Sunday, July 26, 2015

No 112 Sqn

Shark-mouthed Kittyhawks of 112SQN RAF. 

The squadron was re-formed 16 May 1939 on board the aircraft carrier HMS Argus for service in Egypt. It was based initially at RAF Helwan. On 26 May, "B" Flight was detached and sent to Sudan. The squadron did not receive its aircraft, obsolescent Gloster Gladiator biplane fighters, until June. After Italy  entered the war, on 10 June 1940, the squadron was almost immediately in action, defending Egypt from Italian bombers. "B" Flight became part of No. 14 Squadron RAF on 30 June.

In January 1941, the squadron joined Allied forces defending Greece, providing air cover and offensive support over Albania. It later took part in fierce dogfights as part of the air defence of the Athens area. With the collapse of the Allied campaign on the Greek mainland, 112 Sqn withdrew to Crete and then to Egypt, from where it rejoined the North African Campaign, supporting the Eighth Army.

For much of the remainder of the war, the squadron was part of No. 239 Wing, along with No. 3 Squadron RAAF, No. 250 Squadron RAF and/or No. 450 Squadron RAAF. For the Allied invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) on July 10, 1943, No. 239 Wing consisted of these four squadrons and No.260 Squadron as part of Air Vice Marshal Harry Broadhurst's Desert Air Force, an element of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham's Northwest African Tactical Air Force in the Northwest African Air Forces of Lt. Gen. Carl Spaatz, one of the major sub-commands of the Mediterranean Air Command under Air Commander-in-Chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder.

During July 1941, the squadron was one of the first in the world to become operational with the P-40 Tomahawk, which it used in both the fighter and ground attack role, with the Air Headquarters, Western Desert. Inspired by the unusually large air inlet on the P-40, the squadron began to emulate the "shark mouth" logo used on some German Messerschmitt Bf 110s of Zerstörer Geschwader 76 earlier in the war. This practice was later followed by P-40 units in other parts of the world (including the Flying Tigers, American volunteers serving with the Chinese Air Force). In December, the Tomahawks were replaced by the updated P-40 Kittyhawk, which the squadron used for the remainder of its time in North Africa, often as a fighter bomber.

The squadron during this time included a significant number of personnel from the air forces of Poland, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Another member was the English ace Neville Duke (later prominent as a test pilot). For most of 1942, it was commanded by the highest-scoring Australian ace of World War II, Clive Caldwell, the first Empire Air Training Scheme graduate to command a British unit. He was succeeded by Billy Drake, the highest-scoring RAF P-40 pilot and the second-highest-scoring British Commonwealth P-40 pilot, behind Caldwell.

Later in the war, an increasing number of South African pilots joined the unit.

After the invasion of Sicily the squadron moved to bases there, in July 1943, and onto the Italian mainland in September. In June 1944 the Kittyhawks were replaced by the Mustang Mark III and, from February 1945, Mustang Mk IVs. The squadron remained in Italy as part of the occupying forces until disbanding on 30 December 1946 at Treviso.

By the end of the war some 206 air victories had been claimed by the Squadron, and 62 destroyed on the ground.

Xmas – the western desert - 1941

Alfred Gause (right), Chief of Staff to Erwin Rommel, speaks with the commander, Italian General Enea Navarini (left) and Colonel Paul Diesener (behind Rommel).

For the first time in his life, Rommel is on the retreat - a mortifying experience. ‘How humble one learns to be,’ he says in a letter to Lucie. His first halt is at the Gazala line, but the slow and panicky Italians, largely unmotorized, are an encumbrance. He does not have the gasoline or ammunition to fight back, and his best men are failing him. Neumann-Silkow lies in a soldier’s grave. Summermann of the Ninetieth Light Division has also been killed, by an RAF attack. Some of his surviving commanders are succumbing to desert plagues. Even Cruwell is sick, infected by jaundice. And what will become of the 14,000 troops he has left in strongpoints along the Sollum front and in the Bardia fortress, now that the Panzer Group is moving ever farther away from them toward the west? ‘Don’t worry,’ he writes to Lucie, I’m feeling okay and hope my lucky star won’t leave me.’

And yet Rommel has by no means shot his bolt. During December 1941 he proves that he is a master of the obstinate retreat. Probably only combat soldiers can appreciate the size of Rommel’s achievement in having retreated across nearly 300 miles in one month without serious loss to his force, while still inflicting savage wounds on his tormentors. Yet although he had salvaged the largely nonmotorized Italian troops, Bastico and his comrades did not render appreciation. ‘Understandably,’ mocked Rommel in a letter, ‘these would-be warlords have pulled wry faces. It’s easy to criticize.’

Praise for Rommel reached him from an unusual quarter. The Afrika Korps diary for December 17 had stated: ‘According to subsequent dispatches of the U.S. ambassador in Cairo, we had driven straight through the British Twenty-second Armored Brigade. He describes it as a masterpiece.’

How did Rommel know what the American ambassador to Egypt was putting in his dispatches? In September, Italian agents had burglarized the U.S. Embassy in Rome and photographed its copy of the ‘Black Code.’ For many months thereafter, Italian and German code breakers could eavesdrop on top secret American communications. Of sensational value were the reports sent to the War Department in Washington by the military attache in Cairo, Colonel Bonner Fellers, because he was a perceptive battlefield observer and kept himself abreast of all the English army’s plans against Rommel and its expectations of the Panzer Group’s next moves. This was a tremendous advantage to Rommel and helps explain his coming triumph.

Rommel - normally not overly security conscious - kept these ‘little fellers,’ as he engagingly termed the American dispatches, close to his chest. There is no mention of them in his diaries (or even his memoirs). Hitler knew about them, however. ‘Let’s hope that the U.S. legation in Cairo keeps us well posted about Britain’s military planning, thanks to their poorly encoded telegrams,’ he wisecracked to Hermann Goring over lunch one day in June 1942. One of Rommel’s intelligence staff recalls now: ‘Rommel used to wait for the dispatches each evening. We just knew them as the ‘Good Source.’ When Fellers reported to Washington, ‘The British are preparing to retreat, they are burning secret papers,’ then Rommel would really see red - there was no holding him.’

As yet Rommel’s preoccupation in January 1942 was survival. But he was growing ever more sanguine. He knew that time was now in his favor. Under Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, a new air force had arrived in the Mediterranean, and squadrons based in Sicily were neutralizing Malta by air raids. U-boats were harassing the British fleet. Rommel wrote approvingly on January 4, ‘Kesselring’s coming to see me again today. We’re both now working hand in glove.’ And the next day: ‘We’re gradually getting more materiel over here. He’s really knocking the stuffing out of Malta.’ That was the day, January 5, 1942, that nine merchant ships - escorted by no less than four Italian battleships - safely docked at Tripoli and unloaded over fifty tanks for Rommel, and 2000 tons of aviation fuel. This was Hitler’s New Year’s gift to his favorite commander. ‘If today’s convoy succeeds in getting through,’ Hitler told General Gause - his guest for lunch in his bunker headquarters – ‘then the British are going to have to look out!’ A few minutes later Gause commented, ‘It was a relief for us to learn of Japan’s entry into the war.’ Hitler was at that time unperturbed by the fact that he was also at war with the United States, and commented to Gause: ‘Yes, a relief. But also a turning point in history. It means the loss of a whole continent, India. And that we must regret, because it is the white race that is the loser.’

For several days Rommel toured his units, digging in along the line at Mersa Brega…

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


A Matilda tank of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment in the Western Desert.

Fighting began with a desultory and ill-prepared Italian advance into Egypt from Tripoli that ended in disaster for Italy. The British struck back in Operation COMPASS starting on December 8, 1940. The British counteroffensive saw a breakthrough assault by the Western Desert Force at Sidi Barrani, 60 miles inside the Egyptian border. In the first week of January 1941, Major General Richard O’Connor sent freshly arrived Australians into their first offensive action in the desert at Bardia . More sharp fighting and additional Italian defeats followed at Tobruk and Beda Fomm in February. O’Connor hoped to press the attack to Benghazi, but was held back by shortages of supplies and men as he reached the end of a stretched logistical tether—pulled even thinner because Britain simultaneously mounted another assault on the Italian empire in East Africa. The Western Desert Force thus halted at El Agheila. It had lost just over 1,700 total casualties while inflicting over 130,000 Italian casualties, killed or wounded or taken prisoner. The cumulative effect of COMPASS was destruction of Italian 10th Army and large stocks of Regio Esercito war matériel. The Western Desert Force also advanced nearly 500 miles, the first of several lateral movements across the top of Africa that would become a singular mark of the desert campaign. At the time, it remained to be learned by both sides that desert advances might be just as quickly turned into comparable or even worse reverses.

By January 1941, with Operation Compass exceeding all expectations, Churchill began to press the case for Greece once again. British intelligence had discerned that a Wehrmacht invasion was in the offing, though its precise timing was a matter of conjecture.  Armed with this information, the Prime Minister sent a note to General ‘Pug’ Ismay, his trusted assistant and go-between with the Chiefs of Staff.  'It is quite clear to me that supporting Greece must have priority after the Western flank of Egypt has been made secure,’ he wrote. Three days later, Wavell - who was at this point overseeing O’Connor’s advance towards Tobruk and Benghazi - was told in unequivocal terms that Greece was hence- forth to take precedence over all other operations in his command. 

The general did not attempt to conceal his dismay. In a cable to London, he argued that the German concentration in Romania was merely ‘a move in the war of nerves' designed both to prop up the Italians and to induce the Chiefs of Staff to arrest the advance in Libya and 'disperse our forces in the Middle East ...  We trust the COS will reconsider whether the enemy's move is not bluff'. 

In Whitehall, the Director of Military Operations, Major General John Kennedy, strongly sympathised with Wavell’s reluctance to divert forces from the desert to Greece.  He made an appointment to see Dill, the CIGS and his immediate superior. Insisting that his team judged that ‘at least twenty divisions, plus a considerable airforce' would be needed simply to hold Salonika, let alone to confront a full-scale Wehrmacht invasion, he argued tartly that the Germans' could overrun Greece with the utmost ease if they wanted to do so', and concluded that ‘we stood more to gain by winning the African coast for ourselves than by denying Greece to the Germans.' Kennedy did not prevail. The Chiefs of Staff sided with Churchill, whose response to Wavell was brusquely dismissive. 

'Our information contradicts the idea that German concentration in Roumania is merely a "move in the war of nerves" or "a bluff to cause dispersion of forces",' he told Wavell in a cable on 10 January.  On the contrary, there was ‘a mass of detail' confirming that the build-up was the prelude to an early and’ deadly' onslaught against Greece which would 'eclipse victories you have gained in Libya'. 

Instructing his Middle East commander-in-chief to 'conform your plans to larger interest at stake', he peremptorily closed off further discussion with the words, ‘We expect and require prompt and active compliance with our decisions, for which we bear full responsibility.' As a loyal soldier, Wavell had little choice but to obey or resign.

Desert Rats
The nickname Desert Rats was applied to at least three British army organizations that were instrumental in the North African Campaigns against the Italians and Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The name derives from the jerboa, a nocturnal rodent native to North Africa, which hops like a kangaroo.

The 4th Armoured Brigade, which was formed in Egypt in 1938, before the outbreak of war but after the Munich Conference and Agreement, has traditionally claimed to be the first British unit to have adopted the sobriquet Desert Rats. However, the 7th Armoured Division appropriated the name and preceded the 4th Armoured Brigade back to England in preparation for the Normandy landings (D-day). The 4th Armoured Brigade left North Africa and participated in the fighting in Italy before returning to England prior to the D-day invasion. When the 4th reached England, it discovered that the 7th was not only calling itself the Desert Rats, but had created a divisional badge featuring an image of a jerboa. Thus spurred, the 4th Armoured Brigade created its own jerboa badge. Finally, the nickname the Desert Rats was also often applied generally to the entire Eighth British Army to honor its combat success against the Axis forces in North Africa.

Italian Army at Derna 1941

The Italian Supreme Command moved quickly to organize the "Special Armoured Brigade" (Brigata Corazzato Speciale, or BCS) consisting of fifty-five M13/40 tanks, artillery pieces, and supported by infantry formations specializing in the anti-tank role and sappers equipped with anti-tank mines. In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this volunteer force under General Valentino Babini to North Africa. The M13s in the BCS were a vast improvement to the M11s. They had a better turret-mounted 47 mm tank gun which was more than able to pierce the armour of the British light and cruiser tanks. However, other than command vehicles, Italian tanks were not equipped with radios. Communicating for most Italian tankers required the use of signal flags.

Bambini's tank force included the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st "Centauro" Armoured Division and should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-twenty M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days of "acclimatization" prior to operation.


Following the fall of Tobruk, HQ British Troops Egypt was removed from the existing unwieldy line of command so that O'Connor reported directly to Wavell at Middle East Command. O'Connor continued the advance towards Derna with the Australian 6th Division while sending 7th Armoured Division south of the Jebel Akhdar Mountains towards Mechili. On 24 January the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged armoured elements of BCS on the Derna - Mechili track. While the British managed to destroy nine Italian tanks in the battle, they themselves lost one cruiser and six light tanks. The 2/11th Battalion first made contact with infantry of the BCS at the Derna airfield on 25 January and progress was difficult against particularly determined resistance. In the Derna-Giovanni Berta area, held by the 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division and infantry elements of the BCS, there were fierce exchanges with Italian counterattacks taking place around Wadi Derna. On 27 January, an Australian battalion beat off a strong daylight attack from a force of at least a thousand Italians. That same day, concealed soldiers of the BCS ambushed a column of armoured vehicles of the 6th Cavalry Regiment and took three of the survivors prisoner. The advance of other units further to the south of the Wadi Derna eventually threatened the BCS with encirclement and it disengaged on the night of 28 January. Derna, a town of 10,000 residents itself was captured on 26 January. Precise casualty figures for the fighting for Derna and Giovanni Berta have not been compiled but at least 15 Australians were killed fighting the BCS and "Sabratha" Division. The Italians lost a good part of the 60th "Sabratha" Infantry Division in the fighting.

Italian OOB at Derna January 1941
Italian defenders consisted of the 60th Bersaglieri Motorcycle Battalion and the 21st Light Tank Battalion, both part of the 60th Sabratha Division.

Raggruppamento Maletti
The Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti) was an ad hoc "mechanized" unit formed by the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito) in Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI) during the initial stages of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The group was formed in June 1940 and was destroyed in December of the same year.

The Maletti Group was commanded by General Pietro Maletti and was part of the Libyan Corps, also known as the "Royal Corps of Libyan Colonial Troops" (Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali della Libia). The group itself was composed of six battalions of Libyan infantry and of two battalions of armor. The 2,500 Libyans were "mechanized" in that they were transported in trucks. One armor battalion had thirty-five L3/33 and/or L3/35 tankettes. The other had thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks.[1]

During the very early stages of the North African Campaign, the Maletti Group took part offensively in the Italian invasion of Egypt and defensively during the British counterattack known as Operation Compass. In September 1940, the group acted as a flank guard and led the Italian advance from Libya into Egypt. By December, the group was in defensive positions at the Nibiewa Camp near Sidi Barrani. Many of the armored vehicles were "dug in" and acted as stationary pillboxes.

The Maletti group was considered the 3rd Libyan Division in the initial Italian attack to Egypt, together with the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle and the 2 Libyan Division Pescatori.

The Maletti Group was earmarked for early destruction by the British. During the initial attack, Matilda infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment exploited a hole in the Italian defensive positions and attacked the Nibiewa camp from the rear. The Maletti Group was destroyed and General Pietro Maletti was killed in action while trying to stop the sudden attack:

The initial British assault would fall on Nibeiwa Camp, where the only available Italian armoured unit was based, and it achieved complete surprise. Raggruppamento Maletti, or Maletti Group, under General Maletti, was an ad hoc formation consisting of 2,500 Libyan soldiers and 2 Armoured Battalion, with thirty-five M11/39 medium tanks and thirty-five L3/35 light tanks. It was earmarked for early destruction in the assault, which commenced at 05:00hr with what appeared to be no more than another raid on the eastern side of the camp. At 07:00, however, forty-eight Matilda tanks suddenly appeared from the opposite side of the camp. They struck twenty-three unmanned M11/39 tanks of the Maletti Group, which had been deployed to guard the unmined entrance to the camp. The Italians were caught completely off guard and many did not even reach their tanks, including General Maletti, who was killed emerging from his dugout. They were slaughtered and their vehicles destroyed by the British in less than ten minutes. The Italian artillery fought on valiantly, firing on the Matildas and recording many hits, some at point-blank range - but none penetrated their 70 mm of armour. The remaining Italian tanks were captured intact, and the Libyan infantry, left practically defenceless, quickly surrendered. The British had captured Nibeiwa and destroyed the only front-line Italian armoured unit in less than five hours.

The Operation Compass attack on Maletti Group was supported by 25 pounder artillery and Blenheim bombers and was centred on the advance of Mk.II Matilda tanks. Within an hour of the onset of combat Italian General Pietro Maletti was dead and 4,000 Italian soldiers (most of them Libyan colonial troops) had surrendered. Within three days, the attacking forces then moved west along the Via della Vittoria, through the Halfaya Pass and captured Fort Capuzzo, Libya.

Brigata Corazzata Speciale
The Special Armored Brigade (Brigata Corazzata Speciale, or BCS, or Babini Group, or Raggruppamento Babini) was an ad hoc armored unit formed by the Italian Royal Army (Regio Esercito Italia) in Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana, or ASI) during the initial stages of the Western Desert Campaign of World War II. The group was formed in late 1940 and was destroyed in February 1941.

In late 1940, the Italian Supreme Command (Commando Supremo) moved quickly to organize the Brigata Corazzata Speciale (BCS). In hardly more than a month, the Italians dispatched this volunteer force to North Africa under the command of General Valentino Babini. The BCS included Italy's most up-to-date medium tanks, the M13/40.

The M13s were a vast improvement over the M11/39s used as part of the Maletti Group (Raggruppamento Maletti). As opposed to the M11s, the M13s had a superior turret-mounted 47 mm tank gun. This gun was more than able to pierce the armor of the British light and cruiser tanks.

The BCS included M13 tanks supported by three Bersaglieri battalions, one motorcycle battalion, one artillery regiment, two anti-tank gun companies, one engineering company, and several logistics units. Unfortunately, other than command vehicles, the M13s of the BCS were not equipped with radios. Communicating for most Italian tankers required the use of signal flags.

At Derna and Mechili, the BCS included fifty-five M13/40 tanks of the 3rd Battalion and the 5th Battalion from the 131st "Centauro" Armored Division. This should have amounted to at least one-hundred-and-twenty M13s. But eighty-two tanks had just arrived at Benghazi and required ten days of "acclimazation" prior to operation.

At Benghazi and Beda Fomm, the BCS included almost one-hundred M13/40s.