Wednesday, March 30, 2016

General Neame's secret defense plan from 26 March 1941

On 26 March 1941, General Morshead received an instruction, a secret plan, about what to do if they were forced to withdraw from the lower escarpment. The main road to the north would be defended at the Wadi Cuff. This was the so-called "Valley of Caves". The other defensive point was the "pass east of Barce". The two defensive positions were quite far apart. They pointed out the problem that the line of communication "ran parallel to the front". If forced back further, the 9th Australian Division would try and hold the Wadi Derna.

They would plan to destroy any supplies in front of the positions that would be held. The British and Australian engineers were engaged in preparations for demolitions. The situation now had the 9th Australian Division separated from the 2nd Armoured Division by more than 100 miles. The Australians were left without any motor vehicles. They did not even have the capability for reconnaissance. The next day, 27 March 1941, General Neame that the two 7th Support Group motor battalions would be sent forward in support once they arrived in Cyrenaica. General Morshead requested that civilians be removed from the area where they expected to fight. The best that General Neame was ready to do would be to declare some "prohibited zones". When General Morshead and Colonel Lloyd, his chief of staff, visited the area to the south, they found it undefended. The 1/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (short of one company) with an anti-tank company at Bir es Sultan. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The 9th Australian Division in defense in late March 1941

With the most effective fighting force having been sent to Greece, the 9th Australian Division was left to hold the plateau east of Benghazi. To the east of Benghazi lay the port of Derna. The 26th Brigade was responsible for holding the right of the position. The 20th Brigade would hold the right side of the position. For artillery, the two brigades each had a "composite battery" of the 51st Field Regiment. Each battery had six old 18pdr guns and 6-4.5inch howitzers. They also had nine Italian 47mm anti-tank guns that would be fought on the back of trucks as "portees". For engineers, the 26th Brigade had the 2/13th Field Company (without one section). The 2/7th Field Company (also without one section) would operate with the 20th Brigade. The 20th Brigade commander was able to fly over the area that he would defend on 26 March. He then decided where his battalions would be positioned. The 2/17th Battalion would be on the right, on the north side. The 2/13th Battalion would be at Er Regima, a pass. The 2/15th Battalion would be on the left. Only by 28 March 1941, the 26th Brigade headquarters, the 2/24th Battalion, and "two companies of the 2/23rd Battalion" had arrived at the plateau from Gazala. The escarpment being held was 62 miles long and had three battalions. This was to the east of Benghazi. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Events from 25 March 1941 in North Africa and Europe

The situation at Mersa Brega from 25 March 1941 was much more tenuous. The position was weaker than that at El Agheila. There was a hill that overlooked the area that was beyond the front line. Mersa Brega had the salt lakes that formed the natural barrier. The area was one that could be easily outflanked. There was the minefield that was now in place with the King's Dragoon Guards behind it. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was on th4e left flank. The King's Dragoon Guards kept a squadron on watch at Maaten Gheizel. There was concern that the Germans could mount a turning movement around the position. There were the sand storms on the 26th and 27th. There was a fight on 29 March between German armored cars and the British armored cars. One of the King's Dragoon Guards cars was knocked out in the fight. The British saw German tanks at El Agheila. They were also starting to experience German air attacks. One such attack destroyed a petrol train at Soluch.

This was a time where events in Europe were moving forward. The Yugoslav government had tried to side with the Axis, but was overthrown. The German response was to plan an attack on Yugoslavia and Greece. In Africa, General Platt's troops captured Keren, an Italian port. General Cunningham's forces captured Harar, the second city in Abyssinia. They had just recaptured British Somaliland. Then, in the Mediterranean Sea, the British fleet encountered the Italians off Cape Matapan and sank "four cruisers and three destroyers".

General Wavell issued orders to General Neame to concentrate on keeping his force in being and not being concerned about holding ground. The situation got Churchill's attention. Churchill knew something about the German methods and that they might well push forward if there was nothing to stop them. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A fight at El Agheila on 24 March 1941

The night of 23 to 24 March 1941 was when a small group of troops were sitting to the west of El Agheila. They were a troop from the King's Dragoon Guards and a platoon of motorized infantry. They also had an anti-tank gun. They were about a thousand yard west of the fort at El Agheila. The plan was for another troop from the King's Dragoon Guards to patrol to the south and report it clear. That was a spot 12 miles to the south. They also planned to have some field artillery in support west of El Agheila. When the infantry approached the fort, they realized that it was occupied and there were shots fired. Guns at the fort opened fire on the motorized infantry and they could see tanks moving from the south. They succeeded in knocking out one armored car, but the gun crew took losses. They saw some ten tanks and 20 vehicles just east of the fort. They saw the Italian flag hoisted at the El Agheila fort. In response to the German presence at El Agheila, the King's Dragoon Guards pulled back to Mersa Brega. The Australian Official History noted that Rommel was left in control of the entrance to Cyrenaica from Tripolitania. The 1st RHA diary is quoted: "This rather altered arrangements". Two German tanks had been damaged by mines at El Agheila. German ground forces stayed in the vicinity of El Agheila, but they were now using the landing ground at El Agheila for operations. The plan was for Mersa Brega to be defended by one infantry battalion and one company of motorized infantry. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Rommel and infiltration tactics

The British were totally unprepared to deal with Rommmel and infiltration tactics. We believe that Rommel was addicted to infiltration tactics because he had had so much success with him. He was a natural practitioner. He wrote his book based on his experience with infiltration in the Great War. The situation in western Cyrenaica was well-suited for their use. There were no actual lines, just open land. Rommel could just drive off into the British rear and could look for opportunities to cause trouble. The British had taken no precautions to protect themselves, so Rommel captured three generals and other officers by catching them by surprise. He bagged General Neame, the commander of British forces in Cyrenaica, General Richard O'Connor, the victor over the Italians, and General Gambier-Parry, the 2nd Armoured Division commander. Rommel had planned to attack on 24 March 1941, the day after he arrived back in Libya. He had 90 medium tanks (mostly Pzkw-III and some Pzkw-IV) tanks, and 45 light tanks (mostly Pzkw II and some Pzkw-I). He already had a greater tank strength than the British. The initial attack was to be launched by the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion with one tank company. The attack was set for the same time as the British had planned to move one platoon west of El Agheila. When the British platoon moved forward on 24 March 1941, they found the Germans had taken position in the fort. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The situation on 20 March 1941 in Cyrenaica

The British and Australians were left with the original plan for defending Cyrenaica on 20 March 1941. Generals Neame and Gambier-Parry had acted to keep a permanent presence at the fort at El Agheila. They had the 1st King's Dragoon Guards forward. They were "two miles east of Marsa Brega with a squadron to the south at Bir el Ginn". There were some Australian light anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank guns (very few), and some British light anti-aircraft guns. They patroled with one armored car and one anti-tank gun. From 20 March, one platoon of motorized infantry would stay at the El Agheila fort at night. The infantry actually was to the south so that they could watch for a German approach. They also had a plan to ambush approaching Germans. Early on 23 March, they surprised some Germans. The anti-tank guns managed to knock out three German vehicles. They had surprised a larger force with armored cars, tanks, and field guns. The Germans had intelligence that the experienced divisions had been replaced by much less experienced units. Rommel flew to Germany to consult with the "German High Command". He planned a larger attack on 24 March 1941. Rommel was asking for more forces to be sent, but the current plan was only for the 15th Panzer Division to be sent in May. The high command was thinking about all their plans and was not particularly ready for Rommel to do anything to large that might interfere. In late March, both the British and Germans were using dummy tanks to give an illusion of strength. This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The British knew that they were in trouble in late March and early April 1941 in Cyrenaica

General Neame, who was the commander for Cyrenaica, was very unhappy with the arrangements that were in place to defend against a German attack. He recognized an immediate need for more motor transport, since without it, the 2nd Armoured Division was very immobile. The tank situation was poor, due to the mechanical condition of what they had. General Neame had a wish list that included a squadron of infantry tanks (Matilda II's), two companies of motor transport, more signals men and equipment, another cruiser tank regiment, a motor infantry battalion, more artillery of all types, and air support. He also noted that what he would really like would be a motorized infantry division to replace the 9th Australian Division, which would train near Tobruk. General Wavell replied that all that was available would be the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, with just two battalions, and some more transport. Neame's backup plan was to place supply dumps in western Cyrenaica, so that the armored division would have available supplies close to their positions. The priority for the 2nd Armoured Division was to hold onto Mersa Brega. They continued to rely upon intelligence estimates that put any German advance into early April 1941. The 9th Australian Division would try to hold the area east of Benghazi. They would let the Germans onto the plain, but try to hold the escarpment area to contain them. The new British plan was to avoid an armored battle, rather than trying to fight one that they might well lose. The main question was if they should try to block the Germans at El Agheila or at Mersa Brega. El Agheila did have a fort that was some 25 miles to the southwest from Mersa Brega. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Movements from 22 March 1941 to strengthen the 9th Australian Division and the 2nd Armoured Division

The 2/13th Battalion was to move by night to the area east of Benghazi, but the transport missed the meeting point, so they ended up traveling by day. They had been the target of air attacks which were ineffective. An artillery regiment was moving up to join the 9th Australian Division. Another, the 104th RHA moved forward to the 2nd Support Group. The 9th Australian Division got their engineers back, after they had been assigned to Cyrenaica Command since the middle of January 1941. Most of the 26th Australian Brigade moved up to Gazala. The Australian Official History criticizes the armored regiment arrangements with the captured Italian tanks and worn-out cruisers and light tanks. This meant that when the Germans attacked, the tanks were not really ready for action. The most reliable armored vehicles were the Marmon-Herrington Mk.II armored cars. The Official History says that their suspension was unequal to the strain of desert travel. They were only lightly armed, however. They had a Vickers machine gun, a Bren gun, and a 0.55-inch Boyes anti-tank rifle. The German armored cars were greatly superior to the British cars (manufactured in South Africa). The KDG diarist credited them with a 37mm gun, but in fact, they only had a 20mm gun and a machine gun. The Germans had the large eight-wheeled cars with faceted armor and the smaller four-wheeled cars with a 20mm gun that also had faceted armor. The situation in the air meant that the British were also out-matched. The Germans already had 90 fighters and 80 bombers in North Africa by late March 1941. We have seen that on 20 March 1941, the 2nd Armoured Division became responsible for the forward defense in Cyrenaica while the 9th Australian Division was pulled back. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

They expected an attack from the Germans in March 1941

General Morshead, the 9th Australian Division commander, made a presentation to General Wavell and General Dill, the CIGS. That presentation was well-received and had immediate effect. There was much concern about a coming German attack. The most positive thing happening at this time was the capture of the Giarabub oasis by the 18th Indian Brigade on 21 March 1941. General Wavell had instructed General Neame to fight a delaying battle and not to become involved in a fight. General Wavell was even ready to abandon Benghazi rather than have forces trapped and captured. At this time, on 20 March, Major-General Gambier-Parry had arrived to take charge of the 2nd Armoured Division and the area forward. The 2nd Armoured Division Support Group would replace the 20th Australian Brigade. They would move at night. A single battalion, the 1/Tower Hamlets Rifles was driven from Benghazi on 22 March and the Australian 20th Brigade was driven back to the area east of Benghazi at that time. There was an understandable effort to increase the strength of both the 9th Australian Division and the British 2nd Armoured Division. Oddly enough, the 5th RTR had been sitting at El Adem. They were finally ordered forward where they should already have been located. They were equipped with A.9 and A.10 Cruiser tanks, the only ones not sent to Greece. The problem is that they were to be driven forward. Later, they would have had tank transporters and could have gone that way, but this early, they didn't exist so they were breaking tracks. The 3rd Hussars were also in bad mechanical shape with about 30 Light Mk.VIb tanks (we think). The hope was that they could give the 6th RTR one light tank squadron and two M13/40 tank squadrons. The 3rd Hussars would have two light tank squadrons and one M13/40 squadron. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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