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.

The loss of HMS Barham

The loss of HMS Barham

On 25 November 1941 one of the heaviest losses of life, and the only loss of a Royal Navy battleship to a submarine at sea, occurred off Bardia, when HMS Barham was torpedoed at extremely short range by U-331, and sank within four minutes. 862 men went down with her, and her end was filmed by a war correspondent on board one of the escorting destroyers. The footage is at the end of this post.

Barham

HMS Barham underway off Devonport in WW2. IWM FL1472

HMS Barham was at the time engaged in an operation to engage potential enemy convoys, together with the other two battleships of the Mediterranean Fleet, HMS Queen Elizabeth (flag) and HMS Valiant, escorted by nine destroyers. The battleships were providing distant cover to the light cruisers of Force B[1], engaged in searching for the German merchants Maritza and Procida (see also this link and this link). Once the news had come through around 1630 hours that Force K out of Malta had sunk these, the battleships turned for Alexandria.

Her complete service history can be found at this link.The BdU (Commander Submarines) noted in his war diary the rather jubilant:

U331 – 1 battleship torpedoed in the Mediterranean. A new beautiful success.

Hans Dietrich von Tiesenhausen

 

Kapitaenleutnant Freiherr von Tiesenhausen, who did a radio broadcast on this attack in December 1941. Wikipedia.

Barham2

Shipping losses: HMS BARHAM listing to port after being torpedoed by U 331. HMS VALIANT is in the background. Photograph taken from HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH. IWM AX64B

Further Reading

The translated detailed report of the attack by U-331 can be found at this link.

A very detailed account by a surviving officer of her loss is at this link.

The interrogation report following the sinking of U-331 in late 1942 give further detail of the sinking of HMS Barham at this link.

The loss of HMS Barham contributed to the very high number of losses at sea suffered by the Royal Navy in the period of Operation CRUSADER, about which I have written at this link.

The video of HMS Barham’s loss can seen here, in the context of the overall newsreel. The list of men lost is at this link.

[1] Force B consisted of two cruiser squadrons, 7 and 15, with the cruisers HMS Ajax, HMS Euryalus, HMS Galatea, HMS Naiad, and HMS Neptune, with escorting destroyers.

HM Submarine Urge has now been found

HM Submarine Urge has now been found

HMS Urge

HM/Sub Urge underway – official Admiralty picture from the IWM Website

The Loss and Finding of HM/Sub Urge

Please see this earlier post for a false report of finding HM/Sub Urge, coming out in 2017, which is now corrected.

Reuters reports the finding at this link, while this German article has many good quality sonar pictures of the wreck, and the Royal Navy has good information here.

Now that it is confirmed that she is found, hopefully the relatives will then have some more knowledge on what happened to the crew. 

The History of HM/Sub Urge

HM/Sub Urge was, as the name indicates, a U-Class submarine, and a highly decorated one at that. Her very active wartime history is very well set out on U-Boat Net at this linkUrge was lost with 44 men on board, carrying 12 passengers apart from her complement of 32. The crew and passengers were very highly decorated, between them accounting for:

1x D.S.O. and bar

1x D.S.C. and bar

2x D.S.C.

1x D.S.M. and bar, twice Mentioned in Despatches

10x D.S.M.

4x Mentioned in Despatches

Operations and Successes

HM/Sub Urge conducted all bar one of her patrols in the Mediterranean. Of these, Urge conducted four patrols during Operation CRUSADER, on its 14th patrol damaging the modern Italian Littorio-class battleship Vittorio Veneto in an attack that led to the cancellation of the critical convoy operation M.41 in mid-December 1941, where Veneto was part of the distant escort, guarding the convoy from attack by Force K (see this earlier post).

 

Veneto8

Vittorio Veneto firing a salvo of its 381mm guns (Source: Marina Militare)

While this attack by HM/Sub Urge was quite a success, it appears that the Admiralty was not too happy that Urge’s commander did not try to sink her, even if it would have been suicidal to do so. Nevertheless, Veneto returned to port without great difficulty, but would not undertake another mission for exactly six months, when she sortied on 14 June 1942.

Urge also carried out two failed attacks on merchants in this period.

Urge  02  Alongside at Malta with Upholder outboard  Neg 5804 Resize

HM/Sub Urge alongside in Malta, with HM/Sub Upholder outboard – HM/Sub Upholder was lost less than two weeks before Urge, also in inconclusive circumstances (Source: Royal Navy)

1 April 1942 – HM/Sub Urge’s Biggest Success

Urge’s most famous victim was the Italian light cruiser Giovanni delle Bande Nere, a Condottieri-class light cruiser from 1930. She was lost with about half her crew when Urge put a torpedo into her 11 miles south off the island of Stromboli on 1 April 1942. She was the last survivor of her sub-class (Giussano) of four light cruisers. Somewhat confirming that the class was very vulnerable, she broke in two after being hit centrally by two torpedoes, and quickly sank.

The exact location of her sinking and two pictures can be found at this link. Delle Bande Nere took 381 of her over strength crew of 772 with her when she broke up and sank rapidly, having been hit while underway 11 miles south of the island of Stromboli, off Sicily. A very good account of her sinking can be found on Lorenzo Colombo’s blog at this link.

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Giovanni delle Bande Nere at anchor, probably pre-war. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Giovanni delle Bande Nere broken in two and sinking. (unknown source, probably taken from one of the escorts)

Loss of HM/Sub Urge

The loss for HM/Sub Urge now appears to be confirmed as mining, when she was just out of Malta on 27 April 1942.  HM/Sub Urge was being transferred out of Malta, together with the remainder of 10th Submarine Flotilla, for its new home of Alexandria. Malta had come under increasing pressure in the early months of 1942, and was no longer considered a viable naval base due to constant air attacks, which forced submarines to spend the day at the bottom of the harbour to evade bombardments.

HM/Sub Urge was sent to Alex with its full crew of 32, 11 additional naval personnel, and 1 war correspondent. Just a short distance outside La Valetta, she hit a mine on a newly laid, thus unknown barrier bow-on, and with her bow blown off plunged into the deep out of control and with no chance of survival for anyone on board. 

The German 3. S-Flottille (E-Boats) had dropped a new mine barrier (MT13) across the path she took to Alexandria just an hour before she left Malta on the last journey, and it is now confirmed that this barrier caused the loss of HM/Sub Urge.

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S-33 Krebs going at speed, showing her unusual camouflage. From the highly recommended Seekrieg site.

 

Lost with HM/Sub Urge (from Naval History Net – the date of death is the date she was declared overdue)

ROWLEY JOHN KENNETH 27 D S M 06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/SSX 21371’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 56, 1. SON OF HARVEY SWANN ROWLEY AND SYBIL MARY ROWLEY, OF HALL GREEN, BIRMINGHAM.

DAY FREDERICK 21   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/SSX 20578’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 53, 3. SON OF ANNIE DAY.

PARKINSON JOHN LESLIE 24   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 204152’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 66, Column 2. SON OF JOSEPH AND EDITH PARKINSON, OF COPPULL, LANCASHIRE; HUSBAND OF ADA PARKINSON, OF COPPULL.

DAVISON ROBERT 21   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 190316’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 64, Column 3. SON OF ROBERT JAMES DAVISON AND AGNES DAVISON, OF NORTH WALSHAM, NORFOLK.

GOSS RONALD HENRY 22   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/SSX 20989’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 65, Column 1. SON OF SAMUEL AND DAISY GOSS, OF CWMBRAN MONMOUTHSHIRE.

WILDMAN RICHARD 22   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 204322’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 67. Column 1. SON OF RICHARD JOHN AND MARY ALICE WILDMAN, OF LANCASTER.

O’NEILL JOHN 22 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/JX 217252’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 64, Column 3. SON OF WILLIAM JOHN AND ANNIE O’NEILL, OF HUCKNALL, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE.

TOMS CHARLES HERBERT 38 D S M 06-05-42   Chief Engine Room Artificer Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/M 35358’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 3. SON OF HERBERT AND ALICE TOMS; HUSBAND OF VERA MURIEL TOMS, OF GOSPORT, HAMPSHIRE.

JACKMAN CHARLEY JOHN 33 D S M and Bar, Twice Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42  Chief Petty Officer  Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/J 110919’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 2. SON OF GLOSTER AND CATHERINE ARABELLA JACKMAN; HUSBAND OF ELSIE ROSALIE JACKMAN, OF BROCKENHURST, HAMPSHIRE.

Urge  10 CPO C J Jackman formal studio portrait resize

Chief Petty Officer J.C. Jackman, 2x MiD (Source: Royal Navy)

Urge  CPO Jackman son with medals

Chief Petty Officer J.C. Jackmans young son (Source: Royal Navy)

 

RUTTER RONALD FREDERICK 24   06-05-42   Electrical Artificer 4th Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 59915’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 63, 3. SON OF WILLIAM THOMAS AND ELLEN LOUISA RUTTER, OF UXBRIDGE, MIDDLESEX.

HELLYER REGINALD 28 D S M 06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 2nd Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 47775’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 2. SON OF ERNEST AND OLIVE HELLYER; HUSBAND OF VERONICA ANN HELLYER.

VARLEY ERIC 28 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/MX 52497’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 69, Column 1. SON OF JOHN AND HANNAH EDDEN VARLEY, OF HORDEN, CO. DURHAM.

WHITE WILLIAM PETER 21   06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 76840’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 2. SON OF GEORGE VICTOR AND CHARLOTTE LEASK WHITE, OF EAST HAM, ESSEX.

HARMAN STANLEY GORDON     06-05-42   Engine Room Artificer 4th Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/MX 76070’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 2.  

NORRIS JESSE   D S M 06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 142500’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 52, 2. SON OF JESSE AND MINNIE NORRIS, OF ROCHESTER, KENT.

OSBORN HERBERT GEORGE ARTHUR 27 D S M 06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 134094’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 52, 2. SON OF HERBERT CHARTER OSBORN AND ROSE EMILY OSBORN; HUSBAND OF VIOLET MAY OSBORN, OF CAMBRIDGE.

GROVES LAURENCE FRANK 36 D S M 06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/J 101563’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 52, 2. SON OF FRANK AND ROSE GROVES; HUSBAND OF GLADYS WINIFRED GROVES, OF FLEETWOOD, LANCASHIRE.

MORRIS FREDERICK HAROLD 22   06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/JX 145545’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 63, Column 1.

LAW ERIC CHARLES 22 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Leading Signalman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 145120’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 58, 2. SON OF CHARLES FREDERICK AND LOUISA ALICE LAW.

WILKES SAMUEL CORNELIUS     06-05-42   Leading Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/KX 81223’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 61, 3.  

WOOLRICH JOHN EDWARD 24   06-05-42   Leading Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/KX 90716’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2. SON OF WILLIAM AND EDITH WOOLRICH, OF CHELL, STAFFORDSHIRE.

ASHFORD HAROLD GEORGE 32   06-05-42   Leading Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 127562’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF GEORGE AND ESTHER D. ASHFORD, OF FROME, SOMERSET.

ROGERS ROY WILLIAM GEORGE 22 D S M 06-05-42   Leading Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/SS 26082’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF GEORGE WILLIAM AND EDITH LOUISA ROGERS, OF WHITSTABLE,

KENT. TOMKINSON EDWARD PHILIP 30 D S O and Bar 06-05-42  Lieut-Commander Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 61. Column 3. SON OF ROBERT EDWARD AND BEATRICE LUCY TOMKINSON; HUSBAND OF MYRTLE ALICE TOMKINSON, OF LANGHAM, SUFFOLK.

Urge  04  Lt Cdr Edward P Tomkinson DSO  Neg 0331

Lt.Cdr. E.P. Tomkinson D.S.O. and Bar (Source: Royal Navy)

ALLEN DAVID BENNETT   D S C 06-05-42   Lieutenant Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 61, Column 3.

RANSOME JOHN SANDEMAN DEANE 26 D S C 06-05-42   Lieutenant Royal Naval Reserve H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 71, Column 1. SON OF CAPTAIN FRANK DEANE RANSOME AND CELIA NOEL RANSOME.

POOLE JAMES MALCOLM STUART 23 D S C and Bar 06-05-42 Lieutenant Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 1. SON OF JAMES AND FLORENCE MAY POOLE; HUSBAND OF LILIAN ELIZABETH ANNE POOLE, OF STREATHAM HILL, LONDON.

BOTTING HENRY JOHN     06-05-42   Petty Officer Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/JX 137747’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 51, 3.  

WATTS HENRY RONALD JOSEPH 31 D S M, Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Petty Officer Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘P/JX 129967’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 3. SON OF JOSEPH EVANS WATTS AND EDITH CLARA WATTS, OF ARBORFIELD, BERKSHIRE. HIS BROTHER STANLEY HORACE WATTS ALSO FELL.

ASHFORD WILLIAM GEORGE 28 D S M 06-05-42   Petty Officer Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘C/KX 82966’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 60, 3. SON OF HENRY GEORGE AND ALICE M. ASHFORD; HUSBAND OF VIOLET FRANCES ASHFORD, OF MERTON, SURREY.

WISEMAN PETER DUGDALE 27 Mentioned in Despatches 06-05-42   Petty Officer Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 134000’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF THOMAS AND JANE WISEMAN, OF BLYTH, NORTHUMBERLAND.

STANGER MARCUS 26   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/KX 90258’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 70, Column 3. HUSBAND OF GEORGINA ALEXANDRA STANGER, OF PLYMOUTH.

McMILLAN JOSEPH CRESSWELL DIXON 21   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/SSX. 32970’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 70, Column 2. SON OF ROBERT AND MARY A. MCMILLAN, OF FAULDHOUSE, WEST LOTHIAN.

TWIST HENRY ERNEST   D S M 06-05-42   Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge United Kingdom ‘D/JX 225829’ PLYMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2.

BAXTER LESLIE GORDON     06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘C/LD/X 3971’ CHATHAM NAVAL MEMORIAL 66, 2.  

McDIARMID FRED 21   06-05-42   Able Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/SSX 32644’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 64, Column 2. SON OF GEORGE AND ELIZABETH B. MCDIARMID, OF GLOSSOP, DERBYSHIRE.

CHAMBERLAIN SIDNEY WILLIAM 22   06-05-42   Leading Seaman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/SSX 22878’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 62, Column 3. SON OF ERNEST WILLIAM AND EMILY CHAMBERLAIN, OF BRIGHTON.

LEEKE RONALD WILLIAM 20   06-05-42   Leading Signalman Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/JX 154364’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 66, Column 2. SON OF THOMAS WILLIAM AND ADA DOROTHY LEEKE, OF SCOTTER, LINCOLNSHIRE.

LAMB JAMES WILFRED 24   06-05-42   Leading Stoker Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/KX 94635’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 1. SON OF CLARENCE LAMB, AND OF JANE A. LAMB, OF YORK.

MAIDMENT JOHN 22   06-05-42   Leading Telegraphist Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/SSX 22031’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 66, Column 3. SON OF JOHN AND ETHEL MARY MAIDMENT, OF DORCHESTER, DORSETSHIRE.

BRYANT ALBERT EDWARD 38   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/K 61633’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2. SON OF ALBERT AND ROSE BRYANT; HUSBAND OF ETHEL MARY BRYANT. 

BROWN CYRIL 28   06-05-42   Stoker 1st Class Royal Navy H.M. Submarine Urge. United Kingdom ‘P/KX 84490’ PORTSMOUTH NAVAL MEMORIAL Panel 68, Column 2. SON OF RUFUS AND HILDA ELIZA BROWN, OF COAL ASTON, DERBYSHIRE.

Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1985 013 07 Erwin Rommel 2

Porträt Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel mit Ritterkreuz und Orden Pour le Mérite (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Introduction

One of the enduring images of the desert war is that of the rapidly advancing Afrikakorps sweeping all before it. This is certainly what happened in April 1941, and it led to considerable gains of terrain for the Axis, and substantial losses in men and equipment for the Empire forces, and the siege of Tobruk. This advance was against clear orders given to Rommel, namely to await the arrival of 15. Panzerdivision in May 1941 before commencing any major operations.

Raids however (the Wehrmacht used the same term) were allowed. These were presumably considered useful in that they would keep the Empire forces off balance, and would deny them peace and quiet during which to prepare for their planned advance on Tripoli. Rommel commenced his raid on Agedabia, and when testing the Empire defense found it weak, and unleashed his forces for a deep penetration and with the aim to completely defeat the enemy in the western desert. This was of course of major propaganda value, and it has shaped the image we have of Rommel today, with a victorious German force (the Italians are normally overlooked) advancing rapidly, encircling and defeating all before them.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0109 11 Nordafrika Panzer III in FahrtNordafrika.- Panzer III in Fahrt durch die Wüste (Panzer III on the march in the desert); PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia) 

A Counterfactual Approach

Modern historiography however has not been kind about this rash advance in defiance of orders from Berlin, and the general view today is that Rommel was out of his depth and never really got to grips with the logistical challenges his theatre forced him to confront.

The official German history Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg considers this advance the original sin, which put the Axis forces into a logistically impossible situation from which they never recovered, while not achieving a decisive outcome, when the assaults on Tobruk in Apri and May failed. It is hard to disagree with this view, once one reads the Panzergruppe war diary appendices, which are a long story of supply concerns through all of 1941.

My view is that modern historiography is correct, and that the move towards the east and the conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica did fatally damage the ability of the Axis to sustain its campaign in North Africa. The terrain gained was worthless without Tobruk and while the losses inflicted were heavy, they were far from fatal, and both tanks and men could be replaced on the Empire side.

A counterfactual consideration

Of interest here is the counterfactual – what could have happened, had the advance not taken place? This post will provide some thoughts on the matter, based on the following assumptions:

1) The campaigns in Greece, Syria, Iraq, and Abyssinia proceed unchanged.

2) There is no change to the speed of the build-up or the force allocations on both sides.

3) The strength of the tank force on both sides is the decisive factor in the timing of any major operation.

4) Light tanks such as the Italian L3 series, the German Panzer I, and the British Vickers Mk. VI are ignored on both sides.

5) Only raids are undertaken on both sides, neither is trying to advance in strength with the intent to hold territory, and any tank losses from these are temporary or replaced.

6) The exact numbers of the tanks don’t matter as much as long as the ball park is correct. In particular for the Empire side, getting to the right numbers is very difficult, as they did not know themselves for much of the first half of 1941.

The tank balance to autumn 1941

First, without the advance, the forces facing each other in Cyrenaica are reasonably well balanced at the end of March. Including some replacements for ten tanks lost in the fire on the Leverkusen, by mid-April the Axis can field 75 Panzer III, 20 Panzer IV, 45 Panzer II, and 32 Panzerjaeger I, and two battalions of Italian M13/41 medium tanks, with about 100 M13/40 tanks between them. This is a total of 272 combat capable vehicles, facing 112 British cruisers[1], 60 captured Italian M tanks, and 40 I tanks, for a total of 212 tanks, of varying reliability. It is clear that this force balance does not allow the Empire forces to consider a successful offensive, and that they need to await a substantial force build-up.

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TOBRUK – AN ITALIAN CARRO ARMATO M13/40 MEDIUM TANK FROM BARDIA IS TAKEN OVER BY THE AIF AND SUITABLY MARKED WITH A KANGAROO SYMBOL. TROOPER H. R. ARCHER IS THE ARTIST. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY). (AWM 005047)

By the end of May, the Axis will receive the full force of Panzerregiment 8 as well as the other divisional units of 15. Panzerdivision, with the last of the tanks reaching Tripoli in the first days of May. The Axis tank force now numbers 91 Panzer II, 153 Panzer III, and 40 Panzer IV, as well as 32 Panzerjaeger I and the 100 Italian Mediums, for a total of 416 vehicles. 

At the same time, the Empire forces also receive reinforcements by tanks being returned from workshops, and the Tiger convoy arriving in mid-May shortly after, which then enabled operation BATTLEAXE to proceed. On 7 May, prior to the arrival of the Tiger convoy, the Empire tank force, assuming the April battles did not take place, numbers 115 cruisers, 59 I-tanks, and 60 captured Italian M tanks, for a total of 234 vehicles, meaning that the Axis now has a substantial superiority in tanks fielded in North Africa. Furthermore, the Empire tank force relies still on tanks with high mileage, and captured tanks of dubious combat value for its advantage.

By the end of June the picture does change. The Italian tanks are reinforced by another battalion, bringing the total to 138 M13/40 tanks and the Axis total to 454. On the Empire side, further returns from workshops as well as convoy arrivals, especially Tiger convoy, add large numbers of cruisers, bringing the total to 303 available[2], and the number of I-tanks rises to 201, to bring the total to 563 tanks including the 60 captured Italian tanks. Still, over half of the Empire margin of around 100 tanks is accounted for by the captured Italian tanks, and as noted it is unlikely these would have had much value in battle, given the situation with spares and ammunition. Again, in my view this makes any major Empire offensive before the end of June unlikely, and a successful one practically impossible. This is before considering the pressures of having to deal with the desaster in Greece, the campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and the remaining resistance in East Africa.

The tank balance only shifts later in the summer, with the arrival of the WS9a and b convoys, and most importantly the arrival of the first M3 Stuart tanks directly from the US (detailed at this link). By September, there are 100 operational M3s in theatre, and 298 British cruisers[3], together with 298 I-tanks[4], and most importantly crews and support units had time to familiarise themselves with the new vehicle. Assuming the captured Italian tanks are now retired, the Empire tank force now numbers almost 700 vehicles, giving the Middle East Command a substantial tank margin, with which to plan and execute a substantial attack would be possible, for the first time.

Athlone

The SS ATHLONE CASTLE transporting troops. Convoy WS19 (IWM A10610)[5]

Other considerations

Both sides benefit and suffer from the Axis not advancing to the Egyptian border. The Empire holds Benghazi and the airfields of northern Cyrenaica, forcing Italian convoys to take the westerly route via Tunisia, where they can more easily be intercepted. They do not need to supply a besieged Tobruk, and they do not suffer the substantial distraction of an Axis force on the border during the rout in Greece and Crete. It is in my view unlikely that the RAF could have done much to protect the forward area and the port of Benghazi during this period, given its commitment to and losses in Greece.

On the downside therefore, Benghazi is exposed to air attack, making it an unsatisfactory port for building up an army level offensive. It needs to be kept in mind that the supply of Tobruk worked because it was for an overstrength division that was not expected to be mobile. So while the pressure on naval assets is reduced, the Empire coastal convoys are now taking a more exposed and longer route to Benghazi, and need to deliver substantially more supplies. This adds to the pressure on the RAF, which is at the same time heavily committed in Greece.

Given the above, it is likely that overland supply would have been key to building up for an offensive and keeping the force in western Cyrenaica supplied. The overland route from Tobruk, which would have been the safest harbour, to Mechili and west of it is hundreds of miles. Apart from the lack of tanks, the need for trucks to cover this adds substantially to the supply difficulties for a further advance. Even to support a Brigade-size forces that far west of the railhead was estimated to have taken 2,000 trucks shuttling back and forth (see this earlier entry on the planning for the BENCOL advance during CRUSADER, at this link). I consider it likely that the Egyptian railway would have been extended to Tobruk in this scenario, at least easing the supply concerns.

On the Axis side, conversely, the supply situation is substantially eased. The distances over which supplies are carried are much shorter, coastal convoying is possible to Sirt, and a very good main road is available. It is thus likely that the building up of supplies can be accelerated considerably.

In terms of operational opportunities, the relatively open terrain south of Agedabia allows deep raids into the Empire rear that are hard to defend against. Vehicles and men can be trained thus, while not using them up too much. The Sommernachtstraum raid of 14/15 September is an example of what would have been possible. An outflanking move into the desert, a quick hit on the Empire rear, chaos, confusion, and then retreat behind the Marada – Agheila line.

In terms of defense, the position from Marada north is relatively strong, and harder to flank due to the presence of salt marshes. An attack in the centre is possible, but would channel the attacking force considerably and expose it to hits from the north and south, similar to what happened to 22 Armoured Brigade at the end of December 1941 at Wadi el Faregh. A defense in depth, with infantry in the line, and tank forces to the rear to back them up, would have the potential to savage any attacker.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0150 28 Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Panzer III bei Fahrt durch die Wüste, im Hintergrund brennender Lastkraftwagen (LKW); (Panzer III on march through desert, in the back burning truck) PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia)

Conclusion

The Empire forces were in no position to attack at Agheila or Marada prior to September, simply based on tank numbers, before even getting into considerations of supply, where the need to build up substantial supplies to support not just the initial attack but an advance on Tripoli, several hundred kilometers to the west, would have taken time. From early May to the end of June the Axis tank forces and supply position would have been far superior to that of the Empire forces, inviting an attack by the Axis. 

If Rommel had waited and stuck to his orders, he would have kept the initiative until the beginning of summer at least, and would have been able to choose where an how to attack. The Axis force build-up was considerably faster than that of the Empire forces, and shortening the supply lines by hundreds of kilometers, and not wasting precious fuel and ammunition as well as spares on the initial advance in April and the failed attempts at Tobruk would have given the Axis ample reserves to work with.

An Axis attack out of the Agheila – Marada position before the end of May, with the full force of three armored divisions and substantial logistical preparation, and a substantial superiority in tanks would have promised much greater success than the lightweight attack at the end of March, and could easily have carried the Axis forces through well into Egypt. This could have been planned to co-incide with the invasion of Crete, thus forcing the Empire to look into two vastly different directions at once.

This was in my view a missed opportunity due to the impatience of Rommel.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 782 0009 01A Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Kolonne von Panzer III passieren großes Tor, (Column of Panzer III pass large gate) März-Mai 1941; PK Prop.Zg. Afrika (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Featured Image: Nordafrika.- Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel im leichten Schützenpanzer Sd.Kfz. 250/3 “Greif” (Field Marshal Rommel in the light armoured personnel carrier ‘Griffon’); PK “Afrika” (BAMA via Wikimedia).

Footnotes

[1] This is assuming the 72 tanks lost by 2 Armoured Brigade during Rommel’s advance, together with the 60 captured Italian tanks which were also lost, remain present.
[2] Assuming the five tanks lost during BREVITY remain on strength as well.
[3] Assuming the 30 cruisers lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.
[4] Assuming the 98 I-tanks lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.
[5] SS Athlone Castle was a regular on the WS route and participated also in WS9b.

Sources

Bechthold, M. Flying to Victory

Munro, A. The Winston Specials.

Parri, M. Storia dei Carristi 

Rommel’s Riposte: NARA Loading lists for German convoys to North Africa. See this post.

Rommel’s Riposte: Equipping a New Army

Schreiber & Stegmann Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg Bd. 3

UK TNA CAB120/253 for Empire tank numbers.

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

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.