Messerschmitt ME109 Trailer 2 – YouTube

This aircraft is a Me109G-2, Schwarze 6, captured in Tunisia in 1943, and in the colours of JG77. No longer flying unfortunately but can be seen at the RAF museum in Cosford.

The G did not serve in North Africa during CRUSADER, but its predecessor, the earlier F-4 did and was a major headache for the allied fighters, remaining superior to anything the Empire air forces could field in North Africa until the arrival of the first tropicalised Spitfires in late spring 1942.

JG77 did not serve in the North African campaign in the early stages in 1941/42 . They only arrived as reinforcement during the final stage of the El Alamein campaign, having previously served in the Malta air campaign, in late October 1942.

Captured fly-worthy enemy planes were of great interest to the RAF for research purposes, as can be seen in the picture below.

me109g.jpg

Pilots of No. 43 Squadron RAF inspect an abandoned Messerschmitt Bf 109G of 6/JG53 at Comiso, Sicily. (IWM CNA 1045)

Her complete history is at this link (opens PDF).

m.youtube.com/watch

Not CRUSADER – The day they captured the Italian Army’s Comedian

Every so often the dreariness of the records and looking at industrialized slaughter is broken up by some levity. This one I came across yesterday, it is from the Alamein period. I think the intelligence officer in 30 Corps is a bit unkind, putting this down to the prisoner in question not being the brightest light in the attic. I recognize the humour quite well.

IMG 5598

Fact and Fiction and Alan Moorehead – 19 November 1941

Fact and Fiction and Alan Moorehead – 19 November 1941

The first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with German tanks is probably best remembered for Alan Moorehead’s vivid description of the battle on 19 November, which evokes memories of Trafalgar with tanks going side-by-side, and cavalry charging enemy lines – probably intentionally so.

Moorehead claims to have been an eyewitness from the location of 7 Armoured Division’s battle H.Q. – a claim that seems improbable, if not impossible, given the locations and distances involved. His description of the battle in The Desert Trilogy is below:

Gatehouse […] lifted up his radio mouthpiece and gave his order. At his command the Honey’s did something that tanks don’t do in the desert anymore. They charged. It was novel, reckless, impetuous and terrific. They charged straight into the curtain of dust and fire that hid the German tanks and guns. They charged at speeds of nearly forty miles an hour and some of them came right out the other side of the German lines. Then they turned and charged straight back again. They passed the German Mark IVs and Mark IIIs at a few hundred yards, near enough to fire at point-blank range and see their shell hit and explode.

There are a few improbables here that bear correcting. First, Moorehead was probably over 10km away, so it is doubtful whether he could see what Brigadier Gatehouse was doing. Second, the maximum road speed of the M3 was 36 miles per hour. Even on relatively smooth desert ground it would have been less. Thirdly, the battle was fought at a much more normal engagement range of no less than 700 yards which while short, is not yard arm-to-yard arm point blank. Finally and most importantly, there was no M3 Stuart charge into the enemy tanks. The Stuart tanks of 8 Hussars advanced towards the advancing German tanks, but they had reached their ordered position when the German tanks came within gun range[1].

While the passage by Moorehead is great journalism, and has certainly inspired many young readers about the exploits of British tanks in the desert, it is unfortunately likely to be what we would call ‘fake news’ today, and what was propaganda then. An analysis of the war diaries of the participating units makes it clear that events did not happen as described by Moorehead. In fact the only ones who actually sought to get stuck in closely were the Germans, as the passage from the 8 Hussars war diary below shows.

The enemy force consisted off between 70 and 100 MkIII tanks, supported by MkIVs. They advanced in a compact formation from the North. When within 1,500 yds of our position, they opened out to a certain extent and commenced to fire. Their shooting was very accurate and a number of our tanks were laid out before they came within effective range of our guns. They advanced to within about 700yds, but did not make any attempt to come much closer, except in the later stages of the battle, when they made an attempt to break through on our left flank, which position was being held by 5RTR.

This is also confirmed by the war diary of Panzerregiment 5.While not much is written on the form of the action in the war diaries for 19 November, the Panzerregiment 5 report for the morning fight of 20 November indicates the methods that the veteran tankers and cavalrymen of 4 Armoured Brigade used.

The opponent fought highly mobile and on longer distances, evading the regiment, which advanced to a better firing distance, towards the southeast, and attempted, fighting across the widest possible front, to envelop on the right (west).

A  considerably better observation of the battle is provided by the US observer(s) present with 4 Armoured Brigade to observe the M3 Stuart tank being taken into action for the first time. This was relayed to Washington on 30 November 1941 by the US Military Attaché in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers[2]:

Part 1: Following is based on notes brought in from Libya by Mente, who collaborated with Cornog and Piburn.

[…]

4th Armoured Brigade was attacked on 19 November by approximately 100 tanks of 21st German Panzer Division in vicinity of previous night’s bivouac. Germans had heavy anti-tank guns accompanying each wave of tanks during attack, British had none. Panzer Division driven off. There were no casualties in 3rd and 5th tank regiments; unreliable casualty reports list 22 tanks of 8th Hussars missing of which 15 are known to be destroyed and 7 unaccounted for.

Damage to vehicles consists mainly of broken tanks, tank fires, broken turret rungs and damaged suspension system. Apparently armor plate quality superior to that of German.

30 November 1941

Part 2: Following interesting facts revealed all from personal observations:

[…]

All personnel enthusiastic about 37 MM gun. Best range under 1200 yards which gave Germans with heavier weapon slight fire power advantage. The 37 mm will penetrate front sides and rear of German Mark III and Mark IV tanks.[3]

 

Footnotes

The featured picture shows 8 Hussars training in the western desert, 28 August 1941. IWM E5062

[1] It is also doubtful whether any sane M3 Stuart commander would have fired shell, rather than shot, at German tanks.

[2] This was probably read with great interest in Rome and Rommel’s command post. At this stage, the Italians had cracked the US ‘Black Code’ and were regularly and quickly reading any correspondence sent in it. 

[3] If this is correct as a maximum engagement range then it suggests that 8 Hussars were facing tanks with only 30mm of frontal armour, which in turn suggests Panzer IIIG or Panzer IVD. Panzerregiment 5 still had some of the older G model.

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Operation CRUSADER saw the first use of an American-designed tank in battle, the M3 Stuart tank[1]. I have written about the experience with this tank in prior posts, at this link, and this link. This short article provides an insight into the building up of 4 Armoured Brigade as a fighting formation with the new US-built tanks.

Background – Design and Delivery of the M3 Stuart

In terms of overall design, the M3 Stuart was a very fast tank, compact, if with a slightly high profile, and had relatively weak armour, compared to other contemporary tanks[2]. A major drawback was the short range of the very thirsty aero engines which drove it. The Stuart would continue to serve until the end of the war as both a frontline tank in a reconnaissance role, and in various support versions, including as an armoured personnel carrier. In 1941 the M3 was considered a cruiser tank by the British army, designed for mobile warfare. The tank was equipped with an M5 37mm gun, a reasonably well-designed piece for its calibre. It was about equal to the British 2-pdr gun[3], but the US tanks had been provided with HE shell and possibly also cannister anti-personnel rounds in addition to the AP shot, and thus had additional capabilities compared to the British tanks which relied on their Besa machine guns for infantry/anti-tank gun defense.

The first production version of the M3 Stuart was ready in March 1941, and from July to the end of October 1941, over 300 M3 Stuarts, including four predecessor M2 models, had arrived in Egypt under the lend-lease arrangements between the UK and the US. Four convoys had come directly from the United States between July and October, bringing 36, 69, 52, and 154 M3 tanks respectively, including the four M2A4 light tanks in the first, and also two M3 Medium Grant or Lee in the last. By the end of October, other than the 188 tanks issued to 4 Armoured Brigade, 90 M3 tanks were with ‘B.O.W.’ ‘Board of Ordnance Works’, i.e. undergoing modifications at central workshops in the Nile Delta region. Most of these were probably tanks that had come off the October convoy being made fit for the desert. Four more M3 tanks were held with 4 Hussars in the Delta, used for training crews[4], and 16 with school/training units, for a total of 315 tanks[5].

Honey

R.T.R. tank crews being introduced to the new American M3 Stuart tank at a training depot in Egypt, 17 August 1941. Note the Matilda in the background and the A9 Cruiser in the foreground, still sporting a machine gun in the secondary turret. IWM Collection E3438E.

4 Armoured Brigade Converts

As part of XXX Corps’ 7 Armoured Division, 4 Armoured Brigade at the start of Operation CRUSADER fought exclusively in the M3 Stuart. Substantial desert testing had occurred over the summer, leading to some modifications to the vehicles. Training on the new tanks continued throughout the summer, while the regiments were brought up to strength in other articles, such as trucks, and absorbed replacements.  Overall the crews considered the tank a good, very reliable machine, earning it the nickname ‘Honey’, and the experience with the tank in Operation CRUSADER seemed to bear that out.

Bringing 4 Armoured Brigade to operational readiness in the space of four months from July to October 1941 was a remarkably fast build-up by all standards, since it included the rapid conversion from British to US cruiser tanks for the three regiments to which the M3s were issued, 3 and 5 R.T.R.[6] and the 8 Hussars. The fact that all three regiments had been in operations since the beginning of the war against Italy in 1940 almost certainly helped with the speed of the conversion. The pictures below show 8 Hussars putting their new mounts through their paces.

Hussars august

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. (IWM Collections E5065)

Hussars

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. This picture nicely shows the attached kit, including the .30 Browning anti-aircraft MG, and the US tank helmets worn by the crew. The officer signaling is probably a commander. Flag signals were widely used – one advantage being that they could not be intercepted. (IWM Collections E5085)

Running Short of Tanks

Despite the undoubted qualities of the M3 Stuart, combat experience quickly showed the need to provide for substantial reserves of both tanks, but also ammunition, a particular challenge when the ammunition used in a tank is not the same standard as that used on all the other tanks in an army. Thus, while the availability of 188 tanks for a 156-tank Armoured Brigade may seem a generous number of tanks, at the end of the first two days of battling Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November 1941, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the Brigade’s M3 Stuart tank reserve of 30 tanks and had also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure[7]. This prompted a set of phone conversations given below.

 

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.[8]

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[9] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for< American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[10] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[11]

Footnotes

The featured picture shows an M3 being hoisted out of a ship onto the quayside at Alexandria, 19 July 1941. IWM Collection E4310

[1] Nicknamed ‘Honey’ by the crews because of the smooth and untroubled ride they provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.

[2] In fairness though, given the overall combination of weight, size, gun equipment, and armour, Stuart’s may have had one of the best gun/armour/weight combinations in the Western Desert at this stage.  Older German Panzer IIIG models without uparmouring could not compete. The more recent H version or the uparmoured G were better however, at least over the frontal arc.

[3] A 40mm gun with reasonable performance in 1940, but rapidly approaching obsolescence. Unlike the M3 Stuart’s 37mm M3 gun, no HE rounds were provided to British tanks with the 2-pdr at this stage of the war.

[4] The regiment was used to train replacement crews and to act as T.D.S. (Tank Delivery Squadron), whence fighting regiments could draw new crews and tanks ready for battle.

[5] WO169/952, 11 November 1941 tank statement – note that this is one more than the 314 M2/M3 that came off the convoys

[6] Royal Tank Regiment

[7] An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks of A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each. If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’

[8] Deputy Director Supply Department (or Division)

[9] Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.

[10] Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles

[11] Railhead

David Greentree: British Submarine vs. Italian Torpedo Boat (Osprey Duel 74)

David Greentree: British Submarine vs. Italian Torpedo Boat (Osprey Duel 74)

Four Stars out of Five – Buy

NewImage

Torpdiniera Sagittario – a Spica-class, Perseo-sub class torpedo boat equipped with German ASDIC from early 1942. On 8 February 1942 she detected and rammed HM/Sub Proteus, which did however come off the better (see this link). Sagittario  survived the war and continued to serve until 1964 in the Italian navy. (Wikipedia)

Overall

I have to come clean here – there is no way I would not rate a book where my blog is the first item in the bibliography a buy. 🙂 So go out and buy it. I got it in a Kindle sale, and am happy I did.

Considerations

The book covers the period of the Italo-British war from June 1940 to the Italian armistice in September 1943, with a short post-script covering the continued service of the Italian torpedo boats under the Kriegsmarine flag from 1943 to 1945. 

The clear focus of the book is on the engagements between Italian escort torpedo boats and British submarines. The Italian navy, the Regia Marina, is usually dismissed due to the prevalence of a narrative driven by the Royal Navy memoirs which considered them shy adversaries. Anyone who has looked at the performance of the Italian escorts on the North Africa route knows that this is at best a caricature, and at worst an insult, both to the Italian sailors and to the British sailors in submarines and some surface vessels who fell victim to them. 

The author has gone through a range of secondary sources and relies to a large extent on the official Italian history, which is a great service to those who do not speak Italian and/or would struggle to access this rare and expensive work.

The book is well rounded, and provides a very decent overview of tactics, technology, weaponry, and engagement detail for both sides, given its compact size. I consider it an important reference work and very helpful for anyone researching the naval war in the Mediterranean, which was for the most part a convoy war, the few major fleet actions notwithstanding.

Room for Improvement

Some interesting actions are left off, probably because they did not fit the torpedo boat/submarine engagement, but which are clearly relevant, such as the sinking of Destroyer da Mosto, which had a German ASDIC crew on board (see this older post). My guess is that this is because the other relied on secondary sources, rather than the German original sources in NARA, some of which I have.

So yes, this is not the definitive history of fighting the Royal Navy subs in the Mediterranean, but it is definitely a work that whoever is going to write that history cannot ignore.

Production 

The Kindle version is well produced and very readable. There are a few action diagrams which are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow the sequence of engagements. The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented, many from private collections.

There is a bibliography that is helpful in guiding further research, and more than I would expect in an Osprey work, since these are not normally considered academic works.

Notes

The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Hms p38 submarine

HMS P.38, sunk with all hands by Torpediniera Circe with the use of German ASDIC on 23 February 1942. The detailed report by Commander Palmas of Circe can be found in this older post. Lest we forget. (Wikipedia)

 

 

Book Review: “Flying to Victory” by Mike Bechthold

Five Stars out of Five – Buy

Large 000000colli

Air Commodore R Collishaw, the Air Officer Commanding No. 202 Group, surveys the ruined buildings on the airfield at El Adem, Libya, following its capture on 5 January 1941 during the advance on Tobruk. (IWM CM 399)

Overall

In a nutshell, if you are the least bit interested in the development of air support doctrine on the Allied side in WW2, and/or the desert war, you should get this book. This is a rare book in that it comprehensively challenges the established wisdom, and does so without resorting to hyperbole or manufactured conspiracy theories. The author has done his homework, and clearly sets out his case based on his research. Having looked at some of the same material, I cannot but agree with the conclusion, which means that the way in which we consider the development of army/air cooperation progressed in the Empire forces, and by implication the Western Allies as whole, needs to be reconsidered, and a man who should be recognized for having delivered in 1940 army air support of a quality that wasn’t considered possible until then.

Considerations

The book covers the career of Collishaw, with a clear focus on his background as a fighter pilot in the First World War, and how this influenced his approach to operations. It is relatively silent on his personal life, and treats his life after his (likely) forced retirement very briefly. There is an autobiography however which is available to those interested in more of this detail. 

The clear focus of the book is on the leadership of Collishaw during the campaigns in the Western Desert, which it treats with substantial detail, and does very well of putting his actions and performance into aa clear context. The picture that emerges from this is of a man who has almost been written out of history, by the writing of his superior, Air Marshal Tedder, who seems to have had no good word for him. The consequence of this is that the picture of the early air war in the desert is skewed, and the two men normally credited with developing the army/air cooperation system in the desert (Tedder and Coningham) did not do so, but rather built on the system that Collishaw put in place and then demonstrated successfully. I have myself made this mistake in a previous post (at this link), and I am very glad to be corrected in this.

The author has gone through a lot of detail to better lay out and analyze the performance of the RAF in the early campaigns up to and including BATTLEAXE, and shows clearly how the latter differed from the prior operations in that the RAF acceded to the wishes of the Army, with almost disastrous consequences. While I remain to be convinced that a different approach to air support in BATTLEAXE could have delivered a different outcome, a worthwhile case for reconsidering the operation in the light of the failure to apply a tried and tested air support model is being made.

The book is strongest where it takes the after-action communications written by leading participants and subjects them to a comparison with actual performance or earlier statements by the same actors. Almost invariably it shows the politicization of the messaging.

Collishaw, the main subject of the book, emerges as a man who was unduly overlooked for his contribution to the Allied victory, and who used his experiences in the Great War to a very good effect. One wonders how his career would have gone had O’Connor not been captured during Rommel’s first offensive.

Room for Improvement

There are some minor errors which could easily be corrected in a new edition, which would also benefit from reducing repetitions. None of this affects the fundamental thesis of the book though. On the whole, I think a revised edition would substantially benefit from using Axis sources to ascertain the actual impact that RAF operations had, something which is being done in this version through the post-war studies undertaken by the British authorities, which in turn relied on Axis documentation, but which are not as powerful as going straight back to the source.

Another wish of mine would be to compare in detail the arrangements for air support of the army in COMPASS and CRUSADER. While the broad brush comparison is clear, it is in the detail that CRUSADER provided innovation, in particular the system of ‘Tentacles’, which was well ahead of what the Wehrmacht was practicing at the time. It would also be interesting to compare the COMPASS system to the 1940 arrangement for close air support in the Wehrmacht, in particular in regards to reconnaissance assets.

If I had one major criticism, it would be the absence of a more in-depth exploration of why Tedder so disliked Collishaw. There is some speculation, but nothing definitive, and it appears odd that personal dislike could be leading to such harsh consequences.

 

Production

 

The Kindle version is well produced, footnoted throughout, and very readable. Maps were produced by the author, they are clear and informative, allowing the reader to follow events. They are also being used well to highlight specific issues, such as the distance of Crete from the North African coast.

 

 

The book is well illustrated with a wide range of pictures that are relevant to the material presented.

 

 

As can be expected in an academic work, the bibliography is extensive and a full index is provided. The research that has gone into this book is clearly extensive, and the bibliography provides ample avenues for further research.

 

Notes

 

The review is based on the Kindle version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercialinterest in the book.

 

War Pictorial News 26

The IWM holds the newsreels. No sound, but in a way that’s not so unfortunate if you know what you’re looking at, because it takes away the pathos and the received pronounciation.

This one shows quite a few interesting things. ‘Bush’ artillery (captured Italian guns) being fired; a quite comprehensively destroyed Panzer IV; the bombed out wreck of the Italian navy’s obsolete armoured cruiser San Giorgio, amongst others.

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060007261

Well worth your time!