The Tobruk Garrison on 18 November 1941

On 18 November the Tobruk garrison mostly consisted of units which had only seen relatively little of the siege. With the exception of 2/13 Battalion (the ‘2’ indicates the war, since the Australian army decided to raise battalions with the same numbering as in the Great War. Kiwi wits have it that Australians require it to be reminded of which war they were fighting.) all the Australian units of 9 and 6 Division had departed, to be replaced by the renamed 6 British infantry division, which had become 70 Division, under Major-General Scobie, with 14, 16, and 23 Brigades (a good overview of the history of the division can be found at this link).

This British force was strengthened by the Polish Brigade, which consisted of late inmates of Stalin’s Gulag who had left the Soviet Union via Persia, and which in turn had a Czech battalion attached to it.

There was also an Indian reconnaissance unit, and three elements of the Royal Tank Regiment under 32 Army Tank Brigade, Nos. 1, 4, and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR, the first of which with old cruisers, and the other two with Matildas and light tanks. 4 RTR had been brought in during the relief of the Australians, while 1 RTR and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR had been in the fortress from the start (in case of the cruisers) or very early on (‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR).

There was also a considerable amount of Royal Artillery units in the fortress.

In terms of equipment, the following was reported present to Churchill on 16 November (WO216/15):

  • 10 Coastal Defense guns (could be Italian)
  • 4 medium guns (probably 60-pdr)
  • 88 field guns (25-pdr, maybe some 18-pdr, and captured Italian ‘bush’ artillery)
  • 59 anti-tank guns (2-pdr, excluding those on the tanks themselves)
  • 24 heavy AA guns (3.7″)
  • 64 light AA guns (Bofors 40mm, and maybe some captured Italian)
  • 28 cruiser tanks (old varieties)
  • 67 ‘I’ tanks (Matilda II – 52 in 4 RTR, 15 in ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR)
  • 40 light tanks (Vickers Mk.VI)
  • 30 carriers

It consisted of the following major combat units:

70 Division

  • 14 Brigade
  • 16 Brigade
  • 23 Brigade
  • Polish Brigade
  • Czech Battalion and Australian 2/13 Battalion
  • 32 Army Tank Brigade
  • Royal Artillery units

The strength of the garrison was given as 22,000 men.  While this may sound substantial, it really wasn’t for a perimeter of about 24 miles (38km), which could easily absorb such a force, and meant that (given Axis air superiority) movement during the day was severely restricted, reducing the ability of the garrison to take advantage of the internal lines of communications. It is no wonder that in the September appreciation of the situation in Tobruk, Middle East Command was quite negative on the chances of the garrison withstanding a determined assault on its own.

Losses of 15. Panzerdivision during CRUSADER

I am in the fortunate position to have a copy of the whole of 15. Panzerdivision’s war diary for the period thanks to a fellow researcher. At the end of it, there is an overview of the losses suffered by the division during CRUSADER and the counter-offensive. It is quite instructive, especially in terms of officer losses, which seem very heavy to me.

Overview of Losses of the Whole Division
Time Period Killed Wounded Missing Comment
18 Nov to 31 Dec 435 (43) 1,361 (52) 1,820 (35) Main battle, loss of Tobruk, retreat to Agheila
1 Jan to 12 Jan 2 5 1 Establishment in Mersa el Brega Position
13 Jan to 20 Jan 1 4 (2) 9 (1) Static Defense in Mersa el Brega Position
21 Jan to 26 Jan 11 (2) 41 (4) 1 Counter-Offensive towards Msus
27 Jan to 2 Feb 8 (1) 23 (2) 7 Battle for Benghazi & the Jebel
3 Feb to 10 Feb 4 4 Move up to the Gazala line
Halfaya Pass 280 (3) 1./SR104
11 Feb to 20 Feb 23 (1) 48 (1) 15 (1) Static Defense in Gazala Line
Total 480 (47) 1,486 (63) 2,137 (40) Total for division 4,103 (150)

Number in brackets officer casualties, contained in total number.

Of particular note is the very small number of officers in the battalion lost at Halfaya when the position surrendered on 17 January 1942. In total the division lost six battalion commanders, one regimental or battalion commander (Lt.Col. Zinke – maybe someone can confirm his command?), and its General Officer commanding, killed, wounded or missing.

Of further note is the very high share of officers killed, compared to those wounded, or missing (10%/4%/2%). Probably something about officers leading from the front.

On 10 February the unfilled positions compared to war establishment in the division amounted to 6,201 (159 officers). The discrepancy could be due to sick/evacuated, and maybe the division was a bit understrength before the start of the battle. On 11 February the division reported a ration strength (this includes sick and those on holidays, as well a subordinated units drawing supplies from the division I believe) of 5,354. If this number is combined with the understrength figure, we arrive at a war establishment of 11,555, which is probably not unrealistic, and of which 54% were not present. Indeed, on 11 November the division reported a ration strength of 12,160.

Five Knights Crosses seem to have been awarded for the battle, to Colonels Menny and and Crassmann on 26 December 41, Captain Wani on 6 January 42, First Lieutenant Struckmann on 21 January 1941, and posthumously to Major Fenski on 2 January 42 (he fell on Totensonntag).

The Confused Arrival of 22 Armoured Brigade

The repeat delays to the start of CRUSADER was quite unpalatable to Winston Churchill, who had sacked Wavell over his reluctance to move faster as much as over his failure in BATTLEAXE. As has often been pointed out, Churchill had a layman’s appreciation of war, which was largely unbothered by any understanding of logistics and the needs of keeping a 1940s fighting force operational. Partially behind the delay to the start of CRUSADER was a classic case of misunderstanding and miscommunication, relating to the technical state of the new Crusader tanks (Cruiser Mk.V) of 22 Armoured Brigade, as set out in the documents in WO216/15.

The Brigade took 45 tanks which had been used from the UK, 10 for each of the regiments, and another 5 which were transferred to 3 CLY from 1 Amroured Brigade. This indicates that 121 tanks were factory fresh, and as was pointed out to me, it is likely that it was these new tanks  which had arrived in the Middle East with some vital equipment uninstalled, but nevertheless included on the ships they arrived in, in specially marked boxes. In the expectation of the ministry of supply, the complete installation of the equipment in the base workshops should have taken 3-4 days. The missing equipment was:

  • Oil filters (missing on 40 tanks)
  • Track guard inserts (missing on 39 tanks)
  • Modified fuel tank cock (missing on 8 tanks)
  • Gear lever extension (missing on 26 tanks)
  • Fan drive assembly (missing on 86 tanks)

The first items being fixes that could be implemented by the units themselves, while the last one necessitated a trip to the base workshops, of which there were two in Egypt.

What was not foreseen however was that someone in Egypt had decided that all axles needed to be reinforced, because of some failures that occurred shortly after arrival. This was in fact a known problem in England, and traced back to metal manufacture errors. But it had been decided that since the problem affected not all axles, that strengthening of them as a matter of course was not required. Not knowing this, Middle East Command presumed all axles were faulty, and subjected all tanks to a reinforcement programme, which ate up time.

On top of this, time was required for the desertification not of the tanks, but of the troops. Desert driving and navigation were skills that Middle East Command assumed would take two weeks of training to acquire.

So a simple calculation, from arrival on 2 October, has 22 Armoured Brigade ready by 2 November (two weeks of unloading, two weeks of desert training). The re-fitting of the tanks would not take extra time as it could be done while drivers train. The same for desert tactical training of tank crews. Quicker unloading (the two weeks required brought another rebuke from Churchill complaining about taking this long to unload ‘150 vehicles’) were defended by Middle East Command on the grounds that to unload the large number of wheeled vehicles took the time, not the 166 tanks, and that in any case this was not its responsibility, but that of civilian authorities. Maybe a week could have been gained here – I don’t know enough about the unloading of ships and the harbour facilities in Egypt in late 1941 to make a call either way. So on the outside 2-3 weeks might have been gained by avoiding the axle reinforcement and unloading more quickly.

But it needs to be kept in mind that 22 Armoured Brigade was not the only reason for the delay. 1 SA Division also suffered from shortcomings in desert navigation and tactical/operational training, and based on the semi-official history these were just about made up by 18 November (see Agar-Hamilton ‘The Sidi Rezegh Battles’). But in fairness it never played much of a role in the battle, so it is doubtful if this by itself would have sufficed to hold back the decision to attack. Another reason was a lack of fighter pilots, of which there weren’t enough to man the existing aircraft, and consequently there was also no operational reserve on which to draw (see AIR 20/2109, Tedder’s appreciation of 13 October).

It is of course interesting to speculate what would have happened, had CRUSADER been launched 2-3 weeks earlier. My guess is that not much would have changed. In fact, the Axis supply situation by mid-November was probably worse than it had been a fortnight before, due to the failure of the Beta convoy to make it across the Med. Also, the fortuitous intervention of the weather Gods in the form of the tempest of 17 November which not only grounded much of the Axis air force but maybe more importantly severely disrupted its communications would not have helped the Commonwealth gain air superiority.

On the other hand, the almost six weeks it took from 18 November to entering Benghazi would (presuming a similar course of the campaign) have led to Commonwealth forces entering the town at or just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, giving Middle East Command a valuable breathing space and maybe the possibility to push on to defeat the remnants of the Axis forces before having to relinquish forces for the Far East and India. It would also have left the Axis forces without the important supply convoys of late December and early January, which replenished German tank strength to a point that the counter-attack of 21 January became possible. Furthermore, two weeks earlier large parts of the German air transport fleet and Luftflotte 2 were still fully engaged in Russia, and would probably not have been able to intervene so quickly.

Finally of course it would have soothed Churchill’s nerves, and who knows what effect that might have had…