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1 Armoured Brigade (partially) in 1 Armoured Division during the counteroffensive, when 7 Armoured Division had been withdrawn.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

The Importance of Being Dive-Bombed

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.

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.

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.

Reorganising 7 Support Group for the Pursuit – 13 Dec 1941

On 12 December 1941 it had become clear that the Axis forces were withdrawing westwards, and it was expected that they would fight rear-guard actions while doing so. In consequence, 7 Support Group received a new task, namely to (i) keep touch with the withdrawing enemy; (ii) to harass him as the opportunity offers; and (iii) to act as harassment screen in front of 4 Armoured Brigade, the main armoured force of the 8th Army at this stage in the operation. On 13 December, 7 Support Group HQ therefore issued an order to reorganize, which is contained as appendix 11 to the December 1941 war diary (WO169/1185). This is given in full below. I have tried to preserve the original formatting, as much as the blog software allows this.

The document gives a nice overview of the constitution of the so-called ‘Jock’ columns. It also shows quite clearly that they were weak units, not able to carry out sustained fighting, but mobile, and therefore rather good at hit-and-run. The only striking power they had lay in their artillery. The infantry component was too weak to take or hold anything, and would only have served as local protection. As JonS points out below, 3 RHA was an AT Rgt, equipped with 2-pdr AT guns. So contrary to my first impression, the columns were well equipped in anti-tank artillery, with up to 12 guns each, and all or most of them would have been Portees, I guess.

Battle HQ
7 Sp Gp
13 Dec 41

O.C.    11 Hussars

CURRIE Coln.

WILSON ”

MAYFIELD ”

102 (NH) A.Tk.RGt.

Hugo Coln

B Ech.
————————————-

  1. W.e.f. 14 Dec Sp Gp will be organized into 3 colns.
  2. 11 H, 2 S.G., 203 Bty, 51 Fd Regt RA will join GDS BDE by 1400 hrs 14 Dec.
  3. 102 (NH) will join 4 Armd Bde by 1400 hrs 14 Dec.
  4. In consequence of the above, following will take place at last light tonight.
    1. 2 S.G. will pull out and R.V. 2 miles East of 7 Sp Gp H.Q.
    2. Two tps 102 (NH) will R.V. 1 mile East of DOUBLE BLUE
    3. HUGO Coln will take over remainder of MAYFIELD Coln – 60 Fd Rgt RA in support – except for tp 3 Bty, 1 L.A.A. Regt RA which will join CURRIE Coln at last light.
    4. 203 Bty will R.V. with 2 S.G.
    5. One Coy 2 R.B. HUGO Coln to CURRIE Coln
  5. Two tps 102 (NH) now with B Ech will move direct to B Ech 4 ARMD BDE as soon as possible after first light tomorrow.
  6. 11 H will join GDS BDE by 1400 hrs 14 DEC. (illegible handwriting)
  7. Colns will be constituted as follows after the above re-organisation:-
    1. CURRIE Coln

      RHQ, 4 RHA

      M Bty 3 RHA

      F and DD Btys 4 RHA

      Tp 4 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      Tp 3 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      One Coy 2 R.B.

      Det R.E.

    2. WILSON Coln

      RHQ 3 RHA

      C Bty 4 RHA

      One tp D Bty)

      One tp J Bty)    3 RHA

      One tp 2 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      One Coy 2 R.B.

    3. HUGO COln

      H.Q. 2 RB

      60 Fd Rgt R.A. (not sure about the number)

      One tp D Bty 3 RHA

      One tp J Bty 3 RHA

      One tp 2 Bty 1 Lt. A.A. Regt.

      Det R.E.

      One Coy 2 R.B.

       

  8. Locations GDS BDR and 4 ARMD BDE notified later.

Signed (unreadable)

Maj.

Bde Maj.

Some explanation on the abbreviations:

HQ/H.Q. Headquarters
O.C. – Officer Commanding
Coln – Column
102 (NH) A.Tk.Regt. – 102 (Northumberland Hussars) Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Horse Artillery
B Ech – Service elements of the brigade (A Ech are the fighting elements)
W.e.f. – with effect from
11 H – 11 Hussars armoured car regiment
Bty – battery (8 or 12 guns) two or three batteries make up a field regiment, four batteries an anti-tank or light anti-aircraft regiment
2 S.G. – 2 Scots Guards infantry battalion
Fd Rgt RA – Field Regiment Royal Artillery
L.A.A. – Light Anti Aircraft, usually 40mm Bofors, sometimes captured Italian 20mm Breda, or 37mm Bofors guns.
GDS BDE – Guards Brigade
4 Armd Bde – 4 Armoured Brigade
R.V. – rendezvous
Tp – troop (4 or 6 guns) two troops make up a battery
2 R.B. – 2 Rifle Brigade infantry battalion
RHQ – Regimental Headquarters
RHA – Royal Horse Artillery
Det – Detachment
RE – Royal Engineers

BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

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.

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.

Operational Report 7th Queen’s Own Hussars December 1941

The 7th Queen’s Own Hussars were one of the cruiser-equipped armour regiments in 7th Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division, the famous “Desert Rats”.  The regiment did not have a happy operation, and by 27th November was moved to the Left Out of Battle (L.O.B.) camp near Bir Telata, after the last three tanks had been evacuated.  It formed a composite squadron of Stuart tanks, which was instructed by US soldiers. The action on 21st November referred to in the report below left the regiment with only 12 to 20 tanks (instead of a normal state of close to 60 – only 1 tank had been lost until then), and the regimental commander Lt.Col. Byass DSO MC was killed.  I will post further information on this engagement another day.

OPERATIONAL REPORT, 7th QUEEN’S OWN HUSSARS DECEMBER, 1941.

Reference the attached report of Operations carried out by this Regiment between November 18th, and November 29th, 1941, I append a few remarks in amplification of the report.

(1) German methods of tank warfare.

In the initial stages the enemy appeared to move his tank force in a concentrated mass. The column which attacked 7th Hussars on November 21st was a densely packed tank force numbering some 150 tanks. (N.B. These were actually counted approximately and this figure does not include tanks out of sight.) A/Tank and/or field guns appeared to be up with the tanks. Thus the full weight of attack of what may have been over half the total enemy tank strength descended on one British Regiment. Had close artillery support, i.e. 25 – pounder guns up in line with the 7th Hussars been available at the commencement of the engagement, very heavy destruction of enemy tanks must have resulted owing to their close formation. The enemy opened fire at long range and several tanks of the 7’h Hussars were destroyed before they could close to effective 2 – pounder range. The enemy appeared to fire three distinct types of ammunition.

(a) An ordinary H.E. shell – either from guns mounted in tanks or from artillery up with the tanks.

(b) An A/Tank armour-piercing shot, varying in destructive power, probably from different types of gun.

(c) An incendiary shell which on explosion generated terrific heat and caused our tanks to catch fire, even though the shell hit the front of the turret.

After 21st November, the German tank force appeared to split up into smaller columns which on the following days engaged unprotected M.T. Echelons and was a source of danger to our communications and higher headquarters.

(2) A separate report has been rendered regarding certain technical difficulties experienced with the A 15 Cruiser tanks.

(3) It is suggested that the following lessons were brought out during the operations:

(a) The importance of keeping sufficiently concentrated to maintain numerical superiority in the initial engagement against the enemy’s main force.

(b) The necessity for early information regarding the enemy’s movements – in particular those of his main force. Information on November 21 S` arrived too late for 7th Armoured Brigade to concentrate.

(c) Unless and until we have a tank gun which can equal that of the most modern German tanks opposed to us, 25 – pounder support under direct control of Regimental Commanders is essential. At 2,000 yards over open sights the 25 – pounder is a good A/Tank weapon, (vide subsequent action of the 4th Indian Division, R.A., which destroyed some 17 enemy tanks for the loss of only four guns). Desultory shelling at long range by 25 – pounders against enemy A.F.V.s is of little or no value.

(d) Tanks of a Regiment should be all of the same type. 7th Hussars went into action with a mixture of A 15, A 13, and A 10 Cruiser tanks. Even the A 15 tanks were of different makes and certain gun spares were non-interchangeable.

(e) A Echelons should be reduced to the minimum required for immediate replenishment, medical services and repairs to tanks. A Echelons are very vulnerable and, being close up behind the A.F.V.s are liable to be cut off by enemy columns. A small A Echelon can escape more easily than a large one.

(f) All B vehicles not with the A Echelons should be with Brigade B Echelons. Intermediate Echelons are not practicable and merely constitute further vulnerable bodies of M.T. liable to become cut off and lost.

(g) In open desert warfare, B Echelons will frequently, once the main tank forces have joined in battle, not be able to replenish units at night. Indication of leaguer location by firing verey lights is dangerous.

ABBASSIA, December, 1941.

(Signed) Major Commanding 7th Queen’s Own Hussars.