The Rommel Myth

You sometimes come across the claim that the so-called Rommel myth is a post-war creation, such as the statement:

Like Young, whose ‘Rommel the Desert Fox’ created the Rommel myth, authors can appear biased because they echo sources that reflect the prejudices and assumptions of the period.[1]

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rommel’s myth was, for a range of reasons, well in the making from an early time of the desert war. See for example T. Kubetzky’s thesis (in German, available as a Google E-Book) called ‘The Mask of Command’, which presents ample evidence that German wartime propaganda was very busy indeed in myth creation.

Today I went through interrogation reports of German and Italian prisoners from February 1942, kindly sent to me by Tom. They are in WO208/5518 in Kew. The reports are probably based on wiretaps on prisoner of war accommodations, or maybe reports from ‘stool pigeons’, fake prisoners inserted to record conversations.

One particular item stood out that demonstrates clearly that the myth was at least beginning to take shape as early as the turning of the year 1941/42. The report is dated 1.2.42. What is interesting is that the prisoner in question had probably never been to Africa and/or served under Rommel. He was a Sergeant-Major of the German air force’s Coastal Air Wing 806, 2nd Squadron (2./Kuestenfliegergruppe 806), and taken prisoner after his plane, a Junkers 88, was shot down over or around Malta on 3 January 1942. Probably either Feldwebel Freese, or Feldwebel Arnold, air gunner and observer respectively of a 2./KflGr806 Ju 88 shot down by Hurricanes or AA between 0933 and 1015 hours of 3 January 1942 after an attack on Safi landing strip.[2] The whole crew of four survived the loss of the plane, abandoning it in the air and parachuting safely to the ground. The other prisoner numbers are: 421372, Corporal Hoppe, wireless operator, 421370, First Lieutenant Schnez, Pilot, and 421371 – the other Sergeant.[3]

A 421359 in conversation with A321571:

[…]

He [Rommel] went to the FUEHRER too, and said: “I can’t go on fighting with such shells as these.” He wanted to take over [or give up?] the command, in AFRICA (?).

[…]

That rumor that ROMMEL had some Italian officers shot was quite true.

[…]

(Eulogy of ROMMEL)

ROMMEL’s a marvelous chap. He’s had seven drivers already and he hasn’t even been wounded. His battle position is an old car, heavily armored of course. It’s got a few sandbags on top, and there he sits inside.

The light tanks couldn’t get back, they had to stay where they were. They were to be fetched during the night. Suddenly a sort of lorry came racing along, ROMMEL was inside. “Now, boys” he said, “go along and fetch that stuff. Even if you’re taken prisoner, it won’t be so bad, I’ll get you back to-morrow.”

Several mythology elements of Rommel are apparent here – going over the head of the Army command to Hitler to make his case; showing the Italians who’s the boss; oblivious to danger; leading a charmed life; motivating his men to give all through personal appeals.

[1]World War II in Europe, Africa, & the Americas, with General Sources: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Loyd E. Lee, Robin D. S. Higham pp. 142-143, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997

[2]https://maltagc70.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/3-january-36-hour-attack-on-malta/

[3]http://www.ronaldv.nl/abandoned/airfields/MT/malta.html#safi

Translated War Diary – Commander German Subs Italy

I had this link a while ago but forgot to repost it. This is the war diary of the Commander German Submarines – Italy for the period December 1941, when this post came into existence, to 30 June 1942. It is a postwar translation.

https://archive.org/details/wardiaryofcapta194142germ

There are various forms of the diary at the site, including some more convenient such as Kindle or ePub. Unfortunately these are riddled with errors from the (presumably) OCR process. The PDF is fine, since it consists of pictures of the original translation file. A direct link to the PDF is at this link. I would suggest to rightclick and save, so that you can read it offline. Reading it in your browser is slow and frustrating.

The 2-pdr – Experience and Lessons Learned

In a recent post at this link, I have provided a short snippet from a document issued by the Commander Royal Artillery (C.R.A.) of 1 Armoured Division on 20 January 1942. 1 Armoured Division had not been in action at that time, although some of its subunits had been, and it would probably have relied primarily on the experience of other formations during the CRUSADER battles that started on 17 November 1941.

The problem with the document is that while it may have given correct instructions for dealing with German tanks without face-hardened armour, it was pretty far off the mark when it came to the new versions that had arrived to replace the almost total loss suffered by the Germans in the CRUSADER battle. Of the about 90 tanks that the Germans took into battle in the counteroffensive the day this memo was sent out, over 70 would have been recent deliveries, and most if not all of them would have been equipped with the superior armour that made them impervious (over the frontal arc) against the 2-pdr gun.

[…]

THE 2-pr.

14. The 2-pr has been found to be effective against any tank so far encountered up to 1,000 yes when the angle of impact is satisfactory. In defensive positions guns must be put on the ground as the portee[1] is a large target and is very vulnerable – more guns have been lost through damage to portees than to the guns.

They have been fired effectively from the portee and must be so used when on patrol with armd cars etc. when acting as escort to O.P’s “B” Echelons or H.Q.[2] and if attacked by enemy on the move. Full use must then be made of its mobility, but the practice of using the portee as a tank and advancing towards enemy tanks until within range is expensive and must be discouraged. The gun should never be fired when the portee is in motion, nor, when stationary, at an angle greater than 40 degrees to astern.

2-pr H.E.[3]

15. 2-pr H.E. has been used most effectively against soft vehicles but it is doubtful if there is much more in the country.

OPENING RANGE FOR 2-pr.

16. The range at which fire may be opened must depend on the thickness of armour in the target – it has been found tat against tanks guns should not open over 800 yds – at soft vehicles moving not over 1,500 yds or 2,000 yds when stationary. If tanks are allowed to approach to 600 yds the M.G. fire gains accuracy whereas over 1000yds the 2-pr loses penetration so that is within this belt that the tank should be destroyed.[4]

STANDARD OF SHOOTING

17. As with 25-prs the standard of shooting can be improved. Insistence on discipline and correct drill to counteract excitement is the only way to get steady, accurate shooting. One round well and truly fired is worth any number of wild ones. All N.C.O’s and senior gunners must be trained in No.1 duties.[5]

EMPLOYMENT

18. Though sections may be used on occasions the troop should be considered the lowest tactical formation. The importance of all officers being indecently mounted has been borne out frequently.[6][7]

 The documents ends on this hopeful note, covering both the field and anti-tank artillery parts:

A separate training instruction for R.A. units in 1 Armd. Div is being issued but it is hoped that the above will give officers something to think about and work on.

[1]Flatbed trucks with the gun mounted on the rear, such as the one below.

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New Zealand Forces – 2-pdr Portee in position, 3 December 1941. The crew clearly didn’t get the memo on having the gun off the Portee in defense. Courtesy IWM. Incidentally, this photo is almost certainly the base for this painting by New Zealand war artist Peter McIntyre.

[2]Observation Posts, supply elements or Headquarters

[3]See this post.

[4]The instruction is self-contradictory (is the opening distance against tanks 1,000 or 800 yds?), and quite worrying, given that the gunners are given a belt of either 200 or 400 yards. Going at a speed of even 20 km/h a tank would cross the smaller belt in just about half a minute, while at top speed (unlikely in desert conditions) it would have been 15 seconds. While this mode of engagement may work in a one-on-one duel, when defending against either a company or battalion formation of 20-60 tanks, this would mean the defensive position would be overwhelmed in short order, because there would not be enough time to take on more than one or two tanks for each gun.

[5]N.C.O. = non-commissioned officer. No. 1 gunners were Sergeants who commanded the gun team.

[6]Sections = 2 guns. Troops = 4 guns. The standard battery size at this time was 12 guns in 3 troops, or 16 guns in 4 troops, of which one troop was often equipped with the obsolete 18-pdr field gun.

[7]The witty pundit in me misread this as ‘independently minded’ at first. But having their own vehicles was probably seen as more important.

Online version of the official history

Someone went to the trouble of putting the whole of the Official History online. This is Vol. 3 of The Mediterranean and the Middle East – British Fortunes Reach their Lowest Ebb, covering the period September 1941 to September 1942.

http://tothosewhoserved.org/uk/mme/ukmme03/index.html

While a very interesting and good read, like all books from the period, it needs to be considered in the light of more recent research, and also of course the fact the the British Army could hardly be seen as an uninterested party. Nevertheless, the research that went into these volumes is substantial, and a great effort was made to ensure future researchers can verify things. I have repeatedly come across items in the National and Imperial War Museum archives with a stamp on them ‘Quoted in the Official History – Permanent Preservation’.

Happy reading.

2-pdr HE rounds – again

The general view on the issue of 2-pdr high-explosive (HE) is that there was none, and that the guns were only equipped with armour-piercing (AP) rounds. While sometimes one comes across references to 2-pdr HE (see e.g. at this link), these are vague and from memory, written years after the fact. So you can imagine my surprise when I came across a short statement in the war diary of 11 Royal Horse Artillery (R.H.A. – the famous ‘Honourable Artillery Company’ of the City of London), in which German tank methods and ways of dealing with them are discussed.

2-pr H.E.

15. The 2-pr H.E. has been used most effectively against soft vehicles but it is doubtful if there is much more in the country.

11 R.H.A. was a 25-pdr regiment, but it would have worked closely with 2-pdr equipped AT regiments during January 1942, when the Allied forces were operating in mixed columns. Nevertheless, this report does not pertain to operations during the Axis counter-offensive. The relevant appendix is part of the February 1942 war diary. The report was issued by HQ R.A. 1 Armoured Division on 20 January 1942, so it would be based on experience in fighting up to that date.

The document can be found in Kew, under WO169/4560. I’d be interested in comments on this.

Thanks to user ‘idler’ on WW2talk, here is a link to the 2-pdr equipment page with ammunition production statistics.

The Other Ultra – Article

While not directly relevant to the CRUSADER period, this is a very good read by an expert on the subject. Highly recommended.

https://www.usnwc.edu/getattachment/1f40e9ba-42c9-4861-bc7e-c2554ec2909b/The-Other-Ultra–Signal-Intelligence-and-the-Battl.aspx

Here’s something (in Italian) about a Regia Marina wireless operator:

http://www.trentoincina.it/mostrapost.php?id=331

Happy reading!

German Sonar on Italian Vessels – Pt. 3

In the third and, for the moment, final part of this mini series on the use of German S-Geraet sonar on Italian vessels, here is a list of the vessels which had it installed, or were scheduled for installation, as of 28 February 1942. The list excludes Antonio da Mosto, which had been sunk by that date (see this link and this link and this link).

The list is fairly self-explanatory. I am using the Italian abbreviations, so ‘Ct’ stands for Cacciatorpediniere – Destroyer, and ‘Tp’ for Torpediniere, Escort Destroyer or Torpedo Boat. The destroyers listed are an interesting mix, and five were going to be assigned to the Italian fleet following the installation of the S-Geraet. They included the older Navigatori class, of the late 1920s, and the most modern fleet destroyers of the Soldati class.

The Torpediniere are also a bit of a mix, primarily Spica class, but with two older vessels included, the San Martino and the Calatafimi, both of which dated back to WW I destroyer designs and had only recently been downgraded to Torpediniere status. Unlike the destroyers, most of the Torpediniere were going to be assigned to specific stations, Sicily (4), Libya (3), Greece (2), Rhodes (2), Naples (1), and the escort group (1).

A number of destroyers and Torpediniere have no destination allocated to them.

In the table, ‘DC’ stands for depth charge. For Italian depth charges installed, where it reads ‘0 16/50 12/100’, this means ‘no depth charge launcher, 16x50kg depth charges and 12x 100kg depth charges’. For background on the Italian depth charges, please see this link. I am not certain the information in the report is fully correct, but it is given as is.

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Destroyers Usodimare and da Noli in port, late 1930s. The picture shows well the range finder, rounded bridge house, and the twin-turret with its 4.75” (12cm) guns. Courtesy Wikipedia.


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San Martino entering a port. Courtesy Wikipedia

Apart from the naval vessels, some auxiliaries were also equipped with the S-Geraet, for harbour defense in La Spezia and Taranto, and two motor sailing vessels (Motoveliere) for serving with the submarine defense school at La Spezia, to train new personnel. The only vessel where the future port of service isn’t given is the Cyprus.

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