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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A.41 P-Series specifications
25’ 2” long, 29’ 7” long over gun, 11’ 0.75” wide, 9’ 2.75” high
4 (Driver, Commander, Gunner, Loader)
Gun Elevation Range
+20 to -12 degrees
Rolls Royce Meteor Mk.4A petrol 635 bhp at 2,550 rpm
No.38 AFV set, No.19 set, Infantry telephone
120 gallons (545.5 liters)
7 pdr., 7.92 mm BESA / 20 mm Polsten cannon, .303” Bren machine gun, 2” smoke bombs, multi-barrel smoke discharger
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).
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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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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)
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)
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)
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)
4 x Infantry Battalions
4 x Infantry Battalions
4 x Infantry Battalions
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.
4 x Regiments of Anti-Aircraft, 2 x Field Artillery, and 2 x Coastal
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
1 x Company SCC less one troop
1 x Motor company SCC less one troop
1 x Troop SCC
1 x Company NRR, KAR
1 x Company and one Troop SCC
Zeila to Berbera Road
1 x Officer’s Patrol with wireless
Forward (Border) areas
Illalos (native irregulars)
NRR less one Company
B Company SCC
1st East African Light Battery
2nd KAR with HQ at Mandera*
3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (until the 7th August when replaced by 2nd Black Watch)
3rd/15th Punjab Regiment (after 7th August)
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
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.
M11/39 in Eastern Africa, British Somaliland invasion, September 1940. 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 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:
The insistence on defending colonies on the cheap
Inadequate preparations for War against Italy by the War Office.
The collapse of the French resistance in French Somaliland
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.
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.
Literature, movies and video games have contributed to the formation and spreading of historical misconceptions and generated a distorted view on tactical air strikes, not so much to the way they were conducted, but rather their effectiveness in eliminating armored, moving targets. In order to better understand the core issue at hand, combat reports, military studies and their respective evaluations allow an insight into the efficiency of destroying AFVs (Tanks in particular) from the Air.The pilots of every nation partaking in the battles of WW2 (particularly in the ETO, European Theater of Operations) grossly exaggerated the effects and accuracy of their sorties. This paved the way for an inflated view, commonly accepted and still present today. It is noteworthy that certain combat performances varied (faction wide), which made the successes of airstrikes situational, influenced by factors such as sub-optimal weather conditions or air superiority.
The main problem for Close Air Support pilots when engaging enemy armor were the inadequacies of the weaponry mounted on their airplanes, especially their low accuracy. Ergo, strikes would result in the tanks being partially destroyed or superficially damaged (occasionally blown off the road) and, after successful retrieval, sent back to the repair shops. Multiple pilots would sometimes engage the same target (every so often, an already destroyed or burned out vehicle), leading to an even greater disparity between actual losses and claimed tank “kills”. Identifying targets would cause another problem, e.g. the pilot’s ability to distinguish between tanks and APCs.
ETO, Normandy 1944
The Allies possessed air supremacy, coupled with a substantial ammunition, fuel and overall logistical advantage. Airbases were plentiful and accessible, the enemy concentrated in a relatively confined area. The main workhorses of the CAS squadrons were the American Thunderbolt and the British Typhoon.
P-47 Thunderbolt of the 404th Fighter Group in flight over Belgium, March 1945
The P-47 was a robust fighter with a solid high altitude performance dedicated for heavy bomber escort duty. It went through a long list of improvements with later versions being up-armoured and geared up for close air support.
The Hawker Typhoon was initially developed as a high altitude interceptor and as a replacement for the Hawker Hurricane, but several flaws caused the RAF to employ it as a fighter bomber. Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannons (which could only do serious damage to the engine compartment of a tank) it could carry two 500 lbs (227 kg) or 1000 lbs (454 kg) bombs or alternatively, eight unguided type RP-3 rockets.
These recoilless projectiles consisted of a propellant filled steel tube with an armour piercing (or high explosive) shell screwed into the warhead. Four fins stabilized the rocket’s trajectory. The range and armor piercing capabilities were sufficient for anti-armor duties, but a trial conducted by the RAF under best possible conditions revealed the low precision of unguided rockets: In two attack runs, four Typhoons fired all of their 64 rockets on a stationary, pre-painted Panther and only three managed to hit the marked tank.
A Hawker Typhoon armed with rockets and 20 mm cannons
All bark, no bite
In August 1944, the RAF claimed to have destroyed 135 tanks in the Goodwood area (Battle for Caen). In order to analyze the weapons and tactics employed and to evaluate the damage that was done on given targets, a small team of researchers was usually dispatched to the corresponding battleground, a common practice in most armies of that time. The British “Office of Research and Analysis” conclusion was eye-opening and contradicted the RAF pilots’ over enthusiastic display: Of the 300 examined vehicles, only 10 were actually hit and damaged by the Typhoon’s RP-3 rockets.
Mortain is another candidate of such over-claiming, between the 7th and 10th August, the 2nd Tactical Air Force of the 9th USAAF claimed to have destroyed 120-140 tanks, yet of the 46 Axis tanks lost, only 9 of them could be attributed to aircraft. In fact, in the entire Normandy campaign, the Germans lost no more than 100 tanks to Allied sorties. 13 Tiger tanks were affected, however seven of them lost to massive high altitude bombing on the 18th of July and only 6 of the German heavy tanks could be attributed to the low altitude air raids of the Allied pilots.
A salvo of RP-3 rockets, as seen from the gun camera of a Hawker Typhon, heads towards some German petrol wagons
Another noteworthy case would be Falaise: The tactical and operational conditions in the pocket constrained the German units to “forced march” during daytime. This, along with optimal weather conditions, amplified the RAF’s and USAAF’s chances of success, which resulted merely in a minimal increase of destroyed tanks. In retrospect, traversing open fields did not necessarily result in a high tank loss ratio.
Ironically, low altitude attacks could become very dangerous for the attacking aircraft, especially if the strafed tank formations were protected by a serious amount of Flak/AA guns. The 2nd Tactical Air Force lost 829 aircraft and the 9th Fleet lost 897 throughout the whole Normandy campaign, the majority of the casualties being close support fighter-bombers.
Field Marshall Rommel contributed to a further solidification of these myths. In one of his memoirs, he stated: “ For the first and most serious danger which now threatened us -was from the air. This being so, we could no longer rest our defence on the motorised forces used in a mobile role, since these forces were too vulnerable to air attack. We had instead to try to resist the enemy in field positions which had to be constructed for defence against the most modern weapons of war”
His personal experience may have clouded his view. On the 17th July 1944 a low attacking plane strafed his limousine and injured Rommel near Sainte-Foy-de-Montgommery.
The Luftwaffe’s tactical capabilities were initially rather limited. The infamous Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, easily recognizable by its inverted gull wings, was suitable for this task. The final version, the Ju-87G, dubbed the Kanonenvogel (“Cannon bird”), carried twin 37 mm cannons (BK 3,7).
A Ju-87G and a HS-129, the German dedicated tank busters
The Henschel Hs 129 B1 and B2, twin engine aircraft marked an attempt to create a dedicated tank buster, mounted with a 75mm board cannon. The results were unsatisfactory. Paired with the Henschel’s and Ju87’s particularly high vulnerability to AA fire, the Luftwaffe switched to the”Jabo” (“Jagdbomber”, fighter bomber) version of the FW190 single seat, single engine fighter, the F-8 and FW190 G.
A German FW190 pilot explains how low-altitude attacks against tanks were performed: “Against the enemy tanks and armoured vehicles we usually made skip-bombing attacks, running at speeds of around 485km/h at between 4 and 10 metres above the ground and releasing the bomb just as the tank disappeared beneath our engine cowling. The 250kg bombs used during these attacks would either skip off the ground and into the tank or else smash straight into the tank. The bombs were fused with a one-second delay to give us time to get clear before they went off. It was a very accurate form of attack and we used it often against tanks caught in open country.”
The OKH (“Oberkommando des Heeres”, German “Supreme High Command” or “High Command of the Army”) was aware of the notoriously exaggerated claims their combat units would report and applied a correction system (i.e. 30-50% for ground units and usually 50% for the Air Forces). Inflated numbers and errors could result in a misjudgment of enemy forces.
From January 1944 to September 30th 1944, the German Army reported to have destroyed 23,070 AFVs (actual, irrecoverable losses for the RKKA amounted to 23,700 AFVs, 29,009 “evacuated”, during the entirety of 1944, around 18,000 up to September). During the same period, the Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1847 tanks and SPGs. Correcting this figure with the given methodology would lead to 923 destroyed vehicles, a number that may be still over-inflated. Assuming that the Luftwaffe destroyed or damaged 80-100 tanks on a monthly basis (depending on the combat intensity, which peaked in the 2nd and 3rd quarter of ‘44), this would indicate that not more than 4-6% of all tanks on the Eastern Front were destroyed by air strikes.
The VVS at Kursk 1943
The VVS (Военно-воздушные силы, Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily) could rely on the Ilyushin 2 “Sturmovik” for air strikes. A sturdy, single engine, heavily armoured, low wing, two seater (pilot, rear gunner) monoplane, it was dubbed “flying tank” by the troops. Outfitted with two 23mm (or 37mm guns on the Il-2M3) guns, it could carry up to eight RS-82 or four RS 132 rockets. Soviet literature described it as the most effective ground attack plane of World War II. Another option was to outfit the Sturmovik with special designated anti-tank bombs, so called PTABs.
An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, Fall 1942, Ukraine
The PTAB (Russian ПТАБ, which stands for Противотанковая Авиабомба, “Antitank Aviation Bomb”) was a hollow charge bomb filled with 1.5 kg of explosives, capable of penetrating up to 70 mm of armour.
The effectiveness of these bombs proved to be limited. West of Belgorod, the Soviet Air Force claimed to have destroyed over 270 tanks of the 3rd Panzer Division on one single day. The 6th Regiment of the 3rd Panzer Division possessed 90 tanks in total (on the 1st of July). Ten days later, on the 11th of July, 41 operational tanks were reported, a difference of 49 tanks. Similar statements appear about the bombing run on the 17th Panzer Division, which had only one tank battalion with 67 tanks committed to the fighting in the Belgorod-Kharkov area (the only unit not assigned to a defensive role). Here, the VVS stated to have destroyed 240 tanks in just a few hours. German combat reports show a larger concern about concentrated AT positions (and minefields), which caused the majority of AFV losses during Operation Citadel. Air strikes were usually described as “a mere nuisance”.
Between the 5th and 14th July, the 2nd Air Army dropped 69,000 PTABs alongside 7448 RS-82 rockets during the defensive phase of the Battle of Kursk. The Soviet Air forces claimed to have disabled 3147 tanks and assault guns in the same period (actual losses amounted to 849 tanks for the whole month of July). If we accept the Soviet numbers this would still indicate that PTABs had to be dropped in large clusters to cause any significant damage. A carpet of PTAB bombs launched from a Sturmovik.
Further Examples of “overclaiming”
At Kursk, the Soviet 1st Tank Army lost 648 tanks with 82 breakdowns. German aircraft destroyed only 11 of their tanks.
In the Ardennes offensive, the Germans lost 101 tanks from the 16th December of 1944 to the 16th January of 1945, (39 were abandoned), of these only 6 to Allied sorties.
Consequently, given reports and combat analysis indicate that air strikes were responsible for 2-7% of all tank losses during WWII. It should be pointed out that the Western Allies were probably the most successful at this task. However, it must be also stressed out that the effectiveness of such attacks depended on the circumstances and quantity of planes involved in the respective size of the front. To illustrate the dimensions, it is wise to compare the amount of aircraft available for ground support in proportion to the area and enemy units it had to cover and engage.
During Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe had at its disposal one airplane for every 2500 enemies. Each German plane had to cover an area of 500km² (195 sqmi). In Normandy, the Allied Expeditionary Air Force could field one plane for every 100 enemy soldiers. On average, there was one Allied aircraft for every 1km² (0,39 sqmi).
It should be emphasized that during WWII, tactical air-ground support was still in its infancy. Hitting small, well armored or shifting targets tended to be a difficult task, especially if the attacking plane had only a brink amount of time to aim at the target. Even today for helicopters or “tank busting” aircraft (A10, Su-24, F-16, AH-64, Hind), it can be relatively difficult, despite the availability of guided weapon systems.
World War II aircraft could only carry a limited amount of air to ground bombs or missiles and on sustained fire, the main guns were prone to overheating. Machine guns had trouble penetrating more than 10 mm of top armor. On the other hand, autocannons proved to be rather unreliable, further increasing the plane’s weight, impacting flight characteristics.
Generally speaking, the true nature of tactical, close support aircraft was primarily recon, attacking stationary targets and the ability to wreak havoc on the rear echelons and supply lines. The disruptive effect would ultimately influence the unit’s behavior (forcing it to abandon offensives or to maneuver through woods), decision making, tactics and morale. After all, it was the destruction of bridges and railroads that had the biggest impact on the German Army in France, adding substantially to the already disastrous logistical situation and pre-existing shortages of fuel. An article by Stiltzkin
Militärarchiv Freiburg Fremde Heere Ost, IIc, 10.10.1944, BA-MA RH 2/2101
Normandy 1944: German Military Organization, Combat Power and Organizational Effectiveness’ by Niklas Zetterling
Kursk 1943: A Statistical Analysis (Soviet (Russian) Study of War), Zetterling, Frankson
Bergström, Christer (2007). Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941
Bergström, Christer (2007). Stalingrad – The Air Battle: November 1942 – February 1943
Bergström, Christer (2007). Kursk – The Air Battle: July 1943
Allied Fighter-Bombers versus German Armour in North-Western Europe 1944–1945: Myths and Realities, Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 14, no. 2 (June, 1991)
Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe 1943-45 (Studies in Air Power) Dr. Ian Gooderson
Sovetskie Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily v Velikoy Otechestvennoy Voine 1941–1945
Operation Barbarossa: the Complete Organizational and Statistical Analysis, and Military Simulation Volume IIB, Nigel Askey
Artillery Effectiveness versus Armor” by Richard C. Anderson in Volume 1, Number 6 of The International TNDM Newsletter
B. Gunston, Allied Fighters of World War II
H-H. Stapfer, Il-2 Stormovik in action
P. Moore, Operation Goodwood, July 1944; A Corridor of Death DeutscheLuftwaffe.de
Bedienungsvorschrift Hs 129 mit BK 7,5
Hyper War Army Casualties and non-battle deaths in WWII
NARA (National Archives and Records Administration)
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