Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The battle at Tobruk on 1 May 1941 continued

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

1 May 1941 at Tobruk, experiencing a tank attack

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Uncertainty rules on the night of 30 April to 1 May 1941 at Tobruk

In the eastern area positions occupied by the 24th Brigade, there had been action after 8pm. A raiding party of forty men was active. They were supported by Italian artillery. When the raiders took fire from the Australians, they "went to ground". At about 10pm, a raiding party was seen a bit north. They may have been the same group of soldiers. They were fired on by the 2/43rd Battalion and the 104th RHA. After that, the 24th Brigade saw no more action that night.

Colonel Lloyd, at the division operations center, became concerned about the lack of anti-tank protection for the 2/24th Battalion. The position had eight anti-tank guns mounted on the ground with two more on portees. Behind the second minefield, there were two more guns on the ground. Colonel Lloyd sent the 24th anti-Tank Company to the 2/24th Battalion headquarters, hoping to arrive before dawn. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was ordered to move tanks up to support the 2/24th Battalion. They would be positioned to the rear of the battalion headquarters. There was a problem with how communications were being treated. This was a serious situation involved German infantry, but some units thought that this was just another Italian raid and not very important.

Various moves were afoot to try and contact the forward 2/24th Battalion companies. A few men were sent out and carriers were sent forward. After 2am, there was increasing fog to obscure visibility. The 2/23rd Battalion had an encounter with forty German soldiers and captured 31. Division headquarters now received word of tank movements outside the perimeter near Post R.32. The 51st Field Regiment reported a German group had infiltrated and were moving eastward. With the recent developments, the 26th Brigade commander was becoming worried.

By about 5am, Germans were caught between two Australian patrols. Six wounded Germans were captured. The Germans had dropped their equipment and had retreated. Lt-Col. Spouwers, the 2/24th Battalion commander, warned Captain Bird that he should be prepared for a tank attack "at first light". By 5:45am, there was incoming artillery fire to the left of the 2/24th Battalion position. With the light came a "thick mist" that obscured visibility. A carrier had set off to the forward area, but when the mist cleared, it could be seen burning, knocked out by enemy tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 13, 2017

From late on 30 April 1941, a penetration of the Tobruk perimeter

General Morshead was told of the penetration near the 2/24th Battalion when he woke on 1 May 1941. At this point, no one above the effected battalion had any good information. The 2/24th Battalion had been penetrated in the center and right of their position. So far, the penetration was by infantry with tanks outside the wire. By this time, some German prisoners had been captured. To find out more about the situation, patrols from both the 2/24th and 2/23rd Battalions were looking for information.

The 9th Australian Division operations room was receiving reports from the 26th Brigade staff. Tobruk depended on a wire-line telephone network. They lacked too much equipment to use wireless communication. The wire lines connected from headquarters to their up line commander. The equipment and lines were mainly Italian in origin. The telephone lines were laid on the ground surface, as in the dark, there was no hope of finding cable breaks with buried lines. The drawback was that artillery fire could break lines as could enemy infantry on the attack.

The 2/24th Battalion commander, Lt-Col. Spowers' headquarters was located near a road that ran to the west. The furthest soldiers from the 2/24th Battalion were located about two miles to the west. The road continued on to Acroma. The 2/24th reserve company, Company B, was about one thousand yards from the battalion headquarters. The high point nearby was at Ras el Medauuar. The hill was topped with an observation post. AT the perimeter, posts were about 500 to 700 yards apart. The company nearest the penetration had seen troops moving forward as early as 5:55pm on 30 April. By 7pm they could see that there were tanks behind the infantry. This was all followed by air attacks and artillery fire. There were enemy flares fired. Finally, there was a white flare at 8:30pm. Shortly after that there was an explosion that broke the perimeter wire. The explosion was near the Acroma road.

The defenders were supported by defensive fire from the 51st Field Regiment. At 9pm, there was another white flare seen and the enemy artillery fire stopped. They still could hear infantry firing automatic weapons. Then the enemy artillery fire stopped, the 51st Field Regiment stopped firing as well. The defenders could see periodical enemy flares fired. Communications were disrupted by broken wires, so they started sending encrypted messages by wireless. This explains the lack of good information at the division level. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, March 09, 2017

On 30 April 1941, the situation at Tobruk changed

The position at Ras Medauuar was a critical point in the defenses of Tobruk. As the sun rose on 30 April 1941, dust from moving vehicles was observed from Ras Medauuar. The dust was seen in from Acroma. Eventually, some 100 vehicles were seen in transit. There were also about twenty armored vehicles moving on the escarpment. Once artillery fired on the armored vehicles, they retreated. British air reconnaissance reported vehicle movements around the perimeter and at Acroma. By 9am, observers on Ras Medauuar could see enemy infantry. The infantry had been on the trucks that had been seen. They moved up to within some 4,000 yards from the Tobruk perimeter. Major Fell at Ras Medauuar asked for artillery fire on the infantry. The artillerymen were uncertain that they could reach the infantry, but finally started firing a few rounds. The shells seemed to be falling short, from what could be seen. As the morning progressed, dust was blown up by a rising wind. As the infantry approached, they were seen to be Italians. Beyond the infantry, there was a great deal of dust, more than just from the wind.

The Tobruk defenders were used to seeing signs of an attack. The 2/24th Battalion was expecting to use the usual tactics to repel any attack. As the day progressed on 30 April, the only further action was 105mm artillery fire on Ras Medauuar. The men on the west side were attacked by dive bombers. The 2/23rd Battalion was busy planning a company-sized raid for 1 May. The onset of night seemed to be the end of action. As the day grew later, there was an increase in artillery fire on the western side. At 7:20pm, a report arrived at headquarters that the 2/24th Battalion was being dive-bombed. There were also reports of infantry about 1-1/2 miles from the wire. There were reports of more vehicles about two miles out from the wire. The dive bomber attack had been made by about 40 aircraft. One of them had crashed during the attack.

By 8pm, the entire fortress area could hear a heavy artillery bombardment. The attack was made against the 26th Brigade position. A "long-range gun" started firing on the air field. This was near the 9th Australian Division headquarters. The headquarters had an underground operations room cut out of rock. At about 8pm, the 24th Brigade reported an attack by about forty infantry. The activity seemed to have died down, until flares were reported along the perimeter wire. By about 11:20pm, there was an ominous report that the 2/24th Battalion had been penetrated and that the details were as yet unknown. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 06, 2017

29 April1941 with some of the men in Tobruk in new positions

The 2/24th Battalion had started relieving the 2/48th Battalion men as early as the afternoon of 28 April 1941. They day saw heavy enemy air activity, including dropping 150 bombs or more. Given the air attacks, the men expected a new ground attack, but there was none. The attacks were limited to heavy shelling of the inner defense line, the "Blue Line". The men of the 2/48th Battalion were moved back to the Blue Line defenses. The 2/48th Battalion now had other troops between them and the enemy. This was the first time for them since they had retreated from the escarpment above Benghazi.

The commander of the 2/24th Battalion was a Great War veteran and he did not like the shallow defenses. The men were put to work to dig deeper trenches and to build up the defensive position walls.

The 24th Battalion was a concern because they only had two battalions. The 2/25th Battalion was late in arriving from Australia. General Blamey took action and assigned the 2/32 Battalion to the 24th Brigade. The battalion had tried to embark on the ship Chakla at Mersa Matruh on 28 April. Because of bad weather, only one company had been able to board the ship. They arrived at Tobruk early on 29 April and were to be part of an ad hoc group of engineers and to hold a position leaving the harbor area.

Air reconnaissance on 29 April saw the continued movement of vehicles to the west, across the areas held by the 20th and 26th Brigades. The increased enemy air operations continued on 29 April. The enemy aircraft strafed and bombed artillery and infantry positions. During the morning, the 20th Brigade was heavily shelled. The 2/24th Company was attacked by air and took casualties. One company commander was wounded and was replaced. There was soon another air attack on the same area. A large bomber attack hit guns of the 1st RHA near El Adem and the road to Bardia. By 4:30pm, the harbor was heavily bombed and the ship Chakla was sunk. The next attack at about 5pm hit the 2/24th Battalion, but with no effect. At about 6pm, enemy ground forces moved in the direction of Ras el Medauuar, but turned back in the face of fire. Right before dusk, a dive bombing attack hit the rear of the 20th Brigade, causing casualties. The last action involved artillery fire on the 20th Brigade rear. After that, the action stopped. During the night, three lighters brought six infantry tanks, which were unloaded. The lighters carried back some of the captured German tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Major events in the Mediterranean and North African area from 27 April 1941

As the 22nd Guards Brigade and their Australian anti-tank guns withdrew, the German and Italian forces moved forward starting on 27 April 1941. All this was happening as the situation in Greece was at a critical stage. The navy was thoroughly occupied with withdrawing troops from Greece. All the artillery and heavy equipment was left behind. From Tobruk to the Egyptian frontier area, German and Italian forces moved forward "to the line Sidi Omar--Sidi Suleiman--and north to Musaid". They formed a defensive front and blocked the way to Halfaya Pass. They sent small groups out onto the coastal plain. The navy hoped to bombard them with a gunboat, the Aphis, but the weather was to bad for that to be possible.

Once the German and Italian forces had control of Halfaya Pass and the area surrounding it, the area to the east was more securely held. This allowed Rommel to concentrate his attention on Tobruk. The bulk of the 15th Armored Division was pulled back from the frontier. The 3rd Reconnaissance Unit stayed near the frontier along with a small group from the 15th Armored Division. The frontier area was held primarily by Italian forces. There was a battle group from the Ariete Division. There was also an infantry company from the Trento Division along with an artillery battery of 105mm guns. The main force, most of the Trento Division was located at Bardia.

By 29 April, most of the remaining troops were evacuated from Greece and shipped to Crete. Crete was going to be the next major campaign, although the prospects were bleak.

At Tobruk, the defenders expected an attack, probably from the west, although that was not certain. The Axis forces kept a distance from the defenders, so that there were no signs of where any attack might be coming. The Tobruk defenders needed air support and reconnaissance, but there was none. By 27 April, there was increased activity by Axis forces. An air raid hit the harbor as early as 6am. There were more air raids through the day. The defenders observed large numbers of enemy vehicles on the move from the south to the west. They seemed to be moving towards the usual route towards Acroma.

In the time given, over the previous week, the inner defenses had been improved. Much of these consisted of mine fields. The 26th Brigade held the 12 mile western sector. Not all of the defenses were actually held by troops. At the Wadi Sehel, the Indian cavalry regiment, the 18th Cavalry, held the perimeter defenses. They were next to the 2/23rd Battalion. They were next to the 2/48th Battalion, which had seen great success in heavy fighting. They had taken an amazing number of prisoners: 1,375 men. The 2/24th Battalion would relieve the 2/48th so that they could get some rest from the heavy action. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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