A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

A Counterfactual Consideration of Rommel’s 1st Offensive

Following some further work on the older blog article at this link  I have now turned this into a more substantive and better referenced article, which can be dowloaded here:

Counterfactual Considerations on Rommel’s First Offensive.

The conclusions of the blog are refined in this article, but they remain fundamentally aligned with those of the blog entry.

Happy reading, and comments as always welcome.

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Rommel and Gariboldi during a Planning Meeting, probably February 1941. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

Artillery Statistics for Middle East Command 4 November 1941

Artillery Statistics for Middle East Command 4 November 1941

On 5 November 1941 Middle East Command issued a complete list of guns present in Middle East Command. This is preserved in WO169/949 in the UK National Archives, and reproduced in the table below. In an earlier post I had published the medium artillery numbers. It can be found at this link, and is from the same document.

25-pr and Quad, 22 Dec 1941

Instrument of war during the triumphant pursuit in late 1941. “A 25-pdr field gun and ‘Quad’ artillery tractor, 22 December 1941.” (IWM E7245)

Large 000000arty

 

Artillery as a killer during the retreat in December 1941. “The result of an Italian ammunition column which came under our heavy shellfire near Derna.” (IWM E7309)

MOST SECRET

ARTILLERY SITUATION IN MIDDLE EAST

AS AT 4 NOVEMBER 1941

(excl. CD and AA)[1] 

COPY NO. 16

CRME/3612/RA

5. Nov. 41

APPENDIX “A” ATTD.

1. ARMAMENT FD. ARTY (a) Guns in Units – 25-pdr Mk II on Mk I carriage

Unit

 

Number of Guns

 Remarks

Seven British Fd. Regiments at 24 each

4 RHA, 60 Fd, 51 Fd, 31 Fd, 72 Fd, 74 Fd, 124 Fd)

168

 

Nine British or Ind Regts at 16 each

1 RHA, 2 RHA, 104 RHA, 107 RHA, 1 Fd, 4 Fd, 8 Fd, 25 Fd, 28 Fd)

144

 
1 S.A. Div Arty

 

64

(4 S.A. Fd Regt short of men)

2 S.A. Div Arty[2]

 

72

 

1 N.Z. Div Arty

 

72

 

6 Aust Div Arty[3]

 

72

 

7 Aust Div Arty[3]

 

72

 

9 Aust Div Arty[3]

 

72

 

Two Army Fd Regts RAA

 

48

 

Polish Carpathian Arty

 

16

 

1 Greek Fd Regt[4]

 

24

 

Schools and Depots

 

20

 

L.R.D.G.

 

1

 

144 Fd Regt

 

Nil (Armed with a variety of weapons in Tobruk)[5]

Total:-

 

845

 

 

 

 

 

 (b) Available not yet issued:-

Unit

 

Number of Guns

 Remarks

En Route to Tobruk

 

20

(8 for Polish Fd Regt + 12 for 144 Fd Regt)[6]

In Ordnance Depots

 

144

 

Total:-

 

131

 

 

 

   

  (c) Advised and released:- 

Convoy[7]

 

Number of Guns

 Remarks

Guns of 11 RHA

 

24  
W.S.12

 

20

 

R.246 

 (Slow Convoy)

20

 

Canadian, 

 Oct – Dec prod.

66
U.K. production 

 Oct.

48  
 Total:-

 

186  

 Note:- 8 25-pdrs have been despatched to E Africa. (d) Total 25-pr guns in M.E.

Status

 

Number of Guns

 Remarks

Shipped and advised

 

1162  
W.E. of 40 Fd Regts 

 at 24 guns each

960

 

Reserves Complete equipments

202

 

  Carriages only 104  
  Barrels only 72  
  Jackets only 6  

 (e) 18/25-pdrs

Location

 

Number of Guns

 Remarks

Base Depots

 

8

 

Ordnance Depots

 

14

 

Total:-

 

22

 

 

 

   

16 have been despatched to East Africa. A certain number of carriages have been used for 18-pdr. pieces in order to raise the standard of 18-prs Mk V sent to India. Large 000000port

New Zealand 2-pdr anti-tank gun mounted on a truck in the portee role, 3 December 1941. This  photo became the basis for a painting by Peter McIntyre. (IWM E3743E)

2. A-Tk Weapons (a) Guns with Units

Unit

 

2-prs

 18-prs

3 RHA

 

36

 

102 A-Tk

 

36

 

65 A-Tk

 

48

 

73 A-Tk[8]

 (late 73 Med.)

48

 16

7 N.Z. A-Tk

 

48

 16

1 S.A. A-Tk

 

48

 16

2 S.A. A-Tk[2]

 

48

 16

2/1 Aust A-Tk[3]

 

72

 

2/2 Aust A-Tk[3]

 

36

 

2/3 Aust A-Tk

 

 

Tobruk

 (149 A-Tk etc.)

40

 9

4 Ind Div A-Tk Coy

 

9

 

Greek A-Tk Bty

 

3

 

Cyprus

 

4  

Schools etc.

 

1

 

 Total:-

 

 437

 73

 (b) Available not yet issued:- 

Unit

 

2-prs

18-prs

In Ordnance Depots

 

15

11

In ports

 (ex SS Steelworker)

48

 

En Route to Tobruk

 

8

 

 Total:-

 

 71  11

  (c) Advised and released:-  

Unit

 

2-prs

18-prs

Guns of 76 A-Tk

 

36

 

W.S.12

 

54

 

Canadian Prod. UK Prod

Jul – Sep

Oct

50

76

 

 Total:-

 

216  

 (d)  

Status

 

2-prs

18-prs

W.E. of THREE A-Tk Regts

 at 36 guns each

108

 

W.E. of NINE A-Tk Regts

 at 64 guns each

576

 

W.E. of TEN Div Recce units

at 12 guns each

120

 

Total:-

 

804  
2-pr guns in M.E.

 shipped and advised

724

 

No. of 2-prs therefore

 required immediately

80

 

In addition a further 16 2-prs each will be required  to complete 

THREE A-Tk Regts, arriving in future convoys, from 48 to 64 guns

48

 

Total 2-prs 

required therefore

128

 

 

 

   

  (2) 37 mm Bofors A-Tk Distribution:-  

Unit

 

37 mm Bofors

Remarks

Tobruk

 

26

 

4 Ind Div

 

18

 

Ordnance Depots

 

12

 

Total:-

 

56  

 (c) 47/32mm Distribution:-  

Unit

 

2-prs

Remarks

Tobruk

 

42

 

L.R.D.G.

 

6

 

Ordnance Depots

 

6

 

Total:-

 

54  

(g) Note:- 6 18-prs Mk V were despatched to India in Sep., a further 18 are being despatched this month.

NOTES:

[1] CD – Coastal Defense, AA – Anti-Aircraft
[2] At El Alamein, with one battery with ‘E’ Force
[3] In Syria [4] Not in action during CRUSADER
[5] The famous ‘Bush Artillery’, mostly captured Italian guns.
[6] These guns would have arrived and been issued prior to operations commencing
[7] None of these guns would have made it to the theatre before operations commenced.

[8] One battery with ‘E’ Force

Post-CRUSADER – Guidelines for the use of 88mm AA guns in the D.A.K.

Post-CRUSADER – Guidelines for the use of 88mm AA guns in the D.A.K.

The following instruction was issued on 22 May 1942, just before the start of the Gazala campaign. It is interesting in terms of lessons learned, and likely intended to serve as a reminder to commanders who had served in the D.A.K. for a while, as well as instruction to newly arrived commanding officers. It shows well the multi-tasking roles assigned to the heavy AA batteries. A bit of new information to me is about the speed discrepancy between the 8.8cm gun prime movers and the reconnaissance battalion vehicles.

The instruction can be read against a similar British document at this link.

C o p y

SECRET

Deutsches Afrikakorps, H.Q. 22 May 1942

Ia/Flak No. 661/42 sec Guidelines for the Use of AA Batteries

 

I. Heavy AA Battery 8.8cm

A)General The heavy AA battery 8.8cm is equally useful for the task of:

a) AA battery

b) Tank accompanying battery

c) Ground target battery, especially at a range of 8-14km

From its anti-air firing position at least half the guns can immediately engage tanks and ground targets. The re-grouping of the other guns for engagement of tanks will only require a few minutes. When tasks of tank or ground target engagement are expected, a more linear or trapezoid placement can be chosen from the start, which will bring almost all the guns into fire immediately.

Smashing successes are to be obtained in all three tasks in the most easy manner when the 8.8cm battery is tasked together.

The assignment of single 8.8cm guns to infantry units often leads to an early loss of the guns since they offer too large a target in the forward line.

On assignment to Reconnaissance Battalions the prime movers cannot sustain the speed of the mostly much faster moving Reconnaissance Battalions, breakdowns of prime movers and loss of the guns are therefore the consequence. The assignment of heavy A.A. batteries to Reconnaissance Battalions is therefore to be restricted.

B) On stops of more than 30 minutes duration, refueling, resting, concentration etc. the heavy battery enters into air defense position as a matter of course.

C) On concentration of tank forces the 8.8cm batteries are to be held back initially and only shortly before the start of the attack to be pulled into the tank concentration.

D) During dispersion. Heavy A.A. batteries are most usefully put between the 1st and 2nd waves of tanks. The battery commanders should as much as possible be assigned a command tank with  a radio.

E) The use of the 8.8cm tank accompanying battery is generally on one wing of the tank force, to achieve flanking impact.

 

II. 2 cm AA Battery:

The 2cm batteries of the AA artillery are less useful for defense against surprise enemy strafing attacks than the self-propelled AA companies of the Army.

On the other hand, they can fire from a fixed position foundation with much higher hit probability against air and ground targets than the guns fitted on top of self-propelled mounts and trucks.

The use of 2cm guns against armoured cars only promises success under 800m of distance.

On stops the 2cm guns go into firing position in all cases. During combat moves the 2cm guns are as far as possible to be placed on the outside of the combat groups.

For the Deutsche Afrikakorps

The Chief of the General Staff

large_000000

A soldier examines a German 88mm gun believed to have been knocked out by the RAF in the Western Desert, 10 September 1942. (Courtesy of the IWM)

D.A.K. 27 March 1941

D.A.K. 27 March 1941

27 March 1941

Aerial reconnaissance ascertained 50-60 motor vehicles, including armoured cars, well dispersed across the countryside in the track area north of B. el Ginn. These can only be forces that have been newly brought up. 18km east of Maaten Belcleibat a stationary patrol was noted.

Forward forces at Agheila were reinforced by bringing up M.G.Batl.8. A.A.3 was pulled out to be fully available for reconnaissance tasks.

09.00 hours Agheila was attacked by one Hurricane at low-level. No losses caused.

I./A.R.75 reached area around Nofilia. By 28 March arrival of 5.lei.Div. is expected.

0251

10.5cm howitzer of A.R.75 in firing position, unknown date and place but almost certainly 1941, based on the tropical helmets. Rommelsriposte.com Collection.

The return march of Count Schwerin was ordered since the Afrikakorps does not consider the reported movements of the De Gaulle troops to have any meaning. Two motor vehicles that went missing at Ummel Araneb have not been found yet. Since Fliegerfuehrer Afrika  did not have resources available a request for help was made to the Italian air force in Hun.

O.K.H. turned the attention of the Deutsches Afrikakorps again on the taking possession of Gialo Oasis, to prevent a flanking move from there in the context of the planned operation.[1] The Deutsches Afrikakorps is fundamentally in line with this view, but considers the move on and the supply of the forces tasked with this to be only possible by air, due to sand drifts affecting vehicles. The Commander in Chief intends for the time being, due to a lack of forces and to prevent dispersion of forces, only to use weak forces (reinforced MG platoons). In this context the quick arrival of the first companies of Foreign Legionnaires was requested from O.K.H. (possibly by air)[2]. Fliegerfuehrer Afrika considers the the plan to occupy Gialo from the air as executable. He does not believe however that air transport capacity will be available prior to 30 March. A corresponding request is made to the O.K.H., to make available to the X.Fliegerkorps the requested air transport units.

[1]A piece of micro-management from Berlin that was no doubt appreciated in the D.A.K. HQ. It is interesting to note however the weakness in infantry at this stage, as well as the very thin situation of air cover across the theatre. The Regia Aeronautica would be responsible for much of the reconnaissance in the North African theatre throughout the campaign.

[2]I suspect this refers to the Oasenbatallion 300 z.b.V. In the end this did not arrive until much later. See this link.

15 February 1941: Parade Day

15 February 1941: Parade Day

And we’re moving on with the war diary of the D.A.K.

Meeting of Commanding General with General Raotta[1]. At 13.00 hours parade of A.A.3 and Panzerjaegerabteilung 39 ready in front of the Castello. Afterwards passing of the parade in front of the Grand-Hotel before the Commanding General and the highest Italian authorities.

0151

While not 100% certain, this picture almost certainly is from the parade held on 15 February. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

0153

Sdkfz. 231, the famed (although in the view of General Tuker overrated) heavy armoured car passing the commanding officers. Still in field grey base paint, with the commander wearing a tropical helmet. These were quickly abandoned in the field. Rommelsriposte.com collection.

Aftwards short breakfast with General Raotta in the palais of Marshal Balbo[2]. Afterwards Commanding General, Chief of Staff, and General Raotta drive to Carian and Jefren to inspect the position on the high line. Return around evening.

A.A.3 and Pz.Jaeger Abteilung 39 have immediately marched off and around 22.30 hours arrived in Misurata.

[1]Should be Roatta, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Italian Army High Command

[2]Marshal Italo Balbo, a hero of fascism who died when his plane was shot down over Tobruk in a friendly fire incident in 1940.

Holding a Tiger by the Tail MG 8’s Battle at Tobruk 11-14 April 1941

Holding a Tiger by the Tail MG 8’s Battle at Tobruk 11-14 April 1941

Background

14 April 1941 marked the nadir of the history of M.G.Batl.8 or short ‘MG8’[1] in North Africa, when it lost its commanding officer, Lt.Col. Ponath, and several hundred men during a failed attempt to take Tobruk. The battalion had already been engaged heavily during the initial pursuit of the retreating Empire forces through the desert and along the coastal road, but without suffering heavy losses. When it reached Tobruk, the battalion was thrown into the assault on the town, which was erroneously perceived not to be held in strength.

This article examines the events, drawing on war diaries, official histories, and the unit history of MG8.

The Assault on Tobruk

For the first week after reaching Tobruk, Rommel threw arriving units into an increasingly desperate battle in a piecemeal fashion. While the main event was the Easter battle, which really occurred over four days, culminating on the night of 13/14 April and ending with the rout of MG8 on the morning of 14 April, there were in fact several attempts all along the perimeter, undertaken by both German and Italian forces. None of them succeeded, and the Axis forces lost well over a regiment in troops in undertaking these disjointed attacks, which were individually defeated.

4301884

The object of desire. Oblique view of Tobruk town and harbour looking west, 1941. The obsolete Italian armoured cruiser San Giorgio in the foreground.AWM.

Tobruk 41 Map

Tobruk Defense Overprint Map, Operation COMPASS, 14 Jan 1941. TNA – Rommelsriposte.com collection

The Easter Battle

The Easter battle for Tobruk ran from 11-14 April 1941. For MG8 it consisted of three days during which the battalion acted as assault infantry, and had made progress into the ring of fortifications around Tobruk, on the final night the battalion managed to break into the fortifications, but then couldn’t expand the breakthrough. The day-by-day account shows clearly how hard the fighting was.

11 April

On 11 April the impression of Rommel was that Tobruk was being evacuated, and the order came down to immediately attack to interrupt the attempt to withdraw men. An attempt by four companies of the battalion, with support from the remaining 20 tanks of Panzerregiment 5 (PR5) was duly made from mid-day, but faltered in the heavy artillery fire from the fortress. Initially held up by the artillery, the companies use a lull in the fire when the withdrawing tanks of PR5 draw the artillery to make one final advance. When the artillery fire switches back any further advance becomes impossible and the attack finally stops before reaching the Tobruk – El Adem road. The battalion digs in under artillery, MG, and AT gun fire. The attack is described well in the battalion history:

[…]We manage to advance some more metres in short jumps, until we receive MG and AT gun fire. Using the entrenching tool, bayonet, hand and feet, we dig small holes into the stony ground, and build small stone walls to protect our heads. We receive rifle fire. Any move means death or injury.

We cannot make out the enemy. His positions must be camouflaged too well.[2] It makes a man cry to see how comrades fall dead, how the wounded try to crawl towards the rear. 

In this inferno of artillery, MG, and AT-gun fire we see our stretcher bearers, especially Feldwebel[3] Urban and Uffz.[4] Weissgerber, dressing the wounded and carrying them to the rear. Does the hardly recognizable red-cross armband help somewhat? Some ask quietly for forgiveness that during peace time they looked down on the stretcher bearers…

During the night the battalion receives food and supplies, and enhances the positions.

12 April

The next day, 12 April, at 11 PR5 attacks at high speed, carrying the battalion forward. There is no communication between the two units, so when the tanks suddenly veer off and retreat because they have noted the anti-tank ditch, the battalion is surprised and has to go to ground again, now about 250-300 metres in front of this new barrier. While relatively unscathed from artillery fire, and in sandy ground that is easier to dig into, it is now under direct fire, and even the smallest movement is treacherous. When this is reported to Division HQ, the order comes that the battalion should hold the position it has reached, but it is realized that no further advance is possible. The battalion war diary estimates that the well-directed fire comprised about six batteries. Due to the more forward position re-supply and food supply almost fails. In some companies the men are brought their sports dresses, since these are darker, and can keep them warm during the night.

Estimated losses in these two days amount to ten killed and 42 wounded, including two company commanders. That is about half of all losses since the offensive commenced. It is estimated also that the rifle strength on the morning of 13 April was about 500 men.

13 April

On 13 April at 1100 hours Lt.Col. Ponath is ordered to the division HQ, and receives the order to attack at 1800 hours under cover of an artillery fire strike, and with support from one battery of 88mm guns of I./Flak 18 and with support from a 2cm battery of the same unit, which would advance to the forward line and provide direct fire support. 2nd and 3rd companies were to attack with one AT platoon as support each, roll up the enemy positions 500 metres in each direction, and open the way for the remainder of the battalion to break through to a road intersection deeper inside the fortress. If the attack went well during the night, then PR5 would advance in the early morning hours to exploit the breakthrough and advance into Tobruk proper.

Already the communication of these orders to the companies failed, and due to losses of runners, three of whom were killed and two wounded, elements of 2nd and 3rd companies never received the attack order. 3rd company had lost all its officers, and was now under command by a replacement from battalion HQ. They nevertheless attacked when they saw the rest of the battalion advance into the attack.

14 April

German Map of Tobruk Fortifications, August 1941. 1 – Blue circle – objective of MG8 attack. 2 – anti-tank ditch. 3 – direction of MG8 attack. 

The final Attack

At 1730 hours on 13 April the light AA battery dashes forward, only to be annihilated. One officer and six men pass back through the line of 5th company of MG8. The 88mm battery takes position but almost immediately comes under heavy artillery fire. After firing some rounds the survivors retreat. Now without fire support the infantry advances regardless, and reaches the anti-tank ditch. 2nd company then retreats back into its old position due to the heavy fire. The attack falters at the ditch.

At 2200 hours, Lt.Col. Ponath assembles men from the 2nd and 3rd company for a silent attack, which makes good progress. A crossing capable of taking wheeled and tracked vehicles is found on the anti-tank ditch, and engineers lift mines. Patrols find no sign of the enemy. It later was noted that by co-incidence the attack hit right in the middle between positions R33 and R35, and since the attack was directed north-east, also aimed at the middle between R32 and R34 on the inner ring of fortifications. This was however not luck, but the result of a careful recce from the air by a Hs 126 of 2./(H)14. The Rocket Troop war diary notes that the plane spent the late afternoon of 13 April reconnoitering the area, and finally at 1830 hours dropping a flare exactly at the point of the crossing, which was presumably the signal to MG8 where to direct the attack.

It was during this attack that Cpl;. Edmondson gained his Victoria Cross, posthumously. He was part of the crew on post R33, and when it was approached by about 30 Germans with two field guns and a mortar, a party under Lt. Mackell went out to engage them. Cpl. Edmondson was killed in the engagement.

John Edmondson 010576

Cpl. Edmondson V.C.. Wikipedia.

Corporal Edmondson’s VC citation reads as follows:

‘War Office, 1st July, 1941.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the VICTORIA CROSS to:—

No. 15705 Corporal John Hurst Edmondson, Australian Military Forces.

On the night of 13th–14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry
broke through the wire defences at Tobruk, and established themselves
with at least six machine guns, mortars and two small field pieces. It
was decided to attack them with bayonets, and a party consisting of one
officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates, took part in the charge.
During the counter-attack Corporal Edmondson was wounded in the neck and
stomach but continued to advance under heavy fire and killed one enemy
with his bayonet. Later, his officer had his bayonet in one of the enemy
and was grasped about the legs by him, when another attacked him from
behind. He called for help, and Corporal Edmondson, who was some yards
away, immediately came to his assistance and in spite of his wounds,
killed both of the enemy. This action undoubtedly saved his officer’s
life.

‘Shortly after returning from this successful counter-attack, Corporal
Edmondson died of his wounds. His actions throughout the operations were
outstanding for resolution, leadership and conspicuous bravery.

The bridgehead thus gained by MG8 nevertheless was estimated to extend 500m left and right and to a depth that was either close to or included R32. This bridgehead was now consolidated, while the Australian defenders kept quiet.A consolidated, if somewhat disorganized line was created, with 3rd company on the left, then one platoon 1st company, then 2nd and 5th company. AT guns of 4th company were inserted into this position. AT guns of 7th company were expected to be put into the line, but advanced too far to the right and got stuck in front of the AT ditch, leaving only one of their platoons with the battalion, which had advanced with it during the day. Battalion HQ was in the AT ditch, as was the dressing station for the wounded.

The men tried to dig in, but like in a horror movie, were suddenly attacked by Australians coming from nowhere. First a man of 5th company is knifed to death, then a patrol hits 4th and 7th company so quickly that men cannot even grab their weapons. Then 2nd company, and the whole of the left wing is thrown back to the AT ditch. A counterattack regains some ground but notes 40 men of MG8 dead. Captain Bartsch, CO of 5th company and a survivor of the attack noted:

[…]Midnight came. When will these guys stop firing? I don’t even dare looking at our AT gun anymore. Then suddenly the fire ceases. We only hear the moaning of the wounded. 

Suddenly a cry: “Where are our officers?”
If I hadn’t lain on the ground already I would have been knocked over.

Then the angry reply from Lt. Schöllmann: “Shut your gob. I’m here!”

But then came the most extraordinary of the extraordinary: the Tommies suddenly started singing “It’s a long way to Tipperary…” and then it crashed like a storm. Shouting hurrah at the top of their voices they attacked with the bayonet.

A counterattack was undertaken by maybe 35 men under Lt. Dreschler of 2nd company. A survivor recalled that they set out with a Hurrah, but then came under heavy MG and mortar fire, and only five men made it back to the AT ditch.

Around 0500 hours the tanks of PR5 appeared and managed to pull forward the riflemen and AT guns of MG8. The men of the battalion were noted in 1 Royal Horse Artillery’s B/O Battery’s war diary as passing through ‘D’ Company positions (presumably of 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion) at 0500, and occupying the house which was the observation post of the Rocket Troop.

These hit an artillery position further inside the fortress at 0600 hours, and give up after an hour-long duel with A/E battery of 1 R.H.A. and M Battery R.H.A.. While the tank commander offered to take back the men of MG8, Lt.Col. Ponath refuses. Uffz. Engelhardt of 1st company, an eyewitness, recounted this confrontation:

[…]At this time the English had shot up about 11 of the tanks that were accompanying us. I was then witness to an excited confrontation between Lt.Col. Ponath and the commander of the tanks. The latter requested Ponath to climb on the tanks with his men, since he had to turn back. He had fired all but the emergency reserve of rounds. Ponath refused because the English were already about to abandon their positions, and all that was required was to advance. The tank commander refused however, closed his hatch, and turned about[…]

Once the tanks had disappeared, and the MG 8 infantry was stuck in a newly constructed but unfinished trench system, the defenders methodically eliminated them. By 1000 hours MG8 forces inside the fortress were running out of ammunition, and Lt.Col. Ponath, erroneously believing that tanks to the south were German, ordered to fall back onto them. In carrying out this maneuver he was killed. The remnants of 3rd company was subdued by a Vickers light tank that had worked itself into the trench and used its machine guns to control the company.

Sometime later, at 1130 hours, Captain Bartsch of 5th company, now in charge of the force, decided to surrender. The message did not immediately get through to everyone, but eventually firing ceased along the line. 

In the meantime, the Australian infantry, supported by the Matilda IIs of ‘D’ Squadron 7 R.T.R. had attacked the bridgehead and eliminated it. The bayonet was again in use, for example in the charge of a small number of Australians from B Company 2/17 Battalion, described thus in its war diary for 14 April (available for download at this link):

 

0630 15 enemy located in ruined house NORTH of post 32 [i.e. further towards Tobruk]. B Coy [Company] was then about to counter-attack. B Comd [Company Commander] left post 32 and rejoined his Coy which had already been in action, Lieut. Owen having been wounded, in clearing the ruined house behind post 32. Rejoined (less 1 pl[atoon]) and found enemy about 0730 on hill below house and arty [artillery] OP [observation post]. They were then engaged, and a charge made by two sections [about 20 men] with Coy Comd. Enemy 100-150 strong. All were either killed or captured. […]

At 0800 the diarist of Rocket Troop notes with some satisfaction ‘The results of the battle was 300 prisoners and an equal number or more killed’ and ‘The enemy were completely ROUTED and withdrew showing complete lack of fight when faced with the bayonet.’ The estimate is 300 POW and the same or higher number killed, which seems reasonable.

 The Aftermath

 Following the battle, MG8 had been reduced to 300 men combat strength, compared to 1,400 men ration strength (note that this does not mean 1,100 men had been lost, the two strengths cannot be compared, for example temporarily detached units would still be on the ration strength, but not on the combat strength). It is estimated that about 700 men were lost, including 10 officers and 46 NCOs. Almost all weapons had been lost, including 36 HMGs, 15 AT guns[5], 5 81mm mortars, 40 SMGs, and 280 rifles.

On the morning of 14 April it could field the following, which equates to about one company between coys 1-5:

Sub-Unit[6] Strength
1st Company (MG) 2 heavy MG (s.M.G.) platoons
2nd Company (MG) 1 platoon with 4 s.M.G. and one ATR[6]
3rd Company (MG) 1 s.M.G. section, 1 ATR
4th Company (AT) 2 AT guns, 2 heavy mortars (81mm)
5th Company (motorcycle) Only trucks and supply vehicles/installations
6th Company (Engineers) Not used yet, remains in the rear in training

This would amount to 14 s.M.G., 2 ATR and no light mortars, roughly equivalent to a MG company, all told, with at most 1.5 times the manpower of a normal MG company.

Based on the February 1941 organization at this link, a machine gun company would field:

12 heavy machine guns

3 light mortars

3 anti-tank rifles

The 4th, anti-tank gun company (see this link) would normally hold:

6x 3.7cm AT gun

6x heavy mortar 81mm

Notes

[1]Machine Gun Battalion 8

[2]Contrary to many popular myths, the Italian positions in the fortification ring around Tobruk were very well constructed, flush with the ground, and extremely difficult to make out.

[3]Staff Sergeant

[4]Sergeant

[5]This probably covers AT rifles as well.

[6]The company numbering for the battalion is all over the place. The accounts in the unit history mention a 7th (heavy) company, which did exist, but was renumbered as either 4th or 5th at some point.

[7]Anti-tank rifle

Sources

AWM – Official History Tobruk

Lissance, Halder War Diaries

Liddell-Hart, The Rommel Papers

Molony – The Mediterranean and the Middle East

Unknown – History of MG8

War Diary – Deutsches Afrikakorps

Appendix

There’s a hadn-written note next to the entry on the battalion’s strength, which I cannot decipher – any help much appreciated: