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

 

 

Totensonntag–the Experience of 3 R.T.R.

I have previously written about the experience of 6 New Zealand Brigade on Totensonntag, Sunday 23 November 1941 (see this link), the day that 5 South African Brigade was annihilated by the Axis forces on the airfield of Sidi Rezegh.  I have also written about the Italian Ariete armoured division’s fight on the day, at this link.

The entry below is dealing with the experience of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment (3.R.T.R.), two officers of which left excellent literary testimony (see also this older entry). While their accounts are more entertaining to read, I still believe in having a look into the primary sources, also because they help clear things up in terms of what happened and what the intent was. When I went through this one, I was quite astonished by the detail, and in particular the riveting story of A Squadron’s day, and how it was rescued by Lt. Johnson.

What is interesting about this is the severe petrol problem faced by the high-consuming, but low tank-volume US-built M3 Stuart tanks, who essentially seem to have been good for a day’s fighting, but then had to be refilled.

Below, the original diary is in the left and centre column, while my comments and analysis based on researching other sources are to the right.

In the Field

Ref. Map 1/250,000 SALUM – TOBRUK

Editor’s Notes

Time

Events

Day 6, 23 November B Echelon
0700 Moved to area 446368. Shelled near 446375, no casualties. NW of Gabr Saleh
A and B1 Echelons This covers only HQ, B and C Squadrons. For A Sqdrn. see below.
0530 Ten tanks then with Bn HQ moved on bearing 210 until reaching right flank of a S. African Bde in area HAAREIFAT EN NBEIDAT 435399 Location is just south of the airfield. This was 5 S.A. Bde., and is the first time it appears in the War Diary.
0745 Following orders, moved to join 4 A.B. in area HAGFET EL ZGHEMIL EL GARBIA 432392 About 8km south of Sidi Rezegh, so away from the battle. It is not clear who gave these orders. Orders to 4 Armoured Brigade were to guard the right flank of the force of Sidi Rezegh. 4 Armoured Brigade War Diary doesmention 3 R.T.R. was ordered to protect the leaguer of 7 Support Group, which was located at 428393. This appears to be close enough.
0800 While passing through S.African column were suddenly confronted with mass rush N.W. of our own troops and found ourselves in action against large enemy tank force, at least 50 in number. Engaged with assistance of artillery and A/T guns and found that 2 i/c 3 R.T.R. had joined us with a few tanks. This battle was fought with 15. Panzerdivision. It is possiblethat the CO of the 1st Battalion Panzerregiment 8, Major Fenski, died in this fight.
1130 Enemy driven off – much jubilation – our total force was ten tanks – only 8 “runners” and ammunition and petrol very low. Filled up partially with Grade III petrol. Kept constant watch during rest of morning and early afternoon. Support Group came through – intermittent shelling on both sides. There is nothing on this fight in the combat reports of the Germans, but the war diary entry of 15. Panzerdivision indicates that this wasn’t an easy fight.

Grade III petrol was the one with the lowest octane number, while the M3 tank required avgas for its aero engine.

1600 Large enemy column observed approaching from S.W. at least 100 tanks. This was the main body of the D.A.K. and the Ariete Division attacking from the south.
1630 3 R.T.R. engaged until ammunition ran out – little heavy fire from enemy.
1700 We withdrew East and contacted New Zealand Bde. where we spent the night. ATLAS was endeavouring to replenish us on orders from General Gott. Approx. location 443400 – South of CARMUSET EN NEBIDAT. About 10km east of Sidi Rezegh. Probably 6 N.Z. Brigade, but nothing about this in its records.
In the field
23 November Report by O.C. “A” Squadron – separated from Bn. on 22 Nov.
Only about 10 miles of petrol left at dawn. Formed a composite Sqn. with five of my Sqn. tanks and five of 5 R.T.R. Moved to take up a position right of 4 R.H.A. at about 0700 hrs. Very large column of tanks and guns seen on right flank, ordered to stop lead of column, shelled heavily and accurately. Column after running half a mile had a further line of half a mile running at 90 degrees to the right. Turned right to stop lead. Still shelled. Informed our “A.15” Sqn. of cavalry on the way of the position, who said they would help. This never happened. Engaged enemy tanks on their left flank but was shelled out of it, had to withdraw. Now only about 4 miles of petrol left. Then chased by 12 to 15 German Mk. IV tanks and shelled heavily from three sides. Withdrew being shelled and chased. At this stage four of my tanks (5 R.T.R.) did not follow. Was joined by some tanks of Major Witheridge’s (“C” Sqn.) composite Sqn. Three tanks fell out with no petrol. As soon as the enemy tanks stopped, two more tanks ran out of petrol, came on a “B” Sqn. tank with Sgt. Blackwell (“B” Sqn.) badly wounded inside it. The C.O. of this Squadron was Major Wilson. The tank commanders of 6 5 R.T.R. tanks presumed to be with 3 R.T.R. were:
Capt. S.J. Hennings
Sgt. Meyler
Sgt. Ford
Sgt. James
Sgt. Hall
Sgt. Feys

Only Sgt. Meyler was lost on the day, two of the tanks returned (Hennings and Hall), the remaining three crews returned without their tanks.

approx. 1045 Stopped the party – found all tanks had only about 1 to 2 miles of petrol in them – total strength of tanks was 8. I decided that as we were completely surrounded and had no petrol and only a stumped (?) amount of ammunition to try and save the tanks and personnel if possible. Plan was to leave the tanks to look like derelicts and the crews to lie down about 800 yds. from their tanks and to remain still. This was done. The Germans then sent up an armoured O.P. which came within 300 yds. and we were very heavily shelled, but no damage was done. Shelled again in about 3/4 of an hour – no damage. Lay still until dark. German patrols and artillery were within 800 yds. of us all day, but must have considered tanks derelict. At darkness called up Bn. on the wireless and eventually got a reply from Sgt. Ward, Bn. Signal Sgt. I told him I wanted petrol and talked to Lt. Johnson. He brought it to us arriving at about 0115 hours having come through enemy territory and travelled 25 miles being guided by very lights fired by me and talking on the wireless. We filled up and left at 0300 hours 24 Nov. (see D.7 24 Nov.).
In the field
23 November B Echelon
Remained in area 446368
Report by Lt. Johnson B. Echelon
During the morning I was sent by Cmdr. B Echelon with a replenishing party for the 3 R.T.R. in a northerly direction towards Sidi Rezegh area. After travelling about three quarters of the distance I was unable to proceed further owing to the battle situation. I could not find HQ 4 A.B., but contacted HQ 7 A.B. who gave me the general direction of where 4 A.B. might be found. I eventually found Bde. H.Q. but they did not know where 3 R.T.R. were. At that moment some German tanks attempted to break through and I was instructed to commend all the replenishing vehicles that were there ( 3 R.T.R., 5 R.T.R., detached (?) Scots Gds and R.A.M.C.) and to stay there until an escort of tanks arrived to stay there to guard me. The tanks never arrived. When darkness fell I formed a  close leaguer and posted sentries. Meanwhile I had instructed Sgt. Ward (R.C. of Signals) who was in my party to try and contact Bn. H.Q. on the wireless. At 1900 hrs. he made contact with A Sqn. and after establishing an identity we learnt that they were stranded with eight tanks without petrol and had been like that all day. They did not know their position, but by means of a fire which we both could see I was able to take bearings and roughly estimate their position which from our calculations was about twelve miles away and near Sidi REZEGH aerodrome. I started out at 2030 hrs. with 2/Lt. G.H. Barker (whom I had picked up earlier in the day) as my wireless operator and Sgt. Ward as driver of the wireless truck and one ammunition and one petrol lorry. I left the remainder of the vehicles under command of an officer of the Scots Guards. I reached the first objective (the fire) after travelling about 10 miles and then I asked “A” Sqn. for a verey light so as to get a bearing on their position. We saw the flare a very long way away so we continued on our course. We had to deviate from our course several times so as to avoid passing through enemy leaguers and tanks. After we had crossed a landing ground we asked for another verey light and while waiting for it I found that we had stopped within 75 yds. of two German tanks with what appeared to be the crews sleeping by them. I debated whether or not to shoot the crews, but decided it would make too much noise and attract attention, this lessening my chances of getting “A” Sqn. out of their position. I finally located “A” Sqn. at midnight after travelling twenty five miles and found Major Wilson, Major Witheridge, Lt. Denning, 2/Lt. Deer, and S.S.M. Dean with eight tanks and crews and badly wounded Sgt. Blackwell who had a fractured skull.