Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Two Australian attacks on enemy positions near Tobruk on 13-14 September 1941

On the night of 13-14 September 1941 the 24th Brigade planned to execute two raids against the enemy soldiers to the south of Tobruk. One raid was to be made by men from the 2/32nd Battalion. The other was to be made by men from the 2/28th Battalion. The 2/32nd Battalion would be supported by a patrol from the 2/43rd Battalion, which would block any involvement by troops from Bir Ghersa, to the east of Dalby Square, the name they gave the enemy position they would attack. The Dalby Square was perhaps four and a half miles south from the Tobruk Perimeter. The 2/28th Battalion would send out a raiding party to the east of Bir Ghersa. The position they would attack was called the White Cairn.
The raid on Dalby Square was commanded by a Captain. He had previously raided the position twice, so he knew the area pretty well. They had found the position was very strong. In preparation, the attackers had rehearsed the attack.
The Dalby Square raiding party consisted of 60 men, with men from two platoons. They had mortars and crew, eight stretcher bearers, and seven engineers. They left post R69 at about 9pm on 13 September. They were able to arrive near Dalby Square without having been seen, so they had the element of surprise. They formed up for the attack with the engineers in the lead. They would need to blow holes in the wire. The raid commander accompanied the engineers. A platoon followed them with sections spaced out. Another platoon followed them in similar formation. The company headquarters followed them in the rear. They would be supported by a 2in mortar positioned on the north side.
As the raiding force for Dalby Square neared the position, they took some intermittent fire. At 75 yards, the enemy opened up on them with mortars and machine guns. The noise was so load, the first platoon commander couldn't tell if the engineers had succeed in blowing holes in the wire. When they reached the wire, they found that it was still intact. They stopped while the engineers fired bangalore torpedoes to break the wire. At that point, the first platoon charged into Dalby Square. The second platoon commander was hit, so a warrant officer took command and they followed thte first platoon into the position. Responsibilities were allocated by section. They attempted to do their tasks, but they only had limited success. About one-third of the raiding force were wounded. They were taking fire from some enemy posts, so the raiders collected their wounded and pulled out.The raiders had two men killed and five missing. They brought out two prisoners and thought that they had killed some twenty enemy soldiers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Defending Tobruk in September 1941

The situation with respect to enemy artillery firing on the Tobruk harbor remained unchanged after the artillery duel in early September 1941. The RAF and the army had been unable to silence the enemy guns that had been bombarding the harbor at Tobruk. The navy was somewhat more successful than the RAF and army forces. The original plan was for HMS Gnat, a gunboat, to fire on the enemy guns, but the Gnat had engine trouble, so HMS Aphis arrived on the night of 15-16 September and fired on the guns. The RAF and army also participated in the attack on the enemy guns. Guns from Tobruk fired on the enemy guns to show the RAF where to hit. The aircraft dropped flares to illuminate the target. The Aphis then hit them with its guns. They succeeded in stopping the enemy from firing on the harbor for eight days. That was meaningful, because that covered most of the time when there was no moon visible at night. That aided the process of relieving more of the Australian units.
When September 1941 started, Rommel had decided to attack Tobruk from the southeast. That was also the area that had seen the least development of defensive positions by the enemy forces. There was an open area in the vicinity of "the El Adem and Bardia Roads" that had a screen of five outposts manned by the battalions holding those segments of the Tobruk perimeter. The outposts had all been given amusing names. Outpost Plonk was located near Bir el Azazi. The outpost was created on 15 August by the 2/15th Battalion. Going clockwise ("from right to left") were Bob and Bash, eventually renamed as Bondi and Tugun a month later. The next outposts were called Jill and Jack. They had been renamed from outposts Jed and Normie. The 24th Brigade now held the east sector. Their outposts were "Bob and Bash" as we mentioned. They were occupied by men from the 2/43rd Battalion. Men from the 2/28th Battalion occupied outposts Jack and Jill. There were also two outputs, very small, on the side of the Wadi Zeitan towards the enemy. These were located north of the Bardia Road.
The area north of the Derna Road was the scene of active patrolling and small but violent actions between Australian patrols and enemy troops occupying positions. This was near where "the rock shelf was gashed by the cliff-walled Wadi Sehel". "Standing patrols" operated on the enemy's side on the other side of the gorge. This was dangerous business, because on 8 September, one patrol was "shot up" by artillery and small arms fire. The goal was to gather information about enemy defenses so that reports could be passed up the chain of command. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Tobruk shelliing from September 1941 onwards

Conditions changed at Tobruk after the heavy air raid on 1 September 1941. The pressure from the air continued, but the main problem was shelling from artillery. The ammunition shortage continued, so that British manufactured guns were only allowed to fire ten rounds a day. The next major development saw the ammuntion depot with Italian ammunition was bombed and destroyed. That meant that Italian 75mm and 100mm guns fell under the same restrictions. During August, a great deal of ammunition arrived by sea. Most of the ammunition went to the front line units, so only 100 rounds were added to the ammunition reserve. At the end of August, there were 101,993 rounds at Tobruk.
Starting in September, the procedure for counter-battery fire changed. The guns would fire one-after-another, but timed with stopwatches so that all the rounds would hit the target simultaneously. The guns that fired on the Tobruk harbor were troublesome-enough that there were planned artillery attacks where the number of rounds restriction was ignored so that they could counteract the "harbor guns".
For example, a storeship that had been converted from a trawler, was to arrive in the Tobruk harbor at 4:30am. The ship was late, however, and arrived after dawn. The guns attacking the harbor were effective and slowed the unloading process. The 104th RHA had two troops return fire wqith 353 rounds. Enemy counter-battery fire was effective and hit one of the two troops, "killing one man and wounding two others." On 4 September, there was a meeting where the issue was discussed. The new plan was when the enemy was firing on the harbor, to ask the navy how much problem was caused. If the firing was very troublesome, they would do counter-battery firing and bring in other guns to hit the "enemy counter-battery guns".
On 6 September, the enemy fired on the port and hit a jetty used for destroyers. They also hit the 104th RHA troop that they had hit previously and on a troop of 60-pounder guns from the 2/12th Regiment. The new plan went into effect and some 350 25pdr rounds and 77 60-pounder rounds. Afterwards, they observed an ambulance leaving the enemy position. The Tobruk guns had not taken any casualties, showing the effectiveness of the new plan. On 7 September, both sides had another go at the artillery battle. The RAF hit the enemy gun positions. When one gun still fired on the harbor, The 25pdrs and 60pdrs responded with counter-battery fire. The enemy gun and the 60pdrs fired at each other. The 60pdrs fired the last rounds, so they won the impromptu duel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The 12 October 1941 raid and issues with aritillery operations

The raid on the Germans started early on 12 October 1941. Visibility had dropped dramatically due to a heavy mist. The raid had started at the first light of the day. Even though visibility was low, there was much noise created by the Australian gun tractors. They crossed an area covered by discarded tin containers. By the time the mist had cleared off, they found that the German tanks and guns were gone. Presumably, they had heard the sound of the vehicles crossing the area where the tins were scattered and left their position. There were still five German armored cars at the site, One of the cars was taken as well as four German soldiers. The ammunition and fuel storage were destroyed.
The RAF had provided air cover for the raid with 12 Hurricane fighters. They were outclassed by the German Messerschmitt fighters which shot down half of the Hurricanes. While the raiders left the battlefield, another fight occurred between Tomahawk fighters and more Messerschmitts. One German fighter strafed Colonel Eastick's vehicle. Colonel Eastick and an American observer observed a parachuting Tomahawk pilot "shot out of his harness". They retrieved the pilot's body and buried him with a Christian burial service.
Colonel Eastick, the 2/7th Field Regiment commander, his staff, and observers drove to the headquarters of the Little Brother column. They were to see an operation designed by Colonel Eastick. A target would be hit by his field guns working with Fleet Air Arm bombers. The field guns belonged to E and F troops of the 2/7th Field Regiment. They were going to strike "Point 207".  The operation would commence at "half an hour after midnight". The bombers were planned to be over the target area at this time. The field guns would  "delineate the target by predicted searching fire". The Fleet Air Arm bombers would drop their bombs, incendiary devices, and flares for a period of about 15 minutes. The guns would wait for some 15 minutes and then they would hit the target with a heavy bombardment. The operation went well, because it was planned well and there were no mishaps. The Australian gunners had some concerns that they might be hit by counter-battery fire made poossible by shooting from the same location twice. The enemy might well have located the guns by the flashes, but this did not happen. The results were observed and fires and explosions were seen, indicating that the operation had succeeded.
The 2/7th Field Regiment turned over their duties to the 1st Field Regiment. By 16 October, the regiment started their long drive to Palestine. When the regiment "reached the Wadi Nastrun", they were informed that the plan had changed and that they should drive to Cairo, to "the Royal Artillery Base Depot". At this point, they did not realize the benefits that would accrue from being at the depot, where they could complete their equipment and get valuable training. This is based on the account in Vol.III of theAustralian Official History.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Late September to early October 1941in the border area between Libya and Egypt

Brother column was located at the North Point position. The 2/7th Field Regiment arrived there before the guards did. The regiment commander, Colonel Eastick, was assigned temporarily as the Brother column commander on 26 September 1941. His temporary assigment lasted until 1 October. They split the 2/7th Regiment into parts again. 14th Battery was assigned to Brother column while 13th Battery was assigned to Sister. One battery from the 2/8th Field Regiment was attached to the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. The field artillery battery was employed during this period as anti-tank guns.
Even more splitting occurred. One troop from each 2/7th Field Regiment battery were attached to Little Brother and Little Sister. These columns provided the Australian gunners with the best possible desert training. During daylight, the columns were dispersed but with some order. At night, they collapsed down into a small area with a tight perimeter. Another troop was assigned as artillery support to a roving cruiser tank column. This assignment also provided excellent desert training to the Australian gunners.
The 2/7th and 2/8th Field Regiments were told that they would be withdrawn to Palestine to join the 1st Australian Corps, robbing the two regiments of chances to see action. They also were informed about the new organization where each regiment would have three batteries instead of two. The 2/7th Field Regiment would have the 13th, 14th, and 57th Batteries. The 2/8th Field Regiment would have the 15th, 16th, and 58th Batteries.
On 10 October 1941, the 2/8th Field Regiment south east "in desert formation" towards "Hill 69 in Palestine". This was the first time the complete regiment had moved together. They took 8 days to reach their hill in Palestine.
The 2/7th Field Regiment got a temporary reprieve so that they could participate in an offensive operation against Germans. One troop was attached to Little Brother colomn starting on 6 October. During the night of 7 to 8 October, they were asked to fire on a German night leaguer south of Point 207. They at least got rounds that fell near the target area.
Another troop attached to the cruiser tank column participated in a raid that crossed the frontier wire to the south of Sidi Omar. The column that they were in was a mix of armored cars, tanks, and field artillery. The purpose was to take "prisoners, tanks, armoured cars and guns". The guns were from a 105mm battery. The Australian gunners would be asked to "silence" the guns, if they fired. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Changes from 19 September 1941 near the border area between Libya and Egypt

Fait Hope and Char columns had resumed operations near Halfaya Pass after the end of the operations caused by the German reconnaissance in force in September 1941. The resumption of "business as usual" did not last long. The Australian field regiment commander learned that the Scots Guards would be replaced by a brigade of the 4th Indian Division. The Scots Guards would move to the desert above the escarpment. They would take the three Australian batteries with them when they left the coast. Fait column got new orders that included not running on hearing the code word Bicycle. Instead, they would "stand and fight" near the line of the minefield.
The border area received an important visitor on 19 September. General Freyberg came visiting to see the area where the New Zealand Division might be located. That did not prevent the "sniping gun" from firing and drawing Axis return fire. They were successful in causing the enemy to fire many rounds for a few Australian shots.
The Australian 2/7th Field Regiment was replaced on 22 September. The three columns, Fait, Hope, and Char were dissolved. The Australian battery commander heard the news that the 2/8th Field Regiment would arrive in the area. Major Ralph was told that he would be rejoining his regiment in the "Playground" area.
The 2/7th Field Regiment ended up being positioned at Sofafi by 28 September. More Australian artillery was still scattered about. There was a troop at North Point. Two more troops were in the Playground. The remaining units of the 2/8th Field Regiment were near Sidi Barrani, but were moving towards the front area. By 27 September, the 15th Battery was assigned to the 7th Armoured Division. The orders for the 2/8th Regiment were to support the British to the "last man and the last round". The 16th Battery eventually earned a special commendation from the commander of the 4th Indian Division artillery, as being far beyond what anyone had expected.
What now seemed to be expected was that a small group would be expected to sacrifice themselves while defending before any help could reach them. This applied to North Point, the Playground, and the Kennel fortifications. They looked strong on paper but were only weakly held. While the holding forces were called the 3rd Coldstream Guards, the 9th Rifle Brigade, and the 7th Armoured Brigade, the actual forces involved were split into small columns. They were units such as "Little Brother" and "Little Sister". They were placed some 15 to 25 miles in front of the main column. South African armored cars were operating even further forward. The main Brother and Sister columns did not amount to much with the many detachments positioned around the area. The main strength at North Point and Playground were "two infantry companies, two troops of field guns in a normal role, two troops of anti-tank guns, and one or two troops of field guns in an anti-tank role.In addition, there were some engineers, anti-aircraft gun crews, and some infantry providing some defensivc strength for the headquarters units. The troops involved were good enough for what was needed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Pulling back from the Sunday morning go-round on the coast from 14 to 15 September 1941

The British-Australian columns had blunted the German probe on 14 September. The Germans eventually were withdrawing rapidly to the west. Two columns, Fait (Faith) and Hope got their code words that were to send them back to Sidi Barrani. They headed east at about midnight. Char (Charity) column sat until 4am when they had finally gotten the code word that would send them back to Sidi Barrani. As we mentioned, there were rear-guard detachments left to provide a block to prevent any Germans from approaching the columns while they were retreating to the east. One key point also was protected by a detachement. The Buq Buq water hole had two detachments defending the site. A Troop from the 2/7th Field Regiment had supplied field guns for these two groups. More guns were on the Sofafi track located near Somulus. Another group went south from Sidi Barrani towards Alam el Hammam. They expected to see German tanks heading north and would have engaged them.
At Sidi Barrani, Faith and Hope columns were in place "at first light". Char column was much later arriving, as they had only gotten the code word at 4am. They were in place at Sidi Barrani by 8am.
A false report arrived at Buq Buq at 10:45am on 15 September saying that a German column of tanks was driving north. towards them. The "water point" was blown with some 600 pounds of dynamite. The group had Buq Buq then drove at high speed for Sidi Barrani. There was still one group commanded by Captain Mackay near the coast.
By 2pm on 15 September, the "coast was clear" and the three columns, Fait, Hope, and Char were sent back out to their original spots. The Buq Buq group had just arrived back and was integrated into the columns. The guns that had been at Siwa oasis were back and rejoined their regiment. They had moved back into the "High" spot and the sniping gun had returned to their previous pattern of trying to draw enemy fire with a few shots.
The Germans had claimed only one or two tanks "totally destroyed", but the 2/7th Field Regiment had seen burned out tanks and dead "tankers". The German active tank strength had dropped from 110 before the operation to about 42 after the end of the Midsummer Night's Dream. The most interesting find by the Germans was a British truck with "codes and documents". The truck did not have any information about Operation Crusader, since nothing existed as of yet. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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