Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Events on 20 to 22 April 1941 in the Mediterranean Theater

When Winston Churchill heard about the tank situation in North Africa, he decided to take a high-stakes gamble. He would send tanks to Alexandria, Egypt, through the Mediterranean Sea. He hoped that most of the tanks would arrive. The Navy had been very cautious about sending high-value convoys through the Mediterranean Sea, particularly with the increased German air threat. That threat was very real, as the losses later in April and May would show. In this case, the gamble succeeded, although with loss.

General Wavell was in Greece, as the resistance was collapsing. He ordered the troop withdrawal from Greece to get as many of the troops away as they could. The losses from the Greek campaign were predictable and could have been avoided by not going in to begin with. Anthony Eden had strongly urged that the British intervene in Greece, despite the certainty of failure. General Wavell had done his part to get the Australians to agree to the participate. The senior Australians realized the odds, but did their part when called upon.

At the same time, Rommel read the message from the German High Command about taking Tobruk. Rommel wanted to have the complete 15th Armored Division before making the attempt. The high-level commanders urged him to use more Italian forces, instead. Rommel felt that his most immediate need was more air support to protect the supply line to Libya. British attacks on the convoys were causing losses that were very damaging.

General Morshead was planning new attacks against the forces attacking Tobruk. The main attack would be by the 2/48th battalion, hoping to take "Carrier Hill" and capturing the nearby enemy force. Two adjacent battalions would also stage attacks. Preparations were made on 21 April for the attack by the 2/48th Battalion. The attack would be mounted by just one company, five carriers, three infantry tanks, and four anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA. They had a forward artillery observer from the 51st Field Regiment. There was no artillery barrage planned, because they did not want to warn the force being attacked. The company from the 2/48th Battalion stepped off at 6:40am on 22 April 1941. They had air cover and a low-flying Westland Lysander to make noise to drown out the carrier and tank noise.

The Australian infantry caught the Italian infantry totally by surprise. The carriers fired on the enemy gun crews while the attack took place. The Italians initially fought in place. In the face of a bayonet charge, most of the Italians surrendered, although some continued to fight. One carrier was knocked out by an anti-tank round. They captured 368 Italian soldiers, including 16 officers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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