First Taste of Gazala – 13 Dec 41

Deep in the D.A.K. (German Africa Corps) war diaries there is a captured report on the actions of 7 Indian Brigade, for the period 18 November 41 to 10 January 42. It has been translated into German, and below is my attempt at re-translation. I presume the report was captured when 7 Indian Brigade had to hurriedly abandon Benghazi during the Axis counter-offensive on 29 January.

Below I have translated the report on the action of 7 Indian Brigade, in particular 25 Field Regiment RA, during the first clash in the Gazala line. This was a notable action, which ended reasonably well for the Commonwealth forces, unlike the destruction of the Buffs just to the north, two days later. It was the start to three days of very hard fighting in the Gazala line, which ended with the retreat of the Axis forces due to supply difficulties and a fear of being enveloped by Commonwealth armour from the south.

Underlined text reflects underlining by the German intelligence officer working on the text.

On 12 Dec contact was made with the camouflaged enemy positions in places where the ground was flat and where the enemy had full view, while he was difficult to make out. 5 Brigade to our right and 7 Support Group to our left met determined resistance. Opposite 7 Brigade was a deep cut which was not a target [1]. Contact was established with Support Group to attack the flank of the opposite position. To this end on 13 Dec reconnaissance was carried out and 25 Field Regiment, protected by carriers and AT guns, reconnoitered the enemy positions, while the 4 Sikh Regiment stood ready on trucks close-by. Suddenly the carriers reported 40 enemy tanks [2], supported by artillery, which approached the battery positions of 25 Field Regiment in overlapping advance. This was a longed-for opportunity for 25 Field Regiment. They opened fire and held on to their positions. The 4 Sikh Regiment was slowly and in full order withdrawn from the battlefield. Additional AT guns and the ‘I’ Tanks [3] were brought up. The German tactics were exemplary and could be observed in full detail. Their observation posts were in the tanks and their mobile artillery and Mark IV tanks advanced slowly in overwatch, while firing across the visible range [4]. Our … (guns? Part of text missing) fell back into the group position and fired with good effect. 12 enemy tanks were destroyed [5], at the cost of 31 Battery however, which was overrun when all guns had become disabled. All men and guns were brought in, because 12 Battery drove off the tanks, which evaded a clash [6]. The bravery of 25 Field Regiment and 65 AT Regt were beyond praise.

The following lessons were drawn:

  1. Guns must be dug in and protected by some Vickers MMG to force the enemy to close up his tanks.
  2. The enemy has to be covered in fog to prevent his gaining sight of the guns until the enemy tanks appear at a distance of 1,200 yards or less from the gun position. [7]
  3. Guns must be placed/installed such so that they can be turned the full 360 degrees.

Comments

The day saw some very heavy fighting which, despite the heavy losses suffered, ended well for the Axis. Not only was the developing attack by 7 Indian Brigade headed off, but furthermore the threatening gap between Ariete and Trieste had been closed, and the situation at the Italian motorized corps had been stabilized by the intervention of the D.A.K. At the same time, the command of 7 Indian Brigade had shown that it could move with some elasticity, and it had succeeded in inflicting very heavy losses on the Axis tank force. Once again, just like outside The Omars on 26 November it was shown that the 25-pdr. was a superb weapon in defending against Axis armour.

[1] This is probably a translation error and should read ‘making selection of an objective difficult.’ This was a deep cut at the gap between Ariete and Trieste divisions which endangered the whole of the Gazala line.

[2] A handwritten note in the margin says ‘Gruppe Menny’. This group had 38 medium tanks available to it, the remaining tank strength of the D.A.K. At the same time, Ariete attacked with all three tank battalions, with a probable strength of about 30+ tanks, even though the D.A.K. war diary claims only 12 Italian tanks attacked. It is however not clear where this information would have come from, since the 15. Pz.Div. war diary states no numbers for the Italian tanks, and most of the text in the D.A.K. war diary is verbatim lifted from it.

[3] Ten Valentine tanks from 8 R.T.R.

[4] This is missing some more detail. It appears that this long-range fire by the Mark IVs (equipped with 75mm howitzers) was used to protect the Mark III tanks and lorried infantry in the advance.

[5] German tank strength fell by 16, of which 9 medium tanks and one of the last three command tanks, between the evening of 12 and 13 December, so this is likely to be an underestimate, considering that the Italian tank force almost certainly suffered some losses as well, even tough some losses would have been suffered in the tank engagement later one the day.

[6] D.A.K. war diary remarks on this: “Further attack against a position on a height to the southeast is broken off due to determined strong resistance and the losses caused by this.”

[7] On the other hand, as pointed out by a comment on a report on the employment of artillery in support of armoured formations issued after CRUSADER, this smoke screen would provide a good cover for the enemy to develop his attack.

Sources:

War Diary D.A.K.

War Diary 15. Pz.Div.

War Diary Ariete Divisional Command

War Diary 132 Tank Regiment

Report by 7 Indian Brigade 18 November 1941 to 10 January 1942, translation in War Diary D.A.K.

Report on Operations of 4 Indian Division 18 November 1941 to 18 January 1942