Monday, December 31, 2018

General Auchinleck in command and high-level consultation between Churchill, the Australian Government and the United States

The position established at El Alamein involved the XXX Corps Headquarters, still commanded by General Norrie, the 1st South African Division, and the 2nd Free French Brigade Group. Brigade groups were infantry brigades that were augmented at least by artillery and possibly engineers or cavalry. One major change instituted by Auchinleck was the breakdown of units into battle groups. Auchinleck and his associate, Eric Dorman-Smith, theorized that part of Rommel's success was due to his use of battle groups ("kampfgruppen"). In Auchinleck's scheme, artillery became the primary arm and infantry was relegated to defending the guns.
General Auchinleck's priority "was to keep his force intact".  He disassembled his units into battle groups, which were to operate independently between Mersa Matruh and El Alamein. Auchinleck wanted to have a mobile defense in place, but the reality was that there was a precipitous retreat to El Alamein.
The Germans attacked during the evening of 26 June 1942. The New Zealand Division (two brigades) was located at Minqar Qaim. The 21st Armored Division attacked the New Zealand Division from the east. The 15th Armored Division attacked from the west. The 90th Light Division cut the connecting road between XIII Corps and X Corps. I am sad to say that General Gott withdrawing XIII Corps and abandoning X Corps was typical of him. That left X Corps cut off in Mersa Matruh, a situation that Auchinleck had wanted to avoid. New Zealand Division was able to break out and withdraw on El Alamein. 50th Division and the 10th Indian Division broke out from Mersa Matruh the following night. In the process, the divisions took heavy losses that meant that they had to be withdrawn to "regroup".
When the Australians heard of Tobruk's fall, they were shaken. Seemiingly, all their work in 1941 to defend Tobruk had gone for nothing. Given the news of recent events in the desert left many Australians to expect to be sent back to the desert to rejoin the New Zealand Division. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Tobruk attacked as the British force collapses in June 1942

Rommel planned a quick attack to capture the Tobruk fortress. The attack by the German Africa Corps hit the southeast sector of Tobruk. They used only forty tanks with accompanying infantry. Tobruk was no longer defended by the seasoned crew that had mounted a credible defense in 1941. Instead, they had a temporary force commanded by a South African. The pre-attack softening up came with dive bombers and artillery fire. The tanks easily broke through the defense line and broke through to the defending guns. By "early afternoon" they hit the harbor with guns firing from the escapment. They had taken the harbor by evening. The garrison commander, Major-General Klopper surrendered when the defenders were totally defeated. They took some 35,000 prisoners, four "infantry brigadiers", and a tank brigade.
The Australian historian says that there were more than one hundred tanks were in the attack that captured Tobruk. Veterans of the 1941 Tobruk defense debated the defensive arrangements that had failed in 1942. Apparently, in June 1942, the enemy attacked on  broad front and the defense was too slow to bring reserves forward. The defenders were also not prepared to defend against a large tank attack. That alone was enough to succeed.
Once Tobruk fell, the Eighth Army withdrew to Mersa Matruh. Rommel continued to use infiltration tactics against the British who were not able to cope with the speed of his movements. Rommel was up on them by 25 June 1942. That forced Auchinleck's hand and he relieved General Ritchie of command and took over as Eighth Army commander. That was apparently what Mr. Churchill had wanted for some time.
X Corps had responsibility for holding Mersa Matruh. They had the 10th Indian Division and 50th Division. General Gott, now a Lieutenant-General, commanded XIII Corps. He held the left. He had the remainder of the armored divisions and a newly configured New Zealand Divisiion. They were now motroized but with just two brigades. XXX Corps was back at El Alamein, over a hundred miles away. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Officials in Britain intervene in the Middle East with bad effects in May to June 1942

In order to help Malta, the Prime Minister and his commanders in Britain ordered General Auchinleck and his commanders in the Middle East to stage an attack at Gazala before the moonless period in June 1942. The order was sent on 10 May 1941. In the event, Rommel's forces attacked on 26 May. They swept around the southern flank of the Gazala line. The British failed to respond in an effective way, but the Germans had failed to break the Gazala line after a week. The Germans had lost a third of their tanks in the process.
The Eighth Army attacked on 5 June 1942 with the aim of cutting the enemy supply line. The attack failed to achieve its goal. Rommel thought that the British were having problems and attacked. He started with Bir Hacheim in the south, occupied by the 1st Free French Brigade. The Free French were cut off for five days and had to fight their way out on 10 June.
The British held well-located strong points in front of Tobruk. The Germans attacked that defensive system on 12 June. They attacked the 7th Armoured Division, which had three armored brigades. They held an area "between the Knightsbridge and El Adem boxes."  The British were "routed" and had lost many knocked out tanks. They also left the Germans "in possession of the battlefield". That meant that the British tanks could not be recovered and repaired. The British lost more tanks on 13 June. The result was that General Ritchie needed to leave Gazala to keep his forces from being destroyed in detail.
General Auchinleck now was giving orders to Ritchie. He ordered Geneal Ritchie to "hold a line west and southwest of Tobruk through Acroma and El Adem." He was also told to keep the Germans from besieging Tobruk. Mr. Churchill, in Britain, was already anxious that they would lose Tobruk. Churchill was thinking that the Auchinleck and Ritchie might pull out of Tobruk. He did not think about the Germans sweeping into and taking Tobruk, which is what happened. The Germans were allowed to "invest" Tobruk without any effort and blocking that move. By 17 June, the 4th Armoured Brigade had been reconstituted, but was "completely defeated". Rommel then prepared to take Tobruk, at a time when they British had not way to counter his move. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The situation in the Western Desert becomes critical and Prime Minister Churchill interferes

Rommel had been reinforced with tanks that allowed him to push the British back to the Gazala line. In the process, the 1st Armoured Division lost 90 of its 150 tanks. The Gazala line was based on a minefield that extended some 45 miles to the south into the desert. The line was really based on Tobruk. There were ridges that had defensive positions prepared. The Gazala line held for about three months. The struggle to defend Malta was happening in parallel to the fighting in the desert. While the air force controlled airfields in Cyrenaica in early 1942, one convoy was run through to Malta. After that, the situation became much worse. One four-ship convoy dispatched in February lost all four ships. Another convoy was run through to Malta in March, but most ships were lost with their supplies.
While General Auchinleck must have had some idea that his army commanders in the desert were inferior, Winston Churchill was oblivious to that fact. Churchill assumed that everyone was capable and that all that was needed was a new offensive to push the enemy back. It was incomprehensible that an attack not be launched when it was so desperately needed. Therefore, Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff in Britain pressured General Auchineleck for a new offensive.
The Eighth Army commander, General Ritchie, was a fine man, but he lacked the experience needed to successfully command an offensive. General Auchinleck had the necessary experience and expertise to command the offensive, but he felt burdened by his duties as theater commander. He only took charge when everything had collapsed and the whole enterprise was about to fail. Auchinleck was the only British commander able to defeat Rommel in battle before Bernard Law Montgomery arrive on the scene. The Australian historian did not give Auchinleck credit for winning the Crusader battle, but it was his intervention that defeated the enemy forces and pushed them back to Tripolitania. Auchinleck again won a critical battle at the First Battle of El Alamein when he stopped Rommel from advancing any further into Egypt. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our general knowledge of the campaign.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Back to the Western Desert in June 1942

The events in Syria in early 1942 seemed like a side-show. The real action was in the Far East and in the Western Desert. The Far East had a significant effect on the situation in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Formations from the Middle East were sent to the Far East, such as the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions. From the beginning of 1942 up to April, "180 bombers and 330 fighters" were transferred to the Far East.
The facts were, for the British, were that despite winning the Crusader Battle and breaking the siege of Tobruk, they were unable to exploit that success. The reasons were the commanders that they had were inferior as were the methods that they used for employing tanks and artillery. General Auchinleck's personal involvement to some extent could overcome those issues, but they were not really solved until Bernard Law Montgomery arrived in the Middle East to command the Eighth Army. The effort required to supply and arm Malta was also a drain on resources. This primarily affected the navy and air force.
During the middle of December 1941, the Axis forces pulled back from Gazala to Agedabia. This meant that the British were able to move into Benghazi "on Christmas eve". The Guards brigade (presumably the 22nd Guards Brigade) had moved forward to "make contact" with the enemy forces by 22 December 1941. The British 1st Armoured Division moved to the west to be close to the enemy. The Axis forces responded by pulling back to Tripolitania. Early in January 1942, the small groups of Germans "at Bardia, Salum and Halfaya" were captured.
The Italian navy was able to push a convoy through to Tripoli (Libya) on 5 January 1942. The convoy brought armored vehicles and supplies that allowed Rommel to quickly attack the British. Sadly, the British were caught by surprise. Rommel was strong enough to be able to push the British forces back to the Gazala line. Gazala was reached on 6 February 1942. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Training, unrest among the Australians, and a panic in Syria

General Morshead wanted to train his Australians. When 20th Brigade was available with no other distractions, they turned to training. They were involved with battalion and brigade-level "field exercises". You can tell that this was necessary for the 20th Brigade had never had any training since the brigade had been formed 22 months earlier.
There were reports of "unrest" among the Australians. Partly, this was due to their employment in Syria while men were defending Australia at home. No mail from Australia simply aggravated the problem, because no one knew anything about what was really happening in Australia. The men were stuck in the Middle East while their wives and girlfriends were in Australia, possibly meeting American men.
The typical reaction to this sort of thing was almost a parody. They sent the A.I.F. Entertainment Unit to Syria and Lebanon. The review opened in Beirut on 10 March 1941 and played to a VIP audience, including "General Maitland Wilson, General Morshead, the President of Lebanon, the American Counsel-General (Mr. C. van Engert) and other notabilities". The show was called "All in Fun". They eventually played to all the Australian venues in Syria. They also tried showing movies almost nightly for each Australian brigade. They kept someone busy planning events to entertain the troops. They had trips to where there was snow and visited "places of historic interest". Men were allowed to take leave in Beirut and Tripoli. They did things which seem familiar, even thirty years later such as "table-tennis, chess, draughts, boxing tournaments and euchre parties".
The food situation in Syria improved since there had been a "bumper grain crop". Typically, they did not trust the local people to handle distribution, because they assumed that there would be profiteering. The military was to supervise the harvest. We see a warning, that the 9th Australian Division would be gone from Syria before the harvest happened. We suspect that was because the situation in the Western Desert was collapsing.
The cause of panic in late May 1942 was over a report of warships and large transports on the coast when there was no notice of a British convoy. The panic ensued over what was eventually acknowledged as a British convoy sailing north along the Syrian coast. No reason for panic, but they panicked over lack of information. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 10, 2018

The food shortage in Syria and wrong-minded British command priorities

Some steps had been implemented as early as Fall of 1941 had helped the food situation. There was the "Spears' Mission wheat plan". We can understand the natural desire to hoard what is scarce. Having a political leader hoarding food, as Suleiman Murshed was thought to be doing, only aggravated the situation. The United Kingdom Convention Commissioner thought that the Alaouite leader was the best person to receive aid and distribute it, but the British military were concerned that he  might just add to his personal cache in his village. A plan was floated that had the commissioner selling wheat to the poor. The comment was that part of the problem were "wartime profiteers" that they thought should be controlled. All these issues were ready grist for the Axis propaganda mill.
Other initiatives included supplying Syrian workers involved with road and defense construction with ten pounds of flour per week. They had started this step when the men were first hired. Another step was handled by the 2/17th Battalion. They were responsible for distributing five thousand pounds of flour to the poor near Raju. The flour was supplied by the American Red Cross, after requests made by the 2/17th Battalion.
One major change happened when most of "the New Zealand Division arrived in Syria". A New Zealand brigade was sent to "the Djedeide fortress". A second brigade was sent to  Aleppo, freeing up the 20th Australian Brigade. That allowed the concentration of the 20th Brigade "around Latakia". The arrival of the New Zealand Divsion allowed the 9th Australian Division to be better concentrated. They did not have to distribute "detachments east of the Orontes River."
General Auchinleck was concerned about the lack of British strength in the north. He felt that they needed to take steps to look stronger than they really were as a preventive measure. This sort of thinking was foreign to General Morshead, who was irritated by the need to "create the illusion of strength". This is based on the account n Vol.III of the Australian Offiicial History.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

The situation in the Far East and Australia in early 1942

The Australians had temporarily kept the 9th Australian Division and some corps troops in the Middle East. The rest of the 1st Australian Corps were being sent to the Far East starting on 30 January 1942. General Lavarack, the corps comander, was sent ahead of the bulk of the corps. The men and equipment were embarked on convoys. The original plan was to send the 1st Australian Corps to Java, but the Chief of the Australian General Staff canceled the deployment to Java after the Japanese captured Singapore. The convoys were instead sent to Australia, which would sensibly be seen as a base for future attacks against the Japanese forces in the western Pacific. They really wanted to have the 9th Australian Division in Australia as soon as possible.
As was often the case, Winston Churchill had his own plans. He wanted to send the 7th Australian Division to Burma. The Australian prime minister, now Mr. Curtin, opposed the move and wanted the division in Australia. As early as 18 February 1942, the Australian government was informed that the Pacific War Council wanted the 6th Australian Division and the 9th Australian Division sbe sent to Australia, while the 7th Australian Division was wanted in Burma. They also wanted to send the 70th Division (defending Tobruk) to Burma. The Australian government was being pressured to send forces to Burma, but General Sturdee and Mr. Curtin opposed the move. The British then raised the stakes, offering to send an American division to Australia, if they would agree to the diversion to Burma. The Australians were still opposed to such a step. Winston Churchill was very upset that the Australians opposed his plan. To try to appease Churchill, Mr. Curtin offered to send to 6th Australian Division brigades to Ceylon. That was offered with the condition that the 9th Australian Division be returned to Australia "as soon as possible". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Big changes for Australians in the Middle East from February 1942

The enemy was busy spreading rumors about Turkey and the Syrian coast. The British had heard about the possible German attack through Turkey from sources in the Balkans. Italians in Greece were also heard talking about "small-scale raids on the Syrian coast". The British believed that the main Axis effort was being spent on preparing for a new attack  in Western Cyrenaica. The rumors were sufficient to cause the 26th Brigade to have to supply a "mobile group" with an infantry company, a carrier section, and a machine-gun platoon. They had to be ready to respond with thirty minutes notice. In addition, they had to provide additional strength at the Tripoli port and at Chakka.
Australian security at the Turkish border were preventing couriers with letters from crossing into Syria. There were also deserters from the Turkish army. There was also constant attempts to smuggle items such as sheepskins. They were thought to be intended for the Germans in Russia.
22 February 1942 saw a big Australian milestone. General Blamey informed General Morshead that he was leaving the Middle East for Australia. It turns out that he also had his wife there with hem. Morshead was promoted to Lieutenant-General and "would become G.O.C., A.I.F. (Middle East). They had met in Cairo to talk about the future plans. General Morshead still had his smaller concerns to deal with. He complained to General Wilson that he needed three brigades to adequately defend Tripoli. General Morshead was then called back to Cairo for a three day meeting with General Blamey. He also spent time with ceremony regarding General Blamey's leaving the Middle East. Attendees included General  Auchinleck, General Freyberg and his wife, He wished General Blamey and his wife farewell when they flew from Cairo airport to South Africa on 7 March 1942. Because of security concerns, the general announcement about General Morshead's promotion was not made for three weeks. There were still 45,000 Australians in the Middle East at that date, but some ten thousand were due to leave for Australia. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Amazon Ad