Chapter 5: Striking Back
General Wavell’s message to General Morshead, which had sombrely told him that the defence of Egypt depended largely on holding the enemy at Tobruk, epitomised Morshead’s grave responsibility: a much heavier responsibility than a divisional commander normally bears. Usually the commander of a division in the field can refer in critical moments to his corps or army commander; likewise a corps or army commander usually shares the burden of decision on grave issues with his superiors. But Morshead, because of the very isolation his task imposed, had to bear his responsibilities alone. If a crisis arose, the decision would be his alone to take.
He had already made clear the spirit in which he would conduct the defence. On the evening before the withdrawal into Tobruk, he had called his brigadiers together. “There’ll be no Dunkirk here,” he had said. “If we should have to get out, we shall fight our way out. There is to be no surrender and no retreat.” So each unit, as it had moved into its allotted position within the perimeter had been told (and had heard with relief) that this time it would hold its ground and give the enemy no quarter.
The men under Morshead’s command numbered about 35,700, but not all of them were combatant troops. Apart from the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, the strength of the fighting units was approximately 24,000, of whom 14,270 were Australian and approximately 9,000 British. In the base area were some 5,700 British Commonwealth troops (including 547 Australian, 3,583 British and 1,579 Indian troops), 3,000 Libyan refugees organised into labour battalions and 2,780 prisoners of war. One of Morshead’s first concerns was to reduce the number of useless mouths by cutting down the personnel in the base area to what was necessary to support and service the fighting units. The reduction took place gradually, beginning with prisoners of war and surplus non-combatant people and extending to the return to Egypt of all men of the depleted 2nd Armoured Division (other than its artillery) not required to man the few tanks and armoured cars in Tobruk. To look forward momentarily: by 18th June the total strength in the base area had been reduced by one half to less than 5,700, of which some 4,400 were British Commonwealth base troops and most of the remainder Libyan refugee personnel. By 31st July the base area strength, excluding prisoners of war, was 1,397.
Morshead’s defence policy was based on four principles: that no ground should be yielded; that the garrison should dominate no-man’s land; that no effort should be spared in improving defence works and constructing new obstacles; and that the defence should be organised in the greatest depth possible, with the maximum of reserves. He insisted that no-man’s land should be patrolled in breadth and depth each night, with no exceptions. Distrusting the Italian strongpoints because they provided
so few fire-bays and enabled men to shelter without fighting, he ordered the immediate construction of additional weapon-pits, with intercommunication trenches. He pushed forward the construction of an inner second line of defence (the Blue Line). When, on General Lavarack’s departure, the 18th Brigade group came under his command, he ordered the 2/4th Field Company supporting it to start work on the Blue Line defences next day. He was continually inspecting one or other unit or formation in the fortress; often, on leaving it, he would deliver an admonition for failure to carry out his policy with the energy and thoroughness he demanded.
Apart from Colonel Lloyd, his able, thoroughly trained and quick-thinking chief staff officer – who was always at his best when the situation was most difficult – Morshead depended on his four Australian infantry brigadiers and two British artillery commanders for the execution of his policy. They served him well. All four brigade commanders had served with distinction as infantry officers in the first world war. The senior was Wootten of the 18th Brigade. A veteran of Gallipoli, Wootten had begun his career as a professional soldier, graduated at Duntroon, served both in operations and on the staff during the first world war with unusual distinction, and after the war had completed a brilliant course at Camberley. He left the army in 1923 to study law and practised between the wars as a solicitor, but returned to active service as C.O. of the 2/2nd Battalion when the Second AIF was formed. Becoming corpulent in middle age, he exhibited nevertheless an active mind and naturally well balanced judgment, and carried the burdens of command with ease. Already, as brigadier, he had one successful operation to his credit – the capture of Giarabub. Brigadier Murray, who commanded the 20th Brigade, was a different personality. A genial temperament endeared him alike to his commanders and his staff; his outstanding characteristic was his straightforward, unqualified loyalty to all who worked with him Where Wootten was solid, Murray was imaginative; he abounded with suggestions which Morshead, however, sometimes regarded as ill-conceived. Brigadier Tovell, commanding the 26th Brigade, had been a brigade major when the first war ended. He was a hard-working commander, with a sense of humour, who took a friendly interest in his officers and men and was generally liked, but lacked the streak of ruthlessness common to most successful commanders. A chartered accountant in civilian life, he had made soldiering his hobby between the wars. Brigadier Godfrey, the most recently appointed of the brigadiers, who commanded the 24th Brigade, was also a first war veteran and keen peace-time civilian soldier. Godfrey believed in his soldierly mission and imparted his enthusiasm to his men. As a battalion commander in the 6th Division in the attacks on Bardia and Tobruk, he had won a reputation for moving with the troops in the front of the fighting.
Morshead’s field and anti-aircraft artillery commanders, both British regular soldiers, were able, technically proficient and zealous. They represented the very best of the British military tradition. Brigadier Thompson,
who commanded the field and anti-tank artillery, at once displayed his capability by the excellence of his dispositions and arrangements, which assured that the guns of the fortress were used to maximum efficiency. Foreseeing from the beginning that the field artillery would be the garrison’s main defence against the tank, he insisted that the guns should be sited to carry out an anti-tank role to best effect. Gunpits were made large and shallow, sacrificing some protection to enable quick traverse and assure an unobstructed field of fire in all directions.
The forty-eight 25-pounder guns of the Royal Horse Artillery regiments and the twelve 18-pounders1 and twelve 4.5-inch howitzers of the 51st Field Regiment were organised into three groups, with zones of primary responsibility corresponding to the three brigade sectors. In the central (or southern) sector held by the 20th Brigade, whence artillery support could be given not only to the front but also to the more vulnerable zones of the brigades on either flank, the 107th RHA was superimposed on the 1st RHA to form a tactical group of 32 guns. The 51st Field Regiment was in direct support of the 26th Brigade in the west, the 104th RHA of the 24th Brigade in the east. The guns were mainly deployed at the escarpment below Pilastrino and near Sidi Mahmud. This organisation and deployment had the advantage of giving the greatest possible protection to the commanding Pilastrino ridge. Also it enabled the fire of the maximum number of guns to be concentrated on any part of the front while permitting some to be moved to any threatened sector without unduly weakening the front as a whole.
Brigadier Slater,2 who commanded the 24 heavy and 60 light guns (of which 4 heavy and 43 light guns were captured Italian equipment) of the garrison’s anti-aircraft defences, proved himself to be an officer of exceptional determination, energy and originality, qualities he was soon required to exercise to the full in protecting the port against the air strikes the RAF could do so little to oppose.
For the time being the supply situation was good but ahead lay the prospect of a long siege. Two months had been specified as the minimum period before a relief could be effected; it was clear that the fortress would have to depend for provisions on the navy. The naval officer-in-charge, Captain Smith,3 brought to his task an ability and a devotion typifying the highest traditions of the Royal Navy. Such was his enthusiasm that during the siege, as Admiral Cunningham has told, he declined the offer of a command of a ship to remain in charge at Tobruk.4 The Naval Inshore Squadron, which Admiral Cunningham had constituted during General Wavell’s first offensive to act in support of the army and to control the ports of the North African coast, was now based on Tobruk and operated a variety of small ships – gunboats, minesweepers, armed boarding vessels,
sloops, trawlers, whalers and others. Henceforward their main but by no means only task would be the formidable one of bringing to Tobruk across sea-ways dominated by a hostile air force all the munitions and supplies necessary for its garrison’s survival.
The victory of 14th April brought congratulations to the fortress commander and the garrison from the British Prime Minister. Mr Churchill asked General Wavell to convey the War Cabinet’s congratulations to all engaged in the fight. He went on to say that the War Cabinet regarded it as vital that Tobruk should be regarded as a sally-port. “Can you not find good troops who are without transport to help hold the perimeter,” he asked, “thus freeing at least one, if not two, Australian brigade groups to act as general fortress reserve and potential striking force?” Wavell, hard pressed to find sufficient forces to guard his western flank, ignored the question but conveyed the British Prime Minister’s congratulations to Morshead in a message in which he suggested that the enemy’s discomfiture might provide an opportunity for a counter-stroke. Morshead had Churchill’s congratulations promulgated to all ranks
General Rommel, as we saw in the last chapter, had intended to renew the assault on the garrison on the 15th by attacking in the west. He had ordered the Ariete Division into position south of Ras el Medauuar on the 14th, but under British artillery fire they had streamed back from the ground to be occupied.
The hill Ras el Medauuar Rommel was planning to take stood in the centre of the front of the 2/48th Battalion commanded by Lieut-Colonel Windeyer. Windeyer was a Sydney barrister, lecturer, and author of works on legal history and practice, who combined eminence in his chosen profession with intense interest in soldiering. His deliberative speech and contemplative manner, unusual in a military leader, masked a competent and determined personality. As already mentioned he was a product of the Sydney University Regiment in which he had risen by 1937 to command. He gained his first appointment to the AIF in May 1940 by stepping back a rank but was soon seconded from his battalion to join the original staff of the 7th Division. Two months later he had been promoted to command the 2/48th, which was being raised in South Australia. It was not usual at that time for an infantry C.O. to be brought in from another State, but Windeyer quickly won the South Australians’ confidence, and later their affection. General Rommel was soon to rue the consequences of his vigorous and imaginative defence.
Soon after dawn on the 15th, an enemy party appeared in the west just in front of the 2/48th and only about 150 yards from the wire. They were driven back by Bren gun fire. Throughout the morning group after group of infantry, each group seeming larger than the last, approached the perimeter; each as it came into view through the dancing mirage, was in turn halted by the guns of the 51st Field Regiment. All appeared to be Italian. By midday the front was quiet.
The Australians had noticed that many of the enemy had sought refuge from the gunfire in a wadi on the escarpment some three-quarters of a
mile from the perimeter. Windeyer sent out a patrol from his reserve company to mop them up. It was commanded by Lieutenant Jenkins,5 who took 22 men out towards the wadi while the gunners harassed the Italians to compel them to keep their heads down. About 1,000 yards from the wire Jenkins’ patrol surprised an enemy party, threw grenades into their midst, charged with the bayonet and captured an Italian officer and 74 men.
No sooner had Jenkins’ patrol returned than an attack threatened against the 2/24th Battalion (commanded by Major Tasker) and the right flank of Windeyer’s battalion. About 5.30 p.m. Italian infantry numbering about 1,000 advanced on the wire against the left company of the 2/24th and the right platoon of the 2/48th. Some of the enemy penetrated the wire on the front of the 2/24th Battalion and one post was overrun. Brigadier Tovell arranged with Lieut-Colonel Evans6 to send his “A” Company of the 2/23rd Battalion to counter-attack. Meanwhile the 2/24th was regaining control of the situation by keeping those who had penetrated pinned to the ground by automatic fire. The company of the 2/23rd on arrival counter-attacked the few still holding out. By 6.15 p.m. there were no enemy inside the wire, except those who had been captured; these numbered 113 and included two officers. It was estimated (in the divisional Intelligence summary) that about 250 men had been killed; perhaps an over-estimate, but the execution done by both shell fire and automatics on bunched groups of enemy in the open had been very great.
As darkness fell the enemy was again massing and bringing up guns, this time farther to the left, on the 20th Brigade front. An attack was expected but did not develop. It seemed that Rommel still hoped to take Tobruk by a quick assault. “My plan now,” he wrote later in his memoirs, “was to take the hill, Ras el Medauuar, using elements of the Ariete and Trento and several German companies attacking under strong artillery support.”
While on this moonlight night of 15th April the Tobruk garrison was making ready to repel the expected German thrust against the 20th Brigade, four British destroyers which had left Malta at 6 p.m. were steaming at speed towards the Kerkennah Islands. On the morning of the 16th, two hours after midnight, they intercepted an Italian convoy of five merchant vessels, escorted by three destroyers, bound for Africa. The entire convoy and its escort were sunk. An important part of its cargo had been much of the transport and heavy equipment required for the German 15th Armoured Division, some of the lighter elements of which, it will be recalled, had already arrived and been sent to the Salum front. Since Wavell’s ability to defend the British base in the Middle East depended on his assembling reinforcements before his adversary could muster strength to strike, the Royal Navy’s effective intervention was invaluable.
If the British command was apprehensive of a further German advance at the frontier, General Rommel soon became no less apprehensive of the possibility of British counter-action; not without reason, for his frontier force, though more than a match for any Jock column, was weaker than the British, except in armoured cars. The Knabe Group comprised a reconnaissance battalion (3rd Reconnaissance Unit), a motor-cycle battalion, a battalion of anti-tank artillery and a light anti-aircraft battery; it was reinforced by a mixed Italian detachment (Montemurro Unit) brought across from Bardia.
Providentially the Germans did not attempt to force the Halfaya position after Salum fell. Knabe’s “further task” – advance to Mersa Matruh – was cancelled and on the 14th – the day on which the tank attack on Tobruk was launched – the force went over to the defensive. The result of the attack did not encourage General Rommel or Colonel Herff – who assumed the frontier command that day – to take new risks. When the Royal Navy’s Inshore Squadron bombarded Bardia, the town was evacuated, much to Rommel’s annoyance, who ordered its reoccupation “without fail” when he visited the front a few days later. So well did British patrols evince the offensive spirit that General Evetts had enjoined, so many losses did they inflict on the garrison at Salum, that it was mostly withdrawn, only a small permanent patrol remaining.
Early on the morning of the 16th a message from General Headquarters at Cairo was received at Morshead’s headquarters to the effect that the enemy was planning a large-scale attack by air and land against Tobruk that day. This prediction seemed to be confirmed by markings found on a map captured from the enemy during the attack on the preceding afternoon, and also by the enemy’s subsequent concentration of force against the 20th Brigade. Morshead ordered a general stand-to of the whole garrison, including the base troops. Throughout that long day they stood to arms; but as the forenoon dragged on to afternoon, the enemy remained strangely quiet.
Each brigade sent out patrols beyond the wire to see if anything was afoot. In the east a patrol from the 2/43rd Battalion led by Corporal Joy7 shot up two enemy parties, which then made off. In the southern sector, a patrol from the 2/13th Battalion sent out in the morning to investigate across the whole front of the battalion was chased home by enemy tanks, but not before it had captured a prisoner. A 2/17th Battalion patrol in the early afternoon attacked and routed the occupants of an enemy post, but machine-gun fire brought down from the flanks, which forced the patrol to withdraw, left no doubt that the enemy was now well entrenched in that sector.
Neither in the south nor in the east did an attack appear to be imminent. It was in the west that signs of trouble brewing were first observed. There the morning, though quiet, had not been uneventful. Patrols were sent out from the 2/24th and 2/48th Battalions to collect war material abandoned
by the enemy in their flight on the previous evening. One, under Lieutenant Wardle,8 attacked a party of Italians in a wadi. After one enemy had been killed, the rest numbering 97, surrendered, and were shepherded inside the wire. Patrols from the 2/24th meanwhile had been equally active; one took 6 officers and 57 men prisoner, another captured a Breda machine-gun and 8 prisoners. It was good hunting. Colonel Windeyer sent out more patrols from the 2/48th, including one in the late evening of three carriers which that morning had been made available to him from the 2/23rd Battalion. The carriers discovered an enemy battalion approaching from Acroma and were just in time to warn a patrol from “B” Company, who were making straight for them. Both patrols returned and gave warning of the enemy’s approach.
The enemy battalion deployed for attack in front of “B” Company, but heavy shelling from the 51st Field Regiment made them scatter in disorder. The guns then lifted and put down a heavy curtain of fire behind them, while “B” Company kept them under small-arms fire. As the enemy went to ground, 12 tanks were revealed in rear; these were also shelled and chose to scatter. Lieutenant Isaksson9 was then sent out with a section of Bren gun carriers to work round the enemy’s flank, an operation which, with the assistance of a platoon of “B” Company, was accomplished with remarkable success. The complete force was captured and the men of the 2/48th on the perimeter were presented with (to quote the battalion’s diarist)
the ludicrous sight of a battalion of infantry being herded like so many sheep through a gap in the wire into our hands.
A crew member of one of the carriers afterwards described the action.
As we drove out they put up a few shots (said Private Daniels10), but we kept our Brens and anti-tank rifles spraying them. When we got near they stopped firing. One carrier went round each flank and one ran straight through the middle of them. We fired over their heads; they dropped their rifles and machine-guns, waved white handkerchiefs, and put up their hands. As we drove through they began marching towards our wire, leaving all their gear on the ground.11
As the Italians moved in towards the perimeter, four of the tanks came forward. A “few spiteful rounds”, which appeared to the Australians to come from the enemy tanks, were then fired into the Italian infantry. The Australian carriers were also engaged. But retaliatory gunfire from the British artillery quickly put an end to the enemy’s shooting; his fire had, however, caused several casualties among the Italians and wounded two Australians of the 2/48th Battalion, one mortally. These were the only garrison casualties in the action. The 2/48th Battalion’s “bag” for the day was 803 prisoners, including one German officer and 25 Italian officers. In the next divisional Intelligence summary the following entry appeared in the section dealing with identification of enemy units:–
1 Bn 62 Regt – Trento Div – Completely captured.
Interrogation of the prisoners revealed that they were underfed and very thirsty. The object of their operation had been to seize a road junction behind Ras el Medauuar. They were to be supported, they said, by a group of tanks of the 5th Armoured Regiment: but the coordination was apparently faulty despite the attachment of a German liaison officer to the Italian unit, for the prisoners complained that the German tanks did not arrive according to plan. Most of those captured were confused about their objectives.
The Italians may have been in error in believing that they would be supported by the 5th Armoured Regiment, for the only tanks engaged in the operation appear to have been their own. General Rommel reports that he launched the armoured battalion of the Ariete (6 medium and 12 light tanks) against Hill 187 in conjunction with an attack by the Italian infantry. He accompanied the attack on its left flank. The Italians drove to the highest point of 187 and halted.12 There they were shelled and retired in confusion to a wadi. Meanwhile one of Rommel’s staff officers reported that the Italian infantry attack had broken up into a wild rout to the west. On returning the same officer had fired on a British “scout car” herding a company of Italians, intending to give the Italians a chance of escape, and had later shot up some British Bren gun carriers with three anti-tank guns placed at his disposal by Rommel
Many Italian prisoners did not conceal their dislike of their German allies. Perhaps they were the more inclined to make it known because they believed that the German tanks had failed to participate in the operation except to fire at them when the battle was lost. One senior Italian officer collaborated in the composition of a leaflet in Italian to be scattered from aircraft over the enemy lines. The leaflet, which was dispersed next day, read as follows:
Soldiers of Italy!
Old companions in arms, a return to peaceful and happy times can be quickly brought about. Throughout all Africa your comrades have ceased fire, in Abyssinia the war is over. The Duke of Aosta’s emissary has come to our Headquarters for armistice preliminaries. Yesterday thousands of your comrades were captured at Tobruk; greater sacrifices on your part would be useless. All captured Italian soldiers have been accorded friendly treatment.
End it all: still greater losses can be avoided.
When General Wavell was informed of the day’s operations, he sent General Morshead a personal message:–
Well done indeed. Keep at it. Will support boldest action.
Wavell followed up his congratulations with a further message on the 17th stating that the recent events indicated the need for a counter-stroke in force from Tobruk. Such an operation, if successful, would place the German forces at Salum in a dangerous position and might cause the entire enemy plan to collapse. The opportunity for a counter-stroke might not return. He asked Morshead to submit proposals. But Morshead declined
to be drawn; his main present anxiety was to find sufficient forces to maintain adequate reserves while manning a system of defences more than 30 miles in length. In one respect the strength of Morshead’s reserves had just been substantially increased. The additional tanks promised by Major-General Arthur Smith had arrived on the 16th by sea: 12 infantry tanks, with a squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment to man them.
Heavy shelling on the western sector throughout the night of 16th–17th April suggested that another attack might be developing. Once more the garrison made ready to rebuff the attackers. To augment his reserves Morshead ordered the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, which had been employed on the construction of second-line field works, to resume an infantry role. But he did not repeat the stand-to order. There was a growing confidence in the garrison’s ability to repel whatever assault the enemy might make.
It was again in the western sector, and against the 2/48th Battalion, that the next enemy thrust was made. At 10 a.m. (17th April), enemy were observed massing on the right of Ras el Medauuar; much motor transport was seen including some vehicles which, through the mirage, looked like tanks.
The enemy shelled first the left flank of the battalion, then the right flank, then the high ground in the centre, where the main artillery observation post was situated; the post had to be evacuated. Well-concealed machine-guns and mortars raked the entire area of the centre company with fire, the heaviest the unit had experienced. Meanwhile enemy troops dismounted from the vehicles and, soon after midday, came forward to attack along the whole front of Captain Tucker’s13 company in the centre. The attacking force appeared to comprise two companies in line abreast with two following; behind them again were some 15 to 20 vehicles, armed with machine-guns and carrying troops. Tanks appeared and rumbled forward through the advancing infantry. They crossed the minefield, which did not operate, presumably having been disarmed by the enemy during the night. Some tanks were held up at the perimeter but at 1 p.m. six managed to break through the wire near Post R2. Coming round the back of Ras el Medauuar, they surprised the crew of an anti-tank gun, who when fired upon made off in a 15-cwt truck.
After the Easter battle the garrison had adopted a firm policy for the conduct of the forward infantry in tank attacks: the infantry were to keep under cover in their posts till the tanks passed, then deal with the following enemy infantry. Tucker’s company employed these tactics; but the enemy infantry assault petered out under the British field-gun fire. Meanwhile the tanks – mainly Italian light tanks – circled the old fort at Ras el Medauuar as though their intention was to subdue the defenders while their infantry who should have been following were coming forward; but when the tanks came under the anti-tank gun fire of Sergeant Bettsworth and later of Bombardier Lane of “J” Battery, 3rd RHA, they pushed on into the reserve company area. Brigadier Tovell then asked divisional
headquarters for armoured assistance and seven cruiser tanks were sent forward. Before these arrived some of the Italian tanks had been put out of action by anti-tank rifle and gun fire; the cruisers on arrival dispatched others. In all five Italian tanks (including one medium tank) were captured; only one of those that penetrated the perimeter escaped; four others were abandoned in enemy territory.
Meanwhile the enemy infantry and some less adventurous tanks clung to the ground where their advance had been halted by the defenders’ artillery fire, as though not daring to risk an assault nor willing to withdraw. They remained just outside the wire, whence the artillery was unable to dislodge them before nightfall. Colonel Windeyer proposed that a counter-attack be made but this was not acceded to. The commanding officer of the 51st Field Regiment, Lieut-Colonel J. S. Douglas, was wounded in the action. Two prisoners captured from one of the tanks disclosed that the enemy intention had been to take “B” Company’s area (Ras el Medauuar) at all costs, but not an inch of ground had been yielded.
In the evening there was another alarm on the south side of the perimeter, where 12 tanks were reported. The cruisers manned by the 1st Royal Tank Regiment responded quickly to their second call of the day. Three enemy tanks were knocked out without loss in a running fight across the perimeter wire.
After dark a patrol under Warrant-Officer Noble14 went out from the 2/48th to investigate a truck abandoned by the enemy after it had been stopped by fire from an anti-tank rifle. Behind the truck they found an anti-tank gun on a trailer and brought it in: an important capture, for it proved to be a new type of weapon and was subsequently flown to England.
Engineers of the 2/13th Field Company went out after dark in front of the 2/48th Battalion and attempted to investigate whether the minefield in front of the wire had been interfered with by the enemy, but were prevented by heavy enemy mortar fire. They laid a new minefield in the wire in and around the gaps made by the passage of the enemy tanks. The afternoon’s demonstration of the unreliability of the existing minefields had provided a useful warning. New mines were laid and many mines in the existing fields later converted to hair-trigger detonation.
General Rommel stated in his account of the operations of the 17th that the Italian armour, which was led by a German staff officer, had advanced in front of the infantry contrary to orders. Later these tanks were mistaken by Rommel for British tanks and engaged by his order with anti-tank gun fire. He contended that two were hit. Apparently the Italian armoured division had suffered wastage on a comparable scale to the 2nd British Armoured Division, for according to Rommel the Ariete Division had on this day 10 tanks left out of 100 with which they had begun the offensive, notwithstanding that, until the last two days, they had seen little action.
Rommel was beginning to feel the stress of his extended line of communications.
His force had been issued with transport only on the scale laid down for operations in Europe, but had to transport its main supplies from Tripoli, some 900 miles from Tobruk, until the port of Benghazi could be put into working order. British air attacks on supply columns, carried out on an ever-increasing scale, were causing mounting losses. Ammunition had not at first been a problem, for little had been expended in the initial advance; but if operations were to be continued on the recent scale replenishment would be difficult.
The supply problem was not the only factor indicative of the need to adopt a conservative policy; another was the resilience of the Tobruk defence. As Rommel wrote later:
It was now finally clear that there was no hope of doing anything against the enemy defences with the forces we had, largely because of the poor state of training and useless equipment of the Italian troops. I decided to break off the attack until the arrival of more troops.15
It must indeed have already been clear that the brunt of any future thrust would have to be borne by German troops, of which there were, at the time, only about 32,000 in Africa. Not only were they burdened with a maintenance problem of unusual severity; there was both a frontier to be held and a siege to be maintained. It is not surprising that Rommel decided to await the arrival of the remainder of the 15th Armoured Division, which had been delayed as a result of the British destroyer action on the 16th and was now due to arrive about the middle of May. In the meantime, moreover, the Italian Supreme Command had made representations to the German High Command that, before the advance into Egypt was continued, a halt should be called to provide time for reinforcement, reorganisation and the building up of supplies. The German High Command had replied that Hitler was in agreement with the Italian views: the most important requirement was that the supply lines should be secured against British attacks; in particular it was essential to capture Tobruk. That interchange of views had not yet been communicated to Rommel.
By comparison with the last few eventful days, but not by any other standard, 18th April was quiet. At dawn enemy tanks and other armed vehicles were still just outside the wire in front of the 2/48th whence they opened fire on any movement within range. Their purpose was apparently to cover the withdrawal of their own infantry. The latter had spent an uneasy night close to the perimeter where they had been forced to ground the previous evening, but were now retiring to about a mile distant. During the morning, however, new concentrations of enemy infantry were seen gathering to the west of Ras el Medauuar; these made half-hearted attempts to push in on the right flank and centre of the 2/48th Battalion. Artillery fire from the 51st Field Regiment quickly checked them and threw the assault parties into confusion. The enemy then brought up mortars and field guns with which he subjected the area to heavy shelling; an artillery observation officer and six members of a party of
Australian stretcher bearers were either killed or mortally wounded by the fire.
Another attack was thought to be imminent Morshead directed that a counter-attack should be prepared, to be mounted by a company of one of the battalions of the fortress reserve, the 2/12th, supported by Bren gun carriers and tanks of the 3rd and 5th Hussars; but reconnaissance showed that the tanks and carriers would have to file across the wire and minefields through narrow gaps exposed to intense shelling at short range. The operation was therefore cancelled. No enemy attack developed.
The next two days-19th and 20th April – produced no alarms. It was apparent that the first rounds in the battle for Tobruk had been won by the defenders. The enemy had not abandoned his intention to take Tobruk by storm, but he had at least been compelled to pause.
The diminution in the scale and strength of enemy ground operations had enabled specialist and other reserve troops to be released from emergency defensive roles for other tasks. Work on the Blue Line, the second line of defence, was again pushed forward. The mining of the line was completed on the 19th though many positions had yet to be dug. The engineers were also busy preparing demolitions for all plants and wells within the perimeter against the possibility of an enemy break-through.
Meanwhile Morshead was reorganising his forces to augment his reserves. The 18th Cavalry Regiment was placed under Brigadier Tovell’s command and relieved the 2/24th Battalion in the sector near the coast, where the defensive positions were set into the eastern walls of the Wadi Sehel. The sector astride the Derna Road, from the head of the Wadi Sehel to the top of the escarpment south of the road was taken over by the 2/23rd Battalion. The 2/24th Battalion moved into reserve. Simultaneously Morshead directed that an infantry company be organised from members of the Australian Army Service Corps and that arrangements should be made for it to take over the perimeter near the coast in the eastern sector, on the edge of the Wadi Zeitun which, like the Wadi Sehel, provided a formidable natural defensive system. This would free the 2/43rd Battalion for reserve duties in the 24th Brigade.
When these arrangements had been made, each of the three forward brigades would have one complete infantry battalion in reserve, while the divisional reserve would still comprise three infantry battalions and one pioneer battalion; of the eleven infantry battalions only five would be on the perimeter. Defence in depth was the fundamental principle of Morshead’s holding policy. He told his brigadiers that if they represented to him that they lacked confidence in their ability to hold the perimeter with the forces allotted to them for that purpose, his reply would be to require them to keep in reserve even more of their strength.
A complete reorganisation of the garrison’s armour was also effected. The squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, which had arrived on the 16th, took over the four infantry tanks already in Tobruk from the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, the personnel of which were then sent out by sea. The tanks were now organised into three homogeneous units. The 3rd
Hussars took the light tanks; the 1st Royal Tank Regiment took over the cruisers (of which about 15 were operational) and organised them into two squadrons; the squadron of the 7th RTR, which had been kept under direct operational control of armoured brigade headquarters, was given the 16 infantry (heavy) tanks. Colonel Birks,16 who arrived in Tobruk on the 18th, took over command of the brigade from Lieut-Colonel Drew. Morshead quickly formed a high opinion of Birks ability.
Most heartening to Morshead was the sure evidence both from prisoners’ statements and from captured diaries that the enemy morale was very low. This was true of the Germans no less than of the Italians. Many prisoners taken were very hungry; some spoke, perhaps with exaggeration, of being without rations for days. One German diary captured at this time contained the following entry:–
They already have a lot of dead and wounded in the 3rd Company. It is very distressing. In their camp faces are very pale and all eyes are downcast. Their nerves are taut to breaking point.
On the other hand the spirit of the defenders, stimulated by repeated successes, could not have been better. Morshead, though never lavish with praise, knew the value of well-earned commendation for sustaining morale; he wrote to Lieut-Colonel Windeyer on the 19th: –
My compliments to you and your battalion on the splendid show which you have put up all the week. That you have stood so firm and been so resolute has been of the utmost importance and does you all the greatest credit.
A feature of those early days of the siege was the bold action of the artillery observation officers. No day went past but that one or other, or several, did not issue forth from the perimeter with no greater escort than two or three Bren gun carriers, sometimes with no escort at all, to shoot up enemy concentrations and gun positions.
There had been little activity at the frontier. The Support Group had been reorganised into four columns – Beam, Nire, Paul and Unor – later to become the 7th Support Group (Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division). They were not armoured columns but merely roving batteries of field guns protected by about a company of motor infantry and one or two anti-tank guns. The strategy of their employment was to keep as many enemy forces as possible tied down to tasks of local defence.
The lack of tanks confronted the British command with a difficult problem in deciding what forces to commit on the frontier and how much to hold behind the prepared defences at Mersa Matruh (where Lieut-Colonel R. F. Monaghan, commanding officer of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, was in charge of the plans for anti-tank defence). The static front was held with two battalions forward: the 3/Coldstream Guards on the right, the 1/Durham Light Infantry on the left, with left flank resting on the top of the Halfaya Pass. When the 3/Coldstream Guards first took over part of the front, the anti-tank guns of both the 5th Battery of the 2/2nd
Anti-Tank Regiment and the 12th Battery of the 2/3rd were under Major Argent’s command. He disposed them across the front of both battalions, except for two guns sited for defence in depth. Next day, however, the 5th Battery (Major Wilson) was withdrawn and except for one troop and one section came under the direct command of Headquarters 22nd Guards Brigade. Wilson’s battery was then re-deployed for defence in depth, its guns being sited in seven different localities from near Salum to Sidi Barrani. Those of Argent’s battery were redisposed with the forward battalions. “K” Troop and two guns of “J” Troop were placed across the front of the Coldstream Guards, the other two guns of “J” Troop near the Halfaya Pass turn-off. On the left of the line, but with no dishonour, were the four guns of “L” Troop: three at the top of the pass, one a third of the way down. Each day one gun was pushed out forward of the pass-head, coming back at night for close defence.
On 19th April General Rommel paid a visit to the frontier, saw for himself the tactical importance of the Salum–Sofafi escarpment and noted that the British hold on the pass and escarpment was precarious. He found the impulse to exploit such patent weakness irrepressible, forthwith reinforced the advanced force with a battery of medium artillery and issued an order to the Trento Division to move forward from the region of Acroma to Bardia on the 23rd.
Meanwhile the British Intelligence service had discovered that elements of the 15th Armoured Division were on the frontier. The units identified were the light units of the division that had preceded the main body to Africa and had later been incorporated in Colonel Knabe’s force; that the rest would soon follow, if not already present, had to be assumed. Wavell regarded the prospect with some alarm, all the more so when it was discovered that the 15th was to be a complete armoured division and not, as had been previously thought, a “colonial” or light division with a reduced scale of armament like the 5th Light Division, the first sent to Africa. Wavell believed that a complete division contained about 400 tanks and in 1939 and 1940 this had been so. In France in 1940, however, the 400-tank division had proved impossible to control in battle and the Germans abandoned their light tanks and drastically reduced the establishment of their armoured divisions. On the 20th, in two messages to London setting out the situation in general outline and in detail, he appealed to the Chief of the General Staff to lend his personal assistance in meeting the threat. The future outlook, he said, would be one of anxiety for some time, because of his weakness in tanks, especially cruiser tanks. He had only one weak mixed tank unit in Tobruk and one squadron of cruisers at Mersa Matruh while his opponent probably had 150 tanks, of which half were medium, in the fighting line in Cyrenaica. The best he could hope for by the end of the month was two weak tank regiments, one of cruisers and one of infantry tanks, each less a squadron. Even by the end of May only two regiments were in sight, with no reserves to replace casualties, whereas there were now in Egypt “an excellent personnel for six tank regiments”. The provision of cruiser tanks in addition
to infantry tanks was vital, since infantry tanks lacked speed and the radius of action required for desert operations.
The gravity of the situation emphasised by these messages stirred the British Prime Minister to quick action. They reached him at a weekend retreat on the morning of Sunday, 20th April.
On reading these alarming messages (he wrote afterwards) I resolved not to be governed any longer by the Admiralty reluctance, but to send a convoy through the Mediterranean direct to Alexandria carrying all the tanks which General Wavell needed.17
A convoy containing large armoured reinforcements was on the point of departure for the Middle East by the Cape. Churchill decided that the fast, tank-carrying ships in the convoy should turn off at Gibraltar and make straight for Alexandria through the Mediterranean, thus saving 40 days. At once he sent General Sir Hastings Ismay,18 his chief staff officer, to London with a message calling the Chiefs of Staff to a conference at noon next day (Monday, 21st April) to arrange the details. The fate of
the war in the Middle East, Churchill stated in the message, might turn on a few hundred armoured vehicles.
They must if possible be carried there at all costs. ... General Wavell’s telegram shows that machines, not men, are needed. The risk of losing the vehicles, or part of them, must be accepted. Even if half got through, the situation would be restored. The five MT ships carry 250 tanks, all but fourteen of which are “I” tanks. Every endeavour should be made to increase the numbers of cruiser tanks in this consignment. ... The Admiralty and Air Ministry will consider and prepare this day a plan for carrying this vital convoy through the Mediterranean. Of course we must accept the risk, and no guarantee can be expected. ... Speed is vital. Every day’s delay must be avoided. Let me have a time-table of what is possible, observing that at 16 knots the distance is only about eight days – say, ten – from the date of sailing, viz., April 23. This would give General Wavell effective support during the first week in May.19
At the conference on the morrow, the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound, lent his support to the proposal to send the tanks through the Mediterranean. Churchill wanted to add two more ships to the convoy to carry 100 additional cruiser tanks, but met with opposition from the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir John Dill, who was concerned over the shortage for home defence. Eventually it was decided to add one additional ship containing 67 of the latest cruiser tanks, making a total to be transported through the Mediterranean of 295 tanks. The operation was called “Tiger”.20
While the Chiefs of Staff were debating these measures in London, the overburdened General Wavell was in Greece, where resistance to the German advance was on the point of collapse. It was on the same day that Wavell decided to re-embark as much of the British force as could be got away.
General Rommel had meanwhile received the memorandum of the German High Command advocating the early reduction of Tobruk. On 20th April he directed that preparations be put in hand for a large-scale attack, using all available formations simultaneously along the whole front; but in reporting to the high command, he stated that an attack on the scale required, in view of the strength of the fortifications, could not take place until the arrival of the main body of the 15th Armoured Division. He deprecated suggestions that Italian reinforcements should be sent for this purpose. They had proved themselves unreliable; better use could be made of the available shipping. His most urgent need was reinforcement in the air to counter British sea and air attacks on Axis supplies.
General Morshead had taken advantage of the enemy’s recent quietness to plan an offensive counter-stroke. Three raids designed to unsettle the besiegers and if possible capture a substantial number of them were to be mounted simultaneously. The most important was to be carried out by the 2/48th Battalion. Ras el Medauuar, that high point more than 600 feet above sea-level towards which the boundary wire in the 2/48th Battalion’s sector swept upwards from west and north, was a commanding feature but was very vulnerable. At a distance of not much more than 1,000 yards from the perimeter, there was a small hill, known as Carrier Hill (because there was a derelict carrier on its slopes), from which most of the western plateau within the perimeter, except the portion lying behind Ras el Medauuar, could be observed; it provided a constant threat to the defenders for, small though it was, and more the sky-line crest of a long feature stretching some way back than the isolated hillock it appeared, still there was sufficient dead ground there to conceal an assault force close to the defences. For that reason Lieut-Colonel Windeyer had made sure that it was regularly and vigorously patrolled, hoping thus to prevent its occupation. But on the 20th a carrier patrol scouting in that direction was seen to turn about very quickly when about 2,000 yards out. It reported on its return that a substantial infantry force was dug in behind the hill, with about 40 vehicles and 4 tanks. A battery of 75-mm guns was also known to be there.
Morshead decided to raid the locality with the object of capturing its garrison and destroying the guns. Two other large-scale raids were to be mounted simultaneously on either flank; on the right by the 2/23rd Battalion, with the object of capturing enemy located in wadis close to where the Derna Road entered the perimeter, and on the left by the 2/17th in the southern sector, where the plan was to attack an enemy field artillery battery and destroy the guns.
Reconnaissances and final preparations were made on the 21st. The raid on Carrier Hill was to be undertaken by “C” Company (Captain Forbes21) of the 2/48th, Windeyer’s reserve company, with five carriers of the 2/48th, three infantry tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment, and four 2-pounder anti-tank guns of “M” Battery of the 3rd RHA There
were, of course, arrangements for support from the ever-reliable field artillery. A forward observation officer from the 51st Field Regiment was to accompany the raiders; but there was to be no artillery preparation lest the enemy might be forewarned. The plan included protection by fighter aircraft and the use of a low-flying Lysander to drown the noise of the approaching carriers and tanks.
At 6.40 a.m. on the 22nd the raiders set off. Captain Forbes, a strong, spare, red-headed schoolteacher from Adelaide, God-fearing but fearless of the King’s enemies, led the attack in person, at first in a carrier and then on foot. The operation went according to plan, except that the tanks moved too fast for the infantry and lost contact. The tanks moved out, the carriers and then the infantry followed and the anti-tank guns brought up the rear. The enemy put down a heavy artillery barrage when he saw the raiders debouch, but the force moved out under perfect control; every man got through the wire. An hour later the tanks and the carriers had reached the far side of Carrier Hill. The following infantry heard them engaging the enemy to the east. The carriers, under Sergeant Batty,22 rejoined the infantry as they were coming up to the rising ground on the hill’s south side, and described the enemy positions to Captain Forbes. Ordering the carriers to approach the enemy battery from the rear Forbes took two of his platoons, commanded by Lieutenant Jenkins and Lieutenant Kimber,23 out to the left in a wide arc to outflank the battery from the south-west while Lieutenant Wardle’s platoon swung out to the right to come in on the other flank. The two parties closed in on either side in line abreast.
When the Australian infantry suddenly appeared on each side from dead ground, the Italian battery, which had been endeavouring to engage the tanks, was taken completely by surprise. The leading infantry charged it with the bayonet while others engaged in a fire fight with the Italian garrison. Batty’s carriers circled the position at a range of less than 50 yards, directing intense and accurate fire at the enemy gun crews.
For a short time the Italians stood to their positions and engaged the Australians with infantry weapons at short range but could not halt them, and the sight of the assaulting infantry coming forward with fixed bayonets
soon proved too much for the Italians. Generally they surrendered though isolated pockets continued to resist. Sergeant Batty’s carrier was engaging one of these when it received a direct hit from an anti-tank shell. Batty was wounded. His gunner, Private Daniels, engaged the enemy from the ground until he too was wounded. The driver, Private Spavin,24 then took over and kept the enemy at bay until help arrived.
An hour later the entire Italian garrison had been rounded up and were on their way to Tobruk. The Italian prisoners numbered 368, of whom 16 were officers. These included the major part of the Fabris Battalion, which had been in the van of the advance on Mechili. The booty included four 20-mm anti-tank guns, machine-guns, motor transport, motor cycles – and gun-sights, much needed by the bush artillery. Unfortunately the guns from which the sights were taken were not destroyed, though grenades were exploded inside the barrels. Maps and instructions were captured which indicated that the enemy intended to make renewed efforts to subdue the fortress. The only material loss by the attackers was an anti-tank gun and portee which ran onto an enemy minefield. The 2/48th Battalion, whose casualties were two killed and seven wounded, one mortally, had good reason to be satisfied.
Scarcely less success attended the raid executed simultaneously by the 2/23rd Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Evans). It was also of company strength and was commanded by Captain Rattray. Rattray divided his company into two forces, intending that they should advance by approximately parallel routes and if possible link up after taking their first objectives. Captain Barlow, of Mechili fame, was to take out two troops of the 18th Indian Cavalry about three miles to protect Rattray’s right flank.
Rattray personally led the party on the right. Protected on the open flank by a platoon from “A” Company, it advanced along a wadi that led westward from the perimeter. The enemy held strong positions at the head of the wadi from which intense machine-gun fire was brought to bear on the advancing Australians. Rattray was forced to take cover in a side wadi. The enemy heavily shelled and mortared it. Rattray then decided to leave the wadi and attack across the open plateau, boldly
risking the exposure involved. As the Australians appeared over the skyline, the Italians turned their guns upon them; but spirited attacks with bayonet and grenade, one by two sections at the head of the main wadi, the other by one section at the head of the side wadi, carried the raiders right into the Italian sangars, where the occupants received them waving white handkerchiefs. Rattray’s party next strove to advance southwards to converge from a flank on the enemy opposed to the left party, but intense fire from both flanks on the bare, flat ground made a further advance impracticable. Rattray returned with 40 prisoners.
Meanwhile Lieutenant Hutchinson,25 commanding the left-hand party, was having a hard fight Advancing south of the Derna Road the party assaulted an anti-tank/anti-aircraft battery, behind which were two batteries of field guns. The enemy held his fire until the leading platoon, commanded by Lieutenant James,26 was within 500 yards. Then all weapons – field guns, anti-aircraft guns, machine-guns and mortars – brought down a concentrated fire. James and his men were on an open slope. Hutchinson, seeing the danger, led his reserve of two sections round the flank, while four carriers, who were protecting that flank, joined in the assault. The infantry advanced in bounds to within throwing distance of the enemy sangars, hurled in grenades, then charged with the bayonet. The Italian defenders ran out with their hands up and were dispatched to the perimeter, a move executed by them with a good turn of speed.
Although the anti-aircraft battery had been captured, Hutchinson’s men were being subjected to heavy fire at point-blank range from field guns behind the battery position and from the infantry protecting the guns. The fighting strength of Hutchinson’s force had been almost halved, but he pushed on up the wadi towards the guns, hoping to link up with Rattray’s party on the way. The carriers, more exposed, came bravely with them. Fifty yards from the battery, Hutchinson put his patrol to ground and taking one man, Lance-Corporal Crummey,27 with him, charged the nearest gun. The crew fled; but Crummey was shot as he was throwing a grenade. It exploded, killing Crummey and wounding Hutchinson so badly in the leg that he could not move. Meanwhile the carriers were coming under heavy fire. Two were hit and set afire; two others broke down. But with exemplary discipline the crews dismounted with their weapons to give covering fire as the infantry withdrew. Other carriers took wounded back to the perimeter. One returned for more.
Four hours after Hutchinson’s party sallied forth that morning, those who were left returned to the perimeter. Eighty per cent had become casualties: 24, including Hutchinson and James, did not return, 22 of those who did had been wounded.28 But much had been accomplished. A prisoner captured later in that area said that of his company of 100
men only 10 had remained after the raid. In mid-morning a carrier patrol was sent out from the 18th Cavalry to see how the besieging force had reacted to the raids; it patrolled westwards for seven miles along the coast and found no sign of the enemy. Rattray’s and Hutchinson’s patrols captured 87 men (including 2 officers), 3 anti-aircraft guns, 5 machine-guns and 4 mortars.
The third sortie on the 22nd, by the 20th Brigade in the southern sector, was unsuccessful. The plan was to attack and destroy a battery of enemy field guns with a mixed force of an infantry company (from the 2/17th Battalion), a squadron of cruiser tanks, two troops of light tanks and a company of the 2/1st Pioneers, supported by a battery of the 1st RHA The force set off before dawn, but when daylight came found itself under heavy fire from three sides. It was compelled to withdraw. One light tank was knocked out by a well-concealed anti-tank gun. With the help of gunfire, skilfully directed by Major Goschen, the withdrawal was executed with little loss.
Next day the men in Tobruk heard the German radio’s account of their exploits. “Yesterday morning,” said the announcer, “the British force besieged in Tobruk made a desperate attack, which was repulsed with terrific loss of men and material, while our own force is still complete.” The Axis forces surrounding Tobruk probably derived no less amusement than the defenders from this announcement. Rommel, at least, was in no doubt concerning who had suffered the losses. He saw for himself, as appears from the following account written by his ADC:
A report had come in that the Australians in the sector facing the Italians had been feverishly active during the night. Rommel wanted a precise picture of the situation, and so went to see in person. As we approached the sector, we thought it completely calm and were ready to conclude that the reports of enemy activity overnight had been, as so often before, exaggerated by our Allies. Even the enemy artillery in Tobruk seemed quiet. But the puzzle was soon solved: we found not a single Italian in the whole sector, barring a few isolated artillery batteries in rear, entirely unprotected by infantry. We peered cautiously over a rise and were met by the sight of hundreds of discarded sun-helmets gaily decorated with multi-coloured cock’s feathers – Bersaglieri helmets. Otherwise, not a thing. It dawned on us that the Australians must have “collected” the entire battalion of our Allies during the night.
Rommel hurriedly ordered up a scratch assortment of troops from Acroma to act as a stop-gap in the denuded sector. Then he issued a sharp order, afterwards much discussed and disputed in high Italian circles, to the effect that he would, in future, expect the immediate execution of officers showing cowardice in the face of the enemy.29
Rommel, as appears from his own account, at first feared a British thrust towards his rear. He alerted the 15th Armoured Division, part of which had now arrived in the operational area, and ordered it to occupy a position on the coast road 18 miles west of Tobruk, with a detachment east of Acroma. To replace the Fabris Battalion opposite Medauuar, he detached a battalion from the Trento Division, which had been under orders to move to the frontier. Rommel was anxious to regain the initiative
there and now ordered the rest of that division to proceed. As soon as possible after their arrival an attack was to be mounted in the Salum area. The object was, by inflicting a severe defeat on the British frontier force, to set free some of the German forces there for the intended assault on Tobruk. Colonel von Herff, who had succeeded Colonel Knabe as commander in that region, was to have charge of the operation.
At the frontier the 22nd Guards Brigade group was now entrenched in the Halfaya position and the four columns of Brigadier Gott’s mobile force of about one battalion group with supporting arms were operating from Halfaya, Sofafi, Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani. The more forward columns, while not seeking close battle, were exploiting their mobility to harass the enemy whenever they could catch him unawares. On the 23rd, a strong raid on German transport between Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz executed by armoured cars of the 11th Hussars with support from other arms caused Herff to believe that an attempt was being made either to cut the main coast road behind the enemy forward troops or to take them in rear: so he informed Rommel. A further message to Rommel’s headquarters next morning, in which Herff reported that the previous evening’s “attack on Capuzzo” had been repulsed and that Sidi Azeiz was still in German hands inevitably gave Rommel an exaggerated idea of the magnitude of the British operation.
Characteristically Rommel’s reaction was to order his own planned offensive to be carried out as soon as practicable, but it is clear that he shared Herff’s apprehensions. He reported to the German Army Command on the 24th that the situation was becoming more serious every day at Bardia and Tobruk. If Bardia and Salum were lost or cut off, the struggle for Tobruk would have to be abandoned. The only solution to the problem was to send in German reinforcements and replenishments by air, to reinforce the air force, and to use U-boats between Salum and Tobruk. This communication must have given considerable concern to the German Army Command, who had already become apprehensive of the situation in Africa. On the preceding day, the 23rd, General Halder had noted in his diary that he had a feeling that things in Africa were in a mess; air transport could not keep up with Rommel’s senseless demands. The army command decided to send to Africa a senior general – General von Paulus – with instructions to ascertain and examine Rommel’s intentions, report on the situation, and consider what action should be taken should Salum be lost. He was also to explain to Rommel and impress upon him the limitations on the resources that could be sent to him Paulus had been chief of staff to the Sixth German Army, which had fought against the BEF during the German offensive in western Europe.
It is a part of generalship to preach the virtues of offensive action; it is the prerogative of the private soldier, when called upon to practise the virtues, to receive such excellent exhortations with scepticism. But it would be hard to find a more convincing demonstration of the advantages a weak force may sometimes win for itself by a display of aggression than the German reaction to Gott’s and Morshead’s raids. At a time when
Wavell, dangerously inferior in armoured strength, was scraping the barrel to find forces for blocking the way into Egypt, when the security of the Tobruk fortress itself rested on never so slender a margin, when the British frontier forces, lacking armour, were powerless to inflict severe injury on their adversaries, when in truth Rommel had no cause (if he had but known all the facts) to fear what the British might attempt, a few raids with limited local aims had instilled unease, apprehension, and anxiety for the immediate future into all levels of the German staff, from the frontier of Egypt to the headquarters of the High Command in Germany.
In the week following the raids on the 22nd, while the main preoccupation of the British command in the Middle East was the evacuation of the force in Greece, the garrison of Tobruk concerned itself with strengthening its defences against a renewed onslaught, which documents captured in the most recent raid confirmed to be in course of preparation. It was anticipated that the assault would be made as soon as the 15th Armoured Division had arrived at the front. A substantial portion of the division was known to have disembarked between 12th and 15th April. It was believed, as Wavell told the British Chiefs of Staff, that its transfer to Africa would have been completed by 21st April, except for losses sustained in crossing the Mediterranean. Wavell now estimated that the Axis commander would be able to bring into the battle by the middle of June two German divisions (the 15th Armoured and the 5th Light) and the Italian Ariete and Trento Divisions. The Tiger convoy with Wavell’s tank reinforcements was due in Alexandria in mid-May. Thus each side’s armoured reinforcements were likely to reach the front about the same time. But Wavell was careful to point out to the Chiefs of Staff that the enemy might well improve on that estimate of his capabilities. Moreover Morshead was warned that another German armoured division might be expected to appear before Tobruk about 1st May,30 a prediction which, if made more out of caution than in accordance with expectations, was nevertheless to prove extraordinarily accurate. Morshead in turn, having been so warned, planned to be ready to meet an assault several days earlier.
It was in armour principally that Morshead was outmatched. With few tanks and few anti-tank guns, minefields would inevitably constitute the main defence against an armoured penetration. The Easter battle had revealed serious weaknesses in the anti-tank defence. The anti-tank ditch was the only effective obstacle to tanks, but even where it was effective it could be breached; minefields forward of the perimeter could be lifted in preliminary operations. What was needed was anti-tank defence in depth to check the impetus of an assault after the first penetration.
Two measures were immediately put in hand. Minefields outside the perimeter were lifted and re-laid in the wire in front of the posts; more important a system of inner minefields was planned to a design which would confine the forward and lateral movement of an armoured penetration
in any sector, boxing the tanks in between the perimeter (the Red Line of defences) and the second line of defence (the Blue Line). Since it was adjudged that the vulnerable but dominant Ras el Medauuar sector would be the point of assault (though in fact Rommel’s intention so far had been to attack along the whole front) priority was given to laying the first inner minefield behind Ras el Medauuar. The 2/7th Field Company began laying the field on the 20th. Morshead directed that the work should be pushed ahead with all speed both on this minefield and on the Blue Line defences behind it; the work was to be completed in readiness to meet an enemy attack on the sector by the 27th. Confirmation, though not needed, of the wisdom of this policy was provided on the 25th when the enemy made two obvious attempts to explode the minefield near the El Adem Road in front of the 2/13th Battalion, one by a bombing attack from the air, one by shelling from tanks; the Chestnut Troop of the 1st RHA engaged the tanks with customary accuracy, forcing them to withdraw.
Morshead’s other great weakness was in the air. Although Rommel was calling for air reinforcements, the Tobruk defenders were aware only of a growing strength and intensity of air attack, which was directed primarily at shipping in the harbour; though dive-bombing and machine-gunning attacks on the combatant troops were also becoming more frequent. In a raid on the harbour on the 21st by a force of 24 bombers escorted by 21 fighters, the quay was hit, two ships were sunk and two were put out of action. It was little consolation for such severe losses that the few Hurricanes of Nos. 73 and 274 Squadrons intervened with great success and shot down four enemy aircraft. Morshead called a conference next day to devise counter-measures, attended by his commander of antiaircraft artillery, Brigadier Slater, and by the two senior RAF commanders. Slater, who had been intensely studying the problem, proposed to change the method of fighting the heavy anti-aircraft guns from predictor laying on individual machines to an umbrella barrage. This was agreed to. It was also decided to form the nucleus of an observation corps, with three observation posts in a wireless network, to combat dive-bombing attacks on the forward troops.
On the next day, the 23rd, air activity was almost continuous and more ships were hit. Three of the garrison’s dwindling force of aircraft were shot down, and two were damaged. But Slater had the satisfaction of knowing that his umbrella barrage plan had greatly increased the effectiveness of the defence. Of 13 aircraft that raided the harbour and landing ground, 6 were brought down.
The comparative peace on the land front in the past few days was broken by an Axis assault on the western defences at dawn on 24th April. It followed what was becoming a set pattern. At the end of the morning stand-to, as soon as it was light, the fiercest artillery barrage the defenders had yet known rained down upon the forward posts in the western sector between Ras el Medauuar and the Derna Road. About 7 a.m. large bodies of infantry were observed about 1,000 yards from the wire advancing
as usual in the close formation that some Axis commanders at this stage of the war seemed to favour for its very boldness, but which British teaching forbade because of the target wantonly offered to field artillery. The British field gunners and machine-gunners and – as the attackers closed in – the Australian infantry in the perimeter posts, firing their light automatics, made the most of the opportunity presented.
The enemy made two main thrusts. One, on the right, came in upon Captain Spier’s company of the 2/23rd Battalion holding ground above the Derna Road on its southern side. About 600 men were involved. When the first British artillery concentrations fell, the enemy fanned out, went to ground and began moving forward in waves and bounds. The artillery replied with sweep and search fire. Some enemy doubled forward to escape it, worked around the left flank where there was some cover and made for home. The rest were pinned to the ground. Fire from the forward posts quickly checked each attempt at forward movement. By 8 a.m. the enemy advance had been completely thwarted. Soon the 2/23rd mortar platoon under Sergeant Lazer31 came into action to engage enemy pockets; those that remained began to withdraw in small groups. Spier sent out two patrols, and each returned with a few prisoners. The last glimpse of the enemy was of a group of stragglers observed retreating hurriedly over the sky-line at 9.45 a.m.
The thrust on the left, which came in over the northern shoulder of Ras el Medauuar, was made across more exposed ground. There, during the night, “C” Company of the 2/48th had moved up from the reserve position to relieve “B” Company on the perimeter. Under cover of darkness and a dawn artillery bombardment about a battalion of enemy infantry appeared before the wire opposite Posts S1 and S3, which were occupied by a platoon under Lieutenant Kimber. About a company established itself in the perimeter wire between the two posts.32 Kimber’s posts were brought under fire but returned it with all weapons while from behind the artillery joined in the deadly work. A fire fight on such terms was all the defenders could have wished for. After about 20 minutes there was a fluttering of white flags, which appeared to have become standard battle equipment of the Italian infantry at Tobruk. Kimber, who had had previous experience of mustering on the battlefield, lost no time in sending out one of his sections. They brought in 107 prisoners, including two officers and several Germans; in addition the Italians left some 40 dead on the battlefield.
As though to show their Italian allies how it should be done, some 30 or 40 Germans made a further thrust about midday to the south of Ras el Medauuar between Posts R3 and R5, this time against Major Loughrey’s company. Fire from the posts forced them to ground about 300 yards from the wire. A patrol was sent out and in a brief running fight as the enemy withdrew several Germans were killed, and seven,
including an officer, were captured. This brought the total “bag” for the day to 5 officers (of whom two were German) and 125 other ranks.
Not only did these operations, small though they were, and with limited aims, provide one more success to sustain the garrison’s high confidence: they also provided useful information to British Intelligence of enemy build-up in the Tobruk area. From the prisoners it was established that a battalion of the Trento Division had replaced the Fabris unit in the west and that the 19th and 20th Regiments of the Brescia Division (less one battalion still at Tripoli) were on the west side of Tobruk. More ominous, an infantry regiment, an artillery battery and a company of engineers of the German 15th Armoured Division were identified and found to be already in the Tobruk area.
Although the enemy’s operations on the 24th were repulsed, they caused renewed anxiety that he might be concentrating against the Medauuar sector. Early on the morning of the 25th Lieut-Colonel Windeyer sent a carrier patrol to the Carrier Hill area to see if the cover of this feature was being used to conceal hostile preparations, but the patrol reported that the area had not been reoccupied after the raid on the 22nd.
Morshead was concerned lest recent successes should lead to complacency. He warned his commanders that continued vigilance was vital and stressed that work on the defences must be pushed forward. A long instruction on defensive arrangements and defects was issued from his headquarters on the 25th. “It must be impressed on all,” it stated, “that future attacks are certain to be carried out with extensive artillery preparation and air attack.” On no account must there be any pause in the task of improving the defences. Every day and night, if possible, must be utilised, and every available man. Units on the Red, Blue, and Green Lines were to develop them to their utmost capacity.
It was laborious work. In most places, rock was encountered under a shallow sub-soil; compressors were few and explosives scarce; for the infantry it was a labour of hacking out rock with pick and shovel. For this reason, although the main positions constructed by the engineers with mechanical aids and explosives were satisfactory, communication trenches dug by the infantry were often so shallow that commanders regarded them with dismay.
On 25th April the defenders scored another success in the struggle to dominate the western approaches to the perimeter. A series of daylight patrol actions by the 2/23rd Battalion dislodged the enemy from outposts near the Derna Road. The object of Lieut-Colonel Evans’ patrolling policy was to keep the enemy at a distance of about 3,500 yards from the perimeter, for he feared that a closer investment would gravely prejudice his battalion’s security. The terrain in front of the sector it held was rugged – deep wadis cut across the coastal plain on the right of the road while two irregular escarpments rose in tiers above it on the left – and would afford ample cover to an enemy in possession of it to concentrate forces for an attack.
From various reports, including observations made by the 18th Indian
Cavalry patrols, Evans had been led to believe that on his front the enemy had established two forward posts, containing anti-aircraft guns. One was about 2,000 yards from the perimeter – at the head of a wadi that led in towards the perimeter north of the coast road; the other was on a high feature about 1,000 yards farther north. These were on his right flank across the Wadi Sehel. To the left (south) of the road, enemy had also been observed working forward and apparently laying telephone lines. About noon, taking advantage of the midday mirage, a reconnaissance patrol from “B” Company was sent out to locate the posts north of the road and find whether they were occupied. The more northerly of the reported posts was found to be deserted, but on reaching the other – at the head of the wadi – the patrol surprised a platoon of Germans digging defences. In a short encounter one German was killed and one Australian wounded. The Australian patrol scattered and withdrew.
Evans then ordered an immediate attack on the post by a fighting patrol from “B” Company while simultaneously “A” Company on their left was to search the ground south of the road with patrols along the line of each escarpment. At 3.45 p.m. Lieutenant Gardiner,33 in command of “B” Company’s fighting patrol, crossed the perimeter wire with 22 infantrymen and a section of mortars and began climbing the wadi. It took the mortar-men 45 minutes to manhandle their weapon and ammunition to within range of the post. By the time Gardiner arrived the enemy was withdrawing and had laid down a screen of artillery and machine-gun fire right across the front. Meanwhile two patrols from “A” Company were going out along the two escarpments south of the main road. The patrol along the southerly or higher escarpment captured an enemy officer and a sergeant; the one along the lower escarpment brought in 30 of the enemy, some ammunition and some medical equipment, and located in a wadi about a dozen enemy vehicles loaded with ammunition. That night and the next Evans sent out patrols to the trucks: they destroyed eleven on the first night and brought in the twelfth on the next. The 18th Cavalry also sent out a deep patrol on the night of the 25th, which captured 33 Italians, including an officer, in a wadi near the coast more than 4,500 yards out from the perimeter.
While the garrison’s hold on its ground was becoming stronger every day, one aspect of the defence arrangements was not improving and was causing Morshead much disquiet. On the 24th he sent a signal to Western Desert Force headquarters pointing to the increase in enemy air activity. He stated that, if it continued unchecked, the use of the harbour would be restricted, and asked for information of the RAF’s counter-offensive plan. As No. 204 Fighter Wing lost aircraft through combat or otherwise, the losses were no longer being replaced; the loss of three aircraft on the 23rd forced the issue and provoked an unpleasant decision. On 25th April, the RAF Command decided to withdraw the fighter wing with its two remaining Hurricanes from Tobruk. Only two Lysanders of the
army-cooperation squadron were to remain. Morshead caused a message to be sent to RAF Command pointing out that without fighter support it would be impossible to direct artillery shoots from the air with the Lysanders; the garrison’s artillery would thus be rendered vulnerable to enemy counter-battery action. To General Beresford-Peirse he signalled that he viewed the change in policy with the gravest concern. It would affect morale more quickly than anything else and give the enemy aircraft greater freedom to operate against both the troops and the port. He most strongly urged that despite the risks at least one squadron should be stationed in Tobruk. Beresford-Peirse replied that the decision, taken by both Commanders-in-Chief, though deplorable from Morshead’s point of view, was a hard necessity, occasioned by the shortage of aircraft. For all fighter duties, including Tobruk, only 13 Hurricanes were available. To put them into Tobruk would merely be to lose them. Until the fighter strength increased, the Tobruk airfield could not be maintained. Despite this uncompromising reply, however, one flight of Hurricanes was allowed to remain for the time being for reconnaissance.
The 26th April was a very quiet day because a khamsin blew up, reducing visibility along the front to about 300 yards. Meanwhile the engineers were working feverishly to complete their tasks in readiness for the expected attack, which divisional headquarters thought the enemy might launch by the 27th. In the western sector two sections of the 2/13th Field Company were laying “hair-trigger” anti-personnel mines in both the perimeter wire and the post wire while the remainder toiled to complete the inner B1 minefield behind Ras el Medauuar.
The morning of the 27th brought a revival of the khamsin, but the wind abated as the day progressed. The improvement in visibility brought a severe attack by 24 dive bombers on the heavy anti-aircraft guns near the harbour. One aircraft was shot down but four guns were temporarily put out of action. The anti-aircraft artillery suffered almost 50 casualties. Six men were killed; two died later of wounds.
Brigadier Slater investigated the action. He found that first an attack had been made by numerous high-level bombers (Ju-88’s) with fighter escort to draw the fire of the heavy anti-aircraft guns. Then 50 dive bombers attacked the guns, at least 12 to each site.34 In some cases their approach was not seen, for they came out of the sun. At two of the gun sites attacked, “porcupine” formation was adopted – all guns pointing outwards and firing at over 65 degrees elevation – and the guns continued firing throughout the attack. At these two sites the damage was not great; one man was killed, one wounded. At the other two sites the personnel took cover after the first bomb had fallen; at one of them the approach of the dive bombers had not been seen. At these sites there were 46 casualties, including 5 killed, 4 guns were put out of action for 48 hours and other serious damage was done. It was a hard, bitter teaching of the lesson that the greatest safety for the gun crews lay in fighting their guns. To remain exposed, to quell the instinct to take cover from dive-bombing
or machine-gunning attacks, required high courage and iron nerves. In the last 20 days of April the harbour guns engaged 386 dive bombers in 21 actions. Frequent exposure to such great strain inevitably took its toll. Yet, though the nerve of some inevitably succumbed, the anti-aircraft regiments won the battle of morale. They continued fighting with all guns.
But it was not enough to draw the lesson that the guns must never fail to fight back. If each site were to use its guns for its own protection, this form of attack, Slater apprehended, could nullify the harbour barrage, and that, just at the time when fighter protection was being withdrawn; for on the afternoon that this raid had taken place all fighter aircraft in Tobruk except those required for reconnaissance had left the El Gubbi aerodrome to fly back to Egypt. There was only one possible answer to the problem: to deprive the enemy of the foreknowledge that enabled him to plan such attacks, to deceive him by camouflage, concealment, the construction of dummy positions and frequent changes of the defensive layout. Slater immediately took counter-measures for this purpose. A camouflage officer was appointed to the anti-aircraft brigade. Work was started at once on the construction of alternative gun-sites. Dummy sites were erected close to real sites and much ingenuity and effort applied to making them realistic. As well as the dummy guns, these sites were provided with dummy men, vehicles, tracks and dumps. During air raids explosives were fired to simulate gun-flashes and stir up dust in them as in real sites. At the same time existing sites, which the raid on the 27th had shown to be inadequately protected, were counter-sunk and strengthened. These measures were to prove effective; in future raids enemy dive-bomber pilots attacking the guns divided their attentions impartially between the real and dummy sites: never again were casualties inflicted on a comparable scale.
The respite from major operations at Tobruk was like a spell of fair weather between storms. There were signs, however, that it would not hold; air reports showed that the enemy was gathering strength around the fortress. But it was on the frontier that the first turbulence occurred. From interrogations of British prisoners captured in the raids in the Capuzzo area on 23rd and 24th April, the German Africa Corps headquarters inferred that the purpose of the raids had been to break the Axis grip on Tobruk by an encircling attack on Capuzzo. Rommel, as we saw, had ordered the Herff Group to take the offensive on the frontier as soon as the battalion from the Trento Division arrived. In the early afternoon of the 25th a German force attacked Brigadier Gott’s covering forces around Capuzzo. The British withdrew towards Halfaya, held by the 1/Durham Light Infantry at the top of the pass and the 3/Coldstream Guards at its foot, with the 2/Scots Guards in reserve.
On the 25th Lieutenant Thomas35 of the 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment, with four guns of that regiment, took charge of the anti-tank defence on the Coldstream Guards front. Lieutenant Scanlon’s36 troop (2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment),
part of Lieutenant Cheetham’s troop (2/3rd) and a section of “B” Troop (2/2nd) were with the Durham Light Infantry; “K” Troop (Lieutenant Rennison) was with Beam column. Although the forward infantry were to stand their ground if attacked, the over-all plan was to withdraw them if hard pressed, for which eventuality code words were ready.
The pass was bombed and machine-gunned on the evening of the 25th and on the 26th Herff’s force launched an attack against it. The ensconced infantry held to their positions, but their front was narrow and lacked flank protection. Enemy infiltrating along the escarpment threatened to outflank them. The anti-tank gunners of the 12th Battery took part in the battle in an infantry-gun role, using high-explosive shell. Sergeant Templeman’s37 gun registered a direct hit on an enemy field gun as it was coming into action.
After dark the withdrawal plan was put into effect and the code words issued. The 2/Scots Guards established a delaying line from Buq Buq to Alam el Dab, two miles west of Sidi Barrani, through which the forward battalions withdrew. The 12th Battery guns covered the withdrawals of the battalions they were supporting. The two companies of the 1/Durham Light Infantry, covered by Lieutenant Scanlon’s troop, left the Halfaya position at 10.30 p.m., and the rearguard at Salum, with which was Lieutenant Cheetham’s troop (less one section), departed at 40 minutes past midnight.
The various troops and sections of Major Argent’s battery continued to cover their battalions until Buq Buq was reached, where they were detached and joined the 2/Scots Guards. Some went to the mobile delaying force at Buq Buq called “Rushforce” – comprising a company of the Scots Guards, a battery of the 8th Field Regiment and six guns of Argent’s battery – others to the left flank at Alam el Dab, and two went to the Support Group headquarters, about two miles east of Sidi Barrani. The guns of Major Wilson’s battery were disposed with the 2/Coldstream Guards, the 1/Durham Light Infantry and the French Motor Company.
On the 27th the Axis forces advanced their forward mobile units to the line Sidi Omar – Sidi Suleiman – and north to Musaid. Here they halted to form a defensive line; approaches to Halfaya were blocked while patrols were pushed out into the coastal plain. The Mediterranean Fleet, though preoccupied with the evacuation of Greece, found time to detail the gunboat HMS Aphis to engage the advancing German forces from seaward, but bad weather prevented her intervention.
Possession of the Halfaya Pass and the escarpment around the bottleneck greatly strengthened Rommel’s eastern flank and gave him freedom to concentrate his forces on Tobruk. The advanced units of the 15th Armoured Division were withdrawn, with the exception of most of the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion and two tanks. The 3rd Reconnaissance Unit was also left on the frontier as a mobile reserve. None the less the defence
of the main frontier positions was left to two Italian units: in the Salum–Capuzzo area, a mixed unit of the Ariete Division (the Montemurro Unit) with an infantry company from the recently arrived battalion of the Trento Division and an Italian battery of medium artillery (105-mm); at Bardia the rest of the Trento Division.
The last days of April saw the Axis forces in Africa gathering around Tobruk in readiness for a major onslaught, and across the Mediterranean the collapse of resistance by the Greek and British forces in Greece. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force with the loss of all its heavy equipment marked the end of another successful German campaign. The last large-scale evacuations took place on the 29th. Most of the re-embarked forces were trans-shipped to Crete, the supply and defence of which from the dwindling resources of the Middle East now became for the three British Commanders-in-Chief an urgent but intractable problem.
That the enemy would before long make another attempt to reduce Tobruk was not doubted at Morshead’s headquarters; that the assault would be made through the western sector defences seemed likely, but by no means certain. The no less important question, when the attack was likely to be launched, was one, however, to which no answer could yet be formulated. The defenders looked for signs, but saw few. Most of the enemy forces were beyond the garrison’s range of vision. What was needed was a continual and comprehensive air coverage; the RAF could not provide it. There were no aircraft available for photographic reconnaissance. Morshead had to make do with such information as could be gleaned from quick tactical reconnaissance flights and the restricted observations of his own ground patrols, most of them night patrols; and as often as not, daylight reconnaissance could reveal little more than the driving dust raised by the recurring khamsins. On the 27th, for example, little could be seen until evening, though a carrier patrol from the 2/48th was sent out at dawn before visibility became bad. It found no indications of unusual activity but surprised the enemy in bed, and inflicted several casualties without loss to itself. By the evening the dust-storm had subsided. Next morning the air reconnaissance at dawn revealed that some increase had occurred in the amount of motor transport in the southern sector and that weapon-pits and trenches were being dug along the western and south-western sectors; but still there was no indication of preparations for an attack.
However the day brought an intensification of enemy activity. At 6 a.m. the harbour area was heavily raided. A bomb almost destroyed “Admiralty House”, the naval headquarters. “A good drop of slum clearance” commented Captain Smith, the naval officer-in-charge, in reporting the damage to headquarters. Air raids continued throughout the day. And large numbers of vehicles were observed during the forenoon and early afternoon moving up from south to west, towards the road leading to Acroma from which all previous attacks on the western sector had come.
In the past week great progress had been made in strengthening the defences in depth and developing the Blue Line, particularly in the western
sector. The engineers had continued working round the clock laying the tactical minefields. The 26th Brigade (Brigadier Tovell) holding the western sector had a frontage of about twelve miles to defend. For three miles from the coast, where the Wadi Sehel led up from the sea in a great gash gouged almost 200 feet deep out of the rock-table, the wadi’s perpendicular cliffs and slopes gave great strength to the defence; but for the remaining nine miles of the brigade front the configuration of the land provided little hindrance to military movement. The arduously-constructed but thinly-manned defence works alone barred the way. Along the Wadi Sehel the 18th Cavalry Regiment manned the perimeter defences. On their left, from near the head of the wadi, across the Derna Road (the main coast road) up 50 feet to the top of the first escarpment, thence southwards to the second one mile distant, up 25 feet and out onto the plateau, the front was held by the 2/23rd Battalion. From the left flank of the 2/23rd Battalion the perimeter swung out from south to east in a wide arc around the forward slopes of Ras el Medauuar. For 18 days the 2/48th Battalion had held the five miles of exposed front on this vital but vulnerable sector against frequent if not always determined assault; in that time it had captured much equipment and taken 1,375 prisoners; its own casualties for the period were 15 killed and 20 wounded. It was due for a rest and was now to be relieved by the 2/24th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Spowers38), from which it would take over the role of brigade reserve and of manning the newly constructed Blue Line. Spowers was a leading Melbourne businessman who had been twice decorated as a subaltern in a British regiment in the first war and had seen some years of service in the militia between the wars. An athlete in his younger and not-so-young days he was now 48 but won the regard of his young officers and men by reason of his fitness and stamina as well as by his commanding presence.
The main relief by the 2/24th was to take place at night but the reserve companies changed over on the afternoon of the 28th. While this was in progress, the enemy air force concluded a day of frequent raids (directed mainly against gun positions and the perimeter defences) with a heavy attack on the 2/48th’s sector during which the whole area was strafed and more than 150 bombs were dropped; one scored a direct hit on the weapon-pit of S11, leaving it unusable and a potential danger in the defence. Simultaneously the area was shelled. It was thought this activity might presage an attack, but none occurred to complicate the relief, which proceeded after dark without misadventure. There was unusual shelling that night of the Blue Line positions, just before the 2/24th vacated them to move forward, and of the cross-roads on the track leading up to the front, as though the enemy had discovered that the relief was taking place.
Next day (29th April) the 2/48th settled into the Blue Line – it was the first time since the battalion had left Maddalena, on the escarpment north
of Benghazi, that there had been any troops between it and the enemy – while Colonel Spowers toured the positions his battalion had taken over, viewing with some concern in the light of his first-world-war experience the shallow, rock-bottomed pits and trenches that constituted the ancillary defences dug outside the deeply-sunk, concrete Italian perimeter posts. At his bidding the company commanders, with new-broom enthusiasm, soon had their men working with a will in deepening trenches and strengthening sangars; and every available sandbag was collected and filled with rubble to build up fire-steps in the Italian posts. The forward companies were commanded by (from right to left) Captain Budge,39 Major Fell and Captain Bird.40 Captain Gebhardt41 commanded the reserve company on Forbes’ Mound (named after Captain Forbes of the 2/48th), just behind the inner minefield.
One of Morshead’s brigades, the 24th, was still without one of its three battalions, owing to the late arrival of the 2/25th from Australia, which was due to arrive in Palestine in a few days time. General Wavell and General Blamey decided that the completion of the 9th Division could not wait upon this battalion’s arrival, reconditioning, equipment, and final training for war. The 2/32nd Battalion, which had been formed in England in 1940 mainly from personnel who had gone there with the 18th Brigade when invasion threatened, was therefore directed to Tobruk. The battalion began embarking at Mersa Matruh in the Chakla on the 28th, but because of bad weather embarkation was suspended after only one company had been taken on. With this diminished complement the Chakla set forth, arriving in Tobruk Harbour next morning just after 8 a.m. The company was immediately organised into a composite force with the 2/3rd and 2/4th Field Companies and put into a reserve defensive position covering the route from the eastern sector to the harbour.
The morning tactical air reconnaissance on the 29th revealed a continuation of the westward movement of transport across the front of the 20th and 26th Brigades. The tempo of enemy air activity, high on the previous day, was stepped up still further as the day progressed. Field gun positions, forward infantry posts and infantry in reserve areas were bombed and strafed. In one attack three men were killed and eight wounded in the 2/10th Battalion. The 20th Brigade’s sector was shelled all morning. Soon after midday a dive-bombing and machine-gunning attack was made on the 2/24th Battalion during which an enemy aircraft swept back and forth over a stone but with tarpaulin roof in the right company’s area. It happened that Captain Budge, the company commander, was conferring with other officers in the hut; one was killed, and four wounded, including Budge himself and Captain Oakley.42 Captain Canty43 took over command
of the company. Another raid followed in the same area, the target apparently being the perimeter wire and minefields; some damage was caused to the defence works but this time there were no casualties. At 2 p.m. 30 bombers attacked the gun positions of “E” Troop of the 1st RHA at the junction of the El Adem and Bardia Roads; the gun crews suffered four severe casualties, of whom only one survived. About 4.30 p.m. the harbour was heavily raided and the Chakla sunk.44 About 5 p.m. 30 bombers executed another raid on the 2/24th Battalion, but no damage was reported. An hour later an enemy patrol of armoured cars and infantry reconnoitred towards Ras el Medauuar; they were fired upon and quickly retired. In the late evening about 30 aircraft (one report45 put the number as high as 63) using the last of the daylight dive-bombed the rear areas of the 20th Brigade; more than 30 men were wounded, including 3 officers when the brigade headquarters officers’ mess was hit. The day ended with an artillery bombardment of the reserve positions of the 26th Brigade. But the night was quiet. In the port three lighters arrived, unloaded six infantry tanks and took back with them some of the German tanks captured in the Easter battle for examination by the equipment experts in England.
At first light on 30th April, Major Fell, standing near his headquarters on the forward slopes of Ras el Medauuar, had his attention drawn by Lieutenant Meighan46 to clouds of dust in the west in the direction of Acroma, stirred up, it could be perceived, by moving vehicles. More than 100 were seen. Soon afterwards, farther north, about 20 armoured vehicles were observed moving in along the top of the escarpment, until shells from the defending artillery began to fall among them, whereupon they withdrew. The aircraft that made the morning tactical reconnaissance returned to report an increase in motor transport around the fortress and at Acroma. About 9 a.m. enemy infantry could be seen in the distance from the slopes of Medauuar. They dismounted from trucks coming from the direction of Acroma and advanced in line in low ground south of the Acroma Road to within 4,000 yards of the perimeter; there they sat down. Major Fell judged that some of the enemy were within range and asked the artillery to engage them. The artillery were at first sceptical but later fired a few rounds. The infantry heard the whistling passage overhead of the shells; but where their fall could be seen, they were short of the enemy. An inconstant wind got up as the sun climbed higher. Curtains of dust closed and parted, giving momentary, hazy views of enemy territory where continuous movement of men and tanks could be indistinctly perceived all day. It was noticed that the infantry were slowly coming closer, close enough for the defenders to see that they were Italians. Behind them, beyond the ridges, a great volume of dust rose up, more it seemed than the slight wind alone would have raised.
Commanders and artillery officers in the western sector had become accustomed to reading the signs of an enemy assault. What they saw suggested the possibility of another attack from the west, probably against Medauuar. The 2/24th was ready to meet it as previous assaults had been met; moreover shell-proofing of the artillery observation post on top of Ras el Medauuar, which overlooked all approaches, had just been completed by Captain Young and sappers of the 2/13th Field Company. Yet the morning and afternoon passed quietly on the battalion’s front with the exception of some light shelling on Ras el Medauuar by 105-mm guns and of a repetition of the almost regular dive-bombing attacks on the forward troops, chiefly in the western sector. The other westward-facing battalion, the 2/23rd, was meanwhile planning, with care and great attention to detail, a strong company raid to be mounted next day; its object was to destroy enemy batteries, located in a re-entrant between the two escarpments, 3,000 yards west of the battalion’s front wire.
The setting of the dust-dimmed sun on that last day of April signalled the end of a month in which the forces of Morshead’s command had retreated to a firm base, turned at bay, and thereafter not only repulsed every enemy assault, but achieved success in most of their own. The quality of the troops had been abundantly demonstrated; if only the odds could be kept about equal in the score of relative armaments, there was reason to be confident that the garrison would continue to hold. The staff, too, for all but few of whom this campaign had been their first experience of real warfare, were quickly assimilating its lessons and growing in competence and confidence. As each report reached the headquarters, whether of ground or air observations, whether of enemy concentrations or of an actual assault, no undue alarm was caused; it was coolly and unhurriedly assessed. Such reports were continually being received. The divisional operations log for the last four hours of 30th April provides a good example of how they were handled in the operations room at divisional headquarters at Pilastrino. Although the last hour or two of daylight each
day, when the mirage cleared and dust-raising winds subsided, was always attended by an increase of shelling, the gunfire heard in the west that evening of 30th April had seemed more intense than normal. At 7.15 p.m. a drumming of anti-aircraft guns and crunching of bombs in the same area indicated that an air raid was in progress. At 7.20 p.m. a telephone message from the 26th Brigade was received at divisional headquarters, and recorded in the operations log, reporting that the 2/24th Battalion was being dive-bombed; also that there were about 100 infantry one mile and a half out from the battalion’s wire and a number of vehicles about two miles out. The duty officer passed the information to General Morshead and Colonel Lloyd. Fifteen minutes later the 26th Brigade reported a further heavy dive-bombing attack on the 2/24th Battalion, mainly on Major Fell’s company: 40 aircraft had taken part, one had crashed. The message stated that this, in conjunction with the move up of a small party of infantry followed by dispersed vehicles, some of which were possibly tanks, might indicate that a half-hearted attack would be made at dusk. Lloyd was informed of this by the duty officer; but before his tour of duty ended at 8 p.m., the duty officer recorded only one other message, which was about a dive-bombing attack on a minesweeper.
At 8 p.m. a heavy bombardment out towards the western perimeter was heard over the whole fortress area; it seemed to be falling on the 26th Brigade. Simultaneously a solitary, long-range gun began slowly shelling the landing ground a few hundred yards from divisional headquarters. One of the few places in Tobruk where the hostile rumble of this gunfire might not have been heard was the headquarters operations room itself; it was a subterranean chamber excavated in solid rock, one of several located at the end of a tunnel burrowed deep into the face of the second escarpment. The first message received there by the officer who took over duty at 8 p.m. came, however, not from the 26th but the 24th Brigade, at the other extremity of the perimeter. Just after 8.20 p.m. Brigadier Godfrey reported that a minor attack by about 40 men was being made on the defences at the fringe of the Wadi Zeitun near the coast in the eastern sector; they had come from the next adjoining wadi and were being engaged with infantry weapons by men of the Australian Army Service Corps who were employed as infantry to hold that part of the perimeter. Nothing further of interest was reported to the operations room until 8.50 p.m., when a message was received from the 26th Brigade that the barrage was slackening slightly and that there had been no reports of any enemy infantry through the wire or of enemy tanks This information was passed on to Colonel Lloyd. Five minutes later the 26th Brigade reported that a few heavy-calibre shells were falling on the 2/24th Battalion; this time the message was passed to the commander of the fortress artillery.
Forty minutes passed before, at 9.30 p.m., the next communication from the 26th Brigade was received. The brigade reported that the artillery fire had now died out; a considerable number of green and white flares had
been seen along the perimeter;47 there was no further information available because Major Fell’s and Captain Canty’s companies, on whose front the flares had been seen, were out of communication. Fifteen minutes later (9.45 p.m.) the operations room received a reassuring message from the headquarters of the fortress artillery: they had been in touch at 9.30 p.m. with the artillery observation post in Fell’s area at Ras el Medauuar; it had reported “everything O.K.”; the two observation posts farther to the right sited on each of the escarpments in the 2/23rd Battalion area had reported some gun flashes, mortar fire and machine-gun fire away from the wire, but no infantry or vehicles had been seen.
The front now seemed to have relapsed into the quietness of a normal night, like the peace after a brief storm. Nothing further was reported to the operations room for an hour and a half. Then at 11.20 p.m. came a message from the 26th Brigade. The duty officer entered it briefly in the log as follows:–
Penetration 2/24 Battalion area possible but situation not certain.