Chapter 6: From Baggush to the Libyan Frontier
IN the New Zealand Division defence against tanks was much canvassed, but the true prophet here, as elsewhere, passed unrecognised. Anti-tank mines could be had in reasonable quantities and the new CRE,1 Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson,2 had seen to it that the infantry as well as the sappers were trained to use them, as he firmly advocated they should. His propaganda nevertheless failed and the Division was not ‘mine-conscious’ in CRUSADER and made no use of this valuable weapon. The New Zealand sappers were asked on occasions to lift enemy mines, but never to lay their own, though the threat of tank attack was a constant and at times overwhelming burden. Defensive minefields were too passive to accord with current views; they attached more value to the ground they protected than prevailing opinion allowed. ‘portée action’ similarly became the rule rather than the exception in the anti-tank regiment; ‘ground action’ usually allowed better concealment and more effective fire, but it smacked too much of static warfare.
In organisation and tactics the Division had a sort of semi-autonomy, however, and some interesting experiments were conducted. Reconnaissance, for example, needed to be swift, far-reaching, and thorough; but the Eighth Army units concerned, the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry among them, were not equipped to fight for information against any but the lightest opposition – always a matter of concern and at times a grave weakness. Divisional Cavalry had only the lightest of tanks and some Bren carriers, and it was an interesting move to attach a troop of 25-pounders to the regiment at the start of the campaign, with anti-tank troops added as circumstances required. Other innovations, such as the counter-battery organisation,3 were common to other formations and followed
naturally from maturing techniques and an increasing flow of equipment. In still others the Division had been designated by higher authority as a suitable laboratory for experiment, and it was thus that the New Zealanders made a sizable contribution to the new Air Support Control system, the benefits of which were widely diffused.
The days at Baggush, however, were in the main crowded with smaller triumphs4 and tragedies and with mundane routine. Field guns were calibrated, bayonets sharpened, khaki drill exchanged for winter battledress, and anti-gas drill was carried out from time to time with less enthusiasm than marked the ‘trial packs’ most units conducted to find space in their vehicles for their manifold and increasing possessions. Three resounding echoes of Greece and Crete came in the form of VCs awarded, to Upham,5 Hinton6 and Hulme,7 and Upham’s was presented on 4 November by Auchinleck himself.8
Cunningham had already introduced himself at the end of September and made a warm impression; he was a personal friend of Freyberg’s and had the knack of putting even casual introductions on a high plane of interest, while his gift for recalling names and details enriched later meetings. He seemed very pleased, in turn, with what he saw of the Division. Godwin-Austen, too, had made his debut as visiting corps commander and told officers and senior NCOs of 4 Brigade that ‘it is a real privilege for me to be with you again – the last time was at Rhododendron Ridge’,9 a remark well-calculated to endear him to the few veterans of Gallipoli in his audience. To the others he gave evidence, like Cunningham, of an articulate intelligence which augured well for CRUSADER, and one New Zealand staff officer described him on this occasion as ‘first-class stuff’.
As details of the CRUSADER plan seeped down through the ranks, which they inevitably did despite careful security measures, all reservations and misgivings were filtered out and what was left gave no grounds for any but the purest of enthusiasms. ‘An IO from Div HQ expressed the opinion’, says the 28 (Maori) Battalion diary for 8 November, disregarding grammar, ‘that resistance would
be slight if at all’. The same diarist the day before wrote that ‘among all ranks there appears to be a gradual keying up of spirits, a certain buoyancy of feeling in expectation of action at last. ...’ No obfuscations here, and none wanted! The general impression was summarised by the Field Security Section on the 2nd:
move to fwd area taken for granted, location generally guessed as Siwa, details not known.
Morale excellent. Slight uneasiness about RAF [Greece and Crete again!] countered by evidence of RAF strength in the area.
Rumours – NZ Div to attack the Italians, the UDF10 the Germans. Move to fwd areas and an attack in the very near future accepted as facts. ...
That the Division would be challenging a power that was supreme in the continent of Europe and making prodigious advances in Russia was a reflection reserved in the main to higher levels. At the unit level the diarist of 22 Battalion spoke for the majority when he noted at the end of October that the ‘health and fitness of the tps is good and the morale is high. ...’ The men were well placed at Baggush to observe the flow of tanks, guns and lorries along the coast road and the numerous and heavy trainloads of ammunition and supplies moving westwards, a fabulous wealth of material with which to buy victory, and the complementary cost in lives and suffering they estimated lightly.
One detail of 2 NZEF policy created a small but dark cloud when it was laid down that 10 per cent of the strength of Divisional Cavalry and infantry battalions should be left out of battle so that in case of disaster a core of sorts would survive for rebuilding. This dismal provision was of course scorned and the initials LOB dreaded. Many were the intrigues to escape this unwelcome label, but usually in vain, and the second-in-command, three or four other officers, and some sixty other ranks were subtracted from each battalion. In Divisional Cavalry Major John Russell11 was classified LOB by special edict of General Freyberg, who knew that keeping him out of battle could never be a matter of routine; but Russell went in the end as a special LO. In the 20th an LOB gloom was added to Upham’s VC embarrassment.
While the Division’s part in CRUSADER seemed simple and certain at platoon level, as is usually the case with troops in good heart, it was the subject of ceaseless elaboration by the various staffs and of numerous conferences and discussions at the command level.
Freyberg at first followed Cunningham’s initial method of issuing no documents other than conference minutes and for his Brigadiers’ Conference of 17 October this worked well enough. The Divisional plan was still fluid at that stage and only six officers were given full details.12 Moreover, Freyberg’s mind was groping beyond the details so far disclosed to him and he asked his brigadiers to explore ‘Protection of Col[umn] moving along an escarpment’, an eventuality which high-level planning hardly held open for the whole Division. Freyberg flew up to Godwin-Austen’s advanced headquarters for a conference on 1 November, had Auchinleck to lunch on the 4th, and passed on further details to his brigadiers in the afternoon. By this time planning was carried on under the security heading of ‘NZ Div Exercise No. 4’ and the staff work for the move from Baggush and Fuka was well advanced. The Division was to move a brigade at a time to an assembly area in the desert south of Matruh: that was to be the first stage of the ‘exercise’ and at least one New Zealand unit, Divisional Cavalry, was soon aware of its significance. Godwin-Austen’s anxiety about his left flank led him to ask for this regiment to patrol the frontier south of the Trigh el-Abd to give ample warning of any panzer threat in the week before CRUSADER opened. The regiment therefore moved independently from Baggush with its outmoded Mark VIB light tanks and its perky Bren carriers on the 7th and 8th and took up its new role under command of 4 Indian Division on the 10th, with A Squadron forward.
The Corps and Divisional plans had by this time taken firm shape, with ample documentation, and what emerged was what might be expected of formations intended to mark time while another corps fought the decisive battle. A negative character predominated, effort was to be fragmented, and there was much labelled ‘anticipatory’. Though there was some attempt to give vent to the surging offensive spirit of the troops, the sum total, if the armoured battle took its intended course, would nevertheless amount to extravagant waste of the potentialities of a force of two strong infantry divisions (with four fully and two partially mobile brigades), a brigade of heavily armoured tanks, and an impressive array of all kinds of mobile artillery. But Freyberg and General Messervy of 4 Indian Division knew the Germans too well to conceive of the coming operations as a possible anti-climax to their long preparations.
The first task laid down by ‘13 Corps Instructions for Battle’ (12 November) was to ‘protect the L of C running westwards from No. 2 Fwd Base’, but the detailed tasks allotted to Messervy hovered uncertainly between defence and offence and were more concerned with covering the right flank of the New Zealand Division than with guarding against a body blow aimed at the main railhead of Eighth Army. So lightly, in fact, was this danger assessed that Messervy was expected to commit his one mobile brigade at an early stage to an attack on the strong defences which anchored the south-western end of the frontier line near Sidi Omar, to the detriment of his other obligations. This brigade, the 7th, would in the first instance shuffle southwards round these defences and prevent their garrisons from interfering with the moves of the New Zealand Division. The gap thus opened up between this brigade and 11 Indian Brigade in the coast sector was to have been filled by 5 Indian Brigade, occupying extensive defences – North Point, Playground and Kennels Box – which had been built to cover the vast forward base; but this brigade was also saddled with multifarious duties along the L of C and could not man these defences in any strength until some days after CRUSADER started, by which time, if things went reasonably well, the need would have passed.
In the opening moves of CRUSADER the New Zealand Division and 7 Indian Brigade were to keep in step, the latter occupying a defensive position astride the frontier at Bir Sheferzen and facing northwards while the New Zealanders crossed the Wire to the south. As the New Zealand Division swung north on the first stage of its mission to hem in the frontier line from the west, 7 Indian Brigade would conform by digging in at Bir Bu Deheua, west of the twin strongpoints Libyan Omar and Sidi Omar Nuovo,13 still covering Freyberg’s right flank but now unable to carry out any part of Messervy’s third task, which was to ‘Stop and destroy any enemy force attempting to adv[ance] southwards, south-eastwards or eastwards’ between the coast and Bir Sheferzen. A battalion, 1 Royal Sussex, held back at first in the North Point area, was to move to Bir Bu Deheua at an early stage of the advance and its departure would leave a dangerous gap, the assumption evidently being that the enemy would either counter-attack at once or not at all. After the New Zealand Division completed the isolation of the frontier line, Messervy was to prepare his 5 Brigade for an advance towards Tobruk, but it would take time to reassemble the brigade’s scattered elements. Thus while Messervy had been allotted 1 Army Tank Brigade (less a battalion with the New Zealand Division) and far
more than the normal divisional quota of guns,14 with the chief purpose of defeating any counter-attack towards the main forward base and the desert railhead, he was far more concerned with preventing the escape of the enemy in the frontier area.
The New Zealand Division was to cross the frontier and form up south-west of Bir Sheferzen by midnight on 18 November, ready to push northwards next day to the Trigh Capuzzo at Sidi Azeiz, 12 miles south-west of Bardia. From there patrols and pickets would be thrown out southwards to link up with 7 Indian Brigade north of Bir Bu Deheua, a road block would be set up on the Via Balbia at Menastir to the north, and detachments would hold the few crossings of the escarpment for nearly 20 miles westwards from Menastir to ‘prevent any enemy forces moving southwards from the area north of the BARDIA – TOBRUK rd’. On a 30-mile arc, therefore, from the south through east to north-west, all movement by the enemy to or from the frontier line, Bardia, or the broken ground north-west of Bardia was to be stopped. A raiding party was to cut the Bardia-Capuzzo water pipeline, but no other action was planned in the first instance to isolate Bardia from the rest of the frontier line. At the same time a brigade group was to be ready to move westwards to dispose of enemy groups isolated in the region of Gambut and Bir el Chleta, halfway to Tobruk, and this might have to carry on to the Tobruk front under the command of 30 Corps. In this case another battalion of 1 Army Tank Brigade would probably come under New Zealand command, and with it the brigade headquarters and 8 Field Regiment, RA (intended solely for close support of the I tanks), leaving only one I-tank battalion with the Indian division.
Until the enemy armour was pinned down or defeated, however, the New Zealand Division was to stand on guard in the best possible anti-tank posture at its station just across the frontier, covered by 4 Armoured Brigade. Then would come the hemming in of the frontier garrisons, the capture by the Indian division of the two Omar strongpoints, and if fortune favoured the New Zealand Division, the seizure of Bardia and Fort Capuzzo. From there onwards the Army plan was vague. Thirteenth Corps was to help round up the enemy on the Tobruk front before doing much more in the frontier area; but Freyberg was assured, when he proposed taking his whole command to Tobruk, that it could not be maintained so far west. No more than two brigades, the 6th New Zealand and
the 5th Indian (when ready), were at all likely to take part in the relief of Tobruk.
An insistent question remained: was it more urgent to cut off the escape of the besiegers of Tobruk or to open up the coast road through Sollum to ease the supply of Eighth Army? Everything again depended on how quickly and completely the enemy armour was defeated. Delay would increase supply problems and make the opening of the coast road more urgent. There was, however, a third possibility that was earnestly considered: ‘ROMMEL must by now realise his numerical inferiority and the desirability of withdrawing westwards nearer to his own bases for supply and nearer to his own fighter aerodromes.’15
Units of 5 Infantry Brigade Group began to trickle westwards from Baggush on 11 November, Armistice Day, and Freyberg and a distinguished visitor, the Rt. Hon. W. J. Jordan, watched from the side of the road as the first vehicles moved off. The spacing was ten to the mile and the speed on the road 15 miles in the hour, which would have made a column more than 100 miles long but for the fact that the total distance to be covered was in most cases no more than 60–70 miles – along the coast road, the Matruh by-pass, and then the Siwa road, from which units branched off westwards into the desert for up to 12 miles to their places in the divisional assembly area. There units dug in facing west and after a hot meal settled down to sleep. Next morning 4 Infantry Brigade Group set out, followed by Divisional Headquarters Group (though Freyberg
stayed behind), and took up position in the assembly area; it was a trying journey, with much other traffic on the coast road and much dust flying in the rough desert stretch. On the 13th Freyberg rose early and took to his car the same bag he had carried into the Battle of the Ancre twenty-five years ago to the day.16 He enjoyed a fast drive and was in time for breakfast at the new area; but 6 Infantry Brigade Group which followed found the road congested with other traffic and it was long past midnight when all detachments came to rest, some of them still short of their destination.
By next morning practically the whole of the Division was for the first time assembled as a complete entity, an historic occasion. In an area twelve miles by eight the 2800-odd vehicles rested 200 yards apart in brigade laagers, with clusters of men among them, and here and there a staff car or truck tearing a thin ribbon of dust from the flat, scrub-covered desert. The troops rested as much as possible and enjoyed the clear, warm day. The unhurried routine included distributing rations, water and POL,17 cleaning weapons and overhauling equipment. Workshops in 5 Brigade worked hard repairing broken springs, Intelligence sections collected information and marked maps, and there were several conferences.
Freyberg took the opportunity to call together all his officers down to company commanders and tell them what he thought fit about CRUSADER. ‘No battle is easy’, he began. ‘This one promises to be a very tough one.’ The Germans were on the defensive and would pick their ground well. ‘They realise the value of AFVs’, he added, ‘and they will not hesitate to use them in a desperate counter stroke.’ He did not think the Germans would risk fighting in the open and considered they would rely on aircraft and anti-tank guns to reduce British tank strength and then ‘launch Counter stroke to re-establish his line at SIDI OMAR and HALFAYA position.’18 He was confident, however, that troops determined to fight hard would beat the Germans, who had relied hitherto on aircraft and tanks to win their battles for them. The Italian army and air force were, moreover, weak links. The Tobruk garrison, on the other hand, was strong and might possibly be ‘the deciding factor’. Freyberg outlined the preliminary moves, 50–60 miles by day on the 15th, a slow and cautious 16–20 miles in the night of the 16th–17th, and 15 miles the following night and then across the frontier after dark on the 18th ready to advance at dawn. The Corps task was to cut off the garrisons of Bardia, Sollum, Sidi Omar and Halfaya and ‘at a later stage to destroy them’, but everything depended on whether
the enemy chose to fight forward in defence of these positions or to leave them for a time to their own resources and fight the armoured battle ‘in rear position South of TOBRUK’. The opposing air forces were evenly matched and the RAF could not provide close support until its fighters gained the upper hand. Air attack would be a constant threat, to be overcome by dispersion and controlled fire, but not when tank attack also threatened: this was more formidable and vehicles would close in to form smaller perimeters and ‘increase Gun support’. Battle routine would henceforth be strictly enforced, brigades would halt in battle order, troops would dig in at once, and anti-tank and LAA guns would take up positions accordingly. After a special plea for units to send back all possible information at every stage of the battle, Freyberg ended characteristically. The battle had to be ‘fought out to a finish, in the end ruthlessly.’
Parties left in the afternoon to reconnoitre brigade and unit lines in the area which was next day’s destination. In the present area units regrouped for this move and Divisional Administration Group (under the CRASC) came into being, with all ASC units except troop-carrying transport, Divisional Workshops and Ordnance Field Park, and the Salvage and Mobile Surgical Units, removing from the brigade groups vehicles they did not need.
It was not until next day, when the Division drove westwards in one vast array of ‘transport, tanks, guns and carriers covering the whole panorama of the desert plain’ (as Freyberg described it in his report), that the full emotional impact of its new-found unity, mobility and potential power was felt.
Looking round from any slight vantage point ... the whole expanse of desert was peppered with moving vehicles as far as the eye could see – and on the horizon fresh lines of black specks were popping up like puppets on an endless chain. ... the country was very stony – great slabs of ‘crazy pavement’ at times and patches of scrub. No air interference but five Messerschmitts seen in the sun.21
The experience of driving towards the enemy in the company of nearly 20,000 men with no apparent doubt among them was as impressive as the spectacle. From the post-Crete depths the morale of the Division had soared to dizzy heights. Feeling of such intensity was not likely to be dampened by the minor mishaps of the journey, many broken springs among them. The rather clumsy performance of an exercise in contracting to meet tank attack and then opening out again, which was included in the journey, was a revelation of inadequate divisional training only to the perceptive few, though it left 5 Brigade 1000 yards south of its proper course.
This exercise and the various layouts adopted by the three brigades on the move and at rest did, however, illustrate one aspect of the differences in kind and character between the three brigades which had emerged in more than eighteen months of corporte extence. Fourth Brigade22 had served a long apprenticeship at Baggush the previous winter and had most first-hand knowledge of desert conditions. Its accepted routines for moving or halting by day or by night were therefore in many ways superior to those of the other two brigades and later became standard in the Division. In organisation 5 Brigade with four battalions was the heavyweight and its greater mass was naturally harder to handle.
On the score of battle experience 6 Brigade had some leeway to make up, having missed the Crete fighting, and for the same reason it retained the largest proportion of ‘old hands’. There were only three new COs in the ten infantry battalions – two in 4 Brigade and one in the 6th – and only one of these, Hartnell23 of 19 Battalion, was as yet untried in battle. The weight of experience, as of numbers, was in the COs of 5 Brigade, three of whom had seen action in the
First World War as well as in Crete (and had between them earned a VC and an MC) and two of whom were members of the Regular Force.24 In terms of average age, too, the COs of 5 Brigade came top, with 4 Brigade next (Hartnell at 31 was the youngest), and then 6 Brigade (with two young Regulars in Shuttleworth,25 34, and Page,26 33).
All three brigades had attained some degree of unity of spirit which was consolidated in various ways by the characters and methods of their commanders. Barrowclough27 of 6 Brigade, for example, was a high-minded and fearless leader, still much the same as when he stormed the defences of Le Quesnoy at the head of his battalion in 1918. He was as ready now as then to attack Germans wherever and whenever he found them on the battlefield, and in this was well attuned to the feeling in his battalions that they had to ‘catch up with’ the other battalions because they missed Crete. He was disinclined to delegate authority, and in this may have been influenced by the relative inexperience of his newly-appointed BM, Major Barrington,28 on whose shoulders operational staff work would normally fall. Thus the main burden of work, as of responsibility, fell on Barrowclough, and he welcomed it.
Inglis of 4 Brigade had commanded a machine-gun company at Le Quesnoy and, like Barrowclough, was one of the first to set foot in that town. The methods of the two men – barristers and solicitors in civil life – provide an interesting contrast. Inglis had a confident and, capable BM29 and used him to the fullest extent, and he could rely, too, on the judgment of Kippenberger30 of 20 Battalion, another solicitor and a friend of long standing who had commanded a brigade in Crete. Thus he felt able to stand aside at times and let
his headquarters run itself with only occasional guidance, trusting to his tactical flair to give good warning when intervention was required.
Hargest approached CRUSADER bursting with confidence. With four battalions his 5 Brigade was the strongest and he was sure it would acquit itself well. All his battalions and his field regiment had lost heavily in Crete, however, and new faces predominated. Twenty-second Battalion still had on its collective mind its withdrawal from Maleme airfield, which was not without its effect on Hargest himself. He was on record as ‘one of the finest soldiers in the Division’ in France in 1916–1831 and he entered CRUSADER determined to erase the unhappy chapter of Crete. His staff was in the main the same that had served him through much adversity in that campaign and there was a warm bond. Hargest had had less chance than his fellow brigadiers, however, of getting to know the desert, wherein a headquarters was as apt as a fighting unit to find enemy on its doorstep. His reluctance after Crete to yield even unimportant ground was in marked contrast to current light-hearted attitudes in the armoured corps towards the significance of ground, and of the two extremes Hargest’s was certainly to be preferred.
Freyberg reached the new bivouac area at dusk on the 15th and went through the latest Intelligence with Captain Bell.32 The enemy air force was active, though not nearly as much so as the RAF. The GOC was still slightly uneasy about the air situation and talked it over with the RAF liaison officer, Wing Commander Magill,33 who was a New Zealander. One possibility he toyed with was of ‘bursting through to Tobruk if things go well and taking aerodromes’, thereby crippling the enemy air effort at least for a time. ‘Indications are for an early attack on Tobruk’ (he wrote in his diary), a welcome development, as the enemy might well get caught on the wrong foot. Bardia seemed lightly held, also encouraging. The one dark item34 was that on the latest count the Germans had 80–100 powerful 50-millimetre anti-tank guns. The night moves planned for the Division ‘may startle the Boche’, his diary continues. ‘At present,
thing which puzzles is that Rommel has everything forward. He is going to counter attack. It is not a battle of positions, it is a matter of destroying one another’s armies.’
The impending moves, however, were already viewed with concern in some quarters. Travelling in low gear across rough desert had already used up 40,000 gallons of petrol instead of the 25,000 allowed for: 3¾ miles per gallon per vehicle in place of the estimated 6 m.p.g. The Division was more than 15,000 gallons short of current needs and the Petrol Company had to make two trips to the nearby Forward Base, working until long after dark. The complicated scheme for rationing Eighth Army also had teething troubles and the Supply Company had similar difficulties, so that units had to draw on their reserves. A full-scale divisional move into action was a different matter from manoeuvring brigades in the well-known hinterland of Baggush. One difference which soon made itself felt was in the marking of the route for the night marches. A half-mile interval between lamps was adequate for the fairly level ground south of Baggush and for the first night move on the 16th; but patches of soft sand on the night of the 17th, defiles through small wadis, and several minor escarpments caused delay and confusion and the field regiments in particular had much trouble. One regimental commander described it as ‘difficult, dangerous and hair-raising’35 and the small reconnaissance party which laid out the lights36 was much criticised, though the real trouble was that many more lights were needed for such uneven ground. By a trick of fate an electrical storm provided eerie flashes to light the chaos and stimulated speculation that the fighting might already have begun. This wild journey ended a few miles short of the frontier early on the 18th, only an hour or two before the armoured mass of 30 Corps 10 to 30 miles to the south surged through the Wire on its way to Gabr Saleh.
As it approached the frontier, 30 Corps too had become no stranger to broken springs, nor even to broken axles. Lack of training and desert experience was only too evident in some units. Not until 16 November, for example, did the South Africans make their first major essay at moving cross-country by night, and the arrival next day of what their historians call a ‘Churchillian exhortation’ ranking CRUSADER in advance with Blenheim and Waterloo can have done little to soothe the feelings of those charged with the task of
repairing the damaged guns or vehicles.37 To many others this stretch of desert was only too familiar and night travel no more than a routine, enlivened by the breathless excitement of the occasion. Thus it was with the skilful reconnaissance units which led the offensive and needed no charitable moon to light their way.
More than 80 miles to the south, ‘Force E’ of the Oases Group under Brigadier D. W. Reid38 got ready to leave Jarabub on a long and lonely trek to the distant oases of Jalo and Aujila. Some 300 miles north-west a small band of desperadoes delivered by submarine made a brave but clumsy attack on what was wrongly thought to be Rommel’s residence.39 Two more groups were dropped by parachute to sabotage airfields at Gambut and Tmimi on the night 16–17 November without success. These far-flung activities all had one central aim, the recapture of Cyrenaica, to which Eighth Army’s 120,000 hearts were dedicated.
Had the Germans not been so intent on their own schemes they must have discovered what was afoot. The Italians had been only too ready to take note of the various warnings; but even they failed to get wind of the vast moves taking place from the first week in November.40 Daily reports to Berlin from Panzer Group Africa Headquarters in this period start monotonously with the statement ‘Enemy situation unchanged’, to which as late as 18 November only one word was added – ‘mainly’. The Intelligence war diary of Panzer Group reveals a singular obtuseness in the face of almost unmistakable evidence. The New Zealand Division was spotted from the air on the 14th and again next day, yet its absence on the 16th was merely noted. It had disappeared into the blue and evoked no further comment. The vigilant German wireless interception company, No. 3 Company of 56 Signals Unit, detected the move of 1 South African Division from Matruh and confirmed it on the 16th with scarcely a raised eyebrow. When complete silence descended on British wireless activity on the 17th the German Intelligence relaxed, though the Italians were acutely suspicious. Bad weather had set in and no aerial reconnaissance could be flown. Nothing more could be done until it cleared up.
Yet the best evidence of all was solemnly recorded in Panzer Group records without a suspicion of its real significance. The fact is that the RAF had given the enemy clear warning of coming events which the Germans refused to see in any other way than as a reaction to their preliminary moves for the attack on Tobruk (which they characteristically supposed had been disclosed to the British by treachery). The switching of RAF targets from distant ports and installations to nearer landing grounds and dumps in the week before D 1 was a marked change of policy: it was tactical rather than strategic and obviously so.
From the RAF point of view CRUSADER began in mid-October in a gradually increasing programme of bombing from Malta and Egypt and of fighter activity to deny enemy observation of battle preparations. At the same time careful though incomplete photographic and other reconnaissance of the relevant area of Cyrenaica was carried out as cloud, sandstorms and enemy fighters permitted. In the last week, 11–17 November, bomber sorties against airfields rose from 38 the previous week to 12741 and fighter sorties from 191 to 274, though still well under maximum effort so as not to reveal full fighter strength. It was an impressive programme by current standards and comparatively economical; but the results achieved fell short of claims, in the same way that the achievements of the British armour were shortly to be exaggerated, partly through overlapping reports. In helping the Royal Navy to sink enemy shipping and in protecting the small ships supplying Tobruk the RAF made a valuable contribution to the coming operations; but land targets were less profitable. The vast spaces of the desert were ill-suited to air action against ground targets on any scale then feasible. Unless landing grounds were caught crowded with aircraft they made poor targets and attacks on army installations or troops seldom had more than a nuisance value. Aerial reconnaissance, however, was extremely valuable and Eighth Army was able to enter the fray with printed maps of enemy positions giving detailed information no more than a fortnight old.
Air Headquarters, Western Desert, had been set up alongside Eighth Army Headquarters with a New Zealander, Air Vice-Marshal Coningham,42 in command and a staff dedicated to achieving supremacy over the enemy air forces in Libya and closely supporting
Eighth Army for the brief term of the impending offensive. CRUSADER was to serve the purposes of the Navy and RAF as much as those of the Army, and the new Air Support Control system seemed to promise closer and more flexible air support for land operations than had hitherto existed. Planning could naturally not allow for the extreme confusion of the situation on land which was shortly to prevail and which made ‘bomb lines’ between British and enemy troops almost impossible to draw. Nor could the RAF planners hope for more than temporary superiority over the desert battlefields. Tedder, in stating his case to London, claimed no more than a probable qualitative superiority by virtue of the poor equipment of the Italian air force in Libya, reinforced by a higher rate of serviceability in RAF units. Fortunately current estimates were wrong and the RAF did in fact possess the local preponderance in numbers about which Churchill was so anxious to reassure Mr Fraser. On the other hand, any advantage the British pilots could drive home against their Italian adversaries tended to be offset by their own troubles when tackled by Messerschmitt 109Fs, superior in performance to the obsolescent Hurricanes and Tomahawks with which the RAF fighter squadrons were equipped. Tedder reported that the moral ascendancy of the Me109F pilots had been overcome, but the flattering tactics adopted to reduce their depredations hardly support his contention.
Thus the handful of Me109Fs at the disposal of Fliegerführer Afrika, Major-General Froehlich, were able to achieve an effect out of proportion to their numbers. Some such advantage was urgently needed, as it was only too clear to the Axis leaders (as it was not to their opponents) that they had many fewer bombers and fighters in the desert than the RAF. Last-minute allocations of more Luftwaffe units would rectify this for the Tobruk operation but would still leave the Sollum front weak in air cover in the opinion of Reichsmarschall Goering, as OKW advised on 1 November. In Rommel’s absence Crüwell nevertheless committed Panzer Group Africa to the Tobruk attack and reposed every confidence in the ability of the frontier line to hold out for a few days against British counter-attacks, even by strong tank forces.
Froehlich’s situation was unusual. He was under the command not of Rommel but of General Geissler of X Flying Corps in Sicily, and so far as the Italians were concerned his powers were restricted to co-ordinating the operations of the Luftwaffe units in North Africa with those of the forward units of General Marchesi’s 5 Air Fleet. This nevertheless seems to have worked fairly well and the Italians were particularly pleased with the Stukas Geissler gave them. Their own aircraft were inferior and it was good for
their morale to have German crews operating alongside them and perhaps one or two Me109Fs overhead. Froehlich was not in the habit of setting up shop alongside Rommel’s headquarters, however, and the absence of a close understanding between the two, in marked contrast to the co-operation between the two Axis air forces, became only too obvious at times. So long as the RAF fighters were mainly based east of Sidi Barrani no serious repercussions ensued and the Axis air commands were able to make good use of their slender forces43 in attacking Tobruk and the ships which supplied it. But when the RAF fighter wings moved up to the frontier, as they did for CRUSADER, their numerical advantage could make itself felt over the whole battle area and the loose co-ordination between Axis air and ground forces only served to emphasise disparities in air strength.