Story Courtesy GermanWarMachine.com
IN DECEMBER 1940, the Allies chased the Italian army out of Egypt and back into Libya. Operation Compass was a brilliantly executed Blitzkrieg-style campaign spearheaded by the new British Matilda II tank.
Although not a particularly fast machine (its top speed was under 10 km/h), the Matilda’s 78 mm (3.1 inch) frontal armour was impervious to Italian anti-tank guns. Even Germany’s 37 mm and 50 mm anti-tank weapons couldn’t penetrate the exterior of the new 25-ton British fighting vehicle.
By the spring of 1941, the Allies were confident that the Matilda could still drive through Axis defenses. At the insistence of London, Archibald Wavell, commander of British forces in the Middle East, devised a plan to break the German siege of the port of Tobruk. Operation Battleaxe relied on Matildas advancing west through the Halfaya Pass as supporting armoured units moved along the coast.
Ominously, an operation earlier in the year (codenamed Brevity) saw four Matildas shot up by German guns at long range. Unfortunately for British tank crews, the Afrika Korps was now using the Flak 18 88 mm anti-aircraft gun in an anti-tank role.
As Operation Battleaxe kicked off on June 15, 1941, Matildas advancing towards the Halfaya Pass were cut down with surgical precision by just five German 88s. Of the 18 Allied tanks put out of action on the first day of the offensive, 15 fell victim to Flak 18s.
It also didn’t help the British that the combined German/Italian force holding Halfaya was led by a remarkable combat solder: Captain Wilhelm Bach. The decorated 49-year-old commander was a combat veteran having previously served in the First World War. He was wounded during the 1940 invasion of France and a year later, he still walked with a limp (he was the one officer in the Afrika Korps allowed to use a walking stick). Bach was rarely without a cigar in his mouth, even if unlit. Yet his command style was far from that of the stereotypical gruff Prussian martinet. In fact, he’d worked as a Lutheran pastor between the wars. He spoke softly and often encouraged his men with biblical passages. They adored him and called him “Papa Willi”.
Bach’s small force (about 900 men, 400 of them Germans from his own battalion of the 105th Infantry Regiment) performed with exemplary skill and resolve over the course of Battleaxe. Despite being cut off in the first 24 hours of the Allied assault, the unit fought on, even as their water ran out. After three days, a German counter attack linked up with them.
It also didn’t help the Allies that their communications methods were totally amateurish. British troops transmitted over open radios using what they thought were cunning circumlocutions. The German listening posts instantly cracked the codes. The tank commander who radioed, “my horse has thrown a shoe,” to his superiors could not have made it more obvious to enemy intelligence that he had lost a track. Not surprisingly, Bach’s men at Halfaya had a pretty good idea not only that they were to be attacked, but from what direction.
Despite this, the key to Bach’s success was technological. The once-fearsome Matilda (six months before nicknamed the Queen of the Desert) was now a sitting duck for a well-sited 88. The tank’s main armament, the two-pounder (40 mm) gun, couldn’t fire high explosive shells. In fact, none of the Matildas destroyed in June 1941 troubled the gunners of the German 88s.
Cyril Joly in his excellent book Take These Men described the impact of an 88mm round on a British tank:
“As I spoke I saw the flame and smoke from the German’s gun. In the next instant, all was chaos. There was a clang of steel on the turret front and a blast of flame and smoke from the same place, which seemed to spread into the turret, where it was followed by another dull explosion. The shockwave, which followed, swept past me, singed my hands and face and left me breathless and dazed. I looked down into the turret. It was a shambles. The shot had penetrated the front just in front of King, the loader. It had twisted the machine-gun out of its mounting. It, or a jagged piece of the torn turret, had then hit the round that King had been holding ready – had set it on fire. The explosion had wrecked the wireless, tore King’s head and shoulders from the rest of his body and started a fire among the machine-gun boxes stowed on the floor.”
It’s possible to argue that later anti-tank guns, like the Sherman Firefly’s 17-pounder or the Soviet 100 mm Model 1944, were technically as good or even better than the German 88. Certainly, the Nazis themselves would later develop an even more effective anti-tank weapon, the PAK 43. But it’s hard to argue with the devastating effect that the 88 had in 1941 in the Western Desert, or the fact that it was the only weapon that German troops knew could stop the fearsome Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks when they encountered them during Operation Barbarossa. That famous battle opened just days after the 88s had crucified the British Matildas during Operation Battleaxe.
As a British tankman taken prisoner in June 1941 complained to his German captors: “In our opinion it’s unfair to use ‘flak’ against our tanks.”
You can find more about the technical specs and history of the deadly 88 in a free “Rapid Read” ebook available on the German War Machine website: www.germanwarmachine.com. Follow them on Twitter @GermanWarM