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.

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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.

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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!

Some views on the Matilda II

The Matilda II was the iconic early-war tank of the British Army. When it was first encountered by the Germans in France, and the Italians in North Africa, it was very bad news to them, since none of their standard AT guns did a good job at dealing with it.  By the time of Operation CRUSADER however, it had gone past its heyday in fighting the Germans, and it was about to be replaced by the Valentine, which continued to serve in Europe until the end of the war if not as a main-line battle tank then as a chassis for specialised conversions, such as bridgelayer.  The Matilda II however served as a main battle tank in the Pacific until the end of the war. Nevertheless, even in November 1941  in the desert the Matilda was still potent enough to be a real headache for Axis infantry and tankers, as one can see in this prior post, and it was arguably the Matildas of the Royal Tank Regiment that helped the infantry win the battle in December, while their cruiser colleagues were licking their wounds in the desert, a point well made by Bryan Perett.

The views below come from the late Major Alexander McGinlay MC and Bar (see this post about how he got his first MC), a Matilda commander in 7 RTR and while not representative, are certainly quite interesting. I would like to thank his family for allowing me to auote them here.  Then Lieutenant McGinlay arrived in Egypt in time for Wavell’s (really O’Connor’s) counteroffensive against the Italians in late 1940, and commanded the first tank into Tobruk.  He then served in the area until the fall of Tobruk in 1942, when he was injured and captured, and again at the end of the war in a Churchill in Italy, after his escape.  In the course of his service he gained the MC and bar, one during the breakout from Tobruk in November 1941, the second during the battle for Rigel Ridge.

Some of the points made:

  • The Matilda had a high quality of workmanship going into it, the case in point here being that all tanks of the regiment started up without problems after their 5-week sea voyage to Egypt.
  • The armour protection was very good, with the officer in question surviving a direct hit at short-range by a 105mm field gun, with the armour only splitting open at the welding seam.
  • Until the introduction of a “new”  50mm solid shot round by the Germans, the Matilda crews seem to have been relatively unbothered by this gun. (maybe a reference to the introduction of sub-calibre rounds with higher penetration, or maybe the officer is referrring to the first encounters with the more capable 50L60 anti-tank/tank gun). In one incident a 50mm round partially penetrates the tank, cutting the hydraulics of the power traverse on the turret, leading to the crew being well covered in hot oil.
  • The only drawback is seen in the 2-pdr gun which is giving the Germans a big advantage
  • Crews had practiced and executed fire on the move tactics, which the officer sees as an advantage compared to the German tactic of firing only when stopped (see below)
  • The most surprising statement is that on arrival in Egypt in 1940 the tanks had some high-explosive (HE) rounds available.  It is generally accepted that no 2-pdr HE made it to the desert.  (I have followed this up with David Fletcher from the Bovington RAC Tank Museum, who suspects that maybe it was an error in remembering – there is no evidence for 2-pdr HE being delivered in the desert, but the stowage  diagrams show only AT supposed to be in the tank)

Below an interesting excerpt from the papers on how the German gun advantage was overcome by the British tankers:

The enemy had the gun advantage, but things were evened up a bit by the fact that we were better trained, in that we could, and did, fire our main gun on the move.  They had to stop.  So, by putting down smoke, either ourselves, or our back-up artillery, we could use the smoke to cut down the distance between them and us.  When the smoke cleared, we were in among them, firing on the move.  They did not like it. Our lighter armoured divisions especially took good advantage of this tactic.

A few comments on this very interesting passage:

  • German tactics were very different, and trained the tankers to stop before firing the main gun. This was seen to improve effectiveness by the Germans. The main issue with firing on the move is keeping the gun on target – with lighter guns, provided a shoulder mount was installed (as it was in the Matilda)
  • Smoke from the supporting artillery depended on good co-operation between the tanks and the guns.  Not something the Commonwealth forces were proficient in until much later in the desert war, although it appears that the Tobruk fortress forces did very well in this regard.
  • Smoke from tanks could be provided by the close-support tanks of which two were on strength in every squadron, normally attached to Squadron HQ. These tanks were equipped with 76mm howitzers instead of 2-pdr guns, and carried almost entirely smoke rounds.

A fine book on the Matilda is Bryan Perett’s “The Matilda Tank”.  Good luck getting a copy at a reasonable price – I failed and paid a lot.

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.