A note on tank losses in CRUSADER

On a blog I follow (at this link), the question about tank losses in CRUSADER was raised. It’s one of those that seems easy, until you dig into it. a bit more. Since I have done a bit of the digging, here’s my view, by the armies involved. The below is from memory, and serves to illustrate the problem, not to provide an answer.

A few things need to be considered. First, what is considered a ‘loss’ differs at the tactical and operational scale. Tactically, a loss is a tank that is no longer able to participate in battle. This includes damaged but repairable and technical breakdowns, as well as destroyed and captured intact tanks. At the operational level, the first two categories are only losses if the damaged/broken down tanks cannot make it to the workshops, or if the workshops with them in are lost to the enemy. Both of the latter cases often, but not always, happened to the Germans, and probably the Italians. So over an operation lasting weeks, a tank could be lost more than once, if it was damaged, brought to the workshop, repaired, and returned to fight another day, and be lost again. Operationally, the easiest way to look at this is to pick a start date, check the tank inventory, add any known arrivals during the period of the operation, pick an end date, check the inventory, and do the maths. It’s more difficult in reality but still straightforward, if you have all the information.

The use of the numbers is of course completely different. To the commanders on the field, tactical losses mattered, and the reason for them wasn’t necessarily that important. A tank that’s gone is gone. This affects the ability to conduct operations, in some cases severely. For example, within four days of starting the counteroffensive in January, the Germans lost almost half their tank force, even though their written off tank numbers are miniscule (that’s a recurring theme across all theatres they fought in, by the way). 

For historians on the other hand, the operational losses are what matters, since they allow the researcher to evaluate the battle performance in relative terms. It is also a great topic of debate to make the Germans look better than they were in terms of battlefield performance, as in ‘yes they lost, but look at how much it took to take them down…’. More seriously though, operational loss numbers were used to inform high-level planning, so in the case of CRUSADER, the very high British losses drove considerations of the required numbers to be able to attack again.

So with all this said, here is my view of tank losses in CRUSADER.

1) The Germans

This is the most straightforward of the bunch. We have the starting numbers, we have daily tank states through to 30 January (so all that matters), and we know how many tanks arrived as replacements. So anyone who has done a fair amount of research can feel confident not just about how many tanks the Germans lost, but also what their daily tank strength was. There were few repair returns during the battle, and most tanks that went to the collection points or workshops were simply lost when these were overrun in due course. The Germans received about 100 replacement tanks in December and January, and fielded about 100 tanks in mid-January. My estimate therefore is that the Germans lost all of their 255 runners that they had at the start of the battle, and the total loss figure could be a bit higher once we account for returns from workshops. In addition the Germans lost another 45 tanks sunk in the Gulf of Taranto. The German official number is 220 tanks lost, or 85%, excluding those sunk.

2) The Italians

Here matters get more difficult. The easy question is: how many light tanks did the Italians lose (they fielded a good number of CV light ‘tanks’ (really glorified MG carriers, some equipped with flamethrowers). The answer is: all of them (about 180 or so, I think). The Mediums (all M13/40 during CRUSADER) are where we have conflicting information. What we know is:

a) The initial tank state of Ariete
b) Arrivals during CRUSADER

Where things get hazy is how many mediums were held with a rear unit in Agedabia, but it was probably low teens, up to 20. Now… the official Italian history claims that 63 were lost. I don’t believe that for one second. In my view, almost all of the Italian mediums with Ariete were lost. The reason for this is that after Ariete reaches Agedabia, it has only about 20 runners left, according to its war diary, but at this stage it would have been reinforced by the training tanks, and possibly the 24 tanks arriving at the end of November. Returns from workshops are unknown. By mid-January Ariete is fielding 80 mediums, and it had received about 80 reinforcements. So if someone asked me, I would peg Italian medium losses at over 130 tanks, and consider that a low-ball estimate. In addition the Italians lost another 52 tanks sunk in the Gulf of Taranto.

3) The British

Here things get far more difficult. We know the starting state, we know the end state, and we know how many were held in initial reserve. What we don’t know is how many were added on top of the initial reserve from convoy arrivals in Egypt, and how many of those tanks available in February 1942 are due to returned repairs and or convoy arrivals. We also don’t have consistent numbers on a daily basis. An additional problem is that the same tank may have been lost more than once. For example, 35 M3 tanks are lost when the HQ of 4 Armoured Brigade is overrun. At least 8 of these are recaptured by the New Zealanders a few days later. What happened to these then is anyone’s guess. There are numbers for tanks lost as of 9 January, which come to about 800, and to which another about 150 need to be added for the losses of 2 Armoured Brigade in January. This is just about 100 tanks short of the starting state on 17 November, which was 1,038 of all medium types. On 8 February, the tank returns reported that 1,123 tanks were either repairable or awaiting evacuation, destroyed, or fit/unfit in Ordnance Workshops in the Delta, which means that total losses would have been about 100 higher than the starting date..

 

So, my rough estimation is that compared to a total of about 1,450 tanks at the start of the battle, almost 1,500 tanks or thereabouts were lost, ignoring light tanks, MG carriers and armoured cars. Of the losses, about 2/3rd were lost by the British, and the remainder by the Axis, who also lost about 100 tanks at sea. All forces lost almost the totality of their tank numbers from the start of the battle, if not more. These tank losses, in particular combined with the comparatively low personnel losses, make CRUSADER a fairly extraordinary operation, and one of the larger tank battles of the war.

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

16 February 1941, German troops reach the forward zone

D.A.K. war diary entry for 16 February 1941

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops

Arrived in the forward zone of operations:

Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39, A.A. 3

Commanding General, Chief of Staff and General Raotta[1] fly to Sirt. Exploration of harbour installations in Sirt. Short conference with with the Commander of Italian Pavia Division, Major-General Zaglio.

Around 15.00 hours arrival of first elements of A.A. in Sirt. Receives order to remain in Sirt as mobile reserve for the time being.

0153

One of the heavy armoured cars of Aufklärungsabteilung 3, which reached the forward zone on 16 February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

On 17 February for the first time to push joint reconnaissance with Italians into direction of Nofilia.

For the next days a push of Vorausabteilung Wechmar[2] is planned up to Nofilia.

Conference with General Raotta about task and subordination of air forces. Italian air force to be coupled with German, proposal for tasking of both to be made by Commanding General to General Gariboldi.

Conference with General Raotta, joined in the evening by General Gariboldi, regarding the written proposals for future direction of combat operations. General agreement on all questions.

Evening conference with German and Italian air force commanders[3].

Supply transports via sea from Tripoli to Buerat initiated. First vessel with about 250 tons already loaded.

Notes

[1]Roatta.

[2]A Vorausabteilung was a forward detachment consisting normally of troops from various units, and fully motorised. It was stronger than a reconnaissance detachment, and meant to be able to engage in combat activities ahead of the main force, e.g. to keep enemy ofrces off balance. They were normally named after their commander, in this case the highly experienced Maj. Freiherr von Wechmar, who had commanded A.A.3 in Poland and France.

[3]The Fliegerführer were not formally in command of an air force unit or group of units, but responsible for operational control in a detached location, such as Africa.

A Note on German Army Military Unit Designations

A Note on German Army Military Unit Designations

Background

In light of the discussion in the comments section on this prior entry, I think it might be useful to explain my understanding of German unit terminology as it was used in 1941 (there were some changes throughout the war).  This is also helpful because in our book we will stick as much as possible to this, and because there are some distinct differences between English language and German terminology. The aim of this entry is to explain our translations, but also to elucidate debate on whether they are correct. Regarding the comparisons, I use British instead of Commonwealth below, and English when the term is identical for the British and US armies.

Terminology

I start from the bottom up. Terminology was slightly different by arm of service in some cases. Artillery probably the most pronounced. It is important to note that regimental anti-tank and infantry gun companies used infantry terms, not artillery terms, while divisional and Heerestruppen (see below) anti-tank units would use artillery terminology. In the motorised infantry, the infantrymen would be called Schütze (Rifleman), and the regiment was called Schützenregiment (Rifle Regiment) until a renaming in early 1942 when they received the more famous title Panzergrenadier. These regiments were more common in Africa than leg infantry. Regarding the typical commander ranks, please note that the German army was not that hung up on what rank commanded what unit.  In particular in cases where attrition hit heavily (as it did during CRUSADER), lower ranks would take command of formations based on need, and then either promoted into the appropriate rank, or replaced by a more senior officer.

Army Units, Commands, and Formations on Permanent Establishments

Trupp = a small group dedicated to a specific task. E.g. Nachrichtentrupp = signals section attached to a battalion HQ.  These could be on permanent establishment (Funktrupp – radio section or Kompanietrupp – company HQ), or on an ad-hoc establishment (Aufklärungstrupp – reconnaissance patrol/Sabotagetrupp – raiding column).

Gruppe = English Section or US Squad, the smallest permanent unit in an infantry formation, usually 8-12 men commanded by a senior Private (Obergefreiter) or junior NCO (Unteroffizier) . Their heaviest weapon would be a light machine gun (or two), around which the tactics were built. The term Gruppe is confusingly sometimes also used as shorthand for Kampfgruppe (see below) – it is then followed by the name of the commanding officer (Gruppe Marcks = The Kampfgruppe commanded by Oberst Marcks)

Zug = English Platoon, made up of three Gruppen and a HQ Trupp, and commanded by a senior NCO (Portepee Unteroffizier, often a Hauptfeldwebel) or a junior officer (Leutnant = 2nd Lieutenant). In the artillery a Zug consisted of two guns, and there were usually two per battery. The English term would be Section or Troop. In the infantry it would usually be equipped with a light mortar as direct support. A tank platoon usually consisted of five tanks.

Kompanie = English company, made up of three platoons and a Kompanietrupp HQ and commanded by an Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) or a Hauptmann (Captain). In the field artillery a Kompanie would be called a Batterie, just like in English, and consisted of two Züge with four guns in total, and a HQ. In cavalry and reconnaissance units the term was normally Schwadron (Squadron), and it  would be commanded by an Oberleutnant or a Rittmeister, equivalent to a Captain. Kompanien are numbered consecutively throughout a regiment with Arabic numerals, which gave the Germans an efficient way to refer to them in orders and reports, and made it unnecessary to refer to the battalion as well. E.g. 7./S.R.155 would be the seventh company in Schützenregiment 155, and it would be in the 2nd battalion (see below). In armour units the term was Kompanie, and there would be four platoons and a HQ. Abbreviated Kp.

Batallion  = English Battalion, in the infantry consisting usually of three infantry companies and a support company (schwere Kompanie = heavy company) with machine guns and mortars, and a HQ with small signals and logistics support.  In the artillery, armour, and cavalry the term for battalion was Abteilung, and it would usually be preceded by the arm of service, if directly refered to (e.g. Aufklärungsabteilung 33 – reconnaissance battalion 33). In 1941 an armoured battalion (Panzerabteilung) consisted of three light and a heavy company (with Panzer III and IV, respectively), a reconnaissance section with Panzer II, and a HQ with a command tank on either Panzer I or Panzer III chassis.

Screenshot 2020 01 18 17 10 34

Report on personnel strength issues with I./S.R.104, 1 Nov. 1941. Rommelsriposte.com collection.

In the artillery a standard Abteilung consisted of three batteries with 12 guns in total. Usually commanded by a Major (same as in English), occasionally by an Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant-Colonel). Batallione would be numbered consecutively in a regiment with Roman numerals, so II./AR155 would be the second battalion (Abteilung) of artillery regiment 155. Independent Batallione (divisional units or Heerestruppen (see below) would usually be numbered in Arabic numerals based on their divisional parent unit (e.g. Feldersatzbatallion 200 – Field Replacement/Training Battalion 200 of 21. Panzerdivision), but with the relatively chaotic establishments in North Africa, this rule did not hold there, and there was a lot of mixing going on. Abbreviated Btl.

Regiment = British Brigade, US Regiment (not English Regiment!). This usually consisted of three battalions, support companies, and a HQ in the infantry,  and of four Abteilungen (three light, one heavy) in the artillery. In the motorised infantry there would normally only be two battalions in 1941. An infantry regiment would normally have 14 companies, 12 in the three battalions (nine infantry, three support companies), plus an anti-tank and and infantry gun company as regimental support. Usually commanded by an Oberst (Colonel), or a Lieutenant Colonel. Abbreviated Rgt, or IR/SR/PR/AR (infantry, rifle, tank, artillery regiment).

Brigade = no equivalent in British terms, maybe Combat Command in a US Armoured Division in 1944/45. In 1941 this was grouping of two rifle (motorised infantry) regiments in an armoured division. Usually commanded by a Colonel, or a Generalmajor (= US Brigadier-General, but not British Brigadier), the most junior General officer rank. As war went on, Brigades would become even rarer than they were initially, and a Generalmajor would usually command a division. In Africa 15. Schützenbrigade (15th Rifle Brigade) was the infantry arm of 15. Panzerdivision.

Division = as in English. A formation consisting of three or four regiments (e.g. three infantry, one artillery, or one infantry, one armour, one artillery), or a Brigade, an armoured,  and an artillery regiment. Usually commanded by a Generalmajor (Brigadier General), or a Generalleutnant (Major-General). The Germans called Divisions Grosseinheiten (large formations), and in German doctrine they were the smallest formation capable of sustained combat without support. Divisions also controlled permanently assigned divisional units such as anti-tank battalions (Panzerjägerbatallion), reconnaissance battalions (Aufklärungsabteilung), and engineer battalions (Pionierbatallion). Divisions also added significant amounts of support troops to their constituent units, which enable these to function in the field. These include field mail services, military police, signals, logistics and signals support, medical, bakery and butcher companies, etc. Abbreviated Div.

Korps = as in English or US Corps. A group of two to four divisions, with a permanent HQ.  Korps HQs would have significantly more capable signals elements than a divisional HQ, and have an important role in logistics support for the divisions it commands, controlling higher level logistics formations such as Grosstransportraum units.  Besides the divisions they could also control Heerestruppen (see below), which were independent formations assigned on a needs basis, usually by an army command. Usually commanded by a Generalleutnant. The German contribution in Africa started as a Korps. The term Panzerkorps (Armoured Corps) was used from 1942, but not in Africa, it replaced the prior Mot. Korps (motorised Korps), which was the term used for Corps HQs controlling primarily armoured and motorised units.

Arko (Artilleriekommandeur) = British AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery), US ?. An independent artillery command which would have significant signals assets and other dedicated support such as survey or mapping units, to be able to control artillery assets above divisional level for concentration of firepower.  In status probably equivalent to a Division or a Brigade, and usually attached to a Korps or an Armee. It would also be used to control artillerie Heerestruppen (see below), such as siege or coastal artillery. Arko 104 under Generalmajor Böttcher (later Oberst Mickl) was attached to Panzergruppe Afrika to deal with artillery needs during the siege and assault on Tobruk.

Panzergruppe = no equivalent. A Panzergruppe was an odd invention that worked well for the Germans in the early war. Essentially this was a Corps HQ with an elevated status, and under direct control of a Heeresgruppe (army group), as a mobile arm. Usually commanded by a General der Panzertruppen or a General der Kavallerie (General, with an indication of the arm of service where they originated from). The German HQ in North Africa was upgraded to a Panzergruppe in summer 1941.

Armee = Army. A grouping of two or more Korps, usually commanded by a General der (insert arm of service here), or a Generaloberst (Colonel-General, the highest German General rank). An Armee HQ would add even more signals capability, and important logistics support. In 1942 the German HQ in Africa was upgraded to army status, and Rommel was promoted to Generaloberst. A Panzerarmee (Armoured Army) was primarily just a cool-sounding name, it did not indicate that it would control only armoured units (or indeed any).

Other terms:

Heerestruppen – literally: army troops. Independent battalions with specialised support or combat functions. These could be assigned temporarily to support a formation. In North Africa they primarily included artillery units, such as coastal and super-heavy artillery, and Beobachtungsabteilung 11 (a counter battery observation battalion).  Panzerjägerabteilung 605 with its self-propelled ATGs was also  Heerestruppe. The existence of these units gave the German army considerable flexibility in responding to needs along wide frontages.

Kampfgruppe – British (Commander Name) Column, although usually much bigger in size than these, and well supported by German army doctrine, which is not something that can be said for the British approach to columns, especially during CRUSADER (many thanks to Jon for making that point).

A Kampfgruppe was an ad-hoc combat formation (always, it would never be a permanent establishment, even though the duration of its existence could be relatively long) assembled to respond to a specific and temporary need. Usually built around a regimental, sometimes a battalion HQ, and named after its commander. During the counterattack in January, Kampfgruppe Marcks under Oberst Marcks distinguished itself in defeating 4th Indian Division, earning its commander the Knights Cross. Once the specific task was no longer relevant, it would be disbanded, and the individual formations returned to their parent units. Sometimes abbreviated Gruppe, followed by the commander’s name (e.g. Gruppe Crüwell during the retreat from the Gazala position in December 41).

Kolonnenraum – literally: column space. This refers to indepent truck supply units on the army level. In German terminology is only used as a supply term, while the British used it as a combat formation term (e.g. Currie Column during the pursuit from the Gazala position to Agedabia).

Korück (Kommandeur Rueckwaertiges Armeegebiet) – no English equivalent. The commander of the army rear area was responsible for army installations in the rear areas, and for security in these areas. He would have some security forces at his disposal for this purpose. The rear area was usually not specifically defined.  During CRUSADER, Korueck was Generalmajor Schmitt, who then commanded the German forces in the Bardia fortress. He became the first German general to surrender his command to Commonwealth forces in World War II when Bardia fell on 2 January 42. No doubt a distinction he could have done without.

Numbering of German units

The numbering schematic for German units followed a strict code:

Kompanie: Arabic

Battalion: Roman

Regiment: Arabic

Division: Arabic

Corps: Roman

Army: Arabic

Army Group: Named (e.g. Afrika, Nord)

So:

1./S.R.200 = first company, Rifle Regiment 200

III./I.R.247 = 3rd battalion, Infantry Regiment 247

Disclaimer

The above is the general. Over the course of a multi-front, six year war, there were many exceptions to this rule, such as Korpsabteilung C, or Armeeabteilung Narwa. There were Festungs- or Sicherungsdivisionen and God knows what else.

Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C – who used them?

Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C – who used them?

During 1941 Vichy France supplied 20 heavy howitzers of the type Canon de 155 Mle 1917 Schneider C to the Axis forces in North Africa. It is possible that at least part of these were in action during CRUSADER.  This particular gun was a very popular gun, in use by many armies between the wars, and also serving with the US Army in the late 1930s and early 40s (although I am not sure if any saw service overseas).  It was however obsolete by 1940, due to the very short range it had (only 11,900 metres), compared to more modern guns such as the Soviet 152mm gun-howitzer ML-20 (>17,000 metres) or the British 5.5″ gun which entered service in 1941 (about 15,000 metres). Shell weight at 43kg was similar to the German sFH18, as well as the Soviet and British guns.

155 mm SFH 413 1

155mm Schneider C howitzer imported from Tunisia, in use by German artillery in the desert, private collection, included in a Germany memoir.

The French army, after mobilisation in 1940, had 535 of them available for service, according to David Lehmann’s PDF document 1939-1940 French Armament (available at this link).  After the end of the campaign, and the conquest of Greece and other countries using this gun, it was put into German service as sFH15,5cm 414(f) (heavy field howitzer 155mm 414(f) where the (f) indicates the country of origin.  It was also in use by the Regio Esercito as Obice 155/14, where 14 indicates the barrel length in multiples of gun calibre diameter.  Since both Axis forces active in North Africa were familiar with this gun, it is not clear to me who would have used it.

Request for information:

I would appreciate any information on:

1) which army received the guns;

2) which units used them;

3) where they were used; and

4) for how long they served the Axis forces in North Africa before they were lost.

Many thanks in advance!

According to Jason Long on the Italianisti Group, 12 of the guns served in Heereskuestenartillerieabteilung 533 in North Africa. While the choice of such a short-ranged gun is unusual for a coastal defense purpose, I guess it comes down to beggars not being able to be choosers, and HKAA533 had lost its guns during the retreat from Tobruk it seems. Rather than being a coastal defense battery, it had now become part of the general service heavy artillery park of the Panzerarmee.  From looking at Jason’s Gazala battle OOB, it appears that by May 42 many more of these guns had made their way to Libya, but on the other hand, HKA 533 by this time did no longer have any of them on strength, instead it was equipped with captured 25-pdrs, which had been captured during the January 1942 counteroffensive. 

An ULTRA intercept states that on 17 Nov. 41 4 of these guns left Tripoli for the front on 4 lorries of supply column 2/148.

 

155 mm SFH 413 2

155mm Schneider C howitzer imported from Tunisia, in use by German artillery in the desert, private collection, included in a Germany memoir.

The Battle for Ed Duda, 29 November 1941

The Battle for Ed Duda, 29 November 1941

Substantially revised 28 November 2019.

29 November 1941 – the Crucible of Ed Duda

Preparations

The 29 November, a cool, sunny day with broken cloud cover, was a critical day outside Tobruk. The Afrikakorps had managed to return to the battle from the ‘dash-to-the-wire’, and was organized to take first the most advanced and exposed Empire position on the Ed Duda height, which blocked the Axis bypass road around Tobruk, and thus the connection of the fighting elements of the Afrikakorps from the rear services around Gambut.

The Empire Side

At the same time, from midnight onwards, large volumes of 8th Army transport poured into Tobruk, and command confusion had led to a denuding of the critical Ed Duda height, which was in the morning only held by two weak companies from the New Zealand 19 Battalion with three damaged tanks from 44 R.T.R., due to the Matilda tanks on Ed Duda having been ordered to the Zaafran height to the east by a direct order from 70 Division.

Brigadier Willison, CO of 32 Army Tank Brigade, rectified the situation by ordering the tanks of 4 R.T.R. returned, and prepared for an attack south of his own, to take the Dahar Adeimat ridge, starting at 11.00 hours. This was a Brigade attack that aimed to clear the area south of Ed Duda. 

Ed Duda

Map of Ed Duda, showing Belhamed and Zaafran to the west, Dahar Adeimat ridge (Axis: Bir Bu Cremeisa) to the south, and El Adem to the east. Bir Salem would have been about the 42 grid line. 

At 06.45 hours ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R. was ordered to Ed Duda, where it arrived at 08.30 hours. The planned attack had to be postponed due to the Australian 2/13 Battalion not being made available for a high-risk operation, and the tanks not returning from Zaafran.

The German Side

The war diary of the 15. Panzerdivision spends a lot of time on this day, and it is clear it was a hard fought action with heavy losses.

The order to attack was issued at 03.00am, with 15. Panzer on the left wing, attacking east into the direction of the old defensive position outside Tobruk. A detailed order to be issued by the GOC Afrikakorps on the command post of 15.Panzer at 07.30am. General Cruewell appeared at 08.00am.

The order as issued was to break through on Ed Duda, while 21.Panzer takes Belhamed, and to throw the back into the fortress of Tobruk. Ariete to cover the left flank, with the artillery split in support of both efforts. The intent was to break through to the west, then turn, and attack east, clearing and taking Ed Duda and Belhamed.

The Battle

From 08.15am the attack commences under heavy artillery fire from the northern flank, which forces the division south, before it can then turn west again. Empire tanks constantly harry the supply and rear columns, but are held off by the AT guns of Pz.Jg.Abt.33. The artillery fire from the breakout salient continues throughout. Demonstrating the fog of war, at Bir Bu Cremeisa the division discovers an Italian position, subordinated to Gruppe Böttcher, at around 10.30am. At the same time, the Empire troops on Ed Duda report being shelled from two directions, the west, and the north east.

At 10.46 70 Division issued a warning to 32 Army Tank Brigade, noting that an attack on Ed Duda from the east was likely. Brigadier Willison then cancelled the attack, which he now considered unwise, and prepared for defense, with the squadron of 4 R.T.R. having arrived around this time.

At 1050 patrols of 2/13 Battalion come under fire from Italian forces, likely from Bir bu Cremeisa.

At 11.35am Ariete reports it is fully engaged with a British attack. This means that if further advancing west, the left, southern flank will not be covered. It is likely that this was 4 Armoured Brigade. About the same time, an Empire artillery FOO reports 16 moving tanks 10,000 yards south-east of Ed Duda, possibly Ariete. A tank patrol is sent out and notes these are stopped.

At 12.15 the order is issued to encircle the troops in the area Belhamed – Zaafran – Trigh Capuzzo. 21. Panzer is ordered to break out east.

At 13.00 the order is given to push on Bir Salem to the west. While crossing a valley bottom continued heavy artillery fire is on the division. The infantry of 15. Schtz.Brig. is delayed in a swamp, and remains under heavy artillery fire for a time.

At the same time, Empire patrols report a tank advance on Ed Duda from the south. Brigadier Willison breaks off lunch and moves to the HQ of 1 Essex on the western front of Ed Duda to warn them. On return he met the GOC 70 Division and was instructed to deal with the impending attack. All tanks were alerted by him in person, and an HQ set up.

The point of the division including the GOC reaches Bir Salem, occupied by the Italians, and requests artillery from Gruppe Böttcher on Ed Duda, while M.G.Batl. 2 executes a rapid attack across Point 175. An attack by 10 British tanks is repulsed, with five claimed destroyed. The battalion is then ordered to disengage and join the division. 

This order was to have tragic consequences for the M.G.Battalion, which was closely engaged with the enemy forces at the time. It only succeeded thanks to the intervention by Ariete tanks, which rescued one of its platoons. 

 

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Colonel Hans Cramer, CO Panzerregiment 8, June 1941.Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv. 

At 13.30 hours Brigadier Willison notes the impending attack of about 50 tanks. It is faced by ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R. facing west in hull-down positions, while 4 R.T.R. is in reserve, and the crocks of 44 R.T.R. guarding east. It is clear that this is an encirclement, with tanks also attacking from the direction of Belhamed, estimated as two groups of 36 tanks (21.Pz.Div). These were to be engaged by the remaining 9 cruisers of 32 Army Tank Brigade.

At this point the division is complete except some elements of the infantry 3km west of Ed Duda (see map below) and attacks it with the tank regiment, ordered in two waves.

At 14.10 Rgt.z.b.V.200 with M.G.Btl.2 is orderded to follow, wheeling through the left, via Bir Salem to Ed Duda. A.R.33 supports the attack, and while II./PR8 attacks the western slope of Ed Duda, I./PR8 defends against an attack of 20 Matilda tanks from the north-east. These soon retreat north, but cannot be pursued across a Wadi, leading to I./PR8 attacking the slop in a north-westerly direction instead.

From the war diary of 32 Army Tank Brigade it does not appear any attack took place, but this is likely the squadron of 4 R.T.R. engaging.

At this point the artillery from the breakout salient is firing heavily on the division, directed from tanks on Ed Duda. Even using the heavy artillery of Gruppe Böttcher only some of this artillery can be neutralized.

Attacking frontally, II./PR8 is engaging the AT and MG positions on Ed Duda and manages to break into the position despite mines and wire, while I./PR8, advancing rapidly, fights down the infantry of the Essex regiment, destroys several Matildas that again attacked from the north-east, and brings in 150 POWs.

This was ‘B’ Coy of 1 Essex, which from 14.30 hours reports to be under heavy fire from tanks close to the forward defense line. The war diary notes that a troop of Matildas that were forward of the lines had now withdrawn and were no longer engaging the .

Heavy Flak is brought up to take the load of the tanks, but is damaged and gets stuck under the continuing artillery fire. Only slowly, suffering heavy losses, can Schtz.Rgt. 115 follow the tanks.

This fire was delivered by 1 R.H.A., who had good observation on the attack. To the east, 1 R.T.R. had driven off the attack, identified as 1 German Panzer III and 10 Italian tanks, but in reality all from 21. Pz.Div. 

In consequence of this setback, at 15.32 a terse radio exchange between the two divisions of the Afrikakorps takes place:

21.Pz.Div.

Artillery fire from south into B Echelon, situation urgent, suggest 15.Pz.Div. on highest Jebel escarpment moves east.

GOC 15.Pz.Div.

Call for help not understood here! Where is Ariete? Am fighting myself.

WH2Tob62c

New Zealand Official History

At 15.40 Ariete reports that artillery is threatening the open flank of 15.Pz.Div. It has now moved WNW and established contact with the Pavia infantry division, probably at Bir bu Cremeisa. The artillery fire on Ariete is confirmed in the war diaries of 4 and 22 Armoured Brigade.

At 16.03 hours the pressure of heavy long-range guns and a relentless tank attack are causing steady losses.  

At 16.37 hours Brigadier Willison asks his HQ to report to Division that “I think we are countering an Armoured Division. GOC would probably like to know. Our fellows are putting up a magnificent fight and are well handled.” Just after this, at 16.40 hours he notes 30-40 trucks debussing infantry at the tanks.

By 16.55 hours the situation is becoming tense, and it is clear that the Germans have the numbers, and Brigadier Willison orders disabled tanks to be manned as a last ditch defense effort, noting that “We were getting a bit thin on the ground.”.

At 17.00 the mass of Schtz.Rgt.115 has broken into the Ed Duda position and prepares for defense in front of the tanks. Some parts of the regiment remain stuck to the west under heavy artillery fire. The GOC, protected by his command tank, slowly brings one section after the other to the height.

This was again the position of long-suffering ‘B’ Coy 1 Essex, which suffered POWs from 11 and 12 Platoons. The Germans then moved into the rear of ‘A’ Coy, taking POW the majority of 8 & 9 platoons, while an attempt from the south failed in the fire of ‘D’ Coy. The final attack is described in detail, as 18 tanks moving in line ahead at 2 miles per hour with infantry in-between, and a flank guard of 3 tanks either side. 

It was at this point that the attack stopped, and the remaining 150 men and two AT guns of Schtz.Rgt.115 now are broken into two combat groups, one on each side of the Axis bypass road. A.R.33 is  tasked with supporting them, while the reconnaissance battalion A.A.33 has the task to secure any gaps in the front by constant and aggressive patrolling. The motorcycle battalion KB15 forms the reserve. The Empire troops are considered to have withdrawn northeast, and artillery fire slackened.

The German infantry is digging in less than 200 yards off the HQ of 1 Essex however, and fails to clear the position completely, thus allowing the survival of a jumping off point for a counterattack during the night.

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Light 10.5cm howitzer moving into firing position, North Africa, 1942. Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv.

At 17.15 the Ed Duda is firmly under control of the Germans. After dark some Matildas try to advance, but are forced off, after two are destroyed.

At 18.40 the order from the GOC Afrikakorps arrives to make contact with 90.lei.Afrika-Division, and to interdict traffic into the fortress. Fatefully, PR8 is now ordered to move off west, to re-supply with ammunition, while the Empire artillery fire becomes more intensive.

The German view at the end of the day is that the connection between the salient and Tobruk is nearly severed by the breakthrough of the day. Tank losses were low during the day, 1/1/2 of Panzer II/III/IV, and the regiment has 11/25/3 operational at night.

During the night however, at 23.30, a counterattack with tanks and infantry coming from the east, without the warning of an artillery preparation, hits Schtz.Rgt. 115. One AT gun is hit and destroyed, while the other is run over by a tank, while fighting another tank. Individual positions are then rolled over by tanks, weapons and ammunition crushed. At first the the southern position is taken, with most men becoming POW, and then the northern position has to retreat about 1,000m west of the western slope of Ed Duda where it makes contact with KB15.

Battle Map 15th Panzerdivision

 

KTB of the 1a 15.PD for second part of this battle, the afternoon advance from Bir Salem to Ed Duda. NARA via James

 

Panzer Regiment 8

Africa, 4. January 1942

Combat Report

Attack on Ed Duda 29. 11. 1941

On 29 November the regiment in its role as point of attack of the division receives the order to take the height of Ed Duda. The attack progresses quickly, as usually despite heavy flanking fire of artillery, but unexpectedly finds an Italian position at 10.30 hours at Bu Cremisa. At 12.30 the regiment again starts in a northerly direction. Despite heavy artillery fire it succeeds in gaining the descent at Bu Creimisa without loss, and to cross the two valley bottoms quickly.

Already at 13.00 hours the regiment crosses the Trigh Capuzzo and gains, advancing under the heaviest artillery fire, at 13.10 Bir Salem. An Italian strongpoint with artillery remains there. A terribly heavy artillery fire, including a number of heavy batteries from Tobruk, hits the regiment when it continues to drive, reaching the Axis bypass road and there turns east onto Ed Duda. To ease this turn the regimental commander leads ahead to Ed Duda with raised command flag and the clear order “Follow the leader!”, thereby having the regiment turn in eastwards behind him. Since the ground, because of the Wadis to the right and left of the Axis Bypass Road, did not allow a broadening of the regiment, the regimental commander decided to organize the regiment in two echelons, first echelon Captain Kümmel, second echelon Captain Wahl. Once the regiment had taken up the direction and structure as ordered, the regimental staff falls back in with the first echelon. machine gun and infantry positions on the western slope of Ed Duda to the left of the Axis Bypass Road are quickly overrun. Shortly before reaching the height of Ed Duda the regimental commander orders the 1st Battalion to attack the northern part of Ed Duda, while the 2nd Battalion should continue to advance along the Axis Bypass Road drawing level with the 1st Battalion.

Continuing, the 1st Battalion soon met 20 Matilda tanks attacking from the north and commenced the firefight with them immediately. The 2nd Battalion meanwhile combated frontally the numerous, wire protected, machine gun and AT gun positions on the height.

At 14.15 hours Captain Kümmel reports that the tanks are withdrawing towards north-east behind the height and that a further advance of his battalion was not possible because of a deeply cut Wadi athwart him. The regimental commander in a quick decision pulls Battalion Kümmel to the right wing and the regiment attacks with impetuous drive the height, now with the main effort on the right, in the following structure: ahead left battalion Wahl, ahead right Battalion Kümmel, with regimental staff. Captain Wahl in particular distinguished himself here by driving his battalion forward without regard, giving a personal example, despite heavy mining, despite K-rolls and of a large number of AT guns, while Captain Kümmel fought down the crew (Tobruk garrison, Essex Regiment) in a rapid drive, destroying a number of Matilda tanks which meanwhile had appeared from the northeast. At this time arrive single riflemen of the rifle battalion which was sent after the tanks.

At 17.15, despite strong artillery fire, the regiment stands on the hotly fought over height of Ed Duda as ordered, while the attack by the riflemen had stopped shortly before the height. Because of the heavy firefight of the afternoon the regiment had fired off about 20% of its ammunition at this time. To be able to smash attacks at any moment the regimental commander ordered to resupply on the battlefield, despite the heavy artillery fire. As always, this task is solved by First Lieutenant Lindner and his men in a first class and brave manner.

A counter-attack in darkness costs the the loss of two tanks. In this defense shared particularly the Panzer II, thanks to their rapid fire with 2cm tracer. At 20.00 hours the regiment is withdrawn under divisional orders.

Successes:

Destroyed 5 Matilda, numerous AT guns and infantrie material. 150 POW were made.

Own losses:

3 tanks damaged by mines which could be repaired. Some dead and wounded.

Australian Official History map on this battle (all Australian material from this page, Chapter 10). AWM

Now, it is very interesting to read the New Zealand history on this here:

In particular on what happened after the tanks withdrew  – the first para of the following excerpt refers to the first attack by four Matildas which was beaten off by the Panzer IIs.  But it all went a bit pearshaped for the Germans after that:

When the light began to fail, some of the British tanks edged forward and the air was filled with tracers as the engaged them. The Pzkw IIs came into their own in this twilight clash and their 20-millimetre automatic cannon blazed in deadly fashion at the Matildas, knocking out two them. The Matildas in the end gave ground and the panzers followed them slowly, ending up in brilliant moonlight at 6.35 p.m. on the edge of the Australian position. German infantry also spread out and some began digging in 200 yards from the headquarters of 1 Essex. To Colonel Nichols the position looked desperate.

Lieutenant-Colonel Burrows of the Australian battalion prepared to counter-attack; but the moonlight was too bright, the German tanks still very much in evidence, and he decided to hold his hand until the moon was lower. His B Company on the right and C on the left formed up on either side of Nichols’s headquarters, A Company covered 1 RHA, whose gun positions were now very close to the German tanks, and D stayed in reserve ‘along the western approaches to Ed Duda’.

Then the Australian B Company suffered a tragic blow. As it moved forward a heavy shell landed directly on 10 Platoon, killing eight and wounding ten of its total of twenty-six men. The other two platoons, ‘displaying exemplary battle discipline, moved past the stricken platoon, disregarding the pathetic cries of the wounded and the dying’.1 The stretcher bearers were soon on the scene and the gap in the Australian ranks was filled when a platoon of A Company and the remnants of B Company of 1 Essex spontaneously lined up to join the attack. Nichols and Burrows had meanwhile

1 Bayonets Abroad, p. 150.

406

called for tank support, and as the moon was waning eleven tanks came forward, all that was left of 4 Royal Tanks. These lined up astride the By-pass road ‘with only a foot between the horns of each tank’ and Willison inspected them there.1

When the I tanks counter-attacked, late at night, they ran all through the German lines, creating panic. Then the Australians fell with great vigour upon the two bewildered battle groups of 115 Regiment, ‘slew an undetermined number’,2 and took 167 prisoners, at a cost of only two killed and five wounded Australians. Mopping-up continued for the rest of the night and many small parties of wandered in by mistake and were taken prisoner. The two Australian companies reorganised with the remainder of 1 Essex as a composite battalion under Colonel Nichols, occupying much the same ground as was originally defended.

On the side six officers and about fifty other ranks, the remnants of those elements of 115 Regiment which took part in the action, fell back 1000 yards to the west and formed a new position alongside 15 Motor Cycle Battalion. This unit of 200 Regiment had been brought forward to continue the attack through to Belhamed next day with 8 Panzer Regiment. A second attack on Ed Duda was briefly considered, but there were too few German infantry at hand to undertake it. Then Panzer Group, signalling to 33 Reconnaissance Unit to come under its command and report at once to El Adem, used by mistake the call sign of 15 Panzer, which therefore withdrew at once and reached Bir Salem before the mistake was discovered.3 Thus the whole division was back where it started and the attack on Ed Duda gained nothing. Like the first attack on Capuzzo, it exposed weaknesses in the defence which were soon remedied so that any further attack would be harder still.

 

 

Australian Official History map of 2/13 Battalion’s Attack. AWM

Below is the relevant excerpt from the official Australian history, Chapter 10, Ed Duda.  Many thanks to JonS for pointing out to me that this is the place to look for the action, since 2/13 Battalion carried out the counterattack.

 

About 1 p.m. the 15th Armoured Division began forming up to attack Ed Duda from the west. Captain Salt of the 1st R .H.A’s Chestnut Troop broadcast a running description of their deployment and approach, and of the early development of the battle. The first German assault on the westernmost positions of the 1 /Essex was thrown back by the infantry and anti-tank gunners. Colonel O’Carroll of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment ordered all tanks to the top of Ed Duda and those at hand went with him; about eight, including some acting as armoured command posts for the 1st R.H.A., went on to the main feature. (Footnote 8 – Not all the tank commanders managed to comply with this instruction. The charge is made in a British narrative that some non-participation arose because a tank commander “had been seized as a suspect by the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion and not released until 9 p .m. ” On the likelihood that any such irresponsible action was taken by the experienced, earnest and realistic Australians, no comment is offered.) For a time the German tanks stood off and bombarded the pits and sangars of the Essex infantry, neutralised their machine and anti-tank guns and cleared the minefields with patrols. Captain Salt’s tank was hit and he was killed. Major Goschen’s tank was also knocked out; Captain Armitage rescued him and his crew. This disorganised the artillery support, and about 4 .30 p.m. the started closing in from the west.

It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was behind them. Three of our tanks came up on the side of our position, later joined by a fourth. They were Matildas. They started withdrawing in pairs, firing as they went. As the heavy tanks got nearer the position, the German light Mk. IIs moved up on our flank, and swept the area with machine-gun fire. Some posts continued firing. The German tanks, twenty of them, fanned out and formed a line right across the middle of the battalion position. Our four tanks had cleverly withdrawn behind us to a hulls-down position. It was starting to get dark. They had halted just short of where our tanks could engage them. (Footnote 9 – Martin, The Essex Regiment 1929-1950, pp. 635-6. From a description by Lieutenant P. P. S. Brownless.)

The loss of Ed Duda was reported to Burrows about nightfall when he was called to a tank in direct communication with Willison’s headquarters. The possibility of a counter-attack by the 2/13th Battalion was discussed. Burrows indicated that he was prepared to attack infantry but not tanks. The issues were hammered out at a conference at Willison’s headquarters about 8 p.m.; it was conceded that 2/13th would not be expected to attack against tanks without tank support. The 2/13th Battalion was to counter-attack at Ed Duda with two companies and provide one company to protect the 1st R.H.A’s gun area near Belhamed. The rest of the battalion was to be organised to hold the escarpment where the battalion was then situated.

The 2/13th headquarters were on the escarpment about 1,000 yards north-east of the Ed Duda pass. “C” and “D” Companies were detailed for the counter-attack, but when it appeared that the outlying “D” Company would not reach battalion headquarters by the time prescribed for leaving, Burrows issued a last-minute order that “B” Company (Captain Graham) would take its place and move off with “C” Company (Captain Walsoe) . The two companies were then assembled by platoons in column of route at the foot of the escarpment on its northern side. A troop of 25-pounders was firing directly over their heads from behind a ridge to the north-east but the night was otherwise quiet. The guns stopped firing and almost as they did so a shell landed in the middle of a closely-bunched platoon of Graham’s company, killing or wounding almost all.

It was necessary for Burrows, so as to be on time at the rendezvous, to order the rest of the column to march past. As the men did so with exemplary discipline, heart-rending cries from the stricken platoon assailed hem. They were then led in silence round the foot of the escarpment to a start-line laid for an attack south-west on both sides of the “pimples» of the Ed Duda feature. The forms of tanks could be identified through binoculars on the objective some 500 yards away. Burrows refused to allow the attack to proceed. The start was postponed while he went back to Willison’s headquarters. Only one conclusion was possible. If Ed Duda was to be retaken, the German tanks would have to be dislodged; if Willison’s tanks could not do this, there was no other way. It was decided that it would have to be a close-in tank-to-tank and man-to-man fight without artillery support. This may have been influenced by the fact that the 1st R.H.A’s “A/E” Battery had withdrawn to Tiger after dusk and Colonel Williams had ordered “B/O” Battery back in the belief that the by-pass road was not blocked. The 4th R.T.R., however, was maintaining a block just forward of the 2/ 13th with three tanks and the 44th R.T.R. was maintaining another to the east. It was decided that the battery’s departure could no longer be delayed.

So, while in the desert not far to the south Gott’s armoured brigades again spent an untroubled night in a leaguer off the battlefield, Willison’s tanks, which had been in the thick of the fight for nine days, came forward with devotion and pluck to try conclusions with the main tank force of the Africa Corps.

Accounts of the battle are difficult to reconcile. Some misunderstandings have arisen because descriptions of incidents have been read as descriptions of an entire engagement, which was a long one. The tanks fought for about three hours, the infantry for about fifteen minutes. The battle began when eight Matilda tanks approached the Ed Duda escarpment from low ground in front and fought the German tanks skylined above .The contest provided a most spectacular fireworks display . Streams of small-arms tracer fire, which seemed to issue from holes in the hill, and fiery marbles spat out by automatic cannon converged on the British tanks’ hulls and ricocheted from them like splashing molten metal. The Matildas stabbed back with rapid Besa machine-gun fire. Sharp exchanges of 2-pounder or 50-mm shot rang out; some tanks and vehicles on either side caught fire. The British tanks outnumbered by about three to one continued to engage, but the worrying question was whether all or most had been immobilised. Soon it was answered when some were seen to advance a short distance. Then it was puzzling to observe the same tanks withdraw. But they returned to the fray. In the end the puzzle of the battle was that the German tanks, after having appeared to have the upper hand, withdrew and did not come back. The Germans later blamed the receipt of a wrongly coded message purporting to recall the 8thArmoured Regiment, but the battle had been decided before the message was received. British tank crews had for once fought German tanks in an action in which the Germans could not employ their guns to weight the odds against the British ; at the end the outnumbered British were there, the Germans gone .

At one stage it had been planned to delay the infantry attack until the moon set behind the western ridge but when it appeared that the German tanks had departed Willison and Burrows decided to attack a t1 .30 a.m. German war diaries make it plain that complete surprise was achieved because the attack was made without artillery support (as though an offence against the ethics of war had been perpetrated) . Burrows, however, was more interested in frightening than surprising the and told the men to call out “Australians coming” as they assaulted. In the same spirit the Matildas advancing on the flanks soon had their tank engines roaring at full throttle and were firing wildly when on the move. Unfortunately battles often do not proceed according to plan. Soon the enthusiastic British tank gunners were shooting up the charging Australians, mistaking them for retreating Germans, and the ignorant Germans, despite the Australians’ shouted attempts to identify themselves, were crying out “Engländer kommen”.

The following are extracts from an account written by a soldier about two months after the battle: (Footnote 2 – CO Thompson of 2/13 Bn Int Sec.)

Captain Walsoe fired a green Very flare and the attack started with two platoons of B Company on the left and C Company on the right. C company had first to ascertain whether the men to their front belonged to the Essex Battalion or were Germans. Soon however a German was captured. Colonel Burrows moved with the men telling them to call out “The Australians are coming” when they charged . The men went forward at a steady walking pace until they sighted the . There was no need to advise them to shout when they went in : shouting, yelling, cooeeing like madmen, they charged with the bayonet . The seemed stupefied. There was no concerted resistance. Those who did not run either threw themselves on the ground or held up their hands. As the attack progressed through the ‘s positions Germans could be heard running in front calling out “Englander kommen” . . . . The advance was continued to a distance of 500yards beyond the top of the opposing ridge, but though Germans were heard running and shouting in the distance the men were recalled, since it would have been unwise to have gone further. Small pockets of were soon mopped up and the companies withdrew to the southern slope of Ed Duda. B company sent out a patrol and took another 15 prisoners from a post on the left flank.

motor transport was heard moving about in confusion but could not be captured in the darkness, but a motor cyclist was stopped by a burst of TSMG fire and captured.

Although at the moment of assault the men charged with vigour and elation, Walsoe and Graham kept their companies in hand and platoon commanders and section leaders maintained control. Organised resistance was met only on the fringes, and there, by initiative and with confidence in night fighting based on patrol experience, the Australians kept on top .On the right, for example, Sergeant Searle (Footnote 3 – Capt J. E. Searle, DCM, NX21876; 2/13 Bn . Bank officer; of Cudal, NSW; b. Bathurst, NSW, 10 Mar 1919) put in a quick charge and subdued a pocket of that opened fire when challenged. Two men nearby who were slow to stand up and surrender were about to be dispatched with the bayonet when they identified themselves as Australian stretcher bearers captured by the that evening. On the other flank Private Ferres (Footnote 4 – Cpl H. Ferres, MM, NX17484; 2/13 Bn. Labourer; of Paddington, NSW; b. Sydney, 12 Dec 1919) firing his Bren gun from the hip and leading three other men assaulted a troublesome post and took the surrender of 25 Germans. The prisoners taken in the attack—almost all by the Australians—numbered 167. Only 7 Australians were wounded, two mortally.

The Australians were quickly reorganised to form a compact two-company front in the centre of the Ed Duda position, where they prepared for an immediate counter-attack. What was needed was to get belowground at once and be concealed as much as possible by dawn, but only one or two picks or shovels could be found. Infantry could hardly have been placed with less protection in a more vulnerable position than these men on Ed Duda at the very hinge of the Tobruk corridor; but no immediate counter-attack was made.