Tuesday, July 17, 2018

27-28 November 1941 near Tobruk

The men in command decided late on 27 November 1941 that the 1st South African Brigade was going to be given to the New Zealand Division. They found that they could make that decision, but actually making that work was to be more difficult. Not being able to have a third brigade created problems, as well, since the South Africans were slow to join.
From the perspective of the Tobruk force, they began to hope that they could cause the enemy forces to withdraw. The proposed move to move forward along the Bardia Road was thought to be likely to succeed. Progress was delayed by rain, and misinterpreted news about enemy tank operations near Ed Duda also caused the progress forward to be pushed out into the future. By dawn, the situation at Ed Duda seemed less threatening. The enemy had pulled out of the positions on the west side of Ed Duda. The 19th New Zealand Battalion furnished two companies to move forward to create an outpost south of the Trigh Capuzzo, located on the escarpment to the south. This was also on the west side of Sidi Rezegh. They were to determine if nearby troops were friends or enemies. They were ordered back before they could do that.
From the perspective of the 1st RHA, they thought that the enemy must have troops at Belhamed, despite the claim that there were New Zealand troops in possession of the place. In the morning light, the troops there were seen to be enemy. They were on the northwest side of the Belhamed. The enemy would have a great view of the planned move forward by the 2/Queens through the enemy forces on the east side of the Bardia Road.
XIII Corps notified the Tobruk Fortress commander that they needed to take an area designated by map position. This included the Belhamed pocket of enemy troops. This was east of the corridor that the Tobruk sortie force had created. They needed to take the place at 2pm and hold the position starting from that time. This may have just to have been needed to help the 4th New Zealand Brigade protect their northern side. The New Zealand Division would be preoccupied with clearing enemy troop pockets from the south.
The 19th New Zealand Battalion, minus the troops involved elsewhere, were designated for the operation along with a 4th RTR squadron. They started late, but when they approached enemy troops with tanks, they surrendered. Those that surrendered were a mixed force of German and Italian troops. Typically bad practice in this case allowed the force that General Scobie had sent to do the task had been appropriated by the New Zealand Division. The culprit in this case was the XIII Corps headquarters. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Continued action in the Crusader Battle on 27 and 28 November 1941

One problem created by Rommel sending the German Africa Corps to the Egyptian Frontier for three days is that he provided time for the 7th Armoured Division to regroup and recover. General Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander heard the report from the King's Dragoon Guards armored cars that a column was headed for Gasr el Arid. General Gott ordered the 22nd Armoured Brigade to attack the front of the column and told the 4th Armoured Brigade with Stuart tanks to attack the flank.
The 22nd Armoured Brigade made contact with the German 15th Armored Division close to Bir el Chleta at about 1:30pm. They were both about the same strength in tanks. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was short of artillery, though, as they only had one 25pdr battery and one 2pdr anti-tank gun battery. The Support Group artillery had been scattered among a large number of Jock columns, so that few gun were available when they were needed.
After a while the 4th Armoured Brigade made contact. They were better equipped with tanks at this point. The British armored brigades had kept the Germans from taking a position on the escarpment, overlooking the Trigh Capuzzo. The British threw their advantage away at dark, when they pulled to leaguer away from the important ground. The Germans responded after dark by taking  the important pass that went up the escarpment.
In the dark, at the 2/13th Battalion, the land to Gambut was studied by the light of a lamp. At Gambut, Rommel and the Africa Corps Commander were meeting. Rommel apparently wanted to attack either to the west or southwest. The Division zbV Africa was renamed to the 90th Light Division, they name that they made famous over time. The 90th Light Division would participate in Rommel's proposed attack.
At this point in the Crusader Battle, the British continued to "do the wrong thing". General Blamey had repeated criticised the British practice of breaking up divisions and scattering their units across the desert. The New Zealand Division was a victim of this practice in the Cruader Battle. General Freyberg wanted his 5th New Zealand Brigade returned to his control. The British, instead,wanted him to use the 1st South African Brigade.
During the night of 27-28 November 1941 the decision was mzde by the British command to send the 1st South African Brigade to the New Zealand Division. The New Zealand DIvision at this point in time was short of strength to clear out the groups of enemy troops that were still present. They also needed to better prepare defensive positions on the most important of its territory. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Crusader Battle turns on 27 November 1941

27 November 1941 saw enemy forces turn from the Egyptian frontier and return to the Tobruk area. The big operation by British forces had dwindled over three days. The action was reduced to what three infantry brigades and three tank battalions could achieve. Even though the British strength was fading, they brought enough pressure on the enemy to cause Rommel to change the focus back to the Tobruk area from the frontier.
The Africa Corps commander, General Cruewell, wanted to turn the armored divisions back to Tobruk to counter the pressure from the British forces. Rommel was reluctant to make the move, because he hoped to obtain some cheap successes on the Egyptian frontier. The German armored forces typically started the day about two hours before dawn. Early in the day, the 8th Armored Regiment crushed the headquarters of the 5th New Zealand Brigade, which was located at Sidi Azeiz. After that, most of the 15th Armored Division drove along the Trigh Capuzzo. If they were not opposed, they would first overrun the XXX Corps Headquarters followed by the XIII Corps Headquarters, and then the New Zealand Division, and finally, the 1st Army Tank Brigade.
At the same time, the 21st Armored Division left Bardia and drove along the coast road. They hit the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, which was holding Menastir. They succeeded in holding up the armored division. The division changed to a different route on the following day so as to make some progress. The 23rd New Zealand Division successfully blocked an attack at Capuzzo by the German 33rd Engineer Battalion with some other detachments under Rommel's close control. The Germans penetrated the New Zealand position, but where finally blocked. After dark, the Germans backed off from the attack and drove west to rejoin their division.
Both the British and the Germans made extensive use of signals intelligence from their enemy. The British were able to warn the New Zealand and the Tobruk force that the enemy armored divisions were driving back to the Tobruk area. The Eighth Army had dismissed the enemy forces on the frontier simply as roaming columns of motor vehicles and tanks that were not accomplishing much. The British command also portrayed the enemy moves toward Tobruk more as a move to escape rather than a threatening attack at a critical point. Earlier, the move towards the Sidi Rezegh area had also been misinterpreted as a retreat while they were chased by the British armor.

While the Germans had been on the Egyptian frontier not accomplishing much, the 7th Armoured Division was able to recover strength from a number of different sources. They were successful in recovering damaged tanks which were repaired. Other tanks were sent from workshops. There were also new tanks recently received. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was rebuilt up to 40 cruiser tanks from almost nothing. The 4th Armoured Brigade was back up to 77 Stuart tanks. The 7th Armoured Brigade was pulled back so as to be rebuilt. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trying to get some clarity on 27 November 1941

General Godwin-Austen's message very early on 27 November 1941 had the problem that it sounded like the XIII Corps should cut loose and move into a general chase of the enemy forces. By midday, General Godwin-Austen had visited the New Zealand Division and could observe the state of the New Zealand Division and could see the battered division for himself. There was also the news of approaching German armored divisions headed towards the area of his corps from the Egyptian frontier. General Godwin-Austen cautioned General Scobie that the best that the New Zealand Division could do was to hold the ground that they had taken. The Tobruk force was given responsibility for holding open the corridor from Tobruk to Ed Duda, Sidi Rezegh, and Belhamed.
The Australians of the 2/13th Battalion were described as being "in the last ditch at Pilastrano". This reminded me of William III having coined the "last ditch" phrase, where he said that they would find his dead body in the "last ditch" of the defenses. They had been about to be ordered to handle more prisoners, but that was canceled and they were ordered to meet with Brigadier Martin, General Scobie's deputy commander. They received word that they were to be ready to move out in an hour. They would leave the fortress and move out to Gambut, following the Bardia Road. There were assorted rumors of mass Italian surrender.
When the time was almost 5pm, Colonel Burrows was called to meet General Scobie. He heard that the Tobruk fortress had been told to be prepared for a German attack, coming from Bardia. The 2/13th Battalion had become Tobruk's last reserve force. They needed to be ready to stage a counter-attack against German forces. They would be a blocking force on the Bardia Road. If the German attack did not happen, they would be in position to join a push to the east by the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and the 2/Queens battalion south of the Bardia Road and the 1/King's Own on the north side. This move was planned to commence at 7am, if the German attack had not materialized.
As Colonel Burrows was leaving the meeting with General Scobie, he was informed that his battalion had been sent to a position across the Bardia Road, near King's Cross. Colonel Burrows reached his battalion in time to direct they dispositions. Conditions then radically changed and they were "miserable" because they had to endure 24 hours of rain. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Thursday, July 05, 2018

General Scobie has a bad impression of the New Zealand Division on 27 November 1941

During the 70th Division occupation of Ed Duda and the attempt at cooperation with the New Zealand Division, General Scobie was very irritated with the New Zealand Division and General Freyberg. General Scobie had ordered two of his senior staff officers to drive to Ed Duda. He had expected that the New Zealand Division would have created a controlled corridor from the rest of the division to Ed Duda. That had not happened and that indicated to General Scobie a sloppiness on the part of the New Zealanders.
Early during 27 November 1941, XIII Corps gave orders to the Tobruk Fortress, the New Zealand Division and to armored units. As soon as the situation had stabilized, they were to advance to the line of Tobruk, El Adem, and the Bir el Gubi track. Those orders went to the Tobruk headquarters, the New Zealand Division, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade. The orders were that the New Zealand Division would continue west on the escarpment. The Tobruk sortie force would continue along in parallel on the north side. The Tobruk sortie force was asked to accomplish a great deal. They were to send "columns", approximating to the German battle groups, to the west to clear away the enemy from between Tobruk and Gambut. They were to occupy all the "landing grounds" in the area.
General Scobie responded that his troops holding Ed Duda needed to be relieved. That needed to happen so that they could provide enough strength for the clearing operation. General Freyberg sent a message that angered General Scobie. General Scobie replied that there were no New Zealand Division troops at Ed Duda on "square 424409." General Freyberg had said that his troops firmly held Ed Duda, when that was clearly not the case. He also had no idea where the Tobruk troops were located and he hoped that they would tell him.
At this point, General Scobie asked point blank if the New Zealand Division held :"Sidi Rezegh and the hill to the north". He also asked if his troops and tanks were under General Scobie's command. That at least got a reply from General Freyberg that the 44th RTR was needed to return to the New Zealand Division, but the 19th Battalion was available to help defend Ed Duda.
The Australian historian gives both the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk sortie force having lack of information about each other that caused severe miscommunication. The Tobruk sortie force was stretched across forty miles with out considering the clearing mission. General Scobie was also not aware of the condition of the New Zealand units and how close they were to the breaking point. He described them as "near exhaustion".
While General Scobie did not want to risk weakening the Tobruk defenses, he also thought that the enemy were close to "cracking" and that that they might see the enemy go into a general retreat back to the frontier between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. After General Godwin-Austen visited the New Zealand forces at lunchtime. He got a sobering view of just how shakey they were and that there was still the threat of approaching German armored divisions. General Godwin-Austen informed General Scobie that they New Zealand Division was only capable of holding their territory and that the Tobruk sortie force would have to lear a corridor to the New Zealand DIvision. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The New Zealand plan for the fighting at SIdi Rezegh and Belhamed

The New Zealand plan for the battles at Sidi Rezegh, Belhamed, and Ed Duda were over-optimisitic. General Freyberg had expected to attack Belhamed and at Sidi Rezegh during the night of 25-26 November 1941. After Sidi Rezegh was captured, the 6th New Zealand Brigade would move forward and take Ed Duda. The two Zealand Brigades would move along each side of the Trigh Capuzzo. In the event, the New Zealanders were not ready to go at 9pm.
The 4th New Zealand Brigade easily took Belhamed, as they had not realized how little strength was holding the place. The Australian historian mentioned that the New Zealand division had not done any serious planning, and that contributed to the delays. The 6th New Zealand Brigade had trouble. The enemy was in the process of relieving some of the forces at Sidi Rezegh while they were reorganizing the defenses. That meant that the 6th Brigade was confused by what they were seeing. They had two sets of two battalions involved. The 21st and 26th New Zealand Battalions would move down the escarpment to the Trigh Capuzzo and then move to Ed Duda. The other two battalions, the 24th and 25th would move into a position and form a box defense above the escarpment.
One immediate issue was that there enemy units sitting in the way on the route to Ed Duda. There was not time prior to dawn to clear the way, so the move to Ed Duda was cancelled. At dawn on 26 November, the New Zealand units at Sidi Rezegh were disorganized and were under fire by the enemy. With trouble, the New Zealand units at Sidi Rezegh were able to hold onto their positions.
Once General Freyberg learned that the Tobruk sortie force had taken Ed Duda, he ordered the 4th Brigade to move to Ed Duda to join forces with the Tobruk force that was there. The 6th New Zealand Brigade was left to strengthen their hold on Sidi Rezegh. An ad hoc group of tanks from the 44th RTR were ordered to Ed Duda, to set off at 9:30pm. At 9:45pm, the 19h Infantry Battalion and six more tanks followed. They arrived at Ed Duda without any real opposition.
The night at Sidi Rezegh had been filled with desperate fighting, including charges with fixed bayonets. Two German strong points remained. One was at Sidi Rezegh and the other was between Behamed and Sidi Rezegh.General Scobie was dismayed to find that the New Zealanders did not control the area between Ed Duda, Sidi Rezegh, and Belhamed. We can only think that the New Zealand Division was still affected by the losses in the Battles for Greece and Crete. They were still not the old New Zealand Division that existed at the start of the Greek Campaign. Another possibility is that General Freyberg was overrated. His poor performance at Crete almost makes us think that could be the case. He may have had Churchill's complete confidence, but that does not mean much, sadly. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The plan for Ed Duda on 26 November 1941

The plan was to move forward at 12:05pm on 26 November 1941. Shortly before the Tobruk sortie force headed for Ed Duda, they got a message from the New Zealand Division saying that they were held up at Sidi Rezegh and at a hill aboutr 2 miles to the north-northeast. Despite that, the Tobruk force was committed to moving forward as planned. The 4th RTR was equipped with Matildas. They led the movement, followed by cruiser tanks and light tanks from the 1st RTR. They had artillery support from the 1st RHA. They crossed the four or five miles of desert in a short time. They reached the top of Ed Duda and then intended to run down to the "by-pass road", when they found themselves facing enemy guns at point-blank range. The tanks carried Besa machine guns, and they used them to fight the closest guns. The 1st RHA did what they could to engage the other guns.
After about 45 minutes, Brigadier Willison sent the 1/Essex forward. They had their carrier platoon in the lead Brigadier Willison thought that they made a "find spectacle". When the men had reached within about two hundred yards from the edge of the escarpment, they were hit hard ("bombed"). Despite taking heavy losses, the advance carried forward and took their objectives. The armored brigade drove to the "left flank" where they were ready to support the infantry if they were needed.
They found out that the 1/Essex had been mistakenly bombed by the RAF. The 1/Esses were in a position with the ability to defend in all directions. They were bothered by some German 210mm guns. Some German infantry attacked, but were driven back and about seventy prisoners were captured. Since the British controlled the access road now, they were able to set  ambushes that caught some German and Italians by surprise.
It turned out that the New Zealand Division were having trouble reaching Ed Duda, which the armored brigade had already occupied at about 1:30pm. General Scobie sent a message to General Freyberg that they had occupied Ed Duda and asked if they would please not have them bombed.
The New Zealand plan had been to make a night attack during the night of 25-26 November. The 4th and 6th New Zealand Brigades would take Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. They would then push on to Ed Duda. Belhamed turned out to be easy to take, but the fight for Sidi Rezegh did not go so well. The 6th Brigade was the one having a lot of trouble. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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