Thursday, July 27, 2017

At Tobruk from 22 June 1941

The defenders of Tobruk listened to the BBC News on the radio. The BBC described Battleaxe as a three-day test of the enemy strength. At the end, the British "retired to their original position". A unit diarist responded that while all this was a concern, what they really cared about was what had happened to their mail?

North Africa, by 22 June 1941, was the only place in the world where British troops were fighting Axis forces on the ground. The concern was that British forces could not face Axis forces with any chance of success. The one thing that was somewhat assuring was that the Germans had driven off to the east and declared war on Russia (on 22 June 1941). The men of Tobruk were well-equipped with radios, partly by the Australian Comforts Fund and the various unit funds. On the night of 22 June, the men listed to Winston Churchill speak. He denounced "the Nazi war machine". Churchill declared that their purpose was to destroy Hitler and every piece of his regime.

The daily paper published at Tobruk, the Tobruk Truth, described the scene at the Salvation Army Hall. When Churchill had spoken, a man called out for "a cheer for Winnie". This was quickly followed by a call for a cheer for the King. The men jumped to attention and sang the national anthem. German aircraft dropped leaflets on Tobruk on 24 June, making threats and asking the men to surrender.

General Morshead responded to the situation by putting the men to more work. The prospect of a successful Operation Battleaxe had halted a good deal of work that had been planned. The first thing to do was to increase the depth of the defenses. The work was mainly done by those units held in reserve. Now, the men moved into new positions. They noted that the Germans fired on the old positions, wasting fire. The battalion commanders were anxious to advance their front lines further. Work by the 2/13th and 2/15th Battalions started during the evening of 22 June. The first thing that went wrong was that a mine exploded in the 2/15th Battalion area. At 1am, another surprise trap blew up. This was apparently a setup, German machine guns opened up in the area near the explosion. From then on, there was constant enemy fire in the area where the Australians were working on new positions. At first light, the work was unfinished, at least in the 2/13th Battalion area. They decided to let the men of the 2/15th Battalion continue the work that the 2/13th Battalion had started. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Now, Auchinleck

While we have criticized General wavell's conduct as theater commander, we now believe that the worst problems of his tenure were caused by a combination of Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden. If they could have avoided going into Greece, the rest of 1941 probably would have played out much better than it ultimately did. still, the Australian historian, author of Volume III, thought that General Auchinleck was about the best choice at the time of the available men.

Both Auchinleck and Wavell were British Indian Army officers. During the Great War, Auchinleck served mostly in Mesopotamia. Between wars, he commanded a division in a military campaign in 1935. He started 1940 organizing the IV Corps, getting the organization ready to go to France. He did not go to France with his corps, but instead went into Norway as the commander. After that, he commandec V Corps. By July, he was GOC Southern Command with Bernard Law Montgomery becoming V Corps commander. He was in Southern Command for just four months when he was appointed as Commander-in-Chief in India.

When Auchinleck was appointed to succeed Wavell in the Mediterranean and Middle East, Wavell agreed that they would benefit from a fresh commander. In fact, there was nothing wrong with Wavell except that Churchill had lost confidence in him for the wrong reasons. Auchinleck would have a period of time, about a year, where he take the action he thought was needed without fear of being fired by Churchill. Auchinleck was eventually fired by Churchill in 1942.

Auchinleck had the distinction of defeating Rommel in two important battles. Churchill was so impressed by Auchinleck as a field commander, that he begged Auchinleck to take command of the British field army in North Africa, but Auchinleck wanted to be the theater commander, instead, a role that he filled rather poorly. Still, Auchinleck was at his best when he saved the situation in the Crusader operation and drove the Axis forces back to the border area between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in late 1941 and early 1942. Later in the summer of 1942, after Tobruk fell, Auchinleck saved the British position in North Africa by defeating Rommel's forces at the First Battle of El Alamein. Before he left, Wavell's last impact on Tobruk was to place the Tobruk fortress directly under the Middle East headquarters, rather than under the Western Desert Force.

For any Australians hoping that Battleaxe would have meant some relief from the siege situation, such hopes were dashed. In some ways, the men in Tobruk were more concerned about more personal issues, such as their mail from home. In any case, they knew that they were in for a long haul, although news of the German invasion of Russia on 22 June 1941 was a cause for hope. The men heard an inspired speech by Winston Churchill, after which he and the king were cheered. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our general knowledge about 1941 and 1942 in North Africa.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Action on the third day of Operation Battleaxe: 17 June 1941

The two German armored divisions were on the move very early on 17 June 1941, the third day of Operation Battleaxe. The German 15th Armored Division was the premier division of the two German armored divisions. The 15th Armored Division, equipped with towed 88mm guns encountered the 7th Armoured Brigade. The 5th Light Division was also active. They entered Sidi Suleiman a little while later. News of these movements caused General Messervy to keep the 4th Armoured Brigade in support of the 4th Indian Division.

The events of 17 June caused the 7th Armoured Division commander to ask General Beresford-Peirse to come to his headquarters to make a decision. General Wavell was at Beresford-Peirse's headquarters, so they both traveled to the 7th Armoured Division headquarters. While that was happening, General Messervy had orcered his men to abandon Fort Capuzzo. By the time that General Wavell had arrived, he authorized ending the operation.

Rommel was apparently trying to catch the British at Fort Capuzzo. He was unsuccessful, as the remaining infantry tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade covered the withdrawal from Fort Capuzzo.

Australian anti-tank gunners were involved in Operation Battleaxe. One battery was with the column on the desert flank. The Australian gunners performed well during the operation and got hits on German armored cars and some tanks.

British infantry tank losses were heavy in the battle. They started the operation with about one hundred infantry tanks. They lost 64 tanks either destroyed or disabled and abandoned. The British had about ninety cruiser tanks at the start of the operation. They lost 23 of them during the operation. The Germans only lost 12 medium tanks (mostly Pzkw III) and captured 12 operable British infantry tanks. The Germans, in fact, only had 81 running or recoverable medium tanks. At the time, the British believed that the Germans had more than that number. Churchill was apparently the only one who thought that the Tobruk defenders should have made an attack to draw the Germans from the frontier.

The main result of the battle was that General Wavell was informed that he would exchange places with General Auchinleck. It is not clear that General Wavell was particularly responsible for the loss. The actions of his commanders did affect the outcome in a negative way, though. We will see that Auchinleck had the same problems in choosing men to command under him. General Dill, the CIGS, told Churchill to either back Wavell or fire him. Churchill said that the choice was not that easy. General Dill did not have confidence in Auchinleck and told Churchill that. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The second day of Operation Battleaxe (16 June 1941)

By the morning of 16 June 1941, the British situation in Operation Battleaxe was not progressing well. The desert flank, particularly the 7th Armoured Division, had some 48 cruiser tanks still running. The 4th Armoured Brigade, with the 4th Indian Division, was down to about 40 running infantry tanks. They British had not been seriously engaged with the German armored forces, so they figured to still have most of their 170 medium tanks (mostly Pzkw III with some Pzkw IV tanks).

The plan for 16 June was for the forces near the coast to stage a frontal attack on Halfaya Pass, which sounds like a bad idea. The center column could push towards Bardia. The infantry tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade would attack Hafid Ridge. The 7th Armoured Division forces would engage the German tanks that had arrived the previous evening.

The Germans decided to go on the offensive in the morning of 16 June. The 15th Armored Division would attack Fort Capuzzo. The 5th Light Division would attack the British tanks on the coast. The Ariete Division was to move to Ed Duda.

Almost accidentally, the British infantry tanks were actually in position to support the infantry during the German attack at Fort Capuzzo. There was the 7th RTR with artillery support seriously damaged the German 8th Armored Regiment. The regiment had started with battle with 80 tanks, but now was reduced to 33 runners. The 4th Armoured Brigade stayed with the 4th Indian Division and was not allowed to go to Hafid Ridge.

The Guards brigade had some success. The Scots Guards took Musaid and then the barracks at Salum. The 4th Indian Division frontal attack on Halfaya Pass predictably failed. On the desert area, the 7th Armoured Brigade was successful in stopping a German attempt around the flank.

The British had done better than they might have deserved, and this caused the Germans concern that they might break through to Tobruk. Rommel hoped to send the 5th Light Division against the desert flank, but the division was tied up kept the attack from happening. By late afternoon on 16 June, the British situation deteriorated greatly. The 7th Armoured Division tanks were dispersed, rather than kept concentrated. They lost the artillery support that they had previously had. The cruiser tank regiments were later attacked by the 5th Light Division with artillery support. They were saved by the fall of night. Another attack on Halfaya also failed. By the end of 16 June, the British tank strength had shrunk. They had about 25 cruiser tanks and about 29 infantry tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The events of Operation Battleaxe on 15 June 1941

On 15 June 1941, the first reports indicated that Fort Capuzzo had been taken, but Halfaya Pass had not been. The 18th Brigade commanded by Brigadier Wooten had been waiting for the news that the attackers were within 20 miles of Tobruk, but they never got that close. The immediate judgement about Battleaxe at the time was that the operation failed. The usual situation after these battles in 1941 was that the Germans were left in control of the battlefield, while the British withdrew, leaving their disabled tanks. They had not easy way to recover the knocked out tanks. The Germans, being left of the battlefield were able to recover their damaged tanks and take them back to their workshops for repair.

Two columns advanced on Fort Capuzzo and Halfaya Pass. They were both from the 4th Indian Division, commanded by General Frank Messervy. The 7th Armoured Division was to go around the open desert flank.

Battleaxe was notable for the Royal Air Force having established air superiority over the battlefield. The RAF had fighters operating over the three advancing columns, protecting them from air attacks.

The column nearest the coast was actually divided into parts, one above the escarpment and one part below. They attacked Halfaya Pass. On the coastal plain were two battalions from the 4th Indian Division and six infantry tanks from the 4th RTR. The tanks ran onto a minefield which had not been lifted and had four tanks immobilized. The other group, in this case being above the escarpment, had the 2/Camerons and 12 more infantry tanks from the 4th RTR. There were German 88mm guns and probably 50mm PAK38's laying in wait. They caught the British infantry tanks by surprise and knocked out 11 of the 12. The infantry battalion was helpless and could not advance.

The center column, with the main force from the 4th RTR, moved on Fort Capuzzo. After some initial problems, they eventually overran Fort Capuzzo. They captured a position with eight field guns in the process. Unfortunately, German armored cars staged a counter-attack and recaptured the guns. After the 7th RTR got Fort Capuzzo, the 22nd Guard Brigade moved in to hold the position.

On the desert flank, the 7th Armoured Division had been held by artillery fire, but an attack by a squadron with artillery support was able to take come artillery.

By this time, the German command figured out that the British seemed to intend to destroy the German forces on the frontier and to break the siege of Tobruk. The initial German response was to send to the border a reconnaissance unit and artillery from the 5th Light Division. They were to head for the Fort Capuzzo area. The Germans asked the Italian government for permission to use the Ariete Division. Then the permission was received, they were given orders to move at about 3pm. At late morning, the bulk of the 5th Light Division was ordered to a position south of Gambut. The commander of the 15th Armored Division ordered his reserves to points 206 and 208 to recover their lost artillery. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Plans for Operation Battleaxe on 15 June 1941

The Axis forces near Tobruk were very much aware that an offensive was planned for 15 June 1941. They expected a fight starting at the first light of day on 15 June. They even planned an artillery barrage to be fired "at moonrise".

The 9th Australian Division had been holding Tobruk for about two months. While there had been no formal announcement, the men heard about the impending operation and the large numbers of British tanks that would be involved. There were practice exercises and knowledge of "administrative arrangements that gave the men knowledge of the impending battle.

The 9th Australian Division at Tobruk was to stay engaged and keep the Axis forces from moving to the frontier area. They would not move out from Tobruk unless the armored force managed to break through to Tobruk. If the circumstances warranted, the Tobruk garrison would break out to join the attacking force at Ed Duda, to the southeast. Apparently, late in the year, during the Crusader battle, a similar plan was executed.

General Morshead was very intent on making a big impact on the battle with his division. The problem was that he still would have to defend the Tobruk perimeter while trying to break out through the encircling force. There was no way that the Australians could take Ed Duda and make a strong position. The need to use his four brigades to hold the perimeter overrode that desire. He thought that he could still make an impact close to the perimeter.

The primary breakout from Tobruk would be executed by the 18th Brigade along with the 3rd Armoured Brigade. One battalion from the 26th Brigade would make an attack on the left. They would be operating near the Bardia Road. Something new was that a British commando company would land about six miles east of Tobruk. The commandos included Major Randolph Churchill. The right side of the attempted breakout would involve the 24th and 20th Brigades. There was some wishful thinking about what might be done if the Axis forces on the perimeter thinned out. The 18th Brigade had just moved into a reserve role, but now would be involved in an attack. They would push out two battalions that would establish a position from which artillery would be sited. Also from Tobruk, the 7th RTR would be involved with their 15 infantry tanks. They were part of the 3rd Armoured Btigade. Other tank units involved were the 1st RTR with "old" cruiser tanks. The 3rd Hussars would also be involved with their 19 light tanks, presumably Lt.Mk.VIb. The Kings Dragoon Guards was also involved with their 26 armored cars, almost certainly Marmon-Herrington Mk.II's. If the attack went well, one Australian infantry battalion would operate with the 3rd Armoured Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The German perspective anticipating Battleaxe

For comparison purposes, the British Official History listed the British tank force for Battleaxe as 90 cruiser tanks and 100 infantry tanks. British intelligence, prior to Battleaxe, thought that the German tanks force was at the Egyptian frontier 100 medium tanks and 66 light tanks. At "Gazala, Tobruk, and El Adem" there were thought to be 76 German medium tanks and 46 light tanks. The Italians were thought to have only 18 medium and 46 light tanks. General Morshead had information from highly classified sources. His numbers were more specific. The Germans at the Frontier were listed as 62 medium tanks and 36 light tanks. 26 of the light tanks were Pzkw II so the rest were 10 Pzkw I. In the general area of Tobruk, the Germans were listed as having 116 medium tanks (Pzkw III and Pzkw IV). They were listed as having 66 light tanks, of which 46 were Pzkw II, so the other 20 were Pzkw I. The Italians were listed as having just 18 medium tanks, presumably M13/40 tanks. They also had 46 light tanks.

The Indian historian remarked that the planned tactics were those which were successful for Brevity, a month before. The 4th Indian Division would attack Halfaya Pass on the right. They would have infantry tank support, presumably Matilda tanks. They would attack "both above and below the escarpment". A second column would attack Fort Capuzzo and Salum (Sollum). They would have the 4th Armoured Brigade with many infantry tanks. There was also the 7th Armored Division, equipped with cruiser tanks. They would be on the left, going around the flank. They hoped to draw the German armor from the coast. The Support group was also on the open flank, providing a screen to warn of enemy activity.

The German headquarters in North Africa had intelligence reports about British preparations. The headquarters thought by 6 June that a British attack was extremely likely. A German note on 10 June reported that the Pavia Division had relieved the Ariete Division. They had hoped to pull the 5th Light Division out of their positions in Tobruk, but that was not possible. They were positioned in the El Adem-Acroma area, providing a reserve force.

The German plans included three positions prepared to fight in all directions. They were concealed and had artillery and anti-tank guns. They hoped that the British would run onto them and be surprised. These positions were designed based on their experience in the Tobruk fighting. Two of trhe positions were equipped with dug-in 88mm guns. Behind the German positions lay an Italian line, based at Fort Capuzzo, Musaid, and Salum. Two more positions had been built "at Bir Weir and Qalala". The positions were equipped with artillery that strengthened the defense. The German 15th Armored Division was in reserve at the frontier. There was also motorized infantry, artillery, and 88mm guns and light anti-aircraft artillery. They were in the Fort Capuzzo area. The German command was aware that the British attack would take place on 15 June. On 14 June, they warned key units to be ready for an attack the first thing on 15 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Operation Battleaxe plans

We have noted that General Wavell had very pessimistic expectations about Operation Battleaxe. He told the CIGS, General Dill, that they had 230 cruiser tanks, of which 90 were in the workshops. He also had 217 infantry tanks, with 30 in the workshops. He also mentioned that there were the two German armored divisions and one Italian armored division in North Africa. He thought that by September, there might be another two or three German armored divisions. He had no idea that the Germans were about to invade Russia, which changed the actual prospects. He also thought that the Germans might get permission to send more armored divisions through Turkey. What Wavell was asking for were more armored reinforcements to be sent to North Africa. He expected that they would be needed in Egypt as soon as August and they needed to be ready for action.

On 6 June, Wavell told the CIGS that for the Tobruk garrison to mount an attack during the initial phase of Operation Battleaxe might compromise their ability to defend the fortress, especially if Battleaxe had problems. He thought that Tobruk just needed to be on the defensive at first, and if the first phase when well, they might carry out offensive operations in the second phase. Wavell did not expect to do well enough with Battleaxe to reach Tobruk.

In a Middle East meeting on 13 June 1941, General Wavell suggested that if the main forces were driven to the east, that they might abandon Tobruk and leave it without a garrison. We can imagine what Churchill might have said if he were aware of those plans. Battleaxe was planned for 15 June 1941. While that date was inadequate for having the newly arrived tanks in the hands of units that were thoroughly trained. There was no hope of that happening. The driving issue to keep the date as early as possible was that they expected that Rommel's supply situation would improve after the capture of Crete. Also, the Royal Navy had taken heavy losses in the Greek and Crete campaigns, so that they would have greater problems with interdicting the Axis supply lines to Libya.

Wavell had a plan for Battleaxe that included about 200 tanks, with about 100 being Infantry tanks with the rest being cruiser tanks. They believed that the Germans had about 100 tanks near the frontier and another 120 near Tobruk. The Germans also had about 70 light tanks (Pzkw I and II tanks). The Pzkw III and IV tanks counted as medium tanks. Wavell thought that the Germans might actually have up to 300 tanks to face the 200 British tanks. The Australian historian says that the actual situation was better than Wavell thought. The Germans actually had less than 200 tanks available for the battle and the British infantry at the Egyptian frontier was about twice the number of Axis soldiers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The big picture in late May and early June 1941

While the situation in Tobruk had become static warfare, there was much action in other theaters. 20 May 1941 had been the day that the Germans launched the airborne assault on the island of Crete. The Germans had secured their possession of Maleme airfield by 23 May. The next day, 24 May, the Bismarck sank the battle cruiser Hood in the Denmark Strait. The battle around Crete seriously depleted the British Mediterranean Fleet. By the end of May, the fighting in Crete had ended. About half of the men on Crete were evacuated. This was fairly soon after the debacle in Greece. With the German lack of commitment in Iraq allowed the hostile Rashid Ali to be forced from power. at this time, this was one of the few bright spots for the British.

In the Egyptian-Libyan frontier area, the Germans launched an attack on 26 May. The Germans had 160 tanks divided into four groups. They lacked sufficient fuel, so they were limited in what they could do. The British only had a small force at Halfaya Pass. They had 9 infantry tanks, some field guns, some anti-tank guns, and some anti-aircraft guns. The infantry were from the 3rd Coldstream Guards. The right group hooked towards Deir el Hamra. The center groups, heavy in tanks, was to go for Sidi Suleiman. The left group would go to the escarpment and would attack infantry.The German attack was successful, and the main result was to get a document from Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff.

Churchill thought that the Western Desert was the one venue where the British had the opportunity to launch a successful attack on the Germans. The Chiefs of Staff were sympathetic to Churchill's document, but wanted to get air power re-established in Cyrenaica. General Wavell responded by issuing orders for a new attack that he called Operation Battleaxe. The idea was that they would defeat the German forces at the Egyptian Frontier, and then break the enemy hold on Tobruk, and then move on to Derna and Mechili. The Australians in Tobruk were expected to be heavily involved. An ominous sign was that General Wavell warned the Chiefs of Staff that he felt that the chances of success were "doubtful".

There was a meeting in Cairo on 4 June. These were the Commanders-in-Chief and they talked about Tobruk in negative terms. Wavell's primary concern was that the enemy forces would launch a new attack on Tobruk (a "blitz"). Admiral Cunningham talked about the difficulties in keeping Tobruk supplied. Air Marshall Tedder remarked that there were few fighters to give support to Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rotating Australian units in and out of the line in late May and June 1941, and the fuel and lubricant shortage

General Morshead had a plan to rotate, at the brigade level, Australian units in and out of the line. The 26th brigade was Tovell's. The 24th Brigade was Godfrey's. The 20th Brigade was Murray's brigade. The 18th Brigade was Wooten's. The 26th Brigade relieved the 24th Brigade over the night of 20 to 21 May 1941. They were in the Bardia Road sector. The 24th Brigade replaced the 20th Brigade on 23 May. The 20th Brigade then was in reserve for a while. They eventually moved to the Salient to replace the 18th Brigade. There were also some battalion movements during this period.

During April and May 1941, Tobruk had used up their stock of fuel and lubricants. By June, they were in trouble and needed more petroleum products. There were attempts to move some fuel and lubricants by sea, but the German air dominance made that difficult. The situation only improved when the Pass of Balhama made two trips to Tobruk. The first trip brought 760 tons of fuel in bulk. That provided about 40 days supply. Later in June, they made another trip, and had brought some 1,400 tons of fuel and lubricants during June.

From 20 May to 4 June, the men of one squadron of the King's Dragoon Guards filled and infantry role by holding S21 to S27 near the Dernal Road. They were replaced by a pioneer company.

This left the Derna Road area in the hands of the 2/1st Pioneers. Posts S8 and S10 were on the left. The 2/13th Battalion held the right. The 2/17th Battalion was in the center section. Another battalion, the 2/15th, held the left side. During May, the German and Italian units had constructed a straightened line behind their line and then withdrew into it. Lt-Col. Burrows also planned to straighten his line, that of the 2/13th Battalion, but in this case, by moving forward. Brigadier Murray liked Burrows plan and approved of it. The Germans had laid minefields with booby traps. The first task was to clear paths through them and remove the booby-traps.

By straightening the line, the line was shortened by about 600 yards. That allowed companies to hold their front with two platoons. Post S8 was no longer isolated. Post S10 was now more strongly held. Former German minefields were now used by the Australians for their defense. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Axis forces at Tobruk in May to June 1941

The Australians, in early June 1941, after the failed attack on the enemy forces, realized that the Germans were preparing to pull back. They had an engineer battalion at work constructing a new line behind the line that they currently defended. The Australians apparently heard air compressors and jack hammers at work on the new line.

In retrospect, the Australian historian was aware of the Axis forces deployed at Tobruk. The Italian Brescia Division and the Italian 16th Artillery Regiment were deployed north of the Salient, near the Derna Road.

In the Salient, itself, there were two battalions of the 115th Motor Infantry Regiment. There was also one battalion of the 104th Motor Infantry Regiment. There wree also two desert units, a mix of various types of troops. There was also the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion. There were two German artillery Battalions. The Italians had part of the 16th Artillery Regiment in the Salient. In addition, there were two German engineer battalions.

Deployed near Fort Pilastrano and the road to El Adem was the Italian Ariete Division, the first Italian armored division. The Italian Pavia Division was in the process of relieving the Ariete Division. There was the 132nd Regiment and the 46th Artillery Regiment.

The Trento Mechanized Division was located near the Bardia Road. They had two motor infantry battalions, a motorcycle battalion, and a machine gun battalion.

There were other units at Tobruk, as well. One battalion of the 18th Anti-Aircraft Battalion was there. Perhaps they had 88mm guns. The 8th Machine Gun Battalion now had three companies. At least part of the battalion was probably in the Salient. There was also the 5th Light Division headquarters and units not already mentioned. The division was on the west side of El Adem. Part of the Ariete Division and about 80 tanks (mostly M13/40 medium tanks) were about 25 miles west of Tobruk. We can see that most of Rommel's forces were tied up defending the Salient. That kept Rommel from being able to do much on the Egyptian frontier. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The situation from 6 June 1941 at the Salient

After the fierce fight in the night against the Germans, the Germans asked for a truce so that they could retrieve wounded from the battlefield. They sent five ambulances with a Red Cross flag. They searched the neutral zone for wounded. Australians from the 2/13th Battalion went out to help in the search. They also took the opportunity to view the German positions. During the truce, the Australians were able to relax. At the end, the Germans fired a machine gun burst to mark the truce end.

The 2/9th Battalion was to the right of the 2/13th Battalion. They had been in the Salient the longest. They had been ab le to push out their front line far in front of their starting position. When the 2/13th Battalion had advanced their line recently, the 2/9th Battalion moved ahead another 150 yards. Their lines were well prepared with wire and trip-wire setups.

The Australians had taken the Salient, the scene of a German penetration, and had been able to create a stepping-off point for new adventures. Most nights, many patrols were sent out to harass the enemy troops. During the day, the RHA, 51st Field Regiment, and eventually, the 2/12th Australian Field Regiment were at work. Although the enemy gunners were able to get hits, the British and Australian gunners inflicted more hits than they took.

After the 18th Brigade left the Salient, a German battalion commander wrote a testimonial to their prowess. Major Ballersted commanded the II Battalion of the 115th Motor Infantry Regiment. He rated the Australians as superior to the German soldiers in important ways. He especially praised the Australians capabilities as snipers. In return, the Australians found the German soldiers to be tough competitors.

One disadvantage that the Australians had was that they used British 3-inch mortars, which were inferior to both the German and Italian mortars. The Italians had an 81mm mortar that performed well. The Australians had captured several and used them. There was little ammunition for the 81mm mortars, but they were the best thing that the Australians had. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The 2/12th Field Regiment arrives at Tobruk early on 17 May 1941 and the brigade change on 5 June 1941

Until the 2/12th Field Regiment arrived by sea at Tobruk, all the supporting artillery was British. The 2/12th Field Regiment was provided with a variety of guns, all that was available. They operated under the command of the 51st Field Regiment, which was one of the key artillery units at Tobruk. The 2/12th Field Regiment inherited a troop of 60 pounder guns (5 inch guns). The 60 pounders had the issue that they only had a meager supply of ammunition, although more was eventually found for them. They also had two troops equipped with ten 4.5in howitzers that had been made available when the 51st Field Regiment had received 25 pounders. These troops were apparently armed with five 4.5in howitzers each. Perhaps the 60 pounder troop had five guns, as well. The 2/12th lost its first man on 20 May when they were shelled by enemy guns.

One positive action on 29 May 1941 occurred when a 60 pounder gun fired on enemy guns and "neutralized" them with ten rounds. They had to be careful with the limited 60 pounder ammunition supply. Initially, the 2/12th Field Regiment lacked some of the usual amenities that field regiments usually had: "flash spotting and sound ranging". They also needed some air reconnaissance to provide intelligence about the enemy artillery units. The salient area was a problem due to the enemy occupying the best ground for observation. The British and Australian artillery observation posts were at a lower level than the enemy observation posts, so the artillery were hampered in their operations. On occasion, they were able to achieve some success with "predicted fire". Usually, they were reduced to firing to harass the enemy and were able to fire on targets of opportunity.

Wooten's 18th Brigade had been in the salient until 5 June. After that date, Brigadier Murray's 20th Brigade moved into the salient. They had not been able to make any big attacks. They did continue to make adjustments to the lines, however. Back on 18 May, moves were made to close up the distance between Post S8 and the rightmost battalion. The battalions effected were the 2/9th, the 2/10th, the 2/12th, and 2/13th. The 2/13th Battalion was planned to move the center company forward some 300 yards. Some movement happened on 27 May, but the men were forced to retire to their previous position at daylight. The enemy were suspicious of what might be happening and dropped some 650 shells on the western side. Also on the 27th, the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment sent out a patrol with 2inch mortars and some 18 pounder guns. They drew artillery fire from four batteries and the patrol commander was killed.

Two Australian battalion headquarters moved further west. The 18th Brigade headquarters moved the next day. As the 2/13th Battalion center company moved back to their planned positions, they were attacked by some 200 German soldiers. The Germans were actually ambushed, as they had expected to find the positions empty. The Australians fought with mortars and Bren guns. The Germans withdrew and were chased by some Australians who used grenades and Bren guns to good effect. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fighting on 17 May 1941 near the posts, including S4

The attacks mounted early on 17 May 1941 had left many Australians as prisoners of the Germans. To make matters worse, the 2/23rd Battalion commander, Lt-Col. Evans was not aware of the situation of his surviving men. Even though they were surrounded, the men in Post S4 were holding onto their position. Other men were holding out in the stone building near the water tower.

MOre than the 2/23rd Battalion saw action. The men of the 2/10th Battalion held an area to the left of the 2/23rd Battalion. The enemy fired an artillery barrage starting at about 8:35am. German infantry supported by four tanks moved near the water tower. The tanks opened up on the 2/10th Battalion, but they received supporting fire from the 51st Field Regiment. That forced the tanks and infantry to withdraw. One tank had been damaged by the firing. More tanks arrived about four minutes later. They seemed to be near Post S4. The British artillery did not know that S4 was still being held by Australians. They fired on the tanks and S4 and drove the tanks off. One of the 2/10th's "Bush Guns" fired on the German guns near the wrecked aircraft.

At about 12:15pm, German tanks and infantry were overcoming remaining Australian resistance. A brave signaler, took a phone line to Post S6, which was still in Australian hands. After thirteen line breaks were repaired, they could speak with Post S6. Now that artillery fire could be called in, they forced three enemy tanks to withdraw. Later, another five tanks were stopped from moving forward. Men in Post S9 could see men at ease near Post S7, which they supposed meant that it was in German hands. Brigadier Wooten had hoped that the 2/23rd Battalion might stage another attack, but Lt-Col. Evans decided that they were too weak to mount another attack. General Morshead and Brigadier Wooten decided that Lt-Col. Evans should withdraw his remaining men "after dark". They would try to establish a new defensive line between the 2/10th Battalion and Post S8. While the 2/23rd Battalion was to withdraw, they would go out and try and find wounded to take out with them.

The sound of tanks, presumably German, could be heard after 7:30pm. The sun set at about 8:10pm. The enemy tanks seemed to be moving in on Post S6. Three carriers were sent out, but they ran into anti-tank guns. One carrier was disabled and casualties were taken. Lt-Col. Evans told the commander of the men in S6 to go to Post S8. Instead of reaching Post S8, the men from Post S6 reached post S10. There was heavy British artillery fire and Very lights in the sky. In the attacks, the 2/23rd Battalion lost 163 men. The men in Post S4 were left to surrender to the Germans on early 18 May. Many mistakes were made through inexperience, both of the Australians and the British tank crews. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The new plan for the attack by the 2/23rd Battalion on 17 May 1941

Since Posts S8 and S9 did not have to be recaptured, a new plan was prepared for the attack by the 2/23rd Battalion, starting on 17 May 1941. The plan still included taking Posts S7 and S6. They expected to be able to capture those posts and the new plan included pushing forward to attack and take Posts S5 and S4. Brigadier Wooten, the 18th Brigade commander, approved of the plan, as did Colonel Lloyd, General Morshead's "most senior staff officer". The attack would be conducted by two companies with supporting infantry tanks. Artillery support would be provided by the 2/12th Field Regiment, which had just arrived at Tobruk. The start time would be at 5:30am. The attackers were supported by machine guns, as well as the artillery. Smoke had been laid down at Medauuar. The visibility was made worse by the smoke from the German artillery fire. In the reduced visibility, the tanks with the right-most company got confused and then lost. The infantry lost their tank support. The tanks ended up at Post S9, instead of being 750 yards forward.

The company that had lost its tank support now was taking casualties from 88mm guns firing air burst over the men. The other platoon that was directed at Post S7 overran the post from the right side. The situation became increasingly desperate and casualties mounted. They had lost communication with the battalion and could not call up the reserves to help.

Post S6 was taken. They captured 19 Germans from the post. They left a garrison in S6 and then pressed forward to Post S4. They succeeded in overrunning Post S4 with a hard fight. Most of the enemy troops were killed in hand-to-hand fighting. They left a small garrison in Post S4 and then pulled back to S6. They fired a signal flare that was not seen by the battalion commander. The men in Post S6 were forced into a more defensible stone structure nearby. A carrier brought ammunition and supplies forward to the men near Post S6. Another carrier sent to Post S4 were not able to reach the post. One group attacked sangers held by the enemy. They ended up being surrounded and captured.

Lt-Col. Evans, the 2/23rd Battalion commander, did not have good information about what had happened in the attacks. By 7am, he had an incomplete story about the results. With four infantry tanks in support, they were going to attack Post S7, thinking that it had not been taken in the first attacks. This group started moving at 7:40am. The enemy fired on the attacking forces and laid smoke. Again, the tanks did not go where they had been planned to go. The tanks had turned to the right when they were within 100 yards of Post S7. The infantry with the tanks followed them in the wrong direction. The infantry could see enemy tanks approaching, but the infantry tanks were unaware of their approach. The German tanks led and assault that recaptured Post S7 and took many Australian prisoners in the area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The aftermath of Operation Brevity from 16 May 1941

The British Official History of the War in the Mediterranean and Middle East considered Operation Brevity to be a failure. The Australian Official History, however, gives the operation more credit. Brevity had actually achieved a good bit, and the main problem was that the British commanders were not ready to take risks to hold the ground that they had taken. By 17 May 1941, the British still had Halfaya Pass. The cruiser tanks had withdrawn without being pressed, as they were timidly commanded. The Germans had moved back into Salum (Sollum) since the British had pulled back.

The Australian Official History looks at the comparative losses and thinks that the British and Australians did not do so badly. As for tanks, the Germans lost three and the British lost five. Rommel considered that Halfaya was a very important position, as it dominated both roads that ran east-west.

General Wavell wrote that the priority for the British forces should be to push the German and Italian forces to the west, beyond Tobruk. They needed to make airfields available to the west for RAF use. They needed to use the 7th Armoured Division and the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions. At another meeting, the opinion was given that all Australian forces in the Middle East needed to be consolidated.

Churchill also weighed in on the situation. He tended to speak without knowing the relevant facts. His immediate concern was quite predictable. He wanted to know when the tanks from the Tiger Convoy could be brought into action. The truth was that at this point, an attack on Crete from German forces in Greece was the next crisis. This was a crisis created by Churchill's decision to go into Greece with a strong force that would not be enough to prevail. All the heavy weapons taken into Greece were left on the shore and only men and small arms were removed by ship.

There was new concern that German aircraft might be involved in attacking Crete from airfields in Syria. There was going to be pressure to intervene in Syria with the 7th Australian Division. One positive point was that the Italian army in east Africa surrendered on 19 May. Another positive development was that the force sent to Habbiniya in Iraq was nearing the air base.

A more concerning development at Tobruk was that posts S8 and S9 had remained in Australian hands. There had been a mistaken message that post S8 had bee "retaken", when it had never been lost. The next step was going to be attacking the enemy force that had been holding ground since 1 May 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Operation Brevity: 15 May 1941

The British plan for Operation Brevity included three columns. The 2/Rifle Brigade would take the bottom of Halfaya Pass and then move on to Salum (or Sollum). The 22nd Guards Brigade with the 4th/RTR would capture the top of Halfaya Pass and then move northwards. They would have 24 infantry tanks. The open desert flank would be taken by the 7th Armoured Brigade. They had the 2/RTR with 29 cruiser tanks. They also had three Support Group columns in support. The support group columns each had an Australian anti-tank gun troop. The 12th Anti-Tank Gun Battery commander was with one of the columns. The headquarters was sitting on the coast. They had a troop from 5th Battery, 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, another Australian unit. All the action started at dawn on 15 May 1941.

Even though the Germans had expected the attack, the British still achieved surprise. The Guards Brigade and the infantry tanks were able to quickly capture "the top of Halfaya Pass". The bottom of Halfaya Pass did not give up so easily. They bottom fell only by 5pm. The center group also captured Salum with 123 prisoners. Fort Capuzzo was also taken, but most of the attacking infantry tanks were disabled.

The attack achieved enough success to cause the German command some anxiety. Partly, this was because reports enlarged the attacking force beyond what was actually used. Motorized and mechanized units near Tobruk were redeployed to be ready for an attack by British forces from the Egyptian Frontier. One German tank battalion was sent to El Duda. Some Italian tanks were sent to El Adem. A counter-attack by the Herff Group retook Fort Capuzzo displaced the Durham Light Infantry and took some prisoners. The British did not have a good tank recovery system in place, so the disabled infantry tanks were left where they had been abandoned. The British were able to recover a few, destroy others, while the rest ended up in German hands.

Herff reported to Rommel that the British seemed to have some 40 to 50 tanks. Herff expected them to push on towards Tobruk by morning. He would sit on the flank position, ready launch an attack when he was reinforced. The British were actually quite cautious, and Brigadier Gott would move to Halfaya, if the Germans attacked with tanks. Rommel ordered reinforcements to be sent to Herff. Another group of all arms was also ordered to join Herff. The British were much less prepared and General Beresford-Peirse was slow to respond to Gott's message. His initial thought was to order Gott to hold the positions that he had taken. On 16 May, the British tanks withdrew, while the Germans were immobilized due to lack of fuel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

16 May 1941 at Tobruk in the morning

When the sun came up on 16 May 1941, there were still enemy troops nearby. Patrols brought in 21 Italian prisoners who were survivors of the early morning fighting. They also brought in captured equipment, such as light and medium machine guns and several flame-throwers. Posts S8, S9, S10, and S11 were out of touch and may have been captured. The Australians were reluctant to investigate further in the dark. When a platoon was sent out at 6am, they found that posts S11 and S11A were still in Australian hands. When they approached Post S10, they were fired on by machine guns. They supposed that the enemy now held post S10. They still did not know anything about Posts S8 and S9.

General Morshead met with Brigadier Wooten at 11am. They planned an attack with the 2/23rd Battalion. The commander was brought into a meeting at 2pm. A planned attack on Post S10 was still in the plans. The attack was made at 12:15 and Post S10 was retaken along with German prisoners. The attack had been supported by the 51st Field Regiment. They found two wounded Australians who had been prisoners and they were released. Posts S8 and S9 were quiet at this point. At 3pm, the order was given to proceed with the plan to attack Posts S8 and S9. The attackers were the 2/23rd Battalion, "three troops of infantry tanks, a troop of anti-tank guns and a company of machine guns". There were 39 field guns available to support the attack. They were not yet ready to make the actual attack. They held a conference at 8:30pm to distribute orders. The 2/23rd Battalion was not yet in place, so they had to move to the start line. One surprising development was that the 2/12th Battalion had just retaken post S8.

This fighting at Tobruk was part of greater plans on both the British and Axis commands. The British intended to launch a minor operation, Operation Brevity, to see if they could cause Rommel to pull back from the frontier and let transport into Tobruk. General Beresford-Peirse was more concerned about the larger plan that would be executed once Churchill's Tiger Convoy tanks had arrived at Alexandria and had been readied for use. The British were wrestling with how to employ the slow, but heavily-armored infantry tanks and the faster, but more lightly armored cruiser tanks. The compromise was to use the two types separately and fight separate battles. That would continue to be the plan in future tank actions fought against the German and Italian tank forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Taking action on the Egyptian Frontier in May 1941

We know that General Wavell had lost the confidence of the Prime Minister after the fall of Greece and the siege of Tobruk. Chuchill had the advantage of not knowing much about what was happening in Libya and the rest of North Africa. He saw General Auchinleck as positive and taking action. HE saw Wavell as not doing those things. Eventually, Churcill replaced Wavell as theater comcander with General Auchinleck. The proposed British force consisted of four columns. There was the 7th Support Group Headquarters and four troops from the 12th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment (Australian).

The Germans were at this same time were making plans for defenses at Gazala. General von Paulus was the driving force behind this measure. The British were encouraged by reading this intercepted message. The German forces opposing the attack included the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, a Trento Division battalion, and a motorcycle battalion sent to Salum. The Germans made a move on 12 May, but pulled back to Salum on 13 May.

The Australians at Tobruk only received notification on 13 May in the forc of a letter. The letter arrived as there was a major relieving operation underway at Tobruk. There was action tnat involved carriers and cruiser tanks. The cruiser tanks had track defects that limited their participation. We saw action from the 3rd Armoured Brigade and artillery. Another infantry unit waited for tank support, and by doing so, lost artillery support that was timed. At 9pm, some success was achieved by killing a gun crew, attacked machine gun positions, and altogether had a successful patrol. Included in the bag was one tank destroyed. After 2am, the Germans brought forward two tanks. At about 2:30am, the Germans attacked the 18th Cavalry Regiment. The Indian regiment was able to repel the attack without losing any ground. Another attack was launched on Posts S15, S13, and S11. The towed flame-throwers were used in this attack. The attack had been contained by 3:30am.

A company in Posts S8, S9, and S10 was made by Germans. as well as Italians in Post S11. This was a case where the attackers used five tanks and more towed flame-throwers. Post S10 was taking fire from a bothersome anti-tank gun on the ridge near Post S7. There was close-in fighting. They called in fire from the 51st Field Regiment. Communications with Vincent's company were lost, an ominous sign. Usually, that meant that the unit had been overrun.

At the same time, the enemy attacked Forbe's Mound, located in the Salient. Four tanks moved forward towards the 2/9th Battalion. Two tanks were stopped by the wire, although they were subsequently towed away by the other two tanks. There was more tank activity, as further west, there were reports of five tanks looking for an opening. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The new phase at Tobruk in May 1941, and Operation Brevity

The "new phase" at Tobruk involved replacing the units in the salient captured by the enemy and a new an more aggressive posture. This would prove to be very hard on the Australian infantry, but it was what General Morshead thought was the most appropriate stance to take. The cost in casualties would be large, as they would be constantly probing and testing the enemy. The plan was to push ever more forward and to be on the move after dark, hoping to capture enemy outposts and more ground that had been lost. Brigsdier Wooten, commanding the 18th Brigade was to site his headquarters farther forward than anyone had previously done. Early on 14 May, he had been ordered to stage an operation that would give the impression that it was part of a larger attack. The reason being that the British had launched Operation Brevity on the Egyptian frontier.

Operation Brevity was planned by General Wavell, without prodding by Churchill in London. The Tiger Convoy was expected to arrive in Egypt about 12 May 1941. Once the Tiger tanks were unloaded, they expected some two weeks of work to ready them to equip units. The men in Egypt understood that, but Churchill really had no idea what was involved. He expected that they would unload the tanks and that they would be instantly ready for action. Wavell, though, was ahead of the game. He had some equipment and units that he could use immediately to strike at the enemy forces just to the west of the frontier. He knew that Rommel's forces were stretched thin. He would strike right away and try to push past Sollum and run up to Tobruk. That would enable the British forces to coordinate with the Australians in Tobruk. The flaw in the plan was that any chance of success was in hands of Brigadier Gott.

Rommel was an admirer of General Wavell. Rommel credited Wavell with a strategic judgment that could make forces available that could move despite any German and Italian possible moves. The Greek campaign was in the process of ending in a disastrous way. Many of the units evacuated from Greece were transported to the island of Crete in great disarray, as we have seen. The British fully anticipated that German airborne forces would attack Crete. Before the battle for Crete started, Churchill was boasting confidently of their ability to defeat and airborne attack. We have seen that the German airborne forces were unready for a real fight after landing from the air. What won the battle of Crete for the Germans was the airborne troops that were flown in by transport aircraft. They landed on beaches and in dry river beds. The Australian, New Zealand, and British forces in Crete were in great disarray and were unready for a serious fight. Still, if they only had to beat the German airborne forces, they could have done that much.

General Wavell was thinking about the situation in North Africa and the Levant, and he worried that the Vichy French in Syria and Lebanon might be a factor on the norther side of eastern Mediterranean. He asked what forces might be brought into Syria from Europe. The British had only a brigade of cavalry available to fight in Syria. Iraq was another concern, as a putsch by Rashid Ali, who was an Axis ally, had destabilized the situation in Iraq. There were many issues to concern General Wavell as theater commander. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Bush artillery in the 24th Brigade at Tobruk in early May 1941 and air attacks

The Australians had been allowed to use captured Italian guns, unlike the British artillerymen. The 24th Brigade had two battalions, the 2/28th and the 2/43rd. The 2/28th Battalion had 11 guns that they used in the anti-tank role. Presumably, these were the Italian 47mm guns. By 1 May 1941, they had knocked out nine enemy vehicles. On 5 May 1941, the 2/43rd Battalion had nine Italian guns. They had field and medium guns from 75mm to 149mm. They called these captured guns "bush artillery". They had an advantage over the British field artillery units in that they had a virtually unlimited supply of captured ammunition at Tobruk. The guns often had problems, such as lacking sights, but some of these were solved either by cannibalizing or by stealing parts from the Italians during the night.

The guns were originally manned by whomever was available, but the Australians eventually were more careful about the crew compositions and they were often able to supply officers with some anti-tank or mortar experience to command the bush guns.

Over time, the enemy was less intent on land attacks against Tobruk. Instead, they concentrated on air attacks on ships and the harbor area. There were 734 sorties against Tobruk during May 1941. They forced the British to abandon using hospital ships to evacuate wounded. Instead, they had to use destroyers. The air attacks on ships caused the loss of a minesweeper on 6 May. Six days later, the gunboat Ladybird was sunk in the harbor.

At the end of April, all combat aircraft were withdrawn from Tobruk. The defenders of Tobruk desperately needed air reconnaissance to gather intelligence about the besieging forces, but there were simply not enough aircraft available to make risking them at Tobruk a possibility. After communicating with General Beirsford-Peirse, General Morshead wrote to General Blamey, the senior Australian officer in the Middle East. Morshead wrote that the sort of reconnaissance by Hurricanes that was available was very unsatisfactory. What they needed was photographic reconnaissance. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An active defense in early May 1941 at Tobruk

Once the situation at Tobruk had stabilized, General Morshead insisted that his brigades maintain active patrolling to control the "no-man's land" area between the Australians and the Germans and Italians. Over the entire perimeter, the units followed his policy. The western end of the perimeter was held by the Indians of the 18th Cavalry Regiment. They were the remnants of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. There were some sharp engagements that were triggered during the patrols.

A patrol from the 2/23rd Battalion set out on 10 May 1941, heading out from Post S13. They moved along the escarpment, south of the coastal road. They ran into a large group of Italians engaged in work. The Italians took many casualties and had 31 men taken prisoner by the Australians. The entire group were killed or captured.

Patrols from the 2/48th Battalion were involved with retrieving equipment from the abandoned 2/24th Battalion headquarters. The headquarters had been overrun during the initial German attack starting late on 30 April. One night, a patrol encountered a German patrol and killed them all. The 2/15th Battalion was also engaged in patrolling during the same period. Most nights, they were pushing into the enemy flank.

The 24th Brigade held the eastern part of the perimeter. The brigade sent two carrier raids from the 2/43rd Battalion and the 2/28th Battalion. They pushed to near the Bardia Road. Some carriers with the Army Service Corps also conducted carrier raids. The successes that were seen encouraged some more aggressive plans. They decided to use one troop of infantry tanks and two troops of cruiser tanks. They would also have two armored cars that would provide communications between the tanks and the infantry. They also would have seven carriers, a machine-gun platoon, some 3-inch mortars, "and a battery of field guns". They planned to attack on 13 May, just as the sky got light. The planning failed and nothing but confusion occurred. The enemy fired a flare with had been the signal agreed on for the infantry to withdraw. The infantry tanks started to recover, but they ran into anti-tank guns and two were disabled. The cruiser tanks pulled back. The main result of the operation was that the tank commanders lost confidence in their tanks and their ability to work with the infantry. Apparently, the Australians were operating Bren carriers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

After the counter-attack at Tobruk after 4 May 1941

We can only suppose that previous experiences fighting Italian troops at Tobruk had given General Morshead an unrealistic view of what his men could accomplish. The hastily prepared attack on the enemy troops by the 18th Brigade failed to recapture the lost ground due to the lack of preparation and the inadequate forces involved. The plan now was to move battalions so that the brigades had their assigned units rather than some ad hoc organization. During the night over 4 to 5 May 1941, the 2/48th Battalion was to replace the companies from the 2/10th Battalion. The 2/9th Battalion would now be part of the 20th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Murray. They would hold an area near the Bianca position, replacing two companies, one from the 2/10th Battalion and one from the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. The 2/10th Battalion was withdrawn from the line and moved into reserve near Pilastrino.

The rest of the 2/32nd Battalion arrived overnight on the destroyers Decoy and Defender. They had sailed from Mersa Matruh. One company from the battalion was already at Tobruk. Now, the entire battalion was present. The 2/32nd Battalion was added to the 18th Brigade under Brigadier Wooten. They were ordered to hold a position near the intersection of the Bardia and El Adem roads. The 2/9th Battalion commander realized that he could improve the defensive position by moving forward. The move was contested by machine gun fire and there were losses. A new artillery observation post was also established that was eventually called "Nixon's Post".

There was a new German attack early on 6 May 1941. At about 7:30am, there was a German attack on Post S9. Some casualties were taken, but British artillery fire stopped the attackers and they were forced to withdraw. The next move was by a force somewhat more than a company in strength. They were about 300 yards from the perimeter. Two hours of artillery fire caused the group to withdraw. After that, the Australians spent the time taking advantage of opportunities to move their line forward, even if by a few feet. Both sides engaged in these sort of operations and the strain on the men on both sides was great. Men would work all night on building defensive positions and then would not be able to sleep during the day. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Early on 4 May 1941 at Tobruk

Early on 4 May 1941 in Tobruk, one company of the 2/9th Battalion came up to Post R8. They wanted to continue the attack that had been started by a platoon commanded by Lieutenant Noyes. In the dark, they turned to the left and came upon Post R7. This area was held by Italian troops. The men attacked R7, killed most of the defenders, and took two prisoners. The loot included two 47mm anti-tank guns and "a heavy Breda machine-gun". A medium tank with two armored cars attacked R7 and forced the Australians to withdraw. The Australians had inflicted severe casualties on the Italians in this area, but the 2/9th Battalion had lost its cohesion and needed to organize the survivors. R8 was now held by 2/9th Battalion soldiers, but the rest of the battalion pulled back to Post R14. They hoped to attack posts R5 and R6 by 4:15am.

The problem with the attacks made during the night of 3 to 4 May 1941 was that units were being sent to perform operations that were beyond what was possible with their strengths. Still, the 18th Brigade battalions had achieved some positive results. They had lost ten men killed, 121 men wounded, and had 24 men missing. They had hit the enemy defenders hard and killed and wounded many men. The Australians could see ambulances retrieving dead and wounded men from the positions that had been recently assaulted. From the evening of 3 May to the evening of 4 May, we know that the German 15th Armored Division had ten men killed, 40 men wounded, and ten missing and possibly captured. The Italian Ariete Armored Division had lost 26 men killed, 65 men wounded, and 59 missing and possibly captured. The Italians that the 2/9th Battalion had fought may have been from the Ariete Division. They were in the area attacked by the 2/9th Battalion, so that is probably the case. The Germans were more likely to have been attacked by the 2/12th Battalion. The strong showing by the Australians kept Rommel from being able to strike to the east towards the Egyptian border. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The 18th Brigade counter-attack on 3 May 1941 at Tobruk

Rommel's forces had tried to attack on 2 May 1941, but were stopped. General Morshead then planned an attack to retake lost territory. The 18th Brigade, the reserve brigade, commanded by Brigadier Wooten, would conduct the assault using three battalions. The official history often discusses operations over a long period without actually mentioning the brigade number. We had been confused between the 20th Brigade and the 18th Brigade. What we now are saying is the correct name, the 18th Brigade. Artillery had been re-positioned in preparation. The battalions involved were the 2/12th Battalion on the right, the 2/9th Battalion on the left. The 2/10th Battalion was in the center. They hoped to push through to Ras Medauuar and retake the hill. There were about three artillery regiments operating in support of the infantry.

The plan included a moving artillery barrage that would precede the infantry. In addition to the infantry and field artillery, there were an anti-tank regiment, machine guns, "12 light tanks, and 7 infantry tanks". The attack would start at 7:33pm. The infantry started preparations later on 3 May. Eventually, the start time was moved to 8:45pm.

The enemy mounted an attack on post R10 with two companies. They were stopped by artillery fire. Another company tried to attack but was also stopped by artillery fire. A larger force assembled near Bianca, but was scattered by artillery, machine gun fire, and mortars from the 2/10th Battalion. The Australians could see enemy troops working to lift mines from field B1 during the morning.

The 20th Brigade attack commenced "in almost pitch darkness". The 2/12th Battalion, as it moved forward, almost immediately ran into machine gun fire from each side. A few men moved forward by infiltrating. The darkness caused men to lose track of their positions. The situation was disrupted to the point that they took 4-1/2 hours to reorganize. The 2/12th Battalion was stopped by the machine gun fire, the darkness, and the difficulty of getting artillery support.

One company of the 2/10th Battalion, to the left of the 2/12th, had some success and subsequently helped to organize A Company of the 2/12th Battalion and was able transport the wounded from that company.

Men from the 2/10th Battalion attacking German troops, including machine gun crews. They eventually were forced back by heavy fire.

The 2/9th Battalion attacked on the left. They were late to start, so there was artillery fire hitting the start position. There was a lot of confusion as well as a problem with machine gun fire from both flanks. The "machine-guns were also firing down the road". They used tracers so that was convenient for the attackers. One platoon attacked a position with some 80 men. They drove the enemy out and took the position. It was near Post R7. One company was able to get close to Post R7 and got into the ditch surrounding the post. The enemy lit two blankets on fire, which lit the scene when the Australians would have liked to hide. Three Italian light tanks drove up and were attacked with grenades. The tanks burnt and drew enemy fire. The men involved, from the remnants of one platoon, attacked enemy troops near Post R6 and then found Post R8, their target, and found it was not occupied. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Action during the day at Tobruk on 2 May 1941

There was more action starting at 6:45am on 2 May 1941. Post R7 had recently surrendered to the Germans. Some German infantry and about 30 tanks were gathering, seemingly to attack Post R8, which was not actually in Australian control. Artillery fire was called in on the force that caused them to scatter. Much later, by 2pm, a towed flamethrower was brought up to attack Post R9. From Post R9, the flamethrower was hit and burnt by anti-tank rifle fire. Two tanks and an armored car had been with the flamethrower. Rifle fire was sufficient to cause the tanks and armored car to pull back.

During the first part of the afternoon, some enemy infantry started to menace the 2/1st Pioneers in their position in the salient. Two carriers were sent out towards the Pioneers somewhat before 5pm. They took casualties and then one carrier "broke down". The other carrier was hooked up and towed the disabled carrier to safety. After that, by 5pm, enemy artillery began shelling the 2/10th Battalion. About 5:15pm, some 500 German infantry moved forward to attack a company of the 2/10th Battalion, moving towards Bianca. About a half hour later, another infantry attack was mounted against two other 2/10th Battalion companies. Both attacks were stopped by British artillery fire and with some help from the machine gunners at Bianca. Behind the infantry, some tanks moved towards the minefield, but they also took British artillery fire.

Visibility improved by 5:30pm, and the Tobruk defenders could see some 100 vehicles and tanks on Medauuar. Some 51st Field Regiment guns were brought forward, and fired on the vehicles and tanks. They were forced back to "dead ground in some confusion". The enemy tried to assemble another attack force of tanks and infantry, but they were thwarted again by British artillery fire. During the night, post R10 was attacked, but artillery fire stopped the attackers. Tank hunters from the Pioneers hoped to destroy an enemy outpost near Bianca, but the position was too strong for the Pioneers. The Pioneers had advance3d some 600 yards and then had move back the same distance.

We can understand the intensity of the British artillery effort when we learn that in the 1st RHA, each gun had fired about 900 rounds on 2 May. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Australian troop movements at Tobruk on 2 May 1941

At Bianca, a company of the 2/24th Battalion moved up with a company of the 2/10th Battalion. They eventually withdrew, however, which was probably unfortunate. The Australian historian thought that General Morshead, the division commander, would have disapproved of the move. This was all happening on 2 May 1941 at Tobruk, inside the perimeter. The companies tended to be in positions farther back than what would have been best. You had company commanders deciding to move into what seemed to be the best defensive positions. Another factor was the troops were very tired after the late night action that had been playing out since the evening of 30 April. The 2/10th Battalion commander eventually ordered his men to advance some 700 yards. As the sky got lighter, the 2/10th Battalion found that they were mostly on reverse slopes. The advance was to occupy better defensive positions than they initially had found themselves. Three companies had moved up on a hill, which explained the 700 yard forward movement. The 2/10th Battalion commander also informed his brigade commander that the remains of the 2/24th Battalion were so tired, that he wanted to withdraw them. He would choose ground to hold that he could defend with just the 2/10th Battalion.

The 2/10th Battalion was spread over a larger distance than was desirable. They were occupying important positions, even though they were below Ras Medauuar and to that extent were vulnerable. The left of the 2/10th Battalion was held by a company of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. A platoon from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers were eventually located at Bianca, to keep the enemy from moving in between the 2/10th Battalion and the Pioneers. The Fusiliers were actually in an exposed position, as the defensive front was not continuous. Before dawn, the Pioneers moved up to complete the new defensive line. Connecting to the Post R14, rather than R12. Australian anti-tank gunners thought that the Australian infantry should have moved forward about 1,500 yards from where they were located. One platoon of men moved forward with their guns, but within an hour had been overrun by the enemy and had been captured.

The operations on 2 May evolved into an "artillery duel". The Australian and enemy infantry worked at improving their defensive positions. The British artillery succeeded in breaking up enemy infantry advances. Carriers with spotters for the 1st RHA and the 104th RHA drove around the battlefield to find targets that were hit with artillery fire. The battlefield was eventually blanketed by a dust storm. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The situation at Tobruk from dark on 1 May 1941

By the end of the day on 1 May 1941, the German and Italian forces still had the breach and had consolidated their position at Medauuar. They had failed to take Bianca and consolidate that position and had totally failed at driving to the harbor and forcing a surrender. The Germans had started the day with 81 tanks, but by the end of the day had just 35 tanks running. They had 3 Pzkw I, 12 Pzkw II, 12 Pzkw III, 6 Pzkw IV, and two command tanks. However, of the rest that were damaged, only 12 were total losses. The rest could be recovered and repaired. On 2 May, there was a dust storm that made any tank operations impractical.

The British and Australian situation at Tobruk was that they had lost a portion of the perimeter and the enemy had control of Medauuar, the hill that was a prominent feature. General Morshead's plan of defense in depth while leaving the perimeter lightly defended was the reason that the enemy forces had done as well as they had. The Australians had not realized that the Germans intended to take Medauuar. Even if they had, they lacked sufficient units to effectively oppose the attack. The counter attack by the 2/48th Battalion was doomed to fail, as there had been no reconnaissance and in any case, one battalion was inadequate for the task.

The 2/10th Battalion was ordered to link Post S.8 with Bianca. They were to move out at "first light". By 6am, the battalion was moving forward. There had been no opportunity for any scouting. They were forced to move with "map and compass". They had three companies moving forward, although they lacked one platoon that had been redirected earlier. The companies were in position by 6:30am, although it is unclear where they actually were located. The 18th Brigade Headquarters and the division headquarters thought that the companies were in contact with the 2/24th Battalion's "reserve company". This would have been behind the B1 minefield. The 2/10th Battalion was actually as far as 1,500 years further back then the 2/24th Battalion's company. One man carrying a badly wounded man encountered a German motor cycle rider armed with a sub-machine gun. The motor cycle let them pass by without firing. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The German situation inside the Tobruk perimeter on 1 May 1941

Early on the morning of 1 May 1941, there was fog that hampered German operations. The attack had not achieved the initial results hoped for by Rommel. The 5th Armored Regiment had new orders early on 1 May. They were to support the attack on Medauuar by the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion and the 200th Engineers Battalion. One of the tank companies divided into two groups. The group supporting the engineers "rolled up" the right side to Post R.5. The other group was operating with the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion to take the posts near Medauuar and was able to increase the width of perimeter on the left side.

One more company from the 5th Armored Regiment was sent to take the lead on pushing to Bianca. They had the misfortune to run onto B1 minefield. Twelve of the tanks were disabled from mines, but not destroyed. The tanks were also taking British artillery fire. By now, Rommel had come to Kirchheim's headquarters and started issuing orders. He told the engineers and tanks to attack to the southeast near the perimeter wire. The Italian Ariete Armored Division moved up to take over ground taken in the attack. British artillery was making the situation difficult for the German forces, so they were not making much progress.

By noon on 1 May, the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion had taken "Point 180". The small 15th Armored Division contingent reported that they were at Point 187 at Post S.4 and were going into a defensive posture. The force attacking towards Bianca had reversed course and pulled back to the line held by German troops. A sand storm at 1pm allowed trucks to come forward to resupply the tanks. This was accomplished by 3:15pm.

General von Paulus was still checking on Rommel and his operations. He told Rommel that the attack had stalled and they would not achieve anything more by continuing. Rommel agreed and decided to stop the attack for the rest of 1 May and for 2 May as well. The plan was to increase the width of the penetration in the north and the east. The ground near Post S.7 in the north was being held, but they were not able to make progress in the east. Post R.6 only was taken by late on 1 May. Post S.7 was only taken by the morning of 2 May. A tank battle took place about 3:45pm. 22 British tanks seemed to be moving against the 2nd Machine GUn Battalion. A company of German tanks engaged the British tanks and thought that they had knocked out four of the British tanks while four German tanks took hits. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

30 April 1941 at Tobruk from the German perspecitive

As we mentioned, the attacking German force in the evening of 30 April 1941 was a composite force organized as battle groups (Kampfgruppe). There was the Kirchheim group, somewhat like an armored brigade group. They had the 81 tanks of the 5th Armored Regiment. They also had the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion close to full strength. The other infantry battalion, the 8th Machine Gun Battalion had been greatly reduced in the fighting on 14 April 1941. In addition, there were some engineers, anti-tank guns, and anti-aircraft guns. There was a small contingent from the 15th Armored Division. The bulk of their presence were motorized infantry, some engineers, and a small tank group. There were also Italian troops from the Ariete Armored Division and the Brescia Infantry Division.

This considerable force attacked the 2/24th Battalion, an Australian unit holding some five miles. The attack overran the company located in the center and platoons from the left and right companies. The reserve company was able to hold on to their defensive position. The German plan was to attack along each side of Medauuar and capture the hill from the back side. The Italians would then attack the flanks and extend the breach. The Germans would drive towards Bianca and take that, if possible. If it was not feasible, they would take an area to the "south-west". The German force then would attempt to hold the ground that they were able to capture.

Interestingly enough, there was not any Australian defenses at the Bianca area. Rommel had seen an old Italian map that showed a defensive position at Bianca, but if that had ever existed, by 30 April 1941, it was gone.

The attack started with artillery fire and dive bombing. Engineers then penetrated the perimeter on a small scale. There was definitely a breach made just north of Post S.3. There may have been another gap made near Post S.7. Tanks were used to pull away the wire. The tanks positioned themselves to shield the infantry from fire so that they could enter Tobruk past the perimeter. But an hour and a half were all that were needed to capture Medauuar. About six tanks were located on the fortress side of Medauuar. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Plans at Tobruk on 1 May 1941 after the counter-attack faltered

The counter-attack on 1 May 1941 at Tobruk by the 2/48th Battalion was unsuccessful. The battalion commander, Lt-Col. Windeyer reported to Brigadier Tovell the situation. He then spoke with Colonel Lloyd, General Morshead's Chief of Headquarters staff. He told Windeyer to move his battalion behind the point Bianca. All this was not a surprise to General Morshead, since the artillery organization had warned him about the situation. His new plan was to recreate the perimeter in the area of the penetration.

General Morshead ordered Brigadier Tovell and Colonel Verrier to meet him at the division headquarters. The intent was to plan for a "switch line" between Post S.8 and Bianca. They would also connect with Brigadier Murray's line on the east side of the breach. One battalion, the 2/23rd would occupy the existing perimeter down to Post S.8. The second battalion, the 2/48th would hold a line from Post S.8 over to the company from the 2/24th Battalion near the Blue Line (the inner defensive line). Another battalion, the 2/10th, would hold a line from the 2/24th left and the new 20th Brigade "switch line". By now, the company from the 2/24th Battalion had returned to its position. That freed up a company from the 2/48th Battalion to rejoin its battalion.

Rommel's attack on Tobruk had been in process for about 24 hours. He had pushed into Tobruk over a 3-1/2 mile arc of the perimeter. He controlled Ras el Medauuar, the highest hill in Tobruk. He had killed or captured half of the 2/24th Battalion, and due to bad communications, the Australians and British did not even know what was happening. Rommel's force had knocked out four British tanks from a very small collection of tanks. Rommel had hoped to punch through Tobruk's outer defenses and push to the harbor. After breaking through the outer defenses on the evening of 30 April 1941, the plan was to continue in the morning to Bianca and Fort Pilastrano, and push on to the harbor area. Rommel's forces were divided into battle groups that were composed from bits and pieces of various formal units. The first attackers were a battle group from the 5th Light Division on the right side and the 15th Armored Division (Panzer) on the left. The following Italian divisions included the Ariete and Brescia Divisions. The 5th Light Division battle group, the Kirchheim Group was essentially an armored brigade group. The group had "81 tanks (9 Mark I, 26 Mark II, 36 Mark III and 8 Mark IV plus 2 large commander's tanks)". The tank list is very interesting, as we can get a better idea of what German tanks were involved in the battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The counter-attack in the evening of 1 May 1941 by the Australians at Tobruk

One attack was made by D Company of the 2/48th Battalion. They moved along a valley north of the Acroma Road, heading west. They came under fire from posts occupied by enemy troops. Following along some six hundred yards was B Company of the 2/24th Battalion. As darkness fell, D Company was pinned down by machine gun fire from the water tower area. Lt-Col. Windeyer, the 2/48th Battalion commander, ordered B Company of the 2/24th Battalion to attack the area near the water tower. Meanwhile, D Company was trying to move forward. At this point, Post S.10 was still held by Australians, but they were being attacked by Italian soldiers. The carrier platoon had been moving forward to find the enemy machine guns, but they were stopped by anti-tank guns and fire from immobilized tanks in the minefield.

While all this was happening, A Company of the 2/48th Battalion headed for the minefield near Ras el Medauuar. As they moved, they saw six tanks approaching. They assumed that they were British until they saw the German flags. The tanks were apparently unsure of who the infantry were, so they only fired one burst in the A Company direction. as A Company neared Point 209, the tanks turned towards them and starting firing at them. One platoon had an anti-tank rifle, but they were not able to damage the tanks. The company commander sent someone back to the battalion commander to notify him that they were stopped by tanks. The company finally had to withdraw, as they had no way to fight the tanks. When General Morshead heard the recommendation that the attack be stopped until dawn, he told them that they needed to continue.

D Company of the 2/48th Battalion and B Company of the 2/24th Battalion were cooperating and were in communication. They decided to keep moving forward. The D Company commander wanted to use bayonets and charge the machine guns, but he was having trouble locating their position. The D Company commander received a mortal wound. The two battalions were going to withdraw, given their situation. To the north,

One company from the 2/23rd Battalion, attacking southward, was doing better. They reached posts S.10 and S.11 and fired on the enemy machine guns near them. They also reached Post S.8, which only had five men left. When the approached Post S.9, they found that the post was surrounded by enemy infantry. They were doing well, and took 36 Italians who had been in anti-tank ditch around the post. Post S.9 also had but five men left. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

General Morshead's plan for a counter-attack on 1 May 1941 at Tobruk

General Morshead had decided to stage a counter-attack on the German penetration of Tobruk. This was late afternoon on 1 May 1941. He met with the 26th Brigade Commander, Brigadier Tovell. He hoped to use the 2/48th Battalion to attack, once the battalion was relieved from its defensive position by the 2/10th Battalion. At the time, the 2/10th Battalion was positioned at the intersection "of the Bardia and El Adem Roads". The 20th Brigade commander, Brigadier Murray, would command the east side of the penetration. He would have the 2/9th Battalion under his command for the operation.

The 2/48th Battalion commander only received word of the plan when he returned from visiting the 2/24th Battalion headquarters. When Lt-Col. Windeyer got to speak with the general, he pointed out that his battalion was in positions miles apart. General Morshead told him that he would send "vehicles" to move the men. Even with those, the battalion would be hard-pressed to carry out the attack. The attack was to start before it got dark. Lt-Col. Windeyer asked for tank support, but General Morshead told him that the tanks would first be involved on the south side at 5pm, before they would be available.

The Australian historian's opinion of the operation was that one battalion was insufficient to recapture all the posts that the Germans had taken. The 2/48th Battalion commander's plan was to retake the area that his battalion had held before they had been relieved by the 2/24th Battalion. He had four infantry companies to use for the operation, as he had one from the 2/24th Battalion that had been supplied to him. They would attack along the Acroma Road. Only three companies would attack with one company in reserve. The counter-attack would be launched at 7:15pm.

The first thing that happened was that the promised vehicles did not arrive on time. They used vehicles from the 2/10th Battalion instead. Once the 2/48th Battalion was moving, they were attacked by German aircraft. One truck was lost and the others had to scatter. Men had to dismount from their trucks. The 2/48th Battalion was therefore late to arrive at the staring position. There was a dust storm in progress when they arrived and they were looking into the "setting sun". The artillery had fired at the planned time, which was too early for the infantry attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The British and Australian counter-attack on the afternoon of 1 May 1941 at Tobruk

The 2/48th Battalion had been ordered to attack the Germans that had penetrated the Tobruk perimeter. This was in the afternoon of 1 May 1941. The battalion would have tank support. The intent had been to have all the cruiser tanks from the 1str RTR, but there only the headquarters tanks and five Matilda infantry tanks from the 7th RTR. The tanks drove along the perimeter towards the Medauuar area and found Australian infantry still in possession of the nearest posts. The German force had pulled back towards Medauuar. The British tanks then drove further and found Australians still in their posts, although in some cases, men had bad wounds. After reaching post R.8, the British tanks drove further towards post R.6. again, the Australians at post R.6 still held the post. The British tanks could see four German light tanks and one German medium tank. There was a fight with the German tanks and the British commander's cruiser tank was knocked out. The crew climbed onto another tank that was still running. They drove back to post R.8. The British tanks were attacked by a larger German tank force and took more losses. Two British cruiser tanks and two infantry tanks were lost. One infantry tank had been damaged and was recovered later.

As the pioneer company from the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion arrived near posts R.8, R.9, and R.10, they found that men had moved between posts already. The men from post R.8 had pulled back to post R.10. The men from post R.9 had moved to post R.11. For now, post R.8 had been abandoned. Wounded men from Battalion 2/24th were removed. The pioneers now worked to create a switch line to create a new perimeter line to hold. At this point, the nearest German tanks moved to attack posts R.6 and R.7. R.7 was able to stay in their post, but R.6 had to surrender at 7:30pm. Post R.7 was completely cut off, but held on. The commander of the post was a corporal. By morning, the commander could see infantry massing for an attack and the post surrendered. The men were removed by the Germans and General Rommel spoke to them and wished them good luck. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Fighting during late morning and early afternoon on 1 May 1941 at Tobruk

A feature of the fighting on 1 May 1941 at Tobruk was that the phone lines were cut early on so that the commanders of the men fighting got no information. There was also a lot of smoke and dust. There were burning vehicles giving off smoke and there was smoke laid to cover movement. As the day progressed on 1 May, the wind increased and picked up even more dust.

By midday on 1 May, the Germans had the upper position near the hiil Ras el Medauuar. They also had penetrated some 2,000 yards of the perimeter on either side of the hill. They also were sitting on two tracks. One was the road to the west and the southwest track. They also controlled the track going north to the water tower. There were seven tanks strategically located so that they could stop anything that tried to climb the escarpment towards the area that they controlled. There were "Axis infantry" (presumably both German and Italian) dug in outside the perimeter. They provided cover to the troops and vehicles occupying the area were the penetration had been made.

In the early afternoon, the Axis forces started pushing to widen the area of the penetration. On the northern side, a few tanks moved past Post S.7 until they were fired on by the 51st Field Regiment. They were stopped and forced to pull back. Infantry that had been with the tanks, traveling in trucks, stopped and got off the trucks. They mounted an attack on Post S.7 and the posts past that one, but were stopped by a stubborn defense. Lt. Rosel, having taken command of his platoon, asked for ammunition from a neighbor and got "several thousand round".

The next push was in an eastward direction to try and increase the size of the penetration. Post R5 was taken and infantry and tanks moved forward. They took fire from the 1st RHA and the 107th RHA. The infantry had to disperse, but the tanks kept moving forward. They drew two squadrons of the 1st RTR sent to engage. The British tanks were asked to engage the German tanks. The British tanks consisted of 7 cruiser tanks and 5 infantry tanks. Things were desperate enough that the other cruiser tank squadron was sent to Pilastrano to guard the Tobruk headquarters. To support the attacking tanks and infantry, the Germans sent dive bombers to attack the British artillery. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The battle of the posts at Tobruk on 1 May 1941

The German attack on Tobruk near the hill Ras el Medauuar included about four miles of perimeter. The Germans concentrated on attacking the posts along the perimeter. The posts had small numbers of infantry, two machine guns, either Bren guns or medium machine guns, an anti-tank rifle or mortar, and small arms. Tanks drove up to the posts and started firing their guns. They forced the infantry into cover and put the machine guns out of operation. Some had been blasted so that their gun emplacements were destroyed. In other cases, the infantry held out until they were out of ammunition. Five posts were captured while one held out until early afternoon. One example, post S.6 was taken after 9am, when they had 17 out of 26 men killed or wounded. Post S.4 lasted until "after 11am".

British artillery fired on the German attackers, targeting both tanks and infantry. The German aircraft had air superiority over Tobruk and attacked the artillery.

By now, General Morshead was under stress. His one reserve battalion near the attack, the 2/48th, was holding the second line of defense. General Morshead had four battalions in reserve for Tobruk and had 35 tanks. The 1st RTR ahd 17 cruiser tanks while the 7th RTR had 18 infantry tanks. The 3rd Hussars had some light tanks, not really good for hard fighting. When the attack was first noticed, the 1st RTR was ordered forward, just to the east of the attack. Some infantry tanks with light tanks supporting moved forward, but then were ordered back. The defensive minefields were also an impediment to British tank movement. The sad state of Italian infantry meant that support for the German tanks was not what it should have been. There had been about 300 German infantry that followed the tanks in the attack. The German infantry were faced with both artillery fire and medium machine gun fire. The Northumberland Fusiliers at Point 171 used their machine guns to fire on the German infantry.

By 11:30am, the German tanks had been brought to a stop. They were attacked by ten British cruiser tanks. Three German tanks, one medium tank and two light tanks, burst into flames. The British lost one tank destroyed and two others hit. The British artillery was firing on the tanks, which were forced to move behind the hill of Ras el Medauuar. The Germans laid smoke to cover their movements. This is based on the acount in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The battle at Tobruk on 1 May 1941 continued

Not only were German tanks towing anti-tank guns, but they also were towing flame throwers. Some thirty German tanks were driving around, engaging posts east of the hill, Ras el Medauuar. Posts were attacked as they were found. Several tanks were left at each post while the rest moved onward. The German tank group laid down smoke constantly to cover their movements. Four anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA fired on the German tanks. One gun was overrun by tanks, but some of these tanks were later knocked out. The crews of knocked out tanks were fired on by a Bren gunner. One of the anti-tank guns got hits on six of the tanks.

Soon, three British cruiser tanks arrived at the scene and fired on the German tanks. They then quickly got behind a ridge. The Germans laid more smoke and then pulled back. The group of tanks that had run onto the minefield had managed to extricate themselves from the minefield. Some of the German tanks that headed south were fired on by a gun from the 26th Anti-Tank Company. The German tanks turned around and headed back to the rendezvous near the Ras el Medauuar hill. At another location, near the El Adem Road, the Germans were laying more smoke.

One thing that the Australians had not known was the fate of the Australians from Spouwers' battalion who had been on the perimeter when the attack started. The initial penetration was made between the posts occupied by Australians. This had happened after the barrage had stopped. The Germans had blown the perimeter wire to make a substantial opening. In the dark, the Germans lifted mines from the perimeter. Tanks were used to pull away the wire with grappling hooks. At daylight, the Australians in the posts were quickly overcome by the strong German presence. Some anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA were also taken.

Major Fell could see the action. His company was responsible for defending the Ras el Medauuar and the area around it. German tanks carrying a few infantry attacked sangers and blew up sandbags. The sangers were being destroyed and men taken prisoner. Major Fell was one of them. They were taken to the German division headquarters, where the Germans were sure that Tobruk was about to fall. They were walked to Acroma. Rommel saw the prisoners and described them as the cream of the British empire, men who had fought bravely and fiercely. The battle was actually yet to be decided. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

1 May 1941 at Tobruk, experiencing a tank attack

Once the sun was up on 1 May 1941, there was left no doubt about the situation near Ras el Medauuar, the prominent hill. Lt. Shelton had driven his carrier towards Fell's company. They saw him go forward, but the mist obscured his carrier. Once they could see again, they saw Shelton's carrier burning. Shelton had been killed by fire from enemy tanks. A surviving man managed to reach across and drive the carrier back to the road to Acroma. At that point, the carrier was hit again and burned. The surviving members were later picked up by another carrier. The companies commanded by Fell and Canty were in a precarious position, because a battalion of enemy infantry was moving towards their positions. Fortunately, the 51st Field Regiment fired on the enemy and stopped their forward movement. At about 7am, five enemy tanks were seen moving towards the 2/13th Battalion. They were engaged by the 1st RHA and the tanks retreated.

Soon, there were about thirty enemy tanks seen on Ras el Medauuar. Some of the tanks were seen towing anti-tank guns. By 8am, they were seen moving over the hill towards the east. Actually, this group had forty tanks. By this time, there were some 80 tanks inside the Tobruk perimeter. The British artillery had hesitated to fire, as they were afraid of hitting Australian infantry. However, the need to fight the tanks overcame their fears. They took direct fire from field artillery and were caught in the flank by the 24th Anti-Tank Company. One Pzkw III was knocked out along with two other tanks. The crew took hits, but kept firing until the gun was knocked out. The anti-tank company lost three guns in the fighting with tanks. They were not alone, as there was a gun from the 26th Anti-Tank Company.

The German tanks kept moving forward until they ran onto a minefield. Seventeen of the tanks were stopped by mines. Although there was a gap in the minefield, the German tanks hesitated to move forward. The German infantry battalion following the tanks took fire from the 51st Field Regiment. More infantry drove up in trucks. They also took fire from the 51st Field Regiment. While this was happening, the tanks were taking direct fire from the 1st RHA and the 107th RHA. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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