The first 44M. Buzogányvető’s were mounted on a three-legged mount (or tripod), however with this solution, the Buzogányvető was a bit difficult to move. But, because of the lack of production capacity and time, the HTI didn’t construct new mobile platform/launcher for this weapon, they simply mounted the two rockets and the protection shield on the captured Soviet PM M1910 (Soviet-made Maxim) or SG-43 Goryunov machine guns’ wheeled mount, because the Hungarian Army captured plenty of them during the war.
The unguided ‘Buzogány’ HEAT rocket
44M. Buzogányvető on Krupp Protze truck
At the beginning of hostilities against the Soviets, the Hungarians sorely lacked sufficient anti-armour capability against the rugged and dependable T-34 tank. A large proportion of their weapons were supplied by Germany, but the Germans were not willing to share all their developments, particularly as the war stretched on and the logistical enormity of the war effort on the Eastern Front threatened to overwhelm them. Thus the Hungarians began research and development of their own anti-tank weaponry in 1942.
The Hungarian 44M “Buzogányvető” (translated most closely as “mace thrower” was a Hungarian designed experimental anti-tank rocket for use against Soviet armour towards the end of World War Two. The system allowed for two types of warhead, allowing a multi-purpose role to make it just as effective against enemy infantry. It is since regarded as one of the most effective anti-tank platforms of the War, despite its relatively short production run. The weapons were produced from Spring 1944 until December 20th 1944, when the WM factory fell to the Soviets. Between 600 and 700 were produced in total – the majority utilised in the Defence of Budapest in late December 1944.
The weapon consisted of a launcher capable of holding two rockets with shaped charge rounds, operated by a three-man crew. A tripod-based mount proved inefficient and captured Soviet wheeled mounts were often incorporated into the operational units. The weapons operational parameters made it ideally suited to the close-knit urban warfare of the Siege of Budapest
Two types of rocket were produced, the first was an anti-tank warhead known as ‘Buzogány’ (mace) from which the weapon derived its name. This carried 4.2kg of explosive and was more than capable of tearing through 300mm of armour – more than sufficient for any Soviet heavy tank at an effective range of 1200m. The second warhead was known as ‘Zápor’ (rainfall, shower), and was used in an anti-personnel capacity.
Well, I’m not sure my opinion would be short! A good portion of my book, Fortnight of Infamy, delves into exactly this topic. Chapters 2 (“Gateway to China”) and 4 (“A Matter of Hours”) look at issues related to the “strategic bomber deterrent” build-up in the Philippines and the very poor and inadequate basing and support decisions that were made. Chapter 6 (“Disaster on Luzon”) recounts the tactical events of December 8, 1941, on which date both MacArthur and Brereton definitely made significant, still not completely explained, errors in judgment. Brereton’s “top secret” February 1942 report on the subject to Arnold, co-authored by Col. Francis Brady, continues to go missing from the archive files, contents unknown to those still breathing. Chapter 12 (“To Fight Another Day”) provides an extensive analysis of why both the Philippines and Malaya fell so rapidly – more quickly than even the Japanese expected. Naturally, in recognition of your assistance, I’ll be sending you a copy once it is in production.
If one buys Brereton’s own premise – that the Far East Air Force was set up to fail – then a substantial portion of “blame” can fall on the doorstep of Generals Arnold and Marshall, and even President Roosevelt himself. The laundry list of others influencing those decision makers in this regard is long and filled with famous individuals. MacArthur was only swayed toward support by his last-minute orders from the War Department and his faith in Col. Hal “Fighter” George (of whom I’m a big fan). I should point out that Bill Bartsch (Doomed at the Start and December 8, 1941) and I have discussed the topic and remain in disagreement regarding Hal George’s role in this. I’m actually working on another book, tentatively titled Aim Your Arrows toward the Sun: Franklin Roosevelt’s Secret Plans to Bomb Japan. This work will extensively explore the intrigue behind the fateful decision to place bombers in the Philippines in the first place, a decision to which Brereton has been documented as strongly opposing. Fortnight of Infamy only uncovers the tip of that iceberg.
In my opinion, both sides of the debate below have strong merit. Now, I’m not trying to dodge the bullet…
As I point out in my book, although Brereton was on Billy Mitchell’s staff in WWI, he was not considered a traditional “combat commander”. He was a highly talented organizer and manager, and, from the documents I’ve read, certainly no fool. On the other hand, he did not have the masterful public relations skill that MacArthur charismatically and brilliantly employed throughout his career. Interestingly, Brereton was well-liked and respected by the half-dozen or so people that I’ve met who personally knew the man — something I’m afraid I can’t say about the few folks I talked with who actually met MacArthur. I’m actually, personally, pretty neutral regarding MacArthur. I believe he was not a very good tactical commander, but do agree that his virtues outweighed his vices, especially in the larger picture of things. MacArthur was familiar with Brereton’s skills and embraced him enthusiastically until post-war discussions became heated. In addition to Arnold, Ike also seemed to hold him in high regard. (Ike was himself hardly well-qualified for the job originally placed on his shoulders by Marshall.) As for the opinion of Brereton’s peers, one must recall that Brereton was an Annapolis graduate in an arena dominated by Westpointers. Thus, Brereton’s previous Navy affiliation represented a bit of a stigma for many, however petty that may seem.
A couple of my more specific opinions:
Far too much is made of the decision not to send all the B-17s to Del Monte. As far as I can tell, no one seriously suggested that all 34 operable Fortresses should go to Del Monte, at least not for any extended period of time. After all, had they gone, there would be no planes available for reconnaissance in the Luzon Strait or near Formosa.
Major Orrin Grover, 24th Pursuit Group CO at Clark Field, deserves much of the blame for messing up the fighter coverage for his own airfield and the B-17s on December 8. In addition to fumbling the dispatch of three fighter squadrons, he may not have properly informed the 19th Bomb Group of the situation, though Lt. Col. Eubank could have taken better precautions for his B-17s on his own initiative. I should point out that history has not heavily challenged Grover’s role until recently, in part because Grover was the individual who wrote the history (ex post facto) of the units involved! Unquestionably, he had motive not to make himself look bad.
There was no militarily valid excuse for MacArthur’s failure to meet with Brereton in the early morning of December 8. The best use of the Fortresses would have been the planned counter-strike at Takao. A recently promoted Brigadier Sutherland probably deserves some blame in this regard for maintaining an “iron door” between Brereton and MacArthur.
MacArthur made significant errors in his sudden transition to the execution of War Plan Orange. His lack of preparation for that scenario, in which he was involved for many years before his recall to duty, is astounding – his greatest shortcoming in the war. On the other hand, it really would not have made much difference in the ultimate outcome. Most knowledgeable commanders considered the WPO scenarios a virtual pipe dream by the mid-1930s.
The Tuguegarao and Baguio raids gave the Japanese the perfect, completely unintentional, decoy. If those raids had not occurred when they did, the fighter dispositions would have been better set to give the IJNAF a hearty reception. In addition, they were the primary reason that the B-17s were scrambled earlier in the morning of December 8, which set the timing for a lunchtime return to Clark. This represented an extraordinary stroke of good luck for Japan!
Flag of the National Liberation Committee and some members of the Italian resistance in Ossola, 1944.
On the night of 3 November, an RAF Liberator of 148 Squadron, containing three agents and a number of supply canisters, left Brindisi and flew north towards the Apennines. Two of the agents were Italians recruited by No 1 Special Force, SOE, but the third was a young but already highly decorated soldier and SOE operative, twenty-four-year-old Major John Barton, DSO, MC.
John Barton’s task – codenamed ‘Cisco/Red’ – was either to capture or assassinate a senior German general,af whose headquarters was reportedly near Mirandola, a town in the central plains a few miles south of the River Po. As arranged, fires had been lit for them at the drop zone. Parachuting from 3,000 feet, all three landed safely at around 10 p.m., as did all but one of the canisters. On the ground, John was met by Major Wilcockson, a fellow SOE agent, and a number of partisans, and taken to a safe house in the tiny mountain village of Gova, some forty miles west of Bologna.
Once there, the two Italians left on their mission to Bologna, while Wilcockson and the partisan commanders examined the contents of the supply drop. Although pleased with the weapons and ammunition, Wilcockson was exasperated by the absence of boots and clothing, especially since the equipment had been padded by hundreds of useless sandbags. Most of the partisans in his area had few clothes other than those they had left home with. Some had items of British uniforms, but with a long month of heavy rain and rapidly falling temperatures, they were all desperately short of heavy clothing, boots and great coats. Living rough in barns and caves in the freezing cold mountains was an utterly miserable and sometimes life-threatening existence.
The following day, John was led to a neighbouring mission, that of another agent, Major Johnstone. There he waited several days for a guide, but since he could speak neither German nor Italian, he also took the opportunity to form a small squad of men to accompany him on his mission – an ex-POW as an interpreter, a former Italian paratrooper, and a German-Italian who assured him he could pass as a German.
The day they left, an Allied drop was made over Johnstone’s area. ‘It was pathetic!’ wrote John. The containers had been dropped from too great a height, had been spread over a vast area – some falling into German hands – and half the parachutes had not opened, so that much of the ammunition was ruined. ‘Wilcockson said he received some ancient Italian rifles from this drop,’ wrote John, ‘and that they were far more dangerous to the firers than to the person fired at.’
After three days’ walk, John Barton and his squad reached the edge of the mountains overlooking Reggio Emilia. They were now in a German-Fascist controlled area and had to continue at night. The others wanted John to ditch his uniform, but incredibly, he had been ordered to keep it on throughout his mission and so refused to change into civvies. This, it seems, was too much for the German-Italian, who promptly left them.
Using borrowed bicycles, they headed down from the mountains towards the centre of Reggio. John had noticed there was hardly any traffic on the road, and what there was had been very old and very noisy and easy to avoid, particularly as it was night-time. Once in Reggio itself, they were stopped by a German bicycle patrol, but they simply pedalled away and down a side road before the soldiers could unsling their rifles and open fire.
Earlier in the day, the Allies had attempted to bomb the railway station, missed completely and had destroyed a number of houses round about. In the ruins of one of these John and his squad found an ideal hide-out for a few days. From there, John was also able to observe the station. A train that was unloading goods, he learned, could travel no more than ten miles due to destroyed bridges on the route. He also made contact with the local GAP commandant, and arranged for a guide to take them to Modena, the next port of call on their journey.
They left on bicycles during the evening three days later, although now without the Italian paratrooper. Having changed into civvies, he had gone to see a friend and had been stopped by a patrol. His papers had been in order but he had been caught carrying a pistol. ‘Foolish man!’ noted John. ‘We did not see him again.’
Once more travelling by the half light of the moon, they cycled to Modena, passing a long two-mile horse-drawn German column. No one paid them the slightest attention. Nor did they in Modena. Rather, the biggest danger they had so far faced came from Allied bombing and strafing of both the towns and roads on which they travelled. A few days later, and still on their bicycles, John, along with the former POW and their latest guide, headed north towards Mandola. ‘Unfortunately,’ reported John, ‘the partisans had ambushed a small party of Germans on the road we had hoped to use and the Germans were very busy burning houses, searching everywhere and shooting people. Seventy-five houses were burned to the ground.’
Taking a detour, they followed the route of the River Secchio until they reached Concordia, a few miles from Mirandola. There, local partisans advised them to head east, towards Ferrara. After several rides through the night, they reached the Ferrara area and made contact with the partisan commandant. Eager to help, he produced a number of German prisoners and Russian deserters, whom John interrogated in turn. None, however, could tell him where the elusive general was based.
Despite this, John was determined not to give up, even though he had now spent nearly a month in the field, and despite the extremely tense and dangerous situation in which he found himself. ‘The whole district was being continually searched and pillaged,’ he wrote, ‘and the few partisans had a very thin time living in their holes. Many were captured and shot immediately.’ He had noticed that everywhere there was an atmosphere of fear and distrust. Fascist militia and Blackshirts were, he reported, quite ruthless, burning houses and shooting suspects without blinking. Torture was also ‘quite normal’. On the other hand, as Bruno Vailati had observed in the Romagna Mountains, Germans took no notice of these practices unless one of their own troops was killed, at which point they would respond with frightening and ruthless efficiency. Nor, as far as he could tell, was being a Fascist a safeguard against German pillaging. ‘As yet,’ he noted, ‘the Germans have not completely stripped the countryside, but are doing it slowly and systematically.’ Most Italians, he observed, were desperately short of food and basic goods, and pathetically poor. ‘Everywhere,’ he added, ‘the question is, “When are the Allies coming? We cannot hold out much longer!” ’
John Barton’s mission had coincided with a time of crisis for the partisans. Throughout the summer, when the days had been long, hot and dry, their strength had risen and supplies from the Allies had been plentiful. Victory, it was widely expected, was just around the corner. It was why the partisans in the Apuans had acted with such defiant arrogance towards the 16th Waffen-SS before the massacre at Sant’ Anna; it was why Lupo had remained so confident on Monte Sole.
But that victory had not come, and now they faced a long, bitter winter. Living in caves and barns was tough but bearable when the nights were warm and dry, and when there was fruit on the trees and a good harvest being collected. Surviving in freezing temperatures, in the rain and snow, and with food more scarce than ever, was a different matter altogether. It was a gloomy prospect and one that was made worse by the lessening of supplies, which had suffered as a result of the pinch imposed on the Mediterranean Command, and also because of the weather. Six hundred tons of supplies had been due to be dropped during October, but only seventy-three tons had actually been delivered. It was why partisan commanders and their SOE and OSS liaison officers were so upset when drops were inaccurate or half empty and filled with sand bags rather than something useful.
The onset of winter and the shortage of supplies had also come at a time of increased anti-partisan measures by General Wolff. Kesselring had been alarmed by even greater increases of partisan activity throughout September. ‘Supply traffic severely handicapped,’ he wrote, ‘and acts of sabotage become more and more frequent. This pest must be countered.’ In the Alps, several partisan bands had even experimented in local self-government by declaring whole areas to be independent republics, such as the Republic of Domdossola in the Val d’Ossola, which was declared on 26 September.
This was intolerable to Kesselring and four days later he instructed Wolff to carry out an ‘Anti-partisan Week’ using not only all SS police available but also any tactical reserves, supply and rear-echelon troops, Italian militia and any other forces he could lay his hands on. ‘The Anti-partisan Week,’ Kesselring told Wolff, ‘must make finally clear to the partisan bands the extent of our power, and the fight against these bands must be carried out with the utmost severity.’
Wolff’s operations lasted until the end of the month, and by the end of them the short-lived Republic of Domdossola had been crushed, 1,539 partisans were dead, 1,248 had been taken prisoner, a further 1,973 suspects had been captured, and 2,012 had been rounded up for Organisation Todt. For the Alpine partisans, these operations had been a major setback.
The CLNAI were also keenly aware of the potential dangers that now faced them, and strongly believed that even greater unity was the key to survival. The problem was that the struggle between the political factions was threatening to undermine this goal. General Cadorna, for example, having been given no firm remit from the Allies and little authority from the CLNAI, had found his hands horribly tied in his role as military advisor to the Corps of Volunteers of Freedom and consequently he achieved little. Conscious of this, Ferruccio Parri and Leo Valiani of the CLNAI had met the head of SOE Italy, Colonel Roseberry, in Lugano in Switzerland at the end of October. Roseberry pressed for the Italians to define more clearly Cadorna’s role and to place him in charge of a unified military command in the north – one that included command of all the Garibaldi brigades as well as the Green Flame and non-political bands. The CLNAI, in turn, demanded political recognition from the Allies. The result of the meeting was SOE’s recommendation to the Allies that a meeting be held between them and the CLNAI in Rome.
Before the CLNAI delegation could reach Rome, however, a further blow befell the partisans, and ironically, it came from none other than Alexander, one of their champions. Deeply concerned about the potential plight of the resistance movement, he now saw no point in them wasting their lives until the next major offensive was launched, when he hoped they would once more be able to give direct help to the Allied forces.
With this in mind, on 13 November, he made a radio proclamation on Italia Combatte to all the partisans of the north, asking them to lay down their arms, to conserve ammunition, and to wait for further instructions. However well intentioned Alexander’s proclamation may have been, it was greeted with utter despair by the partisans. Outrage filled the columns of southern newspapers. The Action Party paper, Italia Libera, charged that a return to underground resistance was not only ‘morally wrong but practically impossible’, and made the point that the fight against the Nazi-Fascists was not ‘a summer sport that can be called off at a moment’s notice’.
The announcement coincided with a more placatory approach from General Wolff, who had always been cautious about applying ‘extreme measures’. Indeed, despite ‘Anti-partisan Week’, Wolff had urged Mussolini to declare an amnesty to partisans, and in October claimed to have brought as many as 80,000 partisans back to the cities and into regular occupations. ‘I had obtained the assurances of the fanatical Fascist police of Pavolini,’ he said, ‘that these people, if they returned to their homes and took up normal lives again, would not be bothered by members of the Fascist Police.’ Indeed, while battles continued against the partisans, there were noticeably fewer mass executions of the kind that had blighted the summer, and as part of his efforts not to antagonise the majority of the pro-partisan population further, the misguided reports of Black Brigade actions in the Republican press were also dropped. On the other hand, the Fascist press was quick to report the ‘callousness’ of the Allies for ‘cynically leaving the partisans to their fate’.308
Wolff’s figures were a gross exaggeration, but his approach, with the winter weather on his side, was definitely paying off. Alex’s statement had undoubtedly been a terrible own-goal. In truth, it had not been properly thought through, as General Harding later admitted. Nor had they referred the matter to SOE or OSS, or even the Italian government, before making the statement. It was uncharacteristic of Alexander who was normally so assured in matters of diplomacy, and in fact, came at a time when he and others in Italy were doing as much as they possibly could to safeguard the partisan movement in Italy.
Indeed, after Colonel Roseberry’s encounter with Parri and Valiani in Lugano, Alex had written a detailed report outlining the urgent need to give increased support to the partisans and to give greater recognition to the CLNAI. This forced a major and long overdue re-evaluation at AFHQ of their attitudes towards the Italian resistance and its part in the future of the north. At the same time, back in London, Lord Selborne, the Minister for Economic Welfare, had also taken up the cause of the Italian resistance, based on information received from both Alexander and No 1 Special Force. Writing to Churchill, he pointed out that public opinion was behind them – as Kesselring was also keenly aware – and that future Allied relations with the Italians in the north would be affected by the support they gave the partisans now. Winter would be hard for them. Without urgent supplies, the partisans and their existing SOE and OSS missions would face collapse and be exposed to terrible reprisals. At the same time, the Allies in Italy would be depriving themselves of a valuable weapon. ‘When you have called a Maquis out into open warfare,’ he told the Prime Minister, ‘it is not fair to let it drop like a hot potato. These men have burned their boats and have no retreat.’
Churchill agreed and demanded the situation be rectified. So too did General McNarney, Jumbo Wilson’s American deputy, so that despite Air Marshal Slessor’s belief that supply dropping in Italy was a wasted effort, an increase in supply was agreed upon. The US 51st Troop Carrier Wing was even diverted from operations in the Balkans, and as a result there was an increase in the amount of supplies airlifted.
Unwittingly, however, Alexander’s proclamation of 13 November helped the Allies’ negotiating hand when the CLNAI delegation arrived clandestinely in the south in the third week of November. Short of funds and supplies, having suffered from recent rastrellamenti, and with morale wavering, the CLNAI were desperate to improve their lot and so were now ready to make concessions to the Allies – concessions that several months before, during the height of their summer successes, they would never have considered. And as Alfredo Pizzoni, the chairman of the CLNAI, admitted to General Wilson, there were, they believed, at the end of November, only around 90,000 partisans, of whom just over half were in the towns and cities. Of these, about 40 per cent were armed, whilst in the mountains, they reckoned only a meagre 8 per cent carried weapons.
In addition to Pizzoni – a Milanese banker and one of the few non-party members of the movement – the delegation consisted of Ferruccio Parri of the Action Party, and Gian Carlo Pajetta, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and the second most senior Communist within the CLNAI after Luigi Longo. What they wanted was official recognition as the agent of the Italian government in the occupied north, and to gain the acceptance of the CVL as a regular armed force to be integrated into the Italian Army, which would then avoid the demobilisation of partisan bands once the Allies arrived.
Both Macmillan and Alexander were now anxious to create a tripartite agreement between the CLNAI, the Supreme Allied Commander and the Bonomi government. The main concern for the Allies was the establishment of the Allied Military Government in liberated areas as the war was finally drawing to a close. The final stages of the campaign might move so fast that there would be ‘empty spaces’ occupied by local CLNs before the AMG could get there. How could the Allies be sure these partisan-led and politically varying committees would lay down arms and hand over power to AMG? The experience of the civil war that had so quickly evolved in Greece had burnt Allied – or rather, British – fingers. Even Alex, who was also keen to draw up an agreement with the CLNAI as soon as possible, had concerns about a repetition of the Greek situation. ‘The operations of SOE [and OSS] in arming nearly 100,000 so-called patriots,‘he wrote, ‘will produce the same revolutionary situation unless we devise a system for, immediately on the liberation of the territory, taking them in to either our or the Italian Army.’310
There was a major difference, however, between Italy and Greece and that was that the Communists in Italy, unlike EAM/ELASag in Greece, had made it their policy to do everything in their power to avoid civil war once the Nazis and Fascists had been driven out of Italy. The post-Fascist revolution in Italy was to be achieved by the creation of a parliamentary democratic republic, which, they hoped, would be led by the Communists as supported by a majority of the voting population. Their task, during these months of resistance, was to build up a consensus of support. Thus it was that despite being the most radical of the major non-Fascist political parties, they were also the most willing to compromise, just as they had been back in the spring over the monarchy issue.
It was at this moment that a different kind of crisis struck the Italian government in the south. For several months, the parties forming the CLN – which made up the cabinet – had been beginning to split apart. Led by the socialists, the left was demanding social change, which included industrial and agrarian reform, the establishment of a socialist republic, and the purge of all former Fascists from public life. This latter change was already in hand, but it was the manner and degree in which this was being carried out that was causing a divergence of views; after all, every civil servant had had to hold a Fascist Party tessera to keep his job, but this did not mean they had been die-hard Fascists. Bonomi and the conservatives felt some leeway was needed and that the elimination of almost the entire governing class would not serve Italy well. Nor were they keen to prosecute Marshal Badoglio. Count Sforza, as High Commissioner for Sanctions Against Fascism, strongly disagreed, however, and demanded a complete purge, as did the other leftist members of the cabinet.
The second major point of conflict was over the position of the CLN. The six-party coalition had been formed by the Central CLN in Rome, but Bonomi now believed that since the government, rather than AMG, ran most of the liberated country, he, as prime minister, represented the state, and was therefore responsible to the head of state – that is, the King and Prince Umberto – not the CLN. In this, he had the support of the Liberals but not the Actionists, Socialists or Communists, who believed it was the CLN, not the King, who represented the people, and were increasingly suspicious that Bonomi wanted to restore a pre-Fascist constitutional monarchy to which they had no intention of returning.
These issues festered and the split in differences widened, until on 25 November Bonomi tendered his resignation to Prince Umberto, having become exasperated with what he saw as repeated efforts of the extreme left to interfere and gain greater influence. The CLN were then forced to find a way of re-establishing a new cabinet. The Liberals conceded that it should have the authority of the CLN, and so Bonomi acquiesced on the matter, but over other matters compromises clearly needed to be made. With Count Sforza as the new chairman of the CLN, they began to try and form a new cabinet. Bonomi, it was hoped, would continue as prime minister, with Sforza as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Once again, however, the British objected to such an appointment, and although not a veto, it was couched in such a way that it could be interpreted as such, not only by the Italians, but also by the Americans.
An international storm followed. The British insisted they had merely been expressing an opinion, but the damage was done. With Britain’s reserves of manpower falling sharply and with America’s growth accelerating, this episode, on the surface so unimportant, demonstrated how much British influence was on the decline. America was now even more the senior partner. If Britain appeared to step out of line, it could no longer expect any closing of the ranks. In America there was stinging criticism, not just of the British stance in Italy, but also about its intervention in Greece. ‘The Greek news is very bad,’ noted Harold Macmillan wistfully in his diary at the beginning of 7 December, ‘and so is the Italian. Greece has a revolution, and Italy is without a government. And in both cases we have drifted apart from our American ally.’311 As luck would have it, both he and Alexander were in London at the time. Had Macmillan, especially, been in Italy, the whole matter might well have been resolved more easily.
And yet the whole debacle had, in many ways, a positive outcome. Bonomi agreed to accept the CLN’s de facto position, but insisted on pledging allegiance to Prince Umberto as the ‘Lieutenant General of the Realm’. The purge issue also ended in victory for Bonomi and the conservatives. Sforza was offered the job of ambassador in Washington but turned it down; since he was affiliated to the Actionists, however, he remained, like the party, outside the cabinet, as did the Socialists. Bonomi’s new four-party cabinet, sworn in on 12 December, strengthened Bonomi’s position but also that of the Communists and the Christian Democrats. The crisis was over.
While this fiasco was carrying on, a bi-partite agreement had been drawn up between the Allies and the CLNAI, with Macmillan hoping the Italian government could be brought in at a later date once the dust had settled. On the Allies’ part, they agreed to provide 160 million lire a month during the German occupation. Supplies would also be increased, and the CLNAI would be consulted on ‘all matters relating to armed resistance, anti-scorch, and the maintenance of order’.312 The Allies also agreed to recognise the CVL as the military arm of the CLNAI, and although Cadorna was to be appointed the official military commander of the Italian resistance, the partisans were to come under overall command of General Alexander and were to obey his instructions without question. When the war finally came to an end, the CLNAI was to maintain law and order only until the Allied Military Government could be established. Power would then be passed in turn to the established Italian government.
For the CLNAI – and especially the Action and Communist parties – these were harsh terms, but bruised and depleted as they were, and desperately short of cash, they were in no position to haggle. Alexander had them over a barrel and was determined to exert as much control as possible. The agreement was signed on 7 December, and on 26 December was reaffirmed by Bonomi’s government. However humiliating this may have been for the leadership of the CLNAI, it was undoubtedly in the best interests of the future of the Allied campaign and of post-war Italy – and consequently in the best interests of the majority of Italians.
Meanwhile, Major John Barton was continuing his efforts to locate his elusive German general. ‘We stayed at the house of a Fascist Captain of Militia,’ he reported, ‘who was a good Fascist by day and an even better partisan by night.’ Running trucks of supplies between Bordeno and Verona, he carried arms one way for the partisans and for the Germans the other.
It was the captain who told John that his target was most likely in the Verona-Brescia area, much further to the north of the Po, and he offered to go to Verona to try and find out. The day after he left, John and his translator spotted three trucks of Fascist troops rumbling down the road. Deciding to play safe, they jumped out of windows at the back of the house and hid amongst the sugar beet in the field outside. It was as well that they did, because the Fascists stopped and searched the house. ‘There was obviously a spy at work,’ noted John, ‘for the Fascists went to all the partisans’ houses, found weapons, explosives etc, and took them all prisoner.’ For some reason, however, the now disappeared GNR captain did not appear to be at the top of his list of suspects.
The rastrellamento went on for several days, during which time John and his translator lived in fields and begged for food from women and children. This experience clearly proved too much for his former POW side-kick, who one day walked out on him. ‘When things cooled down again,’ noted John, ‘I found that all my partisan contacts had been taken or shot.’ He hung around the area for a further ten days, but there was no sign of the captain, most of the civilians in the area had begun to suspect him, rather than the GNR captain, of being a German spy, and since he was now lousy and troubled by scabies, he decided to head back to base.
Having made his way back to the Modena area, he made contact with the partisans there, and asked them to send messages to Milan, Verona, and Venice asking for information on the whereabouts of the German general. Accompanied by an American air gunner who had bailed out a few days before, he headed back to the mountains, where he found Major Wilcockson still cursing the lack of clothing and medical supplies. After waiting a few days at Gova, John was guided south across Allied lines and back to safety. He had been away two months, and in that time had achieved nothing, but had learned much about both sides in German-occupied Italy, and about the conditions and fears in which the partisans and civilians alike lived. ‘Everyone is terribly frightened of the Air Force,’ he noted, ‘the civilian population most of all.’ He had spent Christmas Day with a man whose wife and child had been killed by a bomb falling in his back yard. ‘To me it was just wanton jettisoning of bombs from aircraft returning home,’ he wrote; ‘to the civilians it is a very real terror.’
He had also discovered a population torn apart by hunger, fear and mistrust. John had found the experience testing enough – both physically and mentally – yet he was a professional soldier, and despite the dangers, was able to return to a safer world at his mission’s end – a world in which he would find clean clothes, a decent bed, food, drink and friends whom he trusted implicitly.
But in the towns and cities of the plains, and up in the mountains to the south, partisans were weakening by the day through lack of food and clothing, freezing in the appalling winter conditions and hunted down like dogs. Morale was low, disillusionment great, and the future very uncertain indeed.
Germany had had designs on the Middle East, and particularly on Iraq, since the 1890s, driven by the Kaiser’s jealousy of Britain’s commercial empire in the East. His obsession, the Berlin–Baghdad railway, reached the Turkey-Iraq border in 1913 and was only halted by the outbreak of the Great War
The Arabists at the Auswartiges Amt, the German Foreign Ministry, in Berlin kept the idea of German influence in the Middle East alive through the Weimar period, and made an astute choice in selecting Dr Fritz Grobba as the Chargé d’affaires of the German Mission in Baghdad in 1932.
Grobba was the central figure in Germany’s Middle East policy in the 1930s and early 1940s. Although being a member neither of the Nazi Party nor of the aristocracy that traditionally ran foreign policy, he was, nevertheless, a highly able and influential German agent.
Grobba, who spoke fluent Arabic, Persian and Turkish, had served with the German Military Mission to the Turkish Army in Palestine during the Great War, and knew the people and the mentality of the Middle East. While he found an increasing radicalization of Iraqi politics and a country simmering with resentment towards the British, he also found people who were impressed by Germany’s strong leadership and militarism and inspired by the resurgence of German power and by its intimidation of Europe.
Grobba was very ambitious, some say unscrupulously so, and many thought that he had ‘Lawrentian dreams’. Grobba saw that bringing Iraq into the German camp could provide him with a springboard into a major career at the Auswartiges Amt.
Grobba was egalitarian and a very active and highly personable diplomat, and he and his charming wife worked diligently to create a wide range of relationships embracing leading political, religious, military and economic leaders in Iraq. He was very successful in promoting German trade, but his role changed after 1935 and he became much more political.
Although the Iraqi Army, and later the Mufti, had continuously requested German arms, Grobba, while sympathetic to the nationalist cause and to the trouble that the Mufti wanted to create for the British in Palestine, was caught in a policy trap.
Between 1933 and 1939 Hitler’s England Politik was designed to strike an alliance with England, which meant that Grobba was unable to be seen to support radical anti-British nationalists. Complicating the issue was the 1936 Rome-Berlin Axis agreement, where the Eastern Mediterranean was deemed to be within the scope of the Italians, who were already trying to undermine the British funding newspapers like Saut al Shab.
Grobba believed that these factors, together with Hitler’s antiSemitic and racial doctrine, the Weltanschauung, which excluded Arabs, and the Auswartiges Amt, with a greater interest in Europe, all contributed to underestimating the value of Arab nationalism. This compromised Germany’s Middle East policy, which Grobba had helped to both design and implement, and undermined his mission in Iraq.
Attitudes towards the Middle East policy in Germany were diverse. The Aussenpolitisches Amt, the Office for Foreign Policy of the Nazi Party, and the German military intelligence organization, the Abwehr, were interested in expanding Germany’s influence. In the Auswartiges Amt only a few people valued the Arab nationalist movements positively, and the prevailing view was that they were not to be taken seriously. The Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, felt that Iraq was too far away and too difficult to reach to support an armed insurrection.
Grobba also felt that Italian involvement was an embarrassment, as many Arabs viewed Italy as a colonial power with imperial ambitions in the Middle East.
As a consequence a frustrated Grobba could provide only financial support and personal encouragement rather than public displays of support, overt propaganda and arms shipments.
Nevertheless, Grobba decided to continue ‘his’ policy in a covert fashion. He intrigued with Iraqi Army officers, exploiting their Anglophobic and Germanophilic sentiments through dinners, parties and film shows, and financed pro-fascist groups and cells. From the mid-1930s his house was a central meeting point for Iraqi nationalists. He subsidized newspapers to run pro-German and anti-British propaganda as well as the serialization of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Arabic in Al Alam, Al Arabi in 1933, and negotiated successfully for German to replace French as the second language in Iraqi schools. Grobba also began to subsidize the creation of clubs promoting Iraqi-German friendship in Baghdad, as well as reciprocal visits by politicians of the two countries. In 1937 he arranged for the Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach to visit Baghdad with a delegation, and financed representatives of the paramilitary Futuwwah to attend the Nuremberg Rally in 1938.
After Munich, Germany paid less attention to appearances, and in 1938 followed Italy’s lead by broadcasting anti-British propaganda in Arabic from Radio Zessen, near Berlin, using an Iraqi announcer, Yunis al Bahri.
With high levels of illiteracy throughout the Middle East, the radio was an ideal instrument for spreading propaganda. As early as 1934 the Italians had launched an Arabic-language service from Radio Bari, glorifying Italy and its achievements and supporting the Arab nationalist cause against the British and French. The Italians provided radio sets at nominal prices throughout the Middle East, which was extremely popular with the owners of Arab cafés, the centre of social life, who installed the sets for their patrons.
Perceptions of weakness
The fall of France in May 1940 changed the Iraqi cabinet’s attitude towards Britain. The view prevailed, even among the pro-British faction, that a British defeat was inevitable and that the best course of action was to adopt a strictly neutral stance and limit the fulfilment of treaty obligations towards Britain to a minimum.
When the Ambassador requested Iraqi agreement to land British troops in Basra to proceed to Haifa across Iraq in June, the government responded by limiting the number of troops and imposing a fixed time for their presence on Iraqi soil. Although there were intense negotiations between the British and the Iraqis, particularly over changes in policy in Palestine, the British rejected the Baghdad proposals.
This inevitably led to the Iraqis’ increasingly turning towards Germany. Several visits were made by Iraqi government ministers and by the Mufti’s private secretary, Osman Kemal Haddad, in June and July 1940 to Fritz von Papen, the German Ambassador in Ankara, to discuss opportunities for collaboration with Germany.
In September 1940 Haddad travelled to Berlin to see Grobba, Otto-Werner von Hentig, the Head of Pol VII, the section of the political department of the Auswartiges Amt responsible for the Middle East, Dr Ernst Woermann, the Under-Secretary of State and Ernst von Weizsacher, the Secretary of State.
Haddad’s visit was designed to solicit German support in the form of an immediate formal statement guaranteeing Iraq’s independence.
The Germans were cautious, and while agreeing in principle, were unwilling to make a public commitment, and Haddad returned to Baghdad with vague promises rather than firm undertakings. The Germans also requested that the Iraqis should not act militarily against the British without German agreement, or encourage the British to occupy Iraq.
However, the Mufti and Rashid Ali continued to pressure the Germans, and finally, in October 1940, the Germans, together with the Italians, issued a joint communiqué which, while expressing sympathy with Arab aspirations, was more aimed at anti-British propaganda than a full statement of support.
Anglo-Iraqi relations deteriorated further, and despite Nuri’s attempt at conciliation Rashid Ali refused to change his stance. Although the majority in the government rejected Nuri’s viewpoint that Britain would prevail, and felt that Britain was now isolated and on the brink of ruin, many in parliament were pro-British and favoured cooperation with Britain. When the Italian forces under Maresciallo d’Italia Graziani took a beating from the British in the Western Desert in March 1941, neutrality had an aura of safety about it. The majority feeling in the country was that Iraqi neutrality was essential: if Britain were to win, Iraq would be safe anyway, and if the Germans won, Iraq’s best hope was to do nothing to offend them.
Haddad undertook a second visit to Berlin in December 1940 with the specific objective of securing economic and military aid, in particular captured British weapons. As increasing political tension in Baghdad was weakening Rashid Ali’s position, he became desperate to clarify the attitude of the Axis towards Iraq and to obtain arms.
This time Rashid Ali’s requests fell on sympathetic ears, as Germany needed to put pressure on Britain to counteract her successes against the Italians in Cyrenaica. Creating a new battleground in the rear would distract the British.
Despite the fall of Rashid Ali’s government in January 1941 in response to his ongoing dispute with the British and the Regent, the Germans were well advanced in their plan to ship weapons to Iraq. The Germans correctly believed that the new regime of Taha al Hashimi was an extension of previous nationalist governments. al Hashimi was a known admirer of Germany and of the Golden Square, a cadre of four extreme nationalist Iraqi colonels – Salah el Din al Sabbagh, Fahmi Said, Mahmud Salman and Kamil Shabib – whom he regarded as his protégés.
With the promise of German arms on the way and a Britain becoming increasingly weaker, the Mufti, the Golden Square and Rashid Ali and his cabinet of ultra-nationalists began to plan their coup.
From 14 April 1944, based on the third agreement on SS
recruitment in Hungary, signed by Minister Csatay and plenipotentiary
Veesenmayer, the Waffen-SS could freely recruit Hungarian citizens, who
considered themselves as ethnic German, into its ranks from the territory of
occupied Hungary. Those draftees who previously had lost their Hungarian
citizenship now had it restored. The Germans sought the recruitment of up to
80,000 men, hoping to raise several Hungarian SS divisions. Service in
Waffen-SS units, instead of in the Honvédség, became mandatory for all men over
seventeen years of age for Hungarian citizens of German ethnic background – the
so-called Volksdeutsche. Those who did not show up for recruitment were taken
by force by members of the local Volksbund organization. By 25 August, some
42,000 young men had been incorporated into the Waffen-SS. However, this number
was deemed by SS-Obergruppenführer Berger, Chief of the Waffen-SS Main Office,
as inadequate. Therefore, the recruiting drive was intensified, often taking
young men by force. Indeed, many of these ethnic Germans did not wish to serve
under a foreign flag and chose instead to enrol into the Honvédség. Eventually,
only three such Waffen-SS divisions were actually formed – the 18. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision
‘Horst Wessel’, the 22. SS- Kavalleriedivision ‘Ungarn’ (later ‘Maria
Theresia’) and the 31. SS-Grenadierdivision (unnamed). These main units joined
the already existing 8. SS-Kavalleriedivision ‘Florian Greyer’, 2.
SS-Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’ and 16. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Reichsführer
SS’, made up also by Hungarian volunteers of various ethnic backgrounds, among
other ethnics. Finally, from 19 February 1945, a newly created 37.
SS-Kavalleriedivision ‘Lützow’ located in the Bratislava area, incorporated the
surviving elements of the 8. and 22. Kavalleriedivisionen. In total,
approximately 122,000 Hungarian citizens of German ethnic origin served in the
Waffen-SS until the war’s end.
Parallel with the recruitment of Volksdeutsche from Hungary
for the Waffen-SS, under the auspices of what the Germans from late 1944 called
Totaler Krieg (Total War), plans were drawn to establish four foreign Waffen-SS
divisions to be manned by ethnic Hungarian soldiers. The manpower would be
drawn primarily from Honvédség troops within the Third Reich, both volunteers
and recruits. These high units were to be equipped exclusively with German
weapons and would be trained by German officers, according to German war
doctrine. The uniforms would also be German, with a distinctive unit patch
being worn on the right sleeve. However, the divisions’ proper names would be
Hungarian, the commanding officers would be also Hungarian and the command
language Hungarian as well.
The first such unit – the 25. Waffen-Grenadierdivision der
SS ‘Hunyadi’ (ung. Nr. 1) (after the great Hungarian medieval commander from
Transylvania, John Hunyadi) – was formed in late October 1944 following an
order signed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the chief SS leader. It was
followed by the 26. Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS ‘Hungária’ (ung. Nr. 2),
formed in late December. Honvédség Lieutenant General, SS-Brigadenführer and
Waffen-SS Major General József Grassy (born Grasch) and Honvédség Colonel and
SS-Standartenführer Zoltán Pisky were selected as commanding officers of the
two new SS divisions. To co-ordinate the forming and training of these high SS
units, the XVII. Waffen-Armeekorps der SS was established at Neuhammer, in
Silesia, on 1 January 1945, under the command of Honvédség General,
SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General, Ferenc Feketehalmi-Czeydner (born
Zeidner), one of the perpetrators of the Újvidék (Novi Sad) massacre of January
1942, who escaped the death penalty by fleeing to Germany. On 4 February, he
was replaced by Honvédség General, SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General
Jenő Ruszkay (born Ranzenberger). On 15 January, Ruszkay was promoted Chief
Inspector of all Hungarian Waffen-SS units. The forming of two other planned
Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions, tentatively called ‘Gömbös’ and ‘Görgey’, did
not actually take place.
The first combat assignment of these Hungarian Waffen-SS
divisions was against Soviet troops advancing into Silesia in March 1945. Their
combat record was mixed: some units fought bravely, while others seemed to be
Besides the ‘Hunyadi’ and ‘Hungária’ SS divisions, there was
another Waffen-SS unit formed by Hungarian volunteers. It was the 61.
SS-Grenadierregiment, led by Honvédség Colonel and SS-Standartenführer László
Deák. Another ad hoc unit was the so-called Ney-Regiment, under the command of
Honvédség Major in Reserve and SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr Károly Ney, a lawyer
in civilian life. Finally, there were two other SS units worthy of mention –
the SS-Schi-Battalion 25 and the 1st Hungarian Assault Battalion, both
subordinated to higher SS units. These units took part in combat against Soviet
units in western Hungary, Silesia and southern Germany until Victory in Europe
(VE) Day. It has to be noted that none of these Hungarian manned Waffen-SS
units were actually part of the Honvédség, their existence and activity being
merely tolerated by the Hungarian government. Therefore, their activity will
not be detailed in this volume.
Apart from the Hungarian SS units, there were two obscure
and minor right-wing military organizations formed close to the war’s end and
active until VE Day and beyond. The first one was the so-called Hungaristic
Legion (Hungarista Légió), while the second the Kopjás Movement, the latter
being formed as a Hungarian version of the subversive German ‘Werewolf ’
guerrilla bands, with the task of harassing the occupying Soviet forces.
Neither formation saw any notable activity, however.
The Last Months of the War
The territory taken over by the Soviet Army and the
so-called Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány (INK, Interim National Government), was
formed on 22 December in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. The members of the new
pro-Soviet government were chosen from leftist politicians, high-ranking
officers who had earlier defected to the Soviet side or had been sent by Horthy
to negotiate the failed armistice, as well as respected local personalities who
were willing to deal with the Soviets. Initially, the communists – some in
exile in Moscow for many years – received only second-ranking portfolios.
However, they had the real power behind the scenes. General Béla Miklós became
the prime minister, General János Vörös the Minister of Defence with Colonel
Kálmán Kéri the Chief of Staff, General Gábor Faragho the Minister of Public
Affairs, and Ferenc Erdei the Minister of the Interior. In its first public
declaration, the INK ascertained legal continuity with Horthy’s deposed old
government. The next major step was to declare war on Germany. This bold
declaration – most probably made under Soviet pressure – was, in fact, hollow,
as the INK did not possess any troops. Moreover, even the so-called ‘democratic
Hungary’ was technically still in a state of war with the Allies for a short
while, as the official armistice between Moscow and Debrecen was signed only on
20 January 1945. The actual forming of the envisaged new Hungarian armed force,
officially known as Magyar Honvédség (thus devoid of the royal appellation) –
what the left-wing press called ‘Democratic Honvédség’ – could thus only be
started after the armistice became official.
Building, training, arming and then engaging in combat, the
new army took high priority for the Interim National Government. The Hungarians
hoped that by taking an active part in the closing stages of the anti-German
war they could obtain favours from the Soviets, and could thus influence the
final outcome of the Hungary’s post-war status – particularly her borders. However,
Stalin was not interested in a rapid building of a ‘democratic’ Hungarian Army,
so the efforts by members of the INK were in vain. Unaware of the Soviet
dictator’s intentions, the Hungarian delegations signed the armistice, which
stipulated, among other things, the forming of eight heavily equipped infantry
divisions. However, this was quite unrealistic, as the chance of enlisting
approximately 150,000 men in a war-ravaged country – half of which was still in
Axis hands – was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, Vörös, Kéri and other
high-ranking officers in charge started fervently to raise the first two
divisions (the 1st and the 6th) in early February 1945. Both new divisions were
formed at Jászberény, some 120 kilometres west of Debrecen and 70 kilometres
east of Budapest. The 1st Infantry Division was placed under command of Colonel
Tibor Szalay, while the 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Colonel László
Székely. The soldiers came from various prisoner of war camps and local
volunteers. Soon, more than 50,000 men had been assembled under the flag of the
new Magyar Honvédség. Therefore, the INK started to form two additional
divisions. The main problem now was not the manpower, but the armament,
supposed to be delivered exclusively by the Red Army. However, deliveries did
not arrive, being delayed for various reasons. When some armament finally
arrived in March, with further time necessary for training, the first
combat-ready units started to deploy to the front, already located in Austria,
only in mid-April. By the time the Hungarian soldiers arrived in the actual
front zone, the war was over. Therefore, they saw no combat, and thus could not
achieve any war merits on behalf of the new ‘democratic’ Hungary.
Parallel to the forming of the new ‘democratic’ Honvédség,
the old Royal Honvédség still held under its control the western part of
Hungary and kept fighting the intruders. Of the three armies, only two existed
in mid-February: the First Army under the command of General Dezső László,
deployed in the area north of Danube, in the Felvidék region, and the Third
Army, under the command of General József Heszlényi, controlling parts of the
Transdanubia (western Hungary). At this stage, the total manpower of the
Honvédség stood at less than 210,000 men, down from the over one million
soldiers available prior to Horthy’s proclamation of armistice.
Following the fall of Budapest, the increasingly irrelevant
Hungarian Parliament sought refuge in Sopron, the last major city in western
Hungary, located just a few kilometres from the Third Reich’s borders. The
office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Defence relocated to Kőszeg,
while the Ministries of the Interior, External Affairs and Finance moved to
Szombathely, also close to the German borders. Szálasi set up his quarters at a
villa close to Velem village. From there, he regularly toured the remaining
areas of Hungary still under Axis control, trying to persuade the soldiers and
civilians for continued resistance to the ‘Soviet menace’. Despite these
desperate measures, defections among the rank and file were commonplace. Many
soldiers, mostly from the First Army, tired of the war, believed the Soviet
propaganda and crossed the frontline, in hope of a quick return to their homes.
However, despite the Soviets’ promise, most found themselves in closed railway
cattle cars on the way to the USSR as prisoners of war.
In the meantime, Hitler decided on a last stand in
south-western Hungary in early March. The Axis counter-attack between Lake
Velence and Lake Balaton, known as ‘Operation Spring Awakening’, was to be the
last large Axis offensive and the last major tank battle of the war. The goal
was to secure the vital oilfields in Zala County and cut the Soviet frontline
in two. A total of 140,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, supported by an
impressive one thousand tanks and assault guns, 3,200 guns and mortars, as well
as around 850 aircraft, were amassed for Hitler’s last large-scale offensive.
The attack, launched on 6 March, initially surprised the Red Army. However,
after a promising start for the Axis, the operation proved to be a failure in
less than two weeks. Although an armoured spearhead did reach River Danube at
Dunapentele, one of the offensive’s main goals, it could not keep this achievement
due to lack of sizeable supporting infantry. After only eleven days, the
Germans were driven back to the positions they held initially.
The failed offensive was followed by a hasty retreat beyond the Reich’s borders, into Austria (Ostmark). Hungary’s second largest city, Győr, fell on 28 March. A day earlier, the last Crown Council was held on Hungarian soil. The Minister of Home Defence, Beregfy, was still optimistic, although his troops controlled only a fraction of the country. Next day, Szálasi and his government abandoned the headquarters and moved it into German-held Austria. On 12 April 1945, the last shots were fired in Hungary proper. Hungary was completely overrun by the Red Army.
It is a military truism that supply services must be
established, lines of communication laid out, and depots set up before combat
operations can begin, for without these fundamentals a fighting force is
restricted either to that which it can carry or to being forced to live off the
land. The first German troops which debarked in Tripoli on 11 February 1941,
were, therefore, supply specialists and water purifying teams who immediately
set about establishing store depots, ration, fuel, and ammunition points, and
generally preparing the area for the arrival of the fighting troops.
The German combat units which were despatched to Africa were
the only Axis soldiers which could be considered as ready for battle and
because the original task of the force had been foreseen as a blocking
operation the group consisted principally of a number of machine gun battalions
and anti-tank units. Artillery support was afforded by .a single motorised
artillery battalion and the services detachments were a signals and an engineer
company. At a later date 5th Panzer Regiment was to come under command and this
addition of light and medium tanks increased the force’s potency. A battalion
of self-propelled (SP) anti-tank guns which arrived during March at the port of
Tripoli was not taken on strength of 5th Light Division but had an independent
From 13 February onwards the combat troops began to arrive
regularly; at first elements of 3rd Motorised Reconnaissance Battalion and 39th
Anti-tank Battalion and then, during the first weeks of March the artillery and
armoured fighting vehicles were unloaded. Although Hitler’s name for the new
unit was Africa Corps, it was not organised as such until a much later date and
for a long time there were neither Corps troops nor supply columns and the
second German division, 15th Panzer Division, which would have raised the group
to Corps level was not expected to arrive in Tripoli until the beginning of
The military situation in those anxious February days was
that the British had reached El Agheila and their armoured reconnaissance units
had appeared to the west of that place. The Axis command had to anticipate the
British intention. Would Wavell go on to capture Tripoli and to destroy not
only the Italian Army but also a major part of the Italian Colonial Empire, or
would time be given to Rommel and his battle-ready troops to establish a
defensive line in the desert south of the gulf of Sirte? The Italians
anticipated an early resumption of the offensive by Wavell’s army, which they
estimated to contain two armoured and three motorised divisions. The German
commanders were less inclined to this appreciation for they reasoned that any
advance by the British from El Agheila to Tripoli would require that Army to
cover a distance of over 400 miles, the greatest part of which advance would be
through a waterless and empty wasteland.
The British offensive, which had just smashed Graziani, had
covered more than 800 miles and the losses of men and material which would have
been incurred during that operation would have to be made good before the
offensive could roll again. Then, too, there would be supply problems; for
Wavell’s lines of communication had been extended and any attempt to use the
ports along the coast, in particular Benghasi, would be interrupted by the
Luftwaffe whose Xth Afrika Corps was now operating in Africa against British
targets and which had begun to bomb Benghasi as early as 12 February.
Rommel first sent his troops to positions in the empty
desert of the Sirte where they gave backbone to the Italians in that area and
prepared to delay any British advance. On 16 February, 3rd Reconnaissance
Battalion travelled 360 miles along the Via Balbia, took up position east of
Sirte, and sent out patrols which made contact and drove off the British
reconnaissance detachments near En Nofilia. This successful clash showed that
the British had still not reached that area in any strength. The reconnaissance
battalion then advanced to reconnoitre at Arco dei Fileni, some 100 miles to
the east, where the tactical headquarters of 5th Light Division was established
and to which the divisional units were directed to advance, once they had
debarked in Tripoli.
The Brescia and Pavia Divisions were set to build defences
in the Sirte around which Rommel formed a blocking line, set along the high
ground approximately 20 miles west of El Agheila. The right wing of these
positions was touching a salt marsh but, to guard the wide open, deep southern
flank, patrols were sent to occupy the Marada Oasis, 80 miles south of El
Agheila and Ariete Division was also positioned to give greater strength to the
At the beginning of March, 5th Panzer Regiment arrived in
Tripoli, held a ceremonial parade to show the flag, and moved up to the
temporarily stagnant front. The Africa Corps was now strong enough to act
offensively and could plan for the recapture of Cyrenaica. Rommel’s original
intention, to wait for the arrival of 15th Panzer Division before going over to
the offensive, was discarded and now he urged Gariboldi, his superior officer,
to bring the Italian divisions forward. Reluctantly Gariboldi agreed and
released Ariete, the armoured division and the partly-motorised Brescia. Rommel
then took this latter formation and put it into the line to relieve his German
On 23 March, after discussions with both Hitler and
Mussolini, Rommel grouped his Corps and on the following day sent a battle
group in to attack 8th Army reconnaissance troops in El Agheila. There was a
short, fierce fire fight and the British withdrew closely pursued by the
Germans. The next objective was the Marsa el Brega gap between the sea and the
difficult country to the south. Even at this early stage in his new command
Rommel had shown an independence in the conduct of his operations which often
conflicted with the intentions and even the orders of his superiors
-particularly those of General Gariboldi, a militarily timid man. He had
intended the Marsa el Brega operation to be only a reconnaissance to establish
British strength in that area. The attack, he had told Rommel, must not go in
without his approval and even OKH had stressed caution for it did not
anticipate that the Axis forces would have sufficient strength to reach
Agedabia, the principal objective, before May. Africa Corps commander had other
ideas and planned to capture Marsa el Brega by a pincer operation. The stronger
of two columns, containing the panzer regiment, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion,
8th Machine Gun Battalion, and elements from the anti-tank gun detachment, was
to advance along the Via Balbia supported by artillery. The second column, made
up of anti-tank guns mounted as SPs, together with 2nd Machine Gun Battalion
was to outflank the British positions from the south and through this threat
speed the assault of the main column.
In the event only the main column came into action and when
the attack opened on 30 March, it ran up against strong British defences manned
by 3rd Armoured Brigade lying behind extensive mine-fields and supported by an
aggressive Royal Air Force, which attacked and delayed the German advance. Not
until the second day of the offensive, and in daytime temperatures of over
80°F, did the infantry and the panzer regiment, supported by 8.8cm guns firing
over open sight and with Stukas dive-bombing ahead of them, break through and
by pursuing the British closely allow them no time to form fresh defence lines.
The southern column, meanwhile, had failed to reach the battlefield at all due
to a combination of navigational errors and bad going.
The results of this minor affair were all positive: the
British had been driven from the last good position blocking the south-western
passage into Cyrenaica, German troops had proved themselves capable of fighting
a desert campaign, and 8th Army was not as strong as Italian intelligence
officers had believed it to be. Rommel began to consider whether he might not
open an offensive, using the forces at his disposal rather than wait until the
panzer division arrived from Germany. He knew that to carry out this scheme
would flout the authority of his Italian superior, that he would be acting
without Hitler’s consent or knowledge, and that he would be ignoring the
advance of OKH. He made the decision and ordered 5th Light Division to resume
the advance upon Agedabia. On 2 April it drove up the Via Balbia, in a compact
group with the reconnaissance battalion in the van followed by the machine gun
battalion. The panzers were out guarding the flanks and from horizon to horizon
the sky was filled with pillars of dust as the vehicles ploughed their way
forward. British artillery fire forced the reconnaissance unit to deploy and to
take up battle formation but no sooner had the unit shaken itself out for
battle than the rearguard withdrew – a wearying tactic which the British used
throughout the morning. Tanks from 8th Army were reported to be in position
south east of Agedabia and Streich commanding 5th Light ordered the panzer
regiment, the anti-tank detachment, and the machine gun battalion to move east
of the road. The machine gunners began to move into position but were halted
south of the town. Rommel, up with the forward troops in his usual fashion,
swung the reconnaissance battalion round the left flank; a move which brought
it floundering in a salt marsh. The panzer regiment then struck at the British
forces, feinting and withdrawing, and enticing the British armour on to the
screen of 8.8 cm guns which stood waiting. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment, true to
cavalry tradition, charged the enemy and were brought under fire by the 8.8s at
almost point-blank range. Twenty-five of the British vehicles lay broken or
burning in front of the gun line and then the 2nd Battalion of 5th Panzer
Regiment swung back and drove the RTR, off the field and pursued them
northwards. Meanwhile the Tower Hamlets Rifles, a London territorial unit, had
come under attack and had lost a company. Only another tank charge brought the hard-pressed
British infantry relief from the German panzers.
This pressure against the British southern flank reacted
upon the stubborn defence which was being put up against the machine gun
battalion on the central sector. Thus, by midday the machine gunners had
advanced across an area dotted with the palls of black and acrid smoke rising
from tanks which 5th Panzer Regiment had ‘brewed up’ and vast clouds hanging in
the sky above depots which 8th Army had destroyed before their withdrawal.
The reconnaissance battalion having dragged itself from the
salt marsh pushed on to the town and joined forces with the machine gun
battalion. Their combined strength brought the advance across the
Tripoli-Cyrenaica frontier and onward to Zuetina. Nightfall brought a halt to
the fighting and the divisional units, having laagered, made preparations to
maintain the advance during the following day and to pursue closely the enemy
who was withdrawing upon Benghasi. Rommel’s firm order was to keep contact with
the British forces. They must not be allowed to shake off the German advanced
units. During the night the Italian divisions and the Santa Maria detachment
closed up on the German spearhead.
The battle was proceeding to that date in the manner in
which Rommel had planned that it should go. The Agedabia wells had been taken,
the way into Cyrenaica was open, and air reconnaissance as well as ground
observation indicated that the British were abandoning the province in some
disorder and were withdrawing upon Benghasi leaving behind them huge masses of
stores. The immediate threat to Tripoli had been averted and the objective
which OKH had hoped might be accomplished during May was in German hands by
It was on the battlefield at Agedabia that Rommel decided
upon his next and very controversial move. He realised that it was useless to
drive the British before the German armour; the 8th Army must be smashed in
open battle. It will be seen from the map that, starting at El Agheila,
Cyrenaica projects as a huge bulge, the Bight of Bomba, into the Mediterranean
and that the Via Balbia follows this coastline. Rommel reasoned that the
British retreat would be by road and, if this were so, then a swift advance
along native tracks and via Msus and Mechili to Derna, that is across the chord
of the bulge, would bring his forces to the eastern border of Cyrenaica behind
the British and thus cut them off from their bases. He expressed this intention
to his allies and to his staff; most of them were horrified for he was
suggesting that a major military grouping of limited desert experience should
cross a 400-mile expanse of waterless desert. The Italians said that such an
operation was out of the question.
It required months of preparation; the danger that columns
might become separated and lost in the almost trackless expanse was too great
and, in any case, the sand seas and the mountainous djebel were both
impassable. Rommel who had personally reconnoitred the routes from the air
declared them to be passable. In any case the British had traversed the desert
and what they could do the Axis troops could also accomplish. His own
quartermaster’s department pointed out that there would be problems with both
water and fuel and that tyres would be cut to shreds in the rough,
cross-country going. Rommel proposed the most draconian measures to overcome
the fuel and water crises. The forward movement of all German and Italian
fighting units was halted. Every available truck which could be taken,
commandeered, or requisitioned was assembled and soon there was a lorried force
of more than 800 vehicles.
Each lorry was to ferry fuel and water to the front-line
troops and when sufficient had been brought forward the trucks would be
prepared for the trans-desert trip. With the fighting column’s lorries would be
6 days fuel, 5 days water ration, 5 days food including two days hard tack, and
only sufficient ammunition for one day’s battle, for it was not considered that
there would be any fighting during the approach march to Derna. In the supply
columns whatever was the lorry’s normal load would be halved and the balance
made up of petrol. Rommel’s intention was that his whole force would be a
self-contained combat group. Within two days the whole scheme had been worked
out and the fuel supplies had been brought forward. The great desert trek could
begin. The battle plan was straightforward. There were to be several columns.
Those of the left flank – a German reconnaissance battalion and Brescia
Division — who were to hold the British and slow down the pace of their
withdrawal, were to advance along the Via Balbia and go on to capture Benghasi.
This column would then divide and the main body would thrust towards the
strategically important cross-roads at Mechili, while the second and weaker
column from Brescia Division would continue up the road exerting pressure upon
the British before going on to capture Derna.
All the trans-desert columns were to head, by various
tracks, towards Mechili. One of the major columns would be divided to form a
pincer movement aimed at the objective. One main group would form the outer
left wing and 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, forming the inner wing of these two
columns, was to advance to Solluch at which point a column of empty oil drums
pointed due east marking the desert track to the objective and along which the
machine gunners were to advance. The main, southern pincer led by the commander
of 5th Light Division, was to move towards Mechili along the Trigh el Abd. This
column was headed by 8th Machine Gun Battalion and followed by an anti-tank
company, a panzer company, the Italian Santa Maria detachment, a motor cycle
company, and a motorised artillery battalion from Ariete Division. Rommel’s
intention was two-fold: he was trying to create the impression that the Axis
forces were stronger than in fact they were and, that the German objective was
a tactical one — Benghasi — and not a strategic one, the destruction of 8th
Army’s field force.
A report written after the operation and dealing with the
column of soft-skinned vehicles which followed the machine gun battalion is
revealing for the details it gives of the difficulties of desert driving. As
the convoys of trucks headed across the desert in pursuit of the tank columns,
pillars of dust rose high into the air and obscured the column. Shrouded by the
thick blanket of hot dust and with the vision impaired even more by the khamsin
which was blowing, drivers moved their trucks out of line to avoid the dust of
the main in front. Thus the convoy extended in width as the drivers moved
almost in line abreast and the dust cloud which hung above it stretched for
miles, giving the appearance of a whole armoured division on the move. Daylight
navigation was by compass for no reliance could be placed on the Italian maps
which had inaccuracies up to 20 miles. The most prized possession was a set of
British maps which were not only accurately marked but also showed such vital
information as whether the going was good or bad.
Radiators boiled as the trucks struggled up the steep slopes of the djebel, a high stony escarpment, and during the following day the going worsened as the column struggled forwards through seas of loose sand which bogged down the vehicles. That day, 4 April, was a day of despair at the slow going but three broken down tanks, abandoned en route were put into running order and taken on strength. The column commander drove through a fierce sandstorm which had halted his group and reached Mechili where he reported the arrival of his convoy. By evening the trucks had rolled in and a petrol point had been set up. There was sufficient food, water, and ammunition; only lack of petrol, the life blood of panzer operations, had caused some worry.
Meanwhile the divisional commander’s column was still
struggling towards Mechili. It had been delayed by adverse conditions – bad
going, sand storms, and seas of shifting sand – and did not reach the objective
until the morning of the 5 April.
Mechili was a trigh cross-roads settlement in which 8th Army
had set up a dump and a strong point into which had been brought 3rd Indian
Lorried Brigade. This unit had orders to halt the German advance upon Msus and
presently added to its strength was the headquarters of 2nd Armoured Division,
‘M’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery, 3rd Australian Anti-tank Regiment, and a
small number of miscellaneous units. These had fled into the box for the
protection of the major units. On the German side there was anxiety in the
columns pressing towards the place for they were running low on fuel. Rommel
had to seize Mechili before he could swing his Corps northwards to Derna and
ordered that the objective be seized without delay. He had flown over his
columns following their progress through the desert and landing where necessary
to give them detailed orders. Other Fieseler Storch aeroplanes from the command
went out to locate and to direct the widespread columns on to their target.
During the night, guided by Verey pistol flares, by searchlights shone into the
air, and by a number of similar devices the Panzer company was brought up to
The most northerly column of the trans-desert group was made
up of the panzer regiment (minus the company with the southern column), a
motorised artillery battalion, the anti-tank companies, and parts of Ariete
Division. At Bir e! Gerrari the column turned on to the Benghasi-Mechili track
but as a result of map error found that it was confronted by an impassable salt
lake. Confusion piled upon confusion as the original error was compounded by
poor navigation and, as a result of this, the whole column drove round in wide
circles for some time and then ran out of fuel leaving the panzer regiment
stranded in the desert.
On the Via Balbia the reconnaissance battalion fighting
against Australian infantry and artillery rearguards captured Benghasi in the
bright moonlit pre-dawn of 4 April. The town and its airfield were handed over
to the advanced guard of Brescia Division and the battalion then swung towards Mechili
to add strength to the panzer ring which was beginning to surround the ‘box’
there. Other small units which had been separated from the columns came in and
Rommel led in 8th Machine Gun Battalion and then directed it to advance upon
Derna and to cut the Via Balbia. Parts of the British force encircled at
Mechili were ordered to break out towards Derna and by unlucky fate they
encountered the machine gun battalion also heading for that town who flung them
back into the Mechili box. But there were other delays to the machine gun
battalion advance particularly around the Derna airfield and not until the
reconnaissance battalion arrived during 7 April, to reinforce the attack and to
bring it forward again, was it possible to cut the road. The town and the aerodrome
fell quickly and more than 1000 prisoners were taken including two generals,
Neame and O’Connor, and much equipment including several tanks.
The 8th Army reacted and established a series of blocking
points. At nightfall on 7 April the 9th Australian Division supported % tanks
had taken up position astride and thus blocking the Via Balbia. The Australian
left flank was at Acroma, a town 15 miles west of Tobruk, and there was a small
British force garrisoning the important box at El Adem to the south of the
The fighting around Mechili rose to a climax. Even though
the Panzer regiment from the northern column was still stranded for lack of
fuel other units of other columns had arrived to strengthen the encircling
forces. During the night of 7/8 April the main attack went in. The Santa Maria
detachment stormed from the east, the machine gun battalion from the north, and
a group of 10 tanks of the southern column drove up to strike at the southern
side of the box. Part of the British garrison thrust along the western track
mounted on vehicles and armoured cars, but this escape attempt was brought
under fire and was turned back by anti-tank guns and the machine guns of an
Italian motor cycle company. Isolated small groups of British soldiers, which then
struck to the south-east, broke through the ring but the main garrison stood
fast and fought it out. The British and the Imperial troops battled on until
the panzer company broke into the box and beat down all resistance. Five
generals were among the prisoners but of more use to the Germans were the
supplies and fuel which they seized, for these enabled their drive to continue.
The 2000 prisoners brought problems for the northern column had still not
arrived in force and the remaining German troops were thin on the ground. Not
until the evening of the 8th had sufficient forces been gathered to renew the
advance northwards to reach the coastal road and by the time that the Axis
troops arrived at Tmimi the British had already evacuated it. The advanced guard
of Brescia Division, whose task it had been to hold the British while the
outflanking movement was carried out, had failed in this and did not arrive at
the objective until 8 April.
With the seizure of Tmimi the province of Cyrenaica had been
recaptured, the British had been thrown back, some of their principal
commanders captured, and their armour beaten in battle. But the Australian
Division had withdrawn in good order towards Tobruk and thus, although the Axis
forces had gained a tactical victory, they had not defeated the British in the
There were other gains both in strategy and morale.
Strategically the British Army fighting in Greece was now aware that its rear
communications were threatened by the German victory in the desert. In the
matter of morale Axis prestige rose, not only in the Arab countries but also
among the people of Italy and in the Italian Army, for that force began to
regain much of the confidence which it had lost as a result of earlier defeats.
All this had been accomplished with only a small loss of men
and, although the fall-out of armoured vehicles was quite considerable, due to
the long and exhausting march through the desert, the German recovery service
was able to return most tanks to their units. Losses in soft-skinned trucks
were made good from stocks captured from the British.
The greatest praise must go to Rommel for his incredible
ability, energy, and resource. He seemed to be at every part of the front,
leading an attack here, guiding a column there, and it was due to his fierce
drive that the offensive succeeded. He was now supremely confident. He had
grasped the secrets and the tactics of desert warfare. Not only did he have the
measure of the terrain but also that of his enemies. Now with adequate supplies
he could advance and he made no secret of the fact that he planned the final
objective to be the Suez canal.
On 9 April orders were issued to continue the pursuit of the
British towards Tobruk with all possible speed, and 5th Light Division, with
the reconnaissance battalion in the van, stormed eastwards leaving the Italians
to carry out security duties around Mechili.
Tactics are defined as the art of handling troops in the
field to gain a desired end easily and smoothly. Weapons determine tactics and
to a very great degree it is the ability to recognise the potential of a new
weapon which shapes the course and the outcome of battles. It was Rommel’s
flair for combining the new weapons of blitzkrieg, the tank and the dive-bomber
with the classic foot and guns, which brought him tactical victories on so many
occasions and, although his ability had been demonstrated as early as the
French campaign of 1940, it was in North Africa that this military genius truly
He had come to Africa with tactical doctrines based on
European experiences and then found that some of these had little or no
relevance to the new theatre of operations. Faced by new problems the Germans
applied themselves with their customary vigour and in the lulls between the
summer and autumn fighting of 1941 produced tactics in which at first only the
men of 15th Panzer Division were trained and these innovations having proved
themselves in the winter campaign of 1941 and the spring campaign of 1942, they
were developed as a battle drill and introduced into other panzer units.
Rommel’s doctrine was that all arms — infantry, guns, and
tanks — should fight as fully integrated parts of a whole and that thereby they
would be able to bring down a maximum concentration of effort upon any chosen
target within the shortest possible time. In the desert this chosen target was
the British armour whose destruction was the key to tactical success. One of
the first discoveries made by panzer men in the desert was that the force did
not need to move in column, which had been the practice in Europe, for given firm
going the advance could be made in line abreast. Out of this knowledge evolved
the tactic of a panzer unit advancing to contact already formed for battle and
not having to waste time in deployment manoeuvring. A whole panzer division
could move forward as a series of ‘boxes’ or ‘handkerchiefs’, each box forming
an individual battle group and echeloned with a depth four times that of its
front. The various components of the division were usually located within the
box in the same position. The armoured brow made up of a tank battalion with
artillery support. Then followed the second panzer battalion with heavier
artillery and engineers, all forming another box. On the ‘enemy’ side of the
divisional ‘box’ ranged the reconnaissance detachments and the anti-tank guns
while located in the centre of the box were the soft-skinned vehicles and
divisional headquarters. Behind this mass of trucks there were the heaviest
guns of the divisional artillery and at the rear the infantry component, the
remainder of the artillery, and the tank recovery details.
The course of the desert war was marked by short but intense
bursts of furious activity followed by longer periods during which the winning
side consolidated its gains and built up its strength for a further advance
while the losing army constructed defence lines and brought up fresh supplies
of men and materials to replace the losses which had been suffered. Thus the
fighting, when it took place, was of a fluid nature and it was the cut and
thrust of armoured conflict which characterised it; actions in which the
fortunes of war changed almost hourly. Nevertheless, the idea of tank versus
tank battles was considered by the Germans to be a wrong application of
armoured power. Rommel chose to use instead the ‘bait’ tactic which he had
applied with such success during the fighting in France. In this the panzer
force would advance to contact and then retire ‘baiting’ the British whose
standard reaction was always to mount a charge. When this happened the tank men
of 8th Army, their vision obscured by clouds of dust and sand thrown up by the
withdrawing panzers, would thrust towards and then be impaled upon the fire of
a screen of guns. This simple tactic seldom failed until Montgomery arrived in
the desert and halted these heroic but futile assaults.
This gun-line tactic was effective only given certain
conditions; and in North Africa these conditions obtained for many years. The
first of these was that the British ‘attacking front’ did not exceed the ‘gun
density’. It must be appreciated that the most effective German tank destroyer
was the 8.8cm gun and that this weapon could outrange every British tank gun.
Thus one single gun could fight a battle with a squadron of tanks engaging the
first tank at distances greater than a mile and would have had time to smash
the other vehicles of an attacking wave before they could bring fire to bear.
The British tank commanders unwittingly aided the German gunners by committing
their forces piecemeal. Most tank attacks went as single regiments and it was
rare that the ‘attacking front’ covered a two-regimental width. Thus the 8.8s
could select their targets at leisure in the certain knowledge that their shot
could penetrate 8.3cm of armour plate at a range of 2000 yards.
The second condition which made the gun line effective was
that the British tank gun had a shorter range than the German gun which it was
fighting. Until this situation changed the gun line remained the standard and
most successful tactic used by the Panzer Army, for theirs was a concept of
guns versus tanks.
The inclusion of the 8.8cm in their armoury ensured that the
outcome of such a battle was nearly always victory for the artillery and so
effective was that gun that it may be claimed with some accuracy that the
German success at Gazala was built upon the forty-eight 8.8cm pieces which
Rommel had under command. There were two other first-class anti-tank guns on
the German establishment, the 5cm and the Russian 7.6cm, the latter considered
to be the best anti-tank gun in the world.
Another of the advantages enjoyed by the Germans was that
their anti-tank guns and their tank guns could fire high explosive as well as
solid shot. Thus their guns could bring fire to bear upon the British anti-tank
gun line and by high explosive shells destroy it or at least neutralise it. It
was not until the summer of 1942 with the introduction of the 6-pounder
anti-tank gun and the Grant tank gun, both of which pieces fired high explosive
in addition to armour piercing shot, that 8th Army was able to deal effectively
with the Axis anti-tank gun lines.
Against the three first-class German anti-tank guns the
British could oppose at first only with the 2-pounder, a weapon of such poor
performance that it could only be fired with hope of penetration against the
thinner side plates of enemy armour at ranges below 200 yards. Being thus
almost totally ineffective this weapon could neither support a British tank
assault nor could it defend infantry against panzer attack. To act as an
anti-tank gun the 25-pounder was pressed into service and weapons were taken
from their main task, that of supplying protection for the foot soldiers. Being
therefore without proper artillery support the British infantry relied for
protection upon the armour and this restriction bred among the tank units the
feeling that they were being prevented from achieving their prime purpose —
manoeuvre — by being tied down to the foot troops. The infantry, on the other
hand, was convinced that the armour deserted it in time of need.
The German armour depended upon the two main types Panzer
III and IV and during the years of campaigning these were up-gunned and
up-armoured so that their already great capabilities were enhanced and their
effectiveness increased. Both of these types were capable of subduing any tank
which the British could put into the field. On the British side the Matilda was
a slow vehicle with a maximum speed of 16mph and a main armament of the
2-pounder gun; the Matilda was to all intents and purposes defenceless. The
Grant tank which came into the battle at Gazala, during the summer of 1942,
helped in part to restore the imbalance through its 7.5cm gun, but this weapon
had only a limited traverse and was set too low in the hull. Thus the Grant
could not take a ‘hull down’ position but had to expose itself almost
completely in order to fire its main armament.
German attacks against British positions followed a battle
drill. A preliminary reconnaissance would determine the sector to be attacked
and an armoured thrust would be made to divert attention from the main thrust.
This main effort would be made by several ‘boxes’ of tanks which would advance
at a given speed with carefully regulated intervals between the individual
tanks and the individual ‘boxes’. The assault would roll forward and by a
combination of fire and movement the position would be taken. Once this had
happened a gun line would be formed to protect the flank while the panzers
pressed the attack forward.
Reconnaissance was of the pattern common on European
battlefields and in the early months Panzer II vehicles were used to screen the
front and flanks of a battle formation. These lightly armoured and undergunned,
obsolete vehicles were pushed forward of the main body about 8 miles, that is
to the extreme range of their wireless sets. Up with the forward reconnaissance
detachments was also a small but highly specialised group whose task it was to
listen to wireless messages which passed between the British armour and its
commanders, and to lay this intelligence before the divisional commander so
that the direction and size of British thrusts could be countered.
The movement of Axis supply columns was made difficult by
British patrols; one German report warned that not even the tracks behind their
own lines could be considered as absolutely safe from enemy attack, and for a
short time a convoy system was introduced. A continual problem had been the
delay which occurred while the fighting group waited for its supplies of fuel
and ammunition to catch up, and to overcome this a number of soft-skinned
vehicles loaded with these essential supplies travelled with the battle group
and were protected from attack by being held in the middle of the divisional
box. An officer of the quartermaster’s department was attached to tactical
headquarters, forward with the battle group, and was linked by radio to the
main quartermaster’s department back at Corps.
In the fast-moving fighting on the desert battlefields the
problems which usually confronted a military commander were increased and the
difficulties of fighting a modern battle from the rear, which had been
encountered even in the slow-moving days of the early campaigns in Europe,
proved impossible to resolve in Africa. Situations arose which demanded
immediate solutions. It was, therefore, essential that not only the divisional
commander but the whole of his tactical headquarters, the forward observation
officer for the artillery, and the panzer regiment’s commander be well forward
to control and to direct operations. The whole command echelon was carried in
special armoured vehicles. It was also essential that the elaborate communications
procedures which had obtained in Europe be simplified and for this purpose the
divisional commander’s vehicle was fitted with an ultra short-wave radio so
that he could both listen in to the orders being given to the panzer regiment
and give his own instructions direct, without going through the standard but
time-wasting practices. The remainder of the leading group as well as all the
other boxes listened in on the medium-wave band and were directly linked with
the divisional commander. Thus he could deploy his forward units and coordinate
the panzer assault with that of the supporting arms in the rear boxes. Between
the divisional reconnaissance groups and headquarters there was a signals link
mounted in an armoured vehicle. A simple system of set pattern orders made the
transmission and execution of battlefield manoeuvres a speedier process than
had been the case in Europe and constant practice of the manoeuvres as well as
of other battle drills reduced time-wasting and in the artillery units enabled
these to go into action with surprising speed.
The presence of generals, even of the Corps commander
himself, upon the battlefield not only speeded up decision making but improved
the morale of the fighting soldier for he could see for himself that the
commanders were undergoing the same privations and sharing the dangers of
battle with him. To the German front line soldier in Africa the generals were
not shadowy figures in a headquarters miles removed from the fighting but were
physically present upon the field of battle. This personal presence helped to
produce a good esprit de corps. By contrast the Italian and British High
Commands were remote and their decisions arrived at usually after staff
conferences had often been overtaken by events leaving new crises to be
resolved. It was not uncommon for Rommel or indeed any senior commander to take
over the direction of a battalion in battle, a situation which may not have
been very comfortable for regimental officers but did produce results. It is recorded
that once, at Mechili, while flying over his advancing columns Rommel saw a
unit halted for no apparent reason and radioed to the officer commanding that
unless the advance was renewed he would land his Fieseler Storch and take over
command. The unit moved on.
The personality of Erwin Rommel dominated not only the Axis
armies but, indeed, the whole African campaign. As a young officer during the
First World War he had been awarded the highest German decoration for bravery,
the Pour le Merite, for an action on the Italian Front and in the inter-war
years he had produced a number of textbooks on infantry tactics. After serving
as commander of Hitler’s Escort Battalion in Poland Rommel had taken over
command of 7th Panzer Division and in a most determined way had converted the
minor role of his division into the spearhead of the panzer force which
defeated the western Allies during 1940. Hitler had personally chosen Rommel to
command the Africa Corps and was to have his faith justified.
If only Rommel’s faith in Hitler had met with the same
loyalty then, there is no doubt that the Axis powers would have been
strategically successful in the fighting in Africa but Rommel was the victim of
his superiors. The supplies which they promised him either never arrived at all
or were reduced in number before they reached Africa. He was to see artillery
pieces of new and startling power, which had been promised to him, sent to the
5th Panzer Army in Tunisia. His armies were halted when the flow of petrol stopped,
the artillery ceased firing for lack of ammunition, the tanks he asked for were
diverted to other fronts, and against all these breaches of faith he could make
no protest for he was entangled in an extraordinary hierarchy of command.
Africa was an Italian theatre of operations and Rommel as
commander of only the mobile forces of the desert army was subordinate to an
Italian general. Then the person of Kesselring, the German Supreme Commander
South was interposed and the Commando Supremo in Rome was often in accord with
Kesselring’s points of view. Between Rommel and Hitler there also stood the OKH
and the OKW, not to mention Benito Mussolini who was not only the de facto Head
of the Italian State but also a personal friend of Hitler.
Each and all of these layers of obstruction prevented Rommel
from achieving the objectives which he had set himself and his men. He was a
tireless soldier and demanded of his troops the same indifference to hard
conditions and to privations that he himself had. He drove his men hard and his
vehicles to the limits of their endurance, allowing his soldiers little tune
for rest and his panzers less than adequate time for maintenance. His whole
attention was concentrated upon the objectives of righting and winning the
desert war. Not for him the problems of logistics and the difficulties of
supply. His attitude to his desert quartermasters can be best summed up in the
plea which Churchill made on another occasion, ‘Give us the tools and we shall
finish the job’. But for the greater part of his service in Africa Rommel was
bedevilled by two factors which negated the victories which he won and
prevented him exploiting the successes which had been achieved. The first of
these was a lack of supplies and the second was the over elaborate command
structure which allowed him no freedom of action or of manoeuvre.
Rommel led his men from the front and the charge that he
neglected staff duties to direct operations personally is a valid one but the
peculiar conditions of desert warfare demanded the presence of a taskmaster on
He was a poor subordinate and like Nelson preferred not to
see — or in his case hear – the orders, warnings, and injunctions which his
superiors at every level of command gave him on the conduct of operations. With
the ebb of the Axis tide at El Alamein in October 1942 the Commando Supremo had
its revenge upon the man who had come to the desert and had made it an area
which bore the imprint of his military genius. Demands for his resignation were
made each time his understrength armies were forced from one untenable position
to another. And always he had to face the lack of supplies, the unkept
promises, the demands to carry out some other task above the capabilities of
his armies until at last he returned to Hitler to make one more desperate plea
for supplies that would enable a bridgehead in Tunisia to be held.
Flamboyantly, Hitler promised Rommel that he would lead an Axis army against
Casablanca — so little knowledge of the true situation did the German leader
have — and with that Rommel had to be content. He never returned to Africa and
thus avoided seeing the Army which he had so often led into victories pass into
the bitterness of final defeat.
Conquest: The bridge over the Daugava river in
Daugavpils, Lithuania, is seen from the river bank with the city in the
background on fire. The city, called Dünaburg by the Germans, was captured and
secured at dawn on June 26, 1941 in a camouflage operation by the half-company
Knaak, of the 8th Company of the Brandenburg special forces. The Nazis occupied
it until 1944 when it was liberated but Latvia was re-absorbed into the Soviet
Devastation: The remains of a captured vehicle in
which the Brandenburger special forces, dressed in Russian uniform, had crossed
a bridge in Daugavpils, Latvia. The vehicle overturned and fell over the
Oberleutnant Hans Wolfram Knaak, commander of the 8th
Company of the Brandenburg Regiment . On June 26th, 1941, Knaak and 30 of his
men, dressed in Soviet uniforms and driving captured trucks, drove through the
Soviet lines and seized the Dunaberg Bridges over the River Dvina. They held
the bridge against Soviet counterattacks, but by the time reinforcements arrived
20 minutes later, Knaak and 4 of his men were dead and 20 others had been
wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross.
By June 24 General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Motorized Corps had reached the Daugavpils highway near Ukmerge, about 170 kilometers inside Lithuania.
Von Manstein was now within striking distance of the bridges
over the Daugava, about 130 kilometers away. Disregarding the fact that he had
outpaced his neighbors, he kept his units moving, ignoring flank protection.
Short, sharp engagements were fought against reserve Soviet tank units sent to
intercept him, but his orders were simple-“Keep going at all costs.”
With the spearhead of the 8th Panzer Division was a special
unit commanded by 1st Lt. Hans-Wolfram Knaak. In the early hours of June 26,
the 26-year-old Knaak detached his men from the spearhead and sped toward
Daugavpils in two captured Soviet trucks. Knaak and his troops were members of
the Lehr (Training) Regiment “Brandenburg”-commandos trained in
sabotage and subterfuge that were part of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr
Many of Knaak’s men were fluent in Russian, and the two
trucks were able to make it through the Soviet defenses unmolested. The
drivers, in Red Army uniforms, joked with sentries and disseminated false
information concerning the German positions. Driving into Daugavpils, the
trucks headed for the precious bridges. The first truck almost made it to the
eastern side before sentries fired on it. Driving down an embankment, the men
in the rear of the truck jumped out with weapons firing.
The second truck, caught in the middle of the bridge, came
under heavy fire that resulted in several casualties. The survivors pushed
forward to link up with their comrades on the other side, and their combined fire
forced the Soviets back before engineers could arrive to blow the bridge. Some
of them were then able to make it to the nearby railroad bridge and succeeded
in cutting the detonation wires on that structure. Holding off attempts to
recapture the eastern side of the bridge, the Branden- burgers were soon
reinforced by the 8th Panzer spearhead, which had sliced through the Russian
lines. Following units took control of the city, and armor was soon massing to
meet the main body of Maj. Gen. Dmitri Danilovich Leliushenko’s 21st Mechanized
Corps, which was on its way to help the Russian defenses.
Knaak’s unit had won the day, but Knaak himself did not live
to see it. He had been killed during the fight for the crossing. For his
actions that day, he was posthumously awarded the coveted Knight’s Cross on
November 3, 1942.
As the German armor crossed at Daugavpils, the foot units of
von Wrede’s division followed in its wake. Although the 290th could not
possibly hope to keep up with the panzers, its advance served to widen the hole
punched through the Russian lines and guaranteed relative safety for von
Manstein’s supply lines. Hearing of von Manstein’s success, Hitler began
meddling in the affairs of Army Group North. In his war diary, General Franz
Halder, the chief of the General Staff of the Army, wrote, “Führer wants
to throw the whole weight of Armored Group Hoepner on Dvinsk. Possibilities of
a crossing at Jakobstadt
Von Leeb would have none of it. Reinhardt had defeated the
bulk of Kuznetsov’s armored forces, leaving the way open to the bridge at
Jekabpils. The movement to von Manstein’s sector would entail traveling through
wooded areas where few roads existed and would take days to accomplish. He
simply ignored any suggestions to change the original plan, giving Reinhardt
free rein to continue.
On June 27 the XLI Corps moved forward again. With a battle
group under the command of Brig. Gen. Walter Krüger, the 1st Panzer smashed the
remnants of the 12th Mechanized Corps, which were desperately trying to form a
line on the Musa River. At the same time, Stavka Chairman Marshal Semen
Konstantinovich Timoshenko ordered Kuznetsov to pull his remaining forces back
to join up with Berazin’s 27th Army, which was occupying positions along the
Battle Group Krüger moved on, spearheaded by the I/113th
Rifle Regiment under the command of Major Josef-Franz Eckinger. By 2300, the
battalion was 10 kilometers south- west of Jekabpils. At 0415 on the 28th, the
fight for the crossing began.
As at Daugavpils, a unit of Brandenburgers tried to take the
bridge by deception. This time the plan did not work, and the commandos found
themselves involved in heavy fighting. Soon the main elements of Colonel
Hans-Christoph von Heydebrand und der Lasa’s 113th Rifle Regiment joined the
fray. The Soviets were slowly pushed back, but Red Army engineers stood at the
ready. As the Germans advanced toward the Daugava, a series of explosions shook
the area. The bridges had been destroyed.