Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A temporary plan as of 9 April 1941

The arrangements that General Wavell put in place on 8 April 1941 were apparently viewed as being temporary. For the present, Wavell continued the existence of a Cyrenaica Command, but that was not to last. We find that Wavell viewed the collapse in the desert as mainly being due to the poor mechanical condition of the tanks in the 3rd Armoured Brigade. Wavell wrote that in a letter to General Blamey. The concept for the immediate future was to garrison Tobruk as a strong point and to gather mobile forces, such as a reconstituted support group under the command of Brigadier Gott, newly arrived to the scene. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was to be part of the mobile force, but the official history says that the brigade took heavy losses at Mechili. The description here made the brigade seem to have escaped, although parts of it were lost, such as the squadron caught in the wadi. We would blame Major-General Gambier-Parry and his sudden surrender as the cause of unnecessary losses at Mechili.

The forces available to General Lavarack on 9 April were two brigades at Acroma, with two artillery regiments and the machine gun battalion. In Tobruk were two more brigades, an artillery regiment, the support group remnants, the men of the 3rd Armoured Brigade, and miscellaneous anti-tank and anti-aircraft units. We believe that the 3rd Armoured Brigade was transformed into the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. A new artillery regiment was about to arrive by sea. The 1st RTR had just arrived. We heard that this was a makeshift regiment created out of available men and equipment. The 11th Hussars, from the 7th Armoured Division, was about to move up to El Adem from the Egyptian frontier. Further reinforcement for the reconstituted support group drove up the road from Egypt. A surviving unit from the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, the 18th Cavalry Regiment, was located at El Adem. Over the next day, the surviving units of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade that had broken out of Mechili arrived at El Adem. One squadron, commanded by Captain Barlow, arrived after driving from Mechili. This is based on the account in VOl.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Another look at Wavell's visit to Cyrenaica Command on 8 April 1941

Actually, during the evening of 7 April 1941, Wavell ordered the 22nd Guards brigade with artillery to head for the Egyptian frontier. Wavell asked for General Lavarack to join him earlier on 7 April. Wavell only then learned about the capture of Generals Neame and O'Connor, along with Brigadier Combe. Wavell met with Lavarack about noon on 7 April. Wavell asked him to take over Cyrenaica Command and asked if he would agree with diverting the 7th Australian Division to the desert from the planned move to Greece. Wavell at this point planned the flight to Tobruk. Wavell sent messages to London and Melbourne about the new plans for the 7th Australian Division and General Lavarack. Wavell's over-optimistic assessment of the German intentions were telling. He painted them as just a raid, he thought. As for Churchill, who was still the amateur soldier at heart, was suggesting ways to fight on in the desert. After all, the fortress at Tobruk had the Italian defenses and could be held.

By the time that Generals Wavell and Lavarack arrived at Tobruk, it was 10am on 8 April. The sandstorm that was affecting Mechili also was affecting Tobruk. Wavell met with the Cyrenaica Command staff, including Brigadier Harding. During this time, General Morshead arrived at Tobruk. This was when Wavell announced his estimate that they should be prepared to defend Tobruk for two months. Wavell asked General Lavarack to prepare a plan to withdraw from Tobruk, if he found it not possible to continue to hold the fortress. When Wavell was ready to leave Tobruk, is when he found the aircraft was having mechanical problems. He finally left only to have the plane crash in the desert. FOrtunately for all, a patrol found Wavell and took him to Sollum. They had a close brush with losing the Middle East theater commander as well as the other senior officers in Cyrenaica. Wavell was still hoping at this point that Rommel would not be the threat that he showed hiimself to be. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

High level moves with respect to Greece and Libya in early April 1941

With General Wavell's new orders for the 7th Australian Division, the Chief of the Australian General Staff had become involved. When he ordered the 18th Brigade to Tobruk, General Wavell had sent a message to General Sturdee, informing him. When General Blamey heard of the moves by General Wavell, he was upset, because he was involved in making the Greek Campaign work. The Greek Campaign needed the 7th Australian Division to give them enough strength to have a chance of success. Once the Australian government learned of Wavell's new plan, they contacted General Blamey for his opinion on the subject. The Australian government was opposed to the change in plans. General Wavell's plans were announced at the meeting in Cairo that included Anthony Eden. Anthony Eden was very nervous during the meeting and was drumming the table with his fingers. After all, Anthony Eden was the proponent of intervening in Greece and here Wavell was announcing a move that would undermine the Greek operation. He would send the bulk of the 7th Australian Division to Mersa Matruh, not Greece, as we mentioned, while the 18th Australian Brigade was sent to Tobruk. He also was going to move the 6th Division to the Western Desert. The division had been in the Nile Delta, training for a projected attack on the island of Rhodes. He also announced the appointment of General Lavarack as commander in Cyrenaica, replacing General Neame, who was now a German prisoner. General Blamey considered General Lavarack a professional rival, and when he had a chance, he would place obstacles in General Lavarack's path. General Wavell flew to Tobruk late on 8 October with General Lavarack. When Wavell tried to leave, he had aircraft problems. He was finally able to take off, but his aircraft went down in the desert with engine problems. The plane was wrecked and Wavell was out of contact. For some six hours, Wavell was down in the desert near Sollum. Fortunately, a patrol found them and took them to Sollum (the history calls it Solum). Wavell was eventually flown from Sollum in a Westland Lysander. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Increasing defenses in Cyrenaica in early April 1941

A few Italian field guns left at Tobruk were repaired and refurbished. The Australian infantry were trained in the use of the guns by the men of the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers, who manned the coast defense guns at Tobruk. The 2/28th Battalion received five Italian 75mm guns that were manned by a platoon. The Sherwood Rangers were a converted unit, but they eventually became an armored regiment, much later.

General Wavell was fully engaged in reinforcing Cyrenaica in the face of the German threat. By 7 April 1941, the 18th Australian Brigade arrived, mostly by sea, although some troops came by road. The brigade commander, Brigadier Wooten, was appointed to command the forces in Tobruk. One of his battalion commanders acted as the brigade commander. The plan was to occupy the defenses around the entire place. This was in progress on 8 April when Generals Wavell and Lavarack arrived at Tobruk by air. The reinforcements that General Wavell had allocated for Cyrenaica were on the way. They included the 1st RTR, an improvised unit with 11 cruiser tanks and 15 light tanks. There was the 107th RHA, the 14th Light AA Regiment, and the 11th Hussars from the 7th Armoured Division. The rest of the 3rd RHA, which already had one battery in Cyrenaica, was also allocated. A larger development was that the 7th Australian Division would not go to Greece, but would go the the desert, instead. General Wavell almost typically ordered the change for the 7th Australian Division without consulting General Blamey, the senior Australian officer.

By 6 April 1941, the situation in the Mediterranean theater had become worse. The Germans were attacking in Greece, Mechili was surrounded and the 9th Australian Division was withdrawing. At a major meeting that included Wavell and Anthony Eden, Wavell announced that they must defend Tobruk. They would send the 7th Australian Division to Mersa Matruh (although the 18th Brigade went to Tobruk). This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Tobruk from the capture in late January 1941 to early April

As we mentioned, Major-General Morshead (then a brigadier) was at Tobruk when the 6th Australian Division attacked and captured the place from the Italians in late January 1941. After the capture, Morshead was able to inspect the fortress area. When he knew that the 9th Australian Division would have to withdraw into Tobruk after the fall of Mechili and the German pressure, General Morshead was well-prepared with knowledge of the Tobruk area.

After the fall, Lt-Col. Cook was put in charge of the building the base there. Fairly quickly, after the initial area commander was withdrawn to Palestine, Cook became the area commander, as well. Early on, Cook had a newsletter published every day to hand out to the fortress occupants. Colonel Cook had become concerned about the local rumor mill and decided that the thing to do was to publish a newsletter. The newsletter was the work of Sergeant Williams and was called the Tobruk Truth.

From mid-March 1941, Australian brigades arrived at Tobruk. The first was the 26th Btigade and was followed by the 24th Brigade, which only had two battalions. By March 25th, the 26th Brigade left Tobruk to join the 9th Australian Division and the 24th Brigade took over the defense. One feature of the defense was the so-called "bush artillery", captured Italian guns manned by infantrymen who were not trained as artillerymen. They found that most Italian artillery at Tobruk were either damaged or had been exposed to weather so long that they were unusable. The Australians cheated and disobeyed General Neame's orders by bringing large numbers of Italian 47mm anti-tank guns from Bardia. The history says "40mm", but the Italian guns were all 47mm. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

The situation in Cyrenaica by 8 April 1941

The Australian Official History points out that in the course of 9 days from when the Germans attacked at Mersa Brega (they say Marsa Brega) they had beaten the British force that had been lightly holding the territory west of Tobruk. We have fairly recently read the Australian volume about the Greek campaign and the battle for Crete. We saw that General Wavell had lied to the Australian senior officers and to the Australian Prime Minister to get their agreement to send their troops to Greece. Wavell had stripped the force in North Africa to satisfy the demands of Churchill and his foreign secretary. My assessment was that Wavell was desperate to hold onto his command in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and he would do anything that Churchill asked, whether it made sense or not. The establishment view was that the Germans would not dare risk too large a force in Libya under the current conditions, so that the British could afford to send a substantial force with equipment to Greece. The primary accomplishment of the Greek campaign was to make friends with the people of Greece, as equipment and soldiers were lost in the process. The Australians marching south to embarkation ports were cheered by the Greek people, but the losses occurred nonetheless.

Rommel was not a cautious man. He lived infiltration tactics and practiced them when the opportunity presented itself. He was ready to take advantage of an opportunity that was presented, as it was what he would instinctively want to do. One criticism of Rommel was that by attacking when his orders were to stand pat, he caused the 7th Australian Division and the Polish Carpathian Brigade not to be sent to Greece.

The Official History remarks on the officers who watched the 6th Australian Division take Tobruk. One was Brigadier Morshead, later the commander of the 9th Australian Division. Another was Lt-Col. Cook, who was later put in charge of the base camp at Tobruk. The third was a naval officer, Lt-Cdr. Duff, who was appointed as naval officer in charge at Derna, and then was in charge of the vessels that carried supplies to Tobruk during the seige. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The aftermath of the breakout at Mechili and the surrender

At the time of the breakout at Mechili and Major-General Gambier-Parry's surrender, there was a sand storm. The sand storm kept many people from initially knowing about the surrender. Word was passed between soldiers and many gradually learned about the surrender. By 8am, the fighting at Mechili had ended. Some 3,000 men were taken prisoner. Of these, there were 102 Australian soldiers captured. Even worse, a large number of vehicles were surrendered along with thirty days of supplies for the armored division. No one had taken the time to destroy the supply dump. There was really no excuse for surrendering at Mechili. The fact was that General Gambier-Parry had lost his nerve and used the excuse of the soft vehicles to give up the fight. The men of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade and their associates, such as M-Battery of the 3rd RHA proved Rommel's dictum about breakouts by motorized troops to be true. The second breakout by Brigadier Vaughan's headquarters, and Eden and Rajendrasinjhi's squadrons, and Barlow's unit are examples of what could be done by well-disciplined troops that have bold leadership.

At the time that the breakout and surrender were happening at Mechili, the men at Acroma were in a sand storm. They half-expected to see Germans approaching, given what they knew. As the sky got light, some of the troops that were not in their forward positions now occupied them. Other men in positions worked at improving their situation. They had artillery backing. The 1st RHA had their guns pointing to the south, while the 51st Field Regiment had their guns pointing to the west. When General Morshead, the 9th Australian Division commander, visited Cyrenaica Command headquarters, he found that General Wavell had flown in with Major-General Lavarack, who was the newly-appointed commander of Cyrenaica Command. General Wavell told them that his plan was to hold Tobruk for two months. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

More about the breakout from Mechili on 8 April 1941

After the initial successful breakout from Mechili by many from the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, the group that was left out when Brigadier Vaughan went back into Mechili eventually proceeded to El Adem. On going back in, they found the headquarters of the 2nd Royal Lancers. When the others that were to breakout from Mechili hesitated, Major-General Gambier-Parry ordered the 2nd Royal Lancers to cover the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters. Brigadier Vaughan had gotten back into Mechili and found General Gambier-Parry. He suggested that they breakout to the east according to the original plan. They turned around and started driving. They ran into heavy machine-gun fire almost immediately. General Gambier-Parry's reaction to this was to surrender. The battery of the 3rd RHA did not want to surrender and tried to proceed. The Indian cavalry were driving behind the artillerymen. The Indian cavalry commanders decided to change direction and break out to the west. They would spread out and charge the Germans on a wide front. Very few of the charging vehicles were hit and they drove through the German artillerymen. There was a wadi that lead to the west, but the smart ones stayed to the right and kept out of it. The wadi proved to be a trap from which almost no one escaped. Those that broke out this time drove out some 20 miles to the west. By early afternoon, they turned north. The group now had the 3rd RHA battery, some 90 engineers from the 4th Field Squadron, and Major Rajendrasinhji and his squadron, consisting now of about 60 men. By early on 9 April, they saw an enemy group driving along. They captured some 30 German and Italian soldiers in a supply column. They took them prisoners, but had to abandon some when their vehicles broke down. They eventually captured an German scout car. Finally, they saw armored cars and started to engage them and then stopped, as they were from the 11th Hussars. They followed them back to El Adem. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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