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

Introduction

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

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

 

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

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

———————–

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of M3 gun ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

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

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[3] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[4] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[5]

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

Endnotes

[1] Confusingly, the US forces used ‘M3’ to name the M3 Stuart light tank, the M3 Medium tank (both Grant and Lee versions), the M3 37mm gun, and the M3 75mm gun. Troops nicknamed the M3 Stuart the ‘Honey’ because of the smooth and untroubled ride it provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.
[2]If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’
[3]Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.
[4]Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles
[5]Railhead

 

 

German tank flag signals

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

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

German Flags

‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R.?

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

Anyone recognise one of the tankers?

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

Luftwaffe Magazine Der Adler Online

Thanks to Stuart over at Tanknet, I have come across this, and had a bit of a look. I want to note that I am publishing this for research purposes, and not to in any way, shape, or form endorse the content.

Archive.org – Der Adler

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Cover page of the Italian edition of 30 June 1942, with Field Marshal Kesselring (OB Sued) and Italian Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Cavallero in Benghazi.

It’s a pretty comprehensive collection of this Luftwaffe propaganda magazine, that was published in multiple languages, and also featured a lot of colour pictures.  Publication seems to have been bi-weekly, and it is reasonably close to the events, so for CRUSADER it is worth looking through the December to March issues of it.

The magazine carried foto stories of the war, both home and actual front, some political articles, regular columns such as ‘How they gained their Knights Cross’, some funny corners and a crossword, amongst other things.

When reading it we shouldn’t forget that it was a propaganda magazine for the Nazi regime, and anything, both pictures and text, needs to be critically considered in this regard, and with it constantly in mind.

Some sample content related to CRUSADER below:

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Anti-aircraft artillery and camels on the move in the desert, in a rather nice shot that certainly led to some ribaldry in other service arms (in German ‘Kamel’ is a term used for someone who is or who has done something stupid).

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Caption: ‘What choice do we have, the German recce planes see every nosetip’. Part of a special set of caricatures on the war in Africa, in the 8 July 1941 issue, incidentally (or not) also the issue in which Major Heymer’s Knights Cross for his services with 2.H/14 was announced.  

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Political education in the 8 July 1941 issue, probably to explain the strategic purpose of fighting in North Africa.

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Death Notice of an ace – Lieutenant Erbo von Kageneck of III./JG27 was shot down in a dogfight with No. 250 Squadron R.A.F. south Agedabia. He suffered an abdominal wound and died five days later in hospital in Naples. His brother, also a fighter pilot, died on the same day in Russia.

Airwarpublications 2./H14 Article pt. 2

I previously plugged the article at this link. Very pleased to see that the second part has now been published.

You can grab it here for a small fee: http://airwarpublications.com/earticles/unit-history-earticles/

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North Africa:  Mechanics in front of Me 110 5F+UK of 2./H14, courtesy Bundesarchiv.

Andrew and Morten are doing excellent work in bringing interesting vignettes of the war to our attention, and hopefully many will support them.

The usual disclaimer still applies.

Chieftain’s Hatch – Crusader Part I

Finally!

The Crusader was one of two key tanks supporting the Allied attack on the Axis forces that was code-named the same (the other being the American M3 Stuart). It equipped 22 Armoured Brigade (fully) and 7 Armoured Brigade (partially) in 7 Armoured Division in the initial battle, and 1 Armoured Brigade (partially) in 1 Armoured Division during the counteroffensive, when 7 Armoured Division had been withdrawn. The tank was much maligned for its mechanical reliability, and it is clear from contemporary records that it was considered problematic at the time, not just because of a major concern being the hitting power of the 2-pdr gun that was it’s main armament, but also because of its mechanical reliability.

 

 

THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH AFRICA 1941

Crusader tanks moving to forward positions in the Western Desert, 26 November 1941. THE BRITISH ARMY IN NORTH AFRICA 1941 © IWM (E 6724)

I have posted information on the contemporary views in previous posts:

Mechanical Reliability of Allied tanks

Mechanical Reliability of Allied tanks II

Experience with Cruiser tanks in 1 Armoured Brigade

Movie Monday: Fall of Bardia and Halfaya

Came across these two newsreels on Youtube. The fall of Bardia and Halfaya was a major event in the desert war. It was the first substantial and clear defeat of a German force that the Empire forces could point to (CRUSADER itself still being somewhat unclear at this point), yielding several thousand German and Italian POWs, including a German general. It was also the first time a German force commanded by a general surrendered formally to Empire forces (and this in fact would not happen again until May 1943 in Tunisia).

The second video leads off with a nice view of a Heliograph in operation too. Interestingly, it appears this was also the last operation during which the Heliograph was used by the British army, at least according to this article.