A bit of Detail for Sonderverband 288

In an earlier post (at this link) I have provided some information on the arrival of Special Purpose Unit 288 (Sonderverband 288) in North Africa, and at this link on the arrival of the first Brandenburger special forces under Lieutenant von Koehnen. It was sent in pieces as reinforcements between November 1941 and May 1942. An ULTRA intercept of 14 January 1942 gives a nice bit of detail on this unit. It refers to a report of 12 January 1942.

Ref. CX/MSS/620/T30

MK 1836/ AL 1679/ AIC

Emergency

HQ Company
No.2 Company Mountain Rifle (Gebirgsjaeger)
No.3 Company Rifles (Schuetzen/infantry)
No. 4 Company Machine Guns
No. 6 Company Anti Aircraft
No. 7 Company Engineers (Pioniere)

Total strength: 1,535 all ranks

Transport:
85 motorcycles
154 vehicles
202 lorries
26 tractors

No mention is made of the No. 1 and No. 5 companies. Strength of detachment of Special Unit 288 formerly at Benghazi on 28 November was 292 all ranks. These may represent combined strength of No. 1 and No. 5 companies. Report of 12 January does not mention location or destination of sub-units. But it is believed they maybe en route for or already in Greece before being sent to Tripoli either for ultimate employment in forward area or in Tripoli itself.

1310/14/1/41 GMT

No. 1 Company was a company from the German special forces regiment ‘Lehrregiment 800′, more commonly known as Brandenburger. No. 5 Company was the Anti-Tank company, which was equipped with the (at the time) powerful 5cm PAK38. These elements, together with some support (engineers, HMG) had been sent during autumn to shore up the defences of Benhghazi.

No. 5 Company also included a section of 3 self-propelled assault guns of the Sturmgeschuetz III type. These were sent to North Africa during late winter 1941/42, and participated in the Gazala battles, where at least one was lost. It appears the other was lost when it ran out of fuel during the retreat from El Alamein, and the last one on surrender of the Axis forces at Cape Bon.


Stug III Ausf.D of Sonderverband 288 being inspected by South Africans (IIRC) after its capture at Gazala.

Some more on the Air Attacks on Convoy Operation MF3, 16 – 19 January 1942

In an older post (at this link) I had written about the loss of SS Thermopylae on 19 January 1942 during this operation of re-supply to Malta. I have now come across some information in British ULTRA intercepts that indicates that the Germans were fully aware of the importance of the operation in terms of supplies that were to be ferried to Malta, which would explain the heavy attacks on it. The intercepts are posted below. It would be interesting to see what the reaction to this was on the Royal Navy intelligence side – one would expect that they at least wondered if their codes had been broken.

Ref. CX/MSS/622/T15

MK 1834/AL 1678/MA 1383/WD 1004AIO

Emergency

Germans appreciated on thirteenth that powerful reinforcements for Malta were being assembled in Alexandria. Convoy was expected to sail not before today fourteenth. Strong fighter protection to be given to a convoy of at least eight ships proceeding from Benghazi. Strong air ferrying detachments estimated at fifty aircraft to be flown from Benghazi. First flights already proceeded.

1230/14/1/42 GMT

 

Ref. CX/MSS/622/T15

MK 1835 for Army Air only

Emergency

With further reference to MK 1834 the German appreciation also included the following: the reinforcements include infantry, artillery, AX and “special formations”, searchlights, bombs, more than one hundred crates of engines, replacements, instruments, and “Diesel” engines which have been urgently requested by Malta.

1240/14/1/42 GMT

In my view it is quite likely that this information came from the telegrams of Colonel Bonner-Fellers, the US Military Attache in Cairo, which were intercepted and read by the Italian secret service. In any case, transmitting this information on over wireless was a grave breach of security on the German side, since it gave the game away to anyone listening in, that they had detailed knowledge of the load of this convoy.

Use of the 3.7″ AA Gun in the Ground Role

There are a lot of myths about the ‘failure’ of the British Army to use the 3.7″ anti-aircraft gun as a multi-role gun, as the Germans and Italians did with the 88mm AA gun. Quite often there is a claim that this was not allowed. What happened in reality, in my view, is rather that the guns weren’t anywhere near the ground fighting (and neither should they have been), and that the British army valued air defense over ground defense for these guns. One should note that the Axis did not have a free lunch either. Using (and losing) their precious 88mm guns in ground defense roles weakened the in-depth air defense, and allowed the Royal Air Force far more freedom in attacking bases such as Benghazi, Derna, and Tripoli. Nevertheless, I guess this wasn’t appreciated by the UK tank crews at the time. Apart from that, it is also often overlooked that the 3.7″ gun was much heavier and bulkier, and probably not designed for a multi-role use, unlike the 88mm.

In order to lay to rest the myth that it was actually not allowed to use the 3.7″ gun in the ground role or wasn’t used as such until much later in the war, I am posting here an excerpt from a Lessons Learned document of 8 Army, published after Operation CRUSADER.

 EMPLOYMENT OF AA ARTILLERY AGAINST GROUND TARGETS

The Comd 70 Division reports from TOBRUCH that on many occasions during recent operations, 3.7 AA guns were used against ground targets, notably the EL ADEM aerodrome when enemy aeroplanes were seen landing. They were also used for engaging enemy movement, and for counter battery(1) at ranges beyond that of normal artillery, and for night harassing of roads.

Results were very effective. The guns were very accurate, and fragmentation was excellent. Fuzes were set at safety, and no unexploded round was found on subsequent examination of the areas.

Owing to their high rate of fire, these guns were invaluable for use, in conjunction with others, on one minute area shoots on centres of hostile action.

It is interesting to note that in the German instructions for the defence of the HALFAYA position against Tank attacks, all AA guns were given an A.Tk role while Small Arms fire was to be used against attacking aircraft.

The following points however must influence the use of AA weapons in roles other than A.A.:-

(i) Effective A.Tk range of 40mm shot is 500 yds.

(ii) AA ammunition stocks in M.E.F. are not unlimited.

(iii) Carriages are conspicuous tagets in field operations and must be carefully camouflaged.

Notes:

(1) engagement of enemy artillery positions to subdue the enemy guns.

Abbreviations:

AA/A.A. – anti-aircraft

A.Tk – anti-tank

Comd – Commander

M.E.F. – Middle East Forces

 

 

Image

Gunners cleaning a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun near Tobruk, 19 August 1941. Courtesy of the IWM.

 

 

A 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun in the Western Desert, 27 June 1941. Note the substantial gun crew and the size of the gun. Courtesy of IWM.