The Curtiss P-40 achieved its greatest fame with the Flying Tigers, but it also proved itself in every theater of war. Rarely the fastest or most maneuverable aircraft in a combat, it was often the most rugged and served its nation well.
World War II U.S. fighter. The Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, made famous by the legendary Flying Tigers, was one of America’s most important fighter aircraft of World War II. The P-40 originated in 1938 as the XP-40, a derivation of the mid- 1930s Curtiss radial-engine design, the P-36 Hawk. Unlike the Hawk, however, the P-40 was equipped with a liquid-cooled Allison V-1710-33 inline engine, which greatly reduced frontal area and increased performance.
Although the P-40 was sturdy, with good diving characteristics and an attractive, sleek-looking design, it exhibited only mediocre performance compared to most other fighters of the day. By the start of the war, in fact, the P-40 was virtually obsolete. Still, it continued to be produced in great numbers, as it was one of the few fighters already in full production and readily available from war’s outset.
The P-40’s chief claim to fame was its use by General Claire Chennault’s American Volunteer Group (AVG), immortalized as the Flying Tigers. The AVG operated in China under the control of General Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of World War II. With the colorful but intimidating shark’s teeth painted on their noses, the P-40 fighter aircraft flown by the flamboyant and highly capable pilots of the AVG were extremely successful in intercepting and destroying invading Japanese aircraft.
Although consistently outnumbered, pilots flying the P-40 registered a kill ratio of 25 Japanese aircraft for every P-40 destroyed in aerial combat. Because of its effectiveness, as well as the popular cause the AVG supported, the P-40 became one of the most recognized aircraft in history.
The P-40 saw extensive service throughout World War II—beginning with the actual attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to its use by the United States, the P-40 was used by 28 Allied nations, including the British in North Africa, the Australians in the South Pacific, and the Russians on the Eastern Front. Indeed, even as late as 1943 the P-40—in combination with the Bell P-39—still represented over half of the total fighter strength in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
The P-40 underwent numerous design modifications throughout the war, but when the far superior P-38, P-47, and P-51 fighters arrived on the scene, the P-40 was quickly relegated to roles other than air-to-air combat, such as ground support. By the end of the war, only one U.S. squadron was still equipped with the P-40.
The rugged P-40 played a significant role in winning the war because it was available at a time when most other World War II fighters were still in the planning stages, and it performed dependably and effectively until more advanced fighters became available. Even though a total of 13,738 P-40s were built from May 1940 through 1944, only a handful of these classic and historic aircraft are still flying today.
The Warhawk has respectable speed for a fighter of 1940. Its climb rate, however, is poor. One virtue it has is handling – particularly roll rate – at high speed. Compared to Axis types, the P-40 would only be competitive in speed with the early war Messerschmitt 109E-3. The Emil can easily out climb the Warhawk, however. Compared to all types, only the Hurricane and the Zero are appreciably slower. All fighters can out climb the Warhawk, and out turn it. The P-40′s only edge on some aircraft, particularly the Zero, is diving ability, and high speed handling….
P40 vs. Japanese Zero
The P-40 was, all around, at least the equal of the Zeke in combat, though the Zeke had tremendous range and other assets. The decision early on to deprive the P-40 of its intended supercharger left it with poor high-altitude performance, and the plane has consequently suffered an unwarranted reputation as second-rate. It was tough and maneuverable, though I wouldn’t go trying to out-turn a Zeke. Rate of roll was better than a Zeke’s, I believe the Japanese regarded the P-40 as the Allies’ best fighter at low altitude.
The P-40 was equal to the Zero in a general comparison. Unfortunately, most of the books many of us (myself included) grew up with have formed a powerful — yet inaccurate — myth that the Zero was a “Super Plane” that ploughed through huge formations of obsolete Allied planes in the early days of the Pacific War with barely a loss. But as we’re finally starting to see some 60 years later, many Allied aircraft, such as the P-40, performed much better in combat than we were originally led to believe.
While the P-40 didn’t match up against the Zero in a classic dogfight, it was vastly superior in many other areas. The P-40 was built to fight AND survive, meaning that it incorporated many features that became commonplace on every American fighter of WW2. These features included self-sealing fuel tanks, good armor, excellent pilot protection, extremely heavy firepower (in later models), good horsepower and above all — tough, durable construction that allowed it to absorb tremendous damage and still come home. (This pattern continues with modern US aircraft even today. With the possible exception of the F-16, every US aircraft currently in service is big, durable and incorporates all of the features listed above.) But while these items increased the P-40′s survivability, they also helped decrease performance.
With this in mind, the Zero wasn’t THAT much BETTER than the P-40. But rather they were two designs that were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. While the P-40 was a rugged, powerful design with lesser performance, the Zero was designed from the start to be a small, lightweight, high-performance fighter that sacrificed armor and pilot protection to achieve maximum range and performance. (The Zero could even out-turn the P-51 Mustang, which was easily the best all-around US fighter in service during the war!) But as we all know, it didn’t take much to make one burn in a dogfight.
However, it’s interesting to note that as the war dragged on, even the Japanese realized the Zero’s limitations. Most late-war Japanese fighters abandoned the “no armor” concept and evolved into very dangerous opponents sporting greater power, firepower and pilot protection. As a result, many of these designs were at least equal or superior to Allied aircraft in many areas. Unfortunately, the Japanese no longer had the ability to produce them in the necessary quantities. But that’s another subject!
The Hellcat was distinctly superior to the Zeke, and at extreme altitudes, it could even outmaneuver the Japanese plane. The Lightning was a complete success in the Pacific, where its supercharger problems were not evident. As for the Corsair, it may be the best prop fighter ever built.
The Wildcat was the approximate equal of the Zeke. In the first year or so of the war, the two had very similar records in head-to-head confrontations. I mentioned the Zeke’s advantage in range. But the Wildcat had another advantage, one that was even more significant in battle. A radio. The typical Zeke had no radio, and the airmen could not coordinate their actions as effectively. The Americans had a highly effective team concept that went far in defeating the Zeke, but this was possible only because the Wildcat had a radio.
The ability to out-turn a Mustang does not make the Zeke its equal. A Sopwith Camel can out-turn a Spitfire, but which would you rather have in an air battle? Of course, no plane is invincible or even close to that.
Actually, even the Hurricane II’s that appeared in early 1942 were able to inflict some severe reversals on IJAAF and IJNAF aircraft. The few that reached Singapore managed to regain air-superiority until they were attritioned down. I don’t have any direct combat facts to compare the two planes (since the A6M was flying over Malaya and Singapore at the time).
The A6M was a good plane, but, I don’t think it would have survived very long on the Western Front even as early as the beginning of 1942!
An important point to remember in this discussion is that an airplane (any airplane) is only as good as its pilot. Although the P-40 didn’t necessarily match up 100% against the Zero performance-wise, excellent pilot training and tactics, combined with the factors detailed in my earlier message, let it remain competitive until more modern types reached the front.
Also remember that most US pilots flying P-40s against the Japanese in the Philippines and NEI were fresh out of flight school. Although they had operational flight training, they had no combat experience. And if I remember correctly, many had never before flown the P-40E version, which was substantially more advanced than the earlier P-40B and P-40C.
In comparison, they faced the best trained pilots Japan had to offer. Most (both IJAF and IJN) had extensive combat experience over China and Manchuria (against the Russians) before the Pacific War. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the IJN trained only a few hundred pilots a year and took only the absolute best qualified candidates available from thousands of applicants. Although the IJAF training standards were somewhat lower, their pilots were equally skilled.
Combine these variables with the fact that the Allies planes were usually outnumbered with poor radar facilities and weak AA defenses and it becomes impossible to gauge the effectiveness of the P-40 against the Zero based on early war encounters. Skip ahead to later in the War and one sees that more experienced P-40 pilots, although still often outperformed by the Zero, was usually able to hold their own under better operating conditions.
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky. General Skobelev on the Horse (1883) He returned to Turkestan after the war, and in 1880 and 1881 further distinguished himself by retrieving the disasters inflicted by the Tekke Turkomans: following Siege of Geoktepe he captured the city, and, after much slaughter, reduced the Akhal-Tekke country to submission. He was advancing on Ashkhabad and Kalat i-Nadiri when he was disavowed and recalled. He was given the command at Minsk. During a campaign in Khiva, his Turkmen opponents called him goz zanli or “Bloody Eyes”.
In 1880, Russian seamen participated in General Mikhail Skobelev’s Akhal Tekin Campaign. Commander Makarov commanded the naval forces and supplied Russian troops in the Caspian Sea with provisions and ammunition.
In 1867, Russia established Konstantin Petrovich Kaufman as governor-general in Turkestan, with his capital at Tashkent. By 1868, he had taken Samarkand and established Bukhara and Kokand alike as Russian protectorates. Khiva, surrounded by protective deserts, followed in 1873. Conquest did not mean pacification. An anti-Russian uprising in Kokand in 1875 met a crushing defeat, ending in the abolition of the Kokand khanate and its full incorporation into the Russian Empire. Skobelev led the ruthless suppression.
The only remaining independent people in central Asia, the Turcomans, lived east of the Caspian Sea and south of the Aral Sea. Skobelev, returned from the Russo-Turkish War, led their conquest. After a carefully planned expedition, he besieged the Turcoman fortress of Geok-Tepe, just north of the Iranian border.
In December 1880, Geok Tepe (Siege of Geoktepe) was attacked by 6,000 Russians under General Mikhail Skobelev against 25,000 defenders. The siege of Geok Tepe lasted twenty-three days, after which the city was taken by storm. Although they encountered heavy resistance, Russian forces were eventually able to break in by digging a tunnel underneath a portion of the wall, then detonating a mine underneath the wall. On January 12 (24), 1881, the mine was detonated. Once the fortress was breached, the Russian troops stormed in. Several hundred defenders were killed in the initial explosion, and many more were killed in the fighting that ensued. Eventually, the defenders, along with the 40,000 civilians inside the fortress, fled across the desert, pursued by General Skobelev’s cavalry. Around 8,000 Turkmen soldiers and civilians were killed in their flight, along with an additional 6,500 that were killed inside the fortress. Russian casualties were only 398 killed and 669 wounded. Geok Tepe (Gokdepe Mosque) was built to commemorate the defeat and is noted for its mint-turquoise blue coloured roof and white marble structure.
While the final years of the American war saw the solidification of a centralized system of command and control in Britain’s Royal Navy, the French navy moved in a different direction. Suffren, who had led d’Estaing’s van at Grenada, challenged the prevailing wisdom. Commanding the French squadron in the Indian Ocean between 1781 and 1783, Suffren embraced the offensive at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of warfare.
Historians, impressed by Suffren’s aggressiveness, have made him the lone Frenchman in the pantheon of great sailing-age admirals, alongside the likes of de Ruyter,Hawke, Rodney, and Nelson. This is especially true of French naval historians. Castex, for example, viewed Suffren as the successor to the aggressive Dutch admiral de Ruyter, while Lacour- Gayet concluded: “Suffren, among the grand sailors, is the perfect model.” Napoleon I, during his exile on St. Helena, learned of Suffren’s exploits and wondered: “Why did he not live until my time? Why could I not find someone of his kind? I should have made him my Nelson and our affairs would have taken a very different turn. Instead I spent all my time looking for such a sailor and never found one.”
While much of the praise for Suffren is hyperbolic, he was certainly an atypical French naval commander. Suffren was an eighth-generation French aristocrat notorious for his obesity, slovenly dress and appearance, and bullying of subordinates. “Demonic energy, frenetic impatience, uncontrolled fury, contempt of caste and passion for battle,” a recent biographer concluded, “were the five dominant characteristics of the man who burst unexpectedly into the Bay of Bengal in January 1782, and which earned him the sobriquet from his admiring lascars of ‘Admiral Satan.’”
When Suffren received the Indian Ocean command in the spring of 1781, he was a veteran of thirty-eight years of naval service. He had joined the navy in 1743 at the age of fourteen and the next year fought at the battle of Toulon. At Second Finisterre in 1747 Suffren found himself a prisoner of war after watching Hawke destroy much of the French squadron, including Suffren’s own ship. During the Seven Years’ War he experienced additional frustrations. In 1756 he fought with de la Galissonnière’s fleet against Byng at Minorca, but, according to Castex, the failure to follow up the victory convinced Suffren that the destruction of the enemy’s fleet must be the goal of naval strategy.
Three years later Suffren was serving in l’Océan 80, flagship of de la Clue’s ill-fated Toulon squadron. During the action with Boscawen’s fleet in Lagos Bay, the individual French ships, Suffren’s among them, fought valiantly, but to no avail. The captain of the badly battered l’Océan drove the ship aground along the Portuguese coast, where she was later burned by the British. Suffren once again was a prisoner of war.
After his release, as the French reexamined their naval policies, Suffren conducted his own reappraisal. He did not work as a member of l’Académie de Marine, the body responsible, in Castex’s view, for the “pseudo-renaissance” of the French navy. Instead, he combined a reassessment of his own professional experiences fighting the British with the study of historical works, especially those which discussed the battles of the great Dutch admiral de Ruyter. Suffren concluded that French strategical and tactical methods had “resulted in the paralysis of the spirit of audacity, intelligent response, support under fire, and the camaraderie of combat.” As Roderick Cavaliero, Suffren’s most recent biographer, noted: “Suffren did not share this gallic confidence in order. He shared the conviction of men like Hawke and Boscawen that all naval action was futile unless it destroyed the enemy’s ships. He chafed during the naval dress-rehearsals of the escadres d’evolution sent to sea to test the new ships and the newly trained sailors.”
Suffren’s experiences in the first years of the American war strengthened his convictions. Unimpressed by d’Estaing’s handling of the French squadron off Rhode Island and Grenada, he wrote of “idiotic maneuvers,” “stupid, perfidious counsels,” and lost opportunities.
The Battle of Cuddalore. Painting by Auguste Jugelet of the Battle of Cuddalore (June 20th 1783) between the French navy commanded by the Bailli de Suffren[note frigate Cléopâtreleft background] and the British one under the orders of Rear-Admiral Edward Hughes
Early in 1781 Suffren finally gained an independent command. His responsibilities included the security of the allied Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, the protection of French colonial possessions in the Indian Ocean, and support for France’s ally in the subcontinent, Haidar Ali, the ruler of Mysore. Suffren sailed from Brest unfettered by French doctrine, determined to apply his own methods of naval warfare in a distant theater. Lacour-Gayet wrote that Suffren had “the spirit of initiative,” the “premier quality of a commander, the most necessary, the most truly characteristic, because it is for this that he is chief.” Suffren believed the best way to secure his myriad objectives was to seek out and destroy the opposing British squadron. An offensive strategy, of course, demanded an aggressive handling of the fleet at the tactical level. Thus in battle “Suffren demanded initiative from his captains,” even though they were “accustomed to the rigid discipline of the line, where they waited for signals.”
Over the next twenty-eight months Suffren fought a half-dozen battles. In each he struggled to seize the initiative and to concentrate his entire squadron against part of the enemy’s. At Porto Praya on 16 April 1781, he surprised a stronger British squadron bound for the Cape under Commodore George Johnstone. The engagement was hard-fought but inconclusive, although the damage to Johnstone’s squadron delayed his sailing for two weeks and allowed the French to win the race to the Cape of Good Hope. At Sadras on 1 February 1783, Suffren fought the first of five battles against the British Indian Ocean squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Edward Hughes. Suffren attacked but his captains did not support their commander and the engagement ended without either side losing a ship. The pattern was the same off Providien on 12 April 1782, Negapatam on 6 July 1782,Trincomalee on 3 September 1782, and Cuddalore on 20 June 1783.
Why such interest in these relatively inconsequential and indecisive battles? Suffren’s Indian Ocean campaign has attracted attention because of its unique nature in the annals of naval warfare. First, there is the personal element: two commanders in chief dueling for naval supremacy within their theater, fighting their fleets in a series of five battles. Second, there is the atypical nature of the engagements themselves, with the French taking the offensive at both the operational and tactical levels.
But the fact remains that Suffren failed to achieve the results he sought in battle. While his strategy was sound and his tactical proclivities admirable, he was unable to fully execute his ideas. Time and again he was dissatisfied with, and often infuriated by, the lack of support from his subordinates. But why did he go unsupported? Suffren’s biographer concluded that he “failed to ensure that his captains knew what was expected of them.” He looked for displays of initiative from men who had only the vaguest understanding of their commander’s tactical ideas, ideas that were a marked departure from French naval doctrine. Suffren expected far too much from men who not only failed to measure up to their British counterparts but also were not among the best and brightest of the French navy. “By the time that Suffren came to fight his last battle,” Cavaliero wrote, “he had learnt that only time-honoured tactics would do for sailors as he commanded.”
Nor did Suffren, though it took as much as a year for dispatches to reach India from Paris, entirely escape the driving force behind tactical centralization within the French navy. At Trincomalee on 11 April 1783, instructions from King Louis XVI dated the previous May finally caught up with Suffren. The king, shocked by the capture of de Grasse at the Saintes, directed that henceforth any French admiral commanding more than nine vessels in battle would shift his flag to a frigate to make it easier for him to observe the maneuvers of the enemy and direct the movements of the men-of-war.
Suffren had serious doubts about the directive. He understood that situated in a frigate, a commander in chief would be incapable of leading his fleet by example and would have no choice but to rely on visual signals. He obeyed, perhaps because he had recognized that his captains were incapable of acting on their own initiative.
In the battle fought off Cuddalore on 20 June 1783, Suffren managed the engagement from the frigate Cléopâtre and won what is generally considered a tactical victory. But he “was bitterly disappointed not to be in the thick of it and the Cléopâtre ran up and down the French line helplessly. She had no signals to make—for there was only one: to engage at pistol-shot range.” Suffren declared that his effort to control the fleet from a frigate would be his “first and last attempt.”
Suffren’s impact on naval thought was limited. Had he won a great victory over Hughes, perhaps the French navy would have reconsidered its philosophies of strategy and command. But in the absence of that victory, the French retained their “geometric preoccupation.” As for the British, John Clerk included examples from Suffren’s battles in Naval Tactics. Nelson read those sections before Trafalgar, but his penchant for aggressiveness and concentration against a portion of the enemy’s fleet was by then already well established. In fact, the British had a far greater influence on Suffren’s conception of naval warfare than vice versa. As Cavaliero wrote: “The most significant characteristic of Suffren’s short and climactic period of command was its Englishness.”
Nevertheless, two important lessons about command and control can be drawn from the 1782–1783 campaign in the Indian Ocean. Suffren’s inability to achieve anything approaching decisive results demonstrated that decentralization of tactical command and control, whatever its inherent advantages, demanded a significant degree of commitment and comprehension throughout the chain of command. In an age when navies were increasingly wedded to centralized systems, a commander in chief who decided to exercise a less centralized approach had to personally indoctrinate his subordinates to ensure that they understood and shared his views, be they strategic, operational, or tactical. Nor could a decentralized method work if subordinates lacked the experience and talent to recognize their commander’s intentions at the point in the battle when individual captains had to act on their own initiative.
The period of Menelik’s reign (1889–1914) is another important milestone in modern Ethiopian history. Not only did the era coincide with the consummation of European theories of imperialism and the scramble for African territories, with the partition sanctioned at the Berlin Conference, but the era was also marked, ironically, by the large-scale unification of Ethiopian national territory. Between 1872 and 1896, Menelik was able to double the territory under his control, occupying as many areas as were seized by European powers in the scramble for territories in the northeastern region. A combination of military and diplomatic campaigns in the Galla region, the sultanate of Harar, and the regions of Wellega, Wellamo, Jimma, Kaffa, and Gomma, led to their annexation and political realignment as part of Christian Ethiopia.
Menelik of Shoa, formerly known as Prince Sahle Mariam, was the most powerful and least tractable of the emperor’s vassals. His reign was notable for the construction of a powerful army equipped with arms procured through numerous agents who were engaged in the extensive arms trade of his era.
Menelik began to import arms fairly early in his career as the ruler of Shoa, and by the 1880s the trade had reached stupendous proportions, with weapons coming from the Italians and, later, the French. He then began the conquest of Galla territories to the east, west, and south of Shoa. The British ultimately opposed the arms trade between Europe and Ethiopia, as this ran counter to the crown’s imperial ambitions in northeast Africa. The European powers also quarreled over suppression of the arms and slave trade to the Somali coast. The Italians emerged as the most aggressive imperial power coveting Ethiopia as a strategic outpost for her ambitions. Although Italy had concluded several independent treaties of “friendship and commerce” with King Menelik of Shoa between 1883 and 1887, there was disagreement over the implications of the agreement. Italy saw the treaties as a means of playing off one Abyssinian power against another, while Menelik on the other hand saw the arrangement as another vital avenue for securing much-needed arms and ammunition. In 1889, Menelik concluded the Treaty of Wichale with Italy, which officially recognized Menelik as emperor of Abyssinia and also granted his state duty-free privileges for any goods passing through the port of Massawa, a substantial loan, and a promise of future arms and military supplies. Portions of Ethiopia, namely the states of Bogos, Hamasen, Akale- Guzai, and parts of Tigre, were also ceded for Italian activities in return for financial and development assistance to Ethiopia.
Although the Treaty of Wichale appeared to be useful for both powers, Italy began to penetrate into Abyssinian territories from its base in Eritrea. Menelik later discovered that the treaty he had signed in both Italian and Amharic contained differing clauses relating to the disposition of diplomatic relations between the two states. While the Amharic version suggested that Abyssinia could use Italy as an agent in foreign relations if it desired, the Italian version claimed that Abyssinia was obliged to go through Italy in its foreign relations. Ethiopia had been duped into becoming a protectorate of the Italian nation.
On February 27, 1893, Menelik informed the European powers of his decision to reject the Italian proclamation. He declared, “Ethiopia has need of no one; she stretches out her hands unto God.” When a war with Italy seemed imminent, Menelik issued a mobilization proclamation calculated to strengthen, in his words, the religious solidarity of the Ethiopian Church and the general community in the face of Italian aggression:
Enemies have now come upon us to ruin the country and to change our religion . . . . Our enemies have begun the affair by advancing and digging into the country like moles. With the help of God I will not deliver up my country to them . . . . Today, you who are strong, give me of your strength, and you who are weak, help me by prayer.
In response to this call, every tukul (hut) and village in every far-off glen of Ethiopia sent out his or her warriors. The first skirmish occurred in December 1895, and by March 1, 1896, at the battle of Adwa, the Ethiopians had gathered at least 70,000 rifles and 42 canons in the field. Described as one of the worst colonial disasters of modern history, 25,000 Italian army troops were defeated by the Ethiopians, who were able to raise a 100,000-strong diverse yet coherent military force. Victory for Ethiopia at the Battle of Adwa gave Menelik both domestic and international prestige and won the state new allies and admirers. The victory sent shock waves throughout Europe, causing the demise of the Italian government. The event also rendered Ethiopia exempt from the type of nineteenth-century colonial wars that raged all over Africa. Menelik also struck an alliance with the French, a diplomatic move that was followed by larger arms gifts from France to Ethiopia. At the end of the nineteenth century, not only the standing army but also the farmers of northern Ethiopia had been equipped with modern breach-loaders and plenty of cartridges and could be mobilized rapidly.
Since production of the fully-tracked reconnaissance vehicle ‘Luchs’ (Lynx) was scheduled to end in January 1944 after only 100 had been built, plans were made to provide an alternative by using the chassis of Pz Kpfw 38 (t) returned for repair. From December 1943, BMM were to convert 11.8 tanks by April 1944. After delays, however, only 70 chassis were prepared in February and March 1944. Only 15 of the units without the 2cm Hangelafette (2cm Swivel Mounting) were delivered, and 13 of these were held back by In6 until at least November 1944. BMM proposed two designs for the 7.5cm KwK version. Later, an Aufklarer auf Fgst Jagdpanzer 38(t) mit 7.5cm K51 L/24 was tested, because it was intended to have a reconnaissance vehicle using the 38(t) chassis built along-side the Jagdpanzer 38(t) and Jagdpanzer 38(d) from mid-1945.
A new superstructure was fitted to the old Pz Kpfw 38(t) chassis, and on that, was mounted the 2cm Hangelafette 38 turret, as used for the Sd Kfz 250/9, 251/23 and 234/1. The 7.5cm mounting was achieved by extending the sides of the new superstructure upwards. 50 with the 2cm kwk 38 L/55 plus 2 with 7.5cm kwk L/24 were built.
I have a different figure for the number produced from Kliment’s “Czechoslovakian Armored Fighting Vehicles”. He gives a total of 70 SdKfz 140/1s produced;
37 in February 1944
33 in March 1944
Issued to armoured reconnaissance companies from April 1944. Saw service on both Eastern and Western fronts. They were issued to two divisions, PzAA’s of 3PD and PGD GD. 1. The 2 7.5cm versions was with 233 Reserve Panzer Division in 1945.
Crew: 4 men
Length: 4.51 m
Width: 2.14 m
Height: 2.17 m
Weight: 9,750 kg
Fuel Capacity: 220 liters
Engine: 1 × Praga EPA/2 6 cylinder inline liquid cooled petrol engine producing up to 140 hp at 2,500 rpm
Gearbox: 5 forward 1 reverse
Speed: road 42 km/h cross country km/h
Range: road 210 km cross country km
1 × 2 cm KwK 38 L/55
1 × 7.92 mm MG 42 machine gun
Armour: 8 mm to 50 mm
Electronics: FuG 12
In early August 1942, immediately after Auchinleck’s successful defense at El Alamein, Churchill and the CIGS Brooke arrived in Cairo. Quite correctly, because of Auchinleck’s failures over the past year, they decided to replace him with General Sir Harold Alexander. The new Eighth Army commander was to be the XXXth Corps Commander, Lieutenant General W. H. E. “Strafer” Gott. But Gott was killed in an air raid, and the new Eighth Army commander turned out to be a relatively unknown corps commander from Britain, General Bernard Law Montgomery.
Montgomery proved to be one of the great field commanders of World War II. He was not a nice person; dogged, conceited, vain, completely sure of his own abilities, and incapable of understanding other human beings, Montgomery also possessed the attributes of a great general. He was rigorous and enthusiastic, and exhibited considerable flexibility; he was a first-class trainer; and he understood the mind and stomach of the common soldier. He understood that he must fight his battles within the limitations imposed by the weaknesses of the forces under his command. Thus, he refused to fight the Germans in a war of mobility but instead forced them to fight on his terms—with firepower and sheer numbers.
Montgomery had barely three months to get the Eighth Army ready for its offensive; yet, he restored the army’s morale, made clear at every level that it had a new commander, and established large supply dumps. He told the troops on the Alam Halfa Ridge at El Alamein that they would stay there alive, or they would stay there dead. At the end of August, Rommel launched another offensive to drive the British out of the Alamein position. After administering a serious rebuff to the Afrika Korps, Montgomery refused to exploit his success; instead, he continued the buildup for his own offensive in late October. By October Montgomery possessed advantages of nearly four to one in troop strength (230,000 to 80,000), three to one in tanks (1,500 to 500, only 260 of which were German), and nearly four to one in aircraft (1,200 to 350). Once again the island fortress of Malta, recovered from the aerial pounding it had suffered in spring 1942, was playing its role with Ultra’s assistance in interdicting the supplies being sent across the Mediterranean.
Montgomery’s plan was straightforward. A series of diversionary attacks would draw German attention to the south, while the carefully prepared main thrust, in which artillery and engineers would cut paths through the minefields, would create a breakout. In late October when Montgomery’s attack began, Rommel was back home in Germany recovering from jaundice. His temporary replacement, General Georg Stumme, died of a heart attack as the battle began, while the Germans failed to respond quickly. When they did react, they lost nearly half the Afrika Korps’ tanks in ill planned counterattacks. The 15th Panzer Division had already lost three quarters of its tanks in savage fighting. Rommel did not arrive back in North Africa for nearly forty-eight hours. Meanwhile, the British had their own troubles. Gaps through the minefields proved too narrow, while attacking infantry often failed to secure the far ends of the lanes. As a result, many British tanks were trapped in the minefields, where they took heavy losses from Axis anti-tank guns.
Then and thereafter, Montgomery insisted that his offensives had worked according to plan. In fact, he adapted to actual conditions. By the evening of the second day he recognized that his initial plans were not working. On the 28th after a one-day redeployment, the British struck an even heavier blow in the north; that thrust also failed, but the fighting wore Rommel’s armored strength down to 90 tanks, while the British still possessed 800. On 2 November the British struck again, and again their armor crawled through the German minefields, where the tanks ran into the inevitable screen of anti-tank guns. The attackers suffered heavy losses— over 200 tanks—but the Afrika Korps was now down to 30 tanks. On the 3rd of November Rommel ordered a retreat, but at mid-day Hitler issued a stop order, a decision adding to German losses and making it impossible for the Afrika Korps to make a stand in Libya. On the 4th, the Germans finally slipped away, but in the confusion the British captured General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, one of Germany’s leading tank pioneers.
On 8 November the strategic situation in North Africa changed fundamentally with the landing in Morocco and Algeria of Anglo-American ground forces under the command of Lieutenant General Dwight David Eisenhower. Eisenhower had rocketed to the top of the American command structure over the past two years. In 1940 as a junior colonel he had begged Patton for a job. But his performance in staff positions and maneuvers brought him to General George Marshall’s attention, and Marshall—chief of staff of the U.S. Army and almost always an extraordinarily good judge of talent—had recognized Eisenhower’s gifts. Ike’s enthusiastic and jovial personality led far too many to underestimate a will of iron and an extraordinary intelligence. Not an intellectual, Eisenhower nevertheless had prepared himself for the coming test as thoroughly as any American senior army officer with the possible exception of Patton. But unlike so many of his contemporaries, Eisenhower was a man willing to subordinate his ego for the greater good. And his personality was such that he was able to get a group of diverse officers from different services and different nations to pull together as a team. Finally, Eisenhower was able to recognize what was possible in a political sense, given the complexities of coalition warfare— again a unique ability in an arena of raging national egos.
Operation Torch reflected the triumph of British strategic arguments over those of the Americans, who had pushed for an invasion of northern France as early as possible. But the reality in 1942 was that the U.S. Army was still only putting together its combat forces. Hence any invasion of the Continent would have to rely almost entirely on the British, who with their experience in fighting the Germans and the strain of two years of war had little desire to invade the Continent just yet.
Nevertheless, Marshall, strongly opposed a landing in North Africa for fear that the commitment of Allied forces to the Mediterranean would prevent a landing in northern France until 1944. Marshall was one of the great figures in the war. A graduate of Virginia Military Institute, he correctly believed that he had received a terrible education—a state of affairs he spent the rest of his life repairing. As he told a contemporary, one could not understand strategy unless one had read Thucydides. On his way to the top of the army, Marshall had impressed virtually everyone he came in contact with except Douglas MacArthur, who was always hostile to those who were his equal. Marshall possessed an austere personality, so austere that a mere glance was enough to suggest to Franklin Roosevelt that even the Commander-in-Chief should not call him George. He had an exceptionally good eye for talent, and over the course of the war he would make few mistakes in the selection and promotion of senior army officers. Above all, Marshall lived by the motto of another military institution, “Duty, Honor, Country,” and he would set a standard of behavior that few West Point alumni could match.
Nevertheless, it took a direct order from Roosevelt, overruling Marshall and his military advisers (something Churchill never did), to commit American troops to the landings in North Africa. The rationale for the president’s decision stemmed from domestic politics. The United States had to involve its forces in combat with the Germans in 1942 or else the political pressures for a “Japan First” strategy might become intolerable.
The Vichy French military in North Africa, burdened by the Armistice’s restrictions, had no chance of prolonged resistance against the Allied invasion. But French troops with antiquated weapons fought hard against Allied landings, particularly in Algeria. The difficulties U.S. forces encountered against an underequipped opponent underlined how unprepared they were to handle the Wehrmacht. The plans had called for a rapid advance to Tunis once Allied forces had consolidated the position in Algeria, but the Germans arrived first. The Vichy French governor in Tunisia willingly opened the gates for the Germans (in marked contrast to the vigorous response of Vichy soldiers in Algeria to the Torch landings).
Luckily for the Allies, in November 1942 the German high command was in its usual state of disarray. The Führer was on the way to Munich by train to give his annual speech on the anniversary of the 1923 Beerhall Putsch. Hurried consultations by teletype from Thuringia could not cobble together an effective strategic response to Torch. The OKW staff remaining in East Prussia suggested that North Africa could not be held, but, as one staff officer noted, this assessment “passed unnoticed in the general jumble of vague political and strategic ideas based primarily on considerations of prestige.” There was certainly no overall strategic or operational assessment of additional commitments in North Africa. Hitler rushed paratroopers to Tunisia, and armored and infantry units followed by sea. Shortly thereafter, he ordered the Wehrmacht to occupy the rest of France, ending the last shreds of independence that Marshal Pétain’s collaborationist regime still enjoyed. The French fleet scuttled itself in Toulon rather than join the Allies. The OKW had now committed much of the Luftwaffe’s transport fleet and the German Army’s reserves to operations on the far side of the Mediterranean, where only tenuous supply links with the Italian mainland existed.
When Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya in February 1941 with his Afrika Korps, he had immediately attacked British forces and driven them back to Egypt. But his Achilles heel turned out to be his supply lines; rarely did he receive sufficient supplies across the Mediterranean. The Germans were quick to heap scorn on Italian incompetence in protecting the sea lanes, but in fact this particular logistical problem was caused by the incompetence of German signals intelligence in not recognizing that the Allies had compromised Enigma. Through Ultra—intelligence based on the breaking of the most sophisticated German and Italian ciphers—British air and naval power, operating out of Malta, attacked the supply convoys escorted by the Italians and consistently interrupted Rommel’s supply lines.
The British hold on Tobruk, a port on the Libyan coast, added greatly to the Afrika Korps’ logistic burden. Tobruk placed Rommel on the horns of a dilemma: he could not advance on Egypt until he captured this port; yet a major offensive against Tobruk would expose his forces in Egypt to a British attack. Halder, the OKH chief of staff, regarded Rommel’s dilemma with grim satisfaction. Still, it must be said that Rommel was never responsible for German strategy in the Mediterranean. His mission was straightforward: to protect Libya, maintain Mussolini’s prestige, and keep the British occupied, and until October 1942 the Afrika Korps achieved these goals at relatively low cost.
In accomplishing these goals Rommel proved himself the premier battlefield commander of the war. While he had not passed the examinations for entrance to the Kriegsakademie—the preparatory step to becoming a general staff officer—he was a devoted student of military history and his profession, as well as the author of one of the most thoughtful combat memoirs ofWorldWar I. He was also a leader of men, with a profound ability to inspire his troops to do their utmost in the face of enormous difficulties. His energy, combined with a sixth sense for the battlefield, led to a boldness in combat that at times bordered on rashness. But Rommel rarely missed the opportunities that his opponents all too often provided. He was undoubtedly a firm supporter of the Nazi regime; yet on a number of occasions he disobeyed some of its more odious orders, such as the commando order. In 1941 he was clearly at the height of his powers of command, and those powers now magnified all the advantages the Germans possessed in doctrine, training, and battlefield effectiveness. Operation Battleaxe—a major British offensive in June 1941 against German defensive positions on the Halfaya Pass on the Egyptian-Libyan frontier—exposed the depth of British weaknesses. Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, commander of British forces in the Middle East, under pressure from Churchill, launched a two-pronged attack, first to capture the pass and then to advance to Tobruk. Well-sited German 88mm anti-aircraft guns, used as anti-tank weapons, wiped out the first offensive move. British forces, in three disjointed columns, failed to support one another, but such disarray was only the beginning.
Rommel arrived the next day from German positions in front of Tobruk. The British, having no coherent doctrine, much less one for mechanized warfare, fought isolated battles, while German armor, infantry, and artillery fought as highly coordinated teams. By morning of the third day, the Afrika Korps threatened to envelop much of Britain’s Eighth Army. Only a precipitous retreat saved the British from complete defeat. Tank losses suggest the extent of the debacle: the Germans lost 12, many repairable, while the British lost 91. The defeat, combined with Wavell’s mishandling of troubles in Iraq and Syria, led Churchill to replace him with General Claude Auchinleck. Yet Eighth Army learned little from their experiences. While British commanders recognized the effectiveness of 88s as anti-tank weapons, they underestimated the mobility with which the Germans used the weapon. Even more seriously, they lacked any comprehension of the enemy’s combined-arms doctrine.
In November 1941, with Operation Crusader, the British tried again. This time they caught Rommel by surprise, and in a swirling, confusing battle, Commonwealth forces enjoyed considerable superiority over their opponents— four to one in tanks (710 to 174 with an additional 500 in supply channels to replace losses). But the British wasted the advantage of surprise by divergent, unsupported brigade-sized efforts. In one action the inexperienced 22nd Brigade charged well-sited Italian anti-tank positions and lost 25 percent of its tanks. Eighth Army units consistently failed to support one another, while the Germans attacked with the full weight of the Afrika Korps’ two panzer divisions.
But the Germans had their own problems. Blinded by British air superiority, they never gained a clear idea of British intentions. A badly organized attack, delivered late near Sidi Rezegh, cost the Germans half their tanks. Rommel followed that strike with a thrust which carried the Afrika Korps to the Egyptian frontier and for a short time threatened to unhinge Eighth Army. Its commander, General Alan Cunningham, ordered the offensive abandoned, but Auchinleck personally took command and ordered the battle continued. The British now stood firm in the rear and resumed the advance on Tobruk to break through to the garrison. The Germans, on the other hand, fumbled their strike at the Egyptian frontier and, confronted with increasing danger around Tobruk as well as a worsening supply situation, broke off the battle.
The retreat took the Germans all the way back to El Agheila, where they had started in April 1941. British numbers on the battlefield had told, while British air and naval attacks from Malta on Axis supply lines had destroyed a significant percentage of the shipping crossing to Libya. But help was on the way for the hard-pressed Afrika Korps. Hitler ordered Luftflotte 2 (Second Air Force) and its commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, from Russia to the Mediterranean. In addition, the OKW ordered a number of U-boats transferred to the theater. Thus, the effort from Malta had an impact not only on the Battle in North Africa but on the Eastern Front and the Battle of the Atlantic as well.
Luftflotte 2 made an immediate difference. The flow of supplies to Rommel improved, and in January 1942 he counterattacked and drove the British back to Gazala. There the front stabilized for the next four months, as the exhausted armies settled down in the winter rains to prepare for a resumption of heavy fighting in the spring. The British established a defensive line of fortified infantry positions that reached deep into the desert; like the Italian positions in front of Mersa Matruh in fall 1940, these positions were not mutually supporting. Behind the front line the British deployed their armor in brigade-sized formations. The intention was to avoid fighting a defensive battle; with their superiority in numbers British commanders believed they would be on the offensive. Yet, looking at Ultra reports, Churchill could not fathom why Eighth Army was waiting to attack. But Churchill never understood the British Army’s weaknesses in doctrine, training, and combined-arms capabilities; unfortunately, neither did his commanders, who had done little to repair Eighth Army’s tactical and operational deficiencies.
Rommel struck first. Over the night of 26–27 May the Afrika Korps’ mobile force moved south around the Gazala line and the fortress defensive position of Bir Hacheim, manned by the 1st Free French Brigade. For reasons that remain inexplicable to this day, British commanders believed that a German attack, if it came at all, would come against their center. Consequently, they deployed their armor to counterattack there and not to guard against a major flank attack. Despite the fact that armored car patrols picked up Rommel’s move over the course of the night, British commanders refused to believe the warnings. As a result, powerful German forces first overran the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, then the 7th British Motor Brigade, and then the 4th Armored Brigade in succession, none of which paid the slightest attention to what was happening to their neighbors. The Germans also overran 7th Armored Division’s command post and captured its commander, General F. W. Messervy, who had commanded 1st Armored Division four months earlier when the Germans had wrecked that unit.
Nevertheless, Rommel soon ran into difficulties. He had hoped to drive to the coast and encircle the entire Gazala line, but the Afrika Korps slammed into British armor in the center of the Gazala position and took heavy losses from new Grant tanks, provided by U.S. Lend-Lease. After a second day of fruitless attempts to break through to the coast, Rommel halted the Afrika Korps behind the Gazala line and attempted to break through British minefields and defensive positions to open up a supply channel. The balance in armor still favored the British by nearly three to one. Trapped with his back to British minefields, Rommel threw out a screen of 88s. Here, British generalship came to his rescue. General Neil Ritchie, Eighth Army commander, persisted in launching a series of ill-coordinated and unsupported armored attacks. Heavy air attacks, tank attacks, and artillery bombardments fell on German forces in the “cauldron,” but none in a coordinated fashion.
As the Germans beat off British attacks, they captured the defensive position at Sidi Muftah in the Gazala line on 1 June. They thus opened up a path for supplies to reach the panzers. A major British attack on 5 June again ran into Rommel’s anti-tank screen and suffered heavy losses—230 tanks. On 10 June, the Germans finally took the French positions at Bir Hacheim, although many of the French escaped in the night. By this point the British, though still enjoying an advantage in armor, were badly shaken. With his supplies in hand, Rommel struck out from his defensive position. Again the British failed to coordinate their operations. Rommel trapped two British armored brigades on 12 June between his panzer divisions; a third British armored brigade, rushing to the rescue, ran into the usual screen of anti-tank guns. To add to the disaster, the hapless Messervy found himself cut off from his troops for the third time in as many weeks. This battle finally tipped both the armored equation and the battle’s initiative firmly into Rommel’s hands. The British scrambled to escape.
Most of the infantry in the Gazala positions withdrew unharmed, but only because Rommel was focusing on more distant objectives. As the British debacle gathered momentum, Churchill demanded that Auchinleck hold Tobruk. Rommel’s forces swept by the fortress on 19 June and captured the air fields east of the port; the Afrika Korps was apparently headed toward the Egyptian frontier. Tobruk’s garrison was reasonably large, consisting of the 2nd South African Division, the Guards Brigade, and the 32nd Tank Brigade with 70 tanks. But none were ready for a siege. Confident that the Germans had headed east, the defenders settled down to await events. But at dawn on 20 June a massive bombardment hit Tobruk’s southeastern perimeter; the Germans had returned. Within three hours German infantry were through the defenses. On the following morning, the South African commander surrendered, and Tobruk was finally in German hands.
At this point, Rommel, newly promoted to field marshal, argued for an advance into Egypt, while Kesselring pushed for an airborne assault on Malta. Hitler, undoubtedly recalling the heavy losses on Crete and not trusting the Italian Navy, opted for a continued advance. In fact, the Afrika Korps had taken heavy losses and was in no condition to take Egypt; only a complete collapse by the British could have allowed it to reach Alexandria. Auchinleck had already intervened and relieved Ritchie. He established the Eighth Army in defensive positions near El Alamein, 60 miles from Alexandria. Lying directly south of British positions was the Qattara Depression, a great dry salt sea, impassable to heavy vehicles. There would be no open flank. In that position, Auchinleck’s successful defense halted a series of Afrika Korps attacks in early July. For a short period, the British had the chance to gain a major victory, but the Eighth Army possessed neither the confidence nor initiative required to launch a counterattack.