Setting the Record Straight – The First Night Attack By Tanks

 

The below is a letter written in the course of the research for the New Zealand Official History, which I found of interest, since it shows rather nicely that battles are sometimes fought years later with the typewriter, and between erstwhile comrades… I also thought it quite interesting since I do actually have the book ‘With Pennants Flying’, which Inglis felt gave rise to the need for a correction. It’s an interesting read, but rather for its contemporary nature than for historical accuracy. You should be able to find copies flying (excuse the pun) about on Amazon or Abe Books for a reasonable sum.

The actual attack covered here is generally seen as one of the master strokes by the Allied forces, and rightly so in my view. It was also a vindication for Freyberg’s assessment during planning that the first imperative had to be the breaking open of the encirclement of Tobruk. Presumably because that was the only way to force the enemy to battle. It was all the more astonishing for taking place with no infantry casualties at all, and only one tank lost. In turn, the operation brought in 550 German and Italian prisoners, furthermore killed a considerable number of them, destroyed 8 field guns including one of the dreaded 21cm super-heavies, as well as AT-guns and machine guns.

Many thanks to my friend Jon for getting this one out of the New Zealand archives!

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Map of the attacks, from the New Zeland Official History Series

 

Letter From Maj-Gen L.M. Inglis To Sir Howard Kippenberger, 14 January 1952

4 Nz Brigade With Rtr, 26/27 November 1941

I believe Cox is in NZ and is to discuss his history of the 1941 Desert Campaign with you. A year or two ago someone showed me a story in a popular history of the RTR about the part of the 44th RTR played in the night attack by 19 Battalion to open up to Tobruk on the night of 26/27 November 41: and I don’t know whether this has become the officially accepted story or not. If it has, it is well out.

You will remember that to begin with 4 Brigade had O’Neill’s squadron of 8 RTR under command. When you were left at Menastir you to finish off your battle and the rest of your brigade set out for Gambut and beyond, that sqn stayed with you and was still with you if at Bir Chleta. I picked up 44 RTR (less 1 Squadron). By the time 19 Bn made its night attack to El Duda I had about 17 tanks of this outfit left runners. When I got orders for the attack on Duda, 18 and 20 Battalions were committed and I had only 19 Battalion and the tanks left available for the job. A nice, but rather pedestrian, little half-Colonel called Yeo was the CO 44 RTR. My plan was to assemble the tanks in front and 19 Battalion on a 300 X foot front behind them, launch the tanks straight at Duda at their own speed and follow them as 19 Battalions at its own speed. There was a German lorried infantry right, dug in between us and the objectives in three main positions between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. Yeo was not “on” for the party – It was too novel for him – and I think he must have got touch on the blower with Brig “Boomer” Watkins, that tank Bde Cmd, who was with Div. Anyway while my orders conference was still on both General Freyberg and Watkins turned up. Freyberg took no part in the conference except to draw me on one side and say: “Make him go. Insist that the tanks go.” I assured him that they were going– after all Yeo was under my command at that stage– not under Watkins. Watkins tried all he knew to dissuade me. His final argument was: “We can’t navigate these things shutdown at night”, to which my reply was, “My infantry have got to walk from the feet up, so surely your people can keep their damned lids open and look out the top.” I also said; “This is the way I propose the tanks will go.” (referring to the plan I had already made), “and they’re going to Duda whatever you say; but, if you can think of a better way, put it up to me and I’ll consider it.” After a measurable silence he said, “Well, if they’ve got to go, I suppose that way is as good as any.” The story in the Tank book I referred to is that Boomer persuaded General Freyberg and, apparently with great difficulty, myself to use the tanks; and one would gather that the whole thing was a tank party. There were in fact two main reasons why I insisted on the tanks going: –

  1. I thought that if they rolled over the enemy positions in the dark before the infantry arrived they would horrify and shake the Jerrie’s usefully. Their orders were to go at their own speed independently of 19 Battalion and not to fire (because they’d hit nothing in the dark and the flashes of their guns would only mark them out to the German A/T guns) and to start firing green flares as they approached El Duda so that our troops there would know who they were.
  2. But mainly I wanted them at Duda in daylight next day so that 19 Battalion could have proper support if they were counter-attacked by enemy armour.

In fact the tanks (less one Matilda and two light tanks – the Battalion HQ which moved with Hartnell) went in this fashion. 19 Battalion following at a considerable interval as the tanks drew away from them did a great deal of slaughter. The German fire was so badly directed that 19 battalion suffered no casualties at all, and the Germans make no fight of it at all at close quarters.

Cox may have come over with General Freyberg and Watkins and heard what happened himself at the orders group. I have some faint recollection of his being there but maybe wrong.

I brought 12 of these tanks back from Duda and used them (with 18 Battalion and 16 carriers) in the attack on the afternoon of 28 November to clean out the enemy positions that still existed between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh.

That is briefly the story of how “Boomer” Watkins invented night attacks for tanks. It would interest me to know what the officially accepted story is.

According to the secret first draft of the British Official History, the attack went in slightly differently from what Inglis had ordered, maybe because of an agreement between Hartnell (CO of 19 Battalion) and Yeo. 10 tanks in a composite squadron (composite is presumably an euphemism for ‘understrength’) went in at tank speed, followed by a further 2 troops of seven tanks total and the regimental HQ at infantry speed. It does not mention Brigadier Watkins’ views on the operation.

It is also worth noting that the New Zealand Official History (at this link) is rather more charitable to Brigadier Watkins than Inglis is:

How the I tanks might be used to support the night attack was discussed with Brigadier Watkins, who was willing to commit them behind the infantry but did not want them exposed to enemy fire at first light; by that time he wanted them tucked away out of sight but ready to counter-attack if required. All that the conference settled, however, was that 44 Royal Tanks would be in support of 4 Brigade, B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, in support of 6 Brigade, and PAGE 250A Squadron in Divisional Reserve. The details were left to Inglis and Barrowclough in consultation with the tank officers concerned.

The men and machines who did the job (from the New Zealand Official History). Note the signs on this 4 R.T.R. Matilda II:

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Brigadier Inglis. I must say I love the description of the R.T.R. ‘half-Colonel’ as ‘pedestrian’. The sarcasm is exquisit, and I am sure Inglis enjoyed writing his letter rather a bit too much.

 

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4 R.T.R.’s Matilda II tank DEFIANCE’s crew is observing 19 Battalion

 

 

Useful Resource for Researchers – Luftwaffe Grid Converter

Andrey from the 12 o’clock high forums has gone through the trouble of putting a grid converter for the Luftwaffe Gradnetz grid system online at this link:

http://airfields-wwii.com/tools/gradnetz.html

It is a superb help for anyone who (like me sometimes) has to figure out where the Germans sent air recce, or where they saw something.

The History and Operations of F-Lighters during CRUSADER

Background

In the spring of 1941, the German navy in the Mediterranean considered the expansion of its capabilities by adding a new type of vessel to support coastal traffic in North Africa, in particular for supply of smaller harbours such as Derna and Bardia, which could not be reached with large merchant vessels. The type of vessel was called a Marinefaehrprahm (MFP), or Naval Ferry Lighter. Because of their ‘F’ class designation, they became known as ‘F-Lighters’ to the Royal Navy. 

MFPs were originally designed after the experience with make-shift landing vessels in the preparations for the invasion of the UK in 1940 had shown that a specialist type was needed. The MFPs had a carrying capacity of 70/100 tons in adverse/good weather conditions, or three tanks, and displaced about 200 – 220 tons. They had broad front doors to unload through the bow, and were powered by diesel engines. The initially planned range of 120 nautical miles was quickly seen to be insufficient, and the design range grew to be sufficient to make the 420 nautical mile leg Tripoli – Benghazi without refuelling. The crew consisted of 14 men.

The planned use of the MFP was i) as transports, and ii) as escorts for other slow and unprotected transports. Thus even freight MFPs were reasonably well armed with light AA, captured 7.5cm guns, and depth charges to combat submarines.

2. L-Flottille, a cover name meaning 2. Lehr-Flottille (2nd Instruction Flotilla) instead of 2. Landings-Flottille (2nd Landing Flotilla), was to become the main Kriegsmarine unit under which the MFPs operated in the Mediterranean. It was ordered to be established in mid-August 1941, with a first HQ at Palermo, where the MFPs were laid down at Cantieri Rinuniti Navale, and then Tripoli in Libya, as ordered on 9 October 1941, with a view to having it operate in the Tripoli-Benghazi zone. A total of 30 MFPs were foreseen at this time, in two lots of 15, of which 22 were to be built in Palermo, and eight in Varna, Bulgaria. 15 of these vessels had been ordered in April 1941, to be built in Italy. In October the Italian order was expanded by another 15, and in December another 20 were planned to be built. The intent was to grow the fleet to about 100 vessels.

The first ten MFPs were commissioned in Palermo in November 1941, MFPs F146 to F154 and F160. In the first half of December the remaining five of the first order, F155, to F159 commissioned. The latter two showed how quickly these boats could enter service. They were launched on 6 December, and commissioned on 10 December. 

Operations

Below are two pictures I came across in NARA a number of years ago. Apologies for the bad quality, the pictures were taken off a microfiche reader screen. They show the first MFP convoy to North Africa, which arrived in Tripoli on 5 December 1941. It consisted of four MFPs, F146, F148, F150, and F160. The four lighters had left Palermo on 22 November 41 to move to Trapani, where I presume they were loaded up. They then went to North Africa escorted by the torpedo boat Perseo. The load carried consisted of 800 barrels of fuel, 20 tons Italian cement, Draeger diving gear, 132 tons of equipment, and 20 tons of rations.

These four MFP went across without their 7.5cm guns, which only arrived in Palermo on 2 December 1941. They were subsequently equipped with these I presume. They were also expecting a 2cm AA gun each, from stocks in Benghazi.

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First MFP convoy on the way to North Africa. Escort is the Spica-class Perseo

MFP160

3 December 1941, MFP160 sinking with 400 barrels of fuel and 10 tons of cement and the diving gear, after the front loading doors gave way to wave action. Perseo is taking over the crew.

After the arrival of this convoy, the three survivors underwent repairs, and were then employed on coastal supply duties. E.g. F150 was sent to Bardia in mid-December to pick up tank engines, and F146 was sent to beleaguered Bardia on 20 December, with 70 tons food, 20 tons ammunition and 2 tons mail. This must have been a somewhat harrowing journey, since the Allies at this point controlled the Libyan coast almost up to Benghazi, and were running supply convoys up to Tobruk. F146 was then ordered to remain in Bardia to ensure supply between Bardia and Sollum. It was lost on 24 December to artillery fire, with all of the crew rescued.

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Telegram to Naval Transport Command Italy, with information about the planned trip to Bardia.

The first 15 MFPs quickly diminished in number. Information about their fate during Operation CRUSADER is from the Historisches Marinearchiv at this link:

F160 – sunk due to heavy weather on 3 December 1941

F146 – set on fire and beached due to enemy artillery fire on 24 December 1941

F150 – mined and sunk on 15 January 1942, with a load of 80 tons of gasoline

F151 – heavily damaged and partially submerged while unloading due to heavy weather. Finally destroyed by enemy air attack, 3 January 1942.

Five each were then lost in 1942 and 1943, and the last of this series, F155, ran aground off southern France and became a total loss.

 

Pencil Drawings of Italian Naval Vessels

This is an absolutely fantastic site I came across by accident today. It looks as if it has thousands of pencil drawings of Italian ships, including several hundred of the Italian navy including auxiliaries. The drawings seem to be based on photos

http://www.cherini.eu/mmi/index.html

Unfortunately in Italian only, but it should be easy enough to manoeuvre for ship lovers. Below a drawing from the site and the corresponding photo of Sagittarius, from the Italian Wikipedia. 

Sagittarius was a 600 ton escort of the Spica-class, sub-class Perseo. Sagittarius survived the war and soldiered on until 1964, before being stricken from the naval list.

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A day in the life of 13 Corps – 8 Jan. 42

The text below was meant to be a standard daily entry in the narrative of the Commonwealth side. It shows and analyses events on a daily basis from the Commonwealth perspective.

Having written and researched it however, I had to conclude that life’s too short, and this level of detail is impossible to achieve for daily entries. Between having two small kids and a fairly (and increasingly) demanding day-job, there is no chance that I could manage this level of work, especially when you get into some of the days where multiple units were in contact.

So I have decided that this could go online, since I won’t use it in the book, but still put an awful lot of work into this. It is still of interest I feel, to show the action on a quiet day in the lull between the Axis abandoning Agedabia, and the resumption of major combat operations.

Happy reading, and please keep in mind that the below has not been edited to final publication level!

 

Allied Position [1]

Forward Area

Activity fell into two distinct groups, to the north of and straddling Uadi Faregh the Guards Brigade was occupying and moving beyond Agedabia, and 7 Support Group in the centre of the line continued pushing west. To the east E Force was actively patrolling, and 1 Armoured Division reached Saunnu to the north-east.

The northern advance, directed towards the south-west via Agedabia, was much delayed by mines, which 2 Scots Guards were set to clear throughout the day. At the same time 3 Coldstream Guards were ordered to advance further southwest. Because of the heavy mining and the low visibility caused by a sandstorm, the Coldstreams took until 1500 hours to move past the town and onto the Via Balbia and the Haban (Ridotta el Gtafia) track. They did not encounter opposition in their advance, but lost touch between companies owing to the dark. At dusk No.2 Company engaged enemy rearguards of 90.lei.Afrika-Div. which then withdrew. Somewhat inexplicably however, at 1950 hours 4 Indian Division reported to 13 Corps that Guards Brigade was held up by roadblocks on the Via Balbia and the desert track towards the Ridotta el Gtafia, about 12km south-west of Agedabia.

Further south, the KDG had made contact with 11 Hussars, and reported two armoured cars and one tank at Haban (1 on the map below). Unknown to the KDG, these belonged to the reinforced A.A.33 which covered this area and track. One column of 7 Support Group was reported to be in touch with Axis forces south of el Haselat (3′), about 55km south-south-east of Agedabia where the track to Gialo Oasis crossed the Uadi el Faregh, this was probably CURRY column reporting contact with the other elements of A.A.33.

CURRY also reported the area along the Wadi al Faregh between el Haselat and Maaten Bettafal (4 on the map), 90 km to the south-west of Agedabia and about 40km south of the Via Balbia, free of the enemy, with a radius of 8 miles (13km) around Bettafal showing no major signs of Axis forces. Worryingly though, the advance of all these motorized columns was held up not just by bad going, but also by supply difficulties.  E Force columns and patrols were covering the southeastern flank of the advance, and ordered to continue to do so.

7 Support Group issued a comprehensive operational order on 8 January, which foresaw it keeping contact with and harassing the enemy on a line running from Haban to Maaten Burruei about 70 km to the south-west, and to prepare the ground for a further advance of 1 Armoured Division in this direction.

This included, most importantly, an order to 12 Lancers[2] to push far west with the aim to ascertain enemy presence in the area of Maaten Burruei. They were expected to be in place at their destination at 1200 on 10 January. If no enemy was found at Maaten Burruei, further reconnaissance to the west was to be carried out, and 7 Support Group would follow up to occupy Maaten Burruei on 11 January.

To the north of their patrolling area, the KDG was meant to establish a link to them and thereby the beginnings of a cohesive line, and a cover of the southern flank of the Via Balbia. This was to be achieved by pushing patrols out to Bir es Suera (6), Bir el Ginn (7), and Maaten Belcleibat (5’, about 20km north of Mn. Burruei), while at the same time keeping a link with 11 Hussars further to the north.

The day also saw orders going out to the L.R.D.G. patrols based at Gialo, to push a patrol far north-west with the aim to ascertain enemy presence in the area of Marada Oasis.

Air Operations

Tactical recces and fighter sweeps were carried out over the northern area of the Axis position as well as along the Wadi al Faregh, showing Axis forces in place throughout, and including Maaten Giofer and Maaten Belcleibat. A medium recce on the Marada area was attempted by No. 60 Squadron S.A.A.F., but this failed due to extreme haze up to 18,000 feet, although the crew was treated to a marvelous sunset.[3] The reason for this was probably the very heavy sand storm, which also made any bombing impossible. Five Wellingtons from No. 108 Squadron operating out of Egypt were detailed to raid motor transport at Marsa el Brega, but failed to find the target, and bombed alternative locations instead, with no loss. Seven Marylands of No.21 Squadron S.A.A.F. attacked Marble Arch L.G., but found no planes there, and instead bombed stores and a small vessel at Ras el Garguigh[4].

Naval Operations

A small convoy with petrol and ammunition reached Benghazi, but could not be unloaded due to weather.

Operational Considerations

A signal from 1 Armoured Division to 13 Corps was intercepted by Adv. HQ 8 Army, resulting in a request by Ritchie to Godwin-Austen to not expose the southern advance to an envelopment from the north. This was an early concern about the possibility of an Axis counter-strike, which foresaw the design of the plan implemented by Rommel in his attack on 21 January. The war diary of 7 Support Group also raises the possibility of a counter-attack, which it states should not be dismissed.

The next day however, this possibility was dismissed by Godwin-Austen, who pointed out that while he took note of the Army Commander’s concerns, he saw “[…]no reason for apprehension at this time.”, and wished to take advantage of the current momentum to push reconnaissance further west before the Axis could establish counter patrols. This was behind the orders to the KDG and the 12 Lancers.

A key aspect of the move of 12 Lancers to Maaten Burruei was also to recce a track which could be taken by 1 Armoured Division. The route through the Wadi el Faregh  itself was deemed unsuitable for a large force. The L.R.D.G. patrol to be sent to Marada was to ascertain if armoured forces were at the oasis[5], since these would be able to participate in a pincer movement against a push of 1 Armoured Division west from Maaten Burruei. Air reconnaissance had not been carried out yet of this area.[6].

Godwin-Austen was probably feeling that confirmation of his view came by way of the plans for the Axis withdrawal which had been captured, and which outlined in detail the plans for the withdrawal to the Marada – Mersa el Brega position, and to which the observed enemy behavior conformed. Furthermore, the 7 Support Group’s Intelligence Assessment No. 12, issued on 7 January, included an analysis of enemy tank strengths that concluded this could not be much more than about 60 – 65, reducing the risk of any counter-strike.

Map of the Agedabia Sector showing key locations, from German intel files.

German map of Agedabia sector

Strategic Considerations

General Auchinleck informed Churchill that the retreat from Agedabia into the line Agheila – Marada, which he considered favourable for defence, was happening. He also pointed out that a further advance required the building up of supplies at Benghazi[7]. This port however had been quite effectively sabotaged, and the other ports were only slowly coming into operation. Tobruk was still only handling 600 tons a day, while the requirement for an advance to Buerat was calculated to be 400 tons of petrol per day alone. Derna could not handle ships with more than 15 feet draught and therefore could not make a meaningful contribution[8]. The consequence of this situation was that 1 Armoured Division had transmitted to its Brigades an order by 13 Corps to restrict petrol consumption on 6 January. On 8 January this was deciphered by German radio reconnaissance and passed to the Ic of Panzergruppe, giving the Axis forces some measure of security about future enemy intentions.

A discussion had also commenced between the Chiefs Of Staff in the UK and Middle East Command on the consequence of a failure to crack the Axis position with this final push. The suggestion from Middle East Command had been to give up the whole of the recently conquered area, including Tobruk, and to retreat to the Libyan/Egyptian frontier, thereby reducing pressure on supplies, and stabilising the front in a defensible position.  C.O.S. in the UK pointed out the consequences of such a retreat regarding the ability to attack the Axis supply into North Africa, and the effect this would have on Malta. This concern appears overdone however, since arguably the situation would not be worse than it was up the start of CRUSADER.

On 8 January also, an analysis of the Hurricane fighter/army co-operation[9] situation was received by the R.A.F. HQ in Cairo, in copy to a message from London to Washington. This outlined in detail the situation with competing requests from the Far East and Russia, and advising that due to the need for tropicalisation, no Spitfires could be expected for another four months, even though 70 were allocated to the Middle East each month. Reliance therefore had to be placed on the Kittyhawk as mainstay of the fighter force. Interestingly, the analysis is treating requirements for Hurricane deliveries in support of Operation GYMNAST, the planned invasion of Sicily following a complete victory in Libya, as a given.[10]

Assessment

The resistance on the Via Balbia itself, together with the absence of Axis forces in the south and the rapid advance enabled by this absence there, led to an increasing risk that the southern forces were exposing themselves to a counter-strike from the north.

This was mitigated to some extent by the known weakness of the Axis forces, and had to be weighed against the possibility to seize ground in locations that negated to some degree the geographical advantage of the Agheila position. Maaten Burruei was a key location in this regard, since it sat right between the two impassable salt lakes and controlled this gap, just about 10km east of the track to Marada which would be the lifeline for any force placed there. The occupation of Burruei therefore opened the possibility to use this gap to push a force into the centre of the emerging Axis position.

The ground reconnaissance of the suitability of the terrain south of the Wadi al Faregh, to be carried out by 12 Lancers on their way to Maaten Burruei, was necessary to ascertain whether a southern envelopment of the Axis position on the Via Balbia, rather than a frontal attack, was possible. 1 Armoured Division had to be able to advance with a secure northern flank into the position between the salt lakes, in order to achieve this.

The next days would therefore be critical in shaping the operational planning of 8 Army’s next attack.


[1]WO 169/4053, WO169/4982 and WO169/4005

[2]Supported by one section of 25-pdr guns from 2 R.H.A. and one battery (minus one troop) of A/Tk guns from 102 (NH) R.H.A.

[3]AIR54/89

[4]AIR54/16 – curiously the war diary of No.21 Squadron instead refers to an attack on Sert (presumably Sirte), with results that were seen as unsatisfactory due to insufficient reconnaissance being provided.

[5]There was a suspicion that the Italian Corpo Armato di Manovra, or rather what was left of it, was placed there.

[6]AIR27/1241

[7] WO201/396 Personal ciphers from General Auchinleck to Prime Minister Churchill

[8]ADM234/334 Battle Summary 52 ‘The Tobruk Run’

[9]Army co-operation squadrons undertook reconnaissance and/or ground support missions. They were directly

[10]AIR20/2109 Personal ciphers Tedder to C.A.S.