New Zealand Division on Zaafran, 1 Dec 1941

On 1 Dec 1941 the New Zealand Division was subjected to violent attacks while trying to hold open the corridor into Tobruk. The Axis forces, led by the Afrikakorps, managed to smash 6 NZ Brigade, and to push the New Zealand Division north and out of the battle, severing the corridor. This success led to Rommel’s premature victory claim (see translation at this link), and it led to the NZ Division passing out of the battle , with only its reconnaissance regiment and 5 NZ Brigade remaining on the battlefield for a longer time, and 18 Battalion and 2 companies of 19 Battalion continuing to fight on Belhamed for a few more days. Nevertheless, in Brigadier Inglis view, 4 NZ Brigade, having suffered serious casualties only to 20 Battalion, was capable of continued action on 1 December, provided it had been possible to replenish ammunition and join the two battle groups into which it had split. 5 NZ Brigade needed a headquarters and had lost most of 21 Battalion, but was otherwise fine. 6 NZ Brigade however had to be completely rebuilt, and the same for 6 NZ Field Regiment.

The war diary of the division has a very detailed statement on which elem ents of the division were on the Zaafran outside Tobruk, and this maybe of particular interest to wargamers. I presume these are the forces which were left after 6 NZ Brigade had been overrun.

Battle HQ NZ Division (most vehicles of the actual HQ had been sent into Tobruk the night of 30 November/1 December)
HQ 4 NZ Brigade
HQ 6 NZ Brigade
B Echelon transport of 6 NZ Brigade and small part of B Echelon transport of 4 NZ Brigade (the major part of it had been sent into Tobruk by Brigadier Inglis on 28 November)
Approx. 50 men of 5 NZ Field Park Company (engineers)
6 NZ Field Park Company
8 NZ Field Park Company
19 NZ Battalion less two companies
25 NZ Battalion
4 NZ Field Regiment (artillery)
One troop 6  NZ Field Regiment
6 2-pounders, 6 18-pounders, 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment
One battery less one section 14 NZ Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment
Approximately 120 South Africans of 5 SA Brigade (actually just 87, according to Brigadier Inglis, who were what remained of the 127 (7 officers, 120 Other Ranks) who had attached themselves to 4 NZ Brigade on 23 November and were formed into a company, equipped with captured rifles and kit, as well as kit from NZ casualties. Their commander, Major Cochran of the South African Irish regiment, was recommended by Brigadier Inglis of 4 NZ Brigade for a Military Cross.)
8 Field Regiment RA (16 guns)
Some guns 65 Anti-Tank Regiment RA
5 Mark II (Matilda) tanks of 44 Royal Tanks
2 Mark III (Valentine) tanks of 8 Royal Tanks (the Valentine tanks get a very bad review in Brigadier Inglis’ report)

A total of some 700 vehicles and 3,500 troops.

Many thanks go to Jon for providing me with copies of the war diaries and the narrative by Brigadier Inglis. The former is kept under WAII 1 DA 21.1-1-24 latter under WAII 1 DA 46-10-13 in the New Zealand archives.

Reorganising 7 Support Group for the Pursuit – 13 Dec 1941

On 12 December 1941 it had become clear that the Axis forces were withdrawing westwards, and it was expected that they would fight rear-guard actions while doing so. In consequence, 7 Support Group received a new task, namely to (i) keep touch with the withdrawing enemy; (ii) to harass him as the opportunity offers; and (iii) to act as harassment screen in front of 4 Armoured Brigade, the main armoured force of the 8th Army at this stage in the operation. On 13 December, 7 Support Group HQ therefore issued an order to reorganize, which is contained as appendix 11 to the December 1941 war diary (WO169/1185). This is given in full below. I have tried to preserve the original formatting, as much as the blog software allows this.

The document gives a nice overview of the constitution of the so-called ‘Jock’ columns. It also shows quite clearly that they were weak units, not able to carry out sustained fighting, but mobile, and therefore rather good at hit-and-run. The only striking power they had lay in their artillery. The infantry component was too weak to take or hold anything, and would only have served as local protection. As JonS points out below, 3 RHA was an AT Rgt, equipped with 2-pdr AT guns. So contrary to my first impression, the columns were well equipped in anti-tank artillery, with up to 12 guns each, and all or most of them would have been Portees, I guess.

Battle HQ
7 Sp Gp
13 Dec 41

O.C.    11 Hussars

CURRIE Coln.

WILSON ”

MAYFIELD ”

102 (NH) A.Tk.RGt.

Hugo Coln

B Ech.
————————————-

  1. W.e.f. 14 Dec Sp Gp will be organized into 3 colns.
  2. 11 H, 2 S.G., 203 Bty, 51 Fd Regt RA will join GDS BDE by 1400 hrs 14 Dec.
  3. 102 (NH) will join 4 Armd Bde by 1400 hrs 14 Dec.
  4. In consequence of the above, following will take place at last light tonight.
    1. 2 S.G. will pull out and R.V. 2 miles East of 7 Sp Gp H.Q.
    2. Two tps 102 (NH) will R.V. 1 mile East of DOUBLE BLUE
    3. HUGO Coln will take over remainder of MAYFIELD Coln – 60 Fd Rgt RA in support – except for tp 3 Bty, 1 L.A.A. Regt RA which will join CURRIE Coln at last light.
    4. 203 Bty will R.V. with 2 S.G.
    5. One Coy 2 R.B. HUGO Coln to CURRIE Coln
  5. Two tps 102 (NH) now with B Ech will move direct to B Ech 4 ARMD BDE as soon as possible after first light tomorrow.
  6. 11 H will join GDS BDE by 1400 hrs 14 DEC. (illegible handwriting)
  7. Colns will be constituted as follows after the above re-organisation:-
    1. CURRIE Coln

      RHQ, 4 RHA

      M Bty 3 RHA

      F and DD Btys 4 RHA

      Tp 4 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      Tp 3 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      One Coy 2 R.B.

      Det R.E.

    2. WILSON Coln

      RHQ 3 RHA

      C Bty 4 RHA

      One tp D Bty)

      One tp J Bty)    3 RHA

      One tp 2 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      One Coy 2 R.B.

    3. HUGO COln

      H.Q. 2 RB

      60 Fd Rgt R.A. (not sure about the number)

      One tp D Bty 3 RHA

      One tp J Bty 3 RHA

      One tp 2 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      Det R.E.

      One Coy 2 R.B.

       

  8. Locations GDS BDR and 4 ARMD BDE notified later.

Signed (unreadable)

Maj.

Bde Maj.

Some explanation on the abbreviations:

HQ/H.Q. Headquarters
O.C. – Officer Commanding
Coln – Column
102 (NH) A.Tk.Regt. – 102 (Northumberland Hussars) Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Horse Artillery
B Ech – Service elements of the brigade (A Ech are the fighting elements)
W.e.f. – with effect from
11 H – 11 Hussars armoured car regiment
Bty – battery (8 or 12 guns) two or three batteries make up a field regiment, four batteries an anti-tank or light anti-aircraft regiment
2 S.G. – 2 Scots Guards infantry battalion
Fd Rgt RA – Field Regiment Royal Artillery
L.A.A. – Light Anti Aircraft, usually 40mm Bofors, sometimes captured Italian 20mm Breda, or 37mm Bofors guns.
GDS BDE – Guards Brigade
4 Armd Bde – 4 Armoured Brigade
R.V. – rendezvous
Tp – troop (4 or 6 guns) two troops make up a battery
2 R.B. – 2 Rifle Brigade infantry battalion
RHQ – Regimental Headquarters
RHA – Royal Horse Artillery
Det – Detachment
RE – Royal Engineers

Strength of a UK Cruiser Armoured Regiment on the Eve of CRUSADER

This information is from the war diary of 3 County of London Yeomanry, one of the three regiments in 22 Armoured Brigade. The strength shown is that of 26 October, three weeks before the operation started, and is at or close to full complement.

Manpower:

39 Officers, 584 other ranks

A Echelon (fighting) vehicles – 62

52 Cruiser Mk.VI and Mk.VIa (A15 Crusader) tanks

10 scout cars (Daimler)

B Echelon (services) vehicles – 109

68 3-ton lorries

20 15 cwt-trucks

8 utilities (presumably normal passenger cars?)

4 15-cwt water tankers

2 8-cwt trucks

1 15-cwt office truck

1 w/t van (wireless transmission, i.e. radio)

2 3-tonner fitters lorries (trucks carrying tools for mechanics)

1 solo motorcycle

2 motorcycles with sidecars

The scout cars were used for communications service during wireless silence periods and sometimes for patrols. My guess is they took the part that in Europe a dispatch rider on a motorcycle would have taken (motorcycles not being very mobile in the desert).

First Battle of Bir el Gobi – What Happened There?

Much has been made of the defense of Biro l Gobi on 19 November 1941 by the Italian Ariete division. One can easily argue that this is where it all started to go wrong for the Commonwealth. But then again, with the possible exception of the taking of Sidi Omar by 7 Indian Brigade, it is hard to see what went right at the start…

Facts

22 Armoured Brigade put in a piecemeal attack on Bir el Gobi early on 19 November. They got checked by the Ariete division and its supporting units, and had to withdraw after suffering losses. The attack was not renewed, instead 22 Armoured Brigade went to help out (and be destroyed in the process) at Sidi Rezegh on 21 to 23 November, and 1 South African Division’s 1 South African Brigade was then tasked with ‘masking’ the Bir el Gobi position. Ariete stayed in the area a few more days before moving off north to participate in the ‘dash to the wire’ on 24 November.

Claims

Now for some of the claims that are being made. These include that 22 Armoured Brigade lost over 50 tanks that day; that this battle was a big victory of the Italian forces; that it demonstrated the prowess of the Italian army at arms; that it derailed CRUSADER; that 22 Armoured Brigade and 7 Armoured Division command blundered into the position, not knowing that Ariete was there; that 22 Armoured Brigade put in a mindless Balaklava frontal charge into the position; that Ariete was supported by German forces; that the Commonwealth forces did not consider Italian tanks serious opponents, and were not aware of their number, underestimating Ariete’s strength; that the Commonwealth command considered Bir el Gobi a defeat at the time.

Sources

War diaries are available online at this link for the three armoured regiments participating (2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars RGH, 3 and 4 County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) CLY), with 4 CLY missing November 1941 at this link, unfortunately, and for the 11 Hussars, the reconnaissance unit of 22 Armoured Brigade. 22 Armoured Brigade war diary, and after battle reports and war diaries from 7 Armoured Division are available too, including its message log. None of these conclusively addresses the issue of British tank losses, but taken together they help form a picture. Further material is available in the UK archives, as well as an after action report by Ariete, which is held at NARA, in College Park. War diaries for Ariete are also available. We also have access to the regimental history of the 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, and hopefully soon to that of both CLY regiments, as well as Viscount Cranley’s book about 3 CLY. The UK sources are of variable quality and reliability, and the Italian report is written in that peculiar Italian style…

In our book, we intend to discuss this battle in detail, drawing on the period sources available to us. We hope we will be able to deal with some of the misconceptions at least, and provide as closely as possible a definitive account of the battle. This is just one of the areas where we hope to add to the knowledge of what happened during Operation CRUSADER.

Commonwealth Tank Numbers for Operation CRUSADER

The origin of this information is WO216/15, which contains a number of minutes addressed to Churchill in relation to Operation CRUSADER. It is a treasure trove of information. The table maybe dated from mid- to late October, although the document in which it was contained was sent to Churchill on 16 November. It may reflect that information present in Whitehall was outdated. On the other hand, it could be reasonably up-to-date, with only other elements of the table (such as commanders’ names) not having been updated. There is simply no way to tell.

Location/Type ‘I’ Tanks Cruisers UK Light Cruisers US Total Cruisers Total Tanks
Western Desert

Operational with units

189

372

166

538

727

Immediate Reserve

38

29

32

61

99

Subtotal Western Desert

227

401

198

599

826

Under repair or inspection in workshops, in Delta, not unloaded

48

66

98

164

212

Total in Egypt/Western Desert

275

467

296

763

1,038

Location or Type Light Tanks Light Recce Vehicles Armoured Cars Total Light Armoured Vehicles or Tanks
Western Desert

Operational with units

94

701

75

870

Immediate Reserve

0

0

0

0

Subtotal Western Desert

94

701

75

870

Under repair or inspection in workshops, in Delta, not unloaded

14

132

22

168

Total in Egypt/Western Desert

108

833

97

1,038

Notes:

‘I’ tanks are Matilda II and Valentine tanks.

British cruisers are containing all marks of cruisers, with a large number of the latest model, the Crusader.

US light cruisers (this is the text in the document) are M3 ‘Honey’ tanks.

Light tanks are probably Vickers Mk. VI

Light armoured vehicles would be Marmon Herrington armoured cars and similar, armed with light machine guns and anti-tank rifles.

Armoured cars, I have no idea.

22nd Armoured Brigade – Minitiatures, OOB & TO&E

Nice work done here:

http://olicanalad.blogspot.com/2010/09/first-wwii-units.html

http://olicanalad.blogspot.com/2010/09/22nd-armoured-brigade-group.html

http://olicanalad.blogspot.com/2010/09/my-first-tank-in-20-years.html

22nd Armoured Brigade is theoretically a good choice to model amongst the armoured brigades which participated in Operation CRUSADER, since they were present at the start of the operation in the (in)famous first battle of Bir el Gobi, at Sidi Rezegh, with the remainder of the brigade part of a composite regiment under 4th Armoured Brigade around Tobruk (see this link), and then in the pursuit, and the final tank battle of the operation in the Uadi al Faregh near el Agheila, on 27/28 December 1941 (see this older entry with a German report about that battle). But… They did switch tanks in one of the regiments, from Crusaders to M3 ‘Honey’ light cruisers, so the modeller has that much more to paint.