The British retreat in the Desert continues

Old King Cole was hollow cheeked and was beginning to look drudged with weariness. His moustache was droopy and his eyes were red. He had two septic places on his face and, every now and then his right eye twitched uncontrollably. He was unshaven and gaunt. From his dusty boots to his battered hat he was taking on the colour of the desert.

A Grant tank crew loading up with ammunition from a truck, 18 June 1942.
A Grant tank crew loading up with ammunition from a truck, 18 June 1942.

The British retreat in the Desert, the [permalink id=20169 text=”‘Gazala Gallop’,”] continued with Rommel’s forces hard on their heels. The German forces were now in danger of reaching the perimeter of Tobruk, as they had done in [permalink id=11090 text=”April 1941″]. Tobruk had proved the stumbling block for his advance then, an obstacle that could not be broken or completely circumvented. For most of the men in the retreating 8th Army it seemed inevitable that once again they would make a stand here. Henry Ritchie was amongst that Army in retreat, with a Royal Artillery Battery:

As the final rays of the sun drew out long shadows after the third bruising day of the retreat, and after sparring all day with loose enemy formations the Battery headed south into the comparative safety of the southem stretches. As we prepared for a watchful night laager the rich dark canopy of the desert night was girdled with myriads of pulsating stars.

The next morning as dawn was breaking Major Coleman held a briefing session for senior N.C.O.s. He stood on a small sand hill as we gathered around him.

‘Our present location,’ he said, ‘is eleven miles south ofthe Tobruk perimeter. It is clear that Tobruk is surrounded and that the forward enemy troops are already on the Egyptian frontier_ The 15th Panzer Division together with two Italian Divisions are lying outside Tobruk. A full scale attack on Tobruk by the Afrika Korps is imminent.’

Old King Cole was hollow cheeked and was beginning to look drudged with weariness. His moustache was droopy and his eyes were red. He had two septic places on his face and, every now and then his right eye twitched uncontrollably. He was unshaven and gaunt. From his dusty boots to his battered hat he was taking on the colour of the desert.

Old King Cole had shepherded his weary battery over miles of endless desert and the long months of strain were beginning to show. He went on,

‘We have been ordered to head north to try and relieve pressure on the Tobruk garrison. We shall lay up today, get some rest and begin to move up towards Tobruk at nightfall. Ensure that all vehicles are filled with petrol and oil and that water levels are checked. Each quad must carry an extra forty gallons of petrol in cans tied on to the roof. See that ammunition limbers are full and that everyone has three days hard rations. The position inside Tobruk is as follows. Defending the perimeter are thirty three thousand men. These include the whole of the 2nd. South African Division, the llth. Indian Brigade, the 201st. Guards Brigade and the 32nd. Tank Brigade’

Then we had the bullshit.

‘There is absolutely no possibility that Tobruk will fall to the enemy. We held Tobruk for eight months and bunkers, gun positions and defences are still there. There is an excellent chance that our troops in Egypt will mount a major counter attack and that we shall be required to support them in a drive to knock the enemy out of Cyrenaica’

See Henry R. Ritchie: The Fusing Of The Ploughshare, the Story of a Yeoman at War.

Two Stuart tanks advancing in the Western Desert, 18 June 1942.

Operation Crusader aims to relieve Tobruk

‘FIRE’ and another shell hurtles into the enemy front line. We have just fifteen seconds to get each shell loaded, the gun correctly aligned and the firing lever pulled. The range is four thousand, five hundred yards. Fifty yards are added to the range, the Gunlayer makes the correction to the elevation and Number One checks ‘FIRE’ and another shell screams away into the darkness.

Operation Crusader began with a pre dawn artillery barrage from within the Tobruk perimeter.
A 25-pdr Field Gun firing at night in the desert, 1942.

The new Commander, Middle East Forces, General Sir Claude Auchinleck had come under some pressure to launch an assault to relieve Tobruk and move on to the attack against the Afrika Korps. [permalink id=12133 text=”Operation Battleaxe”] had proved a bloody failure in June, when the British had discovered that their tanks were no match for the German 88mm guns. Now the re-equipped and re-inforced British forces tried again.

While the newly designated British 8th Army moved west out of Egypt and sought to locate and confront the Africa Korps, a simultaneous attempt was made to break out from Tobruk itself.

The pre dawn infantry assault was accompanied by a creeping artillery barrage from the guns within Tobruk. A ‘creeping barrage’ meant that the range of the guns was gradually extended with the infantry following behind the line of the exploding shells in front of them – a technique from the First World War intended to neutralise the opposing infantry until the last possible minute. It required consistently accurate shooting by the gunners.

Henry Ritchie was with 104th (Essex Yeomanry) Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery on the 18th November and describes the opening moments of that artillery barrage:

We thrust flimsy cotton wool plugs in our ears, but they are small protection against the hot, crushing blast of the crack of a twenty five pounder. The percussion and roar will drive right into our inner ear. After the barrage our ears and face and jaws will ache for hours.

‘Zero less sixty seconds.’

The Number One picks up his rammer staff and tucks it under his left arm. Every nerve must be strained to stay watchful and alert. Any diversion from the correct switch and range could be fatal to the infantry who will be following behind our barrage.

The Layer’s hand moves towards the firing lever. ‘Five seconds, four, three, two, one, FIRE’ The four troop guns fire as one and, at the same time, other batteries open up all around us. To our right, to our left and behind us, the guns roar and thunder.

The Number Two whips open the breech, and the empty charge case flies out together with a white sheet of flame.

Another shell is rammed into the breech and another charge and the Layer makes the fine adjustment to the angle and sight and reports, ‘ready’. The Number One makes a quick check of the settings on the dial sight and micrometer head.

‘FIRE’ and another shell hurtles into the enemy front line. We have just fifteen seconds to get each shell loaded, the gun correctly aligned and the firing lever pulled. The range is four thousand, five hundred yards. Fifty yards are added to the range, the Gunlayer makes the correction to the elevation and Number One checks ‘FIRE’ and another shell screams away into the darkness. The moving belt of fire is biting into the enemy’s forward defences.

Now and again the tell tale, high pitched shriek of a shell that has lost its driving band or the swish, swish of a badly rammed shell is heard.

‘Zero plus thirty minutes.’

We have been so committed to the programme that we have not noticed the passage of time. The rate of fire will now be scaled down to two rounds per gun per minute. The barrel is as hot as a stove. We spit on it and it hisses like an angry snake.

There are slithers of purple in the empty sky and we see the first streaks of dawn which, for many soldiers in Tobruk, will be their last.

Henry Ritchies account The Yeomen in the Front Line appears in Kenneth Rankin, Editor: Lest We Forget – Fifty Years On.

Red Army assault on the German lines

Our observation post is quickly altered into a defensive position. The camouflage tarp is removed and a step is dug into the wall in order to bring the machine gun into place. Hand grenades are lined up, ready to be used. The bayonet is attached to the rifle to prepare for one- on-one battle. The Reds have managed to break through to the right of our position. Quite a few are torn apart by the mines, but the Red devils don’t mind a few hundred casualties.

A German soldier keeps watch from his trench with a Panzerbüchse - an anti tank rifle - at the ready.

The fighting on the Eastern front continued. It was gradually becoming apparent that the German expectation that they could just ‘kick in the door’ and the Soviet army would collapse was an illusion. However crude their tactics, however wasteful of men, the Soviet army continued to mount a fierce resistance in many areas.

One German was keeping a diary of his experiences with the anti tank battalion – the Panzerjagers – of the 299th Infantry Division during Barbarossa. [permalink id=12825 text=”Once again Hans Roth”] found himself in the very front line under artillery fire.

6 September

Changing guard at B-position at 0300 hours. Six men move into the lonely position. It is quiet despite our expectations. Well, at least what we call quiet: sporadic shell fire and the rattling of a single machine gun.

Wet fog hangs over our positions, it is abysmally cold. At least it provides good cover; the enemy is unable to see us walking through the barbed wire barriers as we carefully and slowly crawl through the minefield. Thirty minutes later we reach the forward trenches of B-position.

The fog lies in thick banks in the valley. The enemy might attempt to breach our position’s front line under the cover of this fog. We are the eyes of our division and as such, we see the first waves of enemy fighters approach within half an hour.

Our protective artillery fire lands well and eliminates the first two waves, but more masses are clashing against our section of the front. If it continues like this, we may have to retreat to the primary position. No one says this aloud, however; German soldiers do not retreat that quickly.

Our observation post is quickly altered into a defensive posi- tion. The camouflage tarp is removed and a step is dug into the wall in order to bring the machine gun into place. Hand grenades are lined up, ready to be used. The bayonet is attached to the rifle to prepare for one- on-one battle.

The Reds have managed to break through to the right of our position. Quite a few are torn apart by the mines, but the Red devils don’t mind a few hundred casualties. The Bolsheviks have understood the importance of our defensive position and bring more and more reinforcement troops.

Their masses attack non-stop. Their artillery fires without a break, and from a great distance, directly into our trenches. The fog is long gone. The sun is beating down on us and driving us crazy.

Terrible one-on-one fights have erupted in several sections around us. It means nothing to ask for heroic individual actions. Everyone is a hero here; everyone simply fulfills his duty to the best of his ability. The Bolsheviks are finally pushed back and retreat around noon.

See Eastern Inferno: The Journals of a German Panzerjager on the Eastern Front, 1941-43

Fighting off a heavy bombing raid on Tobruk

After that they came in thick and fast, bombs landing continuously all round us. Three guns went out of action but the fourth (Sergeant Edwards) went on battling magnificently, fighting them off as they came in. The L.A.A. gun fought gloriously, fighting back with 120 rounds until a bomb landed within three feet of them wounding all of them and putting their gun out of action. All were taken off in an ambulance. One lad was killed and six wounded.

The bombing of Tobruk harbour on the 1st September 1941, the port was littered with sunken ships.

Kenneth Rankin was commanding a Heavy Anti Aircraft battery in Tobruk. On the 1st September the Luftwaffe launched one of their heaviest raids on the besieged port:

The alarm went and we were warned of a big party coming in. I prepared the gunners and we soon picked up a few dirty dive-bombers. After a short interval the party started – and what a party! We fired the harbour barrage and thinking there were only about twenty planes we thought there would be nothing more after seeing about this number.

Then they started pouring in near us, bombing the local water point and showing us their bellies as they went down past us. We bashed away at them and two were damaged. More came down bashing at ‘C’ site away to our south and huge dust clouds went up over there. ‘C’ went on firing furiously.

Another lot went for our old site and our dummy site, and suddenly I heard the roar of machine guns and, as bullets started falling around us, putting the height-finder out of action, knew what was coming. Just had time to duck when a bomb load landed right in the middle of our gun site.

After that they came in thick and fast, bombs landing continuously all round us. Three guns went out of action but the fourth (Sergeant Edwards) went on battling magnificently, fighting them off as they came in. The L.A.A. gun fought gloriously, fighting back with 120 rounds until a bomb landed within three feet of them wounding all of them and putting their gun out of action. All were taken off in an ambulance. One lad was killed and six wounded.

Then came the high level part of the raid and great wedges of Italian bombers came over dropping bombs everywhere, twenty-eight of them landing on ‘J’ site with no damage, others landing in amongst ammo dumps, some near G.O.R., more near ‘C site.

We engaged with our one remaining gun and estimated the heights, as our height-finder was out of action. Prodigious numbers of rounds were fired by all A. A. sites, especially those remaining in action throughout the performance.

A fort nearby was bombed and one Polish soldier wounded and another buried but got out again, shaken but not hurt. Our other L.A.A. gun was on top of the fort, took cover once, but otherwise fought on magnificently throughout. Lewis gunners also blazed away throughout, one being damaged by a machine-gun bullet.

The telephone wires went down and we were soon out of touch with everyone, until R.H.Q. managed to connect up with us. Got in touch with Ordnance and they put in some grand work on the guns, getting them all back into action except one.

Within two hours we had three guns in action. The fourth was taken away and was expected back again tonight, ready for action.

See Kenneth Rankin: Top Hats in Tobruk

Tobruk was twice attacked by a force of about 40 bombers with fighter escort. On the first occasion the harbour was the objective, and on the second A.A. sites and a gun position appeared to be the target. A few vehicles and a small quantity of ammunition were destroyed. The bombing was, however, notably inaccurate, and some bombs even fell in the Italian lines. In the course of these attacks two bombers were destroyed and six probably destroyed. Several other attacks were made on Tobruk, but were even less effective.

From the Air Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/18/37

Tribute to the Garrison of Tobruk

Everyone in Tobruk thinks the other fellow is the best in the world. Each Australian Brigade maintains that its associated British Artillery is incomparable. All within the perimeter share the day’s hazard, and at Fortress Headquarters a General, who fought in Gallipoli, calls his garrison a team.

The 'Bush artillery' in action at Tobruk - soldiers from all branches of the army were drafted in to make use of captured Italian guns.

On 13th August 1941 the journalist Richard Capell recorded his tribute to the Garrison of Tobruk, and in particular to the anti-aircraft gunners. It was part of a broadcast that went world wide:

It is one of the greatest privileges of a life-time to have been admitted to the brotherhood of the Garrison of Tobruk, a brotherhood of Australians, Indians and British who for four months have been writing one of the most dramatic chapters in British military history.

Whatever the future holds, the defence of Tobruk will be the ‘locus classicus’ of anti-aircraft gunnery. It is a war of wits between hostile aircraft and Tobruk’s anti-aircraft gunners, who have developed their art to the highest pitch of skill, courage and endurance.

I have paid them many visits and feel, each time, that these men represent a heroic spirit mankind can hardly surpass. They have come to consider as normal a life fantastically abnormal, and increasingly uncertain, with enough excitement in a typical 24 hours to satisfy the ordinary citizen for a life-time.

Everyone in Tobruk thinks the other fellow is the best in the world. Each Australian Brigade maintains that its associated British Artillery is incomparable. All within the perimeter share the day’s hazard, and at Fortress Headquarters a General, who fought in Gallipoli, calls his garrison a team.

It is a unity welded by long months of peril and isolation, fighting against the odds. Troops raw, six months ago, are now expert in desert craft. Boys within weeks, turn into hardened men.

Inside a Maginot Line fort

The fort cost as much as the Battleship Queen Elizabeth. The B.B.C. and every journalist in the world have tried to describe the Maginot Forts, and I can’t hope to improve on their efforts. The things which fascinated me most were the mechanisms of the cupulas, the way rate of fire can be speeded up when in a fixed emplacement so that one gun equals almost two, the arrangement for machine guns with all round traverse to be traversed at night with an adjustment of elevate and depress them in conformity with the slopes of the ground …

Contemporary illustration of a Maginot Line fort
Further extracts from the diary of Captain Twomey from 58 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, on attachment to the French Artillery for a week, in which he describes a visiting a French Maginot Line fort:

In the afternoon we had a conducted tour of the HAKENBERG fort in the whole line and is just beside VEKRING. Actually there are other forts with a greater number of guns but there are a lot of Infantry and machine guns in the HAKENBERG. It has 16 guns of 75mm. And 60mm and two cupulas mounting a pair of 80mm Hows. Each. The fort cost as much as the Battleship Queen Elizabeth. The B.B.C. and every journalist in the world have tried to describe the Maginot Forts, and I can’t hope to improve on their efforts. Continue reading “Inside a Maginot Line fort”

Examining French anti-tank guns and mortars

The anti-tank Gun had rubber tyres, a split trail, a telescope sight, and very light and quick gears, and it seemed that you couldn’t miss with it. I thought it much better than the one we saw in the Maginot which you aim from the shoulder, It was 25mm calibre. They said that you could fire 17 r.p.m.

British-anti-tank-gun
A British anti-tank gun demonstrated by BEF troops, France 1940

Further extracts from the diary of Captain Twomey from 58 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, on attachment to the French Artillery for a week, in which he describes French guns as used by their infantry:

Just before tea we went and had a look round a sort of mixed position just behind the village run by the French Infantry. There was one Anti-Tank Gun (three others of the same battery being scattered about the surrounding hills) two anti-aircraft machine guns some ordinary machine guns and a Mortar.

The anti-tank Gun had rubber tyres, a split trail, a telescope sight, and very light and quick gears, and it seemed that you couldn’t miss with it. I thought it much better than the one we saw in the Maginot which you aim from the shoulder, It was 25mm calibre. They said that you could fire 17 r.p.m. The rounds are solid steel for armour-piercing. It was sighted to fire down the FLASTROFF road with an open U-shaped valley on either side of the road. The little brook in the valley had been dammed every 100yds and the bridge mined. Continue reading “Examining French anti-tank guns and mortars”

With the French artillery on the Western Front

we looked over the position of a 155mm (6inch) gun section in action in the edge of the village. It is a most impressive gun with a split trail. …. It shoots up to 25000 meters and has a traverse of 30 degrees each way. This means that at extreme range it covers 25 Kilometers (about 15 miles) in breadth of the enemy country, which makes you think.

155mm_Field Gun
A 155mm Field Gun in use with US army in 1918

Further extracts from the diary of Captain Twomey from 58 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, on attachment to the French Artillery for a week:

In the afternoon we went back to MONEREN with the Commandant to choose a position and an O.P. for one Battery for the time when they will draw behind the Maginot Line. Actually the reconnaissance had been previously done by the Lieutenant Officer Orienteur who accompanied us. The whole thing seemed the least bit laid on for our benefit – the motions of doing a reconnaissance were gone through!!

The idea is that the Battery in WALDWIESSTROFF will go back first and get into action then the other two will withdraw straight back behind the Maginot to somewhere in the neighbourhood of KLANG – leapfrogging in fact. I have an idea that it is to happen in the not too distant future. The French are itching to lure the Bosche on under the guns of the Maginot. Continue reading “With the French artillery on the Western Front”

British position on the Western Front overrun

One of our forward infantry posts on the edge of a wood was wiped right out. The Bosche started it off with some H.E. in the branches over their heads, from a six inch mortar battery and a battery of smaller guns (this information is from the fragments picked up). Then the concentration lifted 100 yds.and a Bosche patrol who had been cutting the wire in front of the post during the first concentration rushed the post and apparently took them all prisoner. When our people got to the post they found two British dead, one wounded, and one dead Bosche. Sixteen had been taken prisoner.

A British 6 inch gun being demonstrated on the Western Front
A British 6 inch gun being demonstrated on the Western Front

Further extracts from the diary of Captain Twomey from 58 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery, on attachment to the French Artillery for a week:

No need to be called this morning. The gun in the village fired three minutes intense at 6.45a.m. and a few desultory rounds after that. We started to count and got as far as sixty but it was too fast. They must have fired over 100 rounds. Later we heard the reason. Continue reading “British position on the Western Front overrun”

With the French artillery in front of the Maginot Line

At this stage everyone is afraid of “starting it” and there is a tacit agreement that villages are not shelled. A few days previously the Bosche put a stray round into a house in this village next door to the Groupement HQ; the Commandant got furious, rushed to the telephone and said “Je lui donnerai un cadeau”. He then shot up every Bosche village within range, firing 600 rounds. The Bosche has not repeated his misdemeanour. There is a general fear of reprisals in this curious stage of the war.

british-medium-artillery-1940
British Medium artillery in France 1940

During the ‘phoney war’ there was limited activity on the front line between France and Germany. Captain L. Twomey of 58 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery kept an unofficial diary of a week he spent on attachment with the French artillery:

WALDWIESSTROFF like all the villages hereabouts is completely empty of civilians and has been since the war started, the houses are all in great disrepair – there is debris and scrap iron, refuge, and untidiness everywhere. It is some four miles in front of the Maginot Line through which we passed on our way here. The village is occupied by the Groupement HQ. and one Battery (Troop), by the Battalion HQ (British) and a few soldiers of the Battalion, and by about a Company of French Infantry.

The battery living in the village has its battle position in an orchard on the edge of the village. It is a tiny village but there is plenty of room for everyone on account of its emptiness. Continue reading “With the French artillery in front of the Maginot Line”