Tuesday, May 31, 2005

More about Operation Battleaxe

This duplicates, to some extent, what I had written on May 20, 2005. Churchill had badgered General Wavell to immediately attack using the tanks that had arrived from the Tiger Convoy. The attack took place starting on 15 June 1941. The British and Commonwealth forces consisted of about 25,000 troops and 180 tanks (cruiser and infantry tanks). The divisions involved were the 7th Armoured Division (Gen. Michael Creagh) and the 4th Indian Division (Gen. Frank Messervy). The armoured brigades were the 7th with cruiser tanks from the Tiger Convoy and the 4th with Inf. Mk.II Matilda tanks. The Matildas could make about 8 mph, except on smooth roads. They were desparately short of transport for troops and supply. This is from Correlli Barnett's book, The Desert Generals. Churchill had pressed to have a convoy of tanks sent through the Mediterranean Sea by fast transport vessels. He felt that he could affect the outcome by immediately sending tanks, which seemed to be the key weapon of war in the theater. A15 Crusader tanks were just coming off the assembly line, so it is not clear that they were included. More likely, the tanks sent were A13 Cru. Mk.IVA's. There was also a regiment of light tanks, presumably Lt.Mk.VIC's. I believe that there were also newly produced Inf.Mk.II's, as well. They took at least one transport loss on the way, so some tanks were lost. I can imagine that Churchill's political position was deteriorating with the events of early 1941. The next year went as badly, except for the American entry into the war in December.

Monday, May 30, 2005

The aftermath of "Battleaxe"

Operation Battleaxe went badly for the British. The Germans used anti-tank guns to kill tanks while using tanks against infantry and trucks. The British had thought that you needed to use your tanks to kill other tanks. They had the disadvantage of having a small tank gun (the 40mm 2pdr). The Germans had a very small number of 88mm FlAK36 guns that were used in the anti-tank role. During Battleaxe, there were about 5 at Halfaya Pass, 4 "at Hafid ridge", and 4 operating with one panzer regiment (the 8th). After the battle, the British assumed that the Germans must have tanks that had a better gun than they did, and that accounted for their many tank losses. In fact, it seems that they were mostly killed by anti-tank guns. The Germans also had the advantage of good tank recovery equipment and organization. The British had almost none. When the British were forced to withdraw, they left behind knocked tanks that were repairable, because they had no way to recover them.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The impression taken away from Greece (in 1941)

The British and Commonwealth forces in Greece were not acclimatized to mountain combat. They face specialist German mountain troops, so they were at a disadvantage. As the political situation in Greece declined along with the military, the British were left with only one option: to withdraw. The Germans attacked at the "Monastir Gap", which was the junction between the Greek and British forces. Overhead, the Germans dominated the air. The collapse happened swiftly, so the British and Commonwealth forces had to rush to the south, to reach evacuation beaches. Somehow, they succeeded, and lost less than could have been expected. The Official History says that they left with the impression that they could beat the Germans, if they had the forces, despite the Germans being quite able and strong. This is my summary and paraphrase from the Official History.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

April 25, 1941 in Greece

The Germans moved forward on April 25, 1941. General Wilson considered the possibilities. The Germans could stage an attack with airborne troops on either Athens or the Straits of Corinth. General Wilson decided that the withdrawal needed to be made from southern beaches, to buy time. He ordered the 16th and 17th Australian Brigades to Kalamata. The 6th NZ Brigade was sent to Tripolis, rather than Marathon. They were to guard the roads to the beaches in the south. He sent 4th NZ Brigade to the Corinth Canal to embark with the troops guarding the canal. The 1st Armoured Brigade would be sent to Raphina to withdraw, rather than crossing the Corinth Canal. The operation was extended, due to the distance to the Peloponnessus beaches. Also on April 25th, the amphibious transport Ulster Prince was bombed and wrecked. Another transport, the Pennland was also bombed and sunk. The navy sent three destroyers so that all but 500 troops were embarked from Megara. This is my paraphrase of the paragraphs in the Official History.

Friday, May 27, 2005

There is an interesting story about Eric Dorman-Smith

After Generals O'Connor and Neame had been bagged by the Germans, General Wavell decided that Tobruk needed to be held. He believed that was a good way to slow Rommel's advance eastwards. At that time a Brigadier, Eric Dorman-Smith was ordered to fly to Tobruk and give the commanders there Wavell's plan for the defense of Cyrenaica and Egypt. He flew in a ubiquitous Westland Lysander, an early STOL aircraft. The pilot flew through a sandstorm to a what Correlli Barnett called a perfect landing at Tobruk's airfield. He delivered Wavell's orders to Brigadier John Harding and Australian General Leslie Morehead. Dorman-Smith had the impression that the two had the situation under control. As he flew out, Brigadier Dorman-Smith noticed what appeared to be German troops east of Tobruk, astride the road to Bardia. Rommel attacked Tobruk on April 13 and 14, 1941, and was repulsed by the Australians. He attacked again on the 16th and 17th. While he was doing that, his advance forces were blitzing towards Egypt. They arrived on the border on April 28th, a started to mop up the local British and Commonwealth positions.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

O'Connor hoped that the victory at Beda Fomm would gain him permission to take the rest of Libya

The odds were stacked against him, but General O'Connor hoped that winning at Beda Fomm would gain him permission to advance further. The Italians were is disarray, and had taken considerable losses in the process. They had lost 20,000 prisoners, 112 medium tanks (M11/39 and M13/40), 216 guns, and 1500 cars and trucks.

The problem was Greece. Churchill was eager to go into Greece and to help them fight Germans, if and when they were attacked. Churchill warned General Wavell that his overriding priority needed to be to aid Greece and possibly Turkey. He was to halt his advance into Libya, so that he had resources to send to the Balkans. Just possibly, O'Connor might have been able to advance far enough to forestall any German reinforcements, but it was not to be. Within a month, Rommel, and his advance forces, were in Libya, scouting out the British positions.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What happened in early 1941 was incomprehensible

The British reaction to driving the Italians from Cyrenaic (eastern Libya) was to disband the force that took the area. We can imagine that Churchill's Greek (mis-)adventure played a role. General O'Connor, the victor of Beda Fomm, went to Egypt. He was still having stomach problems. In his place, General Neame was put in charge of a "static area command". The 7th Armoured Division was withdrawn and scattered about Egypt. 13th Corps was disbanded. The newly arrived 2nd Armoured Division and an Australian brigade occupied the front facing Libya. Rommel attacked on March 31, 1941. When he realized that there was no organized resistance, he pushed harder. One group advanced up the coast road. Another crossed over the route used by O'Connor from Msus and Mechili. Another crossed further south, along a line connecting Mechili and Derna. For anyone who has followed this action, these names are quite familiar. Wavell ordered General O'Connor forward to help General Neame. They got lost and were bagged by the Germans.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Churchill could not resist fighting Germans, so he jeopardized the North African front

Churchill wrote to General Wavell saying:

"Neither of these [action in the Sudan or the Dodecanese] ought to detract from the supreme task of inflicting further defeats upon the main Italian army." (quoted in Correlli Barnett's The Desert Generals).

The Germans planned to go into Greece from Bulgaria, although not until March 1941. They were on a tight timetable, as the plans for attacking Russia in June were quite advance. To Churchill, defending Greece became more important than holding the gains in North Africa. He was ready to pull strong forces out of Libya and send them to Greece,w there they were expended, with only a portion being retrieved.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Churchill apparently felt that he had to contest every German attack

The Greek adventure where the British and ANZAC forces went into Greece, starting as early as late 1940 can be rationalized since they quite rightfully believe that they would only face Italians. In fact, the Italian assault was blunted, which was the excuse for the Germans to come in and rescure the situation. Still, the whole operation into Greece and the withdrawal to Crete was part of the overall collapse of Churchill's strategic vision. He was really geared to fighting Italians, not Germans. His forces could mop up the Italians in East Africa and eastern Libya with considerable ease, although with a sustained effort. The expedition to Greece dashed the opportunity to take all of Libya before the Germans arrived in strength. After the Germans, lead by Rommel, arrived in Libya, the British and Commonwealth forces were set back on their heels, as there was no one on the British side commanding armies in the field who had the skill and energy of Rommel. General O'Connor might have done well, but he was bagged early in the German attack. Auchinleck could do well, but he was tied up as theater commander.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

More about the British withdrawal from Greece

The army depended on the navy for being able to evacuate Greece in later April 1941. The RAF was pursuing an independent plan, as the situation went into collapse. As long as they could use airfields near Athens, they flew out the pilots and technicians. When the Blenheims were moved to Crete, they took as many as they could. Others were flown out by No.216 and 267 squadrons flying Bombays and Lockheed Lodestars. Flying boats, probably Sunderlands, were also used. The Wellingtons had already been withdrawn, s they were too vulnerable on the ground. Remaining RAF personnel would leave with the army.

The army plan was to move at night, as the Germans were not operating at night, to the relief of the British. Troops would move into position during the dark, and hide. Towards night, they would destroy equipment that they planned to abandon, and then move to the beach. Admiral Pridham-Whipple's force included the amphibious transports Gelnearn and Glengyle, which were equipped with landing craft. There were also 19 troopships and four "A-lighters". The A-lighter was an early LCT.

The ANZAC corps had been in a defensive position at Thermopylae since 19 April.

As the situation progressively got worse, partly due to the collapse of the Greek army, German air dominance became increasingly a factor. Not only did it complicate the withdrawal, but over the next month wrote off many of the Royal Navy's assets in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This is from Vol.II of the official history.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The defense of Post 11 at Bardia

The last Italian position to surrender at Bardia was "Post 11". Post 11 had put up the most resolute defense of Bardia's defenders. Two tanks and some carriers from the 6th [Australian] Divisional cavalry attacked Post 8, shortly after Post 13 had been taken when carriers and soldiers with grenades had attacked. 70 prisoners were taken. from Post 13. Post 8 was taken with little effort besides a perfunctory attack. That stopped anti-tank gun fire that had been harrassing the attackers of Post 11. When the tanks appeared, Post 11 surrendered. The 2/6th Battalion took their surrender. It turned out that there had been 350 Italians in Post 11, along with two field guns, two 3in mortars, six anti-tank guns (presumably 47mm/L32), 12 medium MG, 27 LMG, and 325 rifles. Gavin Long remarked that two days earlier, Post 11 had been attacked by about 50 Australians with rifles and grenades. No wonder they had been repulsed. This is my recounting of what is in Gavin Long's To Benghazi, an essential source of information about the successful campaign against the Italian forces prior to the German's arrival.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Operation Battleaxe: a lost opportunity

Churchill had pressed to supply General Wavell with a shipment of tanks pressed through the Mediterranean on fast transports (the Tiger convoy). Churchill immediately started pressuring Wavell to use the newly arrived tanks. Apparently, some of the shipment were newly build Crusader I tanks (A15). Wavell's response was to mount Operation Battleaxe, starting on 15 June 1941. They had about 25,000 troops and a mix of 180 tanks, including cruiser and infantry tanks. They were extremely short of transport. As I have written, truck shipments to the Middle East were way below what was both promised and required. General Beresford-Pierse had planned the operation and led it. The formations involved were the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division. The two armoured brigades were the 7th, equipped with cruiser tanks, mostly newly arrived, and the 4th, with infantry tanks. The hastily planned attack failed, with needless losses in tanks, and Churchill relieved Wavell and replaced him with Claude Auchinleck. This happened on June 21st. We can only imagine that Churchill acted on a whim or for political reasons, as Wavell had performed well as theater commander. Most problems were caused by pressure from Churchill and his effect on operations and plans.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Truck shipments to the British in the Middle East in 1941

The War Office had told General Wavell in October that 3,000 3-ton trucks would be shipped to the Middle East, every month, from North America, and that 7,000 would be shipped by the end of 1940. The reality was pretty grim: in early 1941, the shipments were only 616 in March, 863 in April, and 1,276 in May. Much of the Middle East transportation had been shipped to Greece, and was lost there. I imagine that this includes what was sent to Crete before the German attack. The distances in the Middle East were vast, and demanded large numbers of vehicles to move supplies and fuel. It was logistic nightmare for both sides. This is from the Official History of the Second World War The Mediterranean and the Middle East, Vol.II.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Auchinleck's strategy at the First Alamein

The winning strategy used by General Auchinleck, in the First Battle of El Alamein, was to attack the Italian formations with his infantry, which he had in abundance. Both German and Italian units were weakened by the action from May 1942 until July, besides having their supply lines stretched to the breaking point. Rommel felt powerless, as he lacked the means to stop Auchinleck. The Germans were too few to hold the front, and he relied on his Italian allies to provide the "boots on the ground" to maintain their position. Correlli Barnett puts the victory date at July 17, 1942. The Axis advance had been stopped, and nearly broken. The offensive launched in May at Gazala had failed, and now Rommel was forced to prepare defenses to hold what he had gained, with little hope of advancing further. This is based on Correlli Barnett's The Desert Generals.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More consideration of General Auchinleck and Montgomery

General Claude Auchinleck had gained his military experience largely in India. He was born in Northern Ireland (Ulster), and graduated from Sandhurst at the age of 20. That may explain his affinity for Eric Dorman-Smith, another Irishman. He joined the 62nd Punjab Regiment, after graduation and served in the Middle East. In 1933, he had served with Harold Alexander, fighting tribesmen and imposing order. He commanded the abortive operation at Narvik, after which Winston Churchill criticized him as being too cautious. That didn't stop Churchill from appointing Auchinleck to succeed Archibald Wavell as the theater commander in the Middle East and North Africa. Churchill was forever hounding his commanders to fight, as Churchill's political situation demanded action, often before his forces were ready.

The charge that Auchinleck made poor choices in his subordinate commanders is certainly valid. One defense was the lack of talent available, but that does not excuse him from what we see in hindsight as indefensible choices. Alan Cunningham simply did not have the relevant experience to be successful. His entire time in command of the 8th Army was so stressful to him that he was physically and mentally exhausted by the time he was relieved by Auchinleck. Neil Ritchie was a stolid organization man without any apparent original thoughts or ability. He was suitable as someone to take orders, not to be the key decision-maker.

The irony is that Bernard Law Montgomery was even more cautious than Auchinleck, and delayed the next offensive beyond the date that had been planned by Auchinleck. Unlike Auchinleck, Montgomery could only win with overwhelming forces, unimaginably applied. He came close to misfiring at the Second Alamein. The things that allowed him to prevail were his material superiority and the extreme difficulty with supplies that the Axis forces experienced. That allowed Montgomery to wear down Rommel's army until he was forced to withdraw them. Montgomery made such a feeble pursuit that he was never able to catch Rommel's army until they reached Tunisia, when they had no place to go.

Monday, May 16, 2005

General Ritchie planned to stake the entire Middle Eastern Theater on the battle at Mersa Matruh, circa June 25th, 1942

General Ritchie, after the collapse following Gazala, designed what he considered a blocking position at Mersa Matruh. The 8th Army was now reduced to 10th Corps and 13th Corps. The 10th Corps had the 10th Indian Division and 50th Division located within the perimeter at Mersa Matruh. Facing west on the coastal road, there was a minefield. South of that was a gap patroled by two small battlegroups, Leathercol and Gleecol. South of that, on the escarpment, protected by a minefield at the west end was 13th Corps, with the New Zealand diviosn and the remnants of the 1st Armoured Division. There was an incomplete position at the east end of the southern force at Minquar Quaim. General Auchinleck had succeeded in reinforcing the 1st Armoured Division, so that it had 159 tanks, including 60 Grants. How this was going to block the Axis forces, when the center was empty, is baffling. General Auchinleck arrived in the afternoon to review the situation and relieved Ritchie as army commander. This is based on Correlli Barnett's book The Desert Generals.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Boys anti-tank rifle was suitable for sniping, as well

During the assault on Bardia, in January 1941, two Australians, Privates Kneen and Hurley, traded shots with an Italian anti-tank gun, and succeeded in defeating it. This was just south of the road to Tobruk on the outer edge of the defense perimeter surrounding Bardia. A platoon from the 2/1 battalion had attacked at 9 in the morning and was beaten back by MG fire and pinned down. Once the anti-tank gun was silenced, the original attackers were able to withdraw. A fresh, battalion-sized attack was mounted in the afternoon, and post 54, the well-defended position, was taken. One third of the defending 30 men were casualties. This goes to show that the Italians could fight bravely and effectively. This is based on a section in Gavin Long's book To Benghazi.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

One piece of trivia is that the Australian 6th Cavaly regiment manned M11/39 tanks at Tobruk in January 1941

The Australian 6th Cavalry Regiment apparently was equipped with captured Italian M11/39 tanks as early as January 1941 for the assault on Tobruk. There is a photo of four of them painted with kangaroos on the hull and MG turret, at Tobruk. The caption on the photo indicates that they had been taken at Bardia. Cavalry carriers, presumably from the 6th Cavalry, were also in action during the assault on Tobruk. At one point, the grounded Italian armoured cruiser San Giorgio fired on them. Earlier, they had fired their MG's at the cruiser.

Friday, May 13, 2005

There was almost continual pressure from Churchill on Auchinleck to personally take command of the 8th Army

Winston Churchill had almost unbounded confidence in Claude Auchinleck's ability to lead an army in the field. He constantly begged Auchinleck to personally take command of the 8th Army. Auchinleck, however, was feeling the demands of being theater commander, and only took the reins of the 8th Army during crises. The first time was during the Crusader battle, as I recently wrote, and the second, and last time, was in the retreat from Gazala towards the Egyptian border. On the first occasion, the Crusader battle was one, and Tobruk relieved. On the second occasion, the first Alamein battle was won, and a plan made for Alam el Halfa. By late summer 1942, Churchill was so hard-pressed politically that he sacked Auchinleck and put Harold Alexander and Bernard Law Montgomery into the Middle East as a team, with Alexander as the theater commander and Montgomery as the field commander. They succeeded, but Montgomery's main strength was not losing battles, which was not a bad thing. The British Empire had had a string of defeats from 1940 to 1942, so they needed to stop losing.

There was almost continual pressure from Churchill on Auchinleck to personally take command of the 8th Army

Winston Churchill had almost unbounded confidence in Claude Auchinleck's ability to lead an army in the field. He constantly begged Auchinleck to personally take command of the 8th Army. Auchinleck, however, was feeling the demands of being theater commander, and only took the reins of the 8th Army during crises. The first time was during the Crusader battle, as I recently wrote, and the second, and last time, was in the retreat from Gazala towards the Egyptian border. On the first occasion, the Crusader battle was one, and Tobruk relieved. On the second occasion, the first Alamein battle was won, and a plan made for Alam el Halfa. By late summer 1942, Churchill was so hard-pressed politically that he sacked Auchinleck and put Harold Alexander and Bernard Law Montgomery into the Middle East as a team, with Alexander as the theater commander and Montgomery as the field commander. They succeeded, but Montgomery's main strength was not losing battles, which was not a bad thing. The British Empire had had a string of defeats from 1940 to 1942, so they needed to stop losing.

There was almost continual pressure from Churchill on Auchinleck to personally take command of the 8th Army

Winston Churchill had almost unbounded confidence in Claude Auchinleck's ability to lead an army in the field. He constantly begged Auchinleck to personally take command of the 8th Army. Auchinleck, however, was feeling the demands of being theater commander, and only took the reins of the 8th Army during crises. The first time was during the Crusader battle, as I recently wrote, and the second, and last time, was in the retreat from Gazala towards the Egyptian border. On the first occasion, the Crusader battle was one, and Tobruk relieved. On the second occasion, the first Alamein battle was won, and a plan made for Alam el Halfa. By late summer 1942, Churchill was so hard-pressed politically that he sacked Auchinleck and put Harold Alexander and Bernard Law Montgomery into the Middle East as a team, with Alexander as the theater commander and Montgomery as the field commander. They succeeded, but Montgomery's main strength was not losing battles, which was not a bad thing. The British Empire had had a string of defeats from 1940 to 1942, so they needed to stop losing.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The turning point in the Crusader battle in November 1941

The British doctrine was that you fought tanks with tanks, and so their armoured formations charged the German infantry and artillery covering the tanks, and were badly shot up by the 5cm PAK38's. The Crusader tanks were also mechanically unreliable, and broke down frequently. By November 23, the British had lost about 300 of their 450 cruiser tanks. General Cunningham requested that General Auchinleck fly out to the army headquarters to discuss the situation. Cunningham was ready to pull back, in the face of the losses. Fortunately, Cunningham's commanders disagreed, and wanted to continue the battle. Auchinleck had a sense that Rommel's forces were in as bad shape as the British, and decided to continue to prosecute the battle. By the end of November 23rd, the Germans were down to 100 running tanks. Rommel had sensed that Cunningham had lost his nerve, and decided on a bold stroke. He led his forces through a succession of British headquarters and swung across the desert toward the Egyptian border ("The Wire"). What ensued was what General Norrie dubbed "The Matruh Stakes", as it was a race for the border. Auchinleck's reaction was to order the 8th Army to continue to attack. It turns out that the German advance achieved nothing, and they were unsupplied, as well. They stayed in the "Omars" for for the 24th and 25th, and then withdrew. The Germans had hit the 4th Indian Division, which was holding the area around Sollum, Capuzzo, and Halfaya Pass. They repulsed the German assault, and inflicted considerable losses. They were losses that the Germans could ill afford. While Rommel was off swanning through the desert, 30th Corps struck at the critical point. When they reached Sidi Rezegh airfield, Colonel Fritz Bayerlein frantically called Rommel. But General Cunningham was suffering from exhaustion from the strain of the an unfamiliar situation that was out of his control. Auchinleck reluctantly removed him and replaced him with one of the few available options, Lt-General Neil Ritchie. This is based on Correlli Barnett's narrative in The Desert Generals.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

General Gott on German tactics, written after the Crusader battle

Correlli Barnett has a quote from General Gott, who was 7th Armoured Division commander during the Crusader battle in late 1941. General Gott wrote:

"The German will not commit himself to tank versus tank battle as such. In every phase of battle he coordinates the action of his anti-tank guns, Field Artillery and Infantry with his tanks and he will not be drawn from this policy"

The German superiority was based on their use of the 88mm AA gun as an anti-tank weapon. This should not have been a surprise, as they had used them in this role as early as the Spanish Civil War. Correlli Barnett says that just four "88'" were sufficient to block an armoured brigade.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The rearguard during the withdrawal from Crete

The British army and navy, especially in WWII, had these situations that went terribly wrong, but where men's bravery shown, nonetheless. On May 30th, 1941, 6,000 men were embarked at Sphakia by ships under the command of Vice-Admiral King. The amphibious transport Glengyle was an important compeonent, as she had the necessary landing craft to take men off the beach. On May 31st, four destroyers took off another 1,500 soldiers. General Freyburg was ordered to leave, and he and the senior naval officer at Suda Bay were taken by flying boat to Egypt. The rearguard was commanded by Brigadier Vasey. They were the 19th Australian Brigade, some light tanks from the 3rd Hussars, the 2/3rd Australian Field Regiment, the Royal Marine Battalion, and "Layforce". The Germans tried to turn the flanks, but most were able to be withdrawn. 4,000 were taken off, but 5,000 were left to surrender. A last ditch attempt was made to rescue more, but all they had to show for their efforts was the loss of the AA cruiser Calcutta.

Small guns in 1941

The best guns in use in the Western Desert in 1941 were the German 5cm PAK38 and the 8.8cm FLAK36. Since the British were using the 40mm 2pdr and the toy gun 0.55in Boys anti-tank rifle, they had to rely on firing 25pdrs over open sights. As we noted recently, they also were not issued very many AP shot. After all, they were mostly expected to be firing in howitzer mode, so for that, they needed HE shells. The German tanks were not very well armed, either. In early 1941, they still were using MG-armed Pzkw I, 20mm-armed Pzkw II, with the short 5cm L42 being the best tank gun. The Pzkw IV was still just a close support tank with the short 75mm L24. When the American Stuart light tank arrived, it had the pop-gun like American 37mm gun. Their only chance was to get a close-in side shot at a German tank. That was practically true of the 2pdr, although it did have better performance than the 37mm. Once the Germans started using applique armor on the glacis and turret, the lesser guns were almost useless.

Monday, May 09, 2005

British aircraft at Habbaniya, during the Iraqi revolt

The British had a presence in Iraq from 1917. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the King of Iraq was a small boy. The regent was the pro-British Amir Abdul Illah. In March 1941, a revolt took place, and eventually, the RAF training base at Habbaniyah was besieged. Habbaniya had an odd collection of aircraft, especially since it was a training base, but partly because that was what the RAF had in the Middle East and Africa. The aircraft at Habbaniya consisted of:
  • 32 Hawker Audaxes
  • 8 Fairey Gordons
  • 29 Avro Oxfords
  • 3 Gloster Gladiators
  • 1 Bristol Blenheim I
  • 5 Hawker Hart trainers
In addition, there was a squadron of Vickers Vincent bombers at Shaibah. They faced an Iraqi air force with 50 or 60 aircraft of similar vintage to what the British had.

Correlli Barnett on Auchinleck's failings

Correllis Barnett wrote that Auchinleck's second mistake was retaining Neil Ritchie as army commander after the Crusader battle. The first mistake was putting Alan Cunningham in place as 8th Army commander. Cunningham was up to colonial warfare in East Africa, but did not have the experience to command a modern mechanized army. Correlli Barnett quotes General Galloway as saying that Auchinleck failed : "from his inability coldly to conisder whether a man was really up to the job". General Ritchie had been a staff officer in Cairo, and now he was thrust into position of field commander, a job that he proved to be incapable of performing.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

The defence of Malta in February 1941

Apparently, Malta's defences in February 1941 included:
  • 8 infantry battalions plus the King's Own Malta Regiment
  • Two field batteries, Royal Artillery
  • One beach defence regiment, Royal Artillery, armed with 3.7in howitzers, 6in howitzers, and 18pdrs.
  • One Royal Tank Regiment troop with 2 light tanks and four infantry tanks (presumably Inf. Mk.II Matilda)
This is from Vol.II of the official history of the war in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The British colonial army was at its best in East Africa

The British colonial army was in its element in East Africa, fighting the Italians. they weren't up to fighting Germans in North Africa, at least without relearning their craft, but they knew Africa and warfare there. General Alan Cunningham, whom Auchinleck mistakenly put in charge of mobile forces in the Western Desert, led the attack against Gondar. Vol.II of the British official history tells the story of the East African campaign in Chapter XVI. There was only a skeleton force left in East Africa to pursue the campaign to defeat the Italians. The high command needed the best troops for use in Greece and the Western Desert. The RAF was involved as well, flying an odd collection of largely antique aircraft. There were Hurricanes, Gladiators, Fairy Battles, Harbeests, and even the Vickers Wellesley. Throughout Auchinleck's theater, there were present almost all the different types produced in the 1930's.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Churchill vs. Hitler as supreme military commander

Winston Churchill had military training and experience. I often forget that he had command experience in France during the Great War. Before that, he had been looking for opportunities to command in the field. He had many abilities besides being a naval administrator. When the situation had collapsed in May 1940, Winston was the obvious choice to lead the country.

Hitler lacked Churchill's experience and flare for the Supreme Commander role. That Germany did as well as they did was due to a number of factors. First was the dynamic and forward thinking army. There was some uneven quality, even in the German Army, but you saw giants like Field Marshall van Manstein, Has Guderian, and Rommel, to name a few. The second factor was their ability to produce technologically superior weapons. They often continued to use inferior hardware, but they could go from an army still equipped with Pzkw I's to the Panther in a short period. A feature of the early 1940's was that new weapons and technology could be developed quickly.

What Churchill particularly had was a high-level strategic vision. Hitler was more driven by politics and opportunism. You could argue that eventually, Germany would need to take out Russia, and June 1941 caught Russia in chaos. The German stroke came close to succeeding. Only the vast spaces and the work of some key generals saved them from defeat in the first few months. As it was, they lost large numbers of soldiers, mostly as prisoners of war, and immense quantities of equipment captured or destroyed.

Germany, though, under Hitler's leadership, was playing a gigantic Risk game. In 1942, they pushed as far as they could, until lack of resources and poor leadership at the highest level (Hitler's interference) dashed any hopes of success. Field Marshall von Manstein tried to rescue the situation, it was lost in the decision to tie up an army in Stalingrad. Improving Russian leadership, equipment, and manpower had grown strong enough to stop the German tide, and cause it to recede.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

I still have a large amount of unpublished material from the 1970's and 1980's

I have what I imagine is a large amount of unpublished materials that I both produced and accumulated, starting in the early 1970's and continuing up to about 1989. There are notes, orders-of-battle, and orders-of-arrival, drawings, and photographs. The drawings and photographs are generally of guns, armored cars, tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, trucks, and gun tractors. I have the usual sort of collection of photos that largely originate from Aberdeen proving grounds from the early 1970's up until about 1985. Towards the end, I had photos that were taken with a scale in the picture to better judge dimensions. I have many photos taken from angles, but I had started to take pictures from right angles to the front, side, and rear, so as to aid transfer to drawings. The main obstacle at present is that work and my other writing has preempted any work on my military materials. I started blogging here so as to at least be able to start writing on the subject and to make available information from notes and research materials.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Greg Costikyan has a review of "World at War"

Greg Costikyan has a long history in gaming. He attended the first game design class at SPI in the early 1970's as a 13-year old (I believe). He has made a career out of gaming, not just wargame development. He is now into wireless games, and works for Nokia. Greg has a review, on his blog, of World at War, a Gary Grigsby game:

World at War is actually a bit of a departure for Grigsby; he tends more toward big, long-lasting, complicated games, and World at War is essentially "Axis & Allies done historical." That is, it features areas rather than hexes, representational units rather than historical ones, a system vastly simpler than most of his games, and total playtime of maybe 4 hours, rather than 20+. In other words, it's clearly an attempt to make an historical wargame that might appeal to a wider audience.

Greg concludes:

If I were conceiving this product from inception (with, to be sure, the advantage of hindsight, of being able to see it already working, which the developers surely did not), I'd say: Not only do we need to simplify this UI as drastically as possible, we also need a series of programmed learning scenarios, along the lines of your typical RTS, that gradually and slowly introduce players to new concepts. Scenario 1, take France, Crete, and for bonus points Egypt by Fall 41, and we ignore the damn partisans. Scenario 2, everything is frozen except for Western Europe, you have to take Gibraltar, and we make the partisans ultra-important. And so on.

As it is, your typical Axis & Allies player is going to find himself stumped by this game.

And that's a shame, because when you get down to it, it's pretty damned cool.

On the other hand--if you aren't daunted by the thought of reading a manual, and like the idea of playing out the whole of WWII in an evening in a reasonably realistic game, this may be just your thing. And incidentally, both hot-seat and PBEM multiplayer provided.

Buy it via directly download from the Matrix Games site. Why should the retailers get a cut?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Artillery ammunition, circa 1944

A 25pdr in a field regiment was to be supplied with 144 rounds of HE, 16 rounds of smoke, and 12 rounds of armoured piercing shot. Certainly, in 1941-1942, there were plenty of opportunities in the Western Desert for firing AP shot at German and Italian tanks and armoured cars. 5.5in guns in medium regiments were only supplied with 100 rounds of HE. It seems to be the case that there was no AP round for this gun.

Monday, May 02, 2005

As I have written, the main criticism of General Auchinleck was his inability to choose good commanders

While General Claude Auchinleck was clearly a skilled commander in the field, in his theater commander role, he failed repeatedly to choose suitable field commanders. The first choice was Alan Cunningham, the admiral's brother. As I have previously written, he was experienced in combat, such as fighting in East Africa. That was a realm where he could be successful. That did not translate into being successful at leading armoured forces in North Africa. The second choice was Neil Ritchie, who transitioned into the role in November 1941, after Cunningham was relieved. Lt-General Ritchie seems to have only taken the reins after Auchinleck had intervened to ensure a successful outcome to the Crusader offensive to relieve Tobruk. Despite the overwhelming material superiority of the British and allied forces, the battle had almost been lost in the early days. Ritchie was not tested until the Gazala battle, where he was also found wanting. In his case, as I have previously written, he felt insecure in leading a mobile, armoured army, and relied upon his corp commanders for decision making. Since he had a diverse group in his command committee, they had trouble arriving at decisions. That seems to have been Lt-General Ritchie's failing, in particular. He also seems to have not been an experienced armour commander. His experienced commanders were all with limited experience against Italians, and lack of success against Germans. The British command seemed to generally lack the energy and high activity level of the Germans, led by Rommel. Rommel set the pace for his forces, and that really just reflected the general superiority of the German command training.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

When you pit an indecisive committee against Rommel, it's hardly fair

Just think about the indecisive British committee commanding the 8th Army at Gazala, fighting against Rommel, and "it hardly seems fair". Rommel's command style was to lead from the front, so that he set an example for his troops, and so that he knew the situation on the ground. The British style, developed by the command team that Auchinleck had put in place, was to discuss everything and take votes. General Neil Ritchie was nominally the army commander, but he must have been insecure enough to rely upon his corps commanders. There is a photo in Correlli Barnett's book that shows Lt-General Norrie (30th Corps), Lt-General Gott (13th Corps), and Lt-General Ritchie poring over a map, presumably during the battle. You can imagine that they were most of the command-committee team.

Correli Barnett said that tthe British were commanded by a committee at the Gazala Battle with predictable results

The result of the British command at Gazala, in 1942, was that decisions were not being made in a timely fashion. Forces were committed piecemeal and action was not being taken, generally. Even General Frank Messervy, who was sometimes doing questionable things, complained about the command setup: "They put us--an absurd thing, a static fortress under an armoured commander. Bir Hacheim fell because [General] Ritchie had not really made up his mine what his main plan was going to be: There was a token advance towards Bir Hacheim, but it was too far away." (quoted by Correlli Barnett in The Desert Generals, page 156)

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