Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The situation at Tobruk on 17 April 1941

One thing that happened after nightfall on 17 April 1941 was that the 2/48th Battalion brought in a German truck that had been hit by an anti-tank rifle. The truck had a trailer with a new type of anti-tank gun. We would suppose it was a 50mm PAK38 L60 gun. The gun was sent by air to "England", as the Australian historian wrote.

As a result of experience on 17 April, Australian engineers went out to check the minefield in front of the 2/48th Battalion, because they suspected that the Germans might have disabled mines. The effort was stopped by heavy mortar fire. At the wire, they then laid a new mine field and converted some of the existing mines to fire on contact, rather than under control.

Operations by the Ariete Division on 17 April had not gone well. The division was reduced to ten tanks of the one hundred with which they had started the campaign. They had the sort of losses that the 2nd Armoured Division had experienced. Worse yet, the Germans at one point mistook the Italian tanks for British and fired anti-tank guns at them. Rommel made the mistaken identification and ordered the German anti-tank guns to fire on them.

At this point, Rommel was feeling the effects of his extended lines of communication. On 17 April, Rommel had to have his supplies shipped by road from Tripoli. When they could get Benghazi back in operation as a port, they could cut the trip substantially.

Not only the supply situation, but the training and equipment of the Italian units led Rommel to suspend the attacks on Tobruk until he had accumulated greater strength. The current situation was such that he wanted more German forces prior to any further Tobruk attacks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The failed Italian attack on 16 and 17 April 1941

When Italian prisoners were questioned after they were captured, they told the Australians that they had expected to be supported by German tanks from the 5th Armored Regiment, but the German tanks did not appear. A German officer was attached to the attacking force to coordinate operations. Rommel apparently had ordered the armored battalion from the Ariete division to support the attacking infantry. The infantry pushed to the top of Hill 187 and stopped. They were shelled and then retreated to a wadi. The German staff officer described the Italian retreat as a "rout". He had several anti-tank guns and fired on a scout car and shot at Bren carriers. Afterwards, a senior Italian prisoner helped draft a flyer to be distributed to Italian troops the next day, encouraging then to surrender.

General Wavell, as out of touch as usual, sent a message urging an attack against the Germans at Salum. General Morshead declined to mount such an attack, as he was more concerned about defending the long perimeter at Tobruk.

important reinforcements arrived by ship on 16 April 1941. They were 12 infantry tanks manned by a squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. I think that the correct name of the unit is the 7th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, although the name given is what they were ultimately called.

Overnight on 16-17 April 1941, the enemy guns heavily shelled the Australians. That seemed to indicate another attack on the 17th. General Morshead ordered the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion to act as infantry in his reserve force. The pioneers had been engaged in constructing a second line of defense.

An attack was launched as expected. It fell on the 2/48th Battalion in the west. The enemy infantry had been mounted on vehicles, but they got off and attacked on foot. The attack had some tank support. The tanks seemed to have been mostly Italian light tanks. By about 1pm, the tanks broke through the wire. The tanks had been there to support infantry, but the infantry attack failed under heavy British artillery fire. Anti-tank guns fired on the tanks, which then drove into the reserve company. Seven British cruiser tanks arrived and knocked out some of the Italians. The tank attack then had failed and only one tank escaped back through the wire. The defenders had knocked out five tanks, one of which was a medium tank (M13/40?).

More tanks and infantry hesitated to attack and stayed just outside the wire. Later in the evening, cruiser tanks from the 1st RTR, fought some 12 enemy tanks in the south. They knocked out three tanks with no loss to themselves. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

More action on 16 April 1941

The enemy force in the east took a defensive posture. The troops were the Knabe Group along with the Italian Montemurro Unit. They British expected an attack on Halfaya, but it did not happen. British ships fired on Bardia and caused the town to be abandoned contrary to Rommel's orders. The British on the frontier were effectively bothering the force at Salum to the extent that the force was drawn down to a patrol.

The Headquarters in Cairo sent Morshead a message early on 16 April warning him that there was intelligence of an impending attack on Tobruk. In response, General Morshead put the forces in Tobruk on alert. One of the things done were patrols sent outside the wire, looking for any sign of an attack. There seemed to be nothing happening in the south or east. Only in the west were there signs of a pending attack. One Australian group attacked Italians in a wadi. One Italian was killed and the other 97 men surrendered. There were more encounters. The 2/24th Battalion took six officers and 57 men. Another group took a Breda machine gun and eight men. Carriers that were active saw a battalion from Acroma getting close. The battalion received fire from the 51st Field Regiment and scattered. There were twelve tanks behind the battalion. They also were fired on and dispersed. When attacked, the battalion surrendered and was brought through a gap in the wire as prisoners. The tanks seemed to fire on the Italian prisoners. The tanks also engaged the Australian Bren carriers. By the time the day ended, the Australians had taken 803 men prisoner. That included one German officer and 25 Italian officers. The battalion was the 1st Battalion 62nd Regiment from the Trento Division. While the Italians had expected to be supported by German tanks, the supporting tanks seem to have been six Italian M13/40 tanks and 12 light tanks from the Ariete Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tobruk's artillery in April 1941 and other developments

Both Tobruk artillery commanders in April 1941 were British brigadiers. Brigadier Thompson commanded the field and anti-tank guns. He believed that the field artillery needed to be ready to fill the anti-tank role, so the guns were sited accordingly. Tobruk had 48 25pdr guns, 12-18pdrs, and 12-4.5in howitzers. Two field regiments supported the 20th Brigade in the south of Tobruk. The other two brigades each were supported by a field regiment.

Brigadier Slater commanded the anti-aircraft guns at Tobruk. He had "24 heavy and 60 light guns". There were four captured Italian heavy anti-aircraft guns while 43 of the 60 light guns were captured Italian. Their main duties were to provide anti-aircraft support to the Tobruk port. This was important because Tobruk being isolated, depended on supplies brought by sea. The Naval Inshore Squadron was now based on Tobruk. The squadron had been created during the initial campaign against the Italians.

For better or worse, Tobruk had captured Churchill's attention after the battle of 13 and 14 April 1941. Churchill was filled with suggestions about what Tobruk's defenders should do.

Rommel had hoped to stage another attack on 15 April, but the mainly Italian attack force was broken up by artillery fire and they abandoned their start positions. The Australians mopped up some 33 men hiding in a wadi. In another fight, Australians captured an Italian officer and 74 men. At about 5:30pm, another Italian attack had penetrated the wire. They had cleaned up the breach by 6:15pm. They captured 113 men, including two officers, and estimated that they had killed 250 men with artillery and automatic weapon fire. The number killed was probably an overestimate, but the number was still large. Troop movements seemed to indicate an attack against the 20th Brigade, but the attack did not happen.

On the night of 15-16 April 1941, four British destroyers from Malta attacked an Italian convoy heading for Africa. Three destroyers and five merchant ships were all sunk. The cargo was motor transport and tanks from the 15th Armored Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Defending Tobruk from April 1941

General Morshead, the 9th Australian Division commander, was also the commander of Tobruk, after General Lavarack's departure on 14 April 1941. Before there were time to reorganize the men in Tobruk, there were about 35,700 men in Tobruk. Of that number, only about 24,000 were "combat troops". One of the first steps was to ship out unnecessary men and prisoners from the base area. Most of the 2nd Armoured Division were to be sent to Egypt.

The defense of Tobruk was based on aggessive principles. They would not allow any ground to be taken. They would patrol the no-mans-land at night. The defensive positions would be improved and increased in depth. They would keep reserves ready to counter-attack. They would build an inner defensive perimeter ("the Blue Line").

Only after General Lavarack left did the 18th Australian Brigade become under General Morshead's control. As soon as that happened, he had the 18th Brigade's engineers start work on the inner perimeter. As all this played out, General Morshead was constantly inspecting to be sure that his policies and plans were executed well.>/p>

General Morshead had his chief staff officer, Colonel Lloyd, the four Australian brigadiers, and two British artillery commanders. The 18th Btigade commander, Brigadier Wooten, was a professional soldier at the start of his career, when he had served at Gallipoli in the Great War. He left the service in 1923 and became a lawyer. He rejoined the army at the start of the second war. It was Brigadier Wooten who had captured Giarabub. The British artillery commanders, one for the field and anti-tank guns and one for the anti-aircraft guns were able men. The field artillery was sited so that it could be used for anti-tank fire. The defeat of the first German attack showed the wisdom of that policy. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 02, 2017

General Lavarack replaced by 14 April 1941

Major-General Lavarack was replaced after he had done well as commander of Cyrenaica Command. General Wavell had appointed him after Generals Neame and O'Connor had been captured in the wake of Rommel's attack. He had ended up withdrawing into Tobruk with the 9th Australian Division and had exercised command. In fact, General Lavarack was one of the most able Australian commanders in the war. He had been Chief of the General Staff at the start of the war, but had been out of the country at the time. When he returned, he found that he had been replaced. He also had the problem the General Blamey constantly worked to block any success for him. Blamey wanted to be the top Australian officer, and felt inferior to Lavarack, so he did everything he could to keep from being replaced by Lavarack.

After Wavell had decided to create the Western Desert Force, he appointed a British officer to command it, as it would have been extremely unusual not to have an Australian officer as the commander. As the situation subsequently played out, we would have to say that General Beresford-Peirse was an unfortunate choice. To General Wavell, he seemed a natural choice, because he had experience in the Western Desert. He was an artillery officer who was promoted to command the 4th Indian Division during Operation Compass, the campaign against Italy in 1940-1941. What he lacked was any experience with mechanized warfare. Part of the problem was that Winston Churchill was now involved in the Middle East situation and he took some extraordinary steps to affect the situation. At great risk, he shipped tanks to Egypt and then expected them to be immediately sent into battle. There was no consideration of the mechanical condition of the tanks that were shipped and the need for training on new equipment. Instead, Churchill pushed for immediate action and the tanks that were sent were largely squandered in the abortive Battleaxe, which had been preceded by Operation brevity. William Gott, the support group commander, was overly cautious and gave up most of the ground taken during Brevity. The next section we will cover will include the run up to and the execution of Operation Battleaxe. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The failed attack: Rommel's miscalculation

Rommel was in denial about the reasons for the failed attack on Tobruk on 13 and 14 April 1941. Rommel blamed the commanders of the 5th Light Division for the failure. He said that they had failed to concentrate their force at the break through point. He said that they should have concentrated, broken through, attacked along the flanks, and then penetrated in depth. He said that if they had, then the artillery and Ariete Division could have followed. Rommel thought that if they had done that, they could have taken Tobruk on 14 or 15 April. The tactics that Rommel had written about after the fact were what he used to successfully take Tobruk in 1942.

The Australian historian disagreed with Rommel and placed the blame on Rommel and his belief that simply by acting boldly, they could overpower a defense that had low morale. The commander of the 5th Light Division did not believe that Rommel's plan would be successful. In the end, the plan failed due to the good morale and hard-fighting of the Australian infantry, the ability of the artillery to stand up to tanks and defeat them, and the anti-tank guns being available to fight the tanks. There is a photograph of Australian infantry posing with a knocked-out German Pzkw-III tank armed with a 50mm L42 gun. The picture included the commander of the 2/17th Battalion.

The fight against the Germans on 13 and 14 April was the last for General Lavarack, because Cyrenaica Command was dissolved and absorbed into the Western Desert Force. General Lavarack was to resume his duties as commander of the 7th Australian Division. In order to see action in the war, General Lavarack had taken a reduction in rank from Lieutenant-General to Major General, and had ended up commanding the newest Australian Division, which had to give up the 18th Brigade. The other reason that Lavarack was not made the commander of the Western Desert Force was because he was an Australian, and the command belonged to the British, instead. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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