Thursday, November 30, 2017

The situation at Tobruk from mid-September 1941

Once the decision had been made to relieve the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk, there was some repercussions. General Auchinleck considered that since the Australian Government seemed to have lost confidence in him, he should resign his command. That did not happen, but it was a reasonable conclusion. Part of what happened were the machinations by General Blamey to get his way, no matter the cost. The better results were the addition of an additional infantry tank battalion, 4-4.5in guns, and twelve more 25pdr guns.
General Morshead returned to Tobruk on 17 September 1941. He was informed on his arrival that while he was gone, the Germans had attacked one of the observation posts that lay outside the perimeter wire. They had used five tanks on 14 September. At the same time, they made a reconnaissance into Egypt with a force that included tanks. Rommel had called the operation "Summer Night's Dream". We have heard this translated as "Midsummer's Night Dream", which seems more like what Rommel would have called it. The Australian historian thought that since this was mid-September, midsummer was not appropriate. The historian's suggestion was that this operation gave Rommel a false sense of what the British were doing and what they were thinking.
For the coming battle between Axis and British forces, the Germans incorporated responses to lessons learned from Operation Battleaxe. They extended their defenses for some 25 miles south of the Halfaya Pass area. They had battalion-sized units to hold each fort that was built. Given the success of using 88mm anti-aircraft guns against British tanks, they included the use of those guns with armored forces for the next battle, The Germans also started using radios follow the message traffic in their own units and also started using front-line signals intelligence to intercept and process British communications.
The Germans also worked at pulling their battle-group ad hoc organization back into formal division organization. They had two complete armored divisions, the 5th Light Division and the 15th Armored Division. They also had new infantry to use. They had the 361st Africa Regiment, along with two other infantry regiments. The 361st Africa Regiment included former French Foreign Legion troops.
With the Italian Trieste Mechanized Division, they had the complete Italian Mobile Corps. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Coming to a decision about the 9th Australian Division in September 1941

General Auchinleck disagreed about the supposed degradation of the 9th Australian Division due to their being at Tobruk for so long a time. He agreed that they were tired. Auchinleck suggested that they increase the fighting strength in Tobruk to compensate for that situation. He considered replacing one brigade of Australians with a brigade of the British 6th Division. He preferred keeping the entire 9th Australian Division at Tobruk.He had hoped to add Indian troops to the 6th Division, but that seemed less likely now the way that the situation was progressing.
General Blamey had access to Auchinleck's message and sent his government a long rebuttal, including issues raised outside of the message. As to the concerns about the navy, General Blamey said that given that there was enemy naval interference with the sea transport, that should not be a concern. The need for air cover for the relief was an issue, but he had agreed to postpone the relief from August to September, since the RAF had said that they could more easily provide air protection then than they could have in August. Also, the RAF air strength in North Africa had been incresaed, so they were better able to provide air cover for the relief operations.
The British Prime Minister pushed the Australian Prime Minister to get him to agree, but Mr. Fadden would not change his position that the 9th Australian Division must be withdrawn from Tobruk. The Australian government really desired to bring their divisions together into a single corps. The Australian government was also concerned about Auchinleck's comments about a planned sortee from Tobruk by the Australians. The conclusion was that the Australian concerns about the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk were more important to them than any of the British concerns.
Churchill gave in an instructed that plans go forward to relieve the Australians in Tobruk. He was concerned about the response in Australia by a British refusal to relieve the 9th Australian Division. There were other issues, such as the appearance to the Australians of the British division on Cyprus being relieved by an Indian division at the same time that the British government opposed relieving the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Australians and Tobruk in September 1941

We have to think that General Blamey had his own agenda, that is to stop the scattering of Australian units across the Mediterranean and North Africa, and bring them together as a single force. From the perspective of time, we feel like the objection he raised about the condition of the troops in Tobruk was just an excuse to try and convince the British so he could get his way. In the face of the Australian obstinant request for the relief of the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk, Churchill's next move was to ask General Auchinleck to provide him with the facts about the situation. The problem with that is that Auchinleck was reduced to asking the Australians for information, which is going to be biased towards what they want.
Auchinleck ordered General Morshead to meet him in Cairo for conferences to gather the relevant facts. Morshead was brought out of Tobruk on the destroyer Kipling, which endured five air attacks and took some damage in the process. That was a foretaste of what could be expected during any relief of the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk. General Moshead stopped by to meet with General Blamey prior to meeting with General Auchinleck. There were three conferences  to atatend on 10 September. Generals Morshead and Blamey attended together. The first meeting was with Auchinleck and General Alan Cunningham, the newly appointed army commander. We imagine that they discussed Operation Crusader. Following that, they met with the Air, Naval, and Army commanders-in-chief. They discussed the relief of the 9th Australian Division. After that, they met with staff officers, one being Neil Ritchie and the other being the deputy quartermaster general.
General Morshead was questioned in the meeting with the commanders-in-chief about the condition of the men in Tobruk. He admitted that the men were still in good health, but were seen as tiring, and becoming weaker. Morshead made the point that both the British and Australians in Tobruk were in a similar situation. In fact, Morshead said that he would be unhappy if the British in Tobruk were left behind when the Australians were removed.
Auchinleck's rejoinder was that to stage at relief now would create difficulties for the army's readiness for Operation Crusader. Auchinleck proposed sending an infantry tank battalion to Tobruk to increase the defensive strength of the fortress. He also told General Morshead that he could not relieve the British troops in Tobruk, only the Australians. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Officiail History.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Government instabilty in Australia as an influence on events in North Africa in 1941

Robert Menzies was the Australian prime minister from 26 April 1939 until 28 August 1941. He was a Liberal, but he was part of a coalition government during this period. He was succeed by Arthur Fadden for a short time. In early September 1941, General Blamey sent a message to Mr. Fadden regarding Tobruk and the 9th Australian Division. He said that Churchill told General Auchinleck that if he would not relieve the 9th Australian Division, he would fix the deal with the Australians. General Blamey was opposed to such a deal and expressed concern that if the division stayed in Tobruk, they would continue to decline and might not be able to resist a future attack. He also mentioned that with the 18th Brigade being withdrawn, the rest of the troops would be disappointed if they were not also withdrawn. General Blamey wanted the Australian government to strongly resist the British attempt to keep the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk. General Blamey knew that the British would keep the Australians in Tobruk indefinitely, if they could get away with such a thing.
Mr. Fadden sent a message to Winston Churchill requesting that the British respect the desires of the Australian government and withdraw the 9th Australian Division. If the British refused and Tobruk were eventually overrun and the division was lost, the effects in Australia would be great. When he wrote in The Grand Alliance, Churchill made out like this was the first he had heard of the request, which was false. What was true was in early September 1941, there were not any solid plans for Operation Crusader in place. Churchill confidently told Auchinleck that he could bluff the Australians into going along with Churchill's desires to keep the Australians in Tobruk.
General Blamey was unconvinced by Churchill's arguments. He wrote the minister for the Army in Australia about the problems he was having assembling the Australian formations into a single grouping. The British would say that they would agree, but then would take steps to resist doing what General Blamey wanted. For the Syrian campaign, he had brought together units to form an ad hoc brigade. He was assured that he would get the men back to return to their normal divisions. After the end of the Syrian campaign, that did not happen. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Conflict between the British and the Australians over relieving the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk

In late August, the Australians learned that there was considerable British resistance to moving the 9th Australian Division out of Tobruk. The first inkling was that the navy wanted to reduce the number of convoys in and out of Tobruk. They also wanted to only run ships on moonless nights and not on nights when there was moon. Then we find that there was resistance to sending the British 6th Division to Tobruk because they had recently been in an area where malaria was prevalent. They also did not want to send another division to that area because of the malaria. After seeming to agree to withdrawing the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk, now they had a defense in depth by having a long list of objections. General Blamey was not going to agree to this sort of arrangement, because it would circumvent the plan to consolidate all the Australian divisions into one fighting force. We find, on examination, that the real opposition to withdrawing the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk was Winston Churchill. Churchill considered withdrawing the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk as a "needless relief".
When General Auchinleck returned to Egypt, he was preoccupied with the coming offensive, now named "Crusader". He did not want to deal with anything but preparations for the operation. The Australians were able to withdraw the 18th Brigade from Tobruk, but now found that the British were dug in and resistant to any move to withdraw the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk. The naval and air commanders in Egypt both opposed the withdrawal of the Australians.
The RAF hoped to achieve air superiority over the battlefield for Operation Crusader, but there were many factors which seemed to make that very difficult if not impossible. The British hoped to have 544 aircraft for the operation. The might have some 650 aircraft, of which 300 would be German. The Germans had a superior fighter type to anything that the British could employ. If the war in Russia went well, the Germans might be able to pull more aircraft into the fighting in North Africa. Convoys to Tobruk would require enough aircraft to provide a sufficient protection.
Carrying out the relief of the 9th Australian Division from Tobruk would divert needed resources for Operation Crusader. The British were desperate to find a way to not have to carry out the withdrawal of the division from Tobruk. General Auchinleck also believed that the Australians could defend Tobruk better than any relieving division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Late August to September 1941 in North Africa

General Auchinleck appointed Alan Cunningham to be his army commander in North Africa without really knowing anything about him, except his recent history. Cunningham has just finished a successful campaign in East Africa against the Italians. Cunningham had been summoned to Cairo to be briefed on his new command. He left on 29 August for Cairo. Auchinleck would give Cunningham instructions to make two plans for the coming operation. One would cut across the desert to Benghazi while the second would be for an attack along the coast towards Tobruk. From what we know, the second plan was the one that was actually implemented.
The Australian 18th Brigade was successfully moved out of Tobruk by 30 August 1941. This was according to General Blamey's plan which had been approved. He notified his government of the successful movement and asked them to keep the new secret. That same day, the chiefs of staff met in Cairo to discuss supplying Tobruk in the future. The supplies were mainly carried by two destroyers each night. The goal was to built up the supply reserves for the fortress. Other ships were also involved. They used "A-Lighters" to carry supplies from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk. Other small ships also ran from the main base at Alexandria and Tobruk or from Mersa Matruh to Tobruk. There was a constant risk of air attack, along with mines, and large caliber gunfire on the harbor. When units were moved in and out of Tobruk, that tied up the available destroyers, as they could not be used simultaneously for both troop carrying and transporting supplies.
The planned large movement of Australian and Polish units in August meant that more ships were required. Some nights, there were three destroyers or, even on some occasions, four destroyers. The fast minelaying cruisers Latona and Abdiel were also used on the run to and from Tobruk. They used the additional ships to move troops while the normal ships were used to carry supplies. To provide protection from air attack, there were more fighter aircraft and some cruisers with their anti-aircraft guns. Two ships were damaged during these operations. The Australian destroyer Nizam had a near miss by a bomb that caused damage while the cruiser Phoebe was torpedoed, probably by an Italian torpedo bomber. These aircraft were twin-engined and were some of the best Italian attack aircraft.
The air protection provided relieved the pressure on the smaller ships, and reduced the losses. Three small ships were lost in operations to resupply Tobruk. This was considered an improvement over the previous months. The ships lost were a trawler and a whaler. A tank lighter or landing craft was sunk by a mine in Tobruk harbor. A minesweeper, also in the same small shipi  category, was damaged near Mersa Matruh. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Auchinleck takes command in the Middle East

When General Auchinleck took over as the theater commander in the Middle East, Winston Churchill hoped to bulldoze him into doing what Churchill wanted. General Dill, the CIGS, advised Auchinleck to resist doing anything before adequate preparations had been made. He considered that when General Wavell launched Operation Battleaxe, that he had acted prematurely due to pressure from Churchill. General Dill told Auchinleck to act as he thought best, and to resist the Prime Minister's push to act before he was ready. In particular, he said that he should be explicit about the risks he was prepared to run, and those risks that were too great to chance, to demand the resources that he needed, and if they are not provided, to state clearly what could be done and not be done.
General Auchinleck told Churchill that attacking before the necessary resources were available was something that was not "a justifiable operation of war". He negotiated the date for the attack in the Middle East to 1 November 1941. He treated that as the real target date that he was trying to meet. When the preparations were not complete in time, he asked for a delayed start, even though that would upset Churchill.
We find rather amusing that President Roosevelt told Churchill to reduce his commitment to the Middle East, because the Americans thought that the area could not be adequately defended. In fact, they threatened to withhold shipments of war materials and equipment if Churchill ignored their concerns. Churchill's reply to Roosevelt caused Roosevelt to lose his temper. The two leaders met following this exchange on a battleship in "the Bay of Newfoundland". The disagreement was resolved and the Americans proceeded to sent tanks, vehicles and aircraft to the Middle East in large numbers. Those shipments continued through 1942, which was a much more challenging year than 1941, if that was possible.
Before Churchill left to meet Roosevelt, they had decided to send a second armored division to the Middle East. The division would not arrive in time for the start of the upcoming attack. The convoys were immediately dispatched with men and equipment for the division. American Stuart tanks would arrive in time for the start of the operation. Robert Crisp's book, Brazen Chariots, is a good story about how the Stuarts were used in the next offensive in the desert.
Auchinleck had not yet appointed the army commander. He was not familiar with any of the men who were available. All he could do is essentially look at their resumes. On paper, Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham, who had just completed a successful campaign in East Africa seemed to be a good choice. The East African campaign had been a fast moving war of mobility. What Auchinleck did not know is that Cunningham was exhausted after the East African campaign and was not ready to take on new responsibilities in the Western Desert that involved mechanized warfare. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the British Official History.

Monday, November 06, 2017

The Polish Carpathian Brigade arrives at Tobruk in late August 1941

When the Polish Carpathian Brigade was formed in April 1940 in Syria, the Polish government in exile was based in Paris. The brigade gradually grew from Polish soldiers who had escaped internment or captivity and traveled to Syria. After France fell to the Germans and the Vichy government was formed under Marshal Petain, the brigade marched out of Syria and into Palestine. This was in June 1940. Polish soldiers continued to make their way to Palestine to join the brigade. This process continued until Greece was captured by the Germans in April 1941. There ceased to be an easy route out of Eastern Europe to Palestine at that point.
Many of the men who joined the Carpathian Brigade had been officers in the Polish army. A special unit had been formed of some Polish officers in addition to the normal brigade organization. Other officers served in the brigade as non-commissioned officers or as ordinary soldiers. The Carpathian Brigade had the advantage of time to train before they were sent into action at Tobruk. The brigade was actually organized as a brigade group. The brigade group included a cavalry regiment. The brigade commander, Major-General Kopanski, arrived at Tobruk during the night of 25 to 26 August 1941. The general and his staff had lunch with General Morshead and then had a conference. They found that the plan was for them to move into the southern sector and take over from the 20th Brigade (Australian).
The first Polish unit to see action was the field regiment. They were sent to the western sector to relieve the 51st Field Regiment, which was to leave Tobruk. The Polish anti-tank regiment replaced the 24th Anti-Tank Company and the 9th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment. Apparently, only the men left and the guns remained in place for the Polish to use. The Polish cavalry regiment replaced the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment.
The Polish infantry were sent to integrate with the 20th (Australian) Brigade for a week. The Polish would have preferred to be positioned in opposition to Germans, rather than Italian soldiers, but they accepted their assignment. When they listened to news of the Russian front, the Polish disliked both the Germans and Russians, so they were happy to hear of both sets of casualties.
The 20th Brigade was removed during September 3-4 1941. After the 20th Brigade was relieved, that meant that a Tobruk sector was now held by a non-Australian unit. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

More activities in August 1941 at Tobruk

Developments in the southern sector of Tobruk continued through August 1941. The 2/13th Battalion was on the right of the sector. The 2/17th Battalion was positioned on the left. During this period, both battalions were involved with deep patrolling. The Australians were aware that the enemy were continuing to build their defensive positions. That was particularly true near the roadblock at the El Adem Road. They were busy adding mines to close the gaps in their minefields. At the same time, the Australians were busy creating new gaps in the minefields. On 4 August, a patrol from the 2/17th managed to lift 184 mines and brought them in for their own use.
The 2/13th Battalion had been in their positions from 15 July to 18 August 1941. Their position was conducive to deep patrolling at least in part due to the greater distance of the enemy positions. That allowed them to exit their own positions and move out without being observed. They were still close enough to the enemy positions to be able to reach them and return during the night. One early patrol went out and brought back intelligence of the enemy minefield that they had found. Lt. Martin was a regular leader of patrols and he eventually was in a position to be able to penetrate the enemy lines and move around behind them. They also noticed gun flashes and several patrols out at the same time were able to get bearings on the gun flashes that could be used by the counter-battery group. These were guns that were shelling the harbor area.
On the night of 17-18 August a large group of infantry and engineers ventured out to attack the guns. Lt. Martin commanded the assault group, but they only found empty gun emplacements, although they had been recently used.
By mid-August 1941, improved air support was provided to Tobruk. They aircraft were still prohibited from using the Tobruk air field, but reconnaissance aircraft were occasionally allowed to operate there. On 3 August and 16 August, the RAF carried out air attacks on the German guns located along the coast, east of Tobruk. The RAF also improved their ability to obtain useful photographic reconnaissance of enemy positions near Tobruk. Tobruk was eventually provided a skilled photo interpreter.
When the commander of the 1st RHA received photographs of enemy positions in the south, west of the El Adem Road, he realized that they confirmed the findings of aggressive infantry patrols. He wrote Brigadier Thompson, the fortress artillery commander, and mentioned that the reconnaissance by deep infantry patrols were confirmed by the photographs. He said that they needed to recognize the importance of the deep patrols. Since air reconnaissance had been so lacking, the deep patrols had been very successfully in obtaining the needed information that had been absent. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Tobruk harbor, shelling and air raids

Tobruk harbor was shelled starting on 22 August 1941 and lasted for two days. The first rounds were fired by a battery of German 105mm guns. They fired at long range (about 20,000 yards). More rounds were fired by some 155mm guns similar to what the Australians had previously called "Bardia Bill". They fired from east of the fortress. The British artillery replied with their very efficient counter-battery fire. That stopped the incoming fire on the harbor and fortress until 27 August. On that day, the harbor received about 60 rounds, that in the face of heavy counter-battery fire. In the afternoon on the 27th, the harbor was hit by an air attack. The attackers were some forty bombers and three fighters. They hit not only the harbor but the heavy anti-aircraft gun sites. One casualty of the attack was the whaler Skudd 3 which was sunk. The attacking aircraft had three planes shot down, six more heavily damaged, and many more with some damage.
Late August 1941 and into September included many more air attacks. The attacks were increasingly focused on hitting the anti-aircraft gun sites. The Ju-87 dive bombers (known as Stukas). The attack on 27 August included 35 Stukas. During August 1941, the air defenses at Tobruk fired on about 600 aircraft. 1 September saw a very heavy raid directed at the air defenses. The attackers had some 140 aircraft and the attack lasted about 15 minutes. Two heavy anti-aircraft guns were bombed by 30 Stukas. Level bombers attacked a third gun and dropped about fifty bombs on the site. Field guns were also attacked by another fifteen Stukas. Base areas were attacked by more high-level bombers. The forward defenses on the perimeter were also bombed by high-level bombers. Some of the bombs even hit German or Italian positions. The infantry fired (probably ineffectively) large amounts of small arms and machine gun rounds. Many of the heavy anti-aircraft guns were 3.7in guns, the most modern British heavy anti-aircraft gun. Those guns fired 1,006 rounds in the raid on 1 September. There were a few 102mm guns which fired 111 rounds. The light guns also saw action. The 40mm Bofors guns fired about 1,200 rounds. The 20mm Oerlikon guns fired some 3,000 rounds during the attack. Casualties included one gunner killed and six wounded. Five of the heavy guns were out of action for about four hours after the attack. They believed that they had shot down as many as four enemy aircraft, although they only saw one actually crash. An indication that the defensive fire was pretty effective was that the enemy did not use any more Stukas against Tobruk for the rest of September 1941. This description is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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