Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The situation in Syria in January 1942

With the 20th Brigade Headquarters located in Aleppo, there were also the brigade administrative units. In addition, the 2/15th Battalion had a substantial presence in the barracks at Aleppo Idlib, but was also scattered among three frontier posts. The 2/13th Battalion, which had remained at Tobruk when the other Australians had left, was situated at Latakia. Latakia is about 100 miles distant but was more when you had to travel by road. Latakia put the battalion in a position to block the coast road from Turkey. The 2/13th headquarters and two companies were located near the town. One company was initially put at Bedriye, a village some 40 miles northeast of Latakia. Another company was put a Kassab in the mountains. The two companies were eventually pulled "back to Latakia for training". One platoon was left at Kassab "for show."
Unit commanders were kept busy conducting reconnaissance. That was true down to the platoon leader level. The Australians were interested in learning about the country and the people with their "customs and the novel and sometimes quaint styles of dress". The Australians had good relations with the people. The inhabitants of Afrine were Kurds, and like today, they cooperated with the soldiers.
Unlike Tobruk, the men had very little work to do on contructing defenses. 20th Brigade wanted to concentrate on training, although winter storms and weather in January in Syria impeded training. Storms hit the Syrian coast during the last week of January. Two ships had run ashore at Latakia in the storms. The 2/13th Battalion had huts and tents blown down. 27 January saw a snow storm that made travel difficult and they were unable to travel to the posts on the frontier, except for the groups near the railroad. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Turkey and the MIddle East in late 1941 and early 1942

Turkey was a concern to the British due to their central location and the possible threat of a German attack into the Middle East. Such an attack might come through Turkey. Turkey was considered unable to stop a German attack through their country. The Turkish army was largely equipped with archaic weapons. The British were supplying them with weapons and equipment to improve the situation. Turkey was also concerned about making any commitments to foreign governments. Both Germany and Britain might pose risks to Turkish independence. Turkey was attempting to maintain neutrality in the war, to keep from being drawn into the conflict. You could imagine Germany conquering Turkey while you could imagine the Britain trying to colonize Turkey.
The British were in such a precarious position that all they could do is hope that Germany did not attack from the north. There were natural barriers in the form of mountains and the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. All these issues were on General Auchinleck's mind. At times, we have thought that he spent more time considering how to deal with an attack from the north than was wise, as the risk seems pretty low from our distant perspective.
Ninth Army had responsibility for defending agsinst an attack from the north. They planned for a defense that did not include moving into Turkey. They would simply fight "delaying actions" along the border with Turkey and Syria. They would depend on "fortresses" in Lebanon and Palestine. General Blamey strongly disagreed with what was planned. The I Australian Corps was to be responsible for constructing fortresses at "Tripoli and Djedeide". They were also responsible for defensive demolitions in front of an attacking enemy.
With the 9th Australian Division now occupying Syria, the 20th Brigade had inherited the responsibility for defending the Syrian border with Turkey. They would also have to fight a delaying battle while falling back on the fortress at Tripoli. The 20th Brigade, because of how responsibilities fell, was stretched across 100 miles, not counting the small detachments holding villages. 20th Brigade was supported by the 9th Australian Divisional Cavalry. They were based in Aleppo. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

The move to Syria in January 1942

Teams of men left Palestine for Syria on 9 January 1942. The main bodies of units left Palestine starting on 11 January and kept leaving until 18 January. The trips were through very cold, winter weather. They convoys carried men in open trucks, so that they were exposed to the cold. They drove north along the coast road, first to Tripoli. The mountains could be seen in the distance with snow on the peaks.
The 20th Brigade was first to move north. The 2/17th Battalion arrived at Tripoli on 13 January. They immediately continued onwards to Afrine. Afrine was about 20 miles north-northwest of Aleppo. The 2/13th Battalion drove to Latakia as well as "two frontier outposts". Their fellow battalion, the 2/15th, arrived the day after the 2/13th. There was a barracks for them at Idlib, as well some "tin huts". Two of the companies ended up traveling to Aleppo, where the 20th Brigade headquarters was located.
Components of the 24th Brigade came to Tripoli on 15 and 16 January 1942. They put the brigade headquarters at Madjlaya. The 9th Division headquarters was established in Tripoli on 16 January 1942. Brigadier Tovell was temporarily commanding the division. General Morshead was absent, as he was visiting I Australian Corps at Aley. He stayed until General Lavarack traveled to Lake Tiberius to travel by flying boat to the Far East on 19 January. General Morshead was acting as corps commander and traveled to Broumane to 9th Army Headquarters.
The rest of the 9th Australian Division arrived at Tripoli. This was the 26th Brigade, which came to Tripoli on 18 and 19 January 1942. Most of the aritllery also arrived in the area with other division-level units.
The British took Syria to prevent the Germans from pushing between Turkey and Palestine. The British were still concerned about a possible German attack by way of Turkey. The Russian successes in couter-attacking the Germans during the winter helped to ease the concerns, but they were still present. Winston Churchill wrote to President Roosevelt to present his views of the situation. He wrote the paper in December 1941. Churchill's summary said that while there was still a German threat against the Middle East oil fields, that the threat was diminished. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Plans made an overcome by events in December 1941

The British army had suffered in the process of raising the seige of Tobruk. The cost had been very far beyond what had been expected. The Eighth Army was even short of infantry divisions. 9th Army had requested on 10 December a division for the GHQ Reserve in the Nile Delta. 9th Army wanted the 7th Australian Division that was currently in Syria. They wanted to replace the 7th Australian Division with the 9th Australian Division in Syria. General Blamey objected due to the 9th Australian Division never being trained prior to being sent into action in early 1941. The immediate issue was solved because General Freyberg wanted the New Zealand Division to be sent to Syria.
The new situation in the Far East was going to affect the future employment of the Australian infantry divisions. Just on 7 December, the Japanese had landed troops in Thailand, Malaya, and had attacked the United States at "Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, Guam", They also had attacked Hong Kong and Ocean Island. In another two weeks, the Japanese had taken the north of Malaya and had landed in Borneo. They soon would capture Hong Kong and had invaded the Philippines. By 21 December, the Middle East expected to be ordered to send reinforcements to the Far East. 7th Australian Division would be kept in Syria for now. In about a week, the 7th Australian Division was to go to Gaza for "training" while the 9th Australian Division would be sent to Syria, with General Blamey accepting the move.
In early 1942, the British Government sent a message to the Australian Government suggesting that two Australian Divisions should return to the Far East. By 6 January 1942, the Australian Government had agreed with the proposed move. By 7 January, the British issued orders for the 9th Australian Division to relieve the Australian Division in Syria.
The 9th Australian Division would assume responsibility for a large section of northern Syria. This was a some 1,200 square mile area. The area was adjacent to Turkey. The 20th Brigade would move to the area near the Turkish border. The 24th Brigade would move to Madjlaya. This was three miles to the southeast from Tripoli. The 26th Brigade would actually move into Tripoli. Part of the deal would involve sending independent battalions off to remote locations. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Life after Tobruk in the lands east of Cyrenaica from September 1941

Then the units of the 9th Australian Division were withdrawn from Tobruk by sea, they were taken by minlayer and destroyer to the harbor at Alexandria. They had a short stay and then were sent by train to Palestine to the AIF base. The first units arrived in late September 1941. Except for the 2/13th Battalion, which stayed in Tobruk, the rest were the 24th Brigade and supporting units. The other brigades arrived in October, with the 26th arriving prior to the 20th Brigade. General Morshead arrived at the end of October.
The Australians were eased into their new situation. They immediately were given two days off with no responsibilities. They also received treats sent from Australia. After that break, they were put back into a normal routine. After being in Tobruk for so long, the units were re-equipped and prepared for training. One of the benefits of their location is that they were often given day leave to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They also got longer leave to Haifa. Those who rated, got leave in Cairo.
Shortly after arriving, General Morshead got a tour of Syria. After that, he went to the Nile Delta and then onto Kenya for a month of leave. The general met with Brigadier Murray and representatives of the rest of the division, except for the 2/13th Battalion, newly arrived from Tobruk. While Morshead was in Cairo, he received a medal from General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister in exile. The Australian 26th Brigade supplied a band and honor guard.
Because Axis agents were thought to be trying to start trouble in Palestine, the British command decided to start sending patrols to villages. The Ausralians were ordered to send those patrols to Gaza. These were being done for propaganda purposes, to show that there really were strong untis in Palestine. They would hold parades in the center of towns with a band playing music. The patrols were either a company or even half a battalion. They would meet with the local officials to get permission to hold the parade.
The 9th Australian Division sent one company to guard the 9th Army Headquarters in Broumane, Syria. This was the first of many guard requests to which they needed to respond. That had a major effect on training for the division. General Morshead eventually met with General Lavarack and asked if the guards could be provided by "base troops". General Lavarack commanded I Australian Corps. With that settled, 9th Australian Division was able to concentrate on training, their new mission. When the men were not training, they took part in sports. The Australians sent three crews to a regarra in Tel Aviv that included "Jewish and Paletstinian Plice crews." 20th Brigade provided some hockey teams that competed with RAF teams at various gases.
The 2/13th Battalion only arrived in Palestine on 20 December 1941. They had planned to give them a lavish welcome, but their train arrived late, so that didn't happen. The 9th Australian Division had been receiving regular reinforcements, so the division was close to full strength. They got their cavalry regiment back as well as the 2/8th FIeld Regiment. The 2/7ty Field Regiment was still absent, sitting ate the artillery school in Cairo. Except for 2/7th Field Company, their engineers were still in Syria. Brigade anti-tank companies were disbanded and two were combined into the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment. One company were metged into 4th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 29, 2018

The situation from December 1941 until January 1942

The Japanese attacks on 7 December and 8 December 1941 had a profound effect on the situation in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Not the least of the effects were in the naval sphere. On land, the British were not as well-led as the Germans. Strange as it seems, the advance to the west was to be led by General Godwin-Austen and the XIII Corps. The enemy forces on the Egyptian frontier were to be reduced by the mobile XXX Corps commanded by General Norrie. The British were not very rushed to pursue the enemy forces. If Rommel had been in there place, he would have pushed very hard in pursuit. The 5th New Zealand Brigade, without General Freyberg's input, was brought to the front to lead the attack with the 1st RHA and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. The New Zealand brigade arrived at Gazala on 13 December. They were put on the right of the line. The Polish Carpathian Brigade was to their left, in the center of the British line. When the 5th Indian Brigade arrived, they were sent to Bir en Naghia. The 7th Indian Brigade was put on the left of the line at Gazala. General Gott never wanted to engage the Germans. He wanted to outflank them or threaten them, but not fight them. The German armored forces were very ready to attack and fight, despite their weakened state. 13 December saw a German armor attack on the 17th Indian Brigade, in which some artillery was overrun in the attack.
There was a serious argument between General Godwin-Austen and General Gott. General Godwin-Austen wanted the British armor to attack and destroy the German armor. Gott did noto want to risk fighting. He seems to have little faith in the British cruiser and light tanks to stand up to German armor in serious combat. General Gott was able to not do any more than maneuver his tanks. An attack was planned at Gazala for 15 December 1941. The infantry units would make a 'frontal attack" at Gazala. The British armor would make a flanking move around the left end of the line. The attack by the New Zealand brigade and the Polish brigade succeeded. The enemy could still cause casualties, as southwest of Alam Hamza, they overran the 1/Buffs. The 4th Armoured Brigade ended up in Bir el Eleba. General Godwin-Austen still pushed for a fight by British armor. We still believe that General Gott and Alex Gatehouse lacked confidence in their ability to fight the Germans. The only equipment that they had that was very effective were the American-built M3 Stuart light tanks. With their governors removed they could reach 40 mph. They were lightly armed, however. On 16 December, Gatehouse requested and received permission to send his tanks against the enemy rear areas, which caused considerable panic. Brigadier Gatehouse's moves caused Rommel to withdraw to Western Cyrenaica. He had seen the 7th Support Group moving towards Tengender, which was enough for Rommel. But while the British had held onto their armored forces, so had the Germans.
With the British advance to the west, the RAF was able to occupy airfields, including at Mechili. The situation was in flux, however, as Fliegerkorps II was moving into the theater. The Germans were also actively pursuing a anti-shipping campaign with their submarine force. The British were able to sink three German submarines in November and December. The submarines were seeing success against shipping supplying Tobruk. The British fleet at Alexandria was suffering losses. They included cruisers and destroyers. The worst thing happened when Italian under water demoliatin forces were able to damage the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. At the same time, Australian had to pull ships back into their home waters to fight the Japanese. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

2/13th Battalion in transition from 10 December 1941

From 10 December 1941, the situation for the 2/13th Battalion got much better. There were fewer restrictions. They no longer had to report shelling and situation. They no longer had limits on lights. They now had time to talk and could visit "their patrol objectives". Just when they were getting comfortable, late in the day on 13 December, they received advance word about having to leave Tobruk. The higher authorities wanted the battalion to leave "at first light on 15th December". They were needed to take 1,500 prisoners of war to Egypt. At 3pm on 14 December, they were in parade formation so that General Scobie could wish the battalion farewell. The reality was that only "officesr and NCO's were allowed to attend. There was always a concern about creating target for air attack. That meant that the numbers present were rather small, but "impressive". General Scobie wanted to not just wish farewell to the battalion but to complement the men of the 9th Australian Division for their defense of Tobruk. He mentioned the circumstances surrounding the 2/13th Battalions involvement after the division had left and had spoken about their "brilliant and masterful" counterattack and expressed sorrow over their colonel's being wounded. While the general spoke, a message arrived canceling the battalion's move.

In fact, they left Tobruk at 7:30am on 16 December 1941. They left by way of the El Adem Road. They went to a place on the escarpment south of El Adem. After that, they crossed the "recent battlefield." They drove to a gap in the Egyptian frontier wire at K62 by 4:15pm. Lieutenant Martin did the navigation for the convoy and he got them right to the exact spot needed. They unloaded and rested until the next day, when they traveled to the rail head. Right after 9am on  18 December, the men boarded the train, some 30 men to a "goods van". Some 60 hours later, they reached Palestine. While the 2/13th Battalion had stayed at Tobruk under General Scobie's command, the battalion had 39 men killed and 36 men wounded.
The Australians sat out the next six months or so. They had missed the fall of Fortress Tobruk to Rommel. The time spent waiting was pretty unproductive. Tobruk and Bardia were not particularly important by themselves. They had been developed by the Italians to product their "prosperous Italian colony."  They Italian Supreme Command agreed to lift the siege of Tobruk, but expressed a desire to hold the western part of Cyrenaica. They suggested trying to hold from Benghazi to the west. They wanted to see a force holding Adgedabia. General Bastico agreed with the concepts and discussed with Rommel holding a line at Gazala, that they would develop. The 90th Light Division was pulled back to Adgedabia. At the same time, about 8 December, the Brescia and Trento Divisions were withdrawn from Tobruk.
By the morning of 8 December, the British could see that they enemy were in a general retreat. General Norrie ordered the 7th Armoured DIvision to the area south of Acroma that was eventually called Knightsbridge. He also ordered the 4th Indian Divsion to push west from El Adem. The 4th Indian Division met the advance guard of the 70th Division on 10 December. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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