Totensonntag – the Experience of 6 New Zealand Brigade

The battle of Totensonntag saw the destruction of 5th South African Brigade and another hammering of what remained of 7th Support Group of 7th Armoured Division.  The Germans could have won the CRUSADER battle that day, had they stuck around on the battlefield to finish the job, instead of swanning off to the border in a futile (but exciting – for the Commonwealth forces) rush.  Those German forces that brought about the victory suffered heavily, with many officers being killed when they attempted to get their men forward again, and a good number of tanks lost.

The report below is from the commanding officer 6 NZ Brigade, Brigadier Barrowclough DSO (and later Bar, awarded for the battles around Sidi Rezegh), and is appended to the war diary of 1st Army Tank Brigade:

Report from COM 6 N Z Bde, dated 24/11/41

on operations of 23/11/41

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On leading 485391 (a map reference) proceed to and occupy Pt 175 438404 then consolidate.  Then extend South and contact 5 SA Bde 438400.  Left R.V. 1445 hrs and proceeded to Gasr el Arid and contacted enemy.  A few PW taken. Proceeded further 3 m. Message from 30 Corps suggesting moving S of Bir Chleta. In darkness to ran into En Tps at Bir C and were engaged in short action. A No of PWs and tpt AFVs operationg on rd from Gambut driven off by fire. were not attacked by enemy who retured leaving with us British officer who had been PW. He was in 8 H Rgt. He said ravine beyond 175 was very heavily held. 30 Corps then urgently asked us to get into touch with SA Bde. One Bn was despatched to them (about 6 m). They made contact. Attack on 175 met gt opposition. They were heavily shelled with A/Tk guns at end of day only two were effective. Casualties heavy (120) incl Col McNaught and 3 Coy Comds killed.  2 Coys of Res Bn were committed to this op when 26 Bn advised that they were heavily attacked while in contact with SA Bde. SA Bde were over-run.  Reported as streaming southwards. 26 Bn held their ground until nightfall. Were completely isolated. Brig withdrew Bn and closed them on Bde which with its tpt was too long a task to protect. Withdrawal orderly. During afternoon very many casualties on Germans. Sup Bty fired over open sights. Own cas were light. During night Bde concentrated in leaguer with allround A Tk defence. Word received from 7 Armd Div that Tk attack to be expected to-day. At present in very small perimter necessitated by requireùments of all round defence.  Would be glad to disperse a little further if we knew that other units of Div were joining up with us. Had orders to push on with El Ressig (A verbal message). As Armd forces were withdrawing South point was lost.

On news of 7 Armd Div. Recaptured 9 American Tanks being manned by crews of Tank Bn attached. Tanks of this Bn were lost.

Col McNaught            W

Capt McDonald          24 K

Capt Roberts              25 K

Capt Weaney              26 K

Hussars were captured by Germans using American Tanks without recognition signals. Tanks were captured by Arty OP with Tommy guns.

ADS is quite clear.

Two PW here trying to send back to Corps.

Inf has retreated North-West across the flat.

Amn short situation urgent.

The official New Zealand history by Murphy describes the event in this section and the following.

The text is given as in the original report, and I tried to stay close to the original formatting. Here are some explanation for the abbreviations:

ADS – ?

AFV – armoured fighting vehicle

Amn – ammunition

Armd – armoured

A/Tk – anti-tank

Bde – Brigade

Brig – Brigadier

Bn – battalion

bty – battery

Com – commander

Comds – ommanders

Coy – Company

Div – Division

m – mile

PW –  prisoners of war

R.V. – rendez-vous (?)

rd – road

Sup – Support

tpt – transport

Tk – Tank

I./StG 3 in North Africa

During the CRUSADER offensive the German and Italian air force (the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica) were reinforced heavily from Italy and Greece.  One unit which was transferred across was the first Gruppe (Air Group) of Sturzkampfgeschwader 3 (I./StG3), a dive bomber unit equipped with about 31 Junkers 87 single-engined dive-bombers, a type generally known as Stuka to English-speakers.  While these planes had sown terror during the early war, they were withdrawn quickly from the Battle of Britain in 1940, and were well past their prime in 1941. Nevertheless, they still soldiered on until the end of the war in Africa and on the Eastern Front, despite increasingly heavy losses.

Elements of I./StG3 (staff and 3rd Squadron) was originally meant to be transferred across to North Africa for a 4-day stint only, to assist in the capture of Tobruk (this order also applied to the 9th Staffel of ZG26, a twin-engined fighter unit equipped with Bf110s).  At the time of the start of CRUSADER is was probably based on Crete, in Maleme, and it constituted the only Air Group of StG3, the other two were formed in January and February 1942 in North Africa. When the Commonwealth forces struck, it quickly became apparent that the forces present in North Africa would not suffice, and additional air units were scraped together for a rapid transfer into the theatre.  It must have been helpful at this point that I./StG3 was already earmarked for just such a transfer, and was persumably ready to go at short notice, with 26 out of 31 planes serviceable and 33 out of 36 crews ready for action on 17 November, a rate of 84% for planes and 92% for crews, according to a strength return of X. Fliegerkorps, then its parent formation, a high number.  So on 16 November it was duly ordered to report how many Ju52 transport planes would be needed to transport the ground crews to Africa.  The plan was for the Gruppe to take over Tmimi airfield, which was already occupied by two of  the Ju 87 Staffeln of II./StG2.  With the order came a reminder to calculate the numbers of men and transport planes required ‘economically’.

What happened next however was that instead of the Division z.b.V. Afrika triumphantly riding into Tobruk, all hell broke lose outside the town in the form of the Commonwealth attack.  And so on the 19 November the information came that I./StG3 would move from Crete to Derna in North Africa on the 20th, but it was not for operations lasting only 4 days.  Instead, I./StG3  would stay in Africa until withdrawn to Germany in December 1942, after the defeat at El Alamein.

A useful site for the placements of this unit is this one.

See also this prior post regarding Luftwaffe air strength during the battle.

Please also see this other post for further detail and information on the matter of the transfer of I./StG3 to North Africa, and in particular what the British knew about it, and when.