Chapter 4: At Bay: The Easter Battle
On 21st January 1941 a small group of officers watched the assault on Tobruk by the 6th Australian Division. One was Brigadier Morshead, just arrived in the Middle East from Britain; another was Lieut.-Colonel T. P. Cook, who had been appointed to take charge of the base sub-area to be established there; a third was Lieut.-Commander D. V. Duff, who was later to be Naval Officer-in-Charge at Derna during the “Benghazi Handicap” and still later in command of the schooners and other small craft running supplies to Tobruk during the siege.
Brigadier Morshead spent several days, after Tobruk’s fall, inspecting the defences of the fortress. Thus he acquired a knowledge of their quality. Later, when the 9th Division’s withdrawal from the Jebel country of Cyrenaica had become inevitable, it was invaluable to Morshead, foreseeing that the division would have to stand at Tobruk, to know what its defences had to offer.
Lieut.-Colonel Cook’s task of course involved his remaining in Tobruk. The base sub-area staff (which had been recruited mainly from the AIF staging camp at Amiriya) moved into the town as soon as the harbour was captured. On 29th January Brigadier Godfrey, who had been appointed area commander,1 established his headquarters in the town area and delegated the task of establishing the base to Cook. Within a fortnight, Godfrey was recalled to Palestine and Cook succeeded him as area commander.
The speed with which the fortress was organised into a working base and provisioned during the next month was remarkable. The stocks of food and other supplies then built up were soon to stand the fortress in good stead. In the first fortnight two excellent water-pumping stations, one in the Wadi Sehel just outside the perimeter, the other in the Wadi Auda, which, though mined by the Italians, had not been demolished, were repaired, the electrical power system was put in working order and the bulk petrol storage system repaired: most of this work was done by the 2/4th Field Company. In addition, in the first fortnight of February, 8,000 of the 25,000 prisoners taken at Tobruk were removed. Much other work was done.
Soon after his appointment as area commander, Colonel Cook became very concerned at the number of rumours circulating through the fortress – some of them harmful to morale. The way to counter falsehood, he decided, was to publish the truth. Sergeant Williams2 of the Australian Army Service Corps was commissioned to publish a daily news sheet, under the title Tobruk Truth or “The Dinkum Oil”. Though unpretentious, it served its purpose well, publishing news culled from BBC broadcasts together with items of local interest; like most daily newspapers it was “printed”
(in fact, roneoed on a captured Italian duplicator) in the very early hours of the morning so that it could be sent to the depots for issue with the daily rations. It was a going concern when the siege began and continued throughout the siege; when later the duplicator was wrecked by bomb-blast, other means of continuing publication were quickly found. To cater for its wider public, it increased its circulation to 800 copies a day; every unit and detachment received a copy. Sergeant Williams did almost all the work lone-handed.
On 8th March, Colonel Cook issued an “appreciation” on the problem of defending Tobruk. Points in his plan were:
to organise the defenders into three components – a mobile striking force, a mobile reserve, and the rest of the garrison; to withdraw “all troops who are outside the inner perimeter closer to the town”; and “to place control posts at all roads through the inner perimeter and reconstruct the Italian road blocks”.
Tobruk Fortress Operations Order No. 1, embodying this plan, was issued two days later.
On 17th March and succeeding days the 26th Brigade arrived in Tobruk, to be followed on 26th March by the 24th Brigade with two battalions, the 2/28th and 2/43rd. On 25th March, the 24th Brigade, which Brigadier Godfrey now commanded, took over duties from the 26th Brigade as the latter moved out to join Morshead’s division on the escarpment above Benghazi.
Godfrey, with his operations staff officer, Major Ogle,3 made a detailed reconnaissance of the defences, after which he suggested to Cook (on 31st March) that the defence plan should be modified by the occupation of part of the perimeter defences. In the next few days the situation in Cyrenaica deteriorated. By 6th April the perimeter defences in the west had been occupied in a wide arc from the Derna Road to Post R19. All available troops were used: Australian Army Service Corps men, unemployed because of the shortage of vehicles, took over prisoner-of-war guard duties, freeing a company of the 2/23rd Battalion.
In the story of the defence of Tobruk, a place of honour will always be reserved for the “Bush Artillery” – those captured Italian guns in great variety of size, vintage, and reliability, that infantrymen without gunner training manned and fired in a manner as spirited as the fire orders employed were unorthodox. The bush artillery was born before the siege began.
When General Neame issued his “Policy for Defence of Cyrenaica” on 20th March, he included a paragraph providing for the organisation of the Tobruk defences which contained the sentence: “Italian field guns will be placed in position for anti-tank duties.” Colonel Cook found that most Italian guns at Tobruk were not usable because of corrosion through exposure to the weather or damage before capture. He brought a large number of Italian 40-mm anti-tank guns from Bardia (in contravention of instructions issued by Neame’s headquarters) and gave the workshops
the task of reconditioning them and the few usable field guns left in Tobruk. Cook next organised a school to train the infantry in their use. It was run by the Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers, who were manning the coastal defence guns.4 The object, as Cook later said, was “to run half-day classes in how to load, aim and fire an Italian gun with the least risk to the firer and the maximum to the enemy ... they did learn something from this, using lanyards of telephone wire 100 feet long, chocking wheels to gain elevation”. Brigadier Godfrey cooperated enthusiastically. As the reconditioned guns left the workshops, he allotted them to units and saw to it that they were well manned and sited. The 2/28th Battalion war diary has an interesting entry on 7th April:–
Personnel of No. 6 Platoon5 did a good job on previous night which was pulling into position of five Italian 75-mm field pieces together with ammunition for the same. This brought total to 8 all manned by 4 Platoon.6
On 7th April the 18th Brigade (Brigadier Wootten) arrived, some parties coming by road, but the main body by sea. Brigadier Wootten was appointed commander of the force in Tobruk, Lieut-Colonel J. E. G. Martin taking over acting command of the brigade. Wootten decided that, with the larger number of troops, the whole perimeter should be occupied, the 24th Brigade, with its two battalions and attached troops in the western sector, the 18th Brigade in the eastern sector, with two battalions on the perimeter and one in reserve. These positions were being taken up when, on the morning of the 8th, General Wavell and General Lavarack flew in.
Wavell had foreseen, after he had returned to Cairo from Neame’s headquarters on the evening of 3rd April, that the abandonment of Cyrenaica could not be long delayed. He knew the time for deciding whether an attempt should be made to hold Tobruk was imminent Having advised the Chiefs of Staff that the plans for operations in Greece and the Dodecanese would have to be modified, he lost no time in sending to the desert front all reinforcements he could muster. An improvised tank force comprising the 1st Royal Tank Regiment with 11 cruiser and 15 light tanks, the 107th RHA, the 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, the 11th Hussars (less one squadron), the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery (whose “J” Battery was already with the 2nd Armoured Division) and the 4th Royal Horse Artillery were ordered on the 4th to move next day to the desert. The 7th Australian Division (Major-General Lavarack) was at this time preparing to move from Palestine to Greece; General Lavarack and a nucleus staff had already received orders to proceed to Alexandria, arriving on 5th April for embarkation on the 6th. Passing through Cairo on 4th April, Lavarack received a message directing him to report to General Headquarters. There, in the evening, Wavell received him. Lavarack later reported the gist of the conversation:–
General Wavell consulted me on the question of sending my 18th Infantry Brigade to Tobruk together with 2/ 4th Australian Field Company, 2/5th Australian Field
Ambulance and a British Army field regiment in an endeavour to forestall the danger to 9th Australian Division’s flank and rear. This consultation was probably more formal than real, as something had to be done in any case to assist 9th Australian Division and the troops named were the only ones available. I agreed. I was also informed that the move of my division to Greece would probably be cancelled and the division employed in an endeavour to stabilise the situation in the Western Desert.7
After the conference, at 6 p.m., orders were given by telephone to the commander of the 18th Brigade to move his brigade to Tobruk next morning, in part by road, but mainly by ship. General Wavell telegraphed these intentions to General Sturdee, Chief of the Australian General Staff, in a message the text of which was repeated to General Blamey, then in Greece. In this, after indicating the current situation of the 9th Australian Division in Libya, Wavell said:–
18th Australian Infantry Brigade has been ordered to proceed at short notice to Tobruk. Remainder 7th Australian Division is in Palestine and I hope to send it to Greece but may be compelled to send it to Cyrenaica. ... Am keeping Blamey in touch situation and much regret necessity to alter plans. Have explained situation personally to Lavarack and C.I.G.S. approves change of plan.
One may surmise that Wavell chose to make the decision without seeking General Blamey’s prior consent and to announce it in the way he did because he intended to leave no opening for disagreement with the arrangements.8 Although Wavell told Sturdee that he was “keeping Blamey in touch”, it would appear that this very message was the first intimation to Blamey of any question of diverting to the desert some of the forces previously allocated to Greece, including one of his own divisions.
The Australian Government was very disturbed. Mr Spender, the Minister for the Army, cabled General Blamey seeking his comments on General Wavell’s communication and his assessment of its effect on the Greek expeditionary force. He told Blamey that the Government was “greatly concerned and unwilling”.
General Blamey’s reaction was such as Wavell might have feared. He cabled Wavell on the 5th (and repeated the cable to Australia) suggesting that full advantage should be taken of the desert and of British amphibious power to increase the enemy’s maintenance difficulties in North Africa and that the retention of Libya was not vital to the defence of Egypt, however much its loss might affect British prestige; with all of which Wavell would probably have fully agreed. Blamey added that the Imperial forces in Greece would shortly be in grave peril if not built up to adequate strength. But Blamey, it should be observed, while stressing the danger to the Grecian expedition, did not seek to limit Wavell’s freedom to dispose the Australian formations as he thought best. In the field in Greece, Blamey was in no position to assess the complete situation. This incident points the difficulties that may arise if the commander of a Dominion expeditionary force of which the component formations are engaged on two
or more fronts exercises field command on one of them, and raises the question whether such a commander should not always be so placed as to be in close touch with the theatre commander directing all the operations in which (except for minor detachments) the Dominion formations are engaged.
Replying to Blamey, Wavell said that he fully sympathised with his views about the 7th Division and much regretted the necessity of moving the 18th Brigade to Tobruk; but Blamey would realise the importance of a secure base in Egypt on which the successful maintenance of the forces in Greece depended. Wavell said that the situation in Cyrenaica was now slightly better and that he still hoped to send the other brigades of the 7th Division to Greece and later, when he could make other troops available, the 18th Brigade also.
If the situation was “slightly better” on the 5th, it was incomparably worse on the 6th when Wavell learnt in turn of the German advance into Greece, the outflanking move against Mechili and the withdrawal of the 9th Division to Gazala. While the news of events in the desert was being telegraphed to Cairo on the afternoon of the 6th, a conference was being held at General Headquarters to decide future policy in relation to Tobruk. As well as the commanders-in-chief of the three Services in the Middle East, Mr Anthony Eden and Sir John Dill were present. General de Guingand has described the conference:–
The atmosphere was certainly tense. The subject was Tobruk. I noticed Eden’s fingers drumming on the table; he looked nervous. ... After the problem had been discussed from each service point of view, Wavell was asked to give his views. I admired him tremendously at that moment. He had a very heavy load to carry but he looked calm and collected, and said that in his view we must hold Tobruk, and that he considered that this was possible. One could feel the sense of relief that this decision produced.9
So the conference decided that an attempt would be made to stabilise the desert front at Tobruk. It was thought that this might involve holding the Tobruk defences for the next two months, after which, it was hoped, sufficient armoured forces would be available to launch a counteroffensive.
General Wavell determined that the rest of the 7th Australian Division should be sent to Mersa Matruh instead of to Greece and that the bulk of the 6th British Division should also be diverted to the Western Desert from the Nile Delta, where it had been training for a projected operation against Rhodes. He also decided that General Lavarack should succeed General Neame as commander-in-chief in Cyrenaica. In the immediate future the main burden of the attempt to stabilise the front at Tobruk would have to be borne by the four Australian brigades already with Cyrenaica Force and, for the time being, the remainder of the 7th Australian Division would constitute the main force available for the defence of Egypt. It was therefore natural that consideration should have been given to placing the force under an Australian commander. In Lavarack,
Wavell had chosen for the appointment a senior professional soldier who had not only had extensive operational experience in the first world war but also had served for four years between the wars as Chief of the Australian General Staff.
No time was lost in acting upon these decisions. That evening the 22nd Guards Brigade with supporting field and anti-tank artillery set out from Cairo for the frontier area. General Lavarack was summoned to Wavell’s headquarters.
Meanwhile Wavell had learnt of the capture of Generals Neame and O’Connor and Brigadier Combe. General de Guingand has written that Wavell was greatly affected. He received Lavarack at midday on the 7th, proposed to him that he should take over the Cyrenaican command, and sought his concurrence in the cancellation of the embarkation of the rest of the 7th Division (the 18th Brigade had arrived in Tobruk that morning). Lavarack agreed to both arrangements. Wavell decided to fly with Lavarack to Tobruk next day to install him in his new command. The 7th Division was warned to move immediately from Palestine to Amiriya, for forward movement to Mersa Matruh.
Wavell reported the current situation to the Chiefs of Staff and General Sturdee (and to General Dill and General Blamey in Greece) indicating his intention to fly to Tobruk on the morrow with Lavarack “who will probably take over command of all forces in Cyrenaica”. His current intentions and his contemporary estimate of the enemy are both revealed in the two messages sent by him on this day to London and Melbourne. In the first, he announced that it was hoped to stabilise the front at Tobruk and that he estimated that the German force in Cyrenaica might consist of all or part of one armoured and two motorised divisions. In the second, his perhaps unduly sanguine comment was that, although the situation in Cyrenaica remained obscure, the general impression of the enemy was rather more of a series of raids by light forces than large-scale attacks.
Meanwhile Mr Churchill, ceaselessly striving to imbue the British forces with his own spirit of aggression and defiance was exhorting his commander-in-chief in the Middle East to stop the retreat and fight back. “You should surely be able to hold Tobruk,” he told Wavell in a message sent on the same day, “with its permanent Italian defences, at least until the enemy brings up strong artillery forces. It seems difficult to believe he can do this for some weeks.” He pointed to the risk the enemy would run in masking Tobruk and advancing upon Egypt, and added: “Tobruk therefore seems to be a place to be held to the death without thought of retirement.”
When General Wavell and General Lavarack landed at the Tobruk airfield at 10 a.m. on the 8th, the khamsin which that morning had heralded the German attack on Mechili was blowing fiercely; almost an hour elapsed after their landing before their reception party found them amidst the swirling sand and dust. As soon as they arrived at command headquarters, Wavell held a conference with Brigadier Harding and other senior staff
of Cyrenaica Command, at which Captain Poland,10 the Senior Naval Officer, Inshore Squadron, and Group Captain Brown, the Royal Air Force commander, were present, and at which, as we saw, General Morshead soon afterwards arrived. Wavell heard Harding’s and Morshead’s reports, briefly studied a map of Tobruk and announced that Lavarack would take over command of all British forces in Cyrenaica. There were no forces between Tobruk and Cairo, he said, but a stand was to be made at Tobruk; it might have to be held for about two months while other forces were assembled. He then wrote out in pencil on three sheets of note-paper the following instruction to General Lavarack:–
1. You will take over command of all troops in Cyrenaica. Certain reinforcements have already been notified as being sent you. You will be informed of any others which it is decided to send.
2. Your main task will be to hold the enemy’s advance at Tobruk, in order to give time for the assembly of reinforcements, especially of armoured troops, for the defence of Egypt.
3. To gain time for the assembly of the required reinforcements, it may be necessary to hold Tobruk for about two months.
4. Should you consider after reviewing the situation and in the light of the strength deployed by the enemy that it is not possible to maintain your position at Tobruk for this length of time, you will report your views when a decision will be taken by G.H.Q.
5. You will in any case prepare a plan for withdrawal from Tobruk, by land and by sea, should withdrawal become necessary.
6. Your defence will be as mobile as possible and you will take any opportunity of hindering the enemy’s concentration by offensive action.
In the afternoon, Wavell set off to fly back to Cairo and Lavarack fare-welled him at the airfield. But after a false start the aircraft had to return for repairs. It was dusk before it took off again. Within a short time it developed engine trouble and was forced to make a night landing in the desert some distance out from Salum; the machine was wrecked. For six anxious hours General Headquarters, Cairo, feared that, following on the capture of Generals Neame, O’Connor and Gambier-Parry, there had occurred, to cap all, an even greater misfortune, the loss of their commander-in-chief. But a patrol found Wavell’s party in the desert that night and brought them into Salum. Early next morning Wavell flew on in a Lysander11 to Cairo.
There, on the 9th, Wavell sent a cable to London and Melbourne describing the situation in Tobruk and western Egypt. He added:–
I have put Lavarack, G.O.C. 7th Australian Division, in command in Cyrenaica for the present. Am considering re-organisation of command placing whole western desert defences from Tobruk to Maaten Baggush under one command Although the first enemy effort seems to be exhausting itself I do not feel we shall have long respite and am still very anxious. Tobruk is not a good defensive position. Long line of communication behind is hardly protected at all and is unorganised.
From this message it is apparent that General Wavell still tended to underestimate the extent to which General Rommel could surmount his
administrative and supply difficulties and hoped not only to halt the enemy’s advance at Tobruk but to keep the land route to Egypt open as a supply line, a plan to which (as General Auchinleck was to observe some nine months later) the configuration of the coast did not lend itself. That intention, however, had been less clearly expressed in his unpremeditated orders to General Lavarack. It also appears that, in appointing Lavarack to the Cyrenaican command “for the present”, Wavell was deferring until later, when the situation had become less fluid, a decision on the final form of organisation for the desert command and the choice of the commander. General Wavell wrote to General Blamey on the same day and told him of his visit to Tobruk. The trouble in Cyrenaica, he explained, had been mainly caused by mechanical failures in the 3rd Armoured Brigade. He commended the part played by the 9th Australian Division, and continued:
I am very sorry to have had to use part of the 7th Division without reference to you, but the need was urgent and I had the support of the C.I.G.S. and Eden, who was acting as the P.M’s Emissary out here. ... I know you did not altogether approve of the decisions taken, but in the circumstances I think they were perhaps inevitable; anyway in the circumstances that arose I felt bound to take the decision I did and am fully responsible for it.
As a postscript to the typewritten letter, doubtless written, as he said, in great haste, he added the following sentence in his own handwriting:
As you probably know, Neame and O’Connor disappeared during the retreat. I have put Lavarack in command at Tobruk and enclose a copy of the instructions I gave him yesterday.
Wavell’s decision to send one additional brigade (the 18th) from the 7th Division to Tobruk indicated that he had decided that the size of the force with which he would attempt to hold Tobruk would be approximately four infantry brigade groups plus a small tank force – all the tanks he could muster. Subsequent experience indicated that a force of this size was just adequate for the task but gave no safety margin. In later months the garrison was strengthened in various minor respects but its size was not materially increased.
General Wavell’s concept had been to use the garrison force to establish a stronghold at Tobruk while utilising the mobile forces, mainly the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade and the reinforcements from the 7th Armoured Division sent forward to strengthen the Support Group, to harass the enemy in the desert. Brigadier Gott had just arrived in the Tobruk area to take command of these, an appointment which, as we saw, General O’Connor had suggested to General Wavell. But the prospective strength of the mobile force, parts of which had been battered in the Marsa Brega–Agedabia phase, had been critically reduced by further losses sustained around Derna, followed by the capture that very morning of most of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade at Mechili. The 1/Tower Hamlets could muster only one strong company.
General Lavarack’s urgent tasks were to acquaint himself with the considerable but unintegrated forces committed to him, to give them an
ordered system of organisation and command, to reconnoitre the terrain and defences and to report in due course, as Wavell’s instruction to him required, whether it would be practicable with the forces available to attempt to hold Tobruk for two months.
In detail the composition and location of the forces placed under Lavarack’s command on the 8th were as follows. At Acroma, west of Tobruk, were the 20th and 26th Brigades with the 1st RHA, the 51st Field Regiment and the 1/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers in support. In Tobruk were the 18th and 24th Brigades with the 104th RHA, what was left of the Support Group and the 3rd Armoured Brigade, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery units, and the newly arrived 1st Royal Tank Regiment. The 107th RHA was due to arrive by sea on the morrow. In addition there were the normal complement of troops of the various Services, three Libyan refugee battalions and three Indian pioneer companies. On this day the 11th Hussars were moving up to El Adem from the frontier and the 3rd RHA and other minor units destined for the Support Group arrived in Tobruk by road.
The 18th (Indian) Cavalry Regiment was at El Adem, where it was joined that day by Captain Barlow’s squadron, followed, in the next 24 hours, by other elements of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, Major Eden’s anti-tank battery and most of the 2/3rd Australian Anti-Tank Regiment – all having broken out of Mechili.
General Lavarack decided to divide his combatant forces into three groups. The first group, being the main force, was to be responsible for the defence of Tobruk fortress. General Morshead would command it and would be appointed fortress commander. Its main components would be the 9th Division with its eight infantry battalions, the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, and other attached troops, the four British artillery regiments, the 1/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (medium machine-guns) and the 1/King’s Dragoon Guards (as a reconnaissance regiment). The second group would be the mobile force, under Brigadier Gott’s command – a reorganised Support Group strengthened by some units just arrived in the forward zone of which the most important were the 11th Hussars (less one squadron) and the 4th RHA (less one battery): it was to operate outside the perimeter. The third group, which would constitute Cyrenaica Command’s force reserve, would comprise the 18th Brigade with a battery of anti-tank guns (“J” Battery, 3rd RHA) and an improvised armoured force containing all the available tanks.
The adoption of this organisation involved freeing the 18th Brigade from its task of occupying part of the Tobruk perimeter and using the whole of the 9th Division for the perimeter defence. Lavarack visited Morshead on the afternoon of the 8th to inform him of these intentions. He instructed Morshead that the rest of the division was to be withdrawn within the perimeter and arranged with him to reconnoitre the perimeter defences next day.
What remained of the 2nd Armoured Division was split up amongst the three main groups. The only tanks the division had brought back
into Tobruk were one light tank of the brigade headquarters recovery section and two cruisers (presumably those two which, separated from the main body, had come to the 9th Division’s assistance at Tmimi) But the 1st Royal Tank Regiment had just arrived with 11 cruisers and 15 light tanks, and there were in the Tobruk workshops 18 serviceable light tanks and some 26 medium undergoing repair. Lieut-Colonel Drew took charge of all armoured units on the 8th and organised them into a formation to be known as the 3rd Armoured Brigade, in which initially there were two tank units: the 1st Royal Tanks, and a composite unit of 3rd Hussars and 5th Royal Tanks personnel. The composite unit was immediately equipped, out of the workshops, with 4 cruisers and 18 light tanks.
Units from the 2nd and 7th Armoured Divisions’ Support Groups were variously allocated. The 1/King’s Dragoon Guards were, as mentioned, allotted to the 9th Division. The French motor infantry were directed to Salum. The 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps (less Mason’s company, which had been cut off at Derna) was sent to rejoin Gott’s force together with a composite motorised company organised from what remained of the 1/Tower Hamlets Rifles. On the other hand, the 18th Cavalry Regiment (whose carriers were used to equip the 1/KRRC) was to be brought into Tobruk and placed under command of the 9th Division. The role of Gott’s force was defined. It was to harass the enemy south of the main coast road.
The 9th Division had come to Cyrenaica without its artillery12 and therefore the headquarters had no staff to control the four regiments allotted to it.13 The task of forming a command organisation was given to Brigadier Thompson,14 who had recently arrived from Palestine to take up the appointment of senior artillery officer with Cyrenaica Command. One of the most urgent tasks was to allot the anti-tank artillery, which comprised the 3rd RHA, the 2/3rd Australian Anti-Tank Regiment (less the two rearguard troops lost at Mechili, and one battery at Mersa Matruh), and the four Australian brigade anti-tank companies. Of the three batteries of the 3rd RHA immediately available, one (“M” Battery) was allotted to the fortress command, one, “D” Battery – made up to strength at the expense of “J” Battery – to Gott’s force, and one (“J” Battery) to the reserve.
Meanwhile the anti-aircraft artillery, destined to play a leading role in the defence of Tobruk, was being strengthened as guns came back from Cyrenaica and outlying airfields and others arrived by sea. Its main strength, when the investment began, consisted of 16 heavy (3.7-inch) guns.
While Lavarack’s force, with its four brigade groups, its few tanks and its light harassing detachment, was being organised at Tobruk, other
forces were moving towards the frontier. The 22nd Guards Brigade was already in Mersa Matruh, whence one of its battalions with a squadron of light tanks of the 7th Hussars was moving forward to Salum. A second brigade of the 6th British Division was moving towards Mersa Matruh. To provide some further insurance, arrangements were being made to ship the 4th Indian Division from the Sudan to Egypt; the first brigade was due to arrive on the 11th.
To the west of Tobruk, on the morning of 8th April, the exhausted troops of the 9th Division were improving their positions astride the main coast road at Acroma and keeping the best watch they could, through thick dust, for the enemy’s approach. News of the most recent reverse – the fall of Mechili – reached them in the morning. During the day battalions were sorted out, exchanged positions and reverted to their normal brigade commands. The 26th Brigade held the right from the road to the sea, while the 20th Brigade watched and guarded the open desert flank. For the first time for two days, a hot evening meal was served. Between the Australian infantry and the British troops supporting them mutual regard and trust had already developed. “We still have the 1/Northumberland Fusiliers with us (and our fellows swear by them),” wrote the diarist of the 2/48th, adding that the defences were now well organised and that everyone was “praying for the Hun to ‘have a go’.”
The enemy ground forces took no offensive action that day, although in the early afternoon a few German armoured cars reconnoitred on the fringe of the 2/17th Battalion. Some stragglers escaping from Derna reported that the British prisoners captured there, including the two generals, were being held in a wadi near the town and very lightly guarded. Morshead arranged with Brigadier Murray to send out a patrol that night to attempt their rescue. Major Allan15 was appointed to command it and the 1/King’s Dragoon Guards were instructed to provide four armoured cars as protection. Their commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel McCorquodale, protested to Morshead that the task was a misuse of armoured cars because of their vulnerability at night when confined to roads. Morshead had his way, but the patrol left late, was delayed by demolitions made the previous day near Gazala and, being then unable to reach Derna in the night hours, returned with its task unaccomplished.
On 9th April, General Lavarack, in company with General Morshead, Brigadier Harding and Brigadier Wootten, made an extensive reconnaissance of the fortress area – a very good reconnaissance, Morshead later called it. Wavell had suggested to Lavarack that the outer perimeter of the fortress, which was some 28 miles in length (the total length of the “Red Line” defensive works was 30 miles and a quarter), was too extended to hold with the forces available and that the defence should be based on the “inner perimeter”. Wavell may have derived the notion that there was an inner perimeter at Tobruk from reading Colonel Cook’s appreciation, but Lavarack soon discovered that no real inner defence
perimeter existed. There were a few rudimentary weapon-pits and ineffective tank traps behind the “outer” perimeter, but no connected or useful system of defence. Lavarack had quickly concluded that there was no practicable alternative to holding the developed perimeter defences, protected as they were in great part by wire, anti-tank mines and ditches. The purpose of his reconnaissance was therefore to determine brigade sectors, to site a second line of defence, and to establish a “last-ditch” line surrounding the harbour area; also to decide on a location for the reserve brigade.
Lavarack desired to bring the 9th Division within the perimeter immediately. Morshead, on the other hand, was anxious to spare his men the fatigue of an intermediate move before arrangements could be made for them to occupy their allotted sectors. But, after a quiet morning, an enemy column approached the Acroma positions in the early afternoon and reports from the air force, which came in soon after Lavarack’s reconnaissance had been completed, indicated that about 300 vehicles were approaching Tobruk from the west while other columns of vehicles were setting out eastwards from Mechili. The withdrawal of the two brigade groups from exposed positions outside the perimeter had become urgent. Morshead ordered them to retire from Acroma that night. The fortress had meanwhile received two important reinforcements by sea – the 107th RHA (bringing the fortress’s field artillery up to four regiments) and portion of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, with four infantry (heavy) tanks.
The enemy column that had approached Acroma in the early afternoon halted just out of range of the British guns. German armoured cars nosed forward as though to determine the limits of the ground held. There were signs that an attack was being prepared. Towards sundown an enemy gun to the west opened up and lightly shelled the 26th Brigade – for many of the men their first experience of battle-fire – while enemy vehicles appeared over the skyline. The 51st Field Regiment replied at once; soon afterwards the 1st RHA, having turned their guns through an arc of 125 degrees, joined in the bombardment. The enemy vehicles hastily retreated, the 51st pushed forward a troop to engage them, and the enemy replied with mortars. Firing continued till after dark. As soon as the enemy had ceased firing, the 1st RHA moved back to Tobruk and took up a position in the Pilastrino area, facing south. One by one the other units at Acroma followed during the night; the 2/48th Battalion, which stole away at 4 a.m., was the last to move.
The impetuous Rommel’s purposeful organisation of the German and Italian forces had been marked by an extreme degree of improvisation. New groupings and new commands were set up almost every day. Each of the major formations – the German 5th Light Division and the Italian Ariete and Brescia Divisions – was split into a number of independently operating groups. The 5th Light Division had been organised in three main columns, the Schwerin Group (from which the Ponath and Behrend
detachments had been sent to Derna), the Streich Group, and the Olbrich Group. The former two had been directed on Mechili by the Trigh el Abd route; the latter had been sent by the northerly route through Msus, and had not reached Mechili in time to take part in the assault. The Ariete Division, broken up into numerous groups, had taken the Trigh el Abd route, while the main body of the Brescia Division, under the direction of Major-General Kirchheim, had pushed east by the two roads across the Jebel Achdar in the wake of the withdrawing 9th Australian Division. The 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, which had encountered the 2/13th Battalion at Er Regima, appears also to have travelled by this route. Meanwhile the first units of the Trento Division had reached Agedabia.
After the capture of Mechili on the 8th, General Rommel ordered the Italian formations in that region to garrison the fort while the Streich Group (the main body of the 5th Light Division) was detailed to protect it from attack from the north and west. Meanwhile the other two German groups (Schwerin and Olbrich) were directed to Derna, where the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit and the Brescia Division were also arriving on the 8th. Rommel himself drove thither in the evening.
General Kirchheim had been wounded, but Major-General Prittwitz, the commander of the 15th Armoured Division, who was on a reconnaissance tour of Africa, had just arrived at Rommel’s headquarters. Although that division was not due to reach Africa until May, arrangements were being made to fly in some of its lighter units immediately. Rommel at once pressed Prittwitz into service in place of Kirchheim, appointing him to command the northern group of German forces now converging on Derna. These consisted in the main of a reconnaissance unit, one machine-gun battalion and a half, a battalion of field artillery and an anti-tank battalion.
On the 9th Rommel directed the pursuit to be resumed with the object of encircling the British at Tobruk. He ordered a deployment around Tobruk: Prittwitz Group to the east and south-east of Tobruk, Streich Group to the south-west, Brescia Division to the west. Early that day, the Ponath detachment, in the van of the Prittwitz Group, arrived 50 miles east of Derna. When this was reported to Rommel, he directed the Prittwitz Group to advance into the area south of Tobruk and ordered the Brescia Division to approach the British force west of Tobruk, stir up as much dust as possible, and subject the British formations to fire from artillery and other heavy weapons so as to contain the force there until the Prittwitz and Streich Groups could attack from the south-east.
The German commander then returned to the Mechili area to spur on the Streich Group and the Ariete Division (some units of which were still more or less immobilised on the track to Mechili) and hasten their arrival. “It was now of great importance,” Rommel wrote afterwards, “to appear in strength before Tobruk and get our attack started as early as possible, for we wanted our blow to fall before the enemy had recovered his morale after our advance through Cyrenaica, and had been able to organise his defence of Tobruk.”
On the morning of 10th April, Rommel issued a statement of his intentions.
I am convinced that the enemy is giving way before us. We must pursue him with all our forces. Our objective, which is to be made known to all troops, is the Suez Canal. In order to prevent the enemy breaking out from Tobruk, encirclement is to go forward with all available means.
That morning, leaving Mechili in the early hours, he drove back to the Tobruk front. On the main coast road west of Tobruk he encountered the Prittwitz Group. Finding that it had not yet commenced the ordered encircling movement to the south, he instructed General Prittwitz to launch an immediate attack with part of his force astride the main coast road and directed the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit to move around the right flank on El Adem. Prittwitz ordered Lieut-Colonel Ponath’s 8th Machine Gun Battalion to lead the Brescia Division in the frontal attack and Ponath’s column set off along the road towards Tobruk at 9 a.m., but without its supporting artillery, which had not arrived. Soon its forward company reconnoitring the route encountered fire from British armoured cars.
The German forces, reaching the neighbourhood of Tobruk so unexpectedly soon, were to suffer from the disadvantage that they knew nothing of the defences and fieldworks there. Not for several days were their Italian allies able to provide them with a map. Groups which in the meantime reconnoitred towards the port or skirted the Tobruk defences brushed up against anti-tank obstacles and wire in unexpected places and found them hotly defended.
Having arranged with General Morshead on 9th April that the 9th Division would hold the perimeter defences, General Lavarack sent General Wavell a message telling him of this arrangement and of the decision to keep the 18th Brigade and the armour in reserve. He also told Wavell that he had decided to hold the original Italian perimeter in order to take advantage of the existing wire and obstacles until an inner and shorter perimeter had been constructed. The time factor made it essential, he said, to make use of the existing defences; but to hold them with his present force would leave him with insufficient reserve in depth. He was therefore strongly of the opinion that the rest of the 7th Division should be sent up to Tobruk without delay.
General Wavell did not reply immediately. He was on the point of going to Greece to review operations on that front with General Wilson and General Blamey. Probably one reason for Wavell’s visit was that he wished to explain personally to Blamey why he had diverted the 7th Australian Division from Greece to the desert, an action with which Blamey appeared to have been very displeased. The officer who first conveyed the decision to Blamey is said to have reported his reaction thus: “When the General read that telegram, he blew up.”16 Before Wavell left for Greece, he told the Chiefs of Staff in London that he had decided to hold Tobruk, to place a mobile force on the Egyptian frontier and
to build up the defences of Mersa Matruh: the distribution of his force so as to gain time and yet not risk defeat in detail would be a difficult calculation; it would be a race against time. That message reached London just as another exhortation from Mr Churchill urging that Tobruk be held was about to be dispatched: it was not transmitted.
General Lavarack sent for Brigadier Gott on the morning of 10th April to settle with him the policy for the future employment of the mobile forces. The main question to determine was what the Support Group should do in the likely event that enemy forces in strength should threaten to embroil it in its present position at El Adem. Lavarack decided that if this happened the mobile force should operate from the frontier rather than risk being bottled up in Tobruk. He instructed Gott that if it was pressed by the enemy, it was to retire towards the Egyptian frontier. For the aim, expressed in Wavell’s orders, of holding the enemy’s advance at Tobruk Lavarack had substituted an intention to hold Tobruk against an encircling force, encirclement being regarded as almost inevitable.
The 10th April, for many men of the 9th Division their first day in Tobruk, began quietly. Mobile patrols going out at first light from the 18th Cavalry Regiment and the 1/King’s Dragoon Guards had nothing to report. A patrol of the 18th Cavalry mounted the escarpment overlooking the Derna Road along which the enemy’s first approach was expected but saw nothing. As the sun rose, a searing wind-storm blew up, concealing the landscape beneath a stream of dust and sand, which reduced visibility to a few feet: “the filthiest day ever,” one unit diarist called it. Units moved out to take up their allotted positions along the perimeter but the men could not see the terrain; as they shovelled sand from trenches, the wind relentlessly replenished them. The khamsin caused intense anxiety to the artillery officers striving to keep the approaches to the perimeter under observation while the posts were being occupied, and to the infantry commanding officers endeavouring to acquaint themselves with the areas they were to defend. Reports that the enemy was approaching under cover of the dust heightened the tension.
The perimeter on which Lavarack had decided to base the forward defence ran in a wide but not perfect arc some 28 miles in length. The chord of the arc was a bare 17 miles – that was the distance, as the crow flies, separating the two headlands in the east and west at which the perimeter touched the coast. The average radius – or average distance of the perimeter from Tobruk town – was about 9 miles. The bay provided a deep and well-sheltered natural harbour, the best in Italian North Africa, but now fouled by several sunken ships. The coast, except near the harbour, was broken by a succession of narrow inlets between high headlands. There was a plain about three miles wide west of the town. It was bounded on the south by an escarpment, at the top of which was a ledge of land leading to a second escarpment. Southwards from the top of the second escarpment the country flattened out towards the perimeter, except in the south-west where it swept up towards a dominant point on the skyline, Ras el Medauuar, which was surmounted by a blockhouse. In the east the
plain narrowed to nothing as the two escarpments converged on the coast near the perimeter boundary.
The 28 miles of perimeter were to be taken over on this day by the three brigades of the 9th Division – from right to left, the 26th, 20th and 24th Brigades – using six battalions to man the perimeter line. One regiment of field guns was allotted to each brigade sector and, pending the development of a communications network to enable the artillery to be coordinated from fortress headquarters, the regiments were placed under the command of the infantry brigades. In the southern sector (20th Brigade) the 107th RHA was superimposed on the 1st RHA
The 2/24th Battalion plus one company of the 2/23rd Battalion was ordered to occupy the right-hand sector, from the coast to the escarpment, a distance of six miles. It would thus be placed astride the main coast road coming in from Derna and the west by which the division had just entered the perimeter, and along which the Axis forces could be expected to follow. There the defences were sighted near the crest of the slopes of a huge gorge, the Wadi Sehel, which cut right across the plain from the sea to the coast road and, continuing, cleft the escarpment to the south of the road. To the left of the 2/24th, the key western sector, which
included Ras el Medauuar, the highest point on the perimeter, was allotted to the 2/48th Battalion. On its left again the 2/17th Battalion was to guard the southern approaches to Fort Pilastrino, in which area were sited the old Italian headquarters, now taken over by Morshead’s headquarters. Next would be the 2/13th Battalion, astride the El Adem Road, then the 2/28th Battalion, and, to complete the arc, the 2/43rd Battalion occupying the eastern sector from the main east-west road to the coast.
Before these positions were occupied, and while battalion commanding officers were reconnoitring the areas allotted to them, reports were received that the enemy was approaching. Soon after 9 a.m. Lieutenant Bamgarten of the 2/3rd Field Company demolished the bridge over the wadi at the western gateway of the perimeter just as the first troops of Ponath’s column, which had been pursuing a look-out patrol of the King’s Dragoon Guards, came down the road towards it. The German column consisted of about two companies of infantry, with machine-guns, some light field guns and seven light tanks.
About 500 yards behind the wire where the Derna Road entered the perimeter was dug in one of the bush artillery guns of the 2/28th manned by Corporal Tracey-Patte.17 “C” and “E” Troops of the 51st Field Regiment, whose guns were also sited close to the perimeter behind the roadblock, engaged the German vehicles as they came into sight through the screening dust-storm, causing them to withdraw and deploy, and Tracey-Patte’s gun joined in. Captain Jackman18 of the 1/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, reconnoitring the area at this moment, saw the enemy approaching and called up two platoons of machine-gunners, who engaged the enemy at a range of two miles as they deployed. Some of the vehicles moved south of the road, mounted the escarpment by a track and turned in towards Tobruk above the escarpment, only to bump into the perimeter defences at Post S17, where they were engaged by another bush gun manned by a crew commanded by Sergeant Rule.19
As Prittwitz’s main column set off down the main road, attempting by the speed of its thrust to take the defenders by surprise, three armoured cars had ascended to the plateau in search of a way into Tobruk by a route which would bypass whatever blockage might have been set up across the direct route. These made for the high ground at Ras el Medauuar, where Lieut-Colonel Lloyd,20 commanding the 2/28th Battalion, had set up his headquarters in a location where he would be likely to be the first to see any approaching enemy, if not to engage them. That honour, however, appears to have fallen to two of his bush guns, under the spirited command of his transport officer, Lieutenant Lovegrove.21 One gun, the blast of which was alarming and damaged
the gunpit, “proved more menacing to the Don Company personnel in the vicinity than to the German armoured cars”,22 but the other, commanded by Corporal Warren,23 assisted by the expert advice of an amused senior British artillery officer who happened to be there, was quickly firing so close to the mark that the armoured cars made off.
The Germans did not try to assault across the wadi near the Derna Road but took up positions on the far side and, reinforced by the forward elements of the Brescia Division, brought machine-guns, mortars and light artillery into action. Desultory firing continued throughout the day. Growing more intense in the early afternoon, it interfered with the 2/24th Battalion’s occupation of the sector and eventually forced the two troops of field guns to withdraw. Two gunners and one infantryman were killed; more than 30 men (including 19 gunners) were wounded. The enemy also suffered casualties. Major-General Prittwitz himself was killed.
During the morning Brigadier Gott’s Support Group reported from near El Adem that 40 armoured fighting vehicles were moving north-east from about 10 miles south of the perimeter. Meanwhile, the German 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, feeling its way round the British flank, had a brush with a patrol of the 18th Cavalry Regiment. Pushing on, they came up against the perimeter wire in the western sector, where the defences were still held by the 2/28th Battalion. Several local engagements were fought. Lieut-Colonel Crellin’s24 bush artillery had their first operational shoot, landing some shells amidst the leading enemy vehicles. Guns of the 1st RHA quickly engaged the enemy columns, causing them to disperse. Soon afterwards a British truck was halted by enemy fire as it attempted to leave the perimeter in the southern sector by the El Adem Road. For more than an hour there was no further indication of the enemy’s presence but just before 1 p.m. five enemy tanks were seen in the south-eastern sector from an observation post of the 107th RHA
In the early afternoon the 20th Brigade occupied the perimeter in the southern sector. Soon afterwards men of the 2/13th Battalion discerned a party of enemy infantry about 400 yards to their right front and engaged them with small-arms fire. The enemy went to ground and made off under cover. But in the section of the western sector where the perimeter defences climbed the second (or higher) escarpment, the enemy stayed close and dug in machine-guns opposite the perimeter defences. As the afternoon wore on reports accumulated that the enemy was augmenting his strength in that sector, while other enemy groups, including one of 10 tanks,25 were seen moving round to the south-east.
Meanwhile, the pilots of scouting aircraft reported that three columns, each of 200 vehicles, were approaching El Adem from the direction of Mechili. About 5 p.m. one of these groups encountered Gott’s force some 12 miles south-west of the perimeter. Approximately 150 enemy vehicles
assembled there and were attacked by the Royal Air Force. Towards nightfall they were shelled by a battery of the 4th RHA and forced to disperse. Three German officers were captured.
During the afternoon Gott had reorganised his force. An independent column under Lieut-Colonel J. C. (“Jock”) Campbell was detached to operate against any enemy advancing along the roads leading to the frontier: a precursor of the “Jock” columns that were to set the pattern for much of the desert fighting in the next 18 months.
Firing continued in the western sector for the rest of the afternoon and evening. A company of the 2/48th Battalion relieved portion of the 2/28th Battalion on the perimeter south-west of Medauuar. But even after dark enemy activity continued to be heard to the west in front of part of the perimeter still held by the 2/28th Battalion to the north of Medauuar; after 9 p.m. enemy troops, estimated to number between 600 and 1,000, seemed to be assembling on what appeared to be a start-line for an attack on the battalion’s front; but none developed. The men of the 2/28th stood to arms until the early hours of the 11th, when the rest of the 2/48th Battalion, after an exhausting night march, arrived to take over the sector from them. The 2/28th then moved across to the south-east and arrived in its new sector just as the next day was breaking.
In the evening of 10th April Lavarack had placed the 1st Royal Tank Regiment under Morshead’s direct command, stipulating, however, that his own approval should be obtained before it was committed. A liaison officer from the General Headquarters had arrived at Lavarack’s headquarters during the day; his mission had been to inform Lavarack that it was Wavell’s intention to merge Cyrenaica Command into a Western Desert Command and to confirm that his policy was to conduct an active defence at Tobruk and the frontier for two months, after which he would attack. That night the liaison officer returned to Cairo bearing Lavarack’s reply. Lavarack urged that if Tobruk were to be used as a base for offensive defence with frequent sorties, a garrison of two complete divisions would be required. He requested that this submission should be placed before Wavell for decision and suggested that the rest of the 7th Division should be used to build up the garrison strength to two divisions.
The khamsin that had raged in the early morning of 10th April was subsiding in the afternoon. Next day, Good Friday – a week since the Australians had first encountered the Germans on the escarpment above Benghazi – dawned bright and calm and clear. The men of the 9th Division surveyed the land they had come to live in and defend. From the perimeter defences they looked out across ground that was soon to become the no-man’s-land between two static defence lines. Except at the perimeter’s eastern and western extremities, where the wire descended the escarpments to link with the cliff walls of the Wadi Sehel and Wadi Zeitun (these wadis were deep chasms eroded out of solid rock), the perimeter defences traversed a plateau some 400 to 500 feet above sea-level. Beyond them the terrain was ridged to the west and south-west, but almost flat to the south and south-east, where the ground stretched towards an inland escarpment
visible from points of vantage within the perimeter but not from ground-level at the wire. It was arid, desert country – mottled in parts with a sparse, dwarf shrub-growth (colloquially known as “camel-thorn”), in parts quite bare – and treeless except for a few solitary fig-trees near desert wells, which stood out in their barren environment as remarkable landmarks.
Each day’s first light etched the desert scene in clear outline but as the summer day warmed, a mirage would subtly transform it. The change was scarcely apparent at a casual glance: the colour, the broad masses, were unaltered. But a more intent examination would fail to reveal the detailed configuration of remembered features, which tantalisingly shimmered in eddies of sun-scorched air, as though seen through a watery glaze. That occurred every day unless cloud or dust had blotted out the sun. The mirages soon imposed a degree of regularity on siege artillery programs, for only in the early mornings or late evenings could guns be ranged onto targets by observation, or the effectiveness of their fire be gauged. As each new day dawned, the guns of both sides saluted it; as it departed before the oncoming night, they saluted again.
At the eastern and western extremities, the defences in the two comparatively short lengths of perimeter between the road and the sea to the north of it were for the most part sited just below the lips of the wadi walls, which were in general effective obstacles to tanks; there the layout of the defences varied to take advantage of the favourable terrain. But the wide arc of perimeter south of the coast road ran through terrain that did not aid defence, neither hindering frontal assault nor providing concealment to obstacles and weapon-pits. The Italians had surrounded almost the entire perimeter with an excellent “box” wire obstacle; where this had not been completed, concertina wire had been employed. Outside the wire a deep anti-tank ditch, designed to link with the wadis near the coast, had been partly excavated – hewn in solid rock – but not completed. In the apex of each “dog-leg” in the perimeter wire, was sited a perimeter post. These frontal posts were spaced at intervals of about 750 yards; about 500 yards behind them, covering the gaps between each two, was a second row of posts. The perimeter posts were numbered consecutively, the odd-numbered being on the perimeter wire, the even-numbered behind.
The perimeter wire was purely frontal, not extending round the posts. Much of it had fallen into disrepair; some had been removed. The anti-tank ditch had been completed for only about one-fifth of the perimeter south of the coast road. Most of the uncompleted parts were covered by a comparatively ineffective belt of concertina wire. A thin line of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines had been laid in front of the wire, but many of these had been removed since the Italian occupation.
A typical frontier post contained three concrete circular weapon-pits sited at ground level and interconnected by concreted subterranean passages, which led also to bomb-proof subterranean living and storage quarters. But the protection thus afforded was in large part illusory, for while a post might shelter many, few could fight from its three weapon-pits.
If these few were intimidated or subdued – a role for which tanks were admirably suited – the rest of the garrison, trapped below, was at the attackers’ mercy. On the other hand, the siting of the posts was excellent. If there were too few weapon-pits, their field of fire was good. And the perimeter wire was well placed, zigzagging in dog-legs out from one post and in to the next. A forward post could in most cases perfectly enfilade by fire both arms of the perimeter fence leading out from it; which fire would form a beaten zone forward of the next post.
Behind the thin line of perimeter posts, no well-planned arrangement of defences in depth existed. Numerous unsubstantial sangars and shallow weapon-pits were scattered aimlessly about. The so-called “inner perimeter” had consisted of nothing more than a few ineffective anti-tank ditches and breastworks on the main axes of approach.
From the first day of occupation the garrison set about strengthening the defences. This was most arduous work because in most places rock was encountered beneath the surface soil at a depth of less than a foot. The destruction of the two road bridges by which the main coast road traversed the anti-tank obstacle at the western and eastern entrances to the perimeter, and the creation of effective road-blocks on all other roads leading into Tobruk, were the first measures taken. Priority was then given to mining the cross-country approaches to the perimeter in sectors where the anti-tank ditch was not effective, and repairing or restoring the perimeter wire. In the first few days most of the combatant troops were engaged in improving their own local defences; but the burden of the main works fell upon the field engineers, who were allowed no rest after their labours during the withdrawal. The 2/3rd and 2/13th Field Companies began mining the gaps in the anti-tank ditch and restoring the perimeter wire on the night of the 10th.
Notwithstanding the enemy activity opposite the western sector during the night of the 10th, a patrol of the 18th Cavalry, which early next morning went out in four open 15-cwt trucks onto the escarpment overlooking the Derna Road, reported that no enemy could be seen. Farther out, however, in the desert south of the coast road, a column of Gott’s force shelled an enemy column about 12 miles west of the Tobruk perimeter.
It was apparent that enemy columns were leaving the coast road some distance to the west of the perimeter, mounting the escarpment and moving into the desert to the south, just skirting the defences. In mid-morning about 50 vehicles appeared near the western sector on the right of the 20th
Brigade’s front; they were shelled by the garrison’s artillery and dispersed. Lieut-Colonel Crawford sent out a platoon with an artillery observation officer to continue harrying them. On another occasion a patrol of seven enemy tanks was seen, but soon withdrew. Meanwhile the Support Group had reported that about 40 tanks were approaching the El Adem sector of the perimeter from about 10 miles to the south, in which region about 300 vehicles had assembled. At 11.30 a.m. these split into two columns, one of which began moving east along the Trigh Capuzzo.
By noon it was apparent that the enemy was astride the El Adem Road opposite the southern sector in considerable force and was continuing to move east to complete the encirclement. At 12.20, 10 enemy tanks approached Post R59, on the 24th Brigade’s front, and came within 1,000 yards of the post; the 24th Anti-Tank Company engaged them, putting five out of action and forcing the rest to withdraw. Towards 1 o’clock between 20 and 30 trucks appeared outside Post R63. Guns of the 104th RHA forced them to disperse. But other vehicles continued to appear, moving round towards the Bardia Road; they were engaged by the 104th as they went. A platoon of enemy infantry, which had dismounted from their vehicles, then attacked R63 on foot. They were repulsed, but two Australians were wounded, one mortally. A similar fray took place near the boundary of the 2/28th and 2/43rd Battalions. Meanwhile the enemy had cut the Bardia Road. The siege had begun.
At 1.30 p.m. Gott ordered his mobile forces to withdraw to the frontier, communicating this decision to Lavarack by means of an agreed code word. The group’s supply vehicles, which happened to be within the Tobruk perimeter when the road was cut, were compelled to remain there.26 To Morshead’s annoyance, Gott took with him to the frontier the seven antitank guns of “D” Battery of the 3rd RHA In doing so, however, he was acting in conformity with Lavarack’s instructions.
By 1 p.m. 50 vehicles had crossed the Bardia Road. Soon another column of about 40 vehicles came up and, under fire from the British guns, discharged troops astride the road about two miles east of the perimeter, who then moved forward to within half a mile of the defences and there began to dig in. More vehicles followed. Later the 2/43rd Battalion reported that a force of about the strength of one battalion, with supporting arms, armoured cars and a few light tanks had taken up a position between the main road and the coast in mid-afternoon.
Meanwhile, about 3 p.m., enemy infantry had begun advancing towards the perimeter in front of the 2/13th Battalion. The Australians and the British machine-gunners supporting them at first held their fire, but when the enemy were within 400 yards, opened up with all arms. The enemy went to ground. Soon afterwards six enemy lorries drove down the El Adem Road towards the perimeter. The 1st and 104th RHA brought down concentrations which forced their withdrawal. A group of seven tanks then appeared in front of Post R31 and began to advance towards the perimeter, but were hotly engaged by the guns of “B/O” Battery.
About a quarter of an hour later, at 4.15 p.m., artillery observers reported that deployed infantry were advancing towards the 2/17th Battalion positions near R33 from about a mile to the south. Major Goschen27 of the 1st RHA engaged them with 25 rounds of gunfire, which put a stop to the infantry advance. But 20 tanks passed through the barrage and made straight for the perimeter in front of Captain Balfe’s28 company. Captain Balfe later described the action:–
About 70 tanks came right up to the anti-tank ditch and opened fire on our forward posts. They advanced in three waves of about twenty and one of ten. Some of them were big German Mark IV’s, mounting a 75-mm gun. Others were Italian M13’s and there were a lot of Italian light tanks too. The ditch here wasn’t any real obstacle to them, the minefield had only been hastily re-armed and we hadn’t one anti-tank gun forward. We fired on them with anti-tank rifles, Brens and rifles and they didn’t attempt to come through, but blazed away at us and then sheered off east towards the 2/13th’s front.29
About this time, communication between Lieut-Colonel Crawford’s headquarters and Captain Balfe was cut. Crawford, watching the action through binoculars from his command post, saw three tanks that appeared to him to move quickly down the escarpment in rear of Post R32 (Balfe’s headquarters) and reported to Brigadier Murray that a penetration of the perimeter by tanks had occurred. When this was reported to fortress headquarters, the 1st Royal Tank Regiment – with its two squadrons, one of cruisers, and one of light tanks – was placed under Murray’s command. Murray directed them to Crawford for orders. But when the light tanks reached Crawford’s headquarters, he had ascertained that no penetration had occurred. Crawford sent them, and the cruisers which followed later, in the direction in which the German tanks had last been observed.
The German soldiers, who had been taught by their experiences in Europe to believe that boldness and a disregard of risks alone would suffice to carry them to their objectives, were soon to shed their illusions before Tobruk. Encouraged by seeing their tanks firing at point-blank range into the Australian positions without coming to harm, the German infantry came forward again – about 700 men in all – advancing in a mass, shoulder to shoulder. Although the British gunfire fell right among them, still they came on. The Australians in the perimeter posts saw them and waited. “The infantry are still holding their fire,” reported an artillery observation officer, as the enemy closed on Balfe’s company.
When the infantry were about 500 yards out (Balfe said later) we opened up, but in the posts that could reach them we had only two Brens, two anti-tank rifles and a couple of dozen ordinary rifles. The Jerries went to ground at first, but gradually moved forward in bounds under cover of their machine-guns. It was nearly dusk by this time and they managed to reach the anti-tank ditch. From there they mortared near-by posts heavily. We hadn’t any mortars with which to reply and our artillery couldn’t shell the ditch without risk of hitting our own posts.30
Meanwhile the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, with its 11 cruiser tanks, was moving up towards the El Adem road-block. The enemy tanks, after they had left the 2/17th Battalion front, had moved along the 2/13th Battalion’s perimeter, shelling the forward posts as they went. Near the El Adem Road, men of the 2/13th’s mortar platoon, who were manning two Italian 47-mm anti-tank guns, knocked out one Italian medium tank and hit several others. An Italian light tank disabled by small-arms fire was knocked out by one of the anti-tank guns and its crew captured.
At the El Adem Road the enemy tanks encountered a minefield the engineers had laid on the preceding night and were turning away from the perimeter just as the tanks of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment arrived. There was a skirmish at long range between the British tanks and the last wave of 10 enemy tanks. Three light and one medium Italian tanks were knocked out by the British tanks and a German medium tank was destroyed by gunfire; two British medium tanks were lost.31 The enemy force then withdrew.
Meanwhile a detachment of mortars under Sergeant O’Dea32 had succeeded in bringing down fire on the anti-tank ditch in front of Balfe’s company. Later, strong fighting patrols from the 2/17th’s reserve company found that the enemy had departed.
After darkness fell, several enemy tanks probed along the anti-tank ditch in front of the 2/13th Battalion, looking for a crossing. After they had withdrawn, a standing patrol in front of the battalion’s wire reported the approach of a strong enemy party. The patrol engaged the enemy with such good effect that they fled. Other patrols failed to make contact. The intercepted party’s task had apparently been to make a breach in the antitank ditch and wire, for it abandoned demolition charges, Bangalore torpedoes, tools and a pack radio transmitter.
The day’s events had revealed that the enemy was both ignorant and optimistic. It seemed that he had hoped to find some approaches to Tobruk unguarded and to exploit through the gaps towards the harbour area; it was obvious that he was closing all routes of exit, and hoped to capture the entire garrison.
Wavell’s orders and messages had required the development of two main lines of resistance: one at Tobruk, the other at Mersa Matruh, where his counter-offensive force was to be assembled. Between them a mobile force was to be placed on the frontier; but Wavell had not prescribed a “do or die” defence of the crucial Salum-Halfaya bottleneck.
As Rommel’s forces were closing the ring round Tobruk, the jejune preparations to meet his advance at the frontier envisaged a delaying withdrawal rather than a determined attempt to stop it there. A weak company of the French Motor Battalion was guarding the Halfaya pass-head. On the morning of the 10th the 3/Coldstream Guards with a squadron of the 7th Hussars and a battery of the 8th Field Regiment came
forward from Mersa Matruh. In the late afternoon they took up a position west of the frontier wire near Capuzzo, astride the north-west approaches of Salum, while Lieut-Colonel Campbell’s detached column (one company of the 1/KRRC with a troop of field guns and a section of anti-tank guns in support) was ordered to operate in the Musaid area, with the task of delaying any enemy advancing along the Trigh Capuzzo or the Bardia Road. That evening a battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment arrived at Salum; it was followed later by Lieutenant Shanahan’s33 troop of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, which left Mersa Matruh the same night for Salum, providing anti-tank protection to a column of the 1/Durham Light Infantry coming up to the frontier.
Of the batteries of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, the 10th and 11th Batteries had fought at Mechili and were now in Tobruk, except some sections lost at Mechili, the 9th Battery had reached Tobruk just before the Axis ring closed round it, and the 12th Battery, the last to move, had set off to make Tobruk by road but had been stopped at Salum because the road had been cut. Commanded by Major Argent,34 it had left Palestine on 5th April, drawn weapons and other equipment while at Amiriya on the 7th, departed for “Cyrenaica” on the night of the 9th, reached Mersa Matruh at 1.30 a.m. next morning and six hours later had set off for Salum. Having passed through Sidi Barrani in the early afternoon of the 10th the battery arrived at the Salum staging camp at 6.30 p.m. that evening. Major Argent at once sought out the town major who instructed him to report to Brigadier Erskine35 (commanding the 22nd Guards Brigade) at the barracks above the Salum Pass.
The battery had almost “to fight its way up the pass” against a stream of eastward-hurrying vehicles, a number with wounded aboard. Major Argent found Brigadier Erskine in conference with Brigadier Gott, who told him that the enemy had cut the road to Tobruk.36 Argent then placed himself under their orders, which were cheerful enough: that the Salum and Halfaya Passes were to be held “at all costs” for 36 hours, until units of the Guards Brigade took over the local defence.
Gott, as we saw, had conferred with Lavarack in Tobruk that morning. His forward columns were operating at that time south-west of Tobruk, in which region three enemy columns of 200 vehicles were proceeding eastwards along the Trigh Capuzzo. At nightfall, however, the head of the Axis force was still not as far east as the western fringe of the Tobruk perimeter. To have attempted to pass Argent’s battery into Tobruk next day would have been unjustifiably hazardous. By one day the battery thus failed to rejoin its regiment and its division. There was no haste to send the battery on by other means; four months later it was still on the frontier. Gott needed it there, but Morshead also needed it in Tobruk. This was only one of many examples of the Middle East Command’s tendency, which General Blamey trenchantly criticised, to allow improvised arrangements to persist and detachments to become permanencies .37
At first light on the 11th Argent’s battery headquarters and two troops (commanded by Lieutenants Rennison38 and Kinnane39) occupied positions in the Fort Capuzzo-Salum Barracks area, covering approaches to the Salum Pass, while Lieutenant Cheetham’s40 troop took up a position covering the company of the French Motor Battalion at the Halfaya Pass.
The forward elements of the two enemy columns on the Trigh Capuzzo, which had begun moving eastwards at 11.30 a.m., had a brush soon afterwards with the Support Group’s right-hand column. About midday, as we noted, another enemy force of tanks and mobile troops operating closer to Tobruk cut the Bardia Road about 8 miles east of the perimeter. By 1 p.m. the enemy columns advancing towards the frontier were almost due south of Tobruk and had crossed the Tobruk-El Adem road, whereupon (at 1.30 p.m.) Gott (as he informed Lavarack) ordered the Support Group’s columns operating outside Tobruk to come back to the frontier. General Headquarters, Middle East, then assumed command of them.
The column of the 1/Durham Light Infantry (Lieut-Colonel E. A. Arderne), with which was Lieutenant Shanahan’s anti-tank troop, reached the Halfaya Pass in the late morning. In the afternoon Colonel Arderne took command of the area above the passes. A defensive position based
on the Halfaya Pass was then organised, with one company of the Durham Light Infantry (and Lieutenant Kinnane’s troop in support) at the top of the pass. Fort Capuzzo, Fort Salum and the Salum Passes were not to be defended. The 12th Anti-Tank Battery’s positions in the Fort Capuzzo-Salum area were abandoned about 5 p.m. and the guns were then sited defensively in the coast sector two miles in rear of brigade headquarters, where the battery was joined by Lieutenant Shanahan’s troop. About 10 p.m. the withdrawn desert columns reached the top of the pass. Later “C” Troop of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment relieved Shanahan’s troop. On the succeeding two nights, Australian anti-tank guns accompanied British patrols probing forward.
When Major-General Prittwitz was killed Colonel Schwerin took over command of his group. General Rommel was at the Tobruk front on the whole of the 11th directing operations by personal order in the field. On his orders the Schwerin Group had closed the perimeter to the east blocking the coast road. In the early afternoon, when it was reported that Gott’s force was withdrawing towards the Egyptian frontier Rommel ordered the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, with reinforcements, to proceed along the main road to Bardia, which it was ordered to reach that night. He also directed that a special force be formed from units of the 15th Armoured Division, just arrived by air in the forward area, to join in the pursuit to the frontier by the inland track through El Adem.41 This force was ordered to be ready to depart by dawn on the 12th with Salum as its objective. The group comprised a motor-cycle battalion, an anti-tank battalion, and two batteries of anti-aircraft artillery (one light and one heavy). It was to be commanded by Lieut-Colonel Knabe.
The German component of the tank force that had attacked the 2/17th Battalion was the regimental headquarters and the II Battalion of the 5th Armoured Regiment, with 25 tanks. The regimental commander, Colonel Olbrich, concluded his report on this operation with the comment: “Reports given to the regiment had led it to believe that the enemy would retire immediately on the approach of German tanks.”42 The Brescia Division still held the Derna Road sector. The Fabris and Montemurro detachments had arrived – these probably provided the Italian tanks for the afternoon’s attack; but other German and Italian units had yet to arrive from Mechili.
During the 11th, further reorganisation had been proceeding within the fortress. Morshead’s headquarters issued an operation order, of which one most important paragraph laid down that each brigade on the perimeter should hold one battalion in reserve. So extensive was each brigade’s front that to hold its sector of the perimeter defences with but two forward battalions posed difficult problems for the brigade and battalion commanders, particularly in the case of the 26th Brigade. Some small alleviation was afforded by organising the dismounted troops in the 3rd Armoured Brigade into infantry units. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment provided two squadrons for this purpose and the 6th Royal Tanks and the 1/King’s Dragoon Guards one squadron each.
Of no less importance, another paragraph of this operation order decreed that active infantry patrolling should be carried out in all sectors with the utmost vigour, so inaugurating that aggressive patrolling policy pursued relentlessly throughout the siege. The garrison at once asserted
its mastery over no-man’s land during the night hours and never lost it, keeping the besiegers’ front-line infantry continually on the defensive.
Meanwhile the engineers with the three forward brigades were busy on all fronts, strengthening the perimeter defences. The 2/3rd Field Company laid more than 5,000 mines that night on the 24th Brigade front; by morning the front of the entire sector was protected by antitank obstacles. The feat was recorded in some verses written by Sapper Bingham43:–
“Dooley”44 scratched his tousled locks and racked his puzzled brain ...
Then called his long lieutenant in, to ease his mental strain.
He said “Now listen, Ray, we must strengthen all our lines
So tonight you take 9 Section and lay Five Thousand Mines;
And when you get them finished, report straight back to me
In the meantime I’ll have more work from the acting CRE.”45
When General Headquarters Middle East heard that the Bardia Road had been cut, Lieut-General Arthur Smith, Wavell’s Chief of Staff (Wavell was in Greece on this day) telegraphed Lavarack:
Am sure you will realise that enemy force astride Tobruk–Bardia road impedes reinforcement of Tobruk. Desirable if practicable it should be removed.
Another message followed suggesting that the medium and light tanks in Tobruk might be more profitably employed with Gott’s force on the frontier and that, if Lavarack agreed, they might be sent there, escorting at the same time Gott’s supply transport cut off in Tobruk. General Smith added that he realised that the man on the spot was the best judge of what was practicable.
Lavarack replied to both messages next day (12th April). He said that he fully realised the importance of reopening the road and would seize any opportunity of doing so. As for the medium tanks, the large area of the perimeter made it necessary that the defence of Tobruk should be mobile. The armoured force within Tobruk was probably less than the minimum that would be considered necessary for its defence and was subject to attrition. Two tanks had been lost in the action on the previous day.
That day General Wavell visited General Blamey at his headquarters in Greece. Wavell may have gone to this meeting with some apprehension but at its conclusion he telegraphed General Smith that Blamey had been “most helpful in every way and very sensible”. Wavell said that he had discussed with Blamey Lavarack’s request for further reinforcement of Tobruk with the remainder of the 7th Division. Blamey thought that four brigades should suffice for an active defence of Tobruk and that it would be better to strengthen the defence with infantry tanks rather than more men, keeping the rest of the 7th Division outside; if, however, Lavarack felt unhappy without further infantry reinforcement Blamey
suggested that he be given another brigade provided that it could be passed safely in and out; Blamey had also stressed that the defence should be based on mobility and counter-attack, the “outer line” being held for observation only.
The enemy’s probing thrusts at the perimeter defences during 11th April, his haste to block the garrison’s road communications with Egypt, the approach of more columns from the south-west indicated by air reconnaissance reports in the evening, the noise after dark of continued movement outside the perimeter in the south-eastern sector, and the discovery of an enemy party with engineer stores in the anti-tank ditch all seemed to point to the imminence of an assault on the fortress and to the likelihood that it would be made at first light on the 12th near the boundary of the 20th and 24th Brigades. Reports of the enemy’s activity continued to reach headquarters during the night, and General Lavarack decided that it would be prudent to move his reserve nearer to that sector. The 18th Brigade was in the Wadi Auda, near the sea west of the town. Just after 11 p.m. Lavarack ordered Brigadier Wootten to move the brigade to the junction of the El Adem and Bardia Roads in time to be ready to repel a dawn attack. The brigade embussed at 3 a.m. and was in position by first light. When the tank demonstration had been made against the 2/17th Battalion, a troop of the 3rd RHA had been sent to the threatened sector but arrived too late to be used. The importance of disposing the garrison’s anti-tank guns closer to the perimeter was then appreciated and during the night both batteries of the 3rd RHA were also moved forward.
Intent and tense, the whole garrison stood to arms as the darkness lifted next morning; but the expected attack did not develop. At dawn a gusty wind was blowing. As vision improved, the men in the 2/17th Battalion could see enemy dug in about a quarter of a mile from the perimeter in front of Balfe’s company. Seven anti-tank guns of the 3rd RHA arrived; the gunners began to dig them in near the perimeter. Enemy snipers fired at them intermittently. As the morning progressed, machine-gun and mortar fire was brought down on the battalion front and movement outside the posts became extremely dangerous. A party of men under Corporal Benson46 nevertheless went out from Post R35 to repair a gap in the wire and, lying on their backs under the fence, effected the repairs under fire while Private McKee47 covered them with his Bren gun, engaging the interfering enemy machine-guns and eventually silencing them all.
In mid-morning the 18th Brigade was withdrawn. Its forward movement, though abortive, had been a useful rehearsal and, as rehearsals do, had indicated that there was much scope for improvement in the counterattack arrangements. In particular, Lavarack came to the conclusion that the time needed to move reserve units from the Wadi Auda to a threatened
sector was too great. Accordingly he ordered Wootten to dispose his battalions in three areas: one battalion at Fort Airente, one at Fort Pilastrino and one south-east of the junction of the Bardia and El Adem Roads; in fine, one battalion astride each road giving access to the port.
It had seemed that the Axis air forces had enjoyed complete mastery of the skies since the German offensive began. The British infantry never saw a plane but presumed it enemy; they were seldom wrong. Yet the Royal Air Force, hampered both by a scarcity of aircraft and by the necessity to abandon one airfield after another during the retreat, had been striking at the enemy columns with all the force it could muster – actions which unfortunately the Allied ground troops could seldom witness. Diaries of German soldiers kept at that time did not suggest that their Luftwaffe ruled the skies but rather testified to the effectiveness of RAF efforts. On 12th April the RAF bombed and strafed a column moving round to the south of the perimeter from the Derna Road, and later bombed another of 100 vehicles on the coast road to the east. An entry in the German Africa Corps’ war diary on 14th April paid tribute to the effectiveness of the RAF’s work; it stated that the British had enjoyed absolute air superiority since the siege began.
Since the 9th Division’s arrival in Cyrenaica enemy bombing and strafing attacks of varying severity had been experienced on every day of reasonable flying weather. The very rapidity of the enemy’s advance had nevertheless prevented his giving maximum close support from the air to his ground forces; but from the 12th onward, the Tobruk defenders had to endure an increasing weight of air attack. No. 73 (Fighter) Squadron RAF (Squadron Leader Wykeham-Barnes48) and No. 6 Squadron RAF were meanwhile operating from the small Tobruk airfield at the south of the port but had only 12 Hurricanes. No replacements could be expected. Great calls, to which the response was unfailing, were made on the pilots but they were a dwindling company, operating as they often did against enemy aircraft in superior numbers.
Since 7th April there had been a considerable amount of shipping at Tobruk. The ships were there because of the steps taken to reinforce the fortress but, as we now know, the German command believed that they were standing by to evacuate the garrison. In the early afternoon of 12th April 15 dive bombers, with a fighter screen, pressed home an attack on ships in the harbour. The British anti-aircraft artillery put up a strong barrage and shot down three; the ships escaped damage. Later, an enemy aircraft crash-landed in the 2/43rd Battalion area, and the two aircrew were taken prisoner.
During the morning of 12th April, a few tanks had approached the wire in front of the 2/17th Battalion, apparently looking for gaps in the anti-tank ditch. Farther out dust clouds rising from hollows betrayed the movement of vehicles. The 1st RHA heavily shelled one concentration
for an hour and a half, three Blenheim aircraft bombed another; when the shelling stopped, many ambulances appeared and began picking up casualties. Other RAF aircraft strafed a concentration farther east, on the 24th Brigade front. An intense, hot wind then blew up and swept clouds of thick dust across the front. Under its cover, enemy infantry began to advance towards Posts R33 and R35. From Post R32 Major Loder-Symonds brought down fire upon them from both troops of “B/O” Battery, and put most of the enemy to ground about 500 yards from the wire; but after about an hour they resumed their advance. The battery shelled first their flanks and then their centre, breaking up most of the attack. Many took shelter in the anti-tank ditch but one group prepared to attack R33, and engaged in a fire fight with a section of reinforcements who had arrived in Tobruk on the preceding day. Stimulated by the good spirits of their leader Lance-Corporal Dunbar,49 the section fought back with a will and broke the attack.
Lieut-Colonel Crawford had meanwhile asked for air support. From the higher ground farther west, held by the 2/48th Battalion, about 125 vehicles could be indistinctly seen through the dust and haze to the south of Crawford’s sector. Lavarack asked the RAF to bomb this concentration. At 4 p.m. the defenders were elated to see six bombers of the RAF come over and drop their bombs on about 60 tanks and other vehicles then, in the improving visibility, clearly perceptible near the El Adem Road. The enemy infantry then retired to about 1,500 yards from the perimeter. The honours of the day had gone to the defenders, but their satisfaction was somewhat marred by news received in the evening that the enemy had occupied Bardia.
The wind ceased as the sun set, and the moon rose early, bestowing the boon of good observation on the anxious defenders. About 10 p.m. Captain Balfe saw two groups of vehicles crossing his front-29 lorries filled with troops and 12 vehicles apparently towing guns. From the artillery observation post at R32, from which Loder-Symonds had departed after directing his guns’ fire all that long summer’s day, Balfe himself directed a moonlight shoot by the British guns on the vehicles. More than 400 rounds were fired. Such was the mutual confidence and esteem that in only two days had sprung up between these Australian infantry and the British gunners supporting them.
Wavell returned from Greece on 12th April and at once turned his attention to organising the defence of Egypt against Rommel’s threat. In outline the plan was still to build up a substantial force in the area of Mersa Matruh while screening the frontier area with only light forces. At Mersa Matruh were the 7th Division (less the 18th Brigade in Tobruk), the 16th Brigade and part of the 22nd Guards Brigade. A brigade of the 4th Indian Division, from the Sudan, was to form the nucleus of the defence of the Hagamush Nullah while the Polish Brigade (like the 7th
Division, withdrawn from the expedition to Greece) was to hold the approaches to Alexandria.
In the Salum area, early on the morning of the 12th, a company of the 1/Durham Light Infantry relieved the 3/Coldstream Guards, which was then sent back to Mersa Matruh. The role given out that day to Gott’s mobile forces was to operate for as long as possible above the Halfaya–Sofafi escarpment, then delay the enemy as long as possible on the coast east of the escarpment, then withdraw to the line Buq Buq-Sofafi. They were still organised into three columns. Lieut-Colonel Campbell’s column, which was to be called “Paul”, was to operate in the Musaid area with a screen of armoured cars of the 11th Hussars; a second column, including most of the 1/KRRC was stationed on the left flank, near Sofafi; the third, with the 1/Tower Hamlets Rifles (one strong motor company), was in reserve at Buq Buq. Thus dispersed to cover several points, no part of the force could punch with any weight. This was true not only of the frontier components but of all forces west of the Nile.
Late on the night of the 12th, the 5th Battery (Major Wilson50) of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment came under the command of Support Group headquarters about four miles east of Salum, having escorted a convoy of nineteen ammunition lorries sent forward from Mersa Matruh.
General Lavarack’s command outside Tobruk had lapsed by force of circumstances. The very situation in which the forces available to defend the desert flank found themselves, strung out and passively waiting, as they were, at widely separate points along the invader’s path to the canal zone, importuned the appointment of a commander to take charge of all of them, to reconsider their deployment, especially as between Mersa Matruh and the frontier, and to inject purpose and vigour into the conduct of the defence. Wavell ordered that next day, the 13th, commencing from midnight, Major-General J. F. Evetts, then commanding the British Troops in Egypt and the 6th (British) Division (with headquarters at Maaten Baggush), should take over their command “pending the arrival of H.Q. Cyrcom” from Tobruk.
During the morning of the 12th, Lavarack’s headquarters received a message setting out the projected reorganisation of command in the Western Desert and stating that the arrangements were to take effect as from one minute after midnight on 14th April. A “Western Desert Force Headquarters” was to be reconstituted, the message said, from Headquarters of Cyrenaica Command. Pending its reconstitution General Evetts would command all the forces in the Western Desert except those at Tobruk. Tobruk was to be organised without delay as “Tobruk Fortress” under Morshead’s command. “Major-General Lavarack and Headquarters Cyrenaica Command,” continued the message, “will move to Maaten Baggush under arrangements to be made by [General Headquarters] and on arrival HQ Western Desert Force will assume command of all forces in Western Desert including Tobruk fortress in relief of General Evetts,
who will revert to the command of British Troops in Egypt” (i.e. the troops east of the eastern boundary of Western Desert Force, which was given). The message was ambiguous. What was the subject of the verb “will assume”? Was Lavarack to assume command on arrival at H.Q. Western Desert Force, or was H.Q. Western Desert Force to assume command on the arrival of Lavarack and Cyrenaica Command headquarters? Military command is exercised not by headquarters but by commanders. Perhaps the writer of the message had deliberately avoided mentioning General Lavarack by name as taking over command from General Evetts or assuming command of Western Desert Force but, if an implication that he might not do so was intended, so obliquely was it conveyed that it was missed by the recipients. Lavarack and others read the message to mean that he had been nominated to command the Western Desert Force about to be constituted, and he received congratulations from his staff and from Morshead.
Another message followed, from General Smith, which informed General Lavarack that General Wavell had discussed the defence of Tobruk with General Blamey, and told Lavarack of their views substantially in the terms of Wavell’s earlier message to Smith; namely, that four brigades should suffice for an active defence, that Wavell and Blamey preferred to keep the rest of the 7th Division in reserve and to strengthen the defence with infantry tanks and that they suggested that the “outer line” should be used mainly for observation, the defence to be based on mobility and counter-attacks. “I am therefore arranging to send 8 more ‘I’ tanks51 to you,” General Smith continued, “and hope your cruisers can operate outside under Gott.” Lavarack replied that the only chance of a successful defence lay in covering the existing obstacle while holding mobile reserves ready to counter-attack any penetrating force. A force of 12 infantry tanks in Tobruk would make it possible to dispense with some, if not all, of the cruisers but it was doubtful whether they could break out of the perimeter at present without serious loss. Unless the situation changed it would be necessary to evacuate them by sea.
Rommel’s two forward columns, the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit (in the lead) and the Knabe Group (a motor-cycle battalion with anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery), had continued their eastward advance with unexpected speed. In the early morning of 12th April, the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit had entered Bardia, which it reported unoccupied. Africa Corps headquarters received air reconnaissance reports to the effect that the British forces were very weak on the frontier and there were none behind them until far beyond Mersa Matruh. The policy prescribed by Rommel was therefore to push east with advanced columns as fast as possible to defeat in detail any British reserves being hurried forward before more substantial forces could be brought from Abyssinia or Greece; his main force would follow when the supply position could be made secure. For that it was necessary to capture Tobruk at the earliest possible moment.
On the 12th, the German commander at last received maps of the
Tobruk defences. According to Rommel’s ADC only two had been sent: one Rommel kept for himself, the other he gave to General Streich, commanding the 5th Light Division.52 These were enough, however, to enable an accurate assault plan to be made and by 13th April the Axis forces were ready to strike. The Schwerin Group was in the eastern sector, opposite the 24th Brigade. The 5th Light Division, which was to be the assault force, was disposed in the south on either side of the El Adem Road, opposite the 20th Brigade. On its left were the Ariete Division and farther left a regiment of the Trento Division around a high feature west of Ras el Medauuar, known to the Australians as “Carrier Hill”. The Brescia Division, still astride the Derna Road, completed the circuit. The plan required that the 5th Light Division should make a breach in the perimeter defences on the evening of the 13th and penetrate to the junction of the Bardia and El Adem Roads while the Brescia Division staged a demonstration in the west to pin down the forces there. In the early hours of the next morning the main force would thrust through this bridgehead to launch at dawn an attack towards the harbour.
Meanwhile the eastward thrust was being pressed towards Capuzzo. At 3 p.m. on the 13th Knabe’s most forward column skirmished with some of Colonel Campbell’s armoured cars, who took some German prisoners; from these they learnt that there was a battalion in the vicinity. At dawn, the company of Durham Light Infantry on the escarpment at Salum was withdrawn and demolitions in the pass were fired behind them. Knabe’s force soon cleared the demolitions. By noon another of Knabe’s columns, harassed by the Jock column, was deploying to assault Capuzzo. Capuzzo was captured at 2 p.m., the small British force withdrawing under fire after having oiled the wells. The Germans continued the advance in several columns. There were skirmishes along the frontier wire, where most of the enemy were turned back by Campbell’s troops, but the Salum barracks were occupied at 4 p.m. Half an hour later a German attempt to continue the advance from the barracks was halted.
General Evetts then directed the 3/Coldstream Guards to return to the frontier zone to reinforce Gott’s force and at 6 p.m. ordered General Gott to destroy the enemy in Musaid and Capuzzo in order to “restore the offensive spirit”. If Gott’s puny force had tried conclusions with its adversaries the ensuing destruction might have been not of the enemy but of itself – the Marmon-Harringtons of the 11th Hussars were no match for the well-armed German eight-wheelers – but the movement forward of the Coldstreams (they reached Sidi Barrani that night) would at least temporarily restore to something closer to parity the strength of opposing forces near the frontier. The British frontier columns’ most urgent need, however, which had been reflected in General Smith’s messages to General Lavarack, was cruiser tanks.
While on this Easter Sunday (13th April) light German forces were making their first penetrations of the Egyptian frontier, the main Axis
force before Tobruk was making its last preparations to storm the fortress. For two days the RAF had been reporting the convergence of enemy columns from Derna and Mechili on Tobruk, with numerous tanks among them, and this day Lavarack’s headquarters were receiving up-to-the-minute reports of the progress of the German advance near Salum from the gunboat Aphis, standing off shore. In the afternoon, General Headquarters informed Lavarack that the eight infantry tanks and four medium (60-pounder) guns – the garrison had no medium artillery – were being dispatched in two or three days’ time. But reports coming in from the perimeter indicated that a major attack might develop before these would arrive.
In the morning motor-cyclists, followed by a staff car, were seen out in front of the 2/17th Battalion and it appeared as if a headquarters were being set up. The anti-tank gunners engaged the staff car at extreme range and the artillery shelled the area with good effect. Soon afterwards a Heinkel aircraft made a low-level reconnaissance of this part of the perimeter. Later, enemy aircraft scattered leaflets over the fortress. These read:–
The General Officer Commanding the German forces in Libya hereby requests that the British troops occupying Tobruk surrender their arms. Single soldiers waving white handkerchiefs are not fired on. Strong German forces have already surrounded Tobruk and it is useless to try and escape. Remember Mekili. Our dive-bombers and Stukas are awaiting your ships which are lying in Tobruk.
Morshead, in a report written a few days later, commented that because of the prevailing dust and of the need to ration water for essential purposes, no white handkerchiefs were available.
Until mid-afternoon, however, the enemy appeared to be less active than usual. In both the western and the eastern sectors, single British-type trucks drove up to the perimeter. The one in the eastern sector made off when fired upon but in the western sector the 2/48th Battalion captured the vehicle, in the back of which were found two motor-cycles and an Australian and an Indian uniform. The 2/48th later took several prisoners by surprising other vehicles approaching the wire.
The Germans were not attempting to disguise their intentions. Armoured cars next probed the southern perimeter and lorries brought up troops to an assembly area some 4,000 yards out from the perimeter wire, where they dismounted and remained bunched, making no attempt at concealment until the British artillery caused them to scatter. Then very small detachments were brought forward to about 1,500 yards from the perimeter wire and there set up machine-guns, which brought fire to bear on the perimeter posts, opening up whenever movement occurred. Enemy aircraft simultaneously cruised over the perimeter, as though plotting the defences. There could be no doubt that the enemy was paying special attention to the sector held by the 2/17th Battalion. Colonel Crawford had read the signs correctly. Crawford, a solicitor by profession, was a man of suave manner which would not have suggested, if one had met him in civil life, that he would have made soldiering his hobby. Devoted pursuit of military efficiency from school days onwards had brought him at the early age of
34 to command of the Sydney University Regiment, an appointment in which he had been succeeded in 1937 by Colonel Windeyer.53 At 4 p.m. he moved his reserve company up behind Captain Balfe’s company (holding Posts R30 to R35) through which he expected the thrust to be made.
The German plan required the preliminary operation to breach the anti-tank ditch to be carried out by Lieut-Colonel Ponath’s 8th Machine Gun Battalion. This had been timed to start at 5 p.m. At that hour, heavy artillery concentrations were brought down on Balfe’s company.54 Half an hour later, heavy small-arms fire was directed across the same area, and enemy infantry with a few tanks were seen to be advancing about 500 yards from the wire; but the guns of the 1st and 107th RHA fired into their ranks with such good effect that they did not press on. After darkness fell, two or three enemy tanks cruised singly along the anti-tank ditch, possibly looking for the gap that should have been made. The imminence of a major attack was confirmed by the air force’s evening reconnaissance, which reported that there was a concentration of 300 vehicles astride the El Adem Road.
Such was the situation at Tobruk when a message was received from General Wavell, addressed to General Morshead on the eve of his assumption of command. The defence of Egypt, Wavell told Morshead, now depended largely on holding the enemy on the Tobruk front and inflicting loss on him while forces were organised in rear. “I am glad,” he continued, “that I have at this crisis such stout-hearted and magnificent troops in Tobruk. Am very heartened by what I have heard of their fighting spirit and conduct during these operations. I know I can count on you to hold Tobruk to the end. My best wishes to you all.” Although the message ended on a perhaps unduly sombre note, it was promulgated to all ranks next day, by which time the men of the garrison were confident not only that they could hold Tobruk but that the “end” would not be of the enemy’s choosing.
Wavell also reported the new organisation of command in the Western Desert to London. He said that if there were time to put the organisation into effect, he would be back to something like the situation of the previous autumn “with additional excrescence of Tobruk”. “I can see no hope,” he said, “of being able to relieve Tobruk for at least several months.”
One event that day had brought gladness to Morshead’s headquarters. Lieut-Colonel Mann, Morshead’s chief engineer officer, with his adjutant, Captain Smith, came into the perimeter at the Wadi Sehel, having travelled by foot from Derna, 100 miles distant. Lieutenant Overall, Mann’s Intelligence officer, who had travelled ahead of Mann to seek assistance, had come into the perimeter on the preceding day. Preparations had already been made to rescue them with the help of the Royal Navy. Mann attributed their safe arrival to Smith’s genius for finding water in the desert and the skilled guiding of a young Senussi through enemy positions on the perimeter.
There was a program of deep patrolling for the night of 13th April around the whole perimeter. One of these patrols, a platoon from the 2/43rd Battalion led by Lieutenant Sunter,55 had the task of locating enemy positions near the coast opposite the eastern sector and assaulting them. The patrol, wearing soft hats and sandshoes to guard against noise, intended to surprise the enemy in the Wadi Belgassem, some 2,000 yards distant from the perimeter, but were themselves surprised and caught by mortar fire and crossfire from machine-guns. Five men were lost and five badly wounded.
On the 2/17th Battalion’s front, Lieut-Colonel Crawford sent out two patrols under Lieutenant Pitman56 and Lieutenant Geikie57 to locate the positions the enemy had taken up near Post R33 during the afternoon. “No prisoners yet,” the battalion diarist noted at 9 p.m. But Pitman and Geikie each brought back a prisoner, from the German 8th Machine Gun Battalion, and also reported movement by groups of enemy right along the front of Captain Balfe’s company. Crawford warned the commander of his reserve company, Captain Wilson,58 to be ready to make a strong
counter-attack at dawn from behind Post R32 (500 yards behind the perimeter wire).
By the vigilance and aggressiveness of the defence, and by counter-patrolling, the enemy had been prevented from making much close reconnaissance. The point at which the German command decided to effect the penetration was not the best it might have chosen, if it had been permitted to learn more. The plan was laid down from maps which left much unshown. The anti-tank ditch was not continuous on the 2/17th’s front. There was no ditch from R11 to R21; but although that portion of the front gave direct access to the vital Pilastrino ridge, it lay far to the west of the El Adem Road – the axis of advance chosen by Rommel.59 In the sector chosen for the breach the ditch was continuous and for the most part about 12 feet deep, but between Posts R27 and R29 and at Post R33, it had a depth of only about 2 feet 6 inches and a bottom of solid rock. The German engineers chose to effect a crossing near R33. This again was some two miles and a half west of the El Adem Road where the break-through was to have been made, a fact that was to cause some confusion and delay later.
Before blowing a gap in the anti-tank ditch, the Germans decided to neutralise the neighbouring strongpoint, Post R33. At 11 p.m. about 30 infantrymen with two small field guns, a mortar and eight machine-guns broke through the wire, dug themselves in about 100 yards to the east of the post and brought all their weapons into action against it. But the garrison of Post R33, commanded by Lieutenant Mackell,60 a cheerful personality and an alert, determined leader, was not to be easily subdued. Mackell had guessed the Germans’ purpose and set about dislodging them. At first he returned their fire, but when that failed he took Corporal Edmondson61 and five other men to attack the enemy party at the point of the bayonet. First they headed north, away from the post, intending to take the Germans in flank, while the men in the post kept the Germans under fire. Soon the enemy turned their weapons upon them, but by sprinting in bounds Mackell managed to get his men without harm into position for an assault. Mackell later said:–
We’d arranged with them that, as we got up for the final charge, we’d shout and they would stop firing and start shouting, too. The plan worked. We charged and yelled, but for a moment or two the Germans turned everything onto us. It’s amazing that we weren’t all hit. As we ran we threw our grenades and when they burst the German fire stopped. But already Jack Edmondson had been seriously wounded by a burst from a machine-gun that had got him in the stomach, and he’d also been hit in the neck. Still he ran on, and before the Germans could open up again we were into them.
They left their guns and scattered. In their panic some actually ran slap into the barbed wire behind them and another party that was coming through the gap
turned and fled. We went for them with the bayonet. In spite of his wounds Edmondson was magnificent. As the Germans scattered, he chased them and killed at least two. By this time I was in difficulties wrestling with one German on the ground while another was coming straight for me with a pistol. I called out – “Jack” – and from about fifteen yards away Edmondson ran to help me and bayoneted both Germans. He then went on and bayoneted at least one more.62
Meanwhile the other patrol members continued the attack with the bayonet. Mackell was soon on his feet, grabbed his rifle, broke his bayonet on one German and clubbed another with the butt. Edmondson continued fighting till he could no longer stand. The seven Australians accounted for at least twelve Germans and took one prisoner; the rest fled, leaving their weapons. Sadly the men helped Edmondson back to the post. He died there in the early morning.63
Mines lifted by the Germans had been neatly stacked on either side of the intended gap, but the ditch – shallow though it was – was still unbreached. At half an hour past midnight a German tank approached, inspected it at this point and retired. Almost two hours elapsed before the enemy came back. Then (at 2.30 a.m.) about 200 infantry broke through the wire near R33 and fanned out for several hundred yards inside. Balfe called for artillery fire by Very light signal. The 1st and 107th RHA put down a heavy bombardment and the infantry in the posts joined in with their small arms. Ambulances began moving about outside the wire, but the enemy remained inside the perimeter.
The resolute action of the mere handful of men in Post R33 led by Mackell had deranged the enemy’s plans by causing him to commit to the holding of the bridgehead a substantial part of the forces intended to follow up the assault. The commander of the 5th Armoured Regiment, in a report on the operation, commented later that when the tanks assaulted only two and a half sections of the 8th Machine Gun Battalion went forward, instead of 300 men.
When Brigadier Murray had heard of the first assault on Mackell’s post, he had warned the 2/15th Battalion to hold a company ready to help the 2/17th Battalion if required. Lieut-Colonel Crawford now asked Murray for assistance and Captain Peek’s company of the 2/15th was sent to Crawford, who arranged for it to go into position in rear of Balfe’s company.
The enemy plan was simple. The 5th Armoured Regiment, with 38 tanks, was to make a deep northerly penetration from the break-in point, followed by the 8th Machine Gun Battalion. After penetrating for two miles, the leading tank battalion was to make for Tobruk while the other would “pursue the retreating enemy” westwards.
Towards 4 a.m. enemy tanks were seen in the moonlight assembling not far from the wire near the El Adem Road and were shelled, but without observed effect. About 4.45 a.m. they approached the perimeter at R41 near the El Adem Road. A contemporary German report stated
that the officer detailed to guide the 5th Armoured Regiment to the gap lost his way and led it to a point too far to the east and that the regiment had to drive back west along the ditch, thus forfeiting surprise and losing the benefit of the preliminary German bombardment. At 4.50 a.m. some 40 tanks were reported moving west from R41 along the perimeter just outside the wire. One light tank was stopped by fire from a 2/13th Battalion post.
Enemy guns began to bombard the garrison defences. The fire was largely air-burst shells from 88-mm guns, possibly the first instance in Africa of the employment of this versatile anti-aircraft weapon as field artillery. The tanks continued to skirt the perimeter and the Chestnut Troop of the 1st RHA engaged them. At 5.20 a.m. the first tanks turned and entered the perimeter through the gap near Mackell’s post and made straight for Balfe’s headquarters. There were 15 in the first wave, some of them towing anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns.
Instructions for the conduct of the defence in a tank attack had been issued at Morshead’s direction. The infantry were told to avoid attracting the tanks’ attention but to engage the following infantry when the tanks had passed. The tanks passed by the front perimeter posts and assembled almost on top of Balfe’s headquarters in R32; 15 to 20 men followed each tank or rode on it, but dropped behind once they were within the perimeter. The British artillery defensive fire had been falling just in front of the wire; the range was now shortened and fire was brought down right on Balfe’s headquarters, with excellent effect. The enemy machine-gun crews who had been riding on the tanks were mostly killed or wounded; the tanks moved on without them, while the accompanying infantry scattered and moved back towards the wire and, for the most part disorganised, were engaged from the posts. But one strong group established itself in some sangars and a ruined house behind Balfe’s headquarters, which rightly belonged to Major Goschen of the 1st RHA by virtue of prior occupation.
The tanks moved back eastwards on the Tobruk side of the wire until they were within a mile of the El Adem Road. Then they turned northeast, moved for a short time parallel to the road, and, facing northwards, halted to await the dawn about a mile and a half from “A/E” Battery of the 1st RHA Tracers from their machine-guns told the RHA where the tanks were. The gunners allowed them no peace. On the perimeter, in the meantime, the forward posts kept the perimeter gaps under steady fire, blocking the follow-up of unarmoured reinforcements, while the weapons in the second-line posts, covering the ground between, prevented the enemy from recovering the cohesion lost when the first artillery concentrations had fallen among them. How effectively the Australians used their weapons was discovered later; numerous enemy dead were found in hollows in the ground between the posts, many of them shot through the head.
As dawn came, the fire fight increased in intensity. Near Balfe’s headquarters, three German anti-tank guns and a small field-piece were brought
into action, firing behind the post. Balfe’s men engaged the crews with rifle fire; the enemy in reply turned their guns onto the post; but the Australians continued to snipe the gun crews until all were killed (Lieutenant Geikie shot four by aimed fire). Next the Germans brought up to the gap a 75-mm field-piece and some huge, long-barrelled guns – these were the 88-mm guns not yet known to the Australians; but the infantry in the posts dealt with their crews in the same manner. As the light increased, the location of enemy machine-guns within the perimeter was revealed. They were engaged and one by one subdued.
When Lavarack learned that a substantial tank penetration had occurred, he went to Morshead’s headquarters so that he could, if necessary, commit the force reserve without delay or take any other major decision that an unfavourable development of the battle might require. Earlier the cruiser tanks had been ordered to cover the approaches to Pilastrino, the infantry tanks the approaches to the El Adem-Bardia Road junction. As soon as the location of the intruding force was established, Morshead ordered the two cruiser squadrons of the 1st RTR to engage the enemy tanks at first light.
As visibility improved after first light, the British cruisers began passing across the El Adem Road and the enemy tanks could be seen in a huddle one and a half miles to the south of the guns of “A/E” Battery, which brought down concentrated fire upon them. The German tanks spread out and began to work forward in groups towards the gap between the battery’s two troops, the lighter tanks firing their guns as they went, the heavier stopping as they fired their 75’s.
In the meantime one troop of “M” Battery 3rd RHA was fighting a spirited action with its five guns on portee in the open. The troop worked round to the rear of the tanks, came up on the right flank and engaged them in a running fight, using mosquito tactics and accounting for several, but leaving two of their own guns and their portees destroyed.64
Fired at on all sides, the tanks, which had at first advanced well dispersed, tended to bunch, but continued to fight their way forward by bounds. One group would stop to fire their guns, while another moved on through them. Like a monster gathering in its haunches at each bound, the whole body of tanks thus advanced implacably and relentlessly on the guns of the Chestnut Troop of the 1st RHA The British gunners had no armour-piercing shell but their fire was effective. The foremost tanks came within 600 yards of the gun positions. At that range the 25-pounders were deadly and the gunners firing over open sights, did not relent when casualties mounted fast. In no time, five tanks were burning and one 22-ton Mark IV tank – probably the tank battalion commander’s – had its turret blown clean off. Two veered to the right to work their way round the flank only to be engaged and checked by some anti-tank guns of the 2/3rd. The II/5th Armoured Battalion, which had been leading the German advance, halted, turned its tanks round and retreated,
but ran straight into the I/5th Armoured Battalion, which was following up. There was confusion and several collisions.
The battle had reached its crisis. The penetration had not yet been contained, but the assault had been turned. To “A/E” Battery must go the main credit. For 45 minutes they had contested the seemingly relentless enemy advance, standing to their guns and proving themselves more steadfast than their enemy; the German tank crews were first to quail. The battery had one gun knocked out. In the Chestnut Troop 5 men were killed, and 3 were wounded, including both the officers at the guns. “E” Troop’s casualties were 6 killed or badly wounded, of whom only one survived.
The German tanks next turned eastwards, but ran into the fire from a section of guns of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment commanded by Sergeant Knight65 while “B/O” Battery also engaged them hotly with 25-pounders. Two guns of the 2/3rd under Sergeant Hinds66 caught them in enfilade while the RHA engaged them frontally. Both anti-tank guns opened fire simultaneously. A medium German tank was stopped. One of the antitank guns was put out of action and the gunner, Scholfield,67 killed. Hinds continued firing the other. When the tanks had passed on and the smoke and dust had cleared, there were four enemy tanks knocked out in front of Hinds’ gun.68 The Rocket Troop, in a close duel, had three guns knocked out, two tractors destroyed and many men killed. The cruisers of the 1st Royal Tanks, which had meanwhile taken up position to the east of the El Adem Road, intending to attack at sunrise with the sun behind them, then opened fire at a range of about one mile and began to close in. But there was no sun that morning, only a thick layer of cloud at 4,000 feet.
Over the whole area of the break-in, and above, the battle was now being fought with great intensity and with weapons of every calibre from rapid light automatics to field guns. Drifting smoke and dust, billowing up, showed where the ground fighting was severest. Near the perimeter gap a counter-attack was being made on the enemy in Goschen’s house while beside the El Adem Road the German tanks were being engaged simultaneously by the guns of “B/O” Battery, the 2/3rd’s anti-tank guns and the cruiser tanks. In the air above, Tobruk’s Hurricanes were fighting an unequal battle with German and Italian fighters, while anti-aircraft guns hosed their fire at the weaving aircraft. On the harbour side, the anti-aircraft gunners could hear with their instruments the approach of about 50 enemy bombers. In spectacular dog-fights above the battlefield the Hurricanes brought down four enemy planes. One Hurricane was engaged by the anti-aircraft gunners; while the pilot was frantically trying
to signal their mistake, he was surprised by an enemy aircraft and shot down.
On the perimeter the German infantry, whose task was to broaden the gap in the perimeter and secure the flanks, were for the most part scattered in hollows in the ground, making use of the cover they offered. The Australians near the gap meanwhile waged a continuous fight to recover mastery of the bridgehead. The enemy pockets close to the gap were soon subdued but groups who had penetrated in rear of the perimeter posts continued to give trouble. About the time when, some two miles within the perimeter, the two German tank battalions had been in disordered collision under the fire of “A/E” Battery’s guns, Crawford had sent two platoons to clear up the area behind Balfe’s company. Two sections, led by Sergeant McElroy,69 approached Goschen’s house under covering fire from other sections. The Germans in the house, feigning to be Australians, answered a call from Sergeant Brady,70 but shot the Australian as he approached. McElroy’s men then charged from dead ground 50 yards in front, hurling grenades as they went. Some Germans rushed out surrendering; others did not and were dispatched with the bayonet. Eighteen were captured, eighteen killed; a few escaped.
Engaged on all sides the German tanks had decided to extricate themselves; the sooner the better, it seemed. They turned and made for the gap by which they had come, harassed still by the unrelenting fire of “B/O” Battery and the 425th Battery. Now they encountered the mobile anti-tank guns of Lieutenant Hatch’s71 troop of “J” Battery, 3rd RHA, which in turn found itself surrounded by enemy infantry gathering near the tanks. But the Englishmen fought their guns, knocking out tank after tank. Next the tanks came within range of some guns of the 9th Battery, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment. Meanwhile the British cruisers were following behind the German tanks, and two infantry tanks, which had closed in on the gap, joined in the fray. The German tanks did not delay their going forth.
No less than eight tanks were knocked out there with hits from both anti-tank and field guns. Bombardier McNally’s72 and Bombardier Cousins’73 guns of the 9th Battery had a hand in this destruction. Two members of one English anti-tank gun crew were killed and one badly wounded by German machine-gun fire. The wounded man, Gunner R. Atkins, took over the gun and fired it single-handed until enemy machine-gun fire ignited his ammunition, wounding him a second time and badly disabling him. Bombardier G. T. Rudd dragged him to safety under fire.
As the tanks, much reduced in strength, approached the gap, they caught several bodies of Australians defenceless in the open while engaged in mopping-up operations, and began to force some to surrender. When
this was seen from the posts, Bren gun fire was directed at the tanks. This forced them to close up while the Australians flung themselves to earth, and compelled the German infantry who had clambered on the backs of the tanks for the return journey to jump off and take cover.
There was much confusion as the tanks made their exit – tanks and infantry pushing through the gap together. One of the tank commanders74 ruefully commented in his diary (which was afterwards captured) that their own anti-tank and 88-mm guns were almost deserted, with the crews lying silent behind them: the Italian artillery was also deserted, he said. Captain Balfe later described the scene:–
The crossing was badly churned up and the tanks raised clouds of dust as they went. In addition, there was the smoke of two tanks blazing just outside the wire.
Into this cloud of dust and smoke we fired anti-tank weapons, Brens, rifles, and mortars, and the gunners sent hundreds of shells. We shot up a lot of infantry as they tried to get past, and many, who took refuge in the anti-tank ditch, were later captured. It was all I could do to stop the troops following them outside the wire. The Germans were a rabble, but the crews of three tanks did keep their heads. They stopped at the anti-tank ditch and hitched on behind them the big guns, whose crews had been killed. They dragged these about 1,000 yards, but by then we had directed our artillery on to them. They unhitched the guns and went for their lives.75
By 7.30 a.m. the German tanks were in full retreat. Forty Ju-87 (Stuka) dive bombers then dropped out of the cloud above the harbour to bomb the town area in an attack timed to synchronise with the intended arrival there of the leading German tank battalion. The dive bombers attacked an anti-aircraft gun site, without causing serious damage; but near the gun site two men were killed and nine wounded. The Hurricanes shot down two more planes; the anti-aircraft gunners destroyed four.
Behind Goschen’s house about 100 enemy had established themselves on a reverse slope; they continued to prove troublesome after the house had been cleared. Assisted by the containing action of Peek’s company of the 2/15th, which was deployed behind, Wilson personally led a platoon from his over-worked company against this enemy group. It achieved complete success: a few Germans were killed, 75 were captured, the rest fled.
The battle was over by 8.30 a.m., but sporadic fighting continued until mid-morning in operations to clear the anti-tank ditch, to prevent the abandoned German infantry from escaping, and to locate and subdue the enemy pockets. Near “A” Company of the 2/15th Battalion, where the main battle between the field guns and the tanks had occurred, the company sergeant-major, Sergeant Robinson,76 noticed about 8.45 a.m. that, under cover from German infantry in a tank trap 700 yards from the company area, the crews of some damaged German tanks were trying to get their tanks moving. Lieutenant Yates77 with his platoon – 30 strong – was sent out to deal with the infantry pocket, Robinson acting as guide.
Yates managed to invest the position closely but was unable to subdue the enemy. Sergeant Keys78 was then sent to his assistance with two carriers taking with him two 2-inch mortars and four men from “A” Company as mortar crews. While the mortars fired on the enemy from behind a knoll, the two carriers moved to either end of the anti-tank ditch and fired into the enemy positions. Three enemy were killed, 87 captured (7 badly wounded), and numerous weapons of many varieties were taken.
The German commander’s first major operation against the fortress had ended in complete defeat. A second attack, timed to start at 6 p.m., was cancelled. The assault troops must have suffered heavy casualties in the evening attack when the British artillery fire broke up the first attempt to establish a bridgehead, for numerous ambulances were seen when the firing ceased; other casualties must have been incurred outside the perimeter that night and next day. Inside, 150 enemy dead were counted on the battlefield and 250 prisoners were taken. The garrison’s casualties were 26 killed and 64 wounded. Seventeen enemy tanks (out of 38 that went into the battle) were destroyed, two British cruisers knocked out.
General Rommel had watched the operation from close to the wire, but his signals vehicle was observed and came under artillery fire. The German commander drove off to the Ariete Division to spur them to carry out their role of exploiting the German division’s penetration. When he returned to his headquarters, it was to learn that the 5th Armoured Regiment had come back. General Streich and Colonel Olbrich (the commander of the armour) reported to Rommel and had to endure the lash of his tongue. “I was furious,” he wrote later, “particularly at the way that the tanks had left the infantry in the lurch, and ordered them forward again immediately to open up the breach in the enemy line and get the infantry out.”79 When Rommel later (on 22nd July) removed General Streich from his command, he gave as one reason that Streich had declined to take the responsibility for carrying out an order to return to the 8th Machine Gun Battalion’s assistance.
Believing that the 8th Machine Gun Battalion was still holding out, Rommel decided to attempt its rescue next day by a penetration through the western sector. He ordered the Ariete Division to move into position there in the evening. He records in his account of the campaign that, while doing so, they broke up in panic on coming under fire from the guns of the fortress: but the incident went unnoticed in Australian and British diaries.
Two comments in his published papers reveal Rommel’s opinion on why the operation failed:–
The division’s command had not mastered the art of concentrating its strength at one point, forcing a break-through, rolling up and securing the flanks on either side, and then penetrating like lightning, before the enemy has had time to react, deep into his rear. ... Had the 5th Light Division been in a position to secure its
two flanks and thus allow the artillery and the Ariete to follow through the breach, Tobruk would probably have fallen on the 14th or 15th April 1941.80
These were the tactics Rommel employed with complete success when his forces stormed and took Tobruk in the succeeding year, but not many will accept the judgment in the second sentence. The prime causes of failure were the Germans’ and Rommel’s over-confidence and their underestimation of the strength of the defence. A battle plan based on the false assumption, drawn from European experience, that opposition would collapse when the tanks broke through the perimeter went agley when that did not occur. Both senior and junior commanders lost their nerve, the force its cohesion. Colonel Olbrich wrote in his report on the operations:–
The information distributed before the action told us that the enemy was about to withdraw, his artillery was weak and his morale had become very low. ... The regiment had not the slightest idea of the well-designed and constructed defences nor of a single battery position nor of the awful number of anti-tank guns. Nor was it known that he had heavy tanks.
The whole responsibility for the miscalculation was Rommel’s, who recorded that the 5th Light Division, which was to mount the attack, was pessimistic about the plan. To form a bridgehead, roll up the flanks, hold the gap open and provide at the same time 300 men to accompany the tank penetration was a prescription that one machine-gun battalion and a company of engineers might have accomplished against cowards but not against a spirited defence.
The failure of the assault forces to reinforce the bridgehead promptly and strongly rather than the British counter-measures caused the debacle. On the British side the prompt dispatch of the tanks to meet the threat, their advantageous placing for a counter-attack on the flank, and the speed with which local counter-attacks were mounted by the battalion, company and platoon commanders were meritorious. But the victory belonged in the main to the gunners who had fought it out with the German tanks, to the Bren gunners and machine-gunners in the posts who had not been intimidated or subdued and to the patrolmen whose bayonet charges had dislodged the enemy infantry before they could consolidate. One may accept the summing up by the diarist of “B/O” Battery:
The two outstanding features of the battle were:
(i) “A/E” Battery’s tank shoot, which finally stopped the tanks.
(ii) The infantry in “D” Company remaining in their positions completely unperturbed by the tanks and then attacking the ensuing infantry, together with an excellent counter-attack by “B” Company.
General Lavarack issued an order of the day congratulating all ranks of the garrison on their stern and determined resistance. But the sweets of victory had been soured for Lavarack himself. He had received at 2.30 p.m. a personal message from Wavell which told him that arrangements had now been made for Cyrenaica Command to be merged into Western Desert Force and that on return to Egypt he would therefore resume command
of the 7th Division, less the 18th Brigade. Wavell concluded his message:–
Most grateful your invaluable services in stabilising situation in Cyrenaica.
To Lavarack, the able soldier and patriot who in peace had reached the summit of professional eminence, it must have seemed that the fates were in conspiracy to thwart his desire to exercise high military command in war. Chief of the Australian General Staff in 1939, he had been overseas when war had been declared. He had returned to Australia to learn that General E. K. Squires would replace him in that office and General Blamey would command the AIF Later he had accepted a reduction of rank from Lieut-General to Major-General to enable him to take command of an AIF division but had then been appointed to the command of not the senior division but the second to be formed. Now he had been ordered in the very hour of success to step down from an operational command of utmost responsibility.
Later, after Blamey had suggested to Lavarack that the reason for his non-appointment to the Western Desert Force command might have been his several requests for a force of two divisions to defend Tobruk, Lavarack wrote to Wavell to ask him to correct that misapprehension. Wavell replied (on 13th May 1941) that the changes in command did not reflect on Lavarack in any way whatever. He pointed out that when Tobruk had been cut off, a reorganisation of command had become necessary: the headquarters of the Western Desert Force had to be outside Tobruk, and there was sufficient staff for only one headquarters. He continued:–
While I was considering this reorganisation I visited Greece and saw General Blamey and asked him whether he recommended leaving you in command at Tobruk. He thought you would probably be better outside. I then considered you as the Commander of Western Desert Force, but decided instead to recommend Beresford-Peirse to War Office since the enemy attack might come very shortly and he had dealt with the same problem last year and knew the ground and the problem.
I can assure you that your recommendation of two divisions for the defence of Tobruk did not affect my decision; to the best of my recollection my opinion was that two divisions would be a suitable garrison if they were readily available. But I did not consider at that time that they could be spared. ...
I was very pleased with the way you handled the force at Tobruk and Gott’s force while in command
Once Tobruk had become isolated, it was clearly right to organise its defence under one headquarters and one commander. Since Morshead’s division formed the main component of the defence force, Blamey’s decision that Morshead rather than Lavarack should be given the command was both sound and proper.
There was probably a further reason not mentioned by Wavell for not appointing General Lavarack to the Western Desert Force command. It was not usual to appoint Dominion generals to senior commands of other than Dominion formations. The Middle East command structure was a segment of the British Army into which Dominion components under Dominion command were fitted. The idea of a mixed Commonwealth
force with senior commanders freely interchangeable among the high posts on a basis of experience and capability was not conceived.
Seldom are military decisions the product of only one man’s thought. But Lavarack must be given credit for several decisions for which the responsibility was his while he was in command of Cyrenaica Force at Tobruk: undertaking to defend Tobruk with the allotted force rather than recommending its withdrawal; basing the defence on the existing perimeter; organising it in depth, including the decision to construct a second line of defence (the Blue Line) with switch-lines; holding one brigade in rear as a mobile counter-attack force; and refusing to be drawn from the main task of holding Tobruk into expending his force in enterprises to open the coast road and dispatch the cruiser tanks to the frontier.
General Lavarack yielded command at Tobruk to General Morshead at 6 p.m. on 14th April and returned that night to Egypt with the headquarters of Cyrenaica Command. General Evetts continued to command the forces on the frontier and at Mersa Matruh until General Beresford-Peirse arrived.