Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Late September to early October 1941in the border area between Libya and Egypt

Brother column was located at the North Point position. The 2/7th Field Regiment arrived there before the guards did. The regiment commander, Colonel Eastick, was assigned temporarily as the Brother column commander on 26 September 1941. His temporary assigment lasted until 1 October. They split the 2/7th Regiment into parts again. 14th Battery was assigned to Brother column while 13th Battery was assigned to Sister. One battery from the 2/8th Field Regiment was attached to the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery. The field artillery battery was employed during this period as anti-tank guns.
Even more splitting occurred. One troop from each 2/7th Field Regiment battery were attached to Little Brother and Little Sister. These columns provided the Australian gunners with the best possible desert training. During daylight, the columns were dispersed but with some order. At night, they collapsed down into a small area with a tight perimeter. Another troop was assigned as artillery support to a roving cruiser tank column. This assignment also provided excellent desert training to the Australian gunners.
The 2/7th and 2/8th Field Regiments were told that they would be withdrawn to Palestine to join the 1st Australian Corps, robbing the two regiments of chances to see action. They also were informed about the new organization where each regiment would have three batteries instead of two. The 2/7th Field Regiment would have the 13th, 14th, and 57th Batteries. The 2/8th Field Regiment would have the 15th, 16th, and 58th Batteries.
On 10 October 1941, the 2/8th Field Regiment south east "in desert formation" towards "Hill 69 in Palestine". This was the first time the complete regiment had moved together. They took 8 days to reach their hill in Palestine.
The 2/7th Field Regiment got a temporary reprieve so that they could participate in an offensive operation against Germans. One troop was attached to Little Brother colomn starting on 6 October. During the night of 7 to 8 October, they were asked to fire on a German night leaguer south of Point 207. They at least got rounds that fell near the target area.
Another troop attached to the cruiser tank column participated in a raid that crossed the frontier wire to the south of Sidi Omar. The column that they were in was a mix of armored cars, tanks, and field artillery. The purpose was to take "prisoners, tanks, armoured cars and guns". The guns were from a 105mm battery. The Australian gunners would be asked to "silence" the guns, if they fired. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Changes from 19 September 1941 near the border area between Libya and Egypt

Fait Hope and Char columns had resumed operations near Halfaya Pass after the end of the operations caused by the German reconnaissance in force in September 1941. The resumption of "business as usual" did not last long. The Australian field regiment commander learned that the Scots Guards would be replaced by a brigade of the 4th Indian Division. The Scots Guards would move to the desert above the escarpment. They would take the three Australian batteries with them when they left the coast. Fait column got new orders that included not running on hearing the code word Bicycle. Instead, they would "stand and fight" near the line of the minefield.
The border area received an important visitor on 19 September. General Freyberg came visiting to see the area where the New Zealand Division might be located. That did not prevent the "sniping gun" from firing and drawing Axis return fire. They were successful in causing the enemy to fire many rounds for a few Australian shots.
The Australian 2/7th Field Regiment was replaced on 22 September. The three columns, Fait, Hope, and Char were dissolved. The Australian battery commander heard the news that the 2/8th Field Regiment would arrive in the area. Major Ralph was told that he would be rejoining his regiment in the "Playground" area.
The 2/7th Field Regiment ended up being positioned at Sofafi by 28 September. More Australian artillery was still scattered about. There was a troop at North Point. Two more troops were in the Playground. The remaining units of the 2/8th Field Regiment were near Sidi Barrani, but were moving towards the front area. By 27 September, the 15th Battery was assigned to the 7th Armoured Division. The orders for the 2/8th Regiment were to support the British to the "last man and the last round". The 16th Battery eventually earned a special commendation from the commander of the 4th Indian Division artillery, as being far beyond what anyone had expected.
What now seemed to be expected was that a small group would be expected to sacrifice themselves while defending before any help could reach them. This applied to North Point, the Playground, and the Kennel fortifications. They looked strong on paper but were only weakly held. While the holding forces were called the 3rd Coldstream Guards, the 9th Rifle Brigade, and the 7th Armoured Brigade, the actual forces involved were split into small columns. They were units such as "Little Brother" and "Little Sister". They were placed some 15 to 25 miles in front of the main column. South African armored cars were operating even further forward. The main Brother and Sister columns did not amount to much with the many detachments positioned around the area. The main strength at North Point and Playground were "two infantry companies, two troops of field guns in a normal role, two troops of anti-tank guns, and one or two troops of field guns in an anti-tank role.In addition, there were some engineers, anti-aircraft gun crews, and some infantry providing some defensivc strength for the headquarters units. The troops involved were good enough for what was needed. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Pulling back from the Sunday morning go-round on the coast from 14 to 15 September 1941

The British-Australian columns had blunted the German probe on 14 September. The Germans eventually were withdrawing rapidly to the west. Two columns, Fait (Faith) and Hope got their code words that were to send them back to Sidi Barrani. They headed east at about midnight. Char (Charity) column sat until 4am when they had finally gotten the code word that would send them back to Sidi Barrani. As we mentioned, there were rear-guard detachments left to provide a block to prevent any Germans from approaching the columns while they were retreating to the east. One key point also was protected by a detachement. The Buq Buq water hole had two detachments defending the site. A Troop from the 2/7th Field Regiment had supplied field guns for these two groups. More guns were on the Sofafi track located near Somulus. Another group went south from Sidi Barrani towards Alam el Hammam. They expected to see German tanks heading north and would have engaged them.
At Sidi Barrani, Faith and Hope columns were in place "at first light". Char column was much later arriving, as they had only gotten the code word at 4am. They were in place at Sidi Barrani by 8am.
A false report arrived at Buq Buq at 10:45am on 15 September saying that a German column of tanks was driving north. towards them. The "water point" was blown with some 600 pounds of dynamite. The group had Buq Buq then drove at high speed for Sidi Barrani. There was still one group commanded by Captain Mackay near the coast.
By 2pm on 15 September, the "coast was clear" and the three columns, Fait, Hope, and Char were sent back out to their original spots. The Buq Buq group had just arrived back and was integrated into the columns. The guns that had been at Siwa oasis were back and rejoined their regiment. They had moved back into the "High" spot and the sniping gun had returned to their previous pattern of trying to draw enemy fire with a few shots.
The Germans had claimed only one or two tanks "totally destroyed", but the 2/7th Field Regiment had seen burned out tanks and dead "tankers". The German active tank strength had dropped from 110 before the operation to about 42 after the end of the Midsummer Night's Dream. The most interesting find by the Germans was a British truck with "codes and documents". The truck did not have any information about Operation Crusader, since nothing existed as of yet. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 18, 2017

14 September 1941 on the coast road east of Halfaya Pass

The action on the coast road, during the German operation that commenced on 14 September 1941 commenced a first light. The Australian gunners who were in position had not been given the highly classified intelligence about what to expect. The information had been collected, we believe, through decrypting German communications. A German patrol hit the Scots Guards and caused some casualties. The commander of the 2/7th Field Regiment went to visit his 13th Battery. The first Germans took mortar fire from Point 20 and were also fired upon by Australian carriers. The forward observer called in fire on German troops who were dismounting from their trucks. Enemy shelling came down on the coast road and on the gun set up for sniping on the enemy. The enemy kept firing during the day. The sniping gun went 5 for 225, so they had fired five rounds and heard the enemy fire 225 rounds.
The enemy tried to move forward, but was kept back by artillery fire. When Colonel Eastick had arrived at his battery, he found that communications (by wire) had been lost with forward troops. He ordered that the lines be restored. A lieutenant and a gunner went out to make the repairs. They were able to keep the lines working all day, and got a congratulations from the Scots Guards.
Major Ralph, commander of Char column, saw reports that showed that there were enemy tanks in contact on the desert flank. The units on the high side of the escarpment were set to withdraw to Sidi Barrani. Major Ralph, an Australian officer, ordered the third troop of his battery forward from Sidi Barrani. The troop was to deploy on the holding line to provide a backstop. As Major Ralph read reports about what was happening, he ordered his forward section to pull back to a position that allowed them to cover the minefield.
After receiving the codeword "Bicycle" after 6:30pm, they were to withdraw from the coast at 7:30pm. They were getting more concerned as there were German infantry moving forward towards them. Fortunately, the Australian gunners and the Scots Guards were able to withdraw as night fell. The gunners fired a barrage as the forward section came through, and then loaded up their guns and followed them along the road. Columns Faith, Hope, and Charityqujckly moved out, leaving the Germans behind.
At the first stopping point, they got the word to fall back to Sidi Barrani. By this time, the Germans had turned around and headed back to the west. Columns Faith, Hope, and Charity received orders to follow the rest in their withdrawal to Sidi Barrani. They moved out at about midnight. Char had setup at Samalus and Point 52. They only got the word to move out at about 4am. As the columns moved east, they had left rearguards behind them. The rearguards were given anti-tank guns, field guns, and some Scots Guards. Fait and Hope (the four character abbreviations) reached Sidi Barrani at first light. Char column arrived at about 8am, as they got the word to withdraw on Sidi Barrani much later. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Mid-Summer's Night Dream

"east and south-west".of Bir el Khireigat. After that, they would then hit the 7th Armoured Division which lay to the east. This was not to be a prolonged operation and the 21st Armored Division would return to their position within 24 hours.

Other units would hit the coast sector on Sunday. Despite the usual practice of not having a gun set up to fiire on the beach on Sunday, the day of the attack, there was a gun. Three more guns were set up a short distance behind. The evening before Rommel's attack, the three guns back had been registered.
The main thrust of Rommel's operation was south of the escarpment. Units on the west were told to expect an operation by Axis troops. Rommel was going to have problems, because the British were ready with air power to hit his masses of moving vehicles. Later in the North African campaign, a common practice of dispersal was implemented. But Rommel was oblivious to the issue, surprisingly enough.
When Rommel's operation started on Sunday morning, there were three columns from the 21st Armored Division sweeping on arcs that hoped to catch British battle groups. The British were prepared and fell back to the minefield avoided the three columns. The South African armored cars stayed at a distance and provided a screen for the withdrawing battle groups. When the Germans had moved up to the dummy supply dump, they found "empty desert". The British positions at North Point and the Playground were abandoned. The Germans passed through the British minefield and drove to Sofafi when they ran out of fuel. The Germans went into hedgehog formations when they were hit by the British air attack. They took fire and bombs. At thst point, the Germans pulled back and headed for the rear. Rommel was present and driving in his captured British command car. He had a flat tire, which they struggled to fix.
The Australian gunners on the coast were not privy to prior knowledge about the impending attack. They were all set for a normal day where they would shoot harassing fire. The Australians could hear noise from the direction of Halfaya pass. A British column commander did not explain what was happening. They were finally Early in the morning, the Scots Guards were attacked by a German patrol and took casualties. The patrol was hit by mortar fire and by a carrier patrol. The Australian gunners were supporting the Scots Guards. This based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official history.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Developments near the Egyptian border from July to August 1941

A common failing in the Western Desert in 1941 was that training was given short shrift at a time when training was greatly needed. The South African division became the latest victim of this problem when the division was put to work digging defenses, when they needed to be training for their expected combat role. The Middle East Command was the chief culprit in neglecting training to make time for the latest priority. This problem had been a problem prior to Operation Crusader and continued to be a problem following the battle. This problem was not solved until much later when General Montgomery arrived on the scene after August 1942. The Australian historian does acknowledge that the El Alamein position built would be useful a year later.
During August until early September, the 22nd Guards Brigade was holding the coastal area near Halfaya Pass. They were organized into three columns. The names Faith, Hope, and Charity were shortened to the first four letters: Fait, Hope, and Char. There were other units nearby. The 7th Support Group was located at North Point. The 4th Indian Division headquarters was located at Sofafi. The 7th Armoured Division occupied what was called the "Playground". The 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment provided screening and reconnaissance forward of the minefield.
In late July 1941, the Austrakuab field regiments were moved forward. One troop from the 2/7th Field Regiment was sent to Siwa Oasis. Siwa had become the headquarters of the Long Range Desert Group. A battery from the 2/8th Field Regiment was assigned to Char column. The battery commander, Major Johnston, became the column commander. During the night of 30-31 August, another battery relieved the previous battery, but Major Johnston remained behind as column commander.
Major Argent had spent five months in the frontier area. He and his anti-tank battery were pulled into Mersa Matruh and placed under Brigadier Ramsey's orders. Most of the 2/7th Field Regiment moved on 2 September to the coast sector. They were replaced at Mersa Matruh by a South African field regiment. The regiment's commander, Colonel Eastick became the Coast Sector artillery commander. There were three Australian field artillery batteries, three anti-tank gun batteries, and one light anti-aircraft battery, presumably equipped with 40mm Bofors guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Developments at Mersa Matruh in 1941

In September 1941, Mersa Matruh was occupied by considerable force. The 1st South African Division manned the perimeter and were supported by a machine-gun battalion. The machine gunners happened to be Australians. They had some artillery: "three field artillery regiments and two anti-tank batteries". The artillery commander was from the 9th Australian Division, a brigadier. In the usual ironic situation, the 9th Australian Division was sent to Cyrenaica to train, as the conventional wisdom at that date was that this was a back-water location where nothing much could be expected to happen. The conventional wisdom did not acknowledge the presence of General Rommel, who upended everyone's calculations, even the Germans and Italians. Tje 9th Australian Division, since they did not expect any action, had left their artillery at their base. While this frustrated the gunners, this saved them from being caught up in the chaos in Cyrenaica when Rommel first attacked, and besides, the gunners were lacking equipment. The 9th Australian Division was forced to depend on British artillery located in Cyrenaica.
The changing situation soon left the Australian gunners providing the second and third lines of defense for Egypt. After that happened, the British were sufficiently motivated to find vehicles and guns to equip the Australians. They were given old guns, such as 18pdrs and 4.5in howitzers. The Australians received their equipment near Alexandria. They got a taste of the desert environment before being sent to Mersa Matruh. Two regiments arrived at Mersa Matruh, but the 2/12th Field Regiment was sent to Tobruk.
Two British field regiments were covering the coastal area. They initially moved up guns in the dark so that they could reach the Halfaya area. They figured out a better plan, which was to to move one gun up on the sand dunes and shoot at whatever movement that they could observe. This usually drew a disproportionate amount of return fire. They reported results as if it were a cricket score. For example: "195 for 10" meant that they had fired ten rounds and caused the enemy to fire 195 rounds. An Australian officer was permitted to command the operation for 23 July 1941. His gun fired 28 rounds at a "working party", vehicles traversing Halfaya Pass, and probably destroyed a staff car.
When the Australian gunners had arrived at Mersa Matruh, they realized that they needed to improve and expand the artillery positions. One important point that they realized was that the defensive perimeter needed to be expanded to enclose the high ground that dominated the site and harbor. They did not want to provide the enemy with access to the position which overlooked the site. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Further developments in August to September 1941 in North Africa

The German army command had tried to restrict Rommel's activities, because they were concerned about the supply line to North Africa. They had sent General Gause to be their man between the Army and Rommel. Instead, General Gause became Rommel's chief of staff and they got along well. Hitler was at work, much as was Churchill, because he was concerned about the losses sustained at sea. His first move was to divert the X Air Corps to change its mission to one of providing air protection for the convoys to North Africa. Their mission had been to attack Egypt.
All this was in accord with Rommel's plan of having an Army Group Africa, with himself as commander. Rommel was happy. He informed his wife that he and General Gause, his Chief of Staff, got along well, and Rommel was very pleased that was the case.
The situation was similar for both the British and Axis forces. They both had pulled their armored forces back from contact at the border between Libya and Egypt. The Germans kept their two armored reconnaissance units in a screen. The units both were based on mobile forces equipped with the German six-wheeled armored cars with 20mm gun armament. The British front was about six miles east of Halfaya pass. They were above the escarpment and were covered by a mine field. They had constructed fortifications, although the terrain did not favor having a strong defensive line.
The opposing forces had a gap that was not occupied, except by occasional marauding mobile forces. The British groups eventually became known as "Jock Columns" while the Germans were using ad hoc battle groups. They both were used for reconnaissance and to provide a means for engaging the enemy. The Australian historian gives some credit to Churchill for being impatient with a situation where his men were "shadow boxing" and never could "land a punch". This was the only spot where the British were in contact with German forces and could potentially fight actions.
We find that the British orders were to stake out spots in the desert to let the enemy know that if they went past them, there would be a battle. The truth was that the British were told that if the enemy came with a substantial force, that they were not to fight, but to withdraw towards Sidi Barrani. That gave the British commanders on the spot a mindset to be ready to flee, so as not to be trapped. They were not thinking about fighting, but about running away. East of Sidi Barrani was Mersa Matruh with a port and railhead. The place had defense built along similar lines to those at Tobruk. "New Zealand railway construction engineers" had extended the rail line further to the west. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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