Chapter 7: Midsummer in the Fortress
The failure of the 18th Brigade’s counter-attack marked the end of a phase. No longer was it possible to regard the ground given up as a temporary loss to be recovered at first opportunity. The aim of re-establishing the perimeter on the original line, if not discarded, was at least deferred. The immediate emphasis changed to a policy of improving the new line opposite the Salient and of recovering organisation by reverting as far as possible to normal brigade groupings through a succession of reliefs. There had been a degree of improvisation in the dispositions made to block further penetration after the perimeter had been breached.
The regrouping was to begin on the night of 4th–5th May. In the Salient sector Lieut-Colonel Windeyer’s 2/48th Battalion was ordered to take over the right of the new defence line from the two right-hand companies of Lieut-Colonel Verrier’s 2/10th Battalion, while Lieut-Colonel Martin’s 2/9th Battalion, coming under command of Brigadier Murray’s brigade, was to take over defences in the centre of the Salient, near Bianca, from the left company of the 2/10th Battalion and the right company of Lieut-Colonel Brown’s 2/1st Pioneer Battalion.
On the afternoon of 4th May, Martin made preliminary moves in conjunction with Brown’s battalion, bringing forward part of his own battalion to close a gap on Brown’s right flank. Simultaneously Brown’s right-hand company, under Captain Graham,1 moved forward for about a quarter of a mile, dislodging an enemy machine-gun post in the process. Three members of a covering party provided by the 2/1st Pioneers for the forward move of the 2/9th were killed. Private Rundle2 saw Privates Cheney3 and Goodfellow4 fall. From a position of comparative safety he went to their assistance, found Goodfellow dead, but decided to carry in the mortally wounded Cheney; on this compassionate errand Rundle was shot down and killed. Heavy machine-gun fire caused some of the ground taken up by the 2/9th to be relinquished.
The planned reliefs took place on the night of the 4th May. Graham’s company of the 2/1st Pioneers was relieved by the left company of Martin’s battalion, then side-stepped to the left and pushed forward through the neighbouring company of the Pioneer battalion which held the switch-line running north from R14, and took up a position in front of the old switch-line and to the right of the previously isolated forward perimeter posts west of R14. The 2/10th Battalion was withdrawn, after its relief, into reserve at Pilastrino.
Later in the night the main body of the 2/32nd Battalion, of which one company was already in the fortress, arrived at Tobruk from Mersa Matruh in the destroyers Decoy and Defender. This brought Morshead’s infantry strength up to four complete brigades. The new battalion was temporarily placed under Brigadier Wootten’s command and immediately put into a defensive position near the junction of the El Adem and Bardia Roads.
On the morning of 5th May Colonel Martin, surveying the positions he had taken over during the night, found his battalion holding a general north-south line running through the important track junctions (not all printed on the map) behind and east of Bianca. Appreciating the need of denying to the enemy that dominant point of vantage and observation, Martin at once decided to push his line forward. The move was executed in the early afternoon under intense machine-gun fire and shelling. Ten men were killed and 22 wounded (one mortally) and 2 men were reported missing; but though costly in life the realignment added greatly to the security of the defence at its weakest point and moreover enabled an excellent, if vulnerable, observation post for the artillery, later known as Nixon’s5 Post, to be established.
The enemy made a last attempt to extend the breach of the perimeter on the morning of 6th May. About 7.30 a.m. a strong German fighting patrol closed in on Post S9 in the area held by Captain Malloch’s company of the 2/23rd Battalion. The attack was driven off with the help of artillery fire and supporting fire from Post S8 but one man in the post was killed and another wounded. More enemy, estimated to be in excess of one company, were then observed about 300 yards from the wire; but after enduring fire for two hours the enemy withdrew at 9.30 a.m.
Henceforward the positions in the Salient were steadily improved by digging, wiring and mining, and were edged forward when opportunity offered. As each side developed its positions and pushed them out towards the other, the strain on the men holding the front, particularly in the Salient, became intense, sapping vigour and draining away enthusiasm. The hard work of constructing the defences had all to be done at night in conjunction with a vigorous program of night patrolling and vigilant manning of the forward defences. By day the scorching sun withheld sleep after the night’s exertions. The rations were good and well-balanced but for long, unbroken periods, were “hard” and monotonous and in the forward posts had to be eaten “hard”, except at night, when a hot meal cooked in the “B” Echelons was brought forward in hot boxes. Many men tended to go off their food. The water, of which the daily ration was only half a gallon per man, was brackish and unpalatable.
Morshead insisted that the defence should never be inactive. The mastery of no-man’s land by all brigades was positively required and was unrelentingly maintained throughout the siege by patrols and excursions beyond the wire and aggressive employment of the artillery. As soon as the front was stabilised after the thrusts and counter-thrusts of the first few days
of May, the patrolling policy was intensified along the whole length of the perimeter from the Wadi Sehel (held by the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment) in the west to the Wadi Zeitun in the east.
In the early hours of 10th May Lieutenant Brown6 of the 2/23rd Battalion led out a fighting patrol of platoon strength from S13 and proceeded westward along the escarpment south of the coast road to attack an enemy position about 2,500 yards from the perimeter. As the patrol was approaching its objective it surprised a large Italian working company and shot down a great number. The remainder surrendered and 31 prisoners were brought in. In the 2/48th Battalion area patrols to the old headquarters area of the 2/24th Battalion and Forbes’ Mound were boldly executed. One day a fighting patrol commanded by Lieutenant Bryant skilfully extricated a small daylight patrol which had attracted enemy attention while recovering equipment from the old headquarters. A night fighting patrol under Lieutenant Kimber to Forbes’ Mound ambushed a German patrol; Kimber was wounded but all the enemy were killed. Meanwhile patrols from the 2/15th Battalion holding the perimeter adjoining the left of the Salient were, night by night, deeply and vigorously probing the enemy’s right flank.
In Brigadier Godfrey’s sector on the east of the perimeter Lieutenant Pratt7 and Captain Sudholz8 of the 2/43rd Battalion and Lieutenant Masel9 of the 2/28th executed in daylight several Bren gun carrier patrols deep into enemy-held territory near the Bardia Road, shooting up working parties and taking prisoners. Carriers with the Army Service Corps detachment manning the perimeter along the Wadi Zeitun also patrolled adventurously. These successes encouraged Brigadier Godfrey and Lieut-Colonel Crellin, commanding the 2/43rd Battalion, to plan a more ambitious foray. Captain Jeanes’10 company was assigned the task of destroying the enemy at the head of the Wadi Belgassem, on its western edge, about a mile and a half beyond the perimeter. From the prisoners captured by the carrier patrols the Intelligence staff had been able to ascertain that a Bersaglieri regiment occupied, with at least two battalions, a defensive line that extended south from the head of the wadi through Sidi Belgassem and across the Bardia Road. (Later it was established that a third battalion was present.) One troop of infantry tanks and two of cruisers were to neutralise the enemy positions covering the approaches and to protect the open flanks; three armoured cars were to provide communication between the tanks and infantry; two carrier detachments (one provided by the AASC) – 7 carriers in all – a platoon of machine-guns, a detachment
of 3-inch mortars and a battery of field guns were to give close-support fire-power.
The assault was made at first light on 13th May but the coordinating arrangements broke down and confusion set in. Furthermore the noise of the tracked vehicles had alerted the enemy. The carrier appointed to guide the infantry tanks towards the objective from the right flank missed the way in a fog and brought them across close to where the infantry were waiting to advance. The tanks opened fire indiscriminately and the thoroughly roused enemy replied with all weapons, pinning down the infantry. Jeanes at first strove vainly to redirect the tanks but, failing to do so, instructed the three accompanying carriers to attack if necessary without them. While this was taking place a neighbouring enemy unit by mischance fired a light signal corresponding with that arranged for the withdrawal of the force, and most of the infantry went back before Jeanes could stop them. Meanwhile the infantry tanks, at last discovering the error, boldly turned east and advanced frontally towards the enemy positions. One tank veered to the north and, advancing through heavy machine-gun and anti-tank fire, succeeded in knocking out two anti-tank guns, but the other two ran head-on into the fire of the anti-tank guns in the main position and were disabled. The cruiser tanks were also engaged but moved out of range. Jeanes attempted to get an attack going with the carriers and the few remaining infantry whose withdrawal he had been able to check. Pratt led his three carriers at the strongpoint, but two were knocked out and Pratt was killed. As his handful of infantry were again pinned down, Jeanes ordered a withdrawal. The AASC carriers, accompanied by the armoured cars, came across to help, engaged the enemy positions and laid a smoke-screen enabling the infantry to withdraw and the crews of three immobilised carriers to be rescued. Then the cruiser tanks moved forward. They saw the two damaged infantry tanks surrounded by enemy infantry but were soon driven back by renewed anti-tank gunfire This operation unfortunately tended to undermine the confidence of the tank commanders and their crews not only in the ability of their tanks to withstand punishment but also in the reliability of the infantry.
The “bush artillery” became very active in Godfrey’s sector. If the doubtful parentage and mixed breeding of the bush guns disentitled them to join the aristocratic ranks of the Royal Horse Artillery, their growing skill and improved performance were nevertheless earning them a standing of respectability. When Godfrey’s brigade was given responsibility for the eastern sector, his two battalions brought with them the captured guns with which they had been equipped before the siege began, and both battalions found means of adding to their batteries. The diarist of the 2/28th Battalion noted on 1st May that the unit now had 11 guns manned as anti-tank weapons and that they had already accounted for 9 enemy vehicles. By 5th May the 2/43rd Battalion possessed nine guns of calibres ranging from 75-mm to 149-mm. (Some other units followed suit but being late starters failed to collect such formidable arrays.) Both battalions’
guns were very active. On the evening of 8th May, for example, Crellin’s artillery fired 150 shells into the Wadi Geriula.
As the siege progressed, the bush artillery developed into a useful harassing arm linked into the artillery network and not curtailed by ammunition shortage as the British field pieces were for long periods: the garrison’s reserves of captured Italian ammunition were almost inexhaustible. The reason why these guns had not already been commandeered by the ordnance department was that they were defective in one or most respects, such as lack of sights; but in time some defects were made good from “scrounging” or by using parts taken from enemy guns by night patrols. They were originally manned by “all hands and the cook”, but in course of time many of the crews were more selectively chosen and were usually commanded by officers having some training in the handling of medium-range weapons, such as anti-tank guns and mortars. Their incorporation into the garrison’s artillery plan involved taking most of them from their original owners and having them manned by whatever infantry unit for the time being held the sector where they were sited. Chester Wilmot in Tobruk tells a story, probably true, of a bush-gun crew who combined pleasure with profit by charging passers-by “2 piastres a pop” for the privilege of firing their gun at the enemy. The business was closed down on the protest of a neighbouring infantry commander whose headquarters became the delivery point for returns.
While the landward pressure on the fortress diminished as the new front stabilised, the attack from the air on the port and the ships whose cargoes sustained the garrison was waged with growing intensity. During May 734 Axis aircraft were over Tobruk. The hospital ship Karapara, flying a huge Red Cross flag 40 feet square at its forepeak, and bearing other Red Cross markings plainly visible, was circled by Messerschmitt aircraft as she approached Tobruk on 4th May. An hour and a half later 12 bombers escorted by fighters attacked her in waves of three. Although she was not sunk, the enemy achieved his purpose. In view of this and two earlier attacks on hospital ships in Tobruk waters, it was decided that all sick and wounded would henceforth be evacuated by destroyer. The minesweeper Stoke was sunk on 6th May by three direct hits in a raid by 40 aircraft; of its intrepid crew, numbering 55, 11 were killed and 34 wounded. HMS Ladybird, a floating battery for the army, escaped several near misses in the harbour, and scored several hits on aircraft in reply, but was sunk by bombs on 12th May, her guns still firing and her White Ensign flying as she grounded on the bottom, ending her career afloat by shooting down a bomber after she had been struck. Her commander, Lieut-Commander J. F. Blackburn, signalled Morshead before abandoning ship:
One wicket down for Yorkshire. Nine more to go yet. Play up Australia. We will catch them on a sticky wicket.
Great innings by Ladybird and we are all extremely sorry that it has ended. We will beat them on any wicket.
The decision at the end of April to withdraw combatant aircraft from Tobruk was followed by an order from Western Desert Force headquarters that the army-cooperation squadron personnel should be returned. Morshead protested without avail in a message sent on 7th May. He submitted that execution of the order would prejudice the security of the fortress unless, before No. 6 Squadron was withdrawn, it was replaced by an army-cooperation unit equipped to provide tactical and artillery reconnaissance under his orders; he had no effective air reconnaissance at all and it was urgently necessary that he should be provided with air observation for his artillery and the means to photograph enemy positions of which ground observation was impossible. General Beresford-Peirse replied with sympathy, expressing hopes of better things to come, but indicated that nothing could be provided from the current scanty resources of aircraft.
Morshead wrote in similar vein to General Blamey a few days later:
I am anxious to push the Boche out of our territory but it is a first essential that we know his dispositions. Tac/Rs by Hurricanes do not give sufficient details, they generally consist merely of the whereabouts of MT and AFVs and an estimate of their numbers often so inaccurate as to be seriously misleading. I have repeatedly asked for air photographs but have not yet had a single one, this over a period of two months. Until I can get photographs of this area I do not feel disposed to launch a big attack. When we do attack we shall put everything we possibly can into it including all our I tanks which at present number 12 effectives, the biggest tally we have had since 1 May. If only we had a Bn of I tanks we’d clean the whole show up inside and outside the perimeter.
Col Birks who has been in charge of the tanks here is returning to M.E. tonight and he is to tell GHQ of the position.
You are, of course, aware of the air position as it affects us. I sincerely hope that it will very soon improve. Now we have to rely on Tac/Rs from Bagush: a very serious handicap.
The men are in good fettle and as eager as ever. They are a grand lot. Health is good considering the conditions – a dust storm practically every other day and 1- gal of water a day. The artillery also is doing a wonderful job: they are splendid fellows and each Bde swears by the regiment supporting them. And the A/Tk and A/A gunners are excellent, too.
Lloyd continues to do extremely well. He is sound, hardworking, calm and gets on well with everybody. The Bde Comdrs are all on their toes, Murray particularly. As soon as I possibly can I shall relieve Tovell by Wootten and follow that up with other reliefs.
The inter-brigade relief predicted in this letter took place on the night of 13th May, when Wootten’s brigade relieved Tovell’s brigade in the Salient. The 2/12th Battalion replaced the 2/23rd from the Derna Road to the Salient. In the Salient the 2/10th Battalion took over from the 2/48th on the right, the 2/9th, reverting to command of its parent formation, remained in position in the centre, and the 2/13th Battalion, placed temporarily under Wootten’s command, relieved the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion (on the night 11th–12th May) on the left.
Brigadier Wootten’s assumption of responsibility for the western sector marked the opening of a counter-offensive in the Salient, which was to continue throughout the summer months until about the end of the first
week in August. From the time the relief took place, and through a succession of later reliefs, the defence line was, little by little, pushed forward and much of the ground previously lost recovered, but at great cost in battle strain, wounds, and loss of life. Some of the lost perimeter posts were to be retaken, only to be lost again. But the enemy was made to fight repeatedly to retain the ground wrested from the garrison.
Morshead’s attitude was reflected in his first instruction to Wootten before the relief: he was to site his headquarters farther forward than the existing headquarters site in the western sector. (A suitable more forward site could not immediately be found but, as we shall see, the instruction was carried out in due course.) Wootten in turn sent out a memorandum to his commanding officers on the conduct of the defence, which included points concerning patrolling, concealment, deception, enticing the enemy to expend ammunition and other tactical advice. The opening paragraph gave the theme:–
The responsibility will immediately fall upon each line unit therefore: not only to maintain intact the line and territory which it takes over; but also to put in hand at once a policy of aggression against the enemy; to exert and maintain a superiority of morale over him; to systematically wipe out his forward posts and to occupy with its own troops the same ground, and thus incessantly to exert pressure upon the enemy and relentlessly drive him back bit by bit on battalion fronts, under arrangements made within battalions. It is to be made perfectly clear to all ranks that we are not simply there to hold a line; but that we are there definitely with the purpose and intention of regaining ground previously lost, and of inflicting loss on the enemy by every means in our power.
The new phase opened with a fierce fire-fight in the front of Lieut-Colonel Burrows’ 2/13th Battalion at dawn on the morning after it had taken over on the left of the Salient. The enemy no doubt had heard the relief. Each side strove for mastery in a duel repeated for several mornings until, on 15th May, the battalion’s diarist was able to record that the forward companies had gained control of the front. From the time that his battalion came to the Salient, Burrows, an aggressive commander with a fighter’s instinct for coming to close grips with his enemy, constantly and ardently advocated a policy of advancing and shortening the line. On 14th May he pushed forward part of his left forward company and dug them into a new position 350 yards forward. This was but a foretaste.
Wootten took command of the western sector on the night of 13th May. Next morning he received an order from Morshead’s headquarters requiring him immediately to stage a demonstration to give the enemy the impression that a full-scale attack was being carried out. The order advised that British forces were advancing in the Salum area. The object of Wootten’s operations would be to prevent the enemy from moving his forces from Tobruk. Operation BREVITY had begun.
Operation BREVITY was General Wavell’s conception. For once the Middle East Command surprised the British Prime Minister by proposing to attack without being first goaded thereto by his own remonstrations. Mr Churchill later dramatically described the purpose of this operation
as being “to claw down Rommel before the dreaded 15th Panzer Division arrived in full strength over the long road from Tripoli, and before Benghazi was effectively opened as a short cut for enemy supply”;11 but Wavell was more modest in describing his aims. He hoped, by concentrating all available tanks, to gain a local success on the frontier and would then consider action to drive the enemy west of Tobruk.
The Tiger convoy with its precious cargo of tanks was due in Alexandria about 12th May; several weeks would be required to clear them through the workshops and equip the formations to use them. But Wavell had perceived opportunities for offensive action before the newly-arrived tanks would be ready. The fact that Rommel had been forced to divide his forces between Tobruk and the frontier while undertaking the added commitment of garrisoning Bardia appeared to offer an opportunity to achieve temporary superiority at Salum, to strike there while the enemy force was divided and, if an immediate defeat could be inflicted at the frontier, to advance quickly to Tobruk whence a combined operation could be mounted with the fortress garrison. That final development was perhaps more a hope in Wavell’s mind than an expectation. Rommel later wrote of Wavell:–12
What distinguished him from other British army commanders was his great and well-balanced strategic courage, which permitted him to concentrate his forces regardless of his opponent’s possible moves.13
But for maximum success to be achieved Wavell’s audacity would require to be matched by fine judgment on the part of his armoured force commander in exploiting with economy, speed, audacity and ingenuity a slender and only temporary local superiority. Whether Brigadier Gott was such a man was yet to be discovered.
Wavell’s aggressive impulse was born as great disaster befell his command and while further dangers loomed. April 28th marked the end of efforts to extricate the main force of the British expedition to Greece. On the same day the British Prime Minister telegraphed Wavell, on the basis of reports from Intelligence sources, that it seemed clear that a heavy airborne attack by German troops and bombers would soon be made on Crete. “It ought to be a fine opportunity for killing the parachute troops. The island must be stubbornly defended,” Churchill declared. Wavell had also been requested from London to advise what troops could be brought to the aid of General Dentz, the Vichy commander in Syria, in the event that the Germans launched an airborne attack against Syria. Wavell replied on 28th April that he had only a cavalry brigade group available. Meanwhile, in Iraq, the pro-Axis Rashid Ali had seized power. It had been agreed with the Chiefs of Staff that any operations requiring intervention in Iraq should be the responsibility of India. An Indian brigade group was moved into Basra in mid-April, in ostensible exercise of treaty rights for the passage of military forces through Iraq and on the pretext
that the force was en route to Palestine. Rashid All requested that the troops move on quickly and, when the request was refused, moved two Iraqi divisions stationed in Baghdad on to the neighbouring plateau to pose a threat to the British Air Force training base at Habbaniya. Wavell had consistently opposed the imposition of a further commitment in Iraq upon his overstrained resources but now learnt that he would be required to send assistance from Palestine. On 30th April Wavell flew to Crete, there to meet Generals Wilson and Freyberg. He surprised the generals by immediately assigning to each of them new responsibilities: to the one, the defence of Crete, to the other, control of operations against Iraq.
Back in Cairo on 1st May Wavell sent a note to General Beresford-Peirse stating that it was his intention “to take the offensive in the Western Desert as soon as our resources permit”. There was no reason, he said, to accept that the enemy would be in greatly superior strength at any time. Tobruk must operate to hold an equal force of enemy and be prepared to take full part in the counter-stroke when it took place. He asked Beresford-Peirse to have the whole problem examined in detail and to consider with other questions “the best line of offence to drive the enemy out of Egypt and eventually beyond Tobruk”. Perhaps Wavell may have also found a few spare moments to give thought to the problem of finishing off the East African campaign as the summer rains set in and of extricating some of the forces employed there for future use in the Western Desert. The Emperor Haile Selassie was to be reinstalled as Emperor of Abyssinia on 5th May.
On 2nd May the Defence Committee in London decided that the responsibility for Iraq should revert to the Middle East Command. Wavell was asked if he had strong objections. He had; but on 5th May the command passed to him. Mr Churchill wrote later:–
General Auchinleck continued to offer reinforcements up to five infantry brigades and ancillary troops by June 10 if shipping could be provided. We were gratified by his forward mood – General Wavell only obeyed under protest.
On 6th May, Churchill minuted for the Chiefs of Staff Committee:
I am deeply disturbed at General Wavell’s attitude. He seems to have been taken as much by surprise on his eastern as he was on his western flank, and in spite of the enormous number of men at his disposal and the great convoys reaching him, he seems to be hard up for battalions and companies. He gives me the impression of being tired out.14
The impressions of General Auchinleck as forward and energetic, and of General Wavell as tired, were to persist.
Meanwhile Wavell developed his plan to seize the initiative on the Egyptian frontier. The nature of the forward British defence on the frontier was the same, though the formations and units had changed. It rested on a screen of four mobile columns, three above the escarpment on the open desert flank, and one on the coast, the inland and coast forces each being under a separate headquarters. Both headquarters were in the Buq
Buq area after 7th May, when the 7th Armoured Division Support Group headquarters, in charge of the inland columns, came there from Sidi Barrani. Attached to each force was a troop of Major Argent’s 12th Battery, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, with the third troop providing a section of guns with each force headquarters.
On 6th May the German High Command, on the recommendation of General Paulus, ordered General Rommel to prepare a defensive line from Gazala to Gadd el Ahmar on which to fall back if the Salum-Bardia front had to be abandoned. The message was intercepted by the British Intelligence and encouraged Wavell to move quickly. Preliminary British moves on 8th and 9th May in the Sidi Suleiman, Point 206 (south of Capuzzo) and Halfaya areas alerted the enemy and an intercepted weather report, transmitted by the British to all units in a form known from experience to precede a British operation, confirmed the apprehensions of the German command, which made dispositions to meet the threat. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, a battalion of the Trento Division, Hohmann’s II Battalion of the 5th Armoured Regiment and a motor-cycle battalion were sent from Tobruk to join the Herff Group at Salum, and on 11th May an extensive sweep of mobile forces and armour aimed at Deir el Hamra was made across the plateau south of Salum, dislodging British outposts. On the 12th the German screening columns edged forward both above and below the escarpment to an area north-east of Sofafi. (Near Qaret el Reteim a gun of Sergeant Gillam’s15 troop of the 12th Anti-Tank Battery engaged German armoured cars and scored a direct hit.) The German columns drew back to the Salum area on the night of the 13th.
General Beresford-Peirse’s instructions to Morshead for participation by the fortress were sent under cover of a letter written on 8th May but were not delivered to Morshead until 13th May. They reached him just as a major relief within the fortress was being effected. The chance that aggressive action by the fortress might affect the enemy’s dispositions favourably for the prospects of a frontier operation was not great in view of the disclosure of the real intention and the taking up of pre-battle dispositions before Morshead could act. Nevertheless Morshead did the best he could at such short notice and planned operations with real, if limited, objectives while seeking at the same time to aggrandise them in the enemy’s eyes to the appearance of a full-scale attack. The deceptive measures for this purpose were to be simulated radio and wireless deception and transport moves on a scale for major operations.
A general increase in activity in the western sector was immediately put in hand. Major Arnold16 of the 2/10th Battalion took out a patrol about 3 p.m. on the 14th to the old 2/24th Battalion headquarters area and brought in two vehicles, one of which the patrol loaded with equipment.
In the El Adem sector Lieutenant Maclarn17 of the 2/17th and Lieutenant D. C. M. Salt of the Chestnut Troop went out with six carriers to shoot up a hull-down tank south of R39 and three tanks farther east. The tanks battened down and gave chase, but Maclarn’s and Salt’s carriers came safely in at Post R43. The tanks shelled that area and then returned to the sally port at R39 and there began to do likewise but did not tarry long under the concentrated fire of the Chestnut Troop and “C” Troop, 426th Battery. During the night the tempo of artillery activity increased and all units probed deeper with patrols. Major Bruer18 arranged two patrols from the 2/10th Battalion. Earlier patrol exploits at the old 2/24th Battalion headquarters had suggested that the ground to the 2/10th’s immediate front was unoccupied, and this the patrols confirmed.
On the morning of 15th May Bruer recommended to Brigadier Wootten that the battalion should advance its line provided that the 2/9th Battalion would conform by moving forward on his left. Bruer put in hand preliminary arrangements in anticipation of approval. Bruer’s report satisfied Wootten that a forward movement was practicable. He called a conference of commanding officers and directed that the front should be advanced that night and that patrolling of the areas to be occupied should be carried out during the day. Meanwhile the divisional signals in conjunction with the 3rd Armoured Brigade set in train an increase of wireless and radio-telephone traffic, using sets specially brought forward to the western sector.
The active program for 15th May began with tank sorties from the perimeter in the early morning followed by artillery registration in the western sector combined with smoke-screens, then observed shooting in the Salient by guns with a liberal ammunition allotment and a general increase in carrier and other offensive patrolling. In the early afternoon large-scale transport movement was organised in the western sector and to points under enemy observation behind the Derna Road perimeter entrance, also to Pilastrino. Vehicles were directed to use the dustiest routes. The movement continued till sundown. Dust billowed up in full view of the investing forces. When the darkness closed in, the wireless and radio traffic was augmented, the weight and tempo of the artillery concentrations were increased and Very lights and other ruses were adopted to simulate a night attack.
To heighten this impression of an impending attack Wootten’s brigade had planned to execute a number of limited operations that day. A foray of infantry and cruiser tanks in two thrusts along the first and second escarpments south of the Derna Road was the first to be set in train. The operation had been jointly planned by Lieut-Colonel Drew (then in command of the armoured brigade) and Lieut-Colonel Field. Two infantry platoons were to move out 800 yards from the perimeter under cover of darkness; there they were to get into position ready to move forward
along the escarpments at 9 a.m., when artillery concentrations were to be laid down. Cruiser tanks would then come out from the perimeter and assist the infantry as they moved forward.
At 4 a.m. Lieutenant Thomas19 and 24 men armed with grenades, rifles, three Bren guns and a Tommy-gun moved out from S19 in bright moonlight, gapped the wire and took up position in a small re-entrant northeast of White Knoll on the first escarpment. Another patrol of platoon strength commanded by Lieutenant Haupt20 went out from Post S15 at 6 a.m. moving out some 800 yards towards the foot of the second escarpment below White Knoll, and there waited for the tanks to appear. During the night the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment had been patrolling aggressively from the Wadi Sehel.
Meanwhile, in the 20th Brigade sector, six carriers, one of them bearing Captain Armitage of the 1st RHA, had sallied forth at 6 a.m. near the El Adem Road to lure the enemy tanks in that sector into the fire of the garrison’s 25-pounders. The tanks responded to the ruse and were shelled by guns specially sited near the wire.
The cruiser tanks allotted to Field’s excursions were true to form in mechanical unreliability; one developed a track defect, leaving only two to participate. These encountered artillery fire as they were approaching the perimeter and moved out of sight into a wadi until the firing ceased. Consequently they were half an hour late in debouching. Lieutenant Thomas rightly set off at 9 a.m., on time, and moved away from the perimeter along the escarpment overlooking the Derna Road. After about half a mile the patrol came under fire from a 20-mm Breda machine-gun. With fire and movement the Australians executed a good assault on the enemy post, killed two of the enemy gun crew and wounded two; the Italians retreated rapidly, assisting their wounded. Other enemy in neighbouring positions, discarding jackets and leaving behind greatcoats and equipment, beat a rapid retreat to the north-west, where about 150 startled Italians jumped out of their trenches and stood up to see what was happening. This was the site of Brown’s successful fighting patrol
a few nights before. Thomas proceeded to a distance of about 500 yards from the position, which was found to be extensively developed and appeared to be arranging a reception. Thomas could not expect the tanks, who had not even been invited to this party, to put in an appearance, so he then withdrew his patrol by bounds under covering fire provided by alternating sections, silencing a sniper post on the way. The patrol was shelled and mortared as it returned. One man was wounded.
On the second escarpment to the south Lieutenant Haupt waited half an hour for the tanks. Thus for the advantage of their support, he lost the benefit of the timed artillery concentrations. His objective was a feature aptly called White Knoll, which was known to be occupied by the enemy. White Knoll was an outcrop near the top edge of the second escarpment and stood almost a mile out from the perimeter across the wadi on the fringe of which the perimeter defences were laid out. While the tanks were coming up, enemy were observed going back from the knoll. Haupt set off at 9.35 a.m. with two tanks giving close support. The tanks briefly bombarded the knoll with 2-pounder and Besa guns and then withdrew. Haupt pressed on, found the knoll unoccupied, and sent a section forward, which came under fire. The patrol then attacked into what appeared to be a company position disposed in depth. Some of the enemy in the forward posts broke. Greatly assisted by the initiative and dash of Private Croker,21 the patrol’s forward movement was sustained notwithstanding heavy mortar fire, and the enemy began to fall back; but the action had to be broken off when the ammunition carried was almost expended. A fighting withdrawal was executed. Six men of the patrol were wounded, most of them severely.
Owing to the late arrival of the tanks these two patrol actions had not been fought simultaneously. The enemy probably did not suffer as great immediate apprehension as had been hoped, but the action, in conjunction with the extensive artillery program conducted simultaneously in the Medauuar sector, must have caused uneasiness. Morshead did not have the satisfaction of knowing that a message from the Brescia Division on this sector reached German Africa Corps headquarters at the same time as the first reports of British successes on the frontier: it reported an attack in battalion strength just south of the coast road.
During the next night both sides took offensive action in the western sector. From the 18th Cavalry positions on the right of the perimeter to the left of the Salient and the adjacent enemy hinterland, violent clashes occurred. In the early afternoon small patrols of two or three men had probed the ground forward of the 2/10th and 2/9th Battalions. Two men from the 2/10th found Forbes’ Mound unoccupied. As night fell gunfire beat down on the enemy Salient positions. Then the two battalions pushed their lines forward on the right of the Salient. The move began at 9 p.m. Just at this time the northernmost perimeter posts of the neighbouring 2/12th Battalion – S8, S9 and S10 – were brought under heavy enemy machine-gun fire and an anti-tank gun began blasting
at S10 from the overlooking escarpment near Post S7 (which the enemy had captured on 1st May).
The move forward of the 2/10th Battalion was not without its moments of anxiety. On the right Captain Martin’s22 company had difficulty in positioning themselves by reference to a wrecked plane, a landmark in the area, which for a time could not be found. The right and centre companies got forward without casualties; the fact that later in the night the enemy directed fire over their heads on to their old positions suggests that their advance had not been detected. The left company (under Captain Cooper23) going to the Forbes’ Mound area was less fortunate and became involved in a fire fight, suffering several casualties, including two men killed. Corporal Laud24 ambushed two Germans but one escaped to inform the enemy of what was afoot. The 2/9th Battalion, simultaneously moving its line forward on the right of Bianca, had some difficulty in linking up on the right flank with Cooper’s company. The new front took in the old 2/24th Battalion headquarters and Nixon’s Post.
Meanwhile at 9 p.m. a fighting patrol of 68 men (including three engineers) commanded by Major Peek had gone out in a south-westerly direction from the 2/15th Battalion. Its mission was to destroy transport in the enemy rear areas south of Carrier Hill and Ras el Medauuar about 2,000 yards out from the original perimeter. The assault component of the patrol comprised two platoons commanded by Lieutenant Harland25 and Warrant-Officer Scoggins.26 A second patrol of comparable strength was provided as a reserve to help in extrication, if necessary. The enemy transport had apparently been brought back to safer ground during the preceding day’s artillery bombardment, for the patrol could not discover a single vehicle. But Harland’s men found other objects worthy of unfriendly attention. A field gun was discovered and Harland sent in a section to assault it. The enemy had meanwhile been alerted and moved to cut off the patrol, but Peek had lost contact with Scoggins’ platoon on the way out and could do nothing to counter the move. Machine-guns opened up in all directions. A general mêlée developed in the course of which sections of the patrol in separate fights damaged the field gun and killed its crew, assaulted three machine-gun posts, driving out or killing the occupants, and destroyed a tank. One section became scattered and was lost but all except one man found his way back. Only three men had been wounded and the patrol had covered about twelve miles. “The boldest patrol since the occupation of the fortress,” commented the diarist of the 1st RHA
At 2 a.m. on 16th May a strong German attack was made from the southern shoulder of the Salient on Post R8 on the left flank of the 2/13th
Battalion. The enemy brought up two tanks to dishearten the defenders; but the Australians got the upper hand without incurring casualties and the Germans, identified as engineers, retired leaving six men killed and three wounded. Meanwhile, from the corresponding positions on the northern shoulder of the Salient, Captain Vincent’s27 company of the 2/12th Battalion, holding Posts S8, S9 and S10, was calling on the artillery to bring gunfire down on to Post S7, whence the anti-tank gun was continuing its bombardment of Post S10. The artillery obliged with five rounds of gunfire, but the enemy responded with an intense bombardment of the entire battalion sector.
About 2.30 a.m. an enemy attack or raid was made north of the Derna Road on the 18th Cavalry Regiment but the Indians allowed no penetration of their lines. Simultaneously at least a company of Italians, led by two storming parties and accompanied by groups of special wire-cutting engineers, assaulted Posts S15, S13 and S11 south of the road. Flame-throwers were brought up. The Italians pressed home their attack and managed to penetrate the wire near S15 but suffered appalling casualties in the wadi in front of S15, into which Lieutenant Haupt’s platoon pumped mortar bombs and threw grenades. By 3.30 a.m. the company commander reported the situation to be under control.
But a more serious situation had arisen on the left of Field’s battalion, where a strong attack was made by Germans on Vincent’s company in Posts S8, S9 and S10, masked by the Italian attack on the posts from S11 to the north. Machine-guns firing tracers on fixed lines that intersected above the posts guided in the attackers, who brought up five tanks and a flame-thrower to assist their assault parties. For about 15 minutes an intense mortar bombardment was brought down on the posts while the irrepressible anti-tank gun continued firing down into Post S10 from the ridge near S7. The enemy moved in. An intense clamour of automatic weapons proclaimed close fighting in which some men would surely die. The 51st Field Regiment put down defensive fire. Bursts of lurid flame shot forth. Later the firing died down and dark shadows moving through the area could be dimly perceived from the neighbouring posts. All signal lines to Vincent’s company had been cut and no word came to dispel fears as to their fate. Field ordered the commander of the adjoining company to make ready for a counter-attack.
Simultaneously, in the Salient, an enemy attack was made on Forbes’ Mound after a bombardment by artillery and mortars on the positions just vacated by the 2/10th Battalion in the forward move. Cooper’s company beat off the attack but one man was killed. About the same time four enemy tanks approached the 2/9th Battalion. The two leading tanks ran into the wire and were stopped, but the other two tanks towed them off. Later five tanks were reported to be probing farther west.
When dawn came enemy still lingered outside the wire of Field’s battalion between the first and second escarpments south of the Derna Road.
Patrols went out over a battleground strewn with dead and rounded up 21 broken-spirited Italians. Seven light machine-guns, two medium machine-guns and two flame-throwers were also brought in.28 But there was still no news from Field’s four northernmost perimeter posts, S8, S9, S10 and S11. Field had decided not to send out a patrol in the dark for fear that his own men might clash with each other, but had ordered that a fighting patrol should investigate at first light. This task was given to Lieutenant Rose.29
Setting out with his platoon at 6 a.m. Rose came first to S11 and the neighbouring section Post Si lA and found that the garrisons were still intact. Proceeding up to S10 the patrol was suddenly caught in the open by flanking machine-gun fire. Rose, badly wounded, came back to report that the enemy appeared to hold S10, in which Captain Vincent had had his headquarters.
As the morning wore on, there was no news from Vincent’s other two posts, S8 and S9. Field began to plan a counter-attack with artillery support to be mounted just after midday. To enable Field to release men from perimeter defence to participate in the attack Wootten had earlier ordered the 2/24th Battalion to provide a relief garrison for Post S13. Meanwhile a German and six Italians had been captured. The German, from the 33rd Engineer Battalion, was dispatched to divisional headquarters, where under interrogation he gave a false account of the capture of S10 early in the night, before the moon rose: he stated that the garrison had surrendered without a fight and without suffering casualties.30 General Morshead was deeply angered when he read this report and sent a personal memorandum to his brigade commanders:–
Today we lost posts R8, R9 and R10 [sic], the occupants having been taken prisoners in the circumstances set out in the attached document. This is the second time that portion of our garrison has vanished. As far as can be ascertained the number of casualties was negligible, the posts having been just mopped up – rather a new experience for the AIF
So long as posts are not defensively prepared and improved but are just sleeping or funk holes we shall lose more prisoners ... positions outside the post must be dug at once and manned in preference to the concrete post itself. ...
Some of the positions taken up during the night on the fronts of the 2/10th and 2/9th Battalions were found next morning to be exposed and unsuitable for holding. This was so particularly at the junction of the two battalions. The shallow rock-bottomed positions dug by Lieutenant Syme’s31 platoon on the left of the 2/10th were so dominated by fire from higher enemy positions that they became untenable. Two men were killed; Syme and four others were wounded. Private Hackett32 gamely made a dash
across 500 yards of fire-raked open ground to inform Captain Cooper of the situation. New positions were chosen in rear and, pivoting on Forbes’ Mound, the company line was swung back about 8.30 a.m. into a favourably situated re-entrant under cover of smoke and an artillery bombardment. In the 2/9th Battalion, on the other hand, it was found possible to advance the line 150 yards forward of the positions taken up on the left of the old 2/24th Battalion headquarters. This was put in hand later next night.
At 11 a.m. Morshead went to Wootten’s headquarters to discuss the recapture of Posts S8, S9 and S10. It was thought” that an attack in battalion strength would probably be required. The 2/23rd Battalion, commanded by Lieut-Colonel Evans, was selected. Evans, an architect in civil life, was a leader who combined great drive with strong sympathies and loyalties towards the men he led. He had served in the militia continuously ever since he was a youth and had been commanding a militia battalion when, at the age of 35, he was chosen to form the 2/23rd Battalion. He was then the AIF’s youngest battalion commander. Evans was summoned to attend a conference with Wootten and Morshead at 3 p.m. When the message reached him he was reconnoitring with his sub-unit commanders in the eastern sector, where it had been intended that the 26th Brigade should relieve the 24th Brigade in the next stage of the relief program. Morshead ordered the postponement of the relief and placed Evans’ battalion under Wootten’s command. Morshead and Wootten decided that Field’s planned fighting patrol action against S10 would be allowed to proceed: it might succeed and would at least test the enemy’s strength.
No word came back through the morning from Posts S8, S9 and S10. At 12.15 a.m., hard upon an artillery bombardment laid down by the 51st Field Regiment, Lieutenant Steddy33 led a strong fighting patrol across fire-swept ground to attack S10. The post was retaken and the German garrison of one officer and 26 men captured, together with all weapons. Two Australian wounded, who had been held as prisoners but well cared for, were released. Meanwhile to the south, under the hot noonday sun, Posts S8 and S9 lay deceptively quiet, seemingly without menace.
At 3 p.m. Wootten gave Evans preliminary orders to attack S8 and S9. Morshead and Lloyd attended the conference. Evans was not only to recapture these two posts, but then to push on and capture Posts S7 and S6, on the escarpment overlooking S9 and S8. Three troops of infantry tanks, a troop of anti-tank guns and a company of machine-guns were to be placed under his command; he was to have the support of 39 field guns and a company of engineers. A commanders’ reconnaissance was conducted in the afternoon, when Evans made an outline plan and pointed out routes and objectives on the ground. The final orders conference was held at 8.30 p.m. at Wootten’s headquarters, where detailed written orders were distributed.
The 2/23rd Battalion, which was then on the coastal plain at Airente, was to move out to its forward assembly area half an hour after midnight. The leading companies had already been embussed and Evans was about to close his headquarters when he received a message that Post S8 had been retaken by the 2/12th. Evans decided to discuss the new situation with Wootten on the way forward.
This blood-letting flare-up at the edge of the Tobruk perimeter had been ignited and kindled by impulses transmitted from the control centres of the two forces clashing on the Egyptian frontier. The lifting of the siege of Tobruk was the principal aim of operation BREVITY; even if only temporarily achieved, this would be an adequate reward for snatching a quick victory, of which there was no promise but some hope. General Beresford-Peirse had written to Morshead (in the letter received on 13th May):–
You will see herewith an outline of how I am proposing to start an offensive. If the enemy are in as bad a plight for “Q”34 reinforcement as they are believed by “I” to be it might have far-reaching consequences. Anyway a diversion by you will assist to make Rommel scratch his head and perhaps withdraw.
If we achieve even temporary opening of Tobruk you can relieve yourself of many “bouches inutiles” and give us much material that is badly wanted to organise the offensive force – particularly MT. ... We are taking a considerable gamble if we launch the offensive with very few suitable troops but the possible political and psychological, as well as tactical, results justify it.
Meanwhile the formation of a proper offensive force is progressing.
Although Wavell had informed Churchill on 13th May, perhaps with unwarranted optimism, that he would consider “immediate combined action by Gott’s force and Tobruk garrison to drive enemy west of Tobruk” if the operation succeeded, Beresford-Peirse seemed to have his eye rather on the proximate arrival of the Tiger convoy and the “proper” offensive force that would then be his. The forces to do battle in BREVITY were indeed puny by comparison.
The plan and conduct of operation BREVITY foreshadowed in miniature the pattern of several later armoured engagements fought in the desert war. The cruiser tanks had twice the range and thrice the speed of the infantry tanks. Combining their action in operations therefore posed problems. Ought the cruisers to be harnessed to such slow partners? Should they not be set free to exploit their greater speed and range in faster action? The heavy tanks had moreover inherited unfortunate names: as if “Matilda” were not enough, these poor lumbering “heavies” were officially regarded as “infantry tanks”. The term seems to have exerted its own influence, dictating that such slow coaches should be used mainly to support the plodding infantry – a role for which, as Rommel shrewdly remarked, the armour-piercing projectiles of their guns were ill-suited. The assignment of the infantry tanks to these pedestrian tasks, furthermore, would relieve the cruiser tanks of such embarrassing obligations and set their squadrons free to seek conclusions with similarly freed
enemy tanks in battles of manoeuvre. So the solution found to the difficult problems of fighting cruiser tanks in combination with infantry tanks, and armoured formations in combination with infantry formations, was to employ them in different directions.
The British plan envisaged a three-pronged attack – an infantry attack by the 2/Rifle Brigade below the escarpment to capture the bottom of the Halfaya Pass and subsequently Salum, an attack in the centre by the 22nd Guards Brigade and the 4th Royal Tank Regiment with 24 infantry tanks to take the top of the pass, secure Capuzzo and exploit northwards, and an advance on the open left flank to Sidi Azeiz by the 7th Armoured Brigade, comprising the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment (29 cruiser tanks) and three Support Group columns (Roze, Beam and Nire), destroying any enemy encountered on the way. Each Support Group column had with it a troop of the 12th Anti-Tank Battery, Major Argent himself being with Roze Column. Headquarters anti-tank defence on the coast was taken over by a troop of the 5th Battery, 2/2nd Anti-Tank Regiment. The operation began at dawn on 15th May.
Local surprise was achieved although the German command had been expecting an attack. The centre group struck first and captured the top of Halfaya Pass.35 The Scots Guards were then signalled to begin the attack at the bottom of the pass, but encountered stiffer resistance, which was not overcome until about 5 p.m. Meanwhile the centre force had sent a detachment (Nire Column, with which was Lieutenant Scanlon’s troop) with two infantry tanks to Salum, which was taken with 123 prisoners, while a battalion of the Durham Light Infantry with nine or ten tanks set off for Capuzzo. Capuzzo was captured but most of the tanks were temporarily disabled. Even with reinforcements brought up from Halfaya only six tanks in fighting state could be spared to guard the infantry at Capuzzo.
The German Command was gravely perturbed, the more so because early reports greatly over-stated the strength of the British forces. Mobile formations on the Tobruk front were redisposed to forestall a possible move to relieve the fortress. The I Battalion of the 8th Armoured Regiment was ordered to Ed Duda, a detachment of Italian tanks to El Adem.
The German frontier force, called (after its commander) the Herff Group, reported that its front line was just north of Capuzzo and that it intended to hold from Sidi Azeiz to the north-west and thence eastwards to the coast south of Bardia. In other words it was for the time being acting defensively. Nevertheless at 2.45 p.m., while Gott’s force of cruiser tanks was away to the flank on the conventional but unrealistically vague mission of destroying enemy, but was in fact sagely keeping beyond close range of the German forces masking Sidi Azeiz, a counter-attack on Capuzzo by Hohmann’s II Battalion of the 5th Armoured Regiment (reported four hours earlier as having only twelve runners) drove out the Durham Light Infantry, captured part of that battalion and regained the fort. The disabled British infantry tanks were left on the battlefield. Some
of these were recovered during the night, some destroyed, but some were later recovered by the enemy.
When night fell the field commanders of the opposing forces were both in cautious mood. Herff reported to Rommel that the British group at Sidi Azeiz appeared to have 40 or 50 armoured fighting vehicles and was expected to continue the offensive towards Tobruk in the morning, detaching elements to contain Herff’s forces. Herff proposed to withdraw 10 kilometres west of Azeiz where his force would be in a harassing position from which a counter-attack could be launched later, when greater strength was assembled. Gott reported to Beresford-Peirse that the Guards Brigade group was in an exposed position at the top of the escarpment. If a tank attack seemed likely he proposed a withdrawal on to Halfaya.
Herff’s report was made at 10 p.m. At 10.30 p.m. Rommel’s headquarters instructed Herff to counter-attack via Sidi Azeiz and the south (presumably Capuzzo). The tank battalion at Ed Duda was told to move by night to Herff’s group, to be ready for counter-attack at dawn. Soon the German groups were moving to concentrate. Another mixed group, comprising a battalion of lorried infantry with tanks and guns, was dispatched from the Tobruk front. The employment of tanks in night operations in the Tobruk Salient in the early hours of that morning, already narrated, was probably intended to mask this departure of armour.
By contrast, Gott’s message was sent at 9 p.m. and was “much delayed”.36 Beresford-Peirse did not reply till 2.45 a.m. He instructed Gott to hold the positions taken and added that he would himself review the situation after receiving the morning air reconnaissance reports. But Gott, who had a penchant for acting independently of higher formation, had already ordered the withdrawal. The outlying groups drew back from the escarpment above Salum and from Musaid before daylight.
On 16th May, during which the German forces were grounded for long periods by lack of petrol, the cruiser tank force withdrew as the Germans advanced. Early on 17th May the Germans reoccupied Salum. Halfaya alone remained in British hands, the Guards holding the top of the pass with support from artillery and a squadron of infantry tanks.
Military writers almost unanimously discount the achievement of operation BREVITY. Thus the official British History of the Second World War sums it up:–
Operation “Brevity” was therefore a failure; the only British gain was the Halfaya Pass.
It is probably true that the forces available were not sufficient to retain indefinitely all the initial gains, and that the decision to capture Capuzzo and Salum was not matched by a determination to accept risks to hold on to them. But if the Western Desert Command had attempted too much with too little, it had still gained much at little cost. The German casualties in men in the operation appear to have been as heavy as the British.
There was a large bag of Italian prisoners. The Germans lost three tanks, the British five.37 One military writer who may still be accorded some authority attributed importance to the gain. Commenting on the fact that the British now held the Halfaya Pass, Rommel later wrote:–
The Halfaya and Salum Passes were points of great strategic importance, for they were the only two places between the coast and Habata where it was possible to cross the escarpment – of anything up to 600 feet in height – which stretched away from Salum in a south-easterly direction towards Egypt. The Halfaya positions gave an equal command over both possible roads. In any offensive from Egypt, therefore, possession of these passes was bound to be of the utmost value to the enemy, as they offered him a comparatively safe route for his supplies. If, on the other hand, he were to attempt to attack Bardia without holding them, he would be thrown back on a supply route through Habata which would be vulnerable to attack and harassing action by us.38
On 16th May, the day on which Gott was withdrawing the armour from the frontier, General Wavell sent General Beresford-Peirse a memorandum reiterating that the policy must be to drive the enemy west of Tobruk and keep him there. It was essential, he said, that the landing grounds between Tobruk and Salum should be available for the use of the RAF The forces necessary for this would be decided later, but provisionally the 7th Armoured Division and the 7th and 9th Australian Divisions were suggested. Rather contradictorily a staff conference held at Wavell’s headquarters later in the day agreed that all the AIF in the Middle East should be concentrated as soon as possible.
On 18th May Mr Churchill sent Wavell one of his animating messages. He commented favourably on operation BREVITY but asked: “What are your dates for bringing Tiger Cubs into action?” In the meantime trouble for Wavell was brewing in the north where the German forces in conquered Greece seemed to be gathering for further strikes. It was evident that an attack on Crete was impending, while German aircraft had begun using Syrian airfields and German technicians were known to be arriving in Syria. Wavell was induced by compelling pressure from the British Government to plan an invasion of Syria. By 18th May Blamey and the Australian Government knew that the 7th Division was likely to be transferred from the Western Desert for employment on this front. However the surrender of the Duke of Aosta on 19th May with the remnants of his army marked the virtual end of the East African campaign, while in Iraq the force dispatched by Wavell had almost reached the beleaguered RAF station at Habbaniya without misadventure.
The message received in the early hours of 17th May by Colonel Evans just before his battalion left Airente to the effect that Post S8 had been “retaken” was not accurate. After night fell on the 16th contact had at last been made with Posts S8 and S9. It was discovered that the garrisons were still intact, with only two men wounded. Post S9, under Lieutenant
Reid,39 had at one stage become closely invested. After the mortar bombardment which had preceded the attack, the enemy had managed to get into the anti-tank ditch surrounding the emplacement and had begun throwing bombs into the post but Reid had mounted a vigorous counterattack, cleared the anti-tank ditch and driven the enemy off. In Post S8 Lieutenant Douglas40 had seen enemy crawling in towards the post as soon as the bombardment ceased. These were immediately engaged with grenades and automatics. For about an hour the enemy persisted with attempts to get in close but withdrew after a repetition of failures, taking their wounded but leaving six dead men round the post and others farther out. One Australian in the post was killed and two were wounded.
On the way to the western sector, where his battalion was to mount the counter-attack next morning, Evans called in at Brigadier Wootten’s headquarters. He knew already that Post S8 was in safe hands. Now he learnt that Post S9 was also intact. The first phase of his plan had thus become redundant; so, before moving on to his headquarters, he rearranged the artillery program, cancelling the bombardment of S8 and S9 for the first phase.
The nature of Evans’ task had now changed from one primarily of recapturing recently lost ground and exploiting forward for consolidation to one of attacking a fully developed enemy position held since 1st May. A coordinating conference was held at 4.30 a.m., at which Evans decided to seek permission to extend his task, unexpectedly reduced to the capture of Posts S7 and S6, to include also exploitation to, and capture of, Posts S5 and S4. Wootten, with Lloyd’s concurrence, gave approval before the operation began
The attack was to be made with two companies forward: Captain Malloch’s on the right, Major Perry’s41 on the left, each with a troop of infantry tanks. Each company was to take its first objective, leave one platoon in the captured post, and push on with two platoons to the next. The two reserve companies were to hold themselves ready to assist at Evans’ direction. The artillery program included timed concentrations on the objectives and general fire and smoke on Ras el Medauuar. For the first time in Tobruk Australian infantry were supported by Australian artillery. The 2/12th Field Regiment (less three troops) had arrived in Tobruk on HMAS Vampire at 1 a.m. Zero hour for the attack was 5.30 a.m., just before first light, and the 2/12th gunners were in action supporting the attack when it started.
Colonel Evans saw his men crossing the start-line on time three minutes after machine-guns of the Northumberland Fusiliers had begun a sustained fire program. The field guns opened up as the men stepped forward. Four minutes later the enemy artillery replied with an even heavier bombardment. About 10 minutes after the troops had set forth smoke from the
screen laid across Medauuar, thickened by more smoke put down by German guns, began drifting down from the north. It reduced visibility to 50 yards. Evans moved back to his headquarters to await whatever good or sad news the day would bring.
On the right Malloch led his company southwards along the perimeter, as he had twice done in the Medauuar battle. During the approach the tanks held back from the infantry and veered slightly off course. When the smoke came down, reducing visibility first to 50 yards, then to 25, the tanks were almost blinded, lost contact with the infantry, became unsure of their whereabouts and eventually turned into S9, the front-line post next before that to be attacked – 750 yards short of the objective. Here Malloch’s reserve platoon strove to attract their attention and redirect them. The 9th Division, it will be remembered, had received no battle training when it became committed to front-line action and Evans’ men were unaware, nor did Evans himself know for sure,42 that a push button had been placed on the back of the Matildas for the express purpose of enabling infantry to call up the tank commander by a bell that rang inside. The infantry beat on the outside of the tanks with rifle-butts and rocks without avail; the tanks remained closed-up and stationary. In time they turned round and ground their way back to the assembly area: all except one, whose spirited commander, with a courage that deserved to be rewarded by positive accomplishment, pushed on through the smoke but arrived lost in front of the 2/10th Battalion well to the left of the area of thrust.
Meanwhile Malloch’s company was suffering heavy casualties from thunderclap air bursts of 88-mm shell fire 50 feet above the men. Malloch urged his platoons on without the tanks towards their objective across ground now overlaid with intense fire. The infantry, who before the attack had been much enheartened by knowledge that the tanks would be with them, felt badly let down, but pressed on desperately. Casualties
were severe. Malloch was wounded but remained to direct the attack on Post S7. Lieutenant Bowden’s platoon on the left moved in first and pushed up the rise towards the post. Men fell away dead or wounded, but the intrepid Bowden, whose shoulder had been gashed open by shell fire, pressed on and the survivors followed. At the top of the ridge they assaulted and captured some German sangars. Bowden sent back, in succession, three men to tell Malloch the platoon was too weak to attack the post without reinforcements. Only the last of these reached Malloch, who then had no unwounded men to send back to summon up Lieutenant Anderson’s43 reserve platoon, which had inexplicably not arrived; for Anderson and his men had been vainly endeavouring to redirect the tanks.
Lieutenant Neuendorf’s44 platoon had meanwhile charged S7 from the right flank and overrun it. Neuendorf found the post to be completely covered by machine-gun fire from nearby sangars and took a section forward to clear them. Some sangars were cleaned out, but almost all his men were hit, and to right and left other machine-guns continued to spatter fire. Neuendorf sent back a runner asking for reinforcements and waited, with the survivors of his platoon, for help to reach him. But Anderson’s platoon failed to get through the enemy’s now greatly thickened fire-belt and withdrew to Si 1 just before 7 a.m. The wounded Malloch returned to Evans’ battle headquarters to report the desperate situation.
While Malloch’s company had been closing on S7, the left forward company commanded by Major Perry, also without tanks, had attacked Post S6; but the forward platoons became pinned down by fire from a near-by sangar. Lieutenant Jess45 and three men threw in grenades, jumped into the position and silenced the machine-guns; but Jess was shot through the stomach and legs and could take no further part. The rest of the men then charged through and overran the post, capturing the German garrison of 19 men, including the officer-in-charge. When the stretcher bearers came up to the wounded Jess, he refused to be moved and directed them to rescue other men more likely to survive.
Major Perry wasted no time in pressing forward to his next objective. He left Captain Gahan,46 with Morrison47 (his sergeant-major) and Jess’ platoon, in S6; Lieutenant Gardiner’s platoon was sent out to deal with some enemy sangars at the top of the escarpment on the right flank; and Perry himself pressed on with Lieutenant Sheldrick’s48 platoon to Post S4. The assault on S4 succeeded after a desperate, hand-to-hand fight, in which most of the garrison was killed but four prisoners were taken. Perry fired the prescribed signal calling for reinforcements to be sent
forward on attaining the objective, but unfortunately this went unnoticed and was not reported to Evans. Then Perry set out to return across the fire-beaten ground to S6 with the four prisoners (including an officer), leaving Sheldrick to hold Post S4.
Gahan and Morrison had in the meantime found S6 so completely covered by fire from positions on either flank that it became essential to find a more covered position until the area could be cleared. They moved out to an improvised defensive post in a stone structure near the Water Tower, a landmark east of Post S6. Sergeant Hook49 arrived in thick smoke near S6 in a carrier loaded with ammunition, rations and additional weapons and found Captain Gahan and his men in this position. He returned bearing wounded in his carrier. Another carrier went on to take provisions and munitions to S4 but lost direction in the smoke, veered towards enemy positions, ran into machine-gun fire and returned without contacting Sheldrick.
Gardiner’s platoon, which had moved out to clean up the enemy positions on the right flank while Sheldrick’s platoon had been advancing on S4, was less successful than Sheldrick’s. The men were forced to ground by cross-fire from the sangars, and Gardiner could make no progress. Gahan observed his predicament and took out a section of men to assist him, leaving Sergeant-Major Morrison in charge near the Water Tower. Eventually Gahan and Gardiner overcame the nearest sangars, but lost about a third of their men. Perry, returning from S4, was fired on from the same area. Finding eight of his men sheltering near the Water Tower, Perry led them in an assault on the sangars. He later described what happened in a letter from a prisoner-of-war camp:–
As we rushed the sangars we ran into Gahan, Gardiner and about 12 men who had attacked from a different angle but were not seen owing to the smoke. Just as we cleaned up these sangars, heavy machine-gun fire came from all angles. In a second only five of us were left standing Immediately I ordered them into the sangars, each dragging a wounded man. Gahan and Gardiner were killed and as the light improved we saw we were almost surrounded. ...50
About 7 a.m. Evans knew that the two forward platoons of Malloch’s company had few effective men left, and that the company’s reserve platoon was back at S11. He believed that Post S7 had not been taken. He had been informed that Post S6 had been captured and that two platoons had gone forward to carry out the next phase, the capture of S4. He decided to order his right reserve company (Major Spier) to attack Post S7 in conjunction with the tanks. Of the nine tanks originally allotted, eight were in the assembly area, but the commander informed Evans that only four of these would take part. An artillery plan was prepared and Evans gave his orders at 7.30 a.m. The tanks were to lead the attack on S7 and then to circle around the posts generally, breaking up enemy machine-gun positions and thus allowing the infantry to consolidate; they
were ordered to proceed past S6 and then turn right along the top of the escarpment to S7. Evans instructed that if the tanks did not continue on to S7 the infantry were to retire.
The tanks and infantry crossed the start-line at 7.40 a.m. Almost immediately the enemy opened up with intense artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire and, as S7 was approached, laid down smoke of greater density than before. The tanks did not go up to the escarpment past Post S6 as ordered but turned right, short of the post, to advance on S7, thus failing to neutralise the remaining enemy machine-gun nests on the escarpment. When they were about 100 yards from S7 the tanks swung around to the right and began to return: the infantry followed. The infantry saw enemy tanks coming up from the south and some attributed the decision of the British tanks to this development; but more probably the crews would have been prevented by smoke from seeing the approaching enemy tanks, which were not perceived from an observation post set up by Evans on the left of the area of attack. Both tanks and infantry came all the way back. Subsequently German tanks accompanied by infantry counter-attacked in the S7 area and rounded up the Australians scattered about in sangars, ground hollows and the post itself. Two later reports gave the time of this occurrence as 8.30 a.m.
By 9.5 a.m. most of Spier’s company had returned. Evans reported to Wootten that his battalion had suffered heavy casualties in three companies and that he was breaking off the attack. Morshead went to Wootten’s headquarters to discuss future action.
For Lieutenant Sheldrick, however, the action had not been broken off; nor for Sergeant-Major Morrison or Major Perry. Although completely surrounded Sheldrick was holding off the enemy from S4. He had sent messengers who had failed, however, to get through. Probably one of these was a wounded man who was seen to be picked up forward of S4 by two enemy and taken in to S5. Morrison and the remnants of Perry’s company were still in the stone structure near the Water Tower, while Perry and the handful of men with him, using their rifles, were still keeping the Germans off the sangars that Gardiner’s platoon had taken. But none of this was known at Evans’ headquarters.
The men in the right-hand companies of the 2/10th Battalion, whose front was on the left of the battle area, had seen more of the action than Evans’ battalion. About 8.35 a.m. enemy infantry guns and field guns situated behind the wrecked plane fired a creeping barrage moving eastwards towards the 2/10th companies. The garrison guns could not reply because it was believed that some of Perry’s company might be in that vicinity. Behind the barrage German infantry and four medium tanks came into the Water Tower area from the west. The tanks, two on either side of the Water Tower, began firing on the 2/10th Battalion positions but the 51st Field Regiment then intervened and put both tanks and infantry to flight. One tank was disabled and a member of the crew took to his heels. Within four minutes tanks again appeared from the west and moved out of sight into a re-entrant south of the Water Tower.
They re-appeared clustering around S4 soon after 9 a.m. Unaware that Sheldrick was there, the garrison artillery again put down a concentrated bombardment that drove the tanks off. Lieutenant Scott51 of the 2/10th Battalion later shot up enemy guns near the wrecked plane with a “bush” mountain gun.
About 9.30 a.m. Colonel Evans made arrangements with Major Bruer to reconnoitre the ground between Post S6 and the right company of the 2/10th in order to consider the possibility of advancing that battalion’s right company positions to link up with S6. Evans and Bruer made a joint reconnaissance some time after 10 a.m. This vital ground was flat, exposed and hard; the distance to be covered, substantial. Bruer felt that he could not undertake the commitment without dangerously attenuating his right flank.
At 12.15 Evans arrived back at his headquarters. Nothing had been learnt meanwhile to shed light on what was the position in front. His observers reported an absence of movement around Posts S6 or S4; but unknown to Evans a German party of tanks and infantry, operating under cover of a smoke-screen, were about this time overrunning the positions occupied by Perry. They captured him and the men with him, of whom there were now only four survivors. In the meantime Corporal Carleton,52 a company orderly-room clerk, had been endeavouring to carry back a message from Morrison. Carleton had made a brave, successful dash through machine-gun fire but had the misfortune, as he approached S8, to be fired on and badly wounded by the Australians in the post. After lying quiet for a time, he found the will to struggle on to reach Post S9 and deliver his message soon after Evans had returned. Carleton reported that Morrison was still holding out when he had left him much earlier. Morrison needed a signal line to enable him to direct artillery fire on to the surrounding enemy. A signaller, Private Clark,53 volunteered to repair the line to S6 and set out with his field telephone from S10, knowing that he would have to crawl across more than 1,000 yards of bare, fire-raked ground. Evans now reported, in reply to inquiries from Wootten’s headquarters, that Perry’s company was in S6 but, until a runner who had gone out returned, the position could not be clarified: S4 and S7 were in doubt.
Morshead and Wootten had come to the conclusion that S6 could not be held while S7 remained in enemy hands. Wootten discussed with Evans the possibility of a further attack on S7, but Evans contended that it was essential to ascertain the position at S6 before reaching a decision. Evans nevertheless warned his reserve company commanders to rest their men in anticipation of an evening attack and ordered a check of strength, which indicated that 148 men could be made immediately available.
Private Clark was meanwhile crawling along the line towards S6, repairing break after break, only to find the line dead on testing at each new break. But Morrison saw him coming, and sent out a man to repair from his end. When Clark repaired his thirteenth break (about 12.40 p.m.) he was rewarded by Morrison’s answering voice. Morrison reported that he was troubled by machine-gun and anti-tank fire from 300 yards to the left and by snipers 150 yards to the right. Five of his men had been killed and five wounded, but he and 13 others were unharmed.
It was now possible to give Morrison artillery protection. Five minutes later three enemy tanks approached the Water Tower but were driven off by gunfire, which came down dangerously close to Morrison’s position. About an hour later another thrust by five tanks was similarly stopped. Corporal Carleton reported from S9 that men were “lolling about” Post S7, which he therefore concluded to be in enemy hands.
About 4 p.m. Wootten gave instructions that Evans’ battalion should attack again for Post S7 either in the evening or at next daybreak. But although Evans summoned his company and supporting commanders to report for reconnaissance at 5 p.m., he had concluded that a further attack with no greater strength than remained to him would be of no value. To hold Post S6 and S7 it would be necessary, in his opinion, not only to take and hold the overlooking ground, but also to secure the left flank. It was clear that the two posts were but points in a general, strongly-held enemy line running east-west and extending on either side. He therefore requested reconsideration of the decision. Morshead and Wootten considered Evans’ representations and at 5.30 p.m. authorised him to withdraw his battalion after dark. It was decided, however, to establish a new line linking the right battalion in the Salient (at the time the 2/10th) with Post S8. Evans then ordered patrols and stretcher bearers to scour the battlefield after dark and arranged for a section of carriers to go out to Morrison when darkness fell, to bring in his wounded as he withdrew.
From 7.30 onwards enemy tanks could be heard. About 8.10 p.m., as the sun was setting, Morrison reported that they were 500 yards to his right rear. They closed in towards his position about 8.30 p.m. Evans asked for immediate artillery fire and ordered the waiting carriers to set out
to Morrison’s aid. The fire came down, the enemy tanks drew back, and the three carriers went on but in the gloom veered off course towards a German anti-tank gun position. One carrier was disabled; another stopped when its driver was hit. The driver of the disabled carrier, although wounded, jumped out and into the driverless carrier and drove it off. Of the six men comprising the crews, two had now been killed and two wounded. The drivers of the two mobile carriers returned with the dead and wounded.
Evans then instructed Morrison to bring in the fit men to Post S8 but to leave the wounded; to evacuate them, he said, would endanger more lives. For almost half an hour efforts were made, in communication with Morrison, to adjust the artillery fire to afford him maximum protection. At last, at 8.35 p.m., Morrison called over the telephone “Keep shooting on that mark.”54 The shelling forced the Germans in the closest sangars to leave their positions and at 9 p.m., as Morrison’s men made the break, the artillery bombardment was stepped up to gunfire rate. Very lights were shot up from S8 to guide them in, and the enemy in response brought down fire around the Australian posts. Morrison’s men never came in to S8. Although the distance was but 800 yards, there was no sign of the party three-quarters of an hour later.
From the Water Tower a pipe-line ditch ran down to Post S10. Here Morrison and his men arrived just before 10 p.m., having crawled about a mile and a half along the ditch and bringing their wounded with them. The casualties suffered by Evans’ battalion in this attack – preponderantly from Perry’s and Malloch’s companies – totalled 163: 20 killed, 47 wounded and recovered and 96 missing. Of the missing there was evidence that at least 5 had been killed and 23 wounded. There are not many achievements by an infantry company in the 9th Division’s history comparable with the capture by Perry’s company of S6 and S4; but at the end of three days’ operations, after attacks by both sides, the position at the right-hand hinge of the Salient remained unchanged. The final scene at Post S4 next morning – Sheldrick’s surrender with no food or water and with ammunition expended – was mercifully not observed from the Australian positions.
Debatable questions may be asked about this operation. Should any attack have been mounted after it was discovered that S8 and S9 had not been lost? Should the objectives have then been limited, as at first planned, to S7 and S6, or was it necessary for the security of these posts to go farther? Could any intermediate objective have been held short of Medauuar itself? Were the orders Evans gave for the second phase a suitable prescription for a situation in which his left company was already committed to the assault on S4? Or, did his orders precisely limit his commitment to what was then feasible, thus saving his battalion from possible near-extinction in futile strife for the unachievable or untenable?
It is more instructive to consider what was done than to ask what should have been done. The concept of the operation was faulty because of the
failure to appreciate (which Evans was the first to perceive) that the perimeter posts, the strongpoints in the old westward-facing defence system of the fortress, were not the key to the enemy’s now northward-facing defence line. Amateurish methods were in evidence in this and the two preceding Salient counter-attacks – the methods of untrained units gaining their tactical lessons in the harsh reality of battle, in which failure is mercilessly punished. Infantry and tank sub-unit commanders did not reconnoitre or plan together. The sine qua non for cooperation between them in battle, a mutually understood method of intercommunication, did not exist. Evans, in his report on the actions, stated his opinion of the tanks’ performance:–
The tanks tried hard but it is felt that topography is their trouble.
He also commented:
When lost, tanks should not return immediately but should cruise about and look for the infantry. ... In both attacks the tanks returned too early.55
But the infantry had similar lessons to learn.
The arrival of the 2/12th Field Regiment (Lieut-Colonel Goodwin56) was a useful reinforcement of the garrison’s artillery. It was placed in the western sector under operational command of the 51st Field Regiment and given an assortment of guns of various calibres, including the garrison’s main medium artillery, the troop of 60-pounder guns of first world war vintage. Captain Holmes’57 and Captain Hamilton’s58 troops took over ten 4.5 howitzers which had been replaced in the 51st Field Regiment by twelve 25-pounders. Lieutenant McDermott’s59 troop, which arrived on the night of 20th May, relieved the 51st Field Regiment on 25-pounders, while Captain Feitel’s60 troop manned the 60-pounders. On 20th May the regiment suffered its first shelling and Lance-Bombardier Butler61 was mortally wounded. A successful predicted counter-battery shoot was conducted in the early hours of 29th May by a 60-pounder gun from a pre-arranged forward position, neutralising a hostile battery in ten rounds. The diarist commented:–
The 60 pounders were somewhat short of ammunition but fortunately some more rounds have arrived. Artillery here is working under difficulties and we are in need of a flash-spotting and sound-ranging group to fix hostile batteries and an occasional sortie by Arty R62 to present us with some air photographs and also to cooperate in some air shooting ... more particularly as observation is poor in the salient
since the enemy occupy a ridge just inside the perimeter which commands the whole area both inside and out. Our OPs, on a lower ridge, are therefore labouring under a disadvantage and most artillery shooting is in the nature of harassing fire and opportunity shoots, though some neutralisation by predicted fire is carried out.
Wootten’s brigade remained in the Salient until 5th June, when Murray’s brigade took over the sector. No more attacks were mounted but the line continued to be edged forward and strengthened. To close the gap between Post S8 and the right battalion position in the Salient, each battalion took a small side-step to the right on the evening and night of 18th May, the 2/10th Battalion taking over the left platoon area of the 2/12th, the 2/9th the left platoon area of the 2/10th and the 2/13th the left platoon area of the 2/10th. Later the same night Handley’s company on the right of the 2/13th moved its right flank forward to within 400 yards of the enemy.
Having advanced his front on both flanks, Burrows began planning to push out the line of his centre company, swinging it forward 300 yards on the right and 50 yards on the left. On the night of the 27th Captain Gillan’s63 company moved out to establish itself on the new alignment. It proved impossible to complete the digging of the positions that night, so the men withdrew before daylight to their former line, intending to complete the job next day. The enemy appeared to know that something was afoot and increased his harassing fire: next day some 650 shells fell on the western sector positions. Enemy jumpiness was also evidenced later the same night when the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment sent out a strong patrol, with 2-inch mortars and 18-pounders in support, in the western sector near the coast. A curtain of defensive fire from four batteries came down along the whole sector. The officer commanding the patrol, Captain R. J. Gretton, was killed.
In the evening Colonel Verrier and Colonel Burrows moved their headquarters forward (to be followed next day by a forward move of Wootten’s headquarters) and after dark Gillan’s company went out to complete the new 2/13th centre company positions and occupy them permanently. Gillan’s men were well ensconced and just settling down to a meal when about 200 Germans came forward in apparent expectation of finding the positions ready for the taking. A covering patrol reported their approach. In a close fight the Germans, walking straight into an ambush, were engaged with every Bren gun and mortar to hand and fled to their own lines. Then Lieutenant Bucknell,64 gathering six men, followed on the heels of the enemy to within 15 yards of their positions, threw in grenades to the front, engaged the flanks with Bren fire, and withdrew without harm. Agonised cries testified to deadly work.
Next morning five ambulances came up behind the enemy positions opposite and German stretcher bearers under cover of a Red Cross flag
scoured no-man’s land for wounded. Stretcher bearers went out from the 2/13th to help in the compassionate work but were also canny enough to take a close look by daylight at the enemy positions. Burrows’ men were able to stand up and stretch their limbs while the work went on till a German Spandau burst, aimed at nobody, signalled that the truce was over.
On the right of the 2/13th Battalion, Colonel Martin’s 2/9th Battalion, the veteran unit of the Salient, which had already pushed its positions far in front of the line it originally took over in rear of Bianca, advanced its line 150 yards to conform with Burrows’ movement. The defences of Martin’s front line were now excellently developed and completely wired and trip-wired.
The Salient sector had now been transformed from a breach in the front line, to be blocked off against further penetration, to a zone from which at every opportunity the enemy could be closely engaged and bruised. Almost every morning the patrol report of Wootten’s headquarters listed more than 20 patrols that had operated in no-man’s land during the preceding night, of which a number had always been in the Salient. Not all sought to harass the enemy, but many did, such as several led by Lieutenant Bucknell; for example, one morning Bucknell crept with a handful of men into a hollow on the edge of the enemy positions under cover of a mist and opened fire when visibility increased sufficiently for accurate aiming, throwing the enemy into momentary confusion as many were hit. It was by day, however, that the enemy was made to suffer most: the vigilant forward observation officers of the Royal Horse Artillery and 51st Field Regiment (and later the 2/12th Australian Field Regiment) were the chief executioners. If an enemy mortar or machine-gun disclosed its position by firing or a careless messenger revealed the likely whereabouts of an enemy headquarters, the retribution was almost instantaneous. Day by day unit action diaries and message logs recorded these occurrences, concluding with such words as “artillery engaged and scored a direct hit”. The enemy scored direct hits too; often the sad call for stretcher bearers rang out. But the defenders knew they were inflicting greater casualties than they were receiving.
The day after Wootten’s brigade left the Salient, an unsolicited testimonial to the Australian infantry was written by the commander of an enemy battalion opposite the sector then held by the 2/15th Battalion.65 In a report written on 7th June Major Ballerstedt, commanding the II Battalion of the 115th Lorried Infantry Regiment, wrote:–
The Australians, who are the men our troops have had opposite them so far, are extraordinarily tough fighters. The German is more active in the attack but the enemy stakes his life in the defence and fights to the last with extreme cunning. Our men, usually easy going and unsuspecting, fall easily into his traps especially as a result of their experiences in the closing stages of the Western Campaign [campaign in France].
The Australian is unquestionably superior to the German soldier:
i. in the use of individual weapons, especially as snipers
ii. in the use of ground camouflage
iii. in his gift of observation, and the drawing of the correct conclusions from his observation
iv. in every means of taking us by surprise. ...
The enemy allows isolated individuals to come right up to his positions, then fires on them.
Enemy snipers have astounding results. They shoot at anything they recognise. Several NCOs of the battalion have been shot through the head with the first shot while making observation in the front line. Protruding sights in gun directors have been shot off, observation slits and loopholes have been fired on, and hit, as soon as they were seen to be in use (i.e. when the light background became dark).
The enemy shoots very accurately with his high angle infantry weapons. He usually uses these in conjunction with a sniper – or MG. ...66
If the Germans had anything to learn from the Australian infantry they learnt quickly. A month later Lieut-Colonel Ogle, whose battalion (2/15th) then held the British line in the same sector, wrote, in words that sound like an echo from Major Ballerstedt’s report:
Mortar firing has been extremely accurate, in two cases the bomb falling right into the weapon-pit. ... As an indication of accuracy in sniping, the only periscope in possession of the unit was hit as soon as it was raised above the post. In another case one man was shot through the temple when he raised his head above the parapet.
In many cases mortar fire and machine-gun fire was coordinated. If the enemy saw that his mortar had made a direct hit on the post he would follow it immediately with bursts of machine-gun fire. ...
Our own troops have learned the following lessons from the German.
(a) Camouflage – of positions and of muzzle blast, for they have found it extremely difficult to locate his guns.
(b) Dummy Positions – so many sangars have been constructed that we cannot in confidence assume that he is occupying any one of them.
(c) Day Discipline – Practically no movement at all is seen. To the observer, the whole of the enemy territory appears unoccupied.
Each commander saw his opponents in the same light. Each followed the precept: make thine enemy thy teacher.
In the use of mortars the Australians were at a disadvantage because the British 3-inch mortar was out-ranged by both German and Italian mortars. Except for one or two captured Italian 81-mm mortars, for which ammunition was scarce, the infantry possessed no means of retaliation against the weapons that caused most of their casualties. The artillery was quick to silence enemy mortars if they fired in daylight but they mostly fired at night when the guns could not risk disclosing their positions by gun flashes merely to engage minor targets. Some counter-action was later taken with captured guns firing from forward night positions, and by the 2/12th Field Regiment on a greater scale with 4.5-inch howitzers. In the bluff and counter-bluff of the artillery duel the gunners disliked showing their hand to take on targets that should have been tasks for suitably equipped infantry.
During the attack by the 2/23rd Battalion there were several reports of evacuation of positions by the enemy under bombardment by the
British artillery. The German command, with Teutonic thoroughness, immediately set about remedying the disclosed weaknesses by constructing a new line in rear of the positions then held. Night by night until the end of the month the Australians heard the sounds of working compressors. Captured documents later indicated that the new line was constructed by the German 33rd Engineer Battalion.
The Axis forces disposed around Tobruk were:–
|Derna Road sector – north of the Salient||
|Probably five battalions west of Tobruk but only two close to the perimeter.|
|16th Italian Artillery Regiment|
|Salient sector||I and II Battalions, 115th Lorried Infantry Regiment||Right of Salient (i.e. defender’s right) II Battalion 104th, centre I Battalion 115th, left II Battalion 115th.|
|II Battalion, 104th Lorried Infantry Regiment|
Two oasis companies67
|2nd Machine Gun Battalion|
|Two German artillery battalions|
|16th Italian Artillery Regiment||Three batteries.|
|33rd Engineer Battalion|
|900th Engineer Battalion|
|Pilastrino and El Adem Roads sector (east of the Salient)||
Ariete Division (being relieved by Pavia Division)
|Two lorried infantry battalions, one motor-cycle battalion.|
|One regiment (132nd) plus one group of artillery (46th Regiment)|
|Bardia Road sector||
|Two (lorried) infantry battalions, one motorcycle battalion, one machine-gun battalion.|
The I Battalion of the 18th Anti-Aircraft Regiment and the 8th Machine Gun Battalion (now brought up to the strength of three companies) were also employed in the siege; part certainly, but perhaps not all, of the latter battalion was in the Salient. The 5th Light Division was near and west of El Adem, with some tanks at close call of the infantry, and portion of the Ariete Division was 25 miles west of Tobruk, where the division had about 80 tanks, of which three-fifths were medium tanks. Although supply difficulties doubtless dictated the employment of some of these forces at Tobruk, such as stationing the Brescia Division in substantial strength opposite the western outlet with the Ariete Division’s tanks farther west, the invested forces were nevertheless tying down an equivalent force. Almost all Rommel’s German mobile infantry and positional ground troops were absorbed in the task of defending the Salient.
Rommel still had his teeth well into the slice of the Tobruk perimeter
he had snatched, but it was too much to chew. While he was left free to deploy a strong armoured striking force (about 80 tanks) near the frontier to meet any British thrust, the only German mobile infantry left to him to consolidate the results of any German eastward thrust or counter-thrust was one battalion of lorried infantry and one motor-cycle battalion. Tobruk was therefore providing the British Western Desert Force Command with an insurance against the worst consequences of failure if an offensive from the frontier were rashly or riskily ventured.
On the night of 20th May Tovell’s brigade, which had been in reserve, relieved Godfrey’s brigade in the eastern (Bardia Road) sector and on the 23rd May Godfrey’s brigade changed places with Murray’s brigade (less the 2/13th Battalion, but with the 2/1st Pioneers under command), which then went into reserve for a fortnight before taking over from Wootten’s brigade in the Salient and the western sector. On the night of 1st June the 2/15th Battalion under Major Conroy68 relieved the 2/13th Battalion, which was then granted four days’ relief from front-line duty before it was due to return to the Salient when Murray’s brigade took over that sector.
In early June a crisis arose in relation to the supply of a vital requirement. The daily usage of fuel and lubricants by the vehicles, tanks and other machinery in Tobruk was largely met in April and May by drawing on reserves. No bulk petrol was received, though 800 tons of cased petrol and lubricants were brought in. Adequate efforts to control consumption were not made in the first month of the investment, when the daily consumption averaged 46 tons. This was then reduced to about 30 tons. On 5th May “a high flying plane fluked a hit on a petrol dump which in turn ignited a diesel oil dump. The smoke went up thousands of feet and must have gladdened the heart of the pilot concerned.”69 On 25th May the Helka carrying 1,000 tons of bulk petrol for the garrison was sunk about 30 miles north-east of Tobruk. Another bulk shipment was arranged, due to arrive at 3 a.m. on 2nd June, and a lighter carrying 100 tons of cased petrol was to arrive on 1st June. In the early morning of 1st June the lighter caught fire while unloading; only 10 tons of petrol were saved. Meanwhile information was received that the departure of the tanker had been delayed for 48 hours in order to enable the RAF to arrange better fighter protection. On 2nd June Morshead was informed that by the end of the day only 130 tons of petrol would remain.
Morshead’s annoyance that the shortage should have been allowed to develop is evident in his diary. He wrote a personal letter to all commanding officers calling for economy, directed that all use of transport for taking troops to the beaches be discontinued, ordered that next day’s indents should be only half satisfied and no issue be made on the following day and required that units should thereafter be held, if possible, to one-third of previous drawings. He apprehended that such a severe curtailment
could not be sustained but noted in his diary that he was counting on reducing consumption to 20 tons a day.
On 2nd June a lighter escorted by a minesweeper left Mersa Matruh with 1,200 cases of petrol but next day it was reported that the minesweeper was adrift and the lighter proceeding unescorted. Later, after suffering air attack and incurring heavy casualties to her crew, the lighter returned to Mersa Matruh. Meanwhile the Pass of Balmaha, carrying some 760 tons of bulk petrol, making all of her maximum speed of 6 knots, was ploughing her steady way. “ ‘Pass of Balmaha’ is due 2330/3 if she survives” noted the diarist of 9th Division headquarters on 2nd June. Though twice attacked on the voyage she arrived just after 11 p.m. on 3rd June, laid up heavily camouflaged throughout the next day and sailed safely for Alexandria at 2 a.m. on the 5th, having discharged her cargo and leaving the garrison with about 40 days supplies. On 5th June some of the stocks were lost by fires in three dumps caused by incendiaries dropped from aircraft, but before the end of the month Pass of Balmaha’s gallant company brought her again to Tobruk. More than 1,400 tons of bulk petrol were received in June by this ship.
The relief of Wootten’s brigade by Murray’s brigade took place on the nights of 4th, 5th and 6th June. Responsibility for the sector passed from Wootten to Murray at 3 a.m. on the 5th. Of all Wootten’s battalions the 2/9th was most deserving of rest, having held the Bianca sector of the Salient from the night of 4th May (after mounting a counter-attack on the night of 3rd May) to the night of 5th June, during which period it substantially advanced the front line of defence.
Mention must also be made of the dismounted squadron of the King’s Dragoon Guards which had occupied the perimeter posts S27 to S21 (inclusive) in the Derna Road sector from 20th May to 4th June, when it was relieved by a company of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. The squadron had carried out its infantry role with spirit. On the night of 28th May Captain Llewellen Palmer70 took out a patrol to interfere with the construction of an enemy line on his front. Captain Palmer’s patrol got right into the enemy with the bayonet, driving them out in disorder, and Palmer himself killed four Italians. The fleeing enemy were caught by fire from their own neighbouring positions and, as Palmer’s patrol withdrew, confusion reigned among the enemy who continued to fire at each other to the delight of the patrol.
The Derna Road sector was now held by the 2/1st Pioneers with left flank at S8 and S10; in the Salient the 2/13th Battalion was on the right, the 2/17th in the centre, and the 2/15th on the left. Colonel Burrows quickly reached the conclusion that the right of the Salient offered even greater opportunities for advancing the line than he had previously exploited on the left. Forbes’ Mound, in the centre of his front, ran out into no-man’s land like a promontory (or true salient) from which, on
either side, the line swept back in semi-circular bays. On the right of Forbes’ Mound his line was as crooked as a dog’s leg. From the right flank near S10 it extended in a south-easterly direction for about 700 yards, switched east for some 600 yards, then ran out at a right-angle due south for almost 1,000 yards to Forbes’ Mound. Burrows conceived the idea of advancing the front on the right flank to the line of the more forward perimeter post S8, then running it south-eastwards practically in a straight line (with some minor curvature dictated by the contour of the ground) to the front of Nixon’s Post and beyond. (This project was facilitated by the fact that the enemy during the previous month had similarly straightened out his opposing line on an almost parallel alignment, not, like Burrows, by pushing it out, but by constructing a straightened line just behind his forward troops, which were then drawn back on to it.) Murray entirely approved of Burrows’ proposals and Morshead gave his authorisation, stipulating only that the entire move forward should be completed in two nights, not four as Burrows had proposed.
On the third night after his battalion’s arrival each of Burrows’ forward companies sent out observers to lie up during the day in no-man’s land well forward of the front line on either side of Forbes’ Mound. Engineers cleared routes through the heavily booby-trapped minefields the Germans had put down, and the positions to be dug were carefully sited and laid out. The engineers lifted 60 booby-traps on one night.
Booby-traps took many forms. MT pits, and vacated weapon-pits contained quantities of Italian hand grenades, either loosely scattered or attached to pieces of flat board. These grenades were prepared to explode when disturbed. Explosives were attached to trip wires which when cut caused explosion, attached to or concealed in everyday articles, such as ration tins, loaves of bread, articles of clothing and so prepared that they exploded when stepped on. Technical details of these traps may be obtained from engineers.71
On the left of Forbes’ Mound Captain Hill’s company advanced its line some 350 yards on the night of 10th–11th June. On the next night Captain Daintree’s72 and Major Chilton’s companies conformed, establishing new lines at distances varying between 250 and 500 yards forward of the old. On the two nights only two serious casualties (of whom one, an engineer, was killed) were caused by enemy fire. Heavier casualties resulted from booby-traps: four men killed and five wounded. These losses must have been greater but for the work of Corporal Hunt73 who, before the line was advanced, located a minefield and took out eight men to clear it. The mine-lifting was carried out under persistent mortar fire and one bomb eventually found its mark: two of the party were killed, three wounded. Hunt extricated the casualties and returned undeterred the same night with another party to continue the work. Next night, when the positions were being dug, he returned once more and an enemy mortar
again attempted to range his party. Work was interrupted but, when no casualties resulted, was pushed on under persistent fire to completion.
In a report on the operation Burrows pointed out that the line had been shortened by about 600 yards, enabling company fronts to be held with only two platoons forward, thus giving added depth; the link with Post S8 had ended that post’s isolation and strengthened the position of Post S10; closer touch with the enemy had been obtained. Another advantage appreciated but not specified by Burrows was that minefields laid by the enemy had been converted to the use of the defence.
Brigadier Murray was as interested in depth of defence and reserves on a brigade scale as Colonel Burrows was within his battalion and decided to take advantage of the shortening of the line to release one battalion from front-line duties and with it to constitute a brigade reserve. Accordingly, on 12th June, he called his battalion commanders to a conference to discuss this possibility, and at a further conference next day ordered the 2/17th Battalion to come back into reserve on the night of 14th June. The 2/17th had three companies forward. The 2/13th was to take over the right company area, the 2/15th the remainder. The relief was effected without difficulty; in the heartlessness of war one man killed and two wounded was not a high price. A notable incident had occurred during the 2/17th Battalion’s tenure in the Salient. On 8th June when 20 enemy aircraft strafed and bombed the battalion’s positions (killing one man and wounding two), the Regimental Sergeant-Major, Warrant-Officer Brown,74 manned a Lewis gun75 mounted for anti-aircraft fire and brought down a plane.76
On 15th June the unrelenting Burrows surveyed the positions he had taken over on his left and could see no reason why they should not also be advanced to conform with his new line. From the junction at his old boundary the new front ran east to Nixon’s Post. Why not swing the left forward to the south-easterly alignment? All that was necessary
was that the neighbouring battalion should conform and any enemy objection be firmly overruled.
The static warfare to which the Tobruk front had now reverted, though smouldering at the hot point of close contact in the Medauuar Salient, and sometimes briefly flaring, presented a strong contrast to the swift movement of the war elsewhere. On 20th May German aircraft in their hundreds darkened the skies over Crete. On the same evening the airborne invaders gained a foothold on the Maleme airfield and by 23rd May had made their hold secure. The British force on Crete was thenceforward doomed. On 24th May, off the shores of Greenland, the Bismarck sank HMS Hood, for which wound to British naval prestige and pride the later sinking of the Bismarck, though it redressed the tactical balance in the Atlantic, was but a sop and not a consolation. There was nothing, however, to counter-balance Admiral Cunningham’s disastrous naval losses in the eastern Mediterranean incurred in supporting and rescuing the military forces sent to Greece and Crete. By the end of the month the mercifully brief campaign in Crete had ended. Only half the British garrison was retrieved. General Wavell could derive a little relief but less consolation from the fact that the risky expedition to Iraq had succeeded without becoming a dangerous commitment. The hostile Rashid Ali had fled the country. The adventure had prospered, it is now known, because Hitler too had drawn back from a commitment in Iraq, having decided to concentrate all effort on the conquest of Russia.
Even in the Western Desert where the British forces were operating comparatively close to their base, there was a falling back. After operation BREVITY Halfaya Pass was defended by the 3rd Coldstream Guards (with field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery in support) and a detachment of nine infantry tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment. It had been ordered that the pass was to be held, but the size of the force employed hardly indicated an intention to fight a major battle for its retention; such apparently was the inference drawn by the German Africa Command which, in planning operation SCORPION to recapture the pass, thought at first to enforce withdrawal by no more than a show of force on a wide front. The theory was never fully tested, however, for the scorpion carried a potent sting, which was effectively used. The German frontier force – the Herff Group – had strong forces including 160 tanks, but lacked sufficient fuel to employ them to full advantage. It was divided into four groups which in the end set out with the purpose not of feinting but of seeking battle.
The operation began on 26th May. On the right, the Wechmar Group, a mobile battle group strong in artillery, was to carry out the conventional right hook towards Deir el Hamra; in the centre the Cramer Group – the main tank force – was to thrust towards Sidi Suleiman, while on the left the Bach Group was to operate close in to the escarpment against infantry positions not readily accessible to tanks. A small divisional reserve was constituted, called after its commander, the Knabe Group. If the British
obliged by offering battle, the Wechmar and Cramer Groups would concentrate. As the operation developed, however, the Bach Group alone encountered substantial opposition and this influenced the German commander during the afternoon of 26th May to switch the armour northwards with the object of crushing the British opposition at Halfaya. The movement was swiftly executed under cover of night and at dawn on the 27th the Knabe Group attacked the head of the pass, the Bach Group began to converge on the foot and the German armour appeared at the top of the escarpment to shell the coastal plain. Major C. G. Miles (4th Royal Tank Regiment) in command of the squadron led out his handful of tanks to distract the enemy while the Guards executed a good withdrawal, though some were caught at the foot of the pass by the Bach Group.
The cost that the British command required the enemy to pay for the recapture of Halfaya was minute in comparison with that soon to be incurred in an unsuccessful attempt to regain the pass; but the terrain so greatly favoured a force operating from the west that, unless a major battle with prospect of success could have been fought, the result of committing more forces to its defence might have been to increase the losses sustained more than those inflicted.
On 27th May Mr Churchill issued a minute to the Chiefs of Staff stating that it was imperative to prescribe from London the priorities and emphasis for future operations in the Middle East. In this document he stated (inter alia):–
In the Western Desert alone the opportunity for a decisive military success presents itself. Here the object must not be the pushing back of the enemy to any particular line or region, but the destruction of his armed force, or the bulk of it, in a decisive battle fought with our whole strength. It should be possible in the next fortnight to inflict a crushing defeat upon the Germans in Cyrenaica.77
Next day the Chiefs of Staff signalled Wavell their views. Their message agreed with the main points of Churchill’s suggested prescription but placed greater emphasis on the need, having regard to the loss of Crete, to re-establish British air forces in the part of Cyrenaica between Salum and Derna. It was stated that this was imperative. Decisive success must be sought in the desert in a battle fought with all available strength. On the same day (that is, the day after Halfaya had fallen) Wavell issued to Western Desert Force his outline orders for operation BATTLEAXE. The offensive was to be planned in three phases: defeat of the enemy forces at the frontier and securing the frontier area; defeat of the enemy forces in the Tobruk-El Adem area; exploitation to Derna and Mechili. The Tobruk garrison was to play an active role. Wavell simultaneously warned the Chiefs of Staff that the measure of success that would attend the operation was doubtful.
On 4th June a meeting of the Commanders-in-Chief in Cairo (not attended by General Blamey) discussed the situation at Tobruk in gloomy terms. General Wavell said that the prospect of a blitz on the fortress in the near future was causing him anxiety, Admiral Cunningham spoke of
the difficulty of keeping up supplies to the fortress, and Air Marshal Tedder said that little fighter support could be given. It was decided that nothing much could be done except to investigate whether sending ships to Tobruk every night could be avoided. Three days later, with the concurrence of the other Commanders-in-Chief, Cunningham ordered a temporary suspension of all shipping to Tobruk other than destroyers; these continued the nightly service. This decision in time led to some rationing in Tobruk and curtailment of ammunition expenditure.
Wavell had told the Chief of the Imperial General Staff that his tank strength, including those in Tobruk, was 230 cruisers (90 in workshops) and 217 infantry tanks (30 in workshops). Referring to the presence of two German armoured divisions and one Italian in Libya, he warned that by 1st September there might well be another two or three and that the enemy might also receive facilities to pass two or three through Anatolia to operate on his northern flank. He stated that it was therefore imperative, if Egypt were to be held, that further armoured reinforcements should be shipped at once and be ready for battle by the end of August.
On 6th June Wavell sent an appreciation of the possibilities of operation BATTLEAXE to the Chief of the Imperial Staff.78 He pointed out that the enemy had now prepared defensive positions opposite Tobruk and that a break-out of the garrison, though still possible, would probably involve considerable casualties in tanks and men; therefore if the Tobruk garrison attacked during the first stage of BATTLEAXE and the main attack stopped at the end of that stage owing to casualties suffered by the armoured formations, the further defence of Tobruk would be compromised. The garrison would therefore have to contain the enemy in the first stage and make its sortie in the second stage when the main attack came within supporting distance.
Wavell’s general appreciation of the prospects was not couched in optimistic terms. If both stages of the operation succeeded, the benefits, he said, would include the relief of Tobruk and the re-establishment of air bases between Tobruk and Salum. Success in the first stage only would delay the enemy advance on Egypt and probably prevent him from using air bases between Salum and Tobruk. If the attack in the first stage should fail, the position would be serious, since he had no reserve of armour. The fall of Tobruk might then be likely and the enemy would be placed in a strong position to invade Egypt in the late summer or early autumn. Wavell summed up:–
I do not anticipate complete failure in the first stage but our strength at the end of first stage may not enable us to carry out second stage and reach Tobruk.
At a meeting of the Middle East Commanders-in-Chief on 13th June, which Blamey attended, Wavell stated that once touch with Tobruk had been established he proposed to base a system of mobile defence upon the fortress but that, if our main forces were subsequently driven back eastwards, he proposed that Tobruk should be left ungarrisoned.
The date set for operation BATTLEAXE to begin was 15th June. The few days allowed by the time-table for the hastily reassembled 7th Armoured Division to train with the new tanks was a grossly inadequate preparation for battle. But although Wavell was under great pressure from London to bring the battle on as soon as the newly-arrived tanks could be got to the front, it is not to be lightly presumed that he fixed the date against his better judgment. The background to the problem was the prospective immediate improvement in Rommel’s supply situation resulting from the German conquest of Crete, sure to be quickly converted into an air base, and the simultaneous weakening of the British fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. A better trained force attacking later might encounter a much stronger enemy, or the enemy attacking in concentrated force might choose the time and place of the engagement. Whether these considerations justified giving battle without proper training may be doubtful, but it may also be doubted whether a longer training period would have effected much improvement. Three main factors limiting the success of operation BATTLEAXE were the higher commanders’ propensity to disperse the armour, their failure to combine the action of their force’s tanks, field guns and anti-tank guns and their exposure of the infantry tanks, in attacks on fixed fortifications, to guns that outranged them. These faults persisted long after BATTLEAXE, as operation CRUSADER was to show.
Wavell planned to use some 200 medium tanks in the offensive, of which about half would be infantry tanks.79 He estimated that the Germans had 100 medium tanks in the forward area and 120 in the Tobruk area, where there were also some 70 light German tanks and a few Italian tanks. Thus while the British might achieve a 2 to 1 superiority over German tanks at the outset, he inferred that it would be possible for Rommel to concentrate about 300 tanks against the British total of about 200.80 If these do not appear very favourable terms for mounting an offensive, it must be remembered that for Britain the war was still a contest with a militarily stronger power. Neither Wavell nor any other British commander had yet been vouchsafed a general superiority of force in an important theatre of operations. Success depended on achieving momentary superiority at a decisive point. The situation was in fact better than Wavell appreciated, for the Germans had fewer than 200 tanks fit for action when the operation started and the British actually achieved a superiority of 4 to 1 in gun-armed tanks and 2 to 1 in troops for their attack on the frontier.81
The plan for operation BATTLEAXE was, as the historian of the Indian Armed Forces has remarked, “similar in tactics to that which had proved so successful a month before”. On the right, the 4th Indian Division, with infantry tank support, was to assault Halfaya frontally, both above and below the escarpment, a second column of tanks and infantry comprising the main infantry tank strength (the 4th Armoured Brigade) was to be aimed through Point 206 at Fort Capuzzo and Salum, and the 7th Armoured Division with cruiser tanks was to advance on the left to the Hafid Ridge and beyond, hoping to draw the enemy armour, while its Support Group screened the flank.
The German Africa Command watched the development of the British preparations through the eyes of its Intelligence services and drew correct deductions. By 6th June the likelihood of an attack had been appreciated. It was noted by the German Africa Corps on 10th June that a planned relief of the Ariete Division by the Pavia Division had been completed but that “owing to the alteration in the enemy situation” – no doubt a reference to the advancing of the line in the Tobruk Salient – it was impossible to relieve the 5th Light Division of its front-line responsibilities. The division remained in the El Adem–Acroma area as corps reserve. In the meantime three local defence positions were constructed astride the British line of advance, prepared for all-round defence, equipped with artillery and as many anti-tank weapons as possible and, “in accordance with the lessons learnt at Tobruk”, carefully concealed in the hope that the British would run inadvertently upon them: one at Point 208 was on the Hafid Ridge, one was at Point 206 (south of Fort Capuzzo) and one at Halfaya. Both at Point 208 and at Halfaya a troop of 88-mm guns was dug in. Behind the bastion at Halfaya and the two fortified islands in the desert approaches, manned mainly by German troops, stretched a second line of Italian-manned strongpoints at Fort Capuzzo, Musaid and Salum barracks, and between the two main defence lines two further strongpoints were developed, at Bir Wair and Qalala. The guns in these chequered fortifications provided artillery defence in great depth covering the environs of the vital pass-heads. The mobile reserve of the German armoured force on the frontier, comprising the medium tanks of the 15th Armoured Division with mobile infantry and medium (88-mm) and light anti-aircraft artillery, was stationed north of Capuzzo.
On 14th June the German command deduced that the British attack would open next day. Mobile reserve units in the Tobruk–El Adem area (including the 5th Light Division) were ordered to be ready for action at first light and the 5th Light Division was ordered to move a mixed tank and artillery unit to a position south of Gambut on the frontier approaches to the Tobruk front. The Ariete Division at Gazala, west of Tobruk, was alerted and the entire artillery at Tobruk was ordered to lay a barrage at moonrise.
It was now more than two months since the 9th Australian Division had withdrawn into Tobruk to deny its fortress and harbour to the enemy until
the British command could organise a force to drive him back. The troops had understood that their sentence was imprisonment with hard labour until relieved, but had expected that the building up of a relief force would straightaway be put in hand. Information of the first thrust had not been imparted in a way to engender undue hopes and had been quickly followed by news of failure. But through the “grape-vine” communication network the men became aware of the impending June offensive and rumours of the assembling of a large British armoured force kindled great hope. Although extreme precautions to maintain secrecy were taken, the practising of roles on a large scale, together with far-reaching administrative arrangements, left few in ignorance.
The role of the Tobruk garrison in operation BATTLEAXE, as foreshadowed in Wavell’s appreciation, was to contain the besieging enemy in the first stage (frontier operations) and to execute a strong sortie in the second stage to join forces with the formations operating from the frontier; but until these were within striking distance no move was to be made outside the perimeter. The junction was to be made at Ed Duda, a dominant hill eight miles south-east of the perimeter. Ed Duda overlooked the Trigh Capuzzo near its junction with the Tobruk by-pass route (later to be made a bituminous road) by which Axis transport bound for the frontier, having left the coast road to skirt the perimeter, rejoined it on the eastern side. The task of the garrison force therefore involved not merely breaching the defence ring to reach Ed Duda but maintaining an open corridor to that point. A similar plan was later to be adopted for operation CRUSADER but had then to be carried out through much more strongly developed defences.
Morshead’s assignment confronted him with difficult problems. He was determined that the garrison’s contribution should be formidable, but the need to allocate an adequate force to the sortie from his four infantry brigades competed directly with his responsibility for defending a perimeter of some 30 miles. While Tobruk was encircled he could not part with a large force to establish a stronghold at Ed Duda. Closer to the perimeter, however, he chose not to minimise the commitment but to strike with vigour.
The plan provided for the main sortie to be made by the 18th Brigade complete with supporting arms (including the 1st RHA) and the 3rd Armoured Brigade. Simultaneously the 26th Brigade on the left was to make a sortie with one battalion (the 2/48th) to attack the enemy defences near the Bardia Road with the primary object of flank protection and dispersal of the enemy’s defensive and counter-preparation fire. As a further diversion and stimulus to Italian nervousness on the left, a company of English commandos under Major Lord Sudeley82 (and including among its officers Major Randolph Churchill, the British Prime Minister’s son) was to make a landing behind the enemy lines six miles to the east of the perimeter. On the right of the sortie the 24th and 20th Brigades were to engage the enemy with fire. In a late development of
the plan, the 24th Brigade was to be on call to attack with two battalions on the right flank of the sortie. Another subsidiary operation planned in detail was for the 20th Brigade, if opportunity offered – which presumably meant, if the enemy thinned out in this sector or replaced the 5th Light Division infantry with Italians – to attack with one battalion (the 2/15th) along the southern perimeter for Medauuar. A final operation planned, to be mounted if the enemy’s grip on the perimeter loosened, was a sortie through the western gate along the Derna Road by the 24th Brigade with two battalions. Thought was given to possible enemy counter-thrusts and the most likely points of penetration, counter-attack tasks were worked out, and Godfrey’s and Tovell’s brigades each had one battalion on call to carry them out.
Wootten learned of his assignment only one day after his brigade had moved into reserve. A week of intensive preparation followed and Wootten twice reconnoitred the area in front of the perimeter by carrier. His plan was to establish two battalion positions a little more than three miles out from the perimeter on either side of the “corridor” – the 2/9th Battalion at Bir Ghersa on the right, the 2/12th on the left – thus providing a protected zone in which the artillery would be sited, while the 2/10th Battalion went forward to seize and hold Ed Duda. The 7th Royal Tanks (with 15 infantry tanks) were to participate in Martin’s and Field’s attack. The rest of the 3rd Armoured Brigade-1st Royal Tank Regiment (about 20 old cruiser tanks), 3rd Hussars (19 light tanks) and King’s Dragoon Guards (26 armoured cars) – with one company of the 2/10th Battalion was to precede the main body of the battalion as an advanced guard and seize Ed Duda if unoccupied or lightly held until the infantry arrived. If the offensive developed favourably, the 2/10th was to be prepared to come under command of the 3rd Armoured Brigade to participate in a wide sweep of the desert to a position west of Acroma; possibly the whole brigade might be so employed. The 18th Brigade had been made operationally mobile, largely with vehicles commandeered from the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment.
All was ready by 15th June and the first situation reports received from the frontier, which according to fashion played successes up and failures down, reporting that Capuzzo had been captured but that Halfaya was “still holding out”, gave promise of favourable development. The commencement of Wootten’s operation waited on the receipt of the agreed signal, which was to be issued when the armoured forces from the frontier came within 20 miles. The signal did not come.
The best that can be said of operation BATTLEAXE is that it was not the complete failure it was at first adjudged, but it ended, as became the almost invariable pattern in the desert armoured conflicts, with the German forces in possession of the battlefield and thus able to recover their temporarily disabled tanks while for the same reason most serious British tank casualties became total losses.
The two columns operating against Halfaya and Fort Capuzzo were
under the command of the 4th Indian Division (General F. W. Messervy). The 7th Armoured Division (General Creagh) was responsible for the inland flank. The Royal Air Force succeeded, by the costly method of continuous fighter patrols, in establishing local superiority over the battlefield notwithstanding that Rommel, on the eve of the battle, had appealed to the German Air Command for full support. The three British columns, though detected, were not hampered in their advance to the battle zone.
In the early morning the right-hand column, which was subdivided into two, advancing in part above and in part below the escarpment, attacked Halfaya. The force on the coastal plain, which comprised two battalions of the 4th Indian Division and six infantry tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, failed in its head-on assault; four of the tanks became immobilised on a minefield which, according to one account, “had not been gapped, as arranged”.83 The force operating above the escarpment, consisting of one infantry battalion (2/Camerons) and 12 infantry tanks of the 4th Royal Tanks, attacked the top of the pass without support from its artillery, which had become bogged in sand on the approach march. The 88-mm and anti-tank guns of the defence at first held their fire and then shot the British tanks to pieces at close range, accounting for 11 out of 12. Denuded of support, the Camerons could not press home the attack.
In the centre the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, weakened by the detachments allotted to the infantry force operating against Halfaya, was directed at the German strongpoints covering the approaches to Fort Capuzzo, while the main centre column to attack Capuzzo bypassed these positions. A fortification just north of the wire containing eight field guns was captured (but subsequently lost in a surprise counter-attack by German armoured cars). The attack on Point 206 initially made by one troop of tanks was repelled. In the late morning, however, the main centre column, speared by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment’s infantry tanks, overran Capuzzo; the 22nd Guards Brigade consolidated.
On the left the advanced guard of the inland column (7th Armoured Division) had meanwhile been checked by heavy fire on the Hafid Ridge, but just before midday an attack by one squadron, supported by artillery, overran some enemy gun positions.
The German command had by this time inferred that the aim of the operation might be to wipe out the German frontier forces and relieve Tobruk. A reconnaissance battalion and an artillery regiment of the 5th Light Division were set moving in the morning to the frontier for employment opposite Capuzzo. Permission was sought from the Italian command to use the Ariete Division; when this was given, the division was ordered to be ready to move at 3 p.m. Just before midday the rest of the 5th Light Division was ordered to move to south of Gambut ready for future employment. About the same time General Neumann-Silkow (later recognised as one of the most competent commanders of armour in Africa), who had been recently appointed to command the 15th Armoured Division,
became concerned at the loss of artillery at Point 206 and Point 208 and ordered the division’s mobile armoured reserves to restore the situation in those areas.
Throughout the day the British inland column, including the cruiser tank regiments, spent its strength endeavouring to overcome the enemy on the Hafid Ridge, sparring with the tanks of Neumann-Silkow’s division and running into German ambushes in the bewitching succession of ridges near Point 208, while in the centre a second weak attack on Point 206 in mid-afternoon penetrated the position but failed to consolidate its hold.
In the evening Point 206 was taken by a stronger attack and a German counter-attack at Capuzzo was repulsed, but on the inland flank the advanced guard of the 5th Light Division appeared on the scene in the late afternoon and the 7th Armoured Division drew back from the Hafid Ridge when the Germans attacked with a strong tank force. The German tanks followed, engaging the British tanks at long range as they withdrew to south of the frontier wire, there to leaguer.
In brief, on the first day the centre thrust had succeeded, but both the attack on Halfaya and the left flank thrust had failed.
On the morning of 16th June the 7th Armoured Division had about 48 cruiser tanks fit for action, while the 4th Armoured Brigade’s two infantry-tank regiments with the 4th Indian Division had some 40 infantry-tank runners. Although some German tank units had been engaged, the British forces had failed to come to grips with the German armour, which must therefore have been regarded as retaining most of its original tank strength, then estimated to include 170 medium tanks. Thus the conditions that gave some initial hope of success for the operation appeared to exist no longer.
The British plan for the 16th required the coast force again to attack for Halfaya frontally, the centre force without its tanks to exploit towards Bardia and the inland column to be strengthened by a junction of the 4th Armoured Brigade (infantry tanks) with the rest of the 7th Armoured Division, the intention being that both armoured brigades should operate together to destroy the enemy’s armour at Hafid. The 7th Armoured Division’s plan for the employment of the armour, however, handed over the vexatious task of subduing the Hafid Ridge positions to the Matildas of the 4th Armoured Brigade while the 7th Armoured Brigade and the Support Group were to “attack and smash” the armour that had come far south of the Hafid Ridge to engage the division during its withdrawal on the previous evening. But the German command chose to seize the initiative, in consequence of which the situation at first developed more favourably for the British than their plan warranted. The German mobile formations were ordered to attack at first light, the 15th Armoured Division at Capuzzo, the 5th Light Division against the British armour on the inland flank, with the intention of reaching Sidi Omar at 8 a.m. Rommel also ordered the Ariete Division to send a detachment to Ed Duda: it is possible that the over-all British plan was known to him from captured documents.
Owing perhaps to General Beresford-Peirse’s much criticised order to the 4th Armoured Brigade to “rally forward”, the British infantry were for once not caught without support from their own tanks when on the 16th the 15th Armoured Division surprisingly attacked Fort Capuzzo before 5 a.m. The 7th Royal Tanks aided by the combined fire of the artillery and infantry-support weapons beat off the attack and the German 8th Armoured Regiment, which appears to have begun operation BATTLE-AXE with some 80 tanks, reported after the action that it had only 33 runners. In view of this attack General Messervy refused to release the 4th Armoured Brigade to attack Hafid Ridge.
Meanwhile the Scots Guards had taken Musaid and later captured Salum barracks, though on the coast the renewed frontal attack on Halfaya by the 11th Indian Brigade failed. On the inland flank the two regiments of the 7th Armoured Brigade acting in concert successfully checked a German southward thrust.
This was the high tide of British success in the operation and caused the German command to fear that the British force operating from Capuzzo could break through to the Tobruk front. Rommel decided to attack the
flank of this force by using the 5th Light Division in a thrust at Sidi Suleiman, but embroilment of the division’s tank regiment with the 7th Armoured Division and British shelling of the assembly area chosen prevented the mounting of the attack as originally planned.
From late afternoon onwards the battle developed unfavourably for the British. One of the 7th Armoured Division’s two cruiser regiments joyfully pursued an unescorted German transport column. The regiments became separated; their artillery was withdrawn farther back. In the evening each regiment was successively attacked by German armour of the 5th Light Division acting in combination with its artillery. The second engagement became critical but the German attack was halted by darkness. A third British infantry attack on Halfaya in the evening failed.
The two cruiser regiments of the 7th Armoured Brigade now had no more than 25 cruiser tanks fit for action while the 4th Armoured Brigade protecting the Capuzzo force had 29 infantry tanks. The British plan for the third day was that the two armoured brigades should join forces to smash the German armour. Rommel’s counter-plan was that his two armoured divisions should start moving at 4.30 a.m. to join forces and attack through Sidi Suleiman to Halfaya. Such a thrust, if successful, would both end the isolation of Halfaya and cut in behind the British centre column.
At first light on the morning of 17th June the mobile group of the 15th Armoured Division, taking 88-mm guns with it and employing them in a mobile role, brushed up against the 7th Armoured Brigade; soon afterwards the 5th Light Division tanks entered Sidi Suleiman. Rommel’s initiative and early start again dissuaded General Messervy from parting with the 4th Armoured Brigade.
General Creagh, from the 7th Armoured Division headquarters 25 miles behind the frontier wire, now spoke to General Beresford-Peirse, who was at his headquarters 60 miles back, suggesting that he come forward to take an important decision. Wavell had arrived at Beresford-Peirse’s headquarters on the previous evening. Wavell and Beresford-Peirse flew to Creagh’s headquarters but in the meantime Messervy had decided to withdraw from Capuzzo. When Wavell arrived, he authorised the withdrawal and the abandonment of the offensive. Notwithstanding Rommel’s efforts to concentrate both his armoured divisions to trap the British force at Capuzzo, its withdrawal was well effected under cover of gallant action by the dwindling Matildas of the 4th Armoured Brigade.
In the BATTLEAXE operation the 12th Battery, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, was employed with the columns screening the south-west flank and rear of the attacking force. Major Argent’s headquarters and Lieutenant Scanlon’s troop were with the 60th Rifles, Lieutenant Cheetham’s troop, less a section, with the headquarters of a Rifle Brigade battalion, Sergeant Hocking’s84 section with the Support Group headquarters and Lieutenant Rennison’s troop with “Harry Column”, which operated in the opening
phase along the Trigh el Abd to Bir Gibni in Libya, some 12 miles west-south-west of Sidi Omar. While on Harry Column’s excursion, Rennison’s troop destroyed three German armoured cars without loss to themselves. During the withdrawal on 17th June Harry Column was about seven miles south-east of Sidi Suleiman at 6 p.m. when 14 German tanks approached from the direction of Sidi Suleiman. Two guns of Rennison’s troop opened fire and scored direct hits on the tanks, one of which burst into flames.
The British tank losses in BATTLEAXE were severe: of the 100 (approximately) infantry tanks engaged, 64 were destroyed or abandoned, of the 90 cruisers 23 were lost. According to German records only 12 German medium tanks were lost and the loss was counter-balanced by the capture of 12 usable British infantry tanks. From the official British history it would appear that about 100 tanks of those engaged were recoverable or still runners, while we now know the Germans were left with 81 undamaged or recoverable medium gun-armed tanks. But the German strength was at the time thought to be greater.
Churchill later commented critically:
The operation seemed ill-concerted, especially from the failure to make a sortie from the Tobruk sally-port as an indispensable preliminary and concomitant.85
But although such a preliminary sortie might possibly have distracted the 5th Light Division and delayed its mobile group’s arrival on the frontier, few would agree that victory should have been sought on the frontier by risking the destruction of the Tobruk sortie force.
Four days after General Wavell had authorised the discontinuance of BATTLEAXE, he was informed by Mr Churchill that he was to change places with General Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of India. Later Churchill wrote that after BATTLEAXE he “came to the conclusion that there should be a change”.86 But there is evidence that this conclusion may have been reached before the BATTLEAXE failure – much of which flowed from faulty handling of arms and formations in a battle Wavell did not personally control. BATTLEAXE provided the pretext and the opportunity. General Kennedy has written that the exchange had been strongly mooted on 6th May and “finally decided” on 19th May. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir John Dill, did not at that time exactly espouse the Commander-in-Chief’s cause:
Dill had repeated his former advice: ‘Back him or sack him.’ Churchill had replied: ‘It is not so simple as that. Lloyd George did not trust Haig in the last war – yet he could not sack him.’ Dill had told him that Auchinleck, for all his great qualities and his outstanding record on the Frontier, was not the coming man of the war, as the Prime Minister thought.87
Nevertheless after BATTLEAXE General Auchinleck was appointed to succeed General Wavell without more ado. It may be doubted whether any other “coming man of the war” would have proved a better choice.
Auchinleck was an officer of the Indian Army whose active service in the first world war had all been in the Middle East, mainly in Mesopotamia. He had served with distinction in operations on the North-West Frontier of India, where in 1935 he had commanded a division of four brigades in action. In January 1940 he was appointed to raise and command the IV British Corps which was to join the BEF in France. The choice of an Indian Army officer for this post was indicative of the high regard in which he was held by at least some senior officers of the British Army. In May, before his corps was ready to go to France, Auchinleck was given command of the Anglo-French forces in northern Norway. After the withdrawal of this force in June he briefly commanded the V Corps in England, and in July succeeded General Brooke as G.O.C. Southern Command. (Lieut-General B. L. Montgomery took over V Corps.) After four months in Southern Command, including the period when danger of invasion seemed most imminent, Auchinleck was appointed Commander-in-Chief in India, having had the experience, in less than a year, of commanding an Allied force in the field, two British corps, and the equivalent of a British army.
Wavell graciously agreed with the Prime Minister that “a new eye and a new hand” were required. Impressions that Wavell had become tired circulated and were later emphasised, though there is no evidence that the supposed weariness had impaired his powers of command and prompt decision. What is patent is that a change was imperative because he had lost the confidence of the British Government and because, lacking effective protection by the Chiefs of Staff, he would have been unable to plan future operations free of interference from Whitehall. His successor was to be better placed in this regard, for like Haig he could not be sacked – at least, not for some time.
On 20th June Wavell terminated the operational subordination of the Tobruk fortress to Western Desert Force headquarters and Morshead became directly responsible to the General Headquarters of the Middle East.
The news of BATTLEAXE’s failure was inevitably received with great disappointment in Tobruk. The disagreeable fact that the prospect of early relief had disappeared and the success of any future attempt seemed problematic, its date distant and indefinite, could not but induce pessimism; but there is no evidence that the will to see the siege out was weakened. “We learn from the BBC news,” wrote one unit diarist,88 “that our troops after a three day battle ‘to test the enemy strength’ have retired to their original position. While this is a little disappointing we are more concerned with the pressing problem ‘what has happened to our mail?’.”
The fact that the Western Desert was the sole remaining land front on which Britain and her allies were engaged with the Axis forces tended to exaggerate the significance of the British reverse. If German forces could not be successfully opposed even on this front, where and how could
a victory be won? What could halt the advancing shadow cast by German military power, portending to Britain and her allies a yet darker hour of total eclipse? What indeed but the overconfidence of one who harnessed uncurbed ambition to the shafts of the German war machine and drove it eastwards to destruction? A new cause for hope of victory in the end – and, for the Tobruk garrison, of relief in the intervening time – came when the news of Germany’s declaration of war against Russia flashed round the world on 22nd June. That night, in hollows and caves and dugouts in Tobruk, all who could gathered round the radio sets (mostly given by the Australian Comforts Fund and unit funds) and heard the eloquent, inspired voice of the British Prime Minister denouncing the Nazi war machine, its “crafty expert agents”, its “odious apparatus” and “behind all this glare, behind all this storm” the “group of villainous men” who planned “this cataract of horrors”, declaring that there was but one aim and one single, irrevocable purpose, the destruction of Hitler and every vestige of the Nazi regime, declaiming in unforgettable words:–
We shall fight him by land, we shall fight him by sea, we shall fight him in the air, until, with God’s help, we have rid the earth of his shadow and liberated its people from his yoke.
Next day the Tobruk Truth reported:
As Mr Churchill ended, the crowd listening at Salvation Army Hall was stirred by a voice that called “a cheer for Winnie”. Instantaneously another voice “The King”. In less than a second the crowd was at attention – voices lifted as National Anthem sung.
But it is of interest that in most diaries and daily news sheets (which several units were now producing) the arrival of a mail delivery was accorded greater significance. “There’s no doubt about it, when a mail arrives, our whole outlook changes,” wrote the editor of Mud and Blood89 next day, adding later “perhaps a little of our jubilation today is occasioned by the good news from overseas.” The diarist of another unit remarked: “3,000 letters have arrived to our great joy. The unit is as happy as if it were going on leave. ...” Another commented on the involvement of Russia: “All hope it may help our cause but few seem to expect the Russians to hold out for very long.”
On 24th June German aircraft dropped leaflets over the garrison. The text ran:–
After Crete disaster Anzac troops are now being ruthlessly sacrificed by England in Tobruch and Syria. Turkey has concluded pact of friendship with Germany. England will shortly be driven out of the Mediterranean. Offensive from Egypt to relieve you totally smashed.
YOU CANNOT ESCAPE
Our dive bombers are waiting to sink your transports Think of your future and your people at home. Come forward. Show white flags and you will be out of danger.
These brought to light many previously unrecognised gifts of humour. The diarist of Morshead’s headquarters wrote more seriously that owing to the great demand for the leaflets as souvenirs “two copies are included as Appendix 46A”. When the war diary was received at 2nd Echelon, however, it was noted that Appendix 46A was missing.
Morshead’s prescription to counter the disappointment at the failure of efforts to relieve Tobruk was hard work. The construction of field works giving depth to the defence by units in reserve was intensified. In the front line “active patrolling and raids were encouraged still further. In short, we set out to besiege the besiegers”.90
The possibility that the siege might be lifted had postponed Burrows’ plans for a further advancement of the Salient line. Meanwhile his battalion was occupied in changing the sites of its company headquarters and improving the earthworks and wiring of the new positions, while day by day the enemy fired a substantial weight of shells on to the vacated positions, to the mutual satisfaction of the front-line troops of both sides. Colonel Crawford, whose 2/17th Battalion was in reserve behind the Salient, changed the location of one of his companies on 16th June and within a few hours had the pleasure of seeing 500 shells fall on the abandoned position. But although the enemy artillery became more active during the frontier offensive, there is no reference in any artillery or unit diary to the moonrise bombardment ordered by Rommel’s headquarters.
When the expectation of relief faded Burrows began to press for acceptance of his plans. On 20th June Lieutenant Burrell and another man (Private Davidson91) went out 400 yards into no-man’s land before first light to observe the area in daylight: Burrell reported that, though heavily booby-trapped, it could be occupied with advantage. On the next day Burrows went to Murray’s headquarters, as the unit diarist expressed it, “to arrange further forward movement of left flank and to ensure cooperation from 2/15th Battalion”. There was no problem, however, in ensuring the cooperation of Major Ogle, who assumed command of the 2/15th Battalion next day. Ogle entered enthusiastically into the project, not only immediately cooperating in putting into effect Burrows’ plan but also later advancing some of the line his battalion had inherited from Burrows’ battalion at the beginning of the month.
It was decided that the 2/13th Battalion should construct the new positions on the left of Nixon’s Post and that the 2/15th Battalion should occupy them. This arrangement was logical. The positions would be in the 2/13th Battalion’s area of responsibility until occupied by the 2/15th. Nevertheless the decision was not, in the jargon of the industrialist, “good human relations”, for not even excellent leadership can get soldiers to perceive the justice of being required to dig other soldiers’ trenches in most extreme danger, nor with the best morale in the world can weary troops
find for such tasks the will and energy they would be able to summon up if their own lives were to depend on their performance. The plan provided for Captain Handley’s company of the 2/13th to dig the positions on the night of 22nd–23rd June and Captain Strange’s92 company of the 2/15th to occupy them next night. Simultaneously the 2/15th Battalion was to construct a new company area on the left and, in due course, to occupy it.
The work began on the night of 22nd June. Before the evening meal was taken, the explosion of a mine that wounded three men in the 2/15th Battalion to the left of the work area sounded a warning. At 10 p.m. the taping party moved out preceded by sappers to clear the route and before midnight work was under way. Wire and other stores began to be brought forward, but at 1 a.m. a carrying party of the 2/13th Battalion set off a booby-trap killing two men and wounding one. Enemy machine-guns then opened up on the scene of the explosion. For the rest of the night work had to proceed under unnerving fire. In the adjacent 2/15th Battalion area, while a platoon led by Lieutenant Harland was reconnoitring an area it was to occupy, a booby-trap exploded and wounded five men. Captain Strange’s company suffered six more casualties, of which one was fatal. Two sections occupied a forward position on the left of this area next day.
The work of the 2/13th was not completed by first light. The posts had been dug to the insufficient depth of 30 inches and the front was only partly wired. Consequently engineers, digging parties, carrying parties and others had to carry on the work next night. It was decided that although the 2/13th Battalion would continue to supervise the arrangements, the 2/15th Battalion would provide the working parties in the area to be taken over. This work was to be done by Captain Strange’s company. Ogle’s plans were to bring the positions that night to a state of readiness for occupation by Strange’s company on the succeeding night. He told his company commanders at an orders conference on the afternoon of 23rd June that Handley’s company of the 2/13th would be manning the newly-dug positions from dusk. When Strange’s company arrived, Handley’s men would move out as a covering party until 4 a.m., when they would withdraw. He ordered: “2/15th Battalion will prepare new positions for occupation on the night of 24th June.” One of two essential points to be stressed was that the positions must be occupied on the following night as the relief of the 2/13th had been postponed to allow this to be completed.93 Apparently this was not fully understood by the 2/13th Battalion, which according to its diarist was still expecting that the 2/15th would occupy the positions at 4 a.m. on the 24th.
Ogle went out to the area as work began and remained until first light. The men moved out with dread to the death-trapped minefield. Soon after midnight two parties of 2/13th Intelligence men and sappers who
were working towards each other from the flanks had just met in the centre when a booby-trap exploded; 4 men were killed and 6 wounded. Thereupon an enemy mortar opened up, from which an exploding bomb killed 3 men and wounded 6. The work nevertheless was pushed on. It appears from the war diary of the 2/13th that that unit only became aware at 3 a.m. that the 2/15th did not intend to occupy the positions until the following night. By 4 a.m. they were adequately dug though still not completely wired. They were then occupied by Handley’s company.
Intense precautions were taken to prevent a repetition of these losses next night and, by avoiding bunching, to minimise casualties should any misfortune occur. Strange’s company relieved Handley’s company without incident and by 4 a.m. on 25th June Captain Newcomb’s94 company95 on Strange’s left was also safely ensconced in its new positions, where the line had been brought forward to conform. During the morning reconnaissance parties from the 2/17th Battalion arrived at the 2/13th which was to be withdrawn from the Salient into brigade reserve.
Not every battalion commander agreed with Burrows that it was beneficial to advance the line so close to the enemy positions. A wide no-man’s land has advantages for the defence if it is conducted with vigour and its patrols assert mastery. Some thought that the closer observation afforded to the enemy from his higher ground overlooking both the new defence line and its approaches outweighed the advantages secured, particularly since an intense and continuous strain was imposed on the men occupying these exposed, shallow earthworks. But the importance of denying Post S8, Forbes’ Mound and Post R8 to the enemy, which predetermined the nearness to the German line both at each end of the Salient and in the centre, was a counter-argument in favour of advancing the front line to the flanks of these positions. In war those who do not push forward are often thrust back.
These arguments against more forward siting had less application on the left of the Salient, where the next adjustment was planned by Major Ogle. After he had swung his battalion’s right flank forward to the new alignment running out towards Nixon’s Post, the centre of his front was shaped like an elbow pointing inwards; in fact it followed the approximate alignment of a deliberately laid “elbow” in the original British minefield put down in this sector before the Medauuar battle. From the junction of Ogle’s centre companies the line ran north-west on the right, south-west on the left. Ogle decided to cut the elbow off by siting his front along a north-south line joining the outer-platoon positions of the two centre companies. This involved advancing the front 700 yards in the centre. The operation, carefully planned, was to be conducted over five nights, allowing one night for an inter-company relief, and to be completed by the early morning of 3rd July. On the first night the engineers, devitalising mines as they went, ran tapes from the existing positions forward to 30 yards in front of the line to be taken up, then laid tracks along the whole of the front to mark the siting of the new wire. Next night they devitalised mines and booby-traps within the new platoon positions, marking off the “safe areas”. On the succeeding two nights the infantry dug the positions and erected the wire. The enemy, however, became restive on the night of the move forward: there was much movement along the whole Salient front and an increase in artillery fire elsewhere. An almost continuous
night reconnaissance was conducted by enemy aircraft, using flares after the moon had set. It is more likely that the nervousness was set off by interception of messages passed in an exercise conducted that afternoon by the 3rd Armoured Brigade than by the 2/15th Battalion’s activity.
Two months had elapsed since the second Axis assault had breached the perimeter. The prolonged front-line duty, the unchallenged domination of Tobruk skies by hostile aircraft, the intensifying heat, the unpalatable, unchanging diet, and the monotony began to produce noticeable effects, revealed both in a general lassitude and in a lessening of the élan that had characterised the patrolling and raiding activities of the first weeks of the siege. One battalion commander wrote in the unit war diary for June:–
All ranks are undoubtedly jaded, yet to go into a rear area only offers the usual digging tasks with no active patrolling. Some form of amusement is vitally needed to maintain a sense of balance, especially if we are to be here for many more months. We publish a daily paper of one sheet ... which is very popular; but some form of relieving contrast is needed to tone up all ranks. Reinforcements would bring new blood and ideas, and training of them would then be undertaken, giving new zest to officers and NCOs.
The spirit of the battalion is still good and the defences of its section of Tobruk are as secure as ever. But a calculating outlook has definitely crept in as regards the “joie de vivre” of raiding. I expect this will grow unless some event takes place to change our outlook.
The following extract from the report of the medical officer of a unit that had just completed a term in the Salient gives an objective picture:–
The high standard of health which had prevailed since leaving Palestine declined on entering Tobruk, chiefly because of the increasing heat, the difficulty in obtaining adequate quantities of water for washing purposes, and the innumerable flies. Gastroenteritis became very prevalent, and sporadic cases B. Flexner dysentery occurred.
Several cases which were suspected to be sand-fly fever were encountered and a few proved cases of relapsing fever.
On the whole the health of the Battalion was still very good for although diarrhoea was almost universal it rarely incapacitated the patient for more than 24 hours. By 22 June 41, however, the continued exposure to arduous conditions and the unbearable heat had reduced the resistance of the men in the front line and the number of men reporting sick had risen considerably.
Later, on moving into reserve, the men were able to get adequate rest and sleep, and swimming parties were arranged. The influence of this relaxation was soon noticeable and the general health and resistance rapidly improved.96
In the month ending 24th June the RAP of this unit treated 360 cases of diarrhoea, 26 of dysentery and 16 of “fear state”. There was, moreover, in all units, a number of men – particularly among officers and NCOs who did not report from front-line duty for treatment of gastro-enteric disorders.
The lack of friendly aircraft in the skies over Tobruk did not conduce to the elation of the defence, but familiarity caused air attack to lose some of its awe for the great majority although bombs continued to take their toll of the emotionally less robust, particularly in the port and base
areas against which the raids were usually made. The front-line atmosphere is recaptured in this extract from a war diary:–97
A bomber which was later identified as ours flew over Tobruk harbour and then to Hill 209 where a bomb was dropped. This unusual occurrence stopped all activity for a while, no doubt both sides doubting their own insanity. (sic)
In June there were 134 bombing raids on the fortress, in addition to 39 reconnaissance flights.
In the hope that the siege would be raised, little but the barest essentials had been shipped to Tobruk in the weeks preceding BATTLEAXE. No fresh meat was received in June. In May, according to transportation records, 112 tons had been received, but there is no record of its consumption (except in hospitals). However the store-ships Miranda and Antiklia put into Tobruk Harbour on the morning of 1st July, the Miranda with 150 tons on board. The arrival of fresh meat at forward units within a few days, in news jargon, “created a sensation”. One diarist wrote:
We hadn’t tasted any for 3 months at the very inside. And was it appreciated? We smacked our lips after each mouthful and said “My, this is delicious.” This did much to buck up our spirits.98
In June only 186 tons of other supplies (rations, medical supplies, hygiene requirements etc.) were received. The month’s shipment of comforts and canteen stores was 28 tons (for a garrison comprising approximately 28,000 operational and 5,000 non-operational men). This compared with 86 tons in May and 152 in July.
The virtual limitation of supplies to subsistence requirements no doubt contributed its influence to the intangible complex out of which attitudes developed. In June, however, the diarist of the 18th Brigade noted:–
An issue was made today of ONE orange per man, the first issue of fresh fruit in Tobruk ...
and in subsequent months the provision of “wet” rations – fresh meat, vegetables and fruit – greatly improved. To compensate for vitamin C deficiency in the diet, two tablets of ascorbic acid per man were issued daily.99
The curtailment of supplies to essentials was generally regarded as warranted but another shortage during June directly impaired the force’s fighting efficiency. The garrison’s normal usage of ammunition was of the order of 40 tons a day, and of this no component was more important than 25-pounder high-explosive shell. Reserves by the end of May had fallen dangerously and the decision of the Commanders-in-Chief on 4th June to curtail further supply before BATTLEAXE necessitated strict rationing of the guns, except in emergencies. On 6th June the 25-pounders were limited to an expenditure of 10 rounds per gun. The daily average expenditure in June was little more than 5 tons, compared with an average from 11th April to 17th October of 17 tons.
The severe rationing caused many heart-burnings, all the more so because the enemy artillery was becoming more active. Especially exasperating were his shoots conducted with air observation from a Henschel aircraft with increased frequency – almost every day from mid-May onwards, by which time he had become aware that Hurricanes were no longer operating from the Tobruk airfield. The targets were often the garrison’s gun positions. The observation aircraft usually kept beyond range of the heavy anti-aircraft artillery sited near the coast to protect the port, base area and water-supply. On 30th June the diarist of the 1st RHA wrote:
During the month the enemy have steadily been consolidating their positions, our forced economy allowing them to do so with greater impunity than they would otherwise be entitled to.
He found some consolation, however, in the observation that there was plenty of ammunition for the 149-mm Italian howitzers. Each of the three artillery sectors had these in use.
Early in July there was a disturbing increase in enemy shelling on the forward defence areas. More than 2,500 shells per day, about 1,500 in the western sector alone, rained down for a period of two days ending on 4th July, when the rate suddenly subsided to normal, after which the gunners resumed the barter of their wares on terms of approximately equal exchange.
Lack of ammunition also recurrently plagued Captain Feitel’s troop manning the 60-pounders, but on the whole the shortage of British ammunition had a quite contrary effect on the 2/12th Field Regiment, firing its mixed bag of captured field pieces. These were called upon to make good some of the deficiency. “Each troop in the salient must now fire its 100 rounds per gun per day,” commented the regiment’s diarist on 12th June. Colonel Goodwin translated some captured range tables, which enabled greater accuracy to be obtained.
The remaining two troops of the regiment arrived on 4th June. Lieutenant Bromley’s100 troop was equipped with Italian 75-mm field guns, Captain Young’s101 with 100-mm. One section of Captain McDermott’s troop, which had been relieving the 51st Field Regiment on 25-pounders, took over two of the 4.5 howitzers; the other was equipped with 149-mm guns. The latter equipment had a good range but proved difficult to handle owing to lack of knowledge of the various charges and to difficulty with the recuperator system. One of the guns had to be abandoned after two attempts to fire it.
The drawback of very restricted firing was partly offset in June by the proper organisation of counter-battery work. In the first month of the siege, this had devolved on the staffs of the regiments controlling the three artillery sectors. After 10th May, when a counter-battery section
commanded by Lieutenant D. W. Scrimgeour from the staff of the 4th Indian Division at Keren came to Tobruk, a coordinating counter-battery office was established at Royal Artillery headquarters; but it laboured under many disadvantages, of which the greatest was the lack of sound-ranging and flash-spotting equipment. On the night of 3rd June, however, a composite sound-ranging and flash-spotting battery of the 4th Survey Regiment was brought in and three nights later Lieut-Colonel Klein,102 the counter-battery officer of I Australian Corps, arrived to take charge of the counter-battery organisation.
Klein displayed both drive and ingenuity in quickly establishing an efficient and flexible organisation.103 His first step was to move the office to a site where living and working conditions and lighting were good and there establish an efficient telephone exchange and communication system. By 9th June the new control centre and observation network were fully operative and on 20th June the diarist of the 1st RHA noted that a detailed counter-battery concentration table had been issued to each battery, enabling any enemy battery to be dealt with in an immediate and methodical way. Klein soon provided Feitel’s 60-pounders with much to do.
A feature of artillery work at Tobruk was the number of tower observation posts used by both besiegers and besieged. Some on the perimeter were on poles, others were platforms on steel framework like giant scaffolds. On 26th June it was found that the enemy had erected 10 tripods and towers overnight. Their purpose caused much speculation because they were not used for observation on subsequent days.
The failure of BATTLEAXE had consigned the prospect of lifting the siege to the nebulous realm of “future operations”. Whether Tobruk should continue to be held clearly required reconsideration. The problem was taken up by the Chiefs of Staff in London and the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East, in whose deliberations General Blamey participated as Deputy Commander-in-Chief. Morshead’s chief staff officer, Colonel Lloyd, went to Cairo for consultation.
On 25th June the Commanders-in-Chief discussed a preliminary study prepared by the planning staff and agreed that Tobruk should continue to be held. General Blamey said that the morale was excellent, the defence strong and the garrison confident of resisting attack; Morshead wished, however, to have surplus men and units taken out. Next day the Commanders-in-Chief telegraphed their decision to the Chiefs of Staff. They said that Tobruk greatly influenced enemy action in the Western Desert because a prerequisite to enemy action against the Nile Delta was that the fortress should be either reduced or strongly contained; Tobruk had not yet been really strongly attacked on the ground and in the air but the
enemy could probably produce the necessary forces for heavy attack in about two months’ time; evacuation at any time would require the use of warships for four consecutive nights and would be a difficult operation hard to disguise: it had been decided to hold Tobruk “until supply difficulties or enemy intentions render evacuation desirable” but to reduce the garrison consistent with defence requirements, both to ease the supply situation and to allow of evacuation if necessary on two successive nights. General Blamey informed the Australian Government of the decision by cable.
It is difficult to see how it was thought that such a reduction in the garrison strength could be achieved, unless some diminution of the combatant force was contemplated at the very time when it was apprehended that the danger to the fortress was growing. Morshead had been continually asking to be rid of “bouches inutiles” but, by the time Blamey spoke, that had been largely accomplished. When the 9th Division withdrew into Tobruk, there were almost 10,000 prisoners of war and more than 2,200 Senussi, but when Blamey spoke the total of these remaining would have numbered fewer than 1,000 and week by week their number was being speedily reduced. Most of the prisoners had been removed within a few days of the commencement of the siege; by 13th April only 2,780 remained; by the end of May, despite the addition of more than 2,000 captured in the meantime, the holding had been reduced to 178. The removal of the Senussi was then put in hand. They were shipped out throughout June and by the end of that month there were only some 400 left. There remained some 1,150 dispensable Indian and native personnel in the base area, mainly in labouring units, used principally for stevedoring and other port duties. Including these the total strength of the base area after BATTLEAXE was 4,411 (18th June). It was only here that a significant reduction in strength could be effected.
Other than the prisoners of war the total strength at Tobruk (excluding Royal Navy) after BATTLEAXE was 28,231, of which 22,725 belonged to fighting units. Through most stringent economy these figures were reduced by 31st July to a total of 22,076104 of which 20,679 belonged to fighting units. The ratio of 1,400 base area personnel to 20,700 in operational formations speaks for itself.
Brigadier Whiteley,105 of the General Staff at Wavell’s headquarters, accompanied Lloyd on his return to Tobruk. Whiteley informed Morshead that the next attempt to relieve Tobruk would not be made until superiority in tanks was assured. The garrison was to be prepared to hold out indefinitely and stocks of ammunition and supplies were to be built up to a reserve of 60 days. Plans for evacuation by sea were to be prepared but were to be made known only to the commander and his senior staff. Within a few days Morshead himself left by sea for Egypt, to arrive at Cairo just as command was passing from General Wavell to General Auchinleck.
The last meeting of the Chiefs of Staff over which General Wavell presided (and which General Auchinleck also attended) wrestled with the problem of supplying Tobruk. It was decided that an average of 230 tons per day would have to be shipped to avoid breaking into reserve supplies. Two schemes prepared by the staff and involving the use of destroyers and “A” lighters, an early form of tank landing craft, were considered, but Admiral Cunningham declined to exclude the possibility of running small ships into Tobruk. Air Marshal Tedder stated that the entire fighter strength of the Western Desert would be required.
The decision to ship 230 tons per day was an acceptance of a very serious commitment. Fortunately the target then set did not have to be met. It was found possible to limit the requirements to 170 tons per day106 for a garrison of 25,000. The navy and small ships brought in 170 tons per day in July and almost as much in August, which not only fulfilled the essential requirements for a garrison then reduced to less than 25,000, but enabled reserves to be built up.
In Cairo Morshead pointed out that in determining the future operational policy for Tobruk a choice was involved between conducting a static defence of the perimeter and adopting a more active role of harassing the enemy and attacking his communications. He suggested that the provision of another brigade group and some additional tanks would enable him to operate in strength outside the perimeter so as to induce the enemy to withdraw portion of his force from the frontier; but General Auchinleck, having regard to his other commitments and the strength of his forces, found it impossible to accede to the request. Morshead was informed that the British armoured strength would not be restored until the end of July and that the policy meanwhile would be to avoid a major embroilment.
On 4th July Generals Blamey and Morshead conferred with Air Marshals Tedder and Drummond107 and made arrangements for tactical reconnaissance sweeps to be flown from El Gubbi and Sidi Barrani and for Morshead to have the right to call on the services of the army-cooperation squadron operating with the Western Desert Force.
Brigadier Murray commanded the Tobruk garrison while Morshead was in Cairo. Morshead resumed command on 9th July.
A series of reliefs, planned before Morshead went to Cairo, had been put in hand. At the end of June the 2/48th Battalion had relieved the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion on the sector of the western perimeter running from the north edge of the Salient across the Derna Road to the head of the Wadi Sehel. Wootten’s brigade (in divisional reserve) next changed places in the southern sector with Godfrey’s brigade, which then relieved Murray’s brigade in the Salient and took command of the 2/48th Battalion,
while Murray’s brigade came into divisional reserve. Command passed in the Salient on 11th July. Tovell’s brigade (less the 2/48th Battalion but with the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion under command) remained in the eastern sector. The assignment of defence sectors to brigades remained unaltered throughout July except in the southern sector where towards the end of the month Murray’s brigade relieved Wootten’s brigade, which returned to divisional reserve on 26th July.
No major operations were undertaken in July, but several strong patrol actions and raids were conducted.108 Morshead encouraged these activities. After a successful raid by two fighting patrols from the 2/12th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Reid and Sergeant Russell,109 he wrote Colonel Field:–
My compliments and congratulations to you on the success of your fighting patrols last night. A really good effort in every way. Will you please convey my congratulations to all those who took part.
I am glad that you are seizing every opportunity to inflict casualties on our unneighbourly enemy and to harass him – it’s good for him and also for us. And remember what the good Book says: It’s more blessed to give than to receive.
Field’s battalion carried out another raid on the night of 16th July in which Lieutenant Steddy’s platoon inflicted about 20 casualties. While the Chestnut Troop was directly supporting Steddy’s approach to his objective with a creeping barrage, the sector artillery staged a diversionary shoot designed to distract attention from the locality where the patrol was operating. All captured guns manned by the southern artillery group (1st and 107th RHA) together with the “bush” guns manned by Wootten’s brigade fired a concentration on an enemy trench system. In all, 14 guns (6 of them 149-mm howitzers) fired 1,220 rounds. Six guns failed to stay the course but the rest fired for two hours.
On the succeeding night raids were conducted by the 2/28th Battalion, the 18th Cavalry Regiment and the British commandos who were attached to the latter and occupied part of the perimeter in the Wadi Sehel. Morshead visited the 18th Cavalry Regiment in the afternoon before the raid and spoke to the men who were to take part. The 2/12th Field Regiment fired about 1,200 rounds in support. The 2/28th cleaned out three rows of sangars and the enemy was caused to put down defensive fire for four hours from the Derna Road to the sea.
These activities excited much comment from the German and Italian broadcasting stations. The Italians represented them as attempts to break out of an “unsupportable position”, the Germans as “lively reconnaissance activity”.
Patrols were now better equipped than in the early days of the siege. An important improvement was the provision of a limited number of Tommy-guns, which were issued to battalions towards the end of June. In mid-July the enemy began using a searchlight to detect patrols. The
first report of its use was in the early hours of 15th July. Thereafter it appeared almost every night in different localities. It was soon discovered that it was mounted on a vehicle. The searchlight exerted a cramping effect on many patrols but demonstrations were arranged to show that its effectiveness was limited to close ranges against patrols going to ground ahead of the sweeping beam or remaining motionless. Patrols discovered lengths of cable laid in various places which were believed to be used to provide the power, cut them frequently and removed several sections. A further development in the use of searchlights was reported in the divisional Intelligence summary on 22nd July:–
Enemy searchlight units operating nights 20/21 and 21/22 Jul, are reported to be using coloured screens in front of their lights. On night 20/21 Jul, green, blue and mauve beams were observed and on night 21/22 Jul, green and blue beams are said to have been used. It is known that amber or yellow beams are frequently used in foggy or misty atmospheres, but the particular properties of the other colours are not known.
Several Alsatian dogs were also observed in the Italians’ positions. In July patrols often reported the barking of dogs from positions occupied by Italians in both the western and eastern sectors. It was believed that they were kept to warn their masters when a patrol was approaching. No evidence of their use to track patrols was forthcoming
Towards the end of May the enemy began shelling the harbour with a gun that became known as “Bardia Bill”. The origin of the name is obscure. It may have arisen because the gun seemed to fire from the direction of Bardia and was believed by uninformed experts, but not by Klein’s counter-battery staff, to be fired from that fort; or it may have been inspired by the fact that it was believed in gunner circles that a heavy gun had been left undestroyed in Bardia when the British forces evacuated the town. It was not the only gun to shell the harbour but was often mixed up with other breeds. Its own heritage remained a mystery throughout the Australian occupation of Tobruk. Examination of an unexploded shell thought to have been fired from the gun led to the belief for a time that it was a French Schneider gun. On 17th July a German shell of still larger calibre – 210-mm – believed to have come from a Skoda gun was found in the Wadi Auda, but it was not established that it came from “Bardia Bill”. The shelling from the east still appeared to be coming from a gun having a calibre of 150 or 155-mm. The neutralisation of this gun became a major preoccupation of Klein’s staff and of Feitel’s troop manning the 60-pounder. The shelling of the harbour did not cause serious damage but continually interrupted the work of the port.
By the end of July Klein’s counter-battery organisation was operating efficiently and smoothly. Observation posts established along the front were linked by direct line (not through an exchange) to the counter-battery office; battery command posts were also linked to the office by other direct lines. A sector control observation post selected the hostile battery to receive attention, and passed the bearing to the counter-battery officer,
who then advised the other observation posts of the approximate bearings on which to look. The diarist of the 107th RHA commented:–110
In one case, order to bombard was received at Battery Headquarters just three minutes after control OP picked up the flash of a new HB.111 After this no more than three bombards were brought off. HB’s only opened fire long enough to give Control OP his first bearing to them and then ceased.
On 17th July the rationing of ammunition expenditure was relaxed. Regimental commanders were permitted a discretion to increase the daily expenditure from 10 rounds to 20 rounds per gun, but hostile enemy batteries were still not allowed to be engaged unless firing with effect. The daily turnover of British artillery ammunition, seven tons and a half in the preceding week, was immediately increased by four tons. This reflected a more than proportional increase in effectiveness, since the discretion now accorded gave reasonable freedom to engage good opportunity targets.
Goodwin’s regiment continued to experience difficulties with the recuperator systems of its Italian guns. The 75-mm guns alone performed satisfactorily. The 100-mm guns gave so much trouble that they were replaced in Lieutenant Tutton’s112 troop with 75-mm at the end of the second week in July, though one 100-mm continued to fire from the old troop position to maintain deception. On 19th July a premature shell-burst from a 149-mm gun killed 3 men and wounded 7 of McDermott’s troop. The use of these guns was for a time discontinued, but by the end of the month two were again manned and were being fired with a long lanyard from behind sangars.
The base area and engineering staffs during this period were partly engaged in the problems of reorganisation necessary to enable the strength of base units to be reduced to the minimum. To a program already beyond their resources the engineers had to add the further work of preparing beaches and their approaches for possible embarkation and of accelerating the demolition program; this at the time when they were losing both Royal Engineer personnel and the services of the Indian pioneer and labour corps troops. The demolition scheme was thorough; it included arrangements for destruction of some ammunition dumps, all plant, machinery, quays, jetties and other port and base installations, power houses, water reservoirs, water tanks and all wells, pumping plants and water points. (Few, if any, of these demolitions appear to have been carried out in the next year when Tobruk was lost, a lapse doubtless attributable to intervening loss of continuity in command and the swift development of the crisis.) Large quantities of Italian ammunition were destroyed by explosion and sea-dumping. On 5th July some Italian ammunition dumped into the sea by the Army Service Corps blew up, killing Lieutenant Meggitt113 and two drivers and injuring several others.
The improvement of the defences in depth was pushed on, and called for continuous work on the part of both the engineers and the infantry. Units drawn into reserve from Salient or other front-line duty, though allowed one or two days of rest and swimming, soon found themselves required to dig defences in the Blue Line and ancillary switch lines.
In the country lying to the south-east of the perimeter the enemy defended localities were sparse. In April General Rommel’s first action, as his forces had come up to Tobruk, had been to order the closing of the eastern outlet by the Bardia Road. Here the enemy developed a strong defence line astride the road with right flank on the north firmly locked into the heads of the precipitous wadis that tumbled down from the plateau to the sea. In June and July this was held by Bersaglieri battalions of the Trento Division. South of these positions, however, the plateau running out from the perimeter to the Trigh Capuzzo was not at first strongly developed in defence. A more extensive chain of works and obstacles began to be laid down after 10th June, when the Pavia Division replaced the Ariete Division in the southern sector, but these were sited for the most part beyond machine-gun range at distances from the perimeter varying between 4,000 and 6,000 yards.
The inter-brigade boundary between the southern and eastern defence sectors of the fortress was on the west side of R55. In June Godfrey’s brigade in the southern sector was responsible for the perimeter from R52-53 westward across the El Adem Road to the Salient sector boundary, Tovell’s brigade in the eastern sector from R55 eastwards across the Bardia Road to the coast. Between these two roads important outposts were established and later strongly defended.
Before 10th June Windeyer’s battalion on the right of Tovell’s sector had patrolled by day with carriers south from the perimeter about R57 in great depth. One night four men patrolled extensively at a depth of almost five miles without opposition. On another night a patrol led by Lieutenant Beer114 penetrated without a fight to the bypass tracks between the Trigh Capuzzo and the Bardia Road, which it mined. Soon after BATTLEAXE the Germans began constructing a bituminous road along this route, which was to assume great tactical significance in the November offensive.
Windeyer’s battalion had established night standing patrols and listening posts beyond the wire. They were continued by Spowers’ battalion, which took over the sector on 10th June. From 19th June onwards a screen of standing patrols beyond the wire and anti-tank ditch, usually 500 yards out, was established every night along the whole front of Tovell’s brigade from Spowers’ southward-facing right flank to the eastward-fronting positions behind the Wadi Zeitun.
A number of daylight observation posts were also established out in no-man’s land. At first occupied by only one man, or only intermittently,
a few of these were later developed for local defence and held by a section of men continuously.
On 18th June Major Cox,115 temporarily in command of the 2/32nd Battalion straddling the El Adem Road, ordered that from that day onwards his battalion was to maintain infantry observation posts in depth beyond the perimeter. Before dawn on 19th June Sergeant Richards116 and three other men from this battalion went out to observe from an old walled camp some 3,500 yards south of R53. Three days earlier Lieutenant Fahey117 had taken out three carriers to the camp and harassed an Italian working party, but the carriers had been abandoned after one broke down and two ran on to a minefield. While Sergeant Richards’ patrol was observing, two Italians came up on motor-cycles and dismounted to examine the carriers. The patrol killed one and captured the other. On 23rd June the 2/32nd Battalion sent out another daylight observation patrol forward of Bir el Azazi. The walled camp and Bir el Azazi later became sites for permanent outposts, the walled camp becoming known as “Walled Village” and “Bondi”, Bir el Azazi as “Plonk”.
On the left of the 2/32nd Battalion, across the brigade boundary, Colonel Spowers had one or two men observing almost every day towards the end of June at one place or another deep in the no-man’s land south of the 2/24th Battalion.
Colonel Field’s 2/12th Battalion, which relieved the 2/32nd in early July, continued the policy of manning daylight observation posts in the El Adem Road sector, but meanwhile the 2/24th Battalion had established a daylight patrol at the walled camp. On 7th July three men observing
from the camp fired on two Italians in a truck. Spowers thereupon decided to extricate the men by carrier and to maintain observation there next day with three carriers. But for a time the use of the site for an infantry O.P. was discontinued; it was re-established by the 2/9th Battalion in the third week of July.
The first step towards establishing a continuously manned infantry observation post in the eastern sector was taken by the 2/23rd Battalion on 27th June, when two men occupied for a few days an old well-concealed pit about 2,600 yards from the wire. The post, initially called “Pat” and later to become successively known as “Jed” and “Jill”, was re-established on 5th July. The outpost “Caro”, later successively called “Normie” and “Jack”, was established at Trig 146 by Evans’ battalion on 10th July and manned by six men from his carrier platoon. (The enemy position called “Jack” during the November offensive on the north of the Tobruk-Ed Duda corridor was to the west of Trig 146.) These outposts continued to be manned by the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion after it relieved the 2/23rd on 15th July. A protective minefield was laid around Jack on the night of 19th July.
It became evident early in the siege that Rommel intended to contain the garrison and protect his communications by hemming it in with tank-proof defences. Mines were laid down continuously nor did the work cease until the garrison broke out in the November offensive. The Salient was lavishly strewn with mines. North of the Salient belts were laid across the accessible plains between the scarps and wadis. In the open country to the south, work was pushed forward on laying down a continuous but undulating line of mines, in most places three rows deep, which appeared to be designed ultimately to girdle the southern perimeter completely from the Salient to the sea cliffs. The Australians’ vigorous patrolling policy ensured (in default of air reconnaissance) that the fields were quickly discovered.
Towards the end of June the experiences of patrols demonstrated that sections of the field, mainly in the south, were not covered by fire. In broad daylight at midday on 1st July Spowers sent out a large patrol commanded by Captain Gebhardt to a minefield some 4,000 yards south of his front. Two trucks took out 30 men of the 2/24th Battalion and nine sappers of the 2/4th Field Company. Three carriers from Spowers’ battalion and an armoured carrier of the 104th RHA with artillery link provided protection. In a well-planned operation the patrol cleared a gap of 1,000 yards, disarming the anti-personnel mines and bringing back 504 “Teller” mines, which were relaid in front of the battalion position. Several later patrols committed similar excellent robberies, by night and day, but not on such a grand scale. For example, on 9th July Captain Baillieu118 led a patrol from Spowers’ battalion which carried in, from 4,000 yards beyond the wire, 120 25-pounder shells left at a gunpit that had been manned for the assault by the 6th Division in January, when Tobruk was captured. Spowers again, on 12th July, dispatched two officers
and 25 men (including 14 sappers from the 2/4th Field Company) in daylight to the minefield south of his front. One 5-ton and one 30-cwt truck were provided to transport the men and their stores and bring in the booty. Three carriers were added for local protection. Leaving at 2.30 p.m. and arriving at 3 p.m. they had more than an hour’s uninterrupted mine-lifting before the enemy fired a few light shells among them. They returned unscathed having lifted 203 mines.
Next morning three carriers went out from the 2/24th Battalion soon after sunrise to the walled camp, picked up 34 mines left by earlier lifting parties and a few more from the field. This completed the clearing of a gap extending for 2,300 yards in this minefield, which Spowers could then have fittingly described as “a poor thing but mine own”.
In June and July most AIF units in Tobruk received their first reinforcements. Many of these were reported to have left Australia as late as April and some even to have enlisted as late as March. Commanding officers and unit diarists commented on their lack of training. The enlistment and continuous reinforcement of four AIF infantry divisions together with base and line-of-communication troops at home and overseas was proving an ambitious commitment to meet in Australia from voluntary enlistment; the resultant shortening of the period between enlistment and front-line service left insufficient time for proper training. The 2/48th diarist commented on reinforcements received on 18th July:–
None had fired a Bren or an anti-tank rifle or knew anything about a grenade.
Lack of a sense of the pressing urgency to train men and formations to battle-pitch afflicted the Middle East Command and also the staffs of some administrative formations of the AIF beyond the reach of guns, both at home and overseas. Officers in charge of training battalions usually did their best under conditions that rendered impossible the carrying out of a comprehensive and systematic training program.