Monday, October 29, 2018

The situation from December 1941 until January 1942

The Japanese attacks on 7 December and 8 December 1941 had a profound effect on the situation in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Not the least of the effects were in the naval sphere. On land, the British were not as well-led as the Germans. Strange as it seems, the advance to the west was to be led by General Godwin-Austen and the XIII Corps. The enemy forces on the Egyptian frontier were to be reduced by the mobile XXX Corps commanded by General Norrie. The British were not very rushed to pursue the enemy forces. If Rommel had been in there place, he would have pushed very hard in pursuit. The 5th New Zealand Brigade, without General Freyberg's input, was brought to the front to lead the attack with the 1st RHA and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. The New Zealand brigade arrived at Gazala on 13 December. They were put on the right of the line. The Polish Carpathian Brigade was to their left, in the center of the British line. When the 5th Indian Brigade arrived, they were sent to Bir en Naghia. The 7th Indian Brigade was put on the left of the line at Gazala. General Gott never wanted to engage the Germans. He wanted to outflank them or threaten them, but not fight them. The German armored forces were very ready to attack and fight, despite their weakened state. 13 December saw a German armor attack on the 17th Indian Brigade, in which some artillery was overrun in the attack.
There was a serious argument between General Godwin-Austen and General Gott. General Godwin-Austen wanted the British armor to attack and destroy the German armor. Gott did noto want to risk fighting. He seems to have little faith in the British cruiser and light tanks to stand up to German armor in serious combat. General Gott was able to not do any more than maneuver his tanks. An attack was planned at Gazala for 15 December 1941. The infantry units would make a 'frontal attack" at Gazala. The British armor would make a flanking move around the left end of the line. The attack by the New Zealand brigade and the Polish brigade succeeded. The enemy could still cause casualties, as southwest of Alam Hamza, they overran the 1/Buffs. The 4th Armoured Brigade ended up in Bir el Eleba. General Godwin-Austen still pushed for a fight by British armor. We still believe that General Gott and Alex Gatehouse lacked confidence in their ability to fight the Germans. The only equipment that they had that was very effective were the American-built M3 Stuart light tanks. With their governors removed they could reach 40 mph. They were lightly armed, however. On 16 December, Gatehouse requested and received permission to send his tanks against the enemy rear areas, which caused considerable panic. Brigadier Gatehouse's moves caused Rommel to withdraw to Western Cyrenaica. He had seen the 7th Support Group moving towards Tengender, which was enough for Rommel. But while the British had held onto their armored forces, so had the Germans.
With the British advance to the west, the RAF was able to occupy airfields, including at Mechili. The situation was in flux, however, as Fliegerkorps II was moving into the theater. The Germans were also actively pursuing a anti-shipping campaign with their submarine force. The British were able to sink three German submarines in November and December. The submarines were seeing success against shipping supplying Tobruk. The British fleet at Alexandria was suffering losses. They included cruisers and destroyers. The worst thing happened when Italian under water demoliatin forces were able to damage the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth. At the same time, Australian had to pull ships back into their home waters to fight the Japanese. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

2/13th Battalion in transition from 10 December 1941

From 10 December 1941, the situation for the 2/13th Battalion got much better. There were fewer restrictions. They no longer had to report shelling and situation. They no longer had limits on lights. They now had time to talk and could visit "their patrol objectives". Just when they were getting comfortable, late in the day on 13 December, they received advance word about having to leave Tobruk. The higher authorities wanted the battalion to leave "at first light on 15th December". They were needed to take 1,500 prisoners of war to Egypt. At 3pm on 14 December, they were in parade formation so that General Scobie could wish the battalion farewell. The reality was that only "officesr and NCO's were allowed to attend. There was always a concern about creating target for air attack. That meant that the numbers present were rather small, but "impressive". General Scobie wanted to not just wish farewell to the battalion but to complement the men of the 9th Australian Division for their defense of Tobruk. He mentioned the circumstances surrounding the 2/13th Battalions involvement after the division had left and had spoken about their "brilliant and masterful" counterattack and expressed sorrow over their colonel's being wounded. While the general spoke, a message arrived canceling the battalion's move.

In fact, they left Tobruk at 7:30am on 16 December 1941. They left by way of the El Adem Road. They went to a place on the escarpment south of El Adem. After that, they crossed the "recent battlefield." They drove to a gap in the Egyptian frontier wire at K62 by 4:15pm. Lieutenant Martin did the navigation for the convoy and he got them right to the exact spot needed. They unloaded and rested until the next day, when they traveled to the rail head. Right after 9am on  18 December, the men boarded the train, some 30 men to a "goods van". Some 60 hours later, they reached Palestine. While the 2/13th Battalion had stayed at Tobruk under General Scobie's command, the battalion had 39 men killed and 36 men wounded.
The Australians sat out the next six months or so. They had missed the fall of Fortress Tobruk to Rommel. The time spent waiting was pretty unproductive. Tobruk and Bardia were not particularly important by themselves. They had been developed by the Italians to product their "prosperous Italian colony."  They Italian Supreme Command agreed to lift the siege of Tobruk, but expressed a desire to hold the western part of Cyrenaica. They suggested trying to hold from Benghazi to the west. They wanted to see a force holding Adgedabia. General Bastico agreed with the concepts and discussed with Rommel holding a line at Gazala, that they would develop. The 90th Light Division was pulled back to Adgedabia. At the same time, about 8 December, the Brescia and Trento Divisions were withdrawn from Tobruk.
By the morning of 8 December, the British could see that they enemy were in a general retreat. General Norrie ordered the 7th Armoured DIvision to the area south of Acroma that was eventually called Knightsbridge. He also ordered the 4th Indian Divsion to push west from El Adem. The 4th Indian Division met the advance guard of the 70th Division on 10 December. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Big changes affect the fighting in North Africa 7-8 December 1941

Events happened to overlap in such a way that sorting dates out is rather difficult. It was apparently the night of 7-8 December 1941 when the attack had been planned against Bir el Azazi. Due to delays, the operation was eventually canceled. A patrol from the 2/Queens had moved against outpost Queen (in the past this had been called Bondi). The attack against the Queens outpost had been repelled. They had lost nine men in the process.
The original plan had been for the 2/13th Battalion to attack Bir el Azazi while the force moving to El Adem passed by. This was on the left flank of the Italian Trento Division. The 23rd Brigade push started at 8:30pm. The 1/Durham Light Infantry would move to Point 157. The 4/Border would then move past and take Point 162. The operation went smoothly until the 1/Durham Light Infantry had traveled about 5,000 yards and had encountered a rearguard of the Pavia Division. The Italians had fought hard, but where taken after midnight, thanks to the presence of 32nd Army Tank Brigade infantry tanks. They took some 150 prisoners, but lost "11 killed and 25 wounded." The 4/Border Battalion had moved forward to Point 162 and took the position. Soldiers from the Tobruk garrison had been responsible for breaking open the enemy positions. XXX Corps had drawn enemy mechanized forces away from Tobruk, allowing the successful operation to proceed.
Events on the night of 7 to 8 December 1941 were very important. General Auchinleck considered that the siege of Tobruk had been "lifted" on 7 December 1941. That was also concurrent with Rommel's decision to withdraw his army back to Gazala. By morning of 8 December 1941, the strategic situation had been radically changed, as there had been the attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor  The British were also attacked in the Far East. Fairly quickly, the battlehip Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse were both sunk by landbased aircraft. The immediate effect in the Middle East was that the Briish supply situation deteriorated.
8 December 1941 at dawn saw the 70th Division spread out thinly. General Scobie did not know at that point that the enemy forces were in retreat. He had heard that there were strong forces holding El Adem. Despite his concerns, he believed that the best course of action to continue attacking the enemy. During the day on 8 December and that night, they concentrated on clearing the road to El Adem. On the next day, General Scobie heard that the 5th New Zealand Brigade would be moving along the bypass road. General Scobie sent the 2/Leicestershire Battalion to Point 156. That way, the New Zealand brigade would be able to get a good look at the terrain that they were to move across. At Point 156, they made contact with the 7th Indian Brigade. The night of 9-10 December, 70gh Division took the Medauuar salient. The morning of 10 December saw the Polish Cavalry Regiment moving along on the Derna Road. At noon, Acroma as captured.
The Australians of the 2/13th Battalion only had a minor role in these operations. Later on 9 December, they were to occupy and defend from posts R7 to R40. Early on 10 December, they were assigned a former enemy position at Bir el Carmusa. Then on 11 December they were reassigned to the "Twin Poles" area. This was during the day when it was light. This si based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A new situation near Tobruk from 6 December 1941 onwards

The German Africa Corps was able to successfully disengage from the British and start the drive back to Gazala. The Germans did not expect that the disengagement would happen incident, but it did proceed smoothly. During the afternoon of 7 December 1941 (a pivotal date), General Ritchie ordered XIII Corps to push towards El Adem, regardless of what XXX Corps did. From the day before, early in the day, armored cars drove out to clear the Bardia Road road block. British infantry moved into the abandoned strong points Freddie and Walter. Patrols were sent out to the southeast to the vicinity of Bu Amud. General Scobie was getting anxious about the lack of activity and information. He felt like the enemy was escaping when they could be pursuing them.
During the afternoon on 6 December, men of the King's Dragoon Guards and the 11th Hussars met near Ed Duda. There was also a meeting between Major Loder-Symonds and Brigadier Jock Campbell, the 7th Support Group commander. Major Loder-Symonds' battery coordinate firing with the "support group column". A jock column, Wilson column made contact with the New Zealand dressing station that lay near Point 175. The dressing station had come under control of the enemy forces and only now was freed. After darkness fell, a 2nd South African Division column arrived from Menastir by driving along the coastal road.
A directove decreed tjat tje 70th Division and the 2nd South African Division were responsible for collecting enemy stragglers. The area that they would be working was from the coast to the desert betweeen Bardia and Tobruk. The 70th Division would be working from Gambut west while the South Africans would work Gambut to the east.During the morning of 7 December, General Scobie dispatched a column to search the area between Tobruk and Gambut. They returned to Tobruk by 6pm. They had seen a lot and had taken some fifty prisoners. Other small groups were also sent out to look for salvageable equipement and anything else that would be useful. One thing that was particularly interesting was that they had found the gun that they had called "Bardia Bill". The gun was intact and they had bagged a German master gunner. The gunner had wanted to stay with his gun. XIII Corps found that XXX Corps did not intend to push to El Adem, so the decision was made to use 70th Division to carry out the operation.
Back on the night of 5 to 6 December, the 2/13th Battalion had patrols out. They found that there was still enemy forces in Bir el Azazi. Early on 6 December, they had seen enemy movements behind the strong point. They had planned to attack that night, with tanks, even. The operation was canceled before anything happened. British artillery still fired into the rear of BIr el Azizi. They enemy responded by firing on the 2/13th Posotions. That was what they usually expected from the enemy. Another order came through requiring an attack that night. They were somewhat wary, because they had a bad history of trying to attack strong point Plonk (apparently at this location). The start line was defined ontime, but nothing else happened smoothly. The tranportation arrive late and there was not enough of it. Infantry and tanks were late arriving. At 9pm, despite that, artillery and machine guns opened fire. The tanks still were not there, so thet attack was postponed twice. A series of problems caused the attack to not happen. By midday the next day,, a patrol found that the enemy had pulled out from the strong point. That saved them from having to attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, October 15, 2018

From 5 December 1941 with Rommel and events unfolding

The Italian High Command sent a staff officer to inform Rommel and General Bastico that supplies from 5 December 1941 to the end of the year would be very limited. The plan was to only send fuel, food, and medical supplies. Rommel only saw the officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Montezemolo a day later. Rommel, however, very likely had already been informed. Another major event was that Hitler was sending an "air fleet and defences" to the area to achieve air superiority and to protect shipping to North Africa. Rommel was thinking of a temporary withdrawal but with the prospect of a rebound in the new year.
Rommel then recalled the forces that had been sent to the frontier. They included the German Africa Corps and the Italian mechanized corps. The recall gave the 5th New Zealand Brigade a reprieve. The 90th Light Division was ordered back to the Ed Duda-Belhamed-Bir Salem area. The Italian Bologna Division was ordered to withdraw from the east during the night. Early on 5 December saw the two German armored divisions were in one case, three miles west of Ed Duda and the other was five miles west of El Adem.
By then, the German armor had been reduced to a total of fifty tanks. To take any action, they needed support from the Italian Ariete Division and Trieste Division. They were to move near Gubi and then attack British supply dumps. Rommel would have liked to move quickly, but the Italians were not able to respond very fast. Rommel lost patience and sent German divisions to El Gubi. In the process, they overran the 11th Indian Brigade. General Gott's usual operations allowed the 4th Amoured Brigade to leaguer 70 miles away, where they could rest undisturbed.
The XXX Corps attack on El Adem had to be postponed. The units in the vicinity of El Gubi were in a state of confusion. That applied to both German and British untis. They had been able to start to reorgamze the remnants of the 11th Indian Brigade, which was then withdrawn. The Germans followed them, moving towards the 2nd Guards Brigade. They were saved from being overrun when Rommel sent them a message ordering them to change over to a defensive posture. The British 4th Armoured Brigade was now close, northeast of El Gubi. They had set up a defensive position where they sat. They had an armored car screen out to provide warning. One thing that happened was that General Neumann-Silkow was fatally wounded. He had been the 15th Armored Division commander. The Germans and Italians were suffering under increased attack by British air and artillery.
Early on 7 December, General Ritchie had ordered XXX Corps to advance as soon as they could move. General Norrie should inform General Godwin-Austen of the plans. By now, General Gott was feeling cautious and told General Norrie that he thought that the Germans were firming up. General Norrie decided to sit still. Rommel was visiting the German Africa Corps headquarters early on 7 December. He told them that if they could not beat the British on the 7th, they would have to pull back to the Gazala area. Rommel did not make any plans to fight and instead, after dark, was going to pull back from the British and withdraw. Supply columns were actually withdrawn starting in the afternoon. As usual, at night on 7 to 8 December, the 4th Armoured Brigade set up a night leaguer southeast of El Gubi. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Major developments from 4-5 December 1941 near Tobruk

A plan was proposed for the 2/13th Battalion to send a patrol to Outpost Plonk. If the enemy withdrew, they would set up an observation post. Outpost Bondi (also called Queen) was planned to be raided by another battalion. The 2/13th Battalion commander, now Major Colvin, had plans to use carrier platoons to strengthen the force  Before anything could actually happen, the brigade commander canceled the operations at 7:30pm.
The situation was changing. For example, the enemy forces that had been attacking Ed Duda had withdrawn and the enemy defenses near Ed Duda were abandoned. Reports came in that indicated that there was major movement of enemy forces from the east heading west. Tobruk sent out a group with anti-tank guns and machine guns to the Trigh Capuzzo. They fired on enemy columns driving west. There was a bottleneck between Ed Duda and the "next escarpment". Approaching columns were engaged and the situation got very tense, such that enemy attempting to pass through were "thrown into confusion."
23rd Brigade took command of all forces at Ed Duda. They were talking about assembling a battle group during the night to be ready to move west towards El Adem. As darkness approached, a Polish anti-tank gun group arrived. They reported that many outposts had been abandoned by the enemy. The local commanders responded by sending out patrols to occupy the empty outposts. Another disruption of plans occurred when XIII Corps canceled the advance to El Adem. The enemy withdrawal had caused the XXX Corps attack to be canceled.
From the German perspective, we learn that by morning on 4 December 1941, the Germans were going to push the east and destroy the British forces on the Egyptian frontier. They were also going to attack Ed Duda. Almost immediately, the attack on Ed Duda ran into trouble. There were four battle groups attacking Ed Duda. Mickl Group attacked from the west. Engineers from the 200th and 900th Engineer Battalions attacked from the south. The 8th Machine Gun Battalion attacked from the southeast. 90th Light Division infantry attacked from the east. The attacks were not made in concert and the only gains at all were those from the 8th Machine Gun Battalion. While the attacks on Ed Duda happened a British Jock Column raided and captured anti-tank guns and made prisoners.
Events of 5 December 1941 were remarkable. On the morning of 5 December, Rommel hoped to break the extension from Tobruk to Ed Duda and then push to Sidi Omar. By evening, Rommel had abandoned those operations. He concentrated German and Italian armored forces to be ready to fight XXX Corps. He abandonded all the ground from Tobruk east to the Egyptian frontier. There were also no German-Italian forces left on the east side of Tobruk. Rommel sent his armored forces to a position near El Gubi. The motivation for the changes is unclear, but the suggestion was that Rommel had read an intercepted message from General Ritchie to General Norrie. There are no German records that mention the message, but Rommel's changes were made shortly after the message was sent.
During the afternoon, Rommel ordered artillery and other unis from east of Tobruk to withdraw. Rommel had learned about the 2nd South African Division arriving at the Egyptian frontier. The 4th Indian Division was on the move on the Trigh el Abd. But the question remains "why did Rommel lift the seige of Tobruk? This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Austrsalian Official History.

Monday, October 08, 2018

3 to 4 December 1941 and beyond

The enemy made a heavy and damaging attack on Ed Duda while the 2/13th Battalion were transported back to the Tobruk perimeter. The attack started at first light on 4 December 1941. They attacked from the west, south, and southeast. The 4/Border were initiated at Ed Duda, trying to hold a position that they had never seen in daylight. The 1/Essex were the recipients of the attack from the west side. Defensive fire and a mobile carrier force were able to break up the attack. The carriers were manned by New Zealand soldiers. The enemy then attacked Bir Belhamed against the 18th New Zealand Battalion were also repelled. The attack from the southeast succeeded in crossing the bypass road. A counterattack by the Essex with the help of a company from the 4/Border recovered the lost ground and were able to penetrate a thousand yards into the enemy positions. The counterattack had help from the 4 RTR. The enemy, however had brought forward 88mm which knocked out 15 Matilda tanks, a devastating loss. Heavy machine gun fire kept anyone from escaping from the tanks and pinned down the 4/Border Battalion. The enemy had succeeded in taking the ground.
The Germans appeared to be push from Belhamed along the ridge to join the group attacking the Borders. The Germans were firing mortars at the 18th New Zealand Battalion. Two tanks had come up to attack the battalion, but one was mined and the other knocked out by a gun. The Germans were unable to make a damaging attack.
General Godwin-Austen issued an "order of the day" in response to the attacks by the Germans. He told the men that they were fighting the battle that would result in retaking Cyrenaica. He said that the battle would be won by those that kept with the fight the longest. They needed to continue to hold Ed Duda, if it was possible. They would be fighting with the help of XXX Corps in the battle about to be fought.
When the 4/Border counterattacked, but were not able to deal with the enemy machine guns, a two battalion attack was planned. They hoped to recover the knocked out tanks. Because the 4/Border and the 18th New Zealand Battalion were cut off, communications were difficult. The 14th Brigade commander decided that the attack would not be needed and that patrols could do the job. By 8pm, the enemy was seen to be withdrawing. The men were able to start work to recover the knocked out tanks. By "first ligth" on 5 December, the enemy was gone and the enemy wounded were made prisoners. They had also captured the enemy 88mm guns that had been so effective against the infantry tanks.
5 December saw about two hours of heavy shelling against the Tobruk fortress. The 2/13th Battalion counted about 1500 to 1700 shells exploding. The 2/13th Battalion intelligence officer thought that this might be preparation for an attack against Bir el Azazi.
Late in the afternoon, the 1/Durham Light Infantry were ordered to move out at once. This seemed to involve an enemy withdrawal. They also thought that the battalion would be in a thrust to El Adem. Right after that, the 2/13th were ordered to attack Bir el Azazi. They had expected to have tanks halp them, but now there were none available.Artillery would fire on the eenemy positions and the guns that had fired on them that morning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Fighting at Bir el Gubi from 5 December 1941

General Norrie met with General Frank Messervy, the 4th Indian Division commander. General Messervy had only recently been intimately involved with fighting on the Egyptian frontier, so he was an expert on the topic. One of the 4th Indian Division brigades was now involved in the operations at Bir el Gubi. Once they had connected up, they drove to the 7th Armoured Division headquarters to talk with General Gott. Generals Norrie and Messervy were opposed to pulling back to the east. They were prepared to deal with any problems that they might encounter, because the benefits of keeping the infantry and artillery to the west were great. They had been ordered to send armor to the east, so they were ready to send the 4th Armoured Brigade to the Egyptian frontier area. They had decided to make another push to take Bir el Gubi at dawn on 5 December 1941.
During the early morning of 5 December 1941, General Ritchie had ordered that the enemy forces on the Egyptian frontier needed to be disposed of. The Australian historian had doubts that General Auchinleck had been aware of Ritchie's change of plan. By daylight on 5 December, the situation on the Eyptian frontier was in good shape. The commanders to the west pretty much ignored General Ritchie's latest change. The German armored force that had been a concern had already pulled back to the west.
By day on the 5th, General Auchinleck was feeling more confident and liked the use of Jock Columns to fight the enemy forces. Auchinleck thought that they had been an important factor in preventing the enemy from pushing more to the east. Being an old Indian Army soldier, he liked the 4th Indian Division leading the push against Bir el Gubi. The Italians, though, were able to beat back all the attacks against them. The British had indications that there was something happening at Hagfet en Nezha, "between El Adem and Bir el Gubi." General Norrie let General Gott know that he wanted the 4th Armoured Brigade to start driving toward El Adem in the morning. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

1 to 5 December 1941 regarding plans and operations

General Norrie was able to return to his duties as XXX Corps commander, after having to command South African troops. He considered General Ritchie's proposal to attack El Adem. General Norrie was concerned that too few resources would be committed to such an operation (sort of like had happened at Sidi Rezegh). He received promises that there would be sufficient resources committed to such an attack. Given that assurance, General Norrie gave the 4th Armoured Brigade a day to rest and refit after a day near Tobruk. General Gott, the 7th Armoured Division commander, had a plan for threatening the German-Italian flank. General Norrie canceled that plan and had everyone preparing for a push to El Adem. Norrie's plan included taking control of Bir el Gubi and then to attack El Adem from the south.
An Italian force was at Bir el Gubi. There was a battalion of "Fascist Youth" and an Italian reconnaissance unit. The reconnaissance unit had light tanks, medium tanks, and light artillery pieces. Prior to an attack at Bir el Gubi, forces were moved into position. The 11th Indian Btigade traveled to Bir Duedar, just to the south of Bir el Gubi. Some columns formed by the 1st South African Brigade were operating in the area. The 11th Indian Brigade was driven 47 miles at night to be in position for an attack on the west and southwest side. They had no opportunity for scouting, so they achieved mixed results. The 2/5th Mahratta took a strong point. The 2/Camerons were beaten back by the Italian battalion. The 4th Armoured Brigade fought with the Italian reconnaissance unit. The British had 98 of their 126 total tanks in the fight. The tank battle was fougth about three miles north of Bir el Gubi. They claimed to have destroyed 11 M13/40 tanks. Armored cars from the King's Dragoon Guards and South African units hit Axis supply dumps north and west of Bir el Gubi, and also fired on vehicle columns.
Later in the evening, they attacked the Italian battalion again and were again beaten off. Just to throw everyone off-stride, General Ritchie asked General Norrie to send tanks to counter enemy tanks that were advancing on the Egyptian frontier area. General Norrie complained about having to follow Rommel's every move, but he was ordered to pull the British armor back towards the frontier, seemingly abandoning the planned attack on El Adem. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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