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!

Today is the 76th 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.

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

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.

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

 

Combat Report Kampfgruppe Briel on Gambut Airfield – 21 November to 3 December 1941

Below a relatively straightforward combat report by Captain Briel, CO of the self-propelled anti-aircraft battalion 606, equipped with 2cm AA guns. The main attack on 23 November was undertaken by 4 N.Z. Brigade, which afterwards was drawn off south. Through its east-facing defence of Gambut, Briel’s Kampfgruppe ensured that the vital rear services of the Panzergruppe which were located north of the Via Balbia, could continue to work throughout the battle. The area was only cleared up by 2 S.A. Division in the middle of December.

The map below from the New Zealand Official History shows this quite neatly.

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AA Btl. 606

COMMANDER                                                                    Btl. CP 4 Dec 1941

 

Battle Report

Concerning the combat of the combat group tasked with the protection of the Via Balbia

 

21. Nov. 41

At 21.00 hours the 20mm platoon of 1st Company, which was tasked with the protection of the ration depot, was tasked with the protection of the supply services of 21. Panzerdivision against advancing English forces.

 

22. Nov. 41

On 22 November I received the order to carry the order to move the supply services to the Ib of the division. When I arrived there, the 20mm platoon was in combat with 6 English tanks, 8 armoured cars, and about 150 riflemen. The riflemen had already crossed the Via Balbia northwards, and advanced on the depot. Realising that immediate and resolute action was required here, I resolved to protect the area of the division with all available forces.

I immediately assembled two rifle platoons from the remaining force of 1./Fla 606, the battalion staff of Fla.606, and riflemen of the butcher company, which through a northern envelopment threw back the English riflemen to the south.

The English laid on heavy artillery fire from the Jebel escarpment into the area 19km west of Bardia and north of this point.

The position was held nevertheless until the supply services of the division and remaining forces had moved off into the new area.

Since not everything could be removed from the depot on this day, I gave the order that the elements present had to hold the position until the next day. From the position MG nests and foxholes were effectively attacked, and losses were caused to the English.

Around evening time the English crossed the Via Balbia northwards with six tanks and riflemen.

Further armoured cars advanced on the Jebel escarpment, deeply enveloping our position.

Thus the danger developed that the small group would be encircled. I waited for dusk, and then avoided encirclement by a change of position.

To allow resistance against the vastly superior enemy, at least for as long as it took to completely remove all the depots, I started to assemble a combat group.

On the evening of 22 Nov. I subordinated to the combat group the 4th platoon of Supply Company 200, to be used as riflemen. A further addition were 2 20mm guns of I./Flak 33.

 

23. Nov. 41

During dawn I moved with the small combat group again into the original position, and prevented the advance of the English. The English again put down heavy artillery fire on the position in order to push us out. But the position was held.

Around 14.00 hours I observed that a strong English detachment advanced rapidly on the Jebel escarpment, and that three armoured cars had already advanced towards the brown house [probably a Casa Cantoniera?] on the Via Balbia.

Since during the day the last columns had moved off to remaining commands, I now saw the main task in preventing the enemy’s advance against the supply services of the 15.Pz.-Div., and especially the tank repair company [Pz.Werkstatt-Komp.].

I changed position with the combat group on the double towards the brown house. When the combat group arrived, artillery fire already lay on both sides of the brown house, and two rifle companies advanced from the airfield in the direction of the brown house.

The security force which had been put on the airfield during the morning had already, according to orders, displaced towards the position south of the brown house. When the six 20mm guns rolled into position at the brown house a 2.5 hour fight developed. I subordinated 2 50mm AT guns and three tanks of Pz.-Rgt.8 which had just come from the Werkstatt.-Kp. to the combat group. With these forces and increasing artillery fire it was not only possible to prevent increasing the advance by the English, but the English riflemen and armoured cars retreated onto Gambut airfield.

During the fight the English put down about 240 rounds of artillery fire on our forward positions. Our weapons fired around 2,000 rounds 20mm.

Around 17.00 hours I subordinated to myself a 150mm howitzer of 9./A.R.33 coming from the Werkstatt, which took the serpentine and the Jebel escarpment under fire, and provided valuable service to the combat group.

 

24. Nov. 41

During the night enemy patrols were repulsed.

During the night I established through reconnaissance the position of the enemy artillery, and following the reconnaissance had the howitzer fire.

The success was excellent. The English battery had to repeatedly change position, the OP could no longer stay on the Jebel escarpment, and the English columns drove in wild confusion on the airfield.

To establish a clear situation for the next night, I faked an attack on Gambut with five tanks and all available riflemen while our artillery delivered a lively fire. The success was excellent.

The English columns moved off south, on the Jebel escarpment south of the airfield armoured cars remained in position as security.

The task which I had set the combat group was fulfilled, even though the enemy was very much superior in weapons and numbers.

The position was held, the supply services of the D.A.K. were protected, and could ensure supply.

 

25. Nov. 41

30 Panzerpioniere [soldiers from an armoured engineer battalion] of Pz.-Pi.-Btl.200 [of 21.Pz.Div.] were subordinated to the combat group. On this day both sides engaged in patrol activity. Results from reconnaissance were constantly passed on to the D.A.K. via the Ib of 15.Pz.-Div.

 

26. Nov. 41

On 26 November I established liaison with Div.z.b.V. to have clarity on the general situation. I received there the order from the divisional commander to hold the position at Gambut under any circumstance in order to ensure the supply of the D.A.K., especially with fuel and ammunition. Following my return I informed my combat group about the meaning of its task, and ordered the position to be built up into a defensive position. The engineers produced moveable barriers, and the guns were dug in.

Also on this day I had reconnaissance carried out to km 16 in the direction of Bardia, and towards the south up the Jebel limit of the airfield.

The incoming results were immediately passed on to the Div. z.b.V. and the D.A.K. by the means mentioned above.

 

27. Nov. 41

During the morning reconnaissance patrol activity by us.

During evening the Panzergruppe and Korps staffs arrived on the airfield Gambut. I reported immediately and established security for the protection of the staffs on the airfield. The chief of staff confirmed the measures taken as correct based on the general situation, and I now received the order from Korps to hold the position under any circumstance because of its immense importance for the assurance of supply.

 

28. Nov. 41

During the early morning of 28 November the guns of the combat group, in co-operation with the guns of 2./Fla-606 which were tasked with the protection of the Korps staff, during an English air attack shot down:

            2 bombers and

            2 fighters

During the day my combat group was temporarily subordinated to Lieutenant-Colonel Knabe [OC PR8]. This subordinated relation ceased however after only a few hours and the combat group became independent again. The combat group of Lieutenant-Colonel Knabe reinforced me with one infantry gun [either 75 or 150mm] and three 37mm AA guns.

29. Nov. 41

By order of Div. z.b.V. the heavy howitzer [the one taken over on 22 November] had to be sent off to the Tobruk front. During the day reconnaissance patrol activity.

 

30. Nov. 41

During the morning lively English reconnaissance activity with armoured cars from east and south against the positions of the combat group. In the area east and south-east of the airfield single English vehicles. During the day I received the order from the Div. z.b.V. to send off all heavy weapons above 20mm, furthermore a platoon of 20mm, and the armoured engineers to the Batallion Kolbeck [see related article].

Because of the time when this move was ordered, the release of these elements from the position could not be missed by the English reconnaissance patrols. Half an hour after the elements had moved off, the English pushed from east and south against my position, which at this point in time was only occupier by 4 20mm guns and some other guns. The fight against the advancing enemy was taken up, as ordered.

Through a despatch rider sent to Div.z.b.V. I succeeded in having the elements which I had been ordered to send off stopped, and returned to my command. [this is an interesting interplay with the situation on the Tobruk front, where the next day Battalion Kolbeck’s attack failed miserably, partially for want of fire support.]

These elements returned on the double to the defensive position and by their immediate use and continuous fire the enemy could be stopped.

The defensive combat lasted until 03.00 hours in the morning. Because all elements of the small combat groups did their utmost throughout, the advance of the again vastly superior in weapons and men English could be prevented.

 

1. Dec. 41

During the night the English brought his artillery into position on the airfield Gambut, and from 06.45 to 10.30 hours prepared a new attack against the Via Balbia. During the time indicated 330 to 340 rounds of artillery were fired by the English on our positions, calibre 80-90mm. The hits in the brown house on the Via Balbia are witness to this fire.

When the English then tried a renewed advance with infantry, this attempt was again repulsed decisively in fighting.

A renewed start to the artillery fire was prevented by the immediate use of the 4th and 7th batteries of Art.-Rgt.33 [of 15.Pz.-Div.] which arrived by accident from Bardia.

These two batteries completely secured the defensive success of the combat group, by forcing the entire British battalion off the airfield by excellently placed fire.

Our immediately started reconnaissance showed that the English retreated onto the Jebel south of the airfield. During the course of the afternoon all heavy weapons had finally to be handed over to Div.z.b.V. on its orders.

 

2. Dec. 41

No combat during the morning.

During the afternoon an English truck column, accompanied by four armoured cars and two tanks, was taken under long distance fire by the 20mm platoon of the combat group which was tasked with securing the airfield.

The column therefore turned and retreated on the Jebel escarpment south of the Via Balbia in the direction of Bardia. At 18.00 hours [difficult to read] a forward detachment of 15.Pz.Div. arrived, which leaguered north of the road and advanced against Bardia early on 3 Dec.

 

3. Dec. 41

I reported the situation and the advance of the forward detachment via Ordonnanz officer to the D.A.K., and received the order:

            The task of the combat group is fulfilled.

            The combat group is to be dissolved.

            Elements Fla.-Btl. 606 will report to 21.Pz.Div.

 

Personnel losses

            2 dead

            13 wounded [3 seriously wounded]

            4 POW

 

Materiel losses

3 guns

1 special trailer

 

At 13.00 hours I arrived with the elements Fla.Btl.606 at the 21.Pz.Div.

The other elements were relieved and sent back to their units.

 

Signed:

Briel

Hauptmann

 

The History and Operations of F-Lighters during CRUSADER

Background

In the spring of 1941, the German navy in the Mediterranean considered the expansion of its capabilities by adding a new type of vessel to support coastal traffic in North Africa, in particular for supply of smaller harbours such as Derna and Bardia, which could not be reached with large merchant vessels. The type of vessel was called a Marinefaehrprahm (MFP), or Naval Ferry Lighter. Because of their ‘F’ class designation, they became known as ‘F-Lighters’ to the Royal Navy. 

MFPs were originally designed after the experience with make-shift landing vessels in the preparations for the invasion of the UK in 1940 had shown that a specialist type was needed. The MFPs had a carrying capacity of 70/100 tons in adverse/good weather conditions, or three tanks, and displaced about 200 – 220 tons. They had broad front doors to unload through the bow, and were powered by diesel engines. The initially planned range of 120 nautical miles was quickly seen to be insufficient, and the design range grew to be sufficient to make the 420 nautical mile leg Tripoli – Benghazi without refuelling. The crew consisted of 14 men.

The planned use of the MFP was i) as transports, and ii) as escorts for other slow and unprotected transports. Thus even freight MFPs were reasonably well armed with light AA, captured 7.5cm guns, and depth charges to combat submarines.

2. L-Flottille, a cover name meaning 2. Lehr-Flottille (2nd Instruction Flotilla) instead of 2. Landings-Flottille (2nd Landing Flotilla), was to become the main Kriegsmarine unit under which the MFPs operated in the Mediterranean. It was ordered to be established in mid-August 1941, with a first HQ at Palermo, where the MFPs were laid down at Cantieri Rinuniti Navale, and then Tripoli in Libya, as ordered on 9 October 1941, with a view to having it operate in the Tripoli-Benghazi zone. A total of 30 MFPs were foreseen at this time, in two lots of 15, of which 22 were to be built in Palermo, and eight in Varna, Bulgaria. 15 of these vessels had been ordered in April 1941, to be built in Italy. In October the Italian order was expanded by another 15, and in December another 20 were planned to be built. The intent was to grow the fleet to about 100 vessels.

The first ten MFPs were commissioned in Palermo in November 1941, MFPs F146 to F154 and F160. In the first half of December the remaining five of the first order, F155, to F159 commissioned. The latter two showed how quickly these boats could enter service. They were launched on 6 December, and commissioned on 10 December. 

Operations

Below are two pictures I came across in NARA a number of years ago. Apologies for the bad quality, the pictures were taken off a microfiche reader screen. They show the first MFP convoy to North Africa, which arrived in Tripoli on 5 December 1941. It consisted of four MFPs, F146, F148, F150, and F160. The four lighters had left Palermo on 22 November 41 to move to Trapani, where I presume they were loaded up. They then went to North Africa escorted by the torpedo boat Perseo. The load carried consisted of 800 barrels of fuel, 20 tons Italian cement, Draeger diving gear, 132 tons of equipment, and 20 tons of rations.

These four MFP went across without their 7.5cm guns, which only arrived in Palermo on 2 December 1941. They were subsequently equipped with these I presume. They were also expecting a 2cm AA gun each, from stocks in Benghazi.

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First MFP convoy on the way to North Africa. Escort is the Spica-class Perseo

MFP160

3 December 1941, MFP160 sinking with 400 barrels of fuel and 10 tons of cement and the diving gear, after the front loading doors gave way to wave action. Perseo is taking over the crew.

After the arrival of this convoy, the three survivors underwent repairs, and were then employed on coastal supply duties. E.g. F150 was sent to Bardia in mid-December to pick up tank engines, and F146 was sent to beleaguered Bardia on 20 December, with 70 tons food, 20 tons ammunition and 2 tons mail. This must have been a somewhat harrowing journey, since the Allies at this point controlled the Libyan coast almost up to Benghazi, and were running supply convoys up to Tobruk. F146 was then ordered to remain in Bardia to ensure supply between Bardia and Sollum. It was lost on 24 December to artillery fire, with all of the crew rescued.

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Telegram to Naval Transport Command Italy, with information about the planned trip to Bardia.

The first 15 MFPs quickly diminished in number. Information about their fate during Operation CRUSADER is from the Historisches Marinearchiv at this link:

F160 – sunk due to heavy weather on 3 December 1941

F146 – set on fire and beached due to enemy artillery fire on 24 December 1941

F150 – mined and sunk on 15 January 1942, with a load of 80 tons of gasoline

F151 – heavily damaged and partially submerged while unloading due to heavy weather. Finally destroyed by enemy air attack, 3 January 1942.

Five each were then lost in 1942 and 1943, and the last of this series, F155, ran aground off southern France and became a total loss.

 

Pencil Drawings of Italian Naval Vessels

This is an absolutely fantastic site I came across by accident today. It looks as if it has thousands of pencil drawings of Italian ships, including several hundred of the Italian navy including auxiliaries. The drawings seem to be based on photos

http://www.cherini.eu/mmi/index.html

Unfortunately in Italian only, but it should be easy enough to manoeuvre for ship lovers. Below a drawing from the site and the corresponding photo of Sagittarius, from the Italian Wikipedia. 

Sagittarius was a 600 ton escort of the Spica-class, sub-class Perseo. Sagittarius survived the war and soldiered on until 1964, before being stricken from the naval list.

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