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.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The big picture in late May and early June 1941

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Axis forces at Tobruk in May to June 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The situation from 6 June 1941 at the Salient

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fighting on 17 May 1941 near the posts, including S4

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 08, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The aftermath of Operation Brevity from 16 May 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Operation Brevity: 15 May 1941

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

16 May 1941 at Tobruk in the morning

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

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

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

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Taking action on the Egyptian Frontier in May 1941

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An active defense in early May 1941 at Tobruk

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

After the counter-attack at Tobruk after 4 May 1941

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

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

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

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