Friday, September 30, 2016

More action after the German attack at Mechili, apparently on 8 April 1941

There had been two 2-pdr anti-tank guns in the rear-guard at Mechili. Both guns were eventually knocked out and only one crew member was not killed or wounded. The guns were being charged by German tanks when the situation got out of hand. After this, the biggest German tanks had reached the old Italian fort in the center of the position. The headquarters of the 2nd Royal Lancers had been established near the fort. We had seen that Brigadier Vaughan had successfully broken out from Mechili. When he stopped to observe the progress of others leaving Mechili, he found that the breakout had stopped. He got on the radio with General Gambier-Parry to find out what had happened. The general replied that the enemy fire had gotten so heavy, that it seemed impossible to take the soft vehicles out through the gunfire. Vaughan suggested that they break out in different direction.

When Brigadier Vaughan had ended his conversation with General Gambier-Parry, he told his associate that he was going back into Mechili to get his rear-guard out regardless of the others. This tells us a lot about the caliber of the man. Those who had broken out with Brigadier Vaughan who did not go back into Mechili were able to drive to El Adem. Brigadier Vaughan found General Gambier-Parry and suggested that they try to break out to the east. They started underway, but drew heavy fire. General Gambier-Parry's reaction at this point was to surrender, but Brigadier Vaughan being the man he was, drove onwards. M Battery of the 3rd. RHA were there, but did not want to surrender. Indian cavalry troops were following M Battery. Major Rajendrasinhji turned the breakout attempt around and they turned to the west. There were two squadrons of Indian cavalry. Not every vehicle in either squadron made the breakout attempt, but of those that went, very few were hit by enemy fire. The drove spread out wide and charged the Germans. They were driving at a German artillery unit. The Germans raised their hands in surrender. although the troops in the breakout just drove past them. This was at the point where some troops from one squadron got trapped in the wadi. Most did not, but of those who did, only one vehicle got out and escaped to Tobruk. The rest were eventually captured. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The breakout attempt from Mechili on 7 April 1941

The plan for the breakout from Mechili led by the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was planned to start at 6:15am on 7 April 1941. That did not happen because the cruiser tank that was planned to lead did not arrive. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade commander waited to see if the tank would arrive for 15 minutes, so the sky was starting to get light. A squadron from the 18th Cavalry Regiment led the breakout. Some men got down and used bayonets against the German gunners and infantry. They got back on their trucks and then drove away. They lost 17 men in the fight. The plan had been for the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters to break out with the Indian troops as well. The cruiser tank finally arrived and move through the gap. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade headquarters also followed. The cruiser tank was knocked out and the crew was killed.

Rommel had planned to attack by around 7am. As the breakout progressed, Rommel's attack started. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade headquarters got out, but the others following were intimidated by the German attack and stopped. They should have kept driving. The wind picked up and made visibility poor. An anti-tank gun got into action and was getting hits until it was destroyed. Brigadier Vaughan called General Gambier-Parry on the radio. He heard that the fire was making further escape with soft vehicles too difficult. Brigader Vaughan decided to go back in and get his rearguard troops out of Mechili. The second breakout was made on a broad front. The trucks drove at the enemy at full speed. The German gunners put their hands up in surrender and the Indian troops drove by them. Some vehicles got caught in a wadi and most did not get out of it. The rest drove 20 miles towards the west before they made a turn to the north. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Events continued to progress at Mechili on 7 April 1941

While Rommel had talked about attacking Mechili on 6 and 7 April 1941, by late on 7 April, he had not actually done anything. There were some movements, such as the Italians attacking the 2nd Lancers unsuccessfully. The two captured Italian 47mm anti-tank guns were used to fire at some enemy troops. That drew some artillery fire for a half and hour. One squadron of the 18th Cavalry Regiment arrived. They had exchanged fire with what must have been some German armored cars during their trip. Later on 7 April, Rommel made an another demand that the garrison at Mechili surrender, but they refused. After that, artillery commenced to fire at Mechili. For about an hour, they also took machine gun fire, but without any particular effect. A regular patrol from the 2nd Lancers was forced back into Mechili by German armored cars. Eventually, they withdrew, which allowed the 2nd Lancers to return to their accustomed position. Rommel was waiting all day long on 7 April for Olbrich to arrive from Msus. Rommel often used a Fiesler Storch for his personal reconnaissance missions. He did so late on 7 April, looking for Olbrich. Olbrich turned out to still be 30 miles away. More units had been straggling into the Mechili area, including some of the Italian Ariete Armored Division. By dark, a large part of the 5th Light Division arrived. Rommel now felt strong enough to attack in the morning.

The British were burdened with Michael Gambier-Parry as the commander at Mechili. He had been waiting in vain for reinforcements. Remember that he had arrived without any fighting forces, when he assumed command of the garrison. General Gambier-Parry had received orders to break out from Cyrenaica Command. He passed that news on to Brigadier Vaughan of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. They were to break out from Mechili in the morning. They should move at "daylight". The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was ordered to head for El Adem. They were also to provide protection to the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters unit. The plan was for the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade to move as a box. The breakout was planned for 6:15am, while the sky was still dark. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Back to Mechili late on 6 April 1941

Major-General Gambier-Parry only arrived at Mechili late on 6 April 1941. We are going back in time to see the end at Mechili. General Gambier-Parry held a meeting when he arrived to announce that he was taking command at Mechili. The commander of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, Brigadier Vaughan tried to tell Gambier-Parry that they were still relatively safe because the Germans lacked sufficient force to attack. The Germans were calling on them to surrender, but Brigadier Vaughan thought that they were trying to get access to the water at Mechili without having to fight. General Gambier-Parry only brought one battery of the 3rd RHA and had no other combatants with him. He thought that the rest of the 2nd Armoured Division would arrive late on 7 April. The British garrison at Mechili could see and enemy force go into a leaguer to the east during the afternoon on 6 April.

At this point, Rommel realized that he did not have enough force to attack Mechili early on 7 April. He would have to wait until more units arrived.

Meanwhile, the Indian brigade and the 10th Battery decided to raid the enemy leaguer early on 7 April. One troop of Indian cavalry with the guns attempted an attack on the enemy, although they were unsuccessful. They did verify that the enemy were Germans and were alert. One gone was lost in the attempt. A enemy gun battery started firing around 11am. A warrant officer took a machine gun out to try and capture the guns, but they could not get close enough under cover to attack. They continued to take hits from the guns. Eventually, the Germans demanded that they surrender, which they refused to do. They finally got in radio contact with Cyrenaica Command. They were told that they could withdraw if they were surrounded. Later on 7 April, some Italians made a feeble attempt at an attack. They hit and Italian truck and took a second 47mm anti-tank gun. Now, they had a "section". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Later on 8 April 1941 after the actions at Derna

After leaving the Derna area, the 9th Australian Division occupied a position near Acroma. This was late in the afternoon of 8 April 1941. The 26th Brigade traveled from Tmimi to the Acroma area. Some of the Northumberland Fusiliers and the 51st Field Regiment acted as a rearguard for the brigade. In the process of moving, the 26th Brigade passed through the lines of the 20th Brigade near Gazala. Once they had completed their passage, the 20th Brigade was to move east from Gazala. The fact that the men of 20th Brigade had largely gone without sleep for 48 hours, if you can imagine it, that alone complicated the 20th Brigade movement. One of the 20th Brigade battalions had a diarist who noted that the drivers tended to fall asleep every time they stopped moving.

As the 9th Australian Division reached Acroma, they deployed with the 26th Brigade on the right, facing west, and with the 20th Brigade on the left. At this point, the 26th Brigade only had two battalions, the 2/13th and 2/48th. The 20th Brigade was fortunate to have the full three battalions. They had the 2/15th, 2/17th, and 2/24th Battalions. The division headquarters had moved inside the Tobruk fortress lines. A feature of the area where the 26th Brigade had occupied was a large, white house with the hand-painted name of an Australian beer. A sign of how fluid the situation was, was that Rommel used that white house as his headquarters very soon after 8 April. By late in the day, the remnants of the 2nd Armoured Division Support Group had arrived at Tobruk. The only Support Group unit that still existed but was not at Tobruk was the French Motor Battalion, which was at El Adem to add some strength at the place. The 1st/King's Royal Rifle Corps (1/KRRC) had also arrived at Tobruk. From here, we next will hop back in time to 6 April 1941 at Mechili, and see the sad end of the 2nd Armoured Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Action with the Australians at Derna, Gazala, and Tobruk on 7 and 8 Aprl 1941

While the rearguards near Derna were being hard-pressed, 9th Australian Division troops were in action. This was on 7 and 8 April 1941. One of the Australian battalion commanders, Lt-Colonel Burrows, had arrived at Tmimi. This was near the sea, on the edge of an escarpment. When the first troops arrived, they found the five German armored cars. Men from the 2/28th Battalion had anti-tank rifles, so they used those to harass the Germans. At a fortunate time, two British cruiser tanks arrived. They moved up in support and the Germans wanted nothing to do with them. Lt-Col. Burrows was a up-front, hands-on leader, so he moved to a position near the road. He was armed with a Thompson sub-machine gun and had his pockets full of grenades. As men arrived from the west on the road, he positioned them to aid in the defense. When J Battery of the 3rd RHA arrived, they were a welcome addition. After them, the 51st Field Regiment drove up the road, and after them, the 104th RHA.

Some 25 miles to the east, at Gazala, a defensive position under the command of the 20th Brigade was established. They had two complete battalions and the rifle companies of the 2/15th Battalion. German armored cars were on the prowl during 8 April, but they did not approach closely during the afternoon. German reconnaissance units seem to have been probing the back areas, behind the mainly Australian defenses. As we mentioned, by early afternoon on 8 April, there were now two Australian brigades at Tobruk. Acting Cyrenaica Command leader, Brigadier Harding was located there, as we mentioned already, so General Morshead thought that he should pull the 9th Australian Division in close to Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Miscellaneous groups trying to escape past Derna on 7th and 8th April 1941

Supposedly responsible officers in Great Britain had sent tanks to North Africa that were at the end of their service life. Churchill, the prime minister, did not realize the condition of the tanks, and he took great risks to send the tanks by sea to North Africa. They tanks sent, because of bad behavior by senior officers in Britain, were close to useless. 28 of the tanks in the 5th RTR were lost because they were in bad condition and finally broke down, not from action with the enemy. The men of the 5th RTR were not the last unit to leave Derna. One group that was coming late were support troops from the armored division. They got left behind after Giovanni Berta. As they tried to move east, they kept finding that the engineers had already carried out demolitions. They were forced to keep clearing the road so that they could advance. They only reached Derna at 8pm on 7 April. They exchanged fire with the Germans and then were able to settle down for the night. They moved out early on 8 April, at 4am. Sadly, C Squadron of the 6th RTR was still to the west. They were chagrined to find Germans to their south. They had one tank left running, which finally broke down later that night.

The 9th Australian Division was fortunate, which had moved further east, had a much easier trip. Once they had left Martuba, Some of the men reached Tmimi, they had to deal with five German armored cars about 2,000 yards away. They initially were engaged with anti-tank rifles. Gradually, anti-tank and field guns arrived and were deployed. At the sight of the guns, the Germans held back. Further east, at Gazala, the 20th Brigade organized defenses. There were roving German armored cars, but they stayed out of range. When General Morshead arrived at Tobruk, he found two Australian brigades at the fortress. They were the 18th and 24th Brigades. Brigadier Wooten, of the 24th Brigade was directing the defense. Brigadier Harding, the acting Cyrenaica Command leader, was now at Tobruk. Morshead consulted with Harding and then ordered the Australians at Gazala to move east to Acroma. The 26h Brigade was a brigade group. By 5pm, they started the move from Tmimi to Acroma. By 7pm, the 20th Brigade started to withdraw from Gazala. Everyone had gone without sleep for a long period, so the withdrawal was not very smooth. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The fight near Derna on 7 April 1941

The remnants of the 3rd Armoured Brigade had arrived near Derna on 7 April 1941. The two commanders, Lt-Col. Drew and Lt-Col.Petherick were looking for Brigadier Rimington, their commander and they did not know that he had been captured by Ponath's ambush. There were no tanks left from the 3rd Hussars. Their last tank broke down at Derna. The 5th RTR was reduced to four tanks by then. As they approached the airfield, they drew fire from the small fort. In the distance, they could see the King's Dragoon Guards in action. They met a platoon commander from the Tower Hamlets Rifles who were in the ruins of a small building. They went back to the pass to get help from rear-guard troops. By now, there was one company from the 1st/King's Royal Rifle Corps with some guns from the 3rd. RHA. Apparently, by 2:30pm, the remaining units of the 2nd Armoured Division drove through Derna. The pioneers fired the demolitions. There was some confusion caused by a staff officer from the 3rd Armoured Brigade who let the armored cars withdraw. Some other units also heard the withdrawal order and left some units unsupported. One company from the 1/KRRC were cut off and surrounded, but succeeded in escaping to a nearby wadi, where they were trying to keep from being discovered by the Germans. Lt-Col. Drew of the 5th RTR had assembled a small force. They found the Germans in control of the airfield. He had some infantry from the 1/KRRC, more infantry from the Tower Hamlets Rifles, some anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA, and four tanks. By 4pm, the Germans moved to take the Derna pass. They attacked with armored cars, artillery, anti-tank guns, and motorized infantry. the British anti-tank guns hit the attackers hard and knocked out vehicles. The German machine guns, though, covered the road. At about 5:15pm, Lt-Col. Drew led and attack. The four tanks were knocked out, but the fifty-some vehicles raised a lot of dust which provided some cover. The attack was blunted and the men withdrew as possible. Those who escaped reached Tobruk later in the night. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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