Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The failed attack: Rommel's miscalculation

Rommel was in denial about the reasons for the failed attack on Tobruk on 13 and 14 April 1941. Rommel blamed the commanders of the 5th Light Division for the failure. He said that they had failed to concentrate their force at the break through point. He said that they should have concentrated, broken through, attacked along the flanks, and then penetrated in depth. He said that if they had, then the artillery and Ariete Division could have followed. Rommel thought that if they had done that, they could have taken Tobruk on 14 or 15 April. The tactics that Rommel had written about after the fact were what he used to successfully take Tobruk in 1942.

The Australian historian disagreed with Rommel and placed the blame on Rommel and his belief that simply by acting boldly, they could overpower a defense that had low morale. The commander of the 5th Light Division did not believe that Rommel's plan would be successful. In the end, the plan failed due to the good morale and hard-fighting of the Australian infantry, the ability of the artillery to stand up to tanks and defeat them, and the anti-tank guns being available to fight the tanks. There is a photograph of Australian infantry posing with a knocked-out German Pzkw-III tank armed with a 50mm L42 gun. The picture included the commander of the 2/17th Battalion.

The fight against the Germans on 13 and 14 April was the last for General Lavarack, because Cyrenaica Command was dissolved and absorbed into the Western Desert Force. General Lavarack was to resume his duties as commander of the 7th Australian Division. In order to see action in the war, General Lavarack had taken a reduction in rank from Lieutenant-General to Major General, and had ended up commanding the newest Australian Division, which had to give up the 18th Brigade. The other reason that Lavarack was not made the commander of the Western Desert Force was because he was an Australian, and the command belonged to the British, instead. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The German attack on Tobruk winds down on 14 April 1941

The retreat from Tobruk mixed infantry and tanks. While the tanks had towed in 88mm anti-aircraft guns and anti-tank guns, they were abandoned with the crews killed. There had also been Italian artillery that was also abandoned. The Australians fired on the infantry and tanks. The fire was heavy and caused some of the German infantry to hide in the anti-tank ditch. The infantry was eventually captured. Three German tanks stopped and hitched up 88mm guns, but the heavy artillery fire eventually caused them to leave them behind. The surviving German tanks were retreating by 7:30am. Some forty German dive bombers to bomb the harbor and town. Some attacked anti-aircraft guns. British fighters shot down two dive bombers while the anti-aircraft guns got four planes.

At the house near the attack path, there were about one hundred Germans hiding on a reverse slope. The house had been captured, but the men were a continuing problem. An Australian platoon attacked and succeeded in capturing 75 men, while there were casualties and some got away. The main battle ended by around 8:30am, but there were still pockets of resistance. Thirty Australian infantry attacked one group of Germans in a tank trap. They finally had two carriers and some mortars to aid them. They captured 87 men, some badly wounded, and captured many weapons.

Rommel's first attack on Tobruk failed completely. The Germans planned to attack at 6pm on 14 April, but decided to cancel. There had been an attempt to penetrate the perimeter again, but British artillery fire stopped the attack. In the attack that had been defeated, the Germans lost 150 killed and 250 men taken prisoner. Of the 38 tanks actually engaged in the attack, 17 were knocked out. The Tobruk defenders lost 26 killed and had 64 wounded.

Rommel had observed the attack from close to the perimeter, but he was forced to withdraw by British artillery fire. Rommel then drove over to the Italian Ariete Armored Division. By the time Rommel was back at his headquarters, he learned that the German tank force had returned from the attack. The division commander and tank regiment commander were yelled at by Rommel. He blamed them for not supporting the infantry and leaving them to be taken. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

German tanks inside Tobruk on 14 April 1941

Once the German tanks were inside the Tobruk perimeter, they moved eastwards towards the El Adem Road. From there, they turned north along the road and than stopped to wait for daylight. The German tanks fired tracers so that allowed the defenders to know their location. With that information, the 1st RHA fired on them. Where they had passed through the perimeter was kept under heavy fire to stop any non-tanks from getting through. When the Germans started firing near the headquarters post, Australians started sniping and killed the crews. As the day got lighter, the German machine guns were eventually silenced.

When General Lavarack heard about the penetration, he went to General Morshead's headquarters so that he could be involved in decision-making. The British had cruiser and infantry tanks available in Tobruk. The cruiser tanks covered Pilastrano while the infantry tanks were near the junction of the Bardia Road and El Adem Road. The 3rd RHA with 2pdr anti-tank guns on portees engaed the German tanks. They got several tanks but also lost two portees with their guns. British 25pdr guns firing over open sights were deadly. They lacked anti-tank rounds, but their high explosive rounds knocked out five tanks as well as the Pzkw.IV, probably the battalion commander's tank. When some tanks tried to go around the flank, the Australian 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment engaged them. The II/5th Armored Battalion turned around and ran into the following I/5th Armored Battalion. When the German tanks ran to the east, they were engaged by the Australians of 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment. Australians attacked the Germans in the house they had taken. They were taken out, with 18 captured and 18 killed. They thought that a few men had escaped during the attack. At one point, the fighting was so intense that the German tanks turned around and made for the gap through which they had entered. British anti-tank gunners engaged the tanks. They were also engaged by the Australians of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment.

When the German tanks got back to the gap in the perimeter, they caught some Australians engaged in cleanup operations and captured some. In response, Australians fired Bren guns at the tanks and German infantry, allowing the Australians to escape. Some German tanks started to two the 88mm guns, but were fired on, so left them behind. A group of Germans were holding out near the house, but Australians attacked and ended up taking aboug 75 men prisoner. The battle had been won by 8:30am, but fighting continued to mop up remaining German resistance. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Germans attacked Tobruk on 13 April 1941

The German attack on Tobruk on 13 April 1941 was based on a sketchy map. They had decided to attack Post R.33, where the anti-tank ditch was very shallow due to rock. The ditch there was only about two feet-six inches. The post was about 2-1/2 miles west of the El Adem Road. German engineers were to make the attack. The attack was made at 11pm by about thirty infantry. They had "two small field guns, a mortar and eight machine guns". They first had to break the wire. They moved in and dug themselves in about 100 yards east of Post R.33. The post commander, a lieutenant, first returned the German fire. When that did not stop the Germans, he led an attack with bayonets. The Australians shouted and then attacked. The men in Post R.33 also shouted. The Australians threw grenades along with shouting and were into the Germans, who fled by then. The next wave of Germans also fled. The one wounded Australian, Jack Edmondson, fought despite his wounds. They carried him back to Post R.33, where he died the next morning.

Right after midnight, a German tank came forward to inspect. By 2:30am on 14 April, about 200 German infantry attacked near Post R.33 and broke through. British artillery fire was called in on the German attackers. The original Australian attack on the Germans had caused a change of plan. Australian infantry was called upon to attack the Germans. When the German tank attack happened, 200 rather than 300 men from the 8th Machine Gun Battalion went forward. At about 4am on 14 April, they saw German tanks near the El Adem Road. They drew artillery fire that seemed to be without effect. There were about forty tanks moving along the wire. The officer who was supposed to guide them to their destination got lost. They had gone in too far east and had to drive along the wire to the west. German guns opened up on the Australian defenses. These included 88mm anti-aircraft guns firing. Around 5:20am, German tanks towing anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns drove into the fortress. A troop of the 1st RHA fired on them. The tanks were organized in waves with the first fifteen towing the guns. British artillery fire was called in on one battalion headquarters with good effect. The tanks carried German machine gunners who were killed or wounded by the artillery fire. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The German attack on Tobruk on 13 April 1941

The 8th Machine Gun Battalion was asked to attack and breach the anti-tank ditch protecting Tobruk. The attack was planned to start at 5pm on 13 April 1941. The Australians expected the attack to hit on the sector between posts R.30 to R.35. The attack commenced with artillery fire on the defending company. After that, the Germans opened up with small arms fire. An attack with infantry supported by tanks followed. Anti-tank gun fire from two regiments stopped the tank attack. Once it was dark, two German tanks drove along the anti-tank ditch, looking for a breach. There was indications that a larger attack might happen still, as there were some 300 vehicles grouped along the El Adem Road.

About this time, General Wavell sent General Morshead a message praising the defense of Tobruk and expressing confidence in their ability to hold out as long as necessary. Morshead passed the message on to the troops who were tasked to defend Tobruk and it was well-received. While all this was happening some Australian officers from Morshead's staff had arrived from Derna, having walked about 100 miles to the Tobruk perimeter. They had a good guide and one officer was good at finding water. There had been planning afoot to attempt a rescue of them from Derna, but they were able to make their way on their own.

During the night of 13-14 April, Australian units sent out patrols. They were looking, in part, for enemy positions. One patrol from the 2/43rd Battalion was surprised by Germans and took casualties. They had been careful to move silently and had worn soft hats. Near post R.33, a patrol brought back prisoners from the 8th Machine Gun Battalion. An Australian attack was planned for dawn on 14 April. The defense was aggressive enough that the Germans were lacking information about the defense and they had attacked at a less favorable position than if they were better informed. For example, the anti-tank ditch did not cover the entire perimeter. No ditch existed from posts R.11 to R.21. Rommel was focused on the El Adem Road, so he was a good distance from the vulnerable spot. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Events on 12 and 13 April 1941 near Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier

Rommel had finally received two copies of maps from the Italians on 12 April 1941. He kept one set for himself and gave one to General Streich, the commander of the 5th Light Division. Rommel planned to attack Tobruk on 13 April 1941, using the 5th Light Division as the main attack force. The enemy forces were lining up with the Australian brigades that were defending Tobruk. The 24th Brigade had the Schwerin Group opposite them. The 5th Light Division would attack the 20th Brigade. The Italians sat on their left. The Ariete Armored Division was on their immediate left. One regiment of the Trento Mechanized Division was to their left. There was also the Brescia Division still blocking the Derna road.

At the same time, primarily German forces were pressing to the east from Tobruk. One thing that happened was that the Germans took Fort Capuzzo. By 4pm they took the barracks at Salum. There was some fighting between British and German troops and some Germans were taken prisoner. General Evetts, the commander of the 6th Division (eventually renamed the 70th Division) sent the 3rd/Coldstream Guards up to reinforce the Support Group at the Egyptian Frontier. we learned that the 11th Hussars, at this point in time, were equipped with Marmon-Herrington Mk.II armored cars. They were the vehicles built in South Africa. They were lightly armored and had machine guna and an anti-tank rifle. The Australian historian noted that what they needed on the frontier were British cruiser tanks.

13 April 1941 was Easter Sunday. The enemy forces at Tobruk were preparing for an attack. During the afternoon, General Lavarack was informed they would receive eight infantry tanks and four medium guns. The medium guns were 60 pounders. The appearance was that the 2/17th Battalion was to receive special German attention. The German plan was that Ponath's 8th Machine Gun Battalion would attack at 5pm. At that time, the Germans directed heavy artillery fire against the battalion. German machine guns commenced firing on the battalion. After that, tanks moved towards the perimeter, but were stopped by anti-tank gun fire. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

12 April 1941, expecting an attack on Tobruk

Enemy actions near Tobruk on 11 April 1941 seemed to indicate that they planned an attack the next morning. General Lavarack took the threat seriously and had the 18th Brigade moved to be closer to the area between the 20th and 24th Brigades. The 18th Brigade was loaded on on vehicles to move them to the intersection of the El Adem and Bardia roads. They were ready by the time the sky started to lighten. After seeing enemy tanks showing themselves, the Tobruk defenders realized that they needed to have their anti-tank guns forward. Keeping with the British practice of breaking up units for independent use, they sent a troop from the 3rd. RHA to support the area expected to be attacked, but they arrived too late.

When the day started on 12 April, the wind was blowing sand. One company of the 2/17th Battalion could see enemy troops about a quarter mile away. They were in good defensive positions. The company was reinforced by seven anti-tank guns from the 3rd RHA. Holes had been made in the wire, so men went out to repair them, while lying on their backs. A soldier with w Bren gun fired back at the enemy and covered the repairs. The Bren gunner was able to silence the enemy machine guns. As the threat subsided, the 18th Brigade was pulled back. General Lavarack had decided that it took too long to move the 18th Brigade, so he wanted the three battalions deployed at strategic sites.

One good thing was that the RAF was able to constantly hit the enemy troops despite their shortage of aircraft and the necessity to pull back from forward air fields. The men at Tobruk could not see the bombing raids, but the enemy were very aware of them. The German diary said that the British controlled the air over the area. The airfield at Tobruk hosted twelve Hurricane fighters. As of 12 April, the German air attacks on Tobruk grew in intensity.

There was a significant number of ships in the Tobruk harbor. They enemy assumed that they were preparing to evacuate the troops in Tobruk. During 12 April, enemy aircraft attacked the ships, but was not able to damage any, as they were being protected by heavy anti-aircraft fire. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Events on 11 April 1941 at Salum, Halfaya Pass, and Tobruk

From early on 11 April 1941, Australian anti-tank guns were involved with backing British troops at Salum and Halfaya Pass. The Free French Motor Battalion had one company at Halfaya Pass, and they had a troop backing them. There were German and Italian forces headed east, towards the frontier, but were only south of Tobruk. A group from the 1/Durham Light Infantry had headed for Halfaya Pass, accompanied by an Australian anti-tank gun troop. The 1st/DLI group arrived at Halfaya Pass later in the morning. By 5pm, gun were pulled back and were repositioned along the coast road. By 10pm, British columns arrived from the desert at the "top of the pass". For the next several nights, Australian anti-tank guns were on patrol with British troops to the west.

At Toburk, General Morshead had issued his operational order that included brigades holding one battalion in reserved. They also were to start aggressive patrolling. At night, the Australians dominated the area between the fortress and the enemy troops. The Australian engineers were involved with laying mines and building anti-tank defenses.

Wavell's chief of staff was concerned about blockage of the Bardia road. He also was thinking about pulling tanks out of Tobruk for use on the Egyptian frontier. General Lavarack had replied back on the 12th that he would be looking for an opportunity for breaking the enemy hold on the Bardia road. He also argued that they needed the tanks in Tobruk, and could use more, due to the size of the perimeter. They had already lost two tanks on 10 April. Wavell had discussed the situation with General Blamey in Greece. He was open to adding one brigade at Tobruk, if it could be done. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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