BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

BenCol (Benghazi Column) was an evolving concept during Operation CRUSADER. The aim was clear – envelop the southern flank of the Axis forces, push a sufficiently large force onto Benghazi, and thereby cut the Axis forces in eastern Cyrenaica off their lifeline, by taking out the only harbour worth mentioning, and cutting the coast road, as well as taking out the Benina and Barce airfields, which were important bases for the Axis air forces.

Had the operation been carried out, it would almost certainly have been written about and heralded as a daring  example of command. Combining two smallish, highly mobile forces, with their own air support,  supplied over a sea controlled by enemy air forces, a dashing paratroop special forces raid thrown in, to reach far into the rear of the enemy. The Germans at least were extremely concerned about it, and strengthened their defenses in western Cyrenaica. Over the course of CRUSADER however, with increasing losses and uncertainty in the key battle around Tobruk, the ambitious plans had to be scaled back, and finally abandoned when the battle had moved beyond it.

The distance of advance from Tobruk to Benghazi, using the best possible route, was 350 miles.

The information is from WO201/635 – Bencol Advance on Benghazi.

1. 7 Armoured Division to March West

In an undated document from November the idea was for a mixed Army/RAF force, led by 7th Armoured Division HQ, to carry out this operation once the battle around Tobruk had advanced to a point where command could be certain that the force (then called ‘Column “F”) could carry out its mission, advancing either via Antelat, or Er Regima in the north, although it was pointed out that no fighter cover could be guaranteed on the northern route.

At this point in time the strength of the force was foreseen to be substantial – and interestingly quite close in balance to a late-war armoured division (although much weaker in artillery):

HQ 7 Armoured Division (General Gott commanding)

4 Armoured Brigade

Composite Brigade Group comprising:

Elements of Support Group 7 Armoured Division

22 Guards Brigade w/3 infantry battalions

One 25-pdr Field Regiment

C.R.E. (Commander Royal Engineers) 7 Armoured Division & 3 Field Squadron RE

Det. 142 Field Park Sqdrn.

One A/Tk battery

One Lt. AA Rgt.

One Armd. Car Rgt.

Supply Column

It was supposed to meet with Brigadier Reid’s ‘Force “E”‘ at Antelat, south-west of Benghazi, with Reid’s men advancing from the south towards the coast at Agedabia, taking the airfield there, and cutting the coastal road. Before arriving there, a party of parachutists under Captain Stirling was supposed to jump onto the airfield, destroying all the airplanes there.

The RAF element consisted of six fighter squadrons, with one of these permanently based on L.G.125, deep in the desert south-west of Tobruk.

The time to get to Benghasi was estimated at 3.5 days. The original vehicle requirement of the column was ca. 2,200 organic vehicles, and another 2,000 for supplies, but this was not seen to be possible, and instead the column was expected to carry five days of supplies, and should then be supplied by (truck?) convoys.

The latest documents I can find refering to this are dated 30 November.

2. Scaling Down – Bencol is born

When the battle around Tobruk made it impossible to send anything from 7 Armoured Division, a scaled-down version of the plan was introduced, and the name “Bencol” introduced. First orders seem to have come out on 1 December. The new order of battle for Bencol simply removed all elements from 7 Armoured Division, i.e. HQ, 4 Armoured Brigade,  engineers, and elements of Support Group. Command of the advance would be exercised by Brigadier Marriott, Commander of 22 Guards Brigade.

Strength is given as follows:

22 Guards Brigade HQ (102 men, 23 trucks, 9 motorcycles)

Spec. Signals Section (85men, 8 trucks, 14 motorcycles)

3 infantry battalions with LADs (2 Scots Guards, 3 Coldstream Guards, 1 Worcesters) (2,376 men, 459 trucks, 36 motorcycles, 132 carriers)

One Armd. Car Rgt. (11 Hussars)  (582 men, 91 trucks, 7 motorcycles, 58 armoured cars)

One 25-pdr Field Regiment (51 Fd Rgt) (24×25-pdr) (697 men, 145 trucks, 6 motorcycles)

One A/Tk battery (73 A/Tk Bty) (123 men, 39 trucks, 8 motorcycles)

One Lt. AA Rgt. (1 LAA Rgt) (12 40mm guns) (281 men, 57 trucks, 8 motorcycles)

Bde. Coy RASC (400 men, 189 trucks)

Supply Column (5.5 motor transport companies, 2 water tank companies) (1,575 men, 919 trucks & 428 men, 158 tankers)

Total: 6,649 men, 2,088 trucks, 88 motor cycles, 132 carriers, 58 armoured cars, with weekly supply requirements of about 1,000 tons. Additionally, RAF strength had increased to 12 Squadrons, and was expected to be 4,500 men and 500 trucks, with supply requirements of 500 tons (this was a guesstimate).

To ensure supply once Benghazi had been taken, the Royal Navy was requested to send a ship to Benghazi to land supplies not before 12 December, especially fuel and ammunition, once the port had been taken. This would presumably have been one of the more interesting assignments on offer at the time.

By 9 December planning had changed slightly, adding back CRE 2 Armoured Division, 3 Fd. Coy RE, 142 Fd Pk Det., a squadron of M3 Stuart tanks, and reducing infantry to two battalions and the LAA Rgt. to a single battery.

The RAF component was to be under the command of Adv. HQ No. 258 Wing and was called ‘Whitforce’. It consisted of No. 2 (SAAF), No.4 (SAAF) (both Curtiss Tomahawks), No.33 (ground attack Hurricanes) and No.250 Squadrons (Curtiss Tomahawks), as well as of light and heavy AA, No. 2 Armoured Car Regiment, and various maintenance and supply units.

On 17 December, following a few bloody days on the Gazala line, the operation order was given to Bencol.

3. Not enough trucks – and Benghazi is no longer the objective

In the period 9 to 20 December the availability of trucks exercised the mind of planners. In the meantime, on 18 December the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala line, and 13 Corps opened the pursuit, making the original role of Bencol surplus to requirements, and more importantly requiring so many trucks that it was no longer practicable to operate Bencol independently. The truck allotment was consequently reduced again, and Bencol was ordered to move straight west, towards Msus, and thence drawing on 13 Corps supplies.

Oasen Bataillon z.b.V. 300

Oasen Bataillon z.b.V. 300

That would be Oasis Special Purpose Battalion 300, in English. This peculiarly named unit proves that the Wehrmacht was not averse to a practical joke being played on its soldiers, since they probably never got anywhere near an Oasis. Instead of being based in a romantic palm-studded Arabic paradise with tough war-like men on horses and beautiful women wearing veils, they found themselves in dusty and stony dirtholes on the Libyan-Egyptian border, until they were forced to surrender following a long siege, in January 1942.

siwa

Fantasy: Siwa Oasis: the Village of Aghurmi (Art.IWM ART LD 2065) image: a desert oasis with palm trees to the left and right with ruins of a large building visible through the trees in the centre background. Two Arab men and two donkeys are visible in the centre of the composition. Copyright: © IWM.

indian

Reality: ‘Some of the worst desert known to mankind’: INDIAN FORCES IN NORTH AFRICA DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (E 6940) Men of the 4th Indian Division with a captured German flag at Sidi Omar, North Africa. Copyright: © IWM.

Origin and Attachment

While I originally thought the battalion had been formed for service in the border fortifications following the visit to Africa of General Paulus (of later Stalingrad fame), this was not the case. The battalion was instead formed in response to a request made by the D.A.K. HQ to O.K.H. on 30 March, for garrison troops for oases through the desert, such as Gialo or Marada. The original request asked for five independent companies. The thinking was that these companies could act as flank and rear-area protection for traffic links and water supply points.

The battalion consisted of soldiers who had been to Africa before the war. While it is often reported as part of  Division z.b.V. Afrika (later 90th Light Division), it doesn’t appear that there was much of a connection at all. See e.g. the OOB of Division zbV at this link, which has no mention of Oasis Battalion 300. In the Panzergruppe OOB it is given as being directly under command of the Panzergruppe HQ.

From its formation until just before CRUSADER Division z.b.V. was of course responsible for the border sector, and as such would have had command of the battalion. Once the division was moved to Tobruk to prepare for the assault this relationship ceased however, and the batallion remained behind in the border fortifications. The relationship was probably similar to that of Major Bach’s I./S.R.104, which was under command of and supplied by Division z.b.V., but continued to belong to 5.Panzerdivision. It would be interesting to see who first came up with the idea they were under Division zbV.

Structure and Equipment

The battalion consisted of a battalion HQ, and five (on paper) identically equipped rifle companies, numbered 2., 6., 10., 12., and 13. As Frank Chadwick points out in the comments, this refelected the number of the administrative region (Wehrkreis) in which the company was formed.

From the order of battle of Panzergruppe, September 1941. The document shows the planned (but not necessarily real) organisation and heavy weapons equipment of the five Oasenkompanien.

Each company had 12 light machine guns, 3 light mortars (50mm), and 6 light anti-tank rifles (7.92mm). with a reported company strength of 152 of all ranks (see here). As Frank also points out, the number of LMGs in the company is the standard infantry allocation, which was one per rifle squad plus a “floater” at platoon — three platoons with 4 LMG each = 12 guns. Thus, 12 LMG and 3 light mortars is right for a standard rifle company, while it is the number of light AT rifles which is high — two per rifle platoon instead of just one. While this was presumably intended to beef up the AT firepower of the companies, due to the 7.92mm AT rifle being obsolete at this point in the war, the battalion wasn’t strong in anti-tank firepower. In consequence, in position the companies of the battalion were supported by Italian and German artillery, including 88mm AA guns. This article at Lone Sentry is very helpful in describing the situation.

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Detail of fortifications on the border at Sidi Omar, from 42 R.T.R. War Diary. UK National Archives, WO169/1421

Fate

The last remnants of the Oasis Battalion 300 went into Empire captivity when General Fedele de Giorgis, the Italian General Officer Commanding Savona infantry division and the border defense sector east was forced to surrender his forces to the 2 South African Division on 17 January 1942. Depite the rather short combat history, the battalion contributed to a stout defense of the border sector, forcing a deliberate reduction in two major operations, and this created a substantial headache for the Empire forces, as I laid out at this link. Prior to that, the last organised elements of the battalion had surrendered in Sollum on 12 January, apparently.

The battalion was never reformed, and provided little more than a footnote to the overall battle.