Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Battle of Alam el Halfa in late August 1942

The German plan asked the German Africa Corps to drive some seven miles, starting from 11pm on 30 August and 6am the next morning. The presence of minefields, the position and size being unknown, were a complication. The recipients of the attack were the now weak 7th Armoured Division, consisting of the 7th Motor Brigade and the 4th Light Armoured Brigade. It the enemy units succeeded in breaking through the British line, they could be expected to have to fight one or more of the 10th Armoured Division brigades, of which there were three. There was also the 5th New Zealand Brigade on the left flank. There was also the familiar 22nd Armoured Brigade with two brigades of the 44th Division sitting on Alam el Halfa, the ridge. Forward of the ridge lay the 8th Armoured Brigade.

The German armored divisions were late in starting. The 15th Armored Division began to advance at 1pm. The 21st Armored Division started forward at about 2pm. The 21st Armored Division lost its commander during operations on the day. The British tanks and guns hit the German armor quite hard. They stopped advancing at dusk given how tough the fighting was. Montgomery's staff was following events and the German Africa Corps position. They ordered the 23rd Armoured Brigade to move into the space between the New Zealand Division and the 10th Armoured Division. During the night, the air force was dropping flares to provide light and attacked enemy vehicles with bombs with some success. There were fires burning from fuel and vehicles.

On 1 September, the German Africa Corps stopped moving forward. British day bombers hit them hard. The 21st Armored Division was stopped. They may have been out of fuel, but the 15th Armored Division tried to move past the British armor. The German armor was hard-pressed by air attacks and British artillery. Montgomery was involved with the operations and at one point ordered the 2nd South African Brigade to move to a position that was south of Alam el Halfa. He told the New Zealand Division to prepare to attack to the south, to hit the enemy "line of communication". The 15th Armored Division was still a potent force that was a "threat" to Point 132. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Standard practice: August 1942 near El Alamein

From early 1941 until late August 1942, some standard practices had developed. Where you were going to have a defensive position, you anchored one flank on the coast of the Mediterranean. From there to some distance to the south, you constructed defenses in a line. Those defenses needed to be fairly strong, with infantry, anti-tank guns, and field artillery. You would also lay mines and wire. Behind the line, you would build more defensive areas, leaving gaps between them. In the gaps, you would have armored formations. If an enemy tried to turn the flank of the defensive line, the armor would have opportunities top attack the enemy force.

At El Alamein, from the coast to the Qattara Depression was a great distance. The ground from the coast to the depression was too long to be uniformly strongly held. From the coast were located three "Dominion" divisions and one Indian Division. Then you had the New Zealand Division, which had a "refused flank". Then to the south were "light forces" (what Auchinleck called "columns"). You had the three ridge lines running back from the strongly-held front. They were the El Miteiriya, Ruweisat, and Alam el Halfa. While the Australian historian doesn't say that Montgomery and Alexander used Aunchinleck's plan (although others do say that), the Australian says that the defense of the rear of the line was based on Alam el Halfa. In the days of Auchinleck, there was a tension between wanting to hold the shortest front and the desire to extend the ground to be strongly held in front of the Alamein Box. Despite Montegomery's dislike of the "box", we have to still use that terminology, as the Australian historian also uses the term.

The reality of the situation was at odds with Montegomery's desired terminology. He would say "what we have we hold". To do that meant committing more infantry units. There was concern enough that there was some reshuffling of brigades so that the experienced 5th New Zealand Brigade was moved in, in place of the raw 132nd Brigade. The defenders were very aware that the enemy forces were assembling nearby for an impending attack. Rommel had decided to attack in the south between Alam Nayil and Qaret el Himeimat. Rommel planned to use the German Africa Corps, the Reconnaissance Group, Italian XX Corps (their two Italian armored divisions), and then the 90th Light Division. They expected to break through the front, turn towards the sea, and push to the coast. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

First, the needs and then the situation on the ground at El Alamein in late August 1942

Rommel was committed to attack in late August 1942. He gave the authorities what he felt were his supply requirements. First, he needed fuel, with six thousand tons needed between 25 August and 30 August. He got a promise to send ten thousand tons, half for the army and half for the air force. The situation was bad, because on 27 August, Rommel only had enough fuel for tracked vehicles to travel one hundred miles and for wheeled vehicles to travel 150 miles. On 30 August, more fuel arrived. Rommel got 1,500 tons from the air force. Also, a ship arrived at Tobruk with some 730 tons. That gave enough fuel to Rommel to start his offensive, but that was all. For better or worse, the units moved forward as scheduled.

The battle to be fought became known as Alam el Halfa. Some sources, such as Correli Barnett, have said that Montegomery used a plan developed by Auchinleck and Eric Dormon-Smith. In any case, the front, such as it was, was held by "three Dominion and one Indian division". The front extended from the coast to Alam Nayil. The New Zealand Division had a "refused flank" on the left side. Beyond them, there were only "mobile forces", what used to be called "columns". General Morshead had been unhappy with the Auchinleck regime approach of being indecisive about whether to compress one's front to the minimum or to stretch out so you were very thin on the ground. The Montgomery policy that they would hold their ground meant that you had to be strong enough to repel an attacker. That may mean that you needed to compress your front to be stronger. You needed to have enough strength to hold a "frontal defense". The reality was that the inland defenses were not very strong. They did add some units so that Alam el Halfa got two 44th Division brigades. Alam el Nayil "hinge" was occupied by the inexperienced 132nd Brigade. They were to protect the New Zealand Division flank. At the last minute, the 5th New Zealand Brigade was moved in to relieve the 132nd Brigade. The Germans were known to be preparing to attack.

At 30 August, the enemy had the 164th Division and the Italian Trento Division covering from the coast to Deir el Shein. The regiments of the German and Italian divisions were "intermingled". Some "stiffening" came from the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and the Folgore Division. Behind the German-Italian line were the mobile German and Italia divisions. The strengths were "about 41,000 German officers and men and about 33,000 Italian". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Possible courses of action in North Africa in August 1942

One appealing plan for the German-Italian army in North Africa was to give up some ground to pull the British out from their defenses into the open. Rommel was an expert in fighting a mobile battle, while Montgomery and the British were better at fighting from static positions. The problem was that "Hitler would never allow" a pullback from the present positions. The only alternative, then, was to build up the Axis forces for a final push to the Nile Delta. For that to be a possibility would require the Axis to improve their position in the war at sea (and in the air).

Not only was the war at sea an issue, but the supply lines by road were also a problem. Rommel believed that coastal shipping, protected by air, was a possible solution. They had a good forward port in Tobruk, but they lacked sufficient unloading equipment. They also needed German involvement in railroad supply traffic. They needed German staff, German train engines and carriages. Vehicles "needed to be sent to Tripoli and Benghazi".

The situation seemed to require Rommel to stage an attack to the east during August. They fully expected large shipments of equipment to arrive in September from American and Britain. The shipments were thought to be in response to the capture of Tobruk. Rommel told his commanders on 7 August to be ready for an attack. He informed the German Africa Corps, the Italian XX Corps, and the 90th Light Division. The two German armored divisions were pulled back for preparations for an attack. Rommel then informed his commanders that he favored waiting for the "moonlit period" at the end of August. The armor needed moonlight to make the attack during the night.

For an attack, the German-Italian forces needed tanks and fuel. Most prized were the so-called "Specials", the tanks upgraded for combat on the Eastern Front. They carried upgraded protection with spaced armor, and with longer-barreled guns. The Pzkw IVF2 had the 75mm L43 and some of the G had the L43 guns, but later production had the 75mm L48 gun. The "special" PzKw III tanks had the longer-barreled 50mm gun. The Germans were able to build up to 203 Pzkw III and IV tanks, of which the majority were "specials". The Italians had 281 tanks for the planned offensive. They had not had such strength since the start of the Gazala battle. The problem with the situation was the fuel shortage. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Changes with the new regime from 19 August 1942.

General Alexander had given Bernard Law Montgomery written orders that confirmed his previous verbal orders. The orders were simple: The first priority is to prepare to attack the German-Italian force and to destroy them. Second, while preparing to attack, they must hold their present positions and not allow the enemy to penetrate to the east. All troops in the army were to be notified of these orders. Also, under Montgomery, there was to be a change in terminology. The term "box" was no longer to be used for a defended area. They woiuld no longer talk about "battle groups". Outposts were now to be called "forward defended localities"A hot button for Montgomery was that units needed to be assembled close together so that their commander could address them. Montgomery also liked "concert performances "in forward areas" and that he wanted to see training in forward areas with live ammunition.

Units were starting to receive equipment that had long been out of supply. The exception to that was that they were still short of wire. The cavalry regiment expected to receive more Crusader tanks to bring them up to the establishment of 28 tanks. Infantry battalions were to receive four Vickers guns. They would also receive eight 2-pdr anti-tank guns. The 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment got 64-6pdr Anti-Tank Guns. They passed their 2pdr guns to the infantry units.

A welcome change was the provision of a medium machine-gun platoon for infantry battalions.

In some ways, the German-Italian army was defeated by naval action. Rommel was the master of maneuver warfare. The British forces fought better in static situations. Auchinleck's experiments with organization and formation were attempts to improve that situation. Rommel based his approach on his experience in the Alps during the Great War. He utilized infiltration tactics in every way he could. In his early operations in Cyrenaica in 1941, Rommel threw the British "back on their heels and ran over them. It is interesting to think that Montgomery was the master of static warfare and that he overcame Rommel's mastery of mobile tactics.

For Rommel to be able to attempt to break through to the Nile, he would need to be reinforced. By mid-August, they were starting to see results. From 30 percent strength on 21 July, the German "formations" were at 75 percent strength by 15 August. The biggest problem was the superiority of British air and naval strength. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

More patrolling in August 1942 near El Alamein

On the night of 16-17 August 1942, a 19-man patrol set out to the southwest. Most men were from the 2/43rd Battalion, but there was also Captain Bakewell from the 2/3rd Pioneers. The plan was to move out some four thousand yards. After only covering 2,600 yards, they could hear an enemy working party. After another 800 yards, they ran into a minefield. The Australians could hear Germans talking. At this point, the posted four Bren gunners. A little further on, they ran into a position with some fifty men. The Australians attacked with grenades, grabbed three prisoners, and shot and bayonetted twelve or more men. The prisoners proved to be Italian. The turned and started to head back when they came under fire by mortars and machine-guns. Getting past them took an hour or more. They had lost track of Captain Bakewell, the pioneer, and the four Bren gunners. Some men searched and found Captain Bakewell and the Bren bunners. The captain had been hurt by a booby-trap. The Bren gunners were able to take him some 200 yards, but he asked to be left due to the severity of his wounds. The found the missing men or in some cases, they had just gotten back independently.

Continued Australian patrolling found that small groups of Germans were being positioned to help the Italian units. The Australians continued to be actively patrolling at night, keeping their ascendancy. The enemy counter measures included wiring and booby-trapping the positions that were vulnerable to Australian aggressive patrolling. Patrolling had become more hazardous, so the only deep penetrations had to be done by strong and well-planned raids. On 22 August, the Australians got gifts from the enemy, in the form of six-to-eight inch leaflets. They had the division sign and a message: "Aussies! The Yankees are having a jolly good time in your country. And you?" Another message said "Diggers! You are defending Alamein Box. What about Port Darwin?" The Australians collected the two messages and some were sold as souvenirs.

The elites were still making noises, as they had a new army commander and still had a restless Churchill, anxious to attack the enemy. General Alexander had enough clout with the CIGS, Alan Brooke, that he was able to limit himself to telling General Montgomery to hold on in place and keep the enemy from penetrating to the east. In the meantime, they were to prepare for an offensive against the enemy in the El Alamein area. This is based on the account on Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Australians aggressively patrolling in August 1942

There was considerable patrolling by Australians in early to mid-August 1942. We saw the 2/15th Battalion to the west along the rail line and the coast. The 2/17th Battalion was also patrolling along the rail line and to the south, where the enemy positions were farther from the Australian defenses. Another battalion, the 2/13th Battalion was patrols to the southwest, moving through the 2/17th Battalion positions.

We saw on 13 August at 9pm, a patrol was sent out from the 2;17th Battalion to make a deep penetration into the enemy territory. They fought and action with enemy troops and then eventually withdrew with no losses. This was when on the 14th, was when the 2/17th Battalion had sent out two patrols. This is where they had found what they named "Thompson's Post". A second patrol had found that the enemy forces was working hard to improve their position. They closed a gap in their wire and were working with air hammers as well as picks and shovels. The purpose of this area was to attempt to control the coast road from below.

The 2/13th Battalion sent out a small patrol consisting of an officer and seven men. They advanced about 2,800 yards and then "went to ground". There were some enemy working parties, with one near the Australians. They started towards one working party, but were challenged by a sentry. They charged the enemy, but the officer was shot and his second was killed. They lost one man as a prisoner, but the others were able to guide themselves out by the constellation that the officer had told them about.

During the day, the 9th Australian Division cavalry patrolled. On 15 August, the 2/13th Battalion sent men with the cavalry to become familiar with the territory to the west and to the north from East Point 23.They would be better prepared by knowing the ground in daylight, rather than going out in the dark for the first time. Talking with a prisoner seemed to indicate that the Italians were on a feature called "Cloverleaf" and later "Suthers' Hill". They sent Major Suthers' company on a raid of the hill. If possible, he would leave men on the hill and send the other men to raid Cloverleaf. The company went forward, but some four hundred yards shot of Suther's Hill, they ran into an area filled with booby traps had ten men wounded. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Aggressive patrolling in early to mid-August 1942 at El Alamein

In the north at El Alamein, the 2/15th Battalion were patrolling behind the enemy lines between the railroad line and the coast. Their buddies in the 2/17th Battalion were patrolling the area from the railroad line and to the south. The enemy positions were farther away from the Australian positions in the south. A 2/17th Battalion patrol set out in the evening and returned by 3:30am the next morning. They made a deep penetration into enemy territory, some 5,500 yards. When the patrol was at 4,090 yards deep, a German Spandau machine-gun fired on the patrol, but the gun was aiming high. They went another 800 yards deep, and saw trip wires. Finally, at 5,478 yards, they found a "breast-high wire on long pickets". The wire rattled a warning when the scout hit the wire. A German sentry gave a challenge to the Australians. The Australians "went to ground" for some minutes. When they moved forward again, there was another challenge. The Australians then charged and were fired on by men in trenches. The Australians responded with grenades, sub-machine guns and rifle fire. After an exchange of fire lasting some two minutes, the Australians withdrew. The Australians were unscathed in this exchange.

On the evening of 14 August, "the 2/17th Battalion sent out two patrols". One patrol was to follow up the patrolling from the 13th-14th. The other was to check out an area south of the rail line. Some officers had been probing the area "without permission". The enemy was believed to be digging defenses. The second patrol that was following up the unofficial scouting was to move forward about 6,000 yards. After that, they would turn southwest, moving another 1,400 yards. Once they had done that, they would return to the starting point. That second patrol had 12 men. They traveled some 4,000 yards when they found two fences. Beyond the fences was a very well-developed defensive position. The area was empty, but had trenches and a pill-box. Suddenly, they saw some fifty enemy soldiers approaching them, but who had not seen the Australians. When the enemy were down to twenty yards away, the Australians opened fire and then moved north to the rail line. The leader, Lieutenant Thompson was wounded by "grenade splinters" and was "stunned". Corporal Monaghan took charge and was able to guide the patrol out of danger. They had found a very extensive enemy position some five hundred yards south of the rail line. The position was about 5,500 yards west of the Tel el Eisa station. They named the enemy position "Thompson's Post." This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Friday, August 02, 2019

The aftermath of the Australian patrol action in early August 1942

The Australians were ready with a plan to deal with the condition that the patrol lost the element of surprise. The plan was that when surprise was seen to have been lost, intensive fire would begin from "machine-guns, artillery, and mortars". The idea was that the enemy would think that a broad-front attack had been launched and they would likely be confused by the action. The plan caused the enemy to lay down their defensive fire plan. The result was that the enemy fire safely passed over the retreating patrol. Point 25 and Trig 33 were the recipients of the enemy fire. Captain Cobb believed that there were a continuous line of defenses from the coast to Point 25. The prisoner that had been taken was with the 125th Regiment that had just arrived from Crete.

The enemy appeared to be unaware that the Australians had abandoned El Makh Khad. On 7 August, an enemy reconnaissance gave them information about the withdrawal. General Morshead decided that the Australians needed to occupy posts around that area. The idea was that occupying posts would keep the enemy from getting too close a look at El Alamein and Tel el Eisa. To carry out Morshead's plan, one company of the 2/13th Battalion moved into Trig 22. The 2/13th Field Company immediately laid a protective minefield. A patrol was sent out about 1,800 yards forward. That had the effect of drawing enemy fire. Also on 7 August, the 2/43rd Battalion put a company "with anti-tank uns and machine-guns astride the Qattara Track". This was "east-southeast from Trig 22.

On 8 August, the 2/43rd Battalion replaced the company from the 2/13th Battalion. They took over a portion of the Makh Khad Ridge. They sent out patrols about half-way to the Ruin Ridge. They didn't see any minefields or enemy soldiers.

The 2/15th Battalion sent out a 17 man patrol towards a path that was often traveled by German working parties. After the patrol had traveled about 2,400 yards, they sighted a forty man working party. They Australians could see other working parties, but they were too far away to be easily attacked. The patrol sat for about thirty minutes. They could see a 25 man working party approaching. The patrol leader tossed a grenade as a signal for his men to start firing. The Australians had two Bren guns, four sub-machine guns, and six rifles. They killed or wounded every German in the working party. They carried out one wounded German. One of the Australians was wounded and one man was missing. Again, a pre-planned fire support was shot in support of the patrol. Once again, the enemy fired his defensive fire. The Australian patrol was able to pull back without any problems. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Early August 1942 at El Alamein

Early August 1942 saw the men of the 9th Australian Division improving their defenses in preparation for what was expected by mid-August. Rommel was predicted to launching an attack by mid-August. The infantry and engineers were busy laying mines and doing more digging for better defensive positions. At night, some men were always on watch. Others were able to sleep knowing that their turn to stand watch was coming. Other men were engaged in "deep patrolling" of the enemy area.

August was peak season for flies. The flies interfered with eating and sleeping. For example, the 9th Australian Divisional Cavalry had so many flies at midday, that they had to forego eating lunch, except for a small amount. Part of the problem was that there were still dead bodies in the area. 20th Brigade starting working on checking the area and burying bodies. In a few weeks, the fly situation had greatly improved.

The Australian 20th Brigade was positioned with two battalions forward with the third battalion in reserve. 20th Brigade had only been in place since 3 August 1942. The brigade commander had decreed that they would fire on any enemy soldiers that were seen They would also patrol into enemy territory and conduct raids on enemy positions. That would be very similar to their time at Tobruk. They would be engaged with the same enemy, just in a new spot. The first 20th Brigade patrol was sent out at 9pm on 4 August. The patrol was led by Captain Cobb with 12 other men. They traveled some 1,500 yards north, which put them in the middle of an enemy position. They were challenged and they "knew that surprise had been lost". They crawled some sixty yards forward when they heard the bolt of a Spandau machine gun. The captain tossed a grenade in the direction of the sound. The machine gun started firing and the captain and some other men were wounded. Despite being wounded, the captain and men moved forward towards the machine gun, which had stopped firing. One of the men had a Thompson sub-machine gun and was causing a large commotion. The captain then ordered the patrol to withdraw. They had lost one man killed and others wounded. They had a prisoner, but he was killed by another enemy soldier with a sub-machine gun. The captain "blacked out" and was carried back. They had reached the Bren guns. The men on the patrol had done well and had not hesitated to carry on even though they had lost the element of surprise. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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