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Artillery in the Desert, Military Intelligence Service, Special Series No. 6, November 1942
[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the wartime U.S. War Department publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


a. The Approach

The action of artillery with British armored forces during the approach has differed little from its action with infantry formations. The armored regiments move in open order in a formation usually like that in figure 16.

[Figure 16: Open order formation of a British armored regiment]
Figure 16.--Open order formation of a British armored regiment

The artillery regimental commander rides in a vehicle near the tank brigade commander; the artillery battalion commander rides near the squadron commander, usually in the same tank with the squadron second-in-command. Battery commanders are with their batteries; observers are in vehicles on the flank of the leading elements, or in the rear, so as to have observation in all directions. All communication is by radio, as shown by figure 17.

Artillery regimental and battalion commanders each have two radio sets, one for use in the tank net, the other for use in the artillery net. Each artillery observer has direct radio communication with his battery, but the battalion commander can cut in on either of the battery frequencies if he desires.

[Figure 17: British radio net]
Figure 17.--British radio net

Some artillery observers accompany the leading armored cars, which are used by both sides for reconnaissance purposes. Only sufficient guns accompany these armored cars as are necessary to support them in the fighting required to secure the needed information. In addition, a certain proportion of antitank guns are used for protection.

b. The Attack

1. General.--It has been found that an attack by tanks against an even hastily organized position in which there are a reasonable quantity of antitank and field guns succeeds only at disproportionate cost, unless the enemy guns are knocked out or neutralized first. When the British spot Axis guns, they engage them by direct fire from 25-pounders. As many as possible are knocked out.

(2) Role of the artillery.--Normally, at the beginning of combat the artillery regimental commander attaches his battalions to tank regiments, and does not try to control their fire.

Artillery battalion commanders usually keep one battery within 1,500 yards of the rear of the supported tank regiment, and the other several thousand yards in rear. As soon as the forward battery is committed to action, the rear battery is ordered forward to leap-frog the forward battery. This method provides for continuous support during an advance.

The artillery observers do not always use armored OP's. It was discovered that isolated armored vehicles received concentrated fire as the enemy approached, whereas an isolated unarmored truck was often disregarded by the enemy during the initial stages of the action. Hence observers in tanks or other armored OP's stay within the armored formation, and those in trucks get out on the flank where they can see better and avoid the long-range fire which the Germans usually commence at 2,500 yards (or more) as the two opposing forces approach each other. The observer calls for two rounds, 100 yards apart, at a given range and at a measured compass direction. From these he shifts fire on to the target. He continues to observe and adjust the fire by this method until the Germans are so close that he has to withdraw; in these final stages the batteries usually employ direct fire.

In the meantime the firing battery is laid in the following manner: the battery march is in a diamond formation, with a pilot vehicle containing the executive on the flank (see fig. 18).

When the call for fire comes from the observer, the battery forms a line, the base piece is laid reciprocally by the executive and referred to the pole on his vehicle.

[Figure 18: Diagram of a British artillery battery on the march]
Figure 18.--Diagram of a British artillery battery on the march

While the base piece is firing the two initial rounds, the other sections go into position and are laid with a prismatic compass. This enbables the battery to get off its initial rounds quickly with rough data.

c. The Defense

In the desert, mechanized attacks may come at any time and from any direction as in a naval action. This has, of course, necessitated special formations for defense. Division "X" has been reported to have the best defense organization. This division, with a grand total of about 12,650 men, consists of—

3 infantry brigades of about 3,000 men each; total, 9,000 men.
3 artillery regiments of about 600 men each; total, 1,800 men.
2 antitank regiments of about 500 men each; total, 1,000 men.
1 tank battalion of 250 men.
Supply and repair echelons of about 500 men.
AA personnel of about 100 men.
Motor vehicles numbering about 3,000.

In moving this unit three general methods were used: the brigades in column, two brigades in front and one in rear, and one brigade in front and two in line in rear.

[Figure 19: Diagram of a British brigade on the march]
Figure 19.--Diagram of a British brigade on the march

The position illustrated in figure 19 is that used for the halt with brigades closed up to 500 yards. On the march the distance between brigades is approximately 1 mile. A separate brigade is organized as shown in figure 20.

It is interesting to note that vehicles are formed in lines by organizations and moved forward in that manner. Intervals between vehicles and in park are approximately 100 yards; distances from the front of one line to the next are approximately 150 yards.

[Figure 20: Diagram of a British division organized for perimeter defense]
Figure 20.--Diagram of a British division organized for perimeter defense

In case of an attack the division (see fig. 19) or brigade on the march halts and the defense is offered with the proper weapons. Antiaircraft defense is offered by three battalions of three batteries of four (Bofors 20 mm) guns each (a total of 36), distributed through the divisional area. Bren machine guns on the basis of five per artillery and infantry battalion are mounted ready for immediate use at any time. Artillery is used at the earliest possible time in an effort to break up the attacking enemy formations before they are within effective tank or infantry ranges.

The experience of one infantry brigade has illustrated well the possibilities of artillery in the defense. The commander of this infantry brigade pushes forward a "Hard Hitting Packet" (four 2-pdr guns portee, four Vickers .303 MG's in carriers, two 3-inch mortars in carriers) to assist the armored car screen when it reports heavy armored forces to be approaching. He moves the brigade itself forward to a favorable position in which to receive an attack. The advance group usually meets the enemy and fights a rear guard action back to the perimeter, into which they move in their assigned positions. All the while this is going on, the brigade artillery, controlled by mobile OP's, keeps the advancing tanks under fire. In this brigade the commander has made six armored cars into mobile observation posts with radio sets which can contact the artillery Hq and have artillery observers in each. With these mobile OP's the enemy tanks cannot get away from effective artillery fire, for the mobile OP's go where necessary to observe the fire. This brigade has never yet been without observed fire even during the hardest engagements. These cars work around the flanks, and, as a result, the enemy cannot refuel or form up within range of the artillery without bringing down effective fire on himself. Armored cars are not afraid of tanks, as they can always outrun them.

In one instance, some time after the advance screen joined the perimeter, the Germans delivered a minor tank attack from the northeast. The brigade beat this off, burning out four tanks. One, however, came so close that it was captured by an officer who charged it in a 1/2-ton truck with a sticky-type bomb. The crew surrendered, and he brought it in to the Brigade Hq, crew and all. There were no more tank attacks that day, but the artillery continued its shelling.

During the night of November 23/24 the brigade received orders to withdraw 7 or 8 miles to the south and establish a defended perimeter. Stragglers of another brigade commenced drifting back; so the commander waited until dawn and sent out armored car patrols to bring in as many as they could find. At 0730 the brigade commenced moving south, and at 0900 its leading unit arrived in the designated area. There was much miscellaneous transport in the area which had to be moved before the perimeter was established. This was a day (November 24) of a big breakthrough in the south, and there was considerable confusion.

The brigade remained in position all day and was engaged by the German 21st Armored Division, and on the night of November 24/25 the Germans encircled the entire perimeter. The attack began in earnest at 0700 of the 25th with artillery fire from two medium batteries, one to the east and the other to the northeast. The armored cars which had withdrawn into the perimeter at dark were out again at dawn (0615), and they soon reported armored formations in strength to the northeast and also to the south of the perimeter. At that time it was known that the Italian armored forces with other mobile troops, but with no German tanks, were in the Bir el Gubi area 6 or 7 miles west of the brigade.

By 0730 the medium batteries were augmented by three field batteries firing from positions to the north, east, and southeast.

The first heavy attack, made up of approximately 60 tanks supported by motorized infantry and heavy mortars, came from the east. This force included a number of heavy tanks, German Mark IV's, which "fire everything they have as they move, making quite a show as they advance."7

The attack was made in two waves on a front of about 1,000 yards, the light tanks forward and the heavier ones in the second wave. It lasted exactly 1 hour, and, after failing to penetrate the perimeter in a number of places and suffering heavy losses, the tanks withdrew and reformed to the north. During the enemy attack, artillery fire was intensified and the brigade artillery answered them, firing primarily on armor; but some guns were spared for the soft column8 which usually functions close in the rear of the German armored column.

A second and heavier attack was launched from the north at 1000 hours. The violence of this attack was such that for about half an hour it was feared the Germans would penetrate the perimeter. The ground attack was intensified by air bombing. This brigade was attacked by dive bombers and fighters during the early morning from November 19th to December 6th, and by two or three large formation assaults during the day, but dispersion and slit trenches made air attack comparatively ineffective against personnel. However, the brigade did have 145 vehicles burned out during this period, the majority by the air. This brigade digs slit trenches whenever it halts, if even for an hour, and its vehicles are always dispersed by at least 200 yards. A slit trench for a temporary halt need be just deep enough so that the body of a man is below the surface of the ground.

The attack slowed down at 1030, when the remaining tanks moved widely around to the west, still constantly under the brigade artillery fire. During this movement smoke screens were laid by the tanks themselves, but the brigade's mobile OP's moved around the screen and kept them under observed fire.

It appeared as if a third attack was imminent, but before this could be launched, an armored brigade arrived with 40 American light tanks. These were not sufficient in number or sufficiently armored or armed to counterattack the numerically superior and heavier armored German tanks, and it was therefore decided that should a third attack materialize, the armored brigade would counterattack into their flank. But this third attack did not materialize, probably as a result of the welcome reinforcement of the American tanks.

The artillery battle continued all the rest of the day. Toward sunset the enemy's soft column (motorized infantry and supply units), approximately 2,000 vehicles which were well within gun range, started withdrawing, with the infantry brigade's artillery continually shelling them until they moved out of range. During the withdrawal the Germans interposed their tanks between their soft columns and this infantry brigade.

d. Withdrawal

If a withdrawal has to take place, it is conducted under cover of artillery fire. Orders are issued sufficiently early for a plan of withdrawal of the artillery to be made. If they are given too late, there is grave danger of batteries being unnecessarily overrun. Antitank guns are required to protect the flanks and the rearmost units of the force, especially those of the field artillery engaged in delaying the enemy advance. Antitank guns may have to be used from their portees, but this is avoided, if possible, in order to obtain better positions. In any withdrawal, a rallying point, beyond which no vehicle will pass, is established and announced to all ranks.

e. Counterbattery

(1) General.--Organized counterbattery work has not occurred during the highly mobile stages of the fighting on the desert. Counterbattery operations have been used most effectively by the British during the more or less static situations which have developed around such key points as the Omars,9 Salum,10, Halfaya Pass, Bardia,11 and Tobruk. Special counterbattery officers are trained and employed by the British for this work, which often entails the aid of flash spotting. Whenever used, the effect of the heavy shell of the British 6-inch howitzer, both on the morale of the enemy artillery and as a destructive agent, has been most noticeable.

At Salum the most effective counterbattery method used by the Germans was that of employing dive-bombardment aviation under divisional control for critical targets.

(2) Flash and sound ranging.--The British flash spotters did some useful work by locating many isolated 105-mm, Italian 75/46, and antitank guns at the Battle of the Omars.12 They were hampered, however, by poor observation. On the whole, because of the fluid nature of the operations in the desert, small use has been made of flash and sound ranging.

f. Naval Bombardment

Bardia, Tobruk, and Bengasi have been the scenes of considerable British naval bombardments. Observation has been conducted largely by airplanes. To enable such observation to be effective, there has to be complete air superiority or strong fighter protection.

The open country of the desert and the mobile nature of the fighting require conisiderable effort to be expended to maintain communication so that the ships can fire where and when the troops require it. A naval liaison officer is stationed at army headquarters to direct calls for assistance. However, in highly mobile operations, the exact situation was seldom known even at corps headquarters in time for a naval bombardment to be arranged. Under such circumstances it was found necessary for the naval liaison officer to be at division headquarters. But even more satisfactory results were obtained when this officer was with the forward brigade commander.

A forward army artillery observer works with a naval assistant to observe the naval firing. This forward artillery observer (termed FOO--forward observation officer--by the British) is usually a field artillery captain trained in the observation of the fire of bombardment ships. He calls for fire on his own initiative or on order from his unit commander. He observes the ship's fire, and when the bombarding ship is at anchor and the ground is difficult, he himself may control the fire instead of only observing it. Similarly an artillery officer is embarked in every bombarding ship. This officer's primary duty is to interpret calls for fire received from the forward artillery observer and to place at the disposal of the ships' officers his understanding of the military situation, his knowledge of procedure, and his training. Targets were on some occasions indicated to the ships by army artillery using smoke shells. An army liaison officer on board the ship provides a picture of the operation in progress to the naval commander.

When ships come close to shore, as they must for the purpose of bombarding land installations, an air attack on the ships can be expected from an alert enemy. This makes any naval bombardment a hazardous operation. To reduce the vulnerability of the ships to these dangerous air attacks, bombardments have in most cases occurred at night. Although strong fighter protection or complete local air superiority can make enemy airplanes less dangerous, a naval bombardment still remains a risky enterprise because of the havoc that can be wrought on the warships by enemy submarines, torpedo boats, and coastal batteries.

The main value of naval bombardments has been the demoralization caused in the enemy ranks. Bombardment with 15-inch naval shells has a paralyzing moral effect on the enemy. U.S. observers have reported after conversations with Italian prisoners that the explosions of the big projectiles has a tremendous psychological effect on those being shelled. Used in conjunction with army artillery, the results can be devastating to the enemy's esprit de corps and heartening to friendly forces.

7 Comment of an eye witness.
8 Soft column is used to describe unarmored and less well protected vehicles for example, supply and infantry transport vehicles.
9 See "The Battle of the Omars," Information Bulletin No. 11, page 38.
10 See "The Battle of Salum," MID Special Bulletin No. 36, page 39.
11 See "The British Capture of Bardia (December 1941-January 1942) A Successful Infantry-Tank Attack," Information Bulletin No. 21.
12 See "The Battle of the Omars," Information Bulletin No. 11.

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