Thursday, May 25, 2017

Taking action on the Egyptian Frontier in May 1941

We know that General Wavell had lost the confidence of the Prime Minister after the fall of Greece and the siege of Tobruk. Chuchill had the advantage of not knowing much about what was happening in Libya and the rest of North Africa. He saw General Auchinleck as positive and taking action. HE saw Wavell as not doing those things. Eventually, Churcill replaced Wavell as theater comcander with General Auchinleck. The proposed British force consisted of four columns. There was the 7th Support Group Headquarters and four troops from the 12th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment (Australian).

The Germans were at this same time were making plans for defenses at Gazala. General von Paulus was the driving force behind this measure. The British were encouraged by reading this intercepted message. The German forces opposing the attack included the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, a Trento Division battalion, and a motorcycle battalion sent to Salum. The Germans made a move on 12 May, but pulled back to Salum on 13 May.

The Australians at Tobruk only received notification on 13 May in the forc of a letter. The letter arrived as there was a major relieving operation underway at Tobruk. There was action tnat involved carriers and cruiser tanks. The cruiser tanks had track defects that limited their participation. We saw action from the 3rd Armoured Brigade and artillery. Another infantry unit waited for tank support, and by doing so, lost artillery support that was timed. At 9pm, some success was achieved by killing a gun crew, attacked machine gun positions, and altogether had a successful patrol. Included in the bag was one tank destroyed. After 2am, the Germans brought forward two tanks. At about 2:30am, the Germans attacked the 18th Cavalry Regiment. The Indian regiment was able to repel the attack without losing any ground. Another attack was launched on Posts S15, S13, and S11. The towed flame-throwers were used in this attack. The attack had been contained by 3:30am.

A company in Posts S8, S9, and S10 was made by Germans. as well as Italians in Post S11. This was a case where the attackers used five tanks and more towed flame-throwers. Post S10 was taking fire from a bothersome anti-tank gun on the ridge near Post S7. There was close-in fighting. They called in fire from the 51st Field Regiment. Communications with Vincent's company were lost, an ominous sign. Usually, that meant that the unit had been overrun.

At the same time, the enemy attacked Forbe's Mound, located in the Salient. Four tanks moved forward towards the 2/9th Battalion. Two tanks were stopped by the wire, although they were subsequently towed away by the other two tanks. There was more tank activity, as further west, there were reports of five tanks looking for an opening. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The new phase at Tobruk in May 1941, and Operation Brevity

The "new phase" at Tobruk involved replacing the units in the salient captured by the enemy and a new an more aggressive posture. This would prove to be very hard on the Australian infantry, but it was what General Morshead thought was the most appropriate stance to take. The cost in casualties would be large, as they would be constantly probing and testing the enemy. The plan was to push ever more forward and to be on the move after dark, hoping to capture enemy outposts and more ground that had been lost. Brigsdier Wooten, commanding the 18th Brigade was to site his headquarters farther forward than anyone had previously done. Early on 14 May, he had been ordered to stage an operation that would give the impression that it was part of a larger attack. The reason being that the British had launched Operation Brevity on the Egyptian frontier.

Operation Brevity was planned by General Wavell, without prodding by Churchill in London. The Tiger Convoy was expected to arrive in Egypt about 12 May 1941. Once the Tiger tanks were unloaded, they expected some two weeks of work to ready them to equip units. The men in Egypt understood that, but Churchill really had no idea what was involved. He expected that they would unload the tanks and that they would be instantly ready for action. Wavell, though, was ahead of the game. He had some equipment and units that he could use immediately to strike at the enemy forces just to the west of the frontier. He knew that Rommel's forces were stretched thin. He would strike right away and try to push past Sollum and run up to Tobruk. That would enable the British forces to coordinate with the Australians in Tobruk. The flaw in the plan was that any chance of success was in hands of Brigadier Gott.

Rommel was an admirer of General Wavell. Rommel credited Wavell with a strategic judgment that could make forces available that could move despite any German and Italian possible moves. The Greek campaign was in the process of ending in a disastrous way. Many of the units evacuated from Greece were transported to the island of Crete in great disarray, as we have seen. The British fully anticipated that German airborne forces would attack Crete. Before the battle for Crete started, Churchill was boasting confidently of their ability to defeat and airborne attack. We have seen that the German airborne forces were unready for a real fight after landing from the air. What won the battle of Crete for the Germans was the airborne troops that were flown in by transport aircraft. They landed on beaches and in dry river beds. The Australian, New Zealand, and British forces in Crete were in great disarray and were unready for a serious fight. Still, if they only had to beat the German airborne forces, they could have done that much.

General Wavell was thinking about the situation in North Africa and the Levant, and he worried that the Vichy French in Syria and Lebanon might be a factor on the norther side of eastern Mediterranean. He asked what forces might be brought into Syria from Europe. The British had only a brigade of cavalry available to fight in Syria. Iraq was another concern, as a putsch by Rashid Ali, who was an Axis ally, had destabilized the situation in Iraq. There were many issues to concern General Wavell as theater commander. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bush artillery in the 24th Brigade at Tobruk in early May 1941 and air attacks

The Australians had been allowed to use captured Italian guns, unlike the British artillerymen. The 24th Brigade had two battalions, the 2/28th and the 2/43rd. The 2/28th Battalion had 11 guns that they used in the anti-tank role. Presumably, these were the Italian 47mm guns. By 1 May 1941, they had knocked out nine enemy vehicles. On 5 May 1941, the 2/43rd Battalion had nine Italian guns. They had field and medium guns from 75mm to 149mm. They called these captured guns "bush artillery". They had an advantage over the British field artillery units in that they had a virtually unlimited supply of captured ammunition at Tobruk. The guns often had problems, such as lacking sights, but some of these were solved either by cannibalizing or by stealing parts from the Italians during the night.

The guns were originally manned by whomever was available, but the Australians eventually were more careful about the crew compositions and they were often able to supply officers with some anti-tank or mortar experience to command the bush guns.

Over time, the enemy was less intent on land attacks against Tobruk. Instead, they concentrated on air attacks on ships and the harbor area. There were 734 sorties against Tobruk during May 1941. They forced the British to abandon using hospital ships to evacuate wounded. Instead, they had to use destroyers. The air attacks on ships caused the loss of a minesweeper on 6 May. Six days later, the gunboat Ladybird was sunk in the harbor.

At the end of April, all combat aircraft were withdrawn from Tobruk. The defenders of Tobruk desperately needed air reconnaissance to gather intelligence about the besieging forces, but there were simply not enough aircraft available to make risking them at Tobruk a possibility. After communicating with General Beirsford-Peirse, General Morshead wrote to General Blamey, the senior Australian officer in the Middle East. Morshead wrote that the sort of reconnaissance by Hurricanes that was available was very unsatisfactory. What they needed was photographic reconnaissance. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An active defense in early May 1941 at Tobruk

Once the situation at Tobruk had stabilized, General Morshead insisted that his brigades maintain active patrolling to control the "no-man's land" area between the Australians and the Germans and Italians. Over the entire perimeter, the units followed his policy. The western end of the perimeter was held by the Indians of the 18th Cavalry Regiment. They were the remnants of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. There were some sharp engagements that were triggered during the patrols.

A patrol from the 2/23rd Battalion set out on 10 May 1941, heading out from Post S13. They moved along the escarpment, south of the coastal road. They ran into a large group of Italians engaged in work. The Italians took many casualties and had 31 men taken prisoner by the Australians. The entire group were killed or captured.

Patrols from the 2/48th Battalion were involved with retrieving equipment from the abandoned 2/24th Battalion headquarters. The headquarters had been overrun during the initial German attack starting late on 30 April. One night, a patrol encountered a German patrol and killed them all. The 2/15th Battalion was also engaged in patrolling during the same period. Most nights, they were pushing into the enemy flank.

The 24th Brigade held the eastern part of the perimeter. The brigade sent two carrier raids from the 2/43rd Battalion and the 2/28th Battalion. They pushed to near the Bardia Road. Some carriers with the Army Service Corps also conducted carrier raids. The successes that were seen encouraged some more aggressive plans. They decided to use one troop of infantry tanks and two troops of cruiser tanks. They would also have two armored cars that would provide communications between the tanks and the infantry. They also would have seven carriers, a machine-gun platoon, some 3-inch mortars, "and a battery of field guns". They planned to attack on 13 May, just as the sky got light. The planning failed and nothing but confusion occurred. The enemy fired a flare with had been the signal agreed on for the infantry to withdraw. The infantry tanks started to recover, but they ran into anti-tank guns and two were disabled. The cruiser tanks pulled back. The main result of the operation was that the tank commanders lost confidence in their tanks and their ability to work with the infantry. Apparently, the Australians were operating Bren carriers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

After the counter-attack at Tobruk after 4 May 1941

We can only suppose that previous experiences fighting Italian troops at Tobruk had given General Morshead an unrealistic view of what his men could accomplish. The hastily prepared attack on the enemy troops by the 18th Brigade failed to recapture the lost ground due to the lack of preparation and the inadequate forces involved. The plan now was to move battalions so that the brigades had their assigned units rather than some ad hoc organization. During the night over 4 to 5 May 1941, the 2/48th Battalion was to replace the companies from the 2/10th Battalion. The 2/9th Battalion would now be part of the 20th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Murray. They would hold an area near the Bianca position, replacing two companies, one from the 2/10th Battalion and one from the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. The 2/10th Battalion was withdrawn from the line and moved into reserve near Pilastrino.

The rest of the 2/32nd Battalion arrived overnight on the destroyers Decoy and Defender. They had sailed from Mersa Matruh. One company from the battalion was already at Tobruk. Now, the entire battalion was present. The 2/32nd Battalion was added to the 18th Brigade under Brigadier Wooten. They were ordered to hold a position near the intersection of the Bardia and El Adem roads. The 2/9th Battalion commander realized that he could improve the defensive position by moving forward. The move was contested by machine gun fire and there were losses. A new artillery observation post was also established that was eventually called "Nixon's Post".

There was a new German attack early on 6 May 1941. At about 7:30am, there was a German attack on Post S9. Some casualties were taken, but British artillery fire stopped the attackers and they were forced to withdraw. The next move was by a force somewhat more than a company in strength. They were about 300 yards from the perimeter. Two hours of artillery fire caused the group to withdraw. After that, the Australians spent the time taking advantage of opportunities to move their line forward, even if by a few feet. Both sides engaged in these sort of operations and the strain on the men on both sides was great. Men would work all night on building defensive positions and then would not be able to sleep during the day. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Early on 4 May 1941 at Tobruk

Early on 4 May 1941 in Tobruk, one company of the 2/9th Battalion came up to Post R8. They wanted to continue the attack that had been started by a platoon commanded by Lieutenant Noyes. In the dark, they turned to the left and came upon Post R7. This area was held by Italian troops. The men attacked R7, killed most of the defenders, and took two prisoners. The loot included two 47mm anti-tank guns and "a heavy Breda machine-gun". A medium tank with two armored cars attacked R7 and forced the Australians to withdraw. The Australians had inflicted severe casualties on the Italians in this area, but the 2/9th Battalion had lost its cohesion and needed to organize the survivors. R8 was now held by 2/9th Battalion soldiers, but the rest of the battalion pulled back to Post R14. They hoped to attack posts R5 and R6 by 4:15am.

The problem with the attacks made during the night of 3 to 4 May 1941 was that units were being sent to perform operations that were beyond what was possible with their strengths. Still, the 18th Brigade battalions had achieved some positive results. They had lost ten men killed, 121 men wounded, and had 24 men missing. They had hit the enemy defenders hard and killed and wounded many men. The Australians could see ambulances retrieving dead and wounded men from the positions that had been recently assaulted. From the evening of 3 May to the evening of 4 May, we know that the German 15th Armored Division had ten men killed, 40 men wounded, and ten missing and possibly captured. The Italian Ariete Armored Division had lost 26 men killed, 65 men wounded, and 59 missing and possibly captured. The Italians that the 2/9th Battalion had fought may have been from the Ariete Division. They were in the area attacked by the 2/9th Battalion, so that is probably the case. The Germans were more likely to have been attacked by the 2/12th Battalion. The strong showing by the Australians kept Rommel from being able to strike to the east towards the Egyptian border. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The 18th Brigade counter-attack on 3 May 1941 at Tobruk

Rommel's forces had tried to attack on 2 May 1941, but were stopped. General Morshead then planned an attack to retake lost territory. The 18th Brigade, the reserve brigade, commanded by Brigadier Wooten, would conduct the assault using three battalions. The official history often discusses operations over a long period without actually mentioning the brigade number. We had been confused between the 20th Brigade and the 18th Brigade. What we now are saying is the correct name, the 18th Brigade. Artillery had been re-positioned in preparation. The battalions involved were the 2/12th Battalion on the right, the 2/9th Battalion on the left. The 2/10th Battalion was in the center. They hoped to push through to Ras Medauuar and retake the hill. There were about three artillery regiments operating in support of the infantry.

The plan included a moving artillery barrage that would precede the infantry. In addition to the infantry and field artillery, there were an anti-tank regiment, machine guns, "12 light tanks, and 7 infantry tanks". The attack would start at 7:33pm. The infantry started preparations later on 3 May. Eventually, the start time was moved to 8:45pm.

The enemy mounted an attack on post R10 with two companies. They were stopped by artillery fire. Another company tried to attack but was also stopped by artillery fire. A larger force assembled near Bianca, but was scattered by artillery, machine gun fire, and mortars from the 2/10th Battalion. The Australians could see enemy troops working to lift mines from field B1 during the morning.

The 20th Brigade attack commenced "in almost pitch darkness". The 2/12th Battalion, as it moved forward, almost immediately ran into machine gun fire from each side. A few men moved forward by infiltrating. The darkness caused men to lose track of their positions. The situation was disrupted to the point that they took 4-1/2 hours to reorganize. The 2/12th Battalion was stopped by the machine gun fire, the darkness, and the difficulty of getting artillery support.

One company of the 2/10th Battalion, to the left of the 2/12th, had some success and subsequently helped to organize A Company of the 2/12th Battalion and was able transport the wounded from that company.

Men from the 2/10th Battalion attacking German troops, including machine gun crews. They eventually were forced back by heavy fire.

The 2/9th Battalion attacked on the left. They were late to start, so there was artillery fire hitting the start position. There was a lot of confusion as well as a problem with machine gun fire from both flanks. The "machine-guns were also firing down the road". They used tracers so that was convenient for the attackers. One platoon attacked a position with some 80 men. They drove the enemy out and took the position. It was near Post R7. One company was able to get close to Post R7 and got into the ditch surrounding the post. The enemy lit two blankets on fire, which lit the scene when the Australians would have liked to hide. Three Italian light tanks drove up and were attacked with grenades. The tanks burnt and drew enemy fire. The men involved, from the remnants of one platoon, attacked enemy troops near Post R6 and then found Post R8, their target, and found it was not occupied. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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