Thursday, May 31, 2007

The British 20pdr gun

I believe that the Centurion tank prototype was armed with the 76.2mm "17pdr" gun. What was really desired was a more potent gun. That gun was the British equivalent of the German 88mm L71, the 20pdr gun. This gun had an 83.4mm bore. With such as gun, the Centurion was the equal of any opponent in the late 1940's and into the 1950's. The 20pdr gun was made obsolete by the need to counter the ever larger Soviet guns. The AFV Club has a model of the Centurion with the 20pdr gun. The Centurion was the first really general-purpose British tank, and was very widely used, because of its quality.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rommel was a high-stakes gambler

Rommel functioned by taking risks in exchange for occasional big wins. In December 1941 to January 1942, he pulled his forces back to Agedabia and then to El Agheila, almost to Tripolitania. Wikipedia has a nice map of the locale of the Crusader Battle. By giving up territory, Rommel was able to largely preserve his force, except for the troops trapped on the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. The Axis supply lines were greatly shortened, while the British were stretched. Rommel was able to build strength fast enough that Rommel was able to push them back to the Gazala line by February 1942. Both sides rested and re-equipped and built strength. The British brought in new tanks, primarily the American-built Grants and Lees. The Germans received a very few of the new "specials", Pzkw IIIs with the 50mm L60 gun. The next battle would be fought on the Gazala line. That battle almost lost the campaign for the British, and would have if General Auchinleck had not intervened again.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lessons of the Crusader Battle

Vol.III of the Official History argues that the lessons of the Crusader Battle were that the RAF and the best-trained British units were the equal of the Germans. I can believe that was true. Prior to being expended in Greece and Crete, the British pre-war units still in service in late 1940 and early 1941 ran over the Italian infantry units. Only the elite forces, such as the Ariete Armoured Division and Trieste Motorized Division were any where near the level of the best British and Commonwealth troops. What the first two weeks of the Crusader Battle also showed was that the British generals commanding in the desert war were inferior to their German counterparts. Only General Auchinleck, of the senior commanders present in late 1941 and into 1942 could match wits successfully with Rommel. Not only was the problem at the level of the Lt-Generals, but even some of the division commanders, such as General Gott, were not up to the standard needed. I do not like what I know about Bernard Law Montgomery, but he was at least able to fight the Germans and win, if he had sufficient military strength. Men, such as Alan Cunningham, Neil Ritchie, and their corps commanders, could not compete with Rommel and his men. They continually made what I would call "rookie errors", such as committing forces piecemeal, where they could be defeated in detail.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Other reinforcements under way in December 1941

Some of this will repeat what I had previously written, but I want to give the total picture in one place for what reinforcements were being sent to Cyrenaica in early December 1941:

From the 1st Armoured Division at Suez:
12th Lancers (armoured cars) and division artillery
2nd Armoured Brigade (60 Stuarts and 106 Crusaders)

The Royal Dragoons (armoured cars) from Syria
38th Indian Infantry Brigade (newly formed) from Egypt
150th Infantry Brigade from Cypress
50th Divsion Reconnaissance Battlion
(formerly the 4th Royal Northumberland Fusiliers)

The latter two units were in reserve, to be located at Maaten Baggush.
This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The British plan in December 1941

General Ritchie, now 8th Army commander, started December 1941 with a plan. He wanted 30th Corps to capture El Adem, which seemed like a critical point for the Axis forces. 30th Corps would have the 7th Armoured Division, 22nd Guards Brigade, 1st South African Division, and the 4th Indian Division, when it was available. The 2nd South African Division would relieve the 4th Indian Division so that it could move forward to western Cyrenaica. To begin with, only the 11th Indian Brigade was ready to participate. 13th Corps would hold Tobruk and the newly won ground. General Ritchie gave General Godwin-Austen the freedom to withdraw back into the fortress, if he needed to do so to keep his forces intact. Of the New Zealand Division, only the 5th New Zealand Brigade would participate, under the command of the 2nd South African Division. The remainder would "refit at Maaten Baggush". On 1 December, "General Auchinleck arrived at 8th Army Headquarters to be at hand if needed". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

December 1941: more British reinforcements

While the Germans and Italians were in desperate straits in early December 1941, the British were receiving significant reinforcements, as well as replacements. The 1st Armoured Division had arrived the Suez area in November, and had started to disembark. The armoured car regiment, the 12th Lancers, as well as the division artillery, were sent forward immediately. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had arrived earlier. The 1st Armoured Division still followed the old two armoured brigade organization. The 2nd Armoured Brigade also followed a new pattern, as it had Stuart regiment and two Crusader units (60 Stuarts and 106 Crusaders). This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The British Official History takes a jibe at Rommel

The British Official History, on page 71 of Volume III, takes a cut a Rommel, saying "it is unlikely that this would have happened if General Crüwell had been given a clear task and left to carry it out". This refers to what has been called "The Dash to the Wire", when Rommel attempted to panic the British and win the Crusader Battle. The Official History ignores the fact that it was working as designed, until General Auchinleck intervened and would not allow a withdrawal. In fact, with the Afrika Korps away from the decisive battle zone around Sidi Rezegh, the British situation had dramatically improved, with the siege of Tobruk broken. Rommel still managed to stampede the British supply troops and rear, and had panicked General Cunningham. Auchinleck could take no more and intervened, saving the battle.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Early December 1941

Early December 1941 saw the Axis forces still strongly positioned near Sidi Rezegh airfield. Tobruk had been cut off from ground communication, after the siege had been briefly broken. The Germans had generally committed their forces in such a way as to be give their troops the best possible chance of success, except in Rommel's abortive "dash to the wire". The planned big armoured battle where British armoured formations would fight the decisive battle with the Axis armoured forces never happened, as the British forces were dispersed and expended piecemeal. The British commanders who succeeded General O'Connor, besides General Auchinleck, lacked the knowledge of how to fight this sort of battle. They also had lost their artillery superiority. The 25pdr gun-howitzer was the most effective British weapon against German tanks, but they had taken losses and had scattered their artillery units across the desert. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

As we have mentioned, the Axis was having great difficulty keeping Rommel's army supplied in late 1941

The RAF and British submarines were making life very difficult for Rommel's army. In the beginning of December, small freighters were still able to bring some fuel and ammunition into Benghazi. The army was just a short distance to the east, so transport forward to the troops was less of an issue. The RAF was based far enough forward that they were able to make movements into Benghazi increasingly difficult. For November, only one third of the needed 120,000 tons of supplies had reached North Africa. Malta was also a big factor in the success against the Axis supply lines. Wellingtons from Malta and Egypt made a major effort on the nights from 28 November to 1 December to hit the port at Benghazi with their 4,000 pound bomb loads. The situation had progressed to the point where the British were able to resupply and re-equip, while the Axis were not even able to supply their needs, much less rebuild their units. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

General Ritchie hoped to use the New Zealand Division and 4th Indian Division in a new offensive

British command of the sea lanes, in support of Operation Crusader meant that Axis forces were unable to quickly recover from their losses in Crusader. In contrast, the 5th New Zealand Brigade was quickly reconstituted and was used to contain Axis forces in Bardia. The 4th Indian Division was busy taking the Italian Sidi Omar. Reinforcements in the form of the 2nd South African Division were being sent forward to free up the New Zealand Division and 4th Indian Division for use in a new offensive. In contrast, Rommel had to contend with a visiting General Bastico, who had finally come forward to see for himself what had happened, since Rommel had not seen fit to inform him of developments. At least, General Bastico agreed that they needed to ask for reinforcements to be sent and to ask for permission to use ports in Tunisia which were thought to have lower risk of attack by British sea control forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Changes on 1 December 1941

Not only did the New Zealand Division withdraw to the Egyptian frontier, but the 1st South African Division moved back to Taieb el Esem. The 13th Corps Commander, General Godwin-Austen had grown uneasy about holding El Duda, but Lt-Col. Nichols, the 1st Essex Regiment commander, told him that the position was "growing stronger every hour". The 70th Division commander, General Scobie, commended the colonel: "Well done, I admire your spirit". Too often, in the Crusader Battle, we saw timidity and readiness to withdraw. On the frontier between Egypt and Libya, the remaining Axis pockets were either eliminated or at least contained. Much of this was being done by 4th Indian Division troops. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

British airpower in support of the army in early December 1941

By late November and early December 1941, the weather was less than ideal for air operations. There was considerable support, though, at this critical time. They benefited, though, from the restricted battle area near Tobruk. Air reconnaissance was able keep track of the battle and Axis movements. They saw the Trieste Motorized Division moving up to support the German battlegroup Mickl. Light bombers, escorted by fighters, much of the time, were able to make planned strikes. A sortie was one aircraft on one operation. A 1,029 sorties were flown in four days. This was independent of the "offensive sweeps" flown over the battlefield. For example, RAF Beaufighters made repeated low-level strikes on Axis airfields near the battle zone. A critical development involved the New Zealand Division, which was able to disengage and move to the east. They eventually were able to withdraw "back to the Egyptian frontier". The 1st Army Tank brigade with its ten remaining infantry tanks withdrew with the New Zealanders. A few New Zealand units withdrew into the Tobruk fortress area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Ariete Division

The Italian Ariete Armoured Division was the best of the Italian units to serve in North Africa. We have seen in late November and early December 1941 that repeatedly, the Ariete achieved various successes over British and Commonwealth forces. That was despite having the obsolescent M13/40 tank, in the process of being superceded by the somewhat better M14/41 tank, which was better protected and had a more powerful diesel engine. Apparently, the M14/41 designation was not official, and simply referred to a late production M13/40. The Italian tank gun, the 47/32, was a medium velocity piece that fired a 3.25 pound shot or shell. With a direct impact, the 47/32 could penetrate 48mm at 400 yards. At the beginning of the Crusader Battle, the Ariete had 146 M13/40 tanks. Altogether, about 1,960 M13/40's were produced. Of these, 250 were delivered in 1940. There is a nice M13/40 at what is now called The Tank Museum at Bovington, Dorset. There is a Wikipedia page that leaves something to be desired.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The events of late November and the beginning of December 1941 drove the New Zealand Division from the battle

We might recall Robert Crisp's account of meeting Bernard Freyberg near the Sidi Rezegh airfield, as recounted in Brazen Chariots. By 1 December 1941, the New Zealand Division, under General Freyberg's command, just wanted to survive. Every divisional formation in the Crusader Battle had been committed piecemeal and had their strength dissapated in haphazard battles, mostly initiated by General Gott. General Gott seems to have had a near fatal tendency to distribute any units that he could into small groups, of battalion size or smaller, if he could. General Norrie, the 30th Corps commander, is harder to judge, as he seems to have had less control over what was happening than Gott. The new 8th Army commander, General Ritchie, seems to have had an incomplete view of the situation near Tobruk, so anything he ordered was liable to be problematic. By the afternoon of 1 December, General Freyberg had decided that the New Zealand Division was spent and should be withdrawn to refit. He got General Norrie's approval, and General Ritchie later agreed, when he was informed, after the fact. This is based, in part, on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The situation on 1 December 1941 was getting very bad for the New Zealand Division

Early on 1 December 1941, the Germans attacked near Belhamed, with the intent to keep the New Zealanders out of Tobruk, so that they could be destroyed. The 4th NZ Brigade was there, and fought well, but had lost the 20th NZ Battalion. That divided the New Zealand Division. The next victim seemed to be the 6th NZ Brigade. They could see the 4th Armoured Brigade arriving from the south. They had the 5th RTR and the 8th RTR, since the 3rd RTR had been used elsewhere. "The remains of the 6th New Zealand Brigade" was located north of Sidi Rezegh. The commander of the 5th RTR contacted the NZ brigade commander at about the time that an order arrived from General Gott, instructing the New Zealanders to withdraw. The British had expected the New Zealanders to withdraw to the south, with them, but they made off towards the rest of the division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The 1st South African Brigade finally moved

The solution for getting Brigadier Pienaar's 1st South African Brigade to move into danger was for the 30 Corps commander, General Norrie, to personally lead them. The South Africans cautiously moved to the northeast, to Sciafsciuf. They were protected by the 4th Armoured Brigade, which now included the remaining tanks from the depleted 22nd Armoured Brigade, which had been perviously squandered. The British commanders wanted to take Point 175 with the South Africans, but they had not been close enough to do so, as of 1 December 1941. They had managed to reduce the Ariete Division by 19 light and medium tanks, while moving towards Point 175. The 13th Corps commander, General Godwin-Austen, was getting increasingly nervous, and told the 8th Army commander that he thought that the remains of 13th Corps should move into the Tobruk fortress area, to prevent further losses. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Dan Pienaar was just following his government's orders

After the various disasters caused by either careless or incompetent British commanders, the Commonwealth countries had become very wary. I would say that they had every right to be concerned about what might happen to their troops, when the British commanders seemed to have lost their senses. Dan Pienaar's seeming intransigence or even disobedience must be put into perspective. On 23 November, the 5th South African Brigade had been expended to little result. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, also in the fight, had been reduced to something like 20 Crusaders. By late November, the British were very sensitive to Commonwealth concerns, and they had wanted to support the New Zealand Division by sending the 1st South African Brigade to Point 175. Much of the fighting in late November was to prevent another disaster, this time to the New Zealanders. As it was, they had lost a field hospital and an infantry brigade, which had been bagged by the Ariete Division.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The situation near Sidi Rezegh on 29 and 30 November 1941

The Official History confirms that Dan Pienaar was concerned that the 1st South African Brigade might be left to be overrun, as had the 5th Brigade "six days before". The only excuse for the commanders was that in reality, which no one in the British side knew, the 15th Panzer Division had already passed and the 21st Panzer Division was reduced to about 20 tanks. Of course, the remains of the 7th Armoured Division was scattered on many wild goose chases. If the British had fought concentrated the way the Germans did, they might have been in a better position to protect the infantry near Tobruk. The real danger was from the Ariete Divsion, which had already had one success, eliminating one infantry brigade. By early on 30 November, German air reconnaissance had found that "fresh British forces were collecting to the south". Rommel was very eager to wipe out the New Zealand Division before any reinforcements could intervene. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

British generals

Thinking about Dan Pienaar and the South African government's concerns about the course of the Crusader Battle in late 1941 had me thinking again about my assessment of British generals. I now think that Claude Auchinleck was not a particularly effective theater commander, but he was a good army commander. He won two battles: the Operation Crusader and the First Battle of El Alamein. His appointments, as theater commander were almost uniformly disastrous. The strange thing was that his appointments were generally solid men, who were successful in other contexts. They just seemed to become incompetent when placed in command in the desert, with mechanized forces. The best general to command for the British in North Africa was Richard O'Connor, who vanguished the Italians, prior to the arrival of Rommel in early 1941. His health failed by early 1941, so even if he had not been captured, he would have been less effective as army commander. The second best army commander for the British was Bernard Law Montgomery. As much as I dislike him, he was able to not lose battles at a time when the British needed desperately to win. He was too conservative and lacked a tactical flair, but it didn't matter.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Later on 29 November 1941

El Duda is located to the southeast of Tobruk, about 15 miles away. The 15th Panzer Division attacked there, starting at about 2pm. They had taken one end of the postion by 6:30pm. There were British, Australians, and New Zealanders holding the place. There was the 1st Essex Regiment, which lost almost two companies in the attack. Nearby were the 2/13th Australian Battalion and the 1st RHA, which were able to repel Axis infantry attacks. There were two Royal Artillery Regiments in support: the 104th and 107th. A counter attack by 11 infantry tanks from the 4th RTR, with two Australian infantry companies "and regained all the lost ground". The Germans had intended to use the 8th Panzer Regiment of the 15th Panzer Division to recover El Duda, but they were mistakenly withdrawn on El Adem. When General Ritchie and others had tried to get Brigadier Dan Pienaar to bring the 1st South African Brigade up to support the New Zealanders, he resisted, as he was apparently concerned about being expended the way that the New Zealanders had been so casually lost. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The RASC comes through on 29 November 1941

The RASC performed extremely well on 29 November 1941, in large part due to the leadership of Brigadier Clifton, the "Chief Engineer of the 30th Corps". A large convoy gathered "near Fort Maddalena". There were more than 250 lorries in the convoy. They had been loaded at the "No. 62 Field Maintenance Centre". Brigadier Clifton, who was a New Zealander, had led the convoy, which included some Stuart tanks and which was escorted by South African armoured cars, for about forty miles to resupply the New Zealand division. The Stuarts were for the 4th Armoured Brigade. The convoy moved down the escarpment to a position near the Trigh Cappuzo. Sadly, the brigade that received the supplies was later overrun by Ariete Division tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Some disasters on 28 and 29 November 1941

Late on 28 November 1941, Rommel had made plans to attempt to stop the forces that were moving to relieve Tobruk. The Axis forces would gather "to the north of Belhamed and strike west and south-west". Rommel changed plans almost immediately to try to prevent a breakout from Tobruk. General Crüwell decided that changing the orders would be a mistake and wanted to meet with the division commanders. Before that could happen, General von Ravenstein had blundered into the 21st New Zealand Battalion's position and was captured. There was an immediate shuffle, so that General Böttcher took over the 21st Panzer Division "and Colonel Mickl took over the Böttcher Group". Late on 29 November, the Ariete Division broke into the 6th New Zealand Brigade and took them prisoner. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I am afraid that my blogging has been negatively impacted by traveling in the Netherlands. I had a combination of problems, plus two long days, that left me without time to write. I hope to remedy that today (Wednesday, in Amsterdam).

Sunday, May 06, 2007

I think that it is odd that I have not been able to find a photograph of Robert Crisp online

Since Robert Crisp was such a prominent cricket fast-blowler, I had expected to find a photograph of him on a cricket-related site. If not there, I thought that he might show up somewhere else. I was wrong. I will keep looking, as some of his friends are shown in photographs from the 1930's and 1940's.

Friday, May 04, 2007

We saw the attempt to rectify the situation near Sidi Rezegh on 28 November 1941

The situation near Sidi Rezegh, on 28 November 1941, was rapidly deteriorating. The army commander had tried to aid the New Zealand division by sending the 1st SA Brigade, under Brigadiier Pienaar, to their aid. Instead, the South Africans, for reasons we don't understand, stopped halfway to their objective for the night. The Support Group was supposed to try to stop the Ariete Armoured Division from closing to the area, but the 15th Panzer Division commander desired their presence at the battle. The situation had deteriorated to the point that the 13th Corps HQ and "the rear H.Q." of the New Zealand Division entered Tobruk for protection. General Freyberg, was still outside, where Robert Crisp had met him. The support group had been greatly reduced in strength. By this date, they only had a single motorized infantry battalion, the 4th RHA, without C Battery, with just 12 25pdr guns, the 60th Field Regiment, with 14 25pdr guns, and the 203rd Field Battery, with just 7 guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

November 27 and 28, 1941, near Sidi Rezegh

I am back to the Official History, for now. From the German war diaries, we know that the 15th Panzer Division had moved through the night of 27 to 28 November, 1941, to position themselves at a critical location on the escarpment, near Sidi Rezegh. General Ritchie, now 8th Army commander, had previously ordered the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades from trying to prevent just such a thing. General Gott, 7th Armoured Division commander, had heard the report from the King's Dragoon Guards about the "enemy force" being on the escarpment "near Bir Sciafsciuf". Gott had ordered the Support Group to try to keep the Ariete Division away from the scene. Early on 28 November, complete cloud cover prevented RAF intervention in the battle. Later on the 28th, the 15th Panzer Division moved west. This was after the British armoured brigades had been ordered to protect Dan Pienaar's 1st SA Brigade. When the 15th Panzer Division moved towards Sidi Rezegh, they overran a New Zealand medical personel and wounded troops, including Bernard Kippenberger, who later became famous. The Germans bagged over 1,000 New Zealander patients and medical staff. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Royal Gloucester Hussars

I found this document that gives some useful information about the Royal Gloucester Hussars. Be aware that this is a Word document. Apparently by 1930, the RGH was reduced two three squadrons equipped with Peerless armoured cars. These were later replaced by Rolls Royce armoured cars. They regained their name, the Royal Gloucester Hussars, by 1938, and by 1939, were split into the 1st and 2nd RGH. The 1st RGH was kept in England for training, but the 2nd RGH went to North Africa, in 1941, with the 22nd Armoured Brigade. They lost "30 of its 52" Crusader tanks at Sidi Rezegh, on 19 November 1941. They were withdrawn and re-equipped with "inferior" Stuart tanks. They then joined the advance to Agedabia, which was quickly retaken by the Germans.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Gaming the war in North Africa

My favorite wargaming topic is using miniatures to game the war in North Africa. I combine them with a map, so that we can use the map for the larger scale movement. When you come in contact, you go to the table top or floor to fight with miniatures. To make it work, you need to concoct an OOB and order of arrival and departure. You need to have replacement tanks, guns, armoured cars, and other vehicles arriving, as well. We also provided a way to repair knocked out tanks and return them to action. I may eventually publish something derived from our experience gaming the North African campaign. If you don't mind making some major compromises, you can just use something as crude as Afrikakorps, from Avalon Hill. Just use standard OOBs for units and accept that it is not going to be accurate. You still know general unit sizes and numbers of vehicles. We found that a 1:4 ratio between what we used in the game with what the units actually had for armoured vehicles and guns worked quite nicely. That way, a British field artillery unit with 24-25 pounders would have 6 guns in the game. You would at least give then quad gun tractors for the six guns. If you wanted to add to that, you could, but we were busy making compromises and didn't use any more than that. An armoured regiment or battalion would have 52 tanks in real life. We gave them 13: 1 command tank and three squadrons with 4 tanks each. You can get the idea. We really did bad things and didn't really use infantry. For infantry units, they just had vehicles and guns! You can use infantry, if you want to do the right thing. Anyway, that is some quick advice.

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