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

Sidi Rezegh After Action Report – 3./Flak 33

I have previously posted the some AARs on the pivotal battle of the campaign, the destruction of the Allied forces on the Sidi Rezegh landing ground on Sunday of the Dead, 23 November 1941. The report by Ariete Division’s di Nisio column can be found at this link, and that of 6 NZ Brigade at this link.

The report below is from one of the less glamorous German units, an anti-aircraft battery that was subordinated to 15. Panzerdivision’s armoured regiment, Panzerregiment 8. It provided the link between the advancing Panzerregiment on the right (east) and Ariete’s column on the left, during the final attack on Sidi Rezegh.

The battery was equipped with four 8.8cm dual-purpose guns and supported by 2cm light AA guns. More information from a period document can be found at this link.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Bundesarchiv_Bild_101I-443-1574-26,_Nordafrika,_Flakgesch%C3%BCtz.jpg

German 88mm AA gun in firing position in North Africa, June 1942 (courtesy Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons) 

 

COMBAT REPORT

Concerning combat actions of 3./Flakregt.33

from 19 November to 15 December 1941

From 19 November, at the time the code word “Hochwasser” (High Water) was transmitted, 3./Flakregiment 33 was subordinated to Panzerregiment 8 for mobile use. After moving into the concentration area and following that into the alarm area, the following combat actions took place from 20 November:

[…]

23 November Afternoon

1.) Subordination: I./Pz.8[1]

2.) Task: as on 20 November 1941[2]

3.) Operation and combat activity: During the afternoon of this day strong enemy forces were attacked in the same area[3]. The battery was tasked on the left wing of the armoured battalion, and on its own left was connecting to the Italian division Ariete[4] which also attacked. Because of the fast advance of our tanks, as well as dispersedly positioned enemy infantry the battery could, due to the intense MG and rifle fire, not keep up the connection to our tanks. On the other hand the advance of Ariete proceeded only slowly, so that the gap between the two armoured units continued to increase. The enemy recognized this situation and attempted to enter into the gap with a group of tanks supported by infantry, to disturb the attack from the flank. The battery therefore drew all the enemy fire in this space onto itself. Despite strongest opposition it held its position to the beginning of dusk, and thereby prevented the realization of the enemy’s intentions.

4.) Successes:

Destruction of:
5 Cruiser Mk. IV
2 Armoured Cars
1 artillery battery in firing position
20 trucks
1 MG position.

Enemy infantry was engaged with airbursts and fire from 2cm guns.

5.) Ammunition used:

66 AT Shells
33 HE shells contact fuse
36 HE shells timed fuse

6.) Losses

a) Personnel:
1 NCO and 1 OR KIA
1 Off. wounded
7 OR wounded

b) Materiel
1 prime mover with special trailer Type 201 destroyed by direct artillery hit 

Notes

[1]1st Battalion Panzerregiment 8
[2]Task: Support armoured attack and defense against enemy armour acting as tank accompanying battery.
[3]Given as 20km south-east of El Adem. 
[4]Di Nisio column 


 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3b/Burnt-out_88_mm_Flak_36_near_El_Alamein_1942.jpg

Destroyed 88mm AA gun with prime mover (Sdkfz.7) and Sonderanhaenger 201, El Alamein 1942. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial via Wikimedia.

XXXI Guastatori (Assault Engineers) Battalion during CRUSADER

In 2011 I asked the webmaster of the http://www.guastatori.it website for permission to translate the history of the XXXI Bataglione Guastatori (31st Independent Assault Engineer Battalion) for this blog. They kindly agreed, but then life intervened, I forgot about it, and only recently found the email chain again. So with that out of the way, here is the history of this battalion, which was slated for the original assault on Tobruk in November 1941, and then participated in the assault in June. In June 1942 command of the battalion was taken over by Baron Paolo Caccia Dominioni of Sillavengo, best known for his effort of locating fallen soldiers at Alamein, and according them a proper burial.

The Guastatori were a new and highly specialized branch of the Engineers  (Genio), following the example of the Arditi and the German Sturmpioniere of World War 1, but named after a much older formation, which was first established in Italy in 1793. To ensure as much confusion as possible, Arditi units remained in the Italian army in WW2, but not as independent units, rather as sections within the divisional engineer battalions.

The Guastatori school in Civitavecchia, under the command of Colonello Steiner, was opened on 1 August 1940, and the first students arrived on 9 August. By mid-September 1940 1,000 students, all volunteers, were at the school. The course was based on information received from German officers about the work of the Sturmpioniere, and notes of Col. Steiner about the Italian Arditi during World War 1. Two courses of two months each were run, one starting on 10 August 1940, and the second on 5 October 1940. Following this, replacements for the units in the field were to be trained at engineer units in Banne, Ranchi dei Legionari, Brunico, and Torri del Benaco.

Foto 4

General Negro of the Italian General Staff inspecting a parade of a Guastatori course, accompanied by Col. Steiner (first on the right). (www.guastatori.it) 

Notes at the end of the article are by me to provide some background. They are based on further research by me, utilizing specific histories, as well as British and Italian war diaries.

The original article can be found at this link. I have added some information from this history (Genio Guastatori) to it.

XXXI Battaglione Guastatori

Establishment and Move to North Africa

The four companies were established at Civitavecchia with the volunteer participants of the 1st Course.[1] At first they were placed in various locations in Northern Italy, and then from April 1941 in Yugoslavia, where they suffered their first losses.

On 18 April 1941 they were brought together and established the XXXI Sapper Battalion, with a total force of 1,300 men.

The battalion remained in Yugoslavia, with its command at Kastav, until the end of August when it returned to Turin for equipping. The same month command was taken over by Major spe Dante Caprini. In June, to help the XXXII Guastatori battalion which was already in North Africa, a draft of 60 men under 2nd Lt. Rota Rossi was sent to provide replacements for losses suffered.

In August the unit was sent to Settimo Torinese, seat of the 7th Engineer Regiment, to be equipped for colonial service in North Africa. The four companies were commanded by:

  • 1st Company – Lieutenant Zaccaria Stievan
  • 2nd Company – Captain Aldo Chiolero
  • 7th Company – Captain Brancolini
  • 8th Company – Captain Renato Amoretti

Foto 21

Officers of the 31st at Brod na Kupi in Yugoslavia, prior to departing for Africa. From the lest Lt. Pazzaglia (KIA), Capt. Amoretti, Capt. Chiolero (KIA), Capt. Cicchese, Capt. Brancolini (WIA), Lt. Leonardi (KIA), and Lt. Serafini (KIA) (from http://www.guastatori.it)

On 16 September 1941 the XXXI embarks on the transatlantic liner Vulcania at Taranto, and on 18 September reaches North Africa, disembarking at Tripoli.[2] It is sent to the oasis of Zanzur just outside Tripoli for acclimatisation.

Tobruk 1941

Assigned to XXI Army Corps on 2 October, it reaches El Adem, in Marmarica.[3] Here the sappers undergo a period of intensive training on fake fortifications surrounded by wire and anti-tank ditches. Their entry into action seems imminent. This period of preparation ends on 12 November.

In fact on 18 November 1941 the 2nd Company Lupo and the 7th Tigre, are assigned to the Bologna Division south-east of Tobruk, while the 1st Giaguaro, and the 8th Leone reinforce the Pavia Division in the adjacent sector.[4]

The next morning the situation changed unexpectedly: the British troops launched a massive and unexpected offensive with the intent to liberate the fortress of Tobruk from the siege of the Italo-German forces.

Now a defensive line was organised in order not to be overwhelmed by the British tanks. The situation was confused, but all the Italian units, which according to the plans of the enemy should have been overrun in a few hours, withstood the enemy pressure well.

The Guastatori companies, placed with infantry and artillery, adapted immediately to a kind of war that was quite different to that which they were used to. The explosive charges meant to destroy fortified emplacements instead were used to stop the tanks.[6] For the first time at Belhamed the 7th company Tigre, reinforced by a platoon of infantry and four light tanks[5], holding this position on a ridge, repulses an attack by several enemy tanks, immobilizing them with explosive charges detonated at a distance (wooden crates filled with explosives and triggered by rapid fuses). Sergeant-Major Angiolo Campanella, who came up with this idea, was rewarded for it by a handshake from the Battalion CO.

The battle became more and more furious. On 28 November many units of the Bologna division gave in, and the 2nd and 7th companies withstood the pressure of the enemy almost alone.

Having received the order to retire, the battalion moves to Bu Hamud[7] where Major Caprini organises it in two strongpoints, which he commands. These include elements of 39 and 40 Infantry regiments[8] and the 7th Bersaglieri[9]. These forces are joined, after some days, by the 1st and 8th companies of the battalion.

Retreat

On 7 December the 31st Battalion, thus reunited and with the companies still effective and strong, despite the losses suffered, retires on foot to Ain el Gazala, about 60km west of Tobruk. 

On 18 December the general retreat is ordered, known as the ‘2nd Retreat’[10]. The 31st Battalion, which finds itself about 10km south-west of the village of Berta[11], has to reach the location of Barce, about 200km away, and to achieve this receives some vehicles from the Superintendent of Supply, but not enough for its needs. Major Caprini therefore decides to move in two stages. On the 18th the 7th and 8th companies, together with some elements of the other two, are leaving.

The next morning, while men and materials are loaded onto the trucks which had returned from Barce, a sudden attack by English armoured cars leads to the encirclement of nearly all the Guastatori. Thus, after having tried but failed to resist and to break this encirclement, they are captured.

Just on this one day, 19th December 1941, the 31st Battalion loses a total of 8 officers, 19 NCOs, and 171 other ranks, killed, missing, and captured – amongst these also its brave battalion commander, Major Caprini. Command is taken over by Captain Chiolero.[12]

Despite being hit hard, on 23 November the battalion is in the frontline with the infantrymen of the Pavia division.

Total losses of the battalion amount to 362 men, of which 15 are Officers, 27 NCOs, and 320 other ranks.

Early 1942

Due to the heavy losses, Captain Chiolero reorganizes the battalion, merging the remnants of 1st and 2nd Company into a new 1st Company Giaguaro, with reduced establishment. The battalion is moved away from the frontline and assigned to the X. Army Corps, which itself has entered the line at Mersa el Brega in early January.

On 3 April, the Guastatori attempt to handle a fire that was started by a  runaway primus stove which was lit next to a trailer loaded with ammunition, which was in turn parked near an ammunition storage. The storage and trailer explode violently, killing Captain Chiolero, three other officers, and 19 other ranks. Command of the Battalion goes to Captain Amoretti.

Foto 10

Flamethrower operator (Flammiere) Senior Corporal Santino RUVO, of 1st Company Giaguaro, Silver Medal for Military Valor, missing in Tunisia in May 1943. (from http://www.guastatori.it)

[1]The companies were numbered 1, 2, 7, and 8, and named respectively Giaguaro (Jaguar), Lupo (Wolf), Tigre (Tiger), and Leone (Lion).

[2]This convoy was meant to bring a substantial amount of troops to North Africa, including from the motorised division Trieste. Three transatlantic liners were employed, Neptunia, Oceania, and Vulcania. Shortly before heading into the safety of Tripoli harbour, HMS Upholder under Lt. Commander Wanklyn sank both Neptunia and Oceania. Vulcan survived the war and was broken up in 1974.

[3]XXI Army Corps was the Italian formation manning the siege lines of Tobruk. El Adem was the site of the main airfield outside the Tobruk fortress, and the seat of the HQ of both XXI Army Corps and the German Panzergruppe Afrika under Rommel.

During this period the battalion became also the training emplacement for other units destined to participate in the assault. A Corps order to the Brescia infantry division informs the latter that its Arditi (a term used for assault engineers in World War I) section, which was scheduled to participate in the assault (while the Brescia division itself was to hold the western siege line), would come under XXXI Battalion for training purposes on 6 November.

There also seem to have been serious concerns about divisional commands abusing this specialized formation, with a note going out to the Bologna division on 6 November, clarifying that the Guastatori are only to be used for the assault on fortified locations, and querying whether more than one company was needed by the division, requesting that all targets for the Guastatori be identified to justify the assignment of a second company. On 8 November, another instruction went out to both Pavia and Bologna divisions, clarifying that the Guastatori were not normal engineers, and therefore not under the engineer commander of the division, and that in anything relating to their mode of employment the commander of the Guastatori battalion was in charge.

[4]This would probably still have been in preparation for the assault on Tobruk, rather than as a reaction to the start of Operation CRUSADER. Bologna division was posted in the planned breakthrough sector, and was supposed to participate in the operation. Pavia was the next division to the south-west. It is also not quite correct, since an OOB for XXI Army Corps of 4 November already shows one company assigned to the Bologna division, while the other three were still under direct command of the Corps.

[5]L3/35 light tanks, which were organised in independent companies, one of which was attached to many of the Italian infantry divisions as a reinforcement. These tanks had almost no combat value on a modern battlefield.

[6]This was probably the strongpoint known as LEOPARD to the British break-out forces. It is unlikely that this action occurred on the first day of the breakout, since no British tanks made it to Belhamed that day. See also this link for a list of codenames and locations. It is difficult to reconcile this account with British and New Zealand war diaries if one sticks to the location. It is possible however that this event occurred after one of the two companies was moved to a new strongpoint at km.10 of the Axis road on 24 November, roughly the area of the strongpoint WOLF/GRUMPY, where on the night 25/26 November an attack by 2 Yorks and Lancs regiment supported by 4 R.T.R. ran into mines immobilizing five Matilda tanks.

Axis Road Position

New Italian position (indicated ‘it’)facing east around km.10 of the Axis bypass road. Possibly that held by one company Guastatori. (war diary 90th Light Division)

[7]Unclear where this was, could be just south of the Via Balbia at the airfield indicated above.

[8]Of the Bologna division.

[9]Of the Trento motorized division.

[10]The first being that of late 1940/early 1941, in the context of Operation COMPASS.

[11]In the Jebel mountains.

[12]Based on a report in the XIII Corps message log, this was probably accomplished by 3 South African Reconnaissance Regiment, which reported 300 POW taken that day. It was operating in support of 4 Indian Division, which advanced on the right flank of the Allied advance, through the Jebel mountains. The other unit equipped with armored cars was the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment of 4 Indian Division, whose A and C Squadrons served as reconnaissance for 5 and 7 Indian Brigades, respectively, although these two squadrons were equipped with trucks. C Squadron reported 150 POW on 18 December, but seems to have primarily been engaged at Derna landing ground.

Tobruk Fortifications

In preparation for the attack on Tobruk, Division z.b.V. Africa issued a number of detailed drawings of the Tobruk fortifications to the assault troops, to help them in overcoming these.

I am not an expert, but the fortifications look quite substantial to me. They were built by the much-maligned Italians.

Diagram 1: Schematic outline of the fortification line in the breakthrough sector.

00777

1. Concrete works at terrain level
2. With 1-2 AT guns and 2-4 MG
3. All round fortifications
4. Continous and anti-tank ditch in forward line
5. With partial wire obstacles and some minefields 

‘Angreifer’ = attacker

Diagram 2: Diagram of the AT ditch.

00748

‘Querschnitt’ = cross section

‘betonierte Steilwand’ = concrete vertical wall

‘wechselnd’ = changing

Diagram 4: Combat position of the forward line.

00778

‘Befestigungswerke in ebenem Gelände mit 3 M.G. Ständen’  = fortified works in flat terrain with 3 MG positions

‘Sockel fuer Fliegerbeschuss’ = fixation point for AA fire

‘M.G. Stand’ = MG fighting position

‘Treppe’ – stairs

‘Unterstand für Mannschaften u. Munition’ = covered position for men and ammunition

‘Breit’ = breadth

‘Lageplan’ = overview map

‘Masstab 1:200’ = 1:200 Scale

‘Unterstand fuer Bedienung und Munition’ = covered position for operators and ammunition

‘Wasserbehaelter’ = water tank

‘Zentraler Unterstand m. Eisenbetondecke 1m Stark’ = central covered position with reinforced concrete roof 1m thick

Diagram 4: Detail of work of the forward line.

00747

‘hinteres drahthindernis’ = rear wire obstacle

‘betonierter Graben’ = concrete ditch

‘z. Tl. getarnt, oder mit Stacheldraht ueberdeckt’ = partially camouflaged or covered with wire

‘Übergang’ = crossing

‘durchlaufender Flandernzaun zwischen den Werken’ = continuous wire/fence installation between works.

‘Tiefe’ = depth

‘vorderes Drahthindernis (versenkt) vermutl. mit S-Minen versehen’ = forward wire obstacle, dug in, probably with added anti-personnel mines

‘Querschnitt des vorderen Drahthindernisses’ = cross section of forward wire obstacle

Diagram 5: Combat position of the rear line.

00780

‘Befestigungwerke in ebenem Gelände mit 2 M.G. Ständen und 1 PAK Stand’ = fortification works in flat terrain with 2 MG and 1 AT gun fighting position

‘PAK – Stand’ = AT gun fighting positon

‘Wasser’ = water

‘Befehlsstelle’ = Command Post

‘Beobachtungsloch’ = Observation hole

‘Eingang zum Unterstand’ = Entrance to covered position

Others as forward line translations.

Diagram 5: Combat position with one MG fighting position.

00779

‘Linke Stellung’  left fighting position

‘Verbindungsgraben’ = communication trench

Other translations as before

The first US Army Soldier to die in Ground Combat in WW2?

In the reports from 8th Army HQ submitted by Colonel Bonner Fellers, the US Military Attaché in Cairo, I came across a short entry about what could be the first US soldier killed in ground combat in World War 2:

Part 5. 25 November. At dawn situation was very obscure. Axis raiding force moved into Egypt at Sheferzen. Attack by RAF on column met heavy anti-aircraft fire from square 49-35; later area was bombed. Axis column overran British water point in square 50-34 captured personnel; had no transportation for prisoners, ordered them to walk west to Libya. British personnel returned to water point after column moved on, continued to function.

[…]

Our American Sergeant Delmer Parks was killed at water point square 50-34 by Axis mobile column.

8 December 1941

Location 50-34 places this location roughly at the border between Egypt and Libya, on the Egyptian side, quite far south at Sheferzen.

This incident is also covered in the official US Army history of the medical service in the Middle East, which can be found at this link:

Military personnel, although not yet engaged in actual combat, were not immune to combat wounds. The first U.S. battle casualty in the Middle East occurred less than a week after Major Sams’s arrival. S. Sgt. Delmar E. Park, a Signal Corps observer and instructor with a British combat unit, was killed by German machine-gun fire near Sidi Omar, Libya, on 27 November 1941, ten days before the United States entered the war. The Signal Corps has erected a plaque to Sergeant Parks memory at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Annual Rpt, Med Dept Activities, USAFIME, 1942, with confirmation from a Signal Corps historian.

Interestingly, nothing can be found about this soldier on the American Battle Memorial Commission website, which should be able to find his grave.

UPDATE 01-10-14

Orwell1984 from the Axis History Forum dug up the following items, for which I am very grateful:
It’s worth noting that his first name is correctly spelt Delmer and a search under this spelling brings up more information. S.Sgt Delmer Park is buried in Greenwood Memory Lawn Cemetery Phoenix Maricopa County, Arizona, USA, info at this link.

Link to contemporary article in St Petersburg Times, November 28 1941 detailing death of Sgt Delmar Park, 21, of Phoenix Arizona.

Link to Gettysburg Times May 30 1942 brief article explaining that an American camp in the Middle East “has been named for Sergeant Delmar Park of Phoenix Arizona, American Army tank technician”

Detail on his unit affiliation at this link:

Staff Sergeant Delmer E. Park, US Army Signal Corps ASN 6281980
142nd Armored Signal Company
Killed in Action
Sidi-Omar, Egypt
27 November 1941

Article in the Nevada State Journal Dec 1 1941 (Middle of page):

“He Deserved It”
Italians are Ired over Park’s [sic] death
Rome Nov 30
A United States Sergeant who was killed in Libya last week was fighting with the British and he ‘got what he deserved’, newspaper said today.
La Domenica, the Sunday edition of Lavera Fascista (sp?) said the sergeant’s death proved that President Roosevelt did not keep his promise of not sending an expeditionary force abroad….

It’s interesting to note an earlier article (at this link) in the same paper dated Nov 26 1941 which attributes his death to a mishap and notes his mother has been informed:

Observer Killed In Egypt Mishap WASHINGTON, 26. The war department today received word of the accidental death in Cairo, Egypt, yesterday of Staff Sgt. Delmer E. Park, U. S. army signal corps observer. His mother, Mrs. Gertrude Blanche Maddy, Box 702, Phoenix, Ariz., has been notified of his death. No further details are available at present.