Part I of Wüstennotstaffel eArticle coming soon

Disclaimer first: I commented on this article extensively and contributed some material and knowledge to it, but I have no financial interest.

With that out of the way, I am very pleased to see it shaping up now into what is a very nice addition to our knowledge of the air war in the western desert. I can only highly recommend this to anyone interested in the period and theatre.

A bit of background, the Wuestennotstaffel was a specialised unit under the command of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika (German air force commander Africa), equipped with the venerable Fieseler Storch (incidentally produced in my university town of Kassel – my personal connection is that while a taxi driver there, I once drove an old lady to Sunday tea who had worked on assembling them during the war). The Wuestennotstaffel had the primary task of rescuing downed pilots in the desert. It was unique, no other air force in the theatre had such a formation. It also carried out other tasks, such as local recce, sea search and support of shipwrecked/downed personnel ‘in the drink’, and courier/liaison/personnel transport duties. It was by all accounts a fascinating little outfit.

The below is a straight copy from the Air War Publications blog (at this link), posted here with their permission.

Posted on 10/03/2014 by Morten JessenNo Comments ↓

A lot of material has surfaced since Adam Thompson and Andrew Arthy started digging into the desert activities of this fascinating and unusual unit thirteen months ago. They uncovered far more exciting stories than expected, including run-ins with British elite forces the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Air Service, the capture of a prominent German general, and, of course, lots of rescues of Allied and Axis personnel from the Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian deserts. Therefore, due to the article’s length it has been split into two parts, the first of which will be published soon. As always, our articles will be illustrated with photographs, colour maps, tables and aircraft profiles. We’ve been very fortunate to contact the families of some of the men featured in the story, and the resulting exchange of information has produced some excellent insights into the activities of the Wüstennotstaffel.

Long-Range-Desert-Group-trucks
Here’s a short taste of Part I of the Wüstennotstaffel eArticle, from the period November-December 1941: “The Wüstennotstaffel was kept very busy during the Operation Crusader fighting of November and December 1941, and growing Allied air strength presented some new challenges. Twice in two days, on 22 and 23 December, Staffelkapitän Hauptmann Heinz Gustav Kroseberg had the misfortune to land his Fieseler Storch at North African airfields just before they were hit by British bombing raids, although on both occasions the 42 year old escaped unscathed. On the first occasion his passenger was the Fliegerführer Afrika, Generalleutnant Stefan Fröhlich, who had been given a ride by Kroseberg between forward airfields.

A No. 24 SAAF Squadron Boston was shot down by Oberfeldwebel Espenlaub of 1./JG 27 on the morning of 24 November, and the four South African crewmen reluctantly enjoyed Hauptmann Kroseberg’s rescue services. The Staffelkapitän and another Storch collected them from the crash site, flew them 25 kilometres to Gazala, and later in the day transported them to internment at Derna. The Boston’s pilot, Lt. B.G. Roxburgh, ended up in German prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III. Also on the prisoner transport flight to Derna was the very recently injured Wüstennotstaffel pilot Unteroffizier Konrad Hupp, released from Gazala hospital after crashing his Storch on the previous day.

Photo 028 - Kroseberg with Canadian airman (Der Adler)

On the next afternoon Hauptmann Kroseberg was out on a desert rescue search when he was jumped by what he called Hurricanes, although they were actually No. 3 RAAF Squadron Tomahawks. Sergeant Rex K. Wilson managed to down the slow-flying German liaison aircraft ten kilometres south of Acroma, but the Wüstennotstaffel commander was unhurt. The aircraft – officially on the strength of the Stabsstaffel Fliegerführer Afrika – was destroyed, and one of Kroseberg’s passengers, Leutnant Gorny, was wounded in subsequent strafing runs made on the downed Storch.

Overall, aircraft serviceability of the Wüstennotstaffel was quite low during the Crusader period, reflecting various factors, including the difficulty in ensuring an adequate supply of spare parts and equipment to the North African theatre. The table below provides some examples of the unit’s poor serviceability record in late-November and early December 1941.

Table: 1. Wüstennotstaffel Storch Aircraft during Operation Crusader
Date         On Strength        Serviceable     % Serviceable
26.11.41      8                               3                           37.5
04.12.41      8                               2                           25
06.12.41      8                               4                           50
10.12.41      8                               1                           12.5

A Literary Field Return

The picture below is a bit unusual. It’s a picture those of us spending too much time going through war diaries see often, it is a battalion field return of officers, by rank (actual/temporary), name, and whether they are with the unit or not. So far, so boring (unless you happen to have a relative on the list). But this one is from October 1941, for 3 R.T.R., and it is a bit special, at least to us nerds, and maybe to those who were boys in the sixties, and lapped up anything that was written about the desert war.

3rtr

This return contains two names that many will recognise, first that of Captain Cyril Joly, at the time Adjutant of the battalion, and author of Take These Men, a fictionalised, but realistic, novel of tank men in the desert war (you can find it at this link). Second is Acting Captain (actual 2nd Lieutenant) Robert Crisp, author of Brazen Chariots, a first-hand account of Operation CRUSADER, and The Gods Were Neutral, a first-hand account of the disastrous campaign in Greece in 1941 – the books can be found at these links: The Gods Were Neutral (wrong tank on the cover, never mind) and Brazen Chariots (and whoever designed that cover should be severely chastised!).

Happy reading!

Book Review – To the Last Round

To the Last Round is an oral history of the South Nottinghamshire Hussars (107 Royal Horse Artillery) by the Imperial War Museum’s oral historian, Peter Hart. Like his other books this is very readable, and very strongly focused on giving a voice to the men who served in the regiment during the war.

The book starts with the beginning of the war, and takes the reader through to the 6 June 1942, when the regiment was overrun by German tanks at the ‘Cauldron’.

The book is primarily based on the interviews with the men, which are well woven into a relatively sparse narrative about the campaign. The focus is always on the personal experience. While there are some errors in the overall narrative (such as ascribing the first name ‘Clive’ to General Claude Auchinleck), these do not detract from reading.

Where the book stands out is in the insight it gives the reader about the conditions in occupied Tobruk, from the boredom of being in a fortress under siege, to the terror of constant bombardment. There are a number of photos, with most of them portray photos of the men who were in the regiment.

The book ends on the Gazala battles, where many men of the regiment died firing their guns to the last moment, in a heroic but pointless last stand.

I can not recommend this book highly enough to anyone who wants to know what the war in the desert was like for the men who fought it.

 There are two interesting stories connected to Ray Ellis, who was with the regiment at Tobruk, and during its last battle at this and this link.

Book Review: Courage Alone by Chris Dunning

Here’s the verdict upfront: this is a beautiful book, full of photos, very nice coloured drawings, and also very informative.  I managed to get it new for UK£20, which is a steal, considering the label price is UK£35, and the high quality of the book. A must-have for anyone interested in the Regia Aeronautica.

Cover - Note that mine has a different picture of a Sm 79 with torpedo on top

The book covers both matters of interest to operational historians, by providing group and squadron histories of varying length, including the histories of the RA’s experimental station at Guidonia and the experimental air torpedo squadron, and for modellers, with a section on camouflage and many colour drawings.

These unit histories are accompanied by drawings and photos relevant to the text.  The book also contains orders of battle for various major actions or campaigns (e.g. Sidi Barrani 1940 or the HARPOON convoy). Unfortunately the RA’s OOB for Operation CRUSADER is missing, which I consider to be a strange oversight. Their is a set of maps showing airfields, and standard flight routes, which are of considerable interest.

I am not a modeller, so I have to leave judgement on this topic to more competent readers.

The book covers the following areas:

  • Chronology from start of the war to the armistice in 1943
  • Command structure and doctrine
  • Unit histories of groups and independent squadrons
  • Squadron allocations for 1940/41 and 42/43
  • Orders of battle
  • A chapter on the aircraft carrier Aquila
  • A chapter on anti-shipping operations
  • Aircrew training and ranks
  • Aces
  • Aircraft types
  • Aircraft equipment
  • Camouflage
  • Aircraft markings
  • An analysis on why the RA lost
  • Extracts from technical manuals of the Ca 310 and Cr 32

My two criticisms would be that first it would have been nice to read more about the performance of the Italian planes. There is a list of all types produced in Italy and flown by the RA, but it is a table with very limited information on how the planes did. Otherwise such information is scattered into the squadron histories – this shows that the author knows a lot about the topic, but has not collated it for this book. The second is that I do not see the value in having 20 pages of tables with squadron allocations. More OOBs or performance infos of key types in comparison to their opponent fighters would have been nice – e.g. how did the Cr 42 compare to the Gloster Gladiator? How did the Fiat G 50 perform in the ground attack role? What were the key shortcomings of the Br 20? But these are somewhat minor shortcoming in what otherwise is a marvellous and very informative book that is also a pleasure to read and enjoy.

Book Review: Ali D’Africa

Ali D’Africa
Michele Palermo & Ludovico Slongo
Four Stars out of Five
Ali D’Africa is a very good book that I can only fully recommend to anyone interested in the air war over the desert in 1941 and 1942.  It is a day-by-day account of the actions of 1o Stormo (1st Fighter Wing) of the Regia Aeronautica during the period December 41 to July 42, in other words the critical period of the fighting in North Africa.
The book is essentially a day-by-day account of air combat, with the attempt to reconstruct what actually happened by going through the unit records on the British and Italian side. The authors must be congratulated for their perseverance in doing this, and for their honesty, because they do not jump to conclusions, and make it clear where they are speculating.  This is interspersed with personal accounts, e.g. by the nephew of an Italian pilot, or quotes from Commonwealth pilots and unit histories, where these can shed light on the often confusing events.  The detailed description of the actions provides a good insight into the roles taken by the various fighter planes present with the Regia Aeronautica in North Africa.
Very helpfully, the book also discusses the technical aspects of the MC.202 compared to the Commonwealth fighter planes and the German Bf109F-4, which at the period of CRUSADER was the mainstay of the Luftwaffe fighter force in North Africa.  The outcome of the discussion was quite interesting to me, in that it showed that while the flight characteristics of the Macchi were superior to those of its opponents, and it presented a real shift in the performance of the Italian fighter arm, the plane was badly let down by its armament, with a consequent compromising of its effectiveness as a weapon that went beyond what I would have expected.  The discussion on the quality (or lack thereof) of the radio equipment in the Italian planes is also quite informative. In my view the book does a good job in showing that the pilots of the Regia Aeronautica fighter arm were not lacking in determination, as has often been supposed, but suffered from a lack of capable communications equipment, which put them at a disadvantage compared to their adversaries and indeed their allies. One example of this in the book is a combat where a single Macchi out of a group engages a number of Commonwealth planes, while the others (who missed the wiggling of the wings by the plane engaging, which was the indication that enemy planes had been sighted) carry on their way, unaware that enemy planes are close.
Ali D’Africa contains a large number of photographs, not just of the planes of 1o Stormo but also of British and German planes used in the desert. These add well to the text. At the end there is a table with all the combats fought by the unit in North Africa, including claims and losses, as well as a list of pilots. A literature list finishes the book.
The book is bilingual, and my review is based on reading the English text.  This is also where I have to mention my major criticism, which did lead to the book not getting a perfect score for me. The English is not bad at all, but it is clear the text was written by a non-native speaker, and did not benefit from a thorough editing job. In some (very very few) cases I had to go back to the Italian to understand what was meant in the text.  Also, the typeset (Arial, I think) and spacing used for the English text is tiring to read, much more uncomfortable than the Italian typeset, and I would encourage the authors to choose a different font, layout, and English editor for their next bi-lingual book.
Ali D’Africa is nevertheless a very very valuable addition to the existing body of knowledge on the air war in North Africa, and builds on and adds to the pioneering work by Shore and Rings, which was undertaken almost 40 years ago now, and in which the Italians were given quite short shrift.  There is still a need for a comprehensive operational study of the Italian air war in North Africa, but this book does not claim to provide it, and it would therefore be unfair to fault it on this account.
In closing, I can only highly recommend this work to anyone interested in the air war in North Africa.
As an addendum, I would like to add that Aviolibri, a very small (I think family-owned) enterprise in Rome should be congratulated for their efforts in putting out what is not only a highly interesting but also a very polished product (Disclaimer, I have no relation with them, and do not benefit from any purchases made, in any way). Purchasing from them through the internet is very easy, and ensures they will continue in business and be able to supply more interesting books. When you are in Rome, also make sure to visit their store in the Via dei Marsi, behind the Termini train station.  There are some interesting Roman ruins nearby too, and you won’t regret your visit. The book can be ordered from their website on www.aviolibri.it, or by emailing IBN@aviolibri.it. The cost is €18, plus P&P. It is worth it, in my view.

Book Review – “Fighting Flotilla” by Peter C. Smith

Anyone who has looked at previous book reviews knows that I am a great fan of Peter C. Smith’s work. That’s why I bought without hesitation Fighting Flotilla when it was recommended to me in the marvellous naval bookshop Maritime Books in Greenwich. I was not disappointed!

Fighting Flotilla is the very aptly named history of the Royal Navy’s L-Class destroyers and their service in World War II. It does not just address the service however, but also contains a long and involved discussion on the design of the class, the various options that were considered in terms of size, armament and engine power, and the compromises that were made in their design.

The L-class, with its flottilla leader HMS Laforey, comprised eight vessels and I think it would be fair to say the class did not have a good war, since six of them were lost to enemy action, in some cases with heavy loss of life.  Three of them, HMS Lance, Lively and Ghurka, did not even manage a year’s service between their completion and their loss, such was the pressure on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean at the time. The class is of particular interest to me since two of them, HMS Lance and HMS Lively* were part of Force K throughout the CRUSADER period, while HMS Legion participated in the sinking by 4th Destroyer Flotilla of the two light Italian cruisers di Giussano and da Barbiano and joined Force K afterwards.  It is interesting to note that all threee of these would be lost by April.  HMS Lively sunk by aircraft in the waters between Crete and Tobruk, while HMS Lance and Legion were sunk at their moorings in Grand Harbour in Malta while undergoing repairs, but not before Legion claims to have engaged the Italian battleship Littorio in a gun duel at point blank range (4,400 yards) during the 2nd Battle of Sirte in March 1942 (eyewitness accounts of this action are in the book)!

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

HMS Lance entering Grand Harbour, La Valetta, Malta - from Wikimedia Commons

 Now, about the book.  As usual with books by Peter C. Smith, this one is a good mix of document-based research and facts emanating from personal recollections.  The book is basically covering two parts, the development of the class, in the context of the constraints of the Naval Treaties at the time and the threat assessment, followed by the service history of the eight vessels of the class.  This is a good approach for a reader like me, since it gives me the context of how these vessels came to be, and then follows it by the very interesting stories of their lifes and ends.  In doing so the book does not only provide a deep insight into the world of Royal Navy ship procurement towards the very end of the inter-war period (the L-class was built as part of the 1937 Royal Navy estimate), but also provides a good technical overview of the various challenges and trade-offs involved in destroyer design during this period. This was a class that was planned before and built largely during the war, and it underwent many changes while on the stocks because of it, to accommodate experience from the war and the need to get ships out into the sea to fight the Axis. This is why half the class ended up with the advanced, fully enclosed 4.7″ turrets, while the remainder received open 4″ high-angle turrets, which made them very useful as AA defence vessels. The different turrets also had a visual impact – in my opinion the 4″-armed L-class vessels have a far more balanced look to them than the 4.7″-armed.  See e.g. this photo of HMS Lightning  (4.7″) versus this of HMS Legion (4″).

Apart from the information in the text, the book also contains a raft of photographs and diagrams, e.g. cut-away and detailed technical drawings of the design of the two types of main gun turret (4.7″ and 4″) used on the L-class, and the ships as a whole, comparing design and as built.   The selection of photographs indicate that the author spent a lot of time going through the IWM’s photo archive, and some of them seem not to have been reproduced in many places, if at all elsewhere.

The eyewitness accounts of the actions are well placed in the general text, relevant, and add to the depth of the immersion.

Appendices cover the main weapons system, fire control, general fixtures and fittings and the crew compliments in peace and war.  At the end, all the ship’s badges are reproduced, with heraldic information, as well as pendant numbers and the names of commanding officers.  I seriously doubt that there is much else to know about the L-class after the reader finishes this book.

I can only highly recommend this book (like anything by Peter C. Smith, but I think I am repeating myself) to anyone interested in naval actions in the Mediterranean during World War II, or interested in inter-war destroyer design in the Royal Navy.  Unfortunately you’ll have to look for a used copy, since it is currently not in print.

You can also find a detailed account of the life and death of WW2’s HMS Lively at this link. She was the sixteenth and last of the name in the Royal Navy for now at least. I think somebody needs to start a campaign to get that name re-assigned to a vessel.

* HMS Lively has another appeal for me, since she was one of the ships commanded by fictional Royal Navy hero Jack Aubrey. By coincidence, Jack Aubrey’s HMS Lively of 1804, a 28-gun frigate, was in real life also lost while on convoy escort in 1810, wrecked  in the Mediterranean off Malta. 

History of 4th Armoured Brigade

I am not in any way linked to the publisher of this, except that I have in the past made an order with them.  Merriam has for years now provided a very good service to researchers by making available (at low cost) material that otherwise would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to get, and require mortgaging your house or selling off your first-born to pay for it, such as original unit histories written shortly after the war, or post-war studies done by German generals for the Allies.

Today I came across this one on Google books:

4th Armoured Brigade History – with the chapter on the relief of Tobruk available as a free read.

To order it go here – it is available very cheaply if you are happy with the PDF. If you wanted to purchase the original now, presuming you could find it, it’ll probably set you back by about 100 dollars.