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 The 4 Sikh Regiment was slowly and in full order withdrawn from the battlefield.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

French 155mm Schneider guns – revisited

The question of where, when, where from was discussed a bit in this older post.

I have now been able to look through 7 Support Group’s war diary. The Intelligence Summaries (I.S.) of this diary are of very great value.

Intelligence Summary No.7, containing information up to 0800 hours 17 Dec 41 contains information on captured guns which is given below. This confirms that the Canon de 155 Mle.1917 was in fact used by the Germans during CRUSADER, a question that had hitherto been open to some extent.

5. ENEMY EQUIPMENT. (From 7 A.D. I.S. Nos.53 and 54)

(1) The following guns, the late property of 61 Inf. Regt. and 46 Mot. Arty. Regt.[1], have been discovered around 372432[2].

Nineteen Hotchkiss 25 mm.[3]

Eight 47/32s.[4]

Two 20 mm AA A/Tk

Four 87/27s[5]

Four 155mm FRENCH guns.

There are also four 47/32 at 465439[6] and another 155 mm gun at 364443[7], of unknown ownership.

(2). The four FRENCH 155 mm reported above were made by PUTEAUX, and had evidently been used by GERMANS, as the FRENCH directions were supplemented by GERMAN translations. One had the date 1918 on the carriage and 1925 on the breech. Of those seen one was destroyed but two at least appeared to be in working order and one of them was being salvaged.

These guns, according to P.W’s[8], came from TUNISIA where they were acquired by the Armistice Commission[9].

 

[1]Both regiments belonged to the Trento motorised division, indicating that the guns were captured at the northern end of the Gazala line, where a large part of the division was captured.

[2] In the Gazala line, on a line north-west of Acroma.

[3] These could theoretically also be the new German heavy ATR called schwere Panzerbuechse 41, a 28/20mm heavy squeeze-bore anti-tank rifle, although this is unlikely if they were really captured from the Italians. On the other hand, I have not come across Hotchkiss 25mm A/Tk guns in the Italian forces.

[4] The standard anti-tank gun of the Italian army, designed by Boehler in Austria and manufactured under license by Breda.

[5] Probably around Gazala or Tmimi.

[6] Should be 75/27.

[7] Probably a typo, since this position would be in the Mediterranean, north of Gambut. It is likely to be 439465, at Bu Amud in the former positions of Bologna division in the encirclement ring, and these guns were probably abandoned early on in the breakout.

[8] Prisoners of War

[9] The Armistice Commission was a German military commission charged with supervising the armistice arrangement with France, and to procure goods and services for the German armed forces in France. It was established as part of the Armistice of Compiegne.

1st Carabinieri Parachute Battalion in North Africa 1941

Background

The Royal Carbineers (Carabinieri Reale) are a paramilitary police force under the direction of the Italian Ministry of Defense (see also this link). They have posts in all Italian cities and towns, and provide the guard of honour to the president of the Italian republic. They also lead on anti-Mafia investigations. Carbinieri have been involved in combat in all military campaigns of Italy since the Napoleonic wars in 1815. They were initially set up as a mounted police force.

 

Apart from their military police duty, only one combat unit of Carabinieri was involved in Operation CRUSADER, the 1st Carabinieri Parachute Battalion, which was formed in 1940, and based at the Italian army parachute school in Tarquinia. The battalion had a short but interesting history in North Africa. The following is a translation from the website dedicated to the Carabinieri Parachute arm, www.carabinieriparacadutisti.it. The translation is done with their very kind permission. I have tried to stay true to the Italian original, hence ‘English’ instead of ‘Commonwealth’.

 

History of 1st Carabinieri Parachute Battalion in North Africa

 

31 March 1941

The 1st Parachute Regiment is established to incorporate the units of this special branch of the armed forces. The first of the three battalions in the regiment is that of the Carabinieri. At about the same time, the command of the 1st Royal Carabinieri Parachute Battalion passes to Major Edoardo Alessi.

 

Major Eduardo Alessi – CO of the 1st Battalion

8 June 1941
Only the Carabinieri Parachute battalion receives the provisional order to depart for North Africa. The carabinieri receive the notice with enthusiasm, even though according to some evidence, this unexpected decision by the Comando Superiori was taken as punishment for some elements less orthodox and respectful towards the regime. Some episodes had in fact possibly led the O.V.R.A., the political police of the fascist regime, to suspect that in the battalion there might be some anti-fascist sentiments: in particular the voices of discontent reported the day after a visit by the Commander of the Army General Staff, General Pietro Badoglio, and finally a parody of a speech by the Duce performed by a second Lieutenant of the Carabinieri Parachutists, named Ragnini, who at the end of a diner on the previous 5 June, given on the occasion of the Carabinieri Day, raised hilarity amongst all those attending, officers of the unit, as well as invited guests, amongst whom also the commander of the Tarquinia School, Colonel Giuseppe Baudoin.

 

Training jump from a Sm.82 'Marsupiale'

 18 July 1941
While a Carabinieri Replacement Company remains at the school in Tarquinia to replace the expected losses which the unit may suffer in combat, the battalion disembarks in Tripoli. The unit consists of the staff under the command of Lieutenant Max Ambrosi and three companies under the command of Lieutenants Piccini Leopardi, Giuseppe Casini, and Osmano Bonapace. The total strength is 26 officers, 51 NCOs, and 322 attached and Carabinieri.

15 August 1941
The battalion relocates into the desert by a 30 kilometre march from Zavia to Suani ben Aden. The unit has the task of preventing and repulsing attacks by British commandos.(1) During an air attack on Italian Castel Benito airport the first Carabinieri Parachutist, Antonio Bau, is wounded.

8 November 1941
The 1st Parachute Battalion Royal Carbineers is subordinated to the command of the Mobile Army Corps (Corpo Armata di Manovra – C.A.M.) and receives the order to transfer to the Jebel of Cyrenaica (Jebel Akhdar), where it takes over a number of strongpoints, including the Presidios (forts) of Lamluda, Derna, and Cirene, where the High Command of Armed Forces in North Africa (Comando Superiore Forze Armate Africa Settentrionale)is located, as well as the anti-commando surveillance of a stretch of the Cyrenaican coast.(2) During this period the battalion engages in a number of encounters with the enemy, amongst which that of 19 November near Cirene deserves particular mention, which ended with the capture of one English officer, one NCO, ten soldiers, and 42 Libyan guerrilla. (3)

 

December 1941 - Taking Position in the Jebel

14 December 1941

On the order by the commander of Panzergruppe Afrika, General Rommel, to Major Eduardo Alessi, the unit reaches the pass of Eluet el Asel, with the task to stop the advance of the British units which, using the roads coming from the inner part of Cyrenaica, intend to cut off the road for the Italian divisions retreating along the Via Balbia.

19 December 1941 – Start of the Battle of Eluet el Asel (4)
The battalion, reinforced by a platoon of parachute assault engineers, some 47/32 guns served by Bersaglieri (5) and one platoon of Libyan Parachutists (6), after having repulsed for a whole day the repeated assaults by a mechanized English brigade (7) fulfils its task and receives the order to retire. Already encircled, during the night it fights to open the road to friendly lines and attempts to force a number of English road blocks. The same enemy, in a transmission by Radio London on 28 December admits that: “The Parachutist Carbineers have fought like leons and never have British units met such a tough resistance.”

20 December 1941
At the end of the battle one platoon of the battalion under the orders of Lieutenant Enrico Mollo, remaining isolated and under pressure, decided not to surrender, but, collecting other dispersed soldiers in the present in the area, and operating behind enemy lines for about 60 days. They protected Italian colonists from Arab attacks, as well as sabotaging military objectives despite the English reaction. Finally, in February 1942, they supported the reconquest of the territory by the Italo-German armed forces.

20 December 1941
At the end of the battle, apart from the commander, 9 officers, 4 NCOs, and 30 Carabinieri manage to reach Agedabia, from where they are transferred to Sirte. The price paid by the battalion was very high. 31 killed, 37 wounded, and 251 missing.(8) Recognising the numerous acts of valor carried out, in the next years the following medals were awarded: 5 Silver Medals for Military Valor, of which 4 posthumously; 6 Bronze Medals for Military Valor, of which one posthumously; and 4 Crosses for Military Valour.

6 March 1942
The remnants of the battalion return to Italy and participate in the disbandment ceremony of the unit at the seat of the Territorial Legion in Rome.

13 May 1942
The Chief of the General Staff of the Royal Army, General Vittorio Ambrosio, sends a congratulatory letter to the General Command of the Carabinieri, in which he writes: “The CC.RR. Battalion, first of the Italian parachute battalions by date of its formation, and first amongst those experiencing the trial of war, has been able to reconfirm the traditional military virtues of the Arm of Carabinieri, while writing at the same time the first page in the history of the parachutists.”

Aftermath
The following is a shortened version of the events after disbandment:
Two mobile sections were formed on 15 July 1942, one assigned to the Folgore Parachute Division and fighting at Alamein, the other one to the Nembo Parachute Division, and ends up fighting the Germans as part of the reconstituted Folgore combat group after the armistice.
On 23 September 1943 Lieutenant Alfredo Sandulli Mercuro, a survivor of Eluet el Asel, is commanding the 27th Carabinieri Section (Military Police) of the Acqui Division on Cefalonia. He is actively encouraging resistance to the German 1st Mountain Division and is illegally sentenced to death and executed. He received a posthumous Gold Medal for Military Valor (see his citation in Italian at this link).

 Notes
Footnotes are written by us, and our responsibility alone, based on our research. They are not from the text on the Carabinieri Paracadutisti website.

  1. Attacks by the Long Range Desert Group (L.R.D.G.), which at the time was engaged in deep penetration activities.
  2. Because of the history of the war between Italy and the Senussia, which resisted the Italian occupation and colonialisation until the middle of the 1930s, many settlements had forts or fortified barracks, and many individual forts were dotted along the main tracks in the desert.
  3. This could have been in conjunction with the failed Operation FLIPPER, in which ‘L’ Force under Lt.Colonel Laycock attempted to kill or capture Rommel by attacking what was supposed to be his HQ. You can read about this operation at this link.
  4. This battle is a battle honour of the Arm of the Carabinieri Reale, as can be seen in their museum in Rome. The battalion fought as part of the Vaiarini Detachment, under the command of Colonel Vaiarini of the Trieste Motorised Division.
  5. Anti-tank guns, in this case probably from the Ariete armoured division’s 8th Bersaglieri Regiment.
  6. The Libyan Parachutist Battalion was raised by Italo Balbo during his time as governor of Libya, and was the first parachute formation in the Italian Army. It consisted of settlers and natives.
  7. Actually 5 Indian Brigade of 4 Indian Division.
  8. Many of the missing must have been killed, or gone into hiding. 5 Indian Brigade reported 110 POWs from the action.

Applying Sunscreen to Tanks

When 7 Armoured Division went into battle, its tanks were camouflaged as trucks, with a contraption called ‘sunscreen’. According to testimony in the history of 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, one of the Cruiser regiments in 22 Armoured Brigade, these camouflage devices were difficult for the driver to navigate with, and after crossing the border they were quickly ‘lost’.

I have until today never seen a picture of what this would have looked like, but Bertram on the Deutsches Afrika-Korps forum just posted a picture. If you click on this link, and scroll down to post no.4 from user SIS 5, and  two follow-on posts from Alan McCoubrey you can see the device in all its glory.

Camouflage and faking tanks was a big pre-occupation of 8 Army, and they were quite successful in it. So successful in fact that the German command (but not the Italian) refused to believe for a few days that a major offensive against them was in full swing.