Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Background

28 February 1942 was the day of Operation BITING, the Bruneval raid (see this link), in which a combined operation managed to obtain German radar equipment from a Würzburg site, which led to substantial advances in the understanding of the German state of this technology on the British side, and helped the conduct of the bomber offensive on the 3rd Reich.

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 2732 Radargeräte Würzburg Riese und Freya

Freya and Würzburg Riese (giant Würzburg) installations. Source: Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv via Wikimedia.

Radar in the Desert

Prior to the successful raid at Bruneval, it is possible that there was an attempt to benefit from the chaos of the Axis retreat in Cyrenaica in the second half of December 1941, to lay hands on German radar equipment. Through ULTRA intercepts, the Empire commanders had become aware that German radar was being employed in North Africa, to support fighter control against Royal Air Force raids against German and Italian airfields and logistics installations in the rear of the battlefield. Two intercepts from early December clearly indicated the likely presence of Germany FREYA and WÜRZBURG radar system in North Africa. In late 1941, these were the most advanced German radar installations, and North Africa was the only place where Empire forces were in ground contact with the Germans.

The situation regarding German radar in North Africa had been noted by Empire code breakers at Bletchley Park for about a month. Incidentally, the famous picture of the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was dated just a day before the key intercepts about radar in North Africa. Intercepts allowed monitoring the urgent calls for radar equipment to deal with the Empire air offensive in the run-up to CRUSADER, and the monitoring the progress that the equipment had made from its despatch from the Reich to North Africa, via Italy. It is possible that other intercepts or more local intelligence gathering led to the conviction that the installation was at Benina airfield.

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection 

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Until CRUSADER progressed successfully, there was however little chance of being able to capture and evacuate German radar installations, which were located hundreds of miles behind the frontline and, unlike in Northern France, were placed well inland.

This situation changed on 17 December 1941, when the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala position, and this retreat quickly turned into a more or less chaotic rout, with Empire and Axis forces co-mingled on the map, and multiple instances of ‘friendly fire’ air force raids by both Axis and Empire forces hitting their own troops, causing substantial casualties. Three separate Empire pursuit columns were operating in the area of western Cyrenaica, from the north, 7 Indian Brigade in the Jebel Akhdar, pursing the retreating Italian infantry divisions on the coastal road, 7 Support Group south of the Jebel Akhdar, pursuing the retreating Axis armoured force which took the short-cut via Msus and Antelat, and 22 Guards Brigade around Antelat, attempting to cut off the retreating Axis forces in a repeat of what happened at Beda Fomm in February 1941, during Operation COMPASS.

On 21 December, following a commanders’ conference at the HQ of 7 Support Group, with General Gott present, 7 Support Group launched PEPYS column (one squadron armoured cars of the Royals, one battery of anti-tank guns of 3 R.H.A. and C Coy 2 Rifle Brigade) towards Benina airfield for a raid. It is possible, but not documented, that this raid related to radar, but it is probably more likely that it was simply an attempt to disrupt Axis withdrawal from the airfield, which was well underway. It is also not clear if Pepys column ever got onto the airfield, but it is known that they engaged Axis forces. After the raid concluded, PEPYS were ordered to rejoin 7 Support Group. CURRIE column also advanced towards Benina that day, but gave up the project due to heavy going and rain.

On 22 December, new orders were issued, now focused on getting to Soluch and Sceleidima, and to cut off the retreating Axis forces. On this day, the Royal Air Force also launched a major effort against Magrun landing ground, recognizing the Benina had been abandoned (see here for background on this). These orders mentioned a ‘valuable LISTENING SET’ at Benina, which was to be captured and placed under guard by Currie column. I suppose that this refers to Radar.

In the end, 22 December was a wash. 4 R.H.A., Lt.Col. Currie’s outfit, notes that they were conducting rest and maintenance until mid-day, and then moved south, away from Benina, towards Antelat and Soluch. Any opportunity that might have existed to capture a German radar set was thus gone.

 

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Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

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 Typed version of same Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Sources

War Diary 7 Support Group, 1941

War Diary 4 R.H.A., 1941

HW 5 ULTRA Intercepts

D.A.K. War Diary 20 March 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 20 March 1941

20 March 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops.

One medium tank battalion arrived at Div.Ariete.

Assessment of enemy position was reported to O.K.H.[1]  in the evening report[2]: “Based on reports of the last days it’s not excluded that the enemy is fully poised for defence, and has moved back the mass of its forces into the Cyrenaica north and east of Benghazi.”

“Forward forces still southwest of Agedabia. Defensive line Mersa el Brega (security patrols at Bescer) – southern tip Sebeha es Seghira and mobile tank security at Uadi Faregh from Bettafal to Ain en Naga, security in Haselat, reserves around Bilal, Gtafia.”

According to Italian reports Giarabub was strongly attacked. For 21 March support of the defenders by two Ju 88 planned.[3]

[page 21 missing]

The following measures were taken or ordered in this regard:

  • Major Appel, Corps Staff, Afrikakorps was named Commander of Marada.
  • Forces situated in Marada until now were reinforced so that now a full AT company is at their disposal. Task for the garrison of Marada is to defend Marada and to carry out ground reconnaissance up to Bir Zelten – Ain Si Mohammed – Maaten Gheizel.
  • Preparation of the supply of Gialo.
  • Request to the Luftwaffe to reconnoitre by air the water supplies at Gialo and the condition of the tracks connecting Ain Si Mohammed – Gialo.
  • Request to the Italian High Command to make available Italian froces to secure the rear links of the attacking forces by occupying an defending the gaps and to carry out supplying and repair of air fields.

The plan is to occupy Gialo after the execution of the Mersa el Brega operation[3], and to use the current garrison of Marada for this. It is intended to further reinforce the Battalion Major Appel by additional forces, maybe from the Battalion Santa Maria[4].

3) An advance by de Gaulle troops from French West Africa against Tripolitania was not considered to be of decisive importance. To smash French attempts to attack against Murzuk[5], Air Operation South was requested from Fliegerfuehrer AfrikaFliegerfuehrer Afrika intends in this regard to stock the airfield Zella accordingly, so that from there simultaneous operations by heavy fighter wings to the east and the south up to the area of Gatrun and south of it could be carried out.

As a first measure, the stocking up of Zella is planned for a one-off Group-level sortie towards south.

On 17th, 18th, 19th March Tripolis was attacked, two tugs were hit.[6]

Italian air force bombed on 17/18 March the port of Benghazi, and on 18/19 March the airfield at Berka.

[1]Oberkommando des Heeres, German Army High Command

[2]These reports were sent every evening, summing up events of the day, and plans for the next day.

[3]The oasis of Giarabub had not been occupied by Empire forces at this stage, but was under siege by a mixed force led by Australians. The entry probably refers to the attack by two companies of Australian 2/9 Battalion on 19 March. The history of the siege from the Australian side can be found at this link.

[4]A motorised reconnaissance column under Major Nicolini Santamaria, probably consisting of: 2x infantry platoons with MG and rifles 1x 20mm gun on a FIAT 626 lorry, 1x tank platoon (L35) and 1x artillery battery 77/28

[5]Murzuk is in the deep south of Libya, close to the border with Chad.

Bundesarchiv bild 183 b160022c nordafrika2c truppenparade in tripolis1

M13/40 medium tanks of Ariete Division’s VII Tank Battalion, 132nd Tank Regiment, on parade in Tripoli, mid-March 1942

[6]One Wellington was lost during these operations on the night 17/18 March, damaged beyond repair on landing at Benina (Wellington Ic T2732 of No. 70 Squadron), but with no losses to the crew.

D.A.K. war diary entry 9 March 1941

9 March 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops

Arrived in the Operational Zone

M.G.Batl.2

The Commander held a conference with His Excellency Gariboldi in the morning.General Rommel informs the Italian army commander about the situation at the front, especially about the tasks of the Div. Ariete, and politely requests him to order the Div.Brescia forward as a static division (exact content of the discussion in the activity report).

During the afternoon a discussion was held by the Chief of Staff with Colonel Sorrentino[1].

The Italian 14th Blocking Company[2] is subordinated to the 5.lei.Div.

[1]The Italian Chief of Staff.

[2]Probably a divisional Arditi engineer company.

First blood: D.A.K. war diary entry 24 February 1941

First blood: D.A.K. war diary entry 24 February 1941

24 February 1941

Enemy situation: elements of an Australian division[1] apparently pushed forward to Agedabia and south of it. 40km north-east of el Agheila strong enemy forces noted. The area of the Oasis Marada apparently evacuated by the enemy.

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Afrika-Korps troops of Aufklärungsabteilung 3 advancing, Spring 1941, unknown date and location. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

During the morning hours successful push of a reinforced patrol of Forward Detachment Wechmar in the area of el Agheila: 2 enemy armoured cars, 1 truck and 1 car destroyed. 1 English officer and 2 other ranks captured, 1 Englishman killed, 1 escaped. No losses of our own.

Commander arrives around midday in Tripoli, coming from Sirt. Courier from Berlin with important news:

e.g. Announcement of the soon to come subordination of former German soldiers of the French Foreign Legion.

[1]This was 6th Australian Division.

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

D.A.K. war diary entry for 16 February 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops

Arrived in the forward zone of operations:

Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39, A.A. 3

Commanding General, Chief of Staff and General Raotta[1] fly to Sirt. Exploration of harbour installations in Sirt. Short conference with with the Commander of Italian Pavia Division, Major-General Zaglio.

Around 15.00 hours arrival of first elements of A.A. in Sirt. Receives order to remain in Sirt as mobile reserve for the time being.

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One of the heavy armoured cars of Aufklärungsabteilung 3, which reached the forward zone on 16 February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 17 February for the first time to push joint reconnaissance with Italians into direction of Nofilia.

For the next days a push of Vorausabteilung Wechmar[2] is planned up to Nofilia.

Conference with General Raotta about task and subordination of air forces. Italian air force to be coupled with German, proposal for tasking of both to be made by Commanding General to General Gariboldi.

Conference with General Raotta, joined in the evening by General Gariboldi, regarding the written proposals for future direction of combat operations. General agreement on all questions.

Evening conference with German and Italian air force commanders[3].

Supply transports via sea from Tripoli to Buerat initiated. First vessel with about 250 tons already loaded.

Notes

[1]Roatta.

[2]A Vorausabteilung was a forward detachment consisting normally of troops from various units, and fully motorised. It was stronger than a reconnaissance detachment, and meant to be able to engage in combat activities ahead of the main force, e.g. to keep enemy ofrces off balance. They were normally named after their commander, in this case the highly experienced Maj. Freiherr von Wechmar, who had commanded A.A.3 in Poland and France.

[3]The Fliegerführer were not formally in command of an air force unit or group of units, but responsible for operational control in a detached location, such as Africa.

15 February 1941: Parade Day

15 February 1941: Parade Day

And we’re moving on with the war diary of the D.A.K.

Meeting of Commanding General with General Raotta[1]. At 13.00 hours parade of A.A.3 and Panzerjaegerabteilung 39 ready in front of the Castello. Afterwards passing of the parade in front of the Grand-Hotel before the Commanding General and the highest Italian authorities.

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While not 100% certain, this picture almost certainly is from the parade held on 15 February. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Sdkfz. 231, the famed (although in the view of General Tuker overrated) heavy armoured car passing the commanding officers. Still in field grey base paint, with the commander wearing a tropical helmet. These were quickly abandoned in the field. Rommelsriposte.com collection.

Aftwards short breakfast with General Raotta in the palais of Marshal Balbo[2]. Afterwards Commanding General, Chief of Staff, and General Raotta drive to Carian and Jefren to inspect the position on the high line. Return around evening.

A.A.3 and Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39 have immediately marched off and around 22.30 hours arrived in Misurata.

[1]Should be Roatta, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Italian Army High Command

[2]Marshal Italo Balbo, a hero of fascism who died when his plane was shot down over Tobruk in a friendly fire incident in 1940.

Use of German Sonar on Italian vessels – Pt. 2

Use of German Sonar on Italian vessels – Pt. 2

In a previous post (at this link) I had written about the use of German sonar (S-Geraet) and depth charges by the Italian navy, the Regia Marina. This commenced at the end of 1941, and gave the Regia Marina an important new capability in providing convoy defense on the North Africa route, which led to some quick successes, such as the sinking of HMS P-38 (see also this link). A technical description of the history and functioning of the S-Geraet can be found at this link.

In the post below, I have translated a report of the Special Command of the German navy, the Kriegsmarine, which was charged with the task of overseeing the operation of the German equipment on the Italian vessels. The document is from the war diary of the German Liaison Staff at the Admiralty of the Royal Italian Navy, and can be found in NARA under T-1022 Roll 2481.

Overview of the Activity Carried Out Thus Far by the Special Command for the Installation and Deployment of German S-Geraete on Units of the Royal Italian Navy

(Commenced 17 November 1941)

1.) Introduction followed proposals made by Chief Naval Liaison Command to Italian Navy during July 1941.

2.) Exectution

a) Personnel:

1 Officer (Commander Ahrens)

1 Chief Petty Officer[1]

3 Non-Commissioned Officers from the Submarine Defense School Gotenhafen[2]

Furthermore listening crew (from destroyer Lody, strength 1/4[3] from beginning November to mid-December on Torpedo Boat (Torpediniera) Castore, and listening crew strength 1/4 on destroyer Da Mosto from beginning November to 1 December. 3 other ranks were killed when the boat was sunk. The NCO and one man remain at the disposal of the Special Command.

b) Activity:

At the start of the activity:

Clearance of specific questions of detail concerning submarine defense with the relevant Italian offices, especially Admirals Strazzari and Da Zara. Determination of equipping Italian vessels with S-Geraet installed with German depth charges and depth charge throwers.

Instruction of Italian crew and shore personnel in various naval stations about installation and maintenance of the German depth charges.

Schooling of listening and depth charge crews on the units with S-Geraet installed. Carried out trials.

Instruction of all captains in all questions relating to submarine defense, especially about the method of attack. Participation in combat missions.

c) Successes of Italian vessels equipped with S-Geraet up to 28 February 1942.

1.) Torpedo boat Castore near Gaeta on 24 November 1941: based on S-Geraet location report evaded two torpedo trails. Carried out attack with 36 depth charges. Destruction of submarine possible.[4] German listening crew.

2.) Destroyer Da Mosto, southern tip of Sicily, 27 November 1941: location of an unknown minefield. German listening crew.

3.) Torpedo boat Lince, Gulf of Taranto, early December, attack on located submarine with Italian depth charges. Success questionable. Italian listening crew and Construction Advisor Morgenstern.[5]

4.) Torpedo Boat Orsa, 115 Degrees, 63 nautical miles off Sfax on 7 January 1942. Attack on located submarine with 30 German depth charges. Success: initially strong aural location ceases; location continues to show in large oil slick. Location of attack had to be left early to ensure protection of the escorted steamer.[6] Italian and German listening crew, directed by Commander Ahrens.

5.)  Torpedo boat Sagittario at Cape Ducato on 8 February 1942. Evaded torpedo. Enemy submarine rammed, has to be considered destroyed. Torpedo boat heavy damage on the bow. German and Italian listening crew.[7]

6.) Torpedo boat Circe on 13 February 1942: located enemy submarine was fixed for six hours. Submarine surfaces after 3 attacks with German depth charges; 23 prisoners made. Attempt to bring her in fails, boat sinks. English submarine “Tempest”. German and Italian listening crew.

7.) Torpedo boat Pallade at Capo dell’Armi on 16 November 1942. Located submarine attacked in three runs with 45 German depth charges. At water depth of 1,600m signal ceases after final attack. Oil slick of 1,000 x 2,000 m. German and Italian listening crew, directed by Commander Ahrens.

8.) Torpedo boat Circe at Ras Hallab on 23 February 1942. During escort of convoy attacking submarine is located and periscope is sighted. 10 depth charges dropped on diving location. Submarine surfaces briefly, twice, and finally sinks. Bag with flags, parts of interior (door of cupboard, tabletop), cans of biscuits and cigarettes as well as human body parts come up. Large oil slick. Continuous rising of air bubbles. German and Italian listening crew.

d) Intended equipping of Italian naval and merchant units

Delivered:

1.) 29 S-Geraete of which one fixed in Spezia. One further S-Geraet lost when destroyer da Mosto was sunk.

2.) 40 depth charge throwers, 72 reloading installations, 20 depth charge rails, 60 single depth charge holders.

3.) 4,000 depth charges Type Dora

2,000 depth charges Type Fritz

1,500 stamps and cartridges for depth charges WB D60m and WB F40m.

By 28 February 1942, 10 Italian torpedo boats and 1 destroyer as well as 9 auxiliary vessels have been equipped with the S-Geraet.

For equipping further Italian naval units with S-Geraet, see attached list, Appendix 17.[8]

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R.N. Pallade, a Spica-class, Alcione sub-class Torpedo Boat, photographed pre-war. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

[1] Oberfeldwebel

[2] Ubootabwehrschule (UAS)

[3]1 NCO, 4 other ranks

[4] There is no submarine loss recorded for this day, and no attack in the region of Gaeta either. I used the ASA database at this link for checks.

[5] Baurat, a German civil servant grade. I have not verified this attack.

[6] This was not actually a successful attack – see this link, in particular comments below.

[7] The submarine was HM/Sub Proteus (N29), and while she was damaged, it appears she came off better than Sagittario. Details from the crew of HM/Sub Proteus can be found at this link.

[8] This will follow in another post.