First Attempts on Tobruk – April 1941

First Attempts on Tobruk – 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 that happened around Tobruk on the days from 11 – 17 April, 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.

It is arguable that if instead of frittering away forces by throwing them into attack at different locations as they arrived, an effort had been made to concentrate them and attack at a chosen point, success against the defenders would have been more likely. By the end of 17 April, by combining German and Italian forces, a force equivalent to about 1.5 infantry regiments and about one battalion of tanks could have been generated, with support from about a regiment of artillery.

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. White arrow – direction of MG8 attack 1 – Dark 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

15 to 17 April

The attacks did not end on 14 April.

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:

D.A.K. War Diary 28 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 28 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 28 April 1941

Weather: max. temp 26 degrees C

Arrival and Departure of subordinated troops:

Arrived by air in Benina:

  • Staff Pz.Pi.Batl. 33
  • 1./Pz.Pi.Batl.33
  • 3./Pz.Pi.Batl.33

One battalion of Artillery Regiment Dalmote (Corps Artillery Regt.) arrived west of Ras Mdauuar.

On Tobruk front lively patrol activity by both sides.

Luftwaffe attacked 2 ships at 11.30 hours in Tobruk harbour of 1-2,000 tons. Hit close to ships side.[1] Direct hits were obtained in heavy AA battery on promontory. To commence the planned attack on Tobruk Stukas attacked battery positions and fortifications with great success during the afternoon. Fighters attacked ground targets in strafing attacks. Burning trucks and explosions in ammunition stores were also observed by siege troops 1 Blenheim and 1 Hurricane were shot down.[2]

4079125

  ARMED BOARDING VESSEL CHAKLA, UNDER BOMBING ATTACK IN TOBRUK HARBOUR, 1941-04-29. NOTE HER CAMOUFLAGE SCHEME, THE COLOURS OF WHICH ARE PROBABLY 507A (THE DARKER GREY) AND 507C. THE CHAKLA WAS SUNK AS A RESULT OF THE ATTACK. (STILL FROM A CINE FILM) AWM 127950

2200 hours the area of Division Trento was under heaviest fire by naval artillery of heavy calibre.

1250 hours following order issued to Gruppe Herff:
“Occupation of track climbing up at Pt. 191 and Suleiman important. Protection has to be so strong in MGs, ATGs and single guns that it hold as long against enemy attacks until support from the rear arrives.” Operations order followed by courier officer on 29 April (see the same).

2200 hours reported Gruppe Herff: “South of line Sidi Omar – Sidi Suleiman 5km southeast Pt. 191 enemy secures with armoured cars and tanks, evade when we advance. Coastal plain up to 15km southeast of Sollum free of enemy. 
Security pushed forward up to 6km southeast Sollum across the track leading from the desert to plain.”

Replenishment of 5.lei.Div. by bringing in troops via air was announced by O.K.H.

NewImage

 

1942 British Map of the area. Sidi Suleiman (Pt. 206) to the south centre. Halfaya Pass (probably Point 191) to the left above it. 

Notes

[1]This was a joint German-Italian attack. The close hit was caught on film, and ABV Chakla (3,081t) was sunk as a result of the attack. Her sister ABV Chakdina was sunk on 5 December with heavy loss of life, when leaving Tobruk with POW on board, and the last of the three, ABV Chantala, ran on a mine outside Tobruk on 7 December 1941 and was lost.
[2]ID to follow. 

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 27 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 27 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 27 April 1941

Weather: max. Temp. 19 degrees C

Arrival and departure of subordinated troops:

Arrived by air (personnel)

  • Staff 15th Rifle Brigade
  • Staff I./I.R.104
  • 3./S.R.104
  • 4./S.R.104

Arrived in the operational zone:

  • Staff company S.R.115

Arrived of Div. Brescia:

  • 227th Company 4.7cm ATG

0719

German and Italian gunners practicing on a 47/32 Boehler AT gun. Rommelsriposte.com Collection

On the frontline of Tobruk continuous active movement at and behind the enemy positions, in some areas limited enemy advances and artillery activity. Noticeably weak air activity.

On Sollum front enemy has apparently pulled back towards the ridgeline 10km east of Sidi Suleiman with one reinforced battalion. No more contact with the enemy on our security line. Our reconnaissance was hampered by heavy losses of armoured cars during the recent combats.

1345 hours order issued to Gruppe Herff to take Point 191 and Sidi Suleiman at 1700 hours following our air attack with a strong assault patrol and to hold it (see that order).

2100 hours reports Gruppe Herff: “As ordered, posts have been pushed out at Sidi Suleiman – Point 191.”[1] The units foreseen for the attack on Tobruk were set in march from the Sollum front following dusk, as outlined in the order “concerning move of formations”. Gruppe Herff was reordered as follows.

In the area Capuzzo – Sollum Battalion Montemurro and one company Battl. Trento, Artillery Battalion Frongia. In Bardia 1 Battl. Trento. A.A.3 as mobile reserve 6km south of Bardia on the road Bardia – Capuzzo. Standing patrols in the line Sidi Omar – Sidi Suleiman – Point 191. Mobile reconnaissance against the enemy across this line towards south and east.

In line with radio communication of 27 April 1850 hours Gruppe Herff was also left with an additional company Kradschuetzen Batl. 15 and one light AA platoon I./18. These were readied as reserve north of Capuzzo to be at the call of Gruppe Herff.

Bombers of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika successfully attacked AA positions in Tobruk.

Elements of 15. Pz.Div. were sent by air to Bengasi. An application was made to O.K.H. for immediate transport to Gazala, since no column space was available to bring these up.

[1]Probably Halfaya Pass. Sidi Suleiman seems to be Pt. 205

D.A.K. War Diary 26 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 26 April 1941

26 April 1941

Weather Situation: max. temp. 30 degrees C, from 11.00 hours to 14.00 hours dust storm[1]

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops:

Of Div. Trento arrived in Acroma:

Regimental staff plus 2nd and 3rd battalions Artillery Regiment 46

On Tobruk front on both sides active reconnaissance and patrol activity. On the left wing of M.G.Batl.8[2] the enemy had cut an about 60m wide gap into the wire during the night 25/26 April. 5.lei.Div. took care to keep it under vigilant observation, also during the dust storm. One company of Pz.Regt.5 was placed behind it. An English reconnaissance patrol coming through this breach around mid-day was completely shot up by the tanks. During the evening hours 5.lei.Div. reported that the gap had now been closed again.

Nordafrika, Panzer III in Fahrt

German Panzer III tanks advancing in North Africa, 1941. Most likely Panzerregiment 5. Courtesy Wikimedia/Bundesarchiv Bildarchiv

14.30 hours a reconnaissance push by four enemy tanks from the area north of 209 to the west was repulsed by our artillery fire.[3]

Around 12.00 hours 5.lei.Div. reported that a patrol of Gruppe Schwerin had noted an English landing attempt about 15km east of Marsa Zeitum[4]. The division already doubted the report. A combat-capable reconnaissance in company strength was sent there and could only note a small vessel that moved west away from the coast.

Concerning the attack of Gruppe Herff[5] to take Halfaya Pass the following reports were received:

15.00 hours: “Moves to attack enemy south of Sollum commenced at 13.00 hours. Enveloping move is intended, advancing east of Point 206.”

19.00 hours: “17.45 hours enemy position east Uadi el Halfaya south-east Point 194 occupied by AT, tanks and artillery.
Gruppe Herff attacking in enveloping move south, takes position and holds it.”

24.00 hours: “Our attack pushed close to coast. Strong artillery reinforcement.New opponent from southwest evades encirclement by moving off north towards Capuzzo.”[6]

halfaya_pass_wwii

Halfaya Pass. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

[1]The war diary of 1 R.T.R. states this blew ‘all day’. The Australian Official History says it reduced visibility to 300 yards.

[2]On the eastern front of Tobruk.

[3]There is nothing about this in the Allied war diaries.

[4]Between Tobruk and Bardia.

[5]Operation Wendepunkt (Turning Point).

[6]The AWM Official History describes it thus:

The pass was bombed and machine-gunned on the evening of the 25th and on the 26th Herff’s force launched an attack against it. The ensconced infantry held to their positions, but their front was narrow and lacked flank protection. Enemy infiltrating along the escarpment threatened to outflank them. The anti-tank gunners of the 12th Battery[7] took part in the battle in an infantry-gun role, using high-explosive shell. Sergeant Templeman’s gun registered a direct hit on an enemy field gun as it was coming into action .

020088

A captured Boehler 47mm AT gun being inspected by Australian soldiers at Tocra, Libya, in early 1941. Courtesy Australian War Memorial, Collection number 020088

After dark the withdrawal plan was put into effect and the code words issued. The 2/Scots Guards established a delaying line from Buq Buq to Alam el Dab, two miles west of Sidi Barrani, through which the forward battalions withdrew. The 12th Battery guns covered the withdrawals of the battalions they were supporting. The two companies of the 1/Durham Light Infantry, covered by Lieutenant Scanlon’s troop, left the Halfaya position at 10.30 p.m., and the rearguard at Salum, with which was Lieutenant Cheetham ‘s troop (less one section), departed at 40 minutes past midnight .

[7]The Battery belonged to 2/3 Australian AT Regiment. Equipped with captured Italian 47mm AT guns. Thanks to user ‘Sheldrake’ on the AHF for pointing this out.

D.A.K. War Diary 25 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary 25 April 1941

25 April 1941

Weather: max. temp. 28 degrees C

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops:

Arrived in Tripoli:[1]

  • 7./S.R.115
  • 9./S.R.115
  • 10./S.R.115
  • Stab I./Pz.Regt. 8
  • 1./Pz. Regt. 8

Of Div.Brescia arrived:

  • 3rd Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment

Of Div. Trento arrived in Acroma:

  • 7th Bersaglieri Regiment[2]

Statements by English prisoners confirmed the English intent to, if feasible, bring about a fundamental change of the situation at Tobruk by an enveloping attack from Capuzzo. The English radio claimed that on 21 April “a further 2 Indian regiments and 1 Australian armoured battalion were landed in Tobruk without interference by the enemy.”[3]

Based on observation from the ground by Gruppe Schwerin, nine merchants, two destroyers and one cruiser were in Tobruk harbour on 24 May. On 25 May 18.15 hours Lt.Col. Count Schwerin reported: “2 small enemy destroyers at Uadi Delia, [4] discharging men and materials. Lively motor vehicle traffic to the discharge points.”

Along the whole front of Tobruk reconnaissance pushes by the enemy, in up to company strength and sometimes with tanks, were repulsed throughout the day:

03.00 hours an assault patrol (strength about 60 men) against the southern flank of Gruppe Schwerin was repulsed. The enemy left behind one dead and one severely wounded. 12.30 hours 4-5 English tanks approached Pt. 201 from Pt.209 15.15 hours an enemy push of about one company against the northern flank of Div. Brescia came to a halt in our defensive fire. 22.30 hours the division repulsed a second push against its right wing.[5]

The lively enemy assault patrol activity was effectively supported by the well directed fire of the English artillery. On the left wing of Div. Brescia a 7.5cm battery was put out of action completely by this fire. Because of its limited range the battery could not even return the fire. In the sector of Div. Ariete the English fired under direction of an artillery observer plane[6] and covered a battery of the division.

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A Westland Lysander Mark II of No. 208 Squadron RAF parked at El Adem airfield, Libya, shortly after its occupation on 5 January 1940. In the foreground are the remains of one of eighty-seven wrecked Italian aircraft found on the airfield. Courtesy Imperial War Museum

Morning reconnaissance of Fliegerfuehrer Afrika carried out by three Me 110 ascertained: “South of Capuzzo in the wire starting at Uaar cuts every 50m up to about Gabr el Meduar widely dispersed single armoured cars or trucks with front to north. At Sidi Azeiz 12 armoured cars. All vehicles had bombs dropped on them by the 3 Me 110 and were attacked with machine guns and cannon in strafing attacks at a level of 10 metres. On the road Sollum – Sidi el Barrani total quiet during the time of the reconnaissance.”

Gruppe Herff jumped off for counter attack against enemy forces south and south-east of Capuzzo at 12.00 hours. Support of the Luftwaffe was ineffective, since the attack was carried out 35 minutes early and mostly hit our concentration area north and east of Capuzzo and partially on the Via Balbia. The enemy security screen conducted a fighting withdrawal. The enemy artillery fired from positions far to the rear blocking and destructive fire and could not be engaged by our weapons. The attack of Gruppe Herff was broken off at 14.00 hours after reaching Points 206 and 192. Seven enemy armoured cars were destroyed, of which one by planes. Just from our air attack Gruppe Herff lost 7 dead and 10 wounded.

23.20 a directive was issued to Gruppe Herff: “On 26 April after finally pushing back opponent from the southern front take firm possession of the ascent at Point 194 and defend it.”[7]

Air Situation: 24 April 19.30 hours enemy bombing of Derna town and airfield. Enemy bombers and fighters have almost completely ceased to attack ground troops. On Tobruk airfield nine old Italian planes and 7 Hurricanes were ascertained based on take-off observations. Our air force sank an 8,000 ton merchant around lunchtime while it was leaving Tobruk harbour[8]. Destroyers[9] took off during midday hours to support the attack of Gruppe Herff (see above) and at 16.00 hours attacked enemy battery positions east of the border at Gabr Seghir and Sidi Suleiman. After this attack only 2 enemy guns continued firing. One shot down Hurricane crashed onto one Me 110. Both burned out. One Me 110 had to forceland in no-mans land after encountering anti-aircraft fire.

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Force-landed Me 110 of 2.(H)/14.Pz. in North Africa, 1941. Aircraft is 5F+PK. Courtesy Bundesarchiv photographic collection.

Based on the bad experience of the last days with the Italian units a change to the intention to attack at the same time with all divisions along the whole front of Tobruk was required. The plan, which was presented to the Ia and/or chiefs of staff of the divisions at 16.00 hours today, saw the main push on both sides of Ras Mdauur by strong groups of 5.lei. and 15.Pz.Div., on the remaining front mainly tieing down the opponent by local or fake attacks. Written orders about moves in the time 26 to 30 April and the attack itself to be issued in the following days.

An order to Fliegerfuehrer Afrika listed its tasks and delineated them from those of 2.(H)/14.Pz.

X.Fliegerkorps received an order by Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe to immediately carry out the air transport of elements of 15.Pz.Div. in Naples to Derna.

[1]7th company is a rifle company in the 2nd battalion of the regiment. 9th and 10th companies are probably the infantry gun and engineer company of the regiment. The regiment had only two rifle battalions in 1941.

[2]Bersaglieri (Sharpshooters) were the elite light infantry of the Italian army. They were normally fully motorised and easily recognisable from their feathered hats. Bersaglieri regiments were normally only attached to armoured and motorised divisions. At this stage of the war, only two Bersaglieri regiments were in North Africa, 7th with Trento and 8th with Ariete. They were joined by 9th with Trieste in September.

[3]This is not correct, but probably deliberately misleading information. One Indian regiment, 18th Cavalry, was already in the fortress, and there were no Australian armoured units in the desert.

[4]Probably on the eastern side of the fortress.

[5]The AWM volume on Tobruk has the following information on these raids:

03.00 hours – not clear.  A night patrol by 2/48 Battalion went out to ‘Carrier Hill’, Point 201 opposite the Ras Mdaaur sector, but no contact reported .

12.30 hours – not clear.

15.15 hours – This was carried out by ‘A’ Company 2/23 Battalion, and was aimed to keep a sufficient distance of no-mans land between the perimeter and the Axis lines. The raid consisted of three separate patrols, one including a mortar team, and between them they brought in 32 officers including at least one officer and one NCO.

22.30 hours – this was either of two raids:

i) a raid by 2/23 Battalion to destro the trucks observed in the afternoon patrol, and which claimed 11 trucks destroyer, or

ii) a raid carried out by 18 Indian Cavalry, which brought in 33 prisoners including an officer from a wadi 4,500m out of the perimeter.

Not mentioned is a raid by ‘B’ Company 2/23 battalion that hit a German position south of the Derna Road, which left one German killed and one Australian wounded.

[6]While the last three Hurricanes were withdrawn on this day, two Westland Lysanders of No. 208 Squadron RAF remained with the garrison to carry out Army Co-operation Duties.

[7]Halfaya Pass

[8]There is no evidence I can find for this, and I suspect it to be a false claim.

[9]Me 110

 

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 23 April 1941

D.A.K. War Diary Entry 23 April 1941

23 April 1941

Weather: max. temp. 19 degrees C

Arrival and Departure of Subordinated Troops:

Of Div. Brescia arrived in the operational zone:

  • Infantry Regiment 20
  • Staff
  • 1st Battalion
  • Support Weapons Company
  • 2nd Battalion
  • Mortar and Infantry Gun Companies

On 23 April ground reconnaissance still encountered continuous enemy occupation of the outer ring of fortifications of Tobruk. Aerial reconnaissance only ascertained weaker groupings of 30-50 motor vehicles each between the rings of fortification. No enemy push. Compared to previous days only weak enemy artillery effects.

To finally gain clarity on whether the enemy front before Tobruk was still holding, assault patrols were ordered for all divisions for 24 April 0530 hours, with strong artillery support (see same order).

At midday 23 April a heavy enemy bomb attack hit Gazala airfield but without notable losses. Our air force attacked the port of Tobruk twice. Results thus far: 1 ship sunk, 2 ships heavily hit, one of these burning, based on ground observation[1]. 6 Hurricanes, 2 Blenheims were shot down in air combat[2], 2 of our fighters lost. According to ground observation 7 ships were confirmed in the port of Tobruk/Marsa Zeitum, 3 transports, 1 destroyer, 1 submarine, and 3 smaller vessels. The latter could however not be confirmed again by aerial reconnaissance after 1900 hours.

2030 hours report of Gruppe Herff: “1815 hours 60 enemy tanks at Azeiz marching north. Turn to west not excluded.”[3]

The following measures were thereupon ordered by the D.A.K.:

  1. To Fliegerfuehrer AfrikaFliegerfuehrer has to task armed reconnaissance against the enemy tanks early on 24 April, if possible to attack the tanks and to destroy them. Report reconnaissance results soonest to D.A.K., Gruppe Herff, and 5.lei.Div.
  2. Inform 5.lei.Div. for it to carry out potentially required ground reconnaissance and security measures.
  3. Radio message to Gruppe Herff: “The movement of the 60 tanks has to be observed early and continuously on 24 April. If required, the tanks are to be attacked and destroyed with all anti-tank forces. Reconnaissance results continuously to D.A.K.

 

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Marmon Herrington armoured car of the Tobruk garrison, May 1941. IWM

Around 2200 hours the following radio message arrived from Gruppe Herff: enemy tank attack from the west on Capuzzo, lasting several hours, supported by reinforced artillery, until now repulsed. Fight continues. At 1815 hours 60 enemy tanks, with them a larger number of other motor vehicles and possibly artillery across a wide front and depth in advance west of Capuzzo to Sidi Azeiz. Forward Detachment holds current positions whilst securing to the west. Not yet clear if blocking of road Bardia – Tobruk or advance in the rear of the siege front is intended.  Armoured car reconnaissance patrols attempt to keep in touch during the night. Aerial reconnaissance from daybreak in the area west of the Forward Detachment, and readying of Stukas for immediate support requested.

Notes

[1]There is no record on Seekrieg or Wrecksite of ships wrecked at Tobruk on 23 April 1941. It is likely that this refers to repeat hits on the already sunkd vessels during these attacks, the merchants SS Urania and SS Draco, and possibly damage to the mine hunter HMS Fareham, and the submarine hunter HMSAS Southern Seas.

[2]Only one loss is recorded on this day, Blenheim IV T1873 of No. 55 Sqdn. R.A.F. , lost on an operation to bomb Gazala landing ground No.1. The crew of Sgts. H. Fullarton, H.S. Latta R.N.Z.A.F. and G. McLaren were all killed when their plane crashed into the sea in flames, after a 15 minute running fight that commenced 32km west of Tobruk. It was likely shot down by Oberleutnant Wolfgang Redlich of 1./JG27, flying a Me 109E. Redlich claimed two Blenheims.

[3]This was apparently only an armoured car raid on German transport, executed by 11 Hussars. Nevertheless, it caused another flap at Rommel’s HQ, following the very successful raids by the Tobruk garrison of the previous day.

 

Fabris’ bad day: 22 April 1941

Fabris’ bad day: 22 April 1941

22 April 1941

Weather: max. temp. 19 degrees C

Arrived in the operational Zone:

  • 6./S.R.115
  • II./A.R.33

Of Div. Brescia only the following fully motorised elements had arrived in front of Tobruk until now:

  • Divisional staff,
  • complete 1st Fast Artillery Regiment
  • 5th Company, 4.7cm AT guns
  • 71st Company, 4.7cm AT guns

Today the following arrived at the division:

  • Regimental staff Infantry Regiment 19
  • Accompanying weapons companies of 1st and 3rd battalions[1]
  • Infantry gun company Infantry Regiment 19[2]

At dawn 5-6 enemy armoured vehicles pushed against the positions of 5.lei.Div. 1 tank was destroyed.[3]

Div. Ariete reported from 0600 – 0620 hours increased enemy artillery fire in its sector and advance of single enemy tanks in westerly and southwesterly direction from Point 209.

0630 hours English attack of about one battalion with 6-10 tanks from Ras Mdauuar against Abteilung Fabris.[4]

0700 hours. The telephone of communications point General on Point 204[5] reports that the enemy tanks had already pushed into the position. The Italians are surrendering.[6]

0730 hours phone call from Commander Div. Brescia: “Enemy tank attack between Point 209 and Via Balbia. Tanks have already penetrated into our positions.”[7]

 

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Map of the Raid by Capt. Forbes’ force on 21 April 1941. Courtesy of the AWM, at this link.

 

 

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Raid of Captain Rattray’s force. Courtesy of AWM at this link.

The Ia of 15.Panz.Div. was called and received the verbal order: “The approaching I./S.R.115 and II./A/R.33 are to be brought up more quickly and to prepare for defense in the area about 30km west of Tobruk.”

Phone order to Div.Trento to prepare the elements of the division around Acroma for defense there and to hold Acroma.

Request to Fliegerfuehrer Afrika: “Smash up enemy on Point 209 and in front of right wing of Div Brescia with bomber planes. Fighters to intervene in ground combat.”

Intercepted English radio messages: 0730 hours! “The tanks are now returning.” 0750 hours: “200 men infantry surrendering.” 0820 hours: “Fight appears to be over, about 200 prisoners are being brought in. Destroyed: 3 or 4 light guns, and between 20 to 30 motorcycles with side cars. 0900 hours: “Our losses: 1 light tank, 1 man.”[8]

The enemy succeeded to break into the AT position of Div.Brescia and to destroy some guns. His attack got stuck in front of artillery positioned safe from tank attack. About 9 tanks were destroyed.[9]

Lieutenant-General Rommel had now driven to Acroma himself: Div.Trento received his order to occupy the late position of Abteilung Fabris. “All the equipment of the Abteilung was lying there undamaged, including the guns with their breechblocks.[10]

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Bersaglieri Motorcyclists in North Africa, during the initial Italian advance, September 1940. Italian Archives.

The order to 15.Panz.Div. was clarified in writing in such a way that it could take over a switch position with elements of I./Flak 18 either east of Acroma or east of the Cantoniera. (see the order)

On 21 April Div.Trento had received the order to reach the area Bardia – Capuzzo – Sollum, and to defend it. Considering the events of today the order was amended to one reinforced battalion being assigned to take over the late position of Fabris (see that order). One battalion of Div. Trento was to be set on the way to Bardia on 22 April. Gruppe Herff received the instruction (see the same) to execute a devastating blow to the enemy at Sollum once this had arrived, to gain a free hand on this front for the foreseeable future, and to make available further forces for the attack on Tobruk.

Div. Brescia again repulsed an English reconnaissance push against its northern flank during the evening hours. It was remarkable that this was carried out by the enemy without artillery support, and only air support.

According to the report by Major Teetz, who led the elements of Div.Trento in the most forward lines in front of Ras Mdauuar, these attempted several times during the day to leave their positions when under enemy artillery fire even though they were not attacked at all.

The Corps issued an order to all units and offices to have heightened awareness in front of Tobruk and undertake security measures, especially for tank defense (see the same).

Notes

[1] These were support weapons for the battalion, normally a platoon of mortars, AT-guns, and 20mm AA guns each.

[2] This company was usually equipped with obsolete 65mm infantry guns.

[3] This was probably the raid by a mixed force of 2/17 Battalion, which became stuck and had to extricate itself. According to the war diary of 1 RTR it’s ‘B’ Squadron stood by to support the raid, but was not called upon. The OOB for this raid, according to the OH, was an infantry company, a company of 2/1 Pioneers, two troops of light tanks, one squadron of cruiser tanks, and a battery of 1 R.H.A. field artillery. The aim was to attack and destroy a battery of field guns.

[4] Abteilung Fabris was based around Lt.Col. Fabris command, IIIa Bersaglieri batallion, a motorcycle battalion. Fabris fell at the head of his men, and was posthumously decorated with the Silver Medal for Military Valour. The order of battle for this raid was ‘C’ Company (Capt. Forbes) and five carriers of 2/48th Battalion the latter with Windeyer’s reserve company, three I-tanks of 7 R.T.R. and four 2-pdr AT guns of ‘M’ Battery 3 R.H.A.

[5] Most likely a German telephone position inside the position of Fabris’ Bersaglieri. I presume that German Point 204 is identical with Point 201 on the map.

[6]The implication that the Italians were not fighting is not fair though. From the Australian OH:

For a short time the Italians stood to their positions and engaged the Australians with infantry weapons at short range but could not halt them, and the sight of the assaulting infantry coming forward with fixed bayonets soon proved too much for the Italians. Generally they surrendered though isolated pockets continued to resist.

[7] This was the second raid of the morning, undertaken by 2/23 battalion on both sides of the Derna road.

[8] The radio messages appear to refer to the raid by 2/48 Battalion, except the last one, which probably refers to the raid by 2/17 Battalion. Losses of the 2/48 raid were 1 portee AT gun, 3 killed, and 6 wounded. The raid brought in 368 prisoners including 16 officers, and captured 4 AA guns, as well as MGs, mortars, transport vehicles and motor cycles as well as maps and orders/instructions. It pretty much eliminated Col. Fabris’ Bersaglieri battalion.

[9] This is likely the assessment of the raid by 2/23 Battalion in the north. In this raid, at least four carriers were lost. Nevertheless, this raid was far more costly than the other two, with both the north and south force ending up in very tough fighting. Of Lt. Hutchinson’s force, 46 men (80%) became casualties, with 24 left behind. The raid brought in 87 prisoners including two officers, and captured 3 AA guns, 5 MGs, and 4 mortars.

[10] Breechblocks were to be removed when retreating from a gun position without the guns, to render them unusable.