Wednesday, December 07, 2016

12 April 1941, expecting an attack on Tobruk

Enemy actions near Tobruk on 11 April 1941 seemed to indicate that they planned an attack the next morning. General Lavarack took the threat seriously and had the 18th Brigade moved to be closer to the area between the 20th and 24th Brigades. The 18th Brigade was loaded on on vehicles to move them to the intersection of the El Adem and Bardia roads. They were ready by the time the sky started to lighten. After seeing enemy tanks showing themselves, the Tobruk defenders realized that they needed to have their anti-tank guns forward. Keeping with the British practice of breaking up units for independent use, they sent a troop from the 3rd. RHA to support the area expected to be attacked, but they arrived too late.

When the day started on 12 April, the wind was blowing sand. One company of the 2/17th Battalion could see enemy troops about a quarter mile away. They were in good defensive positions. The company was reinforced by seven anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA. Holes had been made in the wire, so men went out to repair them, while lying on their backs. A soldier with w Bren gun fired back at the enemy and covered the repairs. The Bren gunner was able to silence the enemy machine guns. As the threat subsided, the 18th Brigade was pulled back. General Lavarack had decided that it took too long to move the 18th Brigade, so he wanted the three battalions deployed at strategic sites.

One good thing was that the RAF was able to constantly hit the enemy troops despite their shortage of aircraft and the necessity to pull back from forward air fields. The men at Tobruk could not see the bombing raids, but the enemy were very aware of them. The German diary said that the British controlled the air over the area. The airfield at Tobruk hosted twelve Hurricane fighters. As of 12 April, the German air attacks on Tobruk grew in intensity.

There was a significant number of ships in the Tobruk harbor. They enemy assumed that they were preparing to evacuate the troops in Tobruk. During 12 April, enemy aircraft attacked the ships, but was not able to damage any, as they were being protected by heavy anti-aircraft fire. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Events on 11 April 1941 at Salum, Halfaya Pass, and Tobruk

From early on 11 April 1941, Australian anti-tank guns were involved with backing British troops at Salum and Halfaya Pass. The Free French Motor Battalion had one company at Halfaya Pass, and they had a troop backing them. There were German and Italian forces headed east, towards the frontier, but were only south of Tobruk. A group from the 1/Durham Light Infantry had headed for Halfaya Pass, accompanied by an Australian anti-tank gun troop. The 1st/DLI group arrived at Halfaya Pass later in the morning. By 5pm, gun were pulled back and were repositioned along the coast road. By 10pm, British columns arrived from the desert at the "top of the pass". For the next several nights, Australian anti-tank guns were on patrol with British troops to the west.

At Toburk, General Morshead had issued his operational order that included brigades holding one battalion in reserved. They also were to start aggressive patrolling. At night, the Australians dominated the area between the fortress and the enemy troops. The Australian engineers were involved with laying mines and building anti-tank defenses.

Wavell's chief of staff was concerned about blockage of the Bardia road. He also was thinking about pulling tanks out of Tobruk for use on the Egyptian frontier. General Lavarack had replied back on the 12th that he would be looking for an opportunity for breaking the enemy hold on the Bardia road. He also argued that they needed the tanks in Tobruk, and could use more, due to the size of the perimeter. They had already lost two tanks on 10 April. Wavell had discussed the situation with General Blamey in Greece. He was open to adding one brigade at Tobruk, if it could be done. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Problems with ad hoc formations on 10 and 11 Aprl 1941

The Australian anti-tank regiment, the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, was another victim of the British tendency to break up units and distribute their component parts. Two of the batteries had been at Mechili. They were mostly in Tobruk by 10 April 1941. Several sections had been lost in the collapse at Mechili, however. The 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment was experiencing the same sort of fragmentation. One troop headed to Sollum from Mersa Matruh. They were the anti-tank force with a column of troops from the 1/Durham Light Infantry. Major Argent's battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment reached Sollum and was told to report to the commander of the 22nd Guards Brigade. The plan in place at the time was to hold Sollum and Halfaya Pass for the next 36 hours and hold it "at all costs". The Australian historian notes that Major Argent's battery was still at the Egyptian frontier four months later.

One column from the Support Group encountered some enemy troops. Another enemy column (often mixed German-Italian troops) blocked the Bardia road east of Tobruk. The alternate spelling for Sollum is Salum, which is how the Australian historian refers to the place. Infantry and Australian anti-tank guns set up a defensive position at Halfaya, at the top of the pass.

On 11 April 1941, Rommel was directing operations at Tobruk. Colonel Schwerin took over command of General Prittwitz's group when he was killed. Elements of the 15th Panzer Division had started to arrive, so Rommel immediately directed some of them to move towards Salum. He had already sent the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit towards Salum. The 5th Panzer Regiment had been led to expect that when they attacked, the British would withdraw, which was just wishful thinking.

At Tobruk, General Morshead wanted each brigade to hold one battalion in reserve. The problem was that this was a great hardship due to the amount of perimeter each brigade held and the scarcity of forces. Tank and armored car units had to convert to infantry to aid in the defense. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Germans on the attack on 11 April 1941 at Tobruk

In the afternoon of 11 April 1941, the Australian 2/13th Battalion was attacked by infantry. They waited until the enemy got closer before they opened fire. They were supported by British machine-gunners. In response, the enemy "went to ground". When six trucks drove towards the Tobruk defenses, they were driven off by artillery fire from the 1st RHA and 104st RHA. Seven tanks started to move forward at Post R31 and were fired on by B/O Battery. NExt, enemy infantry was seen advancing on 2/13th Battalion. Fire from the 1st RHA stopped the advance. Tanks now moved forward. The tanks included Pzkw IV's, Italian M13/40's, and Italian light tanks. They did not break through, but moved off towards the 2/13th Battalion. Lt-Col. Crawford reported an attack that seemed to come through the defenses. The 1st RTR tanks were sent in response. The penetration report seemed to be false, so the tanks were sent towards where the enemy tanks had been last seen.

The Germsns found that the Australians were not so easily panicked as many soldiers had been in 1940. The German tanks had come up close to the Australians without serious harm, so the German infantry moved forward as well. Once the Germans had closed to some 500 yards, the defenders started firing. The only problem was that there were not many automatic weapons available or even men with guns who could see the enemy troops from posts. The 1st RTR tanks moved forward towards the El Adem road block. They ran into a group of ten enemy tanks and had a fight. The British lost two cruiser tanks, but knocked out a German tank, perhaps a Pzkw III, an M13/40, and three Italian light tanks. At this point, the enemy tanks pulled back. The Australians finally were able to bring mortars to bear. Patrols from the 2/17th Battalion found that the enemy infantry had withdrawn. During the night, several enemy tanks were near the 2/13th Battalion, looking for a way to cross into the fortress. Another group had approached with demolitions to try and get through the "anti-tank ditch and wire". The defenders could tell that the enemy forces were intent on surrounding Tobruk and breaking through.

At the frontier, the defenders were not prepared for a hard defense against advancing forces. They might well have tried to defend Halfaya Pass, to become famous during the Battleaxe offensive. Halfaya was only held by a Free French motor infantry company that was weak in strength. Gradually, more units arrived in the Sollum-Halfaya area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, November 25, 2016

German activity near Tobruk on 11 April 1941

The night before the 11th, the 18th Cavalry had sent out a patrol of four small trucks to the west, looking down in the Derna road. They saw no sign of the Germans. That same time, a Support group column had an encounter with a German column about 12 miles west of Tobruk. What seems to be happening was that German columns headed into the desert from the coast road west of Tobruk. In "mid-morning" on 11 April 1941, on the right from the 20th Brigade, they saw a group of about fifty vehicles. Tobruk artillery fired on them and they scattered. The Australians sent out a platoon to look for the Germans. A report from the Support Group mentioned some forty tanks heading for El Adem from the south. The tanks came from an area where about 300 vehicles had been seen. The group of tanks split in two with one part heading east along the Trigh Capuzzo. The German intent seemed to be to completely surround Tobruk.

A little after noon, about ten tanks drove towards a post held by the 24th Brigade. They were engaged by guns from the 24th Anti-Tank Company. They succeeded in knocking out five tanks and drove off the rest. Near 1pm, 20 to 30 trucks drove up to Post R63 in the perimeter. They were engaged by the 104th RHA. The trucks were forced to withdraw. Other trucks drove towards the Bardia road. German infantry left their vehicles and attacked post R63. The Australians took casualties and the Germans sat astride the Bardia Road. Another fight took place between the 2/28th Battalion and the 2/43rd Battalion.

As he had been instructed, Brigadier Gott ordered the mobile portion of the Support Group to withdraw to the Egyptian frontier. He sent a message to General Lavarack, informing him of the move. The message used a code word that they had set for this occasion. The Support Group supply vehicles were trapped in Tobruk by the German moves. By 1pm, at about two miles east of Tobruk, the Germans brought infantry. They moved up to within a half-mile from Tobruk and started digging positions. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wavell's hand in the works at Tobruk on 10 to 11 April 1941

While General Lavarack had been commander of Cyrenaica Command, he found out through a visiting staff officer on 11 April 1941 from General Headquarters that Wavell had other plans in the works. Wavell intended to include what had been Cyrenaica Command into a new Western Desert Command. He affirmed the plan to defend Tobruk for two months. After that, he intended to go on the offensive against the Germans and Italians. General Lavarack replied with a request to get the rest of the 7th Australian Division in Tobruk to aid the defense.

Late on 10 April, General Lavarack put the 1st RTR under the control of General Morshead, but that did not amount to much since he would not be allowed to use the 1st RTR without General Lavarack's approval. 11 April 1941 was good Friday. The sandstorm that had been blowing on 10 April, earlier in the day had gradually stopped. 11 April proved to be better weather, as it was clear. Only a week had passed since the 9th Australian Division had been in contact with the Germans near Benghazi. The Australians defending the perimeter at Tobruk now had a good view of the situation. There would be the defenders on a perimeter in Tobruk, with a band of unoccupied land, with a surrounding German-Italian static line, rather World War One-like.

The Tobruk perimeter was at an elevation of 400 to 500 feet. The land was very arid. Every day, as the sun warmed the land and air, you would get a mirage effect. The only deviation was if there were clouds or dust storm. The mirages affected artillery, since guns could only be ranged by sight early or late in the day. Both sides were effected by the mirages and both Axis and British artillery would fire early and late in the day.

A system of perimeter posts were constructed. The outer line of posts were about 750 yards apart. There was a backing line that were about 500 yards apart. There was also an anti-tank ditch, but it was only partial. The uncompleted parts had concertina wire that did not seem to be very effective. This is baed on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Attacks on Tobruk start and the Support Group is reorganized on 10 April 1941

A German-Italian attack near the Derna road became more intense on 10 April 1941. They did not try to cross the wadi, but set up on the far side. There were both Germans and elements of the Italian Brescia Division. The Italians had "machine-guns, mortars and light artillery". By early afternoon, the firing increased. The firing was heavy enough to keep the 2/24th Battalion from occupying their section of the perimeter. British field guns had received enough fire that they lost artillerymen killed and wounded and had to withdraw. On the Axis side, Major-General Prittwitz was killed. Working for Rommel was a dangerous occupation for German generals.

The Support Group sent a message about seeing forty tanks moving north-east towards Tobruk. About the same time, the German 3rd Reconnaissance Unit had an encounter with the Indian 18th Cavalry. They reached the perimeter near the 2/28th Battalion. Bush artillery with them fired and put rounds near the head of the column. The professionals of the 1st RHA opened fire and dispersed the Germans. German fire stopped a "British truck" trying to drive out by the El Adem road. Things quieted down until almost 1pm when artillerymen saw five German tanks.

During the early part of the afternoon, some Germans were driven off by small-arms fire from the 2/13th Battalion. In the west, though, Axis forces near the upper escarpment and dug in some machine guns that could fire on the perimeter. There were continued reports that the German strength in that area was increasing. Ten German tanks were also seen driving towards the south-east. Then British reconnaissance aircraft reported three columns of 200 vehicles each driving towards El Adem from Mechili. One of these columns had an encounter with Support Group troops at approximately 5pm. The RAF attacked a group there of about 150 vehicles. One battery of the 4th RHA opened fire and dispersed the group.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Gott reorganized the Support Group and put Lt-Col. Campbell, a famous figure in the desert fighting, in charge of an independent column operating between Tobruk and the frontier. These sorts of columns would become increasingly prevalent during campaign. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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