Op Hercules - Malta '42

Discussion around the Second World War.
Richard B.
Posts: 1104
Joined: 16 Mar 2012, 06:54

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by Richard B. »

billk wrote: 27 Feb 2021, 21:23Thanks Richard.
I actually found 2 articles from Miniature Wargames will try and scan and send tomorrow
"“Sir with the compliments of my officer, your shooting was excellent – you killed four of our men”!
Un-named Traillieur to an artillery officer at R`Fakah, Morocco, Feb. 29th, 1908
Mainly28s
Posts: 16
Joined: 16 Mar 2012, 07:14

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by Mainly28s »

billk wrote: 27 Feb 2021, 21:21 Thanks David. Please send Bob's article. I always enjoy reading his stuff.

Lets hold off on the German language article until I see if the gang is really going to commit to this. (If it ends-up being a "go," it will be a Google translation exercise because my German is so far gone I'm certain I would translate the article to read like a Japanese anime booklet!)

Cheers!
Ah, heck, I'll translate the German one, as I'm fluent. Send it over!
I'll have a copy of the English one as "payment".
billk
Posts: 127
Joined: 01 Dec 2020, 00:33

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by billk »

Thanks Mainly28s.

The text won't copy into the PM function. Have an email where I can send the .pdf doc?
Mainly28s
Posts: 16
Joined: 16 Mar 2012, 07:14

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by Mainly28s »

PM inbound, with an e-mail address!
billk
Posts: 127
Joined: 01 Dec 2020, 00:33

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by billk »

responded.
Mainly28s
Posts: 16
Joined: 16 Mar 2012, 07:14

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by Mainly28s »

Doing this between other bits, I'm making progress, and should be able to return the translated article by the weekend.
billk
Posts: 127
Joined: 01 Dec 2020, 00:33

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by billk »

Thanks for the update.
The guys are reading through the other materials we have... so they are being kept occupied!
Mainly28s
Posts: 16
Joined: 16 Mar 2012, 07:14

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by Mainly28s »

I have returned the translated article by e-mail!

Shout if there are any problems.
billk
Posts: 127
Joined: 01 Dec 2020, 00:33

Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by billk »

:) A huge shout out to Mainly28s (Olaf) for his translation of the article Panzerkompanie (zBV) 66 Created in 1942 for landings in Malta by Helmut Ritgen. I have already passed it on to be read by our group.

The translation is copied below. If anyone wants a copy of the article, which also includes the photos and captions, just PM me with your email address and I'll forward a Word.doc copy.

Bill


Panzerkompanie (zBV) 66 Created in 1942 for landings in Malta
by Helmut Ritgen

Panzerkompanie (zBV) 66 was created at Wünsdorf by command of the High Command of the Army. It was unique in structure and equipment, as well as in its purpose, because it sheds light on a little-known chapter of the Second World War.
After Italy’s failure to capture Malta on entry into the war in the summer of 1940, this island was the only supply port for the Royal Navy and RAF between the 1800km distant Gibraltar and Alexandria, which was 1500km away. These days, those distances mean nothing, but back then, the reach of fighters was around 300km. This means that Malta was a thorn in the side of the German-Italian area of operations, which prevented that support and reinforcements being transported across the Mediterranean to the North African front. In October 1941, approximately 63% of the German-Italian supplies were sunk, rising to 77% in November. This led to Field Marshal Kesselring being appointed to ensure secure transport routes between southern Italy and North Africa. Malta remained a threat, in spite of many successes, as it needed to be suppressed continually. The conquest of the island was therefore regarded as supremely important, and was, in the eyes of Field Marshal Kesselring and Field Marshal Rommel, quite achievable.
As Italy did not have the requisite troops, nor sea or air transport, Hitler declared- too late- that German forces would be made available for “Operation Hercules”, the combined air and sea landings on Malta. The mixed German-Italian special command for the landing on Malta was formed on 12 April 1942. The German component was led by General Student, with Colonel G Trettner as chief-of-staff.
Left: A captured KV-II with 152mm howitzer and a German commander’s cupola of the 2nd Tank detachment of the 66th panzer battalion (for special purposes) at Neuruppin in July 1942
The plan was to conquer the island before Rommel’s planned May/June offensive against Egypt, so as to eliminate any threats for this campaign. Due to a lack of air power, these operations could only happen consecutively. During the discussions between Hitler and Mussolini on 29/30 April, Rommel’s campaign on Egypt was given precedence over the conquest of Malta. Planning was also defeated by an OKW-command of 4 May 1942. According to this, the Heer had to supply the following:
• 12 upgraded, tropicalised PzKpfw IV
• 5 each VK 1801 and 1601
• all available captured Russian tanks (at least 10), including as many KV-I and KV-II as possible, all with appropriate crews and support units
This was Panzerkompanie (zBV) 66, the creation of which had only been ordered the day before Hitler’s speech at Castle Kleßheim on 28th April 1942. The Knight’s Cross recipient Lieutenant Hans Bethke, a daredevil, was appointed as company commander. The Lieutenants Rudi Schöner and Hans Mitto (both would later be Colonels in the Bundeswehr). NCOs and troops were drawn from the I/Panzerlehr-Regiment, as well as 1st, 5th, 10th and 25th tank replacement detachments and the gunnery school of the tank training school at Putlos. All soldiers were tested for suitability for the tropics, and were told of their tasks in “Operation Hercules”.
The unusual make-up of the company was most probably a result of the special task and the state of German resources in spring 1942. Even though the numbers and strength of the Malta garrison wasn’t known, the numerous flak guns indicated a large anti-tank force. This meant a greater reliance on stronger armour and greater firepower than manoeuvrability and reliability. High losses were expected during the landings, so only a minimum number of PzKpfw IV were assigned to this side-show theatre of war, as Hitler and the OKH regarded the Mediterranean.
The Company received PzKpfw IV G with L/43 75mm guns, production of which had only started in March 1942. The frontal armour does not appear to have been increased to 80mm yet. This had been requested by Hitler for the attack on Malta, as recounted by Guderian in his memoirs. The PzKpfw IV had a fighting weight of 23500 kg, and were the most modern German tanks at the time.
The VK (fully tracked vehicles) 1801 and 1601 were improved models of the PzKpfw I and PzKpfw II, which had been developed by Krauß-Maffei and Man, respectively, with an emphasis on heavier armour, for the attack on the Maginot Line. Both types had 80mm armour, and provided sufficient protection against all then-known anti-tank guns. They were infantry support vehicles that were intended to draw enemy fire. Their armament consisted only of Mgs, and, in the case of the VK 1601, a 20mm cannon.
The mentioned “captured heavy Soviet tanks” consisted of KV-I with 76.2mm guns and a fighting weight of 43 tons, as well as KV-II with 152mm howitzers and a weight of 52 tons. Apparently some T-34 with 76.2mm guns were also assigned to the company. As the picture show, the Soviet tanks were fitted with German commanders’ cupolas and probably with German radios.
If this hodge-podge collection of vehicles were available, they would be a potent fighting force. Other than the PzKpfw IVs, they were barely repairable due to lack of spares, but this seemed like a surmountable problem when considering the short distances on Malta.
The transport of these tanks to the island would also be a problem, as the Heer did not possess suitable landing ships and was not sure of the willingness of the Italian navy. This is why, as in the 1941 attack on Crete, the main burden fell to the Luftwaffe, who not only had to secure and maintain air superiority, but also had to destroy all flak installations near the landing zones, and additionally had to escort the air landing troops (Fallschirmjäger and gliders).
It was, therefore, desirable to provide the air landing troops with heavy weapons; tanks, if possible. The air transport of tanks by the Me 323 Gigant glider, with a capacity of 24 tons, was considered, but rejected as the thermals over the Mediterranean were too risky if the gliders were fully laden. Transporting StuGs in the air transports was also considered briefly.
The tanks of the 66 Panzer company were to be landed by ferry barges, seagoing landing vessels capable of carrying two tanks each. The Kriegsmarine had orders to supply the required number. If required, the Siebel ferries of the Heer pioneers could also assist with this task.
The Luftwaffe and marine units could participate in the first wave of the attacks on the island, but the bulk of the troops and their heavy equipment as well as all their supplies had to be landed by sea. This was, naturally, the task of the Italian navy, which lacked almost all required resources for a large-scale landing.
In the mean time, planning continued in Rome. The plans were altered many times. After the last study of the Southern Command on 31 May 1942, X-day was set for 18 July, provided the fighting in North Africa (“Theseus”) had reached an end by 18 June. A period of 30 days was considered necessary for the return, resupply re-equipping of the required Luftwaffe units, and the transport of the required landing troops by means of the overloaded Italian rail system. During the hottest mid-day hours of X-day, at the same time as the air landings forming an air bridgehead at the airfields at Luga and Hai Far, the naval units were to depart from the Sicilian ports, so as to begin landings at various places under cover of night. Admiral Weichold’s marine combat group were to land their Siebel ferries under the covering fire of 88mm guns north of Kalafrana, in the bay of Marsaxlokk. The tanks were to widen the bridgehead, and push west.
On the 21st of June Rommel captured Tobruk, and, contrary to orders, stopped at the border of Egypt. Operation “Hercules” was postponed in favour of a further march on Cairo, and eventually cancelled. It is doubtful that it could still have succeeded in July 1942. The enemy was on guard, had taken the lessons of Crete in 1941 to heart, and had conquered their greatest weakness. German intelligence of Malta was poor due to lack of ground reconnaissance. The radar-guided batteries protected by rocky outcroppings had not fired yet; and seven British and four Maltese infantry battalions, as well as two brigades of six flak battalions and hundreds of heavy and light flak guns, mostly in rocky shelters, were ready for a determined defence. Since May, England had been ferrying in a stream of new Spitfires. This would be the turning point in the Mediterranean.
In the meantime, on the 21st of May, Panzerkompanie (zBV) 66 was transferred from Wünsdorf to Neuruppin, where they presumably had more space. This is where the yellow-painted and tropicalised armoured vehicles were sent. Shortly thereafter, on the 30th of May, the 1st Company was expanded to form Panzer-Abteilung (zBV) 66, consisting of Staff, Staff Company, and 1st and 2nd Company. The original Company was now renamed to 1st Company, and received the German-manufactured PzKpfw IV, as well as VK 1801 and 1601. The newly created 2nd Company received the captured Soviet vehicles.
The Company’s move to Southern Italy never happened. After the fall of Tobruk, they received new orders. One of the soldiers remembers “the company had to return their tropical gear, and received black uniforms overnight. The vehicles retained their yellow paint, and the tactical sign of “B” (for Bethke) in front of the turret numbers.
On the 31st of July 1942 the 1st company company was transferred to the 12th Panzerdivision in Heeresgruppe Nord (Field Marshall von Küchler), and moved there. A few days later, the 2nd company with their captured Soviet tanks, were transferred to the commanding general of the securing troops of the Heeresgruppe Mitte on the Eastern Front and left Neuruppin. Their fate is lost in the darkness. The Staff and Staff Company were transferred to the Company and Detachment Training School for Fast Troops at Versailles according to an order dated 22nd August 1942, and were dissolved there.
1./Panzer-Abt (zBV) 66, Kompanie Bethke, arrived at the Ilmensee at the start of August 1942, and were initially used as a fire-brigade at various places rather than being incorporated with the 12th Panzerdivision. They were already greeted by their unit name over loudspeakers by the opposing Soviets in their preparation area.
The partially swampy forest and brush area was difficult going and unsuitable for tank operations. As the VK 1601 and 1801 were allegedly mine-proof due to their stronger belly armour, they were at the front of the attack, followed by PzKpfw IVs. The German soldiers called them “minebreakers”. They were mostly impervious to the ant-tank cannons of the period.
The Bethke company was assigned to the 18th Infantry Division, holding the area between the Ilmensee and Redja, in the vicinity of Staraja Russa, from the 15th to the 23rd August. The tanks were unsuitable for the defence against Soviet attacks from the North.
Eventually the company was assigned to the II Army Corps. This corps was holding the Demjansk cauldron, which was connected to the main front by a land bridge- the “hosepipe”. The connection was quite fragile, as it was under constant attack by the Soviets. At night, the tanks were ferried over the Lowat river, and transferred into the cauldron. The company was to be used in “Operation Winkelried”, the attack to the Southwest towards Cholm to enlarge the land bridge. This operation was cancelled, as preparations were underway for “Operation Nordlicht”- the attack on Leningrad. Given intelligence about a Soviet attack on the bottleneck at Mga, Hitler commanded the formation of an armoured reserve in the 18th Army, to secure the attack on Leningrad. The 12th Panzerdivision also prepared the first nine PzKpfw Tiger and Kompanie Bethke, which finally became part of the 12th Panzerdivision.
The Soviet attack on Mga started on the 27th of August. On the 19th, so two days later, Kompanie Bethke was embroiled in fighting, together with the Tigers, which had been senselessly thrown into combat. The vehicles were soon trapped in the muddy, forested area, and were quickly shot into motionlessness. In the heavy fighting of the next few days, the Soviets were successfully blocked in. The German tanks, accompanied by infantry battalions had to use forest tracks to attack and destroy the Soviet tanks. These forest battles were difficult, and cost major losses in men and materiel.
Oberfeldwebel G, a one-time commander of a PzKpfw IV, remembers an episode:
“After a successful attack through the dense forest, we had to secure the successfully captured area by night. The Bolsheviks were masters of forest fighting. Shells hiss and impact between us. Mortars fire, and the notorious Stalin organ sent their terrible blessings. ‘Russian tanks!’ An infantry lieutenant points out a heavy tank making its torturous way through the trees. Unfortunately the trees prevent us firing on it. Angrily we must let it go.
Night falls. I’m stationed as security at some crossing forest lanes, protected by light infantry. I get a feeling that Soviet tanks are on the way. So- shell into the tube. Sights at 200m. I keep watch. Nothing unusual happens. Every now and then, the infantry MGs fire, interspersed with SMG shots. It becomes misty. My gunner relieves me.
I’m roughly woken. We hear the typical sound of diesel engines. At last! ‘Ready for combat!’ ‘Load flare!’
The sound comes closer. We’re anxious and sure of victory. But the fog! I fire a flare- the fog blinds us, we can’t see anything. There it is- a creature of the night charges at us, full speed. A stream of fire, a bang, lightning, a massive push, and long gun barrel passes over my turret!
‘Dammit, the Russian rammed us!’ No-one can fire. The Russian reverses, engine howling. ‘Fire! Fire!’ I yell at the gunner, but the turret is jammed.In spite of this,’Shot!’ It missed, but in the muzzle flash I can see the Soviet crew abandoning their tank.
What’s this? With a massive roar, the Soviet tanks attack again, past us, but not far. A massive explosion. The Soviet tank ceases to exist!”
Oberfeldwebel G was severely wounded at Mga on the 10th of September; four days later the brave company chief Hauptmann Bethke also fell in combat. Oberleutnant Mitto assumed command of the company, which was renamed 8./Panzerregiment 29 as of 2nd October 1942.
Fire-at-Will
Posts: 262
Joined: 16 Mar 2012, 07:00
Location: Chester, UK
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Re: Op Hercules - Malta '42

Post by Fire-at-Will »

Thanks for the translation
What's the point of doing one period, when you can do them all.......... In life most people specialise so gradually they know more and more about less and less so eventually they know everything about nothing. I work on a broad front so eventually I'll know nothing about everything.
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