Friday, March 16, 2018

Air attacks on Tobruk and the anti-aircraft defenses

Brigadier Slater commanded the 5th Anti-Aircraft Brigade at Tobruk during the siege. The harbor and base were priorities for anti-aircraft defense. This was a constant struggle as the enemy continued to evolve their operations. The units involved were typically below strength and guns were in constant need of repair. That meant that they needed spare parts for the guns, as well as spare guns. They also relied on laborers to help with digging and the like. The enemy targeted guns, so that they would repair.
Early in the siege, the enemy staged daylight air attacks, often with dive bombers. As the defense capabilities improved against dive bombers, the enemy switched more to night bombing attacks. The air attacks were constant, with only one day during the 9th Australian Division's time at Tobruk when there were no air raids. All these dates are from 1941.

                      Dive bombing      Total                 Night Raids  Total Bombing  Day Reconnaissance
                                                Daylight raids                             Raids
April 10-30      21                       41                       11                   73                      27
May                 17                       60                       22                   99                      58
June                  6                        58                       76                 140                      39
July                   4                       91                        43                 138                     46
August             11                      55                        77                  143                    30

The defenders took a while and had to experiment to find tactics to deal with dive bombers. The enemy made a first heavy dive bombing attack on 14 April 1941. The guns fired a fixed barrage to explode at 3,000 feet. They found that some aircraft had gotten in before the barrage was fired. to counter that danger, they set up an observation post on the escarpment where they could look down on the harbor. There were problems found with inadequate depth to the barrage. The guns often fired too soon in the attack. The barrage had to spread from 3,000 to 6,000 feet and was fired to swing across the harbor area. They had four Italian 102mm anti-aircraft guns which were repaired and employed. By August, they had found three more of the Italian guns and added them to the defense. The static 40mm guns were used to engage aircraft that survived the barrage. The 12 40mm static guns were manned by the 40th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery.
The defenses added three 20-barrel parachute rocket launchers provided by the navy. The rockets had parachutes and trailed long wires. Small bombs were attached to the end of the wires. They were first used on 18 August against a dive bombing attack. They successfully disrupted the attack.
The enemy resorted to attacking the anti-aircraft gun positions. They damaged six guns that were all repaired. The gunners quickly learned that they were safest by staying in action and shooting at the attacking aircraft. That was a lesson learned in May and June 1941. Dive bombers were used against the guns. They started on 10 April and ended on 1 September 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Aggressive patroling near Tobruk from April to October 1941

Aggressive patroling, mostly at night, was a feature of the Tobruk defense from April 1941 up until the Australians had left in late October 1941. Much of the work was done by Australians from the 9th Australian Division, but there were others as well. They included the Indians of the 18th Cavalry and the men of the King's Dragoon Guards. In mid-April, a German soldier's diary spoke of the stress and effect of attacks on the motorized infantry by night. They had taken losses and the attacks had a negative effect on morale. For example, in one night, six officers and 57 other men were captured.
Some thirteen Australian battalions were involved in defending Tobruk. They took losses as killed, wounded, and as prisoners. The German success in breaking into the perimeter resulted in 259 men being captured then, and later from the 2/24th Battalion of the 26th Brigade. The 2/23rd Battalion lost  as many as 79 men as prisoners. No other battalions lost prisoners as many as those. The 2/9th Battalion had suffered 205 men wounded. Both the 2/23rd and 2/24th Battalions had many men killed. The 2/23rd Battalion had 78 men killed while the 2/24th Battalion had 70 men killed.
In the vicinity of the Salient, when the enemy had penetrated the perimeter in a surprise attack, the area became one of the most dangerous areas of the fortress. Near the wire there was a chalk mound that they named Forbes Mound. In one incident on the night of 24-25 July 1941, six men were going after German machine gun and mortar crews. The Germans were moving in a truck to fight another Australian patrol. The Australians had been surprised to find German sangers close to the wire.
During the summer of 1941, there were no photographs from the air and the artillery depended on information gathered by patrols operating at night in enemy territory. There was a period when some successful patrols were made using carriers. In early May, a daylight raid was made with carriers. Despite being lightly armored, they were able to attack a working party and fight tanks and guns. They succeeded in returning without loss.
Because of the inshore squadron operations by the navy and the success of the anti-aircraft gunners, Tobruk was kept adequately supplied, so that there were not any extreme shortages of supplies or food. The anti-aircraft gunners had to deal with four types of air attacks. They would be hit by daytime dive bombing attacks against the harbor and installations. There were also daylight level-bombing attacks from higher altitude. The enemy would also bomb at night and would drop mines at night. Early in the siege, they would have large dive bombing raids. As the anti-aircraft defenses improved, the enemy moved to mostly night bombing raids.
Early in the defense of Tobruk, there were 16 mobile 3.7in anti-aircraft guns actually in use. There were other guns not yet available for use. There were also 40mm and 20mm Breda guns in use. They had as many as 42 of the captured Italian Breda guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A retrospective of the 9th Australian Division after their departure from Tobruk in October 1941

The British politicians, particularly the prime minister, were very angry about the Australian government's insistence on withdrawing the 9th Australian Division. To rub salt in the wound, the fast minelayer Latona was sunk and the destroyer Hero was damaged in an attempt to bring out the last 1200 Australians from Tobruk. They were very fortunate that the Germans did not start aggressively bombing the shipping earlier, because the situation would have turned out much worse. The Australian government insisted that the last group of men be withdrawn at the next moonless opportunity.
The defense of Tobruk certainly was made possible by the efforts of the field artillery units, which were largely British. The anti-aircraft gunners were another important factor in the successful defense force. The anti-aircraft units were often the targets of German air attacks. General Auchinleck praised the defenders of Tobruk for their efforts in holding a strong enemy force in place away from the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. The enemy had committed four Italian divisions and three German motor battalions to besieging the fortress of Tobruk. They had held the place from sometime in April until November 1941 when the enemy was beaten and pushed back to the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
General Morshead often asked more of his men than was possible. His insistence on aggressive patrolling and never allowing the enemy to take and hold territory was an important feature. That was not always possible, as the capture of the Salient showed, but it was still a guiding principle. The mutual respect between the defending units showed a recognition of the roles played by the various players.
There were two factors that caused the Australian demand for the withdrawal of their division. One was the hidden agenda behind General Blamey's manipulation of his government to cause the withdrawal. He was waging a battle against his personal rival in the Australian army, General Lavarack, who was more qualified than General Blamey. General Blamey spent part of the time keeping General Lavarack from gaining more prestige and power than he had, and also did at times promote General Lavarack, such as recommending his appointment as corps commander in Syria and Lebanon.
The other issue was the political turmoil in Australia, that cause some rapid changes. There were three prime ministers in 1941, the last of which was the Labour Party leader, John Curtin. The misadventures of Winston Churchill must have had an influence in Australia, you have to expect. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

FInal relief of the 9th Australian Division in October 1941

The relief of Australian units by British units was well-planned. Relief convoys used one minelayer and three destroyers. The final relief started on 12-13 October 1941. An arriving unit was generally given a day before the unit that was being replaced left Tobruk. That was to give the newly arrived men time for a transition. Also, that allowed for no reduction in strength defending the fortress of Tobruk.Convoys generally brought in one thousand men and removed slightly less than that number. Men of the 26th Brigade Group were the first to leave.
General Scobie became the new fortress commander, taking over from General Morshead. General  Scobie arrived at Tobruk on the night of 20-21 October. General Morshead introduced General Scobie at all the brigade headquarters. One of the first changes was that the division reserve was moved from the 26th Australian Brigade to the 23rd British Brigade. The next move was for the 23rd Brigade to replace the 20th Australian Brigade in the south of Tobruk. General Scobie formally took over as commander at 5pm on 22 October. General Morshead then bade farewell to units that were to stay, and then ate dinner with the naval staff. He then left Tobruk on HMS Endeavor. On the 22nd, more of the 20th Australian Brigade was removed from Tobruk. The 23rd British Brigade assumed the duty of protecting the Southern Sector on 23 October from the 20th Australian Brigade. The Australians moved into division reserve. A feature of the relief process is that the Australian units passed all their equipment to the arriving units. On the night of 24-25 October, the 14th British Brigade took command of the division reserve. Before night fell, an air attack by dive bombers hit the harbor.
During the relief process the enemy had fired artillery against the harbor. There was still no indication that the enemy realized that the relief was proceeding. One hazard that was not immediately recognized was that German submarines had arrived in the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic. The first ships sunk were "A-Lighters". The submarines were assigned to attack ships supplying Tobruk.
The British gunboat Gnat was able to hit the guns that fired on the harbor at Tobruk. The relief convoy cruiser escorts, the Ajax, Hobart, and Galatea were alsos able to fire at the guns. The Gnat was torpedoed on 21 October. The ship was not sunk, but was stopped. The destroyer Griffin was able to tow the Gnat to Alexandria. One final mishap was that the minelayer Latona was bombed and eventually sunk. That ended the Australian relief, because they had reached the end of the moonless period. The remaining Australians were stuck at Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The battle for the outposts at Tobruk, from 12 October 1941

Sunrise on 12 October 1941 showed some 19 German tanks and about six vehicles facing the 2/17th Battalion area. Perhaps most were near Plonk, which the Germans had reoccupied since it had been left vacant. The Australians could discern a line of sangars on both sides of Plonk. Workers could be seen during the day extending this new defensive line. The enemy had setup wire around Plonk by mid-morning on the 12th. Later in the afternoon showed that the enemy had laid more wire from Plonk out to the sangar line.
After these developments, the decision was made to provide tanks for Cooma for the night hours. They would drive through the perimeter at dusk and return there by dawn. During the day, troops of infantry tanks would be kept available to drive to Cooma, if needed. The 4th RTR initially provided these tanks, and then for two days, the 7th RTR provided the tanks.
In the evening, the Australians could see enemy tanks near Plonk and Cooma. Several tanks drove near the perimeter wire. The Australians sent out "tank hunting patrols", but they did not make contact with the enemy. The scheduled British tank presence set out at 1am. They did not see any enemy tanks, but they fired on the enemy working parties. The enemy had about twenty anti-tank guns set up and they fired at the British tanks. To the Australians within the Tobruk perimeter, there seemed to be a tank battle happening, but it was just the anti-tank gun fire and the tanks shooting. The Australians moved back into the Cooma outpost and went to work on strengthening the defensive positions.
After the last battle over Plonk, the enemy was content to work on extending their defenses. The Australians continued to occupy Cooma and the arrangements for tanks were continued while the Australians were still in the southern sector. Their remaining time was limited, because they were to be withdrawn while more units were carried in to replace them. The enemy now had some 100 guns available. The largest were the 210mm howitzers, one battery of 149/35 guns, and another battery thought to be 155mm. The enemy was thought to have 10 field batteries, 12 medium batteries. and the three heavy batteries. The enemy strength in the south was so dominating that the options for raiding at night were greatly reduced. In other sectors, the Australians were still strong enough to carry out aggressive patrolling. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

A night tank battle on 11-12 October 1941 near the Plonk outpost

The attack on the Plonk outpost was late to start, partly to the late arrival of the infantry tanks. The supporting artillery barrage was repeated for the real attack. The attack on Plonk was set to launch about 15 minutes after midnight on 12 October 1941. They could hear digging and voices at Plonk before the barrage started. Enemy artillery responded to the British artillery fire. This time, the Matilda tanks were moving up to attack Plonk. The Australian infantry patrol moved closer to Plonk as all this happened. A little before 1am, the infantry tanks commenced firing at enemy tanks that were visible. The range was very short, about 100 yards. There were the tank guns firing as well as the tank machine guns. The enemy was described as firing their tank guns wildly, and not well-aimed. The British tanks were able to move towards the objective. The German tanks retreated in front of them. The tank firing was across the infantry path and kept them from moving into Plonk.
They could see German tanks advancing from the west, but were driven back by the British tank gun fire. The Australian infantry patrol did not enter Plonk, as there was too much risk to the men from occupying Plonk.The Australians did fire their "Very light signal" to communicate that they had achieved their desired objective. That triggered the enemy to open artillery fire on Plonk, as the expected that the signal meant that Plonk had been occupied. By 1:25am, the enemy troops had pulled out of Plonk. Firing stopped after they left. After a brief respite, the enemy resumed firing at Plonk. An extraordinary barrage, the largest yet seen at Tobruk, descended on Plonk. While the firing continued, more enemy tanks drove towards Plonk, but the British tanks in Plonk fired at the enemy tanks, causing them to pull back.
The Australian patrol that had been sent to Plonk pulled back after sending one small group back with a wounded man. The patrol went looking for the machine gun that had fired on them earlier, but didn't find it. The patrol commander then sent the other men back, but he stayed until 2am, when he fired the Very light signal. After he gave the signal, the enemy started another artillery barrage on Plonk.
While Plonk wss receiving enemy artillery fire, the men working on creating an outpost at Cooma had been busy. The British tanks had driven on to Cooma from Plonk. They had fired on some enemy tanks that had gotten close, but they eventually drove back to the perimeter and reentered Tobruk.The 32nd Army Tank Brigade commander had ordered his tanks back to Cooma, but while the sky was getting lighter, the tanks had not reached the gap in the perimeter. The Australian 20th Brigade commander had suggested that the tanks return to the "forward assembly area". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

More action near the 2/17th Battalion from 11th to 12th October 1941 at Tobruk

Early on 11 October 1941, Tobruk artillery fired on the outpost Plonk that had been occupied by enemy troops. The Australians could hear "yelling and screaming" after the artillery fire on Plonk. They heard tools tossed into trucks and then the trucks drove off. Again, at 6am, Tobruk artillery fired on Plonk. A patrol investigated Plonk after that and saw men walking about the area. They drew more artillery and machine gun fire. About this time, the enemy artillery fired on the 2/17th Battalion defenses, as was usually the case. Right before 8am, the Australians observed more men at Plonk and fired on them. The enemy responded with more artillery fire on the Australians. Between haze and dust, the Australians could no longer see Plonk.
Between 8:30am and 9am, increasing numbers of tanks were seen near the 2/17th Battalion. The battalion positions were machine-gunned. They were not used to having so much activity near them. They found that the enemy troops had moved back into the Tugun outpost. The Australians were concerned that the enemy might make a major attack on the 2/17th Battalion front. A practice attack near Carmusa by 2/15th Battalion soldiers and tanks from the 32nd Army Tank Brigade was cancelled due to the enemy activity. All of the 20th Brigade was kept at the ready, rather than proceeding with training. By 9:45am, they saw twelve enemy tanks "hull-down" near Plonk. Despite the activity, no attack was launched by the enemy.
By the next night, the 11-12 October 1941, General Morshead ordered the 20th Brigade to attack and retaked Plonk. They would no use Plonk but would create a new outpost to be called Cooma. The plan was to keep the enemy from advancing their line towards the Australians. The infantry directly involved would be from the 2/17th Battalion with support from the 4th RTR in the form of one squadron. The 2/17th Battalion would have one company of the 2/13th Battalion in reserve. The attack would have the 107th RHA firing a bombardment to soften up the enemy. If possible, the 1st RHA would fire smoke in the area of the enemy minefield.
Two platoons from the 2/17th Battalion made the attack. They expected to see tanks coming up in support, but the plan for the tanks was to move at 5 mph with a mile between tanks. That meant that they were not immediately available. At the time of the infantry attack, the tanks were just at the perimeter wire. The enemy artillery fire was so heavy, that two other Australian battalions, the 2/23rd and 2/24th were readied for use. The attacking platoons would then attack without the tanks. After some fits and starts, the new plan was to attack at 12:15am. The artillery would fire in support, again. The tanks that were still running would join in the attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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