Book Review: A15 Cruiser Mk. VI Crusader Tank – A Technical History

Book Review: A15 Cruiser Mk. VI Crusader Tank – A Technical History

Five Stars out of Five – Highly Recommended Buy

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Book Cover

Overall

This is a self-published work that is based on very considerable archival research, and it sets the standard for what anyone who ever wants to utter an opinion on the Crusader tank (aka Cruiser A15 Mk. VI) will have to let themselves be measured by. Unavoidable reading for anyone interested in British tanks, desert warfare, and general technological development of tanks.

Given that Operation CRUSADER saw over one-third of the Empire tank force consisting of these tanks, in 7 and 22 Armoured Brigade, and later 2 Armoured Brigade, it is of high interest to me.

Considerations

The Crusader is the cruiser tank everyone loves to hate, for its reported reliability issues combined with the ‘peashooter’ 2-pdr gun in the first two versions. The book clearly demonstrates that this is not a fair assessment, and that with appropriate care and maintenance, the tank could operate reliably over great distances even in the unforgiving desert environment. Having read it, it is impossible to disagree with the final assessment, that many of the shortcomings of the tank were due to the flawed initial specification by the War Office (which, as an aside, renders the very good performance of the non-War Office specced Valentine infantry tank all the more intriguing), and the combination of an ‘unforgiving’ tank with a tank maintenance system that in the first line relied fully on the tank crew to undertake substantial work after a hard day of fighting. Overall a fair and balanced judgement, and it is clear that many of the initial issues of the tank were overcome through increasing sophistication of the production. Nevertheless, it never recovered from the initial performance, and tarred the image of British tanks for a long time to come.

Areas covered

The book comprehensively addresses the performance of the Crusader tank based on contemporary reports, utilizing about 100 archive documents, and all user manuals. It also covers later versions of the tank, such as the Crusader AA (anti-air) tank, equipped with a new turret an a twin set of 40mm Oerlikon guns, and the dozer Crusader trials, as well as the Crusader gun tractor. The book also clarifies the question of what was meant by ‘2-pdr HE’ (it was APHE), and it comprehensively addresses the penetration performance issues that arose with the 2-pdr, as well as challenges faced by the 6-pdr with the initial ammunition, in light of the encounters with up-armoured German tanks during Operation CRUSADER.

The book also excels in tracing the history of investigations and reports relating to the performance of the Crusader tank, undertaken by British authorities in the Royal Armoured Corps, who tried hard to understand what was going on in the field and how to address the matters reported up.

Room for Improvement

Nothing really. Yes, the book could be a different book with first person accounts about how muchh Sgt. Whatshisname hated the tank, but it isn’t that kind of book.

Given the self-published nature (produced by Amazon in A4), it is very decent quality, and the few photographs (from the AWM rather than the IWM, I suspect because of the criminal reproduction fees) are good quality, as are the drawings reproduced from the original.

Notes

 

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

Further Reading

Operation Report 7 Queen’s Own Husssars

Mechanical Issues of Empire Tanks

Mechanical Issues of Empire Tanks II

Chieftain’s hatch: Crusader Mk. I

Cruiser tank breakdowns and the Battle of Uadi el Faregh

Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade

Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

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

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Background

The initial transport of the Afrikakorps (see this link)to North Africa went without any losses on the south-bound route until one of the last convoys saw the German merchant Herakleia sunk at the end of March. Despite this success though, it was not without losses overall.

The most serious strike by the Malta-based submarines happened on 25 February 1941, when a Condottieri-class light cruiser of the early two series of six vessels went down, this time it was the Cadorna sub-class RN Armando Diaz. 

The first loss of a light cruiser of this class had occurred in July 1941 at the Battle of Cape Spada, when RN Bartolomeo Colleoni was sunk by HMAS Sydney.

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RN Armando Diaz at Melbourne in 1934 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The early Condottieris

By the the start of the war, the early Condottieris could be considered obsolete due to their lack of protection, and their degraded top speed, which for  Armando Diaz seems to have declined from 39 knots when launched in 1932 to 31-32 knots by 1941. They were primarily to be used for convoy escort, mine-laying, and training, or indeed as transports in their own right, although da Giussano did serve in the battle fleet at Punto Stilo in 1940.

These early vessels of the Condottieri  class also had construction weaknesses, and the rapid sinking of Diaz confirmed their low survivability. These light cruisers were built for high speed, with the aim to be able to chase and engage on superior terms the French ‘super- destroyers’ of the Chacal  and  Guepard  classes. The test speed of some of the early vessels was astounding, reaching well over 40 knots (64 km/h).

The design for speed of these six early  Condottieris caused them to suffer from multiple issues however, including strong vibrations, and a lack of stability due to being top-heavy. The latter ultimately required the removal of the original tripod mast behind the bridge, which was present in the first vessels.

On the six vessels of the follow-on sub-classes, a completely new armoured forward structure was introduced, giving the Montecuccoli sub-class it’s very distinctive look, and the final iteration of the two Abruzzi-class light cruisers were in my view two of the finest 6″ cruisers of the war.

Sinking of Armando Diaz

On 25 February 1941, while moving south to reach Tripoli, Armando Diaz was torpedoed off Kerkenah Bank in position 34°33’N, 11°45’E by HM/Sub Upright under command of Lt. Norman, D.S.C. RN, who was on his last patrol with this submarine.

Diaz was acting as distant escort to the German 4th Convoy to Libya, consisting of the German merchants Marburg, AnkaraReichenfels, and Kybfels. On this mission she was part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, together with the di Giussano sub-class RN Giovanni delle Bande Nere and the modern Soldati-class destroyers  Ascari and Corazziere.

Diaz was hit by two of the four torpedoes that HM/Sub Upright fired at her, resulting in catastrophic explosions in her magazine and boiler rooms, leading to rapid sinking. Over 500 sailors were lost with her, and only 153 men were rescued. Ascari was also near-missed, and she proceeded to attack HM/Sub Upright without results.

Details on the attack can be found at this link, and in Italian at this link

Upright

HM/Sub Upright returning to Holy Loch submarine base, Scotland, 17 April 1942, Lieut J S Wraith, DSO, DSC, RN on the left, her 1st Lieutenant on the right. (IWM A8424)

A full article on the operations and fate of the early Condottieris is under preparation.

Loss of HM S/M Tempest, 13 Feb 1942

Loss of HM S/M Tempest, 13 Feb 1942

Background

In early 1942, the only means of naval offensive left to Malta were the submarines of the 10th Submarine Flotilla. Most of these were U-class boats, but some were P- and T-class, such as HM S/M Tempest.

The flotilla suffered a steady drip of losses to anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and mines. Starting in late 1941, German Sonar sets (S-Gerät) appeared on Italian escort vessels, and made them a far more deadly enemy.

Torpediniere Circe Marina Militare

Torpedo Boat Circe, after 1941. Marina Militare Photo Archive.

Tempest in the Mediterranean

Tempest was a large boat at 1,327 tons, and thus not considered for joining 10th Flotilla. Instead she was assigned to 1st Flotilla in Alexandria, whence she was supposed to travel at the end of the patrol in the Gulf of Taranto. This was her second combat patrol, not counting the transfer from the UK to Gibraltar. It appears that she carried spare parts for the flotilla in Alexandria on her mission as well.

Her Captain, Lt. Cdr. Cavaye, was an Australian career Royal Navy officer, unlike many other submariners at the time, and well experienced in submarines. 

Sinking of Tempest

HM S/M Tempest had the misfortune of encountering Capitano di Corvetta (Lt.Cdr.) Stefanino Palmas and his torpedo boat Circe on 13 February 1942. Palmas had been to the Kriegsmarine ASW course, and had received further training in Italy. On this mission, Circe was accompanying the German merchant Bosforo on her way to Taranto, and had also been ordered to patrol a specific area, where the day before HM S/M Una had illegally sunk the Italian tanker Lucania, which was traveling under safe passage from the Royal Navy to refuel a repatriation ship with civilians from East Africa. Two experienced commanders were thus set up against each other.

Both vessels noted each other about the same time, and Lt.Cdr. Cavaye made the fatal mistake of opting for a surface attack, probably trusting the night as protection. He would almost certainly not have been aware of the presence of advanced German anti-submarine equipment, including a German operator section, on Italian navy vessels. Cavaye ordered a crash dive when Tempest was about to be rammed, and received a first set of German depth charges while dropping down into the depths. Circe continued to patrol, and commenced attacking with daylight returning. She never lost contact with the submarine, and following a 6.5 hour hunt starting with the attack at 03.22am, using his last depth charges, Palmas finally managed to damage Tempest sufficiently to force her to surface, only 1,000m of Circe, where her crew abandoned ship. Some Royal Navy sailors appeared to be moving towards the boat’s gun were engaged with light AA guns from Circe, and nine rounds of the 10cm main gun.

As this account makes clear however, Tempest was almost mortally wounded by the first attack, and she was lucky not to succumb to it, unlike HM S/M P.38 ten days later. The final attack had led to flooding and chlorine gas building up, making it impossible to remain in the stricken submarine. At a water depth of 1,600 m at the site of the engagement, there was also no possibility for the boat to escape downwards and wait out matters on the sea floor or close to it.

Following this success, Palmas spent time trying to rescue as many of the men as possible, rather than trying to take the submarine under tow, although a small boarding command was sent over, including some German sailors who took code tables and other materials. After a short while, and a failed attempt to tow her to Crotone harbour 30 nm away, she slipped under the waves. 23 survivors out of the crew of 62 were then delivered to the Italian mainland. Many of the remainder were either killed by Circe’s gunfire or the very cold winter Mediterranean.

Palmas notes that the recovered Royal Navy sailors comported themselves very well, and remained calm throughout. He supplied them with food, hot drinks, and clothes. Palmas’ German crew members were not impressed by his actions, but it doesn’t appear there was anything to fault him.

The attack was covered in the Italian War Bulletin No. 631, and Lt.Cdr. Palmas received the Silver Medal for Military Valour.

 

 

Tempest

HM /SM Tempest on the surface during the attempt to take her in tow. Marina Militare Photo Archive.

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Success Report from Italy to German Navy High Command. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Further Reading

Survivor of HM S/M Tempest

German ASW Equipment Pt. 1

German ASW Equipment Pt. 2

German ASW Equipment Pt. 3

Sinking of HM S/M P.38

Difesa.it on the sinking of Tempest

Book review – Italian Torpedo Boat against British Submarine

Oral history of Charles G. N. Anscomb who survived the sinking.

Service history of HM S/M Tempest

Lt.Cdr. Cavaye

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Background

Following the retreat from the Gazala position the Desert Air Force quickly moved west in pursuit, and within days had operations going at Gazala and Mechili landing grounds which were used as staging and concentration posts from which to hit the Axis forces, in particular their air force, in the enemy rear areas. 


002 Lage NA 29 Dec 1941 Part 2

German Situation Map, 29 December 1941, by which time Magrun had been occupied by Empire forces for almost a week. Rommelsriposte.com Collection. 

The role of ULTRA

A major effort was made on 22 December to disrupt operations and destroy planes and ground assets on Magrun airfield.

ULTRA intercepts during the previous days had shown that the landing ground had become a major concentration area for the Axis air forces, and had also placed the battle HQ of Panzergruppe at Magrun[1], and noted that Luftwaffe supplies going into Magrun were considered inadequate, on 21 December. This was the short period during which Bletchley Park was reading the Panzergruppe communications almost in real time. 

In consequence, 13 Corps and the Desert Air Force command laid on two operations on the ground and in the air, to interrupt the Axis on the landing ground. This consisted of 13 Corps directing 22 Guards Brigade onto Margin late on 21 December, and 204 Group setting up multiple raids for 22 December. These operations on 22 December were therefore what would be called ‘intelligence-led’ today, in reaction to this information, and showed how quickly ULTRA intercepts could be turned into operational action. 

Magrun order

Order to 205 Group to put in maximum effort night 21/22 December. AIR23/6489, TNA, Kew.

In particular, a message from Fliegerfuehrer to his Chief of Staff had been intercepted, asking when additional fuel would arrive for the aircraft that were arriving at Magrun, and informing that i) the delivery on the Regia Marina submarine Micca to Benghazi had only been Italian fuel, and that 16,000 ltrs. of fuel that had arrived at Maraua, the previous HQ, had been entirely used up. It was therefore reasonable to presume that at any given moment the next day substantial numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft would be on the ground at Magrun, either delivering fuel, or arriving to be refueled, and constituting a major target. 

Magrun

ULTRA message to Prime Minister, 21 Dec. 1941. UK National Archives, HW1 Series. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 22 December, the following attacks went in:

1. Night 21/22 December, night raid by Wellingtons. Results inconclusive.

2. Morning fighter sweep (see below)

3. Morning attack by Bostons, claiming four planes destroyed on the ground.

4. Afternoon attack by 270 Wing Blenheims, claiming 2 Ju 52 destroyed, 2 probably destroyed, and 2 more damaged, all on the ground.

5. Afternoon attack by Marylands (2 and 3 of Nos. 12 and 21 Squadron S.A.A.F. respectively), which fail to bomb due to the target being insufficiently covered by patchy cloud at 5-6,000 ft, exposing the unescorted Marylands to too high risk in a low attack.

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Bombs from Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 270 Wing RAF explode among Junkers Ju 52s parked on the landing ground at El Magrun, Libya, in the afternoon of 22 December 1941. Blenheims, from Nos, 14 and 84 Squadrons RAF and the Lorraine Squadron of the Free French Air Force, made a series of attacks on El Magrun on 21-22 December, which was being used extensively by the Luftwaffe to provide air support for their retiring ground forces during operation CRUSADER (Courtesy IWM CM2017)

Raids on Magrun Airfield 22 December

Magrun airfield was located 71km south of Benghazi, and was abandoned on 22 December. Prior to leaving there was still heavy activity on it, with crews and stores being removed. It had been used by the Regia Aeronautica, and the first mention of a German plane on the landing ground was not until 20 December, when the Luftwaffe started to occupy it during the retreat. It became the target of a major effort on 22 December. The landing ground had no facilities, but was closely located to the road, and protected by a fort to the north-east.

First went the fighters, a combination of Tomahawks from Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons, out of Mechili landing ground, went to the air field for a ground strafing attack at 0940 hours. The famous No. 112 Squadron (with its Sharkmouth insignia) undertook one of the last operations with Tomahawks.

112 Squadron

A flight of 6 Tommies[2][3] led by Flight Lieutenant WESTENRA took MAGRUN aerodrome by surprise coming out of the sun. F/Lt. WESTENRA damaged a Ju 87 and with Pilot Officer BARTLE destroyed a Ju 87. P/o Duke destroyed a Ju 52 while he probably destroyed a Ju 87 with Sgt. CARSON. A further sweep in the afternoon produced nothing of interest and no enemy aircraft were seen.[4]

250 Squadron

7 a/c in conjunction with 112, 2 & 4 Squdns. made fighter wing sweep to Magrun aerodrome and ground staffed it. Sgt. Dunlow shot down a JU. 87 which was coming in to land – Sgt. [unreadable] damaged one in like circumstances. At least 4 fires were left burning on the aerodrome. A number of JU 52’s being destroyed.

The No. 2 Squadron S.A.A.F. report notes a successful strafing action, with 2x Ju 52 destroyed, 2x Ju 87 damaged, as well as 1x Ju 88 and curiously 1x Do.215 damaged[5].

112 Squadron LG122Pilots of No. 112 Squadron RAF grouped round the nose of one of their Curtiss Tomahawks at LG 122, Egypt. Those identified are, (left to right): Sergeant R F Leu, Pilot Officer N F Duke, Flying Officers J F Soden (on wing) and P H Humphreys, Squadron Leader F V Morello (Commanding Officer), Flight Lieutenant C F Ambrose, Flying Officer E Dickenson (killed in action 28 May 1942), Sergeant H G Burney (killed in action 30 May 1942), Flying Officers D F Westenra, J J P Sabourin (killed in action 6 October 1942, while flying with No. 145 Squadron RAF), N Bowker and J P Bartle, and Sergeant K F Carson. (IWM CM1820)

While the time isn’t clear, it is likely that the Douglas Bostons of No. 24 Squadrons S.A.A.F. went later in the morning, unescorted. It was the last mission of the year for the squadron.

22-12-41 Nine Bostons bombed aircraft on Sid-amud-el-Magrun aerodrome 60-70 aircraft (including 30 JU52’s) dispersed on NW side of aerodrome. 8x 500 HE bombs fell in and slightly short of dispersal area and 24x 250 HE among aircraft and one was seen to be burning on aerodrome on approaching target. 4x 250 bombs hung up slightly and overshot, falling edge of dispersal area. 7/10 cloud over target. Total bombs 8×500 and 28x 250. Total flying time 22.5 hours.

The second light bomber daylight raid on Magnum on 22 December was fairly typical of the period. It was meant to be a major effort by 276 Wing, putting into the air a large number of Blenheims from all its squadrons for two consecutive raids. The operation order is crisp and clear.

.- Os.C. No’s. 14, 45, 84, and Lorraine [5] Squadrons

From: .- No. 270 Wing

A.659 22/12/41 SECRET Operation Order No. 61

6 aircraft of Lorraine Squadron are to land at GAZALA t 0815 on 22/12/41. Aircraft are to link up with 8 aircraft of 84 Squadron already there. 84 Squadron are to lead formation of 12 aircraft after briefing and fighter escort arranged. 

6 aircraft of 14 Squadron are to land at GAZALA at 0830 hours 22/12/41 and join up with 7 aircraft of 45 Squadron already there.

14 Squadron will lead 45 Squadron on second sorry. Standard bomb load will be carried by all aircraft.

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Group Captain, Commanding,

No. 270 Wing, R.A.F.

Fighter escort was provided by Nos. 2 and 4 S.A.A.F. Squadrons and Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons RAF. The raid encountered two Me. 109F, but no engagement ensued. The fighters reported strong and accurate light AA fire.  

All six operational Blenheims from 14 Squadron accordingly left Gambut at 0515, and arrived at Gazala at 0605. The detailed record explains that due to problems with communication and cloud cover over the airfield only 3 aircraft arrived, the others returning. I suspect the issue was that the aircraft went to Mechili rather than Gazala landing grounds.

Therefore, 14 Squadron ultimately only put up three Blenheims for Magrun, ships 9656 J, 5950 V, and 5947 M, crewed by Wing Cdr. Buchanan, Sgts. Chaplin and Ball; Sgts. Willis, Young, and New; and Pilot Officers Wilbon, McKenny, and Sgt. Webster, respectively. 

Following the raid, the three planes returned to Gazala, from where they left at 1100 to return to base at 1445.

Proceeding to EL MECHILI where fighter escort was provided these 3 aircraft formed part of a wing formation. On the aerodrome at Magrun six Ju. 52’s and six 109’s were seen, and our aircraft at 1320 hours G.M.T. from 5,000 feet dropped 4x 250 lbs bombs each. Two Ju. 88’s[6] and one M.T. were seen to be hit, all the bombs fell in target area. Heavy slight A.A. was experienced, two of our aircraft were hit, but all however returned to base.

German records (kindly provided by Andrew from airwarpublications.com) show that the Allied cliaims on the while were reasonably accurate. They are given below as received. Total losses amounted to one Ju 88 reconnaissance, 3x Me109F, 2 x Ju 52 and 2x Ju 87 on this day.

– 22.12.1941: 2.(F)/123 Ju 88 destroyed by strafing at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: I./J.G. 27 Bf 109 destroyed by own troops at Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crash-landing at Magrun, 40 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: III./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crashed due to Motorschaden, 100 per cent loss [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 300 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 400 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 1 Ju 87 R-4 damaged by bombs at El Magrus [sic], 60 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 2 Ju 87 R-3 force landing due to damage from enemy fighter, 100 per cent loss [loss list]  

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No. 14 Squadron Daily Report Sheet, 22 December 1941. AIR27/199 TNA, Kew. 

Waterlogged1

A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, ‘U’ (serial number unclear) of No. 45 Squadron RAF, undergoes an engine overhaul at waterlogged Gambut, Libya, after violent rainstorms in November and December 1941 rendered many of the forward airfields unusable during Operation CRUSADER.

112 Squadron Pilots 

Three notable pilots  of No. 112 Squadron RAF, photographed on reaching the end of their tour of operations with the Squadron in North Africa, (left to right): Flight Lieutenant D F “Jerry” Westenra, Flying Officer N F Duke and Flight Lieutenant P H “Hunk” Humphreys. Each of them wears the top button of his dress tunic undone as the (unofficial) mark of the fighter pilot at the time. (IWM CM2504)

Westenra was a New Zealander from Christchurch, who joined 112 Squadron early in 1941, flying with them in Greece, Crete, and in the Western Desert where he was made a flight commander. He is reputed to have urged the adoption of the ‘Sharkmouth’ insignia by the Squadron in September 1941. At the conclusion of his tour in March 1942, he received the DFC for shooting down five enemy aircraft. In 1943 Westenra flew with No. 601 Squadron RAF in North Africa, and commanded No. 93 Squadron RAF in Italy. In March 1944 he was appointed to commandNo. 65 Squadron RAF during the Normandy Invasion, returning to New Zealand in September 1944.

Duke was posted to 112 Squadron in February 1941 after serving with No. 92 Squadron RAF in the United Kingdom. Despite being shot down twice, he achieved an impressive tally of eight confirmed victories in the Western Desert before leaving the Squadron in April 1942. He was then posted to El Ballah as an instructor at the Fighter School before rejoining 92 Squadron in the Western Desert in November 1942 and a adding further 14 victories to his total. In June 1943 he became Chief Flying Instructor at No.73 Operational Training Unit at Abu Sueir, but returned to operations as Commanding Officer of No. 145 Squadron RAF in Italy in March 1944. He returned to the United Kingdom in January 1945 with 28 victories to become a test pilot with Hawkers.

Humphreys joined 112 Squadron as a flight commander in November 1941 after serving with Nos 152 and 92 Squadrons RAF. Like Duke, he left theSquadron in April 1942 to instruct at the Fighter School at El Ballah before returning to operations with No. 92 Squadron RAF in early 1943. He later took command of this Squadron and led it to Malta, Sicily and Italy before another rest from operations in November 1943. In April 1944 Humphreys returned to Italy to command No. 111 Squadron RAF, and left for the United Kingdom in November 1944 on his appointment as Station Commander at RAF Castle Bromwich. He was killed in a flying accident in 1947.

Notes

[1]Incorrectly, since Panzergruppe HQ was in Agedabia at this time.
[2]Tomahawk P-40 fighters
[3]Only five in the ORB, ships AN303 F/Lt. Westenra, AN289 Sgt. Carson W., AN 274 P/O Bartle, AK531 Sgt. Carson K., and AK354, P/O Duke.
[4]This sweep was probably the escort mission for the Blenheim raid.
[5]The type wasn’t present in the desert, although it could have been an older Do 17Z operating as a second line aircraft with the staff of Fliegerfuehrer.
[6]No. 342 Squadron R.A.F.
[7]Should probably be Ju 52s.

The Lorraine Squadron in CRUSADER

The Lorraine Squadron in CRUSADER

Background

Just at the start of CRUSADER, Flight published an interesting article on the Free French Air Force, with some interesting pictures (if anyone can tell me what kind of a plane General Valin is standing in front of, I’d be grateful – I thought it was a Bf 108, but it has a fixed undercarriage, so that can’t be it). The article can be found at this link. The Flightglobal archive is generally very interesting, by the way.

Free French Blenheims

A Free French flight equipped with Blenheims had operated during the East African campaign earlier in 1941. In October 1941, this was upgraded to a squadron, which became the major contribution by the Free French to Operation CRUSADER.

It was the 1st Bombing Group, known as the Lorraine squadron, a Bristol Blenheim equipped light bomber squadron consisting of two flights. In the course of operations, it lost 1/3rd of its flying personnel killed, missing or wounded, including  its newly arrived commander in December, Lt.Col. Pijeaud, was killed on his first mission when his plane was attacked by Axis fighters.

After the withdrawal of Axis forces to the west, the Group remained on the Egyptian border, based on Gambut airfield. After helping the Axis on the way by bombing rear area installations such as El Magrun airfield halfway between Benghazi and Agedabia (see below), it engaged in the bombardment of the Axis border fortifications of Bardia and Halfaya (see this older post). In the middle of January 1942 it was withdrawn for refitting to Syria.

During the 16 days before the surrender of the Halfaya garrison, the Lorraine flew 300 sorties against it, from Gambut airfield. In fact, together with other light bomber units the amount of sorties climbed to a level prompting inquiries from Whitehall if this was really necessary!

Lorraine Squadron in Modern View

This French language site has some good information on the unit, including pictures. At this link you can find a nice colour profile of a Bristol Blenheim Mk.IV in Free French colours. Just ignore the statement that they were operating in the Western Desert in February 1942. Funnily enough, it appears Airfix (ah, bane of my youth) also did a kit of the Lorraine Blenheim (apparently its a good kit too – check the link through the picture below).

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Dramatic Artwork of Lorraine Blenheims bombing Halfaya/Sollum on a vintage Airfix pack.

Towards the end of the CRUSADER battles, the Free French 1st Fighter Group Alsace started operations in the air defense of Egypt, based at Ismailia on the Suez Canal, having just been re-equipped with Hurricane I fighters. Some information on this can be found at this link.

A lot of good information about Free French forces in North Africa can be found at this link.

The End Outside Tobruk – 4 December 1941

The End Outside Tobruk – 4 December 1941

Background

After two weeks of hard fighting, and two mistaken expectations of victory (see here), 4 December 1941 was the day Panzergruppe packed it in outside Tobruk. The war diary of 90.lei. Afrika-Div. notes how the division, together with the equally hard-hit Italian Bologna division[1] was expected to undertake another attack to clean the remaining enemy pockets of the Belhamed height and re-establish the siege ring. This led to a “dramatic exchange of words” between the GOC of the division and General Crüwell of the Afrikakorps at lunch time. In the end however, General Sümmermann got his way partially and obtained a delay of the attack from 1400 hours to 1600 hours. It never took place. At 1500 hours the order to retreat came and the battle outside Tobruk was lost.

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Unknown Command Post during the battle for the salient. Rommelsriposte Collection.

15.00 hours General Crüwell passes on order from General Rommel as follows:

The armoured corps retreats west into the area 30km west of el Adem. 90.lei.Div. holds its position and continues to close of Fortress Tobruk from the east and south-east. In this regard the division takes command of the Belhamed and from 19.00 hours Ed Duda. In this regard Gruppe Mickl is subordinated. 21.Pz.Div. takes care of establishing communications Mickl to Sümmermann. In the rear the division will be covered by Mot. Korps Gambarra in the area of Sidi Rezegh. This creates a corridor. Through this corridor, on the night 4 to 5 December, the whole of the artillery of the division will be moved to el Adem. Prime movers will be allocated. 

Following receipt of this order the intended attack is no longer considered[…]

22.15 hours a new order from Pz.Gr. that apart from small rear guards also the division will be pulled out of its prior positions. Positions Belhamed, ed Duda, to be held and later to pull pack on El Adem. To the south stands Mot. Korps Gambarra and protects against attacks from the right flank. This order is immediately transmitted to the troops.

Lt. Hollmann became the leader of the rear guards, which consisted of one section per company. These were to hold until dawn, feint occupation of the position, and then in the late morning hours retreat as well.[2]

Underscoring further the deflation of the day is the report by Artillerie Regiment 33, which participated in the second attempt to reach Bardia.

Advance on Sidi Azeiz and Rearward March via el Adem on 4.12.41

On 4.12. 15.Pz.Div. advanced from the area Zaafran on Sidi Azeiz.

Order of march (large units)

Tank battalion Ramsauer

II./A.R.33

III./A.R.33

The march was at first disturbed by artillery fire from the south, but from Gasr el Arid went without any noticeable events.At Sidi Azeiz the tanks in the van met weak enemy who retreated immediately. The II. and III./A.R.33 went into firing position immediately and took the fleeing enemy as well as the abandoned leaguer under ricochet fire.[3] An enemy battery returned fire but without major effects.

During the afternoon the rear march commenced, at first into the area of Zaafran. During the night it became known that the enemy had managed to connect with Tobruk. The division united with its supply columns in the area of the junction with the Zaafran track on the Trigh Capuzzo and at 02.00 hours on 5.12. broke through to the west. The artillery marched in the group of 15. Schtz.Brigade.[4] Apart from attacks by enemy bombers no special events.

What had happened was that the advance guard of 15.Pz. had run into 31 Field Regiment of 4 Indian Division, who were in no mood to entertain them. Their diary describes the inconclusive action.

4 December

Enemy reported clear of SIDI AZEIZ at first light and our O.P.s felt their way forward, finding no opposition. At mid-day 14 enemy tanks with guns and lorried infantry observed approaching SIDI AZEIZ. Tanks in close formation. C.O. ordered fire to be held which appeared to make the enemy uneasy. No doubt he wanted to confirm where our gun positions were. Tanks appeared to split up and attempt reconnaissance. Some spasmodic shelling. We engaged enemy A/Tk guns observed being toward across skyline and they withdrew. Finally enemy column and tanks withdrew, admitting defeat and apparently with nothing accomplished.

 

Notes

[1]Bologna reported a strength of 3 rifle companies, 1 machine-gun company, and two artillery batteries on this day. 
[2] You can read about how this went at this link.
[3]In this mode rounds would ricochet off the ground, and generate airbursts.
[4]The infantry of the division.