Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Holding on from 1 December 1941 and later near Tobruk and points west

< p>General Ritchie had been ready to withdraw from Ed Duda, but the men on the spot were offended by the idea. They were holding on and were increasing their defenses. Once General Godwin-Austen heard about Colonel Nichols of the 1/Essex, he concurred that they should hold on to their ground. Other commanders in 70th Division offered suggestions for operations to improve their position. Early on 2 December 1941, then, the position of Colonel Nichols and his battalion affected the situation, because by withdrawing, they would have allowed Rommel to concentrate his units on the Egyptian Frontier.
The fall of Belhamed to the enemy exposed the 2/13th Battalion to heavier shelling. The enemy presumable had new observation posts that could see the battalion. The mortar platoon arrived and then a New Zealand field artillery troop. They offered a target for strafing, presumably meaning by aircraft. 1pm saw Colonel Burrows visit the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire at Bir Belhamed. He also talked with the 18th New Zealand Battalion. When enemy movement was seen, they expected an enemy attack, but that did not happen. A move that seemed to indicate a pending attack to break the connecting corridor from Ed Duda ended when they were shelled. A little later, a 210mm shell landed and exploded, but did not fragment. Colonel Burrows was seriously wounded, however. Major Colvin was not incapacitated and he took charge of the battalion. Major Colvin adjusted the defenses in light of potential threats. He also called forward Captain Gillan to take over the headquarters company. The headquarters now included some specialist troops who were without equipment.
Right after dark at Ed Duda, some companies changed responsibilities. To the east, there was fighting where German infantry hit the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire battalion. The New Zealand battalion also fought off an enemy group. The enemy had broken into one company at Bir Belhamed. Some British troops were broken into small pockets. Once that there was daylight, they captured some Germans. About 9am, some German assault engineers and anti-tank gunners attacked. Between the British and New Zealand battalions, they were able to throw back the attacking troops. Some men captured were from the 90th Light Division, from a new battalion, tentatively named after the commander, the Kolbeck Battalion. These men were some who had been liberated from a New Zealand prisoner of war camp.
The units in the corridor from Tobruk to Ed Duda were understandbly nervous about their situation during 2 December. In fact, the German situation was difficult. They had infantry which had been severely beaten. Many tanks were broken down and were in need of repair. The enemy had no other forces to follow up on the real successes that they had experienced. At this point, Rommel needed some time to recover from the heavy fighting that they had experienced.
On 1 December 1941, General Godwin-Austen had requested that a senior officer able to make decisions be sent to XIII Corps headquarters. General Ritchie arrived on 2 December. General Godwin-Austen had been disappointed that the 7th Armoured Division had not attacked the enemy tanks. General Godwin-Austen did not believe that his forces were in a position to attack towards El Adem without the enemy tank forces having been attacked. This is based onthe account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 10, 2018

General Auchinleck gets involved from 30 November 1941

General Auchinleck gave Churchill his impression of the current situation on 30 November 1941. He portrayed the situation in more glowing terms than the reality justified. That was more because he had not been closely involved with events and had to rely on input from others and his impressions. The British were hampered by their poor communications systems and methods of operation. General Ritchie, for example, visited XXX Corps headquarters, expecting to see General Norrie, who was elsewhere. The Australian historian mentions that the most important decisions about the conduct of the battle were made by Ritchie's subordinate, without consulting him. Then again, they had asked him if they should abandon the area created by the Tobruk garrison breakout, and he did not reply until twelve hours later.
The Australian historian thought that General Ritchie must have spent most of 30 November at XXX Corps headquarters. They had a current situation map that he found to be very informative. He was able to develop the outline of a plan for operations in the future. Ritchie could see on the map the enemy armored formations, "surrounded by anti-tank guns".  General Ritchie thought that they should try to entice the enemy armor to move out into open ground, where the British could harass them, "never leave it alone". General Ritchie thought that they should send a 4th Indian Division brigade against El Adem, and send armored cars to raid supposed enemy supply lines from  Tmimi and Acroma. He thought that there must be a supply line from Bardia to enemy units west of Bardia. In reality, Rommel was trying to get more supplies into Bardia, not move them out.
General Ritchie returned to 8th Army Headquarters from XXX Corps. The first thing he did was to tell General Godwin-Austen to continue to hold the area between Tobruk and Ed Duda with the force that they had, as there was nothing available to help. General Auchinleck then arrived at 8th Army Headquarters. He stayed there and was involved with operations for the next ten days. They also endorsed using 7th Support Group units and equipment in Jock Columns. XXX Corps would take command of the 1st South African Brigade, the 22nd Guards Brigade, and eventually, the 4th Indian Division. That would happen after they were replaced by the 2nd South African Division on the Egyptian frontier.
In a meeting at 11am on 1 December at Brigadier Willison's headquarters, decisions were made about pressing topics. They would reorganize so that the 2/13th Battalion had its own companies. The Australians would hold positions from Ed Duda to the bypass road. This was on the escarpment. The 1st RHA mortars and carriers would be pulled out. They would be replaced by New Zealand equivelents.
The enemy mounted three attacks against outposts. One was on Jill and two were against Jack (since renamed Happy). About midday, the 1/Essex were warned to be ready to withdraw "from Ed Duda after dark if Belhamed fell to the enemy". Colonel Nichols was disturbed at the idea that they should withdraw. The enemy had just made some half-hearted attacks that the 1/Essex could handle.  There was no need to withdraw. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The Cauldron and British and enemy issues on 1 December 1941

The Australian historian was critical of Brigadier Gatehouse and his timidity in the fight on 1 December 1941. Certainly, if Gatehouse's armored brigade had attacked, they would have taken losses. The historian thought that constantly yielding the battlefield to the Germans was not a way to win a battle. The German armored divisions were free to concentrate against the British infantry, particularly the New Zealand Division. We also notice that the Germans were hard-pressed to pull together a force to fight the battle at the Cauldron. The 90th Light Division was reduced to organizing a battalion from soldiers freed from a New Zealand prisoner of war camp. They were not able to fight at this point in the battle. The 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment was attempting to regroup after being beaten in battle at Sidi Rezegh. The 21st Armored Division was also in poor shape. They were said to be taking a very pessimistic view and were "sending alarming reports". The German Africa Corps did have the advantage of a strong medium and heavy artillery force. Besides the artillery, the main German strength were the 8th Armored Regiment with some forty tanks, "the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, and the 15th Motorcycle Battalion." Before the British armored brigade had joined the battle, this force had fought a hard fight with a New Zealand battalion and the 6th Field Regiment. While the Germans had perhaps 24 Pzkw III and Pzkw IV tanks, Gatehouse's brigade had 115 tanks. But the British tanks had pulled back, leaving the Germans to continue to batter the New Zealand Division.
The Germans planned an attack at 4:30pm on the New Zealand artillery, which had planned to withdraw at 5:30pm. To help the artillery were five Matildas from the 44th RTR and a few Valentines from the 8th RTR. This was a close-fought battle with artillery firing at point-blank range. Some guns were abandoned at the withdrawal. The Germans were very tired so they rested when the British and New Zealanders withdrew. They were admonished by General Cruewell for stopping, because he wanted them to move on Zaafran. He ordered them to take Zaafran at "daybreak".
At 6:45pm, the remnants of the New Zealand Division formed up into a traveling order and then drove east and south their was back to Egypt to rest and rebuild. On the way, they had traveled to Bir Gibni by 3:30am on 2 December 1941. The 1st South African Brigade was in position at Taieb el Esem. The 4th Armoured Brigade was in a night leaguer, as they wre wont to do. This night, they were at Bir Berraneb. This was a far as 24 miles from Ed Duda. The attempted relief of Tobruk had failed.
Rommel had not succeeded in restoring the situation to what it had been prior to the start of Operation Crusader. The Tobruk force, mainly 70th Division, was still at Ed Duda. British forces on the Egyptian frontier were attacking the German and Italian positions at Salum, Bardia, and the "Omars" (such as Sidi Omar). There was also a strong British force on the Trigh el Abd that was a potential threat. The outcome would depend as much on British moves as on anything Rommel would decide to do. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The battle near Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda playes out on 1 December 1941

The Australian historian remarks that Brigadier Gatehouse did not feel that he had to "charge" the enemy when encountered. Rather, he could use his judgement about how to conduct the action to protect his tanks and personnel from unnecessary loss. Gatehouses brigade drove down from the escarpment near the Sidi Rezegh airfield. There may have been times when they might have engaged the enemy under risky circumstances. By this time, the New Zealand Division had been driven from Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. The 1st South African Brigade had made a strong attack on Point 175, but had failed to penetrate the enemy shield. The 21st Armored Brigade had blocked the attack. North of the British armored brigade, the remains of the 6th New Zealand Brigade manned a defensive position. Their 25th Battalion was still at the blockhouse in the Sidi Rezegh area. They had two groups of infantry tanks to their north. The 8th RTR had five tanks left. Even further north were seven infantry tanks of the 44th RTR. They were there to shield anti-tank guns and field artillery, located in a wadi. They still had about 40 25pdr Field Guns left. They represented the main fighting force that survived from the New Zealand Division. There were a handful of other units or groups left, in addition.
Rommel had pulled in most of the German Africa Corps. They were closing in on the New Zealand Division and the other units. Rommel called the situation "the Cauldron". New the 6th New Zealand Brigade and Brigadier Gatehouse's armored brigade were the German 8th Armored Regiment and the 200th Motorized Infantry Regiment. They lay north of the Trigh Capuzzo. On the south side were the "Mickl artillery group" and the 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment. The German force outgunned the New Zealand Division artillery. The 90th Light Division was also on the north side of the Cauldron. The Italian Ariete Armored Division was east of the Cauldron. The 21st Armored Division was sitting on the Trigh Capuzzo.
Brigadier Gatehouse was very uncomfortable with the situation he found himself in. Gatehouse was aware of the strong enemy artillery force that was present. He also believed that they were too late to keep the New Zealand Division from having to withdraw.He knew about the enemy heavy artillery that was nearby. Given the disparity in tank strengths, Brigadier Gatehouse was not ready to attack the enemy tanks. The 6th New Zealand Brigade commander had decided that they needed to withdraw to Zaafran. Brigadier Gatehouse had been in communication with General Gott about the situation. His brigade was caught in a fight with Italian tanks "in front" and some German tanks on the right. The New Zealand transport had disappeared, so Gatehouse considered that his responsibility to them had ended.
Tanks from the 15th Armored Division had expected that Gatehouse's brigade would attack. By early afternoon, the British armored Brigade had driven off towards the south so that they could resupply. The situation had left the 6th New Zealand Brigade wondering what had happened. They were thankful for the presence of the brigade, but were surprised when the brigade suddenly disappeared. They had also expected that the British tanks would have had more of an effect on the course of the battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The critical point in the Crusader battle, 1 December 1941

When General Scobie found that the New Zealand troops from Belhamed were withdrawing towards the Tobruk sortie force, he had them diverted and employed in the "forward posts". The enemy had staged an attack from the east against the "corridor". This attack was driven back. They apparently had killed fifty of the enemy and had taken another fifty as prisoners.
The one New Zealand battalion at Belhamed, the 18th, had been facing Ed Duda. They had been able to hold their ground, but eventually started to pull back to the west. Major Loder-Symonds had finally been able to get two mobile artillery observation posts in place. He had been able to call in artillery fire to support the New Zealand withdrawal. B/O Battery were able to drive back a group of German tanks that had been trying to cut off the New Zealand battalion. Major Loder-Symonds was able to speak to the New Zealand Battalion commander, who seemed to be very able. The major told the New Zealand commander that the artillery would stay and provide anti-tank protection, if his men could take positions "just in front of the guns". He also showed the New Zealand commander the enemy minefield that they could use as part of their defenses. The New Zealand battalion moved onto the ridge "west of Belhamed". Very soon, a column of vehicles approached with the remnants of the New Zealand Division artillery. This included one troop from the 6th New Zealand Field Regiment. Major Loder-Symonds was able to incorporate them "alongside B Battery". That gave them a line of eight guns that could fire as a unit. There was some concern that B Battery could be forced to withdraw, so "Rocket Troop" was sent to a position at Belhamed where they would be in a position to provide support. Rocket Troop was shelled and took some casualties, but where able to hold on "until after dark".

The 2/13th Battalion was still in place on the ridge by Belhamed and Ed Duda. They were able to observe the German attack on Belhamed with tanks. The also observed the 18th New Zealand Battalion pull back. By 10am, they heard about a German group. Later, they could see what might have been Germans "beyond the bypass road". The 2/13th Battalion heard at 10:30am that Belhamed had fallen to the enemy. A conference was planned for 11am at Brigadier Willison's headquarters.
They were now at the critical point in the Crusader battle. They had almost been defeated on Totensonntag, but 70th Division,, the New Zealand Division, and the army tank brigades had kept the British forces from being defeated. On 1 December, the New Zealand Division had taken important losses. The German armored divisions had been ordered to attack and to defeat them.
In the German Africa Corps, the custom was to move in to attack while the sky was still dark. They planned an attack on Belhamed at 6:30am. Brigadier Gatehouse had been ordered to check out the situation at dawn, which would have been later than the planned German moves. The time was 9am when the composite armored brigade approached over the "northern Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Brigadier Gatehouse had been given orders that would have been bad to have executed as given. He was to attack and be relentless, fighting to the last tank, if necessary. Gatehouse had the 5th RTR commander contact the New Zealand Division and plan hoow to  attack the enemy tanks. Brigadier Gatehouse did not feel required to  make reckless charges against the enemy. His responsibility was to make the best use of his resources in tanks and men and not throw them away. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Events on 30 November 1941 to 1 December 1941 near Sidi Rezegh

The situation late on 30 November 1941 saw the 1st South African Brigade sitting on the escarpment where General Norrie had led them. The 6th New Zealand Brigade was all but destroyed. The Italian Ariete Armored Division was on the Trigh Capuzzo, with the 21st Armored Division behind them. The South Africans sent out a strike group towards Point 175, but they were stopped by units from the 21st Armored Division, including the 3rd Recennaissance Unit. The Australians were sitting on the ridge, with two New Zealand companies to their east, near the place where the bypass road crossed the ridge.
Eighth Army senior officers were busy during the night.. They had different amounts of information about the situation, and their personalities shaped how they responded. General Freyberg was prepared to ask his men to sacrifice themselves, as needed, for the good of the division. General Freyberg believed that his division was still obligated to hold the ground they defended. For one thing, the corridor to Tobruk depended on them. The commander of the 6th New Zealand Brigade had proposed withdrawing, but that was unacceptable to General Freyberg. General Freyberg's view was that the 1st South African Brigade and the British armor would need to participate in the battle to hold the ground they occupied. General Freyberg sent his chief artillery offcier to Tobruk to talk with General Godwin-Austen about Freyberg's view of what was needed. General Freyberg also sent two officers to talk with the South African brigade comander. "He beileved that the South Africans had been placed under his command." They were to tell him that Sidi Rezegh had been captured by the enemy. The New Zealand Division needs Sidi Rezegh recaptured prior to dawn on 1 December. The South Africans were ordered to retake Sidi Rezegh immeditately.
The New Zealand artillery commander, Brigadier Miles only reached XIII Corps headquarters after midnight. The officers sent to the South African brigade arrived at 1:40am. The South Africans were quite close to General Norrie, so when they received the message relayed from General Freyberg, the South African commander went to talk with General Norrie. They decided that capturing Point 175 was not possible prior to dawn. The attack could restart at dawin, at best.
General Godwin-Austen sent out encoded wireless message to the major unit commanders. The 7th Armoured Division needed to concentrate and focus on defeating the German armored units. If the South Africans could take Point 175 and Sidi Rezegh, then they should try to establish themselves in controll of those positions. If that failed, then the New Zealand Division needed to move "behind Ed Duda". They would also need to hold onto Belhamed. Anything else can be given up, if all elsle failed. They might have ordered the New Zealand Division to withdraw immediately, but there was not realy time for that to be a realistic possibility.
Geenral Scobie was paying xlose attention to events and plans. He was aware ofo the rishs of having 70th Division soldiers from Tobruk outside of the fortress defenses when the situaion was in doubt.  Infantry tank runners were not more than twenty by now. He was intent on holding onto Ed Duda and Belhamed. General Gott told Brigadier Gatehouse that he needed to attack the enemy tanks. They were very close to morning and the enemy forces were clearly on the move, intent on causing them trouble.
The 32nd Army Tank Brigade dealt with an enemy group between outposts Butch and Tiger. at dawn, there was heavy mist. While there still was mist, they started to receive incoming artillery fire at Belhamed. The New Zealand Division units near Belhamed were being attacked. They had support by the 1st RHA, but some British tanks were knocked out by mines and anti-tank gun fire. The New Zealanders "were without tank support and being overrun."  This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

On the brink of disaster at Sidi Rezegh and the general area on 30 November 1941

Late on 30 November 1941, the men at Ed Duda could tell that there was fighting at Sidi Rezegh, but they could not see what was actually happening. The men at Ed Duda were concerned that the situation was about to take a major turn for the worst. A planned change of companies was canceled. They were so concerned about the situation and their prospects for survival that they spent the night digging emplacements and laying mines. Up until the end of the day on 30 November, the XIII Corps headquarters and the men in Tobruk had no idea of what was happening at Sidi Rezegh.
The one British cruiser tank brigade, the composite 4th/22nd Brigade, wasted time playing games with the Italians of the Ariete armored division. They also may have seen and fired at some German Africa Corps men and tanks, but took no serious action. General Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander, had wanted the brigade to be engaged with keeping the corridor open from the outside to the New Zealand Division, near Point 175. In fact, the Germans were positioning themselves to attack the New Zealand Division and remove them from the battlefield. There wax Italian artillery positioned near Point 175 that was firing on the New Zealanders.
The XXX Corps commander, General Norrie, took personal of the 1st South African Brigade. They reached the escarpment at about 4pm, near Trigh Capuzzo. They did not try anything, but were preparing to attack the dressing station at Point 175.
The 15th Armored Division was intent on capturing Sidi Rezegh and surrounding the New Zealand Division so that they were out of touch with Tobruk and the Egyptian Frontier. They made mistakes, however, as one was for the division to head off to El Adem. They were eventually stopped at Bir Salem. The men at Ed Duda could see the 15th Armored Division move to the north, near Bir Bu Creimisa.
Bir Bu Creimus had become the headquarters of the German Africa Corps. Later in the afternoon, Rommel ordered the attack on the New Zealand Division. The little Mickl Group, a battle group of five tanks, was to hit Sidi Rezegh. The Italians of the Ariete Division were to hit the east side. The 90th Light Division would hit Belhamed to the south. General Cruewell had suggested that the 15h Armored Division should move to the "saddle" between Ed Duda and Belhamed. They would end up moving along the foot of the ridge where the 2/13th Battalion was located. The Australians planned to patrol to the "bypass road.
From 4pm to 5pm, the German and Italian tanks moved in on the New Zealand Division. The 4th/22nd Brigade had done nothing useful to interfere with the enemy tank movements. The 15th Armored Division commander, General Neumann-Silkow led his division to join the attack on Sidi Rezegh, rather than waste his time at the "saddle"The 6th New Zealand Brigade, located near the Sidi Rezegh mosque was in trouble. Two New Zealand battalions were overrun and a third was pressed hard by the Ariete Division. The brigade commander wanted to salvage what he could from the wreckage. He wanted to move in behind the "Tobruk sortie force". With the 6th New Zealand Brigade all but destroyed, that left the New Zealand Division artillery unprotected at Belhamed, and nearby. From the east, you now had the 21st Armored Division closing in and blocking the Trigh Capuzzo. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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