Mystery Plane Loss (?) – Benghazi 31 October 1941

Mystery Plane Loss (?) – Benghazi 31 October 1941

Background

In the records of Marine Bordflak Kompanie Süd, the Kriegsmarine unit supplying German merchants with anti-aircraft capability, there are quite a few records of engagements between the anti-air gunners and attacking planes. Claims were meticulously recorded and verification by witnesses sought.

31 October 1941

One such claim was made in a report on 6 November 1941, by the gun commander of an anti-aircraft gun on the German merchant SS Brook, one of the smaller vessels plying primarily the coastal route from Tripoli to Benghazi. SS Brook was in port at Benghazi at the time, and joined the air defense of the port during an air attack late evening of 31 October. The claim made was for a Blenheim or similar, engaged at 2225 hours.

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Benghazi harbour map, July 1941. TNAAIR23/6489 Rommelsriposte.com collection

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Map of Benghazi, Berka Landing Ground in red. Detail from German January 1942 target map for air crew. From John Calvin’s Collection.

The issue with the claim is that I cannot find a corresponding loss. The Egypt Wellingtons were  not tasked to operate over Benghazi that night, attacking Berka landing ground and store depot instead. As the map above shows however, these are close enough to the port that a plane could have been free-lancing or chosen to cross out to sea via the port. 

Nevertheless, the Wellingtons, as far as I can see also do not report a loss or indeed having sustained AA damage, and reported AA as moderate and search lights as ineffective. The standard work on RAF bomber losses in the Mediterranean, by Gunby and Temple, also does not record a loss due to enemy action that night. There is also no record that Malta-based Wellingtons or Blenheims attacked Benghazi that night, or that the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron R.A.F. did so. South African Marylands did not operate at night, and also report no loss.

So the issue is not just whether a plane was actually lost, but also who operated over the port that night?

The claims report is below.

Current Location, 6 November 41

TO: Marine- Bordflak-Kompanie-Süd

N E A P E L

R e p o r t

on shooting down of an enemy plane by the embarked AA of SS Brook, 31 October 1941 around 2225 hours in Benghazi Port.

At 2225 hours a plane attempted to attack the harbour and was caught by the search light. The plane, which flew towards us, was at a distance of about 16 h/m[1]. At 13 h/m we opened fire and scored 10-12 clear hits until the switchover point (11 h/m)[2]. Hits were scored in the main fuselage and close to the engine on the wing. During impact on the wing it was noted that pieces of the plan (pieces of about the size of a hand) flew out of the wing, at the same time as sparks rained down. After this the plane wobbled heavily. The plane now went lower, escaped the search light beam, and could no longer be observed by us.

We were the first to engage the plane, and the later shots from other guns, which stood about 800m further from the target, were far off it. Furthermore, the plane, which was recognized by us as a Bristol Blenheim, immediately escaped the search light.

Following an inquiry with the Naval Transport Office Benghazi, we were informed that most probably two planes were shot down. I am convinced that the plane engaged by us must be one of them.

The remains of the crashed plane had not been found by the time of our departure from Benghazi, but the search was continuing.

The Armed Forces Communique reported the shooting down of four planes the next day.

The plane was engaged by us with armor-piercing high-explosive rounds, which I had exchanged for high-explosive rounds with the air force anti-air unit.[3]

Paul Hupperts

Naval Artillery Private and Gun Commander

Notes

[1]Hectometre – 100 m = 1,600m and typical engagement range for a light AA gun. The author served on 20mm AA during his time as a conscript.

[2] The point where the plane flies away from the location of the gun, and is no longer to be engaged.

[3] Obviously a very enterprising gun commander.

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Flak.- Light embarked AA 2 cm and 3 cm with gun shield; PK Marine West. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv

Movie Sunday – Archivo Luce

Movie Sunday – Archivo Luce

Below you can find Youtube videos as well as direct links to three newsreels from the Italian Archivo Luce website.

The commentary is obviously in Italian, but the imagery is interesting, showing off a lot of Italian kit, and some of the very nifty camouflage used for positions.

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Italian troops at Sollum

 

With the troops besieging Tobruk, 29 Sept 41

 

Italian Artillery at Tobruk, 24 Nov 41

 

The misdeeds of the RAF”, showing damage to Benghazi Cathedral and a sunk hospital ship, 9 Oct 41

 

General Bastico at Benghazi, 9 February 1942

 

Supply in the desert (this is from August 1942 and about the logistics chain to El Alamein, but still of interest)

You need Silverlight installed to view these on the Istituto Luce website. The quality there isn’t great. If you get a white screen, hit return. You may have to do that 2-3 times for the movie to appear.

Brandenburger Special Forces in North Africa 1941

Brandenburger Special Forces in North Africa 1941

Background

The Brandenburger[1] were a special forces unit of the German army, initially under control of the Abwehr[2], the German army’s secret service, and from 1943 slowly moving to normal control channels. They started out as a relatively small, highly specialist unit, and by the end of the war had grown to the size of a regular field division. By that time, they had become more like British Commandos, or US Rangers. They were very active in the Aegean, and participated in the reconquest of Kos and Leros in October 1943, Operation Eisbaer (Polar Bear), which is best described in Anthony Rogers’ excellent book Churchill’s Folly.

A very good and succinct description is available in German at this link. This includes a list of commanders, sub-ordinations, and other information, including a discussion of the role of the Brandenburgers in the context of the laws of war.

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Oberleutnant von Kornen of 13. (Tropen) Kompanie, Lehrregiment z.b.V. 800. He was killed in Yugoslavia in 1944. Facebook.

13. Kompanie

In the context of Operation CRUSADER, the Brandenburger played a small role. I have been able to piece much of it together by the use of ULTRA intercepts and with the help of posters on the Axis History Forum. They had been requested to support the planned attack on Tobruk, possibly by a seaborne landing. A relatively small force[3] was sent under Oberleutnant von Koehnen. This was from 13./Lehrregiment 800 Brandenburg z.b.V.[4], and had been sent directly from Catania in Italy by plane on 14/15 November. The remainder of this company stayed in Italy, and was ready to be moved at the request of the Panzergruppe, although there are indications that this was not going to be possible before February 1942, maybe due to the transport situation following the destruction of the Beta/Duisburg convoy on 8/9 November 1941. The strength of this detachment was likely 1 Officer, 11 non-commissioned officers, and 70 men.

It appears that this detachment was then rushed to Benghazi to shore up the defenses there, and maybe split up on the way, with part of it remaining in Agedabia under the command of an men called Doehring, maybe a senior non-commissioned officer. On 29 November, von Koehnen was in Benghazi with 1 officer, an unknown number of non-commissioned officers, and 31 men. The remainder of the company was at the time in Italy, with a strength of 3 officers, 31 non-commissioned officers, 159 men, and with 17 lorries, 8 cars, and 3 tractors.

It is possible that another company (11./LR 800) arrived in Benghazi as part of Sonderverband 288 (see this older post).

During the main battle these units seem not to have been engaged. They were basically immobile, and had little or no heavy weapons. It appears that they conducted an operation on 22 January 42 during the counter-offensive. My guess is this would have been a small operation, maybe using English-speaking soldiers wearing Commonwealth uniforms to confuse the Commonwealth forces by giving wrong traffic directions (always a favourite) or impersonating officers to give false orders.

[1] lit. ‘men from Brandenburg’, the region outside Berlin

[2] lit. avoid/defend

[3] A ‘Halbkompanie’, half company – not a formation existing anywhere else in the Wehrmacht to my knowledge, and an administrative unit.

[4]13th Company, Special Purpose Instruction Regiment 800

BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

BenCol: Advance on Benghazi I – Planning

Background

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.

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Sir John Charles Oakes Marriott by Walter Stoneman bromide print, 27 May 1947. The National Portrait Gallery.

BenCol’s intended 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.

4. And in the end

BenCol came into existence, but rather than cutting off the retreating Axis ended up chasing it.