The Importance of Being Dive-Bombed

The Importance of Being Dive-Bombed

Background

One of the issues that is cropping up in researching Operation CRUSADER through contemporary documents is the question of whether or not air attack was successful in causing damage on the ground. There is no doubt that the respective air forces thought it was, and claimed so in their own documents and/or post-war histories (see e.g. the entry on air power in North Africa and my comment on the RAF history on the Thoughts on Military History blog). Nevertheless, it is questionable whether these rather biased judges were right all the time.

Methodologly

The only way me and Michele, whom I am collaborating with on the air aspect, can see to get at this is to try to link ground attack missions to entries in war diaries or first person accounts (where the former are not available) on their effect. This is painstaking work, and I am not sure we’ll get it done. Based on an initial review of the issue, and some early looks into the data, it appears that the research hypothesis would be ‘ground attack missions on mobile targets were rarely successful during Operation CRUSADER’, with success being defined as the mission causing significant damage levels or disorganisation in proportion to the air effort expended. So you would normally expect an attack by 35 Ju 87 Stukas to lead to more damage than a strafing raid by two Fiat CR.42.

It’ll be interesting for us to see what we can come with in terms of data, and I am sure there’ll be some animated debate around it too, since it will challenge some widely held preconceptions.

Empire Notes from the receiving end

The information below is from Intel Summary No. 1 distributed to 15 Light Anti-Aircraft (LAA) Regiment R.A. in January 1942. It was based on the experience of 1st LAA Rgt. R.A. gained in support of 7 Support Group of 7 Armoured Division during Operation CRUSADER.[1]

[…]

  1. Dive bombing (Stukas) on an average does practically no damage. Every effort should be made to educate gun detachments to this fact. They soon realize it after experience in action, but are apt to overestimate the potential of dive bombing before they have gained experience. Bombing of any sort can, in no way, be compared with shell fire from Field Guns and Tanks. Even concentrated fire of this nature causes remarkably small amount of damage, and this fact too should be given to gun detachments. Gun detachments which have experienced this nature of fire are completely derisive of bombing attacks.[2]

  […]

The text below is from the same intelligence summary, but based on the experience of 57 LAA Rgt. R.A., which served under 4 Indian Division during CRUSADER.

[…]

During the whole of this period [3] the Regt. was actively engaged in its more natural pursuit of aerial targets and had duels with no less than 780 aircraft in 187 engagements.

The heaviest raids were during the eight days 7 to 14 December when successive Stuka attacks were delivered on all divisional areas.[4] The attacks were delivered mainly on MT[5] concentrations and Divisional HQ was a particular objective of the Ju 87.

One of the most notable features of these duels was the extreme respect with which the bomber treated “flak”, his approach being at greater heights and his dive shallower on each successive occasion. There can be no doubt that the Lt.AA completely spoilt his aim and helped to maintain the morale of the ground troops. The majority of this fire was outside normal Bofors range but it served its purpose.

Eighteen enemy aircraft were destroyed by the Regt. during the period but unfortunately no Me 109F was placed in the bag as these fleet “birds” gave little opportunity for practice.[6]

[…]

British troops inspect a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka which made an emergency landing in the desert, December 1941. Courtesy of the IWM Photo Collection. [7]

[1] The report was very kindly looked up and made available by Drew, who also provides this service to others interested in National Archives files, for what I think is a very reasonable fee. You can find out more about this and contact Drew at this link.

[2] While somewhat confusingly written, it appears clear to me that on the hierarchy of threats the dive bomber ranks last, while the others (field artillery and tanks) are also to be discounted. The loss figures, when looking into particular engagements also contained in the report, seem to bear that out.

[3] 4 to 27 December 1941

[4] During this period the Axis air forces still occupied airfields at Tmimi, Martuba, and Gazala, just 50 or so miles or less from the frontline, enabling them to send rapid raids multiple times a day to keep the advancing Commonwealth forces in check, to help cover the retreat of the Axis ground forces from the siege of Tobruk. For example, on 8 December Fliegerfuehrer Afrika managed to get 144 missions into the air, not counting Italian missions.

[5] Motor Transport

[6] A ratio of 2.3% of planes ‘duelled’, or roughly one plane shot down in 10 engagements.

[7] This appears to be T6+AN of 5./StG2. You can see a colour drawing of the plane at this link.

11th Indian Brigade in Crusader

11th Indian Brigade in Crusader

Background

The Brigade had a short but interesting history during Operation CRUSADER, and served well. In a letter written to a senior officer in India by Major-General Tuker, GOC 4th Indian, following the loss of the Brigade at Tobruk in June 1942, he refers to 11 Indian Brigade as the finest fighting formation in the desert.

11 Indian Brigade was one of three in the “Red Eagle” division (nicknamed after its shoulder patch), 4 Indian Infantry, together with 5 and 7 Indian Brigades.  At the outset of Operation CRUSADER, only 7 Brigade was in active operations, with 11 Brigade guarding the coast east of Sollum/Halfaya, and 5 Brigade acting as a reserve. 11 Indian Brigade at that time consisted of the 2/5 Mahratta Light Infantry, 2nd Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and 1/6 Rajputana Rifles, under the command of Brigadier Anderson.  

Following two weeks of quiet on the eastern front of the border fortifications, the Brigade crossed the wire at the border to Libya on 1 December 1941, to support the operations of 13 Corps, and quickly became engaged.

11pow

An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk. (IWM E7180)

Bir el Gobi

The Brigade was not involved in the battle of the Omars on the Egyptian frontier, and only entered battle attacking the Italian strongpoint at Bir el Gobi on the desert track south of Tobruk.  The attack was badly prepapred due to a lack of time (faulty intelligence, and no communication with the supporting artillery) and this, together with the heroic resistance by the Giovanni Fascisti (Young fascists), led to very high losses of the attacking units of the 11th Brigade, in particular 2nd Cameronians on the first day. While it was believed that the objective of the 2/5 Mahrattas was strongly held, while the objective of the Cameron Highlanders was lightly held, in reality it appears to have been vice versa.

As a consequence of this erroneous assessment, the available 12 Valentine Tanks were split into two groups, 9 for the Mahrattas and 3 for the Cameron Highlanders. The Mahrattas captured their objective in a bayonet charge, taking 250 Italian prisoners and capturing 50,000 gallons  (about 2,000 tons) of fuel. After this success, the Mahrattas tried to support the Cameron Highlanders, in two further attacks but even this did not help to dislodge the defenders. The next morning, 5th December, a silent attack was tried, but again to no avail.

At Bir el Gobi on 5 December, the battalion lost its commanding officer, Lt.Col. Butler O.B.E. killed, together with 13 men, British 2/Lt. Wilson, and Vice Roy Commissioned Officer Jemadar Maida Ram of B Company, and 48 wounded, including two British officers and two VCOs, with one soldier dying of wounds on 20 December. A Sepoy (private) in 2/5 Mahrattas was awarded the Indian Order of Merit medal for his actions during  one of these attack, a decoration available only to Indian soldiers, and ranking one or two classes under the Victoria Cross. The history (probably working from the citation) reads:

Notable devotion to duty for which he deservedly won the posthumous award of the I.O.M. was displayed by Sepoy Babaji Desai who, when his section commander had been killed, took command and used his Bren gun very effectively in assisting the advance of the company against heavy  enemy machine-gun fire.  Later the Sepoy was ordered to remain in position covering the withdrawal of his company and carried out his task so well that the company suffered few casualties from the fire of the enemy’s machine-guns on its immediate front.  Sepoy Babaji Desai and the two men with him were killed before they could themselves withdraw.

After abandoning the attack, 11th Brigade leaguered in the desert west of el Gobi when 2/5 Mahrattas were attacked and overrun by the tanks of the Afrika Korps.  The history of the Mahratta Light Infantry states:

The 2nd Battalion was again heavily engaged in the action at Bir el Gobi on 4th/6th December 1941, when during a powerful enemy counter-attack two companies were overrun by a concentration of German tanks losing in casualties 3 British officers, 5 Indian officers, and 240 other ranks.

What happened was an attack of about 25 tanks, according to ‘The Tiger Kills’, with supporting infantry.  They overran A and C companies of the Mahrattas, but in the process were delayed and engaged sufficiently to allow the remainder of the battalion to withdraw. 

11matilda

A Matilda tank supporting Indian troops, 24 December 1940. (IWM E3870E)

The Djebel

In fact, 11th Brigade had been mauled so badly in the three days it was in action that it was withdrawn into Tobruk, out of line for the pursuit of the Axis forces to the Gazala line. It also lacked transport to participate in a more mobile battle. 5 and 7 Brigades continued the pursuit, first to the Gazala line, where 5 Brigade was mauled on 13 December, and then on to Benghazi.

11 Brigade only re-entered the winter campaign at a later stage, when it occupied part of the Djebel on the coast between Benghazi and Ain el Gazala and became embroiled in the German counteroffensive.  One of its battalions (1/6 Rajputana Rifles) was detached as security detail for the HQ of 13 Corps in the Msus/Antelat area, leaving 2/5 Mahrattas and 2 Camerons, which had been reinforced by ‘E’ Force, a raiding force based on 29 Indian Brigade’s 3/2 Punjab Regiment. One of the 1/6 Rajputana companies was overrun by German tanks during the retreat, while the remainder of the battalion had a close shave due to lack of transport (and at one time refuelled at one end of a dump while the Germans were using the other end) but managed to escape.

11th Brigade as a whole was cut off in the Barce area with the rest of the division following the loss of Benghazi to the Axis counter-stroke on 21st January. During a brilliantly executed retreat, it managed to disengage and cause heavy damage to the Axis forces. The defensive action of the Brigade was instrumental in allowing the remainder of the division to escape the trap it found in, relatively unscathed, and it sufficiently delayed the advance of German combat groups through the Djebel to prevent them from bouncing the Gazala Line towards Tobruk.

In the brief history of the division printed shortly after the war, this engagement of the 11th Brigade is described as “[…]perhaps the most brilliant defensive engagement in divisional history.” The battalion commander of the 2/5 Mahrattas, Lieutenant-Colonel M.P.Lancaster, was awarded the DSO for his “[…]able handling of the battalion in successive rearguard actions covering the withdrawal of 11th Brigade from the Barce-Benghazi area from 24th January to 4th February.”

After CRUSADER

When 4th Indian Division came into the Gazala line, it was immediately split up, and its brigades distributed all across the Mediterranean for several months. 11 Brigade eventually ended up defending the eastern sector of Tobruk during the gazala battles, and was destroyed when Tobruk fell, with Brigadier Anderson becoming a prisoner of war.  At that time, the Brigade was pretty much left alone in the face of the German assault, and could not withstand it due to its over-extended frontline.  

Featured picture showing men of probably 7 Indian Brigade. Men of the 4th Indian Division with a captured German flag at Sidi Omar, North Africa. (E6940)