21 January 1942 – And they are off!

Today is the 76th anniversary of the Axis forces’ riposte, which led to the reconquest of Cyrenaica up to the Gazala line, where both sides stopped, exhausted, by 6 February. The lightning campaign undid much of the Allied forces conquest, destroyed for a time the fighting capabilities of 1 Armoured Division and 7 Indian Brigade, and exposed a severe rift in British high command, which already foreshadowed the confusion that would lead to desaster in May, and showed the inability of Lt. Gen. Richie to function at the level of an army commander.

The attack is often held to be an example of the risk-taking and dash of Rommel as a commander. It is equally often overlooked that, thanks to the combination of two critical factors. First, there were two convoys with together over 160 German and Italian tanks coming through the gauntlet of Malta. The first to Tripoli and Benghazi at Christmas 1941, and the second to Tripoli on 5 January 1942. Secondly the Halfaya Pass garrison continued blocking the road for Allied supplies until their surrender on 17 January. This meant that on 21 January the Axis forces in the Marada – Mersa-el-Brega position were momentarily superior to the Allied forces opposite them. This was known to Rommel, and it was also known that this situation was not going to last for very long. Where full credit is due to him is in taking the risk to move to the attack without being backed by his own commanders, who he did not inform of his intentions. This preserved secrecy, and led to a complete surprise on the Allied side.

It is also often held that the success of the attack was due to the diversion of British assets to the Far East, including tanks, an infantry division, and planes. This is unlikely to actually have played a role. The constraining factor for the Allies was not force availability, but supply constraints west of the Libyan border. Benghazi had not been opened as a port, and until 17 January the coastal road was blocked at the Halfaya Pass, necessitating a substantial detour for wheeled vehicles. The mathematics of this supply problem are brutal, and they were no less brutal to the Allies than they had been to the Axis until their defeat in front of Tobruk.

The day started with two announcements from Panzergruppe H.Q., translated and reproduced below:

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

Army Order of the Day

German and Italian Soldiers!

Heavy fighting against a vastly superior enemy lies behind you.  Nevertheless your fighting spirit remains unbroken.

At this time we are numerically superior to the enemy to the enemy in our front.  Today the army goes on the attack to destroy this enemy.

I expect that every soldier will give his last in these decisive days.

Long live Italy! Long live the Greater German Reich! Long live our leaders!

The Commander in Chief

Signed: Rommel

General of Armoured Troops

 

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

To: All German and Italian Troops 09.30 hours

The Führer decorated me with the Oak Leaves and Swords to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of the defensive victory wrested from a far superior enemy by the heroic fight of the German-Italian troops. I am proud of this decoration which is meant for us all.  It must be an incentive to now finally beat the enemy in the attack.

Signed: Rommel

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Italian tank crew on an M13 or M14 medium tank during the winter months 1941/42

In Memoriam Cdr. Jeremy Nash, DSC, RN

Commander Jeremy Nash DSC, RN, died on 23 November 2018, aged 98. During Operation CRUSADER he was weapons officer on HMS/M Proteus, a Parthian-class submarine, assigned to the 1st Submarine Flotilla in Alexandria.

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HMSM Proteus underway in the Mediterranean, unknown date (Courtesy IWM)

After the end of CRUSADER, HMS/M Proteus, under command of Lt.Cdr. Francis, had an encounter with a Regia Marina escort vessel, the Spica class corvette RN Sagittario, which led to her being rammed and damaged. The commander of Sagittario presumed her to be sunk. Fortunately enough for Proteus, for some reason Sagittario did not follow up on the ramming with a depth charge attack. She was equipped both with the German ASDIC echolocation system, the S-Geraet (see this link) and also with the more effective German depth charge launch system, which would be used to devastating effect two weeks later by RN Circe in the sinking of HMS/M P.38 (see this link).

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Torpediniera Sagittario, 1941 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Sagittario had a small detachment of German sailors on board, led by a senior NCO (Oberbootsmaat – Royal Navy Petty Officer), who reported to the German command about the incident. The report is below – it also notes that the Italian crew members operating the S-Geraet were trained at the Kriegsmarine school in Gotenhafen, and did good work.

Report about the Sinking of an enemy Submarine by T-Boat Sagittario on 8 February 1942 0450 hours north of Cephalonia.

(as related by Oberbootsmaat Merkel)

Following the release of a convoy Sagittario was on the march from Patras to Argostoli. Sea state 3-4. Speed 14 knots. Ranges were registered at around 1,600m (good echos) up to 2300 hours, when sea state was 1. At 0430 hours the S-Geraet reported a strong noise signal at 320 degrees, which moved out fast. Whether the boat immediately turned was not transmitted to the listening room, but in any case shortly after the report speed was increased to 17 knots. A few minutes later the collision occurred. The enemy submarine was rammed at an acute angle, and went down with a heavy list.

Both vessels suffered damage, HMS/M Proteus to her dive plane, which broke off, and Sagittario to her hull. Interestingly, Lt.Cdr. Francis considered his target a submarine, and attacked with torpedoes, which were not observed at all on Sagittario. In turn, Francis believed that the torpedoes were what gave Proteus away, and did not consider ASDIC detection.

HMS/M Proteus was special in two regards, she was the first Royal Navy submarine to be equipped with Radar, and the only Parthian-class submarine to survive the war. Proteus’ 1st Officer met the CO of Sagittario after the war, abusing him of the notion that he had sunk Proteus that night.

An account by Nash himself of the ramming can be found in this book. Lt.Cdr. Francis, DSO and Bar, RN recounts the incident at this link. Commodore Nash retired from the Royal Navy in 1970.

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Commander Nash, DSC, OBE, RN during the war, (Courtesy, unknown)

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Lt R L Alexander RN, who now commands the Proteus and (right) Lt Cdr P S Francis, DSO, RN, her former commanding officer. (Courtesy IWM)