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.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul

Every so often in going through the mountain of files on my hard drive I come across one that makes me smile inwardly, despite the serious subject matter. Most of the time it’s because I recognise over the distance of 70+ years that little has changed. Administrators and bureaucrats still like to get one over each other, and the mission seems to matter less than to make sure that your unit (or today department) comes off better than the other. Here’s one of those, and it makes you wonder who the enemy was!

Division z.b.V. Afrika

Divisional C.P. 1 November 1941

Dept. Ia Az III/2.

Re: Personnel strengths of Fortress Halfaya

Attention: D.A.K. Ia

1.) Division reports that I./S.R.104, since 30 October assigned to Fortress Halfway, only has a real (‘Ist’) strength of:

18 Officers, 1 Civilian Official, 136 NCOs, 683 ORs, compared to a theoretical (‘Soll’) strength of

26 Officers, 4 Civilian Officials, 176 NCOs, 969 ORs.

This means there is a gap of almost 30% across all categories.

2.) According to the report by the battalion, 21. Pz.Div. pulled a large number [of personnel] into various commands, through permanent (‘Kommandierter’) and temporary (‘Abstellungen’) assignments. Within the [21.Pz] division, only this battalion had to provide these.

This division considers the current real strength of I./S.R.104 a not acceptable weakening of the personell allocation to the Halfway Sector, and requests politely that 21. Pz.Div. is requested soonest to fill up the combat (‘Gefechts’) strength [of the battalion].

The other interesting information here is the considerable strength of Major Bach’s battalion, which at full strength would be able to field 1,171 men. This compares to about 830 men in a British motorised infantry battalion at the same time (see this link). So in fairness, even at the low ‘Ist’ strength being reported, the battalion still had the same size as its British equivalent.

I./S.R.104 (1st Battalion, Motorised Rifle Regiment 104) was the last German unit to surrender in the Bardia/Halfaya Sector. It was then under command of the Italian Savona Division under Major-General Fedele de Giorgis. The battalion was rebuilt from the dissolved MG Battalion 8 in April and May 1942.

The document can be found in the war diary appendices of 90th Light Division in NARA.

German Tank Arrivals in North Africa

Many thanks to user nmao on the AHF for putting all this information together in this thread. I have turned this into a more readable Excel table, and done some calculations and added some notes to the information. Hope people find this of interest. Sorry if the table is a bit difficult to read, but you can easily copy it out into Word or Excel and work with it.

German Tanks Sent to North Africa 1941 – 1943

Date

Type

Notes

Pz I

Pz II

Pz III

Pz IV

Tiger

Command Tanks

Small

large

10-11 March 41

25

45

61

17

0

3

4

PR 5
8-10 March 41

0

0

10

3

0

0

0

PR 5 – all burned in Naples
18 – 21 March 41

4

0

0

0

0

0

0

PzJg Abt. 605

10-May-41

25

0

0

0

0

0

0

PR 8
25 Apr – 6 May 41

0

45

71

20

0

4

6

PR 8
10 – 14 Apr 41

0

0

10

3

0

0

0

PR 5 – replacement for burned tanks.
July – August 41

0

0

15

5

0

0

0

PR 5 – assigned 4 June by Heereszeugamt, for initial losses
July – August 41

0

4

6

0

0

0

0

PR5 & PR 8 – assigned 30 June by Heereszeugamt for initial losses
July – August 41

0

0

4

0

0

0

0

PR5 & PR 8 – assigned 30 June by Heereszeugamt for initial losses

13-Dec-41

0

5

17

0

0

0

0

3./PR5 sunk on Carlo del Greco/Fabio Filzi

13-Dec-41

0

6

17

0

0

0

0

7./PR5 sunk on Carlo del Greco/Fabio Filzi

19-Dec-41

0

5

17

0

0

0

0

3./PR8 delivered on Ankara at Benghazi

19-Dec-41

0

6

17

0

0

0

0

7./PR8 delivered on Napoli at Tripoli
4 Mar 42Jan – May 42

0

0

3

20

2

211

0

49

0

0

0

0

0

4

Sunk on Marin Sanudo (not assigned)
PR 5 & 8 (incl. first Pz III w/long 50mm)
Jan – May 42

0

10

34

0

0

0

0

3. & 7./PR5 replacement for tanks lost 13 Dec 41

May-42

0

0

0

9

0

0

0

PR 5 – Pz IV equipped with the long 75mm gun

Jun-42

0

0

0

1

0

0

1

PR 5 & 8
Jul – Aug 42

0

0

76

0

0

0

0

PR 5 & 8
Jul – Aug 42

0

0

0

20

0

0

0

PR 5 & 8 Pz IV G with long 75mm gun

08-Nov-42

0

0

6

0

0

0

0

PzAbt 190 at Benghazi
12-22 nov 42

0

7

46

10

0

0

2

Pz Abt 190
23 Nov 42 – 24 Jan 43

0

0

25

0

20

0

0

sPzAbt 501 at Bizerte and Tunis (a few)- Pz III are M version with short 75mm
27 Nov 5 – Dec 42

0

19

89

8

0

0

6

PR7 at Tunis

03-Dec-42

0

2

16

12

0

0

3

PR7 – sunk

15-Jan-43

0

0

21

17

0

0

0

PzAbt Gruen (later I./PR5)
12 Mar – 16 Apr 43

0

0

19

0

11

0

0

sPzAbt 504 at Tunis and Bizerte – Pz III are M version with short 75mm
early Apr 43

0

0

2

8

0

0

0

3./PR Hermann Goering
Nov 42 – May 43

0

0

31

97

0

0

0

Unclear
Nov 42 – May 43

0

0

16

28

0

0

0

Unclear – Sunk
Total sent

54

177

839

307

31

7

26

Total Pz III & IV sent    1,146
Total Lost in Transit

0

16

78

43

0

0

3

Total Received

54

161

761

264

31

7

23

Total Pz III & IV Received    1,025

Sources:

User nmao on Axis History Forum
Will Phelbs Panzer IV Universe

German Firing Trials against the Matilda II

I have previously posted some views on the Matilda II at this link.
While going through the appendices to the war diary of 21. Panzerdivision, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, I came across the results of firing trials with various German guns against the Matilda II, which show quite nicely how the one-time  queen ofthe battlefield have moved towards obsolescence.

Some notes to help interpretation:

  • Indication (Anzeige) I interpret as ‘success’
  • Pz.Gr. is a tank round
  • I presume that the writer of the memo made errors in the tank/anti-tank round designations
  • Gr.40 (should be 39) is the standard model round for tank guns and anti-tank guns. It contained a small amount of HE filler for better after-armour effect.
  • Gr.41 (should be 40) is a tungsten-core round with better effect but no HE filler.
  • Pz.Gr.38 normal (should be Rot/red) is the standard anti-tank round of the short 7.5cm tank gun, capped and with HE filler.
  • Pz.Gr.38 red (should be HL for Hohladung) is a hollow charge round only available for the short 7.5cm tank gun in the Panzer IV at the time
  • l.F.H.18 is a light field howitzer, and was the standard artillery piece of the Wehrmacht. Comparable to the US 105mm or the British 25-pdr.
  • ‘Special ammunition’ for this gun was hollow-charge. This was not allowed to be used during Operation CRUSADER by order of Hitler.
  • Panzerbuechse 41 is a heavy anti-tank rifle.

STARTS

Trial Firing on Mark II
on 19.3.42 on the firing range of I./Panzerregiment 8

1.) Assembly and explanation of types of ammunition

2.) Firing at 600m with target at acute angle

5cm tank gun with Pz.Gr.41 on turret, also on wheel assembly

5cm tank gun with Pz.Gr.40 on turret

Potential indication

7.5cm Pz.Gr. normal on turret

7.5cm Pz.Gr. 38 red on turret

Panzerbuechse 41 on turret and lower hull

Indication

5cm anti-tank Gr.40 on turret, also on wheel assembly

5cm anti-tank Gr.41 on turret

7.5cm HE round on tracks

Indication

l.F.H.18 HE round on tracks

l.F.H.18 Pz.Gr. on turret

l.F.H.18 with special ammunition on turret

Indication

Turn the Mark II facing frontally.

Against the front all weapons that had indication from the side.

3.) Following this advance of all weapons to 400m

Fire on the front turret by all weapons in the same order as before. After this advance of all weapons with no indication to 200m.

At this range also indication by 2cm tank gun with Pz.Gr.40 and 41.

The original document is attached below. Comments and corrections more than welcome.

German report on firing trials results against Matilda II, 19 March 1942

Annual Report 1941 – 21. Panzerdivision

Annual reports are well known from the corporate world.  Until I went through my files tonight I did not know that German divisions also had them.  They were a bit different though, no foreword by the Chief Exec, no glossy pictures, or endless business prose about the competitive position of the company.  In their case, a single page sufficed.  Below I give the info contained in the Appendices to the War Diary of the division. It covers the time of fighting in North Africa.

The whole list would be too long to reproduce here, so I just restrict myself to two units of the division:

Unit: Machinegun Battalion 8

Tanks and armoured vehicles

Destroyed: 16

Captured: 0

Motor Vehicles

Destroyed: 60

Captured: 45

Artillery pieces

Destroyed: 0

Captured: 0

POW: 200

Unit: Reconnaissance Battalion 3

Tanks and armoured vehicles

Destroyed: 29

Captured: 17

Motor Vehicles

Destroyed: 125

Captured: 0

Artillery pieces

Destroyed: 5

Captured: 7

POW: 500