Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The challenges of an attack on the posts in the Salient in August 1941

The attacking force on the posts in the Salient must necessarily exploit forward, despite the fact that they would then be vulnerable to attack at daylight. They are forced to exploit due to the need to gain some depth to the position. The focus was on posts R6 and R7, while they were also interested in post R5. The posts were defended by about 30 German soldiers in each post. The posts had barbed wire around them. The men in posts R6 and R7 were from one German infantry company while post R5 had men from a reserve company. As we have previously noted, the Australian battalion commander Lloyd was the most capable of those in Tobruk. He had both Great War and British Indian Army experience from the past. Lloyd's plan was to attack each post with two platoons with a third providing flank defense. Another platoon from the 2/48th Battalion would try and take the water tower along with sangars nearby.
The 2/48th Battalion would be ready to move forward and link the water tower position with Forbes Mound, which was already held. They would also attack enemy positions nearby. Such an attack would be challenging, to say the least, as the positions were the leading edge of an enemy defense in depth.
Again were note that Lloyd's attack would attempt to succeed where a larger, battalion-sized attack by  the 2/23rd Battalion had previously failed.. Lloyd's plan used one platoon to attack each post, although his attack was planned to be be over a broad front. The 2/43rd Battalion, acting in support, would attack posts R5 and R6, if things went well initially. There were two more companies from the 2/43rd Battalion ready to act, along with a company from the 2/48th Battalion. The 2/43rd Battalion had supplies ready to bring forward with five carriers and a truck with a trailer. A second truck was standing by in readiness to move. The supply group would be in waiting near post R9 where they could see what was happening at Post R7. They had two anti-tank guns and a 3inch mortar with crews and ammunition. While they might have liked to have had tanks for the attacks, they seemed to be too likely to alert the enemy of an impending attack.Tanks were available in support, however. Two squadrons from a tank unit and two troops of infantry tanks were ready to move if the decision were made. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The plan for the attack on the Salient at Tobruk from late July to early August 1941

The Germans and their Italian allies had worked for some three months to improve their defenses in what was called "The Salient". The arc of the defenses on their side was shorter than the larger arc on the Australian side. The shorter arc was held by the three motorized infantry battalions, while the longer arc on the Australian side was occupied by two complete battalions and part of a third.
General Morshead had requested that the supporting air group for photographs of the enemy positions, but they never received any from 204 Group. The only photographs that the Australians received were of the wrong area, but even that was an improvement and showed that the air side was able to respond to requests.
What they did know was that the Germans had built sangars from sandbags with machine guns mounted in them. As well as earth defenses, the enemy had laid anti-personnel mines. The sangars were camouflaged with pieces of grass. The defenses were about four feet-six inches in height. There were holes in the walls about six inches from the ground from which machine guns could be fired. Part of the enemy line consisted of escarpment. Perhaps an exaggeration, it was said that the enemy positions were at the top of the escarpment while the attacking Australians were at the bottom. The escarpment continued for about a thousand yards east of Post S6. The enemy could cover the Australian approach with machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire. The attacking Australians had virtually no cover for their approach to the enemy positions. Lt-Col.Lloyd commanded the 2/28th Battalion, which had to conduct the attack under these circumstances. Lloyd was a Great War veteran who had subsequently done four years in the British Indian Army, fighting in the Second Afghan War. By 1936, he was back in Australia and was a Major in the militia. Lloyd's plan was to use two platoons for each post with another platoon on the right flank.
The 2/28th Battalion would attempt to take two posts that had been previously attacked by a battalion. This time, the attackers had a company plus one platoon. When the battalion-sized attack had failed, what would lead us to believe that a smaller attack would succeed? There were other components to the attack plan and in one case, the company commander would get to decide if he could exploit further. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Salient and plans to retake it, while the plans for withdrawing the 9th Australian Division move forward

There was a widely-held belief, not backed up by any evidence, that the enemy were thinning out their defenses in the area of the Salient. During late July, General Morshead was apparently not aware of how far the plans for withdrawing his division had progressed. He was still intent on trying to attack the Salient. In late July 1941, the division was reporting that the enemy was reducing the troops in the front positions. The reality was that if there were any changes, it was because the enemy were pulling back into more strongly held positions that were newly built. You did find incidents like the night of 25 and 26 July 1941, when patrols found some enemy outposts had been abandoned. One patrol searched the area of the water tower and found no enemy troops there or to the immediate west of it. The men involved quickly found out that the ground near poPost S6 was defended, as they drew fire from the south. Still, one patrol spent the day near the water tower and watched the nearby area.
British commandos raided enemy positions by the coast, beyond the perimeter and captured an Italian soldier. What the Tobruk defenders really wanted was a German prisoner from the Salient. They managed to get a German several days later. They found that the area was still defended by three German motorized infantry battalions, the same ones that had been holding the area. At this point. General Morshead was still planning his attack on the Salient. Not everyone agreed that the attack was a good idea. The commander of the 107th RHA was very critical of the idea. He described the planned attack as an attack by two infantry platoons at each side of the Salient "supported by 21 troops of artillery". When we realize that the Salient was held by three German battalions and were being attacked by two Australian battalions, with another on the left flank. The Germans had spent three months strengthening their defenses in the Salient. The ground was very favorable for the German defense. Any attack would be made against well-prepared positions with sand-bagged machine gun positions where the guns fire close to the ground through loopholes. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Late July to early August 1941 at Tobruk

By early August 1941, the Australian prime minister was unhappy that Churchill had not replied to his telegram from 20 July. This caught General Blamey by surprise, as he was intent on managing the information that the prime minister received and was responding to in his communications. General Blamey emphasized in his message to his prime minister that events were proceeding according to his plan and that the prime minister should not be concerned. The 9th Australian Division would be withdrawn from Tobruk in September, when air support would be available, while before that time, it would not be. It turns out that Churchill was not available to reply as he had gone to meet with President Roosevelt. Lord Cranborne replied for Churchill and assured Mr. Menzies that they had discussed his telegrams with General Auchinleck.
At Tobruk, General Morshead was in ignorance of these developments and was proceeding with his plans to attack the Salient. The plan was for the 24th Brigade to attack both sides of the Salient. Once those points had been captured, they would exploit further as it was possible to do. On 21 July, General Morshead ordered the 20th Brigade to replace the 18th Brigade. Also on 21 July, the Division ordered the brigades to launch raids on the enemy forces. During the last week in July 1941, patrols were sent out every night. A report from the division claimed that the enemy was thinning his troops in the area, but the Australian historian thought that there was nothing to back up the claim. When the 2/15th Battalion was relieved on 8 July, the battalion commander commented that the enemy depended on "automatic weapons and mortars" to hold the salient. They were also protected by anti-personnel mines.During the night of 25 to 26 July, some enemy positions were found to be unoccupied. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Auchinleck and Churchill now involved with the Australians in July 1941

General Auchinleck was the new theater commander for the Mediterranean and Middle East. He had the bad luck to be the object of uninformed interference by the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill. Churchill was the primary cause of the unfortunate situation that they found themselves in during July 1941. The actual role of Auchinleck was commander of the Middle East Command. Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff wanted to see an immediate attack. The army was particularly ill-prepared for such operations.
One of Auchinleck's first moves, to send the 50th Division to Cyprus to free the 7th Australian Divisional Cavalry to be returned to its division, got an immediate negative reaction from Churchill. Auchinleck followed that move with a comment that he thought that they would not be able to hold Tobruk after September 1941. That got a reply from the Chiefs of Staff that they wanted any new offensive in the desert to happen no later than September.
By 23 July, the Prime Minister called Auchinleck to London to talk about the situation. He told Auchinleck that General Blamey could act for him in his absence. At this point, Auchinleck was not ready to agree to removing the Australians from Tobruk by ship. He would be open to removing the 18th Brigade so that it could be returned to the 7th Australian Division. That would allow the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions to be complete formations, which was a major step towards responding to the Australian demands. The 18th Brigade was to be replaced by the Polish Carpathian Brigade, which was currently in reserve.
The Polish commander, General Sikorski, was just as concerned about what would be done with his unit as were the Australians. General Auchinleck sent a telegraph message to General Blamey about the Polish concerns and conditions. General Blamey agreed that they would meet the requested conditions. As a next step, in the meeting of commanders-in-chief, the plan was made to send the 6th Division (later renamed the 70th Division) to Tobruk along with the Polish Carpathian Brigade. The men would be transferred in and out of Tobruk in August and September. They would make use of the new moon in each month to safely make the moves. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Decision to Request that the 9th Australian Division be relieved in early July 1941

As recently as late June 1941, it seems that General Blamey had not yet decided to request that the 9th Australian Division be withdrawn from Tobruk. There were several things that would cause him to decide, however. For one thing, the Germans seemed to be at the point of overrunning Russia. The British intelligence perspective was that Russia was being totally dominated and might collapse at any moment. Other factors were that the senior medical advisor and General Morshead agreed that the physical condition of the Australian soldiers in Tobruk was rapidly declining. Another factor was that the campaign in Syria against the Vichy French was ending. An armistice was declared on 12 July. That would make easier pulling the Australian divisions into one organization.
July 1941 seemed like a good opportunity to remove the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk. The natural thing was for General Blamey to write to General Aunchinleck requesting that the 9th Australian Division be relieved from the defense of Tobruk. The excuse given was that the condition of the Australian soldiers had declined and that they had taken heavy losses in the fighting to defend Tobruk. The second excuse given was that the Australian government had always wanted the Australian divisions to be part of a single organization. When they looked at the three Australian divisions, the 6th had been heavliy engaged in Libya, then Greece, and finally, in the defense of Crete. The division had taken heavy losses. The 7th had just completed the conquest of Vichy Syria and had also taken losses in the process. They were also short of the 18th Brigade which was presently in Tobruk. The 9th had been in continuous combat since March 1941 and had also taken heavy losses in the process.
General Blamey communicated with the Australian prime minister and provided him a copy of the letter to General Auchinleck. General Blamey wanted to see the Australian divisions assembled in Palestine so that they could form an Australian organization. He saw the main obstacle the reluctance of the British to allow it to happen. This is base on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Australian concerns in June and July 1941

Back on 17 June 1941, General Blamey sent a memorandum to General Wavell where he expressed concern over how ten Australian units outside of Tobruk were serving under non-Australian commands. The Australian position was that these units should be reassigned so that they were under Australian commanders. This was a concern expressed by the Australian prime minister, which was then Mr. Menzies. Wavell's staff drafted a reply which they sent to General Blamey asking for his comments.
Later, on 26 June, General Blamey sent a telegraph message to the prime minster. In the message, General Blamey wrote answers to questions that he had received from Mr. Menzies, the prime minister.  The most important question was his opinion about the situation at Tobruk and if the 9th Australian Division could continue to hold onto the fortress. In his reply, General Blamey expressed confidence that the Australians could continue to resist attack. He also replied that the division could be removed by sea and that the Royal Navy thought an evacuation was possible. There was no immediate cause for worry, as General Blamey had requested a plan for the contingency. At this time, the 9th Australian Division chief of staff was in Cairo and he did not see any immediate cause for concern. General Blamey also expressed his opinion that he was having an influence about the need for formations to be intact and not distributed piecemeal. That was eventually a concern of Bernard Law Montgomery when he eventually assumed command of the field army in North Africa in late 1942. General Blamey also addressed the proposals for a new corps organization that included an ANZAC Corps. Having two corps seemed to preclude all Australians being under a single, Australian command, but there were no objections to having the New Zealand Division in the proposed ANZAC Corps.
By mid-July 1941, there was little progress about consolidating the Australian units. At that point, no Australian division had all of its constituent units under its command. That meant that there was no possibility of training the divisions as units. In late June, there was still no sign that General Blamey was asking for the 9th Australian Division to be withdrawn from Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


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