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El Alamein: Australian 2/24th Battalion and German 621 Company on 10 July 1942

Discussion in 'North Africa: Western Desert Campaigns 1940 to Ope' started by JCFalkenbergIII, Mar 22, 2008.

  1. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    El Alamein : 2/24th Battalion and 621 Company on 10 July 1942

    Ian Kelly, Marketing and Public Affairs Manager, AWM
    The Capture of 621 Company

    On 10 July 1942 near El Alamein, the Australian 2/24 battalion captured Rommel's 621 intelligence company. It was a key point in the war in North Africa, but even today, little is known of this vital action.
    By June 1942, the Axis forces under Rommel had pushed the British Eighth Army back to the area of El Alamein, but had failed in an attempt to break the lines. In early July, the Allied Commander in Chief, General Sir Claude Auchinleck began a series of attempts to push back the Germans and Italians.
    The Australian 9th Division was holding the north of the Allied line, not far from the town of El Alamein, and took part in all three of Auchinleck's? pushes.
    The first of these occurred on 10 July, with elements of the 9th assigned to take a series of high points in the area between the coast and the railway line, then sweep around to take Tel el Eisa station. These high points were important because of the flatness of the terrain. High points were affording the enemy good observation positions, and were preventing the Allies from observing enemy activities to the west.
    The action was to be carried out by the 2/24 and 2/28 battalions, with the start point about four thousand yards east of the German and Italian positions. The three high points were designated Trigs 26, 23 and 33 ? the 2/28 was to take 26 and 23 then swing back to the south east to take the railway station, while the 2/24 took 33.
    [​IMG]
    Italian memorial at Trig 33
    The advance began at 3:40am, but did not go entirely to plan. Moving up, some of the transport vehicles also became bogged in salt flats. Then, shortly after the start, an enemy aircraft dropped a flare, lighting up the area. The Australians stood stock still, but there was no action from the other side.
    Before dawn, the Italians holding trig 26 awoke to discover they'd been overrun and captured. An Allied barrage was then put down on trigs 23 and 33 and the Italians at 23 were also quickly overrun. So far, the Australians had suffered no casualties.
    What the Australians didn't know was that Rommel's best intelligence unit ? 621 company ? was operating very close to the front line, and would soon be overrun by the 2/24 battalion.
    One of the problems in retelling this story is that it is impossible to pinpoint the exact location of 621 company at the time it was overrun. German, British and Australian records give no map references. There's been speculation that nothing was officially recorded for reasons of security, and that explanation seems reasonable. Most of the German accounts talk of 621 company being "by the sea", so it can be speculated that it was located some distance north of trig 33. In fact, there's very little detail on the incident at all. The Australian Official History talks about 100 Italian prisoners being taken some time shortly after 6:30am on the 10th, but nothing more. Presumably the 100 so-called Italians were in reality, Germans ? members of 621 company.
    [​IMG]
    Approximate location of Company 621 on 10 July 1942
    The best picture of what happened at 33 comes from German sources, in particular, an officer on Rommel's intelligence staff, Hans-Otto Behrendt. His book Rommel's Intelligence in the Desert Campaign is a thorough investigation of what happened, and of the consequences for the Afrika Corps. Behrendt describes the capture of 621 company as a "catastrophe (with) serious consequences for Panzerarmee Afrika". He quotes a fellow officer who said Rommel was furious when he heard the news.
    According to Behrendt's research it is clear the unit was established too close to the front line. 621 was commanded by one of Rommel's bright young officers, Captain Alfred Seebohm. Seebohm was not only an outstanding intelligence officer, he was also a high calibre fighting soldier, having twice extricated his company from allied hands ? once he had been taken prisoner, but managed to escape (in January, 1942). But, his luck ran out on 10 July.
    The problems for 621 began when the first of the Italians ? the Sabratha Division ? were overrun by the 2/48 at trig 26. They were taken by surprise, and many woke from their sleep to find themselves prisoners (there are reports that some of the officers were wearing pyjamas!). Then the Bersaglieri Regiment was captured at trig 23 (again by the 2/48). This left the German intelligence unit very exposed with nothing between them and the Australians.
    Seebohm established his position close to the front line ? much closer than was perhaps prudent ? because he believed it would gain him the best results.
    The end for 621 came swiftly. At dawn under artillery fire and smoke shells, the 2/24 advanced on the German position, and at the same time, what were described by the Germans as British tanks encircled it. In the heat of battle, it appears the Germans got that bit wrong. There were no allied tanks in the area at the time, and it was almost certainly Bren carriers that the Germans saw.
    Realising what was happening Seebohm set up a defensive perimeter and decided to fight, but against Bren guns, mortars and fire from heavy anti-tank weapons, the outcome was inevitable. Seebohm was seriously wounded, and died soon after being admitted to a military hospital in Alexandria. Although a small number of Germans escaped with some of their vehicles and monitoring gear, about 110 were captured along with most of their equipment, and ? most importantly ? a large cache of intelligence. (A Company of the 2/24 that finally captured 621, was led by Everard Baillieu, a member of the prominent Melbourne business family. One of the Australian intelligence officers who interrogated the POWs was Murray Farquhar, who later rose to become Chief Magistrate of NSW before ending up behind bars after being found guilty of corruption).
    So what was captured and did it help the war effort? There were many documents which revealed that the Germans were aware of such things as British calls signs, map reference codes and radio codes. These were valuable in working out the allies' order of battle and identifying various units. There were other documents that revealed the Germans knew quite a bit about the allied movements. All this was learned by listening to the battlefield chatter, and proved the Germans were good at wireless intelligence and the British were a bit lax with their wireless security. And this, of course, is the major reason for Rommel managing to hold on in North Africa for so long. His supply lines were stretched; he was desperately short of tanks and ? in particular ? fuel. The allies knew almost exactly what he was up to because of Ultra - the intelligence gained from cracking the German Enigma codes. However, because Rommel also had good battlefield intelligence, it allowed him to remain a capable foe for longer that he should have.
    There were two other important pieces of information gained from the capture of 621 company. The first was confirmation that the Germans had broken the American diplomatic code ? known as Black Code. The US military attach頩n Cairo, Colonel Fellers, had been faithfully reporting the state of the allied war effort to his superiors in Washington; unaware that the codes he used had fallen into German hands. Although it had been realised before 10 July that there was a security breach at the embassy, this was confirmation.
    The other piece of information uncovered concerned the existence of a spy ring operating for the Germans in Egypt and called the Kondor Mission. This is another story in itself, and centres on the use of the novel "Rebecca" as a code key. Behrendt, however, says this particular ring was of little use to the Germans.
    621 company was reformed in September, but was never again as effective as it had been. Although it had some further minor successes, the operation of 10 July meant that the allies adopted rigorous wireless discipline and security and used methods of deception. In his book "Bodyguard of Lies" Anthony Cave Brown describes the capture of 621 Company as "quite the most important intelligence coup of the whole North African campaign".
    [​IMG]


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  2. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Overseas, Corps personnel served in the Second Australian Imperial Force in the Middle East. Initially, personnel served mainly on headquarters staff at various levels of command. In 1942 the Australian Corps Field Intelligence Police followed the British model and formed Field Security Sections for each division and corps headquarters. In the Middle East campaign, the most significant intelligence related event involving the Australian Army was the capture on the 10th July 1942 of the German Afrika Korps' 621 Signal Company. This highly experienced signals intelligence unit was captured by the 2/24 Australian Infantry Battalion at Tel el Eisa. The real significance of this capture and subsequent exploitation of the documentation and prisoners by Allied intelligence is cited by the Germans themselves, who are of the firm belief that the loss of 621 Signal Company was the turning point of the campaign in North Africa. It is recorded that the Commander of the Afrika Korps, General Erwin Rommel on hearing that his signals intelligence company had been captured, had to sit down, and was then heard to murmur 'They have plucked out my eyes and ears'.
    Australian Intelligence Corps Association
     
  3. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    For Battleaxe :)
     
  4. PzJgr

    PzJgr Drill Instructor

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    In von Mellenthin's book "Panzer Battles", it is mentioned quite abit of how much Rommel was dependent on the wireless group's intel.
     
  5. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    Similar to how dependent the Allies were on Ultra and Magic sometimes.
     
  6. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    "So the first thing that was going on was that Rommel was reading the Allies' mail using the 621 group radio intercept company, led by Captain Alfred Seebohm monitoring British radio traffic. It was only after the capture of 621 group and Seebohm by the Aussies on July 10th 1942, that Rommel's fortunes began to reverse. Interestingly enough, in Seebohm’s headquarters the book "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier was found. This was oddly enough in English, and from a Portuguese bookstore. A check of the bookstore in Lisbon (a great spy hangout city) showed that the German Embassy itself had purchased twelve copies. It seemed obvious this was being used as a "code source", but by whom and where? The novel "Code to Rebecca" isn’t totally made of whole cloth.

    Turns out that in Cairo there was a Nazi spy named Eppler (Kondor Operation) who many times, disguised as a British officer using counterfeit British pound notes to pay for bar bills, was in consort with the exotic belly dancer Hekmeth Fahmy. She was an ardent Egyptian Nationalist, and opponent of British Colonial rule. Together and separately they would extract information from British officers and relay the information to Rommel's 621 group from their neighboring houseboats on the Nile using the book "Rebecca", and Eppler's short wave radio. When the British raided the houseboats, Eppler himself escaped, but his radio and copy of "Rebecca" were captured in late July. In early August Churchill replaced Auchinlech with General Sir Harold Alexander, and put "Monty" in charge of the 8th while supplying both men with the Ultra intercepts of Rommel's radio traffic to Kesselring in Rome."

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  7. Battleaxe

    Battleaxe Dishonorably Discharged

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    Did the signalmen get caught because of Ultra? Or was their capture the consecuence of a brilliant work of counter-intelligence, this as in using other means different than Ultra?
     
  8. Tomcat

    Tomcat The One From Down Under

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    Ah great JCF, love the Australian threads :)
     
  9. JCFalkenbergIII

    JCFalkenbergIII Expert

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    I happen to like you guys down there ;) LOL. I try to find those little tid bits to post.
     
  10. Garth Scott

    Garth Scott recruit

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    Hi guys im new here today im inquireing of imformation about allied & axis artillery shells used during ww2 , length wideth, & rim sizes of all
     
  11. Herakles

    Herakles Member

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    So do I! It is a great post and I thank you for it.
     
  12. finlay

    finlay recruit

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    I've been looking at my grandfathers war history and i discovered that he was the C.O. of the 2/24th 26th Brigade and was in charge of the attack on Tel El Aisa. I'd read of the operation and wondered where it was and what it looked like. i'd even read his description of the battle. then I found this web page and was thrilled to read the account from the german perspective as well. Awesome. Thank You for posting.
     
  13. caroli61

    caroli61 recruit

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    i am looking for anyone that knew my father, francis raymond sykes, he was in the KOYLIS and i know that he was in the battle of el alamein and also in the anzio, would love to have some news from any friends of his, seeing that i lost him in 1999, and he never wanted to talk about the battles he did.....caroline sykes
     
  14. Steven V

    Steven V New Member

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    My Grandfather served in the 2/24th and was at the battle of El Alamein , I was researching a story he always told me and found this post . The story goes that he commandeered a truck and drove it out of a minefield only to have part of the back of it blow off, they then later found bag full of German intelligence documents. He always claimed it was one the "Africa korps spy vehicles". He also told of how the trucks were getting bogged so he got them to take the tarpaulins off the back of the transports and placed them on the sand for the truck to drive over, then they would take the back tarpaulin and run it to the front caterpillar style and he saved the day, Looks like there maybe some truth to it all. now Just got to check out how he was taken POW at Derna and escaped the same day.
     
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