Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Differing opinions regarding El Alamein and the blocking battle to be fought there in July 1942

There were some very pessimistic opinions among British and Commonwealth commanders in early July 1942. The British were fortunate that they had the best field commander in the Middle East at that time in command of the Eighth Army (General Auchinleck). Not only that, but Auchinleck was optimistic about their chances of beating Rommel at El Alamein. Fortunately, General Norrie, XXX Corps commander, also was optimistic and he took the stand that fighting at El Alamein was a real "last ditch"defense of Egypt. Many others had defeatist attitudes that were unfortunate. You expect that General Gott would be one of those with such a bad attitude, and that he had. He was the last man that you would want to have as a decision-make in the battle to stop Rommel.
The Australian historian said if Auchinleck that he had "an exceptional talent for perceiving his enemies difficulties". Rommel was always an opportunist, trying to surprise his enemies and use infiltration tactics to throw them into a panic. What that meant, was that Rommel was often without a plan and he relied on finding a weakness in his enemy that he could exploit and throw them into a retreat. That meant that Rommel was often at risk for "overreaching" when he was trying for a surprise. His superiors at the "German High Command" were very aware of this weakness and were concerned.
The force that drove up to the British defenses at El Alamein was a skeleton force. They had but "1,700 first-line infantry and 55 tanks forward." The German-Italian force was very short on supplies. They pretty much only had what they had captured from the British in the collapse after the defeat at Gazala. They also knew that the British were being resupplied with tanks and guns that were superior to what the Germans and Italians had in inventory. The British were receiving new medium tanks built in America and armed with 75mm guns. The Lee and Grant tanks had the gun mounted in the hull, but they had Sherman tanks in the pipeline that carried a 75mm gun in a turret. They also were receiving 6pdr anti-tank guns which compared well with the 50mm PAK38 and were probably superior to them. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our knowledge of the topic.

Monday, January 28, 2019

On to Alexandria from 1 July 1942

You have to think that at the end of June and early July 1942, the British were in a panic. Plans kept changing every few days (it seemed). General Morshead left Cairo early in the morning of 1 July and drove from there to Amiriya. He initially was going to have his headquarters at El Mex, but that was such a bad place that he decided to try camping at Sidi Bishr (which was "an awful place"). General Morshead put the 24th Brigade on the coast and the 26th Brigade to their left. 24th Brigade inherited a "motley force" that had been cobbled together to provide some defense to Alexandria near the sea. That included the 150th Brigade Headquarters, the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers machine gun battalion, and a group of about six hundred men from odd units, such as Czech and sailors. They had some naval guns that they believed might be useful against tanks. The 24th Brigade was to occupy a line built by the Polish brigade in 1940 and 1941. The 24th Brigade was in place on 1 July while the 26th Brigade moved into position on 2 July. Both btigades immediately began digging positions. The men were thought to be working in shifts, allowing some to sleep while others were digging.
General Morshead spent 2 July looking over the land with his brigade commanders and chief of staff. They had too much territory to defend for the men that they had. General Morshead ordered that all Egyptian civilians be removed from the area. They would take steps that would interfere with civilian concerns. He wanted to flood areas that would conflict with the civilian salt industry, as on example. They would also cut dfown palm and fig triees to clear fields of fire.
General Auchinleck had his priorities. He wanted to stop Rommel's advan ce to the east at El Alamein, but a higher priority was to keep his force from being destroyed. If they were forced out of El Alamein, they would fight further ot the east. They would try to fight on the approach to the Nile Delta. It that fell, they would fight on the Suez Canal, and prepare to fight on the Nile. With men knowing about contingency plans, that had negative affects on morale. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The "Cairo Flap" and succeeding events in 1942

To a degree, General Auchinleck was the cause of many of his own problems. For example, he was suspicious of the Minister of State, the Australian Mr. Casey, when in fact, Mr. Casey was very eager to be of help. Instead, Auchinleck kept Mr. Casey in the dark about events. But in any case, events were in flux during late June and early July 1942.
General Morshead got new orders on 30 June now putting his division at Alexandria, not Cairo. GHQ took the step of ordering the 26th Brigade Group to Amiriya. Brigadier Tovall had not yet received Morshead's orders about defending Cairo.
The withdrawal of the 8th Army to El Alamein and Rommel's initial attacks had panicked the administrative force in Egypt. They also planned for the Mediterranean Fleet to leave Alexandria, expecting a further collapse. The state of things is indicated by orders to prepare for withdrawal to the east and massive burning of documents. When reading General Morshead's notes of the meeting on 30 June, you can see that such a move to the east was thought to be a real possibility. That was because the collapse of the army from Gazala in May to the point in 30 June, no one had any confidence in the 8th Army or in army commanders. It turns out that General Auchinleck was a better man than anyone realized.
Part of Morshead's notes were that he was unsure if General Holmes had been captured. If he had, Morshead planned to assume command of Delta Force. In fact, General Holmes arrived and took command of Delta Force. On 1 July, when the 9th Australian Division moved to Alexandria, they were caught in traffic moving in the opposite direction. The panic in the area was very real. Traffic was moving against them "note-to-tail". There were tanks, guns, armored cars, and other vehicles, all moving out, ultimately to the east. To make matters worse, there was low visibility that cause accidents in the congested traffic. The Australians were caught in the traffic which moved very slowly due to the density. They were fortunate to not be attacked by German aircraft. The passengers and even drivers slept in their seats in their vehicles. This is base on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Delta Force in June 1942

When Mersa Matruh was abandoned, X Corps, commanded by General Holmes, was sent to the Nile Delta area. Their orders were to defend the naval base at Alexandria and the western side of the Nile Delta. They were the backstop in case the army was beaten farther west. The 9th Australian Division was assigned to Delta Force.
The assignment seemed like a mistake, because the men of the 9th Australian Division were seasoned veterans with long experience in fighting the enemy forces commanded by Rommel. The excuse for the assignment might have been that while they had the men, they were short of all kinds of equipment and supporting units. For example, the division only had one field regiment equipped with the full complement of vehicles The cavalry regiment was short of tanks, and what they had were an obsolete type. "Only one anti-tank battery had 2-pounders and their were no 6-pounders".
General Morshead and his staff officer, Colonel Wells arrived in Cairo and found that things were in disarray and that they needed to step in and take charge. They were to defend Cairo and there were no plans in place. Morshead conducted a reconnaissance of the area and then drew up plans using the map that they had.
Colonel Wells was a very experienced staff officer who had been with General Morshead for about seven months. He had served in both Greece and the campaign in Syria against the Vichy French. At least Morshead spent the day on 29 June with Mr. Casey, an Australian who had British cabinet status. He was the "British Resident Minister in the Middle East". He was the man who was present when the military situation turned for the worse, standing in for the British Government. Interestingly, he became in involved during the 2nd Battle of El Alamein when Montgomery's initial attack failed to break into the enemy positions. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the British Official History.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The situation in early July 1942 at El Alamein

El Alamein had been recognized as a natural blocking point. Three boxes had been planned, but only the northern box at the El Alamein railroad station had progressed. The box had been dug and had been partly fitted with wire and mines. The box planned for Bab el Qattara had been dug, but had no mines or wire. The box intended for Naqb Abu Dweis had not had any work done. That box sat on land that was passable north of the escarpment on the edge of the Qattara Depression. The boxes each was located on a The depression actually was very wet, but had a dried sand crust that was deceptive. "The Qattara Box [lay] astride the Barrel track leading from Fuka to the Cairo-Alexandria road". You also had the two ridges, Miteiriya and Ruweisat.
Since early June, the Eighth Army strength had been greatly reduced in strength. They started June with two armored divisions, four infantry divisions, and two army tank brigades (infantry tanks). The army had three new formations ordered to join: "the 10th Indian Division, 1st Armoured Brigade and 11th Indian Brigade". At 1 July, the 2nd New Zealand Division (as it was now designated) was the only intact infantry division. They also had the 1st South African Division, which had taken losses and had not been reinforced. The armored division (the 1st) was deemed "fairly effective". They had two Indian groups (9th and 18th). Tjere were also battle groups or columns formed from the remnants of the 7th Armoured Division, 5th Indian Division, and 50th (British) Division. The 9th Australian Division, which was complete, was under orders to join the army.
The army dispositions as of 1 July 1942 are of interest, as this was just prior to the First Battle of El Alamein. The 1st South African Division was "on the right", the most northern division. The 3rd South African Btigade sat in the El Alamein Box. You had the 18th Indian Brigade providing all-around defense at Deir el Shein. They sited the 1st Armoured Brigade between the El Alamein area and Ruweisat Ridge. The south was designated as the XIII Corps area. The 6th New Zealand Brigade sat in front of the Bab el Qattara Box. The rest of the division sat ten miles east. The 9th Indian Btigade from the 5th Indian Division was located at Naqb Abu Dweis. The 7th Motor Brigade, operating as  battle group, lay between the 9th Indian Brigade and the 6th New Zealand Brigade. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The 9th Australian Division move to Egypt in late June 1942

The 26th Brigade had left for Egypt on 26 June 1942. They traveled in vehicles, going by way of "Homs, Baalbek, Rayak, Tiberias, Tulkarm, Gaza, across teh Sinai Desert to the Canal and Cairo". The initial orders had been that the 9th Australian Division would defend Cairo, but the orders were changed. The division-level units, such as the headquarters, followed the "coast road" and went across the "Sinai Desert". They arrived at "Amiriya at about the same time as the 26th Brigade". The 24th Brigade left a day later and traveled to Tiberias. A road party continued to follow the way that the 26th Brigade had taken, but most were sent to Haifa where they traveled Alexandria by train. They arrived on 1 July in the afternoon.
The 20th brigade had to wait until the 17th Indian Brigade arrived to relieve them. The 2/15th Battalion went to Tripoli where the battalion commander became the fortress commander. A change again late on 29 June ordered the 20th Brigade not to wait but to travel to Egypt, starting early on 30 June. The 9th Divisional Cavalry left Latakia on 30 June as well. They headed for Egypt.
The Australians were glad to leave Syria where they had been the garrison. 9th Army and "British line-of-communications organizations" had organized the move out of Syria.
At El Alamein on 30 June 1942, the enemy was pushing against the position. This was the last defended position "west of the Nile Delta". There was a thirty mile gap between teh sea and teh Qattara Depression. The work at El Alamein had started as long ago as before the Crusader battle. Positions were dug, mines were laid as was barbed wire. While the men worked, the remnants of the 8th Army drove past them in retreat.
At El Alamein were defended locations. In the parlance of the time, they were called "boxes", as they were designed for "all-around" defense. The best box surrounded the train station and then south, containing the road and across some desert land. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Discussions and decisions made as events progressed in May to June 1941

The Australian envoy, Dr. Evatt was still in Britain in May 1942. There was a suggestion that Dr. Evatt be asked to discuss the 9th Australian Division situation with Mr. Churchill, but Dr. Evatt replied that such a discussion needed to be conducted from Australia. By 30 May 1942, General Blamey was agitating for the return of the 9th Australian Division to Australia, using a sham argument about the need to make decisions about "organization and the allocation of manpower in Australia" based on whether they had to send replacements to the Middle East or not. Mr. Curtin, the Australian Prime Minister held his war conferences at the beginning of June. You now had both General Blamey and General MacArthur pressing for the return of the 9th Division to Australia. We can imagine Mr. Churchill's discomfort with having to deal with General MacArthur, the highly experienced and decorated general officer.
The situation in the Middle East was in rapid change, as was the war in the Western Pacific. The Battle of Midway greatly improved the Allied situation, as the Japanese naval forces suffered severe losses in aircraft carriers, the new naval capital ship. By 11 June, General MacArthur was able to announce that due to the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, that Australia's defense was now secured. The situation in the Middle East now looked very bad, where the enemy was likely to seize major objectives by the end of June 1942. Generals MacArthur and Blamey now communicated that the 9th Australian Division should stay in the Middle East. The Australian government adopted that position on 30 June.
The 9th Australian Division was notified on 25 June to be ready to move to Egypt. The move would be in secret and an effort would be made to simulate the presence of the division in Syria, using communications. The cover story was that the move was a "training exercise". Some of the soldiers thought that they might be heading for Australia, but they could soon see that their destination was Egypt. The local citizenry knew about the Australian tan boots and wished them well: "Good Luck Australia". The 26th Brigade left first, heading for Cairo. They traveled by motorized transport. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Monday, January 07, 2019

High-level developments regarding Australia March to June 1942

General MacArthur arrived in Darwin, Australia from the Philippines on 17 March 1942. MacArthur, his family and his staff were evacuated from Corregidor by American motor torpedo boats (PT boats). The Australian prime minister, Mr. Curtin, appointed General MacArthur as "Supreme Commander in the Southwest Pacific Area". By 26 March, they appointed General Blamey as the "Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Army", which had long been one of Blamey's goals. Mr. Curtin took the opportunity to speak with General MacArthur about the 9th Australian Division. General MacArthur suggested that they might allow the 9th Australian Division to stay in the Middle East for now if Australia were strengthened by additional air and naval strength. General Blamey still insisted that the 9th Australian Division be returned to Australia as soon as possible. He understood that shipping resources were a constraint. Mr. Curtin sent a message to Winston Churchill presenting the Government's desire to have all Australian soldiers back in Australia, but that they understood that there were shipping and replacement issues that kept that from being immediately possible.
A message from Churchill on 1 April 1942 almost sounds like an "April Fool trick", but Churchill promised that if Australia were invaded on a large scale, the British would send first an infantry division and then an armored division. If such an invasion happened, they would also send more air and naval forces to the Southwest Pacific. General MacArthur wanted to have the two divisions Churchill had mentioned be sent to Australia immediately. The British would not agree to that, however. General MacArthur reacted to that news by saying that he would "press" for the early shipment of the 9th Australian Division back to Australia.  This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Planning for the future from March 1942 onwards

Back on 10 March 1942, Winston Churchill had sent the Australian prime minister, Mr. Curtin, a message regarding the 9th Australian Division. He quoted a communication from Franklin Roosevelt about an American commitment to send more divisions to the Western Pacific. In particular, he would send divisions to Australia and New Zealand. Roosevelt considered that would allow the 9th Australian Division to remain in the Middle East. Roosevelt was concerned about the "security of the Middle East, India and Ceylon." Retaining the Australians in the Middle East would economize on ship resources. Churchill also committed to sending on to Australia the two 6th Australian Division brigades that were soon to arrive in Ceylon.
The Australian Chiefs of Staff recommended to Mr. Curtin that he accept Mr. Churchill's offer. They were "being good citizens" and were concerned about global issues such as shipping resources and having to shift divisions about. They also approved of getting the 6th Australian Division brigades back to Australia soon. Mr. Curtin and his government, however, were not ready to make a snap decision. The Australian historian suggested that the government was playing a delaying game to give time to get General Blamey's input on the subject. The plan was to appoint General Blamey as "Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces". At this date, General Blamey was still in Capetown in the Queen Mary, soon to depart for Australia. He would only arrive by 23 March 1942. Another issue that bothered the Australians was Churchill's habit of trying to "push the Australian Government around." That seems to have been triggered in this case by Churchill's message. The Australian minister who arrived in Washington on 20 March 1942, Dr. Evatt, spoke with Franklin Roosevelt about the Australian Government's concern about how these matters were being negotiated. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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