14 April 1941 marked the nadir of the history of M.G.Batl.8 or short ‘MG8’ in North Africa, when it lost its commanding officer, Lt.Col. Ponath, and several hundred men during a failed attempt to take Tobruk. The battalion had already been engaged heavily during the initial pursuit of the retreating Empire forces through the desert and along the coastal road, but without suffering heavy losses. When it reached Tobruk, the battalion was thrown into the assault on the town, which was erroneously perceived not to be held in strength.
This article examines the events that happened around Tobruk on the days from 11 – 17 April, drawing on war diaries, official histories, and the unit history of MG8.
The Assault on Tobruk
For the first week after reaching Tobruk, Rommel threw arriving units into an increasingly desperate battle in a piecemeal fashion. While the main event was the Easter battle, which really occurred over four days, culminating on the night of 13/14 April and ending with the rout of MG8 on the morning of 14 April, there were in fact several attempts all along the perimeter, undertaken by both German and Italian forces. None of them succeeded, and the Axis forces lost well over a regiment in troops in undertaking these disjointed attacks, which were individually defeated.
It is arguable that if instead of frittering away forces by throwing them into attack at different locations as they arrived, an effort had been made to concentrate them and attack at a chosen point, success against the defenders would have been more likely. By the end of 17 April, by combining German and Italian forces, a force equivalent to about 1.5 infantry regiments and about one battalion of tanks could have been generated, with support from about a regiment of artillery.
The object of desire. Oblique view of Tobruk town and harbour looking west, 1941. The obsolete Italian armoured cruiser San Giorgio in the foreground.AWM.
Tobruk Defense Overprint Map, Operation COMPASS, 14 Jan 1941. TNA – Rommelsriposte.com collection
The Easter Battle
The Easter battle for Tobruk ran from 11-14 April 1941. For MG8 it consisted of three days during which the battalion acted as assault infantry, and had made progress into the ring of fortifications around Tobruk, on the final night the battalion managed to break into the fortifications, but then couldn’t expand the breakthrough. The day-by-day account shows clearly how hard the fighting was.
On 11 April the impression of Rommel was that Tobruk was being evacuated, and the order came down to immediately attack to interrupt the attempt to withdraw men. An attempt by four companies of the battalion, with support from the remaining 20 tanks of Panzerregiment 5 (PR5) was duly made from mid-day, but faltered in the heavy artillery fire from the fortress. Initially held up by the artillery, the companies use a lull in the fire when the withdrawing tanks of PR5 draw the artillery to make one final advance. When the artillery fire switches back any further advance becomes impossible and the attack finally stops before reaching the Tobruk – El Adem road. The battalion digs in under artillery, MG, and AT gun fire. The attack is described well in the battalion history:
[…]We manage to advance some more metres in short jumps, until we receive MG and AT gun fire. Using the entrenching tool, bayonet, hand and feet, we dig small holes into the stony ground, and build small stone walls to protect our heads. We receive rifle fire. Any move means death or injury.
We cannot make out the enemy. His positions must be camouflaged too well. It makes a man cry to see how comrades fall dead, how the wounded try to crawl towards the rear.
In this inferno of artillery, MG, and AT-gun fire we see our stretcher bearers, especially Feldwebel Urban and Uffz. Weissgerber, dressing the wounded and carrying them to the rear. Does the hardly recognizable red-cross armband help somewhat? Some ask quietly for forgiveness that during peace time they looked down on the stretcher bearers…
During the night the battalion receives food and supplies, and enhances the positions.
The next day, 12 April, at 11 PR5 attacks at high speed, carrying the battalion forward. There is no communication between the two units, so when the tanks suddenly veer off and retreat because they have noted the anti-tank ditch, the battalion is surprised and has to go to ground again, now about 250-300 metres in front of this new barrier. While relatively unscathed from artillery fire, and in sandy ground that is easier to dig into, it is now under direct fire, and even the smallest movement is treacherous. When this is reported to Division HQ, the order comes that the battalion should hold the position it has reached, but it is realized that no further advance is possible. The battalion war diary estimates that the well-directed fire comprised about six batteries. Due to the more forward position re-supply and food supply almost fails. In some companies the men are brought their sports dresses, since these are darker, and can keep them warm during the night.
Estimated losses in these two days amount to ten killed and 42 wounded, including two company commanders. That is about half of all losses since the offensive commenced. It is estimated also that the rifle strength on the morning of 13 April was about 500 men.
On 13 April at 1100 hours Lt.Col. Ponath is ordered to the division HQ, and receives the order to attack at 1800 hours under cover of an artillery fire strike, and with support from one battery of 88mm guns of I./Flak 18 and with support from a 2cm battery of the same unit, which would advance to the forward line and provide direct fire support. 2nd and 3rd companies were to attack with one AT platoon as support each, roll up the enemy positions 500 metres in each direction, and open the way for the remainder of the battalion to break through to a road intersection deeper inside the fortress. If the attack went well during the night, then PR5 would advance in the early morning hours to exploit the breakthrough and advance into Tobruk proper.
Already the communication of these orders to the companies failed, and due to losses of runners, three of whom were killed and two wounded, elements of 2nd and 3rd companies never received the attack order. 3rd company had lost all its officers, and was now under command by a replacement from battalion HQ. They nevertheless attacked when they saw the rest of the battalion advance into the attack.
German Map of Tobruk Fortifications, August 1941. White arrow – direction of MG8 attack 1 – Dark circle – objective of MG8 attack. 2 – anti-tank ditch. 3 – direction of MG8 attack.
The final Attack
At 1730 hours on 13 April the light AA battery dashes forward, only to be annihilated. One officer and six men pass back through the line of 5th company of MG8. The 88mm battery takes position but almost immediately comes under heavy artillery fire. After firing some rounds the survivors retreat. Now without fire support the infantry advances regardless, and reaches the anti-tank ditch. 2nd company then retreats back into its old position due to the heavy fire. The attack falters at the ditch.
At 2200 hours, Lt.Col. Ponath assembles men from the 2nd and 3rd company for a silent attack, which makes good progress. A crossing capable of taking wheeled and tracked vehicles is found on the anti-tank ditch, and engineers lift mines. Patrols find no sign of the enemy. It later was noted that by co-incidence the attack hit right in the middle between positions R33 and R35, and since the attack was directed north-east, also aimed at the middle between R32 and R34 on the inner ring of fortifications. This was however not luck, but the result of a careful recce from the air by a Hs 126 of 2./(H)14. The Rocket Troop war diary notes that the plane spent the late afternoon of 13 April reconnoitering the area, and finally at 1830 hours dropping a flare exactly at the point of the crossing, which was presumably the signal to MG8 where to direct the attack.
It was for this attack that Cpl. Edmondson was awarded his Victoria Cross, posthumously. He was part of the crew on post R33, and when it was approached by about 30 Germans with two field guns and a mortar, a party under Lt. Mackell went out to engage them. Cpl. Edmondson was killed in the engagement.
Cpl. Edmondson V.C.. Wikipedia.
Corporal Edmondson’s VC citation reads as follows:
‘War Office, 1st July, 1941.
The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the VICTORIA CROSS to:—
No. 15705 Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, Australian Military Forces.
On the night of 13th–14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry
broke through the wire defences at Tobruk, and established themselves
with at least six machine guns, mortars and two small field pieces. It
was decided to attack them with bayonets, and a party consisting of one
officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates, took part in the charge.
During the counter-attack Corporal Edmondson was wounded in the neck and
stomach but continued to advance under heavy fire and killed one enemy
with his bayonet. Later, his officer had his bayonet in one of the enemy
and was grasped about the legs by him, when another attacked him from
behind. He called for help, and Corporal Edmondson, who was some yards
away, immediately came to his assistance and in spite of his wounds,
killed both of the enemy. This action undoubtedly saved his officer’s
‘Shortly after returning from this successful counter-attack, Corporal
Edmondson died of his wounds. His actions throughout the operations were
outstanding for resolution, leadership and conspicuous bravery.
The bridgehead thus gained by MG8 nevertheless was estimated to extend 500m left and right and to a depth that was either close to or included R32. This bridgehead was now consolidated, while the Australian defenders kept quiet.A consolidated, if somewhat disorganized line was created, with 3rd company on the left, then one platoon 1st company, then 2nd and 5th company. AT guns of 4th company were inserted into this position. AT guns of 7th company were expected to be put into the line, but advanced too far to the right and got stuck in front of the AT ditch, leaving only one of their platoons with the battalion, which had advanced with it during the day. Battalion HQ was in the AT ditch, as was the dressing station for the wounded.
The men tried to dig in, but like in a horror movie, were suddenly attacked by Australians coming from nowhere. First a man of 5th company is knifed to death, then a patrol hits 4th and 7th company so quickly that men cannot even grab their weapons. Then 2nd company, and the whole of the left wing is thrown back to the AT ditch. A counterattack regains some ground but notes 40 men of MG8 dead. Captain Bartsch, CO of 5th company and a survivor of the attack noted:
[…]Midnight came. When will these guys stop firing? I don’t even dare looking at our AT gun anymore. Then suddenly the fire ceases. We only hear the moaning of the wounded.
Suddenly a cry: “Where are our officers?”
If I hadn’t lain on the ground already I would have been knocked over.
Then the angry reply from Lt. Schöllmann: “Shut your gob. I’m here!”
But then came the most extraordinary of the extraordinary: the Tommies suddenly started singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary…” and then it crashed like a storm. Shouting hurrah at the top of their voices they attacked with the bayonet.
A counterattack was undertaken by maybe 35 men under Lt. Dreschler of 2nd company. A survivor recalled that they set out with a Hurrah, but then came under heavy MG and mortar fire, and only five men made it back to the AT ditch.
Around 0500 hours the tanks of PR5 appeared and managed to pull forward the riflemen and AT guns of MG8. The men of the battalion 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.
These hit an artillery position further inside the fortress at 0600 hours, and give up after an hour-long duel with A/E battery of 1 R.H.A. and M Battery R.H.A.. While the tank commander offered to take back the men of MG8, Lt.Col. Ponath refuses. Uffz. Engelhardt of 1st company, an eyewitness, recounted this confrontation:
[…]At this time the English had shot up about 11 of the tanks that were accompanying us. I was then witness to an excited confrontation between Lt.Col. Ponath and the commander of the tanks. The latter requested Ponath to climb on the tanks with his men, since he had to turn back. He had fired all but the emergency reserve of rounds. Ponath refused because the English were already about to abandon their positions, and all that was required was to advance. The tank commander refused however, closed his hatch, and turned about[…]
Once the tanks had disappeared, and the MG 8 infantry was stuck in a newly constructed but unfinished trench system, the defenders methodically eliminated them. By 1000 hours MG8 forces inside the fortress were running out of ammunition, and Lt.Col. Ponath, erroneously believing that tanks to the south were German, ordered to fall back onto them. In carrying out this maneuver he was killed. The remnants of 3rd company was subdued by a Vickers light tank that had worked itself into the trench and used its machine guns to control the company.
Sometime later, at 1130 hours, Captain Bartsch of 5th company, now in charge of the force, decided to surrender. The message did not immediately get through to everyone, but eventually firing ceased along the line.
In the meantime, the Australian infantry, supported by the Matilda IIs of ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R. had attacked the bridgehead and eliminated it. The bayonet was again in use, for example in the charge of a small number of Australians from B Company 2/17 Battalion, described thus in its war diary for 14 April (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. […]
At 0800 the diarist of Rocket Troop 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.’ The estimate is 300 POW and the same or higher number killed, which seems reasonable.
Following the battle, MG8 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). It is estimated that about 700 men were lost, including 10 officers and 46 NCOs. Almost all weapons had been lost, including 36 HMGs, 15 AT guns, 5 81mm mortars, 40 SMGs, and 280 rifles.
On the morning of 14 April it could field the following, which equates to about one company between coys 1-5:
|1st Company (MG)||2 heavy MG (s.M.G.) platoons|
|2nd Company (MG)||1 platoon with 4 s.M.G. and one ATR
|3rd Company (MG)||1 s.M.G. section, 1 ATR|
|4th Company (AT)||2 AT guns, 2 heavy mortars (81mm)|
|5th Company (motorcycle)||Only trucks and supply vehicles/installations|
|6th Company (Engineers)||Not used yet, remains in the rear in training|
This would amount to 14 s.M.G., 2 ATR and no light mortars, roughly equivalent to a MG company, all told, with at most 1.5 times the manpower of a normal MG company.
Based on the February 1941 organization at this link, a machine gun company would field:
12 heavy machine guns
3 light mortars
3 anti-tank rifles
The 4th, anti-tank gun company (see this link) would normally hold:
6x 3.7cm AT gun
6x heavy mortar 81mm
15 to 17 April
The attacks did not end on 14 April.
Machine Gun Battalion 8
Contrary to many popular myths, the Italian positions in the fortification ring around Tobruk were very well constructed, flush with the ground, and extremely difficult to make out.
This probably covers AT rifles as well.
The company numbering for the battalion is all over the place. The accounts in the unit history mention a 7th (heavy) company, which did exist, but was renumbered as either 4th or 5th at some point.
AWM – Official History Tobruk
Lissance, Halder War Diaries
Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers
Molony – The Mediterranean and the Middle East
Unknown – History of MG8
War Diary – Deutsches Afrikakorps
There’s a hadn-written note next to the entry on the battalion’s strength, which I cannot decipher – any help much appreciated: