Chapter 8: Last Counter-Attack and a Controversial Relief
The men of the Tobruk garrison had always thought that the term of their confinement would be the time taken to drive off the besiegers. In the midsummer month of July when the prospect of relief by a frontier offensive seemed indefinitely remote, General Blamey proposed another kind of relief: relief by sea. His request provoked a strong disagreement between the British and Australian Governments; but confidences were so well kept that to all but one or two of the Australians who were in the fortress the first intimation that their going thence had been the subject of controversy was the publication after the war of Sir Winston Churchill’s The Grand Alliance, in which he gave his own account of the dispute. There he declared that it gave him pain to have to relate the incident, but to suppress it indefinitely would have been impossible. “Besides,” he wrote, “the Australian people have a right to know what happened and why.”1 For that very reason it was unfortunate that, in relating the differences between the two Governments, Sir Winston Churchill quoted extensively from his own messages to successive Australian Prime Ministers but did not disclose the text of their replies.
If the Australian people had depended solely on Sir Winston Churchill’s account for knowledge of what happened and why, they might have been left with some erroneous impressions. In particular it might have been inferred that when Mr Fadden’s Government insisted that the relief of the 9th Division should proceed, it did so not because of a strong conviction based on broad considerations advanced by its military advisers but because it had been induced by “hard pressure from its political opponents” to turn a deaf ear to Churchill’s entreaties. That this was Churchill’s opinion is evident from a message sent by him in September 1941 to the Minister of State in Egypt in which he said:–
I was astounded at Australian Government’s decision, being sure it would be repudiated by Australia if the facts could be made known. Allowances must be made for a Government with a majority only of one faced by a bitter Opposition, parts of which at least are isolationist in outlook.2
The political aspects of the controversy have been discussed in another volume of this series.3 It will suffice to say here that no Australian Government was influenced to the course it took by its political opponents. On the contrary the three successive Prime Ministers (who were the leaders of the three political parties in the Commonwealth Parliament) and their governments were in entire agreement. Throughout the controversy the three party leaders sat together on the inter-party Advisory War Council,
to which the question was referred on several occasions. In the course pursued without deviation through two changes of government, the Australian political leaders were guided at each step, indeed impelled in most instances, by the representations of their military advisers – principally by General Blamey himself. The problem was military in origin; if it had political implications, they arose because the British and Australian Governments were in conflict on a military issue.
The conditions upon which the AIF served under the operational command of the Commanders-in-Chief of overseas theatres of war were set out in General Blamey’s “charter”, of which the first operative paragraph read:–
The Force to be recognised as an Australian force under its own Commander, who will have a direct responsibility to the Commonwealth Government with the right to communicate direct with that Government. No part of the Force to be detached or employed apart from the Force without his consent.4
Before this document was issued, the British Government had been informed of the principles to be embodied in it, and had accepted them. The first volume of this series gave earlier instances of General Blamey’s reliance on its terms to resist moves to employ parts of the AIF in detached roles.5 The Australian Government itself had already twice reminded the British Government (in November 1940 and April 1941) of the importance it attached to the concentration of the AIF into one force under a single command. Furthermore Mr Menzies, when in London, had informed the Chief of the Imperial General Staff of his Government’s concern at the dispersion of the AIF. On the same day (19th April 1941) Menzies cabled the Australian Government:–
I have told Dill that it is a matter of imperative importance from Australia’s point of view that all Australian forces should as soon as possible be assembled as one corps under the command of Blamey.
On 1st May 1941, General Blamey cabled Mr Spender, the Australian Minister for the Army:
On returning Egypt (from Greece) I find the AIF distributed among several forces and ten different areas. This distribution was made to meet the emergency that arose mainly through the Italo-German advance in Libya as sufficient other troops were not available. ... It will not be possible to collect the AIF into single force for a considerable time and this is dependent on development of situation in Middle East.
A substantial part of the 6th Division was then in Crete, the 9th Division and one brigade of the 7th in Tobruk, the 7th Division less one brigade at Mersa Matruh, the 7th Divisional Cavalry Regiment in Cyprus; and there were also numerous smaller AIF detachments throughout the Middle East.
The policy of concentrating the AIF into one force had been complicated by another development. In March, after the composition of the
expeditionary force for Greece had been determined, Mr Menzies proposed that the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions and the New Zealand Division, all allocated to the expedition, should be formed into an Anzac Corps.6 The suggestion was not immediately adopted; but, when the campaign in Greece brought the 6th Australian Division and the New Zealand Division together under the command of Blamey’s I Australian Corps, the corps was renamed “Anzac Corps”. The conclusion of that campaign and the piecemeal evacuation of the force from Greece dispersed the formation and dissolved the organisation; but then consideration was given to re-establishing the Anzac Corps as soon as regrouping became possible. On 8th May the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs informed the Australian and New Zealand Governments that General Wavell had welcomed the suggestion that, on being re-equipped, the 6th Australian Division and the New Zealand Division should again be formed into an Anzac Corps; the British Government, he said, favoured the proposal and Wavell recommended that General Freyberg should command the corps. Mr Fadden, the Acting Prime Minister of Australia, telegraphed the proposal to General Blamey but pointed out that, on 18th April, the Government had telegraphed the Dominions Office asking that “subject to over-riding circumstances” the Australian troops should be reassembled as a complete corps under Blamey’s command. He commented:–
The proposal now made would result in a splitting of the Australian force. The 6th Division would, with the New Zealand Division, have the right to be termed Anzacs which they so nobly earned in Greece together ... but the 7th and 9th Divisions would presumably be excluded from this privilege, which may cause some heart-burning.
He sought Blamey’s recommendations both on the reconstitution of the corps and on the appointment of General Freyberg to command it.
Blamey replied that efforts were being made in the Middle East to bring about a more permanent grouping of higher commands: the tentative proposals contemplated one corps headquarters generally for each two infantry divisions. He was strongly of the opinion that to group the three Australian divisions and one New Zealand division in two corps would strengthen their fighting value. He recommended that the 6th Division and the New Zealand Division should be grouped together as Anzac Corps; if this were agreed to, he would recommend that the 7th and 9th Divisions should form Australian Corps when they could be released from the Western Desert. He recommended that General Freyberg, “a bold, skilful and tireless commander”, should command Anzac Corps, General Lavarack Australian Corps.
On 7th June, in a letter to Mr Menzies, General Blamey said that he had been troubled over the extent to which organisations in the Middle East had been broken up; but he recognised that necessity had forced the position from time to time. “I feel,” he said, “that if we could get two corps established, Australian Corps and an Anzac Corps, and pull them together, it would help to establish the principle of working in fixed
formations. This is the main reason for supporting the recommendations. ...”
Meanwhile the Australian Government had become very concerned to discover that the 7th Division’s cavalry regiment was in Cyprus. This disposition had been made without General Blamey’s knowledge while he was in Greece; nor had the Australian Government been informed. In a cable sent on 13th June Mr Menzies reminded Blamey of the importance attached by the Government to the principle that AIF units should serve in their own formations in the Australian Corps under Australian command, and stated that, while it was realised that the Commander-in-Chief might be taxed in the disposition of his forces to meet all contingencies, it appeared rather unfortunate that this small group of Australians should have been placed in Cyprus. Blamey immediately referred his Government’s representations to Wavell, who agreed to arrange the earliest possible relief of the Australian unit.
On 17th June Blamey followed up this request with a memorandum addressed to the Commander-in-Chief in which he quoted the Prime Minister’s telegram, referred to 10 other AIF units (not including units serving in Tobruk) distributed in commands other than Australian and requested their return to AIF formations. The staff of General Headquarters promptly made plans for the relief of these units, which it was proposed to complete by mid-July. General Smith, Wavell’s chief of staff, submitted to Blamey the proposed reply of General Headquarters to his request and pencilled on it a note:–
Deputy C-in-C – Do you approve of suggested reply in para 4 to GOC 2nd AIF?!7
On 26th June General Blamey telegraphed to Mr Menzies a reply to a series of questions from him, including one on the future policy with regard to Tobruk. “Are you satisfied,” Mr Menzies had asked, “that garrison at Tobruk can hold out? Should we press for evacuation or for any other and what course?” Blamey replied that he was satisfied that Tobruk could hold out for the present. He assured Mr Menzies that the problem of evacuating Tobruk, should it become necessary, was being considered; the navy was of the opinion that evacuation was practicable. There was no need to press for action since he had already asked for a plan. Colonel Lloyd, then in Cairo, did not feel any immediate anxiety.
The Government’s curt reminder to General Blamey of its policy that all AIF units should serve in the Australian Corps was further discussed by him in a letter written on 27th June to the Minister for the Army. He told Mr Spender that he hoped soon to have all the AIF under Australian command. Existing conditions, he said, prevented its complete assembly in one force, but he hoped to have it in four main groups – Syria under Lavarack – Tobruk under Morshead – and the rest in Palestine (fighting organisations under Mackay and the remainder under Base Headquarters) “with the long view of ultimately getting it all together in Palestine or Syria”. He said that, as Deputy Commander-in-Chief, he was having a
very definite influence in restoring a proper sense of formation organisation, not only in the AIF but in all the forces in the Middle East. Referring to the proposal to establish an Anzac Corps, he commented that it would be difficult to ensure that the AIF would be kept under one command if the second corps were formed. Although this could be made to appear as an objection to “implementing” a second corps for some time, it need not be so at all: there was no longer any real objection to placing other Imperial forces under an Australian commander.
Some progress was made in terminating the small detachments of Australian units, but in mid-July it had still not been found possible to assemble in one place even one of the three Australian divisions with all its units. Their training as complete formations could not be undertaken.
It is clear from Blamey’s communications to the Prime Minister and Mr Spender in the last week of June that he was not then contemplating an early relief of the 9th Division nor is there any evidence that he had considered requesting its relief until his senior medical adviser, Major-General Burston,8 represented to him that there had been a physical decline in the condition of the Tobruk garrison.9 Burston’s opinion appears to have been based in the first place on his own observation that a few men from the garrison whom he had encountered in Cairo appeared to be considerably underweight; but investigations confirmed the impression. When General Morshead visited Cairo from 2nd to 8th July Blamey sought his views; Morshead told him that the garrison’s capacity to resist a sustained assault was diminishing. Morshead’s diary indicates that he lunched with General Burston and Colonel Fairley10 on 3rd July. It is probable, though concrete evidence is lacking, that Blamey made up his mind to request the relief about that time. The fact that the Syrian campaign was drawing to its close – the armistice was initialled on 12th July – may have made the moment seem most opportune for drawing the AIF together.
General Blamey’s decision should be regarded against the background of the current war situation in the Middle East and elsewhere. If a seaborne relief were to be effected, it was desirable to undertake it at a time when the garrison was not under threat of imminent assault. The drive of the German armed forces into Russia continued unchecked. Hitler, it seemed, had taken in the flood a tide in the affairs of nations that led on to fortune. Not even the British Chiefs of Staff expected that onslaught to be long withstood; indeed not until the British winter offensive to relieve Tobruk was under way would any reliable sign be discerned of Russia’s capacity to block the German armour’s onrush and throw the intruders back. If Russian resistance broke, no longer would Germany be restrained from reinforcing her army and air forces in the Middle
East theatre by the exigencies of providing for commitments on the Eastern front. Whether the British would succeed in building up, before the threat to Tobruk was renewed, a sufficient superiority of force in the desert to take the initiative; if so, when the new offensive would be launched; whether it would then succeed: these were questions to which the answers could not be wrested from an enigmatic and comparatively distant future. On the other hand it seemed unlikely that in the immediate future either side would be able to assemble the resources for a major operation. If the present opportunity to effect a seaborne relief were not seized, no definite limit could be set to the 9th Division’s expectant term of front-line service and incarceration.
On 18th July, in a letter to General Auchinleck of which the full text is set out below, General Blamey proposed that the Tobruk garrison should be relieved. It will be noticed that the first paragraph propounded an argument for relief of the entire garrison on the ground of the troops’ physical decline, while the second paragraph advanced an additional reason for the relief of the garrison’s Australian component.
1. It is recommended that action be taken forthwith for the relief of the Garrison at Tobruk. These troops have been engaged continuously in operations since March and are therefore well into their fourth month. The strain of continuous operations is showing signs of affecting the troops. The Commander of the Garrison informs me he considers the average loss of weight to be approximately a stone per man. A senior medical officer, recently down from Tobruk, informs me that in the last few weeks there has been a definite decline in the health resistance of the troops. Recovery from minor wounds and sicknesses is markedly slower recently.
It may be anticipated that within the next few months a serious attack may be made on the Garrison, and by then at the present rate its capacity for resistance would be very greatly reduced. The casualties have been considerable and cannot be replaced.
It would therefore seem wise to give consideration immediately for their relief by fresh troops and I urge that this be carried out during the present moonless period. The relief requires movement of personnel only.
2. With reference to the Australian portion of the Garrison; the agreed policy for the employment of Australian troops between the British and Australian Governments is that the Australian troops should operate as a single force.
Because the needs of the moment made it necessary, the Australian Government has allowed this principle to be disregarded to meet immediate conditions. But it nevertheless requires that this condition shall be observed, and I therefore desire to represent that during the present lull in active operations, action should be taken to implement this as far as possible. This is particularly desirable in view of the readiness the Australian Government has so far shown to meet special conditions as they arose.
3. The Australian Corps is probably the most completely organised body in the Middle East and will certainly be required for operations within the next few months.
The 6th Australian Division has been sorely tried, having fought continuously through Libya, Greece and Crete, and a considerable proportion of its units had to be detailed for Syria.
The 7th Australian Division has just completed the campaign in Syria and has suffered losses which have to be made good. It cannot be completed until 18th Australian Infantry Brigade, now in Tobruk, is relieved to join its own division and the 7th Australian Cavalry Regiment is freed from Cyprus.
The 9th Australian Division at Tobruk has been continuously in operations since March and has suffered considerable losses.
The drain on reinforcements has been heavy.
This Corps probably will be required in a month or two for further operations. If it is to render full value in accordance with the wishes of the Australian Government and as agreed by the British Government, it is necessary that action be taken early for its re-assembly in order that the formations and units may be thoroughly set up as quickly as possible.
4. The New Zealand Division has been through one campaign and is up to full strength.
The South African Division, under existing law, is confined to operating in Africa. It has had a prolonged rest from active operations.
I can see no adequate reason why the conditions agreed between the Australian and United Kingdom Governments should not now be fulfilled.
5. A copy of this memo is being despatched to the Prime Minister of Australia.
Blamey told Mr Menzies, in a cable sent the same day, that, in view of the garrison’s continuous front-line service since March, he was of opinion that its fighting value was now on the decline and he was pressing for its relief by fresh troops, which could be made available “if will to do so can be forced on Command here”; he was also pressing for the collection of the AIF in Palestine, to which the only real obstacle that could not be overcome was unwillingness to do so. It was most desirable, he said, that after any series of operations the troops involved should be given a respite to refresh them and to provide an opportunity to restore discipline and re-equip them. He suggested that Mr Menzies should take strong action to ensure the collection of the AIF as a single force.
Mr Menzies cabled Churchill on the 20th:–
We regard it as of first class importance that now that Syria Campaign has concluded Australian troops in Middle East should be aggregated into one force. This would not only give an opportunity refreshment, restoration of discipline and re-equipment after strenuous campaign but would also give immense satisfaction to Australian people for whom there is great national value and significance in knowing that all Australian soldiers in any zone form one Australian unit. This principle was fully accepted by both United Kingdom Government and ours when troops first despatched to Middle East. Problem has a particular bearing on garrison at Tobruk which has engaged in operations since March and is therefore in position of a force with continuous front-line service over a period of months, a state of affairs which must result in some decline of fighting value. If they could be relieved by fresh troops, move of personnel only being involved, reaggregation and equipment of Australian Imperial Force in Palestine would then present no major difficulty. I would be glad if you could direct British High Command in Middle East along these lines. The comparative lull now obtaining in Libya seems to make this an ideal time for making above move to which we attach real and indeed urgent importance.
The Chiefs of Staff telegraphed the text of Mr Menzies’ communication to General Auchinleck with the comment:–
Full and sympathetic consideration must clearly be given to the views of the Australian Government. At the same time we realise, as no doubt does the Australian Government, that the grouping and distribution of divisions must be subject to strategical and tactical requirements and to what is administratively practicable.
General Auchinleck replied that the two questions – the relief of the Tobruk garrison and the concentration of the AIF – were under consideration.
He fully agreed as to the desirability in principle but there were many difficulties, which he hoped might be overcome.
General Auchinleck had succeeded General Wavell in the Middle East Command on 5th July. Almost immediately he found himself subjected to pressure from Mr Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff to resume offensive operations in the desert at the earliest possible moment. Wavell had advised that no offensive would be practicable for three months but this was overlooked as soon as he was replaced by the commander who had struck Mr Churchill as more forward in outlook. One of Auchinleck’s first decisions – the choice of the 50th Division to garrison Cyprus (which was associated with the promised relief of the 7th Divisional Cavalry Regiment) – caused Churchill much annoyance. On 15th July Auchinleck informed the Chiefs of Staff that he doubted whether it would be possible to hold Tobruk after September. On 19th July the Chiefs of Staff replied that they assumed therefore that any offensive to regain Cyrenaica could not be postponed beyond that month. Churchill added his own comment.
If we do not use the lull accorded us by the German entanglement in Russia to restore the situation in Cyrenaica, the opportunity may never recur. A month has passed since the failure at Sollum, and presumably another month may have to pass before a renewed effort is possible. This interval should certainly give time for training.
Auchinleck refused to be hustled. Churchill was perturbed by the “stiffness of his attitude” and decided that the stimulation of personal contact was required to impart a less cautious mood.
On 23rd July (the day on which the Chiefs of Staff telegraphed to Auchinleck the text of Mr Menzies’ message) the British Prime Minister invited the Middle East commander to come at once to London to “have a talk”, adding that Blamey could act for him in his absence. Knowing that in London he was to be faced with strong pressure to mount in September another operation to relieve Tobruk by land, Auchinleck, even if he had so wished, could hardly have acceded, on the eve of his departure, to Blamey’s request that the entire Tobruk garrison should be relieved by sea. Such a relief could not have been completed before late September. Auchinleck agreed, however, that as a first step the 18th Brigade might be brought out, thus enabling both the 6th and 7th Australian Divisions to be reconstituted as complete formations, and also that the possibility of a more extensive relief should be studied. By good fortune to replace the 18th Brigade there was available an eager, excellently trained brigade of Polish troops, the 1st Carpathian Brigade. Originally allotted to the expedition to Greece, this formation had been held in reserve since the loss of Cyrenaica.
General Auchinleck arrived in London on 29th July. On 1st August he telegraphed Blamey that General Sikorski, head of the Polish Government in exile, agreed to the use of the Polish contingent as part of the Tobruk garrison, but subject to certain conditions; if these could not be fulfilled Blamey was to wire alternative proposals. Blamey replied on the 2nd that the conditions would be fulfilled; the meeting of the Commanders-in-Chief
on that day had decided that a relief of the Tobruk garrison by the 6th British Division and the Polish contingent would be carried out during the moonless periods of August and September, two brigade groups being relieved each period. On 4th August, however, Blamey telegraphed Auchinleck again to say that, after further discussion with Admiral Cunningham and Air Marshal Tedder, he had agreed that the relief would be deferred till September, when a greater scale of air protection would be available.
Meanwhile Mr Menzies, who knew nothing of these interchanges, was perturbed that he had received no response from Mr Churchill to his telegram of 20th July. He telegraphed again on 7th August, asking for an early reply. After mentioning the Australian War Cabinet’s concern at the Tobruk garrison’s decline in “health resistance” and recalling that all three Australian divisions had latterly been much engaged in operations – the 9th at Tobruk continuously since March – he concluded:
As fresher troops are available I must press for early relief of 9th Division and re-assembly of Australian Corps.
The text of this message was telegraphed to General Blamey, who hastened to reassure the Australian Prime Minister. “Policy agreed to and plans prepared,” he replied. “As scale air protection available not yet sufficient have felt obliged to agree to postponement to September, which will also give advantage of longer nights.” From London the response was also reassuring. Viscount Cranborne, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, replying in the absence of Mr Churchill (who had gone to the Atlantic meeting with Mr Roosevelt) told Mr Menzies that General Auchinleck had been directed to give full and sympathetic consideration to Menzies’ first telegram. Auchinleck was now in London and Menzies’ second telegram had been discussed with him. “We entirely agree in principle that the AIF should be concentrated into one force as soon as possible,” he said, “and General Auchinleck has undertaken to see to this immediately on his return. He does not anticipate any difficulty except in regard to Tobruk. He is as anxious as you in this connection to relieve this garrison.”
By the end of the third week of July Morshead, as yet uninformed of these negotiations, was contemplating further operations to pinch out the enemy’s salient. He intended that Godfrey’s brigade should attack and capture both shoulders of the Salient simultaneously. The ultimate object, according to the divisional report, was to exploit their capture and thrust the enemy from the perimeter, but this final development had not been planned as an immediate follow-up operation.
It is not certain when Morshead reached the decision that Godfrey’s brigade should mount that attack, but arrangements for preliminary moves that may have been intended to set the stage were put in hand on 20th July. Reconnaissance parties from Lieut-Colonel Lloyd’s 2/28th Battalion spent that day with Lieut-Colonel Windeyer’s 2/48th Battalion
which held the perimeter from north of the Derna Road to the northern edge of the Salient. The 2/28th was destined to mount the attack on the northern shoulder from that sector, and the 2/48th, which was to carry out a subsidiary but important task on the left flank of the 2/28th, badly needed a rest. Two days later Lloyd’s battalion relieved Windeyer’s battalion, which came back to the Blue Line in the western sector. “The C.O. has been prevailed upon to take a spell,” wrote the diarist of the 2/48th. “The men are tired today after their period of 3 weeks in the line.”11
On 21st July Morshead visited his four brigade commanders and his headquarters issued orders to the 20th Brigade to relieve the 18th, which Morshead always liked to have in reserve for counter-attack in critical times. The 20th was to take over from the 18th on the southern sector on 27th July.
On the same day divisional headquarters issued general orders to all brigades to carry out raids relentlessly (but not without purposeful intent) and to endeavour to bring back prisoners and other identifications. From 22nd July the 2/28th Battalion, now holding the positions against the northern shoulder of the Salient, and the 2/43rd, which held the front opposite the southern shoulder, embarked on a systematic patrolling program designed to pin-point enemy positions, plot minefields and discover approach routes, along some of which minefields were devitalised. Soon orders for the capture of a prisoner were brought to bear upon these two battalions with pressing urgency. In the fourth week of July they sent out on an average two fighting patrols of platoon strength per night on this and other missions. Lieut-Colonel Conroy’s 2/32nd Battalion on the right of the Salient also patrolled vigorously on its right flank.
The divisional report implies that it was found from these patrols “that the enemy were not holding their positions in great strength, and that extensive use was being made of mines and booby traps”. A detailed scrutiny of the patrol reports has not yielded confirmation of the first part of this statement. The notion seems to have persisted from an impression gained at the beginning of June, when the 20th Brigade held the Salient line. All battalion commanders agreed at a conference at Murray’s headquarters on 7th June that the enemy was thinning out his foremost defended localities “to straighten his line”. These observations, however, were consistent with a falling back on a strong line of new constructions while some positions on the previous front continued to be lightly held. On 8th July, when Crellin’s 2/43rd Battalion relieved Ogle’s 2/15th Battalion on the left of the Salient line, Ogle reported:–
It is considered that the enemy is not holding the Salient by strength of numbers but by strength in automatic weapons and mortars. He is protected by the antipersonnel mines which he has sown. ...
The belief that the enemy might be thinning out was sharply revived on the night of 25th–26th July when, after an unusually quiet day, patrol
from the 2/28th and 2/32nd Battalions found that some previously occupied enemy outpost positions were vacant. A patrol from the 2/32nd searched the Water Tower (where Sergeant-Major Morrison had held out during the attack by the 2/23rd), and found that area and the ground to the west unoccupied. When this patrol’s report was received, Conroy sent out further patrols, which reported no signs of movement in positions known to have been previously occupied. Simultaneously, from the 2/28th Battalion, Lance-Corporal Monk12 and three men searched the area west of the Water Tower and found it unoccupied. Brigadier Godfrey’s reaction to these reports was quick, if optimistic Colonel Lloyd was to send out a patrol at first light “to attack and capture” Post S7, and Colonel Conroy another, to seize S6 if unoccupied.
Lieutenant Taylor13 and 10 men from the 2/28th Battalion set out for Post S7. Without difficulty they reached the mouth of a re-entrant leading up the escarpment on the east side of S7 but were then engaged by machine-guns posted on the slope ahead. The fire quickly thickened and the attempt had to be abandoned, the patrol members only extricating themselves slowly and with great difficulty.
Lieutenant Brownrigg14 took out from the 2/32nd Battalion the patrol to seize Post S6 if unoccupied. Brownrigg and nine men reached the vicinity of the Water Tower without incident just before 6 a.m. but fire from the south soon afterwards indicated that the area of the objective was held defensively. Brownrigg’s patrol spent the day observing from close to the Water Tower.
On the night of 25th July, an Italian prisoner was taken in a raid by British commandos near the coast west of the perimeter, but the great need was to get a German prisoner from the Salient. This was accomplished two nights later by a patrol from the 2/43rd Battalion led by Lieutenant Siekmann.15 The patrol challenged and engaged a German working party coming down a road some 1,500 yards from the Australian positions. Several Germans were killed, but two fled. Sergeant Cawthorne,16 though wounded twice, gave chase, killed one of these and captured the other. Enemy parties attempted to intercept the patrol as it returned, but were eluded. Questioning of the prisoner established that the Salient front was manned by the same three German lorried infantry battalions as before, and yielded information concerning the nature of the defences.
Morshead commented on the capture in a letter written to General Blamey next day:–
From a German corporal captured in a particularly good effort by a fighting patrol of the 43rd Battalion early this morning, we learned that even the Germans
in the Medauuar sector – it is no longer a salient – are apprehensive of our activities, so much so that they stand-to throughout the whole night, and have done so for the past week. We are planning an attack on posts S7 and S6 on the German left flank and R7, R6 and R5 on their right flank in the near future.
Two days before this, Colonel Lloyd, Morshead’s chief staff officer, had been summoned to Cairo. No record survives of the message summoning him, or of how it was conveyed to Morshead. Circumstantial evidence supports the inference that Morshead was aware that Blamey had broached the question of a relief but did not know what course the discussions had taken. Not yet an advocate in the controversy, Morshead, in the letter just quoted, spoke with pride of the garrison’s spirit. He told Blamey:–
The troops are in wonderful heart, their morale never higher – the nightly raiding parties and fighting patrols, as well as the daylight carrier sorties, have contributed to this. Then the marked improvement in rations and canteen stores and the gifts of the Comforts Fund have also helped.
The men understand the position perfectly, and are enthusiastic in their appreciation for all that is being done.
On the night of 30th July, the 2/48th Battalion relieved the 2/32nd Battalion, which then came into brigade reserve. Two nights later, “A” Company of the 2/32nd Battalion relieved “D” Company of the 2/28th, and became the reserve company in the 2/28th’s sector thus freeing the 2/28th company from defence duties for employment in the projected attack.
The general plan for the operation by Godfrey’s brigade was to attack the shoulders of the Salient by night from right and left simultaneously. In more detail the plan is well described in Morshead’s own words:–
The plan for the 43 Bn was to capture Post R7 with two platoons, the third platoon occupying a position south of that post and outside the wire to deal with counter attacks. A fourth platoon acted as a carrying party. In the event of this attack being successful, the second phase would follow – this being the capture of Posts R5 and 6 by the covering platoon and one of the platoons from R7.
The plan for the 28 Bn was the capture of (a) Post S7 by two platoons, one attacking from the west and the other from the north and (b) Post S6 by one platoon.
Plans were made too for the exploitation of success by the attacking coys and also by the 32 Bn in reserve. The artillery support was by thirty-six 25-pounders, two 18-pdrs, nine 4.5 howl, eight 75-mms, four 105-mms, two 149-mms, two 60-pdrs and the “bush artillery”. In addition, all available mortars including seven 81-mms and 4 platoons MG were used.
The diarist of the 107th RHA, whose commanding officer was a critic of attempts to retake the Salient, described the operation more pithily:–
This was a two platoon attack at each end ... supported by twenty-one troops of artillery!
The operation was thoroughly planned. Captain McCarter’s17 company of the 2/43rd Battalion was relieved by the English commandos for three
days to practise the operation on a model of R7 which had been built into the Green Line defences of the fortress; Morshead watched them rehearse and was “much impressed by the manner in which they carried out the practice and the careful thought that had been given to the plan”18 Unfortunately the company of the 2/28th Battalion to mount the attack on the right shoulder, under the temporary command of Captain Conway,19 could not be afforded an opportunity for similar practice because the company of the 2/32nd which had to take over its front-line defence duties could not be made available to release it in time.
Of the two parallel fronts embaying the Salient in a double arc, the enemy line, on the inner side of the curve, was the shorter. Three German infantry battalions held the Salient against two Australian battalions and the left flank of a third. A battalion of the 104th Lorried Infantry Regiment held the front opposite Lloyd’s battalion, the II Battalion of the 115th Lorried Infantry Regiment that opposite Crellin’s battalion, with the I Battalion of the latter between. Depth was given by some Italian troops ensconced in rear, but the inference from patrol reports was that their main function was to construct defences.
For three months the enemy had laboured tirelessly to improve the Salient fortifications. Patrols brought back reports of working parties, both Italian and German, almost every night up to the time of the attack. Without air photographs it was impossible to pinpoint the defences behind the outer fringe. Morshead commented on this to General Blamey:–
Well before the operation I asked 204 Group for photographs of Medauuar, sent the usual reminders, and eventually the photographs were taken two days before the battle. I asked that they be dropped here and they agreed to so do on 1st August. I understand that they were flown up on that date, but the releasing apparatus failed. They were dropped next day, and found to be of the wrong area. However there are indications that from now on we can expect some cooperation from the Air Force.
It was known nevertheless that this tenaciously guarded territory was interlaced with earthworks set in minefields studded with anti-personnel mines. The sangars housing the German machine-guns were strongly built from sandbags and covered with earth camouflaged with tufts of coarse grass.
They rise from the ground to a height of about 4’6” with crawl trenches connecting each. MGs are fired through loopholes about 6” from the ground. ...20
Where Lloyd’s battalion was to attack, the terrain greatly favoured the defence. The attackers’ problem was brilliantly analysed a fortnight later in an appreciation written by Major T. J. Daly, Wootten’s brigade major.
(a) The ground over which the attack must be made is in the form of an escarpment at the top of which is the objective and at the bottom of which are our FDLs. The enemy occupies a line running along the top of the escarpment which peters out about 1,000 yds. East of Post S6 but continues for a considerable
distance to the West of S7. This ground formation enables the enemy to observe all the ground between our FDLs and the objective from both flanks and his weapons are so sited as to enable him to produce heavy enfilade fire from MGs while the narrowness of the immediate front enables him to cover the area most effectively with arty and mortar fire. Between our FDLs and the objective there are no covered lines of approach. A number of small wadis provide slight protection for part of the way against flanking MG fire but these are thoroughly covered by mortars.
It is obvious, therefore, that failing the complete neutralisation of the enemy’s defensive fire it will not be possible to advance over this country in daylight or, having advanced, to bring further troops across it.
(b) The capture of the objective presents us with a linear posn which, owing to the nature of the ground and the impossibility of either giving direct supporting fire or securing observation from our present posns, is virtually without depth. In addition it will be subjected to heavy fire from both flanks which, unless subdued, will also effectively prevent communication with the rear and the bringing up of necessary reserves and stores. Consequently it will be necessary to exploit fwd from these posns sufficiently far to give depth necessary to hold these posns, which from our present knowledge, would appear to be to the general line of the Acroma Rd. In addition exploitation to the East at least as far as the wrecked plane will be necessary in order to protect the left flank of the captured posn and to prevent it forming a narrow salient jutting out towards Ras el Medauuar. This will require a heavy arty preparation before being undertaken. Simultaneously, a front must be formed facing West to meet any threat from that direction.
Time and Space
... In an attack carried out under these conditions exploitation during the hours of darkness must necessarily lead to an almost complete loss of control and it is doubtful if our force would be able to withstand a determined counter-attack at first light. On the other hand failure to exploit would greatly increase the difficulty of holding a line S6-S7 on the following day. ...
Opposite Crellin’s battalion the terrain afforded the German defence little assistance except commanding observation from the gentle, concave slope leading up to Medauuar; but it was known that the defences were intensively developed. The approach was barred to tanks by a continuous minefield with a screen of listening posts in front. The prisoner taken on 27th July thus described the defences:–
Behind the minefield is a continuous belt of barbed wire, and behind the wire are more holes occupied by from 2 to 4 men. These holes are camouflaged with bushes to fit in with the surrounding country, and are all connected by crawl trenches. They are close together, varying from 3 to 4 metres apart to 20 and even 30 metres apart, depending on the nature of the ground. ... The strongposts are surrounded by barbed wire, and Posts R7, R6 and R5 are held by about 30 men each, one company holding Posts R7, R6 and part of R5 and intervening fieldworks, while the rest of the R5 garrison is from a reserve company.
Lieut-Colonel Lloyd, whose battalion’s task of capturing S6 and S7 with one company was perhaps the more formidable of the two, was the most widely experienced of the Australian battalion commanders in Tobruk. After hard service in the first AIF in which he had reached the rank of captain he transferred in 1918 to the Indian Army, with which he served in the Second Afghan War and from which he retired in 1922. He returned to Australia and in 1936 had become a major in a militia battalion. Lloyd’s plan was to employ two platoons in direct assaults on
each post while a third gave right flank protection. The latter was to move outside the perimeter and engage the sangars on the escarpment west of S7, one platoon was to assault S7 from the area of S9 and the third S6 from the area of S8. On the left a platoon from the 2/48th, moving in rear of the platoon attacking S6, was to seize the Water Tower and the sangars to the east of it, while farther to the left that battalion’s forward companies were to engage with fire the enemy positions on their front (within the arc S4 to R2). The 2/48th was to be ready on 10 minutes’ notice to swing forward the right of its front to a new alignment linking the Water Tower with the existing front at Forbes’ Mound. This in turn would require the capture and occupation of an enemy strongpoint beyond the wrecked plane and of another about 300 yards south-west of Forbes’ Mound. The task of wresting, from a thoroughly alerted foe, the foremost fringe of a defensive zone developed in depth was a forbidding one.
Lloyd had one company plus one platoon available to capture the two posts that Evans had earlier failed to take in a battalion attack (albeit hastily mounted) using initially two companies. His plan differed from Evans’ assault in two respects: on the one hand by providing for attack on a broader front, with a platoon neutralising the outer flank of each post attacked, but on the other hand by allotting one platoon to the direct assault on each post as against one company in Evans’ operation.
For the attack on the southern shoulder Crellin’s plan was that his assault company should use two platoons to attack R7 in converging assaults from right and left, while one platoon was to be held in reserve to meet enemy counter-moves from flank or rear or, if the operation developed propitiously, to exploit initial success by a further advance. The attack was to be made from a start-line laid outside the perimeter to the south of the objective. A platoon from another company was to carry bridges for crossing the anti-tank ditch, give flank support southward during the assault and be ready to assist in consolidation.
Crellin’s assignment included exploitation by his assault company, on success of the first phase, to capture Posts R6 and R5, if there was a reasonable assurance of success. Godfrey’s orders adopted the unusual but sensible course of requiring the company commander himself to decide whether that should be undertaken. If it were, the two flanking companies of the 2/43rd and, farther right, the left company of the 2/48th were each to push out a platoon to establish an outpost line as close as possible to a road that ran north-west and south-east across the enemy territory in front of S4 on the right, and R4 and R6 on the left. A feature of Crellin’s plan was the provision for quick delivery of consolidation stores by five carriers, a trailer and an ammunition truck (with a reserve truck standing by). These were to assemble near R9, whence they would be able to reach R7 within five minutes of the call forward. They were to take forward two anti-tank guns and a 3-inch mortar, with their crews, as well as ammunition, wire, shovels and other stores.
Tanks were not to be used in either assault, for fear of prejudicing surprise, but two squadrons of cruisers and two troops of infantry tanks
were to stand by under Godfrey’s command to deal with counter-attacks or assist exploitation.
For Lloyd’s assault artillery support was to be provided by the 51st Field Regiment less one section, one battery of the 107th RHA and three troops of the 2/12th Field Regiment; for Crellin’s assault by “B/O” Battery, one battery of the 107th and one battery and one troop of the 2/12th. Lieut-Colonel Goodwin was in charge of counter-battery fire. Four platoons of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers were to provide machine-gun support, three with pre-arranged fire tasks during the assault.
The zero hour for both attacks was 3.30 a.m. on 3rd August. Silently, below the Salient’s steep north shoulder, Captain Conway and his platoons, Lieutenant Overall with his sappers, and the Intelligence section men who were to lay the start-lines, got ready in the middle of the night. Conway’s company had been relieved the night before from local defence duties by a company of the 2/32nd Battalion.
Lieutenant McHenry’s21 platoon was the first to move off, an hour before zero, followed by the rest 15 minutes later. The moon, which was three-quarters illumined, set while they were going forward to the places chosen for their start-lines. Captain Conway, who was to move into S7 when the success signal was shot, went to his battle headquarters at a feature called Bare Knoll.
For the attack on S7 McHenry’s platoon was to advance from a start-line west of S7 outside the wire and give supporting fire while Lieutenant Coppock’s22 platoon executed a direct assault from a start-line near the bottom of the escarpment. When Coppock fired the success signal the engineers with McHenry were to blow the perimeter wire and McHenry would join Coppock.
All were ready when the bombardment from more than 60 guns opened up five minutes before zero. Enemy defensive fire from all arms sprayed down on the approaches before the platoons moved off. Coppock and his men advanced up the escarpment. Fire slashed them from front and sides, while “jumping jack” mines burst out of the ground they trod. The few survivors who reached the top, nearly all wounded, gave covering fire while the sappers moved in with their bangalore torpedoes, blew the
wire with a resonant boom and placed their bridges across the anti-tank ditch. Coppock and three men got across to the post, killed four Germans and took the surrender of six more, only two of whom were unwounded.
The Very light signal to call in McHenry’s platoon should then have been given, but Coppock was unable to fire it because the sack carrying the cartridges had been shot from his back. A runner was sent to Conway but did not reach him.
Others of Coppock’s platoon managed to get into the post. But from outside Lance-Corporal Anderson,23 now twice wounded, continued firing with his Bren gun on the enemy sangars, until Coppock himself went out and dragged him in. About two hours later he died. Stretcher bearers toiled to get the wounded back to S8. The enemy lit up the area at short intervals with flares and began to close in. Coppock, dazed and wounded, when no help came set out to find Conway. Two signallers, White24 and Delfs,25 arrived having laid a line to the post, worked on a telephone but found the line dead.
Lance-Sergeant Ross26 of the 2/13th Field Company, a born soldier and leader, who had joined in the work of removing the wounded, returned afterwards to the post to remove the bridges and assist in its consolidation. He found there a dozen men of whom only about five (including two signallers) were fit to fight.
Meanwhile from outside the perimeter Lance-Corporal Riebeling’s27 section of McHenry’s platoon had given close support. But when the night moved towards dawn and no light signal came, McHenry withdrew his men within the perimeter and went to report to Conway.
The attack on S6 had proceeded with even less success. Lieutenant Head’s28 platoon reached the escarpment with few casualties. Behind it followed a platoon of the 2/48th Battalion under Sergeant Ziesing,29 which then seized the weapon-pits and sangars east of the Water Tower without much trouble. But thenceforward Head’s platoon was mown down by bullets, bombs, shells and mines. The engineers were shot before they could blow the wire round the post. Head, with the survivors following, pressed on but stepped on a booby-trap as he reached the wire and was wounded in the neck and legs. He had now only eight men with him, some of them seriously wounded. No platoon, no other men, stood by, waiting on his success signal, to reinforce his strength. Ought Head still have ordered his dwindling band to strive to reach that post through its
uncleared obstacles and mines, subdue its garrison and, if yet some survived, to hold out if possible in case miraculous help might come in time? Their lives were his to command. Doubtless they would have done his bidding. Head led them back.
Colonel Lloyd, who had established an advanced headquarters on top of the escarpment between S12 and S13, waited long and in vain for the success signals. An hour passed, and another. No word came back. At last the passage of time itself, with not a single report received, seemed to spell failure. Accordingly he reported to Godfrey about 5 a.m. that both attacks had failed.
The carrying parties waiting to take stores and ammunition up to the captured posts, which had been assembled on the exposed shelf round S10, were now drawn back to cover because of the approach of dawn. Godfrey dismissed the waiting tanks, which then lumbered slowly back on their journey of some miles to their harbour. At 5.15 a.m. Windeyer was informed of the failure of both attacks by Godfrey’s headquarters. Windeyer, doubtless with some feelings of relief, stood down the platoons waiting to advance his front to the intended new line and recalled Ziesing’s platoon from the Water Tower. But at 5.20 a.m., unmistakably above Post S7, a green light burned in the sky, then a red, then another green. Fifteen seconds later came the same succession of lights – the signal for success at S7.
Conway had refused to infer failure from negative evidence; he had gone forward from Bare Knoll before dawn to find out the situation for himself. So Coppock, returning, had missed him at Bare Knoll; McHenry also. Coppock in his wounded, dazed condition subsequently became lost; McHenry went back to S9. Most of McHenry’s platoon then moved down to the regimental aid post at S12. But Conway reached S7 with his sergeant-major and two other men, having meanwhile lost two men as casualties. Finding the post occupied by his own men, he fired the success signal.
Lloyd, who had no reserves for the attack and whose carrying parties had gone back, now attempted to get a platoon from the relieving company of the 2/32nd to reinforce the post and gave orders for stores to be taken forward in carriers. Learning that McHenry had returned, Lloyd also instructed him to go to S7 with the men at hand. McHenry with his platoon sergeant and two of his men set off at once, carrying more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition, and reached the post before dawn. But the 2/32nd platoon and the carriers bearing stores were not so quick off the mark; meeting with a concentration of artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire laid down on the approaches, they could not get over the escarpment to the post. A carrier was disabled and the stores were dumped in a wadi 300 yards from S7.
About 6.45 a.m. it was observed from Lloyd’s battle headquarters that the area of S7 had been smoked by the enemy. In the captured strongpoint Conway and McHenry had only nine men fit to fight. What happened
there, after Conway arrived, was described in a statement taken from Signaller White next day:
The sapper, L-Sgt Ross, then rearranged the sandbags. He pulled out bags on his side and instructed us where to pull out and rearrange the bags so as to be able to fire and have protection. We could see the positions of the snipers – we arranged the bags so that we could fire at them.
Dawn broke at about this time.
The sapper took me and Sig Delfs to the other end post. ... Lieut McHenry came to this pit with a Bren and two men were between us with rifles.
The sapper came back to the north pit. There were two of us and the sapper in this pit. From this point there was a burnt-out tank on the right.
Just after dawn the Germans counter-attacked. They were seen coming out of a wadi to the east and moving south-westwards, whence they attacked from west, south and east, under covering fire from near-by sangars. White thus described the attack:
At about 0600 hrs., the enemy came up the fence from my right – they scrambled through the fence and made for the burnt-out tank. The tank was about 150 yards to the west from the post. ... They moved up in small groups and we engaged them. They went around the tank and came quickly towards us – all were knocked down – only about two crawled back through the wire. When this was taking place there was very heavy MG fire from a wadi from the east to the south.
The sandbags were being cut by fire and the sand draining on to the Bren prevented it from firing more than single shots. I was using a German machine pistol which stopped for the same reason. I then used my rifle. As they were coming from behind the tank in twos and threes, single shots were enough. The sapper got a flesh wound from a bullet in the forehead – went below and dressed it and returned and continued firing.
The counter-attack was beaten off. German stretcher bearers later came out and Conway permitted them to collect their wounded. This was observed from Lloyd’s advanced headquarters about 9.30 a.m. But Lloyd, a rugged soldier of the old school, who believed (though higher formation forbade) that commanding officers should direct the battle from the front line and that when his battalion was in action the cooks should fight beside the riflemen, interpreted this licence allowed by Conway as indicating not a truce but defeat. The impression was confirmed by one of his men who later crawled to the vicinity of the post and saw no movement.
The Germans did not allow the Australians similar liberties when attempts were made to remove the 2/28th wounded lying in Posts S9 and S10. Staff-Sergeant Lyall30 was granted permission to take a truck under the Red Cross flag to the posts, but although the Germans allowed the vehicle to approach, they fired on the occupants when they dismounted, preventing evacuation of the wounded.31
By mid-morning the result of the attack for the northern shoulder of the Salient, as it presented itself to Godfrey and Lloyd unable to peer through the battle-fog, was that S6 had not been taken and S7, though recaptured and briefly held, had again been lost. In the early morning,
however, Godfrey had instructed the 2/32nd Battalion to send a second company to the 2/28th Battalion to come under Lloyd’s command so that he could continue operations if the situation proved better than was feared.
Of the 2/43rd Battalion’s attack on the southern shoulder, as of the attack in the north, the enemy appeared to be forewarned. Probably the assembling troops had been seen in the moonlight through field glasses before they moved out to the start-line. When the garrison’s bombardment began, enemy defensive fire came down as if by switch. Some of Captain McCarter’s assault force were hit before they moved off. The sappers, and Lieutenant Tapp’s32 platoon carrying the assault stores, reached the perimeter wire south of R7 with the bangalores and bridges. The wire was blown on time, but before the objective was reached the bridges were shattered by the enemy bombardment and the men carrying them wounded. Gusts of shell fire swept down on the area where the wire had been gapped; but the men, as a close observer said, “moved on as though it were a tactical exercise.”33 As the infantry approached the post, exploding grenades and booby-traps caused casualties to mount alarmingly. Some of the leaders were first to fall.
The left-hand platoon led by Warrant-Officer Quinn,34 going too far right, overshot the post, swung round and attacked it from the north. One section was silhouetted by flares and completely wiped out by mortar bombs. The other two sections got through the post wire and pressed on in dwindling numbers across a lethal mine garden to the edge of the unbridged, booby-trapped anti-tank ditch. Quinn had only seven others with him by the time he reached the ditch. Taking cover in it, they carried on the fight with grenades. Only three survived.
The route by which the left-hand platoon had attacked was that ordered for the right-hand platoon. The result was that the latter – Siekmann’s platoon – keeping to the right of Quinn’s, became closely involved in a fire fight with German flanking positions to the east and lost heavily. Siekmann extricated a handful of men and tried to get into the post but the defence weapons did not cease exacting their toll. Soon only two men
were with him, one badly wounded. Siekmann and the other fit man, crawling, dragged the wounded man back.
Twenty minutes after the fight began Captain McCarter instructed Lieutenant Pollok’s35 platoon, which was in reserve, to take up the attack. Led by Sergeant Charlton36 who had taken over command after Pollok had been wounded, the platoon practically re-enacted Quinn’s assault and suffered similar attrition. Charlton also reached the ditch with only seven men, fought on from there, but lacked the numbers to carry the assault into the post.
All three assault platoons had spent their force. Captain McCarter saw that it was impossible to make more progress and ordered a withdrawal. He gave the order about 50 minutes after the attack had commenced. McCarter, though he had been twice wounded, remained at the wire gap to keep control until all returning sections had passed through. It was an orderly withdrawal and many wounded were carried out.
It had been a costly attack. The attacking infantry had numbered 4 officers and 139 men; their battle casualties were 4 officers and 97 men. In addition the supporting troops incurred five casualties (4 engineers and 1 driver wounded). Four were missing. Twenty-nine infantrymen lost their lives.
Early next morning the attention of observers within the perimeter was arrested by an unusual spectacle. Vehicles from both sides, carrying the Geneva emblem, drove out unmolested into the bare, fire-swept Salient near R7. Sergeant Tuit,37 accompanied by stretcher bearers, took out the first vehicle from the 2/43rd at 7 a.m. Others followed in procession throughout the day. The Geneva Convention was seldom dishonoured in the desert war, though German Air Force attacks on hospital ships were frequent. On this occasion the Germans displayed a magnanimous solicitude for the wounded and their rescuers. They allowed the vehicles to approach within 200 yards, devitalised minefields to enable the wounded to be reached, brought out 4 wounded and 15 dead from the post, and gave Sergeant Tuit a drink. Tuit’s humanitarian mission recovered 5 wounded and 28 dead.
But around Post S7, which remained isolated throughout the livelong summer day, neither side ventured any move before dusk. All approaches to the post were under enemy observation and close-range fire; it was impracticable to make contact in daylight except by a major operation. A sergeant of the 2/32nd Battalion, who kept the post under constant observation for two hours, reported just before 2 p.m. that he was certain that it was occupied by the enemy.
Nevertheless it was essential to obtain positive confirmation. Colonel Lloyd’s plans for immediate action after dark were to send out two reconnaissance patrols. One, of five men under a senior NCO, was to ascertain
and report on the situation at S6, including the condition of the wire, and to “endeavour locate and arrange for any of our wounded of this morning to be brought in”. The other, to consist of an officer and six men including one NCO and one sapper and to be commanded by Lieutenant Taylor, was to move out through S8 and reconnoitre S7 and its immediate vicinity. Taylor’s task was – to ascertain and report upon the following:
(a) Who is in occupation of S7 and surroundings, i.e. whether enemy or own troops.
(b) If enemy, whether Italian or German.
(c) Estimate strength in weapons and manpower.
Should S7 be in our hands, then to contact and obtain full information as to numbers and names in occupation, commander etc. and other particulars that will help establish definite information.
Both these patrols were ordered to depart at 9.45 p.m. and to return not later than midnight. If Taylor’s patrol reported the post not occupied by the enemy, Captain Cahill’s38 company of the 2/32nd Battalion was to send forward a fighting patrol of one platoon to reinforce the garrison. Another company was to provide a platoon as a carrying party. Both the latter patrols were to be ready to leave at 10 minutes’ notice.
About 8.15 p.m. Colonel Lloyd received a direction from Brigadier Godfrey to send out a fighting patrol at last light and at once sent his adjutant, Lieutenant Lamb,39 to Captain Cahill to instruct him that the fighting patrol was to move out as soon as darkness fell. The sun set at 8.20 p.m. but still shone its beams onto a high, gleaming moon, which shed down its light with cruel brilliance. The 2/28th forward defences came under intense fire. The fighting patrol became disorganised.
At 9.50 p.m. the Very light signal by which Conway had notified the capture of S7 in the early morning was seen again above S7. Conway, who was under close attack, was calling for defensive fire but the signal was not so interpreted. About the same time the two signallers (White and Delfs) who had followed Coppock’s platoon into S7 when it was captured suddenly appeared at Post S8. Each brought a copy of a message from Conway, whom they had left about an hour earlier:–
Am at S7 with Lieut McHenry and 19 ORs including 9 very badly injured also some shock cases. The remainder of us are too fatigued to offer any resistance. We have seven prisoners here. We must have immediate help to hold Post S7.
Amn – have about 1,200 rds. 10 new men could hold the post.
Please send out help for injured. Have no bandages left. Require morphia tablets. Direct route 9-S7 appears clear. No enemy in vicinity except two snipers.
2020 hrs 3 Aug 41
R. A. E. Conway
Lieutenant Waring,40 in S8 when White and Delfs arrived, endeavoured unsuccessfully to take a section forward immediately to Conway’s help;
the enemy strafed the area as soon as the movement was perceived. Meanwhile a patrol that had gone out at last light from the 2/48th Battalion to the Water Tower area had approached S7; it returned to report that Australian voices could be heard. Lieutenant Beer of the 2/48th then took out a patrol with the intention of occupying S6 if it should be unoccupied. Lieutenant Taylor subsequently set out from the 2/28th Battalion on his mission to S7.
Colonel Lloyd then had to endure another long wait. It was not until 1.25 a.m. that he received the report from Taylor’s patrol. Taylor had seen about 50 enemy skylined on the northern side of S7 and inferred that the post was definitely in enemy hands, but Lloyd refused to accept this conclusion and ordered an attack for S7 by the 2/32nd men under his command. This was a difficult task to carry out in a moonlit area under continuous mortar bombardment with no place of assembly beyond the enemy’s observation. Eventually the move off was deferred until after moonset (3.45 a.m.) and got under way just before 4 a.m.
The attack was made by two platoons, with a third acting as a carrying party, but failed. Lieutenant Payne,41 whose platoon suffered 12 serious casualties in the assault, reached the wire but was there badly wounded in the stomach. Lieutenant Fidler,42 commanding another platoon, was mortally wounded. In all 30 serious casualties were incurred.
At 4.40 a.m. Lieutenant Beer’s patrol from the 2/48th, which was in the vicinity of S7 (his second patrol to the region that night), saw a green flare fired by the enemy. Thereupon all firing suddenly died down. The fight for S7 was over. Conway’s attack had been made by 135 men (including the attached engineers); of these 83 had been killed or wounded or were missing; the company’s fighting strength at dawn on the 4th was 4 NCOs and 28 privates. Conway had surrendered just before 11 p.m. when his ammunition was almost exhausted and the enemy having got into the anti-tank ditch surrounding the post was poised for a final assault.
Between 4th and 7th August the 18th Brigade relieved the 24th, which went into divisional reserve. On the night of the 8th the much tried 2/48th Battalion came into brigade reserve, the three forward battalions then being: right 2/12th, centre 2/10th, left 2/9th. Two nights later the 2/48th left the Salient, changing places with the 2/24th Battalion and becoming reserve battalion in the quiet eastern sector. Another unit to be allowed a well-earned rest was the 2/13th Field Company, which had been continuously in the Salient and western sector since May. It was replaced by the 2/4th Field Company on 12th August.
The months following the BATTLEAXE operation were a time of reconstruction and reinforcement for both the Axis and the British forces in Africa. When General Paulus reported back to the German Army Command
after the failure of Rommel’s assault on Tobruk in May, the German Army Chief of Staff, General Halder, conceived a means of controlling the African field commander whose proclivity for becoming committed beyond his allotted supply resources was proving so vexatious. General Gause was appointed, with Field Marshal Brauchitsch’s concurrence, “German Liaison Officer at Italian Headquarters in North Africa.” Gause arrived in Tripoli on 10th June but found General Gariboldi, the Commander-in-Chief in Africa to whom Rommel owed nominal allegiance, not complaisant. The inherent threat to Gariboldi’s illusory authority appears to have impressed him more than the intended curb on his intractable subordinate. Rommel, of course, was indignant, and protested to General Brauchitsch.
The stars in the Axis High Command firmament, however, favoured Rommel While Brauchitsch and Halder, in fear that Hitler was committing Germany to undertakings for which her resources were insufficient, were setting up machinery to keep Rommel in check, Field Marshal Keitel, Hitler’s right-hand man and subservient supreme commander, was discussing with General Cavallero, the Italian Chief of Staff, the mounting of an offensive against Egypt in the autumn by four armoured divisions, two of them German, and three motorised divisions, and the provision of the artillery reinforcements estimated to be necessary for the capture of Tobruk to be undertaken. Plans were also in hand to reduce Rommel’s dependence on Italian infantry. Advanced elements of what was to become the Division Afrika zbV43 (and later the 90th Light Division) began crossing to Africa in June.
On the day after Gause set foot in Africa, there appeared the first draft of a directive from Hitler which provided for the further prosecution of the war after the invasion of Russia had felicitously ended. The proposal included attacks directed at the Middle East through Libya, Turkey and the Caucasus. This grandiose scheme was called “Plan Orient”. Though its golden consummation was perhaps seen through a glass darkly, two early steps on the way were in immediate contemplation: the capture of Tobruk and the seizure of Gibraltar. The directive was followed up in an instruction from Halder to Rommel on 28th June: Rommel was required to submit a draft plan for an invasion of Egypt after the reduction of Tobruk.
The intention to drive forward aggressively did not well accord with a scheme to keep the field commander’s head in check with long, tight reins. The repulse of the British mid-summer offensive, reported to the High Command with an honest magnification of the tank losses inflicted, had added lustre to Rommel’s reputation. General Cavallero now came forward as an advocate for a single headquarters to control the operational forces in Africa, with Rommel in command. Hitler appears to have supported Rommel’s claims. Eventually Halder had to give way.
Before this issue had been settled, Halder on 2nd July ordered Rommel
to submit a draft plan for the attack on Tobruk. Still conducting a rearguard action to prevent enlargement of the African commitment, he warned Rommel to expect no further reinforcements and imposed a collateral restriction that one complete armoured division was not to be committed to the attack on Tobruk but held behind the Egyptian frontier.
The task exactly fitted Rommel’s aspirations but the annexed condition was not to his liking, as his plan submitted on 15th July demonstrated. He proposed to concentrate almost all the German forces in Africa for the attack, including the 15th Armoured Division and part of the 5th Light Division. The assault was to be preceded by 10 days of bombing to soften up the defences and was to be made against the south-east perimeter while a feint was made in the west. As in the two preceding attacks (and in the attack to which Tobruk eventually succumbed) it was planned to breach the perimeter with tanks at dawn – the Matilda tanks captured in BATTLEAXE leading the way – and to drive the armour through to the port and harbour. It was hoped to reduce Tobruk by mid-September to enable Egypt to be invaded in October.
The shape of the new Axis organisation emerged from a welter of top-level conferences, some of which Rommel attended in Germany and Italy at the beginning of July and early August. The flattering designation “Panzergruppe Rommel” at first adopted for the new force was sensibly changed, but this did nothing to cloud Rommel’s new eminence. The Commander-in-Chief in North Africa remained Italian – an appointment in which General Bastico had replaced General Gariboldi on 23rd July. Prestige prevailed over common-sense and duality of control on the battlefield was perpetuated: an Italian mobile corps, to comprise the Ariete Armoured and Trieste Motorised Divisions, was to be under Bastico’s direct orders. But all other ground forces in the operational area, both German and Italian, were allotted to Rommel’s new command, renamed the Armoured Group Africa.
The forces under Rommel’s command were to be grouped into two formations, the German Africa Corps and the XXI Italian Corps. The Africa Corps was to be built up to a strength of two complete armoured divisions and two infantry divisions, the infantry to consist of a German light infantry division in process of formation and the Italian Savona Division (the latter for static defence duties on the frontier). The Italian corps was to comprise four Italian divisions destined for employment mainly in the Tobruk-El Adem area: Trento, Pavia, Brescia and Bologna. Three of these – Trento, Pavia and Brescia – were already engaged in the siege, being stationed respectively opposite the eastern, southern and western sectors. The provision of a fourth division would free the German forces for offensive tasks as well as enabling the Italian divisions to be brought into reserve in rotation.
At the beginning of August, the High Command of the German armoured forces outlined the strategic objectives for the remainder of the year. These included strengthening the armed forces in North Africa to
enable the capture of Tobruk, and simultaneously renewing the air attack on Malta. The directive declared:
Provided that weather conditions cause no delay and the service of transports is assured as planned, it can be assumed that the campaign against Tobruk will begin in mid-September.44
An important gloss should have been added to the statement of that proviso. Whatever the weather, the Royal Navy was to prove a potent deterrent to fast reinforcement. Rommel was destined to wait two months to receive the major part of the promised forces with enough supplies and equipment to permit their active employment.
Nevertheless by mid-July the form of the projected assault had crystallised in Rommel’s mind, which immediately revealed the necessity for preliminary operations the execution of which did not have to wait on the advent of reinforcements. The plan for an irruption directed at the bifurcate junction of the main south road from Tobruk with the Bardia and El Adem Roads, later generally known as “King’s Cross”, required that the assault force should be assembled on the plateau south-east of the perimeter and jump off from an area not so remote from the intended point of penetration as to involve a long approach march. In this region the Tobruk garrison had brazenly established outposts.45 The first step was to remove them.
Towards the end of July the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion was on the perimeter on the left of the eastern sector and maintained small permanent garrisons in two outposts taken over from the 2/23rd Battalion. On 26th July, about two hours after midnight, the outpost “Normie” at Trig 146 repelled an attack by an Italian patrol of between 12 and 15 men. At 9 p.m. on the 28th Normie was heavily shelled and the five men in the post were forced to withdraw on the approach of enemy in substantial numbers.
At 10 p.m. Captain Ellis46 with Lieutenant Williams47 and 21 men set out to restore the situation. Two hundred yards from the post they were engaged and vigorously returned the fire, to keep the enemy’s heads down. Ellis then moved his patrol to envelop the position in a flanking movement. The enemy shot up flares and close artillery defensive fire came down; but the patrol charged through and the enemy fled, their numbers being estimated at 100. The patrol pursued them for some distance, returned to the post, took possession of an Italian light machine-gun, 20 rifles, 36 grenades, flares and ammunition and left the five observers in occupation.
The enemy attacked Normie again on 30th July, this time in mid-afternoon. The men in the post retaliated, the 104th RHA accurately
bombarded, and Lieut-Colonel Brown sent out two carriers with an officer and 10 men to help. The attackers were dispersed and a mortally wounded Italian was captured.
Interest in the south-eastern outposts next switched to the 2/23rd Battalion’s sector, on the right of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. The use of the Walled Village area as an observation site had been discontinued but two other observation posts had been established in the region. On the night of 6th–7th August the 2/23rd established one at Bir Ghersa about 5,800 yards south of the perimeter. It was named “Jim”. Another post, “Bob”, was established north of the Walled Village, due west of Jim.
During the afternoon of the 7th two tanks and about 30 infantry were reported near the Walled Village. A patrol sent out in the evening to investigate came under mortar fire. On the 8th a patrol of three Italians approached Jim, unaware that the point was occupied, and were promptly captured. On the 9th, a very hot, windy day, Bob was heavily bombarded and the occupants withdrew under fire. A covering party was sent out to protect Jim and took up a position 400 yards to the north-west. Jim was usually manned by three infantrymen in charge of a non-commissioned officer, but Captain Leakey48 of the Royal Tank Regiment, seeking experience and information, had received permission to take command of the post on this day. With him were Corporal Hayes49 and Private Bennett50 of the 2/23rd. Leakey and the two Australians saw 21 men approaching and deploying to attack, waited until they were only 100 yards away, called for artillery support from the 104th RHA, then opened fire with Bren and Tommy-gun. The Bren jammed, and while Leakey was putting it to rights, the enemy approached to about 30 yards away; the others kept them at bay with grenades. Soon the stoppage was freed and the three men with their two automatics poured devastating fire into the enemy, killing 20 and seriously wounding the other. The post was then mortared and shelled. Leakey and his men withdrew through the covering patrol, which later killed five men in a party passing by about 600 yards to the south. Subsequently patrols went out to scour the area for spoil and identifications and heard an enemy working party in the Bir Ghersa area. Next morning an infantry carrier patrol with an FOO from the 414th Battery went out to Bir Ghersa and found it unoccupied.
“I am considering another attack on S7 and possibly other posts in that vicinity, using 18th Brigade,” General Morshead told Lieut-General Smith, General Auchinleck’s Chief of Staff, in a letter written on 9th August. Next morning Morshead’s own chief staff officer, Colonel Lloyd, who had returned during the night from Cairo, reported to Morshead the stage reached in the planning for the seaborne relief: that it was expected that the relief would take place during the months of September and October and that the first formation to be relieved would be the 18th Brigade. The
purpose of Lloyd’s visit to Cairo had been kept completely secret. Not one rumour escaped.
In the afternoon of the same day Morshead visited Brigadier Wootten at his headquarters, not to forewarn him of his brigade’s impending relief, but to give orders that plans be drawn up for another attack on Post S7. The company of English commandos was to be placed under Wootten’s command for employment on the flank of the attack. Two days later Morshead sent Lloyd to Wootten’s headquarters to enquire how preparations were progressing. Next day he came himself. On a second visit on 14th August Morshead received from Wootten the appreciation of the problem written by his brigade major, Daly.
Meanwhile General Morshead had written to General Blamey on 11th August:–
I understand that the intention is that the 18th Brigade is to be the first to go so that it can rejoin the 7 Div. I had planned that it should be the last to go because it is the best brigade here as it should be seeing that it was formed nearly two years ago. During the process of relief the defence will be affected by the force being a mixed one and the new units being unfamiliar with the ground and the situation generally. Consequently I feel very strongly that the 18 Bde should be retained until the last and I trust that you will approve of this. The first units to send away should be the ASC personnel used as infantry – they have been in the line, in a very quiet sector it is true, since the beginning and without relief – and the Pioneer Bn which also has been employed as infantry.
Obviously it was unlikely that Blamey would entertain Morshead’s proposal to defer the relief of the 18th Brigade, which would have introduced a new complication to the extremely difficult negotiations. He did, however, consider Morshead’s other suggestion, that the relief should begin earlier than September, though on a smaller scale, and referred it to Admiral Cunningham, whom he found sympathetic. But General Auchinleck, now back from London, took charge of the matter, and forthwith ordered an immediate relief of the 18th Brigade and the 18th (Indian) Cavalry Regiment by the 1st Carpathian Brigade and Polish Cavalry Regiment. The relief was to be carried out in the approaching moonless period; the proposed deferment until September to wait on the build-up of air strength was overruled. Instructions that the relief was to be effected between the 19th and 29th August were received in Tobruk on 15th August.
Since Morshead’s wish that the relief should begin in August had been granted, but not his recommendation that the 18th Brigade should be the last to leave, the proposed attack by that brigade on the right shoulder of the Salient could not proceed. After Morshead had left Wootten’s headquarters on the 14th taking with him Daly’s appreciation, Wootten had appointed Captain Coleman51 to make an intense study of the enemy defences. On the 16th Wootten was summoned to divisional headquarters and took Coleman with him But the reason for the summons was not to discuss the attack. On the contrary Wootten received orders to cancel
the operation, was informed of the impending relief and was instructed to have advanced parties secretly made ready to leave. On the night of the 17th Lloyd went back to Cairo to superintend the administrative arrangements. He returned to Tobruk on the 21st, by which time the relief was proceeding.
The study of the projected operation made by Wootten and Daly had convinced them that the initial attack would have to be made by a full battalion at least, and probably two further companies. The 2/10th Battalion had been detailed for the main attack. It was proposed to attack Posts S6 and S7 simultaneously, subsequently exploiting to the general line of the Acroma Road and eastwards to Forbes’ Mound. It was also estimated that a second battalion would be needed to hold on to the initial gains for reasons lucidly expressed in Daly’s appreciation:–
If it is the enemy’s intention to retain S7 and S6 then we may expect a series of counter-attacks in strength and strongly supported by artillery, mortars and possibly tanks etc, and should an attacking battalion have suffered heavy casualties, as seems likely in the light of the experience of previous attacks, it will be necessary to put a further battalion in to take over the fight.
If the operation had been executed, it would have imposed some strain on the loyalty of the infantry and their confidence in the command. The “grape-vine” communication network, which had failed to intercept one word or whisper connected with the relief, was fully tuned in to the attack preparations. Whether securing the objective, if achieved, would warrant the unavoidable casualties was widely questioned. For the sights had now been lowered; the prospect no longer included a step up from the foothold seized on the shoulder to the Medauuar summit, and then a closing of the ring on the original perimeter.
With the exception of Medauuar itself, the bristling ridge adjacent to S7 was the most troublesome thorn in the flesh of the defence. Its removal, even though Medauuar remained untouched, would have been a substantial easement. But it may be doubted whether Morshead’s decision had been motivated by a simple weighing of the tactical gain against manpower loss; rather it symbolised the spirit of the great siege commander, the essence of whose defence was not a dazzling of the opponent by brilliant improvisations but a dogged, immutable determination to yield not an inch and never to admit defeat.
To have the 18th Brigade and attached troops ready for transport to Egypt a complicated series of reliefs was put in train and effected over the five nights from the evening of the 16th August to the morning of 21st August; but the reason was not disclosed. The 24th Brigade in divisional reserve replaced the 26th Brigade on the eastern sector; in the western and Salient sector the 18th Brigade, with one battalion (the 2/24th) of the 26th Brigade under command, was then relieved by the 26th Brigade, with the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion under command; the 2/24th therefore remained in the sector. Once more the 2/48th Battalion returned to the Salient sector, but this time as brigade reserve. The 2/1st
Pioneer Battalion took over the western perimeter; the 2/23rd went to the right of the Salient, the 2/24th to the left.
Because the 2/4th Field Company was to return with the 18th Brigade to its own division (the 7th), the 2/13th Field Company was ordered to change places with the 2/4th. Having no inkling of the reason, the diarist of the 2/13th was much aggrieved:–
Orders received that Company will move back into the western sector and that the 2/4 Field Company will again come out into reserve. This comes as a shock as the 2/4th Field Company had no fighting and practically all the activity in Tobruk has been in the western end. ... The move is to be immediate and no explanations are given. The D.C.E. apparently had no say in the matter. ... Our men are tired out and, although they don’t like the prospect, they have not murmured.
Advanced parties of the Polish Brigade Group appeared in Tobruk on the 20th, having arrived by destroyer during the night. The cat was out of the bag. By nightfall the news had reached every nook within the perimeter. The 2/13th Field Company’s diarist noted on the 20th:–
18th Brigade Group plus certain other units ... are to be relieved from Tobruk by a Polish Brigade. This is a bolt from the blue and rumours are rife.
In addition to the 18th Brigade Group and the 18th Cavalry Regiment, units earmarked for the August relief included the 51st Field Regiment and the detachments of the King’s Dragoon Guards and the 3rd Hussars that had remained in Tobruk.
Although on his return from London General Auchinleck had ordered the immediate relief of the 18th Brigade and 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment, thus terminating the split-up of their parent formations (7th Australian Division and 3rd Indian Motor Brigade), he had deferred giving a decision on the proposal to relieve the 9th Division by the 6th British Division, to which the Commanders-in-Chief had approved in principle during his absence. If he was, as Viscount Cranborne had inferred, as anxious as the Australian Government to relieve the garrison, his enthusiasm does not appear to have impressed General Blamey so much as the general opposition to the project.
Blamey reported the latest developments to Mr Spender in a letter written on 18th August. The 7th Divisional Cavalry Regiment, he said, had at last been withdrawn from Cyprus and had rejoined the 7th Division. The relief of the troops in Tobruk had begun; the Polish Brigade would relieve the 18th Brigade in the next fortnight. In due course these reliefs would set free from Syria the 6th Divisional Cavalry Regiment and a composite brigade of the 6th (Australian) Division, thus enabling the re-assembly of the latter division to be completed. He continued:–
There has been a great deal of opposition to the relief of the troops in Tobruk and it certainly does present difficulties, but they can all be overcome. I am perfectly sure in my own mind that these are largely due to the Staff opposition to our desire to concentrate the three Australian divisions as a single command. It is quite certain, however, that if the relief does not take place within the next two or three
months the fighting efficiency of these troops will decline to a considerable degree. Signs of this decline are already showing and this is really the main reason why I have pressed the case so strongly. I may have to press further to get the 9th Division out.
Thus although by mid-August the brigade relief had been ordered and the principle of a divisional relief had not been countermanded, Blamey remained apprehensive that the relief of the 9th Division would not proceed unless further pressure were applied.
The August relief began in Tobruk on the night of 21st–22nd August, when two companies of the 2/9th Battalion and other details embarked for Alexandria and the 1st Polish Battalion came in. Nightly until the last relief convoy left on the morning of the 29th, the departures smoothly continued. The ships were usually alongside for about an hour and a half, during which about 150 tons would be off-loaded, 850 men disembarked, and an equal number taken on. Quick unloading and embarkation were facilitated by preparations the engineers had made for the secret purpose of a possible evacuation of Tobruk by sea. The jetties had been improved and new berths constructed beside the wrecks close to the southern shore; all skilfully camouflaged.
The infantrymen, the gunners, the Dragoon Guards, the Hussars, and the Indian cavalrymen turned infantry who clambered aboard the destroyers and left at dead of night, casting no longing, lingering look behind, had all made their contribution in effort, daring and endurance to checkmating Rommel and denying him Tobruk’s vital port, but none a greater contribution, man for man, day by day, night by night, than the 18th (King Edward VII’s Own) Cavalry. Regiment. This Australian history has not detailed the regiment’s exploits, which belong to its own country’s chronicles, but they earned the warm praise accorded in Morshead’s official report:–
It is appropriate to mention here the ascendancy which the 18th Cavalry Regiment had always maintained over the enemy. This unit, untrained for such duties, took up its allotted position in the front line as infantry practically from the time the defences were first occupied and remained there continuously until their time of embarkation at the end of August. By their fighting spirit, venturesomeness and constant alertness, these stalwart Indians succeeded in defending a very wide front for a long period, throughout which the enemy was made to feel and fear their presence.
The departure of the 18th Cavalry, as an Indian narrative recorded,
ended the Regiment’s long and very pleasant association with the 9th Australian Division. Treated in every respect as a unit of the AIF; receiving the comforts from the Australian War Societies on an equal basis with the rest of the forward battalions, the Australian and Indian soldiers became firm friends. After the relief, men of the Regiment received letters from the Australians and, in some cases, from their families in Australia.52
While the August relief was proceeding, the weight of the enemy’s impact on the defences appeared to be shifting from the west to the south and south-east. In August the 20th Brigade held the southern sector, the 26th Brigade the eastern. The likelihood that the Bologna Division would move up to the Tobruk front and relieve the Trento Division on the eastern front became known to the Intelligence staff early in August. The only surprise, when the change-over occurred, was that it took place a week later than expected. The relief itself excited no particular interest but the contemporaneous and subsequent increase in enemy shelling attracted attention.
In the first few weeks of the siege the reporting of enemy shelling was treated as primarily an artillery function but soon a system of daily very detailed reports from all units was instituted and enforced with particularity. At first these were used mainly for counter-battery purposes, but Morshead directed early in August that shelling reports should be analysed for daily incidence, trends, and maximum and minimum intensities. It was ascertained that in the 42 consecutive days ending on 6th August a daily average of approximately 650 shells fell on the three forward defence sectors. In the western sector the daily average for the period was 405 shells, the normal minimum on a quiet day 200. In the southern sector the intensity showed little variation within the limits of 150 shells minimum, 180 maximum; in the eastern sector it fluctuated greatly from day to day, with an average of about 80 and a maximum of 370.
The shelling reports gave daily tallies for each period of 24 hours ending at 8 a.m. Abnormal intensity was reported from the southern sector on 4th–5th August and again on 7th–8th August, when 500 shells fell. On the 13th, 14th and 15th the western sector reported daily tallies rising from 585 to 723 to 982 shells. A week later a further increase was noticed, accompanied by greatly augmented counter-battery fire. By the last week of August the daily norms established for June, July and early August, had become outdated and the main weight had shifted to the eastern and southern sectors. On 24th August the previously quiet eastern sector reported 400 shells. On the 25th 1,175 shells fell in the forward areas, of which 500 were in the eastern sector; next day 1,500, of which 700 were in the southern sector. On 29th August a sector peak of 1,000 was reached in the eastern sector where the rate continued in excess of 500 daily to the end of the month. Against the garrison’s 80 guns (including the four 60-pounders, but excluding the bush artillery) it was estimated that the enemy now had 224 field guns and a marked numerical superiority in medium guns. The four ancient 60-pounders (of which seldom more than three could be got into action at one time) and the handful of unreliable 149-mm guns were known to be opposed by four medium batteries (each of 4 guns) and four heavy batteries.
Enemy medium-gun activity became pronounced towards the end of the month. The “harbour gun”, firing from the wadis east of the perimeter, had become three guns of 155-mm calibre; after a week’s silence they resumed their annoying activity on 19th August, as the sea relief was
about to begin. The same day brought an unpleasant surprise when three 210-mm guns shelled Pilastrino. No shelling from equipment of that calibre had previously been suffered, although a solitary 210-mm shell had been found in the Wadi Auda in July. The projectiles weighed 248 lbs. Next day enemy 120-mm naval guns, which from time to time since mid-July had shelled the harbour and coast from the southern sector, put down five rounds gunfire The 1st RHA took up the gauntlet, and silenced them by firing an immediate bombardment from all troops and on the following day a howitzer manned by regimental headquarters personnel scored a hit on an ammunition dump in the southern harbour-gun area. These guns did not fire again in August. Shelling of the harbour ceased for two days but was resumed on the 22nd first by another battery of 105-mm guns firing at the extreme range of 20,000 yards and subsequently by the 155-mm guns of original “Bardia Bill” vintage firing from the east. These were counter-bombarded, and with evident success, for despite the unusual activity in the harbour practically no further shelling of the port occurred until the morning of 27th August, when 60 shells were fired in the face of vigorous counter-bombardment. The bombardment of the port was followed in the afternoon by an ingeniously planned raid of 40 bombers and 3 fighters against the harbour and heavy anti-aircraft gun sites. The enemy succeeded in sinking the whaler Skudd 3 but the defenders’ barrage sent three aircraft crashing, hit six others hard and damaged many more.
August was a month of increasing air activity, which was notable for the reappearance of the Stuka dive bombers in substantial numbers-35 in the attack on 27th August – and also for a tendency for the attacks to be directed largely against the anti-aircraft gun sites to the exclusion of strategic targets. The anti-aircraft gunners engaged almost 600 aircraft over Tobruk in that month. The climax to the aviator-gunner duel was a particularly brutal raid 15 minutes before midday on 1st September in which about 140 planes in all took part. Thirty Stukas attacked two heavy anti-aircraft guns and a formation of high-level bombers managed to drop more than 50 bombs on and around the site of a third, 15 Stukas dive-bombed the field gun sites, other high-level bombers attacked targets in the base area, while others again distributed their largesse with a certain impartiality over the forward defended localities, some bombs falling in the enemy lines. With the enthusiasm and inaccuracy of amateur duck-shooters the ground forces fired thousands of rounds into the path of the lower-flying aircraft, while the ammunition expenditure of the anti-aircraft regiments in the raid was-
One anti-aircraft gunner was killed and six wounded; five heavy guns were put out of action for four hours. Numerous planes were hit and
at least four were believed to have been destroyed, though only one was , seen to crash. But evidence, if not proof, of good shooting was perceived in the fact that only one other Stuka was seen over Tobruk in the rest of September.
In the southern sector at the beginning of August the 2/13th Battalion was on the right, the 2/17th on the left. Soon it became evident that the enemy was extensively developing the defences, particularly near the El Adem Road block. Gaps in the enemy minefield were gradually being closed, and patrols from both battalions reported progress regularly. They also created new gaps, as a patrol of the 2/17th did on 4th August, when 184 mines were lifted from the field and brought in.
The 2/13th Battalion’s sector, which it held from 15th July to 18th August, lent itself to patrolling activity because the enemy defence works were sufficiently distant to allow patrols unperceived egress and unmolested approach, but not so far away as to make it difficult for patrol commanders to locate objectives exactly after a night march. Lieutenant Martin53 came back from one of the first patrols with fresh and accurate information of an enemy minefield on his front. This was the start of a systematic series of reconnaissance patrols, many of them under Martin’s leadership, by which the enemy positions were accurately pinpointed. Martin was soon in a position to penetrate the enemy’s line at will and move freely behind his front at night. One night he closely observed the flashes of a heavy enemy gun shelling the port and base area. Lieut-Colonel Burrows planned to destroy the gun with a large fighting patrol. On a subsequent night Martin and another patrol commander took cross-bearings in no-man’s land on its flashes while bearings were simultaneously taken from within the perimeter. On the night of 17th–18th August a patrol of 3 officers and 40 men from the 2/13th Battalion and 6 sappers from the 2/3rd Field Company, commanded by Captain Walsoe, went out to assault the gun positions. While one party under Lieutenant Bucknell covered an enemy strongpoint on the flank, Lieutenant Martin led the main assault party to the gun area but found only empty pits, though evidence of recent use was seen.
The air support accorded to the fortress, if less than Morshead’s estimation of the due entitlement, had nevertheless improved, although the prohibition on the use of the Tobruk airfield except for an occasional prearranged reconnaissance sortie remained in force. On 3rd August, and again on 16th August, the RAF bombed the harbour guns east of Tobruk. After Morshead’s vigorous protest at the lack of timely air photography for the August Salient attack, the RAF made exceptional efforts to meet his calls for reconnaissance. Soon photographs of considerable sections of the enemy defences were taken and a trained interpreter was attached to the fortress headquarters.
When air photographs of the enemy defences in the southern sector west of the El Adem Road were received by Lieut-Colonel Williams,54
commander of the 1st RHA, he addressed a letter to Brigadier Thompson, the fortress’ artillery commander, in which he drew attention to the arresting confirmation given by the photographs to the reports of patrols and stated that he wished the “enormous importance of deep patrolling by infantry to be placed on record”.
Although having had experience of various theatres of operations in the past (he wrote) I have never seen the great value of deep patrolling so forcibly brought out before. The continuous failure of air support, either by observation or photographs, added to the featureless nature of the desert set an apparently hopeless prospect of correctly deducing the enemy dispositions and activity beyond our limited zone of observation. It was simply through the fearless and meticulously thorough investigation of the terrain out of view and often deep inside the enemy defended localities, that we have gradually built up a clear knowledge of his defences and organisation.
Williams then went on to describe how the 2/9th Battalion’s patrols had given most valuable information to the limit of the guns’ range. The “climax” had been reached when the 2/13th Battalion “produced a series of most convincing detailed reports of the enemy dispositions, and it was highly satisfactory on receipt (after waiting nearly five months) of an air photo of that area to see with what astounding accuracy those dispositions had been fixed”. The “continuously brilliant patrolling” had enabled the gunners “to strike deeply and accurately” and had “persistently impressed” them as “regular soldiers”.
The Polish Carpathian Brigade was formed in Syria in April 1940 by order of the Polish Government in exile, which was then operating from Paris. Around its original nucleus – a commander and 32 staff officers – the brigade slowly took shape as patriotic Polish soldiers escaped from internment and prisoner-of-war camps and made their ways by diverse routes to Syria.
After the French Government had made a separate peace with Germany and it had become clear that the Syrian administration would remain loyal to the Main government, the brigade’s commander (Colonel Kopanski) marched it, in June 1940, into Palestine to join forces with the British Middle East Command. There it continued to expand with a steady flow of recruits until the German conquest of Greece finally closed the main escape outlets from eastern Europe. Meanwhile the brigade staff had been expanded to the nucleus of a divisional staff.
The brigade’s recruits had included a very high proportion of men who were commissioned officers in the vanquished Polish Army. Some of these were organised into a special unit, additional to the normal strength of a British brigade, called the Polish Officers’ Legion;55 others served in the normal units of the brigade as non-commissioned officers or in the ranks. Self-selected by initiative, sifted by adversity, culled of the weak-hearted by surmounted barriers and motivated by insatiable hatred of their
nation’s oppressors, the band of eager, vengeful men who constituted the Carpathian Brigade were trained to a pitch that matched their ardour to fight.
When the brigade came to Tobruk under the command of Major-General Kopanski, it was a complete brigade group, including a cavalry regiment. The staff included a second-in-command, a chief of staff, two brigade majors, two Intelligence officers, ordnance and quartermaster staff on normal brigade scale, and a British military mission of seven officers.
General Kopanski arrived in Tobruk on the night 25th–26th August. Next morning General Morshead invited him and members of his staff to lunch, after which a conference was held to inform him that his brigade was to take over the southern sector a week later and that arrangements were to be made next day for advanced parties to move out immediately from the Polish units to their opposite numbers in the 20th Brigade.
The introduction to action of some Polish units had been even swifter. To enable the 51st Field Regiment to depart, the Polish field regiment, immediately on its arrival, was sent to the western artillery sector, command of which passed to Colonel Goodwin when the English regiment left. The anti-tank regiment relieved the 24th Anti-Tank Company and 9th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment in the same fashion, going straight to the guns. Also the cavalry regiment went at once to the perimeter in the western sector near the coast to change places with the 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment.
For a week the advanced parties of the Polish Brigade with the 20th Brigade were attached to all units and sub-units from headquarters down to platoons, mingling with the Australians as they carried out their duties, accompanying them on patrols, in some cases quickly forming enduring friendships and generally learning their ways. The barriers to communication imposed by speaking different tongues were surmounted by their strong motivation to learn and to do. They openly expressed displeasure (but in no disloyal sense) that they were to be posted to a sector where they were to be opposed not by Germans but by Italians. Theirs was a personal war. It was often noted that, when listening to news broadcasts about the Russian front, they appeared to be as pleased with announcements of Russian as of German casualties.
The relief of the 20th Brigade took place from 3rd to 6th September. The 2nd Battalion relieved the 2/17th on the perimeter on the night of the 3rd–4th, but Colonel Crawford remained with the Polish commanding officer to assist, and rear parties of each company stayed on for the next 48 hours to advise on the routine procedures of the defence system. Next night a similar relief of the 2/15th Battalion by the 3rd Polish Battalion took place. For the first time the perimeter of a complete brigade sector was then held by non-Australian infantry units. The brigade relief was completed on the night of the 5th–6th, when the reserve battalion, the
2/13th, was relieved by the 1st Battalion, whereupon the Polish Carpathian Brigade assumed command of the southern sector.
When General Auchinleck assumed command in the Middle East, it fell to him to decide two questions of the utmost importance: when the desert army was to be launched into another offensive; who was to be appointed to command it. From the moment of Auchinleck’s assumption of his office, Churchill strove to have his own views on these questions accepted by the man he had chosen as Commander-in-Chief, but Auchinleck, less pliant than Churchill had hoped, exercised a commander’s prerogatives, determined his course in the light of his own judgment, and held to it with infrangible will. Auchinleck had been told by General Dill that when Wavell had made the last desert attack before he was fully prepared “the fault was not Wavell’s except in so far as he did not resist the pressure from Whitehall with sufficient vigour”. Advised by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff himself that
he should point clearly to the risks he is prepared to accept and those which he considers too great. He should demand the resources he considers strictly necessary to carry out any project and he should make it clear what he can and cannot do in their absence ...56
Auchinleck faced the Prime Minister, who pressed him to an early onslaught, with the blunt rejoinder that to launch an offensive with the inadequate means at his disposal was not “a justifiable operation of war”. In London he declined to attack before November but agreed to set 1st November as the target date. Thereafter he did his utmost to adhere to this timing as one to which he was personally committed, yet later was prepared to endure the displeasure of the Prime Minister by a postponement beyond the date first set rather than order the advance with preparations incomplete and the supply dumping program unfulfilled.
Oddly enough, at the very time when the impetuous British Prime Minister, with the seeming support of a compliant if not insouciant Chiefs of Staff Committee, was striving to prevail upon General Auchinleck to embroil the Middle East forces audaciously and quickly in a renewed offensive, the violent but vague prospects of which appeared the more dubious the closer to the point of impact they were scrutinised, President Roosevelt and his emissaries were attempting to persuade Mr Churchill and his Service chiefs to curtail the reinforcement of the Middle East, urging that it was not a defensible position for the British Empire to hold. Their arguments were given a force their own logic could not provide by hints that the flow of American supplies might diminish or run dry if not directed to the regions that the detached strategists of Washington deemed most fruitful for their employment. Churchill’s reply to Roosevelt, which failed to acknowledge the Olympus of the new world as the fount of omniscience or its right to direct men’s struggles from afar, caused Roosevelt to “hit the roof”.57 But a battleship meeting of the two
statesmen in the Bay of Newfoundland was soon arranged, for which Churchill hurriedly left London soon after Auchinleck had arrived. Amity was restored, after which the Americans gave bountiful aid to the Middle East in tanks, vehicles and other equipment and continued to do so unstintingly during the next year even in the face of calamitous reverses.
Before Churchill left London for the Atlantic meeting, it was decided to send out to the Middle East a second armoured division, which would not arrive there in time for the start of the offensive, though its advent was to be more welcome than could then be foreseen. But convoys bearing men and munitions to Auchinleck were already on their way, and 165 General Stuart tanks from the United States would reach him in time for the battle.
The date having been fixed, the commander had next to be chosen. This was a more difficult decision for Auchinleck to make (though not to sustain). It was not a question to which hard facts pointed the answer. On the day on which he assumed command, Churchill told him:
Once Syria is cleared up, we hope you will consider Wilson for the Western Desert, but of course the decision rests with you.58
Seventeen days later, Churchill reiterated:
We still think that Wilson should have the command of the next offensive, if there is to be one, unless of course you propose to take personal command yourself.59
Auchinleck’s translation to a new command had denied him that insight into his principal subordinates’ abilities that only long and close observation of performance in responsible appointments can provide. Success, if an unreliable criterion, yet the best to hand, pointed to Lieut-General Cunningham whose felicitous conduct of the difficult East African campaign had been characterised by firmness and vigour. It is not surprising that Auchinleck chose him in preference to the older Wilson and to others who had not yet won such laurels. Latter-day critics may inveigh against the appointment of a man who lacked experience of armoured forces to exercise command in a battle of armour; but if Cunningham had won mastery in his first enterprise in mobile war, they might no less aptly have pointed the moral that technical proficiency is but an aid and not a prerequisite to successful management and command. Moreover it was planned that the armour should be commanded by Lieut-General V. V. Pope, who had not long before been Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles at the War Office; but Pope and his senior staff were soon to be killed in an air accident, with imponderable consequences. A commander endowed with Einstein’s genius and Wellington’s tactical skill and administrative ability would have been fully extended in the appointment and task to which Cunningham had been called.
The commander designate of the desert army about to be created left East Africa on 29th August for Cairo to report to Auchinleck who instructed him to prepare two detailed plans on the basis of two possible
courses. One of these was an ambitious inland thrust to strike the coast south of Benghazi and then seize that port; the other was a thrust along the coast towards Tobruk, with feints inland. With the two courses to study and innumerable possibilities to ponder, Cunningham was allowed one month to produce the plan for which Auchinleck waited, Churchill yearned, and the Middle East forces, listless for want of a goal, hankered. Cunningham’s own headquarters were established on 9th September under the designation Western Army Headquarters.
The relief of the 18th Brigade had been successfully completed by 30th August and on that day Blamey so informed the Australian Government by cable, stressing the need for secrecy. On the same day the chiefs of staff of the three Services and some of their subordinates held a conference at the General Headquarters to discuss future policy for supplying Tobruk.
Throughout July and August the supply had been maintained under constant risk of attack at a delivery rate sufficient to conserve and augment the garrison’s reserves. Two destroyers ran almost every night, moonlit or otherwise, between Matruh or Alexandria and Tobruk, “A” lighters plied slowly between Mersa Matruh and Tobruk, small ships between Alexandria or Mersa Matruh and Tobruk. The risks were air attack on the run, mining of harbours and approaches, shelling or bombing while entering or leaving Tobruk port or while berthed there, damage in quick berthing and get away in darkness in a wreck-strewn harbour (two destroyers damaged themselves against the oil jetty in July) and delay by bad weather or engine trouble to the lighters. Transporting military formations both in and out of Tobruk necessitated an increase in the destroyer service because destroyers fully loaded with stores could not at the same time carry a large number of troops.
For operation “Treacle” – the naval operation to effect the August relief – the nightly destroyer program was increased from two ships to three for some of the time, and to four during the height of the relief, the ships usually including one of the two fast minelayers, Abdiel and Latona, which had been experimentally used on the run in July. The extra ships effected the majority of the personnel reliefs whilst the others continued the normal provisioning program. Protection from air attack was given by augmented fighter patrols supplemented by anti-aircraft fire from a covering force of cruisers. The only naval casualties in the August relief operations were slight damage to the Australian destroyer Nizam by a near-hit and serious damage to the covering cruiser Phoebe at night by an aircraft torpedo, which necessitated her withdrawal from service for major repair in the United States. For comparison, on the normal run in July one destroyer had been sunk and three damaged by air attack.
The provision of fighter escort in August reduced the rate of loss to the small ships. Sinkings by enemy action were reduced to three. A trawler and a whaler were sunk by aircraft in the Tobruk region and a tank lighter by mine in Tobruk Harbour. A minesweeper was damaged off Matruh.
On 28th August Tobruk was warned that the nightly destroyer run was likely to be suspended during the coming moonlit period. Later the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean signalled that the service would be suspended pending the result of the conference on future policy on the 30th.
The naval chief of staff proposed at this conference that in future the supply should be cut down to a minimum during the moon period and made up during moonless periods and suggested that the program for the moonless period in September (17th to 27th) should be one minelayer and three destroyers to run two nights in three, but with sailings staggered. This would permit of carrying 2,250 personnel reliefs in addition to stores – a scale insufficient to effect a complete brigade relief. The proposal, in substance, was to revert to the pre-relief scale of shipping but to provide the service over fewer days, in the safer moonless period. The Deputy Air Commander-in-Chief pointed out that broadly speaking the RAF provided the same fighter cover regardless of the size of convoys; it would be to their advantage to reduce the number of convoys. At the conclusion of the meeting it was agreed to recommend to the Commanders-in-Chief that there should be no further big relief of the Tobruk garrison.
The 2,250 reliefs proposed for September may be compared with the actual arrivals and departures both before and during the relief in the following table:
After this meeting, the Director of Medical Services raised objections to using the 6th (British) Division for the relief of the 9th Division on the ground that it had been in a malarial neighbourhood and also raised objections, on the same ground, to sending any other formation to that area to relieve the 6th Division. Five days later (4th September) Blamey telegraphed the Australian Government that it was being pressed upon him that a general relief of the garrison was not possible; nevertheless he had been asked to agree to the relief of the British artillery in Tobruk by the artillery of the 9th Division. He had refused, he said, because he took the view that this would mean that the 9th Division would remain there indefinitely.
|Month||Services Personnel||Services Personnel Wounded||Services Personnel Others||Civilians||Senussi Libyans & Arabs||P.W.|
|October(to 20th only)||4,164||563||3,480||2|
Despite Viscount Cranborne’s reassuring telegram to Mr Menzies, Blamey’s forebodings in mid-August had proved correct. Only a vicarious responsibility rests with Lord Cranborne, who was not a member of the War Cabinet, for the text of a message designed to placate the Australian Government, which represented that Auchinleck was “anxious to relieve the garrison” at a time when it was the British Government’s intention to avoid, if possible, effecting the relief Menzies had requested. Lord Cranborne’s assurances about Auchinleck’s anxiety to relieve the garrison were true, at this juncture, only in the sense of a relief by land. It is hard to resist the conclusion that the message was intended to be read in another sense by the recipient. The impression conveyed was at variance with the British Government’s intentions, which must be identified with those of the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence whose direction of the war it constantly endorsed. Churchill, the protagonist of opposition to the relief, revealed his own attitude (which may have accounted for his omission to reply to so important a communication from the Australian Prime Minister) in a telegram sent some weeks later to the Minister of State in Egypt. He was assuring the Minister that the British Government fully agreed with Auchinleck’s opposition to the relief and strongly deprecated the “Australian resolve to quit the line at this juncture”. “Moreover,” he said, “I particularly stimulated Auchinleck when he was at home not to prejudice defence of Tobruk by making a needless relief.”61 Memories today would be an unsure guide to the intentions at that time of Mr Churchill, the Chiefs of Staff and General Auchinleck. Their actions, however, leave the impression that they were playing for time and are consistent with the supposition that by the beginning of August an intention had been formed to relieve the 18th Brigade by the Polish Brigade in August but to effect no relief of the 9th Division or to undertake that relief only if it proved impossible to mount the offensive as planned
General Auchinleck had returned to Cairo in August determined, if possible, to mount the projected offensive by 1st November and to ensure that the entire energies both of the staff and of the fighting formations were applied without distraction to the solution of the administrative and supply problems and the completion of all necessary planning, training and preliminary movement. Planning for operation CRUSADER, as the offensive was to be called, had scarcely begun when the relief of the 18th Brigade was authorised, but was under way by the beginning of September when it became necessary to reach a final decision whether the relief of the 9th Division should proceed.
General Auchinleck found both his brother commanders-in-chief opposed to a further relief. Admiral Cunningham wished to avoid the added burden on his already overworked ships; to Air Marshal Tedder the question was bound up with the Royal Air Force’s paramount task of winning, before the start of CRUSADER, sufficient air superiority to enable it to
maintain during the battle the degree of ascendancy over the battlefield necessary to support the ground forces and protect their communications. A contemporary staff study indicated that by November the two Axis powers might be able to employ about 650 aircraft (apart from transport planes) to support operations in Cyrenaica, of which about 300 might be German.62 The British expected to have 544 available. If the British on balance held the advantage in the calibre of their aircrews and the efficiency of their maintenance organisations, the Germans could array against them fighter aircraft of superior performance and more quickly reinforce the theatre. Should the war in Russia continue to develop favourably for German arms, German aircraft alone might outnumber British aircraft when the time came. The RAF’s primary aim, therefore, might prove very difficult to achieve. A decision to carry out a further relief would increase the frequency of the convoys requiring protection during the ten days of the moonless period. Since Tedder’s policy for obtaining air superiority included provoking encounters by fighter sweeps, small-scale attempts by the enemy to interfere with the Tobruk convoys would accord with RAF aims. But convoy patrols were not best suited to the purpose. They presented the enemy with the opportunity of momentarily concentrating stronger forces against a convoy than the RAF could continuously maintain over it.
To General Auchinleck the continuance of the relief represented a substantial diversion of both physical and mental energy from the primary objective, particularly on the part of the planning and administrative staffs.63 He did not think that the garrison’s capacity to resist a sustained assault had been materially impaired; rather he believed that the 9th Division with its thorough knowledge of the ground and its confidence born of success would hold the fortress more securely than a relieving division, which might have to face attack before it had become firmly established. Moreover the Tobruk garrison would probably be required at some stage of the projected offensive to punch a hole in the defences ringing Tobruk in order to effect a junction with the forces operating from Egypt, as had been planned for BATTLEAXE. If the intended date for the commencement of the offensive (1st November) were met, such a sortie might have to be made in the first week of November; but the relief of the 9th Division could not be completed until the third week of October, which would allow the relieving formation little time for planning, preparing and rehearsing an attack. The dispatch of a battalion of infantry tanks to Tobruk to take part in the breakout operations was under consideration. If it were sent, the decline in the garrison’s power of resistance would be offset. General Auchinleck therefore proposed to General Blamey that the 9th Division’s artillery should be sent to Tobruk to make the division complete there rather than in Palestine, and that a further relief should be postponed.
In Australia Mr Fadden had in the meantime succeeded Mr Menzies as
Prime Minister; but there had been little change in the composition of the Government except in the leadership. Menzies remained as Minister for Defence Coordination. In his message of 4th September Blamey told Fadden that, although the artillery relief had been sought, it had been pressed upon him that a general relief of the garrison was not possible; but the difficulties could be overcome with the will to do so; fresh British and Dominion formations were available. If the relief were not insisted upon, the decline in the fighting value of the 9th Division would be considerable, its period of recovery correspondingly long. Furthermore if Tobruk were attacked with strength and determination after one or two months of further decline, the division would not be fit to withstand the onslaught. General Auchinleck (Blamey averred) had been informed by Churchill when recently in England that he would make it right with the Australian Government if Auchinleck did not see fit to relieve the division. After the 18th Brigade’s relief, the troops remaining would feel let down if not relieved, which would further detract from their morale. Unless the Australian Government took a very firm stand, he was convinced that the 9th Division would be left in Tobruk indefinitely in spite of his efforts.
On the next day Fadden telegraphed Churchill. He referred to previous communications between the two governments relating to the relief, to the latest proposal to send the 9th Division’s artillery to Tobruk, and to a statement from Blamey throwing doubt on the possibility of a general relief of the garrison; in view of the decline in “health resistance” of the troops at Tobruk and the availability of fresh troops he reiterated his predecessor’s request that the British Government should direct Auchinleck to give effect to the Australian Government’s wishes. The Australian Parliament was meeting at the end of the month: when the withdrawal had been completed he wished to make a statement to it that the AIF had been re-concentrated. It was, he said, a vital national question. There would be grave repercussions if a catastrophe occurred because of a further decline of the garrison and an inability to withstand a determined attack.
In The Grand Alliance, Churchill referred to this communication as though it put forward a new proposal made at an advanced stage of the preparations for CRUSADER. The truth is that it renewed an old request, and that the CRUSADER preparations had not yet crystallised into any sort of plan; nothing was yet settled except a tentative starting date.? “Auchinleck protested strongly against this change,” wrote Churchill later, “pointing out the difficulties of the relief and the derangement of the plan for the new offensive. I tried to reassure the General:–
Prime Minister to General Auchinleck, 6 Sept 41
I am pretty sure the Australians will play the game if the facts are put before them squarely. We do not want either your supply of Tobruk or your other combinations to be hampered. If meeting their demand would do this, let me have
the facts to put to them. Australia would not tolerate anything shabby. Of course if it does not make any serious difference we ought to meet their wishes.”64
The reasons advanced for discontinuing the relief do not appear to have impressed General Blamey. He wrote a long letter to Spender on 8th September outlining the “considerable difficulties” he had met in his efforts to assemble the AIF as a single body. He had organised a temporary brigade to help in the Syrian fighting on the express condition that the units would be returned to their parent division as soon as possible. Two months had elapsed since the end of the campaign but still he had not got them back, although it could not be contended that there was a dangerous position in Syria. As regards Tobruk, he was meeting with the greatest opposition on all sides.
The Englishman is a born casuist. A plan was made for the relief. Everyone agreed, the Air Force with reservations. The C-in-C was absent. In pursuance of the plan our 18th Brigade was relieved by the Polish Brigade and brought out without any great inconvenience. Then the Staff re-examined the position and they thought in view of the offensive plans ... it would be easier to leave our 9th Division in. Then a crop of reasons were advanced and the C-in-C even went so far as to say it was not a “possible proposition”. ...
If the division were left in Tobruk very much longer, its decline would become very marked, and if the enemy were able to make an attack on a large scale towards the end of the year, he had grave misgivings as to the results. He felt sure that the Australian Government would not care to have another Greece and Crete experience.
Blamey next referred to the intended date for the commencement of the offensive. The earliest possible date was 1st November but he did not think it could take place so soon. He continued:–
You will see from what I have said that the present is a most propitious moment for the relief. The claim that it is a particularly difficult operation is not tenable in my view, as no great difficulty has so far been met in carrying out the part that has been completed. General Auchinleck will oppose the relief to the utmost, so I have endeavoured to set forth the position as it appears to me.
I am becoming personally the most unpopular man in the Middle East over the matter. ... I am pressing this matter again because I am convinced I am right. It is a short-sighted policy, but one that one frequently meets amongst the British, to use up a division until it is worthless for months afterwards. The 9th Division will need a considerable period of rest even if it comes out now. If its withdrawal is delayed very much longer, I would not like to say how long it will be before it is fit to take the field again.
Before replying to Churchill’s request that he should be provided with the facts to put squarely before the Australian Government, General Auchinleck summoned General Morshead to Cairo. General Blamey forewarned Morshead by letter of the purpose of the summons and informed him of the views he was putting forward as to the physical condition of the troops and their capacity to resist a determined attack if their stay was prolonged.
These are, I think, the views we formulated during your last visit. You are to stay with General Auchinleck and I think if you can spare the time it would be a good thing if you called in at my flat on your way down. You should arrive somewhere about 7.30 p.m. and I will await you.
Morshead left Tobruk for Cairo at 1 a.m. on 9th September in HMS Kipling. The destroyer was bombed five times and slightly damaged on the voyage. When he arrived in Cairo he called on General Blamey on his way to the Commander-in-Chief’s home.
On 10th September Morshead attended three conferences in company with General Blamey: first a conference with General Auchinleck and General Cunningham, presumably in connection with operation CRUSADER, next a conference with the three Commanders-in-Chief relating to the 9th Division’s relief, finally one with the Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Major-General Ritchie65 and the Deputy Quartermaster General, Major-General Hutchison.66
At the conference with the Commanders-in-Chief Morshead was asked to report on the physical condition of the garrison. He said that the troops were tiring; their health was good but medical officers had noticed that their stamina and their powers of resistance were weakening; this applied equally to British and Australian troops: he would be unhappy if, in the event that the 9th Division were relieved, British units had to remain. In his opinion to prolong the division’s stay until November would impair the fighting efficiency of the force.67 Auchinleck told Morshead that, while he wished to relieve the garrison, to do so would seriously endanger his plans. To compensate for any deterioration in fighting capacity through overstrain he would send forward a battalion of infantry tanks as quickly as possible. In any case he could consider relieving only the 9th Division because he had no troops to relieve the British units.68
Later in the day General Auchinleck sent Mr Churchill a long telegram in which he set out the factors bearing on the problem. The most undesirable factor, he stated, was that half of the relief would have to take place during the latter half of October,69 when it was hoped to exert the maximum effort to gain air superiority and to complete preparations for making a sortie from Tobruk. It was conceivable that in certain eventualities the intended date for the offensive (1st November) might not be met, in which event some of the reasons against carrying out the relief would lose much of their force, but it was his firm intention to meet it if possible. During the recent relief of one brigade, nearly all the ships were attacked by aircraft. A continuation of the relief would throw an added burden on the destroyers, already burdened by the task of maintaining the fortress, and be undertaken at the expense of other naval operations. At least five
fighter squadrons were permanently employed escorting ships during the August relief as opposed to a normal requirement of three to cover normal maintenance shipping, and this was at the expense of offensive operations on which air superiority depended. The only suitable formation readily available to relieve the Australian division was the 6th (British) Division. If it were used, a plan to dilute it with Indian troops would have to be indefinitely deferred but this was not an insuperable difficulty.
Auchinleck adverted to the contention that the 9th Division had suffered a physical decline and impartially summarised:–
The health and morale of Tobruk garrison is very good but the power of endurance of the troops is noticeably reduced and this is likely to be further reduced as time goes on and I detect signs of tiredness in those in responsible positions. An alternative solution to relief would be to strengthen the powers of resistance of the garrison.
It was still “just possible”, he continued, to relieve a brigade of the 9th Division with a brigade of the 6th Division in September but he did not favour that course because he was of the opinion that the breaking up of the 9th Division with its very strong esprit de corps and high morale would reduce the tactical efficiency of the garrison. An alternative to relieving an Australian brigade in September would be to send an infantry-tank battalion to Tobruk.70 This would increase both the defensive power of the garrison and its offensive power in future operations. He felt confident that with this reinforcement Tobruk could resist an attack. He concluded:–
The matter has today been placed before the Minister of State and the other two Commanders-in-Chief at a meeting of the Defence Committee and they agree with my opinion that to attempt any further relief of the Tobruk garrison, however desirable it may be politically, is not a justifiable military operation in the circumstances and would definitely prejudice the chances of success of our projected offensive in the Western Desert. Subject to your approval I propose therefore definitely to abandon the idea of a further large scale relief of Australian personnel in Tobruk and to reinforce the garrison at once with an infantry-tank battalion.
Blamey telegraphed to the Australian Government an elaborate commentary on Auchinleck’s message, in which he traversed Auchinleck’s numerous arguments (including some not mentioned above) one by one. It must suffice here to indicate his comments on the three major contentions. He said that in the absence of a hostile fleet in the Mediterranean or of any proposed large-scale naval operations, the naval argument was not a sufficient reason for discontinuing the relief. That the provision of additional air cover would be at the expense of offensive operations for the purpose of obtaining air superiority was true, but since he had agreed to the relief’s postponement from August to September because the RAF then stated that they would be able to provide three extra squadrons in September, and when the great increase in air forces in the Middle East as already reported by him and the now reduced risk in Iraq and Iran were taken into account, the additional strain on the RAF did not appear
to justify unwillingness to proceed with the relief. With regard to the proposed sortie, after two or three more months the 9th Division, he said, would be quite unfitted for the task, which would involve continuous and severe fighting. In a subsequent message Blamey indicated that Morshead confirmed the last statement.
Mr Churchill telegraphed General Auchinleck’s message to Mr Fadden in its entirety. He pointed out that in any case the relief could not be completed in time for Fadden to make the announcement he desired to the Commonwealth Parliament. If Fadden insisted that the withdrawal should take place, orders would be issued accordingly “irrespective of the cost entailed and the injury to future prospects”. He trusted that Fadden would weigh very carefully the immense responsibility he would assume before history by depriving Australia of the glory of holding Tobruk till victory was won, which otherwise, by God’s help, would be theirs for ever.
But the Australian Prime Minister stood his ground. His reply once more stressed the importance the Australian Government attached to the concentration of the AIF in one corps, urged that the decline in the garrison’s powers of resistance necessitated the relief, referred in detail to the several reasons advanced by General Auchinleck for deferring a relief, adopted in general the comments already received from General Blamey, and stated that the reference to a sortie from Tobruk had caused the Australian Government grave concern. In view of the responsibilities reposed in General Blamey as commander of the AIF and the advice tendered by him, which was supported by the Government’s advisers in Australia, he was bound, he said, to request that the relief and the re-concentration of the AIF should proceed. In the light of the requests made over an extended period, any reverse suffered by the Tobruk garrison would have far-reaching effects. The Australian Government did not consider that the military considerations put forward by General Auchinleck outweighed the case for a relief.
In reply Churchill telegraphed Fadden (on 15th September): “Orders will at once be given in accordance with your decision.” The Chiefs of Staff thereupon instructed the commanders-in-chief in the Middle East to take action to carry out the decision immediately.
Two days later Churchill telegraphed Auchinleck that he was grieved at the Australian attitude but had long feared the dangerous reactions on Australian and world opinion of seeming to fight all the battles in the Middle East only with Dominion troops.71 Churchill who saw the contemporary scene as an enactment of history in which leaders and their peoples were playing out historic roles could not fail to be apprehensive of such a charge; but the implication that Australians had judged the issue in those terms was not warranted by anything their leaders had said; nor, in the lengthy private correspondence that passed between General Blamey and the Australian Prime Ministers and Minister for the Army on this
and related subjects, was any suggestion made that Great Britain or British soldiers had borne in the Middle East less than their due share of the day’s burden. In fact Blamey had continually proposed other Dominion formations as possible reliefs; but this had appeared politically undesirable to others. It was not on the Australian side that such comparisons intruded on the consideration of a purely military problem. So important were questions of prestige in Churchill’s eyes, on the other hand, that, overriding the advice both of General Auchinleck and of the British Chiefs of Staff, he insisted on sending to the Middle East, in the convoys arranged at that time, new regular British divisions instead of the reinforcements and drafts requested by Auchinleck to restore British units already there to full strength;72 so important that the replacement in Cyprus of a British division not required for CRUSADER by an Indian division was being planned at the same time as the relief of the 9th Division was being opposed.73
General Auchinleck was no less grieved than Mr Churchill and wished to resign on the ground that he had failed to command the confidence of the Australian Government. It was indeed a most unsatisfactory situation that on a matter of policy within Auchinleck’s sphere of command a decision should have been taken against his advice and on that of his deputy. The fact that the Australian Government had to rely on advice tendered at that level, however, was in part due to Mr Churchill’s and the British Government’s unwillingness to grant the Australian Government’s request for representation on the British War Cabinet or the Defence Committee.74 The Australian Government acted on the advice of its representatives at the highest planning level at which effective representation was conceded.
Although as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham had opposed the relief, Morshead’s personal relations with him and his staff were most cordial. Morshead also established good relations with General Ritchie and attended a number of conferences with him and the directors of the various arms and Services. On 11th September, the day following the conference with the Commanders-in-Chief, Ritchie informed Morshead that two squadrons of infantry tanks were to be sent to Tobruk during the September moonless period. Morshead also learnt from Brigadier A. H. Maxwell, Auchinleck’s chief artillery staff officer, that after the tanks had been shipped four 4.5-inch guns and twelve additional 25-pounders would be sent.
One subject discussed, on which Morshead held strong views, was the policy for the award of periodical decorations. He had been informed by Middle East Headquarters that he could make recommendations for a maximum of 20 periodical awards for inclusion in General Wavell’s final despatch and could submit no more than 50 names for mention in despatches. He had earlier made a written request to be allotted 50 periodical awards. He attached a copy of the Order of Battle in Tobruk,
listed 52 major units under his command and pointed out that all headquarters, units and services had been in contact with the enemy and subjected to continuous bombing and shelling, and that many new units and services, from the nature of their duties, had not had the opportunity to participate in immediate awards.
Morshead’s pride in his command and the spirit imbuing his generalship shone through his submission:–
I do stress that the following factors be considered in relation to the allotment for Tobruk:
a. The importance of the operations at Tobruk as affecting the defence of Egypt.
b. The unique characteristics of the operations in the period under review particularly in relation to the 9th Australian Division before the occupation of the Tobruk defences. The Division, provided with only a fraction of its armament and transport, sent to an area to train and be equipped, was almost immediately involved in major operations against a first-class enemy provided with every conceivable modern equipment. The avoidance of the enemy’s initial blow, the equipment and organisation of the Division on the battlefield in contact with the enemy, and the defeat of his subsequent assaults are all unique and are deserving adequate recognition.
c. The actions before Tobruk in April and May are the first in which armoured formations of the German Army have been defied and defeated.
d. The general conditions under which Tobruk has been denied to the enemy for four and a half months. Throughout this period the garrison has been in continuous contact with the enemy under difficult conditions of terrain and climate and without the normal amenities of field service conditions. In particular the complete air monopoly enjoyed by the enemy over Tobruk has exposed all ranks to continuous air attack and permitted the unhindered direction of artillery fire from weapons of every calibre up to 8” on to the whole area.
e. The maintenance of the offensive spirit of the Garrison under adverse conditions as manifested in the constant deep offensive patrolling, the execution of continuous raids and the delivery of spirited counter-attacks.
f. The excellent cooperation between British, Australian and Indian troops, brought together in the first instance at Tobruk without design, but associated by the fortune of war in a common enterprise. From the beginning the garrison has been as one and the mutual respect and admiration engendered by joint service in difficult conditions has a deep significance in the future history of the Empire.
It is imperative that nothing be done to disturb in the slightest degree the maintenance of this bond. It is most desirable therefore that sufficient awards be placed at my disposal to ensure an equitable distribution as between British, Australian and Indian Units.
Morshead’s personal representations were in the end effective. The 9th Division portion of the garrison, for example, received 134 mentions in General Wavell’s despatch, and 83 in the first periodical list submitted by General Auchinleck.
Morshead returned to Tobruk on the evening of 17th September. Only one incident of importance had occurred there during his absence, an enemy attack in strength with about five tanks in the early hours of 14th September on one of the Australian observation posts outside the perimeter, which synchronised with a major excursion of the German armoured forces across the frontier into Egypt: Rommel’s reconnaissance in force,
an operation which was aptly named “Summer Night’s Dream”.75 Born of fantasy and developing into an extravagant goose chase, the enterprise was to leave Rommel’s mind clouded with an illusory picture of what his enemy was about.
Many lessons were to be learnt from operation BATTLEAXE, the first full-dress rehearsal of desert armoured warfare. The German commanders took them to heart. In the first place the weakness of the German frontier defences constituted by their open desert flank, which the attack had emphasised for the second time, was partly remedied. The flank could not be closed but it could be deepened, and Rommel immediately put in hand the construction of a line of forts south-westwards from Halfaya to Sidi Omar (a distance of some 25 miles) to be held in approximately battalion strength and provisioned with sufficient reserves for eight days’ supplies. This disadvantaged an attacker from the east by forcing him to a wide detour and the establishment of a more exposed line of communications than that of the defence. In the second place the battle’s lessons concerning the tactical employment of armour and the control of swift-moving battles were assimilated and effectively applied in intensive training. The commanders’ battle headquarters were made mobile and travelled on wheels close to the tanks. Their wireless sets listened in directly to messages of battle units instead of waiting for relayed information to reach them through intermediate headquarters. Procedures for intercepting, interpreting and acting upon messages passed by the enemy during the battle were perfected. The vulnerability of tanks to gunfire – particularly to the high-velocity projectiles of medium anti-aircraft guns – was appreciated to be the critical factor. The employment of tanks and mobile artillery in close conjunction to attack tanks as well as to defend them was therefore adopted as a first principle of battle organisation.
By the end of August the German mobile units had been reorganised into two complete armoured divisions (with some cross-posting of units which in turn led to the internal jealousies normal to such arrangements). The better part of the personnel of three additional German infantry regiments had arrived, including the 361st Africa Regiment which included a number of ex-members of the French Foreign Legion, and also a few of the heavy guns promised as siege train for use against Tobruk. So too had the Trieste Division, to make complete, at least in personnel, the Italian mobile corps.
The Axis supply and reinforcement situation was, however, far from satisfactory. While personnel continued to reach Africa by aircraft and destroyer, severe losses were suffered by the ships carrying their heavy equipment. After considering a detailed report from Admiral Raeder on the Mediterranean supply situation, Hitler determined on 22nd August, against Raeder’s advice, to transfer German submarines from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. Three weeks later he ordered the X Air Corps to
switch from attacking Egypt to providing air cover for the convoys supplying Africa.
The reorganisation of the Axis command structure had left Rommel’s authority both as virtual German Commander-in-Chief in Africa and as the only Axis commander exercising effective operational control no more curtailed than it was before the German Army High Command had attempted to clip his wings. General Gause and his staff whom Halder had attempted to interpose between Rommel and the home authorities had become the nucleus of Rommel’s new “African Armoured Group” command headquarters and Gause himself had become Rommel’s chief of staff. It is greatly to the credit of both men, and particularly to that of Gause, who had earlier spoken to Halder of Rommel’s “morbid ambition”, that Rommel was able to write to his wife on 28th August:–
I am getting on famously with my new Chief of Staff – which is of tremendous importance to me.
After BATTLEAXE both British and Axis forces withdrew their armoured formations from the region of close contact at the frontier. The Germans screened their front with their two reconnaissance battalions, equipped with six-wheeled armoured cars. On the coast the British established their forward troops behind a minefield some six miles east of Halfaya; above the escarpment, also behind a minefield, they occupied a fortified locality (but not a strong defence line) hinged on North Point, some 25 miles back from the fortified enemy positions running from Halfaya to Sidi Omar. The ground did not lend itself to the establishment of a firm defence line.
The territory between North Point and the enemy forces constituted a wide no-man’s land across which light mobile groups marauded and skirmished. Even on the coast where, walled in by the escarpment, the littoral shelf narrowed towards the Halfaya apex, the foremost positions permanently occupied by the British were beyond enemy artillery range. With a solitary exception, of which more later, British field guns were normally employed in a purely protective role against an enemy who almost never came within range, though commanders continually devised and executed ephemeral harassing plots. It is a strange reflection, and one which gives some point to Churchill’s hardly controllable impatience, that on the only front, except Tobruk, on which the ground forces of two Powers involved in bitter war were in contact their armies airily shadow-sparred throughout the summer without landing a single heavy punch.
Doubtless the British intention was to mark their foremost patches of occupied desert with tactical signs to be read by the enemy as indicating: “Past this point you do not go without a battle.” The occupiers’ orders, however, were not to fight hard if the enemy came on in force but to withdraw on Sidi Barrani after the first brush. It goes without saying that the knowledge that the whole force would withdraw induced all commanders to prepare carefully for the event and to make sure that, should the order come, their own units would not become stranded, disorganised,
or lost. Behind Sidi Barrani lay the Mersa Matruh port and rail-head, with defences developed like Tobruk to deny the enemy the port without a stiff fight and so to pose to British commanders the recurrent problem whether for that purpose to permit a substantial force to become encircled. The railway was being energetically extended westwards under the supervision of New Zealand railway construction engineers.
At Mersa Matruh a sizeable force was ensconced. During the summer the perimeter defence rested on the 1st South African Division (Major-General G. L. Brink) supported by a machine-gun battalion (the 2/2nd Australian, commanded by Lieut-Colonel Whitehead76), three field artillery regiments77 and two anti-tank batteries. The artillery (field and antitank) was under the command of the artillery headquarters of the 9th Australian Division (Brigadier A. H. Ramsay).
When, in the brief halcyon interlude of March, the 9th Division had been sent west to garrison Cyrenaica with the intention that it should train for war there while lightly brushing aside any attempted interference by remnants of the vanquished Italian forces, the division’s artillery, comprising the 2/7th, 2/8th and 2/12th Field Regiments, was kept at base. The decision, though intensely frustrating to these first-rate regiments imbued with the buoyant spirit of the unblooded, may have been wise. Lack of equipment was the reason. Until this was received, the regiments could not learn, however excellent their earlier training, the lessons of collective control under the worst possible conditions: the latter, in the contemporary war, included featureless terrain blurred by mirage or blanketed by dust, rough country that caused vehicle breakdowns, and inadequate maps, of which often none were available in Cyrenaica. There was no transport in Cyrenaica for learning these lessons; there was not enough to service and move units having operational tasks, whose artillery protection was therefore entrusted to regiments already in the region and trained in war.
But soon these idle, restless Australian regiments were needed for the second and third lines of Egypt’s defence. Then trucks and guns were conjured up out of an empty ordnance; some were old enough to have been borrowed from museums. The regiments were married to their war equipment in camps in the desert close to Alexandria, briefly learnt the desert’s first lessons in soul-destroying exercises on its sun-scorched, khamsin-seared fringes and were moved up one by one to Mersa Matruh. The 2/7th Field Regiment (Lieut-Colonel Eastick78) came in to Matruh on 23rd May, followed by the 2/8th (Lieut-Colonel Tinsley79) next day.
The 2/12th Field Regiment had meanwhile been dispatched to Tobruk. After BATTLEAXE, liaison tours were arranged to enable officers of the Australian regiments to see artillery in action on the front.
British field regiments, the 8th and 25th, had hitherto shared responsibility for the coast sector. At first it was the practice to move guns forward at night to shell Halfaya, withdrawing them before dawn. Later the sniping-gun stratagem was devised and put into effect to more fruitful purpose. A gun was manhandled before first light into a position in the sand-dunes, used to snipe at observed movement throughout the day and withdrawn after dark. Almost every day this was repeated, the object being to strain the enemy’s supplies by causing hint to shoot off more ammunition than the sniping gun fired. The score was reported daily in cricket jargon. Thus 195 for 10 meant, not that the whole side was out after 195 scoring shots, but that 10 rounds sent over had brought 195 returns. On 23rd July Lieutenant Fielding80 of the 2/7th was permitted to act as observation post officer for the gun. He fired 28 rounds, effectively engaged a working party and vehicles on the pass and “probably destroyed one staff car”.81 Perhaps Rommel had chosen that day to swim at Halfaya Beach.
On occupying the Matruh defences the Australian regiments soon realised that, if they were to be called upon to use the positions for the purpose for which they had been constructed, there remained much scope for their improvement. Extensive works were quickly put in hand, new positions constructed, old reconstructed. The nick-name “Digger” was earned anew. After local security had thus been provided, there was more time to contemplate the wider scene, which was enough to turn the stomach. Outside the perimeter, a close horizon of high ground overlooked the harbour and defences. Gunners had only to imagine themselves “the other side of the hill”, only to go up there for a look, to confirm their apprehensions.
Ramsay and his regimental commanders became advocates of a policy of extending the defence scheme for Matruh so as to deny to the enemy this dominating ground beyond the perimeter. Western Desert Force headquarters approved of the idea, to the great annoyance of General Brink, who saw that it would involve the South African division in endless digging at the expense of training for its future fighting role. It is easier to see in retrospect that General Brink was right than it was to determine priorities at the time. However much the Middle East Command may have acknowledged the paramount importance of training, the fact remains that, both before and after CRUSADER, it constantly so ordered priorities as to preclude the fulfilment of training requirements. It remained for General Montgomery later to restore rehearsal to its primacy in battle preparation. Yet who would say that the time spent that summer in constructing the El Alamein line should have been foregone?
In August and early September, the 22nd Guards Brigade was stationed opposite Halfaya in the coast sector, holding its front with three columns which, like bad neighbours, harried the enemy without making his life too unendurable: a way of life that did not quite fit their biblical four-letter code names – “Fait”, “Hope” and “Char”. Fait blocked the old road following the coast, Hope barred the Italian-built bitumen Victory Road a short distance inland, and Char masked the tracks that climbed the escarpment to North Point, the hinge of the main British forward position. With the exception of the water point at Buq Buq the ground held did not have much tactical significance. Above the escarpment were the Support Group at North Point, with the 4th Indian Division headquarters in the Sofafi area, and on the left flank the 7th Armoured Division, in what was known as the Playground. The 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment operated in front of the minefield.
In the last week of July the Australian field regiments were given their front-line assignments. On 27th July Captain Huggett’s82 troop of the 2/7th was sent to Siwa oasis, a 30-mile-long strip of verdant groves and pools on the edge of the great sand sea, which was the headquarters of the now renowned but then little known Long Range Desert Group. Simultaneously the 15th Battery (2/8th Field Regiment) commanded by Major Johnston83 moved up to the frontier to become the artillery component of Char column. Major Johnston was given command of the column.
The 15th Battery remained with Char column until 30th August and was afforded several opportunities of engaging the enemy, the first being a shoot on 2nd September from a newly chosen position: three enemy armoured vehicles were engaged and put to flight. On the night of 30th August Major Ralph’s84 16th Battery relieved the 15th, but Major Johnston remained behind as column commander.
On 25th August Major Argent’s 12th Battery of the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, which had been with the frontier forces continuously for five months, came into Mersa Matruh and under Brigadier Ramsay’s command.
On 2nd September Colonel Eastick’s 2/7th Field Regiment (less “E” Troop at Siwa and “C” Troop, which remained at Matruh to calibrate guns just issued to it) moved out from Matruh, where it had been relieved by the 4th South African Field Regiment, and on the night of the 3rd took over responsibility for the artillery in the coast sector. Eastick was appointed commander of all the sector’s artillery which, in addition to three Australian batteries of field guns,85 included three anti-tank batteries and a light anti-aircraft battery. The 13th Battery was placed under the command of Fait column commander, the 14th of Hope column commander. The 16th Battery (2/8th Field Regiment) remained with Char.
Before the Australians’ arrival the application of cricket rules to sniping-gun activities had been carried beyond the recording of the score. It
was “not cricket” to shoot up bathing parties and on Sundays the game was not played. But the Australians broke the rules and substituted an ungentlemanly kind of rounders.
On 5th September the 16th Battery took a turn at sniping-gun duty on the coast. A gun of Captain Roberts’86 troop was taken across and was ready to fire by 2 a.m. Roberts decided to confuse the enemy by firing faked flashes from a pit 350 yards to the left rear of the gun. After some shooting up of vehicles on the pass in the early morning, the gun dispersed a bathing party. The deception at first succeeded and Bombardier Campbell’s87 flash-bang set-up received the first spate of the enemy’s returns; but a shortage of flashes and inadequate synchronising arrangements gave the show away.
Captain Schrader88 was the observation officer on the first morning the sniping gun was manned by a 2/7th gun-crew. For two consecutive days they fired the gun from an old pit that was well registered by the enemy, a fact of which the 2/7th had not been forewarned, though they should have been. On the second day, for a few rounds fired, they received 204 rounds right on the position and were lucky to escape without harm. Thereafter, by careful reconnaissance, better positions were selected. The 2/7th kept a sniping gun in action almost continuously throughout their stay and, unlike either their predecessors or their successors, succeeded in avoiding casualties. One day, 9th September, the gun was silent on orders from above, because “two generals” were visiting the sector.
Major Ralph succeeded Major Johnston as Char column commander on 10th September. On 13th September General Messervy visited the column and issued to Major Ralph a warning order that the coast sector was to be held on the line of the minefield behind Alam Barghut.
On 7th September Lieut-Colonel Tinsley assumed command at the 9th Divisional Artillery headquarters and became acting Royal Artillery Commander of Mersa Matruh fortress; next evening Brigadier Ramsay took passage for Tobruk by the destroyer convoy which was to bring Morshead back to Egypt to take part in discussions about the 9th Division’s relief. Ramsay visited all Australian artillery units in the fortress. The diarist of the 2/12th Field Regiment recorded that he visited the regiment on the 9th and inspected troop positions. A few days later he informed the regiment of its projected reorganisation from a two-battery to a three-battery basis, the regiment’s batteries to be the 23rd, 24th and 62nd.
Some interest attaches to the information Brigadier Ramsay brought to the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment while he was in Tobruk. On 12th September he told the regiment that the 12th Battery, then in Mersa Matruh, would join the regiment in Tobruk. Four days later, after Ramsay had returned to Mersa Matruh (where he resumed command of the artillery on the 14th), he visited the 12th Battery. According to the historian of
the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Ramsay congratulated the battery on its service with the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group and brought word that it was to go to Tobruk. In the light of the controversy then raging, it is interesting to speculate through what channel Ramsay received these instructions, and whether General Blamey knew of them.
Inactivity was no less abhorrent to General Rommel than to Mr Churchill. Lacking resources and denied authority to launch a full-scale offensive before Tobruk had been reduced, Rommel opted for the best substitute – a reconnaissance in force. A surmise by the German Africa Corps that the British would soon attack provided a pretext, the discovery of a supposed British supply depot in the forward area an objective. On 27th August he directed the Africa Corps to be ready at any time after 15th September to attack and destroy the dump at Bir el Khireigat and the British battle groups guarding it. Forces up to the strength of one armoured division might be employed. The title Summer Night’s Dream given to the operation was apt, for the existence of the dump was an illusion, as Rommel’s own Intelligence staff concluded in early September from observing that there was no anti-aircraft defence; but reveries of rich booty to be taken continued to stimulate the nominated participants, nor was Rommel to be deterred by lack of a dump. Depot or no depot the covering forces at Khireigat were to be attacked; one would have a discreet look at the dump in any case just to be sure.
Rommel’s orders issued on 7th September prescribed that the attack was to be made on the 14th by the 21st Armoured Division and the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit. The British groups east and south-west of Bir el Khireigat were to be taken in rear; after they had been accounted for the 21st Armoured Division was to deliver an attack on the British 7th Armoured Division farther east. The attack was not to be sustained beyond the day. The main body of the armoured division was to be back in its positions behind the front within 24 hours.
For the Axis troops detailed to launch a subsidiary raid on the coast sector, the day selected – a Sunday – must have seemed, whether by accident or design, a happy choice, for the sniping gun had not fired on Sundays. The apostate Colonel Eastick, however, had ruled that the Sunday Observance Act had no extra-territorial application. For the first time a sniping gun was in position when dawn broke that Sunday. Moreover the other three guns of the forward troop had been ensconced in an intermediate position not much farther back. Major Rogers89 had registered fire from the new positions on the eve of dream day.
The main push took place, of course, on the plateau south of the escarpment. The British were forewarned. Forward units were told to expect an advance which, it was thought, would be “probably a demonstration, possibly to cover an attack on Tobruk”. All were in readiness for a withdrawal as soon as the code words were passed. To a Tobruk defender the planned movement might have appeared to be in the wrong direction in the light of that interpretation; but even if an assault on Tobruk had
eventuated, the gambit would probably have proved as good an opening move as any, for Rommel was to learn his first, sharp lesson in the dangers of massed movement against an enemy strong in the air. The broad, hot African day’s harsh realities were to shatter his dream.
That Sunday morning the German armour surged confidently across the frontier in three columns, manoeuvred in brilliant encircling sweeps but failed to catch the will-o’-the-wisp Western Desert Force groups falling back to the minefield in the first step of the prescribed withdrawal. Empty desert mocked the Germans as they reached the supposed depot site, but South African armoured cars keeping watch, scurrying like beetles on the horizon’s lip, invited them to continue the hunt for larger prey. The Germans drove on eastward but the British withdrew before them with outmatching speed. The North Point and Playground lairs were found empty. Through the British minefield the German armour drove on with “unperturbed pace, deliberate speed” until, near Sofafi, the chase came to an unmajestic stop in the afternoon when fuel ran out. Drawing together to replenish with an arrogant self-confidence begotten of past easy victories, the immobile German armour was caught huddled and defenceless by the Middle East air forces and scourged with fire and bomb-blast; the congested stretch of desert erupted with the concussion of carpet bombing. Chastened by their brief season in hell, with thirst unslaked by a dream booty of British whisky and tinned pineapple but with a bitter taste hardly relished of desert earth and stones and rock and fire, the Germans headed for home. After a lonely night on the wrong side of
the wire, Rommel made a solitary ignominious exit from Egypt excellently described with German humour in the autobiography of his aide-de-camp. Rommel’s return trip from a Sunday’s motoring in a captured British command car was delayed by a puncture with which the master race had some difficulty in coping.
On the coast the Australian gunners do not appear to have been entrusted with information so secret as knowledge or a premonition of what the enemy was about to do. Throughout the preceding summer’s night strange rumbles were heard in the direction of Halfaya, but (as already mentioned) the ordered routine for the Sunday was the same as for any other week-day. When the sniping-gun crew enquired from the British column commander what was the reason for the odd noises, he replied with a perhaps disproportioned sense of the poetic that it was “only the sea”. This left the tension unrelieved until an Australian gunner remarked that it was the first time he had “heard the sea change gears”.90 Nevertheless, when morning came, Colonel Eastick set out on a routine periodic visit to the 13th Battery.
The early morning’s excitement has been well described by the historian of the 2/7th:
Up the coast road, from Alam el Kidad, an enemy patrol of 30 to 40 men engaged the Scots Guards on Point 19 at first light, killing a sergeant and wounding a guardsman. They were in turn engaged with mortars from Point 20, also by our carrier patrols, who scouted forwards as far as Kidad in full view of the enemy, and under shell fire. “B” Troop’s O.P.O. on Point 20 (Lieutenant Phillipson91) engaged enemy infantry as they were dismounting from trucks, causing casualties. Considerable shelling of the coast road, and of the sniping gun’s position, continued throughout the day, while the situation remained uneasily under control. The sniping gun broke all records by scoring 5 for 225 before the breakfast adjournment.
The spirited British reaction disorganised the enemy’s Sunday coast excursion. He tried to filter forward, using ground cover, but was held at arm’s length throughout the day. When Eastick arrived at the column, he found that line communication with the forward groups had broken down and directed that it must be reopened and kept open. Lieutenant Jones92 and Gunner Tyson93 went out and repaired the line. Their efficient work in keeping it operative throughout the day under continuous shelling was later recorded in commendatory letters from the 2nd Scots Guards to the regiment.
In Char column, commanded by Major Ralph, the routine tactical reports indicating that in the desert sector enemy tanks were in contact were read with some interest. While the forces above the escarpment were making ready to fall back on Sidi Barrani, Ralph called forward his third troop, which was at Sidi Barrani, and put it into a backstop position to strengthen the forward defences at the first holding line. When the early
afternoon situation reports indicated how things were moving “up top”, Ralph withdrew his foremost section from its harassing position (the forward section positions were known as “High” and “Dry” – this was High) to another covering the minefield.
Just after 6.30 p.m. the code word “Bicycle” (which had a specific meaning for each forward unit but generally meant “withdraw screening forces to main forward position”) was received, to be put into effect at 7.30 p.m. Anxious moments preceded the withdrawal on the coast; large parties of enemy infantry were seen working forward through the sand-hills. But the Scots Guards and Australian gunners made a good getaway as the swiftly-falling Egyptian night darkened the shore. In the intermediate position the guns put down a barrage as the forward detachment passed through, then the gunners brought their guns out of action and followed. Faith, Hope and Charity shamelessly quitted “the rough edge of battle”.
At their first stop back, by which time the Germans were making tracks for home, Fait and Hope received the code words requiring them to fall back with the rest of the British force on Sidi Barrani, and resumed the withdrawal at midnight. Char, which had taken up an intermediate position around Samalus and Point 52, did not receive its recall code word till 4 a.m. Each column detached little rearguards comprising field guns, anti-tank guns and a platoon of infantry (Scots Guards) to hold vital points, which got ready to die for King, Egypt, Scotland, England and Australia. “A” Troop of the 2/7th provided the guns for the two detachments guarding the Buq Buq water point and cross-roads. “D” Troop of the 16th Battery remained with a detachment (commanded by Captain Mackay94) which placed itself astride the Sofafi track near Samalus. “C” Troop of the 2/7th was sent with another force, a company strong, to turn south at Sidi Barrani and advance along the escarpment track “to an area round Alam el Hamam to contact the advancing enemy columns”.95 Nineteen miles along the track, out in the blue and black of the Egyptian night they got ready to blunt the German armoured spearhead.
The Fait and Hope columns were in their assigned places near Sidi Barrani by first light; Char column, later apprised, by 8 a.m. The whole British withdrawal, if perhaps carried out in parts with more alacrity than dignity – “The Great Flap” and the “Hamra Scurry”, as the self-critical British later humorously called it – was well executed and earned admiring comment in German records. The soundness of the dispositions taken up was not put to the test.
At 10.45 a.m., by which time the members of the German foray force were seeking elusive sleep in their sun-drenched Libyan leaguers, reports reached the Buq Buq detachment from inland that German tanks were approaching along the Victory Road. The water point was blown with 600
pounds of dynamite – “a lovely sight” – and the Buq Buq detachments drove “hell for leather” down the road to Sidi Barrani. Which left Captain Mackay’s detachment in splendid isolation as Western Desert Force’s sole outpost on the coast.
By the afternoon the coast was reported clear and just after 2 p.m. the three columns moved out to take up substantially their original positions, gathering in the Buq Buq detachment just arrived back. Huggett’s troop from Siwa had rejoined the 2/7th after a “valuable experience” which included coming upstream against the backward flow of British transport. High had been re-occupied by the morning of the 17th, and the lone sniping gun had resumed its defiant barking.
The German forces had returned without booty and prisoners, badly battered. German claims that only one tank or only two tanks were totally destroyed may be compared with this description of the site of their ordeal by the historian of the 2/7th Field Regiment, which passed through it a fortnight later:–
Anyone who saw that graveyard, with burnt-out tanks and blown-up tankers, his dead still lying around, and with the detonated Jerricans strewn all over the desert, could hardly have known any doubt as to what stopped Rommel’s reconnaissance in force.96
Be that as it may, the German armoured fighting strength was reduced from 110 tank runners a few days before Summer Night’s Dream to 43 a few days after. One prize, however, was gained for their substantial expenditure of fuel, resources and life – a broken-down orderly room truck taken with its codes and documents undestroyed, which enabled Rommel and General Ravenstein to convince themselves that the ostensible purpose of the raid, the discovery of their enemy’s intentions, had indeed been accomplished. But whatever the Germans may have learnt about British plans in force at that time, the documents could tell them nothing of what had not yet been given troubled birth, the plan for operation CRUSADER, the delivery pains of which had scarcely begun. Nor were they likely to glean much information about the forces arriving in the Middle East. It appeared from the documents that there were no British offensive plans or preparations. The jinn of Rommel’s summer night’s dream continued to bewitch him in the days that followed with illusions that he was safe from attack from the east while he made unhurried preparations to subdue Tobruk.
Two days after Fait, Hope and Char had resumed their unneighbourly bickerings under Halfaya, Colonel Eastick learnt that the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was to relieve the Guards Brigade on the coast, the Guards were to become the forward brigade in the open desert above the escarpment, and the three Australian batteries under Eastick’s command were to go with them. New orders were also issued that betrayed a stiffer attitude than those Rommel had captured. A Scots Guards’ operation order issued on 20th September stated:–
Fait Coln will stand and fight on the line of the minefields as from 0630 hours 22 Sep. Previous plans for withdrawal on code words Bicycle etc. will be non-operative as from 0630 hours 22 Sep.
On 19th September General Freyberg visited the front on the coast sector, reconnoitring the New Zealand Division’s probable future battleground; but no embargo was placed on the sniping gun, which “got plenty back” that day.
The 2/7th Field Regiment was relieved on the 22nd September. On the 24th Fait, Hope and Char columns ceased to exist on completion of the relief of the Scots Guards. Major Ralph reported to the artillery headquarters of the 4th Indian Division after attending to the closing down of Char column and was there informed that the 2/8th Field Regiment was coming forward from Mersa Matruh and that his battery would be reunited with the regiment in the Playground area.
By 26th September the 2/7th Field Regiment was at Sofafi. The 16th Battery, still separated from its regiment, had one troop in the North Point area and two in the Playground area and the rest of the 2/8th Field Regiment, moving up, was near Sidi Barrani. On the 27th, the 15th Battery occupied a forward position coming under the command of the 7th Armoured Division. The role of the Australian field regiments as key pieces in the new, stiffened British front was cheerfully described in the dry idiom of operation orders as being to support the main British positions at North Point and Playground “to the last man and the last round”. The decision to stand and fight on the advanced line was not merely a change in the tenor of the operation orders. The construction of the emplacements and other works required to convert the chosen ground into a strong redoubt able to repel forceful assault was undertaken with more sweat and purpose than before. The eagerness of these blooded but unmauled artillerymen, stimulated by regimental pride and an instinct for self-preservation, gave them vigour for their tasks. Within a short time the 2/7th Field Regiment had constructed 40 emplacements. For the last few days of the month the two batteries of the 2/8th Field Regiment were busily engaged in laying out and constructing an interconnected system of gun positions and observation posts and in setting up an appropriate organisation. The progress of the work of the 16th Battery, now commanded by Captain Stevens97 (Major Ralph having been accidentally injured), was later specially commended to Colonel Tinsley by the artillery commander of the 4th Indian Division as “far away in advance of the most optimistic expectations”.
The staunch “stand-firm” outlook now inspiriting the British command seemed, however, to be associated with a willingness to call on a select few, if it came to the point, to offer themselves up in an ordeal of annihilation before help could reach them. The North Point and Playground fortifications, and the “Kennel” on the flank, looked formidable on the map but the forces holding them were puny. A statement in the 2/7th
Field Regiment’s operation order that the North Point position was held by the 3rd Coldstream Guards and attached troops and the Playground position by the 9th Rifle Brigade and attached troops, with the 7th Armoured Brigade on the left flank, did not sound too unimpressive until one looked to the split-up of the holding force. It was divided into two columns, “Brother” column at North Point, “Sister” column at Playground. Each column maintained a detachment (known in the one case as “Little Brother” column, in the other as “Little Sister” column) which operated as a mobile advanced force at distances varying from about 15 to about 25 miles in front of the column position. Farther out the South African armoured cars continued to screen the front. Shorn of these detachments Brother and Sister columns were anything but big. Their main fighting strength at each of North Point and Playground holding positions was two infantry companies, two troops of field guns in a normal role, two troops of anti-tank guns and one or two troops of field guns in an anti-tank role. Engineers, anti-aircraft gunners and infantry protecting headquarters gave a little additional fire-power. The brigade reserve was one infantry company. But the force was efficient, keen and confident. More would not in fact be needed.
The 2/7th Field Regiment arrived before the Coldstream Guards and Colonel Eastick was given temporary command of Brother column from 26th September to 1st October. Major Munro’s98 14th Battery was placed in support of Brother column, Major Rogers’ 13th Battery in support of Sister column The 16th Battery (2/8th), now under the command of the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment, R.A. (Northumberland Hussars), was employed in an anti-tank role. The 13th and 14th Batteries each maintained a troop with its column’s Little Brother or Little Sister. These two roving columns, whose home was the desert, seldom if ever leaguered two nights successively in the same place. Marauding by day in wide but ordered dispersion, huddled by night into a tight perimeter, they provided the troops of the 2/7th Regiment fortunate to be attached to them with unrivalled training in learning to be desert wise. Captain Dennis’99 troop, allotted to support a column of cruiser tanks in a detached role, was similarly fortunate.
Colonel Tinsley and Colonel Eastick were informed at the beginning of October that their regiments were to be withdrawn from the desert to rejoin I Australian Corps in Palestine. Before the regiments reached Palestine, they were to put into effect the prescribed reorganisation into regiments of three batteries: the 2/7th would in future comprise the 13th, 14th and 57th Batteries, the 2/8th the 15th, 16th and 58th Bat-tries. Trained to battle-pitch and chafing to play an effective part in the fighting for which they had volunteered, the regiments were irked at the news. They had lost their chance of action when the 9th Division had been prematurely committed, because the policy of employing Australian
forces in complete formations had been broken. Because that policy had been reimposed they were being denied the opportunity of further action.
The 2/8th was first to leave. It set off in a south-easterly direction in desert formation on 10th October, the first time in its history that the regiment had moved in its entirety on wheels. Eight days later it reached the end of its journey, Hill 69 in Palestine.
The 2/7th was vouchsafed a little more time in the desert to which it now felt it belonged, and made good use of some fleeting opportunities to engage the enemy. Captain Huggett’s troop took over duty with Little Brother on 6th October and carried out a predicted shoot on the night of 7th–8th October. The target was a night leaguer for enemy vehicles to the south of the strongpoint at Point 207. The regiment’s diarist reported rather vaguely that “the result of the shoot indicated that rounds fell in the area”.
On 12th October “C” Troop, supporting the cruiser tanks, took part in a raid across the frontier wire south of Sidi Omar as part of a mixed mobile column of armoured cars, tanks and artillery, the object of which was to capture “prisoners, tanks, armoured cars and guns”. “Guns” in the regimental diarist’s concise language meant a battery of 105-mm guns at Bir Sheferzen, which “C” Troop was to silence should they attempt to fire.
A heavy mist enveloped the region at first light when the strike was made but did not muffle the clatter set up by the Australians’ approaching gun tractors when they ground across a dump of discarded kerosene tins. When the mist cleared, no tanks or guns were seen: only five armoured cars. The surrender of one armoured car was enforced, ammunition and fuel dumps were destroyed and four prisoners taken.
There was a tragic side to the action. Twelve Hurricanes provided fighter cover but six were shot down by faster Messerschmitts. During the withdrawal there was a second dog-fight between Messerschmitts (one of which machine-gunned Eastick’s vehicle) and Tomahawks. Eastick and a United States Army observer saw a parachuting British pilot shot out of his harness. A grave was dug. Eastick conducted a brief Christian burial service. There in the desert the airman was laid to rest.
That afternoon Eastick and his staff (and a number of important observers, including the American) set off for Little Brother headquarters to observe the last action his regiment would take against the enemy for many days. It was a scheme to which Eastick had given much personal attention, a combined strike at a ground target by field guns and bomber aircraft acting in cooperation. The artillery was to consist of the regiment’s “E” and “F” Troops, the Fleet Air Arm was to provide the bombers, and the enemy camps at Point 207 were to be the target. The action was to start half an hour after midnight, by which time the bombers were to be over the troop positions. The artillery was to delineate the target by predicted searching fire, the aircraft were to unload bombs, incendiaries and flares for about a quarter of an hour, then after a pause of 15 minutes the guns were again to bombard the target for 15 minutes at
rapid rate. It was the first operation of its kind in the frontier sector, though fire from the Tobruk garrison guns had been used to help RAF bombers locate the German harbour guns. The operation was carried out to plan and without mishap, except to the enemy, though during the shoot the gunners had uneasy thoughts about the wisdom of opening fire a second time from a position that could well have been flash-spotted. Observers stationed at selected points reported “fires, as though vehicles were burning, and a large explosion, as if an ammunition dump had been hit”.
On the next day, 14th October, the 2/7th Field Regiment assembled near Rabia, having handed over its responsibilities to the 1st Field Regiment, R.A. On the 16th it moved off en route to Palestine; but when it reached the Wadi Natrun near Alexandria three days later, it learnt that it was to proceed immediately to Cairo to become the duty regiment at the Royal Artillery Base Depot at Almaza. The invaluable opportunity presented to the regiment to perfect its training (and complete its equipment) was not at first appreciated.
The heavy air raid on Tobruk on 1st September was followed by an increase in the rate of bombardment of the fortress, not from the skies, where the enemy did not again appear en masse after the raid’s hot reception (though air attack did continue on a heavy scale), but from the encircling guns. The disheartening restriction to 10 rounds per gun per day had of necessity been reimposed on guns of British manufacture. Then one day the main Italian ammunition depot was destroyed by bombing and the same restriction was placed on the Italian 75-mm and 100-mm guns. August had been a good month for ammunition supply: the destroyers, schooners, lighters and other small ships had brought in 1,456 tons. But deliveries to forward units in the month had totalled 1,354 tons, leaving an over-all increase in the reserves of only 100 tons. The August turnover of 25-pounder high explosive was 15,838 rounds (excluding super shot and smoke). At the end of the month the total stock holding was 101,993 rounds.
In an effort to achieve maximum effectiveness from the few rounds permitted, a new stop-watch procedure for counter-battery bombardment was introduced at the beginning of September. In a counter-bombardment the guns were fired seriatim but so timed that all rounds hit the target in the same instant. In addition an aggressive policy of planned shoots was instituted for which some relaxation of restrictions was permitted and adequate freedom was allowed for countering the ever more troublesome harbour guns.
The Wolborough, a large trawler converted to a storeship, with 110 tons of stores aboard, was due at Tobruk at 4.30 a.m. on 2nd September but, failing to make good her usual speed, came into the harbour at daylight. In the circumstances it did not avail to cover her with the skilful camouflage which usually successfully hid ships in port from the enemy. The harbour guns had a gala day, shelling with effect and delaying unloading. Two troops of the 104th RHA bombarded them with 353
rounds; but afterwards the enemy counter-battery guns, which had of late shown more punch, effectively bombarded one of the 104th Regiment’s troops, killing one man and wounding two others. How to cope with the growing menace with limited resources was a worrying problem, to discuss which a conference was held on 4th September. It was decided to ascertain from the navy, whenever the harbour was being shelled, whether damage of much account was being incurred; if so, to counter-bombard hotly and simultaneously to switch other guns from normal tasks to combat enemy counter-battery guns.
Two days later the harbour guns shelled the port and scored two direct hits on one of the jetties used by the destroyers, then turned their fire on to the same troop of the 104th and on the 2/12th Regiment’s troop of 60-pounders. The challenge was accepted. The 25-pounders shot back 350 rounds and the 60-pounders 77 rounds. An ambulance was seen to leave the enemy gun area but none was needed on the home ground. On the following day the contest was renewed and the Royal Air Force bombed the harbour-gun positions. Subsequently one gun defiantly shelled the harbour. The 60-pounders and 25-pounders counter-bombarded and a duel between the harbour gun and Captain Feitel’s 60-pounders ensued. “Honours to 60-pounders, who fired last,” wrote the 104th diarist.
It was not enough, however, to preserve honour, if the tiresome guns were unsubdued. The army and air force had not succeeded, so the navy’s help was sought. HMS Gnat, of the Inshore Squadron, was directed to Tobruk to bombard the guns, but developed engine trouble. HMS Aphis came up instead and carried out the task on the night 15th–16th September. Navy, army and air force combined in the operation to carry out a joint bombardment. The garrison guns shelled the target to indicate it to the RAF; bombers illuminated it with flares; subsequently Aphis bombarded. For eight days the harbour-gun battery did not reopen fire, its enforced silence covering two-thirds of the moonless period in which the next relief took place.
At the beginning of September the enemy defences were still least developed in the south-east. The segment of no-man’s land in the arc between the El Adem and Bardia Roads, from which Rommel had determined to attack, was screened by five garrison outposts maintained by the battalions holding the perimeter. At Bir el Azazi was the outpost Plonk, originally established by the 2/15th Battalion on 15th August. The others, from right to left, were Bob and Bash – renamed Bondi and Tugun on 15th September – and Jill and Jack (previously Jed and Normie). The eastern defence sector was now held by the 24th Brigade. Bob and Bash were manned by its right forward battalion – the 2/43rd; Jack and Jill by the left forward battalion – the 2/28th. Two small observation posts had also been established on the enemy side of the Wadi Zeitun, north of the Bardia Road.
At the other end of the perimeter, north of the Derna Road, where the rock-shelf was gashed by the cliff-walled Wadi Sehel, standing patrols were also maintained across the gorge on the enemy’s side. As though for a
warning, one of these was heavily shelled and shot up at dusk on 8th September, and subsequently attacked by a patrol, which was driven off. The shelling killed two in the outpost and wounded two.
On 18th August Brigadier Godfrey had issued an order instructing “that battalions adopt an active and aggressive patrolling policy” during their occupation of the eastern sector.
Recce patrols will penetrate deeply to check location of enemy dispositions and minefields, and to collect information with a view to carrying out fighting patrols and raids.
Reconnaissance of certain areas was to receive particular attention. Battalion commanders were to consider opportunities, and submit plans, for “effective raiding both by night and day”.
These were not empty words. Day by day the brigade Intelligence summary’s dry, concise reports told of vigorous patrolling, with almost always some effective engagement to relate. A typical example was the joint action of two 2/28th Battalion patrols at the end of August whose assignment was to determine the flanks of an enemy position, pass round on either side, meet in rear and assault it. In the fight Lieutenant Hickey100 was badly wounded in the shoulder by a mortar bomb and three other men received less serious wounds. Lieutenant Allen101 commanded the raiding force.
Enemy were chased out of two sangars and two Bredas destroyed. Enemy fire ceased at this stage, and patrol made a circuit of the area. Wire was encountered in front of other enemy posts. These were engaged from outside wire with LMGs and grenades. The patrol leader with 8/10 men then got under the wire (a DA102 type fence) and attacked the posns. 2 LMGs were put out of action. At this time patrol comd decided to withdraw. ... When at a distance from the enemy posns, the signal was sent up for carriers, which met the patrol and took back wounded. It is estimated about 15 to 20 casualties were inflicted on the enemy.
On the night of 13th–14th September there was a climax and anti-climax to this aggression. Godfrey’s brigade had planned to execute two raids but the enemy also had plans. One of the Australian raids, to be carried out by the 2/32nd Battalion, then in brigade reserve, was to be made against an enemy strongpoint south-west of Bir Ghersa and about four miles and a half from the perimeter, in an area known as Dalby Square. A patrol from the 2/43rd was to prevent any intervention by enemy from the Bir Ghersa area. At the same time a strong patrol from the 2/28th was to raid an enemy strongpoint on the opposite side of Bir Ghersa, some 5,000 yards away to the north-east, known as White Cairn.
Captain Joshua103 was to command the 2/32nd Battalion’s raid on Dalby Square, which had been singled out as the first area for reconnaissance in Brigadier Godfrey’s patrol instruction. Joshua had already led two
patrols to Dalby Square, finding the objective strongly held. The attack had been carefully rehearsed.
Joshua’s patrol, 60 strong including two infantry platoons, mortarmen, 8 stretcher bearers, and 7 sappers of the 2/7th Field Company, set out at 9 p.m. from R69 on a hushed night march and were not detected before they reached their forming-up place west of the objective. There they formed up for the assault. The engineers, who were to blow the wire, were 150 yards in front, Joshua with them; next was the leading platoon, Lieutenant Cronk’s104, with sections spaced at 30 yard intervals; the second platoon under Sergeant Reardon,105 similarly deployed, was 30 yards behind; and company headquarters, with Lieutenant Cherrington-Hunter106 in charge, was in the rear. A 2-inch mortar had been placed in a firing position farther north to neutralise the north-eastern post of the strongpoint.
As Joshua’s force advanced on the strongpoint, some nervous spasmodic firing indicated that the enemy was unlikely to be taken by surprise, but nothing else occurred until the leading platoon was only 75 yards from the wire. Then mortars and more machine-guns opened fire. So loud was the resonance of gun blasts and bomb-bursts sounding above the strident rapid clatter of the automatics that Cronk was undecided whether the wire had been blown. He pressed on, found the wire unbroken and put his men to ground while the engineers fired their
bangalores. Then Cronk took his platoon in to the assault. But Reardon, whose platoon had also reached the wire, was hit; Warrant-Officer Harrison107 came forward, rallied the men, and followed in. Each section set about its rehearsed task, but with limited success. One or two posts were assaulted and cleaned out, the engineers destroyed a 75-mm gun and a 47-mm anti-tank gun and some damage was done to another anti-tank gun; but soon Joshua and about a third of his men had been hit and many other posts in the strong-point continued firing with telling effect. Cronk ordered Harrison to collect the wounded. When that was done the force withdrew.
The patrol had suffered 28 casualties, of whom two were killed and five, including Cherrington-Hunter, were missing. They brought back two prisoners and estimated that they had killed about 20 of the defenders.
Three times next night carriers went out to search for the missing men, but with no success.
The other raiding party, from the 2/28th, also brought back prisoners, one of whom had startling in- formation to impart. Captain Johnstone108 led the patrol, which was 27 strong and included two sappers. They reached White Cairn undetected and attacked at 11.30 p.m. in an assault from south and east. Sergeant Potter109 led the right section, Lance-Sergeant Holmes110 the other two on the left. Potter emptied the magazine of his Tommy-gun into a sangar near the cairn, then, using it as a club, hit an Italian on the head; but an exploding grenade knocked the gun from his hand, so, taking a grenade, Potter threatened an Italian, snatched his rifle and marched him off, to hand him over to an escort, who already had two prisoners in charge. Meanwhile the sections led by Holmes had come back with another prisoner after killing several Italians. By this time both Johnstone and Potter had been wounded in the head, but before the patrol withdrew Potter went back to the position his section had assaulted to see if there were any other wounded. There he found
Corporal Hagart111 calling on three Italians to surrender. When they refused Potter and Hagart grenaded the sangar and rejoined the platoon.
Johnstone’s prisoners, of which there were four including an Italian artillery officer of the Bologna Division, were dispatched back to divisional headquarters for interrogation. Several important documents were found on the captured officer, including his diary. There he had noted, in an entry dated 11th September:–
The strongpoint I am in (HQ of sub-sector), as indeed with all the other strong-points, is divided into a number of independent centres of fire, each surrounded by its own wire and with its own munitions for six days (in case of siege).
On 13th September, the date of his capture, he had noted:
I am C.O. of the O.P. of the 6th Battery (Rubicon) for the whole length (night and day) of the operations in connection with Pt. 146.
Point 146 was the outpost Jack maintained by the 2/28th Battalion. There was much more information to be obtained from the officer about enemy intentions, and the story he was to tell seemed an improbable one. The truck taking him to divisional headquarters slowly threaded its long way back by the rough, dusty, unlit desert tracks; when he got there, the interrogating officer steadily plied him with questions; the star-spiked wheel of the night sky continued its slow turning; minutes ran on into hours before the vital information he gave reached the battalion it most concerned.
That night at 1.30 a.m., just as the moon, in its first quarter, was rising, a call came through to the 2/28th Battalion on the line by which Jack O.P. used to report hour by hour through the night: “Sitrep Sitnor.”112 “Send help at once,” an agitated voice was heard to say, against a hammering background of automatic fire, “they’re within 20 yards of us.” Two carriers which by a standing order stood by to rescue any outpost occupants in an emergency set forth immediately.
Jack was held by seven men, with Corporal France113 in charge. A protective patrol of 12 men under Sergeant Lally114 was in position 300 yards to the south. Lally had visited Jack just before the attack began; he was badly wounded while returning to his patrol, which tried to intervene but was driven off by fire from the flanks.
The enemy, who were Germans, had deployed a sizeable force which, after throwing in grenades, advanced against the little outpost in considerable numbers. One of France’s men was killed and another wounded. The others slashed the Germans with automatic fire as they swarmed in but surrendered when their pits were about to be overrun. The historian
of the 2/28th records that Corporal France was taken to General Rommel who congratulated him on his courage and his men’s effective resistance.115
When the two carriers reached Jack, fighting was continuing. The carriers brought back most of Lally’s protective patrol and reported to Colonel Lloyd that the enemy was attacking in great strength; about 100 had taken part in the estimation of the members of Lally’s patrol. Lloyd sent Lieutenant Masel out with a stronger force of carriers with instructions to attempt to fight through to the post, but Masel returned and reported that the fighting had ceased and that Jack was strongly held and guarded by from three to five tanks. Lloyd was at first dubious, but about this time divisional headquarters notified the result of the captured Italian officer’s interrogation, which confirmed that the outpost was to be attacked in strength by German pioneers and engineers supported by six German and three captured Matilda tanks. The prisoner had also said that German troops with tank support would attack other garrison outposts on the next four nights.
Lloyd asked the 104th RHA for harassing fire on Jack and the 104th RHA put down five rounds’ gunfire from one troop on to the area. The infantry wanted more but the artillerymen pointed out that their liberty of action was circumscribed by standing orders designed to conserve ammunition, which quite specifically limited the response to be given to infantry requests for support, except in a big attack. For instance, a call for defensive fire was to be answered by four rounds per minute per gun allotted to the task, to be fired over a maximum of two minutes. Brigadier Godfrey sent for Colonel Matthew, who subsequently ordered the 339th Battery to harass the area with up to 35 rounds per gun from two troops. The commander of the fortress artillery, Brigadier Thompson, placed Feitel’s troop of 60-pounders under the command of Matthew as sector artillery commander and removed all ammunition restrictions.
At dawn there was a general stand-to in the sector. Preparations were made to repel an attack and six infantry tanks were moved up to a position by the Bardia Road. No attack occurred, but a daylight patrol confirmed that Jack was strongly held. Throughout the day shelling of the eastern sector was very heavy, and the tension was sustained in the evening when groups of tanks were seen around Jack and two made a demonstration against an observation post (Butch) at Bir Suesi, closer to the perimeter than Jack or Jill; others were heard along the front after nightfall. But the night brought no new attack on the outposts, nor did succeeding nights; possibly the enemy had appreciated the likelihood that his plans had been disclosed.
Captain Feitel’s troop of 60-pounders had a busy day on the 14th countering the active enemy artillery. They counter-bombarded five batteries. Next day, however, the enemy conducted an area shoot with observation
from aircraft and accurately shelled garrison troop positions. Ten men of the 2/12th Field Regiment were killed.
The dwindling but irrepressible rumours still circulating round Tobruk that all the Australians in the fortress would follow the 18th Brigade out were revived on the 17th September, when units scheduled to leave in the coming moonlit period were forewarned. The 2/1st Pioneer Battalion and the 24th Brigade less the 2/43rd Battalion, were to be relieved by the 16th British Brigade, commanded by Brigadier C. E. N. Lomax, the 2/12th Field Regiment by the 144th Regiment, R.A., the 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment and two batteries of the 3rd RHA by the 149th Anti-Tank Regiment. The 2/7th Field Company was to accompany the 24th Brigade with other units normally attached to the brigade.
To enable Godfrey’s brigade to change places with Lomax’s brigade in divisional reserve, Murray’s brigade relieved Godfrey’s brigade between the 18th and 20th September in the eastern sector, which Murray’s brigade then held for the first time; but before the last of the 24th Brigade Group had embarked, battalions of the 16th Brigade began to take over the eastern sector. The 20th Brigade returned to divisional reserve.
The 144th Field Regiment arrived in Tobruk on the night of the 18th September to relieve the 2/12th. The 2/12th Regiment’s diarist noted:
Since its arrival in the area the Regt has fired approx. 56,000 rounds of which the 75-mm equipments fired 27,000 rounds. Total battle casualties to date: 24 killed and 24 wounded.
An advanced party of the 2/12th left for Egypt on the same night. While the 2/12th handed over to the 144th Field Regiment in Tobruk its mixed assortment of guns and ramshackle tractors and motor trucks, the advanced party of the 2/12th took over at Amiriya, near Alexandria, the 144th Regiment’s equipment in its entirety, including twenty-four 25-pounder guns and 36 good tractors. Thus, as it left the battle area, the 2/12th received for the first time the equipment it had trained to use in Australia and which it and the other field regiments of the division had at that time been told would be issued to them as soon as they arrived in the Middle East. It is strange that while some Tobruk gunners were still using 18-pounders, regiments at Mersa Matruh and elsewhere in Egypt which had not been engaging the enemy had received their complete entitlement of the modern guns. But the Tobruk gunners’ eyes did not see this, nor therefore did their hearts grieve.
The departure from Tobruk of the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion ended that unit’s close association with the 9th Division. Since the battalion had established the left of the switch-line to block the German penetration on 1st May, it had shared front-line duties equally with the infantry battalions. When the 9th Division fought its next campaign, the place of the 2/1st would be taken by the 2/3rd Pioneers.
While the minesweepers and destroyers were ferrying the personnel of the incoming and outgoing units, the “A” lighters were busy bringing in the promised reinforcement of tanks. Twenty-nine were brought in during
the September moonless period. The commander of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, Brigadier Willison,116 arrived in Tobruk on 17th September p.nd next day his headquarters took over all the garrison’s armoured forces from the 3rd Armoured Brigade. Between the 20th and 29th September the headquarters and three squadrons of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment reached the fortress.
This substantial if overdue reinforcement enabled Morshead to employ his armour less sparingly and to distribute some of the tanks closer to sector fronts where a call for their use might be expected. Hitherto, as he observed in the divisional report, having in mind no doubt the morning of the German assault on 1st May, “more than ordinary restraint had to be exercised to avoid over-hasty employment against attacks which might turn out to be feints”. However Morshead was not given a completely free hand to employ the tanks. In order to conserve armoured strength for the forthcoming offensive, General Headquarters restricted their use to defence and counter-attack. Approval had to be obtained for their use in attacks; but it was never refused.
The September seaborne relief, called operation SUPERCHARGE by the Royal Navy, was carried out over the period from 17th to 27th September. Almost every night of the moonless period a convoy consisting of one fast minelayer and three destroyers came into Tobruk Harbour and departed within two hours of arrival. Two minelayers and as many as eleven destroyers took part in the relief, while the 7th Cruiser Squadron – the Ajax, Neptune and Hobart – acted as a covering force.
The much-feared intervention by Axis air forces did not eventuate. The only hostile action during the relief period recorded in the daily naval reports to Morshead’s headquarters was an attack on 19th September on a convoy of three lighters bringing in the tanks from Mersa Matruh; a stick of bombs fell harmlessly half a mile from the convoy. In fact, such failures as occurred to meet the month’s complete shipping program were due not to enemy action but to the inability of the gallantly-manned little old ships to perform their missions. This was a constant problem throughout the siege. For example, on 20th September three schooners were on their way to Tobruk: the Maria Giovanni with 50 tons of ammunition, 115 tons of stores, 2 tons of mail and 24 sheep; the Hilmi with 65 tons of ammunition and stores; and the Khaid el Dine with 121 tons of ammunition and stores. The schooner Amin was delayed with engine defects at Matruh, where her cargo had been discharged. On 21st September the Naval Liaison Officer at Morshead’s headquarters reported:
The schooners Khaid el Dine and Hilmi did not arrive this morning as scheduled. They met with a series of misfortunes and are now both back at Matruh. The Khaid el Dine apparently had no navigational facilities, her steering was unsatisfactory and she was making water in her forehold. She will be sailed to Alex with cargo left onboard, for these defects to be remedied. The Hilmi’s engines failed at 2300/18 and she was becalmed all day of the 19th. She was sighted off Ishaila Rock a.m. 20th and was towed back to Matruh by Kos XXI.
The position as regards the Maria Giovanni is somewhat obscure. She should have arrived Matruh at 1100/20 but at 1950/20 NOIC Matruh made a signal stating that she had been sighted by Kos XXI (who was then picking up the schooner Hilmi) some 20 miles West of Matruh steering a N’Westerly course.
No further signals have been received, and it is not known whether she is proceeding direct to Tobruk, or whether she had over-shot the Matruh entrance.
On 24th September he again reported:
Maria Giovanni has returned to Matruh. She had constant engine trouble due to overheating and poor quality fuel. It is intended that she will sail again for Tobruk a.m. 15th Sept.
In operation SUPERCHARGE almost 6,000 men (including 544 wounded) were taken out of Tobruk and 6,300 brought in without incident. On the other hand supply deliveries in September fell short of the delivery rate in the preceding two months by more than 1,000 tons. This was not only because the cargo-carrying capacity of the destroyers was diminished by the requirement to transport troops but also because the relief coincided with the shipping of tank reinforcements to Tobruk, for which the lighters normally employed in carrying stores and ammunition were used, and with a wise confining of almost all shipping movement to and from Tobruk to the relief period when the RAF was providing substantial protection. The suspension of shipping ordered in late August pending the holding of a conference on 30th August to discuss the supply of the garrison was continued after that conference. On 6th September the Naval Liaison Officer reported:
Activities of the Inshore Squadron are practically at a standstill for the present and there is little of interest to report.
The prudence of concentrating sailings within the moonless period was soon confirmed. A destroyer convoy arranged for 8th–9th September, in the moonlit period, which took Morshead to Cairo for the relief discussions, was attacked by bombers both on entering and on leaving the harbour and again on the return voyage, when two destroyers were nearly hit; another which three days later made a moonlit return passage was bombed in the early morning.
The current target rate for supply maintenance was 165 tons per day, including 20 tons per day of petrol, based on a nominal strength of 25,000. The supplies received in September fell short of target by approximately 32 tons per day. But the position was better than the over-all figures suggested. The most critical items were petrol, ammunition and consumable supplies (rations etc.). The Pass of Balmaha had brought in another cargo of bulk petrol, which exceeded the month’s maintenance scale. Deliveries of consumable supplies at 1,349 tons were short of the target of 1,500 tons based on a nominal strength of 25,000 but almost exactly right for the actual ration strength. The ration position was in fact quite good. Two issues of fresh meat were made in September and at the end of the month the scale of issue for preserved vegetables was increased from 31zz- ounces twice weekly to 3fzz ounces daily, there being
more than 80 days’ supplies on hand Ammunition delivered was 1,110 tons against a target of 1,200 tons, but by internal restrictions the month’s expenditure was kept to 1,064 tons; about 60 tons of 37-mm, 75-mm and 18-pounder ammunition (not critical items) had been destroyed by air attack. The main deficiencies in the month’s deliveries were in ordnance, engineering and amenities stores. Of these the engineering stores were the most important; but although the 259 tons received in September fell far short of the maintenance scale of 20 tons a day, the month’s deliveries greatly exceeded the average for the preceding four months (180 tons).
After the September relief only two Australian brigades remained. No serious attempt was made to disguise the intention that their relief would follow. In September not only the relieving 16th British Brigade Group but also an advanced headquarters of the 6th (British) Division and advanced parties from the division’s remaining brigades came to Tobruk. These were sent out to the areas nominated for their parent units to take over on arrival in the next month’s relief convoys. Men of the Black Watch, the Durham Light Infantry, the Yorks and Lancs and other regiments fraternised with the diggers. So the Australians remaining in Tobruk no longer husbanded any doubt that the moon had only once more to wane and they would be off.
Notwithstanding the trouble-free execution of the September program, Churchill, or his advisers in Whitehall, or both, were however still obsessed with the notion that to proceed with the relief would pose a serious threat to the success of CRUSADER; or perhaps the fear was that continuance of the relief might set back by a week or more the date when the Prime Minister could announce to the House of Commons and the world the newly constituted Eighth Army’s victorious advance to the relief of Tobruk and the wholesale destruction of the German armour in Africa. Of what account by comparison was the faint-hearted, unsoldierly plea that a division that had been under fire for six months was due for relief?
It was not deemed too late to reconsider the orders given, on the Australian Government’s firm insistence, to effect a complete relief of the division. The question was reopened on the basis of possible prejudice to the achievement of air superiority. This was an issue on which the British Government, in the light of criticism of lack of air support in past operations, was particularly sensitive. “Air superiority” was an imprecise, not easily definable concept, though the consequences of the lack of it in operationable areas were not indefinable. Many factors ponderable and imponderable contribute to the attainment of mastery in the air by one side or the other at a critical place and critical time. On only one of these factors, the relative strength in fighter aircraft, could the relief of Tobruk have had much effect. In that respect Air Marshal Tedder’s problem would have been less acute if the British Service chiefs had matched Churchill’s enthusiasm for enterprise in Africa while Germany was heavily involved in Russia by dispatching to the Middle East while such involvement
seemed likely to continue more fighter squadrons and some Spitfire aircraft.117
The context of the reopened discussions, however, was that Tedder would have only such resources as had been spared and that his pilots flying Hurricanes and Tomahawks were likely to be engaged by German pilots manning Messerschmitt aircraft that could fly higher and faster. Therefore it was not improbable that protection of the Tobruk convoys might prove costly. Even so, the extent to which the relief augmented the existing RAF commitment tended to be exaggerated. The supply commitment of itself necessitated frequent destroyer convoys the number of which could not be much reduced because, on the one hand, the cargo load of destroyers was limited even when troops were not carried and, on the other, the port facilities could not handle larger convoys or bigger loads during the brief time in port. While some ships in a convoy berthed at jetties, others tied up beside submerged wrecks or anchored in midstream and unloaded into lighters.
On the hypothesis that there would be no further major relief the staff conference which had considered the Tobruk supply problem at the end of August had recommended a program of sailings on two nights out of every three in the moonless period. In the event, when the major relief did occur, two of the eleven nights in the moonless period were convoy-free: if there had been no relief, probably only one more night would have been convoy-free. Relief or no relief most of the moonless nights had to be utilised.
On 24th September, while the first phase of the divisional relief was still proceeding, the Chief of the Air Staff in London telegraphed Tedder:–
We clearly realise handicap that would be imposed on you by need to protect ships relieving Tobruk during October moonless period when you should be striving with all your strength to establish highest possible degree of air superiority. Rather than allow this handicap to prejudice success of future Army operations, in particular by necessitating postponement of land offensive, H.M.G. might attempt to persuade Australian Government to agree to discontinue relief operations after present moonless period.
Whether H.M.G. decide to approach Australian Government or not depends on difference which discontinuance of reliefs would make to your prospects. Signal your appreciation on this point to be agreed with C-in-C.
Tedder’s reply (dated 29th September) containing as it does an authoritative analysis of the air risk, which was the most important operational objection to the relief’s continuance, deserves quotation in full:–
Relief of Tobruk has proceeded smoothly during September moonless period as up to date enemy have made no attacks. Provided the enemy remains inactive the very large amount of flying necessary for protective patrols to cover the shipping engaged on relief can continue without prejudicing future operations more than they are already prejudiced by the necessity for providing protective patrols over supply shipping. If, on the other hand, when the enemy gets wind of the relief operations, he should decide to concentrate against them we would be compelled to maintain much larger covering formations. This would involve using probably
whole fighter force on an operation which is inevitably expensive since enemy has initiative. Heavy losses which may well be incurred under such conditions would seriously prejudice our chances of achieving air superiority before and during CRUSADER operations. Diversion of fighter force must also affect bomber and tactical reconnaissance operations. It depends therefore on the action of the German Air Force as to whether the continuance of the relief does in fact prejudice CRUSADER operations. The discontinuance of the relief would be a great help to Auchinleck and most welcome to C. in C. Mediterranean. As far as I am concerned it would certainly greatly increase our prospects of being in a favourable position vis-à-vis the enemy in the air if any further relief is now stopped.
Blamey and Auchinleck agree.
On the same day, Churchill telegraphed Auchinleck:
It may well be that you will be granted by the enemy the time you have asked. But every day’s delay is dearly purchased in the wider sphere. ... I hope to persuade the Australian Government not to hamper you by pulling out their last two brigades in the October moonless period.
Churchill reopened the question with Fadden in a telegram sent on 30th September. He mentioned that he and the Minister of State had with difficulty prevented Auchinleck from resigning because of the Australian Government’s want of confidence: had their decision been based on political grounds, Auchinleck would not have felt the want of confidence implied. He trusted that all troops in Tobruk would be relieved in the great impending operation. The withdrawal of the Australians in October would certainly handicap the air force in their fight for air superiority; every day’s delay in delivering the attack would make the task more difficult. The probable date of the offensive was early November and the period during which the two Australian brigades would be involved was very short. After mentioning the implication that Australian troops had been subjected to an undue burden and referring to British losses, Churchill said:–
We feel that we are entitled to count on Australia to make every sacrifice necessary for the comradeship of the Empire.
The message was received in Australia on the day on which the Fadden Government was overthrown. While Mr Curtin, the leader of the Labour Party and new Prime Minister, was forming his Government, a reply was sent on 4th October over Mr Fadden’s signature; it was, however, discussed with Curtin before it was sent. Fadden denied the imputation of want of confidence in Auchinleck’s military judgment and the implication that the Australian Government thought Australian troops had borne an undue burden but, after “most full and careful further consideration”, maintained the request that the withdrawal should continue. Churchill informed Auchinleck on 5th October that he could get no helpful response from the late Australian Government. He had not yet made contact with the new Australian Government but trusted that there would be no postponement of CRUSADER.118
After what he called a “suitable interval” Churchill made a final appeal to the new Australian Government on 13th October:
I will not repeat the arguments I have already used, but will only add that if you felt able to consent it would not expose your troops to any undue or invidious risks, and would at the same time be taken very kindly as an act of comradeship in the present struggle.
War Cabinet has considered your request but it is regretted that it does not feel disposed to vary the previous Government’s decision which was apparently reached after the fullest review of all the considerations involved.
Auchinleck was therefore instructed that the relief was to proceed. Churchill’s final word to the Australian Government was that he regretted their decision.
The initiative in requesting a discontinuance of the 9th Division’s relief in October after it had been partially undertaken in September appears to have come not from Auchinleck, who had informed the Prime Minister in September that he did not favour a partial relief, but from Whitehall. The reason given was a continuing anxiety lest it might “prejudice success of future army operations, in particular by necessitating postponement of land offensive”. But before the last exchanges had taken place, it had become clear, as had indeed appeared probable for some time, that for other reasons the commencement of CRUSADER would have to be deferred for at least a fortnight. Eventually 18th November was set as the starting date, to the great displeasure of Mr Churchill, which he made clear to Auchinleck in a telegram sent on 18th October:
It is impossible to explain to Parliament and the nation how it is our Middle East armies have had to stand for 4i months without engaging the enemy while all the time Russia is being battered to pieces. I have hitherto managed to prevent public discussion, but at any time it may break out. Moreover, the few precious weeks that remain to us for the exploitation of any success are passing. No warning has been given to me of your further delay, and no reasons. ...
Within a year two further differences were to arise between the British and the Australian Governments concerning the employment of Australian formations; in both cases the Australian Government, in the face of great diplomatic pressure, again refused to yield to Mr Churchill’s requests. That on the occasion of the Australian Government’s insistence on the relief of the 9th Division no less than on the later occasion of its refusal of a division to fight in Burma, Churchill felt most aggrieved, he forcefully made known to the world when he wrote The Second World War.
The military issues in the instant case cannot be judged in simple terms of right or wrong; but the course taken by the successive Australian Governments can hardly be impugned, for an Australian Prime Minister who had disregarded or overruled Blamey’s advice would have shouldered a grave responsibility. Nor can one call in question General Auchinleck’s desire to concentrate all effort on the single purpose of launching the offensive with maximum force. If vindication were needed it is found in
the fact that the margin between victory and defeat was never so slight as in that offensive.
General Blamey’s approach to the problem must be assessed by weighing long-term against short-term considerations in the prosecution of war. He believed that a policy of regularly relieving formations from front-line duty required to be firmly pursued in the face of the always pressing exigencies of the moment. He also believed in the advice General Brudenell White had given the Australian Government at the commencement of the war, that the Australian formations could be most effectively employed as a single force, whereas Auchinleck’s opinion was that it was not practicable to undertake the transfer of a complete corps from Syria to the desert or to find operational employment for the AIF as an undivided force. Whether, if Japan had not entered the war, Blamey’s opinion would have been vindicated in the desert campaigns of 1942 must remain an unanswered question. It must also be acknowledged that Blamey wished to avoid “another Greece and Crete experience”.
How important, in retrospect, were the reasons for withholding relief? The military objection with most substance was that if the offensive were to be commenced on 1st November, the relieving formation would have little time to plan and prepare for the sortie from Tobruk. A possible solution was to defer the offensive for the short time necessary. The great danger, if this were done, was that the initiative might pass to the enemy. After two deferments CRUSADER was launched on 18th November; Rommel had planned to assault Tobruk on the 20th. But the main reason why that solution was not considered was Churchill’s refusal to contemplate a postponement for reasons that took less account of the local tactical situation than of the course of the war on all fronts.
The most serious objection was that of the RAF Even assuming that adherence to the target date of 1st November for launching the offensive was vital, this objection would not have presented itself in so acute a form if General Blamey’s request for a relief had been acceded to at once when made and if, in the months immediately following, the relief had been carried out on a larger scale. Some deferment in putting the relief into effect having taken place, a small deferment of the date for opening the offensive beyond 1st November would have mitigated, though not completely solved, the RAF’s problem. The RAF was not in the event unduly extended.
A valid objection, which was not pressed, could also have been taken on naval grounds. To what extent was it justifiable to call for an additional effort from overworked destroyers to save the 9th Division from overstrain? There can be no final answer to that question, but it must be remembered that it was never certain that the intended relief by land in November would succeed.
That in the perspective of the war as a whole the close engagement of the enemy by the British forces in North Africa at the earliest possible moment was of great importance is undeniable. To Churchill other considerations did not matter. In the opinion of Blamey (which the Australian
Governments accepted) they were no less important. Either Government might have been proved wrong: the British, if CRUSADER had failed; the Australian, if the German Air Force had fought a major battle to prevent the relief. But presupposing the worst possible case, the possible weakening of the CRUSADER offensive that could have resulted from the relief could not have been of such magnitude in relation to the total resources to be employed as to be likely to affect the outcome. Much more would be at stake in the decisions the commanders on both sides would be required to take, and would often wrongly take, day by day, in a most fluid battle.