The Battle for 1 Army Tank Brigade’s Repair Shop

The ‘Dash to the Wire’, with which Rommel aimed to win the battle, produced many curious incidents. One of the stranger ones was a tank battle for a repair shop, between 16 Matildas in various stages of repair, and the full strength of German Panzerregiment 8 of 15. Panzerdivision, with a strength of 16/34/6 Panzer II/III/IV, and supported by 88mm AA guns.

The first few days of Operation CRUSADER had been hard on the Brigade, and it had lost almost half of the 132 infantry tanks in the initial assault on the frontier strongpoints and in support of 2 New Zealand Division. On 22 November, the assault by 42 RTR (minus C Squadron, with B Squadron 44 RTR under command) on ‘The Omars’ (see this contemporary analysis) had cost the Brigade 46 out of 51 tanks participating, and caused severe personnel losses of 5 officers and 22 men killed, and 1 offier and 21 men wounded, with 3 more men missing. The proportion of almost 1.3:1 killed to wounded might indicate the ferocity of the fighting, and that many of the tanks which were shot up were being hit by the very powerful German 88mm AA gun. Many of the tanks were recoverable though, and had been brought to the L.R.S. (local repair shop – thanks to Wills on WW2 Talk for this). On 23 November, 8 RTR lost 2 tanks in B Squadron when this supported the attack by 5 NZ Brigade on Sollum, and 16 in C Squadron in support of 6 NZ Brigade when Point 175 was taken – this was equivalent to the strength of the whole squadron (see also this older post). On 24 November, another Matilda of 42 RTR was lost, and Squadron Commander Major R.M. Rawlins killed, when the remaining 5 Matildas of the regiment engaged (and seriously delayed) the advancing Panzerregiment 5 of 21. Panzerdivision at the Bir Sherferzen gap in the wire. Total losses therefore amounted to at least 65 of 132 tanks by 23 November.

Located in a convenient and supposedly safe location west of Sidi Omar, was the repair shop of 1 Army Tank Brigade. The fitters were busy, with 16 of the recoverable Matilda II tanks standing around in various stages of repair/unfitness for service. Of these, 6 had been brought to runner status, and another was expected to be ready by the evening.

Before this was achieved however, Panzerregiment 8 hit the L.R.S. and destroyed it. The entry in its war diary reads as follows:

West of Sidi Omar Panzer Regiment 8 reports strong enemy grouping with Mk.II [Matilda].

In an energetic attack, Lt.Col. Cramer leads the regiment against it. The 1st Battalion attacks frontally, while the 2nd Battalion hits the left flank of the opponent.

The Flak is tasked on the right wing. After a tough fire fight, carried out on shortest distance, all 16 attacking Mk. II are shot up, and a number of prisoners are brought in, which belong to the 6th English Army Tank Regiment.[1]

What really happened was slightly different. It is reported in an account by the R.A.O.C. commander of 1 Army Tank Brigade, written on 10 December 1941:

On afternoon of 25th, a mobile enemy column with tanks made a concentrated attack on the L.R.S. The tanks were manned by R.T.R. personnel, and a battle for 1 ½ hours ensued, during which 2 German Mk. III tanks had been knocked out and also a large ammunition lorry. Seven R.T.R. personnel were killed, and the remainder of the personnel of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. managed to disperse with their vehicles. The L.R.S. anti-tank rifle was in use for most of the battle. Very few of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. have been located beyond the O.C. L.R.S. and 42 men, and the O.C. O.F.P. and 10 men; it is therefore assumed that on dispersal with their vehicles, these men must have met other portions of the enemy column and were captured.

The German column apparently made camp in the L.R.S. area (6 miles west of Sidi Omar) and created further destruction to the tanks and equipment of the L.R.S.

Attempts were made to contact the L.R.S. site but A.F.V’s of the enemy were met; on 30th November the Bde O.M.E. made contact and with a small party surveyed the damage and buried one R.T.R. driver who had been locked inside a tank.

The war diary of 15. Panzerdivision confirms the loss of 2 Panzer III and 1 Panzer II during the day. Since it did not engage in other tank combat, it is probable that the claim by the L.R.S. is correct. It is also interesting to note that the German regiment made a text-book attack, which of course came off very successfully, since the opponent was fighting with both arms tied behind his back.

The incident was quickly recounted, already during the war in the book ‘With Pennants Flying’, which deals with combat by army tank units. Bryan Perrett in his book ‘Through the Mud and the Blood’ also recounts this episode. This contains an eyewitness account by Trooper Leslie Bowie of 7 R.T.R. (a veteran of Dunkirk, COMPASS, and the summer battles around Sollum), who was engaged in tank delivery, and on wireless watch at the site.

It was very hot and all I wore was boots, shorts, beret, and my revolver around my waist. Suddenly I heard a series of shells exploding. I whipped off the headphones and ran to the back of the lorry I was in. There were black puffs of shell-bursts everywhere, men were frantically throwing equipment into lorries and trucks, and in the distance, hull down, were German Mark III’s and IV’s who’d really caught us napping. The tank crews of the 42nd‘s non-runners were jumping aboard their tanks to fight it out, even though much of their ammunition and equipment was stacked outside to facilitate the repair work. Our truck was first off, closely followed by every vehicle that could be got out, and the first 2-pounders started firing back. These crews fought a very gallant action with no hope at all, but they saved us.

Bowie came back shortly after and found no survivors, and the dead in a position that made him believe they had been shot in cold blood, maybe because of the unnecessary casualties their resistance had caused to the Germans. As in his account, in ‘With Pennants Flying’ it is also claimed that it looked as if the Germans had shot R.T.R. personnel who had surrendered. But the primary sources I am looking at do not confirm this, and I am inclined to discard this view of events.

Apart from the loss of the tanks, 42 RTR also suffered heavily in personnel. Lt. M.C.Ebutt was wounded, while Lt. J.B.Wrangham, 2/Lt. L.J.Hotson and 40 other ranks were missing. Also captured were 2/Lt. D.J.Slingsby of Bde. Coy RASC, and 2/Lt.R.L.Bertram of the O.F.P. Capt. R.Nixon of Bde. HQ was captured while travelling from HQ to the RASC.

In total, the regiment had managed to lose, in just three days in action, almost 90% of the tanks it started with (the arrival of ‘C’ Squadron on 25 November made up for about half the losses), and about 10-15% of its total personnel, and 20% of those it went into battle with. A brutal welcome to the realities of war for the regiment.

 

[1] It is notable that the Germans thought they were being attacked by these tanks, and more so given the fact that they must have noticed afterwards that they had been in combat with semi-hulks. It is also interesting that they believed the POWs to be from 6 RTR – while it is possible that members of that regiment were at the L.R.S., if they had been dispersed and joined in the general rush east on 23 November – the 6 RTR war diary nevertheless states that the regimental remains moved along the divisional axis (i.e. south, not east) on 23 November.

German Code Names during CRUSADER

The Germans made heavy use of code-names in their radio traffic. Below is a list based on my work with the ULTRA decrypts from Kew. I would be grateful for anyone with the ability to fill in some of the gaps.

There are some obvious groupings. For example, anything with OTTO is probably an office of the Panzergruppe staff. Anything with IDA is likely located in Italy. Some code-names apply to more than one thing (SULTAN stands for Naples, and C-in-C Fliegerkorps X), and in some cases the same thing has two codenames (Benghazi with AMTSGERICHT and KAPUZINER).

Group: Offices/Units

English Meaning

ATLAS

Command D.A.K. (old)

 

BLAUMEISE

probably KoRueck in Tripoli, definitely supply office in charge of column transport in rear area North Africa.

Bluetit

EVA

   

FAULPELZ

regiment with at least two battalions

Idler

GITARRE

connected to Arko 104?

Guitar

GOETHE

   

HECKENROSE

Army equipment office?

Hedgerose

IDA AFFE

 

Monkey

IDA BIENE

Fremde Heere West, probably Rome office

Bee

IDA BUEFFEL

 

Buffalo

IDA CHAMELEON

Could be the Abwehr office in Rome (Wehrmacht secret service

 

IDA DELPHIN

 

Dolphin

IDA DRACHEN

 

Dragon

IDA ENTE

could be organisation department

Duck

IDA ESEL

could be medical in Rome

Donkey

IDA GANS IV

connected to intelligence equipment, Rome?

Goose

IDA HENNE

Chef AW – LB(?)

Chicken

IDA MAIKAEFER

could be medical, Italy

Cockchafer

IDA PANTHER

   

IDA PINTSCHER

Liaison staff, Rome

Lapdog/pipsqueak

IDA QUALLE

Arms and equipment, probably Italy

Jellyfish

IDA REGENWURM

Could be personnel office in Italy

Earthworm

IDA RATTE

 

Rat

KAKAOBOHNE

 

Cocoa Bean

KAPUZINER

could be naval station Tripoli

Capucin

KURFUERST

Q.M.G. Abt. 4 C-in-C Luftwaffe

Duke Elect

LAUBFROSCH

 

Tree Frog

NIMMERSATT

 

Glutton

OTTO ELEFANT

Panzergruppe Afrika

 

OTTO FUCHS

based at GAMBUT, has a G.A.F. liaison officer

Fox

OTTO HAMSTER

Oberquartiermeister (Panzergruppe?)

 

OTTO LUCHS

Ic of Panzergruppe

Lynx

OTTO TAUBE

Could be signals office of Panzergruppe

Pigeon

OTTO TIGER

Connected to Panzergruppe

 

PETER

unknown unit

 

SCHWAN

Regiment with three battalions

Swan

STAUBTUCH

command D.A.K. (new)

Dustwipe

SULTAN

Fliegerkorps X

 

UNGEHORSAM

could be personnel office

Disobedience

VOGELBAUER

could be a unit

Birdcage

ZAHNPASTA

could be interim supply/personnel point, at Benghazi

Toothpaste

Group: Supply columns on Via Balbia

English Meaning

BUTTERFASS

 

Butter Barrel

ERBONKEL

 

Rich Uncle

FETTFLECK

 

Fat Spot

GOTTFRIED

   

HAL

   

LUFTBALLON

 

Balloon

TAKTSTOCK

 

Conductor’s Baton

Group: Places

English Meaning

AMTSGERICHT

Benghazi

County Court

BLEISTIFT

On Via Balbia

Lead pencil

BOTENFRAU

 

Female Messenger

GEHEIMRAT

 

Senior Civil Servant (Secret Advisor)

IDEALIST

Derna

 

KARFUNKEL

Benghazi

Carbuncle

LEUCHTKAEFER

Tripoli

Glowworm

SULTAN

Naples

 

TOMATE

Brindisi

Tomatoe

URSULA

   

VERGISSMEINNICHT

 

Forgetmenot

Group: Material

English Meaning

Elisabeth

unknown, could be ammunition or fuel

 

Jagdschloss

Type of ammunition

Huntin lodge

Juwelier

ammunition

Jeweller

Rabenvater

engine oil(?)

Negligent Father

Rasiermesser

Gear oil (?)

Shaving knife

Reibeisen

axle grease (?)

Grater

Quaeker

‘O’ petrol

Quaker

Quaelgeist

Diesel

Troublesome person

Group: Ships

English Meaning

ALBATROS

Wachtfels

 

How not to preserve secrecy – the German way

I work a lot with ULTRA intercepts at the moment, and every so often they provide some light relief.

Two facts ahead:

1) Rommel’s 50th birthday was on 15 November 1941. Being an important member of the Wehrmacht general’s group, and an erstwhile member of Hitler’s inner circle, when he commanded his body guard, he did get telegrams of congratulations from the Nazi leaders, at least Goebbels.

2) The Germans used a system of code-names for places, formations, ships, and offices throughout the Mediterranean.  So for example, ATLAS was the command of the German Afrika Korps, while AMTSGERICHT (county court) was Benghazi. Overall they are mildly amusing in some cases (a personnel office called UNGEHORSAM (disobedience) for example), or highly transparent in others (OTTO LUCHS (Lynx) is the Intelligence Department of Panzergruppe staff – and Germans think of the Lynx as a very sharp and perceptive animal). It’s relatively easy to figure out a lot of them, or at least to get a good idea.  Sometimes the ULTRA type-outs also provide the explanation. I’ll provide a list in the future.

Now, 1) and 2) together.

So on 16/11 ‘Source’ (i.e. ULTRA) intercepted the birthday wishes from Goebbels to Rommel. The signals soldier transmitting them had been a good boy, and followed the instructions to the hilt (there’s something about German stereotyping here), so it starts:

To the Commander in Chief of OTTO ELEFANT, General Rommel…

I am sure it took the best of Britain’s brains to figure out what that code meant…

Brandenburger Special Forces in North Africa 1941

The Brandenburger[1] were a special forces unit of the German army, initially under control of the Abwehr[2], the German army’s secret service, and from 1943 slowly moving to normal control channels. They started out as a relatively small, highly specialist unit, and by the end of the war had grown to the size of a regular field division. By that time, they had become more like British Commandos, or US Rangers. They were very active in the Aegean, and participated in the reconquest of Kos and Leros in October 1943, Operation Eisbaer (Polar Bear), which is best described in Anthony Rogers’ excellent book Churchill’s Folly.

A very good and succinct description is available in German at this link. This includes a list of commanders, sub-ordinations, and other information, including a discussion of the role of the Brandenburgers in the context of the laws of war.

In the context of Operation CRUSADER, the Brandenburger played a small role. I have been able to piece much of it together by the use of ULTRA intercepts and with the help of posters on the Axis History Forum. They had been requested to support the planned attack on Tobruk, possibly by a seaborne landing. A relatively small force[3] was sent under Oberleutnant von Koehnen. This was from 13./Lehrregiment 800 Brandenburg z.b.V.[4], and had been sent directly from Catania in Italy by plane on 14/15 November. The remainder of this company stayed in Italy, and was ready to be moved at the request of the Panzergruppe, although there are indications that this was not going to be possible before February 1942, maybe due to the transport situation following the destruction of the Beta/Duisburg convoy on 8/9 November 1941. The strength of this detachment was likely 1 Officer, 11 non-commissioned officers, and 70 men.

It appears that this detachment was then rushed to Benghazi to shore up the defenses there, and maybe split up on the way, with part of it remaining in Agedabia under the command of an men called Doehring, maybe a senior non-commissioned officer. On 29 November, von Koehnen was in Benghazi with 1 officer, an unknown number of non-commissioned officers, and 31 men. The remainder of the company was at the time in Italy, with a strength of 3 officers, 31 non-commissioned officers, 159 men, and with 17 lorries, 8 cars, and 3 tractors.

It is possible that another company (11./LR 800) arrived in Benghazi as part of Sonderverband 288 (see this older post).

During the main battle these units seem not to have been engaged. They were basically immobile, and had little or no heavy weapons. It appears that they conducted an operation on 22 January 42 during the counter-offensive. My guess is this would have been a small operation, maybe using English-speaking soldiers wearing Commonwealth uniforms to confuse the Commonwealth forces by giving wrong traffic directions (always a favourite) or impersonating officers to give false orders.

[1] lit. ‘men from Brandenburg’, the region outside Berlin
[2] lit. avoid/defend
[3] A ‘Halbkompanie’, half company – not a formation existing anywhere else in the Wehrmacht to my knowledge.
[4]13th Company, Special Purpose Instruction Regiment 800

Progress on Books

We think after three years it might be time for an update, also because the project has changed considerably in the course of researching it.

1) Change of Scope

There is a slight change of scope, in that it has now been extended to provide the most extensive cover yet of the Operations of Oasis Force under Brigadier Reid. This will be a stand-alone book, co-authored by me, Andreas, Kuno Gross (co-author of ‘Incident at Jebel Sherif’, ‘The Occupation of Kufra’, and author of ‘The Bagnold Sun Compass’), and Roberto Chiarvetto, who co-authored the former two books with Kuno. This is a book we are very excited about. It’ll be a self-publishing venture, and we hope to have it out by early 2012. More on that in a few weeks.

Nevertheless, the project is still focused on Operation CRUSADER, and nothing else.

2) Change of Approach

The initial intent was to publish a very simple, one-volume history of CRUSADER from the German perspective. In the course of developing this, it became clear that there is no satisfactory treatment of this very important operation from the Commonwealth side. In the conceptualisation of this, it became clear that it will not be possible to fit this into one volume. We have undertaken very considerable archival research at Kew, the UK’s National Archives, to lift a lot of the original unit records, messages, reports, etc., and have by now probably the foremost library on this matter outside the archive.

We will also be giving a much higher importance to the air battle than originally planned. For this we will lean on Michele Palermo’s ‘Le Battaglie Aeree in Africa Settentrionale’ (The Air Battles over North Africa), which covers November and December (see for this link for a preview, and this link to order. As well as Michele’s and Ludovico Slongo’s earlier ‘Ali d’Africa’, the history of 1st Italian Fighter Wing (see this link for preview, and this link to order). Both books are bilingual, and a very important addition to our knowledge. Especially Michele’s Battaglie supercedes Shores and Ring’s prior standard work.

Michele has confirmed that he is interested to work with me on Vol. III, which will cover a period he has not yet addressed in detail.

3) Outputs

First, obviously the book on Oasis Force.

For the main opus, we are now looking at a 3-volume edition, with the first edition to be published in January 2013 (if all goes well). The order will be somewhat off, being Vol. III (El-Agheila and the Counteroffensive), Vol. I (Sidi Rezegh, Tobruk), Vol.II (Pursuit, Gazala, Agedabia, siege and occupation of Bardia and Halfaya). This will follow the way the Germans split the battle into phases. It will also ensure that each volume will have sufficient amounts of things going on to be of interest in its own right.

We are in detailed discussions about a publishing contract for Vol. III, and would presume that the same publisher will go with all three volumes.

We welcome comments on this.