Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Background

28 February 1942 was the day of Operation BITING, the Bruneval raid (see this link), in which a combined operation managed to obtain German radar equipment from a Würzburg site, which led to substantial advances in the understanding of the German state of this technology on the British side, and helped the conduct of the bomber offensive on the 3rd Reich.

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 2732 Radargeräte Würzburg Riese und Freya

Freya and Würzburg Riese (giant Würzburg) installations. Source: Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv via Wikimedia.

Radar in the Desert

Prior to the successful raid at Bruneval, it is possible that there was an attempt to benefit from the chaos of the Axis retreat in Cyrenaica in the second half of December 1941, to lay hands on German radar equipment. Through ULTRA intercepts, the Empire commanders had become aware that German radar was being employed in North Africa, to support fighter control against Royal Air Force raids against German and Italian airfields and logistics installations in the rear of the battlefield. Two intercepts from early December clearly indicated the likely presence of Germany FREYA and WÜRZBURG radar system in North Africa. In late 1941, these were the most advanced German radar installations, and North Africa was the only place where Empire forces were in ground contact with the Germans.

The situation regarding German radar in North Africa had been noted by Empire code breakers at Bletchley Park for about a month. Incidentally, the famous picture of the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was dated just a day before the key intercepts about radar in North Africa. Intercepts allowed monitoring the urgent calls for radar equipment to deal with the Empire air offensive in the run-up to CRUSADER, and the monitoring the progress that the equipment had made from its despatch from the Reich to North Africa, via Italy. It is possible that other intercepts or more local intelligence gathering led to the conviction that the installation was at Benina airfield.

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection 

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Until CRUSADER progressed successfully, there was however little chance of being able to capture and evacuate German radar installations, which were located hundreds of miles behind the frontline and, unlike in Northern France, were placed well inland.

This situation changed on 17 December 1941, when the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala position, and this retreat quickly turned into a more or less chaotic rout, with Empire and Axis forces co-mingled on the map, and multiple instances of ‘friendly fire’ air force raids by both Axis and Empire forces hitting their own troops, causing substantial casualties. Three separate Empire pursuit columns were operating in the area of western Cyrenaica, from the north, 7 Indian Brigade in the Jebel Akhdar, pursing the retreating Italian infantry divisions on the coastal road, 7 Support Group south of the Jebel Akhdar, pursuing the retreating Axis armoured force which took the short-cut via Msus and Antelat, and 22 Guards Brigade around Antelat, attempting to cut off the retreating Axis forces in a repeat of what happened at Beda Fomm in February 1941, during Operation COMPASS.

On 21 December, following a commanders’ conference at the HQ of 7 Support Group, with General Gott present, 7 Support Group launched PEPYS column (one squadron armoured cars of the Royals, one battery of anti-tank guns of 3 R.H.A. and C Coy 2 Rifle Brigade) towards Benina airfield for a raid. It is possible, but not documented, that this raid related to radar, but it is probably more likely that it was simply an attempt to disrupt Axis withdrawal from the airfield, which was well underway. It is also not clear if Pepys column ever got onto the airfield, but it is known that they engaged Axis forces. After the raid concluded, PEPYS were ordered to rejoin 7 Support Group. CURRIE column also advanced towards Benina that day, but gave up the project due to heavy going and rain.

On 22 December, new orders were issued, now focused on getting to Soluch and Sceleidima, and to cut off the retreating Axis forces. On this day, the Royal Air Force also launched a major effort against Magrun landing ground, recognizing the Benina had been abandoned (see here for background on this). These orders mentioned a ‘valuable LISTENING SET’ at Benina, which was to be captured and placed under guard by Currie column. I suppose that this refers to Radar.

In the end, 22 December was a wash. 4 R.H.A., Lt.Col. Currie’s outfit, notes that they were conducting rest and maintenance until mid-day, and then moved south, away from Benina, towards Antelat and Soluch. Any opportunity that might have existed to capture a German radar set was thus gone.

 

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Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

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 Typed version of same Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Sources

War Diary 7 Support Group, 1941

War Diary 4 R.H.A., 1941

HW 5 ULTRA Intercepts

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Background

Following the retreat from the Gazala position the Desert Air Force quickly moved west in pursuit, and within days had operations going at Gazala and Mechili landing grounds which were used as staging and concentration posts from which to hit the Axis forces, in particular their air force, in the enemy rear areas. 


002 Lage NA 29 Dec 1941 Part 2

German Situation Map, 29 December 1941, by which time Magrun had been occupied by Empire forces for almost a week. Rommelsriposte.com Collection. 

The role of ULTRA

A major effort was made on 22 December to disrupt operations and destroy planes and ground assets on Magrun airfield.

ULTRA intercepts during the previous days had shown that the landing ground had become a major concentration area for the Axis air forces, and had also placed the battle HQ of Panzergruppe at Magrun[1], and noted that Luftwaffe supplies going into Magrun were considered inadequate, on 21 December. This was the short period during which Bletchley Park was reading the Panzergruppe communications almost in real time. 

In consequence, 13 Corps and the Desert Air Force command laid on two operations on the ground and in the air, to interrupt the Axis on the landing ground. This consisted of 13 Corps directing 22 Guards Brigade onto Margin late on 21 December, and 204 Group setting up multiple raids for 22 December. These operations on 22 December were therefore what would be called ‘intelligence-led’ today, in reaction to this information, and showed how quickly ULTRA intercepts could be turned into operational action. 

Magrun order

Order to 205 Group to put in maximum effort night 21/22 December. AIR23/6489, TNA, Kew.

In particular, a message from Fliegerfuehrer to his Chief of Staff had been intercepted, asking when additional fuel would arrive for the aircraft that were arriving at Magrun, and informing that i) the delivery on the Regia Marina submarine Micca to Benghazi had only been Italian fuel, and that 16,000 ltrs. of fuel that had arrived at Maraua, the previous HQ, had been entirely used up. It was therefore reasonable to presume that at any given moment the next day substantial numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft would be on the ground at Magrun, either delivering fuel, or arriving to be refueled, and constituting a major target. 

Magrun

ULTRA message to Prime Minister, 21 Dec. 1941. UK National Archives, HW1 Series. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 22 December, the following attacks went in:

1. Night 21/22 December, night raid by Wellingtons. Results inconclusive.

2. Morning fighter sweep (see below)

3. Morning attack by Bostons, claiming four planes destroyed on the ground.

4. Afternoon attack by 270 Wing Blenheims, claiming 2 Ju 52 destroyed, 2 probably destroyed, and 2 more damaged, all on the ground.

5. Afternoon attack by Marylands (2 and 3 of Nos. 12 and 21 Squadron S.A.A.F. respectively), which fail to bomb due to the target being insufficiently covered by patchy cloud at 5-6,000 ft, exposing the unescorted Marylands to too high risk in a low attack.

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Bombs from Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 270 Wing RAF explode among Junkers Ju 52s parked on the landing ground at El Magrun, Libya, in the afternoon of 22 December 1941. Blenheims, from Nos, 14 and 84 Squadrons RAF and the Lorraine Squadron of the Free French Air Force, made a series of attacks on El Magrun on 21-22 December, which was being used extensively by the Luftwaffe to provide air support for their retiring ground forces during operation CRUSADER (Courtesy IWM CM2017)

Raids on Magrun Airfield 22 December

Magrun airfield was located 71km south of Benghazi, and was abandoned on 22 December. Prior to leaving there was still heavy activity on it, with crews and stores being removed. It had been used by the Regia Aeronautica, and the first mention of a German plane on the landing ground was not until 20 December, when the Luftwaffe started to occupy it during the retreat. It became the target of a major effort on 22 December. The landing ground had no facilities, but was closely located to the road, and protected by a fort to the north-east.

First went the fighters, a combination of Tomahawks from Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons, out of Mechili landing ground, went to the air field for a ground strafing attack at 0940 hours. The famous No. 112 Squadron (with its Sharkmouth insignia) undertook one of the last operations with Tomahawks.

112 Squadron

A flight of 6 Tommies[2][3] led by Flight Lieutenant WESTENRA took MAGRUN aerodrome by surprise coming out of the sun. F/Lt. WESTENRA damaged a Ju 87 and with Pilot Officer BARTLE destroyed a Ju 87. P/o Duke destroyed a Ju 52 while he probably destroyed a Ju 87 with Sgt. CARSON. A further sweep in the afternoon produced nothing of interest and no enemy aircraft were seen.[4]

250 Squadron

7 a/c in conjunction with 112, 2 & 4 Squdns. made fighter wing sweep to Magrun aerodrome and ground staffed it. Sgt. Dunlow shot down a JU. 87 which was coming in to land – Sgt. [unreadable] damaged one in like circumstances. At least 4 fires were left burning on the aerodrome. A number of JU 52’s being destroyed.

The No. 2 Squadron S.A.A.F. report notes a successful strafing action, with 2x Ju 52 destroyed, 2x Ju 87 damaged, as well as 1x Ju 88 and curiously 1x Do.215 damaged[5].

112 Squadron LG122Pilots of No. 112 Squadron RAF grouped round the nose of one of their Curtiss Tomahawks at LG 122, Egypt. Those identified are, (left to right): Sergeant R F Leu, Pilot Officer N F Duke, Flying Officers J F Soden (on wing) and P H Humphreys, Squadron Leader F V Morello (Commanding Officer), Flight Lieutenant C F Ambrose, Flying Officer E Dickenson (killed in action 28 May 1942), Sergeant H G Burney (killed in action 30 May 1942), Flying Officers D F Westenra, J J P Sabourin (killed in action 6 October 1942, while flying with No. 145 Squadron RAF), N Bowker and J P Bartle, and Sergeant K F Carson. (IWM CM1820)

While the time isn’t clear, it is likely that the Douglas Bostons of No. 24 Squadrons S.A.A.F. went later in the morning, unescorted. It was the last mission of the year for the squadron.

22-12-41 Nine Bostons bombed aircraft on Sid-amud-el-Magrun aerodrome 60-70 aircraft (including 30 JU52’s) dispersed on NW side of aerodrome. 8x 500 HE bombs fell in and slightly short of dispersal area and 24x 250 HE among aircraft and one was seen to be burning on aerodrome on approaching target. 4x 250 bombs hung up slightly and overshot, falling edge of dispersal area. 7/10 cloud over target. Total bombs 8×500 and 28x 250. Total flying time 22.5 hours.

The second light bomber daylight raid on Magnum on 22 December was fairly typical of the period. It was meant to be a major effort by 276 Wing, putting into the air a large number of Blenheims from all its squadrons for two consecutive raids. The operation order is crisp and clear.

.- Os.C. No’s. 14, 45, 84, and Lorraine [5] Squadrons

From: .- No. 270 Wing

A.659 22/12/41 SECRET Operation Order No. 61

6 aircraft of Lorraine Squadron are to land at GAZALA t 0815 on 22/12/41. Aircraft are to link up with 8 aircraft of 84 Squadron already there. 84 Squadron are to lead formation of 12 aircraft after briefing and fighter escort arranged. 

6 aircraft of 14 Squadron are to land at GAZALA at 0830 hours 22/12/41 and join up with 7 aircraft of 45 Squadron already there.

14 Squadron will lead 45 Squadron on second sorry. Standard bomb load will be carried by all aircraft.

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Group Captain, Commanding,

No. 270 Wing, R.A.F.

Fighter escort was provided by Nos. 2 and 4 S.A.A.F. Squadrons and Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons RAF. The raid encountered two Me. 109F, but no engagement ensued. The fighters reported strong and accurate light AA fire.  

All six operational Blenheims from 14 Squadron accordingly left Gambut at 0515, and arrived at Gazala at 0605. The detailed record explains that due to problems with communication and cloud cover over the airfield only 3 aircraft arrived, the others returning. I suspect the issue was that the aircraft went to Mechili rather than Gazala landing grounds.

Therefore, 14 Squadron ultimately only put up three Blenheims for Magrun, ships 9656 J, 5950 V, and 5947 M, crewed by Wing Cdr. Buchanan, Sgts. Chaplin and Ball; Sgts. Willis, Young, and New; and Pilot Officers Wilbon, McKenny, and Sgt. Webster, respectively. 

Following the raid, the three planes returned to Gazala, from where they left at 1100 to return to base at 1445.

Proceeding to EL MECHILI where fighter escort was provided these 3 aircraft formed part of a wing formation. On the aerodrome at Magrun six Ju. 52’s and six 109’s were seen, and our aircraft at 1320 hours G.M.T. from 5,000 feet dropped 4x 250 lbs bombs each. Two Ju. 88’s[6] and one M.T. were seen to be hit, all the bombs fell in target area. Heavy slight A.A. was experienced, two of our aircraft were hit, but all however returned to base.

German records (kindly provided by Andrew from airwarpublications.com) show that the Allied cliaims on the while were reasonably accurate. They are given below as received. Total losses amounted to one Ju 88 reconnaissance, 3x Me109F, 2 x Ju 52 and 2x Ju 87 on this day.

– 22.12.1941: 2.(F)/123 Ju 88 destroyed by strafing at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: I./J.G. 27 Bf 109 destroyed by own troops at Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crash-landing at Magrun, 40 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: III./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crashed due to Motorschaden, 100 per cent loss [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 300 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 400 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 1 Ju 87 R-4 damaged by bombs at El Magrus [sic], 60 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 2 Ju 87 R-3 force landing due to damage from enemy fighter, 100 per cent loss [loss list]  

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No. 14 Squadron Daily Report Sheet, 22 December 1941. AIR27/199 TNA, Kew. 

Waterlogged1

A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, ‘U’ (serial number unclear) of No. 45 Squadron RAF, undergoes an engine overhaul at waterlogged Gambut, Libya, after violent rainstorms in November and December 1941 rendered many of the forward airfields unusable during Operation CRUSADER.

112 Squadron Pilots 

Three notable pilots  of No. 112 Squadron RAF, photographed on reaching the end of their tour of operations with the Squadron in North Africa, (left to right): Flight Lieutenant D F “Jerry” Westenra, Flying Officer N F Duke and Flight Lieutenant P H “Hunk” Humphreys. Each of them wears the top button of his dress tunic undone as the (unofficial) mark of the fighter pilot at the time. (IWM CM2504)

Westenra was a New Zealander from Christchurch, who joined 112 Squadron early in 1941, flying with them in Greece, Crete, and in the Western Desert where he was made a flight commander. He is reputed to have urged the adoption of the ‘Sharkmouth’ insignia by the Squadron in September 1941. At the conclusion of his tour in March 1942, he received the DFC for shooting down five enemy aircraft. In 1943 Westenra flew with No. 601 Squadron RAF in North Africa, and commanded No. 93 Squadron RAF in Italy. In March 1944 he was appointed to commandNo. 65 Squadron RAF during the Normandy Invasion, returning to New Zealand in September 1944.

Duke was posted to 112 Squadron in February 1941 after serving with No. 92 Squadron RAF in the United Kingdom. Despite being shot down twice, he achieved an impressive tally of eight confirmed victories in the Western Desert before leaving the Squadron in April 1942. He was then posted to El Ballah as an instructor at the Fighter School before rejoining 92 Squadron in the Western Desert in November 1942 and a adding further 14 victories to his total. In June 1943 he became Chief Flying Instructor at No.73 Operational Training Unit at Abu Sueir, but returned to operations as Commanding Officer of No. 145 Squadron RAF in Italy in March 1944. He returned to the United Kingdom in January 1945 with 28 victories to become a test pilot with Hawkers.

Humphreys joined 112 Squadron as a flight commander in November 1941 after serving with Nos 152 and 92 Squadrons RAF. Like Duke, he left theSquadron in April 1942 to instruct at the Fighter School at El Ballah before returning to operations with No. 92 Squadron RAF in early 1943. He later took command of this Squadron and led it to Malta, Sicily and Italy before another rest from operations in November 1943. In April 1944 Humphreys returned to Italy to command No. 111 Squadron RAF, and left for the United Kingdom in November 1944 on his appointment as Station Commander at RAF Castle Bromwich. He was killed in a flying accident in 1947.

Notes

[1]Incorrectly, since Panzergruppe HQ was in Agedabia at this time.
[2]Tomahawk P-40 fighters
[3]Only five in the ORB, ships AN303 F/Lt. Westenra, AN289 Sgt. Carson W., AN 274 P/O Bartle, AK531 Sgt. Carson K., and AK354, P/O Duke.
[4]This sweep was probably the escort mission for the Blenheim raid.
[5]The type wasn’t present in the desert, although it could have been an older Do 17Z operating as a second line aircraft with the staff of Fliegerfuehrer.
[6]No. 342 Squadron R.A.F.
[7]Should probably be Ju 52s.

Protecting ULTRA – Must try harder?

ULTRA was the code-name given to radio interception and decryption of Axis radio communications. While many people know that this affected a lot of German radio communications, what is less well known is that Italian communications were also routinely decyphered. For a lot of good detail, see Chris’ blog at this link. One of the problems faced by the Allies was to hide the fact that they had read a message, while still taking advantage of it. Otherwise there would be the risk that a reasonably smart enemy would quickly figure out what was going on, and change cypher methods. In the Mediterranean, what happened was that reconnaissance planes were sent out, often from Malta, to ‘discover’ convoys that had been reported in ULTRA. This way the Axis had a good explanation why the convoy was discovered, and would not get suspicious. The story below shows the wisdom of this approach.

Just before the time of CRUSADER, suspicions had been raised about the repeated failure of U-boat patrol lines in the Atlantic to succeed in engaging convoys. On 19 November, the war diary of Adm. Doenitz, Commander of the German submarine fleet, the translated version of which has been transcribed on U-Boat Archive notes:

A likely explanation would be that the British, from some source or other, gain knowledge of our concentrated dispositions and deviate thereby encountering perhaps boats proceeding singly.  This knowledge could be gained by the enemy:
  1) […]
  2) By deciphering our radio messages.  This matter is being continually examined by the Naval War Staff and is considered as out of the question.

 

 

In other words, there was complete faith in the security of the German naval encryption system at this time. While this unbreakable security may have been the case for the Kriegsmarine (although I doubt it), what was not considered was the repetition of naval signals or sending of related signals through other networks, e.g. the Luftwaffe, or by Allies. This was of course not as much of an issue in the Atlantic, but it certainly was in the Mediterranean.

About 10 weeks before that diary entry, Panzergruppe Afrika wrote to the German military attache in Rome, General von Rintelen, regarding shipping between Italy and North Africa[1]. The memo covers a range of issues relating to harbours, distribution of shipping space between the Axis partners, and also radio security, or rather the lack thereof on the Italian side. It states:

Shipping losses on the route to Tripolis are especially high. […] Furthermore the English (sic!) without doubt gain their information from radio traffic, which gives them a fairly clear picture about the departure and the individual situation of ships (see attachment). Regarding a reduction of radio traffic, compare minute of the meeting between General Bastico and General Rommel on 17 August 1941, sent by this Ia Nr. 25/41 Geh.Kdos. Chef – Sache on 18 August 1941.[2] 

Furthermore it does not seem impossible that the English are using espionage (Naples?).

The attachment referred to above is of great interest, since it shows a number of cases where the ULTRA guard seems to have been let down sufficiently to arouse severe suspicions on the Axis side. It is quoted in full below:

Attachment to Kdo. d. Pz.Gr.Afrika Abt. Ia/O.Qu.Nr. 26/41 g.Kdos. Chefsache of 1 September 1941.

1) The following submarines were discharged in Bardia up to 30 August:

a) 10 August Zoea
b) 12 August Coridoni
c) 16 August Atropo
 

a) Arrival of Zoea was repeatedly moved. Announcement on German and Italian radio net. According to report DAK English air raids happened every evening on the announced arrival days. The locally ordered discharge at 5 AM on 10 August remained undisturbed until the departure.
b) Corridoni arrived as previously announced on the evening 12 August. From the start of discharging rolling enemy air raids occurred.
c) Arrival time of Atropo was foreseen for 15 August, but was moved. Nevertheless on the evening of 15 August a heavy English air raid took place. Atropo then arrived without announcement on 16 August and could be discharged without disturbance.

2)

a) For 0900 hours 5 August the arrival in Bardia of the supply steamer Cicilia had been announced. As was found out later, this announcement was based on an error. Cicilia was meant for Benghazi. Again in this case on 5 August a particularly active English air activity reigned over Bardia.
b) According to Geh.Kdos. of Chief of German liaison staff at the Italian navy No.4 558 on 24 August at 0300 hours AM steamer Bellona was to arrive at Bardia. DAK reported for 24. August 0400 hours AM english air raid on harbour. The sea area outside the harbour was systematically illuminated.

3) It is of particular note that the English air raids always happened at the times of day notified in the announcement transmitted on the Italian radio net. (report DAK)

4) The Italian radio traffic is being supervised by German listening posts. According to Major SINGER, radio interception analysis office Southeast, even after three changes, every Italian key was decyphered.

It is clear from this that the suspicion was squarely on the Italians. What is also appears clear is that somewhere something had broken down in the protection of the radio interceptions (whether ULTRA or not), and the measures taken to intercept relatively unimportant Axis traffic into Bardia put at risk the capability of the Commonwealth to listen into Axis radio nets. Additional protection would probably have been easy, by just laying on more attacks at random times, to prevent a pattern from forming. But of course, air assets came at a premium in the Western Desert air force during the summer of 1941, with demands on the few available squadrons being very high.

[1] Command Panzergruppe Afrika, Abt. Ia/O.Qu. Nr.26/41 g.Kdos.Chefs., dated 1 September 1941. Copy held in NARA, Panzergruppe Afrika files.

[2] Afraid I don’t have a copy of this.

Effect on Air Transport Operations in Russia in 41

Effect on Air Transport Operations in Russia in 41

Operation Crusader did have an impact that was felt far beyond Libya, and for the first time allowed the German high command to peak into the abyss of resources not adequate to a two-front war.

 

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Mediterranean – Junkers 52 in Flight. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.

On 27 November, during the last German push towards Moscow, the chief of staff of VIII Fliegerkorps, the close-support specialists under von Richthofen, had to issue the following instruction, which in effect centralised air supply for ground forces, something which had become increasingly important during the supply crisis of Operation Taifun, the attack on Moscow.

CX/MSS/473/T15

As a result of transfer of transport gruppen (wings) to other theatres of war (=Mediterranean) supply by air can from now on take place only to a limited extent.

Liason officers (with ground forces) are to point out that only in the most urgent cases can supplies be carried by air. 

Applications for air transport to be made to Fliegerkorps VIII.

The information appears to also have gone to Berlin for information.