Thursday, September 22, 2016

Events continued to progress at Mechili on 7 April 1941

While Rommel had talked about attacking Mechili on 6 and 7 April 1941, by late on 7 April, he had not actually done anything. There were some movements, such as the Italians attacking the 2nd Lancers unsuccessfully. The two captured Italian 47mm anti-tank guns were used to fire at some enemy troops. That drew some artillery fire for a half and hour. One squadron of the 18th Cavalry Regiment arrived. They had exchanged fire with what must have been some German armored cars during their trip. Later on 7 April, Rommel made an another demand that the garrison at Mechili surrender, but they refused. After that, artillery commenced to fire at Mechili. For about an hour, they also took machine gun fire, but without any particular effect. A regular patrol from the 2nd Lancers was forced back into Mechili by German armored cars. Eventually, they withdrew, which allowed the 2nd Lancers to return to their accustomed position. Rommel was waiting all day long on 7 April for Olbrich to arrive from Msus. Rommel often used a Fiesler Storch for his personal reconnaissance missions. He did so late on 7 April, looking for Olbrich. Olbrich turned out to still be 30 miles away. More units had been straggling into the Mechili area, including some of the Italian Ariete Armored Division. By dark, a large part of the 5th Light Division arrived. Rommel now felt strong enough to attack in the morning.

The British were burdened with Michael Gambier-Parry as the commander at Mechili. He had been waiting in vain for reinforcements. Remember that he had arrived without any fighting forces, when he assumed command of the garrison. General Gambier-Parry had received orders to break out from Cyrenaica Command. He passed that news on to Brigadier Vaughan of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. They were to break out from Mechili in the morning. They should move at "daylight". The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was ordered to head for El Adem. They were also to provide protection to the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters unit. The plan was for the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade to move as a box. The breakout was planned for 6:15am, while the sky was still dark. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Back to Mechili late on 6 April 1941

Major-General Gambier-Parry only arrived at Mechili late on 6 April 1941. We are going back in time to see the end at Mechili. General Gambier-Parry held a meeting when he arrived to announce that he was taking command at Mechili. The commander of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, Brigadier Vaughan tried to tell Gambier-Parry that they were still relatively safe because the Germans lacked sufficient force to attack. The Germans were calling on them to surrender, but Brigadier Vaughan thought that they were trying to get access to the water at Mechili without having to fight. General Gambier-Parry only brought one battery of the 3rd RHA and had no other combatants with him. He thought that the rest of the 2nd Armoured Division would arrive late on 7 April. The British garrison at Mechili could see and enemy force go into a leaguer to the east during the afternoon on 6 April.

At this point, Rommel realized that he did not have enough force to attack Mechili early on 7 April. He would have to wait until more units arrived.

Meanwhile, the Indian brigade and the 10th Battery decided to raid the enemy leaguer early on 7 April. One troop of Indian cavalry with the guns attempted an attack on the enemy, although they were unsuccessful. They did verify that the enemy were Germans and were alert. One gone was lost in the attempt. A enemy gun battery started firing around 11am. A warrant officer took a machine gun out to try and capture the guns, but they could not get close enough under cover to attack. They continued to take hits from the guns. Eventually, the Germans demanded that they surrender, which they refused to do. They finally got in radio contact with Cyrenaica Command. They were told that they could withdraw if they were surrounded. Later on 7 April, some Italians made a feeble attempt at an attack. They hit and Italian truck and took a second 47mm anti-tank gun. Now, they had a "section". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Later on 8 April 1941 after the actions at Derna

After leaving the Derna area, the 9th Australian Division occupied a position near Acroma. This was late in the afternoon of 8 April 1941. The 26th Brigade traveled from Tmimi to the Acroma area. Some of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the 51st Field Regiment acted as a rearguard for the brigade. In the process of moving, the 26th Brigade passed through the lines of the 20th Brigade near Gazala. Once they had completed their passage, the 20th Brigade was to move east from Gazala. The fact that the men of 20th Brigade had largely gone without sleep for 48 hours, if you can imagine it, that alone complicated the 20th Brigade movement. One of the 20th Brigade battalions had a diarist who noted that the drivers tended to fall asleep every time they stopped moving.

As the 9th Australian Division reached Acroma, they deployed with the 26th Brigade on the right, facing west, and with the 20th Brigade on the left. At this point, the 26th Brigade only had two battalions, the 2/13th and 2/48th. The 20th Brigade was fortunate to have the full three battalions. They had the 2/15th, 2/17th, and 2/24th Battalions. The division headquarters had moved inside the Tobruk fortress lines. A feature of the area where the 26th Brigade had occupied was a large, white house with the hand-painted name of an Australian beer. A sign of how fluid the situation was, was that Rommel used that white house as his headquarters very soon after 8 April. By late in the day, the remnants of the 2nd Armoured Division Support Group had arrived at Tobruk. The only Support Group unit that still existed but was not at Tobruk was the French Motor Battalion, which was at El Adem to add some strength at the place. The 1st/King's Royal Rifle Corps (1/KRRC) had also arrived at Tobruk. From here, we next will hop back in time to 6 April 1941 at Mechili, and see the sad end of the 2nd Armoured Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Action with the Australians at Derna, Gazala, and Tobruk on 7 and 8 Aprl 1941

While the rearguards near Derna were being hard-pressed, 9th Australian Division troops were in action. This was on 7 and 8 April 1941. One of the Australian battalion commanders, Lt-Colonel Burrows, had arrived at Tmimi. This was near the sea, on the edge of an escarpment. When the first troops arrived, they found the five German armored cars. Men from the 2/28th Battalion had anti-tank rifles, so they used those to harass the Germans. At a fortunate time, two British cruiser tanks arrived. They moved up in support and the Germans wanted nothing to do with them. Lt-Col. Burrows was a up-front, hands-on leader, so he moved to a position near the road. He was armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun and had his pockets full of grenades. As men arrived from the west on the road, he positioned them to aid in the defense. When J Battery of the 3rd RHA arrived, they were a welcome addition. After them, the 51st Field Regiment drove up the road, and after them, the 104th RHA.

Some 25 miles to the east, at Gazala, a defensive position under the command of the 20th Brigade was established. They had two complete battalions and the rifle companies of the 2/15th Battalion. German armored cars were on the prowl during 8 April, but they did not approach closely during the afternoon. German reconnaissance units seem to have been probing the back areas, behind the mainly Australian defenses. As we mentioned, by early afternoon on 8 April, there were now two Australian brigades at Tobruk. Acting Cyrenaica Command leader, Brigadier Harding was located there, as we mentioned already, so General Morshead thought that he should pull the 9th Australian Division in close to Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Miscellaneous groups trying to escape past Derna on 7th and 8th April 1941

Supposedly responsible officers in Great Britain had sent tanks to North Africa that were at the end of their service life. Churchill, the prime minister, did not realize the condition of the tanks, and he took great risks to send the tanks by sea to North Africa. They tanks sent, because of bad behavior by senior officers in Britain, were close to useless. 28 of the tanks in the 5th RTR were lost because they were in bad condition and finally broke down, not from action with the enemy. The men of the 5th RTR were not the last unit to leave Derna. One group that was coming late were support troops from the armored division. They got left behind after Giovanni Berta. As they tried to move east, they kept finding that the engineers had already carried out demolitions. They were forced to keep clearing the road so that they could advance. They only reached Derna at 8pm on 7 April. They exchanged fire with the Germans and then were able to settle down for the night. They moved out early on 8 April, at 4am. Sadly, C Squadron of the 6th RTR was still to the west. They were chagrined to find Germans to their south. They had one tank left running, which finally broke down later that night.

The 9th Australian Division was fortunate, which had moved further east, had a much easier trip. Once they had left Martuba, Some of the men reached Tmimi, they had to deal with five German armored cars about 2,000 yards away. They initially were engaged with anti-tank rifles. Gradually, anti-tank and field guns arrived and were deployed. At the sight of the guns, the Germans held back. Further east, at Gazala, the 20th Brigade organized defenses. There were roving German armored cars, but they stayed out of range. When General Morshead arrived at Tobruk, he found two Australian brigades at the fortress. They were the 18th and 24th Brigades. Brigadier Wooten, of the 24th Brigade was directing the defense. Brigadier Harding, the acting Cyrenaica Command leader, was now at Tobruk. Morshead consulted with Harding and then ordered the Australians at Gazala to move east to Acroma. The 26h Brigade was a brigade group. By 5pm, they started the move from Tmimi to Acroma. By 7pm, the 20th Brigade started to withdraw from Gazala. Everyone had gone without sleep for a long period, so the withdrawal was not very smooth. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The fight near Derna on 7 April 1941

The remnants of the 3rd Armoured Brigade had arrived near Derna on 7 April 1941. The two commanders, Lt-Col. Drew and Lt-Col.Petherick were looking for Brigadier Rimington, their commander and they did not know that he had been captured by Ponath's ambush. There were no tanks left from the 3rd Hussars. Their last tank broke down at Derna. The 5th RTR was reduced to four tanks by then. As they approached the airfield, they drew fire from the small fort. In the distance, they could see the King's Dragoon Guards in action. They met a platoon commander from the Tower Hamlets Rifles who were in the ruins of a small building. They went back to the pass to get help from rear-guard troops. By now, there was one company from the 1st/King's Royal Rifle Corps with some guns from the 3rd. RHA. Apparently, by 2:30pm, the remaining units of the 2nd Armoured Division drove through Derna. The pioneers fired the demolitions. There was some confusion caused by a staff officer from the 3rd Armoured Brigade who let the armored cars withdraw. Some other units also heard the withdrawal order and left some units unsupported. One company from the 1/KRRC were cut off and surrounded, but succeeded in escaping to a nearby wadi, where they were trying to keep from being discovered by the Germans. Lt-Col. Drew of the 5th RTR had assembled a small force. They found the Germans in control of the airfield. He had some infantry from the 1/KRRC, more infantry from the Tower Hamlets Rifles, some anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA, and four tanks. By 4pm, the Germans moved to take the Derna pass. They attacked with armored cars, artillery, anti-tank guns, and motorized infantry. the British anti-tank guns hit the attackers hard and knocked out vehicles. The German machine guns, though, covered the road. At about 5:15pm, Lt-Col. Drew led and attack. The four tanks were knocked out, but the fifty-some vehicles raised a lot of dust which provided some cover. The attack was blunted and the men withdrew as possible. Those who escaped reached Tobruk later in the night. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Action involving the withdrawing forces near Derna on 7 April 1941

Two fighter squadrons had been operating over the withdrawing forces up until 7 April 1941 and had been providing cover from German attacks. On the morning of 7 April, the German air force hit the columns on the roads. The 1st RHA had arrived at the Derna airfield around 10am. The plan was to reorganize the unit so that there was some organization instead of chaos. About the same time B Company of the 1/KRRC was trying to do the same thing nearby. Suddenly a group of German vehicles appeared from the south. They had one armored car, one gun, and three vans. Both artillery units got into action and engaged them. At almost the same time, one Australian anti-tank gun and a Bofors light AA gun also joined the fight. The enemy group withdrew in the face of the heavy fire. A company of Free French motorized troops arrived. The 1st RHA left a battery, but the main body moved on down the road. The 104th RHA arrived and got on the coast road. Most of the King's Dragoon Guards then arrived at the airfield. They left a squadron to provide protection for the airfield while the main group continued on down the road. Part of the 1/KRRC came towards the sound of the fire. Their rearguard fought the attacking Germans for several hours. Finally, the last seven cruiser tanks of the 5th RTR arrived and were trying to climb the escarpment. Three of the tanks broke down and were stripped for later destruction. One of their tanks blocked the road for quite a long time, causing a bottle neck. With them were some of the troops of the 3rd Hussars. All of their tanks had broken down on the trip. The remaining components of the 2nd Armoured Division had passed through Derna by 2:30pm. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History

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