Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Tank fight in the afternoon of 2 April 1941

The 5th RTR was able to meet two trucks loaded with petrol. They were able to refuel from them. They were also able to make contact with the 3rd Armoured Brigade headquarters. They had nine tanks providing protection, and these saw enemy forces approaching with some 30 to 40 vehicles. They heard about the 3rd Hussars being in a fight and needing help. The battalion commander sent four tanks to support the 3rd Hussars. At the same time, the Tower Hamlets Rifles was being attacked with tanks. They were located to the west. British artillery fire allowed the Tower Hamlets to withdraw. German tanks got through the British guns, but did not pursue the withdrawing infantry. The nine tanks were now in a hull-down position behind a ridge. By 5:30pm on 2 April 1941, the 5th RTR was under attack by what proved to be the II/5th Armored Battalion (German). The 5th RTR now only had 14 tanks, after sending the four tanks to help the 3rd Hussars. In the tank battle, the British destroyed three German tanks, but lost five of their own. Another tank took damage, but was still operable. The German advance came with the sunset behind them. The 5th RTR was then able to withdraw back to the next ridge. The British were fortunate to have survived this battle, and the Germans were not very aggressive and could have destroyed the entire battalion. Upon hearing of this battle, General Gambier-Parry, the 2nd Armoured Division commander, ordered the division to move to Antelat. The move left the coast road to Benghazi without a blocker. Cyrenaica Command, commanding from the rear, was not aware of this situation. From 7pm until a 2am halt, the 5th RTR continued to withdraw. They were down to 12 tanks at that point. The rest of the division reached Antelat during the evening of 2 April, although the King's Dragoon Guards did not reach Antelat until 9am on 3 April. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Rommel moves forward as the British withdraw in early April 1941

The British were withdrawing in the face of the German attack. The 2nd Support Group initially moved some 30 miles north of Agedabia. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was now east of Agedabia. They had two units forward. The 3rd Hussars were to the right while the 5th RTR was to the left. A squadron from the 6th RTR was guarding the rear of the 3rd Hussars. By 1pm, the 5th RTR could see German vehicles following them. The King's Dragoon Guards could see German armored cars moving towards Antelat. After seeing the British withdrawal, Rommel was compelled to take action. He ordered his division to attack Agedabia and take it. He also wanted the small port of Ez Zuetina. While the Germans were advancing, General Neame was trying to slow down the British withdrawal and stay in control. Neame was leaving the 2nd Armoured Division divided into two groups that were too far apart to support each other. General Gambier-Parry replied back to Neame that he should have the option to commit his armored brigade if an opportunity presented itself. General Neame was too far from events to know about what was happening. By now, the 3rd Armoured Brigade had only 22 cruiser tanks and 25 light tanks. The tanks were breaking down at a rate of about one per ten miles traveled. By 4pm, the 3rd Armoured Brigade was still moving back towards planned defensive position. The 5th RTR was slowed by having to stay with a composite battery from the 1st RHA, which could only move at 7 miles per hour. There was still a 6th RTR presence at Beda Fomm, where they had been waiting. They had about 40 Italian tanks. They were ordered to move forward to Antelat. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The withdrawal on 31 March to 1 April 1941

The plan had been for the 2nd Armoured Division to move to the east and set up a new defensive position. The division, however, was too slow to move. At this point, the Germans were not following, however. The 2nd Support Group occupied a new position astride the coast road about 30 miles past Mersa Brega. The position had a marsh on the right, so that provided some protection. The armored brigade was on the left. The 3rd Hussars, with some artillery, tried to provide some protection to the withdrawal. By the morning of 1 April, the 5th RTR was down to 23 tanks. The armor was on the desert track to the east of the coast road. The King's Dragoon Guards were positioned towards the desert to watch for any German forces. General Neame visited General Gambier-Parry at Maaten el Baghlia. He ordered the armored division to withdraw towards Benghazi. By early afternoon, the withdrawal was in progress. General Neame had already ordered the troops at Benghazi to prepare demolitions at the harbor and to be ready for a withdrawal. Near Msus, troops from the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade encountered German troops. At a distance, they saw some strange vehicles. They might have been the Free French, but then they were recognized as enemy. They headed off to escape, and had a pursuer for some thirty miles. The acting commander of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade sent out a group towards the reported enemy force, but did not hear any more for three days. By the start of 2 April, the support group saw German activity in front of them. They had carriers scouting. The Germans attacked with forty tanks with infantry. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Mersa Brega falls on 31 March 1941

The German main force was moving on Mersa Brega by early afternoon on 31 March 1941. Cemetery Hill was hit hard by German dive bombers. That was followed by an attack by tanks and trucks with infantry. The British 25pdr battery and anti-tank guns fired on them and forced them to pull back. The British commander wanted to chase them, but ran out of time when the next attack came. This time, the attackers were all tanks and came close, but could not get past a sand ridge that was close to the British. They were fired on by British guns. Some tanks were knocked out and others were bogged down in the sand. There were two more dive bomber attacks late in the afternoon. By 5:30pm, German artillery was firing on the British positions. Infantry and tanks were moving forward with Rommel on the scene, deciding to attack to "the north of the coast road". By 6pm, the Germans were successful. By 7pm, they were in Mersa Brega. The 2nd Support Group was forced to withdraw from the position. They moved back about 8 miles. They had mounted a counter-attack before withdrawing, and had some success, but lost eight carriers. The defenders of Mersa Brega had lost 55 men. There was now nothing to stop Rommel from reaching Benghazi or Tobruk. During the night, the 2nd Support Group had moved back to a position about 20 miles in front of Agedabia. They expected a battle there the next day. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The German attack on 31 March 1941

The plan for the 2nd Armoured Division was to withdraw if they were attacked by the Germans. There were armored cars from the King's Dragoon Guards accompanied by four tanks from the 5th Royal Tank Regiment. There were just four cruiser tanks. The 2nd Support Group was at Mersa Brega. They planned to use motorized infantry and carriers to conduct patrols in front of the salt marshes. The armored cars and tanks hoped to ambush German tanks. Instead, they saw a group of German tanks, exchanged fire, took damage on one tank. The Germans appeared to be ready to encircle the patrol. In fact, the German force was of all arms, with artillery and infantry, as well as tanks. The British retreated with German tanks in pursuit. They again exchanged fire near El Agheila, in the middle of the sand dunes. The Germans then headed south, leaving the British to withdraw. The armored cars stayed there in the sand dunes to continue to report on events. The Germans reached Mersa Brega by 7:45am. The men at Cemetery Hill saw Germans to the southwest. They saw five German tanks and two trucks. Infantry had gotten off the trucks. There were some twenty to thirty Germans. By 9am, men of the Tower Hamlets saw the large German force approaching Mersa Brega. By 9:30am, the Germans were advancing. The motorized infantry of the Support Group pulled back, but left carriers scouting in front. By 10am, the Germans brought up a gun, accompanied by four tanks. They commenced firing and the British carriers had to pull back. The British still had artillery observers on Cemetery Hill. They directed fire on the advancing Germans. One carrier platoon stayed near the hill to give support. By 10:30am, the Germans were moving on Cemetery Hill. The 104th RHA fired on the Germans. The men from the hill pulled back to a ridge that crossed the road. The carriers stayed near the hill. They actually fired on tanks at some 300 yards. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 11, 2016

At the front in Cyrenaica on 30 March 1941

The forward units facing the Germans were all British units. The 2nd Armoured Division was finding that the Italian M13/40 tanks were unsatisfactory. After being driven for 10 or 12 miles, the engines overheated. Once they were driven and overheated, they needed time to cool. That meant that they could be driven 48 miles in a day. They had 68 tanks of all sorts that could be used, even if with problems. Not only the tank situation was an issue. They had never trained as a unit. They also lost their communications equipment, as it was all sent to Greece.

The units of the 2nd Armoured Division were in place at the front. The right was held by the 2nd Support Group, commanded by Brigadier Latham. They had eight miles of front within the Mersa Brega salt marshes. They had part of the Tower Hamlets Rifles, a company of the French Motor Battalion, and the 104th Royal Horse Artillery. There was a group on the cemetery hill. They were a company of the Tower Hamlets Rifles and two machine-gun sections. Another company of Tower Hamlets Rifles was "preparing a position in the rear". They were approximately one mile north of Agedabia.

On the left, there were about 5 miles of ground to the south from the road that could not be traveled by tanks. Behind this was the 3rd Armoured Brigade. The 3rd Hussars were forward with 26 tanks, a mix of Lt.Mk.VI and M13/40 tanks. They had an Australian anti-tank company with them. There was also the 5th RTR. They had two field artillery batteries and two light anti-aircraft guns with each of the regiments. Most of the 6th RTR was still at Beda Fomm. Armored cars from the King's Dragoon Guards were scouting in front of the tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Australian discipline on 31 March 1941

General Neame had seen General Morshead a stinging letter complaining about the lack of discipline in Australian troops. General Morshead thought that the letter had a distinct anti-Australian tone and was unfair. About 31 March 1941, General Morshead took steps to answer the letter from Neame. He was forwarding the letter to General Blamey, the head of the Australian forces (AIF). Morshead wondered why the British didn't arrest the Australians who were acting poorly. General Morshead ordered the men to place civilian towns and cities, and even camps, out-of-bounds. They reiterated plans for a system of passes to go to Benghazi or Barce on business. Post-war, General Neame had written complimentary words about the Australians serving near Benghazi.

At the same time, Rommel was concerned about the work of the 2nd Armoured Division preparing defenses that would be hard to attack if they waited for them to be completed. He decided that they had to attack with the small force that they had to prevent having to face stronger defenses. The Germans would use the 8th Machine Gun Battalion to relieve the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit for scouting. They planned to take Mersa Brega on 31 March 1941. They would take Gialo on 2 April. They planned a small airborne attack.

The main addition to the British force defending Cyrenaica was the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, now with three battalions mounted in motor vehicles. They lacked any artillery, however. They also had "A" squadron of the Long Range Desert Group. They had reached Barce on 30 March. Other forces were added, including a machine gun company, a company of the French Motor Battalion, and one battery of anti-tank guns. The 5th RTR had also arrived, but on several dozen of the 52 cruiser tanks had reached the front. The rest had broken down on the way. The total tank strength of the 2nd Armoured Division was some 68 tanks of mixed types. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

29 March 1941

Interestingly, Libyan Arabs were allied with the British. There were some Libyan battalions holding locations in the rear. They did have a problem with Arabs pilfering telephone wire. The real problems were communications and the lack of motor transport. The division signals unit was back at Gazala. Things were so bad for communications that the Australians had to use civilian telephone wires. The lack of transport meant that only five of eight battalions were in position. The battalions in position were largely immobile. One battalion, the 2/48th, was sitting at Gazala, waiting to be able to move forward to the 26th Brigade area. The lack of transport left the 24th Brigade at Tobruk. On top of all that, General Neame sent General Morshead a letter complaining about the conduct of Australian troops. The allegations including looting and other forms of misconduct. The misconduct included drunken Australian soldiers. The Australians needed military police to crack down in the lack of discipline, but there were none. The only unit was left in the rear. General Morshead had asked to have the provost company brought forward, but the British had not responded. Undisciplined Australian soldiers running loose in the rear had become increasingly common and was giving the Australian army a bad name. Something needed to be done. We have seen that in June and July, 1941, the problem still existed, despite the good performance of Australian troops fighting the Vichy French. The British seem reluctant to arrest the Australians. General Morshead said that they needed to know who the offenders were so that they could be disciplined. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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