Monday, January 30, 2017

British forces at the frontier on 18 to 20 April 1941

What had been the 2nd Armoured Division Support Group was now organized into four columns. The columns, as of 18 to 20 April 1941, each had a battery of field guns, some motor infantry, and anti-tank guns. They may have had one or two of the two-pounder anti-tank guns. The group would eventually become the 7th Support Group, for the 7th Armoured Division. The British were short of tanks at this point of time.

The defenses at Mersa Matruh depended on Australian anti-tank guns. The commander of the 2/2 Anti-Tank Regiment, Lt-Col. Monaghan, was responsible for the anti-tank defense at Mersa Matruh. The forward defensive front had two battalions. They were deployed near Halfaya Pass and both had Australian anti-tank gun support.

Rommel went forward to see the Halfaya Pass area for himself and saw the light forces holding the area. His immediate reaction was to get ready to attack the defenders. Rommel ordered a battery of medium guns to the area and ordered the Italian Trento Division to move to Bardia by 23 April.

When British intelligence had recognized that there were elements of the 15th Armored Division near Halfaya Pass, General Wavell became very concerned. So far, they had been engaged with the 21st Light Division, equipped to a lower standard than a regular armored division. Wavell knew that the British had two under-strength armored regiments in Tobruk and one squadron of cruiser tanks at Mersa Matruh. He calculated that the Germans currently had 150 tanks in Libya.

Wavell's message to London got the Prime Minister's attention. Churchill resolved to send a fast convoy through the Mediterranean, despite the risks. The ships would carry 250 tanks. They had mostly infantry tanks that could be sent, but they would try and find cruiser tanks. They ended up sending the first 50 Crusader tanks off the production line. Due to that situation, they were very unreliable, but they were something, at least. The Tiger Convoy, as it was called, would carry 295 tanks, of which 67 were cruiser tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Reorganization at Tobruk about 19 April 1941

On 19 and 20 April 1941, the situation had stabilized such that there was time to reorganize the defense. The immediate crisis had subsided. The men were able to return to more routine work after being released from the heightened level of alert. The engineer were able to return to working in the inner defense line, "the Blue Line". The mines had been laid on 19 April, although there were still positions to be dug. The engineers also placed demolitions on all the fortress "plants and wells".

The defenders were reorganized to increase the available reserves. The Indian cavalry regiment (a survivor of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade) now reported to Brigadier Tovell. They took possession of the area near the coast that had been held by the 2/24th Battalion. The 2nd/23rd Battalion sat astride the Derna Road. The 2/24th Battalion now became part of the fortress reserve force. General Morshead had an infantry company formed from Australian Army Service Corps men. They took over an area near the coast on the east side. That allowed the 2/43rd Battalion to also move into the reserve under the 24th Brigade.

The "grand plan" was to have each of the three brigades in the perimeter to have a reserve battalion. There was also the 9th Australian Division reserve with three infantry battalions and one pioneer battalion. General Morshead wanted a defense in depth.

The fortress armor was also reorganized. There had been four infantry tanks in Tobruk manned by the 4th RTR. They gave up their tanks to the 7th RTR when they arrived with a squadron of tanks. All light tanks now belonged to the 3rd Hussars. All cruiser tanks, now about 15 in number, were in the 1st RTR. They were grouped into two squadrons. They had the armored brigade headquarters with a new commander, Colonel Birks. He had the 7th RTR under his direct control. General Morshead was immediately impressed by Colonel Birks.

The Australians had evidence from diaries and from talking with prisoners that both the Italian and German troops were in poor morale and were low on food. They were dispirited by their heavy losses in the first attack on Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The need to halt to buy time on 18 April 1941

The Italian Supreme Command complained to the German High Command about the need to stop the advance to give time for reinforcing the existing units, to reorganize the remaining units, and to build up supplies. Rommel, in good infiltration-style, had tried to rush the attack to see if he could panic the Australians in Tobruk and get a low-cost win in the process. What Rommel found was that the Australians, with their British supporters, would not panic.

The German High Command and Hitler agreed with the Italians about the need to regroup and resupply. Even Rommel agreed to an extent. He wanted to build up the German forces in North Africa so that he could use them, not Italians, to attack Tobruk. The successful British destroyer attack had delayed the arrival of the 15th Armored Division. Now, they seemed likely to arrive in mid-May. What seemed to be the answer was to capture Tobruk.

In front of the 2/48th Battalion, tanks and other armored vehicles lay at wait, just beyond the perimeter wire. They fired on any movement that they noticed. The purpose was to allow their infantry to withdraw. They had been caught close to the wire and had to dig in to survive. However, more infantry congregated near the 2/48th Battalion and tried to push in on the right and center of the battalion. Fire from the 51st Field Regiment stopped the advance. In a reply, mortars and field guns were brought up close. The defenders took casualties from the fire. This seemed to portend a new attack, but one did not materialize. General Morshead considered using the 2/12th Battalion from the reserve and would have supported them with carriers and tanks from the 3rd Hussars and 5th Hussars. The proposed operation seemed to hazardous and was canceled. Fortunately, no enemy attack happened right then. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The situation at Tobruk on 17 April 1941

One thing that happened after nightfall on 17 April 1941 was that the 2/48th Battalion brought in a German truck that had been hit by an anti-tank rifle. The truck had a trailer with a new type of anti-tank gun. We would suppose it was a 50mm PAK38 L60 gun. The gun was sent by air to "England", as the Australian historian wrote.

As a result of experience on 17 April, Australian engineers went out to check the minefield in front of the 2/48th Battalion, because they suspected that the Germans might have disabled mines. The effort was stopped by heavy mortar fire. At the wire, they then laid a new mine field and converted some of the existing mines to fire on contact, rather than under control.

Operations by the Ariete Division on 17 April had not gone well. The division was reduced to ten tanks of the one hundred with which they had started the campaign. They had the sort of losses that the 2nd Armoured Division had experienced. Worse yet, the Germans at one point mistook the Italian tanks for British and fired anti-tank guns at them. Rommel made the mistaken identification and ordered the German anti-tank guns to fire on them.

At this point, Rommel was feeling the effects of his extended lines of communication. On 17 April, Rommel had to have his supplies shipped by road from Tripoli. When they could get Benghazi back in operation as a port, they could cut the trip substantially.

Not only the supply situation, but the training and equipment of the Italian units led Rommel to suspend the attacks on Tobruk until he had accumulated greater strength. The current situation was such that he wanted more German forces prior to any further Tobruk attacks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The failed Italian attack on 16 and 17 April 1941

When Italian prisoners were questioned after they were captured, they told the Australians that they had expected to be supported by German tanks from the 5th Armored Regiment, but the German tanks did not appear. A German officer was attached to the attacking force to coordinate operations. Rommel apparently had ordered the armored battalion from the Ariete division to support the attacking infantry. The infantry pushed to the top of Hill 187 and stopped. They were shelled and then retreated to a wadi. The German staff officer described the Italian retreat as a "rout". He had several anti-tank guns and fired on a scout car and shot at Bren carriers. Afterwards, a senior Italian prisoner helped draft a flyer to be distributed to Italian troops the next day, encouraging then to surrender.

General Wavell, as out of touch as usual, sent a message urging an attack against the Germans at Salum. General Morshead declined to mount such an attack, as he was more concerned about defending the long perimeter at Tobruk.

important reinforcements arrived by ship on 16 April 1941. They were 12 infantry tanks manned by a squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. I think that the correct name of the unit is the 7th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, although the name given is what they were ultimately called.

Overnight on 16-17 April 1941, the enemy guns heavily shelled the Australians. That seemed to indicate another attack on the 17th. General Morshead ordered the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion to act as infantry in his reserve force. The pioneers had been engaged in constructing a second line of defense.

An attack was launched as expected. It fell on the 2/48th Battalion in the west. The enemy infantry had been mounted on vehicles, but they got off and attacked on foot. The attack had some tank support. The tanks seemed to have been mostly Italian light tanks. By about 1pm, the tanks broke through the wire. The tanks had been there to support infantry, but the infantry attack failed under heavy British artillery fire. Anti-tank guns fired on the tanks, which then drove into the reserve company. Seven British cruiser tanks arrived and knocked out some of the Italians. The tank attack then had failed and only one tank escaped back through the wire. The defenders had knocked out five tanks, one of which was a medium tank (M13/40?).

More tanks and infantry hesitated to attack and stayed just outside the wire. Later in the evening, cruiser tanks from the 1st RTR, fought some 12 enemy tanks in the south. They knocked out three tanks with no loss to themselves. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

More action on 16 April 1941

The enemy force in the east took a defensive posture. The troops were the Knabe Group along with the Italian Montemurro Unit. They British expected an attack on Halfaya, but it did not happen. British ships fired on Bardia and caused the town to be abandoned contrary to Rommel's orders. The British on the frontier were effectively bothering the force at Salum to the extent that the force was drawn down to a patrol.

The Headquarters in Cairo sent Morshead a message early on 16 April warning him that there was intelligence of an impending attack on Tobruk. In response, General Morshead put the forces in Tobruk on alert. One of the things done were patrols sent outside the wire, looking for any sign of an attack. There seemed to be nothing happening in the south or east. Only in the west were there signs of a pending attack. One Australian group attacked Italians in a wadi. One Italian was killed and the other 97 men surrendered. There were more encounters. The 2/24th Battalion took six officers and 57 men. Another group took a Breda machine gun and eight men. Carriers that were active saw a battalion from Acroma getting close. The battalion received fire from the 51st Field Regiment and scattered. There were twelve tanks behind the battalion. They also were fired on and dispersed. When attacked, the battalion surrendered and was brought through a gap in the wire as prisoners. The tanks seemed to fire on the Italian prisoners. The tanks also engaged the Australian Bren carriers. By the time the day ended, the Australians had taken 803 men prisoner. That included one German officer and 25 Italian officers. The battalion was the 1st Battalion 62nd Regiment from the Trento Division. While the Italians had expected to be supported by German tanks, the supporting tanks seem to have been six Italian M13/40 tanks and 12 light tanks from the Ariete Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tobruk's artillery in April 1941 and other developments

Both Tobruk artillery commanders in April 1941 were British brigadiers. Brigadier Thompson commanded the field and anti-tank guns. He believed that the field artillery needed to be ready to fill the anti-tank role, so the guns were sited accordingly. Tobruk had 48 25pdr guns, 12-18pdrs, and 12-4.5in howitzers. Two field regiments supported the 20th Brigade in the south of Tobruk. The other two brigades each were supported by a field regiment.

Brigadier Slater commanded the anti-aircraft guns at Tobruk. He had "24 heavy and 60 light guns". There were four captured Italian heavy anti-aircraft guns while 43 of the 60 light guns were captured Italian. Their main duties were to provide anti-aircraft support to the Tobruk port. This was important because Tobruk being isolated, depended on supplies brought by sea. The Naval Inshore Squadron was now based on Tobruk. The squadron had been created during the initial campaign against the Italians.

For better or worse, Tobruk had captured Churchill's attention after the battle of 13 and 14 April 1941. Churchill was filled with suggestions about what Tobruk's defenders should do.

Rommel had hoped to stage another attack on 15 April, but the mainly Italian attack force was broken up by artillery fire and they abandoned their start positions. The Australians mopped up some 33 men hiding in a wadi. In another fight, Australians captured an Italian officer and 74 men. At about 5:30pm, another Italian attack had penetrated the wire. They had cleaned up the breach by 6:15pm. They captured 113 men, including two officers, and estimated that they had killed 250 men with artillery and automatic weapon fire. The number killed was probably an overestimate, but the number was still large. Troop movements seemed to indicate an attack against the 20th Brigade, but the attack did not happen.

On the night of 15-16 April 1941, four British destroyers from Malta attacked an Italian convoy heading for Africa. Three destroyers and five merchant ships were all sunk. The cargo was motor transport and tanks from the 15th Armored Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Defending Tobruk from April 1941

General Morshead, the 9th Australian Division commander, was also the commander of Tobruk, after General Lavarack's departure on 14 April 1941. Before there were time to reorganize the men in Tobruk, there were about 35,700 men in Tobruk. Of that number, only about 24,000 were "combat troops". One of the first steps was to ship out unnecessary men and prisoners from the base area. Most of the 2nd Armoured Division were to be sent to Egypt.

The defense of Tobruk was based on aggessive principles. They would not allow any ground to be taken. They would patrol the no-mans-land at night. The defensive positions would be improved and increased in depth. They would keep reserves ready to counter-attack. They would build an inner defensive perimeter ("the Blue Line").

Only after General Lavarack left did the 18th Australian Brigade become under General Morshead's control. As soon as that happened, he had the 18th Brigade's engineers start work on the inner perimeter. As all this played out, General Morshead was constantly inspecting to be sure that his policies and plans were executed well.>/p>

General Morshead had his chief staff officer, Colonel Lloyd, the four Australian brigadiers, and two British artillery commanders. The 18th Btigade commander, Brigadier Wooten, was a professional soldier at the start of his career, when he had served at Gallipoli in the Great War. He left the service in 1923 and became a lawyer. He rejoined the army at the start of the second war. It was Brigadier Wooten who had captured Giarabub. The British artillery commanders, one for the field and anti-tank guns and one for the anti-aircraft guns were able men. The field artillery was sited so that it could be used for anti-tank fire. The defeat of the first German attack showed the wisdom of that policy. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 02, 2017

General Lavarack replaced by 14 April 1941

Major-General Lavarack was replaced after he had done well as commander of Cyrenaica Command. General Wavell had appointed him after Generals Neame and O'Connor had been captured in the wake of Rommel's attack. He had ended up withdrawing into Tobruk with the 9th Australian Division and had exercised command. In fact, General Lavarack was one of the most able Australian commanders in the war. He had been Chief of the General Staff at the start of the war, but had been out of the country at the time. When he returned, he found that he had been replaced. He also had the problem the General Blamey constantly worked to block any success for him. Blamey wanted to be the top Australian officer, and felt inferior to Lavarack, so he did everything he could to keep from being replaced by Lavarack.

After Wavell had decided to create the Western Desert Force, he appointed a British officer to command it, as it would have been extremely unusual not to have an Australian officer as the commander. As the situation subsequently played out, we would have to say that General Beresford-Peirse was an unfortunate choice. To General Wavell, he seemed a natural choice, because he had experience in the Western Desert. He was an artillery officer who was promoted to command the 4th Indian Division during Operation Compass, the campaign against Italy in 1940-1941. What he lacked was any experience with mechanized warfare. Part of the problem was that Winston Churchill was now involved in the Middle East situation and he took some extraordinary steps to affect the situation. At great risk, he shipped tanks to Egypt and then expected them to be immediately sent into battle. There was no consideration of the mechanical condition of the tanks that were shipped and the need for training on new equipment. Instead, Churchill pushed for immediate action and the tanks that were sent were largely squandered in the abortive Battleaxe, which had been preceded by Operation brevity. William Gott, the support group commander, was overly cautious and gave up most of the ground taken during Brevity. The next section we will cover will include the run up to and the execution of Operation Battleaxe. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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