Article – 4 Armd Bde against KG Stephan, 19 Nov 41

Article – 4 Armd Bde against KG Stephan, 19 Nov 41

Background

The draft article linked below offers a new view on the first armoured clash of Operation CRUSADER, and comments are welcome. It raises questions regarding the traditional view of Operation CRUSADER, in particular regarding the planning stage on the Empire side, and the assessment of this first battle of the US-built M3 Stuart tank, and the combat performance of British tank regiments.

Click here to download the article: 4 Armoured Brigade on 19 Nov

stuarts.jpg

Stuart Tanks of 8 Kings Royal Irish Hussars on maneuvers in the western desert, August 1941

Fact and Fiction and Alan Moorehead – 19 November 1941

Fact and Fiction and Alan Moorehead – 19 November 1941

The first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with German tanks is probably best remembered for Alan Moorehead’s vivid description of the battle on 19 November, which evokes memories of Trafalgar with tanks going side-by-side, and cavalry charging enemy lines – probably intentionally so.

Moorehead claims to have been an eyewitness from the location of 7 Armoured Division’s battle H.Q. – a claim that seems improbable, if not impossible, given the locations and distances involved. His description of the battle in The Desert Trilogy is below:

Gatehouse […] lifted up his radio mouthpiece and gave his order. At his command the Honey’s did something that tanks don’t do in the desert anymore. They charged. It was novel, reckless, impetuous and terrific. They charged straight into the curtain of dust and fire that hid the German tanks and guns. They charged at speeds of nearly forty miles an hour and some of them came right out the other side of the German lines. Then they turned and charged straight back again. They passed the German Mark IVs and Mark IIIs at a few hundred yards, near enough to fire at point-blank range and see their shell hit and explode.

There are a few improbables here that bear correcting. First, Moorehead was probably over 10km away, so it is doubtful whether he could see what Brigadier Gatehouse was doing. Second, the maximum road speed of the M3 was 36 miles per hour. Even on relatively smooth desert ground it would have been less. Thirdly, the battle was fought at a much more normal engagement range of no less than 700 yards which while short, is not yard arm-to-yard arm point blank. Finally and most importantly, there was no M3 Stuart charge into the enemy tanks. The Stuart tanks of 8 Hussars advanced towards the advancing German tanks, but they had reached their ordered position when the German tanks came within gun range[1].

While the passage by Moorehead is great journalism, and has certainly inspired many young readers about the exploits of British tanks in the desert, it is unfortunately likely to be what we would call ‘fake news’ today, and what was propaganda then. An analysis of the war diaries of the participating units makes it clear that events did not happen as described by Moorehead. In fact the only ones who actually sought to get stuck in closely were the Germans, as the passage from the 8 Hussars war diary below shows.

The enemy force consisted off between 70 and 100 MkIII tanks, supported by MkIVs. They advanced in a compact formation from the North. When within 1,500 yds of our position, they opened out to a certain extent and commenced to fire. Their shooting was very accurate and a number of our tanks were laid out before they came within effective range of our guns. They advanced to within about 700yds, but did not make any attempt to come much closer, except in the later stages of the battle, when they made an attempt to break through on our left flank, which position was being held by 5RTR.

This is also confirmed by the war diary of Panzerregiment 5. While not much is written on the form of the action in the war diaries for 19 November, the Panzerregiment 5 report for the morning fight of 20 November indicates the methods that the veteran tankers and cavalrymen of 4 Armoured Brigade used.

The opponent fought highly mobile and on longer distances, evading the regiment, which advanced to a better firing distance, towards the southeast, and attempted, fighting across the widest possible front, to envelop on the right (west).

A  considerably better observation of the battle is provided by the US observer(s) present with 4 Armoured Brigade to observe the M3 Stuart tank being taken into action for the first time. This was relayed to Washington on 30 November 1941 by the US Military Attaché in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers[2]:

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

[…]

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 tanks, tank fires, broken turret rungs and damaged suspension system. Apparently armor plate quality superior to that of German.

30 November 1941

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

[…]

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.[3]

 

Footnotes

The featured picture shows 8 Hussars training in the western desert, 28 August 1941. IWM E5062

[1] It is also doubtful whether any sane M3 Stuart commander would have fired shell, rather than shot, at German tanks.

[2] This was probably read with great interest in Rome and Rommel’s command post. At this stage, the Italians had cracked the US ‘Black Code’ and were regularly and quickly reading any correspondence sent in it. 

[3] If this is correct as a maximum engagement range then it suggests that 8 Hussars were facing tanks with only 30mm of frontal armour, which in turn suggests Panzer IIIG or Panzer IVD. Panzerregiment 5 still had some of the older G model.

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Running out of tanks – 4 Armoured Brigade 19/20 November

Introduction

This article started off because of a note in the high-level traffic files of 8 Army on a request by 4 Armoured Brigade to scour the Delta for additional M3 Stuart tanks[1] and ammunition for their 37mm guns. The battle that gave rise to the phone conversation was fought over two days, with the initial contact between the forces occurring at or just after 1600 hours on 19 November, and combat broken off due to failing light about 2-2.5 hours later. Combat then recommenced the next morning, when both sides found that their night leaguers were just 3 miles away from each other. At the end of the two days, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the M3 Stuart tank reserve and also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure. This prompted the phone conversation that gave rise to this article, appended at the end of this article. An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each[2].

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

 

The note that started the research, from the situation reports of 8 Army, is below.

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

———————–

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of M3 gun ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

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Bombay Mark I, L5845 ‘D’, of No. 216 Squadron RAF, undergoing engine maintenance at Marble Arch Landing Ground, Tripolitania, while engaged on the transportation and resupply of No. 239 Wing RAF, the first Allied fighter wing to operate from the landing ground after its capture on 17 December 1942. Courtesy IWM

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[3] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[4] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[5]

We have published an in-depth analysis of the first day of 4 Armoured Brigade’s two-day battle with Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November at this link

The purpose of the expanded article is to analyse in detail the events surrounding the first clash of 4 Armoured Brigade with the enemy, in the process also correcting what I perceive as errors in the historical record that have affected the view we hold of it, and to offer a new perspective that raises questions about both the performance of British armoured units at regimental level, and that of the 21.Panzerdivision

Endnotes

[1] Confusingly, the US forces used ‘M3’ to name the M3 Stuart light tank, the M3 Medium tank (both Grant and Lee versions), the M3 37mm gun, and the M3 75mm gun. Troops nicknamed the M3 Stuart the ‘Honey’ because of the smooth and untroubled ride it provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.
[2]If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’
[3]Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.
[4]Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles
[5]Railhead

 

Operational Report 7th Queen’s Own Hussars December 1941

Operational Report 7th Queen’s Own Hussars December 1941

Background

The 7 Queen’s Own Hussars were one of the cruiser-equipped armoured regiments in 7 Armoured Brigad, 7 Armoured Division, the famous “Desert Rats”, under 30 Corps, Eighth Army.  The regiment did not have a happy operation, and by 27th November was moved to the Left Out of Battle (L.O.B.) camp near Bir Telata, after the last three tanks had been evacuated.  It then formed a composite squadron of Stuart tanks, which was instructed by US soldiers.

The action on 21st November referred to in the report below left the regiment with only 12 to 20 tanks (instead of a normal state of close to 60 – only 1 tank had been lost until then), and the regimental commander Lt.Col. Byass DSO MC was killed. 

I will post further information on this engagement another day.

After these few days of battle, the regiment did not return to the desert for a while, and was instead fully re-equipped with US-built M3 Stuart tanks, and sent to Burma, to hold the Japanese assault in South Asia.It then returned to Europe and saw the end of the war in Italy. Together with 2 R.T.R. is thus one of the few tank regiments to have fought in North Africa, Burma, and Europe.

Crusader

Crusader tanks moving to forward positions in the Western Desert, unknown unit, 26 November 1941. IWM Photo No.: E 6724[1]

OPERATIONAL REPORT, 7th QUEEN’S OWN HUSSARS DECEMBER, 1941.

Reference the attached report of Operations carried out by this Regiment between November 18th, and November 29th, 1941, I append a few remarks in amplification of the report.

(1) German methods of tank warfare.

In the initial stages the enemy appeared to move his tank force in a concentrated mass. The column which attacked 7th Hussars on November 21st was a densely packed tank force numbering some 150 tanks. (N.B. These were actually counted approximately and this figure does not include tanks out of sight.) A/Tank and/or field guns appeared to be up with the tanks. Thus the full weight of attack of what may have been over half the total enemy tank strength descended on one British Regiment. Had close artillery support, i.e. 25 – pounder guns up in line with the 7th Hussars been available at the commencement of the engagement, very heavy destruction of enemy tanks must have resulted owing to their close formation. The enemy opened fire at long range and several tanks of the 7’h Hussars were destroyed before they could close to effective 2 – pounder range. The enemy appeared to fire three distinct types of ammunition.

(a) An ordinary H.E. shell – either from guns mounted in tanks or from artillery up with the tanks.

(b) An A/Tank armour-piercing shot, varying in destructive power, probably from different types of gun.

(c) An incendiary shell which on explosion generated terrific heat and caused our tanks to catch fire, even though the shell hit the front of the turret.

After 21st November, the German tank force appeared to split up into smaller columns which on the following days engaged unprotected M.T. Echelons and was a source of danger to our communications and higher headquarters.

(2) A separate report has been rendered regarding certain technical difficulties experienced with the A 15 Cruiser tanks.

(3) It is suggested that the following lessons were brought out during the operations:

(a) The importance of keeping sufficiently concentrated to maintain numerical superiority in the initial engagement against the enemy’s main force.

(b) The necessity for early information regarding the enemy’s movements – in particular those of his main force. Information on November 21 S` arrived too late for 7th Armoured Brigade to concentrate.

(c) Unless and until we have a tank gun which can equal that of the most modern German tanks opposed to us, 25 – pounder support under direct control of Regimental Commanders is essential. At 2,000 yards over open sights the 25 – pounder is a good A/Tank weapon, (vide subsequent action of the 4th Indian Division, R.A., which destroyed some 17 enemy tanks for the loss of only four guns). Desultory shelling at long range by 25 – pounders against enemy A.F.V.s is of little or no value.

(d) Tanks of a Regiment should be all of the same type. 7th Hussars went into action with a mixture of A 15, A 13, and A 10 Cruiser tanks. Even the A 15 tanks were of different makes and certain gun spares were non-interchangeable.

(e) A Echelons should be reduced to the minimum required for immediate replenishment, medical services and repairs to tanks. A Echelons are very vulnerable and, being close up behind the A.F.V.s are liable to be cut off by enemy columns. A small A Echelon can escape more easily than a large one.

(f) All B vehicles not with the A Echelons should be with Brigade B Echelons. Intermediate Echelons are not practicable and merely constitute further vulnerable bodies of M.T. liable to become cut off and lost.

(g) In open desert warfare, B Echelons will frequently, once the main tank forces have joined in battle, not be able to replenish units at night. Indication of leaguer location by firing verey lights is dangerous.

ABBASSIA, December, 1941.

(Signed) Major Commanding 7th Queen’s Own Hussars.

[1]I am not convinced that this picture is correctly dated, since the tanks do not show the CRUSADER operational white/red/white stripe marking that was to be prominently displayed.