From August 1941 until the end of the Siege of Tobruk in December 1941 (Part III).
Australians withdrawn and replaced by Polish troops and ending the siege.
Australians withdrawn from Tobruk
Table of Contents
Beginning in August 1941, Churchill started to receive requests from the Australian government for the withdrawal of their soldiers from Tobruk. Currently, as a result of the demand, Auchinleck had removed a single Australian brigade and replaced by the Polish Carpathian Brigade (Lieutenant-General S. Kopanski), however, this wasn’t sufficiently.
By early September, Fadden, the Prime Minister of Australia had become strongly decided that the Australian soldiers must be taken from Tobruk. The explanation he submitted at the moment was: ‘… to be able to provide them with an opportunity for refreshment, recovery of discipline and re-equipment, and also to fulfill public opinion in Australia.’
The Australian authorities seemed to be reported to be ‘anxious concerning the loss of health resistance of the soldiers within the fortress and also the risk of disaster caused by additional drop and lack of ability to stand up to a serious assault.’
There appears to be no proof that the Australian soldiers had been on their own clamoring to be removed. They had battled with vigor and willpower under the most difficult circumstances for 5 months, however they would most likely have borne the burden more time if asked to accomplish this. However, during September the remainder of the Aussies had been exchanged by the 70th British Division of Major-General R M Scobie, who additionally took over command of the besieged troops.
It wasn’t a simple change-over. The vessels which shipped in the 70th Division and removed the Aussies had been suffering from intense air strike along the way, the mine layer Latona being sunk as well as the destroyer Hero damaged.
Once the Polish Brigade came in mid-August, General Morshead given them in the beginning to the rather peaceful southern sector, however after a couple of weeks they took control of, together with the Black Watch and Durham Light Infantry and, the western frontline where the Axis salient was.
At that time the area had been exhibiting all the indications of the 4 months’ siege. The ‘No-Man’s-Land’ between the forward positions had been heavily carpeted with mines as well as booby traps, in addition to covered with the unburied bodies of men of all sides.
Nevertheless, the defenses – if such they could be labeled – continued to be in the exact simple condition; low and slim ditches in which there wasn’t any space for the soldiers to kneel or sit. Occasionally there was nothing at all except little, improvised rock breastworks.
The uncovered character of the forward trenches in the western frontline made any day light movement to the soldiers unthinkable. As soon as the sun had risen, the soldiers couldn’t leave, neither could the reserves or supplies move to them. Existence would have been unthinkable had it not been for the point that, by one of those silent joint arrangements which occasionally happen during war, all parties practiced an unofficial 2-hour armistice, starting in the evening.
During this time, neither side opened fire on the other and the soldiers on each side could come out safely from their cramped foxholes. Water, food, as well as ammo could be transported to forward defended positions and existence could be made a little more acceptable on both sides.
Every night the Germans signalled the end of the 2-hour armistice using a burst of tracer-bullets fired directly into the sky, and after that it had been ‘business as usual’.
One more mutually established specialty had been the raising of the Red Cross flag whenever a soldier had been wounded. Fire instantly moved away from there and stretcher-bearers could safely approach to take away the injured soldier. Truly, during one or perhaps a couple of situations when casualties had been heavier than normal, ambulances were allowed to drive up unmolested towards the Red Cross flag to take out the injured men.
Polish troops in Tobruk
Once the Poles took control of the western frontline from the Aussies, their primary instinct was to deny these cease-fire arrangements. These folks were all guys who had, at potential risk on their own, runaway from a Poland occupied by the Germans, who were using strange ways of treatment. There was a strong psychological hurdle suppressing the Poles’ agreement of something in the character of a pact with the Germans.
Nevertheless, General Kopanski knew that any kind of alteration of the well-known practices would notify the Germans to the fact that an exchange of units procured, and this, needless to say, the defenders wanted to keep secret so long as available.
Consequently, he instructed his battalion commanders to carry on to observe the armistice and cease-fire arrangements of the Aussies and this they did, however with quite a little unwillingness.
After a number of nights in the area, nevertheless, they started to understand the useful value of the 2-hour nightly armistice, recognizing that without it the forward units would inevitably have died from starvation and thirst.
However, they terminated the hoisting of the Red Cross flag at the earliest opportunity. Each area had been backed up with medical equipment and with the help of these, as well as improvised surgery, it had been practical in most of the incidents for the injured to hold on for evacuation until the 2-hour armistice later in the day.
However, on their own side the Germans and Italians carried on the custom of hoisting a Red Cross flag and evacuating injured in sunlight, and even though the Poles didn’t shoot on the casualty clearing party, the flag – as General Kopanski said – ‘greatly facilitated our pin-pointing their strongholds, as well as wiping out them really successfully and causing more casualties afterwards’.
With the exchange of the 9th Australian Division by the 70th British Division complete, there were at this moment in Tobruk 3 infantry brigades (14th, 16th, and 23rd), a tank brigade (32nd, comprising 1st and 4th Royal Tank Regiments along with a squadron each from 7th Royal Tank Regiment and the King’s Dragoon Guards), 7 artillery regiments, along with an anti-aircraft artillery brigade, a machine-gun battalion of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, a Czech and still a Australian battalion, along with – at a later time – a pair of New Zealand battalions together with supporting guns.
Ending the siege
Inside the surrounded fort General Scobie chose that the Tobruk garrison should break through the Axis siege lines on the eastern frontline, in order to meet the approaching British 8th Army. This was to be the job of the 14th Infantry Brigade (Black Watch, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment, York and Lancaster Regiment) under its leader Brigadier B. H. Chappel, using the assistance of the tanks of the 32nd Tank Brigade as well as the machine-gunners of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
The break-out had been organized for dawn on November 22. However, 3 hours prior to the break-out, the Polish Brigade was to start a feint break-out from the western area, preceded using a strong artillery barrage.
During the hours of night on November 21/22, the Tobruk strike units marched to their prepared jumping-off positions. In the distance they could listen to the noises from the intense combat in the Sidi Rezegh region, in which the British 8th Army was battling to contact them.
All the British, Poles, Czechs, New Zealanders, and Australians, who were waiting for the assault hour, were optimistic that the siege was about to be broken. However, a great deal tough battling lay in front of them. Operation ‘Crusader’ was going to continue for several weeks and the siege of Tobruk wasn’t to terminate until December 10, 1941, when land communications between the garrison and the main body of the British 8th Army had been again solidly arranged.
After that the Royal Navy could settle back from the duty of being the sole link between Tobruk and the entire Allies – an activity which had featured supplying to the garrison 34,000 men, Seventy two tanks, Ninety two guns, and 34,000 tons of stores for a duration of 242 days.
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