An Assessment of the M3 Stuart Tank

From June 1941 onwards US-built M3 Stuart (nicknamed ‘Honey’ by their British crews) were issued to the 7th Armoured Division. They equipped only 4th Armoured Brigade. The documents below are from the records of US Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US Military Attaché in Cairo. They are an interesting insight into how the M3 Stuart was perceived after its first battle.

It should be noted that Bonner Fellers was a critical observer of the British operations, although it is worth noting in this instance that his views on the M3 are echoed by British sources, e.g. at this link. Nevertheless, in my view the second para of the second note is slanted and highly misleading about the comparative performance of the British and US tanks.

It is also worth noting that whereas contemporary British documents refer to the M3 as ‘Cruiser, American’, i.e. giving it the same designation as e.g. the Crusader, Bonner Fellers correctly refers to it as a ‘Light tank’.

It is also noteable, if only by their absence, that the Italian tanks and guns are not mentioned at all.

No. 279

Milid, Washington from Duke.

Part 1. Following is based on notes brought in from Libya by Mente, who collaborated with Cornog and Piburn.

On 18 November at 05:30 a.m. the 4th Armoured Brigade consisting of the 8th Hussars and 3rd and 5th Tank Regiments began approach march from Alam el ta Lab, equipped with 166 American Light tanks M-3. They covered approximately 70 miles to bivouac that night at point on Trig el Abd near Gabr Meliha. One tank was delayed by clogged fuel line but it rejoined its column at next halt. From various sources it is reported that 22nd Brigade, equipped with English cruiser tanks, lost by mechanical failures anywhere from 7 to 41 tanks in an approach march of 20 miles.

4th Armoured Brigade was attacked on 19 November by approximately 100 tanks of 21st German Panzer Division in vicinity of previous night’s bivouac. Germans had heavy anti-tank guns accompanying each wave of tanks during attack, British had none. Panzer division driven off. There were no casualties in 3rd and 5th tank regiments; unreliable casualty reports list 22 tanks of 8th Hussars missing, of which 15 are known to be destroyed and 7 unaccounted for.

Damage to vehicles consists mainly of broken tracks, tank fires, broken turret rings and damaged suspension system. Apparently armour plate quality superior to that of Germans.

30 November 1941

Part 2. Following interesting facts revealed from all personal observations.

No observed complete penetration to front sloping plate, front tank doors, nor gun shields. Final drive housing struck by what is believed to be 6-pounder armor piercing projectile was dented with no effect on operation.  One penetration reported by armor piercing 6-pounder on edge of door next to T member, numerous penetrations of side plates and back plates with no effect on operation of vehicles. A number of tanks damaged by hit on the sprocket, breaking the teeth; damage to suspension system on the bogie saddles, side plates, and springs. Several tanks were observed with punched rivets. Vehicles were able to return for repair on own power in most cases. Radio performance has been satisfactory although some tanks which were struck by anti-tank fire had radio put out of commission immediately.

All personnel enthusiastic about 37 MM gun. Best range under 1200 yards which gave Germans with heavier weapon slight fire power advantage. The 37 mm will penetrate front sides and rear of German Mark III and Mark IV tanks.

1st December 1941

[…]

It is obvious that American tanks carried the brunt of attack during the first three days of fighting. Personnel of 4th Armoured Brigade are enthusiastic in their praise of American tanks and they have developed confidence in thier vehicles never before known in British Army. This action has conclusively demonstrated to all concerned that the American light tank for its weight is the most mobile, the best armored amd by far the most reliable vehicle in the Western Desert. End of message.

Fellers

So from this, it appears that the M3 was really the little tank that could. Within a few days however, which presumably included the receipt of additional information on what actually happened around Sidi Rezegh, the picture darkened a bit.

No. 309

Milid, Washington.

Part 1. With 8th Army, 2 December.

To include 29 November, 58 American M-3 tanks had been recovered from battlefields. Of these 36 have been repaired in the field. Fourteen of the 22 disabled tanks remaining are a total loss from thermite shell; status of remaining 8 is undetermined. Sixty American tanks have been sent forward; 40 more are in Libya awaiting crews. Including 30 November actual loss of American tanks is estimated at 88.

British have not disclosed their tank losses to me. However, 7th Armored Brigade is out for at least 3 months; on 23 November 7th Brigade had naught tanks battleworthy, on 25 November 6 were battleworthy. 22nd Brigade is refitting in rear area; on 22 November 22nd Brigade had 30 tanks battleworthy, on 25 November 46 were battleworthy. The presumption is the American M-3 has stood up far better under fire and field service than have the British tanks, since American tanks in 4th Brigade have undergone more combat than did 7th or 22nd Brigades.

[…]

Part 2. It is the belief of the British that American M-3 is the fastest, soundest mechanically and most maneuverable tank in Libya. It is outranged, however, by German tanks with 50 mm and 75 mm guns. German tanks shell effectively the M-3 tank from positions beyond effective range of the 37 mm gun, place it at a costly disadvantage.

The 37 mm gun, in a gunnery test with tanks stationary, was slightly superior to British 2-pounders in accuracy, penetration, and rate of fire. However, because the British tank has better internal communications and a power traversed gun platform which rotates with the gun, British claim their tank fire is more effective in battle than that of the American M-3. Automatic breech block is recommended by the British as imperative safety precaution.

German 88 mm anti-tank guns and 75 mm thermite projectiles were most effective against American tanks. Thermite projectiles penetrate, explode inside tank, burn for hours, destroy tank.

Fuel capacity of American M-3 is lower than British and German tanks. Fuel capacity for a minimum of 100 miles is necessary for offensive sweeps which are likely to be followed by combat under conditions which prohibit refueling.

[…]

It is my belief that the M-3 tank is fundamentally sound and when employed with a balanced tank force it needs no basic change in design. British have M-3 as an assault weapon against tanks with superior fire power in the absence of other tanks.

Conclusion: the 37 mm gun has proven to be too light against German Mark II [sic!] and IV tanks.

Fellers

5 December 1941

The conclusions here appear confused. On the one hand the tank needs no change in design, but on the other it can’t be used against tanks with better guns (which would be about any enemy tank it was likely to encounter in the desert), because its gun is too light. Which essentially makes it a short-ranged armoured car, or the equivalent of the German Mark II tank, which had been relegated to protection of supply columns against roving British columns at this stage, but was no longer fielded on the battle field.

bellman

‘Bellman’, an M3 Stuart tank of 8th Hussars, 7th Armoured Division, knocked out near Tobruk, 15 December 1941. IWM Collection (Object 205203664)

 

Further information relevant to the M3 can be found in earlier posts at this link and at this link.

Here is an interview with a 3 R.T.R. veteran, Alan Wollaston, who was at Sidi Rezegh. The part relating to the Western Desert begins at 22:45 mins. He was with the regiment when it was re-equipped with M3 tanks, describing them as wonderful, fast, even though only equipped with a 2-pdr gun, but which they made up for by developing tactics to flank the enemy tanks. He says the crews were ‘very very pleased after the slower English tanks’.

http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80011648

There is a very vivid description of how he became POW at Sidi Rezegh, and his subsequent escape.

Interview of a Sidi Rezegh Veteran–from the IWM

This is a very interesting interview with a very lucid veteran of 6 R.T.R., the commander of ‘B’ Squadron, then Major John Francis Miller.

The Western Desert part starts around 10:50 minutes, and the Operation CRUSADER bit around 19:30 minutes: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80012166

From the description:

REEL 3 Continues: change of Yussef Ali’s award to George Cross, 1940; character of Nablus-Jenin-Tulkarum Triangle in Palestine; occasions when he clashed with Arab bands; contact with Arab Legion. Recollections of operations commanding B Sqdn, 6 Royal Tank Regt in North Africa, 1941: taking command of squadron, 5/1941; opinion of Crusader Tank; re-equipping and training squadron, 6/1941; move to wire for start of Operation Crusader; problems of losing way at night in desert; contrast between desert in Jordan and Western Desert; objectives of Operation Crusader, 11/1941; capture of Sidi Rezegh airfield; advancing to Trigh Capuzzo and opening fire on German staff car; how his tank was knocked out in wadi, 11/1941. REEL 4 Continues: his capture by Germans. Recollections of period as POW in Italy, 1941-1943:

I have previously provided the war diary of 6 R.T.R. for the operation, at this link. This shows Major Miller, OC ‘B’ Squadron as captured during the attack across the heights.

The Major’s recollection is quite good, and provides some very interesting detail on the start of the operation. The description of the battle of Sidi Rezegh is excellent, and provides a very clear tank turret view of the first two days on Sidi Rezegh.

Here is also an interview with John Fraser, who became the driver of Monty’s tank: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80010039

REEL 4 Continues: Reflections on service with General Montgomery: subsequent history of ‘Monty’ tank; question of what he personally owes to Montgomery; post-war contact with Montgomery; memories of the eve of El Alamein, 1942. Story of winning Military Medal at Sidi Rezegh, 22/11/1941. REEL 5 Continues: Story of winning Military Medal at Sidi Rezegh, 22/11/1941.

Also worth listening to. He was a driver in ‘C’ Squadron 8 R.T.R., equipped with Valentine tanks. The relevant part starts at 26:30 minutes, but other items are also interesting.

The first US Army Soldier to die in Ground Combat in WW2?

In the reports from 8th Army HQ submitted by Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US Military Attaché in Cairo, I came across a short entry about what could be the first US soldier killed in ground combat in World War 2:

Part 5. 25 November. At dawn situation was very obscure. Axis raiding force moved into Egypt at Sheferzen. Attack by RAF on column met heavy anti-aircraft fire from square 49-35; later area was bombed. Axis column overran British water point in square 50-34 captured personnel; had no transportation for prisoners, ordered them to walk west to Libya. British personnel returned to water point after column moved on, continued to function.

[…]

Our American Sergeant Delmer Parks was killed at water point square 50-34 by Axis mobile column.

8 December 1941

Location 50-34 places this location roughly at the border between Egypt and Libya, on the Egyptian side, quite far south at Sheferzen.

This incident is also covered in the official US Army history of the medical service in the Middle East, which can be found at this link:

Military personnel, although not yet engaged in actual combat, were not immune to combat wounds. The first U.S. battle casualty in the Middle East occurred less than a week after Major Sams’s arrival. S. Sgt. Delmar E. Park, a Signal Corps observer and instructor with a British combat unit, was killed by German machine-gun fire near Sidi Omar, Libya, on 27 November 1941, ten days before the United States entered the war. The Signal Corps has erected a plaque to Sergeant Parks memory at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Annual Rpt, Med Dept Activities, USAFIME, 1942, with confirmation from a Signal Corps historian.

Interestingly, nothing can be found about this soldier on the American Battle Memorial Commission website, which should be able to find his grave.

UPDATE 01-10-14

Orwell1984 from the Axis History Forum dug up the following items, for which I am very grateful:
It’s worth noting that his first name is correctly spelt Delmer and a search under this spelling brings up more information. S.Sgt Delmer Park is buried in Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery Phoenix Maricopa County, Arizona, USA, info at this link.

Link to contemporary article in St Petersburg Times, November 28 1941 detailing death of Sgt Delmar Park, 21, of Phoenix Arizona.

Link to Gettysburg Times May 30 1942 brief article explaining that an American camp in the Middle East “has been named for Sergeant Delmar Park of Phoenix Arizona, American Army tank technician”

Detail on his unit affiliation at this link:

Staff Sergeant Delmer E. Park, US Army Signal Corps ASN 6281980
142nd Armored Signal Company
Killed in Action
Sidi-Omar, Egypt
27 November 1941

Article in the Nevada State Journal Dec 1 1941 (Middle of page):

“He Deserved It”
Italians are Ired over Park’s [sic] death
Rome Nov 30
A United States Sergeant who was killed in Libya last week was fighting with the British and he ‘got what he deserved’, newspaper said today.
La Domenica, the Sunday edition of Lavera Fascista (sp?) said the sergeant’s death proved that President Roosevelt did not keep his promise of not sending an expeditionary force abroad….

It’s interesting to note an earlier article (at this link) in the same paper dated Nov 26 1941 which attributes his death to a mishap and notes his mother has been informed:

Observer Killed In Egypt Mishap WASHINGTON, 26. The war department today received word of the accidental death in Cairo, Egypt, yesterday of Staff Sgt. Delmer E. Park, U. S. army signal corps observer. His mother, Mrs. Gertrude Blanche Maddy, Box 702, Phoenix, Ariz., has been notified of his death. No further details are available at present.

The first B-17C missions in North Africa

I have previously written a bit about the use of No. 90 Squadron R.A.F.’s B-17C Fortress I heavy bombers by the R.A.F. in the run-up to CRUSADER. at this link.  Below is a bit more history on this, including the initial exchanges that led to the dispatch of the planes, at the request (and insistence) of the Air Officer Commander in Chief (A.O.C. in C.), Air Marshal Tedder. There is some interesting insight in the perception of the early versions of the B-17 and their estimated combat value in these.

So first the exchange between the Air Ministry Chief of Staff (C.A.S.) in London, and Tedder:

X.251

SECRET

CYPHER TELEGRAM

Recd. A.M.C.S. 1815 hours 29/9/41

Desp. A.M.C.S. 2055 hours 29/9/41

To: A.O.C. in C. Middle East

From: Airwhit

X.251 29/9 (Personal to A.O.C. in C. from C.A.S.)

Referring to your letter to me dated 17/9 suggesting that some of the Fortresses might be sent out to extend your daylight operations in Central Mediterranean am not clear with your proposal is prompted by view of General Brett who may have exaggerated ideal capabilities of Fortresses as seen through American eyes.

Our experience is briefly as follows:

Fortress is well-designed aircraft and Turbo-supercharged engines give her outstanding performance at height but she suffers from many tactical and technical difficulties.

Her average bomb load of 4000 lbs. makes her offensive value small and uneconomical by our standards in relation to the crew and technical maintenance requirements to keep her manned and operating.

Her defensive armament although large in terms of guns is badly mounted and extremely difficult to control. Her chances of success depend entirely on her ability to evade fighters by superior performance at height. Once intercepted Fortress has no chance against modern fighter.

Sperry sight can be used with great accuracy by trained bomb aimers up to 20,000 feet but quality of bombing falls off with height owing to physical and mental strain of operating this complex equipment as cold and rarefied air conditions increase.

Both oxygen and and petrol supplies set limits to operational range and we set this at about 500 miles radius if tactical conditions force aircraft to maintain 25,000 feet or over for any length of time.

We still have only limited experience of operating Fortress at 30,000 feet or over and she is still going through a period of teething troubles and modifications.

Maintenance difficulties are continuous and her high wing and wheel loading make it essential for her to operate from good aerodromes if frequent failures and accidents are to be avoided.

Cannot say how tyres will stand up to hard desert aerodromes but possible that runways will be essential for consistent operations.

In view of these factors would like you to reconsider extent and scope of operations for which Fortress might be used in your Command.

Agree that we could send up to 4 aircraft with trained crews for period of experimental trial. Your better weather and reduced opposition compared to Western Front should favour her employment but maintenance difficulties likely to be limiting factor.

I feel you should not expect too much of the Fortress. Our experience suggests that her value will be mainly in harassing operations for moral effect but material results will be largely fortuitous. Both are likely to be small against effort involved.

Am examining administrating and maintenance projects at once but equipment and spares are on limited scale in U.K. and duplicate sets may have to be sent you from U.S.A. Unlikely therefore that aircraft could be made available fit for full scale trial under one month.

Let me have your further views with these considerations in mind.

T. of O. 1715 GMT

And the response by Air Marshal Tedder:

WX.4769

SECRET
CYPHER TELEGRAM

To:- Air Ministry, Whitehall.

From:- H.Q. R.A.F. M.E.

Received A.M.C.S. 0450 hrs 1/10/41

AOC 257 30/9 SECRET

Personal for C.A.S. from Tedder

Your X.251 of Sept. 29. My suggestions re Fortresses based on hope that teething troubles would be nearly over. Brett has only raised question heavy bombers last few fays and is Liberator-minded, not Fortress.

Agree operational limitations are disappointing but even so average bomb load which can be delivered by day is nearly twice what 2 Wellingtons can deliver by night on Benghasi.

I feel that even spasmodic interruption at port by day would greatly increase our effect on enemy supplies added to which would be increased possibility of hitting shipping with precision day bombing.

As regards operating conditions, we have certain large landing grounds in desert where surface is good and run almost unlimited.

I think I am a realist as to what can be expected from new aircraft but would welcome experimental trial as you suggest.

Time of origin: – 1636 hrs. 30/9/41

The planes dispatched to the Middle East on the basis of this were operated by a detachment of No. 220 Squadron of R.A.F. Coastal Command. The picture below shows one of them – the caption is copied from the Imperial War Museum page hosting this photo, and contains errors.

b17

Boeing Fortress Mark I, AN532 ‘WP-J’, of No. 90 Squadron RAF/220 Squadron RAF Detachment on the ground at Shallufa, Egypt. Following the Fortress’s unsuccessful period of operations with 90 Squadron in the United Kingdom, four aircraft were detached to the Middle East in November 1941, for night bombing attacks on Benghazi and enemy shipping in the Mediterranean. On 1 December 1941, the Detachment was renamed No. 220 Squadron Detachment and AN532 was returned to the US Army Air Force shortly afterwards. From the IWM Collection (205208879).

Another piece in the puzzle can be found in the reports sent by the US military attaché in Cairo, and one of these is a 1-page memo about the initial missions of the Fortresses against targets in Libya. The missions were daylight missions, so the planes gave the R.A.F. in Egypt another tool, since the existing heavy bomber force, comprised of Vickers Wellingtons, only operated at night.

The memo on the experience is reproduced below:

No. 436

To Milid, for Arnold from Atkinson, with reference to your cable 198.

On November 1, 1941, four B-17-C airplanes arrived Middle East. Three high altitude missions have been performed since then.

November 8: Two planes took off with Benghazi, approximately 1240 miles, as a target. One plane force-landed in enemy territory 200 miles short of return base because of lack of fuel. Crew unhurt. Flying time 5 hours and 55 minutes. Plane and bombsight destroyed. Believe that errors of servicing crew and pilot largely responsible for loss of planes.

November 14: One plane with Benghazi approximately 720 miles as a target. Flying time 4 hours.

November 19: With Derna approximately 860 miles as target, one plane took off. Flying time 4 hours and 25 minutes.

1400 Imperial gallons of fuel and eight 500-pound bombs were carried by all planes.

Troubles encountered were:

1. Excessive use of oil by No. 2 and No. 3 engines, as high as 19 quarts from cause undetermined as yet.

2. One engine frozen from gummy substance which analysis revealed to be self-sealing compound from fuel tank.

3. Loss of power in engines caused by leak in exhaust manifolds.

4. Bombs hanging in racks – this has been adjusted by putting sleeves on British bombs and using American racks.

In another report dated 26 November, a short mention is made of a raid on Benghazi on 19 November, with a Fortress dropping 3x 1000 pound bombs, with results unobserved. Since that report is from the field, it is possible that there is some confusion and instead of Benghazi it should read Derna.

Finally, there is this concluding communication from Cairo to London, which confirms the issues raised initially by C.A.S.:

WX.2739

SECRET

CYPHER TELEGRAM

TO:- Air Ministry, Whitehall (R) Malta

From H.Q.R.A.F.M.E>

Received A.M.C.S. 1950 hrs 11.12.41

IMMEDIATE

AOC 425 11/12 Secret Personal for C.A.S. from Tedder

Your X.395 10/12 had this in mind and will send Fortresses to Malta as soon as possible.

Engines much overdue overhaul and in view of persistent oil consumption trouble which has made it impossible use them for operations has been necessary overhaul.

Engines overhaul being pressed on but first Fortress cannot be operational for 1 week.

Time of origin:- 1547/11 hrs

It is not clear to me then when the planes returned to the UK, but there is an indication that at least one was still in the Middle East when it was lost on 10 January to an engine fire (see this discussion).

There is some additional information on 12 o’clock high though, thanks to udf_00, at this link. Also, information at this link provided by udf_00 indicates that the last two planes hung around the Middle East until April 1942, when they went to India. Furthermore, there is a recent book (which I haven’t read or held in my hands), which I presume would have some of the operational history of these planes prior to their dispatch to North Africa.

To conclude a colour picture of a No. 220 Squadron B-17 Fortress II in flight over the beach of an island in the Hebrides.

hrbides

 A Boeing Flying Fortress Mk IIA, FK186 ‘S’, of No 220 Squadron RAF, based at Benbecula, in the Outer Hebrides, flying past a Hebridean island May 1943. Cropped from the original in the IWM Collection (205018261)

Totensonntag–the Experience of 3 R.T.R.

I have previously written about the experience of 6 New Zealand Brigade on Totensonntag, Sunday 23 November 1941 (see this link), the day that 5 South African Brigade was annihilated by the Axis forces on the airfield of Sidi Rezegh.  I have also written about the Italian Ariete armoured division’s fight on the day, at this link.

The entry below is dealing with the experience of the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Tank Regiment (3.R.T.R.), two officers of which left excellent literary testimony (see also this older entry). While their accounts are more entertaining to read, I still believe in having a look into the primary sources, also because they help clear things up in terms of what happened and what the intent was. When I went through this one, I was quite astonished by the detail, and in particular the riveting story of A Squadron’s day, and how it was rescued by Lt. Johnson.

What is interesting about this is the severe petrol problem faced by the high-consuming, but low tank-volume US-built M3 Stuart tanks, who essentially seem to have been good for a day’s fighting, but then had to be refilled.

Below, the original diary is in the left and centre column, while my comments and analysis based on researching other sources are to the right.

In the Field

Ref. Map 1/250,000 SALUM – TOBRUK

Editor’s Notes

Time

Events

Day 6, 23 November B Echelon
0700 Moved to area 446368. Shelled near 446375, no casualties. NW of Gabr Saleh
A and B1 Echelons This covers only HQ, B and C Squadrons. For A Sqdrn. see below.
0530 Ten tanks then with Bn HQ moved on bearing 210 until reaching right flank of a S. African Bde in area HAAREIFAT EN NBEIDAT 435399 Location is just south of the airfield. This was 5 S.A. Bde., and is the first time it appears in the War Diary.
0745 Following orders, moved to join 4 A.B. in area HAGFET EL ZGHEMIL EL GARBIA 432392 About 8km south of Sidi Rezegh, so away from the battle. It is not clear who gave these orders. Orders to 4 Armoured Brigade were to guard the right flank of the force of Sidi Rezegh. 4 Armoured Brigade War Diary doesmention 3 R.T.R. was ordered to protect the leaguer of 7 Support Group, which was located at 428393. This appears to be close enough.
0800 While passing through S.African column were suddenly confronted with mass rush N.W. of our own troops and found ourselves in action against large enemy tank force, at least 50 in number. Engaged with assistance of artillery and A/T guns and found that 2 i/c 3 R.T.R. had joined us with a few tanks. This battle was fought with 15. Panzerdivision. It is possiblethat the CO of the 1st Battalion Panzerregiment 8, Major Fenski, died in this fight.
1130 Enemy driven off – much jubilation – our total force was ten tanks – only 8 “runners” and ammunition and petrol very low. Filled up partially with Grade III petrol. Kept constant watch during rest of morning and early afternoon. Support Group came through – intermittent shelling on both sides. There is nothing on this fight in the combat reports of the Germans, but the war diary entry of 15. Panzerdivision indicates that this wasn’t an easy fight.

Grade III petrol was the one with the lowest octane number, while the M3 tank required avgas for its aero engine.

1600 Large enemy column observed approaching from S.W. at least 100 tanks. This was the main body of the D.A.K. and the Ariete Division attacking from the south.
1630 3 R.T.R. engaged until ammunition ran out – little heavy fire from enemy.
1700 We withdrew East and contacted New Zealand Bde. where we spent the night. ATLAS was endeavouring to replenish us on orders from General Gott. Approx. location 443400 – South of CARMUSET EN NEBIDAT. About 10km east of Sidi Rezegh. Probably 6 N.Z. Brigade, but nothing about this in its records.
In the field
23 November Report by O.C. “A” Squadron – separated from Bn. on 22 Nov.
Only about 10 miles of petrol left at dawn. Formed a composite Sqn. with five of my Sqn. tanks and five of 5 R.T.R. Moved to take up a position right of 4 R.H.A. at about 0700 hrs. Very large column of tanks and guns seen on right flank, ordered to stop lead of column, shelled heavily and accurately. Column after running half a mile had a further line of half a mile running at 90 degrees to the right. Turned right to stop lead. Still shelled. Informed our “A.15” Sqn. of cavalry on the way of the position, who said they would help. This never happened. Engaged enemy tanks on their left flank but was shelled out of it, had to withdraw. Now only about 4 miles of petrol left. Then chased by 12 to 15 German Mk. IV tanks and shelled heavily from three sides. Withdrew being shelled and chased. At this stage four of my tanks (5 R.T.R.) did not follow. Was joined by some tanks of Major Witheridge’s (“C” Sqn.) composite Sqn. Three tanks fell out with no petrol. As soon as the enemy tanks stopped, two more tanks ran out of petrol, came on a “B” Sqn. tank with Sgt. Blackwell (“B” Sqn.) badly wounded inside it. The C.O. of this Squadron was Major Wilson. The tank commanders of 6 5 R.T.R. tanks presumed to be with 3 R.T.R. were:
Capt. S.J. Hennings
Sgt. Meyler
Sgt. Ford
Sgt. James
Sgt. Hall
Sgt. Feys

Only Sgt. Meyler was lost on the day, two of the tanks returned (Hennings and Hall), the remaining three crews returned without their tanks.

approx. 1045 Stopped the party – found all tanks had only about 1 to 2 miles of petrol in them – total strength of tanks was 8. I decided that as we were completely surrounded and had no petrol and only a stumped (?) amount of ammunition to try and save the tanks and personnel if possible. Plan was to leave the tanks to look like derelicts and the crews to lie down about 800 yds. from their tanks and to remain still. This was done. The Germans then sent up an armoured O.P. which came within 300 yds. and we were very heavily shelled, but no damage was done. Shelled again in about 3/4 of an hour – no damage. Lay still until dark. German patrols and artillery were within 800 yds. of us all day, but must have considered tanks derelict. At darkness called up Bn. on the wireless and eventually got a reply from Sgt. Ward, Bn. Signal Sgt. I told him I wanted petrol and talked to Lt. Johnson. He brought it to us arriving at about 0115 hours having come through enemy territory and travelled 25 miles being guided by very lights fired by me and talking on the wireless. We filled up and left at 0300 hours 24 Nov. (see D.7 24 Nov.).
In the field
23 November B Echelon
Remained in area 446368
Report by Lt. Johnson B. Echelon
During the morning I was sent by Cmdr. B Echelon with a replenishing party for the 3 R.T.R. in a northerly direction towards Sidi Rezegh area. After travelling about three quarters of the distance I was unable to proceed further owing to the battle situation. I could not find HQ 4 A.B., but contacted HQ 7 A.B. who gave me the general direction of where 4 A.B. might be found. I eventually found Bde. H.Q. but they did not know where 3 R.T.R. were. At that moment some German tanks attempted to break through and I was instructed to commend all the replenishing vehicles that were there ( 3 R.T.R., 5 R.T.R., detached (?) Scots Gds and R.A.M.C.) and to stay there until an escort of tanks arrived to stay there to guard me. The tanks never arrived. When darkness fell I formed a  close leaguer and posted sentries. Meanwhile I had instructed Sgt. Ward (R.C. of Signals) who was in my party to try and contact Bn. H.Q. on the wireless. At 1900 hrs. he made contact with A Sqn. and after establishing an identity we learnt that they were stranded with eight tanks without petrol and had been like that all day. They did not know their position, but by means of a fire which we both could see I was able to take bearings and roughly estimate their position which from our calculations was about twelve miles away and near Sidi REZEGH aerodrome. I started out at 2030 hrs. with 2/Lt. G.H. Barker (whom I had picked up earlier in the day) as my wireless operator and Sgt. Ward as driver of the wireless truck and one ammunition and one petrol lorry. I left the remainder of the vehicles under command of an officer of the Scots Guards. I reached the first objective (the fire) after travelling about 10 miles and then I asked “A” Sqn. for a verey light so as to get a bearing on their position. We saw the flare a very long way away so we continued on our course. We had to deviate from our course several times so as to avoid passing through enemy leaguers and tanks. After we had crossed a landing ground we asked for another verey light and while waiting for it I found that we had stopped within 75 yds. of two German tanks with what appeared to be the crews sleeping by them. I debated whether or not to shoot the crews, but decided it would make too much noise and attract attention, this lessening my chances of getting “A” Sqn. out of their position. I finally located “A” Sqn. at midnight after travelling twenty five miles and found Major Wilson, Major Witheridge, Lt. Denning, 2/Lt. Deer, and S.S.M. Dean with eight tanks and crews and badly wounded Sgt. Blackwell who had a fractured skull.

 

Making Sense of the Tobruk Breakout

I have written a few posts about the Tobruk breakout (see here, here, here, and here), and thought a map and a complete overview of the code names for the objectives maybe helpful. This is from 14 Brigade, 32 Army Tank Brigade, and Division z.b.V. war diaries, so about as good as it gets. Corrections welcome however.

First the map – this is a second-stage map with the new code-names in black, and the old ones pencilled in. The line of red dots to the north-west are the fortifications of the perimeter. The double-lined road to thenorth-east is the road to Bardia. The road in the south-east corner, covered partially by the LEOPARD position, is the Axis by-pass road.

Click on the map to open it in full size.

breakout

 

Now for the codenames.  Note that for location, higher numbers are further east, and further north. The table below merges information from 14 Brigade war diary, the war diary of 32 Army Tank Brigade, the war diary of Division z.b.V., and a report on the actions of the Bologna division. The strongpoints are listed beginning in the west, and then moving in an arc to finish with the north-easternmost strongpoint. One item of note is that the relatively small size of the strongpoints on the British map was highly misleading. Judging by the German map it appears that the arc from west of TUGUN to BUTCH was almost continuous, and covered from the rear by artillery placed in rearward strongpoints.

There is some confusion about the Belhamed, which is clearly labelled as ‘LEOPARD’ by 14 Brigade, but called GIANT by 32 Army Tank Brigade. Also, I have previously not been aware of the new code name for Sidi Rezegh, OGRE.

Objective Name

Objective Name from 26 Nov.41

Location

Location

Map

Occupant

Axis Name

Original

New

East- West North- South  

If known

 
PLONK SNOWHITE 413 419 n/k Italian, Pavia n/k
BONDI QUEEN 414 416 Walled Village Italian, Pavia n/k
TUGUN SLEEPY 418 418 Bir Bu Assatein Italian, Pavia Posns. 21, 13, 14
DALBY SQUARE DOC 418 414   Italian, Pavia Posn. 4
LION BASHFUL 421 415 Bir Ghersa   Posn. 10
CUB? CAT? 422 416     n/k
BUTCH DOPEY 422 420 Bir Suesi German, Div. z.b.V. Posn. 19
JILL n/a 422 418 Pt. 145 German, Div. z.b.V. and Bologna Posn. 15 (Bologna), 26, 18 (German)
TIGER SNEEZY 423 417   Italian, Bologna Posn. 3
JACK HAPPY 424 419 Pt. 146 German, Div. z.b.V. Posn. 11
WOLF GRUMPY 426 414 Carmuset Bel Udih Italian, Bologna Fico (Fig Tree)
  LEOPARD/ GIANT 428 413 Belhamed Italian, Bologna Belhamed
TOAST DWARF     Ed Duda German, Arko 104, Div. z.b.V. Ed Duda
  OGRE     Sidi Rezegh   Sidi Rezegh
  CHEERFUL 428 416   German, Div. z.b.V. 900
  FREDDIE 428 418   Italian, Bologna 6
  WALTER 428 420   German, Div. z.b.V. 5

 

Below map shows the concept of 14 Brigade’s operations.

breakout2

Battalion Kolbeck–The other side of the Hill

I have previously written about the failed attack of Battalion Kolbeck, a last throw of the dice by the Axis on the Tobruk front, at this link. Tom has now been kind enough to type up the war diary of the 2nd Beds & Herts Regiment, an infantry battalion, and provide it to me.  The Beds & Herts, in 14 Infantry Brigade, 70 Division, Tobruk Fortress,  were at the receiving end of this failed attempt to push in the Tobruk garrison’s position in the wake of the defeat of the 2nd New Zealand Division on the Zaafran (see this link).

1 December 1941 Bir Bel Hamed

0200 Bn arrives at new area. Coys are placed in position. Consolidation commences at once. Work is immediately carried out on the completion of a protective minefield which runs right along the Eastern side of the “Corridor” to the foot of the escarpment at BEL HAMED.

0630 Sounds of a battle are heard coming from the direction of BEL HAMED. Impossible to see what is occurring owing to the fact that the Bn’s position is so low and is dominated by the escarpment. Tanks are occasionally observed, but they confine their activities to the top of the escarpment.

0730 Lt-Col Hassell is evacuated to TOBRUCH on account of sickness. Command of the Bn devolves upon Major R.A.W. Stevenson.

It is now obvious that the enemy has launched a heavy dawn attack on the BEL HAMED feature, supported by tanks.

A large number of transport vehicles come back through the Bn positions. They are intercepted and re-directed towards TOBRUCH.

0740 “Stops” are placed on all tracks leading towards the Bn area to control “refugees”. It is impossible to collect coherent information regarding the position on the escarpment but it is possible to understand that the New Zealand Bde has been rather badly cut up.

0815 Twelve 25-pdrs and crews are collected and taken under command together with one troop of A.A. Bredas.

The Bn is now acting as a rallying point.

One Coy 2/13 Aust Inf Bn is rallied and used to stiffen “A” Coy’s front, which is directly opposed to the enemy’s presumed line of advance.

18th New Zealand Bn withdraws down the escarpment but rallys [sic] on the Bn position and is used to extend “A” Coy’s front to the South West and along the line of the road back on to the escarpment.

1445 The sounds of battle gradually grow dim. It is impossible to conjecture why the enemy did not come forward to the edge of the escarpment when he would have placed this Bn in a most invidious position, as the escarpment dominates every single position in the Bn area.

The position is now stabilised with 18th New Zealand Bn established on the edge of the escarpment to the EAST of “A” Coy and the Bn established as shown in “Annexure A”.

1449 Commander 1st R.H.A. arrives and takes over command of the 25-pounders.

1515 Enemy commence counter-battery shoot on the 25-pdr battery which is forced to withdraw from its forward position.

The situation is now defined as follows:-

(a) The position held by the Bn is organised for all round defence both for each Company and the Bn as a whole.

(b) The Anti-Tank defence of the Bn is strong, consisting of 10 2-pdr anti-tank guns and a continuous anti-tank minefield extending along the whole of the North front.

(c) 18th New Zealand Bn is in position on the edge of the escarpment so preventing observation of the Bn area from that position.

BUT

(i) The Bn area is dominated by the BEL HAMED feature.

(ii) 18th New Zealand Bn are tired.

(iii) 18th New Zealand Bn are only holding a small area on the escarpment.

THEREFORE

(i) It is essential that 18th New Zealand Bn area should be as strong as possible.

(ii) If the enemy advances to the BEL HAMED feature and occupies it, both the 18th New Zealand Bn area and this Bn’s area would be untenable.

1645 Orders are received from Bde H.Q. to be prepared to withdraw to a position in rear of TIGER during the night.

1730 C.O. (Major R.A.W. Stevenson) holds conference at Bn HQ in preparation for withdrawal. This conference is attended by all Company Commanders.

1800 Orders received from Bde H.Q. that there will be NO withdrawal. The Bn is ordered to consolidate on the present position.

1815 “B” Coy report movement of tanks and infantry to their front, i.e. to NORTH.

“A” Coy report movement of tanks and infantry in valley to the north of their area.

1822 “A” and “B” Coys report that they are being heavily attacked by enemy infantry supported by tanks.

1827 18th New Zealand Bn report that they are also being attacked on their left rear (from NW?). It appears that the greater part of the weight of the enemy attack is falling on “B” Coy which is in a rather isolated position.

1905 It appears that a party of New Zealanders may be trying to make contact with the TOBRUCH forces. This leads to confusion and doubt as to whether the attack launched on “A” and “B” Coys might be by own troops. Fortunately “A” Coy are able to ascertain definitely that the attacks are definitely GERMAN.

1907 Artillery defensive fire falls on defensive line laid down; 300 yds in front of “B” Coy.

It can be stated here that the thought of friendly troops being involved in this attack cannot possibly have arisen if full information were available.

1925 One Platoon detached from “D” Coy to strengthen “B” Coy. This Platoon fails to reach “B” Coy’s area. Communication with “B” Coy by ‘phone is cut.

2000 It is definitely established that “B” Coy’s position has been over-run by the enemy.

Communication with Bde H.Q. has been precarious throughout the whole day. At the most critical period both W/T and L/T communication broke down completely, hence causing the embarrassing delay in obtaining artillery defensive fire.

2005 Stragglers from “B” Coy arrive at Bn H.Q. and “D” Coy.

An additional complication is now presented. Owing to the break down in communication with Bde H.Q., the ration convoy has arrived in the Bn Area. It was stopped by “D” Coy and the rations have been dumped in that area. A system of policing and checking ration convoys in areas in proximity to the enemy must be established, preferably controlled by Brigade Headquarters.

The situation is examined and found to be as follows:-

(a) “B” Coy area is in enemy hands.

(b) Enemy attack is held up in front of “A” Coy and left rear of 18th New Zealand Bn.

(c) The enemy is in a position to exploit attack on “B” Coy to take Bn H.Q. and attack “C” Coy from rear or avoid that Coy altogether.

2015 “A” Coy and 18th New Zealand Bn report that enemy are no longer pressing attack but are evidently “digging in” in triangle between “A” Coy and 18th New Zealand Bn.

2020 There is no sign of the enemy exploiting from “B” Coy area. His information must be vague regarding our dispositions.

2300 The following plan is put into operation:-

(a) The salient formed by “B” Coy area is to be “sealed off” by an anti-tank minefield of Italian box mines, single row at four yards spacing.

(b) “C” Coy (less one Platoon) to be moved to a position 150 yds N.E. of Bn H.Q. commanding the re-entrant to the rear (SOUTH) of “B” Coy area.

(c) One Platoon to remain in original “C” Coy area for the local protection of the anti-tank gun detachment (two guns).

(d) Should there be no further advance by the enemy from “B” Coy area all available weapons will fire on that area from first light.

2330 Work on minefield commences. This is carried out within 100 yds from the enemy who can be plainly heard by the working party.

There is no opposition either to the mine laying party or to the move of “C” Coy (less one Platoon) in spite of the fact that, in the former case, a 30-cwt lorry had to be used for transporting the anti-tank mines.

2 December 1941 BIR BEL HAMED

0145 Arrangements detailed above are completed.

0614 There is not sufficient light to reveal the enemy. It is estimated that there are about 400 men in “B” Coy’s former position and about 1200 in front of “A” Coy between the line of “AXIS” road and the Western edge of the escarpment.

All available weapons are brought to bear on the enemy on all fronts.

The enemy has brought forward Anti-tank guns. These are silenced within a very short period of time by accurate Bren gun fire. He has three tanks which cruise along the front “hull down”. One is knocked out by a well aimed round from the detachment of the Polish Anti-Tank Battery.

The situation as far as we are concerned is extremely good.

(i) The minefield has not been penetrated.

(ii) The enemy in front of “A” Coy are caught in enfilade and are also over-looked by the 18th New Zealand Bn.

(iii) The enemy on “B” Coy’s position are on a forward slope, on which excellent observation is obtained both by “C” Coy and Bn HQ (which is now a fighting unit).

The fire of all arms brought to bear on the enemy must be devastating. In particular it is necessary to mention the effect of well controlled Mortar fire.

0630 Artillery fire is brought down on “B” Coy’s area.

0720 Enemy commences to withdraw. In front of “A” Coy he endeavours to put up a smoke screen, which is not effective.

0723 One detachment of the mortar platoon is moved forward from “D” Coy area to a position from which observation on the enemy can be obtained.

0730 The enemy is definitely beaten off. He is using dead ground in front of “B” Coy area to re-form. This area is heavily mortared and shelled by us.

0747 Artillery fire is shifted to the area in front of “A” Coy. Fire is controlled by O.C. “A” Coy by ‘phone to F.O.O. at Bn HQ, who in turn relays by W/T to his battery.

0817 Orders are given to Carrier Platoon (now only two bren carriers strong) to follow up the retreat of the enemy. Unfortunately one bren carrier runs onto our own minefield and is put out of action.

OBSERVATIONS.

(a) ENEMY.

(i) It appears that he had no information of our dispositions.

(ii) He “sat down” after over-running “B” Coy instead of exploiting his success which would have carried him right through the Bn defensive position.

(b) OWN TROOPS.

(i) Defensive works must be orgoinously [sic] developed.

(ii) The labour in laying the anti-tank minefield on nights 30 Nov/1 Dec and 1/2 Dec was amply repaid.

(iii) Defensive fire by Bn weapons MUST be co-ordinated most carefully, for mutual support. This should be the first task on taking up a defensive position. In this connection it should be remembered that mortars, also, must be given definite “fixed line” tasks.

(iv) Unless a most careful reconnaissance and rehearsal has been held, it is impracticable to re-inforce or counter-attack by night.

(v) The Bn’s task was greatly facilitated by the total absence of enemy artillery fire.

RESULTS OF OPERATIONS.

Estimated casualties to enemy – Killed 60 (32 confirmed)

Wounded 200 (87 confirmed)

Prisoners about 50 (including wounded)

Captured equipment – 4 anti-tank guns.

A large number of assorted automatic weapons.

One light tank.

Nine vehicles.

Own Casualties. – One killed.

Eight missing.

Remainder of day is spent in further consolidation of Bn position.

2045 Bn stands by for a further attack. Attack fails to materialize on Bn front.