More late arrivals

Background

42 R.T.R. was a battalion of territorial army soldiers equipped with Matilda Mk. II Infantry Tanks. It formed part of 1 Army Tank Brigade, together with 44 R.T.R., also with Matilda Mk. II tanks and 8 R.T.R, with Valentine Infantry Tanks Mk. III, the successor to the Matilda, and arguably the best tank of the war. (kidding – or am I?) In a prior post (at this link) I have written about what happened to the tanks of the regiment undergoing repair during Rommel’s ‘Dash to the Wire’.

It’s task was to support the infantry of 7 Indian Infantry Brigade in its assault on the border fortifications of Sidi Omar, in the starting phase of Operation CRUSADER. This was a critical assignment in that it would threaten the main installations of Panzerarmee and put pressure on the Axis tank forces to come to the rescue of the border fortress. Given this, it is astounding to see the preparation that the battalion was given. I knew that it was incomplete at the start of the operation, with C Squadron only arriving in the battle area on 25 November. What I had not realised was that the battalion had in fact only received a full squadron of tanks (albeit missing a lot of equipment) by 12 October, six weeks before the start of the operation, and the tanks needed to equip the second squadron were only received by 11 November, one week before the start of the operation. In consequence, there was no opportunity for this battalion, which had never seen action, to prepare for its task by training with the infantry it was to support. Moreover, many tanks had been taken over from 8 R.T.R., which itself had been equipped with the new Infantry Tank Mk. III, the Valentine. These tanks were not only missing equipment, but some of them seem to have been mechanically a bit worn out, leading to breakdowns during the approach march.

One has to wonder if this contributed to the extremely heavy casualties (22 out of 28 I tanks were lost) suffered in the assault on Sidi Omar. But in any case, this supports the view of General Auchinleck, that the operation had to be postponed, something which Churchill was unwilling to accept.

Details of tank arrivals

B Squadron reported to be completely equipped by 12 October 41, although many tanks were missing equipment.

A Squadron was supposed to be equipped in the ‘near future’ on October 29, and began equipping on 7 November.

C Squadron joined 1 Army Tank Brigade with all tanks by 25 November.

The battalion (minus C Squadron) came under command 1 Army Tank Brigade on 11 November, by which time A Squadron had been partially equipped.

4 November – 7 light tanks were received. These were Vickers Mk.VI, and were used for liaison and reconnaissance duties.

7 November – 2xMk. IIA+, 1xMk.IIA for A Squadron

8 November – 8xMk. IIA+, 1xMk.IIA, from 8 R.T.R., 1 Mk.IIA+ from T.D.S.

On the same day, B Sqdr. is reported with 15 I tanks.

9 November – 24 bottles of Whiskey are arriving for the officer’s mess, leading to ‘scenes of great jubilation’

11 November – Nine I tanks arrive from 8 R.T.R.

12 November – Three more tanks arrive on transporters. A and B Squadrons now have 15 I tanks each.

14 November – C Squadron has been issued transport, but does not have tanks yet. A Squadron has 16 I tanks, B Squadron 15 I tanks, Battalion HQ has 2 I tanks, and 6 light tanks are with the battalion. Distributed as follows: HQ – 4; A – 1; B – 1.

25 November – C Squadron is arriving, fully equipped.

The two pictures below are of great interest. They were almost certainly both taken in the vicinity of Bir Sherferzen, on the border.

The first shows the RHQ of 42 R.T.R., with the five remaining tanks of the regiment. Major Rawlins had spent 24 hours trying to recover tanks and wounded who were left close to Axis positions after the attack of 22 November, and burying the dead.

I would be grateful if anyone could identify the officers in the picture, in particular if one of them is Major Rawlins, who was killed the next day while engaging a German armoured column. I will write a separate post on that battle later.

The second picture almost certainly shows the lorries of the two columns of the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment moving up to Bir Sherferzen, with the Matilda tanks of C Squadron 42 R.T.R. under command. Note the very poor dispersion.

 

Matilda tank, named ‘Phantom’, of 42nd Royal Tank Regiment, 24 November 1941. Courtesy of the IWM Collections.

 

Indian troops move forward in lorries, supported by Matilda tanks, 24 November 1941. Courtesy of IWM Collections.

Many thanks to Tom for providing me with the war diary.

Sources used are War Diary 42 R.T.R. for June – November 1941; War Diary HQ 1 Army Tank Brigade for November 1941; War Diary Central India Horse for November 1941. All are held at the UK National Archives at Kew.

German tanks sent in 1st half of Jan. 42

Until now I believed that a total of 54 tanks  tanks had been sent from Italy to the Afrikakorps on the M.43 convoy on 5 Jan 42. Jan very kindly sent me the loading lists for the convoy. From these, I can ascertain that the actual number was 56 tanks, not 54. Of these there were 47 mediums (37 Mk. III, 10 Mk. IV), and 9 light (Mk. II) tanks. So far, so good in the accounting errors department.

Now however, until today I believed that the next tank shipment was the operation T.18, which delivered a similar number of German tanks. Instead, in the loading lists I have now come across the lists for the German navy lighters (Marinefaehrpraehme, MFPs), which operated out of Palermo, where they were constructed. On 5/6 Jan, MFPs 152 – 159, a total of 8 lighters, were loaded with 24 medium tanks, 15 Mk. III, and 9 Mk. IV, to go to Tripoli.

The trip took them maybe 2-3 days, so this would mean that by about 10 January, a total of 71 new medium tanks had been received in North Africa.

UPDATE 15 June 2012: The MFP convoy was delayed due to a lack of escorts and weather, and only arrived at the end of February, after staying at Palermo for a while. The Panzer III on this convoy were the first ‘Specials’, with the long 50mm gun to be sent to Africa.

For the next trip, operation T.18, and the single runners Wachtfels, Atlas, and Trapani (which carried 10/4/4 tanks for a total of 18) it appears that tanks sent were 3/60/15/2 (Mk. II/III/IV/command tanks), plus 4 undefined, for a total of 84 tanks, of which 66 were on T.18. This convoy is normally given with 71 tanks for the Germans, and a total of 98 tanks (presumably including the Italian tanks).

UPDATE 15 June 2012: Atlas did arrive on 23 January, while Wachtfels only arrived on 23 February, and Trapani only on 7 February probably again due to lack of escorts.

In any case, this would make the reinforcements to Panzergruppe during January 12 light tanks, and 152 mediums/others (112 Mk. III, 34 Mk. IV, 4 undefined, and 2 command tanks).

Update 15 June 2012: given the above corrections, the number would drop back to the original 56 tanks sent with operation M.43. 

I would like to see if this can be confirmed?

Below the document with the chassis numbers:

German loading document for tank transfer Jan 1942

Some more on the mechanical reliability of Crusader Tanks

In an older post (at this link), I had provided some information that Rich had found on mechanical issues affecting Commonwealth tanks during CRUSADER. Working my way through the Queen’s Bays war diary for January 42, I have now come across a statistic of tank breakdowns for mechanical reasons during the Axis counter-offensive of January 1942. The Queen’s Bays were one of the three armoured regiments of 2 Armoured Brigade, 1 Armoured Division, and were equipped with a mix of 31 Cruiser Mk. VI (Crusader), 1 Cruiser Mk. IV, and 19 M3 Stuart tanks.

Over the course of operations, 22 Cruiser tanks (21 Mk. VI, and 1 Mk. IV) broke down, three developing two separate faults. One tank broke down due to a collision. Ignoring the latter, the failure rate was 77% including the three twin-failures.

Two M3 Stuart’s broke down, or 11%, one of them due to having towed broken down Cruisers, and being worn out in consequence, and the other due to faulty electrical wiring. Five M3 Stuarts were lost due to lack of petrol (the high petrol consumption of the aerial engine used in the tank was responsible for this), and one was unaccounted for.

The reason for the breakdown of Cruiser tanks was very varied, but can be grouped as follows:

5 tanks – Fan-related problems, including overheating

4 tanks – Undefined engine issues (which could be caused by fan or ignition failures)

3 tanks – Ignition failures

2 tanks – air compressor failure

2 tanks – piston rings worn, oil issues

1 tank each – various issues, see below

Failure Item Number of tanks
Ignition 2
Front idler broken in collision 1
Engine seized 1
Fan broken, engine seized 1
Engine trouble 1
Steering 1
Starter bendix drive shaft seized 1
Fan sprocket broke, engine seized 1
Fan chain broken, engine seized 1
Engine trouble, failure to start 2
Engine piston rings badly worn 1
Valve trouble 1
Engine oiling up. Due possibly to worn piston rings. 1
Engine clutch gone 1
Air compressor failure 2
Water pump leaking. Carburation trouble. 1
Oil leaks and faulty oil pump 1
Engine overheating 1
Ignition fault due to cracked distributor cap 1
Fan jockey wheel spindle bearings 1

On the whole, I would see the mechanical performance of these tanks as appalling. I am wondering if the regiment had been given insufficient time to acclimatise, or indeed what other reason could have been responsible for this. In any case, it is clear that the British tankers of the Bays were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

The Tobruk Garrison on 18 November 1941

On 18 November the Tobruk garrison mostly consisted of units which had only seen relatively little of the siege. With the exception of 2/13 Battalion (the ‘2’ indicates the war, since the Australian army decided to raise battalions with the same numbering as in the Great War. Kiwi wits have it that Australians require it to be reminded of which war they were fighting.) all the Australian units of 9 and 6 Division had departed, to be replaced by the renamed 6 British infantry division, which had become 70 Division, under Major-General Scobie, with 14, 16, and 23 Brigades (a good overview of the history of the division can be found at this link).

This British force was strengthened by the Polish Brigade, which consisted of late inmates of Stalin’s Gulag who had left the Soviet Union via Persia, and which in turn had a Czech battalion attached to it.

There was also an Indian reconnaissance unit, and three elements of the Royal Tank Regiment under 32 Army Tank Brigade, Nos. 1, 4, and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR, the first of which with old cruisers, and the other two with Matildas and light tanks. 4 RTR had been brought in during the relief of the Australians, while 1 RTR and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR had been in the fortress from the start (in case of the cruisers) or very early on (‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR).

There was also a considerable amount of Royal Artillery units in the fortress.

In terms of equipment, the following was reported present to Churchill on 16 November (WO216/15):

  • 10 Coastal Defense guns (could be Italian)
  • 4 medium guns (probably 60-pdr)
  • 88 field guns (25-pdr, maybe some 18-pdr, and captured Italian ‘bush’ artillery)
  • 59 anti-tank guns (2-pdr, excluding those on the tanks themselves)
  • 24 heavy AA guns (3.7″)
  • 64 light AA guns (Bofors 40mm, and maybe some captured Italian)
  • 28 cruiser tanks (old varieties)
  • 67 ‘I’ tanks (Matilda II – 52 in 4 RTR, 15 in ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR)
  • 40 light tanks (Vickers Mk.VI)
  • 30 carriers

It consisted of the following major combat units:

70 Division

  • 14 Brigade
  • 16 Brigade
  • 23 Brigade
  • Polish Brigade
  • Czech Battalion and Australian 2/13 Battalion
  • 32 Army Tank Brigade
  • Royal Artillery units

The strength of the garrison was given as 22,000 men.  While this may sound substantial, it really wasn’t for a perimeter of about 24 miles (38km), which could easily absorb such a force, and meant that (given Axis air superiority) movement during the day was severely restricted, reducing the ability of the garrison to take advantage of the internal lines of communications. It is no wonder that in the September appreciation of the situation in Tobruk, Middle East Command was quite negative on the chances of the garrison withstanding a determined assault on its own.

Losses of 15. Panzerdivision during CRUSADER

I am in the fortunate position to have a copy of the whole of 15. Panzerdivision’s war diary for the period thanks to a fellow researcher. At the end of it, there is an overview of the losses suffered by the division during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive. It is quite instructive, especially in terms of officer losses, which seem very heavy to me.

Overview of Losses of the Whole Division
Time Period Killed Wounded Missing Comment
18 Nov to 31 Dec 435 (43) 1,361 (52) 1,820 (35) Main battle, loss of Tobruk, retreat to Agheila
1 Jan to 12 Jan 2 5 1 Establishment in Mersa el Brega Position
13 Jan to 20 Jan 1 4 (2) 9 (1) Static Defense in Mersa el Brega Position
21 Jan to 26 Jan 11 (2) 41 (4) 1 Counter-Offensive towards Msus
27 Jan to 2 Feb 8 (1) 23 (2) 7 Battle for Benghazi & the Jebel
3 Feb to 10 Feb 4 4 Move up to the Gazala line
Halfaya Pass 280 (3) 1./SR104
11 Feb to 20 Feb 23 (1) 48 (1) 15 (1) Static Defense in Gazala Line
Total 480 (47) 1,486 (63) 2,137 (40) Total for division 4,103 (150)

Number in brackets officer casualties, contained in total number.

Of particular note is the very small number of officers in the battalion lost at Halfaya when the position surrendered on 17 January 1942. In total the division lost six battalion commanders, one regimental or battalion commander (Lt.Col. Zinke – maybe someone can confirm his command?), and its General Officer commanding, killed, wounded or missing.

Of further note is the very high share of officers killed, compared to those wounded, or missing (10%/4%/2%). Probably something about officers leading from the front.

On 10 February the unfilled positions compared to war establishment in the division amounted to 6,201 (159 officers). The discrepancy could be due to sick/evacuated, and maybe the division was a bit understrength before the start of the battle. On 11 February the division reported a ration strength (this includes sick and those on holidays, as well a subordinated units drawing supplies from the division I believe) of 5,354. If this number is combined with the understrength figure, we arrive at a war establishment of 11,555, which is probably not unrealistic, and of which 54% were not present. Indeed, on 11 November the division reported a ration strength of 12,160.

Five Knights Crosses seem to have been awarded for the battle, to Colonels Menny and and Crassmann on 26 December 41, Captain Wani on 6 January 42, First Lieutenant Struckmann on 21 January 1941, and posthumously to Major Fenski on 2 January 42 (he fell on Totensonntag).

The Confused Arrival of 22 Armoured Brigade

The repeat delays to the start of CRUSADER was quite unpalatable to Winston Churchill, who had sacked Wavell over his reluctance to move faster as much as over his failure in BATTLEAXE. As has often been pointed out, Churchill had a layman’s appreciation of war, which was largely unbothered by any understanding of logistics and the needs of keeping a 1940s fighting force operational. Partially behind the delay to the start of CRUSADER was a classic case of misunderstanding and miscommunication, relating to the technical state of the new Crusader tanks (Cruiser Mk.V) of 22 Armoured Brigade, as set out in the documents in WO216/15.

The Brigade took 45 tanks which had been used from the UK, 10 for each of the regiments, and another 5 which were transferred to 3 CLY from 1 Amroured Brigade. This indicates that 121 tanks were factory fresh, and as was pointed out to me, it is likely that it was these new tanks  which had arrived in the Middle East with some vital equipment uninstalled, but nevertheless included on the ships they arrived in, in specially marked boxes. In the expectation of the ministry of supply, the complete installation of the equipment in the base workshops should have taken 3-4 days. The missing equipment was:

  • Oil filters (missing on 40 tanks)
  • Track guard inserts (missing on 39 tanks)
  • Modified fuel tank cock (missing on 8 tanks)
  • Gear lever extension (missing on 26 tanks)
  • Fan drive assembly (missing on 86 tanks)

The first items being fixes that could be implemented by the units themselves, while the last one necessitated a trip to the base workshops, of which there were two in Egypt.

What was not foreseen however was that someone in Egypt had decided that all axles needed to be reinforced, because of some failures that occurred shortly after arrival. This was in fact a known problem in England, and traced back to metal manufacture errors. But it had been decided that since the problem affected not all axles, that strengthening of them as a matter of course was not required. Not knowing this, Middle East Command presumed all axles were faulty, and subjected all tanks to a reinforcement programme, which ate up time.

On top of this, time was required for the desertification not of the tanks, but of the troops. Desert driving and navigation were skills that Middle East Command assumed would take two weeks of training to acquire.

So a simple calculation, from arrival on 2 October, has 22 Armoured Brigade ready by 2 November (two weeks of unloading, two weeks of desert training). The re-fitting of the tanks would not take extra time as it could be done while drivers train. The same for desert tactical training of tank crews. Quicker unloading (the two weeks required brought another rebuke from Churchill complaining about taking this long to unload ‘150 vehicles’) were defended by Middle East Command on the grounds that to unload the large number of wheeled vehicles took the time, not the 166 tanks, and that in any case this was not its responsibility, but that of civilian authorities. Maybe a week could have been gained here – I don’t know enough about the unloading of ships and the harbour facilities in Egypt in late 1941 to make a call either way. So on the outside 2-3 weeks might have been gained by avoiding the axle reinforcement and unloading more quickly.

But it needs to be kept in mind that 22 Armoured Brigade was not the only reason for the delay. 1 SA Division also suffered from shortcomings in desert navigation and tactical/operational training, and based on the semi-official history these were just about made up by 18 November (see Agar-Hamilton ‘The Sidi Rezegh Battles’). But in fairness it never played much of a role in the battle, so it is doubtful if this by itself would have sufficed to hold back the decision to attack. Another reason was a lack of fighter pilots, of which there weren’t enough to man the existing aircraft, and consequently there was also no operational reserve on which to draw (see AIR 20/2109, Tedder’s appreciation of 13 October).

It is of course interesting to speculate what would have happened, had CRUSADER been launched 2-3 weeks earlier. My guess is that not much would have changed. In fact, the Axis supply situation by mid-November was probably worse than it had been a fortnight before, due to the failure of the Beta convoy to make it across the Med. Also, the fortuitous intervention of the weather Gods in the form of the tempest of 17 November which not only grounded much of the Axis air force but maybe more importantly severely disrupted its communications would not have helped the Commonwealth gain air superiority.

On the other hand, the almost six weeks it took from 18 November to entering Benghazi would (presuming a similar course of the campaign) have led to Commonwealth forces entering the town at or just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, giving Middle East Command a valuable breathing space and maybe the possibility to push on to defeat the remnants of the Axis forces before having to relinquish forces for the Far East and India. It would also have left the Axis forces without the important supply convoys of late December and early January, which replenished German tank strength to a point that the counter-attack of 21 January became possible. Furthermore, two weeks earlier large parts of the German air transport fleet and Luftflotte 2 were still fully engaged in Russia, and would probably not have been able to intervene so quickly.

Finally of course it would have soothed Churchill’s nerves, and who knows what effect that might have had…

Order of Battle Division z.b.V. Afrika (Africa Special Purpose Division), 10 November 41

The division had originally been formed in June 1941 for service in Africa.  It lost some elements during transport across the Mediterranean, and had other elements added to it after arrival. In the end it was a hotchpotch, and lacked vital supply, signals, and logistics elements which would have been standard in ordinary divisions, and was  also very weak indeed in artillery (one of the two artillery battalions came from the regiment formed for 21st Panzer). Nevertheless that did not matter too much, since it was meant for stationary use on the Tobruk siege front, where it would be responsible for the break-in planned for late November, with all the support (and it was plenty) of the heavy artillery of Arko 104 at its disposal.During Operation CRUSADER, on 27 November, it was renamed 90th Light Africa Division, and it was under this name that it would acquire a fighting record well respected by its enemies. But before that, it would be very severely depleted in the two weeks from the start of the operation, so much so that it did not play an active role in the January counteroffensive.

A few remarks about the structure of the organisation, which was peculiar in other aspects as well. I noted that the infantry companies had very high firepower when it comes to light machine guns, with the exception of the 3rd battalion 347th Regiment they had double the firepower of the standard rifle company. It is no wonder that the account of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch of their attack against the siege front on 21st November speaks of the heavy volume of automatic weapons fire they encountered, and that the ridge where it came from became known to them as “Spandau” ridge (“Spandau” in this case not referring to the Berlin suburb, but the German machine gun, a term from World War I).

What is also noticeable about the order of battle is the lack of balance in the infantry companies.  The companies in the 155th Regiment are very well equipped for firepower, especially by the standards of the typical German infantry company at the time. With heavy mortars, a lot of machine guns, and two light infantry guns, any strongpoint defended by such a company would have been a serious obstacle to an attack. The companies in the 3rd battalion 347th Regiment are a bit less well equipped, but are still doing okay. On the other hand, the companies in the 3rd battalion 255th Regiment, and especially all companies in the “Afrika” Regiment 361 are much weaker, and according to the war diary, most of the heavy weapons of the regiment seem to have been stuck in Naples when CRUSADER started.

The order of battle below is from the NARA records, and dated 11 November 41. Many thanks to my friend James for getting it.

The interpretation of the hand-written/-drawn OOB would not have been possible without the explanation of the symbols on Dr. Leo Niehorster’s OOB site at this link.

Division z.b.V. “Afrika”

Divisional Command

Motorised Signals Platoon

259th Motorised Mapping Detachment

155th Rifle Regiment

Staff with Signals, Despatch Riders, Engineer Detachments (all motorised)

Three Infantry battalions

Each battalion with:

staff (signals, engineers);

three rifle companies with 18 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, 2 8.1cm mortars and 2 7.5 cm light infantry guns each; and

one support company with 8 heavy machine-guns and 6 8.1 cm mortars.

3rd Battalion 255th Infantry Regiment

Three rifle companies with 18 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, no mortars, no heavy anti-tank rifles; and

one support company with 8 heavy machine-guns.

3rd Battalion 347th Infantry Regiment

Three rifle companies with 15 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, and 2 8.1cm mortars; and

one support company with 12 heavy MGs and 6 8.1 cm mortars.

“Afrika” Regiment 361

Staff

Two Infantry battalions

Each battalion with;

three rifle companies with 18 light MGs; and

one support company with 2 heavy machine-guns.

605th Anti-Tank Battalion

Staff with Signals Platoon (motorised)

Three companies with 5 light MGs and 9 4.7cm ATGs (Czech) on Panzer I chassis, each.

Reconnaissance company

Staff platoon with 3 armoured MG carriers (captured) attached.

One platoon motorised with 6 VW un-armoured cars Kübelwagen.

One platoon armoured cars (tracked? Probably an error)

Artillery Regiment 155

2nd Battalion 155th Artillery Regiment

Staff with motorised signals and survey platoon

Three batteries with 2 light MGs and 4 10.5 cm light Field Howitzers 18, no prime movers

“Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361

Staff with signals platoon

Two batteries with 2 light machine guns and 4 7.5 cm mountain guns each, no prime movers

Engineer Battalion 900 (motorised)

Staff with 1 heavy anti-tank rifle and 1 3.7 cm ATG

Two motorised engineer companies with 12 light MGs each.

Light engineer column (motorised)

 

 

An interesting question has now arisen about the guns of “Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 – the drawn order of battle clearly shows mountain guns, presumably 7.5cm Gebirgskanone 36, although it is also possible that an older type would have been used for this cinderella formation. But information I recently was made aware of by a fellow researcher shows that captured Russian field guns, presumably the Feldkanone 36(r). I have my doubts that the first issue of guns to the “Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 was of this type, but if anyone knows for sure, or has pictures that can clearly be dated to CRUSADER or before, I’d be very grateful. Following CRUSADER, the number of captured Russian guns in the desert became substantial, as this Intelligence Bulleting shows.