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

Innovation in Action – Airborne Artillery Spotting

Innovation in Action – Airborne Artillery Spotting

Background

Operation CRUSADER saw a range of innovations on the Empire side, in particular related to the integration of air/land battle. In a previous post I have provided some information on the arrangements for close air support by strike aircraft (see this link). I have also written up a book review of Mike Bechtold’s excellent ‘ Flying to Victory’ at this link). Finally, I have provided some analysis of how effective close air support was at this link.

This entry concerns itself with another form of support, the utilization of aircraft to spot for artillery batteries. It is something taken for granted today, and indeed became a major feature of the war on the Allied side by 1944, with the famous Auster aircraft carrying spotter/pilots and enabling Allied artillery to strike at will on the battlefield.

In 1941, this kind of support was by no means as well developed, but it nevertheless was utilised by Army Cooperation (AC) squadrons at least. These squadrons flew a range of planes, including Westland Lysanders, and Hawker Hurricanes. Two designated squadrons were operational in Operation CRUSADER, one for each of the British Army Corps – No. 208 Squadron R.A.F. and No. 451 Squadron R.A.A.F. They carried out short-range reconnaissance, message delivery flights, and other duties. 

451 squadron

Hurricane Tac. R Mark I, Z4641, of No. 451 Squadron RAAF, in flight during a reconnaissance sortie over Libya, with another aircraft of the Squadron acting as a ‘sweeper’ in the background. The pilot is Flight Lieutenant G F Morley-Mower[1]. (IWM CM2206)

451 Squadron R.A.A.F. (AC) on 30 December 1941

Just prior to 30 December, No.451 Squadron had been relieved in Cyrenaica by No. 208 Squadron, and returned to the Libyan-Egyptian border, subordinated to 30 Corps for the operation against Bardia/Halfaya that was about to begin. 30 December was a busy day for the squadron, with nine sorties in total. The squadron was based at Sidi Azeiz, ironically until 18 November the base for 2.(H)/14, Panzergruppetactical reconnaissance unit. Sorties on the day were as follows:

General Reconnaissance

SGT.WATTS carried out a tactical reconnaissance of BARDIA. One small ship in 51963957. One large moving from shore at 51943965.

One small moron boat moving about in harbour towards East headland.

Medium A/A from harbour vicinity. A/A positions at 517398

SGT. HOWLANDS carried out a Photographic reconnaissance. After landing at L.G.75 had abandon photographs owing to bad weather. Dummy railhead[2] reported easily distinguishable. 

F/LT. MORLEY-MOWER carried out a photographic reconnaissance, did not quite cover area due to bad weather.

P/O. HUTLEY carried out a tactical reconnaissance of BARDIA area. Small craft reported in harbour sunk.

Bardia451

Bardia Area, Empire 1942 map utilizing the same coordinate system as report below. Red dots mark artillery strike locations. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Artillery Spotting

P/O. ACHILLES carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged and registered target S.B.

F/LT. SPRINGBETT carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Targets T.D. 51673947 and T/F/ 51483908 engaged.

P/O.MACDONALD carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. 4 gun pits 52063874 and MET[3] – tents 52093885, successfully engaged.

P/O. ROBERTSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA HARBOUR. Ships spotted, not engaged, faulty R/T.[4]

LT. THOMPSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA HARBOUR. Engaged one ship successfully, 1 direct hit under water line. A/A 88 and Breda[5]

P/O.HUDSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged dump 51503990 satisfactorily. Heavy explosion observed at 51354013 by ranging rounds.[6]

F/LT. FERGUSON carried out an artillery reconnaissance BARDIA. Engaged 4 tanks 51483942, fire ineffective due to movement of tanks and bad R/T.

[1]Flight Lieutenant Morley-Mower served with 451 Squadron in December 1941. This and the type of plane makes me think this picture dates to CRUSADER.

[2]This refers to the Empire dummy railhead at Sidi Barrani.

[3] Motor Enemy Transport

[4]Radio Transmitter

[5]Meaning heavy (88mm) and light (20mm) anti-air guns engaged him.

[6]Marked by red X on the map.

 

 

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.

War Pictorial News 26

The IWM holds the newsreels. No sound, but in a way that’s not so unfortunate if you know what you’re looking at, because it takes away the pathos and the received pronounciation.

This one shows quite a few interesting things. ‘Bush’ artillery (captured Italian guns) being fired; a quite comprehensively destroyed Panzer IV; the bombed out wreck of the Italian navy’s obsolete armoured cruiser San Giorgio, amongst others.

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060007261

Well worth your time!

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].

Large 000001

‘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.

Large 000005

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

 

German tank flag signals

This document is from the war diary of the H.Q. of 7 Armoured Division, December 1941. It’s the first time I have seen this, and it is unusual in that it is in colour. Very few documents are. Signalling in a tank battle was of course a challenge with the means of communication available in 1941, and so even though German tanks were equipped with radio sets, these were not always reliable due to atmospheric conditions, they could be jammed (something the Empire forces attempted through the use of some specially equipped Vickers Wellingtons during CRUSADER), and networks could be overloaded. Flags were therefore a low-tech fallback, but of course suffered from their own issues – difficult to use in failing light, impossible in the dark, and affected by ground conditions, e.g. when lots of dust was thrown up.

Usual health warning applies: this is a wartime document based on intelligence assessments. It may well be wrong, and the Germans only had flags in their tanks so they could engage in a Maibaumtanz.

German Flags

Operations of Italian XXI Corps in the Western Desert and Tripolitania  – Report by Lt. Gen. Enea Navarini

Operations of Italian XXI Corps in the Western Desert and Tripolitania – Report by Lt. Gen. Enea Navarini

 

 

I received the report below for translation from David Katz, who was then researching his book on the South African participation in North Africa, since published. David had helped me with access to war diaries of South African forces, so it was natural that I was only too happy to return the favor. The report is held at the South African military archives in Jo’Burg. I have to apologize for the low quality of the translation. Italian is not my native tongue, and while my Italian wife showed a certain forbearance, that only went so far. Furthermore, she is not a military expert, so a lot of this made less sense to her than to me. Nevertheless, I am quite happy to offer this up as an additional Italian perspective, and hope that once readers come to grips with the style, they will find it useful.
 
General Navarini had a long career in the Italian Army, being retired only at the surrender of the remaining Fascist forces in 1945. His career details are well described at this link, with a picture at this link.
 
Bundesarchiv Bild 183 1982 0927 502 Nordafrika Navarini Rommel Diesener
Prop.-Kp. PZ, Afrika Film-Nr.: 73/39 Bildberichter: Moosmüller Ort: Afrika Datum 21.11.41 General [Erwin] Rommel im Hauptquartier des ital. Armeekorps. Kartenbesprechung mit dem ital. Armeegeneral [Enea] Navarini u. dem Verbindungsoffizier Oberst Diesener
 
The original report is typed up in something similar to Courier New, and the odd approach to paragraphing is following the original. I’ve been trying to reproduce that. Typos and translation errors are all mine, and I am sure they are numerous. 
 

Resized 20160211 104041 1Report Cover Page

 

 Operations in the Western Desert and Tripolitania

 Italian XXI Corps July ’41 – Jan ‘43

By

Lt. Gen. Enea Navarini 

NAREP – ME: 13 

Foreword 

With the present account I set out in a succinct manner my activities in North Africa at the helm of XXI Army Corps during the above time and within the circumstances set out below:

August – November 1941

Siege of the fortress of Tobruk and preparation of the assault on same

November 1941 to January 1942

Retreat up to the position of Mersa-Brega, Maaten Giofer, Marada, and preparation for the defense of the same.

February to May 1942

Reconquest of Cyrenaica and following from this preparation of the defensive line Bengasi – Sceleidima – Giof el Matar – Saunnu

April – May 1942

Occupation of the position Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Bregheisc and preparation for the offensive against the forces of the British 8th Army.

May – June 1942

Offensive of the Panzerarmee Afrika against the fortress of Tobruk, leading to success and the capture of the fortress Marsa Matruh.

July – October 1942

Attack and defense at the position of El Alamein.

November 1942 to January 1943

Retreat across Cyrenaica and Tripolitania

January 1943

Reaching line of Mareth and preparation for its defense.

In the following I set out in detail how the operations outlined above unfolded, with some considerations of strictly operational character.

This will be followed by a section with observations of a general character by me, concerning questions related to the organisation of our operational forces in North Africa.

These observations, representing my experience of 19 months of the Libyan-Egyptian campaign, should not have a dogmatic character, but are simply meant for information.

The XXI Army Corps operated under the tactical dependence of the Panzerarmee Afrika.

Relations with the allied command and the German comrades were always characterised by maximal cordiality.

 

EVENTS OF WAR

The siege of Fortress Tobruk and the preparations for the attack on same

XXI Army Corps, consisting of the Brescia, Pavia, and Bologna divisions, by the end of July 1941 had the task of establishing the siege belt of the Fortress Tobruk, to avoid the escape of the defenders, and to prepare the conquest.

Activities carried out by the troops of the Army Corps consisted of:

–                 Patrolling actions in reaction to the analogous activity carried out by the enemy;

–                 Creating jumping off positions for the attack, of particular importance those for the breaching of the positions which had been prepared for defense for a long time (such as those of the munitissima of Fortress Tobruk)

During this time the XXI Army Corps, the only one involved in the siege operations, working closely with first a German regiment (155th Rifle Regiment) and then with the 90th Light Africa Division, carries out its assigned tasks well. During the beginning of November, with the valuable support of the German artillery, it had been possible to squeeze the circle and to prepare in a relatively efficient way the attack operations, for which it had been decided to use the support of the whole of the German Armoured Corps.

In particular the divisions Pavia and Bologna underwent comprehensive training to ingrain a range of procedures for attack understood to be the most efficient in action against defensive systems of permanent character.

It is worth keeping in mind that the attack on the Fortress Tobruk in the autumn of 1941 could have had a favourable outcome, just as at the end of Spring 1942, since the same procedures adopted for the attack of 1941 were then put into action.

Nevertheless I observe that the attack of 1941 would have run the serious risk of having to abort to face the British offensive which was initiated exactly on 21 November of that year.

 

Retreat up to the position of Marsa-Bregar, Maaten Giofer, Marada and preparation for defense of that position

The British offensive began on 21 November, utilising the forces coming from the east, and those of the Fortress Tobruk.

Enemy objectives were:

–                 Releasing the besieged forces in Tobruk;

–                 Destruction of Axis forces operating in Marmarica

At the end of November the British offensive began to take a turn against us and soon the enemy succeeded, partially, to achieve a meaningful link between the troops attacking towards Tobruk and those which had sortied from it.

A good half of the forces of XXI Army Corps, the division Bologna and a good part of the division Trento found themselves in a critical position, because they were taken both in front and back.

This unfortunate situation forced the retreat of our forces towards the west. This operation, planned in the first days of December, began on 9 December, and concluded in the first days of January 1942 with a good outcome for our troops since many of them reached the new line of Marsa el Brega.

The reasons why the battle of annihilation failed for the enemy were essentially two:

1)      insufficient strength from the start of the offensive of both troops and equipment, compared to his left wing which advanced through the desert;

2)      failure to fully follow-up successes by the enemy (comparative ones) with the standard stop of attacks and movements at sunset.

It is however also necessary to point out that the retreat  was well executed by the German command (General Rommel) and the Italian commands without losing their heads and sacrificing the least necessary amount of forces and equipment.

 

Reconquest of Cyrenaica and subsequent preparation of the defensive line Bengasi – Sceleidima – Giof el Matar – Saunnu

On 20 January the counteroffensive of the Italian – German troops commenced and developed rapidly, which within a short timeframe succeeded in re-occupying the Cyrenaica up to the Uadi Derna.

The XXI Army Corps, not being motorised, does not participate in this attack but was utilised to arrange an advanced defensive line (situated east compared to that of Marsa el Brega), connecting the following locations: Benghazi – Sceleidima – Giof el Matar – Saunnu.

 

Occupation of the positions of Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Breghisc and preparation of the offensive against the British forces of the 8th Army.

The non-motorised Italian Army Corps, the X and XXI were placed into the first line during the months of April and May, to give the armoured Axis troops the opportunity to train and prepare themselves for the offensive against the Fortress Tobruk.

The XXI Army Corps, always under my command, reaches with few vehicles, and therefore with numerous successive truck movements, the line of Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Bregheisc.

In this line it established in a short time a number of field fortifications to be able to confront any possible attack by the enemy.

At the same time it engaged vigorously in the replenishment of the various units of the Army Corps for their participation in the forthcoming offensive. Men, munitions, and various materials were assigned in good measure until, by mid-May 1942, the combat effectiveness of the 21st Army Corps had reached a more than satisfactory level.

The only shortage experienced in the Libyan theatre of operations was that of motor vehicles. They were always short in numbers, and those available in bad condition because of over-use, yet needed because of the long distances

to traverse, the requirement to move over diverse forms of ground, often sandy, and the environmental and climatic conditions. This was a question well known to all, but which it is necessary to consider, had a negative influence on the execution of operations.

 

Panzerarmee Afrika’s offensive to take the Fortress of Tobruk, its success, and the conquest of the Fortress Mersa Matruh.

26 May the offensive of the Axis forces began.

The XXX.C.A., under my command, placed north at the point of the Via Balbia, with the task to invest frontally the positions of Ain el Gazala. Once these have been overcome, the XXI. C.A. attacks from the west the Fortress Tobruk, entering into it, on the second day of the attack.

Based on the orders from the command of the Panzerarmee Afrika, the pursuit of the enemy retreating eastward is immediately carried out.

Therefore, the 100 km travelled to reach the jumping off positions at the Fortress Tobruk, have another about 200 km added to them to first reach Bardia and then Sollum.

Thus, while in the line Tmimi – Bir Temrad – Sidi Breghisc movement in the most possible compact battle order was required, it was necessary to have the infantry march on foot, while during the break-in phase the time factor was of highest importance and it was necessary to rapidly reorder the forces to move them by motor transport which was only available in small numbers.

It was indispensable to act decisively until reaching the border line to deny the Fortress Tobruk the space to maneuver to the east and to thus prepare better conditions to recommence offensive action towards the east.

Of this, I as commander of one of the Army Corps was fully convinced and did not miss to put into action any effort to respond in the best way to the requests by the higher command (in this case German) which, used to rapid execution, without discussion, of whichever operational order was given, did not allow discussions.

Once reaching the line of the Libyan – Egyptian border, the Command of the Panzerarmee Afrika immediately fixed the task of reaching the distant strategic objectives, the base of Alexandria in Egypt, Cairo, and the Nile Valley.

Little or no thought had been given with this decision to the rigours of battle, Ain el Gazala – Got el ualeb and Bir Hacheim, the assault on the Fortress of Tobruk and finally the pursuit up to Bardia, which had affected the forces and equipment of the operational Corps.  Rigours which were not just due to losses in battle but also were determined by the distance of about 300 km of desert which had to be crossed with the best logistical support in order to arrive at the assigned objectives.

As far as the action of the XXI C.A. as part of Panzerarmee Afrika is concerned, one has to observe that the straight and simple frontal attacks which it had been asked to undertake could not have resulted in decisive outcomes without being combined, at army level, with the actions in the south.

Especially difficulty was found by the Army Corps in overcoming the mine fields, which the enemy had laid everywhere to make motorised movement more difficult.

Laying of mines and the difficulty to remove them has also made movement quite slow in North Africa. Real mine fields, fake mine fields, sometimes placed at the front and in depth (first with some indication on the ground of their existence and later not), and with machine gun and anti-tank positions inserted into them, constituted a novelty that few were prepared to overcome.

Thus developed, for laying and destroying them, a technique based on experience which in future needs to be deepened and improved to make all arms familiar with it and to become a specialty of the Army.

Once it reached the border line between Libya and Egypt, the XXI.C.A., as mentioned before, had the order to proceed immediately to the east to carry out the occupation of Sidi Barrani: about 130km of travel.  And while of the enemy there was no further trace, new orders came from the command of Panzerarmee Afrika, proposing to move further east to reach Mersa Matruh: another 120km to go.

Basically, after these 300 km of travel with some difficulty to position itself at the border between Libya and Egypt, another move of 250km was ordered to the troops of the XXI. C.A.

The current tactical situation, seen as favourable to us, leads the command of Panzerarmee Afrika to consider this deep move, and of this opportunity I, as commander of the Corpo Armato, was well aware.  The basic difficult was to match the forces to be transported with the means at our disposal, and in particular the vehicles to move men and equipment.

Confronted with the need to move to be able to carry out the task set to the Army Corps, there was only one way: to lighten the subordinated elements to reach an appropriate level of forces and vehicles.

This was carried out and mostly due to this expediency was it possible to push forward in depth up to Marsa Matruh, attack the fortress, and take it.

No particular observation of operational characters emerges from the events described above, during which almost exclusively the logistical aspect was the determining element for the success of the operation.

 

Attack and defense of the El Alamein position

Once the operation to conquer the fortress of Marsa Matruh was finished, the command of Panzerarmee Afrika (assessing the opportunity in light of the favourable situation) wanted to once more push to the full depth to reach the already set distant objectives.

The XXI.Corpo Armata therefore moved in the direction of Fuka and el Daba until it made contact with the enemy in the El Alamein position, another 200km to add to the already 550km traversed since the begin of the offensive.

 Another notable logistical effort to achieve which presented a new strenuous effort to the troops and the vehicles of the subordinated elements.

No compromise was possible between the tactical and the logistical requirements, in order to execute quickly the new advance, it was absolutely necessary to give precedence to calculate who could follow and be transported with the few motor vehicles available.

Today, after the events, it is easy to judge that after Marsa Matruh the Panzerarmee Afrika had been extended to its logistical breaking point and therefore, also its tactical one.

On the other hand, after the successive successes, it was logical to think that the moment had come to work on the basis of the assumption that every audacious move, not normally possible or even considered ridiculous, was possible.

Myself too, after reaching El Daba with a small share of the XXI.Corpo Armata, just 100km from Alexandria in Egypt, receiving as objective this enemy base, asked seriously whether this was possible with the my weak available forces, or whether instead it was forcing too much these dangerous events to create dangerous situations leading to the good outcome of the operation.

It was a momentous opportunity that presented itself and on the other hand the orders received did not allow discussions of letting it go! In the first days of July the XXI. Corpo Armata  was in contact with the enemy in the El Alamein position.

The reactions from the first moment was such that it was quickly clear that the dead end had been reach, in which our extended forces were no longer able to overcome the resistance of the enemy.

On the contrary, it was quickly necessary to move over to the defense, because the arrival on the frontline of forces and equipment had become much faster and smoother for the enemy because of the closeness of Alexandria as a major base.

The enemy attacks carried out in July, the first of which (10 July) hit exactly on the XXI.Corpo Armata, changed quickly the situation.

We thus arrive at the enemy offensive of Autumn 1942.

It is my personal conviction that our offensive, once it had reached the battlefield of Marsa Matruh, should have stopped, with all available forces being placed on the line Marsa Matruh – Siwa Oasis. Once all available forces had been assembled, it would have been possible to determine, with a rational view, the line to follow, such as:

–                 either to attack again in depth with a view to reach the Nile Valley or even better Suez – Port Said;

–                 or to assume a defensive – counter-offensive posture considering the inevitable enemy attack.

To repeat, with hindsight it is easy to judge what would have been better to do in June 1942, once the Egyptian territory had been reached. The difficulty was to decide this at the opportune moment.

Nevertheless, today, at least from the point of view of history, one can affirm that the tremendous cost suffered by the units, once they had reached Marsa Matruh, should have led to a serious hesitation in the continued pursuit of the offensive.

To attack into the depth, as was done, it should at least have been clear that the enemy was effectively reduced to the few surviving forces of the 8th Army.

Which wasn’t the case, as the facts showed.

 

Retreat across Cyrenaica and Tripolitania

The natural consequence of the successful enemy offensive was our retreat, intended as the extreme act to save what was saveable by fleeing the annihilation battle which the enemy had sought at all cost to rapidly achieve a great strategic result.

The XXI.Corpo Armata at the head of the Via Balbia, after have survivied the first violent attack of the enemy, and after having battled with alternating events for several days had to initiate the retreat, by necessity losing numerous and important positions of our forces.

The road nevertheless allowed the movement towards the west of many parts of the Corps, something that did not arrive for the X. Corpo d’Armata positioned to the south which was, almost completely, overrun by the advancing adversary.

The stages of the withdrawal: line of Marsa el Brega, line Buerat, were nothing but halts on the inevitable movement towards Tunisia.

From my point of view there was nothing else to be done, and the result of having made the enemy advance more slowly constituted for the forces of the Axis, something worthwhile.

During the retreat the scarcity of motor vehicles was felt even more than during the offensive phase, because, as is always the case in these circumstances, all those who remain behind because of a lack of transport capacity are inevitably lost.

The XXI. Corpo d’Armata could count only just on about 1/3rd of the required number of motor vehicles that would have been needed to transport the whole Corps at the same time.

From this it is easy to understand the effort that had to be undertaken to manage the move of the rest of the XXI. Corpo d’Armata, over a distance of 2,500km, taking account of the distance from the position of El Alamein to the Mareth Line.

 

Arrival in the Mareth Line and Defensive Preparations there

The recent official information from our High Command had put some stones in the way which were clearly evident when arriving in the occupation of the Mareth Line with the quality and defects of the same.

The presence of defensive elements, even if only of limited consistency, and the ability to give a good depth to the defensive system in the south of Tunisia let the defect of the Mareth Line move to secondary considerations: the ability to outflank it to the west.

Notwithstanding this, the defensive system Mareth – Akerit convinced also me, as one of the first Italian commanders to be in post there that in these positions, with a bit of time, it would be possible to meet the enemy in battle.

It was the grave unknown from the west, to the south and the north of the Ahotta zone. The recent battle, fought bravely by our 1st Army, showed clearly that, without the grave threat from the west, the British 8th Army could have been held.

 

OBSERVATIONS OF GENERAL NATURE

Logistical requirements

The war in the operative frame of North Africa, although it never assumed the form and aspects of the real and proper colonial war, because in general the combat activities were restricted to the coastal belt, has nevertheless presented notable difficulties in the logistical aspect, because of the arid climate between May and September,  the general character of the desert, and the almost total absence of resources, including water, which was scarce and not always potable.

The large-scale, even exclusive use of units from the Italian homeland in this theatre, has constantly and in all commanders created serious preoccupation with life and actions of the troops.

Those who know the life of the troops can say that each unit, in a short time, suffered heavy reductions in its organic form, reducing it in the end to 50, 60%.

The elements which succumbed were those which were less adapted to life in these territories, because they could not support the burdens and privations of the special environment of living in Libya.

Thos who resisted, once they had favourably overcome the challenge of the environment, resisted well. The proof is in the fact that a good number of our soldiers reached and exceeded 30 months of permanent stay in North Africa, and remained healthy.

It is however true that over time the difficulty of life cut a lot into the moral of the soldiers.  The fact that they had to live with a rancid heat during the day, drink brackish water, or very dark water (because it was rich in calcium carbonite), that they had to renounce eating fresh vegetables, that they could not purchase some […] that they properly liked without covering a long distance, discouraged the soldier and made them feel as if they had been abandoned, as a being which had been badly treated by fate.

Thus it was easily possible to degenerate up to and arrive at the manifestation of muslim-type fatalism. And when the soldier arrived at this point, it was clear that his spirit and moral were low.

Those who fought in Libya at the time during which the major part of the operational forces consisted of native troops, could not fail to have had a sense of pain considering the difficulties of life to which our troops in North Africa had to submit in the war against the English. It’s enough to think that even the modest two litres of  water a day arrived at the soldier after the motor vehicle that transported them had to cover a return voyage of 200 kilometres.

One also has to recognise that the leaders did all their best to ensure the best possibilities of life for the soldiers, and that the soldier, who always saw his officers live the same life, faced the hard life of the war in North Africa with serenity.

It is well known that the logistical requirements presented by the colonial theatre of operations were a categorical imperative against whichever will, even the most tenacious, had to subordinate itself.

To the XXI. Army Corps, during my long presence in North Africa, in the most averse circumstances, nothing was missing, and this demonstrated the great merit of our quartermaster.

I always had dark doubts about the possibility for us to force an operation across long distance, such as the one to bring us almost to the doors of Alexandria in Egypt.

In light of the facts, the possibility manifested itself in reality, even with some difficulties.

I have to confirm here however, that the use of the standard infantry divisions in North Africa is not advisable, because of the great hardships required of the troops, in operations that require movements of hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. And one cannot praise our soldier highly enough, who in May and June of 1942 had to constantly march on foot, for days at end, under the force of an unforgiving sun.

North Africa represented the ideal theatre for motorised and mechanised troops. In the fight against rebel formations, we have always used indigenous troops, limiting the employment of those from the homeland to where they could be moved by truck; primarily because, against a fully motorised opponent, there is very little hope they can be defeated, because they have the net advantage of time and space.

With motorised units, and with adequate numbers of mechanised vehicles, I am convinced that the operation of summer 1942 would not have stopped at El Alamein, but could have reached the long distance objective of the Suez Canal, with evident and secure advantages for the general conduct of the war.

Therefore, the question of logistical requirements can be reassessed in two words: motor vehicles and fuel.

 

COOPERATION WITH ALLIED FORCES

I can confirm, in full honesty, that in North Africa the co-operation between the allied forces was always undertaken with maximum cordiality and respect on both sides.

The German units proved themselves to the fullest during the combat they underwent. It is true that they were better equipped and armed than ours, and had a higher number of motor vehicles at their disposal.

Differences in temperament, approach, in conceptualising military discipline, did sometimes lead to misunderstandings, overcome by a spirit of devotion to duty which in North Africa constantly animated the Italian and German troops.

The relations between the Command of the XXIst Army Corps and the Command of the Panzerarmee were always very cordial.

Likewise for the other Italian Corps.

The fact that the Italian large formations, equipped with few motor vehicles during the offensive of May – June 1942, pushed forward in depth without considering the difficulties they had to overcome, constitutes proof of the spirit that animated leaders and followers to collaborate until the final outcome with the Germans.

On the other hand, the large contribution in blood paid by the German troops in North Africa,  openly recognised by the Italian fighter,  constituted a solid element of getting along in colour. For on the grounds of Africa, they succeeded many times, thanks to the means at their disposal, to turn parts of the hard fight in which we were involved there in our favour.

The spirit of camaraderie never was missing at tactical level.  Some difficulties showed when it happened that German units had to be subordinated to the command of ours. There could appear sometimes a formal, rather than substantial subordination, while the same could not be said when Italian units were put under the orders of German commanders. It is possible that this could be because of the sense of superiority that the latter could badly hide from the Italians, superiority not much of spirit, but more material,  based on the fact that it was clearly apparent what were the means which the German forces could dispose of, compared to ours. During my time, I have always had some German forces under my command. Commanders, officers, and troops always showed themselves as disciplined comrades, deferential, and obedient.

 

WEAPONRY

Infantry Weapons

Nothing to say about the rifle, the light machine gun, and the machine gun. These are optimal weapons that proved themselves well in any circumstance.

The 47mm anti-tank gun against 25-ton tanks equipped with frontal armour of 80mm showed itself incapable to fire with a certainty of effect. The main conclusion, drawn in a number of circumstances, is that the 47mm gun was not up to its task.  In the end the weapon gave the soldier little confidence.

During the siege of Tobruk the 81mm mortar proved itself well.

 

Artillery

Our 75mm and 100mm divisional guns, and the 105mm Corps gun served well for the tasks of support and barrage.

This cannot be said however for the task of counterbattery.

The English equipment with a high muzzle velocity, and therefore longer range (compared to our artillery), could always fire from a distance, outside our fire range.

This was often a cause of discomfort for our soldier who did not feel himself adequately supported by our artillery.

The English gun of 88mm managed to hit our troops everywhere, and even though it did not cause great damage, achieved the result of depressing the morale of our soldiers.

The typical and very useful flying artillery of the English, trained to act in isolation, moved quickly from one point to the other.  The English knew well that our light and medium guns had a notably inferior range, and made sure they profited from it, always conscious of the morale effect they achieved.

 

DRESS AND EQUIPMENT

Initially did not respond well to the need. Our regiments went to North Africa dressed as in Europe. Grey-green uniforms made from drape, metal helmet and heavy  loads on their backs.

In North Africa, and especially in Marmarica and in the Egyptian desert, it is not possible to live in such a condition.

The troops became despondent and performed less well. Later there was clear progress in the matter, uniforms made of cloth were distributed on a grand scale.

The enemy came clothed and equipped colonial-style from the start, and could do this thanks to his abundant possibilities.

Instead it must be said that for our soldiers the care of the items distributed to them lacked, and under the special circumstances of life in North Africa, the officers did not always act with the severe duty and energy to avoid severe wastage.

 

ORDER OF BATTLE

The A.S.1942 order of battle became the definitive representation of the Metropolitan units to adapt them to the special circumstances of the war in North Africa, where the first element of the struggle that was fought had always been the armoured vehicle.

Thus one arrived at the decentralisation of the anti-tank gun down to infantry companies: three guns for each company.

The infantry company, the basic unit of the army, became constituted of the following subunits:

–        one platoon with six light machine guns

–        one platoon with three machine guns Breda 37

–        one platoon with three 20mm AT rifles

–        one platoon with three 47mm AT guns

The elements of the platoon were reduced as much as possible to have the smalles possible number of men.

The uniformity of the organic structure did not lead to grave inconveniences because also the combat ground on which the various units were called and acted was mostly similar.

The inconveniences which presented themselves were of other nature, to be precise:

–        the platoon, as it was structured, did not act as such, because it was necessary to balance the various fire centres, which always led to dispersion.

–        the infantry company showed itself to be the adequate/suitable to the defense, but on the other hand not the attack since the riflemen, really the assaulters

had been reduced to few men, in the rifle platoon;

To each soldier it was necessary to assign a specialty and for various reasons of deficiency this was noteworth, that it was not known how to replenish open positions without moving to reduce the battalions from four companies to three, and also to two. All the units, battalions, regiments, and divisions did also not have, during the defensive, organic units under their direct control with which they could react to enemy attacks: the battalions, because by necessity their three or four companies had to occupy the strongpoints, the regiment and the division because of the inherent shortcoming of the binary organisation. At the level of the Army Corps, this was addressed by assigning additional troops at the following scale:

–        one regiment of Bersaglieri.

–        one regiment of Corps Artillery

–        one battalion of “M”-type tanks

The latter was an important maneuver element in the hands of the Corps Commander, but remained permanently on paper. Thus, almost always, against the enemy attacks the large Italian formations had to count on the counter attack by the German units.

For the normal Army Corps, such as the XXIst under my command, there was no assignment of:

–        reconnaissance units

–        mobile artillery.

The mixed reconnaissance units, constituted of motorised infantry, armoured vehicles and artillery, would have given a very useful service to the Army Corps. The command of Panzerarmee Afrika, when it was possible, assigned temporarily its reconnaissance units to our large formations, but this assignment had the basic drawback that it came from another army, and therefore was not as easily commanded as would have been desirable.

Of the mobile artillery one sensed well the absence, since the truck-borne small-calibre guns, at long range, which the desert terrain

Always presented, could act by improvised fire from various points.

Because of these shortcomings in the organic structure, the tactical actions of the Commander of the Army Corps were often restricted to assuming a mostly modest aspect, and limited to only using the Corps Artillery.

During the last months some battalions of 90/53 were assigned to the XXIst Corps. These were enthusiastically accepted. The results were most appreciated.

 

COOPERATION WITH THE AIR FORCE

The Army Corps never had their own aviation unit. For tactical reconnaissance a request had to be made to the High Command, sufficiently in advance. When it arrived over the battlefield it was often too late. I am convinced that assigning air assets directly under the command of the Army Corps would have rendered essential services with the stormy intervention of the planes and the immediate passing on of information. The concentration of all the air assets in the hands of the High Command reduced the links between ground and air forces with negative effect on the general performance. Dispersal, even of only some, has some inconveniences, but when everything is considered the I am of the view that the Army Corps Commander should be able to dispose directly, also in Africa, of his own air assets.

 

PREPARATION OF PERSONNEL

Actions by the Commands, also the lower ones, are difficult in the colonial operating theatre requires solid and well selected personnel. Most of our officers were di complement, of which many had been recalled. In North Africa high- and low-ranking officers arrived who had not been recalled for a long time; most of which had never been to the colonies.

To the defective technical professional preparation had to be added the complete environmental disorientation.

These officers did what they could, but contributed only modestly.

It was foreseen to have officer training centres, but I have the impression that these elements could not, for a number of reasons, fully respond to the tasks given to them. One question of particular importance, regarding the officer training, was that of orientation. All the officers showed grave deficiencies regarding secure movement in the desert.

Our commands could only count on the work of well trained navigators in the during the spring of 1942.

Furthermore compasses were not owned by all, and not all could securely operate them.

 

TACTICAL PROCEDURES

Since tanks and guns had shown themselves to be the fundamental arms in action on desert-like terrain, it followed that the rules of combat for North Africa, for attack and defense, had by necessity to take full account of these means of combat.

Based on the numerous experiences made it is necessary to outline all the drills to establish practical modalities of action so that, especially in the case of lower commands, these knew how to act.

The war in the desert regions of North Africa required judgement and an agile temperament which the mass of us possessed in at least equal measure, although not superior to the Anglo-Saxons. One just had to use one and the other.

Our enemy knew how to obtain great training from three years in the Libyan campaign, and based on this, reviewed if not creatively, his procedures for action.

It is however true that means and procedures of action integrate with one another; but one also has to keep in mind that the combination of few vehicles with optimised abilities for action can give equal if not better results than having many vehicles with insufficient capability.

Keeping in mind that this discussion goes beyond what has been requested of me, and I therefore allow myself to treat it at high level.

 

SPRIIT OF THE TROOPS

I would like to conclude my note with a brief overview of the important discussions which, during the long months of my time in North Africa, I could observe many times.

The Italian soldier, like basically all soldiers of the world, has optimal qualities.

First among these was the ability to adapt, which is a maximum requirement and by virtue of which, even with scarce means, our units overall carried out their duty well, in the special and difficult environment of life in North Africa.

The long stay in North Africa of the frontline troops has to be avoided at all cost. It gave room to disgruntlement without leading to manifestation of ill-discipline.

The fact of knowning that, after 12 or at most 18 months, the soldier could, even for a short time, return to Italy, was one of the positive elements of undisputable value to keep the spirit of the troops high.

I believe that keeping complete units based in Sicily would have been sufficient, from which the combat units in North Africa could have drawn reinforcements.

This draw of troops could definitely have become the practical means by which the combat troops in North Africa could have been gradually replaced.

In this way it could also have been avoided to have entire battalions arrive in blocks which practically could only operate after a certain amount of time.  And it would have avoided the even worse case of the immediate employment in the frontline of entire battalions which had just arrived from the motherland, which inevitably ended with them not doing well.

North Africa devoured soldiers in an extraordinary manner.

The regiments of the XXI. C.A. arrived at seeing 4-5,000 men pass through their ranks.

When reflecting on the combative spirit one can say that our soldier, when he could, fought well, arousing the admiration of the Germans, our allies, and of their enemies.

We did however have to suffer the phenomenon of numerous prisoners being made which could leave many, far from the combat zone, wondering about the real desire of our soldiers to fight.

In this regard it is important however to keep present the characteristics of fighting in North Africa.

The real enemy, No.1, was the tank.

Our soldier, when he noted that he was not sufficiently prepared and equipped for the fight against tanks, lost courage.

One has to note that in any circumstance our soldier feared becoming prisoner. They accomplished feats that aroused admiration. Simple soldiers returned into our lines after overcoming major challenges.

Consideration came a bit late that the tank threat could be neutralised with adequate means and relevant procedures. Nevertheless, the phenomenon existed and we had to suffer it harshly.

Apart from that our soldier needed to see the enemy in front of him, something that wasn’t always possible in North Africa because, due to the vastness of the theatre of action, the enemy could always infiltrate into our lines or go around our positions.

In the end our soldiers lacked solid and capable officers.

Never, as in North Africa, was the old saying “As the officers, so the troops” more true.

The vast frontline, the notable distances between units, gave a sense of isolation which had a negative effect on troops not well lead.

Where the officers were always at their place, and showed themselves assured, things went well and the enemy had to halt, and even desist in his offensive.

 

CORPS GENERAL

COMMANDER

(Enea Navarini)