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WW2 British Tactics

British Somaliland Campaign 1920

The 21 day campaign

Map of British Somaliland in 1920, showing the route taken by the Somaliland Camel Corps during the campaign of 1920. Source: Pinterest

The Mad Mullah

Somaliland had been a British protectorate since 1855, covering some 176,000 square kilometres bound by French interests to the North West, Italian interests to the East and Abyssinia to the south. This tiny region supplied beef to Aden which was vital to British global interests as a stopping-off point for coaling ships between India and Great Britain. Aden also controlled the horn of Africa. The campaign to suppress an uprising there lasted from 1899 to 1920.

The Deervish uprising had begun a generation earlier, at the call of Sayyid Muhammed Abdille Hassan, also known derisively by the British as the ‘Mad Mullah’. This nickname started in 1899, when the Consul General J. Hayes-Sadler described him by saying “the Mullah has gone off his head” after an incident when he tried to shoot his nephew and managed to kill his own horse instead. This appearance of a loose grasp on reality was reinforced by Sheikh Salih, the head of the Islamic Salihiya Order in Mecca, who denounced Hassan as a sinner against Allah, his Prophet, and not a true Muslim.

Hassan, belonging to the Ogaaden clan and also the religious Salihiya Order, had a fanatical view of Islam that he wanted to instill on all Somalis, whether Muslim or Christian. As such, this was not a Somali uprising against British colonial rule as much as a religious civil war in the region, pitting the Muslim Salihiya adherents against both Christians and the Qadiriya Order of Islam. By 1899, this call to Jihad had amassed some 5,000 men and became widely known as the ‘Dervishes’.

Four land campaigns were mounted by the British between 1900 and 1905, costing some GB£3 million and over 1,400 Imperial (400 British and ~1,000 local forces) deaths. The Mullah had a particular fondness for beheading prisoners. Over his time, he was responsible for around 200,000 deaths in an area with a population of just around 3 million people.

Even with a somewhat weak victory in 1905, the situation was still volatile and barey concealed through 1908, when a new conflict began. Campaigns effectively followed the 1905 ‘victory’ for the next 15 years.

The war was a low key affair with few battles and mostly skirmishes, as the Dervish forces were unable to face the British forces in open battle on equal terms. When they tried, such as at the battle of Jid Ali, it ended with 58 dead British and over 1,000 dead Dervishes. Their best tactics were ambush, hit and runs and incidents such as the ambush at Gumburu Hill, which left 198 British and allied forces dead. These showed that the Dervish problem needed to be resolved permanently. Over the years of WW1 (1914-1919), the Dervishes were increasingly weakened by factional and tribal infighting, but they remained a substantial concern to the Empire, as they could foray far within that part of Africa and cause a lot of disruption – particularly if that disruption affected the vital Indian supply route. In total, the Mullah’s forces amounted to around 1,000 men, with his seat of power at the large fort complex at Taleh (known in Somali as ‘Taleex’), close to the border with Italian Somaliland. Taleh was a massive complex consisting of a large main fort (Silsilad), about 107 m wide by 91 m long, a walled prison (Dawad), the Mullah’s house (Falad), and a lookout post (Daar Illale), as well as a tomb built for the Mullah’s father and a mosque. The fort was built by the Mullah with assistance from skilled stone mason from Yemen between around 1909 to 1910. Lookout towers on the fort were around 15 m high, providing a commanding view of the area.

Aerial photograph of the Taleh fort complex. The large circular compound is the primary fort and the heights of the structures over the surrounding land could not be overestimated as an excellent defensive structure. Source: kaiserscross.com
Aerial view of the primary fort building at Taleh. The large internal area, thick walls, and multiple buildings meant a lengthy siege was likely necessary to take this structure. Source: kaiserscross.com

With the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, British and Empire troops were needed more and more in Europe and the Middle East. The Mullah was a continual nuisance and troops were also needed in this region. As of March 1915, the British had a force of over 1,600 men from the Somaliland Camel corps, Indian Army, and Somali Illaloes, along with a pair of 12-pounder field guns. This was a good sized garrison, but not sufficient to defeat the Mullah, so instead the plan was to keep him out of trouble. Mostly defensive operations were carried out to defeat incursions by Dervish forces, along with regular patrolling. The standard of the Mullah’s men was not great and they were regularly defeated by the Empire’s forces whenever they met. What the Mullah’s men did have on their side was surprise and mobility. The British goal was one of containment, to try and keep the Mullah in the eastern part of the protectorate and out of the Somali grazing grounds. The Mullah did receive some assistance from the Central Powers in the form of advice and technical assistance from the Ottoman Turks, although the German armorer sent to help him manufacture and repair weapons in 1916 was treated so badly he had to escape and, in 1917, died on his way out of the country.

With 1919 and the end of WW1, the British Cabinet could focus on the Empire’s issues to a greater extent. A new air arm, formed under Group-Captain Robert Gordon, was formed in Somaliland. This would be one of the first post-war operations for the newly formed Royal Air Force (formed April 1918) which replaced the Royal Flying Corps. Planning for the campaign was done by Major General Sir A. Hoskins. Anxious to put an end to the Mullah once and for all, the task force, designated ‘Z’ (‘Zed’) Force for reasons of secrecy, would break new ground for the British military, combining naval, land, and sea power in colonial ‘policing’.

Z force (‘Zed’ force)

Under the command of Gordon, 800 tonnes of supplies along with aircraft were delivered by HMS Ark Royal to the port of Berbera on 30th December 1919. HMS Ark Royal was a 7,080-ton aircraft carrier that started life as a merchant ship and had been converted to carry aircraft in 1914. She carried four 12-pdr. guns and 4 seaplanes as a normal complement of aircraft.

HMS Ark Royal in 1918. Source: US National Archives via wiki

An advance party had already landed in Somaliland on 25th October 1919 and created a small landing strip at Las Khorai. The primary base for the campaign would be Berbera, with an advanced base as Eil due Elan. With the arrival of twelve DH9A aircraft, along with 36 officers and 183 airmen, on 30th December, these were moved to Las Khorai and assembled. By 19th January, assembly and flight testing were complete, meaning that the air campaign began on 21st January 1920.

De Havilland DH.9A bomber. Source: Imperial War Museum

This was an RAF operation, including all of the air and land forces. Ground operations would begin when the RAF said so.

The Royal Navy force off the coast would be able to provide fire support within the range of their guns, but also ensuring the security of the coastline. In this role, they were also assisted by an armed Dhow which was crewed by ratings from the Navy. HMS Odin and HMS Clio were both 1,070-ton sloops with a crew of 150 men and armed with six 4” guns and four 3 pdr. guns.

HMS Odin. Source: Naval History.net
HMS Clio. Source: Naval History.net

Between the 12 pdr. guns of HMS Ark Royal, and the 4” and 3 pdr. guns of the two sloops, the Royal Navy could provide fire support inland. The 12 pdr. could deliver a 5.67 kg (12.5 lb.) High Explosive shell to a target 9,970 meters away, whilst the larger 4” gun could land a 24.26 kg (53.5 lb.) shell some 14,950 meters inland. It was not far, but it was sufficient to ensure that the landing party could be covered for at least its initial phases.

Ground Forces

With no aerial opposition, the aircraft of Z Force would rule the sky, but land forces would be needed for the taking of the Somali forts. Ground support elements would accompany Z Force, namely ‘A’ Force with the Somaliland Camel Corps, portions of the 101st Grenadiers and some scouts; ’B’ Force with a battalion of King’s African Rifles and scouts; a force of tribal levies; a landing party from the Royal Navy; and a special transportation force to keep them all supplied.

Petrol and oil supply dump at Eil dur Elan, guarded by men from 101st Grenadiers. Source: Kaiserscross.com
The staging area at Eil dur Elan, with 3 of the DH-9 aircraft assembled and hidden from blowing dust by large grass screens 12’ (3.7 m) high and 50 yards (46 m) long. Source: kairserscross.com

The Plan

The plan was split into two phases. Phase A was for half of the aircraft (6 planes) to support ‘A’ Force in occupying Eil dur Elan, with the other half of the aircraft tasked to ‘B’ Force at Las Khorai. ‘A’ Force would then move towards El Afweina to create an aerodrome from which it would bomb the Dervish forces, whilst ‘B’ Force would go straight for the fort at Baran.

Once Phase 1 was achieved, with the aerodrome built at El Afweina and the Baran fort taken, Phase 2 would start, which was the full-scale bombing and strafing of Dervish forces until such time as they were felt suitably cowed for the ground forces to attack. This would be a systematic attack, taking one fort from Dervish control at a time, while closing on Taleh progressively. The Somali tribal forces were deployed all across the region to conduct the type of nomadic raiding they were used to and best suited for. They would thus hamper the Dervish supply routes and intercept any fleeing forces.

A Vickers machine gun team of the Somaliland Camel Corps (S.C.C.) in action in the protectorate against troops of the Mullah in 1916 or 1917. Source: kaiserscross.com

Opening Strikes

The combat phase of the campaign began on 21st January 1920, with the 6 aircraft assigned to ‘A’ Force making their first combat mission, with the target of the Dervish fort at Medishe. Mullah Hassan had heard of the British operation, although likely had no comprehension of what an aircraft either was or certainly what control of the sky meant. He had, however, moved the bulk of his forces from their base at Taleh to Medishe. Thus, this first mission targeted the very heart of his army.

Unfortunately for the British, navigation over what was often mostly trackless arid scrubland from the air was not as easy as it looked, with few points by which to navigate. The result was that these 6 planes struggled to find Medishe. One had engine trouble and had to make an emergency landing at Las Khorai with ‘B’ Force.

In fact, only one plane managed to locate Medishe and dropped its complement of eight 20-pound (9 kg) incendiary bombs, as well as liberally spraying the fort with .303 caliber ammunition from its Lewis gun. On the plus side of the navigation mishap was that the other four planes managed to locate the other fort at Jid Ali and, rather than waste an opportunity, delivered their munitions there, to the surprise of the roughly 1,000 troops there. The cost of surprise with the aircraft was the ability to have learned the terrain beforehand with aerial reconnaissance.

This was the first introduction of the Mullah to airpower and it was no casual lesson. One of his leading allied Amirs supporting him and his revolt was killed and he narrowly escaped with his life, as he suffered burns to his clothing from the bombs at Medishe. One can only surmise that, had the other four aircraft bombed Medishe as well instead of Jid Ali, he may have been killed right on day 1.

Over the following two days (22nd and 23rd January), more raids were carried out against Medishe, although it was not without incident. On 21st January, just four planes were available and one had engine problems, meaning it had to turn back. The other three once more got lost and missed Medishe but again found Jid Ali instead. They dropped a pair of 112-pound (51 kg) bombs on the fort, followed by their full complement of 20-pound (9 kg) incendiary bombs on the Mullah’s cattle herd.

The Mullah’s force was terrified by this bombing and the raids successfully scattered the Dervishes. The Mullah, escaping with his life, fled south with his retinue and bulk of whatever force had not been killed or ran away, heading for his base at the Taleh fort complex. Or so the British thought. Mullah Hassan had actually taken refuge in a cave at Medishe and hid there until the end of January. Only a token Dervish force remained at Jid Ali.

There, the dispatch of those irregular loyal tribal forces proved providential, as the retreating forces of Mullah’s were in such utter disarray that these friendly Somali forces attacked, looted, and slaughtered most of the Mullah’s forces before the SCC could arrive and do the job.

‘B’ Force was doing equally well in its opening phase, advancing on the fort at Baran, arriving there at noon on 22nd January. This was no small ‘mud fort’, but a solidly built masonry structure with towers and walls 12 m and 4 m high, respectively.

The very substantial stone structure of Baran Fort. Light artillery and aerial bombing would barely scratch the stout stone walls. Source: Jardine

Around 80 Dervishes were located in the fort and began sniping at British forces as soon as they were within range. It seems that here, the decision was made to try and scare the defenders out rather than to destroy the fort, as the machine guns provided deliberate fire to ensure no more sniping would take place, and the Stokes mortars fired at it. Some 320 rounds were fired from the mortars but only hit the fort 6 times. They had been positioned too far away. The next day, after scouting by the Illaloes, the mortars were within 250 m and began firing again. Despite this and that 12 shells hit the fort, it was simply too substantial to make a significant difference and the Dervishes were not fleeing.

British 3” Stokes mortar in use in the Balkans in WW1. Source: Imperial War Museum

Rather than waste another day, it was decided at dusk to risk a small party to come and plant 45 kg of gun cotton by one of the towers, despite the open ground and Dervish snipers. This was done without injury and did the trick.

Just after dawn the next day (24th January), dozens of Dervishes were seen fleeing the fort to a small one further up the hill. Despite only being a reconnaissance platoon in strength, this force then assailed the remaining defenders in the fort to prevent their escape. The smaller position was dealt with by men of the KAR with no problems and all told, some 18 Dervish men, 3 women, and numerous animals had died between the somewhat ineffective bombing and the rush by men from the KAR the next morning. Three Askaris had been shot, although it is not known if they were killed or wounded. The rapidity of the action of the next morning and the gallantry of the demolition the night before earned these men of ‘B’ Force a pair of Military Crosses, a pair of African Distinguished Conduct Medals, and an Imperial Distinguished Conduct Medal.

If there had been some idea of saving the forts, this was gone by the 25th, when they were blown up to prevent them from being used again. ‘B’ Force was to move to Galgalla and wait for further orders.

Second Phase

Phase 2 of the operation was initiated on 24th January, as the Jid Ali and Medishe forts were all but abandoned and there were no more herds to bomb either. During one reconnaissance mission, one DH-9 was lost due to mechanical problems and had to land, forcing the two men into a 65 km march to the sea to be rescued by the Royal Navy.

On 28th January, ‘A’ Force moved out to Jid Ali and the token force there proved as stubborn as the one ‘B’ Force had found at Baran. A fresh air attack caused some of the Dervishes to leave. However, once more, the heavy masonry walls of the fort meant that the mortar fire was mostly ineffective. Rather than risk a full-scale attack and many deaths, it was decided to continue the shelling. It was then noticed the next morning (29th January) that the Dervishes had decided to leave the gate open. The fort was rushed by a British officer and two Illaloe scouts. Having taken Jid Ali, they found that the Dervishes had left the gate open when they had fled during the night, leaving behind numerous dead animals, 2 dead men, 76 rifles, and one small boy.

The troops from ‘B’ Force, who had been ordered to wait at Galgalla, had done so and, on 31st January, were ordered to move to Jid Ali to round up any remaining animals. It was in this operation that the remnants of an early war with the Dervishes were found on 6th February. This took the form of a pair of machine guns; a Maxim Nordfelt model 1895 and a tripod-mounted Vickers machine gun. Both had been converted from .450 caliber to .303 and appeared to have been dating from the battles of Erigo (1902) and Gumburu (1903). One other trophy, a bugle marked as belonging to the 2nd King’s African Rifles, was also recovered. The last post was blown on this bugle over the Jid Ali fort, as well as smaller ones as they were all blown up. The two machine guns were recovered back to base.

With the resounding defeat at Medishe and now faced with both Baran and Jid Ali in British hands, the Mullah, thoroughly beaten and humiliated, and who had been hiding in a cave, decided to make a break for it with whatever forces he had left to his power base at Taleh. The Somaliland Camel Force contingent of ‘A’ Force left in pursuit, heading straight for Taleh from Jid Ali, following his tracks.

There was other ground combat too, as the fort at Galbaridur needed to be seized as well. This was left to the Royal Naval force led by Captain Hewitt. With 100 men (including himself) from HMS Odin and HMS Clio, they were primarily armed with rifles, but also carried 3 Lewis guns, 2 Vickers machine guns, and had a single 12 pounder 4-cwt. naval field gun.

The heavy structure of Galbaribur fort overlooked by high ground. Source: kaiserscross.com

A small native contingent completed the force, including 28 of the invaluable Illaoe scouts and 112 native laborers to help move animals, supplies, and the field gun. The gun itself took 31 men to move and was hampered by the soft sandy ground over which they traveled. In anticipation of this, the wheels of the carriage had been fitted with large ‘feet’ to spread the load.

The 12 pounder 4-cwt. naval field gun and limber being pulled across the Somali desert. Source: kaiserscross.com

This force was disembarked at Sanak on 5th February and, having formed up into a cohesive unit, marched 5 km inland to a harbor area. This would allow them the first night under canvas whilst still being under the protection of the guns of their ships. The harbor area also had machine guns at each corner so that it was a well-protected square.

On 6th February, having taken breakfast with tea and bully beef, the force marched on the fort, arriving mid-afternoon. The RAF had dropped a load of bombs on it, but had done little damage. Galbaribur Fort was, like the others forts encountered, a large stout masonry structure with walls 1.7 m thick. Despite the best efforts of the Illaloes sneaking up to fire into the fort through its own loopholes, the Dervishes inside did not give up.

After breakfast on the 7th, the British decided to assault the fort with the men in an extended line, offering as few targets to the defenders as possible. Support fire was provided by the machine guns to keep the defenders as enclosed as possible and the 12 pounder gun blasted away with High Explosive shells at the upper levels. Despite some damage from the field gun, the fort did not collapse and the men who got to the wall could not climb it, as they were not provided with scaling ladders. The attack was called off and the troops retired for tea and a rethink.

By the morning of the 8th, new ammunition had been brought up for the field gun, including solid shot used as practice ammunition. Using a combination of these rounds to break up the exterior walls and then the HE rounds to smash holes, the next attack was substantially more effective and was covered once more by machine-gun fire from the Lewis guns on the nearby hillside. The attackers quickly occupied the roof of the fort and could both fire down onto the Dervishes below and throw grenades at them. Despite it being hopeless, there were still some resisting. After about 30 minutes, one Dervish, accompanied by some women and children, came out. The British implored the defenders to surrender to save any more women and children inside. They refused and three Illaloes were shot and wounded.

Nine more rounds from the field gun persuaded the Dervish commander to make a run for it, but he was shot down and killed. When the British entered the fort, they found all of the remaining Dervish troops had been killed and the 20 or so women and children were taken out. All told, some 15 Dervishes had been killed for no British loss. Like the other forts, this fort was also blown up to prevent it from being used again. The Naval landing party then turned about and headed back to their ships.

The Camel Corps pursuit of the Mullah had proven effective too as, on 9th February, just 20 km from Taleh, one of the Mullah’s sons told them he was at Taleh, besieged by 200 Somali loyalist troops, who prevented the Mullah from fleeing. Whether this was some family feud gone awry or a ruse de guerre to draw the SCC into an ambush is not known. The force was indeed ambushed that night while moving towards Taleh. The ambush was, however, fought off with great coolness, and an African Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded for Sgt Mohammed of the SCC.

The ambush had failed to kill anyone or delay the advance on the fort. At night time, the tired men of the SCC had the fort almost in sight.

The Mullah, in his rush to get to the fort and with the speed of the pursuit, had not had time to secure much of his supplies. Thanks to the quick action of the SCC, as well as the tribal forces which had been harassing the Mullah, a huge prize had been taken. For the British, the arms and supplies were perhaps the most valuable thing to take from the Mullah, comprising some 51 rifles, 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and 300 camel loads of supplies. For the tribal forces for whom animals were worth at least as much or more than gold, there was a prize of 1,400 camels, 450 cows, and 50 ponies.

The approaching Camel Corps forces were also faced with a counterattack by the Dervishes, amounting to a force of around 80 men to try and break through the defensive screen put up by the native troops. This failed and the approaching forces routed the Dervishes, as the SCC attack panicked the 150 or so men who were in the fort.

If anything, this great prize was a hindrance, as the native forces were now more interested in the animals than in pursuing the Mullah. The SCC continued, however, taking 150 men forward and located the Dervish bodyguard of the Mullah protecting his wives and children. This bodyguard was then killed and the Mullah’s family now fell almost completely into British hands.
Exhausted, and with prisoners and booty they had to control, the SCC had to give up the chase temporarily. This was despite finding evidence that the Mullah and 20 men were nearby, heading to Taleh.

Harassment of the SCC continued by the Mullah’s men. The SCC proved themselves both more stoic than their Dervish adversaries, but also less prone to flight and resisted no less than three ambushes on Garrowei on the 22nd and two others after. During these, the Mullah’s forces were repelled and four more African Distinguished Conduct Medals, along with an Indian Distinguished Service Medal, were awarded.

These medals were a small price to pay for not having to besiege and assault the fort complex at Taleh. With almost all of his supplies captured, most of his men dead, and most of his family in custody, the Mullah fled over the border into Italian Somaliland. With this, the British had cemented a victory and the Mullah had his loss and his humiliating rout. The SCC then entered and occupied Taleh Fort unhindered. With the combat operations over, forward air operations were then moved to Berbera to continue in the colonial policing role.

After the Battle

With the threat of the Mullah gone, the British reasserted colonial rule in the region. The Governor of Somaliland was even able to fly out to see the success in person within just 48 hours of the victory, thus stamping the authority of the British firmly in the region.

Mullah Hassan, with just a few of his most loyal followers, had fled over the border into Italian-administered Somaliland and then into Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). The governor of British Somaliland, Geoffrey Archer, tried to use this opportunity to persuade the Mullah to seek peace with his neighboring Sheiks.

The memory of these Somali Sheiks was long enough to recall Hassan’s penchant for beheadings and violent killing, murder, and torture of civilians and rejected this offer. Not that it mattered anyway, Hassan was unreliable and unreasonable, and negotiations fell apart.

A thoroughly beaten man managed to escape justice one last time by dying of influenza. Thus, on 23rd November 1920, when he died, the Mullah and the threat he posed to British Imperial interests and to his neighbors were over. Today, the Mullah is seen by some in Somalia as a symbol of resistance against British rule, carefully forgetting over 20 years of depravity and murder.

The real winner of the campaign was the RAF. A new organization had made sure it had a reputation for independent and coordinated action where airpower could be the decisive element in a campaign or battle. That was not the only victory for the RAF either, for not only did they show the potential power of bombing, but also that even rugged and remote areas were within reach. The areas to hide in for opposing forces had become much smaller. Finally, there was also the use of aircraft to ferry the wounded to help – something new in warfare.

“…had it not been for the demoralising effect of the aerial bombardment, the Dervishes would still be disturbing the peace in North-Eastern Africa”

Source: Jardine. p.280

Air-ambulance

Within Z Force would be a new novelty never before used by the British – the air ambulance. This was primarily an RAF operation rather than an army one and an RAF medical unit was attached to Z Force. Led by a medical officer called William Tyrell – a man who had already conducted secret surveillance of the area on the ground in November 1919. Of the 12 De Havilland DH-9 biplanes which were sent in pieces from Britain, one was equipped as an air ambulance. The primary modification carried out was the fitting of an enclosed cabin behind the pilot’s seat, in the rear fuselage of the aircraft. With the appearance of a large rounded lozenge, a single occupant could be placed inside in the lying position and evacuated.

All of the DH-9s, including the ambulance version, arrived just after Z Force, in January 1920.

This is perhaps the first air ambulance ever, anywhere and, if so, then Captain James Godman, aged 45, with necrosis of the middle toe on his left foot, was the first to benefit from it.

Such a ‘minor’ injury could easily have become infected and led to gangrene and even death. However, once evacuated, he and numerous others had their lives and health saved. In total, this ambulance ferried 13 officers and around 100 other ranks from the field to the hospital, and at least five other men wounded who were not admitted. Of all of these men, just 11 did not return to duty – a remarkable success rate for both the ambulance and the subsequent medical care the men received.

The first casualty, Captain J. Goodman, evacuated by air from El Afweina to Eil dur Elan. Source: kaiserscross.com
The modified DH.9A air ambulance with the obvious ambulance pod on the back and the red cross flag draped over it. Source: MOD Air Historical Branch

It is worth noting, however, that, along with the 11 standard DH-9s, the hospital version was also capable of offensive use. The red cross markings could be removed, as they were in the form of a sheet fastened around the rear of the fuselage, over the passenger cabin area. The new passenger cabin at the back replaced the bomb-aimer’s position behind the pilot and also stripped the aircraft of its single Lewis .303 caliber machine gun that would be operated from this position. Given the utter lack of any possible threat from the air, this was absolutely not a problem of any concern.

Other than that, this was a standard DH-9 with the same 12.9 m wingspan and 230 hp Siddeley Puma petrol engine. It is unclear if it actually carried any armament at any time but, given that the ambulance part could be used as required and that the plane was otherwise just a regular DH.9, there is no reason to suppose that it could not have been used for attacks on the Mullah’s forces if it needed to.

Conclusion – What about the Tanks?

It is perhaps obvious that tanks were not used in this conflict. The British had developed and deployed tanks in 1916 and were, even by 1919, still generally large and rather slow. The smallest and fastest British tank of 1920 was the Medium Mark A Whippet, capable of a blistering 8.3 miles per hour (13 km/h). Completely invulnerable to any armament the Mullah had at his disposal short of a field gun, this tank, even with a limited range of just 80 miles (129 km), might have seemed like a logical choice to take along. Or, if not a tank, perhaps an armored car, like a Rolls Royce.

The British Medium Mark A Whippet. At 14 tons and completely impervious to small arms fire, the Whippet could manage a top speed of 8.3 mph (13 km/h). Armed with machine guns, the tank proved a success on the Western Front in WW1. Source: IWM

At less than half the weight (under 5 tonnes fully laden, compared to the 14 tonnes) of the Whippet, and with a similar level of protection (again, all but invulnerable to anything the Mullah had access too short of a field gun), an armored car was perhaps even more logical. With a range of 150 miles (241 km), it could go nearly twice the distance of the Whippet and 5 times more quickly too, with a top speed on a good hard surface of a little over 40 miles per hour (64 km/h). Tanks had been used to good effect against the Ottoman Turks in Palestine during the war and the armored cars across the Middle East too, most famously by Major T. E. Lawrence. Less well known was their use in German West Africa during the war in East Africa in 1915, where, despite the terrain, they proved a useful force multiplier.

Rolls Royce armored cars seen during the 1915 campaign in German West Africa.
Source: Rolls Royce

Yet, despite these successes, neither was used. That is not to say that post-campaign, they were not reported being used, because they were. Following a confused telegram from Nairobi at the conclusion of the campaign, several British newspapers reported the use of tanks during the campaign, which was completely untrue.

“The news of the downfall of the Dervish power was greeted with enthusiasm by the home pressmen [the British domestic media] who, misguided by a characteristically false news cable from Nairobi, added a panegyric of the efficacy of the tank in savage warfare to their usual recommendation in favour of a railway from Berbera to Bohotle”

Source: Jardine. p.284

Whilst, even before the existence of the RAF, there had been armored cars in non-Army hands – such as the work conducted by the Royal Naval Air Service (R.N.A.S.) in WW1 and even though the RAF did have some armored vehicles, they were simply not used.

It could be speculated that the reason why they were not was because the goal was to try and prove the power of aircraft over land forces, yet this had clearly been a gamble. The final outcome of the campaign supported this gamble as well. Casualties had, after all, been light amongst British forces – very light. The cost too was low, just GBP £83,000 (GBP £3.8 million in 2020 values). Even then, it was only so expensive because of the high value of the Rupee in which the locals were paid compared to the British pound at the time. The normal exchange rate was around half of the exchange rate at the time, so this sent a strong message. A campaign of colonial policing from the air was cheap and a major land campaign with light troops could be mounted for little expense without the need for costly tanks and heavy artillery. Indeed, this was exactly the lesson former Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Beatty (a veteran of the battle of Omdurman in 1889 against the Jihadist Islamic Mahdist forces of Abdullah al-Taashi), when he reflected on the whole affair in 1930, asking:

“How was the Air Service to be developed to take over those humdrum responsibilities. Mr. Churchill, who was Secretary of State for Air immediately after the War, said that the Air Service must accept in peace some of the responsibility of trying to keep the peace in countries and in waters that had been patrolled in the past by the Navy and the Army, and that, if it could not do so, it would not be bearing its fair share of the burden of Imperial defence.

 

At the same time, he proposed that the Air Service should be responsible for keeping peace and order in what was then known as Mesopotamia. The Air Staff willingly accepted that responsibility. Why did we accept it, and why did we think that we could possibly succeed? We thought that, if full use were made of the mobility and the moral effect of the Air Force, it could keep order in these wide spaces of the British Empire. I would ask your Lordships to remember that, outside Europe, the Empire consists of very wide open spaces. We thought that, if mobility in the air were fully used and if a rising took place 200 miles away, instead of having to take weeks, if not months, in organising and getting to the seat of the disturbance a ground force, within perhaps two hours, aeroplanes could be there. There would be no vulnerable lines of communication to attack; there would be no convoys to cut up; there would be no railways and roads to make; and that is what we mean by using to the fullest extent its mobility. In operations by ground troops in these open spaces…

 

…I do say that we should investigate and find out what other humdrum responsibility the Air Force is justified in taking over in peace time. What about the frontier of India? What about the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Sudan, and other places? All I say is that, if after inquiry, it is found that one of two points is not satisfied, then there is no justification to make any alterations in the existing system. Those two points are—if the Air Force can do it more efficiently for the same money, or as efficiently for less money. If neither of those two points can be met in any one case, I for one do not want to press for the Air Force to take over the duties, because I am really thinking of the efficiency of defence as a whole…”

Earl Beatty to the UK House of Lords 9th April 1930

He was, of course, partially correct. Airpower could reach far into the vast expanses at the corners of the Empire, whether it was the deserts of Somaliland or the mountains of Buchanaland, but this was exactly the gamble which had been taken. It is because this campaign was so successful, the enemy, most of whom knew nothing of man-made flight or the power of modern explosives, pastoral and often technologically ignorant forces who often fled at the sight of the machines and the bombs. When it came to fighting on the ground against the forts, it had taken just a few hardy and determined defenders to hold up a vastly superior opposing force supported by artillery and machine guns. Walls were not breached by cannon fire or the aerial bombardment but by the fortitude and fortunes of old-fashioned infantry attacks. It can therefore be speculated that, had the Mullah had even one properly positioned machine gun or dispersed his riflemen more effectively, far from a glittering success, this could have been yet another disaster for the British.

For sure such a defeat would have led to problems for the RAF, but it would also have avoided the tempting and inaccurate conclusion that a lightly armed and rapidly moving force was sufficient for colonial work. This, despite the fact there had been a very real risk of heavy assault-type warfare, and that, whilst airpower had scared the Mullah and made him flee, it neither secured the land nor brought a victory in of itself. A retreat to the Taleh fort complex, for example, would have protected the Mullah, as the size of the complex would simply have rendered the besieging forces as exactly that – a besieging force too small to take it by force and sat in the baking scrubland at the mercy of the climate. On the other hand – a couple of armored cars or even a tank or two could approach the walls with virtual impunity, spaying the defenders with fire or even used to plant charges to demolish sections. Yet none of this was done and thankfully for the British campaign, had not been needed.

The expedition had skirted with disaster, got away with it, and pulled off a tremendous success. In doing so, they had laid down a marker for future campaigns in other far-flung areas of the empire which required policing. For the following two decades, this type of campaign and mindset had loomed over the British military.

However, concerned over the costs of securing the Empire, there was a continual desire for small, fast tanks for fighting a lightly armed enemy and a reliance on fighting a poorly armed adversary. By the late 1930s, it was clear that this sort of thought which had taken hold during the interwar period had been a fallacy and, whilst this campaign was not the sole reason for the British tank fleet being dominated by small, light, and/or thinly armored vehicles, it was certainly a contributing factor. One can only speculate as to what the ‘lessons’ of this campaign might have had for tanks if they had been bought and used.

Sources

Jardine, D. (1923). The Mad Mullah of Somaliland.
Levin, E. (2016). The Rolls-Royce Armoured Car. Rolls Royce Enthusiasts Club, UK
Longoria, M. (1992). A historical view of air policing doctrine. Air University Press
NavWeaps at https://navweaps.com
Naval history.net at https://naval-history.net
Oral account of Colonel Murray Lewis re: service with Somaliland Camel Corps, Imperial War Museum Item 4423
Scholl, M., & Geshekter, C. (1989). The Zed Expedition: the world’s first air ambulance? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Vol.82, Nov. 89
Slight, J. (2011). British and Somali view of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan’s Jihad 1899-1920. https://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1104&context=bildhaan
Somaliland 1920 http://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/566401.html
Successful Operations Against Mullah. Hansard House of Commons Vol.125 Debates 17th February 1920
The Air Force. Hansard House of Lords Vol.77 Debates 9th April 1930

Categories
WW2 British Tactics

Operation Sentry – The First Centurion Trials 1945

Nation Flag IconUnited Kingdom (1945) 6 tanks used in testing

New tanks need to be designed, tested, and deployed carefully. Even with the pressures of war taken into account, the process should be methodical to ensure that mechanically reliable vehicles with good fighting characteristics and survivability get to the front line. The United Kingdom, in particular, had by 1945, suffered terribly economically, industrially, and with the bombing of its civilians during World War 2. This, combined with the need to produce a large number of tanks to field against the Germans and their allies, had all contrived to hinder the design and production of new tanks. In particular, by 1943, there was a desire to have a good cruiser tank, well protected and fielding the excellent 17 pounder gun. The much-delayed project was finally ready by 1944 and passed initial domestic trials. However, this new vehicle, the A.41 ‘Centurion’ could also be sent to mainland Europe for active trials in a war zone. The object of these first foreign Centurion trials was, therefore, to make use of the considerable battle experience of crews available in British forces in Europe and to conduct real-world trials under as near to combat conditions as possible.

The A.41 Cruiser Tank ‘Centurion’ had started life in October 1943 with a requirement for a 45-ton tank with a 650 horsepower engine, well sloped frontal armor, and carrying the new and powerful 17 pounder gun. Effectively, this would create a vehicle at least equal to the German Panther tank. When this tank was finally ready, the war in Europe was all but over. With some fighting still taking place there, it became a rush to get this brand new tank to Germany perhaps in the hope of some action. Even if it could not, the tank would be operationally deployed and the experience gained in a war zone would be invaluable in improving it. What this tank became was perhaps the finest tank ever made – the British Centurion, a tank in service for decades after the war, with hundreds of variants seeing combat around the globe.

Development

It was not until February 1944 that the final specifications for what the as-yet-unnamed A.41 Heavy Cruiser Tank (it would not be known as ‘Centurion’ until later – at this time, the name ‘Centurion’ was still being touted for the A.30 – the tank which would be known as ‘Challenger’) would look like. With those requirements set, it was planned to produce 20 pre-production prototypes in order to conduct evaluation trials.

In May 1944, the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps (D.R.A.C.) amended the order for 20 of this first pattern of A.41, so that small features could be evaluated. These included the choice between a 20 mm Polsten cannon and 7.92 mm BESA as a turret machine gun, or even a 77 mm gun (as fitted to the A.34 Comet), and a rear escape hatch vs rear facing BESA machine gun.

The first A.41 prototype, ‘P1’, armed with the excellent 17 pounder gun and a 20 mm Polsten cannon fitted in a separate mount on the left of the unusually shaped turret.
Source: Pinterest

Technical Details A.41 P Series

The requirement for well-sloped frontal armor also meant that the idea of the vertical driver’s plate on the front of the tank, so recognizable on British tanks from the A.22 Churchill to A.34 Comet, was gone. This had been kept partially to make sure a hull-mounted machine gun could be retained for the tanks, but with only a single crew member in the hull and this single sloping front plate, this hull machine gun was finally removed.

A single large front sloping plate on the A.41 would make it look more like the German Panther, with the exception that, whilst that German tank had 80 mm or more of armor on the glacis, this A.41 had just 2.25” (57 mm) across the glacis and nose plate. Whilst this may seem like a problem, it is perhaps noteworthy that, although the Panther had more armor than the A.41, it would still be easy to penetrate by the 17 pdr. at any normal combat ranges, just as the A.41s would be vulnerable to the 7.5 cm KwK 42 gun of the Panther in return. However, production A.41 ‘Centurions’ would adopt a thicker glacis to more closely resemble the Panther.

The suspension was in the form of 6 doubled rubber-tired bogie wheels on each side, with the return of the 20” wide (508 mm) wide, 5.5” (140 mm) pitch track supported by rollers. The 108 links for the track on each side of the tank were made from cast manganese steel and were not fitted with rubber pads. The track and suspension were also usually hidden under a 6 mm thick ‘bazooka plate’ running the full length of the suspension. Each bogie was provided with a Newton-Bennett shock absorber and a coil spring and a hydraulic damper.

Powered by the Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.4A petrol engine delivering 635 hp at 2,550 rpm, it had a power to weight ratio of 13.7 bhp/ton (Imperial), which was only a problem in terms of fuel consumption. The 120 gallon (545.5 liters) petrol tank was only sufficient for 90 miles (145 km) of travel on a road. This meant the A.41 consumed some 1.3 gallons (6.1 liters) of petrol per mile (3.8 liters of petrol per km).

The 7-speed (5 forward and 2 reverse) Merritt-Brown Z51 gearbox combined with Girling brakes allowed for the steering of the tank under what was known as a ‘controlled-differential’ system. This was the preferred solution for a tank transmission, but it was decided to also try the Synchromesh Self-Shifting (SSS) system as well. Known as the Sinclair-Meadows Powerflow SSS system, this was a 7-speed (4 forward and 3 reverse) automatic gear change system by the Hydraulic Coupling and Engineering Company. This was an advanced and complex gearing system that had been experimented with during the war perhaps most famously on the TOG tank program. It offered the enormous advantage of allowing for a smooth transition from forward to reverse motion and vice versa via a fluid fly-wheel clutch.

On the A.41, the SSS system allowed for the tank to reverse at speeds of up to 14 mph (22.5 km/h), but only one A.41 was ever fitted with this system and was designated A.41S. The system was eventually abandoned after a series of minor problems and unpopular reports on it from the crews, for whom it was too different from what they were used to. The Merritt-Brown Z51 would eventually be the winning system from these trials.

Domestic Trials

Early domestic trials were, by all accounts, a pleasant change from many tanks during the war, where problems followed problems. The first automotive trials had actually taken place in September 1944 using that ‘soft-boat’ (the term for a non-armored steel test hull). Then, the only particular problem observed was excessive tracking to one side, which caused a lot of undue brake wear. There were no fundamental problems with the design and it immediately received a green light for the production of prototypes which were to start in January 1945. However, with every possible effort being pushed towards the D-Day landings (Operation Overlord) set for summer 1944, the production of A.41 could not start straight away. It would not actually be until April 1945 that the first prototype A.41, now designated as a ‘Heavy Cruiser’, was actually finished at Woolwich Arsenal. This first vehicle was delivered to the Fighting Vehicle Proving Establishment (F.V.P.E.) at Chertsey, Surrey, and immediately started a series of automotive trials. It was followed shortly thereafter for trials at Chertsey by the next two vehicles. The story for all three was the same – they were deemed excellent.

Pilot vehicle number 1 blew through its tests, covering over 1,055 miles (1,698 km) with 467 miles (752 km) of those off-road. Reaching a top speed of 23.7 mph (38 km), this brand new 45.5 ton (46.2 tonnes) tank was an impressive vehicle. By the end of May 1945, a 4th pilot vehicle arrived and this was sent for gunnery trials at Lulworth and this too went very well. In fact, by this time, the only notable criticism of any note was that the 20 round forward ammunition bin needed to be modified slightly.

To Europe

With domestic trials proceeding perhaps better than could have been expected and with the war going well, it was decided to send them to the front in Europe for evaluation by combat units. The plan for this evaluation was ‘Operation Sentry’ and had actually been proposed even before the first domestic trials had even taken place, such was the confidence in this vehicle. With such excellent initial results, there was no reason not to go ahead with it.

The first Centurion prototype with the powerful 17 pounder gun as the main armament and the distinctive mounting of a 20 mm Polsten cannon as the secondary armament next to it. Note that this turret is only made of mild steel and not rated as armor, as denoted by the small triangle in the middle of the left side of the turret.
Source: IWM

Of the 20 of this pre-production batch of A.41s ordered, 6 of them were to go on Operation Sentry. Three would be selected from Woolwich Arsenal (Royal Ordnance Factory, Woolwich), specifically P.3, P.9, and P.11. Three more would come from those produced by Royal Ordnance at Nottingham, specifically P.4, P.6, and P8.

Originally, it had been desired to test them with crews drawn from the Grenadier, Coldstream, Welsh, and Irish Guards regiments, so that they could be put into combat against the remaining elements of the German Wehrmacht. However, the remaining German military forces in northwest Germany, Denmark, and Holland surrendered to the British on 4th May, followed on the 7th by the signing of a full formal surrender of all remaining German forces to come into force the next day.

The war in Europe, therefore, came to an official end on 8th May 1945 with the surrender of all German forces to the Allies, although small pockets of forces remained to be collected. For all intents and purposes, the War in Europe was over and Germany had been utterly defeated. For the British, this had marked the culmination of a long and hard-fought war that had started nearly 6 years earlier and virtually bankrupted the Empire. It also marked the end of any prospect of getting the new A.41 into combat against the Germans.

There was, however, still a substantial number of vehicles and men in Europe, and all of the paraphernalia and restrictions of an active war zone. Thus, with the basics of the tank proven solid, these six tanks were quickly assigned to crews from 5th Battalion Inniskilling Dragoon Guards (5 I.D.G.) and 5th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment (5 R.T.R.), all part of the Guards Armoured Division. These were experienced units. 5 I.D.G., for example, had been in action in Europe since July 1944, fighting through France (Liseieux, 23rd August 1944), Belgium (Ghent, 5th September 1944), and into Germany (Rhine crossing, 25th March 1945) reaching Hamburg by May 1945. Trials would be split with 5.I.D.G., operating the tanks from 31st May to 11th June and then taken over by 5.R.T.R. from 12th June to 23rd June.

These crews trained on the tanks in the UK, having been brought back from the European Theater of Operations (ETO) specifically to do so. These were combat-experienced crews and they would be supported by personnel from the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (R.E.M.E.) who had been assigned to and working at the F.V.P.E. The entire test and evaluation team was then deployed to Germany as part of the 7th Armoured Division.

Note the folded-down driver’s windscreen on the glacis and the unusual configuration of the headlamps, with one above the other vertically on the center-line of the glacis.
Source: Imperial War Museum
The clean lines of the A.41 Centurion belied its power as a tank and it was, without a doubt, the finest British tank produced during WW2.
Source: Pinterest
The turret as used on the A.41 during these trials featured a large front casting, with the distinctive hollow chin at the front to prevent jamming due to a shell strike on that area. The rest of the turret was made from welded steel plates and the front casting was then welded to them. Traversable electrically (Lucas) or by handwheel, and using a 74” (1,880 mm) ring, this turret allowed for 20 degrees of vertical gun movement and 12 degrees of gun depression.
Source: Dunstan

Itinerary

The six Centurion tanks were collected from Lulworth at noon on 13th May 1945 and immediately set off for the port of Southampton. They arrived at No. 20 Transit Camp in the evening. The next morning, they were embarked on Landing Craft Tank (L.C.T.) 798 and 1035 commanded by Lieutenant. C. D. Mitchell and Sub Lieutenant M. F. Bowe, respectively.

On Tuesday, 15th May, the L.C.T.s set sail from Southampton, but stopped overnight at Newhaven and Deal before arriving at Ostend and then finally Antwerp on the evening of the 18th. Disembarking on the 19th, they underwent two days of inspections, including final drive checks on vehicle P.11 before a road march to Nijmegen, a distance of 142 km.

By the 23rd, when they stopped overnight at the town of Brunen (77 km from Nijmegen), the tanks had covered 224 miles on the continent and the road march continued despite the wet weather, with overnight stops at Osnabruck on the 24th and Brentwede on the 25th. They remained there for two days until, on the 28th, the rain finally relented and they set off once more. This time, the drive took them to Hollendstedt, a distance of 80 miles (129 km), where again they stopped for two days. Finally, on the 30th, they left Hollendstedt and did a single 84 mile (135 km) road march to Gribbohn, arriving in the evening. During this transit from the UK and the road march through Holland, just two problems had occurred and both were gearbox failures. The first had taken place before the tanks had even started off at Lulworth and was likely a problem of manufacture. The second, over 700 miles (1,127 km) later, was just 40 miles (64.4 km) outside Hamburg. Other than that, maintenance had been straightforward, apart from a single quill shaft on an auxiliary engine failing. Nonetheless, all of the faults for all of the tanks were carefully logged.

Having arrived safely with little problems, the vehicles underwent their unit trials, followed, between 27th June and 14th July, by live-firing trials at the ranges at Lommel, Belgium. Other trials were then carried out, with the tanks simulating combat attacks and tactical movement – all of which went well.

One of the first batch of prototype Centurions, probably P1. The turret, seen without stowage boxes, can be seen to have very simple and clean lines. The text on the upper rear of the right side skirting plates is simply stating that anti-freeze had been added to the tank’s cooling system. Note the outline of a circle on the back of the turret, where a mounting for a rear-facing BESA machine gun was proposed and thankfully later abandoned.
Source: Dunstan via IWM

Centurion P.3 (W.D. Index Number T.352412) showing its 20 mm Polsten cannon and a stowage box fitted to the back of the turret.
Source: Pinterest
The cast front of the original turret is more apparent when viewed from the right. This is vehicle P.3. Source: Pinterest

A.41 ‘Centurion’ P.8. (W.D. Index Number T352415) with a large box-type structure fitted to the front left of the turret. This was a prototype of a light system and was tested on this vehicle after Operation Sentry. Note the pair of vertically arranged headlamps in the center of the glacis.
Source: Pinterest

Lessons

Valuable experience with this new tank had been obtained in a relatively short time. A summary of the various faults, whether major or minor, was logged. From this and from discussion within the D.T.D., amendments to the A.41 design would be made.

The gearbox failures were perhaps surprising only in that they were so irregular and uncommon. A lot of previous problems during the war with tanks had been centered around gearbox trouble and yet this new transmission proved itself to have learned those lessons. The design had indeed taken knowledge from the Z51 Merritt-Brown unit which had been used in the Cromwell and Comet. The change was centered around adding a differential lock to the 7-speed (5 forward and 2 reverse) speed box, as this would help the driver to control one track over another in the event of becoming bogged down on soft ground.

On top of this change, a dry oil sump was fitted with oil injection for the gears, which helped both lubricate and cool the gears. A new double reduction system was part of the transmission and this was known as the Z51. The new gearbox was efficient and greatly improved the gear ratios in use to produce the power required at the sprockets. With the high-speed reverse gear added later to improve the design yet further, the nomenclature of the Z51-type box was now ‘Z51R’ (R for high-speed Reverse).

View into the engine compartment of the A.41, showing the Merritt-Brown Z51R transmission.
Source: Dunstan
A.41 Centurion P.11 (W.D. Index Number T.352417) during firing trials with the 17 pdr. Gun. Note that the turret rear has stowage boxes and the vague circle outline on the turret rear is now a hatch ideal for loading ammunition or for maintenance of the gun.
Source: Pinterest

The 7.92 mm BESA, venerable as its service had been, was requested to be replaced with the .30 caliber Browning machine gun. This was more reliable and another machine gun of the same type was requested for the commander on his cupola. All ideas of the somewhat impractical and wasteful use of a rear-facing BESA in the turret back were gone too.

The Polsten cannon idea had been to provide immediate firepower to destroy enemy anti-tank guns, where a machine gun was not powerful enough, and it was indeed a potent weapon in its own right. The real problem was that it simply took up too much space and a machine gun, like the BESA or the .30 caliber Browning, was simpler and allowed more space for the crew in the turret. Of the 6 tanks in Operation Sentry, only one had been fitted with the BESA and yet this was the preferred mounting – albeit replaced with the Browning.

The addition of the Morris 8 hp 3 kW auxiliary generator was a fine idea, as it would allow the tank to charge its radio batteries and gun control equipment even without the main engine turned on. However, it was felt that it would become unreliable over time and a new system would be needed. Nonetheless, the idea of having its own generator unit was novel and extremely valuable and would be kept.

“Generally, the CENTURION has been well received, and great interest is being taken in the trial”. AFV Technical Report No.26, June 1945

To improve off-road performance and to handle the slightly heavier weight of the vehicle, the prototype 20” (508 mm) wide tracks were changed to 24” (610 mm) when the A.41 entered production as the A.41*. Other modifications would include the hull stowage bin, but also the gun cradle, towing cable assemblies, and the final drive housings. Overall, these were minor amendments to the tank which had shown itself to be both fundamentally sound as a tank design, as well as being popular with the crews.

Like all good tests and trials, areas for improvement had been identified. There had been no opportunity for these tanks to see any actual combat or fire their guns in anger, but that was not the important thing. With a live test of the A.41 in a war zone and all of the difficulties which that entails in terms of the limitations on transport and supplies, the A.41 proved itself robust and reliable.

This perhaps was the single most important element which had often been found to be lacking on earlier British tanks. Produced under the extreme hardships of a wartime economy with limitations of materials and labor, and whilst often enduring German bombing, the nation’s economy had taken a serious beating. Yet, despite all of this, the British had managed to produce a tank to replace a fleet that still consisted of things like the A.24 Cromwell, A.30 Challenger, A.22 Churchills, and a plethora of M4 Shermans.

Trial End

With the trials over and the 6 Centurions returned to Great Britain via Calais in July, the results were discussed by the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps (D.R.A.C.) Advisory Committee meetings on 22nd August 1945. The theatre trials had been a resounding success and there was little hesitation in ordering 100 of the new tanks (very slightly modified) as A.41* of the initial batch of an order for 800 such tanks. The A.41, therefore was simply the prototype Centurion and it was the improved A.41* model which became the Centurion Mk.1. The remainder of the batch (700), was improved yet further as the A.41A and appeared as the Centurion Mk.2.

It was hard not to be impressed by the reliable and rugged Centurion. The Operation Sentry trials covered over 2,300 miles (3,701 km) for all six tanks with 250 miles (402 km) off-road and only minor problems were encountered. The new tanks were proudly shown off to other units within the 21st Army Group, following the long British Army tradition of a unit showing off their shiny new equipment to units that did not have it.

Centurion P.6 (T.352414) going over soft ground during trials in Operation Sentry, 1945.
Source: The Tank Museum.
One of the prototype A.41’s with 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, 1945. Note the port on the left of the turret, often referred to as a loading port but officially as a ‘revolver’ port, is open – likely for ventilation during this moment of relaxation.
Source: The Tank Museum, Bovington
A.41* Centurion Mk.I W.D. Index No. T.351701 – This is the second vehicle of that first batch of 100 A.41* tanks made by Royal Ordnance Factory Woolwich. Note that the 7.92 mm BESA has not yet been installed.
Source: Dunstan via IWM

The first 100 of those A.41A Centurions, later identified as Mk.2 tanks, would carry the same 17 pounder gun as before and then the rest (600 vehicles) were to carry a newer and even more powerful gun – the 20 pounder. The British had, by 1945, become masters of the gun, and this new 83.5 mm piece was a substantial step up in tank firepower beyond the 17 pounder. The big issue was that a new and larger gun beyond the 17 pdr., like the 32 pounder or this 20 pounder (originally a ‘21 pounder’ design), required a new fully cast turret to take it (the 95 mm Close Support (C.S.) gun version could be fitted to either turret).

Probably the biggest change from these P series vehicles to the first production vehicles would be the frontal armor. The 2.25” (57 mm) glacis was seen as being inadequate and this was increased to 3” (76 mm) for production vehicles, even though this thickness change is virtually imperceptible from the outside.

Production of the A.41 ‘Centurion’ would start in November 1945 from that August 1945 order, with serial production proper starting in 1946. Deliveries of that new tank started with the 6th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment in February 1946. This tank, the culmination of the British lessons of WW2, would go on to serve in dozens of armies over the following decades, and seeing combat all over the world. In the Centurion, and as proven by its trials on Operation Sentry, the British truly had produced one of the greatest tanks of all time, simple, rugged, reliable, and adaptable.

Survivors

Not many Mk.1 or even Mk. 2 Centurions survive today and even fewer of this first trials batch, just one in fact. Today, only P.9 survives as a pre-series Centurion. P.9 is preserved in The Tank Museum collection, Bovington, UK.

Centurion P.9., a Woolwich Arsenal-built tank, Index No. T352416, at The Tank Museum Bovington. Note that the driver’s windscreen is in the erect position.
Source: Flikr
A Centurion Mark I, similar to the ones that saw testing during Operation Sentry.

A.41 P-Series specifications

Dimensions (L-W-H) 25’ 2” long, 29’ 7” long over gun, 11’ 0.75” wide, 9’ 2.75” high
Total Weight 46.9 tonnes
Crew 4 (Driver, Commander, Gunner, Loader)
Gun Elevation Range +20 to -12 degrees
Speed 23 mph/h
Range 90 miles
Engine Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.4A petrol 635 bhp at 2,550 rpm
Radio No.38 AFV set, No.19 set, Infantry telephone
Fuel 120 gallons (545.5 liters)
Ground Clearance 20 inches
Trench Crossing 11´
Turret 360-degree rotation
Step 3’
Ford 4’ 9”
Armament 7 pdr., 7.92 mm BESA / 20 mm Polsten cannon, .303” Bren machine gun, 2” smoke bombs, multi-barrel smoke discharger
Armor Hull Glacis: 57 mm @ 55 deg., Nose: 57 mm @ 45 deg., Sides: 51 mm @ 12 deg., Rear: 38 mm @ 7 deg., Floor: 17 mm, Roof: 29 mm (hull front) 16 mm (centre), 14 mm (rear), Turret Mantlet: 127 mm, Turret Front: 127 mm, Turret Sides: 76 mm @ 10 deg., Turret Rear: 76 mm @ 10 deg., Turret Roof: 25 mm @ 78 deg. (front), 25 mm @ 90 deg. (centre), 25 mm @ 78 deg. (rear).
Total Production 6

Sources:

Report 38/TECH L1A/2/5, 21st Army Group British Liberation Army, AFV Technical Report No.26, June 1945
War Office Doc. 291. ‘Tank Data’
Dunstan, S. (2003). Centurion Universal Tank 1943 – 2003. Osprey New Vanguard. Osprey Publishing UK.
Dunstan, S. (2020). British Battle Tanks 1946-2016. Osprey Publishing, UK
Dunstan, S. (1980). Centurion. Ian Allen Publishing, UK
Ware, P. (2012). Images of War Special: The Centurion Tank. Pen and Sword Military, UK

Categories
WW2 British Tactics

British Tank Losses March to May 1945: The War in North West Europe

Nation Flag IconUnited Kingdom Tank Losses March to May 1945

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Operations Veritable, Blockbuster, and Grenade marked the breakout from Holland for Allied forces during February and March 1945. These were followed by a strong push across the border into Germany, bitter fighting in the Reichswald forest and then the crossing of the Rhine (Operation Plunder). Between the time of the crossing of the Rhine on 24th March 1945, and the end of the war in North West Europe on 5th May 1945, 21st Army Group suffered a total of 769 men killed and injured across 19 British Armoured Regiments, along with the loss of 333 Armored Fighting Vehicles.

Those 333 AFVs were primarily Cruiser tanks, such as the A.27 Cromwell, A.34 Comet, and A.30 Challenger. In addition, some units fighting in the area were equipped with A.22 Churchill tanks and the Canadian units were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. In 1946, as a part of an ongoing effort to improve both the habitability and survivability of tanks, the Royal Army Medical School, on behalf of the Medical Research Commission (M.R.C.), produced a short series of analytical reports looking at the casualties and, in particular, at the causes of them. As the majority of actions led to capturing the ground being fought over, the British examiners, Captain H. Wright and Captain R. Harkness, managed to examine 65% of all of the vehicles lost to enemy action.

A close look at these reports provides a unique and interesting insight into the nature of tank warfare and provides clues into the design and operational use of armored fighting vehicles.

‘Melville’ pontoon bridge carries Allied traffic across the Rhine at Emmerich. After the end of March 1945, with the battle now in Germany proper, the resistance was desperate and bitter. Source: Stacey

The Units

The armored units deployed by the British which formed part of the assessment of casualties came from a number of divisions, such as the 11th Armoured Division. That division consisted of the 15th/19th Hussars, 23rd Hussars, 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment, and the 2nd Battalion Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, which were equipped with A.34 Comet Tanks. The 7th Armoured Division consisted of the 8th Hussars, 1st and 5th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and 5th Battalion Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, which were equipped with A.27 Cromwell tanks.

Within the 11th Armoured Division was also the Guards Armoured Division, which consisted of 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards, equipped with A.27 Cromwells, and 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards, 2nd Battalion Coldstream Guards, and 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, all equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. There was also the 4th Armoured Brigade, consisting of the Royal Scots Greys, 3rd/4th County of London Yeomanry, and 44th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and these units were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. Finally, there was 8th Armoured Brigade, consisting of 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, 13th/18th Hussars, Nottingham and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and the Staffordshire Yeomanry, all of whom were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks.

75 mm and 17 pdr armed M4 Shermans of the 4th Armoured Brigade, February 1945. These vehicles belong to the Royal Scots Greys and are pictured waiting for the advance on Goch during Operation Veritable. These units and these tanks were to continue in action all the way across the Rhine through spring 1945. Source: IWM
The most modern tank in serial production and available to the British in 1945 was the A.34 Comet mounting a 77 mm gun. Pictured at the end of March 1945, this vehicle, called ‘Crusader’, belonging 2nd Battalion Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, moves through the wreckage of a German town. Source: IWM

Overview

In analyzing the data, the authors started by taking total losses for tanks of all types and looking for the various causes of damage and loss (Table 1). Unsurprisingly, some units with a majority of M4 Sherman tanks, the M4 Sherman suffered the greatest percentage of the losses. This was closely followed by the A.27 Cromwell and A.34 Comet tanks (Table 2). It is very clear from the results presented in Table 1 that High Explosive (H.E.) shells, such as from artillery, amounted to just 3% of total losses and were therefore a statistically insignificant source of tank loss. By far and away the greatest cause of losses to all tanks was from penetrations of the armor by enemy Armor Piercing (A.P.) ammunition (Table 3).

An A.27 Cromwell tank (centre) belonging to the 5th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Dragoon takes position outside the church in the German town of Weseke, 29th March 1945. It is supported by Ram Kangaroo APCs belonging to the 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry. Source: IWM

Mines

On the face of it, the identification of the type of mine involved in an incident with a tank is complicated by the total destruction of the device. The method used in the study was to take data from other mines located and cleared in the area to identify the most likely source of the mine encountered by the tank (Table 4). This was easy where a tank struck a mine and all that was found in the vicinity were other Riegel R.43 bar mines. That would make it very likely the culprit was one of that type. In a mixed minefield of Tellermines and Riegels, all that could be determined was that it was likely to be one of those two types. Many times, the paucity of other mines located or the lack of records as to which mine was found meant that no mine could reasonably be identified as the culprit encountered by the tank. On one occasion, an M4 Sherman tank was utterly destroyed by a large H.E. charge which had been buried and detonated under the vehicle. The crew were all killed and, whilst the incident was recorded, no data from that particular blast was included within the analysis, as it was a one-off and outlier as far as the study was concerned.

The Riegel R.43 (Sprengriegel R./Mi.43) was a bar mine – a long rectangular casing weighing 9.3 kg and containing 4 kg of TNT. A tank driving over the casing at any point would cause it to compress on the detonator and explode. The Teller-type mines, on the other hand, were cylindrical mines weighing just over 9 kg and holding around 5.5 kg of TNT. Although the Tellermines held more explosive, the cylinder was an inefficient shape, measuring just 31.8 cm in diameter (for the Tellermine T.Mi.35), whereas the Riegl bar mine was 80 cm long. This meant that a Riegel mine, once laid, had a greater chance of being under the track of a tank, although the effect once detonated was effectively the same.

Riegel R.43 bar mine. Source Wiki
Tellermine T.Mi.42. The Teller-type mines came in a variety of materials and variations but the shape and effect remained little changed. Source: Shipmodels.Info

Each of these types of mines and variants had multiple options for detonation. These included connecting mines together so that, when one was triggered, it could set off more mines, or by connecting them to trip lines, anti-handling devices, and stakes which, when touched by a tank, would trip the fuse and trigger the mine. However, none of those situations seem to have been encountered by the tanks of the 21st Army Group. An analysis of the position of detonation of mines by tanks clearly showed they were the simple track-crushing-mine-and-triggering-them type of incidents rather than a specific booby trap to cause the mine to go off under the belly (Table 5). The casualties resulting from these mine encounters were therefore considerably lower than could be expected from a mine going off directly under the hull (Table 6). Thus, efforts to improve mine protection to counter that type of explosion were not warranted.

The cause of casualties to tank crews in relation to mine encounters was dependent on whether or not the floor plates of the tank were buckled, allowing the explosive blast to enter the crew space and injure the occupants. In this regard, the important considerations for the floor plates were the method of manufacturing, their thickness, and the height of the floor plates from the ground. The construction of the floor plates of the A.27 Cromwell and A.30 Challenger was effectively identical and, therefore, those vehicle’s encounters were grouped together. Looking at the data, the low ground clearance and relatively thin floor plates of the A.27 Cromwell show that it was substantially more at risk from damage by a mine blast than the M4 Sherman. The M4 Sherman tank, in fact, recorded no significant casualties from landmines at all, even in the situation where one vehicle managed to detonate two mines while driving at high speed. Overall, it was concluded by the authors that, whilst the M4 Sherman was indeed better protected against land mines than the A.27 Cromwell, overall, these were simply not a significantly important source of casualties. It may also be considered that, at this time in the war, the mines being laid by the Germans were ad-hoc or not properly prepared. The mine threat – once considered so serious that a whole slew of anti-tank mine clearance devices was developed, was not so great as first thought. On the whole, the majority of mine encounters caused minor injuries, suspension damage and inconvenience for the unit rather than a way of depleting Allied strength in any significant numbers.

Vehicle Casualties

For crew men, the definition of a casualty was simply any member of the vehicle’s crew who was killed or wounded. For those wounded, only those evacuated for treatment were included. Men who were injured but remained in the unit were not included. Once tabulated, the primary cause of crew man losses was assessed as being the result of penetrations of the armor from enemy guns firing Armor Piercing (A.P.) projectiles (Table 3).

Having established that A.P. penetrations were the primary cause of loss and that Hollow Charge (H.C.) weapons like the Panzerfaust were the secondary one, it became important to consider where the tanks had been struck (Table 7), where the armor had withstood the enemy attack, and where the armor of the various tanks had failed (Tables 8a to 8e) and then to summarise those results (Table 9). This would provide useful data to inform future tank design and development in order to try and maximise protection for the tank and crew.


Sherman III W.D. No. 152104 belonging to 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. Hit numerous times, including several ineffective hits from Hollow Charge weapons on the front of the hull which failed to penetrate. A 75 mm A.P. round had pierced the front of the final drive, crippling the tank, and two rounds partially penetrated the machine gun housing on the hull and the glacis in front of the driver, respectively. At least 3 more 75 mm A.P. hits were received to the front left sprocket and three more on the hull front. One more 75 mm strike failed to penetrate the side of the tank and another the face of the turret. One H.C. penetration was received on the lower left side of the hull. No fire took place, although substantial internal damage was received. The crew escaped unhurt. Noteworthy is that this tank was carrying additional track links across the front, which were knocked off by the first 75 mm strikes, which were the ones which did not penetrate. The crew only bailed out after the third penetrating hit was received.

Sherman III W.D. No. 151168 belonging to 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. The tank was struck on top of the gun mantlet by an unidentified Armor Piercing shell, breaking off a section of it. The tank was unpenetrated and the crew were unhurt. The gun or vehicle firing this round was not identified.
Sherman V D.D. (Duplex Drive) W.D. No.232263 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. Struck and penetrated on the driver’s area by a 75 mm A.P. round fired from 1,000 yards. The shell penetrated and then struck the turret basket, damaging one of the supports. The crew then bailed out, all unhurt, and further hits were received. Another round penetrated the right hand side of the final drive, leaving a 90 mm wide hole and another penetrated and smashed the transmission. One more shell hit the left hand side suspension on the side, breaking a sprocket and bogie unit.


Sherman V DD (Duplex Drive) W.D. No. 232115 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. Struck by a 75 mm A.P. round at a range of 1,500 yards, the shell penetrated the rear applique armor, passed across the width of the tank and blew a jagged hole out of the other side as it exited. The tank caught fire instantly and the commander later died of wounds, the only fatality in the vehicle.

Sherman V D.D. W.D. No. 232512 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. The vehicle was knocked out by a 75 mm penetration fired from perhaps as much as 2,000 yards. The shell penetrated through the centre left hand side of the hull, behind the applique side armor. Leaving a 74 mm diameter hole, the shell smashed through the engine bulkhead and ruptured the petrol tank, causing a fire. Superficial wounds to the Operator’s right buttock and left ankle, but otherwise all the crew were uninjured.
Sherman V D.D. W.D. No. 232286 belonging to the Staffordshire Yeomanry struck from 700 yards by a 75 mm A.P. round fired from a German S.P. gun with the 7.5 cm PaK 40 gun. The shell penetrated the right sponson below the turret and ended up in the engine bulkhead, starting a fire which destroyed the tank. Not thought to have caused any injuries.
Sherman II W.D. No. 232266 belonging to the 3rd/4th City of London Yeomanry. Struck by a 75 mm A.P. shell fired from a self-propelled gun at a range of 800 yards. The round struck the top front of the turret, leaving a hole 75 mm wide and 90 mm high above the mantlet. Striking the interior of the roof, the round bounced down into the wireless, wrecking it and starting a minor fire which did not spread. The crew were all unhurt.


Sherman V W.D. No.147681 belonging to the 2nd Inniskilling Dragoons struck by a Hollow Charge at the base of the turret, leaving a 50 mm diameter hole, and by a 75 mm A.P. round (later identified as a 7.5 cm A.P.C.B.C. round from either a Pak. 40 or KwK. 40) on the hull side, below the left sponson. The H.C. caused only minor internal damage, but the penetrating 75 mm round left a hole 80 mm x 130 mm. No crew were injured and no fire resulted from either penetration. A third hit on the driver’s hatch left a mark only.

Sherman V W.D. No. 288593 belonging to the Nottingham and Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry. Struck by a Hollow Charge fired from just 20 yards, the tank was penetrated on the top centre of the turret, leaving a 16 mm diameter hole. The jet travelled across the turret and struck the commander’s seat, starting a fire in the turret. The commander and operator were killed, the gunner was wounded, but the hull crew escaped unharmed.

Cromwell Mk.VII W.D. No. 121797 belonging to 8th Hussars struck at a range of 1,000 to 1,200 yards by an 88 mm A.P. round fired from a railway carriage mounted 88 mm gun. The round pierced the front visor plate on the hull, leaving a hole measuring 85 mm x 130 mm. The shell travelled through the compartment and penetrated the forward bulkhead, the turret ring, and then the engine bulkhead, exploding in the engine of the tank. The vehicle caught fire and was completely burnt out. The status of the crew was unknown.
Cromwell Mk.IV W.D. No. 188046 belonging to the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Struck at a range of 200 to 300 yards by a 50 mm (maybe 47 mm) A.P. shell which clipped the roof, the round did little damage to the fan cowling but it did cause three periscopes on the roof to shatter. The commander and operator were both travelling with their heads out of their watches and were hit by shrapnel to the extent they had to be evacuated.
Cromwell Mk. IV W.D. No.188394 belonging to 15th/19th Hussars struck by an A.P. round, possibly 88 mm calibre, from an unknown range. The round passed through the front left corner of the visor plate, leaving a hole 110 mm in diameter but not penetrating. It did break off the co-driver’s hatch hinge, but there were no injuries.

A.34 Comet tank W.D. No.120498 belonging to the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards. Struck from a range of 50 yards by a Hollow Charge projectile which left a 50 mm diameter hole in the front of the turret and caused minor injuries to the gunner and operator only.
A.34 Comet ‘Bucephalus’ (Alexander the Great’s famous horse) W.D. No.334983 belonging to the 23rd Hussars. Hit from a range of just 100 yards by a 75 mm A.P. round from a German S.P. gun. The round penetrated the top right corner of the driver’s compartment, followed by another penetrating through the front left of the nose plate of the tank. One final 75 mm penetration was recorded through the back of the turret. The driver sustained just superficial injuries to his wrist and the fire damage was not severe.

A.30 Challenger tank W.D. No. 272060 belonging to 8th Hussars. The tank was struck in the front of the turret by a Hollow Charge projectile leaving a 50 mm diameter hole in the armor. No fire was caused but the commander was killed and the gunner, operator, and loader were all wounded.


Stuart Light Tank W.D. No.287750 belonging to 4th/7th Dragoon Guards. The turret was struck in the upper right corner by a 75 mm A.P. round leaving an 80 mm wide entry hole (left). Passing through the turret, the round smashed out of the back (right) leaving a 90 mm wide exit hole. The vehicle was burnt out and the crew were unharmed, but this is believed to be due to exiting the vehicle for an unknown reason prior to being hit.

A simple clock-ray was then used to divide hits on a vehicle’s turret or hull into 8 sectors. Each sector was evenly sized, covering 45 degrees of arc, to complete a 360 degree damage assessment. Hits on the vehicles were then collated as either Armor Piercing (A.P.) or Hollow Charge (H.C.), regardless of whether they penetrated or not.

The clock-ray analysis method used.

The results shown in Table 10 clearly show that around 40% of all strikes from A.P. and H.C. weapons on the hull and 50% on strikes on the turret came from the front 45 degree sector, 22.5 degrees each side of the centre-line of the tank. In total, accounting for all strikes of any kind across this frontal arc (sector 1), this amounted to some 92 strikes out of a total of 241, 38.2% of all hits in this area. Expanding a look at the importance of focussing armor protection on a frontal arc can be done by including sectors 2 and 8 in this analysis. This would therefore cover the entire front aspect of the tank across both sides. Including sectors 2 and 8 to include hull and turret strikes by both types of weapon covers some 135 degrees, 67.5 degrees each side of the centre line of the tank. Hits in this area amounted to 155 hits, 64.3% of the total. Obviously, this leaves around a third of all hits (35.7%) accounted for across the remainder of the vehicle.

Looking purely at side hits square on (sectors 3 and 7), these accounted for 53 hits, 22% of all strikes. Using an expanded view of how the sides could be struck would include sectors 8, 6, 2, and 4. All together, the sides were exposed to fire and struck, even from oblique angles, to a total of 137 hits, 56.8% of the total.

From the rear, straight on (sector 5), just 12 hits were recorded, just 5% of the total. Even if this additional view of the vulnerability of the rear was taken into account and results from sectors 4 and 6 are added in, this would still only account for just 33 hits, 13.7% of the total. This expanded method of looking at the vehicle’s vulnerabilities was not done by the original authors, and it is easy to misunderstand how this may assist in viewing the areas commonly hit, as sectors get counted more than once and percentages count up to more than 100.

An example from the report of the hit-direction analysis done for each type of tank used. In this case, the hits across all Sherman V tanks are plotted in this plan view of the tank. The majority of hits are on the front of the vehicle.

What it does show, however, perhaps more clearly than simple tabulations of X number of hits in Sector Y, are that the front is more likely to be hit than the sides, but not by much, 64.3% compared to 56.8%, and that the rear is by far the least important for protection, with just 13.7% of hits.

Graphical representation of the number of hits from both A.P. and H.C. weapons by zone. Author

This was certainly not the limit of the hit-analysis by the authors of the report. In addition to knowing from what direction a tank was most likely to be hit in combat, something of use to future designers of such vehicles, the authors then looked at height. That is, the height from the ground on the tank where they were hit (Tables 11a to 11e) and then summarised (Table 12). The primary tanks concerned in the study, A.27 Cromwells and M4 Shermans, were different heights, with the M4 Sherman being the taller of the two (up to 2.97 m for the M4 Sherman vs 2.49 m for the A.27 Cromwell). Two hundred and forty tanks had been damaged by enemy Armor Piercing and Hollow Charge shells and had caused 326 men to be killed or wounded. This meant that the sample size was certainly large enough from which conclusions could be drawn.


Hit height analysis on the Cromwell (left) and Sheman V (right). The frequency of hits within a relatively small area in the centre of the turret face on the Cromwell and on the transmission housing and driver’s area on the Sherman V are particularly striking. Source: Author

Sherman II W.D. No. 233583 belonging to the 3rd/4th City of London Yeomanry. This tank was struck square in the centre of the glacis from a range of 900 yards by a 75 mm A.P. shell. The round tore through the armor, leaving a hole 75 mm wide by 130 mm high and destroying the driver’s right arm, which later had to be amputated. Vehicle caught fire and was abandoned. The rest of the crew were uninjured.
Sherman V D.D. W.D. No. 148113 belonging to the 44th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment struck from a range of 400 yards by an 88 mm A.P. round. The first round from the tank which fired the shot struck the turret but did not penetrate. A second shot struck the roof of the left sponson, leaving a ragged hole 100 mm in diameter and passed through the tank, lodging on the inside of the final drive on the co-driver’s side. All the crew got out of the tank unhurt, although it was completely burnt out.
Sherman V W.D. No. 147939 belonging to the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards. The vehicle was burnt out (engine bay remained unburnt) as a result of penetration by two Hollow Charge weapons. The first penetrated the right side wall above the bogie, leaving a 50 mm diameter hole, and the second was in the right side of the turret, leaving a 40 mm diameter hole. Likely after it had been abandoned, a shell of unknown calibre struck the turret side, smashing the railing for the Tulip rocket and then penetrating the side of the turret.

Cromwell Mk. VII W.D. No.121812 belonging to 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards. Struck from the front from 50 yards by a Panzerschrek firing a Hollow Charge, the round impacted the turret in the centre directly above the gun. The crew abandoned the vehicle unhurt. The vehicle was later found burnt out.
Cromwell Mk. IV W.D. No.188649 belonging to the 8th Hussars. Vehicle struck on the bottom left hand corner of the turret by a Hollow Charge projectile fired from 30 yards away. Penetration left a hole 90 mm wide on the exterior and 50 mm on the interior of the tank. The gunner suffered minor burns, no fire damage.

A.34 Comet W.D. No.335088 belonging to the 23rd Hussars hit by an 88 mm A.P. round from a Flak. 44 on a ground mount at a range of 200 yards. The round penetrated the lower front of the nose plate, leaving a 100 mm wide hole and causing a small fire. The driver, gunner, and co-driver were all killed and the operator wounded.
A.34 Comet W.D. No.3335175 belonging to the 15th/19th Hussars. The tank was hit on the right side of the turret by a hollow charge projectile leaving a 60 mm diameter hole. An unidentified A.P. round struck the mantlet but did not penetrate. The operator was killed by the H.C. penetration and the other crew, upon exiting, were hit by small arms fire, killing the commander, gunner, and driver. The co-driver was wounded

Distribution of hits from both A.P. and H.C. by height (in feet). This is across all tanks. The Sherman background is merely illustrative. Source: Author

The examination of the shell damage from A.P. rounds provided additional information for the survey, because the penetrations and scoops left holes of varying sizes in the armor. Those holes could, in some cases, be directly attributable to a specific calibre of shell. On occasion, the enemy shell could be located as well and, in others, the source of the shell was seen or later identified looking at the captured battlefield. In this way of analysis, the authors were able to accurately or somewhat accurately ascribe to penetrating hits nearly two thirds of all rounds which hit the tanks, whether they penetrated or not (table 13).

Knowing the casualties from the tanks and then using this penetration analysis allowed the authors to accurately ascribe the risk of becoming a casualty based on the area in which a tank was penetrated (table 14).

The conclusions were that penetrations through the front armor of the hull were the most likely to cause injuries, whether the result of A.P. or H.C., accounting for nearly a third of total casualties and 40% of casualties from a single A.P. penetration. The difference in the rate of casualties from hull and turret penetrations by A.P. is particularly striking.

Further to Table 13, where the guns firing A.P. rounds were identified, the authors were able to use evidence from the crews and wrecked vehicles for both sides to work out the ranges at which these A.P. rounds were being fired (table 14).

Of known hits, 85 of them for which the range could be accurately found, it was determined that 50.5 of them (59.4%) occurred at 800 yards (732 m) or less and 83.5% at 1,000 yards (914 m) or less.

Graph of combat ranges for hits by A.P. shells. (Note: 1 yard = 0.9144 metres). Source: Author

Having already identified that A.P. penetration was the primary cause of tank losses, the authors turned their attention to crew losses and the causes of them and this related directly to the penetrating agent. Table 16 shows that lethality was not even amongst the shells and that it was the larger, higher energy 88 mm shells which resulted in the most casualties. This assessment of the nature of the guns and their shells, combined with the combat ranges being encountered, meant that any consideration of improving the frontal protection of tanks, using the weight of armor to best advantage, had to take this into account (Table 17).

At best, the frontal protection on both A.27 Cromwell and M.4 Sherman was just around 100 mm, meaning that, at 500 yards (457 mm) from the front, both were penetrable by any of the commonly encountered German guns.

Worst still was that, at 500 yards (457 m), the evidence of combat showed that the chances of the German gunners missing their target was small, with survival chances for the crew halving every 6 seconds in a combat situation after the first round is fired. The implications of this were that a) the frontal armor had to be substantially improved on both tanks to make the armor invulnerable from that direction, and that b) the ability to deliver fire back at a target as fast as possible was of prime value.

The report went further than this too, and suggested that, as the majority of combat was forward or to the sides, all round traverse on a tank was not statistically a strict necessity. If, however, a tank could be made which was invulnerable to enemy fire from the front, even though it may have limited traverse, then the data supported that this vehicle would have substantial combat value (despite some limitations in supporting fire support for infantry) and improve survivability. In addition, as regarding potential future designs, the authors summarised this lesson as meaning that:

“if a vehicle of this type were designed in which the crew all worked from a sitting position, they could be protected from the front with a sheet of armor 7 feet [2.13 m] broad by 4 feet [1.22 m] high. Even if this were a foot thick, it would weigh only about 6 tons”.

In considering the effect of German guns, the combat ranges were generally relatively short and the 75 mm gun was also the cause of most tank losses, even though the 88 mm was substantially more injurious to the crew when it was encountered.

When these 88 mm rounds entered the vehicle, the fragments of armor and shell coming off, and the large round itself caused numerous injuries. Injuries were also caused further from the point of penetration than for a penetrating 75 mm shell. This was especially true of H.C. penetrations too, where injuries to the crew were tightly confined to the area near to the point of penetration. The primary cause of injury leading to death following penetration were wounds to the head or body (table 18). Non-lethal wounds were mostly to the limbs and head. With head injuries the most common amongst fatal injuries and one of the primary non-lethal injuries (table 19) the importance of head protection for tank crew was an obvious conclusion.

This analysis of fatal injuries by penetrative mechanism led into the second half of the study looking at crew casualties.

Crew Casualties

A vehicle casualty was defined for the purposes of the study as any A.F.V. hit by a weapon capable of causing major damage, which meant it would include anti-tank guns, landmines, etcetera, but not include small arms fire. Looking at tank crew losses in addition to the loss of the tanks themselves would provide insight into the relative dangers of the types of weapons to the men and to the mode of injury.

It had already been established that 34% (272) of all casualties were caused by single penetrations into the crew compartment and crews almost always immediately abandoned their tanks when it had been penetrated. It was noted that some even abandoned them when a penetration did not occur, as the follow up shot stood a high chance of doing so. It was also found that 3% (9) of all casualties were the result of penetrations into non-crew space, like the engine bay or final drive, and all were assessed to be the result of fires from the petrol igniting, although this was only recorded in Sherman tanks.

In one case, a 105 mm shell from a Flak 38 was recorded as having penetrated a Sherman in the side when it was exposed crossing a canal bridge. The round travelled through the crew space and blew out a 1’ (30 cm) square slab of armor from the opposite side as it passed right through both sides. The men inside were caught in a large and instant fire, burning all of them instantly. Only the driver and commander survived.

Just 9% (30) of the casualties were the result of non-penetrating hits. This was not due to any flaking of the armor on the inside face of the plates, but due to crews with body parts, like head or arms, exposed out of a hatch whilst driving.

A total of 371 men were wounded or killed, with 38% of those who were injured being killed (table 20). This would then enable the authors to assign casualties to particular tanks (table 21) to assess the relative risk and safety of each one (table 22).

The relative hazard is a simple measure to look at the chance of becoming killed, wounded, or burnt inside the tanks used. It does not take into account the combat action seen by a unit, the idea that a particular tank might be specifically targeted by the enemy or a variety of other factors. One notable example of these other factors was that the 5-man crew complement was not always carried in A.27 Cromwells due to the increased risk of mine-related injury. Likewise, the Challenger and Sherman with the 17 pdr. omitted this crew member too. What can be drawn from the results, however, is a general idea that, during this period, the Sherman was in general marginally safer to be a member of the crew than the A.27 Cromwell.

Particular care has to be drawn in judging the relative hazards posed of the crews of 75 mm-armed M4 Shermans compared to 17-pdr.-armed Shermans. Although the crew complement in the 17-pdr. vehicles was just 4, the relative hazard here shows effectively no difference to the 75 mm gun vehicle, which could be interpreted to say that the 17-pdr. gun tank was proportionally more hazardous to the crew. Whilst the study did go on to find that there was an increased risk of injury to crew members from a hull penetration, the lack of a co-driver, who would not generally have been injured from a turret-penetration, does not get to be counted in the survivability of the tank because he was not there. Thus, the authors took care to suggest caution when interpreting the figures.

Fire, in particular, was a major problem to be considered for vehicle and crew casualties, the cause of the fire, and the type of incident which led to the fire. It was then considered in terms of penetrations by A.P. as to where on the tank the penetration had taken place and the percentages of men burned as a result (Table 23) to establish whether or not there was a difference in casualty rates between penetrations of the hull and penetrations of the turret.

It is significant that the number of men who suffered burns was roughly the same between 75 mm and 88 mm A.P. penetrations into the hull, but that penetrations by 75 mm A.P. were more likely to lead to burn injuries when affecting the turret. Overall, however, the 88 mm A.P. was only marginally more likely to lead to burn injuries and a greater share of total casualties than the 75 mm A.P. The substantially greater energies involved with a hit from an 88 mm A.P. compared to a 75 mm A.P., would, on the face of it, have led to substantially higher numbers of burns injuries, but the conclusion was that this number was being masked by the increased fatality rate in tanks penetrated by that type of shell. The lower rate of burn casualties resulting from all H.C. penetrations was also notable. In a nutshell, penetrations by A.P. were substantially more likely to cause burn injuries than penetrations by H.C.

Considering this on a tank type basis allowed for a look at which tanks would be most likely, when penetrated by A.P., to burn and cause injury to the crews (table 24). The result was that, despite its reputation to crews for catching fire, the Sherman, when penetrated or catching fire, was not significantly more dangerous than the other tanks.

Extract from the report. Page 26.

The risk of being burned was, in fact, more a function of where the crew were in the vehicle than to which vehicle they were in and this was established in table 25. In that table, it is clear that it is the commander, gunner, and operator who were most likely to be injured than the driver or co-driver. Some of this was due to the habit of entering combat with the hatches open on the turret (particularly for the commander) for observations or to aid evacuation in case of fire. The same was also true to an extent for the hull crew, some of whom were found to have been injured when driving with their heads out. One unit (unnamed) caused particular antagonism between crews and unit commanders by consistently going into combat with both driver and co-driver hatches wide open to ensure ease of escape in case of fire.

One final point on hatches noted that the Sherman escape hatches in the floor proved useful for collecting casualties under fire and that the side hatches in the Churchill provided the men a chance to escape from the tank with a modicum of protection from enemy small arms.

Fires

Fires after being hit and penetrated were substantially more likely when penetrated by an A.P. shell, especially if it was an 88 mm shell, and the risk of burn injuries to the crew was also significantly correlated (table 26).

A large cause of secondary casualties in tanks was found to be the result of ammunition catching fire and detonating. This was more prevalent in A.P. penetration of the tank than from H.C. penetration, with around 20% of A.P. penetration related casualties caused from this ammunition problem.

The suggested solution to ameliorate this was to use the additional armor, as applied on the Sherman sides around the ammo, in protecting the crew instead.

The majority of burn injuries to crews were to the hands and face (Table 27) – the parts exposed and not covered by clothing, and two-thirds of the burns were second-degree or less, meaning that men could usually return to duty (81% in fact) after treatment.

Fires started after penetration by H.C. weapons were often confined to the area near to where the penetration had occurred and burn risk was strongly correlated for the crew members next to the ammunition. Whilst all of the clothing worn by tankers proved to burn at some point, no easy conclusions were forthcoming on the most suitable clothing other than it should be fireproof and cover the man’s body and limbs. More important from a statistical point of view for reducing casualties was that any tank coverall should be in a camouflage material, such as the Denison pattern paratroopers smock, in order to reduce the casualties to crew exposed to enemy small arms when getting out of the tank.

Burn injuries to crews were found to be three times more common in vehicles penetrated by 88 mm and 75 mm A.P. rounds than from hollow charge weapons. Importantly, however, the study had also found that “The incidence of burns was not significantly greater in Shermans than in other types of vehicle”, something contrary to popular myth.

The study also investigated whether injuries could be the result of delays in escape from the tank. It had been found in experiments on escape times for the M4 Sherman and A.27 Cromwell that both vehicles took about 2.5 seconds for the commander to get out of his open hatch to a standing position on the turret roof (an experiment, so standing on the roof was simply there to standardise the time without worrying about a transit time for the crew member to the ground). The gunner took 5 seconds to do the same and this was considered to be roughly the same for the Comet. The gunner, therefore, was exposed to an internal fire for twice as long as the Commander and this was reflected in the real life casualty figures from Operation Veritable in the report.
This was an enormous take away for the report. Experiments had shown a potential problem and this had been borne out in real life combat analysis. The recommendation was that time to escape from a burning tank must be kept to 2.5 seconds or less to avoid burn injuries and 2.5 to 5 seconds to avoid men being burned to death. It was found to take 1-2 seconds just to open a hatch and these were supposed to be closed in combat, especially for the hatches other than the Commander’s. The authors strongly recommended the adoption of an instantaneously opening hatch to expedite crew evacuation in a fire.

65% of the commanders and just over 20% of operators who were casualties were wounded directly as a result of being exposed through an open hatch. Between 14% and 20% of those casualties were directly attributable to small arms fire because they were exposed, although this was reduced for tanks whose crews had improved splash shields around the hatches for the men.

One experimental device mentioned by the authors was the ‘fog apparatus’. Automatically triggered by an internal fire, this device extinguished fires within two seconds and, although it was available during the Operational period investigated, it clearly had the potential to substantially reduce the fire-casualty risk inside the tanks. However, the authors went one step beyond that point too. As the majority of penetrations (particularly by A.P. shells) led to fires (Table 28), they suggested that the ‘fog apparatus’ should be triggered not just by a flame detector, but primarily by a penetration detector. The problems of the apparatus being triggered by a penetration even when there was not a fire was a small price to pay to increase the chances of the crew getting out in time.

In terms of a major fire, that is a fire which destroyed the entirety of the tank and contents in both engine and crew compartments, these were the worst kind and led to the most injuries. This was in contrast to the minor fires, which were tightly contained to just a single compartment or section within a compartment and caused localised or minor injuries.

Despite the report concluding that the Sherman was at no greater risk of a fire than the other vehicles, the data showed a significant difference between the M4 Sherman and A.27 Cromwell, and to a lesser extent, with the Comet, for a relative risk of major fires following a hit by an A.P. shell. The Sherman was nearly twice as likely to suffer a major fire after such a hit than the A.27 Cromwell, and this remained the same for H.C. penetrations (Table 29).

A.P. penetrations created a risk of a major fire on average at a rate of 30.5% of penetrations and 61% of all major fires across the tanks. H.C. penetrations, on the other hand, caused a major fire at a rate of just 15.0% and accounted for only 30% of all the major fires. This was regardless of where the vehicle was hit or penetrated although, as previously established, penetrations into the Sherman’s engine bay stood a greater chance of leading to a fire than for other vehicles and that hull penetrations caused more burn injuries than turret penetrations (Table 30).

Adding up all of the major fires caused by A.P. and H.C. from Tables 28 and 29 provides for the final delineation between the relative major fire risk from penetrations by A.P. and H.C. and clearly shows the substantially higher risk from A.P. penetration (Table 31).

Although many fires were associated with the petrol inside the tanks catching fire, this was primarily a concern for engine-bay penetrations and especially so for the M4 Shermans, although it was only a minor cause of burn injuries. Despite this, looking at the number of fires which occurred in M4 Sherman tanks, the difference in diesel vs petrol engines versions was stark (Table 32). More fires, and fires which happened more quickly, giving the crew less time to escape, occurred in petrol-engined M4 Shermans than in diesel engined ones, with the obvious exception of the 17 pdr. armed vehicles, for which no clear explanation presented itself. Comparing the 75 mm-armed M4 Sherman with a petrol engine to the A.34 Comet or even the A.22 Churchill, both of which also had petrol engines, confirmed the additional fire risk from a petrol-engined vehicle. The Sherman with the petrol engine was simply more likely, after being hit, to have a fire start with little or no warning than either its contemporary tanks (the single data point for the A.30 Challenger here provides no insight), such as the A.27 Cromwell, A.34 Comet, or even A.22 Churchill, even the A.22 Churchill with the flamethrower which had extra fuel lines and a large bowser on the back – the Crocodile. Table 33 sums up these differences with a contrast readily apparent between the 75 mm armed M4 Sherman with a petrol engine and diesel engine, whereby ammunition fires accounted for ⅔ of all known fires in the petrol vehicle and the petrol accounting for the other third, compared to the diesel engined vehicle, with zero fires known to be connected to the fuel.

The major cause of fires and casualties was actually burning ammunition propellant from ruptured shell cases. This is particularly hazardous in the case of an Armor Piercing shell-casing, as it has a greater quantity of propellant inside and liberated enormous amounts of energy extremely quickly when burned. The combustion of the ammunition was also considered a secondary hazard by the authors of the report, as exploding ammunition inside the tank also led to other casualties. Ammunition stored in the crew compartment caused 19% of all related casualties and 16% of all A.P. and H.C.-related penetrations.

The statistical analysis of hits, damage, and fire risk concluded that additional armor on the sides over the ammunition added no real value in saving lives compared to adding the equivalent weight of protection on the front of the tank. Report Page 4
75 mm and 17 pdr.-armed Shermans belonging to the Royal Scots Greys in the German town of Wismar, 2nd May 1945, amidst the chaos of debris of the German retreat. Source: IWM

Conclusion

The study into these losses covered a statistically significant sample size of both men and vehicles in a relatively discrete time during this one operation. It does, however, warrant caution, as a report from which too wide of a conclusion may be drawn for the whole war. This was 1945 and Germany was collapsing, so the data here cannot be taken as reflective of combat in general.

There are, despite this reserve, some significant points which can be taken away. When it came to a threat to Allied tanks, the most significant threat was from enemy A.P.-firing weapons and H.C. weapons like the Panzerfaust. The majority of enemy gunfire was directed at the front of the tank and a negligible amount at the rear. The majority of casualties, both direct and indirect, were the result of penetrations of the armor by A.P. hits.

The majority of tank casualties were the result of fire from 75 mm guns, yet the 88 mm gun caused more fatalities per penetration and caused more fires. The general combat range for guns was under 1,000 yards (914 m) and mines generally were not a concern, although floor protection on the A.27 Cromwell was also inadequate.

Fires were mainly the result of ammunition burning or exploding (also a source of secondary injury). The conclusion drawn from both of those points was that the front of the tank should not only carry the majority of the armor, but also that adding additional armor on the sides of the M4 Sherman to protect the ammunition was better utilised directly on the front of the tank and also in protecting the crew from the ammunition inside.
Despite the report concluding that M4 Shermans were not generally more at risk of fires than other tanks, the data showed somewhat otherwise. The petrol engined M4 Shermans were more likely to have fires start with little or no warning than the diesel equivalent or even their petrol-engined contemporaries. Notwithstanding that, ammunition was cited as the primary cause of fires, the preponderance of petrol-engined 75 mm M4 Shermans to burn is not to be ignored.

Also for armor, the study, despite not being able to look directly at A.22 Churchill tanks, suggested that, due to the heavier armor, these suffer fewer casualties amongst men who were only partially exposed in those vehicles but the sample size was not large enough to make a determination on the point. When it came to penetration of the A.22 Churchill, it showed no more survivability for the crews than the other tanks, producing the same ratio of killed and injured.

It was also clear that the distribution of armor on a tank to protect against A.P. fire had to be differently emphasized on a vehicle to protect primarily against H.C. weapons and that the fatal effects inside the tank were more severe following an A.P. strike than from an hit by a H.C. weapon.

For the crew, they must be kept as far from the ammunition as possible, notwithstanding any efforts at fire suppression or efforts to protect the ammunition from damage. Further, the predominance of head injuries both fatal and non-fatal demanded action on ballistic head protection. The need to evacuate in a fire was extreme – all crew had to be able to egress the tank within two seconds and current hatches were grossly inadequate for this across all tanks.

What the series of reports tells is a complicated yet thorough assessment of survivability. The M4 Sherman tank was, in fact, more likely to burn following penetration than other tanks and some of that was indeed due to the petrol in the engine bay catching fire. The large majority, however, were not – they were, like the majority of fires in other tanks, a function of the ammunition burning inside.

The height of a tank was a factor in reducing the vulnerability to being hit by enemy fire but the additional height of an M4 Sherman over an A.27 Cromwell accounted for relatively few hits and penetrations. With the height being dominated by the turret, this also resulted in few injuries proportionally.

As far as reducing height went, attention should therefore be on reducing hull profile rather than turret or overall profile for survivability from a height point of view.

It is interesting to note, from a historical point of view, the statistical analysis of tank and crew losses indicated to the designers that a tank, even with limited gun traverse, emphasising armor immune to enemy fire from the front, could have substantial combat value. Comparing this to the decisions by the Germans in these later years of WW2 is interesting, with increasingly heavily protected S.P.-type guns, including the Jagdtiger. It should be noted however, that the key difference between the British lessons and the German practice was that the British wanted a seated crew in the hull rather than a giant casemate type design with men standing inside it.

A Comet tank from the 23rd Hussars, 11th Armoured Division.
A Cromwell IV of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, 7th Armoured Division.
An M4 Sherman of the 2nd Batallion Irish Guards, Guards Armoured Divison.
A British M5A1 Stuart.

Sources

Hills, A. (2021). An Unnecessary Burden. The Sherman Tea Tray Anti-Land Mine Device. FWD Publishing, USA
Medical Research Council Report BPC. 45/444. (1945). Casualties among Tank Crews in 11th Armoured Division in Operation Veritable. 27th February to 4th March 1945. Captain H. B. Wright and Captain R.D. Harkness, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Medical Research Council Report BPC. 45/419. (1945). The Distribution of Casualties Amongst the Crews of Cromwells and Shermans. Captain H. B. Wright and Captain R.D. Harkness, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Medical Research Council Report BPC. 45/453. (1945). Casualties In Armoured Fighting Vehicles. Captain R. Mayon White.
Medical Research Council. (1946). A Survey of Casualties Amongst Armoured Units in North West Europe. Captain H. B. Wright and Captain R.D. Harkness, Royal Army Medical Corps.
Official History of the Canadian Army: The Victory Campaign. Chapter XIX: The Battle of the Rhineland Part II. Canadian Department of National Defense. Ottawa, Canada.
US Army Technical Manual ™-E-30-451. Handbook on German Military Forces. March 1945

Categories
WW2 German Tactics

The fighting of 2 Panzer Division, Normandy, 17 June – 7 July 1944

On 6 June 1944, Allied troops landed on the coast of Normandy, France on D-Day. The German 2.Panzer Division was ordered to advance towards the Allied invasion force and push them back into the sea. This was incredibly difficult as they were outnumbered and did not have the same resources the Allies had. The Normandy bocage landscape and the lack of air support caused problems for the Germans who had been used to fighting on the open farmland of the Eastern Front. They had to quickly change tactics.

The Allies captured and translated a German battlefield report written by Lieutenant-General Freiherr (Baron) von Lüttwitz, the commander of the 2nd Panzer Division. This report was dated 14 July 1944 and covered the fighting in Normandy between 17 June – 7 July 1944. His unit was being relieved by the 362nd Infantry Division and he was required to inform its commanding officer of what the situation was like on the front line. The translated report was then circulated to Allied units in a document called Weekly Intelligence Summary No.42. As it is a primary source document written during the battle for Normandy from the German point of view, this document provides a fascinating insight into how the Germans saw the situation and their mindset.

Generalleutnant Diepold George Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz was commanding officer of 2 Panzer Division.

Account of 2 Pz Div Operations

17 Jun – 7 Jul 44
362 Inf Div
Ops No.2044/44 Most Secret
Div Battle HQ, 17 Jul 44
Ref: 2 Pz Div Ops No.675/44 Most Secret, dated 14 July 44 (only to Div)
17 copies, copy No.4

Extract from battle experiences from recent operations
by 2 Pz Div whose sector is being taken over by 362 Inf Div

The fighting of the Div on the invasion front is characterised by
(a) the special nature of the country of Normandy.
(b) the great material superiority of the enemy, even on so-called quiet fronts.

(a) The country in which the fighting is taking place consists of meadow and brush land enclosed squarely by hedges, with embankments and sunken roads. This does not lend itself to engagements over large areas. All engagements soon resolve themselves into shock-troop and individual engagements. The possession of ‘dominating heights’ is often not as decisive as the possession of traffic junctions. Often, the former cannot be exploited because hedges and trees limit visibility and field of fire, whereas road traffic arteries are essential since it is only by roads that the heavier weapons, artillery and tanks can be brought forward. Nevertheless, certain features always retain their dominating role, whereas, conversely, some traffic junctions can be dispensed with.

US troops negotiating the narrow sunken lanes of the bocage country in Normandy. Most fields only had one gated entrance and were surrounded by high hedgerows.

(b) The incredibly heavy artillery and mortar fire (of the enemy) is something new, both for the seasoned veterans of the Eastern Front and the new arrivals from reinforcement units. Whereas the veterans get used to it comparatively quickly, the inexperienced reinforcements require several days or so, after which they become acclimatised. The average rate of fire on the Divisional sector per day is 4,000 artillery rounds and 5,000 mortar rounds. This is multiplied many times before an enemy attack, however small. For instance, on one occasion, when the British made an attack on a sector of only two companies, they expended 3,500 rounds in two hours. The Allies are waging war regardless of expense. In addition to this, the enemy has complete mastery of the air. They bomb and strafe every movement, even single vehicles and individuals. They recce our area constantly and direct their artillery fire. Against all this, the German Air Force is conspicuous by its complete absence. During the last four weeks, the total number of German aircraft over the Division’s area was six.

From the operations point of view, our own offensive operations by day, after completed assembly etc. – i.e. attacks prepared all ‘according to the book’, have little chance of succeeding. The assembling of troops is spotted immediately by enemy recce aircraft, and smashed by bombers, fighter-bombers and artillery directed by aircraft; and if, nevertheless, the attacking troops go forward, they become involved in such dense artillery and mortar fire, that high casualties ensue and the attack peters out within the first few hundred metres. The losses suffered by the infantry are then so heavy that the impetus necessary to renew the attack is spent.

Many of the country lanes in the bocage country in Normandy were not wide enough for tanks to drive down.

Better results have been obtained by attacks prepared down to the last detail by assault detachments operating by night on a broad front. These penetrate the enemy positions noiselessly and in each individual case surprise and overcome the enemy, without the enemy artillery or air force having a chance to intervene.

The primary condition for this is that each individual assault detachment be fully acquainted with its task and knows what to do in various circumstances, is in close liaison with its neighbours, and that the heavy weapons and artillery know exactly when to come into operation (usually only in the case of local failure when the element of surprise has not been achieved). The direction of such operations is less a question of large-scale elaborate planning than that of practical instruction and reminders. The mere fact that ‘assembly has been completed’ before the attack begins is of less importance than the fact that every company and platoon commander has thought of everything necessary to ensure the success of the operation of his assault detachment. It is an essential duty of the staff planning the operation to put everyone, down to the lowest ranking commander, completely in the picture. An attack of this nature attains no far-distant objective, but proceeds only by small stages, night after night. But in the end, it reaches its objective without paying a high toll in manpower. The more cunning and variable the fighting, the more successful the operation. This ‘infiltration’ has proved its worth in every case hitherto, as far as this Division is concerned.

German troops inspection the wreckage of an Allied Horsa glider. In the background you can see how high the Normandy bocage country field system hedgerows were.

The fact that a modern equipped Panzer Division with two tank battalions and two infantry battalions with armored half-tracked vehicles is not necessary for such fighting methods is another question.

In defence, we must reckon with the fact that the attacking enemy simply smashes down the forward battle area with his massed artillery fire and aircraft. Hitherto, the enemy has always succeeded, usually after a very short time, in occupying our main line of defence after a heavy barrage of this kind. It is, therefore, essential to maintain reserves in at least every battalion sector, which come forward immediately after the barrage has ended. Large masses of troops are not needed for this, but only a few assault detachments. The enemy infantryman is no fighter in our sense of the term, and consequently only a few machine guns are necessary to hold him – but these must be there at the right time. The Divisional reserves must be employed immediately without waiting for the ‘All Clear’ in order to throw back the enemy, assault troop fashion, in immediate counterattack. In any case, when the enemy is firing a lot of smoke from weapons of all calibres, everything is hidden in a blinding pall, and a clear picture is impossible. But once the enemy has brought up his anti-tank guns and forward observation officers and dug himself in, it is usually too late. Then the only remedy is to infiltrate on the following night. After several abortive attempts, the British become cautious and finally discontinue the attacks.

US soldiers inspection a knocked out Panther Tank. The high hedgerows of the Normandy bocage limited the range tank crews could see the enemy.

Individual Arms

1. Panzer Grenadiers.
The Panzer Grenadiers must be able to withstand the heavy artillery fire of the enemy. This is the decisive factor. They must, therefore, be dug-in deeply. Since the enemy uses a very sensitive fuse, overhead protection is necessary against shells which explode on striking trees. During the barrage, the weapons must also remain under cover, or else they get clogged with mud and rendered useless.

Our soldiers enter battle in low spirits at the thought of the enemy’s enormous material superiority. They are always asking, ‘Where is the German Air Force?’. The feeling of helplessness against enemy aircraft operating without any hindrance has a paralysing effect, and during the barrage, this effect on the inexperienced troops is literally ‘soul-shattering’ and it must be borne in mind that four-engine bombers have not yet taken part in attacking ground targets in this Division’s area. It is, therefore, essential for troops to be lifted out of this state of distress the moment a counterattack begins. The best results have been obtained by the platoon and section commanders leaping forward uttering a good old fashioned ‘hurrah’, which spurs on the inexperienced troops and carries them along. The revival of the practice of sounding a bugle call for the attack has been found to answer the purpose, and this has been made a Divisional order. Moreover, the use of the bugle in territory where visibility is restricted enables the troops to know when and where the attack is taking place. An attack launched in this manner is an experience which troops will never forget and stimulates them into action again.

Some Allied tanks were fitted with “Rhinoceros” blades at the front so they could force their way into a field by smashing through a hedgerow.

The Panzer Grenadiers fight as assault detachments, in this more depends on the NCOs than ever before. Only an energetic commander will get his men to go forward. For weaklings, there is every inducement and opportunity to hide in the hedge. Close-combat weapons (flame throwers, anti-tank close-combat weapons, mines and explosive charges) are especially effective in country of this nature. In defence, it may be expedient to deplete the front line in order to maintain sufficient reserves for counterattack. Specially efficient NCOs would be selected for this.

The battle outposts and outlying picquets of all kinds must change their positions frequently and at irregular intervals. The enemy, especially the Americans, are experts in creeping up under cover of the hedges and making frequent attempts to dislodge our picquets. They then cover their withdrawal with heavy mortar and artillery defensive fire.

The heavy weapons are compelled by the heavy fire to change their positions frequently. The enemy got their range very soon. It is not unusual to change positions ten times during the day. Therefore, heavy and light infantry guns use only their roving guns. (see para 4.) The evaluation and employment of enemy tactics has proved profitable. In one instance, a counterattacking company succeeded in turning the enemy mortars and firing smoke on the enemy, with the result that the enemy was misled into believing that a penetration had been achieved on the breadth of the front covered by smoke, and brought down artillery fire on his own troops.

US troops crossing a high hedge lined road between a knocked out German Panther tank and lorry.

2. Tanks.
There is no question of tank employment in the true sense of the term. They can only be employed to accompany infantry. Their mobility is limited by the sunken roads and hedges. They can only penetrate the square areas enclosed by hedges at certain points, and these points are registered by the enemy anti-tank guns. Therefore, the anti-tank weapon must be neutralised before the tanks advance again. Since the country favours close anti-tank combat, each single tank must have a strong flank protection. It is unprofitable to employ more than one troop of tanks at the time. On sunken roads, which are often the only places where tanks can move, the first and last tanks of the column get knocked out and those in between are wedged in. Therefore, the tanks must work in the closest cooperation with their infantry. The tanks must give high explosive HE and machine gun covering fire along the ridge of the hedgerow until the infantry have reached it by passing along the hedgerow running at right angles to it. The infantry then mop up, and then the tanks make another bound forward to the next hedgerow and the process is repeated. In this case, the actual punch is delivered by the infantry and the fire power supplied by the tanks, and thus the control of the operation lies with the infantry.

German troops anxiously look in the sky for enemy aircraft.

3. Anti-tank
(a) SP. The employment of self-propelled anti-tank guns is extremely limited in country of this kind. Their low structure is a disadvantage, and in many cases, they are unable to shoot over hedges and walls. Since the turret cannot be traversed, self-propelled anti-tank guns are completely helpless on sunken roads. The best method of employing them is to have them in a concealed position at the side of the main roads. Therefore, self-propelled anti-tank guns should be kept back in reserves in order to intercept enemy thrusts along the main roads in the event of an armored break-through.

(b) Tractor drawn. There are not enough of these available. If it were possible to employ these regardless of loss, they would be the best weapon in the main defensive line, since they can be properly camouflaged and dug in and can destroy enemy tanks at the closest range and inflict severe casualties on the enemy infantry in the hedgerows by high explosive HE fire. But they cannot get away again, and their loss has to be reckoned with as a matter of course. Losses and damage inflicted by enemy artillery fire must also be taken into account. The enemy uses his anti-tank guns in this way, but the Germans can no longer afford to do so. Therefore, tractor-drawn anti-tank guns have been withdrawn and placed in depth in the main battle area, where they form the backbone of the main defence zone. The only available anti-tank weapons in the front line proper are the close-combat weapons.

The threat of attack from the sky was always a problem for German troops in Normandy during the Summer of 1944.

4. Artillery.
The highest demands are made on the elastic use of artillery. Since our own artillery can only fire one tenth of the amount fired by the enemy, success can only be achieved by closest cooperation and best possible ground observation, therefore, forward observers must be placed well forward. Ample provision of means of communications are essential. Even in counterattack, the forward observers must be well forward. It is essential to maintain ample reserves of forward observers in order to avoid loss of all forward observers and their equipment during the enemy barrage. The allotment of ‘SOS’ tasks which can be brought down automatically during any enemy attack has proved profitable. The artillery must change its positions frequently, since it is spotted very rapidly and engaged with the aid of observation from the air. Good results have been achieved by ‘roving’ artillery troops and ‘roving’ guns which mislead the enemy as to the siting and strength of our own guns. Every attempt at harassing fire on the part of our artillery is promptly repaid many times over by the enemy. The artillery must take up different positions by day and night. Here on the Western front, too, the siting of the artillery for all-round defence is the chief support for the main battle area.

5. Anti-Aircraft.
The anti-aircraft (AA) guns cannot protect everything. It is better to concentrate all the light and heavy AA troops on the point of main effort instead of scattering over the whole Divisional area in troops and sections. In bad weather, the AA can be used successfully in an artillery role. In this case, but in this case, only, they are placed under the command of the artillery. The siting of light AA troops in concealed positions close behind the main line of defence with the sole task of engaging artillery spotting aircraft. By this means the Division succeeded in shooting down two enemy aircraft in the course of a few days, and now the enemy spotting aircraft keep a safe distance of approximately 3 km (1.9 miles) from the main line of defence, whereas formerly they used to fly right over it.

The German infantry was armed with anti-tank Panzerfaust weapons.

6. Engineers.
The Engineers have been particularly successful in an infantry role in this terrain, thanks to their good training in assault and close combat methods. Since they are limited in their employment as infantry, they must, however, be restricted to exceptional cases, since, owing to their numerical inferiority in this close country, their technical engineering tasks in front of and in the main defensive area, and the consolidation of positions in the rear, is of special importance. The commander of the engineers must exercise control over all engineers employed, including all engineer platoons. Owing to the limited means available, this is the only way whereby points of main effort on the part of the engineers can be created. Since the whole operation in this territory demands special skill, the construction of obstacles must be carried out with resource and variety. In this cut-up territory, it is impossible to construct a continuous line of obstacles which can be covered by our own fire from medium and long range. The improvised anti-personnel mine S.150 issued to the engineers has proved unsatisfactory since the chemical igniter is unreliable. In order not to waste the effort of the engineers in purely labour tasks the Division has combed out all surplus personnel from support columns to provide labour for consolidating the main battle area and rear positions. This method, adopted from the Eastern front, has proved successful here.

7. Reconnaissance.
This is performed exclusively as battle recce. The best results are achieved by bringing back prisoners of war, even if these scarcely disclose anything. Signals interception within the Divisional area scarcely provides any results, since the enemy hardly carries on any wireless telecommunication traffic, and if he does, it is impossible to determine if this is taking place in front of our own sector. Listening has so far produced no results. It is only done for monitoring our own traffic.

This German soldier is armed with an anti-tank Panzerschreck.

8. Signals.
The principle remains the same. The Division avoids wireless telecommunication traffic as far as possible. No enemy attempts at direction-finding have yet been confirmed, but this must still be reckoned with. There are signs that the enemy is monitoring our wireless telecommunication traffic.

9. Supplies.
The entire supply system, including the receiving, works by night. The time is very short, with the results that losses are constantly incurred due to journeys made in the daytime (also by moonlight). The supply of ammunition is insufficient. Hitherto, it has been out of the question to engage the enemy artillery. The enemy, too, is gradually realising this, and is, therefore, moving up closer and closer in order to take full advantage of the range to disrupt our columns in the rear. Consequently, our supply lines are under constant artillery fire, even at night. Our supplies of fuel, oils and lubricants are adequate, since the Division is in fixed position, The use of mechanical transport traffic is reduced to a minimum. The supplies of food obtained from the land are very good, but those obtained through supply channels are mediocre.

The question of spare parts and tyres is a serious problem. The Division has to fetch everything over distances of hundreds of kilometres so that, in spite of the Division being engaged in static warfare, its mobility gradually becomes less and less. The enemy’s air superiority presents an almost insolvable problem with regards to supplies.

Signed Freiherr (Baron) von Lüttwitz

After this

Generalleutnant Diepold George Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz was commanding officer of the 2nd Panzer Division from 27 May 1944 to 31 August 1944. He was born on 6 December 1896 and died on 9 October 1969. His family were members of the landed nobility of Prussia. He served in both World Wars. He competed as part of the German Olympic equestrian team in the 1936 Summer games but failed to obtain an Olympic medal which did not go down too well with the Nazi regime. He later went on to command the XLVII Panzer Corps (47th Panzer Corps) during the Battle of the Bulge which included 2 Panzer Division during December 1944 – January 1945. He is perhaps best known for requesting the surrender of the 101St Airborne Regiment in Bastogne, and received the reply back, “Nuts”.

The 2nd Panzer Division was sent to Verrieres ridge area southwest of Caen after it had been relieved by the 326th Infantry Division. Some of its units took part in Operation Spring but the Division was later moved west to try and halt the American Operation Cobra breakout in Normandy. This failed and they withdrew towards Falaise after taking part in Operation Luttich, a unsuccessful German counter-attack near Mortain. Although encircled in the Falaise Pocket they managed to fight their way through, but with heavy losses of manpower and vehicles.

The Division was refitted in Germany and then took part in the German offensive in the Luxembourg and Belgium Ardennes in December 1944. They were forced to retreat in late December by the US 2nd Armoured Division and the British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment. In the Spring of 1945, they were tasked with stopping the Allied crossing of the River Rhine. Their last combat engagement was in April 1945 near the city of Fulda. On 7 May 1945, the 2nd Panzer Division surrendered to US Forces in north-west Czechoslovakia and Saxony.

The 3rd Panzer Regiment of the 2nd Panzer Division was equipped with Panther tanks which could not utilize their full potential in the bocage.
The Panzer Grenadier regiments of the 2nd Panzer Division were equipped with Sd.Kfz.251 half-tracks.
The armored opposition to the 2nd Panzer Division consisted of Allied Sherman tanks. All illustration by David Bocquelet.

Sources

National Archives Kew WO 170/275

Categories
WW2 Hungarian Tactics WW2 Soviet Tactics

The Hungarian Ambush near Hill 386.0

Introduction

The history of the Hungarian tank forces during WWII still has many “blank spots”. The existing sources are contradictory and data is difficult to verify. However, the depths of the Russian archives hold hidden treasures. One of the finds in the Russian archives sheds light on the first combat engagement of the Hungarian Tiger Tanks in 1944. There is strong evidence that on 26th July 1944, Hungarian tankers clashed with the Soviet 1448 Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment, which supported the advance of the Soviet 18th Army.

Opposing forces

By the beginning of July 1944, the Soviet 18th Army consisted mainly of infantry and artillery units, supported by the 1448 self-propelled artillery regiment, perhaps the only armored formation in the whole army. It was fighting in what is now Central Ukraine.

Interestingly enough, the command of the 18th Army knew that there were enemy tank forces in the area of operation since 28th June 1944. They also recognized that some of them were equipped with Tigers, but did nothing to reinforce the anti-tank capabilities of the troops.

The intelligence of the 18A
The intelligence of the 18A reports that a train with tanks and artillery was spotted on Vorokhta station on 28 June. “All tanks except Tigers were with Hungarian crews”. Source: TsAMO

According to the Soviet intelligence, the enemy tank forces included the 2nd Hungarian Tank Division, the 16th Panzer Division and the 10th Reserve Tank Battalion (possibly the 10th Panzer Regiment).

Unit Number of Tanks Area of Operations
2nd Tank Division
(2 TD)
Up to 60 tanks Maidan Sredni, Svetny Stanislav, Tovmachik
16th Panzer Division
(16 TD)
45 tanks, 18 of them Tigers Dora
10th Reserve Tank Battalion (10 RTD) Up to 30 tanks Between Rostoki and Javoruv

Subsequently, after July 26, POWs provided Soviet intelligence with more details on the Hungarian 2nd Tank Division. They testified that the 2 TD was formed in 1938, consisting of 3 motorized infantry regiments, 3 tank regiments and 2 RO battalions (Rohamtüzérosztály, assault artillery), as well as a medical battalion, 2 signal battalions, and two artillery battalions (2nd and 6th). The 2 TD in full force had operated in the direction of Kolomyia since April 1944, but at the beginning of May, it was withdrawn to the reserve and was located in the area of Maidan Sredni, Delyatyn, Molotkuv (north-west of Nadvorna).

Disposition of the Hungarian 2 Tank Division in April 1944
Disposition of the Hungarian 2nd Tank Division in April 1944. 1 – Molotkuv, 2 – Nadvornaya, 3 – Maidan Sredni, 4 – Delyatyn. Source: TsAMO

The 2nd Tank Division was part of the 1st Hungarian Army, but acted as a separate division. By the end of July 1944, it consisted of 1 reconnaissance detachment – 150 troops, 2 battalions and 2 companies of Hungarian tanks, one battalion of German tanks and SPGs.

In total, the division had a paper strength up to 90 tanks:

2 battalions of Turan I tanks divided into 4 companies. A total of 40 tanks;

2 companies of Turan II tanks, a total of 20 tanks;

One battalion of German tanks and self-propelled guns.

According to Dr. Leo Niehorster, the actual strength of the Hungarian 2nd Tank Division on the 22nd of July 1944 was 27 Hungarian Tanks, 8 Panzer IVs, 4 Tigers, and 11 StuG IIIs.

The 2nd Tank Division was being kept in the reserve of the 1st Army and had to be used for mobile defense and counterattacks.

With the intensification of the actions of the Red Army, the tanks were moved from one intermediate position to another, but the order to retreat was not given.

Turan II tank equipped with side screens at Kubinka Museum in 2016
Turan II tank equipped with side screens at Kubinka Museum in 2016. Source: Alex Tarasov’s personal collection

1448 Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment

The Soviet 1448 Self-Propelled Artillery Regiment or SAP was formed in April 1943.

Some sources claim that 1448 SAP (Self-propelled Artillery Regiment, Samokhodno-Artilleriyskiy Polk) was formed according to the reduced Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E) Nr. 08/191 (1942). The unit included 289 personnel and 20 self-propelled guns, divided into 5 batteries of 4 armored vehicles each. Three batteries were armed with SU-122, two other batteries with SU-76M.

SU-76M at Vadim Zadorozhny's Museum
SU-76M at Vadim Zadorozhny’s Museum. The SU-76M was the main production variant with an open-topped compartment and uprated engines on later models, while SU-76 had a fully armored casemate. According to some sources, 1448 SAP was initially equipped with SU-122 and SU-76 SPGs and rearmed with the SU-76M later. Source: Alex Tarasov’s personal collection
SU-122 self-propelled assault gun at UMMC Military Museum, Verkhnyaya Pyshma
SU-122 self-propelled assault gun at UMMC Military Museum, Verkhnyaya Pyshma. SU-122s were not intended for anti-tank fighting and were poorly suited for fighting against enemy armor. Source: Alex Tarasov’s personal collection

However, the unit’s war diary shows that by July 1944, the unit had been out of TO&E, as it had 33 SPGs in 7 batteries. It should be noted that such an organization and the number of self-propelled guns are quite uncommon for Soviet self-propelled artillery regiments. Usually, SAPs were armed with 12 to 21 SPGs in 5 batteries. Which TO&E used the 1448 SAP is not yet known.

From 1st May 1944 to 1st August 1944, the 1448 SAP was part of the 18th Army. On 23rd July 1944, the regiment was attached to infantry units of the 18th Army. Five batteries (23 SPGs) were attached to the 66th Infantry Division of the 95th Rifle Corps, 2 batteries (10 SPGs) to 226th Infantry Division of the 11th Rifle Corps. The 1448 SAP was tasked with helping infantry to break through the enemy line of defense in the area between Mikhalkuv-Cheremkhuv (now Mihalkov-Cheremhov) and supporting the further advance.

Disposition of the 1448 SAP on 13th July 1944
Disposition of the 1448 SAP on 13th July 1944. Source: TsAMO, F 315, O 4440, D 410. Source: TsAMO

After reconnaissance and establishing contact with units of 66th and 226th ID, the Army commander decided to attach self-propelled guns to the assault battalions to break through the enemy’s front line. In the first line, the SPGs were distributed throughout the entire breakthrough sector of the 18th army in order to deceive the enemy, showing the presence of many armored units in the area.

On the night of July 23, SUs moved up to their forward positions. After the artillery preparation they started the offensive, firing from short stops and supporting the infantry. When crossing the minefield, 6 SPGs were destroyed by mines. However, the right group of 8 SUs and the left of 10 SUs passed through the minefields along the passages made and continued to support the advancing units of 66th and 226th IDs.

After the breakthrough of the enemy’s frontline in the Yuzefovka area, two more SUs were lost to mines, and another self-propelled gun was hit by artillery fire. The regiment’s losses amounted to 9 SPGs in total, 8 lost to mines and 1 destroyed by artillery. Five personnel were killed, of which 2 were officers in addition to 15 wounded, of whom 3 were officers.

On 24th July, self-propelled guns continued to support the advancing units. They were divided into two groups – left (8 SUs) and right (12 SUs). The right group was in turn divided into two detachments of 7 SUs and 5 SUs, respectively.

The right group fought in the area to the north and south of Hill 344.4. One of the groups (7 SUs), together with 195th IR, captured Grabich. The second group (5 SUs) operated in cooperation with 193th IR and captured Glyboka (Glubokaya), and by the end of the day the station Goloskuv (Goloskov). The left group of 8 SUs acted in collaboration with units of the 226th ID. By 10:00 hours that day, Soviet troops took the southern outskirts of Khlebichen-Lesny (Lesnoy Khlebichin).

On 25th July, 1448 SAP divided into two groups continued to support the offensive of rifle units. The first group by the end of the day took the village of Kamenna (Kamennoye) to the north of Nadvornaya, and the second approached the Nadvornaya station, where it met strong enemy resistance.

Self-propelled guns, together with units of the 985th IR managed to break through from the northeastern direction, by 16:00 hours on the same day they completely captured the city of Nadvornaya. By 19:00 hours, Soviet units crossed the Bystritsa River (Bystritsa-Nadvornyanskaya) and developed an offensive northwards along the Nadvorna- Bogorodchany highway.

It is noted in the regiment’s war diary that units of 1448 SAP fought with enemy tanks, two of which were knocked out and subsequently captured.

The results of the battles on July 24-25 show that no self-propelled guns were lost. Thus, the regiment continued to operate with at least 20 SU.

On 26th June 1944, at 20:30 hours, self-propelled guns of the right group took tank desants (tankovy desant), infantry soldiers who rode into an attack on tanks, onboard and after a swift march captured the Bogorodchany. The left group was less fortunate, as it subsequently faced the Hungarian Tigers of the 2 TD.

Soviet troops in the Vyborg region, on the Karelian Isthmus. No date available, probably Summer 1944
Soviet troops in the Vyborg region, on the Karelian Isthmus. No date available, probably Summer 1944. The image shows tankovy desant in vivid detail. This was a very common and yet extremely dangerous way of transporting troops. Source: NARA, WDGS Report 100-44 – Russian Armored (Track Laying) Vehicles

The Ambush

The following account is based on the account from the 1448 SAP found in the war diary of the unit in the Russian archives. A group of 5 self-propelled guns progressed towards Bogorodchany, with the reconnaissance detachment of the 985th IR moving ahead of the main group.

The enemy allowed the avant-garde to pass towards Hill 386.0. Having let the SUs advance at a distance of up to 200 meters, the Hungarian tanks opened fire, 2 self-propelled guns were burned and 2 were knocked out, 4 men were killed and 5 wounded.

According to the war diary of the 1448 SAP, there were 5 tanks in the ambush, including 3 Tigers supported by an infantry company. The ambush itself was prepared at the southeastern edge of the forest east of Dombrovka (present-day Dibrova).

Immediately after that, the Hungarian units launched a counterattack in the Ostre region, but were forced to withdraw, leaving one Tiger and one Turan II at the intersection of roads in Lyakhovitsa, possibly due to mechanical failure or lack of fuel.

The enemy withdrew, leaving two tanks at the intersection of roads in Lyakhovitsa
“The enemy withdrew, leaving two tanks at the intersection of roads in Lyakhovitsa, one Tiger and one Hungarian Turan II”. The excerpt from the war diary of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment. Source: TsAMO

“The enemy withdrew, leaving two tanks at the intersection of roads in Lyakhovitsa, one Tiger and one Hungarian Turan II”. The excerpt from the war diary of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment. Source: TsAMO

Other self-propelled guns of the 1448 regiment continued to fight in the Solotvin area, west of Nadvornaya.

The results of the day for the regiment were the loss of four SUs, 4 crew members were killed and 8 wounded.

Soviet troops reported that they had burnt out 2 tanks in the Banya district, destroyed 12 machine guns and 3 mortars, had killed 150 soldiers and officers and 75 enemy soldiers were captured.

Additionally, Soviet troops captured more than 4 tanks, one of which was an operational Pz. IV, which was used against the enemy.

The Hungarian forces continued to retreat westward.

Map of the ambush
1 – Hill 386.0; 2 – the approximate place of the ambush; 3 – Ostre where the counter attack took place. Source: TsAMO

A Note of Identification

Combat is a confusing experience and it is certainly true that tanks have often been misidentified as something else across different theaters. In recording these events it is important to consider this possibility here to – that the Soviet soldiers misidentified tanks in the ambush as Tigers.

The prospect of misidentification, however, seems very unlikely for several reasons. Firstly, the crew members who survived could have claimed any number of any enemy vehicles. Yet it is emphasized in the war diary, that only 3 of 5 tanks were Tigers.

Secondly, the 1448 SAP had enough time to get familiarized with new German tanks between January 1944 and May 1944 when it was employed near Chernovtsy. There is a note in the war diary, that on 8th April the unit held an exercise with live fire on captured Panther tanks.

Besides, the unit had fought with Hungarians units, including armored, since May 1944. Thus, soldiers and officers most likely were experienced and able to identify enemy AFVs.

On this basis it is unlikely that the Soviet troops misidentified Hungarian tank forces as using Tiger tanks in this action.

Conclusion

According to Soviet documents, the battle at Nadvornaya or, to be precise, near Hill 386.0, was not as successful for the Hungarian tankers as mentioned in some sources. Most likely for propaganda purposes, the number of destroyed Russian AFVs was simply doubled.

Unfortunately, the documents do not mention the exact types of SPGs the ambushed group of the 1448 SAP was equipped with. However, it can be assumed that if these were SU-122 assault guns, Hungarian tankers could confuse them with T-34 tanks, as they used the same chassis.

It should be noted that neither lightly armored SU-76 armed with a 76 mm cannon, nor the SU-122 with a short-barreled howitzer were able to fight with Tigers and newer models of Pz. IV.

The Hungarians competently organized an ambush, fully using the advantages of their tanks, resulting in success in their first battle. They did not suffer any losses this day. Later, during the retreat, Hungarian tankers were forced to abandon their vehicles due to lack of fuel or mechanical breakdowns.

The Russian forces continued to advance towards the Hungarian border. The next major clash with enemy tank forces happened at Dolina, on 31st July.

One of the Tiger tanks used by the Hungarian army during May 1944
One of the Tiger tanks used by the Hungarian Army during May 1944. Illustrations by David Boquelet
A SU-122 like those operated by the 1448 SAP.
A SU-76M, the kind of vehicle probably ambushed near Hill 386.0

Sources

1. War diary of the 18A, 4th Ukrainian Front, 31.07.1944, TsAMO, F 244, O 3000, D 890, PP 1-72 [Russian: Журнал боевых действий 18 А 4 УкрФ. ЦАМО, Фонд: 244, Опись: 3000, Дело: 890]

2. 18th Army, dislocation map on 13.07.1944. TsAMO, F 315, O 4440, D 410 [Russian: Карта расположения частей армии на 13.7.44 г. – 13.07.1944 г. – ЦАМО, Ф 315, О 4440, Д 410]

3. War diary of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment, TsAMO, F 4438, O 0445095с, D 0003, PP 19-30 [Russian: Журнал боевых действий 1448 сап. ЦАМО, Фонд: 4438, Опись: 0445095с, Дело: 0003]

4. TO&E of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment. [Russian: Штат 1448 САП] http://tankfront.ru/ussr/sap/sap1448.html

5. Tactical map of the 18 Army, July 1944, TsAMO, F 371, O 6367, D 468 [ Отчетная карта боевых действий 18 А за июль 1944, 31.07.1944 г., ЦАМО, Ф: 371, О: 6367, Д: 468]

6. NARA, WDGS Report 100-44 – Russian Armored (Track Laying) Vehicles

7. Strengths of the 2nd Tank Division of the Royal Hungarian Army, Dr. Leo Niehorster

Red Army Auxiliary Armoured Vehicles, 1930–1945 (Images of War)

Red Army Auxiliary Armoured Vehicles, 1930–1945 (Images of War), by Alex Tarasov

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– the 2nd Tank Army in January–February 1944, during the battles of the Zhitomir–Berdichev offensive
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Categories
WW2 Soviet Tactics

1942 Combat Damage Analysis of the T-34 and T-70 tanks

Translation and Analysis of Original 1942 Combat Damage Survey

T-34 Model 1942 medium tank and T-70 light tank knocked out at Kursk, July 1943. Source: https://waralbum.ru/125951/

Introduction

On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, conquering over 1500 square kilometers of Soviet territory within 6 months. By November 1941, German forces were within reach of Moscow, but were driven back by a counteroffensive of Soviet reserves, which saved the Soviet capital. The “Great Patriotic War” on the Eastern European Front continued until the fall of Berlin in May 1945, and proved to be the deadliest theatre of World War 2, both in military and civilian casualties. To replace the tens of thousands of tanks lost in the first six months of the war, in 1942, the Soviet tank industry introduced an improved variant of the T-34 medium tank, as well as a new light tank, the T-70, producing around 12,500 T-34 and 4,900 T-70 tanks that year. Although combat losses were less severe than in 1941, the Red Army still lost around 6,600 medium tanks and 7,200 light tanks throughout 1942, a significant fraction of which were T-34 and T-70 tanks.

Thus, in late 1942, the Central Scientific Research Institute No.48 (ЦНИИ 48), specializing in metallurgy and armor characterization, was instructed to evaluate the quality of tank armor through the inspection of disabled tanks recovered from battlefields and undergoing repair. One study was completed on the T-34 medium tank, and another study on the T-70 light tank.

Two engineers were in charge of both studies: Chief Engineer Ardentov and Engineer Schelkanov. The studies were completed in September – November 1942, and the results provide a rare insight into how armored vehicles actually performed under real combat conditions. These reports are translated in the following article as they were written, meaning they occur in the present tense and refer to ‘our’ army et cetera meaning the army of the original authors – the Soviet Red Army. Further analysis within the reports is contained within ‘[ ]’ so as to not detract from their content. Some tables, where data has been duplicated and simply reformatted, have been omitted.

The following Section is a direct translation of reports by the Central Scientific Research Institute No.48 (ЦНИИ 48) in 1942.

Armor layout of a late 1941 T-34 (and T-34-85 below)
Source: http://otvaga2004.ru/tanki/v-boyah/tanki-t34-vov/

T-34 Medium Tank

Tanks play a major role in the ongoing war, so it is important for our army to study their overall survivability, specific vulnerabilities, and major causes of breakdown, ultimately to inform the tank industry. One method is to collect and analyze statistics on disabled tanks undergoing repairs in refurbishment workshops. This data can be used to characterize the advantages and disadvantages of armor, internal mechanisms, and drivetrains currently in use.

The successful armor layout, powerful armament, and adequate mobility of the T-34 have made the tank very popular with the Red Army. Captured German documents reveal that they evaluate the T-34 as a capable enemy tank, requiring new weapons and tactics to counter. At this time, the T-34 has become the most numerous tank in our army, so it is critical to study its vulnerability to battle damage, and the key reasons these tanks are lost in combat.

Statistics were gathered from a sample of 178 tanks which were towed back to repair facilities in Moscow, as well as the repair facility in Factory No.112 [located in Nizhny Novgorod] · 61 tanks were examined at repair facility No.1
· 26 tanks were examined at repair facility No.6
· 91 tanks were examined at the repair facility in Factory No.112

Each tank had a data card filled out, recording:
· Number of projectile impacts on the tank
· Locations of impacts
· Results of impacts and their effect on armor integrity
· Caliber of the projectile – estimated from the impact zone
· Consequences of the impact and reason the tank was disabled

Out of a sub-sample of 69 T-34 tanks examined – these being a subset of tanks at facilities No.1 and No.6:
· 24 tanks (35%) were disabled without armor penetration (i.e. internal mechanical breakdown)
· 45 tanks (65%) were disabled through armor penetration
The remaining 109 tanks were not used for this estimate because they were specifically recovered and towed to these specific repair facilities after suffering armor penetration damage

Out of the aforementioned 24 tanks that were disabled through mechanical breakdown:
· 11 tanks (45.8%) suffered engine failure
· 4 tanks (16.7%) suffered chassis (suspension / wheels / tracks) failure
· 7 tanks (29.2%) suffered both engine and chassis failure
· 2 tanks (8.3%) caught fire
Thus, 18 tanks (75%) required repair of the engine

Out of the full sample of 178 tanks, we subtract out 24 tanks disabled purely through mechanical failure – this leaves 154 tanks that had some sort of armor penetration damage, with a total number of projectile impacts at 534, subdivided as:
· 432 (81%) projectile impacts (penetrations & bounces) on the hulls
· 102 (19%) projectile impacts on the turrets

The 534 projectile impacts are further subdivided into:
· 289 (54%) impacts that did not result in internal damage to the tank and crew
· 245 (46%) impacts that resulted in internal damage

Type Total % Per-Caliber Percentages of the 534 Total Impacts
20 mm 37 mm 42 mm 50 mm 75 mm 88 mm 105 mm No ID
Bounce 289 54.1 % 3.2 % 6.8 % 4.9 % 30.6 % 3.2 % 0.2 % 2.0 % 3.2 %
Penetration 245 45.9 % 1.5 % 3.2 % 2.6 % 23.7 % 6.9 % 3.2 % 0.9 % 3.9 %
Total 534 100 % 4.7 % 10.0 % 7.5 % 54.3 % 10.1 % 3.4 % 2.9 % 7.1 %

Note from Author – It is not clear to what the “42 mm” refers. The Germans technically had the 4.2 cm Pak 41, but this was a squeeze-bore gun, with 42 mm caliber at the breech tapering to 28 mm at the muzzle, and was very rarely used. It is possible, therefore, that the “42 mm” referred to here actually means captured Soviet 45 mm M1937 (53-K) anti-tank guns which were used by the Germans as the ‘4.5 cm Pak 184/1(r)’

Thus, the above tables shows that the dominant anti-tank weapons used against the T-34 are guns 50 mm in caliber or larger, with more than half of all impacts attributed to 50 mm guns alone.

The most effective guns against the T-34 are the 50 mm, 75 mm, and 88 mm, judging from the ratio of penetrations to bounces. The apparent low effectiveness of the 105 mm guns is due to the fact that most impacts attributed to this caliber hit the upper glacis plate at unfavorable angles for penetration.

Average bounces and penetration values per tank / per hull / per turret are recorded as:

Type Tank Hull Turret
Total Per Tank Total Per hull Total Per turret
Bounce 289 1.89 259 1.69 30 0.19
Penetrate 245 1.59 173 1.12 72 0.47
Total 534 3.48 432 2.81 102 0.61

On average, this comes out to 1.6 penetrating impacts to disable a tank.

The sampled tanks had between 1 to 17 impacts each

Impacts 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 16 17
No. of Tanks 41 33 22 20 7 8 8 2 5 3 2 1 1 1

Breakdown of percentages by location for all impacts and penetrating impacts:
· C1: Percentage of total impacts against the specified surface out of all recorded impacts (penetrating & bouncing)
· C2: Sum totals for tank front / side / rear / turret: percentage of total impacts against specified side out of all recorded impacts
· C3: Percentage of penetrating impacts against specified surface out of all recorded impacts (penetrating & bouncing)
· C4: Percentage of penetrating impacts against specified surface out of all penetrating impacts only
· C5: Sum totals for tank front / side / rear / turret: percentage of penetrating impacts against specified side out of all penetrating impacts only

The sampled tanks had between 1 to 17 impacts each

Location C1 C2 C3 C4 C5
Hull Upper Glacis 20.4 % 22.65 % 3.75 % 8.19 % 9.88 %
Lower Glacis 2.25 % 0.75 % 1.69 %
Lower (Vertical) Side 23.0 % 50.5 % 15.5 % 33.88 % 51.13 %
Upper (Sloped) Side 27.5 % 7.9 % 17.25 %
Upper Rear 3.94 % 7.52 % 1.9 % 4.26 % 9.56 %
Lower Rear 3.58 % 2.45 % 5.3 %
Top Engine Deck 0.19 % 0.19 % 0.19 % 0.41 % 0.41 %
Turret Front & Mantlet 4.86 % 19.14 % 3.19 % 7.39 % 29.02 %
Side 8.61 % 6.56 % 14.28 %
Rear 2.48 % 2.06 % 4.49 %
Roof 1.11 % 0.75 % 1.64 %
Turret Base 0.39 %

In total, 50.5 % of all impacts hit the hull side, 22.65 % hit the hull front, and 19.14 % hit the turret

Breakdown of all impacts by the caliber of the incoming shell

Location Net # Net % Caliber-Specific Percentages of Total Impacts
20 mm 37 mm 42 mm 50 mm 75 mm 88 mm 105 mm No ID
Hull Upper Glacis 109 20.4 % 1.88 % 1.7 % 2.43 % 3.02 % 1.88 % 0.94 % 2.8 % 0.75 %
Lower Glacis 12 2.25 % 0.93 % 0.57 % 0.18 % 0.57 %
Lower Glacis 12 2.25 % 0.93 % 0.57 % 0.18 % 0.57 %
Lower (Vertical) Side 123 23.0 % 0.36 % 1.7 % 1.88 % 16.44 % 0.75 % 0.36 % 0.57 % 0.94 %
Upper (Sloped) Side 147 27.5 % 1.52 % 3.65 % 2.43 % 17.62 % 0.57 % 0.57 % 1.14 %
Upper Rear 21 3.94 % 0.57 % 0.18 % 1.89 % 0.94 % 0.36 %
Lower Rear 19 3.58 % 0.18 % 0.36 % 0.71 % 1.15 % 0.18 %
Top Engine Deck 1 0.18 % 0.18 %
Turret Front & Mantlet 26 4.86 % 0.18 % 2.8 % 1.14 % 0.74 %
Side 46 8.61 % 0.36 % 0.58 % 0.58 % 2.86 % 2.72 % 0.94 % 0.57 %
Rear 13 2.48 % 0.18 % 0.36 % 1.22 % 0.36 % 0.18 % 0.18 %
Roof 6 1.11 % 0.73 % 0.18 % 0.18 %
Gun 9 1.69 % 0.18 % 0.18 % 1.33 %
Turret Base 2 0.39 % 0.39 %

In addition to damage from enemy gunfire, several T-34 tanks were disabled as a result of landmine or incendiary bottle damage. Out of the full population of 178 examined tanks, 9 tanks (5.9 %) suffered landmine detonation. In all cases, this resulted in severe damage to the underside, and in a few cases, the explosion tore off the turret and the upper engine deck armor panels.

Out of the 154 tanks which suffered gunfire damage, 38 tanks (24.6 %) also caught fire and showed evidence of extensive fire damage. Out of these, 31 tanks caught fire as a result of armor penetration, while 7 also had damage from landmine detonation, so it was not possible to determine the root cause of the fire on this small subset.

Summary statistics on all impacts by type of damage and caliber

As seen from the above table, the fraction of total brittle fractures (rupture / fracture / shatter) is quite low – accounting for only 3.9 % of all recorded impacts – indicating that the quality of the armor is sufficiently tough, and not over-hardened. Furthermore, a significant portion of brittle fracture damage came from impacts whose caliber could not be determined, which could include artillery shells and aviation bombs.

Almost 95 % of all impacts with the 88 mm gun resulted in penetration – indicating the T-34’s insufficient armor protection against this caliber gun

In summary:
· Around 35 % of tanks examined in the relevant subset were disabled through internal mechanical failure without any armor damage, primarily through failure of the engine. This indicates a need to improve the quality of engine construction and the design of engines with longer service lives
· The quality of the armor of the T-34 is quite satisfactory as far as its initial design requirement is concerned – to protect against 45 mm armor piercing shells
· The fraction of brittle fractures observed (3.9 %) is not significant enough to be considered a problem
· As examined, the tank components most often shot are the sides (accounting for 50.5 % of all impacts), front (22.65 %), and turret (19.14 %)
· The effectiveness of enemy gunfire is, as expected, strongly dependent on the sloping angle of armor plates: for instance, the upper glacis plate, sloped at 60 degrees off the vertical, saw only 18 % of impacts leading to full penetration
· Meanwhile, the vertical lower side plates suffered full penetration from 67.6 % of impacts, while the upper side plates, sloped 40 degrees off vertical, suffered full penetration from only 28.6 % of impacts. It is logical to assume that increasing the slope would further improve the effectiveness of these plates.
· The most widely used weapon used by the Germans against the T-34 at this time are 50 mm anti-tank guns.
· Based on this analysis, it can be concluded that the Germans do not use large numbers of sub-caliber shells (APDS / APCR) at this time – as these would have a caliber no greater than 37 mm, and the net total number of impacts recorded at 37 mm or below only accounts for 14.7 % of all recorded impacts
· The most effective rounds used against the T-34 are the 88 mm rounds, since around 95 % of all impacts with this caliber led to penetrations. This is not unexpected, since the German 88 mm Flak guns have considerable muzzle velocity.
· The observation that more than half of all impacts are recorded against the sides of the T-34 indicates extensive tactical misuse of these tanks, either through ignorance of overconfidence of their crews and commanders, or due to insufficient visibility of the battlefield from inside the tank.

Thus, two primary recommendations are offered to improve the survivability of T-34 tanks in combat:
1) Improving the reliability and quality of the engine and drivetrain
2) Training crews to use adequate tactics when operating the T-34

Close look: Upper Glacis Plate

Statistics on upper glacis plate impacts across the full set of 154 examined tanks

In total, out of the 109 impacts of the upper glacis, 89 impacts (82 %) were non-penetrating

It can be seen that the most commonly used rounds – 50 mm caliber – have low effectiveness against the T-34 frontal plate, as they accounted for 39.6 % of all impacts, but only 11 % of the unsafe / penetrating impacts

On the upper glacis, which is sloped 60 degrees to the vertical, only 18.1 % of all impacts resulted in penetration or fracture damage, with 81.9 % of recorded impacts bouncing

Close look: Lower Glacis Plate

Statistics on lower glacis plate impacts

In total, out of the 12 impacts of the lower glacis, 8 impacts (66 %) were non-penetrating

Close look: Side Plates (Overview)

In total, 270 impacts against the side plates were recorded (50.5 % of the net total), including the upper (sloped) and lower (vertical) side plates:
· 157 impacts (58 %) recorded on the front half of the tank
· 113 impacts (42 %) recorded on the rear half of the tank

Close look: Side Plates – Lower (Vertical) Side Plates

Statistics on lower (vertical) side plate impacts

This data shows that 50 mm shells were quite effective against the lower (vertical) sides of the tank, with almost 2/3 of all impacts with this caliber leading to penetration.

At the same time, all impacts with 75 mm, 88 mm, and 105 mm shells led to penetration.

Close look: Side Plates – Upper (Sloped) Side Plates

Statistics on upper (sloped) side plate impacts

The effectiveness of sloping (at 40 degrees from the vertical) is evident from comparing this data to the data for the lower (vertical) side plates
· Only around 1/4 of 50 mm impacts lead to penetration on the sloped surface
· Around 28.6 % of recorded impacts were damaging (including 75 mm and 88 mm)

Close look: Rear Plates (Overview)

In total, 40 impacts were recorded against rear armor plates:
· 21 impacts on the upper rear (3.94 % of the net total recorded impacts)
· 19 impacts on the lower rear (3.58 % of the net total)

Only one tank had recorded damage against the upper rear hull plate / engine deck
· Attributed to artillery fire

Close look: Rear Plates – Upper Rear Plates

Statistics on upper rear plate impacts

Close look: Rear Plates – Lower Rear Plates

Statistics on lower rear plate impacts

Close look: Turret Face & Gun Mantlet

Statistics on turret face and gun mantlet impacts

Close look: Turret Side

Statistics on turret side impacts

The following Section is a direct translation of reports by Central Scientific Research Institute No.48 (ЦНИИ 48) in 1942.

Armor layout of a T-70 light tank. Source: http://armor.kiev.ua/Tanks/WWII/T70/1/

T-70 Light Tank

The primary tactical purpose of the T-70 light tank is to engage enemy personnel and suppress machine gun nests. Nevertheless, the relatively strong glacis armor and adequate armament (45 mm gun and machine gun) allow the T-70 to effectively engage enemy anti-tank guns, as well as enemy light tanks, and occasionally enemy medium tanks. Considering the large numbers of T-70 light tanks used in our army at this time, there is significant interest in studying its battlefield vulnerabilities.

Statistics were gathered from a sample of 70 tanks which were towed back to the repair facility at Factory No. 37 in Moscow. Each tank had a data card filled out, recording the number, locations, and results of gunfire impacts and penetrations

Out of the 70 tanks:
· 12 tanks (17.2 %) were disabled without armor penetration (i.e. mechanical breakdown)
· 58 tanks (82.8 %) were disabled through armor penetration
This is a lower overall rate of mechanical failure than was observed with the T-34, but is still too high to be acceptable, and indicates a strong need to improve the quality and reliability of the engine and powertrain.

Out of the aforementioned 12 tanks that were disabled through mechanical breakdown:
· 9 tanks (75 %) suffered engine and/or transmission failure
· 2 tanks (16.5 %) caught fire
· 1 tanks (8.5 %) suffered chassis (suspension / track / wheel) damage
Thus, just as with the T-34, the primary mechanical vulnerability of the T-70 is its engine.

On the remaining 58 tanks with some armor damage observed, a total of 212 projectile impacts were recorded, subdivided into:
· 141 (66.5 %) projectile impacts (penetrations & bounces) on the hulls
· 71 (33.5 %) projectile impacts on the turrets

The 212 projectile impacts are further subdivided into:
· 65 (30.7 %) safe impacts that did not result in internal damage to the tank or crew
· 147 (69.3 %) impacts that resulted in penetration and internal damage
Thus, over 2/3 of all impacts were damaging for the T-70, a much higher fraction than observed with the T-34

The table above shows that the primary class of weapons used against the T-70 are anti-tank guns 50 mm in caliber or below, accounting for 65.9 % of all impacts – out of which, 68.5 % are penetrating

Average quantities of bounces and penetrations per tank / per hull / per turret recorded as

The hulls of T-70 light tanks received a much higher fraction of incoming fire than their turrets, and had a higher risk of penetration.
· 78 % of all impacts against the hull were penetrating
· 52 % of all impacts against the turret were penetrating

The sampled tanks had between 1 to 17 impacts

Of the examined set, 62 % of the tanks were disabled by just 1-3 shots

Breakdown by impact location:
· C1: Percentage of total impacts against the specified surface out of all recorded impacts (penetrating & bouncing)
· C2: Sum totals for tank front / side / rear / turret: percentage of total impacts against specified side out of all recorded impacts
· C3: Percentage of penetrating impacts against specified surface out of all recorded impacts (penetrating & bouncing)
· C4: Percentage of penetrating impacts against specified surface out of all penetrating impacts only
· C5: Sum totals for tank front / side / rear / turret: percentage of penetrating impacts against specified side out of all penetrating impacts only

In total, 43.8 % of all impacts hit the hull side, only 8.5 % hit the hull front, and 33.3 % hit the turret, with the hull sides and turret proving to be the most commonly targeted areas

Out of the full set of 70 examined tanks, 3 tanks exhibited damage from landmines: 2 were also damaged by gunfire, while 1 showed no signs of gunfire damage.

Furthermore, a total of 27 tanks (38.5 % of the net total) showed evidence of fire damage: 25 tanks with fire damage had gunfire damage to their armor, and 2 had no gunfire damage. This high percentage of burned tanks is likely due to the use of flammable gasoline fuel.

Since the significant majority of impacts and penetrations were against the side of the T-70 light tank, it was recommended to improve the armor protection of that surface.

Breakdown by the caliber of the incoming shell

Summary statistics on all impacts by type of damage and caliber

As can be seen from the table above, there is a high fraction of brittle fracture (rupture / fracture), accounting for 25.9 % of all recorded impacts, which indicates low toughness and therefore low quality of the armor used on T-70 light tanks. These are primarily attributed to projectiles over 50 mm in caliber, impacting the side plates.

In summary:
· Around 17.2 % of examined tanks were disabled without gunfire damage, as a result of internal mechanical failure, primarily engine breakdown
· Even though this is lower than the 35 % mechanical breakdown rate observed with T-34 tanks, it is still significant, and shows the engine and drivetrain require reliability improvements
· The largest fraction (40 %) of all impacts were detected on the side plates – which are protected by the least effective armor on the tank, due to its low thickness and lack of slope, and suffer high rates of brittle fracture – this requires a thorough reexamination and redesign of side armor for the T-70
· The other surfaces on the T-70 are protected by more effective armor than the sides, as they are thicker and sloped – these other surfaces are not as brittle, and appear to have adequate toughness
· The most common weapons used against T-70 tanks are anti-tank guns 50 mm in caliber or below, accounting for 65.9 % of all impacts – of which subset, 63.5 % lead to penetrations. The effectiveness of guns over 50 mm in caliber is obviously even higher.
· The observation that more than half of all impacts are recorded against the sides of the T-70 indicates extensive tactical misuse of these tanks, through ignorance of their crews and commanders, or due to insufficient visibility of the battlefield from inside the tank, which leads to delayed or impossible detection and identification of enemy anti-tank guns

Thus, three primary recommendations are offered to improve the survivability of T-70 tanks in combat:
1) Improving the reliability and quality of the engine and drivetrain
2) Strengthening the side armor plates
3) Training crews to use adequate tactics when operating the T-70

Close look: Upper Glacis Plate

Statistics on upper glacis plate impacts

As can be seen, the upper glacis plate effectively stops around 50 % incoming anti-tank shells from achieving penetration [even though it is only 35 mm in thickness]. This can be attributed to the high quality of steel used, as well as the significant slope of the plate, 60 degrees off the vertical.

Close look: Front Midplate & Lower Glacis Plate

Statistics on front midplate and lower glacis plate impacts

Close look: Side Plates

As mentioned earlier, the largest fraction of impacts were against the side plates of the T-70 tanks, which are weakly armored – only 15 mm thick, oriented vertically. It was found that 42.4 % of impacts were against the forward half of the side plates, while 57.6 % of impacts were against the rear half.

Statistics on side plate impacts

As can be clearly seen, the side armor plates fail to provide an acceptable level of protection for the tank, with 8 recorded instances of a penetration through the side even resulting in a penetration or fracture in the armor on the opposite side of the tank

Close look: Air Intake

Statistics on air intake impacts

Close look: Hull Roof Plate

Statistics on hull roof plate impacts

Close look: Rear Plates – Lower Rear Plate

Statistics on lower rear plate impacts

Close look: Rear Plates – Upper Rear Plate

Statistics on upper rear plate impacts

Close look: Turret Face & Gun Mantlet

Statistics on turret face and gun mantlet impacts

The turret likewise does not possess sufficient armor to adequately protect the tank against enemy anti-tank fire, even with calibers 50 mm or below – with 72.9 % of impacts of this caliber leading to penetration

Close look: Turret Side

Statistics on turret side impacts

As can be seen, considerably more impacts were found against the side of the turret – with a much higher proportion of bounces, likely due to the oblique angle of incoming fire coupled with the angling of the turret side armor

Close look: Turret Roof

Statistics on turret roof impacts

Conclusion of translated reports

Early 1942 T-34 knocked out on a village street
The tank shows both penetrations (circled in red) and brittle ruptures (circled in purple), as well as evidence of damage from land mine blast (the missing wheel and damaged track guards)

Analysis – The T-34 in Combat

The following section is not part of the original reports and has been written by the author of the article

The analysis of the T-34 presented here showed that the tank’s armor was performing adequately for its initial design specification. Designed to protect against 45 mm armor piercing shells, primarily from the frontal arc, the data shows that the armor mostly achieved this. To ensure that required level of protection, the hull armor of the T-34 front, rear, and lower side plates was 45 mm thick, while the upper side plates were 40 mm thick, with the upper glacis sloped 60 degrees off the vertical, and the upper sides sloped at 40 degrees. Unfortunately, by the time of Operation Barbarossa, the Wehrmacht was already using large numbers of 75 mm anti-tank guns, as well as 88 mm anti-aircraft guns in the anti-tank role, with significantly better armor penetration. Furthermore, poor crew training and atrocious tactical planning throughout 1941 and 1942 resulted in hundreds of T-34 tanks being ambushed by German anti-tank gun positions, which took advantage of the tank’s more vulnerable side armor – with over 50 % of all shell impacts and over 50 % of all penetrating impacts being recorded against the sides. The unsloped lower side plates proved to be particularly vulnerable, with even 50 mm anti-tank guns penetrating the armor more than 60 % of the time.

The Soviet tank industry made several efforts to improve the armor protection of T-34 tanks. There were several designs of T-34s with additional armor plate ‘screens’ (applique-type armor) welded on, though these did not enter large-scale mass production. A derivative design was also developed, the T-43, which carried much thicker armor with the front thickened to 75 mm, and the sides and rear to 60 mm. Unfortunately, the T-43 suffered from reduced mobility and range, while still remaining vulnerable to German 88 mm guns. Since it did not offer considerable advantages over the existing T-34, and that its production would require a significant delay for factory setup, the decision was made to continue producing T-34 tanks instead. This was an acceptance that the requirements of mass production was more important than a small increase in protection.

Late 1942 T-34 knocked out near Lake Ladoga. A large brittle rupture can be seen at the rear of the turret. Source: https://waralbum.ru/22689/

Thus, from the beginning of 1943 through May 1945, over 36,000 additional T-34 tanks were produced and served with the Red Army, with peak production rates up to 1,500 tanks per month. During the same period, however, around 36,000 medium tanks (primarily T-34’s) were disabled in combat, according to statistics reported by Grigorii Krivosheev in 1993 (although other Russian historians have since pointed out that his calculations are inconsistent, and it is likely that the 36,000 loss figure does not account for tanks that were disabled but later repaired and sent back into service – thus some vehicles may be re-disabled and counted more than once as a ‘loss’).

The decision to keep the T-34 in production without significantly improving its hull armor, even after studies like this, may certainly seem insensitive. However, given the situational context, and the acute need for thousands of tanks to continuously push back the German forces, the consequences of spending valuable time setting up nationwide factory production to produce marginally better protected tanks could have been devastating to the Soviet war effort, and thus, unacceptable. Even if the losses in tanks and tank crews were somewhat reduced with a better design, the overall losses of manpower and territory resulting from a shortage of tanks along the Eastern Front would have far outweighed these small benefits. Thus, the choice was made to focus on improving the reliability, manufacturing speed, and cost-effectiveness of the T-34. As a result, between 1941 and 1945, the labor requirement in man-hours to produce a full T-34 was reduced by a factor of 2.4, while the price per tank was reduced by a factor of 1.9, even though the 1945 variant of the T-34 was a far more capable tank than its 1941 predecessor.

Early 1942 T-34 knocked out in Stalingrad. A prominent penetration can be seen in the front middle of the tank
Source: https://waralbum.ru/community/ww2/23/paged/12/

Analysis – The T-70 in Combat

Unlike the T-34, the armor protection of the T-70 proved to be inferior to its intended design specification. It was also defective in manufacture as it was overhardened, and therefore vulnerable to brittle fracture even if it would not otherwise suffer a penetration. Furthermore, by late 1942, light tanks in general were becoming redundant for the Red Army. Their most critical hour came in late 1941 / early 1942: since the production of light tanks was easier to maintain on surviving factories, and faster to re-establish on factories pulled back deep into the nation, light tanks (primarily the T-60) were produced in large numbers to supply Red Army units with at least some sort of tank, while heavier production lines were being set up in safe zones. However, once mass production of T-34s was resumed in May – July 1942, the need for light tanks diminished, especially in light of the low effectiveness of the T-60. The T-70 was developed as a significant upgrade to the Russian light tank line, to provide a low-cost infantry support tank that would supplement the more expensive though much more capable T-34. It is possible that light tanks remained in production due to their disproportionate apparent effect during the difficult winter of 1941-1942, and a misguided though understandable expectation that they will continue to be effective, though it is also possible that they were simply intended to pad the overall number of fielded tanks, since they still remained an effective weapon against German infantry and lightly armored or soft-skin vehicles.

Unfortunately, the T-70 proved to be generally an ineffective design. It was vulnerable to all types of German anti-tank guns, and significantly disadvantaged when facing German medium tanks and assault guns, like the Pz.Kpfw. III, Pz.Kpfw. IV, and StuG III. However, when used adequately, the T-70 performed well in areas inaccessible to heavier tanks, such as dense forests and boggy ground. It also proved to be unexpectedly effective in villages and urban terrain, since it was a small, difficult target to hit, and was maneuverable on narrow streets. Ultimately, over 8,200 T-70 tanks were produced in 1942 and 1943, complementing the 5,900 T-60 tanks that preceded it, produced in 1941 and 1942. A significant portion of these were also disabled in combat, with G. Krivosheev reporting “losses” of 16,200 light tanks in 1942-1945, while official Red Army statistics list only 1,500 surviving T-70 light tanks in service in January 1946. The fact that Krivosheev’s figure is considerably higher than the production of light tanks in the same period (not even accounting for the surviving tanks in 1946), and cannot adequately be accounted for with surviving Interwar T-26 and BT-5 / BT-7 light tanks, lends credence to the idea that Krivosheev did not account for tanks that were repaired and sent back into action when tallying up losses, and only examined the total numbers of tanks disabled in combat. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of tank losses, including the T-70, makes almost any accurate statistical analysis difficult but does indicate appalling losses in Soviet tanks during this period.

The Red Army finally made the decision to discontinue the T-70 light tank after the Battle of Kursk, realizing that it did not fulfill its intended roles adequately, with the last T-70 tanks rolling off the production line in October 1943. In November, armored units of the Red Army were reorganized, subsequently fielding no tanks lighter than the T-34, though some T-70 tanks that were already produced were used in supplementary roles. Production lines initially used for the T-70 were repurposed to produce the SU-76 light self-propelled gun, based on a stretched T-70 chassis, and armed with the 76.2 mm ZIS-3 field gun. The SU-76 proved to be a far more capable combat asset, ultimately becoming the Soviet Union’s second most numerous armored vehicle of World War 2, with over 14,200 produced between December 1942 and October 1945.

T-70 memorial in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky showing a penetration at the front and brittle rupture on the side plate
Source: https://waralbum.ru/community/armor/76/paged/6/

Overall

These reports, just a few of thousands during the war provide a valuable insight into the chaos being caused by the scale of tank losses for the Soviets, the sacrifices made by the Soviets in repelling the German invasion, and to the combat performance of two of the most famous Soviet vehicles of the era. The T-34 was designed to protect against 45 mm armor-piercing ammunition from the front and its armor reflected this. When the Germans, with larger caliber tank guns and anti-tank weapons as well as improved ammunition, were shooting at it, the quality of the armor was shown to be performing as required. Tied in with good combat tactics, like ambushing and firing at the Soviet tanks from the side and the often terrible tactical use by the Soviets of their own tanks, the reason for the scale of the losses is obvious. It is true that the numbers for tank losses as produced by Krivosheev are likely including some double counting but the production rate had to at least try and keep up with the loss rate to maintain a semblance of combat effectiveness against the Germans. The addition of even a relatively modest amount of additional armor to the T-34 would undoubtedly have improved its protection against German fire but the costs in production were too high in terms of retooling and slowing delivery. The T-34 was simply adequate and good enough to provide the number of tanks needed.

The same is not true of the T-70. It was under-protected and the armor was substandard leading to enormous losses. The real contribution of the T-70 was that it was there when it was needed and was better than nothing but it was simply outclassed, outmatched, and utterly inadequate to the task. The T-34 went on to continue to be developed and upgraded for many years because the underlying design was a solid one, the T-70 was quickly and quite correctly discarded.

However, it must be kept in mind that the analysis carried out in this report is not a full statistical analysis of the global battle damage sustained by these vehicles. The nature of the study meant that only a portion of all the damaged or destroyed Soviet tanks could be analyzed. Tanks which were captured by the Germans or were abandoned on German-held ground could, obviously, not be studied. What is less obvious is the fact that only tanks with certain types of damage made it back to the factories to be repaired and, thus, analyzed. Any tank that was too damaged to be repairable and worth the effort of being recovered was implicitly excluded from the study. Similarly, any tank which received damage that was light and could be repaired in a field repair workshop also never made it back to the factories and was not included in the study.

This means that the study only looked at tanks that received moderate battle damage, severe enough not to be repaired in the field but not catastrophic so as not to be worth the effort of recovering the vehicle. Nonetheless, this study casts a very interesting light on the damage taken by the Soviet tanks during this period and on the fighting that took place on the Eastern Front.

Sources

Ардентов, Щелканов, “Поражаемость Танков Красной Армии и Причины Выхода их из Строя. Выпуск 1: Танк Т-34.” ЦНИИ 48, Московская Группа, 1942
Ardentov, Schelkanov, “Damageability of Red Army Tanks and Reasons for their Breakdown. Issue 1: T-34 Tank.” CNII 48, Moscow Group, 1942

Ардентов, Щелканов, “Поражаемость Танков Красной Армии и Причины Выхода их из Строя. Выпуск 2: Танк Т-70.” ЦНИИ 48, Московская Группа, 1942
Ardentov, Schelkanov, “Damageability of Red Army Tanks and Reasons for their Breakdown. Issue 2: T-70 Tank.” CNII 48, Moscow Group, 1942

Потери Советской Бронетехники в Годы Великой Отечественной Войны
Losses of Soviet Armored Vehicles during the Years of the Great Patriotic War

http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A2-70

http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A2-60

http://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%A2-34

Red Army Auxiliary Armoured Vehicles, 1930–1945 (Images of War)

Red Army Auxiliary Armoured Vehicles, 1930–1945 (Images of War), by Alex Tarasov

If you ever wanted to learn about probably the most obscure parts of the Soviet tank forces during the Interwar and WW2 – this book is for you.

The book tells the story of the Soviet auxiliary armor, from the conceptual and doctrinal developments of the 1930s to the fierce battles of the Great Patriotic War.

The author not only pays attention to the technical side, but also examines organizational and doctrinal questions, as well as the role and place of the auxiliary armor, as it was seen by the Soviet pioneers of armored warfare Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir Triandafillov and Konstantin Kalinovsky.

A significant part of the book is dedicated to real battlefield experiences taken from Soviet combat reports. The author analyses the question of how the lack of auxiliary armor affected the combat efficacy of the Soviet tank troops during the most significant operations of the Great Patriotic War, including:

– the South-Western Front, January 1942
– the 3rd Guards Tank Army in the battles for Kharkov in December 1942–March 1943
– the 2nd Tank Army in January–February 1944, during the battles of the Zhitomir–Berdichev offensive
– the 6th Guards Tank Army in the Manchurian operation in August–September 1945

The book also explores the question of engineering support from 1930 to the Battle of Berlin. The research is based mainly on archival documents never published before and it will be very useful for scholars and researchers.
Buy this book on Amazon!


Categories
WW2 German Tactics WW2 US Tactics

Greyhound vs. Tiger at St. Vith

The Story

At 0400 hours on 16th December, 1944, men of the German 18th Volksgrenadier Division began to leave their positions and make their way towards the American lines. This moment marked the beginning of the famous Battle of the Bulge, Germany’s last major offensive on the Western Front in World War II. Out of this grand battle would come a too-good-to-be-true story symbolic of the stiff American resistance put up against the German offensive, that of how an M8 Greyhound armored car destroyed a Tiger I heavy tank.

The story begins on the 18th of December 1944, two days after the start of the German offensive. An M8 Greyhound armored car of Troop B, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was lying in a concealed position just northeast of the vitally important crossroads town of St. Vith, Belgium.

Google Maps image showing St. Vith’s location in Belgium.


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The M8 Greyhound was a small, 7.9 tonne American armored car with 6.4 mm to 25.4 mm of armor, only enough to protect against rifle caliber bullets, and armed with a 37 mm M6 main gun, a ‘peashooter’ at this point in the war. The M8 was used mostly as a reconnaissance vehicle for scouting.

The American M8 Greyhound armored car Source: Hunnicutt.

It was around 1200 hours and all was quiet when suddenly a German heavy tank was spotted slowly approaching the American line, a Tiger I. The Tiger I was a 57 tonne German heavy tank that has become one of the most famous tanks in history. Protected by armor between 25 mm to 145 mm thick and armed with a fearsome 88mm KwK 36 L/56 main gun, the Tiger I was arguably the most feared tank of World War II by Allied soldiers.

The German Tiger I tank. Source: Jentz and Doyle.

The lumbering heavy tank continued moving towards the American line before turning north towards the town of Hunningen, Belgium, passing the armored car. After the Tiger I had passed, the armored car then slipped out of its concealed position and began accelerating towards the tank in an attempt to close the gap between the two. The Americans knew that their only hope in doing any sort of damage to this beast was to get as close as possible to it and shoot its weaker rear armor. However, just as the Americans began their pursuit, the Germans noticed them and began traversing their turret to face them. It was a race between the Germans who were desperately trying to bring their 88 mm gun to bear and the Americans who were trying to get as close as possible to the Tiger I’s rear. Rapidly, the M8 advanced to within 25 yards (23 meters) of the Tiger I and quickly pumped three rounds into its rear. The German tank then stopped dead in its tracks and shuddered; there was a muffled explosion, followed by flames which billowed out of the turret and engine ports.

What a fantastic real-life story… or is it? This story has gained a good deal of attention in recent years, especially on the internet thanks to videos such as The Tank Duel at St. Vith, Belgium by Lance Geiger “The History Guy: History Deserves to Be Remembered”, which has garnered hundreds of thousands of views. And why would it not? It is a classic David versus Goliath tale straight out of World War II that features American heroism. However, once a closer look is taken at this story, cracks begin to appear, and soon enough one begins to wonder whether or not this story really is too good to be true.

The American Side

An appropriate start for the investigation of this action is to identify contemporary American accounts. The earliest known mention can be found in the December 18th, 1944 morning report and record of events entry of Troop E, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron which briefly states that an “M-8 atchd [attached] to A Tr [Troop A] knocked out one Tiger tank”. There are a few notable issues raised by this morning report and record of events entry, the most obvious one being that the M8 Greyhound is reported as being from Troop A of the 87th, not Troop B of the 87th, as it is in the contemporary story. Not only does Troop E’s version of the story involve a different unit than the ‘original’ story, it also takes place in a different location, note the following map.

Map of 7th Armored Division unit positions around St. Vith at 2000 hours on the 17th of December 1944. The positions of Troop B of the 87th are highlighted in red and the positions of the rest of the 87th (including Troop A and Troop E) are highlighted in blue. Source: Boyer.

Then there is the issue of the entry’s ambiguity in regards to the Tiger tank that was knocked out. The entry only states that a Tiger tank was knocked out. This is an issue because there were two distinct types of German Tiger tanks, both of which took part in the Battle of the Bulge: The Tiger I and the Tiger II. The Tiger II, also known as the King Tiger, Royal Tiger, Königstiger, and Tiger Ausf. B, was an enormous, 69.8 tonne German heavy tank. Clad in armor between 25 mm and 180 mm thick and armed with deadly 88mm KwK 43 L/71 gun, the Tiger II was one of the deadliest tanks of the Second World War.

A photograph of a German Tiger II tank Source: Jentz and Doyle.

Due to the lack of detail in Troop E’s entry, it is impossible to tell which Tiger tank is the one being referred to in the account.

On top of the contradictions and ambiguity of Troop E’s entry, there is also the curious fact that Troop A does not make any mention of this event in its morning report and record of events entry for the 18th of December, 1944. Furthermore, the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s After Action Report (AAR) for the month of December 1944, written by Lieutenant Colonel Vincent Laurence Boylan, the commanding officer of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron at the time, makes no mention of this event either. Lieutenant Colonel Boylan also makes no mention of this event in a 1946 letter he wrote to Major General Robert W. Hasbrouck, the former commanding general of the 7th Armored Division, which details the actions of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron at the Battle of St. Vith. One would think that Lieutenant Colonel Boylan, or at the very least Troop A, would make some sort of mention of this fairly notable engagement. With all of these contradictions, ambiguity, and lack of supporting documentation and evidence surrounding Troop E’s entry in mind, it is safe to conclude that this is not the most reliable account of what really happened on the 18th of December, 1944 at St. Vith.

The next version of this story can be found in a 1947 book by Major Donald P. Boyer of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion titled St. Vith, The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge, 17-23 December 1944: A Narrative After Action Report. This version of the story, which is paraphrased in the introduction, will be referred to as the ‘original’ version of the story. It is stated as being reported to Major Boyer by one Captain Walter Henry Anstey of Company A of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, who is said to have been a witness to the event. Captain Anstey’s version lacks supporting documentation. Besides the previously mentioned absence of any recountings of this event in several notable documents that should have contained it, and most peculiarly, Captain Anstey himself makes no mention of the engagement when he discusses and documents the events of the 18th of December 1944 in a combat interview he gave on the 2nd of January 1945, just over two weeks after the event supposedly took place. This is puzzling, to say the least.

The next notable version of this tale comes from a 1966 book by the US Army Armor School titled The Battle at St. Vith, Belgium 17-23 December 1944: A Historical Example of Armor in the Defense. This version is also attributed to Captain Anstey and is nearly the exact same as his ‘original’ version of the story as well as being plagued by the exact same issues. However, this version of Captain Anstey’s account has one key difference: it was not a Tiger I that was knocked out, but rather a Tiger II, almost analogous to the fisherman whose fish gets bigger each time he tells the tale of his catch.

Claimed casualties inflicted on the Germans by Combat Command B (which Troop B of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron was a part of) between the 17th and 18th of December 1944 Source: Battle at St. Vith.

Not only does this change Captain Anstey’s version of the story, but this also confirms the possibility that Troop E’s entry could have been talking about a Tiger II. Thus, there are four different versions of this story circulating: Troop E’s version with a Tiger I, Troop E’s version with a Tiger II, Captain Anstey’s version with a Tiger I, and Captain Anstey’s version with a Tiger II. But if four versions was not enough, there is potentially another version of this tale contained in a combat interview given by Lieutenant Arthur A. Olson of Troop D, 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron on the 8th of January, 1945. Olson states that, on the 18th of December 1944, “one of the armored cars opened fire with its 37 mm gun on a German tank at range of 800 yards [732 meters]. Two hits were scored on the enemy tank in the rear, and its crew evacuated”. The event that Lieutenant Olson recounts does bare a resemblance to the M8 Greyhound versus Tiger story, with both events taking place at or near St. Vith on the 18th of December 1944 and involving an American armored car from the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron knocking out a German tank by shooting it in the rear. However, it cannot be definitively stated that this is another version of the M8 Greyhound versus Tiger story due to its ambiguity. It can be safely assumed that the armored car that Lieutenant Olson is talking about in his story is an M8 Greyhound due to the fact that the only armored cars that the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron fielded were M8 Greyhounds. However, it cannot be safely assumed that the tank killed in this engagement was a Tiger I or a Tiger II. It is possible (if unlikely) that this event was completely unrelated to the M8 Greyhound versus Tiger story. Lieutenant Olson’s version of the story would be the most contradicting version yet. Instead of the M8 Greyhound firing three shots into the Tiger’s rear, the M8 Greyhound in Lieutenant Olson’s version of events fired two shots. The most startling difference however is the range at which this engagement occurred, with Lieutenant Olson’s version having the engagement take place at 800 yards (732 meters), compared to the ‘original’ story’s 25 yards (23 meters)!

All in all, the only things that the American claims concerning the famed M8 Greyhound versus Tiger engagement can agree on are that on the 18th of December 1944 an M8 Greyhound from some unit of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron killed some sort of German tank in or around the town of St. Vith. Given that the American accounts do not give a consistent account of what happened that day at St. Vith, the other side of this story must also be investigated.

The German Side

Out of the 1,467 tanks the Germans brought with them to the Battle of the Bulge on the 16th of December, 1944, 52 of them were Tiger IIs and 14 of them were Tiger Is. Were any of these Tiger Is and or Tiger IIs knocked out on the 18th of December, 1944? While no Tiger Is were lost on the 18th of December, 1944, four Tiger IIs were lost that day. Three of these Tiger IIs belonged to Schwere SS Panzer Abteilung 501 (Heavy SS Tank Battalion 501); Tiger 105 was abandoned in the town of Stavelot, Belgium after getting itself stuck in a building, Tiger 332 was abandoned near Coo, Belgium as a result of mechanical damage, and Tiger 008 was abandoned at a farmhouse near Trois Ponts, Belgium. The last Tiger II belonged to Schwere Panzer Abteilung 506 (Heavy Tank Battalion 506) and was lost to enemy fire on the Lentzweiler road in Luxemburg. Which specific Tiger II this was is unknown.

Tiger 105 abandoned in Stavelot, Belgium Source: Collins and Albertson.
Tiger 332 abandoned near Coo, Belgium as a result of mechanical damage Source: Collins and Albertson.
Tiger 008 abandoned at a farmhouse near Trois-Ponts, Belgium Source: Collins and Albertson.

None of these Tiger IIs were lost at St. Vith and from photographic evidence at least three are recorded to have no burn damage and/or holes in the rear. There are no German records or histories which indicate that, on 18th December 1944, a Tiger I or a Tiger II was knocked out in or around St. Vith. Given the unreliability of the American accounts of this supposed event and the lack of any supporting documentation from the Germans, it is safe to say that neither a Tiger I nor a Tiger II was knocked out by an M8 Greyhound on 18th December 1944 in or around the town of St. Vith.

The Ballistics Side

Could an M8 Greyhound’s 37 mm M6 gun even penetrate the rear hull armor of a Tiger I? Yes – in theory. According to British penetration diagrams from 1944, the 37 mm M6 gun firing its standard round, the 37 mm APC M51, could, under ideal conditions, penetrate the 80 mm thick rear hull armor angled at 9 degrees when firing at an angle of 0 degrees, albeit just barely.

Cross section of 37mm APC M51 Source: War Department Technical Manual TM 9-1904 Ammunition Inspection Guide.
British penetration chart showing the effectiveness of attacks by the 37mm APC 51 against the German Panther and Tiger I at various angles Source: Attack on Panther Pz.Kpfw V and Tiger Pz.Kpfw VI.

How about a Tiger II? According to the British, 37 mm M6 gun’s APC M51 can only penetrate around a maximum of 65mm of rolled homogeneous armor plate (RHA) at 30 degrees under V50 ballistic standards. This means that 50% of shots fired will penetrate this amount of armor. Given that the rear hull armor of a Tiger II is 80 mm of RHA angled at 30 degrees, it is essentially impossible for the M8 Greyhound’s 37 mm M6 gun to penetrate the rear hull armor of the Tiger II. This is before you take into account that the manufacturing process for German armor allowed for a tolerance in plates which often left plates 2 to 5 mm thicker than ordered.

British penetration chart showing the penetration of the US 37mm APC M51 at 30 degrees at various ranges Source: Armour Plate Porforation [sic: Perforation] of Tank and Anti Tank Guns.
Armor specifications for the Tiger II with the Serienturm (Eng: Production Turret) Source: Jentz and Doyle.

What It Could Have Been

If neither a Tiger I nor a Tiger II was killed on 18th December 1944 in or around the town of St. Vith by an M8 Greyhound, what was? There are two likely candidates, the first being a Panzer IV. Developed in the 1930’s, the Panzer IV was one of the mainstay German armored fighting vehicles of the Second World War as well as Germany’s most-produced tank of the war, with over 8,500 produced.

A photograph of a Panzer IV Ausf. H Source: Chamberlain.

According to two combat interviews given by men of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s After Action Report for the month of December 1944, and Lieutenant Colonel Boylan’s 1946 letter, on 18th December 1944, the Germans attacked the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (minus Troop B) with infantry and tanks. These German tanks would later be specified to be Panzer IVs or “Mark IVs”.

On top of attacking the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (minus Troop B), a Panzer IV can be easily misidentified as a Tiger I.

A silhouette of a Tiger I and a Panzer IV. The two vehicles share a bulky rectangular shape with a mid-mounted turret and a long gun. Furthermore, if Schürzen is present on the Panzer IV, its size is even closer to that of the Tiger. Source: Jentz.

The silhouettes of the Panzer IV and the Tiger I are quite similar, especially due to their rectangular shapes and rounded turret (rounded through the later use of a curved armor plate around the otherwise angular turret). Furthermore, late-war Panzer IVs equipped with Schürzen additional armor would look bigger, even closer to the size of a Tiger and this is before consideration is made on the stress of war, camouflaging materials applied to vehicles, the weather, and level of knowledge of the crews. The similarity in appearance between the Panzer IV and Tiger I is often cited as a reason to why there are so many claims made by soldiers during World War II of battling Tiger Is, despite Tiger Is being a fairly rare encounter.

The fact that there were Panzer IVs attacking the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (minus Troop B) and the similarity in appearance between the Tiger I and Panzer IV would account for both Troop E’s account and Troop D’s potential account of this event. Not to mention that the M8’s 37 mm M6 gun is more than capable of penetrating the rear hull armor of the Panzer IV, which was only 20 mm thick angled at 10 degrees. However, there is one major issue with this explanation, Panzer IVs were not attacking Troop B. This leads to a second candidate, the StuG III.

The StuG III was a turretless assault gun based on the Panzer III. Much like the Panzer IV, the StuG III was a mainstay of the German army as well as Germany’s most produced armored fighting vehicle of the war with over 9,400 produced.

A photograph of a StuG III Ausf. G Source: Jentz and Doyle.

According to Hugh M. Cole, an American historian and army officer,

“The attacks made east of St. Vith on 18 December were carried by a part of the 294th Infantry [German], whose patrols had been checked by the 168th Engineers [US] the previous day. Three times the grenadiers [German] tried to rush their way through the foxhole line held by the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion (Lt. Col. William H. G. Fuller) and B Troop of the 87th astride the Schönberg road”.

The 294th Volksgrenadier Regiment was a unit of the larger 18th Volksgrenadier Division. After 1200 hours on 17th December 1944, the 18th Volksgrenadier Division was reinforced by a mobile battalion. The mobile battalion consisted of three platoons of assault guns, a company of engineers, and another of fusiliers. The 18th Volksgrenadier Division would use these assault guns in small probing attacks on the American lines east of St. Vith that same day.

It is possible that, as part of the attacks on the line held in part by Troop B of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, a lone StuG III was used to probe out the American line, as had been done on the previous day, and was subsequently knocked out by an M8 Greyhound. The unit attacking Troop B, the 294th Volksgrenadier Regiment, had StuG IIIs and had been using StuG IIIs the previous in small probing attacks east of St. Vith where Troop B would end up being positioned. Additionally, the M8’s 37 mm M6 gun is more than capable of penetrating the rear hull and rear casemate armor of the StuG III. The StuG III explanation also accounts for why Troop B makes no mention of it in their morning report and record of events entry for 18th December 1944 and why Lieutenant Colonel Boylan makes no mention of it his 1946 letter or in the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron’s After Action Report for the month of December 1944. The event simply was not that notable.

Conclusion

The only known witness to the supposed event, Captain Walter Henry Anstey, died on 26th October 2003 at the age of 90, taking the truth of the events that day to his grave. However, after careful analysis, it can be said with certainty that neither a Tiger I nor a Tiger II was killed by an M8 Greyhound from any troop of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron on 18th December 1944 near St. Vith. It is certainly possible that the tank destroyed in this engagement was a Panzer IV or a StuG III but in the absence of new evidence coming to light it can only be concluded that either the Greyhound crew knocked out a completely different tank or were otherwise exaggerating some action.

Sources

Anderson, Thomas. Tiger. Osprey Publishing, 2013.
Andrews, Frank L. The Defense of St. Vith in the Battle of the Ardennes December, 1944. 1964.
Armour Plate Porforation [sic: Perforation] of Tank and Anti Tank Guns. Ministry of Supply, 1945.
Attack on Panther PzKw V and Tiger PzKw VI. School of Tank Technology, April 1944.
Beevor, Antony. Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble. Penguin Books, 2016.
Bergström, Christer. The Ardennes 1944-1945: Hitler’s Winter Offensive. English Edition, Casemate Publishers, 2014.
Boyer, Donald P. St. Vith The 7th Armored Division in the Battle of the Bulge 17-23 December 1944 A Narrative After Action Report. 1947.
Boylan, Vincent L. After Action Report, Month of December, 1944. 1945.
Boylan, Vincent L. Letter to Robert W. Hasbrouck. 10 Apr. 1946. Maurice Delaval Papers Collection of the Military History Institute in Carlisle, PA.
Chamberlain, Peter, et al. Encyclopedia of German tanks of World War Two. Revised Edition, Arms and Armour Press, 1973.
Clarke, Bruce. After Action Report, Month of December, 1944. 1945.
Cole, Hugh M. The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge. Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1965.
Collins, Joshua, and Erik Albertson. One Day at Stavelot, a Tale of Two Archives The Tiger II vs US Tank Destroyers in the Ardennes.
Griffin, Marcus S. After Action Report, Month of December 1944. 1945.
Hunnicutt, R. P. Armored Car A History of American Wheeled Combat Vehicles. First Edition, Presidio Press, 2002.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Panzer Tracts No. 4 – Grosstraktor to Panzerbefehlswagen IV. Darlington Productions Inc., 2000.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Germany’s Tiger Tanks D.W. to Tiger I: Design, Production & Modifications. Schiffer Publishing, 2000.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Germany’s Tiger Tanks VK45.02 to TIGER II. Design, Production & Modifications. Schiffer Publishing, 1997.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Panzer Tracts No. 6 – Schwere Panzerkampfwagen DW to E-100. Panzer Tracts, 2001.
Jentz, Thomas, and Hilary Doyle. Panzer Tracts No. 8 – Sturmgeschuetz s.Pak to Sturmmoerser. Darlington Productions Inc., 2000.
Jentz, Thomas. Panzertruppen Volume 2 – The Complete Guide to the Creation & Combat Deployment of The German Tank Forces 1943-1945. Schiffer Publishing, 1996.
Johnston, W. Wesley. Combat Interviews of the 38th Armored Infantry Battalion, 7th Armored Division: The St. Vith Salient and Manhay, December 17-23, 1944. 2014
Johnston, W. Wesley. Combat Interviews of the 87th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, 7th Armored Division: The St. Vith Salient, December 17-23, 1944. 2014.
Schneider, Wolfgang. Tigers In Combat I. First Edition, Stackpole Books, 2004.
Schneider, Wolfgang. Tigers In Combat II. First Edition, Stackpole Books, 2005.
The Battle at St. Vith, Belgium 17-23 December 1944 An Historical Example of Armor in the Defense. Third Printing, US Army Armored School, 1966.
The Seventh Armored Division in the Battle of St. Vith. Seventh Armored Division Association 2517 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington 8, D.C., 1947.
War Department Field Manual FM 2-20 Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop Mechanized. War Department, 1944.
War Department Technical Manual TM 9-1904 Ammunition Inspection Guide. War Department, 1944.
Zaloga, Steven, and Tony Bryan. M8 Greyhound Light Armored Car 1941-91. Osprey Publishing, 2002.
Zaloga, Steven. Armored Champion, The Top Tanks of World War II. Stackpole Books, 2015.
Zaloga, Steven. Battle of the Bulge 1944 (1): St Vith and the Northern Shoulder. Osprey Publishing, 2003.
Zaloga, Steven. Operation Nordwind 1945 Hitler’s last offensive in the West. Osprey Publishing, 2010.

Categories
WW2 British Tactics WW2 German Tactics WW2 Italian Tactics

Esigenza C3 – The Italian Invasion of Malta

“Without Malta the Axis will end by losing control of North Africa…”

– Field Marshal Erwin Rommel quoted in ‘A History of WW2 by A. J. P. Taylor and S. L. Mayer

You can learn more about the naval part of the planned invasion of Malta on our sister website, Naval Encyclopedia!

A simple glance at a map of the Mediterranean immediately reveals why the tiny island nation of Malta has such a high strategic value. Lying roughly halfway between Sicily and North Africa, the island has, for millennia, been an important trading port and safe harbor in the often treacherous Mediterranean. The island would be no less important in World War 2. The British were in control of Malta (it had been a Crown Colony since 1813) and, as of June 1940, the island sat directly between the Axis power of Italy to the north, and the Italian possessions in North Africa (Libya) below it. All Italian, and later, German supply planes, transports, and shipping had to travel well away from Malta or risk being intercepted by ships or ground-based aircraft from the island. This tiny archipelago of Malta, Gozo, and Comino was just 56 miles from the Italian island of Sicily and 225 miles from Tunisia, and was one of the key British strategic locations in WW2 and the setting for what may have been the only example of coordinated Axis planning of the war.

The strategic position of the Island of Malta. Source: Vivarelli
Allied planes and vessels could, in contrast, stage there or put into port for repairs, refueling or replenishing ammunition. This small island was a huge thorn in the side of the Axis, and with the War in North Africa in full swing, control of Malta was more important than ever. The plan to wrestle control from Britain was consequently hatched. The Italians had long wanted to remove Malta from British control, planning such an attack as early as 1938, but lacked the men, equipment, planes, and ships to do it on their own.
The Italians had launched a naval attack on Malta on 26th July 1941 under the guns at Fort Elmo guarding the entrance to the Grand Harbor at Valletta. The Italian X Flottiglia MAS Naval squadron was trying to attack the ships in the harbor but was seen by radar on the island and consequently repulsed by the Bofors guns (another source states ‘twin 6-pounders’) manned by the 3rd Light Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment, Royal Malta Artillery and men of the Cheshire Regiment. Total casualties are unknown but at least 16 men were killed and at least one motor launch sank. Half-hearted efforts to just sail into Malta and attack the fleet or land troops were not going to work. Any successful attack would need more planning, more resources, and German help.

Savoia-Marchetti SM.81 pictured over the capital city of Malta, Valletta, during a raid on the city and Grand Harbour. Source: Public domain

Genesis

The origin of the combined plan for this operation came from the Italians who convinced, on 17th January 1942, Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring of the value of the idea. He had been appointed as the Commander in Chief of the South (German: Oberbefehlshaber Sud) and was aware of the dysfunctional command structure of the Axis, but could also see the value of Malta. He now sought the support of the Führer for this plan of a combined Italo-German operation. He was not alone in this, the Italians advocated for it, and both Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (German Commander in North Africa) and Admiral Erich Raeder (German Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine) were also in favor of this idea.
Bombing alone was not working on Malta. It had started in December 1941, but neither Germany nor Italy had sufficient heavy bombers to neutralize the airfields and air defences on the island. Despite this, the harbor at Valletta and the various facilities on the island were bombed extensively by both German (Luftwaffe) and Italian (Regia Aeronautica) aircraft for more than two years, with thousands of bomb sorties killing thousands of people. The people of Malta refused to give up and the attempts to blockade the island to starve it of supplies failed too. If the Axis wanted to remove Malta from British control, it was going to take more than bombs and blockade.
Despite being well positioned at the outbreak of the War and having large land forces, the Italians had not fared well in their ventures in Yugoslavia and Greece and then North Africa. The Germans had come to prop up the Italians in those theatres, and the Italians quickly became dependent on German help.
In terms of the plan to strike Malta, it was no different. German and Italian bombs could not break the spirit of the defenders, and those Italian plans for invasion were now potentially supported with actual material assistance from the Germans. Kesselring was being very supportive of the work of the Italian Chief of Staff, Marshal Ugo Cavallero, to seize the island.
After Kesselring had visited Hitler at the Berchtesgaden in February 1942, things changed. Hitler supported the operation and, therefore, planning for a combined Italo-German amphibious assault could begin properly under the codename ‘Esigenza C3’ (for reference, Esigenza C2 had been the occupation of the island of Corsica) for the Italians and Operation ‘Herkules’ for the Germans. The operational plans were, however, not the same. The Italians favored a joint air and sea assault, whereas the Germans were only planning for a seaborne invasion, making a coordinated planning effort overly complex.

Risky Business

After the losses in the German invasion of Crete in April 1941 (around 6,000 casualties), Hitler was not in favor of airborne operations, as these had shown that airborne attacks by paratroopers could go very badly wrong and lead to large losses. On top of this concern, the campaign in the East (Operation Barbarossa) against the Soviet Union was going to require a huge amount of logistical support, men, and equipment.
Nonetheless, training was undertaken. The elite Italian Folgore and La Spezia Airborne Divisions (elite Italian paratroopers) would train alongside the Germans as part of the 10,000 strong airborne invasion force.

Field Marshal Kesselring (left) and Marshall Ugo Cavallero (right). Source: German Federal Archive and Wikimedia Commons

Planning

The acceptance of the combined invasion plan was on 17th January 1942. On 8th February, Admiral Arturo Riccardi and Marshal Cavallero met with Kesselring to discuss the actual requirements for ships, landing craft, and supplies needed for the invasion, as well as to set a timetable of operations (Esigenza C3 planning was in the hands of General Vittorio Ambrosio, Chief of Staff for the Italian Army). Kesselring, for his part, advocated on behalf of the Italians to Hitler, trying to obtain German equipment for the Italians to use and, on 17th February 1942, the German Army High Command (German: Oberkommando der Heeres) ordered for arrangements to be made.
The pressure to strike as soon as possible did not come from the Italians, who wanted more time to prepare, but from Kesselring. As early as 17th March, he proposed a raid in force by paratroops against the island. Italian and German air raids on Malta reached their peak between March and April that year and the momentum of attack was on the Axis’ side. A surprise raid by paratroopers was seen as capitalizing on the damage these raids were causing. Despite this disagreement, Kesselring had actually ironed out some of the command problems within the Axis and, along with Cavallero, had reached a general agreement on a strategy for the Mediterranean theatre.
Despite pressure from Admiral Raeder on behalf of Operation Herkules/Esigenza C3, in April 1942, the project was postponed. Hitler’s strategy was to focus on capturing Tobruk and push the Allies back to the borders of Egypt before striking Malta and, eventually, Gibraltar. Despite Hitler’s plan though, the idea was not dead, and joint planning work continued until August 1942.

Esigenza C3/Operation Herkules

The plan called for up to 100,000 men, hundreds of aircraft for ground attack, air cover, and transportation, as well as the bulk of the available Axis surface ships and submarines in the Mediterranean. Italian planning was, despite the best efforts of Cavellero, disjointed. The Army made its own plans, often in conjunction with the Navy, but sometimes independently, and likewise so did the Navy. Neither the Army nor the Navy cooperated with the Air force, with both seeing it as a supporting organization to their own roles – such was the nature of Axis interservice rivalry.
Despite these problems, however, both the King and Mussolini approved of Esigenza C3 and, on 14th October 1941, Cavelero instructed the various members of the senior staff with responsibility for the Army, Navy, and Air Force to examine the plans, a process led by Army General Antonio Gandin. This then developed into a formal joint staff known as Ufficio C3 under the command of General Gandin and resolved the Italian part of the rivalry, as all three services were now under a unified command. Planning then entered five phases. Phase I, which was to last from then until 10th March 1942, was general planning and wargaming and involved input from the Japanese Naval Mission to Italy. Phase II followed straight after until the end of March defining what sort of support the Germans might offer them and the creation of an expeditionary command. April 1942 was Phase III which was for the expeditionary command to organize and plan the operation, with Phase IV reserved for refinement and the preparation of logically support for all of May, June, and July 1942. Phase V was the invasion, with a date for Esigenza C3 set for 1st August 1942.

Japanese Experts

The Italians were especially keen on the advice from the Japanese, who had a lot more experience with this sort of island assault operations compared to themselves and, also, from the middle of February 1942, help from the Germans too. On 21st February 1942, the Italians convened the first tripartite conference on the amphibious operation against Malta. Under Italian organization, the attendees included General Gandin and Admiral Tur (Italy), Admiral Katsuo Abe, Navy Captain Mitunobu, and Colonel Shimizu (Japan) from the military mission to Rome. As a result of the in-depth information and insights from the Japanese, Cavellero understood them to be the experts in this field and asked them for their own study into attacking Malta.
The Japanese study was prepared very quickly, with a plan ready by 5th March 1942, and over two days was compared to the Italian study and war-games took place. The plans, whilst different in some regards, agreed on general principles, but the Italians were impressed with the level of detail in the logistical planning of the attack, although they did not agree with the Japanese assessment of the defenses, which they felt were significantly underestimated.
There was continued cooperation with the Japanese on this endeavor, and further information was gained by studying various other European amphibious attacks from German and Allied raids, including Dieppe. The expertise from the Japanese, refined with training and exercise, later formed the Italian doctrine on such matters, known as the Norme di impiego per Grandi Unita’ di Assalto e Sbarco (English: Employment of large assault and landing formations), with a focus on landing assault storming parties to secure the beachhead ahead of the main landing force.

The Germans

Having obtained extremely valuable insight from the Japanese, the Italians then sought to work with the Germans, using their experiences, in particular from Crete, but also from raids they made in the Baltic. Primarily, the Italians were looking for the German expertise in parachute operations, and Major General Bernhard Ramcke, a veteran of the Crete assault, was selected to be the leading German expert.

Generals Bernhard Ramcke (left) and Kurt Student (right) – German airborne operations masterminds for the Operation Herkules part of Esigenza C3. Source: German Federal Archives
Work with Maj. Gen. Ramcke began on 11th April 1942, and he was later joined by General Kurt Student, Commander of Fliegerkorps XI and an expert in airborne operations. Interference by Kesselring in the planning, though, was to disjoint this smooth planning process when on 13th April 1942 he demanded the creation of a ‘German Office’ within the planning staff, adding another layer of complexity to the command and control. Despite this, a comprehensive plan of attack was developed with agreement on the key strategic points to capture and the timing and coordination of the attack.

The Italo-German Invasion Plan

Airborne attacks on the Southern Heights had the mission of establishing a secure site for a landing and attack the airfields south of Valletta, followed by the seizure of the airfields at Luqa, Takali, and Hal Far, which would allow more troops and supplies to be brought in by air.
Underwater, demolition teams and commandos would be instructed to seize the cliff at the landing site and securing the beachhead for the first wave of landings. That first wave, once ashore, would then seize Marsaxlokk and the port. The second wave would then attack north and west through Marsaxlokk, and the island of Gozo to the north would be seized to form a logistical hub.
A small amphibious assault would be undertaken on Marsaxlokk Bay along with feints directed along the on the northwest coastline of the island, where the defenses were strongest and backed by the Victoria Line. The Victoria Line ran across the northwestern corner of the island from the Bigemma Hills to Maddalena Bay, constituting the main defensive line with machine guns and artillery positions. Crucially, Italian intelligence showed this line could not face south, so was vulnerable to an attack from this direction.

Italian troops from the San Marco Division during a training exercise for the invasion. Note the rather crude landing barges. Source: digilander

CONOPS

With a combined plan to focus on, the Italian High Command (Comando Supremo) developed its own Concept of Operations (CONOPS) by 22nd May (with a modification added on 27th May) for this complex operation, which was to be in two phases. It is also worth bearing in mind that Hitler had authorized the use of German paratroopers too, a matter confirmed by Kesselring in a meeting with Cavallero on 21st April 1942.

Operational Phases for Exigenza C3

Phase I 28th June 1942
17th July 1942
Intensification of the naval and air blockade on Malta with bombing of enemy airfields, defenses, command and control facilities, and water distribution facilities.
Phase II D-Day
1st August 1942 +
Fake paratrooper landings in the north conducted by means of dropping dummy parachutists whilst real paratroopers were being dropped to the south. [Added 27th May].
Isolation of Valletta and prevention of a British counterattack by deploying two paratrooper divisions to the Dingli/Zurrieq area and glider landings at Kalafrana and Fort Benghisa.
The main attack consisting of landing two divisions to seize Marsaxlokk from the rear.
Occupation of the island of Gozo by the Superga Division to serve as a logistics base.
Deception operations by means of small amphibious landings along the north and east. (Added 27th May)
The first naval landing wave would consist of 24,000 men, 32 guns and 30 tanks.
A second amphibious attack to be undertaken by navy special forces and light infantry against Fort Benghisa and Fort Delimara to divert enemy forces from Marsaxlokk Bay. (Added 27th May)
A division held as a reserve to be sent wherever it was needed, but two reserve divisions landed at Marsaxlokk to attack the Victoria Line from the south and complete the occupation of the island.
The remainder of the men, tanks, guns, and support troops to follow successively.


Italian CV.3 light tank disembarking from a landing barge during a training exercise. Source: digilander

The plan of attack for Operation Esigenza C3. Source: Taken from Vivarelli

Assumptions

This bold CONOPS was dependent on several factors though. Firstly, that the Germans had sufficient air transportation capability for the airborne troops and the dropping of supplies. This meant the use of 500 Ju 52 aircraft, 300 DFS 230 gliders, 12 Me 323 transport aircraft, and 200 Gotha 242 gliders.
Second, that there were enough fuel reserves available to move the entire Italian fleet to Maltese waters to support the attack and, finally, and perhaps most crucially, the ability to transport all the ground forces. Over 70,000 men, trucks, tanks, and artillery needed to be moved and unloaded, some of which would have to be done under enemy fire.
The Italians, for their part, had the ability (by the end of June 1942) to transport 29,000 men, along with tanks, artillery, and supplies by sea. The rest of the transportation would have to come from the Germans, as the Italians rushed production of the 100 Motolance (ML-Class) motor launches and Motozattere (MZ-Class) motor barges (copies of the German Marinefahrorahm) it needed. By July 1942, the 100 Motolance and 65 Motozattere were ready along with an assortment of small craft, steamers, motor-sail boats and tankers already set aside. The Italian Navy (RM) modified some large civilian craft for the operation too, including two former ferries to off-load heavy tanks.

Italian Motozattera motor barge. Source: Vivarelli via German Federal Archives
As a result of this production, the Italians could supply a lot of their own sea capability but, nonetheless, they required German help in the form of 27 Marinefahrprahm, 10 Siebel catamaran barges, 6 Type 39 Pionierlandunsboote (engineer boats), 6 Type 40 Pionierlandunsboote (engineer boats), 281 Sturmboote (assault boats – of which 81 would be crewed by the Germans and the remainder would be crewed by the Italians), and 300 smaller inflatable boats.

Motolance’ motor launch seen during training at Livorno, October 1942. Photo:Betasom.it
The airborne landings of both the German and Italian forces would fall under the direction and control of the Germans (General Student), which was logical considering they were supplying the majority of the assets to deliver the troops and supplies, but also from a political point of view, considering the reticence about the German use of airborne forces since the carnage in Crete. Marshall Cavallero would, however, remain supreme commander for the overall operation operating via the Italian and German service heads. No German troops, therefore, would fall under Italian control or vice versa. Once ashore and landed, all ground forces during the operation would be commanded by General Armando Vecchiarelli as leader of the Expeditionary Corps as it would be known (Italian: Corpo di Spedizione), although it is unlikely he would have been able to direct any German troops to move without agreement from their commander.

Italian Folgore Division during training. Source: digilander

Axis Forces (June 1942)

Fliegerkorps XI (Student)
Folgore Parachute Division (Frattini)
7,500 men
9 x Infantry, 3 x Artillery, and 1 x Saboteur Battalions as well as various Engineers and support troops.
La Spezia Air Land Division (Pizzolato)
10,500 men
6 x Infantry, 3 x Artillery, 1 x Saboteur Battalion, and 1 x Mortar Battalions, 1 x Reconnaissance Team, as well as various Engineers and support troops.
7th Flieger Division (Petersen)
11,000 men
Forza Navale Speciale (Tur)
San Marco Marine Infantry Regiment (2,000 men)
Navy-Parachute Swimmers (nuotatori) Battalion (300 men)
4 x Camicie Nere Fascist Militia Landing Battalions (~1000 men each)
Corps di Spedizione (Vecchiarelli – Comando Superiore Tattico)
Livorno Infantry Division (9,850 men)
Superga Infantry Division (9,200 men)
Friuli Infantry Division (10,000 men) – added to plan 6th May 1942
Napoli Infantry Division (~9,000 men)- added to plan 6th May 1942
Assietta Infantry Division (9,000 men) – added to plan 6th May 1942
10th Tank Group with over 100 tanks*
Artillery troops (~3,000 men)
[Troops supplied with additional special equipment, climbing teams, as well as heavy weapons including anti-tank guns and anti-aircraft weapons]
Various Italian and German naval transport, escort and landing vessels as well as air transport and interdiction forces.

* What tanks were going to be used by Italy has been speculated on for some time. The authors Massagiani and Green in ‘The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943’ clarify that the plan had originally considered German tank support to consist of supplying 20 Panzer III’s and that, although on the 30th April 1942, Hitler, in a meeting with Mussolini, had suggested using captured Soviet heavy tanks in the assault, this plan was abandoned. Instead, the Italian plan for tanks was to make use of eight 75 mm armed Semovente (likely the M.13 based Semovente M.40), and a further 19 Semovente armed with 47 mm guns, which would indicate the L.60/40 based L.40 da 47/32 all in the first wave, as well as a number of Medium tanks (likely the M.13/40). Further tanks coming ashore in the second wave would include at least 50 CV.3 light tanks and the bulk of the heavy artillery, including 90 mm and 75 mm anti-tank guns as well as 147 mm and 105 mm field guns towed by 170 tractors.
It is known that the Comando Supremo did indeed request 10-12 heavy tanks from the Germans, presumably to support the first wave assault and it is possible that the unit Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66 (formed 30th May 1942) was formed for exactly this reason, following Hitler’s suggestion of 30th April. That unit consisted of captured Soviet equipment, including heavy tanks, as well as German equipment. Had this fanciful idea come to fruition, it would have seen the Germans either supplying Soviet tanks, like the KV-2, to the Italians or operating them directly during the invasion. Regardless of such ideas though, the idea was dumped, and German involvement was to be restricted to parachutists and logistical and air support. The tanks for the invasion would be Italian.

Captured Soviet KV-2 and T-34 tanks belonging to Panzer-Abteilung zbV66. Source: beutepanzer.ru

Italian assault boats practice their attack (left) and the FF.SS. Aspromonte with modification to her bows for use as a landing ship for amphibious operations (right). Source: digilander

Allied Forces (July 1942)

The Allied forces on Malta were certainly prepared for a possible attack with 16 battalions of infantry, a wide assortment of artillery, and about two-dozen armored vehicles the most formidable of which for any potential invader was the A.12 Matilda II. Four of these tanks belonging to 7th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment were stationed on the island. However, given the significant tank forces set aside for the invasion by the Germans and Italians even these very well armored tanks would be unlikely to be decisive in any defence.

Allied Forces (July 1942)

Infantry
Northern Command 4 x Infantry Battalions
Southern Command 4 x Infantry Battalions
Central Command 4 x Infantry Battalions
Western Command 4 x Infantry Battalions including a machine gun battalion with 4 x 4.2” mortars, 1 x Military Police Company
Miscellaneous small independent units of engineers, logistics, some Royal Navy personnel, possibly some local irregular forces.
Artillery
4 x Regiments of Anti-Aircraft, 2 x Field Artillery, and 2 x Coastal
64 searchlights
12 x 4.5” AA guns
84 x 3.7” AA guns 16 x 3” 20cwt. AA guns
At least 8 x Bofors AA guns (possibly up to 36)
7 x 9.2” BL Mk.X guns (1 at Fort Bingemma and 2 at Fort Madalena on the East Coast, 2 at Fort San Leonardo and 2 at Fort Benghisa on the West Coast)
10 x 6” BL Mk.VII (2 at Fort Delimara and 2 at Fort San Rocco on the East Coast, 3 at Fort Tigne and 2 at Fort Campbell on the West Coast.
24 x 25 pounder field guns
18 x 6 pdr. 10cwt. QF Mk.I (12 at Fort St. Elmo and 6 at Fort Ricasoli)
Approximately 30 x QF 18 pdr.
Whatever armed ships in harbor may also have been able to provide fire support too, as well as some obsolete/decommissioned Victorian era guns
Tanks
7th Royal Tank Regiment 4 x A.12 Matilda tanks
3rd (King’s Own) Hussars 2 x Vickers VIc Light tanks
Malta Tank Squadron Royal Tank Regiment (formed from 1st Independent Troop and X Squadron 6 RTR) 2 x Valentine Mk.II Infantry tanks
2 x Valentine Mk.III Infantry tanks
A Squadron 6th Royal Tank Regiment 8 tanks formed from an unknown mix of A.9 Cruiser Mk.I and A.13 Cruiser Mk.IV or III
Unknown number of light armor in the form of ‘Bren carriers’


Cruiser Tanks of 6 RTR being unloaded and seen during training on Malta 1942 – not yet painted in the distinctive ‘Malta’ pattern camouflage. Source: IWM

British A.12 Matilda tank (left) and Vickers Mk.VIc (right) painted in the distinctive ‘Malta’ pattern camouflage. Source: IWM

Vickers Mk.VIc (right) painted in the distinctive ‘Malta’ pattern camouflage. The pattern here is less random and slightly more uniform to match a wall or building. Each vehicle was unique. Source: IWM

British A.12 Matilda with a variation of the Malta pattern camouflage with an additional ‘shadow’ around each of the squares adding depth to the pattern. Source: IWM

British Valentine Mk.III Infantry Tank ‘Adonis’ in Malta.

A note on the ‘Malta Pattern’

The camouflage pattern seen on the tanks and also on some other armored vehicles, soft skin vehicles such as staff cars and trucks as well as field guns, generators, radar, and even helmets is unique to the forces on the island. The pattern is specifically intended to closely match the rocky nature of the island, from the open barren highlands to the rocky stone walls and buildings. It consists of random shapes on a light stone color with the lines between dark green or dark brown. A variation on the pattern added a third color as a ‘shadow’ within these blotches and at least one vehicle was even painted in the scheme to match stone courses used in buildings. To apply it on the entire vehicle involved simply painting first the background color and then the dark lines were painted over, being careful that neither layer obscured the census mark on the vehicle.

Two examples of the color scheme used including the regular stonework pattern. Source: maltacommand.com

Conclusion

The relationship between the Italians and the Germans was never a full-hearted one. The Germans tended to be overbearing, authoritarian and dismissive of the Italians. The Italians, for their part, were overly grand in their ideas and underwhelming in their ability to actually deliver results on the ground. They failed to plan for the invasion of Malta in a fully coordinated manner and instead made independent plans for a joint operation which was guaranteed to either sideline one plan over the other, or simply never happen. Whilst both parties agreed on the need to remove Malta from British hands, their inability to work together ensured that it could not happen. The Italians did not have the resources to ‘go it alone’, and the Germans had conflicting political and strategic objectives. For Italy, the Mediterranean was their theater, and Malta was their back door. For the Germans, it was a side campaign likely diverting precious resources from the fighting on the Eastern Front. Germany, with the preponderance of the military forces in the relationship, made the final decision, and the invasion was canceled at the end of July 1942, just one month after the fall of British held Tobruk to the combined Italian-German forces in North Africa.
Had Esigenza C3 been ordered to take place, there is little doubt that all of the planning, training, and exercising would have proved vital. For once during the war, the Axis powers had planned, trained and worked together on a single definable goal with a clear objective. The Italians, in particular, and contrary to popular misconceptions, were, for once, very well prepared. A fact reiterated by Japanese Admiral Abe who, upon witnessing the practice night-time landing of 4,500 men under the dangerous cliffs at Livorno (Italy) remarked to Admiral Tur:

“I came back to Rome convinced that you can accomplish brilliantly, having observed your tenacious exercises, conducted with indomitable spirit and severe discipline”

Esigenza C3 was not to be, however. Hitler had recalled Student to Berlin, kneecapping one of the most complex parts of the whole plan, and with Rommel’s success at Tobruk, there was the excuse to cancel the entire plan in the vain hope of victory in the desert. The Italians too had accepted the dream of taking Malta was over. with Rommel’s failure at El Alamein, the Italians were compelled to send many of the troops for the operation over to North Africa to help, which, regardless of Hitler, doomed the plan. The plan was officially dead on 27th July 1942, but it was effectively over the month before.
With the plan canceled, Malta remained a bastion of British power right in the heart of Axis Mediterranean planning, although from the end of 1941, the actual importance of Malta for hampering Axis supply efforts had waned and in some regards, the bombing alone had crippled the island anyway. Nonetheless, the inability to remove this British hub and turn it to Axis use to support operations in North Africa remains a critical failing of Axis strategy.
Malta had resisted the bombardment of the Axis forces for years and was one of the heaviest bombed places during WW2. The will of the people remained unbroken and the stalwart defense of the island resulted in it being awarded the George Cross on 25th April 1942 – the highest civilian award. This cross remains proudly on the Maltese flag to this day.

Sources

Vivarelli, A. (2014). The Axis and the Intended Invasion of Malta in 1942: A Combined Planning Endeavor. School of Advanced Military Studies, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas
Kavanagh, S. (2006). Comparison of the Invasion of Crete and the Proposed Invasion of Malta. US Army Command and General Staff College. (PDF)
David Pastore at forum.axishistory.com
The Times of Malta (LINK) (LINK)
Operatione C3 Malta at digilander.libero.it
De Ninno, F. (2017). The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes 1937-1942.  (LINK)
maltacommand.com
Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66
Greene, J., Massignani, A. (1998). The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940–1943.


An Italian Carro Veloce CV.3, 50 of which would have participated in the second wave of landings.
Semovente da 75/18, eight of which would have landed on Malta in the first wave and help take on British field fortifications and armor.
L.40 da 47/32 self propelled gun, 19 of which would have gone along their bigger 75 mm armed brothers in the first wave.
Carro Armato M.13/40, a number of which would have formed the tank component of the Italian invasion force.
German Panzer III Ausf.G, 20 of which were at some point proposed to be used.
Captured Soviet KV-2 tank of Panzer-Abteilung zbV 66, which might have been proposed for use in the invasion.

Light Tank Mk.VIc in the famous Malta patern, two of which were present with the 3rd (King’s Own) Hussars.

Infantry Tank Mk.II Matilda in the famous Malta patern. 4 of these were present on the island with the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and would have proven tough nuts to crack for the Italian armor.

A small number of the outdated Cruiser Mk.I were also present on Malta with A Squadron, 6th Royal Tank Regiment.
A few Cruiser Mk.IVs (pictured here) or Cruiser Mk.IIIs were also present with the 6th Royal Tank Regiment.
Infantry Tank Mk.III Valentine Mk.V in the famous Malta patern, four of which were present with the Malta Tank Squadron. These would have also proven tricky for the feebly-armed Italian tanks.

An unknown number of Bren Carriers were also part of the Maltese garrison.

Categories
WW2 British Tactics WW2 French Tactics WW2 Italian Tactics

Campaigns and Battles in East Africa – The North, British and French Somaliland


British Somaliland and indications of the Italian assault August 1940. Source: Stewart

Map of the invasion. Source: Mockler

Introduction and background to AOI

Following the Italian declaration of war against Great Britain and France on the 10th June 1940, the British perceptions of the Italians in Africa changed. The British had misunderstood the unique position Italy held and, although it had previously been unhappy with the Italian invasion and occupation of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), they had not carried out any action to stop them. Following the declaration of war, however, the gloves were off and the British and French possessions in the region, as well as access through the vital Suez canal, were potentially threatened. The Italian high command had expected a short war which would give them territorial gains while Italian East Africa (AOI: Africa Orientale Italiana), surrounded and cut off, merely had to hold out until Great Britain sued for peace.

First Strike

Unlike the large sedentary Italian force languishing in North Africa, the force in AOI under the command of the Duke of Aosta (Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta) took the initiative. Rather than sit and wait to be attacked by the British and to try and get some breathing space to ensure the survival of the colony, the Duke quickly launched attacks on British border posts in Kenya and Sudan. Small towns inside the Sudan border, such as Kassala and Gallabat, were taken before he turned his attention North to the territories of British and French Somaliland. He also launched raids over the borders attacking Berbera, Hargeisa, and Zeila but did not formally invade the French and British territories until sufficient forces had been gathered together. The Aubarre area was the formation point and, by the end of June 1940, the Italians had occupied Borama four miles over the border into British Somaliland in preparation for either an invasion or as a vanguard against a British counterattack.
In general, the strength of British and French forces in the North was massively overestimated, with an estimate of as many as 11,000 British and native forces when, in reality, it was less than half that number. However, the presence of two easily resupplied ports so close to Ethiopia was a major strategic concern for the protection of AOI. Therefore, the ports in Djibouti (French Somaliland) and Berbera (British Somaliland) had to be eliminated for the AOI to stand any chance of holding out.
As of the 1st June 1940, the Italian forces in the whole of AOI (encompassing modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, and most of Somalia together forming an area larger than France),, numbered just over a quarter of a million men comprising a mix of regulars (Regio Esercito – Royal Army of Italy), MVSN (Italian: Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale – Voluntary Militia for National Security) commonly known as the ‘Blackshirts’, and colonial forces.

Italian forces in AOI by region, 1st June 1940. Source: Orpen

Renault FT’s in French Somaliland, 1938. Source: Public Domain
The first target of the Italian assault was the French colony and port of Djibouti. French forces defending the territory were commanded by Major General Paul Legentilhomme. The garrison there had been quadrupled since September 1939. At his disposal, he had a substantial infantry force consisting of seven battalions of Senegalese and Somali infantry, four companies of militia troops and two platoons of camel-mounted troops, and an assortment of aircraft. General Legentilhomme also possessed a small stock of 3 batteries of field guns, 4 batteries of anti-aircraft guns, and at least 4 Renault FT light tanks armed with the short 37mm gun, constituting one light tank company. This constituted a significant force of men and tanks, intended to not just dissuade the Italian forces from attacking but, according to Allied plans, it was to be the strike force against Addis Ababa. The much weaker British forces in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Kenya, and British Somaliland were supposed to remain defensive and let the French attack up the rail line to Addis. Whether the Italians knew that this was the plan or not, the peril was obvious.
Regardless, General Nasi, commanding Italian forces, attacked French Somaliland on 18th June 1940 with 9,000 men starting with the forts of Ali-Sabieh (~90 km south of the capital) and Dadd’to in the south and north respectively and skirmishes around Lakes Abbe and Ally in the South West. Despite the enormous advantages of the French forces, the Italians managed to occupy a series of border fortifications on the AOI/French Somaliland border by the end of June but got no further. Italian planes bombed Djibouti harbour, and on the 24th June, the Franco-Italian Armistice came into effect, requiring the demilitarisation of French Somaliland for the period of war between Italy and Great Britain, ceding effective control to the Italians.
The armistice also required all arms and ammunition, which would have included those tanks and guns, to be surrendered to Italy but General Legentilhomme stubbornly refused to cooperate insisting he would fight on, refusing to comply with orders to surrender until 28th July when President Petain replaced him with General Germain. General Germain though, refused to demilitarise, instead adopting a non-belligerent posture, fully cooperating with the Vichy Government but taking no offensive action and thus denying the stock of tanks and equipment to the Italians. The battalion of French troops blocking the Jirreh pass (considered a ‘back door’ into British Somaliland) was withdrawn per the armistice agreement but was replaced with a detachment of the Somaliland Camel Corps instead to guard the 45-mile border.
The armistice had effectively neutralized French Somaliland and permitted the Italians to make use of the port of Djibouti and the railway line unhindered by the French forces, although British control of the sea meant that the harbour received no useful supplies to help AOI. With the conclusion of operations in French Somaliland by the end of the July, the attention was turned to eliminate the British next door. The British later seized the French colony from Vichy hands in October 1941 following a naval blockade.

Italian troops march in columns during the invasion of British Somaliland.

The assault on British Somaliland

With French Somaliland neutralized, the threat from the British had to be eliminated as well and, although the French had not surrendered their tanks and guns, the Italians had sufficient men to do the job. General Guglielmo Nasi, commanding the Italian forces, over-estimated British strength in the colony, assessing that, on top of more men, they also had 24 guns and 8 anti-tank guns as well as 50 anti-aircraft guns which would complicate his invasion plans. Italian forces did occupy the station at Buramo on the 24th June. This lead to the despatch of a camel troop by the British to scout and raid them, which (in company with some local Somali tribesmen) they did on the night of the 29th/30th June. A further raid against Italian forces by this Camel troop was carried out at Dumuk but, these raids did little to deter the General and may only have served to reinforce the need to remove this British presence. The invasion started on the 3rd August 1940, with Italian troops crossing the border.

A column of Italian M.11/39 Medium tanks advancing into British Somaliland, August 1940.

Defences

The defence of British Somaliland was commanded by Brigadier Arthur Chater when on the 15th May 1940, the official defence shifted from ambivalence to ‘scuttle’ with actual soldiers started to be used rather than irregular light troops and the Somaliland Camel Corps. After this, some active defence was being considered, but it was too little too late. Forces did start arriving so that, by the time of the invasion, Brigadier Chater had at his disposal about 5,000 men consisting of:

  • Somaliland Camel Corps (SCC) (~630 men including reservists) comprising a total of one motorised machine gun company, one camel-mounted rifle company, one pony-mounted rifle company, and one company of dismounted rifles. 400 Askaris with 14 British Officers with reinforcements from the Southern Rhodesia Regiment of 17 Officers and 20 Other Ranks which formed a second dismounted company.
  • 2nd Battalion Black Watch standing by at Aden
  • 1st Battalion Northern Rhodesia Regiment (1st NRR)
  • 2nd (Nyasaland) Battalion King’s African Rifles (KAR) (about 875 men of whom just 9 of the 40 officers were regulars) arrived 12th July 1940
  • 1st East African Light Battery (4 x 3.7″ howitzers) (from Kenya) arrived 12th July 1940
  • 1st Battalion 2nd Punjab Regiment (1st/2nd Punjab Reg.) arrived 1st July 1940
  • 3rd Battalion 15th Punjab Regiment (3rd/15th Punjab Reg.) arrived 1st July 1940
  • some Police units
  • Six Italian 20mm cannons stripped from an interned Italian ship


Troops of the Somaliland Camel Corps
Brigadier Chater chose the best defensive line open to him, about 50 miles inland from Berbera on the high ground. Back in 1939, GB£900 had been spent on the construction of concrete machine-gun nests at Tug Argan and Sheikh Pass to constitute the entirety of the defences for the protectorate. This position at Tug Argan would block the only road route to Berbera, leaving the invading Italians with three options. Either attack the Jirreh pass to the north and advance down a poor track to Berbera; attacking down the main road from Hargeisa to the pass at Tug Argan where the British forces were; or going around the south via Burao and over the Sheikh pass.
This was the first time any real practical consideration had been given to defending the protectorate at all. As Millman (British Somaliland: An administrative history) puts it “there had been no time to put the defence of the Protectorate on any sort of satisfactory footing before the Italian invasion began. Only in the process of attempting to defend the place did it become clear that it was indefensible” (p.118). But held, it had to be. The British Prime Minister had decreed it, against the objections of Brigadier Chater, who was more in favour of simply abandoning the province. As a defence of the entire 700 or so miles of the border (not including the 45 miles bordering French Somaliland) was not possible, the only other option was to seize access routes and high ground.
Brigadier Chater deployed his forces, with the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment held in reserve at Berbera, some of the Camel Corps with some Punjabi troops guarding the northern pass at Jirreh, the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment guarding the Sheikh Pass, and the Northern Rhodesians and KAR at Tug Argan. The remainder of the Camel Corps, Police and irregular units were used to provide scouts and screening of enemy movements at border crossings.
With his forces deployed like this, regardless of which way the Italian forces would attack, they would have to cross one of the three passes, and only one had a decent road, the route through Tug Argan.

British Dispositions 1st August 1940

Area Troops
Dobo 1 x Company SCC less one troop
Hargeisa 1 x Motor company SCC less one troop
1 x Troop SCC
1 x Company NRR, KAR
Burao 1 x Company and one Troop SCC
Zeila to Berbera Road 1 x Officer’s Patrol with wireless
Forward (Border) areas Illalos (native irregulars)
Tug Argan Main Position NRR less one Company
Machine-Gun Company
B Company SCC
1st East African Light Battery
Tug Argan Left Flank 2nd KAR with HQ at Mandera*
Tug Argan Laferug
(Force Reserve)
3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (until the 7th August when replaced by 2nd Black Watch)
Tug Argan Sawr Hills 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (after 7th August)
Sheikh Pass Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Shell Gap (road from Zeilah) Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Bihendi Gap (East of Berbera) Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment
Berbera (base) Elements of 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment

*Haile Selassie’s War by Anthony Mockler puts the HQ location at Barkasan Hill rather than at Madera although it likely moved during the defence.

The Italians are coming

Invading British Somaliland was the substantial force under General Nasi consisting of about 25,000 men of whom just 4800 were Italian, with the bulk being native Ascari troops. As well as this infantry force, General Nasi also had half a company of M.11/39 medium tanks and a squadron of CV.3 light tanks, as well as some armored cars.
Dividing his force, General Nasi sent the main portion, including the tanks, Eastwards along the Jigga to Hargeisa road. Commanding this column was General Carlo De Simeone leading the XIII Colonial Brigade under General Nam, the XIV Colonial Brigade under General Tosti, and the XV Colonial Brigade under Colonel Graziosi. A total of 11 infantry battalions with 14 batteries of artillery, the half company of the M.11/39 medium tanks, the squadron of the CV.3 light tanks, and some armored cars. Following, and acting as a reserve, was the II Colonial Brigade commanded by Colonel Lorenzini consisting of 4 battalions of infantry and two battalions of artillery.

Italian troops carried in trucks during the invasion of British Somaliland. Source: waridaad.blogspot.com
The second, lighter force was heading northwards to the sea at Zeila, sealing off any escape or support from French Somaliland. Commanded by General Bertoldi who had at his disposal 8 infantry battalions including 2 CCNN Blackshirts of which one was the machine gun battalion of the Granatieri di Savoia (the Savoia Grenadiers); an elite unit of the regular Italian army, as opposed to the mainly colonial forces. General Bertoldi was supported by four batteries of artillery split between LXX Colonial brigade and XVII colonial brigade. Alongside this northern column was an ‘exploitation’ unit led by General Passerone with just two battalions of infantry and a battery of artillery with the plan being, then upon the fall of Zeila, this small unit could attack Berbera from along the coast.
The third and final column consisting of a single infantry battalion, two groups of irregular troops and a single battery of artillery was led by General Bertello. They were to circle around the right flank. This force was sent to attack Sheikh Pass and then onto Berbera. If all three columns were successful, General Nasi would not only seal off any possible escape or reinforcements by land but also converge on Berbera from three directions.
The attack began on the 3rd August 1940, with the border crossed by the north and south columns with the main column moving toward Hargeisa. Here, on the 4th August, it met lead elements of the Camel Corps and Rhodesians and the Italians deployed their 12 light tanks (CV.3) abreast in a line of attack. The Camel Corps troops and Rhodesians reported knocking out or disabling three of these light tanks with anti-tank rifles before retreating as these tanks assaulted their position and overran it allowing the Italian column to resume its advance. Noteworthy here is that the official London Gazette report on the campaign states that Italian losses were a single armored car set on fire and two others damaged by rifle fire and not any tanks. Although the column advanced once more, it was harassed by British planes as it moved along the road but having taken Hargeisa allowed the Italians to move their air support up to assist in the attack on Berbera. This is presumably why the attack halted at Hargeisa on the 6th and 7th, to consolidate the advance.
The north column under General Bertoldi with the Savoia Grenadiers set the pace though, crossing the border and reaching their objective ahead of expectations, capturing Zeila. General Passerone’s exploitation force was then free to march on Berbera from the north unopposed.
On the 6th, the southern column under General Bertello reached Odweina and found the Sheikh Pass blocked by a battalion of the 1st/2nd Punjab Regiment. General Bertello chose to engage these troops only lightly with irregular troops while sending the main force he had north to attack the flank of the British at Tug Argan instead.
The main column resumed its advance on 8th August and, at 12:30 hours 9th August, ran into a delaying force comprising one company of the NRR with a machine-gun section of the SCC. The delaying tactic was a failure, however, as the first Italian tanks (M.11’s) were led around the hastily placed minefield ambush and overan the machine-guns. Unable to stop these tanks with anti-tank rifles or machine guns, the British, again, withdrew. With no weapons available to penetrate the Italian armor, a request for a gun capable of knocking them out was sent. The call was answered by the Australian Light Cruiser HMAS Hobart which sent a 3-pounder Naval gun along with 3 crew to Tog Argan where it was deployed on Observation Hill. Although not ideal, the gun could adequately deal with any of the Italian tanks although as a result of the mounting which had to be fabricated for it, the contraption had to be partially dismantled for reloading each time, with a resulting rate of fire of just 1 round every 5 minutes.
The British Home Command was aware that an invasion had begun and on the 10th was sending reinforcements and a change of command. Brigadier Chater was replaced with Major-General A.R. Godwin-Austen because the size of the forces coming would need a higher ranking commander. These reinforcements were another battalion of infantry, an artillery battery, a field artillery regiment, two 2-pounder anti-tank guns, a unit of Indian sappers, and the mechanized cavalry regiment taken from the 4th Indian Division. However, they never arrived, leaving General Godwin-Austen to command the original and much smaller force. The only reinforcements he had at his disposal were two 3″ anti-aircraft guns from the 23rd battery Hong Kong and Singapore brigade of the Royal Artillery.

Deployment of British forces at Tug Argan, 10th/11th August 1940. Source: Moyse-Bartlett

Map of the action at Tug Argan. August 1940. Source: unknown
The Italians reached Tug Argan on the 10th but did not attack until the 11th as they deployed ready for attack. The column had been led by the M.11/39 Medium tanks followed by CV.3 Light tanks and then the troops carried by a lorry. The British position was arranged with three companies of the 3rd/15th Punjab Regiment dispersed over the hilltops covering the right flank (north) at the Sawr Hills. The left flank (south) was a 5 mile long position covered by the Rhodesians and Camel Corps on a series of hills (Black Hill, Knobbly Hill, Mill Hill, Castle Hill, and Observation Hill) with the four 3.7” guns divided into pairs of two on the hills (Knobbly and Mill). With them, in this spread-out line of defended hilltops with the Indians troops on ‘Punjab Ridge’ followed by half of the 2nd KAR on Block Hill, covering the Mirgo Pass. This over-extended defensive line was weakened by a gap of 5 miles before another defended position covering the Jerato Pass, held by the other half of the 2nd KAR. Behind all of this was the newly arrived 2nd Black Watch held in reserve at Laferug. This was a poor arrangement with troops unable to cover each other with supporting fire due to the distances between positions and enough room for the Italian forces to manoeuvre between them or pick them off one at a time.

French colonial Renault FT-31 in 1940.
French colonial Renault FT-31 in 1940.

M11/39 in Eastern Africa, British Somaliland invasion, September 1940.
cv35 Ariete div. Libya 1941
Italian Carro Veloce CV-35 serie II, Ariete division, serving in Africa, but on the Lybian front. The same vehicle formed the stapple of Italian armored forces in East Africa.
A Universal Carrier Mk.II heavily modified for desert combat with the VIIIth army, El Alamein, June 1942
A Universal Carrier in British used in North Africa. This trustworthy vehicle was present on all fronts the British Army operated, including East Africa.

The Italians attack

The attack from the road required De Simone’s force to cross very rugged terrain made more complex by the inaccurate maps they were using (copied from inaccurate British maps from 1926) but was preceded by a bombardment from the Italian guns falling on Mill Hill, which was defended by two platoons of the Camel Corps along with two howitzers. The bombardment then shifted to other forward positions and was then followed up by air attacks from Italian bombers and ground attacks by fighters. Mill Hill, in particular, was heavily damaged by this shelling and bombardment. In the history of the King’s African Rifles, Lt.Col. Moyse-Bartlett reports that 8 Italian tanks which had been moving along the Tug towards Observation Hill were fired upon by the 3.7” howitzers on the hill which appears to have caused them to leave.
The XIV brigade took the centre and attacked the Rhodesians over the dry stream bed for which Tug Argan is named (a ‘Tug’ is a dry stream bed). To their left was Lorenzini with II Brigade working its way around the British positions making excellent use of cover through the dry stream. On the right flank was XV Brigade facing Punjab Ridge with the armored vehicles held back in reserve. The right flank attacked by XV brigade was supported by the arriving troops from Bertello’s column heading north. Thus, the British positions were too spread out and were attacked in force from more than one direction.
The initial Italian attacks from the centre and north were repulsed, but the gaps between the positions were exploited by XV Brigade splitting the KAR from the Rhodesians along Mirgo Pass. The Italians ambushed a supply column and the Black Watch, having penetrated past the British lines.
XV Brigade though had suffered casualties during the main attacks and was replaced with XIII Brigade from the reserve for a fresh attack. Italian aircraft bombed the British positions, particularly Castle Hill which had been well defended by the Rhodesians against XV Brigade. The initial attacks had failed as the stalwart defenders were not for budging and the two flanking columns had not progressed well either. Despite no enemy forces blocking his troops, Passerone’s column towards Berbera had been stalled by a combination of terrible roads, constant British air attacks, and shelling from British warships. The southern column had engaged the Punjabi’s at Sheikh Pass but had made no real attempt to shift them, preferring instead to hold the troops there to prevent them being used at Tug Argan.
Mill Hill was abandoned by the afternoon of the 12th due to heavy losses caused by Italian attacks, with the defenders leaving behind the two howitzers, spiked and abandoned. The other two guns, based on Knobbly Hill were overrun by the Italians meaning that the British were effectively without artillery support.
Black Hill fared no better. Defended by just the machine gun company of the Camel Corps supported by the Rhodesians they quickly became isolated and cut off as the Italians infiltrated through their lines. So cut-off they were that, with the loss of communications, the British commander believed the hill had fallen to enemy attacks on the 13th and sent a patrol from the 3rd/15th Punjabi’s to check, finding the beleaguered defenders short of water and ammunition. In the peak of the dry season in that part of the world with temperatures of 48 C (120 F) commonplace, a lack of water was as much of a danger as enemy fire. No additional troops arrived at Tug Argan to support the British but with enemy tanks moving around more guns had been found in the form of a pair of Bofors cannons on the 13th.
On the 14th August, Observation Hill came under fierce bombardment. The naval 3-pounder which had been placed there was causing great disruption in the hands of the skilled naval gunners who, along with the Camel Corps machine gun detachment, were a serious hindrance to Italian movement. As a result, the Italians moved guns through the British lines and started a bombardment of the hill from behind in a very confused engagement. During the night of 13th/14th August, the Black Watch brought up two Bren Carriers laden with water supplies to the defenders on Castle and Knobbly Hills as well as additional ammunition. The Italians ambushed this supply convoy causing the loss of one carrier which fell into a ravine and was abandoned. Three trucks were also abandoned by their Somali drivers but, by daylight on the 14th, a lot of confidence in the viability of the defences had been lost.
Daybreak on the 14th also brought a renewed and intense barrage on Castle and Observation Hills with over 500 shells landing on Castle Hill alone smashing several areas of defence but the Italian attack at 16:00 hours was still fought off. With much of the defence works smashed and the Italians growing more confident the outcome was in no doubt.
A new attack on Tug Argan was ordered on the 15th August by General De Simone, and General Godwin-Austen already believed his position to be untenable. The ambush of the Black Watch by XV Brigade getting through the gaps in his defences convinced him he was going to be surrounded and destroyed and he began his plans to withdraw to Berbera.
When the Italians attacked on the 15th, they quickly got artillery behind Black Hill but were dispersed by British fire. The hill was heavily shelled though but the main attack was on Observation Hill where, after a two hours intense bombardment, they forced the Rhodesians off it scattering them by 17:00 hours. The Naval 3-pounder and its gallant naval crew, Petty Officer Hugh Jones, and Able Seamen Sweeny and Hurren were lost defending the position believed killed although they were later reported to have been captured (all three of them were released as POW’s in April 1941, and Petty Officer Hugh Jones returned to Australia in June 1941). Captain Wilson (East Surrey Regiment) commanding elements of the Somaliland Camel Corps received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions on Observation Hill.
The Italians then set to work on the Punjabi positions. Lorenzini’s flanking force penetrated into the Punjabi’s positions as they were withdrawing causing chaos and the 3rd/15th Punjabi Regiment withdrew in disorder. The entire defensive system of positions was abandoned with forces pulling back to Berbera with the retreat covered by the Black Watch and KAR. Black Hill too was abandoned on the 15th and the remaining Camel Corps and Rhodesians retreated.
Suspecting a feint withdrawal, De Simeone did not capitalise on the enemy rout with his forces still in position for further attacks and to defend what they had won. II Brigade was moving towards the positions formerly held by the Black Watch at Laferung with XIII moving along the road to support them. XV Brigade was still on the high ground they had won, LXX Brigade was still coming back to the main force to, and XIV was still in reserve with no progress made in pursuit until the 17th.
Finally, at 10:50 hours on the 17th, realising the British were retreating, De Simeone ordered the attack on the covering position at Laferug held by the Black Watch and the two companies of the 2nd KAR who were covering the British withdrawal and found them to be a most stubborn opponent. Despite attacking with a brigade strength (LXX Brigade) force supported by artillery and tanks, the attack was poorly organised and it did not go well for the Italians.
The attack on the left flank was repelled and then there was a battalion strength attack by “hordes of Italian troops, many of them black and being driven forward by shambock (a type of whip) wielding white officers” on the British centre defended by a single company which was being subjected to heavy casualties but was progressively creeping over the advanced British positions.
We opened fire and they all ran into each other and the troops scattering for cover and more trucks came up behind. Now everyone was firing….[some members of the Battalion started to withdraw]… this was absolutely not allowed with express orders. I got very angry and jumped out of my trench, waving my pistol I shouted to them to turn around and get back to their trenches, fix their bayonets and then come with me
Account of Captain D. Rose (Black Watch)
Captain Rose brought up three Bren carriers and the company forced the Italian battalion back about 500 metres at the point of the bayonet, restoring the position to British control. During this time, Captain Rose was shot in the shoulder bowling him “arse-over-tip like a shot-rabbit” before he got back to his trench.
[The Italian attack]… was pushed forward on the left with great spirit until fifty Highlanders upped and charged wildly yelling, bayonets out, for six hundred yards, a terrifying sight that sent ‘the enemy rising and running like hares in their hundreds
Haile Selassie’s War. p.248
The next attack by the Italians sought to regain this ground, attacking along the left and centre with infantry supported by eight to ten light and medium tanks working together where they ran into the fire of the two Bofors gun which had been brought up. The destruction of one medium (M.11) and two light (CV.3) tanks by these guns under the command of Sergeant Major Sandy (Black Watch) fought off this renewed attack. Of note here is that in ‘Haile Selassie’s War’, Anthony Mockler states this was, in fact, just a single Bofors gun and one captured Italian Breda cannon with 5 rounds and ‘The Black Watch’ by Victoria Schofield confirms just a single Bofors gun with just a dozen shells.
The stubbornness of the Black Watch and the audacity of the bayonet attack had stunned the Italian forces, but the defence was not without a price. Captain Rose had been wounded, the Battalion piper Henry MacDonald had been shot as he started piping for the charge and a further 7 of the Black Watch had been killed during the campaign with 6 of them during this action.* Italian losses are not known but it was the Italians who had the upper hand.
*The Roll of Honour for 2nd Battalion Black Watch records just 6 names with 5 recorded as being killed on the 17th and a sixth dying on the 19th at Hargeisa, suggesting he died of his wounds in captivity.
Unable to go through the British, the Italians instead moved around to their right flank with about 20 tanks circling the British positions. Unable to protect themselves from that direction, and with a front-line about two miles long straddling the main road, the British were very thinly spread and vulnerable to being flanked. To avoid being cut-off, and having achieved their delaying mission, the British withdrew back towards Berbera. Nursing his bloodied nose at Laferug, De Simeone had failed to capitalise on the confused retreat and breakthrough of the British defences two days day before-hand.

Abandoned British trucks, British Somaliland 1940. Source:coconuttimes.com
The British delaying action had been a success but with risk. The troops were nearly overwhelmed and destroyed and could just as easily have been cut off. As a result a plan for a second delaying action at Nasiye was abandoned. The first action had been so successful it was not needed anyway. Enough time had been bought for the evacuation of troops and all of the bridges along the road had been blown up to slow down the Italian advance. Ships including HMAS Hobart at Berbera were loaded up with troops and some civilians and evacuated to Aden.
Unfortunately, the Black Watch, which had been assumed lost to enemy action was cut off by the blowing up of the bridges, meaning they had to abandon most of their vehicles. Additional lorries then had to be brought back from Berbera to evacuate the men. Even so, two men were left behind and missed the trucks having to swim to the evacuation boat wearing only their rifles.
Regardless of the rather chaotic retreat, it had been carried out in mostly good order and overnight on the 17th/18th August the entire force, save for a couple of hundred strong rearguards at the outskirts of Berbera made up mainly of the SCC, was evacuated. The locally recruited SCC then disbanded to the local population.

Two triumphant Italian soldiers are holding an upside Union Flag taken as a trophy in British Somaliland.
De Simeone got to Berbera on the 19th, finding that the last British troops had gone. All the Italians got for this victory was a bombing raid by RAF Blenheims instead. There were spoils though. The Somaliland Camel Corps was effectively disbanded (reformed 1941, and disbanded again in 1943) and the Italians captured a large quantity of material, including 30 ‘anti-tank machine-guns’ (sometimes incorrectly described as 2-pounder guns), 5 mortars, 5 pieces of artillery, 3 Bren gun carriers, large quantities of machine guns, small arms, and ammunition, as well as over 100 much needed trucks to add to the Italian inventory.
The invasion had taken the territory and pushed the British out, but was not the decisive victory needed. The British withdrawal had been orderly, and the cost for Italy had been high.
British reported losses for the entire invasion of British Somaliland were 38 killed, 102 wounded, and 120 captured or missing, although it is not known if this includes the irregular Somali forces estimated to have lost around 1000 men. Italian reported losses for the conquest of British Somaliland were 465 killed, 1530 wounded and 34 missing, out of which 161 of the killed or wounded were Italian, the rest being native troops. An estimated 2000 Somali tribesmen fighting against the British may have died. Other figures quote 260 British and 2,052 Italian casualties showing just how complicated such figures are to determine especially with irregular troops.

The captured Governor’s residence in Berbera with the Italian flag flying over it in triumph.
Nonetheless, this was seen and portrayed as a great victory in Italy and, for the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, another bitter early loss. The loss was not a severe military one but a loss of face, a political victory. The port had been so poorly developed by the British it was barely usable for delivering supplies anyway and was just a berth. It was the damage to British prestige which stung Churchill more than anything. A report published in 1946 concluded that the loss of British Somaliland was attributable to 4 causes:

  1. The insistence on defending colonies on the cheap
  2. Inadequate preparations for War against Italy by the War Office.
  3. The collapse of the French resistance in French Somaliland
  4. The unsuitability of Berbera as a port slowing down the delivery of supplies and reinforcements.

Despite this early success though, the Duke of Aosta made a critical mistake. He stopped further advances out of AOI and instead tried to consolidate his position. In doing so, he yielded the initiative to the British and was never to regain it. De Simeone and General Godwin-Austen would meet again in Africa, with the invasion of Italian Somaliland, and General Godwin-Austen was not going to repeat the earlier mistakes and excess caution he had shown in defending British Somaliland. Had the defence of the Protectorate been considered and planned earlier or the forces better organised at Tug Argun, it is conceivable that the entire Italian invasion could have been halted, giving Italy an early taste of defeat rather than the misleading belief that the campaign in East Africa was a meeting of equals.

Sources

The invasion of British Somaliland. (1998). Bill Stone
Haile Selassie’s War. (2002). Anthony Mockler, Interlink Pub. Group Inc.
Italy through the looking glass: Aspects of British policy and intelligence concerning Italy 1939-1941. (1997). Dawn Miller, PhD Thesis, University of Toronto
South African Force: East African and Abyssinian Campaigns. (1968). Commandant Neil Orpen
Somaliland Camel Corps, https://www.kaiserscross.com/188001/492443.html
How Italy was defeated in East Africa in 1941, Ian Carter, IWM
History of the Second World War: Mediterranean and Middle East Vol.1. (1956). Sir James Butler
British Somaliland: An administrative history, 1920-1960. (2014). Brock Milman, Routledge Press
The King’s African Rifles: A study in the Military History of East and Central Africa 1890-1945, Vol.2. (2012). Lt.Col. H. Moyse-Bartlett. Naval and Military Press Ltd. (2012 reprint)
The First Victory: The Second World War and the East Africa Campaign. (2016). Andrew Stewart, Yale University Press
Operations in the Somaliland Protectorate 1939-1940, Supplement to the London Gazette, 5th June 1946, 2719-2727
The Black Watch: Fighting in Front Line 1899-2006. (2017). Victoria Schofield. Head of Zeus Pub.
The Mercury, 5th December 1940. Evacuation of Berbera: Gallant Australians
The Swan Express, 12th June 1941. Municipal Welcome Home to Petty Officer Hugh Jones
The Daily News, 17th April 1941. WA War Prisoner Released.
Sunday Times. 13th October 1940. Serving his gun to a Heroic Death.

Categories
WW2 German Tactics WW2 Soviet Tactics

The Soviet Counter-Attack at Verba

30th of June 1941

Operation Barbarossa

On the 22nd of June 1941, the Soviet Union was attacked by the armed forces of Germany and its allies. From the Baltic sea in the north, to the Black Sea in the south, three German army groups, comprising about 3,000 tanks, 5,000 planes, and nearly 3,000,000 men, attacked the Soviet Union with the aim of total domination of the lands of the USSR for Leibensraum “living space”.
Army Group North was to capture the Baltic states and Leningrad, Army Group Centre was to strike at Moscow, and Army Group South was to capture Kiev. Army Group South was first to strike from Poland and capture the frontier cities such as Lvov and Zhytomir.
While Operation Barbarossa would eventually stall out just short of reaching Moscow the Germans were successfully repulsed from the capital by Soviet counterattacks, the cost to the Red Army was immense. According to Soviet sources, the Red Army lost more than 800,000 soldiers killed, 1.2 million wounded or sick and more than 2.3 million captured. Sources claim that, during 1941, the Soviets lost around 6.29 million small arms, 101,000 guns, 10,600 aircraft, 325 ships, 20,500 tanks, 3,000 armored cars and 159,000 other vehicles (trucks, tractors, cars). While there is generally no consensus on these numbers, what is accepted is that the Soviet losses were extremely high and would have broken any other army of the time.
These huge losses also lead to the effective removal of certain older and out of production models of tanks from the Red Army, including the gargantuan T-35A. Almost all were lost by the end of 1941, most from drivetrain problems. However, some T-35s did fight back, counter-attacking the Germans at Verba, in north-western Ukraine. But, in what seems to be a recurring situation for the Soviet Armored forces during those desperate days, the assault consisted solely of tanks, with no infantry, artillery or aircraft support.

T-35A in the fight

Of the forty-eight T-35A tanks deployed in the 8th Mechanised Corps, all were lost by the 6th of July, just 15 days after the fighting started. Fortunately, the documentation from the 67th and 68th Tank Regiments survived, and provide valuable insight into the combat performance of the T-35A.
Of the 48 T-35A’s that were deployed in the 8th Mechanized Corps, all tanks were lost in the withdrawal from their garrisons east of Lvov to Zhitomir.
Some T-35As were driven to Zhitomir from Dubno, originally deployed between Lvov and Przemysl, being chased all the way by the German front line. Most T-35As were lost on this march rather than in combat due to mechanical issues.
The T-35As were slowly being picked off either though breakdowns or the occasional enemy engagement, while on the march from their bases to the east of Lvov. A few tanks turned around and fought back, inflicting some casualties onto the Germans.

Counterattack

There was only one real documented engagement in which the T-35A tank was used, destroyed in combat, and later photographed. On the 24th of June 1941, two days after the invasion of the USSR, the German Army found a gap between the Soviet 5th and 6th Armies. This was exploited to create a corridor lead by the XXXXVIII Motorized Corps, which included the 11th Panzer Division and the 16th Panzer Division.
The Red Army was not unaware that the German Army (Panzergruppe 1) had found this gap, and moved to meet the Germans on their flanks. The Soviet 8th, 9th, 15th and 19th Mechanized Corps were ordered to meet the Germans and engage them.
The bulk of the fighting that involved the T-35A was between Dubno (which was recaptured on 28 June by the 8th Mechanized Corps) and Brody, which was never liberated in the counterattack. It was between these two towns that a handful of T-35s engaged the enemy. According to the records of the men of the 16th Panzer Division and the records of the losses of the 34th Tank Division, four T-35As, two BT-7s, two T-26s and a KV-1 attacked the German flank at Verba. This was where elements the 16th Panzer Division were laid up – this village had previously been captured on June 27th.
The attack was conducted without infantry support and did not have any main goals other than driving the enemy out of Verba. There was no Soviet artillery support or air support. The Germans, on the other hand, had access to air support.
It is reported that the Soviets achieved cutting the communications between the 16th Panzer Division and the 6th Army. However, all of the attacking Soviet tanks were lost in the engagement.

Verba

The village of Verba is located in western Ukraine, is situated between the towns of Dubno and Brody. To the north-east was the village of Pitch’ye, and to the south-west lay Hranivka. These three villages were on a major road that ran north-east from Lvov to the city of Rivne.

A map of Verba (Werba) and Dubno from 1936. Before 1939, this area belonged to Poland, hence the Polish names. One can see the main road and railway line from Lvov to Kiev. Sorce: https://igrek.amzp.pl/
The village of Verba sat on a corner of the road as it changed direction from east to northeast, with the road not actually going through Verba, rather passing to the north of the village. Verba also sits on the northern bank of the Ikva River, which had a rather large floodplain roughly a kilometer either side of the river. Verba is positioned on the hill on the northern side of this river basin.
The village of Verba was very typical of Ukraine, with an Orthodox church and perhaps no more than twenty houses at that time of the war. The Lvov-Kiev railway passes through Verba, which has a small station.
The main road to the north of Verba was a dirt road, which had a smaller dirt support road. Between these roads was a small drainage ditch that varied in height. The road was straight as it approached Verba, however it curved to the north as it passed Verba. Where the road curved, the road went down the side of the Ikva river flood basin banks. As it curved the road dropped by about 10 meters, with a steep bank on the river side of the road and a small hill to the north of the road.

A 1931 map of Verba or, as it was known then, Werba. The junction at the center left of the map is the described curve in the road, with the village to the south of the road, along with the Ikva floodplain. Source: https://igrek.amzp.pl/
On the curve in the road was a small junction to enter Verba from the east, and posts were placed every meter to indicate to traffic the drop on the other side of the road. After this curve north, the road flattens, with a small drop to the south where the river floodplain was, and a small hill to the north. The road was straight from there to Pich’ya.

Prelude to Battle

The village of Verba was once Polish territory and in September 1939 was captured from Poland and given to Ukraine, to whom the Lviv Oblast now belongs. On September 19th, 1939, Polish Cavalry units attacked a Soviet force of BA-10 armored cars at Verba, losing 50 men in this attack.
Between the wars, Verba was another quiet village, until the Germans attacked the USSR on 22 June 1941.
The village of Verba was captured by German forces on 27 June 1941. It is not known exactly how the road was captured, however, photographic evidence from Verba shows that a Soviet truck, likely a ZiS-5, was lost on the road, and a Panzer II turret has been found in the ditch between the two roads on the northern side.
From the 26th of June 1941, the Soviet counter-attack against Panzergruppe 1 began. This huge battle is often called “The Battle of Brody” or “The Bloody Triangle”. Some historians have suggested that it was this battle that should be called the biggest tank battle in history, not Kursk.

A map of the German assault on Ukraine. One can see that the XXXXVIII Mot Assault between Dubno and Brody. Some notes on the names on the map, before the Soviet occupation of the area, the City of Lviv was called Lwow. Under the Soviet occupation, Lwow became Lvov. Then, the German name for the city was Lemberg. Finally, after the fall of the USSR, Lvov was renamed Lviv and is currently Ukrainian territory. Source: Panzer Archive
The Village of Verba had seen some more action on June 29th, 1941, during a night attack, the Soviet infantry had successfully engaged and captured some Panzer III tanks from the 16th Panzer Division. Some speculation is that perhaps the Panzer III seen at Verba might have been previously involved in the fighting during the night before the main Soviet counter attack.
The Battle for Brody lasted for four days, from 26 June to 30 June 1941 and involved 585 German tanks and 3,046 Soviet tanks. Therefore, a total of 3,631 tanks were involved in this titanic battle.
After the battle of Brody, which included the Battle of Verba, 408 German and every single Soviet tank was destroyed. The counter-attack almost crippled Army Group South, however, left no enemy for this battered force to face, as everything in their way had been used and destroyed.
The Battle of Verba was perhaps the last engagement of the Soviet Counter-attack. After the previous three days of battle, Verba had elements of the 16th Panzer Division and the XXXXVIII Motorized Division positioned in and around the village.
The Soviets were positioned at Pich’ye and were poised to make a last-ditch attempt to breakout west. The assaulting force consisted of four T-35As (chassis numbers 148-30, 220-25, 988-16 and 0200-0), two BT-7 tanks, two T-26 tanks and a single KV-1.
By June 30th, the fourth day of the Soviet attempted counter-attack, both the Soviet and German units were exhausted from constant attack and counter-attack. However, the Germans were certainly fairing better, even though the odds were still numerically against them.
On the night off June 29th, a German reconnaissance flight picked up over 100 Soviet tanks between Dubno and Pitch’ye. Some of the tanks were noted to be heavy multi-turreted tanks. The bulk of this force moved east to clear German bridgeheads at Zaslaw, south-east of Verba. However, a small group of vehicles drove south-west to attack the Germans at Verba.
These vehicles advanced southwest down the two roads towards the village of Verba. Currently, it is hypothesized from the photographic evidence that on the left-hand main road was T-35 0200-0, T-35 220-25, the two T-26 tanks and the KV-1. It is theorized that T-35 148-39, T-35 988-16, and the two BT-7s were on the right-hand support road.

Vehicles involved

Soviet side

T-35A 0200-0
T-35A 0200-0 was manufactured in 1938 and was equipped with an anti-aircraft gun in a P-40 rotating mount. The tank had no clothesline antenna and notable features include amplified machine gun turret faces and the late type interior exhaust. All of the T-35s in the battle were from the 68th Tank Regiment. The regiment was ordered to paint two shirt white lines on the turret side to denote this regiment, and all T-35s in the battle were equipped with this mark.

T-35A 220-25
220-25 was manufactured in 1936 and had early features like the single turret escape hatch. However, due to the combat damage, the least is known about this tank’s features. Only recently has evidence of the turret come to light.
The chassis displays signs of heavy modification. The front idler wheels of the tank were replaced with stamped wheels without the usual holes of the cast spider type wheels. The driver’s hatch was replaced with the “BT” type driver’s hatch. This hatch is known as the “BT” type due to its resemblance to the BT-7 conical turreted tank’s escape hatches. The exhaust was also the interior type exhaust.
T-35A 148-39
Originating from the first production batch of T-35s, T-35A 148-39 was an early type tank that had been updated during the pre-war years. As it was from the first production batch, the clothesline antenna only had six arms to attach it to the turret. This had been totally removed pre-war and only the six square feet remained. The tank had been modernized with an internal exhaust system.
T-35A 988-16
The last T-35 at Verba, 988-16 was manufactured in 1938 and displayed a mixture of early and late features. The exhaust was the early exterior type, and the driver’s vision hatch was also an early version. The tank also had the clothesline antenna intact.
KV-1
A single KV-1 was present, likely a part of the 34th Tank Division and probably the 67th Tank Regiment, however, this is not known for sure. It was likely a part of this division, as the vehicle was painted with white air identification triangles, which was common for the 8th Mechanized Corps, and specifically the 34th Tank Division.
The KV in question was manufactured between April and May 1941 due to the technical features of the tank, which include a bolted rear turret ball mount and the placement of the turret handrail between the turret periscopes rather than behind the rearmost turret side periscope.
BT-7
Two BT-7 fast tanks were present at the battle. Each machine was equipped with a cylindrical turret and both machines were equipped with the K-20 45mm gun rather than the Model 1934 45mm gun. The exterior distinguishing feature of the K20 gun was the welded construction of the mantlet, whereas the Model 1934s mantlet was pressed into shape, giving it a rounded appearance.
At least one BT-7 was painted with white air identification triangles on the turret side, placed over a serial number “434”. The second BT was too badly burned to make out the turret markings, however, it likely had a similar scheme.
T-26
One, but possibly two T-26 tanks were deployed at Verba. Both tanks found are commonly called the “Model 1940” standard of T-26, although this is incorrect as the machine was introduced in 1939. The tanks both had a conical turret and both machines were equipped with the 20mm upper hall armor that was angled. Both tanks were also painted with white air identification triangles, however at least one T-26 had this re-painted green, and a simple line divisional marking was painted onto the turret side. This marking has been identified as that of the 67th Tank Regiment, which also fielded T-35A tanks, however, these were not present at Verba, nor did any T-35 get painted with the 67th Tank Regiments divisional marking.

German side

Not much is known about the German side of the Battle of Verba. What is known is that at least two Panzer III Tanks were present from the 16th Panzer Division, and men of the XXXXVIII Motorized Division were present. An 88mm Flak gun was deployed in a defensive position to the east of Verba, and support vehicles, likely also from the 16th Panzer Division, were present.
One Panzer III was an Ausf.G variant, with a short 50mm gun and exterior brackets for the extra jerry can stowage, whereas the other machine was a Panzer III Ausf J, which was also equipped with a short 50mm gun and extra jerry can stowage. These Panzer IIIs were photographed far less than the T-35s, however, a single turret digit has been found on the Panzer III G, the number being “2XX”

The battle

The left-side group

It should be noted that both columns of tanks attacked at the same time, and worked somewhat together. The divide between two columns was less than three meters, and the two columns were only separated by a drainage ditch between the two roads.
The left-hand group consisted of two T-35As, the two T-26 tanks, and the KV-1 heavy tank. On 30 June, while attacking the 16th Panzer Division, these vehicles were driving south-west down the Verba road on the left-hand road. This placed the drainage ditch between the roads on the right of the vehicles
It is thought that T-35A 0200-0 was in front of the line of tanks on the left road. Spearheading this column, the tank took heavy fire from the front and the sides. The village of Verba was to the south off the road and was occupied by the Germans. A railway line crossed the field to the south of Verba.
0200-0 appears to have been an early casualty. Likely due to track damage or even the death of the driver, the tank crashed into the ditch between the two roads. The front right idler wheel sunk into the soft ground and 0200-0 was firmly stuck. The tank likely fought on in this position, as the rear turret was facing the Germans. The barrel of this 45mm gun was actually hit and put out of action.

Moments after the guns fell silent, 0200-0 lays in the ditch between the two main roads, Only minutes passed before the T-26 would be moved into the ditch between the roads. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The main turret’s P-40aa mount was equipped with its 7.62mm DT-29 machine gun and it was likely engaging German infantry. No bodies of the crew have been found in the photographic evidence, however it is almost certain that there were casualties.

Perhaps July 1st or 2nd, 0200-9 and the T-26 are now nothing more than photograph opportunities for German soldiers. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
A T-26 model 1940 belonging to the 34th Tank Division was lost next to 0200-0. It likely reversed into the wreck of 0200-0 judging by the photographic evidence. The tank was originally lost on the road, however it was swiftly pushed into the drainage ditch that 0200-0 had fallen into.
The T-26 displays no obvious damage other than a single hit to the front left-hand fender. It is likely that the tank reversed into 0200-0 after the destruction of 148-39. 148-39 was destroyed by air attack, and blew up in spectacular fashion, therefore it is not difficult to speculate that the crew of the T-26 did not want to share the same fate.

The T-26 lost with T-35A 0200-0. Notice the minor damage that includes a small penetration to the front fender, and the missing gun-shield. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
220-25 was likely behind 0200-0, but in front of the lighter tanks on that day. The tank made it past the wreck of 0200-0 and was likely responsible for the few German tank casualties of that day. The Verba road gradually increased in gradient and then curved to the right. A road crossed this north to south.

This photograph was taken on June 30th, 1941, by a man of the 16th Panzer Division. Other photographs from this collection indicate that the man was present at the battle of Verba. Here, 220-25 after suffering a direct bomb hit. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
It was here that T-35A 220-25 was bombed by a Ju-87 dive bomber. The tank was torn in half by the impact and subsequent bomb detonation.
The main turret was thrown from the hull by the explosion and landed in the main road (from where it was very quickly removed after the battle). The rear turrets stayed in place, however, the front 45mm gun turret was blown sky high, to land in front of the tank. The rear pedestal remained intact, but the front portion was obliterated. The hull was cut in two behind the front suspension bogie on the right-hand side of the tank.

220-25 once again. In the background, smoke can be seen around 148-39. This photograph was also from the 16th Panzer Division. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
The wreck was left in place until 1942, when it was moved off the road, when the front portion completely fell off.
The KV-1, also from the 34th Tank Division of the 8th Mechanized Corps, was knocked out east of 0200-0. It seems that this vehicle was retreating, as it faced eastward, with the tank’s rear facing the Germans. The turret was turned around, probably trying to engage the enemy.
The KV displays multiple penetrations and ricochets to the turret sides and rear, with the most noticeable damage being the dislodging of the transmission, discernible by the shifting of the drivetrain to the right which removed the drive wheel’s hubcap.
The earliest photographs show the KV-1 still on the roadside, but it appears that within the hour of the battle ending, the KV-1 and the T-26 were pushed to the roadside into the ditch between the two roads.

This KV-1 was also lost at Verba. 0200-0 can be seen on the right. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The last vehicle in the group, another T-26 Model 1940, made it the furthest east of all the tanks, finally being lost near T-35A 988-16 from the right side group. However, not much is known about this tank, as the Germans preferred to photograph the T-35s.

The right side group

Speculations place two T-35s and the two BT-7s on the right hand support road. On 30 June, this group advanced south west down the Verba road in the right hand lane, with the drainage ditch between the roads on the left of the vehicles.
The T-35A 148-39 was likely first in the column of tanks on the right-hand road. This tank drove past the point where 0200-0 was lost. To the tank’s left was the drainage ditch in which 0200-0 had fallen and on the right was a steep hillside, with a wooded area and a building on top of this hill. Past this was a flat piece of land, level with the road that 148-39 was driving on.

148-39 dates from the first batch of T-35s. It was also one of the more heavily damaged tanks. The two BT-7s can be seen in this photograph, although the rear tank, number “434” has been moved forward of its original resting place. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
It is thought that when the tank reached 0200-0, the Soviets were attacked by Ju-87 dive bombers. The tank turned to the right and had nearly completely exited the road, however the dive bombers could not miss such an open target.
148-38 blew up in a spectacular explosion. The entire upper structure of the tank was opened like a can, with the main turret, turret pedestal and all of the sub turrets being blown off the tank.

The main turret of 148-39, along with other debris. One can clearly see the three-foot plates where the antenna used to be attached to. This is a clear indicator that the machine is a 148 chassis number. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The main turret landed on the road that 148-39 was advancing up. The forward 45mm turret landed on the hill to the right of this flattened area. The rear MG turret landed in the drainage ditch between the roads. The rear 45mm gun turret landed back onto the destroyed hull of 148-39.

The forward interior of 148-39. The machine gun turret ring is on the left, and the 45mm gun turret’s position is on the right. One can see the 45mm ammunition stowage in the forward wall. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

The rear interior of 148-39. Notice the rear gun removal access door for the 45mm gun in the turret. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
Some of the bombs aimed at 148-39 missed, creating deep craters to the east of the wreck. No crew survived this incident.
Between 0200-0 and 148-39, two BT-7s tanks were lost. The westernmost tank had burned out, whereas the second vehicle seems to lack any damage. It is possible that the first BT-7 was destroyed by enemy aircraft, however no apparent damage other than the burned surface can be found, no penetrations or bomb damage.

A view of the Verba road. T-35A 0200-0 would be behind the camera. T-35A 148-39 sits on the roadside, and one can see T-35 220-25 up the road. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
As for the second BT-7, it is possible that it either suffered a mechanical breakdown or that the crew panicked when the German planes attacked (or when they took out the two T-35As) and abandoned the vehicle.

The two BT-7s lost at Verba. These were the original positions of the tanks before the rearmost vehicle was moved forward next to the front tank. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
The last Soviet vehicle in the battle, T-35A 988-16, was likely situated in the right-hand lane, however, this is the most uncertain position, as the tank could have crossed from one side of the road to the other.
988-16 successfully passed the wrecks of 0200-0, 148-39 and 220-25, before cresting the hill at Verba, with the village to the south of the tank. 988-16 passed the village itself, and drove another 50 meters west.
The tank took a hail of fire, to the front of the hull and turrets. Upon reaching this long straight road west of the battle, the tank met a well hidden FlaK 37 88mm anti-aircraft gun.

988-16 made it furthest east of any T-35 during the battle. This photograph was taken shortly after the battle. A dead crewman can be seen in the ditch, partially covered by the watermark. The damage that 988-16 took was great. Source: Francis Pulham Collection
The thin frontal armor of the T-35 was little match for the heavy shell of the FlaK gun and a hit, likely to the front machine gun turret, was enough to stop the monster in its tracks. The face of the front machine gun turret was blown completely off and many other items were shot off or damaged.

T-35A 988-16 shortly after the battle. The photographer has kindly annotated the image to reveal the location of the 88mm Flak gun. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.
The KT-28 main gun was shot out of its cradle, the turret cheek MG mount was blown out of its ball, the front 45mm gun turret’s periscope was shot away, the clothesline antenna was damaged, and many other items were removed. Apart from a single T-26, this was the furthest point for the Soviet counter-attack at Verba.

A close inspection of the nose of 988-16 reveals the large number of hits the tank took before being stopped. One headlight is missing, there are many penetrations to the hull and turrets, the KT-28 gun has taken hits, and the ball mount is maying on the floor in front of 988-16, however new photographic evidence suggests this was placed there by German soldiers, as it originally lay on the front 45m turret. Source: “Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank” by Francis Pulham, Francis Pulham Collection.

It is unknown whether this T-26 was lost in the fighting on June 30th 1941. This tank was lost close to 988-16, with the row of trees concealing the Flak 88 being in this frame. Reasons for this tank not being in this battle is the fact that the tank is facing east, implying it had to turn around; however another clue that this T-26 was indeed involved in the fighting, is that it has the turret markings that match with the T-26 lost next to 0200-0. Unfortunately, of all of the tanks at Verba, this humble T-26 is by far the rarest to find photographically, as the Germans preferred to photograph the T-35s that were less than 30 meters east of this machine. Source: Francis Pulham Collection.

German casualties

The Russians did not have the monopoly on casualties; at least two German Panzer III tanks were knocked out of action, along with about three German trucks.
The Panzer III Ausf J was on the left-hand side of the road and likely took hits to the tank’s left side, as this was facing the Soviet columns. The tank’s road wheels seem to have dug into the mud of the roadside.

A View of the Verba road from the photographic record of a man from the 16th Panzer Division. Smoke still billows from 220-25 and 148-39. A Panzer III Ausf.J can be seen on the left. A second tank was knocked out behind the camera. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

The same Panzer III as in the previous photograph. While no damage can be seen from this side, the exposed left side likely took a battering from the hail of fire from up to four T-35s. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

The Panzer III Ausf J after tracks had been removed. Unfortunately, photographs of these tanks are rare, as German soldiers preferred to photograph the T-35s. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

A rare view of the rear of the Panzer III Ausf J, to T-35A 220-25. The damage to the Panzer III is clear, however compared to the T-35, minor. Source: Francis Pulham Collection.
The Panzer III Ausf G was lost 25 meters in front of 220-25, in the drainage ditch between the two roads. One 45mm gun penetration can be found on the tank’s left side, likely not the shot that disabled the tank, as the front right drive wheel was totally removed from the tank, also taking off the track. The rear right idler wheel was also removed from the tank.

The Panzer III Ausf G. T-35A 220-25 was positioned in front and to the left of this tank. Notice the 45mm penetration to the hull side. Source: Francis Pulham Collection

A general map of the battle of Verba. One can see the large scattering of vehicles. From right to left: Green represents the KV-1. Next, T-35A 0200-0 (red) and the T-26 (Orange). Next the two BT-7 tanks (Yellow), and T-35A 148-39 (red). The next three tanks are the two Panzer III tanks (grey), and T-35A 220-25 (red). The Panzer III J is north of 220-25, and the Panzer III G is east of 220-25. Next, unmarked on the map was a small collection of destroyed trucks. The last red square is T-35A 988-16. The green ‘X’ Represents the 88mm Flak gun and, finally, the T-26 (orange). Source: Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank.

Post-battle

The village of Verba was scattered with vehicles and, throughout the duration of the war, the Germans slowly dismantled the vehicles left, and moved them to the roadside. After the war, the Soviets dismantled what was left, thereby leaving no physical survivors.
During the postwar era, the main road from Brody to Dubno was redirected north of Verba and was renamed the E40 highway. Verba itself has been greatly built upon, with much of the new village being extended north of the old major road.
A gas station has now additionally been built roughly where the KV-1 was lost. The wartime main road is still in use today, and thanks to google earth you can now virtually visit the battlefield.

Sources

Most of the information about the battle action was inferred by post-combat photographs and the information given in the documented losses of the T-35s. However, one actual combat photograph exists, whereas all other photographs known to experts are post-combat photographs, and have been brought to light through painstaking photographic research.
In January 2018, fresh evidence was found from a soldier of the 16th Panzer Division in the form of his photo album, that detailed elements of the battle. The photographs are presented above, and are now a part of the extensive “Francis Pulham Collection”. More information is required to fully trace this epic battle, however, only time will reveal more information.
Fallen Giants: The Combat Debut of the T-35A Tank – Francis Pulham
T-34 Medium Tank- Mikhail Baryatinsky, chapter “First Combat”, pages 68-72
Private conversations with Sergey Lotarev
Private conversations with Mikko Heikkinen
Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, Col.Gen.G.F.Krivosheev, ISBN 978-1853672804
www.t35incombat.narod.ru – Sergey Lotarev
www.axishistory.com