Thursday, December 27, 2007

The changed situation in early 1942

As the daylight Axis air raids on Malta grew fewer and smaller, there were more raids at night. These were opposed by Beaufighters of No. 1435 flight, acting as night fighters. By May 1942, the tonnage of bombs dropped on Malta had fallen to 520 tons, which still as great as the highest month in 1941. Probably the greatest hazard in this period were Axis minefields laid by "fast German motor-boats". They had laid 600 mines and 400 anti-minesweeping devices around Malta since February 1942. These were effective, as one or two British submarines were lost to mines. While the Welshman trip had helped the ammunition supply, the island was still in danger and could be lost if the June convoy failed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The action involving Malta in May 1942

One the night of 8 to 9 May 1942, the fast minelayer Welshman had made a run to Malta bringing precious supplies to the island. The Welshman had been disguised as a French large destroyer and had sailed past Sardinia early on 9 May. Welshman was speedily unloaded and sailed by 8:40pm, having been refueled with 300 tons of oil fuel from Malta's store.

The situation in the air over Malta turned to the British advantage, as so many German aircraft were withdrawn and so many Spitfires had been flown in, that the British had air superiority for the immediate future. The Eagle brought another 17 Spitfires on 18 May, after the island had received 123 in about a month. By late May, Fliegerkorps II only had 42 bombers, 36 fighters, and 13 reconnaissance aircraft. The Axis lost about 40 aircraft over Malta, while the British only lost 25 in combat. Six of those were caught on the ground, but that was much better than the 30 lost on the ground in April. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Early May 1942

The next big operation to supply Malta took place in early May 1942. The American aircraft carrier Wasp and the aircraft carrier Eagle brought 64 Spitfires, which were flown to Malta early on 9 May. They arrived at Malta without interference and the Wasp arrived back at Scapa Flow on 15 May. The first Spitfires landed at 10:30am and had an hour-and-a-half time before the first Axis air attacks. Only 60 of the Spitfires actually landed at Malta. One of them crashed during takeoff, one diverted to Africa, another went down at sea, and the fourth crashed at Malta. The intent had been to send six Albacores to Malta, but they all had malfunctions that necessitated landing back on the Eagle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The new condition from May 1942

On 15 May 1942, Lord Gort as appointed as "Supreme Commander of the Fighting Services and of the Civil Administration" of Malta. The Malta Defence Committee was concerned that an airborne invasion of Malta was planned. There were indications from Sicily that airfields that were suitable for gliders were being prepared. The authorities in Britain disagreed, as they had no intelligence that an invasion was planned. More Spitfires were going to be sent by the USS Wasp and the aircraft carrier Eagle which was available again. The minelayer Welshman, capable of very high speeds and with a great amount of internal volume, would arrive on 10 May with 340 tons of supplies. Dispersal pens were readied for the arriving Spitfires and every preparation was made to prevent them from being caught unprotected on the ground. The Welshman was bringing more AA ammunition that would allow freer fire from the ground. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Malta saved

Just when the situation on Malta had been grimmest, after 28 April 1942, the Axis bombing slowed considerably. Primarily, this was because German air attacks had slowed greatly. The Italians continued attacks, but with smaller numbers of aircraft. In recognition of the sacrifices made by the people of the island, King George VI awarded the island the George Cross. Such awards to a locality had been made right after the Great War to Dunkirk, Verdun, and Ypres. The island leadership was changed at this time and Lord Gort was appointed to command and to be governor. He served as governor from 1942 until 1944. He previously had been governor of Gibraltar and at the start of the war in 1939, he commanded the BEF. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The naval situatuation outside the Mediterranean Sea in late Spring 1942

The overall British naval situation looked bleak in the late Spring of 1942. The Germans were having a successful war against Allied shipping in the Atlantic. The German battleship Tirpitz and other major warships were positioned in Norway and posed a double threat against both the convoys to Russia and in the Atlantic. The threat from German naval forces above and below were causing convoys to not sail, out of fear of unacceptable losses. The British were feeling intense pressure to provide arms to Russia, but had experienced some disasters in the northern waters. The United States had sent reinforcements to the Home Fleet, but that just allowed other ships to be shifted to the Indian Ocean. An operation was underway to put forces into Diego Suarez and the ships involved were just now rounding the Cape of Good Hope. The Japanese still looked to be very dangerous in the southwestern Pacific, so there were many worries for the planners and policy makers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Plans for Malta in May 1942

The lack of warships and commitments elsewhere had meant that no convoys could be run to Malta in May 1942. The best that could be done would be to send more Spitfires and to run AA ammunition by fast minelayer (the Manxman class ships) and by submarines. The British commanders in Britain pinned their hopes on General Auchinleck's planned offensive in June. They were already planning for success and hoped that German air strength would be drawn back to southern Russia. If the situation in the Indian Ocean seemed favorable, they would run a convoy from Alexandria with a minimum of 12 fast supply ships escorted by the battleship Warspite. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The grim situation in April 1942 in the Mediterranean Sea

After the Spitfires were flown into Malta from the USS Wasp, the island was heavily bombed by Fliegerkorps II, based on airfields in Sicily. By as soon as 23 April, "17 British fighters had been destroyed on the ground and 29 had been damaged". Very quickly, there were only six operational fighters left. That situation soured the Chiefs of Staff on any more attempts to fly in fighter aircraft to Malta. What was needed was to start bombing the Sicily airfields. The Chiefs of Staff, however, refused to divert sufficient bombers from the assault on Germany at night to be effective. The commanders in the Middle East wanted to dispatch convoys to Malta from both east and west in May, but Chiefs of Staff overruled them. They were more interested in sending major warships to the Indian Ocean and running convoys to Russia. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Malta in mid-April 1942

The Axis had about 160 fighters and 250 bombers operating from six airfields on Sicily. They could keep 70 fighters up when needed. In early to mid-April 1942, they only attacked Malta with concentrated attacks, as they were not sure what the fighter strength on the island was. The British fighters were being conserved until more Spitfires could be sent. They intercepted some attacks, but not all. The British hoped to be able to start using 8 Wellingtons to bomb the airfields on Sicily, but they could not be effective in that strength, since they had to bomb at night. A convoy needed to be sent in May, but the Royal Navy would not be able to send one until there was greater fighter strength on the island. The solution was to send the USS Wasp with 47 Spitfires into the Mediterranean. The Wasp launched the Spitfires from about 45 miles northeast of Algiers. 46 of them arrived on Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The changes in naval command and Malta

Admiral Cunningham flew out on 3 April 1942, heading to Washington. Admiral Pridham-Whippel was temporary commander until Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, the commander in the Battle of the River Plate, could arrive. Admiral Cunningham's replacement was kept secret, he could not visit the men before his departure. He left farewell messages, thanking everyone for their service. He thanked the people of Malta and talked about their offensive successes as being the reason that they were receiving the heavy air attacks.

Malta had become untenable for surface warships and the buildings and installations were being gradually reduced to rubble. One of the last ships to leave was the damaged cruiser Penelope. The Penelope was repaired enough to allow the ship to escape on the evening of 8 April. Penelope arrived at Gibraltar on 10 April, after a perilous journey. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The defense of Malta

Because the available air strength on Malta had been greatly reduced, the primary air defense for the island came from anti-aircraft artillery. 31 Spitfires had been sent to Malta, but they were mostly gone by the middle of April 1942. The remaining Hurricanes assigned to No.185 and No.229 Squadrons were all that remained of the fighter defenses. Fortunately, Malta had received a strong anti-aircraft artillery armament. The island had a total of 112 heavy AA guns and many light AA guns. In the most important 6 mile by 9 mile area, there were 80 heavy AA and 144 light AA guns. Ammunition was rationed, but there were never really any shortages of AA ammunition. There were the 7th Light Anti-Aircraft Brigade and the 10th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Malta, from April 1942

Just as the air war in the Mediterranean intensified, Admiral Cunningham was relieved and sent to Washington to represent the First Sea Lord on a "Combined Chiefs of Staff Comittee". Admiral Cunningham had the reputation that would enable to effectively advise the committee on naval affairs. He had been the naval commander in the Mediterranean Sea for three years. His last operation had been the convoy to Malta that led to the Second Battle of Sirte. He would return to the Mediterranean later in 1943, with a changed strategic situation. Starting in April 1942, the battle for Malta intensified. The Italians now had four active battleships, nine cruisers, and 55 destoyes and torpedo boats (really small destroyers). The British Mediterranean Fleet had been reduced to only four cruisers and 15 destroyers. Gibraltar was reduced to a token force of the old aircraft carrier Argus and two or three destroyers. The Germans had 20 submarines and the Italians had 50 submarines. There were only 25 Allied submarines in the theater. The Axis air force consisted of about 290 German and 250 Italian bombers. The British had more than 400, but they were unable to provide fighter cover in the central and eastern Mediterranean. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Back in October 1941, the Germans had decided to build their air force in Sicily back to the level it had been earlier in 1941. By mid-March 1942, the strength was up to 335 bombers and fighters. This time, Malta was already in deep trouble, short on supplies and military strength. The possibility of invading Malta had been considered since March 1941, but after the losses at Crete, the Axis forces were very wary of such an attempt. Many studies were made to consider the options and by January 1942, the Italians started training for an attack. The Prince of Piedmont was appointed to command the invasion army, as commander of Army Group South. The German navy commander, Admiral Rader had promoted to Hitler the strategic importance of the Mediterranean Theater. Field Marshal Kesselring had decided that Malta could be neutralized by just a bombing campaign, although a final decision had not been made. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The British submarines

The situation in the Mediterranean Sea was such that the British submarines became the only effective force in the war against Axis shipping. Not only did they have successes against merchant shipping but they also sank the Italian cruiser Giovanni Della Bande Nere, one German and four Italian submarines. One more German submarine was mined and one was sunk by No.230 Squadron RAF. In the first three months of 1942, they sank 16 merchant ships of 75,000 tons. Four British submarines were lost: one bombed at Malta, two were mined, and an Italian torpedo boat (small destroyer) sank another. British submariners won three Victoria Crosses during this period. Two were from HMS Thrasher and one from HMS Torbay. Torbay had penetrated the Corfu Roads and torpedoed a 5,200 merchant ship. Torbay had been looking for four troopships, but they were not present at the time. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The British anti-shipping campaign suffered greatly by the end of March 1942

A combination of events created a lack of forces to pursue an active campaign against Axis shipping. By the end of March 1942, the situation had reached a crisis. The blows came often and fast. After December 8, warships, troops, and aircraft had to be sent to the Far East to combat the Japanese attack. Then the battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were damaged in Alexandria harbour by brave Italian under water demolition specialists. The increased German air and submarine presence further aggravated the British situation, as the British took heavy losses in surface warships to aircraft, mine, and submarine attack. We can't forget the loss of the Ark Royal, very close to Gibraltar. By the end of March, the Mediterranean Fleet was reduced to four cruisers and fifteen destroyers. The low point was reached with there were only six destroyers able to put to sea. The British had hoped that increased air power would compensate for the reduced surface force, but then Rommel retook western Cyrenaica, so they lost the airfields that would made the air forces more effective. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

More from after the Second Battle of Sirte

British fortunes were near another low, after the Second Battle of Sirte. No British aircraft were able to strike the retiring Italian surface ships. The only success occurred on 1 April 1942 when the submarine Urge torpedoed and sank the Giovanni della Bande Nere, southeast of Stromboli. The situation on and near Malta was dire. The Breconshire was sunk, the Talabot was scuttled in port to prevent an ammunition explosion and the Pampas had heavy flooding from bomb damage. The destroyer Legion, which had been towed into port at Malta was sunk by air attack. Only 1,052 tons were unloaded from the Talabot, 3,970 tons from the Pampas. Contractors were able to retrieve a further 2,500 tons, in salvaging what could be taken off the wrecks. Until adequate air strength could be provided to Malta, all ships had to be removed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

After the Second Battle of Sirte

After the Italians were seen to retire, Admiral Vian headed south to meet the convoy. The convoy commander had already ordered the merchant ships to disperse, to prevent them from being sunk, en mass. Admiral Vian's Force B headed back to Alexandria. On the way, his destroyers suffered from the heavy weather. The merchant ships were escorted by the Hunt class destroyers, the cruiser Penelope, the destroyer Legion, the damaged Havock, and the destroyer Kingston. The Talabot and Pampas actually arrived in the Grand Harbour at Malta. They received "a tremendous welcome". The Breconshire was disabled about 8 miles from the Grand Harbour. Three destroyers stood by her. The Clan Campbell was sunk by air attack about 20 miles from Malta. The destroyer Legion was damaged and was beached. On 24 March 1942, the Hunt class destroyer was mined and sunk while standing by the Breconshire. Admiral Vian's force arrived at Alexandria about midday on 24 March. On 25 March, the Breconshire sank in shallow water off Marsa Scirocco, after being towed there in good weather. A good amount of oil was salvaged from the wreck. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Axis side in the Second Battle of Sirte

The Italians had been alerted to the British convoy by two submarines and a German Ju-52 flying overhead on 21 March 1942. The battleship Littorio and four destroyers sortied from Taranto at about 12:30am on 22 March. They met the heavy cruisers Trento and Gorizia, escorted by four destroyers that had sailed from Messina. Two other destroyers from Taranto sailed late and one of the four with the Littorio suffered a breakdown and had to leave the fleet. Both German and Italian air reinforcements were sent to Sicily, in preparation for attacks on the convoy. An Italian aircraft sighted the British at 10am on 22 March. The Italian fleet headed west to block the way to Malta. The battle had lasted until dark, when both Admiral Iachino and the commanders in Rome ordered the fleet to break off the action. The Italian warships encountered a heavy gale on their return courses to Taranto and Messina, causing the destroyers Sirocco and Lanciere to founder. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Second Battle of Sirte Wikipedia page

Wikipedia has good coverage of the Second Battle of Sirte. If you are interested and you have not seen the coverage that they have, you should check it out. They have a lot of background material, the OOB's and some ship pictures.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The 2007 Weblog Awards

Kevin Alyward has opened nominations for the 2007 Weblog Awards.

The 2007 Weblog Awards

Kevin is proprietor and founder of the Wizbang! blog.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

After 5pm on 22 March 1942

Admiral Vian's ships fired at long range at the Italian ships, and then he turned his ships to get a clear view. About 5:40pm, on 22 March 1942, they fired at the Italian battleship at extreme range. They soon saw the battleship Littorio at a range of 8 miles, heading towards them at high speed. The British fleet destroyers saw the battleship and started firing, but the seas were rough, and they were not able to spot their fall of shot. The Sikh was soon straddled. Her captain fired two torpedoes see if he could cause the Italians to fall back. Admiral Iachino commanded the Italian fleet in the Second Battle of Sirte. He could not see the British convoy and had to depend on aerial reconnaissance reports. By 6pm, he was down to about 10-1/2 miles from the convoy and could have hit the ships with his 15in guns. He had no reports about the convoy's location so the Littorio did not fire at it. At about 6pm, Admiral Vian decided to fire torpedoes at the Italians. At 6:03pm, he saw the Littorio, at 6-1/2 miles, and opened fire. At 6:06pm, the cruiser Cleopatra turned and fired three torpedoes. The Littorio then turned away into smoke. The British First Division closed the action. They saw the Littorio at 6:34pm and closed from six to three miles for a torpedo attack. At 6:41pm, the destroyer Kingston took a large caliber hit, although was able to fire three torpedoes before withdrawing. The other destroyers in the First Division fired another 22 torpedoes. The fighting ended at 6:50pm, when the Italians turned away. The Cleopatra had taken a 6in from the Giovanni della Bande Nere. The destroyer Havock had also taken a large caliber hit. The cruiser Euryalus and destroyer Lively had taken splinter damage. The Littorio had taken only one light shell hit at 6:51pm. No British torpedoes found their mark. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Second Battle of Sirte, continued

In the late afternoon, as Admiral Vian's force closed with the convoy, they spotted the Italians in the distance. There was on modern battleship, two cruisers armed with 8in guns, one light cruiser armed with 6in guns, and four smaller ships. The Italian fleet included the battleship Littorio, the heavy cruisers Gorizia and Trento, the light cruiser Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, and seven destroyers, including the Sirocco and Lanciere. The British were fortunate to be upwind, so their smoke drifted towards the Italians, who were reluctant to enter the smoke for fear of torpedo attack. In fact, at 6:06pm, the cruiser Cleopatra turned and fired three torpedoes. At this point, the Italians put up a smoke screen as an anti-torpedo measure. The four J and K class destroyers came up, presently, as they had received a garbled message from Admiral Vian and saw the Italians on the horizon. The division commander, Captain Poland, led a torpedo attack on the Littorio. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Second Battle of Sirte

The Italian fleet had closed with the Malta convoy a couple of hours before they were expected. Very soon after the Italians were sighted, Admiral Vian invoked the special plan, where his striking force headed northward "while the convoy and its close escort turned away south-west". The Italians closed in line abreast, initially. This allowed all ships to quickly close the range. At 2:42pm, the Italians turned and formed a battle line. The ships in sight were now recognized as cruisers, so Admiral Vian turned towards the Italians. The Italians turned away, rather than fight. Admiral Vian turned back to the convoy, which had been under heavy air attack from Ju-88's. The escort had fired off much of their ammunition, so Admiral Vian dispatched the Jervis, Kipling, Kelvin, and Kingston to their aid. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The start of the Second Battle of Sirte

At 12:30pm on 22 March 1942, Admiral Vian's cruisers and fleet destroyers formed a screen between the approaching Italian fleet and the convoy. The old AA cruiser Carlisle and the Hunt class destroyer Avon Vale were to lay smoke to obscure the convoy. The other five Hunt class destroyers provided close cover to the ships in the convoy. Admiral Vian had planned a trick maneuver to be used to allow the convoy to escape. The striking force would attack the Italians with torpedoes as they approached the line of smoke. Simultaneously, the convoy would turn away. The British spotted the first Italian ships at 2pm, when they saw two 8-inch gunned cruisers, one six-inch gunned cruiser, and four destroyers. They had thought that there were three battleships, but were mistaken. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

22 March 1942: the Gulf of Sirte

On the night of 21-22 March 1942, the convoy to Malta had been overflown by German transports and was seen. At 5am on 22 March, the submarine P36 reported seeing the Italian fleet sortie from Taranto. They had actually sailed about 1am. That would mean that the British could expect to see the Italian fleet by the afternoon. The convoy lost its fighter cover by 9am, as they sailed out of range of fighter aircraft based in Cyrenaica. They had experienced a few desultory attacks by SM79 trimotor torpedo bombers but they had not inflicted any damage. The escorts under Admiral Vian's command prepared for surface action against a much stronger Italian force. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The British convoy on 22 March 1942

Admiral Vian had a considerable force escorting a the convoy bound for Malta on 22 March 1942. They were organized in preparation for a surface action against Italian heavy forces:

1st Division: destroyers Jervis, Kipling, Kelvin, and Kingston
2nd Division: cruisers Dido, Penelope, and the destroyer Legion
3rd Division: destroyers Zulu and Hasty
4th Division: cruisers Cleopatra (Vian's flagship) and Euryalus
5th Division: destroyers Sikh, Lively, Hero, and Havock
6th Division: AA cruiser Carlisle and destroyer Avon Vale

Of these
Dido class cruisers: Dido, Cleopatra, and Euryalus (designed for 10-5.25in)
Arethusa class cruiser: Penelope (6-6in)
C class cruiser as AA ship: Carlisle (8-4in AA)
Tribal class destroyers: Zulu and Sikh (designed for 8-4.7in)
J and K class destroyers: Jervis, Kipling, Kelvin, Kingston (designed for 6-4.7in)
L class destroyer: Legion (designed for 6-4.7in)
H class destroyers: Hasty, Hero, and Havock (designed for 4-4.7in)
Hunt class Type II destroyer: Avon Vale (4-4in AA)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The convoy of 20 March 1942

The plan was to have a convoy sail from Alexandria on 20 March 1942, bound for Malta. The ships in the convoy included the Breconshire, Clan Campbell, Pampas, and the Norwegian Talabot. Their escort consisted of the AA cruiser Carlisle with six destroyers. When Admiral Vian sailed later in the day, he had the cruisers Cleopatra, Dido, and Euryalus. They were screened by four destroyers. Six Hunt class escort destroyers had sailed earlier as an ASW screen. They eventually joined the transports between Crete and Cyrenaica. They had land-based fighter cover for this portion of the voyage. They expected to meet the cruiser Penelope and the destroyer Legion from Malta the next morning. If all went well, the cruisers and fleet destroyers from Alexandria would head there on the 22nd. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Naval Action in early March 1942

The Axis strategy of sending convoys with heavy naval escorts was working for them. they had sent 67,000 tons of supplies and 40,000 tons of fuel to Libya in February and March 1942. There losses had been about 9% of the supplies sent, and those were almost all due to British submarines. One convoy was attacked by Bristol Beaufort torpedo bombers on 9 March 1942, but the damage proved to be slight. The Beauforts had reported causing damage, so Admiral Vian set sail to search for disabled ships. The only result was that Vian's flagship, the cruiser Naiad was torpedoed and sunk by U-565. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Force H operations

Force H had been involved with covering Convoy W.S.16 that had sailed from the Clyde. They returned to Gibraltar on 23 February 1942. That setup the opportunity to ferry more aircraft to Malta. Force H sailed with battleship Malaya, aircraft carriers Eagle and Argus, cruiser Hermione, and 9 destroyers. The Eagle had 15 Spitfires which were launched from near Majorca. They all reached Malta. A total of 16 Spitfires were flown in on two more operations, one on 21 and one on 29 March. On the 29th, they had hoped to launch 5 Albacores, as well, but the weather on Malta was too bad. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The German air offensive against Malta

Forces based in Malta had been so successful against Italian shipping that those who were aware of such things expected retaliation. By January 1942, a renewed German air offensive against the island had dropped 669 tons of bombs, exceeding the previous high from April 1941. The German focus was on attacking airfields, but they also bombed ships in the harbour. The destroyer Maori was sunk in February 1942 in Grand Harbour. The bomb total was 1020 tons for February, as the pace of attacks escalated. Soldiers were brought into the effort to repair airfields and to build protections for aircraft on the ground. Group kitchens were put in place by late 1941 and by the end of 1942 were feeding 200,000 people per day. The Hurricanes were outclassed by the latest Me-109s, so on 6 March, Spitfires started to arrive. The first shipment was 32 aircraft. It was on 12 February that the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau broke out of Brest and went through the Channel to return to Germany. The old aircraft carriers Eagle and Argus were used to ferry aircraft, since all of the modern carriers were needed elsewhere, especially in the Far East. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Malta must be sustained

The Chiefs of Staff in Britain decreed that keeping Malta secure and supplied was a critical priority. The Official History describes the ruling as "drastic steps were justifiable to sustain it" (Malta). They did not have the resources to supply Malta from Gibraltar, so it had to be done from the east. What really was needed was for the army to retake Western Cyrenaica by April. Sadly, that was beyond the capability of the army commanders that were with the 8th Army in early 1942. There was also a scarcity of trained troops, after the losses of the Crusader Battle and the withdrawals to the Far East. One change was that General Auchinleck was given the General Officer Commanding Malta as his subordinate. The move was made to give General Auchinleck clear guidance about Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Italians try to interfere

When the Italians learned of the British attempted convoy to Malta, they sent four cruisers and ten destroyers to sea to try and intercept the convoy. The U class submarine P36 saw some of these ships steaming south through the Straits of Messina and reported them. About midday, a Maryland reconnaissance aircraft saw the ships but was shot down. The crew had not been able to report the ships until they were rescued late in the afternoon, about 80 miles southeast of Malta. No British aircraft attacked the Italian ships until early on 16 February 1942, when four FAA Albacores attacked with torpedoes, but missed. The submarine P36 was able to torpedo the destroyer Carabiniere, which eventually reached port. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Another convoy to sail on 6 February 1942

Admiral Cunningham announced his intention to send another convoy to Malta that actually sailed on 12 February 1942. The operation was complicated by the Axis occupation of airfields in Western Cyrenaica that has been used to provide air cover to convoys. There were few servicable fighters at Malta, which was further risk. Four fast transports were escorted by the old AA cruiser Carlisle and 8 destroyers. They divided into two groups that would be near Tobruk at dusk later on the 12th. They would join and head to the northwest, to stay clear of land-based aircraft in Cyrenaica. The Breconshire would simultaneously sail with three other merchant ships with Force K as their escort. The attempt started to go wrong by late on 13 February, when Clan Campbell was hit by one bomb. The ship was diverted to Tobruk. The escort was strengthened the next day by 3 cruisers and 8 destroyers. All ships were sunk or damaged, so that Force K returned to Malta by itself. Only the Clan Campbell was able to return to Alexandria, of the transports that had originally sailed for Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The new Axis convoy strategy

With the weakened state of the Mediterranean Fleet and air force in the theater, the Axis forces changed strategies for convoying supplies to Libya. They had experimented with heavy escorts in December, and starting with a convoy that arrived on 5 January 1942, they started using the heavy Italian warships to provide protection. In company with that, the Luftwaffe flew air cover and heavily bombed Malta. Using that approach, they were able to ship 66,000 tons of supplies to Libya in January. Their losses were very small. The convoy that arrived on 5 January was accompanied by 4 battleships, 6 cruisers, with 24 destroyers and torpedo boats (really small destroyers). From 30 December to 5 January, Malta had been attacked by "over 400 enemy aircraft". The 5 January convoy brought "Fifty four tanks, nineteen armoured cars, forty-two guns and much ammunition, fuel and general stores" to Tripoli. In late January, one convoy was attacked by Bristol Beauforts and Fleet Air Arm Albacores, which succeeded in sinking the 13,000 ton liner Victoria. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Supplies to Malta

The three ships that arrived at Malta on 19 January 1942 carried 8 infantry tanks, 20 40mm Bofors light AA guns and their gun crews, and "two-thirds of one infantry battalion". When the merchant ship Thermopylae was sunk, 10 infantry tanks and 16 Bofors 40mm light AA guns were lost with the ship. More was sitting in Egypt (about 2,000 men and equipment) due to the lack of available transports and the force to protect them for the voyage to Malta. 19 January was notable in that Vice-Admiral Sir Willabraham Ford was succeeded as Vice-Admiral, Malta by Vice-Admiral Sir Ralph Leatham. Sir Ralph had recently arrived from the Far East. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The threat to Malta in early 1942

An Axis invasion of Malta looked like a real possibility in early 1942. Not only was the Italian fleet resurgent, but the air balance of power was shifting towards the Axis air forces. The Chiefs of Staff ordered General Auchinleck to send equipment and troops to defend Malta from a sea born assault. This involved sending one light AA regiment, one squadron of infantry tanks (Matilda or Valentine) and two battalions of British infantry. Early in January, the fast Glengyle was dispatched to Malta from Alexandria and the Breconshire sailed from Malta. One of the two infantry battalions had to be left behind in Egypt due to the lack of a second ship to send. Another convoy sailed from Alexandria on 16 January 1942, but this ran into trouble. The Tribal class destroyer Gurkha was sunk by U-133. The Dutch destroyer Isaac Sweers rescued most of the crew. Three cruisers and three more destroyer joined the escort on 18 January. One of the merchant ships had steering trouble, so the Carlisle and two destroyers escorted her towards Benghazi. The reduced Force K from Malta, the cruiser Penelope and five destroyers joined right after this. On 19 January, the merchant ship heading for Benghazi was bombed and sunk. The three surviving merchant ships in the convoy arrived at Malta on 20 January. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Naval operations, starting in January 1942

The Official History now shifts the focus to the naval operations, starting in January 1942. Up until the American landings in North Africa in November, the operations centered on supplying Malta. If the Axis could neutralize the forces operating from Malta, their supply lines to Libya would be much more secure. For Malta to be capable of interdicting supply lines, Malta had to receive supplies, arms, and aircraft. The navy had to resort to submarines and the fast minelayers, at times, to keep even a small amount of supplies flowing. A convoy had been dispatched to Malta from Gibraltar in September 1941. The next attempt to send two ships failed, when they both were sunk in November. The Breconshire arrived from Alexandria in December with mostly fuel. The Italian fleet re-emerged as a threat, as the Mediterranean fleet had drastically declined in strength due to losses, damage, and withdrawals to the Far East. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The setback, from the perspective of the Official History

In the Official History, Vol.III, the authors try to put a positive spin on the events of January to February 1942, in western Cyrenaica. Rather than put the blame on the commanders and the near fatal tendency to put troops into battle without adequate training, they would have you believe that the setback was mostly due to having advanced to far west, too fast, at at time when there were inadequate forces available, due to events in the Far East, and when the means to move supplies forward were not adequate. The reality was that the same mistakes were made in January 1942 as were made in late November and early December 1941 that very nearly lost the Crusader Battle. The key British commanders seemed oblivious to the need to concentrate their forces to fight the Germans. This is my commentary to what is stated in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

German analysis of British shortcomings

Panzerarmee Afrika sent a report to Hitler about the fighting from 18 November 1941 through 6 February 1942. The report praised the British preparations for the Crusader Battle and how the attack caught the Axis forces by surprise. The report criticized the British on several points. The main point was that the British never concentrated their forces to fight for the critical battle. I would say that the most important battle was that fought near Sidi Rezegh airfield. The British dispersed their forces, instead, and allowed them to be severely stressed, to the point that some had to be withdrawn, such as the 7th Armoured Brigade. The German report praised British non-commissioned officers, but said that most British officers seemed timid when "they had to act on their own initiative". The report concluded that the British would not be a threat for some months, due to the losses incurred. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, September 10, 2007

In 15 days, the British lost 1,390 officers and men, killed, wounded, or missing

The British lost 1,390 men as casualties in just 15 days, from 21 January to 6 February 1942. This number includes killed, wounded, and missing (probably prisoners). They also lost 42 guns, as well as 30 more damaged or abandoned. The losses in field guns were heavy, as they lost 40 guns. The high command, and Churchill, back in Great Britain, were greatly concerned at how quickly Rommel had rebounded. A follow-up attack into Tripolitania was now not a possibility. On paper, British armour seemed to have collapsed, although in fact, only new, only lightly trained troops and tanks had been engaged. The high command and even the commanders in the Middle East did not seem to grasp that new units could not just arrive in North Africa and be expected to perform well as veterans. The German practice of bringing in drafts, rather than a constant flow of new units tended to keep their general level of training and expertise and a much higher level. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

British versus German command

After the situation appeared to have stabilized in early February 1942, General Godwin-Austen asked to be relieved as 13th Corps commander. The basis was General Rithchie's lack of confidence in him, and disregard of his advice. The Official History wryly notes that General Godwin-Austen's "reading of the situation, unwelcome though it undoubtedly was, had at least been realistic". General Ritchie's tendency to operate from a position of wishful thinking an lack of knowledge would lead to the near loss of the campaign in the late spring and summer of 1942.

On the German side, Rommel was definitely in charge of Axis army, and especially, the German forces. Rommel, at his best, operated from a position of knowledge and energy. He also would lead from the front, when he felt it necessary. He managed to escape capture or injury in the process. While his subordinate commanders might have been miffed, on many occasions, the Official History points out that his operational mode gave an energy and purpose to German forces that gave them an edge over British forces that were commanded by Generals in the rear, who were out of touch with what was happening on the ground.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Axis forces in early February 1942

Mussolini had sent a directive to Rommel, which he received from General Bastico, ordering him to defend Tripolitania, over any other priority. Mussolini said that they were very short of fuel oil, so that it would be difficult to send supplies for now. Rommel was sure that the British would not be a threat for the next "six or eight weeks". In the recent push, the Axis casualties were light, but they were still suffering from the losses in the Crusader Battle. Rommel disposed his forces with a mixed German-Italian force forward, just a small group. The DAK and 90th Light Division were in the Jebel Akhdar, in support. He positioned the majority of the Italian 20th Corps and one infantry division near Benghazi. There were two more infantry divisions at Antelat and one each at Mersa Brega and Marada. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, September 07, 2007

A change in British policy

General Ritchie still had visions of a quick attack that would push the Axis forces back into Tripolitania, but that was wishful thinking. He found that the two division commanders involved in the retreat from western Cyrenaica wanted to pull back to a more defensible location. After General Messervy had reported the reduced capability of the 1st Armoured Division and General Tuker had commented on the dangers of delaying the fighting retreat, General Ritchie relented and they would be able to withdraw to Gazala by 4 February 1942. The Axis forces occupied Benghazi on 29 January. They were out of fuel, so they were forced to sit for the moment. Rommel wanted to launch a new offensive, but the lack of fuel ruled that out for the moment. Mussolini still wanted to defend further west and just use light forces forward. Rommel thought that Mussolini and the higher commanders were too timid and weak-minded. The Italians would be content to just defend Tripolitania. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The British air situation in late January 1942

After the army was forced back from western Cyrenaica, Tripoli was beyond the reach of British bombers, except for Liberators. Liberators were still in an experimental stage, where the RAF was trying to understand how best to use them. Meanwhile, the situation on Malta took a turn for the worse. Aircraft from Malta had been attacking Tripoli and Naples. These attacks were mounted by Malta-based Wellingtons. Seven Blenheims were lost, with their crews in just three days in other operations. The RAF had made a supreme effort during January, as they had flown 2,000 sorties besides anti-shipping operations. They had destroyed 19 German and "at least as many Italian aircraft", while they lost "45 British aircraft, mostly in the Desert". It was General Godwin-Austen who had suggested that a defensive line be prepared at Gazala. By this time, General Ritchie agreed. Rommel had backed off, as he felt that he was no longer stronger than the forces opposed to him. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Adventures on 28 January 1942

The Italian 20th Corps, with the Ariete Divsion and Trieste Division overran a group of Welsh Regiment at Sceleidima. They then advanced on Soluch. While approaching El Regima, the Marcks Group was joined by Rommel, with the 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units operating in concert. The 33rd traveled across rough terrain to Coefia, which they reached by 6pm on 28 January 1942. They caught the 7th Indian Brigade on a causeway, on the main coast road. The brave leadership of Brigadier Briggs took them in three columns, so that they broke out to the south. They all arrived "either at Mechili or El Adem". They had come very close to being put in the bag. The Axis air forces had been left behind by the rapid advance. The RAF was hampered by the gradual withdrawal. Still, the British had air superiority over the battlefield, for the present. After the Axis advance, only aircraft based on Malta could attack Tripoli. The British withdrawal reached the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line by 6 February. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Rommel's surprise

Rommel planned a surprise attack that was timed to occur the day before the British assault on 29 January 1942. In the meantime, the RAF had been conducting a bombing program against the Axis supply lines, movements near the front, and at Tripoli. Even Wellingtons were used against the traffic on the roads behind the front. Malta was not able to help, as there were increased air attacks, along with rain. Weather was a constant factor. Rommel's feint towards Mechili was seen by Tomahawks, so his ruse worked. The sighting caused General Ritchie to believe that the Axis forces were divided, so he divided his forces, the 1st Armoured Division to attack the rear of the supposed force moving towards Mechili and the 4th Indian Division against the force moving towards Benghazi. However, General Tuker, the 4th Indian Division commander, saw that the force moving towards Benghazi included 47 tanks (they were with the Italian 20th Corps), he wanted to withdraw, unless air support and the 1st Armoured Division were available. As 1st Armoured Division was drawn off by the feint at Mechili, he wanted to withdraw. He was facing 21st Panzer Division and 90th Light Division. General Ritchie acquiesced and General Tuker ordered the demolitions at Benghazi to be blown. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The next developments

After his successes on 25 and 26 January 1942, Rommel took advantage of the momentary lull in the fighting to "take on supplies and salvage the extensive booty". Rommel still had, at this date, his excellent tactical signals intelligence operation. They could tell that the British commanders had some disagreement about the next steps. He also learned that they might pull out of Benghazi. Rommel resolved to take Benghazi by a bold stroke, where he would send the Marcks Group and the 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Groups across the bad ground from southeast of Benghazi. Rommel's plan was for them to capture Benina and block the coast roadt at Coefia. He would send the Italian 20th Corps to attack through "Sceleidima, Soluch and Ghemines". He also would send the 90th Light Division north on the coast road, starting from Beda Fomm. He would use the DAK to divert British attention by feinting towards Mechili. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Bad news on 25 January 1942

After the 1st Armoured Division mauled by the DAK on 25 January 1942, General Godwin-Austen ordered the 4th Indian Division to withdraw from Benghazi. The remains of the 1st Armoured Division were ordered to make for Mechili. In the rear, General Ritchie and Air Marshal Tedder decided that the German success on 25 January was not serious and just a fluke. General Ritchie ordered that the withdrawal cease. General Ritchie made the statement that showed just how out of touch with reality he was: "The most offensive action must be taken, together with the greatest risks". General Ritchie took the 4th Indian Division under his immediate control. General Godwin-Austen protested, and then commented on General Ritchie's "loss of confidence in himself". General Ritchie, once he had taken control found that the two division commanders doubted their ability to hold on. The 1st Armoured Division was down to 41 tanks and 40 field guns. The 4th Indian Division only had been reduced to the strength of a single brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

British confusion and over-optimism

While General Ritchie let General Godwin-Austen make plans to withdraw, he continued to believe that Rommel could not be that strong or well-supported to be a threat. Air Vice-Marshal Coningham prepared for the worst, and got ready for a massive withdrawal of the air units from their forward positions. They were sitting with two fighter squadrons at Benghazi, but they would be pulled back to Martuba to join two others. After that, all four would withdraw to El Adem. The main group of fighters was withdrawn to Mechili, with plans to withdraw to Gazala. The RAF was able to hit the Axis rear at Nofilia, using Beaufighters. By 25 January 1942, Rommel pushed northward, which had the effect of driving the 1st Armoured Division back in the direction of Charruba. If the Germans had not run low on fuel, they would have continued past Msus. As it was, they had to stop, but Rommel was pleased with the effects of his "spoiling attack". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

24 January 1942

Rommel had finished 23 January 1942 not really realizing what had happened. He wasted time headed to the southeast when the British had actually withdrawn to the north. The events of 23 January had greatly worried the 13th Corps commander, General Godwin-Austen. His concerns were that the Axis forces were stronger than had been expected and that his forces seemed inadequate for stopping or even slowing the Axis advance. General Ritchie, the new 8th Army Commander, would have nothing of it and still thought that the Axis forces couldn't possibly be in a position to advance further and would be running low on supplies. General Ritchie thought that if the British could assemble to groups, one at Msus and the other south of Benghazi, that would be more than the Axis forces could handle. General Godwin-Austen had reservations, as he felt that the 1st Armoured Division was too weak to protect the "desert flank". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The 4th Indian Division on 23 January 1942

The 4th Indian Division was under 13th Corps command. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade was defending Benghazi. The division commander, General Tuker, had ordered the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade forward from Tobruk to relieve the 7th Indian Brigade, so it could move south in support of the 1st Armoured Division. General Ritchie seems delusional, at this late date, because he still expected to brush aside the German offensive and attack into Tripoli. Of course, Rommel's success brought him trouble from the Italian high command, as they were afraid of getting over extended and in a weakened state where the British could attack. Not only did General Cavallero arrive at Rommel's HQ, but also Field-Marshal Kesselring, making dire predictions that there would not be any supplies arriving in the near future. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Late on 23 January 1942

The 9th Lancers had the misfortune to arrive at Saunnu about 5pm, when the 21st Panzer Division arrived. They fought a sharp action, during which the 21st Field Battery, South African Artillery was overrun. They did succeed in knocking out several German tanks, however. The 10th Hussars also were caught in the fight, and were fortunate to eventually disengage, but only with great difficulty. Their artillery fought well, but lost many guns. The Queen's Bays were able to reach the track to Msus and the 2nd Armoured Brigade HQ. Only by the morning of the 24th did the rest of the brigade arrive. The 1st Support Group and 200th Guards arrived, as well. By the evening of 23 January, the 9th Lancers had 28 tanks, the 10th Hussars had 8 tanks, all near Saunnu. The 21st Panzer Division lost half of its 20 tanks. The 15th Panzer Division was much stronger, but by 23 January, they had dropped in strength from 80 tanks to 61 tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Confusion on 23 January 1942

The Queen's Bays had been directed to Saunnu, looking for Marcks Group. They had been sent to el Grara, so no one was at Saunnu, when the Queen's Bays arrived. Rommel had ordered the 21st Panzer Division to Saunnu, so but the did not receive the order. They sat where they were, instead. Air reconnaissance was impaired by ground haze, early in the day. British air reconnaissance did see the massive move up the coast road and attacked with LR Hurricanes, as that was the only aircraft available. Fighters were used for reconnaissance, since the air battle over the scene was so intense. The weaker 21st Panzer Division was hit by the 9th Lancers and 10th Hussars and was stopped. They called for help from the 15th Panzer Division. They would not respond without DAK approval. The 15th Panzer Division was ordered forward and ended up chasing the 1st Support Group northward. Late afternoon on 23 January saw the 2nd Armoured Brigade caught in action with DAK, and while they inflicted some damage, they also lost guns. The initial German confusion subsided and they started to press the 1st Armoured Divison quite hard, until they leaguered for the evening. The artillery on both sides was engaged valiantly. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

23 January 1942

The British intentions on 23 January 1942 were to stage an orderly withdrawal of the 1st Armoured Division units that were in the far southwestern part of Cyrenaica. Rommel's intention was to capture as many of those forces as he could and to move forward. The British "bluff" was called by Rommel and as exposed to be a bluff and unrealistic desires. They did not count on Rommel's opportunistic streak and his willingness to push forward, where ever he sensed weakness. The British hope that they would advance into Tripolitania any time soon was shown to be a pipe dream. Axis forces had moved to the southeast in an attempt to cut off the most forward British troops. Rommel had wanted the 21st Panzer Division to move to Saunnu, but they didn't receive the order. Marcks Group had withdrawn from Saunnu to move east to Maaten el Grara. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

General Ritchie misread what was happening

General Ritchie, the new 8th Army commander, was in Cairo when Rommel's offensive started. Ritchie believe that Rommel was just "trying to gain elbow-room east of the El Agheila defile". In reality, this was a new offensive, pursued when Rommel realized just how unprepared the British were. The RAF just barely got off the Antelat airfield. The last aircraft took off under fire. As it was, the field was soggy. The RAF fought back using Blenheims and Wellingtons to harass the Axis supply lines. Ritchie had decided to provide the 4th Indian Division with enough transport to be mobile. He had assumed that the Rommel would hold back his tanks, when they were actually used in the attack. The British had unknowingly recreated their dispositions from early 1941, right before Rommel's initial attack. Rommel attacked for the same reasons: he found the British were poorly disposed and weak on the ground. He had a momentary superiority as his supply situation had improved, so he moved forward take advantage of the situation while he could. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The initial retreat from western Cyrenaica

Major-General Frank Messervy was temporarily in command of the 1st Armoured Division after General Lumsden had been wounded in an air attack. He commanded the initial withdrawals. General Messervy had wanted the 200th Guards Brigade to block the coast road, but the brigade commander had sent the 2nd Scots Guards to Antelat, as they were without artillery or any other support. The 2nd Armoured Brigade was sent to a position about 12 miles north of Giod el Matar, which is directly east of Agedabia. By the first evening, the 1st Support Group and the 200th Guards Brigade were positioned along a front between Agedabia and El Haseiat. General Godwin-Austen, the 13th Corps commander, took a pessimistic view and ordered that troops in Benghazi be prepared to abandon the city. He was right, as the whole western Cyrenaican front was about to collapse. All he had was the 4th Indian Division to try and slow Rommel's advance up the coast road. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The initial advance from 21 January 1942

Group Marcks quickly pushed up the coast road towards Agedabia, starting on 21 January 1942. The British pulled back their columns as the three Axis groups advanced. The 1st Support Group was soon bogged down and had lost 16 guns, some to damage but more to being caught in soft ground. They were new to the desert and came under dive bomb attack. Even the 15th Panzer Division had problems with soft going. They Axis forces advanced 10 t0 12 miles on the first day. The 1st Support Group and the 200th Guards Brigade withdrew in front of them. The Marcks Group, on the coast road had two motorized infantry battalions and some mixed German and Italian artillery. General Messervy, new to mobile warfare, misread Rommel's intentions, as he thought that the center was most vulnerable. General Godwin-Austen had a better idea of what to expect, and he had withdrawn his headquarters back to Msus from Antelat. The British finally realized that Rommel had flanked them on the right, and started to react. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Panzerarmee Afrika strikes in January 1942

54 German tanks, their crews, and fuel arrived at Tripoli on 5 January 1942. They reached the front lines by 14 January. Another shipment of equipment arrived at the front on 17 January. The Germans now had 84 tanks and the Italians had 89 tanks. The next day, Rommel ordered an attack on 21 January. The forces were arrayed in three groups. The DAK would be on the right, the Italian 20th Corps in the center and Group Marcks was on the coast road. At the same time, Axis air strength had risen to 515 aircraft. Still, only 300 were ready for action. The British air strength had fallen to 280 that were actually ready. Sandstorms on the night of 20-21 January helped to hide the Axis movements from aerial observation. Antelat, perversely, got rain and was turned to pudding. Four British fighter squadrons were flown off to other airfields, farther to the rear. The attack was launched at 8am on 21 January 1942. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Panzerarmee Afrika

The Axis forces fighting the British in Libya were dubbed Panzerarmee Afrika on 22 January 1942. The nominal list of divisions, all low in strength, were the Deutsche Afrika Korps, with the 15th Panzer Division, the 21st Panzer Division, and 90th Light Division, along with the Italian 10th Corps, with the Bologna and Brescia Divisions, the Italian 20th Corps, with the Ariete Armoured Division and the Trieste Motorized Division, the Italian 21st Corps, with the Pavia, Trento, and Sabratha Divisions. Rommel had some officers who later were quite famous: Major F. W. von Mellenthin and Colonel Westphal. As early as 12 January 1942, Major von Mellenthin, Rommel's senior intelligence officer told him "that for the next fortnight the Axis forces would be slightly stronger than the British immediately opposed to them". The operations head, Colonel Westphal, suggested that the British forces exposed near Agedabia should be attacked. The Axis forces would be too week to push forward, but this was a good opportunity. Once Rommel agreed to this plan, he decided to keep it secret, even from their superiors. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

British air forces in western Cyrenaica in early 1942

The British positioned their air forces, in early 1942, for a planned advance into Tripolitania. The problem with that is that events beyond the Middle Eastern theater had made that plan obsolete. The air commander, Air Vice-Marshal Conyngham estimated that "ten single-engine and one twin-engine fighter, four day-bomber and two tactical reconnaissance squadrons" would be required. No.211 Group, a HQ, was brought forward to command the squadrons that were assembled for the coming offensive. At Antelat, there were four single-engined fighter squadrons. One each were at Tobruk, Benina, Derna, and El Adem. Day bomber squadrons were positioned at Gambut and Bu Amud. The air commander was located at Tmimi, as was his Senior Air Staff Officer. Another factor that would affect the situation was that the Germans almost immediately received substantial rearming and resupply. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, August 17, 2007


The 2nd Armoured Brigade, part of the 1st Armoured Division, had been brought to Mersa Matruh by rail. From there, they traveled about 450 miles "on their own tracks". They lost about 20 cruiser tanks to mechanical breakdown on that trip. We would suppose that the "cruiser tanks" were probably all Crusaders. By this time, they were most likely Mk.II's. They were unlikely to have earlier cruisers. If they did, they would have been Cru. Mk.IVA tanks. Most likely, all remaining Cru. Mk.IVA's were expended in the Crusader Battle at Sidi Rezegh. We believe that they were all assigned to the 7th Armoured Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The British units positioned forward in early 1942

These are the OOB's for the units that were positioned to the west in early 1942:

200th Guards Brigade Group
3rd Battalion, Coldstream Guards
2nd Battalion, Scots Guards
B Squadron, 11th Hussars
1st Field Regiment, RA (two batteries)
51st Field Regiment, RA (two batteries)
27/28th Medium Battery, RA
C and D Batteries, 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment, RA
6th Battery, 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, SAA
6th and 197th Light Anti-Aircraft Batteries, RA
1st Field Squadron, Royal Engineers

1st Support Group
Composite Squadron, 3rd and 4th County of London Yeomanry
11th (HAC) Regiment, RHA
20th Battery, 7th Field Regiment, SAA
76th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA
260th Battery, 65th Anti-Tank Regiment, RA
43rd and 44th Light Anti-Aircraft Batteries, RA
Detachment 7th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers
2nd Battalion, The King's Royal Rifle Corps
1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade

2nd Armoured Brigade Group
The Queen's Bays
9th Queen's Royal Lancers
10th Royal Hussars
2nd Regiment, RHA
8th Field Regiment, RA (two batteries)
7th Field Regiment, SAA (less 20th Battery)
102nd (NH) Anti-Tank Regiment, RHA
2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, SAA (less 6th Battery)
Detachment 7th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers
9th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade

This is based on footnotes in Vol.III of the Official History

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The British commanders were confident, that the Axis forces were in no shape to attack

As usual, the British commanders were wildly wrong. This was not the first time, nor sadly, the last. Everyone, including General Auchinleck, the theater commander, were certain that the Axis forces would not be ready to attack any time soon. Therefore, having the inexperienced 1st Armoured Division units in forward positions would not be a problem. The front from Mersa Brega to Wadi Faregh just had a screen composed of columns from the 200th Guards Brigade and the 1st Support group. The conventional wisdom was that dividing the units into small all-arms units and dispersing them was the correct way to hold the front. To make matters worse, the 200th Guards Brigade only had two battalions, rather than the three called for in a brigade organization. The 1st Support Group was spread over "hummocky ground", difficult to driver upon. 24 Stuart tanks were positioned with the 1st Support Group. The 2nd Armoured Brigade Group was at Antelat. They were equipped with mixed regiments, each with 26 cruiser tanks and 18 Stuarts. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The 1st Armoured Division

The 1st Armoured Division had seen action in France in 1940, ending with the withdrawal from Dunkirk. They lost whatever equipment that they had there. The Division was reconstituted after returning home. They units that they had acquired by early 1941 were pretty much what they took to the Middle East. They continued to have challenges thrown at them. They lost their tanks in early 1941, when they were taken for the Tiger Convoy. These tanks were mostly expended in the abortive Operation Battleaxe. The 1st Armoured Division was left to train with an odd assortment of old cruiser tanks. In July, the lost their tanks again so that they could receive the modifications needed to operate in North Africa. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was sent ahead to the Middle East with "most the available Crusader tanks". The remainder of the division was shipped to the Middle East in September 1941. That left the division without adequate training as a unit. The division arrived during the Crusader Battle, but was only sent forward in pieces, not as a division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Western Cyrenaica in January 1942

The forward British units in Western Cyrenaica included the 2nd Armoured Brigade, the 200th Guards Brigade (renamed 22nd Guards), and the 1st Support Group. The 2nd Armoured Brigade had been east of Agedabia, while the 200th Guards and the 1st Support Group had formed a loose front east of Mersa Brega. When Axis forces attacked suddenly in later January, they quickly pushed forward. The 1st Armoured Division troops were new to the desert conflict, except for the 22nd Armoured Division, which had become part of the 7th Armoured Division. The 2nd Armoured Brigade had been turned into a brigade group, with the addition of the 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, the 11th (HAC) Regiment RHA, and the 76th Anti-tank Regiment. However, when support group moved forward, these units reverted to their command. New units were assigned to operate with the 2nd Armoured Brigade at the last minute. Meanwhile, there had been a shortfall in the supplies sent to Cyrenaica, leaving the troops at the front ill-supplied. 13th Corps had wanted to move the 4th Indian Division forward, but the supply situation was too tenuous to allow it. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The British were deluding themselves, as were the Axis commanders

The Japanese attacks that commenced on 7 December 1941 gave the Axis commanders hope that the United States would be focused on the Pacific War and that British strength would be drained away from the Mediterranean theater. They also had hopes that the Americans would concentrate their efforts in the Pacific, and the Allies would go into a containment strategy against them. The British commanders kept hoping that despite their severe naval losses in the Mediterranean and the tenuous situation in Libya, that they might still mount Operation Acrobat to push the Axis forces out of Tripolitania. They obviously did not anticipate the reversal of the strategic situation that took place in early 1942, where the Germans took control of the air over the Mediterrean and put the British supply situation in jeopardy, in conjunction with increased submarine interdiction of British supply lines and operations against British warships. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Japanese

Hitler had made a conscious decision when planning the attack on Russia to encourage the Japanese to attack American interests. He hoped that they would keep the United States occupied in the Pacific and keep then too busy to attack Germany. Hitler did not trust the Japanese with the information about the planned attack against Russia. Hitler also hoped that the Japanese would declare war on Russia after the German attack. Prior to 7 December 1941, the Japanese informed Germany and Italy that their negotiations with the United States had reached an impass and asked that they declare war on the Americans. Both Germany and Italy did not immediately agree. This was at a time when Axis forces had been forced back to Tripolitania and the Russians had recaptured Rostov. Moscow had been successfully defended and the German forces had been halted outside of Moscow. Germany and Italy were thus greatly encouraged by the initial Japanese successes following 7 December 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Political turmoil in Egypt

There was a certain amount of sympathy for the Axis cause in Egypt. Gamel Abdel Nasser was apparently one of those Axis sympathizers. They were able to stir up a certain amount of resentment against the British occupation. There was an economic crisis that ended with the British buying the cotton crop for 1941, as farmers had greatly over-produced. The British had done the same thing in 1940. The Wafd party were anti-British, and were able to bring down the government in early 1942. They pressured King Farouk to appoint Nahas Pasha as Prime Minister. The King was very young. He only turned 22 on 11 February 1942. Fortunately, Nahas Pasha then pledged his support for the British, in a turn-around, and was able to stop the open anti-British activities. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Changes in the government

The commanders in the Middle East had been very pleased with having a cabinet-level minister stationed in the the theater. However, Oliver Lyttleton, the previous minister was moved to Minister of Production. That left the post of Minister of State in the Middle East vacant. The commander protested, and at length, the Australian Minister, Mr. R. G. Casey, who was stationed in Washington, was appointed to succeed Mr. Lyttleton, who left the Middle East at the end of February 1942. The commanders were concerned that they might lose their communications line with the Government in Britain, and that they might not receive the support that they felt that they needed. Mr. Casey did not arrive in the Middle East until 5 May, so until he arrived, Mr. Walter Monckton functioned as the Minister of State. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Organizational changes in the Middle East

During the actual fighting in Iraq, the command had passed to the Middle East theater commander, but in June, the commander in India was given back the responsibility. In mid-December 1941, a consensus was building that Iraq should be moved back under the Middle East. General Auchinleck was actually in favor of it. General Wavell, who was in India, was less sure that such a move was best. The proposed change would include Persia (Iran) under Auchinleck's command. Wavell's area was now expanded to include Burma, as well as Thailand and Malaya. With the winter in Russia in full force and Russian forces making gains, the threat to the Middle East from the North now seemed less imminent. The move was actually made on 12 January 1942. As a consequence, the forces in Iraq became the Tenth Army. Shortly after that, on 29 January, a treat was signed in Teheran, bringing Persia (as Churchill preferred to call Iran) under Allied protection. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A reprieve, but losses anyway

Thanks to President Roosevelt's offer to send Amercian divisions to New Zealand and Australia, the New Zealand Division and the 9th Australian Division were left in the Middle East. The commanders in the Middle East decided that they had to assume that the northern flank was safe, because with the forces at their disposal, they were unable to aid Turkey and defend a German attack through Syria and Iraq. President Roosevelt offered shipping to send two divisions from home to the Middle East or to India, depending on where the need was greatest. Three British divisions were already on the way to reinforce the Middle East. Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier Indomitable was to transport more aircraft from the Middle East to the Far East. The Indomitable arrived back in the Middle East on 23 February 1942 after carrying 48 Hurricanes to the east. They left with another 60 for the squadrons already in transit. No.30 and No.261 Squadrons were sent from the Middle East, as well. Four Blenheim squadrons and two Hurricane squadrons went as well. This was along with 12 Blenheim IVs. Another seven squadrons originally intended for the Middle East were diverted to the Far East, as well. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Stripping the Middel East of forces

Churchill and the commanders at home seemed to have an exaggerated view of what the forces in the Middle East theater could accomplish. Commitments were made to Turkey that were very difficult to meet, given the situation from December 1941 onwards. Conversely, General Auchinleck was worried about scenarios that in the end, were not a danger. He was constantly worried about a German attack south into Syria from the Caucasuses. I must admit that when the Germans reached Rostov on Don, the chances were improved that they might go further. The whole picture on the south-eastern front changed with the battle at Stalingrad. That battle finished the German offensive and threw them back into a defensive posture. In any case, the preparations to aid Turkey meant that Iran (or Persia, as Churchill preferred) and Iraq were left without any anti-aircraft defenses. In addition, two anti-aircraft regiments (one light and one heavy) were sent east with the Australian divisions. By this point, there were indications that the 9th Australian Division would be withdrawn, as well. The British 70th Division was sent east in March 1942. They commanders at home also wanted to pull a division from Iraq to go east. Substantial air power was pulled from the Middle East, as well. When the Axis forces rebounded in early 1942, the British position in the Middle East was left in extreme jeopardy. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

My assessment of the British position in January 1942

The British might have been tempted to blame their poor performance prior to July 1942 on the need to send forces East to deal with the Japanese attack. The truth seems to be that their real troubles stemmed from a combination of factors. First and foremost was that they lacked competent leadership from the army commander level to at least the division commander level. General Auchinleck, despite his failings, probably could have commanded the 8th Army successfully in the field. That is what Churchill begged him to do, but Auchinleck felt that his role should continue to be solely as theater commander. In critical situations, Auchinleck stepped in and salvaged the British cause, such as the Crusader Battle and after the fall of Tobruk. He then would step back out to theater commander.

General O'Connor, if his health had not failed after the successful campaign against the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941 was probably the equal of Rommel, but his health did fail, and then he was bagged by the Germans when he drove forward in western Cyrenaica. No one who remained, from the theater commander, General Wavell, down to the division commanders, was up to the job of fighting the Germans.

The Germans had good doctrine, well-trained officers who were extremely competent, and had second rate tanks, not much better than the British but much more reliable than any the British had except the American-made Stuarts. They did have superior anti-tank guns and the doctrine about how to use them. Nothing could stand up to the "88", or even the 50mm PAK38's.

The British continually made fundamental mistakes that never should have been made by experienced officers. They continually dispersed their forces, especially the armoured forces. They broke down the infantry divisions, as well. They were always used at this stage of the war as a source of independent brigades. The brigades were often broken into battalions and dispersed into battle groups. The British thought that they were copying the Germans by having these small, independent groups, but they did not really understand what the Germans were doing. The British habitually committed the beginner mistake of trying to have small forces "everywhere".

I hate to say that I agree with Bernard Law Montgomery on something, but he was trying to counteract the dispersion by decreeing that "divisions will fight as divisions". He also disliked the "Jock Columns" because they were just another means of dispersing forces.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Plans on 1 January 1942

One immediate benefit of active American involvement was that American air power could be immediately deployed to the Mediterranean theater. As we have mentioned, the grand strategy adopted in mid-December 1941 was to hold on in the Pacific in a defensive posture while a more vigorous offensive was mounted against Germany and Italy in Europe. Defeating Germany meant landing a great army and defeating German forces in the field. Still, more forces were immediately needed in the Far East. The plan was to send six infantry divisions, a single light tank squadron, and an armoured brigade (the 7th). The divisions would include the 18th British, 17th Indian, 6th Australian, 7th Australian, and two more divisions from either Iraq or India. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Forces taken from the Middle East that were sent to the Far East

The naval forces left after the December disasters included only small vessels, except for the Australian cruiser Hobart. The Australian sloop Yarra was also sent home. Two sloops and two minesweepers were sent from the Red Sea to the East Indies. They were the Sutlej, Jumna, Lismore, and Bathurst. Three sloops were taken from the Persian Gulf and sent to the East Indies, as well. These were the Indus, the Hindustan, and Falmouth. The plan also included taking two submarines and sending them east in early 1942. Hurricane fighter aircraft were transported east by the aircraft carrier Indomitable. The land forces sent east included the 7th Armoured Brigade with 110 Stuarts in two regiments. There was a 25pdr battery and an anti-tank battery. General Auchinleck offered to send an Australian brigade, if they could be promptly replaced. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reacting to the Japanese attack

The British had wanted to supply the Far East forces without withdrawing troops and equipment from the Middle East, if possible. Units being sent to Iraq were diverted from Durban: "one complete anti-tank regiment and the men of a second; on eheavy and one light anti-aircraft regiment; Headquarters No.267 Wing and four fighter squadrons, with fifty-one Hurricane IIs and twenty-four pilots." Other pilots and aircraft were diverted at Takoradi. Men and equipment intended for Gymnast were sent east, instead. Fifty light tanks were sent, but not missed. They went to reinforce India. Force in India were lost to the Middle East and were to head east, as well. When the Crusader Battle ended, many aircraft were to be sent east, to destinations such as Singapore. Naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea were greatly weakened, which would give the Italians and Germans much more freedom to operate. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Gymnast plans

The plan for Gymnast, the occupation of French colonies in northwest Africa was quite advanced. The operation would consist of two infantry divisions and one armoured division. They troops and equipment would be sent from Britain. They could be sent between 23 and 32 days after the decision was made. General Sir Harold Alexander would command the operation. All this was planned before the night of 7 to 8 December 1941. The Japanese attacks in the Far East dashed any hopes of mounting Gymnast anytime soon. A feature of the attack is that the United States actively joined the war on the side of the Allies. However, that involvement centered on operations in the Far East and the Pacific. That same theatre drew off forces either in the Middle East or planned for the Middle East. To coordinate with the Americans, Field-Marshal Sir John Dill was located to Washington. He was succeeded as CIGS by Sir Alan Brooke. Sir John Dill had traveled to Washington with Churchill when he went to meet with President Roosevelt and the Chiefs of Staff. The plan that they decided upon was to hold in the Far East and to make Germany the priority. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

More plans that were moot

Winston Churchill like the idea for the "Gymnast" operation that would put Allied troops into Vichy North African colonies in northwest Africa. The British government hoped to be able to deal with General Weygand, but he was removed by the Vichy government on 18 November 1941. Operation Crusader was not going as well or as fast as had been hoped, so that slowed down consideration of "Gymnast". Still, the British were going to consult with U.S. President Roosevelt to help with France. They would essentially give the Vichy government an ultimatum, rather than negotiate with General Weygand. The commanders would rather have seen the operation target Tunisia than Morocco and Algeria, as they were too far to the west. The British went so far as to calculate that they would fly in three squadrons from Gibraltar and Malta, if the French acceded to their demands. All this became moot after 7 December 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

After the Japanese attacks in the Far East

The British naval losses in December 1941 and the Japanese attacks in the Far East meant that British plans for future operations were severely affected. The planned operation to take the rest of Libya, named "Acrobat", was removed as a possibility. Instead, for the first part of 1942, Rommel was resurgent and ultimately pushed back the British forces to the El Alamein area, where Auchinleck stopped him decisively at the First Battle of El Alamein. The British lost their superiority in the air along with their material superiority. The officers below Auchinleck were not able to win without that edge in equipment and men that they had enjoyed in the Crusader Battle. British planners were already thinking beyond Acrobat and were considering an operation to capture Sicily. The setbacks that occurred meant that was postponed to 1943, after the Axis forces were finally destroyed in Tunisia. At the same time, the Americans had landed in French North Africa and were moving east. But all that was more than a year in the future. But in the near term, the British hoped to negotiate with the French commander in North Africa, General Weygand, whom they knew quite well. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, July 27, 2007

A low point for the Mediterranean Fleet

The damage and losses that had occurred in December 1941 reduced the British Mediterranean Fleet to its lowest strength since the losses in the battle for Crete in May and June 1941. To further aggravate the situation, the Japanese attack in the Far East meant that ships had to be sent east, regardless of the needs in the Mediterranean. The losses had been severe: the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the battleship Barham had been destroyed. The battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant were disabled and would need to be raised and repaired. With rising tensions in the Far East in October, two destroyers had been withdrawn and sent east. That had reduced the destroyer force to ten ships. To bring more ships to the eastern Mediterranean meant equipping Force H with Hunt class destroyers, which were much less capable than the Tribals, the J and K class, and L and M class ships. In late December, the cruiser Dido arrived at Alexandria, repaired since the Crete battle, along with four badly needed destroyers. Further destroyer reinforcements would be some of the smaller Hunt class ships. That left the battleship Malaya, with Force H, the only operational battleship in the Mediterranean. There was also the small and old carrier Argus. No fleet carriers could be spared. Force H also had the cruiser Hermione with some destroyers. The fleet at Alexandria was reduced to Admiral Vian's three small cruisers: the Naiad, the Dido, and the Euryalus. There were no heavy ships available to face the four operational Italian battleships. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Alexandria attackers

Six men attacked Alexandria harbour on the night of 18/19 December 1941. This was the most successful human torpedo attack of the war. The men belonged to the Tenth Light Flotilla. The submarine Sciré carried three of the torpedoes "to a position about 1-1/2 miles north of the eastern harbour of Alexandria". They traveled about five miles to the harbour entrance and arrived at a time when the boom was open for destroyers to enter. They were attacked by patrol craft, which dropped depth charges, but they were able to continue. The protective nets around the battleships did not deter them and they were able to plant their explosive charges. The charge for the Queen Elizabeth could be attached as intended, but they were not able to do that for the Valiant. The third charge was placed near the tanker Sagona. They left the charge on the harbour bottom, beneath the battleship. Of the six men who attacked, the two were taken prisoner on the Valiant, after being found on the buoy. The other four were found ashore after they were not able to make contact with the submarine Zaffiro, which was "to pick them up off Rosetta". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The attack on Alexandria

The Admiralty warned Admiral Cunningham on 18 December 1941 that the Italians intended to attack ships in Alexandria harbour with "human torpedoes". The Italians excelled at this sort of operation where there were individual heroics. Some precautions were taken against torpedoes. Early on 19 December, the British found that the operation had already commenced. They found two Italian frogmen sitting on the battleship Valiant's buoy. They were taken prisoner and placed in the hold, as insurance. By 5:47am, a tanker and the destroyer Jervis were damaged by explosions. At that point, the Italians warned the Valiant's captain that his ship would be hit by an explosion. The two British battleships repositioned their crew, so that there were 8 casualties instead of many when there was an explosion under a forward turret on the Valiant and under the Queen Elizabeth's boiler rooms. I believe that both battleships ended up settling to the bottom in the harbour. They were out of service for along time. The Queen Elizabeth was ultimately repaired at Norfolk, Virginia. A sailor who had been on the cruiser Exeter at the Battle of the River Plate stayed with my grandparents at Ocean View, near the naval base. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

14 to 17 December 1941

The 15th Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Rear-Admiral Vian, with cruisers Naiad, Euryalus, and Galatea had been sent to sea to intercept possible Italian convoys, but they were recalled on 14 December 1941. While approaching Alexandria, the Galatea was torpedoed by U-557 and sank. The remains of the 15th Cruiser Squadron, augmented by the old AA cruiser Carlisle, sortied later on 15 December. They hoped to make a run with the Breconshire to Malta, along with eight destroyers. Once Admiral Cunningham realized that the Italian battlefleet was at sea, he ordered the Carlisle to be sent back to Alexandria. Force K sortied from Malta early on 17 December, with cruisers Aurora and Penelope and with destroyers Lance and Lively. The cruiser Neptune and two more destroyers would join them at sea. Later on 16 December, the battleship Duilio, with three cruisers and "eleven destroyers" left the Italian naval base at Taranto with supply ships bound for Tripoli and Benghazi. Three more battleships, two heavy cruisers, and 10 destroyers provided cover on the east side. Admiral Iachino, in the Littorio, received air reconnaissance reports about the British movements. Reconnaissance aircraft mistook the tanker Breconshire for a battleship, so the Italians acted to try and protect their supply ships. Right before the sun went down on 17 December, Admiral Vian could see the Italian battlefleet on the horizon. Force K and the Neptune took the Breconshire into Malta, where they arrived at 3pm on 18 December. Late on 17 December, the Italians opened fire on Admiral Vian's force, but did no damage. On 18 December, the Italian battlefleet continued in distant cover for the supply ships and then withdrew. Malta was under heavy rain on 18 December, but "four Albacores attacked and damaged one of the convoy". The entrance to Tripoli was mined, so the supply ships had to anchor outside the harbour. While approaching Tripoli, the Aurora, Penelope, and Neptune were mined. The Neptune was disabled. While trying to reach the Neptune, the destroyer Kandahar was also mined and lost her stern. The Neptune and Kandahar had to be abandoned, the Kandahar being torpedoed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A British success on the night of 12/13 December 1941

In December 1941, the Italians resorted to using warships to carry supplies to North Africa. They tried to run two light cruisers, the Alberto di Giussano and the Alberico da Barbiano, through to Tripoli. They were caught by four destroyers coming to join the Mediterranean Fleet: the Sikh, Maori, Legion, and the Dutch Isaac Sweers. The encounter happened near Cape Bon at just after 2am. The Allies were able to approach unnoticed and fired torpedoes. The destroyers then opened up with their guns and finished off the cruisers, leaving them in a sinking condition. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The war at sea in November 1941

Force K, the surface raiding force based at Malta, was the main reason that Axis supply shipments to North Africa were greatly reduced. The losses to British submarines remained about the same. Losses to British maritime air strikes actually declined, due to unfavorable weather. Given that, the inevitable result was that Force K would receive unwanted attention. 25 German submarines were sent to the Mediterranean. 15 would operate in the western Mediterranean while 10 would operate in the eastern portion. Field-Marshal Kesselring arrived in late November 1941 and brought along Fliegerkorps II, which would operate from Sicily. One of the immediate results was that the aircraft carrier Ark Royal was sunk by U-81 in early November. About the same time, the British tried to run two disguised merchant ships to Malta. They were sunk by the capable Italian torpedo bombers. That ended the attempt to use disguised ships to supply Malta. The next incident was that the battleship Barham was sunk by U-331 on 25 November. Many lives were lost because the Barham capsized and exploded. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Late November, early December: Blenheims on the attack

Blenheims, probably Blenheim IVs, achieved successes in the anti-shipping role in late November, early December 1941. The Lancaster Museum, in Canada, has a page on the Blenheim IV. No.18 Squadron, flying Blenheims, was based on Malta. During another Italian operation that was trying to push through supplies to North Africa, No.18 Squadron Blenheims caught a small Italian convoy at sea and sank the Capo Faro and damaged the Volturno and Iseo. No.104 Squadron Blenheims had damaged the merchant ship Mantovani, which was eventually sunk by the cruiser Aurora. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The destruction of the Duisburg convoy

The convoy that had been intercepted by Force K was the Duisburg convoy. There were seven merchant ships, of which all were sunk. Two of the escorting destroyers were lost. Force K sank the Fulmine and the submarine Upholder sank the Libeccio, which had been damaged by Force K. There had been two heavy cruisers, the Trento and Trieste in support, along with four more destroyers. Through lack of initiative and timidity, they failed to intervene. Some Italian submarines and surface warships brought a small amount of fuel to Libya. Another four convoys were sent to sea to make a run for North Africa. One operation successfully arrived at Benghazi, while it was still in Axis hands. After two Italian cruisers were torpedoed, the remaining convoys turned back. A small convoy from Greece, heading for Benghazi was intercepted and sunk. Only two other supply ships reached North Africa. One arrived at Benghazi and one at Tripoli. Late in November, another attempt was made from several ports, but only one reached Benghazi on 2 December 1941. About 62 percent of supplies that were sent to North Africa were lost on transit, according to an Italian estimate. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Shifting to the war at sea

Chapter IV of Vol.III of the Official History now shifts focus to the war at sea in the Mediterranean. In early November 1941, Martin Marylands were still in service in the maritime reconnaissance role. No.69 Squadron RAF had aircraft flying from Malta at this stage in the war. One Maryland returned to Malta on 8 November and reported seeing an Italian convoy headed east. They were "forty miles east of Cape Sartivento in Calabria". Force K was still able to operate from Malta and they sortied a few hours later. They made contact forty minutes after midnight on 9 November. Force K consisted of the small cruisers Aurora and Penelope (6-6in guns) and the Lance and Lively (4-4in guns). They caught the Italians totally by surprise and quickly reduced the destroyer Fulmine to a sinking condition. The six merchant ships were either sunk or left burning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Axis supply in the Crusader Battle

The Official History says that despite the Axis forces being short on transport, they had well-stocked supply depots at locations such as "Gambut, Acroma, and Gazala". They generally operated close to them. When they tried to operate at a distance, they immediately had supply concerns. The Axis also captured a great deal of British transport, so that helped their situation. As the battle progressed, the supplies were depleted or captured by the British. That put the Axis forces in a situation that ultimately forced them to withdraw on El Agheila, where supplies were more easily brought forward. The British successes at sea against the Axis supply lines greatly complicated the situation for the Axis and meant that Rommel had little choice but to pull back to the west, to preserve this units for a more favorable opportunity (which soon arose). This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The British plan was good

The original plan for the Crusader Battle was good. They would move up to and occupy the Sidi Rezegh Airfield with a large force, including tanks and then wait for the Germans to attack them. They would fight the decisive tank battle and then break the siege of Tobruk. The problem was, when the Germans did not immediately react, the commanders on the spot dispersed their units across a large area. When the Axis force did move against them, they were able to crush the smaller units at their leisure. In the "Dash to the Wire", Rommel's instincts were correct. He succeeded in panicking a large part of the British rear echelon and General Cunningham, as well. Only the intervention by General Auchinleck saved the battle. Otherwise, it would have been another Battleaxe. If there was one culprit on the British side, you might already surmise, I would say it was General Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander. He almost immediately deviated in major ways from Cunningham's plan. Very quickly, the plan was a dead issue and the British suffered great losses in the process, including losing some Commonwealth infantry brigades (New Zealand and South African). This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Fighting dispersed

Even if Generals Gott, Norrie, Godwin-Austen and others seemed oblivious to the basic principle of keeping their forces concentrated, the Germans did that and were acutely aware of the British propensity to disperse and took advantage of it in the Crusader Battle and into 1942. General Cunningham assumed that his commanders would keep 30th Corps concentrated and that they would follow his plan. Gott was especially bad about sending individual tank squadrons off on a mission in some far location. "The German report on the battle" mentions this fundamental error on the British part. The DAK commander concentrated his forces so that he could incrementally defeat the British. After General Auchinleck's intervention to continue the Crusader Battle in late November, the British material superiority finally overwhelmed the Axis. The British superiority on the Axis supply lines that choked the Axis forces was a major factor. Rommel was wise enough to keep his forces largely intact, except for the lost units at the frontier, which were beyond help. The Axis forces temporarily pulled back so that the British supply lines were stretched to the limit, and then in a few weeks, pushed back to Gazala. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

British shortcomings in the Crusader Battle

The British had too sorts of shortcomings. One sort was their equipment. The other was more damaging, how they fought battles, which we will discuss later. As for equipment, in the air, the British fighters were outclassed by the Me-109F (Bf-109f). With respect to tanks, the new cruiser tanks being produced in large numbers, the Crusaders, were mechanically unreliable and had inadequate protection and armament. The 2pdr gun was too light. The solution was in the work with the 57mm 6pdr gun. A later version had a lengthened barrel and higher velocity, but the first version would be a vast improvement. The Crusader III would come into service with the gun and would arrive in the Middle East during 1942. There were also the American medium tanks armed with the medium velocity 75mm gun that would soon arrive, as well. The first were the Grants and Lees. The Sherman, with a turret-mounted 75mm would supplant the Grants and Lees with a 75mm gun in a sponson. In the interim, the British had to depend upon the 25pdr gun-howitzer for anti-tank work. This had the undesirable side effect of reducing their effectiveness in the pure artillery role. However, at the time, nothing else could be done. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Losses in the battle from November 1941 to January 1942

The Italians lost a great deal of equipment in the recent battle, mostly due to the lack of transport during the massive withdrawal to El Agheila. In sheer numbers, though, the British lost many more tanks in the battle than the Germans. The Germans already had in place a strong recovery and repair capability. The British still were lacking in this area, despite having made efforts since Battleaxe, in mid-1941. Because the British ended the recent battle in possession of the battlefield, this enabled them to recover and repair many more tanks than would have otherwise been possible. The British did recover many tanks. By 29 November 1941, they had recovered 187 of the 300 damaged, destroyed, or broken down. By 6 December, the losses had grown to 450, but 338 of these, including the previous figures, were recovered. By 1 January 1942, they had recovered 600 tanks. This figure does not include the infantry tanks (Matilda and Valentine). About 200 were lost, in addition. The Germans probably lost about 220 tanks and the Italians lost about 120 tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The air fight during the Crusader Battle

During the Crusader Battle and the immediate aftermath, the British enjoyed a very complete air superiority. The army greatly appreciated the support they received, as many had experienced Greece and Crete where the Germans had the air superiority. Axis losses exceeded the British, but in confirmed losses, not by a great number. From 18 November 1941 to 20 January 1942, the Germans lost at least 232 aircraft and the Italians "at least 100". On the airfields of Cyrenaica, the British found 238 German aircraft and about the same number of Italian aircraft. That puts the Axis losses a great deal higher than the British losses of "about 300". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The air situation in January 1942

The German air contingent in North Africa was "a detachment of Fliegerkorps X". The commander, General Geisler, was based in Greece. His main concern was control of the sealanes and the war at sea. In November 1941, Field-Marshal Kesselring took overall command, with Fliegerkorps X as part of his Luftflotte 2. The commander in North Africa, the Fliegerführer Afrika, Major-General Frölich reported directly to Kesselring. Rommel was not in Kesselring's control and the Italian air forces had their own command structure.

In contrast to the undesirable Axis air command structure, Air Marshal Tedder, commander in the Middle East, had every available squadron in the Desert Air Force under Air Vice-Marshal Coningham's command. Coningham was co-located with the 8th Army HQ and worked closely with the army commander. He had achieved air superiority for the duration of the Crusader Battle, and that greatly affected the outcome of the battle.

This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Halfaya in early January 1942

The Axis forces at Bardia has surrendered on 2 January 1942. The British forces had closely surrounded the Halfaya Pass position and the two remaining day bomber squadrons conducted a bombing program, but to no avail. The 6th South African Brigade was then sent in to assault the lower Sollum area. That area surrenderedon 12 January, isolating the rest of the Axis forces. They surrendered on 17 January. Within a few weeks, Rommel was able to attack and pushed forward, again, to Gazala. In the campaign from the beginning to mid-January 1942, Axis casualties were more than double those of the British. Up to January 1942, from the start of the Crusader Battle in November 1941, the British had air superiority in the battle area. That would change in 1942, as the Luftwaffe poured strength into the Mediterranean theater, in an attempt to reduce or at least neutralize Malta and to protect the Axis supply lines, while making British transport and even movement difficult. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

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