A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

Following some further work on the older blog article at this link  I have now turned this into a more substantive and better referenced article, which can be dowloaded here:

Counterfactual Considerations on Rommel’s First Offensive.

The conclusions of the blog are refined in this article, but they remain fundamentally aligned with those of the blog entry.

Happy reading, and comments as always welcome.

0172.jpg

Rommel and Gariboldi during a Planning Meeting, probably February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

German tank flag signals

German tank flag signals

Background

This document is from the war diary of the H.Q. of 7 Armoured Division, December 1941. It’s the first time I have seen this, and it is unusual in that it is in colour. Very few documents are.

Signalling in a tank battle was of course a challenge with the means of communication available in 1941, and so even though German tanks were equipped with radio sets, these were not always reliable due to atmospheric conditions, they could be jammed (something the Empire forces attempted through the use of some specially equipped Vickers Wellingtons during CRUSADER), and networks could be overloaded. Flags were therefore a low-tech fallback, but of course suffered from their own issues – difficult to use in failing light, impossible in the dark, and affected by ground conditions, e.g. when lots of dust was thrown up.

German Flags

Usual health warning applies: this is a wartime document based on intelligence assessments. It may well be wrong, and the Germans only had flags in their tanks so they could engage in a Maibaumtanz.

D.A.K. War Diary 26 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 26 April 1941

26 April 1941

Weather Situation: max. temp. 30 degrees C, from 11.00 hours to 14.00 hours dust storm[1]

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops:

Of Div. Trento arrived in Acroma:

Regimental staff plus 2nd and 3rd battalions Artillery Regiment 46

On Tobruk front on both sides active reconnaissance and patrol activity. On the left wing of M.G.Batl.8[2] the enemy had cut an about 60m wide gap into the wire during the night 25/26 April. 5.lei.Div. took care to keep it under vigilant observation, also during the dust storm. One company of Pz.Regt.5 was placed behind it. An English reconnaissance patrol coming through this breach around mid-day was completely shot up by the tanks. During the evening hours 5.lei.Div. reported that the gap had now been closed again.

Nordafrika, Panzer III in Fahrt

German Panzer III tanks advancing in North Africa, 1941. Most likely Panzerregiment 5. Courtesy Wikimedia/Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv

14.30 hours a reconnaissance push by four enemy tanks from the area north of 209 to the west was repulsed by our artillery fire.[3]

Around 12.00 hours 5.lei.Div. reported that a patrol of Gruppe Schwerin had noted an English landing attempt about 15km east of Marsa Zeitum[4]. The division already doubted the report. A combat-capable reconnaissance in company strength was sent there and could only note a small vessel that moved west away from the coast.

Concerning the attack of Gruppe Herff[5] to take Halfaya Pass the following reports were received:

15.00 hours: “Moves to attack enemy south of Sollum commenced at 13.00 hours. Enveloping move is intended, advancing east of Point 206.”

19.00 hours: “17.45 hours enemy position east Uadi el Halfaya south-east Point 194 occupied by AT, tanks and artillery.
Gruppe Herff attacking in enveloping move south, takes position and holds it.”

24.00 hours: “Our attack pushed close to coast. Strong artillery reinforcement.New opponent from southwest evades encirclement by moving off north towards Capuzzo.”[6]

halfaya_pass_wwii

Halfaya Pass. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

[1]The war diary of 1 R.T.R. states this blew ‘all day’. The Australian Official History says it reduced visibility to 300 yards.

[2]On the eastern front of Tobruk.

[3]There is nothing about this in the Allied war diaries.

[4]Between Tobruk and Bardia.

[5]Operation Wendepunkt (Turning Point).

[6]The AWM Official History describes it thus:

The pass was bombed and machine-gunned on the evening of the 25th and on the 26th Herff’s force launched an attack against it. The ensconced infantry held to their positions, but their front was narrow and lacked flank protection. Enemy infiltrating along the escarpment threatened to outflank them. The anti-tank gunners of the 12th Battery[7] took part in the battle in an infantry-gun role, using high-explosive shell. Sergeant Templeman’s gun registered a direct hit on an enemy field gun as it was coming into action .

020088

A captured Boehler 47mm AT gun being inspected by Australian soldiers at Tocra, Libya, in early 1941. Courtesy Australian War Memorial, Collection number 020088

After dark the withdrawal plan was put into effect and the code words issued. The 2/Scots Guards established a delaying line from Buq Buq to Alam el Dab, two miles west of Sidi Barrani, through which the forward battalions withdrew. The 12th Battery guns covered the withdrawals of the battalions they were supporting. The two companies of the 1/Durham Light Infantry, covered by Lieutenant Scanlon’s troop, left the Halfaya position at 10.30 p.m., and the rearguard at Salum, with which was Lieutenant Cheetham ‘s troop (less one section), departed at 40 minutes past midnight .

[7]The Battery belonged to 2/3 Australian AT Regiment. Equipped with captured Italian 47mm AT guns. Thanks to user ‘Sheldrake’ on the AHF for pointing this out.

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 23 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 23 April 1941

23 April 1941

Weather: max. temp. 19 degrees C

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops:

Of Div. Brescia arrived in the operational zone:

  • Infantry Regiment 20
  • Staff
  • 1st Battalion
  • Support Weapons Company
  • 2nd Battalion
  • Mortar and Infantry Gun Companies

On 23 April ground reconnaissance still encountered continuous enemy occupation of the outer ring of fortifications of Tobruk. Aerial reconnaissance only ascertained weaker groupings of 30-50 motor vehicles each between the rings of fortification. No enemy push. Compared to previous days only weak enemy artillery effects.

To finally gain clarity on whether the enemy front before Tobruk was still holding, assault patrols were ordered for all divisions for 24 April 0530 hours, with strong artillery support (see same order).

At midday 23 April a heavy enemy bomb attack hit Gazala airfield but without notable losses. Our air force attacked the port of Tobruk twice. Results thus far: 1 ship sunk, 2 ships heavily hit, one of these burning, based on ground observation[1]. 6 Hurricanes, 2 Blenheims were shot down in air combat[2], 2 of our fighters lost. According to ground observation 7 ships were confirmed in the port of Tobruk/Marsa Zeitum, 3 transports, 1 destroyer, 1 submarine, and 3 smaller vessels. The latter could however not be confirmed again by aerial reconnaissance after 1900 hours.

2030 hours report of Gruppe Herff: “1815 hours 60 enemy tanks at Azeiz marching north. Turn to west not excluded.”[3]

The following measures were thereupon ordered by the D.A.K.:

  1. To Fliegerfuehrer AfrikaFliegerfuehrer has to task armed reconnaissance against the enemy tanks early on 24 April, if possible to attack the tanks and to destroy them. Report reconnaissance results soonest to D.A.K., Gruppe Herff, and 5.lei.Div.
  2. Inform 5.lei.Div. for it to carry out potentially required ground reconnaissance and security measures.
  3. Radio message to Gruppe Herff: “The movement of the 60 tanks has to be observed early and continuously on 24 April. If required, the tanks are to be attacked and destroyed with all anti-tank forces. Reconnaissance results continuously to D.A.K.

 

Large

Marmon Herrington armoured car of the Tobruk garrison, May 1941. IWM

Around 2200 hours the following radio message arrived from Gruppe Herff: enemy tank attack from the west on Capuzzo, lasting several hours, supported by reinforced artillery, until now repulsed. Fight continues. At 1815 hours 60 enemy tanks, with them a larger number of other motor vehicles and possibly artillery across a wide front and depth in advance west of Capuzzo to Sidi Azeiz. Forward Detachment holds current positions whilst securing to the west. Not yet clear if blocking of road Bardia – Tobruk or advance in the rear of the siege front is intended.  Armoured car reconnaissance patrols attempt to keep in touch during the night. Aerial reconnaissance from daybreak in the area west of the Forward Detachment, and readying of Stukas for immediate support requested.

Notes

[1]There is no record on Seekrieg or Wrecksite of ships wrecked at Tobruk on 23 April 1941. It is likely that this refers to repeat hits on the already sunkd vessels during these attacks, the merchants SS Urania and SS Draco, and possibly damage to the mine hunter HMS Fareham, and the submarine hunter HMSAS Southern Seas.

[2]Only one loss is recorded on this day, Blenheim IV T1873 of No. 55 Sqdn. R.A.F. , lost on an operation to bomb Gazala landing ground No.1. The crew of Sgts. H. Fullarton, H.S. Latta R.N.Z.A.F. and G. McLaren were all killed when their plane crashed into the sea in flames, after a 15 minute running fight that commenced 32km west of Tobruk. It was likely shot down by Oberleutnant Wolfgang Redlich of 1./JG27, flying a Me 109E. Redlich claimed two Blenheims.

[3]This was apparently only an armoured car raid on German transport, executed by 11 Hussars. Nevertheless, it caused another flap at Rommel’s HQ, following the very successful raids by the Tobruk garrison of the previous day.

 

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 12 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 12 April 1941

12 April 1941

Weather: max. temp. 17 degrees Celsius

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops:

Arrived in the operational zone:
2x fast artillery regiments (Articelere) Colonel Grati (Corps Artillery Regiment)

Reinforced A.A.3 reported 10.00 hours: “Bardia occupied without fight.”

Forward Detachment Knabe, advancing on Trigh Enver Bei, reached area G. el Arid by evening, there at 18.15 hours clash with three enemy tanks.

The encirclement ring around Tobruk was closed in the east on both sides of Sidi Daud by Detachment Graf Schwerin. An attack of Panz.Regiment 5 on Tobruk from the southeast had to turn around in front of the anti-tank ditch.

11 April

Italian Map of the area between Tobruk and Bardia. Relevant locations highlighted. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Order to 5.lei.Div. for the occupation of Tobruk, see the same.

Order to Div.Trento see the same.

In front of Tobruk arrived: 1.) Artillery Regiment Grati, task to go into position during morning 13 April. 2.) Detachment Fabris task to take over securing south and southeast at El Adem airfield.

The D.A.K. was not informed about the exact position and status of the permanent fortification works of Tobruk by 12 April. Conduct of operations and orders were based solely on the 1:400,000 map. No information from the Italian High Command was received.

On the morning of 12 April the command post of the Afrikakorps was 4km west of the road Tobruk – El Adem, about 22km south of Tobruk.

The tanker Persiana with 2,200 cubic metres of petrol was torpedoed and sank.[1]

[1]The actual name was Persiano. She was a small, old tanker, built in 1889. She was sunk by HM/Sub Tetrarch.

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 8 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 8 April 1941

8 April 1941

At 08.00 hours 5.lei.Div. with I./Pz.Regt.5 led by Major Bolbrinker[1] (8 tanks) took Mechili. One English general[2], 60 officers, and about 1,700 men[3] were captured, an immeasurable volume of booty consisting of vehicles, weapons, ammunition, and rations fell in our hands. The garrison had received additional forces from the west in the morning and repeatedly tried to break through the encirclement. According to an Italian air report, around this time an enemy column of about 200 vehicles was breaking out, passing north by Mechili.

At 12.00 hours Lt. General Rommel ordered: “The Italian formations occupy Mechili. 5.lei.Div. secures to the north and northwest, Forward Detachment Schwerin and all arriving elements of Combat Group Olbrich to be tasked for Derna.”

Lt.Col. Graf Schwerin jumped off at 13.30 hours.

Since the evening of 7 April, Lt.Col. Ponath was engaged in a heavy battle against enemy breakthrough attempts on Derna airfield. During the afternoon of 8 April he was reinforced by Fliegerfuehrer Afrika with 3 Ju 52, carrying 60 men from an AA unit and 3 2cm guns.

At 18.35 hours Lt.General Rommel arrived with the van of Forward Detachment Schwerin on Derna airfield. Lt.Col. Ponath reported to the Commander: “Airfield Derna and Via Balbia reached evening 7 April. Great booty of weapons, ammunition and petrol, about 800 prisoners, including many officers and four generals[4]. Div.Brescia has reached Derna town.[5]”

Detachment Ponath was sent on Tmimi during the evening of 8 April. Task: establish contact with the enemy and reconnoitre against Tobruk. It reported on 9 April current location Tmimi, no contact with the enemy, reconnaissance on Tobruk underway.

Marching group Olbrich did not come to enter the battle at Mechili. At 10.00 hours it stood with its most forward elements still halfway B. el Beter – Mechili. Major Schraepler with elements Corps staff, one AA MG company[6], one AT company, elements I./Flak 18 and Signals Battalion Libyen reached Gadd el Amahr, elements of marching group Taetz and Div. Ariete Tengeder. All marching groups had to be sent rations in repeated operations of air transport units.

Further elements of the command squadron of the Afrikakorps were sent to Derna. The Ia with a radio section remained in Agedabia.

The commander of Div.Trento met the Ia and reported the arrival of the first elements of his division in Agedabia. He received the order to reach Derna by the evening of 12 April with one infantry regiment, one artillery battalion, and two companies of AT guns, and to pull up another infantry regiment, one MG battalion and two companies of AT guns by 13 April.

The Italian high command received the request for accelerated bringing up of Div.Trento and the remainder of Div. Brescia.  

[1]He received the Ritterkreuz for the action.

[2]Major-General Gambier Parry, General Officer Commanding 2nd Armoured Division.

o27connor_captured

General Gambier-Parry (right) awaiting transport in a Ju 52 after his capture, April 1941. Source: Wikipedia

[3]This was most of 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, arguably the most luckless formation on the Empire side in the desert, and the HQ of 2nd Armoured Division. Some detail on the action can be found at this link.

[4] The generals included Lieutenant-General Philip Neame VC, (centre on the picture above), and Lt.General O’Connor (rear centre), the victor of the COMPASS operation and the pursuit and destruction of the bulk of Italian forces just a few weeks before.

[5] This essentially joined the north-eastern push via Mechili and the eastern push via the Via Balbia and the Jebel Akhdar, but the encirclement closed too far west and allowed the main Empire forces in the Jebel as well as most of the remnants of 2nd Armoured Division to escape into Tobruk.