Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mid-Summer's Night Dream

"east and south-west".of Bir el Khireigat. After that, they would then hit the 7th Armoured Division which lay to the east. This was not to be a prolonged operation and the 21st Armored Division would return to their position within 24 hours.

Other units would hit the coast sector on Sunday. Despite the usual practice of not having a gun set up to fiire on the beach on Sunday, the day of the attack, there was a gun. Three more guns were set up a short distance behind. The evening before Rommel's attack, the three guns back had been registered.
The main thrust of Rommel's operation was south of the escarpment. Units on the west were told to expect an operation by Axis troops. Rommel was going to have problems, because the British were ready with air power to hit his masses of moving vehicles. Later in the North African campaign, a common practice of dispersal was implemented. But Rommel was oblivious to the issue, surprisingly enough.
When Rommel's operation started on Sunday morning, there were three columns from the 21st Armored Division sweeping on arcs that hoped to catch British battle groups. The British were prepared and fell back to the minefield avoided the three columns. The South African armored cars stayed at a distance and provided a screen for the withdrawing battle groups. When the Germans had moved up to the dummy supply dump, they found "empty desert". The British positions at North Point and the Playground were abandoned. The Germans passed through the British minefield and drove to Sofafi when they ran out of fuel. The Germans went into hedgehog formations when they were hit by the British air attack. They took fire and bombs. At thst point, the Germans pulled back and headed for the rear. Rommel was present and driving in his captured British command car. He had a flat tire, which they struggled to fix.
The Australian gunners on the coast were not privy to prior knowledge about the impending attack. They were all set for a normal day where they would shoot harassing fire. The Australians could hear noise from the direction of Halfaya pass. A British column commander did not explain what was happening. They were finally Early in the morning, the Scots Guards were attacked by a German patrol and took casualties. The patrol was hit by mortar fire and by a carrier patrol. The Australian gunners were supporting the Scots Guards. This based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Developments near the Egyptian border from July to August 1941

A common failing in the Western Desert in 1941 was that training was given short shrift at a time when training was greatly needed. The South African division became the latest victim of this problem when the division was put to work digging defenses, when they needed to be training for their expected combat role. The Middle East Command was the chief culprit in neglecting training to make time for the latest priority. This problem had been a problem prior to Operation Crusader and continued to be a problem following the battle. This problem was not solved until much later when General Montgomery arrived on the scene after August 1942. The Australian historian does acknowledge that the El Alamein position built would be useful a year later.
During August until early September, the 22nd Guards Brigade was holding the coastal area near Halfaya Pass. They were organized into three columns. The names Faith, Hope, and Charity were shortened to the first four letters: Fait, Hope, and Char. There were other units nearby. The 7th Support Group was located at North Point. The 4th Indian Division headquarters was located at Sofafi. The 7th Armoured Division occupied what was called the "Playground". The 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment provided screening and reconnaissance forward of the minefield.
In late July 1941, the Austrakuab field regiments were moved forward. One troop from the 2/7th Field Regiment was sent to Siwa Oasis. Siwa had become the headquarters of the Long Range Desert Group. A battery from the 2/8th Field Regiment was assigned to Char column. The battery commander, Major Johnston, became the column commander. During the night of 30-31 August, another battery relieved the previous battery, but Major Johnston remained behind as column commander.
Major Argent had spent five months in the frontier area. He and his anti-tank battery were pulled into Mersa Matruh and placed under Brigadier Ramsey's orders. Most of the 2/7th Field Regiment moved on 2 September to the coast sector. They were replaced at Mersa Matruh by a South African field regiment. The regiment's commander, Colonel Eastick became the Coast Sector artillery commander. There were three Australian field artillery batteries, three anti-tank gun batteries, and one light anti-aircraft battery, presumably equipped with 40mm Bofors guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Developments at Mersa Matruh in 1941

In September 1941, Mersa Matruh was occupied by considerable force. The 1st South African Division manned the perimeter and were supported by a machine-gun battalion. The machine gunners happened to be Australians. They had some artillery: "three field artillery regiments and two anti-tank batteries". The artillery commander was from the 9th Australian Division, a brigadier. In the usual ironic situation, the 9th Australian Division was sent to Cyrenaica to train, as the conventional wisdom at that date was that this was a back-water location where nothing much could be expected to happen. The conventional wisdom did not acknowledge the presence of General Rommel, who upended everyone's calculations, even the Germans and Italians. Tje 9th Australian Division, since they did not expect any action, had left their artillery at their base. While this frustrated the gunners, this saved them from being caught up in the chaos in Cyrenaica when Rommel first attacked, and besides, the gunners were lacking equipment. The 9th Australian Division was forced to depend on British artillery located in Cyrenaica.
The changing situation soon left the Australian gunners providing the second and third lines of defense for Egypt. After that happened, the British were sufficiently motivated to find vehicles and guns to equip the Australians. They were given old guns, such as 18pdrs and 4.5in howitzers. The Australians received their equipment near Alexandria. They got a taste of the desert environment before being sent to Mersa Matruh. Two regiments arrived at Mersa Matruh, but the 2/12th Field Regiment was sent to Tobruk.
Two British field regiments were covering the coastal area. They initially moved up guns in the dark so that they could reach the Halfaya area. They figured out a better plan, which was to to move one gun up on the sand dunes and shoot at whatever movement that they could observe. This usually drew a disproportionate amount of return fire. They reported results as if it were a cricket score. For example: "195 for 10" meant that they had fired ten rounds and caused the enemy to fire 195 rounds. An Australian officer was permitted to command the operation for 23 July 1941. His gun fired 28 rounds at a "working party", vehicles traversing Halfaya Pass, and probably destroyed a staff car.
When the Australian gunners had arrived at Mersa Matruh, they realized that they needed to improve and expand the artillery positions. One important point that they realized was that the defensive perimeter needed to be expanded to enclose the high ground that dominated the site and harbor. They did not want to provide the enemy with access to the position which overlooked the site. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Further developments in August to September 1941 in North Africa

The German army command had tried to restrict Rommel's activities, because they were concerned about the supply line to North Africa. They had sent General Gause to be their man between the Army and Rommel. Instead, General Gause became Rommel's chief of staff and they got along well. Hitler was at work, much as was Churchill, because he was concerned about the losses sustained at sea. His first move was to divert the X Air Corps to change its mission to one of providing air protection for the convoys to North Africa. Their mission had been to attack Egypt.
All this was in accord with Rommel's plan of having an Army Group Africa, with himself as commander. Rommel was happy. He informed his wife that he and General Gause, his Chief of Staff, got along well, and Rommel was very pleased that was the case.
The situation was similar for both the British and Axis forces. They both had pulled their armored forces back from contact at the border between Libya and Egypt. The Germans kept their two armored reconnaissance units in a screen. The units both were based on mobile forces equipped with the German six-wheeled armored cars with 20mm gun armament. The British front was about six miles east of Halfaya pass. They were above the escarpment and were covered by a mine field. They had constructed fortifications, although the terrain did not favor having a strong defensive line.
The opposing forces had a gap that was not occupied, except by occasional marauding mobile forces. The British groups eventually became known as "Jock Columns" while the Germans were using ad hoc battle groups. They both were used for reconnaissance and to provide a means for engaging the enemy. The Australian historian gives some credit to Churchill for being impatient with a situation where his men were "shadow boxing" and never could "land a punch". This was the only spot where the British were in contact with German forces and could potentially fight actions.
We find that the British orders were to stake out spots in the desert to let the enemy know that if they went past them, there would be a battle. The truth was that the British were told that if the enemy came with a substantial force, that they were not to fight, but to withdraw towards Sidi Barrani. That gave the British commanders on the spot a mindset to be ready to flee, so as not to be trapped. They were not thinking about fighting, but about running away. East of Sidi Barrani was Mersa Matruh with a port and railhead. The place had defense built along similar lines to those at Tobruk. "New Zealand railway construction engineers" had extended the rail line further to the west. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The situation at Tobruk from mid-September 1941

Once the decision had been made to relieve the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk, there was some repercussions. General Auchinleck considered that since the Australian Government seemed to have lost confidence in him, he should resign his command. That did not happen, but it was a reasonable conclusion. Part of what happened were the machinations by General Blamey to get his way, no matter the cost. The better results were the addition of an additional infantry tank battalion, 4-4.5in guns, and twelve more 25pdr guns.
General Morshead returned to Tobruk on 17 September 1941. He was informed on his arrival that while he was gone, the Germans had attacked one of the observation posts that lay outside the perimeter wire. They had used five tanks on 14 September. At the same time, they made a reconnaissance into Egypt with a force that included tanks. Rommel had called the operation "Summer Night's Dream". We have heard this translated as "Midsummer's Night Dream", which seems more like what Rommel would have called it. The Australian historian thought that since this was mid-September, midsummer was not appropriate. The historian's suggestion was that this operation gave Rommel a false sense of what the British were doing and what they were thinking.
For the coming battle between Axis and British forces, the Germans incorporated responses to lessons learned from Operation Battleaxe. They extended their defenses for some 25 miles south of the Halfaya Pass area. They had battalion-sized units to hold each fort that was built. Given the success of using 88mm anti-aircraft guns against British tanks, they included the use of those guns with armored forces for the next battle, The Germans also started using radios follow the message traffic in their own units and also started using front-line signals intelligence to intercept and process British communications.
The Germans also worked at pulling their battle-group ad hoc organization back into formal division organization. They had two complete armored divisions, the 5th Light Division and the 15th Armored Division. They also had new infantry to use. They had the 361st Africa Regiment, along with two other infantry regiments. The 361st Africa Regiment included former French Foreign Legion troops.
With the Italian Trieste Mechanized Division, they had the complete Italian Mobile Corps. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Coming to a decision about the 9th Australian Division in September 1941

General Auchinleck disagreed about the supposed degradation of the 9th Australian Division due to their being at Tobruk for so long a time. He agreed that they were tired. Auchinleck suggested that they increase the fighting strength in Tobruk to compensate for that situation. He considered replacing one brigade of Australians with a brigade of the British 6th Division. He preferred keeping the entire 9th Australian Division at Tobruk.He had hoped to add Indian troops to the 6th Division, but that seemed less likely now the way that the situation was progressing.
General Blamey had access to Auchinleck's message and sent his government a long rebuttal, including issues raised outside of the message. As to the concerns about the navy, General Blamey said that given that there was enemy naval interference with the sea transport, that should not be a concern. The need for air cover for the relief was an issue, but he had agreed to postpone the relief from August to September, since the RAF had said that they could more easily provide air protection then than they could have in August. Also, the RAF air strength in North Africa had been incresaed, so they were better able to provide air cover for the relief operations.
The British Prime Minister pushed the Australian Prime Minister to get him to agree, but Mr. Fadden would not change his position that the 9th Australian Division must be withdrawn from Tobruk. The Australian government really desired to bring their divisions together into a single corps. The Australian government was also concerned about Auchinleck's comments about a planned sortee from Tobruk by the Australians. The conclusion was that the Australian concerns about the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk were more important to them than any of the British concerns.
Churchill gave in an instructed that plans go forward to relieve the Australians in Tobruk. He was concerned about the response in Australia by a British refusal to relieve the 9th Australian Division. There were other issues, such as the appearance to the Australians of the British division on Cyprus being relieved by an Indian division at the same time that the British government opposed relieving the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Australians and Tobruk in September 1941

We have to think that General Blamey had his own agenda, that is to stop the scattering of Australian units across the Mediterranean and North Africa, and bring them together as a single force. From the perspective of time, we feel like the objection he raised about the condition of the troops in Tobruk was just an excuse to try and convince the British so he could get his way. In the face of the Australian obstinant request for the relief of the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk, Churchill's next move was to ask General Auchinleck to provide him with the facts about the situation. The problem with that is that Auchinleck was reduced to asking the Australians for information, which is going to be biased towards what they want.
Auchinleck ordered General Morshead to meet him in Cairo for conferences to gather the relevant facts. Morshead was brought out of Tobruk on the destroyer Kipling, which endured five air attacks and took some damage in the process. That was a foretaste of what could be expected during any relief of the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk. General Moshead stopped by to meet with General Blamey prior to meeting with General Auchinleck. There were three conferences  to atatend on 10 September. Generals Morshead and Blamey attended together. The first meeting was with Auchinleck and General Alan Cunningham, the newly appointed army commander. We imagine that they discussed Operation Crusader. Following that, they met with the Air, Naval, and Army commanders-in-chief. They discussed the relief of the 9th Australian Division. After that, they met with staff officers, one being Neil Ritchie and the other being the deputy quartermaster general.
General Morshead was questioned in the meeting with the commanders-in-chief about the condition of the men in Tobruk. He admitted that the men were still in good health, but were seen as tiring, and becoming weaker. Morshead made the point that both the British and Australians in Tobruk were in a similar situation. In fact, Morshead said that he would be unhappy if the British in Tobruk were left behind when the Australians were removed.
Auchinleck's rejoinder was that to stage at relief now would create difficulties for the army's readiness for Operation Crusader. Auchinleck proposed sending an infantry tank battalion to Tobruk to increase the defensive strength of the fortress. He also told General Morshead that he could not relieve the British troops in Tobruk, only the Australians. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Officiail History.

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