Wednesday, January 31, 2007

General Alan Cunningham

When General Alan Cunningham had recommended to General Auchinleck, in the face of Rommel's "Dash to the Wire", and with mounting tank casualties, the the 8th Army withdraw, he was relieved of his command. This was quite an abrupt move, but Auchinleck felt that the situation was not lost and would not allow a retreat. General Auchinleck seems to have problems with personnel decisions. Making General Cunningham his commander was based on the Cunningham's brilliant East African campaign, which had nothing to do with either armoured warfare or the desert. In any case, General Cunningham was sent home to England where he was made Commandant of Staff College Camberley. He served in that capacity from 1942 to 1943, when he was appointed as Commander in Chief Northern Ireland. He served in Northern Ireland until 1944, when he became General Officer Commander in Chief Eastern Command. After the war, he returned to the Middle East as High Commissioner and Commander in Chief Palestine. He oversaw the end of British occupation, when sparked the formation of the State of Israel and the war between the Arabs and the Israelis. General Cunningham retired from the service in 1948, when he was about 61 years old. He lived to a great age, as he only died in 1984 (he had been born in 1887).

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

General Cunningham left the front on 24 November 1941

From the Official History, we know that General Cunningham took off under fire from visiting General Norrie and 30th Corps. As he flew east, he could see the Germans moving forward on the ground, and that they were in and around the frontier. To make matters worse, no one in a command position new what was happening on the ground. The RAF had to withdraw, due to the reduced security at the forward landing grounds. That meant that tactical reconnaissance suffered greatly. Air Vice-Marshal Coningham realized that the RAF would need to withdraw to landing grounds much farther east. That meant severe overcrowding at the receiving landing grounds. At one, there were 175 aircraft parked "wing-tip-to-wingtip", an inviting target. Fortunately for the RAF, the Germans were oblivious to what was happening. British fighter operations proceeded with great difficulty, but the day bombers were able to hit targets near Bir el Gubi, El Adem, and Acroma. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Rommel based his tactics on WWI infiltration tactics

Rommel had learned the practice of infiltration tactics on the Italian front in WWI. A Frenchman had the idea, but the Germans developed and perfected infiltration tactics. There is a Wikipedia page on the subject. What the Germans did from the late 1930's was to take the infanty infiltration concept and apply that to armoured forces. The example which first got everyone's attention was in the Ardennes, in May 1940. That was when Rommel, commanding the 7th Panzer Division, along with others, slipped through the Ardennes, rather than attacking the Maginot Line, and threw the Allies into a panic. This was the opposite of what General Montgomery liked. He like set piece battles where he could assault a position. The earliest instance of the British using these tactics was in the Western Desert, when General O'Connor beat a much larger Italian army by moving small forces through empty spaces to surprise the Italians. They also slipped into the Italian camps with tanks and infantry, catching them by surprise. Rommel had written a book on the subject called Infanterie greift. That was the book that Patton read.

Monday, January 29, 2007

"The Lone Sentry" has an interesting page on the 50mm PAK38

I was looking for more information about the 50mm PAK38 anti-tank gun. "The Lone Sentry" has a good page that includes information from an Intelligence Bulletin from February 1943. One piece of information that I had not realized, but which makes sense, is that hits on "the junction of the turret and hull" would fuse the metal and jam the turret.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The 50mm PAK38 was a potent anti-tank gun

The 50mm PAK38's that decimated C Squadron of the 3rd Royal Tanks on the tenth day of the Crusader battle were potent anti-tank guns, especially in late 1941. My copy of Anti-Tank Weapons, from the WW2 Fact Files, says that the 50mm PAK38, firing conventional AP shot could penetrate 61mm at 500 meters. C Squadron was "taken out" at almost point-blank range. In fact, my copy of Weapons of the Third Reich shows that at 30mm angles, the PAK38 could penetrate 73mm at point blank range and 67mm at 250 meters. This page has the armour thicknesses on the Stuart. The thickest armour on the Stuart was 51mm, so the 50mm PAK38 could easily penetrate the Stuart's armour at close range.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Official History on the "Dash to the Wire"

Early on 24 November 1941, Rommel decided to take the mechanized units in the DAK to the frontier. He personally led the rapid advance, starting at 10am. The 21st Panzer Division, with 5th Panzer Regiment with Rommel, led the movement. They left the Sidi Rezegh area heading for the Trigh al Abd, with the intent to take that to the border area. They slipped past the 7th Armoured Division and hit the British rear elements, scattering them. Some of the 30th Corps HQ and staff were put in the bag. The Germans also gained stores and water supplies. The soft vehicles of the B Echelons were panicked and they headed East.

The 22nd Armoured Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade were in position, offering cover to the New Zealand Division. The 7th Support Group and remnants of the 7th Armoured Brigade were able to hit the Germans in their northern flank and cause some damage. The 1st South African Brigade had artillery that was able to hit the Germans, as well. The 5th Panzer Regiment was slowed by these attacks. Still, Rommel with the rest of the 21st Panzer Division were able to gain the frontier by 4pm. They had travelled 60 miles on the way, averaging about 10mph.

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

Robert Crisp was still feeling the effects of almost being killed, along with his crew

Still on the tenth day of the Crusader Battle, Robert Crisp and his tank crew were going to be safe, and be able to withdraw. Robert was still feeling the effects of almost being killed by the German anti-tank guns. He was relieved that his gunner was not badly wounded, and shouted at him to calm down. Robert now wondered what had happened to the rest of C Squadron, as they were "chugging along casually through the deserted silence of the ravine". As they got to the top of the hill, he saw four burning Stuarts from his squadron and three immobilized. He could also see the German anti-tank gunners waiting for new prey. The Germans were herding the surviving tank crews who had been taken prisoner. Robert wondered if he might be able to charge the anti-tank guns, take them by surprise, and release the prisoners. Without a gunner to fire the Browning machine gun, that seemed unlikely to succeed. Robert was just as glad to decide to not make the attack. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Friday, January 26, 2007

After running upon some 50mm PAK38's on the tenth day

On the tenth day of the Crusader Battle, Robert Crisp had run upon some German 50mm PAK38's. Initially, they had only put a hole in his water tins. He looked around and saw some knocked out Stuarts, with their crews taking cover behind the knocked out tanks. There were dead, among the crews, as well. There was another shot, which penetrated the turret of Robert's tank and wounded his gunner. He started firing his machine gun at the anti-tank gun crew. Robert's Stuart was hit twice more, with more water spilled. When the machine gun stopped firing, Robert told his driver to head over the edge of the escarpment. The tank hesitated and then moved, as his driver Whaley, gunned the engine. Robert realized that they had escaped and had descended the slope safely. They had shot by the German motorcyclists, just missing them. Robert shouted to Whaley to turn right into a ravine that offered a safe escape. The turret had been turned to the rear. As the radio operator offered aid to the wounded gunner, Robert told him to traverse the turret to the front. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Down the ravine

Robert Crisp's driver had just barely averted disaster, at the edge of a steep ravine. Robert looked down and was amazed at what he saw. Immediately below was an overturned German halftrack motorcycle, presumably a Kettenkrad, or perhaps a regular motorcycle and sidecar with a track instead of a wheel. There were three German soldiers with their arms raised in surrender. Further down the hill were a variety of vehicles, some upright and some on their side or top. Those still upright were racing away. As Robert watched "a great lorry went plunging down the escarpment out of control". Robert ordered his gunner to fire down the slope. Suddenly, there was a loud "bang" and Robert was suddenly "drenched from head to foot". He realized that the water on the back of the tank had taken a hit. He saw a gun flash, and got scared, because there were some 50mm PAK38's emplaced and aiming at him. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The 3rd RTR attacks

The 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades paused on the ridge. Robert Crisp reported to his Colonel that his C Squadron was ready to attack. The C.O. of the 3rd RTR told them that Alec Gatehouse sent a message "Go like hell and good luck". After the C.O. signed off, the Stuarts started to slowly move. Robert Crisp told his driver to increase speed and told his gunner to load the two guns. The rest of C Squadron could be seen to each side, as they raced down the incline to the Trigh Capuzzo. Only whent the tanks were halfway down the hill did the Germans notice them. The column scattered in the opposite direction from the attack. Robert's plan was to run past the vehicles, turn, and start shooting. Instead, the ground dropped away. The driver saw the danger about the same time and tried to stop. They succeed, just barely, stopping before going over the edge. Only the front sprocket wheels protruded over the drop. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

From the Official History: German tank strength on 24 November 1941

In footnotes on page 54 of Vol.III, the Official History lists the German tank strength on 24 November 1941:

5th Panzer Regiment: 45 tanks, consisting of 11 Pzkw II, 28 Pzkw III, and 6 Pzkw IV

8th Panzer Regiment: 61 tanks, consisting of 18 Pzkw II, 36 Pzkw III, and 7 Pzkw IV

The new men start off for their first action of the Crusader Battle

Still on the tenth day of the Crusader Battle, Robert Crisp instructed the new men in his squadron to follow his tank and in the initial run up to the ridge line, to stay turret down. They needed to maintain surprise before they attacked the transport. Robert had divided his 10 tank squadron into troops of three tanks. He appointed Harry Maegraith as commander of one of them. The 4th Armoured Brigade and 22nd Armoured Brigade tanks spread out along the ridge line, overlooking the Trigh Cappuzo. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, with their Crusaders, would hit the head of the column. The 4th Armoured Brigade would hit further back. The 4th Armoured Brigade, at this stage, may have just had the 3rd RTR and the 5th RTR. As they looked over the ridge, there was a very large column of transport, and there was a great amount of dust in the air, reducing visibility. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Monday, January 22, 2007

After Alec Gatehouse's briefing on the tenth day of the Crusader Battle

Robert Crisp left Alec Gatehouse's briefing on the tenth day of the Crusader Battle with the impression that the Germans had suffered in their rush to the frontier. Robert wasn't ready to believe that the Germans were beaten yet. When he returned to C Squadron, Robert found that the new crews and tanks had arrived. One young man had just arrived in North Africa seven days before. Robert instructed the new officer to stay close to him in action and gave him a few basic survival tips. Robert must have done so, hoping that the young man would remember some of what he had told him. Robert started to talk to the new arrivals about movement in formation, when he was called to an urgent meeting with his CO. They were to move directly into combat, never even having driven together. The 4th Armoured Brigade was to head for the Trigh Capuzzo to support the 22nd Armoured Brigade in an attack on about 2,000 Axis transport. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Rommel and General Cruewell disagreed on the course of action

The Afrika Korps commander, General Crüwell, wanted to finish beating the British near Tobruk, following his victory at Sidi Rezegh. Rommel, disagreed, and wanted to go east, to relieve his troops on the frontier. General Crüwell saw the initial victory at Sidi Rezegh as just a first step in destroying the British armoured forces. He had, in fact, removed the 7th Armoured Brigade, and might well have done the same with the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades. By the morning of 24 November 1941, Rommel felt like the British were too weak to raise the seige of Tobruk, so he might head to the east, in good blitzkrieg fashion, and see if he could panic the British further. He had seen the British tendency to panic when confronted with rapidly moving armoured forces in April and June 1941. Now would be an opportunity to try the same gambit. From what we know now, it would have worked, but for Auchinleck. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Back to the Official History from the night of 23/24 November 1941

After General Cunningham had consulted with General Auchinleck, he changed his dispositions. 13th Corps would now have command of all infantry operating against the besiegers of Tobruk. He took control of "the 70th Division and all in trantry north of a line east and west through Sidi Azeiz. General Godwin-Austen's orders were to retake Sidi Rezegh and El Duda, regardless of the cost. 11th Indian Brigade would be brought forward to join 13th Corps, after having been guarding the supply line. The 5th Indian Brigade was also ordered forward to rejoin the division. 30th Corps was to regroup, but be ready to support Dan Pienaar's 1st SA Brigade and the New Zealand Division. After the hard fought battle on 23 November, Rommel ordered the DAK commander to take his force to the frontier to relieve the forces trapped there. They would have the Ariete Armoured Division and the Trieste Motorized Division in company. Group Böttcher was left to prevent the New Zealanders from breaking into Tobruk. Böttcher's group had "one battalion of 361st Infantry Regiment; two battalions of 155th Lorried Infantry Regiment; 900th Engineer Battalion; and elements of the Army artillery". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official history.

On the tenth day, Alec Gatehouse briefed the officers

On the tenth day, Alec Gatehouse turned to the maps and talked about the situation to the officers, including Robert Crisp, acting squadron commander. Robert wasn't much interested in what was happening back at the wire. No one there understood what Rommel was trying to accomplish. They all assumed that the critical battle would be fought south of Tobruk, where they were. The expectation was that a corridor would be opened to Tobruk, that would allow the New Zealand brigade to enter. They were at Belhamed, with Italians and Germans between them and Tobruk. They knew that Rommel and the two panzer divisions were headed back toward Tobruk. His intent was a large unknown. Did he intend to take back Sidi Rezegh, now occupied by British forces? The future movements of the 4th Armoured Brigade were yet to be determined. They might sit where they were, ready to engage enemy forces that passed near, or they might head west to Acroma, if Rommel proved to have been defeated. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Morning of the tenth day of the Crusader Battle

The 4th Armoured Brigade had stayed in place on the morning of the tenth day of the Crusader Battle. Robert Crisp had general forboding of what might happen next. He said "every action has an equal and opposite reaction". Alec Gatehouse had a conference for squadron commanders at 9am. Since Robert was acting as squadron commander, he was there. They met a Alec Gatehouse's tank. The status was that the 7th Armoured Brigade had been sent to the rear. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had brought up to a strength of 42 tanks, from salvaging and repairing tanks. 4th Armoured Brigade had grown to 77 tanks, so they were the strongest unit left in 30th Corps. The nasty truth was that they now had 119 tanks of the original 600 tanks left on strength. They found out that General Cunningham had been relieved of his command. He was replaced by General Neil Ritchie. None of them had ever heard of General Ritchie, a staff officer. They knew that they army had lacked a resolute commander, so they were willing to give General Ritchie a chance. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Cyril Joly arrived with the 12 Stuarts

Robert Crisp appointed his friend Harry Maegraith has temporary and unofficial second in command. When Cyril Joly and the twelve Stuarts arrived, he brought along a novelty to the 3rd RTR: a "Mess lorry". Not only that, the Mess lorry had a crate of beer. Amazingly, the crate had survived the start of the campaign and the "Dash to the Wire". In the afternoon of the ninth day, the 3rd RTR moved "to Bir Berraneb, the favourite leaguering and mustering area of the brigade". Cyril Joly told the soldiers of the B-Echelon adventure on the night before. They had not been able to join the brigade, that night. In the night, they had gone off on the wrong bearing. When the lead officer realized that they had missed their objective, they stopped where they were for the rest of the night. In the early light, they set off, headed east. They picked up an armoured car escort along the way. They thought that they must be friendly, until suddenly, they were stopped at gunpoint, and were "put in the bag". Robert Crisp doesn't tell us how they learned what had happened to the captured column. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"C.O's Orders" on the ninth day

At 1:30pm, on the ninth day of the Crusader Battle, the officers were called to meet for "C.O's Orders". Robert Crisp went with his friend Harry Maegraith. They found out that the battalion medical officer had rejoined the 3rd RTR, after getting lost in the flap surrounding the "Dash to the Wire". Doc MacMillan had been with the battalion at Calais and Greece, so Robert was glad to have him back. Cyril Joly, at the time with the 3rd RTR B-Echelon, was bringing 12 new Stuarts to the battalion. Cyril Joly eventually wrote his own war book, a novel, called Take These Men (Echoes of War). The twelve new tanks would bring the battalion strength to 22 tanks. They would now be organized into a HQ with 3 Stuarts, an A Squadron with 9 Stuarts, with Robert Crisp in charge of C Squadron, with 10 Stuarts. Robert knew that this just a temporary measure, until more senior officers rejoined the battalion. Robert was just a captain at this time. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Early afternoon on the ninth day of the Crusader Battle

In the early afternoon on the ninth day of the Crusader Battle, after Robert and his companions had washed. Many of the troops decided to write home, while Robert lay on his back and relaxed. He had gotten his "valise and sleeping bag". He had to pick out the usual pieces of shrapnel, before he could use the sleeping bag. Robert's crew were discussing their lunch plans. They had boiled beef pudding, canned potatoes, "tinned pears", "condensed milk", and "hot tea". One of his crew obviously had a flare for cooking and a good deal of ingenuity. They crushed biscuits to make the dough for a "pastry". They added water and then wrapped the dough around the beef. They made a "desert oven" from sand and a tin, and placed the dish in the oven and baked. When the beef pastry was hot, they "ate it". they had an extremely enjoyable meal from simple ingredients. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Offering moral support to Dan Pienaar's brigade seemed a rather odd employment on the ninth day of the Crusader Battle

Robert Crisp and his companions were amazed at their orders to move up next to the 1st South African Brigade, commanded by Dan Pienaar. They were able to do more extensive maintenance to their Stuarts as they sat there. Everywhere, there were rising columns of smoke from burning gasoline, as the soldiers "brewed up" and cooked breakfast. They also took advantage of the sun to take off their 8-day old clothes and freshen up. They were also able to shave, although all they had was very mineral-laden water pumped out of the desert. Still, they were able to organize to wash clothes and men, to be ready for another long period of fighting. They spread their clothes to dry on the desert bushes. The tank drivers seldom got much rest. They always were up late checking the tracks and engines. They finally got a chance to clean up and remove oil and dust. They finished their washing by midday, and were ready for something new to do. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

By 23 November 1941 (from the Official History)

Late on 22 November 1941, General Cunningham had become greatly concerned about the tank losses that his forces had sustained. By early on 23 November, reports indicated that the British tank strength had been reduced to 44, while the German strength was about 120 tanks. General Cunningham decided that he needed to inform General Auchinleck of the situation. He spoke to General Auchinleck, later in the afternoon on 23 November. General Cunningham wondered if British forces should take a defensive posture, or if they should continue the offensive. He was concerned that they might totally expend the armoured forces, if the offensive continued. General Auchinleck instructed Cunningham to continue the offensive. He read Cunningham the sentence in the orders that said "You will therefore continue to attack the enemy relentlessly using all your resources even to the last tank" This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

A missed opportunity

Robert Crisp watched the Ariete Division refueling for five hours, while a desultry artillery fire fell. After the five hours, the division dispersed by groups of 8 or 10. They headed in a generally northeast direction. For some reason, the nearby 7th Armoured Division, the 1st South African Brigade, and the 4th Armoured Brigade took no offensive action. After the Ariete had left, Robert Crisp headed back to his HQ. Brigadier Gatehouse thanked Robert for the information. Robert took a rather dim view of the non-action, saying that Alec Gatehouse might have well just "hung it on the wall", when he sat while the Ariete refueled. After Robert had returned, the 3rd RTR heard from "one of the missing squadrons". They reported that had been operating with the 22nd Armoured Brigade. They thought that they would be able to rejoin the battalion "in a day or two". At the break of day on the ninth day of the battle, the 3rd RTR and the rest of the 4th Armoured Brigade were moved up to support Brigadier Pienaar's 1st SA Brigade. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Still early on the eighth day

While the time was still early on the morning of the eighth day of the Crusader Battle, the remnants of the 4th Armoured Brigade were sent to the aid of Brigadier Dan Pienaar's 1st South African Brigade, located at Taieb el Esem. As Robert Crisp, whose troop was in the lead, saw the enemy tanks, he saw that they were Italian M13/40's, for which he was grateful. They were from the Ariete Armoured Division. Robert was sent on a reconnaissance. He moved forward and saw that there were about 70 M13/40's facing in the direction of the 4th Armoured Brigade, which was totally hull down. Robert watched, and realized that the Italians were refueling. Robert called for artillery fire on the Italian position. Quite soon, Robert saw the artillery spotter's Stuart moving up. Sadly, there was not enough artillery available to do an adequate job. While the Ariete took some losses, they succeeded in refueling, while the truck with the fuel escaped any damage. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Friday, January 12, 2007

A convoy in sight

After hearing his colonel tell the A squadron commander to leave him alone, Robert decided, with his companions, to approach a stationary convoy, sitting not too far in the distance. They could not tell the nationality of the troops, as there transport was a mix of captured vehicles. As they approached within 200 yards, the transport bolted, in full flight, into the desert. As soon as they saw the convoy bolted, Robert took off after them, starting to fire. Suddenly, they saw a head, wearing a black beret lean out and wave "a white handkerchief". Robert yelled to his companions to stop firing. He spoke with the officer, who was relieved that they were British. They returned to the 3rd RTR and Robert explained that he had not been able to communicate. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The beginning of the eighth day of the Crusader Battle

The 3rd RTR moved out a "first light", as was the custom. There was a new confidence, because they knew that there were no German tanks nearby. If they saw any enemy tanks, they would be Italian M13/40s. They waited for the usual several hours until there was "full daylight". The troops in the field knew nothing about happenings at the Army HQ, and General Auchinleck's intervention in the battle. When they heard Auchinleck's exhortation to go "all out", they were only confused and concerned. Robert Crisp only had three tanks in his troop, at this point. He had great latitude about his activities, and was allowed to go off independently to "swan around". The battalion strength still stood at less than a dozen tanks. Robert was nominally under the A Squadron commander, a Major. A friction arose between the battalion commander and this major. On this morning, the major called Robert to check in. Robert realized that he was unable to transmit on his radio, so he could respond to the request. Robert heard the major complaining to the Colonel about him. The Colonel told the major not to be concerned, as Robert was very capable, and able to operate independently. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

"Midsummer's Night Dream"

Rommel called the "Dash to the Wire" "Unternehmen Sommernachstraum" (Midsummer's Night Dream"). There is a page on Geocities that talks about the Crusader Battle and this operation. Sadly, I could only access the page through the Google cache. This is rather problemmatic, as we don't know how long the cache will be good. I have saved the page, in case it goes away. There is a very good discussion of the Crusader Battle, and how events played out from the start until January 1942. The Germans passed by the Guards Brigade and supply dumps at Bir el Gubi. They also hoped to attack General Cunningham's HQ. That didn't happen, as General Auchinleck intervened.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The soldiers who were doing the fighting didn't notice the "Dash to the Wire" and didn't react

Robert Crisp and the other soldiers who were fighting near Tobruk didn't even notice the "Dash to the Wire". They certainly didn't react to Rommel's drive to the border area. General Cunningham panicked and was ready to pull back, but General Auchinleck would have none of it. Robert and his companions were glad to not be affected by Rommel's move. They assumed that Rommel had blundered and would pay for that mistake, in due course. They were correct in that belief. One factor which was a great relief to the British troops was that the RAF and SAAF had complete air superiority. There were brief German raids, but they were furtive and hurried. Robert Crisp says that the general opinion among the troops was that the two German panzer divisions had won the battle at Sidi Rezegh, and that if they had only held that area, they "could have fought the 8th Army to a standstill". Of course, they gave up the battlefield and lost the battle in the process. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots, with my commentary on that story.

Alan Moorehead's book about his early career and his experience as a war correspondent

Granta has a page describing Alan Moorehead's book, A Late Education, describing his early career and experience as a war correspondent. The book cover has a nice picture, showing the young Alan Moorhead. In 1941, he was 31 years old.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When Robert and his friends heard of Rommel's "Dash to the Wire", they though he "had gone clean off his bloody head"

Even though Rommel's "Dash to the Wire" panicked the senior staff, Robert Crisp's assessment was that "Rommel had gone clean off his bloody head". Robert and his companions chuckled over the thought of generals and staff officers being rattled by Rommel's move. The front line troops thought that the "top command was making a complete mess of things anyway". Their battalion commander told Robert and his fellows that the transport that they had attacked was the "supply echelon" for the force sent to the wire. Robert Crisp was friends with the famous war correspondent Alan Moorehead. Robert thought that Alan had aptly described the situation in his daily despatch to his paper. Robert had worked with Alan Moorehead at the Daily Express, before the war. They both knew two other "great correspondents Noel Monks and O'Dowd Gallagher". Alan Moorehead described the "mad" rush that lasted for nine hours, as the back area personnel ran from Rommel's forces. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Rommel's "Dash to the Wire"

Rommel tried his famous "Dash to the Wire", because he thought that the move would be the stroke that broke the British morale. The move certainly panicked the British support troops, which broke and ran. Claude Auchinleck, however, was not to be defeated by anything but a battle. Except for Auchinleck, the "Dash for the Wire" would have worked, as General Cunningham would have withdrawn from the battlefield. The Wikipedia piece on "Operation Crusader" summarizes the story.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The 3rd RTR reformed in the evening of the seventh day

As the dispersed Stuarts rejoined the 3rd RTR, the organized into troops and squadrons. Once the process was completed, they formed a column behind the battalion commander, for the trip to their leaguer area. As they were waiting, three Germans walked out of the dim light and surrendered to Robert Crisp. They had the long coat that seemed to be standard German issue in the desert. Robert motioned the Germans to climb on board his tank. They did so, and rode on the back of the Stuart. One German was kind enough to give his long coat to Robert. He guessed that they might be Italians, but when he tried to speak to them, the one told him he was Deutsch, with the Afrika Korps. As they drove, they could see many Very lights in the sky. They seemed to be in all directions, indicating the large number of German troops present. As they had settled down, after having some German chocolate, Robert was summoned for a talk with the Colonel. That was when they learned of Rommel's famous "dash to the wire". This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Looking for chocolate

After they sent the captive Germans back to HQ, Robert Crisp and his friend Harry planned to search the German tank for chocolate. For some reason, the Germans seemed to receive an ample chocolate ration that was very welcome to the less-well supplied British. The Colonel congratulated Harry by radio and then ordered the two tanks to fall back to the 3rd RTR HQ. The seventh day was drawing to close, and the 3rd RTR Stuarts were widely scattered. They were being talked back to the HQ by radio. They could see small groups of tanks driving in to rejoin the 3rd RTR. When attacking the German transport column, some of the Stuarts had driven 10 miles from the start of the attack. The curious thing was that the German column had been unprotected. Why would that have happened, when there was usually a very good protection system? Robert says that later that night, they found out the answer to their question. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Robert Crisp and Harry Maegraith encounder a Pzkw IV

Still on the seventh day of the Crusader Battle, Robert Crisp's friend Harry Maegraith called him to point out a German tank, roaming aimlessly about. They determined that the tank was a Pzkw IV, and they determined to knock it out. Harry's suggested plan was that Robert would race around in front of the tank, to get the crew's attention while Harry came up behind to take a shot at it. Robert would pop up, from a hull down position, take a shot, and then drop back down. He could see Harry moving up behind the Germans. Harry shot up close behind the Pzkw IV, only 20 yards away. A shell had just landed in front of Robert's Stuart. He saw Harry's 37mm gun fire, and then the hatch onthe Pzkw IV opened and a white cloth waved in surrender. Robert and Harry accepted the crew's surrender. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots.

Friday, January 05, 2007

"Enemy M.E.T. heading southeast"

After Robert Crisp and his companions arrived back at the 4th Armoured Brigade HQ, they rested for ten minutes, and then were sent off towards "a large column of enemy M.E.T. heading southeast". This was on the seventh day of the Crusader Battle. Robert Crisp says that the column was densely packed, and moved from north to south. The Stuarts positioned themselves hull down, with just enough turret showing to allow the tank commanders to observe the scene. The column was "about 2,000 yards" away. The column was a mix of vehicles carrying troops, supply trucks, and a few 88's being towed. Alec Gatehouse ordered the remnants of the three battalions to attack the column. This was to be a cavalry attack, and Robert says he felt like he was with the Earl of Cardigan at Balaclava. Robert had his friend Harry Maegraith next to him. They drove past an 88 and got behind it, with their machine guns firing. The column broke and ran, leaving several 88s behind. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots.

General Auchinleck was the only general, besides Bernard Law Montgomery, who could beat Rommel in the desert

I would not count Patton as having beat Rommel, as by the spring of 1943, the German position was extremely weak. The reality was, that even in the fall of 1941, the German position was almost as weak. While General O'Connor might well have been capable of successfully facing Rommel, he did not get the chance. He had been sidelined with health problems, and when he did appear, he was captured in early 1941. By November 1941, the British had built up a great force to be used at retaked Tobruk and push the Axis forces back. The only problem is that they did not have a commander in the field able to fight Rommel and the Germans. General Auchinleck as the theatre commander, and he did not want to devote his time to commanding the army. He had thought that he had a good man in Alan Cunningham, but he was exhausted and lacked experience with armoured forces, or even large armies. When Generals Norrie and Gott had frittered away the armoured brigades, Auchinleck's had was finally forced, as he was not going to allow the 8th Army to lose. He promptly defeated the Axis forces and Rommel in the field and eventually pushed them back to the vicinity of El Agheila. When Auchinleck pulled back to his theatre commmander role, Rommel promptly attacked from El Agheila and eventually reached the Egyptian border and beyond. The fall of Tobruk had brought Auchinleck back to the field, where he stopped Rommel in the First Alamein battle in July 1942. At that point, Churchill's political problems led him to sack Auchinleck and bring in a new theatre commander, Harold Alexander. The untimely death of General Gott allowed Bernard Law Montgomery to be appointed to command the 8th Army. Despite all of his problems, he would not lose the fight. He might fumble and regroup, but he ultimately decimated the Axis forces in the Second Alamein. He let the remnants escape, through his over-cautious pursuit. Montgomery did not like fluid battles. Everything had to be "set piece".

Thursday, January 04, 2007

On the seventh day, Alec Gatehouse had complete confidence

Robert Crisp expected that Alec Gatehouse, the 4th Armoured Brigade commander, knew how roughly the British armoured forces had been handled by the Germans. Brigadier Gatehouse, however, was unflappable and had "complete confidence" in his ability to handle any situation. The 3rd RTR commander had attended a meeting of senior officers, and all he could tell the men, when he returned, was to put out "a protective screen aroundBrigade H.Q." They were told to watch for an attack from the north, as there was intelligence that the Germans had considerable forces in that direction. The 4th Armoured Brigade troops spent the majority of the seventh day of the Crusader Battle in their current position. Suddenly, "in midafternoon", they were ordered to support the 5th RTR attack enemy transport, about 4 miles away, which was moving to the southeast. They drove 5 miles, without any contact, when they were abruptly ordered back to the brigade HQ. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots.

The Wikipedia page on the Crusader Battle ("Operation Crusader")

Someone has spent a good bit of time writing about the Crusader Battle (they call it "Operation Crusader") on Wikipedia. I would say, in addition, that the British started the battle with a reasonable plan. The problem was, when Rommel didn't react to the initial movements, the inexperience British commanders didn't know what to do next. The old saw about plans not surviving the initial encounters holds here. The 7th Armoured Division commander, General Gott, seems to have assumed that the Germans were not a threat and proceeded to disperse his armoured force, even sending squadrons off, independently. The Germans knew better than to do such things, and kept the Afrika Korps relatively concentrated. They beat the British armoured forces in detail. It was only when General Auchinleck took charge and attacked the Germans with concentrated force, that the Axis forces were beaten. He didn't even really use armoured forces to do the job, either.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

On the seventh day: the pattern of the battle

By the seventh day of the Crusader Battle, Robert Crisp says that a pattern was established for the rest of the battle. They would wake sometime before 4am, drive to their "battle positions", and have breakfast. The breakfast might be a biscuit with marmalade. After that, they would be on the move, with sudden sharp actions, until darkness fell. They would drive in a tight column to their leaguer. Officers would receive their orders for the next day, while their crews and tanks would be involved with "maintenance and replenishment". During the periodic "night marches", the soldiers would listen to the BBC or to the German radio station that played Lili Marlene for the Afrika Korps.

The 4th Armoured Brigade was slowly reconstituted. The battalions grew in strength as the scattered squadrons arrived. There had been this crazy dispersal of battalions, with their squadrons being sent off to operate independently. All that while the Germans concentrated their armoured forces to attack Sidi Rezegh. The 3rd RTR still only had the remains of the HQ and C Squadron. A and B Squadrons were off with other units. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book Brazen Chariots with my commentary.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Start of the seventh day of the Crusader Battle

By 6am on the 7th day of the Crusader Battle, the 3rd RTR Stuarts were in a dispersed formation, just outside the New Zealand brigade position. Robert Crisp's new crew were accustomed to having a hot breakfast, and had everything required to perpare one. They had "fried bacon laid on hard biscuit, followed by hot, strong tea". A 3-ton lorry came around with petrol to refuel the Stuarts at about 9am. They received orders, shortly after that, to drive to join the 4th Armoured Brigade HQ. The track consisted of two six mile legs, along two different compass bearings. Robert's assessment was that the staff were trying to reassemble the units that had been fragmented at Sidi Rezegh. The 3rd RTR still consisted of just six Stuarts, as they were missing A and B Squadrons. They eventually met Alec Gatehouse, their brigadier, at Bir el Haleizen. This was about noontime. After that, they were constantly on the move, never knowing their position. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Pull back and the end of the sixth day

Towards the end of the sixth day of the Crusader Battle, Robert Crisp and his companions were ordered to pull back, abandoning the South Africans. Robert was concerned about the South Africans' exposed position, and hoped they would be supported. They rejoined the 3rd RTR commander, a Colonel, and found that General Gott was there, in his Crusader. The 3rd Royal Tanks were ordered to join the New Zealanders, who were now in the desert. The 3rd RTR had a good impression of the New Zealanders from the Greek campaign, so they were glad that the New Zealanders had joined the fight. The remnants of the 3rd RTR drove in a column through the night until they approached the New Zealand position. Everyone was on edge, until they had safely entered the position without incident. Robert's new tank crew was from the HQ squadron, so they were used to being able to brew a cup of tea, and could do it without showing any light. They settled down for rest. Robert later found out that the German 33rd Artillerie Regiment diary told of his capture of a battery and their subsequent escape. This is based on the account in Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots.

Amazon Ad