Making Sense of the Tobruk Breakout

I have written a few posts about the Tobruk breakout (see here, here, here, and here), and thought a map and a complete overview of the code names for the objectives maybe helpful. This is from 14 Brigade, 32 Army Tank Brigade, and Division z.b.V. war diaries, so about as good as it gets. Corrections welcome however.

First the map – this is a second-stage map with the new code-names in black, and the old ones pencilled in. The line of red dots to the north-west are the fortifications of the perimeter. The double-lined road to thenorth-east is the road to Bardia. The road in the south-east corner, covered partially by the LEOPARD position, is the Axis by-pass road.

Click on the map to open it in full size.

breakout

 

Now for the codenames.  Note that for location, higher numbers are further east, and further north. The table below merges information from 14 Brigade war diary, the war diary of 32 Army Tank Brigade, the war diary of Division z.b.V., and a report on the actions of the Bologna division. The strongpoints are listed beginning in the west, and then moving in an arc to finish with the north-easternmost strongpoint. One item of note is that the relatively small size of the strongpoints on the British map was highly misleading. Judging by the German map it appears that the arc from west of TUGUN to BUTCH was almost continuous, and covered from the rear by artillery placed in rearward strongpoints.

There is some confusion about the Belhamed, which is clearly labelled as ‘LEOPARD’ by 14 Brigade, but called GIANT by 32 Army Tank Brigade. Also, I have previously not been aware of the new code name for Sidi Rezegh, OGRE.

Objective Name

Objective Name from 26 Nov.41

Location

Location

Map

Occupant

Axis Name

Original

New

East- West North- South  

If known

 
PLONK SNOWHITE 413 419 n/k Italian, Pavia n/k
BONDI QUEEN 414 416 Walled Village Italian, Pavia n/k
TUGUN SLEEPY 418 418 Bir Bu Assatein Italian, Pavia Posns. 21, 13, 14
DALBY SQUARE DOC 418 414   Italian, Pavia Posn. 4
LION BASHFUL 421 415 Bir Ghersa   Posn. 10
CUB? CAT? 422 416     n/k
BUTCH DOPEY 422 420 Bir Suesi German, Div. z.b.V. Posn. 19
JILL n/a 422 418 Pt. 145 German, Div. z.b.V. and Bologna Posn. 15 (Bologna), 26, 18 (German)
TIGER SNEEZY 423 417   Italian, Bologna Posn. 3
JACK HAPPY 424 419 Pt. 146 German, Div. z.b.V. Posn. 11
WOLF GRUMPY 426 414 Carmuset Bel Udih Italian, Bologna Fico (Fig Tree)
  LEOPARD/ GIANT 428 413 Belhamed Italian, Bologna Belhamed
TOAST DWARF     Ed Duda German, Arko 104, Div. z.b.V. Ed Duda
  OGRE     Sidi Rezegh   Sidi Rezegh
  CHEERFUL 428 416   German, Div. z.b.V. 900
  FREDDIE 428 418   Italian, Bologna 6
  WALTER 428 420   German, Div. z.b.V. 5

 

Below map shows the concept of 14 Brigade’s operations.

breakout2

25/26 November 41–who attacked strongpoint 903?

While going through the events of the night of 25/26 November 1941 outside Tobruk (confusing enough), I came across a puzzling entry in the war diary of Division z.b.V. (later 90th Light).

21.00 – 02.00 attack by English assault detachments in bright moonlight on strongpoint 903, and around 24.00 hours on strongpoint 20, which was taken. In the early morning hours the men who succeeded in getting out after destroying their weapons get back to the divisional command post.

The map below, from the war diary of Division z.b.V. shows the layout of the divison’s strongpoints on 25 November. I have indicated the location of actual attacks and who carried them out, and also where position 903 was located.

image

Now, the order of events during the night was as follows:

  • 21.00 attack by 2 Yorks and Lancasters supported by A Squadron 4 RTR on objective WOLF (formerly known as GRUMPY, and named ‘Fico’ (Fig tree) by the Italian Bologna division which provided the garrison). This attack got completely stuck and the infantry suffered heavy losses. A renewed attack in the morning was required to take out the strongpoint.
  • 21.30 attack by 2 Leicesters supported by D Squadron 7 RTR against position 20 (upper left – unnumbered). This area did not seem to have a code-name, but was referred to as the ‘wrecked plane’ area, after a Junkers wreck lying to the east of it, even though I believe that at least part of the strongpoint was covered by the area code-named HARRY. This attack got stuck. In the morning when it was renewed it was found that the Germans had abandoned the position.
  • 22.00 approach march by 18 and 20 NZ Battalions commences, and ‘before midnight’ the battalions are on the northern slope of Belhamed. The map below shows the approach march, it is taken from the NZ Official History. This was objective LEOPARD. The attack was completely successful.

image

 

The only Allied element that came even close to 903 was Lt.Col. Kippenberger’s party, which had lost it’s way and ended up about 1km north of Belhamed at some point. It reports that there were Germans who were captured by Lt. Baker’s LAA men who were accompanying Kippenberger’s party. While it is possible that this was mistaken for an attack by the garrison of strongpoint 903, but it is quite a way away.

When I get around to it I will provide a write-up of the engagements for the two objectives of 70 Division.

In the meantime, if someone has an answer to who or what attacked strongpoint 903, I’d love to hear it. I am sure it is something eminently simple that I have just overlooked!

If it were in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it…

The below is from the H.Q. Tobruch Fortress Intelligence Summary No. 10, issued on 1 November 1941.

Own Ground Activity

(b) Patrols

[…]

The Polish Officer missing from a patrol night 30/31 Oct has returned. A full report has not been received. It seems that he posed as a GERMAN, and having previously bandaged his head, hailed a passing lorry and ordered the ITALIAN driver to take him to the hospital. During the day he took cover in a gun pit near the DERNA rd and spent the day observing. At dusk he returned by lorry, this time driven by a LIBYAN, and debussing in the MEDAUUAR, made his way successfully through to our lines. Details of the information gained will be given when available.

The report is contained in the next day’s intel summary No. 11, 2 November 1941, although it appears to me that the officer wasn’t Polish after all, going by the surname.

A report has been received of the activities of 2/Lieut. RUSHILL who, as mentioned in yesterday’s summary, penetrated the ITALIAN lines on the night 30/31 Oct.

Whilst concealed in an arty pit near the DERNA Rd, he noted a considerable amount of movement West to East. He located 4 fd guns at 394433 on the left of the road, and 2 fd guns on the escarpment at about 39504315. He also noticed about 8 tanks dispersed near the escarpment.

The locations are about 10 km NNE of Acroma, within the Axis bypass road perimeter.

 

 

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.

The Tobruk Breakout from the Other Side of the Hill

The text below is the translation of the evening report of Div.z.b.V.Afrika for 21 November 41, the day the Tobruk garrison started its breakout. On this day the division was under pressure from two sides. 7th Support Group with 7th Armoured Brigade attacked S.R.155‘s (Rifle Regiment 155) positions on the escarpment from their position at Sidi Rezegh, while the Tobruk garrison attacked the strongpoints at Belhamed, occupied by the reinforced III./S.R.155, III./IR255 and III./IR347 (3rd battalions of infantry regiments 155, 255 and 347, respectively) from inside the perimeter, with considerable support from the infantry tanks of 4 RTR and D Squadron 7 RTR. The experience of a platoon of III./IR255 has been detailed in an older entry at this link. In the present entry, the official German version of the events of the day, as reported up the chain of command, is given. In the future I intend to translate the war diary entry of the division for this day.

The evening report is a masterpiece of not directly telling the unpleasant news from the siege front. It starts by referring to the attack which was repulsed on the right wing, failing to mention that it succeeded on the left wing, and then goes on to list the positions still held. But it does not refer to the positions the division actually lost, so the recipient of the report would need to get a map of the strongpoint system to figure out himself where the Tobruk garrison was now established (which I have done). Even though it never says so, it is clear that the division did not have a particularly good day, also indicated that the intent for the next day was defensive, instead of counter-attacking to retake the lost ground.

Map of Tobruk Fortifications in Breakout Sector - German Map based on Italian/British data

The events of the day as I can make them out (and this is really a work in progress) were roughly as follows:

0630 – D Squadron 7 RTR and 2nd King’s Own take parts of position 19 (objective Butch) on the northern edge of the breakout area, opposite R73.

0630 – An attack against position 13 (Tugun) by 2nd Queens fails.

0715 –2nd Black Watch take part of position 18 (Jill). 2nd Black Watch advances on their objective. A company 2nd Beds and Herts is installed to hold it.

0750 – 2nd Black Watch is reported to be in trouble behind Jill.

Time uncertain – B Squadron (reserve) 4 RTR attacks position east of Tugun (could be part of position 14) and hands it over to the infantry. It then moves on to support the 2nd Black Watch which by now is held up before objective Tiger. The Italian artillery battalion referred to in the daily report was probably at this position, since 2nd Black Watch reported taking 12 field guns (one battalion) here.

1015 – A and C Squadron 4 RTR and remnants of 2nd Black Watch take position 16 (Tiger) after heavy losses to the infantry and many tank casualties. This was the battalion HQ .

Time uncertain – A troop each of A and C Squadron 4 RTR attack position 11 (Jack) on point 145 and take it. This was the battalion HQ of Major Maythaler, III./IR155 (reported missing in the daily report below).

Time uncertain – British tanks push on to Carmuset Beludeah to the southwest, but are repulsed.

1545 – D Squadron 7 RTR tanks with 10 Matildas and B Company 2nd Queens reinforced by A Company of 2nd Beds and Herts, and supported by three regiments of field artillery (72 guns) within an hour from jumping off quickly take the eastern end position 13 (Tugun) on the southwestern edge of the breakout, opposite R65.

It is a bit tricky to get the German and British accounts to match, because the British reports are in the context of their objectives, which did not completely overlap with the German strongpoints. It appears that the reconnaissance prior to the attack had failed to understand completely the extent of the fortification system (as it had missed the fact that the Italian troops had been relieved by Germans), and if one looks at the German and the British maps at the same time, it is clear that the British had only a weak understanding of the siege front system, and I wonder how much the British units replacing the Australians did actually patrol. There is also a bit of apologia going on in at least some Commonwealth publications, where it is claimed that the presence of Germans was a surprise (correct) because they had only moved into the Italian positions 2 days before the breakout. This is not correct, as the war diary of Div. z.b.V. makes very clear – the Germans had moved in 10 days beforehand, and were very active patrolling themselves. They had been issued Italian uniforms for deception reasons, but this would of course not helped in case of a man being captured.  From Auchinleck’s despatch it appears that the breakout was primarily planned on the basis of aerial photography, and this probably accounts for the lack of real understanding of the fortification system, and its occupants.

As a consequence of the twin failure to understand the extent of the fortifications, and the thickening of the siege front in this sector, losses were high amongs the attackers. The worst experience was that of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch, which suffered 79 men killed and 197 wounded out of 612 men who started the attack, and is detailed at this link.

The tank destruction claims made in the German report below are believable. Total infantry tank casualties (of all types, i.e. repairable included) in the Tobruk breakout on 21 November amounted to 11 in D Squadron 7 RTR, and 32 in 4 RTR, out of the about 65 that they had started with. Many tanks were damaged on mines. In the end, many of the tanks were recovered and repaired however, e.g. 4 RTR reported only 12 total write offs for the whole of Operation CRUSADER. In addition to the Matildas, the 26 cruiser tanks of 1 RTR also advanced, and the next day 8 of them were serviceable, bringing total tank losses for the day (excluding light tanks, of which a number were also lost or damaged) to 61.

The Australian Official History (Tobruk, Ch.11, Ed Duda) sums the day up as follows:

It had been a day of great achievement . A wedge three miles deep had been driven through one of the strongest sections of the encircling defences. To secure the corridor against sniping and cross-fire, further operations would be required, but it was already possible for garrison forces to debouch into the open desert, whatever perils might lie beyond . Five hundred and fifty German prisoners (including 20 officers) and 527 Italian (including 18 officers) had been taken, but at great cost in loss of life . In the 2/Black Watch alone, there were 200 dead.

Despite it being over optimistic (there is no way the garrison could have ‘debouched into the desert’ on 22 November, in my view, and the error on the numbers killed for 2nd Black Watch, I believe this assessment to be far closer to the truth than the dismissive view of the events given by the evening report of Division z.b.V. Apart from the considerable number of POWs taken (for which I have what appears as a different set of numbers in a message by Tobruk Fortress HQ to 8th Army of 23 November, namely 449 German and 834 Italian), there were also 10 105mm guns and 12 75mm guns captured. The breakout severely damaged the Bologna division, causing heavy losses to all the infantry battalions in the 40th Infantry Regiment, and destroying the heavy artillery battalion of 205th Artillery Regiment, as well as one of the light battalions.  After this day the division can only have been a shell for the remainder of the battle.

Evening Report of Division z.b.V for 21 November, from IWM Captured German Records Archive, Duxford

Div.z.b.V.Afrika

Divisional Command Post, the 20 November 41

Dept. Ia

Added by hand:

Transmission time 20.15 hours

No. 211/1 Ia

Evening report for 21 November 41

After repulsed enemy tank attack before right wing division holds strongpoints 1, 2, 20 in forward line, 5, 6 in rearward line. Mass of artillery at and north of Bu Amud.

Belhamed occupied by reinforced Pi.900 [Pionier/Engineer Battalion 900, an independent unit consisting of two sapper companies attached to Div.z.b.V.] without 1st company. Divisional reserve S.R.155 holds escarpment south of Sidi Rezegh until west of [Point ]171 (5 km south of it). About 30% losses.

Pz.Jg.Abt.605 [Panzerjägerabteilung/Anti-Tank Battalion 605 – an independent anti-tank unit with 27 self-propelled Czech 4.7cm ATGs in three companies of 9 vehicles, mounted on partially armoured Pz.I chassis – you can see pictures at this link; a total of 202 were built]with one company at Afrika-Rgt. [361 – a regiment formed of former members of the French Foreign Legion and attached to Div.z.b.V.]. Remainder to 80% casualties. Afrika-Rgt. holds position, hardly any losses.

Enemy attacked with one tank battalion, with at least 50 heavy Mk.II/R.T.R, accompanied by one infantry battalion. Breakthrough between defense works 64 and 71 [of the Tobruk defenses originally built by the Italians]. Follow-up push direction south-south-east, later turning in to east-north-east. Enemy tank spearhead in southern direction on Belhamed broke through with 6 tanks, and there destroyed. The division destroyed on Tobruk Front 18, at S.R.155 25, total 43 enemy tanks. 8 prisoners, including one Major, brought in.

Losses and Casualties:

Missing:

Major Maythaler

3 reinforced companies

1 Italian artillery battalion with weapons

Of I.R.155 [typo, should probably be S.R.155] and

Pz.Jg.Abt.605 numbers not known yet.

Afrika-Rgt. 361 one man dead, 7 wounded (including one officer)

Losses in weapons: 13 4.7cm ATG at Pz.JG.Abt.605

Intent for 22 November:

Defense of currently held position, strongpoints 1, 2, 20, 5 and 6. Mine belt laid before Point 145 (2 km southwest Sidi Scegheilif) via 146 (2 km south of it) – 1 km southeast of it.

One company each north of strongpoint 5 and 6 of Italian battalion I./40 [1st battalion 40th Regiment, one of the infantry regiments of Italian 25th Infantry Division “Bologna”]. Div.Bologna intends to create new strongpoint at Carmuset Beludeah for 2 reinforced companies.

D.A.K. [Deutsches Afrika Korps]has subordinated Afrika-Rgt.361 to 21.Pz.Div. [21st Panzer Division]since 16.00 hours 21 November.

For the divisional command

The First Officer of the General Staff

Signed – unreadable

The evening report from TOBFORT states the success of the day, and indicates the range of units that were caught and the damage inflicted.

To: 8th ARMY (R) 30 Corps
From: TOBFORT
21/11/41
T.O.O. 2200/21
T.O.R. 1443/22*

IMMEDIATE

During morning first phases of attack successfully carried out.
BUTCH 422420 TIGER 423417 JACK 424419 Captured.
Some delay in operations due to strong resistance at TUGUN 418418.**
TUGUN captured by 1530 hrs.
Counter attack 1730 hrs. successfully driven off.

Situation tonight.
Strong posts captured having been consolidated and are held by 14 BDE.
32 Tank Bde leaguering inside perimeter through gap minefield.
Out tank casualties on Mine Field fairly heavy.
About 1100 prisoners captured of which half are GERMANS.

Identifications.
GERMAN 3 Bn 2(55?) Inf. Regt.*** 3 Bn 155 Lorried Inf. Regt. This last was called 3 Bn. 268 Inf. Regt. until 6 weeks ago.
ITALIAN. The whole 1 Battery 205 Arty Regt. BOLOGNA killed or captured.**** 2 Bn 16 Inf. Regt. SAVONA. P.W. states only Mortar Pl. of 16 Regt. remained in TOBRUK area.
2 Bn. 44 Inf. Regt. BOLOGNA 1 Bn 40 Inf. Regt. BOLOGNA. H.Q. (including C.O.) of unknown Bn. 40 Inf. Regt. captured at TUGUN.*****

* Note the time it took to be received.
** So much for the idea that the Italians were not fighters…
*** This battalion was destroyed on this day, it was not requested that it be rebuilt in the wash-up after CRUSADER.
**** On 23 November, with no major further action, TOBFORT reported 10 105mm and 12 75mm guns captured. By 1600 of 23 Nov, 449 Germans and 834 Italians had been captured in the breakout. Of these 4/37 Germans and 4/36 Italians had been captured on 22 November, when WOLF 426415 and LION 421415 had been seized without opposition, and TUGUN fully occupied.
***** This seems to have been 1 Bn 40 (42?) Infantry, of which on 22 November 2/3rds, including the C.O. and 3 officers are reported captured.

Many thanks to Stephen Walton of the IWM for his invaluable help.

 

Lieutenant McGinlay’s DSO

Appendix to the War Diary of 7 RTR, which was in the Tobruk fortress during the battle. Many thanks to the Tank Museum for their great work in transcribing these, and the very courteous handling of my requests to get them copied in pieces and shipped to France.

STARTS

32 A. Tank Bde. 70 Division 8 Army Corps

Unit – 7 R Tanks

Rank and Name: Lieut. McGinlay, Alexander Oliphant

Recommended by Major J.R. Holden, DSO

Honour or Reward DSO.

TOBRUK – 22nd to 30th November 1941

Lieut McGinlay was in action continuously from the night 21/22 November to the morning of 30th November. During this time he performed his duties with the utmost gallantry and was largely responsible for three successful attacks on enemy strongpoints.  On two separate occasions he led the tanks to a startline on foot when under the most intense artillery and mortar fire, with a complete disregard for his own safety.  He has acted as troop leader, liaison officer, reconnaissance officer and even F.O.O. and at all times has been absolutely reliable. His magnificent courage and unquenchable cheerfulness have been unsurpassed.  His leadership and advice have been first class at all times.

Sd/J.R.Holden, O.C. “D” Sqdn. 7th Bn., Royal Tank Regiment

ENDS

His Bar to the MC was gazetted on 24 February 1942, his original MC was numbered 140577.

Addition:

Following contact with the daughter of the late Major ‘Jock’ McGinlay MC and Bar, it turns out that somebody higher up the foodchain in 8th Army decided that a DSO might be too much, and the decoration was downgraded to an MC. A difficult to understand decision, unless one presumes that what Lieutenant McGinlay did was somewhat expected of a troop leader.

It appears from some further research that a DSO for a junior officer was seen as an indication that this officer had just about missed a recommendation for a Victoria Cross. Given that this recommendation came from a very experienced Squadron Leader, who himself had been in command at the very tricky action against 15 Panzer at Capuzzo/Pt.207 during BATTLEAXE, it speaks very well of Lt. McGinlay.

Lt. McGinlay was wounded during the last stand of 4/7 RTR outside Tobruk in the desastrous Gazala battles, and captured in hospital when Tobruk fell. He returned to the Royal Armoured Corps in Italy in 1944, commanding Churchills after his escape from captivity, and fought until the end of the war.

See also this post about some information from the Major McGinlay’s papers.

I would still be interested to hear what became of Major Holden DSO.