12 September 1941 – the Tembien Convoy

Added German Navy AA Report Information – 22 September 2018

Introduction

The summer of 1941 was primarily spent trying to build up the Axis forces in North Africa to prepare for the assault on Tobruk and the subsequent invasion of Egypt. While the supply route overall was delivering, with the vast majority of supplies reaching their destination, losses were suffered on a regular basis. I have previously written about the quite harrowing experience of the Malta Blenheim IVs of Nos. 105 and 107 Squadrons engaging the Axis supplies at this link.

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Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, V6014 ‘GB-J’, of No. 105 Squadron RAF Detachment in a dispersal at Luqa, Malta. Canvas covers protect the cockpit and glazed nose section from the sun. From July to September 1941, 105 Squadron was detached from the United Kingdom to Malta, to operate against targets in the Mediterranean and North Africa, losing 14 aircraft during the period. Note the modified gun mounting under the nose. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

Nevertheless, while the loss rate on daytime shipping strikes was brutal, the reward was high, when a fully laden merchant with vital supplies could be sent to the depths of the Mediterranean. This happened on 11-13 September 1941, when the Malta strike forces had a good outing against the 44th convoy with Italian and German supplies, known to the Italians as the TEMBIEN convoy, and also sank the single runner SS Alfredo Oriani. While the loss of three vessels in two days was a remarkable success, it came at a price.

Air/Sea Battle on the North Africa Route 11-13 September 1941

The period saw heavy anti-shipping operations by the Malta-based British aircraft, covering the 11-13 September, with substantial losses on both sides.

The 12th of September 1941 day saw the heaviest anti-shipping operations, with a total of 22-29 aircraft operating out of Malta according to the Malta War Diary, 7x Wellington of No. 38 Squadron in a night attack, 8x Blenheim of No. 105 Squadron in the afternoon, and 7x Swordfish of No. 830 Squadron F.A.A. operating possibly twice during the night and the afternoon.

Losses were heavy, with 3x Blenheims lost, those of S/Ldr Charney D.F.C. with Observer Sgt. Porteous and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Harris, Sgt. Mortimer with Observer Sgt. Reid and Wireless Op./Air Gunner Sgt. Owen, and Sgt. Brandwood. The latter and his crew were rescued by HM/Sub Utmost on 14 September, and the former two crews were all killed. Another Blenheim belly-landed on Malta due to damage from the naval anti-air fire.

Two ships were sunk, SS Caffaro by No.105 and SS Nicoló Odero by No.38 Squadron, both out of the Tembien convoy. Furthermore, on the 13th the  Italian 3,059t steamer SS Alfredo Oriani, a merchant with an identical name to the escort leader of the Tembien convoy, sank halfway to Benghasi following an air attack while on the way to Benghasi, from Patras, on 11 September, probably again by No. 105 Squadron. Thus, the R.A.F. sent a total of over 15,500 tons of shipping carrying thousands of tons of supplies and hundreds of vehicles to the bottom of the sea.

Based on information from Lorenzo Colombo, who runs the excellent Con la Pelle appesa a un Chiodo blog detailing all Italian vessel losses, the butcher’s bill for the three days was amounted to 26 on the Axis side, to which need to be added six R.A.F. crew members in two of the lost Blenheims and the German army officer who died of wounds in Tripoli, for a total of 33 killed:

  • SS Caffaro carried 228 men, including 168 Germans; 224 survived and four were missing (two Italian crew members and two Germans)
  • SS Nicolò Odero had 285 survivors, the victims were about twenty including 4 crew members (the other being troops and AA crews)
  • SS Alfredo Oriani had 50 men aboard, two were missing and 48 survived.

There are substantial discrepancies between the British and the Italian accounts, which I am aiming to clear up below. A big gap is the lack of an operations record book for No.830 Squadron. I have inquired with the Fleet Air Arm Museum in Yeovilton, but to no avail. I will also add a bit more analysis on the issue of who sank SS Alfredo Oriani.

Official Accounts and Memories

The write up in the Malta war diary is below:

An Italian convoy of steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, BAINSIZZA, NICOLO ODERO, and GUILA[1] departed Naples on the 10th, escorted by destroyers ORIANI and FULMINE and torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, ORSA, and CIRCE from Trapani, and OERSEO[1] which joined at 0600/13th.

Italian steamer CAFFARO (6476grt) was sunk by British Swordfish of 830 Squadron from Malta 105° northwest of Tripoli in 34-14N, 11-54E.

Italian steamer TEMBIEN (5584grt) was damaged by 830 Squadron attack.

Italian steamer NICOLO ODERO (6003grt) was damaged in the attack. She was sunk on the 14th by RAF bombing in 32-51N, 12-18E after the convoy arrived at Tripoli on the 13th.

One of the air crew of No 830 Squadron, Sub-Lt. Campbell describes the attack thus at this link:

12/13.9 – If my memory serves me right this was the night about which the Malta Daily Paper headlined as “Ducks and Drakes in the Med”. The Squadron took off at dusk to attack a large Convoy heavily escorted by Destroyers. We found the Convoy and attacked individualy, splitting it up completely. At least three ships were hit and Destroyers were racing about all over the place. We returned to base and my flight were sent out again to finish off the remaining ships. As we approached the scene of the previous engagement, I saw a Destroyer racing along at high speed. I decided to follow it to see if it would lead me to the remaining ships, this took some doing in a “Stringbag”, if there had been any wind against me I couldn’t have done it. After awhile I saw a large MV and attacked it. There was a bright flash and then it just blew up.

The above two accounts are severely flawed. Fortunately though on the British side, a fairly detailed account by No.105 Squadron has survived, in AIR27/826, the Operations Record Book (ORB) of No. 105 Squadron, and a less detailed account in the ORB of No. 38 Squadron.

11 September

First, the attack that I believe claimed SS Alfredo Oriani on 11 September, even though the timing of the attack reports in the British and Italian accounts diverges by a day, and the British pilots reported another merchant present. Nevertheless, the description of the attack and the location of it and the sinking are so close that I believe No.105 Squadron was responsible for her loss, following a check in the Nos. 11, 14, 55 and 107 Squadron Operations Record Books. The Malta Admiralty War Diary describes the attack thus:

Italian steamer ALFREDO ORIANI (3059grt) was sunk by British Blenheim bombers in 35-05N, 20-16E.

The steamer which had departed Petrasso on the 11th was escorted by torpedo boat CANTORE.

Oriani

SS Alfredo Oriani in peacetime, from Wrecksite.eu

No. 105 Squadron ORB states that five Blenheim IV went out on a shipping sweep at 0645am on 11 September. The attacking aircraft returned at 1211pm, while two returned early at 0750am. Crews were S/Ldr Smithers with Sgts. Harford and Green, F/Lt. Duncan with Sgts. Smith and Lyndall, Sgt. Bendall, with Sgts. Hindle and Brown, Sgt. Mortimer, Sgt. Weston, with Sgts. Storey and Kindell.

Five crews were detailed for an offensive sweep of the Ionian Sea.

The aircraft departed in two waves, the first sighting two MERCHANT VESSELS and DESTROYER escort in position 35°33N. 20°35’E.

One aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER SMITHERS – attacked first dropping bombs from stern to bow and registered a hit amidships.

The other aircraft attacking the same ship claim one hit each but not confirmed.

The MERCHANT VESSEL when last see appeared to be settling in the water in a sinking condition.

The second wave – FLIGHT LIEUTENANT DUNCAN and SGT. MORTIMER – returned with engine trouble.

All aircraft landed safely at BASE.

In the Italian official history, her loss is described thus.

11 September 4am from Patras to Benghazi. Steamer A. Oriani. Escort Escort Destroyer Cantore then Altair (from 1700 hours on 13 September). Attacked  and repeatedly hit by bombers at 1400 hours on 12 September, 60 nautical off Cape Matapan, sinks at 1800 hours on the 13th.

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The position of SS Alfredo Oriani’s sinking is not 60nm, but over 100 nautical miles off Cape Matapan, and about .

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More puzzlingly, at the time of the attack, she would have steamed about 190nm. A solid 17 hours of steaming at 11knots, her top speed. Pretty much impossible in the ten hours since she left port according to the Italian OH. Furthermore, the timing of the No. 105 Squadron operations on that day and the attack timing do not line up. Nevertheless, there is no record of another Blenheim unit attacking a vessel in the Ionian Sea on 11 September 1941.

A possibility would be that the Italian OH is wrong here. It is clearly wrong giving the position of Oriani being attacked as 60nm off Cape Matapan (the actual position of the attack is almost on a  straight line from Patras to Benghazi, while 60nm would be too far east), and is also wrong in giving the position of her sinking as 80nm north of Benghazi. It is therefore not impossible that the time or date of her departure and the actual time of the attack are also wrong. For example, an average speed of 7 knots would have put her almost straight into the attack position around 0800 hours on the morning of the 11th, had she departed Patras on 10 September at 0400 hours in the morning, instead of the 11 September. The location is about an hour and a halfs’ flying time in a Blenheim IV from Malta. Given that No. 105’s Blenheim’s left at 0645 hours, they could have been there at 0815 hours.

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RN Generale Alfredo Cantore, an obsolete destroyer, downgraded to Escort Destroyer. She was lost on a mine in 1942. Courtesy Wikipedia.

SS Alfredo Oriani sank two days later on 13 September at 35°05’N 20°16’E, about 80 nautical miles north of Benghazi according to the Italian official history, although this position is more like 180 miles north of Benghazi. That position is 19 nautical miles west and 28 nautical miles south  of the attack position given in the No. 105 ORB, indicating that the vessel drifted about 33 nautical miles, or a speed of less than a knot after the attack. It is also physically impossible for Oriani to have made it to the position of the attack if her departure date is correct even if steaming at maximum speed of 11.5 knots. Patras is about 14 hours of steaming as the crow flies, given Oriani’s speed, from the location of the attack. My guess is that the Italian official history is not correct when it comes to the time/day of her departure.

12 September

The first to attack were No. 830 Squadron with their Swordfish, without success.

In the afternoon of the 12th, eight Blenheim IV were despatched by No. 105 Squadron. This time, it did not go so well for them. The crews were S/Ld Smithers with Sgts. Harbord and Fisher, Sd/Ld. Charney with Sgts. Portous and Harris, F/Lt. Ballands, F/O Greenhill, Sgt. Brandwood with Sgts. Miller and See, Sgt. Weston with Sgts. Storey and Kindell, Sgt. Bendall with Sgts. Hindle and Brown, and Sgt. Mortimer with Sgt. Reid and F/O Owen.

Eight crews were detailed to attack a CONVOY attacked by SWORDFISH aircraft the previous night.

The CONVOY was estimated to consist of six MERCHANT VESSELS of 6000 – 12000 tons and six escorting DESTROYERS and was attacked at 1415 hours.

Two aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER SMITHERS and SGT. WESTON – claimed two hits each with 250lb and 500lb bombs respectively. This MERCHANT VESSEL was left a mass of flames and a later reconnaissance report indicated that it had probably sunk.

One aircraft – SGT. BENDALL – attacked a 10000 ton MERCHANT VESSEL and scored two direct hits with 500lb bombs causing a large fire.

Two aircraft – FLIGHT LIEUTENANT BALLANDS and FLYING OFFICER GREENHILL – did not bomb as their approach was obstructed by other aircraft. Anti-aircraft opposition was intense from the DESTROYERS and three MACCHI 200 FIGHTERS and three C.R.42’s were reported diving out of the clouds though no attacks were witnessed.

One aircraft – SQUADRON LEADER CHARNEY – was shot down in flames near the CONVOY with little hope of survivors. One aircraft – SGT. MORTIMER – failed to return and nothing further was heard of the crew.

Another aircraft – SGT. BRANDWOOD – came down into the sea about 12 miles from the convoy but the crew were rescued the next day by a submarine.

Five aircraft landed safely at BASE, one of these – SGT. BENDALL – was forced to execute a belly landing owing to damage to the hydraulic system. The observer – SGT. HINDLE – was slightly wounded.

The British accounts are incorrect in several aspects, and need to be read with the Italian account of the battle. Fortunately, the Italian official history La Difesa del Trafico Vol. I has an account of this convoy battle as well, which would lead to the total loss of two of the five steamers with their important cargo. For example, while there were six merchants and six escorts, none of the merchants came in at 12,000 tons.

An adventurous voyage, albeit marked by painful losses, was that of the TEMBIEN convoy, which left Naples the morning of the 10th for Tripoli. This was the second convoy of cargo vessels bound for Libya in the month of September and, since it was composed of slower vessels, it had orders to follow the route of the Marettimo Channel of Sicily to the Kerkennah Banks, the route called the Ponente [2].

The steamers TEMBIEN, CAFFARO, NIRVO, NICOLO’ ODERO and BAINSIZZA were part of the convoy; the escort[3] consisted of the destroyers ORIANI[4] (Convoy Leader Commander Chinigò[5]) and FULMINE[6] and the torpedo boats PROCIONE, PEGASO, and ORSA[7], with which the torpedo boat CIRCE[8] united in the Sicily Channel.

During the night 11/12 November the convoy was discovered by a nighttime reconnaissance plane south of Pantelleria. Thus at 03.10 hours of the 12th an attack by torpedo bombers followed, avoided  by the maneuvering of the convoy, a smoke screen, and the anti-air reaction of various units.

The following morning the formation navigated without incident or alarm along the Kerkennah following diverse routes. But at 14.00 hours, while under escort of Italian planes, it was again attacked by airplanes, this time by bombers. This was the second air attack during the crossing. Not the last one however, since two more times, between Zuara and Tripoli, during the nights of the 12th and 13th, the convoy was attacked from the air.

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RN Alfredo Oriani underway. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On the daytime attack of the 12th, and the two following nights, the Escort Commander, Commander Chinigo, referred thus in his report:

The 12th

14.00 hours – Eight enemy planes are sighted[9], coming from the west at low height towards the formation. The escorting units and the steamers open targeted and barrage fire. Numerous water columns are seen close to the escort units and the steamers. Three of the attacking planes hit by the anti-aircraft fire crash in flames.

14.10 hours – The CAFFARO, hit by a bomb, takes fire. I am ordering CIRCE and ORSA and then FULMINE to come to the aid of the unfortunate steamer. I send the standard signal of having been discovered.

15.00 hours – Continued observation of flames from the fire in the direction of CAFFARO, and more and more explosions can be heard.

15.55 hours – I inform Supermarina[10] and Marina Tripoli[11] of the air attack with the reservation that further information cannot be provided yet.

16.05 hours – I observe a strong explosion in the direction of CAFFARO. Immediately after CIRCE signals that the steamer has sunk.

16.50 hours – CIRCE, FULMINE, ORSA report that they have on board 110, 35, and 79 shipwrecked, respectively. CIRCE and ORSA also that they have no-one particularly badly hurt.

18.40 hours – Notify Supermarina and Marina Tripoli of the sinking of CAFFARO and the number of shipwrecked rescued. Communicate furthermore that FULMINE is navigating for Tripoli with one severely wounded.

23.54 hours – At point C of the safe route to Tripoli. Steamers proceed in line astern.

It is worth noting that the German documentation on the downed Blenheims is somewhat more precise. German navy AA crews were on board of at least the steamer Nirvo. They reported that all three Blenheims were downed at 14.35 hours, one directly by the Kriegsmarine AA embarked on Nirvo, one by AA from a destroyer, with support from the Kriegsmarine AA on board Nirvo, and the other downed by AA weapons of embarked troops on Nirvo. Ammunition use was 23, 13, and 62 rounds of 2cm AA, respectively. The weather is described as clear and sunny, with medium visibility.

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Vickers Wellington Mark IC of No. 38 Squadron RAF Detachment, taxying at Luqa, Malta. Seven aircraft of the Squadron were detached to Malta from Shallufa, Egypt, between August and October 1941 for operations over the Mediterranean and Italy. Courtesy of the IWM Collection.

13 September

While the ORB of No. 38 Squadron places this attack on the 12th, I am certain it actually happened in the night 12/13 September, from 0340am to 0455am, seven Wellingtons of No. 38 Squadron bombed the convoy. They suffered no losses. Crews were led by Sgts. Robotham, Brine, Earl, Pottis, Secomb and Hawes, and F/Lt. Davis.

Target – Convoy – proceeding to Tripoli. Convoy was located 25 miles N.W. of Tripoli and was attacked from 03.40 to 04.55 hours.

Bombs dropped 24,500.lbs.

Results: four ships were hit, fires starting on two of them.

Opposition: light flack from escorting destroyers.

The timing of the attack fits exactly with the timing of the aircraft noise report by Tp Circe. The hits reported were then on SS Nicoló Odero. The earlier attack was almost certainly again a torpedo attack, with the standard attack pattern.

The 13th

01.05 hours – Four or five airplanes are seen on a course of 240 degrees with landing lights illuminated. Issue the air alarm signal to all units.

01.20 hours – Numerous flares light up to the left of the formation. Order the escort units to make smoke. The units and the steamers fire targeted and barrage. A total of 18 flares are counted.[12]

02.30 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is reordered, and normal navigation proceeds.

03.33 hours – Marina Tripoli informs me that the PERSEO leaves Zuara and will join the convoy to strengthen the escort. Further informs that at sunrise a MAS will be the pilot for the safe route.

03.45 hours – CIRCE signals aircraft noises to the rear.

03.55 hours – A flare light is seen on the right of the convoy. I issue the standard signal of having been discovered. Escort units and steamers open barrage fire. Smoke is made.

04.00 hours – An explosion on one of the steamers is observed.

04.04 hours – CIRCE signals that the steamer ODERO was hit.

04.24 hours – A bomb hits in our wake at about 100 meters from the stern. Fire is opened with the machine guns.

04.30 hours – CIRCE signals that there are men in the water and requests that another escort is sent. I order ORSA and PERSEO, which during the attack rejoined the formation, to get close to CIRCE and cooperate in the assistance of the hit steamer and to the rescue of the  shipwrecked.

05.00 hours – The attack ceases and the formation is taken up again, and we proceed on the safe route.

05.05 hours – CIRCE signals that the ODERO has fire on board, but that she is not sinking, and requests sending a tug.

The steamer NICOLO’ ODERO, even though in flames, remains afloat for many hours, with the support of the torpedo boats ORSA, CIRCE, and PERSEO which, in the first instance, are engaged in saving the men embarked on the merchant.

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Torpedo boat RN Perseo, lead of her sub-class of Spica torpedo boats.

In support of the steamer, the tugs PRONTA and PORTO PALO leave Tripoli at sunrise,  seeking with any means to extinguish the fire which is still raging on the merchant. The PORTO PALO even goes alongside the ODERO, sending men to fight the fire.

Only when it is clear that the flames cannot be doused do the two tugs take the burning steamer in tow, first trying to reach Tripoli, and then to beach it on the coast. During the whole night, the two tugs and two motor trawlers, also coming from Tripoli, remain close to the steamer with the hope to ultimately save it, but during the afternoon of the 14th September a hold with ammunition blows up, causing the destruction of the NICOLO’ ODERO.

No. 38 Squadron then ‘visited’ Tripoli on the 13th, again I believe this was the night of 13/14, probably to attack during the unloading of the convoy.  The report of Odero having been beached, which only happened on the 14th, is a give-away in this regard.

Numerous bombs on the harbour edge are reported and six  Italian soldiers killed in a direct hit on their MG position near the lighthouse. Seven Wellingtons went out, with the crews of Flight Officer Pascall, Pilot Officer Ridgway, and Sgts. Cooper, Fell, McManus, and Nankivell. None were lost.

Target – Tripoli – shipping alongside Spanish Quay. Attack lasted from 03.00 to 04.35 hours.

Bombs dropped 27,500. lbs.

Bombs fell on or near the Quay.

Aircraft reported a large ship aground 30 miles W. of Tripoli. This M/V presumed to be one of those set on fire during previous night’s attack on convoy.

Opposition: effective smoke-screen. Heavy A.A. aimed at aircraft, not barrage fire. Light A.A. as usual. Eleven searchlights operated.

Assessment

It is clear from the Italian account that the British accounts were severely mistaken about the impact of their attacks. No ships had been hit in the night attack by No. 830 Squadron on 11/12 September. In the afternoon attack by No. 105 Squadron, only one merchant had been hit, not two. The second attack by the Swordfish is not mentioned at all.

What is also interesting is that the Italian air escort is not mentioned by the Italian report.

Sub-Lt. Campbell of No. 830 Squadron seems to overstate the case of his attack somewhat regarding his hit on what must have been Caffaro.  At this stage I am doubtful regarding his claim, and what could be surmised is that the explosion leading to the end of Caffaro was actually caused by a torpedo hit. But overall his story does not stack up, while the time of the Blenheim attack, the description by the escort commander, and the losses all seem to fit.

The official Italian history claims she was hit by a bomb, which appears the likely reason. The Italian report of eight attacking planes, of which three were shot down, is therefore to be considered an accurate account of the loss of Caffaro.

As for No. 105 Squadron, this was to be one of the last operations it flew in the Mediterranean. It suffered two more losses. Sgt. Bendall and crew on 17 September when attacking a small convoy, and Wing Commander Sciviers and his crew on 22 September, when his plane collided with that of Sgt. Williams during an attack on the barracks at Homs in Libya. The attack on the small convoy on 17 September is again well documented.

First the British side:

Three aircraft took off to attack one small MERCHANT VESSEL, one TUG and two SCHOONERS. One SCHOONER was left a mass of flames and the other was seen to blow up and disintegrate. One aircraft failed to return from this OPERATION. The crew were – SGT. BENDALL – Pilot: Sgt. HILL – Observer. SGT BROWN – W/OP/A.G.

PILOT OFFICER ROBINSON of No. 107 Squadron also proceeded on this operation and failed to return.

From the Italian side:

14 September 2200 hours from Trapani to Tripoli. Steamer Ascianghi, Steam Tug Mirabello del Parco with Minesweeper Pietrino in tow; Motor Schooner Filuccio. Escort Escort Destroyer Clio. At 1600 hours of 17 September, 15 miles north of Zuara, the convoy is attacked by bombers. Three are shot down and one of these crashes on Mv Filuccio, provoking a fire and her sinking. The Ascianghi rescues 10 out of 13 members of the crew. On the 18th at 0900 hours at Tripoli without Mv Filuccio.

The sections show again how easy it was to get things wrong.

In October No. 105 Squadron was withdrawn back to the UK, to convert to Mosquitos. It did maintain a Blenheim I as a ‘hack’ plane. No. 107 Squadron took over operations on Malta, with similarly tragic performance.

Impact

According to the German loading lists, Nicoló Odero did not carry any German supplies on this voyage. Caffaro however did. She went down with substantial numbers of vehicles, rations, and ammunition, losses that the German forces could ill afford, and that further delayed the build up to the attack on Tobruk, which in turn enabled the Allied forces to attack first. The full list of her German load is given below. She almost certainly also carried Italian cargo, but I have not been able to find the manifest for this. While Caffaro carried a substantial number of soldiers, primarily drivers for the vehicles of 7./Flak 25, Heeresfunkstelle XVIII and Stab Panzergruppe, most of these are likely to have been rescued, with 224 men being picked up.

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Footnotes

[1] Should be MV Giulia. Orseo should be Perseo, Spica class boat, the staple Regia Marina escort. Displacing 1,020 tons at full load, they were armed with 3x10cm guns, four 450mm torpedo tubes, and a reasonable set of AA and ASW weaponry, running 34 knots top speed.
[2] Western
[3] This was a powerful escort with substantial AA capabilities. Strangely, the report omits to mention the MV Giulia, which was definitely part of the convoy,.
[4] The Orianis were a class of four modern, large destroyers. An improved repeat of the Maestrale class, with 2,470t at full displacement, 4x120mm main guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and a claimed top speed of 38 knots. They carried improved anti-air guns compared to the Maestrales. Oriani survived the war and served in the French navy until 1954.
[5]Commander Chinigò survived the war and after the war rose to the rank of Captain and commanded the Littorio, being her last captain.
[6] A Folgore class destroyer, an older ship, she was sunk in the Duisburg/Beta convoy battle on 9 November 1941 with the loss of 141 men including her commander, Lt.Cdr. Mario Milano. The Folgores were not a lucky class, with all four ships lost during the war. They displaced 2,096 tons at full load, carried 4x120mm guns and six torpedo tubes as main armament, and had a claimed top speed of 38 knots. A repeat of the Freccia class they had less stability and range than her predecessor due to a reduction in their beam.
[7] Orsa-class torpedo boats, an enlarged version of the Spicas (see below). At 1,575 tons full displacement, they traded one 10cm gun for improved AA and ASW equipment, carrying also 4x 450mm torpedo tubes and only running at up to 28 knots. Pegaso claimed four Royal Navy submarines, which if confirmed would make her one of the top submarine hunters of the Regia Marina. There are however doubts over this record. Pegaso and Procione scuttled on the armistice, while Orsa survived the war and continued to serve until 1964.
[8] Circe was also a Spica-class boat. Circe destroyed four confirmed Royal Navy submarines during the war, making her one of the most successful sub-hunters of the Regia Marina.
[9] This are likely to have been the eight Blenheims of No. 105 Squadron out of Luqa, Malta, on their attack run.
[10] Regia Marina High Command
[11] Naval Command Tripoli
[12] This was standard attacking practice for the torpedo bombers. The lead aircraft which carried radar instead of a torpedo would drop flares behind the convoy, to silhouette it, and enable the attacking planes to approach from the dark.

Sources

British

Operations record books of Nos. 11, 14, 38, 55, 105, 107, and 272 Squadrons R.A.F..
Admiralty War Diary, Malta

Italian

Official history: La Difesa del Trafico con l’Africa Settentrionale Vol. I

German

War diaries Naval Transport Offices Benghazi, Tripolis.

Cargo Manifests, Naval Transport Office Naples

Websites:

Malta War Diary

Royal Navy Day by Day

Wrecksite

Batallion Kolbeck – The wrong tool for the job on Ed Duda

On 1 December Batallion Kolbeck, a thrown together unit consisting of about 500 lightly armed recently released German POWs from Afrika-Rgt. 361, as well as cooks and other B echelon (supply troops) personnel of infantry, artillery and flak units of or attached to or from 90th Light division,  reinforced by some heavy weapons, was launched into a supporting attack from the north towards Belhamed. This was one prong of a pincer attack to retake the height of Ed Duda. The other pincer was supposed to be provided by the Italian Trento division, with the support of five tanks from 15. Panzerdivision. But the tanks never showed up, them being busy elsewhere, and Trento’s command wisely decided that without armour support they would be on a hiding to nothing. Unfortunately for Batallion Kolbeck, that meant they were left alone to face the formidable Commonwealth defenses. Overall, the plan of attack was  based on a flawed intelligence appreciation about Commonwealth forces in the break-out salient, a flawed understanding at higher command levels of what could still be asked of its troops, and flawed co-ordination of the attack. Looking at the records, the decision to pursue this attack with this force is difficult to comprehend, and it is one more example of the command failures of Panzergruppe during the battle.

Battle around this sector had been raging for days (see this older post for events on 29 November).  The proposed attack was following the rather successful attacks against the New Zealand Division, which the day before had suffered severely, and had to give up its hold on the corridor.  On the other hand, the Axis forces had been too weak to really re-establish a close siege line, and most importantly had failed to dislodge the Tobruk garrison forces from the Ed Duda salient. The command of 90th Light seems to have assumed, trusting information from the other formations, that there were few enemy forces and no tanks left in the salient and ordered this scratch unit (its only battalion left judged capable or available for attack) with some heavy weapons support to attack, while Panzergruppe expected 90th Light to cross the salient and re-establish the siege, retaking all the strongpoints lost during the breakout.  Needless to say, Batallion Kolbeck completely failed, with considerable losses, and Panzergruppe seems never to have been told that this was the only remaining unit within 90th Light capable of taking offensive action (or so they thought). The incident is well covered in the official histories of Australia and New Zealand, probably because it came at a critical point in the battle, maybe because it marks the passing of the high water mark of the Axis effort to crush the salient and maybe because the German attack fell apart with heavy losses, a performance that was unusual, to say the least.

The Australian official history states the Commonwealth perspective of this fight in Chapter 10 “Ed Duda”, pp493-4:

Then as a result of enemy movement on the north and west sides of Belhamed a warning was given that an attack on Ed Duda was expected. Burrows returned but the attack did not develop. Later in the afternoon enemy infantry and three tanks advanced from the east as though to cut the corridor in rear of the battalion and a heightening of artillery fire in the west indicated a possible  converging thrust from that quarter, but the force attacking from the east did not press on when shelled.

[…]

A German infantry advance against the 1 /Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, supported by a heavy volume of small arms fire, was checked, and the New Zealanders drove off a party that simultaneously approached their headquarters . One company position at Bir Belhamed was penetrated, however, and isolated English pockets anxiously held to their ground throughout a confused night. At first light some Germans were captured but the enemy reorganised and about 9 a .m. a sizable force of infantry assault engineers and anti-tank gunners made a crude attack. The Beds and Herts showing cool discipline held all fire until the enemy were close and then engaged them with crippling effect . The Germans turned and made for the ridge to the north only to run into sharp fire from the New Zealanders, who effectively disrupted a none too orderly withdrawal . Once again a German assault on the Tobruk sortie force had gained nothing but had cost the German command many killed, wounded and captured . Some had been taken prisoner twice within a fortnight . Many of them belonged to a newly formed infantry unit of the 90th Light Division, called after its commander the Kolbeck Battalion, which was composed largely of men released from the New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp overrun in the German counter-offensive on 28th November .

The New Zealand history also has an account of the battle in Chapter 25 of “The Relief of Tobruk”:

On the saddle between there and Belhamed 18 New Zealand Battalion repulsed a light and poorly-staged attack (by Kolbeck Battalion, an ad hoc unit of 90 Light) after dark on 1 December and helped to defeat a much heavier attack next morning. This came mainly against 1 Bedfords and Herts to the left rear, and this unit drove the enemy northwards in considerable disorder. In the course of this fighting it became apparent that the morale of General Suemmermann’s troops had deteriorated and their offensive potential was now negligible. Kolbeck Battalion suffered crippling loss in men and equipment, and 605 Anti-Tank Battalion, 900 Engineer Battalion, and III Battalion of 347 Infantry Regiment met with some loss, particularly in anti-tank weapons. To 18 Battalion, on the other hand, the action was salutary; it cost only seven casualties against many times that number of Germans killed, wounded or captured and helped to restore any confidence that had been shaken by the fighting on Belhamed.

Chapter 15 of the official history of the New Zealand 18 Battalion contains this text on page 222 and a map:

Life on that escarpment, though much more bearable than the previous week, was still no bed of roses. The enemy was close and was in a nasty aggressive mood at first, as 18 Battalion soon found out. A report by Peart to Divisional Headquarters on 3 December outlines briefly what happened during the first three days in the new position:

At about 1900 hrs [1 December] a night attack was made on the Bn. by enemy infantry from the north. This attack was easily repulsed with LMG and rifle fire.

At about 0630 hrs 2 Dec 41, a new attack was started from the north by at least a Bn of the enemy with arty support. This attack was also repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy by 0900 hrs. We suffered 7 casualties.

The remainder of 2 Dec 41 was one of comparative quiet except for movement of the enemy outside small arms range. Arty fire was brought to bear by 1 RHA who had sent an FOO to the Bn.

Late in the afternoon considerable activity by the enemy was observed on belhamed and an attack from that direction was expected. After considerable difficulty it was found possible to get two A/Tk guns (Polish) through Beds and Herts Regt, and five I tanks from 22 Armd Bde…. 1 RHA arranged a complete defensive fire plan.

No attack developed and night ⅔ Dec was quiet. 90 reinforcements were sent forward from B Ech of 18 Bn and 20 Bn. 10 18 Bn reported and took away all wounded, except stretcher cases, and some 50 officers and ORs of a German and Italian hospital in the Bn area.

On 3 Dec much enemy movement was visible east and south of the posn. Recce patrols were sent out and at time of writing it appears that the enemy is holding a defensive line sidi resegh-belhamed-bu amud…. An attack on the enemy has also developed further south from apparently some portion of our own troops.

Wire has been received from Beds and Herts Regt and 600 mines have been promised. It is proposed to further consolidate the posn on night ¾ Dec.

The morale of the tps is good…. The present strength of the unit, including attached from 20 Bn, is 17 Offrs and 528 ORs….

It is emphasised that for a considerable period this Bn has been placed in posns of extreme difficulty with three sides open to attack and with little support available. Great help has been received in particular from 1 RHA and their FOO….

Early information about plans for our future action or movement would be appreciated….

This bald account fairly effectively conceals some very sound work by 18 Battalion, beginning shortly after dark on 1 December, when the alarm was first raised that Jerry was coming in on the north-east flank. The Brens facing that way opened up forthwith, the riflemen round them joined in with enthusiasm, and very successful their efforts were, for Jerry halted and dug in where he was, down below the escarpment. After the morning’s events the battalion was not at all disposed to let sleeping dogs lie. The Brens continued to give Jerry what one man described as a ‘good pasting’, but Jerry stuck to his new position, and a little later in the evening sent in a few shells which rather cramped the battalion’s style.

All that night fingers in 18 Battalion were very ready to triggers, but Jerry did nothing till daybreak next day, when a sudden storm of shells arrived, followed by the enemy infantry, whose numbers, now that they could be estimated in daylight, looked like 200 or so. Reaction was swift. Brens and rifles opened up, followed by the Royal Horse Artillery, with an effect so rewarding that even the 18 Battalion boys were astonished. Under the shelling and accurate sniping the German troops broke and ran—a rare spectacle—and as they did so more and more troops rose out of the ground and joined them till the estimated 200 had swollen to a battalion at least. They did not stop till they reached a small ridge 800 yards away, where they rallied on a line of tanks in hull-down positions.

Jerry had now lost his first advantage of surprise, and all the advantage of ground lay with 18 Battalion, which could overlook the whole situation. To some men it looked as if the tanks were driving the infantry back into the fight, but that might have been a bit far-fetched. There was certainly much activity over in the lee of the little ridge, staff cars buzzing about and the Germans obviously making ready to come again. But the fun, when it began again about 7 a.m., was shortlived. The German infantry this time made almost no progress; the Royal Horse Artillery (for whom the 18th was beginning to cherish a warm regard) opened fire again and broke up the advance, helped by three opportune British tanks which appeared out of nowhere.

That was the ignominious end of Jerry’s attempt on 18 Battalion from the north. During the rest of the morning the infantrymen and artillery had intermittent sport shooting at small enemy parties which from time to time rose up from the ground and made a dash for safety, and in the afternoon the pioneer platoon sent out a patrol and helped the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment to round up some 150 Germans who had hoped to lie doggo till dark. They might have got away with it but for an accident—an enemy car travelling injudiciously up the bypass road had stopped when fired on, and a carrier which went to investigate had stumbled on these hapless Jerries in the vicinity. Exposure for hours to drizzle and cold wind (for 2 December was a foul day) had sapped their resistance, and they surrendered without argument. They were herded up and marched off to the ‘Beds & Herts’ lines, with 18 Battalion interestedly watching from its vantage point.

The history of these abortive attacks from ‘the other side of the hill’ is interesting. While the morning attack on Belhamed on 1 December was in full swing, Africa Corps asked 90 Light Division to attack from the north, the idea being to trap the Kiwis between two forces and crush them, nutcracker style. The 90th Light agreed with alacrity, but promise seems to have outrun performance; the best unit it could find for the job was a makeshift, poorly armed battalion, commanded by the divisional adjutant and composed of odds and ends, supply troops and the like.

The first attack that night penetrated well down towards the Belhamed escarpment, but could not be pressed home against the solid defence of 18 Battalion and the Tommies. The attackers dug in for the night, then next morning tried again, with the disastrous results already described. It was no mere repulse, it was a fiasco. The battalion, received in such unfriendly fashion by 18 Battalion and 1 RHA, lost heart and decided unanimously to go home, ‘streaming back in disorder’

as 90 Light Division itself admits. Its unfortunate commander, hauled over the coals later, could offer no convincing explanation—the men, he said, had ‘bolted leaving behind their A Tk guns and other weapons’. Not an inspiring page in the history of German military prowess—but what a tonic for the battle-bruised 18 Battalion, whose morale had inevitably suffered a little in the cataclysm of 1 December.

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

While these write-ups in the histories make things look like they were very tidy from the Commonwealth side, one has to remember they were written after the war, by authors who had access to the war diary and reports of 90th Light, and are thus subject to a certain amount of hindsight.  A rather different picture is given by the operations report for 2 December 41 by 4 RTR, a Matilda tank regiment operating on Ed Duda which was involved in breaking up the attack.

Operations on 2nd December 1941

Issued operation orders for the day.

All quiet for the moment after battle at BELHAMEDlast night (this maybe the night action Kolbeck refers to, but which is not mentioned anywhere else).

Battle developed vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. This maybe the preliminary to an attack on the North of DUDA. BIR BELHAMED held by the Beds and Herts. C.Os. orders were to give any help possible.

Decision to be taken whether to send tanks to assist and possibly weaken DUDA which may be attacked in turn any moment or keep them and let the Beds and Herts carry on unsupported.

On the other hand no information that enemy are in vicinity of it at the moment, whereas if they overrun the the BIR BELHAMED position, they will be behind us here and can put guns to shoot up our tail.

Tank position at the moment is bright:-

12 tanks, 3000 yds West of BIR BELHAMED (Maj. Pritchard)

13 tanks, on top of DUDA (Capts. Kendall and Gardner).

4 tanks, in reserve at HQ (Major Roberts).

Decision:- To send help to BIR BELHAMED and ordered Major Prichard (sic!) to move as under:-

His left, forward and North to watch WOLF (one of the old objectives of the break-out).

His right, to advance and engage enemy tanks that now appeared South East of BIR BELHAMED and advancing to attack Beds and Herts. There are eight of these Mk IIIs by the the look of them.

Major Roberts with 4 tanks to move directly forward East to demonstrate towards enemy.  This will have the effect of putting tanks on both flanks of them.

0750 – considerably firing in vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. It looked as though Beds and Herts were surrounded by enemy tanks and infantry, and that they had surrendered, and this was confirmed by an Officer of the Australians who said he could see them.

Message from Major Prichard to say enemy had withdrawn, and that BIR BELHAMED was in our hands and had been all the time.  He also says that considerable number of weaponless Germans who had surrendered are now walking over a minefield and escaping. Asked what to do. C.O. told him to fire on them. Later he reports that they returned when he opened fire. They were later taken in charge by the Beds and Herts.

Enemy did not engage with tanks at all. Major Roberts had some shooting, but as far as could be seen, his shells bounced off the enemy tanks.  Hear that the Mk IIIs have been reinforced.

Enemy withdrew North East.  Beds and Herts shot up Major Prichards tanks on sight. SOme Germans came near the Beds and Herts and called out that they were Poles, but this did not save them at all.

It was now established that the N-Zs at the corner BELHAMED were still in position too, and happy.

The rumours that (a) The Beds and Herts had surrendered.

(b) The N-Zs had been scuppered.

(c) That the enemy held the whole of BIR BELHAMED are thus fables. Most of our information appears to be fables.

1330 – All has been quiet for a while.

1400 – Information that enemy are advancing from the East along the escarpment.

Major Prichard lost two tanks on a minefield when he advanced on BIR BELHAMED. This cuts tanks down to 25 effective. Adj. tank is doing rear link and not available for fighting (unless things are desperate).

Finally, it is instructive to read the German original documents.  The failure was clearly seen as serious, and questions were asked up and down the command chain. The war diary entry of 90th Light’s operational war diary reads as follows:

1 December

1315hrs – the order to attack is also given to Battalion Kolbeck which consists of released prisoners from the Afrika regiment (former Foreign Legion men) and B Echelon personnel with minimal weapons equipment.

1520hrs – Battalion Kolbeck stands south of airfield with 4 Italian AT guns and waits for order to move out.

1610hrs – German planes bomb the british cauldron north of Belhamed (according to a New Zealand gunner, they actually bombed a a column of15th Panzer). Despite repeated request no answer from Corps (DAK) regarding permission for Battalion Kolbeck to attack and time to start.

1640hrs – Pz.Grp. orders closing the gap between Italian XXI. Corps south and 90th north by attacking. Forces are lacking for this. Because of fault on phone line and congestion on the radio net it is not possible to inform Grp. of the failure to carry out its order. The subordination to DAK, which gives new orders, the transmission from Gruppe is no superseded.

1700hrs – Start of attack of Battalion Kolbeck. Fluid, uninterrupted advance in direction Belhamed

1815hrs – Magen Belhamed reached. No enemy contact yet.

2000hrs – 1km south Magen Belhamed defensive fire from MG and AT guns. Shortly after heavy enemy artillery fire into the attack of Btl. Kolbeck. The Btl. goes to ground and can not advance one step more. Captain Kolbeck has doubts whether Belhamed is even in German hands already, since he received heavy fire from Belhamed. In several discussions with 15th and 21st Panzer Division, to which there is once more phone contact, it is confirled that Belhamed is in German hands. Thereupon radio call to Btl. Kolbeck. Meanwhile – 1945hrs – question from Panzergruppe why its order to close the gap southwards to Pavia across the old strongpoints (lost to Tobruk garrison breakout earlier in the battle –  see this older post) had not been carried out. Pz.Grp. declares agreement with measure after divisional commander explains (division under DAK since 1845hrs) and who points out phoned order from DAK to take Belhamed from the north.

2220hrs – two heavy tanks (Pz IV) arrive at the CP.

2 December 1941

Night quiet.

0620hrs – report that Btl. Kolbeck has reached the Ital. positions 1km north of the Axis road serpentines (Belhamed).

0700hrs – Captain Kolbeck intends to attack with left wing on 700m frontage along the serpentine towards the east to neutralise allegedly present English remaining elements. Attack gets stuck.

0705 – heavy enemy artillery fire on Btl. Kolbeck. Enemy attacks from Sghifet ed Duda with infantry (no tanks). Fire of several batteries from Tobruk on Btl. Kolbeck.

0730 – the two tanks which arrived during the night roll up to the support of Btl. Kolbeck and take with them the remains of Pz.Jg.605 (a formation of self-propelled lightly armoured 4.7cm AT guns) and help the hard fighting Btl. Kolbeck. The English attack breaks down.

0820hrs – the divisional commander drives to the frontline to personnaly orient himself about the situation of Btl. Kolbeck. Returns after 2 hours and again – 1000hrs – the Zafran appears to be free of enemy, while the Belhamed is lightly held. It appears unclear to all why Btl. Kolbeck has not advanced further.

1015hrs – Captain Möller receives the task to establish contact with DAK because Btl. Kolbeck can not advance since 0700hrs. The combat power of the newly established incongruent battalion is very much weakend by the enemy artillery fire and the attack.

1040hrs – a tank attack by 9 tanks is repulsed by our Pz.Jg. company by simply appearing.  Nevertheless the elements of Btl. Kolbeck are flooding back to the Via Balbia in complete confusion. They are there at the Axis cross caught by an orderly officer of the division and brought back to the supply officer to recover. The Pz.Jg. stand ready to defend at km 7 of the Axis road. Pioneer battalion 900 holds Point 130. Btl. Kolbeck moves back to Point 126 north of the Axis road and should hold a line strongpoints 903 to 900.

[…]

1235hrs – Captain Kolbeck reports to the divisional commander on the situation of his battalion. He states that the men made off, leaving behind their AT guns and weapons. Wounded and dead were caused primarily by artillery and MG fire.

3 December 1941

Night completely quiet. Some men of Btl. Kolbeck manage to return under cover of darkness. A complete weapon loss report of the division except S.R.155 and Afr. Rgt. 361 is handed to DAK.

The two further reports by Captain Kolbeck below are the German first-hand and unfiltered side of this fight, and were a response by the him as battalion commander to the criticism of the performance of his unit on those two days. They are appended to the war diary of 90th Light.

The first is a neat illustration of the chaos of battle.  Wargamers in particular sometimes seem to have trouble comprehending that a WW2 battlefield was a chaotic place, in which orders and units got lost or were simply not carried out because they conflicted with the instinct of self-preservation.   The report includes all the chaos one can presumably expect on a battlefield.  Vehicles break down, units retreat or advance in the wrong direction against orders, units leave the battlefield during fighting, units get lost.

1st Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 3 December 41

Re: Phone call from Divisional Commander 3 December 15.00 hours

Topic: Whereabouts of heavy weapons of Battlegroup Briehl during attack on 1 and 2 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

As ordered I report:

To support the attack on Belhamed the following had arrived as ordered:

1 platoon 3.7cm AT guns commanded by a Lt. Gewehr

2 5cm AT guns with a total of 5 men commanded by a Senior Private (Obergefreiter); munition porters were supplied by the battalion,

1 light Infantry Gun (short-range 7,5cm howitzers) platoon with 2 guns commanded by a Corporal.

The platoon of 3,7cm AT guns had the task to protect in leapfrogging advance in the right wing and the right flank of the battalion against tanks during the attack.  During the night fighting it was also used against machine gun targets.  During the night one vehicle broke down with engine damage.  During the continuation of the attack on 2 December the platoon took over tank protection of the right forward company, guns moving down-hill towed by their crews.  When the largest part of the company moved east against my orders and retreated north, the tank hunters followed on the order of thier platoon commander after removing the bolts, breeches and optics, carrying the latter with them. The guns were left behind.  The 2 i/c of the platoon reported to me on 3 December after he had been with Battlegroup Briehl until then. He and his 13 men with their light weapons were integrated into the 2nd company. Lieutenant Gewehr is allegedly wounded.

Of the 5cm AT guns one gun fell out during the first kilometres already, allegedly because of engine damage on the towing vehicle.  The second gun had the task during the early morning of 2 December to protect the attack leftwards against enemy tanks from the assembly area.  It was supposed to follow the left forward company as soon as this reached the valley bottom.  During the the evasion, against orders, of the leftward company and the elements of the battalion pushed left, the gun suddenly limbered up and moved back. No catching up with it was possible.  A report to the straggler collection point, which could not have known to the platoon, was not made.

The light infantry gun platoon had the order to follow the attack on 1 December 41 at the head of a company echeloned back leftwards, and be available to me.  When I wanted to call up the platoon for direct fire on an English strongpoint during night combat, it was not available.  It also did not reach the later assembly area.  Several hours of searching during the night remained fruitless.  One has to suppose that the platoon lost contact, moved in the wrong direction, was taken prisoner or returned without orders to its unit.

Signed: Kolbeck

2nd Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 4 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

Evening Report 3 December 1941

The reorganisation of the remains of the battalion to a two-company structure has been carried out. A further  32 NCOs and soldiers have reported as stragglers.

Strength:

Staff 2 Officers 2 Civil servants 1 NCO, 7 soldiers

1st Company 1 Officer 28 NCO, 113 soldiers

2nd Company 1 Officer 15 NCO 103 soldiers

Total 4 Officers 2 Civil Servants 44 NCO 223 soldiers

One officer and 62 NCO and soldiers of 2./Afr.Rgt.361 are still on the march from the rest area of A.A.33 according to a sergeant. If they arrive it is intended to form a 3rd Company.

No new arrivals for weapons.  It was ascertained that a large part of the lost light MGs and 3 AT rifles was taken back on their own accord to their various units by the members of B Echelon who originally sent them.  A report to the straggler collection point was not made.  An order to recover the weapons has been issued by the supply officer of the battalion.

Equipment and weapons of the soldier was improved. Seven large tents were organised.  The mood amongst the troops is very good under the current circumstances.

Battalion personnel officer: DAK was sent loss and shortage report by radio on time.

Officers: KIA 3, WIA 7, MIA 9

NCOs: KIA 11, WIA 27, MIA 30

Soldiers: KIA 34, WIA 156, MIA 256

Shortage 22 officers, 74 NCO, 649 soldiers.

A more detailed follow-on report will come in writing and as soon as line fault is rectified by phone.

The numbers are partially estimated.  III./I.R.255 and Signals Command are not considered in loss and shortage, and Afr.Rgt 361 only for those recovered from prisonership and used here.

Signed: Kolbeck

Despite the performance (or rather lack of it) during the battle for Ed Duda, Batallion Kolbeck was kept as a unit until at least the retreat to Agheila. Of further interest maybe that Captain Kolbeck was an old acquaintance of Rommel. He is mentioned a few times in ‘The Rommel Papers’.  Apparently he was assigned to Hitler’s HQ and was sent out to accompany Rommel on his march west through France in the final stages of the campaign there, with no specific role.  He seems to have survived the campaign in Africa and was taken prisoner when Panzerarmee Afrika surrendered in Tunisia in 1943. He is one of the old acquaintances mentioned by Rommel in a letter to his wife, wondering how they were doing in captivity.   I am guessing that Rommel met him when he was serving as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard.

Combat Report Panzer Regiment 8 for 29 Nov attack on Ed Duda

Panzer Regiment 8

Africa, the 4. January 1942

Combat Report

Attack on Ed Duda 29. 11. 1941

On 28 November the regiment in its role as point of attack of the division receives the order to take the height of Ed Duda. The attack progresses quickly, as usually despite heavy flanking fire of enemy artillery, but unexpectedly finds an Italian position at 10.30 hours at Bu Cremisa. At 12.30 the regiment again starts in a northerly direction. Despite heavy artillery fire it succeeds in gaining the descent at Bu Creimisa without loss, and to cross the two valley bottoms quickly.

Already at 13.00 hours the regiment crosses the Trigh Capuzzo and gains, advancing under the heaviest artillery fire, at 13.10 Bir Salem. An Italian strongpoint with artillery remains there. A terribly heavy artillery fire, including a number of heavy batteries from Tobruk, hits the regiment when it continues to drive, reaching the Axis bypass road and there turns east onto Ed Duda. To ease this turn the regimental commander leads ahead to Ed Duda with raised command flag and the clear order “Follow the leader!”, thereby having the regiment turn in eastwards behind him. Since the ground, because of the Wadis to the right and left of the Axis Bypass Road, did not allow a broadening of the regiment, the regimental commander decided to organize the regiment in two echelons, first echelon Captain Kümmel, second echelon Captain Wahl. Once the regiment had taken up the direction and structure as ordered, the regimental staff falls back in with the first echelon. Enemy machine gun and infantry positions on the western slope of Ed Duda to the left of the Axis Bypass Road are quickly overrun. Shortly before reaching the height of Ed Duda the regimental commander orders the 1st Battalion to attack the northern part of Ed Duda, while the 2nd Battalion should continue to advance along the Axis Bypass Road drawing level with the 1st Battalion.

Continuing, the 1st Battalion soon met 20 Matilda tanks attacking from the north and commenced the firefight with them immediately. The 2nd Battalion meanwhile combated frontally the numerous, wire protected, machine gun and AT gun positions on the height.

At 14.15 hours Captain Kümmel reports that the enemy tanks are withdrawing towards north-east behind the height and that a further advance of his battalion was not possible because of a deeply cut Wadi athwart him. The regimental commander in a quick decision pulls Battalion Kümmel to the right wing and the regiment attacks with impetuous drive the height, now with the main effort on the right, in the following structure: ahead left battalion Wahl, ahead right Battalion Kümmel, with regimental staff. Captain Wahl in particular distinguished himself here by driving his battalion forward without regard, giving a personal example, despite heavy enemy mining, despite K-rolls and of a large number of enemy AT guns, while Captain Kümmel fought down the enemy crew (Tobruk garrison, Essex Regiment) in a rapid drive, destroying a number of Matilda tanks which meanwhile had appeared from the northeast. At this time arrive single riflemen of the rifle battalion which was sent after the tanks.

At 17.15, despite strong artillery fire, the regiment stands on the hotly fought over height of Ed Duda as ordered, while the attack by the riflemen had stopped shortly before the height. Because of the heavy firefight of the afternoon the regiment had fired off about 20% of its ammunition at this time. To be able to smash enemy attacks at any moment the regimental commander ordered to resupply on the battlefield, despite the heavy artillery fire. As always, this task is solved by First Lieutenant Lindner and his men in a first class and brave manner.

A counter-attack in darkness costs the enemy the loss of two tanks. In this defense shared particularly the Panzer II, thanks to their rapid fire with 2cm tracer. At 20.00 hours the regiment is withdrawn under divisional orders.

Successes:

Destroyed 5 Matilda, numerous AT guns and infantrie material. 150 POW were made.

Own losses:

3 tanks damaged by mines which could be repaired. Some dead and wounded.

Here is the map from the KTB of the 1a 15.PD for this battle:

Battle Map 15th Panzerdivision

Many thanks to James for finding and sending me this one from NARA!

Here is the Australian history map on this battle (all Australian stuff from this page, Chapter 10 :

Now, it is very interesting to read the New Zealand history on this here:

In particular on what happened after the tanks withdrew  – the first para of the following excerpt refers to the first attack by four Matildas which was beaten off by the Panzer IIs.  But it all went a bit pearshaped for the Germans after that:

When the light began to fail, some of the British tanks edged forward and the air was filled with tracers as the enemy engaged them. The Pzkw IIs came into their own in this twilight clash and their 20-millimetre automatic cannon blazed in deadly fashion at the Matildas, knocking out two them. The Matildas in the end gave ground and the panzers followed them slowly, ending up in brilliant moonlight at 6.35 p.m. on the edge of the Australian position. German infantry also spread out and some began digging in 200 yards from the headquarters of 1 Essex. To Colonel Nichols the position looked desperate.

Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows of the Australian battalion prepared to counter-attack; but the moonlight was too bright, the German tanks still very much in evidence, and he decided to hold his hand until the moon was lower. His B Company on the right and C on the left formed up on either side of Nichols’s headquarters, A Company covered 1 RHA, whose gun positions were now very close to the German tanks, and D stayed in reserve ‘along the western approaches to Ed Duda’.

Then the Australian B Company suffered a tragic blow. As it moved forward a heavy shell landed directly on 10 Platoon, killing eight and wounding ten of its total of twenty-six men. The other two platoons, ‘displaying exemplary battle discipline, moved past the stricken platoon, disregarding the pathetic cries of the wounded and the dying’.1 The stretcher bearers were soon on the scene and the gap in the Australian ranks was filled when a platoon of A Company and the remnants of B Company of 1 Essex spontaneously lined up to join the attack. Nichols and Burrows had meanwhile

1 Bayonets Abroad, p. 150.

406

called for tank support, and as the moon was waning eleven tanks came forward, all that was left of 4 Royal Tanks. These lined up astride the By-pass road ‘with only a foot between the horns of each tank’ and Willison inspected them there.1

When the I tanks counter-attacked, late at night, they ran all through the German lines, creating panic. Then the Australians fell with great vigour upon the two bewildered battle groups of 115 Regiment, ‘slew an undetermined number’,2 and took 167 prisoners, at a cost of only two killed and five wounded Australians. Mopping-up continued for the rest of the night and many small parties of enemy wandered in by mistake and were taken prisoner. The two Australian companies reorganised with the remainder of 1 Essex as a composite battalion under Colonel Nichols, occupying much the same ground as was originally defended.

On the enemy side six officers and about fifty other ranks, the remnants of those elements of 115 Regiment which took part in the action, fell back 1000 yards to the west and formed a new position alongside 15 Motor Cycle Battalion. This unit of 200 Regiment had been brought forward to continue the attack through to Belhamed next day with 8 Panzer Regiment. A second attack on Ed Duda was briefly considered, but there were too few German infantry at hand to undertake it. Then Panzer Group, signalling to 33 Reconnaissance Unit to come under its command and report at once to El Adem, used by mistake the call sign of 15 Panzer, which therefore withdrew at once and reached Bir Salem before the mistake was discovered.3 Thus the whole division was back where it started and the attack on Ed Duda gained nothing. Like the first attack on Capuzzo, it exposed weaknesses in the defence which were soon remedied so that any further attack would be harder still.

Below is the relevant excerpt from the official Australian history, Chapter 10, Ed Duda.  Many thanks to JonS for pointing out to me that this is the place to look for the action, since 2/13 Battalion carried out the counterattack.

About 1 p.m. the 15th Armoured Division began forming up to attack Ed Duda from the west. Captain Salt of the 1st R .H.A’s Chestnut Troop broadcast a running description of their deployment and approach, and of the early development of the battle. The first German assault on the westernmost positions of the 1 /Essex was thrown back by the infantry and anti-tank gunners. Colonel O’Carroll of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment ordered all tanks to the top of Ed Duda and those at hand went with him; about eight, including some acting as armoured command posts for the 1st R.H.A., went on to the main feature. (Footnote 8 – Not all the tank commanders managed to comply with this instruction. The charge is made in a British narrative that some non-participation arose because a tank commander “had been seized as a suspect by the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion and not released until 9 p .m. ” On the likelihood that any such irresponsible action was taken by the experienced, earnest and realistic Australians, no comment is offered.) For a time the German tanks stood off and bombarded the pits and sangars of the Essex infantry, neutralised their machine and anti-tank guns and cleared the minefields with patrols. Captain Salt’s tank was hit and he was killed. Major Goschen’s tank was also knocked out; Captain Armitage rescued him and his crew. This disorganised the artillery support, and about 4 .30 p.m. the enemy started closing in from the west.

It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was behind them. Three of our tanks came up on the side of our position, later joined by a fourth. They were Matildas. They started withdrawing in pairs, firing as they went. As the heavy tanks got nearer the position, the German light Mk. IIs moved up on our flank, and swept the area with machine-gun fire. Some posts continued firing. The German tanks, twenty of them, fanned out and formed a line right across the middle of the battalion position. Our four tanks had cleverly withdrawn behind us to a hulls-down position. It was starting to get dark. They had halted just short of where our tanks could engage them. (Footnote 9 – Martin, The Essex Regiment 1929-1950, pp. 635-6. From a description by Lieutenant P. P. S. Brownless.)

The loss of Ed Duda was reported to Burrows about nightfall when he was called to a tank in direct communication with Willison’s headquarters. The possibility of a counter-attack by the 2/13th Battalion was discussed. Burrows indicated that he was prepared to attack infantry but not tanks. The issues were hammered out at a conference at Willison’s headquarters about 8 p.m.; it was conceded that 2/13th would not be expected to attack against tanks without tank support. The 2/13th Battalion was to counter-attack at Ed Duda with two companies and provide one company to protect the 1st R.H.A’s gun area near Belhamed. The rest of the battalion was to be organised to hold the escarpment where the battalion was then situated.

The 2/13th headquarters were on the escarpment about 1,000 yards north-east of the Ed Duda pass. “C” and “D” Companies were detailed for the counter-attack, but when it appeared that the outlying “D” Company would not reach battalion headquarters by the time prescribed for leaving, Burrows issued a last-minute order that “B” Company (Captain Graham) would take its place and move off with “C” Company (Captain Walsoe) . The two companies were then assembled by platoons in column of route at the foot of the escarpment on its northern side. A troop of 25-pounders was firing directly over their heads from behind a ridge to the north-east but the night was otherwise quiet. The guns stopped firing and almost as they did so a shell landed in the middle of a closely-bunched platoon of Graham’s company, killing or wounding almost all.

It was necessary for Burrows, so as to be on time at the rendezvous, to order the rest of the column to march past. As the men did so with exemplary discipline, heart-rending cries from the stricken platoon assailed hem. They were then led in silence round the foot of the escarpment to a start-line laid for an attack south-west on both sides of the “pimples» of the Ed Duda feature. The forms of enemy tanks could be identified through binoculars on the objective some 500 yards away. Burrows refused to allow the attack to proceed. The start was postponed while he went back to Willison’s headquarters. Only one conclusion was possible. If Ed Duda was to be retaken, the German tanks would have to be dislodged; if Willison’s tanks could not do this, there was no other way. It was decided that it would have to be a close-in tank-to-tank and man-to-man fight without artillery support. This may have been influenced by the fact that the 1st R.H.A’s “A/E” Battery had withdrawn to Tiger after dusk and Colonel Williams had ordered “B/O” Battery back in the belief that the by-pass road was not blocked. The 4th R.T.R., however, was maintaining a block just forward of the 2/ 13th with three tanks and the 44th R.T.R. was maintaining another to the east. It was decided that the battery’s departure could no longer be delayed.

So, while in the desert not far to the south Gott’s armoured brigades again spent an untroubled night in a leaguer off the battlefield, Willison’s tanks, which had been in the thick of the fight for nine days, came forward with devotion and pluck to try conclusions with the main tank force of the Africa Corps.

Accounts of the battle are difficult to reconcile. Some misunderstandings have arisen because descriptions of incidents have been read as descriptions of an entire engagement, which was a long one. The tanks fought for about three hours, the infantry for about fifteen minutes. The battle began when eight Matilda tanks approached the Ed Duda escarpment from low ground in front and fought the German tanks skylined above .The contest provided a most spectacular fireworks display . Streams of small-arms tracer fire, which seemed to issue from holes in the hill, and fiery marbles spat out by automatic cannon converged on the British tanks’ hulls and ricocheted from them like splashing molten metal. The Matildas stabbed back with rapid Besa machine-gun fire. Sharp exchanges of 2-pounder or 50-mm shot rang out; some tanks and vehicles on either side caught fire. The British tanks outnumbered by about three to one continued to engage, but the worrying question was whether all or most had been immobilised. Soon it was answered when some were seen to advance a short distance. Then it was puzzling to observe the same tanks withdraw. But they returned to the fray. In the end the puzzle of the battle was that the German tanks, after having appeared to have the upper hand, withdrew and did not come back. The Germans later blamed the receipt of a wrongly coded message purporting to recall the 8thArmoured Regiment, but the battle had been decided before the message was received. British tank crews had for once fought German tanks in an action in which the Germans could not employ their guns to weight the odds against the British ; at the end the outnumbered British were there, the Germans gone .

At one stage it had been planned to delay the infantry attack until the moon set behind the western ridge but when it appeared that the German tanks had departed Willison and Burrows decided to attack a t1 .30 a.m. German war diaries make it plain that complete surprise was achieved because the attack was made without artillery support (as though an offence against the ethics of war had been perpetrated) . Burrows, however, was more interested in frightening than surprising the enemy and told the men to call out “Australians coming” as they assaulted. In the same spirit the Matildas advancing on the flanks soon had their tank engines roaring at full throttle and were firing wildly when on the move. Unfortunately battles often do not proceed according to plan. Soon the enthusiastic British tank gunners were shooting up the charging Australians, mistaking them for retreating Germans, and the ignorant Germans, despite the Australians’ shouted attempts to identify themselves, were crying out “Engländer kommen”.

The following are extracts from an account written by a soldier about two months after the battle: (Footnote 2 – CO Thompson of 2/13 Bn Int Sec.)

Captain Walsoe fired a green Very flare and the attack started with two platoons of B Company on the left and C Company on the right. C company had first to ascertain whether the men to their front belonged to the Essex Battalion or were Germans. Soon however a German was captured. Colonel Burrows moved with the men telling them to call out “The Australians are coming” when they charged . The men went forward at a steady walking pace until they sighted the enemy. There was no need to advise them to shout when they went in : shouting, yelling, cooeeing like madmen, they charged with the bayonet . The enemy seemed stupefied. There was no concerted resistance. Those who did not run either threw themselves on the ground or held up their hands. As the attack progressed through the enemy’s positions Germans could be heard running in front calling out “Englander kommen” . . . . The advance was continued to a distance of 500yards beyond the top of the opposing ridge, but though Germans were heard running and shouting in the distance the men were recalled, since it would have been unwise to have gone further. Small pockets of enemy were soon mopped up and the companies withdrew to the southern slope of Ed Duda. B company sent out a patrol and took another 15 prisoners from a post on the left flank.

Enemy motor transport was heard moving about in confusion but could not be captured in the darkness, but a motor cyclist was stopped by a burst of TSMG fire and captured.

Although at the moment of assault the men charged with vigour and elation, Walsoe and Graham kept their companies in hand and platoon commanders and section leaders maintained control. Organised resistance was met only on the fringes, and there, by initiative and with confidence in night fighting based on patrol experience, the Australians kept on top .On the right, for example, Sergeant Searle (Footnote 3 – Capt J. E. Searle, DCM, NX21876; 2/13 Bn . Bank officer; of Cudal, NSW; b. Bathurst, NSW, 10 Mar 1919) put in a quick charge and subdued a pocket of enemy that opened fire when challenged. Two men nearby who were slow to stand up and surrender were about to be dispatched with the bayonet when they identified themselves as Australian stretcher bearers captured by the enemy that evening. On the other flank Private Ferres (Footnote 4 – Cpl H. Ferres, MM, NX17484; 2/13 Bn. Labourer; of Paddington, NSW; b. Sydney, 12 Dec 1919) firing his Bren gun from the hip and leading three other men assaulted a troublesome enemy post and took the surrender of 25 Germans. The prisoners taken in the attack—almost all by the Australians—numbered 167. Only 7 Australians were wounded, two mortally.

The Australians were quickly reorganised to form a compact two-company front in the centre of the Ed Duda position, where they prepared for an immediate counter-attack. What was needed was to get belowground at once and be concealed as much as possible by dawn, but only one or two picks or shovels could be found. Infantry could hardly have been placed with less protection in a more vulnerable position than these men on Ed Duda at the very hinge of the Tobruk corridor; but no immediate counter-attack was made.

Here is the Australian history map on this attack:

Combat Report 15th Rifle Brigade – 28 Dec 41


15th Rifle Brigade
?? January 1942
Combat Report
About the attack and pursuit against the English 22nd Armoured Brigade at Uadi Faregh on 28 December 1941

At 01.30 hours during the night 27 to 28 December 1941 the following radio transmission for 28 December arrived from D.A.K. at the reinforced 15th Rifle Brigade (Rifle Regiment 115, Regiment 200 minus MG Battalion 2, Artillery Regiment 33 minus one light battalion, two companies tank hunter battalion 33, armoured pioneer battalion 33), which was tasked with defence towards the south and south-east in the area Rugbet el Nagina (about 30 km south of Agedabia): „Group Cruewell destroys 28 December enemy group east of 165. It attacks: Geissler with subordinated elements 08.30 hours direction 165, Mot. Corps 09.00 hours direction 164 left 1. 21. Panzer-Division 07.00 hours from area south-east Agedabia direction south, to be able to take effect at 10.00 hours at 164 left 2. Vaerst to rest at 168 for the moment. Will, when attack of northern group takes effect, depending on development of the situation, attack north or north-east. Corps CP from 08.45 hours with Mot. Corps, 163 right 1.5. Stuka mission foreseen; lots of air recognition panels and flares.”

During the 27 December Group Vaerst, standing at the eastern limits of Alem el Turch, had stopped an enemy group which intended to bypass the Agedabia position to the south with significant forces. This enemy grouping was to be destroyed in a concentric attack in the area Chor es-Sufan, before it could attempt further enveloping advance north or south.

For Battle Group Geissler the determination of the direction of the attack was difficult at first, since the Italians did not stand in the location relative to the battle group that was apparently assumed by the Corps. It was in any case necessary (and this was probably in the intent of the higher leadership) for Group Geissler to close up to the Italians as quickly as possible, if the planned concentric attack was to succeed. This demand was determining the choice of the direction of the initial attack.

At 02.30 hours the following orders for the 28 December were given to the subordinated units by phone:

“Enemy situation changed, strong enemy group probably in the area Chor es-Sufan. 07.30 hours stand-to for attack direction south-east inside strongpoints in a way that at any moment an attack, with battalions of S.R.115 in column, can be started.

Regiment 200 (minus M.G.-Btl.2) and Pz. Pi-Btl. 33 07.00 hours ready for move to start behind the S.R.115 already standing-to.

Artillery with elements surveillance direction south-east, with mass from 07.50 hours ready for immediate start behind riflemen.

Both Pz.Jg.Kp.33 ready for departure at 07.30 hours.

Commanders and Commanding Officers of the Pz.Jg.Kp. at 06.30 hours to the Brigade CP. Commander Regiment 200 to bring along radioset. One officer patrol from Pz.Pi.Btl.33 at 06.15 to Brigade CP.

The patrol from the Pz.Pi.Btl.33 which was set off at 06.30 hours has the task to reconnoitre at first in an easterly direction against the enemy suspected there, and to constantly report its observations. If no enemy forces are observed to the east, it has to move south-east. A report about the first enemy contact is of particular importance to the Brigade CO in this situation.

Following the setting off of the reconnaissance, a section consisting of an Ordonnanz officer, an interpreter, and a radio set is set off to the Italian Mot. Corps to establish a connection, especially to co-ordinate the movements of the two formations in time for the attack that is about to proceed. Task:

1.) Establish when, and in which direction, the Italians will start. Which enemy reports are available at the Mot. Corps?

2.) Information about own intent. First report about start and movement direction of the Italians is of particular importance!

During the O-Group at 06.30 hours all commanders are informed about the intent of the Corps, as far as it can be ascertained from the radio order. In addition to the already issued pre-orientation by phone it is added:

“Order of battle for the attack in an at first expected easterly direction: S.R.115 (battalions in column), with them Brigade staff. Right rearwards Regiment 200 with K.B.15 and Pz.Pi.-Bt.33. Behind the rifle regiment the artillery.

Tank hunters protect southern flank, with one company each with S.R.115 and Regiment 200.
A change of the direction of the attack can be expected at any moment after contact is established with the Italians, or on the basis of reports of the officer patrol sent eastwards. Start time foreseen is 08.30 hours. Preparation for defence has to be assured until the start.”

While all units get ready to start, the first messages from the patrol arrive; he has first recognised a large collection of vehicles to the east, which are later identified as Italian. Without further enemy reports, or awaiting the first report of the establishment of contact with the Mot. Corps, start in direction east is ordered at 08.30 hours. At 08.30 hours the Brigade staff drives ahead to S.R.115 which is forming up to start.

The battle group has to surmount some terrain difficulties at first. Reports are sent to Corps that some vehicles get stuck in deep sand. The S.R.115 has particular difficulties with its trucks, only by using prime movers is it possible to slowly cross the difficult sand dunes.

At 09.10 hours visual connection to the Italians is established. The returning liaison officer reports that the Italians did start on the attack in the direction south-east at 09.00 hours, but on foot. At first no forward movement could be recognised.

At 09.14 Corps orders to direct the march south-east and to keep contact to the Italians. A report is made to Corps that contact to the Italians by visual and officer is made and has been established.
At 09.30 combat sounds, in particular strong artillery fire, apparently at Group Vaerst can be heard in the south. The Corps is informed of this.

In the meantime at 09.35 hours the point of the battle group has reached an escarpment offereing a good overview towards south and south-east. At a distance of about 8 to 10 km, from a very good observation position and in clear sight conditions large vehicle agglomerations in an east-west direction are observed in a depression. Furthest to the west about 40 tanks are recognised, also on the northern flank several armoured cars, as well as single tanks, probably to secure to the north.

The opponent appears to no use – albeit too late this time – combat reconnaissance. Single armoured cars are clearly recognisable, approaching the northern escarpment in fast move. The Corps is informed about the recognised enemy. After at 10.00 hours the order has been received from Corps: “Main task to gain ground to south-east, choose best direction after reconnaissance.” and at 10.10 hours a Stuka attack has targeted the centre of the large enemy column, Brigade orders renewed start in direction south-east against the right flank of the enemy in the depression.

The mass of S.R.115 has by now, following surmounting of the terrain difficulties, closed up, and forms up to attack. The first battalion is moved up to the right of the second battalion. About 20 enemy tanks leave the main column at around 10.20 hours and partially move west, with individual tanks also moving north-west and north. The rifle regiment immediately deploys AT guns to cover the regrouping and the change of face into a south-easterly direction. The mass of the tanks recognised in the western part of the depression move ahead south-west at around 10.40 hours. The vehicle columns remain in the original place for the moment.

Regiment 200 receives the order from the Brigade CO, to protect the right flank to follow to the right rear of the attack of S.R.115.

The use of the Pz.Jg.-Kp. Is of particular importance in the attack about to happen, since armoured cars and single tanks are trying at times to move against the battle group from the column. The Pz.Jg.-Kp. subordinated to Regiment 200 has the task to take over tank protection in the right flank.
Following a quick check with the artillery commander, to the rear of the S.R.115, which is advancing with both battalions up front at around 11.00 hours, a heavy battery is deployed to combat the enemy column. The well-placed own fire is very quickly answered by two enemy batteries from the south. The light battalion continues at first to follow behind S.R.115, but then also intervenes in the combat. Unfortunately an effective combating of the numerous and valuable enemy targets is not possible because of a lack of ammunition. Nevertheless the enemy column is at least brought into considerable shock. The sudden appearance of German and Italian troops on the right flank must have completely surprised the enemy.

Because of the relatively strong number of enemy tanks protecting the column the attack can now only be pushed ahead by fire and movement of the AT weapons. The formations of the Mot. Corps are also only slowly gaining ground on foot, leaving the battle group therefore already far ahead.
Since the appearance of Group Vaerst from the south-west can be expected at any moment, the battle group is transmitting to the push group the own location and the most forward line reached, to avoid friendly fire.

After the repulse of some enemy armoured cars which reached close to the most forward elements of S.R.115 by a very dashingly advancing AT gun, the attack, which was delayed for a time due to numerous enemy tanks, is again continued. At 11.50 hours a report about the new start is sent to the D.A.K.

The Brigade receives information at this time that at 12.00 hours Group Vaerst will start the attack from a south-westerly direction. At the same time the radio order is received from the corps: “The decision of the engagement which has to be forced today depends on quick, energetic grappling.”
The enemy artillery, which apparently had not yet recognised the danger threatening from the south-west continues for the time to fire on the battle group, especially on the battery positions, with several batteries. A report is made to D.A.K. that the attack is proceeding, but that about 25 tanks are standing in the south, which delay for the time being a quick move of the battle group, which does not have any tanks. For a time it looks as if the enemy tanks want to turn for an attack north against the battle group. They seem to be unclear about which enemy they should attack, who is the more dangerous opponent for them.

From Brigade the second tank hunter company is made available to S.R.115, which has already deployed its own tank hunters and one tank hunter company ahead of its front, especially to combat the enemy tanks ahead of the right wing. Fire is opened again and again on the closest enemy tanks; local evasive movements are the consequence. Only shortly after 12.00 hours does the mass of the enemy tanks clearly make front to the south-west.

Group Vaerst, which has by now started, can be observed well for the moment from the own height. At around 12.50 hours tank combat ignites there. The Group Vaerst fights over a height with a numerically superior enemy. The artillery of Group Geissler now primarily engages the enemy tanks turning south-west against Group Vaerst, and the artillery protected by them. One heavy battery is silenced.
For the battle group the moment to engage more closely has now arrived. S.R.115 has come across two larger terrain heights secured by infantry forces and single tanks. Against these a planned attack is now ordered. The light artillery battalion is ordered to closely co-operate with the rifle regiment; forward observation officers rush ahead to the battalions. The preparation of the attack against this enemy is reported to the D.A.K. at 12.55 hours. An officer patrol in the southern strip of the 2nd battalion (placed left) is chasing off the enemy armoured cars securing the left height. AT guns of the tank hunters and AT guns of the regiment compete with each other in the combat against the enemy tanks providing security; ahead of the whole front several kills are achieved.

The 21. Pz.Div. has by now advanced well on the left wing of the attack towards the south, and has, in particular with its artillery, intervened effectively in the fight from the north-east. In the enemy column furthest east movement has started. The Italians on foot are still hanging behind considerably, only participating in the fight with their motorised artillery.

Around 13.00 hours at S.R.115 the impression rises temporarily that the enemy tanks advance to attack against the regiment. The tank hunters successfully take up the fight on the right, where the enemy is strongest. The still strongly occupied height before the right wing of the regiment is taken under effective fire by all heavy infantry weapons and the artillery which are in use.

Ahead of the 21.Pz.Div. rearward movements in the direction south-east and east are now recognised. Now elements of the vehicle column in front of the regiment also start to evade south-east, covered by artillery and with numerous tanks providing security. The own fire is, as far as is still possible, increased; the lack of ammunition of the artillery is unfortunately especially in this moment quite noticeably to our disadvantage.

Around 13.45 hours it becomes known that the attack of Group Vaerst has come to a halt in front of built-up positions, but that that the continuation of the attack has been ordered after regrouping. The sound of fighting to the south-west has considerably decreased at this time.

The attack by S.R.115 now continues to gain ground also on the right. The 30 to 40 enemy tanks still present on and in front of the height opposite the 1st battalion S.R.115 are however a considerable threat to the right flank of the battle group, which can be eliminated by an attack of Group Vaerst towards the east. On the request if a new task has been given to Group Vaerst, the corps orders continuation of the attack to Group Geissler, and informed that Group Vaerst stops for the moment.
Around 14.30 hours the Brigade CP, which advances in the sector of the S.R.115 recognises a rearward movement of the enemy tank agglomeration in front of Group Vaerst. This recognition is immediately passed on to Group Vaerst and also the the D.A.K.

The rifle regiment has by now taken the height in front of its right wing and continues to advance south-east. The Brigade CO now pushes the battle group to special speed. Again it appears as if several enemy tanks, despite the already started rearward movement, are turning against the own right flank. Tank rounds are hitting in the rows of the battle group; Group Vaerst, according to a radio report, also thinks it possible that the enemy tanks may turn away north. The immediately starting concentrated fire of all available AT guns makes this intent, should it have been present, impossible. The mass of the enemy tanks is now turning to rapid flight in south-easterly direction. The enemy vehicle columns have by now moved off further to the south. Artillery and tank hunters fire continuously into the retreating enemy; further tank kills are achieved.

The battle group has started the pursuit in south-easterly direction on a wide front. The enemy answers only with single batteries. Also Group Vaerst, to which a liaison officer has been sent, has again commenced the attack and pursues the fleeing enemy tanks, pushing past the right of the disputed height in the direction south-south-east.

The 21.Pz.Div. has made a wide move south and inflicted heavy losses on the fleeing enemy. The Italians are advancing quickly, but are hanging behind considerably since they are on foot. Only single Italian tanks and parts of the motorised artillery can follow the attack echeloned to the left rear.
Around 16.00 hours a group of 20 enemy tanks makes a temporary front again before the S.R.115 and fires into the pursuing battle group. The heavy fire of all immediately deployed AT guns forces it to turn away again soon. Additionally the threat of the Group Vaerst advancing on the right has become to big for the enemy. He turns to flight so quickly that touch with him is almost lost. The enemy artillery fire has now also almost completely stopped. Around 16.45 hours the forward elements of S.R.115 have reached the Uadi el Faregh. The location and the still available, sharply reduced fuel volumes, are reported to the D.A.K.

While Group Vaerst continues to pursue the evading enemy in rapid speed, the pursuit is stopped around 17.00 hours by order of the Brigade CO, after 21.Pz.Div has also come to a stop. The left battalion of S.R.115 has already crossed the Uadi with the tank hunters. After a Stuka attack into the fleeing enemy, the tank hunters shoot up another three enemy thanks; then the connection with the enemy is lost.

At 17.30 hours Group Vaerst also stops the pursuit. On request to the D.A.K. regarding the next steps the final stop of the attacks is ordered.

South of the Uadi el Faregh, a rifle platoon reinforced by AT guns is used for security. Both tank hunter companies assemble at the level of the Brigade CP according to orders to be at the disposition of the Brigade CO. The units of the battle group disperse widely, take up night positioning, and re-supply. After establishing contact with 21.Pz.Div. rest starts.

The closing report of Battle Group Geissler to the D.A.K. is sent at 18.30 hours, and reads:
“Up to the end of the attack enemy in fast retreat south and south-east. Battle group stopped at 169 left 3, to the left rear of Group Vaerst. 21.Pz.Div. about three km to left rear. Own forward security on skyline south of own location. Established so far 15 tanks killed, 12 POW made, five trucks captured. Enemy tank partially new type, apparently US production. Own losses only low.”

As follow-on it could be reported to D.A.K. 30 minutes later that according to the pioneers tasked with the total destruction of all killed enemy tanks the number of killed enemy tanks had increased to 26.
According to radio transmission from D.A.K. from 22.00 Battle Group Geissler was again subordinated to 15.Pz.Div. Connection was established immediately by liaison officer and radio.

The night passed quietly after this day which was such a success for our arms.

Geissler

The British side of this battle can be gleaned from the war diary entries of 28 Dec 41 the 22nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars and 4th County of London Yeomanry, who were part of 22nd Armoured Brigade then. They are available at this link for 22nd RGH, scroll down to the bottom of the page and at this link for 4th CLY, scroll down again.