Monday, January 29, 2018

Churchill tries to bulldoze the Australian government in late September and October 1941

The British prime minister, Mr. Churchill, was determined to get the Australian government to agree not to withdraw their last two brigades from Tobruk during the moonless period in October 1941. Churchill's argument did not really have any firm basis in fact, but it was the principle of the thing that drove him to press the Australians. Churchill sent a telegram to the Australian prime minister, now  Mr. Fadden, telling him that General Auchinleck had wanted to resign over the Australian government's lack of confidence in him. Churchill told the prime minister that he was asking him to not withdraw the two brigades in the interest of comradeship with the British forces. The timing was bad, because Mr. Fadden's government had fallen and the Labour party was assembling a new government at the time that Churchill's telegram had arrived on 30 September 1941.
Mr. Curtin, the leader of the Labour Party was busy forming the new government. Mr. Fadden consulted with him and then answered Churchill's telegram with a refusal to stop the withdrawal. Mr. Fadden told Churchill that it was not the case that the Australian government lacked confidence in General Auchinleck. Churchill then notified Auchinleck of the Australian response.
Mr. Curtin, the new Australian prime minister, responded to yet another message from Churchill, saying that the previous government had considered all the issues when arriving at a decision, and the new government would make no changes. Churchill replied that he regretted the Australian decision, but he notified General Auchinleck to proceed with the relief of the remaining two brigades. Churchill was very unhappy that other issues caused the start of Operation Crusader to be postponed to 18 November 1941.
Churchill then sent a stern note to General Auchinleck complaining about the delay, when there had been some 4-1/2 months since any other major operation. Meanwhile, the Russians were thought to be getting battered severely by the Germans and the British were not doing anything to help, Churchill believed. The Australian governments felt obligated to follow the advice from their senior officer in the Middle East, General Blamey, rather than submit to pressure from Churchill that would have caused them to have to ignore General Blamey.This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, January 26, 2018

The British tried to keep from having to remove the rest of the Australians from Tobruk in September 1941

Upon the completion of Operation Supercharge, there were still two Australian brigades left in Tobruk. Churchill, in particular, wanted to not withdraw the brigades, at least not prior to Operation Crusader. The last two Australian brigades fully expected to be withdrawn during the next moonless periods. The British 16th Brigade had arrived and advance group from the 6th Division headquarters were in place in Tobruk. The British units were already being familiarized with the ground that they would defend. The British soldiers met the Australians and socialized with them.
Churchill and his military leadership planned to complain about the impact of the further withdrawal on Operation Crusader. Churchill was always optimistic about the possibilities for future operations. He could visualize announcing in Parliament that the new 8th Army had pushed through and relieved Tobruk and had destroyed the enemy armored forces on the way.That vision seemed much more important than the Australian government's insistence that the division that had been in Tobruk for about six months needed to be withdrawn.
The British thought that they could plead that establishing an ascendancy in the air over the Axis air forces would be compromised by having to provide air cover for the final Australian removal from  Tobruk. The unmentioned reason for the British low capability in the air was that they were still unwilling to send Spitfires to the Middle East. That left the RAF in North Africa with Hurricanes and Tomahawks, which were outclassed by Bf-109 fighters.
The truth was that despite having to provide air cover for the relief convoys removing Australians from Tobruk, They already were committed to provide air cover for the regular supply convoys. These were mainly carried in destroyers which had a limited capacity for cargo. To unload at the Tobruk harbor, some ships were moored to jetties while others were tied up to sunken ships and others were simply anchored while lighters moved the cargo ashore.
Air Marshal Tedder wrote a message to the Chief of the Air Staff. The gist of the message that if the enemy continued to refrain from attacks on shipping, the continued relief could proceed without having a great impact. If they did decide to attack the convoys, then the burden on the RAF would greatly increase due to the continued removal of the Australians from Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol. III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Operation Supercharge in September 1941

The British had expected that the enemy air forces would attack the relief convoys that were carried out as part of Operation Supercharge. The attacks either did not occur or were ineffective. The only air attack occurred on 19 September 1941 on a convoy of landing craft coming from Mersa Matruh with a cargo of tanks. At this point in the war, the landing craft were called "lighters".  Bombs were dropped by the attacking aircraft, but they fell into the sea about a half a mile from the landing craft. The only problems encountered during Operation Supercharge occurred when the small craft involved had some defect that prevented them from sailing to Tobruk. The day after the air attack, there were three schooners had sailed for Tobruk. None of them arrived at Tobruk due to various problems.
During Operation Supercharge, not quite six thousand men were transported out of Tobruk. This number included 544 wounded soldiers. Their replacements in the number of 6,300 men arrived at Tobruk. The operation interfered with supplies for Tobruk, so more than 1,000 tons less than had arrived during July and August 1941. This was partly due to the destroyers having to make room for soldiers and partly because the landing craft were carrying tanks rather than supplies. They also had restricted shipping to and from Tobruk to periods when the RAF could provide air cover.
Shipping traveling to Tobruk was stopped pending a conference to be held on 30 August to discuss supplies for Tobruk. Shipping continued to be suspended for a time following the conference.
The importance of restricting convoys to days when there was no moon was demonstrated on the night of 8 to 9 September when a convoy of destroyers ran in to Tobruk during time when there was moonlight. The destroyers were bombed while entering the Tobruk Harbor and when they departed. Two of the destroyers narrowly missed being hit by bombs. As soon as three days later, another convoy sailed when there was moonlight and it was bombed very early in the day.
Tobruk needed some 1,500 tons of supplies per day. That included about 20 tons a day of petrol. The supply that arrived averaged about 32 tons a day less than was needed. The situation was actually better than the figures would indicate, because "actual ration strength" was less than the nominal figure of 25,000 that was used for planning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Preparations to withdraw from Tobruk from 17 September 1941

Since preparations were to be secret, only rumors hinted at the entire 9th Australian Division would be removed from Tobruk as the 18th Brigade had been. There were necessary warnings to units that would be pulled out during the next moonless period. The units that received notice were the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, the 24th Brigade except for the 2/43rd Battalion, the 2/12th Field Regiment, the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, along with several batteries from the 3rd RHA. The 2/7th Field Company was attached to the 24th Brigade, so they would leave as well. The British 16th Brigade would replace the Australian 24th Brigade. There was further shuffling of units to free up the units that would leave Tobruk.
The 2/12th Field Regiment had been very active during their time in Tobruk. They had fired off some 56,000 rounds and had lost 24 men killed and 24 wounded. A group of the 2/12th left Tobruk on the night of 18 September. The 2/12th would trade places with the 144th Field Regiment at Amiriya in Egypt. The 144th took over the odd collection of guns from the 2/12th Field Regiment and a disreputable set of gun tractors. In Egypt, the 2/12th Field Regiment received good 25pdrs and gun tractors left behind by the 144th Field Regiment.
The way things worked in the topsy-turvy world of the British military family, some men in Tobruk were stuck with Great War-vintage 18pdr guns, while other units away from the enemy were equipped with the latest gear. The men in Tobruk did not know of this situation so they had no problem using whatever guns they could get.
When the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion left Tobruk, that was their last association with the 9th Australian Division. They had been involved in heavy action since 1 May 1941, when they had built a line to defend against the German attack that penetrated the Tobruk perimeter. They would be replaced in the future by the 2nd/3rd Pioneers.
During the dark nights in September, 29 tanks were transported to Tobruk by A-lighters. The old 3rd Armoured Brigade headquarters was replaced by the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. The incoming tanks belonged to the 4th RTR. At their arrival, the tanks were still under the control of General Morshead, the fortress commander. He only had limited control, however, since General Morshead was required to request that the tanks be made available for attacks. The request was always granted, however.
Tbe relief operation was called "Operation Supercharge". The British Royal Navy excuted the withdrawal from 17 September until 27 September 1941. They used two fast minelayers of the Abdiel class and about 11 destroyers. Only any one night, one minelayer and three destroyers would enter and leave Tobruk's harbor. They stayed only two hours each night. Three cruisers of the 7th Cruiser Squadron provided cover for the withdrawal. They were concerned that Axis air power would be used against the evacuation, but that did not happen. This is based on account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The White Cairn on 13 and 14 September 1941 south and east of Tobruk

A patrol from the 2/28th Battalion was sent to attack the feature they called the White Cairn. This was south and east of Tobruk. The patrol was small, some 27 men including two engineers. They approached the White Cairn at about 11:30pm and attacked from two sides. There were three sections in the patrol. One section attacked on the right and another two sections attacked on the left.
The defenders of the White Cairn were all Italians. Prisoners taken  included an artillery officer from the Bologna Division. The officer carried interesting documents including his diary. A truck drove the officer back to the Australian division headquarters where he was questioned. The officer had been involved with operations involving Point 146, which was where the Jack Observation Post was located. That night, afte 1:30am, Jack outpost reported to 2/28th Battalion that they were being attacked. The battalion kept two carriers at the ready to drive out and rescue men from observation posts, so they were sent to Jack. Jack was manned by seven men commanded by a corporal. About 300 yards south of Jack were a 12 man patrol. The attackers were found to be Germans. They fired automatic weapons at the Germans, but the attackers were numerous and overran Jack, where the survivors surrendered. The commander of Jack, Corporal France was a prisoner and he was taken to see General Rommel "who congratulated him on his courage and his men's effective resistance".
The carriers arrived a Jack during the fighting. They retrieved most of the 12 man patrol and drove back to the divisional headquarters where they reported to Colonal Lloyd. Colonel Lloyd sent out a larger force with carriers to try and get to Jack. The commander of the force reported back that they enemy had occupied Jack and had the support of "three to five tanks". The information from the captured Italian officer was that Jack would be attacked by "German pioneers and engineers with "six German and three captured Matilda tanks". They heard that the enemy planned attacks against more of the outposts "on the next four nights".
Colonel Lloyd requested that the 104th RHA fire on Jack, so they fired five rounds at the post. The Australians would have liked to have had more artillery fire, but the rules about restricting firing to save ammunition kept them from firing more. Eventually higher authority in the form of the Tobruk fortress artillery commander allocated the 60 pounder guns and removed the restrictions so that they could be more effective. By the dawn on 14 September, the men in the sector that included the 2/28th Battalion were put on alert. They expected to be attacked, so six Matildas were moved forward in support. Later, they could hear tanks moviing, but there was no attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Two Australian attacks on enemy positions near Tobruk on 13-14 September 1941

On the night of 13-14 September 1941 the 24th Brigade planned to execute two raids against the enemy soldiers to the south of Tobruk. One raid was to be made by men from the 2/32nd Battalion. The other was to be made by men from the 2/28th Battalion. The 2/32nd Battalion would be supported by a patrol from the 2/43rd Battalion, which would block any involvement by troops from Bir Ghersa, to the east of Dalby Square, the name they gave the enemy position they would attack. The Dalby Square was perhaps four and a half miles south from the Tobruk Perimeter. The 2/28th Battalion would send out a raiding party to the east of Bir Ghersa. The position they would attack was called the White Cairn.
The raid on Dalby Square was commanded by a Captain. He had previously raided the position twice, so he knew the area pretty well. They had found the position was very strong. In preparation, the attackers had rehearsed the attack.
The Dalby Square raiding party consisted of 60 men, with men from two platoons. They had mortars and crew, eight stretcher bearers, and seven engineers. They left post R69 at about 9pm on 13 September. They were able to arrive near Dalby Square without having been seen, so they had the element of surprise. They formed up for the attack with the engineers in the lead. They would need to blow holes in the wire. The raid commander accompanied the engineers. A platoon followed them with sections spaced out. Another platoon followed them in similar formation. The company headquarters followed them in the rear. They would be supported by a 2in mortar positioned on the north side.
As the raiding force for Dalby Square neared the position, they took some intermittent fire. At 75 yards, the enemy opened up on them with mortars and machine guns. The noise was so load, the first platoon commander couldn't tell if the engineers had succeed in blowing holes in the wire. When they reached the wire, they found that it was still intact. They stopped while the engineers fired bangalore torpedoes to break the wire. At that point, the first platoon charged into Dalby Square. The second platoon commander was hit, so a warrant officer took command and they followed thte first platoon into the position. Responsibilities were allocated by section. They attempted to do their tasks, but they only had limited success. About one-third of the raiding force were wounded. They were taking fire from some enemy posts, so the raiders collected their wounded and pulled out.The raiders had two men killed and five missing. They brought out two prisoners and thought that they had killed some twenty enemy soldiers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Defending Tobruk in September 1941

The situation with respect to enemy artillery firing on the Tobruk harbor remained unchanged after the artillery duel in early September 1941. The RAF and the army had been unable to silence the enemy guns that had been bombarding the harbor at Tobruk. The navy was somewhat more successful than the RAF and army forces. The original plan was for HMS Gnat, a gunboat, to fire on the enemy guns, but the Gnat had engine trouble, so HMS Aphis arrived on the night of 15-16 September and fired on the guns. The RAF and army also participated in the attack on the enemy guns. Guns from Tobruk fired on the enemy guns to show the RAF where to hit. The aircraft dropped flares to illuminate the target. The Aphis then hit them with its guns. They succeeded in stopping the enemy from firing on the harbor for eight days. That was meaningful, because that covered most of the time when there was no moon visible at night. That aided the process of relieving more of the Australian units.
When September 1941 started, Rommel had decided to attack Tobruk from the southeast. That was also the area that had seen the least development of defensive positions by the enemy forces. There was an open area in the vicinity of "the El Adem and Bardia Roads" that had a screen of five outposts manned by the battalions holding those segments of the Tobruk perimeter. The outposts had all been given amusing names. Outpost Plonk was located near Bir el Azazi. The outpost was created on 15 August by the 2/15th Battalion. Going clockwise ("from right to left") were Bob and Bash, eventually renamed as Bondi and Tugun a month later. The next outposts were called Jill and Jack. They had been renamed from outposts Jed and Normie. The 24th Brigade now held the east sector. Their outposts were "Bob and Bash" as we mentioned. They were occupied by men from the 2/43rd Battalion. Men from the 2/28th Battalion occupied outposts Jack and Jill. There were also two outputs, very small, on the side of the Wadi Zeitan towards the enemy. These were located north of the Bardia Road.
The area north of the Derna Road was the scene of active patrolling and small but violent actions between Australian patrols and enemy troops occupying positions. This was near where "the rock shelf was gashed by the cliff-walled Wadi Sehel". "Standing patrols" operated on the enemy's side on the other side of the gorge. This was dangerous business, because on 8 September, one patrol was "shot up" by artillery and small arms fire. The goal was to gather information about enemy defenses so that reports could be passed up the chain of command. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Tobruk shelliing from September 1941 onwards

Conditions changed at Tobruk after the heavy air raid on 1 September 1941. The pressure from the air continued, but the main problem was shelling from artillery. The ammunition shortage continued, so that British manufactured guns were only allowed to fire ten rounds a day. The next major development saw the ammuntion depot with Italian ammunition was bombed and destroyed. That meant that Italian 75mm and 100mm guns fell under the same restrictions. During August, a great deal of ammunition arrived by sea. Most of the ammunition went to the front line units, so only 100 rounds were added to the ammunition reserve. At the end of August, there were 101,993 rounds at Tobruk.
Starting in September, the procedure for counter-battery fire changed. The guns would fire one-after-another, but timed with stopwatches so that all the rounds would hit the target simultaneously. The guns that fired on the Tobruk harbor were troublesome-enough that there were planned artillery attacks where the number of rounds restriction was ignored so that they could counteract the "harbor guns".
For example, a storeship that had been converted from a trawler, was to arrive in the Tobruk harbor at 4:30am. The ship was late, however, and arrived after dawn. The guns attacking the harbor were effective and slowed the unloading process. The 104th RHA had two troops return fire wqith 353 rounds. Enemy counter-battery fire was effective and hit one of the two troops, "killing one man and wounding two others." On 4 September, there was a meeting where the issue was discussed. The new plan was when the enemy was firing on the harbor, to ask the navy how much problem was caused. If the firing was very troublesome, they would do counter-battery firing and bring in other guns to hit the "enemy counter-battery guns".
On 6 September, the enemy fired on the port and hit a jetty used for destroyers. They also hit the 104th RHA troop that they had hit previously and on a troop of 60-pounder guns from the 2/12th Regiment. The new plan went into effect and some 350 25pdr rounds and 77 60-pounder rounds. Afterwards, they observed an ambulance leaving the enemy position. The Tobruk guns had not taken any casualties, showing the effectiveness of the new plan. On 7 September, both sides had another go at the artillery battle. The RAF hit the enemy gun positions. When one gun still fired on the harbor, The 25pdrs and 60pdrs responded with counter-battery fire. The enemy gun and the 60pdrs fired at each other. The 60pdrs fired the last rounds, so they won the impromptu duel. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

The 12 October 1941 raid and issues with aritillery operations

The raid on the Germans started early on 12 October 1941. Visibility had dropped dramatically due to a heavy mist. The raid had started at the first light of the day. Even though visibility was low, there was much noise created by the Australian gun tractors. They crossed an area covered by discarded tin containers. By the time the mist had cleared off, they found that the German tanks and guns were gone. Presumably, they had heard the sound of the vehicles crossing the area where the tins were scattered and left their position. There were still five German armored cars at the site, One of the cars was taken as well as four German soldiers. The ammunition and fuel storage were destroyed.
The RAF had provided air cover for the raid with 12 Hurricane fighters. They were outclassed by the German Messerschmitt fighters which shot down half of the Hurricanes. While the raiders left the battlefield, another fight occurred between Tomahawk fighters and more Messerschmitts. One German fighter strafed Colonel Eastick's vehicle. Colonel Eastick and an American observer observed a parachuting Tomahawk pilot "shot out of his harness". They retrieved the pilot's body and buried him with a Christian burial service.
Colonel Eastick, the 2/7th Field Regiment commander, his staff, and observers drove to the headquarters of the Little Brother column. They were to see an operation designed by Colonel Eastick. A target would be hit by his field guns working with Fleet Air Arm bombers. The field guns belonged to E and F troops of the 2/7th Field Regiment. They were going to strike "Point 207".  The operation would commence at "half an hour after midnight". The bombers were planned to be over the target area at this time. The field guns would  "delineate the target by predicted searching fire". The Fleet Air Arm bombers would drop their bombs, incendiary devices, and flares for a period of about 15 minutes. The guns would wait for some 15 minutes and then they would hit the target with a heavy bombardment. The operation went well, because it was planned well and there were no mishaps. The Australian gunners had some concerns that they might be hit by counter-battery fire made poossible by shooting from the same location twice. The enemy might well have located the guns by the flashes, but this did not happen. The results were observed and fires and explosions were seen, indicating that the operation had succeeded.
The 2/7th Field Regiment turned over their duties to the 1st Field Regiment. By 16 October, the regiment started their long drive to Palestine. When the regiment "reached the Wadi Nastrun", they were informed that the plan had changed and that they should drive to Cairo, to "the Royal Artillery Base Depot". At this point, they did not realize the benefits that would accrue from being at the depot, where they could complete their equipment and get valuable training. This is based on the account in Vol.III of theAustralian Official History.

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