Chapter 2: The Loss of Cyrenaica
See Maps 2 and 3
On 31st March the British Armoured Division was disposed with the Support Group holding a front of eight miles at Mersa Brega, and the 3rd Armoured Brigade about five miles to the north-east, that is on the flank and slightly behind. At about 10 a.m. the enemy made contact with the position and after prolonged reconnaissance made a deliberate and rather cautious attack which was successfully resisted. During the afternoon the Commander of the Support Group, Brigadier H. B. Latham, asked that 3rd Armoured Brigade should attack the German right flank, but General Gambier-Parry did not consider that there would be time to stage an attack before dark. At 5.30 p.m. the enemy, after the second of his two heavy dive-bombing attacks of the day, assaulted the British right. The Support Group held its delaying positions all day, and only when it was clear that it might be cut off did it withdraw to the south-west of Agedabia. The 3rd Armoured Brigade conformed. During the day the Royal Air Force reported much transport around El Agheila, which was attacked by Blenheims of No. 55 Squadron. The airfield at Misurata was also attacked, and Hurricanes of No. 3 Squadron RAAF flew several offensive patrols.
On 1st April there was no contact on the ground, but the air force continued to observe large numbers of vehicles in the neighbourhood of El Agheila and stretching a long way back, indicating the presence of a considerable mechanized force. By 7 a.m. next day enemy patrols were again in touch with the Support Group.
General Neame had left the handling of the armoured brigade to the Divisional Commander, but just before noon on 2nd April he sent him an order not to commit it without his (General Neame’s) permission. He further ordered that the Support Group was to continue to block the Benghazi road for as long as possible without risking being overrun, and that General Gambier-Parry was to be prepared to move the armoured brigade towards Sceleidima below—that is, west of—the escarpment provided always that it would be able to climb the escarpment eastward at any time. The division would continue to be supplied from Msus. The intention was that if the enemy’s advance was directed only on Benghazi the armoured brigade would be on its flank, but if a move by the desert route was attempted by the enemy
the armoured brigade would be able to move in that direction. This order becomes clear when it is recalled that the escarpment is of very little account at Antelat, but becomes increasingly more of an obstacle as Sceleidima is approached. In general the undulating plain round Antelat gives way northwards to more hilly and broken country, which between Msus and Sceleidima becomes intersected by deep wadis.
Back in Cairo General Wavell had become disturbed by the reports of the German advance and by General Neame’s concern about the state of the armoured force. He flew up to Barce, arriving during the afternoon of 2nd April. By this time the enemy had increased the pressure on the Support Group. The 1st Tower Hamlets Rifles had had difficulty in disengaging, and had lost rather more than one company in the process.1 Only a spirited counter-attack saved them from still bigger loss. During the afternoon the whole division withdrew, covered by a squadron of 5th Royal Tank Regiment. This was attacked by 2nd Battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment, and after a sharp fight, in which five British and three German tanks were knocked out, the Germans broke off the action. When General Wavell arrived at Barce General Gambier-Parry’s acknowledgement of General Neame’s order had just been received, having taken nearly two hours in transmission. He understood that he was not to commit 3rd Armoured Brigade prematurely, but asked to be allowed to use his own discretion in handling it. He thought that he might have to retire from Agedabia that night and wished to have the two portions of his division within supporting distance of each other. He realized that the Benghazi road might thus be uncovered but felt that this would be preferable to the possible defeat of his division in detail. He gave a gloomy report of the state of his armour, for he now possessed only twenty-two cruisers and twenty-five light tanks and expected that breakdowns would occur at the rate of one tank every ten miles.
General Neame, still thinking of the desert route, was about to agree when General Wavell intervened and insisted that the coastal road must still be covered. He directed that the task of the Armoured Division was to impose the maximum delay on the enemy’s advance upon Benghazi. The division was therefore to operate as a whole as far north as El Magrun. If forced back to this area the Support Group would take the coast road, delay the enemy, and cover the evacuation of Benghazi. The remainder of the division would withdraw by way of Sceleidima to an area south of El Abiar to cover the left flank of the 9th Australian Division.
This emphasis on Benghazi is interesting, because the basis of General Wavell’s previous instructions was that the armoured troops were to be conserved as much as possible, and that there was to be no
hesitation in giving up ground—including even Benghazi. The explanation appears to be that General Wavell was thinking as usual as much of the enemy’s difficulties as of his own. He did not believe that the enemy was ready for an ambitious operation; yet General Rommel had taken the offensive, and must therefore be presumed to have in view a quickly obtainable objective. This could only be Benghazi, which he ought not to be allowed to have for the asking. General Wavell’s order to the Armoured Division was issued just before 9 p.m., but did not arrive until 2.25 in the morning, by which time events had made it impracticable.
During the evening of 2nd April the Commander-in-Chief sent for General O’Connor from Egypt with the intention of placing him in command in Cyrenaica because of his great experience of desert warfare. General O’Connor arrived by air next day, bringing with him Brigadier J. F. B. Combe, who had commanded the 11th Hussars, and whose knowledge of the desert was unexcelled. After discussion with General O’Connor, who shared General Neame’s view that the enemy was likely to make a move by the desert route, General Wavell decided to leave General Neame in command, with O’Connor to help and advise him. He informed the War Office that, although he had intended to make use of General O’Connor’s greater experience by putting him in command, he had come to the conclusion that a change at such a serious moment was undesirable.
The story of 3rd April is one of increasing misfortune and confusion. General Wavell’s order to the Armoured Division drew from General Gambier-Parry the reply that the 3rd Armoured Brigade was scattered, disorganised, and short of petrol. (His forecast of breakdowns was proving to be unpleasantly correct). He said that the 1st Tower Hamlets Rifles was now reduced to half its strength, and if he committed the Support Group to the coast road it would only be overrun. Circumstances were forcing him to withdraw his whole division—not part only, as General Wavell had ordered—through Sceleidima to an area south of El Abiar where it would have to reorganize before taking any further action. This signal reached Command Headquarters shortly before 6 a.m. It put an end to any hope of continuing to cover Benghazi, and General Neame had no option but to order the demolition plan to be put into effect. This was quite a large undertaking; as a single example some 4,000 tons of Italian ammunition had to be blown up. An order was sent to General Gambier-Parry absolving him from any further responsibility for the coastal road, and defining as his tasks: to deny the enemy access to the escarpment by any routes between Sceleidima and the Wadi Gattara inclusive; to cover the left flank of the Australians; and to provide local protection for the field supply depot at Msus. This order was sent shortly after 10 a.m. and in the afternoon General Wavell left for Cairo.
3rd April was not 2nd Armoured Division’s lucky day. By the early afternoon most of the Division had reached the neighbourhood of Sceleidima, while 6th Royal Tank Regiment and its few Italian tanks formed the rearguard. Orders were issued to carry out the new tasks given to the division. Scarcely had this been done when news came that a tactical reconnaissance aircraft had seen a column of vehicles, assumed to be hostile, approaching Msus from the direction of Antelat. On hearing this, General Gambier-Parry ordered some necessary regrouping between the Support Group and the 3rd Armoured Brigade, which was then to go and clear up the situation at Msus. This change of orders had endless repercussions and led to much marching, countermarching, and delay. To make the confusion worse a new order, which was thought to have come from Cyrenaica Command, was picked up by some units indicating that the Division was to move to El Abiar. Some units did indeed arrive there early on 4th April after a most difficult and exhausting move in the dark. The reason for this order was thought to have been that the escarpment north of Sceleidima had been found to be far more of an obstacle than had been expected and it was neither necessary nor feasible to hold it. Another possible explanation is that at about 2.30 p.m. information had reached Command Headquarters of the arrival of an enemy force at Msus.
Meanwhile the 3rd Armoured Brigade, more severely handicapped than ever by mechanical breakdowns and by the failure of its wireless sets because there was never time to halt and charge the batteries, had begun to move to Msus when it too heard of the order to go to El Abiar. The Brigade Commander made great efforts to find out which order he was to obey, and having failed he decided to stick to his original task and move to Msus. There the Brigade arrived next morning unopposed, except for one short bombing attack. Nothing more had been seen of the ‘hostile’ column seen on the previous afternoon, and its identity remains a mystery. However, the reports had led the company of the French Motor Battalion at Msus to destroy most of the petrol and some of the stores before withdrawing. On the morning of 4th April, therefore, the weary 2nd Armoured Division had its headquarters and most of the Support Group at El Abiar, while its depleted 3rd Armoured Brigade was at Msus wondering where it was to find its next fill of petrol.
Air activity during 3rd April had been on a small scale. Enemy transport at Agedabia was attacked in daylight by a few Blenheims and after dark by a small force of Wellingtons. The fighters continued to patrol the forward area and drove off a force of dive-bombers and Me 110s near Sceleidima, but in the afternoon No. 3 Squadron RAAF was ordered to leave Benina and draw back to Maraua.
Just before midnight 3rd/4th April General Neame, who was uncertain of the real movements or whereabouts of 2nd Armoured
Division and was still under the impression that the enemy were at Msus, had announced his intention of withdrawing to the general line Derna–Mechili. 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was to occupy Mechili and stop any enemy advancing from Msus. 2nd Armoured Division was to move as quickly as possible to Mechili. Command Headquarters then moved back from Barce to Maraua. Here, during the morning, things looked a little brighter. General Neame went to reconnoitre the Derna-Mechili line, and in his absence General O’Connor gave decisions in his name. The deep retirement ordered overnight was modified to the extent of ordering 9th Australian Division to leave the Er Regima–Tocra position during the next night and move back to the main escarpment east of Barce; 2nd Armoured Division was to concentrate about Charruba in order to protect the Australian left flank, and was to leave patrols out in the Msus area. If further withdrawal was necessary the Australians would move to the Wadi Cuff and 2nd Armoured Division to Mechili.
In the afternoon the enemy appeared in front of 2/13th Australian Battalion which was holding a wide front at Er Regima. This was the Reconnaissance Unit of the German 5th Light Division which had entered Benghazi during the small hours and had at noon been ordered to move eastward on Mechili. A sharp combat took place in which the Australians, supported by 51st Field Regiment RA, decisively checked the Germans, who recoiled until next day. This success cost the Australians 98 casualties.
General Neame decided nevertheless that owing to the shortage of transport for tactical movements the withdrawal must begin that night, and the move to the escarpment overlooking Barce was unmolested. During the day the Royal Air Force had been active. The fighters had swept the area Sceleidima–Msus and the Blenheims of No. 55 Squadron, reinforced by others from No. 45 Squadron, whose move to Greece had been cancelled, reconnoitred the area Agedabia–Antelat–Msus and attacked transport. Their reports of enemy columns heading north and east led to No. 3 Squadron RAAF being again ordered to move, this time to Martuba. No. 55 Squadron and No. 6 Army Cooperation Squadron were also ordered to withdraw, and went to Derna.
The 3rd Armoured Brigade at Msus did not receive the order to move north to Charruba until the afternoon of 4th April. Nine cruiser tanks only remained in the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, and the Italian tanks of 6th Royal Tank Regiment were limping badly. Fifteen miles were covered by evening, and by the early afternoon of the 5th what tanks were left—eight cruisers and fourteen light tanks—managed to reach the Charruba area. 6th Royal Tank Regiment had fallen behind, and, as their Diesel fuel ran out, the better tanks were filled up from the worse, which were then destroyed. This process continued until
only two tanks remained. Petrol for the British tanks was again very low, and by great ill-fortune one convoy which had been sent from Maraua had been destroyed by air attack on 4th April and two more on 5th April. 3rd Armoured Brigade was no longer of any use as a fighting formation.
Before turning to examine the opportune handling of the operations by General Rommel, it is convenient to recall the nature of the problem with which General Wavell had been faced. In theory it had been straightforward enough: he had had to decide upon the least strength required to make the western front of Egypt secure, and then to provide the largest possible force for Greece or Turkey. Naturally the one requirement directly affected the other. The decision had to be made quickly, soon after the middle of February, and the consequent moves and reorganizations began at once. At that time General Wavell thought that the force he was allotting to Cyrenaica could deal with anything the enemy was likely to do before May; thereafter the Germans would become appreciably stronger, but so also would the British. In particular a large number of tanks would have emerged from workshops.
The armoured forces presented the main difficulty, for in order to find any for Greece it was necessary to split the newly arrived 2nd Armoured Division. The estimate of one infantry division and half an armoured division for the defence of Cyrenaica was accepted in London without comment. It is irrelevant to speculate how a much larger estimate would have been received, for General Wavell was not the man to let his judgment be influenced by the fear that his decisions might not be popular. He knew as well as anyone that risks must be taken in war, and he had shown that he had the courage to take them. Indeed, there was a large element of risk in almost everything the Middle East Command had done. The risk taken in Cyrenaica in February was just one more, but by the last week of March General Wavell realized that it was greater than he had intended to take. Nothing could be done about it, for the only other armoured brigade had sailed with the first contingent to Greece.
General Wavell blamed no one but himself for the miscalculation. Not that his appreciation of the enemy’s situation was far wrong, but he certainly had not foreseen that the portion of the armoured division in Cyrenaica would not be an effective fighting force by early April. The truth is that the force allotted to the desert front could only have proved reasonably adequate if it had been up to strength in men and weapons—particularly serviceable tanks—and fully backed by the necessary transport, supply, and maintenance services to give it the freedom of action appropriate to its role. It was here that the
simultaneous despatch of an expedition to Greece had such serious consequences, for Greece was an under-developed country exhausted by war, and the British had to take with them every single thing they wanted.
To sum up, the original plan of maintaining a strong force in the coastal strip round the southern bend of the Gulf of Sidra—the gateway to Cyrenaica—broke down in practice. (Incidentally, it would have been no easy matter even if a well-defended sea-head could have been made at Benghazi.) It was therefore necessary to rely upon a more elastic defence by a comparatively small force which it was hoped would be strong enough to deal with minor enterprises, but which, if heavily attacked, would have to fall back in order to avoid destruction. Had the 3rd Armoured Brigade been able to deliver a hard blow in the first day or two it is possible that General Rommel would have been deterred from probing further, though it would have been like him to try again before long. As things were, however, the Armoured Brigade was very weak, and the absence of any reserve of tanks made it imperative not to incur heavy losses. The senior commanders were anxious not to fritter it away prematurely, with the result that it was not used at all.
See also Map 4
For the capture of Mersa Brega on 1st April the Germans used a strong force in two columns: 5th Panzer Regiment, 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, and 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, with anti-tank and artillery support, followed the main road, while 2nd Machine-Gun Battalion and an anti-tank unit began an encircling movement from the south which soon came to a halt in bad going. The British withdrawal was followed up early next morning by the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, behind which the main body of 5th Light Division and the Ariete and Brescia Divisions also moved a stage forward. General Gariboldi enjoined caution upon General Rommel lest he should become involved in action on a large scale too soon, but General Rommel decided to press on in spite of these objections. He accordingly ordered 5th Light Division to seize Agedabia and the small harbour of Zuetina. This brought further protests from General Gariboldi, who said that any further advance would be contrary to his orders. He was aware, no doubt, that in the event of a set-back the less mobile Italian troops would be at a great disadvantage.
Nevertheless it became clear from air reconnaissance on 3rd April that the British were continuing to retreat and General Rommel decided to send a detachment across the desert to threaten the British southern flank and so to discover whether they intended to hold Cyrenaica or not. Ignoring General Gariboldi’s protests, he placed the Santa Maria detachment of the Ariete Division and some German
signal and anti-tank platoons under Lieut.-Colonel Graf Schwerin and despatched them during the afternoon to Maaten el Grara. They were then to reconnoitre towards Msus and Ben Gania. At the same time 3rd Reconnaissance Unit was brought directly under General Rommel’s control, was replenished with petrol by the 5th Division, and was told to reconnoitre towards Soluch and Ghemines. Later the same evening General Rommel visited them to the south of El Magrun and ordered them to push on to Benghazi which had been reported clear of the enemy.
The bulk of the 5th Division was between Agedabia and Zuetina, and towards evening reported that it had petrol for less than 100 miles and would require four days to refill. Rommel retorted by ordering the division to unload all its supply vehicles and every fighting vehicle which could be spared, and send them back to forty miles west of El Agheila for petrol. The round trip was to be completed within twenty-four hours. Until the evening of 4th April the Division would be unable to move, except for a strong protective detachment.
General Gariboldi came forward to General Rommel’s headquarters late that evening and objected to any further advance being made without his permission. He might want to consult Comando Supremo. General Rommel said that he could not accept such a slow procedure, and that as a German general he had to give orders appropriate to the situation at the moment. There need be no anxiety about supplies. In short, he insisted upon having complete freedom of action. In a letter to his wife written the same day General Rommel remarked that his superiors in Tripoli, Rome, and perhaps Berlin, would gasp at what he had done, but would approve in the end. He had gone ahead, in spite of directives and orders, and seized an objective appointed for the end of May, because he saw an opportunity. The British were on the run.
On 4th April General Rommel decided that he must increase the pace if he was to bring any part of the British forces to battle. He visited 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, which had entered Benghazi before dawn, and ordered it to move by the direct route to Mechili as soon as the Brescia Division began to arrive. (This order led to the clash with the Australians at Er Regima during the afternoon). During this day and the next he formed a number of columns, of various strengths, using whatever units and commanders were at hand, and gave them some very distant objectives. Lieut.-Colonel Graf Schwerin’s group was ordered to make for Tmimi. The Fabris unit, of motor cyclists and some guns of Ariete Division, was directed on Mechili, and was to be followed by the rest of the Ariete. General Streich, commander of 5th Light Division, was directed on Tobruk, with 8th Machine-Gun Battalion, a squadron of 5th Panzer Regiment, and one anti-tank company. Lieut.-Colonel Olbrich, commander of 5th Panzer
Regiment, had the bulk of his own regiment, 2nd Machine-Gun Battalion, some field guns, and a tank battalion from the Ariete, and was sent via Msus with destination Mechili or Tmimi. Major-General Kirchheim, who had come to Africa on a visit, was seized for duty and told to push on with the Brescia Division through the Jebel Akhdar.
The German aptitude for organization is proverbial. Having foreseen—as did the British—that changing tactical situations would often call for rapid changes in the grouping of units, the Germans made allowance for this in their organization. But they went much further, and by insisting upon a clear and well-understood doctrine, thoroughly instilled by training on uniform lines, they made it possible for units and even sub-units to settle down quickly in new groupings and under new Commanders with the minimum of confusion. In the pursuit across Cyrenaica General Rommel took full advantage of this flexibility, but his tremendous drive severely tested the adaptability of his Germans. There were plenty of hardships, but the General achieved his object of broadening the front and of getting moving at once with everything that could go fast.
Nevertheless, by the evening of 4th April Schwerin’s group was stranded near Ben Gania for want of supplies, the various Italian groups were strung out behind, and Streich had only reached Maaten el Grara. Next day Schwerin’s advanced guard reached Tengeder, while his group and Streich’s and the Italians were spread out over twenty or thirty miles of desert in rear. 3rd Reconnaissance Unit had been checked again, this time by the artillery of the British Support Group west of Charruba. Olbrich was at Antelat, with his machine-gun battalion just east of Sceleidima. Kirchheim had one column at Driana on the coast, and one at Er Regima.
On 5th April reports from the air indicated that the British were continuing to retreat, and General Rommel decided to converge on Mechili. A hard time was in store for the Germans, for their General drove them ruthlessly. The Fabris unit, the Ariete Division, and most of Streich’s group were still scattered between Ben Gania and Tengeder in one trouble or another. Towards evening Rommel personally collected the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion (Lieut.-Colonel Ponath) from the head of Streich’s group and led them throughout the night towards Mechili. Early next morning, the 6th, they were joined by Schwerin’s advanced guard near Mechili, and Colonel Ponath, with a handful of men of his battalion, was hounded on by Rommel towards Derna. One of Kirchheim’s columns was now near Maddalena, and the other was fifteen miles east of El Abiar. 3rd Reconnaissance Unit had made little progress, and Olbrich’s group had run out of petrol. Early on 7th April Colonel Ponath reached the main coastal road and during the morning moved on Derna airfield.
While the German Commander was doing his utmost to intercept the British forces retreating from the Jebel area, General Neame was receiving conflicting reports of the position of the troops of both sides. One piece of information in particular on 5th April suggested that there might be a serious threat to the southern flank: this was that a large column was moving east of El Abiar. He accordingly ordered General Morshead to withdraw the 9th Australian Division that night to the Wadi Cuff. 2nd Armoured Division—such as it was—would cover the left flank and move to Mechili. Later, having reason to believe that the column in question was not hostile, General Neame cancelled the order for the withdrawal because he knew that General Wavell would want him to gain as much time as possible to cover the steps being taken to support and reinforce the Cyrenaica Command. The cancellation did not reach General Morshead in time to prevent the movement beginning, and he had much difficulty in the dark in turning his units about and resuming his original dispositions.
Next morning, 6th April, aircraft observed, the scattered enemy columns in the desert and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade reported that it had repulsed an attack by a small force at Mechili. This information convinced General O’Connor—General Neame had left his headquarters to visit General Gambier-Parry—that the expected wide turning movement had begun at last and that a general withdrawal was absolutely necessary. He therefore gave orders for the Headquarters and Support Group of 2nd Armoured Division to move at once to Mechili, followed by 3rd Armoured Brigade. It is unlikely that this order ever reached General Gambier-Parry, who was already on his way to Mechili. The Commander of the 3rd Armoured Brigade heard of it at Maraua, where he had gone to report his situation and where he met General O’Connor. On return to his waiting brigade Brigadier Rimington came to the conclusion that there was not enough petrol to reach Mechili, and that the only thing to do was to take his brigade to Maraua. This he did, and some petrol—though not much—was indeed found there. The Brigadier then decided to move through Giovanni Berta to Derna, where there was certain to be ample petrol. He went ahead with his second-in-command to make the arrangements, and on the way their car overturned. Both officers were unable to resume command and were later captured. The Brigade continued to withdraw as best it could, and by continuing to head for Derna it added to the difficulties of the Australians who in the afternoon had been ordered to withdraw to Gazala, and who were purposely avoiding the steep gradient in and out of Derna.
The withdrawal of 9th Australian Division succeeded in spite of the shortage of transport and the poor communications. It was necessary to collect every possible supply vehicle for troop-carrying. By 5 p.m. the move was under way. Much use was made of demolitions, the
work being covered by 1st Battalion the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a motor battalion which had just arrived from Egypt. 2/13th Battalion was sent with all speed to Martuba to cover the track leading north from Mechili, and saw in the failing light some hostile vehicles—no doubt belonging to Colonel Ponath’s group—heading for Derna. The remainder of the Division made good progress, though there was much congestion and mixing of units and vehicles. By 4.30 a.m. on 7th April the first Australian units were beginning to arrive at Tmimi, where the 26th Australian Infantry Brigade took up a defensive position until the whole Division, and various other units who by design or chance had taken the desert track to the south of Derna, had passed through.
By 11.30 a.m. Colonel Ponath had collected his scattered group near the airfield about six miles south-east of Derna, which was on the route taken by some of the British units. The result was a brisk encounter between the Ponath detachment and a mixed force under Lieut.-Colonel H. D. Drew, commanding 5th Royal Tank Regiment. Two attacks by the enemy were firmly repulsed. The four surviving British tanks then attacked and were knocked out, but the diversion enabled the remainder of Drew’s force to break away. The action cleared the road also for any troops that remained in Derna.
The advanced Headquarters of Cyrenaica Command had been at Maraua, and was to move back in due course to Tmimi. Arriving at Tmimi in the early hours of 7th April the senior staff officer, Brigadier A. F. Harding, found no signs of Generals Neame and O’Connor. Suspecting that they might have been captured and knowing that enemy troops were not far off, Brigadier Harding decided to establish main Command Headquarters at Tobruk, with an advanced echelon at Gazala. At 6.30 a.m. he reported the situation to General Wavell, together with his fears for the safety of the two Generals. The suspicion that they had run into trouble was correct. They had remained at Maraua until 8 p.m. and left in the same car. At Giovanni Berta they took the desert track, as intended, but later by mischance turned northwards towards Derna instead of continuing east towards Tmimi. Thus it was that they stumbled upon some of Ponath’s detachment. Half asleep in their car they were captured without hope of escape. At 2 p.m. Brigadier Harding reported to General Wavell that there was evidence that Generals Neame and O’Connor and Brigadier Combe had been captured.
By the night of 7th April the general situation was as follows. 9th Australian Division, without its 24th Infantry Brigade, but with the Support Group, was in position astride the main road with its left flank at Acroma, some fifteen miles west of Tobruk. At Tobruk, preparing the defences, were the 18th and 24th Australian Infantry Brigades, the former having just arrived by sea after the move of 7th Australian Division to Greece had been stopped. A small force was at
El Adem, watching the approaches from the south and south-west. At Mechili was General Gambier-Parry with his own headquarters, having taken under command Brigadier Vaughan’s 3rd Indian Motor Brigade (less one regiment), M Battery RHA, part of 3rd Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, and various small units. He had been ordered to withdraw to El Adem that night.
Meanwhile General Rommel had intended to attack Mechili but had been unable to collect a sufficient force. His troops were scattered, tired, and short of fuel; it was only by pooling that enough had been collected to bring forward the Fabris unit that morning. By evening one of the Ariete groups and General Streich’s group had arrived. They were harassed throughout the day by the Blenheims of Nos. 45 and 55 Squadrons and by the one or two remaining Hurricanes of No. 3 Squadron RAAF. ‘A’ Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group hovered on the southern flank looking for an opportunity to make a diversion.
During the day General Gambier-Parry was twice summoned to surrender and twice refused. He and Brigadier Vaughan agreed that the force must fight its way out. They decided to attempt this at dawn, when the going could be seen and some surprise might perhaps be hoped for. The advanced guard, Captain Barlow’s squadron of the 18th Cavalry, successfully broke out and turned back to deal with some Italian guns which were firing on the main body of vehicles. Although in the confusion some units managed to get away, by now the enemy were thoroughly roused and General Gambier-Parry, Brigadier Vaughan, and most of the Indian Motor Brigade and Divisional Headquarters were taken prisoner.
The part played by the German and Italian air forces in the early days of April was less spectacular than might have been expected, especially in view of the great handicaps under which the air forces with a retreating army are obliged to work. The tentative nature of the initial advance and the impromptu character of the pursuit no doubt accounted for the scrappy way in which the Axis air forces were used, though this is no excuse for the way in which opportunities were missed. In this connexion it may be noted that the Fliegerführer Afrika was not subordinated to General Rommel, but was instructed to cooperate with him. In addition to the air battle, which was going on all the time on a small scale, there were plenty of dive-bombing attacks on troops in the forward areas, and on vehicles on the desert tracks, but there were no ‘all out’ attacks on defiles on the few lines of retreat. In fact, the casualties from air attack were slight. Nor was any particular effort made against the defending air forces; except for one ineffective raid on Derna the airfields were left alone. The sprawling pattern of General Rommel’s operation led to many demands by his troops for air
reconnaissance and also for intercommunication and the carriage of supplies, and on at least one occasion there was a request for the air to find a column lost in the desert.
After the withdrawal of No. 202 Group the British air forces in Cyrenaica were of course very small for the variety of tasks that came their way. Fighter strength would have been a single squadron had not No. 73 Squadron been retained when German fighters first put in an appearance, instead of going to Greece as intended. Until 8th April, when No. 45 Squadron returned, the only medium bomber squadron in Cyrenaica, for all the duties of strategic reconnaissance and attacking enemy troop concentrations, lines of communication and airfields, was No. 55. In addition to attacking Tripoli, the Wellingtons added to the weight of these attacks.
The two fighter squadrons, Nos. 3 RAAF and 73 RAF, were clearly not enough to protect all the troop movements during the retreat and for the defence of Tobruk, and the difficulty of using them economically was increased by the lack of any warning organization; the fighters had therefore to confine their activities to areas of particular importance. For example, on two occasions British aircraft observed bad traffic blocks on the escarpment above Benghazi; as a result, the area was covered by fighters until the congestion had shaken out. Several enemy aircraft were chased off, and not a single attack was made on the columns. But the fighters could not be everywhere, and on one occasion, as has been related, the Germans succeeded in destroying two valuable petrol convoys in a strong raid by thirteen bombers with fighter escort. In addition to their defensive tasks the Hurricanes made some successful sorties against enemy troops, notably at Mechili, and had four engagements with enemy aircraft in which two Hurricanes were lost; the Germans record the loss of nine dive-bombers and one Me. 110.
All this time the difficulties owing to frequent change of landing grounds and the move of ground crews had to be overcome. Perhaps these were felt most acutely by No. 6 Army Cooperation Squadron, and the difficulty of the Flight which worked with 2nd Armoured Division in trying to keep in touch with the Headquarters of that formation may be left to the imagination.
To sum up, the British air forces were not strong enough to gain air superiority, and those of the enemy made no concerted attempt to do so. Thus it was that the troops of both sides were subjected to sporadic attacks and felt, no doubt, that it was the opposing air force that held the upper hand.
So ended the first attempt to hold ‘the gateway of Cyrenaica.’ This astonishingly rapid reversal of fortunes, only a few weeks after the
decisive victory over the Italians, naturally led to much anxious enquiry. Yet the reasons are not hard to discern, for General Wavell’s estimate of when the enemy would be fit to undertake any major enterprise has already been examined and seems to have been not unreasonable at the time. When it began to look like being too optimistic it was too late to do anything about it. The real disaster was that the sole British armoured brigade in Cyrenaica proved to be an armoured brigade in name only, for by the time it had assembled there it was mechanically exhausted. There were in the Middle East no tanks or spares with which to re-equip it or either of the armoured brigades of the 7th Armoured Division. The only other armoured brigade (of the 2nd Armoured Division) had gone to Greece. When the enemy came probing forward, therefore, there was no well-found mobile force to hit him hard or to strike at his communications, and by either means to discourage him from advancing until he was stronger.
In these circumstances it is difficult to see how General Neame could have done much more than he did, even if he had possessed a proper field headquarters, staffed and equipped for controlling a moving battle over big distances. The intervention of the Commander-in-Chief after the battle had begun did nothing to improve matters; indeed it may have added to the difficulties. By this time, however, it was beyond the power of any British commander to stabilize the situation unless the enemy sat down and took counsel of his fears. For in the large Jebel area the British had a comparatively small force, only partly mobile, and with no attacking power; on the southern flank what should have been the mobile striking force had fallen to pieces; while the sole reserve within reach was a motor brigade with no artillery, no armoured vehicles and no anti-tank guns. If the enemy acted with speed and determination there would be nothing to stop him from lapping round the desert flank except his own difficulties of supply. For the British it would be a matter of saving as many as possible of their forces to fight another day.
It happened that the German commander was just the man to seize and exploit his opportunities. General Rommel, who was to become a formidable opponent and a legendary figure in the Desert, was known as the author of a vigorous manual on infantry tactics (‘Infanterie Greift An’), with boldness as its theme. In 1940 he was given command of an armoured division and played a successful though not outstanding part in the fighting in May and June. The outlook of the Panzer General of 1940 in France was still that of the young company commander at Caporetto in 1917, for he showed himself to be a man of great energy and a leader who liked to lead from in front. Now, in Cyrenaica, in a more independent role, he could allow these characteristics full play. His idea of following up swiftly and trying to cut the British line of retreat was orthodox enough, but he carried it
out with such ferocious drive that the withdrawal of the British force was a very close-run thing. As it happened, a large part withdrew successfully and stood at Tobruk, and it was the garrison of Tobruk, as will be seen later, that was to be an embarrassment to the Axis for the rest of the year. Tactically, however, the pursuit had been a great personal triumph for General Rommel, of whom it could truly be said that he led one advance after another, and was everywhere at once, except at his own headquarters.
When General Wavell left Cyrenaica on 3rd April he realized that the enemy might try to follow up his success with an advance into Egypt, and that it was necessary to re-establish a front in the Western Desert at once. Until 4th Indian Division could be brought back from Italian East Africa the only formations available were the 7th Australian Division and the incomplete 6th (British) Division. To use them would mean withdrawing the former from the Greek expedition, and postponing the intended landings in the Dodecanese. The Chiefs of Staff immediately agreed, and confirmed that the Western Desert was to have first call on all resources. They were arranging for another fly-off of Hurricanes to Malta, for use wherever the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief might decide, and were hastening the despatch of a brigade of tanks to arrive by mid-June. More Wellingtons and six Beauforts were being sent out as soon as possible.
On 6th April Mr. Eden and Sir John Dill (who were again in Cairo on their way back to England) and the three Commanders-in-Chief met to consider the problem. They decided that it was essential to stabilize the battle as far west as possible, mainly to reduce the air threat to the naval base at Alexandria, and because of the moral effect in Egypt. The best chance of holding the enemy was at Tobruk. Here there were large stocks of stores, a supply of water, and a port whose use would be invaluable to the enemy and should be denied to him. The 18th Australian Infantry Brigade Group (of 7th Australian Division) was already on its way to Tobruk by sea followed by a small composite armoured unit. Two squadrons of the 11th Hussars were moving up by road, and the 22nd Guards Brigade (of 6th Division) was on its way to Bardia, where also one field regiment of artillery was being sent by sea.
It seemed to Sir Arthur Longmore that strong air support might well be required for attacking the enemy’s fast mechanized columns which the army had so far been unable to check. Already the use of El Adem airfield had been lost. He intended to reopen the airfields and satellites east of Matruh and to operate from them all the available aircraft in Egypt. He would allot his reinforcements, which were now beginning to come along the Takoradi route in better numbers,
to Greece and Libya in accordance with the relative urgency in each theatre as seen in Cairo, the first essential being of course to ensure the safety of the Service bases in Egypt. He would strip Aden, the Sudan, and East Africa of aircraft still further.
The loss of Generals Neame and O’Connor made it necessary for General Wavell to act quickly to organize the command. On 8th April he flew to Tobruk, taking with him Major-General J. D. Lavarack, commander of the 7th Australian Division. Placing him temporarily in command of all troops in Cyrenaica, he gave him the main task of holding the enemy’s advance at Tobruk to give time for the assembly of reinforcements, especially of armoured troops, for the defence of Egypt. It might be necessary to hold on for about two months. The defence was to be made as mobile as possible and every opportunity taken of hindering the enemy’s concentration.
Admiral Cunningham, who naturally wished that the enemy, and particularly the Luftwaffe, should be kept as far as possible from Alexandria, supported the proposal to hold Tobruk. He believed his ships could keep the garrison supplied in the face of enemy attack from the air and from the sea. At this time General Wavell’s views were that Tobruk could undoubtedly be held for a time but that the position was not a good one to hold indefinitely. It was not naturally strong, the existing defences were too extensive for the troops available, and the water supply was vulnerable. Moreover, the enemy’s bold use of mobile columns was driving the Royal Air Force eastwards, and the only available landing grounds near Tobruk were inside the perimeter itself and so exposed that they could be of only limited use. Mining or heavy air attack might close the harbour, so that reinforcement or withdrawal by sea might become difficult or costly. Against all this must be placed the enemy’s difficulties and the fact that’ the troops in Tobruk were in good heart and full of fight. General Wavell did not falter in his decision to hold the place—to the Prime Minister’s great satisfaction—and decided to put in the Bardia-Sollum area as mobile a force as could be collected in order to act against the flanks and rear of the enemy attacking Tobruk. In the Matruh area he intended to build up a defence similar to that of 1940.
The speed with which the enemy pushed on past Tobruk towards Bardia and Sollum, in addition to attacking Tobruk itself, made still more urgent the organization of the frontier area. Lieut.-General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, who had commanded 4th Indian Division, was appointed to command the reconstituted Western Desert Force and under him General Lavarack resumed command of his own Division at Matruh. Also under General Beresford-Peirse were the incomplete 6th Division (Major-General J. F. Evetts) and the Mobile Force (Brigadier W. H. E. Gott). The latter was the reorganized and reinforced Support Group, now in contact with the enemy in the Sollum
area, having the task of harassing the enemy in the neighbourhood of the frontier and of delaying any renewed advance. Tobruk fortress was commanded by General Morshead, directly responsible to General Wavell.
A reorganization of the air forces placed all units in the desert under No. 204 Group (Air Commodore Collishaw) at Maaten Baggush. For the time being the former Headquarters RAF Cyrenaica remained in Tobruk as an advanced echelon of No. 204 Group’s Headquarters. By 19th April Air Commodore Collishaw had under his command:–
|No. 73 Squadron||Hurricane||Tobruk|
|No. 14||Blenheim IV||Burg el Arab|
|Detachment of No. 39||Glenn Martin||Maaten Baggush|
|Detachment of No. 24 SAAF||Glenn Martin||Fuka|
|No. 45||Blenheim IV||Fuka|
|No. 55||Blenheim IV||Zimla|
|No. 6||Hurricane and Lysander||Tobruk (under the Fortress Commander)|
In addition, No. 257 Wing maintained an advanced Headquarters at Fuka to control its Wellington squadrons when these were used to operate in the Desert. Normally these squadrons were stationed at Shallufa and Kabrit in the Canal Zone.
By 8th April only the advanced elements of General Rommel’s northern force had reached the Derna area, while some of his desert columns were still stranded around Tengeder without fuel or water. Major-General Kirchheim had been wounded, but Major-General Prittwitz, the Commander of 15th Panzer Division, had just arrived ahead of his Division and was instantly placed in harness to take command of a strong group of reconnaissance, machine-gun, and anti-tank units and a few field guns. He was ordered to press on to the eastern side of Tobruk, while General Streich and the rest of his 5th Light Division advanced from the south-west and the Brescia Division from the west. Colonel Ponath and his light detachment had already been sent on to reconnoitre, and the Ariete Division was ordered forward to El Adem.
On 10th April General Rommel announced his conviction that the British were collapsing and must be vigorously pursued. He let it be known that his objective was now the Suez Canal. He decided to prevent the British from breaking out of Tobruk, and by 11th April the place was invested, though not quite in the manner intended, for the German Commander’s devil-take-the-hindmost methods resulted in Streich and his 5th Division appearing on the eastern front, and the
Prittwitz group on the southern. The latter was now led by Colonel Schwerin, General Prittwitz having been killed. The Brescia Division was away to the west. The 3rd Reconnaissance Unit was sent on to Bardia while yet another mixed force, under Lieut.-Colonel Knabe, commander of 15th Motor-Cycle Battalion, was hastily collected and given Sollum as its provisional objective, with Matruh as a carrot.
Brigadier Gott, commanding the British Mobile Force, had been ordered by General Beresford-Peirse to gain time, to apply pressure whenever he could, and to give ground only if compelled by superior force. His force consisted of the 22nd Guards Brigade Group, in the Halfaya Pass area, and four small mobile columns whose composition varied from time to time but was based on one or more troops of 25-pdrs, a company of infantry, and a few armoured cars or light tanks. These columns were located at Halfaya, Sofafi, Buq Buq, and Sidi Barrani, while a company of the French Motor Battalion held the escarpment pass at Halfway House. These dispositions aimed at making the important passes and the water supplies secure from anything but a strong attack. The columns from Halfaya and Sofafi began at once to harass the enemy about Capuzzo and Sollum. One operation in particular, in which transport between Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz was shelled, drew from Colonel von Herff, who had replaced Lieut.-Colonel Knabe in command, an exaggerated report of the British activities and caused General Rommel to conclude that his forces at Bardia and Capuzzo were in danger of being cut off; if this happened the investment of Tobruk would have to be abandoned. To remove this threat the Herff group attacked on 25th and 26th April and compelled Brigadier Gott to fall back to the general line Buq Buq–Sofafi.
Within the defended area of Tobruk there was a great deal to be done, but a vigorous start had been made under orders from General Neame in the middle of March. The defences were those which the Italians had built—a double ring of concrete works eight or nine miles from the town and harbour, giving a total frontage of over thirty miles. The posts were well sited but were more like refuges than fire-positions. There was nothing behind the main ring to give depth to the defence. The barbed wire obstacle was in bad repair and had many gaps, and the anti-tank ditch was still incomplete as the Italians had left it. There was no alternative, however, to using these old defences, which at any rate had the advantage of being far enough away from the harbour to prevent the enemy from interfering with the work of the port except by air. An inner line was chosen about two miles in rear of the perimeter, and work upon it was done concurrently with improvements to the outer line. At first the 24th Australian Infantry Brigade (of two battalions) and the newly arrived 18th Australian Infantry Brigade occupied a thin line of defended localities on the perimeter while 20th and 26th Australian Infantry Brigades remained
in a covering position outside to give time for further work on the defences. On the night of 9th April they came inside the perimeter, which was then held by the three brigades of the 9th Australian Division, with the 18th Brigade in reserve.
The skeleton 3rd Armoured Brigade was in process of being reformed, and was built up by arrivals by sea from Egypt. The organization was one regiment of armoured cars, two composite regiments of light and cruiser tanks, and one troop of infantry tanks—in all twenty-six cruiser, fifteen light, and four ‘I’ tanks.
There was no medium artillery. The field artillery consisted of three 25-pdr regiments from Cyrenaica, and one just arrived from Egypt. There were two anti-tank regiments, one British, one Australian, each less one battery. Each infantry brigade had one anti-tank company. The one anti-aircraft brigade had in action sixteen heavy and fifty-nine light guns, all of which save two of the Bofors were allotted to the defence of the harbour area.
Many installations and administrative establishments had grown up in Tobruk during the past three months, with the result that there was a large number of units of various kinds swelling the total of mouths but adding little to the fighting strength. Of the 36,000 present at this time, one-third consisted of base units, Libyan refugees and prisoners.
From the very first Generals Lavarack and Morshead had determined that the defence was to be thoroughly aggressive. They made it clearly understood that because battalions were holding on the average five miles of front the enemy must be expected to break in at any point he chose to attack strongly. But they made it equally clear that any of the enemy who broke in were to be made to regret it. They convinced the troops that there would be no more withdrawal by land or sea, and morale rose to a high pitch.
The attempts by the enemy to capture Tobruk before the British had recovered from the effects of their rapid retreat fell into three phases. First, the reconnaissances on 11th and 12th April; second, the attack on the southern front on 13th and 14th April; third, the attacks from the west on 16th and 17th April. When all these had failed the enemy gave himself a fortnight’s preparation before trying again.
The reconnaissances on 11th and 12th April were made by 5th Panzer Regiment against the front held by 20th Australian Infantry Brigade just west of the El Adem road. They were dispersed mostly by artillery fire, and German infantry who succeeded in entering the anti-tank ditch were driven out by Australian patrols. Even this measure of resistance came as a surprise to General Rommel who had assumed that the ships in the harbour were there to take the garrison off, and that opposition would come only from disorganized units who had escaped from Cyrenaica. He next ordered 5th Light Division to take Tobruk on the night of 13th/14th April.
The garrison was fully expecting something of the sort and the concentration of enemy vehicles was continually attacked from the air by Nos. 45 and 55 Squadrons, which increased their effort by rearming on the Tobruk airfields. The assault began soon after dark on the 13th with an attempt by the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion and some engineers to secure a bridgehead over the ditch just west of the El Adem road, on the front of 2/17th Australian Battalion. During the fighting which ended in the defeat of this attempt Corporal J. H. Edmonston, 2/17th Battalion, won a posthumous Victoria Cross.
The attack was renewed in the small hours, and by dawn the Germans had made a small bridgehead through which the 5th Panzer Regiment passed and headed north intending to divide into two columns—one to make for Tobruk and one to turn west and intercept the fleeing garrison. Instead, the tanks came under concentrated artillery fire, being at length engaged over open sights by the 1st Regiment RHA. This was too much for the tanks, which sheered off, only to be met by the British cruisers waiting to engage from hull-down positions.2 The Germans, fired at from in front and both flanks, withdrew having lost sixteen tanks out of thirty-eight. Meanwhile the Australian infantry, through which 5th Panzer Regiment had passed, had brought the German infantry to a standstill. The withdrawal was harassed by every weapon and aircraft that could be brought to bear; by noon it was all over. The 8th Machine-Gun Battalion lost more than three-quarters of its strength. The garrison’s losses were 26 killed, 64 wounded, and two tanks and one 25-pdr gun disabled.
After this unmistakable set-back the enemy abandoned his efforts on the southern front and the 5th Light Division began to dig itself in, while the Schwerin group extended the investing line to the east. The next attempt was made on 16th April under the personal direction of General Rommel against the western or Ras el Medauar sector. This time the Ariete Division was used, with 62nd Infantry Regiment of the Trento Division under command. The Italians showed little heart for the task and when briskly counter-attacked by 2/48th Australian Battalion they surrendered to the number of 26 officers and 777 men. The operation was resumed next morning by the Ariete Division. Some of their tanks succeeded in reaching the forward posts, but were not followed up by infantry, and withdrew after losing five of their number.
So the first stage ended, leaving the enemy surprised, disappointed, widely dispersed, and in difficulties with the stony ground. General Morshead realized that this was the moment to strike back, but his first duty was to secure Tobruk and he could not afford to have his force unduly weakened. He therefore adopted a policy of vigorous patrolling and made sorties with only small forces. A good example
was the action on 22nd April by a company of the 2/48th Battalion which, with three ‘I’ tanks and a troop of M Battery RHA, attacked a hill-feature held by the Fabris detachment south-west of Ras el Medauar with the object of destroying a battery in position behind it. The objective was reached, two guns were destroyed and about 370 Italian prisoners taken. Simultaneously a company of 2/23rd Battalion made a daring raid astride the Derna road, which led to hard fighting and heavy casualties, but resulted in the capture of nearly 100 prisoners of the Brescia Division. These activities caused the Germans to alter their dispositions and to hasten the arrival of elements of 15th Panzer Division.
Although the situation on the ground had greatly improved, there was still air attack to be reckoned with. There were dive-bombing or high-level attacks every day, and frequent attacks by night as well. The usual targets were the harbour, the airfields, base installations, and anti-aircraft and field gun positions. As early as 14th April it had become very difficult to service any aircraft on the Tobruk airfields, so the Lysanders were sent away, together with all but the essential minimum of ground crews for Nos. 6 and 73 Squadrons. Air Marshal Tedder, in the absence of Sir Arthur Longmore in the Sudan, directed that not less than ten Hurricanes were to be kept at Tobruk during daylight. This answered for a while, as for example on 19th April when a strong force of dive-bombers escorted by fighters was successfully intercepted by Hurricanes of Nos. 73 and 274 Squadrons. But the task was too arduous; two days later No. 73 Squadron had only five serviceable aircraft left and the pilots were well-nigh exhausted. Still the attacks went on, and by 23rd April the squadron had lost three of its Hurricanes and two were damaged. It could do no more, and after this intensive spell of constant fighting against much bigger numbers it was withdrawn to Sidi Hanish on 25th April. No. 274 Squadron continued to operate from Gerawla, and No. 6 Squadron remained at Tobruk to carry out as many tactical reconnaissances as its dwindling strength allowed.
It was now only possible to maintain fighter patrols over Tobruk at intervals, and for this there were fourteen Hurricanes available in the Desert squadrons. Everything possible was done to lessen the scale of attack by making raids at dusk and by night on the enemy’s airfields at Gazala, Derna, and Benina. The situation was understood and accepted in Tobruk, where the 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade RA had no lack of targets.
All this time, in spite of constant mining of harbours and bombing, the sea flank was securely held. During March all the destroyers had been withdrawn from the Inshore Squadron to take part in escorting
convoys to Greece, but at the beginning of April the squadron was reinforced. HMAS Vendetta and Waterhen came from Alexandria, and the gunboats Aphis and Gnat from Suez, where they had been temporarily stationed to guard against a possible raid in the Red Sea by Italian destroyers from Massawa.3
When the army fell back to Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier, several operations were undertaken in coastal waters. On the nights of 10th and 11th April HMS Aphis and Gnat bombarded transport near Bomba twice and Gazala airfield once, and on the next night six destroyers, covered by the cruisers Orion, Ajax and Perth, swept the Cyrenaican coast from Ras Tayones to Ras et Tin. On 13th April the destroyers Stuart, Griffin and the gunboat Gnat cooperated in Brigadier Gott’s operations against Sollum, and the Gnat suffered some damage from artillery fire. Two days later HMS Gloucester and Hasty bombarded transport near Capuzzo and Bardia, and the Ladybird shelled Gazala airfield. On 18th April the Gloucester again bombarded vehicles near Bardia, and between that date and the end of the month HMS Ladybird shelled the airfields at Gazala and Bu Amud, while Sollum was again bombarded, this time by HMS Aphis.
Apart from these operations a sea-borne raid was carried out by A Battalion, Special Service Brigade, at Bardia on the night 19th/20th April.4 The troops were landed from HMS Glengyle (escorted by HMS Coventry and three destroyers) in her landing craft, in one flight on four beaches. The operation had had to be postponed several days on account of rough weather. The previous bombardment had probably persuaded the enemy that Bardia was unhealthy; certainly no worthwhile objectives were found and only trifling damage was done. These were some of the Navy’s active operations along the coast during this period, but an even more important and no less exacting role in support of the Army had been the transport of supplies, which after the investment of Tobruk became the only means of sustaining the garrison. Some 600 miles farther west other British warships and aircraft were engaged in the opposite pursuit of interfering with the enemy’s supplies to North Africa, to which end even the guns of the battlefleet were presently brought into action against the port of Tripoli. Accounts of these operations are given in Chapter 3 and Chapter 6.
After the failure of the attempts to seize Tobruk out of hand, the
Italian Comando Supremo, which had viewed General Rommel’s progress with a mixture of relief and alarm, urged the German OKW to agree that a halt should be called before advancing into Egypt, in order to let the attacking formations be reorganized and reinforced and give the severely strained supply services, a chance to recover.5 OKW replied that the Führer endorsed these views, and regarded the capture of Tobruk as essential. General Rommel thought so too, but had to admit that a full-dress attack could not be mounted until many necessary supporting units—especially German units—had arrived. He felt the need for the Luftwaffe to be reinforced; and particularly wanted more air transport to assure his supplies of ammunition, fuel and water.
General Halder, Chief of the General Staff, OKH, records in his personal diary that he was disturbed by the news from North Africa, because he feared that Rommel was getting into difficulties from which he could only be rescued by allotting resources which ought not to be spared from more important commitments. In his frequent references to General Rommel Halder may have been influenced by the fact that Rommel was not a General who had made his way up the General Staff ladder; he had not even been chosen for his present post by the Army Command, but by Hitler himself. Halder noted savagely on 23rd April:
‘... Rommel has not sent in a single clear report, and I have a feeling that things are in a mess ... All day long he rushes about between his widely scattered units and stages reconnaissance raids in which he fritters away his strength ... the piecemeal thrusts of weak armoured forces have been costly ... His motor vehicles are in poor condition and many of the tank engines need replacing ... Air transport cannot meet his senseless demands, primarily because of lack of fuel ... It is essential to have the situation cleared up without delay ...’
Shortly after this it was decided to send a senior General to North Africa to examine and report. General Paulus, a Deputy Chief of the General Staff, was selected, and his mission is described in Chapter 8.