Friday, September 28, 2007

The British convoy on 22 March 1942

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The convoy of 20 March 1942

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

Monday, September 24, 2007

Naval Action in early March 1942

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

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Force H operations

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

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The German air offensive against Malta

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

Friday, September 21, 2007

Malta must be sustained

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Italians try to interfere

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

Monday, September 17, 2007

Another convoy to sail on 6 February 1942

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

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The new Axis convoy strategy

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

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Supplies to Malta

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

Friday, September 14, 2007

The threat to Malta in early 1942

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

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Naval operations, starting in January 1942

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The setback, from the perspective of the Official History

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

German analysis of British shortcomings

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

Monday, September 10, 2007

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

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

Sunday, September 09, 2007

British versus German command

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

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

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Axis forces in early February 1942

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

Friday, September 07, 2007

A change in British policy

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

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The British air situation in late January 1942

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

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Adventures on 28 January 1942

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

Monday, September 03, 2007

Rommel's surprise

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

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The next developments

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

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