Bardia, Halfaya, and the January Offensive

Bardia, Halfaya, and the January Offensive

Bardia is a town on the border between Libya and Egypt, flanked by Sollum. It has a small, natural harbour, and is otherwise pretty unremarkable. During the war it was besieged twice, and fell each time to Empire forces, almost one year apart. It was to change hands another two times in 1942, but each time without being defended.

4117694BARDIA, LIBYA. 1942-01. RUINED BUILDINGS ON THE FORESHORE OF THE HARBOUR. (Courtesy AWM 022707)

Bardia

Commonwealth Map from Operation COMPASS.
1: Halfaya Pass
2: Sidi Omar
3: Bardia
4: Fort Capuzzo

Following the visit to North Africa by the OKH representative, General Paulus in May 1941, the importance of the border was recognised. South and east of Bardia the Axis forces subsequently established a substantial system of modern fortifications, shielding the town to the east and blocking the coastal road at the Halfaya Pass, and providing cover to the rear of the right wing of the forces encircling Tobruk. Axis forces were also placed in the Egyptian border town of Sollum, which was located just east of Bardia, with Upper Sollum on the escarpment, and Lower Sollum on the sea.

The line of successive fortifications ran from Halfaya Pass to Sidi Omar in the west, and it was occupied by German Oasenkompanien and regular Italian infantry, with 21. Panzerdivision‘s II./S.R.104 under the famous Major Bach holding the Halfaya pass position. The system of border fortifications was integrated, and depended on Bardia for supplies. From November 1941 these fortified locations were slowly rolled up from the west by first 4 Indian Division, and then 2 South African Division, or abandoned as the ability of the garrison to maintain the posts continued to shrink, due to lack of supplies.

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Detail of fortifications on the border at Sidi Omar, from 42 R.T.R. War Diary. UK National Archives, WO169/1421

During the late Spring and through summer of 1941, Bardia had become a hub for the German forces in particular, with some supplies delivered into the harbour directly by submarine, and surface vessels dodging the Royal Navy control of the sea lane between Alexandria and Tobruk. The value of supply into Bardia’s harbour was estimated to be six times that of supplies arriving in Tripoli, because there was no need for fuel to transport them over long distances to reach Tobruk. Due to its size, the harbour could only take small vessels however, and due to its forward location it was very exposed to Royal Air Force attacks.

With the withdrawal of the Axis forces from the Tobruk perimeter on 5 December 1941, Bardia had become isolated, with no immediate hope to re-establish a connection. Rommel argued for an evacuation, Dunkirk style, but the Italian navy was in no mood to risk its fleet and vessels for the purpose. In the end the only course left open was to order the border positions to hold on until the last round, and to hope that a counter strike could relieve them. The latter was a very long shot, and it failed to come to pass.

General Arthur Schmitt, since September commander of the rear area of the Panzergruppe (Korueck 556) had been installed as Commander of ‘Sektor West’ (Bardia) in November, when Division z.b.V. Afrika, which previously controlled the area, had been moved to the Tobruk siege line for the planned attack on Tobruk. Captured after surrendering his command, he returned from captivity after the war and was briefly employed by Egypt in 1949/50 to help create a pan-Arab army, an then engaged in far-right politics in his home state of Bavaria. He died in 1972.

‘Sektor Ost’ was the Halfaya Pass itself and the remaining chain of fortifictions extending south-west from there. It was commanded by Italian General Fedele de Giorgis General Officer Commanding 55 Infantry Division Savona, who in turn surrendered his command to the South Africans on 17 January, having run out of food and water. After returning from the war he commanded the Carabinieri from 1947 until 1950. The Savona division was the only Italian division subordinated to German command at this time.

Schmitt was, judging from his communications with Rommel, a spiteful character, and very anti-Italian. He spent quite a bit of ink accusing his Italian co-commander of seeking an early surrender. It is ironic therefore that after the complaints by Schmitt about de Giorgis, whom he accused of seeking to surrender as quickly as possible, the Italian general held out over two weeks longer, buying the Axis forces at the Marada – Mersa el Brega position critical time. Both generals received the Ritterkreuz for their defense of the border sector, with de Giorgis being the only Italian to receive it in North Africa in 1941/42, and one of only nine to do so throughout the war.

The existence of the fortification system shaped the battle around Tobruk. Rommel’s ill-advised ‘Dash to the Wire’ was meant to relieve the pressure exerted on the border fortifications by 8 Army’s XIII Corps. The existence of the garrisons led to 5 New Zealand Brigade being stationed at Sidi Azeiz, where they were overrun by the Afrikakorps on 27 November. On 25 November, 4 Indian Division destroyed almost all that remained of 21. Panzerdivision‘s armoured strength at Sidi Omar.

Even after the end of the siege of Tobruk, with the land route to Bardia permanently cut, two German vessels made the perilous journey into Bardia in mid-December, Marinefaehrpraehme (MFPs or F-Lighters) of 2. L-Flotille. To the chagrin of the fortress commander though, the first one (F-150) only carried useless supplies of just 4 tons of engine oil, and had only been despatched with a view to picking up much needed replacement tank engines from stocks in Bardia. So much for the vaunted German planning. The second one (F-146) brought much needed supplies however, carrying 70 tons of food, 20 tons of ammunition, and 2 tons of mail. It then remained in Bardia to enable supply to be ferried from Bardia to Sollum. It was however lost within days to Empire artillery fire on 24 December 1941.

Following a relatively inactive siege of about four weeks from the end of November 1941, 8 Army’s XXX Corps and the South Africans of 2 South African Division, supported by the infantry tanks of 8 Royal Tank Regiment and British and Polish artillery, as well as the Royal Navy, commenced the assault on Bardia on 31 December. After a short but sharp battle, the final assault drove into the Axis lines at 0030 hours on 2 January 1942, and Bardia fell for the second time in a year, surrendering unconditionally on the same day. This was the first time in WW2 that a German garrison surrendered, and the first time that German general to surrender his command in WW2.

The Axis forces lost about 12,500 men in the two fortress sectors. At the same time, several thousand Empire force prisoners held in Bardia and Halfaya were returned. After Bardia had been cut off, these men could no longer be evacuated. Some senior officers, such as Brigadier Hargest of 5 New Zealand Division, captured at Sidi Azeiz on 27 November, were evacuated by submarine.

While the losses of men and material were painful to the Axis, there was a clear benefit to the Axis of not considering an evacuation. The defense of the border sector had created a serious logistical challenge for Middle East Command, since it presented a block on the only relevant road on which supply could move in the theatre. By blocking the Halfaya Pass, Axis forces forced the Empire forces to make a very long detour through the desert, eating up time, vehicle space, and fuel, before they could turn north and rejoin the tarmacced coastal road, the Via Balbia. While Tobruk was open as a port, it could not supply the required amounts, and after the fall of Benghazi on 24 December 1941, it took about a month to make the port operational again, because of the need to deal with deliberate destruction and to sweep for mines.

The Empire Forces thus missed a major opportunity to end the war in North Africa when they decided to let Bardia and Halfaya be in December, starving them out, rather than risking the casualties that a full-scale assault could bring. It was the second time in six weeks that Norrie, GOC XXX Corps failed to undertake energetic action, this time by not ordering 2 South African Division attack. There was probably a concern about the ability of the South African forces to sustain heavy casualties, after the loss of 5 South African Infantry Brigade at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941.

When they did attack, it is also not clear why the focus was on Bardia, rather than Halfaya. The town and harbour itself was of little value, and could easily be by-passed. If the resources had been expended on attacking and clearing Halfaya pass from the east, it is likely that this would have succeeded in clearing the coastal road two weeks earlier.

By weakening the ability of the Empire planners to supply the forward area, the failure by the South Africans to robustly assault and take Bardia and Halfaya in early December contributed to the success of the Axis counteroffensive in late January.

As an aside, the siege of the Border fortifications saw the entry into battle of the Free French Brigade, which was to make a name for itself at Bir Hakeim just half a year later. The Empire troops consisted at various stages of South African, British, Indian, New Zealand, Polish, and Free French ground troops, British, Australian, and Free French air force units, and British and Australian naval units.

Related posts

Order of Battle of Savona Infantry Division

ULTRA Intercepts and Air Raids on Bardia

The End of the Halfaya Garrison

Losses in Operation Crusader

Free French Air Force Operations

Art

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Dargie noted, “Shortly after we had re-taken it [Halfaya Pass] from the Italians and Germans in January ’42. Behind the knocked-out British tank can be seen one of the large guns, with French markings, which the Germans had mounted at the top of the Pass”.

The gun in the picture above is a 15.5cm GPF gun used by German coastal artillery. By the end of the siege these powerful guns had pretty much run out of ammunition. The Matilda infantry tank in the foreground carries the white/red/white mark required for the identification of British armoured vehicles during the operation. This Matilda II would have been from ‘C’ Squadron, 8 R.T.R, or from 44 R.T.R. – ‘A’ and ‘B’ Squadrons 8 R.T.R. were in Valentine tanks, and it is likely that this picture presented itself in the Bardia area, rather than at Halfaya Pass.

Photos

large_0000006The scene on board HMS AJAX as round after round of 6″ shells are fired into Bardia. (Courtesy IWM8037) This bombardment was undertaken by the Royal Navy’s 7th Cruiser Squadron, out of Alexandria

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Bardia, Cyrenaica, Libya. 6 January 1942. Aerial view taken on the day that Bardia fell shows a long line of prisoners stretching down the road being rounded up by the Allied land forces and transported in the back of trucks. (Courtesy AWM MED0280)

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Dv-En-mXgAAVv47.jpg

A Matilda tank captured and put to use by the Germans, most likely 15. Panzerdivision, and most likely re-captured by New Zealanders in November 1941, west of Bardia. This picture wrongly associates the tank with the successful recapture of Bardia on 2 January 1942.

large_0000005.jpgThe gun turret of a Matilda tank that had been captured and concreted into position to be used as part of the defences of Halfaya Pass, 16 March 1942. A Valentine tank passes by in the background. (Courtesy IWM E9320). Note the tank still carries the Operation Crusader tank marking of white/red/white.

 

21 January 1942 – And they are off!

Today is the 76th anniversary of the Axis forces’ riposte, which led to the reconquest of Cyrenaica up to the Gazala line, where both sides stopped, exhausted, by 6 February. The lightning campaign undid much of the Allied forces conquest, destroyed for a time the fighting capabilities of 1 Armoured Division and 7 Indian Brigade, and exposed a severe rift in British high command, which already foreshadowed the confusion that would lead to desaster in May, and showed the inability of Lt. Gen. Richie to function at the level of an army commander.

The attack is often held to be an example of the risk-taking and dash of Rommel as a commander. It is equally often overlooked that, thanks to the combination of two critical factors. First, there were two convoys with together over 160 German and Italian tanks coming through the gauntlet of Malta. The first to Tripoli and Benghazi at Christmas 1941, and the second to Tripoli on 5 January 1942. Secondly the Halfaya Pass garrison continued blocking the road for Allied supplies until their surrender on 17 January. This meant that on 21 January the Axis forces in the Marada – Mersa-el-Brega position were momentarily superior to the Allied forces opposite them. This was known to Rommel, and it was also known that this situation was not going to last for very long. Where full credit is due to him is in taking the risk to move to the attack without being backed by his own commanders, who he did not inform of his intentions. This preserved secrecy, and led to a complete surprise on the Allied side.

It is also often held that the success of the attack was due to the diversion of British assets to the Far East, including tanks, an infantry division, and planes. This is unlikely to actually have played a role. The constraining factor for the Allies was not force availability, but supply constraints west of the Libyan border. Benghazi had not been opened as a port, and until 17 January the coastal road was blocked at the Halfaya Pass, necessitating a substantial detour for wheeled vehicles. The mathematics of this supply problem are brutal, and they were no less brutal to the Allies than they had been to the Axis until their defeat in front of Tobruk.

The day started with two announcements from Panzergruppe H.Q., translated and reproduced below:

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

Army Order of the Day

German and Italian Soldiers!

Heavy fighting against a vastly superior enemy lies behind you.  Nevertheless your fighting spirit remains unbroken.

At this time we are numerically superior to the enemy to the enemy in our front.  Today the army goes on the attack to destroy this enemy.

I expect that every soldier will give his last in these decisive days.

Long live Italy! Long live the Greater German Reich! Long live our leaders!

The Commander in Chief

Signed: Rommel

General of Armoured Troops

 

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

To: All German and Italian Troops 09.30 hours

The Führer decorated me with the Oak Leaves and Swords to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of the defensive victory wrested from a far superior enemy by the heroic fight of the German-Italian troops. I am proud of this decoration which is meant for us all.  It must be an incentive to now finally beat the enemy in the attack.

Signed: Rommel

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Italian tank crew on an M13 or M14 medium tank during the winter months 1941/42

In Memoriam Cdr. Jeremy Nash, DSC, RN

Commander Jeremy Nash DSC, RN, died on 23 November 2018, aged 98. During Operation CRUSADER he was weapons officer on HMS/M Proteus, a Parthian-class submarine, assigned to the 1st Submarine Flotilla in Alexandria.

The Royal Navy during the Second World War A12506

HMSM Proteus underway in the Mediterranean, unknown date (Courtesy IWM)

After the end of CRUSADER, HMS/M Proteus, under command of Lt.Cdr. Francis, had an encounter with a Regia Marina escort vessel, the Spica class corvette RN Sagittario, which led to her being rammed and damaged. The commander of Sagittario presumed her to be sunk. Fortunately enough for Proteus, for some reason Sagittario did not follow up on the ramming with a depth charge attack. She was equipped both with the German ASDIC echolocation system, the S-Geraet (see this link) and also with the more effective German depth charge launch system, which would be used to devastating effect two weeks later by RN Circe in the sinking of HMS/M P.38 (see this link).

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Torpediniera Sagittario, 1941 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Sagittario had a small detachment of German sailors on board, led by a senior NCO (Oberbootsmaat – Royal Navy Petty Officer), who reported to the German command about the incident. The report is below – it also notes that the Italian crew members operating the S-Geraet were trained at the Kriegsmarine school in Gotenhafen, and did good work.

Report about the Sinking of an enemy Submarine by T-Boat Sagittario on 8 February 1942 0450 hours north of Cephalonia.

(as related by Oberbootsmaat Merkel)

Following the release of a convoy Sagittario was on the march from Patras to Argostoli. Sea state 3-4. Speed 14 knots. Ranges were registered at around 1,600m (good echos) up to 2300 hours, when sea state was 1. At 0430 hours the S-Geraet reported a strong noise signal at 320 degrees, which moved out fast. Whether the boat immediately turned was not transmitted to the listening room, but in any case shortly after the report speed was increased to 17 knots. A few minutes later the collision occurred. The enemy submarine was rammed at an acute angle, and went down with a heavy list.

Both vessels suffered damage, HMS/M Proteus to her dive plane, which broke off, and Sagittario to her hull. Interestingly, Lt.Cdr. Francis considered his target a submarine, and attacked with torpedoes, which were not observed at all on Sagittario. In turn, Francis believed that the torpedoes were what gave Proteus away, and did not consider ASDIC detection.

HMS/M Proteus was special in two regards, she was the first Royal Navy submarine to be equipped with Radar, and the only Parthian-class submarine to survive the war. Proteus’ 1st Officer met the CO of Sagittario after the war, abusing him of the notion that he had sunk Proteus that night.

An account by Nash himself of the ramming can be found in this book. Lt.Cdr. Francis, DSO and Bar, RN recounts the incident at this link. Commodore Nash retired from the Royal Navy in 1970.

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Commander Nash, DSC, OBE, RN during the war, (Courtesy, unknown)

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Lt R L Alexander RN, who now commands the Proteus and (right) Lt Cdr P S Francis, DSO, RN, her former commanding officer. (Courtesy IWM)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C o p y

Re: B.Nr. Skl.U III 3030/41 Gkdos. 

Berlin 3 September 1941

SECRET COMMAND AFFAIR

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

1. General

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

He served in Egypt and Malta in 1941/42.

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