Not a good day at the office – 1 RTR and the first day of the Tobruk breakout

I have previously written a bit about the Tobruk break-out from the German side at this link. Today I have had a moment to go through the war diary of 1 RTR, who provided the cruiser tanks of 32 Army Tank Brigade (32 ATB). The copy is from the Tank Museum in Bovington, but can also be found in the UK National Archives. There are some interesting narratives in there which I transcribe below.

But first to recap:

(1) Task: 1 RTR was to support the breakout together with the Matildas of 4 RTR and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR. On 21 November, 32 ATB’s task was broken in two separate operations, A and B. 1 RTR’s task during A was to raid enemy HQ at 428420 (no name, later WALTER), and strong posts at 428418 (FREDDY) and 426414 (WOLF/GRUMPY, actually at 426415), or in other words, “raid the extreme left flank near the Bardia road”, partially passing through objective TIGER once this had been taken (4 RTR Operation Order No.4 – Operation A ‘Capture of TIGER’, in WO169/1413). During B it was to participate as part of 32 ATB in the capture of Ed Duda (425409).

The map below (from WO169/1413) shows the role of 1 RTR in the first stage of the break-out. This was a relatively deep break into the Axis defense, with no support from infantry. A classic cruiser tank role, and it was as such that it was approached, with C Squadron ordered to move at 25 mph (40 km/h) towards its objective.

Tracemap of 32 Army Tank Brigade’s Breakout Plan


The method adopted by 1 RTR was to send C Squadron in the lead at high speed towards the most important objective, the HQ at 428420. B Squadron was to deal with FREDDY, and A Squadron with WOLF. Once B and A Sqdrns. had finished with their task they were to move to the help of C Squadron in subduing the HQ. The regimental plan therefore foresaw a three-way split in the already not generous tank strength, and the Brigade plan foresaw that the regiment would move broadside on to any enemy guns located along the Axis bypass road, presumably protected by its speed. It did not work, as the narrative will show, and C Sqdn, while achieving a deep break-in, never got anywhere near its main objective. Instead, the regiment’s strength was insufficient to even deal with one of the secondary objectives, and it suffered heavy losses.

(2) Tank state: According to WO216/15 by mid-October the Tobruk garrison (and by implication 1 RTR) had 28 cruiser tanks, of which maybe one or two were with Brigade command. According to the war diary of 1 RTR, these were of the A9, A10, and A13 varieties. Additionally, they had a good share of 32 Army Tank Brigade’s 40 light tanks. According to the war diaries, 4 RTR had 6 of these, and ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR seems to have had 2, leaving up to 32 for 1 RTR, although it is likely that many were on duty in other parts of the fortress, and maybe a more likely number is 20 – but that is speculation. It also appears from the narratives below that in 1 RTR squadrons, cruisers and light tanks were mixed. The provenance of these tanks dated back to Operation COMPASS in December 1940, and they were much wizened. They had retreated into the Tobruk fortress (or had already been there) during the first re-conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica by the Axis in March/April 1941, and had remained there. This may explain their poor mechanical state, with many mechanical failures being reported on the approach to the battle. For those interested in the technical aspects of tanks, this site has a good overview of these marks of cruiser tanks. Of particular interest is that the sub-turrets on the A9 and A10 cruisers were actually used in this operation – I have often read that they were used for stowage due to lack of crew.

(3) Enemy information: the information on which the plan was based was quite faulty, since it did not realize that German troops had moved into the area through which the breakout was supposed to happen, in advance of the attack on the fortress. The operation order states that the area was defended by the BOLOGNA division, with about 2,000 men and about 30-40 artillery guns plus some medium artillery in the sector to be attacked.

Maps below show the intended course of the regiments of 32 ATB during four stages of Operation A, and the location of objectives given to the breakout formations. These locations were renamed during the operation. The narratives below refer to the first objective names.

Objectives of the Tobruk Breakout


Overview of Objective Locations for the Tobruk Breakout

Original Name

New Name

Map Name

Map Reference

Tugun Sleepy Bir Bu Assateub

418418

Lion Bashful Bir Ghersa

421415

Jill No name North of Pt. 145

422419

Tiger Sneezy Square

423417

Butch Dopey Bir Suesi

422420

Jack Happy – actually 425419 West of Pt. 146

424419

Freddy Freddy Square

428418

No name Walter Square

428420

Wolf Grumpy – actually 426415 HQ in Square

426414

Based on map in WO169/1417, and 32 ATB Operation Order No.12 in WO169/1413

Extract from War Diary of 1 RTR for 21 November 1941.

Regt formed up in FAA according to plan and on time. [this was between 2h12 minutes and 1h56 minutes before the start of the operation, depending on which element of 1 RTR we talk about]

0620 Arty programme commenced and brought immediate reply from enemy heavy guns.

0630 Zero for operation.

0634 Regt advanced from FAA through heavy shell fire and made for perimeter. Some delay in crossing bridges which were blocked by slow-moving traffic. C sqn got to Start Line on time.

0700 RHQ crossed Start Line. C sqn well ahead and out of sight in dust and smoke.

Proceeded towards Tiger 423417

0710- Held up by enemy minefield east and west across front. Gap made at 4 ? 244189 by

0915 KDG Regiment passed through in order C, A, RHQ, B sqn and proceeded south-east.

0935- Held up, with the exception of C sqn on a very southerly course towards Wold (426415).

1300 Remainder of regiment under shellfire the whole period but no tanks hit.

1300 Ordered to advance to Freddy 428418. All three sqns arrived at objective together, but were beaten off by anti-tank fire. Forward rally ordered in 426417. As regiment was forming up to move to rear rally, enemy artillery came into action about 2000yds due south hitting two of A sqn tanks. Regiment withdrew through gap by Jill to rear rally arriving there 1600 hrs.

1630 Ordered to FAA. Replenished.

A sqn narrative of battle. Appx 10

B sqn narrative of battle. App 11

C sqn narrative of battle. App 12

Map; 1:50,000 Tobruch series Sheet 3 Tobruch

1 RTR Squadron Narratives of Action on 21st November 1941.

Narrative by C sqn as compiled from information received from remaining tank commanders .

1. Sqn crossed Start Line on time in open formation. Order of March – 10 Tp, II, SHQ, 9 Tp. Visibility was very poor. After about two miles leading tp hit a minefield east and west in sq 420418. Four tanks hit mines, remainder of sqn circled and withdrew to enable OC to form new plan. T 15223 (Sgt AshwelI) was the first to strike mine. It was immediately hit by anti-tank fire and crew dismounted (less Tpr Clark, who was sniped and fell back in the tank, dead). T15250 (Sgt Frost) then also struck a mine, the crew dismounted, Tpr Spencer being killed in front of the tank. Both of the above crews were captured but were released by our infantry later in the day. T 9186 (Sgt RendelI) and T 15222 (Lt ElIison) were also mined.

2. Sqn rallied west of Jill 421419 with seven tanks. After a pause, proceeded north then east and passed through gap made in enemy minefield by Sqn KDG at about 42244189. From gap sqn moved in south-easterly direction on a course east of Tiger 421417. Anti-tank guns in vicinity were silenced by I tanks. MG post with anti-tank rifle probably north east corner of Tiger was put out of action by Sqn Leader. Continued on course until six enemy guns were sighted, when sqn formed battle line and went straight for them firing as fast as possible. The sqn advanced to within 100 yards of the position then turned left into line and withdrew about 600 yards to a semi-hull-down position. It is believed that the sqn disposed of the gun crews and that at least two direct hits were scored on guns. Observation from this position showed no further movement round the guns so sqn moved south with the guns on the left. Gun position about 42604168. I tanks closed on guns as C sqn proceeded south. Sqn approached Wolf (426415) which showed as a lot of tents to the left front. These were m/gunned and shelled. At about 42584158 sqn turned east for about 600 yards, then south-east passing through dug, but not wired, positions. Sqn turned north-east here, the right flank tank passing through the position which had four field guns and twelve anti-tank guns unmanned. On the course north-east sqn slowed down for anti-tank mines and proceeded until well in range of Freddie (428418) Sqn approached to within 400 yards then withdrew south-east and halted. Suddenly anti-tank fire from Freddie hit three tanks; T 15218 (Sgt Turner) caught fire and was evacuated. T 9188 (Lt Hayter) was hit four times and T 9171 once, wounding Major Benzie the sqn leader. The sqn withdrew, including the last-two-mentioned tanks. T 15238 (Lt Dawson) went back under heavy fire and rescued the crew of the burning tank. At this point regiment was ordered to forward rally, the sqn joining RHQ in a wide sweep well clear of Freddie.

Account by 2 i/c A sqn.

0330 hrs. Squadron formed up in leaguer area. (0403 hrs. Head of sqn passed start point (Rd Junc EI Adem-Bardia) on time. T 5961 (Lt. Richards) broke a track.

0515 hrs. Arrived on forming up line after having had to make detour round an artillery bty in action. This maneouvre resulted into T 2147 (Sgt Whitlam) running into B 2 minefield and damaging a track and bogie wheel.

0634hrs. Started for SL after C sqn and as the white tapes led only to the gap arranged for C sqn, A sqn followed them after passing through B 2 minefield and crossed the anti-tank ditch by the same bridge that they used. T 9248 (Lt Geheve) broke down just inside the perimeter with gear-box trouble.

0700 hrs- Crossed start line.

0720 hrs. Arrived in neighbourhood of enemy-occupied san gars at Trig 145 and heard C sqn reporting that they were held up by mines between Jill and Tugun. No 1 tp (Lt Young) proceeded to shoot up the posts to allow our infantry who were lying in extended order to the north-west to advance. During this manoeuvre T2260 (Lt Manby) ran into a minefield and sustained damage to tracks and suspension. A little later T 2069 (Sgt Shields) and T 2281 (Cpl Bamford) had the same trouble. Later T 2281 was hit by a thermite shell and caught fire. Tpr Bennett was killed. Two light tanks had actually found a gap through this minefield (but this was not known at the time) when RHQ ordered a rally to the north. Before returning Sgt Shields’ tank killed the crews of the mg posts around him.

0500 hrs [probably 0900 hours, typo in transcribed document I guess]. Rallied with the regiment in the area north-west of Jill. Lt. Manby’s crew returned on foot to the perimeter carrying an officer from 4 RTR and taking with them Tpr Boyd the sub turret gunner in T 3505 (Cpl Cameron) whose place Lt Manby took for the remainder of the action. (Owing to fire the crews of the other two light tanks which had been knocked out – Sgt Shield and Cpl Bamford – did not leave the neighbourhood of their tanks until later in the day)

0905 hrs. (approx) Ordered to advance to the area north of Tiger to try and work round to the west side of that locality and so get on the original course for phase I. When due north of Tiger sqn came under heavy artillery fire from the west and the light tanks in front were held up. T 2375 (Sqn Commdr, Major Sir F G L Coates Bt) was hit twice by artillery fire. Cpl Beukes was killed, Major Coates and Cpl Watts wounded. Major Coates got into Sgt-Major Alexander’s tank and was taken back out of the fire. Cpl Watts, who had managed to get out of his tank, was unconscious on the ground, but believed dead at the time.

0945hrs. Sqn withdrew about 500 yards north. Sgt Corbett went back in his light tank and rescued Cpl Watts under fire, bringing him back to an infantry stretcher party. Capt. Plaistowe took command of the sqn. T 5961 rejoined from Start Point. Sqn moved about 1200 yards east and halted behind RHQ.

1300hrs. Advanced towards Freddie. Formed battle line with Capt. Plaistowe in centre. Saw C sqn about 2000 yds to the south in the neighbourhood of Wolf also advancing east. Saw personnel moving in area Freddie. Sqn Rear Link intercepted message from OC C sqn ordering his sqn not to open fire as troops in front were believed friendly. This information was passed to Capt Plaistowe who ordered A sqn to cease fire and take up hull-down positions about 900 yards from Freddie. Capt Plaistowe advanced to find out who was in front and received two direct hits from an anti-tank gun in Freddie. The sqn brought fire to bear on Freddie whilst C sqn attacked from the south. C sqn, however, was held up by anti-tank fire and the attack was stopped. The regiment was ordered to forward rally on RHQ about 1000 yards south-west. A sqn to cover the withdrawal of B and C. Lt. Young reported a column of lorried infantry, two heavy armoured cars and some guns about 2000 yards due south.

Lt. Richards took command and, leaving the light tanks in position, took four cruisers (two on either side of him) to give covering fire, advanced to T 9220 (Capt Plaistowe) and brought back Capt Plaistowe seriously wounded, and Tprs Billings, Clark and Williams slightly wounded. Tpr Nicol the driver was killed.

The sqn started back to join RHQ. Guns previously reported by Lt Young opened up a heavy and accurate fire on the sqn which was then in the rear as the regiment moved towards Jack – T 7219 (Sgt Corbett) received a direct hit. Sgt Corbett,Tprs Crighton and Ratliff were killed. Tprs Bracey and Lynch were wounded.

T 2559 (Sgt Burgess) received a direct hit. Sgt Burgess was killed and Tprs Roberts and Mottram slightly wounded. The withdrawal continued.

At Jack the two leading tanks captured about 40 prisoners, the trenches in this area not having been mopped up. At the same time a minefield was encountered and T 5962 (Sgt McGregor), with all the rescued members of other crews on the outside, ran into it. At the same time T 3503 (Lt Richards) ran off one track when manoeuvring out of the mined area.

The crews of all tanks lost, and the prisoners, were collected in the vicinity under Lt Richards.

1600hrs. Sqn are rear rally in area Butch From there to original FAA. One light troop remained behind to do protection to RHQ in area of Jill.

Lt Richards, after repairing the broken track, handed over the prisoners to the consolidating infantry but remained behind to look after our own wounded. OC sqn (Capt H C Forster) ordered Lt Richards to rejoin unit, leaving his sub turret gunner to care (Lt Manby) [?}to care [sic] for the wounded.

1800hrs. Lt Manby obtained a lorry from the infantry who had consolidated the position at Jack, and started back to the perimeter bringing all the wounded with him.

Sgd H C Forster Capt, 1 RTR

Account by Sgn Commander B sgn.

0515hrs. The squadron formed up on the left edge of the Regimental Assembly Area. T 7214 (A9) and T5928 (A 10) and the Sqn Comdr tank T 4168 (LT) failed to arrive owing to track trouble. The Sqn Comdr changed to T 2000 (LT).

0640hrs. Moved off towards start line. B sqn’s gap in B2 minefield was neither lit up nor taped and could not be found, therefore B sqn followed C, A and RHQ through the same gap and subsequently used the same perimeter wire gap and anti-tank ditch bridge.

0700hrs. Crossed startline. T 5937 broke track on start line.

0700-0910hrs. B sqn remained in dispersed formation ½ mile south-east of start line. The situation was extremely vague as B Sqn Commdr’s No 9 set could only receive RHQ c1early and C sqn faintly and none of the reports of minefields were received. It was not until 0830hrs when the Brigade Commdr halted his A9 cruiser nearby that a clear picture was obtained.

-915hrs. B sqn was ordered to follow the remainder of the regiment through a gap made in the minefield at Jill. T 5937 was repaired by this time and T 4168 rejoined the sqn at 0900hrs. Just south of this gap B sqn overtook RHQ and were preparing to follow C and A. Three-quarters of a mile south-east of the first minefield there was a second running approximately parallel to the first. When about 25 yds short of this the commander of the leading B sqn tank T 5937, Lt R W Edwards, was fatally wounded by a sniper and almost immediately his tank was blown up on the minefield. As there were 2 armoured cars, 3 I tanks and 3 cruisers already on the minefield and those tanks of A sqn which had been successful in getting through were held up a short distance south-west of the minefield, B sqn stopped and asked for further orders. The orders were to wait in present location with RHQ.

0945-1330hrs. Remained in area three quarters of a mile south east [of] Jill with RHQ. During this time the Sqn Commdr’s tank was put out of action by a 25-pdr shell. None of the crew were hurt.

1330hrs. B sqn ordered to go [to} the assistance of A and C sqns who were having difficulty with Freddie. B sqn ran in line ahead with all sub-turrets and co-axial guns traversed left and shooting into Freddie, from A sqn who were due west of Freddie to C sqn who were due south. On arrival at c the sqn turned about and carried out the same shoot in the opposite direction.

1400hrs approx. A German 88mm gun came into action 3000yds south of the regimental area and orders were given for the regiment to withdraw to area Jill. This was carried out without tank or personnel casualties to B sqn. A sqn were not so fortunate.

1530hrs. B sqn ordered to rally on RHQ in area Bir Suesi. Owing to difficulty in finding minefield gaps and recovering 3 cruisers and 2 light tanks of the sqn, which had broken down with engine or transmission trouble, the Sqn did not arrive at Bir Suesi until 1640hrs.

The next day the regiment reported a tank state of 5 Cruisers A9/A10, 3 Cruisers A13, and 13 light tanks. Cruiser tank losses due to mechanical failure and enemy action would therefore have been at least 19 tanks (assuming only 1 cruiser was used by Brigade command), given that at least some of the mechanical failures, such as broken tracks, were probably repaired during the night, and that these tanks would have been available the next day.

Total losses of 32 ATB would therefore come to 19 cruisers, 10 Matildas in ‘D’ Squadron 7 RTR, and 22 to 24 Matildas in 4 RTR, for a total of 51 to 53 tank losses for the day.

1 RTR lost a number of personnel killed and wounded, but none missing on 21 November. A Sqdn had the highest losses, with 7 killed and 10 wounded. B Sqdn. only lost Lt. Edwards, and C Sqdn had 2 killed and 1 wounded. Additional losses may have occurred in the light tanks and regimental HQ. The names and numbers below are the best I can pull together (unknown means I can not place them in a squadron):

Killed

Capt. W.R.Hughes (unknown)

Lt. Edwards (B Sqdrn)

Sgt. S. Burgess (A Sqdrn)

L/Sgt. C. Corbett (A Sqdn)

Cpl. L. Beukes (A Sqdrn)

Tprs. W Spencer, C. Clark, (both C Sqdrn) T. Nichol, I. Bennett, Crighton, Ratliff (all A Sqdn) and A. Rowe (unknown)

Wounded

Majors Sir. F.G.L. Coates Bt.* (A Sqdrn), W.G.S. Benzie (C Sqdrn)

Capt. F.D. Plaistowe (Acting Sqdrn Cmd. A Sqdrn after Major Coates Bt. had been wounded)

Lt. H.J.Ellison (unknown)

2/Lt. N.W.D.Doman (unknown)

Cpls. G. Watts (A Sqdrn), D. Seeden, W. Walpole  (both unknown)

L./Cpl. R. Hammond (unknown)

Troopers Billings, Clark, Williams, Bracey, Lynch, Roberts, Mottram (all A Sqdrn), F. Cornforth (unknown)

The number of killed on 21 November (12) is almost twice as high as the total killed suffered for the rest of CRUSADER (7). 21 November also accounted for 1/3rd of the listed wounded of the operation, 10 out of 30, although including the slightly wounded, the number comes to 17. It is notable that 3 squadron commanders were amongst the wounded.

* Major Sir Frederick Coates (2nd Baronet of Haypark) was probably only an acting Major, since by 1943 he is mentioned as a Captain in the 6 RTR war diary. After the war he rose to command the RAC’s school of tank technology with the rank of Colonel, and retired as a Brigadier. He died in 1994, aged 78 (see this link).