Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Blenheims over Magrun , 22 December 1941

Background

Following the retreat from the Gazala position the Desert Air Force quickly moved west in pursuit, and within days had operations going at Gazala and Mechili landing grounds which were used as staging and concentration posts from which to hit the Axis forces, in particular their air force, in the enemy rear areas. 


002 Lage NA 29 Dec 1941 Part 2

German Situation Map, 29 December 1941, by which time Magrun had been occupied by Empire forces for almost a week. Rommelsriposte.com Collection. 

The role of ULTRA

A major effort was made on 22 December to disrupt operations and destroy planes and ground assets on Magrun airfield.

ULTRA intercepts during the previous days had shown that the landing ground had become a major concentration area for the Axis air forces, and had also placed the battle HQ of Panzergruppe at Magrun[1], and noted that Luftwaffe supplies going into Magrun were considered inadequate, on 21 December. This was the short period during which Bletchley Park was reading the Panzergruppe communications almost in real time. 

In consequence, 13 Corps and the Desert Air Force command laid on two operations on the ground and in the air, to interrupt the Axis on the landing ground. This consisted of 13 Corps directing 22 Guards Brigade onto Margin late on 21 December, and 204 Group setting up multiple raids for 22 December. These operations on 22 December were therefore what would be called ‘intelligence-led’ today, in reaction to this information, and showed how quickly ULTRA intercepts could be turned into operational action. 

Magrun order

Order to 205 Group to put in maximum effort night 21/22 December. AIR23/6489, TNA, Kew.

In particular, a message from Fliegerfuehrer to his Chief of Staff had been intercepted, asking when additional fuel would arrive for the aircraft that were arriving at Magrun, and informing that i) the delivery on the Regia Marina submarine Micca to Benghazi had only been Italian fuel, and that 16,000 ltrs. of fuel that had arrived at Maraua, the previous HQ, had been entirely used up. It was therefore reasonable to presume that at any given moment the next day substantial numbers of Luftwaffe aircraft would be on the ground at Magrun, either delivering fuel, or arriving to be refueled, and constituting a major target. 

Magrun

ULTRA message to Prime Minister, 21 Dec. 1941. UK National Archives, HW1 Series. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 22 December, the following attacks went in:

1. Night 21/22 December, night raid by Wellingtons. Results inconclusive.

2. Morning fighter sweep (see below)

3. Morning attack by Bostons, claiming four planes destroyed on the ground.

4. Afternoon attack by 270 Wing Blenheims, claiming 2 Ju 52 destroyed, 2 probably destroyed, and 2 more damaged, all on the ground.

5. Afternoon attack by Marylands (2 and 3 of Nos. 12 and 21 Squadron S.A.A.F. respectively), which fail to bomb due to the target being insufficiently covered by patchy cloud at 5-6,000 ft, exposing the unescorted Marylands to too high risk in a low attack.

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Bombs from Bristol Blenheim Mark IVs of No. 270 Wing RAF explode among Junkers Ju 52s parked on the landing ground at El Magrun, Libya, in the afternoon of 22 December 1941. Blenheims, from Nos, 14 and 84 Squadrons RAF and the Lorraine Squadron of the Free French Air Force, made a series of attacks on El Magrun on 21-22 December, which was being used extensively by the Luftwaffe to provide air support for their retiring ground forces during operation CRUSADER (Courtesy IWM CM2017)

Raids on Magrun Airfield 22 December

Magrun airfield was located 71km south of Benghazi, and was abandoned on 22 December. Prior to leaving there was still heavy activity on it, with crews and stores being removed. It had been used by the Regia Aeronautica, and the first mention of a German plane on the landing ground was not until 20 December, when the Luftwaffe started to occupy it during the retreat. It became the target of a major effort on 22 December. The landing ground had no facilities, but was closely located to the road, and protected by a fort to the north-east.

First went the fighters, a combination of Tomahawks from Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons, out of Mechili landing ground, went to the air field for a ground strafing attack at 0940 hours. The famous No. 112 Squadron (with its Sharkmouth insignia) undertook one of the last operations with Tomahawks.

112 Squadron

A flight of 6 Tommies[2][3] led by Flight Lieutenant WESTENRA took MAGRUN aerodrome by surprise coming out of the sun. F/Lt. WESTENRA damaged a Ju 87 and with Pilot Officer BARTLE destroyed a Ju 87. P/o Duke destroyed a Ju 52 while he probably destroyed a Ju 87 with Sgt. CARSON. A further sweep in the afternoon produced nothing of interest and no enemy aircraft were seen.[4]

250 Squadron

7 a/c in conjunction with 112, 2 & 4 Squdns. made fighter wing sweep to Magrun aerodrome and ground staffed it. Sgt. Dunlow shot down a JU. 87 which was coming in to land – Sgt. [unreadable] damaged one in like circumstances. At least 4 fires were left burning on the aerodrome. A number of JU 52’s being destroyed.

The No. 2 Squadron S.A.A.F. report notes a successful strafing action, with 2x Ju 52 destroyed, 2x Ju 87 damaged, as well as 1x Ju 88 and curiously 1x Do.215 damaged[5].

112 Squadron LG122Pilots of No. 112 Squadron RAF grouped round the nose of one of their Curtiss Tomahawks at LG 122, Egypt. Those identified are, (left to right): Sergeant R F Leu, Pilot Officer N F Duke, Flying Officers J F Soden (on wing) and P H Humphreys, Squadron Leader F V Morello (Commanding Officer), Flight Lieutenant C F Ambrose, Flying Officer E Dickenson (killed in action 28 May 1942), Sergeant H G Burney (killed in action 30 May 1942), Flying Officers D F Westenra, J J P Sabourin (killed in action 6 October 1942, while flying with No. 145 Squadron RAF), N Bowker and J P Bartle, and Sergeant K F Carson. (IWM CM1820)

While the time isn’t clear, it is likely that the Douglas Bostons of No. 24 Squadrons S.A.A.F. went later in the morning, unescorted. It was the last mission of the year for the squadron.

22-12-41 Nine Bostons bombed aircraft on Sid-amud-el-Magrun aerodrome 60-70 aircraft (including 30 JU52’s) dispersed on NW side of aerodrome. 8x 500 HE bombs fell in and slightly short of dispersal area and 24x 250 HE among aircraft and one was seen to be burning on aerodrome on approaching target. 4x 250 bombs hung up slightly and overshot, falling edge of dispersal area. 7/10 cloud over target. Total bombs 8×500 and 28x 250. Total flying time 22.5 hours.

The second light bomber daylight raid on Magnum on 22 December was fairly typical of the period. It was meant to be a major effort by 276 Wing, putting into the air a large number of Blenheims from all its squadrons for two consecutive raids. The operation order is crisp and clear.

.- Os.C. No’s. 14, 45, 84, and Lorraine [5] Squadrons

From: .- No. 270 Wing

A.659 22/12/41 SECRET Operation Order No. 61

6 aircraft of Lorraine Squadron are to land at GAZALA t 0815 on 22/12/41. Aircraft are to link up with 8 aircraft of 84 Squadron already there. 84 Squadron are to lead formation of 12 aircraft after briefing and fighter escort arranged. 

6 aircraft of 14 Squadron are to land at GAZALA at 0830 hours 22/12/41 and join up with 7 aircraft of 45 Squadron already there.

14 Squadron will lead 45 Squadron on second sorry. Standard bomb load will be carried by all aircraft.

? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

Group Captain, Commanding,

No. 270 Wing, R.A.F.

Fighter escort was provided by Nos. 2 and 4 S.A.A.F. Squadrons and Nos. 112 and 250 Squadrons RAF. The raid encountered two Me. 109F, but no engagement ensued. The fighters reported strong and accurate light AA fire.  

All six operational Blenheims from 14 Squadron accordingly left Gambut at 0515, and arrived at Gazala at 0605. The detailed record explains that due to problems with communication and cloud cover over the airfield only 3 aircraft arrived, the others returning. I suspect the issue was that the aircraft went to Mechili rather than Gazala landing grounds.

Therefore, 14 Squadron ultimately only put up three Blenheims for Magrun, ships 9656 J, 5950 V, and 5947 M, crewed by Wing Cdr. Buchanan, Sgts. Chaplin and Ball; Sgts. Willis, Young, and New; and Pilot Officers Wilbon, McKenny, and Sgt. Webster, respectively. 

Following the raid, the three planes returned to Gazala, from where they left at 1100 to return to base at 1445.

Proceeding to EL MECHILI where fighter escort was provided these 3 aircraft formed part of a wing formation. On the aerodrome at Magrun six Ju. 52’s and six 109’s were seen, and our aircraft at 1320 hours G.M.T. from 5,000 feet dropped 4x 250 lbs bombs each. Two Ju. 88’s[6] and one M.T. were seen to be hit, all the bombs fell in target area. Heavy slight A.A. was experienced, two of our aircraft were hit, but all however returned to base.

German records (kindly provided by Andrew from airwarpublications.com) show that the Allied cliaims on the while were reasonably accurate. They are given below as received. Total losses amounted to one Ju 88 reconnaissance, 3x Me109F, 2 x Ju 52 and 2x Ju 87 on this day.

– 22.12.1941: 2.(F)/123 Ju 88 destroyed by strafing at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: I./J.G. 27 Bf 109 destroyed by own troops at Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crash-landing at Magrun, 40 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: III./J.G. 27 Bf 109 crashed due to Motorschaden, 100 per cent loss [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 300 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: K.Gr.z.b.V. 400 Ju 52 destroyed by bombs at Sidi el Magrun [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 1 Ju 87 R-4 damaged by bombs at El Magrus [sic], 60 per cent damage [loss list]
– 22.12.1941: II./St.G. 2 Ju 87 R-3 force landing due to damage from enemy fighter, 100 per cent loss [loss list]  

Screen Shot 2019 12 22 at 11 04 20 AM

No. 14 Squadron Daily Report Sheet, 22 December 1941. AIR27/199 TNA, Kew. 

Waterlogged1

A Bristol Blenheim Mark IV, ‘U’ (serial number unclear) of No. 45 Squadron RAF, undergoes an engine overhaul at waterlogged Gambut, Libya, after violent rainstorms in November and December 1941 rendered many of the forward airfields unusable during Operation CRUSADER.

112 Squadron Pilots 

Three notable pilots  of No. 112 Squadron RAF, photographed on reaching the end of their tour of operations with the Squadron in North Africa, (left to right): Flight Lieutenant D F “Jerry” Westenra, Flying Officer N F Duke and Flight Lieutenant P H “Hunk” Humphreys. Each of them wears the top button of his dress tunic undone as the (unofficial) mark of the fighter pilot at the time. (IWM CM2504)

Westenra was a New Zealander from Christchurch, who joined 112 Squadron early in 1941, flying with them in Greece, Crete, and in the Western Desert where he was made a flight commander. He is reputed to have urged the adoption of the ‘Sharkmouth’ insignia by the Squadron in September 1941. At the conclusion of his tour in March 1942, he received the DFC for shooting down five enemy aircraft. In 1943 Westenra flew with No. 601 Squadron RAF in North Africa, and commanded No. 93 Squadron RAF in Italy. In March 1944 he was appointed to commandNo. 65 Squadron RAF during the Normandy Invasion, returning to New Zealand in September 1944.

Duke was posted to 112 Squadron in February 1941 after serving with No. 92 Squadron RAF in the United Kingdom. Despite being shot down twice, he achieved an impressive tally of eight confirmed victories in the Western Desert before leaving the Squadron in April 1942. He was then posted to El Ballah as an instructor at the Fighter School before rejoining 92 Squadron in the Western Desert in November 1942 and a adding further 14 victories to his total. In June 1943 he became Chief Flying Instructor at No.73 Operational Training Unit at Abu Sueir, but returned to operations as Commanding Officer of No. 145 Squadron RAF in Italy in March 1944. He returned to the United Kingdom in January 1945 with 28 victories to become a test pilot with Hawkers.

Humphreys joined 112 Squadron as a flight commander in November 1941 after serving with Nos 152 and 92 Squadrons RAF. Like Duke, he left theSquadron in April 1942 to instruct at the Fighter School at El Ballah before returning to operations with No. 92 Squadron RAF in early 1943. He later took command of this Squadron and led it to Malta, Sicily and Italy before another rest from operations in November 1943. In April 1944 Humphreys returned to Italy to command No. 111 Squadron RAF, and left for the United Kingdom in November 1944 on his appointment as Station Commander at RAF Castle Bromwich. He was killed in a flying accident in 1947.

Notes

[1]Incorrectly, since Panzergruppe HQ was in Agedabia at this time.
[2]Tomahawk P-40 fighters
[3]Only five in the ORB, ships AN303 F/Lt. Westenra, AN289 Sgt. Carson W., AN 274 P/O Bartle, AK531 Sgt. Carson K., and AK354, P/O Duke.
[4]This sweep was probably the escort mission for the Blenheim raid.
[5]The type wasn’t present in the desert, although it could have been an older Do 17Z operating as a second line aircraft with the staff of Fliegerfuehrer.
[6]No. 342 Squadron R.A.F.
[7]Should probably be Ju 52s.

The Regia Marina’s Emergency Supply Programme of 22 November 41

The Regia Marina’s Emergency Supply Programme of 22 November 41

Background
This is a translation of a report from the Italian Navy’s official history “La Difesa Del Trafico con L’Africa Settentrionale” (The Defense of the Traffic with North Africa – Volume II), which was published i1976 as part of the 8-volume complete history of the Regia Marina in World War II. The translation was done by me – apologies for the possible errors. My Italian is far from perfect.

Empire Knowledge

On 4 December ULTRA reported an item of 13 November, from OTTO TIGER (probably Panzergruppe Ia or commander) to OTTO HAMSTER (Panzergruppe Quartermaster) and IDA PINTSCHER (probably von Rintelen in Rome), as follows:

The supply situation demands temporary transfer of centre of effort (Schwerpunkt) from 20/11 to delivery of fuel and rations[1].  For this purpose is is necessary to employ submarines and destroyers in increased numbers purely for the transport of supplies. IDA QUALLE (probably Quartermaster in Rome) has been informed in detail of the supply position.

Regia Marina Report

This particular report describes this programme in detail. The naval emergency supply programme was obviously planned after the destruction of the BETA or Duisburg convoy, and instituted in late November 1941. It ensured that the Axis forces in North Africa would at least receive a minimum of supplies, even if no more merchant ships would be able to make it across the Mediterranean.  Considering the dire situation of fuel oil available to the Regia Marina at this stage, and the actual volume that could be transported on the naval vessels each run, the emergency programme was a highly wasteful effort which was nevertheless required to head off a complete collapse of the Axis forces in Libya.  In this, it succeeded, together with the air supply flown in during the battle, and the arrival of some single runners of the merchant fleet (see this list of successful runs).

What is also notable is the importance of Suda Bay on Crete to the ability of the Regia Marina to execute such a programme.

SANSONETTI

I. Exchange of letters between Admirals Weichold and Riccardi

LIAISON OFFICE OF THE GERMAN ADMIRAL AT THE ITALIAN NAVY

SECRET RESERVED TO THE ADDRESSEE

Translation N. 366/41 22 November 1941

To the Chief of the General Staff of the Royal Italian Navy, His Excellency Squadron Admiral Designated D’Armata RICCARDI

Following on from my verbal commication to the Deputy Chief the General Staff I have the honour to submit to Your Excellency, in the name of the Grand Admiral, the following:

The Grand Admiral begs you to take into consideration, regarding the current situation in North Africa, all possibilities for resupply of gasoline, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons for the Cyrenaica with light naval units and submarines, even if this requires to run risks with them that normally would not be appropriate. The lack of supplies can be of great importance for the joint conduct of the war and for the holding of the Italian colony.
WEICHOLD

SUPERMARINA 22 November 1941

To Admiral Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy in Italy, His Excellency Admiral WEICHOLD

Re: Traffic with North Africa

SECRET RESERVED TO THE ADDRESSEE

Responding to your letter n. 366/41 of today

I would like to ask you to assure the Grand Admiral that Supermarina sees the current situation in exactly the same manner as he expressed it in his letter. Already going beyond the most serious requirements and confronting risks of war and seafare that in other times it would not be justified to take, a light cruiser and three destroyers will soon be be made available for the transport to Benghazi of the German battalion which Your command is preparing. You also know, as you are constantly kept aware of all decisions of Supermarina, that the transport of gasoline will be expedited with all means at our disposal, including a light cruiser, as you know. Also and especially now in this difficult moment the perfect coincidence of the views of our two navies is manifest.
THE CHIEF OF THE GENERAL STAFF RICCARDI

II. Regia Navale Emergency Supply Plan for North Africa of 4 December 1941

1. Submarines
One per day to Bardia or Derna
a. Fuel transport
Cagni (All with 140 tons fuel and 3 tons variable supplies.)[2] Saint Bon, Millo, Carraciolo, Micca, (105 tons of fuel oil in submarine tanks , 70 tons various fuels in jerry cans, total 175 tons.)

b. Ration transport[3] Menotti 14 tons in pallets Settimo 11 tons in pallets; (or for either submarine 20 tons of heavier rations)

2. Destroyers/torpedo boats[4] One or two per day. Each destroyer could carry 95 tons of fuels, in 4,000 jerry cans and 140 barrels. Each torpedo boat could carry 65 tons of fuels in jerry cans and barrels. Depot ship Bellona supplied from German Wachtfels at Patrasso and then ran to Suda escorted by Turbine, while Wachtfels remained at Patrasso.

a. For Benghazi running a shuttle service from Benghazi to Suda Bay.

i. First pair: Two destroyers Vivaldi, from Leros, then Suda Bay and Benghazi

ii. Second pair: Destroyer Pessagno from Leros, then Suda Bay and Benghazi Destroyer Pigafetta from Taranto to Benghazi and then to Suda Bay

iii. Third pair: Two destroyers Da Recco and Usodimare from Naples to Benghazi, then to Suda Bay.

b. For Derna, running a shuttle service from Derna to Suda Bay.

i. Torpedo boat Orsa leaves Taranto for Derna and then Suda Bay.

ii. Torpedo boatProcione runs from Argostoli to Benghazi and then Suda Bay, thereafter shuttle between Derna and Suda Bay.

iii. Torpedo boat Orione runs from Brindisi to Derna and then Suda Bay.

3. Special vessels One or two per week for Benghazi depending on availability of the port.

a. MS Calitea from Brindisi to Benghazi, to leave only when the port at Benghazi was free. Estimated transport ability 1,000 tons of various materials.

b. German steamer Ankara from Taranto for Benghazi to leave when battleship Duilio and the VIIth Division [of cruisers] could escort it . Estimated transport ability 5,500 tons of various materials.

4. Cruisers (special traffic)

a. Cadorna – at Taranto to leave for Benghazi at date to be settled, coordinated with loading of MS Veniero and depending on weather conditions. Freight:

  • 325 tons of gasoline in jerry cans
  • 100 tons of fuel oil in the cruiser’s bunkers • 20 tons of rations
  • 10 tons of small arms ammunition
  • 100 men

b. Da Barbiano Da Giussano[5] – from Taranto to Palermo and on to Tripoli. Both cruisers depart at a date to be settled depending on the lunar phase. Freight (each cruiser):

  • About 300 tons of rations
  • About 20 tons of ammunition for 88mm AA guns
  • About 500 tons of fuel oil in the bunkers
  • 120 men

[1]The attack on Tobruk was to begin on 21 November, and therefore weapon or personnel would have been of little use at this point.
[2]
These were large, ocean-going submarines.  Carraciolo and Saint Bon were lost on these missions. See the older entry at this link for background.

Sommergibile Caracciolo

Carraciolo being fitted at the wharf in Monfalcone. (Wikipedia)

[3]Both of these were submarines of 1,153 tons displacement submerged, comparable to the German Type IX boats, and were named after Italian politicians of the early 19th century.
[4]See the older entry at this link for an explanation of Regia Marina ship classes. 
[5]Both of them sunk with heavy loss of life in the most spectacular, if one-sided, surface engagement during CRUSADER. See the older entry at this link for background.