Overlord'S Blog: Palestine MKIII
During April 1936 the British mandate in Palestine was rocked by an armed revolt and insurgency by the Arabs living in the area. The violence was targeted at the Jews and the British forces stationed there. To give you some idea of how bad the situation became British forces were forbidden from leaving their bases unless on operations and before departing outside the wire all weapons were to be loaded, although not charged. So for small arms such as a revolver this meant five rounds loaded, or for machine guns the ammunition belts being loaded into the feed. So all the soldier needed to do was cock the weapon twice and he'd be ready to defend himself.
Equally traffic all but disappeared from the road as Arab attacks were so common, along with roadblocks. To that end the British instigated a convoy system. For example from Tel-Aviv a convoy would run north via Tulkarm, Nablus to Haifa in the morning, and then make the return journey in the afternoon. Any vehicle was free to join these convoys, and the British presence was limited to mostly armoured cars and lorries. In later fighting the Rolls Royce armoured cars would often push a flatbed railway car in front of them to protect against mines and IEDs.
Despite this the situation continued to get worse with attacks on Jewish settlements and utter breakdown of law and order in the cities. So the British started to deploy further forces. One of the units selected to deploy was the "C" company, 6th Battalion, Royal Tank Corps. Consisting of about twelve Light Tanks MKIII the company arrived in May 1936. This was the first time in British experience that light tanks had been employed in this sort of role, so naturally a very close eye was kept on the performance of the tanks. Despite fighting ten engagements during their tour it’s the eleventh and final battle I'll be covering, this happened in the area of Kafr Sur and Wad At Tin on the 8th of October 1936.
A section of three tanks commanded by Lieutenant W. M. Hutton was carrying out a patrol, possibly to test the performance on poor terrain. The area was criss crossed by wadi’s, and the broken and rocky ground pushed the tanks to their limits. Some had thought the area impassable to tracked vehicles, however, due to perseverance Lt Hutton's section had reached Kafr Sur by about 1500. Having reached the objective the section began to withdraw and that is when the trouble started. Almost instantly the terrible terrain caused one tank to throw a tread, possibly due to a broken wheel. At the same time Arabs began to snipe at the tanks. The tracks were repaired under fire, and the section moved off again. Then after travelling about 100 yards further a second track was thrown, again it was repaired but instantly another one was broken.
The track breaking terrain had been anticipated and every tank had a spare wheel, and one of the tanks was also carrying a complete bogie as spares. However the multiple breaks had used up the units entire supply.
At this point a large gang of Arabs appeared and charged the the tanks. They clambered over the rocky sides of the wadi and snipping from its edge. Lt Hutton immediately put an "XX" call out on the radio. "XX" calls were used by the British forces in the theatre in a way similar to using an "SOS" today. The advantage of that is that the RAF could pick up and understand the call as well.
As the Arabs approached the stranded tank platoon the British opened fire with the Vickers machine guns in the turret. Again the terrain came into play, the jolting as the tanks crossed the uneven terrain had rattled the guns around to an unprecedented level. This caused a round to work its way loose and fall down behind the feed block on the gun causing it to jam. Of the three machine guns only one functioned. Even with only one functioning gun they managed to deter the Arabs from charging, then about 1700 the RAF arrived and began strafing the Arabs.
The combined fire meant that they managed to hold the Arabs at bay, however at dusk the plane from the RAF had to return to base. Lt Hutton sent out a distress call, then shortly afterwards the message "Hurry". After that no one could make contact with him. As the plane left the scene in the failing light it could make out that the three tanks were utterly surrounded and signs of heavy fighting could be detected, and passed that information onto the army.
This caused an immediate reaction, the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment's 1st Battalion was based at Tulkarm, only about seven miles away. At 1800 its "B" Company was dispatched in lorries, however due to the darkness and the awful terrain they had to halt nearby on the road until early the next morning when they were joined by the Quick Reaction Forces of about five other battalions.
Closer to the action was Captain B. Carey's five tank section. It had a similar mission only its destination had been Wad At Tin. When they reached the settlement they found a group of Arabs digging in near a mosque. They then had come under heavy sniper fire, one of the rounds hit a driver’s vision port and the bullet splash injured him in the arm. Despite this he continued to drive his tank as they extracted from the area, however, after a short period both the tracks came off his tank. Upon receiving news of the plight of Lt Hutton's section Cpt Carey had made best possible speed to find Lt Hutton. However as he entered the wadi the broken ground reaped its usual tally of destroyed running gear, with four of the tanks being immobilised. Despite being lost in the network of wadi's Cpt Carey was only about 1000 yards from Lt Hutton, however the darkness and terrain prevented him from linking up.
In the darkness Lt Hutton was worried. The sniping had caused several issues. The two big ones were all the containers with water had been punctured and so the crews had nothing to drink. The bullet impacts had also severed all the exposed electrical cables on the tank, meaning none of the lights were working. Normally one of the tanks headlamps was removed and mounted above the gun to provide a primitive searchlight for this sort of situation. The design flaws of the Light Tank MKIII turret were also starkly clear as it lacked vision ports to provide a good enough all round vision. The tank commanders were also sorely missing the ability to fire smoke, high explosive or flares.
After a tense night waiting for the final assault from the Arab gang morning brought with it the relief forces. After action reviews determined the Arabs had withdrawn at some point around 2030. After sweeping the area they found out how close it had been. One Arab body was found no more than 25 yards from the tanks. Due to the terrible terrain it wasn't possible to recover the body, especially as more Arabs might return. They did take his rifle, a Turkish one in good condition and the 45 rounds of ammunition he had been carrying. All the tanks in both sections were repaired by spares brought up and the last of them had returned to base by 1800 the next day
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