Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Problem with supply ships for Tobruk, starting in June 1941

A supply run to Tobruk that left Alexandria, Egypt, on 23 June 1941 had severe problems. The petrol carrier Pass of Balmaha was escorted by two sloops, the Auckland and the Parramatta. There was also a store ship, the Antiklia that was escorted by the sloop Flamingo. The promised fighter cover did not arrive. A bomb hit the Auckland and the ship was sunk. The Pass of Balmaha took damage from a near miss. The destroyer Waterhen arrived on the scene and started to tow the Pass oof Balmaha. The Parramatta turned around and took the survivors of the Auckland back to Alexandria. The Antiklia was diverted to Mersa Matruh until a fighter escort could be provided. The Antiklia finally got underway, heading for Tobruk, but turned back when heavy weather was encountered. The Antiklia set out again on 29 June accompanied by the supply ship Miranda. They had a three ship escort of small warships. The destroyer Waterhen was hit by a bomb off of Sidi Barrani in the evening of 29 June. Another destroyer, the Defender, took the crew off from the Waterhen and attempted to tow the ship. The Defender noticed an Italian submarine and fired on her. The Italian submarine dove to escape. The Waterhen eventually took on so much water that she rolled over and sank. During the afternoon of 30 June, a large force of bombers with fighter escort was driven off by RAF and South African fighters. The store ships arrived safely at Tobruk. Two escorting ships were damaged. The petrol carrier, Pass of Balmaha arrived safely at Tobruk, as well. Her cargo of petrol was successfully delivered.
A change of plan was tried following this operation. Eight "A" Lighter landing craft were provided for cargo runs to Tobruk. Two were able to reach Tobruk on 7 July. The first time used three days. They arrived at night. They would unload on the next night. They would sail on the third night. They decided to experiment with a faster turn around. They would arrive at night. They would unload under "camouflage nets" during the day. Then they would sail on that night. In parallel, the destroyer supply runs would continue. They also experimented with running the fast minelayers Abdiel and Latona. They were capable of making 40-knot speeds and had considerable space for cargo, since they were designed to carry mines.The month of July was very successful for supplying Tobruk. Ships brought in some 5,000 tons. They managed to run some small merchant ships and sailing vessels to carry ammunition and treats for the soldiers.
They experimented again with using schooners. They had first tried them to see if they could be sailed by volunteers. They found that the needed to put the service on a more regular basis, so they created the Western Desert Schooner Flotilla and put Lieutenant-Commander Duff in charge. They tried some foreign vessels and crews on the run, but the best were the British vessels and crews. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Supply runs for Tobruk in 1941

Ships bringing supplies to Tobruk left ports in Egypt. The ships involved were generally small and they included the 40-knot fast minelayers. Some of the supply ships used sail power. The ships faced danger from air attack and from submarines. The wakes of ships at night were very visible in moonlight.
Captain Poland commanded the inshore squadron. He took command on 5 February 1941 and continued until the siege was lifted. At the beginning, the squadron included "two destroyers, three river gunboats and other small craft. They originally were employed for protecting shipping and for attacking enemy targets. Merchant ships entered and exited the Tobruk harbor both in daytime and nighttime. The Tobruk harbor accumulated ship wrecks over time.
Tobruk-bound shipping could not be protected by fighter aircraft. This was partly due to the scarcity of fighters and because the RAF had abandoned western airfields. The inshore squadron took heavy losses. Between 12 April 1941 and 1 June, they lost "a whaler, 2 armed boarding vessels, 2 minesweepers, a gunboat, a sloop and an anti-submarine trawler, and had four other ships damaged". Starting in early May 1941, the decision was made to employ ships of the 10th Destroyer Flotilla to carry supplies to Tobruk. The flotilla included five Australian destroyers. The first run was made on 5 May by two of the V-class destroyers. Once the battle for Crete commenced, destroyers were mostly involved in that operation.
Once the Germans had captured Crete, air attacks increased on shipping that was supplying Tobruk. Admiral Cunningham issued an order to only use destroyers on the run to Tobruk, and then only at night. That started as of 7 June 1941. The destroyers ran supply missions until 15 June, when Operation Battleaxe caused the end of the runs. They were restarted on 18 June. The Inshore Squadron now had four destroyers, three sloops, two gunboats, along with other smaller ships. They also now had some "A" Lighters, which were early landing craft. For a period, two destroyers would run into Tobruk, unload, and then leave during the night. This typically happened two nights out of three.
To send adequate supplies to Tobruk, slower ships had to supplement what was sent by destroyer. Supporting air power included "three Royal Air Force and two South African Air Force Squadrons. The closest air field for supporting Tobruk was one hundred  miles a way at Sidi Barrani. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

More about bombing attacks on Tobruk in 1941

Apparently, the effectiveness of anti-aircraft barrages across the line of flight greatly effected daylight high level bombing attacks. After July 1941, bombing attacks mostly switched to the night. They still might attack during the day if there were inviting targets, but mostly, they found that they could more effectively bomb at night. There is another table giving the numbers of night bombers employed per month in 1941.

                                              Night Bombers employed
Last 21 nights of April          32
May                                       74
June                                     132
July                                      126
August                                 205
September                           187
First 9 days of October       152

The night raids in April and May 1941 were mostly low-level attacks to drop "thermos" bombs. By June, all night raids but one were made with high-level bombing. A major change started with 21 July, when night bombers dropped mines hoping to block the harbor entrance. Two more mine laying attacks occurred in the last week ofo July. The night bombing intensified, and this became a serious matter. Some raids were as large as fifty aircraft at night. The enemy also mixed bombing and minelaying to attempt to confuse the defense. Attacks did not occur every night, but were mostly during nights with moon light. Up through July, night bombers would attack singly. As many as 30 to 50 per cent were turned back by barrages. Anti-aircraft gunners were hard pressed by lack of sleep. To counter aircraft dropping mines, listening devices were used and they fired a barrage in conjunction with searchlights center and ends of the harbor. The barrage, when it could be fired in time, was so effective that the enemy would avoid it.
To understand the effort involved, from 10 April to 9 October 1941, some 3,525 aircarft were fired on by anti-aircraft guns. They lost 40 gunners killed and 128 men were wounded. They fired greater than 49,000 rounds of 3.7in anti-aircraft rounds. The available guns can be seen by the rounds fired. Another 3,700 40mm rounds were fired. The scale of 20mm guns meant that they fired some 75,000 rounds. There were also captured Italian guns in use, so there were even more than these fired. The guns were thought to have definitely destroyed 74 aircraft. Another 59 aircraft were probably destroyed. finally, another 145 aircraft were thought to have been damaged. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Bombing attacks on Tobruk in 1941

The enemy air attacks on British anti-aircraft guns at Tobruk were primarily with dive bombers. The gun crews quickly learned that they could be most effective by staying with their guns during attacks rather than taking cover. The dive bombers were apparently all Ju-87 Stukas. Of the dive bombing attacks at Tobruk from the last twenty days of April 1941 until October 9, nineteen of these attacks were against the anti-aircraft guns. The last attack on the guns was on 1 September 1941 after commencing on 10 April. When you look at the chart you can see that the number of aircraft involved decreased over time, as the raids became more dangerous to the attackers. Frequently, at least one dive bomber took a direct hit during an attack on the anti-aircraft guns. This is from the chart on Page 411 of Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Month                      Dive bombing raids     numbers of aircraft involved
April (last 20 days)  21                                386
May                          17                                277
June                           6                                 123
July                            4                                  79
August                      11                                217
September                  1                                  46
October (first 9 days) 2                                  57

As the enemy realized that dive bombing raids were too ineffective for the effort involved, they switched to high level bombing raids. The level bombers generally flew at between 18,000 and 25,000 feet. The defenders on the ground had trouble seeing the attacking aircraft. Even though the defenders were hampered by the high altitude attacks, the attackers were able to bomb effectively. Initially, the defenders could not see the aircraft until they dropped their bombs. To try to improve their ability to see the high level bombers, the defenders started listening for the sound of aircraft so that they could predict where to point their telescopic lenses. This was not a very successful tactic. The next tactic tried was to fire a barrage of shells into the expected aircraft path. The barrages were designed to be in the course flown to known targets in the harbor area.  They had 16 heavy anti-aircraft guns, so they were used in four-gun groups. By September, the guns had a position officer who had the authority to decide when to fire. They had to be watching for the attacking aircraft to fly deceptive routes to attempt to outwit the guns. The use of the barrages was very effective and caused the attacking bombers to have problems hitting targets. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Air attacks on Tobruk and the anti-aircraft defenses

Brigadier Slater commanded the 5th Anti-Aircraft Brigade at Tobruk during the siege. The harbor and base were priorities for anti-aircraft defense. This was a constant struggle as the enemy continued to evolve their operations. The units involved were typically below strength and guns were in constant need of repair. That meant that they needed spare parts for the guns, as well as spare guns. They also relied on laborers to help with digging and the like. The enemy targeted guns, so that they would repair.
Early in the siege, the enemy staged daylight air attacks, often with dive bombers. As the defense capabilities improved against dive bombers, the enemy switched more to night bombing attacks. The air attacks were constant, with only one day during the 9th Australian Division's time at Tobruk when there were no air raids. All these dates are from 1941.

                      Dive bombing      Total                 Night Raids  Total Bombing  Day Reconnaissance
                                                Daylight raids                             Raids
April 10-30      21                       41                       11                   73                      27
May                 17                       60                       22                   99                      58
June                  6                        58                       76                 140                      39
July                   4                       91                        43                 138                     46
August             11                      55                        77                  143                    30

The defenders took a while and had to experiment to find tactics to deal with dive bombers. The enemy made a first heavy dive bombing attack on 14 April 1941. The guns fired a fixed barrage to explode at 3,000 feet. They found that some aircraft had gotten in before the barrage was fired. to counter that danger, they set up an observation post on the escarpment where they could look down on the harbor. There were problems found with inadequate depth to the barrage. The guns often fired too soon in the attack. The barrage had to spread from 3,000 to 6,000 feet and was fired to swing across the harbor area. They had four Italian 102mm anti-aircraft guns which were repaired and employed. By August, they had found three more of the Italian guns and added them to the defense. The static 40mm guns were used to engage aircraft that survived the barrage. The 12 40mm static guns were manned by the 40th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery.
The defenses added three 20-barrel parachute rocket launchers provided by the navy. The rockets had parachutes and trailed long wires. Small bombs were attached to the end of the wires. They were first used on 18 August against a dive bombing attack. They successfully disrupted the attack.
The enemy resorted to attacking the anti-aircraft gun positions. They damaged six guns that were all repaired. The gunners quickly learned that they were safest by staying in action and shooting at the attacking aircraft. That was a lesson learned in May and June 1941. Dive bombers were used against the guns. They started on 10 April and ended on 1 September 1941. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Aggressive patroling near Tobruk from April to October 1941

Aggressive patroling, mostly at night, was a feature of the Tobruk defense from April 1941 up until the Australians had left in late October 1941. Much of the work was done by Australians from the 9th Australian Division, but there were others as well. They included the Indians of the 18th Cavalry and the men of the King's Dragoon Guards. In mid-April, a German soldier's diary spoke of the stress and effect of attacks on the motorized infantry by night. They had taken losses and the attacks had a negative effect on morale. For example, in one night, six officers and 57 other men were captured.
Some thirteen Australian battalions were involved in defending Tobruk. They took losses as killed, wounded, and as prisoners. The German success in breaking into the perimeter resulted in 259 men being captured then, and later from the 2/24th Battalion of the 26th Brigade. The 2/23rd Battalion lost  as many as 79 men as prisoners. No other battalions lost prisoners as many as those. The 2/9th Battalion had suffered 205 men wounded. Both the 2/23rd and 2/24th Battalions had many men killed. The 2/23rd Battalion had 78 men killed while the 2/24th Battalion had 70 men killed.
In the vicinity of the Salient, when the enemy had penetrated the perimeter in a surprise attack, the area became one of the most dangerous areas of the fortress. Near the wire there was a chalk mound that they named Forbes Mound. In one incident on the night of 24-25 July 1941, six men were going after German machine gun and mortar crews. The Germans were moving in a truck to fight another Australian patrol. The Australians had been surprised to find German sangers close to the wire.
During the summer of 1941, there were no photographs from the air and the artillery depended on information gathered by patrols operating at night in enemy territory. There was a period when some successful patrols were made using carriers. In early May, a daylight raid was made with carriers. Despite being lightly armored, they were able to attack a working party and fight tanks and guns. They succeeded in returning without loss.
Because of the inshore squadron operations by the navy and the success of the anti-aircraft gunners, Tobruk was kept adequately supplied, so that there were not any extreme shortages of supplies or food. The anti-aircraft gunners had to deal with four types of air attacks. They would be hit by daytime dive bombing attacks against the harbor and installations. There were also daylight level-bombing attacks from higher altitude. The enemy would also bomb at night and would drop mines at night. Early in the siege, they would have large dive bombing raids. As the anti-aircraft defenses improved, the enemy moved to mostly night bombing raids.
Early in the defense of Tobruk, there were 16 mobile 3.7in anti-aircraft guns actually in use. There were other guns not yet available for use. There were also 40mm and 20mm Breda guns in use. They had as many as 42 of the captured Italian Breda guns. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, March 09, 2018

A retrospective of the 9th Australian Division after their departure from Tobruk in October 1941

The British politicians, particularly the prime minister, were very angry about the Australian government's insistence on withdrawing the 9th Australian Division. To rub salt in the wound, the fast minelayer Latona was sunk and the destroyer Hero was damaged in an attempt to bring out the last 1200 Australians from Tobruk. They were very fortunate that the Germans did not start aggressively bombing the shipping earlier, because the situation would have turned out much worse. The Australian government insisted that the last group of men be withdrawn at the next moonless opportunity.
The defense of Tobruk certainly was made possible by the efforts of the field artillery units, which were largely British. The anti-aircraft gunners were another important factor in the successful defense force. The anti-aircraft units were often the targets of German air attacks. General Auchinleck praised the defenders of Tobruk for their efforts in holding a strong enemy force in place away from the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. The enemy had committed four Italian divisions and three German motor battalions to besieging the fortress of Tobruk. They had held the place from sometime in April until November 1941 when the enemy was beaten and pushed back to the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
General Morshead often asked more of his men than was possible. His insistence on aggressive patrolling and never allowing the enemy to take and hold territory was an important feature. That was not always possible, as the capture of the Salient showed, but it was still a guiding principle. The mutual respect between the defending units showed a recognition of the roles played by the various players.
There were two factors that caused the Australian demand for the withdrawal of their division. One was the hidden agenda behind General Blamey's manipulation of his government to cause the withdrawal. He was waging a battle against his personal rival in the Australian army, General Lavarack, who was more qualified than General Blamey. General Blamey spent part of the time keeping General Lavarack from gaining more prestige and power than he had, and also did at times promote General Lavarack, such as recommending his appointment as corps commander in Syria and Lebanon.
The other issue was the political turmoil in Australia, that cause some rapid changes. There were three prime ministers in 1941, the last of which was the Labour Party leader, John Curtin. The misadventures of Winston Churchill must have had an influence in Australia, you have to expect. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

FInal relief of the 9th Australian Division in October 1941

The relief of Australian units by British units was well-planned. Relief convoys used one minelayer and three destroyers. The final relief started on 12-13 October 1941. An arriving unit was generally given a day before the unit that was being replaced left Tobruk. That was to give the newly arrived men time for a transition. Also, that allowed for no reduction in strength defending the fortress of Tobruk.Convoys generally brought in one thousand men and removed slightly less than that number. Men of the 26th Brigade Group were the first to leave.
General Scobie became the new fortress commander, taking over from General Morshead. General  Scobie arrived at Tobruk on the night of 20-21 October. General Morshead introduced General Scobie at all the brigade headquarters. One of the first changes was that the division reserve was moved from the 26th Australian Brigade to the 23rd British Brigade. The next move was for the 23rd Brigade to replace the 20th Australian Brigade in the south of Tobruk. General Scobie formally took over as commander at 5pm on 22 October. General Morshead then bade farewell to units that were to stay, and then ate dinner with the naval staff. He then left Tobruk on HMS Endeavor. On the 22nd, more of the 20th Australian Brigade was removed from Tobruk. The 23rd British Brigade assumed the duty of protecting the Southern Sector on 23 October from the 20th Australian Brigade. The Australians moved into division reserve. A feature of the relief process is that the Australian units passed all their equipment to the arriving units. On the night of 24-25 October, the 14th British Brigade took command of the division reserve. Before night fell, an air attack by dive bombers hit the harbor.
During the relief process the enemy had fired artillery against the harbor. There was still no indication that the enemy realized that the relief was proceeding. One hazard that was not immediately recognized was that German submarines had arrived in the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic. The first ships sunk were "A-Lighters". The submarines were assigned to attack ships supplying Tobruk.
The British gunboat Gnat was able to hit the guns that fired on the harbor at Tobruk. The relief convoy cruiser escorts, the Ajax, Hobart, and Galatea were alsos able to fire at the guns. The Gnat was torpedoed on 21 October. The ship was not sunk, but was stopped. The destroyer Griffin was able to tow the Gnat to Alexandria. One final mishap was that the minelayer Latona was bombed and eventually sunk. That ended the Australian relief, because they had reached the end of the moonless period. The remaining Australians were stuck at Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The battle for the outposts at Tobruk, from 12 October 1941

Sunrise on 12 October 1941 showed some 19 German tanks and about six vehicles facing the 2/17th Battalion area. Perhaps most were near Plonk, which the Germans had reoccupied since it had been left vacant. The Australians could discern a line of sangars on both sides of Plonk. Workers could be seen during the day extending this new defensive line. The enemy had setup wire around Plonk by mid-morning on the 12th. Later in the afternoon showed that the enemy had laid more wire from Plonk out to the sangar line.
After these developments, the decision was made to provide tanks for Cooma for the night hours. They would drive through the perimeter at dusk and return there by dawn. During the day, troops of infantry tanks would be kept available to drive to Cooma, if needed. The 4th RTR initially provided these tanks, and then for two days, the 7th RTR provided the tanks.
In the evening, the Australians could see enemy tanks near Plonk and Cooma. Several tanks drove near the perimeter wire. The Australians sent out "tank hunting patrols", but they did not make contact with the enemy. The scheduled British tank presence set out at 1am. They did not see any enemy tanks, but they fired on the enemy working parties. The enemy had about twenty anti-tank guns set up and they fired at the British tanks. To the Australians within the Tobruk perimeter, there seemed to be a tank battle happening, but it was just the anti-tank gun fire and the tanks shooting. The Australians moved back into the Cooma outpost and went to work on strengthening the defensive positions.
After the last battle over Plonk, the enemy was content to work on extending their defenses. The Australians continued to occupy Cooma and the arrangements for tanks were continued while the Australians were still in the southern sector. Their remaining time was limited, because they were to be withdrawn while more units were carried in to replace them. The enemy now had some 100 guns available. The largest were the 210mm howitzers, one battery of 149/35 guns, and another battery thought to be 155mm. The enemy was thought to have 10 field batteries, 12 medium batteries. and the three heavy batteries. The enemy strength in the south was so dominating that the options for raiding at night were greatly reduced. In other sectors, the Australians were still strong enough to carry out aggressive patrolling. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

A night tank battle on 11-12 October 1941 near the Plonk outpost

The attack on the Plonk outpost was late to start, partly to the late arrival of the infantry tanks. The supporting artillery barrage was repeated for the real attack. The attack on Plonk was set to launch about 15 minutes after midnight on 12 October 1941. They could hear digging and voices at Plonk before the barrage started. Enemy artillery responded to the British artillery fire. This time, the Matilda tanks were moving up to attack Plonk. The Australian infantry patrol moved closer to Plonk as all this happened. A little before 1am, the infantry tanks commenced firing at enemy tanks that were visible. The range was very short, about 100 yards. There were the tank guns firing as well as the tank machine guns. The enemy was described as firing their tank guns wildly, and not well-aimed. The British tanks were able to move towards the objective. The German tanks retreated in front of them. The tank firing was across the infantry path and kept them from moving into Plonk.
They could see German tanks advancing from the west, but were driven back by the British tank gun fire. The Australian infantry patrol did not enter Plonk, as there was too much risk to the men from occupying Plonk.The Australians did fire their "Very light signal" to communicate that they had achieved their desired objective. That triggered the enemy to open artillery fire on Plonk, as the expected that the signal meant that Plonk had been occupied. By 1:25am, the enemy troops had pulled out of Plonk. Firing stopped after they left. After a brief respite, the enemy resumed firing at Plonk. An extraordinary barrage, the largest yet seen at Tobruk, descended on Plonk. While the firing continued, more enemy tanks drove towards Plonk, but the British tanks in Plonk fired at the enemy tanks, causing them to pull back.
The Australian patrol that had been sent to Plonk pulled back after sending one small group back with a wounded man. The patrol went looking for the machine gun that had fired on them earlier, but didn't find it. The patrol commander then sent the other men back, but he stayed until 2am, when he fired the Very light signal. After he gave the signal, the enemy started another artillery barrage on Plonk.
While Plonk wss receiving enemy artillery fire, the men working on creating an outpost at Cooma had been busy. The British tanks had driven on to Cooma from Plonk. They had fired on some enemy tanks that had gotten close, but they eventually drove back to the perimeter and reentered Tobruk.The 32nd Army Tank Brigade commander had ordered his tanks back to Cooma, but while the sky was getting lighter, the tanks had not reached the gap in the perimeter. The Australian 20th Brigade commander had suggested that the tanks return to the "forward assembly area". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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