Thursday, October 12, 2017

Axis plans and further developments in July to August 1941

By August 1941, the German High Command for Armored Forces set priorities for the rest of 1941. They hoped to add strength to the army in North Africa. The goal was to capture Tobruk. The discussion did not really acknowledge the issue of the Royal Navy's role in interdicting Axis shipping. That factor was the major reason for a two month lag for reinforcing Rommel's forces.
In July, Rommel had his vision for an attack on Tobruk. His plan had some preliminary moves that could be made without having any strength added. The road junction that would eventually become prominent as King's Cross would be the target. The attackers would congregate to the south of Tobruk. They would move out from an area near the target. The Australians had established posts near the area, so they would be the first things to be cleared.
In late July, the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion had two posts that they had inherited from the 2/23rd Battalion. Outpost "Normie" was attacked several hours after midnight on 26 July. The attackers had been an Italian patrol of a dozen or so men. Two days later, Normie was shelled and the post had to be abandoned. This happened at abour 9pm. A group with two officers and 21 men set out to recapture the Normie post. The enemy troops started firing at the Australians when they were about 200 yards from the post.  The Australian group moved to outflank the post. The enemy soldiers responded by shooting up flares. They also called in artillery on the attacking Australians. The Australians charged the post and the enemy troops ran. The men found an Italian machine gun, some rifles and grenades. The troops that fled seem to have been Italians.
Post Normie was attacked another time on 30 July. The attack was in the afternoon, so they were able to call in defensive fire from the 104th RHA. The battalion commander sent out two carriers carrying ten men. The attacking force, again which seem to have been Italians, were scattered. After failing with the posts near the Pioneers, the enemy moved to the 2/23rd Battalion area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The New Axis Organization in July and August 1941

A new assessment of British tank losses in Battleaxe gave some additional prestige to Rommel. The Italian general Cavallero recommended that Rommel be in charge of a new, single headquarters in North Africa. This was supported by Hitler, and General Halder had to agree.
General Halder requested Rommel to submit his plan for an attack on Tobruk. General Halder wanted to keep one armored division on the Egyptian frontier and not involved with attacking Tobruk. He also warned Rommel not to expect further reinforcements. General Halder was still determined to keep the North Africa force from growing. Rommel did not agree with the condition, since he wanted to concentrate all his forces for the attack, which makes good sense., He had already given his plan on 15 July 1941 which used the 15th Armored Division and part of the 5th Light Division, his two armored divisions. Rommel wanted to use the captured  British infantry tanks to lead the attack and they would push through to the port and harbor area. Rommel had a schedule to meet, since he wanted to take Tobruk in September and then attack Egypt in October.
Rommel attended meetings in both Italy and Germany to discuss the new organization. They suggested Panzergruppe "Rommel", but settled on Panzergruppe "Africa". The Italian officer was still commander-in-chief of forces in North Africa. General Bastico was the new Italian commander as of 23 July 1941. General Bastico had command of the Italian corp with the Ariete Division and the Trieste Motorized Division. Rommel commanded all other German and Italian forces in North Africa under the Panzergruppe Africa. The German forces were included in the German Africa Corps while the Italians were in the XXI Corps. The hope was that the German Africa Corps would have the two armored divisions along with two infantry divisions. They would have what would become the 90th Light Division as well as having the Italian Savona Division. The Italian corps would have four infantry divisions, of which three were already in place. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Plans for North Africa for the fall of 1941

Operation Battleaxe was a dividing point for both sides in North Africa in mid-1941. The British had hastily mounted an operation that failed. The Axis forces had successfully repelled the attack. The Australians at Tobruk were intent on strengthening their positions. The Axis forces were also working to hold on to what they had.
The Germans had politics to deal with. There was a faction that was intent on controlling Rommel and keeping him from straining the supply system. A competing faction was counting on Rommel being able to beat the British forces and move east. General Halder, the German Army Chief of Staff, was the leader of the faction that was trying to keep Rommel in check. Their plan was to appoint General Gause as "German Liaison Officer at the Italian Headquarters in North Africa." General Gause actually arrived  on 10 June, but found he was not welcome, because General Garibaldi saw him as a threat to his authority. Garibaldi could have seen General Gause as a check on Rommel and welcomed him, but that did not happen. Rommel was unhappy with the appointment and complained to Field Marshal Brauchitsch.
The politics of the situation liked what Rommel had been able to accomplish and wanted him to do more of the same. They cared not about General Halder's and Field Marshal Brauchitsch's concerns. They had a problem in that Field Marshal Keitel was moving to help Rommel. Part of the dynamics were that the faction which wanted to limit Rommel was also afraid that Hitler was committing Germany to more than was reasonable. Keitel was intent on doing what Hitler wanted and he wanted Rommel to do more of what he had already done. He should defeat the British in battle and move into Egypt.
Already, Field Marshal Keitel was consulting with the Italian Chief of Staff about a planned offensive in the fall to attack Egypt. They would use two German armored divisions and two Italian. They also would have three motorized divisions. More Germans would be sent, so the initial elements of what would become the 90th Light Division were sent by ship to Libya in June 1941.
Right after General Gause arrived at the Italian headquarters, Hitler had sent a plan for what he wanted to do after Russia capitulated. He hoped to attack the Middle East from the east, west, and north. They would move through Turkey, from Libya to Egypt, and into the Levant from the Caucasus. Hitler called this "Plan Orient". Two first steps would include taking Gibraltar and Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Investigating after the attack on 3 August 1941

One important question that lingered after the fighting on 2 August to 3 August 1941 was who occupied Post S7? There was an interlude in the morning, as both sides operated under the Geneva Convention to recover dead and wounded men near Post R7. Sergeant Tuie supervised the Australian operation. He set out at about 7am. The process continued through the day. The Germans were very helpful to the Australians and let them approach their positions. They also deactivated mine fields. They even gave Sergeant Tuit a drink. He succeeded in retrieving 28 dead and five wounded men.
At Post S7, there was no contact. The post was kept under fire and no one could get close during the day. The post seemed to be under enemy control, but Colonel Lloyd wanted to be sure as to the status. He ordered two patrols to go out at dark. One would check Post S6 and the other would check Post S7. The patrols were sent out at 9:45pm. If S7 were still in Australian hands, they would send out reinforcements. At 10 minute before 10pm, Captain Conway at Post S7 called for defensive fire. His signal was misunderstood and nothing happened. Captain Conway had sent a message out from earlier in the evening. Some men were sent out to help, but were not able to advance. A patrol from the water tower reported hearing Australians talking in Post S7. At 1:25am, Colonel Lloyd heard that the post seemed to be in the possession of the enemy. They eventually saw a green flare fired by the Germans from Post S7. That told the Australians that the post had fallen. It turns out that Captain Conway had run out of ammunition and had surrendered a little before 11pm.
At this point, the process of relieving units from the Salient was started. The 24th Brigade was relieved and was put into reserve. They were replaced by the 18th Brigade during 4 to 7 August. On 8 August, the 2/48th Battalion moved into reserve. That left three battalions up front. They were the 2/12th, the 2/10th, and the 2/9th. The 2/48th Battalion subsequently left the salient for the eastern sector while the 2/24th Battalion moved to the Salient. The engineers were also changed out. The 2/13th Field Company changed places with the 2/4th Field Company on 12 August. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

After the failed attack on 3 August 1941

Plans had been made based on the attacks succeeding, early on 3 August 1941. The initial impression was that both attacks had failed, When Captain Conway went forward to Post S7, he found his men had taken the post. He fired the signal for success, which now created some confusion. The truth was that there were only some nine men in condition to fight at Post S7. The enemy had now laid smoke to obscure the situation from view.
The Germans attacked the post at dawn. They were firing machine guns at the place and cutting the sandbags, which drained sand down onto the Bren gun. Miraculously, the Australians succeeded in repelling the attack. They permitted the Germans to collect their wounded from the attack. Commanders outside the area could not see past the smoke and dust. They had the impression that the enemy had retaken Post S7 after it had been taken. The brigade and battalion commander had the impression that the attack in the north had failed to take post S6 and had failed to hold onto S7 after it was initially taken. In the north, the 2/32nd Battalion had orders to send a company to provide the force to continue fighting, if the situation warranted.
In the south, the enemy seemed to have been warned before the attack. The artillery fire in support brought out an immediate enemy artillery response. The force that would have attacked was hit by the enemy fire and took casualties. The wire was blown with the bangalore torpedoes, but the bridges for the anti-tank ditch were broken and the men carrying them were wounded. There was heavy high explosive shell fire, but the men moved forward. More casualties were taken from grenades and booby traps. The key leaders were often wounded during the process. One of the platoons went too far and ended up attacking from the north side. Of the various sections, one was decimated by mortar bombs. Two kept moving forward, but they encountered a mine field backed by the anti-tank ditch. They lacked the bridges, so that was a problem. Only three men survived from Warrent Officer Quinn's platoon.
After twenty minutes had passed after the initial attack, another platoon was sent forward. They had a similar experience to Warrent Officer Quinn's platoon. They reached the ditch, but had only seven men left.
The men withdrew after it was realized that there was no point in continuing. Captain McCarter was wounded, but he directed the withdrawal. They had carried out many of the wounded men. Of the 4 officers and 139 men in the attack, they had 4 officers and 97 men killed or wounded. The actual dead included 29 infantrymen. The next morning, under the Geneva convention, the Australians were allowed to go in and bring out wounded and dead. The Germans deactivated minefields so that the work could proceed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The big attack in the Salient at Tobruk on 3 August 1941

We already had some idea that this attack would be challenging. The major sticking points were the reduced force being used and the greatly improved enemy defensive positions. Lt-Col.Lloyd's battalion had substantial artillery support. The support included most of the 51st Field Regiment along with a battery from the 107th RHA and "three troops of the 2/12th Field Regiment". The 2/43rd Battalion also had support from bits and pieces of artillery units. There was the usual unified command of counter-battery fire. There was also machine gun support drawn from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
The start time for the attack was 3:30am on 3 August 1941. Preparations had started "during the middle of the night". There were sappers involved along with intelligence people to lay the start lines. One platoon moved forward at about 2:30am, followed by the rest after another 15 minutes. The moon had been out, but it set while the men were moving forward. About sixty guns commenced firing five minutes before the start time. That triggered fire from the enemy troops on the attackers. Most of the initial attackers were lost, with a few reached the top, but were almost all wounded. The sappers moved up and blew the wire with bangalore torpedoes. They had brought bridges which they placed across the anti-tank ditch. A few Australians made it to the post and killed four Germans and took six others prisoner. They were not able to fire the Very signal because the sack with it had been shot off.
They tried to send someone to tell Captain Conway, but they did not reach him. The attackers were in bad shape. A sapper arrived to help, but he found only about five men left who could still fight. The attack on Post S7 almost succeeded, but they lacked sufficient force and depending on Very lights for signalling did not work out well.
The attack on Post S6 did not go as well as the attack on S7. The attacking platoon got to the escarpment, but most of the platoon were lost to defensive fire. A supporting platoon took the weapons pits and sangers by the water tower. The engineers who were to blow the wire were all shot. The attacking platoon leader, Lieutenant Head, triggered a booby-trap and was wounded. Lt. Head now only had eight other men with him. There was little point in continuing the attack. Lt. Head took his man  back out of the area. Colonel Lloyd had been waiting for the signal that they attacks had succeeded. He didn't see them and concluded that the attacks had failed. So that had failed to take Post S6 and had retaken and then lost Post S7. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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.

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