Friday, October 7, 2022

Crusader Begins - Western Desert, November 1941

Feldwebel Willi Hoffmeister was studying the horizon through his field glasses as the sky grew lighter. He swore he saw a cloud of dust, but couldn't be sure if it was just the wind or perhaps the British moving up.

His platoon, for it was officially his now - along with promotion to Feldwebel, was well-positioned. Each of his four tanks were hull down with clear fields of fire to their front. Better yet, off to his left flank was a battery of 8.8 cm guns. While his 5 cm gun had trouble with some of the bigger British Panzers, the 8.8 could, and did, kill anything which moved upon the battlefield. At long range as well.

He wasn't too concerned about having one less vehicle than authorized, his platoon was better off than some. Overall, the Afrika Korps was having trouble keeping its Panzer strength up. Last he heard, they had less than 250 Panzers capable of action, whereas the enemy 8th Army had over 700 on strength according to the intel officer.

He wasn't really worried about the disparity in numbers, German doctrine so far had proven superior to that practiced by the Allies, Hoffmeister knew that eventually someone on the other side would figure that out, then he would worry.

Sergeant Theodore O'Connell crouched in his turret hatch, he had his scarf wrapped around his lower face in an attempt to keep the blowing sand and grit out of his mouth. But it got in everywhere else, the omnipresent sand got in everything, clothing, food, engines, transmissions, it was a constant battle to keep it out. The only thing worse, in O'Connell's view, were the swarms of flies that dominated the air when the sun was up.

The desert got cold at night, which while uncomfortable at least kept the swarms of flies dormant during the nighttime hours. But the flies and the sand were the least of O'Connell's worries at the moment, he was at the forefront of another 8th Army attempt to destroy the German Afrika Korps. Soon it would be full light and he suspected the presence of German armor just over the next ridge.

"Alan, keep your speed up. Jimmy, be ready to engage. I suspect the Huns are just over that next rise."

"That's where I'd be Skipper," Private Will O'Shea chimed in over the intercom.

"Right lads, keep the chatter down, things will get crazy soon enough."

O'Connell rubbed his palms against the skirt of his greatcoat again, he was sweating, but it wasn't from the temperature.

"Feindlicher Panzer, elf Uhr, Reichweite 1000 Meter.¹" Oberpanzerschütze Horst Krebs stated over the intercom. He had his sights on what had to be a British cruiser tank just coming into view.

"Gun is ready, Panzergranate geladen." Oberpanzerschütze Lutz Schumacher added.

"Steady lads, I want them closer." Hoffmeister wanted to kick the Tommies squarely in the face at the beginning of the engagement. Kill them, confuse them, then drive the survivors from the field.

"1st Platoon, hold your fire. After I shoot, then it's a Freie Jagd!²" Hoffmeister wanted to make sure his boys were all on the same page, he'd briefed them the night before, but it didn't hurt to make sure.

Operation Crusader
Click to Embiggen
O'Connell spotted the Germans a second too late, as he gave the command to fire, his target's cannon belched, 50 yards to his left, John Cassidy's tank lurched to a stop.

Cassidy's mike was open, the entire platoon could hear the crew of his tank screaming at their commander to get out. They didn't realize that Cassidy had been killed instantly when the German tank round had pierced the side of the tank, then deflected up into the turret.

O'Connell couldn't cut his contact with the rest of the platoon by killing his radio, so they all listened as Cassidy's crew died screaming in the flames engulfing their dying tank.

One of the Tommies across the way was a very good shot. Hoffmeister watched in disbelief as one of the British Panzers bounced a 2-pounder shot off the hard packed gravel ten meters in front of Unteroffizier Paul Bauer's Panzer.

The shot ricocheted off the gravel and up into the belly of Bauer's PzKw III. The entire turret crew was killed when the British round hit and shattered a 5 cm round Bauer's gunner had part way into their cannon's breech. The resulting spray of steel fragments killed Bauer, his gunner, and his loader.

Hoffmeister watched briefly as Bauer's driver and bow gunner dove out of their hatches and sprinted to the rear. Things were starting to go south for the Afrika Korps on this small patch of desert. But the battle wasn't over yet.

8.8 cm anti-tank gun in North Africa
O'Connell could feel the battle starting to turn their way, a number of Germans tanks were burning on the ridge. Though a number of British tanks were also burning, they had the advantage of numbers. It was almost as if they could "feel" the enemy beginning to waver. Then it all turned to ashes.

O'Connell was about to order Fitzhugh to engage a large gun he had spotted off to the right of their advance. Before he spoke, that gun fired. An instant later O'Connell heard a loud crash to his rear.

Driver Caddick was screaming, "Engine's bloody gone! I've got no power!"

O'Connell looked at the ruin of his Crusader's engine compartment and his blood ran cold, that big gun had to be an 88!

"Everybody out! There are 88s on that f**king ridge!"

As the crew bailed, O'Connell looked to the rest of his platoon, "Lads, head for the rear, I've got to stay and command the platoon!"

His foot caught the side of the tank as he scrambled to get clear, he could smell smoke coming from his tank. As he landed hard, fearing for a moment that he'd broken something, he heard Fitzhugh shout out at him.

"Leave it Teddy! Oswald's tank has scarpered, Wilson's just brewed up, you don't have a bloody platoon anymore!"

Realizing the truth of that, O'Connell began to head for the rear, walking backwards, hoping to see anyone from Wilson's tank. He saw no one, they were either sheltering nearby or had died.

The damned Germans had won again!

Near Sidi Rezegh - 7th Armoured had planned its attack northward to Tobruk to start at 08.30 on 21 November, but at 07.45, patrols reported the arrival from the south-east of a mass of enemy armour of some 200 tanks in all. 7th Armoured Brigade, together with a battery of field artillery, turned to meet the threat and left the four companies of infantry and the artillery of the Support Group to carry out the attack to the north in anticipation of being reinforced by 5th South African Infantry Brigade. It had been detached from the 1st South African Division at Bir el Gubi, which faced the Ariete Division, and was heading north to join them.

Without armoured support, the northward attack by the Support Group failed. By the end of the day, 7th Armoured Brigade had lost the bulk (28 of its 60) tanks and been relying mainly on the artillery of the Support Group to hold the enemy at arm's length. (Source)

¹ "Enemy tanks, 11 o'clock, range 1000 meters." (German)
² "Free hunt," i.e. fire at will (German)


  1. Awful to deal with an enemy who has an ATG capable of killing any of your tanks at range. I see American M3s first showed up during this battle. Another post wondering who is not going to make it Sarge, thumbs up on the tension.

    1. The 88 could dominate a battlefield.

    2. Crusty Old TV Tech here. Old rule of thumb I remember hearing in a head-on battle between Arty and Armor, Arty wins. But of course, Arty is not terribly mobile, so for Armor to win, they have to have intel on Arty's position, and use mobility and surprise.

      Makes me wonder where Allied air power was. Arty that does not have AA cover is vulnerable to air attack. Also, a little recce support might have made the difference in this engagement.

      Good chapter of the story there Sarge.

    3. Blowing sand kept the planes on the ground.

      Artillery is the king of battle, but without support, just another target.

    4. Artillery, 'The King of Battle'. Stalin called artillery 'The Red God of War' and in a WW2 context he was right. BTW the British 3.7 AA gun was roughly equivalent to the German 88 but the gun mount only enabled it to be used as an AA gun.

    5. The QF 3.7 was a VERY GOOD gun, too bad the Army didn't use a little more imagination with it.

    6. During WW2 there was an incident where the Germans were flying a very high altitude (44k feet) recce flight over the Portsmouth navy base, so the story goes a single shot was fired from a 3.7" radar predicted AA gun. It hit the target. Artillery was an area of warfare where the British excelled. The mount for the 3.7" gun was only designed for it to be used in an AA role. It would not have coped with sustained use as an AT weapon.

    7. I did not know that, thanks for the info!

    8. The 88 was also AA. Don't know if it the ones in the desert could be used in that dual role or they carried AA rounds for them.

  2. The flies, I never think of the flies making life miserable out there until I read about it. Meanwhile it's November of '41, back in the states life goes on...

    1. Back in the States ...

      A chilling reminder that all too soon the United States will be plunged into war.

    2. It's weird, but in the last year or so when I see a photo or read a piece (about America) from the late 30's, 40 or early 41 I think about how long they have until their whole world turns upside down.

    3. I get that and understand that feeling.

  3. The '88s. The d*mned '88's. I remember reading about them in the WW II histories and how effective - and versatile - they were.

    I am too old to not get prepared when I see a puff of dust anymore. Even when it is just a puff, it better to be ready than not.

    From your comment - it is odd for me to think that at home, both of my parents have been born at this point (very young, but still born). The hometown I grew up in was probably like most hometowns at that time, coming out of the Depression but in a lot of ways still similar to how things had been in the previous 30 years (or farther up into the mountains, the previous 60). All of that is about to change.

    1. Same here. My Mom and Dad were born in the late '20s, early '30s, they both have memories of those days. The end of an era approaches in the story.

  4. As I recall talking to old timers, Hun was used both as a singular and plural. My sister’s father in law was a desert rat. Artillery.

    1. That comment above shouldn’t have been anonymous.

    2. Hun could mean one German or a group of Germans, though "Huns" was used as well.

      I have a deep, abiding respect for those who fought in North Africa.

    3. Gargle can't seem to maintain a consistent interface, someone is "fixing" things which aren't broken.

  5. Nit to pick: the 5cm shell was in the breech of the gun of the Panzer. Breach is what the 2 pounder shot did to the bottom of the Panzer to make the 5cm shell explode in the breech of the gun.

    1. I know the difference, my brain said one, my fingers typed the other.

      Fixed it.


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