Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

The second day of Operation Battleaxe (16 June 1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The events of Operation Battleaxe on 15 June 1941

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Plans for Operation Battleaxe on 15 June 1941

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The German perspective anticipating Battleaxe

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Operation Battleaxe plans

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

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

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

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

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