Counter battery Observation in North Africa

Background

One aspect of artillery combat that is close to my heart is counter-battery observation. My grandfather spent the war in Poland, France and Russia doing this kind of job.

Counter Battery Observation (1)

Counter battery observation essentially consisted of locating enemy gun positions by day using sound ranging, and by night using flash ranging, and to guide friendly  artillery to fire on it. Counter-battery fire could only be dealt with by one’s own, stronger CB fire, or by rapid relocation after a salvo had been fired. A lot of counter battery is procedure and consequently has little to do with the technical capabilities of the guns, although range was critical. In this regard the Axis artillery was superior to the Empire artillery, since it fielded more long-range guns than the Empire did at this point in time. Empire artillery commanders only had the modern 4.5” guns, which had good range, but suffered from not having heavy rounds. Guns such as the (albeit rare) German 17cm K18 combined heavy shell weight of 62.8kg and long range of up to 29.6km and were therefore very well suited for this task.

German Panzerdivisionen had one battery of 10cm K18, a long-range 105mm gun, in their heavy artillery battalion, replacing one 15cm sFH18 heavy howitzer battery. The trade-off was shell-weight for range. While the 10cm K18 had superior range, its shell weight was quite light. 

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 554 0865 17A Nordafrika Tunesien Abfeuern einer Kanone

A 17cm K18 being fired by Afrikakorps gunners in Tunisia, 1943. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv via Wikipedia

German Practice

Counter-battery observation was a complicated process, involving triangulation of enemy position from sound recordings or flash sightings. Once at least three OPs had a sight/sound report, a solution would be computed. This would be overlayed on a map and produce a grid reference for the location of the enemy battery. A single ranging shot would be fired by the friendly battery, usually timed as an air-burst to ensure that it could be observed. All observation posts would report on the fall of shot and corrections to the lay of the gun would be undertaken. Fire for effect would start, presumably a prescribed number of rounds, probably also depending on the nature of the target. According to my grandfather, FFE could start as quickly as 1 min after he transmitted his observation, or it could take up to 15 minutes. The ranging shot would often be a mechanically time-fused round, set to explode in the air above the enemy battery. This would be more difficult to observe, but would have the advantage to not alert the enemy battery to being attacked. A note on the German grid system can be found here.

Empire Practice

Probably the best field gun in WW 2 was the British 25-pdr, because of its high rate of fire, and its construction that allowed a quick 360° rotation of the gun, with a decent range. An Empire battery, being fully motorised and working on a theatre grid could be set up and ready to fire in less than 3 minutes. Displacing was a very strict training requirement in the Royal Artillery. A note on British spotting practice can be found is below. (2)

From what I understand, the British Survey Regiments were not so directly associated with Division-level organisations as in the Heer. They were part of the Royal Artillery. Although attached to Divisions, I think they were fairly autonomous, and often found themselves ahead of the front line. I think there were about four Advance Posts with about 4 men in each, but Ken was in the Headquarters/analysis section. I get the impression that they did not engage in immediate counter-battery fire, but gave details of enemy locations to the Army Group Royal Artillery, which in turn used the data to assign barrage targets for the next big shelling. Ken often remarked how there would be many enemy guns firing, but he knew when a shell was heading his way from the “double bang” made by the firing gun.

Another possible difference is that the sound rangers rarely encountered the flash spotters, surveyors, or even the other battery of sound rangers within their own regiment. You have some interesting pictures of the precarious masts/platforms used by the flash spotters. Somewhere else I read that in the desert each side respected the other side’s spotters and did not deliberately shoot at them (Rommel was credited in this manner), but life was more dangerous on mainland Europe where this convention was not observed. Finally, Ken’s troop played host to a meteorological officer from the RAF.

I asked Ken your questions, with the following result:

  • Number of guys in an OP party – I think there were 4 at each Advance Post (not OP)
  • Comms links – as described in the Sicilian section, telephone or radio
  • Analysis of results – none, because there was no time (and no communication of results!); the only time this was done was at the last engagement just before Tunis, which resulted in the map that we have somewhere (I do not know where, at this time) equipment – this is described in the memoirs; chart recorder, light-sensitive film, microphones
  • Number of guys in the unit – there were 60 in the troop
  • Connection to batteries – none
  • Which batteries were preferred – decision made by 8 AGRA
  • Effectiveness of counter-battery fire – not known
  • Own losses – (Ken did not answer)
  • Changes in procedures over time – none

From this, I think that there is a fundamental difference in the way in which the two sides operated. The British Survey Regiments were just Survey Regiments. They were not attached to any artillery units, and counter-battery fire was organised centrally at 8 AGRA. Consequently, they never knew whether their reports were acted upon, or the success of counter-battery fire.

From your description, the German survey teams were closely aligned with the division, and the division’s organic artillery assets were used to destroy the enemy positions. Because both survey and CB was kept within the division, the two functions were more closely linked.

Counter Battery in North Africa

In Africa, the Germans had Beobachtungsabteilung 11(4) (B11) responsible for this work. This battalion was under command of Arko 104, joining Panzergruppe in July 1941. During transfer to North Africa many of its vehicles were sunk, although personnel casualties were light. Before this unit arrived, there was also a specialized company (battery) of 15th Panzer, Beobachtungsbatterie 326, which was part of 15. Panzerdivision and came under the direct control of Panzerartillerieregiment 33. This had only been added to the division when it was restructured into a Panzerdivision at the end of 1940. The battery had previously been the flashranging (Lichtmeß) 3rd battery of Beobachtungsabteilung 10.

For the Empire, this work was done by 4th (Durham) Survey Regiment R.A. (Ken’s regiment), with survey units both inside and outside Tobruk. The regiment was organized in two composite batteries, 1st and 2nd, with 1st consisting of A and R Troops inside Tobruk and then engaged in the battle of Bardia, and 2d with B and S Troops outside Tobruk during Operation CRUSADER. You can download their history here (will directly open PDF).

Pz. Beob. Battr. 326 – survey system outside Tobruk, July – November 1941. Source: Froben, Aufklärende Artillerie(3)Survey at Tobruk

The map above shows the observation posts of 33 (326) outside Tobruk.  This system observed the eastern edge of the siege lines, where the Axis were planning to attack to take the fortress in November 1941. The observation points seem to be all flash-ranging points.

Notes

(1) I would like to thank Jörg Wurdack and Lexikon der Wehrmacht for permission to translate and use this text.

(2) The info I received from Andreas Sarker. His wife’s grandfather Ken was with the 4th (Durham) Survey Regiment in North  Africa and North-West Europe. His experiences were made available by Andreas on this page: Sounds like the Enemy.

(3) ‘Flugplatz’ is Gambut airfield.  ‘Achsenstrasse’ is the Axis bypass road constructed by the Italians to ensure that supply could continue to run even though Tobruk had not been taken, and the Via Balbia continued to be blocked. ’Stacheldraht’ is wire. ‘Panzergraben’ is the tank ditch. ‘Bunkerlinie’ is the line of fortifications. ‘Aufgeklärte Ziele’ is an indication of targets that had been located.

(4) Up to 1939, Beobachtungsabteilungen were divisional units, with one assigned to each infantry division. B11 was the survey battalion of 11. Infanteriedivision, an East Prussian infantry division that would spend the war in Northern Russia on the Leningrad front. With the start of the war, the Beobachtungsabteilungen were turned into Heerestruppen, i.e. treated as specialized, army-level assets that would be assigned to front sectors based on operational needs. The reason for this was the rapid expansion of the Heer at the time, which meant that there were not enough specialized units to go around.

Sources

  • Lexikon der Wehrmacht
  • Froben
  • Sounds like the Enemy
  • Z Location

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s