Thursday, May 24, 2018

The attack on Ed Duda on 21 November 1941

The original time to start the operation to take Ed Duda was set a 1pm. The time had to be postponed to 2:30pm because of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. Some of the brigade's tanks had become involved in a fight against a counter-attack and "mopping up" operations. Brigadier Willison, the brigade commander, then came back with a comment that he needed to have his attack be at the same time as a move by the South African brigade. Then, there was a surprise announcement by XXXth Corps right before 4pm that they would not be able to support the Ed Duda attack because of a tank "battle 16 miles to the south-east". General Scobie responded to that news by cancelling the Ed Duda operation.
The battle had gone well on 21 November 1941. The Tobruk force had driven through about three miles of the surrounding positions. The way now seemed open for the Tobruk forces to punch through the enemy positions to the "open desert". They had taken some five hundred German prisoners and 527 Italians. That had been achieved at high cost. The Black Watch, alone, had about 200 dead.
22 November started with a message from XXXth Corps saying that their force at Sidi Rezegh was under heavy attack. They asked for the attack on Ed Duda right away to draw off some of the attackers. They hoped for enemy tanks on the Trigh Capuzzo to be "shot up". The 70th Division plan only expected to attack Ed Duda when the enemy armor had been "reduced". The failure of the attack on Ed Duda could put Tobruk at risk.
General  Scobie came back with the reply that they would attack Ed Duda if that is what XXXth Corps wanted. He asked XXXth Corps for instructions. By afternoon, they told him not to attack and that their situation had improved.
The plan for Operation Crusader had the prerequisite for the Ed Duda that the enemy tank forces be defeated. In fact, the 7th Armoured Division seemed likely to be defeated. They expected to be finished off the next day ("executed").
When the 8th Army crossed the Egyptian-Libyan frontier at the beginning of the operation, the same storms that had flooded wadis in Tobruk had flooded airfields in the area. That kept German aircraft on the ground so that they did not observe the movements of the British units. The attacking British units had taken their "first objectives" without much resistance. The large operation had achieved total surprise, thanks to the weather. The British had hoped to cause the enemy to respond, but they enemy was unaware of what was happening. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Action near Tobruk on 21 and 22 November 1941

The 4th RTR formed up on the battlefield, ready to proceed, but they were blocked by minefields "north and west" of the Tiger outpost. The unit was told to create havoc on the battlefield, with the assistance A/E Battery guns. They had at least stunned the defenses and by 8:30am inside of Outpost Tiger. Outpost Tiger had been transformed into about one thousand yards of infantry positions, dug in "flush with the ground". Sadly, the Black Watch were not able to take advantage of the situation, as they were too spread out.
British sappers and the men of the King's Dragoon Guards were busy "clearing minefields". There was finally enough space cleared for C Squadron of the 4th RTR attack the defenses. B Squadron of the 4th RTR were able to push all the way through Tiger. The survivors of the Black  Watch, about 200 men, charged and took Tiger. They were taking heavy machine gun fire from Outpost Jack. Enough men with 4th RTR tanks were able to take Jack. To the south west, they hit the Lion Outpost with artillery fire and overran it with tanks, but did not try to capture the outpost. Captain Jones from the 104th RHA arrived at Jack to set up a artillery observation post. There were very few men left there. Captain Jones took charge of what was left. A reinforcing company arrived eventually.
When the enemy positions were searched, they found that Jack had been a German battalion headquarters and "communications center". The successful attack had disrupted Rommel's plan to attack the 7th Division in Tobruk. The enemy had been getting ready to attack Tobruk the next day. The attack had created a breach between the Africa zbV Division and the Italian Bologna Division. They found that Rommel had warned his men of a pending British attack. They suspected that Rommel's battlefield signals intelligence unit had found out about what was being planned by the British.
There had been another attack on the right against Outpost Tugun by the 2/Queens but they had been stopped, as they had insufficient strength. The 2/Queens was augmented by a company from the "Beds and Herts" and attempted another attack, supported by a 7th RTR squadron. They managed to take the eastern end of Tugun. They were not able to take the western end.
The Eighth Army issued a situation report at about 9am on 21 November. The report described the positions of the 4th Armoured Brigade and the 22nd Armoured Brigade. They were said to be following the "retreating enemy armored forces". They were moving to the northwest. The 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group were located at Sidi Rezegh, hoping to hit the retreating enemy. Later, XXXth Corps reported that the 5th South African Brigade. General Scobie, the 70th Division commander decided to attempt to capture Ed Duda. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Tobruk's sortie during Operation Crusader in November 1941

The sortie by Tobruk's garrison during Operation Crusader began early on 21 November 1941. The Polish brigade's attack followed the plan. They got the enemy's attention, although did not mislead anyone. They drew enemy fire, but not an extreme amount. The 23rd Brigade attack also followed the plan, but was not able to capture the outpost Plonk. They did create a stir and attract the enemy's attention.
The force from Tobruk was able to form-up successfully. The enemy did not interfere with the operation. The artillery firing and the demonstration by the 23rd Brigade created enough noise that the enemy was not able to hear the noise from the vehicles driving into position. The enemy had responded to the 23rd Brigade activities with counter-battery fire that helped to mask vehicle noise. The infantry would set off at about 6:30am. To the left, the enemy had occupied outpost Butch, so Butch would need to be "neutralized". For the sortieing force would pass Butch on the way to the Tiger outpost. The 2/King's Own was ordered to take Butch. The 2/Black Watch would attack Tiger after overrunning outpost Jill. On the left, the 2/Queen's would attack Tugun. This was "far on the left flank".
Artillery started firing at outpost Butch at 6:20am. The 2/King's Own only took ten minutes to capture outpost Butch. They were supported by nineteen Matilda tanks from the 7th RTR. They killed 30 Germans at Butch and took ten prisoners. The British had expected that Butch would be near the boundary between two Italian divisions and would be backed by a few "strong points". In fact, the area was a defended position held by German infantry. They had apparently only moved into the area about six days before being attacked. The captors found documents describing a system of defensive positions with code names that were concealed. There were minefields that had no markings. There were enemy positions north of Butch which were not attacked for a number of days.
The Black Watch attackers moved forward at 6:30am. They were to take heavy casualties, as they lost half of their men. They were not accompanied by any tanks. The only tanks nearby were a "squadron of cruisers" which were being saved for later. They found that they took longer to pass over the bridges across the anti-tank ditch. The infantry commanders had decided to conduct their assault without tanks, as they wanted to take advantage of the artillery supporting fire that would be fired on a timed schedule.
The attack did not go as planned, although brave soldiers led by good men did the best that could be done. The plan assumed that Jill could be easily overrun, but Jill was actually strongly held. The men of the Black Watch tried to move forward, but were shot. The Matilda tanks and a company of the 2/King's Own eventually arrived and that allowed them to overrun outpost Jill. The Black Watch had lost a company in the process of attacking Jill. That left them without the force needed to attack outpost Tiger. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The planned sortie from Tobruk during Operation Crusader in November 1941

For Operation Battleaxe, General Morshead and Brigadier Wooten, the 18th Australian Brigade commander, had planned a sortie that resembled what was planned for Crusader. The objective for the sortie was Ed Duda. General Cunningham spoke with General Scobie and Brigadier Martin at a meeting in mid-October 1941. General Scobie was still on his way to Tobruk at the time to take command. He promised the South African General Brink that he would provide a squadron of cruiser tanks when they moved to meet them in Ed Duda. General Scobie had no way of knowing that the cruiser tanks in Tobruk were in bad mechanical condition. What happened was that only eight of the cruiser tanks were runners as of the end of the first day of the sortie from Tobruk.
The Australian historian said of the sortie plan that "it worked". Some plan features were unfortunate. They were planning to send their tanks off along with artillery so far away that the Tobruk garrison would not be able to support them. Another unfortunate choice was to promise a corridor with vulnerable flanks that would be held. They would be forced to conduct operations to hold the flanks.
The planners assumed that they would be unable to surprise the enemy. A feature of the supporting operations that were proposed was that they would succeed in alerting the enemy at various points about the fortress perimeter. The sortie would first break through the enemy defensive line and occupy captured positions. That would be followed by combined arms of tanks and infantry to push out to Ed Duda and take that feature. The tanks would lead the column in the attack.
The details were that the initial objective, a location named Tiger, was 2-1/2 miles out from Tobruk. The mechanized force was such that they would use eight bridges to cross the anti-tank ditch at night. The force would deploy in "No-Man's Land". Before they could attack Tiger, they had to overcome outposts "Butch, Jill, Tugun, Lion, Cub, and Jack". They had to at least "neutralize" "Tugun, Lion, Cub and Jack". If they could accomplish all that, they would still have to drive another five miles to reach Ed Dudaa.
The first move would be taken by the Polish Brigade at about 3am. They would mount raids with artillery bombardment. The Australians of the 2/13th Battalion would join the operation with a patrol. They would act as if they were going to attack an Italian defensive position "Twin Pimples". Two Polish battalions would move out to the left of the Australians. The 23rd Brigade would create a diversion near the road block at El Adem. This was all starting early on 21 November 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The operation to relieve Tobruk gradually progressed from 18 November 1941

We learn that the Eighth Army movement forward built confidence in the men that their force was strong and could beat the enemy. The men were isolated and without information about the attack progress. All they would hear were rumors. They would occasionally be in a fight with the enemy, but they lacked knowledge about the larger picture.
The men in Tobruk were especially isolated. Their impression was that the operation was behind schedule and that there was a great deal of confusion. All the men knew was their own situation, without knowing anything about what the grand design included. They thought that they knew about a proposed connection with the relief force at Ed Duda. That seemed like a main objective, so that when they received news about developments, they had trouble making sense of what they heard or read.
Tobruk got the "Tug" code word on both 18 and 19 November. "Tug" meant that they were not to attack. The 2/13th Battalion only received some news about the battle late on 19 November. The information that they did receive was old, since the date was from 10:45am on 18 November. The information was useless, because the location of British tanks was wrong. There were still no British tanks anywhere near Ed Duda, at least not within 30 miles.
Early on 20 November, they received a message about British tank locations early on 19 November. The 7th Armoured Brigade was moving to Sidi Rezegh. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was moving towards Bir el Gubi. The 4th Armoured Brigade, equipped with Stuart tanks, fought a battle with sixty enemy tanks and had driven then to the north. The men in Tobruk had expected that the South Africans would take Sidi Rezegh, but they were reported to be at Ed Gubi, very far to the south. The men in Tobruk saw forty British fighters fly over. The diarist from the 104th RHA wrote that he had not seen anything like it before. Somewhat later, the men in Tobruk could see the flashes of guns firing and tracers into the sky from near Sidi Rezegh. They men also heard about a large tank battle the previous day where the British had knocked out 27 enemy tanks for the loss of 20 of their own. The men knew that there were units from the frontier close to the Tobruk perimeter. The attackers seemed to be achieving what was desired.
The next thing that the men in Tobruk learned was that the "Pop" code word was finally issued by XXXth Corps. They would sortie from Tobruk the next morning. More detailed instructions were issued by telephone from the Tobruk phone network. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 07, 2018

No information for Tobruk from 15 November 1941 onwards for some days

From the afternoon of 15 November 1941, Tobruk was informed that there seemed to be a danger from an enemy attack on Tobruk at "the western beaches". They also heard that the attack could include an attack by paratroopers. The Polish chief of staff notified the 2/13th commander about the possible attack. The 2/13th Battalion would be supported by the 1st RHA, which had received more vehicles so that the regiment was very mobile. The 2/13th were "stood to arms" from dusk. They sent patrols along the beaches and "the headlands". In the event of an attack, they would send a code word and one company would be in position to block any advance into the fortress.
In the event, nothing happened. They were not even told of how the British operation was faring. The next night, the 2/13th Battalion again were prepared for action. This night, the 1st RHA was pulled back to support a sortie from Tobruk. The only noteworthy thing that night were rain showers.
The 2/13th Battalion again was ordered to guard the beaches during the night of 17-18 November. The Australians were still without any word as to the British attack or any German "combined operation". The lack of information about how the Crusader Operation was progressing seemed all too much like what had happened during Operation Battleaxe, which had eventually failed. They could only speculate as to what was happening in the absence of messages.
The summer had been rain-free at Tobruk, but so far after 15 November, the skies were cloudy with some showers and lightning. There was sufficient rain that anything dug into the ground was soon filled with water. The defenses were not designed to deal with water. The men from the 2/13th Battalion at the Wadi Schel pumping station made a quick withdrawal. The men were in carriers and their withdrawal was not what was planned. The rain triggered flares and rockets. By morning, there were Australians on the enemy side of the Wadi Schel, where they were waiting for the rain water to drain.
By morning, men on both sides stood around in groups, driven from their positions by rain water. Only in the Salient did the Poles set up machine guns and start firing at the enemy. The enemy raised white flags, asking for the firing to stop. When the firing ceased, the work started to remove water and dry their clothes. The enemy soldiers set fires in their improvised blanket tents. The Polish soldiers stopped firing and the Australians started brewing tea. The ceasefire allowed officers from the RHA to visit the Salient area to observe the enemy positions. The 17th was the Operation Crusader delayed start. In the Polish brigade, they noted that 18 November 1941 was a day of not action on either side. By the night, the situation changed back to normal. That mean that they now shot to kill, their "old habits". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

The run-up to the battle in November 1941 near Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier

In November 1941, the Axis supply situation for Rommel's army was getting worse. Despite this, Rommel was determined to mount an attack on Tobruk. Rommel felt that he could attack in three days. Intelligence kept him informed about the British increase in forces that was occurring. Rommel thought that if they could take Tobruk in three days, the British would not be able to counter-attack from Egypt.
The British planned to launch their offensive at almost the same date as when Rommel planned his attack. In early November, he had planned to attack on November 15, the same date that Crusader was scheduled to start. Rommel's Qusrtermaster-General sent a report to Rommel saying that they had enough supplies to attack Tobruk, but not to advance further east. British surface forces had destroyed a convoy on 9 November.
The German intelligence staff at headquarters reported the same as Rommel's intelligence staff that the British were not going to attack soon. The Italian commander, General Bastico, had intelligence information that the British were about to attack. This was the correct information. The Italians thought that the British would attack when Rommel's army was busy attacking Tobruk.
Rommel attended a meeting in Rome where he was authorized to mount the attack on Tobruk. Rommel won his point by engaging in a shouting match with his detractors, which may have been his usual style of operation. They set the date for Rommel's attack as 21 November. Coincidentally, the British attack was also postponed. The South African commander disliked the low priority given training. He insisted on more time to train his soldiers. General Brink asked for a postponement to 21 November, but the date was only changed to 18 November. That way, the British attack would start prior to Rommel's planned attack date.
Forces in Tobruk did not learn about the postponement from 15 November 10 18 November. They were to be ready to move out from Tobruk early on the day when the operation would commence. The plan, over-optimistic as it was, expected that British armor would defeat the German armor in the first day. 30 October was significant because Tobruk would come under 8th Army command on that date. Once the operation started, they would report to XXX  Corps. The corps would issue a code word to indicate that the sortie from Tobruk should start. At 6pm, the night before, XXX Corps would send a code word to the headquarters at Tobruk. "Tug" would indicate that they should not attack the next day. "Pop" would indicate that they should attack the next morning.
When the fortress troops were ordered to attack, some troops would "either fight or feint". The men in Tobruk had a practice held on 13 November. The infantry saw the tanks that would support them during the real attack. The fortress commander addressed the troops and told them that they would only attack when the British armor had beaten the German armor. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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