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!

Oasen Bataillon z.b.V. 300

That’s be Oasis Special Purpose Battalion 300, in English. This peculiarly named unit proves that the Wehrmacht was not averse to a practical joke being played on its soldiers, since they probably never got anywhere near an Oasis. Instead of being based in a palm-studded Arabic paradise with tough war-like men on horses and beautiful women wearing veils they found themselves in dusty and stony dirtholes on the Libyan-Egyptian border, until they were forced to surrender in January 1942.

I understand the battalion was formed in summer 1941 in reaction to General Paulus visit to the desert in April/May, when he found the defensive position on the border too weak.[Correction to follow below]. The battalion was formed in response to a request made by the D.A.K. HQ to O.K.H. on 30 March, for garrison troops for oases through the desert, such as Gialo. The original request asked for five independent companies. The thinking was that these companies could act as flank and rear-area protection for traffic links and water supply points.

The battalion consisted of soldiers who had been to Africa before the war. While it is often given as part of  Division z.b.V. Afrika (later 90th Light Division), I think that at least for this battle any association with the division was purely administrative, and honestly I don’t think there was much of a connection at all. See e.g. the OOB of Division zbV at this link. No mention of Oasis Battalion 300. In the Panzergruppe OOB it is given as being directly under command of the Panzergruppe HQ. It would be interesting to see who first came up with the idea they were under Division zbV.

The battalion consisted of a battalion HQ, and five (on paper) identically equipped rifle companies, numbered 2., 6., 10., 12., and 13. The only explanation I can come up with for the peculiar numbering is that each of the comapnies was supposed to form the nucleus of a battalion, if it was planned to extend the battalion to a regiment later, with 13 company providing the nucleus for the support companies.

From the order of battle of Panzergruppe, September 1941. The document shows the planned (but not necessarily real) organisation and heavy weapons equipment of the five Oasenkompanien.

Each company had 12 light machine guns, 3 light mortars (50mm), and 6 light anti-tank rifles (7.92mm). The  12 light machine guns were more than a normal battalion would field, and indicates that either there were either 12 sections (could be three in four platoons, or four in three platoons), but the three mortars indicate three platoons), or six sections with two light machine guns each. The reported company strength of 152 of all ranks (see here) makes me think it was probably a case of  12 sections of nine or ten men each, but I’d be happy to be corrected on this. Regardless, it was a considerable amount of firepower for a company, and in line with lessons learned in the desert up to this point. What it wasn’t though was strong in anti-tank firepower. In consequence, in position the companies of the battalion were supported by Italian and German artillery, including 88mm AA guns. The article at Lone Sentry is very good in describing the situation.

The last remnants of the Oasis Battalion 300 went into Commonwealth captivity when General Fedele de Giorgis surrendered his forces on 17 January 1942, with the last organised elements surrendering in Sollum on 12 January, apparently. The battalion was not reformed to my knowledge, and provided little more than a footnote to the overall battle.

Defending Position 19 – What happened next to the remains of 11th Company 255th Infantry Regiment?

I realize that in the prior post at this link I promised to finish the translation of the report by the commander of a platoon of 11th Company 255th (11./I.R.255) Infantry Regiment, but I somehow never got round to it. So here it is. It is an interesting insight into the process of withdrawing out of a really tricky situation.

[…]I was then subordinated with my platoon to the 3rd Battalion 347th Infantry Regiment (III./I.R.347). Here I occupied Strongpoint 5 until 5 December 41, 18.00 hours. At 06.00 hours on 5 December 41 Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Hollmann of S.R. 155 (155th Rifle Regiment) came up and told me that the division was withdrawing from this area, that I had the task to hold the strongpoint until dusk, to cover the retreat of the division. To the right of me everything was evacuated, while to the left one platoon remained in Strongpoint 6. On 5 December 41 at 18.00 hours I broke contact and retreated to the Via Balbo(1). After I assembled here with First Lieutenant Hollmann and the platoon from Strongpoint 6, we marched to 1 km east of Sidi Rezegh during the night (2). First Lieutenant Hollmann had driven ahead to make contact with the division, but did not return. After we took a short rest here, we marched on into the direction of El Adem at 09.00 hours. Shortly after we started heavy artillery fire fell on the Trigh Capuzzo. Since about 2/3rd of the men had severely blistered feet, I did load the footsore on Italian trucks and armoured vehicles, and sent them off in the direction of El Adem, which I had nominated as assembly point. With the remaining three NCOs and two men I jumped on a truck at the end. At El Adem I was sent to the “White House”. Here I assembled my men. Since I did not get any information about the location of the division, I went to the straggler collection point (3). On 8 December 41 I reported to the division, and since then I am immediately subordinated to the division’s Ib (4) with the remaining command of III./I.R.255.

Hartz

Lieutenant

From the narrative, it appears that the platoons from strongpoint 5 and 6 marched pretty much straight south until they hit the Trigh Capuzzo, and then turned west to move to El Adem. Since 90th Light did not have any trucks to move its men, they were either reduced to move on shank’s pony (their legs, for the non-native English speakers), or to hitch a lift with the somewhat better motorized Italians.

  1. This could be either the Axis Bypass Road around Tobruk, or a misnaming of the Via Balbia. Given the location of Strongpoints 5 and 6, the latter is more likely. The personal account by Corporal Mork (see links – Persons) seems to confirm that at least some German soldiers called the Via Balbia Via Balbo.
  2. Probably 7-10 km, but I’ll confirm that.
  3. Versprengtensammelstelle
  4. The division’s general staff officer responsible for supply and administration

Order of Battle Division z.b.V. Afrika (Africa Special Purpose Division), 10 November 41

The division had originally been formed in June 1941 for service in Africa.  It lost some elements during transport across the Mediterranean, and had other elements added to it after arrival. In the end it was a hotchpotch, and lacked vital supply, signals, and logistics elements which would have been standard in ordinary divisions, and was  also very weak indeed in artillery (one of the two artillery battalions came from the regiment formed for 21st Panzer). Nevertheless that did not matter too much, since it was meant for stationary use on the Tobruk siege front, where it would be responsible for the break-in planned for late November, with all the support (and it was plenty) of the heavy artillery of Arko 104 at its disposal.During Operation CRUSADER, on 27 November, it was renamed 90th Light Africa Division, and it was under this name that it would acquire a fighting record well respected by its enemies. But before that, it would be very severely depleted in the two weeks from the start of the operation, so much so that it did not play an active role in the January counteroffensive.

A few remarks about the structure of the organisation, which was peculiar in other aspects as well. I noted that the infantry companies had very high firepower when it comes to light machine guns, with the exception of the 3rd battalion 347th Regiment they had double the firepower of the standard rifle company. It is no wonder that the account of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch of their attack against the siege front on 21st November speaks of the heavy volume of automatic weapons fire they encountered, and that the ridge where it came from became known to them as “Spandau” ridge (“Spandau” in this case not referring to the Berlin suburb, but the German machine gun, a term from World War I).

What is also noticeable about the order of battle is the lack of balance in the infantry companies.  The companies in the 155th Regiment are very well equipped for firepower, especially by the standards of the typical German infantry company at the time. With heavy mortars, a lot of machine guns, and two light infantry guns, any strongpoint defended by such a company would have been a serious obstacle to an attack. The companies in the 3rd battalion 347th Regiment are a bit less well equipped, but are still doing okay. On the other hand, the companies in the 3rd battalion 255th Regiment, and especially all companies in the “Afrika” Regiment 361 are much weaker, and according to the war diary, most of the heavy weapons of the regiment seem to have been stuck in Naples when CRUSADER started.

The order of battle below is from the NARA records, and dated 11 November 41. Many thanks to my friend James for getting it.

The interpretation of the hand-written/-drawn OOB would not have been possible without the explanation of the symbols on Dr. Leo Niehorster’s OOB site at this link.

Division z.b.V. “Afrika”

Divisional Command

Motorised Signals Platoon

259th Motorised Mapping Detachment

155th Rifle Regiment

Staff with Signals, Despatch Riders, Engineer Detachments (all motorised)

Three Infantry battalions

Each battalion with:

staff (signals, engineers);

three rifle companies with 18 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, 2 8.1cm mortars and 2 7.5 cm light infantry guns each; and

one support company with 8 heavy machine-guns and 6 8.1 cm mortars.

3rd Battalion 255th Infantry Regiment

Three rifle companies with 18 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, no mortars, no heavy anti-tank rifles; and

one support company with 8 heavy machine-guns.

3rd Battalion 347th Infantry Regiment

Three rifle companies with 15 light MGs, 6 light anti-tank rifles, and 2 8.1cm mortars; and

one support company with 12 heavy MGs and 6 8.1 cm mortars.

“Afrika” Regiment 361

Staff

Two Infantry battalions

Each battalion with;

three rifle companies with 18 light MGs; and

one support company with 2 heavy machine-guns.

605th Anti-Tank Battalion

Staff with Signals Platoon (motorised)

Three companies with 5 light MGs and 9 4.7cm ATGs (Czech) on Panzer I chassis, each.

Reconnaissance company

Staff platoon with 3 armoured MG carriers (captured) attached.

One platoon motorised with 6 VW un-armoured cars Kübelwagen.

One platoon armoured cars (tracked? Probably an error)

Artillery Regiment 155

2nd Battalion 155th Artillery Regiment

Staff with motorised signals and survey platoon

Three batteries with 2 light MGs and 4 10.5 cm light Field Howitzers 18, no prime movers

“Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361

Staff with signals platoon

Two batteries with 2 light machine guns and 4 7.5 cm mountain guns each, no prime movers

Engineer Battalion 900 (motorised)

Staff with 1 heavy anti-tank rifle and 1 3.7 cm ATG

Two motorised engineer companies with 12 light MGs each.

Light engineer column (motorised)

 

 

An interesting question has now arisen about the guns of “Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 – the drawn order of battle clearly shows mountain guns, presumably 7.5cm Gebirgskanone 36, although it is also possible that an older type would have been used for this cinderella formation. But information I recently was made aware of by a fellow researcher shows that captured Russian field guns, presumably the Feldkanone 36(r). I have my doubts that the first issue of guns to the “Afrika” Artillery Battalion 361 was of this type, but if anyone knows for sure, or has pictures that can clearly be dated to CRUSADER or before, I’d be very grateful. Following CRUSADER, the number of captured Russian guns in the desert became substantial, as this Intelligence Bulleting shows. 

 

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.

 

Batallion Kolbeck – The wrong tool for the job on Ed Duda

On 1 December Batallion Kolbeck, a thrown together unit consisting of about 500 lightly armed recently released German POWs from Afrika-Rgt. 361, as well as cooks and other B echelon (supply troops) personnel of infantry, artillery and flak units of or attached to or from 90th Light division,  reinforced by some heavy weapons, was launched into a supporting attack from the north towards Belhamed. This was one prong of a pincer attack to retake the height of Ed Duda. The other pincer was supposed to be provided by the Italian Trento division, with the support of five tanks from 15. Panzerdivision. But the tanks never showed up, them being busy elsewhere, and Trento’s command wisely decided that without armour support they would be on a hiding to nothing. Unfortunately for Batallion Kolbeck, that meant they were left alone to face the formidable Commonwealth defenses. Overall, the plan of attack was  based on a flawed intelligence appreciation about Commonwealth forces in the break-out salient, a flawed understanding at higher command levels of what could still be asked of its troops, and flawed co-ordination of the attack. Looking at the records, the decision to pursue this attack with this force is difficult to comprehend, and it is one more example of the command failures of Panzergruppe during the battle.

Battle around this sector had been raging for days (see this older post for events on 29 November).  The proposed attack was following the rather successful attacks against the New Zealand Division, which the day before had suffered severely, and had to give up its hold on the corridor.  On the other hand, the Axis forces had been too weak to really re-establish a close siege line, and most importantly had failed to dislodge the Tobruk garrison forces from the Ed Duda salient. The command of 90th Light seems to have assumed, trusting information from the other formations, that there were few enemy forces and no tanks left in the salient and ordered this scratch unit (its only battalion left judged capable or available for attack) with some heavy weapons support to attack, while Panzergruppe expected 90th Light to cross the salient and re-establish the siege, retaking all the strongpoints lost during the breakout.  Needless to say, Batallion Kolbeck completely failed, with considerable losses, and Panzergruppe seems never to have been told that this was the only remaining unit within 90th Light capable of taking offensive action (or so they thought). The incident is well covered in the official histories of Australia and New Zealand, probably because it came at a critical point in the battle, maybe because it marks the passing of the high water mark of the Axis effort to crush the salient and maybe because the German attack fell apart with heavy losses, a performance that was unusual, to say the least.

The Australian official history states the Commonwealth perspective of this fight in Chapter 10 “Ed Duda”, pp493-4:

Then as a result of enemy movement on the north and west sides of Belhamed a warning was given that an attack on Ed Duda was expected. Burrows returned but the attack did not develop. Later in the afternoon enemy infantry and three tanks advanced from the east as though to cut the corridor in rear of the battalion and a heightening of artillery fire in the west indicated a possible  converging thrust from that quarter, but the force attacking from the east did not press on when shelled.

[…]

A German infantry advance against the 1 /Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, supported by a heavy volume of small arms fire, was checked, and the New Zealanders drove off a party that simultaneously approached their headquarters . One company position at Bir Belhamed was penetrated, however, and isolated English pockets anxiously held to their ground throughout a confused night. At first light some Germans were captured but the enemy reorganised and about 9 a .m. a sizable force of infantry assault engineers and anti-tank gunners made a crude attack. The Beds and Herts showing cool discipline held all fire until the enemy were close and then engaged them with crippling effect . The Germans turned and made for the ridge to the north only to run into sharp fire from the New Zealanders, who effectively disrupted a none too orderly withdrawal . Once again a German assault on the Tobruk sortie force had gained nothing but had cost the German command many killed, wounded and captured . Some had been taken prisoner twice within a fortnight . Many of them belonged to a newly formed infantry unit of the 90th Light Division, called after its commander the Kolbeck Battalion, which was composed largely of men released from the New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp overrun in the German counter-offensive on 28th November .

The New Zealand history also has an account of the battle in Chapter 25 of “The Relief of Tobruk”:

On the saddle between there and Belhamed 18 New Zealand Battalion repulsed a light and poorly-staged attack (by Kolbeck Battalion, an ad hoc unit of 90 Light) after dark on 1 December and helped to defeat a much heavier attack next morning. This came mainly against 1 Bedfords and Herts to the left rear, and this unit drove the enemy northwards in considerable disorder. In the course of this fighting it became apparent that the morale of General Suemmermann’s troops had deteriorated and their offensive potential was now negligible. Kolbeck Battalion suffered crippling loss in men and equipment, and 605 Anti-Tank Battalion, 900 Engineer Battalion, and III Battalion of 347 Infantry Regiment met with some loss, particularly in anti-tank weapons. To 18 Battalion, on the other hand, the action was salutary; it cost only seven casualties against many times that number of Germans killed, wounded or captured and helped to restore any confidence that had been shaken by the fighting on Belhamed.

Chapter 15 of the official history of the New Zealand 18 Battalion contains this text on page 222 and a map:

Life on that escarpment, though much more bearable than the previous week, was still no bed of roses. The enemy was close and was in a nasty aggressive mood at first, as 18 Battalion soon found out. A report by Peart to Divisional Headquarters on 3 December outlines briefly what happened during the first three days in the new position:

At about 1900 hrs [1 December] a night attack was made on the Bn. by enemy infantry from the north. This attack was easily repulsed with LMG and rifle fire.

At about 0630 hrs 2 Dec 41, a new attack was started from the north by at least a Bn of the enemy with arty support. This attack was also repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy by 0900 hrs. We suffered 7 casualties.

The remainder of 2 Dec 41 was one of comparative quiet except for movement of the enemy outside small arms range. Arty fire was brought to bear by 1 RHA who had sent an FOO to the Bn.

Late in the afternoon considerable activity by the enemy was observed on belhamed and an attack from that direction was expected. After considerable difficulty it was found possible to get two A/Tk guns (Polish) through Beds and Herts Regt, and five I tanks from 22 Armd Bde…. 1 RHA arranged a complete defensive fire plan.

No attack developed and night ⅔ Dec was quiet. 90 reinforcements were sent forward from B Ech of 18 Bn and 20 Bn. 10 18 Bn reported and took away all wounded, except stretcher cases, and some 50 officers and ORs of a German and Italian hospital in the Bn area.

On 3 Dec much enemy movement was visible east and south of the posn. Recce patrols were sent out and at time of writing it appears that the enemy is holding a defensive line sidi resegh-belhamed-bu amud…. An attack on the enemy has also developed further south from apparently some portion of our own troops.

Wire has been received from Beds and Herts Regt and 600 mines have been promised. It is proposed to further consolidate the posn on night ¾ Dec.

The morale of the tps is good…. The present strength of the unit, including attached from 20 Bn, is 17 Offrs and 528 ORs….

It is emphasised that for a considerable period this Bn has been placed in posns of extreme difficulty with three sides open to attack and with little support available. Great help has been received in particular from 1 RHA and their FOO….

Early information about plans for our future action or movement would be appreciated….

This bald account fairly effectively conceals some very sound work by 18 Battalion, beginning shortly after dark on 1 December, when the alarm was first raised that Jerry was coming in on the north-east flank. The Brens facing that way opened up forthwith, the riflemen round them joined in with enthusiasm, and very successful their efforts were, for Jerry halted and dug in where he was, down below the escarpment. After the morning’s events the battalion was not at all disposed to let sleeping dogs lie. The Brens continued to give Jerry what one man described as a ‘good pasting’, but Jerry stuck to his new position, and a little later in the evening sent in a few shells which rather cramped the battalion’s style.

All that night fingers in 18 Battalion were very ready to triggers, but Jerry did nothing till daybreak next day, when a sudden storm of shells arrived, followed by the enemy infantry, whose numbers, now that they could be estimated in daylight, looked like 200 or so. Reaction was swift. Brens and rifles opened up, followed by the Royal Horse Artillery, with an effect so rewarding that even the 18 Battalion boys were astonished. Under the shelling and accurate sniping the German troops broke and ran—a rare spectacle—and as they did so more and more troops rose out of the ground and joined them till the estimated 200 had swollen to a battalion at least. They did not stop till they reached a small ridge 800 yards away, where they rallied on a line of tanks in hull-down positions.

Jerry had now lost his first advantage of surprise, and all the advantage of ground lay with 18 Battalion, which could overlook the whole situation. To some men it looked as if the tanks were driving the infantry back into the fight, but that might have been a bit far-fetched. There was certainly much activity over in the lee of the little ridge, staff cars buzzing about and the Germans obviously making ready to come again. But the fun, when it began again about 7 a.m., was shortlived. The German infantry this time made almost no progress; the Royal Horse Artillery (for whom the 18th was beginning to cherish a warm regard) opened fire again and broke up the advance, helped by three opportune British tanks which appeared out of nowhere.

That was the ignominious end of Jerry’s attempt on 18 Battalion from the north. During the rest of the morning the infantrymen and artillery had intermittent sport shooting at small enemy parties which from time to time rose up from the ground and made a dash for safety, and in the afternoon the pioneer platoon sent out a patrol and helped the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment to round up some 150 Germans who had hoped to lie doggo till dark. They might have got away with it but for an accident—an enemy car travelling injudiciously up the bypass road had stopped when fired on, and a carrier which went to investigate had stumbled on these hapless Jerries in the vicinity. Exposure for hours to drizzle and cold wind (for 2 December was a foul day) had sapped their resistance, and they surrendered without argument. They were herded up and marched off to the ‘Beds & Herts’ lines, with 18 Battalion interestedly watching from its vantage point.

The history of these abortive attacks from ‘the other side of the hill’ is interesting. While the morning attack on Belhamed on 1 December was in full swing, Africa Corps asked 90 Light Division to attack from the north, the idea being to trap the Kiwis between two forces and crush them, nutcracker style. The 90th Light agreed with alacrity, but promise seems to have outrun performance; the best unit it could find for the job was a makeshift, poorly armed battalion, commanded by the divisional adjutant and composed of odds and ends, supply troops and the like.

The first attack that night penetrated well down towards the Belhamed escarpment, but could not be pressed home against the solid defence of 18 Battalion and the Tommies. The attackers dug in for the night, then next morning tried again, with the disastrous results already described. It was no mere repulse, it was a fiasco. The battalion, received in such unfriendly fashion by 18 Battalion and 1 RHA, lost heart and decided unanimously to go home, ‘streaming back in disorder’

as 90 Light Division itself admits. Its unfortunate commander, hauled over the coals later, could offer no convincing explanation—the men, he said, had ‘bolted leaving behind their A Tk guns and other weapons’. Not an inspiring page in the history of German military prowess—but what a tonic for the battle-bruised 18 Battalion, whose morale had inevitably suffered a little in the cataclysm of 1 December.

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

18 Battalion on Ed Duda

While these write-ups in the histories make things look like they were very tidy from the Commonwealth side, one has to remember they were written after the war, by authors who had access to the war diary and reports of 90th Light, and are thus subject to a certain amount of hindsight.  A rather different picture is given by the operations report for 2 December 41 by 4 RTR, a Matilda tank regiment operating on Ed Duda which was involved in breaking up the attack.

Operations on 2nd December 1941

Issued operation orders for the day.

All quiet for the moment after battle at BELHAMEDlast night (this maybe the night action Kolbeck refers to, but which is not mentioned anywhere else).

Battle developed vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. This maybe the preliminary to an attack on the North of DUDA. BIR BELHAMED held by the Beds and Herts. C.Os. orders were to give any help possible.

Decision to be taken whether to send tanks to assist and possibly weaken DUDA which may be attacked in turn any moment or keep them and let the Beds and Herts carry on unsupported.

On the other hand no information that enemy are in vicinity of it at the moment, whereas if they overrun the the BIR BELHAMED position, they will be behind us here and can put guns to shoot up our tail.

Tank position at the moment is bright:-

12 tanks, 3000 yds West of BIR BELHAMED (Maj. Pritchard)

13 tanks, on top of DUDA (Capts. Kendall and Gardner).

4 tanks, in reserve at HQ (Major Roberts).

Decision:- To send help to BIR BELHAMED and ordered Major Prichard (sic!) to move as under:-

His left, forward and North to watch WOLF (one of the old objectives of the break-out).

His right, to advance and engage enemy tanks that now appeared South East of BIR BELHAMED and advancing to attack Beds and Herts. There are eight of these Mk IIIs by the the look of them.

Major Roberts with 4 tanks to move directly forward East to demonstrate towards enemy.  This will have the effect of putting tanks on both flanks of them.

0750 – considerably firing in vicinity of BIR BELHAMED. It looked as though Beds and Herts were surrounded by enemy tanks and infantry, and that they had surrendered, and this was confirmed by an Officer of the Australians who said he could see them.

Message from Major Prichard to say enemy had withdrawn, and that BIR BELHAMED was in our hands and had been all the time.  He also says that considerable number of weaponless Germans who had surrendered are now walking over a minefield and escaping. Asked what to do. C.O. told him to fire on them. Later he reports that they returned when he opened fire. They were later taken in charge by the Beds and Herts.

Enemy did not engage with tanks at all. Major Roberts had some shooting, but as far as could be seen, his shells bounced off the enemy tanks.  Hear that the Mk IIIs have been reinforced.

Enemy withdrew North East.  Beds and Herts shot up Major Prichards tanks on sight. SOme Germans came near the Beds and Herts and called out that they were Poles, but this did not save them at all.

It was now established that the N-Zs at the corner BELHAMED were still in position too, and happy.

The rumours that (a) The Beds and Herts had surrendered.

(b) The N-Zs had been scuppered.

(c) That the enemy held the whole of BIR BELHAMED are thus fables. Most of our information appears to be fables.

1330 – All has been quiet for a while.

1400 – Information that enemy are advancing from the East along the escarpment.

Major Prichard lost two tanks on a minefield when he advanced on BIR BELHAMED. This cuts tanks down to 25 effective. Adj. tank is doing rear link and not available for fighting (unless things are desperate).

Finally, it is instructive to read the German original documents.  The failure was clearly seen as serious, and questions were asked up and down the command chain. The war diary entry of 90th Light’s operational war diary reads as follows:

1 December

1315hrs – the order to attack is also given to Battalion Kolbeck which consists of released prisoners from the Afrika regiment (former Foreign Legion men) and B Echelon personnel with minimal weapons equipment.

1520hrs – Battalion Kolbeck stands south of airfield with 4 Italian AT guns and waits for order to move out.

1610hrs – German planes bomb the british cauldron north of Belhamed (according to a New Zealand gunner, they actually bombed a a column of15th Panzer). Despite repeated request no answer from Corps (DAK) regarding permission for Battalion Kolbeck to attack and time to start.

1640hrs – Pz.Grp. orders closing the gap between Italian XXI. Corps south and 90th north by attacking. Forces are lacking for this. Because of fault on phone line and congestion on the radio net it is not possible to inform Grp. of the failure to carry out its order. The subordination to DAK, which gives new orders, the transmission from Gruppe is no superseded.

1700hrs – Start of attack of Battalion Kolbeck. Fluid, uninterrupted advance in direction Belhamed

1815hrs – Magen Belhamed reached. No enemy contact yet.

2000hrs – 1km south Magen Belhamed defensive fire from MG and AT guns. Shortly after heavy enemy artillery fire into the attack of Btl. Kolbeck. The Btl. goes to ground and can not advance one step more. Captain Kolbeck has doubts whether Belhamed is even in German hands already, since he received heavy fire from Belhamed. In several discussions with 15th and 21st Panzer Division, to which there is once more phone contact, it is confirled that Belhamed is in German hands. Thereupon radio call to Btl. Kolbeck. Meanwhile – 1945hrs – question from Panzergruppe why its order to close the gap southwards to Pavia across the old strongpoints (lost to Tobruk garrison breakout earlier in the battle –  see this older post) had not been carried out. Pz.Grp. declares agreement with measure after divisional commander explains (division under DAK since 1845hrs) and who points out phoned order from DAK to take Belhamed from the north.

2220hrs – two heavy tanks (Pz IV) arrive at the CP.

2 December 1941

Night quiet.

0620hrs – report that Btl. Kolbeck has reached the Ital. positions 1km north of the Axis road serpentines (Belhamed).

0700hrs – Captain Kolbeck intends to attack with left wing on 700m frontage along the serpentine towards the east to neutralise allegedly present English remaining elements. Attack gets stuck.

0705 – heavy enemy artillery fire on Btl. Kolbeck. Enemy attacks from Sghifet ed Duda with infantry (no tanks). Fire of several batteries from Tobruk on Btl. Kolbeck.

0730 – the two tanks which arrived during the night roll up to the support of Btl. Kolbeck and take with them the remains of Pz.Jg.605 (a formation of self-propelled lightly armoured 4.7cm AT guns) and help the hard fighting Btl. Kolbeck. The English attack breaks down.

0820hrs – the divisional commander drives to the frontline to personnaly orient himself about the situation of Btl. Kolbeck. Returns after 2 hours and again – 1000hrs – the Zafran appears to be free of enemy, while the Belhamed is lightly held. It appears unclear to all why Btl. Kolbeck has not advanced further.

1015hrs – Captain Möller receives the task to establish contact with DAK because Btl. Kolbeck can not advance since 0700hrs. The combat power of the newly established incongruent battalion is very much weakend by the enemy artillery fire and the attack.

1040hrs – a tank attack by 9 tanks is repulsed by our Pz.Jg. company by simply appearing.  Nevertheless the elements of Btl. Kolbeck are flooding back to the Via Balbia in complete confusion. They are there at the Axis cross caught by an orderly officer of the division and brought back to the supply officer to recover. The Pz.Jg. stand ready to defend at km 7 of the Axis road. Pioneer battalion 900 holds Point 130. Btl. Kolbeck moves back to Point 126 north of the Axis road and should hold a line strongpoints 903 to 900.

[…]

1235hrs – Captain Kolbeck reports to the divisional commander on the situation of his battalion. He states that the men made off, leaving behind their AT guns and weapons. Wounded and dead were caused primarily by artillery and MG fire.

3 December 1941

Night completely quiet. Some men of Btl. Kolbeck manage to return under cover of darkness. A complete weapon loss report of the division except S.R.155 and Afr. Rgt. 361 is handed to DAK.

The two further reports by Captain Kolbeck below are the German first-hand and unfiltered side of this fight, and were a response by the him as battalion commander to the criticism of the performance of his unit on those two days. They are appended to the war diary of 90th Light.

The first is a neat illustration of the chaos of battle.  Wargamers in particular sometimes seem to have trouble comprehending that a WW2 battlefield was a chaotic place, in which orders and units got lost or were simply not carried out because they conflicted with the instinct of self-preservation.   The report includes all the chaos one can presumably expect on a battlefield.  Vehicles break down, units retreat or advance in the wrong direction against orders, units leave the battlefield during fighting, units get lost.

1st Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 3 December 41

Re: Phone call from Divisional Commander 3 December 15.00 hours

Topic: Whereabouts of heavy weapons of Battlegroup Briehl during attack on 1 and 2 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

As ordered I report:

To support the attack on Belhamed the following had arrived as ordered:

1 platoon 3.7cm AT guns commanded by a Lt. Gewehr

2 5cm AT guns with a total of 5 men commanded by a Senior Private (Obergefreiter); munition porters were supplied by the battalion,

1 light Infantry Gun (short-range 7,5cm howitzers) platoon with 2 guns commanded by a Corporal.

The platoon of 3,7cm AT guns had the task to protect in leapfrogging advance in the right wing and the right flank of the battalion against tanks during the attack.  During the night fighting it was also used against machine gun targets.  During the night one vehicle broke down with engine damage.  During the continuation of the attack on 2 December the platoon took over tank protection of the right forward company, guns moving down-hill towed by their crews.  When the largest part of the company moved east against my orders and retreated north, the tank hunters followed on the order of thier platoon commander after removing the bolts, breeches and optics, carrying the latter with them. The guns were left behind.  The 2 i/c of the platoon reported to me on 3 December after he had been with Battlegroup Briehl until then. He and his 13 men with their light weapons were integrated into the 2nd company. Lieutenant Gewehr is allegedly wounded.

Of the 5cm AT guns one gun fell out during the first kilometres already, allegedly because of engine damage on the towing vehicle.  The second gun had the task during the early morning of 2 December to protect the attack leftwards against enemy tanks from the assembly area.  It was supposed to follow the left forward company as soon as this reached the valley bottom.  During the the evasion, against orders, of the leftward company and the elements of the battalion pushed left, the gun suddenly limbered up and moved back. No catching up with it was possible.  A report to the straggler collection point, which could not have known to the platoon, was not made.

The light infantry gun platoon had the order to follow the attack on 1 December 41 at the head of a company echeloned back leftwards, and be available to me.  When I wanted to call up the platoon for direct fire on an English strongpoint during night combat, it was not available.  It also did not reach the later assembly area.  Several hours of searching during the night remained fruitless.  One has to suppose that the platoon lost contact, moved in the wrong direction, was taken prisoner or returned without orders to its unit.

Signed: Kolbeck

2nd Report

Battalion Kolbeck

Battl. CP, 4 December 41

To the 90. le. Division.

Evening Report 3 December 1941

The reorganisation of the remains of the battalion to a two-company structure has been carried out. A further  32 NCOs and soldiers have reported as stragglers.

Strength:

Staff 2 Officers 2 Civil servants 1 NCO, 7 soldiers

1st Company 1 Officer 28 NCO, 113 soldiers

2nd Company 1 Officer 15 NCO 103 soldiers

Total 4 Officers 2 Civil Servants 44 NCO 223 soldiers

One officer and 62 NCO and soldiers of 2./Afr.Rgt.361 are still on the march from the rest area of A.A.33 according to a sergeant. If they arrive it is intended to form a 3rd Company.

No new arrivals for weapons.  It was ascertained that a large part of the lost light MGs and 3 AT rifles was taken back on their own accord to their various units by the members of B Echelon who originally sent them.  A report to the straggler collection point was not made.  An order to recover the weapons has been issued by the supply officer of the battalion.

Equipment and weapons of the soldier was improved. Seven large tents were organised.  The mood amongst the troops is very good under the current circumstances.

Battalion personnel officer: DAK was sent loss and shortage report by radio on time.

Officers: KIA 3, WIA 7, MIA 9

NCOs: KIA 11, WIA 27, MIA 30

Soldiers: KIA 34, WIA 156, MIA 256

Shortage 22 officers, 74 NCO, 649 soldiers.

A more detailed follow-on report will come in writing and as soon as line fault is rectified by phone.

The numbers are partially estimated.  III./I.R.255 and Signals Command are not considered in loss and shortage, and Afr.Rgt 361 only for those recovered from prisonership and used here.

Signed: Kolbeck

Despite the performance (or rather lack of it) during the battle for Ed Duda, Batallion Kolbeck was kept as a unit until at least the retreat to Agheila. Of further interest maybe that Captain Kolbeck was an old acquaintance of Rommel. He is mentioned a few times in ‘The Rommel Papers’.  Apparently he was assigned to Hitler’s HQ and was sent out to accompany Rommel on his march west through France in the final stages of the campaign there, with no specific role.  He seems to have survived the campaign in Africa and was taken prisoner when Panzerarmee Afrika surrendered in Tunisia in 1943. He is one of the old acquaintances mentioned by Rommel in a letter to his wife, wondering how they were doing in captivity.   I am guessing that Rommel met him when he was serving as commander of Hitler’s bodyguard.

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.