Monday, February 18, 2019

Auchinleck wants to take action, makes plans, and wants to pull the 9th Australian Division into the fight at El Alamein in early July 1942

From early July 1942 (at least from 4 July), Auchinleck was making plans that he was not able to execute. He had sent a message late on 4 July that the army "would attack and destroy the enemy in his present position". Auchinleck's initial idea was to use XIII Corps to outflank the enemy on their southwest and push towards across their rear towards the coast road. Nothing was accomplished, though, on 5 July. While the British wasted time, the enemy forces were reorganizing and digging on their positions. The New Zealand historian remarked that plans were made but were never executed.
Back on 3 July, the senior staff officer, Brigadier Walsh, phoned the 9th Australian Division headquarters. They were ordered to reorganize into battle they were ordered to send one battle group (minus one battalion) forward to El Alamein. Using the division in battle groups was contrary to what General Blamey wanted to see. The message got General Morshead to travel to Auchinleck's headquarters. Morshead had an unpleasant conversation with Auchinleck, but before he left the 9th Australian headquarters, he ordered that the 24th Brigade, minus the 2/28th Battalion, should be ready to move by 5am on the next day. That was if they were able to build up the brigade to fix the "deficiencies". Auchinleck backed off and requested that the entire 9th Australian Division be brought forward with General Morshead in command. Morshead did agree to let the brigade group be sent to the XXX Corp if the whole division was to be brought forward so as to fight as a division.
Morshead met with General Norrie, the XXX Corps commander and then flew back to Alexandria in a Westland Lysander. While all this was happening work was underway to add equipment to the 24th Brigade. By noon (apparently) on 3 July, the 9th Australian Division came under XXX Corps command, because on 4 July, the 24th Brigade began moving forward, although roads were clogged with eastbound traffic. 24th Brigade battalions were digging in at tel El Shamama. XXX Corps told the 24th Brigade to be ready for a quick move, meaning that they needed to be ready to start driving their vehicles. The 2/28th Battalion was till back at El Amiriya. 20th Brigade was now in the position defending Alexandria that had been occupired by the 24th Brigade. The Australians now at El Alamein were happy to see the "Allied air superiority". There were still dogfights, and you never knew who would win. A feature of July 1942 was that there were new American light bombers in action, Douglas Bostons and Glenn Martin Baltimores. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Auchinleck tries to make things happen and pulls the 9th Australian Division into the mix from 3 July 1942

The Australian historian's assessment after the fact was that General Auchinleck did not perceive just how desperate the Axis situation was, circa 3 and 4 July 1942. Almost immediately, the New Zealanders noticed that Auchinleck had little confidence in his men's ability to stand and fight. On the bright side, during the night from 4 to 5 July 1942, Auchinleck said that the army would "attack and destroy the enemy in his present position". On the 5th, apparently, the New Zealanders received orders about withdrawing if the
"line collapsed", which was a very unlikely possibility. The plan for a retreat was for XXX Corps to go along the coast to Alexandria. XIII Corps, which included the New Zealand Division would go cross-country to Cairo.
The Eighth Army was a dull sword, so that while General Auchinleck designed operational plans to attack the enemy, the army in its present state was ill-suited to perform tasks that were needed. Still, Auchinleck was able to control the situation while the enemy was reduced to responding to his attacks and movements. During 1941 and 1942, no one with the expertise of General Auchinleck had been making decisions about the army, its procedures and communications mechanisms. That redesign did not happen until the arrival of Bernard Law Montgomery, who instituted report centers that allowed for accurate information to flow to the army commander. Also, when Auchinleck issued orders to Generals Gott and Lumsden, then rewrote the orders into something other than what Auchinleck had intended.
Because of the commanders involved, 4 July progressed in a way that little resembled what Auchinleck had intended. The 22nd Armoured Brigade sent their tanks moving forward along the Ruweisat Ridge. the infantry regiment of the 15th Armored (Panzer) Division was partly overrun. It appeared as if a large number of German soldiers would surrender, but the British armor took artillery fire and pulled back, leaving the would-be prisoners still free. They diarist for the Africa Corps noted that the 15th Armored Division was in a "serious situation". IF there had been more competent British command of the attack, it would have been a fine success. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Action at El Alamein from 3 July 1942

Rommel found that the Eighth Army under General Auchinleck's command, would not panic and run when confronted with infiltration tactics. Rommel hoped that on 3 July 1942, his forces might be able to achieve some success against the British. The 90th Light Division was allowed to dig in where they were and not try to attack. The remnants of the German Africa Corps were ordered to push their 26 running tanks to the east to isolate the South Africans. The British were in somewhat better condition, because the 1st Armoured Division still had 100 running tanks. Rommel still wanted the Italian XX Corps to "deal with the Qattara Box". Auchinleck's plan was for XXX Corps to sit in the coastal region and be ready to fight any attack. XIII Corps would turn the enemy flank and go after their rear areas from Deir el Shein.

On the morning of 3 July, the Africa Corps was looking for a weak spot to attack when they found the 1st Armoured Division. The British tanks moved into hull-down positions, which were not the usual British mode of fighting. The armored units fought all day long on the Ruweisat Ridge. Rommel was pushing the Africa Corps to push past the South African Division on the south side, but they only covered a short distance and stopped.
The 1st Armoured Division was not able to make the move around the enemy flank, but the New Zealand Division achieved a great victory. The Italian Ariete armored division moved out from Alam Nayil, between the Qattara Box and the Ruweisat Ridge. They had a brief encounter with the 4th Armoured Brigade and then were fired on by four New Zealand field batteries.
The Italians reacted so strongly to the artillery fire that 4th New Zealand Brigade attacked "from the south". The 19th New Zealand Battalion was in the lead. Their carrier platoon led an attack with fixed bayonets and captured an outlying Italian group. They then made a "systematic attack" on a larger group of Italians. They Italian morale must have collapsed, as some 350 men surrendered and about 44 medium and field guns were captured. They also captured a large number of vehicles. The New Zealand Division was commanded by Major-General Inglis on a temporary basis. With the Italians being in such serious trouble, he ordered Howard Kippenberger to attack with his 5th Brigade at El Mreir. The Brescia Division was located at El Mreir, and they fired on the 5th Brigade, which eventually dug in where they had arrived.
By the end of 3 July, Rommel had to admit that his army could go no further in its present state. He decided that they needed time to regroup and recover "for at least a fortnight". His army was in a sad state with divisions being down to 1200 to 1300 men. He only had about 36 German tanks still running. They also were "short of ammunition" and we would imagine that they were also short of supplies. We are very familiar with Friedrich von Mellinthin and his book Panzer Battles. On 4 July 1942, he was a staff officer with Rommel. In his book, von Mellinthin called the German-Italian situation "perilous". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The Axis attack on 1 July 1942 at El Alamein

The Axis attack did occur on 1 July 1942, although the Axis forces were very tired. The German Africa Corps had been held up due to a variety of reasons. The ground was very difficult, causing "heavy going" as they said. There was also a dust storm causing problems. On top of all that, the British were able to launch a substantial air attack on the attacking forces. The Africa Corps had not expected to find any units at Deir el Shein. Deir el Shein turned out to have the 18th Indian Brigade and nine Matilda tanks. A fierce, eight-hour battle was fought against the Indians, who were unsupported, as was the typical British situation. The Germans were able to "overrun" the brigade, which was "virtually destroyed". The battle had slowed down the German advance and they were reduced from 55 tanks down to 37 tanks still runners.
During the afternoon on 1 July, the South African Division artillery fired on the 90th Light Division. The initial German response was to "dig in". By 3:30pm, the Germans were losing their nerve and "many men fled". The 90th Light Division diary had an entry saying that they had stopped what could have turned into a rout. The artillery fire had brought the division's advance to a stop. By early on 2 July, Rommel called off the southern move by the Africa Corps and ordered them to the north to support the 90th Light Division attack on the El Alamein Box.
General Auchinleck took the 18th Indian Brigade loss in stride. He had already decided to narrow the front to a size more easily defended. He thought that they should pull out of Naqb Abu Dweis and Bab el Qattara. During the night of 1 July to 2 July, General Auchinleck ordered the 1st Armoured Division and the New Zealand Division to be ready for a counter-attack from the south.
In the north, the 90th Light Division made a half-hearted attack on the South African troops. The morale of the 90th Light Division was so bad that they never seriously attacked. The Italians of X Corps had also been ordered to attack, further north, but they were  also ineffective and probably dispirited. By the middle of 2 July, General Auchinleck had decided to hit the enemy "flank and rear" with XIII Corps. That caused a tank battle between the 1st Armoured Division and the Africa Corps. The battle lasted until night and was "inconclusive". The Italian armor was in the south but air attack kept them from making any moves. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 04, 2019

The Germans would push on "as fast as he could drive" them from 30 June 1942 on wards

As was almost always the case, Rommel's only play in his book was to use infiltration tactics to try and upset the enemy morale. Rommel's men were in bad shape and were short on supplies. They also did not know when they might receive any more. Rommel issued orders to the German Africa Corps and the 90th Light Division to push into British territory before daylight in the area "between the El Alamein position and Deir el Abyad." Rommel ordered the 90th Light Division to turn towards the sea and cut off the El Alamein Box. The German Africa Corps would turn to the south would hit the rear areas of XIII Corps. The Italian Trento Division would attack El Alamein from the west side. The Italian Brescia Division would move forward behind the German Africa Corps. They also had the Italian XX Corps with the Ariete Armored Division and the Triested Motorized Division. They were ordered to attack the Qattara Box. The attack would be on new territory and would be in the dark, so that there would be no real chance to do any reconnaissance prior to attacking.
The British, following Auchinleck's latest ideas and trying to imitate Rommel's battle groups. The South Africans formed up two columns, leaving only one brigade in the box they had occupied. That meant that there were no units facing east from the box. The 50th Division formed three columns, each with eight field guns. The 10th Indian Division and the 5th Indian Division also created columns.
looking back at 30 June 1942, the British rearguard drove through the El Alamein Box. They were closely followed by the 90th Light Division. The Germans stopped short of the box and opened fire with artillery. German aircraft also started bombing the box. The 90th Light Division needed to prepare for the "big attack" planned for the next morning. Being in such a hurry had left the German staff with a mistaken idea of where the British units were deployed. The XXX Corps was actually in the north, but the Germans expected to see the X Corps there. The facts were that both sides were confused and not prepared. Auchinleck at the army headquarters was out of touch with what the situation was on the ground, so was Rommel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Differing opinions regarding El Alamein and the blocking battle to be fought there in July 1942

There were some very pessimistic opinions among British and Commonwealth commanders in early July 1942. The British were fortunate that they had the best field commander in the Middle East at that time in command of the Eighth Army (General Auchinleck). Not only that, but Auchinleck was optimistic about their chances of beating Rommel at El Alamein. Fortunately, General Norrie, XXX Corps commander, also was optimistic and he took the stand that fighting at El Alamein was a real "last ditch"defense of Egypt. Many others had defeatist attitudes that were unfortunate. You expect that General Gott would be one of those with such a bad attitude, and that he had. He was the last man that you would want to have as a decision-make in the battle to stop Rommel.
The Australian historian said if Auchinleck that he had "an exceptional talent for perceiving his enemies difficulties". Rommel was always an opportunist, trying to surprise his enemies and use infiltration tactics to throw them into a panic. What that meant, was that Rommel was often without a plan and he relied on finding a weakness in his enemy that he could exploit and throw them into a retreat. That meant that Rommel was often at risk for "overreaching" when he was trying for a surprise. His superiors at the "German High Command" were very aware of this weakness and were concerned.
The force that drove up to the British defenses at El Alamein was a skeleton force. They had but "1,700 first-line infantry and 55 tanks forward." The German-Italian force was very short on supplies. They pretty much only had what they had captured from the British in the collapse after the defeat at Gazala. They also knew that the British were being resupplied with tanks and guns that were superior to what the Germans and Italians had in inventory. The British were receiving new medium tanks built in America and armed with 75mm guns. The Lee and Grant tanks had the gun mounted in the hull, but they had Sherman tanks in the pipeline that carried a 75mm gun in a turret. They also were receiving 6pdr anti-tank guns which compared well with the 50mm PAK38 and were probably superior to them. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our knowledge of the topic.

Monday, January 28, 2019

On to Alexandria from 1 July 1942

You have to think that at the end of June and early July 1942, the British were in a panic. Plans kept changing every few days (it seemed). General Morshead left Cairo early in the morning of 1 July and drove from there to Amiriya. He initially was going to have his headquarters at El Mex, but that was such a bad place that he decided to try camping at Sidi Bishr (which was "an awful place"). General Morshead put the 24th Brigade on the coast and the 26th Brigade to their left. 24th Brigade inherited a "motley force" that had been cobbled together to provide some defense to Alexandria near the sea. That included the 150th Brigade Headquarters, the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers machine gun battalion, and a group of about six hundred men from odd units, such as Czech and sailors. They had some naval guns that they believed might be useful against tanks. The 24th Brigade was to occupy a line built by the Polish brigade in 1940 and 1941. The 24th Brigade was in place on 1 July while the 26th Brigade moved into position on 2 July. Both btigades immediately began digging positions. The men were thought to be working in shifts, allowing some to sleep while others were digging.
General Morshead spent 2 July looking over the land with his brigade commanders and chief of staff. They had too much territory to defend for the men that they had. General Morshead ordered that all Egyptian civilians be removed from the area. They would take steps that would interfere with civilian concerns. He wanted to flood areas that would conflict with the civilian salt industry, as on example. They would also cut dfown palm and fig triees to clear fields of fire.
General Auchinleck had his priorities. He wanted to stop Rommel's advan ce to the east at El Alamein, but a higher priority was to keep his force from being destroyed. If they were forced out of El Alamein, they would fight further ot the east. They would try to fight on the approach to the Nile Delta. It that fell, they would fight on the Suez Canal, and prepare to fight on the Nile. With men knowing about contingency plans, that had negative affects on morale. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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