The End Outside Tobruk – 4 December 1941

The End Outside Tobruk – 4 December 1941

Background

After two weeks of hard fighting, and two mistaken expectations of victory (see here), 4 December 1941 was the day Panzergruppe packed it in outside Tobruk. The war diary of 90.lei. Afrika-Div. notes how the division, together with the equally hard-hit Italian Bologna division[1] was expected to undertake another attack to clean the remaining enemy pockets of the Belhamed height and re-establish the siege ring. This led to a “dramatic exchange of words” between the GOC of the division and General Crüwell of the Afrikakorps at lunch time. In the end however, General Sümmermann got his way partially and obtained a delay of the attack from 1400 hours to 1600 hours. It never took place. At 1500 hours the order to retreat came and the battle outside Tobruk was lost.

0898

Unknown Command Post during the battle for the salient. Rommelsriposte Collection.

15.00 hours General Crüwell passes on order from General Rommel as follows:

The armoured corps retreats west into the area 30km west of el Adem. 90.lei.Div. holds its position and continues to close of Fortress Tobruk from the east and south-east. In this regard the division takes command of the Belhamed and from 19.00 hours Ed Duda. In this regard Gruppe Mickl is subordinated. 21.Pz.Div. takes care of establishing communications Mickl to Sümmermann. In the rear the division will be covered by Mot. Korps Gambarra in the area of Sidi Rezegh. This creates a corridor. Through this corridor, on the night 4 to 5 December, the whole of the artillery of the division will be moved to el Adem. Prime movers will be allocated. 

Following receipt of this order the intended attack is no longer considered[…]

22.15 hours a new order from Pz.Gr. that apart from small rear guards also the division will be pulled out of its prior positions. Positions Belhamed, ed Duda, to be held and later to pull pack on El Adem. To the south stands Mot. Korps Gambarra and protects against attacks from the right flank. This order is immediately transmitted to the troops.

Lt. Hollmann became the leader of the rear guards, which consisted of one section per company. These were to hold until dawn, feint occupation of the position, and then in the late morning hours retreat as well.[2]

Underscoring further the deflation of the day is the report by Artillerie Regiment 33, which participated in the second attempt to reach Bardia.

Advance on Sidi Azeiz and Rearward March via el Adem on 4.12.41

On 4.12. 15.Pz.Div. advanced from the area Zaafran on Sidi Azeiz.

Order of march (large units)

Tank battalion Ramsauer

II./A.R.33

III./A.R.33

The march was at first disturbed by artillery fire from the south, but from Gasr el Arid went without any noticeable events.At Sidi Azeiz the tanks in the van met weak enemy who retreated immediately. The II. and III./A.R.33 went into firing position immediately and took the fleeing enemy as well as the abandoned leaguer under ricochet fire.[3] An enemy battery returned fire but without major effects.

During the afternoon the rear march commenced, at first into the area of Zaafran. During the night it became known that the enemy had managed to connect with Tobruk. The division united with its supply columns in the area of the junction with the Zaafran track on the Trigh Capuzzo and at 02.00 hours on 5.12. broke through to the west. The artillery marched in the group of 15. Schtz.Brigade.[4] Apart from attacks by enemy bombers no special events.

What had happened was that the advance guard of 15.Pz. had run into 31 Field Regiment of 4 Indian Division, who were in no mood to entertain them. Their diary describes the inconclusive action.

4 December

Enemy reported clear of SIDI AZEIZ at first light and our O.P.s felt their way forward, finding no opposition. At mid-day 14 enemy tanks with guns and lorried infantry observed approaching SIDI AZEIZ. Tanks in close formation. C.O. ordered fire to be held which appeared to make the enemy uneasy. No doubt he wanted to confirm where our gun positions were. Tanks appeared to split up and attempt reconnaissance. Some spasmodic shelling. We engaged enemy A/Tk guns observed being toward across skyline and they withdrew. Finally enemy column and tanks withdrew, admitting defeat and apparently with nothing accomplished.

 

Notes

[1]Bologna reported a strength of 3 rifle companies, 1 machine-gun company, and two artillery batteries on this day. 
[2] You can read about how this went at this link.
[3]In this mode rounds would ricochet off the ground, and generate airbursts.
[4]The infantry of the division.

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Equipping a new army – M3 Stuart Tank Deliveries up to CRUSADER

Operation CRUSADER saw the first use of an American-designed tank in battle, the M3 Stuart tank[1]. I have written about the experience with this tank in prior posts, at this link, and this link. This short article provides an insight into the building up of 4 Armoured Brigade as a fighting formation with the new US-built tanks.

Background – Design and Delivery of the M3 Stuart

In terms of overall design, the M3 Stuart was a very fast tank, compact, if with a slightly high profile, and had relatively weak armour, compared to other contemporary tanks[2]. A major drawback was the short range of the very thirsty aero engines which drove it. The Stuart would continue to serve until the end of the war as both a frontline tank in a reconnaissance role, and in various support versions, including as an armoured personnel carrier. In 1941 the M3 was considered a cruiser tank by the British army, designed for mobile warfare. The tank was equipped with an M5 37mm gun, a reasonably well-designed piece for its calibre. It was about equal to the British 2-pdr gun[3], but the US tanks had been provided with HE shell and possibly also cannister anti-personnel rounds in addition to the AP shot, and thus had additional capabilities compared to the British tanks which relied on their Besa machine guns for infantry/anti-tank gun defense.

The first production version of the M3 Stuart was ready in March 1941, and from July to the end of October 1941, over 300 M3 Stuarts, including four predecessor M2 models, had arrived in Egypt under the lend-lease arrangements between the UK and the US. Four convoys had come directly from the United States between July and October, bringing 36, 69, 52, and 154 M3 tanks respectively, including the four M2A4 light tanks in the first, and also two M3 Medium Grant or Lee in the last. By the end of October, other than the 188 tanks issued to 4 Armoured Brigade, 90 M3 tanks were with ‘B.O.W.’ ‘Board of Ordnance Works’, i.e. undergoing modifications at central workshops in the Nile Delta region. Most of these were probably tanks that had come off the October convoy being made fit for the desert. Four more M3 tanks were held with 4 Hussars in the Delta, used for training crews[4], and 16 with school/training units, for a total of 315 tanks[5].

Honey

R.T.R. tank crews being introduced to the new American M3 Stuart tank at a training depot in Egypt, 17 August 1941. Note the Matilda in the background and the A9 Cruiser in the foreground, still sporting a machine gun in the secondary turret. IWM Collection E3438E.

4 Armoured Brigade Converts

As part of 30 Corps’ 7 Armoured Division, 4 Armoured Brigade at the start of Operation CRUSADER fought exclusively in the M3 Stuart. Substantial desert testing had occurred over the summer, leading to some modifications to the vehicles. Training on the new tanks continued throughout the summer, while the regiments were brought up to strength in other articles, such as trucks, and absorbed replacements.  Overall the crews considered the tank a good, very reliable machine, earning it the nickname ‘Honey’, and the experience with the tank in Operation CRUSADER seemed to bear that out. 

Bringing 4 Armoured Brigade to operational readiness in the space of four months from July to October 1941 was a remarkably fast build-up by all standards, since it included the rapid conversion from British to US cruiser tanks for the three regiments to which the M3s were issued, 3 and 5 R.T.R.[6] and the 8 Hussars. The fact that all three regiments had been in operations since the beginning of the war against Italy in 1940 almost certainly helped with the speed of the conversion. The pictures below show 8 Hussars putting their new mounts through their paces.

Hussars august

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. (IWM Collections E5065)

Hussars

The 8th Hussars testing their new American M3 Stuart tanks in the Western Desert, 28 August 1941. This picture nicely shows the attached kit, including the .30 Browning anti-aircraft MG, and the US tank helmets worn by the crew. The officer signaling is probably a commander. Flag signals were widely used – one advantage being that they could not be intercepted. (IWM Collections E5085)

Running Short of Tanks

Despite the undoubted qualities of the M3 Stuart, combat experience quickly showed the need to provide for substantial reserves of both tanks, but also ammunition, a particular challenge when the ammunition used in a tank is not the same standard as that used on all the other tanks in an army. Thus, while the availability of 188 tanks for a 156-tank Armoured Brigade may seem a generous number of tanks, at the end of the first two days of battling Panzerregiment 5 on 19/20 November 1941, 4 Armoured Brigade had completely utilized the Brigade’s M3 Stuart tank reserve of 30 tanks and had also experienced very heavy ammunition expenditure[7]. This prompted a set of phone conversations given below.

 

SECRET

Record of telephone conversation with Lt-Col BELCHEM, G1, S.D. HQ Eighth Army, at 2300 hrs, 20 November 1941

Eighth Army require as many M3 American tanks as possible on top priority. That is to say, this type of tank is required more urgently than other types, as the reserve held by Eighth Army is all gone.

Eighth Army require to be informed how many M3 American tanks can be sent as a result of this request and when they may be expected.

Further stocks of ammunition for the weapons mounted in M3 American tanks are urgently wanted. It was understood that this request referred to 37mm rather than .300”. Lt-Col Belchem said that a quantity of this ammunition was being held at Alexandria for onward despatch, and that if this reserve was already on its way forward well and good; if not he recommended that as large a quantity as possible should be flown up. 

The above demands have already been referred to the D.D.S.D.[8]

The following day, the rather scarce transport plane capacity of Middle East Command was put at 8 Army’s disposal to service this request, and the Bristol Bombays of No. 215 Squadron flew ten tons of ammunition up to L.G. 122 for 4 Armoured Brigade, ‘at short notice’ as the RAF report noted.

Two days later, on 22 November another phone conversation, this time between Brigadier Galloway, the B.G.S.[9] of 8 Army, and Lt.Col. Jennings, discussed the matter of American tanks.

6. They require every American tank we can send up as well as every reinforcement capable of driving the American tank. (Note – Suggest we should examine whether the ammunition situation warrants our sending up many tanks. I understand that ammunition for< American tanks is becoming exhausted.)

Following this, on 24 November, Lt.Col. Jennings noted for the war diary the following:

2. Forty American M3 tanks now en cas mobile are to be ordered forward immediately. DAFV[10] is to arrange 40 drivers from 4 Hussars for ferrying them ahead of R.H.[11]

Footnotes

The featured picture shows an M3 being hoisted out of a ship onto the quayside at Alexandria, 19 July 1941. IWM Collection E4310

[1] Nicknamed ‘Honey’ by the crews because of the smooth and untroubled ride they provided. The nickname is sometimes used in war diaries and reports.

[2] In fairness though, given the overall combination of weight, size, gun equipment, and armour, Stuart’s may have had one of the best gun/armour/weight combinations in the Western Desert at this stage.  Older German Panzer IIIG models without uparmouring could not compete. The more recent H version or the uparmoured G were better however, at least over the frontal arc.

[3] A 40mm gun with reasonable performance in 1940, but rapidly approaching obsolescence. Unlike the M3 Stuart’s 37mm M3 gun, no HE rounds were provided to British tanks with the 2-pdr at this stage of the war.

[4] The regiment was used to train replacement crews and to act as T.D.S. (Tank Delivery Squadron), whence fighting regiments could draw new crews and tanks ready for battle.

[5] WO169/952, 11 November 1941 tank statement – note that this is one more than the 314 M2/M3 that came off the convoys

[6] Royal Tank Regiment

[7] An officer in 5 R.T.R. claimed that on 20 November the tanks of A Squadron 5 R.T.R. went through 250 rounds of 37mm ammunition each. If the number is correct, this would equal more than two complete loads, and be almost equal to the whole supply per tank that was available in North Africa at the time, 260 rounds according to Niall Barr in ‘Yanks and Limeys’

[8] Deputy Director Supply Department (or Division)

[9] Brigadier General Staff – essentially the Chief of Staff. Brigadier Galloway of the Cameronians was a well-regarded staff officer, who rose to command 1 Armoured Division in 1943, although illness meant he never led it in battle.

[10] Director, Armoured Fighting Vehicles

[11] Railhead

War Pictorial News 26

The IWM holds the newsreels. No sound, but in a way that’s not so unfortunate if you know what you’re looking at, because it takes away the pathos and the received pronounciation.

This one shows quite a few interesting things. ‘Bush’ artillery (captured Italian guns) being fired; a quite comprehensively destroyed Panzer IV; the bombed out wreck of the Italian navy’s obsolete armoured cruiser San Giorgio, amongst others.

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060007261

Well worth your time!

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.

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

Video: Inside the Chieftain’s Hatch – the A10 Cruiser

For the armourati, here is one of the Chieftain’s tank videos, this one featuring the A10 cruiser, which operated in CRUSADER with 7 Armoured Brigade’s 7 Hussars, part of 7 Armoured Brigade, 7 Armoured Division, and 1 R.T.R., 32 Army Tank Brigade, Tobruk Fortress. Some also served as HQ tanks.

The A10 were remnant tanks which had been delivered to Egypt quite a while before the operation, and were not considered up to current standards anymore. They went into action because of a lack of numbers. Their deficiency in every material aspect is demonstrated by the fact that the one squadron operating with 7 Hussars was lifted to the jumping off position on D-1 on transporters, while the A13 and A15 went on tracks. Moreover, the A10 was too slow to bring German tanks to battle, which means that they (being also outgunned) could not serve a conceivable purpose on the battlefield.

Episode I:

Episode II:

Superb site about the Inshore Squadron

Thanks to Robert’s inquiry on the About page, I did a quick Google regarding the Royal Navy’s Inshore Squadron, which ran a variety of vessels for close-in work along the North African coast. Quite a few of these were provided by the Royal Australian Navy. The page below has a lot of information on them.

Happy reading!

http://www.gunplot.net/matapan/scrapironflott12.html