The British used the "tank" to good effect during the many late-war offensives of World War 1 (1914-1918). These slow-moving systems spearheading infantry advances into enemy territory, providing some protection from battlefield hazards while supplying cannon and machine gun fire in turn - akin to mobile bunkers. In the post-war years, the British moved to adopt a new two-pronged approach set to utilize lighter "cruiser" tanks alongside heavier "infantry" tanks. Doctrine called for cruiser tanks to break through weaker spots along the enemy's defensive line, allowing these crews to wreak havoc on weaker flanks and rear sections. The infantry tank would then crush the enemy head-on while supporting advancing infantry used to take and hold ground. To fulfill these roles, each tank type was designed with certain qualities in mind - cruisers were lightly armed and armored to preserve their speed and maneuverability and infantry tanks were heavier armed and armored, thus slower during the advance but holding greater battlefield survivability.
This concept continued into the pre-World War 2 days of the 1930s. As another war in Europe seemed inevitable, many tank projects were furthered and the British Army ended up using a large collection of tanks before the end of World War 2 (1939-1945) and the standardization to Churchill infantry tanks and the American M4 Sherman medium tank.
In the latter part of the 1930s, a new cruiser tank was considered as the "A13" which became the "Cruiser Tank Mk V", best remembered as the "Covenanter" (detailed elsewhere on this site). The design was intended to replace the more costly Cruiser IV series by Nuffield but carry on the same cruiser tank qualities (lightweight, speed, maneuverability). London, Midland, and Scottish Railway became responsible for its design using a Nuffield turret and 1,771 examples were ultimately produced. However, the tank was soon found to have poor engine cooling qualities which relegated her to second-line duties for all of World War 2. It was obsolete as soon as 1943.
During production of the A13, Nuffield moved ahead on its own modified, improved version of the A13 tank as the "A15". Initially, the new tank design carried two small, machine gun-armed turrets along the glacis plate - one at the driver's position and the other alongside to be operated by a bow gunner. Each mini-turret held a 7.92mm BESA machine gun. During testing, these installations proved wanting and were eventually deleted in the finalized design. Evaluation also showcased the same cooling issues as found on the Covenanter and the transmission gear change system proved unreliable. Ventilation of the crew compartment was also a concern. On the whole, the tank retained the major features of the Covenanter including a turreted main gun armament, rear-mounted engine, crew of four, and track-over-wheel running gear.
This design also proved sound enough to the General Staff that it was also accepted for serial production as the "Cruiser Mk VI" - best remembered as "Crusader". The vehicle retained the same faceted turret (with its sharply angled sides) on an all-new low-profile hull. An extra roadwheel was added to each hull side for better weight displacement - a quality not seen in earlier cruiser tank attempts which usually carried only four roadwheels to a side. The engine was an in-house Nuffield Liberty V-12 gasoline powerplant of 340 horsepower mated to a Nuffield constant mesh 4-speed transmission system. Operational range reached 200 miles with a road speed of 26 miles per hour. Armor protection reached 40mm thickness at the most critical facings. The crew numbered four (or five) and included the driver, commander, loader, and gunner.
The tank was primarily armed with a QF 2-pounder (40mm) main gun fitted to the front face of the turret. The vehicle also carried a 7.92mm BESA machine gun in a coaxial mount for anti-infantry work. 110 x 40mm projectiles were carried for the main gun and onboard stowage allowed for up to 4,950 x 7.92mm rounds of machine gun ammunition.
The initial production model became "Crusader I" which entered service in 1941 - by this time, the British Empire had been at war with Germany and her Axis allies since September of 1939 so any new tank was a welcomed addition. However, these early Crusaders quickly showcased limitations in being lightly armored and too lightly armed with their 40mm main guns. The guns were largely ineffective against the mid-generation German Panzer tanks (Panzer III / Panzer IV) increasing in battlefield numbers. It was decided to "up-gun" Crusader Is with a 6-pounder (57mm) main gun but supply-and-demand dictated that this modification would have to wait. At the very least, the tank saw its armor increased to 49mm thickness to produce the "Crusader II" mark. All other facets of the tank remained largely intact with this variant.
It was not until the introduction of the "Crusader III" that the line finally came into its own. The 6-pounder main gun was the standard armament fitting for this variant and gave the vehicle near-equal footing against the mid-generation Panzers. It was this mark that made a name for itself in the North Africa campaign despite poor early showings that continued to showcase reliability problems (only worsened by desert conditions) and modest armor protection. The 1st Armoured Division, stocked with Crusader tanks, finally broke through the Axis defensive lines to reach Tobruk and played important roles during El Alamein and in Tunisia where their speed proved an asset and armor protection and armament proved serviceable against mounting odds. North Africa was eventually claimed by the Allies to begin shrinking Axis influence over the Mediterranean.
Despite its use in frontline combat, many of the aforementioned inherent issues (engine cooling, ventilation) were never fully ironed out in the Crusader design. Nevertheless, the vehicles were pressed into considerable action against a determined foe but the end of the North Africa campaign marked the end of the Crusader as a fighting tank. 4,350 units were produced as frontline combat tanks during the war.
The story of the Crusader was not wholly written by 1943 for its basic workings proved as versatile as any in the war - the vehicle continued to find service in second line roles by being modified as needed. Nearly 1,000 hulls existed as offshoots of the combat version and this included the "Crusader III AA I" armed with 1 x 40mm Bofors autocannon for anti-aircraft work, the "Crusader III AA II" with 2 x 20mm Oerlikon cannons, the "Crusader ARV" converted to serve in the Armored Recovery Vehicle role, and the "Crusader Dozer" fitted with a construction-style bull dozer for clearing debris. The "Crusader Gun Tractor" was a modification used to speedily hauler large field guns and sported an open-topped hull superstructure in place of the original turret. The "Crusader IICS" was fitted with a 76.2mm howitzer and used as a fire support / demolition vehicle. Other forms existed as command tanks holding "dummy" main guns in their turrets and given 2 x No. 19 radio sets for battlefield communications. A mobile observation post variant was also realized. Still other hulls were used in a variety of trials that included amphibious and mine-clearing vehicles which benefitted other tanks.
Due to its widespread availability, versatility, and early contributions to the war, the Crusader became just one of the several "classic" British tanks of the conflict, joining the likes of the Churchill and Matilda. The type was eventually superseded by the American M3 Grant/Lee medium tank which offered better armor protection and armament and even these were themselves replaced by M4 Shermans coming to Europe in quantity. The Crusader was able to endure under the harshest of battlefield conditions through its reliability issues while still seeing service in other roles through to the end of the war. Captured examples by the Germans were even pressed into service against their former owners as was the case with the 15th Panzer Division. Other wartime users included Australia, France (Free French), Italy, the Netherlands, Poland (UK-based training only), and South Africa.
In the post-war years, some hulls ended their days in the Argentine Army inventory converted as Self-Propelled Gun (SPG) systems mounting French 75mm and 105mm field howitzers to fixed hull superstructures.
Over 5,300 Crusader cruiser tanks were produced in all from the period spanning 1940 to 1943. Its service tenure spanned from 1941 to 1945.