Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Problems with ad hoc formations on 10 and 11 Aprl 1941

The Australian anti-tank regiment, the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, was another victim of the British tendency to break up units and distribute their component parts. Two of the batteries had been at Mechili. They were mostly in Tobruk by 10 April 1941. Several sections had been lost in the collapse at Mechili, however. The 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment was experiencing the same sort of fragmentation. One troop headed to Sollum from Mersa Matruh. They were the anti-tank force with a column of troops from the 1/Durham Light Infantry. Major Argent's battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment reached Sollum and was told to report to the commander of the 22nd Guards Brigade. The plan in place at the time was to hold Sollum and Halfaya Pass for the next 36 hours and hold it "at all costs". The Australian historian notes that Major Argent's battery was still at the Egyptian frontier four months later.

One column from the Support Group encountered some enemy troops. Another enemy column (often mixed German-Italian troops) blocked the Bardia road east of Tobruk. The alternate spelling for Sollum is Salum, which is how the Australian historian refers to the place. Infantry and Australian anti-tank guns set up a defensive position at Halfaya, at the top of the pass.

On 11 April 1941, Rommel was directing operations at Tobruk. Colonel Schwerin took over command of General Prittwitz's group when he was killed. Elements of the 15th Panzer Division had started to arrive, so Rommel immediately directed some of them to move towards Salum. He had already sent the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit towards Salum. The 5th Panzer Regiment had been led to expect that when they attacked, the British would withdraw, which was just wishful thinking.

At Tobruk, General Morshead wanted each brigade to hold one battalion in reserve. The problem was that this was a great hardship due to the amount of perimeter each brigade held and the scarcity of forces. Tank and armored car units had to convert to infantry to aid in the defense. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Germans on the attack on 11 April 1941 at Tobruk

In the afternoon of 11 April 1941, the Australian 2/13th Battalion was attacked by infantry. They waited until the enemy got closer before they opened fire. They were supported by British machine-gunners. In response, the enemy "went to ground". When six trucks drove towards the Tobruk defenses, they were driven off by artillery fire from the 1st RHA and 104st RHA. Seven tanks started to move forward at Post R31 and were fired on by B/O Battery. NExt, enemy infantry was seen advancing on 2/13th Battalion. Fire from the 1st RHA stopped the advance. Tanks now moved forward. The tanks included Pzkw IV's, Italian M13/40's, and Italian light tanks. They did not break through, but moved off towards the 2/13th Battalion. Lt-Col. Crawford reported an attack that seemed to come through the defenses. The 1st RTR tanks were sent in response. The penetration report seemed to be false, so the tanks were sent towards where the enemy tanks had been last seen.

The Germsns found that the Australians were not so easily panicked as many soldiers had been in 1940. The German tanks had come up close to the Australians without serious harm, so the German infantry moved forward as well. Once the Germans had closed to some 500 yards, the defenders started firing. The only problem was that there were not many automatic weapons available or even men with guns who could see the enemy troops from posts. The 1st RTR tanks moved forward towards the El Adem road block. They ran into a group of ten enemy tanks and had a fight. The British lost two cruiser tanks, but knocked out a German tank, perhaps a Pzkw III, an M13/40, and three Italian light tanks. At this point, the enemy tanks pulled back. The Australians finally were able to bring mortars to bear. Patrols from the 2/17th Battalion found that the enemy infantry had withdrawn. During the night, several enemy tanks were near the 2/13th Battalion, looking for a way to cross into the fortress. Another group had approached with demolitions to try and get through the "anti-tank ditch and wire". The defenders could tell that the enemy forces were intent on surrounding Tobruk and breaking through.

At the frontier, the defenders were not prepared for a hard defense against advancing forces. They might well have tried to defend Halfaya Pass, to become famous during the Battleaxe offensive. Halfaya was only held by a Free French motor infantry company that was weak in strength. Gradually, more units arrived in the Sollum-Halfaya area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, November 25, 2016

German activity near Tobruk on 11 April 1941

The night before the 11th, the 18th Cavalry had sent out a patrol of four small trucks to the west, looking down in the Derna road. They saw no sign of the Germans. That same time, a Support group column had an encounter with a German column about 12 miles west of Tobruk. What seems to be happening was that German columns headed into the desert from the coast road west of Tobruk. In "mid-morning" on 11 April 1941, on the right from the 20th Brigade, they saw a group of about fifty vehicles. Tobruk artillery fired on them and they scattered. The Australians sent out a platoon to look for the Germans. A report from the Support Group mentioned some forty tanks heading for El Adem from the south. The tanks came from an area where about 300 vehicles had been seen. The group of tanks split in two with one part heading east along the Trigh Capuzzo. The German intent seemed to be to completely surround Tobruk.

A little after noon, about ten tanks drove towards a post held by the 24th Brigade. They were engaged by guns from the 24th Anti-Tank Company. They succeeded in knocking out five tanks and drove off the rest. Near 1pm, 20 to 30 trucks drove up to Post R63 in the perimeter. They were engaged by the 104th RHA. The trucks were forced to withdraw. Other trucks drove towards the Bardia road. German infantry left their vehicles and attacked post R63. The Australians took casualties and the Germans sat astride the Bardia Road. Another fight took place between the 2/28th Battalion and the 2/43rd Battalion.

As he had been instructed, Brigadier Gott ordered the mobile portion of the Support Group to withdraw to the Egyptian frontier. He sent a message to General Lavarack, informing him of the move. The message used a code word that they had set for this occasion. The Support Group supply vehicles were trapped in Tobruk by the German moves. By 1pm, at about two miles east of Tobruk, the Germans brought infantry. They moved up to within a half-mile from Tobruk and started digging positions. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wavell's hand in the works at Tobruk on 10 to 11 April 1941

While General Lavarack had been commander of Cyrenaica Command, he found out through a visiting staff officer on 11 April 1941 from General Headquarters that Wavell had other plans in the works. Wavell intended to include what had been Cyrenaica Command into a new Western Desert Command. He affirmed the plan to defend Tobruk for two months. After that, he intended to go on the offensive against the Germans and Italians. General Lavarack replied with a request to get the rest of the 7th Australian Division in Tobruk to aid the defense.

Late on 10 April, General Lavarack put the 1st RTR under the control of General Morshead, but that did not amount to much since he would not be allowed to use the 1st RTR without General Lavarack's approval. 11 April 1941 was good Friday. The sandstorm that had been blowing on 10 April, earlier in the day had gradually stopped. 11 April proved to be better weather, as it was clear. Only a week had passed since the 9th Australian Division had been in contact with the Germans near Benghazi. The Australians defending the perimeter at Tobruk now had a good view of the situation. There would be the defenders on a perimeter in Tobruk, with a band of unoccupied land, with a surrounding German-Italian static line, rather World War One-like.

The Tobruk perimeter was at an elevation of 400 to 500 feet. The land was very arid. Every day, as the sun warmed the land and air, you would get a mirage effect. The only deviation was if there were clouds or dust storm. The mirages affected artillery, since guns could only be ranged by sight early or late in the day. Both sides were effected by the mirages and both Axis and British artillery would fire early and late in the day.

A system of perimeter posts were constructed. The outer line of posts were about 750 yards apart. There was a backing line that were about 500 yards apart. There was also an anti-tank ditch, but it was only partial. The uncompleted parts had concertina wire that did not seem to be very effective. This is baed on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Attacks on Tobruk start and the Support Group is reorganized on 10 April 1941

A German-Italian attack near the Derna road became more intense on 10 April 1941. They did not try to cross the wadi, but set up on the far side. There were both Germans and elements of the Italian Brescia Division. The Italians had "machine-guns, mortars and light artillery". By early afternoon, the firing increased. The firing was heavy enough to keep the 2/24th Battalion from occupying their section of the perimeter. British field guns had received enough fire that they lost artillerymen killed and wounded and had to withdraw. On the Axis side, Major-General Prittwitz was killed. Working for Rommel was a dangerous occupation for German generals.

The Support Group sent a message about seeing forty tanks moving north-east towards Tobruk. About the same time, the German 3rd Reconnaissance Unit had an encounter with the Indian 18th Cavalry. They reached the perimeter near the 2/28th Battalion. Bush artillery with them fired and put rounds near the head of the column. The professionals of the 1st RHA opened fire and dispersed the Germans. German fire stopped a "British truck" trying to drive out by the El Adem road. Things quieted down until almost 1pm when artillerymen saw five German tanks.

During the early part of the afternoon, some Germans were driven off by small-arms fire from the 2/13th Battalion. In the west, though, Axis forces near the upper escarpment and dug in some machine guns that could fire on the perimeter. There were continued reports that the German strength in that area was increasing. Ten German tanks were also seen driving towards the south-east. Then British reconnaissance aircraft reported three columns of 200 vehicles each driving towards El Adem from Mechili. One of these columns had an encounter with Support Group troops at approximately 5pm. The RAF attacked a group there of about 150 vehicles. One battery of the 4th RHA opened fire and dispersed the group.

Meanwhile, Brigadier Gott reorganized the Support Group and put Lt-Col. Campbell, a famous figure in the desert fighting, in charge of an independent column operating between Tobruk and the frontier. These sorts of columns would become increasingly prevalent during campaign. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

10 April 1941 at Tobruk

General Lavarack had decided that what they would have to do is to "hold Tobruk against an encircling force". There was no possibility of stopping Rommel from advancing past Tobruk. The 9th Australian Division was now in Tobruk, as of 10 April 1941. Tobruk sent out patrols from the 1/King's Dragoon Guards and the 18th Lancers (Indian cavalry). One such patrol from the 18th Lancers drove out to the escarpment where they could see the Derna road.

Quite soon in the morning, a sand storm blew up and reduced visibility. The 10th was the worst day that the Australians had seen so far in the desert. The trenches quickly filled with sand, so the men stayed busy shoveling sand, only to see them refill again.

The perimeter being defended at Tobruk was some 28 miles long. The distance across was about 17 miles. The average radius of the circle was about 9 miles. The harbor at Tobruk was said to be the best in the part of North Africa that had been controlled by Italy. On 10 April, the harbor was partially blocked by some ships that had sank.

The perimeter was held by three Australian brigades, but only two battalions per brigade were in the line. Each brigade was backed by a field artillery regiment. The ultimate plan was to have central control of all the artillery in Tobruk, but until that was implemented, the regiments were brigade control.

Early in the morning, a German force could be seen driving towards Tobruk. They had seven light tanks, two companies from the machine gun battalion, and some field guns. They were apparently driving along the Derna road. They were immediately engaged by "bush artillery" and guns from the 51st Field Regiment. The Germans turned around, and then deployed their troops. Two platoons of British machine guns were called forward to engage the German troops. A few Germans turned to the south and then turned towards Tobruk, where they were engaged by another bush gun. Some German armored cars tried to find a way into Tobruk, but they were also engaged by bush guns. One of the guns was almost dangerous, but the other was more effective and was coached by a visiting senior British artillery officer. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

10 April 1941, Rommel wants to attack Tobruk

Rommel was driving to Tobruk early on 10 April 1941. He had left Mechili to move to what he thought was the next location to try and panic ther British. He found General Prittwitz and his group still on the road. After his experience so far in Cyrenaica, he thought that if they just pressed the British hard they would collapse. Rommel wanted the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit to outflank El Adem and for the 8th Machine Gun Battalion to stage a frontal attack with the Brescia Division. The potential frontal attackers had no artillery, as it had not arrived yet. The Australian historian points out that the Germans were to attack Tobruk without taking any time for reconnaissance and understanding the defenses. The Germans were not even able to immediately get a Tobruk map from the Italians. The initial contacts included taking fire from the British armored cars, finding "anti-tank obstacles" that were defended. Tobruk was not like the other encounters that the Germans had with the British forces. Tobruk was ready and well-defended.

General Lavarack sent a message to General Wavell telling him of his arrangements, and asked for the rest of the 7th Australian Division to be sent to Tobruk. Wavell was preparing for a trip to Greece where he would meet with General Blamey and explain to him why the 7th Australian Division was not sent to Greece. Before he left for Greece to meet with General Wilson and General Blamey, he sent a message to the Chiefs of Staff in London. He stated his resolve to hold Tobruk. Churchill had written a message exhorting him to hold Tobruk, so the message was not actually sent.

Early on 10 April, General Lavarack met with Brigadier Gott to talk about plans for using the Support Group. The Support Group, early on 10 April, was sitting at El Adem. El Adem was about to be hit by the approaching Axis forces, so this was a good topic for discussion. General Lavarack decided that rather than withdrawing to Tobruk, the Support Group, if threatened, should withdraw to the Egyptian Frontier. This would give the appearance of them scattering when attacked by Rommel's forces, but what could they do? This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

From 9 and 10 April 1941 at Tobruk

General Wavell suggested that the commanders at Tobruk reconnoiter the fortress to gain a better knowledge of the situation. The group consisted of General Lavarack, General Morshead, Brigadier Harding, and Brigadier Wooten. General Wavell had been under the mistaken impression that there was an inner line that could be defended. What the officers found was that the outer perimeter was the only defensive line that existed at Tobruk. There was no inner line. The conclusion drawn by General Lavarack was that they would have to hold the outer perimeter. They would decide where to locate the brigades. Later in the day, a large group of vehicles approached the Tobruk area. They were probing Acroma to see what was being held. Eventually, armored cars probed the area. Finally, artillery commenced firing and received replies from the Tobruk guns. During the 9th, more equipment arrived at Tobruk. They got the 51st Field Regiment, and four infantry tanks from the 4th RTR. During the night, the units near Acroma moved into Tobruk.

We find that this early in the campaign, Rommel was already setting up ad hoc battle groups taken from the German and Italian divisions. They had the 5th Light Division, the Italian Ariete armored division, and the Brescia Division. The Trento Division had started to arrive at Agedabia on this day. Already, elements of the 15th Panzer Division were to be sent to Africa earlier than had been planned. They had not been to arrive until May, but all that changed. During 9 April 1941, Rommel ordered his forces to approach Tobruk and to besiege the place. What Rommel wanted to do was to attack prior to the British having time to prepare their defenses. We find that on 9 April, General Wavell was planning a visit to Greece. He heard of General Lavarack's decisions about Tobruk, but did not immediately reply. General Wavell knew that General Blamey, the Australian general in Greece disapproved violently with the decision to hold the 7th Australian Division in North Africa, rather than sending it to Greece. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Reinforcements and improving defenses on 8 April 1941

As well as defending Tobruk, more units were heading for the Egyptian-Libyan frontier on 8 April 1941. The 22nd Guards Brigade, a fixture in the desert, had two battalions at Mersa Matruh on 8 April 1941. The other battalion was moving forward to Sollum with light tanks from the 7th Hussars. Another one of the 6th Infantry Division's brigades was moving towards Mersa Matruh. The 6th Division was eventually renamed the 70th Division. The 4th Indian Division was being shipped to Egypt to augment the defenses. At some point, their commander was Frank Messervy, who fought in the desert against Rommel during the campaign.

Early on 8 April, the 9th Australian Division still had a large presence outside of Tobruk. There were troops near Acroma, watching the coast road, expecting to see Germans approaching. During the morning, they learned of the surrender at Mechili. The 9th Australian Division spent much of 8 April getting organized so that battalions were with the correct brigades. During the last several days, they had become jumbled. That put the 26th Brigade on the right, holding from the coast road to the Mediterranean coast. The 20th Brigade was in the south, watching the "open desert flank". On the eighth, the troops had a hot meal served for supper. The Germans did not challenge the British and Australians near Tobruk on 8 April. That is not to say that they were totally absent. There were German armored cars conducting reconnaissance.

When General Morshead heard that generals O'Connor and Neame were being held near Derna, he put together a group to attempt a rescue. The commander of the King's Dragoon Guards were concerned about Morshead's plan to use armored cars on the road at night, as he was concerned about the risks to them under those circumstances. He had nothing to worry about, it turns out, because the group was delayed at Gazala due to road demolition, so they could not get near Derna in the dark and had to turn back. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The forces available to defend Tobruk from 8 April 1941

The forces available to General Lavarack to defend Tobruk were scattered and distributed as of 8 April 1941. General Lavarack at once decided how to organize the units that he had available. One group would be used to defend Tobruk. He put General Morshead in command and designated him as the Tobruk commander. He had assigned his own 9th Australian Division and its supporting troops. The division at this time had eight battalions. They had four British artillery regiments and a machine gun battalion, along with engineers. They were also assigned the 1st King's Dragoon Guards, the armored car unit. The second group would be under Brigadier Gott's command and would be mobile. He had most of the 11th Hussars and part of the 4th RHA. They would stay outside of Tobruk. The third group would be reserves, with the 18th Australian Brigade as its main unit. They would have some anti-tank guns and all the tanks that were present. This plan meant that the 18th Brigade would have to withdraw from its Tobruk defensive position. As of 8 April 1941, Lt-Col. Drew was appointed to command a new 3rd Armoured Brigade. From available tanks, they were equipped with 4 cruiser tanks and 18 light tanks. There were other mobile units, such as the French motor battalion, the 1st KRRC, and the remnants of the Tower Hamlets Rifles. The Indian 18th Cavalry were to enter Tobruk to support the 9th Australian Division. Brigadier Gott's men were to operate south of the coast road and would harass the advancing German and Italian troops. Since the 9th Australian Division had gone to Cyrenaica without artillery, they needed help forming a division artillery command. That task fell to Brigadier Thompson, recently arrived from Palestine. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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