A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

Following some further work on the older blog article at this link  I have now turned this into a more substantive and better referenced article, which can be dowloaded here:

Counterfactual Considerations on Rommel’s First Offensive.

The conclusions of the blog are refined in this article, but they remain fundamentally aligned with those of the blog entry.

Happy reading, and comments as always welcome.

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Rommel and Gariboldi during a Planning Meeting, probably February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

Article – 4 Armd Bde against KG Stephan, 19 Nov 41

Article – 4 Armd Bde against KG Stephan, 19 Nov 41

Background

The draft article linked below offers a new view on the first armoured clash of Operation CRUSADER, and comments are welcome. It raises questions regarding the traditional view of Operation CRUSADER, in particular regarding the planning stage on the Empire side, and the assessment of this first battle of the US-built M3 Stuart tank, and the combat performance of British tank regiments.

Click here to download the article: 4 Armoured Brigade on 19 Nov

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Stuart Tanks of 8 Kings Royal Irish Hussars on maneuvers in the western desert, August 1941

Book Review: A15 Cruiser Mk. VI Crusader Tank – A Technical History

Book Review: A15 Cruiser Mk. VI Crusader Tank – A Technical History

Five Stars out of Five – Highly Recommended Buy

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Book Cover

Overall

This is a self-published work that is based on very considerable archival research, and it sets the standard for what anyone who ever wants to utter an opinion on the Crusader tank (aka Cruiser A15 Mk. VI) will have to let themselves be measured by. Unavoidable reading for anyone interested in British tanks, desert warfare, and general technological development of tanks.

Given that Operation CRUSADER saw over one-third of the Empire tank force consisting of these tanks, in 7 and 22 Armoured Brigade, and later 2 Armoured Brigade, it is of high interest to me.

Considerations

The Crusader is the cruiser tank everyone loves to hate, for its reported reliability issues combined with the ‘peashooter’ 2-pdr gun in the first two versions. The book clearly demonstrates that this is not a fair assessment, and that with appropriate care and maintenance, the tank could operate reliably over great distances even in the unforgiving desert environment. Having read it, it is impossible to disagree with the final assessment, that many of the shortcomings of the tank were due to the flawed initial specification by the War Office (which, as an aside, renders the very good performance of the non-War Office specced Valentine infantry tank all the more intriguing), and the combination of an ‘unforgiving’ tank with a tank maintenance system that in the first line relied fully on the tank crew to undertake substantial work after a hard day of fighting. Overall a fair and balanced judgement, and it is clear that many of the initial issues of the tank were overcome through increasing sophistication of the production. Nevertheless, it never recovered from the initial performance, and tarred the image of British tanks for a long time to come.

Areas covered

The book comprehensively addresses the performance of the Crusader tank based on contemporary reports, utilizing about 100 archive documents, and all user manuals. It also covers later versions of the tank, such as the Crusader AA (anti-air) tank, equipped with a new turret an a twin set of 40mm Oerlikon guns, and the dozer Crusader trials, as well as the Crusader gun tractor. The book also clarifies the question of what was meant by ‘2-pdr HE’ (it was APHE), and it comprehensively addresses the penetration performance issues that arose with the 2-pdr, as well as challenges faced by the 6-pdr with the initial ammunition, in light of the encounters with up-armoured German tanks during Operation CRUSADER.

The book also excels in tracing the history of investigations and reports relating to the performance of the Crusader tank, undertaken by British authorities in the Royal Armoured Corps, who tried hard to understand what was going on in the field and how to address the matters reported up.

Room for Improvement

Nothing really. Yes, the book could be a different book with first person accounts about how muchh Sgt. Whatshisname hated the tank, but it isn’t that kind of book.

Given the self-published nature (produced by Amazon in A4), it is very decent quality, and the few photographs (from the AWM rather than the IWM, I suspect because of the criminal reproduction fees) are good quality, as are the drawings reproduced from the original.

Notes

 

The review is based on the paper version of the book. It was not provided for free and I have no commercial interest in the book.

Further Reading

Operation Report 7 Queen’s Own Husssars

Mechanical Issues of Empire Tanks

Mechanical Issues of Empire Tanks II

Chieftain’s hatch: Crusader Mk. I

Cruiser tank breakdowns and the Battle of Uadi el Faregh

Experience with Cruiser Tanks in 2 Armoured Brigade

Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Before Bruneval – Chasing Radar in Libya

Background

28 February 1942 was the day of Operation BITING, the Bruneval raid (see this link), in which a combined operation managed to obtain German radar equipment from a Würzburg site, which led to substantial advances in the understanding of the German state of this technology on the British side, and helped the conduct of the bomber offensive on the 3rd Reich.

Bundesarchiv Bild 141 2732 Radargeräte Würzburg Riese und Freya

Freya and Würzburg Riese (giant Würzburg) installations. Source: Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv via Wikimedia.

Radar in the Desert

Prior to the successful raid at Bruneval, it is possible that there was an attempt to benefit from the chaos of the Axis retreat in Cyrenaica in the second half of December 1941, to lay hands on German radar equipment. Through ULTRA intercepts, the Empire commanders had become aware that German radar was being employed in North Africa, to support fighter control against Royal Air Force raids against German and Italian airfields and logistics installations in the rear of the battlefield. Two intercepts from early December clearly indicated the likely presence of Germany FREYA and WÜRZBURG radar system in North Africa. In late 1941, these were the most advanced German radar installations, and North Africa was the only place where Empire forces were in ground contact with the Germans.

The situation regarding German radar in North Africa had been noted by Empire code breakers at Bletchley Park for about a month. Incidentally, the famous picture of the Würzburg installation at Bruneval was dated just a day before the key intercepts about radar in North Africa. Intercepts allowed monitoring the urgent calls for radar equipment to deal with the Empire air offensive in the run-up to CRUSADER, and the monitoring the progress that the equipment had made from its despatch from the Reich to North Africa, via Italy. It is possible that other intercepts or more local intelligence gathering led to the conviction that the installation was at Benina airfield.

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection 

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Ultra intercept, November 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

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Ultra intercept, December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Until CRUSADER progressed successfully, there was however little chance of being able to capture and evacuate German radar installations, which were located hundreds of miles behind the frontline and, unlike in Northern France, were placed well inland.

This situation changed on 17 December 1941, when the Axis forces retreated from the Gazala position, and this retreat quickly turned into a more or less chaotic rout, with Empire and Axis forces co-mingled on the map, and multiple instances of ‘friendly fire’ air force raids by both Axis and Empire forces hitting their own troops, causing substantial casualties. Three separate Empire pursuit columns were operating in the area of western Cyrenaica, from the north, 7 Indian Brigade in the Jebel Akhdar, pursing the retreating Italian infantry divisions on the coastal road, 7 Support Group south of the Jebel Akhdar, pursuing the retreating Axis armoured force which took the short-cut via Msus and Antelat, and 22 Guards Brigade around Antelat, attempting to cut off the retreating Axis forces in a repeat of what happened at Beda Fomm in February 1941, during Operation COMPASS.

On 21 December, following a commanders’ conference at the HQ of 7 Support Group, with General Gott present, 7 Support Group launched PEPYS column (one squadron armoured cars of the Royals, one battery of anti-tank guns of 3 R.H.A. and C Coy 2 Rifle Brigade) towards Benina airfield for a raid. It is possible, but not documented, that this raid related to radar, but it is probably more likely that it was simply an attempt to disrupt Axis withdrawal from the airfield, which was well underway. It is also not clear if Pepys column ever got onto the airfield, but it is known that they engaged Axis forces. After the raid concluded, PEPYS were ordered to rejoin 7 Support Group. CURRIE column also advanced towards Benina that day, but gave up the project due to heavy going and rain.

On 22 December, new orders were issued, now focused on getting to Soluch and Sceleidima, and to cut off the retreating Axis forces. On this day, the Royal Air Force also launched a major effort against Magrun landing ground, recognizing the Benina had been abandoned (see here for background on this). These orders mentioned a ‘valuable LISTENING SET’ at Benina, which was to be captured and placed under guard by Currie column. I suppose that this refers to Radar.

In the end, 22 December was a wash. 4 R.H.A., Lt.Col. Currie’s outfit, notes that they were conducting rest and maintenance until mid-day, and then moved south, away from Benina, towards Antelat and Soluch. Any opportunity that might have existed to capture a German radar set was thus gone.

 

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Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

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 Typed version of same Operation Order, Currie Column, 7 Support Group, 7 Armoured Division, 22 December 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

Sources

War Diary 7 Support Group, 1941

War Diary 4 R.H.A., 1941

HW 5 ULTRA Intercepts

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Loss of Armando Diaz, 25 February 1941

Background

The initial transport of the Afrikakorps (see this link)to North Africa went without any losses on the south-bound route until one of the last convoys saw the German merchant Herakleia sunk at the end of March. Despite this success though, it was not without losses overall.

The most serious strike by the Malta-based submarines happened on 25 February 1941, when a Condottieri-class light cruiser of the early two series of six vessels went down, this time it was the Cadorna sub-class RN Armando Diaz. 

The first loss of a light cruiser of this class had occurred in July 1941 at the Battle of Cape Spada, when RN Bartolomeo Colleoni was sunk by HMAS Sydney.

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RN Armando Diaz at Melbourne in 1934 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The early Condottieris

By the the start of the war, the early Condottieris could be considered obsolete due to their lack of protection, and their degraded top speed, which for  Armando Diaz seems to have declined from 39 knots when launched in 1932 to 31-32 knots by 1941. They were primarily to be used for convoy escort, mine-laying, and training, or indeed as transports in their own right, although da Giussano did serve in the battle fleet at Punto Stilo in 1940.

These early vessels of the Condottieri  class also had construction weaknesses, and the rapid sinking of Diaz confirmed their low survivability. These light cruisers were built for high speed, with the aim to be able to chase and engage on superior terms the French ‘super- destroyers’ of the Chacal  and  Guepard  classes. The test speed of some of the early vessels was astounding, reaching well over 40 knots (64 km/h).

The design for speed of these six early  Condottieris caused them to suffer from multiple issues however, including strong vibrations, and a lack of stability due to being top-heavy. The latter ultimately required the removal of the original tripod mast behind the bridge, which was present in the first vessels.

On the six vessels of the follow-on sub-classes, a completely new armoured forward structure was introduced, giving the Montecuccoli sub-class it’s very distinctive look, and the final iteration of the two Abruzzi-class light cruisers were in my view two of the finest 6″ cruisers of the war.

Sinking of Armando Diaz

On 25 February 1941, while moving south to reach Tripoli, Armando Diaz was torpedoed off Kerkenah Bank in position 34°33’N, 11°45’E by HM/Sub Upright under command of Lt. Norman, D.S.C. RN, who was on his last patrol with this submarine.

Diaz was acting as distant escort to the German 4th Convoy to Libya, consisting of the German merchants Marburg, AnkaraReichenfels, and Kybfels. On this mission she was part of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, together with the di Giussano sub-class RN Giovanni delle Bande Nere and the modern Soldati-class destroyers  Ascari and Corazziere.

Diaz was hit by two of the four torpedoes that HM/Sub Upright fired at her, resulting in catastrophic explosions in her magazine and boiler rooms, leading to rapid sinking. Over 500 sailors were lost with her, and only 153 men were rescued. Ascari was also near-missed, and she proceeded to attack HM/Sub Upright without results.

Details on the attack can be found at this link, and in Italian at this link

Upright

HM/Sub Upright returning to Holy Loch submarine base, Scotland, 17 April 1942, Lieut J S Wraith, DSO, DSC, RN on the left, her 1st Lieutenant on the right. (IWM A8424)

A full article on the operations and fate of the early Condottieris is under preparation.

Loss of HM S/M Tempest, 13 Feb 1942

Loss of HM S/M Tempest, 13 Feb 1942

Background

In early 1942, the only means of naval offensive left to Malta were the submarines of the 10th Submarine Flotilla. Most of these were U-class boats, but some were P- and T-class, such as HM S/M Tempest.

The flotilla suffered a steady drip of losses to anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and mines. Starting in late 1941, German Sonar sets (S-Gerät) appeared on Italian escort vessels, and made them a far more deadly enemy.

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Torpedo Boat Circe, after 1941. Marina Militare Photo Archive.

Tempest in the Mediterranean

Tempest was a large boat at 1,327 tons, and thus not considered for joining 10th Flotilla. Instead she was assigned to 1st Flotilla in Alexandria, whence she was supposed to travel at the end of the patrol in the Gulf of Taranto. This was her second combat patrol, not counting the transfer from the UK to Gibraltar. It appears that she carried spare parts for the flotilla in Alexandria on her mission as well.

Her Captain, Lt. Cdr. Cavaye, was an Australian career Royal Navy officer, unlike many other submariners at the time, and well experienced in submarines. 

Sinking of Tempest

HM S/M Tempest had the misfortune of encountering Capitano di Corvetta (Lt.Cdr.) Stefanino Palmas and his torpedo boat Circe on 13 February 1942. Palmas had been to the Kriegsmarine ASW course, and had received further training in Italy. On this mission, Circe was accompanying the German merchant Bosforo on her way to Taranto, and had also been ordered to patrol a specific area, where the day before HM S/M Una had illegally sunk the Italian tanker Lucania, which was traveling under safe passage from the Royal Navy to refuel a repatriation ship with civilians from East Africa. Two experienced commanders were thus set up against each other.

Both vessels noted each other about the same time, and Lt.Cdr. Cavaye made the fatal mistake of opting for a surface attack, probably trusting the night as protection. He would almost certainly not have been aware of the presence of advanced German anti-submarine equipment, including a German operator section, on Italian navy vessels. Cavaye ordered a crash dive when Tempest was about to be rammed, and received a first set of German depth charges while dropping down into the depths. Circe continued to patrol, and commenced attacking with daylight returning. She never lost contact with the submarine, and following a 6.5 hour hunt starting with the attack at 03.22am, using his last depth charges, Palmas finally managed to damage Tempest sufficiently to force her to surface, only 1,000m of Circe, where her crew abandoned ship. Some Royal Navy sailors appeared to be moving towards the boat’s gun were engaged with light AA guns from Circe, and nine rounds of the 10cm main gun.

As this account makes clear however, Tempest was almost mortally wounded by the first attack, and she was lucky not to succumb to it, unlike HM S/M P.38 ten days later. The final attack had led to flooding and chlorine gas building up, making it impossible to remain in the stricken submarine. At a water depth of 1,600 m at the site of the engagement, there was also no possibility for the boat to escape downwards and wait out matters on the sea floor or close to it.

Following this success, Palmas spent time trying to rescue as many of the men as possible, rather than trying to take the submarine under tow, although a small boarding command was sent over, including some German sailors who took code tables and other materials. After a short while, and a failed attempt to tow her to Crotone harbour 30 nm away, she slipped under the waves. 23 survivors out of the crew of 62 were then delivered to the Italian mainland. Many of the remainder were either killed by Circe’s gunfire or the very cold winter Mediterranean.

Palmas notes that the recovered Royal Navy sailors comported themselves very well, and remained calm throughout. He supplied them with food, hot drinks, and clothes. Palmas’ German crew members were not impressed by his actions, but it doesn’t appear there was anything to fault him.

The attack was covered in the Italian War Bulletin No. 631, and Lt.Cdr. Palmas received the Silver Medal for Military Valour.

 

 

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HM /SM Tempest on the surface during the attempt to take her in tow. Marina Militare Photo Archive.

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Success Report from Italy to German Navy High Command. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

 

Further Reading

Survivor of HM S/M Tempest

German ASW Equipment Pt. 1

German ASW Equipment Pt. 2

German ASW Equipment Pt. 3

Sinking of HM S/M P.38

Difesa.it on the sinking of Tempest

Book review – Italian Torpedo Boat against British Submarine

Oral history of Charles G. N. Anscomb who survived the sinking.

Service history of HM S/M Tempest

Lt.Cdr. Cavaye

National Archive Files Relating to Sinking of ORP Kujawiak

National Archive Files Relating to Sinking of ORP Kujawiak

Background

ORP Kujawiak was a British-built Hunt Class destroyer, transferred to the Polish navy in exile in April 1941. On 16 June 1942, at the end of Operation Harpoon, a supply convoy to Malta, she struck a mine outside Grand Harbour, killing 13 of her crew. She sank before she could be towed to safety.

Two folders with messages related to her sinking have been preserved at the UK’s National Archives in Kew. Based on the cover page, I expect these documents to be scheduled for destruction in 2022, 70 years after her sinking. In order to preserve them, they can be downloaded from my Dropbox by clicking here.

Kujawiak

Survivors of the Polish Navy destroyer ORP Kujawiak, sunk by a mine in the  Operation Harpoon in the Mediterranean, come ashore at Greenock, still  wearing tropical kit, 24 June 1942. (IWM A10363)

Eridge

HMS ERIDGE BROUGHT SAFELY BACK TO HARBOUR. 29 AUGUST 1942, ALEXANDRIA HARBOUR. THE BRITISH HUNT CLASS DESTROYER AS SHE WAS TOWED BACK TO HARBOUR AFTER BEING TORPEDOED BY A GERMAN E-BOAT. (IWM A13534)

HMS Eridge was a sister of ORP Kujawiak. She is shown passing the French battleship Lorraine, which was part of the French fleet in Alexandria harbour. Of note in the picture above is the wrong description. She was hit by a Regia Marina MAS motor-torpedo boat, not a German one. She was so badly damaged that she was never repaired, but used for base duties in Alexandria, and finally scrapped in 1946. The picture shows the arrangement of the main turrets and the central AA 4-barrel Pom-Pom gun quite well.

Lorraine was not active at the time, and had been disarmed. She was a 1910 vintage dreadnought that had been modernized between the wars. In December 1942 the ship joined the Free French forces and was put back into service, providing fire support to amphibious operations in the Mediterranean.