Monday, August 10, 2015

Flakartillerie in North Afrika

Kanonier, Flakartillerie troops, Libya 1942

The appearance of Luftwaffe anti-aircraft units on the battlefields of Europe and Africa in a conventional artillery role was not due to any personal ambition of the Reichsmarschall, but rather to a sound and admirable flexibility of thought on the part of the German staff. So often ignorantly criticized for rigidness, the Germans, in their willingness to experiment with combat techniques, compare very favourably with certain episodes in the record of the Allied command.

The superb 8·8 cm anti-aircraft gun developed by Krupps in the early 1930s first appeared at the front line in Spain during 1936, equipping Flak batteries of the German expeditionary force. (It was entirely logical that anti-aircraft artillery should fall under Luftwaffe control, not least because of the importance of close technical liaison.) 'Flak' has come into common English usage, and will be used throughout this text; it is a contraction of Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone, 'anti-aircraft cannon'. The version used in Spain, properly termed the 8·8 cm Flak 18, was followed in 1937 by the improved Flak 36 model, which had provision for the speedy changing of barrels, and a new and significant wheeled carriage designated Sonderanhänger 201. The normal ground mounting was of cruciform design; for travelling the side arms were folded upwards and wheeled bogies fitted to the long arms. The 201 mounting allowed the gun to fire on ground targets without being freed from the bogies and winched down to ground level; the brakes were applied, the wheels chocked, the side arms of the cruciform mounting folded down and the 'feet' at their extremities winched down to brace against the ground - and the gun was ready for action. It is not known who first suggested that the gun was too versatile to be confined to flying targets, but he was certainly a soldier of some vision; that battlefield use of the gun played a part in staff thinking from an early stage is confirmed by the fact that from 1940 onwards armoured shields to protect the crew during ground combat were fitted to new guns, and fitted retrospectively to many Flak 18s.

The Luftwaffe Flak regiments and batteries operated in great numbers throughout the war, and with enormous success. To detail all these units is frankly beyond the author's competence and would serve little purpose; but perhaps it is valid to consider one isolated campaign - that in North Africa.

In the mobile desert warfare of which the Germans of Rommel's Panzerarmee soon showed themselves to be masters, the Flak played a vital part. Supply and replacement problems haunted Rommel almost from the first - his uniquely vulnerable lines of communication lay across a Mediterranean ranged by Allied aircraft from Malta and submarines from Malta and Gibraltar - and although his precious tanks were superior in quality to all Allied equipment until the very end of the campaign, their numbers were never as high as he could have wished. To conserve the PzKpfw IIIs and IVs of 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, he evolved a deadly technique.

It. has been said that despite the glamorous image of the tank columns which churned across the Western Desert, the real kings of the African battlefields were the landmine and the anti-tank gun. The greatest of these was the 'eighty-eight'; it was extremely mobile and could operate well forward with the advanced armoured squadrons. I t was normally towed by the heavy SdKfz 7 halftrack; this powerful vehicle could accommodate the entire crew of eleven (layer, trainer, breechworker, fuse-setter, five ammunition numbers, commander and driver) and their personal equipment, a good supply of ammunition for immediate use, and reserves of fuel. Thus, once a target was sighted, the gun could be got into action very quickly. Its impressive rate of fire - between fifteen and twenty rounds a minute - was combined with great range and accuracy. Maximum low-trajectory range was 16,500 yards, and the 21-lb armour-piercing round could kill a tank at up to 3,000 yards - three times the range of the best Allied equipment. Its air-burst high-explosive round was notably effective against infantry. In the 'eighty-eight', Rommel had a deadly antitank weapon, a fine anti-aircraft gun, and a fieldpiece capable of augmenting conventional barrages with great speed and accuracy, all rolled into one supremely functional piece of metal.

The most frightening and effective use of the gun was in Rommel's famous 'Flak front'. In the face of advancing enemy armour the Luftwaffe regiments would be sent right forward and dug in to ground level; the gun was easy to conceal, as is any relatively small piece of equipment at ground level under the peculiar light conditions of the desert, and its rounds used a flashless propellant. A few troops of tanks would probe forward, making contact with the British armour and then withdrawing, luring the Grants and Crusaders within range of the trap. Once they were comfortably lined up the Flak would methodically decimate them; their own short-range guns were useless, their attackers were virtually invisible, and their casualties were frequently appalling. At its anti-tank debut in the Battle of Sollum in June 1941 the 'eighty-eight' is claimed to have destroyed 123 out of 238 British tanks attacking the Afrika Korps position in Halfaya ('Hellfire') Pass); according to German sources this represented one 'brewed' tank for every twenty rounds fired by the Flak batteries.

Another battle in which the 'eighty-eights' distinguished themselves and their Luftwaffe crews was the series of actions near Agedabia in January 1942. Prominent was a crack Air Force unit, Major Hecht's Flak Regiment 135; the 18th, 33rd and 35th Regiments also did well, as did Major Hartmann's Reserve Flak Abteilung 114. The 135th, now led by Oberst Wolz, also figures honourably in the records of Bir Hakeim in June [942; in this hard-fought action he also had under command various detached battalions, notably 1I./Flak 25, I./Flak 18, I.fFlak 6 and I./Flak 43· The last-named unit won no fewer than three awards of the Ritterkreuz (Knight's Cross) during the desert fighting; they were awarded to Oberleutnant Gellert, Major Gürcke (the commanding officer) and Oberfeldwebel Bösel. At El Alamein the [02nd and [35th Regiments were organized as the main fighting units of the '9th Flak Division, under direct army command and led by Generalleutnant Burckhardt; these units, together with the 109th Flak Battalion attached to Graf von Sponeck's famous 90th Light Division, and various army Flak battalions, had a total strength of eighty-six 8·8 cm guns at the opening of the battle. So seriously did the British take these weapons that Montgomery issued explicit instructions to his armoured brigade commanders concerning the absolute necessity of avoiding the 'Flak front' and saving their strength for the final battle with the panzers. Even so, it is said that the 'eighty-eights' were largely responsible for the massacre of the first wave of British armour at Alamein.

The Flak fought their way back along the coast with the other survivors of the Panzerarmee, and were still scourging Allied armour as the last stores were burned in Tunis in May 1943. The remains of the 19th Flak Division took up their last firing positions along the Miliane line, in company with the survivors of the 'Hermann Goring' Division and Koch's and Ramcke's paratroopers. The 20th Flak Division, or what was left of it, was at Tebourba; the 3/52 Battery distinguished itself in the last few days of the fighting when Leutnant Happach and Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Voight turned their 'eighty-eights' on the American 2nd Armoured Battalion, and killed twenty tanks in as many minutes.

Allied raiding in the Desert

As well as conducting patrolling missions, the Eighth Army carried out a number of local attacks designed to test Axis resolve and to provide better jumping-off points for the main battle. In the north of the line, an Australian raid (Operation Bulimba) was a partial success, but a larger action conducted by a brigade of the 44th Infantry Division (Operation Braganza) was a bitter failure, causing heavy casualties for no gain. If nothing else, these raids confirmed to the British that the Axis forces were far from beaten and remained a profound danger. 

Further to the south were the 'private armies', units of special forces who operated on the flanks of the main force. A British officer who helped organise these units called the desert a 'small raider's paradise', for it was in North Africa that most of these troops encouraged by Wavell and Auchinleck - came into being. Their basic philosophy was centred around the idea that well-trained and highly motivated men could carry out onerous and often dangerous missions impossible for conventional forces. The private armies reflected the British enthusiasm for the Boy's Own school of warfare, where derring-do by a resolute officer and his faithful men would win the day against vastly superior odds. 

The first of these organisations to see the light of day - and probably the most effective- was the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The brainchild of a British officer, Major Ralph Bagnold, who had explored the Western Desert extensively before the war, the LRDG was set up to perform deep reconnaissance missions far behind enemy lines. Bagnold was given permission by Wavell to do as he wished, and he recruited a volunteer force of New Zealanders, who were then at a loose end after having lost their arms and equipment through shipping losses. Later the New Zealanders were joined by Rhodesians, and then troops from the Guards and subsequently yeomanry regiments. 

Driving modified Chevrolet and Ford trucks, the LRDG operated from a string of oases deep in the desert, sending out patrols throughout Libya to as far west as the border with Tunisia. Missions could last weeks at a time, and the men not only had to learn the special techniques of desert survival, such as navigating by sun compass, they had to be highly resourceful to survive in these harsh conditions. Self-discipline replaced the spit and polish of conventional army discipline, and each soldier was expected to be able to look after himself. 

The professionalism of the LRDG compared favourably with many other private armies, which, in the main, were organized and led by inspired amateurs. The commandos in the Middle East were formed from 8 and 11 Commando, known as Layforce after their commander, Colonel Robert Laycock. Layforce experienced mixed fortunes. Their prime function was to conduct amphibious raids along the North African coast, attacking enemy installations. The commandos achieved some success with relatively modest ventures, where resources were carefully matched to a specific task. The larger, open-ended raids were generally less successful, and disasters were not uncommon. The expedition mounted in November 1941 to attack Rommel's headquarters was one such operation. The leader of the raid, Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes, was killed (receiving a posthumous VC) and many of his troops were captured. Faulty intelligence and desperately over-optimistic planning had doomed the attempt from the outset. 

While recovering from injuries from a commando raid, one young officer, David Stirling, decided there was a place for small raiding teams to be dropped by parachute behind enemy lines. Supported by Generals Ritchie and Auchinleck, Stirling was given the go-ahead, and in mid-1941 he began recruiting volunteers from the remains of Layforce. Stirling and his 65 recruits gave themselves the title L Detachment Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade, intended to deceive German intelligence that an airborne brigade was being formed in the Middle East. 

The first mission undertaken by the SAS was a parachute attack against two Axis airfields (16 November 1941), but the men were dispersed by high winds and the whole affair was a fiasco, the detachment losing 70 per cent of its strength. The survivors were picked up by the LRDG. Stirling saw the effectiveness of the LRDG and immediately abandoned the parachute concept in favour of overland operations in heavily armed jeeps, guided to their targets by the LRDG. 

Specialising in attacks against enemy airfields, the SAS achieved some excellent results. On one occasion the SAS second-incommand, Paddy Mayne, led a raid which destroyed 40 Italian aircraft. Stirling was allowed to expand his force, which attracted a stream of volunteers, incorporating such diverse elements as French paratroops, the Greek Sacred Squadron, the Special Boat Squadron, and the Special Interrogation Group (which comprised native-speaking Germans opposed to Nazism).

Desert patrols
Captain Pleydell, an SAS medical officer, found membership of this unusual organisation an interesting change from more conventional duties:
Although life was free and easy in the mess) discipline was required for exercises and operations. On the operation in which I was involved) our patrol would make long detours south of the battle line and then loop up north to within striking distance of an airfield or similar target. Camouflage had to be expert) so that when you hid up you couldn’t be detected ~ even at close distance. Slow-flying enemy aircraft could follow our tracks to our hiding places and they represented a real threat. It was a hit-and-run) hide-and-seek type of war. 

Working alongside the more organised of the private armies were individuals engaged in undercover work in Libya. One of the more colourful of these people was Vladimir Peniakoff, a man of Russo-Belgian descent who, after service in the French army during World War I, ended up as an engineer working in Egypt. On the outbreak of World War 11 he managed to secure a commission in the British army, and undertook special operations behind enemy lines. Initially, Peniakoff - nicknamed Popski by the British - worked with Libyan Arabs hostile to the Axis, but with help from the LRDG he expanded his organization - which became 'Popski's private army' - and instigated sabotage raids on Axis positions. One of the most successful raids involved the destruction of 100,000 gallons of petrol, the commodity the German panzer divisions so desperately needed.

Montgomery's disdain
Unlike his predecessors, Montgomery did not have a very high opinion of the groups of special forces roaming the desert. In particular, he was not keen on having his best men and NCOs poached by the SAS. John Hackett - after being wounded at Gazala - was appointed to act as a liaison officer between high command and the various private armies. He found their leaders, 'a very varied list of prima donnas. My job was to try and make special operations comprehensible and palatable to senior officers, which took a lot of doing because they were not an easy lot to keep under full control.' 

In one attempt to secure volunteers, Hackett and David Stirling met with Montgomery just prior to the battle at Alamein. Montgomery was not impressed with Stirling's entreaties and, according to Hackett, Montgomery replied: 'What makes you think, Stirling, that these men will fight better under your command than undermine. And, anyway, they won't be ready for the battle [Alamein].' I couldn't resist saying, 'Well, they may not be trained in time for the next battle, but they will be trained for the one after that and the battles to follow.' 

This was too much for Monty. He hammered the map at Alamein and said, 'There will be no other battle in Africa. This is going to be the last battle. My mandate is to destroy Rommel, and I propose to destroy him,' he said tapping the Alamein position, 'just here.' David, who was never well known for his obsequiousness, said: 'Oh yes, General, but the last general told us something like that, and the one before him too.' 

Not surprisingly, Stirling did not receive his recruits. This anecdotal exchange typified the deep difference between the freewheeling special forces soldier and the professional general. Although the private armies did do good work on the flanks, Montgomery knew that only by defeating the Axis in a major battle could the desert war be won. And as he explained to Hackett and Stirling, the battle would be won or lost at Alamein.