The Battle for 1 Army Tank Brigade’s Repair Shop

The ‘Dash to the Wire’, with which Rommel aimed to win the battle, produced many curious incidents. One of the stranger ones was a tank battle for a repair shop, between 16 Matildas in various stages of repair, and the full strength of German Panzerregiment 8 of 15. Panzerdivision, with a strength of 16/34/6 Panzer II/III/IV, and supported by 88mm AA guns.

The first few days of Operation CRUSADER had been hard on the Brigade, and it had lost almost half of the 132 infantry tanks in the initial assault on the frontier strongpoints and in support of 2 New Zealand Division. On 22 November, the assault by 42 RTR (minus C Squadron, with B Squadron 44 RTR under command) on ‘The Omars’ (see this contemporary analysis) had cost the Brigade 46 out of 51 tanks participating, and caused severe personnel losses of 5 officers and 22 men killed, and 1 offier and 21 men wounded, with 3 more men missing. The proportion of almost 1.3:1 killed to wounded might indicate the ferocity of the fighting, and that many of the tanks which were shot up were being hit by the very powerful German 88mm AA gun. Many of the tanks were recoverable though, and had been brought to the L.R.S. (local repair shop – thanks to Wills on WW2 Talk for this). On 23 November, 8 RTR lost 2 tanks in B Squadron when this supported the attack by 5 NZ Brigade on Sollum, and 16 in C Squadron in support of 6 NZ Brigade when Point 175 was taken – this was equivalent to the strength of the whole squadron (see also this older post). On 24 November, another Matilda of 42 RTR was lost, and Squadron Commander Major R.M. Rawlins killed, when the remaining 5 Matildas of the regiment engaged (and seriously delayed) the advancing Panzerregiment 5 of 21. Panzerdivision at the Bir Sherferzen gap in the wire. Total losses therefore amounted to at least 65 of 132 tanks by 23 November.

Located in a convenient and supposedly safe location west of Sidi Omar, was the repair shop of 1 Army Tank Brigade. The fitters were busy, with 16 of the recoverable Matilda II tanks standing around in various stages of repair/unfitness for service. Of these, 6 had been brought to runner status, and another was expected to be ready by the evening.

Before this was achieved however, Panzerregiment 8 hit the L.R.S. and destroyed it. The entry in its war diary reads as follows:

West of Sidi Omar Panzer Regiment 8 reports strong enemy grouping with Mk.II [Matilda].

In an energetic attack, Lt.Col. Cramer leads the regiment against it. The 1st Battalion attacks frontally, while the 2nd Battalion hits the left flank of the opponent.

The Flak is tasked on the right wing. After a tough fire fight, carried out on shortest distance, all 16 attacking Mk. II are shot up, and a number of prisoners are brought in, which belong to the 6th English Army Tank Regiment.[1]

What really happened was slightly different. It is reported in an account by the R.A.O.C. commander of 1 Army Tank Brigade, written on 10 December 1941:

On afternoon of 25th, a mobile enemy column with tanks made a concentrated attack on the L.R.S. The tanks were manned by R.T.R. personnel, and a battle for 1 ½ hours ensued, during which 2 German Mk. III tanks had been knocked out and also a large ammunition lorry. Seven R.T.R. personnel were killed, and the remainder of the personnel of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. managed to disperse with their vehicles. The L.R.S. anti-tank rifle was in use for most of the battle. Very few of the L.R.S. and O.F.P. have been located beyond the O.C. L.R.S. and 42 men, and the O.C. O.F.P. and 10 men; it is therefore assumed that on dispersal with their vehicles, these men must have met other portions of the enemy column and were captured.

The German column apparently made camp in the L.R.S. area (6 miles west of Sidi Omar) and created further destruction to the tanks and equipment of the L.R.S.

Attempts were made to contact the L.R.S. site but A.F.V’s of the enemy were met; on 30th November the Bde O.M.E. made contact and with a small party surveyed the damage and buried one R.T.R. driver who had been locked inside a tank.

The war diary of 15. Panzerdivision confirms the loss of 2 Panzer III and 1 Panzer II during the day. Since it did not engage in other tank combat, it is probable that the claim by the L.R.S. is correct. It is also interesting to note that the German regiment made a text-book attack, which of course came off very successfully, since the opponent was fighting with both arms tied behind his back.

The incident was quickly recounted, already during the war in the book ‘With Pennants Flying’, which deals with combat by army tank units. Bryan Perrett in his book ‘Through the Mud and the Blood’ also recounts this episode. This contains an eyewitness account by Trooper Leslie Bowie of 7 R.T.R. (a veteran of Dunkirk, COMPASS, and the summer battles around Sollum), who was engaged in tank delivery, and on wireless watch at the site.

It was very hot and all I wore was boots, shorts, beret, and my revolver around my waist. Suddenly I heard a series of shells exploding. I whipped off the headphones and ran to the back of the lorry I was in. There were black puffs of shell-bursts everywhere, men were frantically throwing equipment into lorries and trucks, and in the distance, hull down, were German Mark III’s and IV’s who’d really caught us napping. The tank crews of the 42nd‘s non-runners were jumping aboard their tanks to fight it out, even though much of their ammunition and equipment was stacked outside to facilitate the repair work. Our truck was first off, closely followed by every vehicle that could be got out, and the first 2-pounders started firing back. These crews fought a very gallant action with no hope at all, but they saved us.

Bowie came back shortly after and found no survivors, and the dead in a position that made him believe they had been shot in cold blood, maybe because of the unnecessary casualties their resistance had caused to the Germans. As in his account, in ‘With Pennants Flying’ it is also claimed that it looked as if the Germans had shot R.T.R. personnel who had surrendered. But the primary sources I am looking at do not confirm this, and I am inclined to discard this view of events.

Apart from the loss of the tanks, 42 RTR also suffered heavily in personnel. Lt. M.C.Ebutt was wounded, while Lt. J.B.Wrangham, 2/Lt. L.J.Hotson and 40 other ranks were missing. Also captured were 2/Lt. D.J.Slingsby of Bde. Coy RASC, and 2/Lt.R.L.Bertram of the O.F.P. Capt. R.Nixon of Bde. HQ was captured while travelling from HQ to the RASC.

In total, the regiment had managed to lose, in just three days in action, almost 90% of the tanks it started with (the arrival of ‘C’ Squadron on 25 November made up for about half the losses), and about 10-15% of its total personnel, and 20% of those it went into battle with. A brutal welcome to the realities of war for the regiment.

 

[1] It is notable that the Germans thought they were being attacked by these tanks, and more so given the fact that they must have noticed afterwards that they had been in combat with semi-hulks. It is also interesting that they believed the POWs to be from 6 RTR – while it is possible that members of that regiment were at the L.R.S., if they had been dispersed and joined in the general rush east on 23 November – the 6 RTR war diary nevertheless states that the regimental remains moved along the divisional axis (i.e. south, not east) on 23 November.

German Firing Trials against the Matilda II

I have previously posted some views on the Matilda II at this link.
While going through the appendices to the war diary of 21. Panzerdivision, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, I came across the results of firing trials with various German guns against the Matilda II, which show quite nicely how the one-time  queen ofthe battlefield have moved towards obsolescence.

Some notes to help interpretation:

  • Indication (Anzeige) I interpret as ‘success’
  • Pz.Gr. is a tank round
  • I presume that the writer of the memo made errors in the tank/anti-tank round designations
  • Gr.40 (should be 39) is the standard model round for tank guns and anti-tank guns. It contained a small amount of HE filler for better after-armour effect.
  • Gr.41 (should be 40) is a tungsten-core round with better effect but no HE filler.
  • Pz.Gr.38 normal (should be Rot/red) is the standard anti-tank round of the short 7.5cm tank gun, capped and with HE filler.
  • Pz.Gr.38 red (should be HL for Hohladung) is a hollow charge round only available for the short 7.5cm tank gun in the Panzer IV at the time
  • l.F.H.18 is a light field howitzer, and was the standard artillery piece of the Wehrmacht. Comparable to the US 105mm or the British 25-pdr.
  • ‘Special ammunition’ for this gun was hollow-charge. This was not allowed to be used during Operation CRUSADER by order of Hitler.
  • Panzerbuechse 41 is a heavy anti-tank rifle.

STARTS

Trial Firing on Mark II
on 19.3.42 on the firing range of I./Panzerregiment 8

1.) Assembly and explanation of types of ammunition

2.) Firing at 600m with target at acute angle

5cm tank gun with Pz.Gr.41 on turret, also on wheel assembly

5cm tank gun with Pz.Gr.40 on turret

Potential indication

7.5cm Pz.Gr. normal on turret

7.5cm Pz.Gr. 38 red on turret

Panzerbuechse 41 on turret and lower hull

Indication

5cm anti-tank Gr.40 on turret, also on wheel assembly

5cm anti-tank Gr.41 on turret

7.5cm HE round on tracks

Indication

l.F.H.18 HE round on tracks

l.F.H.18 Pz.Gr. on turret

l.F.H.18 with special ammunition on turret

Indication

Turn the Mark II facing frontally.

Against the front all weapons that had indication from the side.

3.) Following this advance of all weapons to 400m

Fire on the front turret by all weapons in the same order as before. After this advance of all weapons with no indication to 200m.

At this range also indication by 2cm tank gun with Pz.Gr.40 and 41.

The original document is attached below. Comments and corrections more than welcome.

German report on firing trials results against Matilda II, 19 March 1942

Some views on the Matilda II

The Matilda II was the iconic early-war tank of the British Army. When it was first encountered by the Germans in France, and the Italians in North Africa, it was very bad news to them, since none of their standard AT guns did a good job at dealing with it.  By the time of Operation CRUSADER however, it had gone past its heyday in fighting the Germans, and it was about to be replaced by the Valentine, which continued to serve in Europe until the end of the war if not as a main-line battle tank then as a chassis for specialised conversions, such as bridgelayer.  The Matilda II however served as a main battle tank in the Pacific until the end of the war. Nevertheless, even in November 1941  in the desert the Matilda was still potent enough to be a real headache for Axis infantry and tankers, as one can see in this prior post, and it was arguably the Matildas of the Royal Tank Regiment that helped the infantry win the battle in December, while their cruiser colleagues were licking their wounds in the desert, a point well made by Bryan Perett.

The views below come from the late Major Alexander McGinlay MC and Bar (see this post about how he got his first MC), a Matilda commander in 7 RTR and while not representative, are certainly quite interesting. I would like to thank his family for allowing me to auote them here.  Then Lieutenant McGinlay arrived in Egypt in time for Wavell’s (really O’Connor’s) counteroffensive against the Italians in late 1940, and commanded the first tank into Tobruk.  He then served in the area until the fall of Tobruk in 1942, when he was injured and captured, and again at the end of the war in a Churchill in Italy, after his escape.  In the course of his service he gained the MC and bar, one during the breakout from Tobruk in November 1941, the second during the battle for Rigel Ridge.

Some of the points made:

  • The Matilda had a high quality of workmanship going into it, the case in point here being that all tanks of the regiment started up without problems after their 5-week sea voyage to Egypt.
  • The armour protection was very good, with the officer in question surviving a direct hit at short-range by a 105mm field gun, with the armour only splitting open at the welding seam.
  • Until the introduction of a “new”  50mm solid shot round by the Germans, the Matilda crews seem to have been relatively unbothered by this gun. (maybe a reference to the introduction of sub-calibre rounds with higher penetration, or maybe the officer is referrring to the first encounters with the more capable 50L60 anti-tank/tank gun). In one incident a 50mm round partially penetrates the tank, cutting the hydraulics of the power traverse on the turret, leading to the crew being well covered in hot oil.
  • The only drawback is seen in the 2-pdr gun which is giving the Germans a big advantage
  • Crews had practiced and executed fire on the move tactics, which the officer sees as an advantage compared to the German tactic of firing only when stopped (see below)
  • The most surprising statement is that on arrival in Egypt in 1940 the tanks had some high-explosive (HE) rounds available.  It is generally accepted that no 2-pdr HE made it to the desert.  (I have followed this up with David Fletcher from the Bovington RAC Tank Museum, who suspects that maybe it was an error in remembering – there is no evidence for 2-pdr HE being delivered in the desert, but the stowage  diagrams show only AT supposed to be in the tank)

Below an interesting excerpt from the papers on how the German gun advantage was overcome by the British tankers:

The enemy had the gun advantage, but things were evened up a bit by the fact that we were better trained, in that we could, and did, fire our main gun on the move.  They had to stop.  So, by putting down smoke, either ourselves, or our back-up artillery, we could use the smoke to cut down the distance between them and us.  When the smoke cleared, we were in among them, firing on the move.  They did not like it. Our lighter armoured divisions especially took good advantage of this tactic.

A few comments on this very interesting passage:

  • German tactics were very different, and trained the tankers to stop before firing the main gun. This was seen to improve effectiveness by the Germans. The main issue with firing on the move is keeping the gun on target – with lighter guns, provided a shoulder mount was installed (as it was in the Matilda)
  • Smoke from the supporting artillery depended on good co-operation between the tanks and the guns.  Not something the Commonwealth forces were proficient in until much later in the desert war, although it appears that the Tobruk fortress forces did very well in this regard.
  • Smoke from tanks could be provided by the close-support tanks of which two were on strength in every squadron, normally attached to Squadron HQ. These tanks were equipped with 76mm howitzers instead of 2-pdr guns, and carried almost entirely smoke rounds.

A fine book on the Matilda is Bryan Perett’s “The Matilda Tank”.  Good luck getting a copy at a reasonable price – I failed and paid a lot.

Defending Position 19

Position 19 was one of the fortified positions Division z.b.V. (later 90th Light Africa Division) had occupied along the perimeter of Tobruk in preparation for the attack.  At the start of Crusader it was occupied by a platoon of Company 11, 3rd Battalion, Infantry Regiment 255, under the command of Lieutenant Hartz.  This was an independent battalion which had been sent to North Africa in May 1941, and was now poised for the attack on Tobruk as part of Division z.b.V.

His report on the events leading to the loss of the position give an interesting insight into what it looked like to be attacked by superior enemy forces, including the total chaos this meant in terms of understanding the flow of the battle as a whole, and what is going on around one.  To me it provides a reasonable explanation for the oft remarked on habit of German soldiers to continue fighting even when encircled – they could not be sure they were in fact encircled, and they could not be sure how bad it was.  So better to hold on.

The report also gives interesting insight how an attack on a fortified position looked like from the receiving end.  I also find it interesting how long the action took for the Germans, even though the 7 RTR war diary reports that within 10 minutes of crossing the startline the business was over, and orders were given to rally in the forward assembly area.  The Australian history has a good bit of detail on the day. After a bit of map study, comparing a German map showing the location of the strongpoints with the British map of the objectives at this link.  I am now convinced that Position 19 was an unknown part of the objective called BUTCH by the 70th Division.  BUTCH was attacked by 2nd King’s Own with D Squadron 7 RTR in support (see this older entry). This is confirmed by the Australian history which states that the other two battalions attacking that day did not have tank support during the initial attack, which would rule them out. There were four immobilised Matildas in front of BUTCH, two of which caused such problems to the German garrison, and they were commanded by Capt. Craig, Sgt. Prouse (Y-casualties, both of these were repaired by the crews and returned at night), 2/Lt. Massey, and Lt. Walters (Z-casualty, could not be repaired). Lt. Massey later walked into the Squadron assembly area with 25 German POW.

Another interesting bit of info is the helplessness experienced by the German soldiers in the face of two immobilised Matildas. A lot has been said that by late 41 the Matilda was no longer the “Queen of the Desert”. While this was certainly true where 88s were present, this assessment would have provided but cold comfort to the men of Lieutenant Hartz’s platoon.

The report was written up on 22 December, when what remained of the then renamed 90th Light had safely been moved into the Agheila position, preparing to receive the rest of Panzergruppe Afrika, which was by then in full retreat from the Gazala position.  The report consists of two parts, the first on what happened in position 19, the second on what happened to the remains of the Company 11 afterwards until the division was pulled out of battle.  For today, I only translate the first part. Update 22 August 09, the second part can be found at this link now.

Report on the combat on 21 November 1941 in Position 19 and the use of the remaining elements of Company 11 until December 8 1941

With my platoon I had occupied the right-flank fortification of Position 19.  At 5.30am on 21 November 1941 I heard strong engine noise from the direction of Tobruk.  I reported this to the company CP immediately, where it had already been recognised.  6.30am I recognised a strong tank attack on my fortification.  Eight armoured vehicles rolled towards it and fired at it with HE rounds and heavy MG (1) . My 3.7cm AT became unservicable because of damage to the breech after the first few rounds.  The Italian AT rifle 2cm was rendered unservicable because of a direct hit.  No further armour piercing weapons remained to me.  Out of 8 tanks 2 remained immobile outside my fortification.  They fired all day with their gun, heavy MG, or submachineguns on any target that showed itself in my fortification.(2)  Despite this I continued to fire repeatedly on the tanks with my light MGs to prevent the crews from leaving the tanks or communicating.  Since 7am there was no contact with the company.  At 7.30am I saw that the advance platoon from Magen Suei (3) was pulling back on the company HQ and that the enemy infantry immediately pushed after them. At 14.30 our artillery fired at the enemy tanks in front of us. Since some rounds fell short causing damage to dug-outs in our position, I fired a white Verey light. The artillery stopped firing thereupon, repeating the fire attack at 17.00, but also without success.  When darkness fell I tried to re-establish contact with the company. When I was short of the company CP heavy artillery fire fell on it.  I worked my way forward to the wire barrier and repeatedly shouted towards it without receiving a response.  Since no fire had come from the CP and the left of it since lunchtime I presumed it had been evacuated.  I returned to my position and tried now to gain contact to Position 20, whereby I met enemy.  After the patrol returned from the battalion CP and reported that this was occupied by the enemy I  resolved to evacuate my position.(4)  At 23.30 I gave the order to all section leaders, at 24.00 I left the position with all working weapons, as much ammunition as possible, and retreated in the direction of the Via Balbo.  At the Italian cemetary I left my platoon north of the road and myself moved to the divisional CP to report there.

Notes:

(1) this is unlikely, since the 2-pdr guns of the Matildas which attacked him were not issued HE rounds. It is more likely that these were guns in direct fire support, or part of the artillery barrage misidentified as direct fire.

(2) A decoration recommendation for the MC for Captain Craig from 7 RTR indicates that the tanks may have been of his troop, since he partially received his decoration for recovering them. The relevant part of the citation reads:

During the preliminary advance from Tobruk and the attack on the first strong point two of the tanks in Captain Craig’s Troop ran on to a minefield.  Both these tanks remained in action throughout the day bringing intense fire to bear on enemy positions within range.  As soon as darkness fell he set about recovering both vehicles and do so before midnight in spite of the fact that all work was performed in the open and under heavy enemy fire.

(3) This is likely the element of BUTCH attacked by 2nd King’s Own with 19 Matildas.

(4) This is likely to have been objective JACK for the British assault, identified by the Australian history as a battalion HQ.

Many thanks again to James for getting this item from NARA. Other sources used are the 7 RTR war diary (transcribed by Bovington volunteers), the AWM history “Ed Duda”, and the relevant section from the history of 2nd King’s Own, kindly scanned in by their museum curator.