Wochschau footage from Crusader

Wochschau footage from Crusader

The Wochenschau was the weekly propaganda news reel of the 3rd Reich. As a boy I watched it’s re-runs, mesmerised. They ran every evening on regional TV stations.

The linked episode has North African footage from minute 24 onwards, including a Stuka divebombing attack, a short episode on female Red Cross nurses in a field hospital, and a fighter battle with Me 109s taking apart some Hurricanes.

m.youtube.com/watch

Please keep in mind that this was propaganda aimed to manipulate as well as inform. The segments would be cleverly cut, and the messaging adjusted to suit a criminal regime and support a criminal cause.

21 January 1942 – And they are off!

21 January 1942 – And they are off!

Background

Today is the 79th anniversary of the Axis forces’ riposte, which led to the reconquest of Cyrenaica up to the Gazala line, where both sides stopped, exhausted, by 6 February. The lightning campaign undid much of the Allied forces conquest, destroyed for a time the fighting capabilities of 1 Armoured Division and 7 Indian Brigade, and exposed a severe rift in British high command, which already foreshadowed the confusion that would lead to desaster in May, and showed the inability of Lt. Gen. Richie to function at the level of an army commander.

Reinforcements

The attack is often held to be an example of the risk-taking and dash of Rommel as a commander. It is equally often overlooked that, thanks to the combination of two critical factors. First, there were two convoys with together over 160 German and Italian tanks coming through the gauntlet of Malta. The first to Tripoli and Benghazi at Christmas 1941, and the second to Tripoli on 5 January 1942. Secondly the Halfaya Pass garrison continued blocking the road for Allied supplies until their surrender on 17 January. This meant that on 21 January the Axis forces in the Marada – Mersa-el-Brega position were momentarily superior to the Allied forces opposite them. This was known to Rommel, and it was also known that this situation was not going to last for very long. Where full credit is due to him is in taking the risk to move to the attack without being backed by his own commanders, who he did not inform of his intentions. This preserved secrecy, and led to a complete surprise on the Allied side.

It is also often held that the success of the attack was due to the diversion of British assets to the Far East, including tanks, an infantry division, and planes. This is unlikely to actually have played a role. The constraining factor for the Allies was not force availability, but supply constraints west of the Libyan border. Benghazi had not been opened as a port, and until 17 January the coastal road was blocked at the Halfaya Pass, necessitating a substantial detour for wheeled vehicles. The mathematics of this supply problem are brutal, and they were no less brutal to the Allies than they had been to the Axis until their defeat in front of Tobruk.

The day started with two announcements from Panzergruppe H.Q., translated and reproduced below:

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

Army Order of the Day

German and Italian Soldiers!

Heavy fighting against a vastly superior enemy lies behind you.  Nevertheless your fighting spirit remains unbroken.

At this time we are numerically superior to the enemy to the enemy in our front.  Today the army goes on the attack to destroy this enemy.

I expect that every soldier will give his last in these decisive days.

Long live Italy! Long live the Greater German Reich! Long live our leaders!

The Commander in Chief

Signed: Rommel

General of Armoured Troops

 

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

To: All German and Italian Troops 09.30 hours

The Führer decorated me with the Oak Leaves and Swords to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of the defensive victory wrested from a far superior enemy by the heroic fight of the German-Italian troops. I am proud of this decoration which is meant for us all.  It must be an incentive to now finally beat the enemy in the attack.

Signed: Rommel

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Italian tank crew on an M13 or M14 medium tank during the winter months 1941/42. Rommelsriposte.com collection

School of Tank Technology Reports on Italian Tanks

School of Tank Technology Reports on Italian Tanks

Nuno has very kindly put the original reports on the Italian tanks online. You do unfortunately need a SCRIBD account to be able to read them.

These are the reports that were produced by the UK School of Tank Technology in Chertsey, who undertook detailed examination of captured Axis and gifted Allied tanks, e.g. the Soviet KV-1 and T34 models. They are illuminating because they tell us what experts thought in the day, rather than through the distorted lens of 70 years onwards.m13

Report Cover Page

M11/39 at this link (for completeness – this tank did not serve in CRUSADER)

M13/40 at this link (the medium tank that equipped Ariete armoured division in CRUSADER)

Happy reading.

D.A.K. war diary entry for 19 February 1941

D.A.K. war diary entry for 19 February 1941

19 February 1941

Forward Detachment Wechmar with subordinated Italian reconnaissance company Santa Maria and one Italian machine gun company moves off on en Nofilia as ordered at 06.45 hours and reaches it at 14.00 hours. Armoured car patrols pushed ahead don’t have contact with the enemy.

23 Stukas of II./Stuka 2[1] attack vehicles at el Brega with good success, dropping 21 500kg bombs. 1 Ju 87 force landed at en Nofilia on return flight, crew recovered. The escort of 7 Me 110 shot down 4 Hurricanes in air combat. 1 Me 110 ditched into sea. Crew rescued by sea rescue plane on 20 February.

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Stukas, probably of II./Stuka 2, being readied for a mission in early 1941. Clearly visible the long-range external fuel tanks. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

X.Fliegerkorps attacks port of Benghazi during the afternoon, damaging two merchant vessels.

[1]2nd Group of 2nd Dive Bomber Wing. A full group would consist of 36 planes organised in three squadrons. Only II./Stuka 2 was present in North Africa, not the whole 2nd Wing.

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

D.A.K. war diary entry for 16 February 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops

Arrived in the forward zone of operations:

Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39, A.A. 3

Commanding General, Chief of Staff and General Raotta[1] fly to Sirt. Exploration of harbour installations in Sirt. Short conference with with the Commander of Italian Pavia Division, Major-General Zaglio.

Around 15.00 hours arrival of first elements of A.A. in Sirt. Receives order to remain in Sirt as mobile reserve for the time being.

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One of the heavy armoured cars of Aufklärungsabteilung 3, which reached the forward zone on 16 February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 17 February for the first time to push joint reconnaissance with Italians into direction of Nofilia.

For the next days a push of Vorausabteilung Wechmar[2] is planned up to Nofilia.

Conference with General Raotta about task and subordination of air forces. Italian air force to be coupled with German, proposal for tasking of both to be made by Commanding General to General Gariboldi.

Conference with General Raotta, joined in the evening by General Gariboldi, regarding the written proposals for future direction of combat operations. General agreement on all questions.

Evening conference with German and Italian air force commanders[3].

Supply transports via sea from Tripoli to Buerat initiated. First vessel with about 250 tons already loaded.

Notes

[1]Roatta.

[2]A Vorausabteilung was a forward detachment consisting normally of troops from various units, and fully motorised. It was stronger than a reconnaissance detachment, and meant to be able to engage in combat activities ahead of the main force, e.g. to keep enemy ofrces off balance. They were normally named after their commander, in this case the highly experienced Maj. Freiherr von Wechmar, who had commanded A.A.3 in Poland and France.

[3]The Fliegerführer were not formally in command of an air force unit or group of units, but responsible for operational control in a detached location, such as Africa.

15 February 1941: Parade Day

15 February 1941: Parade Day

And we’re moving on with the war diary of the D.A.K.

Meeting of Commanding General with General Raotta[1]. At 13.00 hours parade of A.A.3 and Panzerjaegerabteilung 39 ready in front of the Castello. Afterwards passing of the parade in front of the Grand-Hotel before the Commanding General and the highest Italian authorities.

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While not 100% certain, this picture almost certainly is from the parade held on 15 February. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Sdkfz. 231, the famed (although in the view of General Tuker overrated) heavy armoured car passing the commanding officers. Still in field grey base paint, with the commander wearing a tropical helmet. These were quickly abandoned in the field. Rommelsriposte.com collection.

Aftwards short breakfast with General Raotta in the palais of Marshal Balbo[2]. Afterwards Commanding General, Chief of Staff, and General Raotta drive to Carian and Jefren to inspect the position on the high line. Return around evening.

A.A.3 and Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39 have immediately marched off and around 22.30 hours arrived in Misurata.

[1]Should be Roatta, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Italian Army High Command

[2]Marshal Italo Balbo, a hero of fascism who died when his plane was shot down over Tobruk in a friendly fire incident in 1940.

Italian Marine Battalion San Marco OOB 21 Dec 1941

The files of 90.lei.Afrika-Div. contain some information on the Italian units it encountered after moving from the main battle area to the rear area around Agedabia and el-Agheila. Below the information and assessment of the 3rd ‘A.S.’ (North African – Africa Settentrionale) battalion, which was formed from detachments of  1st ‘Bafile’ battalion of the Italian San Marco marines regiment. The information is from a document dated 21 Dec. 1941, and signed by Oberst Marcks, the commanding officer of Schuetzenregiment 155, which had taken over the Aphelia – Mersa el-Brega sector, and from Feldgrau.com (at this link). The battalion was not at full strength, as it had only the 3rd rifle company of the Bafile battalion, and had not yet received most of the gun reinforcements. The battalion was not involved in combat during Operation CRUSADER and the counter offensive.

Marines Battalion San Marco

Strength:

About 500 men

Organisation:

1x Rifle Company

1x MG Company

1x Command Company

Weapons:

12x light machine guns

3x light mortars 4.5cm

12x heavy machine guns

2x AT guns (most likely Boehler 4.7cm)

Motor vehicles:

None

Combat value:

Appears to be fully ready for action. Battalion subordinated to Sabratha Division, under orders to await further instructions in el-Agheila. Subordinated temporarily to my command.

Signed:

Marcks

Colonel and Regimental CO