Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Background

28 February 1942 was the day of Operation BITING, the Bruneval raid (see this link), in which a combined operation managed to obtain German radar equipment from a Würzburg site, which led to substantial advances in the understanding of the German state of this technology on the British side, and helped the conduct of the bomber offensive on the 3rd Reich.

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 2732 Radargeräte Würzburg Riese und Freya

Freya and Würzburg Riese (giant Würzburg) installations. Source: Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv via Wikimedia.

Radar in the Desert

Prior to the successful raid at Bruneval, it is possible that there was an attempt to benefit from the chaos of the Axis retreat in Cyrenaica in the second half of December 1941, to lay hands on German radar equipment. Through ULTRA intercepts, the Empire commanders had become aware that German radar was being employed in North Africa, to support fighter control against Royal Air Force raids against German and Italian airfields and logistics installations in the rear of the battlefield. Two intercepts from early December clearly indicated the likely presence of Germany FREYA and WÜRZBURG radar system in North Africa. In late 1941, these were the most advanced German radar installations, and North Africa was the only place where Empire forces were in ground contact with the Germans.

The situation regarding German radar in North Africa had been noted by Empire code breakers at Bletchley Park for about a month. Incidentally, the famous picture of the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was dated just a day before the key intercepts about radar in North Africa. Intercepts allowed monitoring the urgent calls for radar equipment to deal with the Empire air offensive in the run-up to CRUSADER, and the monitoring the progress that the equipment had made from its despatch from the Reich to North Africa, via Italy. It is possible that other intercepts or more local intelligence gathering led to the conviction that the installation was at Benina airfield.

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection 

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Until CRUSADER progressed successfully, there was however little chance of being able to capture and evacuate German radar installations, which were located hundreds of miles behind the frontline and, unlike in Northern France, were placed well inland.

This situation changed on 17 December 1941, when the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala position, and this retreat quickly turned into a more or less chaotic rout, with Empire and Axis forces co-mingled on the map, and multiple instances of ‘friendly fire’ air force raids by both Axis and Empire forces hitting their own troops, causing substantial casualties. Three separate Empire pursuit columns were operating in the area of western Cyrenaica, from the north, 7 Indian Brigade in the Jebel Akhdar, pursing the retreating Italian infantry divisions on the coastal road, 7 Support Group south of the Jebel Akhdar, pursuing the retreating Axis armoured force which took the short-cut via Msus and Antelat, and 22 Guards Brigade around Antelat, attempting to cut off the retreating Axis forces in a repeat of what happened at Beda Fomm in February 1941, during Operation COMPASS.

On 21 December, following a commanders’ conference at the HQ of 7 Support Group, with General Gott present, 7 Support Group launched PEPYS column (one squadron armoured cars of the Royals, one battery of anti-tank guns of 3 R.H.A. and C Coy 2 Rifle Brigade) towards Benina airfield for a raid. It is possible, but not documented, that this raid related to radar, but it is probably more likely that it was simply an attempt to disrupt Axis withdrawal from the airfield, which was well underway. It is also not clear if Pepys column ever got onto the airfield, but it is known that they engaged Axis forces. After the raid concluded, PEPYS were ordered to rejoin 7 Support Group. CURRIE column also advanced towards Benina that day, but gave up the project due to heavy going and rain.

On 22 December, new orders were issued, now focused on getting to Soluch and Sceleidima, and to cut off the retreating Axis forces. On this day, the Royal Air Force also launched a major effort against Magrun landing ground, recognizing the Benina had been abandoned (see here for background on this). These orders mentioned a ‘valuable LISTENING SET’ at Benina, which was to be captured and placed under guard by Currie column. I suppose that this refers to Radar.

In the end, 22 December was a wash. 4 R.H.A., Lt.Col. Currie’s outfit, notes that they were conducting rest and maintenance until mid-day, and then moved south, away from Benina, towards Antelat and Soluch. Any opportunity that might have existed to capture a German radar set was thus gone.

 

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Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

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 Typed version of same Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Sources

War Diary 7 Support Group, 1941

War Diary 4 R.H.A., 1941

HW 5 ULTRA Intercepts

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