Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The situation in early July 1942 at El Alamein

El Alamein had been recognized as a natural blocking point. Three boxes had been planned, but only the northern box at the El Alamein railroad station had progressed. The box had been dug and had been partly fitted with wire and mines. The box planned for Bab el Qattara had been dug, but had no mines or wire. The box intended for Naqb Abu Dweis had not had any work done. That box sat on land that was passable north of the escarpment on the edge of the Qattara Depression. The boxes each was located on a The depression actually was very wet, but had a dried sand crust that was deceptive. "The Qattara Box [lay] astride the Barrel track leading from Fuka to the Cairo-Alexandria road". You also had the two ridges, Miteiriya and Ruweisat.
Since early June, the Eighth Army strength had been greatly reduced in strength. They started June with two armored divisions, four infantry divisions, and two army tank brigades (infantry tanks). The army had three new formations ordered to join: "the 10th Indian Division, 1st Armoured Brigade and 11th Indian Brigade". At 1 July, the 2nd New Zealand Division (as it was now designated) was the only intact infantry division. They also had the 1st South African Division, which had taken losses and had not been reinforced. The armored division (the 1st) was deemed "fairly effective". They had two Indian groups (9th and 18th). Tjere were also battle groups or columns formed from the remnants of the 7th Armoured Division, 5th Indian Division, and 50th (British) Division. The 9th Australian Division, which was complete, was under orders to join the army.
The army dispositions as of 1 July 1942 are of interest, as this was just prior to the First Battle of El Alamein. The 1st South African Division was "on the right", the most northern division. The 3rd South African Btigade sat in the El Alamein Box. You had the 18th Indian Brigade providing all-around defense at Deir el Shein. They sited the 1st Armoured Brigade between the El Alamein area and Ruweisat Ridge. The south was designated as the XIII Corps area. The 6th New Zealand Brigade sat in front of the Bab el Qattara Box. The rest of the division sat ten miles east. The 9th Indian Btigade from the 5th Indian Division was located at Naqb Abu Dweis. The 7th Motor Brigade, operating as  battle group, lay between the 9th Indian Brigade and the 6th New Zealand Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The 9th Australian Division move to Egypt in late June 1942

The 26th Brigade had left for Egypt on 26 June 1942. They traveled in vehicles, going by way of "Homs, Baalbek, Rayak, Tiberias, Tulkarm, Gaza, across teh Sinai Desert to the Canal and Cairo". The initial orders had been that the 9th Australian Division would defend Cairo, but the orders were changed. The division-level units, such as the headquarters, followed the "coast road" and went across the "Sinai Desert". They arrived at "Amiriya at about the same time as the 26th Brigade". The 24th Brigade left a day later and traveled to Tiberias. A road party continued to follow the way that the 26th Brigade had taken, but most were sent to Haifa where they traveled Alexandria by train. They arrived on 1 July in the afternoon.
The 20th brigade had to wait until the 17th Indian Brigade arrived to relieve them. The 2/15th Battalion went to Tripoli where the battalion commander became the fortress commander. A change again late on 29 June ordered the 20th Brigade not to wait but to travel to Egypt, starting early on 30 June. The 9th Divisional Cavalry left Latakia on 30 June as well. They headed for Egypt.
The Australians were glad to leave Syria where they had been the garrison. 9th Army and "British line-of-communications organizations" had organized the move out of Syria.
At El Alamein on 30 June 1942, the enemy was pushing against the position. This was the last defended position "west of the Nile Delta". There was a thirty mile gap between teh sea and teh Qattara Depression. The work at El Alamein had started as long ago as before the Crusader battle. Positions were dug, mines were laid as was barbed wire. While the men worked, the remnants of the 8th Army drove past them in retreat.
At El Alamein were defended locations. In the parlance of the time, they were called "boxes", as they were designed for "all-around" defense. The best box surrounded the train station and then south, containing the road and across some desert land. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Discussions and decisions made as events progressed in May to June 1941

The Australian envoy, Dr. Evatt was still in Britain in May 1942. There was a suggestion that Dr. Evatt be asked to discuss the 9th Australian Division situation with Mr. Churchill, but Dr. Evatt replied that such a discussion needed to be conducted from Australia. By 30 May 1942, General Blamey was agitating for the return of the 9th Australian Division to Australia, using a sham argument about the need to make decisions about "organization and the allocation of manpower in Australia" based on whether they had to send replacements to the Middle East or not. Mr. Curtin, the Australian Prime Minister held his war conferences at the beginning of June. You now had both General Blamey and General MacArthur pressing for the return of the 9th Division to Australia. We can imagine Mr. Churchill's discomfort with having to deal with General MacArthur, the highly experienced and decorated general officer.
The situation in the Middle East was in rapid change, as was the war in the Western Pacific. The Battle of Midway greatly improved the Allied situation, as the Japanese naval forces suffered severe losses in aircraft carriers, the new naval capital ship. By 11 June, General MacArthur was able to announce that due to the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, that Australia's defense was now secured. The situation in the Middle East now looked very bad, where the enemy was likely to seize major objectives by the end of June 1942. Generals MacArthur and Blamey now communicated that the 9th Australian Division should stay in the Middle East. The Australian government adopted that position on 30 June.
The 9th Australian Division was notified on 25 June to be ready to move to Egypt. The move would be in secret and an effort would be made to simulate the presence of the division in Syria, using communications. The cover story was that the move was a "training exercise". Some of the soldiers thought that they might be heading for Australia, but they could soon see that their destination was Egypt. The local citizenry knew about the Australian tan boots and wished them well: "Good Luck Australia". The 26th Brigade left first, heading for Cairo. They traveled by motorized transport. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 07, 2019

High-level developments regarding Australia March to June 1942

General MacArthur arrived in Darwin, Australia from the Philippines on 17 March 1942. MacArthur, his family and his staff were evacuated from Corregidor by American motor torpedo boats (PT boats). The Australian prime minister, Mr. Curtin, appointed General MacArthur as "Supreme Commander in the Southwest Pacific Area". By 26 March, they appointed General Blamey as the "Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Army", which had long been one of Blamey's goals. Mr. Curtin took the opportunity to speak with General MacArthur about the 9th Australian Division. General MacArthur suggested that they might allow the 9th Australian Division to stay in the Middle East for now if Australia were strengthened by additional air and naval strength. General Blamey still insisted that the 9th Australian Division be returned to Australia as soon as possible. He understood that shipping resources were a constraint. Mr. Curtin sent a message to Winston Churchill presenting the Government's desire to have all Australian soldiers back in Australia, but that they understood that there were shipping and replacement issues that kept that from being immediately possible.
A message from Churchill on 1 April 1942 almost sounds like an "April Fool trick", but Churchill promised that if Australia were invaded on a large scale, the British would send first an infantry division and then an armored division. If such an invasion happened, they would also send more air and naval forces to the Southwest Pacific. General MacArthur wanted to have the two divisions Churchill had mentioned be sent to Australia immediately. The British would not agree to that, however. General MacArthur reacted to that news by saying that he would "press" for the early shipment of the 9th Australian Division back to Australia.  This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Planning for the future from March 1942 onwards

Back on 10 March 1942, Winston Churchill had sent the Australian prime minister, Mr. Curtin, a message regarding the 9th Australian Division. He quoted a communication from Franklin Roosevelt about an American commitment to send more divisions to the Western Pacific. In particular, he would send divisions to Australia and New Zealand. Roosevelt considered that would allow the 9th Australian Division to remain in the Middle East. Roosevelt was concerned about the "security of the Middle East, India and Ceylon." Retaining the Australians in the Middle East would economize on ship resources. Churchill also committed to sending on to Australia the two 6th Australian Division brigades that were soon to arrive in Ceylon.
The Australian Chiefs of Staff recommended to Mr. Curtin that he accept Mr. Churchill's offer. They were "being good citizens" and were concerned about global issues such as shipping resources and having to shift divisions about. They also approved of getting the 6th Australian Division brigades back to Australia soon. Mr. Curtin and his government, however, were not ready to make a snap decision. The Australian historian suggested that the government was playing a delaying game to give time to get General Blamey's input on the subject. The plan was to appoint General Blamey as "Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces". At this date, General Blamey was still in Capetown in the Queen Mary, soon to depart for Australia. He would only arrive by 23 March 1942. Another issue that bothered the Australians was Churchill's habit of trying to "push the Australian Government around." That seems to have been triggered in this case by Churchill's message. The Australian minister who arrived in Washington on 20 March 1942, Dr. Evatt, spoke with Franklin Roosevelt about the Australian Government's concern about how these matters were being negotiated. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 31, 2018

General Auchinleck in command and high-level consultation between Churchill, the Australian Government and the United States

The position established at El Alamein involved the XXX Corps Headquarters, still commanded by General Norrie, the 1st South African Division, and the 2nd Free French Brigade Group. Brigade groups were infantry brigades that were augmented at least by artillery and possibly engineers or cavalry. One major change instituted by Auchinleck was the breakdown of units into battle groups. Auchinleck and his associate, Eric Dorman-Smith, theorized that part of Rommel's success was due to his use of battle groups ("kampfgruppen"). In Auchinleck's scheme, artillery became the primary arm and infantry was relegated to defending the guns.
General Auchinleck's priority "was to keep his force intact".  He disassembled his units into battle groups, which were to operate independently between Mersa Matruh and El Alamein. Auchinleck wanted to have a mobile defense in place, but the reality was that there was a precipitous retreat to El Alamein.
The Germans attacked during the evening of 26 June 1942. The New Zealand Division (two brigades) was located at Minqar Qaim. The 21st Armored Division attacked the New Zealand Division from the east. The 15th Armored Division attacked from the west. The 90th Light Division cut the connecting road between XIII Corps and X Corps. I am sad to say that General Gott withdrawing XIII Corps and abandoning X Corps was typical of him. That left X Corps cut off in Mersa Matruh, a situation that Auchinleck had wanted to avoid. New Zealand Division was able to break out and withdraw on El Alamein. 50th Division and the 10th Indian Division broke out from Mersa Matruh the following night. In the process, the divisions took heavy losses that meant that they had to be withdrawn to "regroup".
When the Australians heard of Tobruk's fall, they were shaken. Seemiingly, all their work in 1941 to defend Tobruk had gone for nothing. Given the news of recent events in the desert left many Australians to expect to be sent back to the desert to rejoin the New Zealand Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Tobruk attacked as the British force collapses in June 1942

Rommel planned a quick attack to capture the Tobruk fortress. The attack by the German Africa Corps hit the southeast sector of Tobruk. They used only forty tanks with accompanying infantry. Tobruk was no longer defended by the seasoned crew that had mounted a credible defense in 1941. Instead, they had a temporary force commanded by a South African. The pre-attack softening up came with dive bombers and artillery fire. The tanks easily broke through the defense line and broke through to the defending guns. By "early afternoon" they hit the harbor with guns firing from the escapment. They had taken the harbor by evening. The garrison commander, Major-General Klopper surrendered when the defenders were totally defeated. They took some 35,000 prisoners, four "infantry brigadiers", and a tank brigade.
The Australian historian says that there were more than one hundred tanks were in the attack that captured Tobruk. Veterans of the 1941 Tobruk defense debated the defensive arrangements that had failed in 1942. Apparently, in June 1942, the enemy attacked on  broad front and the defense was too slow to bring reserves forward. The defenders were also not prepared to defend against a large tank attack. That alone was enough to succeed.
Once Tobruk fell, the Eighth Army withdrew to Mersa Matruh. Rommel continued to use infiltration tactics against the British who were not able to cope with the speed of his movements. Rommel was up on them by 25 June 1942. That forced Auchinleck's hand and he relieved General Ritchie of command and took over as Eighth Army commander. That was apparently what Mr. Churchill had wanted for some time.
X Corps had responsibility for holding Mersa Matruh. They had the 10th Indian Division and 50th Division. General Gott, now a Lieutenant-General, commanded XIII Corps. He held the left. He had the remainder of the armored divisions and a newly configured New Zealand Divisiion. They were now motroized but with just two brigades. XXX Corps was back at El Alamein, over a hundred miles away. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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