The British Cromwell Cruiser Tank

This surviving Cromwell Tank Cruiser can be found in the tank Museum at Bovington, Dorset England.

Surviving Cromwell Tank Cruiser MkVIII used in Normandy 1944

Restored Cromwell Tank Cruiser used in Normandy 1944

The 5th Royal Tank Regiment get given Cromwell tanks

The 5th Royal Tank Regiment had served in France in 1940 and later in the North African desert campaign. All the tanks they had been issued with during these campaigns had thin armour and inadequate firepower. Back in England, they took delivery of a brand-new British built fighting machine; the Cromwell tank.

When the battle hardened tank crews saw this new tank they were horrified. There were so many things wrong with it. The most obvious was that the armour was vertical. It was flat on to the enemy shells and therefore more easier to penetrate. Both the Russians and Germans had learnt that sloping front armour gives the tank crew more survivability.

Yet again, here was another British tank that had an inadequate main gun. The 75 mm gun would have been okay to stop Panzer Mark III and Mark VI tanks in the desert, but in Normandy the British were going to be up against Panther and Tiger tanks. This gun was not up to the job.

The German tanks could stand back and just pickoff the Cromwell tanks at long range. The shells from the 88 mm gun on the Tiger tank just tore through the armour of the Cromwell tank like a hot knife through butter. This was still the case even know the Cromwell had thicker frontal armour than the more numerous M4 Sherman.

The British tank designers had still not learned the lessons from previous cruiser tank designs. Tank crews need to get out of tanks fast if they catch fire. The crew escape hatches were too tight and difficult to use. They were too much of a tight fit. British tank crews would burn to death because of the simple error. A number of tank crew members voiced their opinions of this new tank in writing. A number were told to stop complaining or face a court-martial.

The 5th Tanks landed in Normandy at 3 PM D-Day +1 on 7 June 1944. 80 Cromwell tanks and 730 men stormed the beaches only to find that the battle for the beaches was over. They had imagined fighting their way from the shoreline to the houses along the beach road, but they will experience a strange anticlimax.

Lieutenant Roy Dickson recalls, "The first enemy encounter we had was about a mile inland. The party of Germans, a group of Germans had been bypassed by the initial infantry. They were just holding out for themselves and we had to attack them. We came to this great big chateaux. There were Germans in their rattling away with their machine guns. I badly wanted to fire a shot into the chateaux, but they wouldn't let me do that. Commander said 'Oh no you can't do that'. It was not cricket, I suppose. They put up quite a good fight, including climbing on one of the tanks. It was a nice little action to get us used to it. So we knew what was going on."

The Normandy terrain came as something as a shock to the desert veterans. Out in North Africa, if the enemy got within 500 m of you that was far too near. With the French 7 foot field hedges you could not tell if there was a German gun or tank on the other side. This type of countryside was called Bocage and it was ideal for ambushing tanks.

Any hedgerow could conceal and German tank, anti-tank gun or infantryman with an anti-tank Panzerfaust with its ability to go through 200mm of armour at close range. Many of the tank crews draped bed turrets with grass, ferns, and branches to help camouflaged them but they really needed to be with infantry all the time in this type of country.

Montgomery ordered the 7th Armoured Division to utilise a gap in the enemy front line to move towards a village called Villers-Bocage as fast as possible. After a 6 mile advance British tanks drove through the main village street to be greeted by the residents throwing flowers at them passing bottles of wine. Tank crews felt great. The commander of that battle group ordered the tanks to stop and make tea. This was what they were in France for, to liberate French towns and villages from Nazi occupation.

The Cromwell tanks of 5th RTR, the second battle group, were not in the village. They were on a ridge overlooked that location unaware of the disaster that was about to happen. So far during the fighting the dreaded German Tiger tank had not been sighted. That was to change. This incident would confirm tank crews worst fears about the Cromwell tank's vulnerabilities and lack of firepower.

Tiger tank ace Michael Witmann, already had 137 kills to his credit, approach the village as the British battle group left. He knocked out the leading tanks first causing a traffic jam, confusion and indecision. He moved down the line of vehicles slowly knocking out tanks and half tracks as he went. Within minutes, 25 British vehicles were ablaze.

One of the Cromwell tanks managed to avoid destruction. As the Tiger tanks entered the village, the Cromwell tank managed to sneak around to position itself 100 yards away from the back of the tank. The British tank crew opened fire twice hitting it in the rear. They looked in horror as both shells bounced off. By this time the Tiger tank had managed to Traverse its turret to face backwards. It fired its 80 mm gun at close range and totally destroyed Cromwell tank. Almost single-handedly Witmann had brought the British advance in Normandy to a halt.

The 5th Tanks on the hillside waited nervously as the sound the battle came closer. They did not realise what a serious situation it was. What was different with the next enemy engagement was the assignment of Sherman firefly tanks to the Regiment to support the Cromwell's. These Germans were fitted with the British 17 pounder anti-tank gun. Its shells could penetrate German armour.

The regiment's tank troops consisted of three Cromwell tanks and one Sherman firefly. The battle for Villers-Bocage went on three days. German record show that 16 Tiger tanks were damaged by enemy fire, nine of which were destroyed.

Where can I find other preserved Cromwell Tanks?

WW2 Cromwell Tank books