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)

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. (AWM Item C1005952)

The distribution of 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


67 Medium Rgt. RA  


68 Medium Rgt. RA



Tobruk Fortress






Western Desert Total





64 Medium Rgt. RA  


2/13 Medium Regiment RAA    


Free French      


Syria/Palestine total  






AIF Reinforcement Depot      


R.A. Base Depot      


Ordnance Depots or in transit to depots










Advised on convoys and released











To be sent to India  




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.