Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Into 7 April 1941 in Cyrenaica

The British and Australian engineers carried out a very complete demolition program on 6 April 1941. They left a few watering spots near Maraua, but when the Germans came through, they found obstacles at every turn and large numbers of land mines. The Cyrenaica Command Headquarters arrived at Tmimi at about midnight on 6 to 7 April. Brigadier Harding on the staff was very worried because generals O'Connor and Neame were missing. They had, of course, been caught in Ponath's ambush near Derna. General Morshead arrived at Tmimi at about 4am. He and Harding figured out that the generals were probably German prisoners. Morshead and Brigadier Harding realized that they needed to make a plan for what to do next. They decided to withdraw to Gazala and create defenses. Gazala is where the escarpment reaches up to the plateau. They ordered the units at Mechili to withdraw to El Adem. The message was misaddressed, so that the Mechili garrison did not receive the orders. The Cyrenaica Command and 9th Australian Division headquarters were to withdraw immediately to Gazala.

There is the road that heads to Derna and then climbs to the pass to the east of the town. That road was packed with slowly moving vehicles. There was a long line, sometimes with three or four vehicles alongside each other. One company of the 1/KRRC was blocking the track from Mechili that came to Giovanni Berta. The Tower Hamlets Rifles were at the pass to the west of Derna. There was actually still a 3rd Armoured Brigade column approaching Derna, but with vehicles stretched back a long ways. Brigadier Rimington had an accident in the night with his command vehicle. He and his associate tried a shortcut and ran into Ponath's ambush where they were captured. At this point, Major-General Gambier-Parry was in Mechili, which was surrounded. Thhis is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The engineers at work on 6 and 7 April 1941 in Cyrenaica

The author of Vol.III of the Australian Official History noted that no maps had been issued to the various commanders in the 9th Australian Division. One officer used a newspaper map that his wife had sent him. Cyrenaica Command eventually learned of the problem along in track by Ponath's group. They ordered the traffic control points to direct traffic along the main road towards Derna. The typical situation was that battalions were split and traveled by different routes to their destination. The 2/48th Battalion was heading towards Tmimi. Most of the battalion took the inland route, but the last group traveled through Derna. Something similar happened to the 2/15th Battalion.

While the battalions were traveling through the night, British and Australian engineers were at work. Brigadier Kisch was in control of the engineers who were carrying out demolitions. They were protected by the 1/KRRC. The engineers were being pressed to the limit. As the historian mentions, many had almost no sleep since 3 April 1941. The troop movements were happening during the night of 6 to 7 April 1941. The initial plan was for the Australian engineers to carry out all the demolition work. When Brigadier Kisch realized that the Australians needed help, he ordered two companies of Royal Engineers to help. Groups conducting the demolitions included the 9th Australian Division chief engineer, Lt-Col. Mann. There were also many engineer staff officers carrying out demolitions. Later in the night, Lt. Roach and his men, who had prepared the demolitions for Ain Mara "west of Derna" ran into Ponath's ambush and were captured by the Germans.

More engineers were busy on the northern route to the east. The pass at Tocra was blown at midnight. They left large craters blocking the road. Wadi Cuff was blown up after that. An Australian engineer unit blew "Cyrene and Apollonia" and took some British engineers with them who had not received the order to withdraw. Between 4am and 4:30am, the road to the east of Apollonia were blown. The demolitions continued through the morning of 7 April 1941. When 2nd Armoured Division troops had passed, more demolitions were carried out at Giovanni Berta. By noon, they blew the ammunition dump and a bridge at Ain Mara. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Traffic, rumours, and things going badly later on 6 April 1941

The 9th Australian Division provosts arrived in the traffic area and attempted to impose some sort of order. At one point, a German battle group had blocked the crossroads where the Giovanni Berta, Martuba, Mechili, and Derna tracks intersected. The situation was so bad that soldiers of the 9th Australian Division pretty universally believed that the Germans had captured a British provost and then replaced him with a German who misdirected traffic. In retrospect, the best guess was that the German battle group had been Group Ponath. As we had noted, they proceeded to the "Rocknest" at Derna. The Australians believed that the probably mythical German provost had sent traffic towards the ambush near the "Rocknest". A liaison officer for the 9th Australian Division headquarters took the inland route later in the evening and noticed that the traffic control was bad and that all units had become intermixed.

Things took a turn for the worst when General Morshead had left generals O'Connor and Neame and Brigadier Combe left by the inland track. They took a wrong turn and ran into the German ambush. They were all captured. The writer of the Official History thought that Major Fell may have seen them make the turn. An Australian group with secret documents and ciphers also ran into the Germans. One man went around in back and "shot the German soldier". That enabled the men to get back into their truck and escape.

Later, some Australian engineers turned left and took the road to Derna. They saw the abandoned staff cars and trucks from what probably was Neame's vehicles. They attempted to pass the mass of vehicles, but took fire that stopped them. They waited until the sky started to lighten. They finally were able to escape and drove to Martuba, where they got medical attention for their wounded from the 2/13th Battalion medical officer. Another engineer group also ran into the ambush. A group of about30 men got away in trucks. They got back to the crossroads and arranged for someone to keep others from turning towards the ambush. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

More movements on 6 April 1941, later in the day

The southern route to the east taken by British and Australian troops was overloaded with vehicles and the road was breaking down under the load. The load grew as more vehicles crossed into the road from side roads. What had started as convoys were broken up due to the conditions. Where the roads joined and where the refueling stops, conditions were even worse. Upon reaching Giovanni Berta, the Australians left the paved road and took the desert route. The traffic on the road was reduced to about six miles an hour due to the heavy traffic and the deteriorating road surface. Traffic would be stopped as vehicles broke down or overheated.

The 2nd Armoured Division Support Group connected to the southern route from Tecasis. The 3rd Armoured Brigade and the armored cars of the King's Dragoon Guards joined from "the El Abiar-Maraua track". The brigade only had seven cruiser tanks and six light tanks. The 6th RTR with Italian tanks was out of touch and was heading up to the recently abandoned plateau. They could only travel very slowly.

The 2/24th Battalion was the last of the Australians to head east. The 9th Australian Division staff had trouble finding any transport to move the battalion. Some transport was provided by the 2/17th Battalion and from engineers. They had found 14 trucks and some of the unit's vehicles were able to move the entire 2/24th Battalion. The convoy was broken up at the intersections and only arrived at Tmimi in the morning in small groups.

Nothing was seen of the Germans that had blocked the road earlier on the 6th. They must have been Ponath's group. The group was very small and since his orders were to block the coast road at Derna, he continued onward towards that destination. They sheltered in the "Rocknest" caves and set up an ambush to protect those in the caves. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Late on 6 April 1941 in Cyrenaica

After General O'Connor issued orders that affected the 3rd Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Rimington headed back to the brigade. They were located near the old fort near Tecnis. The brigade officers met and discussed the situation. They decided to travel back to Derna via Maraua and then to move up to Mechili. Brigadier Rimington had concerns about the state of the brigade, and whether they could get any tanks to Mechili, especially if they took the most direct route. They moved out right after 5pm. He sent a messenger apparently to Cyrenaica Command headquarters with word of their planned movements. Soon, General Morshead arrived and then General Neame returned.

Also at 5pm, the 2/13th Battalion received orders to move to Martuba. They did not realize that the Germans might be there when they arrived. The battalion commander and his adjutant reached Martuba at about 8:30pm. What they found was that those present had panicked and were heading to the east as fast as they could go. Lt-Col. Burrows let Cyrenaica Command know what they had found. His battalion reached Martuba and set up a defensive position. Give that the ground was very hard, they built cover by piling stones. There had been a German group that had blocked the road, but they seemed to have moved. Another German force was located south of Martuba and was still present. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade

We are about to see the mettle of the troops of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. They were also fortunate to have a good commander in Brigadier Vaughan, who had been an Indian cavalry regiment commander. After the battle at Mechili, Rommmel praised them for their ability and their break-out from Mechili. They took losses, but being a fully-motorized unit, mounted in Fordson trucks, they were able to concentrate at the critical point and break loose from the enemy encirclement. The 2nd Armoured Division was not so fortunate, and Major-General Gambier-Parry surrendered, unlike the Indian brigade. The way to the east was blocked, but the western side was more open and presented the motor brigade an opportunity to escape the encirclement. They had a good commander, but the British did not provide any artillery for the brigade, so they were hobbled by that lack. Still, they ran through German artillery, where the crews put their hands up as they were overrun by the Indian cavalry. We are going to give the full details from the Australian Official History next week.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Later on 6 April 1941 in western Cyrenaica

Two separate situations were unfolding in western Cyrenaica later on 6 April 1941. First, the 9th Australian Division received orders to withdraw. Second, the enemy were closing in on Mechili. The order for the 9th Australian Division units to withdraw was issued at 4pm on 6 April. Some movement out started as soon as 5pm. About the time that the western-most units received the orders, German forces were coming in contact. One company of the 2/15th Battalion fired on a small German reconnaissance group at 4:15pm. All of the Germans were killed. By 5pm, another mixed German group consisting of a light tank, armored cars, and motorized infantry drove by the 2/48th Battalion, just as they had received the order to withdraw. The infantry dismounted and the situation looked to be difficult. Supporting machine gun fire my the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers kept the Germans from advancing and allowed the Australians to withdraw. The machine gunners took some casualties in the process. A written account gave the Australian attitude towards the situation. They thought that they were in a good position to defend against an attack, which they were abandoning instead of fighting.

By 5pm, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade commander asked for help, as the force surrounding the brigade in Mechili was getting larger. Rommel was very unhappy with how the day had progressed on 6 April. He had hoped to have enough strength at Mechili to take the place, but instead, they were forced to sit and wait. Once the Fabris unit had arrived at Mechili later on 6 April, Rommel planned at attack at 7am on 7 April. The 3rd Armoured Brigade finally started to move out. The route chosen seemed likely to conflict with the 9th Australian Division withdrawal route. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The afternoon of 6 April 1941 in Cyrenaica

When Lt-General Neame had left his headquarters, that left General O'Connor in charge. O'Connor had gone to the airfield to talk with reconnaissance pilots. When he returned to the headquarters, he issued orders for the 2nd Armoured Division to head for Mechili, which was threatened. The orders ended up not being implemented, however. The 2nd Support Group had been at Tacasis at 1pm. They got orders by radio to withdraw by the coast road, because of the enemy forces at Mechili. They believed that the orders came from Major-General Gambier-Parry's chief staff officer. While the armored division had ordered the 3rd Armoured Brigade to Mechili, Cyrenaica Command overrode those orders and told them to head for Maraua in the north. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade received orders from Cyrenaica Command to send a petrol convoy to meet with the 2nd Armoured Division. Perhaps the Germans were listening to British communications because they expected the 2nd Armoured Division to head for Mechili. As the support group headed north, they met Neame. He ordered the support group to hold the "outpost line" that had been held by the 1/KRRC. O'Connor then ordered the 3rd Armoured Brigade to head for Mechili. About this time, O'Connor agreed to let the 9th Australian Division to withdraw to Gazala. Two battalions, the 2/13th and the 2/48th would hold some key points on the route to Gazala. The 1/KRRC was back to reporting to the Australians. Their task would be to cover the engineers as they demolished bridges and supply dumps. The Australians had to use improvised transport in their withdrawal. Brigadier Kisch, the British commander of Cyrenaica Command engineers suggested that the Australians withdraw by the inland road that had been improved, so they avoided possible bottleneck situations farther north. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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