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)

Mansplaining Submarines to the Regia Marina – German-Italian Cooperation September 1941

Mansplaining Submarines to the Regia Marina – German-Italian Cooperation September 1941

It doesn’t often happen that I come across a text in my files that makes me roll my eyes. But this is clearly one of them, as it shows some breath-taking, and probably subconscious arrogance by the Germans towards their Italian allies. I can only imagine the Italian ASW specialists fuming when reading the entry section. It was helpfully translated into Italian. The translation below is mine, and the German original is from the NARA files of the Chief of the Naval Liaison Staff at the Italian Navy High Command, the ranking German navy officer in the Mediterranean.

As outlined in older posts (here, here, and here), the German Kriegsmarine  and the Italian Royal Navy, the Regia Marina, had a close technological co-operation when it came to matters of mutual interest, such as preventing Royal Navy submarines from wreaking havoc on the supply lines to North Africa.

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The Commanding Officer, Lieut Cdr R D Cayley, DSO, RN, (centre) with his officers and men on board the UTMOST beneath their Jolly Roger success flag. (Courtesy IWM Photo Collection)

The document in question is a memorandum about the current state of anti-submarine warfare on the Axis and the Royal Navy side, with a reasonably amount of detail. It is part of an exchange of information that ultimately led to the installation of German active sonar (S-Geraet) and depth charge launchers on Italian vessels, to help protect supply convoys in the Adriatic, Aegean, and Central Mediterranean. Royal Navy submarines had become a clear part of the menace to the supply lines, together with airborne interdiction, primarily from Malta, and the occasional surface action, although by early September the last one was almost five months ago, when Force K intercepted and destroyed the Tarigo convoy off Kerkennah buoy in a night action on 16 April 1941 (see here for background).

To protect against air attack, the AA defense of the merchants was thickened with naval AA guns from the German Marinebordflakkompanie Sued, as outlined in this older post. It wasn’t perfect, but between this, and the AA defense by the escort units, attacking convoys became a more risky endeavor, with high loss rates for the Malta-based Blenheim day bombers, as outlined here. Other co-operation measures included the transfer of Kriegsmarine DeTe shipborne radar to be installed on Italian major units, the transfer of Italian aerial torpedoes in exchange for German 2-cm AA guns and ammunition from the Italian air force to the Luftwaffe.

By September, that left the submarine threat. It was clear that Italian technology was behind German in this regard, and because the Malta-based submarines threatened German and Italian supplies indiscriminately, something had to be done. So the Germans proceeded to explain the nature of the submarine to their allies, as below. The memo is quite long, and mostly very sensible. It covers location devices including passive and active sonar, radar, radio detection, and buoyed nets, as well as anti-submarine weapons such as depth charges (ship- and air-launched), submarine nets. It interestingly also covers some experimental or research-stage Kriegsmarine detection measures, such as a fotografic device to locate a submarine that is stationary on the bottom of the sea, an electromagnetic device that showed when a sub-hunter was in a circle of 70m on top of a sub, a magnet that would attach itself to a sub and transmit sounds from it to the sub-hunter, and mentions the Flettner helicopter, which was expected to come into ASW service in the next two years.

C o p y

Re: B.Nr. Skl.U III 3030/41 Gkdos. 

Berlin 3 September 1941

SECRET COMMAND AFFAIR

Overview of Current Status of Anti-Submarine Warfare of the Opponent and the Kriegsmarine

1. General

The specialty of the submarine is that it can make itself invisible, by day through diving, by night through its small silhouette. All means of submarine defense aim to negate this special characteristic of the submarine by using specialized means, and to locate the submarine despite its invisibility.

As soon as a submarine has been located it can be engaged, which is again made more difficult when the submarine is submerged because it can evade in three dimensions. Engagement of a surfaced and located submarine by night at first is attempted by gaining visual perception through the use of search lights. If this succeeds, the submarine is forced to dive, and the engagement of the submarine happens in the same form as it would against a submerged submarine during the day, just with the added use of search lights.

 

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Ian Gordon Templer – Last Swordfish Pilot, R.I.P

Mr. Templer is believed to be the last Fleet Air Arm pilot from WW2. He managed to celebrate his 100th birthday, but passed away on 19 October:

https://www.bridportnews.co.uk/news/16989812.tributes-paid-to-former-swordfish-and-fleet-air-arm-pilot-ian-templer/

Mr. Templer’s memory recordings are at this link.

He served in Egypt and Malta in 1941/42.

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Close-up of a Fairey Swordfish Mark II, HS 545 ‘B’, in flight as seen through the struts of another aircraft, probably while serving with No 824 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, 1943-1944.

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Introduction

This article started off because of a note in the high-level traffic files of 8 Army on a request by 4 Armoured Brigade to scour the Delta for additional M3 Stuart tanks[1] and ammunition for their 37mm guns. The battle that gave rise to the phone conversation was fought over two days, with the initial contact between the forces occurring at or just after 1600 hours on 19 November, and combat broken off due to failing light about 2-2.5 hours later. Combat then recommenced the next morning, when both sides found that their night leaguers were just 3 miles away from each other. At the end of the two days, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the M3 Stuart tank reserve and also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure. This prompted the phone conversation that gave rise to this article, appended at the end of this article. An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each[2].

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‘Bellman’, an M3 Stuart tank of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, knocked out near Tobruk, 15 December 1941. IWM Collection

 

The note that started the research, from the situation reports of 8 Army, is 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.

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 M3 gun ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

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Bombay Mark I, L5845 ‘D’, of No. 216 Squadron RAF, undergoing engine maintenance at Marble Arch Landing Ground, Tripolitania, while engaged on the transportation and resupply of No. 239 Wing RAF, the first Allied fighter wing to operate from the landing ground after its capture on 17 December 1942. Courtesy IWM

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[3] 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[4] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[5]

I intend to publish an in-depth analysis of the first day of 4 Armoured Brigade’s two-day battle with Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November. This will be published as a separate article, and given its nature I am looking for e.g. a magazine to place it. The purpose of the expanded article is to analyse in detail the events surrounding the first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with the enemy, in the process also correcting what I perceive as errors in the historical record that have affected the view we hold of it, and to offer a new perspective that raises questions about both the performance of British armoured units at regimental level, and that of the 21.PanzerdivisionIf anyone has any ideas who might be interested in something of this kind, please let me know.

Endnotes

[1] Confusingly, the US forces used ‘M3’ to name the M3 Stuart light tank, the M3 Medium tank (both Grant and Lee versions), the M3 37mm gun, and the M3 75mm gun. Troops nicknamed the M3 Stuart the ‘Honey’ because of the smooth and untroubled ride it provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.
[2]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’
[3]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.
[4]Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles
[5]Railhead

 

 

German tank flag signals

This document is from the war diary of the H.Q. of 7 Armoured Division, December 1941. It’s the first time I have seen this, and it is unusual in that it is in colour. Very few documents are. Signalling in a tank battle was of course a challenge with the means of communication available in 1941, and so even though German tanks were equipped with radio sets, these were not always reliable due to atmospheric conditions, they could be jammed (something the Empire forces attempted through the use of some specially equipped Vickers Wellingtons during CRUSADER), and networks could be overloaded. Flags were therefore a low-tech fallback, but of course suffered from their own issues – difficult to use in failing light, impossible in the dark, and affected by ground conditions, e.g. when lots of dust was thrown up.

Usual health warning applies: this is a wartime document based on intelligence assessments. It may well be wrong, and the Germans only had flags in their tanks so they could engage in a Maibaumtanz.

German Flags

‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R.?

Looking at this picture, it appears to be a squadron of Matilda IIs. The caption says 12 September 1941 near Tobruk. The online history of 4 and 7 R.T.R. states that 4 R.T.R. only arrived in the fortress at the end of September. This would then pretty conclusively point to this being ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R, which would distinguish itself during the breakout two and a half months later.

Anyone recognise one of the tankers?

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Matilda tanks lined up and ready to move off near Tobruk, 12 September 1941. Courtesy IWM Picture Collection