. The two tanks in front of the column are M3A1 Lees with cast hulls. Behind them are Stuart light tanks, a M3 on the left and a M3A1 with auxiliary fuel tanks mounted on the hull sides on the right and following in the rear are half tracks and jeeps.
On 3 February 1944 in the middle of his second term, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. resigned his Senate seat to go overseas to war again. He served in the Mediterranean and in Europe supposedly with the US 2nd Armored Division and had risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
In early October 1944, a soldier had told Time Magazine that Lieutenant Colonel Lodge, 42, captured a four-man German patrol by himself. Lodge had spotted the Germans a long way off. When they got close to them, Colonel Lodge pulled out his pistol, leaped out of the jeep, and the Germans immediately threw their hands in the air.
After the war, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. continued his political career and was elected again to the Senate in 1946. In 1952. he lost to John F. Kennedy while he was working on Eisenhower’s presidential campaign. In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed Lodge as US representative to the United Nations where he served until 1960. Then he ran as vice president with Richard M. Nixon, losing to the Kennedy/Johnson ticket. In 1963, President Kennedy appointed Lodge as US ambassador to Vietnam, and he was again appointed in 1965 by President Johnson. He served in that position until 1967 and then served as US ambassador to Germany in 1968-69. President Nixon then appointed him as head of the American delegation to the unsuccessful Vietnam peace negotiations in Paris, France. From 1969 to 1977, he served occasionally as an envoy to the Vatican for Presidents Nixon and Ford. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. passed away in Beverly, Massachusetts on 27 February 1985.
Sahara 1995 Film
This TV movie commissioned by Showtime (cable channel) was a remake of the 1943 Humphrey Bogart classic and starred actor Jim Belushi as Master Sergeant Joe Gunn. The movie was directed by English-Australian filmmaker and author, Brian Trenchard-Smith (“The Siege of Firebase Gloria” 1989). The script is very close to the 1943 classic so it has brought a new generation a color version of the movie. Besides being in color, it has more realistic combat scenes with more authentic looking wounds. The film was made on location at Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia. The German soldiers were played by 130 Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Australian Army personnel. The German fighter in the movie is a Fiat G.59 (a post war version of the Italian Fiat G.55) painted in Luftwaffe desert camouflage and markings. Probably because there was only one M3 Lee tank available, the movie had a slightly different ending. After the thirst-crazed Germans surrendered at the well and were captured, a British Long Range Desert Patrol arrived later and took charge of the prisoners.
The M3 Lee tank used as LULUBELLE in this movie was an original WWII M3 Lee but it was the version that was supplied to Australia. The commander’s cupola with the .30 caliber MG was omitted and it was equipped with WE210 rubber double-I tracks. Sorry for the poor quality photo.
Master Sergeant Joe Gunn (Jim Belushi) standing next to LULUBELLE. Another small difference, in the 1943 B/W classic Bogart wore the WWII tanker’s overalls while in the 1995 remake Belushi wore a sweat soaked t-shirt most of the time.
Video: M3 General Lee in action
MODELS AND DECALS
Armortek M3 Lee / Grant Medium Tank – 2018
Academy 13206 US Medium Tank M3 Lee – 2006
Academy 13212 M3 GRANT – 2008
Airfix A1370 M3 Grant – 2020 Future
Dragon 6642 Pz.Kpfw.III (5cm) Ausf.H Sd.Kfz.141 Late Production – 2012
Dragon 6911 Sd.Kfz.250/3 “Greif” Rommel’s Command Half-Track – 2020
MiniArt 35206 M3 Lee – Early Production (Interior Kit) – 2019
MiniArt 35217 Grant Mk.I (Interior Kit) – 2019
MiniArt 35276 Grant Mk.l (no interior) – 2019
Takom 2086 British Medium Tank M3 Grant – 2017
Tamiya MM141 British Army Medium Tank M3 Grant Mk I – 1974
Bison Decals 35086 BRITISH TANKS IN NORTH AFRICA
Def.Model DD35015 WWII US M3 Lee”Lulubelle” decal set – 2020
Star Decals 35-893 British M3 Grant in Africa
Kengi M3 Grant (Tamiya 32523 M4 Sherman Required) – Resin Conversion
Kengi M3 Lee (Tamiya 32523 M4 Sherman Required) – Resin Conversion
Tamiya 32550 German Sd.Kfz. 250/3 Greif – 2007
Company B AFV-Decal US M3 Lee “Lulubelle” (1/56)
Hasegawa 31105 Medium Tank M3 Grant Mk.I – 1991
Italeri 7034 Sd.Kfz. 250/3 – 2006
Mirage Hobby 728008 Medium Tank M3 ‘Grant’ Mk I – 2015
Plastic Soldier WW2V20010 German Panzer III Ausf. G & H – 201?
UM (Uni Models) 270 Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.H – 2016
Bison Decals 72019 British Tanks in North Africa #1