Holding a Tiger by the Tail

Thanks to Jan I now have a copy of the Afrikakorps (D.A.K.) war diary from 6 February 1941. I wanted to have a look at it to see how Rommel ended up in the mess in front of Tobruk. It is quite interesting reading. Of particular interest is the analysis of the situation by Rommel at the end of April 1941.

Transcript of radio message D.A.K. to O.K.H. (High Command of the Army – Berlin):

Situation in front of Bardia, Tobruk, more difficult day-by-day due to additional English forces being brought up… If Bardia-Sollum were lost or encircled, the battle for Tobruk would have to be abandoned because of a lack of forces for a defense [sic!] in two directions. A change of this strongly crisis-like shape of the situation is only possible by accelerated arrival of German forces by air, incl. bringing up to strength of 5.lei.Div. and the immediate reinforcement of the air force, especially ground attack planes, as well as by tasking submarines along the coastal strip of Sollum – Tobruk … Italian troops cannot be relied on.

To which O.K.H. felt compelled to reply:

Addition of forces by air transport not possible at the moment, since transport space is not being available to Army by O.K.W. (High Command of the Armed Forces). Afrikakorps can, until early May, only expect the forces arriving as planned by sea, from May amelioration of arrival by sea and restricted air transport potentially possible …

Reading this you can someone see their head shaking in Berlin. It is no wonder that General Paulus was despatched to have a look into the goings-on in North Africa.

Also of interest is what had happened to individual units in the rapid advance and initial attack on Tobruk on 11/12 April. The heavily used 8th Machine Gun Battalion (M.G.Batl.8) had been reduced to 300 men combat strength, compared to 1,400 men ration strength (note that this does not mean 1,100 men had been lost, the two strengths cannot be compared, for example temporarily detached units would still be on the ration strength, but not on the combat strength).

What is more instructive is what was left in terms of combat strength. On 14 April it could field the following:

Sub-Unit Strength
1st Company 2 heavy MG (s.M.G.) platoons
2nd Company 1 platoon with 4 s.M.G. and one AT rifle (ATR)
3rd Company 1 s.M.G. section, 1 ATR
4th Company 2 AT guns, 2 heavy mortars (81mm)
5th Company Only trucks and supply vehicles/installations
6th Company Not used yet, remains in the rear in training

This would amount to 14 s.M.G., 2 each ATR, AT guns, and heavy mortars, and no light mortars, roughly equivalent to a MG company, all told, with about 1.5 times the manpower of a normal MG company. By comparison, a full company is described at this link. It would field:

12 heavy machine guns

3 light mortars

3 anti-tank rifles

While the heavy company would field:

6x 3.7cm AT gun

6x heavy mortar 81mm

Adding the 8 s.M.G. in the staff company (see this link) gives you 44 s.M.G., 9 each light mortars and ATRs, and at least 6 each AT guns and heavy mortars, as strength for the battalion. While M.G.8 had additional reinforcements assigned to it, it is not clear to me where these were at this point in time.

There’s a hadn-written note next to the entry on the battalion’s strength, which I cannot decipher – any help much appreciated:


Nevertheless, on the day the battalion managed to break into the fortifications, but then couldn’t expand the breakthrough. The men of the battlion were noted in 1 Royal Horse Artillery’s B/O Battery’s war diary as passing through ‘D’ Company positions (presumably of 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion) at 0500, and occupying the house which was the observation post of the Rocket Troop. At 0800 the diarist notes with some satisfaction ‘The results of the battle was 300 prisoners and an equal number or more killed’ and ‘The enemy were completely ROUTED and withdrew showing complete lack of fight when faced with the bayonet.’

I must say I can’t blame them, after what must have been a harrowing dawn, constantly under fire, with many killed already with headwounds due to constant MG fire traversing their foxholes, and a lack of steel helmets.

The specific remark about the bayonet charge probably refers to the charge of a small number of Australians from B Company 2/17 Battalion, described thus in its war diary (available for download at this link):

0630 15 enemy located in ruined house NORTH of post 32 [i.e. further towards Tobruk]. B Coy [Company] was then about to counter-attack. B Comd [Company Commander] left post 32 and rejoined his Coy which had already been in action, Lieut. Owen having been wounded, in clearing the ruined house behind post 32. Rejoined (less 1 pl[atoon]) and found enemy about 0730 on hill below house and arty [artillery] OP [observation post]. They were then engaged, and a charge made by two sections [about 20 men] with Coy Comd. Enemy 100-150 strong. All were either killed or captured. […]