Thursday, February 16, 2017

The situation at Tobruk from 24 April 1941

The British Middle East Command's estimate of the Axis forces was that there would by two German armored divisions, the 5th Light Division and the 15th Armored Division. There would also be the Italian Ariete Armored Division and the Trento Mechanized Division. These would all be available by mid-June 1941, as the British intelligence estimate believed. The British Tiger Convoy would arrive at Alexandria, Egypt, by mid-May 1941. General Morshead, at Tobruk, was warned of the estimate.

After a pause in operations, the western side of Tobruk was attacked "at dawn" on 24 April. The start was a heavy artillery barrage that came down on the western defenses. The next move was a large number of infantry moving towards the defenses by 7am. The infantry were closely bunched, which made them good targets for artillery and machine guns. The forward Australian infantry had their Bren guns and Thompson sub-machine guns, which they freely used. One attack came in on the 2/23rd Battalion. British artillery fire was concentrated. Some attackers were pinned in place. Others moved quickly forward as a way to escape the artillery fire. The forward defenses replied with fire that stopped any further forward movement. The attackers were completely stopped by 8am. The Australians came forward to clean up pockets of infantry. By 9:45am, the last of the attackers could be seen in rapid retreat "over the skyline". That was the result of the attack on the right side.

On the left, the attack crossed the side of the Ras el Medauuar. They seem to have been Italians who were having to move over open ground. They encountered men of the 2/48th Battalion. About a company of men moved in between posts S1 and S3. The Australians were taking heavy fire, but British artillery was called in to support them. Following 20 minutes of firing, the Australians took in some 107 prisoners, which include Italian officers and some Germans. Some forty Italians were killed in the fight. Another fight at midday, involving 30 or 40 Germans, resulted in seven prisoners. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The situation at Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier on 24 April 1941

The 22nd Guards Brigade, a familiar unit to those who have long studied the North African Campaign, was holding Halfaya pass. Gott's Support Group was operating in the area between Halfaya and Sidi Barrani. In the Support Group, you had units such as the 11th Hussars, the 7th Armoured Division reconnaissance unit. Colonel Herff was in command of the German units near Halfaya and the Egyptian border. The Support Group raided German transport near Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Aziz. This was a minor British operation, but the way Colonel Herff reported it to Rommel made it sound bigger than it was. Rommel was getting very anxious about the situation near Bardia and Salum. If they were lost, it would endanger the effort to attack Tobruk. At this point, Rommel was saying that their loss would cause the siege of Tobruk to be removed. The suggested solution was to use aircraft to carry reinforcements and supplies to Tobruk. They would need to use submarines near the coast between Tobruk and Salum.

General Halder decided to send General von Paulus to North Africa to talk to Rommel and to get a sense of the true situation. The staff did not trust Rommel and was at the point of losing confidence in him. This might seem strange, given Rommel's success, but you have to remember that this was in the lead up to the attack on Russia on 22 June 1941, and that knowledge was having an impact at the German Army Command. The problem was that the Germans did not know the true situation of the British and Australians, and thought that they were in a better position than they actually were.

There was concern in Tobruk about the defenses against air attack, because heavy losses had been taken on 21 April 1941 due to an attack by 24 German bombers with 21 fighters. The quay was damaged and two ships were sunk. Two more were disabled. British Hurricane fighters were able to shoot down four German aircraft. In response to the attack, the British anti-aircraft gun commander, Brigadier Slater, proposed to start using a barrage pattern of fire, rather than shooting at individual aircraft. On April 23, the barrage defense showed its effectiveness. This is base on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Assessments of the fights on 22 April 1941 at Tobruk

The first assessment of the fights on 22 April 1941 came by the German radio on 23 April. The announcement said: "Yesterday morning, the British force besieged in Tobruk made a desperate attack, which was repulsed with terrific loss of men and material, while our own force is still incomplete." The Germans, Italians, British, and Australians all took in the report and reacted. Rommel and his ADC had visited the area where the fighting had occurred to see what they could find out about what had happened. When they arrived, everything was quiet, but then they realized that there was no Italian infantry to be found. There were only a few Italian artillery batteries without infantry support. They came to a rise that they climbed and then descended. At the bottom were a large number of discarded Italian Bersaglieri helmets. They realized that a complete Italian battalion had been captured by the Australians during the night.

Rommel then collected a scratch force from available troops to reoccupy the area that had lost the battalion. Rommel also sent a warning to the Italians that officers who showed cowardice in battle would be immediately executed.

Rommel started to think about what he would have done in the Australians and British situation. His concern was that British might practice some infiltration tactics and do a blitzkrieg attack on his rear, dislocating the forward forces. Part of the 15th Armored Division had now arrived near Tobruk. They were ordered to occupy a blocking position on the coast road about 18 miles west of Tobruk. They should also have a battle group near Acroma. The Italian battalion that had been lost must have been the Fabris Battalion. Rommel ordered a battalion from the Trento Division to move forward to the abandoned position. The Trento battalion had been planned to move to the Egyptian frontier. The Trento Division was to advance to the Salum area and attack. Colonel Herff, who had replaced Colonel Knabe, would command the attack at Salum. Rommel hoped to achieve enough success that some German units could be brought back to Tobruk for an attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

More raids on 22 April 1941 from Tobruk

While the company-sized raid from the 2/48th Battalion achieved success, another raid by a company from the 2/23rd Battalion was carried out. They were protected on the right by two troops from the 18th Cavalry, a survivor of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. The Indian cavalry group was commanded by Captain Barlow, who had been involved with the breakout from Mechili.

The Australians from the 2/23rd Battalion moved forward along a wadi. Enemy troops at the end of the wadi opened fire with machine guns that forced the Australians into a side wadi. They took heavy shelling and mortar fire in the side wadi. In a quick decision, the captain commanding the raid decided to attack across open ground. The enemy troops proved to be Italian. They opened fire but the attack by the Australians with bayonets and grenades broke into the Italian positions. The Italians surrendered in the face of the attack. With open ground covered by heavy gunfire, the Australians returned with about 40 Italian prisoners.

The 2/23rd raid was divided into two parts. We just saw the right hand portion of the raid. The left-hand group was moving south of the Derna road. They ran into a mixed battery of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. Beyond them were two batteries of artillery. Again, they were fighting Italian soldiers. The Italians had fired on Australians on an open slope. A flanking move with carriers got them within grenade range. After throwing grenades, they charged with bayonets. The Italians reacted by surrendering in the face of grenades and bayonets.

The left-hand group had a hard fight and took heavy casualties. 24 men, including Lieutenant Hutchinson, did not return from the raid. 22 men returned wounded. They had done good execution. They had hit an Italian company which lost 90 of its 100 men. The two columns from the 2/23rd Battalion had captured 87 men, some anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, and mortars. The 18th Cavalry conducted a reconnaissance mission and drove seven miles west without seeing any Germans or Italians.

Another raid, by the 20th Brigade, failed. They were a mixed force of tanks, infantry, and artillery. They started while it was still dark. When the sky got light, they found themselves under heavy artillery fire. They were forced to withdraw, losing one light tank to an anti-tank gun. Fortunately, they were will-supported by British artillery fire and were able to withdraw. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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.

Monday, January 30, 2017

British forces at the frontier on 18 to 20 April 1941

What had been the 2nd Armoured Division Support Group was now organized into four columns. The columns, as of 18 to 20 April 1941, each had a battery of field guns, some motor infantry, and anti-tank guns. They may have had one or two of the two-pounder anti-tank guns. The group would eventually become the 7th Support Group, for the 7th Armoured Division. The British were short of tanks at this point of time.

The defenses at Mersa Matruh depended on Australian anti-tank guns. The commander of the 2/2 Anti-Tank Regiment, Lt-Col. Monaghan, was responsible for the anti-tank defense at Mersa Matruh. The forward defensive front had two battalions. They were deployed near Halfaya Pass and both had Australian anti-tank gun support.

Rommel went forward to see the Halfaya Pass area for himself and saw the light forces holding the area. His immediate reaction was to get ready to attack the defenders. Rommel ordered a battery of medium guns to the area and ordered the Italian Trento Division to move to Bardia by 23 April.

When British intelligence had recognized that there were elements of the 15th Armored Division near Halfaya Pass, General Wavell became very concerned. So far, they had been engaged with the 21st Light Division, equipped to a lower standard than a regular armored division. Wavell knew that the British had two under-strength armored regiments in Tobruk and one squadron of cruiser tanks at Mersa Matruh. He calculated that the Germans currently had 150 tanks in Libya.

Wavell's message to London got the Prime Minister's attention. Churchill resolved to send a fast convoy through the Mediterranean, despite the risks. The ships would carry 250 tanks. They had mostly infantry tanks that could be sent, but they would try and find cruiser tanks. They ended up sending the first 50 Crusader tanks off the production line. Due to that situation, they were very unreliable, but they were something, at least. The Tiger Convoy, as it was called, would carry 295 tanks, of which 67 were cruiser tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reorganization at Tobruk about 19 April 1941

On 19 and 20 April 1941, the situation had stabilized such that there was time to reorganize the defense. The immediate crisis had subsided. The men were able to return to more routine work after being released from the heightened level of alert. The engineer were able to return to working in the inner defense line, "the Blue Line". The mines had been laid on 19 April, although there were still positions to be dug. The engineers also placed demolitions on all the fortress "plants and wells".

The defenders were reorganized to increase the available reserves. The Indian cavalry regiment (a survivor of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade) now reported to Brigadier Tovell. They took possession of the area near the coast that had been held by the 2/24th Battalion. The 2nd/23rd Battalion sat astride the Derna Road. The 2/24th Battalion now became part of the fortress reserve force. General Morshead had an infantry company formed from Australian Army Service Corps men. They took over an area near the coast on the east side. That allowed the 2/43rd Battalion to also move into the reserve under the 24th Brigade.

The "grand plan" was to have each of the three brigades in the perimeter to have a reserve battalion. There was also the 9th Australian Division reserve with three infantry battalions and one pioneer battalion. General Morshead wanted a defense in depth.

The fortress armor was also reorganized. There had been four infantry tanks in Tobruk manned by the 4th RTR. They gave up their tanks to the 7th RTR when they arrived with a squadron of tanks. All light tanks now belonged to the 3rd Hussars. All cruiser tanks, now about 15 in number, were in the 1st RTR. They were grouped into two squadrons. They had the armored brigade headquarters with a new commander, Colonel Birks. He had the 7th RTR under his direct control. General Morshead was immediately impressed by Colonel Birks.

The Australians had evidence from diaries and from talking with prisoners that both the Italian and German troops were in poor morale and were low on food. They were dispirited by their heavy losses in the first attack on Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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