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.

Technical issues of German tanks 1941

In previous posts (see here, and here), I have written about the problems faced by the Commonwealth in terms of tank reliability.

While much has been made of the lack of mechanical reliability of the British tanks, I feel it is important to note that the Germans had similar issues with their tanks. A report published in the history of Panzerregiment 5 by Bernd Hartmann (published in English as Panzers in the Sand) has some detail on this. The short answer seems to be that the desert was a pretty unforgiving environment to tanks.

In summary:

  • The driving distance of 700 km (presumably from Agedabia to Tobruk) had a very negative effect on the tanks, and led to a large number of them having to be handed into the workshops for damage to engines and drive assembly.
  • Air filters were useless in desert conditions.
  • General flaws of springs and shock absorbers were not just caused by using inappropriate high speeds during operations across poor terrain (especially the high-speed advance along the Trigh el Abd towards Tobruk), but also by mine damage.
  • Brake pads were faulty, and this led to greasing problems with the secondary brakes.

Tank Type

Number

Notes

Present

Broken Down

Share

Panzer I 25 12 48%
Panzer II 45 19 42% Twenty broken springs and 16 broken tread elements.
PanzerIII and large command tanks (based on the Panzer III chassis) 65 44 68% Engine seizure due to sand entering the engine. (see below)All 65 Panzer III and large command tanks had their shock absorbers replaced.50 shock absorbers failed and had to be replaced.60 jobs could be traced back to flawed final inspections in the factory.8 Panzer III had sand issues with the turret ring assembly, and in five cases the turret drive train (Variorex Getriebe) had to be replaced.
Panzer IV 17 6 35%
Total 152 81 53% 58 tanks had to have their engines replaced.40 ventilator shafts had to be replaced because of faulty pressure bearings.

Engine seizures in Panzer III/large command tanks

The fault and cause was always the same. The engine stopped and oil pressure went to zero, stopping the tank. When the attempt was made to drive on after changing oil, the cylinders and piston seized. The cause was always the same. The crank shaft housing clogged up with the paste-like fine dust, and this stopped the oil from circulating. Cylinders and pistons were abraded down to 6 mm.

 Utility of air filters

The originally issued air filters were completely useless for desert use, since they did not keep out the fine dust which lead to the clogging up of the crankshaft housing. The use of a dry felt filter, such as is being used in British cars, trucks, and tanks, was proposed to remedy this.

 Observations

What is astonishing is that the Germans were so unprepared for this. One would have presumed that it would have been relatively simple to get the required information about the air filters in particular.

It is of note that the faulty inspections seem to have continued in the factories for a long time, since break-downs of factory fresh tanks affected the 56 tanks which were delivered by the convoy of Jan. 5 1942.