The Short but Violent Operation CRUSADER of 6 RTR

In the Wehrmacht, there apparently was a joke that the life of a gunner in the assault artillery was short, but exciting (so much for Germans not having any humour). The same could be said for the participation of 6 RTR in Operation CRUSADER.

There has been an assumption on the internet that the war diary of 6 RTR for Operation CRUSADER has been lost. This does in fact not appear to be the case, and it seems simply to be the case of Liddell-Hart being a bit careless in filing… As before, great thanks are due to the staff and volunteers at the Tank Museum Archives, Bovington, UK.

6 RTR was one of the three armoured regiments in 7th Armoured Brigade, 7th Armoured Division, 30 Corps, 8th Army. The Brigade advanced along the centre line of the division and pushed furthest during the initial phase of the advance, reaching almost to the German siege lines of Tobruk when it seized the Sidi Rezegh airfield on 19 November. After an already exciting day on 20 November, on 21 November the regiment was put into an attack that saw it being annihilated, in a classic screw-up of war. The remains of the regiment left the airfield on 23 November and passed out of CRUSADER into the rear area of 8th Army and to Egypt. It is quite likely that individual crews of the regiment and officers were assigned to replacement tanks joining the battle, but the regiment itself was spent, and would not see action again until May/June 1942.

It is difficult to comprehend what the commanders on Sidi Rezegh (Brigadiers Campbell of Support Group and Davey of 7th Armoured Brigade) were thinking when they ordered 6th RTR to undertake this attack into what must have been known to be a strong position. While Davey after the war appears to blame Campbell (who by then was conveniently dead, as was the Division’s GOC, Gott, meaning they could not defend themselves), his own report written shortly after the operation notes it as a mistake that he allowed 6 RTR to attack, because it split his tank force (with drastic consequences for 7th Hussars (see this older entry), and the battle itself). There is a good discussion at the Axis History Forum on this link.

November 1941 -Missing [see RTR/6RTRdesert.doc]

What appears to be an original is in a separate/older and has ink annotations, probably by Liddel-Hart.

Diary. 6th Royal Tank Regiment. November 1941.

1.-10 Training by Squadrons with emphasis on gunnery.

6.11.41 Major G M Warren joined the Regiment and took over the duties of regimental 2 i/c.

11.11.41 Regiment moved to area Alam el Rs.

12.11.41 Gunnery practice.

13-16 Training by Squadrons.

17.11.41

Operation Order No 4 issued (Appx A); Regimental intention to move to area 440378 with a view to taking up battle positions there

1000. Replenishment party left for Pt 181.

At last light regiment moved into close leaguer. Regimental strength 40 tanks.

18.11.41

0530: Regiment left leaguer area in close column moving out into trident (C Sqn leading) at first light.

0930: Crossed the wire south of gap 75.

1000: Regiment reached Pt 181 and replenished by squadrons.

1200: Regiment continues to advance along divisional axis in the same formation.

1730: Regt arrived at Gabr Fatma (446372) and leaguered for the night with DD Battery RHA.

19.11.41

0600: Regt moved out into open leaguer where necessary maintenance and refueling was carried out. [L-H note: Why so long delays?]

1200: Verbal orders issued for move to Sidi Resegh. C Sqn leading B Sqn protection left, RHQ & A Sqn. Lorry camouflage was dropped.

1630; Aerodrome to south-east of Sidi Rese h, on which enem aircraft could be seen, spotted by leading troop ofC Sqn. Regt attacked and captured aerodrome, little resistance being offered by the defenders. One aircraft shot down in attempting to escape; two transport planes, 17 fighter aircraft and 60 prisoners captured, several other aircraft already destroyed upon the ground.

1800. Regiment leaguered on NE edge of aerodrome with HDD battery RHA and A Echelon. During the night the leaguer was approached by a German patrol which was driven off and 6 prisoners taken by scout car troop under Sgt Hopwood. Enemy movements all night, they appeared to be working quite openly, with no regard to noise made, and seemed to be bringing up guns of some sort from the valley to the north of the regiment’s position. Three times during the night small arms fire was directed into the leaguer and was returned by sentries. All this activity kept everybody awake and inside their tanks.

20.11.41

0500 approx: small arms fire and A/T fire of considerable intensity was directed into the camp from the NE. A Verey light put up from C Sqn revealed a considerable concentration of infantry and A/T guns to the NE. A/T guns and tanks also opened fire at extreme range from NE. another Verey light was put up from rear of the regiment which revealed our position clearly. The regiment engaged the enemy position with MG fire. DD Battery RHA withdrew to the south and took up a position. Several B vehicles ofA1 echelon were destroyed. Two tanks were hit, 2/Lt Hancock, A Sqn, Cpl Hallahan A Sqn and Tpr Bulbick C Sqn were killed.

0600 approx: an attack was carried out on the enemy positions to the East by a troop of A Sqn under Lt Jackson. 15 enemy AT weapons being destroyed. One tank of ours was knocked out and towed out of action. The Regiment continued to engage the enemy until 0930, when they were ordered to withdraw to the south of the aerodrome. Later in the morning the regiment took up position in defence of the aerodrome, A Sqn facing west, B Sqn north, C Sqn east. During the rest of the day the regiment stayed in these positions, whilst an artillery duel took place between our gunners and the Germans, our tanks helping to observe.

During the day B Sqn destroyed one German Mk 1 tank and some infantry. During this action Lt Permuy, Sgt Dunning and Cpl Baker were wounded.

A troop of C Sqn under Lt K Fidler was sent out to investigate the right flank and destroyed one medium gun. Two of our tanks were put out of action, but were towed out safely. L/Cpl Knott was killed. Several tanks rejoined the regiment in the afternoon after having been repaired by their crews.

At dusk the regiment leaguered on the SE corner ofthe aerodrome with A Company 2 RB. B Echelon was attacked b a formation of diver bombers, SSM Cowie being killed.

21.11.41

0600: Regiment moved out of leaguer and took up the same positions as the previous day. Orders received for and attack to be made to the NW with 2 RB with orders to seize and hold the cross-roads at Sidi Resegh and make contact with 38th Bde [this is definitely wrong] who were to attack from Tobruk towards Ed Duda. Start line was from SW corner of aerodrome. A Sq’s task was to occupy Pt 167 (432404), establish 2 RB in that area and protect the left flank of 60th [KRRC] who were making a similar attack on our right with 7th Hussars (though this regiment was later withdrawn to meet an enemy attack from the east.) B & C Sqns were then to go through, capture the cross-roads and link up with 38th Bde at Ed Duda.

0830: Regiment crossed the start line. A Sqn reached their objective with 2 RB. 5 Mk II German tanks, one M13, one 105 mm gun, several AT guns destroyed and 300 prisoners taken. 2/Lt Mitchell’s tank was knocked out and Lt Jackson wounded. The remainder of the Regiment in order RHO, B Sqn, C Sqn, then passed through. Strong enemy gun positions were encountered in the valley to the north ofthe aerodrome, some guns were destroyed, but the attack was stopped after several tanks had reached the escarpment north of Trigh Capuzzo.

During this action the following were killed, wounded or missing:-

LtCol M D B Lister, commanding officer

Major G M Warren, 2 i/c

Capt J R Cuttwell, Adjutant

Lt E Delson, Intelligence officer

2/Lt T R Price, HQ Troop commander

Major F C K M Laing, MC. commanding C Sqn

Major F Miller, commanding B Sqn

Lt M S Hutton, B Sqn.

Several tanks from C Sqn and two from B Sqn were left. these rallied with A Sqn at Pt 167 making a total force of 17 tanks under the command of Capt S D G Longworth OC A Sqn.

1200. The Regiment being now out of touch with 7th Armoured Bde was put under orders of the Commander Support Group. It was reported that some enemy tanks were approaching from NE. The Regiment formed line ahead and attacked, a brief action took place in which some of the enemy tanks were destroyed, the remainder withdrew rapidly. The Regiment rallied on the aerodrome having suffered no casualties.

Later in the afternoon a large force of German tanks was reported to the south. A patrol of5 tanks under Capt Ainsley was sent out by the Regiment to observe. The patrol reported approximately 100 enemy tanks approaching the aerodrome from the south, they were engaged by our artillery and the Regiment who had taken up a position in line to the south of the aerodrome.

After this engagement which had taken place at extreme range, the enemy withdrew to the SE and continued to shell our positions with artillery and Mk IV tanks. 5 of our tanks had been destroyed in this action. Capt Ainsley was killed. Later most of the enemy tanks withdrew out ofsight to the east, although a few could still be seen supported by a large force of infantry.

In the evening the enemy tanks were again reported to be approaching from the south. The Regiment, now consisting of 12 tanks, was ordered to attack and to prevent them from reaching the aerodrome, until the 22nd Armd Bde could arrive to support us. The Regiment formed battle line and engaged the enemy from a range of about 1,000 yds, our artillery and AT guns also engaged the enemy tanks. The action lasted for approximately 20 minutes in which time three of our tanks were destroyed and four were forced to withdraw with hits in vital parts. It was difficult to ascertain what casualties had been inflicted on the enemy owing to rain which had reduced visibility and the tendency of the German tanks not to catch fire. 5, however, were definitely burning and several more left behind when the enemy again withdrew to the east.

HQ 7th Armd Bde was now located and the Regiment rallied on them. The Regt’s strength was now about 7 tanks, 3 of which were on tow and only 1 fit for action. The night was spent in leaguer with HQ 7 Armed Bde to the south of the aerodrome.

22.11.41

At first light the Regt moved out to take up a defensive position to the SW of the aerodrome, the one fit tank, with 2/ Lt Stainton, was sent on to the aerodrome and was put under the orders ofthe Commander Support Group. 3 other tanks of the Regt which had been in Ordnance [under repair in the workshop], continued to operate with 22nd Armd Bde and 4th Armd Bde. Later in the morning the Regt moved 5 miles south and joined HQ 7th Armd Bde where recovery vehicles could be found. The Regiment spent the remainder of the day in this area, doing what maintenance was possible and having the first meal since before the occupation of the aerodrome. Three more tanks under Capt E L S Gjemre MC [spelling?] now arrived back from Ordnance and were used to escort 600 German and Italian prisoners back from the area of the aerodrome. During the day B Echelon was attacked by a formation of tanks, several vehicles were lost and some of the drivers reported missing.

23.11.41

The Regt moved back along the Divisional axis to B Echelon area Gabr Gatma, escorting prisoners who were handed over to RASC. Leaguered in that area for the night. Major E C Mitford, MC, rejoined the Regiment and took over command.

Below some info from the Axis side:

Combat report excerpt of A.A.3 for 20/21 November 1941
20 November
[…]
Difficult night march via Via Balbia and Axis Road up to Belhamed and from there further east into the left flank of the troops deployed on the Jebel escarpment to take over their flank protection. For this purpose the 2./Flak 18 is subordinated to the battalion.
21 November
Battalion engages tanks which broke through between the positions and receives new instructions from General Rommel. – Return march with continuous tank combat to the Belhamed. – From here battalion is deployed during the afternoon to engage tanks which broke out from Tobruk. 8.8 cm AA destroys six tanks during this. General Rommel drives along amongst the point vehicles of the battalion. At 14.30 hours marching off from Belhamed to Via Balbia to Jebel ascent south of Gambut to secure and hold this. Arrival and subordination of a company from Pz.Pi.200 (engineer battalion of 21.Pz.Div.).