Chapter 6: Assault Withstood
When General Morshead was wakened as usual at dawn on 1st May, he learnt from Colonel Lloyd that the enemy had penetrated the perimeter in the centre and on the right of the 2/24th Battalion front, around Ras el Medauuar. But Lloyd could tell Morshead little else. Some enemy infantry had established themselves inside the wire, some tanks were moving about outside, some German prisoners had been taken; patrols from the 2/24th and 2/23rd Battalions were trying to clarify the situation. The width and depth of the penetration were uncertain, though it did not appear to have been effected in great strength. Morshead, who was never given to hasty, ill-considered action, decided that better information must be obtained before counter-measures were considered.
How the situation had appeared to the divisional staff in the operations room during the first few hours of the operation can be imagined from the narrative at the end of the last chapter. This in turn reflected in outline, if it did not exactly mirror, the picture in the minds of the brigadier and his staff at the 26th Brigade headquarters, from whom the reports to divisional headquarters had come. The commander of the 2/24th Battalion was forming a different picture which, if less sketchy, still incompletely represented the magnitude of the developing onslaught.
The knowledge gained by the commanders at the various levels was derived in part from what they personally saw or heard, but mainly from what was reported to them; but no reports had come through during the night from the closely invested front, except on the right flank. The modern commander, who unlike his predecessors in history can rarely observe the course of the battle, is most dependent on good communications; but the communications network operating in Tobruk was incomplete, unreliable and vulnerable. An acute shortage of equipment was the chief cause. Most units had still received little of the battle equipment laid down in war equipment tables. One battalion had arrived in Tobruk with only a few signal flags; other units had more or less illicitly made up some deficiencies from captured material in western Cyrenaica, but again much of this had been left and lost because there had been insufficient transport to move it or time to take it up in the precipitate withdrawals.
Owing to lack of equipment radio telephony had not yet been introduced as a normal method of infantry intercommunication at Tobruk. A line-telephone network, following the normal lines of command, was laid down from fortress headquarters right out to the perimeter as well as throughout the base area. The headquarters of battalions had lines to the headquarters of companies, companies to some posts on the perimeter: usually to those in which platoon commanders were located. The cable and switchboards were mainly Italian. These were supplemented by a
wireless telegraphy network which for security reasons would not be operationally used except in an emergency; its use was limited also by a grave inadequacy of battery-charging facilities resulting from a complete lack of piston ring replacements for charging sets. Moreover there were not enough battalion wireless sets to provide a service within battalions.1 As soon as secure communications to brigade commands had been established at the inception of the siege, a separate artillery cable and wireless network had been set up. The artillery line, partly because it rightly had priority for the best equipment, became the most reliable channel of communication to the perimeter at those points where artillery forward observation officers were stationed.
The inadequacy of wireless telegraphy as an alternative to telephones for military operational use, particularly when the delays and textual corruptions resulting from enciphering are added to normal delays of transmission, is known only too well to anybody who has been thrown back upon its employment in battle; yet the line communication in the forward area of Tobruk, which even in quiet times was subject to random breaks and failures, was very susceptible to interruption in operations, because the cables were almost invariably laid above ground and not enough was available for laying duplicate lines on alternative routes.
The alternatives to laying lines on the surface were to carry them above ground or to bury them. Poles were used in the rear areas. So far from directing their erection in the forward areas the operational staff ordered the removal of most of those left by the Italians, because they provided the enemy with useful aiming marks. Moreover, as between laying cable on the surface and burying it, a deliberate choice was made in favour of surface lines, for the sake of ease and speed of maintenance. To locate a break in a buried cable had proved impossible at night, and extremely difficult in such featureless country even in daylight, because shifting sands would obscure the route. Test-points along a buried line were also liable to be lost in drift-sand. Because of the distances involved, the number of test-points required would have been great on many lines and the time required to test from them intolerably long. Moreover in many areas the rocky surface precluded burying unless engineers were to be taken from other urgent work to excavate the routes. For these reasons all lines to the forward posts were laid on the surface and liable to be cut by an artillery barrage or deliberately by assaulting infantry.
A road ran past Colonel Spowers’ headquarters westwards, crossing the perimeter guarded by his foremost troops more than two miles distant, and continued on, above and not far from the edge of the second escarpment, which it followed, to Acroma. Astride the road, past Forbes’ Mound and about 1,000 yards from Spowers’ headquarters, was “B” Company, his reserve. South-west from Forbes’ Mound, the country rose up, in a bare expanse of brown dust littered with war debris, to an apex at Ras el Medauuar, on top of which the grey-white concrete observation post
sat like a helmet.2 In front the perimeter ran out on either side. The front-row perimeter posts, which were from 500 to 700 yards apart and not interconnected, were surrounded by small anti-tank ditches but at too small a radius to prevent domination and bombardment of the weapon-pits by tanks standing close-in. The general tank ditch had not been extended to this sector; the Italians had laid a belt of mined concertina wire beyond the zigzag perimeter apron fence, which was an inadequate substitute.
What had happened on the perimeter that night when the duty officers at divisional headquarters had been recording the messages quoted in the last chapter? Throughout the anxious daylight hours of 30th April, Spowers had been in constant touch with his forward companies, almost each report telling of a glimpse of enemy movement seen through the dust screen. When visibility began to improve in the late afternoon, Spowers, with his Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Serle, visited the headquarters of Captain Canty, whose company was on the right, above the escarpment, and saw enemy infantry and vehicles massing to the west. Soon after 5 p.m. Canty reported that a platoon of enemy infantry was moving towards him, followed by some motor-cycles. They did not advance far. At 5.30 p.m. an air raid was made on the right of Canty’s company against Captain Spier’s company of the 2/23rd Battalion, killing one man and wounding four others. At 5.45 p.m. enemy shells began falling on the western sector. At 5.55 p.m. Fell, from his lookout on Ras el Medauuar, reported that a platoon of enemy infantry and four vehicles were advancing along the Acroma Road. Ten minutes later, he reported that they were 150 strong and now 3,000 yards from the wire; the shelling had stopped. Meanwhile Canty reported that he could see between 30 and 40 vehicles loaded with troops but could not see the infantry mentioned by Fell. Soon after 6 p.m. Fell reported that the enemy appeared to be advancing in two waves, the first of about two companies, the second about one company; there was no sign of tanks. About 6.30 p.m. another company of infantry was observed in vehicles farther to the right, slowly advancing
towards Canty’s positions. At 6.45 p.m. it was reported from Fell’s company that vehicles could be seen moving in rear of the infantry. This was confirmed by Captain Bird’s company on the left, who reported that the vehicles had disappeared behind Carrier Hill; it could not be discerned whether they were tanks.
Meanwhile the infantry advance appeared to be slackening at a distance of 1,800 to 2,000 yards from the wire. The enemy troops were well dispersed; the absurd bunching so pronounced in previous assaults had been avoided. Post R1, on the southern shoulder of Medauuar, was receiving a heavy pasting from artillery or mortars. By 7 p.m. it could be seen that tanks were moving behind the infantry. Dust raised by the shelling of both sides made it impossible to gauge the number, but later 16 were counted. At 7.15 p.m., as the sun passed below the horizon like a fire suddenly extinguished, four enemy reconnaissance planes flew out of the west. Several squadrons followed, the atmosphere reverberating with their engine-roar: the sky above Medauuar was filled with dive bombers. The first wave of more than 20 dive-bombed and machine-gunned the perimeter on the south side of Medauuar. Others came in their wake. At 7.30 p.m. more than 30 aircraft dive-bombed the perimeter on the north side; one failed to recover from its dive and was seen to crash in flames. Fell reported that the bombs had been falling in and near the wire: no casualties had been caused. Spowers was reporting all these events to Tovell’s headquarters. Yet the impression conveyed by the officer who passed the information on to divisional headquarters was such that his appreciation was summarised in the log by the duty officer there in the words “may indicate a half-hearted attack at dusk”.
At 7.45 p.m. as the towers of dust raised by the bombing began to clear, more infantry were seen in the dying light to be gathering about 3,000 yards in front of Fell’s company. The telephone line to Fell had gone dead, but there was still communication to the companies on either flank. Spowers ordered the whole battalion to stand to arms.
At 8 p.m. a heavy artillery barrage was brought down on 4,500 yards of the perimeter on either side of Ras el Medauuar, enveloping the front in a pall of dust as the light continued to fade. At first it fell on the wire. At 8.15 red and green flares were seen outside the wire, the barrage lifted and concentrations were brought down with great accuracy upon the perimeter posts themselves. Automatic fire was heard and streams of tracer bullets were seen drifting in towards the wire. On the right Canty reported that enemy infantry, apparently not in great strength, had approached posts S5 and S7; they had been promptly engaged by fire from the posts; no tanks had been seen. There was mortar fire on S7. On the left of the battalion front, posts on the left of Bird’s company were also mortared. What was happening in Fell’s company in the centre no one could tell, but not much small-arms fire was heard from that direction. Linesmen went out to restore the line.
About 8.30 p.m. the enemy fired a white flare, there was a pause in the artillery fire and then the perimeter wire was blown with bangalore
torpedoes between Canty’s and Fell’s companies, in the region where the road from Acroma crossed the perimeter. Canty reported, however, that the fire was not intense and few infantry could be seen. Lieutenant Shelton,3 commanding the carrier platoon, obtained Spowers’ permission to move his platoon up in line with the reserve company behind the inner minefield and bring his anti-tank rifles into action; but the twilight ebbed to total darkness before that could be done. Spowers then ordered the carriers, his only uncommitted reserve, to stand by at instant call near battalion headquarters. The line to Fell’s company being still silent, linesmen were sent out with messages on foot.
At 8.40 p.m. there was a new burst of activity. In Bird’s company shelling recommenced on Post R5, where the track leading south-west crossed the perimeter; the telephone line to the post was dead. In Canty’s company, green and white flares were fired in front of the perimeter posts on either side of the east-west road and from Post S4 small-arms fire was reported astride the road about 1,000 yards behind the perimeter. The 51st Field Regiment were meanwhile maintaining a steady fire on defensive tasks. Spowers was striving to get in touch by wireless with Major Fell, from whose area there had been no word since the barrage had opened 50 minutes earlier. At 8.55 p.m. Captain Canty reported that firing was still intense in front of his posts on the north side of the road; fire could also be heard on other parts of the front.
At 9 p.m. a white enemy flare was seen just south of Ras el Medauuar, whereupon the enemy bombardment suddenly ceased, but the automatic fire of infantry weapons was still heard; it persisted along most of the battalion front. Spowers now found that the line to Canty’s company had also gone dead; linesmen were sent out to repair it. Spowers turned his thoughts to closing the gap reported to have been made near the east-west road; at his request the 2/13th Field Company agreed to prepare wire for use when opportunity offered but stated that no mines were available. Ten minutes after the enemy artillery barrage had ceased, the 51st Field Regiment asked Tovell whether they too should cease firing and were told to do so. At 9.25 p.m. the regiment informed brigade headquarters that at 9.15 p.m. they had made contact with their observation officer at Fell’s company on Ras el Medauuar who had reported that there had been no attack there and that all was well. That report does not appear to have reached Spowers, who discovered soon after 9.30 p.m. that his lines to brigade headquarters and to the brigade reserve battalion (the 2/48th) were both dead. The wireless link to brigade was opened and the slow process of passing enciphered messages began.
After the artillery bombardment ended, the front lapsed into comparative quietness but not complete peace for an hour and a half, like an eruption which, its main fury spent, continues to sputter menacingly. From time to time enemy signal flares were seen outside the wire; machine-guns opened fire and were again silent, first in one part of the front,
then another; spasmodically a few artillery or mortar shells rained down among the forward posts or near battalion headquarters. On the left, Bird reported that he had re-established communication with Post R5 which was intact and had suffered no casualties; but from Fell in the centre and Canty on the right there was still no word. The lack of information was disturbing.
At 10.14 p.m. Spowers received a report from the commander of his reserve company, Captain Gebhardt, whose forward platoons were astride the east-west road about a mile and a half from where the penetration of the perimeter had been made. His right platoon, Gebhardt said, had been fired on from the north-west at a range of 500 yards; the report indicated that the fire was coming from near the inner minefield about half a mile north of the road. Spowers ordered Gebhardt to send out a patrol to ascertain what troops were firing on them and directed the carrier platoon to provide two Bren guns each to battalion headquarters and Gebhardt’s company for local protection. Just after this the linesmen repairing the line to Fell’s company tapped in and reported that they were pinned to the ground by fire just behind the inner minefield. About 10.30 p.m. it was found that the line to Bird’s company had also been cut, which left Spowers with no line communication to front or rear, except to his reserve company just forward of battalion headquarters. More linesmen went out to repair the new break. The signalmen toiled, while Spowers anxiously waited for news of the reserve company’s patrol near the inner minefield, and for word to reach him from his forward companies.
Such was the state of indeterminacy at Spowers’ headquarters about 10.30 p.m. In the ensuing hour and a half nothing occurred to resolve it. Occasionally the enemy struck out fitfully with swift spiteful jabs of fire, then fell silent. There had been only one improvement in Spowers’ unsatisfactory communications: the lines to brigade headquarters and the 2/48th Battalion were again operating. At 11 p.m. a message reached the 26th Brigade headquarters through the 51st Field Regiment from the artillery observation post on the right of Canty’s company to the effect that Canty was out of contact with Spowers and wished Spowers to be informed that his company was safe and well. An earlier enciphered wireless message from Spowers conveying the information that fire was being brought down on his reserve company by troops near the inner minefield was not delivered to the command post at Tovell’s headquarters until just after 11 p.m. Almost immediately afterwards line communication with Spowers’ headquarters was restored. Spowers reported to Tovell’s headquarters that the enemy appeared to be through the wire; he had not been able to get through to his forward companies for two hours and a half but thought they were all right; there appeared to be a party of Italians north of “B” Company; the whole position was obscure.4
When this information reached divisional headquarters, General Morshead had retired. Colonel Lloyd warned the other brigades and sought a detailed report from Tovell. Apparently regarding the situation with
less equanimity than some of the staff interpreting Spowers’ reports, he then told Brigadier Wootten (commanding the division’s reserve brigade) that the enemy appeared to be holding a bridgehead in front of Ras el Medauuar between Posts S3 and R35 from which to launch an attack in the morning. Wootten ordered his battalions to stand to arms.
Just before midnight Spowers at last received word from Gebhardt that the reconnaissance patrol had located the “Italian” party. Spowers ordered Gebhardt to “collect them if possible” by means of a fighting patrol at least a platoon strong.
In the eastern (24th Brigade) sector, the raid of 40 enemy from the Wadi Weddan, which Brigadier Godfrey had reported to divisional headquarters at 8.20 p.m., came in near the head of the Wadi Zeitun, on the coast side of the main road and near the boundary of the 2/43rd Battalion and the Army Service Corps company. Two days earlier the enemy had been seen occupying positions astride the road about 2,000 yards out and to a depth, in rear, of about two miles; throughout the day there had been sporadic shelling by Italian field guns. Thus the intrusion could not be lightly regarded; but when small-arms fire was brought down on the raiding party in front of Post Z80 the raiders went to ground; later they withdrew. About 10 p.m. the approach of an enemy party, possibly the same force, was heard a little farther north. The area was raked with small-arms fire by the 2/43rd Battalion and artillery fire by the 104th RHA; no assault developed. The front of the 24th Brigade thereafter remained dormant for the rest of the night.
At midnight 30th April-1st May, Major White, on duty in the operations room of Morshead’s headquarters, asked Tovell’s headquarters if it was yet known whether the enemy had penetrated. He was told all that was known: the wire had been gapped between Posts S3 and S5, Post R5 had come under heavy fire, and machine-gun fire had been brought down on Spowers’ reserve company from 500 yards to the north-west.
Colonel Lloyd now gave thought to strengthening the anti-tank defence in the penetration area, the inadequacy of which was the perimeter strongpoints’ principal weakness. The infantry tank-attack weapons that were provided later in the war in such variety had not yet been developed; not even the rudimentary Molotov cocktails had been delivered to Spowers’ perimeter posts. The field artillery, though wisely sited for anti-tank defence as its crucial role, was nevertheless located too far in rear for effective, close anti-tank support at the perimeter. The latter, of course, was provided by the anti-tank artillery. If the anti-tank gunners’ hearts were stout, however, their guns were few. There were, on Spowers’ front of about five miles of perimeter, with its two rows of perimeter posts (23 in all), eight static and two mobile anti-tank guns.6 Two more static guns were in rear of the inner minefield.7 Colonel Lloyd arranged for Captain
Norman’s8 24th Anti-Tank Company, then stationed near fortress headquarters but which had been in the Medauuar sector before, to return there and informed Spowers that they were to reach his headquarters in time to be put into position before first light. Lloyd also ordered the 3rd Armoured Brigade to move up the tanks during the night behind the Medauuar sector to an area about 1,000 yards in rear of Spowers’ headquarters, where they would be astride the tracks leading in from there to the Pilastrino ridge, on which most of the field guns were sited and below which Morshead’s headquarters were located.
At 12.30 a.m., the divisional duty officer, at Lloyd’s direction, asked the 26th Brigade headquarters what action was being taken to determine the situation and to counter-attack if necessary. He recorded in his log that he was informed that the 2/24th Battalion had sent out patrols, the 2/48th Battalion was ready to move if a counter-attack was necessary, and the 2/23rd Battalion was standing by. His brief note may have adequately summarised what he was told, but was an incorrect summary of the actual state of affairs. As for the readiness of the 2/48th Battalion for a move, Windeyer, commenting some years later, stated9 that he recollected a telephone call from Tovell (but could not say at what time it was made) in which Tovell had said:
“Jiggy”10 is going to have a go at them and you have to be ready to go in to mop up.
Windeyer commented11 on this instruction:
My understanding was that I might have to provide a party to aid some operation which Spowers had in mind. But I was told I would get details later if I had to do anything. I cannot remember taking any action except that I think the adjutant Scott12 put one company on some notice.
Windeyer’s recollection receives some confirmation from a later entry in the divisional log in which reference is made to the “mopping-up company” of the 2/48th.
Meanwhile Spowers was renewing his efforts to find out the situation of his forward companies. At 12.32 a.m. an attempt was made through the 51st Field Regiment to obtain a report from the artillery observation officers with Canty’s company. The first one contacted was stationed farther north than the region from which enemy activity had been reported; he knew nothing of the situation. Before word was received from the other, a disturbing report from the field regiment was received at both Tovell’s and Spowers’ headquarters to the effect that the officer sent to relieve their observation officer with Fell had been unable to get through; on the way he had been fired at from a wooden but near Ras el Medauuar, apparently occupied by the enemy. There was, it should seem, at some
point along the line of communications between the frontal wire and divisional headquarters an inclination, not easily accountable, to regard the evidence slowly but ineluctably accumulating as less ominous than it was. It is possible that a practice in the 2/24th Battalion of using the term “Ities” (slang for Italians) as a generic term signifying enemy may have contributed to that result. The incident just described is recorded in the 51st Field Regiment’s war diary as follows:–
Captain A. D. Clapham and line party went out to try and re-establish OP at Pt 209.13 About 1,000 yards away from it he heard German voices and was met by small-arms fire and unable to reach it.
Yet the 2/24th log records the message received from the regiment about this as follows: –
Mudy [51st Field Regiment] reported Italians in wooden but right of 209. ... Officer of artillery was challenged and shot at by Italians from wooden hut.
The commander of the field regiment, Lieut-Colonel A. G. Matthew, in a report written after the operation commented on the incident as follows:
This information was passed on to Inf Bde H.Q. and H.Q. R.A. but in the absence of confirmation was rather suspect by them.
Spowers now attempted to enlist the aid of the battalions on his flanks to contact his forward companies. A message was sent through brigade headquarters to Lieut-Colonel Evans asking him to make contact with Canty’s posts. A similar message intended for the 2/15th Battalion was sent requesting that contact be made with Bird’s company but an error appears to have been made in the code name used for the addressee (2/17th Battalion in the message as recorded). The actual message does not appear to have reached the 2/15th, but in due course they were told of the required action and took it, sending out a patrol to R9, on the left flank of Bird’s company. A little later Spowers sent out Lieutenant Serle with two linesmen and two regimental police to contact Captain Bird.
At 1.15 a.m. brigade headquarters suggested to Spowers that a patrol of some size, at least a platoon, should be sent out from the reserve company to make contact with Fell’s company; but Spowers pointed out that one platoon was already absent from the reserve company; to send out another, he maintained, would seriously weaken the defence in depth of the battalion position. This sound contention was accepted.
Scarcely had that discussion concluded when the 51st Field Regiment delivered to Spowers a message from Lieutenant Rosel,14 who was commanding the right-hand platoon of Canty’s company. Canty’s headquarters, Rosel’s message stated, were in urgent need of help, the enemy being very close; Rosel had sent one of his sections to their assistance. Spowers ordered Shelton to take three of his Bren gun carriers up to Canty’s company. At 1.27 a.m. an NCO of the signals section reported in to battalion
headquarters, having just arrived from Canty’s company, which he had left at 9 p.m.; he had been repairing breaks in the line ever since, but had not met any enemy. At 1.30 a.m. Spowers reported Rosel’s message to Brigadier Tovell and informed Tovell that he was sending a section of carriers to Canty’s aid; he was also sending two men out to contact the forward companies. At 1.45 a.m. Brigadier Tovell reported to Morshead’s headquarters that Spowers was still out of touch with his companies. Tovell was of opinion that there had been infiltration on the whole front of Spowers’ battalion, but that it was not serious.15 He might use a company of the 2/48th Battalion for mopping up later. Colonel Lloyd arranged with Colonel Birks, commanding all tanks in Tobruk, that two light tanks should go up to Tovell’s headquarters for redirection to the mopping-up company of the 2/48th and to assist it if required.
A thick ground mist had meanwhile settled in the hollows to add to Spowers’ difficulties. As a result Lieutenant Serle lost his way to Bird’s company, returned, and set out again at 2 a.m. About this time, three carriers left for Canty’s company, but they too lost their way. It was learnt through the artillery, however, that Post S6, a second-row post in Canty’s company only about 700 yards north of the Acroma Road, was on the fringe of the enemy penetration but intact, and would try to make contact with Fell’s company. Lieut-Colonel Evans then offered to send a patrol to contact Fell through Spowers’ right-hand company. Spowers gladly accepted and asked that assistance be given to Canty if required. Later it was learnt from the 51st Field Regiment that the patrol had made contact with Rosel.
About 2.30 a.m. Spowers heard from Gebhardt’s company that his patrol was on its way back. It was believed to have prisoners, but owing to mist the visibility was practically nil. Another 45 minutes elapsed before the report of the patrol was received; the enemy party had been put to flight, three prisoners, an anti-tank weapon and a sub-machine-gun had been captured, and four more enemy had been left wounded on the minefield. The enemy had been German. The company also reported that enemy could be heard digging in on their right flank. Meanwhile Norman’s anti-tank company had arrived. One gun had been put into position near battalion headquarters; five had been sent to the reserve company to cover the inner minefield, but only four could be put into position because of the proximity of the enemy. Captain Clapham of the 51st Field Regiment also arrived at battalion headquarters to act as a forward observation officer.
In the next two hours, Spowers received from within his battalion only one report of his forward companies. That was at 3.40 a.m., when a linesman and a runner, who had left Captain Bird’s company soon after his telephone line had failed early in the night but had later become lost in the mist, reported that all had then been well there. They said they had observed fire coming from Post R2 and had seen, in the light of a
flare, a small party of “Italians” digging in close to the post. At 4.15 a.m. the Germans captured by Gebhardt’s patrol arrived at Spowers’ headquarters and were dispatched to fortress headquarters for interrogation. Meanwhile (unknown to Spowers) the 2/23rd Battalion’s reserve company (Captain Malloch’s16) had engaged about 40 Germans who approached from their left rear; 31 had been captured. About this time Tovell’s headquarters made a detailed report of the current situation to Morshead’s headquarters; this was followed soon afterwards by a report from Brigadier Murray in the southern sector that tanks were moving about outside the wire forward of Post R32, which was near the point at which the tanks had penetrated the perimeter in the Easter battle. It was also learnt from Murray’s headquarters that contact had been made with Post R9, on the left flank of Bird’s company, where not a shot had been fired.
At 4.40 a.m. the 51st Field Regiment reported that on the 2/24th Battalion’s right flank a party of Germans had slipped through the neighbouring company, moving eastward. At 4.50 a.m. Spowers told Tovell’s headquarters that he proposed sending six carriers up to Major Fell’s company at first light. But he was advised “to wait and see what he was up against”.17 Tovell was becoming increasingly anxious. At 5 a.m. he told Colonel Evans that it seemed that Canty’s company was surrounded. Evans, who had previously planned to employ Malloch’s company that morning in a raid on enemy artillery positions, offered to use it for a counter-attack against the enemy in Canty’s area. Tovell agreed and Evans issued orders accordingly.
About 5 a.m. an engagement in front of “C” Company of the 2/13th Battalion on the El Adem Road sector was reported. The enemy force, which was German, was first observed by a deep patrol of section strength led by Corporal Hewitt;18 they were moving noisily down the El Adem Road towards the perimeter; Hewitt estimated that they were about 50 strong. Hewitt realised that they would run into “C” Company’s standing patrol outside the wire, so stationed his patrol to cut off their retreat. His prediction was fully realised. Caught in the standing patrol’s hot fire the enemy beat a hasty retreat, only to be engaged by Hewitt’s men. The enemy dropped their stores, including wire-cutting tools and explosives, and fled. Six prisoners were taken, all of them wounded.
At 5.15 a.m. Spowers asked Gebhardt to send out a small patrol of three or four men to contact Fell’s company. At 5.25 a.m. Lieutenant Serle returned from Bird’s company, which he had reached on his second attempt. He reported that all was quiet in the area, though the telephone to the right-hand platoon (Lieutenant Mair19) in Post R4 was not working.
Spowers told Bird to contact Mair’s platoon and the platoon of Fell’s company on Mair’s right and warned Bird that an enemy tank attack at first light was likely. He issued a similar warning to the commander of the anti-tank artillery in the sector.
The enemy artillery, which had long been silent, opened a bombardment at 5.45 a.m.; it seemed to be directed mainly against the perimeter defences on the left of the battalion’s area. As it began, Malloch’s company (less one platoon) began moving out towards the left flank of Evans’ battalion, whence its counter-attack was to be launched.
It was then just on first light; but as though in conspiracy with the enemy, thick mist drifted across the front to prolong the defenders’ ignorance of what the night’s alarms portended. Gebhardt’s company reported that the enemy had been digging in on their left flank; he was waiting until it was light enough to deal with them. Spowers ordered Shelton to investigate with a section of carriers. At 6.30 a.m., in heavy mist, the section moved out and found that weapon-pits had been dug on the left of Gebhardt’s company but were unoccupied. Shelton told Spowers that he had been fired on from the north side of the Acroma Road by a large body of troops that he thought might be Malloch’s company. He offered to try to contact Fell’s company. Spowers agreed.
With a crew of three, Shelton left almost immediately, driving his own carrier. The mist partly cleared and watchers at Spowers’ headquarters could see Shelton’s carrier moving up past the wooden but by the Acroma Road towards Fell’s headquarters. Shelton reported at 6.42 a.m. that the but was occupied by the enemy (by “Italians”, according to the battalion action log). At 7.10 a.m. he reported again that he could see only for a distance of 200 yards, and had been fired on by a large body of troops, but would try to contact Fell’s company. From battalion headquarters it had seemed that Shelton had almost reached Fell’s headquarters on Ras el Medauuar, when mist rolled up again to blot the carrier from view.
Gebhardt’s company reported that they could see no sign of the enemy on either flank, and Spowers reported to Tovell’s headquarters that the situation seemed to have clarified; Canty’s company appeared to be all right, also the “centre” and left flank. The shelling had ceased but occasional bursts of sub-machine-gun fire could still be heard. He was awaiting the return of Shelton’s carrier from Fell’s company. A note in the 26th Brigade log made at 7.20 a.m. indicates that it was then thought that Evans’ battalion together with Canty’s company would be able to clear the enemy from Fell’s area.
But the hard light of day was soon to dispel that remarkably sustained optimism. Just afterwards the sun broke through and the mist cleared; Shelton’s carrier could be seen burning on the Acroma Road. He had run into fire from enemy tanks standing to the south-east of Ras el Medauuar and had been killed instantly; but his foot had jammed on the accelerator, and the man at his side, leaning across his body, had managed to drive the carrier back to the Acroma Road. There it was hit again and the petrol tank set alight. Later a carrier under the command of
Sergeant Catherall,20 endeavouring without success to get through to “C” Company with a load of ammunition, picked up the members of Shelton’s crew. As the fog dispersed, heavy firing broke out along the perimeter in the Medauuar sector; dive bombers swept down with blaring sirens and other aircraft strafed the front. Some 10 minutes later the patrol sent out by Gebhardt returned and reported that they had been unable to reach Fell’s company. They said that there were six enemy tanks on the east side of Ras el Medauuar.
Just at that time Malloch’s two platoons from the 2/23rd reported back to their headquarters; they had passed right through Canty’s area and had had a brush with the enemy. Canty’s posts, though surrounded during the night, had regained control of their ground and Malloch felt confident that it could be held.
Had Malloch’s men pushed a little farther south, however, they would have told a different story. Some 15 minutes after their return, about a battalion of enemy infantry were perceived by artillery observers advancing eastwards from the area near the but north of Ras el Medauuar, which was approximately on the boundary of Canty’s and Fell’s companies. Gunfire from the 51st Field Regiment effectively broke up the advance. Meanwhile at 7 a.m. five tanks had approached the 2/13th Battalion’s wire where Corporal Hewitt’s patrol had intercepted the enemy engineer party. They came as if to attack and searched for a gap. The 1st RHA engaged and the tanks soon withdrew.
Five minutes after the return of the patrol from Gebhardt’s company 30 enemy tanks were seen on the slope of Ras el Medauuar, some towing anti-tank guns. At 8 a.m. they began to come over the sky-line south of that high point, moving eastwards. Behind them more followed. In all, about 40 took part in this thrust – there were about 80 inside the wire. The British gunners were at first reluctant to engage them, fearing that their fire might harm Australian infantry in the same area. But the tanks came on, and soon encountered the fire of every artillery piece the defenders could bring to bear. Captain Norman’s 24th Anti-Tank Company engaged them in flank. Corporal Aston’s21 gun knocked out one German Mark III and two other tanks, but was then beset by 11 or 12. Two of the crew (Lance-Corporal Luck22 and Private Bridges23) were seriously wounded but the others kept the gun firing until it was smashed by a direct hit. Norman’s company lost three guns in the action. From behind Forbes’ Mound a gun of the 26th Anti-Tank Company commanded by Corporal Edmonds24 also engaged the German tanks, scoring several hits and stopping two; even after pieces had been torn off his gun’s recoil-spring
cover and breech-block by fire from the tanks, Edmonds kept firing his gun, until he fell mortally wounded. Private Bilston25 and Private Donaldson,26 coming to his aid, then brought him in under fire to a neighbouring infantry post.
The German tank column, shedding one or two tanks damaged by gunfire, moved forward irresistibly until it ran straight onto the B1 minefield in front of Gebhardt’s company. Within a few minutes 17 tanks had struck mines and come to a halt. There was a clearly marked gap in the field, where it was traversed by a well-worn track used by garrison vehicles. It had not been closed, but the German tanks did not attempt to nose their way through.
About a battalion of German infantry followed the tanks but, as they reached the perimeter defences, came under intense fire from the guns of the 51st Field Regiment firing at extreme range; the infantry advance was broken up. Some Germans opened fire on the posts but most appeared willing to leave the task of subduing them to the armour. About 15 minutes later more infantry were driven up in lorries about 2,000 yards out from the perimeter opposite Canty’s company. There they left their vehicles and advanced between Posts S8 and S9. They too were subjected to gunfire by the 51st Field Regiment.
While the 51st was concentrating its fire on the infantry on the right, the 1st and 107th RHA were engaging the tanks. Behind the first column of 40, which had become bogged down in the B1 minefield, a second containing 30 more was now moving among the perimeter posts east of Ras el Medauuar. One or two flame-throwers were towed by tanks, but they proved very vulnerable to fire. Each post was attacked in turn. As the head of the column reached a post, two or three tanks remained to stand over it while the rest moved on. Smoke was laid down continuously to cover the column’s operations but seems to have impeded observation more from the east than from the north. The column was hotly engaged by the four anti-tank guns of “B” Troop (Lieutenant Hatch and Sergeant Carley) of “J” Battery of the 3rd RHA Bombardier Lane’s gun was overrun by seven tanks but four of these were later knocked out by another gun and their crews, as they emerged, were shot up by Gunner Deane with his Bren. Bombardier Rudd succeeded in scoring hits against six tanks in all and in keeping his gun in action though attacked on all sides.
Three British cruiser tanks of “B” Squadron advanced towards the German tanks in the area R6-R8, fired a few rounds and then withdrew behind a ridge. The enemy put down smoke. The German tanks soon afterwards withdrew, probably to marry up with the leading tank column, which had meanwhile withdrawn from the B1 minefield.
Part of the latter column had turned south as though to link up with the column moving along the perimeter; their route took them past a
gun of the 26th Anti-Tank Company commanded by Corporal Biggs,27 who staunchly engaged them. They did not proceed, however, but turned back by the way they had come to rally near Ras el Medauuar. Meanwhile, near the El Adem Road, the enemy was laying a smoke screen in the region where Corporal Hewitt’s patrol had ambushed the German demolition party.
Nobody knew what had happened to Spowers’ infantry on the perimeter who had been out of touch throughout the night and through whose defences the German tanks had broken in such alarming numbers, nor was their story to become known until long after the siege of Tobruk had ended. What had in fact occurred was that after the barrage had ceased at 8.30 p.m. and the wire had been blown, at least two penetrations had been made close to Medauuar, one to the north of it, near S5, the other near R1. No infantry attack was made on the dominant Ras el Medauuar posts before daylight. Although the defences in the assault areas were subjected to heavy fire, the intruders preferred not to close, but penetrated between the posts and established themselves, in the one case, as we have seen, near Gebhardt’s company, in the other near the but just south of Point 187. The main bridgehead was between S3 and S7, made, as we now know, with the intention of taking Medauuar in rear. The enemy made use of the hours of darkness to lift the minefields in front of the perimeter, and to some extent within it, and to pull away the wire with tanks using grappling irons. When daylight came the post defenders were therefore exposed to the full force of the enemy assault with little more than small arms to defend themselves; there was no hope for the few men still holding out in the stone sangars hastily rebuilt after the night’s bombardment. Some of the anti-tank gun positions of the 3rd RHA (being outside the posts) had already been overrun as had most of 7 Platoon, who had occupied sangars. An account written later by Major Fell, whose company was responsible for the Ras el Medauuar area and a front of about 2,500 yards, conveys a vivid picture of what happened after dawn. His headquarters were in Post S2.
By 0730 hrs. the ground mist had cleared and I could see two German tanks surrounding S1. S1 was bombarded from a range of 100 to 200 yards by these tanks, and eventually I saw Walker28 and his men being brought out of the pit. These tanks then moved on S2 and when within 200 yards they concentrated on the sangars and pits, blowing away the sandbags and destroying the sangars. Each tank had two or three infantrymen, riding in or on the tank. These men, under cover of the tank fire, eventually dropped grenades into the weapon-pit. We then surrendered and were taken out by the tank crews. ... At this time there were no Italian infantry in sight and only a small number of Germans – mostly riding on tanks. ... We lay behind Hill 209 about an hour. ... We were then taken through the wire under tank escort. A large gap had been made in the wire due west of Hill 209 (Ras el Medauuar). ... We were then moved to German Divisional HQ. ... The German Divisional Staff were convinced that the fall of Tobruk would happen within a few hours. Later in the morning we were marched to ... Acroma.
General Rommel, who had visited Kirchheim’s headquarters about an hour later, saw these men setting off on their march to Acroma. He wrote of them:
Shortly afterwards a batch of some fifty or sixty Australian prisoners was marched off close behind us – immensely big and powerful men, who without question represented an élite formation of the British Empire, a fact that was also evident in battle. Enemy resistance was as stubborn as ever and violent actions were being fought at many points.29
The confused and violent battle soon enveloped more than four miles of the perimeter on either side of Ras el Medauuar. The main ordeal fell on the infantry in the perimeter posts and the few anti-tank gunners still unsubdued. There was no overhead cover above the fire-bays and communication trenches of the posts. Fire directed from the tanks standing over them damaged the automatic weapons and drove most of the defenders below ground. But although the posts were neutralised many of their garrisons fought back for some time.
The post weapons, additional to the personal weapons (rifles and grenades) normally carried by infantrymen, usually consisted of about two light or medium machine-guns with, in some cases, a light mortar or a so-called anti-tank rifle. After S1 and S2 were taken other posts had similar experiences. Some surrendered after their gun emplacements had been blasted in; in others the garrison held off the enemy until their ammunition was exhausted. In turn Posts S3, R, R1, R2 and R3 were captured but Post R4, where Lieutenant Mair had his headquarters, held out until after midday. Farther north, S5 in the centre of the main penetration was overrun at first light but S6 (Lieutenant Kelly30), where Captain Canty had established his headquarters, was not surrendered until 9 a.m., when 17 out of the garrison of 26 had become casualties. S4 (Corporal Deering31) resisted until after 11 a.m.
Post S7, which was on the northern edge of the main enemy bridgehead, was reported by the Germans during the battle as one of the most obstinate points of resistance, inflicting on units attacking it 50 per cent casualties – in some instances more. It was manned by eleven men under Corporal Thomson,32 who were armed with two Bren guns and a rifle. They were surrounded during the night when the penetration was made, and next day held the enemy off until their ammunition was exhausted. Grenades thrown into the underground shelters enforced their surrender about 11 a.m.
As the German armour moved on, officers of the British artillery continually moved about the battlefield directing fire upon both tanks and infantry concentrations – Captain Clapham of the 51st Field Regiment in his 8-cwt truck, Captains May and Goschen of the 1st RHA and Captain G. J. S. Slinn of the 107th, to name some that are recalled – while others
no less staunch continued to observe and to direct the guns from near the edge of the turmoil area, like Captain Hay who remained all day at Post R14 and who directed the fire of the “B/O” Battery against the first tank assault. The Axis air force dominated the skies above the battlefield and was continually active that day – in one attack on “B” Troop of the 1st RHA five men were killed and four wounded, two mortally.
The burden of decision now pressed heavily on Morshead. In the threatened sector he had one battalion uncommitted, the 2/48th Battalion, in reserve on the Blue Line, where its primary function was to provide the extreme need of defence in depth behind the thinly-held perimeter. If the battalion was to hold the second line firm, it could not be used to counter-attack at the break-through point. The effective infantry strength of Morshead’s fortress reserve was four battalions – the 18th Brigade of three infantry battalions, and the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion partly committed to providing a second line of defence in Brigadier Murray’s sector. Morshead’s tank strength was 35 infantry and cruiser tanks in varying states of mechanical fitness: in the 1st Royal Tanks were 17 cruisers, organised into a headquarters (3 tanks), and 2 squadrons – one of 5 tanks, one of 9; the 7th Royal Tanks had 18 infantry tanks in 2 squadrons. There were also the light tanks of the 3rd Hussars, which were, however, too lightly armoured for effective employment in other than reconnaissance roles. The space-time factor required two hours to move a reserve battalion into the battle area.
On the first irruption of the enemy tanks, the cruisers of the 1st Royal Tanks had been ordered to move to the area just to the east of the southern end of the B1 minefield for possible participation in a counter-attack, while one of the infantry-tank squadrons, with two troops of the 3rd Hussars attached, had been ordered forward to engage the enemy tanks advancing from Ras el Medauuar; but the latter were recalled without making contact when the enemy turned back from the B1 minefield (though the light-tank troops were pushed out on either flank for observation). In fact, the very minefields which had stopped the enemy were an obstacle to the deployment of the garrison’s tanks.
Morshead was not prepared to commit his reserves until he had more information. He was not yet convinced that the first enemy thrusts were more than a diversionary demonstration designed tc draw off his reserves before the main assault was made elsewhere.33 The dawn tactical reconnaissance from the air had been delayed by morning fog. When the first reports were received, they were indeed alarming: 200 enemy tanks were said to be approaching from the direction of Acroma in the west. Morshead, however, doubted their accuracy and called for another reconnaissance. If the first reconnaissance had over-estimated the enemy tank strength, the second under-estimated it, for only 40 tanks were then reported. More had already been sighted within the perimeter. Morshead summoned Wootten to his headquarters: together they assessed the reports of the developing onslaught.
The German tanks that had retired from the B1 minefield to reassemble behind Ras el Medauuar, re-formed and thrust south-eastwards, followed by troop transporters, to continue the process of rolling up the perimeter posts. Two or three tanks peeled off at each post to shoot in the weapon-pits. Then stick grenades were thrown right into the posts. Although numbers of troop-carrying vehicles were sighted, the enemy infantry in the main failed to follow behind their tanks in this thrust to take full advantage of their dominance. A passage from The Rommel Papers may explain why:–
With British artillery fire sweeping the whole area, the Italians crept under their vehicles and resisted all their officers’ attempts to get them out again.34
The head of the column of tanks pushed on through Lieutenant Mair’s platoon area (Posts R2, 3 and 4), past Posts R5 and 6 to the east of Post R7, and there formed a semi-circle facing eastwards. Other tanks began breaking down the perimeter wire by dragging cable stretched between two tanks across it. Some infantry advanced on Post R5 under cover of a small ditch. Corporal Gazzard35 stood up above his weapon-pit to engage them, a living symbol of utmost valour, until swift death ended his moment of uncoveted heroic distinction. Posts R5 (Sergeant Poidevin36), R6 (Captain Bird) and R7 (Corporal Jones37) held out.
Meanwhile about 300 enemy infantry who had followed the first tank thrust into the perimeter were being mercilessly harassed both by the artillery and by the machine-guns of a detachment of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers stationed at Point 171. Many dispersed and sought cover in the area to the west of Bianca, a white mound that lay astride the northernmost of the two tracks leading into Pilastrino. Other infantry of the attacking force were digging in near the breach in the perimeter north of Ras el Medauuar, and farther north above the escarpment.
About 11.30 a.m. the now stationary spearhead of the enemy tank force, comprising about 25 tanks, was attacked by the cruiser tanks of “C” Squadron, 1st RTR, with “B” Squadron in support-10 cruiser tanks in all. Several hits were scored on the intruding tanks at a range of from 700 to 800 yards. Then one medium and two light German tanks were seen to catch fire. The enemy put down smoke, which halted the engagement; but one of the British squadron commander’s tanks was destroyed and two of the cruisers were hit as they turned right along the edge of the minefield to withdraw. The guns of the 1st and 107th RHA then concentrated on the German armour, which apparently decided that to remain longer in such an exposed position was unwise. The tanks withdrew behind Ras el Medauuar.
Like so many battles it was a confused fight, of which no coherent picture could be obtained at the time. Tanks and gunfire had cut all telephone
lines in the penetration area. Smoke from shells and bombs and burning vehicles, smoke screens deliberately laid and dust churned up by tanks and trucks were daubed across a blurred landscape indeterminately shimmering under the spell of a mirage through which the black forms of moving tanks could be but vaguely apprehended. As the day advanced, a hot wind got up and lifted more dust.
By the end of the morning the attackers firmly held both the high ground immediately surrounding the Ras el Medauuar feature and about 2,000 yards of the perimeter on either side. They were astride the east-west track that passed out of the perimeter west of Point 187 and the south-west track leading out past Point 179; they controlled the track leading from Point 187 to Point 179, and had established themselves firmly from the junction of tracks near Point 187 northwards to the Water Tower at Point 178. Seven tanks had been pushed out about 600 yards along the track which from there led down the two escarpments to the coast and were in a position to shoot up anything that came up over the escarpment towards the penetration area. Axis infantry had dug themselves in outside the perimeter along the second escarpment and thence northwards to the west of the perimeter to safeguard against a flanking counter-attack.
Soon after midday the attackers exerted pressure on both flanks to extend the width of their breach. On the northern flank a small group of tanks outside the perimeter thrust past Post S7 until, near S13 and S15, they were bombarded by the 51st Field Regiment just before 1 p.m. and forced to withdraw. Infantry in trucks followed the tanks, dismounted and attacked the posts from S7 northwards, but with little success against staunch defence. Lieutenant Christie,38 with headquarters in Post S8 and a forward section in the neighbouring S9, though surrounded, hung on. So did Lieutenant Rosel whose platoon, on the extreme right of the battalion front, held the three posts north of S9 (Posts S10, Sll and S11A). Rosel had taken charge of the company after Captain Canty’s surrender had been enforced earlier in the morning. When Rosel found his ammunition stocks dwindling he sent to the neighbouring 2/23rd Battalion for replenishment. About 2.30 p.m. a party led by Corporal Jackson39 was sent out and delivered several thousand rounds of small-arms ammunition to Rosel in S10. Rosel wrote a message reporting the situation and gave it to Corporal Jackson to take back. His report vividly describes the state of the battle there:
To: D Company 2/23rd Battalion
From: 14 Platoon 2/24th Battalion
Received ammunition. No idea how 15 Platoon and Company Headquarters are faring. 13 Platoon lost forward section Post S7. Enemy have occupied this post in strength. Also have light gun on ridge above this post making holding of this platoon area untenable. Enemy also have mortar in position on ridge. Propose
withdraw men from 8 and 9 and place them in 10 and 11A with my men. I have no communications with anyone outside. There appear to be some two hundred enemy across the wadi from S11. Came up in transport and are digging themselves in. Post S8 have 5 German prisoners, one being badly wounded. Wire in front of my position worthless. In 10 I have 1 Breda, plenty of ammunition, 1 Bren, 4,000 rounds. In 11A 2 Brens with total of 2,000 rounds. Post 11 – this includes your section-1 Bren with 3,000, 1 Breda 3,000, 1 Iti mortar with 300 bombs, only 50 ballistite rounds, 1 Anti-Tank Rifle, 220 rounds. Another 2 days rations still on hand. Could you possibly contact ISKO [2/24 Battalion headquarters] and hand on this information. Hope you can understand this. Viva la battalion. The position tonight is going to be very serious and if some reinforcements could be produced we would stand a fair chance. ISKO might know how our Company HQ and 15 Platoon stand. Here’s hoping.
Thanks for your assistance
Keeping one of your Brens.
The main weight of the attack next fell on the defenders’ left flank where the Axis command was renewing the eastward thrust along the perimeter to broaden the gap. Post R5 was surrounded, its weapon-pits blown in and its surrender enforced about 1 p.m. Groups of infantry were pushed through a gap between R5 and R6 and, accompanied by tanks, advanced eastwards. The 1st and 107th RHA engaged and compelled the infantry to scatter; but the tanks pushed on. Posts R6 (Captain Bird) and R7 (Corporal Jones) remained in Australian hands. Reports were received about 1.30 p.m. that the tanks had been attacking R8 and R9. Two squadrons of cruisers of the 1st Royal Tanks were sent forward to observe, but not engage closely. The German tanks, however, had then withdrawn to a hull-down position about a mile to the west though enemy infantry were endeavouring, in the face of heavy fire, to infiltrate between R5 and R6. About 3.15 p.m., a number of enemy tanks made another eastward attack along the perimeter and were soon reported to be massing between R8 and R10. The British tank force was ordered to engage them. A composite force of 7 cruiser tanks (1st Royal Tanks) and 5 infantry tanks (7th Royal Tanks) was organised, while the remaining cruisers (of “C” Squadron) were sent to the top of the Pilastrino pass to guard the approaches to fortress headquarters.
The renewed pressure by ground forces was accompanied by heavy dive-bombing attacks on the garrison artillery. At 1 p.m. guns of the 51st Field Regiment were the target. At 1.30 p.m. both troops of “B/O” Battery (1st RHA) were bombed and seven men killed or mortally wounded. At 2 p.m. “E” Troop of the same regiment, at the junction of the El Adem and Bardia Roads, was bombed, with a loss of three lives and serious injury to a fourth man.
In the early afternoon Morshead had decided to mount an infantry counter-attack with tank support with the object of recovering the breach in the Medauuar sector. It was to be made in mid-afternoon and the task was assigned to the 2/48th Battalion. It is not certain when Colonel Windeyer was first warned of this nor is there a record of what he was told; but his first impression was that he was to assist Colonel Spowers’
battalion in a counter-attack and at 2 p.m. he telephoned Spowers to see if it would be possible to arrange a joint meeting with the tank commanders to plan the operation.
At 2.30 p.m. Lieut-Colonel Verrier’s40 2/10th Battalion was warned that it would be required to relieve Windeyer’s battalion to release the latter, and at 3 p.m. Tovell ordered Windeyer to visit Spowers’ headquarters and there discuss with the tank commander a proposal to counterattack for the perimeter posts lost on Spowers’ front. When Windeyer reached Spowers’ headquarters, however, he learned that some 20 minutes earlier Spowers had received a message cancelling the counter-attack because of the engagement of the armour against the eastward-thrusting German tanks.
The mixed British tank force of seven cruisers and five infantry tanks (Matildas) was now moving forward under orders to drive back the German tanks. The armoured brigade’s infantry-tank force (7th Royal Tanks) had been divided into two squadrons (Dyne I and Dyne II) each of nine tanks, but the afternoon’s operational tasks appear to have been assigned to only one of these (Dyne I), which by that time had been reduced to five tanks, one having been damaged in a dive-bombing attack, and three immobilised by mechanical breakdown. Small as this mixed tank force of cruisers and Matildas was, after a squadron had been detached to guard the approach to the Pilastrino pass, its striking power was further attenuated by a decision of the commander to leave all the cruisers except the headquarters tanks in reserve at R14 because some of them were reporting mechanical trouble. The decision was probably also influenced by the fact that the action in battle of the cruisers and the infantry tanks could not be closely coordinated because there was no radio-telephonic communication between them.
The plan was simple. The striking force, now reduced to five Matildas and the three cruisers of regimental headquarters, was to advance along the perimeter between the front and inner row of perimeter posts straight towards the enemy. Posts R11 and 12 were reached about 4 p.m. and it was found that the Australians were still in occupation: they had not been closely engaged. The Matildas then led the advance to Posts R8 and 9, about 1,000 yards distant, from which region the German tanks had withdrawn towards Medauuar a short time before. Here again the Australian garrisons were still hanging on, though many of the men were badly wounded. Leaving two of his infantry tanks at R8 (Lieutenant Gray41), the tank commander then advanced to R6 with six tanks, three Matildas and three cruisers, the Matildas leading. Gray accompanied them, to report to Captain Bird. Again it was found that the Australian garrison was holding out. Four German light tanks could then be seen inside the perimeter wire at Post R5 while one German medium tank was visible
at R4. A staff car drove up to the light tanks; four men – evidently the tank commanders – dismounted and entered the tanks. A British cruiser tank advanced towards the German medium at R4. Fourteen German medium tanks came up from the rear and opened fire at 1,000 yards’ range. The Matildas moved round to the west of R6 and advanced to meet them. The British commander’s cruiser was hit at R6, the crew climbed on to the outside of the adjutant’s tank and the two cruisers still mobile returned to R8 where orders were given to the two Matildas left there to join the three already engaged. But the forward tanks now returned, one having been damaged and all its crew except the driver killed. Another force of German tanks engaged from the flank. The five British infantry tanks then fought a rearguard action, greatly outnumbered but effectively supported by the British gunners. Only one cruiser and two Matildas got back to R14. Two Matilda tanks and two cruisers had been lost; one Matilda had been damaged, but was later recovered.
While the British tanks had been moving forward to meet the German thrust, Captain Provan’s42 company of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion, which had been attached to the 2/15th Battalion, had been sent forward to Posts R8, 9 and 10, which had been reported abandoned earlier in the afternoon. He reached the area about 6 p.m. As Provan was coming forward Sergeant Thurman43 withdrew the garrison of Post R8 (of whom 8 out of 12 had been wounded) to R10, and the garrison of R9 came back to R11. When Provan arrived, Post R9 was reoccupied and Posts R9, 10 and 11 were reinforced but R8 was left unmanned. The wounded of the 2/24th were evacuated. Provan’s company then began to prepare a switch line east of the minefield, which was to become the new front line.
Disengaging from the battle with the withdrawing British tanks, the German tanks turned to give support to their infantry closing in, as night fell, on Posts R6 and 7. Both posts had been under heavy fire throughout the afternoon. R7 managed to hold out but R6, where the automatic weapons had been smashed and the garrison of 14 men under Captain Bird had suffered more than 50 per cent casualties, succumbed at 7.30 p.m. R7 was then completely isolated in an overrun area, cut off from water, food and ammunition. Corporal Jones, the post commander, has described the experiences of the garrison in a report written for the historian of the 2/24th:–
That night the slightest move would bring a flare over our position and the area would be lit like day. We passed a night of merry hell as the pounding went on.
Next morning, Jones made “a hurried neck-jerking survey” just after daybreak and saw infantry assembling for an attack. Powerless to hit back, he surrendered his men. After they had been taken back, General Rommel spoke to them. “For you the war is over,” he said, “and I wish you good luck.”
The pressure on the northern flank during the afternoon had been less severe than in the south, where the main tank thrust had been made. The enemy appeared to be in command of the perimeter area from Ras el Medauuar for about a mile north to the top of the higher escarpment, where Posts S6 and S7 were reported to be in enemy hands. When Colonel Evans had received Corporal Jackson’s report of his patrol to S10 to deliver ammunition to Lieutenant Rosel, he had sought Tovell’s permission to mount a counter-attack. At 5 p.m. Tovell granted permission to stage a limited operation after dark to restore the position below the escarpment. Evans’ battalion was not to push on up the escarpment, because this would conflict with operations planned for Windeyer’s battalion.
Meanwhile at 4 p.m. Morshead had set off for Tovell’s headquarters to issue orders for a counter-attack in the centre of the area of penetration. At 4.20 p.m. he stated his requirements to Brigadier Tovell: the 2/48th Battalion was to counter-attack to restore the perimeter defence line but was first to be relieved in its defensive positions on the Blue Line by the 2/10th Battalion, which was then located at the junction of the Bardia and El Adem Roads. Brigadier Murray was given command of the eastern flank of the breach and the 2/9th Battalion (near Pilastrino) was placed under his orders. The attack was to be mounted before night fell.
When Windeyer arrived back at the 2/48th Battalion headquarters after visiting Spowers, he was informed that his battalion was to mount a counter-attack at dusk that evening and that written orders were on their way. The orders were received soon afterwards, at 4.45 p.m. Windeyer was dismayed. He requested Tovell by telephone to postpone the operation until the next morning, pointing out that the battalion was distributed in defensive positions over a wide front from which they must first be relieved before being assembled to attack. Tovell told him that Morshead would speak to him. Writing later, Windeyer described the conversation.
The G.O.C. said “Listen Windeyer, it is important that this be done and done today.” I said it was impossible. He asked why. I said the troops were spread over miles and could never be assembled and got to the start-line in time. He said he would send vehicles to move them. So I said, that being so, we would do our best. I asked for tank support.
Morshead informed Windeyer that the tanks were to engage enemy on the southern flank at 5 p.m. but would thereafter be available to protect the battalion’s left flank. Morshead also told Windeyer to put down one company in position south of the Acroma Road, facing south.
Windeyer’s orders were to retake that part of the perimeter which the Axis forces had seized, from S7 to the road running through R5, a span of about 4,500 yards. The reserve company of Spowers’ battalion was attached for the operation. Setting these objectives involved the capture of some 12 heavily fortified posts on a most extended front, a task that one battalion could scarcely achieve in an improvised operation except against a demoralised or unresisting foe.
After complying with the fortress commander’s direction to establish a company in a firm position south of the Acroma Road, Windeyer would have available for his formidable task only four infantry companies, including the reserve company of the 2/24th Battalion. There was barely time to assemble the troops for the attack. The need was for a simple plan that could be conveyed by brief orders and executed without reconnaissance and detailed planning. In substance Windeyer’s plan was that his companies which, before being relieved by the 2/24th, had held the part of the perimeter to be retaken, should attack in the areas they had held. The Acroma Road was to be the axis of the attack on the right. Captain Woods’44 company, with Gebhardt’s company of the 2/24th Battalion taking up a position on its left, facing south, was to advance on the right of the Acroma Road to take Posts S7 to S3 (including the original enemy bridgehead), attacking first for the Water Tower area above the southern escarpment. Loughrey s company was to attack south of the road and retake the posts from the left shoulder of Medauuar to the road running southwest. Of the other two companies, Windeyer kept one as a reserve attacking force, to follow behind Woods’ company with a view to reinforcing the final assault on Medauuar; the other was sent to Forbes’ Mound to occupy the old reserve company positions and face south, thus fulfilling Morshead’s instruction. Little information of enemy dispositions was available except some afforded by the 2/23rd Battalion, though it could be taken for granted that the enemy would hold the fortified perimeter posts in strength. The artillery plan allowed for concentrations in front of the perimeter during the 20 minutes preceding the attack; shelling of the perimeter posts while the assault troops would be approaching them from the start-line; and finally shelling in areas the Axis forces might use as forming-up places for counterattack. The start-time was fixed for 7.15 p.m.
There was no time for reconnaissance; there was barely sufficient to complete the relief and to move to the pre-attack assembly area near Bianca. As happens not seldom in battle crises, the hastily summoned transport did not arrive on time. Vehicles of the 2/10th Battalion had
to be commandeered. When at last the battalion was embussed and under way, low-flying enemy aircraft attacked the convoy, vehicles dispersed, one truck was destroyed, troops debussed; more time was lost.
The battalion arrived, in a dust-storm, late at its start-line, hastily dismounted, and moved off to attack into the glare of a fiery setting sun. The men ran into heavy shell fire almost at once, but pressed on, leaving casualties behind. The main thrust was on the right; Loughrey’s company on the left, following a different axis, moved off on its own along a track known as Pirie Street towards Medauuar. The artillery program had begun at the appointed time, but the infantry were at least 20 minutes behind schedule and thus lost irretrievably the benefit of close artillery support.
On the right Captain Woods’ company moved out along a valley north of the Acroma Road, which was defiladed from most of the enemy posts. Captain Tucker’s company followed 600 yards in rear. Woods intended to capture the right posts first and then exploit southwards towards Medauuar. As his company came within range of the second line of perimeter posts, they were pinned to the ground by heavy machine-gun fire from the area of the Water Tower and water points. It was becoming dark.
Windeyer had noticed that Woods’ company was tending to veer to the right, so he ordered Tucker to attack the enemy in the Water Tower area and close the gap. While Tucker’s company was coming up, Woods’ was striving to get forward. He sent his rear platoon, under Lieutenant Robbins,45 to find a way round under cover of a ridge following the Acroma Road, but Robbins came under fire from S10, which was believed to be still held by Australian troops. (In fact, although S10 was still holding out, it had been closely invested by Italian infantry.) Lieutenant Isaksson’s carrier platoon, going forward with the object of locating enemy machine-guns by drawing their fire, was checked by anti-tank guns and by fire from damaged tanks immobilised in the minefield.
On the left of the attack, Major Loughrey’s company had set off under heavy shell fire towards the minefield. Knowing that the plan included tank support on the left flank, the men were pleased to obtain glimpses through the dust of six tanks moving westwards towards them. The tanks followed, and came up within 30 yards on the left, when it was seen that they carried German flags. With the exception of one burst, the tanks did not fire, but filed past the company’s left forward platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Morphett.46 Perhaps, owing to poor visibility, they were uncertain of the nationality of the infantry. When Loughrey’s men had got to within 200 yards of Point 209, however, the tanks wheeled round and opened fire from in front. The infantry went to ground. Sergeant Farrell’s47 platoon, which was bringing up the rear, engaged with Boyes
anti-tank rifle but with no effect. Loughrey sent a runner back to Windeyer with a message that the company was held up by enemy tanks. There was no cover from the fire of the German tanks, no effective weapon to combat them, no British armour. The company found itself in a hopeless, demoralising situation. The forward platoons came back while Farrell’s men continued to engage; then the whole company withdrew.
Meanwhile, on the right, when Robbins’ attempt to get forward had failed, Woods had sent a runner back to Windeyer to tell him that the company was held up. On the way back the runner gave a report of the situation to Captain Tucker, who then moved up his company behind Woods. In due course the runner reached Windeyer. Windeyer reported to Tovell that the battalion’s counter-attack was not making progress. Tovell in turn reported the situation to Morshead and recommended that the attack be discontinued for the time being but resumed at first light. Morshead, however, urged that the attack should be continued. Any postponement, he said, would greatly assist the enemy.
Tucker’s company was now coming in behind Woods’ company, and “B” Company of the 2/24th, relieved by Captain Forbes’ company of the 2/48th, was advancing along the Acroma Road. Woods was making a valiant effort to move his men forward by short bounds, keeping ahead himself and calling each platoon forward in turn. Lieutenant Larkins’48 turn came first, but his platoon ran into fire as it moved forward. Larkins was wounded, two men of his headquarters were killed, other men were hit, and the platoon became inert. Next it was the turn of 17 Platoon under Sergeant Tonkin,49 who had assumed command that morning; but Tonkin was killed as the platoon attempted to get forward, and one of the sections was badly cut up and disorganised.
Tucker, his company now in position close behind Woods’ company, came forward and conferred with Woods. They decided to press on, Tucker lending Woods one of his platoons (under Lieutenant Bryant50) to compensate for the loss of part of Larkins’ platoon. Then Sergeant Legg,51 in charge of the remaining two sections of 18 Platoon, took another forward bound, which met with greater success. They were followed by 17 Platoon, now in charge of Corporal Evans,52 with Robbins’ platoon and Tucker’s company not far in rear.
Woods then decided to rush the enemy machine-gun nest in a bayonet charge. With his company sergeant-major, Noble, and two runners, he crawled forward to locate it. Robbins moved his platoon up. Woods got within earshot of the enemy, but in the dark was still unable to locate the positions. The Germans called on the Australians to surrender and one of Woods’ men hurled back abuse. The enemy replied with heavy
fire. Woods and one of his runners, Private Carvosso,53 were severely wounded. Woods sent Carvosso back. Noble came to Woods’ assistance but Woods told him to go back to Robbins with a message that in Woods’ opinion the company could not be got forward: Robbins was authorised to withdraw the company if Tucker agreed. Robbins and Tucker conferred and decided (about 9.30 p.m.) to withdraw. Then Robbins and Noble went forward again and, while the enemy, about 100 yards away, were calling upon them to surrender, rescued Woods. But Woods was mortally wounded. “B” Company of the 2/24th Battalion, which had attacked along the Acroma Road, had been pinned down by machine-gun fire after advancing 600 yards.
More success was achieved by Captain Malloch’s company of the 2/23rd in operations below the escarpment on the right of Woods’ company. Moving southwards with carriers on the flank at the time when Woods’ company was struggling to get forward, Malloch’s men first made contact with Sll and S10 and engaged near-by enemy machine-gun nests. Moving on to S8 they found the post garrison’s fighting strength reduced to five. Next they found S9 to be surrounded. Attacking in the face of mortar and machine-gun fire, Lieutenant Bowden’s54 platoon overran the investing troops, killing many and capturing 36 Italian prisoners in the anti-tank ditch round the post. They found that Lieutenant Christie and five men were still holding out in the post. Five men of Bowden’s platoon were wounded.
Windeyer reported the failure of his attack to Tovell and then spoke to Lloyd, who told him to assemble his battalion in rear of Bianca. Morshead had been forewarned of likely failure by reports through artillery channels from the forward observation officers and had already reached a decision that the perimeter line should be re-formed in the area of the breach. When Windeyer’s report was received, Morshead summoned Brigadier Tovell and Colonel Verrier to headquarters to make plans for a switch line to hold the gap between S8 and Bianca and thence to link up with the switch line already being formed by Brigadier Murray on the eastern side of the penetration. On the right the 2/23rd Battalion was to hold the original perimeter as far south as S8; the 2/48th Battalion was to link S8 with the right of the reserve company position of the 2/24th and the Blue Line; and the 2/10th Battalion was to link up between the left of the 2/24th and the new 20th Brigade switch line. “B” Company of the 2/24th had returned to its original position after the counter-attack, there relieving Forbes’ company which rejoined the 2/48th.
In about 24 hours of operations Rommel’s forces had seized and obtained a firm hold on an arc of the perimeter of Tobruk spanning three miles and a half, including its highest point; they had captured or killed about
one-half of one of the garrison’s battalions; of the garrison’s small tank force they had destroyed four tanks; they had sliced off a part of the front but had failed to carve right through the defence. How did this achievement compare with Axis plans?
At the end of April General Rommel had at his command a force of all arms which, both in striking power and in the effectiveness of its command organisation, had no match in Africa. It must have galled him to contemplate that the Middle East and the Suez Canal were prizes only just beyond his reach. His armour could not strike into the heart of the Middle East so long as Tobruk held out; his supply line would be too attenuated. Tobruk was therefore denying him the most rewarding use of his strongest arm. Even if the supply problem could be temporarily solved, where were the infantry necessary to consolidate his hold on any territory a strong armoured thrust might overrun? If his infantry were released from the investment of Tobruk, the garrison could sally forth and cut his supply route. Rommel had therefore chosen the logical course, to use his armour first to subdue Tobruk. His plan was to breach the defences at their highest, most dominating point (Ras el Medauuar), to secure a firm lodgement inside the perimeter at Bianca and thence to mount a full-scale attack aimed at the harbour.
General Paulus, whom the German Army High Command had sent to Africa to report on Rommel’s operations, arrived at Rommel’s headquarters on 27th April to find that Rommel was on the point of ordering an attack on Tobruk. Paulus declined to assent to the plan without detailed reconnaissance, consultation with the commanders and further consideration, but two days later gave his assent.
General Rommel’s order for the operation thus described his intention:
The Africa Korps will force a decision in the battle round Tobruk during the night 30 April-1 May by an attack from the west.
The attack was to be made on a two-divisional front; two German divisional groups were to make the first assault, each to be followed by two Italian divisional groups. The first objective (to be attained at 8 p.m. on 30th April) was a penetration of the perimeter on both sides of Ras el Medauuar. Early next morning the attack was to be continued through Bianca and Pilastrino (the fortress headquarters and an artillery area) and was to be aimed at the town and harbour.
Rommel’s battle groups were composed of improvised combinations of units, sub-units and bits of sub-units, the precise strength of which defies accurate assessment. The front-line divisions were the Kirchheim Group of the 5th Light Division on the right and the 15th Armoured Division on the left. The Ariete Division was to follow the Kirchheim Group, the Brescia Division to come in on the left of the 15th Armoured Division. Because of differences of opinion with General Streich, commander of the 5th Light Division, Rommel had sent for Major-General Kirchheim, then at Tripoli recovering from a wound, to take charge of the division’s battle group.
The Kirchheim Group might be described as an armoured brigade group. Its close combat units were the 5th Armoured Regiment, comprising 81 tanks (9 Mark I, 26 Mark II, 36 Mark III and 8 Mark IV plus 2 large commander’s tanks), organised for the operation into a composite battalion of four companies;55 the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion almost up to strength (1,400); the 8th Machine Gun Battalion (one and a half companies – its strength having been reduced from almost full strength to 300 in the attack on 14th April); and two companies of an engineer battalion. Field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery were on a scale appropriate for a brigade group. The 15th Armoured Division comprised only advanced elements of that division, the most important close combat units being two battalions and a half of lorried infantry, one battalion of engineers, one company of special duty engineers, and one company of the 8th Armoured Regiment (strength unascertainable – probably not more than 10 tanks).56 There were normal supporting arms for a brigade, including an artillery regiment. The exact strength of the groups from the Ariete and Brescia Divisions which were employed is uncertain, but appears to have approximated about one weak infantry brigade group in each case.
This formidable force was directed at the centre of the 2/24th Battalion which, with three companies forward and one sited in depth, was holding an arc of the perimeter five miles in extent. (By the end of the battle the assault had overrun the centre company and the two inner platoons of each of the flanking companies, but had failed to dislodge the reserve company.) The plan was to penetrate with the assault divisions on either side of Medauuar, then capture Medauuar from the rear. The Italian divisions were then to roll up the flanks of the perimeter, while the German divisions were to seize the Bianca (or Giaida) area (or, if that was strongly held an area to the south-west) and to develop the seized area for defence against counter-attack. The importance attached in the plan to the Bianca defensive position, which was non-existent, was probably due to Rommel’s having seen the Italian plans of the Tobruk defences received about a fortnight earlier, which showed a system of earthworks and artillery positions there.57
The operation commenced with dive-bombing and artillery preparations, after which, at 8 p.m., engineer troops made narrow penetrations. On the left a gap was made just north of S3; possibly a further gap near S7.58 Tanks (probably of the 8th Armoured Regiment) were employed to drag away the wire with grappling irons. Some placed themselves across the fixed lines of small-arms fire coming from the perimeter posts. So sheltered, the infantry passed beside the tanks into the perimeter. Just one hour and a half after the attack began the capture of Ras el Medauuar was signalled by a white light. In fact, the old fort used for artillery observation had been taken but the adjacent perimeter posts had not been molested. Subsequently
about six tanks were established on the Tobruk side of Medauuar. The Kirchheim Group on the right next cleared a small gap in the perimeter near R1 and dispatched part of the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion to Point 182 near the crossroads about 1,200 yards in from Medauuar, while the 15th Armoured Division dispatched an assault detachment from the 104th Lorried Infantry Regiment with orders to proceed to Bianca. This detachment was probably the one that was intercepted by Gebhardt’s patrol and which later dug in about 500 yards from “B” Company of the 2/24th Battalion. The Brescia Division, which was to attack on the left of the 15th Armoured (i.e. on the 2/23rd front) was shelled in its assembly area, moved north and eventually came into the perimeter through the gap cleared by the Germans.
The failure to clear the defenders from the perimeter posts (or perhaps the failure of the defenders to surrender voluntarily59) enforced a change of plan. When the 5th Armoured Regiment reported to Kirchheim’s headquarters for orders at 5.30 a.m. (the crews having slept beneath their tanks since 10.30 p.m.), it was ordered to support an attack on Medauuar (“which was occupied by the enemy”) by part of the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion and the company of the special duties 200th Engineer Battalion. The morning fog delayed operations. One company (about 20 tanks) split into two; one group operating with an engineer battalion rolled up the right flank to R5, while the other first cooperated with the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion to subdue the perimeter posts at Medauuar, and then widened the flank to the left. Another company was detailed to lead the advance to Bianca, with battalion headquarters following and the other two companies in rear. This company ran on to the B1 minefield where 12 of its tanks (9 medium, 3 light) were immobilised, but not destroyed, by mines Meanwhile the tanks were coming under British artillery fire. Rommel, who had come forward to Kirchheim’s headquarters, then ordered the tank battalion to attack with the engineers south-eastwards along the perimeter. The Ariete Division was to be brought in to take over the positions taken. However these operations made less progress than Rommel had hoped because British artillery fire hampered cooperation between ground troops and tanks.
About midday the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion reported that it had captured Point 180, and the 15th Division that it was constructing a defensive position east of Point 187 – S4 (the position that Woods’ company was later to encounter, in the 2/48th Battalion’s counter-attack); the rest of the battalion attacking Bianca was withdrawing to this line. By 1 p.m. a heavy sand storm had blown up and the tank battalion drew together to replenish ammunition from trucks brought up under cover of the dust. This had been completed by 3.15 p.m.
While the tank battalion was replenishing, Paulus was conferring with Rommel Paulus advised that there was no prospect of continuing the attack with success. Rommel agreed and ordered that the advance should
be discontinued for that day and the next, and switched operations to widening the bridgehead to S7 in the north and R14 in the east. The S7 area was effectively consolidated but little progress was made to the east. R6, as we have seen, did not succumb till night fell nor R7 till next morning. During the remainder of the day the tank battalion was engaged more in manoeuvring to meet the garrison’s counter-measures than in extending the bridgehead. From 3.45 p.m. it occupied positions ready to meet a British tank force of 22 tanks which appeared to be threatening to attack the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion’s positions. The 5th Company attempted to cut off the British tanks It was claimed that four British tanks, three of them Mark II’s (Matildas), were put out of action, while four of the company’s tanks were hit.
About 5.30 p.m. portion of the Ariete Division arrived. The attack eastwards was resumed in a combined operation until R8 was reached, when strong British fire came down as daylight faded. At 7 p.m., the 5th Company reported that two British infantry companies (in fact, Loughrey’s company of the 2/48th) were advancing towards the point of break-through. At 7.15 p.m. the tank battalion and two companies of Italian infantry moved up to meet the attack but on arrival a section of tanks returning from a reconnaissance reported that the attackers were moving back. Counter-attacks were also withstood in the left sector. The tank battalion then leaguered near Posts R5, 6 and 3 but was later ordered to Carrier Hill, which it reached at 2 a.m., to replenish half an hour later.
At the end of the day’s operations the battalion had but 35 of the 81 tanks still ready for action (3 Mark I, 12 Mark II, 12 Mark III, 6 Mark IV and the 2 commander’s tanks). But it appears that only 12 were irrecoverable.60
Of the three objectives of the Axis assault on Tobruk – the breaching of the outer defence ring at Medauuar, the securing of a firm lodgement within the perimeter at Bianca and the enforcement of a capitulation by seizing the harbour – only the first had been attained. That, though tactically advantageous, was the least important. It was a success achieved by tanks against infantry stripped of anti-tank defence; but comparative weakness in infantry had lost Rommel the second objective and the prospect of the ultimate prize.
It has been said that if Rommel had resumed his attack on the second day, he might have captured Tobruk, but the outcome would have been doubtful if the original plan had been followed. The German tanks had so far fought beyond effective anti-tank range of the British field artillery. With tank strength now reduced to approximately that of the force that had failed to run the gauntlet in the Easter battle, Rommel would have had to deploy the tanks within close range of the main concentration of the garrison’s field guns. If, avoiding a direct onslaught on the gun positions, a portion of the tank force had broken through to the coast, it is not
to be supposed that the anti-aircraft guns and the guns of HMS Gnat would have offered no opposition. In fact a khamsin hid the fortress in a pall of dust that day; further large-scale tank attack was not practicable. On the other hand, a continued use of tanks against the infantry on the outer perimeter would have presented Morshead with an extremely grave problem.
Morshead held the fortress but lost part of the perimeter. Both results flowed from his policy of defending in depth at the cost of weakness at the outer ring. There were mistakes before the battle, but once it was joined it was well, if not perfectly, fought. Before the battle the evidence of a possible impending assault on Medauuar was not interpreted as sufficiently strong to warrant moving a counter-attack force to the area. Effective interference with the first breaching of the perimeter or intervention to close the gaps and re-establish the wire and minefields as soon as the penetrations had been made would have required the employment of units free of other commitments and ready for the task. But the only reserve units close enough were committed to defensive tasks.
The enemy having made his first moves and the defenders being unprepared for effective counter-moves before dawn, the defence could have done little to prevent the attack from following the course it took. The small anti-tank gun screen of two-pounders, firing projectiles that could maim and halt tanks but seldom kill them, could be quickly brushed aside. The infantry, without weapons that could harm the tanks, which could fire into their weapon-pits, could then be subdued post by post. The process could continue so long as the tanks could survive the shells of the British field guns firing at a range too great for pin-point accuracy. With greater energy and initiative on the left flank, however, R7 probably would not have been lost, R6 might possibly have been saved.
A counter-attack mounted earlier than the 2/48th counter-attack (that is, in broad daylight) would have courted disaster from intervention by the German tanks. By that time a deliberate counter-attack was required, but the 2/48th operation was mounted in haste and without reconnaissance. Morshead set the 2/48th Battalion a task that would have taxed a brigade; Windeyer perforce gave his forward companies tasks that battalions might have failed to accomplish. If, by attacking in greater strength on a narrower front, greater immediate success had been achieved, it is doubtful whether next day the gains could have been held. The counter-attack did not, as used to be supposed, stay the enemy offensive, but the enemy decision to discontinue the assault, reached six hours earlier, might possibly have been reversed if the garrison had not thus displayed that its spirit and power of retaliation had survived the ordeal.
Returning from Morshead’s headquarters in the early hours of the 2nd May, Lieut-Colonel Verrier found his vehicle’s progress slowed down more and more by dust until it became impossible to pick the way forward in the dark. He continued on foot but did not reach his battalion until it was standing to arms at 4 a.m. The battalion’s new task of linking S8
with Bianca, for which he brought orders, had to be executed at first light.
The diarist of the 2/10th noted that at 6 a.m. all companies were moving to their new positions: no reconnaissance had been made; all movement was by map and compass. The advance was executed with three companies forward less one platoon sent to an artillery battery on the previous day. The diarist also recorded that the move was completed by 6.30 a.m., but did not indicate the precise positions taken up. The diarists of both the 18th Brigade and 9th Division headquarters recorded the new positions as linking up with the 2/24th Battalion’s reserve company position behind the B1 minefield, but it soon became evident that this was not so. Verrier’s left flank was on Bianca, about 1,500 yards behind the positions held by “B” Company of the 2/24th. Windeyer pointed out to Verrier that the 2/24th company’s flanks were exposed, whereupon Verrier told Spowers, who was under his command, to withdraw behind the new line. The move was executed by the main body in good order, though one or two outlying sections came back individually, and a group of men under Lieutenant Macfarlane61 was pinned down for some time and mostly killed. Macfarlane eventually came in carrying Lance-Corporal Alleyne,62 who was badly wounded. At Forbes’ Mound he encountered a German motor-cyclist armed with a sub-machine-gun, who let him pass unharmed. For a time the 2/24th company went into position at the stone wall near Bianca with the 2/10th, but were later withdrawn. Meanwhile the 2/48th Battalion moved into its old positions vacated by the 2/10th.
It is fair to say that Morshead would not have approved of this deliberate withdrawal from a prepared defensive position within the perimeter, for from the time that a part of the perimeter was lost the desire to take it back dominated his operational plans. It is not hard to understand why the new line had not incorporated the 2/24th reserve position. What happened resulted from fatigue and the individual decisions of leaders of men moving forward who chose what appeared to them to be the best holding positions. There is no doubt that Morshead had intended to incorporate the reserve company position of the western sector in the new front line, but this intention may not have been understood by the company commanders. Later Verrier ordered an advance of 700 yards forward of the positions first taken up. The historian of the 2/10th Battalion later explained the reason for the forward move thus. At dawn “companies found themselves in position mostly on reverse slopes so it was necessary to move forward to better positions. 13’, ‘C’ and 13’ Companies advanced to a slight ridge some 700 yards forward.” Before the 2/10th moved forward Verrier had advised Brigadier Tovell that he thought the 2/24th Battalion had reached the limits of endurance and that, since they were under his command, he proposed to replace them. Therefore he chose the line that seemed to him most feasible to hold with his own battalion. Holding
a forward slope overlooked by Ras el Medauuar may have been adjudged impracticable, but considerations of great consequence were involved. The virtual abandonment of the B1 minefield increased the immediate danger in view of the possibility that the enemy would resume his assault with tanks, but the main disadvantage was the long-term consideration that the line taken up ran in an arc with a big radius and was thus undesirably long.
Verrier’s battalion linked up on its left flank with positions occupied astride the roads south and south-east of Bianca by “C” Company of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Brown63). A machine-gun platoon of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers with two Bren guns from the battalion’s headquarters company was later stationed at Bianca as a stop against enemy infiltrating between the 2/10th and the pioneers. The machine-gunners commanding officer protested, pointing out that the conformation of the ground did not lend itself to Vickers gun employment and unavailingly advocated that he should instead be permitted to shoot the enemy up in rear by enfilade fire from R12. It was probably not realised at divisional headquarters that the infantry did not form a continuous front forward of this feature, as the reported dispositions indicated, and that the Fusiliers’ position was in fact a forward outpost in the centre of the enemy’s line of thrust.
Before first light “D” Company of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion had moved forward to take up a line running north from R14 to the left flank of “C” Company, thus completing the new front line. The decision to link with R14 rather than with R12 on the old inter-brigade boundary had the result that the posts from R10 to R12 formed a narrow salient with open flanks In the opinion of Captain Sheehan64 of the 26th Anti-Tank Company, who had received his instructions from Brigadier Murray, a line should have been occupied 1,500 yards farther forward. Sheehan discussed the position with the company commander. It was then proposed to advance the infantry line and meanwhile Lieutenant Summerton’s65
platoon went forward to place its guns in position. About an hour later, however, the enemy came forward and overran the gun positions, capturing the entire platoon except Summerton and seven men.
The day’s operations developed into an artillery duel while the infantry of both sides consolidated their positions, but the enemy staged some local thrusts, which were broken up by gunfire Forward observation officers of the 1st and 104th RHA continuously roamed the battlefield in carriers, shooting up opportunity targets. A raging dust-storm blanketed the battle area.
At 6.45 a.m., after the surrender of Post R7, the enemy appeared to be assembling a mixed force of infantry and 30 tanks for a renewed thrust against R8 (in fact no longer held) but they were dispersed by concentrated gunfire. About 2 p.m. a flame-thrower was brought up to attack Post R9 under cover of two light tanks and an armoured car. The post’s garrison met the challenge and set the flame-thrower afire with a hit from its Boyes rifle. The light tanks and armoured car were then engaged with rifles and withdrew. In the early afternoon enemy infantry also began to close in on the 2/1st Pioneers in the new salient. Just before 5 p.m. Sergeant Christsen66 took out a carrier patrol to come to their assistance. The patrol ran into heavy fire, and one man was killed and one wounded. One carrier broke down but Christsen, under heavy fire, linked it to his own carrier and towed it back. At 5 p.m. guns began bombarding the 2/10th Battalion’s positions. Fifteen minutes later about 600 German infantry advanced upon the left company of the 2/10th Battalion in the direction of Bianca. This attack and a second thrust half an hour later aimed between the 2/10th’s right and left centre companies were both broken up with help from the artillery and the machine-guns of the Fusiliers on Bianca. Tanks in rear approaching the minefield were shelled.
Towards 5.30 p.m. the dust cleared, revealing about 100 vehicles and tanks on the forward slopes of Medauuar. The 51st Field Regiment brought forward a section of guns and the enemy vehicles were driven back to dead ground in some confusion. In the succeeding two hours before dusk the enemy endeavoured to assemble a strong, mixed force of tanks and infantry for an attack on the left flank but the force was scattered and broken by continual fire. Finally a night attack was made on R10 just before 11 p.m. but was held off by artillery concentrations. A daring but unsuccessful operation was attempted at 6 p.m. by the tank-hunting platoon of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion of which Lieutenant Osborn67 had taken charge when the platoon’s commander, Lieutenant MacAdam,68 had failed to return from a reconnaissance earlier in the afternoon. The mission was to destroy an enemy post reported to be west of Bianca, but the objective was found to be a strongly held position. After executing a difficult advance and withdrawal 600 yards under fire, Lieutenant Osborn
returned alone to rescue a missing member of his patrol and, finding him dead, brought his body in.
The diarist of the 1st RHA recorded that each gun of the regiment fired about 900 rounds that day. For the 3rd RHA the day brought good news. Three gun detachments, overrun and missing in the previous day’s operations, found their way back, bringing their breech blocks with them.
As the enemy had failed to resume the offensive, Morshead began planning to use his reserves in a counter-attack directed at retaking the lost territory. Brigadier Wootten, who knew his commander’s mind, had spent the day with the 20th Brigade acquainting himself with the situation in the battle area.
Orders for the operation were given at a conference at divisional headquarters on the morning of 3rd May. Wootten was given a choice of three possible methods of counter-attack. He chose a method involving a night attack from the flanks with artillery support, hoping thus to get in behind the forward enemy positions in the Salient. The attack was to be made by two battalions attacking from right and left along the perimeter and rolling up the enemy’s flanks to the apex at Ras el Medauuar. The 2/12th Battalion (Lieut-Colonel Field69), on the right, was to attack through to Medauuar, the 2/9th (Lieut-Colonel Martin), on the left, up to the left shoulder of that feature, stopping at R1. The 2/10th Battalion was to push forward from its positions in the centre, send out fighting patrols to give support on the left flank of the 2/12th Battalion’s attack, and assist in mopping up. Some of the artillery had been redisposed during the night in preparation for the attack. Approximately three artillery regiments were to support the operation. A timed artillery program was worked out. Barrages were to move to the first objectives at the rate of 100 yards in three minutes, then fire on the second objective for 90 minutes, followed by timed concentrations of less duration on subsequent objectives. An anti-tank regiment, 2 platoons of machine-guns, 12 light tanks and 7 infantry tanks were to be available for consolidation. The start-time was fixed at 7.33 p.m.
Battalion commanders issued preliminary orders to their company commanders in the early afternoon. The next few hours were spent by company commanders in reconnaissance and detailed planning. Brigadier Wootten held a final coordinating conference in mid-afternoon at which it was decided to defer the start-time to 8.45 p.m. to deny the enemy observation of the infantry approach. Final orders were issued to company commanders just after 5 p.m.
The 3rd of May was a quiet day by comparison with the two immediately preceding. At 9.30 a.m. two companies of enemy infantry advancing on R10, the isolated rear perimeter post on the extreme left
flank, were dispersed by artillery fire from “B/O” Battery and beat a hurried withdrawal through the wire. This was followed by a further attack of about one-company strength which was similarly dispersed. At 10 a.m. a considerable enemy force formed up in front of Bianca but was successfully engaged by the artillery, the machine-guns of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and the mortars of the 2/10th Battalion. Throughout the morning enemy were observed lifting mines on the B1 minefield and subjected to harassing fire. The positions of the Fusiliers covering Bianca were subjected to much interference from enemy machine-gunners located near a white house forward of the extreme left flank. During the afternoon the enemy could be seen reinforcing the area with anti-tank guns. From this region the perimeter posts on the left flank, from R14 forward, were then kept under continuous fire.
Wootten’s counter-attack was made in almost pitch darkness with little aid from a low moon which was in its first quarter and obscured by a slightly overcast sky. Field’s battalion on the right started on time, but Martin’s battalion was late in coming forward, necessitating half an hour’s postponement of its attack.
From its assembly area in a wadi on the left of the Fig Tree Road (where it had received some casualties from intermittent shelling), Field’s battalion moved, without drawing any fire, to the start-line on the right of the Fig Tree Road behind the 2/10th Battalion’s forward positions. The attack was made on a frontage of 500 yards with two companies up, “C” and “A” Companies in front (“C” on the right), “D” and “B” Companies (“D” on the right) followed 100 yards in rear. “C” Company was to take the first three posts encountered (S7, 6 and 5); “D” was then to come round and take the next two.
After passing through the 2/10th Battalion positions the forward companies ran into cross-fire from each flank fired from machine-guns situated, on the right, outside the perimeter, and on the left, deep within the Salient. This put the troops to ground, and the noise and darkness combined
to render coordinated movement forward extremely difficult. On the right some groups were able to infiltrate outside the perimeter along the anti-tank ditch past S7, and on the left other groups got forward to the vicinity of S6 by following a pipe-line ditch. Many of the men simply got lost. For four hours and a half efforts were made to re-establish organisation and infiltrate the troops forward while the ground continued to be lacerated by machine-gun and mortar fire from nests mainly outside the zone covered by the artillery program. At 12.30 a.m. the commander of “C” Company informed Field that he would be able to mount an assault on S6 and S7 if 15 minutes of artillery fire could be arranged. Field at first tried to arrange an artillery program on the unneutralised machine-gun positions on the flanks but found that to do so would require lengthy calculations, which ruled it out as an immediate possibility. Eventually a repetition of the original program was arranged for 15 minutes from 1.15 a.m. The enemy fire was not neutralised, however, and the attack could not be pressed home. Field reported the failure to Wootten.
On the left of Field’s battalion, Captain Lines’70 company of the 2/10th Battalion was given the task of mopping up enemy posts established forward of a line of diggings running south-west of the Water Tower. The two forward platoons were stopped by heavy cross-fire, but Lieutenant Bidstrup71 later succeeded in working his way to the left and got through to the tank ditch. There a position was taken up, from which a German patrol of seven men was ambushed and captured. Lines’ company later assisted in reorganising “A” Company of the 2/12th Battalion and getting out their wounded.
A patrol of two platoons from the reserve company of the 2/10th Battalion under Lieutenant Cook72 was given the task of mopping up an advanced enemy position 800 yards west of Bianca. The patrol set off at 9.10 p.m. after its objective had been bombarded with mortars for 10 minutes but, some 400 yards from its start-line, ran into machine-gun fire from at least six guns. Lieutenant Cook immediately ordered his platoon to charge the machine-gun nest with the bayonet. As the men drew close, grenades were thrown into the enemy position, which was then stormed and captured without loss. On the left Lieutenant Beames’73 platoon was caught in a cross-fire as it advanced. Beames and other members of the patrol were wounded and the platoon was pinned down. At Cook’s behest Lance-Corporal Taylor74 made three searches in an endeavour to find Beames’ party. During one of these he located an enemy machine-gun post and charged it single-handed with his Tommy-gun, slaying all six
members of the gun crew. Another troublesome post was assaulted by a section led by Corporal Fricker.75 The enemy in the post were annihilated, with the exception of two taken prisoner. An anti-tank gun, a machine-gun, a mortar and two motor-cycles were collected and brought in. Private Jones76 was wounded in this action. He was subsequently taken prisoner, but escaped from his captors during some shelling of their positions and got back to the battalion some 36 hours later.
The platoon tried to hang on to its ground but constant fire caused casualties to mount. After an hour and a half a controlled withdrawal was executed. The patrol lost 4 men killed and 3 missing, and 9 men were wounded in addition to Lieutenant Beames.
Although, on the left of the attack, the 2/9th Battalion was late in arriving, it proved possible to defer the artillery program for half an hour. Even so, the battalion did not arrive at the start-line until just as the guns started up. The men hurried forward without properly forming up. The battalion was to attack in two phases with two companies up for each phase, “A” and “D” (“A” on the right), followed by “C” and “B” (“C” on the right). The first phase included the capture of the four posts, R8, 7, 6 and 5 and the White House near R8. In the second phase Posts R4, 3, 2 and 1 were to be taken. The area to be attacked was found to be garrisoned mainly by Italians.
Concentrations of gunfire falling on the start-line as the men set off caused some confusion and intermingling between the forward and rear companies. Enfilade machine-gun fire from both flanks did not improve matters. Enemy machine-guns were also firing down the road on fixed lines, but the lines of fire were obligingly illuminated with tracers. Captain Fleming’s77 company on the right experienced difficulties from insufficient knowledge of the ground. The leading platoon commanders positioned themselves by reference to the road leading to R6, but the lie of the road in use differed from that shown on the map. Lieutenant W. H. Noyes’ platoon’s objective was Post R8. He searched for it in vain on the left of the road he was following; it was in fact on the right. The platoon pushed on, encountered an enemy position behind a mound of stones, threw in grenades and charged in with the bayonet. They killed a large number and drove out the rest of the garrison, which Noyes reported to be about 80 strong. This position was to the north of R7.
On the left, Captain F. E. C. Loxton’s company, somewhat disorganised, closed in on Post R7 through heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Some of the men managed to get into the anti-tank ditch surrounding the post. The enemy garrison then set two blankets alight, creating a most unwelcome illumination.
Meanwhile three Italian light tanks came down the road towards Noyes’
platoon. Noyes and Sergeant Hobson78 sneaked up to the tanks, lifted the turret lids and dropped hand grenades inside. The tanks burst into flames but this drew the enemy’s fire. Noyes led his dwindling platoon on, striking some more enemy in shallow ditches near R6. These were also cleaned up. With the remnants of his platoon, now numbering but six men, Noyes turned back to find the rest of the company. Coming back on the north of the road he stumbled upon his original objective, R8, only to find that the post had not been occupied.
Soon afterwards most of Captain B. M. Lovett’s company arrived at R8 and decided to carry on where Noyes left off. The company, however, veered to the left and encountered Post R7. The post was assaulted, most of the garrison were slain and two prisoners were taken. Four 47-mm guns and a heavy Breda machine-gun were found in the post. Almost immediately, however, the Australians were counter-attacked by a medium tank and three armoured cars, probably attracted by the burning blankets. The Australians fell back.
There is no doubt that Noyes’ and Lovett’s men had inflicted severe casualties. A German diary subsequently captured referred to the state of utter confusion to which the Italian garrison in the area had been reduced by the assault. The diarist, possibly with some exaggeration, wrote that, of 150 men in this locality, 100 had been killed or wounded. But by this time the battalion, fragmented into small groups, had become disorganised. With the exception of a garrison in R8 there was a general withdrawal to the area of R14, where the battalion began to reorganise for a further attack directed at Posts R5 and R6. It was planned to mount the second attack at 4.15 a.m.
Meanwhile, just after 3 a.m., Morshead had asked Wootten to report the situation on both flanks in half an hour in order to enable a decision on future action to be reached before the approach of daylight. Wootten duly did so before 3.40 a.m. Morshead then ordered the attack to be broken off. The assault battalions were withdrawn into reserve before daylight.
In a report on this operation, Wootten made the sound comment that “in view of the enemy’s defensive strength and dispositions it appears that any further large-scale infantry operations will require the support of many more guns and tanks.”
Even if on that night many more guns and tanks had been available, it is doubtful whether much greater success would have been achieved. Formation commanders were setting units, and therefore unit commanders were setting their men, tasks well beyond their powers. For a formation that had developed a detailed battle-drill for night operations and rehearsed it up to the last minute, such a night attack in depth on fortified posts through a succession of objectives would have been a formidable proposition under a quarter moon, even with full knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions and time to work out a plan of assault on each locality.
To require a system of developed defences to be penetrated and overrun to a depth of two or three miles in a night attack was asking a great deal of the battalions. To mount the operation at short notice with unrehearsed troops hastened into the attack and with but the sketchiest knowledge of how the enemy was disposed was to invite confusion in the execution of a very doubtful enterprise.
Nevertheless the operation had achieved positive results. Wootten’s brigade incurred 155 casualties (10 killed, 121 wounded and 24 missing), but inflicted equally heavy losses and 23 prisoners were in the bag. Next morning enemy ambulances came up to the posts and throughout the day were seen to be collecting the wounded and removing the dead. In the 24 hours to the evening of 4th May, the German 15th Armoured Division incurred 53 casualties (10 killed, 40 wounded, 3 missing) and the Ariete Division 150 (26 killed, 65 wounded, and 59 missing). The 15th Armoured Division had held the northern sector attacked by the 2/12th Battalion, the Ariete the eastern sector where the 2/9th attacked. It must be remembered that, although outmatched in artillery performance, the Germans were better armed and equipped than the Australians. The achievement was not to be measured in casualties. The real achievement was the fact that the aggressive conduct of the defence compelled Rommel to hold his salient in strength with some of his best troops, which augmented the inhibiting effect of the Tobruk fortress on his power to strike at the frontier of Egypt.79
Congratulations on the garrison’s successful resistance reached General Morshead from all sides, including messages from Mr Menzies and General Blamey. Morshead would have appreciated General Wavell’s signal
Your magnificent defence is upsetting the enemy’s plans for the attack on Egypt and giving us time to build up force for counter offensive. You could not be doing better service. Well done. ...
but the men manning the perimeter defences, the guns and the tanks
may have drawn more encouragement from Churchill’s purposeful rhetoric:
To General Morshead from Prime Minister of England. The whole Empire is watching your steadfast and spirited defence of this important outpost of Egypt with gratitude and admiration.