German break through in Greece

The most decisive German effort seems to have been made on the 20th April. Those forces which had already on the day before reached the plain of Thessaly advanced on Lamia, whilst German motorised forces struck across the Pindus Mountains from Grevena and reached the Yannina area. At the same time, the roads of withdrawal of the Imperial and Greek forces were attacked by dive-bombers with fighter escort, whilst similar attacks were made on the harbour of Piraeus.

German infantry on the march in Greece, April 1941

The British forces in Greece were falling back, the Germans having achieved decisive air superiority early in the campaign. Captain Oliphant describes the retreat:

Moving back under cover of darkness – little sleep – over shocking roads and precipitious mountain passess covered with snow – vehicle and guns topple over the cliffs at night – it is too dark to see the road – the enemy shell the road with their longe range guns by day and by night, maklng it very difficult for our vehicles to get through – but we get through – a few guns and vehicles are lost but we are still a fighting unit.

It becomes a veritable nightmare, no sleep for 7 nights, frayed tempers, but the amazing endurance and spirits of the troops carry us through. At long last we get 2 days rest and then into action again to continue the rearguard role.

The countryside is lovely, waving green crops and red poppies, scarred at every few yards by terrific bomb holes. It seemed that the whole might of the German Air Force was turned loose on us. The Anzacs did a wonderful job in racing up three hundred miles into the Greek mountains to get first contact with the Hun and shelling him to blazes to delay his advance – he suffered great casualties – but his numbers were overwhelming – we could not stay the tide of his advance because it was always the flanks falling back which necessitated our withdrawal.

Captain K.M. Oliphant was with the 2/3 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery, TNA WO 217/33.

The official description was rather more prosaic:

It was evident that the German object was to gain the plain of Thessaly and so drive a wedge between the British and Greek forces, and cut the latter off from any possible line of withdrawal.

By the evening of the 19th April, German armoured forces operating on both sides of Mount Olympus had gained the eastern half of the plain of Thessaly and had advanced southwards beyond Larissa. At the same time German armoured forces had reached Trikkala, at the extreme north-western end of the plain, whilst the rest of the German line remained unchanged.

The most decisive German effort seems to have been made on the 20th April. Those forces which had already on the day before reached the plain of Thessaly advanced on Lamia, whilst German motorised forces struck across the Pindus Mountains from Grevena and reached the Yannina area. At the same time, the roads of withdrawal of the Imperial and Greek forces were attacked by dive-bombers with fighter escort, whilst similar attacks were made on the harbour of Piraeus.

From the Military Situation Report for the week.

Noel Coward sings through the blitz

On the whole, a strange and very amusing evening. People’s behaviour absolutely magnificent. Much better than gallant. Wish the whole of America could really see and understand it. Thankful to God I came back. Would not have missed this experience for anything.

The Fire Brigade was organised by the Local Authorities until August 1941, when the National Fire Service was created.

The worst single loss of life in the history of the Fire Brigade occurred during the night of the 19th when 34 firemen were killed at the Old Place School in Poplar, East London. For more details see Open Plaques..

The raid on the 19th April was mainly centred on the docklands, although bombs fell across London and the south east of England. ‘Only’ 449 people were estimated to be killed in London during the raid of the 19th/20th April as compared with 1,179 for the very heavy raid of 16th/17th.

For many people it was time to embrace life to the full and disregard the bombs. The West End was as popular as ever, even after the Cafe de Paris disaster. Noel Coward, the actor, entertainer and film director was also employed by the Secret Intelligence service, for whom he had recently toured the United States. He was glad to be back in England:

19th April

Had a few drinks, then went to the Savoy. Pretty bad blitz, but not so bad as Wednesday, a couple of bombs fell very near during dinner. Orchestra went on playing, no one stopped eating or talking. Blitz continued. Carroll Gibbons played the piano, I sang, so did Judy Campbell and a couple of drunken Scots Canadians.

On the whole, a strange and very amusing evening. People’s behaviour absolutely magnificent. Much better than gallant. Wish the whole of America could really see and understand it. Thankful to God I came back. Would not have missed this experience for anything.

See The Noel Coward Diaries

Coastal Command attack convoy

As a result of the first patrol a 7,000-ton vessel is believed to have been hit, and a 3,000-ton vessel was hit twice and seen to be rapidly sinking; two of our aircraft were lost. During the second patrol the Blenheims were attacked by five Me. 110, three of our aircraft being shot down, but all were able to drop their bombs and a direct hit is estimated on another ship.

A low level attack on a convoy off Norway by No. 21 Squadron on 18th April. The German Flak ship in the foreground had a range of anti-aircraft guns, including one mounted in the enlarged 'crows nest'.

The work of Coastal Command was unusually hazardous with a high rate of losses throughout the war, its work often neglected by comparison with Bomber Command:

On the 18th April, an aircraft on routine patrol sighted a convoy of eight merchant vessels off Stavanger; two formations of Blenheims from Coastal Command were sent out, in the morning and afternoon respectively, to attack this convoy. As a result of the first patrol a 7,000-ton vessel is believed to have been hit, and a 3,000-ton vessel was hit twice and seen to be rapidly sinking; two of our aircraft were lost. During the second patrol the Blenheims were attacked by five Me. 110, three of our aircraft being shot down, but all were able to drop their bombs and a direct hit is estimated on another ship.

From the Air Situation Report for the week, TNA CAB 66/16/15, which also records that Bomber Command was engaged against shipping during this period:

On each day of the week formations of aircraft have been sent out from Bomber Command to attack enemy shipping, with the following results :—
7,000-ton M.V. believed hit off Brest.
800-ton ship off Hoedenserke seen to disintegrate.
4,000-ton M.V. off Heligoland believed hit ; was last seen with large columns of smoke issuing from amidships.
5,000-ton M.V. off Heligoland, attacked from 50 feet and left on fire listing to starboard.
A Flak ship off Heligoland probably hit.
7,000-ton M.V. off Texel received two hits and was seen to have a list of 35 degrees.
6,000-ton M.Y. off Terschelling was probably hit.
5,000-ton M.V. off Scheveningen was attacked from 100 feet and was left sinking.
3,000-ton M.V. off S.W. Norway was hi t ; the ship stopped and was down by the stern.
2,000-ton cargo ship N.W. of Stavanger was hit, resulting in an explosion aft of the funnel with considerable smoke and steam issuing from the ship.
8.000-ton M.V. off the Dutch Coast received three direct hits and was last seen with clouds of smoke and steam issuing from it.

Bombs dropping towards a German merchant ship during an attack by Bomber Command aircraft, April 1941

Heavy attack on London

Some sixty-six boroughs were affected, the main bombing being on central and southern London. Damage in the docks area was comparatively light and so far there is little damage to key points to record. In addition to H.E. and incendiary bombs a large number of parachute mines were dropped and great damage was done to private property by fire and blast.

Fire fighting in Southwark on the night of 16th/17th April 1941.

On the [16th/17th] one of the heaviest attacks was made on London since the war began. Bombing commenced shortly after 2100 and lasted until nearly dawn.

Some sixty-six boroughs were affected, the main bombing being on central and southern London. Damage in the docks area was comparatively light and so far there is little damage to key points to record. In addition to H.E. and incendiary bombs a large number of parachute mines were dropped and great damage was done to private property by fire and blast.

Among the public buildings damaged were St. Pauls Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Admiralty, the Law Courts and the National Gallery. Many roads were blocked and the railway systems were hit in nineteen places. There were a large number of fires, the most serious being at L.N.E.R Goods Yard in Lisson Grove. Other serious fires were caused at Selfridges, Bessborough Gardens, Westminster, and the Kidbrooke R.A.F. Stores Depot. Although many fires were burning at daybreak, the situation was considered to be in hand.

From the Home Security Situation Report for the week , TNA CAB 66/16/10.

Also on this day the Norwegian ship D/S Profit, on loan to the British merchant marine, was lost four hours out of Southend, apparently in Barrow Deep in the Thames Estuary, after it hit a mine en route to Hull … see the comments by Kathleen below, who survived the blitz but lost her father on this night. Kathleen has been told that her father Edward McGee, an Irishman serving with the Queens Own Regiment on a Anti Aircraft gun on a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship, died when the D/S Profit was sunk. Records suggest that there was only one British soldier lost with the D/S Profit … but it would take more than one man to crew an AA gun.

More information on the DS Profit can be found on Warsailors, which suggests that the British casualty on the D/S Profit was Arthur Beeney

Aftermath of the Belfast Blitz

It looked like photographs of Spain or China or some town in the last war. Houses roofless, windowless, burnt out or burning, familiar landmarks gone and in their place vast craters and mounds of rubble. The desolation is indescribable. Thousands and thousands must be homeless, and as for the death toll, I shuddered to think horrors and ghastly injuries and death which have occured.

Clearing up after the Belfast blitz

Belfast was poorly prepared for the blitz compared with other British cities, few children had been evacuated, air raid shelters were sparse and defensive arrangements weak. Yet the the Harland and Wolf ship building yards and Northern Ireland’s strategic role in the battle of the Atlantic made it a likely target. When German bombers struck on the night of the 15th/16th April the effects were disproportionate. Over 900 people died. Over 50,000 homes were damaged leaving almost a quarter of the population homeless. Fire crews came from south of the border, from the neutral state of Ireland, and stayed for up to three days to help fight the fires.

Moya Woodside kept a diary for Mass Observation and recored the scenes in Belfast the day after the bombing, when thousands were homeless and many more wanted to find a way out of the city:

Passed railway station after lunch on my way to refugee committee, I have never seen anything like it. Thousands of people crowding in, cars, buses, carts and lorries, bathchairs, women pushing prams and go-karts with anything up to 6 or 8 children trailing along, belongings in blankets, pillowcases, baskets and boxes.

Coming back from the committee at 4.00 pm, found that the station doors had been shut. Crowds were waiting outside, mothers and children sitting on the pavement allround, constant stream of people arriving on foot and on buses, many looking exhausted. It was a heartbreaking sight. Went up to see some friends, living on road which leads out of town Such an exodus, on foot, in trams, lorries, trailers, cattle floats, bicycles, delivery vans, anything that would move would be utilised. Private cars streamed past laden with women and children, with matresses tied on top and all sorts of paraphenialia roped on behind. Hundreds were waiting at the main bus-stops. Anxiety on every face.

Came home to find a message awaiting me from one of our refugees asking – could I help to find somebody in the country for his wife and child. As he lived in a reported Blitz area, it sounded urgent, after supper I got on my bike again and resolved to try and get through to them. (They live across town about 4 miles away.) Found that the road had only just been opened and was being policed by military.

What awful scences meet me as I proceded. It looked like photographs of Spain or China or some town in the last war. Houses roofless, windowless, burnt out or burning, familiar landmarks gone and in their place vast craters and mounds of rubble. The desolation is indescribable. Thousands and thousands must be homeless, and as for the death toll, I shuddered to think horrors and ghastly injuries and death which have occured.

See Public Record Office of Northern Ireland T/3808/1. Second World War Northern Ireland has many more images and original records.

Italian convoy destroyed off Sfax

During the action H.M. Destroyer Mohawk was torpedoed and sank, and of her crew seven officers and 160 ratings were rescued. The other destroyers had no casualties and sustained only slight splinter damage. Owing to the approach of daylight it was not possible to wait and pick up enemy survivors

HMS Jervis, a flotilla leader destroyer, sister ship to HMS Kelly, won battle honours throughout the war.

Frederick Baker was on board HMS Mohawk on 15th April:

Whilst in the area of Malta our Flotilla was given another task and this was to try and stop the supply ships of the enemy reaching North Africa, which was now becoming the scene for the important battles between Montgomery [original account – Montgomery did not arrive until 1942] and Rommel. As you can imagine it was very dangerous for our ships to be caught at sea during daylight because of the superiority of the enemy planes, so we would leave Malta at dusk, do a wide sweeping search and rush back to Malta before dawn. On one of these occasions just as we were turning for home one of our ships sighted the enemy. We instantly engaged them in battle and after a short while we had successfully sunk the complete convoy of five troop or supply ships together with the three Escorts.

Unfortunately for me, my ship the Mohawk was hit by a torpedo which immobilised us causing considerable damage in the engine room and causing us to stop. We then became a sitting target and in a few moments we were hit again. This time we started to sink rapidly, so we had to abandon ship. After swimming away as fast as possible for a period, which seemed like hours, although in fact was only a few moments, I turned and saw the outline of the stern of the ship disappear under the water. I now became very frightened seeing many men in the water trying to cling to any debris they could find. I saw fairly close by one of our life rafts and struck out to reach it. I was recognised by some of my ship mates and was hauled on board. We then were miraculously spotted by one of our ships which was looking for survivors and I finished up on board HMS Nubian which coincidentally was the ship my elder brother [Charlie] was on, so it became a happy reunion for me.

Read Frederick Baker‘s account of his service with the Royal Navy.

HMS Jervis, sister ship to HMS Kelly, led one of the most successful convoy attacks of the war in the ‘Battle of the Tarigo Convoy’ on the night of the 15th. Also known as the ‘Action off Sfax’, decrypted Italian communications allowed the Royal Navy to intercept five merchant ships with military supplies and troops bound for Tripoli. Radar enabled a night ambush in which the entire force was destroyed:

Captain D. of the 14th Flotilla in H.M. Destroyer Jervis, with three other destroyers, intercepted an enemy convoy off the African coast between Sicily and Tripoli on the night of the 15th/ 16th April. The convoy consisted of two ships of about 5,000 tons laden with motor transport, an ammunition ship of about 4,000 tons, and two ships of about 3,000 tons, which were probably transports.

The escort was the Italian destroyer Luca Tarigo (1,648 tons, built 1928), and two of the Climene class destroyers (652 tons, built 1936-37). The entire enemy force is believed to be destroyed.

During the action H.M. Destroyer Mohawk was torpedoed and sank, and of her crew seven officers and 160 ratings were rescued. The other destroyers had no casualties and sustained only slight splinter damage. Owing to the approach of daylight it was not possible to wait and pick up enemy survivors.

From the Naval Situation Report for the week.

A fierce battle developed with the Italian navy. Smoke, explosions, shell splashes, burning ships and torpedoes confused the night sea. During the action, MOHAWK evaded a bow ramming from the lead German merchantman in the convoy. Just as the destroyer opened fire, a torpedo from the Italian destroyer Tarigo hit her just abreast of Y mounting on the starboard side. The whole of the stern from the superstructure aft was blown away and MOHAWK was awash as far as X mounting.

The crew of Y gun and the supply party were all killed. A and B guns continued firing on the merchantman and set her on fire. During this time, MOHAWK had been motionless in the water. Just as the destroyer made an attempt to get under way, a second torpedo arrived hitting portside between No.2 and No.3 Boiler Rooms. The No.3 boiler burst, scalding people on deck. The centre line of the upper deck split open allowing the torpedo tubes to fall into the engine room and crushed the watch below.

Immediately MOHAWK started to sink. All remaining hands were called to deck. Within a minute, she was listing heavy to port, rolling over until she lay on her side. There was no time to launch lifeboats but six Carleys managed to float clear. Most of the crew were left in the water as MOHAWK sank. Her stern touched the bottom with her fo’c’sle above the surface. NUBIAN picked up survivors while JANUS was ordered to sink the dying destroyer by firing 4.7-inch shells into her fo’c’sle. MOHAWK slipped beneath the surface and 41 men were lost with her.

HMS Mohawk had been in action in the earliest days of the war, in the first air raid on Britain.

Tank versus tank inside Tobruk

‘Driver advance, turn slightly left.’ My tank moved across to give this man protection. It was a stupid move, because by turning I presented the German tank gunners with a larger target, and they took full advantage of it. As we were turning back head-on to the enemy, the engine cut out, and we were left slightly ‘broadside on’. ‘She’s on fire, sir!’ shouted Adams, but he went on loading shells.

A German Mk IV tank, its turret blown off by a 25-pounder during the battle within Tobruk on the 14th April.

The German tanks that had broken through the perimeter of Tobruk on the night of the 13th had become disorientated in the darkness and had paused their assault. As dawn broke on the morning of the 14th they renewed their attack and it seemed that they would break through the line of artillery. Fortunately the few British tanks within Tobruk had come forward and were now poised to intervene. Rea Leakey was a tank commander with 1RTR:

Some forty German tanks were now clearly visible, and they were indeed busily engaged in destroying these guns. There would be nothing to stop them driving down to Tobruk harbour, only 3 miles away. We swung right into battle line.

I handed Milligan his cigarette, and told him to start shooting. There was no need for me to indicate the target to him. ‘Loaded,’ yelled Adams, and away went another solid shot, tearing at the thick enemy armour. The fumes of burning cordite made us cough, and our eyes water, and soon the turret was so thick with smoke that I could only just make out the figure of Adams as he loaded shell after shell into the breach. We were firing faster than ever before, and so were my other four cruiser tanks.

It must have been a minute before the Germans spotted us, and by then their tanks had received many hits from our shells. They appeared to panic, because they started to turn in all directions, many of them turned about and started moving back the way they had come.

But then they were on to us, and we could clearly see the flash of their guns. The tank to my left was hit several times, and ‘brewed up’. I saw some of the crew bale out. Then another of my valuable cruisers went up in flames, and there were only three of us left. I noticed one man of this crew dragging himself along the ground, badly wounded, and machine-gun bullets were hitting all round him. I felt I had to give him cover.

‘Driver advance, turn slightly left.’ My tank moved across to give this man protection. It was a stupid move, because by turning I presented the German tank gunners with a larger target, and they took full advantage of it. As we were turning back head-on to the enemy, the engine cut out, and we were left slightly ‘broadside on’. ‘She’s on fire, sir!’ shouted Adams, but he went on loading shells.

At the same moment Milligan’s head fell back against my knees, and looking down I saw that a shell had pierced the armour and removed most of his chest. He was dead. ‘Bale out,’ I yelled, and, as I pulled myself out of the turret, what few shells we had left in the turret started exploding, and the flames were already licking round my feet.

The German tanks were beaten off, and those that could retreated out of Tobruk. Read the whole account of the engagement in Leakey’s Luck: A Tank Commander with Nine Lives, in which he describes how bayonets were used to deal with the German infantry who didn’t surrender.

John Edmondson wins the Victoria Cross

Lieutenant Mackell led six men forward, including Corporal John Edmondson. They came under fire almost as soon as they left their trenches. Edmondson was hit by machine gun fire in the stomach and neck but kept going, bayoneting two Germans in a furious assault that had the Germans fleeing …

John Edmondson won the Victoria Cross with a furious bayonet charge during the defence of Tobruk.

Easter Sunday 13th April 1941 saw a sustained attack by tanks and infantry on the besieged forces of Tobruk. The greater part of the hastily assembled garrison, the Australian 9th Division had been civilians only six months before. They had no anti tank weapons so the troops on the outer perimeter were instructed to allow tank to pass through them and not attract attention to their positions. They were then to deal with the infantry assault following the tanks.

Although they were defending positions that had previously been prepared by the Italians, and further re-inforced with wire and mines, the anti tank ditch on the perimeter had filled with drifting sand. Some forty German tanks were able to cross the perimeter late on the 13th and advance towards the town of Tobruk. Soon the the forward Observation Posts for the artillery found themselves surrounded by tanks. The gun commanders heard the instructions “Target me, Target me” from the OPs as they called in gunfire on their own positions in order to hit the tanks.

Meanwhile groups of the Australian infantry left their positions to deal with German infantry at the perimeter wire. Lieutenant Mackell led six men forward, including Corporal John Edmondson. They came under fire almost as soon as they left their trenches. Edmondson was hit by machine gun fire in the stomach and neck but kept going, bayoneting two Germans in a furious assault that had the Germans fleeing:

On the night of 13th-14th April, 1941, a party of German infantry broke through the wire defences of Tobruk, and established themselves with numerous machine guns, mortars and field pieces. Led by an officer, Corporal Edmondson and five privates carried out a bayonet charge upon them under heavy fire. Although wounded in the neck and stomach Corporal Edmondson not only killed one of the enemy, but went to the assistance of his officer, who was attacked by a German from behind while bayoneting another who had seized him about the legs. Despite his wounds, from which he later died, Corporal Edmondson succeeded in killing these two Germans also, thus undoubtedly saving his officer’s life. Throughout the operation he showed outstanding resolution and leadership, and conspicuous bravery.

The citation for the Victoria Cross awarded to Corporal John Hurst Edmondson.

In a later account Lieutenant Mackell stated that Edmondson had gone on to bayonet two more Germans after dealing with the two attacking him. Edmondson died of his wounds very shortly afterwards.

For more on John Edmondson see the Australian War Memorial.

Falling back in Greece

One morning three bombs landed not twenty yards from the hole we were crouching in, covering us with filth, my tent was torn in three places by jagged pieces of bomb splinters. Forty yards from my tent a huge bomb tore a hole in the ground twenty feet deep and seventy feet wide. After dropping their bombs they fly low and machine-gun us because we have no planes to chase them-off – the sky is THEIRS.

German artillery during the invasion of Greece, 1941

British forces in Libya had been weakened because so many troops had been diverted to support the Greeks. The German invasion of Greece, also to support their Italian allies, was progressing quickly. The simultaneous invasion of Yugoslavia enabled them to outflank the Greek and British forces. Captain K.M. Oliphant was with the 2/3 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery high in the Greek mountains, which he described as ‘making the highlands of Scotland look like a plain’. His personal diary did not manage to keep track of individual days during this period:

News comes that the position on our flanks is not good – we are to withdraw to a stronger line – we are still confident. The withdrawal takes place under cover of the darkness, and we take up our new positions.

It is still snowing. The Germans move down and attack again – here they employ the full weight of their Air Force against us – we suffer their dive bombing and machine gunning and await the arrival of the R.A.F. – we are still confident. Day after day the German Air force bomb and machine gun us – a terrible experience – where is the R.A.F? surely there has been no mismanagement – our confidence is shaken – as we suffer every morning and every evening these terrifying raids – we reach the stage where we long for night and quietness – all day is a nightmare, and the hours of daylight are so long.

No British are in the sky – what has gone wrong?. Men begin to ask ‘Are we to be sacrificed to the German Air Force?’

On land we hurl their attacks back in spite of their overwhelming numbers – but we can’t hold on against their Air Force. One morning three bombs landed not twenty yards from the hole we were crouching in, covering us with filth, my tent was torn in three places by jagged pieces of bomb splinters. Forty yards from my tent a huge bomb tore a hole in the ground twenty feet deep and seventy feet wide. After dropping their bombs they fly low and machine-gun us because we have no planes to chase them-off – the sky is THEIRS.

News comes of a further withdrawal – we ask what has happened – surely not another Dunkirk; – our Unit is allotted the rearguard role – we stand and fight to cover the withdrawal of the rest of the force.

See TNA WO 217/33

The siege of Tobruk begins

Then one came, sensationally straight at us, dived to a few feet off the ground and went clean through our position with machine-guns blazing. We filled him up with machine gun bullets and smoke came pouring from him as he staggered and side-slipped, regained control and disappeared over the brow of the hill. This we claimed as ours without dispute.

A Junkers 87 dive bomber brought down near Tobruk.

The German forces finally surrounded the port of Tobruk, which had been captured from the Italians on the 22nd January, on the 11th April. Defended by around 14,000 men, mainly from the 9th Australian Division, the port became the the scene of sustained fighting throughout 1941. The opening phases saw the Germans continuing to break down the defences with air attacks, as Kenneth Rankin had already experienced:

11th April 1941 – Good Friday

Worked hard levelling the guns and getting things ready, all morning. At lunch time we were in the thick of it again and Junkers dive-bombers appeared all over the sky. We engaged one by shrapnel control, but our fuse was too short. Then one came, sensationally straight at us, dived to a few feet off the ground and went clean through our position with machine-guns blazing. We filled him up with machine gun bullets and smoke came pouring from him as he staggered and side-slipped, regained control and disappeared over the brow of the hill. This we claimed as ours without dispute.

A Hurricane came tearing in, shot one down, banked steeply and pounced on another which he shot down in flames – we cheered madly. Then four Messerschmitt 109s appeared from nowhere and all went for our lone Hurricane, which put up a terrific dog fight, but turned tail and rushed for the aerodrome with smoke coming out, but still under control. We engaged the Me.109 which had been chasing the Hurricane and put in some effective bursts, the result of which could not be properly observed owing to clouds of dust. 153 battery shot one down in the harbour too – so it was a great party.

Unfortunately they got a supply ship in the harbour, which the Navy made desperate efforts to save. A fair amount of artillery fire was going on, but we were beginning to get used to this, and hardly noticed it – like trains running along the bottom of a garden.

See Kenneth Rankin: Top Hats in Tobruk