Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Rommel's plan is executed from 3 December 1941

Rommel's two columns set out for the frontier area at dawn on 3 December 1941. They would face a reorganized British force there near the frontier. The 5th Indian Brigade and the 5th New Zealand Brigade were assigned to "masking" Bardia. The reorganization near Bardia happened on 1 and 2 December 1941. They had the 5th New Zealand Brigade in the north of Bardia and covering the coastal road.
Early on 3 December, a mixed column of New Zealand "cavalry and infantry saw the approaching German force commanded by Geissler. They notified the 5th New Zealand Brigade about the German force. About the same time, a column from the Central Indian Horse reported the approach of Knabe's force. Interestingly, Geissler's force attacked, being very confident, and were soundly defeated. A surviving company-sized remnant from the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion was gathered and were put into a blocking position. Knabe's group had a better outcome, but they were in a long-range duel with Goldforce and the 7th Support Group jock columns. Knabe was not confident enough that he could break off to help Geissler. That night, he was ordered to pull back to Gasr el Arid.
The New Zealand contribution to winning Operation Crusader needs to include their efforts to defeat Geissler's fighting force. We need to recognize the successes of the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison between 18 November and 4 December. They inflicted losses on the 15th and 21st Armored Divisions and the 90th Light Division. The German Africa Corps staff reacted by sending the remaining part of the 15th Armored Division to Gasr el Arid early in the morning. They were to join Knabe's force and the Ariete Division. They still kept back part of the 21st Armored Division artillery, the 8th Machine Gun Battalion, and an engineer unit. They were intended for use in an attack on Ed Duda. The column sent to join Knabe arrived, despite being bombed. They pushed farther east and caused Goldforce to have to withdraw. There was some concern that the Germans might destroy the 5th New Zealand Brigade in the north. The Germans in fact planned to attack that afternoon.
General Auchinleck was now with General Ritchie at 8th Army Headquarters. They warned the 2nd South African Division about the German sin the north. The 2nd South African Division had arrived at Sidi Omar at 9am that morning. General Norrie was ordered to withdraw the 4th Armoured Btigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Rommel's plan to send supplies to the troops on the border with Egypt showed the condition of the enemy forces. The columns sent to the east were small and did not contain any tanks. The tanks had to be grounded for maintenance. Monitoring the British communications indicated that they did not need to be concerned about a British tank attack. They thought that they might be free from tank attack until 3 December 1941. General Cruewell, the German Africa Corps commander, thought that they should send the entire force, minus tanks, rather than sending small detachments. Rommel disregarded General Cruewell's concerns and proceeded with the operation as he planned. The two forces heading to the east would include one traveling on the Via Balbia and the other on the Trigh Capuzzo. The northern group would include units from the 15th Armored Division. The force would be a battalion-sized all-arms group built around the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion. They had been recently engaged in capturing Belhamed. The southern group was drawn from the 21st Armored Division. The force was similar, except this group received three tanks. A regiment with extra troops was supposed to follow the two columns. The rest of the German Africa Corps was not involved since they were assigned to destroying the British forces at Ed Duda. The north and south columns assembled on 2 December and moved forward on 3 December. The force to attack Ed Duda was to have the army artillery assigned and would cooperate with the Italian XXI Corps.
British units on the Egyptian frontier were reorganized in early December  The 22nd New Zealand Battalion became the nucleus for a new 5th New Zealand Brigade. The purpose was to increase the fighting power available in the area to keep the enemy from sending supplies from the frontier to the units near Tobruk. This was a concern of General Ritchie, which was based on a misunderstanding of the situation. British forces "on the Bardia front" had reorganized on 1 and 2 December 1941. The 5th New Zealand Brigade would cover the northern part of the area. They had two battalions in a forward position and a third in reserve. The two forward battalions were deployed facing to the east. The New Zealand Cavalry was sent to patrol towards the west. A similar force in the south, named Goldforce, patrolled on the Trigh Capuzzo. Goldforce was a mixed unit of cavalry with men from the Central Indian Horse and the 31st Field Regiment. To the east of them was the 5th Indian Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Action at the Appendix from 3 November 1941 and beyond

Not that long after the advance party from the Borders arrived at the 2/13th Battalion, an artillery battle was joined at the extremity of the "appendix" that stuck out from Tobruk to Ed Duda. The enemy fire was concentrated on outpost "Doc". This was on the right side of the appendix. The commander and staff of the 2/13th Battalion observed an enemy attack that resulted in "Dalby Square" being captured. The attackers consisted of three companies of motorized infantry. The majority of the 4/Border arrived at 1:45am at Ed Duda to relieve the 2/13th Battalion. Their transportation was on the vehicles that had brought the 4/Border. By 3am, the Australians were ready and eager to return to Tobruk, which seemed ironic.
The column drove through the night until they arrived at the Tobruk perimeter. The battalion would defend the perimeter from Post R37 to Post R59. They were deployed with three companies in line and the fourth in reserve. The 1/Durham Light Infantry were to ride the vehicles that had brought the 2/13th Battalion to Tobruk. They in fact did not leave, but they stayed in the "forward area", presumably in the perimeter defenses. There appears to have been a change in plan, which left too many men in close quarters. There was a limited amount of cover, so this exposed men to fire. The plan to send a force with tanks from Ed Duda to El Adem seems to have been a factor. The original thinking had been to send the 2/13th with the force sent to El Adem, but they decided to use the 1;Durham Light Infantry in their place. With the enemy operations near Ed Duda, the advance to El Adem was postponed.
Back on 30 November 1941, General Bastico visited Rommel at his headquarters. They talked about developments and agreed that they were now in a battle of attrition. With their supply line difficulties, they could do little more until shipments of tanks and "other vehicles" could be sent. Both Rommel and General Bastico had already been told that they would not see any tank and truck shipments in the foreseeable future. Rommel talked about his troops having suffered severely, which the Australian historian thought referred to the German and Italian soldiers on the Egyptian frontier. They were especially in need of supplies. General  Bastico was considering sending supplies to Bardia via submarines or aircraft. Early in the day on 1 December, Rommel had visited General Cruewell, the German Africa Corps commandr, and they discussed the desperate straights of the Solumn garrison. This was while Rommel was pummeling the New Zealand Division resulting in their withdrawal from the combat zone. Rommel wanted to make some sort of push to the east, egen if it was just an "advance guard".
Late on 1 December, Rommel sent out messages indicating his new plans. He planned to send out the advance guard, but would send two columns to the east. The German Africa Corps would form the northern column while the Italian Ariete Armored Division and the Trieste Mechanized Division would form the southern column. The southern column would also have the 33rd Reconnaissance unti to lead the way. Tht evening, Rommel and the reconnaissance unit drove to point 175. Rommel told General Cruewell that they needed to move as soon as the "Cauldron" had emptied. He also ordered them to "take food to Bardia". This is based on the account in Vol.II of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Action on 2 December 1941 and beyond near Tobruk

General Godwin-Austen told General Ritchie that his forces were confident of their ability to hold the extension from Tobruk to Ed Duda. He would relieve the most tired troops with groups of Poles. He also reported that they were gradually advancing towards El Adem. He did say that 70th Division was not in a position to provide a brigade group for the proposed advance along "the northern edge of the escarpment". 70th Division was totally committed to other responsibilities. The "4 Border" would take over Ed Duda from the 2/13th Battalion, which would then move to the southern perimeter. They would relieve the 1/Durham Light Infantry, which would then move to the reserve on the northern side of the corridor.
General Scobie had a plan to send to groups to attack El Adem in coordination with XXX Corps. One group would move along the escarpment from Ed Duda to El Adem. The group would have two infantry battalions, one tank squadron, one field regiment, one anti-tank battery, and a machine gun company. The other group would leave the Tobruk perimeter and attack the previous outpost "Plonk". They would then move beyond to a feature that they called "the walled village." This group would have the 2/13th Battalion, using one of their companies and a squadron of infantry tanks. These objectives were along the boundary between two Italian infantry divisions, the Trento and Bologna divisions. These were covering the main route, the Tobruk-El Adem Road.
The division perimeter responsbilities at Tobruk were reassigned. The Polish brigade now had the perimeter from posts R34 and R35 to the sea. The 16th Brigade would cover the rest of the perimeter. That freed the 23rd Brigade to move to Ed Duda. The 14th Brigade, with four battalions and  the 1st RHA would hold the rest of the corridor.
The morning on 3 December 1941 was "abnormally quiet". By later in the morning, the enemy became more active. They sent some tanks on a reconnaissance near Belhamed. The appearance of British infantry tanks from the 32nd Army Tank Brigade seemed to scare them away. The Australians from the 2/13th Battalion were become encouraged that their side might be on the verge of winning. They could see, for the first time, that the British actually had air superiority. Actually, the enemy was still strong in the air. The previous day saw the 5th South African Brigade under heavy dive bomber attack. The last evening saw Ed Duda overflown by two Me-109 fighters doing reconnaissance.
Right after midday on 3 December, the 2/13th Battalion got word through the 1/Essex, that they needed to send an advance group to the 1st Durban Light Infantry. They were given notice that they needed to be ready to move at 4am the next morning. The Australians apparently did not respond to the news. They were awakened at 4am by a group from the "Borders". Their advanced group didn't leave until 5:30am. They only arrived at the Durham Light Infantry headquarters at 7pm. They were on the left side of the El Adem Road portion of the perimeter. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Holding on from 1 December 1941 and later near Tobruk and points west

< p>General Ritchie had been ready to withdraw from Ed Duda, but the men on the spot were offended by the idea. They were holding on and were increasing their defenses. Once General Godwin-Austen heard about Colonel Nichols of the 1/Essex, he concurred that they should hold on to their ground. Other commanders in 70th Division offered suggestions for operations to improve their position. Early on 2 December 1941, then, the position of Colonel Nichols and his battalion affected the situation, because by withdrawing, they would have allowed Rommel to concentrate his units on the Egyptian Frontier.
The fall of Belhamed to the enemy exposed the 2/13th Battalion to heavier shelling. The enemy presumable had new observation posts that could see the battalion. The mortar platoon arrived and then a New Zealand field artillery troop. They offered a target for strafing, presumably meaning by aircraft. 1pm saw Colonel Burrows visit the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire at Bir Belhamed. He also talked with the 18th New Zealand Battalion. When enemy movement was seen, they expected an enemy attack, but that did not happen. A move that seemed to indicate a pending attack to break the connecting corridor from Ed Duda ended when they were shelled. A little later, a 210mm shell landed and exploded, but did not fragment. Colonel Burrows was seriously wounded, however. Major Colvin was not incapacitated and he took charge of the battalion. Major Colvin adjusted the defenses in light of potential threats. He also called forward Captain Gillan to take over the headquarters company. The headquarters now included some specialist troops who were without equipment.
Right after dark at Ed Duda, some companies changed responsibilities. To the east, there was fighting where German infantry hit the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire battalion. The New Zealand battalion also fought off an enemy group. The enemy had broken into one company at Bir Belhamed. Some British troops were broken into small pockets. Once that there was daylight, they captured some Germans. About 9am, some German assault engineers and anti-tank gunners attacked. Between the British and New Zealand battalions, they were able to throw back the attacking troops. Some men captured were from the 90th Light Division, from a new battalion, tentatively named after the commander, the Kolbeck Battalion. These men were some who had been liberated from a New Zealand prisoner of war camp.
The units in the corridor from Tobruk to Ed Duda were understandbly nervous about their situation during 2 December. In fact, the German situation was difficult. They had infantry which had been severely beaten. Many tanks were broken down and were in need of repair. The enemy had no other forces to follow up on the real successes that they had experienced. At this point, Rommel needed some time to recover from the heavy fighting that they had experienced.
On 1 December 1941, General Godwin-Austen had requested that a senior officer able to make decisions be sent to XIII Corps headquarters. General Ritchie arrived on 2 December. General Godwin-Austen had been disappointed that the 7th Armoured Division had not attacked the enemy tanks. General Godwin-Austen did not believe that his forces were in a position to attack towards El Adem without the enemy tank forces having been attacked. This is based onthe account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 10, 2018

General Auchinleck gets involved from 30 November 1941

General Auchinleck gave Churchill his impression of the current situation on 30 November 1941. He portrayed the situation in more glowing terms than the reality justified. That was more because he had not been closely involved with events and had to rely on input from others and his impressions. The British were hampered by their poor communications systems and methods of operation. General Ritchie, for example, visited XXX Corps headquarters, expecting to see General Norrie, who was elsewhere. The Australian historian mentions that the most important decisions about the conduct of the battle were made by Ritchie's subordinate, without consulting him. Then again, they had asked him if they should abandon the area created by the Tobruk garrison breakout, and he did not reply until twelve hours later.
The Australian historian thought that General Ritchie must have spent most of 30 November at XXX Corps headquarters. They had a current situation map that he found to be very informative. He was able to develop the outline of a plan for operations in the future. Ritchie could see on the map the enemy armored formations, "surrounded by anti-tank guns".  General Ritchie thought that they should try to entice the enemy armor to move out into open ground, where the British could harass them, "never leave it alone". General Ritchie thought that they should send a 4th Indian Division brigade against El Adem, and send armored cars to raid supposed enemy supply lines from  Tmimi and Acroma. He thought that there must be a supply line from Bardia to enemy units west of Bardia. In reality, Rommel was trying to get more supplies into Bardia, not move them out.
General Ritchie returned to 8th Army Headquarters from XXX Corps. The first thing he did was to tell General Godwin-Austen to continue to hold the area between Tobruk and Ed Duda with the force that they had, as there was nothing available to help. General Auchinleck then arrived at 8th Army Headquarters. He stayed there and was involved with operations for the next ten days. They also endorsed using 7th Support Group units and equipment in Jock Columns. XXX Corps would take command of the 1st South African Brigade, the 22nd Guards Brigade, and eventually, the 4th Indian Division. That would happen after they were replaced by the 2nd South African Division on the Egyptian frontier.
In a meeting at 11am on 1 December at Brigadier Willison's headquarters, decisions were made about pressing topics. They would reorganize so that the 2/13th Battalion had its own companies. The Australians would hold positions from Ed Duda to the bypass road. This was on the escarpment. The 1st RHA mortars and carriers would be pulled out. They would be replaced by New Zealand equivelents.
The enemy mounted three attacks against outposts. One was on Jill and two were against Jack (since renamed Happy). About midday, the 1/Essex were warned to be ready to withdraw "from Ed Duda after dark if Belhamed fell to the enemy". Colonel Nichols was disturbed at the idea that they should withdraw. The enemy had just made some half-hearted attacks that the 1/Essex could handle.  There was no need to withdraw. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The Cauldron and British and enemy issues on 1 December 1941

The Australian historian was critical of Brigadier Gatehouse and his timidity in the fight on 1 December 1941. Certainly, if Gatehouse's armored brigade had attacked, they would have taken losses. The historian thought that constantly yielding the battlefield to the Germans was not a way to win a battle. The German armored divisions were free to concentrate against the British infantry, particularly the New Zealand Division. We also notice that the Germans were hard-pressed to pull together a force to fight the battle at the Cauldron. The 90th Light Division was reduced to organizing a battalion from soldiers freed from a New Zealand prisoner of war camp. They were not able to fight at this point in the battle. The 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment was attempting to regroup after being beaten in battle at Sidi Rezegh. The 21st Armored Division was also in poor shape. They were said to be taking a very pessimistic view and were "sending alarming reports". The German Africa Corps did have the advantage of a strong medium and heavy artillery force. Besides the artillery, the main German strength were the 8th Armored Regiment with some forty tanks, "the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, and the 15th Motorcycle Battalion." Before the British armored brigade had joined the battle, this force had fought a hard fight with a New Zealand battalion and the 6th Field Regiment. While the Germans had perhaps 24 Pzkw III and Pzkw IV tanks, Gatehouse's brigade had 115 tanks. But the British tanks had pulled back, leaving the Germans to continue to batter the New Zealand Division.
The Germans planned an attack at 4:30pm on the New Zealand artillery, which had planned to withdraw at 5:30pm. To help the artillery were five Matildas from the 44th RTR and a few Valentines from the 8th RTR. This was a close-fought battle with artillery firing at point-blank range. Some guns were abandoned at the withdrawal. The Germans were very tired so they rested when the British and New Zealanders withdrew. They were admonished by General Cruewell for stopping, because he wanted them to move on Zaafran. He ordered them to take Zaafran at "daybreak".
At 6:45pm, the remnants of the New Zealand Division formed up into a traveling order and then drove east and south their was back to Egypt to rest and rebuild. On the way, they had traveled to Bir Gibni by 3:30am on 2 December 1941. The 1st South African Brigade was in position at Taieb el Esem. The 4th Armoured Brigade was in a night leaguer, as they wre wont to do. This night, they were at Bir Berraneb. This was a far as 24 miles from Ed Duda. The attempted relief of Tobruk had failed.
Rommel had not succeeded in restoring the situation to what it had been prior to the start of Operation Crusader. The Tobruk force, mainly 70th Division, was still at Ed Duda. British forces on the Egyptian frontier were attacking the German and Italian positions at Salum, Bardia, and the "Omars" (such as Sidi Omar). There was also a strong British force on the Trigh el Abd that was a potential threat. The outcome would depend as much on British moves as on anything Rommel would decide to do. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, September 03, 2018

The battle near Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda playes out on 1 December 1941

The Australian historian remarks that Brigadier Gatehouse did not feel that he had to "charge" the enemy when encountered. Rather, he could use his judgement about how to conduct the action to protect his tanks and personnel from unnecessary loss. Gatehouses brigade drove down from the escarpment near the Sidi Rezegh airfield. There may have been times when they might have engaged the enemy under risky circumstances. By this time, the New Zealand Division had been driven from Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. The 1st South African Brigade had made a strong attack on Point 175, but had failed to penetrate the enemy shield. The 21st Armored Brigade had blocked the attack. North of the British armored brigade, the remains of the 6th New Zealand Brigade manned a defensive position. Their 25th Battalion was still at the blockhouse in the Sidi Rezegh area. They had two groups of infantry tanks to their north. The 8th RTR had five tanks left. Even further north were seven infantry tanks of the 44th RTR. They were there to shield anti-tank guns and field artillery, located in a wadi. They still had about 40 25pdr Field Guns left. They represented the main fighting force that survived from the New Zealand Division. There were a handful of other units or groups left, in addition.
Rommel had pulled in most of the German Africa Corps. They were closing in on the New Zealand Division and the other units. Rommel called the situation "the Cauldron". New the 6th New Zealand Brigade and Brigadier Gatehouse's armored brigade were the German 8th Armored Regiment and the 200th Motorized Infantry Regiment. They lay north of the Trigh Capuzzo. On the south side were the "Mickl artillery group" and the 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment. The German force outgunned the New Zealand Division artillery. The 90th Light Division was also on the north side of the Cauldron. The Italian Ariete Armored Division was east of the Cauldron. The 21st Armored Division was sitting on the Trigh Capuzzo.
Brigadier Gatehouse was very uncomfortable with the situation he found himself in. Gatehouse was aware of the strong enemy artillery force that was present. He also believed that they were too late to keep the New Zealand Division from having to withdraw.He knew about the enemy heavy artillery that was nearby. Given the disparity in tank strengths, Brigadier Gatehouse was not ready to attack the enemy tanks. The 6th New Zealand Brigade commander had decided that they needed to withdraw to Zaafran. Brigadier Gatehouse had been in communication with General Gott about the situation. His brigade was caught in a fight with Italian tanks "in front" and some German tanks on the right. The New Zealand transport had disappeared, so Gatehouse considered that his responsibility to them had ended.
Tanks from the 15th Armored Division had expected that Gatehouse's brigade would attack. By early afternoon, the British armored Brigade had driven off towards the south so that they could resupply. The situation had left the 6th New Zealand Brigade wondering what had happened. They were thankful for the presence of the brigade, but were surprised when the brigade suddenly disappeared. They had also expected that the British tanks would have had more of an effect on the course of the battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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