Sunday, January 31, 2016

Events in early 1941 as the Greek operation started

Events moved faster in early 1941 as the Greek campaign commenced. After General Wynter's illness, the 18th Brigade commander, Brigadier Morshead, was appointed as 9th Australian Division commander. Lt-Colonel Wooten became 18th Brigade commander in Morshead's place. Wooten became a brigadier and Morshead became a Major-General.

Much of the action for Greece started in February 1941. General Wavell informed General Blamey of the plans for Greece right before Anthony Eden and General Sir John Dill arrived in Cairo to start negotiations with the Greek Government. The Greek Government had agreed to a British expedition on 24 February. General Blamey had gotten his way on sending the 6th Australian Division to Greece and kept the 9th Australian Division in Libya. Almost immediately, elements of the 2nd Armoured Division started the process of replacing the 7th Armoured Division in Cyrenaica, the portion of Libya that the British had taken. Lt-General Neame replaced General Wilson as the Cyrenaica Command commanding officer. Neame had been the 4th Indian Division commander from February 1940. In August 1940, he had been appointed as GOC of Palestine and Transjordan. He had wanted to command in the campaign against Italy in late 1940 until early 1941, but had to watch the successful campaign.

General Blamey announced a reorganization of Australian forces on 26 February 1941. The result was that the 9th Australian Division had three brigades, the 20th, 24th, and 26th Brigades. They got their three field regiments and an anti-tank regiment. The 9th Australian Division then had to move quickly to arrive in the Western Desert, as the 6th Australian Division was to go to Greece and needed to be relieved. The 24th Brigade was short, as they only had two complete battalions. The third battalion was still at Darwin in Australia, and would not arrive until April, according to the plan. This is baed on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The 9th Australian Division formed

The two Australian brigades in England in 1940 were the 18th and 25th Australian infantry brigades. The Official History calls them two of the first-enlisted and best-trained of the Australian brigades. General Blamey criticized the decision to combine these brigades with newly formed units. The 8th Australian Division, to be sent to Singapore, lost the 24th Brigade to the 9th Division. They also lost the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and field companies to the 9th Division. The 8th Australian Division units were still in Australia in late 1940, but at least they existed. Major-General Wynter, then in England, was appointed as commander of the 9th Australian Division on 23 October 1940. He left England by sea in mid-November 1940. He left the convoy at Capetown and went by air to Cairo. He formed the division headquarters in Palestine on 24 December. They division only had two field regiments and one field company of engineers at first. Even as the units sailed, the division composition changed. When the 25th Brigade arrived in March 1941, it had been reassigned to the 7th Australian Division. General Wynter had to be replaced after he had fallen ill. He was replaced by Brigadier Morshead, who had been the 18th Brigade commander. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Decisions in early 1941 for Greece and Libya

General Wavell, the theater commander in the Mediterranean and the Middle East thought that they would have until May 1941 before they would have to defend against Germans. They did not realize that Rommel would act sooner, even before his commanders were ready. The original plan was to retain the 6th Australian Division in Libya, as they were there best Australian infantry division. They would send the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions to Greece. General Blamey got involved and was able to change the plan, so that the 6th Australian Division went to Greece. General Blamey was concerned that the Greek campaign was so hazardous that they needed their best troops for the mission. The 9th Australian Division ended up being left in Libya on the defensive. The division was formed on 23 September 1940. Most of the units that comprised the 9th Australian Division had been formed for other purposes. There were two Australian brigades in England at this time, and they would be used for the new 9th Australian Division. The division's artillery was found by taking the I Australian Corps field regiments and converting the one medium regiment to field guns. They would form the third brigade in Australia and ship it to the Middle East, along with the other supporting units. Vol.III of the Australian Official History is primarily about the adventures of the 9th Australian Division in 1941 and 1942. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Taking chances in early 1941 in the Western Desert

While embarking on Churchill's and the War Cabinet's latest adventure, General Wavell was ready to take extreme chances with the defense of North Africa. He would lose his bet, in the event. There were many complications. The 2nd Armoured Division had recently lost its commander. Major-General Tilly had died suddenly after arriving in the Middle East. He was replaced by Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry, who had been in Greece. He was to become a prisoner of war, along with some notable officers from the campaign against Italy. As we have noted, the 2nd Armoured Division was split into two parts. As the Official History notes, the best part was sent to Greece. The Western Desert defense was left to one weak armored brigade and one-and-a-half motorized infantry battalions. The one infantry division was "static". The 2nd Armoured Division brigades had only two tank battalions or regiments in each. We have the situation where you had the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment and the 3rd Hussars, a cavalry regiment. They were the same sort of unit, in practice, but with different sorts of names. General Wavell's idea for adding strength to the brigade left in Libya was to create the 6th Battalion of the RTR (usually called the 6th RTR). The unit would be equipped with captured Italian tanks, probably M13/40 tanks. Although not mentioned, the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment received a mix of Italian M11/39 and M13/40 tanks. There is a picture that shows them with large, white Kangaroos painted on them. The decision was made to add the 3rd Indian Motor Btigade to the forces in Libya when they had completed their training. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The commanders in Britain and the Middle East were indulging in wishful thinking in February to March 1941

When the 2nd Armoured Division arrived in the Middle East, the commander, Major-General Tilly, remarked that the division's cruiser tanks had worn out tracks and engines. General Wavell's reaction to that information was that perhaps, they would do better in the desert than they would have somewhere else. Of course, the British in the Middle East lacked tank transporters, vehicles that were later considered to be essential. The Germans had to demonstrate their utility before the British could learn. The British were trying to get by with as little effort and expense as possible, yet try to take on large responsibilities. The British solved their tank problem by shipping them to Greece, where they broke down in the mountains. Given the current operations, there were the New Zealand Division, the three Australian Divisions (the 6th, 7th, and 9th), one British division (the 6th, eventually renamed the 70th), and the Polish Carpathian Brigade. For the divisions, they were short of artillery and other supporting arms. Wavell sent the best armor to Greece and kept the worst in the Western Desert. Of course, Churchill and the War Cabinet were driving events, so they were ultimately responsible for the results. Wavell was a man desperate to hold onto his position as the theater commander, so he did whatever was asked, whether it was a good idea or not. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The strategic situation in the Mediterranean Sea in late 1940 and early 1941

From the German perspective, plans were in flux. They had backed off from any attempt to invade Great Britain from the continent in late 1940. They also decided to forego an attack to take Gibraltar and seal the Mediterranean from the west. The biggest decision made in December 1940 was the decision to prepare to invade Russia. At the same time, Hitler decided to occupy Greece and Yugoslavia. Germany was limited to opportunistic changes to plans based on the current situation. One fateful decision was to send a German force to North Africa to retrieve the situation in the Western Desert where the Italians had been pushed back by a successful British offensive. They only hoped to hold Tripolitania and possibly to advance to Benghazi.

Fortunate for the Germans and Italians, Churchill had decided to send forces to Greece, which would have the affect of jeopardizing the recent gains in Cyrenaica in Libya. Before that happened, the forces available included the 7th Armoured Division and the 6th Australian Division in the Western Desert. Of the rest, the largest group was in Egypt, in the process of formation: the 2nd Armoured DIvision, the 6th British Division, the New Zealand Division, and the Polish brigade. Also in Palestine were the 7th Australian Division and the 9th Australian Division. They were still incomplete with more troops still in transit. The rest were in East Africa. Two Indian divisions were in Eritrea, the 4th and 5th. The 1st South African Division and two African divisions were in Italian east Africa.

The armoured divisions were both weakened. The 7th Armoured Division had been expended in the attack on Libya. They were not capable of operations without being refreshed. The 2nd Armoured Division was weak and still being formed. The British had tank problems in late 1940 and early 1941. The tanks that they had tended to be in poor mechanical condition. The commander of the 2nd Armoured Division had complained to General Wavell on his arrival of the poor mechanical condition of his cruiser tanks. This is baaed on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Tobruk and El Alamein volume of the Australian Official History

The Tobruk and El Alamein volume covers a long period, from March 1941 until December 1942. The second volume overlaps with this volume, in that it covered the Greek campaign, the battle for the island of Crete, and then the campaign in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. Much of this volume involves the 9th Australian Division, from forming the unit until the division left the Middle East. This volume was published in 1965, so this was a period when anti-war fever was at a peak and some Australians apparently criticized publishing an official history about war. That attitude misses the point, though, because official histories chronicle the operations conducted by men, fighting against an enemy that needed to be beaten. The Australian volumes generally look in greater detail about operations than the British official history. That makes the Australian volumes more valuable, because they are a great learning tool that is available to us. They also describe the achievements and, yes, failures of men struggling in adversity. In this case, we know the outcome, and that it was successful. The author of this volume, Barton Maugham, was a veteran who served in the Western Desert, "mainly in the 2/13th Battalion". As we have said, Chester Wilmot was the intended author of this volume, but he died before he could start. Barton Maugham started the volume in 1955. Writing the volume was apparently a ten-year task. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Finishing Volume II of the Australian Official History

We are now concluding the summary of Volume II of the Australian Official History for the Army in World War II. The author, Gavin Long, says that the Australian Army (the Australian Imperial Force) had shown itself to have grown into an army that was as capable as a long-term, "regular service" force. They were volunteers, as there were no draftees in the army. The Australian units had developed an esprit de corps as the natural result of experience in combat in a variety of campaigns. They had fought in the Western Desert, in Greece, Crete, and in Syria and Lebanon. They had gained the respect of their opponents, at least in Syria.

The force was caught by surprise by the Japanese attack on 8 December 1941, and the men were slow to realize that they might be headed to the Far East. They had shown that there was some wisdom in fighting against the Axis powers, where ever they might be, as they were potential threats to the Australian homeland. They had gained valuable combat experience that would help them in future battles, both in the Middle East and the Far East. We will be moving on to Volume III of the Australian Official History, about Tobruk and El Alamein. The plan had been for Chester Wilmot to write the volume, but Barton Maugham was the eventual author.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Knowledgeable Censors in North Africa in 1941

The Australian Official History suggests that the best censor is someone trained as an intelligence officer who has extensive newspaper experience. Apparently, the British censors lacked both sorts of experience. They were said to have been open to pressure by the large British newspapers. General Blamey's intelligence officer, Lt-Colonel Rogers, had stepped in and had set up a censor for Australian news in Cairo. His choice was Major Fenton, who had experience since 1939 in intelligence and had been a "senior newspaperman" before the war.

Australian news that would benefit the army needed to be aware of Australian issues. There were times when the best solution might be to provide a soldier's name to the press or his Australian state. The concern was to help the news consumers in Australia while not revealing information that would help the enemy. They also did not want someone who lacked Australian experience saying something that would offend people in Australia. South Africa had this sort of problem due to their racial setup and with anti-war activists.

One lesson that is still highly relevant is that a spokesperson needs to know what is being planned and what is really happening. One important goal is to not be seen as either ignorant or as someone being dishonest. In either case, the actual situation might be that the senior officers had not seen fit to share important information or had not trusted the spokesperson with the plans or events on the ground. Another issue was that the powers-that-be in London wanted to describe New Zealand, Australian, and South African troops as "British Imperial troops". The Australians were able to defeat that practice during the Syrian campaign. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

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