Thursday, December 31, 2009

More air fighting over Harpoon on 14 June 1942

As noted, when the Harpoon convoy got within 150 miles of Sicily, the main body was attacked by Ju-88s and a few Ju-87s. the old aircraft carrier Argus managed to maneuver and avoid torpedoes from the SM-79 torpedo bombers. The FAA fighters fought valiantly, although 7 were lost on 14 June 1942. The Italians and Germans lost 17 aircraft to AA fire and British fighters. After dark, the convoy picked up a Beaufighter escort from Malta. The main escort force turned back when the convoy reached the Skerki Channel and the much smaller Force X (AA cruiser Cairo, 9 destroyers, 4 minesweepers, and 6 minesweeping motor launches) were the sole escort in the final run to Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The first air attack on the Harpoon Convoy: 14 June 1942

The Italians were known to have 20 bombers and 50 torpedo bombers based on Sardinia. The Harpoon convoy was within range by dawn on 14 June 1942. The British had the disadvantage of having the wind from the rear, which meant that the Argus and Eagle would have to turn to launch aircraft. The first wave of attackers consisted of "two groups of Italian fighter-bombers" at 10:30am. At 11am, the convoy was attacked by 28 SM79 torpedo bombers and 10 Cant bombers. The cruiser Liverpool took a torpedo as did the Dutch merchant ship Tanimbar. The Tanimbar quickly sank. The Liverpool had sustained an engine room hit and was reduced to 3 or 4 knots. The Liverpool was towed by a destroyer and escorted by another. The plan was to send her back to Gibraltar. The convoy was not attacked until evening. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Harpoon Convoy Ships

The Harpoon convoy consisted of the American tanker Kentucky, the British merchant ships Troilus, Burdwan, Orari, the American merchant ship Chant, and the Dutch merchant ship Tanimbar. The main covering force, which would not go all the way to Malta, consisted of the battleship Malaya, the aircraft carriers Eagle and Argus, the cruisers Kenya, Liverpool, Charybdis, and 8 destroyers. The main covering force would turn back at the Skerki Channel, leaving just the AA cruiser Cairo (an old C-class cruiser converted as an anti-aircraft ship), 5 destroyers, and 4 Hunt class escort destroyers to accompany the convoy to Malta. There were also 4 minesweepers and 6 "minesweeping motor launches" to clear the way into Malta. Another tanker, the Brown Ranger, sailed independently to refuel the escorts to Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Harpoon convoy sails

The operation to run the two convoys to Malta was designed to put the western convoy, Harpoon, the day before the Vigorous convoy arrived. They plan envisioned bombing the Axis seaports and air fields before the convoys sailed. The fast minelayer Welshman was to run more ammunition to Malta, and would sail independently upon reaching the narrows. The Harpoon convoy consisted of six ships with a heavy escort, including the battleship Malaya and aircraft carriers Eagle and Argus. The Harpoon convoy was eventually intercepted by Italian surface forces on 15 June 1942. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Air forces to support the Harpoon and Vigorous convoys

A note in Vol.III of the Official History lists the squadrons available in Malta and Egypt to support the Harpoon and Vigorous convoys being run to Malta in June 1942:

Malta Egypt
Albacore No.830 (FAA) Nos. 821 and 826 (FAA)
Baltimore No.69
Beaufort No.217 No.39
Blenheim Nos.203 and 13 (Hellenic)
Hudson No.459 (RAAF)
Maryland No.203
Spitfire No.2 PRU
Sunderland No.230
Swordfish (A.S.V.) No.815 (A.S.V.)
Wellesley No.47
Wellington (torpedo) No.38
Wellington (A.S.V.) No.221 (Detachment) No.221

There were also 95 Spitfire fighters on Malta after 9 June 1942
divided between Nos.126, 185, 249, and detachments from Nos.601 and 603 squadrons.
There were also night fighter Beaufighters in No.1435 Flight
and a No.235 Squadron detachment from the U.K.

As we indicated, this is based on the notes in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The irony of Malta and June 1942

Tbe hope had been that the 8th Army would be victorious and move forward so that land-based aircraft could better support the defense of Malta. Instead, as the battle went badly for the army in June 1942, Malta had to support the defense of Egypt. The plan to resupply Malta was to run a convoy from either end of the Mediterranean Sea. The western convoy was called Harpoon and the eastern was Vigorous. A feature of the latest convoys was that there were more British maritime aircraft available. Malta had "six Baltimores, four Wellingtons fitted with A.S.V. and three P.R.U. Spitfires for reconnassaince". There were also six Wellingtons with torpedoes, a Beaufort squadron, and an Albacore squadron for anti-submarine work. There was also a larger maritime air force in Egypt. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The situation right before the 1st Battle of El Alamein

The navy had done a remarkable job, supplying the army at Mersa Matruh right up until the withdrawal took place. The situation rapidly shifted, as Rommel's intent was to roll over the British troops that were retreating to the east. That did not happen, first due to the core of the units remaining intact and the support of the air force and navy. The harbours at Sollum and Mersa Matruh were mined from the air on 23 June and 28 June 1942. The water storage facilities at Mersa Matruh were destroyed and the water was contaminated. The navy was prepared to do shore bombardment in support, as well, but the fighting took place too far inland for this to be useful. The action rapidly moved east to El Alamein, where Rommel was stopped from further advance. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Action in the air from 29 June 1942

The Desert Air Force had kept fighters forward at El Daba while 10th Corps withdrew on 29 June 1942. That night, "Wellingtons, Bostons and Blenheims" hit Sidi Barrani and transport on the roads. By 30 June, they put a large number of aircraft up in reaction to the Axis arrival at El Alamein. The 8th Army as providing little useful information, so the Desert Air Force had to rely upon their own reconnaissance to decide where to bomb. The commander, Air Vice-Marshal Conyngham was actually choosing targets for his bombers to hit. Baltimores and Bostons made a few attacks, but mostly it was the Kittyhawk fighter-bombers doing the work. Most of the attacks were against the 90th Light Division, to good effect. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The 10th Corps Plans breaks out

13th Corps had succeeded in withdrawing from Mersa Matruh, but 10th Corps had been left in a tenuous position, as the Axis forces had blocked the road to the east about 17 miles. The 13th Corps had already reached their withdrawal objectives on 28 June 1942, but that was when the 10th Corps breakout was to occur. 50th Division and the 10th Indian Division would breakout to the south, travel 30 miles, and then turn east to Fuka. 10th Corps broke out in brigade group size units. The brigade groups invariably ran across Axis leaguers in the night. The Indians suffered the worst losses in the breakout. The corps headquarters, with General Holmes, was sent back to command "Delta Force" on their arrival in the rear. 10th Indian Division and the 50th Division were in no position to execute Auchinleck's plan to use them at El Alamein. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

General Gott orders the withdrawal on 27 June 1942

General "Strafer" Gott was the 13th Corps commander in the Eighth Army. At 7:20pm on 27 June 1942, General Gott issued the pre-arranged code word to his units telling them to start the withdrawal from the Mersa Matruh vicinity. He reported the news to Eighth Army headquarters which promptly issued a similar code word to 10th Corps.

Brigadier Inglis decide to use his best unit, the 4th NZ Infantry Brigade, to lead the breakout. The rest of the New Zealand Division would follow. As luck would have it, Brigadier Inglis took the division headquarters and the 5th NZ Brigade on a separate route that took them into the 21st Panzer Division leaguer, causing chaos. The New Zealand Division headed east to their rendezvous, reaching it on 28 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The situation at Mersa Matruh deteriorates

The attack on the New Zealand Division at Minqar Qaim seems to have caused General Gott to decide that his troops needed to withdraw to the east. He sent a cryptic message to General Lumsden, 1st Armoured Division commander that authorized him "to withdraw east of the Bir Khalda track". The message indicated that the New Zealand Division had already left Minqar Qaim, which was not the case. The New Zealand division also received a message, possibly from General Gott. After General Freyberg was wounded, Brigadier Inglis, the acting division commander, decided to withdraw to the El Alamein line. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The British armour threw the Germans on the defensive: after 4pm on 27 June 1942

After the New Zealand Division had its transport scattered, General Freyberg asked for help from the 1st Armoured Division. This was at 4pm. The 4th Armoured Brigade had moved about 10 miles to the west of the New Zealand Division. They had sent the 3rd County of London Yeomanry (3rd CLY) towards the New Zealanders to support them, but they mistakenly had fired on the British tanks. Still, the 3rd CLY and the newly arrive Queen's Bays (with many tanks in company) posed a great enough threat to the 21st Panzer Division that they broke off their attack. Meanwhile, General Gott was planning to withdraw, based on General Auchinleck's orders to prevent the 8th Army units from being surrounded and pinned down. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

By 27 June 1942, the Axis forces were stretched thin

On 27 June 1942, Rommel was again trying to win through intimidating the British forces while having little actual fighting power. At the time that Rommel ordered the 21st Panzer Division to advance around the south of Mersa Matruh and attack the pocket of strength at Minqar Qaim, they were reduced to five Pzkw II and 16 Pzkw III tanks. Of course, the panzer division also had infantry and artillery. This reduced force was in the process of surrounding the New Zealand Division by 2pm. Earlier, at 12:30pm, General Gott had visited the New Zealanders. They were receiving heavy incoming artillery fire at this time. It was after this that the 10th Corps was ordered to attack towards Minqar Qaim to draw off the attacking force. The one thing that 21st Panzer's attack accomplished was to drive off the transport for the 4th and 4th New Zealand Brigades. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

27 June 1942 at Mersa Matruh

On 27 June 1942, Axis forces moved around the south of Mersa Matruh to block the coast road and trap retreating British forces. The New Zealand Division was located south of Mersa Matruh, at Minqar Qaim. By midday, Rommel directed the 21st Panzer Division to attack the forces located at Minqar Qaim and by 2pm, they had started to encircle the New Zealand Division. The army took steps to send support to the New Zealanders. The 10th Corps would attack south. The 50th Division and 5th Indian Brigade were moving towards objectives nearby. What really relieved the pressure was a move by the 1st Armoured Division that threw the 21st Panzer Division on the defensive. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Axis forces attack on 26 June 1942

The heavy British air attacks had delayed the advance and had inflicted many casualties on the DAK and the Italian forces. The 90th Light Division and 21st Panzer Division did manage to break up Gleecol and Leathercol. The British units realized that a major advance was underway. By early on 27 June, the 90th Light Division had some heavy fighting and by afternoon withdrew and tried to be inconspicuous. The DAK was oblivious to the New Zealand Division, but had made little progress. The 15th Panzer Division was moving east above the escarpment while the 21st Panzer Division was below. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Auchinleck assumes command

General Auchinleck arived at Maaten Baggush on 25 June 1942, after he assumed command of the Eighth Army. He left his CGS, Lt-General Corbett in Cairo to act on "all matters except those of the highest strategic or political importance". General Auchinleck immediately changed the plan to defend Mersa Matruh and decided to keep the army mobile and able to fight a withdrawal back to El Alamein. Auchinleck's first move was to change the organization to brigade groups whose main strength was artillery. General Freyberg did not want to change the New Zealand organization, and was able to make two brigades mobile. It is unclear what the difference was between brigade groups and the New Zealand mobile brigades, which were undoubtedly supported by artillery. Presumably, the New Zealand division was not subdivided into all-arms columns, which the British brigades may have been. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The plan to defend Mersa Matruh

Like Tobruk, the defences at Mersa Matruh were in poor repair. The position was not particularly defensible, but rather the place had a history. The Crusader battle had been launched from Mersa Matruh, for example. The actual arrangements were in disarray. There were the forces retreating from the frontier. There were reinforcement arriving, such as the politically sensitive New Zealand division, under the command of General Freyberg. There were units releaving others, and the overall impression was of chaos. By 25 June 1942, General Auchinleck had had enough. He relieved General Ritchie and personally took command of the Eighth Army. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Where was the Luftwaffe?

As Axis forces finally advanced to the east on 24 June 1942, there was almost no sign of the Luftwaffe. In fact, all the Axis air forces had been preparing for an all-out assault on Malta, along with an invasion. There had also been heavy fighting around Bir Hacheim and Tobruk. The sole appearance of Axis aircraft were the few reconnaissance aircraft that overflew the retreating British troops. the Axis air forces would require a great deal of preparation and transport to move forward to support the rapidly advancing mobile forces (the DAK and Italian 20th Corps). This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The 8th Army withdraws from the Egyptian border

With the 8th Army withdrawn from the Egyptian-Libyan border area, the Desert Air Force light bombers and fighter-bombers made a strong effort against the Axis forces. On 23 June 1942, the light bombers flew 45 sorties and the fighter-bombers flew 30 sorties. The fighters made their first jump back to pre-prepared fields at Mersa Matruh. The bombers were moved further back to El Daba. The Axis mobile forces were held up until 24 June due to a shortage of fuel. The DAK and the Italian 20th Corps cut across to the south, while the 21st Corps and 10th Corps moved east along the coastal road. The Douglas Bostons and Martin Baltimores flew 72 sorties on 24 June while the fighter bombers flew another 30 sorties. The Beaufighters had a greater range, so they attacked transport. There had been almost no sign of Axis fighter aircraft in this phase. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Desert Air Force

The Desert Air Force, at the time of Tobruk's fall, had 22 fighter squadrons, two tactical reconnaissance squadrons, and four light bomber squadrons. The aircraft were a mixture of British made and American made aircraft:

11 Hurricane squadrons
6 Kitty Hawk squadrons
1 Spitfire squadron
2 Tomahawk squadrons
2 Beaufighter squadrons

Tactical Reconnaissance
1 Hurricane squadron
1 Tomahawk squadron

Light Bombers
2 Boston squadrons
1 Blenheim squadron
1 Baltimore squadron

The Desert Air Force had 463 aircraft on 22 June 1942, with another 420 distributed across the Middle East. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

American reinforcements to the Middle East

The fall of Tobruk had many repercussions. One was that the Americans decided to send air units and aircraft to the Middle East. They would leave the United States in late June or early July 1942. The reinforcements included the following:

One squadron of 27 Lockheed Hudsons
One group of 80 Curtis Kittyhawks
One group of 57 North American B-25 Mitchells
One group of 35 Consolidated B-24 Liberators

This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The air force takes the load

As we said, Air Vice-Marshal Conyngham had a chain of landing zones prepared going deep into Egypt, so he was prepared for any rapid withdrawals. A great effort was made to increase the size of the Desert Air Force that would help slow the Axis advance. So much fighter strength was shifted to the desert that the defence of the Nile Delta was left to some Beaufighter night fighters and a few Spitfires. One bright spot was that there was finally a full squadron of Martin Baltimore day bombers. They were supplemented at night by a Blenheim squadron (no longer fit for day bombing). The size of the threat to the Middle East was finally realized and aircraft destined for India and the Far East were diverted to the Middle East. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The First Plan

General Ritchie's plan was to use a force commanded by General Gott to delay the Axis advance into Egypt. Doing that would allow the RAF to continue to operate from airfields close to the border and to bomb stores that had been left intact. Everything would be staked on a decisive battle to be fought at Mersa Matruh. The 1st South African Division was sent off to El Alamein. In the event, the delaying action became a normal withdrawal. One innovation was the sequence of landing-grounds that were prepared on the way deeper into Egypt. This was an innovation introduced by Air Vice-Marshal Conyngham to allow almost continuous air support to the army. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Frontier, Mersa Matruh, or El Alamein?

The question of the moment on 23 June 1942 was where to fight to stop Rommel. The Defence Committee in London would have liked to see a stand made at the Frontier. For a number of reasons, this was appealing. First, it would keep Axis forces further away from Alexandria and the Nile Delta. Secondly, Allied Air Forces would be better able to protect convoys to Malta and to interdict Axis supply lines.

In the Middle East, the commanders thought that they lacked sufficient mobile forces, especially armour, to risk a fight at the frontier. Mersa Matruh was another 120 miles East of the Frontier. They calculated that there would be that much more strain on Axis supply lines by fighting at Matruh. The problem with fighting at Mersa Matruh was that there still was a lack of mobile forces and defending Mersa Matruh without them was problematic. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The British plans from 21 June 1942

When the British commanders could see that Tobruk was about to fall, they reported their plans to London. General Ritchie had recommended not trying to hold the frontier, but to slow the enemy advance to give time to withdraw to Mersa Matruh. The New Zealand division was being sent to Mersa Matruh where there were some fixed defences for a division-sized unit. The one bright spot was that the British were strong in the air. The British proceeded to plan on a delaying action on the frontier to give the Matruh defenders more time to prepare defensive positions. One new difficulty was that by withdrawing to Matruh, the Axis air forces would be positioned to hit the base at Alexandria and other targets in the Nile delta and the Red Sea. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Axis plans on 26 June 1942

Italian naval forces would make a strong effort to push convoys to Benghazi and Tobruk. They would also use aircraft and submarines to deliver supplies. On 26 June 1942, Rommel had Cavallero and Bastico as vistors to his headquarters that was now located near Sidi Barrani. Rommel wanted to take El Alamein and use that as a base to push deep into Egypt. Mussolini wanted to take the Suez Canal and to be able to impede the arrival of British reinforcements. The one positive benefit to the British of losing Tobruk was that the Americans agreed to supply 300 Sherman tanks and 100 105mm self-propelled guns to the British in the Middle East. They would also supply "a large number of aircraft". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The situation after Tobruk fell

Mussolini sent Marshal Cavallero to North Africa to provide support to Rommel's advance towards the Suez Canal. Field-Marshal Kesselring thought that the correct next move would be to capture Malta, but he realized the possibilities with an immediate advance into Egypt by Rommel's forces. By 26 June 1942, Rommel had moved forward to Sidi Barrani. Rommel intended to make Mersa Matruh his next objective. From there, he would move deeper into Egypt, where he hoped to reach Cairo by 30 June. One issue was that British forces had commenced offensive operations against Axis shipping from Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

After Tobruk's capture

Mussolini's overriding concern was to capture Malta with the planned Operation Herkules. Mussolini had only authorized Rommel to advance to the Egyptian frontier, where he must wait until Malta was captured. Rommel would have none of it, however. He had an ally in Hitler, who was concerned that the capture of Malta could become a long and drawn out battle. Hitler asked Mussolini to reconsider and allow Rommel to advance into Egypt. Mussolini finally agreed with Hitler, as he coveted the Suez Canal. They decided to neutralize Malta rather than capture the island. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Fall of Tobruk

The Official History estimates that 33,000 men were taken prisoner at Tobruk, when the fortress was surrendered. The German casualties in the campaign to capture Tobruk were about 3,360 men killed. South Africa lost about one-third of their men in North Africa was prisoners. The German practice of officers leading in combat led to high casualties (perhaps as much as 70% in the motorized infantry and armoured units).

The main reason that the fortress fell was that a decision had been made as far back as February 1942 not to allow Tobruk to be besieged again. Because of that, the defenses were in poor condition. On top of that, the 2nd South African Division was not suited to defend the place, as the commander and men lacked the necessary experience.

With the surrender of Tobruk, Rommel was promoted to Field-Marshal. He expected to be able to blitz all the way to the Suez canal. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tobruk falls

In the night of 20 June to 21 June 1942, there were discussions about either holding out, surrendering, or trying to break out from Tobruk. General Klopper sent General Ritchie a message that the mobile troops would attempt to break out before morning. Apparently, no breakout was attempted and a surrender was arranged in the morning. A few units held out for longer, such as the Gurkha Rifles and the Cameron Highlanders. Some troops did succeed in escaping, however. 199 officers and men from the Coldstream Guards and 188 other men broke out to the southwest and were escorted by South African armoured cars. A very few others escaped to arrive on the frontier, in one case, much later. The loss of Tobruk devastated Churchill. He was in Washington at the time of the surrender and took the news very hard. The loss resulted in a no-confidence motion in Parliament on 25 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The attack on Tobruk, underway

The Italian 20th Corps was sent after the 15th Panzer Division, which had run into some British tanks, which had put up a good fight. The 21st Panzer Division came up, as well, and by 1:30pm, they had taken King's Cross, which was a high point. The harbour was hit by gunfire by 2pm. They had captured the town by 7pm and stopped the fight at 8pm, until morning. A series of missteps on General Klopper's part meant that an organized counter-attack never happened. Finally, a breakout was attempted in the night, as the situation had become untenable. By 6am on 21 June 1942, General Klopper had decided to surrender. This is based on the account in Vol.III of of the Official History.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The attack on Tobruk started on 20 June 1942

A small outpost had been kept outside of Tobruk at Acroma. These troops were withdrawn on 18 June 1942. A reconnaissance force of South African armoured cars and small columns continued to screen the defenses at Tobruk. Rommel had asked Field-Marshal Kesselring for a concentrated air attack at the time of the assault on Tobruk. Kesselring wanted to finish with Tobruk so they could concentrate on Malta, so he was a willing accomplice. The orders for the attack were given on 18 June. The attack would commence on 20 June. The Axis bombers began their attack at 5:20 in the morning. German troops moved forward to start the attack at 7am. Crossings were constructed over the tank ditch and the tanks moved forward at 7:45. The leading tanks of the 15th Panzer Division actually crossed the ditch at 8:30. They were followed by those of the 21st Panzer Division, which had been slowed by mines. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Rommel's attack plans

Rommel intended to attack Tobruk on the southeast side, as he had in November 1941. The attackers comprised "the 21st Panzer Division on the right, the 'Menny' Group of the infantry of the 90th Light Division in the centre, and the 15th Panzer Division on the left." To their left would be the Italian 20th Corps, also a mechanized unit. Italian infantry from one 10th Corps division would follow the DAK and occupy territory as it was captured. The other division would surround El Adem. In the south lay the Italian Littorio armoured division. The bulk of the 90th Light Division and the reconnassance units would cause a distraction at the frontier. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Preparations at Tobruk in mid-June 1942

The South African Major-General Klopper, the 2nd South African Division commander, also commanded the defence of Tobruk. Brigadiers Willison and Johnson had made suggestions to Klopper, but he implemented none of them. General Gott had been in Tobruk, but General Ritchie ordered him to leave. The garrison awaited events on 20 June 1942, prepared to fight. General Auchinleck was becoming increasingly concerned by what he saw. He thought that the preparations in Tobruk were progressing too slowly. He also anticipate that the attack, when it came, would come from the east. All the records from 20 and 21 June were lost. The account of the battle on those days was built from personal accounts, as that was all the official history authors had available to them. The result of the battle was the capture of Tobruk and almost all of its defenders. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Artillery at Tobruk in mid-June 1942

Tobruk was equipped with a rather meager supply of artillery in mid-June 1942. They already been stripped of 18 3.7in AA guns, which had been sent back to the Egyptian frontier. There were three field artillery regiments. The usual equipment of such a regiment was 24-25pdr gun-howitzers. There were also two medium regiments. Each was equipped with 8-4.5in guns and 8-155mm howitzers. The infantry units now had organic anti-tank artillery assigned. There were also two anti-tank batteries. The total count of anti-tank guns consisted of 15-6pdr anti-tank guns, 32-2pdr's, and 8-Bofors anti-tank guns. The anti-aircraft artillery was reduced to 18-3.7in AA guns and one regiment of light AA guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The fortifications at Tobruk in June 1942

Tobruk was originally captured by the 6th Australian Division in January 1941. The perimeter of the fortifications was essentially the same in June 1942 as they had been a year-and-a-half before. The fortifications had been improved with an inner ring that ran about two miles in from the outer perimeter. The two brigades of the 2nd South African Division were the primary defenders of Tobruk. They occupied defenses that were inferior to those of late 1941, as the anti-tank ditch was partially filled in and many mines had been removed for use elsewhere. The division did not have the experience and leadership of their predecessors. The other defending units included the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, the 201st Guards Brigade, and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade. The army tank brigade was reduced to the 4th RTR with 35 Valentines and the 7th RTR with a mix of 26 Valentines and Matildas. The defenders had a few of the new 6pdr anti-tank guns among them. There was a mix of artillery units, as well. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The 20 June 1942 assessment

On 20 June 1942, the commanders in the Middle East sent a message to the Chiefs of Staff in Britain that indicated that they had no idea that they were on the brink of Tobruk being overrun. They continued with their usual over-vonfidence that would soon be shattered. They listed the known reinforcements that were enroute to the Middle East and thought that Tobruk was well-defended and supplied. They thought that Tobruk should be able to hold out until relieved. The 8th Armoured Division was due to arrive in late June and the 44th Division was due to arrive in mid-July. Even if Tobruk was taken, surely, the Axis forces were in no shape to advance into Egypt. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tobruk loses air support

By 18 and 19 June 1942, the Desert Air Force had to withdraw all the way back to Sidi Barrani. They had been forced to withdraw from the Gambut fields and Sidi Azeiz could not be protected against fast-advancing Axis forces. What this meant was that Tobruk no longer had air support. One squadron of Kittyhawks with long range tanks could reach Tobruk, but that was the extent of what could be done. By early on 20 June, the German reconnaissance units had reached Sidi Azeiz. The Axis air forces spent 18 and 19 June readying for the big attack on Tobruk on 20 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The British plan on 18 and 19 June 1942

General Auchinleck was now involved with developing plans to fight the advancing Axis forces that has enveloped Tobruk and pushed past towards the border. The plan by late 18 June 1942 was to use the 13th Corps, supplemented by the 7th Armoured Division, with the remnants of the 4th Armoured Brigade, the 7th Motor Brigade, and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, as a mobile force. The British were reduced to 66 tanks and had six columns of artillery and motorized infantry. The 1st South African and 50th Divisions provided one brigade each to be used to constitute three columns of mobile infantry and artillery. The rest of those divisions would be concentrated on the border, with the 10th Indian Division, to defend that area. They knew that there was a chance that Rommel would strike towards the border, but expected an attack on Tobruk as being more likely. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tobruk surrounded: 18 June 1942

By early morning of 18 June 1942, Tobruk was surrounded by Axis forces. Axis control extended east about 40 miles. The DAK was situated on the east side of Tobruk, while the Ariete Division was southeast. The 10th Corps (Italian Pavia and Brescia infantry divisions)was on the south side. The 21st Corps (Sabratha and Trento divisions) was to the west, with some German infantry. General Ritchie reported to General Auchinleck, the theater commander, that he was not able to operate against the forces around Tobruk and still defend the frontier. At that, General Auchinleck flew out to the front to assess the situation. The result was that 13th Corps would protect the frontier, the 30th Corps would be withdrawn into reserve, and the army would directly command the forces in Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

the 20th Indian Brigade tries to withdraw

As the 4th Armoured Brigade tried to disengage to the southeast, the 30th Corps commander, General Norrie, could see that Belhamed was about to be surrounded. He ordered the 20th Indian Brigade to break out and withdraw back to Sollum. Two battalions ran into German forces astride the road and were captured. The headquarters, another battalion, and the 97th Field Regiment succeeded in breaking out. Air Marshal Coningham heard that El Adem was in Axis hands and immediately ordered a withdrawal from Gambut. Fortunately, the Axis air forces were busy providing air cover to their advancing troops and so did not prevent the withdrawal. The fighters flew to Sidi Aziz while the day bombers flew back to fields near Mersa Matruh. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The 4th Armoured Brigade on 17 June 1942

The 4th Armoured Brigade, with composite regiments, had about 90 tanks, the 1st RHA, and the 1st King's Royal Rifle Corps. They had an encounter with the enemy near Sidi Rezegh and then spent the night about 10 miles to the southeast. Early on 17 June, the brigade was performing maintenance on their tanks and had dispatched two groups to support the 20th Indian Brigade. That had the unfortunate affect of dispersing the brigade's artillery regiment. In the afternoon of 17 June, the division commander, General Frank Messervy, had ordered the brigade to move to the Trigh Capuzzo, between Belhamed and El Adem. Before the 4th Armoured Brigade had moved to that position, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions drove into the brigade. The 9th Lancers were closet to the enemy and faced them to the north. The 3rd/5th RTR were to their southwest and were next to come in contact. The 1st/6th RTR was yet to engage, but only partially engaged due to a misunderstanding. The 4th Armoured Brigade was forced to withdraw southeastward. Brigadier Richards, the brigade commander, withdrew to a Field Maintenance Center to be in position to return to action in the morning. The brigade ended the day with 58 operable tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

16 and 17 June 1942

The 20th Indian Brigade was holding key positions at Belhamed, with one of its four battalions at Sidi Rezegh. After an attack by the 21st Panzer Division late on 16 June, General Norrie considered withdrawing the brigade, but decided to hold on a little longer. While this was happening, the Desert Air Force at Gambut found itself exposed to attack, because they were only informed that El Adem had been abandoned twelve hours after the withdrawal. The air force was responding to requests for attacks from the 20th Indian Brigade. On 16 June, the 4th Armoured Brigade, now a scratch unit without its regular regiments, was near Sidi Rezegh, acting in support, with about 90 tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The airfields at Gambut

On 15 June 1942, the Axis forces were getting very close to Gambut, where the Desert Air Force was based. Air Vice-Marshal Coningham decided to stay there with his aircraft, so that they could continue to support the forces defending El Adem. At Gambut, there was an armoured car screen from the No.2 Armoured Car Company, RAF. Behind the screen, Gambut was defended by "four infantry battalions and three and a half anti-aircraft batteries (ready to engage tanks if necessary)". Bostons attacked the "El Adem-Sidi Rezegh area" seven times. Fighter bombers attacked twenty times. The Germans had thought that they were taking 20mm cannon hits on their forces, but it was actually Hurricane IID's with 40mm guns. Some Bostons were attacked by Me-109s, but took no losses. The Kittyhawk escorts drove off most of the Me-109s. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Air operations were intense on 15 June 1942

On 15 June 1942, the Desert Air Force was still able to operate from the airfields at Gambut. Gambut was just 30 to 35 miles east of Tobruk, so Boston's and fighter bombers had just a short hop to where the fighting was happening to the west. The fighters needed to provide escort to them as well as to the Vigorous convoy to Malta. The Germans had flown 193 sorties against the ship in the convoy on 14 and 15 June. That actually gave the 8th Army some relief, as the bombers that might have hit them were attacking the convoy, instead. The British had sufficient fighter strength so as to have intercepted them, anyway, if they had attacked the 8th Army formations. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Withdrawal from El Adem

On 16 June 1652, General Norrie, 30th Corps commander, realized that El Adem could not be held much longer. He did not want to lose the 29th Indian Brigade, so he ordered the brigade to withdraw to the frontier. They were able to successfully withdraw early on 17 June. General Ritchie had been out of touch, so General Norrie made the decision with consultation with General Messervy. The withdrawal from El Adem left the Tobruk defenses without the southern end. That allowed the mobile Axis forces to turn the defenses. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

El Adem on 15 and 16 June 1942

The 29th Indian Brigade had two battalions holding El Adem and one battalion holding a position to the northwest. The 7th Motor Brigade was giving support to the Indian brigade. By 7:30pm on 15 June 1942, however, the 21st Panzer Division had taken the detached battalion at point B 650. By the morning of 16 June, the 30th Corps commander, General Norrie realized that he would not be able to effectively support the remaining two Indian battalions at El Adem and the force holding Belhamed, either. General Norrie told the 7th Armoured Division commander, Frank Messervy, that he expected that they would need to withdraw to the Egyptian frontier. General Ritchie was out of touch at this critical period. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Axis plans

On 15 June, Rommel was told by the high command that they were going to withdraw air forces in late June and that he had to take Tobruk, because the current plan could not support an investment of Tobruk for a long period. The priority was to take Malta, because Malta was interfering with the supply route to North Africa. Rommel wanted to move east towards Egypt as fast as possible, so his thinking was not incompatible with the high command. The British response to Axis movements and possibilities was limited by the depleted forces that were available. That led General Ritchie to consider the use of "Jock Columns". General Auchinleck disapproved of them, because they were too weak to fight a serious battle and dispersed what forces were available. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, July 10, 2009

14 and 15 June 1942

The "Vigorous" convoy was sailing to Malta on 14 June 1942, between the island of Crete and Cyrenaica. This diverted German aircraft that might otherwise have been bombing the retreating British forces. Some Bostons and Wellingtons bombed the airfields, including at Derna, on the night of 13/14 June to disrupt bombing of the convoy during the day. There were dust storms on 14 June that all but eliminated any air operations. Both British and Axis air operations were affected. The situation on 15 June was pretty grim for the British. Rommel calculated that he had won the battle and that what he was seeing was the disassembly of the British forces before Tobruk. The British tank forces were reduced to "one weak brigade of compositie regiments". Rommel's next objective was to take Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Backup to the night of 13/14 June 1942

The 201st Guards Motor Brigade withdrew from Knightsbridge during the night of 13/14 June 1942. There were still some defended points that were resolutely held by Commonwealth and British small units. They were equipped with artillery as well as infantry. The remnants of the British armour were positioned to the "south and west of Acroma". Rommel tried to get his troops to cut the coast road, by that was beyond their capabilities at this time. The Axis forces succeeded in taking Pt. 187, but the 15th Panzer Division was held at bay while the 21st Panzer Division was eventually driven back at Eluet et Tama. By early on 14 June, the 1st South African Division and the 50th Division wre ordered to withdraw from Gazala towards the Egyptian frontier. The South Africans withdrew on the afternoon of 14 June, under cover of a dust storm. They left rearguard troops behind to slow the German advance. The 50th Division rearguard broke through to escape, but the South African's did not follow and were captured. Most of the 50th Division withdrew to the Egyptian frontier by 16 June, but some moved into Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

General Ritchie had no confidence that he could make Auchinleck's plan work

General Ritchie was concerned about the losses they would take if he ordered the Tobruk garrison to fight its way out to the east. He thought that the prospects were better to simply withdraw more forces into the Tobruk fortress and hold it under siege. The problem was that General Auchinleck was opposed to that course of action, although that was what Churchill expected them to do.

Churchill opposed abandoning Tobruk, as Auchinleck was prepared to do. He had seen the ability of troops in the fortress to resist assault and thought that they could do the same thing again. Auchinleck still wanted to hold a line west of Tobruk and fight there, outside of Tobruk. Auchinleck, in the face of questions from the Prime Minister accepted that Tobruk might be surrounded, if only temporarily. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 29, 2009

More from 14 June 1942

By late in the day on 14 June 1942, General Ritchie, the 8th Army commander, had issued an instruction that his intentions were to withdraw to the Egyptian frontier. The 5th Indian and 10th Indian Divisions actually had orders to that effect. By 8:30pm, General Ritchie gave the 30th Corps commander guidance that they should not be caught in Tobruk and surrounded. They needed to protect the escarpment and cover the 13th Corps. General Ritchie was concerned that the exits from Tobruk might be blocked by Rommel's forces. When Churchill heard about the intentions that were issued, he told the commanders in the Middle East that he hoped that they did not intend to withdraw from Tobruk, leaving it to the Axis forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A disconnect between commanders

General Ritchie asked if General Auchinleck would be willing to risk Tobruk becoming surrounded and under siege, in order to be able to not have to withdraw to the Egyptian border. This was on 14 June 1942. General Auchinleck had not been aware of just how desperate the situation near Tobruk had become. Auchinleck still believed that the Germans and Italians had suffered as well in the battle and could still be fought west of Tobruk. Auchinleck wanted to hold Tobruk, but did not want the fortress isolated and put under siege by the Axis forces. General Ritchie did not see this reply until 4pm on 14 June, after he returned to his headquarters after meeting with the corps commanders. Ritchie wanted to allow Tobruk to become besieged and told that to General Auchinleck. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 22, 2009

14 June 1942: the British had lost the battle

Early in 1942, General Auchinleck had decided that he would not try to hold Tobruk while it was under siege, if such a situation arose. By late in the day on 13 June, 1942, General Ritchie realized that they had lost the battle on that day. Early on 14 June, he ordered a withdrawal to the Egyptian frontier. General Ritchie wanted to withdraw the divisions in the Gazala line before they were surrounded. With Tobruk not an option, he could only withdraw to Egypt. In previous battles, the British would have just withdrawn into Tobruk and setup to defend the fortress. General Ritchie telephoned headquarters and then sent a long dispatch in the early afternoon. He was directed to defend Tobruk, but to not allow his forces to be pinned there and put under siege. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The abortive attack on Ploesti in June 1942

The Americans sent a group of B-24 Liberator bombers to Egypt in preparation for a raid on the oil fields at Ploesti, in Rumania. This group of bombers and their men was called the Halverson Detachment. A attack force flew from Fayid (close to the Suez Canal), taking off before dawn on 12 June 1942. The plan to form up and make a concentrated attack failed, and worse yet, the weather was cloudy when they arrived near Ploesti. They had planned a high level attack, so most bombers dropped their loads into the clouds. A few dropped below the clouds, but dropped their bombs without really aiming. The planes scattered after the attack. Four planes landed in neutral Turkey, two landed in Syria, and the rest landed in Iraq, as was the original plan. One British Liberator and the seven American planes participated in the "Vigorous" convoy action, which happened right after the attack on Ploesti. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wellingtons in action in late May and early June 1942

Wellingtons, operating from airfields on Malta were active during late May and early June 1942. Malta was just starting to recover from the severe pounding and could not do much in North Africa. Wellingtons mostly operated against ports and airfields. No.205 Group flew 403 sorties from 26 May until 13 June. They mined the harbour at Benghazi (four times) and hit airfields at Tmimi, Martuba, Berka, and Derna.From 8 June, they hit Italian ports prior to the next two convoys to Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Belhamed forward base had to be abandoned

A great deal of effort had been expended to extend the rail head to Belhammed, the forward supply base. The work was finished on 12 June 1942, as the situation near Gazala and Tobruk deteriorated. By 14 June, the order was given to removed from Belhamed. Most had been cleared by 16 June, as there was a plan in place that was executed. General Ritchie ordered the remaining petrol to be dumped on 16 June. Tobruk still had a large supply of stores, fuel, and ammunition. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

13 June 1942, a bad day for the British

On 13 June, Rommel planned to send the 15th Panzer Division west and the 21st Panzer Division east to "cut off Knightsbridge". He also ordered the 90th Light Division into the battle from near El Adem. In the morning, the 2nd Armoured Brigade and 22nd Armoured Brigade, with some infantry tanks from the 32nd Army Tank Brigade fought and resisted east of Knightsbridge. At 3pm in the afternoon, the attack by 21st Panzer Division on the 2nd Scots Guards, one battery of the 11th RHA, and the 6th South African Field Battery at the west end of Maabus er Rigel created a crisis. The 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade were sent to help fight the 21st Panzer Division.

There were constant dust storms which greatly limited air action. In one case, some Kittyhawks attacked a Ju-88 formation that had a heavy escort. The result was four lost Kittyhawks.

At the end of 13 June, the British only had about fifty cruiser tanks and twenty infantry tanks remaining. They had lost possession of so much ground that there was no possibility of recovering and repairing lost tanks. As many as 417 tanks had been recovered up to this point. A full 210 had been repaired and another 122 were sent back to base workshops. Another 138 13th Corps infantry tanks were recovered during this period, as well. This left the British with little option but to withdraw from Knightsbridge, which General Gott ordered during the night of 13/14 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The British plans for 13 June 1942

Late on 12 June 1942, General Ritchie believed that the battle would now center on the infantry divisions in the 13th Corps. He hoped to place the 1st Armoured Division under the command of 13th Corps to support them better. He was out of communication with General Lumsden, the 1st Armoured Division commander, however. General Ritchie was not able to pass orders to General Lumsden until the 13th. The British plan included the 7th Motor Brigade at El Adem to hit the Axis forces from behind. At El Adem, the 10th Indian Division was also supposed to engage the Axis forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, May 29, 2009

General Ritchie starts to anticipate Rommel's moves

Later on 12 June 1942, General Ritchie learned of the British tank losses and he realized that Rommel might well decide to move north and pin the 1st South African Division and the 50th Division against the sea. General Ritchie thought that his only options were to continue the battle or withdraw to the Egyptian frontier. The latter would leave Tobruk cut off and vulnerable. General Ritchie decided that standing and fighting would be better than risking a running battle and withdrawal. General Auchinleck, who had come forward, agreed with his decision. Churchill learned of the situation and agreed that they should stand and fight. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, May 25, 2009

12 June 1942 at Knightsbridge

British tactical communications seem to have been atrocious as the time of the Gazala battle. Conditions were hazy with a lot of dust in the air. The German anti-tank gunners used this as cover to push their guns forward. The deadly guns were the 50mm PAK38's, which had an extremely low-silhouette. They chewed up British armour on 12 June 1942, near Knightsbridge. General Lumsden, the 1st Armoured Division commander, was out of communication with his corps commander, General Norrie, so he was left to make his own decisions. General Lumsden knew that he had taken heavy losses and was in no place to go on the offensive. General Norrie, who had lost touch with the battle, still was thinking of offensive operations. General Lumsden decided to continue to hold Knightsbridge, inspite of his heavy losses. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The air battle on 11 and 12 June 1942

The British air forces saw the Axis movements north from Bir Hacheim later in the day on 11 June 1942. By the morning of 12 June, they knew that the 90th Light Division was near El Adem and commenced to attack them from the air, almost continuously. The 90th Light Division found these attacks to be non-effective and only a minor nuisance. There were about twenty low-level attacks by British aircraft during the day. The British had the air to themselves, however, on 12 June, as the Axis air forces were absent from the battle near El Adem. They were busy near Knightsbridge and Acroma. The biggest attack was a 100 plane raid at about 8pm which was intercepted by six British fighter squadrons. A huge air battle ensued. British fighters flew 583 sorties on the day. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Gazala Battle on 12 June 1942 turns against the British

The 30th Corps commander, General Norrie, decided to go on the offensive, early on 12 June 1942, since he believed that the Axis forces were dispersed. He wanted the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades to head south and then attack the 15th Panzer Division. The 7th Armoured Division commander, General Frank Messervy, disagreed with this move, and decided to go and talk with his corps commander in person. Near El Adem, he encountered Axis forces and was "out of touch with everyone". Since they never got the order to advance, the two armoured brigades sat and fought off a half-hearted attack by the 15th Panzer Division, which was supposed to keep a defensive posture. At noon, Rommel decided to hit the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades from front and rear with his two panzer divisions. Since General Norrie could not find General Messervy, he put the 7th Armoured Division brigades under the command of the 2nd Armoured Division commander, who brought forward the understrength 22nd Armoured Brigade. At this point, the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades were hit by the 15th Panzer Division. The 4th Armoured Brigade went over the escarpment, partly by mistake and partly because of the Axis attacks. The British had sustained heavy tank losses due to skillful use of anti-tank guns, which were pushed forward. General Norrie did not know about the losses that had been taken, and assumed that they armour was still intact. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The British tank situation on 12 June 1942

The British tank situation on 12 June 1942 was not as good as General Ritchie had believed, but they still had a fairly strong tank force:

Grants Stuarts Crusaders Infantry tanks
2nd Armoured Brigade 17 3 25

4th Armoured Brigade 39 56

22nd Armoured Brigade 27 5 34

32nd Army Tank Brigade 63

7th Motor Brigade 16
(detachment of the
2nd Royal Gloucestershire

The British had 83 Grants, 64 Stuarts, and 59 Crusaders, for a total of 206 cruiser tanks. They also had the 63 infantry tanks, mostly Valentines, but probably some Matildas, as well. There is a slight possibility that they could have had some A.10 Cruiser Mk.II, which had a similar speed to the Valentine. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade was the reconstituted 3rd Armoured Brigade, from early 1941. They definitely had some of the older A.9's and A.10's, if not A.13's in 1941. This list draws upon Note 1 from page 240 in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

German armour on 11 June 1942

On 11 June 1942, the Axis tank strength was greatly reduced. There were 27 Pzkw IIIJ (or perhaps Pzkw IIIL), 6 Pzkw IVF2, 25 Pzkw II, 83 various models of Pzkw III, and 8 Pzkw IV tanks. There were also about 60 Italian M13/40 and M14/41 tanks. Rommel ordered the 15th Panzer Division, 90th Light Division, and Italian Trieste Motor Division to move towards El Adem. 21st Panzer Division was to show activity north from Sidra ridge. That led General Norrie to believe that he might have an opportunity to strike the Axis forces, which he thought were dispersed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The British defences on 11 June 1942

A minefield stretched from Acroma to the sea and blocked the Axis forces to the west. Acroma, itself had its crossing held by the 2nd Scots Guards. The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade held El Adem. The 201st Guards Motor Brigade held Knightsbridge. The 2nd South African Division held the Tobruk fortress. The 1st South African and 50th Division defences at Gazala were still unbreached. The infantry defences were, therefore, relatively well positioned. The armour was in much worse shape, and to make matters worse, the strength was less than General Ritchie realized. The artillery was also greatly diminished. A full seven field artillery regiments had been lost in the battle to date. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

By 11 June 1942

As of 11 June 1942, the British defensive front at Gazala continued to hold, despite the Axis successes. The front was stabilized by the two divisions that were still intact: the 1st South African and the 5th Division. Besides that small units were spread across the desert in strong points with infantry, anti-tank guns, and field artillery. The anti-tank guns were in short supply, however. The infantry and especially the armour were becoming increasingly fractured. Because of the difficulties in resupplying units with tanks and soldiers, the armoured units had become mixtures composed from many different units. Worse, yet, while General Ritchie thought that on 10 June, he still had 250 cruiser tanks and 80 infantry tanks, he only had 77 Grants, 52 Crusaders, 56 Stuarts, and 63 infantry tanks. All the infantry tanks were in the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The 1st Free French Brigade Group

The 1st Free French Brigade Group were the defenders of Bir Hacheim. The brigade consisted of the following units:

2e bataillon Légion étrangère
3e bataillon Légion étrangère
2e bataillon de marche de l'Oubanghi
1er bataillon d'infanterie de marine (coloniale)
1er bataillon du Pacifique
1er regiment d'artillerie
1er bataillon de fusiliers marins (AA)
an anti-tank company, engineers, signal, medical,
signal, and administrative troops

They had 26 field guns, 62 anti-tank guns, and 44 mortars

This is from Footnote 1 on page 237 of the British Official History.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Back to Bir Hacheim

While the Cauldron battle was being fought, the 90th Light Division and Italian Trieste division had been trying take Bir Hacheim in the south. They had good air support, although the support was very grudgingly given. Rommel had decided that Bir Hacheim needed to be taken by 8 June 1942 so that they could return to the task of attacking the Gazala line from the rear. To bolster the attack, Rommel sent the 15th Panzer Division south to join the battle. British columns operated outside the Bir Hacheim perimeter. They were formed from the 7th Motor Brigade, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, and the Free French. By 8 June, the air attacks had increased in intensity. 58 bombers escorted by 54 fighters were used in the attacks. The Free French needed help, but the army was not able to immediately help. Instead, the RAF mounted 478 sorties on 8 June against the Axis forces attacking Bir Hacheim. On 9 June, the British air effort was greatly diminshed. General Ritchie decided early on 10 June that the French needed to withdraw from Bir Hacheim,as they could not be sustained in that position. Rommel personally led a DAK attack that broke into Bir Hacheim from the north. The 7th Motor Brigade arrived with a large motor convoy and embarked 2700 men from the original 3600 and took them away successfully. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Defeat in the Cauldron

The British attempt to destroy the Axis forces in the Cauldron was a failure. The Axis forces admired the "courage and self-sacrifice" of the British soldiers, but that was not enough to overcome the command problems that existed. Rommel seems to have been successful in allowing the British to attack and be defeated. The best of the British tactics, artillery concentration and infantry attacking at night, were not enough. Once the battle was underway, the British had lost control of the action while Rommel personally commanded the battle as it progressed. But the battle for the Cauldron was over and the focus would shift to Bir Hacheim. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Hurricane IID arrives in the desert

About this time, 6 June 1942, the first Hurricane IID aircraft arrived in the Desert. No.6 Squadron had nine when the squadron started operations. Their 40mm cannon seemed too large for the Hurricane. Because of the weight of the guns, the Hurricanes were stripped to reduce weight. With the guns, with 15 rounds each, they were still very overweight. Still, they could destroy Axis tanks with hits to the thin upper armour.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"The Cauldron" lost on 6 June 1942

For some reason, the RAF was not able to effectively intervene in the battle for the Cauldron on 6 June 1942 when infantry and artillery was attacked by the Axis forces. The RAF frequently turned down requests for support during the day. This was at point B180, which was south-southwest of Knightsbridge. There were a Gurkha battalion and two Indian battalions, along with the 50th Reconnaissance Battalion and three RA Field Regiments and one RHA regiment. The Royal Artillery fought to the death, killed at their guns. A very few infantrymen escaped to the east. 7th Armoured Division was not able to intervene, despite having the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades. The usual problem occurred. Rommel knew what was happening, while the British commanders had lost touch with the the battle. They were not able to follow events as they happened. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Chaos erupts: the divisional headquarters are overrun or dispersed

The Official History does a poor job of mentioning the date when events happen. Apparently, still on the afternoon of 5 June 1942, Rommel decided to go on the offensive with his mobile forces. The Ariete Division and the 21st Panzer Division attacked to the East and the 15th Panzer Division attacked north towards Knightsbridge. The 9th Indian Division and 7th Armoured Division headquarters were scattered by these attacks. Whatever control was being asserted over the constituent units was lost. The 5th Indian Division HQ was at El Adem. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was hit by the 15th Panzer Division. What made the situation worse was that General Ritchie, the army commander, had no real idea that the situation and gone so badly wrong. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

No one in command

As the situation worsened, it was every division for its self. The 7th Armoured Division and 5th Indian Division commanders both recognized that they had serious problems, but there was no corps commander between them and the army commander. The army commander was oblivious, so the divisions continued to commit their forces piecemeal, where they were defeated individually. The 2nd Armoured Brigade group was this skeleton organization with one tank regiment, one motor battalion, and one RHA regimentIt was sent off on its own towards a point to the south of Knightsbridge. At this point, on 5 June 1942, Rommel was formulating his plan of action, given the developing situation. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

the Gazala Battle turns against the British on 5 June 1942

Initially, the battle on 5 June 1942 favoured the British. Early in the morning, the battle turned and the Germans, particularly, had the advantage. The initial British thrust in the early morning dark succeeded only because the attacking forces stopped short of the main Axis force. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had a strength, before the fight, of 156 tanks. They were a mixture of Grants, Stuarts, and Crusaders. They quickly ran into heavy artillery fire and turned north. They left the infantry unsupported when they were struck by German tanks. The 2nd Highland Light Infantry were driven backwards onto the Gurkhas. The same sort of thing happened to the 2nd West Yorkshires. The British fought dispersed, without support and could be beaten in detail. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade had started their attack on the Sidra ridge with 70 infantry tanks and lost 50 before the attack was canceled. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The flawed command structure

The planned attack on the Cauldron was to be mounted with no single officer in command. Instead, there were these independent units involved, but operating on their own. The plan sounds like another typical 8th Army operations, with the forces sent off in all directions, acting alone. The 10th Indian Brigade would attack to the west. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade would attack south and take the Sidra Ridge. Following those movements, timed to happen sequentially, the 7th Armoured Division and 9th Indian Brigade would attack west into the Cauldron. Why could they have not been more concentrated and moved together? This was all to commence on 5 June 1942. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Auchinleck's plan

By 2 June 1942, General Auchinleck wanted to mount an attack towards Bir el Temrad from the XIII Corps front. He was the only one in favor of such a move, as it was opposed by General Ritchie and his corps commanders. He had also thought about a turning movement around the southern end of the front, but gave it up in face of opposition and the questions about their ability to keep the attack supplied. He then decided that they would attack the Axis forces in the vicinity of "The Cauldron". The attack would be mounted on 5 June and would start with the 10th Indian Brigade and the with 4th RTR support easily took their objective. The other moves also went well, but that was because the Axis forces were further to the west than the plan had foreseen. The result was that the result was very bad. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Other moves on 2 June 1942

Rommel tried to distract the British from Bir Hacheim by sending the 21st Panzer Division on a feint towards Eluet et Tamar on 2 June 1942. They encountered the 5th RTR and destroyed 12 of their tanks. The 5th RTR was one of the regiments in the 4th Armoured Brigade. That was the only major movement for a few days while both sides were working on recovering and repairing tanks and reorganizing for the next phase of the battle. The DAK had been reduced to just 130 runners from the total of about 320 tanks that they had at the start of the battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The fight for Bir Hacheim, starting 2 June 1942

The Germans and Italian forces moved on Bir Hacheim next. 2 June 1942 was a day of sand storms. On 3 June, the German air force started bombing Bir Hacheim. For their part, the RAF hit the easy targets presented by the concentrated German and Italian units moving on Bir Hacheim. The RAF shot down 16 German and Italian aircraft at the cost of 13 lost. The Free French forces were heartened by the strong air support.

British and Commonwealth ground forces were active, but mostly with Jock columns operating on the German supply lines that cut through the minefields at Trigh Capuzzo and the Trigh el Abd. Columns were drawn from the 1st South African Division, the 50th Division, and the 7th Motor Brigade. The one brigade-size attack was made by the 1st South African Brigade against the Trento Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Bir Hacheim

Rommel was in a somewhat more secure position by 2 June 1942. After taking the Sidi Muftah area, he intended to attack Bir Hacheim with some of his better infantry: the 90th Light Division and the Italian Trieste Division (motorized). The Official History notes that by this phase of the battle, Rommel had lost General Gause and Colonel Westphal to wounds.

Since 30 May, the British had been very active in the air, but by 2 June, they had taken many losses and had to stop low level attacks on Axis ground forces due to the dwindling stocks of Kittyhawks. The British had lost 50 aircraft in the first 5 days of the battle. The only good sign was the arrival of the first Spitfires in the fighter role. The plan was to use them to fly high cover for Hurricanes used as fighter-bombers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The battle turns against the British by 2 June 1942

General Ritchie seems to have been slow to react to the events of 30 May 1942. General Ritchie had planned an attack in the vicinity of where the 150th Brigade had been located. He hoped to destroy the Axis forces in the Cauldron, but the attack that was mounted was hopelessly inadequate. One battalion from 151st Brigade attacked Sidra ridge, but was rebuffed on the night of 1st/2nd June. The 10th Infantry Brigade never even responded, due to the late receipt of orders. While the British plan still-fired, Rommel was busy formulating new plans. His next objective was the Free French at Bir Hacheim. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The 150th Infantry Brigade was lost on 1 June 1942

The 150th Infantry Brigade had fought well against heavy odds, but they were unsupported. On 1 June 1942, they were heavily attacked by divebombers and were defeated by "concentric" attacks. The 150th Brigade had been holding five miles of ground, and had been attacked from all sides. The British Army command was so inept that Rommel was able to withdraw strong forces from "the Cauldron" to throw at 150th Brigade. 30th Corps had sent the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades against Rommel's anti-tank screen and they had been rebuffed on 30 May. In typical fashion, parts of the 4th Armoured Brigade and 201st Guards Brigade had been sent off on foolish errands. At this point, General Ritchie and his commanders had lost control of the battle to Rommel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Against the 150th Brigade, starting early on 30 May 1942

The Germans had not been aware of the 150th Brigade, early on 30 May 1942, until they had tried to break through to the west, south of Sidi Muftah. They lost 11 tanks and stopped. The breakthrough force had included the 5th Panzer Regiment. The next day, the attack recommenced with greater force. The 90th Light Division and the Italian Trieste Division had been added. They were stopped and waited until 1 June, the next day, when they had strong divebombing support and elements of the 21st Panzer Division. The 150th Brigade was increasingly being pressed and was in great danger. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The 150th Infantry Brigade

Vol.III of the Official History gives the composition of the 150th Infantry Brigade on about 28 May 1942:

150th Infantry Brigade
commander: Brigadier C.W. Haydon

4th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment
4th Battalion, The Green Howards
5th Battalion, The Green Howards
D Company, 2nd Battalion Cheshire Regiment (MG)
72nd Field Regiment RA
25th/26th Medium Battery (7th Medium Regiment) RA
259th (Norfolk Yeomanry) Anti-Tank Battery RA
81st/25th LAA Battery RA
232nd Field Company RE

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rommel changes his plans on 29 May 1942

Rommel decided that his plan to push north needed to be dropped due to his supply situation. His new plan, as of 29 May 1942, was to screen the British armour with anti-tank guns while his infantry broke a hole in the British minefields. That would solve his supply situation and "a way of escape, if need be". The British were over-confident and thought that he time was ripe for a counter-attack to defeat the Axis armour and disrupt the supply line. The whole idea that a counter-attack was possible was based on the mistaken idea that the Axis armour was trapped and was deteriorating. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Lord Lovat

Something reminded me of Lord Lovat today. I had seen a History Channel documentary when I was working away from home and came away with a mistaken impression of Lord Lovat's role in the Normandy invasion. I had thought that he had jumped into Normandy, but he actually went ashore at Sword Beach. He did lead part of his brigade, the 1st Special Service Brigade, to Pegasus Bridge to reach the airborne troops of the 6th Airborne Division who had gone in behind the beach in darkness. I can see that he was a charismatic leader of men in combat. I had not realized that his name was Simon Fraser although I had remembered that he was a Scot. This is the Wikipedia image of Lord Lovat in 1942 at Newhaven after Dieppe. Note that Lord Lovat was a 31-year old Lieutenant-Colonel in this photograph and was a 32-year old Brigadier at Normandy. By the wawy, he was known for carrying a Winchester rifle as his personal weapon in battle. The Wikipedia page has more about his life.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The 150th Infantry Brigade late on 28 May 1942

The 150th Infantry Brigade commander, Brigadier C.W. Haydon, knew by late on 28 May 1942 that he was in trouble. He redeployed to defend in all directions, as an attach from the East, previously his rear, seemed very likely. Early on 29 May, he was joined by the HQ of 1st Army Tank Brigade with the 44th RTR and a squadron of 42nd RTR with 30 infantry tanks. The only bright spot for the British was that General Cruewell had to make a forced landing and was captured. He had been one of the key Axis commanders and his judgment and skill would be missed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Action in the air over the Gazala Battle by 28 May 1942

For some reason, the British only attacked Axis transport for most of the time. Only by late 28 May 1942 did Bostons from No.12 Squadron SAAF hit Commonwealth Keep. This place remained in Axis hands, despite an attempt to retake it. Other Bostons hit the harbour at Derna, where a report had placed an Italian destroyer. Axis fighters and divebombers were very active over the battlefield. They mostly operated in a hit-or-miss fashion, because they had no information about the situation on the ground, which remained very fluid. In three days, the British lost 16 aircraft, while the Germans lost 10 and the Italians lost 7 aircraft. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

A critical fight on 29 May 1942

As the Axis mechanized forces closed on Knightsbridge on 29 May 1942, they were attacked by the 2nd Armoured Brigade. The brigade was locked in combat with the two German panzer divisions and the Italian Ariete Division. Two regiments from the 22nd Armoured Brigade joined the battle. A sandstorm prevented the 4th Armoured Brigade from reinforcing the British armour. The battle lasted through the day, but the German forces were now concentrated, unlike the British. The 90th Light Division had arrived to complete the German concentration. One casualty occurred when General von Vaerst was wounded. He commanded the 15th Panzer Division. Being a general serving with Rommel was a dangerous occupation. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rommel's plan for 29 May 1942

Rommel saw that his forces were scattered across the desert and were desperately in need of supplies. The long route around Bir Hacheim in the south was vulnerable to attack. Rommel's plans were to concentrate his forces, to resupply them immediately, and to open a new supply corridor through the minefields. A corridor in the vicinity of the Trigh Cappuzo would be ideal. Colonel Westphal, as a good staff officer would do, took the initiative with General Cruewell to ask him to penetrate the minefields through 13th Corps in the North. He had the Italian Sabratha Division attack the South Africans, although they were repulsed. Simultaneously, Rommel personally led a supply convoy around the south to the Afrika Korps. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

At the end of 28 May 1942

Gemeral Ritchie was more satisfied with his situation at the end of the day on 28 May 1942 than was justified. The one dangerous situation was that the Italian divisions Trieste and Pavia were penetrating unprotected minefields "near the Trigh Capuzzo and Trigh el Abd". The British still possessed 240 running cruisers and 90 infantry tanks. They expected replacement tanks to arrive the next day in the form of 40 cruiser tanks and 30 infantry tanks. General Auchinleck thought that his forces were not feeling the necessary urgency, and was concerned. The British were feeling cocky, however, as they captured a copy of Rommel's plans. They figured that they had dealt the Axis forces a good blow. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The air forces on 28 May 1942 at Gazala

The British air commander, Air Vice-Marshal Conyngham, was committed to provide low-level attacks on Axis forces in the battle. Fighter-bombers attacked targets near El Adem and Bir Hacheim on 28 May 1942. Fighter-bombers and day bombers probably hit the 15th Panzer Division, although in conditions of poor visibility. The British pretty much had free-rein over the battlefield on this day, as the Axis air forces were probably uncertain over their troops' positions in the mobile battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The next day: 28 May 1942

The 21st Panzer Division and the Ariete Division were able to move on 28 May 1942. The 21st Panzer Division penetrated very far north and took "Commonwealth Keep". The 1st Armoured Division commander, General Lumsden, had wanted to attack the 21st Panzer Division with his two armoured brigades, but the 22nd Armoured Brigade stayed with the 15th Panzer Division. The 2nd Armoured Brigade did attack the Ariete Division west of Knightsbridge. The 1st Army Tank Brigade also hit the Ariete Division from the northwest at the same time. The 4th Armoured Brigade hit the 90th Light Division and pushed it to the south and west. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Axis forces at the end of 27 May 1942

The Axis forces had penetrated deep behind the British front at Gazala by dusk on 27 May 1942. The 15th and 21st Panzer Division were just west of El Adem, but had lost one third of their tanks. The 15th Panzer Division was short of fuel and ammunition. The 90th Light Division was somewhat farther east, south of El Adem. The Italian Ariete Armoured Division had attacked Bir Hacheim, but was repulsed. The Trieste Motorized Division had turned north too quickly and was trapped in minefields west of the Gazala line. The DAK headquarters was trapped, without support, just south of Bir Harmat. Rommel's response to the situation was a planned advance with the remaining mobile force, the 21st Panzer Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The airforce on the first day of the Gazala Battle

The rapidly changing situation effectively neutralized the Desert Air Force, except in the south. The British fixed positions held out and allowed the light bombers and Kittyhawk fighter-bombers to safely operate in support. They were able to punish the 90th Light Division. German fighter operations, including over the forward airfields necessitated withdrawing needed fighter squadrons to fields farther east. Still, South African Bostons acting in the "intruder" role hit airfields near Tmimi and those that were dispersed.

The British were relatively pleased with the situation by nightfall of 27 May 1942, while Rommel was not pleased. The axis forces had lost fully one third of their tanks on that day, despite having penetrated fairly deeply into British lines. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The British try to strike back

The 30th Corps commander ordered the 1st Armoured Division to intervene in the battle as the first day progressed. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was the closest unit, being about 12 miles from the attack on the 4th Armoured Brigade. The 2nd Armoured Brigade was further north, between El Adem and Knightsbridge. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had the ill fortune to be attacked by the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. The brigade lost 30 tanks and some guns. The 2nd Armoured Division commander, General Lumsdem, directed the brigade to fall back towards Knightsbridge. Both armoured brigades were able to attack together and damage the Germans in the process. The 1st Army Tank Brigade attacked from northwest of Knightsbridge and also inflicted some damage on the Germans. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

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