Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The big picture in late May and early June 1941

While the situation in Tobruk had become static warfare, there was much action in other theaters. 20 May 1941 had been the day that the Germans launched the airborne assault on the island of Crete. The Germans had secured their possession of Maleme airfield by 23 May. The next day, 24 May, the Bismarck sank the battle cruiser Hood in the Denmark Strait. The battle around Crete seriously depleted the British Mediterranean Fleet. By the end of May, the fighting in Crete had ended. About half of the men on Crete were evacuated. This was fairly soon after the debacle in Greece. With the German lack of commitment in Iraq allowed the hostile Rashid Ali to be forced from power. at this time, this was one of the few bright spots for the British.

In the Egyptian-Libyan frontier area, the Germans launched an attack on 26 May. The Germans had 160 tanks divided into four groups. They lacked sufficient fuel, so they were limited in what they could do. The British only had a small force at Halfaya Pass. They had 9 infantry tanks, some field guns, some anti-tank guns, and some anti-aircraft guns. The infantry were from the 3rd Coldstream Guards. The right group hooked towards Deir el Hamra. The center groups, heavy in tanks, was to go for Sidi Suleiman. The left group would go to the escarpment and would attack infantry.The German attack was successful, and the main result was to get a document from Churchill to the Chiefs of Staff.

Churchill thought that the Western Desert was the one venue where the British had the opportunity to launch a successful attack on the Germans. The Chiefs of Staff were sympathetic to Churchill's document, but wanted to get air power re-established in Cyrenaica. General Wavell responded by issuing orders for a new attack that he called Operation Battleaxe. The idea was that they would defeat the German forces at the Egyptian Frontier, and then break the enemy hold on Tobruk, and then move on to Derna and Mechili. The Australians in Tobruk were expected to be heavily involved. An ominous sign was that General Wavell warned the Chiefs of Staff that he felt that the chances of success were "doubtful".

There was a meeting in Cairo on 4 June. These were the Commanders-in-Chief and they talked about Tobruk in negative terms. Wavell's primary concern was that the enemy forces would launch a new attack on Tobruk (a "blitz"). Admiral Cunningham talked about the difficulties in keeping Tobruk supplied. Air Marshall Tedder remarked that there were few fighters to give support to Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rotating Australian units in and out of the line in late May and June 1941, and the fuel and lubricant shortage

General Morshead had a plan to rotate, at the brigade level, Australian units in and out of the line. The 26th brigade was Tovell's. The 24th Brigade was Godfrey's. The 20th Brigade was Murray's brigade. The 18th Brigade was Wooten's. The 26th Brigade relieved the 24th Brigade over the night of 20 to 21 May 1941. They were in the Bardia Road sector. The 24th Brigade replaced the 20th Brigade on 23 May. The 20th Brigade then was in reserve for a while. They eventually moved to the Salient to replace the 18th Brigade. There were also some battalion movements during this period.

During April and May 1941, Tobruk had used up their stock of fuel and lubricants. By June, they were in trouble and needed more petroleum products. There were attempts to move some fuel and lubricants by sea, but the German air dominance made that difficult. The situation only improved when the Pass of Balhama made two trips to Tobruk. The first trip brought 760 tons of fuel in bulk. That provided about 40 days supply. Later in June, they made another trip, and had brought some 1,400 tons of fuel and lubricants during June.

From 20 May to 4 June, the men of one squadron of the King's Dragoon Guards filled and infantry role by holding S21 to S27 near the Dernal Road. They were replaced by a pioneer company.

This left the Derna Road area in the hands of the 2/1st Pioneers. Posts S8 and S10 were on the left. The 2/13th Battalion held the right. The 2/17th Battalion was in the center section. Another battalion, the 2/15th, held the left side. During May, the German and Italian units had constructed a straightened line behind their line and then withdrew into it. Lt-Col. Burrows also planned to straighten his line, that of the 2/13th Battalion, but in this case, by moving forward. Brigadier Murray liked Burrows plan and approved of it. The Germans had laid minefields with booby traps. The first task was to clear paths through them and remove the booby-traps.

By straightening the line, the line was shortened by about 600 yards. That allowed companies to hold their front with two platoons. Post S8 was no longer isolated. Post S10 was now more strongly held. Former German minefields were now used by the Australians for their defense. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Axis forces at Tobruk in May to June 1941

The Australians, in early June 1941, after the failed attack on the enemy forces, realized that the Germans were preparing to pull back. They had an engineer battalion at work constructing a new line behind the line that they currently defended. The Australians apparently heard air compressors and jack hammers at work on the new line.

In retrospect, the Australian historian was aware of the Axis forces deployed at Tobruk. The Italian Brescia Division and the Italian 16th Artillery Regiment were deployed north of the Salient, near the Derna Road.

In the Salient, itself, there were two battalions of the 115th Motor Infantry Regiment. There was also one battalion of the 104th Motor Infantry Regiment. There wree also two desert units, a mix of various types of troops. There was also the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion. There were two German artillery Battalions. The Italians had part of the 16th Artillery Regiment in the Salient. In addition, there were two German engineer battalions.

Deployed near Fort Pilastrano and the road to El Adem was the Italian Ariete Division, the first Italian armored division. The Italian Pavia Division was in the process of relieving the Ariete Division. There was the 132nd Regiment and the 46th Artillery Regiment.

The Trento Mechanized Division was located near the Bardia Road. They had two motor infantry battalions, a motorcycle battalion, and a machine gun battalion.

There were other units at Tobruk, as well. One battalion of the 18th Anti-Aircraft Battalion was there. Perhaps they had 88mm guns. The 8th Machine Gun Battalion now had three companies. At least part of the battalion was probably in the Salient. There was also the 5th Light Division headquarters and units not already mentioned. The division was on the west side of El Adem. Part of the Ariete Division and about 80 tanks (mostly M13/40 medium tanks) were about 25 miles west of Tobruk. We can see that most of Rommel's forces were tied up defending the Salient. That kept Rommel from being able to do much on the Egyptian frontier. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The situation from 6 June 1941 at the Salient

After the fierce fight in the night against the Germans, the Germans asked for a truce so that they could retrieve wounded from the battlefield. They sent five ambulances with a Red Cross flag. They searched the neutral zone for wounded. Australians from the 2/13th Battalion went out to help in the search. They also took the opportunity to view the German positions. During the truce, the Australians were able to relax. At the end, the Germans fired a machine gun burst to mark the truce end.

The 2/9th Battalion was to the right of the 2/13th Battalion. They had been in the Salient the longest. They had been ab le to push out their front line far in front of their starting position. When the 2/13th Battalion had advanced their line recently, the 2/9th Battalion moved ahead another 150 yards. Their lines were well prepared with wire and trip-wire setups.

The Australians had taken the Salient, the scene of a German penetration, and had been able to create a stepping-off point for new adventures. Most nights, many patrols were sent out to harass the enemy troops. During the day, the RHA, 51st Field Regiment, and eventually, the 2/12th Australian Field Regiment were at work. Although the enemy gunners were able to get hits, the British and Australian gunners inflicted more hits than they took.

After the 18th Brigade left the Salient, a German battalion commander wrote a testimonial to their prowess. Major Ballersted commanded the II Battalion of the 115th Motor Infantry Regiment. He rated the Australians as superior to the German soldiers in important ways. He especially praised the Australians capabilities as snipers. In return, the Australians found the German soldiers to be tough competitors.

One disadvantage that the Australians had was that they used British 3-inch mortars, which were inferior to both the German and Italian mortars. The Italians had an 81mm mortar that performed well. The Australians had captured several and used them. There was little ammunition for the 81mm mortars, but they were the best thing that the Australians had. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The 2/12th Field Regiment arrives at Tobruk early on 17 May 1941 and the brigade change on 5 June 1941

Until the 2/12th Field Regiment arrived by sea at Tobruk, all the supporting artillery was British. The 2/12th Field Regiment was provided with a variety of guns, all that was available. They operated under the command of the 51st Field Regiment, which was one of the key artillery units at Tobruk. The 2/12th Field Regiment inherited a troop of 60 pounder guns (5 inch guns). The 60 pounders had the issue that they only had a meager supply of ammunition, although more was eventually found for them. They also had two troops equipped with ten 4.5in howitzers that had been made available when the 51st Field Regiment had received 25 pounders. These troops were apparently armed with five 4.5in howitzers each. Perhaps the 60 pounder troop had five guns, as well. The 2/12th lost its first man on 20 May when they were shelled by enemy guns.

One positive action on 29 May 1941 occurred when a 60 pounder gun fired on enemy guns and "neutralized" them with ten rounds. They had to be careful with the limited 60 pounder ammunition supply. Initially, the 2/12th Field Regiment lacked some of the usual amenities that field regiments usually had: "flash spotting and sound ranging". They also needed some air reconnaissance to provide intelligence about the enemy artillery units. The salient area was a problem due to the enemy occupying the best ground for observation. The British and Australian artillery observation posts were at a lower level than the enemy observation posts, so the artillery were hampered in their operations. On occasion, they were able to achieve some success with "predicted fire". Usually, they were reduced to firing to harass the enemy and were able to fire on targets of opportunity.

Wooten's 18th Brigade had been in the salient until 5 June. After that date, Brigadier Murray's 20th Brigade moved into the salient. They had not been able to make any big attacks. They did continue to make adjustments to the lines, however. Back on 18 May, moves were made to close up the distance between Post S8 and the rightmost battalion. The battalions effected were the 2/9th, the 2/10th, the 2/12th, and 2/13th. The 2/13th Battalion was planned to move the center company forward some 300 yards. Some movement happened on 27 May, but the men were forced to retire to their previous position at daylight. The enemy were suspicious of what might be happening and dropped some 650 shells on the western side. Also on the 27th, the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment sent out a patrol with 2inch mortars and some 18 pounder guns. They drew artillery fire from four batteries and the patrol commander was killed.

Two Australian battalion headquarters moved further west. The 18th Brigade headquarters moved the next day. As the 2/13th Battalion center company moved back to their planned positions, they were attacked by some 200 German soldiers. The Germans were actually ambushed, as they had expected to find the positions empty. The Australians fought with mortars and Bren guns. The Germans withdrew and were chased by some Australians who used grenades and Bren guns to good effect. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Fighting on 17 May 1941 near the posts, including S4

The attacks mounted early on 17 May 1941 had left many Australians as prisoners of the Germans. To make matters worse, the 2/23rd Battalion commander, Lt-Col. Evans was not aware of the situation of his surviving men. Even though they were surrounded, the men in Post S4 were holding onto their position. Other men were holding out in the stone building near the water tower.

MOre than the 2/23rd Battalion saw action. The men of the 2/10th Battalion held an area to the left of the 2/23rd Battalion. The enemy fired an artillery barrage starting at about 8:35am. German infantry supported by four tanks moved near the water tower. The tanks opened up on the 2/10th Battalion, but they received supporting fire from the 51st Field Regiment. That forced the tanks and infantry to withdraw. One tank had been damaged by the firing. More tanks arrived about four minutes later. They seemed to be near Post S4. The British artillery did not know that S4 was still being held by Australians. They fired on the tanks and S4 and drove the tanks off. One of the 2/10th's "Bush Guns" fired on the German guns near the wrecked aircraft.

At about 12:15pm, German tanks and infantry were overcoming remaining Australian resistance. A brave signaler, took a phone line to Post S6, which was still in Australian hands. After thirteen line breaks were repaired, they could speak with Post S6. Now that artillery fire could be called in, they forced three enemy tanks to withdraw. Later, another five tanks were stopped from moving forward. Men in Post S9 could see men at ease near Post S7, which they supposed meant that it was in German hands. Brigadier Wooten had hoped that the 2/23rd Battalion might stage another attack, but Lt-Col. Evans decided that they were too weak to mount another attack. General Morshead and Brigadier Wooten decided that Lt-Col. Evans should withdraw his remaining men "after dark". They would try to establish a new defensive line between the 2/10th Battalion and Post S8. While the 2/23rd Battalion was to withdraw, they would go out and try and find wounded to take out with them.

The sound of tanks, presumably German, could be heard after 7:30pm. The sun set at about 8:10pm. The enemy tanks seemed to be moving in on Post S6. Three carriers were sent out, but they ran into anti-tank guns. One carrier was disabled and casualties were taken. Lt-Col. Evans told the commander of the men in S6 to go to Post S8. Instead of reaching Post S8, the men from Post S6 reached post S10. There was heavy British artillery fire and Very lights in the sky. In the attacks, the 2/23rd Battalion lost 163 men. The men in Post S4 were left to surrender to the Germans on early 18 May. Many mistakes were made through inexperience, both of the Australians and the British tank crews. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

The new plan for the attack by the 2/23rd Battalion on 17 May 1941

Since Posts S8 and S9 did not have to be recaptured, a new plan was prepared for the attack by the 2/23rd Battalion, starting on 17 May 1941. The plan still included taking Posts S7 and S6. They expected to be able to capture those posts and the new plan included pushing forward to attack and take Posts S5 and S4. Brigadier Wooten, the 18th Brigade commander, approved of the plan, as did Colonel Lloyd, General Morshead's "most senior staff officer". The attack would be conducted by two companies with supporting infantry tanks. Artillery support would be provided by the 2/12th Field Regiment, which had just arrived at Tobruk. The start time would be at 5:30am. The attackers were supported by machine guns, as well as the artillery. Smoke had been laid down at Medauuar. The visibility was made worse by the smoke from the German artillery fire. In the reduced visibility, the tanks with the right-most company got confused and then lost. The infantry lost their tank support. The tanks ended up at Post S9, instead of being 750 yards forward.

The company that had lost its tank support now was taking casualties from 88mm guns firing air burst over the men. The other platoon that was directed at Post S7 overran the post from the right side. The situation became increasingly desperate and casualties mounted. They had lost communication with the battalion and could not call up the reserves to help.

Post S6 was taken. They captured 19 Germans from the post. They left a garrison in S6 and then pressed forward to Post S4. They succeeded in overrunning Post S4 with a hard fight. Most of the enemy troops were killed in hand-to-hand fighting. They left a small garrison in Post S4 and then pulled back to S6. They fired a signal flare that was not seen by the battalion commander. The men in Post S6 were forced into a more defensible stone structure nearby. A carrier brought ammunition and supplies forward to the men near Post S6. Another carrier sent to Post S4 were not able to reach the post. One group attacked sangers held by the enemy. They ended up being surrounded and captured.

Lt-Col. Evans, the 2/23rd Battalion commander, did not have good information about what had happened in the attacks. By 7am, he had an incomplete story about the results. With four infantry tanks in support, they were going to attack Post S7, thinking that it had not been taken in the first attacks. This group started moving at 7:40am. The enemy fired on the attacking forces and laid smoke. Again, the tanks did not go where they had been planned to go. The tanks had turned to the right when they were within 100 yards of Post S7. The infantry with the tanks followed them in the wrong direction. The infantry could see enemy tanks approaching, but the infantry tanks were unaware of their approach. The German tanks led and assault that recaptured Post S7 and took many Australian prisoners in the area. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The aftermath of Operation Brevity from 16 May 1941

The British Official History of the War in the Mediterranean and Middle East considered Operation Brevity to be a failure. The Australian Official History, however, gives the operation more credit. Brevity had actually achieved a good bit, and the main problem was that the British commanders were not ready to take risks to hold the ground that they had taken. By 17 May 1941, the British still had Halfaya Pass. The cruiser tanks had withdrawn without being pressed, as they were timidly commanded. The Germans had moved back into Salum (Sollum) since the British had pulled back.

The Australian Official History looks at the comparative losses and thinks that the British and Australians did not do so badly. As for tanks, the Germans lost three and the British lost five. Rommel considered that Halfaya was a very important position, as it dominated both roads that ran east-west.

General Wavell wrote that the priority for the British forces should be to push the German and Italian forces to the west, beyond Tobruk. They needed to make airfields available to the west for RAF use. They needed to use the 7th Armoured Division and the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions. At another meeting, the opinion was given that all Australian forces in the Middle East needed to be consolidated.

Churchill also weighed in on the situation. He tended to speak without knowing the relevant facts. His immediate concern was quite predictable. He wanted to know when the tanks from the Tiger Convoy could be brought into action. The truth was that at this point, an attack on Crete from German forces in Greece was the next crisis. This was a crisis created by Churchill's decision to go into Greece with a strong force that would not be enough to prevail. All the heavy weapons taken into Greece were left on the shore and only men and small arms were removed by ship.

There was new concern that German aircraft might be involved in attacking Crete from airfields in Syria. There was going to be pressure to intervene in Syria with the 7th Australian Division. One positive point was that the Italian army in east Africa surrendered on 19 May. Another positive development was that the force sent to Habbiniya in Iraq was nearing the air base.

A more concerning development at Tobruk was that posts S8 and S9 had remained in Australian hands. There had been a mistaken message that post S8 had bee "retaken", when it had never been lost. The next step was going to be attacking the enemy force that had been holding ground since 1 May 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Operation Brevity: 15 May 1941

The British plan for Operation Brevity included three columns. The 2/Rifle Brigade would take the bottom of Halfaya Pass and then move on to Salum (or Sollum). The 22nd Guards Brigade with the 4th/RTR would capture the top of Halfaya Pass and then move northwards. They would have 24 infantry tanks. The open desert flank would be taken by the 7th Armoured Brigade. They had the 2/RTR with 29 cruiser tanks. They also had three Support Group columns in support. The support group columns each had an Australian anti-tank gun troop. The 12th Anti-Tank Gun Battery commander was with one of the columns. The headquarters was sitting on the coast. They had a troop from 5th Battery, 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, another Australian unit. All the action started at dawn on 15 May 1941.

Even though the Germans had expected the attack, the British still achieved surprise. The Guards Brigade and the infantry tanks were able to quickly capture "the top of Halfaya Pass". The bottom of Halfaya Pass did not give up so easily. They bottom fell only by 5pm. The center group also captured Salum with 123 prisoners. Fort Capuzzo was also taken, but most of the attacking infantry tanks were disabled.

The attack achieved enough success to cause the German command some anxiety. Partly, this was because reports enlarged the attacking force beyond what was actually used. Motorized and mechanized units near Tobruk were redeployed to be ready for an attack by British forces from the Egyptian Frontier. One German tank battalion was sent to El Duda. Some Italian tanks were sent to El Adem. A counter-attack by the Herff Group retook Fort Capuzzo displaced the Durham Light Infantry and took some prisoners. The British did not have a good tank recovery system in place, so the disabled infantry tanks were left where they had been abandoned. The British were able to recover a few, destroy others, while the rest ended up in German hands.

Herff reported to Rommel that the British seemed to have some 40 to 50 tanks. Herff expected them to push on towards Tobruk by morning. He would sit on the flank position, ready launch an attack when he was reinforced. The British were actually quite cautious, and Brigadier Gott would move to Halfaya, if the Germans attacked with tanks. Rommel ordered reinforcements to be sent to Herff. Another group of all arms was also ordered to join Herff. The British were much less prepared and General Beresford-Peirse was slow to respond to Gott's message. His initial thought was to order Gott to hold the positions that he had taken. On 16 May, the British tanks withdrew, while the Germans were immobilized due to lack of fuel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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