Monday, February 29, 2016

On the border in March 1941

The British-Australian force near El Agheila in March 1941 was short of strength. There was the light tank regiment with Lt.Mk.VIb's (we think). There was the King's Dragoon Guards with Marmon-Herrington Mk.II armored cars. Their best weapon was the 0.55-inch anti-tank rifle. There was the Australian infantry brigade that had just arrived. There was the 6th RTR that was just getting captured Italian M13/40 tanks. The anti-tank guns they had were 9-2pdr and 6-Breda anti-tank guns. There were also 16-Bofors 40mm Light AA guns. They also had 3-Breda Light AA guns. There were no British or Australian troops west of El Agheila and none actually holding the place. The KDG went up to the fort at El Agheila in the morning and left at night. What few vehicles they had were breaking down due to overuse and lack of parts. Due to bombing at Benghazi, they were reduced to relying on road transport from Tobruk for their supplies. The length of the drive included half during the day with bombing attacks. The signals equipment was provided by stealing or taking from dumps of Italian equipment. They were short of essential items, even mortars and anti-tank guns. General Morshead worried about leaving the 20th Brigade where they were. He proposed moving them to the Benghazi-Barce area. When General Morshead had written his letter about the situation, he was called in for a meeting with General Dill, the CIGS, and General Wavell, the theater commander. They met near Beda Fomm. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

The battlefield in North Africa 1940-1942

The area that contained the combat in North Africa stretched from the salt marshes near El Agheila in the west to the Qattara Depression that lay to the south of El Alamein. All the major operations stayed within 50 miles of the Mediterranean coast. To the south lay some prominent oases, like Siwa, Gialo, Giarabub, and also Kufra. In the east, there was the railway that ran to Mersa Matruh from further east in Egypt. The railroad was eventually extended to Tobruk. Otherwise, all supply ran on the coast road. The escarpment was a prominent feature in the landscape. In the western part of Egypt lay the Halfaya Pass. The road climbed from the coastal area to the plateau. In Libya, you had the plateau running from Bardia to Gazala. They would all become familiar names in the war in the western desert, as it was called. General Morshead realized that he faced a complete German armored division and they might well take advantage of the light forces in the west to mount an attack. For the first half of March 1941, we saw a process of German, British, and Australian forces probing each other to try and gain information. The 9th Australian Division was found to be short of signals equipment, as the forces going to Greece had been given priority. There was a need, however, so soldiers found ways of making unauthorized acquisition of the needed equipment, including things like wire, phones, and more. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Germans are established in Libya in February to March 1941

On 19 February 1941, the German force in Libya was named the "Africa Corps". A few days before, the first elements of the X Air Corps arrived in Libya. They had 60 dive bombers and 20 twin-engined fighters (Bf-110). They would also have support from German aircraft based in Sicily. By late February, the first units of the 5th Light Division were at the landmark that the British called the Marble Arch. That position was about 40 miles from El Agheila. The Italian divisions were spread out with the Savona Division in Tripoli. There were also the two infantry divisions, the Bologna and Pavia divisions. There were also the Ariete Armored Division and the Brescia Infantry Division. With the Free French force from Chad taking Kufra oasis, Rommel decided to move forward. The Germans prepared a position west of El Agheila. By 11 March, the tanks from the 5th Light Division were unloaded from ships in Tripoli. By 13 March, Rommel established his headquarters at Sirte. He ordered his troops to move to Marada, which the British had not occupied. The British were left with a minimal force facing the Germans and Italians in the west of Cyrenaica. The area included the fine Italian road from Tripoli to the Egyptian border. The operations from 1940 until 1943 all were within the confines of the coastal region. A prominent escarpment played an important role in operations during this period. At the east was the Qattara Depression, south of El Alamein. To the west were the salt marshes at El Agheila. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The situation in Libya in February to March 1941

In February 1941, Marshal Gariboldi had become the Italian commander-in-chief in Libya. Theoretically, Gariboldi commanded Rommel, but Rommel operated independently of higher authority. He had learned to operate with a lot of initiative in the Great War, when he was a keen practitioner of the new form of warfare that almost won the war for Germany. Infiltration came close to salvaging the war for Germany. Once Rommel had learned how infiltration tactics were used, he became a keen practitioner. He found in France in May 1940 that they worked with mechanized forces as well as they had with infantry. The British found out that Rommel was to be the German commander in Libya on 8 March 1941. When the Germans landed in Libya, they were not very well prepared for what they faced. They were forced to learn "on-the-job" and adapt to the new conditions. The Germans were forced to modify their equipment for the unexpected aspects of operation in the North African theater, with sand, heat, and rocks. Rommel had visited Rome on 11 February to consult with his allies. Rommel arrived in Tripoli on the next day. The first German units to arrive were an anti-tank battalion and a reconnaissance battalion. Rommel vowed to take immediate command at the front and start pushing against the British. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A German force for North Africa in early 1941

By early March 1941, General Wavell knew that the German plan was to send two armored divisions to North Africa (Libya). He was telling people that due to shipping limitations and the upcoming hot weather that he did not expect the German force to be a concern until late summer. The British did not bother to warn the Australian government about the new threat to the 9th Australian Division. The British were focused on Greece, which from the beginning, seemed like a mistake. Anthony Eden had pushed for the Greek expedition for political reasons, not because it was a good, military idea.

The first German division to be sent to North Africa was an improvised light motorized division, the 5th Light Division. The division had been formed with a nucleus from the 3rd Panzer Division. The initial plan was for a unit similar to a British armored division support group, but the plan was changed to something more like an armored division. The division would have two armored battalions created with light and medium tanks. Hitler decided early in the process to send a complete armored division in addition, later in the process. Rommel was appointed commander on 6 February 1941. Convoys started sailing from Italy bound for Tripoli. There had been a concern that the British might advance to Tripoli and create a problem for disembarking the new division. The British stopped their advance a the frontier between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, so that was not an issue.

As for the Italians, they had four weak infantry divisions of six battalions each, all of them lacking artillery. There was also the 132nd Ariete Armored Division. The Ariete Division had some 80 tanks, but no anti-tank guns. The 102nd Trento Motorized Division was being shipped into Tripoli, but was still partly in transit.

The 5th Light Division would have tanks, infantry, artillery, anti-tank, and some anti-aircraft artillery. There would be 150 tanks, many of them being Pzkw III or IV medium tanks. The anti-tank guns would include both the 50mm PAK38 and 88mm guns. The German armored cars included some of the 8-wheeled type that were much stronger than the Marmon-Herrington Mk.II's of the King's Dragoon Guards. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Elements of the 9th Australian Division at the front in March 1941

From 9 March 1941, elements of the 9th Australian Division moved up to Mersa Brega, near the edge of the frontier from Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. The 2/15th Battalion was the farthest west. They were about a half-mile northeast of Mersa Brega. As far as ten miles further east, the 2/17th Battalion had moved into position. The third battalion of the 20th Brigade was at Beda Fomm. There was the one company back at Barce. The 9th Division headquarters had moved to Bir el Tombia. There was only the one 9th Australian Division brigade in Cyrenaica. The other two brigades were still in Palestine. The forward troops were still supported by the 16th Anti-Tank Company. They had moved forward in February to support the 3rd Armoured Brigade. Another unit that stayed in position during the other movements was the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. The battalion headquarters was back at Derna, while there were men scattered doing road repair work. There was also the 2/4th Field Company with the 9th Australian Division engineers. One early sign that all was not well was that back on 24 February 1941, that a patrol was ambushed by a German patrol near el Agheila. The Germans had tanks, armored cars, and motorcycles. The Germans took three prisoners, including the commander of the anti-tank gun detachment. By early March, General Wavell realized that there were two new Italian divisions and a German mechanized force in place that could be a threat. Wavell characteristically hoped that the lack of transport and water would limit what the new forces could accomplish. That was based on ignorance of how Rommel and German mechanized forces operated. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 08, 2016

The 3rd Armoured Brigade and 2nd Support Group in March 1941

The apparent British hope was that nothing would happen in Cyrenaica while they launched the Greek campaign. The 3rd Armoured Brigade had three units: the 3rd Hussars, the 6th RTR, and the 5th RTR. Most of the brigade was located at El Adem. The 5th RTR had old cruiser tanks. We believe them to have been A.9 Cruiser Mk.I and A.10 Cruiser Mk.II tanks. They lasted until the Crusader Battle in December. The 6th RTR was to be equipped with captured Italian M13/40 tanks. One squadron was actually at Beda Fomm being reequipped. The plan was to send the rest of the unit to Beda Fomm to get their Italian tanks. Remember that we are talking about March 1941. As we already mentioned, the 3rd Hussars had antiquated light tanks. While there was a newer version, the Light Mk.VIC with a 15mm Besa gun, like the Humber armored car, we believe that the 3rd Hussars had the older Light Mk.VIB tanks with a 0.50in machine gun. As for the 2nd Armoured Division Support Group, they were short of motorized infantry and artillery. They did have two Free French motorized companies as well as the 1/Tower Hamlets Rifles. The Tower Hamlets were very small for a unit that was nominally a battalion. They could field some 250 men to fight. The Support Group also had very little artillery. They had one anti-tank battery, for example. The field artillery was late to arrive. The 51st Field Regiment and the 104st RHA arrived very late in March 1941. The 51st Field Regiment was equipped with Great War vintage artillery. They had 18pdr guns and 4.5inch Howitzers, some of which were under repair. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

The 9th Australian Division relieves the 6th Australian Division in early March 1941

The 6th Australian Division was destined for the Greek operation. That meant that their forward troops in Cyrenaica would be replaced. The 17th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Savige would be replaced by the 20th Brigade. There was one company of the 2/13th Battalion that was left at Barce so that they could protect the Cyrenaica Command headquarters. The rest of the 2/13th Battalion was positioned at Beda Fomm. The rest of the brigade drove through territory still occupied by Italian colonists. They were headed for Agedabia. At 8th March, the 9th Australian Division headquarters was at Tobruk. General Morshead had gone ahead to Cyrenaica Command headquarters. He was temporarily in charge of the forces in the western portion of Cyrenaica. General Morshead heard from General Neame that the plan was for the 2nd Armoured Division to take responsibility for the forces on the frontier as of 19 March 1941. At that point, General Morshead was supposed to move to Gazala. Mersa Brega, the small place in the sand and marshes, was vulnerable to being out-flanked from the south. The 3rd Armoured Brigade had the 3rd Hussars with 32 Light Mk.VIB tanks to protect the flank. The 6th RTR was being equipped with captured Italian M13/40 tanks at Beda Fomm. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, February 01, 2016

An unfortunate situation in February 1941

General Blamey's desire to send the best Australian troops to Greece meant that the Western Desert was left in a difficult situation. The 9th Australian Division had the most newly-recruited troops and were about to face the Germans. The 20th and 26th Brigades had been taken from the 7th Australian Division, which was their home unit. The Australian Official History mentions that the 18th Brigade wore their 6th Australian Division patches through the rest of the war. Division identity was a meaningful thing, and the former 7th Division brigades had thought that they had lost their better organization and had been moved to a higher numbered division, the 9th. A meeting was held on 26 February where the reorganization was said to be "temporary". The men had been "trained to fight", but their leaders were not yet trained to lead. The 20th Brigade was the first 9th Australian Division brigade to move west. They were mainly moved by train to Mersa Matruh. By 4 March, they had reached Tobruk. Two days later, they were west of Derna. They had passed Benghazi on 8 March. Not much later, the 20th Brigade arrived at Agedabia to take over from the 17th Australian Brigade. The plan was for the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters to be in charge at Agedabia, but they were not in place yet. The 17th Brigade was still in place at Marsa Brega, a name with which we are very familiar, being long-time students of the North African campaign. Marsa Brega had sand dunes, "rolling ground", and marshes. That seems rather unexpected for desert terrain. Brigadier Rimington and the 3rd Armoured Brigade were to protect the area south of Marsa Brega from attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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