Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1985 013 07 Erwin Rommel 2

Porträt Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel mit Ritterkreuz und Orden Pour le Mérite (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Introduction

One of the enduring images of the desert war is that of the rapidly advancing Afrikakorps sweeping all before it. This is certainly what happened in April 1941 during the re-conquest of the Cyrenaica and Marmarica provinces of Libya. It led to considerable gains of terrain for the Axis, and losses in men and equipment for the Empire forces. The offensive culminated in the siege of Tobruk. This advance was against clear orders given to Rommel, namely to await the arrival of 15. Panzerdivision in May 1941 before commencing operations. This was of course of major propaganda value, and it has shaped the image we have of Rommel today, with a victorious German force (the Italians are normally overlooked) advancing rapidly, encircling and defeating all before them.

Raids however (the Wehrmacht used the same term) were allowed, as long as they did not end with the occupation of terrain. These were presumably considered useful in that they would keep the Empire forces off balance, and would deny them peace and quiet during which to prepare for their planned advance on Tripoli. Rommel commenced his raid on Agedabia, and when testing the Empire defenses found them weak. He then took the opportunity to unleash his forces for a deep penetration into Cyrenaica, with the aim to completely defeat the enemy in the western desert.

At the end of April, Rommel found himself in a tricky situation, far away from his supply sources, with dispersed and weakened forces, and exposed to Empire counter attacks on the line of the frontier between Libya and Egypt. What rescued his force at this point was the thundering defeat that had been suffered by the Empire forces in Greece, which prevented Middle East Command from taking advantage of this weakness. By the time sufficient forces could be scrounged together in Egypt, the moment had passed, with the arrival of the first elements of 15. Panzerdivision in the area of operations. The first co-ordinated Empire counter-offensive, BREVITY, came about two weeks too late, and the desert war settled into a pattern of periodic offensives and counteroffensives for half a year.

The outcome of this initial offensive was that the Axis forces in North Africa were strung out, at the end of a precarious supply line, and highly exposed. This had been foreseen in Berlin, but not appreciated by Rommel, who did not have much interest in the question of logistics. The modern assessment of this initial offensive is that it ultimately doomed the Axis effort in North Africa. This article sets this out in more detail, drawing on period documents and participant views.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0109 11 Nordafrika Panzer III in FahrtNordafrika.- Panzer III in Fahrt durch die Wüste (Panzer III on the march in the desert); PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia) 

The Situation in Berlin and Planning for North Africa – March/April 1941[1]

On 1 March, Generaloberst Halder, Chief of the Staff of the Army High Command, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) noted that Rommel’s operational intentions needed a sound basis, and should be reviewed based on what was practically possible. Halder that day held a conference with Oberquartiermeister I (Senior General Staff Deputy Logistics) Paulus[2], who also was the First Deputy Chief of the General Staff and the Leiter Operationsabteilung (Chief of the Operations Department) General Heusinger[3], discussing the situation in Libya, and Rommel’s preparations for the forthcoming attack. These men were the top trio of the German army’s operational planning. Later that day Major Ehlert, the designated Ia (chief operations officer) of the Afrikakorps reported in, and was briefed on the ideas of the army leadership regarding offensive operations in North Africa.

On 3 March, a discussion was held between Halder with Field Marshal von Brauchitsch[4] regarding the offensive possibilities in the short and longer term, when it was expected that troops could be released from Barbarossa.

On 7 March Kapitän (or army Captain) von Both, who had been on an inspection tour to Libya, reported back to the OKH. He noted that supply services should be centralized, and that the supply route to Libya, via Rome and Naples, had room for improvement.

On 10 March, another conference with von Brauchitsch was held in which General Heusinger noted that Rommel had been instructed not to advance his front too far ahead before the arrival of 5. lei. Div., and sufficient Italian forces.

On 12 March, the following offensive options were set out for North Africa by the Generalquartiermeister (Quartermaster General), Gen. Wagner[5]:

a) Mounting a major offensive from Agedabia with the main thrust on Tobruk.

b) Starting several minor offensives in sectors along the coast.

Wagner assessed that the first option would require four supply column battalions in addition to the four already in Libya, while the second option was possible with the four that were already sent, but would lead to a loss of time and lower striking power. A memorandum to OKW was requested. This needs to be seen in the context that the Afrikakorps already had substantially better supply capacity than the Army Groups tasked for Operation Barbarossa, far in excess of the divisional slices allocated to these.[6]

0025 Lage NA 30 Apr 1942

German Map of North African Theatre, showing situation on 30 April 1942. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 14 March Halder notes that there were difficulties with the Italian commander in North Africa, General Graziani, who was soon to be relieved by General Gariboldi. Also, a report was made by Oberquartiermeister IV[7], which estimated that fifteen British divisions, including two armoured, were in North Africa, of which four to eight, including the armoured divisions, were in Libya. This was a considerable over estimate of the British forces then available, and also did not seem to consider the demand of the Greek expedition.

On 17 March a general staff conference was held with Hitler, where he agreed to a forward shift of the defensive line in North Africa, and that preparations should be made to allow an offensive once a favorable force balance had been attained. He did however decline the sending of further troops, as well as the conduct of a landing operation in Tunisia, which had been the wish of the Italians.

On 20 March Rommel presented his plans to the OKH in person, on his overall impression of the situation, the operational situation, and what was possible in terms of operations with the forces available. The two leaders of the supply department of the German Army, the Oberquartiermeister I and the Generalquartiermeister, then conferred with Rommel, and he was tasked to present an estimate of what could be achieved with the available forces prior to the onset of the hot season.

According to Halder, the assessment by Rommel was that the British were passive, and focused on defense, treating the area around Agedabia as no-man’s land. It was expected that their defense would focus on the Jebel Akhdar area to the north of Cyrenaica. This was considered to eliminate the possibility of an attack on Tobruk via Msus, on the direct line through the desert, until the British forces in the Jebel were beaten. This was a task the Afrikakorps was not considered to be capable of at this stage, and consideration was instead given to occupying the area around Agedabia, and to prepare for a drive on Tobruk in fall 1941.

In the afternoon of the same day Paulus reported back to Halder on his meeting with Rommel, in line with the situation as set out above. This discussion led to the issuance of an order from von Brauchitsch to Rommel, as below. It sets out the tasks of the Afrikakorps. These are to work with the Italians to ensure the defense of Tripolitania, and to prepare for offensive operations to recapture Cyrenaica. The first step for this was to take the area around Agedabia, after the arrival of the whole of 15. Panzerdivision in the middle of May 1941. A further advance on Tobruk was then dependent on whether the battle of Agedabia would lead to a decisive defeat of the British armoured forces. 

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ObdH Order to Rommel, 21 March 1941. NARA T-78 R324

Rommel in the Rommel Papers recalls from the meeting that he was not happy at what he saw as efforts by von Brauchitsch and Halder to keep down the numbers of troops sent to Africa, since this in his view left the future of the campaign there to chance. He also considered that the in his view momentary British weakness in North Africa should have been exploited energetically, in order to gain the initiative once and for all for ourselves.

Following this visit by Rommel, there is little consideration for North Africa in the war diary of Halder, since the rapidly escalating situation in Yugoslavia and the Greece demanded the full attention of the OKH until the end of April. Thus Libya took a backseat, other than an observation by Gen. Wagner, based on the report by one of his officers, on 1 April that Rommel showed no interest in supply, and that supply vehicles remained idle in Naples, rather than being shipped.

On 3 April then the report arrived in Berlin that Agedabia has been taken. This brought North Africa back up the agenda, and it lead to a direct order from Hitler through the Armed Forces High Command channel (the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW) that first congratulated the Afrikakorps, but then made it clear that there was no room for recklessness, no Italian reinforcements could be expected, and Luftwaffe assets were soon to be withdrawn for the campaign in the Balkans. Any further advance was only authorized if it was clear that Empire tank forces had been withdrawn. For some reason, this order was interpreted by Rommel as giving him “complete freedom of action” (see the war diary entry at this link and also The Rommel Papers).

On the same day, Rommel writes to his wife (emphasis by me):

We’ve been attacking since the 31st with dazzling success. There’ll be consternation amongst our masters in Tripoli and Rome, perhaps in Berlin too. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favourable. No doubt it will all be pronounced good later and they’ll all say they’d have done exactly the same in my place. We’ve already reached our first objective, which we weren’t supposed tc get to until the end of May. The British are falling over each other to get away. Our casualties small.[…]

On 11 April, Halder notes Wagner’s comment that Rommel was now making “preposterous” demands that could only be satisfied as long as the preparations for Barbarossa were not affected.

On 13 April, Halder notes that Hitler was considering adding a motorised infantry regiment to North Africa, which had previously been refused by the OKH, on the following grounds:

a) Matter had been considered for a long time

b) No spare troops considering need for task Barbarossa

c) No shipping available until May when all units of 15. Panzer had reached North Africa.

d) Impracticable given lack of transport and fuel.

e) Lack of air support made embarking on large-scale operations unwise.

f) Getting closer to Egypt, British resistance would stiffen.

On the same day Paulus received a “colossal request” from Rommel via the liaison office in Rome, but again notes that Barbarossa has precedence.

On 14 April, two days after he has been heavily defeated at Tobruk in the Easter Battle, Rommel makes a formal request to advance to the Suez Canal, which Göring is willing to support. A discussion between Halder and Jodl (OKW) notes that this is only possible as a raid, since there were neither troops nor supply facilities available to hold Suez. Hitler then makes the final decision that the prime objective is to establish a frontline along the border from Sollum to Siwa Oasis inclusive, and apart from that only raids were to be conducted.

On 15 April, von Brauchitsch is looking for ways to support Rommel, by adding German submarines and sending the airborne division to North Africa. Halder disagrees, noting that submarines should be Italian, and also that once in North Africa, the airborne troops would be footboard. On the same day, a report from Rommel arrives, admitting that he is in trouble, and that he now requires support from two Italian divisions to shore up his position. Halder gleefully notes that “at last he is constrained to state that this forces are not sufficiently strong to allow him to take advantage of the “unique opportunities” afforded to him by the overall situation. That is the impression we have had for some time over here.”

The next day, 16 April, Gen. Wagner, following a discussion with Halder, makes reinforcements available to the Afrikakorps, to address the crisis situation. These consist of four infantry battalions, the Engineer Training Battalion (Pionierlehrbatallion, renamed Pionierbatallion 900 z.b.V.) equipped as an assault engineer battalion, and two coastal artillery battalions, H.K.A.A. 523 and H.K.A.A. 533, equipped with the powerful French 15cm GPF guns captured in 1940. Wagner noted that day that a crisis point had been reached, although not at Tobruk but at Sollum, and that this was expected to last for about 10 days, by when 15. Panzer should arrive. Wagner expected a high likelihood of Rommel being beaten at Sollum. The OKH leadership agreed that nothing could be done about this.

That same day a telegram from Rommel arrived reporting increasing pressure at Bardia, and a telegram went out to him telling him that he was on his own for the time being. Nevertheless, the transport of men to North Africa was accelerated, and on 27 April, a wave of 46 airplanes landed one rifle battalion and two rifle companies of 15. Panzer. These air transports, while not considered satisfactory, since the men would lack any equipment other than small arms, was to continue the next day.

On 5 May, Kapitän zur See Loyke reported from Libya with the insight that as long as Malta was held by the British, no offensive east was possible for Rommel.

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Halder War Diary Entry, 23 April 1941, famous for calling Rommel ‘this soldier gone stark mad, and rather belying Rommels expectation in his letter of 3 April that all would be pronounced good.

 

A Counterfactual Approach

Modern historiography has not been kind about Rommel’s rash advance in defiance of orders from Berlin, and the general view today is that Rommel was out of his depth and never really got to grips with the logistical challenges his theatre forced him to confront. This is discussed in detail in the official German History, Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg Vol. IV. which considers this advance the original sin that ultimately made victory in North Africa less likely, since it put the Axis forces into a logistically impossible situation from which they never recovered. The critical failure was that the advance failed to achieve a decisive outcome when the assaults on Tobruk in April and May failed. It is hard to disagree with this view, once one reads the Panzergruppe war diary appendices, which are a long story of supply concerns through all of 1941.

My view is that modern historiography is correct, and that the move towards the east and the conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica did fatally damage the ability of the Axis to sustain its campaign in North Africa. The terrain gained was worthless without Tobruk and while the losses inflicted were heavy, they were far from fatal, and both tanks and men could be replaced on the Empire side, while the drain on the Axis supply chain was permanent.

 

The Counterfactual Consideration

There are a few instances in the campaign in North Africa that warrant an analysis of the counterfactual, and this is one of them. What could have happened, had the advance not taken place and Rommel had stuck to the plan and his orders of 21 March? This article will provide some thoughts on the matter, based on the following assumptions:

1) The campaigns in Yugoslavia, Greece, Syria, Iraq and Abyssinia proceed unchanged.

2) There is no change to the speed of the force build-up.

3) There is no change to the force allocations on both sides.

4) The strength of the tank force on both sides is the decisive factor in the timing and outcome of any major operation.

5) Light tanks such as the Italian L3 series, the German Panzer I, and the British Vickers Mk. VI are irrelevant to combat operations.

6) Only raids are undertaken by both sides, and neither is trying to advance in strength with the intent to hold territory; any tank losses from these raids are temporary or replaced.

6) The exact numbers of the tanks available on each side don’t matter as much as long as the ball park estimate is correct. In particular for the Empire side, getting to the right numbers is very difficult, as they did not know themselves how many tanks they had available for much of the first half of 1941.

7) Both sides have logistical challenges that prevent them from concentrating fully on North Africa until the end of June 1941, in the form of other active campaigns in the Middle East, the Balkans and Greece, and East Africa. These effects cancel each other out.

Taking the above, the counterfactual will therefore focus on the tank balance, and consider when an ideal moment for battle would have come for the Axis. It is understood that this is simplistic, but it is also considered helpful to focus on the decisive element.

 

The North African Tank Balance to Autumn 1941

First, without the Axis advance taking place, the forces facing each other in Cyrenaica are reasonably well balanced at the end of March and early April. Including some replacements for ten tanks lost in the fire on the SS Leverkusen, by mid-April the Axis can field 75 Panzer III, 20 Panzer IV, 45 Panzer II, and 32 Panzerjaeger I, and two battalions of Italian M13/41 medium tanks, with about 100 M13/40 tanks between them. This is a total of 272 combat capable vehicles, facing 112 British cruisers[8], 60 captured Italian M tanks, and 40 I tanks, for a total of 212 tanks, of varying reliability. It is clear that this force balance does not allow the Empire forces to consider a successful offensive, and that they need to await a substantial force build-up. As the historical record shows, the balance did allow the Axis a successful, but not a decisive campaign.

4081861

TOBRUK – AN ITALIAN CARRO ARMATO M13/40 MEDIUM TANK FROM BARDIA IS TAKEN OVER BY THE AIF AND SUITABLY MARKED WITH A KANGAROO SYMBOL. TROOPER H. R. ARCHER IS THE ARTIST. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY). (AWM 005047)

By early May, the Axis will receive the full force of Panzerregiment 8 as well as the other divisional units of 15. Panzerdivision in the operational zone, with the last of the tanks reaching Tripoli in the first days of May. The Axis tank force now numbers 91 Panzer II, 153 Panzer III, and 40 Panzer IV, as well as 32 Panzerjaeger I and the 100 Italian Mediums, for a total of 416 main combat vehicles. 

At the same time, the Empire forces also receive reinforcements by tanks being returned from workshops, and the Tiger convoy arriving in mid-May shortly after, which enabled operation BATTLEAXE to proceed. On 7 May, prior to the arrival of the Tiger convoy, the Empire tank force, assuming the April battles did not take place, numbers 115 cruisers, 59 I-tanks, and 60 captured Italian M tanks, for a total of 234 vehicles, meaning that the Axis now has a substantial, almost 2:1 superiority in tanks fielded in North Africa. Furthermore, the Empire tank force relies still on tanks with high mileage, and a large number of captured tanks of dubious combat value.

By the end of June the picture does change, turning against the Axis. While the Italian tank force is reinforced by another battalion, bringing the total to 138 M13/40 tanks, no more German tanks are received  and the Axis total rises only slightly to 454. The main additions to the Axis are now infantry formations and heavy artillery, sent in response to the failure at Tobruk. On the Empire side, further returns from workshops as well as convoy arrivals, especially the Tiger convoy, add large numbers of cruiser tanks, bringing the total to 303 available[9], and the number of I-tanks rises to 201, to bring the total to 563 tanks if we continue to include the 60 captured Italian tanks. Still in this case, over half of the Empire margin of superiority of 109 tanks is accounted for by the captured Italian tanks, and as noted it is unlikely these would have had much value in battle, given the situation with spares and ammunition. Again, in my view this makes any major Empire offensive before the end of June unlikely, and a successful one practically impossible. This is before considering the pressures of having to deal with the desaster in Greece, the campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and the need to eliminate the remaining Italian resistance in East Africa.

The tank balance only shifts decisively later in the summer, with the arrival of the WS9a and b convoys, and most importantly the arrival of the first M3 Stuart tanks directly from the US (detailed at this link). By September, there are 100 operational M3s in theatre, and 298 British cruisers[10], together with 298 I-tanks[11], and most importantly crews and support units had time to familiarise themselves with the new vehicle. Assuming the captured Italian tanks are now retired, the Empire tank force now numbers almost 700 vehicles, giving the Middle East Command a substantial tank margin, with which to plan and execute a substantial attack would be possible, for the first time. This would become Operation CRUSADER in the original time line.

Athlone

The SS ATHLONE CASTLE transporting troops. Convoy WS19 (IWM A10610)[12]

Other considerations

Both sides benefit and suffer from the Axis not advancing to the Egyptian border. The Empire forces continue to hold Benghazi and the airfields of northern Cyrenaica, forcing Italian convoys to take the westerly route via Tunisia, where they can more easily be intercepted. They do not need to supply a besieged Tobruk, and they do not suffer the substantial distraction of an Axis force on the border during the rout in Greece and Crete. It is however unlikely that the RAF could have done much to protect the forward area and the port of Benghazi during this period, given its commitment to and losses in Greece. 

On the downside therefore, Benghazi is exposed to air attack, making it an unsatisfactory port for building up an army level offensive. It needs to be kept in mind that the supply of Tobruk worked because it was for an overstrength division that was not expected to be mobile. So while the pressure on naval assets is reduced, the Empire coastal convoys are now taking a more exposed and longer route to Benghazi, and need to deliver substantially more supplies. 

Given the above, it is likely that overland supply would have been key to building up for an offensive and keeping the force in western Cyrenaica supplied. The overland route from Tobruk, which would have been the safest harbour, to Mechili and west of it is hundreds of miles. Apart from the lack of tanks, the need for trucks to cover this adds substantially to the supply difficulties for a further advance. Even to support a Brigade-size forces that far west of the railhead was estimated to have taken 2,000 trucks shuttling back and forth (see this earlier entry on the planning for the BENCOL advance during CRUSADER, at this link). I consider it likely that the Egyptian railway would have been extended to Tobruk in this scenario, at least easing the supply concerns by reducing the dependence on shipping. Overall this adds to the pressure on the RAF, which is at the same time heavily committed in Greece and which poses a significant challenge to building up and maintaining a large force forward of Tobruk.

On the Axis side, conversely, the supply situation is substantially eased. The distances over which supplies are carried are much shorter, coastal convoying is possible to Sirt, and a very good main road is available. It is thus likely that the building up of supplies can be accelerated considerably.

In terms of operational opportunities, the relatively open terrain south of Agedabia allows deep raids into the Empire rear that are hard to defend against. Vehicles and men can be trained thus, while not using them up too much. The Sommernachtstraum raid of 14/15 September is an example of what would have been possible. An outflanking move into the desert, a quick hit on the Empire rear, chaos, confusion, and then retreat behind the Marada – Agheila line.

In terms of defense, the position from Marada north is relatively strong, and harder to flank due to the presence of salt marshes. An attack in the centre is possible, but would channel the attacking force considerably and expose it to hits from the north and south, similar to what happened to 22 Armoured Brigade at the end of December 1941 at Wadi el Faregh (see this link). A defense in depth, with infantry in the line, and tank forces to the rear to back them up, would have the potential to savage any attacker.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0150 28 Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Panzer III bei Fahrt durch die Wüste, im Hintergrund brennender Lastkraftwagen (LKW); (Panzer III on march through desert, in the back burning truck) PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia)

Conclusion

The Empire forces were in no position to attack at Agheila or Marada prior to the end of June, simply based on tank numbers, before even getting into considerations of supply, where the need to build up substantial supplies to support not just the initial attack but an advance on Tripoli, several hundred kilometers to the west, would have taken time. From early May to the end of June the Axis tank forces and supply position would have been far superior to that of the Empire forces, inviting an attack by the Axis. No large scale operations were considered possible in the hot season from July to September.

If Rommel had waited and stuck to his orders as issued on 21 March, he would have kept the initiative until the beginning of summer at least, and would have been able to choose where and how to attack. The Axis force build-up was considerably faster than that of the Empire forces during this period, and shortening the supply lines by hundreds of kilometers, as well as not wasting precious fuel and ammunition as well as spares on the initial advance in April and the failed attempts at Tobruk would have given the Axis ample reserves to conduct a successful offensive. 

An Axis attack out of the Agheila – Marada position before the end of May, with the full force of three armored divisions and substantial logistical preparation, and a substantial superiority in tanks would have promised much greater success than the lightweight attack at the end of March, and could easily have carried the Axis forces through into Egypt. This could have been planned to co-incide with the invasion of Crete, thus forcing the Empire to look into two vastly different directions at once. The planning in Berlin for an attack in mid-May was therefore clearly the right approach, since it would have maximized tank superiority, even though this was not known to the OKH planners.

Moving from a raid towards Agedabia to the full blown conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica in early April was was therefore a missed opportunity, lost due to the impatience and insubordination of Rommel.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 782 0009 01A Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Kolonne von Panzer III passieren großes Tor, (Column of Panzer III pass large gate (Arco dei Fileni)) März-Mai 1941; PK Prop.Zg. Afrika (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Featured Image: Nordafrika.- Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel im leichten Schützenpanzer Sd.Kfz. 250/3 “Greif” (Field Marshal Rommel in the light armoured personnel carrier ‘Griffon’); PK “Afrika” (BAMA via Wikimedia).

Footnotes

[1] This is based on Halder’s war diary.

[2] General Paulus, later commander of 6th Army at Stalingrad.

[3] Heusinger survived the war, and became one of the fathers of the Bundeswehr.

[4] Field Marshal von Brauchitsch was the commander of the German Army (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres). He was sacked by Hitler in December 1941, and survived the war.

[5] General Wagner, respectively later one of the co-conspirators of 20 July 1944. He committed suicide rather than letting himself be arrested. 

[7] Also of interest is an overview of transport capacity allocated to army groups and theatres on 26 April. It notes that North Africa had 2,190 tons of transport capacity, compared to e.g. 25,020 tons for Army Group Centre. In North Africa, this had to sustain 2.5 German divisions, once 15. Panzer arrived. In Army Group centre, it had to sustain 42.5 German divisions.So for about 17 times as many divisions, Army Group Centre had only 11.4 times the transport capacity, or 50% more. This likely understates the advantage given to North Africa, which had a smaller division (5. lei.), and a smaller slice of army troops.

[7] The Deputy Chief of Intelligence, General Gerhard Matzky. Under him were two departments, Foreign Armies East, and Foreign Armies West. 

[8] This is assuming the 72 tanks lost by 2 Armoured Brigade during Rommel’s advance, together with the 60 captured Italian tanks which were also lost, remain present.

[9] Assuming the five tanks lost during BREVITY remain on strength as well.

[10] Assuming the 30 cruisers lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.

[11] Assuming the 98 I-tanks lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.

[12] SS Athlone Castle was a regular on the WS route and participated also in WS9b.

Sources

  • Bechthold, M. Flying to Victory
  • Halder, War Diary
  • Munro, A. The Winston Specials.
  • Parri, M. Storia dei Carristi 
  • Rommel, E. The Rommel Papers
  • Rommel’s Riposte: NARA Loading lists for German convoys to North Africa. See this post.
  • Rommel’s Riposte: Equipping a New Army
  • Schreiber & Stegmann Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg Bd. 3
  • UK TNA CAB120/253 for Empire tank numbers.
  • US National Archives, Captured Documents Section, T-78 R-324, Sonnenblume OKH files.
Panzerarmee Intelligence Assessment, 24 January 1942

Panzerarmee Intelligence Assessment, 24 January 1942

Enemy Behaviour on 24 January 1942

The 1st Armoured Division which is encircled by German – Italian formations in the area east of Agedabia suffered extremely heavy losses during the reduction of the cauldron and in its attempts to break out, especially in the area south of Saunnu. During this operation were destroyed or captured (during the time 21 – 24 January 1942):

  • 143 tanks and armoured cars
  • 80 guns
  • Ground troops shot down 14 planes
  • 1,000 prisoners brought in

10hussars

2 Armoured Brigade 10 Hussars refueling a M3 Stuart tank during operations in January 1942. Rommelsriposte.com collection.

According to aerial and radio reconnaissance the command of 1st Armoured Division is in the area of Msus in the evening hours of today – there are about 700 vehicles in the area – and the heavily hit formations of 1st Armoured Division are in the area north-east of Saunnu – Antelat. No movement noted for the mass of 4th Indian Division. Reinforced reconnaissance forces in the line Sceleidima – Solluch – Ghemines. Weaker forward forces in the line north-west of Antelat – Beda Fomm – Si. Abd el Asti. Aerial reconnaissance reports no specific movements area Bardia – Tobruk – Mechili.

Motor Transport Organisation and Numbers in 8 Army, November 1941

Motor Transport Organisation and Numbers in 8 Army, November 1941

Background

In a thread on the Axis History Forum (see here) Tom and Norm raised some good questions on the supply and use of trucks by Allied forces in North Africa.

The questions Tom and Norm raised are below:

  • How many trucks were in the Middle East before the war broke out?
  • How many arrived per month after the declaration of war?
  • What was the average wastage rate?
  • Which units arrived with vehicles and which without?
  • How many trucks per month came from the US, Canada, South Africa and India?
  • What were the vehicle requirements of an infantry or tank division in the Western Desert in 1940/41/42/43?
  • How many trucks were there in a second or third line transport company and what vehicles did they use 3 ton/5 ton/10 ton?

All good questions, with not a lot of answers in my research. But what better way to remember the start of Operation CRUSADER 72 years ago than talking about the unsung workhorses of the war, the trucks and lorries, and their drivers. This post is building on an older post at this link. A word of warning, I am no logistics expert, and there are likely a number of errors in this, which I would be happy to see corrected. This post may well leave people more confused than they are now, but I’d really be very grateful for further explanations.

Having said all that…

Supply of everything was the domain of the R.A.S.C., the Royal Army Service Corps, which made sure that any form of supply would be delivered to the units in order to keep them functioning. The R.A.S.C. consisted of companies at Brigade level (lowest level I can make out) up to Army level. At the battalion level, drivers and supply platoons would be members of the actual unit, not the R.A.S.C. There was also the R.A.O.C. or Royal Army Ordnance Corps, but I believe they did not drive munitions around, but would be happy to be corrected.

Supply Needs

The supply challenge for 8 Army is laid out starkly below:

The supply problems were gigantic. Gathering for battle were 118,000 men—almost the entire population of Wellington city—and 17,600 vehicles. Soldiers would eat each day 200 tons of food. Every day the vehicles carrying them would use 1,500 tons of petrol and oil; guns and rifles would need 480 tons of ammunition a day, and 350 tons (79,400 gallons) of water would be wanted. Altogether the Army would need 2,972 tons of supplies every day.

From No. 4 and 6 RES M.T.

The general supply need outlined above is however maybe better understood by an example of a more manageable formation with a specific task. In this case, the planned advance of Bencol in December 1941 from the area south of Tobruk to capture Benghazi. During this advance it would not have been able to draw on any dumped supplies. The calculations are outlined below. So, in order to maintain from Tobruk in Benghazi a force as follows:

22 Guards Brigade

2 infantry battalions (motorised, 2 Scots Guards and 3 Coldstream Guards)
1 Field Regiment (24x 25-pdr guns)
Royal Engineers
1 Anti-Tank Battery (12x 2-pdr portee guns)
1 Light AA Battery (12x 40mm Bofors light AA guns)
1 Light Field Ambulance
1 Armoured Car Regiment (Marmon Herrington or Daimler)
2nd Line Transport
Total 5,354 men, 1,152 motor vehicles.

Daily requirement was calculated as follows.

86.7 tons total, consisting of:

48.4 tons rations and POL
23.3 tons ammunition
15 tons water

Supplied from Tobruk, this would require 289 lorries, or about 2.5 3-ton coys of 120 lorries each, assuming a 10-day turn-around on the Tobruk-Benghazi run (700miles return). The assumed daily distance that could be covered was only 70 miles. This was due to short daylight hours, the need for substantial dispersion in order to protect the vehicles from air attack, and regular breaks. This example should put the 17,600 vehicles, of which maybe 2,000 were fighting or direct fighting support vehicles of various types (tanks, scout cars, Bren gun carriers, gun tractors) into perspective. Basically, the planning assumption was that one transport company of 120 3-ton vehicles could ensure 360 tons of supply per day over a distance of 35 miles. For every additional 35 miles, another company with 120 3-ton trucks was needed.

Now for some definitions. For the purpose of this post, I shall largely ignore tractors and passenger cars. So what are trucks and lorries in 1940s British military parlance? Ellis’ British Army Handbook has the following definitions for vehicle types:

  • trucks are <1 long ton carrying capacity (1,016kg)
  • lorries are >30 cwt long ton (presume a long cwt = 1,524kg)
  • a van is a truck with a fixed top
  • a tractor is a towing vehicle

I presume that if a manufacturer had proposed a vehicle with a load-carrying capacity >1,016 but <1,524kg, some War Office bureaucrat’s head would have exploded.

Furthermore from Ellis, on what is 1st/2nd/3rd line transport:

  • 1st line transport is transport integral to a unit, responsible for picking up stuff from a delivery point within the divisional area
  • 2nd line transport is transport used to move stuff from rendez-vous points and depots to the delivery points for a unit
  • 3rd line transport is transport used to move stuff from a supply column/refilling point or Corps petrol park to a rendez-vous or petrol refilling point

My guess is that in 1941 the system may have been slightly different, since Ellis seems to describe the system in the UK, which may well have been based on the system that was developed for CRUSADER.

The desert supply was based on the following in autumn 1941:

  • Railhead at Mersa Matruh for 8 Army and harbour at Tobruk (for TobFort)
  • Field Maintenance Centres (FMC) in the desert, consisting of a number of sub-centres

The supply base (railhead/harbour) would be controlled by a Sub-Area. I believe in the case of 8 Army this was Sub Area 88, which was later lost when Tobruk fell in June 1942. From the railhead onwards a Line of Communications (L. of C.) Column, commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, would control the transport, consisting of Reserve Motor Transport (RES M.T.) and specialised companies for water, petrol, ammunition, to the Field Maintenance Centre (FMC = Supply Column/Corps Petrol Park), from where divisional transport would take over.

An important innovation for Crusader campaign was a Corps organisation for co-ordinating supply and maintenance of the fighting formations, known as a field maintenance centre. This would contain an FSD, a field ammunition depot, a petrol, oil and lubricants dump, a water point, a prisoner-of-war cage, a field post office, a NAAFI/EFI store (for canteen supplies), and other services, all functioning independently but making economical use of a common labour and transport pool and subject to the headquarters of the FMC for the initial layout of the whole area, the marking of routes and traffic control, local administration, security, and general co-ordination. Each corps had several of these FMCs, those of 13 Corps numbering from 50 upwards and those of 30 Corps numbering from 60 upwards, with the chief components similarly numbered. Thus 50 FMC, just inside Egypt and three miles east of the frontier wire at El Beida, included 50 FSD, 50 FAD, and so on. As it happened this FMC had a NZ headquarters—’A’ NZ FMC—and the co-ordination was therefore carried out by New Zealanders, although the dumps and services were operated by troops from the United Kingdom. The headquarters of another NZ FMC—’B’—was at that time waiting at 50 FMC to move forward and set up 51 FMC some 20 miles west of Sidi Omar. Some idea of the enormous size of these installations can be gained from the fact that 50 FMC covered an area of 35 square miles. So wide was the dispersion and so effective the camouflage that a German armoured division later drove through the northern fringe of this area without realising that the supplies and services for the whole British corps lay within its reach. New Zealand Official History – Supply Company

In terms of organisation, I believe that any of the 2nd Line could be integral to a unit or formation, or be assigned to it from a pool, while 3rd Line would always be assigned from the pool, usually in the form of a Line of Communication Column(s) to a Corps, which would have a number of RES M.T. under command, or individual Res M.T. Coys to a division. Army and Corps commands would normally have a pool of load-carrying units, called Reserve Motor Transport Companies (RES M.T.), which they would be able to assign to lower formations as required, e.g. to deal with shortcomings in supply, and/or to supply rapid advances. Those RES M.T. retained by the formation would be 3rd Line transport. Apart from general transport (which could be used for anything, including carrying personnel), 8 Army also had specialised units that were dedicated to the transport of water, petrol, tank transport over longer distances, and ammunition.

1st Line transport

Some information on first-line transport in cruiser regiments and a fully motorised reconnaissance regiment is below. First, from 3 CLY War Diary (Cruiser regiment) for October 41 – the numbers and types what they went into battle with, I have no idea if that was what they were supposed to have. They would call these their ‘B’ vehicles. ‘A’ vehicles were those meant to be fighting, i.e. tanks and scout cars. Note that this should not be confused with ‘A’ and ‘B’ echelon – most of the vehicles could be in ‘A’ Echelon I should think, if they were assigned such. By comparison, 2 Royal Gloucester Hussars reported 112 ‘B’ vehicles.

Vehicle Type

Number Present

3-tonner lorries

66

3-tonner fitter lorries (mechanics store)

2

15-cwt trucks

18

15-cwt water trucks

4

15-cwt office truck (should be van?)

1

8-cwt trucks

2

Total trucks and lorries

93

Utilities

8

Wireless Transmission van

1

Light Vehicles

9

Total ‘B’ Vehicles

102

War Diary, 3 CLY, Oct. 1941


So for 22 Armoured Brigade, of which 3 CLY and 2RGH were part, just the three cruiser regiments would get you to about 300 lorries and trucks, and the Brigade R.A.S.C. company would add another 160 or so, for a total of 460 for the Brigade. So for four cruiser/army tank brigades outside Tobruk we would get to 1,800 or more lorries and trucks in 1st Line and Brigade 2nd Line transport alone.

Next example, the Central India Horse Reconnaissance Regiment of 4 Indian Division. It’s ‘B’ vehicles consisted of 114 trucks and lorries, and 20 other vehicles, so about equal to an armoured regiment. It’s ‘A’ vehicles were 21 carriers, presumably the India Pattern, which was a wheeled light scout car. It presumably had more vehicles because all the infantry in the regiment had to be completely motorised.

An Indian Pattern Carrier Mk 2A named ‘Dhar IV’, 10 April 1942. From the IWM, via Wikipedia.


For the artillery, Nigel Evan’s excellent site at this link is a key source. For a 3-battery regiment I count 82 trucks/lorries in 1st Line, excluding the tractors (and only 60 trucks/lorries for a 2-battery regiment) Based on the artillery order of battle, I have 10×3 battery, 9x 2 battery, including Tobruk. Furthermore 88 trucks for a medium regiment, of which there were two. Total first line trucks for these units would be 1,536, although some of them would have been in Tobruk, so with fewer vehicles in 1st Line, one would presume.

At this point we are getting close to 3,000 trucks and lorries just for 1st Line transport already, without considering the infantry battalions, AT-regiments, LAA/HAA units, 2nd and 3rd Line divisional transport the Corps and Army pool. As an example below, the table outlines the supply troops under 7 Armoured Division in November 1941:

7 Armoured Divison Supply Troops Nov. 41

Unit

Notes

H.Q. 7 Armd Div R.A.S.C.

 

7 Armd Div Tps Coy

53 Coy

7 Armd Bde Coy

 

22 Armd Bde Coy

 

7 Armd Div Sup Gp Coy

550 Coy

1 Lt A.A. Regt R.A.S.C. Section

 

C Transport Coy

(less Det) Tank Transporters

30 Res M.T. Coy

 

Source: War Diary GS Branch, 30 Corps

 

A British Army 15-cwt truck throws up a cloud of sand and dust while moving at speed along a desert track in North Africa, 1 November 1940. Source: IWM

A Scammell tank transporter named ‘Snow White’ carrying an A9 Cruiser tank to the workshops for an overhaul in the Western Desert, 18 July 1941. Source: IWM

2nd and 3rd Line Transport

During CRUSADER, apparently 120 lorries of unspecified type per RES M.T. line company, either 3, 5, or 10 ton, although the New Zealand Official History states that establishment was 147 3-ton vehicles. In mid-December, 13 Corps and 8 Army pools together accounted for 22 3/4 transport coys in 13 Corps and 8 Army pool, i.e. 2,730 trucks at 120 trucks per company. 30 Corps held another five companies in its pool, or another 600 lorries. RES M.T. companies assigned to divisions are presumably not part of the pool, and would be extra.

Extrapolating Ellis’ system would make it 3rd Line transport gets stuff from the railhead to the FMCs, and thence to the rendez-vous points and depots. 2nd Line then gets stuff to the unit delivery points in the divisional areas. This would fit with the assignment of e.g. 2 L. of C. Column to 30 Corps, with 5 RES M.T. coys, or at least 600 lorries, under command. The column was responsible for general deliveries to 30 Corps during the operation.

 

H.Q. 30 Corps R.A.S.C.

 
 

346 RES M.T.

No. 1 L. of C. Column

3 ‘P’ Division Companies (Supply, Ammn, Petrol)

No. 8 Water Tank Coy

No. 2 L. of C. Column

5 RES M.T. Coys

No. 3 L. of C. Column

6 Water Tank Coys (no. 1-6)

No. 38 RES M.T. Coy

No. 5 L. of C. Column

3 L. of C. Coys (5,6, 39)

4 DID (?) (4 HAA Bde, 44, 52, P)

4 FMC (D, E, F, G)

Source: War Diary, G.S. Branch, 30 Corps

 

Composition of 2 Line of Comms Column Oct/Nov 41

Unit Name

Former Name

1 RES M.T.

19 General Transport Company (G.T.C.)

5 RES M.T.

97 G.T.C.

15 RES M.T.

922 G.T.C.

36 RES M.T.

240 G.T.C.

37 RES M.T.

241 G.T.C.

Source: War Diary, 2 L. of C. Column (courtesy of Tom O’Brien)

 

Each company consisted of an H.Q., 4 transport, 2 increment, and 1 workshop platoon.

An open-topped CMP (Canada Military Pattern) 3-ton truck and motorcycle of 11th Royal Horse Artillery (Honourable Artillery Company), 1st Armoured Division, 22 April 1943. From the IWM via Wikipedia.

Further Reading

New Zealand Official Histories:

Petrol Company

4 and 6 RES M.T.

Supply Company

22 Armoured Brigade R.A.S.C. Coy War Diary

From Tom O’Brien comes this transcript of the war diary of 22 Armoured Brigade R.A.S.C. Company, the Brigade’s transport company.

1 October 1941 On Board H.M.T. ORION
Ship Anchors at 1400 hours. E.S.C. comes aboard and gives order of marching off ship. The Company leaves after first unit – 22 Armd Bde. H.Q. Sqn. Men have to wait three hours on ferry whilst four other units disembark. Shore reached at 1900 hours. O.C. is waiting to meet the Company. The men are given some tea and eat their haversack rations which have been issued on board. E.S.O. gives entraining order for Mob Centre, Qassassin. On arrival at 0400 hrs, 2 Oct, the Company is met by M.T. and taken to tented camp.

2 October 1941
O.C. reports to Mob Centre and is loaned one three ton vehicle for Company use, he having to return Staff Car he had been using whilst with Brigadier. At 1600 hrs O.C. calls Company Parade. Casualties due to sickness from time of embarkation to today, is four drivers. Capt. Budgen goes to Cairo to make banking arrangements for Company and draw air mail letter forms for men.

3 October 1941
Company Parade at 0800 hrs followed by Arms Drill and short Route March.
1415 1415 hrs – kit inspection.
Capt. Wells goes to Suez with party of drivers to trace possible Company vehicles which may have been on other ships in the Convoy. Disembarkation Order had been marks [sic] ‘Company with M.T.’ It is hoped they may be able to bring back Coy. Office equipment.

4 October 1941
Company Parade 0800 hrs. Route March. Working Parade 1400 hours.
Company paid money drawn on Field Cashier. Still without Imprest Number.
Two three tonners and one staff car taken on charge. Loads of G.1098 stores coming forward daily from Suez. Capt. Wells at Port with party of drivers to collect vehicles which may have been in Convoy.

5 October 1941
Church Parade at 0840 hours.
Company draws 19 x 3 ton Chevrolets, 2 Dodge trucks, 4 x 15 cwt Bedfords.
Col. Eccles, 2 Lt. Fld. Amb. O.C., and Capt. N.C. King, Brigade RASC Officer arrive to enquire about their transport from Mob. Centre. Major Bailey goes to 2nd Echelon to deposit documents.
2/Lieut. B.S. Baker and Baggage Party rejoins the Company, having forwarded G.1098 stores without loss.

6 October 1941
Authority arrives for Company to draw from V.R.D. 20 Chevrolets and 14 Motor Cycles. Capt. G.N. Budgen goes to Cairo to arrange collection.

7 October 1941
Capt. J.W.A. Wells (W/Shops Officer) and 2/Lieut. B.S. Baker collect vehicles from 10 V.R.D. Most vehicles only done a few miles.

8 October 1941
Training Programme is carried out. Vehicles and kit are handed over by Workshops to Sections.

9 October 1941
Sections continue Company Training Programme. Section Officers start short runs across Country with Prismatic Compass. Waiting for an issue of Sun Compasses with which to start training. One or two Air Mail letters are coming through for the Company.

10 October 1941
All drivers of vehicles are issued with Paint Brushes, and commencement is made with Camouflaging. Workshops Section draws Fitter’s Tool Kits from 6 M.T.S.D.
Major Bailey goes to Cairo to attend conference in connection with increased W.E. of Company to deal with Brigade attached Units.
Capt. N.C. King arrives with six Universal Sun Compasses which are very welcome for training purposes.
Coy. provides party under Capt. R.P. Brown for collecting Tank Transporters at Port Said, for delivering to Mob Centre, RASC.
2/Lieut. P.F. Edmiston leaves with vehicles for 2 Lt. Fd. Amb. at AMIRIYA.
Camp Comdt inspects Camp – impresses on drivers importance of correct lashing of canopies.

11 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey receives official notification that the W.E. of the Company is to be increased due to the Brigade strength being increased by one motor battalion, 1 R.H.A. Regt., 1 Anti-Tank Regt., 1 Field Park R.E., 1 Field Sqn R.E. The Company will be increased by 110 men, 53 load carrying vehicles, 2 Dodge Staff Vans.
It is decided that the Ammunition and Petrol Sections will be duplicated and known as ‘A.1’ and ‘A’2’ and ‘B.1’ and ‘B.2’ Sections.
Pay Parade at 1400 hours. Each man handed Air Mail card and Green Envelope.

12 October 1941
Coy. Parade 0830 hours. At 0900 hours, Coy. falls in with towels and haversack ration for bathing at Ismalia. Company is detailed to provide Mob. Centre Mobile Party daily, proving a handicap on Company while we try to work on vehicles drawn and continue with our training.

13 October 1941
C.I.M.T. lectures to Company in hourly classes to all drivers on special points of desert maintenance. One period for Officers. A good lecture and a lot of useful tips and information gained.
Major L.S. Bailey receives orders to report to Brigade H.Q. on 14th Oct. Authority received for drawing a further 53 Chevrolets, 1 Humber 4-Seater and 3 Bedfords 15cwt.
Mob. Centre detail for tomorrow:-
1 Officer, 2 Sergeants, 23 men – Mobile Party.
1 Officer, 50 Drivers – Suez.
1 Sergeant, 20 men – V.R.D.
2 Corporals, 12 men – Fatigue Party, Mob Centre.

14 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey leaves 0700 hours for Brigade H.Q.
Capt. J.W.A. Wells Workshop’s Officer draws 1 Technical vehicle, 1 Stores Vehicle, 1 Breakdown Vehicle from 9 V.R.D.
Company on Route March.
Camp Commandant inspects location and orders that 400 gallons on a ‘B’ Section Lorry, carried for Company use, should be buried.

15 October 1941
P.T. 0600 hours. Company Parade 0800 hours. Company sick today totals 12. The large sick parades of the first few days now adjusted itself.
Today’s Mob. Centre duties:-
1 Officer and 80 Drivers, 9 V.R.D.
2 NCO’s and 12 Drivers – Fatigue Party.
1 Offr, 2 Sgts, 20 Dvrs – Mobile Party.
2/Lieut. J.G. Harrison rejoins Unit, having been in No.2 General Hospital for seven days.

16 October 1941
P.T. 0600 hours. Company Parade 0800 hours. Route March in morning.
Workshops spray for camouflage, all canopies in H.Q. and W/S Sections.
Warning Order for move is received. Company is still without Water Trucks or trailers.
Capt. G.N. Budgen reports to Mob. Centre to receive date of departure. No satisfaction received as to Company obtaining water carrying vehicles or 2 gallon cans. Very few items still to be drawn from Ordnance.

17 October 1941
P.T. 0600 hours. Company Parade 0800 hours. Route March.
Workshops spraying ‘A’ Section vehicles. All Bren Guns Motley Mountings fitted on Company Defence Trucks. CQMS loads one vehicle with heavy stores. Sections load G.1098. One HQ vehicle in workshops having half of available space fitted for carrying small canteen stock. All drivers on vehicle maintenance. A good deal of work required on new Chevrolets drawn, due to careless assembly. All nuts finger tight.

18 October 1941
Usual Company Parades. Pay Parade 1345 hours. Morning given to maintenance. ‘B’ Section canopies finished. Orders received from Mob. Centre for all available vehicles to load with petrol.
12 x 2½ tonners to Shell Depot, Suez. Officer i/c Capt. Brown.
48 x 2½ tonners to Petrol Depot, El Kirch.
Officer i/c Loading 2/Lt. Baker. Officer i.c 2/Lt. Holliday.

19 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey returns from HQ 22 Armd Bde.
92 O.R’s, 2/Lt. P. Warner and 2/Lt. A. Fairhead join Unit from Mob Centre.
Authority for increase of vehicles received. Company drew 53 Fordsons, 3 Bedford Defence Trucks and one Staff Car, Movement Order received for Company move to AMIRIYA.
A further draft of 24 O.R’s received at 1930 hours.

20 October 1941
The Company breakfasts at 0430 hours and leaves under Major L.S. Bailey at 0530 with 307 O.R’s and 90 vehicles. Capt. G.N. Budgen and 2/Lt. C.J. Holliday, 160 O.R’s and 70 vehicles, left as Rear party. 2/Lieut. C.J. Holliday goes with R.E’s stores and 53 Fordsons. Company sleeps at WADI NATRUH.

21 October 1941
Rear Party leaves EL TAHAG at 0500 hours. Company delivers loads and takes up position in new location. HQ, B, C and D Sections camp 15 miles from AMIRIYA. ‘A’ Sectoin at IKINGI.

22 October 1941
Company commences to supply Units in Bde with rations and petrol.
All sections taking part in RASC Meeting Point for practice.

23 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey leaves for Bde HQ to attend an administration exercise.
A small number of nets drawn and a start it made to garnish them.
Total rations supplied by ‘C’ Section today, to five units, is 2,754. Petrol delivered 4,724 gallons.

24 October 1941
Further units move into area. Arrangements are made for drawing rations from 10 D.I.D. – a saving of mileage and time will be effected. ‘A’ Section commence to fill up with amn for C.L.Y. CQMS draws last of desert equipment. Company is paid and Canteen opened, which is much appreciated by men. All drivers and spare drivers garnishing nets.

25 October 1941
Brigade starts to move into area. 3 C.L.Y. first to come in. Their supply vehicles break down on way to RASC pt, and then, later in the night, have to collect from this Company’s location. Brigadier calls and warns Company that vehicles unpainted and nets ungarnished must be finished.
Rations delivered 3407; Petrol, 3,512 gallons.
2/Lieut. P.P. Edmiston goes to Cairo to draw M.T. stores and returns in the day.

26 October 1941
All personnel working on nets and W/Shops camouflaging canopies. From today, the Company is only to supply rations to the Brigade. Attached Units to draw direct themselves from D.I.D. ‘B’ Section still supply them with petrol.

27 October 1941
Major L.S. Bailey returns from administrative exercise. Petrol Pt opened from 0930 to 1130 for Units attached to Bde. All the units to use RASC replenishing Pt.

28 October 1941
‘A’ Sec. joins Coy from IKINGI. Five Units make use of the arrangement whereby Units may detach one man to this Unit to check Unit ration levels.

29 October 1941
Bde A.P.O. attached to this Company. One Wireless Truck on loan from Bde Signals. Capt. Budgen collects last of controlled items during the day.

30 October 1941
R.A.S.C. R.P. changed from 1630 hrs to 1000 hrs. Supply Section draws twice a day to adjust supplies to new times.

31 October 1941
Coy is put on water discipline; ½ gallon for mens’ personal needs; ½ gall. To Cookhouse; 1 gall. held as storage by “C” Section; 4 gallons on vehicles reserve.

The Tobruk Breakout from the Other Side of the Hill

The Tobruk Breakout from the Other Side of the Hill

Background

The text below is the translation of the evening report of Div.z.b.V.Afrika for 21 November 41, the day the Tobruk garrison started its breakout.

Operations of Div.z.b.V. Afrika

On 21 November the division was under pressure from two sides. 7th Support Group with 7th Armoured Brigade attacked S.R.155‘s (Rifle Regiment 155) positions on the escarpment from their position at Sidi Rezegh, while the Tobruk garrison attacked the strongpoints at Belhamed, occupied by the reinforced III./S.R.155, III./IR255 and III./IR347 (3rd battalions of infantry regiments 155, 255 and 347, respectively) from inside the perimeter, with considerable support from the infantry tanks of 4 RTR and D Squadron 7 RTR. The experience of a platoon of III./IR255 has been detailed in an older entry at this link. In the present entry, the official German version of the events of the day, as reported up the chain of command, is given. In the future I intend to translate the war diary entry of the division for this day.

The evening report is a masterpiece of not directly telling the unpleasant news from the siege front. It starts by referring to the attack which was repulsed on the right wing, failing to mention that it succeeded on the left wing, and then goes on to list the positions still held. But it does not refer to the positions the division actually lost, so the recipient of the report would need to get a map of the strongpoint system to figure out himself where the Tobruk garrison was now established (which I have done). Even though it never says so, it is clear that the division did not have a particularly good day, also indicated that the intent for the next day was defensive, instead of counter-attacking to retake the lost ground.

 

Map of Tobruk Fortifications in Breakout Sector – German Map based on Italian/British data. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

Day 1 of the Tobruk Breakout – Progress

It is a bit tricky to get the German and British accounts to match, because the British reports are in the context of their objectives, which did not completely overlap with the German strongpoints. With that said, the events of the day as I can make them out (and this is really a work in progress) were roughly as follows:

  • 0630 – D Squadron 7 RTR and 2nd King’s Own take parts of position 19 (objective Butch) on the northern edge of the breakout area, opposite R73.
  • 0630 – An attack against position 13 (Tugun) by 2nd Queens fails.
  • 0715 –2nd Black Watch take part of position 18 (Jill). 2nd Black Watch advances on their objective. A company 2nd Beds and Herts is installed to hold it.
  • 0750 – 2nd Black Watch is reported to be in trouble behind Jill.
  • Time uncertain – B Squadron (reserve) 4 RTR attacks position east of Tugun (could be part of position 14) and hands it over to the infantry. It then moves on to support the 2nd Black Watch which by now is held up before objective Tiger. The Italian artillery battalion referred to in the daily report was probably at this position, since 2nd Black Watch reported taking 12 field guns (one battalion) here.
  • 1015 – A and C Squadron 4 RTR and remnants of 2nd Black Watch take position 16 (Tiger) after heavy losses to the infantry and many tank casualties. This was the battalion HQ .
  • Time uncertain – A troop each of A and C Squadron 4 RTR attack position 11 (Jack) on point 145 and take it. This was the battalion HQ of Major Maythaler, III./IR155 (reported missing in the daily report below).
  • Time uncertain – British tanks push on to Carmuset Beludeah to the southwest, but are repulsed.
  • 1545 – D Squadron 7 RTR tanks with 10 Matildas and B Company 2nd Queens reinforced by A Company of 2nd Beds and Herts, and supported by three regiments of field artillery (72 guns) within an hour from jumping off quickly take the eastern end position 13 (Tugun) on the southwestern edge of the breakout, opposite R65.

Intelligence Failures

It appears that the reconnaissance prior to the attack had failed to understand completely the extent of the fortification system (as it had missed the fact that the Italian troops had been relieved by Germans), and if one looks at the German and the British maps at the same time, it is clear that the British had only a weak understanding of the siege front system, and I wonder how much the British units replacing the Australians did actually patrol and/or how successful they were.

There is also a bit of apologia going on in at least some Empire publications, where it is claimed that the presence of Germans was a surprise (correct) because they had only moved into the Italian positions 2 days before the breakout. This statement is not correct, as the war diary of Div. z.b.V. makes very clear – the Germans had moved in 10 days beforehand, and were very active patrolling themselves. They had been issued Italian uniforms for deception reasons, but this would of course not helped in case of a man being captured.  From Auchinleck’s despatch it appears that the breakout was primarily planned on the basis of aerial photography, and this probably accounts for the lack of real understanding of the fortification system, and its occupants.

 

Official Reports

1) Evening Report of Division z.b.V for 21 November, from IWM Captured German Records Archive, Duxford

Div.z.b.V.Afrika

Divisional Command Post, the 20 November 41

Dept. Ia

Added by hand:

Transmission time 20.15 hours

No. 211/1 Ia

Evening report for 21 November 41

After repulsed enemy tank attack before right wing division holds strongpoints 1, 2, 20 in forward line, 5, 6 in rearward line. Mass of artillery at and north of Bu Amud.

Belhamed occupied by reinforced Pi.900 [Pionier/Engineer Battalion 900, an independent unit consisting of two sapper companies attached to Div.z.b.V.] without 1st company. Divisional reserve S.R.155 holds escarpment south of Sidi Rezegh until west of [Point ]171 (5 km south of it). About 30% losses.

Pz.Jg.Abt.605 [Panzerjägerabteilung/Anti-Tank Battalion 605 – an independent anti-tank unit with 27 self-propelled Czech 4.7cm ATGs in three companies of 9 vehicles, mounted on partially armoured Pz.I chassis – you can see pictures at this link; a total of 202 were built]with one company at Afrika-Rgt. [361 – a regiment formed of former members of the French Foreign Legion and attached to Div.z.b.V.]. Remainder to 80% casualties. Afrika-Rgt. holds position, hardly any losses.

Enemy attacked with one tank battalion, with at least 50 heavy Mk.II/R.T.R, accompanied by one infantry battalion. Breakthrough between defense works 64 and 71 [of the Tobruk defenses originally built by the Italians]. Follow-up push direction south-south-east, later turning in to east-north-east. Enemy tank spearhead in southern direction on Belhamed broke through with 6 tanks, and there destroyed. The division destroyed on Tobruk Front 18, at S.R.155 25, total 43 enemy tanks. 8 prisoners, including one Major, brought in.

Losses and Casualties:

Missing:

Major Maythaler

3 reinforced companies

1 Italian artillery battalion with weapons

Of I.R.155 [typo, should probably be S.R.155] and

Pz.Jg.Abt.605 numbers not known yet.

Afrika-Rgt. 361 one man dead, 7 wounded (including one officer)

Losses in weapons: 13 4.7cm ATG at Pz.JG.Abt.605

Intent for 22 November:

Defense of currently held position, strongpoints 1, 2, 20, 5 and 6. Mine belt laid before Point 145 (2 km southwest Sidi Scegheilif) via 146 (2 km south of it) – 1 km southeast of it.

One company each north of strongpoint 5 and 6 of Italian battalion I./40 [1st battalion 40th Regiment, one of the infantry regiments of Italian 25th Infantry Division “Bologna”]. Div.Bologna intends to create new strongpoint at Carmuset Beludeah for 2 reinforced companies.

D.A.K. [Deutsches Afrika Korps]has subordinated Afrika-Rgt.361 to 21.Pz.Div. [21st Panzer Division]since 16.00 hours 21 November.

For the divisional command

The First Officer of the General Staff

Signed – unreadable

2) The evening report from TOBFORT states the success of the day, and indicates the range of units that were caught and the damage inflicted.

To: 8th ARMY (R) 30 Corps
From: TOBFORT
21/11/41
T.O.O. 2200/21
T.O.R. 1443/22*

IMMEDIATE

During morning first phases of attack successfully carried out.
BUTCH 422420 TIGER 423417 JACK 424419 Captured.
Some delay in operations due to strong resistance at TUGUN 418418.**
TUGUN captured by 1530 hrs.
Counter attack 1730 hrs. successfully driven off.

Situation tonight.
Strong posts captured having been consolidated and are held by 14 BDE.
32 Tank Bde leaguering inside perimeter through gap minefield.
Out tank casualties on Mine Field fairly heavy.
About 1100 prisoners captured of which half are GERMANS.

Identifications.
GERMAN 3 Bn 2(55?) Inf. Regt.*** 3 Bn 155 Lorried Inf. Regt. This last was called 3 Bn. 268 Inf. Regt. until 6 weeks ago.
ITALIAN. The whole 1 Battery 205 Arty Regt. BOLOGNA killed or captured.**** 2 Bn 16 Inf. Regt. SAVONA. P.W. states only Mortar Pl. of 16 Regt. remained in TOBRUK area.
2 Bn. 44 Inf. Regt. BOLOGNA 1 Bn 40 Inf. Regt. BOLOGNA. H.Q. (including C.O.) of unknown Bn. 40 Inf. Regt. captured at TUGUN.*****

Losses

As a consequence of the twin failure to understand the extent of the fortifications, and the thickening of the siege front in this sector, losses were high amongs the attackers. The worst experience was that of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch, which suffered 79 men killed and 197 wounded out of 612 men who started the attack, and is detailed at this link.

The tank destruction claims made in the German report below are believable. Total infantry tank casualties (of all types, i.e. repairable included) in the Tobruk breakout on 21 November amounted to 11 in D Squadron 7 RTR, and 32 in 4 RTR, out of the about 65 that they had started with. Many tanks were damaged on mines. In the end, many of the tanks were recovered and repaired however, e.g. 4 RTR reported only 12 total write offs for the whole of Operation CRUSADER. In addition to the Matildas, the 26 cruiser tanks of 1 RTR also advanced, and the next day 8 of them were serviceable, bringing total tank losses for the day (excluding light tanks, of which a number were also lost or damaged) to 61.

History’s Verdict?

The Australian Official History (Tobruk, Ch.11, Ed Duda) sums the day up as follows:

It had been a day of great achievement . A wedge three miles deep had been driven through one of the strongest sections of the encircling defences. To secure the corridor against sniping and cross-fire, further operations would be required, but it was already possible for garrison forces to debouch into the open desert, whatever perils might lie beyond . Five hundred and fifty German prisoners (including 20 officers) and 527 Italian (including 18 officers) had been taken, but at great cost in loss of life . In the 2/Black Watch alone, there were 200 dead.

Despite it being over optimistic (there is no way the garrison could have ‘debouched into the desert’ on 22 November, in my view, and the error on the numbers killed for 2nd Black Watch, I believe this assessment to be far closer to the truth than the dismissive view of the events given by the evening report of Division z.b.V. Apart from the considerable number of POWs taken (for which I have what appears as a different set of numbers in a message by Tobruk Fortress HQ to 8th Army of 23 November, namely 449 German and 834 Italian), there were also 10 105mm guns and 12 75mm guns captured. The breakout severely damaged the Bologna division, causing heavy losses to all the infantry battalions in the 40th Infantry Regiment, and destroying the heavy artillery battalion of 205th Artillery Regiment, as well as one of the light battalions.  After this day the division can only have been a shell for the remainder of the battle.

Notes

* Note the time it took to be received.

** So much for the idea that the Italians were not fighters…

*** This battalion was destroyed on this day, it was not requested that it be rebuilt in the wash-up after CRUSADER.

**** On 23 November, with no major further action, TOBFORT reported 10 105mm and 12 75mm guns captured. By 1600 of 23 Nov, 449 Germans and 834 Italians had been captured in the breakout. Of these 4/37 Germans and 4/36 Italians had been captured on 22 November, when WOLF 426415 and LION 421415 had been seized without opposition, and TUGUN fully occupied.

***** This seems to have been 1 Bn 40 (42?) Infantry, of which on 22 November 2/3rds, including the C.O. and 3 officers are reported captured.

Many thanks to Stephen Walton of the IWM for his invaluable help.

Jock Campbell’s VC

Jock Campbell’s VC

Background

In the initial stage of the Sidi Rezegh battles on 21/22 November 1941, Brigadier Jock Campbell, commanding 7th Support Group, the non-armoured element of 7th Armoured Division, won his Victoria Cross for his brave and energetic leadership of the defense forces on Sidi Rezegh airfield against the German assault. The best online account of the battles I am aware of can be found at this link.

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‘The Battle at Sidi Resegh, Libya, 1941’
Watercolour, pen and ink by Eric ‘Jack’ Dawson, formerly 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, 2007. (Courtesy UK National Army Museum)[1]

Bob Crisp memorably describes the action in ‘Brazen Chariots’, and I think Cyril Joly in ‘Take these Men’ also describes it.

When I started my research into the Operation, I came across a very dramatic drawing that encapsulates it very well, and I contacted the National Archives to have it properly identified, which they did very quickly, but unfortunately then changed back to the old text again after a while. Probably too speculative for them. I think it’s a shame, since the drawing would properly belong into their ‘Valour’ colleciton.

 
INF3_1562.jpg
 

Unidentified brigadier leading tanks onto the battlefield. National Army Museum.

Here is the citation of Campbell’s VC, from the 2nd Supplement to the London Gazette of 30 January 1942:

War Office
23rd February. 1942.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the VICTORIA CROSS to Brigadier (acting) John Charles Campbell, D S O, MC (13594), Royal Horse Artillery, in recognition of most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Sidi Rezegh on the 21st and 22nd November, 1941.

On the 21st November Brigadier Campbell was commanding the troops, including one regiment of tanks, in the area of Sidi Rezegh ridge and the aerodrome His small force holding this important ground was repeatedly attacked by large numbers of tanks and infantry. Wherever the situation was most difficult and the fighting hardest he was to be seen with his forward troops, either on his feet or in his open car In this car he carried out several reconnaissances for counter-attacks by his tanks, whose senior officers had all become casualties early in the day Standing in his car with a blue flag, this officer personally formed up tanks under close and intense fire from all natures of enemy weapons.

On the following day the enemy attacks were intensified and again Brigadier Campbell was always in the forefront of the heaviest fighting, encouraging his troops, staging counter-attacks with his remaining tanks and personally controlling the fire of his guns On two occasions he himself manned a gun to replace casualties During the final enemy attack on the 22nd November he was wounded, but continued most actively in the fore-most positions, controlling the fire of batteries which inflicted heavy losses on enemy tanks at point blank range, and finally acted as loader to one of the guns himself.

Throughout these two days his magnificent example and his utter disregard of personal danger were an inspiration to his men and to all who saw him. His brilliant leadership was the direct cause of the very heavy casualties inflicted on the enemy In spite of his wound he refused to be evacuated and remained with his command, where his outstanding bravery and consistent determination had a marked effect in maintaining the splendid fighting spirit of those under him.

Jock Campbell rose to Major General and GOC 7th Armoured Division, but tragically died in a car accident at Halfaya Pass just a few weeks after taking over his new command, on 26 February 1942.

Brigadier John Charles Jock Campbell, VC. CO 7th Support Group, 1894 - 1942 Brigadier John Charles ‘Jock’ Campbell, VC. CO 7th Support Group, 1894 – 1942 (Courtesy Wikimedia)

 

[1]2 Rifle Brigade was at Sidi Rezegh.