Saturday, June 30, 2007

The British continued to fight dispersed in late December 1941

When we read about British operations in the last third of December 1941, we see that they commanders still insisted on dipersing the larger units into small columns of small fighting strength. To some extent, this can be excused by pointing out that the Axis forces were greatly depleted, but in fact, it was more of the same losing policies that came close to losing the North African Campaign during 1942. Generals Ritchie and Godwin-Austen continued to issue orders, directing units this way and that, having lost touch with what was actually happening on the ground. By 21 December, the 22nd Armoured Brigade, actually a component of the 1st Armoured Division, had been reborn with 80 cruiser tanks (probably mostly Crusaders) and 30 Stuarts. That formed the pattern for the first half of 1942. The armoured brigades would have mostly cruiser or medium tanks with a smaller component of Stuarts. The 4th Armoured Brigade had been withdrawn, except for the 3rd RTR. The dispersed state of British forces left them vulnerable and the 15th Panzer Division (note the unit site) attacked a company of Coldstream guards and artillery at Beda Fomm and caused them to retreat. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, June 29, 2007

The Australian War Memorial site has a page about the Douglas Boston

By December 1941, the Douglas Boston was becoming increasingly important in the desert war. The Martin Marland was vanishing through attrition and the Baltimore was not ready yet, so squadrons converted to the Boston, which was being produced in numbers. The Australian War Memorial has a page on the Boston and a picture of a SAAF Boston being armed. They typically bombed at low level and high speed during daylight hours.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Axis losses

As the Axis air forces were forced to the west, the number of fields from which they could operate was sharply reduced. One effect was to jam too many aircraft onto the remaining fields. That offered good targets, of which Air Vice-Marshal Conyngham took great advantage. At Benina, alone, there were 62 German and two Italian aircraft on the field when the British arrived.

The Axis had a few successes, as 22 tanks arrived on 19 December 1941 at Benghazi for the 8th Panzer Regiment. Another 45 were lost when two Italian cargo ships were sunk on 13 December.

I was interested to read that the 7th Armoured Division had been reduced to the support group by 21 December. The 1st Armoured Division was the latest arrival, and that division replaced the much depleted 7th Armoured Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The RAF from 18 December 1941

Two tactical reconnaissance squadrons, No.208 and No.237 (Rhodesian), operated in support of the advance, as the Axis forces retreated west and south. There were some LR Hurricanes from No.33 Squadron operating as reconnaissance aircraft, as well. The fighters supplying air cover also doubled as reconnaissance aircraft. By 18 December, there were many fighters based at Gazala. They were able to operate from Mechili by 20 December. By 23 December, they could use the field at Msus. No.262 Wing then was able to move to Msus to take charge of fighter operations. Bombers operated by day, hitting targets far in advance of the front line, to minimize the chance of attacking friendly forces. This reduced their effectiveness in direct support of the army. Night bombing was conducted by FAA Albacores and Wellingtons, presumably from Malta. The British were running short of day bombers due to teething problems with Bostons and the small numbers remaining of Marylands, which were out of production. The remaining Blenheims were being withdrawn to be sent to the Far East. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

After the change of plans

After General Godwin-Austen realized that the Axis forces were in full retreat, he made changes in the plan. Instead of the 7th Armoured Division sending a force towards Mechili, he had them advance up the road beyond Benina to Benghazi. By 19 December 1941, "the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade had reached Derna". The brigade lost its transport for use in the rapid advance. That left the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade to advance with "reconnaissance troops". At Charruba, the 7th Support Group came upon the Italian Trieste and Ariete Division rearguards. They withdrew, and the British were having severe supply problems, leaving them low on fuel. The Support Group and Bencol (the augmented 22nd Guards Brigade) had made good progress towards Msus and Antelat. By then, the 15th Panzer Division had arrived at Beda Fomm and the 21st Panzer Division at Ghemines. Three Italian divisions were at El Abiar. Two more were at Barce and Tocra. The 90th Light Division and the Italian Bologna Division had reached Agedabia. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The 22nd Guards Brigade WAS Bencol

I had not gotten picture that in fact the 22nd Guards Brigade WAS Bencol. I had assumed that Bencol was an adhoc battlegroup (which it seems to have partly been). The majority of the force was two 22nd Guards Brigade battalions: the 3rd Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Scots Guards. Bencol was sent past Tegender, south of Mechili, and then was split between Antelat and Msus. They were eventually at Antelat by the 15th Panzer Division. The 7th Support Group eventually joined the northern group at Msus and then swept south to support the southern group at Antelat. With the Oasis Force coming northward from Jalo, the three Italian infantry divisions formed a defended position at Agedabia. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Soviet T-28 tank

I have long been interested in the Soviet T-28 tank. With a 76.2mm gun, I would have thought that this should have been effective against many of the weaker German tanks. In the one book that I bought yesterday that covers the T-28, there is a photograph of a T-28 Model 1938 with an L-10 76.2mm gun that had a higher muzzle velocity. The L-10 was a 76.2mm L/26 gun. Wikipedia has a nice photo of a Finnish T-28, captured from the Soviet army. The Finns used seven T-28s until 1944. This Finnish page has specifications beyond what I have seen before, including armour penetration data from the shorter and longer guns. This page has a nice rear view of the T-28. This T-28 seems to have an advanced state of rust.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Some recent book acquisitions

I visited Recycled Books, a store in Denton, Texas, this afternoon. I purchased four books there and was tempted to buy a few more. This is what I bought:

John Norris, illustrated by Mike Fuller,
88 mm FlaK 18/36/37/41 & PaK 43 1936-45,
New Vanguard 46, Osprey Publishing, 2002.

David Fletcher, illustrated by Peter Sarson,
Crusader Cruiser 1939-45,
New Vanguard 14, Osprey Publishing, 1995, reprinted 2002.

Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson, T-34/76 Medium Tank 1941-1945,
New Vanguard, Osprey Military, 1994.

Steven J. Zaloga, Jim Kinnear, Andrey Aksenov,
and Aleksandr Koschchavtsev,
Soviet Tanks in Combat 1941-1945:
The T-28, T-34, T-34/85 and T-44 Medium Tanks,
Armor at War Series,
Concord Publications Company, 1997.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Bencol on 18 December 1941

Vol.III of the Official History gives the composition of "Bencol":

The 11th Hussars (armoured cars)
one squadron, the 2nd Royal Gloucester Hussars (14 Stuart tanks)
51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (presumbly with 25pdr guns)

From the 22nd Guards Brigade:
3rd Coldstream Guards
2nd Scots Guards

Thursday, June 21, 2007

More moves from 17 December 1941

On 17 December 1941, Rommel ordered the DAK "to move south of Benghazi and be ready to operate towards Agedabia". He sent the Italian forces to head for Benghazi. The Italian commanders were angry, but couldn't stop the movements. Rommel intended to pull back to El Agheila and Agedabia, so as to contract his supply lines and stretch the British lines, hoping to severely tax them. The relatively new 8th Army commander, General Ritchie, sent the 4th Indian Division to Lamluda and the 7th Armoured Division to Mechili. He also sent a force across country to try to get "as far to the west as possible". He wanted to send the 22nd Guards as part of an all-arms column "Bencol" to Benghazi, but it only was ready by 20 December. By 18 December, the British could see that Rommel only intended to withdraw, not fight. He gave Bencol orders to head for south of Benghazi to attempt to cut off Axis forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

17 December 1941

Rommel informed the vistors to North Africa, on 17 December 1941, early in the day, that he intended to defend Derna and Mechili, but if the British advanced that far, he would leave rear guards behind and withdraw from the rest of Cyrenaica. When Rommel heard that a British force was approaching Tengeder, he told General Cavallero that they needed to withdraw further back. The general disagreed, as he doubted the report, but it was real enough. The British force was from the 7th Support Group. Tengeder is about thirty miles south of Mechili. The British actually turned north from Tengeder and made for Mechili, which they reached on the 18th. Rommel was concerned that his more forward troops could be cut off by a bolder move southwest towards Agedabia. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Italians had some hot aircraft, even in 1941

You don't think of Italy when you think of hot fighter aircraft, be even in 1941, they had some good designs. Marco Bossi has a page about the Macchi C.202 Folgore. He has some good photographs of planes, including one of a C.202 at Maruba, in Libya, in December 1941, our current time period.

Monday, June 18, 2007

15th to 18th December 1941

The High Command in Italy panicked when they realized that Rommel intended to withdraw from Cyrenaica. They sent Field-Marshall Kesselring out to assess the situation and try to influence Rommel. On 15 December 1941, Rommel made plans to withdraw from Gazala overnight between the 16th and 17th. Rommel told Kesseling and his Italian companion, General Cavallero, that the war in the Far East was likely to pull British troops out of North Africa, and they just needed to keep the German-Italian force intact until that happened. Rommel vowed to vigorously defend Tripolitania if he could withdraw immediately. They found out on the 16th that the withdrawal from Gazala had already started. The Italian infantry divisions were headed for Derna by way of Tmimi. The Italian mechanized corps and the DAK were headed for Mechili. Rommel intended to form a defensive front stretching from El Agheila south to Marada. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

13 to 16 December 1941

The Axis High Command, especially the Italians, wanted to hold onto territory as long as they could. Rommel was more interested in keeping his forces intact, as he believed that he could recapture territory later, if he could maintain a fighting force. Rommel's main difficulty was his supply line. If that could be secured, he would quickly regain lost ground. The 13th Corps commander, General Godwin-Austen, wanted to mount this grand operation to outflank and destroy the Axis forces, and wanted a fluid battle. The RAF was still moving forward, and would have trouble making itself a factor in the battle, but when they could not tell friendly from enemy forces, they would not risk attacks. In the period of 13 December to 16 December, the RAF had not dropped any bombs at all. When Rommel heard of the 4th Armoured Brigade's move forward, he planned to withdraw from the Gazala line, as he assumed that they would head for Mechili, as that was what he would have done. That caused great consternation among the Italians. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The miscalculation

The order for the 4th Armoured Brigade to move forward was made without realizing that the brigade could not be supplied in that forward of a position. As we have seen, only Robert Crisp's squadron (C Squadron, 3rd RTR) with some Royal Dragoons and other troops were able to make a small attack. Robert was severely wounded and the attempt was called off. They small force pulled back to the brigade, which was in turn, pulled back further to refuel. Because of their low fuel situation and the inability to get fuel to them, the desired attack from the west on the Gazala position never happened, other than Robert's small force. 13th Corps was in a bad position, because the 4th Indian Division had been committed, believing that the 4th Armoured Brigade attack would occur. A column from 7th Armoured Brigade was sent to Tmimi, on the road, but they were so short of fuel that they quickly had to withdraw without really accomplishing anything. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, June 15, 2007

13th Corps attacks, starting 15 December 1941

13th Corps attacked on 15 December 1941 with brigades not divisions. Gazala was actually a town near the coast and that is where the 5th New Zealand Brigade attacked the Italian Brescia Division. The Polish Carpathian Brigade, next to the south, attacked the Italian Trento and Pavia Divisions. The 5th Indian Brigade attacked the Trieste Division and the 7th Indian Brigade attacked the Ariete Division. Both were repulsed. The German 8th Panzer Regiment attacked with a small number of tanks, along with the 2nd Machine Gun Battalian and overran the 1st/The Buffs and put a thousand men in the bag. In the process, however, they lost between nine and twelve of their remaining 23 tanks. The 13th Corps commander hoped that when the 4th Armoured Brigade hit the Gazala position from the west, that they would have some success. The Official History says that they hardly attracted notice, perhaps because they were so low on fuel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History,.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The plan to attack Gazala

The British had closed up to Gazala by 13 December 1941. The Axis forces appeared to be ready to make a stand on this position. The British plan was to outflank Gazala from the south, as Rommel feared. The 13th Corps commander was ready to fight. He wanted to use the 5th New Zealand Brigade to attack the front of the Gazala position. The Polish Carpathian Brigade would go around the southern flank and head for the coast road. The 4th Indian Division, sitting near Alem Hamza would attack to the northwest. They were located at the northern end of the fortified position. The 7th Support Group was on their left flank. The 4th Armoured Brigade would sweep wide and cut up to Bir Halegh el Eleba. A detachment of the Royal Dragoons and the 3rd RTR would attack the Gazala line from the west. This is what is described at the end of Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Developments in December 1941

There were many changes happening in the situation in Cyrenaica and the larger Middle Eastern Theater. Besides Rommel being given command of the forces in Cyrenaica, which gave him 10th Corps, the Italian infantry division corps, as well as the 20th Corps, which had the Ariete and Trieste divisions. The biggest change that would occur was that more German airpower was moving to Sicily. When that island had substantial German airpower, the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean would change. Instead of the British having superiority in the air and on the sea, the balance would shift back to the Axis. Rommel expected, in the near term, that the British would outflank Gazala from the south and that he would be forced to withdraw further west. A strange feature was that Auchinleck was in one of those phases where he was concerned about a German attack down from the north, and wanted to pull the remains of 30th Corps back into reserve so as to have a way to counter such a move. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Axis Air Transport

With the British having successfully interdicted the Axis supply lines by sea, the Germans and Italians resorted to using their transport aircraft to fly cargo to Libya. The Germans painted their Ju-52s green and black. The Official History says that made them difficult to see, when they flew low over the Mediterranean. The only suitable British fighters were the Beaufighters and there were not enough of them to really interfere with the traffic. The Axis High Command wanted to retain Benghazi and control of Western Cyrenaica. They agreed to withdraw to Gazala and to hold that position. The 90th Light Divsion was withdrawn to hold Agedabia, as that was a key place on the road, forward of El Agheila. Rommel was given command of all forces in Cyrenaica, as he had requested. There was no sense in having a divided command structure, especially when the Axis was in such dire straits. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 11, 2007

General Ritchie was making pretty good decisions in December 1941

From what we have seen so far from Vol.III of the Official History, my initial impression is that General Ritchie, the new 8th Army commander, was making pretty decent decisions and had a better grasp of the action than someone nominally closer to what was happening, General "Strafer" Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander. I am sorry to say that I have a pretty negative view of General Gott, based on close scrutiny of his decision making during the Crusader Battle. In the opening days of the battle, he squandered his armoured forces by dispersing them to be defeated in detail. By the time that more serious action was joined with the Axis armoured forces, the 7th Armoured Division was not in a position to fight on an equal basis. At the start of the battle, the British were superior in numbers of tanks in their three brigades equipped with mobile tanks. That situation had quickly changed for the worse. Only the 4th Armoured Brigade, which was operating independently, was effective. The 7th Armoured Brigade was removed from the campaign at Sidi Rezegh. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was almost in the same state, but was reconstituted later in the battle.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The siege of Tobruk ended on 10 December 1941

Tobruk had been besieged by Axis forces since 11 April 1941. On 10 December, the siegde was lifted when the Italian Trento and Brescia Divisions withdrew from the west side. The original expectation was that the siege would be lifted early in the Crusader Battle. In fact, there were three weeks of combat before the Axis forces were depleted enough to be forced to withdraw. Transport had been the greatest challenge, because supplies had to be carried from the railhead, by road, to the forward forces. Simply lifting the seige was not enough to fix the supply problem, as much work would be required before the port of Tobruk would be up and receiving supplies by sea in sufficient quantity to meet the army's needs. A supply center had yet to be built up and that would take time. Still, the enemy's withdrawal from around Tobruk allowed the air forces to redeploy to fields much further forward, which extend British air superiority over the new battlefield. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Axis withdrawal, starting 7 December 1941

The Official History says that the Axis rearguard operations were effective, because the British forces never seriously interfered with the Axis withdrawal to the Gazala line. On the night of 7 December 1941, "two battalions of the 2rd Infantry Brigade (Brigadier C.H.V. Cox) and a few tanks broke out of the western face of the El Duda salient and advanced almost as far as the Tobruk-El Adem road". By the next morning, the Axis forces were obviously pulling out of locations such as Bir el Gubi. The 7th Armoured Division was ordered to advance to what later was called Knightsbridge "twelve miles south of Acroma". Wikipedia has a good overall map of the area that lists most important locations. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Early on 7 December 1941

From the British perspective, 7 December 1941 (the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and brought the Americans into the war) was frustrating. The British had hoped to advance and take territory from the Axis forces. 30th Corps was to advance to El Adem from their current location at El Duda. 13th Corps, with the 2nd South African Division, was going to clean up pockets of Axis forces from Tobruk to Bardia. The RAF needed forward airbases, so these became a priority. Rommel's delaying tactics worked so well that "General Gott even began to think that the enemy was being reinforced". The Official History indicates that General Ritchie had a better view of the situation. He believed that Rommel was hitting them before withdrawing. They could afford to wait for the withdrawal and then occupy the territory he left for them. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

7 December 1941

After a bad day on 6 December 1941, Rommel visited General Crüwell at DAK HQ. The General pointed out the danger from the British forces to their south and that the Axis forces were low on supplies. The British were stronger on the ground and still had air superiority, which made movement difficult. Rommel made the decision to withdraw to the previously prepared Gazala line. Gazala had been built as a defensive position, facing east, as long ago as May 1941, when they realized that Tobruk was not going to be easily reduced. The plan was to withdraw four Italian infantry divisions into the position. The Italian mobile corps would be positioned to protect the south end. The Afrika Korps would be to their southwest. Meanwhile, General Ritchie had ordered General Norrie to advance, finally. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

5 to 7 December 1941

By late on 5 December 1941, the Axis situation had deteriorated further, mostly due to the lack of supplies and reinforcements. The only hope for the troops on the frontier was to withdraw to Bardia and then hope for rescue by sea. There was an apparent danger that the British would be able to outflank the entire force from the south. Action on 6 December left the 15th Panzer Division commander dead and the forces in further disarray. It had been the 22nd Guards Brigade that fought the 15th Panzer. General Ritchie had told his 30th Corps commander, General Norrie to leave Bir el Gubi alone and push to the northwest, rather than use the 4th Indian Divsion at Bir el Gubi. That was the right move, as the Germans were concerned about just such a move and it would cause them to withdraw further west. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Luftwaffe intervenes around Bir el Gubi

The battle around Bir el Gubi on 5 December 1941 brought out the German Luftwaffe in force. The British forces to the south seemed a great enough threat that something needed to be done to save the Axis position. "Large formations of escorted dive-bombers made frequent attacks", according to the Official History. British fighters were overhead, providing cover, and these caused enough problems for the attackers, that only German fighters were used, after the initial encounters. The Luftwaffe was equipped with Me-109F fighters, which were superior to what the British were using at the time. The RAF lacked any Spitfire V's to combat the German fighter. The British countered at night with Wellington and Fairey Albacores, which were bombing the German forces moving south. During the day, they used Martin Marylands, starting to be supplanted by Douglas Bostons. Maryland production had ceased and numbers were declining. The eventual replacement was to be the Baltimore, but these were not arriving at this stage. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 04, 2007

4 and 5 December 1941

On 4 December, when his forces were blocked at El Duda, Rommel decided to hit British forces near Bir El Gubi, instead. They posed a serious threat, as his forces could be outflanked by an attack from Bir El Gubi. He decided to send the panzer divisions and the Italian mechanized divisions (Ariete and Trieste) to hit the British at this spot. The Axis forces would attack on 5 December 1941. The plan fell apart from the beginning. The Italian divisions never arrived, as the Ariete was held up by the 7th Support Group while the Trieste Division never moved from where they were sitting. Only the 8th Panzer Regiment and infantry had any success. They had overrun part of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, but could make no further progress. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Near Bir El Gubi on 3 December 1941 and the next moves

Rommel's move to the frontier had pinned down the 4th Armour Brigade, keeping them out of the action near Bir El Gubi on 3 December 1941. A force comprised of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, 16 infantry tanks from the 8th RTR, the 7th Medium Regiment RA, some of the 51st Field Regiment RA, and one battery from the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment were sent against a position about six miles northwest of Bir El Gubi. The operation was commanded by Brigadier Anderson, the 11th Indian Brigade commander. He decided to make a night march and attack at first light from the west. They made the attack and captured part of the position. A second attack on 5 December failed to take the remainder of the position. Early on 4 December, the Germans attacked El Duda, but that position held. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Another failed rescue attempt

Prior to losing his tactical signals intelligence unit, in the fall of 1942, Rommel was able to keep abreast of British plans, due to poor communications practices. Rommel knew, then, that General Godwin-Austen would not attack before 3 December 1941. Because Rommel kept hoping to rescue his troops trapped at the frontier, he plotted to send two columns to the east, prior to any British attack. The Germans didn't have any available tanks, so Rommel decided to send two columns, each with an infantry battalion, anti-tank guns, and field artillery. General Crüwell opposed the move, but Rommel persisted. The move was helped by bad weather until the 3rd that kept aircraft grounded. By 3 December, aircraft were able to fly and found the two columns. One was caught by the 5th New Zealand Brigade, about ten miles west of Bardia, and was all but annihilated. The other fought an action with troops from the 4th Indian Division. The Germans were going to try again on 4 December and also decided to attack El Duda, as it blocked the "Tobruk bypass road". This is base on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, June 01, 2007

There seems to be some effort in Britain to publicize the Slapton Sands disaster in 1944

When I was sitting in Garfunkel's restaurant, at London Gatwick Airport, on the way back from Amsterdam, I talked with a couple from Plymouth, England. When the husband heard that I wrote about history, he asked me if I knew about the incident at Slapton Sands, during a practice for the Normandy invasion, in early 1944. I had not heard of it, as the cover-up has been very effective. There seems to be a concerted effort to publicize the disaster (for that was what it was). Marion Hoffman has a page about the incident.

More Rommel vs. British

Rommel relished the fluid battle while Bernard Law Montgomery hated and feared them. He preferred set-piece battles where every aspect was under his control. Rommel had discovered the advantages of infiltration over the set-piece or frontal attack on the Italian front in the Great War. He cut his teeth and built his reputation there. He also set his pattern for war-fighting. Because Rommel commanded from the front, largely, in Cyrenaica, he was much more aware of what was happening in battle than his British counterparts who commanded from headquarters in the rear. The British commanders who beat the Italians in 1940 and into 1941 followed this style, as well. Richard O'Connor, and his commanders thrived in the mobile, fast-moving battle. They readily beat the Italians, who were tied to the coast road and were mostly formed from marching infantry divisions. The war might have progressed considerably better for the British if Richard O'Connor's health hadn't failed and then he hadn't been put into the bag in early 1941.

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