Our Libya Offensive – British Pathe newsreel from 1941

I came across this today thanks to a link on the WW2Talk forum.  The British Pathe site is a real treasure trove.

Our Libya Offensive

This is a 5-minute piece about CRUSADER’s early stages. A lot of varied shots, including a very rare bird,  the de Havilland D.H.86 Express in the air ambulance role. I would place the film into early December, after some setbacks, but before the relief of Tobruk. It also shows very good footage of the 4.5″ mediums of 7 Medium regiment being fired.

Happy viewing:

Our Libya Offensive

Action in the Desert

There is another bit of unused footage, showing in particular Honey tanks buzzing around the desert, and tentatively dated also to December 41. There appears to be no sound. It looks to me as if this was leftover of the previous reel.

Action in the Desert

Tobruk

While not directly relevant to CRUSADER, this is some interesting footage from inside Tobruk:

Aussies in Tobruk

Captured Guns in Use by 13 Corps, 17 February 1942

One of the interesting things in the desert war was that both sides liberally scrounged weapons from the other side, and used them. Most famous for that are usually the Germans, who seem to have taken a deep liking to Allied tanks, and of course motor vehicles. But also the Australians used captured Italian tanks (which did them no more good than they did their previous owners, when the Axis forces attacked in early 1941), and of course the famous ‘bush guns‘ in Tobruk, pictured below.

TOBRUK, LIBYA. 1941-08-27. MEN OF THE 2/17TH INFANTRY BATTALION USED THIS CAPTURED ITALIAN FIELD GUN TO SEND 75 MM. SHELLS BACK TO THEIR FORMER OWNERS. THEY WERE KNOWN AS THE “BUSH ARTILLERY” BECAUSE THEY WERE CONVERTED INFANTRYMEN. THIS GUN CREW IS WAITING TO GO INTO ACTION

Less well known however is the use of captured guns by other Commonwealth forces. At the end of the CRUSADER operations in February 1942, the use had grown to such proportions that the artillery command of 8 Army felt compelled to issue a note to 13 Corps on the matter, including a table of guns currently in use. I reproduce it below. Incidentally, when the Germans evaluated Commonwealth guns after the Gazala battles in May 1942, they wistfully noted that the 5cm Pak 38 had good penetration success against the Panzer III, at considerable range.

What the note indicates is that the Commonwealth troops seem to have had less strict regulations regarding booty equipment than at least the Germans. During the counter-offensive in January 1942, the German command issued strongly-worded orders which forbade units to acquire booty material. Never mind that these weren’t obeyed religiously, they still threatened court-martials for men or officers defying them. On the other hand, this could also indicate the more urgent need for the Axis command to utilize captured weapons and equipment, in order to alleviate the fairly dire supply situation.

For the Commonwealth, it appears clear that guns held a particular attraction, especially LAA, in order to thicken air defense (since it was Commonwealth policy during CRUSADER not to put a fighter screen above the army units, but rather to carry out strategic interdiction), and A/Tk, since the 2-pdr was becoming a more marginal weapon around this time, and since the Axis A/Tk weapons were of comparatively high quality.


TOBRUK, LIBYA. 1941-04. MEN OF 8 BATTERY, 2/3RD LIGHT ANTI AIRCRAFT REGIMENT, PREPARING A SITE FOR THEIR 20/65 BREDA 20MM CANNON. THIS UNIT WAS EQUIPPED WITH CAPTURED ITALIAN GUNS. LEFT TO RIGHT: BOMBARDIER P ROBERTS, GUNNER J W CROFT, GNR R V INCE AND GNR J BUNTZ. (LENT BY MR R K BRYANT)


WESTERN DESERT, EGYPT. 1942-07-30. CHOKE-BORE GERMAN 47.32 MILLIMETRE ANTI-TANK GUN BEING INSPECTED BY REGIMENTAL SERGEANT-MAJOR P. LAWSON, OF 2/32ND AUSTRALIAN INFANTRY BATTALION.

Headquarters,

Royal Artillery,

13 Corps.

17th February, 1942.

Dear

I attach a list showing the “foreign” guns now in use in the Corps; I think it is fairly accurate, though I have seen no returns yet from many units of the Armoured Division or Armoured Car regiments etc., whom I know to have many more, e.g. the K.D.Gs have at least three 28/41mm German A/Tk guns.

The trouble is they can usually only carry very few rounds of ammunition with their unauthorised weapons, when these are expended or if one of the tyres gets punctured, the gun is thrown away.

Incidentally it is a bit of a sidelight in the transport situation when they can carry such guns in addition to their proper W.E.

I can’t help feeling that we ought to get the whole of this captured gun racket tidied up, and when saying this, it is with no desire to deprive units of weapons which they evidently now feel are essential for their safety.

To my mind, certain factors govern it and force us to decide which types of captured equipments are worth retaining.

  1. The number of such weapons captured.
  2. If of dual purpose, the best primary role to use them in.
  3. The ammunition stocks held by us.

If we examine the attached list on these lines, we see the following:-

  1. The 105mm Italian is one of the best field guns used against us.
  2. The 75mm Italian especially without sights is useless to anyone as a fd gun and a danger as an A/Tk weapon.
  3. The 50mm German A/Tk is a real good weapon but will be neglected if doled out as at present, and it is recommended that it be withdrawn and if ammunition is reasonably plentiful, it be used in the place of 18-pdrs to complete some of these 64 gun A/Tk Regts.
  4. The 47/32mm Italian A/Tk is the most common of all and seems to have plenty of ammunition. Its not a bad A/Tk weapon.
  5. The 37mm German proved to be a failure against our tanks hence the 50mm.
  6. The 25mm French is not a bad weapon at all and there may be a good many of them. But is ammunition available.

From this it would appear as if we ought to go all out on:-

The 105mm Italian in a Field role.

The 50mm German )

The 47/32mm Italian) in an A/Tk role

The 25mm French )

But none know here the stocks of ammunition held. If we go on as we are, the ‘Q’ staff will go “nuts” and end by supplying the wrong type of ammunition.

Yours

Brigadier E.J. Medley, O.B.E., M.C.

Headquarters, R.A.

Eighth Army

CONTINENTAL GUNS IN USE

Type

Calibre

Country of Origin

Numbers in Use

Remarks

Notes

Field

105 mm

Italy

6

Tobfort Very good, 14,000 yards
Field

75 mm

Italy

6

5 N.Z. Bde. Unreadable
Field

C.75 mm

France

24

Free French ?
A/Tk

C.75 mm

France

20

Free French ?

50 mm

Germany

8

3, Poles.

5, 1 Armd Div

Very Good

47/32 mm

Italy

47

12 Free French;

8 NZ Bde;

6 38 Inf. Bde;

6 Armd Div; 17 4 Ind. Div.

Not bad.

37/45 mm

France

3 (12)

Poles ? unreadable

37 mm

Germany

18

Poles Unreadable, could be ‘not good’

25 mm

France

25 (20)

2, 4 Ind Div; 17 TOBFORT;

6, 1 Armd. Div.

Not bad. No. unreadable.

20 mm

Italy

6

5, 57 LAA;

1, Poles.

Dual Purpose

LAA
LAA

20 mm

France

4

Free French

20 mm

France

8

Free French

The End of the Halfaya Garrison

On 17 January 1942 the Axis garrison of the Halfaya Pass surrendered, just before a final attack was supposed to go in and capture the pass. It consisted of about 6,000 men, with ca. 60% of them Italian, and the remainder German. The commander was the Italian General Fedele de Giorgis, General Officer Commanding 55 ‘Savona’ infantry division, who was awarded the Knights Cross for the defense he conducted. After the war he became commander of the Carabinieri corps of the Italian army. More famous is the senior German officer, Major Wilhelm Bach, a former protestant priest, who commanded I./SR104, the rifle battalion charged with the defense of the pass.

A head and shoulder portrait of Major The Reverend Bach, facing slightly to the right. He is in uniform with an iron cross around his neck.

The final two weeks of the defense must have been hell for the defenders, and the ca. 75 Commonwealth POW which were encircled with them. There were little to no rations left, and access to water had been lost as well. The surrender became inevitable after this. Just a few days before a vicious little battle was fought for the town of Lower Sollum, which was captured at a cost of about 100 casualties by the South African forces of 2 South African Division, which besieged the pass. The position was under constant bombardment by the Blenheim light bombers of the Royal Air Force and the ‘Lorraine’ Squadron, the first operational unit of the Free French Air Force in the Western Desert. Attacks were so heavy that questions were raised about the efficacy of the effort in Whitehall. A token effort was made to bring in supplies to the garrison by air from Crete, but this was hampered by weather, lack of communications, and interference by Commonwealth night fighters.

The continued defense of the pass, even after Bardia had fallen to the assault of 2 South African Division on 1 January 42, contributed to the serious supply shortage that hampered Commonwealth operations west of Tobruk so severely. It had a major strategic and operational impact, and the loss of the garrison was well worth it, as far as Axis planners were concerned, even though it is clear that Rommel himself felt badly about leaving behind so many of his men, and so much material.

The Australian War Memorial has a series of pictures of one of the raids, which I reproduce below, followed by some pictures taken after the pass was re-captured. The text is the original text associated with the photos. A big round of applause to the Australian War Memorial for making these pictures available to all.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. En route to a raid on Halfaya, this pilot of a Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft looks through his gunsight as the raiding aircraft sweep down on the isolated Axis positions. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. En route to a raid on Halfaya, the observer of a Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft peers down on the target as the raiding aircraft sweep down on the isolated Axis positions. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. Missiles speeding down on the targets during a raid on Halfaya by Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft aircraft. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 5 January 1942. Missiles speeding down on the targets during a raid on Halfaya by Bristol Blenheim bomber aircraft aircraft. The rugged nature of the terrain is clearly illustrated. Ceaseless attacks are being carried out by RAF and Free French squadrons.

Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Aerial photograph taken by an Air Ministry photographer soon after the surrender of the Axis garrison at Halfaya on 17 January 1942. It shows transport of the Imperial forces travelling along Halfaya Pass. The rugged nature of the terrain is clearly illustrated.
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Devastation caused by the incessant raids of Free French and RAF squadrons which played a big part in bringing about the capitulation of the garrison on 17 January 1942. This aerial photograph was taken by an Air Ministry photographer flying over Halfaya a few hours after the surrender.
Western Desert, Egypt. 20 January 1942. Flying over Halfaya soon after the surrender of the garrison on 17 January 1942, an Air Ministry photographer took this aerial photograph which shows knocked out tanks, armoured vehicles and emplacements. To the right can be seen the graves of members of the garrison.

Some more on the B-17 Bombers with No.90 Squadron

I had previously mentioned these oddball planes (3 of them, with No. 90 Squadron, detached from No. 220 Squadron of RAF Coastal Command), and asked for information on their use. I now have a bit more information, and a nice picture of one of them.

Boeing B-17 of No. 90 Squadron Detachment in RAF Colours, Egypt 1941
 
The three planes were trialled in North Africa, after the initial failure in Europe. As far as I can see they carried out day-light raids on Benghazi and Tripoli harbours, and at least one, maybe two of them were lost during the operation. Their use was the subject of an exchange of telegrams between Whitehall and Tedder in Cairo, in which the former pointed out the benefits of the planes, but emphasised the shortcomings, and the significant need of technical support to keep them going. Tedder however insisted on the trial, since it would give him the ability to conduct daylight raids to harass the Axis harbours during unloading, and it was agreed that four planes would be sent. By 11 December however, Tedder had agreed to despatch these to Malta, probably for return home, to be overhauled.
 
Some raids that I have found which were carried out went to Derna Town on 19 November, which was hit at 1055 hrs GMT through full cloud cover, results not observed. The total airtime was ten hours on this one. Another raid was carried out on the Gazala landing grounds which were bombed with 500 lbs bombs throughout the day on 21 November.

8th Army Medium Artillery Stats 4 November 1941 (major update 19 June)

The information below is from WO169/949, which can be found in the National Archives in Kew, and German sources which can be found at NARA, in Washington, in particular the D.A.K. war diary.

It is quite interesting to see the medium artillery situation in the Middle East at this date. While a lot of ink has been spilled looking at the tank situation, and the technological problems faced by the Commonwealth, much less analysis has been made on the artillery, apart from the anti-tank guns, of course. This is probably in part because at least in the field artillery sector, and in the light anti-air sector, the Commonwealth was quite superior to the Axis forces. I am indebted to my friend Jon who pointed this out to me.

For field artillerty, the Commonwealth 25-pdr field gun was a superb gun, which served well in a dual role, as demonstrated by e.g. 1 Field Regiment at the Omars on 25 November, and also of course in the field artillery role. This superiority was noted by the Germans, who recognised that Commonwealth field artillery was a nuisance. While the Axis divisional artillery had superior calibre, and in particular the Italian 105mm field gun was recognised by the Commonwealth as a very good gun, the large numbers, range, versatility, and mobility of the 25-pdr were hard to beat.

In the anti-air role, the 40mm Bofors AA gun was also a very good alround design, and superior to the 20mm light AA guns fielded by the Axis forces. In the CRUSADER period it doubled as anti-tank gun, when required.

Commonwealth vs. Axis

In the field of medium and heavy artillery however, the Commonwealth was severely lacking. Heavy artillery, there was none at all, and for medium artillery, there were few guns, and more than half of them obsolete. The Axis forces on the other hand had some superb guns in Africa in this sector – the captured French 155mm GPF gun, the Italian 149/40 gun, the 17cm K18 gun, and the 21cm Mortar 18. They only had small numbers of these, but still more in total than the Commonwealth could field. Furthermore, most of these guns were concentrated under the Army artillery command Arko 104, while the Commonwealth medium regiments were penny-packeted to the Corps, and often operated on a battery basis. The reason for this was of course that the Axis was planning a major assault on a fortress, and had brought in a siege train to undertake it. Below the army artillery, the standard heavy piece of German divisional artillery, the 15cm heavy howitzer 18, while outclassed inRussia, was superior to the Commonwealth 6″ howitzer as well.

On 4 November the Commonwealth forces reported a total of 126 medium guns in the Middle East, 28 of which were the modern 4.5″ gun  , while the remainder were the obsolete 6” howitzer, the even more obsolete 4.5″ howitzer, and 18 155mm howitzers. 11 4.5″ howitzers were in the Western Desert, 10 in Tobruk, and 1 with the L.R.D.G. 16 of the 155mm howitzers, were with 1 Australian Corps, and another 2 155 mm howitzers with the schools in the Delta area. It is likely that of the remainder at least 16 6″ howitzers of 64 Medium Regiment were not in the Western Desert, but also rather in Syria with 1 Australian Corps. Thus the total of available medium guns in the Western Desert was brought down to 63, or a bit more than half the number of Axis mediums. Most of these guns were obsolete.

At the same time, while there is some confusion, Panzergruppe Afrika and the Italian forces appeared to be able to field up to 115 medium guns (>105mm), of which a large part were of superior quality to the Commonwealth guns. It was this discrepancy which contributed a lot to the problems the Commonwealth forces were facing in the static fighting around Sidi Rezegh, and the Tobruk corridor.

Some information on the guns

I am indebted to Nigel Evans’ superb site on the Royal Artillery for much of the information here.

The Commonwealth 4.5” gun, which equipped one regiment and one battery at the time was better in some aspects compared to the German 15cm sFH, such as its superb range. It was outclassed however by the Italian Ansaldo 149/40 gun. The 4.5″ gun lacked destructive power and range by comparison, with a shell and explosive weight of only about half of that of the Ansaldo, and there were in any case not enough of the guns around. It’s main use was for counter-battery, and while it was certainly superior to the German 10cm K18, which served the same role, it could not compete with the heavier Axis pieces such as the 17cm K18, and the Ansaldo 149/40 guns.

A Section of 4.5 Medium Guns : near Reigel Ridge, Cyrenaica, May 1942

 

 The 6″ howitzer was one of the weaker medium guns in theatre at the time. It fired a relatively low-weight projectile, and its range was not impressive. During the desert war it was replaced by WW1 vintage 155mm howitzers (see below) and then 5.5″ guns.

6″ Howitzer during Operation COMPASS

During the period, about 100 155mm Howitzers M1918 of WW1 French design (but modernised between the wars, e.g. to enable being trailed behind trucks) were in the process of being delivered to units as lend-lease by the USA, but these were not in the Western Desert yet. On 4 November they were equipping only an Australian medium regiment, 2/13, in Syria. A further 12 were already in ordnance depots, and 78 were en route with various convoys. By 12 February, only one regiment, 64 Medium Rgt. RA had been re-equipped with 16 of these howitzers, and 2 4.5″ guns.

A French-built 155mm howitzer of 212 Battery, 64th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, 23 July 1942.

The 4.5″ howitzer was probably the weakest medium gun (in fairness it is more a field gun, rather than a medium, despite its calibre of 114mm being a bit more than the standard 105mm) in service in the desert. It’s relegation to the static role in Tobruk says as much. It was a pre-WW1 design which had been modernised in the 1930s to enable truck-towing. It’s range was only 6,600 yards, and the shell weight was only 37lbs.

The guns go off as the crew of a 4.5 inch Howitzer of the 2/1st Field Regiment RAA are given the order to fire during the cooperation artillery shoot with 107th (SNH) Royal Horse Artillery at the Bir Asley Artillery Range.

The distributionof these guns in the Middle East on 4 November 1941 was as below:

Regiment/Gun Type 4.5” Gun 6” Howitzer 155mm Howitzer 4.5” Howitzer
7 Medium Rgt. RA

16

67 Medium Rgt. RA

16

68 Medium Rgt. RA

8

8

Tobruk Fortress

4

10

L.R.D.G.

1

Western Desert Total

28

24

11

64 Medium Rgt. RA

16

2/13 Medium Regiment RAA

16

Free French

1

Syria/Palestine total

16

16

1

Schools

2

AIF Reinforcement Depot

8

R.A. Base Depot

1

Ordnance Depots or in transit to depots

4

37

12

19

Delta

4

37

14

28

Advised on convoys and released

16

86

 

Total

48

77

116

40

To be sent to India

18

16

What the table makes clear is that while the Commonwealth was deficient on 4 November 1941, it was also foreseeable when this situation would improve considerably, and at least in numbers, if not in quality, the Royal Artillery in the Middle East was due to become superior to its opponents.

The Cost of War

Every so often it is good to be reminded of the human cost of the events that this blog is talking about. I came across this picture, which shows the German war cemetery at Fort Capuzzo (thanks to Trapperjoe of the Deutsches Afrika-Korps Forum) in a British war diary. Fort Capuzzo had of course seen very heavy fighting throughout 1941. It must have been snapped while driving past on the way to or from the frontline, either in December 41, or in February 42. It is rare to find pictures by British soldiers, since as I understand it, the use of cameras was not allowed, unlike in the German army.

Artillery Units and Gun Numbers in UK 1 Armoured Division, 8 April 1942

Not directly relevant to CRUSADER, but I pulled the 1 Armoured Division Royal Artillery branch war diary (WO169/4056) at Kew, and found it only starts from April 1942. So this info is more for the folks who are interested in the Gazala position during the static period of 6 February to 26 May 1942.

Unit/Type of Gun 25-pdr 2-pdr Bofors (40mm AA) Miscellaneous
200 Gds. Bde.
2 R.H.A. 16
144 Fd Rgt (1) 16 12
76 A/Tk Rgt (237 Bty) 12
274 Lt.A/A Bty. 10
Post. Guns 6 (47mm) (2)
2 Armd. Bde.
11 R.H. A. 24
76 A/Tk Rgt. (239 Bty) 12
76 A/Tk (1 Tp “C” Bty) 4
82 Lt. A/A Bty 6
Royals (3)
76 A/Tk (1 Tp “C” Bty) 4
Adv. Div.
82 Lt. A/A/ Bty 3
76 A/Tk (1 Tp “C” Bty) 4
Rear Div.
82 Lt. A/A/ Bty 3
Free French Gp.
197 Lt.A/A Bty 3
Total 56 48 34 6 (47mm)

 

Free French Force

1st Regiment 24 75mm (4)
Post. Guns 7 50mm (5)
6 47mm

Notes

  1. 102 A/Tk Rgt’s 288 Bty is struck through in the table, with its 12 2-pdr guns, and it appears these have been added to 144 Fd Rgt.

 

  1. Captured Italian guns
  2. Armoured Car Regiment
  3. Schneider Mle.1897 field guns
  4. Could be captured German Pak 38?

Abbreviations

A/A – anti-air

A/Tk – anti-tank

Bde – Brigade

Bty – Battery

Fd. Rgt. – Field Regiment

Lt. – Light

Post. – Positional (?) i.e. dug in or installed in fortifications

R.H.A. – Royal Horse Artillery