The War Illustrated on Operation CRUSADER

Today, after purchasing some copies of the War Illustrated on Ebay, I came across this very nice site, which has a full WW2 collection of them online (table of contents for each one, and a number of online articles). There’s quite a bit of things relating to CRUSADER, including two feature articles.

The first article on CRUSADER is at this link – in this one you’ll find a link to the next one. There are some smaller articles throughout the following issues, e.g. on the capture of General von Ravenstein of 21. Panzerdivision, or the performance of the 25-pdr in the AT role. They are well worth reading because they give us an indication of how people thought the war was going at the time.

Movie Thursday – Boche-Busting at Halfaya

Some very interesting movies from British Pathe showing events during operation CRUSADER.

1. The Libya Offensive

2. Advance into western Cyrenaica (Dec. 1941)

3. Fall of Bardia (2 Jan 1942)

4. Capture of Halfaya Pass (17 Jan 1942)

5. Mopping up in Libya (I assume this is either in late 41 or early 42 – maybe someone recognises the General?)

6. First German POWs to arrive in South Africa (1942)

Happy viewing!

Protecting ULTRA – Must try harder?

ULTRA was the code-name given to radio interception and decryption of Axis radio communications. While many people know that this affected a lot of German radio communications, what is less well known is that Italian communications were also routinely decyphered. For a lot of good detail, see Chris’ blog at this link. One of the problems faced by the Allies was to hide the fact that they had read a message, while still taking advantage of it. Otherwise there would be the risk that a reasonably smart enemy would quickly figure out what was going on, and change cypher methods. In the Mediterranean, what happened was that reconnaissance planes were sent out, often from Malta, to ‘discover’ convoys that had been reported in ULTRA. This way the Axis had a good explanation why the convoy was discovered, and would not get suspicious. The story below shows the wisdom of this approach.

Just before the time of CRUSADER, suspicions had been raised about the repeated failure of U-boat patrol lines in the Atlantic to succeed in engaging convoys. On 19 November, the war diary of Adm. Doenitz, Commander of the German submarine fleet, notes:

A likely explanation would be that the British, from some source or other, gain knowledge of our concentrated dispositions and deviate thereby encountering perhaps boats proceeding singly.  This knowledge could be gained by the enemy:
  1) […] 
  2) By deciphering our radio messages.  This matter is being continually examined by the Naval War Staff and is considered as out of the question.

See the transcription of the translated war diary on U-Boat Archive. In other words, there was complete faith in the security of the German naval encryption system at this time. While this may have been the case (although I doubt it), what was not considered was the repetition of signals or sending of related signals through other networks, e.g. the Luftwaffe, or that of Allies. This was of course not as much of an issue in the Atlantic, but it certainly was in the Mediterranean.

About 10 weeks before that, Panzergruppe Afrika wrote to the German military attache in Rome, General von Rintelen, regarding shipping between Italy and North Africa[1]. The memo covers a range of issues relating to harbours, distribution of shipping space between the Axis partners, and also radio security, or rather the lack thereof on the Italian side. It states:

Shipping losses on the route to Tripolis are especially high. […] Furthermore the English (sic!) without doubt gain their information from radio traffic, which gives them a fairly clear picture about the departure and the individual situation of ships (see attachment). Regarding a reduction of radio traffic, compare minute of the meeting between General Bastico and General Rommel on 17 August 1941, sent by this Ia Nr. 25/41 Geh.Kdos. Chef – Sache on 18 August 1941.[2] 

Furthermore it does not seem impossible that the English are using espionage (Naples?).

The attachment referred to above is of great interest, since it shows a number of cases where the ULTRA guard seems to have been let down sufficiently to arouse severe suspicions on the Axis side. It is quoted in full below:

Attachment to Kdo. d. Pz.Gr.Afrika Abt. Ia/O.Qu.Nr. 26/41 g.Kdos. Chefsache of 1 September 1941.

1) The following submarines were discharged in Bardia up to 30 August:

a) 10 August Zoea
b) 12 August Coridoni
c) 16 August Atropo

a) Arrival of Zoea was repeatedly moved. Announcement on German and Italian radio net. According to report DAK English air raids happened every evening on the announced arrival days. The locally ordered discharge at 5 AM on 10 August remained undisturbed until the departure.
b) Corridoni arrived as previously announced on the evening 12 August. From the start of discharging rolling enemy air raids occurred.
c) Arrival time of Atropo was foreseen for 15 August, but was moved. Nevertheless on the evening of 15 August a heavy English air raid took place. Atropo then arrived without announcement on 16 August and could be discharged without disturbance.


a) For 0900 hours 5 August the arrival in Bardia of the supply steamer Cicilia had been announced. As was found out later, this announcement was based on an error. Cicilia was meant for Benghazi. Again in this case on 5 August a particularly active English air activity reigned over Bardia.
b) According to Geh.Kdos. of Chief of German liaison staff at the Italian navy No.4 558 on 24 August at 0300 hours AM steamer Bellona was to arrive at Bardia. DAK reported for 24. August 0400 hours AM english air raid on harbour. The sea area outside the harbour was systematically illuminated.

3) It is of particular note that the English air raids always happened at the times of day notified in the announcement transmitted on the Italian radio net. (report DAK)

4) The Italian radio traffic is being supervised by German listening posts. According to Major SINGER, radio interception analysis office Southeast, even after three changes, every Italian key was decyphered.

It is clear from this that the suspicion was squarely on the Italians. What is also appears clear is that somewhere something had broken down in the protection of the radio interceptions (whether ULTRA or not), and the measures taken to intercept relatively unimportant Axis traffic into Bardia put at risk the capability of the Commonwealth to listen into Axis radio nets. Additional protection would probably have been easy, by just laying on more attacks at random times, to prevent a pattern from forming. But of course, air assets came at a premium in the Western Desert air force during the summer of 1941, with demands on the few available squadrons being very high.

[1] Command Panzergruppe Afrika, Abt. Ia/O.Qu. Nr.26/41 g.Kdos.Chefs., dated 1 September 1941. Copy held in NARA, Panzergruppe Afrika files.

[2] Afraid I don’t have a copy of this.

Duxford Flying Legends Airshow

Last weekend I went to Duxford for the annual Flying Legends Airshow. I found the sky perfect, providing a dramatic backdrop to the planes. Below are some pictures with a desert connection. A CASA licence-built version of the Me 109, equipped with a Merlin engine, a Ju 52 of Deutsche Lufthansa, a P-40F in a striking 1944 Italy paint scheme, B-17 ‘Sally G’ coming in to land, a Swordfish of Royal Navy’s Historical Flight, the business end of a Beaufighter undergoing restoration, a Fieseler Storch. Enjoy!

Next year the Gloster Gladiator is supposed to fly as well, for all you biplane fans!

On the Beaufighter, I discussed the chances of seeing this bird in the air with one of the chaps restoring the Fighter Collection planes. He told me that it was pretty impossible to get her certified in the UK, despite her being 80% complete. Problem is the paperwork, and the UK authorities won’t let her fly without it. Since restoration began about 20 years ago, when paperwork wasn’t considered as important, documentation is the major issue. His view was that the best chance to see her fly again would be through a sale to an Australian or US collection, where requirements are more lenient. Let’s hope for the best!

Notes from the Receiving End

In a prior post at this link I analysed the Commonwealth close air support system during CRUSADER, and in another post at this link I wrote about the South African Maryland squadrons active in strike missions for close air support, battlefield interdiction, and attaining air superiority. Reading through the war diary of the D.A.K., I found some notes on the effect of attacks during the battle in the Agedabia position around the turn of the year. These are quoted below. The attacks were carried out by No. 11 [1], No. 14, and the Free French Lorraine Squadron (No. 342), all with Blenheim Mk. IV light bombers.

A formation of five Blenheim Mark IVs (Z5893 ‘W’ nearest) of No. 14 Squadron RAF in flight over the Western Desert. A Curtiss Kittyhawk, one of the escorting fighters, can be seen on the far right.

Courtesy of the IWM.

Wing Commander Buchanan DFC[2], who led the raid on 31 December, of No. 14 Squadron RAF, shortly after his appointment as Officer Commanding, No. 14 Squadron RAF. From the outbreak of the Second World War, Buchanan flew Vickers Wellingtons with No. 37 Squadron RAF, participating in many of the early bomber operations from the United Kingdom. He was posted to No. 14 Squadron in the Sudan in late 1940, and saw action with them in Eritrea, Egypt and Iraq. After leading the Squadron during Operation CRUSADER in Libya, he was rested before moving to Malta to take command of No. 272 Squadron RAF.

Courtesy of the IWM.

One raid is reported by the war diary of Ariete division on 30 December as “light bombardment[3] by enemy air forces, light damage.” It likely this, as well as the D.A.K. entry for 31 December below, refers to the 30 December raid by 11 Squadron, which itself reported no observed hits.

31 Dec 1941

11.30 hrs […] Enemy bomb strike of 9 bombers on [Italian] motorised Corps, accompanied by numerous fighters, passes without losses worth mentioning. German fighters intervene immediately, shooting down 2 enemy planes, AA of 21. Pz.Div. shooting down another one. Attacks with the same strength repeat themselves twice today. Since only HE bombs of smaller weight are dropped, and these without being targeted particularly well, no losses were suffered.

On 31 December however 15.Pz.Div. reports two attacks by 9 planes each, and these were carried out by No. 14 and Lorraine Squadrons, but with 12 planes (6 and 6) in a so-called ‘Buchanan Party’. Again one raid at 1300 with no reported damage, and another at 1430 with ‘only light damage’. The first raid was reported to have caused good damage by No. 14 squadron, with confirmation claimed by photo recce, and 12 vehicles reported to have been hit, very likely an overclaim. For the second raid the ORB claims results that weren’t as good as the first one. The ORB mentions the dog fight of the top cover with enemy fighters, and the loss of two Hurricanes as a result. One Me 109F is claimed as well. On the other hand, the Germans also overclaimed, since none of the Blenheims appears to have been lost, based on the reporting by No. 14 Squadron, although it is of course possible that the Lorraine Squadron lost a plane. Nevertheless, this is not mentioned in ‘Croix de Lorraine et Croix du Sud’, so I don’t think a plane was lost, even though some of the Blenheims were damaged by AA, including one of Lorraine.

Blenheim Mk. IV of Lorraine Squadron, clearly displaying the Cross of Lorraine.

From Ciel de Gloire website.

1 Jan 1942

12.45 hrs bombing attack occurs by 12 Bristol Blenheim on 15. Pz.Div. 1 dead, 1 severely wounded, 6 motor vehicles total loss. 1 enemy bomber shot down by AA.

This far more severe raid again hit Schtz. Rgt. 115¸of 15.Pz.Div., and the division reported 1 KIA and two severely wounded. The loss is given as five trucks and one Kfz.81 [4]. The raid is well covered in the ORB of No.11 Squadron RAF which led it, and shows that at least sometimes there was astonishing accuracy in reporting damage caused.

1st January, 1942

Bombed dispersed M.T. at BELANDAH, pin-point 3005 from 2,000 feet.

All bombs were observed to fall in target area amongst 150 – 200 M.T. well dispersed. Top cover fighter escort reported 5 vehicles left burning and one lorry presumed to contain ammunition explode. This formation operated with aircraft of NO.14 Squadron and the FREE FRENCH LORRAINE SQUADRON. One run was made over target without dropping bombs.[5] The second run was made and the target bombed. The A.A. at this stage was intense and on turning away from the target the formation ran over another bunch of dispersed M.T., aircraft NO. 2226, piloted by P/O FROGGATT[6] was shot down in flames and seen to explode on hitting the ground.

Two other aircraft of No. XI SQUADRON were also hit by A.A. but slight damage resulted and the aircraft returned to base safely.

The A.A. was light and medium calibre very intense and accurate as to height and direction.

Weather:- Fair over target – wispy clouds. Visibility:- Fair.

Bombs dropped:- 20x 250 lbs G.P. fitted with extension rods.

Participating aircraft:

5604(?) S/ldr. Murray, Sgt. Cameron, F/Sgt. Ware, lead aircraft

2226 – see note below

5819 P/O H.T.L. Smith, P/O Sayers, Sgt. Alderton

5586 Sgt. White, Sgt. Stair, Sgt. Watt

7685 Sgt. Payne, Sgt. Burnside, Sgt. Cameron

What is of interest is that this raid was carried out at a considerably lower height, only 2,000 feet, compared to 4,500 feet in the raids on 31 December. W/Cdr Buchanan, according to ‘Croix de Lorraine et Croix du Sud’ chose bombing height such that it was at the edge of prevalent AA range, in this case the light 20mm guns.

Nevertheless, also on 31 December it is noted that the decision by Rommel to retreat from the Agedabia position was due in the first instance to the weakness of the Axis air forces, which had a range problem in covering this position, and the consequent ability of the English (sic!) air force to smash Axis tanks and vehicles at their leisure. One wonders if this is the first instance of Rommel’s fear of the Allied air forces, that was later to play such a prominent role in the German command debate on how to react to the landing there.

[1] No. 11 Squadron was back in action in Libyan skies during 2011, this time flying Eurofighter Typhoons.

[2] W/Cdr Buchanan DSO, DFC, Croix de Guerre (Belgium) died at sea after his Beaufighter was shot down south of Athens in 1944 and he managed to escape into a dinghy. He was by then CO of No. 227 Squadron operating out of Malta. See this link and this link for some background on this very interesting officer.

[3] spezzonamentispezzoni were light (10-20kg) bombs used by Italian planes. It says something not very favourable for the impact of 250lb GP bombs that they were confused with 20-40lb bombs.

[3] Version of standard light Krupp truck. The Kfz.81 was the ammunition carrier version for the 2-cm AA gun. So again a clear confirmation of the claim.

[4] Presumably to ensure that the target was Axis, and not friendly, vehicles.

[5] With P/O Froggatt were Sgt. Prentice as observer and Sgt. Young W/Opw/AG – the whole crew was killed in the crash, and are buried on the CWGC cemetery in Benghazi.

Sources used:

  • National Archives, Kew: AIR27/193 and AIR27/199, ORBs of No. 14 Squadron. AIR27/157, ORB of No. 11 Squadron.
  • NARA, College Park, MD: war diaries of Deutsches Afrika Korps and 15.Pz.Div.
  • Ferry, Vital ‘Croix de Lorraine et Croix du Sud’.