Monday, April 30, 2018

Rommel's counter-plan that collided with Operation Crusader in late 1941

We judge that Rommel's reconnaissance raid named something like "Mid-Summer's Night Dream" (the Australian historian didn't like the Mid-Summer's Night part of the name and only called it the Summer's Night Dream. Rommel hoped to take the Tobruk fortress in his attack.His main concern was with his supply situation. Rommel's plan for the attack was dated about 26 October 1941. Three days later, Hitler issued his plan to reinforce the Mediterranean area. He appointed Field Marshal Kesselring as "Commander-In Chief South". Since Kesselring was an air force officer, we get a hint that the main reinforcements would be to the air force. The goal was to provide protection for the supply line feeding Rommel's forces in North Africa. They would also move against the island of Malta that was a base for ships and aircraft targeting the Axis supply line.
Improving the supply lines for North Africa was not to be an easy task. In November, the supplies delivered decreased considerably from what had been achieved. Only some 30,000 tons were delivered in November, while 70,000 had been a typical supply delivery achievement. In December, the Axis forces managed to deliver 39,000 tons, an improvement over November, but worse than what had been typical. The rest fell victim to British aircraft, surface ships, and submarines.
Most of the Axis losses at sea in November were caused by British surface warships. Force K operated from the island of Malta. Force K consisted of the cruisers Aurora and Penelope, along with the destroyers Lance and Lively. That situation changed, so that British submarines sank most of the supply ships.
German submarines were operating against the Tobruk seaborne supply line. They also caused some major warship losses. They sank the aircraft carrier Ark Royal on 14 November. Eleven days later, one submarine sank the battleship Barham. These losses made the urgency for tanking more western airfields of greater priority.
Rommel followed his plan as he had designed it. They would attack sometime between 15 and 20 November. The Africa Division (later renamed the 90th Light Division) would attack the Tobruk perimeter between the Barida Road and near El Adem and Pilastrano. Both the British and Axis forces used Italian maps that showed this in bold, apparently. They map showed a defensive position near the connection between the Bardia and El Adem roads. Once the Africa division had broken the perimeter, the 15th Armored Division would push through to the coast. They had some 100 gun-armed tanks, including ten captured Matildas and 38 light tanks (Pzkw I and II). The Italian XXI Corps would move to the elevated ground The 21st Armored Division would guard the frontier, but be close enough to move to Tobruk, if needed. They were positioned to satisfy General Halder, who wanted the frontier guarded. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

More about Cunningham's plan for Operation Crusader

We have seen that putting the British armored forces near Gabr Saleh was decided so that the three brigades were near each other, but in position so that they could support the XIII Corps infantry divisions that would try to hold the Axis forces near the frontier. XXX Corps had fighting the enemy armored forces as their priority. They would at least start the battle with the British armor concentrated. They had the advantage as well of having a force of all-arms, since they had the 1st South African Division and the 22nd Guards Brigade.
Only after defeating the enemy armored forces would XXX Corps try to lift the Tobruk siege. Once that they were ready to break through to Tobruk, the South Africans would move to Sidi Rezegh, and the nearby ridges. The Tobruk garrison would take Ed Duda. XIII Corps would move from the Egyptian Frontier and move towards Tobruk, clearing the enemy from the area. This seems like a decent plan. Of course, we know now that the British forces did not follow the plan.
The battle started to go wrong when the enemy armored forces defeated XXX Corps. However, the plan already had been abandoned. One British armored brigade with the support group moved to Sidi Rezegh, but without the South African division. The tank battle was fought near Sidi Rezegh and the result was that the enemy armor beat the British armor and also overran a South African infantry brigade. The British were forced from the vicinity of Sidi Rezegh.
The next phase of the battle consisted of the German armor flitting around the battlefield and taking heavy losses while attempting to attack XIII Corps. XIII Corps had the infantry tank brigade, equipped with Matildas and Valentines, which were well protected. XIII Corps was able to conduct combined operations with tanks and infantry. They were able to control the frontier, while connecting up with the Tobruk garrison. XXX Corps was reduced to rebuilding its tank strength through replacements and recovery and repair.
There was a third phase of the Crusader battle. XXX Corps and restored its tank strength, but was again defeated by the German armored divisions. The Germans had been pushed back to the narrow area between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. The Germans rebounded right back to the Gazala area where the opposing armies were holding positions and readying for the next battle.
Rommel was always looking for opportunities to exploit. He was always looking to infiltrate into the enemy area and throw them off balance. The British often were easy to panic, so infiltration tactics worked well against the British as they had worked well for Rommel in the Alps during the Great War. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, April 23, 2018

General Cunningham's plan for Operation Crusader

General Cunningham's plan for Operation Crusader, intended to launch in November 1941, followed the usual British system for the desert. They dispersed their forces, rather than concentrating them. The Australian historian mentions that the command structure provided to General Cunningham supposed that the tanks and infantry would be separated. The army headquarters controlled the XXX Corps, the main tank organization, and the XIII Corps, the main infantry organization. The XXX Corps with the fast tanks were in the south, while the XIII Corps with two infantry divisions was in the north, near the Mediterranean coast.
The actual story is somewhat different. The southern force had the 7th Armoured Division with two armored brigades. They did have an infantry division, the 1st South African Division with two brigades and the third brigade being the 22nd Guards Brigade. They were augmented by extra medium artillery and anti-tank gun regiments. The role of what was nominally the center group was actually the army tank brigade whose role was to support the northern group, which was the XIII Corps, which had the New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division.

General Cunningham's idea was that if the two German armored divisions were concentrated, they would have a superiority in tanks over the 7th Armoured Division. The answer had to be that the British would have the third armored brigade with infantry tanks located within a shorter distance to the XXX Corps, so they could close with them and concentrate against the two German armored divisions. General  Cunningham said, as the Australian historian mentions, that if the Germans used their two armored divisions separately, the British could still concentrate against one of them.Some critics had said that Cunningham had said that if the Germans split their armored divisions, the British would split their tank force in two.
General Cunningham's plan in final form was that the three British armored brigades would be together near Gabr Saleh. Gabr Saleh was located near the intersection of the track from Bardia and the Trigh el Abd. The reason for this location is that the brigades were concentrated, but still within supporting distance to the XIII Corps in the north. The Australian historian pointed out that Gabr Saleh was behind the enemy's fortified line between Salum in the north and Sidi Omar to the south. They were centrally located so that they could move out in a number of different directions, including towards Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"Only a week": the 2/13th Battalion departure was only to be delayed by a week

The 2/13th Battalion was told that they would leave Tobruk on "the night of 19-20 November" 1941. The British fortress commander, General Scobie was the one who told the battalion of the new plan. Their departure was to be delayed by just a week. The Australian historian thought that the British were being grossly over-confident in their estimation of the chances of success. While during past defeats, the British had been out-numbered by the enemy forces, this time they expected to have a larger army than the enemy and would have better equipment. The Australian historian, though, thought that this time, they were excessively over-confident, much more so than they were  a year later at the Second El-Alamein.
The next piece of information was Churchill's letter to the men prior to the coming operation, where he mentioned the King's confidence that the men would all do their duty. Looking back, on the night of 26-27 September 1941, the Western Army Headquarters was re-designated as the 8th Army. The army commander was the victor of the East African campaign,m General Alan Cunningham, the Mediterranean Fleet commander's brother. At the same time, the Western Desert Force was renamed XIII Corps. The XIII Corps was primarily and infantry unit. The armor was put under the control of XXX Corps on 21 October. The army now had a headquarters and had two corps under its command.
General Cunningham had drafted the plan for Operation Crusader initially on 28 September 1941. The plan was worked and reworked as time progressed, but the basic plan lasted up until the start of the operation. Cunningham's plan was a good approximation of Auchinleck's original suggestion. His plan included an operation to pin the enemy's forces on the coast and then and to stage a demonstration that appeared to be an advance towards Benghazi. The main striking force would strike across the way south from  Fort Magdelana.
The northern attack to pin the enemy forces on the coast had the infantry tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade. They had an assortment of 145 tanks, including both Matildas and Valentines. The infantry component included the New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division. They were the divisions in the XIII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Godwin-Austen.
The mobile tank force Rommel's army in the south. They had some 500 fast tanks. They included three brigades with American M-3 Stuart tanks, British Crusader tanks, and some older British cruiser tanks, such as the Cruiser Mark IVa (A.13), Cruiser Mark II (A.10), and possibly a few surviving A.9, Cruiser Mk. I's.The American tanks were originally governed down to about 32 miles per hour, but when the governers were removed, they could reach 40 miles per hour. The American tanks only had a 37mm gun, while the British had the standard 40mm 2-pounder gun. The support tanks, often used as headquarters vehicles had a 3-inch howitzer, firing high-explosive shells. XXXth Corps ended up being commanded by Lieutenant-General Norrie. He had been the 1st Armoured Division commander. He replaced General Pope as the mobile corps commander. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History, as well as our general knowledge of the British forces in Operation Crusader.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The run up to Operation Crusader in November 1941 at Tobruk

The units in Tobruk in November 1941 were focused on learning as much as possible about the plan for the impending Operation Crusader. The Australians assumed that they all would be leaving prior to Crusader. They were more interested in what the enemy forces might be planning. Everyone still expected that the 2/13th Battalion would be leaving Tobruk in November. They were told to plan on half leaving on 13 November and the other half after they were relieved by the Polish Officers Legion. The enemy air units restarted their high-level and dive bombing attacks. They targeted the artillery and the front line defenses. The enemy was also engaged in probing the defenders in the perimeter defenses.
suddenly, the 2/13th Battalion commander was called to the fortress headquarters. When he returned, he met with the company commanders. He informed him that the withdrawal from Tobruk was postponed for another week. The battalion's role would change, so that they would form part of the reserve for the attack from Tobruk towards the Egyptian frontier. They would stay in Tobruk, with half of the battalion on the coast and the other half at Pilastrano. The new plan was for the 2/13th Battalion to leave Tobruk by road, rather than by ship.
By now, the Australians had trouble taking the schedule seriously. They would believe dates when they saw the events happen. Over two nights, all the Australians but the 2/13th Battalion were4 removed by sea. The decision to leave the 2/13th Battalion in Tobruk for Operation Crusader is still something of a mystery. Speculation was that the Polish general had requested that the Polish Officers Legion be held in Egypt as the nucleus of complete Polish divisions in the Middle East. That meant that the 2/13th Battalion was still needed in Tobruk until after Operation Crusader. Middle East GHQ was discussing the possibility in early November.
The situation was that with the Tobruk garrison launching a sortie towards the Egyptian border, the forces available to General Scobie were stretched to a breaking point. He could not afford to lose the 2/13th Battalion due to the scarcity of the defensive forces. The situation was such that the British did not bother to sonsult the Australians about the need to keep the 2/13th Battalion. They just kept them and there was no discussion about the decision. Mr. Churchill invoked the authority of the King in a message to the troops involved with Operation Crusader. Mr. Churchill told the men that the King had expresed confidence that the men would "do their duty" in the coming battle. This was a battle where the British forces were well armed with the most modern weapons, putting them in a position of equality of weapons with the enemy forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Australian 2/13th Battalion in Tobruk from late October through November 1941

There seemed to be greater activity among the enemy that were besieging Tobruk. There were artillery operations under way. The British gunners could tell what the enemy were doing. The enemy was bombarding the Salient from 28 October 1941. The 1st RHA noticed that the enemy gunners were busy "registering targets" while the Salien was being hit.
While the artillery was more active, there were enemy patrol operations in the southeast of Tobruk. Since Brigadier Murray was still in Tobruk, he suggested that they form up the 2/13th Battalion and the two 2/15th Battalion companies into a force to hold the area by the El Adem and Bardia Roads. The Brigadier was concerned that the enemy might push into the fortress from the southeast. The British disagreed with his suggestion and took no action.
For the first two weeks of November, the situation seemed to have stabilized. The Polish brigade ran an operation that triggered an visual enemy response. The Polish brigade had artillery support and a smoke screen, and this triggered an enemy pyrotechnic display. The enemy fired multi-colored flare displays and then fired many rounds from artillery. The British had been prepared to plot gun positions by gun flashes, so they had accomplished their goal. Then the 1/Durham Light Infantry attempted to attack the Plonk post. They had a tank squadron in support as well as three 25-pdr regiments, but the attack went badly. They were caught in flanking small arms fire and ran into booby-traps. The battalion had 8 men missing and another fourteen wounded.
The enemy seemed to be giving the southeast perimeter of Tobruk some increased attention. When the moon was full, a group of thirty to forty men came up to the perimeter wire. The anti-tank ditch in the area was only four feet deep. They reached the ditch but pulled back when the British counter-attacked. Another group of men crossed the perimeter on 10 November. The happened near Post R53. Men from the 2/Queens attacked and drove the enemy back. Tanks were also active. The 21sr Armored Division had been seen about nine miles to the south of the southeast Tobruk perimeter. The 1st RHA noticed them and thought that they might be both observing the fortress and also getting into position for a possible attack.
By the second week of November, Tobruk was abuzz over the expected offensive towards Tobruk. One thing that happened was that the 1st RHA now was pulled into reserve and given transport so that it was "fully mobile". To achieve that, other units were stripped of vehicles. The men could see that work was underway to allow for a sortee from Tobruk from the southeast. The Battleaxe Operation had a similar plan. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Australians still at Tobruk in October 1941

The Australians of the 2/13th Battalion had moved into their new positions on the fortress perimeter from the sea to Post S33 apparently on the night of 26-27 October 1941. A captured spy had predicted an attack the next day, so the battalion sat ready to fight. The fight never happened, happily. The Czechoslovakian battalion was holding the perimeter on the left. The 2/13th Battalion had two companies holding the line. They were also in the three Cocoa posts. The left company also held the Cheetah posts. The third company was held in reserve. During the evening of October 28, another company moved into reserve at the Wadi Magrun. The 2/13th Battalion enjoyed their time in the best place they had occupied in Tobruk. There were wadis and hills, so the men got needed exercise. The men stuck on the actual perimeter missed out in bathing on the beaches. By the end of October, the weather was cooling and they no longer were in the scorching sun. The men were not so involved with long patrols, but there was  still some of that activity. They even went out during the day, such as one long patrol to the Wadi Bu Dueisa.
The 2/15th battalion had two companies at Fort Pilastrano. They were not involved with patrolling, the area was not as pleasant as the area where the 2/13th Battalion was located. After the end of October, they moved to the Wadi Auda, which was much nicer. The downside was that the area was a target for enemy bombers, but there was much water there and it was green. The 20th Brigade headquarters and part of the 9th Australian Division headquarters were located nearby. They were located in a wadi just to the west of Wadi Auda.
During this time, the enemy continued to focus on the area to the south and east of Tobruk. There had been a outpost Cooma, but the enemy had overrun it. The men from Cooma during the night of 27 October, after being missing for two days. That was some action to the left of the Essex Battalion. Enemy infantry and tanks were seen on the move. This was near the El Adem Road. Once the enemy force had gotten to within 300 yards, they took fire from the British infantry.
Another development saw some enemy soldiers enter the perimeter  near post R51. They moved around for about a half hour before they left. Somewhat later, other enemy soldiers were seen working on the perimeter wire near Post R47. The British also noticed that the enemy force in the Salient now seemed to be Italian rather than German. The German artillery units that had been there were thought to now be in the southeast of Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, April 06, 2018

The last days of the Australians at Tobruk in October 1941

With Australians stuck temporarily at Tobruk, they needed to be provided for. The 2/13th Battalion had given their equipment to the British "Yorks and Lancs" battalion. We already saw that they were given the equipment that had been intended for the Polish Officers Legion. The battalion would be under the control of the Polish Carpathian Brigade for the last acts in Tobruk. The Polish Cavalry Regiment was holding a front in the Salient. Three companies of the battalion were sent out to the area, while the fourth company waited for the area that they would be assigned to be visited.
This was part of the Western Sector, which had traditionally been over-extended. There was some effort made to shorten the front to improve the situation. The plan had been to put the cavalry regiment in the center. On the right, the Polish battalion would get the new group. A new Czechoslovakian battalion was in the spot that the 2/13th would occupy. Where the 2/13th Battalion would hold, there was a deep wadi with posts cut into a cliff. The wadi was some 150 feet deep. If it rained, there would be water ata the bottom.
Tobruk had depended for a long time on water from wells in the no-mans land. There was even a pumping station in the wadi. That was only made possible first by the Indian cavalry and then the Polish cavalry. Their aggressive operations had kept the enemy from causing problems over the wells. There were some of the usual named outposts that guarded the water supply. They were named "Cocoa 1,2  and 3, Big Cheetah and Little Cheetah". They were located on the wadi side near the enemy.
The first men from the 2/13th Battalion went to the area during the night of 25-27 October 1941. In the morning of 27 October, Major Colvin visited the Polish Cavalry Regiment headquarters. There was still a great deal of dust in the air following the previous days' dust storm. The Polish brigade commander stopped by the cavalry regiment headquarters at about 10:30am. He told Major Colvin, of the 2/13th Battalion, that a prisoner had told them that the enemy planned to attack near the wadi on the next morning. Two Libyans had been captured. One was a civilian spy who had been sent to scout the area. General Kopanski, the Polish commander, met with Colonel Burrows and General Scobie to talk about the news. They considered not having the 2/13th move into place, but decided to go ahead with the planned move. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Seeing the last Australians off from Tobruk

Supply operations for Tobruk continued in August 1941. More petrol and supplies were carried into Tobruk. We have already mentioned operation Treacle involved a cruiser covering force, two fast minelayers, and the usual destroyers. They had transported some six thousand men into Tobruk and removed about 5,500 men. Septembere saw the important operation named Supercharge. Supercharge also included a cruiser covering force and a larger RAF fighter force. The actual numbers of men carried into Tobruk were 6,308. They removed 5,988 men, including 544 wounded. The ships carried in more petrol andd supplies. They also brought 29 tanks to add to the tank force. One last operation named Cultivate received more unwanted attention from the enemy. The last night of Cultivate saw the fast minelayer Latona sunk and the destroyer Hero damaged. Larger numbers of men were moved both in and out. Some 7,138 men were carried into Tobruk and 7,234 were removed. The naval force lost heavily in the process. Ships, including the petrol carrier, Pass of Balmaha, and others were sunk and more were damaged.
The Inshore Squadron was involved in the last operation to remove Australians from Tobruk, starting on 13 November 1941. The only Australian unit left in Tobruk was the 2/13th Battalion. In operations involving ships near Tobruk, from 11 April until 9 December 1941, 26 navy ships and 5 merchant ships were lost. Another four navy ships and four merchant ships were damaged. Australian destroyers were involved in the runs to Tobruk and back. Two Australian sloops were also involved with the Parramatta being lost.
The last Australians at Tobruk, the 2/13th Battalion were witness to a heavy dust storm. The Durham Light Infantry managed to provide breakfast to the Australians. It turns out that there were also two companies from the 2/15th Battalion left, as well. They were located near Fort Pilastrano. The Australian brigade commander, Brigadier Murray met with General Scobie to talk about what they would do with the remaining Australians. The Australians had turned over all their equipment, except what they personally carried. The new plan  was for them to use equipment that had been intended for use by the Polish Officers Legion. There was work to be done to plan where to go and how they would move into place. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History

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