Sir John Valentine Carden survives.

16 February 1941. El Tahag Camp, Egypt.
  • 16 February 1941. El Tahag Camp, Egypt.

    It may have only have been forty miles from Cairo, but the camp near the railway stop of El Quassassin, had been growing into a major transit and training camp. The camp was made up of numbered blocks each being a rectangle 500 yards by 1000 yards. As well as tents, cookhouses, toilet blocks, water towers and everything else needed to sustain troops, had been carved out of the desert.

    The newest arrivals had had a day to settle into their allotted block, but training for survival and war in the desert was about to begin. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade had been established from the 2nd Lancers (Gardner's Horse), 11th Prince Albert Victor's Own Cavalry (Frontier Force) and 18th King Edward's Own Cavalry. Brigadier Edward Vaughan had moulded the force into the first motorised element of the Indian Army to be ready for service overseas. Mounted in Fordson trucks rather than anything armoured made them a Motor Brigade rather than an Armoured Brigade.

    The Indian cavalrymen were well-trained in their new role, but they suffered from the limitations of the Indian economy, in as far as each man was armed with his personal weapon, and most platoons had their squad weapons. There were deficiencies in numbers of radios, the anti-tank platoons had no weapons, and there was no attached artillery. When Brigadier Vaughan had reported to Middle East Command, Generals Wavell and ‘Jumbo’ Wilson had both promised to do their best to find the necessary equipment to bring the Brigade up to full strength, but admitted that it wouldn’t be easy. Thought had been given to using captured Italian weapons, but the good equipment not taken over by the Australians, was earmarked to be given to the Greeks.

    Having a Motor Brigade, with its own integral transport, was actually a real asset to Middle East Command. Of the three Australian Divisions only 6th Division had its full establishment, but these had been worked hard during Operation Compass. 7th Division was very short and 9th Division had about half of its requirement. Under normal circumstances, either the Australian’s own ASC or the RASC would be able to make up the shortfall. However, the wear and tear on all the supply units had left the whole Command in trouble. More lorries had been requested and were due to arrive in the convoys coming from Britain, the fast element of WS5A, thirteen ships, had just started to arrive at Suez that very day.

    While the Indians were waiting for more equipment, there was a lot of training in desert warfare to be done. Brigadier Vaughan had been given the target of the middle of March to be fully prepared. If an advance against Tripoli was to go ahead at the beginning of April, then the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade would be an excellent addition to the forces involved in that operation.

    NB: This is mostly OTL, except the last part.
    The
    Wiki page says
    The brigade was mobilised for active service on 7 January 1941 and sailed from Bombay on 23 January, arriving at Suez on 6 February. By April, the brigade was tactically mobile but had no artillery, no 2-pounder anti-tank guns, only half its establishment in radios and was armed mainly with rifles. From there the brigade entrained and travelled to El Qassassin and then moved by lorry to El Tahag camp for training. The brigade moved to Mersa Matruh on 8 March and had two months' desert warfare training, then moved to El Adem from 27–28 March.
     
    18 February 1941. Giarabub, Libya.
  • 18 February 1941. Giarabub, Libya.

    The Italian outpost had been something of a thorn in the flesh of the British forces in Egypt. There was a garrison of 1,340 Italian and 800 colonial troops, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Salvatore Castagna, the last Italian outpost in Cyrenaica and a danger to the Long Range Desert Group, among others. Despite all the efforts to convince Castagna that his position was hopeless, it was clear that the place would need to be taken by force. Elements of the 6th Australian Cavalry Regiment had been keeping an eye on the place, and doing a good job in convincing the Italians that they were surrounded and threatened by a much larger force than actually existed. The problem was that the force needed to overcome the Italians had to be considerable. It would therefore need considerable resources to supply and maintain it. Resources that that were overstretched already, and needed elsewhere.

    Since the beginning of Operation Compass, the New Zealand 4th Brigade had been part of the Masra Matruh garrison, and had been quite annoyed to have been left out of the fighting. Brigadier Edward Puttock had been pestering General Wavell for a chance to have his men have a chance to put their training to good use. Word had come that the 5th Brigade of New Zealanders was due to arrive from England in early March, to join 4th and 6th Brigades, so that the 2nd New Zealand Division would be complete. Wavell had it in mind that the New Zealanders would be part of the force reserved for going to Greece if and when that became necessary. Consulting with General Freyberg, it was agreed that, while waiting for the rest of the Division’s arrival, 4th Brigade would be given the task to clear the last Italian position in Cyrenaica. This would also release the Australian Cavalry who would also need time to get ready for Greece, if that was their next mission.

    Getting from Marsa Matruh to Giarabub, a journey of some 200 miles, was done in stages over a couple of days, as there was only enough transport to move one Battalion at a time. The Brigade was accompanied by 4th Field Regiment’s 25-pdr guns; a squadron of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment, with Marmon-Harrington armoured cars; and a troop of A11 Matilda tanks being carried on improvised tank transporters. These were three captured Italian diesel lorries towing trailers created by some enterprising engineers using old railway flat cars as the basis. The New Zealanders had been informed that the Italian position was protected by barbed wire emplacements that would probably need something like tank support for the infantry to overcome it. The 51st Bn RTR were happy to offer their support, on the condition that the tanks could be transported, otherwise they would be unable to make the journey.

    Ever since the fall of Benghazi, the Australians had been discovering more and more of the Libyan soldiers deserting the position, even a few Italians. The garrison’s rations, which relied on being flown in, had been cut to a bare minimum. The fact that the rest of the Italian forces had been cleared out of Cyrenaica, leaving them as nothing more than a propaganda exercise, had left the garrison’s morale very poor.

    An initial approach, on the day the main New Zealander force arrived, had been made under a flag of truce by Brigadier Puttock to get the Italians to surrender. This had been rebuffed, and so from dawn the next day the New Zealand artillery men began to bombard the Italian position. By the nature of the journey they’d made, there was a limited amount of ammunition, but what they had was put to good use. The Australians had done a lot of reconnaissance and had been able to pick a way through the marshy ground that protected the Italian position from the south. 20th Battalion, led by Colonel Kippenberger, worked their way through the difficult going during the previous day and night, so that when the main assault was ready, the Italians would find themselves being assaulted from more than one direction, splitting their defensive fire.

    The armoured cars began the morning by demonstrating their presence and, with a company from 18th Battalion, using the Brigade’s three carrier platoons as transport, took over the hangers on the landing ground. While no aircraft had been landing there since the Australian cavalry had destroyed an aircraft, the fact that it was now in the hands of the New Zealanders was another blow to Italian morale, and drove a wedge into the Italian position.

    While the armoured cars and carriers achieved their objective, the three infantry tanks were showing themselves clearly, trying to keep the eyes of the garrison on the northerly approach, while Kippenberger’s men took the heights above the Italian garrison as stealthily as possible. When Brigadier Puttock got word that Kippenberger’s men were ready, the artillery began their pre-arranged fire-plan.

    The rest of 18th Battalion moved up towards the landing ground to provide covering fire from a westerly direction and act as another threat for the Italian artillery to have to counter and divide their fire between. 19th Battalion, along with the three Matilda tanks, began to move forward behind the artillery barrage. With all this going on, and attracting the full attention of the Italian gunners, 20th Battalion began their assault from the south. This led to the hardest fighting of the day, the Italians had positions that were dug into the hills and knolls that protected the southern side of the position. Kippenberger’s men had the lion’s share of the Brigade’s 3-inch mortars and a company of heavy machine gunners to support them. With the artillery supporting the attack from the north, 20th Battalion needed something to give them an edge.

    The men of 19th Battalion found themselves under sustained heavy fire, and the three tanks proceeded primarily on their own. The tanks were too small to provide any more than a few men with cover, and one of the tanks suffered a near miss from an Italian shell that stripped one of its tracks. The crew however remained in the tank and used the pompom gun to great effect. The other two tanks, once again proving themselves immune to Italian anti-tank weapons, reached and breeched the barbed wire. There they halted, giving covering fire while the infantry rushed up. While still under heavy fire, they started to clear out the Italian defensive positions in front of the fort one by one.

    When the southern redoubt fell to 20th Battalion in the middle of the morning, the Italian commander realised the game was up. The two Matilda tanks’ guns had stripped the fort of its gates and as the New Zealanders moved up behind one of the tanks, firing from within the fort, and the nearby village ceased. The Italian flag was lowered, and the position was taken by the New Zealand Brigade, with the aid of the Australian cavalry squadron and the British tank troop. The New Zealanders lost seventeen killed and seventy-seven wounded, mostly in 20th Battalion’s hand to hand fighting in the south. The Italians had some 200 killed and many more wounded. 1300 prisoners were taken, as well as over thirty artillery pieces, from 20mm anti-air guns to 77mm field pieces. Over a million rounds of small-arms ammunition was discovered, and more than 10000 shells for the guns was captured intact.

    The New Zealanders had a day of rest to get themselves and their prisoners and wounded organised. Their transport began carrying them back towards the delta, but it would take the best part of a week for the whole force, along with their captives and booty, to reach the Alexandria area. The Long Range Desert Group, with a group of Senussi tribesmen, the Libyan Force, took possession of the former Italian position.

    NB: This is a month earlier than OTL, when it was a Battalion of Australians who captured the position, without the aid of tanks.
     
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    20 February 1941. Cairo. Egypt.
  • 20 February 1941. Cairo. Egypt.

    British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, with Chief of the Imperial General Staff John Dill, had arrived from England the previous night. Having had a night’s rest, the two visitors met with Commander-in-Chief Middle East General Archibald Wavell, and Mediterranean Fleet chief Admiral Andrew Cunningham.

    Eden’s mission was to work out how to aid the Greeks and to encourage the Turks and Yugoslavs to fight. If they wouldn’t fight, then at least to do what they could to support an anti-Axis alliance. With Dill acting as his military adviser, Eden had wide ranging powers to act, even in cases of extreme urgency, without having to consult with London. Before they left, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill had advised Eden and Dill, 'Do not consider yourselves obligated to a Greek enterprise if in your hearts you feel it will only be another Norwegian fiasco. If no good plan can be made, please say so. But of course, you know how valuable success would be.'

    General Dill was of the opinion that any forces sent to Greece would inevitably be lost and that it would be better to concentrate on helping Turkey. Wavell and Cunningham however believed that the Greeks were already fighting, and doing well against the Italians. The Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis had already indicated that they would fight the Germans too, with or without British help. The chances were that Turkey would be unlikely to fight unless they were attacked. Yugoslavia would only fight if the Turks did, so the chances of forming a Balkans coalition against the Germans relied on helping the Greeks, even if that meant there was nothing left over for Turkey. If the British didn’t do anything, the loss of the whole of the Balkans piecemeal was the risk. Going to the help of the Greeks was also a risk, but it would show the Turks and the Yugoslavs that Britain’s word was good.

    The next question was what could Britain actually send to help the Greeks. The question was whether General Wavell could reduce the operations in the Middle East Command to collect the largest possible force for Greece. The fighting in Eritrea needed the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions to complete the operation, which was currently held up at Keren. The South African Division in Kenya was doing very well, and would also be available when the Italian forces were defeated, but transport would need to be arranged. The capture of Rhodes was still of great importance to the Navy, for which General Wavell was trying to bring together the 6th (British) Division. This would be achieved when 9th (Highland) Division arrived to take over garrison duty of the Suez and Cairo areas.

    General Wavell, under pressure from General O’Connor, wanted to keep the chance of an attack against Tripoli alive. For that he had earmarked the 16th Brigade, the Indian Motor Brigade, and 22nd Armoured Brigade, with the 9th Australian Division as the main units. 7th Armoured Division would still need time to be fully reformed, after its exertions, but it would be ready to back up the push within the time frame of an April attack.

    Wavell had been keeping some units aside to send to Greece. The first contingent, already prepared to sail, was 1st Armoured Brigade together with two medium artillery regiments and some anti-aircraft artillery. The 2nd New Zealand Division (once their third infantry brigade arrived from England) would be next to be shipped. The Polish brigade group and 6th Australian division, with the possibility of the 7th Australian Division would be the third wave. The plan was that it would take thirty days from the decision to send them to the disembarkation of the first contingent. Then the second and third waves would be sent at intervals of three weeks.

    The problem, as Admiral Cunningham put it, wasn’t so much the sending of the force, but that the maintenance of a force of this size would strain the resources of the Middle East Command and the Mediterranean Fleet to the utmost, and would call for a large amount of improvisation. At least fifty ships would be needed for the passage, which meant that many of the ships arriving at Suez in convoys would have to be diverted to the Mediterranean through the Canal. The Luftwaffe had already threatened the ability to do so by mining the Canal. He also noted that there would be a knock-on effect. The retention of these ships in the Mediterranean would affect the United Kingdom's imports and the subsequent flow of men and material to the Middle East. Eden noted that perhaps the Greek merchant marine might be called into play if the Greeks wanted British help. Cunningham agreed that would be helpful, but not solve the problem.

    General Dill wasn’t entirely convinced. The fact that it was New Zealand and Australian troops that would make up the lion’s share of the infantry force, permission would need to be sought from both those governments. It was also necessary to learn what plans the Greeks had made. Sending such a force would rely on coordination between the Empire forces and the Greek army. If that plan was unsatisfactory, if it threatened to become ‘another Norway fiasco,’ then Dill would oppose sending forces, only for them to be lost, or have another Dunkirk situation. It was agreed to approach the Greek Government to confer on the British offer and the Greek plan. They heard back almost immediately that the Greek Government welcomed the proposal for a secret meeting, and the date was set for 22 February.

    NB This is pretty much as OTL, I've used
    The Official History as the basis for this update. Two things that interested me, one was Churchill's quote and the other was Dill's reticence. Notice also the timings. 30 days from 'go' to disembarkation, then three weekly cycles of reinforcements.
     
    21 February 1941. El Agheila, Libya
  • 21 February 1941. El Agheila, Libya

    The Royals, (1st The Royal Dragoons), were in the process of taking over the duties of the 11th Hussars, who were returning to Egypt for a well deserved rest and refit. Although they’d been in Palestine since before the beginning of the war, the Royals were not long changed over from horses to horsepower. The regiment was equipped with Marmon-Herrington armoured cars in A and C Squadrons, while B Squadron had received Rolls-Royce armoured cars. B Squadron was back at Benghazi, while C Squadron ranged forward from El Agheila, past Ras Lanuf towards Nofilia. A Squadron was receiving some extra tuition on desert driving and navigating from the last of A Squadron of 11th Hussars before they left.

    All the British forces had been noticing an increased presence of the Luftwaffe. Reports of a number of Stukas and Bf 110s coming down to strafe any vehicles on the move were increasing. No 3 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, who were based at Benina, near Benghazi, had lost four precious Hurricanes to enemy action, leaving them short-handed. A mobile radar unit had arrived there, and had just become operational. The Australian anti-aircraft gunners around Benghazi had been going through more of the captured Italian equipment and had managed to get four 75mm AA guns operational, providing the harbour at Benghazi with a bit more protection. HMS Terror was also present, her own AA armament being supplemented by more captured Italian 20mm AA guns. A couple of small convoys had come and gone into the port, building up stocks at Benghazi and forward Field Supply Depots at Agedabia (for 22nd Armoured Brigade), and Marsa al Brega (for 16th Infantry Brigade).

    Blenheims from No. 55 Squadron R.A.F. reported that they saw much movement in both directions along the coastal road around Sirte. General O’Connor had been getting reports from time to time that German troops were being made ready for service in Africa, but there were very few sources of intelligence, and not enough long-range aircraft to keep watch on the port of Tripoli. The RAF on Malta had raided Tripoli a couple of times and reported an increase in shipping there, which confirmed the suspicions that the Italians were being reinforced, but whether by their German allies, or simply with more of their own units wasn’t clear.

    Lieutenant Kenneth Evers, commanding a troop of C Squadron, 1st The Royal Dragoons, had received reports from a Lysander pilot of No. 6 Army Co-operation Squadron that he’d seen an 8-wheeled armoured car which might have been German. The information about German armoured cars had been widely disseminated after the capture of German equipment in Flanders. The chances were that the German machine would be armed with a 20mm cannon, which would make mincemeat of the South African built armoured cars his troop were equipped with. The chances of the Boys rifle taking on a German armoured car would be down more to good luck than good management. Reconnaissance however was always better if done without the alerting the enemy. So, Evers found a suitable hide for himself and a couple of troopers overlooking the road between Nofilia and Sirte. Armed primarily with a pen, paper and a No 9 Wireless set, they began the job of overwatch. If the Germans were coming, then someone would need to know. The rest of the troop were inland, camouflaged and ready to relieve their leader when called upon.

    NB There a few changes from OTL. The better AA position at Benghazi is brought forward, as is the operational radar. The increasing Luftwaffe presence and the first reports of German reconnaissance are around this date. A couple of sites seem to suggest that the German/British reconnaissance forces started facing off against one another, with the British coming off worse, about this time. I reckon that will start happening in March rather than February.
     
    24 February 1941. Cairo, Egypt.
  • 24 February 1941. Cairo, Egypt.

    Brigadier Harold Charrington’s staff had been expecting the orders to come for a few days, so when the despatch rider entered First Armoured Brigade’s HQ with movement orders from GHQ Middle East Command, the process of putting them into to operation was quite smooth.

    Ever since they’d arrived in Egypt, the three Armoured Regiments that made up the Brigade had felt side-lined. Their A13MkII Cruiser Mark IV tanks were felt to complicate an already complex supply chain. General Wavell had informed Charrington that the Prime Minister had requested that he build up a reserve force that would be available to go to the help of the Greeks, or even the Turks. With this in mind, Charrington had had his staff poring over maps of Greece, particularly trying to work out how the Germans might invade the country, either directly through Bulgaria, or indirectly through Yugoslavia.

    When the British delegation had flown to Athens to consult with the Greeks, Charrington had gone with them. He had a pretty good idea of what the two main routes would be most likely used by the Germans, and how and where they would best be resisted. Charrington presented the case, from the point of view of a tank commander, and with some knowledge of how the German’s had shown they operated from their endeavours in Norway and the Low Countries. General Papagos, the Greek Commander-in-Chief found himself looking at the maps with a sinking feeling in his gut.

    The Greek troops on the Albanian front had been fighting the Italians for four months without respite; despite their successes, the Greek army had suffered heavily, and were reaching the end of their endurance, all the while, the Italians were pouring more forces into Albania. If the Germans attacked directly through Bulgaria, the Metaxas defensive line had been developed against such a threat, but it was weak and weakly held. If the Germans attacked through Yugoslavia, then presumably the Yugoslav army would be fighting them. If the Germans attacked from both directions, as Charrington presumed was most likely, then holding them would be all but impossible. At the very least it would mean having to sacrifice a large part of the country. What the British officer had done was to emphasis just how fragile Greek independence was. With the offer of British help came the increased probability of German intervention.

    The British conclusion was that they wanted to concentrate on what they called the Aliakmon position. It would run along the northern slopes of the Olympus-Pieria mountains and follow the line of the Vermion range north-wards to the Yugoslav border—over seventy miles in a straight line. There were only four major gaps in the line; one on each side of Mount Olympus; one which formed the valley of the river Aliakmon; and one, much wider, at Edessa, through which passed the road and railway from Florina to Salonika. Charrington added that the line would really need to be extended to protect its rear from an attack from the direction of Monastir in Yugoslavia.

    The Italian attack the previous October had united the Greek nation and brought about a resolve. To meet a potential threat from Germany, from two possible directions, would mean having to withdraw from much of the area captured in Albania, which could well have a disastrous effect on Greek morale. Withdrawing what was currently on the Metaxas line, while shortening the line in Albania, could provide about 35 battalions for the Aliakmon position, with one or two (tired) divisions in reserve. If the British provided two Divisions (another 18 Battalions), General Papagos could see that the position would be formidable.

    Generals Dill and Wavell agreed, but noted that the British expedition would have to land at Piraeus and Volos. Since the British had no pack animals it would be necessary to start at once on the improvement of communications to enable their mechanized forces, especially the medium artillery, to be able to get to their positions. What Charrington’s Armoured Brigade offered was a mobile force to delay the enemy by operating out in front, allowing more time for the Aliakmon positions to be enhanced. General Papagos, however, noted that it would be necessary to speak with the Yugoslavs. If the Aliakmon position wasn’t to be turned by a thrust through Monastir, then cooperation with the Yugoslav army would be necessary. Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, agreed that he would approach the Yugoslav’s and ask for their help with this. Brigadier Charrington somewhat embarrassed the meeting by asking the Greek Commander-in-Chief to be explicit about his intentions if the Yugoslavs were not forthcoming. The Greek general thought for a moment or two before replying that he would go with the Aliakmon proposal, with, or without Yugoslav cooperation.

    In the interests of being clear, the British Foreign Secretary asked to be assured that the Greek Government accepted the offer of British help of their own free will, and that the arrival of British troops in the numbers and on the conditions proposed would be sincerely welcomed by the Greek Government. The British did not wish to give the impression that they were forcing their offer on the Greeks; but wanted to be sure that they were anxious to accept it of their own free will. The Greek Government accepted with deep gratitude the offer of His Majesty's Government and entirely approved the military plan on which the military representatives had agreed. Greece would do her duty by herself and by her ally, Great Britain.

    Back in Egypt it was now up to the staff of Charrington’s brigade to get the 150 tanks, with all their support vehicles and stores to Port Said, to be ready to be transported to Greece. The tanks would be accompanied by the other half of 2nd Support Group that wasn’t in Cyrenaica (1st Bn The Rangers, batteries of 104th Royal Horse Artillery, 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, 15th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment). An advance party would be leaving by aircraft the following day, with two aims. One would be for the arrangements of the arrival, disembarkation and logistical supply system for the Brigade. The other, would be a reconnaissance platoon, who would scout the roads from the port to the Aliakmon line and then the approaches to that position with a view of providing a screening force.
     
    28 February 1941. Benghazi, Libya.
  • 28 February 1941. Benghazi, Libya.

    General Leslie Morshead, General Officer Commanding 9th Australian Infantry Division congratulated the men of 8th Battery, Australian 2/3 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The morning air raid had been seen off once more, and the crews of at least two German aircraft wouldn’t be having breakfast with their squadron mates. The level of AA fire from the port and harbour was intense, and to Morshead, it looked as if the German bombing was inaccurate and hurried. The Harbour Master might not entirely agree, there was at least one near miss on a freighter which had been peppered with shrapnel, and the blazing fire in a storage compound meant that at least part of a ship’s cargo had been lost to enemy action.

    Morshead was in Benghazi as he was keen on meeting as many of the men of 20th Brigade based there as he could. Brigadier John Murray, as the Brigade CO, was showing the General around. The three Australian Battalions (2/13th, 2/15th and 2/17th) were responsible for the defence of Benghazi while still getting themselves fully trained and equipped. The 2/17th Battalion were dug in around the south of the port, with two of their Companies involved in fire-fighting and supporting the AA gunners. 2/15th Battalion were further south around Beda Fomm, where they were tied into the positions supporting 22nd Armoured Brigade. 2/13th Battalion were the first unit to have taken casualties in 9th Division, one of their lorries having been attacked by German aircraft. Their positions were in and around the airfield at Benina. One company were guarding the last of the prisoners taken from the fighting around Benghazi, while the rest protected the airfield and its radar station.

    General Morshead expressed his concern to Brigadier Murray that the men weren’t getting enough training for offensive actions. Having taken over these particular roles, important as they were, Morshead knew that General O’Connor was hoping that the 9th Australian Division would be able to emulate the work done by the 6th who conquered Cyrenaica. In a proposed drive towards Tripoli, all of Morshead’s men needed to think about attacking rather than defending. Murray drew his Commanding Officer’s attention to the lack of transport, the most serious deficit in the Division’s equipment.

    Other parts of the equipment shortage were being solved, like the Brigade’s mortar companies being happy enough with the Italian Model 35 which they had acquired. These were all meant to have been assigned elsewhere, but the Australians had proven adept at concealing them and claiming never to have even seen them. Likewise, the light Brixia mortar was being used by most platoons as there was a shortage of the 2-inch mortar they should have been issued with. Eventually when enough proper equipment was available, then the captured Italian weapons would be ditched. Until then, there was something quite enjoyable about having all the Italian equipment to play with.

    If there was going to be an attack towards Tripoli, then the Valiant infantry tanks of 40th Bn RTR would be an important part of that. The problem Morshead had found was that these tanks were being carefully husbanded. They had a lot of miles on their clocks and it was a long way back to Bardia if they broke down. The Valiant I* cruiser tanks of 22nd Armoured Brigade were also being careful about their mileage. Getting enough tanks to have the men of the 9th Division to exercise with was a problem. Eventually, after pulling some strings with General O’Connor, it was agreed that one troop of Valiant I Infantry tanks would be assigned to the Benghazi area, where each Company of Australian infantry men would have a chance to work with them. While the exercises would be limited in the amount of time that the tanks would actually move, it gave the men time to get to know the tank crews, discuss the tactics they needed to adopt, and then have some time in the field.

    Morshead’s Divisional Cavalry Regiment was dead keen, and had appropriated every working Italian armoured vehicle it could get to run, to test them. Most of these were worse than useless. The L3/35 being the most common Italian armoured vehicle captured intact, in the absence of enough of their own Bren gun carriers, the Cavalry had decided to take on fifteen of them. The Breda M37 8mm machine guns at least packed a punch, once the gunners learned their idiosyncrasies. There were opportunities for the Australian cavalrymen to go on patrols with the 1st Royal Dragoons, but they drew the line at being accompanied by Italian machines. Much of what B Squadron of that Regiment was doing around Benghazi was deepening the knowledge and experience of the Australians in the reconnaissance role. Much of the Australian Divisional Cavalry Regiment were using motorcycles and light cars to give them the mobility they needed, as they kept being reminded, they were armoured cavalry, not a tank regiment. The fact that their motorcycles and light cars sprouted a variety of Italian machine guns gave them a somewhat piratical air.

    The other two Brigades in Morshead’s Divisions were in much the same state. 24th Brigade was distributed between Bardia and Tobruk; while 26th Brigade was acting in a policing role between Derna and Barce. Morshead had been promised that he would be given time and space to bring the Division together to exercise as a whole. In the meantime, all he could do was to insist that every officer took whatever opportunities they could to help train and develop the men for whatever their eventual role would be. The last thing he wanted was for any of his men to be sitting idle, or forgetting why they were here.

    NB The arrival of the 9th Australian Division is ahead of OTL schedule, but suffered from many of the problems noted here. Spread out, under-trained and equipped, and being used for garrison duties.
     
    2 March 1941. Pembrokeshire, Wales
  • 2 March 1941. Pembrokeshire, Wales

    In the summer after Dunkirk, when there was a dearth of tanks, three Motor-Machine Gun Brigades had been formed. One of these was made up of three Cavalry Regiments (5th Dragoon Guards, 15/19th Hussars, 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry) which, as the 2nd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, had played such an important role in the fighting in France and Flanders. The other two MMG Brigades had been created from other Cavalry Regiments and Battalions of the Royal Tank Regiment which lacked tanks. The Motor-Machine Gun Brigades had been equipped with a variety of cars and lorries for mobility. As the invasion scare had reduced, two MMG Brigades had been reformed as 26th and 28th Armoured Brigades, the third (made up of Royal Tank Regiment battalions) as 25th Army Tank Brigade. 26th Armoured Brigade had been attached to 6th Armoured Division, while 28th Armoured Brigade was now part of 9th Armoured Division.

    The Castlemartin training area had been acquired just before the war and was one of the few places where tanks could exercise and have live fire drills. More land throughout the country was being acquired by the War Office, but in the meantime, tank units found a place in Wales where they could hone their skills. All they needed were the tanks to do so.

    28th Armoured Brigade, were the first Brigade to receive early production models of the A15 Cruiser Mark VI. So far each of the regiments had only received a handful for training purposes. The fixing of defects was still going on in the factories, so the men of the 28th Armoured Brigade were having to get used to a new tank, without having enough of them to go around. It was expected that once the problems had been resolved, then production would ramp up very quickly, the Commanding Officer Brigadier Herbert Lumsden, had been promised that he would have 150 A15s by June at the latest.

    Having spoken to his opposite number in 27th Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Charles Norman, and the GOC 9th Armoured Division, Montagu Burrows, the idea that the whole Division would be fully equipped and trained by the summer on the new cruiser tank was overly optimistic. Having visited the main Nuffield factory, the three officers knew that if they were lucky, the Division might receive thirty tanks per month from the end of March. Production levels would probably rise fairly rapidly from June forward, but the problems at the moment stemmed from all the changes that were having to be made due to the testing of the prototypes.

    What was particularly worrying was that they would likely be receiving tanks designed for, but not equipped with, 2-pdr guns. Burrows had been assured that the Ministry of Supply was working very hard to bring the numbers of 2-pdr guns being built up to the level needed for the expanding army anti-tank regiments and the new Armoured Divisions, but there was no doubt going to be a short-fall. Burrows had suggested to the civil servant who informed him of this that having an Armoured Division counterattacking a German invasion, with the gunners shouting ‘BANG’ while aiming broomsticks, wasn’t going to be much help in defending the country.

    The A15 tanks that had been delivered so far, were asking a lot of the crews and the Light Aid Detachments. The design of the tank had meant that the Liberty engine needed to have its height reduced and the new Mark III engine’s installation was described, politely, as ‘compact’. Instead of the old 30-inch eight-bladed cooling fan, there was now a pair of 19-inch six bladed fans, which were chain driven from a sprocket mounted on the crankshaft output. The half-inch chain was meant to be maintenance free for 1000 miles, except when it required tensioning, for which an adjustable jockey sprocket was attached. Already the tanks being used by 28th Armoured Brigade were finding that if there was going to be a problem, it was likely to do with the cooling system, and the root cause was almost always in the cooling fan chain. The Light Aid Detachments were writing almost daily reports of the difficulties they were having trying to fix something that was just simply badly designed.

    If the problem wasn’t with the cooling fan chain, then it was likely to be caused by various issues with oil. The new engine’s oil pump had been redesigned to reduce the depth of the sump, and its filter was now on the front of the engine. Making the sump, the lower half of the crankcase, shallower, meant that the crankshaft main bearing oil feed was now an external gallery pipe, mounted on the right-hand side. Already problems were being identified with the shallower sump, which was found to be inhibiting oil scavenging, and the external pipe had seven interfaces with the sump, which was a recipe for oil leaks. The mechanics and fitters found that the engine had a tendency to oil up when the tank was going uphill, and that could only be put down to inadequate oil scavenging. This had been noted in trials at Farnborough in the previous summer, and the fact that they weren’t resolved in the early production models of the tank was worrying.

    Bringing the new A15 tanks to Wales to give the men of 28th Armoured Brigade experience of working with them in the field was throwing up a lot of concerns. Some of the older, and more cynical, hands weren’t overly worried. Having tanks that weren’t entirely reliable meant that the training of the men to take proper care of the tanks would be taken very seriously. Being stuck out in a field in Wales on a cold winter’s night while waiting for a recovery vehicle was an important learning experience. No one would take anything for granted before setting off in their tanks. Every check would be done at least twice. Crews would be looking out for potential problems to get them fixed before they became the cause of a break down. Men who had had little or no experience with machinery would become adept with the use of spanners and wrenches. Those who were less cynical wondered if having to worry less about their tank being reliable, would mean that they would be more concerned with how to use it as the fighting machine for which it was designed.
     
    4 March 1941. Wolverhampton, England.
  • 4 March 1941. Wolverhampton, England.

    The failure to have a working Meadows built Peregrine-based engine for the Victor’s prototype had shone a light onto the company that felt a bit uncomfortable for the management and design team. Taking an engine designed by Rolls-Royce for aircraft and then trying to simplify it for mass production in tanks had proven as big a challenge that the management had foreseen when approached by Vickers in 1939.

    With having to spend so much time of getting manufacturing of the petrol Lion engine up and running, the design team’s ability to work on the Peregrine had been limited. It was only when Vickers had approached Rover and Leyland to help with both the petrol Lion and the Peregrine, that there was enough spare capacity, collectively, to really get to grips with the follow-on engine that Vickers wanted for the Victor tank.

    Because Rolls-Royce’s design teams were working flat out, they had no one to spare to help progress the Peregrine tank version. In fact, Ernest Hives had expressed to the Air Ministry that he wanted to stop wasting time on the Peregrine altogether to concentrate on the Merlin and Griffon engines. The only people Rolls-Royce had going spare were Roy Robotham and his chassis design and development division at Clan Foundry, Belper. Sir John Carden had been made aware of this, and had approached Robotham to ask for his help.

    Bring fresh eyes to the issue, Robotham had spent time with the combined designers of Meadows, Leyland and Rover to see what the problems were with getting the de-rated Peregrine ready for use in a tank. When he suggested that they were looking at the wrong engine, and should think about using the Merlin as the basis instead, the team gave a collective groan. The problem that Carden had found when approaching Hives at Rolls-Royce initially was that the Merlin was powering so many aircraft that the Air Ministry just wasn’t interested in sharing. Hives had suggested the Peregrine for the very reason that it wasn’t as popular, or as powerful, as the Merlin. It would therefore, perhaps, be more available.

    Robotham however wasn’t put off. There were plenty of damaged, or otherwise, unairworthy, Merlin III engines lying around. Getting hold of a few of these was done, and the specifications for a tank engine based on the Merlin were looked at. First of all, much of the aircraft specific parts of the engine were removed, such as the supercharger, starter and propeller reduction gear, which meant the crankshaft was easier to construct. The main problem facing the designers was to reverse the engine’s rotation since a tank’s gear box ran the opposite way from a propeller. This involved changes to the camshaft. A lot of this was actually very easy to do, because of the work done previously with the Peregrine, which needed the same adaptions.

    Since Robotham and his team had got involved in the late summer of the 194o, work had progressively shifted from the Peregrine to the Merlin. With the design of the Victor in mind, the new engine had undergone some more changes to work with the Merrit-Brown gear box, but, as with most tank engines, the greatest headache was dealing with cooling problems. With Vickers as the parent company for the Victor, having four companies with experience in engines working together, meant that various solutions were available and tested. Eventually a solution presented itself due to the combined work of the team.

    The good news back from Farnborough was that the Victor prototype, powered by the Merlin derived tank engine, had exceeded expectations. The problem now was to build enough of them. The Ministry of Supply needed the production facilities of Meadows, Rover and Leyland to expand to meet demand. While the first engines could be build using parts of unairworthy Merlins, realistically they would need completely newly built engines, and that would take work and investment. Since the engine wasn’t needed to fly, some of the components could be made from steel rather than the light alloys used on the aircraft version. Parts of the engine could be cast rather than forged, all of which meant that there would be no hinderance from the tank engine production at the expense of Rolls-Royce’s aero-engines. In addition, a one-off payment to Rolls-Royce from Vickers was made for the use of Merlin engine, since they would not otherwise benefit commercially from the production of this amended version their product. To differentiate the two engines, the name ‘Meteor’ was attached to the tank engine, and at the insistence of the company, it continued to be known as the ‘Rolls-Royce’ Meteor.

    NB this is obviously a bit different from OTL, but advances the arrival of the Meteor by a few months, and increased production by probably a year. Instead of having to wait for the design of the Cromwell for the new engine, the Victor is about ready to go into production in 1941.
     
    5- 15 March 1941. Sudan.
  • 5- 15 March 1941. Sudan.

    The Matilda II Infantry Tanks of 42nd Bn RTR hadn’t been designed for the kind of terrain that they’d found themselves in. The 4th and 5th Indian Infantry Divisions had been using the tanks for roles that no one had ever thought of. The fighting was primarily an infantry battle, but the Infantry Tanks found themselves being used in all sorts of jobs to support them. Each of the Divisional Commanders had taken over a tank for their own particular use. The gunner and loader in these tanks were left behind, the gun and its ammunition removed and extra radios fitted. As an armoured command post, the tanks provided the generals with mobility and communications. Trying to make sure that each Brigade and Battalion Commander didn’t think this was something to copy was a bit of a fight, but the tanks had other roles that they were needed for.

    Tank commanders found themselves carrying artillery ammunition forward, one sergeant still had the shakes after having to fill the tank with crates of dynamite to carry it forward to engineers. The tanks ranged about the battlefield trying to draw the fire of Italian gunners, so that their positions could be spotted and attacked. One driver, with an artistic flair, had drawn a mountain goat on the side of his Matilda, as he felt his tanks was going up and down valleys, halfway up mountains, doing things that any sensible goat would avoid.

    The mileage covered by the tanks in the weeks before the Keren battle was extraordinary, especially taking into account the difficult terrain. Without doubt the fitters, the Light Aid Detachment and echelon vehicles had worked marvels at keeping the tanks on the road. Six of the tanks had been put out of action, four by enemy action, the other two had mechanicals that would need a fully equipped workshop to fix, and so had been stripped for valuable spares.

    The work at clearing a path through the Dongolaas gorge to allow the tanks through the road to Keren involved both Indian Divisions attempting to take the hills on each side of the gorge, then for the engineers to dismantle the formidable roadblock. All this was finally achieved, with Colonel Bernard Fletcher of the Highland Light Infantry commanding the column, led by C Squadron’s Matildas, and the Bren gun carriers of both divisions broke through, and within an hour had taken control of Keren. The Italians who hadn’t surrendered were withdrawing towards Asmara though the Habi Mantel gorge. Fletcher Force, knowing how easy it would be for that gorge to become as fortified as Dongolaas had been, gave chase. At Ad Teclesan the British forces encountered the Italian rear-guard. Elements of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade had been carried forward to support the tracked vehicles, and the Italian position fell quickly, the Matilda Infantry Tanks’ heavy armour once more proving its worth.

    The next day the town of Asmara surrendered to the advancing British tanks, which after some time to fix themselves up, and refuel and rearm, joined the 7th Indian Brigade on the road to Massawa. General Heath sent an ultimatum to Admiral Bonetti, commanding at Massawa, by the unusual means of ringing up his headquarters on the undamaged telephone line. Bonetti, after consulting with Rome, refused to surrender. On 12 March the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group reached the northern part of the Massawa defences, and joined by Indian 10th Brigade and the Free French Brigade d' Orient. Early on 15 March an attack by the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group was pinned down, but a simultaneous attack by 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and C Squadron 42nd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment bit deeply into the western defences and the Free French troops broke into the south-western sector. Early in the afternoon Admiral Bonetti surrendered with 9,590 men and 127 guns, though not before doing as much damage to the harbour as he could.

    With the fighting in Eritrea almost finished, the 4th Indian Division was given orders to return to Egypt. The 5th Indian Division, with the remaining Infantry Tanks were to open up the road between Asmara, Dessie and on to Addis Ababa. This would allow the forces of General Cunningham advancing from Kenya towards Addis Ababa to move unite with 5th Indian Division, completing the destruction of Italian East Africa.

    NB Obviously this is about a month ahead of OTL schedule. I am using this quote from
    here as the basis for the speeding up:
    “The battle for Massawa was short and sweet with the Matildas marauding over the plains outside the city like giants. The Italians had no answer and on 9 April B Sqn led the Force into Massawa. Without doubt those 12 tanks that started from Kassala must have shortened the campaign by many weeks. Thus the Eritrean campaign was completed.
    If twelve tanks shortened the campaign by many weeks, then 30 should hopefully do even more so.
     
    10 March 1941. Athens, Greece.
  • 10 March 1941. Athens, Greece.

    The arrival of the forward party of 1st Armoured Brigade had reinforced for the British Military Mission in Athens the problems of Operation Lustre. Sending a British Expeditionary Force to Greece was looking more and more difficult. The mining of the Suez Canal had closed it again, so that some of the ships necessary to bring the troops from Egypt weren’t able to enter the Mediterranean. This would slow the planned build-up of the forces.

    The reconnaissance troops from 1st Armoured Brigade, working in civilian clothes and borrowing civilian transport, reported that the roads up to the Aliakmon Line would be almost impossible for the cruiser tanks to use. They asked explicitly if anyone in General Wilson’s command had actually looked at the situation? It seemed to the men on the ground that the planning had been done using large scale maps, and possibly some aerial photography. Not only were the roads unsuitable, it was noted that the passage of tanks would likely destroy them more or less completely for anyone following them.

    The alternative was to move the tanks by rail to Larissa, but the Greek railway was already under a great deal of pressure. It wasn’t clear whether the railway had enough flat cars to be able to move the tanks. Worse was the news that far fewer of the promised Greek Battalions were actually manning the Aliakmon Line. There were some Greek troops there, and since the rest of the promised forces would be marching, it wasn’t looking as if the Greek promises would be kept, at least to the timescale agreed. It also seemed that the idea of withdrawing troops from the Albanian front to reinforce the Aliakmon Line wasn’t happing with any rapidity.

    One part of the reconnaissance had gone all the way to the Yugoslav border to look at what was known as the Monastir Gap. Here, it became clear that this was the fundamental threat. While, with enough time and enough troops and anti-tank guns the Aliakmon position could be a strong position it had a very clear Achilles heel.

    When Brigadier Harold Charrington looked over the reconnaissance report with General Wilson, the British commander of the Greek operation, it became clear that there was a lot of wishful thinking and not a great deal of actual planning going on. Charrington had been hearing whispers from General Wavell’s staff that there was a team working on a plan for evacuating the British force, almost alongside the team planning the arrival of the same forces.

    Knowing what had happened in the fall back to Dunkirk, Charrington made the suggestion that his Brigade, with the elements of the Support Group he had, should be based at Vevi. If the Germans did attack through the Monastir Gap, then his 150 tanks had the best chance blunt that attack, allowing the infantry forces to pull back from the Aliakmon Line to the south. There was the chance that he could leap-frog his three Regiments back through a serious of rear-guard positions all the way to Larissa.

    General Wilson, who had been attempting to keep a low profile since arriving in Greece, was aware that he hadn’t walked the ground that the men under his command would be expected to fight on. The reports he was receiving were painting an ever-blacker picture.

    The original plan for Charrington’s Brigade was to out in front of the Aliakmon Line, covering the demolitions and slowing down the expected thrust coming from Bulgaria. The problem with that, like everything else, was the danger of attacks by the Luftwaffe. There were too many choke-points and vulnerable bridges or gorges, where a well-placed Stuka raid could cut off or slow down a retreating force. On the other hand, one Regiment of Cruiser Tanks might slow a German attack, giving the New Zealanders and Australians a bit more time to get organised.

    General Wilson and his RAF liaison had already had various conversations about the air cover needed for the disembarkation from the ships and then for the troops travelling to their positions. The problem was that the RAF was really short of effective aircraft. The Gladiators were holding their own against the Italians, but they would be sitting ducks for German fighters. The Hurricanes were better but they weren’t really front-line aircraft anymore. While the nation was grateful for the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain, it had given a false impression that the RAF would be able to do wonders. General Wilson was constantly being told that his hopes for continual and effective air cover were always going to be dashed.

    The Quartermasters were looking at building up Field Supply Depots, as they had in the Western Desert, but they were faced with a very different set of circumstances. The numbers of actual roads in Greece suitable for heavy vehicles were few and far between. The spring rains had made anything else that might be described as a road to be little more than a mud track. Many of the ‘roads’ were steep and winding, needing a very different set of driving skills from that of the desert. The real needs were for pack animals, something that the British army didn’t have, and the Greeks had none to spare.

    Charrington’s plan for preparing for a withdrawal made Wilson look again at the plan. The first New Zealand Brigade to arrive was still getting itself sorted out before heading towards the area around Mount Olympus. Because of the problems of shipping, the equipment was coming by merchant ship, and the men being carried in Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers. Anthony Eden had quoted Churchill’s remarks about another ‘Norwegian fiasco’, and General Wilson could see the potential of that being the case. He therefore agreed with Brigadier Charrington’s assessment of the Monastir Gap, but decided that only two of the armoured regiments would be based there, with one more out ahead of the Aliakmon Line. He would however, reinforce the 2nd Support Group to give the Vevi force a more rounded balance of tanks, infantry and artillery. He also urged Charrington to reconnoitre, and prepare, his fall back positions to Larissa and beyond.
     
    12 March 1941. London, England.
  • 12 March 1941. London, England.

    Lieutenant General Norman Macready (Assistant Chief of the Imperial General Staff) had invited the main military figures on the Tank Board for drinks in his office in Whitehall. The three senior officers on the Tank Board were Major General Edward Clarke (Director of Artillery, Ministry of Supply); Major General Kenneth Stewart (Commandant of Royal Armoured Corps Training Establishment); Major General Vyvyan Pope (Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles, War Office). Macready asked that they were joined by Major-General Gifford Martel (General Officer Commanding Royal Armoured Corps).

    Macready wanted to sort out among the Generals most involved in the development and use of tanks what exactly the army wanted to put before the next Tank Board meeting, so that there was a unified voice from the army. He’d asked ‘Q’ Martel to give a summary of the current state of AFVs in the army, then Vyvyan Pope to provide a summary of what was on the drawing board for the next couple of years.

    The loss of the majority of the Light Tanks in France had left the RAC with a terrible shortfall in fighting vehicles, but, as Martel pointed out, it was also an opportunity to put proper fighting vehicles into the hands of the men. As for the Infantry Tanks, there were very few of the A11 Matilda I left, and those were mostly in Egypt. The A12 Matilda II was in full production and equipping most of the Tank Brigades in Britain. The Vickers Valiant I was likewise in full production and was, so far, generally being sent to the Middle East. The Cruisers Mark I and II (A9 and A10), now ended in production, were mostly in the Middle East, and quite worn out. The Cruiser Mark IV (A13) was the main cruiser tank in Britain, though one Brigade was on its way to Greece. The Valiant I* Cruiser was also mostly in the Middle East, and looked mostly likely to be sent overseas in the first instance.

    The fighting in France had shown that the 2-pdr armed A13 Cruisers had performed adequately when not being used in place of an Infantry Tank. Martel noted that 1st Armoured Division never had much chance to show what such a Division could do. The A9 and A10s had done well in Egypt and Libya, but the Valiant I had been the star of the show. Martel believed that the main battles fought so far by the Royal Armoured Corps were skewed towards the Infantry Tank. At Arras it was the A11 and A12s which had done well against the German Panzers. General O’Connor’s successes against the Italians had been primarily with Infantry Tanks, though cutting off Benghazi had been achieved by 7th Armoured Division’s Cruiser Tanks.

    Everyone at the meeting knew that Martel had been the main force behind the desire to use the Christie suspension in British tanks, and it obviously rankled him that the A13, the fruits of that labour, hadn’t exactly covered itself in glory. Unless they could do something extraordinary in Greece, it looked as if Martel had backed the wrong horse. The various Vickers tanks, along with the A12 Matilda II, had been responsible for the majority of the successes of the RAC so far.

    Once Martel finished, Pope reminded his fellow generals of the current production plan. Regarding Infantry Tanks, Vulcan Foundry’s A12 Matilda II production would continue throughout 1941. Vickers Valiant I would likewise continue, becoming the Valiant II as more were equipped with the 6-pdr gun. Regarding Cruiser Tanks, the Valiant I*, also becoming the Valiant II* with the 6-pdr, was the priority production model, as corrective work on the Nuffield A15 Cruiser was necessary before full production could commence. An extra order for another 100 of the A13 had had to be made to avoid too much of a shortfall in the Cruiser Tank output. The only Light Tank now in production was the A17, Vickers Light Tank Mark VII, which was beginning to appear in training establishments.

    The planned successor Infantry Tank for the A12 Matilda II was the A22, designed by Vauxhall. The prototypes were still being tested, and while it was in some ways an improvement over the A12 (at least in protection) it had the same gun and roughly the same speed. The planned successor for the Valiant from Vickers was the Victor. The prototype had been well received, especially with the new Rolls-Royce engine. Equipped initially with the 6-pdr gun, but work was continuing on another gun in the 3-inch range. At this point, Pope noted that Vickers were suggesting that the Victor, with its gun, armour, and, with the Meteor engine, its speed, that it would fill the need for both an Infantry and Cruiser Tank. Gifford Martel snorted in derision at the comment.

    Beyond the A22 and the Victor, Pope reported that Nuffield were at an early stage of work on a follow-on Christie Cruiser Tank to the A15, which would increase its armour to around 60mm and to take at least the 6-pdr gun. Vauxhall were suggesting that they could, with enough time and help, look at a follow-on tank with a bigger engine and turret ring to allow the A22 to grow. In both cases these wouldn’t be available until at least 1943 at the earliest. Therein lay the reason for Macreadie calling this meeting. The current plan for tanks, with the distinction between Infantry and Cruiser tanks was settled at least until 1942. The Tank Brigades would be a mixture of Matilda and Valiants, the Armoured Divisions would be a mixture of Valiant I* and A15s. The Vickers Victor would, with the new Rolls-Royce engine, be a good successor to the Matilda and Valiant, though there was some doubt about Sir John Carden’s claim that it would supplant both the Valiant I* and A15.

    Pope then reported that the Americans were beginning to get into their stride, as far as production was concerned. It was expected that the first of the American designed and built tanks would start arriving later in the year. Work was progressing on the M3 tank with the side-sponson 75mm gun and 37mm on the turret, following the French Char B1-bis design. General Douglas Pratt had sent his assessment of the vehicle, which wasn’t at all complimentary. He did however note that the Valiant tank the Americans were studying had helped them progress the design of a tank turret capable of taking the 75mm gun, which had the designation M4 currently. Pratt did express his opinion that this tank was likely to be ‘quite good’.

    Major General Kenneth Stewart asked about Light Tanks. While the Vickers Mark VII was being produced with the 2-pdr, there was a limited number being produced. He’d read Pratt’s report from Washington and wondered about the American Light Tank, the M2A4 and its planned successor, confusingly also called the M3. Stewart knew that the reconnaissance role needed something with a proper gun, with good speed and some protection. Steward noted that the M3 looked like it might fit the bill for the Divisional Cavalry Regiments and the new Reconnaissance Regiments. Pope wasn’t so sure that light tanks were the best fit for that role, more and better armoured cars, especially with a half-decent gun would probably be the better choice. It was agreed that a request for some M2A4s for assessment would be put to the Americans, with an openness to the possibility of using the M3, if it was any good.

    Major General Edward Clarke interjected at this point his objection to the American tanks being armed with the 37mm and 75mm gun. These weren’t standard British artillery calibres, and would mean that the RAOC would have problems with an extra level of supply of imported ammunition. There wasn’t any spare capacity within the Royal Ordnance Factories to begin manufacturing two new types of ammunition, which would mean that the army would be at the mercy of getting convoys across the Atlantic.

    After some discussion among the gathered Generals, they agreed to recommend that the American medium tanks would be offered in the first instance to the Australian, Indian and possibly South African and New Zealand Armoured Divisions or Brigades. If they were being shipped across the Pacific, they were more likely to be delivered safely. Between the factories in Britain and Canada, it was estimated that the needs of the British and Canadian Tank and Armoured formations could be met from domestic production, at least in the short to medium term. If something changed, and more tanks had to come from America, then that decision could be made quite quickly.

    Vyvyan Pope did mention that the plan for the Armoured Divisions would be dependent on the A15 being an adequate tank. He also wondered whether Vauxhall’s A22 might be better cancelled in favour of more Vickers’ Victors, which was already better than the A22 prototype and with more room to improve. General Clarke, noted that the Ministry of Supply had considered this, but the problem would be having enough engines, especially if the new Rolls-Royce was chosen. Vauxhall’s engine was admittedly less powerful, but a couple of successful German air-raids in the wrong place, could mean that tank production could be delayed. Martel noted that was true for a lot of things, there was already a shortage of 2-pdr anti-tank guns and that had nothing to do with the Luftwaffe. This would be something that would need to be debated properly at a proper meeting of the Tank Board

    General Macready poured some oil on the troubled waters and then asked about their assessment of what the Germans were likely to be doing. All of the men had had a thorough look at the captured German tanks, and while General Martel was quite dismissive, the rest of the group all recognised that, a bit like the Valiant and Victor, the Germans seemed to have designed their tanks with an eye to allowing them to be developed. Clarke was strongly of the opinion that the captured 2-pdrs would have been thoroughly tested and that, since the German tanks were very vulnerable, he could easily imagine that the Germans had been bolting on more armour. There was some evidence from the captured Panzer IV that the Germans were toying with using face-hardened steel, and so production of capped ammunition for the 2-pdr and 6-pdr had been ordered to hedge their bets.

    General Pope concurred and thought that the captured Matildas and French B1s would have meant that the Germans would be increasing the size of their guns. Both the Panzer III and IV turrets were capable of taking a bigger gun. There was some pre-war intelligence to suggest that the Germans were looking at something around the 50mm size, which would likely have much the same capability as the new 6-pdr. If the Americans were playing around with a 75mm, and the Germans had captured a lot of French guns, he wouldn’t be surprised if the next wave of Panzers might not be armed with something in that size that could defeat the Matilda and Valiant from a half decent range.

    General Stewart had concentrated on what had been learned about the German fighting tactics. He felt that the reports of the German use of their armoured formations confirmed that they were very well trained and had a number of advantages. He had been particularly interested in the way in which they used their radio net to coordinate, and it was clear that they saw their tanks very much as one part of a larger, coordinated system, including artillery, infantry and air power. The problems the 1st Armoured Division had encountered on the Somme had shown up that the British doctrine had severe weaknesses. Martel bristled at this. The fact that the Division hadn’t been used as it should have been was the cause of the problem, not the training or tactics. Stewart and Martel had had this argument before, and Macready knew that it could easily get out of hand. The only real way to answer the question was to play it out in wargames and exercises, to see who had it right. The experience of Cunningham in the desert wasn’t terribly helpful as the Italians hadn’t offered the same level of opposition that the German Panzer Divisions had done. The evidence for a growing German presence in both North Africa, and at the borders of Greece, would likely soon give the British army another shot at finding out just who was right about armour and the tactics to use it most effectively.

    The question was therefore what would need to happen in 1943. The new Rolls-Royce engine was easily chosen as the designated tank engine for future use. The question about a diesel version was shelved for the moment. The 6-pdr gun was obviously the gun of choice for as many tanks as possible, which should have the measure of whatever the Germans did in response to their experiences with British tanks. General Pope and Stewart agreed, but insisted that an effective HE shell was a necessary addendum. The 3-inch gun being developed by Vickers looked promising, and should deal with armour of around 4 inches. After that, Clarke had previously noted, a tank would need to be able to carry something more like the 3.7-inch AA gun or a High Velocity version of the 25-pdr. The Victor’s successor would likely need something more like 6 inches of armour, which for the size of the gun, would likely need to be nearly 50 tons. General Pope knew that Sir John Carden had been thinking along the same lines, and so the group agreed, after a lot of griping from General Martel, that a specification would be issued perhaps following the same principles as the Valiant I and I*: one version more heavily armoured and one with less armour but more speed. If the Nuffield Group couldn’t come up with a satisfactory successor to the A15 within the time frame, then perhaps the American M4 might fit the bill as an alternative fighting tank, though General Clarke again insisted that he wanted to make sure it would be able to take a British gun.
     
    19 March 1941. Cairo, Egypt.
  • 19 March 1941. Cairo, Egypt.

    General Wavell had arrived back in Cairo having been at Keren talking to the men who had won another victory over the Italians. The force moving north from Kenya was making good progress, and it looked like the final nails in the Italian East Africa coffin were being hammered in satisfactorily.

    Whenever he had a visit from his special intelligence detail, the ones with the most highly classified material, he always felt a jolt of worry. Most often the material gave indications of what was happening with the Luftwaffe, it seemed that their code was the most commonly broken. The summary told Wavell that all leave for the Luftwaffe had been cancelled and that their units should expect detailed operational orders to be issued shortly. An offensive was obviously on the cards, and Wavell’s eyes were drawn to the map of the Mediterranean on the wall and settled on Greece. It was the only logical place.

    Wavell knew that the build up of Empire forces in Greece was continuing, another Australian Infantry Brigade were arriving in Athens this very day. The fear that the whole thing would turn out to be another Norway was constantly on his mind. His eyes ranged over the map and looked to the south of Benghazi. The reconnaissance forces of the Germans had been probing further and further from Sirte, and it wouldn’t be long before they pushed up towards the British positions at El Agheila.

    The reports from Generals O’Connor and Morshead about the situation of XIII Corps were all relatively positive. The port of Benghazi was drawing the German and Italian Air Forces like a magnet, and the Royal Navy were getting wary of sending anything too precious there. The Australians had been doing sterling work with the captured Italian AA guns, which was making the place a dangerous place, but it was still contested. The good news was that the RAAF squadron protecting the port now had a working radar, and that was giving the Hurricanes a bit of an advantage, though they were usually outnumbered. What it had done, and O’Connor was pleased to note, was that air raids and minelaying against Tobruk had reduced a great deal.

    The fundamental problem was that just about everything Wavell had spare was being sent to Greece. If, as believed, the Italians and Germans were reinforcing through Tripoli, Wavell was confident that he had sufficient men and tanks south of Benghazi to hold them off. If the worst came to the worst, and they had to withdraw, even as far as Tobruk, the build-up of supplies there could sustain the Australians. It would be a shame to lose all that ground, just to have to take it again, but any sensible German General would be digging in, and preparing for the next phase of the British attack. The longer the affair in Greece went on, the more difficult it would be for Wavell’s forces to make an attack on Tripoli. Even General O’Connor was conscious that the Germans would complicate matters, and possibly, even the Italians might have wised up. Once the two Indian Divisions, and possibly the South Africans, had finished off in East Africa, and if he could lay his hands on more transport, pushing onto Sirte might certainly be possible.

    Which brought him back to Greece. The word coming from Athens was that the Greeks weren’t falling back as planned to the Aliakmon Line, and that the Divisions that were being transferred there were second line troops, and under strength. It occurred to Wavell that basically it would be a race for the Australians and New Zealanders to get to those positions and dig in before the Germans arrived. The reports from 1st Armoured Brigade’s reconnaissance were revelatory about the lay of the land and the inherent dangers of the plan that had been worked out. There was nothing that could be done at this point, but Wavell noted he needed to speak to General Wilson again and make sure that he had a solid plan for falling back towards the ports for evacuation. As he looked at the list of men, weapons, transport and supplies that were being sent to Greece as part of Operation Lustre, Wavell could only regret that they weren't available to General O’Connor to finish off the job in North Africa.
     
    24 March 1941. Ras el Ali, Libya.
  • 24 March 1941. Ras el Ali, Libya.

    There was a certain degree of expectation about what was about to take place, and yet, when it happened, it seemed to be something of a surprise to all the participants.

    Two troops (six Valiant I* tanks) of the 4th Sharpshooters, County of London Yeomanry, along with B Company of the 1st Tower Hamlet Rifles, with a battery of 2-pdr anti-tank guns from 102 Anti-Tank Regiment, with various others, were the furthest outpost of the British forces in Libya. There were some reconnaissance troops of the Royals somewhere ahead of them, but this was where either the British defence of Cyrenaica or the attack on Tripolitania began.

    Reports of German equipment being seen in North Africa were now confirmed, and it was believed that there was a German Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion operating from a base somewhere between Sirte and Nofilia. The 1st Royal Dragoons had been keeping tabs on this German unit, while attempting to avoid any head on clash. In this they had only partially succeeded, the Germans being more successful in any encounters so far.

    What the Royals and the RAF had established was that there was one German light motorized division—or possibly part of a normal armoured division, it wasn’t entirely clear; in addition to the Italian Ariete Armoured Division and perhaps the complete Trento Motorized Division. While the Royals were doing most of the patrolling ahead of the British position at Ras el Ali, the local commander, Major Bill Holmes, of the 4th Sharpshooters, had wanted to keep up some aggressive patrolling around the main position.

    The road at Ras el Ali passed through a fairly narrow strip between the sea and the desert escarpment. Unlike the main position at El Agheila, where the salt pans provided some degree of flank protection, here the road could be easily bypassed. It had been made clear to Major Holmes that this forward position was provide early warning of any enemy activity, to blunt any attack, and for his command to conduct a fighting withdrawal and delaying actions back to the main position some thirty miles behind them. The Royal Engineers had been busy construction various fall back positions, and preparing demolitions where they might slow an enemy advance. More elements of the 2nd Support Group and 4th Sharpshooters held other positions that Holmes could use to leapfrog back to the main line where the Australians were well dug in.

    It fell primarily to Captain John Pitt, OC B Company of the 1st Tower Hamlet Rifles, to provide the men for the patrols. Each night he had listening posts out ahead of his main positions, and in the early hours of the morning, two sections would sweep along the road for more than a mile looking for any indications of enemy movement during the night. Above the escarpment, two Bren gun carriers supported two sections of infantry of a platoon, who were each in oversight positions watching and listening for movement around the flank. Major Holmes, partly to protect his tanks from attacks from the air, had kept his tanks well back from the infantry positions and well camouflaged. Looking at the ground, it was likely that an advance along the road would be stalled by the presence of the infantry and anti-tank guns, protected by a minefield. Therefore, the danger to the position would likely be from a flanking attack from the desert side. Holmes had one troop of tanks to the rear of the infantry positions to cover their withdrawal, or counterattack if the opportunity arose. The second troop was position above the escarpment, which with the rest of the platoon providing flank protection and the Bren gun carriers, gave him a reasonable force to interdict a flanking manoeuvre.

    The German Reconnaissance Battalion had been cautiously probing forward along the coast road and to some extent across the desert. The presence of British Armoured Cars had been noted on a number of occasions and one, with its crew, had been captured. The interrogations backed up the findings of the radio intercept and photoreconnaissance intelligence that the British were in some strength around El Agheila, with some evidence of positions ahead of the main line. While the German and Italians were concentrating on Sirte, the desire to extend their forward positions east of Nofilia towards Ras el Ali was desirable.

    The opening shots of the engagement were fired by the night patrol’s Bren gun, before being joined by six SMLE rifles. The answering MG34 and 20mm cannon however soon silenced the British patrol’s fire. The cost was one German motorcycle combination, with both men killed, for eight British soldiers, two dead, three wounded and the rest captured. The German Lieutenant cursed that his men had almost driven over a British foot patrol. If they were on foot, then their main position couldn’t be too far away, and probably within hearing range. Any chance to sneak up was probably gone. His orders were to patrol along the road and try to get a fix on the enemy positions. If opposition was light, then he had the back up of another two troops each of armoured cars and motorcycle borne riflemen, along with the light gun and anti-tank gun troops, to smash through. Some Luftwaffe planes were going to be on station soon, and they would be available to the Battalion Commander if necessary.

    The sound of the firefight had indeed been heard back at the main British position, the sound of the German machine gun was quite distinctive compared to the Bren gun. B Company abandoned their breakfast and their NCOs soon had the men fully prepared. The Company Signals position sent off a contact report, and Major Holmes checked in with his tank commanders through the Squadron radio net.

    Above the escarpment the dust cloud of the approaching German vehicles became apparent, the overwatch positions reported the sighting over the powered telephone landline to Company HQ. Major Holmes and Captain Pitt had worked out a variety of options depending on the situation, whether it was reconnaissance probe or a full-scale attack. The battery of 2-pdr anti-tank guns had been dug in among the infantry positions covering the road, and as well as the mines that had been laid along the side of the road, range markers had also been placed at various points.

    The 2-pdr anti-tank gun had proven its value in the fighting in France and Flanders, where it was a match for all the German armoured vehicles. The four wheeled armoured cars which approached the British position were particularly vulnerable, their speed would be their primary defence. However, in this case they were approaching slowly and carefully, the commander of the first vehicle clearly scanning for the British positions though his binoculars. Captain Pitt, as a pre-war regular, had been particularly careful about camouflaging his positions, partly with an eye to the presence of the German aircraft, and exactly for this very situation. The standing orders were to let the Germans come forward as far as possible before opening fire.

    The leading German vehicle had got as close as four hundred yards before something made its commander order the driver to halt. The close range and velocity of the 2-pdr gun made that a fatal choice. The guns of a full platoon opened up on the Germans, including one of the attached Vickers heavy machine guns. 2-inch mortar rounds fell among the Germans which caused them to scatter. The Royal Engineers had laid the minefield with just this eventuality in mind. As the German vehicles and men spread out on both sides of the road, they soon found themselves in the midst of a killing field. Those still able to, reversed quickly from the British fire, using their machine guns and cannons to lay as much covering fire and smoke as they could. As planned, the British troops ceased fire as quickly as practical and most moved to secondary positions, awaiting the German response. A few men had been wounded and were taken back to the Company’s aid station, two had been killed. The cries of the German wounded were pitiful, but no one from the British side wanted to expose themselves to the continuing German fire. This was increased as the Reconnaissance Battalion’s mortars and artillery began to find the range of the British positions.

    Above the escarpment the German reconnaissance vehicles had much more room for manoeuvre. Once more the British troops held their fire as long as possible, only unmasking their positions when there was no other choice. As expected, a couple of German armoured cars and some of the motorised infantry focussed their attention on the British positions while the rest of the Armoured Reconnaissance Squadron kept moving along the flank, looking to get into the rear of the British position. At this point the three Valiant I* tanks rolled into action. The German vehicles had at most a 20mm cannon which did little more than chip paint of the British tanks, while the 2-pdr guns, when they scored a hit, it was usually deadly. The co-axial machine guns were in fact much more effective against the fast moving, and lightly armoured reconnaissance troops and vehicles.

    The German Battalion commander was now conscious that the presence of tanks, of a type that was unknown to him, meant that he had encountered a serious defensive position, not a lightly defended outpost. He was aware that was the kind of information that his unit was designed to discover. He ordered his men to withdraw out of range of the British, and passed on the coordinates of the British positions to be communicated to the Luftwaffe. He also needed to report back to the Divisional Commander what they had discovered.

    Major Holmes had considered moving his three other tanks forward to push the Germans back further, but the arrival of the Luftwaffe complicated that decision. The chance of them hitting a moving target was minimal, but hitting a completely concealed target was even less likely. The British troops endured the aerial assault in their slit trenches and other dugouts. A few more casualties were taken, and one of the company vehicles was destroyed. When the Luftwaffe had gone, it was discovered that the German reconnaissance troops had also withdrawn. Later in the day a patrol recovered the bodies of the dead British troops from the first confrontation. They, along the dead and wounded Germans, were carried back to be dealt with by the Medical Corps detachment. The German vehicles were searched for any useful intelligence, then dragged off out of the way.

    With a reasonable chance that some Germans had been left behind to keep an eye on the British position, the Royal Engineers waited to after dark to move up to re-lay the minefield and set up some more booby traps. The advantage of the fast defeat of the Italian army meant that there was no shortage of explosives and mines to be used in great quantities.
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    26 March 1941. Marada. Libya.
  • 26 March 1941. Marada. Libya.

    Lieutenant Peter Allsup, OC 2 Troop, A Squadron, 3rd Sharpshooters watched the approaching dust cloud with interest. Since the attack on Ras el Ali, the expectation of a German approach to the oasis had been heightened. The small garrison force had been on alert, as normal, but a Royal Dragoon patrol had spotted the approaching Germans and radioed a warning.

    The garrison, a Company of infantry, a battery each of field guns and anti-tank guns, a troop of Valiant I* tanks, and various support troops, wouldn’t be able to put up much of defence against a full assault, but was considered strong enough to see off anything short of an extremely strong reconnaissance force. Radio communications with the main positions at the coast were adequate, and if the enemy really wanted to take and hold the oasis, then they would set off a tripwire to alert XIII Corps.

    Allsup had positioned his three tanks, Achilles, Apollo and Adonis, in hull down positions that were well camouflaged. The problem of keeping the size of the garrison from the Luftwaffe’s reconnaissance efforts was a constant worry. The Sharpshooters’ Troop Leader had picked a position on the flank of the oasis defences, giving him a good position to roll up on the flank of an attacking force, or making it difficult for them to get into the rear of the position.

    It wasn’t entirely clear from his view of the approaching force what it consisted of, but he certainly was aware that there appeared to be tracked as well as wheeled vehicles. The information that had been circulated from the examination of the captured German vehicles after Dunkirk, meant that Allsup had a fair idea of what to expect. If this was a reconnaissance in force, there were probably some Panzer IIs, which he knew his 2-pdr guns would be well capable of dealing with. There was a lot of speculation that that after the fighting in France and Belgium, the Germans would probably add more armour to their tanks. That was something he expected to discover shortly.

    The standing orders for the garrison was to allow the enemy to approach to within rifle range before opening fire. Allsup had told his other two tank commanders to remain concealed for as long as possible. He wanted the presence of his troop of tanks to be a nasty surprise, to further complicate the German response to the oasis being defended. What surprised him was that the dust cloud suggested that this was a larger force than he had suspected. It began to look as if the there were three parallel columns, which would probably mean that they intended to attack from three sides. If so, this was going to be a lot more interesting that Allsup really wanted it to be. To complicate matters even further, the drone of aircraft could be heard. It seemed that the Luftwaffe were on hand to support the ground forces.

    A dozen Stukas plastered the oasis for a good five minutes, the scream of their sirens adding to the terror of being bombed. The garrison only had Bren guns as air defence, and the men firing them believed they’d managed to hit a couple of Stukas, but all the German aircraft flew off, apparently undamaged. While the air raid had been going on, the three approaching columns had indeed separated out and where obviously attempting to hit the oasis from a number of directions.

    Allsup’s tanks had survived the bombing raid, though there had been a couple of near misses which had rocked the tanks and blown off the camouflage netting. Over the radio net, it seemed that at least a couple of the guns, both field and anti-tank had been put of action, and Allsup could see that one of the storage dumps had been hit and was burning furiously, which probably meant that at least some of the spare petrol was gone.

    The Royal Engineers had laid some marked minefields in the hope of channelling an attacking force into pre-set fire zones. While this was partially successful, the British garrison was still trying to recover from the air attack when the first elements of the German assault began their attack. With the range decreasing fast, Allsup ordered his troop of tanks to open fire on the column which was coming directly towards the oasis, which he could now see the first element consisted primarily of some Panzer IIs and half-tracks. Only one of the three British tanks scored a hit on the first volley. A Panzer II had been struck on the engine deck, bringing it to a complete stop. The same gunner in Adonis hit the same tank in the side of the turret, before changing target. Allsup's own gunner managed a hit on his second try putting a round into the running gear of a second Panzer II, slewing off the track and spinning it round, where he was able to put a second shot through the driver’s position.

    The gunner in Apollo finally managed to hit with his third attempt, having resorted to using the co-axial machine gun on a passing half-track, stitching rounds all along its flank. The ambush having been launched, Allsup wanted to try to get another few shots off before moving the tanks out of the hull down position, a decision which caused the death of the crew of Adonis. As it brewed up, Allsup recognised the presence of some bigger tanks which were following the Panzer IIs. Calling his gunner to change target to the new threat he also ordered the driver to move, while trying not to let his voice betray his panic too much. He concentrated on the new threat, it looked like pictures of the Panzer III but seemed to have a longer gun. While his Achilles, and the sergeant commanding Apollo, moved out of their positions it became a gun fight between the two British tanks and four German tanks. The front glacis of his tank saved his crew’s lives as a German shell ricocheted off it, and Allsup heard his gunner curse that it looked like he had hit the Panzer without penetrating.

    The tanks began a dance to be able to avoid being hit, while hitting the enemy in a vulnerable spot. The gunner in Apollo looked as if he had got his act together and scored a disabling hit on one of the German tanks. His own gunner’s cry of delight noted that his second hit on his target had penetrated the enemy. The noise inside the turret was deafening, it seemed a Panzer II was thumping away with its cannon, while not penetrating at the moment, it could well damage something important. Allsup had some vague memory of a lecture about how the Panzers had overwhelmed the French tanks last May with this kind of fast paced manoeuvrability. There was nothing for it, but to knock out the larger Panzers with the long guns, which were an obvious threat, then the lighter tanks could be dealt with, if he was still alive.

    As Apollo’s crew bailed out of their tank, Allsup could see the German machine guns cutting them down before they got to safety. He was on his own now, but as far as he could see there was only the one Panzer III left, something had obviously got the other one. The driver was warning him that the engine was overheating, maybe something had penetrated the engine compartment after all. The gunner and loader had been working together brilliantly, and again, just after the cry of ‘away’, the gunner shouted ‘gotcha!’ The last of the Panzer IIIs was burning. Allsup had been watching where the Panzer IIs were, and immediately called the next target. As the turret turned, Allsup could smell something burning, there was something of a haze building up in the turret, and he ordered the driver to halt. The 2-pdr could do its job, even at a distance. As the gunner engaged, the loader was working a fire extinguisher at whatever it was that was alight, so Allsup pulled a couple of rounds from the ready locker and reloaded when the gun barked. The driver had shut the engine down, which cut off power to the turret, but a quick glance around his viewing slits Allsup realised that the Panzers he could see were all stopped too. The loader told him the fire was out, and was back at his station.

    As he opened the top hatch and drunk in the fresh air, he could see that the rear of the tank had been chewed up by the cannon fire, it looked like the exhausts and cooling intakes had been shot away. The sound of fighting from the oasis continued but he and his crew were now at a distance and isolated. With the engine dead, so was the radio. It was something that had been noted previously that the tank could do with some kind of extra source of electricity for the radio and turret traverse when the engine was off. His three tanks had taken on eight German Panzers, four each of the Panzer IIs and IIIs. He ordered the crew to bail out of the tank, and head back on foot to their original position. Depending on what was happening with the rest of the garrison, they would have to see what they would do next. As they passed the wreck of Apollo he found two of the crew wounded, and sorted out a makeshift stretcher to carry the gunner whose wounds were worst, the other man, the loader, was able to hobble on one leg supported his own loader. The tank commander had been riddled with bullets, and the driver was only halfway out of the hatch before he’d been gunned down.

    When they got back to where Adonis was blazing, ammunition cooking off inside it, he took the men a bit further, back towards the oasis, where the sound of fighting seemed to have died down. He was quite convinced that he was about to go ‘into the bag’, if he wasn’t cut down in cold blood. But as he and his men approached the oasis defences, he found himself challenged by a very Cockney accent. Having given the appropriate reply a couple of stretcher bearers soon arrived to carry off the injured gunner.

    The two loaders carried on towards the aid post while Allsup went looking for the HQ. He found Captain Spencer of the infantry, bandaged heavily, along with the Lieutenant in charge of the Royal Artillery battery. The two columns that had attacked either side of the oasis had consisted only of a company of infantry in trucks. The main force was that which Allsup had engaged, eight tanks and four half-tracks. While the Valiant I*s had taken on the tanks, the anti-tank gunners and one of the 25-pdrs firing over open sights had done for the rest of the armoured element. The German infantry attacking from the south had got themselves tangled up in a minefield, allowing Spencer to focus most of his force on the attack from the north, then back onto the Germans in the minefield. The garrison had suffered greatly, but Spencer had been able to get through to the coast and let them know they needed reinforcements. Allsup reported that all three of his tanks were out of action, his own tank might be repairable, but would probably need a proper workshop job. He suggested to Spencer to ask the reinforcements to send up an intelligence officer, and possibly a tank transporter. He wanted to go and have a look at the German tanks himself, but the fact they were up-gunned, and up-armoured needed to be known immediately and investigated properly.
     
    29 March 1941. Benghazi, Libya.
  • 29 March 1941. Benghazi, Libya.

    The German reconnaissance in force at Ras el Ali and the attack on the oasis at Marada focused the minds of XIII Corps. General O’Connor had still been thinking of attempting the planned limited advance starting on 1 April, even if it was just the fifty miles to Nofilia. He was tempted to aim for Sirte, just over 170 miles from his main position, and was hopeful that it might be possible, but would be happy with Nofilia. The slow build-up of supplies had continued, even if most everything else was still crossing the sea to Greece. O’Connor judged that the arrival of the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade at Marsa al Brega was the final component of his plan.

    He wanted the Indian Brigade and one of the Cruiser Tank Regiments to advance inland through the desert, parallel to the coastal road. The 16th Infantry Brigade, with the other two Cruiser Tank Regiments would advance straight up the road. The Australian 24th Brigade was moving up to replace the British infantry battalions, and the Valiant I Infantry Tanks of 40th Bn RTR would remain in place at El Agheila as a fall back position in case anything went wrong. Otherwise, they would move forward to wherever the next line was to be held, until the next attack could be mounted.

    Two Infantry Brigades and one Armoured Brigade was the equivalent of a Division, which O’Connor considered just about adequate for the job. He had managed to put together enough motor transport for it, helped enormously by the Indian’s coming fully equipped with their own. This left some of Morshead’s Australians short, but not completely immobile. O’Connor would have preferred if he had one Division going along the coast road and another through the desert, but he didn’t have the men, stores, or the transport. As before the 16th Infantry Brigade would engage any enemy forces, and if stuck, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade would come from the south and get in behind the enemy positions.

    The reconnaissance efforts of the Royal Dragoons had been splendid, along with whatever the RAF had been able to do, shorthanded as they were. The probes by the Germans had seemed to convince them that the British positions were too strong to be taken easily. The Dragoons had noted that the Germans and Italians seemed to be using Sirte as their main forward base, and were digging in there. O’Connor believed that if he could hit them there before they were too well established, it would keep them off balance. He would need to pause again for some time to allow supplies to be moved forward before he could try for Buerat.

    The one thing that bothered the British General was the lack of air support. Air Marshall Longmore had had to commit the vast majority of his force to Greece, leaving the numbers of squadrons available to support O’Connor too few. Likewise, the Royal Navy were fully committed to Operation Lustre, and so O’Connor wouldn’t have the inshore squadron to support the movement along the coast. The inshore squadron was much weakened with HMS Terror being severely damaged and under repair at Alexandria. With the Luftwaffe having air superiority for the most part, the advancing forces would be at a great disadvantage. All his pleas to General Wavell for more air support had been met with the Commander-in-Chief wishing he could help, and sending more signals to London outlining the problems, but able to promise nothing.

    There was progress on getting the new American-built Kittyhawks ready for delivery to Egypt, but O’Connor really didn’t want to wait that long. General Wavell had flown to Benghazi and met with O’Connor and his senior officers to go over the plan, before giving the final go-ahead. Knowing that it couldn’t be long before the Germans moved on Greece, and convinced that the result of the German probes at Ras el Ali and Marada would see them digging in rather than attacking, Wavell felt it would be better to postpone O’Connor’s attack. In another month, one of the Indian Divisions would have arrived back from East Africa, and the big convoy with the tanks for 7th Armoured Division would have arrived from England with more men and material. The situation for the RAF would also hopefully have improved. Holding where they were for another four weeks wasn’t what O’Connor wanted to hear, but Wavell believed giving 22nd Armoured Brigade, 16th Infantry Brigade and 3rd Indian Motor Brigade time to exercise together, while the Australians held the front line, would be beneficial in the long term.

    It was Air Marshall Longmore’s promise that come the beginning of May, he would be able to provide O’Connor with the same level of support he’d enjoyed when destroying the Italian army, that convinced O’Connor to agree with Wavell’s plan. In the meantime, O’Connor could continue to amass supplies, prepare to receive an Indian Infantry Division, and hopefully, the re-equipped 7th Armoured Division into XIII Corps, and plan that the attack at the beginning May would aim at least as far as Buerat.
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    2 April 1941. Suda Bay, Crete.
  • 2 April 1941. Suda Bay, Crete.

    The men of the 51st Bn RTR had been reunited after their various efforts partly in East Africa and recently at Giarabub. The A11 tanks had served the army well, but they had obviously been superseded by the Valiant I Infantry Tank. However, there were still enough to fully equip one Squadron, and the 51st Bn RTR had ‘acquired’ from 7th Armoured Division enough Mark VI Light Tanks, A9 and A10s, that weren’t completely ready for the knacker’s yard, to bring them up to strength. When 1st Armoured Brigade had sailed for Greece, there had been talk of sending the 51st Bn RTR to support the 2nd New Zealand Division, the work at Giarabub had cemented some ties between the two units. The problem was that, even although the tanks were still ‘runners’, they were getting close to being worn out, and there wasn’t a big stock of spare parts to keep them going.

    When HMS York and the other ships in Suda Bay had been attacked on 26 March, some more thought had been given to increasing the protection of the island of Crete, and particularly of the new airfields being created. There was also the question of the planned attack on Rhodes, which would benefit from having some tanks as part of the invading force. Someone on Wavell’s Staff had the idea of sending the 51st Bn RTR to Crete, firstly to strengthen the garrison there, and have them prepared to take part in the invasion of Rhodes. When the idea had been discussed, General Wilson in Athens, when approached about it, had agreed that strengthening Crete was no bad thing.

    The plan was for the Royal Marines Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation to be responsible for Suda Bay, and it was due to arrive in mid-April on the convoy coming from Britain. Until it did, it was clear from the Italian attack, that the defences of Suda Bay needed to be strengthened. Since the men and tanks of 51st Bn RTR were something of an oddity, sending them off to Crete would at least put them to some kind of use. Someone had suggested sending off a Squadron or even a couple of Troops to Cyprus, but this was quashed, but the idea would be revisited if the Germans invaded Turkey.

    Getting the tanks from the ship on which they had been carried was originally planned to happen in the main port of Heraklion, but the commander of the 51st Bn RTR worried that all his tanks might not make it all the way to Suda Bay and the airfield at Maleme, a drive of the best part of 90 miles over poor roads. Instead, they had arrived in Suda Bay, where they were swung out onto a barge, then brought ashore. Once the last tank had reached dry land, the job wasn’t yet done. The Battalion’s Light Aid Detachment needed to be unloaded, with fuel, spares and ammunition.

    Brigadier Ord Tidbury, in his dual role of Commander of CreForce, and Commanding Officer of 14th Infantry Brigade, (which made up the lions share of the army’s garrison on Crete), invited Lt-Col Eric Clarke, CO 51st Bn RTR, to come and have a chat about how best to make use of the tanks. Like most of the infantry formations in the Middle East, 14th Infantry Brigade were poorly supplied with Motor Transport. Three Battalions were far too few for the job of protecting the island, and without enough transport, and the unbelievably poor road network, each Battalion were guarding a particular area, but unable to support one another. When Lt-Col Clarke gave his new Commanding Officer his report on the condition of his Battalion, Tidbury was underwhelmed. His hope had been to have the tanks act as a mobile reserve, able to move from one threat to another, at least more rapidly than his infantry.

    Clarke understood Tidbury’s frustration, but suggested that he could put together one Squadron of fifteen tanks, along with his HQ Squadron, that were the best runners. Tidbury could use this as the basis for a counterattacking force, if he got any more troops and transport these could be added to it. Clarke then suggested that each of the three airfields should have five of the A11s permanently on station. While their mobility was limited, if they were simply protecting a fixed installation, that wouldn’t handicap them too much. Lastly, the third Squadron could be broken up, with each Infantry Battalion having some tanks on hand in their immediate areas. Working with the Carrier Platoons, it would give each of the Battalion Commanders a decent mobile capacity within their sectors. Tidbury agreed that this would provide a good use for the tanks, all things considered. He noted that having tanks with their radios working would actually enhance the communications, something he was constantly worried about.

    With this agreed, Clarke went back to his newly established HQ, and tried to sort out just how exactly they would sort out this plan. The idea of getting some of the tanks to Heraklion would be a difficult feat, unless they could be put back on the ship and sail up the coast. There was a reasonable commercial port there, which would cope with unloading the tanks. It would be inconvenient and time consuming, but that was why they’d been shipped to Suda Bay in the first place. Clarke was sorry that he hadn’t had his chat with Tidbury before the unloading had been finished. B Squadron’s OC was given the responsibility for all the tanks going back to Heraklion. A Squadron would take over the best of the A9 and A10 tanks and be based at CreForce HQ, while C Squadron’s OC, whose A11s would be split up between the airfields, would be based at Retimno, and have responsibility for all the tanks in that sector. It wasn’t a great plan, but it would have to do in the meantime.
     
    5-6 April 1941. Piraeus, Greece.
  • 5-6 April 1941. Piraeus, Greece.

    The Royal Engineers always had a schizophrenic role in war. Primarily, they were builders and creators, but their secondary task was preparing to blow things up. The New Zealanders, and increasing numbers of Australians, were taking up positions on the Aliakmon Line. The Royal Engineers had been working flat out trying to improve the communications between the docks and the front line. However, Major Albert Jones of the Corps of Royal Engineers and his unit had been given the task of preparing to blow things up. To do so, they needed TNT, and SS Clan Fraser had docked the day before with 250 tons of explosives in its hold. The Major needed it, and wanted it as quickly as possible.

    The Master of the ship, Mr Giles, had tried to explain that to get the explosives out of the hold, much of the rest of the cargo would need to be removed first. Lieutenant Frederick Wynne, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, was the British officer in charge of overseeing the unloading of the ship, which as an ammunition ship, had the highest priority. When Major Jones explained his predicament, Wynne wasn’t moved, there was a way of doing things and it was his job to make sure they were done right. When Major Jones discovered that Wynne wasn’t particularly bothered about him pulling rank, he disappeared for a few hours, leaving Wynne thinking he had been left in peace to get on with his job.

    Four hours later, Jones reappeared with a signed letter from General Wilson himself, giving the Royal Engineers absolute priority for getting the TNT off the ship and onto the waiting lorries to be moved up to their forward ammunition dump. To expedite this order, Jones not only had the men of his own Field Squadron, but had brought along a Pioneer Corps Company to get the explosives off the ship. Lieutenant Wynne knew when to back down, and all the rest of that day, and throughout the night, SS Clan Fraser was crawling with soldiers and local dockers to clear off the cargo that was preventing them access to the explosives. The next morning, with the hold now able to be accessed, box after box of TNT was carefully moved from the ship and loaded onto the Royal Engineer’s and RASC lorries. News that the Germans had invaded Yugoslavia and Northern Greece gave added impetus to the work. Once loaded the lorries carried away their dangerous cargo and made their way to the ammunition dump where the work of planned demolitions could begin in earnest.

    Behind them, Lieutenant Wynne was trying to sort out the muddle they had left. Before long, he had someone from the Royal Artillery looking for 25-pdr shells and fuzes. Then a couple of New Zealanders with a list as long as your arm for pretty much everything they could get their hands on. The Quartermaster from the Royal Armoured Corps descended on him looking for their specialised MG ammunition. With everything a guddle after the previous night, Wynne was rapidly losing his patience. It was going to be another long day.
     
    9 April 1941. Cairo, Egypt.
  • 9 April 1941. Cairo, Egypt.

    Although the invasion had only begun a few days before, to General Wavell it was already clear that the Greeks were doomed. Despite their excellent efforts at the Metaxas Line, the chances of holding back the Germans at the Aliakmon Line were diminishing by the minute. The news that the German mountain troops had managed to get behind the Greek Line was an obvious sign that the Greek’s ability to resist would be undermined. This, with the news from Yugoslavia that the Germans had already taken Skopje, hopes that the Yugoslav army would hold up the German invaders for any length of time seemed to be fading.

    Generals Wilson, Blamey and Freyberg were pushing as hard as they could to get their units into position, but it was becoming clear that some of the New Zealanders and nearly all the Australians weren’t going to have enough time to settle themselves in good defensive positions before they were confronted by the German advance. The A13 tanks of the 4th Hussars were working between the Aliakmon Line and the Axios River in conjunction with the Greeks, and were tasked with slowing the German advance to the Aliakmon Line as much as possible. The previous day they had supervised the destruction of bridges over the Axios River. The reports mentioned some long-ranged sniping by the British tanks, but no clear outcomes were observed. The tanks were supporting the Greek 19th Division (barely a Brigade by British standards), but it was feared that the German advance towards Salonika would have little or nothing in its way to stop it. Wavell was reassured that the 4th Hussars had clear orders to fall back to the Aliakmon Line rather than get involved in any futile effort to prop up a Greek failure.

    General Wilson had already asked General Blamey to hold the Australian Brigades, not yet in position on the Aliakmon Line at the Servia Pass. This bent the planned Aliakmon Line out of shape, but provided some degree of protection from a thrust down the Monastir gap. The other two tank regiments of 1st Armoured Brigade (1st Kings Dragoon Guards, 3rd Hussars), along with the other forces working around Vevi were to play a similar role of trying to blunt a German attack from that direction. A reconnaissance force had reported that there was a build up of German tanks on the north side of the River Crna, north of Monastir. The bridge there had been destroyed, but it couldn’t be long before the Germans would resume their advance. Brigadier Charrington had the route the Germans were likely to take well reconnoitred, and had set the 3rd Hussars, with elements of 2nd Support Group, the task of slowing the German advance, withdrawing back to the main positions at Vevi. General Blamey had ordered the incomplete Australian 19th Brigade to reinforce this position, but only the 2/4th Battalion were in position, the 2/8th Battalion were still arriving.

    General Wavell didn’t want to second guess Wilson, but he wondered if it would be better for those forces not yet in their designated positions to begin fortifying the narrower positions at Thermopylae. Air Chief Marshall Longmore pointed out that holding a line at Thermopylae, the RAF would lose most of its airfields in the Plain of Thessaly. Wavell agreed that this would be a significant problem, but already the RAF was struggling to keep any kind of umbrella over the lines of communications. Wavell suggested that Longmore began to look seriously at his plans for withdrawing the bulk of his command to Crete, and possibly back to Egypt. One of the staff remarked that it would be wise to prepare demolitions so prevent the Luftwaffe from using them too quickly once they were overrun. This was noted to be passed on the RAF Commander in Athens.

    There were obviously problems of communication in Greece, and Wavell was disturbed at the way General Wilson was organising things. He judged it would be better if Wilson stayed back in Athens, with the Air Force and Naval Commanders in a joint headquarters, leaving Blamey as 1st Australian Corps Commander to command the units of W Force. Instead, Wilson had split his HQ into two, and more often than not he was incommunicado because of failures in the Signals Corps capacity to deal with multiple Headquarters. This also impacted on the time it took for the British and Greeks to communicate with each other, and there was a dearth of translators. The British officers were using their best public-school French to try to bridge the language gap, a recipe for disaster. It also seemed to Wavell that Wilson and Blamey could be at cross purposes, especially if Wilson agreed to change things to suit the Greek Army without consulting Blamey.

    Wavell also noted that the Luftwaffe raid on Piraeus the previous night, which had sunk some ships, but thankfully not affected the port’s capacity too much, would likely be repeated. He was conscious that more of Blamey’s Australians (four Infantry Battalions and one Artillery Field Regiment) and their equipment had just put to sea from Alexandria that morning, and he had expressed the view that these would be better sent to Crete, rather than Greece. The chances of holding a position on mainland Greece, with the Greek army already exhausted was too much to ask the Australians and New Zealanders alone. Re-routing the last of the 6th Australian Division would leave Blamey shorthanded, but the chances were that they would otherwise be fed piecemeal into the ongoing battle. Strengthening the British 14th Brigade in Crete with a reinforced Brigade of seasoned Australians might be a better use for them.

    When this idea had been communicated to General Blamey, along with the information that due to shipping problems, the 7th Australian Division and the Polish Brigade were being held back in Egypt, it had left the Australian General furious. In his cable to Wavell, he noted that this decision would put the 6th Australian and 2nd New Zealand Divisions in grave peril. The task given to him, as Corps Commander, would barely be achievable, even with if he had a full Corps of troops. To have just five Infantry Brigades and one Armoured Brigade to attempt to do the job was impossible. Wavell relented and the rest of the Australian battalions were routed to Pireaus rather than Crete. The Polish Independent Brigade Group was currently in Haifa, awaiting transport to Greece. One of staff suggested sending this unit to Crete, if Wavell wanted to reinforce that island. That would give CreForce two Brigades, without giving General Blamey the extra headache of another language barrier. It was clear that this would depend on the Royal Navy and their timetable, but Wavell agreed.

    The 7th Australian Division, like the 9th in Cyrenaica, were still short of equipment, training and transport. Wavell felt that if he sent the whole 7th Australian Division to Greece, they would be in danger of hardly having arrived before it would be necessary to evacuate them. Wavell still was concerned with the German build up at Tripoli. Intelligence had confirmed that the German General commanding the ‘Afrika Korps’ was Erwin Rommel, formerly commander of 7th Panzer Division. There was a surprising number of clashes in the area between the British and Italian/German main positions, with mixed results. For the most part these were being described as ‘reconnaissance in force’ running into the British positions. Wavell had supposed that it would take time for the Germans to acclimatise and train in desert warfare, but it seemed that the new German commander wasn’t keen on sitting around waiting for something to happen. Therefore, Wavell wanted to keep the 7th Australian Division was part of his strategic reserve, until the 4th Indian Division arrived from Abyssinia and had time to rest and refit.

    General Hutchison reported on the timetable of the expected unloading from the convoy which was just beginning to arrive at Suez. There were enough Infantry Tanks to re-equip the 7th Armoured Division. The arrival of the 9th (Highland) Division to take over responsibility for the Canal Zone, would free up the newly reformed 22nd Guards Brigade and three more Regular Battalions to reform 23rd Brigade, these two would join 16th Brigade in a fully established 6th Infantry Division. This would give General O’Connor a full Regular British Infantry Division to be used offensively, along with 7th Armoured Division, even if it was equipped with Infantry Tanks. With the 9th Australian Division, an Armoured Brigade and the Indian Motorised Brigade, Wavell believed that O’Connor would have a strong enough force to finish the job.

    The three Landing Ship Infantry conversions, HMS Glengyle, Glenroy and Glenearn, with the Commando force under the command of Colonel Robert Laycock had arrived in the Great Bitter Lake. Wavell had earmarked these for another attempt at mounting an offensive with Rhodes as its main goal. The problem was that the Royal Navy was over-stretched already protecting the convoys to Greece, that getting Operation Cordite up and running would have to take a back seat for the moment. These three ships however would be handy, even if it was just to transport the Poles to Crete quickly. The Royal Navy’s representative took a note of it and agreed to look into it.

    Wavell could see that come May, General O’Connor should have everything he needed to knock the Italians and the Germans out of North Africa, whatever happened in Greece. However, things in Iraq were beginning to deteriorate, and the Vichy French in Syria were something of a distraction. If the situation in Iraq continued as it was, then he would need at least a Brigade, preferably from India rather than his own command, to keep a lid on it. The situation in East Africa continued to improve, with General Cunningham’s long march north from Kenya being something of a masterstroke. The sooner that was wrapped up the better. Having both the South African Division and the 5th Indian Division would give Wavell a degree of flexibility that he hadn’t had before.
     
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    11 April 1941. Florina Valley, Greece.
  • 11 April 1941. Florina Valley, Greece.

    The 3rd Hussars, (with elements of 2nd Support Group) had been in action for much of the day. The three Squadrons had been leapfrogging one another back from the Yugoslav/Greek border since the first Germans had appeared. It was only about fifteen miles from the abandoned border posts back to the main line that the Australian 19th Brigade and Kings Dragoon Guards were holding in the Klidi pass beyond Vevi.

    The British tank crews had had plenty of time to reconnoitre the area they would be working in. There were plenty of olive groves and a patchwork of fields and vineyards where the tanks could conceal themselves. The Royal Engineers had prepared demolitions and mines which added to the difficulty of the German advance. The A13 tanks’ 2-pdr gun and co-axial machine gun had proven itself effective against the spearhead of the German advance. Although a few British tanks and infantry had been lost, the Hussars were pleased with the way their delaying action was going.

    Behind them the Greeks, Australians and New Zealanders were setting themselves up along the Olympus/Aliakmon Line, improving their positions and preparing for the eventual onslaught that was coming. As had happened in France, the arrival of the Luftwaffe’s dive bombers had caused a degree of difficulty, but it was becoming clear that they weren’t the entirely formidable weapon of propaganda. While their presence and noise were debilitating, especially the first few times, in reality, the men had worked out that the odds of being struck by a bomb were low. The real problem was the interference with the work of the Royal Artillery further back, the Medium Regiment and one of the Field Regiments had suffered losses. The lack of integrated and mobile anti-aircraft guns was one of the big problems that still hadn’t been fixed. The men knew that the RAF had their work cut out further back protecting the Lines of Communication, so there was little or no possibility of air cover over the front line.

    The role that the 3rd Hussars were playing was something that the cavalry men knew well. Their job was to engage, make the Germans deploy, allowing the Royal Artillery observers to bring down fire on the German positions, then disengage and do it all again, trading ground for time. At first the British tank commanders couldn’t quite believe their luck. It seemed that the Germans in the vanguard of the attack were undisciplined or under-trained. They would drive up in their lorries, and debus in full view of the British. A good number of burning trucks and machine-gunned infantry seemed to have cured them of this habit as the day progressed. A couple of the Germans had been captured and they turned out to be from the ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’. By early evening two of the Hussars’ three Squadrons had passed through the Klidi pass back to Aymntaio where they could refuel, rearm and rest. The third squadron had a bit more difficulty in disengaging, and were in a running fight until, the anti-tank guns of the Australian 2/1st Anti-Tank Regiment were to cover the withdrawal through the pass. C Squadron arrived at Aymntaio short of half their number, but the German advanced units had suffered even more heavily.
     
    14 -15 April 1941. Amyntaio, Greece.
  • 14 -15 April 1941. Amyntaio, Greece.

    The 1st Kings Dragoon Guards had taken over the role played previously by the 3rd Hussars. The two Battalions of Australians had been successfully pulled out of their positions around Vevi in the early hours of 14 April. They had successfully repulsed a number of attacks the previous day, but had taken casualties, the 2/8th Battalion suffering worst, effectively losing a Company. The Greek Dodecanese Regiment and 21st Greek Regiments had also been withdrawn, with the help of the Australian Brigade’s transport. The 1st Rangers and the Dragoons, once more with elements of the 2nd Support Group, began just after dawn to engage elements of the German advance troops as they cleared their way through the cratered road and landslips caused by the liberal use of explosives by the Royal Engineers.

    The Australians had noted that among the German forces that they had engaged were ‘odd looking tanks’ and now the Dragoons managed to get a look at them too. The chassis looked very much like a Panzer III, but there was no turret, just the same kind of short barrelled gun normally seen on a Panzer IV. It was a relatively difficult shape for the British gunners to hit effectively, and it looked like the armour on it much have been thicker than the Panzer III, because the 2-pdr shells struggled to penetrate, except at fairly close range, or more easily from the side.

    The A13 tanks were vulnerable to German fire and the Dragoons knew it. As with the Hussars, the men of the Dragoons had familiarised themselves with the area between Klidi and Amyntaio, they only had six miles to pull back to a ridge that ran from Lake Vegorritis to marshland near Rodona. The 2/4th Australian Battalion had dug in along that ridge, and the three Artillery Regiments had deployed once again to support the Dragoons as they slowed the German advance. The Australian’s had kept their lorries close at hand, their role wasn’t to hold in place for too long, simply to allow the Dragoons and Rangers to have time to refuel and rearm at Lakkia. Once the tanks were again in contact, the Australians and artillery would leapfrog past the next position at Proasteion, where the 2/8th Battalion were currently preparing their positions.

    The forward element of 9th Panzer Division found the British tactics worrisome. There was a growing loss of mechanised and wheeled vehicles, and while most of these would be recovered and some repaired, it constantly blunted their efforts to make the kind of progress they wanted. They enjoyed some successes, the British Cruiser tanks were quite vulnerable even to the 37mm guns, but the British never stood firm to let the Germans get to grips with them. The British artillery seemed to be well prepared to fire on prearranged positions, and by the time the German artillery got into position, the British had moved again.

    Part of the job the Dragoons were trying to achieve was to buy time for the Greeks to reinforce the passes at Vlasti and Klesoura, which was where the Dodecanese Regiment had been lifted to support the rest of the Greek 20th Division. Once the British were back at Proasteion, then the route to the Klesoura pass would be open. During the night of 14/15 April, the Dragoons were given time to rest and regroup at Lakkia by the Australian Battalion, which withdrew in good order, before dawn on 15 April.

    The situation for both the British and Germans continued as it had the day before, the Dragoons attempting to ambush from concealed positions, pulling back behind the cover of the anti-tank battery and infantry, which then leapfrogged the tanks to the next position. The Luftwaffe put in a couple of appearances but made little impression on the British fighting withdrawal.

    The next test for the Royal Dragoon Guards came at Proasteion. The main position, a road through a steep gorge, manned primarily by the 2/8th Australian Battalion, came under fire in the late morning. The German 9th Panzer Division also attempted to make a flanking attack by sending some thirty tanks via the village of Asvestopetra towards Mavropigi, where the Dragoons were refuelling and rearming. As soon as B and C Squadrons were ready, they took up positions overlooking the village, finding whatever cover they could. Various support units in and near the Dragoon’s replenishment dump were quickly roped in to take up defensive positions, and were joined by a battery of 2-pdr guns of the 102nd Anti-Tank Regiment from the main defensive position.

    The main German attack was made with mostly Panzer IIs, with a some Panzer IIIs. The 2-pdr guns on the British A13 tanks dealt easily with the Panzer IIs, whose 20mm cannons had a limited capability against the tanks. The Panzer IIIs were the more dangerous foe, their 37mm gun well capable of penetrating the British armour. After the fall of France, most Panzer IIIs had an extra 30mm of armour plate welded onto the existing 30mm armour. This caused the British gunners some degree of difficulty, but between the hull down positions taken by the British tanks, and strength in numbers as the Panzer IIs were whittled down, the German tanks began to retreat as they found the British position too strong for them. The arrival of A Squadron, which managed to find the German flank, was the final straw. Five A13 tanks had been knocked out, for the loss of eighteen panzers. Once again, these disabled panzers would eventually be recovered and some repaired. The British tanks, where necessary, were completely destroyed by demolition charges, none of them were judged recoverable by the Light Aid Detachment.

    Brigadier Charrington, came forward to consult with Lt Colonel Donald McCorquodale, Officer Commanding the Kings Dragoon Guards, and Lt Colonel Mitchell of the Australian 2/8th Battalion. The situation was still fluid, but McCorquodale felt that his unit had given the German panzers a bloody nose, and they’d be much more careful pressing forward. Mitchell acknowledged that his men were exhausted, but were in good heart. Their position was secure enough, but he was conscious that the attack around the flank could have been disastrous. Charrington agreed, and was of a mind to pull the force back immediately. McCorquodale however believed that the Germans would probably have to spend the rest of the day licking their wounds and bringing up their artillery to have another attempt at forcing their way through the gorge. He suggested that the both his tanks and the elements of the 2nd Support Group would remain in place, and let the Australians begin to thin out their positions and be ready to withdraw under the cover of darkness. The Australians could then cross back over the river Aliakmon, and his own force would follow on, as they had been doing, leapfrogging back, to Kozani, where the 2/4th Battalion were preparing positions. With the need to give the Greeks as much time as possible, delaying the Germans for another day would benefit everyone. Brigadier Charrington agreed, but he emphasised the need for the Dragoons to get back across the river with enough time to blow the crossings.
    Greece1.gif

    The map is from the Australian official history found here, marked as dispositions on 10 April 1941.
    The Germans are still a day behind OTL schedule and the 2/8th Battalion are better off than they were OTL.
     
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