Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Background

28 February 1942 was the day of Operation BITING, the Bruneval raid (see this link), in which a combined operation managed to obtain German radar equipment from a Würzburg site, which led to substantial advances in the understanding of the German state of this technology on the British side, and helped the conduct of the bomber offensive on the 3rd Reich.

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 2732 Radargeräte Würzburg Riese und Freya

Freya and Würzburg Riese (giant Würzburg) installations. Source: Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv via Wikimedia.

Radar in the Desert

Prior to the successful raid at Bruneval, it is possible that there was an attempt to benefit from the chaos of the Axis retreat in Cyrenaica in the second half of December 1941, to lay hands on German radar equipment. Through ULTRA intercepts, the Empire commanders had become aware that German radar was being employed in North Africa, to support fighter control against Royal Air Force raids against German and Italian airfields and logistics installations in the rear of the battlefield. Two intercepts from early December clearly indicated the likely presence of Germany FREYA and WÜRZBURG radar system in North Africa. In late 1941, these were the most advanced German radar installations, and North Africa was the only place where Empire forces were in ground contact with the Germans.

The situation regarding German radar in North Africa had been noted by Empire code breakers at Bletchley Park for about a month. Incidentally, the famous picture of the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was dated just a day before the key intercepts about radar in North Africa. Intercepts allowed monitoring the urgent calls for radar equipment to deal with the Empire air offensive in the run-up to CRUSADER, and the monitoring the progress that the equipment had made from its despatch from the Reich to North Africa, via Italy. It is possible that other intercepts or more local intelligence gathering led to the conviction that the installation was at Benina airfield.

Screen Shot 2020 02 28 at 7 06 24 PM

Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection 

Screenshot 2020 02 28 19 02 08

Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

Screen Shot 2020 02 28 at 11 08 54 AM

Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

Screenshot 2020 02 28 11 09 21

Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Until CRUSADER progressed successfully, there was however little chance of being able to capture and evacuate German radar installations, which were located hundreds of miles behind the frontline and, unlike in Northern France, were placed well inland.

This situation changed on 17 December 1941, when the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala position, and this retreat quickly turned into a more or less chaotic rout, with Empire and Axis forces co-mingled on the map, and multiple instances of ‘friendly fire’ air force raids by both Axis and Empire forces hitting their own troops, causing substantial casualties. Three separate Empire pursuit columns were operating in the area of western Cyrenaica, from the north, 7 Indian Brigade in the Jebel Akhdar, pursing the retreating Italian infantry divisions on the coastal road, 7 Support Group south of the Jebel Akhdar, pursuing the retreating Axis armoured force which took the short-cut via Msus and Antelat, and 22 Guards Brigade around Antelat, attempting to cut off the retreating Axis forces in a repeat of what happened at Beda Fomm in February 1941, during Operation COMPASS.

On 21 December, following a commanders’ conference at the HQ of 7 Support Group, with General Gott present, 7 Support Group launched PEPYS column (one squadron armoured cars of the Royals, one battery of anti-tank guns of 3 R.H.A. and C Coy 2 Rifle Brigade) towards Benina airfield for a raid. It is possible, but not documented, that this raid related to radar, but it is probably more likely that it was simply an attempt to disrupt Axis withdrawal from the airfield, which was well underway. It is also not clear if Pepys column ever got onto the airfield, but it is known that they engaged Axis forces. After the raid concluded, PEPYS were ordered to rejoin 7 Support Group. CURRIE column also advanced towards Benina that day, but gave up the project due to heavy going and rain.

On 22 December, new orders were issued, now focused on getting to Soluch and Sceleidima, and to cut off the retreating Axis forces. On this day, the Royal Air Force also launched a major effort against Magrun landing ground, recognizing the Benina had been abandoned (see here for background on this). These orders mentioned a ‘valuable LISTENING SET’ at Benina, which was to be captured and placed under guard by Currie column. I suppose that this refers to Radar.

In the end, 22 December was a wash. 4 R.H.A., Lt.Col. Currie’s outfit, notes that they were conducting rest and maintenance until mid-day, and then moved south, away from Benina, towards Antelat and Soluch. Any opportunity that might have existed to capture a German radar set was thus gone.

 

Screen Shot 2020 02 28 at 6 36 57 PM

Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Screen Shot 2020 02 28 at 12 07 26 PM

 Typed version of same Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Sources

War Diary 7 Support Group, 1941

War Diary 4 R.H.A., 1941

HW 5 ULTRA Intercepts

BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

Background

BenCol (Benghazi Column) was an evolving concept during Operation CRUSADER. The aim was clear – envelop the southern flank of the Axis forces, push a sufficiently large force onto Benghazi, and thereby cut the Axis forces in eastern Cyrenaica off their lifeline, by taking out the only harbour worth mentioning, and cutting the coast road, as well as taking out the Benina and Barce airfields, which were important bases for the Axis air forces.

Had the operation been carried out, it would almost certainly have been written about and heralded as a daring  example of command. Combining two smallish, highly mobile forces, with their own air support,  supplied over a sea controlled by enemy air forces, a dashing paratroop special forces raid thrown in, to reach far into the rear of the enemy. The Germans at least were extremely concerned about it, and strengthened their defenses in western Cyrenaica. Over the course of CRUSADER however, with increasing losses and uncertainty in the key battle around Tobruk, the ambitious plans had to be scaled back, and finally abandoned when the battle had moved beyond it.

The distance of advance from Tobruk to Benghazi, using the best possible route, was 350 miles.

The information is from WO201/635 – Bencol Advance on Benghazi.

1. 7 Armoured Division to March West

In an undated document from November the idea was for a mixed Army/RAF force, led by 7th Armoured Division HQ, to carry out this operation once the battle around Tobruk had advanced to a point where command could be certain that the force (then called ‘Column “F”) could carry out its mission, advancing either via Antelat, or Er Regima in the north, although it was pointed out that no fighter cover could be guaranteed on the northern route.

At this point in time the strength of the force was foreseen to be substantial – and interestingly quite close in balance to a late-war armoured division (although much weaker in artillery):

HQ 7 Armoured Division (General Gott commanding)

4 Armoured Brigade

Composite Brigade Group comprising:

Elements of Support Group 7 Armoured Division

22 Guards Brigade w/3 infantry battalions

One 25-pdr Field Regiment

C.R.E. (Commander Royal Engineers) 7 Armoured Division & 3 Field Squadron RE

Det. 142 Field Park Sqdrn.

One A/Tk battery

One Lt. AA Rgt.

One Armd. Car Rgt.

Supply Column

It was supposed to meet with Brigadier Reid’s ‘Force “E”‘ at Antelat, south-west of Benghazi, with Reid’s men advancing from the south towards the coast at Agedabia, taking the airfield there, and cutting the coastal road. Before arriving there, a party of parachutists under Captain Stirling was supposed to jump onto the airfield, destroying all the airplanes there.

The RAF element consisted of six fighter squadrons, with one of these permanently based on L.G.125, deep in the desert south-west of Tobruk.

The time to get to Benghasi was estimated at 3.5 days. The original vehicle requirement of the column was ca. 2,200 organic vehicles, and another 2,000 for supplies, but this was not seen to be possible, and instead the column was expected to carry five days of supplies, and should then be supplied by (truck?) convoys.

The latest documents I can find refering to this are dated 30 November.

2. Scaling Down – Bencol is born

When the battle around Tobruk made it impossible to send anything from 7 Armoured Division, a scaled-down version of the plan was introduced, and the name “Bencol” introduced. First orders seem to have come out on 1 December. The new order of battle for Bencol simply removed all elements from 7 Armoured Division, i.e. HQ, 4 Armoured Brigade,  engineers, and elements of Support Group. Command of the advance would be exercised by Brigadier Marriott, Commander of 22 Guards Brigade.

Canvas

Sir John Charles Oakes Marriott by Walter Stoneman bromide print, 27 May 1947. The National Portrait Gallery.

BenCol’s intended strength is given as follows:

22 Guards Brigade HQ (102 men, 23 trucks, 9 motorcycles)

Spec. Signals Section (85men, 8 trucks, 14 motorcycles)

3 infantry battalions with LADs (2 Scots Guards, 3 Coldstream Guards, 1 Worcesters) (2,376 men, 459 trucks, 36 motorcycles, 132 carriers)

One Armd. Car Rgt. (11 Hussars)  (582 men, 91 trucks, 7 motorcycles, 58 armoured cars)

One 25-pdr Field Regiment (51 Fd Rgt) (24×25-pdr) (697 men, 145 trucks, 6 motorcycles)

One A/Tk battery (73 A/Tk Bty) (123 men, 39 trucks, 8 motorcycles)

One Lt. AA Rgt. (1 LAA Rgt) (12 40mm guns) (281 men, 57 trucks, 8 motorcycles)

Bde. Coy RASC (400 men, 189 trucks)

Supply Column (5.5 motor transport companies, 2 water tank companies) (1,575 men, 919 trucks & 428 men, 158 tankers)

Total: 6,649 men, 2,088 trucks, 88 motor cycles, 132 carriers, 58 armoured cars, with weekly supply requirements of about 1,000 tons.

Additionally, RAF strength had increased to 12 Squadrons, and was expected to be 4,500 men and 500 trucks, with supply requirements of 500 tons (this was a guesstimate).

To ensure supply once Benghazi had been taken, the Royal Navy was requested to send a ship to Benghazi to land supplies not before 12 December, especially fuel and ammunition, once the port had been taken. This would presumably have been one of the more interesting assignments on offer at the time.

By 9 December planning had changed slightly, adding back CRE 2 Armoured Division, 3 Fd. Coy RE, 142 Fd Pk Det., a squadron of M3 Stuart tanks, and reducing infantry to two battalions and the LAA Rgt. to a single battery.

The RAF component was to be under the command of Adv. HQ No. 258 Wing and was called ‘Whitforce’. It consisted of No. 2 (SAAF), No.4 (SAAF) (both Curtiss Tomahawks), No.33 (ground attack Hurricanes) and No.250 Squadrons (Curtiss Tomahawks), as well as of light and heavy AA, No. 2 Armoured Car Regiment, and various maintenance and supply units.

On 17 December, following a few bloody days on the Gazala line, the operation order was given to Bencol.

3. Not enough trucks – and Benghazi is no longer the objective

In the period 9 to 20 December the availability of trucks exercised the mind of planners. In the meantime, on 18 December the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala line, and 13 Corps opened the pursuit, making the original role of Bencol surplus to requirements, and more importantly requiring so many trucks that it was no longer practicable to operate Bencol independently. The truck allotment was consequently reduced again, and Bencol was ordered to move straight west, towards Msus, and thence drawing on 13 Corps supplies.

4. And in the end

BenCol came into existence, but rather than cutting off the retreating Axis ended up chasing it.