The Good Source

The Good Source was how the German intelligence who handled his information called the US military attache at the US embassy in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers.  You can read a lot of background about what he transmitted and how the Axis got a hold of it at this link.

At a visit to NARA today, and without looking for it, I came across the report Bonner Fellers sent on 19 January 1942, after the air offensive against Malta started, and just two days before Panzergruppe Afrika would begin its offensive that would take it to the Gazala line.

There are clearly inaccuracies about the situation in the report, and it is indeed very pessimistic.  But what is astonishing is the amount of detail provided about the British situation in the Mediterranean.  I can not be certain of course, but I believe that this is the first time that a report by Colonel Bonner Fellers has appeared in full on the Internet.  This has been re-translated from German by me.  I think, given the phrasing, that the Germans were probably given the English original, not an Italian translation.

What is also astonishing is the wide circulation given to the report with the heading that it was an intercepted message and from whom it orginated.  Compare this to the treatment that was developed  to protect ULTRA on the Allied side. It is no wonder that the Good Source only lasted for little more than half a year, in my view.

On the other side, the security of diplomatic cipher systems was a matter of concern at least to the British.  On 22 January 1942, just three days after the memo reproduced here was sent, ‘C’, the head of the SIS at the time, sent the draft of a telegram to Churchill, suggesting that he might “care to send this to the President” (Roosevelt). In it, ‘C’ outlines the concerns the British had about the security, or rather lack of it, of US military and diplomatic cipher systems, and suggest bringing together the specialists to make the system more secure.

The German General at the Headquarters of the Italian Armed Forces
(Military Attache Rome)
Ic Nr. 206/42 Secret Command Affair


1) Commander in Chief South
2) German Navy Command Italy

(Report was passed on to Supreme Command of the German Armed Forces and Supreme Command of the German Army)

Regarding: German air attacks on Malta.

Comando Supremo has sent over the following, intercepted telegram for information:

19 January 1942. From Cairo to the War Ministry in Washington – Secret –
1.) The week ending with 17 January brought a slight increase – but not on a large scale – of the operations of Axis air forces in Libya.  No new air units were noted, however the existing German units in Africa were brought up to full strength. 25 – 30% of the aerial activity in the desert falls on the Italian air force, while the operations against Malta are exclusively and affair of the German air force.
The information service of the RAF has not reported anything of the increase of air units of the Axis during this week and gave an evasive answer when questioned, by saying that there were no signs of changes.  It is believed that the German air force is now stronger than I reported it in my Report No. 545. The flyers of the RAF have reported that they, as can be seen in the report of the information service of the RAF, have counted 36 planes in all of Sicily. The information service of the RAF expects a gradual increase of the German air force until 1 April, so that the total strength in spring, as it is increased in the east and in Greece, will probably reach 1,000 combat planes here. The number of German fighters in Libya and Sicily at the moment exceeds 200 planes, all of them Me 109.  The German combat and fighter planes have a longer range of action than the similar planes of the RAF.
The main target of the German reconnaissance and bomber planes whose bases are on the Peloponnes, is the sea traffic from Alexandria to Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi. The English want to bring 1,200 tons daily to Tobruk, 200 tons to Derna, and 6-800 tons to Benghazi.  This goal of 2,000 tons per day has not been reached yet, and the RAF fears that the sea route will become too costly for its own fighters and the navy.
2) The heavy attacks on Malta continue.  All bombers have been withdrawn, only the Hurricanes remaine there.  On 26 December some Ju. 88 attacked the airfield of Luka, destroyed six planes on the ground and damaged others. An explosive bomb hit a fuel dump: 25 Wellington 8, which stood within a radius of about half a mile were rendered unserviceable; amongst the ground crews there were significant losses.  Despite the strong air defence (see my report No. 130) – and the strong fighter force on Malta, it is obviously the intent of the Germans to destroy the fighter force, to subdue the garrison of the island by air attacks with bombs and machine guns, and to interrupt the British supply traffic, to ensure the unimpeded sea traffic of the Axis and to control the western Mediterranean as a final goal. Without a doubt this goal also includes the occupation of the island. It is expected that at least three weeks are required to eliminate the usefulness of Malta. Following from the action against Malta it has to be expected that the next goal is to block the eastern exit of the mediterranean by mine barriers and devalue the naval base of Alexandria for the English by attacks from the air and by submarines.
The Italians have about 70 and the Germans about 25 submarines, while the British submarine forces only reach 25% of this number. While the British fleet will by necessity be further reduced, the Italian fleet will be at liberty to protect the convoys against surface units.  We expect that a reduction of the British fleet by 1 April will be the consequence, a point in time when the strength of the German air force in the Mediterranean will have reached its peak.
The RAF relocates planes to the Far East.  Officially 250 planes are currently foreseen for relocation.  The fighter force in this theatre considerably threatens the position of the British air force in the Middle East, and that at a point in time when it would be criminal neglicence to suppose that an air offensive of the Axis is not likely.

The document is signed by General von Rintelen, the German military attache and liaison officer  at Comando Supremo, in person.

Regarding the information contained in the memo, I would think that the (albeit) rough assessment of RN sub strength active in the Mediterranean, as well as the results of the  air attacks onMalta (in particular the withdrawal of the Wellingtons) would have been of interest. Furthermore, the absence of a reference to any expected axis ground attack in Africa (which started two days later) and the reference to the supply problems the British had forward of Tobruk must have been valuable information, confirming the correct assessment of the situation by the Axis intelligence at the time. Finally I think the info on RAF withdrawals to the Far East is good information to have too. So I think there is a lot in what the meo says and does not say which would have been of great interest to an Axis intelligence officer.

Nevertheless, I would like to have a look at the actual plan of the Axis to reinforce the air strength in the Med. Also, I don’t think it is right that the Italians did not participate in Malta, and the number of 200 Me 109 active in Africa and Sicily in mid-January appears overstated to me.

Getting it very badly wrong

CRUSADER was not exactly an operation that shone a bright light on the genius of the opposing commanders on both sides. Rather the contrary, with the exception of Auchinleck’s bold reaction to the result of the Totensonntag battle (Admission: I do have a lot of time for ‘The Auk’, and consider him one of the great commanders of World War II – he certainly stood head and shoulders and then some over anyone else in the desert, on both sides).

At NARA I have now come across what appears to me to be the most astonishing misreading of the battle, at least as far as I can tell from what I have seen. It shows in my opinion how completely out of touch with events Rommel was during the first two weeks of CRUSADER, until the visit by Montezumolo from Comando Supremo gave him the reality check that he needed to rescue his command, and made him decide to retreat.  The order is from the files of 90th Light and was distributed to all soldiers in the division. Here goes:

The Commander of Panzergruppe Afrika

Command Post, 2 December 1941

21.00 hours

Order of the Day

The battle in the Marmarica has come to its first victorious conclusion. In uninterrupted heavy fighting against a strongly superior enemy, by 1 December we had destroyed:

814 tanks and armoured cars,

127 planes and captured great volumes of war material. Over 9,000 prisoners have been made until now.

Soldiers! This great success is thanks to your toughness and endurance. The fight is not over yet. Therefore continue to advance to finally throw down the opponent!

The Commander

signed Rommel

The war diary of 90th Light has the following entry regarding this communication:

1110hrs – Radio from the Commander in Chief: the battle in North Africa has found its first preliminary conclusion.  This order, which causes great jubilation, is immediately passed on to all units.

One day later the Luftwaffe in Greece was ordered to co-operate closely with the Italian air force to prevent an orderly retreat of the Commonwealth forces by constant attacks.

Two days later the order to retreat was given and Panzergruppe Afrika took the long road back to el Agheila. The reaction to this order is not stated in the 90th Light diary. Fliegerführer Afrika reported that no signs of a British retreat were seen.

The strategic impact of the counteroffensive

In “Decisive Battles of World War II – The German View”, the former head of Operations in OKW, General Walter Warlimont wrote about the North African campaign in 1942 as one of these decisive battles under the title “Decision in the Mediterranean”. He traces the revival of the strategic consideration of a move into Egypt back to the successful counter-offensive by the Axis forces at the end of the winter battle. This offensive, prepared in total secrecy and successfully carried out started on 21 January 1942 swiped away the inexperienced and understrength British 1st Armoured Division in the desert, and almost trapped and annihilated the 4th Indian Infantry Division in the Djebel on the northern coast of Cyrenaica, around Benghazi and Barce.  In the view of Warlimont:

[…]this tremendous offensive drive […] encouraged German leaders to revert to their ambitious project of the previous year, linking it this time with plans for a further offensive in the Caucasus.

The inherent weakness of this development, in which strategic considerations limped along in the rear of tactical success, was glossed over by Rommel’s brilliant victory in the desert, and it was optimistically assumed that Rommel’s tremendous reputation and his undoubted skill as a leader in the field would more than compensate for the steady increase of enemy strengths which was to be expected.

A few comments on this:

  • There are shades of the June 1942 attack into Egypt after the fall of Tobruk here, where strategic considerations (this time the capture of Malta) again ‘limped’ along in the wake of the capture of Tobruk.
  • Warlimont completely ignores in this analysis the fact that the Axis forces, which not three months before, on 21 November 1941 were supposed to seize the Tobruk fortress and then prepare to break across the frontier into Egypt had barely escaped with the hides on their back from Auchinleck’s offensive.  Rommel was in my opinion outgeneralled in November and December 1941, and quite badly and soundly beaten outside Tobruk, the obvious successes, such as the destruction of 5th South African Brigade and the near destruction of the New Zealand Division notwithstanding. But somehow this near desaster was forgotten by a fast drive across a mostly empty desert and the pushing back of the enemy halfway to Tobruk.
  • So while I agree that the counter-offensive was a tactical (and in fact a strategic success), I hesitate to subscribe to the view that either it or indeed the whole winter battle was a ‘brilliant victory’, despite the fact that the Axis side did not hesitate to slap itself on the back over just escaping total ruin in North Africa.

Effect on Air Transport Operations in Russia in 41

On 27 November, during the last German push towards Moscow, the chief of staff of VIII Fliegerkorps, the close-support specialists under von Richthofen, had to issue the following instruction, which in effect centralised air supply for ground forces, something which had become increasingly important during the supply crisis of Operation Taifun, the attack on Moscow:


As a result of transfer of transport gruppen (wings) to other theatres of war (=Mediterranean) supply by air can from now on take place only to a limited extent. Liason officers (with ground forces) are to point out that only in the most urgent cases can supplies be carried by air.  Applications for air transport to be made to Fliegerkorps VIII.


The information appears to also have gone to Berlin for information.


Operation Crusader did have an impact that was felt far beyond Libya, and for the first time allowed the German high command to peak into the abyss of resources not adequate to a two-front war.

German Strategy in the Mediterranean in late 1941

Hitler issued only two directives concerning the Mediterranean theatre from June 1941, Directive No. 32 and Directive No. 38. Directive 32 of 11 June 1941, little more than a week before the attack on the Soviet Union, contained the broad plans for the Mediterranean after the fall of the Soviet Union, starting with the capture of Egypt. It was an optimistic document, giving orders for the reshaping of the former Soviet space, and outlining how the British position in the Middle East would be attacked through Turkey and from Libya. It imagined a situation in which Germany would be able to control the whole Middle East, up to maybe Iran.

Directive 38 was a wholly different matter. When it was issued, Axis forces in North Africa were staring into the abyss of defeat, and the situation in the Soviet Union was about to turn violently against the Wehrmacht. The directive exposed for the first time the loss of initiative that had taken place, and the need to scrape around for resources, which would be commonplace in later years in the war.

I will, given time, make the text of Directive No. 32 available here as well, both in the original and in translation.

Directive No. 38

On 2 December 41 Hitler issued Directive 38, appointing Kesselring to the new post of CiC South. I tried to find it online, but to no avail, so here it is, in German, as a public service. An English translation is provided below.

This is an OCR of a copy reprinted in Germany, emphasis as in the copy, and I presume the original.

Der Führer and Oberste Befehlshaber F. H. Qu., den 2. 12. 1941 der Wehrmacht

OKW/WFSt/Abt. L (I Op)

441980/41 g. Kdos. Chefs.

Geheime Kommandosache

Chefsache! 17 Ausfertigungen

Nur durch Offizier ! 2. Ausfertigung

Weisung Nr. 38

1) Als Grundlage für die Sicherung und Erweiterung der eigenen Mittelmeerstellung und zur Bildung eines Kraftzentrums der Achsenmächte im mittleren Mittemeer befehle ich nach Einvernehmen mit dem Duce, dass Teile der im Osten frei gewordenen Verbände der deutschen Luftwaffe in Stärke etwa eines Fliegerkorps und der erforderlichen Luftverteidigungskräfte in den süditalienischen und nordafrikanischen Raum zu überführen sind.

Neben der unmittelbaren Auswirkung auf die Kriegführung im Mittelmeer und Nordafrika soll dadurch eine wesentliche Einflussnahme auf die gesamte weitere Entwicklung im Mittelmeerraum angestrebt werden.

2) Mit der Führung der für diese Aufgabe einzusetzenden Gesamtkräfte beauftrage ich den Generalfeldmarschall Kesselring unter gleichzeitiger Ernennung zum Oberbefehlshaber Süd (Ob. Bfh. Süd).

Seine Aufgaben sind:

Erzwingen der Luft- und Seeherrschaft im Raum zwischen Süditalien und Nordafrika zur Herstellung gesicherter Verbindungswege nach Libyen und der Cyrenaika, hierzu insbesondere Niederhaltung Maltas,

Zusammenwirken mit den in Nordafrika eingesetzten deutschen und verbündeten Kräften,
Unterbindung des feindlichen Verkehrs durch das Mittelmeer sowie der englischen Versorgung von Tobruk und Malta in enger Zusammenarbeit mit den dafür verfügbaren deutschen und italienischen Seestreitkräften.

3) Der Ob. Bfh. Süd untersteht dem Duce and erhält über das Comando Supremo dessen Richtlinien für die Aufgaben im grossen. In allen luftwaffeneigenen Angelegenheiten verkehrt der Ob. d. L. mit dem Ob. Bfh. Süd unmittelbar, in wesentlichen Fragen unter gleichzeitiger Unterrichtung des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht.

4) Dem Ob. Bfh. sind unterstellt:

sämtliche im Mittelmeerraum und Nordafrika eingesetzten Kräfte der deutschen Luftwaffe, die seitens der italienischen Wehrmacht zur Durchführung seiner Aufgaben zur Verfügung gestellten Flieger- and Flak-Verbände.

5) Die im mittleren Mittelmeergebiet eingesetzten deutschen Seestreitkräfte bleiben dem Ob. d. M. unterstellt.

Der Ob. Bfh. Süd ist befugt, für die Durchführung der ihm zugewiesenen Aufgaben dem Deutschen Admiral beim Oberkommando der italienischen Kriegsmarine, gegebenenfalls auch der Marine-Gruppe Süd (für das östliche Mittelmeer) Weisungen zu erteilen. Den Einsatz befehlen die Marinedienststellen im Einvernehmen mit dem Ob. Bfh. Süd.

Die Wünsche des Ob. Bfh. Süd zur Abstimmung des gemeinsamen Einsatzes der verbündeten Seestreitkräfte sind ausschliesslich an den Deutschen Admiral beim Oberkommando der italienischen Kriegsmarine zu richten.

6) Die Aufgaben des W. B. Südost und des Deutschen Generals beim Hauptquartier der italienischen Wehrmacht bleiben unverändert.

(gez.) Adolf Hitler

English Translation

The Führer and Commander in Chief. Führer HQ, 2nd Dec. 1941, to the Wehrmacht

OKW/WFSt/Abt. L (I Op)

441980/41/ Secret Command Affair

Chiefs Only! 17 Copies

Only by Officer! 2nd Copy

Directive No. 38

1) As basis for securing and broadening our position in the Mediterranean and to create a power centre of Axis forces in the central Mediterranean I hereby order, in agreement with the Duce, that elements of the German air force formations which have been freed up in the east, in strength of about one air corps, and the required air defense forces, are to be transferred into the Southern Italian and North African area. Apart from the immediate effect on the conduct of war in the Mediterranean and North Africa, a major influence on the whole development in the Mediterranean area will be pursued.

2) I charge Field Marshal Kesselring with the command of the totality of forces employed for this task, and appoint him as CIC South at the same time.
His tasks are:
Force command of the air and sea in the area between South Italy and North Africa to establish secure connections to Libya and the Cyrenaica, and in this context especially to suppress Malta, Co-operation with the German and allied forces employed in North Africa, Stopping of enemy traffic through the Mediterranean, as well as the English supply of Tobruk and Malta in close co-operation with the German and Italian naval forces available for this task.

3) The CIC South is subordinated to the Duce and receives his general guidance for the tasks at large through the Comando Supremo. In all internal German air force affairs he deals with the CIC German Air Force directly, in important matters while informing the High Command of the Wehrmacht at the same time.

4) Subordinated to the CIC South are:
All the forces of the German Air Force employed in the Mediterranean and North Africa, the flying and air defense forces made available by the Italian armed forces for the carrying out of his tasks.

5) The German naval forces employed in the central Mediterranean remain under the command of the CIC Navy.
The CIC South is allowed, to carry out the tasks given to him, to issue directives to the German Admiral at the High Command of the Italian Navy, and where necessary to the Naval Group South (for the eastern Mediterranean). The tactical employment is ordered by the naval offices in agreement with the CIC South.
Wishes of the CIC South to co-ordinate the joint employment of the allied naval forces are solely to be directed to the German Admiral at the High Command of the Italian Navy.

6) The tasks of the Armed Forces Commander South East and of the German General at the HQ of the Italian Armed Forces remain unchanged.

(signed) Adolf Hitler