Thursday, November 16, 2017

Conflict between the British and the Australians over relieving the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk

In late August, the Australians learned that there was considerable British resistance to moving the 9th Australian Division out of Tobruk. The first inkling was that the navy wanted to reduce the number of convoys in and out of Tobruk. They also wanted to only run ships on moonless nights and not on nights when there was moon. Then we find that there was resistance to sending the British 6th Division to Tobruk because they had recently been in an area where malaria was prevalent. They also did not want to send another division to that area because of the malaria. After seeming to agree to withdrawing the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk, now they had a defense in depth by having a long list of objections. General Blamey was not going to agree to this sort of arrangement, because it would circumvent the plan to consolidate all the Australian divisions into one fighting force. We find, on examination, that the real opposition to withdrawing the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk was Winston Churchill. Churchill considered withdrawing the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk as a "needless relief".
When General Auchinleck returned to Egypt, he was preoccupied with the coming offensive, now named "Crusader". He did not want to deal with anything but preparations for the operation. The Australians were able to withdraw the 18th Brigade from Tobruk, but now found that the British were dug in and resistant to any move to withdraw the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk. The naval and air commanders in Egypt both opposed the withdrawal of the Australians.
The RAF hoped to achieve air superiority over the battlefield for Operation Crusader, but there were many factors which seemed to make that very difficult if not impossible. The British hoped to have 544 aircraft for the operation. The might have some 650 aircraft, of which 300 would be German. The Germans had a superior fighter type to anything that the British could employ. If the war in Russia went well, the Germans might be able to pull more aircraft into the fighting in North Africa. Convoys to Tobruk would require enough aircraft to provide a sufficient protection.
Carrying out the relief of the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk would divert needed resources for Operation Crusader. The British were desperate to find a way to not have to carry out the withdrawal of the division from Tobruk. General Auchinleck also believed that the Australians could defend Tobruk better than any relieving division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Late August to September 1941 in North Africa

General Auchinleck appointed Alan Cunningham to be his army commander in North Africa without really knowing anything about him, except his recent history. Cunningham has just finished a successful campaign in East Africa against the Italians. Cunningham had been summoned to Cairo to be briefed on his new command. He left on 29 August for Cairo. Auchinleck would give Cunningham instructions to make two plans for the coming operation. One would cut across the desert to Benghazi while the second would be for an attack along the coast towards Tobruk. From what we know, the second plan was the one that was actually implemented.
The Australian 18th Brigade was successfully moved out of Tobruk by 30 August 1941. This was according to General Blamey's plan which had been approved. He notified his government of the successful movement and asked them to keep the new secret. That same day, the chiefs of staff met in Cairo to discuss supplying Tobruk in the future. The supplies were mainly carried by two destroyers each night. The goal was to built up the supply reserves for the fortress. Other ships were also involved. They used "A-Lighters" to carry supplies from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk. Other small ships also ran from the main base at Alexandria and Tobruk or from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk. There was a constant risk of air attack, along with mines, and large caliber gunfire on the harbor. When units were moved in and out of Tobruk, that tied up the available destroyers, as they could not be used simultaneously for both troop carrying and transporting supplies.
The planned large movement of Australian and Polish units in August meant that more ships were required. Some nights, there were three destroyers or, even on some occasions, four destroyers. The fast minelaying cruisers Latona and Abdiel were also used on the run to and from Tobruk. They used the additional ships to move troops while the normal ships were used to carry supplies. To provide protection from air attack, there were more fighter aircraft and some cruisers with their anti-aircraft guns. Two ships were damaged during these operations. The Australian destroyer Nizam had a near miss by a bomb that caused damage while the cruiser Phoebe was torpedoed, probably by an Italian torpedo bomber. These aircraft were twin-engined and were some of the best Italian attack aircraft.
The air protection provided relieved the pressure on the smaller ships, and reduced the losses. Three small ships were lost in operations to resupply Tobruk. This was considered an improvement over the previous months. The ships lost were a trawler and a whaler. A tank lighter or landing craft was sunk by a mine in Tobruk harbor. A minesweeper, also in the same small shipi  category, was damaged near Mersa Matruh. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.



Thursday, November 09, 2017

Auchinleck takes command in the Middle East

When General Auchinleck took over as the theater commander in the Middle East, Winston Churchill hoped to bulldoze him into doing what Churchill wanted. General Dill, the CIGS, advised Auchinleck to resist doing anything before adequate preparations had been made. He considered that when General Wavell launched Operation Battleaxe, that he had acted prematurely due to pressure from Churchill. General Dill told Auchinleck to act as he thought best, and to resist the Prime Minister's push to act before he was ready. In particular, he said that he should be explicit about the risks he was prepared to run, and those risks that were too great to chance, to demand the resources that he needed, and if they are not provided, to state clearly what could be done and not be done.
General Auchinleck told Churchill that attacking before the necessary resources were available was something that was not "a justifiable operation of war". He negotiated the date for the attack in the Middle East to 1 November 1941. He treated that as the real target date that he was trying to meet. When the preparations were not complete in time, he asked for a delayed start, even though that would upset Churchill.
We find rather amusing that President Roosevelt told Churchill to reduce his commitment to the Middle East, because the Americans thought that the area could not be adequately defended. In fact, they threatened to withhold shipments of war materials and equipment if Churchill ignored their concerns. Churchill's reply to Roosevelt caused Roosevelt to lose his temper. The two leaders met following this exchange on a battleship in "the Bay of Newfoundland". The disagreement was resolved and the Americans proceeded to sent tanks, vehicles and aircraft to the Middle East in large numbers. Those shipments continued through 1942, which was a much more challenging year than 1941, if that was possible.
Before Churchill left to meet Roosevelt, they had decided to send a second armored division to the Middle East. The division would not arrive in time for the start of the upcoming attack. The convoys were immediately dispatched with men and equipment for the division. American Stuart tanks would arrive in time for the start of the operation. Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots, is a good story about how the Stuarts were used in the next offensive in the desert.
Auchinleck had not yet appointed the army commander. He was not familiar with any of the men who were available. All he could do is essentially look at their resumes. On paper, Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham, who had just completed a successful campaign in East Africa seemed to be a good choice. The East African campaign had been a fast moving war of mobility. What Auchinleck did not know is that Cunningham was exhausted after the East African campaign and was not ready to take on new responsibilities in the Western Desert that involved mechanized warfare. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the British Official History.


Monday, November 06, 2017

The Polish Carpathian Brigade arrives at Tobruk in late August 1941

When the Polish Carpathian Brigade was formed in April 1940 in Syria, the Polish government in exile was based in Paris. The brigade gradually grew from Polish soldiers who had escaped internment or captivity and traveled to Syria. After France fell to the Germans and the Vichy government was formed under Marshal Petain, the brigade marched out of Syria and into Palestine. This was in June 1940. Polish soldiers continued to make their way to Palestine to join the brigade. This process continued until Greece was captured by the Germans in April 1941. There ceased to be an easy route out of Eastern Europe to Palestine at that point.
Many of the men who joined the Carpathian Brigade had been officers in the Polish army. A special unit had been formed of some Polish officers in addition to the normal brigade organization. Other officers served in the brigade as non-commissioned officers or as ordinary soldiers. The Carpathian Brigade had the advantage of time to train before they were sent into action at Tobruk. The brigade was actually organized as a brigade group. The brigade group included a cavalry regiment. The brigade commander, Major-General Kopanski, arrived at Tobruk during the night of 25 to 26 August 1941. The general and his staff had lunch with General Morshead and then had a conference. They found that the plan was for them to move into the southern sector and take over from the 20th Brigade (Australian).
The first Polish unit to see action was the field regiment. They were sent to the western sector to relieve the 51st Field Regiment, which was to leave Tobruk. The Polish anti-tank regiment replaced the 24th Anti-Tank Company and the 9th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment. Apparently, only the men left and the guns remained in place for the Polish to use. The Polish cavalry regiment replaced the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment.
The Polish infantry were sent to integrate with the 20th (Australian) Brigade for a week. The Polish would have preferred to be positioned in opposition to Germans, rather than Italian soldiers, but they accepted their assignment. When they listened to news of the Russian front, the Polish disliked both the Germans and Russians, so they were happy to hear of both sets of casualties.
The 20th Brigade was removed during September 3-4 1941. After the 20th Brigade was relieved, that meant that a Tobruk sector was now held by a non-Australian unit. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

More activities in August 1941 at Tobruk

Developments in the southern sector of Tobruk continued through August 1941. The 2/13th Battalion was on the right of the sector. The 2/17th Battalion was positioned on the left. During this period, both battalions were involved with deep patrolling. The Australians were aware that the enemy were continuing to build their defensive positions. That was particularly true near the roadblock at the El Adem Road. They were busy adding mines to close the gaps in their minefields. At the same time, the Australians were busy creating new gaps in the minefields. On 4 August, a patrol from the 2/17th managed to lift 184 mines and brought them in for their own use.
The 2/13th Battalion had been in their positions from 15 July to 18 August 1941. Their position was conducive to deep patrolling at least in part due to the greater distance of the enemy positions. That allowed them to exit their own positions and move out without being observed. They were still close enough to the enemy positions to be able to reach them and return during the night. One early patrol went out and brought back intelligence of the enemy minefield that they had found. Lt. Martin was a regular leader of patrols and he eventually was in a position to be able to penetrate the enemy lines and move around behind them. They also noticed gun flashes and several patrols out at the same time were able to get bearings on the gun flashes that could be used by the counter-battery group. These were guns that were shelling the harbor area.
On the night of 17-18 August a large group of infantry and engineers ventured out to attack the guns. Lt. Martin commanded the assault group, but they only found empty gun emplacements, although they had been recently used.
By mid-August 1941, improved air support was provided to Tobruk. They aircraft were still prohibited from using the Tobruk air field, but reconnaissance aircraft were occasionally allowed to operate there. On 3 August and 16 August, the RAF carried out air attacks on the German guns located along the coast, east of Tobruk. The RAF also improved their ability to obtain useful photographic reconnaissance of enemy positions near Tobruk. Tobruk was eventually provided a skilled photo interpreter.
When the commander of the 1st RHA received photographs of enemy positions in the south, west of the El Adem Road, he realized that they confirmed the findings of aggressive infantry patrols. He wrote Brigadier Thompson, the fortress artillery commander, and mentioned that the reconnaissance by deep infantry patrols were confirmed by the photographs. He said that they needed to recognize the importance of the deep patrols. Since air reconnaissance had been so lacking, the deep patrols had been very successfully in obtaining the needed information that had been absent. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Tobruk harbor, shelling and air raids

Tobruk harbor was shelled starting on 22 August 1941 and lasted for two days. The first rounds were fired by a battery of German 105mm guns. They fired at long range (about 20,000 yards). More rounds were fired by some 155mm guns similar to what the Australians had previously called "Bardia Bill". They fired from east of the fortress. The British artillery replied with their very efficient counter-battery fire. That stopped the incoming fire on the harbor and fortress until 27 August. On that day, the harbor received about 60 rounds, that in the face of heavy counter-battery fire. In the afternoon on the 27th, the harbor was hit by an air attack. The attackers were some forty bombers and three fighters. They hit not only the harbor but the heavy anti-aircraft gun sites. One casualty of the attack was the whaler Skudd 3 which was sunk. The attacking aircraft had three planes shot down, six more heavily damaged, and many more with some damage.
Late August 1941 and into September included many more air attacks. The attacks were increasingly focused on hitting the anti-aircraft gun sites. The Ju-87 dive bombers (known as Stukas). The attack on 27 August included 35 Stukas. During August 1941, the air defenses at Tobruk fired on about 600 aircraft. 1 September saw a very heavy raid directed at the air defenses. The attackers had some 140 aircraft and the attack lasted about 15 minutes. Two heavy anti-aircraft guns were bombed by 30 Stukas. Level bombers attacked a third gun and dropped about fifty bombs on the site. Field guns were also attacked by another fifteen Stukas. Base areas were attacked by more high-level bombers. The forward defenses on the perimeter were also bombed by high-level bombers. Some of the bombs even hit German or Italian positions. The infantry fired (probably ineffectively) large amounts of small arms and machine gun rounds. Many of the heavy anti-aircraft guns were 3.7in guns, the most modern British heavy anti-aircraft gun. Those guns fired 1,006 rounds in the raid on 1 September. There were a few 102mm guns which fired 111 rounds. The light guns also saw action. The 40mm Bofors guns fired about 1,200 rounds. The 20mm Oerlikon guns fired some 3,000 rounds during the attack. Casualties included one gunner killed and six wounded. Five of the heavy guns were out of action for about four hours after the attack. They believed that they had shot down as many as four enemy aircraft, although they only saw one actually crash. An indication that the defensive fire was pretty effective was that the enemy did not use any more Stukas against Tobruk for the rest of September 1941. This description is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The next actions during August 1941 at Tobruk

While the 18th Brigade and other units were being pulled out of Tobruk by ship, the enemy shifted their attention to the south and south-east of the Tobruk perimeter. Two brigades held the south and east sectors at Tobruk. The 20th Brigade was in the south while the 26th Brigade was in the east. Early in August, British intelligence learned of a pending change in the besieging forces. In the east, it seemed that the Bologna Division would replace the Trento Division. In the event, the change happened a week later than the British had expected. Once the change was made, there was an increase in artillery fire from the enemy.
Artillery fire became increasingly important. At first, reporting only came from British artillery units. Very soon all units were pulled into artillery fire reporting. Once the shelling reports were regularly received, the defenders were able to produce reports about rounds fired, days fired quantity, average, peak, and minimum rounds fired and per area. The 24 hour periods started and ended at 8am. By mid-August 1941, the fire reached a peak. The intensity of artillery fire continued to increase, so by 25 August, 1,175 rounds were fired at the forward areas of the fortress. By 26 August, there were some 1,500 rounds fired.
Tobruk was being out-gunned by the enemy forces. Tobruk had 80 guns, including the four 60 pounders. There were also a few 149mm Italian guns in action. The enemy had 224 field guns, and had four medium batteriers of four guns each, along with four heavy batteries.<//p>
By the end of August, the enemy started firing more medium and even heavy guns at the harbor and Fort Pilastrino. A single 155mm gun had been firing from the east, but there were now three 155mm gun firing on the harbor area. They had been not firing for a while, but started again in earnest on 19 August. That was the same day that three 210mm guns fired at Fort Pilastrino. By about 20 August, 120mm naval guns fired five rounds at the harbor and coast. The 1st RHA had the counter-battery duty and silenced the 120mm guns. The next day, a howitzer manned by headquarters gunners hit an ammunition dump in the south. Those things effectively ended the harbor fire for the rest of August. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The next moves in North Africa in August 1941

General Auchinleck had been called to London in later July 1941 when Churchill felt a need to meet with him to pressure him on the desirability of moving to the offensive in the desert. Auchinleck returned to North Africa in August. He ordered the immediate replacement of the 18th Australian Brigade and the Indian 18th Cavalry Regiment. This would enable the 7th Australian Division and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade to be completed with all their units. Auchinleck was not ready to approve the relief of the 9th Australian Division, which everyone else had agreed could happen.
General Blamey wrote to Mr. Spender in Australia giving him the latest information about developments. One positive development was that the 7th Divisonal Cavalry had been pulled out of Cyprus and had rejoined the 7th Australian Division. Eventually, the 6th Divisional Cavalry and the remnants of the 6th Australian Division would be pulled out of Syria. That would start the business of reconstituting the 6th Australian Division.
General Blamey blamed the British staff in Egypt for resisting the moves to enable the Australian divisions to be part of an Australian-only corps. He also pitched the Australian view that if the 9th Australian Division was not pulled from Tobruk that their morale and physical condition would continue to deteriorate. Hence the need for their replacement. While the relief of the 9th Australian Division had been agreed upon at some level, General Blamey was concerned that the British would find a way to block that from happening.
The plan for the relief in August of the 18th Australian Brigade and the Indian 18th Cavalry went smoothly. The first of the Polish units arrived as well. The last of the relieved units sailed on 29 August. The engineers had made secret improvements to the port area so that a rapid process could proceed. The reason had been to be prepared for a quick withdrawal of the 9th Australian Division in the event of Tobruk being taken by the enemy. The new works helped the relief in August proceed quickly. There Australian infantrymen, gunners, British armored cavalry, and Indian cavalry loaded onto destroyers at night. The 18th Cavalry had been with the 9th Australian Division from early in the siege and had functioned as infantry. They performed exceptionally well had made their presence known to the enemy and instilled fear in their opponents. They were said to have enjoyed their association with the Australians, who had treated the Indians as if they were Australians. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Rationale for another attack and issues raised by the initial withdrawal moves in August 1941

The ridge adjacent to post S7 was a troubling feature for the defenders of Tobruk. In many ways, that ridge was more of a problem than Medauuar. An attack on the ridge would have involved larger forces, as some experts recommended using at least two infantry battalions. The proposed attack would have cost many casualties. The question was whether the attack would have been worth the cost. The Australian historian seems to have thought that the cost would have been too great and would have had a negative effect on troop morale. The historian thought that Morshead's desire to attack was based on his basic approach to defending Tobruk. He would not execute fancy or complicated maneuvers. Instead, he would have liked to not have given up any ground at all and would not accept defeat.
For the 18th Brigade to be ready to load onto ships and be sent to Egypt, they would have to be relieved from their positions. That relief would have to happen from 16 August to 21 August 1941. They needed to keep the reason for their relief could not be disclosed. The needed troop movements were to take the 24th Brigade from reserve and put them into the eastern sector. They would replace the 26th Brigade. The 26th Brigade would take over in the west and the Salient. The 2/1st Pioneer Battalion would be added to the 26th Brigade. The 2/24th Battalion stayed in their position. The 2/48th Battalion was sent back to the Salient, but only in reserve. The three battalions then were Pioneers in the west, the 2/23rd in the Salient on the right, and on the left of the Salient, the 2/24th Battalion.
Of the engineers, the 2/4th Field Company would withdraw with the 18th Btigade. The 2/13th Field Company had to replace the 2/4th. The 2/13th could have felt like they had gotten a raw deal of the changes.
The Polish Carpathian Brigade moved into Tobruk, starting  on 20 August. They arrived on board destroyers. The arrival of the Polish Carpathian Brigade had alerted the Australians in Tobruk of what was planned. They immediately all knew about the planned departure of the 18th Brigade and the Indian 18th Cavalry Regiment. Other unit to be removed were the 51st Field Regiment, King's Dragoon Guards, and the 3rd Hussars. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

2/23rd Battalion operations and the pending relief of the 18th Australian Brigade in August 1941

When the posts held by the Pioneers proved too tough a nut for the enemy, they moved their attention to posts manned by the 2/23rd Battalion. They had two posts near Bir Ghersa. One was named Jim and the other was Bob. Another nearby feature was the Walled Village. They had previously had a post at the Walled Village, but had stopped using the post. During 7 August, they saw two tanks with about thirty infantrymen near the Walled Village. The battalion sent a patrol to investigate during the evening. They had incoming mortar fire when they approached. The next day, three Italians were captured at Jim when they approached without knowing that the Australians were there. Then on 9 August, the enemy fired at post Bob and the men had to withdraw. Another group was sent out to protect post Jim and sat about 400 yards away. On this day, post Jim had a tank officer and two Australian men.
Some 21 enemy soldiers approached Jim. The men in the post called in fire support from the 104th RHA. They also fired with a Bren gun and a Thompson sub-machinegun. While firing, the Bren gun jammed, allowing the enemy to approach within 30 yards. The Australians kept the enemy back by throwing grenades. The Bren gun cleared and the enemy were shot down. Post Jim then received mortar fire and shell fire from artillery. The men withdrew to the covering group. On 10 August, a carrier went out with an artillery observer and found that they enemy had pulled back from Bir Ghersa.
General Morshead found out from Colonel Lloyd, who came from Cairo, that the 18th Brigade would be relieved unexpectedly soon. Morshead had planned to use the 18th Brigade, his best brigade, he thought, to attack the enemy at Post S7. With the brigade going to leave soon, they brigade commander was in no place to think about Morshead's grand plans for attacks. Another idea from General Morshead was to pull the 18th Brigade out sooner than September. Admiral Cunningham liked the idea and Auchinleck eventually opted for 19 to 29 August 1941. The 18th Australian Brigade and the 18th Cavalry would be replaced by the 1st Carpathian Brigade and the Polish Cavalry Regiment. The 18th Brigade commander, Brigadier Wootten only received news at the last minute of the relief. Brigadier Wootten and Captain Coleman had considered the task of attacking the enemy at Post S7. They should attack S6 and S7 at the same time and they would need as many as two battalions to do the attack.
Wootten's brigade major had studied what would be needed for a successful attack, after studying the enemy's defenses. The men were aware through the back-channel communications of the plans for another attack. The Australian historian considered that another attack would test the morale and confidence of the men in their commanders. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Axis plans and further developments in July to August 1941

By August 1941, the German High Command for Armored Forces set priorities for the rest of 1941. They hoped to add strength to the army in North Africa. The goal was to capture Tobruk. The discussion did not really acknowledge the issue of the Royal Navy's role in interdicting Axis shipping. That factor was the major reason for a two month lag for reinforcing Rommel's forces.
In July, Rommel had his vision for an attack on Tobruk. His plan had some preliminary moves that could be made without having any strength added. The road junction that would eventually become prominent as King's Cross would be the target. The attackers would congregate to the south of Tobruk. They would move out from an area near the target. The Australians had established posts near the area, so they would be the first things to be cleared.
In late July, the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion had two posts that they had inherited from the 2/23rd Battalion. Outpost "Normie" was attacked several hours after midnight on 26 July. The attackers had been an Italian patrol of a dozen or so men. Two days later, Normie was shelled and the post had to be abandoned. This happened at abour 9pm. A group with two officers and 21 men set out to recapture the Normie post. The enemy troops started firing at the Australians when they were about 200 yards from the post.  The Australian group moved to outflank the post. The enemy soldiers responded by shooting up flares. They also called in artillery on the attacking Australians. The Australians charged the post and the enemy troops ran. The men found an Italian machine gun, some rifles and grenades. The troops that fled seem to have been Italians.
Post Normie was attacked another time on 30 July. The attack was in the afternoon, so they were able to call in defensive fire from the 104th RHA. The battalion commander sent out two carriers carrying ten men. The attacking force, again which seem to have been Italians, were scattered. After failing with the posts near the Pioneers, the enemy moved to the 2/23rd Battalion area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The New Axis Organization in July and August 1941

A new assessment of British tank losses in Battleaxe gave some additional prestige to Rommel. The Italian general Cavallero recommended that Rommel be in charge of a new, single headquarters in North Africa. This was supported by Hitler, and General Halder had to agree.
General Halder requested Rommel to submit his plan for an attack on Tobruk. General Halder wanted to keep one armored division on the Egyptian frontier and not involved with attacking Tobruk. He also warned Rommel not to expect further reinforcements. General Halder was still determined to keep the North Africa force from growing. Rommel did not agree with the condition, since he wanted to concentrate all his forces for the attack, which makes good sense., He had already given his plan on 15 July 1941 which used the 15th Armored Division and part of the 5th Light Division, his two armored divisions. Rommel wanted to use the captured  British infantry tanks to lead the attack and they would push through to the port and harbor area. Rommel had a schedule to meet, since he wanted to take Tobruk in September and then attack Egypt in October.
Rommel attended meetings in both Italy and Germany to discuss the new organization. They suggested Panzergruppe "Rommel", but settled on Panzergruppe "Africa". The Italian officer was still commander-in-chief of forces in North Africa. General Bastico was the new Italian commander as of 23 July 1941. General Bastico had command of the Italian corp with the Ariete Division and the Trieste Motorized Division. Rommel commanded all other German and Italian forces in North Africa under the Panzergruppe Africa. The German forces were included in the German Africa Corps while the Italians were in the XXI Corps. The hope was that the German Africa Corps would have the two armored divisions along with two infantry divisions. They would have what would become the 90th Light Division as well as having the Italian Savona Division. The Italian corps would have four infantry divisions, of which three were already in place. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Plans for North Africa for the fall of 1941

Operation Battleaxe was a dividing point for both sides in North Africa in mid-1941. The British had hastily mounted an operation that failed. The Axis forces had successfully repelled the attack. The Australians at Tobruk were intent on strengthening their positions. The Axis forces were also working to hold on to what they had.
The Germans had politics to deal with. There was a faction that was intent on controlling Rommel and keeping him from straining the supply system. A competing faction was counting on Rommel being able to beat the British forces and move east. General Halder, the German Army Chief of Staff, was the leader of the faction that was trying to keep Rommel in check. Their plan was to appoint General Gause as "German Liaison Officer at the Italian Headquarters in North Africa." General Gause actually arrived  on 10 June, but found he was not welcome, because General Garibaldi saw him as a threat to his authority. Garibaldi could have seen General Gause as a check on Rommel and welcomed him, but that did not happen. Rommel was unhappy with the appointment and complained to Field Marshal Brauchitsch.
The politics of the situation liked what Rommel had been able to accomplish and wanted him to do more of the same. They cared not about General Halder's and Field Marshal Brauchitsch's concerns. They had a problem in that Field Marshal Keitel was moving to help Rommel. Part of the dynamics were that the faction which wanted to limit Rommel was also afraid that Hitler was committing Germany to more than was reasonable. Keitel was intent on doing what Hitler wanted and he wanted Rommel to do more of what he had already done. He should defeat the British in battle and move into Egypt.
Already, Field Marshal Keitel was consulting with the Italian Chief of Staff about a planned offensive in the fall to attack Egypt. They would use two German armored divisions and two Italian. They also would have three motorized divisions. More Germans would be sent, so the initial elements of what would become the 90th Light Division were sent by ship to Libya in June 1941.
Right after General Gause arrived at the Italian headquarters, Hitler had sent a plan for what he wanted to do after Russia capitulated. He hoped to attack the Middle East from the east, west, and north. They would move through Turkey, from Libya to Egypt, and into the Levant from the Caucasus. Hitler called this "Plan Orient". Two first steps would include taking Gibraltar and Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Investigating after the attack on 3 August 1941

One important question that lingered after the fighting on 2 August to 3 August 1941 was who occupied Post S7? There was an interlude in the morning, as both sides operated under the Geneva Convention to recover dead and wounded men near Post R7. Sergeant Tuie supervised the Australian operation. He set out at about 7am. The process continued through the day. The Germans were very helpful to the Australians and let them approach their positions. They also deactivated mine fields. They even gave Sergeant Tuit a drink. He succeeded in retrieving 28 dead and five wounded men.
At Post S7, there was no contact. The post was kept under fire and no one could get close during the day. The post seemed to be under enemy control, but Colonel Lloyd wanted to be sure as to the status. He ordered two patrols to go out at dark. One would check Post S6 and the other would check Post S7. The patrols were sent out at 9:45pm. If S7 were still in Australian hands, they would send out reinforcements. At 10 minute before 10pm, Captain Conway at Post S7 called for defensive fire. His signal was misunderstood and nothing happened. Captain Conway had sent a message out from earlier in the evening. Some men were sent out to help, but were not able to advance. A patrol from the water tower reported hearing Australians talking in Post S7. At 1:25am, Colonel Lloyd heard that the post seemed to be in the possession of the enemy. They eventually saw a green flare fired by the Germans from Post S7. That told the Australians that the post had fallen. It turns out that Captain Conway had run out of ammunition and had surrendered a little before 11pm.
At this point, the process of relieving units from the Salient was started. The 24th Brigade was relieved and was put into reserve. They were replaced by the 18th Brigade during 4 to 7 August. On 8 August, the 2/48th Battalion moved into reserve. That left three battalions up front. They were the 2/12th, the 2/10th, and the 2/9th. The 2/48th Battalion subsequently left the salient for the eastern sector while the 2/24th Battalion moved to the Salient. The engineers were also changed out. The 2/13th Field Company changed places with the 2/4th Field Company on 12 August. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

After the failed attack on 3 August 1941

Plans had been made based on the attacks succeeding, early on 3 August 1941. The initial impression was that both attacks had failed, When Captain Conway went forward to Post S7, he found his men had taken the post. He fired the signal for success, which now created some confusion. The truth was that there were only some nine men in condition to fight at Post S7. The enemy had now laid smoke to obscure the situation from view.
The Germans attacked the post at dawn. They were firing machine guns at the place and cutting the sandbags, which drained sand down onto the Bren gun. Miraculously, the Australians succeeded in repelling the attack. They permitted the Germans to collect their wounded from the attack. Commanders outside the area could not see past the smoke and dust. They had the impression that the enemy had retaken Post S7 after it had been taken. The brigade and battalion commander had the impression that the attack in the north had failed to take post S6 and had failed to hold onto S7 after it was initially taken. In the north, the 2/32nd Battalion had orders to send a company to provide the force to continue fighting, if the situation warranted.
In the south, the enemy seemed to have been warned before the attack. The artillery fire in support brought out an immediate enemy artillery response. The force that would have attacked was hit by the enemy fire and took casualties. The wire was blown with the bangalore torpedoes, but the bridges for the anti-tank ditch were broken and the men carrying them were wounded. There was heavy high explosive shell fire, but the men moved forward. More casualties were taken from grenades and booby traps. The key leaders were often wounded during the process. One of the platoons went too far and ended up attacking from the north side. Of the various sections, one was decimated by mortar bombs. Two kept moving forward, but they encountered a mine field backed by the anti-tank ditch. They lacked the bridges, so that was a problem. Only three men survived from Warrent Officer Quinn's platoon.
After twenty minutes had passed after the initial attack, another platoon was sent forward. They had a similar experience to Warrent Officer Quinn's platoon. They reached the ditch, but had only seven men left.
The men withdrew after it was realized that there was no point in continuing. Captain McCarter was wounded, but he directed the withdrawal. They had carried out many of the wounded men. Of the 4 officers and 139 men in the attack, they had 4 officers and 97 men killed or wounded. The actual dead included 29 infantrymen. The next morning, under the Geneva convention, the Australians were allowed to go in and bring out wounded and dead. The Germans deactivated minefields so that the work could proceed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The big attack in the Salient at Tobruk on 3 August 1941

We already had some idea that this attack would be challenging. The major sticking points were the reduced force being used and the greatly improved enemy defensive positions. Lt-Col.Lloyd's battalion had substantial artillery support. The support included most of the 51st Field Regiment along with a battery from the 107th RHA and "three troops of the 2/12th Field Regiment". The 2/43rd Battalion also had support from bits and pieces of artillery units. There was the usual unified command of counter-battery fire. There was also machine gun support drawn from the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
The start time for the attack was 3:30am on 3 August 1941. Preparations had started "during the middle of the night". There were sappers involved along with intelligence people to lay the start lines. One platoon moved forward at about 2:30am, followed by the rest after another 15 minutes. The moon had been out, but it set while the men were moving forward. About sixty guns commenced firing five minutes before the start time. That triggered fire from the enemy troops on the attackers. Most of the initial attackers were lost, with a few reached the top, but were almost all wounded. The sappers moved up and blew the wire with bangalore torpedoes. They had brought bridges which they placed across the anti-tank ditch. A few Australians made it to the post and killed four Germans and took six others prisoner. They were not able to fire the Very signal because the sack with it had been shot off.
They tried to send someone to tell Captain Conway, but they did not reach him. The attackers were in bad shape. A sapper arrived to help, but he found only about five men left who could still fight. The attack on Post S7 almost succeeded, but they lacked sufficient force and depending on Very lights for signalling did not work out well.
The attack on Post S6 did not go as well as the attack on S7. The attacking platoon got to the escarpment, but most of the platoon were lost to defensive fire. A supporting platoon took the weapons pits and sangers by the water tower. The engineers who were to blow the wire were all shot. The attacking platoon leader, Lieutenant Head, triggered a booby-trap and was wounded. Lt. Head now only had eight other men with him. There was little point in continuing the attack. Lt. Head took his man  back out of the area. Colonel Lloyd had been waiting for the signal that they attacks had succeeded. He didn't see them and concluded that the attacks had failed. So that had failed to take Post S6 and had retaken and then lost Post S7. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The challenges of an attack on the posts in the Salient in August 1941

The attacking force on the posts in the Salient must necessarily exploit forward, despite the fact that they would then be vulnerable to attack at daylight. They are forced to exploit due to the need to gain some depth to the position. The focus was on posts R6 and R7, while they were also interested in post R5. The posts were defended by about 30 German soldiers in each post. The posts had barbed wire around them. The men in posts R6 and R7 were from one German infantry company while post R5 had men from a reserve company. As we have previously noted, the Australian battalion commander Lloyd was the most capable of those in Tobruk. He had both Great War and British Indian Army experience from the past. Lloyd's plan was to attack each post with two platoons with a third providing flank defense. Another platoon from the 2/48th Battalion would try and take the water tower along with sangars nearby.
The 2/48th Battalion would be ready to move forward and link the water tower position with Forbes Mound, which was already held. They would also attack enemy positions nearby. Such an attack would be challenging, to say the least, as the positions were the leading edge of an enemy defense in depth.
Again were note that Lloyd's attack would attempt to succeed where a larger, battalion-sized attack by  the 2/23rd Battalion had previously failed.. Lloyd's plan used one platoon to attack each post, although his attack was planned to be be over a broad front. The 2/43rd Battalion, acting in support, would attack posts R5 and R6, if things went well initially. There were two more companies from the 2/43rd Battalion ready to act, along with a company from the 2/48th Battalion. The 2/43rd Battalion had supplies ready to bring forward with five carriers and a truck with a trailer. A second truck was standing by in readiness to move. The supply group would be in waiting near post R9 where they could see what was happening at Post R7. They had two anti-tank guns and a 3inch mortar with crews and ammunition. While they might have liked to have had tanks for the attacks, they seemed to be too likely to alert the enemy of an impending attack.Tanks were available in support, however. Two squadrons from a tank unit and two troops of infantry tanks were ready to move if the decision were made. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The plan for the attack on the Salient at Tobruk from late July to early August 1941

The Germans and their Italian allies had worked for some three months to improve their defenses in what was called "The Salient". The arc of the defenses on their side was shorter than the larger arc on the Australian side. The shorter arc was held by the three motorized infantry battalions, while the longer arc on the Australian side was occupied by two complete battalions and part of a third.
General Morshead had requested that the supporting air group for photographs of the enemy positions, but they never received any from 204 Group. The only photographs that the Australians received were of the wrong area, but even that was an improvement and showed that the air side was able to respond to requests.
What they did know was that the Germans had built sangars from sandbags with machine guns mounted in them. As well as earth defenses, the enemy had laid anti-personnel mines. The sangars were camouflaged with pieces of grass. The defenses were about four feet-six inches in height. There were holes in the walls about six inches from the ground from which machine guns could be fired. Part of the enemy line consisted of escarpment. Perhaps an exaggeration, it was said that the enemy positions were at the top of the escarpment while the attacking Australians were at the bottom. The escarpment continued for about a thousand yards east of Post S6. The enemy could cover the Australian approach with machine gun, mortar, and artillery fire. The attacking Australians had virtually no cover for their approach to the enemy positions. Lt-Col.Lloyd commanded the 2/28th Battalion, which had to conduct the attack under these circumstances. Lloyd was a Great War veteran who had subsequently done four years in the British Indian Army, fighting in the Second Afghan War. By 1936, he was back in Australia and was a Major in the militia. Lloyd's plan was to use two platoons for each post with another platoon on the right flank.
The 2/28th Battalion would attempt to take two posts that had been previously attacked by a battalion. This time, the attackers had a company plus one platoon. When the battalion-sized attack had failed, what would lead us to believe that a smaller attack would succeed? There were other components to the attack plan and in one case, the company commander would get to decide if he could exploit further. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Salient and plans to retake it, while the plans for withdrawing the 9th Australian Division move forward

There was a widely-held belief, not backed up by any evidence, that the enemy were thinning out their defenses in the area of the Salient. During late July, General Morshead was apparently not aware of how far the plans for withdrawing his division had progressed. He was still intent on trying to attack the Salient. In late July 1941, the division was reporting that the enemy was reducing the troops in the front positions. The reality was that if there were any changes, it was because the enemy were pulling back into more strongly held positions that were newly built. You did find incidents like the night of 25 and 26 July 1941, when patrols found some enemy outposts had been abandoned. One patrol searched the area of the water tower and found no enemy troops there or to the immediate west of it. The men involved quickly found out that the ground near poPost S6 was defended, as they drew fire from the south. Still, one patrol spent the day near the water tower and watched the nearby area.
British commandos raided enemy positions by the coast, beyond the perimeter and captured an Italian soldier. What the Tobruk defenders really wanted was a German prisoner from the Salient. They managed to get a German several days later. They found that the area was still defended by three German motorized infantry battalions, the same ones that had been holding the area. At this point. General Morshead was still planning his attack on the Salient. Not everyone agreed that the attack was a good idea. The commander of the 107th RHA was very critical of the idea. He described the planned attack as an attack by two infantry platoons at each side of the Salient "supported by 21 troops of artillery". When we realize that the Salient was held by three German battalions and were being attacked by two Australian battalions, with another on the left flank. The Germans had spent three months strengthening their defenses in the Salient. The ground was very favorable for the German defense. Any attack would be made against well-prepared positions with sand-bagged machine gun positions where the guns fire close to the ground through loopholes. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Late July to early August 1941 at Tobruk

By early August 1941, the Australian prime minister was unhappy that Churchill had not replied to his telegram from 20 July. This caught General Blamey by surprise, as he was intent on managing the information that the prime minister received and was responding to in his communications. General Blamey emphasized in his message to his prime minister that events were proceeding according to his plan and that the prime minister should not be concerned. The 9th Australian Division would be withdrawn from Tobruk in September, when air support would be available, while before that time, it would not be. It turns out that Churchill was not available to reply as he had gone to meet with President Roosevelt. Lord Cranborne replied for Churchill and assured Mr. Menzies that they had discussed his telegrams with General Auchinleck.
At Tobruk, General Morshead was in ignorance of these developments and was proceeding with his plans to attack the Salient. The plan was for the 24th Brigade to attack both sides of the Salient. Once those points had been captured, they would exploit further as it was possible to do. On 21 July, General Morshead ordered the 20th Brigade to replace the 18th Brigade. Also on 21 July, the Division ordered the brigades to launch raids on the enemy forces. During the last week in July 1941, patrols were sent out every night. A report from the division claimed that the enemy was thinning his troops in the area, but the Australian historian thought that there was nothing to back up the claim. When the 2/15th Battalion was relieved on 8 July, the battalion commander commented that the enemy depended on "automatic weapons and mortars" to hold the salient. They were also protected by anti-personnel mines.During the night of 25 to 26 July, some enemy positions were found to be unoccupied. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Auchinleck and Churchill now involved with the Australians in July 1941

General Auchinleck was the new theater commander for the Mediterranean and Middle East. He had the bad luck to be the object of uninformed interference by the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill. Churchill was the primary cause of the unfortunate situation that they found themselves in during July 1941. The actual role of Auchinleck was commander of the Middle East Command. Churchill and his Chiefs of Staff wanted to see an immediate attack. The army was particularly ill-prepared for such operations.
One of Auchinleck's first moves, to send the 50th Division to Cyprus to free the 7th Australian Divisional Cavalry to be returned to its division, got an immediate negative reaction from Churchill. Auchinleck followed that move with a comment that he thought that they would not be able to hold Tobruk after September 1941. That got a reply from the Chiefs of Staff that they wanted any new offensive in the desert to happen no later than September.
By 23 July, the Prime Minister called Auchinleck to London to talk about the situation. He told Auchinleck that General Blamey could act for him in his absence. At this point, Auchinleck was not ready to agree to removing the Australians from Tobruk by ship. He would be open to removing the 18th Brigade so that it could be returned to the 7th Australian Division. That would allow the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions to be complete formations, which was a major step towards responding to the Australian demands. The 18th Brigade was to be replaced by the Polish Carpathian Brigade, which was currently in reserve.
The Polish commander, General Sikorski, was just as concerned about what would be done with his unit as were the Australians. General Auchinleck sent a telegraph message to General Blamey about the Polish concerns and conditions. General Blamey agreed that they would meet the requested conditions. As a next step, in the meeting of commanders-in-chief, the plan was made to send the 6th Division (later renamed the 70th Division) to Tobruk along with the Polish Carpathian Brigade. The men would be transferred in and out of Tobruk in August and September. They would make use of the new moon in each month to safely make the moves. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Decision to Request that the 9th Australian Division be relieved in early July 1941

As recently as late June 1941, it seems that General Blamey had not yet decided to request that the 9th Australian Division be withdrawn from Tobruk. There were several things that would cause him to decide, however. For one thing, the Germans seemed to be at the point of overrunning Russia. The British intelligence perspective was that Russia was being totally dominated and might collapse at any moment. Other factors were that the senior medical advisor and General Morshead agreed that the physical condition of the Australian soldiers in Tobruk was rapidly declining. Another factor was that the campaign in Syria against the Vichy French was ending. An armistice was declared on 12 July. That would make easier pulling the Australian divisions into one organization.
July 1941 seemed like a good opportunity to remove the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk. The natural thing was for General Blamey to write to General Aunchinleck requesting that the 9th Australian Division be relieved from the defense of Tobruk. The excuse given was that the condition of the Australian soldiers had declined and that they had taken heavy losses in the fighting to defend Tobruk. The second excuse given was that the Australian government had always wanted the Australian divisions to be part of a single organization. When they looked at the three Australian divisions, the 6th had been heavliy engaged in Libya, then Greece, and finally, in the defense of Crete. The division had taken heavy losses. The 7th had just completed the conquest of Vichy Syria and had also taken losses in the process. They were also short of the 18th Brigade which was presently in Tobruk. The 9th had been in continuous combat since March 1941 and had also taken heavy losses in the process.
General Blamey communicated with the Australian prime minister and provided him a copy of the letter to General Auchinleck. General Blamey wanted to see the Australian divisions assembled in Palestine so that they could form an Australian organization. He saw the main obstacle the reluctance of the British to allow it to happen. This is base on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Australian concerns in June and July 1941

Back on 17 June 1941, General Blamey sent a memorandum to General Wavell where he expressed concern over how ten Australian units outside of Tobruk were serving under non-Australian commands. The Australian position was that these units should be reassigned so that they were under Australian commanders. This was a concern expressed by the Australian prime minister, which was then Mr. Menzies. Wavell's staff drafted a reply which they sent to General Blamey asking for his comments.
Later, on 26 June, General Blamey sent a telegraph message to the prime minster. In the message, General Blamey wrote answers to questions that he had received from Mr. Menzies, the prime minister.  The most important question was his opinion about the situation at Tobruk and if the 9th Australian Division could continue to hold onto the fortress. In his reply, General Blamey expressed confidence that the Australians could continue to resist attack. He also replied that the division could be removed by sea and that the Royal Navy thought an evacuation was possible. There was no immediate cause for worry, as General Blamey had requested a plan for the contingency. At this time, the 9th Australian Division chief of staff was in Cairo and he did not see any immediate cause for concern. General Blamey also expressed his opinion that he was having an influence about the need for formations to be intact and not distributed piecemeal. That was eventually a concern of Bernard Law Montgomery when he eventually assumed command of the field army in North Africa in late 1942. General Blamey also addressed the proposals for a new corps organization that included an ANZAC Corps. Having two corps seemed to preclude all Australians being under a single, Australian command, but there were no objections to having the New Zealand Division in the proposed ANZAC Corps.
By mid-July 1941, there was little progress about consolidating the Australian units. At that point, no Australian division had all of its constituent units under its command. That meant that there was no possibility of training the divisions as units. In late June, there was still no sign that General Blamey was asking for the 9th Australian Division to be withdrawn from Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.


Monday, August 28, 2017

Political problems in Australia in 1941

From the perspective of most Australian soldiers in Tobruk, they expected that they would leave Tobruk when the siege was lifted. After the failure of Operation Battleaxe, that seemed to be unlikely to happen any time soon. General Blamey, the senior Australian soldier in the Middle East, suggested that the 9th Australian Division be withdrawn by ship. Hardly anyone in Tobruk during the summer of 1941 knew anything about this possibility. When WInston Churchill published his volume The Grand Alliance, postwar, that was news to most people in Auxtralia. In his book, Churchill only quoted his messages to the Government of Australia, and did not quote the responses from the Australian Government. Churchill portrayed the situation as the Australian Government feeling political pressure from the Opposition as the cause.

From the Australian perspective, this seems not to have been true. There was a committee of the leaders of the three political parties that met on this subject. The subject was raised by General Blamey's communication. The dispersion of the Australian forces in the Middle East and Mediterranean was the basis for their concern. Another aspect of this was the formation of the ANZAC Corps in Greece, which was ultimately dissolved. There was continued interested in having the combined New Zealand and Australian divisions included in a reconstituted ANZAC Corps. In early May 1941, General Wavell had written approvingly of having an ANZAC Corps. General Blamey wrote that he thought that having the three Australian divisions and the New Zealand division grouped into two two-division corps was a good idea. The 7th and 9th Australian Divisions would form an Australian corps and the New Zealand division and the 6th Australian Division would form the ANZAC Corps. General Blamey endorsed General Freyberg as the ANZAC Corps commander with General Laverack as the Australian Corps commander.

By 7 June 1941, General Blamey wrote to the Australian Prime Minister about the need to have fixed formations in place, rather than everything being ad hoc. That was mentioned as his main reason for agreeing to the ANZAC Corps with an Australian Corps. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Rommel's plan for Tobruk and the Australian response in June and July 1941

Rommel seemed to be intent on containing Tobruk with large numbers of mines. They would lay minefields that would keep the Tobruk defenders from breaking out and from attacking the Axis supply lines. Mine laying was an ongoing project that continued until the breakout in November 1941. The Salient was a central feature of Tobruk. This had been the scene of the original Axis attack that had penetrated the Tobruk perimeter. The Salient was therefore had mines added continuously. Across the north, lines of mines were laid from west to east, between the escarpments and wadis. Another line, often three lines of mines, was laid across the south and up to the coast. The Australian active patrolling meant that they were quickly aware of the minefields.

Australian patrols in the south found that parts of the minefields were not defended by guns. Once that was discovered, a bold operation on 1 July 1941 set out to a minefield about 4,000 yards to the south. They set out in vehicles to the minefield. They "disarmed the anti-personnel mines". They lifted 504 anti-tank mines and brought them back to add to their defenses. This was the largest and most successful operation during this period. Another patrol went out on 9 July and returned with 120 25pdr rounds that had been left in a gun emplacement in January 1941 during the original Tobruk capture. This ammunition had been left by men of the 6th Division. Another operation on 12 July brought in 202 mines, presumably anti-tank mines. They brought in more mines the next day.

Reinforcements from June and July started to arrive and in June and July. The new arrivals proved to be largely untrained. Assembling four infantry divisions was very difficult when they were relying on voluntary enlistments. Officers not actually involved with the war in the Middle East seemed to lack understanding of the importance of training the men who were lately enlisted. Even in the Middle East, away from the front lines, there was the same lack of focus on training. The setup was made in such a way that a useful training program could not be implemented. We have to suspect that the issue was lack of experience and knowledge. Key people were new to the war effort and were ignorant of what was most needed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Brigade boundaries from June 1941 at Tobruk

There was a division between the southern and eastern sectors at Tobruk from June 1941 into July. The line was just to the west of post R55. The 24th Brigade held the southern sector. The 26th Brigade held the eastern sector. The southern sector ran from posts R52 and R53 to the Salient. That included the El Adem Road area. The eastern sector ran from the boundary past the Bardia Road up to the coast. From early June, the men found that there was little evidence of enemy occupation from the perimeter outwards. For example some men walked some five miles into enemy territory without encountering enemy soldiers. Another group of men on another night walked to the tracks between "the Trigh Capuzzo and the Bardia Road". One consequence of Operation Battleaxe was that the Germans built an asphalt road in the area. This would become important later in 1941 during the Crusader Battle.

Routine patrols at night were established from June. Along with the patrols, observation posts that were manned during the day were established. From 18 June, the 2/32nd Battalion established observation posts outside the perimeter. Two posts were established, one at a walled camp and one at Bir el Azazi.

Near the 2/32nd Battalion, but in the other brigade, men from the 2/24th Battalion would go out to informal observation posts from the end of June. When the 2/32nd Battalion was replaced by the 2/12th Battalion, they continued the practice of occupying observation posts during the day. By then, the 2/24th Battalion had started using the walled camp for a daylight observation post.

On 7 July, the routine was interrupted when three men fired on Italians in a truck. The men had drawn attention to themselves, so they were brought out by carrier. They would use carriers there the next day, but they stopped using the post for infantry. Only later in July did the 2/9th Battalion revert to using the area as a daylight observation post.

In the east, the first attempt at daylight observation posts was taken on 27 June by the 2/23rd Battalion. The posts seemed to have been intermittently used in the east. The pioneers moved in after 15 July. They laid a minefield around "Jack" observation post on 19 July. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

More developments from July 1941 at Tobruk

By late July 1941, the counter-battery fire operation was in place and operating. Direct phone lines were a prominent feature of the organization. They were now able to very promptly fire on enemy guns when they were noticed.

The ammunition supply situation had improved enough that by 17 July, artillery commanders were allowed to increase the rounds fired per gun per day to 20 rounds, if there was a need. Once this was permitted, the ammunition used per day increased immediately. This actually was an indication that the guns were allowed to fire on targets as they were seen, and allowed the British guns to be more effective.

The captured Italian guns continued to have problems that made them a danger. The 75mm guns worked well, but the 100mm guns were very troublesome. All but one were abandoned. The 149mm guns were considered dangerous, but they were fired by very long lanyards by men protected by sangers.

At a time when moving supplies was a priority, there was what now seems to have been a mistake, to reduce the base area staff. In addition, personnel resources for use by the engineers was being reduced. That was at a time when they were called upon to perform tasks such as preparing beaches for embarkation, in case of a need to abandon Tobruk. The engineers were also required to plan and implement a demolition scheme to be fired in case of a withdrawal. Ironically, when Tobruk fell in 1942, none of these plans were implemented, because by the time there was a need, the people who had done the planning and implementation were long gone.

Along with the other preparations, large amounts of Italian ammunition were either detonated or were dumped into the sea. The latter practice was very dangerous, because some of the ammunition that was dumped exploded and killed and injured men.

Work continued on implementing defenses in greater depth. Units that were supposedly in reserve were diverted very quickly into digging defenses. These included adding more to the inner defensive line, the "Blue Line", and other "Switch Lines". These were additional defensive lines beyond those in the outer perimeter and inner defenses.

The area to the southeast, outside the perimeter, was occupied by Italian units. They had moved into position as early as April 1941. They had built defensive positions that blocked the Bardia Road. During June and July, soldiers from the Trento Division held this area. Further south was largely unoccupied. A greater amount of work was done by men from the Pavia Division starting after 10 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

July 1941 devoted to patrolling at Tobruk

While there were no major operations planned at Tobruk during July 1941, the month was spent on active patrolling and battalion-sized raids. Artillery was very involved with the activities. You had the southern artillery group that included the 1st RHA and the 107th RHA. In one case, 14 guns fired on an enemy position that included trenches. Fourteen guns fired, although six of them broke down during the barrage. They fired as many as 1,220 rounds during a two hour period. Six of the guns were 149mm howitzers. This particular operation occurred on the night of 16 July. The next night saw the 2/28th Battalion and the 18th Cavalry, along with some British commandos, attacking in the Wadi Sehel. The attack had support from the 2/12th Field Regiment. They fired about 1,200 rounds during the operations. This attack provoked artillery fire over a four hour period from the enemy. The response from Italian and German radio stations described the attacks as attempting to "break out of an unsupportable position" or at least as "lively reconnaissance activity".

The patrol activities were finally better equipped than earlier in the siege. Battalions now were issued a number of Thompson sub-machine guns. The enemy response to active patrolling now included using search lights to illuminate patrols. The first time this was seen was on 15 June. The Australians discovered that the search lights were mounted on trucks. They also saw cables that seemed to be supplying power. Now, when they discovered cables, they cut them and sometimes removed pieces. The enemy started using colored filters for search lights.

Another development in July was the use of Alsatian dogs by Italian units. They seemed to be only used to sound an alarm when patrols were approaching.

From late May 1941, a large gun started firing at the Tobruk harbor. The men of Tobruk named the gun "Bardia Bill". The counter-battery group did not believe that the gun was firing from Bardia, but the troops always thought that the fun was located at Bardia. One thought was that when the British evacuated Bardia, they had left a large gun there, undestroyed. One time, they found pieces of a 21cm shell, probably from a Skoda gun. In another case, they had what they thought were shell fragments from a Schneider gun. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Reducing the Tobruk garrrison and the supply situation

The idea that there was a large, non-productive population at Tobruk seems to have been a fantasy of General Morshead. By July, that was absolutely not true. What was needed was for the garrison to be prepared to hold out for a long period of time. Food and ammunition would be accumulated to cover some sixty days. They would prepare a plan to evacuate Tobruk by ship, but they would be closely held and not made public to the garrison.

General Morshead attended the last meeting in Egypt with General Wavell. General Auchinleck was also at the meeting. Supplying Tobruk was an important topic discussed at the meeting. They had decided that as much as 230 tons per day would need to be shipped to keep the fortress supplied. They eventually realized that they only needed to send 170 tons per day with Tobruk having a 25,000 man population. The navy was able to bring in 170 tons per day during July 1941. They were able to send somewhat less in August. Fortunately, the garrison was less than 25,000 men.

Typically, General Morshead wanted greater offensive strength to be enable an active defense, rather than a passive defense. General Auchinleck declined to make the commitment. There would not be any major commitment of armored forces in Tobruk, as Auchinleck wanted to build up the army in Egypt for offensive operations with tanks. After this, Generals Blamey and Morshead met with the RAF commanders and arranged for reconnaissance missions to be flown from El Gubbi and Sidi Barrani. They also would provide some army-cooperation aircraft to support Tobruk.

With General Morshead on an extended absence from Tobruk, Brigadier Murray was acting as fortress commander in his absence. Morshead arrived back in Tobruk on 9 July 1941. During this period, while General Morshead was gone from Tobruk, there was more shuffling of brigades and battalions in the defense. In some cases, battalions, such as the 2/48th were moved from one brigade to another. The 2/48th Battalion had replaced the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. They continued the practice of having a brigade in reserve for the division. By late July, Brigadier Wooten's brigade (18th Brigade) moved back into the reserve. There were no big offensive operations conducted in July, although they continued to patrol and to conduct raids on enemy positions. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The effects of the ammunition shortage at Tobruk in June and July 1941

The defense of Tobruk had been made possible by the frequent usage of the 25pdr guns. They had customarily fired some 40 tons of 25pdr high explosive rounds per day. The situation had become critical by 6 June 1941, when the guns were limited to ten rounds per day. In June, they were reduced to some five tons in all of Tobruk per day.

In contrast, the enemy artillery became much more active. They also had the advantage of having gun fire spotted from the air. The German aviators knew that there were no British Hurricane fighters as possible problems. The enemy artillery was being used to target the British artillery. The British gunners thought that if they had more ammunition, the enemy would be much more constrained in their fire. One bright spot for the Tobruk defenders was that there was an ample supply of Italian 149mm howitzer ammunition. The British artillery was organized into three sectors. All made use of the Italian howitzers.

During the first few days in July, there was an unexplained growth in enemy shelling. They were firing some 2,500 shells per day on the 3rd and 4th of July. After that, the situation returned to what had been the normal artillery fire. The British were able to match the enemy, tit-for-tat. The 60pdr guns still had problems with ammunition supply, but the 2/12th Field Regiment was able to make good use of their captured artillery. In fact, their troops in the Salient were required to fire one hundred rounds per day. The situation helped when Colonel Goodwin had translated range tables from Italian to English.

One positive development in June was the creation of an effective counter-battery organization. Lt-Col. Klein arrived to lead the counter-battery organization. He was the counter-battery officer for the I Australian Corps. By later in June, the 60 pounders were able to conduct effective counter-battery work.

A peculiar feature of Tobruk was that both sides employed raised observation posts. The enemy forces often installed tripods to hold observation posts. British and Australian posts could be on posts or they might be on scaffolding. The defenders were puzzled by ten enemy posts that were installed on 26 June, but were not used for observation posts.

Late in June, the decision-makers in London and the Middle East reconsidered the situation at Tobruk. Did they want to continue to hold Tobruk? The answer was "yes", but with a reduced garrison without "extra" troops. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The big move to shorten the salient at Tobruk during late June and early July 1941

The 2/15th Battalion commander, Major Ogle, was determined to move the perimeter forward by some 700 yards in the center of his position. The operation would stretch over five days, completing early on 3 July 1941. The first step was for the engineers to mark the area from the positions that they were presently in out to where they would move. They would deactivate mines as they went. They also marked the position of the new wire to be installed. The second step was to inactivate more mines and all the booby traps so that there were now "safe areas". For the third and fourth nights, they occupied infantry with the process of digging new positions and laying wire.

On the day that the 2/15th Battalion was to move forward, there was increased enemy activity, almost as if they were forewarned. There were troop movements along the entire salient area. Elsewhere, there was more artillery fire. All night, enemy reconnaissance aircraft overflew the area and used flares after the moon had set. The Australian historian thought that a 3rd Armoured Brigade exercise and triggered the enemy activity rather than what the 2/15th Battalion was doing.

Over time, the health of the men in Tobruk had deteriorated. There was wide-spread digestive problems, so that diarrhea was almost universal. That had been what had originally side-lined General Richard O'Connor after defeating the Italians. There were also cases of dysentery and what we would now call "PTSD" and what they called "fear state" in 1941.

The enemy air superiority over Tobruk affected the men's attitudes, but they also lost some of the fear associated with air attack as they became accustomed to it. The base and harbor drew most of the air attacks. Everyone on both sides were surprised when a British bombers flew over and dropped a bomb at Hill 209. During June, the enemy conducted 134 bomb attacks and flew 39 reconnaissance missions.

Showing the amount of wishful-thinking that happened prior to Operation Battleaxe, supply shipments to Tobruk had been greatly reduced. Starting on 1 July, the supply deliveries restarted and they were greatly appreciated by the troops. They remarked on hows good the food was. More attention was paid to ensuring that the men had adequate Vitamin C when everyone received an orange and men were issued Vitamin C tablets on a regular basis. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Moving forward in the "Salient" in late June and early July 1941

There was a strange business, where the 2/13th Battalion was preparing positions that would only be occupied by the 2/15th Battalion. There was in addition, a misunderstanding about time, where the 2/13th Battalion men expected that the 2/15th Battalion would move in on the night of 24 June (or maybe not). In addition, the 2/15th Battalion would build a new position "on the left" and eventually move into it. During the evening on 22 June, a mine exploded and wounded men from the 2/15th Battalion. The next move was to send out men at 10pm, with sappers to clear the path. They had brought wire and other things out, but then at 1am, men from the 2/13th Battalion found a booby trap and took casualties. That explosion caused the Germans to open fire with machine guns. The firing continued as the men tried to work on the positions. The 2/15th Battalion also took casualties during the night.

Although the 2/13th Battalion men had worked all night, the positions were still incomplete. They positions were not dug deep enough and they still needed to have wire installed. The result was that the work was continued the next night. The roles would change with the 2/13th Battalion only providing "guidance" while the 2/15th Battalion men would do the work of preparing the positions. This is where a misunderstanding occurred. The men of the 2/13th Battalion still thought that the men of the 2/15th Battalion would move into the new positions at 4am on 24 June 1941. The plan, was in fact, to move in on the following night.

as men worked, another booby trap exploded, killing and wounding more men. This was followed by enemy mortar fire, which caused more casualties. The misunderstanding came to light at 3am when the 2/13th Battalion learned that the 2/15th Battalion would not move into the new positions until the next night. During the night of 24-25 June, the 2/15th Battalion moved in. Men from the 2/17th Battalion arrived in the location. They were to allow the 2/13th Battalion to be withdrawn into reserve for their brigade.

There was some discontent with moving so far forward that they were close to enemy positions. The alternative would have been to have kept a larger distance from the enemy and then aggressively patrol in the "no-man's land". The purpose of the move forward was to be able to control Post R8, Post S8, and "Forbes' Mound". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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.

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