Wednesday, August 16, 2017

More developments from July 1941 at Tobruk

By late July 1941, the counter-battery fire operation was in place and operating. Direct phone lines were a prominent feature of the organization. They were now able to very promptly fire on enemy guns when they were noticed.

The ammunition supply situation had improved enough that by 17 July, artillery commanders were allowed to increase the rounds fired per gun per day to 20 rounds, if there was a need. Once this was permitted, the ammunition used per day increased immediately. This actually was an indication that the guns were allowed to fire on targets as they were seen, and allowed the British guns to be more effective.

The captured Italian guns continued to have problems that made them a danger. The 75mm guns worked well, but the 100mm guns were very troublesome. All but one were abandoned. The 149mm guns were considered dangerous, but they were fired by very long lanyards by men protected by sangers.

At a time when moving supplies was a priority, there was what now seems to have been a mistake, to reduce the base area staff. In addition, personnel resources for use by the engineers was being reduced. That was at a time when they were called upon to perform tasks such as preparing beaches for embarkation, in case of a need to abandon Tobruk. The engineers were also required to plan and implement a demolition scheme to be fired in case of a withdrawal. Ironically, when Tobruk fell in 1942, none of these plans were implemented, because by the time there was a need, the people who had done the planning and implementation were long gone.

Along with the other preparations, large amounts of Italian ammunition were either detonated or were dumped into the sea. The latter practice was very dangerous, because some of the ammunition that was dumped exploded and killed and injured men.

Work continued on implementing defenses in greater depth. Units that were supposedly in reserve were diverted very quickly into digging defenses. These included adding more to the inner defensive line, the "Blue Line", and other "Switch Lines". These were additional defensive lines beyond those in the outer perimeter and inner defenses.

The area to the southeast, outside the perimeter, was occupied by Italian units. They had moved into position as early as April 1941. They had built defensive positions that blocked the Bardia Road. During June and July, soldiers from the Trento Division held this area. Further south was largely unoccupied. A greater amount of work was done by men from the Pavia Division starting after 10 June. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

July 1941 devoted to patrolling at Tobruk

While there were no major operations planned at Tobruk during July 1941, the month was spent on active patrolling and battalion-sized raids. Artillery was very involved with the activities. You had the southern artillery group that included the 1st RHA and the 107th RHA. In one case, 14 guns fired on an enemy position that included trenches. Fourteen guns fired, although six of them broke down during the barrage. They fired as many as 1,220 rounds during a two hour period. Six of the guns were 149mm howitzers. This particular operation occurred on the night of 16 July. The next night saw the 2/28th Battalion and the 18th Cavalry, along with some British commandos, attacking in the Wadi Sehel. The attack had support from the 2/12th Field Regiment. They fired about 1,200 rounds during the operations. This attack provoked artillery fire over a four hour period from the enemy. The response from Italian and German radio stations described the attacks as attempting to "break out of an unsupportable position" or at least as "lively reconnaissance activity".

The patrol activities were finally better equipped than earlier in the siege. Battalions now were issued a number of Thompson sub-machine guns. The enemy response to active patrolling now included using search lights to illuminate patrols. The first time this was seen was on 15 June. The Australians discovered that the search lights were mounted on trucks. They also saw cables that seemed to be supplying power. Now, when they discovered cables, they cut them and sometimes removed pieces. The enemy started using colored filters for search lights.

Another development in July was the use of Alsatian dogs by Italian units. They seemed to be only used to sound an alarm when patrols were approaching.

From late May 1941, a large gun started firing at the Tobruk harbor. The men of Tobruk named the gun "Bardia Bill". The counter-battery group did not believe that the gun was firing from Bardia, but the troops always thought that the fun was located at Bardia. One thought was that when the British evacuated Bardia, they had left a large gun there, undestroyed. One time, they found pieces of a 21cm shell, probably from a Skoda gun. In another case, they had what they thought were shell fragments from a Schneider gun. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Reducing the Tobruk garrrison and the supply situation

The idea that there was a large, non-productive population at Tobruk seems to have been a fantasy of General Morshead. By July, that was absolutely not true. What was needed was for the garrison to be prepared to hold out for a long period of time. Food and ammunition would be accumulated to cover some sixty days. They would prepare a plan to evacuate Tobruk by ship, but they would be closely held and not made public to the garrison.

General Morshead attended the last meeting in Egypt with General Wavell. General Auchinleck was also at the meeting. Supplying Tobruk was an important topic discussed at the meeting. They had decided that as much as 230 tons per day would need to be shipped to keep the fortress supplied. They eventually realized that they only needed to send 170 tons per day with Tobruk having a 25,000 man population. The navy was able to bring in 170 tons per day during July 1941. They were able to send somewhat less in August. Fortunately, the garrison was less than 25,000 men.

Typically, General Morshead wanted greater offensive strength to be enable an active defense, rather than a passive defense. General Auchinleck declined to make the commitment. There would not be any major commitment of armored forces in Tobruk, as Auchinleck wanted to build up the army in Egypt for offensive operations with tanks. After this, Generals Blamey and Morshead met with the RAF commanders and arranged for reconnaissance missions to be flown from El Gubbi and Sidi Barrani. They also would provide some army-cooperation aircraft to support Tobruk.

With General Morshead on an extended absence from Tobruk, Brigadier Murray was acting as fortress commander in his absence. Morshead arrived back in Tobruk on 9 July 1941. During this period, while General Morshead was gone from Tobruk, there was more shuffling of brigades and battalions in the defense. In some cases, battalions, such as the 2/48th were moved from one brigade to another. The 2/48th Battalion had replaced the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. They continued the practice of having a brigade in reserve for the division. By late July, Brigadier Wooten's brigade (18th Brigade) moved back into the reserve. There were no big offensive operations conducted in July, although they continued to patrol and to conduct raids on enemy positions. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

The effects of the ammunition shortage at Tobruk in June and July 1941

The defense of Tobruk had been made possible by the frequent usage of the 25pdr guns. They had customarily fired some 40 tons of 25pdr high explosive rounds per day. The situation had become critical by 6 June 1941, when the guns were limited to ten rounds per day. In June, they were reduced to some five tons in all of Tobruk per day.

In contrast, the enemy artillery became much more active. They also had the advantage of having gun fire spotted from the air. The German aviators knew that there were no British Hurricane fighters as possible problems. The enemy artillery was being used to target the British artillery. The British gunners thought that if they had more ammunition, the enemy would be much more constrained in their fire. One bright spot for the Tobruk defenders was that there was an ample supply of Italian 149mm howitzer ammunition. The British artillery was organized into three sectors. All made use of the Italian howitzers.

During the first few days in July, there was an unexplained growth in enemy shelling. They were firing some 2,500 shells per day on the 3rd and 4th of July. After that, the situation returned to what had been the normal artillery fire. The British were able to match the enemy, tit-for-tat. The 60pdr guns still had problems with ammunition supply, but the 2/12th Field Regiment was able to make good use of their captured artillery. In fact, their troops in the Salient were required to fire one hundred rounds per day. The situation helped when Colonel Goodwin had translated range tables from Italian to English.

One positive development in June was the creation of an effective counter-battery organization. Lt-Col. Klein arrived to lead the counter-battery organization. He was the counter-battery officer for the I Australian Corps. By later in June, the 60 pounders were able to conduct effective counter-battery work.

A peculiar feature of Tobruk was that both sides employed raised observation posts. The enemy forces often installed tripods to hold observation posts. British and Australian posts could be on posts or they might be on scaffolding. The defenders were puzzled by ten enemy posts that were installed on 26 June, but were not used for observation posts.

Late in June, the decision-makers in London and the Middle East reconsidered the situation at Tobruk. Did they want to continue to hold Tobruk? The answer was "yes", but with a reduced garrison without "extra" troops. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The big move to shorten the salient at Tobruk during late June and early July 1941

The 2/15th Battalion commander, Major Ogle, was determined to move the perimeter forward by some 700 yards in the center of his position. The operation would stretch over five days, completing early on 3 July 1941. The first step was for the engineers to mark the area from the positions that they were presently in out to where they would move. They would deactivate mines as they went. They also marked the position of the new wire to be installed. The second step was to inactivate more mines and all the booby traps so that there were now "safe areas". For the third and fourth nights, they occupied infantry with the process of digging new positions and laying wire.

On the day that the 2/15th Battalion was to move forward, there was increased enemy activity, almost as if they were forewarned. There were troop movements along the entire salient area. Elsewhere, there was more artillery fire. All night, enemy reconnaissance aircraft overflew the area and used flares after the moon had set. The Australian historian thought that a 3rd Armoured Brigade exercise and triggered the enemy activity rather than what the 2/15th Battalion was doing.

Over time, the health of the men in Tobruk had deteriorated. There was wide-spread digestive problems, so that diarrhea was almost universal. That had been what had originally side-lined General Richard O'Connor after defeating the Italians. There were also cases of dysentery and what we would now call "PTSD" and what they called "fear state" in 1941.

The enemy air superiority over Tobruk affected the men's attitudes, but they also lost some of the fear associated with air attack as they became accustomed to it. The base and harbor drew most of the air attacks. Everyone on both sides were surprised when a British bombers flew over and dropped a bomb at Hill 209. During June, the enemy conducted 134 bomb attacks and flew 39 reconnaissance missions.

Showing the amount of wishful-thinking that happened prior to Operation Battleaxe, supply shipments to Tobruk had been greatly reduced. Starting on 1 July, the supply deliveries restarted and they were greatly appreciated by the troops. They remarked on hows good the food was. More attention was paid to ensuring that the men had adequate Vitamin C when everyone received an orange and men were issued Vitamin C tablets on a regular basis. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Moving forward in the "Salient" in late June and early July 1941

There was a strange business, where the 2/13th Battalion was preparing positions that would only be occupied by the 2/15th Battalion. There was in addition, a misunderstanding about time, where the 2/13th Battalion men expected that the 2/15th Battalion would move in on the night of 24 June (or maybe not). In addition, the 2/15th Battalion would build a new position "on the left" and eventually move into it. During the evening on 22 June, a mine exploded and wounded men from the 2/15th Battalion. The next move was to send out men at 10pm, with sappers to clear the path. They had brought wire and other things out, but then at 1am, men from the 2/13th Battalion found a booby trap and took casualties. That explosion caused the Germans to open fire with machine guns. The firing continued as the men tried to work on the positions. The 2/15th Battalion also took casualties during the night.

Although the 2/13th Battalion men had worked all night, the positions were still incomplete. They positions were not dug deep enough and they still needed to have wire installed. The result was that the work was continued the next night. The roles would change with the 2/13th Battalion only providing "guidance" while the 2/15th Battalion men would do the work of preparing the positions. This is where a misunderstanding occurred. The men of the 2/13th Battalion still thought that the men of the 2/15th Battalion would move into the new positions at 4am on 24 June 1941. The plan, was in fact, to move in on the following night.

as men worked, another booby trap exploded, killing and wounding more men. This was followed by enemy mortar fire, which caused more casualties. The misunderstanding came to light at 3am when the 2/13th Battalion learned that the 2/15th Battalion would not move into the new positions until the next night. During the night of 24-25 June, the 2/15th Battalion moved in. Men from the 2/17th Battalion arrived in the location. They were to allow the 2/13th Battalion to be withdrawn into reserve for their brigade.

There was some discontent with moving so far forward that they were close to enemy positions. The alternative would have been to have kept a larger distance from the enemy and then aggressively patrol in the "no-man's land". The purpose of the move forward was to be able to control Post R8, Post S8, and "Forbes' Mound". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

At Tobruk from 22 June 1941

The defenders of Tobruk listened to the BBC News on the radio. The BBC described Battleaxe as a three-day test of the enemy strength. At the end, the British "retired to their original position". A unit diarist responded that while all this was a concern, what they really cared about was what had happened to their mail?

North Africa, by 22 June 1941, was the only place in the world where British troops were fighting Axis forces on the ground. The concern was that British forces could not face Axis forces with any chance of success. The one thing that was somewhat assuring was that the Germans had driven off to the east and declared war on Russia (on 22 June 1941). The men of Tobruk were well-equipped with radios, partly by the Australian Comforts Fund and the various unit funds. On the night of 22 June, the men listed to Winston Churchill speak. He denounced "the Nazi war machine". Churchill declared that their purpose was to destroy Hitler and every piece of his regime.

The daily paper published at Tobruk, the Tobruk Truth, described the scene at the Salvation Army Hall. When Churchill had spoken, a man called out for "a cheer for Winnie". This was quickly followed by a call for a cheer for the King. The men jumped to attention and sang the national anthem. German aircraft dropped leaflets on Tobruk on 24 June, making threats and asking the men to surrender.

General Morshead responded to the situation by putting the men to more work. The prospect of a successful Operation Battleaxe had halted a good deal of work that had been planned. The first thing to do was to increase the depth of the defenses. The work was mainly done by those units held in reserve. Now, the men moved into new positions. They noted that the Germans fired on the old positions, wasting fire. The battalion commanders were anxious to advance their front lines further. Work by the 2/13th and 2/15th Battalions started during the evening of 22 June. The first thing that went wrong was that a mine exploded in the 2/15th Battalion area. At 1am, another surprise trap blew up. This was apparently a setup, German machine guns opened up in the area near the explosion. From then on, there was constant enemy fire in the area where the Australians were working on new positions. At first light, the work was unfinished, at least in the 2/13th Battalion area. They decided to let the men of the 2/15th Battalion continue the work that the 2/13th Battalion had started. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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