Monday, October 15, 2018

From 5 December 1941 with Rommel and events unfolding

The Italian High Command sent a staff officer to inform Rommel and General Bastico that supplies from 5 December 1941 to the end of the year would be very limited. The plan was to only send fuel, food, and medical supplies. Rommel only saw the officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Montezemolo a day later. Rommel, however, very likely had already been informed. Another major event was that Hitler was sending an "air fleet and defences" to the area to achieve air superiority and to protect shipping to North Africa. Rommel was thinking of a temporary withdrawal but with the prospect of a rebound in the new year.
Rommel then recalled the forces that had been sent to the frontier. They included the German Africa Corps and the Italian mechanized corps. The recall gave the 5th New Zealand Brigade a reprieve. The 90th Light Division was ordered back to the Ed Duda-Belhamed-Bir Salem area. The Italian Bologna Division was ordered to withdraw from the east during the night. Early on 5 December saw the two German armored divisions were in one case, three miles west of Ed Duda and the other was five miles west of El Adem.
By then, the German armor had been reduced to a total of fifty tanks. To take any action, they needed support from the Italian Ariete Division and Trieste Division. They were to move near Gubi and then attack British supply dumps. Rommel would have liked to move quickly, but the Italians were not able to respond very fast. Rommel lost patience and sent German divisions to El Gubi. In the process, they overran the 11th Indian Brigade. General Gott's usual operations allowed the 4th Amoured Brigade to leaguer 70 miles away, where they could rest undisturbed.
The XXX Corps attack on El Adem had to be postponed. The units in the vicinity of El Gubi were in a state of confusion. That applied to both German and British untis. They had been able to start to reorgamze the remnants of the 11th Indian Brigade, which was then withdrawn. The Germans followed them, moving towards the 2nd Guards Brigade. They were saved from being overrun when Rommel sent them a message ordering them to change over to a defensive posture. The British 4th Armoured Brigade was now close, northeast of El Gubi. They had set up a defensive position where they sat. They had an armored car screen out to provide warning. One thing that happened was that General Neumann-Silkow was fatally wounded. He had been the 15th Armored Division commander. The Germans and Italians were suffering under increased attack by British air and artillery.
Early on 7 December, General Ritchie had ordered XXX Corps to advance as soon as they could move. General Norrie should inform General Godwin-Austen of the plans. By now, General Gott was feeling cautious and told General Norrie that he thought that the Germans were firming up. General Norrie decided to sit still. Rommel was visiting the German Africa Corps headquarters early on 7 December. He told them that if they could not beat the British on the 7th, they would have to pull back to the Gazala area. Rommel did not make any plans to fight and instead, after dark, was going to pull back from the British and withdraw. Supply columns were actually withdrawn starting in the afternoon. As usual, at night on 7 to 8 December, the 4th Armoured Brigade set up a night leaguer southeast of El Gubi. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Major developments from 4-5 December 1941 near Tobruk

A plan was proposed for the 2/13th Battalion to send a patrol to Outpost Plonk. If the enemy withdrew, they would set up an observation post. Outpost Bondi (also called Queen) was planned to be raided by another battalion. The 2/13th Battalion commander, now Major Colvin, had plans to use carrier platoons to strengthen the force  Before anything could actually happen, the brigade commander canceled the operations at 7:30pm.
The situation was changing. For example, the enemy forces that had been attacking Ed Duda had withdrawn and the enemy defenses near Ed Duda were abandoned. Reports came in that indicated that there was major movement of enemy forces from the east heading west. Tobruk sent out a group with anti-tank guns and machine guns to the Trigh Capuzzo. They fired on enemy columns driving west. There was a bottleneck between Ed Duda and the "next escarpment". Approaching columns were engaged and the situation got very tense, such that enemy attempting to pass through were "thrown into confusion."
23rd Brigade took command of all forces at Ed Duda. They were talking about assembling a battle group during the night to be ready to move west towards El Adem. As darkness approached, a Polish anti-tank gun group arrived. They reported that many outposts had been abandoned by the enemy. The local commanders responded by sending out patrols to occupy the empty outposts. Another disruption of plans occurred when XIII Corps canceled the advance to El Adem. The enemy withdrawal had caused the XXX Corps attack to be canceled.
From the German perspective, we learn that by morning on 4 December 1941, the Germans were going to push the east and destroy the British forces on the Egyptian frontier. They were also going to attack Ed Duda. Almost immediately, the attack on Ed Duda ran into trouble. There were four battle groups attacking Ed Duda. Mickl Group attacked from the west. Engineers from the 200th and 900th Engineer Battalions attacked from the south. The 8th Machine Gun Battalion attacked from the southeast. 90th Light Division infantry attacked from the east. The attacks were not made in concert and the only gains at all were those from the 8th Machine Gun Battalion. While the attacks on Ed Duda happened a British Jock Column raided and captured anti-tank guns and made prisoners.
Events of 5 December 1941 were remarkable. On the morning of 5 December, Rommel hoped to break the extension from Tobruk to Ed Duda and then push to Sidi Omar. By evening, Rommel had abandoned those operations. He concentrated German and Italian armored forces to be ready to fight XXX Corps. He abandonded all the ground from Tobruk east to the Egyptian frontier. There were also no German-Italian forces left on the east side of Tobruk. Rommel sent his armored forces to a position near El Gubi. The motivation for the changes is unclear, but the suggestion was that Rommel had read an intercepted message from General Ritchie to General Norrie. There are no German records that mention the message, but Rommel's changes were made shortly after the message was sent.
During the afternoon, Rommel ordered artillery and other unis from east of Tobruk to withdraw. Rommel had learned about the 2nd South African Division arriving at the Egyptian frontier. The 4th Indian Division was on the move on the Trigh el Abd. But the question remains "why did Rommel lift the seige of Tobruk? This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Austrsalian Official History.

Monday, October 08, 2018

3 to 4 December 1941 and beyond

The enemy made a heavy and damaging attack on Ed Duda while the 2/13th Battalion were transported back to the Tobruk perimeter. The attack started at first light on 4 December 1941. They attacked from the west, south, and southeast. The 4/Border were initiated at Ed Duda, trying to hold a position that they had never seen in daylight. The 1/Essex were the recipients of the attack from the west side. Defensive fire and a mobile carrier force were able to break up the attack. The carriers were manned by New Zealand soldiers. The enemy then attacked Bir Belhamed against the 18th New Zealand Battalion were also repelled. The attack from the southeast succeeded in crossing the bypass road. A counterattack by the Essex with the help of a company from the 4/Border recovered the lost ground and were able to penetrate a thousand yards into the enemy positions. The counterattack had help from the 4 RTR. The enemy, however had brought forward 88mm which knocked out 15 Matilda tanks, a devastating loss. Heavy machine gun fire kept anyone from escaping from the tanks and pinned down the 4/Border Battalion. The enemy had succeeded in taking the ground.
The Germans appeared to be push from Belhamed along the ridge to join the group attacking the Borders. The Germans were firing mortars at the 18th New Zealand Battalion. Two tanks had come up to attack the battalion, but one was mined and the other knocked out by a gun. The Germans were unable to make a damaging attack.
General Godwin-Austen issued an "order of the day" in response to the attacks by the Germans. He told the men that they were fighting the battle that would result in retaking Cyrenaica. He said that the battle would be won by those that kept with the fight the longest. They needed to continue to hold Ed Duda, if it was possible. They would be fighting with the help of XXX Corps in the battle about to be fought.
When the 4/Border counterattacked, but were not able to deal with the enemy machine guns, a two battalion attack was planned. They hoped to recover the knocked out tanks. Because the 4/Border and the 18th New Zealand Battalion were cut off, communications were difficult. The 14th Brigade commander decided that the attack would not be needed and that patrols could do the job. By 8pm, the enemy was seen to be withdrawing. The men were able to start work to recover the knocked out tanks. By "first ligth" on 5 December, the enemy was gone and the enemy wounded were made prisoners. They had also captured the enemy 88mm guns that had been so effective against the infantry tanks.
5 December saw about two hours of heavy shelling against the Tobruk fortress. The 2/13th Battalion counted about 1500 to 1700 shells exploding. The 2/13th Battalion intelligence officer thought that this might be preparation for an attack against Bir el Azazi.
Late in the afternoon, the 1/Durham Light Infantry were ordered to move out at once. This seemed to involve an enemy withdrawal. They also thought that the battalion would be in a thrust to El Adem. Right after that, the 2/13th were ordered to attack Bir el Azazi. They had expected to have tanks halp them, but now there were none available.Artillery would fire on the eenemy positions and the guns that had fired on them that morning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Fighting at Bir el Gubi from 5 December 1941

General Norrie met with General Frank Messervy, the 4th Indian Division commander. General Messervy had only recently been intimately involved with fighting on the Egyptian frontier, so he was an expert on the topic. One of the 4th Indian Division brigades was now involved in the operations at Bir el Gubi. Once they had connected up, they drove to the 7th Armoured Division headquarters to talk with General Gott. Generals Norrie and Messervy were opposed to pulling back to the east. They were prepared to deal with any problems that they might encounter, because the benefits of keeping the infantry and artillery to the west were great. They had been ordered to send armor to the east, so they were ready to send the 4th Armoured Brigade to the Egyptian frontier area. They had decided to make another push to take Bir el Gubi at dawn on 5 December 1941.
During the early morning of 5 December 1941, General Ritchie had ordered that the enemy forces on the Egyptian frontier needed to be disposed of. The Australian historian had doubts that General Auchinleck had been aware of Ritchie's change of plan. By daylight on 5 December, the situation on the Eyptian frontier was in good shape. The commanders to the west pretty much ignored General Ritchie's latest change. The German armored force that had been a concern had already pulled back to the west.
By day on the 5th, General Auchinleck was feeling more confident and liked the use of Jock Columns to fight the enemy forces. Auchinleck thought that they had been an important factor in preventing the enemy from pushing more to the east. Being an old Indian Army soldier, he liked the 4th Indian Division leading the push against Bir el Gubi. The Italians, though, were able to beat back all the attacks against them. The British had indications that there was something happening at Hagfet en Nezha, "between El Adem and Bir el Gubi." General Norrie let General Gott know that he wanted the 4th Armoured Brigade to start driving toward El Adem in the morning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

1 to 5 December 1941 regarding plans and operations

General Norrie was able to return to his duties as XXX Corps commander, after having to command South African troops. He considered General Ritchie's proposal to attack El Adem. General Norrie was concerned that too few resources would be committed to such an operation (sort of like had happened at Sidi Rezegh). He received promises that there would be sufficient resources committed to such an attack. Given that assurance, General Norrie gave the 4th Armoured Brigade a day to rest and refit after a day near Tobruk. General Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander, had a plan for threatening the German-Italian flank. General Norrie canceled that plan and had everyone preparing for a push to El Adem. Norrie's plan included taking control of Bir el Gubi and then to attack El Adem from the south.
An Italian force was at Bir el Gubi. There was a battalion of "Fascist Youth" and an Italian reconnaissance unit. The reconnaissance unit had light tanks, medium tanks, and light artillery pieces. Prior to an attack at Bir el Gubi, forces were moved into position. The 11th Indian Btigade traveled to Bir Duedar, just to the south of Bir el Gubi. Some columns formed by the 1st South African Brigade were operating in the area. The 11th Indian Brigade was driven 47 miles at night to be in position for an attack on the west and southwest side. They had no opportunity for scouting, so they achieved mixed results. The 2/5th Mahratta took a strong point. The 2/Camerons were beaten back by the Italian battalion. The 4th Armoured Brigade fought with the Italian reconnaissance unit. The British had 98 of their 126 total tanks in the fight. The tank battle was fougth about three miles north of Bir el Gubi. They claimed to have destroyed 11 M13/40 tanks. Armored cars from the King's Dragoon Guards and South African units hit Axis supply dumps north and west of Bir el Gubi, and also fired on vehicle columns.
Later in the evening, they attacked the Italian battalion again and were again beaten off. Just to throw everyone off-stride, General Ritchie asked General Norrie to send tanks to counter enemy tanks that were advancing on the Egyptian frontier area. General Norrie complained about having to follow Rommel's every move, but he was ordered to pull the British armor back towards the frontier, seemingly abandoning the planned attack on El Adem. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Rommel's plan is executed from 3 December 1941

Rommel's two columns set out for the frontier area at dawn on 3 December 1941. They would face a reorganized British force there near the frontier. The 5th Indian Brigade and the 5th New Zealand Brigade were assigned to "masking" Bardia. The reorganization near Bardia happened on 1 and 2 December 1941. They had the 5th New Zealand Brigade in the north of Bardia and covering the coastal road.
Early on 3 December, a mixed column of New Zealand "cavalry and infantry saw the approaching German force commanded by Geissler. They notified the 5th New Zealand Brigade about the German force. About the same time, a column from the Central Indian Horse reported the approach of Knabe's force. Interestingly, Geissler's force attacked, being very confident, and were soundly defeated. A surviving company-sized remnant from the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion was gathered and were put into a blocking position. Knabe's group had a better outcome, but they were in a long-range duel with Goldforce and the 7th Support Group jock columns. Knabe was not confident enough that he could break off to help Geissler. That night, he was ordered to pull back to Gasr el Arid.
The New Zealand contribution to winning Operation Crusader needs to include their efforts to defeat Geissler's fighting force. We need to recognize the successes of the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison between 18 November and 4 December. They inflicted losses on the 15th and 21st Armored Divisions and the 90th Light Division. The German Africa Corps staff reacted by sending the remaining part of the 15th Armored Division to Gasr el Arid early in the morning. They were to join Knabe's force and the Ariete Division. They still kept back part of the 21st Armored Division artillery, the 8th Machine Gun Battalion, and an engineer unit. They were intended for use in an attack on Ed Duda. The column sent to join Knabe arrived, despite being bombed. They pushed farther east and caused Goldforce to have to withdraw. There was some concern that the Germans might destroy the 5th New Zealand Brigade in the north. The Germans in fact planned to attack that afternoon.
General Auchinleck was now with General Ritchie at 8th Army Headquarters. They warned the 2nd South African Division about the German sin the north. The 2nd South African Division had arrived at Sidi Omar at 9am that morning. General Norrie was ordered to withdraw the 4th Armoured Btigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Rommel's plan to send supplies to the troops on the border with Egypt showed the condition of the enemy forces. The columns sent to the east were small and did not contain any tanks. The tanks had to be grounded for maintenance. Monitoring the British communications indicated that they did not need to be concerned about a British tank attack. They thought that they might be free from tank attack until 3 December 1941. General Cruewell, the German Africa Corps commander, thought that they should send the entire force, minus tanks, rather than sending small detachments. Rommel disregarded General Cruewell's concerns and proceeded with the operation as he planned. The two forces heading to the east would include one traveling on the Via Balbia and the other on the Trigh Capuzzo. The northern group would include units from the 15th Armored Division. The force would be a battalion-sized all-arms group built around the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion. They had been recently engaged in capturing Belhamed. The southern group was drawn from the 21st Armored Division. The force was similar, except this group received three tanks. A regiment with extra troops was supposed to follow the two columns. The rest of the German Africa Corps was not involved since they were assigned to destroying the British forces at Ed Duda. The north and south columns assembled on 2 December and moved forward on 3 December. The force to attack Ed Duda was to have the army artillery assigned and would cooperate with the Italian XXI Corps.
British units on the Egyptian frontier were reorganized in early December  The 22nd New Zealand Battalion became the nucleus for a new 5th New Zealand Brigade. The purpose was to increase the fighting power available in the area to keep the enemy from sending supplies from the frontier to the units near Tobruk. This was a concern of General Ritchie, which was based on a misunderstanding of the situation. British forces "on the Bardia front" had reorganized on 1 and 2 December 1941. The 5th New Zealand Brigade would cover the northern part of the area. They had two battalions in a forward position and a third in reserve. The two forward battalions were deployed facing to the east. The New Zealand Cavalry was sent to patrol towards the west. A similar force in the south, named Goldforce, patrolled on the Trigh Capuzzo. Goldforce was a mixed unit of cavalry with men from the Central Indian Horse and the 31st Field Regiment. To the east of them was the 5th Indian Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Amazon Ad