Defending Position 19

Position 19 was one of the fortified positions Division z.b.V. (later 90th Light Africa Division) had occupied along the perimeter of Tobruk in preparation for the attack.  At the start of Crusader it was occupied by a platoon of Company 11, 3rd Battalion, Infantry Regiment 255, under the command of Lieutenant Hartz.  This was an independent battalion which had been sent to North Africa in May 1941, and was now poised for the attack on Tobruk as part of Division z.b.V.

His report on the events leading to the loss of the position give an interesting insight into what it looked like to be attacked by superior enemy forces, including the total chaos this meant in terms of understanding the flow of the battle as a whole, and what is going on around one.  To me it provides a reasonable explanation for the oft remarked on habit of German soldiers to continue fighting even when encircled – they could not be sure they were in fact encircled, and they could not be sure how bad it was.  So better to hold on.

The report also gives interesting insight how an attack on a fortified position looked like from the receiving end.  I also find it interesting how long the action took for the Germans, even though the 7 RTR war diary reports that within 10 minutes of crossing the startline the business was over, and orders were given to rally in the forward assembly area.  The Australian history has a good bit of detail on the day. After a bit of map study, comparing a German map showing the location of the strongpoints with the British map of the objectives at this link.  I am now convinced that Position 19 was an unknown part of the objective called BUTCH by the 70th Division.  BUTCH was attacked by 2nd King’s Own with D Squadron 7 RTR in support (see this older entry). This is confirmed by the Australian history which states that the other two battalions attacking that day did not have tank support during the initial attack, which would rule them out. There were four immobilised Matildas in front of BUTCH, two of which caused such problems to the German garrison, and they were commanded by Capt. Craig, Sgt. Prouse (Y-casualties, both of these were repaired by the crews and returned at night), 2/Lt. Massey, and Lt. Walters (Z-casualty, could not be repaired). Lt. Massey later walked into the Squadron assembly area with 25 German POW.

Another interesting bit of info is the helplessness experienced by the German soldiers in the face of two immobilised Matildas. A lot has been said that by late 41 the Matilda was no longer the “Queen of the Desert”. While this was certainly true where 88s were present, this assessment would have provided but cold comfort to the men of Lieutenant Hartz’s platoon.

The report was written up on 22 December, when what remained of the then renamed 90th Light had safely been moved into the Agheila position, preparing to receive the rest of Panzergruppe Afrika, which was by then in full retreat from the Gazala position.  The report consists of two parts, the first on what happened in position 19, the second on what happened to the remains of the Company 11 afterwards until the division was pulled out of battle.  For today, I only translate the first part. Update 22 August 09, the second part can be found at this link now.

Report on the combat on 21 November 1941 in Position 19 and the use of the remaining elements of Company 11 until December 8 1941

With my platoon I had occupied the right-flank fortification of Position 19.  At 5.30am on 21 November 1941 I heard strong engine noise from the direction of Tobruk.  I reported this to the company CP immediately, where it had already been recognised.  6.30am I recognised a strong tank attack on my fortification.  Eight armoured vehicles rolled towards it and fired at it with HE rounds and heavy MG (1) . My 3.7cm AT became unservicable because of damage to the breech after the first few rounds.  The Italian AT rifle 2cm was rendered unservicable because of a direct hit.  No further armour piercing weapons remained to me.  Out of 8 tanks 2 remained immobile outside my fortification.  They fired all day with their gun, heavy MG, or submachineguns on any target that showed itself in my fortification.(2)  Despite this I continued to fire repeatedly on the tanks with my light MGs to prevent the crews from leaving the tanks or communicating.  Since 7am there was no contact with the company.  At 7.30am I saw that the advance platoon from Magen Suei (3) was pulling back on the company HQ and that the enemy infantry immediately pushed after them. At 14.30 our artillery fired at the enemy tanks in front of us. Since some rounds fell short causing damage to dug-outs in our position, I fired a white Verey light. The artillery stopped firing thereupon, repeating the fire attack at 17.00, but also without success.  When darkness fell I tried to re-establish contact with the company. When I was short of the company CP heavy artillery fire fell on it.  I worked my way forward to the wire barrier and repeatedly shouted towards it without receiving a response.  Since no fire had come from the CP and the left of it since lunchtime I presumed it had been evacuated.  I returned to my position and tried now to gain contact to Position 20, whereby I met enemy.  After the patrol returned from the battalion CP and reported that this was occupied by the enemy I  resolved to evacuate my position.(4)  At 23.30 I gave the order to all section leaders, at 24.00 I left the position with all working weapons, as much ammunition as possible, and retreated in the direction of the Via Balbo.  At the Italian cemetary I left my platoon north of the road and myself moved to the divisional CP to report there.

Notes:

(1) this is unlikely, since the 2-pdr guns of the Matildas which attacked him were not issued HE rounds. It is more likely that these were guns in direct fire support, or part of the artillery barrage misidentified as direct fire.

(2) A decoration recommendation for the MC for Captain Craig from 7 RTR indicates that the tanks may have been of his troop, since he partially received his decoration for recovering them. The relevant part of the citation reads:

During the preliminary advance from Tobruk and the attack on the first strong point two of the tanks in Captain Craig’s Troop ran on to a minefield.  Both these tanks remained in action throughout the day bringing intense fire to bear on enemy positions within range.  As soon as darkness fell he set about recovering both vehicles and do so before midnight in spite of the fact that all work was performed in the open and under heavy enemy fire.

(3) This is likely the element of BUTCH attacked by 2nd King’s Own with 19 Matildas.

(4) This is likely to have been objective JACK for the British assault, identified by the Australian history as a battalion HQ.

Many thanks again to James for getting this item from NARA. Other sources used are the 7 RTR war diary (transcribed by Bovington volunteers), the AWM history “Ed Duda”, and the relevant section from the history of 2nd King’s Own, kindly scanned in by their museum curator.

Operational Report 7th Queen’s Own Hussars December 1941

The 7th Queen’s Own Hussars were one of the cruiser-equipped armour regiments in 7th Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division, the famous “Desert Rats”.  The regiment did not have a happy operation, and by 27th November was moved to the Left Out of Battle (L.O.B.) camp near Bir Telata, after the last three tanks had been evacuated.  It formed a composite squadron of Stuart tanks, which was instructed by US soldiers. The action on 21st November referred to in the report below left the regiment with only 12 to 20 tanks (instead of a normal state of close to 60 – only 1 tank had been lost until then), and the regimental commander Lt.Col. Byass DSO MC was killed.  I will post further information on this engagement another day.

OPERATIONAL REPORT, 7th QUEEN’S OWN HUSSARS DECEMBER, 1941.

Reference the attached report of Operations carried out by this Regiment between November 18th, and November 29th, 1941, I append a few remarks in amplification of the report.

(1) German methods of tank warfare.

In the initial stages the enemy appeared to move his tank force in a concentrated mass. The column which attacked 7th Hussars on November 21st was a densely packed tank force numbering some 150 tanks. (N.B. These were actually counted approximately and this figure does not include tanks out of sight.) A/Tank and/or field guns appeared to be up with the tanks. Thus the full weight of attack of what may have been over half the total enemy tank strength descended on one British Regiment. Had close artillery support, i.e. 25 – pounder guns up in line with the 7th Hussars been available at the commencement of the engagement, very heavy destruction of enemy tanks must have resulted owing to their close formation. The enemy opened fire at long range and several tanks of the 7’h Hussars were destroyed before they could close to effective 2 – pounder range. The enemy appeared to fire three distinct types of ammunition.

(a) An ordinary H.E. shell – either from guns mounted in tanks or from artillery up with the tanks.

(b) An A/Tank armour-piercing shot, varying in destructive power, probably from different types of gun.

(c) An incendiary shell which on explosion generated terrific heat and caused our tanks to catch fire, even though the shell hit the front of the turret.

After 21st November, the German tank force appeared to split up into smaller columns which on the following days engaged unprotected M.T. Echelons and was a source of danger to our communications and higher headquarters.

(2) A separate report has been rendered regarding certain technical difficulties experienced with the A 15 Cruiser tanks.

(3) It is suggested that the following lessons were brought out during the operations:

(a) The importance of keeping sufficiently concentrated to maintain numerical superiority in the initial engagement against the enemy’s main force.

(b) The necessity for early information regarding the enemy’s movements – in particular those of his main force. Information on November 21 S` arrived too late for 7th Armoured Brigade to concentrate.

(c) Unless and until we have a tank gun which can equal that of the most modern German tanks opposed to us, 25 – pounder support under direct control of Regimental Commanders is essential. At 2,000 yards over open sights the 25 – pounder is a good A/Tank weapon, (vide subsequent action of the 4th Indian Division, R.A., which destroyed some 17 enemy tanks for the loss of only four guns). Desultory shelling at long range by 25 – pounders against enemy A.F.V.s is of little or no value.

(d) Tanks of a Regiment should be all of the same type. 7th Hussars went into action with a mixture of A 15, A 13, and A 10 Cruiser tanks. Even the A 15 tanks were of different makes and certain gun spares were non-interchangeable.

(e) A Echelons should be reduced to the minimum required for immediate replenishment, medical services and repairs to tanks. A Echelons are very vulnerable and, being close up behind the A.F.V.s are liable to be cut off by enemy columns. A small A Echelon can escape more easily than a large one.

(f) All B vehicles not with the A Echelons should be with Brigade B Echelons. Intermediate Echelons are not practicable and merely constitute further vulnerable bodies of M.T. liable to become cut off and lost.

(g) In open desert warfare, B Echelons will frequently, once the main tank forces have joined in battle, not be able to replenish units at night. Indication of leaguer location by firing verey lights is dangerous.

ABBASSIA, December, 1941.

(Signed) Major Commanding 7th Queen’s Own Hussars.