Thursday, May 05, 2016

The situation deteriorates for the British on 3 April 1941 in Cyrenaica

Rommel received a message from General Gariboldi on 2 April 1941. The general had seen information that led him to correctly believe that Rommel was continuing to advance, despite that being contrary to his orders. Rommel was receiving reconnaissance reports about the British withdrawal, and he wanted to continue to push them. Early on 3 April 1941, the 6th RTR left Antelat in an odd direction, due to orders that they had received at 1am. They were now needed to move to Esc Sceleidima, where the escarpment is passable. They moved off to the southwest, and then returned to Antelat, now abandoned. They finally moved towards Esc Sceleidima, but were slowed by their M13/40 tanks continually overheating. After 8am, the rest of the 2nd Armoured Division moved towards Esc Sceleidima. The King's Dragoon Guards maintained scouts to the south. The 2nd Armoured Division had arrived at Esc Sceleidima by late morning. General Gambier-Parry held a conference for the division unit officers. They planned where units would be positioned. After the conference, they had a report from reconnaissance aircraft about a German column nearing Msus from Antelat. From this point, communications were less reliable and not all messages were received. Also the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters lost track of the division's units and they were headed for problems. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

More about the situation on 2 April 1941

As the Germans were advancing in early April 1941, the 9th Australian Division was lacking information. They were also not ready to fight. The right was held by the 26th Brigade, which only had the 2/24th Battalion. They had only obtained enough transport to move the 2/48th Battalion forward from Gazala. They arrived at Baracca at 5pm. By 3 April, they were ten miles from Tocra, near "an Italian settlement".

General Wavell felt compelled to visit Barce and the Cyrenaica Command headquarters. He was having one of those periodic exchanges with Churchill in London. Wavell had directed General Neame to keep his armor in being, even if that involved withdrawing from Benghazi. That got a negative response from the Prime Minister. Churchill had suggested bringing General O'Connor forward. In fact, Wavell decided to replace Neame with O'Connor. The situation was such that Neame being so far from the action, that he did not have effective control. One goal was to keep the 2nd Armoured Division concentrated, rather than to scatter the division. General Gambier-Parry was going to withdraw on El Ablar. The coast road had the disadvantage that the supply dump at Magrun was destroyed by the 2/3rd Australian Field Company. Neame was still in command and ordered demolitions at Benghazi in preparation for withdrawal. Demolition charges were exploded at Er Regima. They blew the minefield, as they expected, so they laid new anti-tank mines at the pass. On the morning of 3 April, Wavell and Neame met with General Morshead, of the 9th Australian Division, and passed on the news that O'Connor would arrive to take over Cyrenaica Command. O'Connor came by plane with Brigadier Combe. He landed at El Adem and sent word to the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade that they should be ready to send two regiments to Mechili. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tank fight in the afternoon of 2 April 1941

The 5th RTR was able to meet two trucks loaded with petrol. They were able to refuel from them. They were also able to make contact with the 3rd Armoured Brigade headquarters. They had nine tanks providing protection, and these saw enemy forces approaching with some 30 to 40 vehicles. They heard about the 3rd Hussars being in a fight and needing help. The battalion commander sent four tanks to support the 3rd Hussars. At the same time, the Tower Hamlets Rifles was being attacked with tanks. They were located to the west. British artillery fire allowed the Tower Hamlets to withdraw. German tanks got through the British guns, but did not pursue the withdrawing infantry. The nine tanks were now in a hull-down position behind a ridge. By 5:30pm on 2 April 1941, the 5th RTR was under attack by what proved to be the II/5th Armored Battalion (German). The 5th RTR now only had 14 tanks, after sending the four tanks to help the 3rd Hussars. In the tank battle, the British destroyed three German tanks, but lost five of their own. Another tank took damage, but was still operable. The German advance came with the sunset behind them. The 5th RTR was then able to withdraw back to the next ridge. The British were fortunate to have survived this battle, and the Germans were not very aggressive and could have destroyed the entire battalion. Upon hearing of this battle, General Gambier-Parry, the 2nd Armoured Division commander, ordered the division to move to Antelat. The move left the coast road to Benghazi without a blocker. Cyrenaica Command, commanding from the rear, was not aware of this situation. From 7pm until a 2am halt, the 5th RTR continued to withdraw. They were down to 12 tanks at that point. The rest of the division reached Antelat during the evening of 2 April, although the King's Dragoon Guards did not reach Antelat until 9am on 3 April. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rommel moves forward as the British withdraw in early April 1941

The British were withdrawing in the face of the German attack. The 2nd Support Group initially moved some 30 miles north of Agedabia. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was now east of Agedabia. They had two units forward. The 3rd Hussars were to the right while the 5th RTR was to the left. A squadron from the 6th RTR was guarding the rear of the 3rd Hussars. By 1pm, the 5th RTR could see German vehicles following them. The King's Dragoon Guards could see German armored cars moving towards Antelat. After seeing the British withdrawal, Rommel was compelled to take action. He ordered his division to attack Agedabia and take it. He also wanted the small port of Ez Zuetina. While the Germans were advancing, General Neame was trying to slow down the British withdrawal and stay in control. Neame was leaving the 2nd Armoured Division divided into two groups that were too far apart to support each other. General Gambier-Parry replied back to Neame that he should have the option to commit his armored brigade if an opportunity presented itself. General Neame was too far from events to know about what was happening. By now, the 3rd Armoured Brigade had only 22 cruiser tanks and 25 light tanks. The tanks were breaking down at a rate of about one per ten miles traveled. By 4pm, the 3rd Armoured Brigade was still moving back towards planned defensive position. The 5th RTR was slowed by having to stay with a composite battery from the 1st RHA, which could only move at 7 miles per hour. There was still a 6th RTR presence at Beda Fomm, where they had been waiting. They had about 40 Italian tanks. They were ordered to move forward to Antelat. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The withdrawal on 31 March to 1 April 1941

The plan had been for the 2nd Armoured Division to move to the east and set up a new defensive position. The division, however, was too slow to move. At this point, the Germans were not following, however. The 2nd Support Group occupied a new position astride the coast road about 30 miles past Mersa Brega. The position had a marsh on the right, so that provided some protection. The armored brigade was on the left. The 3rd Hussars, with some artillery, tried to provide some protection to the withdrawal. By the morning of 1 April, the 5th RTR was down to 23 tanks. The armor was on the desert track to the east of the coast road. The King's Dragoon Guards were positioned towards the desert to watch for any German forces. General Neame visited General Gambier-Parry at Maaten el Baghlia. He ordered the armored division to withdraw towards Benghazi. By early afternoon, the withdrawal was in progress. General Neame had already ordered the troops at Benghazi to prepare demolitions at the harbor and to be ready for a withdrawal. Near Msus, troops from the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade encountered German troops. At a distance, they saw some strange vehicles. They might have been the Free French, but then they were recognized as enemy. They headed off to escape, and had a pursuer for some thirty miles. The acting commander of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade sent out a group towards the reported enemy force, but did not hear any more for three days. By the start of 2 April, the support group saw German activity in front of them. They had carriers scouting. The Germans attacked with forty tanks with infantry. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Mersa Brega falls on 31 March 1941

The German main force was moving on Mersa Brega by early afternoon on 31 March 1941. Cemetery Hill was hit hard by German dive bombers. That was followed by an attack by tanks and trucks with infantry. The British 25pdr battery and anti-tank guns fired on them and forced them to pull back. The British commander wanted to chase them, but ran out of time when the next attack came. This time, the attackers were all tanks and came close, but could not get past a sand ridge that was close to the British. They were fired on by British guns. Some tanks were knocked out and others were bogged down in the sand. There were two more dive bomber attacks late in the afternoon. By 5:30pm, German artillery was firing on the British positions. Infantry and tanks were moving forward with Rommel on the scene, deciding to attack to "the north of the coast road". By 6pm, the Germans were successful. By 7pm, they were in Mersa Brega. The 2nd Support Group was forced to withdraw from the position. They moved back about 8 miles. They had mounted a counter-attack before withdrawing, and had some success, but lost eight carriers. The defenders of Mersa Brega had lost 55 men. There was now nothing to stop Rommel from reaching Benghazi or Tobruk. During the night, the 2nd Support Group had moved back to a position about 20 miles in front of Agedabia. They expected a battle there the next day. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The German attack on 31 March 1941

The plan for the 2nd Armoured Division was to withdraw if they were attacked by the Germans. There were armored cars from the King's Dragoon Guards accompanied by four tanks from the 5th Royal Tank Regiment. There were just four cruiser tanks. The 2nd Support Group was at Mersa Brega. They planned to use motorized infantry and carriers to conduct patrols in front of the salt marshes. The armored cars and tanks hoped to ambush German tanks. Instead, they saw a group of German tanks, exchanged fire, took damage on one tank. The Germans appeared to be ready to encircle the patrol. In fact, the German force was of all arms, with artillery and infantry, as well as tanks. The British retreated with German tanks in pursuit. They again exchanged fire near El Agheila, in the middle of the sand dunes. The Germans then headed south, leaving the British to withdraw. The armored cars stayed there in the sand dunes to continue to report on events. The Germans reached Mersa Brega by 7:45am. The men at Cemetery Hill saw Germans to the southwest. They saw five German tanks and two trucks. Infantry had gotten off the trucks. There were some twenty to thirty Germans. By 9am, men of the Tower Hamlets saw the large German force approaching Mersa Brega. By 9:30am, the Germans were advancing. The motorized infantry of the Support Group pulled back, but left carriers scouting in front. By 10am, the Germans brought up a gun, accompanied by four tanks. They commenced firing and the British carriers had to pull back. The British still had artillery observers on Cemetery Hill. They directed fire on the advancing Germans. One carrier platoon stayed near the hill to give support. By 10:30am, the Germans were moving on Cemetery Hill. The 104th RHA fired on the Germans. The men from the hill pulled back to a ridge that crossed the road. The carriers stayed near the hill. They actually fired on tanks at some 300 yards. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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