Friday, 13 May 2016

Tobruk Easter Battle – Monday 14th April 1941 AAR

Campaign Background

The first offensive by the Deutsche Afrika Korp (DAK) in February-March 1941 has driven The Western Desert Force eastward from El Agheila, across Cyrenaica back to the Egyptian border. It has been decided by Wavell and Churchill to hold the port of Tobruk, to deny Axis forces supplies for a further drive into Egypt. Tobruk has solid Italian built defensive positions and is garrisoned by an over-strength (4 Brigades) 9th Australian Division supported by UK artillery and armour.

By early April the Axis have surrounded the Tobruk fortress and made probing attacks at the perimeter ‘red line’, particularly in the southern sector held by AUS 20th Brigade.

Rommel believes the garrison is in disarray after the rapid retreat across Cyrenaica, and that ships in the harbour indicate an evacuation, rather than the actual re-enforcement. He therefore wishes to take the port by coup de main, straight off the march of his advance across Libya. The El Adem road, from the south towards seems to be the most direct route from the perimeter to the port, and the southerly sector the most lightly defended.

Festung Tobruk

DAK intelligence on the fortifications is very weak. They are unaware of the exact positions of the two lines of Italian built concrete defences (numbered ‘R’ by the Australians) in the perimeter red line, and without information on the blue and green lines, deeper into the fortress.

After probing attacks by elements of the 5th Light Division during Easter over the 10th-13th April near the El Adem road, could not make a breach in the formidable anti-tank ditch and red line posts, a weaker spot was found in the 2/17th Battalion, D Company sector, between posts R33 and R35, west of the El Adem road. The map below is an original, now in the Keswick Army Barracks museum in Adelaide, with the general location of DAK Easter attacks and Kings Cross crossroads.

Easter Battle

On the evening of Sunday 13th April a breach was made in the AT ditch and wire by assault pioneers, and a tenuous foothold made by Oberst Ponaths 8th Machine-Gun Battalion (of 200zbV Regt, 5th Light Div) between posts R33 and R35. There was much close combat during the evening, including the first Australian VC of WWII for Cpl Edmonson. Intrusions near R33 were driven off leaving some MGs and field guns behind. Flak brought up to the AT ditch had the crews shot away by D and support companies of 2/17th Battalion. This fire was also directed at 8th MG Battalion and they had been forced to ground in a north-east oriented bridgehead aimed towards the gap between the second line posts R32 (D Company HQ of Capt Balfe) and R34.

The posts in the red line were heavily fortified with concrete trenches, mines and wire and not easily amenable to close assault.

Early on the morning of Easter Monday 14th April, a very understrength 5th Panzer Regiment (of 5th Light Div) joined the attack after the protestations of its CO Oberst Olbrich of attacking un-reconnoitred positions with weak forces were overruled by an impatient Rommel. The two Battalions of 5th Panzer Regt passed in the dark across the AT ditch breach and the 8th MG Battalion bridgehead towards the rear of the red line. Their aim was for the II Battalion to push for the ‘Kings Cross’ intersection on the El Adem road and the following I Battalion to fan out westwards from that intersection in the 20 Brigade rear area, to disrupt Allied artillery, HQs and reserves.

The panzers are supported by 5th Kompanie of 8th MG Battalion, riding on the tanks, which are also towing light guns. The infantry and guns are to help deal with any allied artillery and anti-tank guns they may encounter behind the red line. They are however unaware of the strength of the gun line a couple of kilometres ahead in the ‘blue line’. The Australian infantry in the red line have been instructed to only engage supporting infantry, and not to be concerned about panzers rolling through their positions, as they will be dealt with by the blue line. Hence they do not collapse as infantry in Europe had done so many times in 1939-40 when panzers broke through, and the attacking 5th Pz Regt was effectively stripped of its infantry support by the 8th MG Battalion being pinned in place by 2/17 Battalion.

As the sun is rising, heavy artillery fire is directed onto the 5th Panzer Regt, and it’s supporting infantry of the 5th Kompanie take casualties. The kompanie un-limber their light guns and seek cover in a ruined house and sangars known as ‘Goschens House’ (after a Major in the 1 RHA) near post R32. After the night passage through the red line and being under artillery fire, the 5th Pz Regt need to re-group and are located just north of the back of the red line.

The opening dispositions

As the battle opens at ~0530 the dispositions are as shown below.  Rapid Fire rules were used with 1 AFV/gun model representing ~5 vehicles/guns and each infantry figure representing ~15 men. The aim is to dominate the corridor through the red and blue lines towards Kings Cross, represented by the five control points. Two points are initially held by Axis 5th Light Div and three by Allied AUS 9th Div.

From the breach made on the previous day, 20th Brigade has surmised a concentrated armour attack will follow. Consequently infantry reserves have been committed from 2/17th Battalion and 20th Brigade to counterattack in the red line. Also armour reserves from 1RTR (A9/A10 Cruisers, Matildas, MkVI Vickers), and porteed AT guns from 3 RHA and 2/3 AUS AT Regt are mobilising to attack the armour in the flanks, as it is engaged by the blue line guns of 1 RHA and 2/3 AT Regt. Behind the blue line are also two batteries of 104 RHA, delivering indirect fire with 25 pounders on targets from the blue line southwards across the red line to no-mans land south of the AT ditch, where the 8th MG Battalion will try to bring re-enforcements, and re-crew the Flak at the ditch. Sprinkled amongst the Australian infantry and 2/3 AT Regt are numerous captured Italian guns, fixed and portee, and even armour, known as ‘The Bush Artillery’.

The initial dispositions of 5th Pz Regt as they re-group can be seen below, with II Battalion leading, Olbrichs HQ Kompanie behind them, and I Battalion astride the track at the edge of the red line. Goschens House is on their left flank with 5th Kompanie of 8th MG Battalion, in the ruins under artillery suppression, and the abandoned PaK 36s nearby. Behind the house is post R32, D Company CP for Capt Balfe. The various companies of 8th MG Battalion are strung out behind 5th Pz, lying prone in ‘soft cover’. They are 7th , HQ, 4th Kompanies in order with abandoned 75mm infantry guns and MMGs between 4th Kompanie and post R33. The AT ditch breach is behind the 4th Kompanie. The 2nd Kompanie are in the AT ditch to the left of the breach, and the de-crewed 20mm and 88mm flak to the right.

The 5th Pz need to re-group, with 2/3 chance (standard DAK command & control odds) for each battalion, in each turn of ~45 mins, before they can move. Their first two moves must be northwards towards their objective of Kings Cross, and until re-grouped they can only fire at enemy who fired at them.

75th Anniversary re-fight.

For ANZAC Day 2016

The stage was set for the TSOG game and the various Old Gits were;
·         Pete: Representing a composite of Obserts Ponath and Olbrich, a bit of their CO, Gen Streich of 5th Light Div, and Rommel himself who initiated this attack.
·         Stu: Running the Blue Line guns and the mobile units attacking the flanks. A composite of the COs of 1RHA, 104 RHA, 1RTR [Maj Benzies], 2/3 AT Regt and the 9th Div CO Maj-Gen Morsehead “Ming the Merciless”.
·         Alan: Running the infantry of 2/17th Battalion and re-enforcements from 20 Brigade, representing a composite of Battalion CO Lt Col Crawford, and D Company CO Capt Balfe.
·         Dave: umpire and supplier of the scenario and Toy Soldiers (20mm (1/72) scale using Rapid Fire rules)


Dave briefed the troops with background and rules overview. Victory conditions determined
by balance of the five ‘control points’. 5-0 is decisive victory, 4-1 substantive victory, 3-2
marginal victory with reductions in victory levels for substantial losses.

The game starts at an Allied marginal victory with Axis holding the breach in the AT ditch
and Goschens house (see previous map).

Colonel Dave - “The Aussies were here and the Bosche were here, here and here….I don’t have any pepperpots so I’ve used these little toy models.”

Turn 1 (0530 am)

The Allies won the die roll for 1st player. Some of their mobile reserves appeared on the
flanks (50% chance each turn per company/squadron), including C Squadron of 1 RTR on
the Allied left flank and the two reserve infantry companies on the right. HQ of 2/17 Battalion
could not activate though and so command control of the infantry reserves was initially weak
and their advance slow.

A storm of small arms, Vickers MG and captured 20mm autocannon ‘bush artillery’ fire from
the red line posts opened up on the lead 7th Kompanie and the HQ Kompanie of 8th MG
Battalion, causing casualties. To complete their destruction, the observers in the red line
called in both batteries of 104 RHA 25 pounders indirect fire, with deadly accuracy. C
Squadron, with Vickers MkVI light tanks, decided their primary mission to attack 5th Pz Regt
was a mugs game, and came in on the track and behind R34 to hit  the remainder of these
two companies with multiple HMGs, and wipe them out.

As 5th Pz Regt are still assembling they are effectively stationary targets so even the 1 RHA
2-pounders in the blue line can take their chances at long range over 1500m. The Aust 2/3
AT Regt bush artillery 1917 vintage captured Italian 100mm join in but their 40mm Bofors
are out of range. However it’s the 1 RHA 25-pounders that brew up a heavy kompanie of
PzIV of II Battalion. Boyes AT rifles from post R34 wreck the light PzIIs of Battalion II with
fire from their right rear flank.

Both the Panzer Battalions complete their re-group due to excellent command and control,
and move north to their objectives. However they are also free to engage any target
including the C Squadron Vickers MkVI’s in their rear, that tried to avoid contact with them
and attacked infantry instead. Rearward firing PzKw IIIs of the 1st Battalion make short work
of the MkVIs. The nearby Diggers in R34 are glad for once they are in the infantry as they
see the burning wrecks

As the 25-pounders of 104 RHA did not bring their fire into the no-mans land beyond the AT
ditch, some of 8th MG battalion transport makes it across the breach. A section of 81mm
medium mortars is with them and will take cover in the AT ditch. A trickle of crews arrive for
the flak but not enough to fire them yet. The remainder of the 4th Kompanie move towards
R33, re-crewing the 75mm infantry guns and MMGs. The 2nd Kompanie, in the AT ditch,
cause casualties in the bush artillery crews of the captured 20mm cannons in R35. Fire is
exchanged between 5th Kompanie in Goschens House and R32.

5th Pz Regt II Battalion return fire on the blue line with direct HE and hull MGs, causing
minor casualties in the 1 RHA 25-pounder crews.

So after 45 minutes the 8th MG Battalion have taken catastrophic casualties, earlier than
they did historically, and from unexpected quarters. 2/17th Battalion have dished it out, only
taken light casualties and have substantial reserves arriving.

Turn 2 (0615 am)

The guns in the blue line are faced with a wave of armour moving from long to medium
range, firing everything it has at them but with little effect so far.

More Allied reserves arrive, including porteed 2-pounder AT guns of M Battery 3 RHA, who
are diverted along the track to assist the red line right flank. Captured Italian M13/40 tanks
of Australian 2/3rd AT Regt arrive on the right flank and begin engaging the command
PzKwIIs at long range.

The re-enforcement companies for 2/17th bravely barrel in their Bren carriers and light
trucks, straight towards 4th Kompanie, determined to push them back through the
breach. The carriers of the lead company take hits from the 75mm infantry guns and some
of the company must bail out with casualties. The 20mm bush artillery and 2-pounder
portees fire on the 8th MG Battalion transport.

The rest of Maj Benzies 1 RTR arrives, with A company A9 and A10 Cruisers and B
company Matildas, successfully negotiate the friendly minefields, and position to hit 5th Pz
Regt right flank.

The 5th Pz Regt grinds inexorably towards the control points in the NE corner. Even into the
rising sun they can see 1 RTR firing at them from behind and one kompanie of PzKwIII from
I Battalion positions to protect the Regiments right rear flank, sensing danger and

The blue line inflicts some damage on the advancing panzers but no Kompanies are
destroyed. The return fire causes some AT gun crew casualties but none of the batteries are
silenced. The 2 pounders cannot do any damage on moving PzIII or IVs until they are in
medium range, under 1500m. The 40mm Bofors crews in 2/3rd Australian AT Regt sweat it
out, as they can’t fire until the moving panzers are within 600m.

Turn 3 (0700 am)

The A9 and A10 Cruisers of Maj Benzies A Squadron 1 RTR close to short range, under
600m, on the right rear flank of 5th Pz Regt. Obserst Olbrichs Regiment command
Kompanie of PzIIs are heavily damaged, and temporarily immobilised by accurate fire from
the Cruisers. The Matildas remain stationary, for more accurate shots at medium range on
their moving targets and damage the panzer Kompanie assigned to protect the flank.

It looks as though the panzers may overrun the control point in front of the blue line as they
direct HE fire on the guns in the blue line, but with only minor damage as they are moving.
The AT guns also do not inflict substantial damage on the panzers in this turn.

In the red line D Company 2/15th Battalion, a 20 Brigade reserve, re-directs from its attack
on the remainder of 4th Kompanie, to a close assault on 5th Kompanie in Goschens House,
heavily  reduced by small arms from R33, and 25 pounder indirect fire from 104th RHA
behind the blue line. After a bitter hand to hand struggle in the ruins and sangars, the
remainder of 5th Kompanie are killed or captured. The Allies gain another control point to
swing the balance to a substantive Allied victory.

Near the AT ditch flak crews are trickling in across no-mans land for the 88mm and 20mm
guns but are being picked off by accurate Australian long range rifle fire. Indirect fire from
104th RHA finishes of the remainder of 4th Kompanie trying to man the 75mm infantry guns
near R33.

Turn 4 (0745 am)

As the sun climbs higher in the sky, a couple of hours into the battle, Capt Wilsons B
Company, the 2/17th Battalions reserve, see an opening now that the 75mm gun crews
facing them have been neutralised. They bravely drive in their Bren carriers for the breach in
at AT ditch, and engage elements of the 2nd Kompanie in a close assault, taking it from
them. Another control point falls to the Allies, swinging the balance to a Decisive Allied
victory, and incurring heavy penalties on the Axis for any morale checks they must perform.

But the DAK do not give up that easily and as 5th Pz Rgt approaches the blue line they
overrun a control point near a rocky outcrop, returning the balance to a substantive Allied
victory.  More Allied reinforcements arrive on the 5ths right flank in the form of captured
Italian bush artillery 37mm and 47mm AT guns, porteed on light trucks and manned by B
Company of the Australian 2/3 AT Regt.

A hail of fire from Matildas, Cruisers and porteed guns destroys the already damaged
panzer Kompanie attempting to protect the flank of the remainder of the Regiment.

However, the 5th Pz Regiments lead elements from II Battalion, oblivious of the carnage
behind them, push into the blue line. A Kompanie of PzIIIs is slowed by the extensive
concertina wire protecting the exit towards El Adem Road and Kins Cross. Another
Kompanie of PzIIIs bypasses the wire and drives directly into the minefields. Bereft of 8th
MG Battalion assault pioneer section mine-clearing support, whose survivors only just
escaping clearing red line in their SdKfz 251 Hanomags, the PzIIIs unluckily sustain heavy
damage from mines and are temporarily halted, requiring a morale check next turn. The
Aussies of A Company 2/3rd AT Regt were relieved to see the panzers stopped within 200m
of their position although the Bofors crews were itching to try their hand now they were
within effective range.

A following PzIII Kompanie at the rocky outcrop took damage from 1 RHA 25 pounders.

At this stage the game was considered all but over and was stopped, as 8th MG Battalion in
the red line had all but ceased to exist, as per history, except for remnants sheltering in the
AT ditch. Importantly the breach in the AT ditch was held by the 2/17 Battalion, potentially
cutting off the line of retreat for 5th Pz Regt. The 5th Pz had sustained ~50% losses as per
history, but as they hadn’t turned back at 600yds from the blue line as Olbrich had
historically ordered, and had begun to penetrate the blue line, under 1km from the next
control point. Capture of this point would have returned the balance to a marginal allied
victory and every pair of panzer companies exiting towards Kings Cross would reduce allied
morale checks. However, 5th Pz would have to survive the minefields, indirect fire from both
batteries of 104th RHA 25 pounders and point blank fire from the 40mm Bofors and captured
100mm guns of A Company 2/3rd AT Regt and the chances of two kompanies reaching the
control point may have been slim. Only history knows...

Taking to the air for some WW I Wings of Glory action next time!

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