Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The critical point in the Crusader battle, 1 December 1941

When General Scobie found that the New Zealand troops from Belhamed were withdrawing towards the Tobruk sortie force, he had them diverted and employed in the "forward posts". The enemy had staged an attack from the east against the "corridor". This attack was driven back. They apparently had killed fifty of the enemy and had taken another fifty as prisoners.
The one New Zealand battalion at Belhamed, the 18th, had been facing Ed Duda. They had been able to hold their ground, but eventually started to pull back to the west. Major Loder-Symonds had finally been able to get two mobile artillery observation posts in place. He had been able to call in artillery fire to support the New Zealand withdrawal. B/O Battery were able to drive back a group of German tanks that had been trying to cut off the New Zealand battalion. Major Loder-Symonds was able to speak to the New Zealand Battalion commander, who seemed to be very able. The major told the New Zealand commander that the artillery would stay and provide anti-tank protection, if his men could take positions "just in front of the guns". He also showed the New Zealand commander the enemy minefield that they could use as part of their defenses. The New Zealand battalion moved onto the ridge "west of Belhamed". Very soon, a column of vehicles approached with the remnants of the New Zealand Division artillery. This included one troop from the 6th New Zealand Field Regiment. Major Loder-Symonds was able to incorporate them "alongside B Battery". That gave them a line of eight guns that could fire as a unit. There was some concern that B Battery could be forced to withdraw, so "Rocket Troop" was sent to a position at Belhamed where they would be in a position to provide support. Rocket Troop was shelled and took some casualties, but where able to hold on "until after dark".

The 2/13th Battalion was still in place on the ridge by Belhamed and Ed Duda. They were able to observe the German attack on Belhamed with tanks. The also observed the 18th New Zealand Battalion pull back. By 10am, they heard about a German group. Later, they could see what might have been Germans "beyond the bypass road". The 2/13th Battalion heard at 10:30am that Belhamed had fallen to the enemy. A conference was planned for 11am at Brigadier Willison's headquarters.
They were now at the critical point in the Crusader battle. They had almost been defeated on Totensonntag, but 70th Division,, the New Zealand Division, and the army tank brigades had kept the British forces from being defeated. On 1 December, the New Zealand Division had taken important losses. The German armored divisions had been ordered to attack and to defeat them.
In the German Africa Corps, the custom was to move in to attack while the sky was still dark. They planned an attack on Belhamed at 6:30am. Brigadier Gatehouse had been ordered to check out the situation at dawn, which would have been later than the planned German moves. The time was 9am when the composite armored brigade approached over the "northern Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Brigadier Gatehouse had been given orders that would have been bad to have executed as given. He was to attack and be relentless, fighting to the last tank, if necessary. Gatehouse had the 5th RTR commander contact the New Zealand Division and plan hoow to  attack the enemy tanks. Brigadier Gatehouse did not feel required to  make reckless charges against the enemy. His responsibility was to make the best use of his resources in tanks and men and not throw them away. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Events on 30 November 1941 to 1 December 1941 near Sidi Rezegh

The situation late on 30 November 1941 saw the 1st South African Brigade sitting on the escarpment where General Norrie had led them. The 6th New Zealand Brigade was all but destroyed. The Italian Ariete Armored Division was on the Trigh Capuzzo, with the 21st Armored Division behind them. The South Africans sent out a strike group towards Point 175, but they were stopped by units from the 21st Armored Division, including the 3rd Recennaissance Unit. The Australians were sitting on the ridge, with two New Zealand companies to their east, near the place where the bypass road crossed the ridge.
Eighth Army senior officers were busy during the night.. They had different amounts of information about the situation, and their personalities shaped how they responded. General Freyberg was prepared to ask his men to sacrifice themselves, as needed, for the good of the division. General Freyberg believed that his division was still obligated to hold the ground they defended. For one thing, the corridor to Tobruk depended on them. The commander of the 6th New Zealand Brigade had proposed withdrawing, but that was unacceptable to General Freyberg. General Freyberg's view was that the 1st South African Brigade and the British armor would need to participate in the battle to hold the ground they occupied. General Freyberg sent his chief artillery offcier to Tobruk to talk with General Godwin-Austen about Freyberg's view of what was needed. General Freyberg also sent two officers to talk with the South African brigade comander. "He beileved that the South Africans had been placed under his command." They were to tell him that Sidi Rezegh had been captured by the enemy. The New Zealand Division needs Sidi Rezegh recaptured prior to dawn on 1 December. The South Africans were ordered to retake Sidi Rezegh immeditately.
The New Zealand artillery commander, Brigadier Miles only reached XIII Corps headquarters after midnight. The officers sent to the South African brigade arrived at 1:40am. The South Africans were quite close to General Norrie, so when they received the message relayed from General Freyberg, the South African commander went to talk with General Norrie. They decided that capturing Point 175 was not possible prior to dawn. The attack could restart at dawin, at best.
General Godwin-Austen sent out encoded wireless message to the major unit commanders. The 7th Armoured Division needed to concentrate and focus on defeating the German armored units. If the South Africans could take Point 175 and Sidi Rezegh, then they should try to establish themselves in controll of those positions. If that failed, then the New Zealand Division needed to move "behind Ed Duda". They would also need to hold onto Belhamed. Anything else can be given up, if all elsle failed. They might have ordered the New Zealand Division to withdraw immediately, but there was not realy time for that to be a realistic possibility.
Geenral Scobie was paying xlose attention to events and plans. He was aware ofo the rishs of having 70th Division soldiers from Tobruk outside of the fortress defenses when the situaion was in doubt.  Infantry tank runners were not more than twenty by now. He was intent on holding onto Ed Duda and Belhamed. General Gott told Brigadier Gatehouse that he needed to attack the enemy tanks. They were very close to morning and the enemy forces were clearly on the move, intent on causing them trouble.
The 32nd Army Tank Brigade dealt with an enemy group between outposts Butch and Tiger. at dawn, there was heavy mist. While there still was mist, they started to receive incoming artillery fire at Belhamed. The New Zealand Division units near Belhamed were being attacked. They had support by the 1st RHA, but some British tanks were knocked out by mines and anti-tank gun fire. The New Zealanders "were without tank support and being overrun."  This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

On the brink of disaster at Sidi Rezegh and the general area on 30 November 1941

Late on 30 November 1941, the men at Ed Duda could tell that there was fighting at Sidi Rezegh, but they could not see what was actually happening. The men at Ed Duda were concerned that the situation was about to take a major turn for the worst. A planned change of companies was canceled. They were so concerned about the situation and their prospects for survival that they spent the night digging emplacements and laying mines. Up until the end of the day on 30 November, the XIII Corps headquarters and the men in Tobruk had no idea of what was happening at Sidi Rezegh.
The one British cruiser tank brigade, the composite 4th/22nd Brigade, wasted time playing games with the Italians of the Ariete armored division. They also may have seen and fired at some German Africa Corps men and tanks, but took no serious action. General Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander, had wanted the brigade to be engaged with keeping the corridor open from the outside to the New Zealand Division, near Point 175. In fact, the Germans were positioning themselves to attack the New Zealand Division and remove them from the battlefield. There wax Italian artillery positioned near Point 175 that was firing on the New Zealanders.
The XXX Corps commander, General Norrie, took personal of the 1st South African Brigade. They reached the escarpment at about 4pm, near Trigh Capuzzo. They did not try anything, but were preparing to attack the dressing station at Point 175.
The 15th Armored Division was intent on capturing Sidi Rezegh and surrounding the New Zealand Division so that they were out of touch with Tobruk and the Egyptian Frontier. They made mistakes, however, as one was for the division to head off to El Adem. They were eventually stopped at Bir Salem. The men at Ed Duda could see the 15th Armored Division move to the north, near Bir Bu Creimisa.
Bir Bu Creimus had become the headquarters of the German Africa Corps. Later in the afternoon, Rommel ordered the attack on the New Zealand Division. The little Mickl Group, a battle group of five tanks, was to hit Sidi Rezegh. The Italians of the Ariete Division were to hit the east side. The 90th Light Division would hit Belhamed to the south. General Cruewell had suggested that the 15h Armored Division should move to the "saddle" between Ed Duda and Belhamed. They would end up moving along the foot of the ridge where the 2/13th Battalion was located. The Australians planned to patrol to the "bypass road.
From 4pm to 5pm, the German and Italian tanks moved in on the New Zealand Division. The 4th/22nd Brigade had done nothing useful to interfere with the enemy tank movements. The 15th Armored Division commander, General Neumann-Silkow led his division to join the attack on Sidi Rezegh, rather than waste his time at the "saddle"The 6th New Zealand Brigade, located near the Sidi Rezegh mosque was in trouble. Two New Zealand battalions were overrun and a third was pressed hard by the Ariete Division. The brigade commander wanted to salvage what he could from the wreckage. He wanted to move in behind the "Tobruk sortie force". With the 6th New Zealand Brigade all but destroyed, that left the New Zealand Division artillery unprotected at Belhamed, and nearby. From the east, you now had the 21st Armored Division closing in and blocking the Trigh Capuzzo. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, August 20, 2018

General Norrie's priority task for 30 November 1941: the South African brigade

The South African brigade was weighing heavily on General Norrie's mind. He wanted to help them make contact with the New Zealand Division without them being attacked by German tanks. The Australian historian thought that what General Norrie needed to do was to get the help of  Brigadier Gatehouse's composite armored brigade, not just freeing his schedule so that he could concentrate his thinking. Appatently, General Norrie personally accompanied the South African brigade on their trip to join the New Zealand Division.
30 November was one week after Rommel wanted to bring the German Africa Corps against the New Zealand Division. We see now that General Ritchie had ordered the 7th Armoured Division to harass the rear of the 15th Armored Division. General Gott told Brigadier Gatehouse to keep the corridor open from Tobruk to the New Zealand Division. They were also to protect the South Africans. XIII Corps told the New Zealand Division to move west as soon as the South African Brigade arrived.
Ed Duda was now left with a mixture of infantry units to continue to hold the place. There was the 1/Essex, the Australians, and the New Zealand companies. The 2/13th was left in command of the units. The Australians were surprised to find that German armor continued to drive around on the desert without anyone interfering. The only anti-tank capability they had were field artillery from the 1st RHA. They had no anti-tank guns at all. One response from the Australians was to request a large number of mines to build defenses. When the sun came up on 30 November, the Australians could see a busy German temporary encampment on the desert flat. They had everything from kitchens, to repair workshops, tanks, and men being marched around. The forward observer from the 1st RHA was anxious to all in artillery fire on the camp. The Germans replied with accurate artillery fire. The Australians could see some forty tanks to the west. A group of twelve drove close and were shelled. By 8am, they could see about 35 tanks, which eventually were bombed by the RAF. Two German tanks drove into an Australian position and asked the men to surrender, but they didn't fall for such as game. They could see the German tanks drive around as if to approach the New Zealand Division.
The British and Australians were able to nab some German vehicles from the bypass road. Brigadier Willison held a meeting at about mid-morning, where he proposed consolidating Ed Duda under the 2/13th Battalion and giving back the spare companies to their owners. Later in the day, men from the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire moved into the area. They were in a position just below the escarpment with a company on either side of the road.
The lack of resolute command of the forces near by left the men in precarious positions. They did not know what was British and what was enemy, because of the careless way that business was being conducted. You have to think that some of the problem was General Ritchie's lack of experience at the level of command he was at. Men near Ed Duda could hear firing from the general direction of Sidi Rezegh, but they could not actually see what was happening. No one bothered to tell them, either. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Events on 30 November 1941 near Ed Duda and Sidi Rezegh

A portion of the 2/13th Battalion (Australians) were still on "the ridge to the east". They were reinforced by two companies from the 19th New Zealand Battalion, and operated under the Australian command. The New Zealanders were in place alongside the Australians, another "ANZAC" formation.
Commanders from both sides had some fundamental misunderstandings about the current situation. What little ground had been taken by mainly German forces under Rommel's command had been recaptured by two squadrons of Matildas and two infantry companies. Rommel had already fought and defeated the armor and infantry of XXX Corps. Rommel expected that the British knew how badly they had been beaten and that the New Zealand Division would pull into Tobruk for protection. General Ritchie, 8th Army Commander, however was unaware of the real situation. He thought that the German armored forces had been so battered that they would attempt to flee to the west. Rommel also expected the main British armored force to join the battle. Because of that impression, Rommel decided to attack the New Zealand Division where they were sitting, south of Tobruk.
General Ritchie wanted the 7th Armoured Division to attack the Germans that night, but instead, they went into a protective night leaguer some distance away. They were reorganized so that they had one composite brigade composed from the remnants of the division. Rommel, on 30 November, wanted to surround the New Zealand Division, although he neglected to consider Ed Duda in his plan. Rommel was focused, instead, on retaking Sidi Rezegh. One change that Rommel made was appointing General Boettcher, the heavy artillery commander, to take command of the 21st Armored Division.
General Ritchie's orders to the 7th Armoured Division were to "harass with petty attacks" against the 15th Armored Division. He revised his orders later to be to both harass and destroy the enemy as the opportunity prsented itself. The goal being to protect the 1st South African Brigade. The South African's had their orders modified to take them towards Ed Duda, south of the airfield at Sidi Rezegh. General Norrie got involved and ordered the South Africans to move to Sciafsciuf way east of Point 175 before they got up on the escarpment. They would then be attacking Point 175 from the east.
XIII Corps plans for 30 November were similar to his previous plans. General Godwin-Austen ordered 70th Division to take some action to divert Rommel's attention from the New Zealand Division. At the same time, General Godwin-Austen asked the New Zealand Division to help 70th Division. Once the situation at Ed Duda seemed to have been stabilized, General Godwin-Austen was thnking again of a forward move to El Adem. When the New Zealand Division had connnected with the South Africans, and they were confident in their ability to hold their present position, they should push forward to the El Adem-Bir el Gubi road.
General Norrie and XXX Corps were concerned with helping the South African Brigade join with the New Zealand Division. They had hoped to have completed that movement prior to 30 November, but the enemy armored forces returning from the Egyptian frontier had mde that impossible, as the South African brigade was not in a position to deal with armored forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A surprise attack that worked at Ed Duda

The situation was rather ironic. The 7th Armoured Division, designed to be able to successfully fight the German Africa Corps lay in a leaguer at night, while the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, which had been tested repeatedly during the Crusader battle, was being asked again to fight the German Africa Corps, this time at Ed Duda.
The tank battle at Ed Duda lasted about three hours while the infantry was engaged for about fifteen minutes. Eight Matilda tanks drove up to the escarpment at Ed Duda. They came from the lower ground below. The German tanks stood out against a backlit view. There were tracers from machine gun fire and shots were fired from German 50mm guns and British 2pdr tank guns. There were also German 20mm tank guns fired from light tanks that added to the fireworks. Many shots ricocheted from the Matilda tank hulls. There were many more German tanks, perhaps three-to-one in numbers versus the British infantry tanks. The observing British infantry could see Matildas withdrawing and then returning to fight. The Germans seemed to be winning, but the German tanks withdrew, leaving the British tanks in possession of Ed Duda.
The Australian infantry were going to wait to attack, but ended up being sent forward at 1:30am. The German tanks were thought to have withdrawn before this time. What had actually happened was that by the British attacking without artillery support, they achieved complete surprise. Colonel Burrows, though, ordered his men to call out "Australians coming" as they attacked. The British tanks were also making as much noise as possible, revving their engines as they moved. They were also firing on the move, just to create more confusion. Sadly, the British tanks mistakenly fired on the Australian infantry. The Germans thought that they were facing British infantry, as they called "Englander kommen".
An account written after the battle gave better information about the situation. The Australian infantry attacked with two companies from B Company on the left and C Company on the right. The men from C Company had to recognize who was in front of them. They were apparently German infantry. Once they got close, the shouted and charged with bayonets fixed. The enemy morale collapsed  Their infantry either dropped to the ground or else held their hands up in surrender. They could hear Germans running ahead of them, calling "Englander kommen". The Austtslisnd stopped after they comvered five hundred yards. The Australians took small groups of Germans prisoner.
They could hear German motor transport moving in the distance. They were not close enough to capture any except for a motor cycle that was stopped by Thompson sub-machine gun fire. They captured the rider.
The Australian infantry leaders were very experienced at patroling and fighitng at night. The company commanders maintained control of their units. They only encountered German resistance twoards the edges. The Australians were so accomplished at this sort of activity that they stayed on top. When one group of Germans opened fire, an Australian sergeant led a charge and that stopped the enemy fighting. They encountered two Australian stretcher-bearers who were German prisoners and freed them. They almost had bayoneted them by mistake. On the other side, an Australian firing a hand-held Bren gun forced the surrender of 25 German infantry. The attackers took 167 enemy prisoners. The Australians had two  men killed and five wounded. The men needed to be able to dig in before morning, but there was no equipment. They were fortunate enough that there was not an immediate counter-attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Fighting at Ed Duda from 1pm on 29 November 1941

While the first attempt by the Germans to take Ed Duda failed, they came back. The 1/Essex and anti-tank guns had held. At that point, the tanks available to the 4th RTR were ordered to climb to the top of Ed Duda. There were about 8 tanks, of which some, as we have said, were used as observations points by the 1st RHA. At first, the Germans held back, and the dug in positions of the 1/Essex. Their machine guns and anti-tank guns were disabled. The German patrols were able to lift the protective mines. The time was about 4:30pm when the enemey approached from the west. As the time got later, the enemy had teh sun behind them. The British Matilda tanks came up and then started withdrawing by twos. The heavier German tanks approached, while the lighter German tanks, Pzkw II's drove up to the side, to a flanking position. They opened up with machine guns on the British. Now, there were as many as twenty German tanks lined up across the position held by the British infantry. The Matilda tanks were still close by and were in a hull-down position. Darkness fell, but the British tanks were far enough back to be out of the range of German tanks.
Colonel Burrows, the 2/13th Battalion commander, was summoned to a tank that was talking with Brigadier Willison at the 32nd Army Tank Brigade headquarters. Colonel Burrows told them that he was not prepared to attack tanks without having tanks in support. The British agreed that was the best decision. They wanted the 2/13th Battalion to launch a counter-attack at Ed Duda with two companies. They would provide a third company to protect 1st RHA guns near Belhamed. The rest of the battalion would just try to hold their present positions.
Colonel Burrows headquarters was located up on the escarpment. They were about one thousand yards to the northeast of thet pass at Ed Duda. They planned to use companies C and D for the counter-attack at Ed Duda. The situation was such that D company probably would not be ready in time, since they had been farther away. Colonel Burrows made an adjustment so that company B would attack with company C, instead of company D.The two companies gathered at the north side of the escarpment at the bottom. Some 25pdr guns were firing over the men as they gathered. Except for that, the night was quiet. The 25pdrs stopped firing, but a German shell landed in the middle of a platoon and caused immediate casualties to everyone present.
The other men were forced to march past the platoon that he been decimated. They walked around the corner to a starting point for an attack towards the southwest.  Ed Duda had "pimples", so the men were on both sides of the pimples. Looking through binoculars, they could see German tanks about five hundred yards away. Colonel Burrows declined to attack with the tanks in front of them. He needed tank support so that they could fight on an equal footing. Colonel Burrows took time to visit Brigadier Willison's headquarters to discuss the situation. They would either get tank support or they would not attack. The new plan was to get the Australian infantry and the British tanks in close with the enemy, and recognize that they would not be able to have artillery support, due to the close contact. Battery A/E of the 1st RHA had already left for outpost Tiger as the sky got dark. They had also ordered B/O Battery to head back in the belief that the road was not blocked. In fact, though, the 4th RTR had three tanks blocking the road, just forward of the 2/13th Battalion positions. To the east, the 44th RTR had another road block using tanks.
The 7th Armoured Division tanksk were sitting in the desert, not very far away, but were not involved in the criitical fight. Instead, Brigadier Willison and his brigade had been carrying the load, fighting German tanks over the last nine days. And here they were ready to fight the main German armored force, the German Africa Corps. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Activity from 11:30am on 29 November 1941 in the Crusader battle

A large enemy force was seen approaching Sidi Rezegh at about 11:30am. This was to the west of the earlier planned operation. The British changed their minds about what they were seeing. Now, the enemy seemed to be intent on taking Ed Duda, or at least the escarpment just to the west. The New Zealand Division seemed to be the target of the enemy forces. They were about to surround the division.
The relatively inexperienced General Ritchie, the new 8th Army commander, figured that the German Africa Corps were intent on saving as much of their forces as they could, while the Australian historian suggested that the Germans were intent on defeating what we call the "British" forces, which included New Zealand, Australian, and Polish, as well as real British units.
The Australian historian thought that the British goal should have been to concentrate as great a force as possible to fight the largely German forces that were engaged. He criticized the army commander for not trying to build a concentrated defensive position. The New Zealand Division, at least, kept the priority of holding a corridor open between Tobruk and Ed Duda. They were intent on holding the two ridge lines, including the Ed Duda, Belhamed, and Zaafran, and the Sidi Rezegh ridge line. Part of the New Zealand Division motivation included the information that they were to be joined by the 1st South African Brigade on 30 November.
In the event, the South African brigade was not able to join the New Zealand Division, because the 7th Armoured Division was not able to protect and move the South Africans. The 7th Armoured Division was also not in a position to protect the New Zealand Division from attack. Despite the orders given by the army commander and the corps commanders, the armored division was unable to help the Tobruk force (70th Division) or the New Zealand Division.
The Germans were intent on executing a plan made by the German Africa Corps commander, General Cruewell starting on 29 November. He hoped to make the Tobruk forces that were south of the fortress have to pull back into the fortress perimeter. In this case, the results were not what were desired. General von Ravenstein, the 21st Armored Division commander, was captured by New Zealand Division forces "near Point 175". That caused 21st Armored Division operations to be disrupted for the rest of 29 November.
The German plans had changed by Rommel, who had arrived at the scene of the fighting and had taken charge. He now hoped to cut off the New Zealand Divisiion from communication with Tobruk. He was going to use the 15th Armored Division to take Ed Duda and then push to the east. He hoped that the 21st Armored Division would be able to push west and connect with the 15th Armored Division. They also relied on the Italian Ariete Division to captured the east side of Sidi Rezegh.
By this time, the 15th Armored Division had the bulk of the surviving German tanks. The 115th Infantry Regiment, a motorized unit, were "bogged down" close to Bir Salem. The 200th Infantry Regiment, also a motorized unit, attacked outpost Doc (formerly known as Dalby Square) instead of attacking Ed Duda. Ed Duda was attaced by a much smaller force than had been intended by the plan. The 15th Armored Division was assembling a force to attack Ed Duda at about 1pm. We have access to the communications from Captain Salt, from Chestnut Troop of the 1st RHA. Germans attacked the 1/Essex from the west, but where stopped. The 4th RTR was able to summon 8 infantry tanks. Some of the tanks were used by the 1st RHA, including Captain Salt. He was killed when his tank ws hit. The artillery lost two tanks, which disrupted the artillery support. That left the enemy approaching by 4:30pm. This is based onthe account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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