German tank flag signals

This document is from the war diary of the H.Q. of 7 Armoured Division, December 1941. It’s the first time I have seen this, and it is unusual in that it is in colour. Very few documents are. Signalling in a tank battle was of course a challenge with the means of communication available in 1941, and so even though German tanks were equipped with radio sets, these were not always reliable due to atmospheric conditions, they could be jammed (something the Empire forces attempted through the use of some specially equipped Vickers Wellingtons during CRUSADER), and networks could be overloaded. Flags were therefore a low-tech fallback, but of course suffered from their own issues – difficult to use in failing light, impossible in the dark, and affected by ground conditions, e.g. when lots of dust was thrown up.

Usual health warning applies: this is a wartime document based on intelligence assessments. It may well be wrong, and the Germans only had flags in their tanks so they could engage in a Maibaumtanz.

German Flags

Some more on problems with cruiser tanks

In previous posts (at this link, at this link, and at this link), I had written something about the reliability of the Crusader tank, and the other cruiser tanks used in the desert. I have now come across a letter to the Brigade commander of 22 Armoured Brigade, presumably a response from an office in Cairo to what might have been a complaint about the mechanical reliability of the Cruiser tanks. It is reproduced below:

To:- Bde Commander, 22 Armd Bde

From:- B.O.M.E. [1]

4 Jan 42

The reason for the large number of cruiser tank casualties due to mechanical troubles in the last battle and approach march[2] was undoubtedly due to the fact that 90% of the tanks have exceeded the designed mileage before a complete overhaul becomes necessary. This overhaul mileage was assessed at 1200 miles and prior to the last battle most of our tanks had exceeded 1200 miles and many 1500[3].

The above fact reacted in two ways. First, there was a large scale failure of water pumps, air compressors, and main fan drive sprockets due to wear or length of service. Secondly, owing to inadequate supply of new parts for the above assemblies, “cannibalisation” was carried out among parts which although at the time still function had already performed as many hours of service as the parts they replaced.

This method could only afford temporary relief and obviously in the case of tanks still operating with the Brigade fitted with such parts, no estimate of remaining life can be given with any degree of confidence.

Furthermore, at this stage, it is doubtful if fitting new water pumps assemblies etc., will appreciably lengthen the present life of the tank as cases are occurring more frequently of tanks becoming Z casualties repeatedly with different fault on each occasion.

Field

RHA/RAH

(Sgd). R.H.ARBUCKLE

Capt.

R.A.O.C. [4]

[1] Presume this to be ‘Bureau of Ordnance, Middle East’, but happy to be corrected

[2] The ‘last battle’ was the battle between Christmas and New Year in the Uadi al Faregh, in which 22 Armoured Brigade received a savage beating at the hands of the Axis forces, and the approach march therefore must refer to the march of 22 Armoured Brigade from the re-organisation area south of Gabr Saleh, where new tanks were drawn, to the operational area south of Agedabia. As the crow flies, this is at least 400km, and in reality considerably more.

[3] Puts the service interval on my A4 in perspective. Although it too has coolant pump issues!

[4] Royal Army Ordnance Corps – the branch of the British army dealing with keeping stuff functioning (there was a reorganisation in 1942).

British and US tank deliveries to Egypt July 1941 to January 1942

In previous posts I have provided information on German (at this link) and Italian (at this link) tank deliveries to North Africa. At the request of David, here’s an overview of tank reinforcements sent to Egypt. It is broken down by convoy, except for the US deliveries, for which this information is not available. Here instead I have used the closest report to month end (they were issued weekly to the Prime Minister), taken the ‘in theatre’ number for that report, and substracted the ‘in theatre’ number for the previous month-end report. So e.g. for end July 40 M3 Light are reported ‘in theatre’, while for end August 109 are reported. August deliveries are therefore 69. It’s not perfect, but in the absence of convoy information it’s the best I can do. I hope readers find this useful.

What is clear from the table below is that the allied supply chain outdelivered the Axis chain by a very considerable margin during this period. In fact, it delivered more tanks in these six months than the Germans managed in the more than two years they shipped tanks to North Africa! The convoys that did this were the W.S. series (nicknamed ‘Winston Specials’). You can find detailed information about the movements and arrival times at this link or at this link. I noted in particular the delivery of 60 M3 light tanks on W.S.12, the only ones to come to Egypt via the UK. I wonder who decided on that…

What is shocking however is to compare the number of deliveries with the number of tanks operational on 7 February, in this older post, and that is where it becomes clear why this high level of deliveries was desparately needed to stay in the game in North Africa.  With 1,184 tanks delivered, and another 356 on hand, substracting the 100 that had been sent to Burma with 7 Armoured Brigade, but adding another 66 M3 Medium that had arrived in the interim, leaves a total of 1,506. Yet on 7 February only 350 were operational, i.e. less than had been operational on 2 July 1941, while another 893 were estimated to undergo repairs and maintenance, and 36 M3 Light were with 10 Armoured Division in Palestine, making for an estimated total of 1,279. This implies 227 total losses, but this was quickly revised upwards, to an estimate of 390 (180 Crusader (sic!), 130 M3 Light, 80 I-tanks). I believe to these losses have to be added the losses of 7 Armoured Brigade and 1 R.T.R., which were equipped with older Cruiser marks, and this would increase losses by another up to 150. By 9 February GHQ M.E. had decided that older Cruiser marks were no longer considered for the tank strength return, since they had become obsolete and/or so worn out not to matter anymore on the battlefield. Total losses of about 540 cruiser and I-tanks sounds believable to me.

In terms of types, I would guess about half of the UK I-tank deliveries would have been Matilda II, the other half Valentines. For the British cruisers, most if not all of them would have been Crusaders, I would guess.

Convoy

 

Month of Arrival

M3 Light (Medium)

UK Cruiser

I-Tank

Light Tank Mk. VI

Armoured Cars

W.S.8b 07/41 12 14
W.S.8x 07/41 50 50
W.S.9 07/41 20 20 251
US 07/41 402
W.S.10 08/41 21 30 251
US 08/41 69
W.S.10x 09/41 1663
US 09/41 53
W.S.114 10/41 30 60 35 501
US6 10/41 152(2)
W.S.12 11/41 60 124 52 35 831
US6,7 11/41 9(1)
US6 12/41 97(11)
W.S.12z 01/42 55 381
Totals  By type 480(14) 478 226 65 221
Totals 1,184 tanks
227 Light tanks and ACs

1 Humber Armoured Cars (probably Mk. I), could also include a small number of Daimler Armoured Cars

2 Includes 4 M2A4, mentioned here for completeness.

3 22 Armoured Brigade

4  Remainder 1 Armoured Division

5 AA tanks with Besa Quad MG mounts, belonging to 1 Armoured Division, but lent out on arrival to 1 Army Tank Brigade.

6 Number in brackets are M3 Medium tanks received in theatre during the month.

7 8 M3 Light reported as ‘lost at sea’

On a side note, Churchill was not a happy man about the situation with conflicting tank strength reports, as shown by this rather cranky note of his:

Prime Minister’s Personal Minute – Serial No. D223/1

Colonel Jacob.

Where are the 120 odd [tanks] which were to have arrived on the 8th [July], and where are the rest of the first 60 Americans? Why did the Minister of State say the other day “We have only 100 tanks fit for action” when you show 211? Are these figures telegraphed from Cairo, or do you make them up here, or do the War Office.

W.S.C.

23. 7. 41

Colonel Jacob probably thought ‘Ouch!’ when he read this.’ His reply then explained the matter a bit further, and is quite clear in what probably went on regarding the difference, explaining that the difference probably related to tanks unloaded from W.S.8(b) and (x), but not yet received by a depot in the Delta, tanks undergoing minor repairs, and excluding the tanks in Tobruk. Still, poor Colonel Jacob could probably have done without this…

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.

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.

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