Wednesday, February 21, 2018

More action near the 2/17th Battalion from 11th to 12th October 1941 at Tobruk

Early on 11 October 1941, Tobruk artillery fired on the outpost Plonk that had been occupied by enemy troops. The Australians could hear "yelling and screaming" after the artillery fire on Plonk. They heard tools tossed into trucks and then the trucks drove off. Again, at 6am, Tobruk artillery fired on Plonk. A patrol investigated Plonk after that and saw men walking about the area. They drew more artillery and machine gun fire. About this time, the enemy artillery fired on the 2/17th Battalion defenses, as was usually the case. Right before 8am, the Australians observed more men at Plonk and fired on them. The enemy responded with more artillery fire on the Australians. Between haze and dust, the Australians could no longer see Plonk.
Between 8:30am and 9am, increasing numbers of tanks were seen near the 2/17th Battalion. The battalion positions were machine-gunned. They were not used to having so much activity near them. They found that the enemy troops had moved back into the Tugun outpost. The Australians were concerned that the enemy might make a major attack on the 2/17th Battalion front. A practice attack near Carmusa by 2/15th Battalion soldiers and tanks from the 32nd Army Tank Brigade was cancelled due to the enemy activity. All of the 20th Brigade was kept at the ready, rather than proceeding with training. By 9:45am, they saw twelve enemy tanks "hull-down" near Plonk. Despite the activity, no attack was launched by the enemy.
By the next night, the 11-12 October 1941, General Morshead ordered the 20th Brigade to attack and retaked Plonk. They would no use Plonk but would create a new outpost to be called Cooma. The plan was to keep the enemy from advancing their line towards the Australians. The infantry directly involved would be from the 2/17th Battalion with support from the 4th RTR in the form of one squadron. The 2/17th Battalion would have one company of the 2/13th Battalion in reserve. The attack would have the 107th RHA firing a bombardment to soften up the enemy. If possible, the 1st RHA would fire smoke in the area of the enemy minefield.
Two platoons from the 2/17th Battalion made the attack. They expected to see tanks coming up in support, but the plan for the tanks was to move at 5 mph with a mile between tanks. That meant that they were not immediately available. At the time of the infantry attack, the tanks were just at the perimeter wire. The enemy artillery fire was so heavy, that two other Australian battalions, the 2/23rd and 2/24th were readied for use. The attacking platoons would then attack without the tanks. After some fits and starts, the new plan was to attack at 12:15am. The artillery would fire in support, again. The tanks that were still running would join in the attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Operations from 10 October 1941 at Outpost Plonk

General Morshead became involved with the defense of Outpost Plonk on 10 October 1941. He was not ready to allow territory to be ceded to the enemy without a fight. General Morshead ordered the 2/17th Battalion to defend Plonk. The brigade commander told the battalion that they should hold Plonk with two sections of infantry and with an anti-tank gun section. The guns would be supplied by the 20th Anti-Tank Company. The battalion commander was free to add to the defensive force as he saw fit.
The 2/17th Battalion commander decided to send out working parties to accompany the "standing patrol", They would build additional defense with wire and mines. They would also dig gun and weapon pits. A platoon was positioned about 300 yards south to provide cover. The standing patrol had "four light machine guns and two mortars". The men arrived at outpost Plonk at 7:50pm. The enemy started firing artillery at the general area. The firing lasted "more than half an hour". They took some casualties from the artillery fire. The working parties were pulled into the position. The artillery fire did not stop, so the working parties tried to work while under fire. The explosions raised dust which reduced visibility "to five yards". By about 9:20pm, they had lost communication with the battalion. The 2/17th commander heard that tanks had been seen moving. The trucks that carried the anti-tank guns had been disabled. The command of the working parties decided to attempt to recover the anti-tank guns. Tanks were reported to be circling Plonk. A reconnaissance patrol had seen 11 large tanks and five armored infantry carriers, presumably half-tracks. The infantry were recognized as being Italian.
The trucks with anti-tank guns were recovered. One gun was disabled but was eventually repaired. The standing patrol had been forced to leave Plonk to the enemy. When the 9th Australian Division headquarters learned of the situation, they had no further orders for the 2/17th Battalion. The battalion was taking heavy artillery fire by around 3am. From then until about 7am, the battalion received about 2,000 rounds of artillery shells.
The 2/Queens also also received heavy artillery fire. They had wanted to work on a new outpost, but they were taking too much artillery fire to work. The enemy had had active tanks near the old Tugun outpost. They had departed by 5:30am. Normally, the Australians were dominant at night in "no-man's land", but that was only the case in the west side of Tobruk. Men from the 2/43rd Battalion had decimated some Italian infantry near the "White Knoll". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The British and Australians respond to the enemy activity near Plonk and Bondi

The response to the enemy tank activity near the outposts of Plonk and Bondi was to send out sixteen infantry tanks and two light tanks to Plonk. This was at 9:45pm apparently on 7 October 1941 at Tobruk. They were to fight any enemy tanks that they encountered and defeat them. Men from the 2/17th Battalion and "an engineer party" were to remove anti-tank mines near the Plonk outpost. Other mines laid near the path that enemy tanks had taken were also removed. The minefield on the perimeter would have two gaps created. Anti-tank guns would be sited to protect the gaps. The gaps were for the British tanks to drive through on their return.
Two men set out from Plonk "to the enemy minefield to the south". They noticed that a forty yard gap had been created and tape laid to mark the gap. The Australian men removed the tape that they had found. They also fired on a working party they encountered. They were followed by ten enemy soldiers as they walked back to Plonk.
As it got dark, the men at Plonk could hear engine noises from the direction of Bondi. They called in artillery fire on the area around Bondi. That kept enemy tanks from entering the post. Communication failed with Bondi sometime after 9pm. By a little after 10pm, two men arrived who had escaped from Bondi. They heard the news that Plonk had been overrun by German tanks and infantry.
The Matilda infantry tanks drove slowly to Plonk to reduce the engine noise. As they approached, they heard that Bondi had fallen. They also heard that the enemy had fired on Plonk with artillery. After the tanks reached Plonk, they heard German tanks moving closer. The British tanks drove out towards the German tanks and started firing at 100 yards distance. That was fairly close range for a tank battle, and the infantry tank squadron commander was wounded when his tank was disabled. The fight lasted about 15 minutes. The German tanks drove off with the British in pursuit. The German tanks were faster than the Matildas, so the Matildas quickly fell behind. One Matilda had mechanical problems, so it drove into Plonk. That tank fought a battle with five German tanks and drove them off from Plonk. About this time, the men at Plonk were called back to the perimeter. Some time after midnight, a patrol came back to Plonk and found that the enemy had not taken possessiion, so they stayed in occupation of the post. During the rest of the night, they could hear enemy tank engines, but they did not attack Plonk.
The 2/17th Battalion policy was to hold outposts, but they would not attempt to hold the ground between the outposts and the perimeter. The commander decided that they would hold plonk and defend the area. They would have anti-tank guns as protection against tanks. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Action in early October 1941 at Tobruk

During the night of 2 to 3 October 1941, the 16th Brigade was involved in fighting when a patrol from the 2/Queens had contact with an enemy patrol south of the Tobruk perimeter. The enemy soldiers threw grenades and the British fired at them. The enemy soldiers withdrew faster than the British chased them. In the evening, men from the 2/Leicester took machine gun fire from Italian positions some 600 yards away. The British fired back with artillery and mortars, stopping the machine gun fire. This action occurred on the west side of Tobruk.
Australians were in action on the night of 5 to 6 October in the south. A small patrol from the 2/17th Battalion moved out some 2,400 yards to a position near an enemy minefield. They observed two groups of men being led through the minefield. A third group was following behind. They alternated crawling and then walking fast. The Australian patrol lay low to escape being seen. Then they moved close to an Italian "working party". They opened fire on the Italians with great effect. Machine guns and "light automatic weapons" opened up on them. The Australians "scattered towards the north" and finally reached their listening post through a "pipe-line ditch".
The action at this point seemed to all be at night. During the next night, up until dawn, the 2/17th Battalion could see tanks on the move. They were near the pipeline and to the west of outpost Plonk. Plonk had three observation posts, one of which was occupied. Outpost Bondi was some 3,000 yards west of Plonk. Men from the 2/Queens were at Bondi. Tanks were seen further west from Plonk. The tanks approached to a mile from the perimeter. The Australian battalion commander guessed that the tanks were operating to defend working parties.
Men at Plonk reported five tanks moving towards them at 12:25am. They saw more tanks near the pipeline. The Australians employed tank-hunting patrols armed with "68" grenades. This time, they got some hits against one of the tanks. Due to the concern about tanks, the men at Plonk were withdrawn and not replaced. The 107th RHA opened up on the tanks near Biir el Azazi at dawn. In response, enemy artillery fired on the perimeter. Divebombers hit the positions occupied by the 104th and 107th RHA. They knocked out two guns and killed three gunners.
The Australian brigade commander ordered the 2/17th to move back into Plonk. Right before it got dark, sappers moved out to lay  mines on the route the tanks had taken. An infantry patrol moved towards Plonk, hoping to move back into the post. The patrol had to take cover when tanks were seen, but after they moved off, the men moved back into Plonk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The new situation after the British 16th Brigade arrived in September 1941

The newly arrived British 16th Brigade went in with an aggressive spirit and a positive attitude. They were going to take the Australian outposts and set them up as Observation Posts. They would then concentrate on "offensive patrolling". Despite that plan, the truth was that the outposts outside the wire ended up being taken by the enemy soldiers and setup as "defended localities". The plan was still to plan on dealing with enemy attacks. There was cause for concern, because the enemy outgunned the 104th RHA, which was supporting the 16th Brigade when they would take over from the Australian 20th Brigade. The 104th RHA had 24 guns, two of which were anti-aircraft guns. The anti-aircraft guns were only there in case of a tank attack, when they would be manned and available to fire on enemy tanks. They only had 16 25-pdr guns, 4-60pdr medium guns, and 2-Italian 149mm guns. The enemy was thought to have 52-field guns, 16-medium guns, and two heavy guns. Given that the enemy had much more artillery, the 104th RHA expected that the enemy could be expected to attack.
The 20th Brigade really did not understand the situation very well, because all they saw made the enemy seem to be at a considerable distance. Still, the 20th Brigade commander expected that any attack would be likely to come against the line south of the Bardia Road. The 20th Brigade didn't like the defenses, because the secondary line were small enough that when there were two battalions, one from the division reserve and one from the brigade reserve, the second line was "congested". The second line of defense was too far back from the perimeter, so that the brigade reserve battalion was remote from the perimeter. They wanted to build a new position that was closer to the perimeter.
The 16th Brigade arrived to replace the Australian 20th Brigade on 25, 26, and 27 September. The next day, 16th Brigade took responsibility for the defense of the area. Two British battalions were in the line and one was in reserve on the secondary line. During the first two days of October 1941, the Polish Carpathian Brigade replaced the Australian 26th Brigade in the west. The 26th Brigade then was made the division reserve brigade. They had spent 8 weeks in the high-pressure Salient.
The western sector had four battalions. When the Polish Carpathian Brigade arrived, the 2/43rd Battalion stayed in place. The Polish cavalry had been in the Wadi Schel, so they now were back with their parent unit. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Who was right? Into the last days of the 9th Australian Division in Tobruk

In retrospect, we can now say that Churchill's complaints about the 9th Australian Division removal were overblown. There were no great effects by the removal. If the German air force had been attacking during the withdrawal, the situation could have been critical, but they were not. Operation Crusader was not materially affected by the Australian relief operation. The issues that caused the operation to be in jeopardy had nothing to do with the Australians. The issues were British problems, not Australian. Churchill was more concerned about the political impact of delaying the offensive in North Africa. The British at the time were unaware of the impending Japanese attack planned for December 1941. That was going to cause the most trouble for Churchill and the British forces.
Towards the end of the Australian participation in the defense of Tobruk, the Salient was the most dangerous area. From August to September 1941, the 2/24th Battalion worked to re-position the wire to help the 2/13th Field Company. They did the work on the left side of the Salient from "18 August to 1 September". They moved the wire on the right side of the Salient starting on 8 September and finishing on 25 September. When moving the wire, the presence of German anti-personnel mines took a toll.
We find that by September, there were some peculiar behaviors in place. For one thing, there was what the Australian historian called "live and let-live" to some extent by the Australian and Axis troops. Most of the time, German patrols were defensive in nature. They only rarely made attempts to penetrate the Australian positions. One exception occurred on 11 September, when a German patrol was spotted and ambushed. They killed three men and eventually captured a man who seemed to be lost. He was a member of what eventually was called the 90th Light Division. In September 1941, they were known as the Division Afrika zbV. The 9th Australian Division intelligence view on this was that the new division had been brought in to free up the armored division motorized infantry, so that they could go back to providing support to their divisions.
When the British 16th Brigade arrived in Tobruk, they had already served with the Australians in three previous campaigns. They had participated in the first campaign in the desert when they had defeated the Italians and captured Cyrenaica. They had also fought in Crete and finally in Syria. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Considerations involving the Australian relief and Operation Crusader in October 1941

We have seen that the whole issue about relieving the 9th Australian Division and removing it from Tobruk were something initiated by General Blamey, the senior Australian officer in the Middle East. We have the sense that he was not totally candid about his reasons for the move, but rather he provided excuses for what he wanted that he felt would get results. He had found a way to overcome the British bad habits of extremely short-term thinking to meet the day's crisis. That approach had led to breaking units into small groups and dispersing them across great distances.
There was also Churchill's influence at work. Churchill always figured himself to be a great military expert, based on his early years and his experience in the Great War. The truth was that Churchill was a politician, and based his actions on political considerations. That often led to disasters, such as the Greek Campaign and the Crete debacle. Churchill was at his best as a political leader, with his ability to communicate and inspire people.
The Australian historian and author wondered if General Blamey would have been vindicated by the events of 1942, if the Japanese had not entered the war in dramatic fashion. That obviously is something about which we can only speculate.
We can also examine the arguments for keeping the Australians in Tobruk, rather than withdrawing them, and they still look like excuses for what Churchill wanted to do. He liked getting his way and having everyone agree with him. He ran into General Blamey, who was also a schemer, like Churcill, we suspect. In this case, General Blamey found a way to override Churchill, much to Mr. Churchill's distress.
Operation Crusader was eventually delayed to 18 November 1941, greatly angering Churchill, who wanted the attack on the enemy forces as early as possible. An interesting note is that Rommel planned to attack Tobruk on 20 November. Churchill's anxiousness for an early attack was based on the larger view of the war, not just issues surrounding the situation in North Africa.
The most important real issue was the demands made on the RAF. The Australian historian again notes that during the run up to the offensive, the RAF "was not in the even unduly extended". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our general knowledge of the situation.

Amazon Ad