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.

Wochschau footage from Crusader

Wochschau footage from Crusader

The Wochenschau was the weekly propaganda news reel of the 3rd Reich. As a boy I watched it’s re-runs, mesmerised. They ran every evening on regional TV stations.

The linked episode has North African footage from minute 24 onwards, including a Stuka divebombing attack, a short episode on female Red Cross nurses in a field hospital, and a fighter battle with Me 109s taking apart some Hurricanes.

m.youtube.com/watch

Please keep in mind that this was propaganda aimed to manipulate as well as inform. The segments would be cleverly cut, and the messaging adjusted to suit a criminal regime and support a criminal cause.

Movie Monday: Giarabub (1942)

The siege of Giarabub (also called Jaghbub) was the final success of Empire forces related to Operation COMPASS, the first counteroffensive, which destroyed the Italian forces in North Africa. It was taken on 21 March 1941 following a 3-month siege, by a combined Anglo-Australian force consisting of 2/9 Australian Infantry Battalion, 6 Australian Divisional Reconnaissance Regiment, and a battery of 4 Royal Horse Artillery. 10 days later the Axis commenced it’s second offensive.

Giarabub came to play a role later in 1941, when Oases Force set out from it for its raid on Gialo (Jalo/Jalu), the topic of our first book. In 1942 it was re-taken by the Axis, and occupied until the withdrawal to the west in October 1942.

To get everyone in the mood, here’s the Italian movie about the siege, from 1942.

Luftwaffe Magazine Der Adler Online

Thanks to Stuart over at Tanknet, I have come across this, and had a bit of a look. I want to note that I am publishing this for research purposes, and not to in any way, shape, or form endorse the content.

Archive.org – Der Adler

Screenshot 2018-09-23 10.32.14

Cover page of the Italian edition of 30 June 1942, with Field Marshal Kesselring (OB Sued) and Italian Chief of the General Staff Field Marshal Cavallero in Benghazi.

It’s a pretty comprehensive collection of this Luftwaffe propaganda magazine, that was published in multiple languages, and also featured a lot of colour pictures.  Publication seems to have been bi-weekly, and it is reasonably close to the events, so for CRUSADER it is worth looking through the December to March issues of it.

The magazine carried foto stories of the war, both home and actual front, some political articles, regular columns such as ‘How they gained their Knights Cross’, some funny corners and a crossword, amongst other things.

When reading it we shouldn’t forget that it was a propaganda magazine for the Nazi regime, and anything, both pictures and text, needs to be critically considered in this regard, and with it constantly in mind.

Some sample content related to CRUSADER below:

Screenshot 2018-09-23 10.17.07

Anti-aircraft artillery and camels on the move in the desert, in a rather nice shot that certainly led to some ribaldry in other service arms (in German ‘Kamel’ is a term used for someone who is or who has done something stupid).

Screenshot 2018-09-23 10.42.16

Caption: ‘What choice do we have, the German recce planes see every nosetip’. Part of a special set of caricatures on the war in Africa, in the 8 July 1941 issue, incidentally (or not) also the issue in which Major Heymer’s Knights Cross for his services with 2.H/14 was announced.  

Screenshot 2018-09-23 10.45.17

Political education in the 8 July 1941 issue, probably to explain the strategic purpose of fighting in North Africa.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 10.14.26

Death Notice of an ace – Lieutenant Erbo von Kageneck of III./JG27 was shot down in a dogfight with No. 250 Squadron R.A.F. south Agedabia. He suffered an abdominal wound and died five days later in hospital in Naples. His brother, also a fighter pilot, died on the same day in Russia.

The Rommel Myth

You sometimes come across the claim that the so-called Rommel myth is a post-war creation, such as the statement:

Like Young, whose ‘Rommel the Desert Fox’ created the Rommel myth, authors can appear biased because they echo sources that reflect the prejudices and assumptions of the period.[1]

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rommel’s myth was, for a range of reasons, well in the making from an early time of the desert war. See for example T. Kubetzky’s thesis (in German, available as a Google E-Book) called ‘The Mask of Command’, which presents ample evidence that German wartime propaganda was very busy indeed in myth creation.

Today I went through interrogation reports of German and Italian prisoners from February 1942, kindly sent to me by Tom. They are in WO208/5518 in Kew. The reports are probably based on wiretaps on prisoner of war accommodations, or maybe reports from ‘stool pigeons’, fake prisoners inserted to record conversations.

One particular item stood out that demonstrates clearly that the myth was at least beginning to take shape as early as the turning of the year 1941/42. The report is dated 1.2.42. What is interesting is that the prisoner in question had probably never been to Africa and/or served under Rommel. He was a Sergeant-Major of the German air force’s Coastal Air Wing 806, 2nd Squadron (2./Kuestenfliegergruppe 806), and taken prisoner after his plane, a Junkers 88, was shot down over or around Malta on 3 January 1942. Probably either Feldwebel Freese, or Feldwebel Arnold, air gunner and observer respectively of a 2./KflGr806 Ju 88 shot down by Hurricanes or AA between 0933 and 1015 hours of 3 January 1942 after an attack on Safi landing strip.[2] The whole crew of four survived the loss of the plane, abandoning it in the air and parachuting safely to the ground. The other prisoner numbers are: 421372, Corporal Hoppe, wireless operator, 421370, First Lieutenant Schnez, Pilot, and 421371 – the other Sergeant.[3]

A 421359 in conversation with A321571:

[…]

He [Rommel] went to the FUEHRER too, and said: “I can’t go on fighting with such shells as these.” He wanted to take over [or give up?] the command, in AFRICA (?).

[…]

That rumor that ROMMEL had some Italian officers shot was quite true.

[…]

(Eulogy of ROMMEL)

ROMMEL’s a marvelous chap. He’s had seven drivers already and he hasn’t even been wounded. His battle position is an old car, heavily armored of course. It’s got a few sandbags on top, and there he sits inside.

The light tanks couldn’t get back, they had to stay where they were. They were to be fetched during the night. Suddenly a sort of lorry came racing along, ROMMEL was inside. “Now, boys” he said, “go along and fetch that stuff. Even if you’re taken prisoner, it won’t be so bad, I’ll get you back to-morrow.”

Several mythology elements of Rommel are apparent here – going over the head of the Army command to Hitler to make his case; showing the Italians who’s the boss; oblivious to danger; leading a charmed life; motivating his men to give all through personal appeals.

[1]World War II in Europe, Africa, & the Americas, with General Sources: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Loyd E. Lee, Robin D. S. Higham pp. 142-143, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997

[2]https://maltagc70.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/3-january-36-hour-attack-on-malta/

[3]http://www.ronaldv.nl/abandoned/airfields/MT/malta.html#safi

Movie Thursday – Boche-Busting at Halfaya

Some very interesting movies from British Pathe showing events during operation CRUSADER.

1. The Libya Offensive

2. Advance into western Cyrenaica (Dec. 1941)

3. Fall of Bardia (2 Jan 1942)

4. Capture of Halfaya Pass (17 Jan 1942)

5. Mopping up in Libya (I assume this is either in late 41 or early 42 – maybe someone recognises the General?)

6. First German POWs to arrive in South Africa (1942)

Happy viewing!