Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

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ClintHardware
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Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by ClintHardware » 23 Nov 2019 16:28

Major G.P.B. Roberts, G2 at 7th Armoured Division H.Q.
As soon as the small Operation Brevity was over, H.Q. 7th Armoured Division took over responsibility for the southern part of the front. As G2 I now of course found myself in the position of issuing instructions to brigades; so recently having been on the receiving end of this situation I well understood the problems with which brigades would be faced and was competent to deal with any belly-aching. But it was all fun; the Brigade Majors were all friends of mine and there was a lot of understanding all round.

Going backwards, however to Corps, things were rather different. Wavell was being pressed by Churchill to attack tomorrow; Lieutenant-General Beresford-Peirse, commanding the Western Desert Force was being pressed by Wavell; and our Major-General O’Moore-Creagh was being pressed by Lieutenant-General Beresford-Peirse. The only redeeming feature of this situation was that Lieutenant-Colonel John Harding was Brigadier General Staff to Beresford-Peirse and brought a realistic and moderating influence to bear whenever possible. The greatest problem was getting the tanks ready, and as far as 6th R.T.R. was concerned, getting to know a new tank.

Provisional dates to start an operation to be called BATTLEAXE came down from above; requests for further delay came up from below. A compromise was reached, but much nearer the earlier date. Suffice to say that 6th R.T.R. on collecting the new Crusaders off the boats found no tool and no hand-books; tools had to be scratched up from Ordnance and knowledge of the tank gained by experience. It was not surprising therefore that there were a large number of mechanical failures of this tank in BATTLEAXE, and as we had to retreat many repairable tanks were not recoverable. There was not even enough time for all guns to be tested, and owing to a shortage of wireless sets there was only one set per troop; this was almost certainly the reason for five tanks in 6th R.T.R. going quite ‘spare’ on one occasion never to be seen again.

The operation was to start, and did start on 14th June. For the first stage Major-General Creagh gave 7th Armoured Brigade the task of securing Hafid Ridge, just on the west side of the frontier wire and the Support Group was to protect the left and rear against a wide outflanking movement.

H.Q. 7th Armoured Division had moved on the 14th June further forward nearer the scene of operation. On the 15th, the day started misty and in places foggy. A Tac H.Q. was formed to keep up with the battle but bore little relation in composition to the Tac H.Q. of later years: it consisted of about a third of the Main H.Q. and led by the large ACV I, with Major-General Creagh, GSO1 (G1) and GSO2 (G2), then ACV II (Intelligence and Spare), then a small ACV as rear link to Corps, a number of liaison officers in scout cars or trucks, numerous signal vehicles and some supply lorries. In ACV I Major-General Creagh and the G1 sat mostly on the top with a map board between them, and I (as G2) sat inside, glued to the wireless.

The preliminary advance up to the frontier wire had no sooner started than the poor visibility started disorganizing things. The 11th Hussars who were in front and to the left of 2nd R.T.R., the leading armoured regiment, were reporting their leading squadron in a certain position; 7th Armoured Brigade doubted this, as 2nd R.T.R. had reported themselves in the same position. Noel Wall (7th Hussars) was Brigade Major 7th Armoured Brigade and was a particular friend of mine. I urged him to try to sort this little problem out, as if we were at sixes and sevens regarding locations before any fighting had begun we were going to be in real trouble later.

At about 1000 hours the Brigade Major 7th Armoured Brigade reported that Hafid Ridge was taken; I said ‘Are you sure?’ and he replied, ‘Yes Hafid Ridge is well and truly ours’.

I reported this to Major-General Creagh, but said I was checking with 11th Hussars. The 11th Hussars did not agree as they maintained that their leading squadron had just been heavily fired on from Hafid Ridge and the squadron commander was trying to contact the CO of 2 RTR. Visibility was now improving and although we never really decided which ridge was Hafid, we in future accepted that the ridge occupied by the enemy was that ridge.

From now on until the late afternoon very little happened. Later in the morning the squadron of 2nd R.T.R. put in an attack on Hafid Ridge supported by a RHA battery, but had to withdraw as they were faced with further guns in depth and could not remain in such an isolated position. Around 1400 hours Rikki Richards (G1) was pressing Major-General Creagh to press Brigadier Hugh Russell (commanding 7th Armoured Brigade) to do something; but Major-General Creagh would not have him harassed.

Our Tac H.Q. sat where it was; we couldn’t see any bit of the battle and nothing happened until 1730 hours Why Major-General Creagh did not go forward and see for himself I do not know.

Then as a result of a report that the enemy were withdrawing from the Hafid Ridge, 6th R.T.R. was launched to attack it. We waited anxiously in the ACV I to hear the result, but it was sometime before we could get any information. At last we knew that 6th R.T.R. had had to withdraw after heavy casualties. The fact was that the German withdrawal was a trap; many anti-tank guns had been left in concealed position around knocked-out vehicles and held their fire until the tanks were within ‘killing’ distance and quickly knocked out eleven, with others disabled. I heard afterwards from James Pink, Adjutant of 6th R.T.R. and doing rear-link in a separate tank that the CO, Len Harland, had retired so fast that he was out of touch with him, which accounted for the long delay in obtaining information.

That evening Major Cully Scoones, second-in-command, took over the regiment. Before this all took place, two troops of the 11th Hussars had worked around to the west of the Hafid position. Why 7th Armoured Brigade did not take advantage of this situation by sending 6th R.T.R. round this flank is difficult to understand. Of course the brigade was handicapped by having only two armored regiments, but 2nd R.T.R. could well have held the front defensively while 6th R.T.R. attacked from the flank.

However, just before dusk some 30 to 40 enemy tanks were reported coming down from the north-west, from Sidi Azeiz. Our tanks withdrew after some long range firing to leaguer areas east of the frontier wire. Tank strengths were down to about 28 and 20 in 2nd and 6th R.T.R. respectively.

Meanwhile, on this first day, Capuzzo had been captured, though Halfaya was still holding out. In this operation 4th Armoured Brigade had suffered fairly heavy casualties and were down to about the same strength as 7th Armoured Brigade, twenty tanks in each regiment.

Major-General Creagh’s plan for the next day was based on the original arrangement that after the initial assault by 4th Indian Division, 4th Armoured Brigade would revert to 7th Armoured Division. And so for 16th June, the plan was that 4th Armoured Brigade would attack Hafid Ridge with artillery support while 7th Armoured Brigade, accompanied by the Support Group, would attack and smash the outflanking move the enemy seemed to be attempting round Sidi Omar.

Unfortunately, while 4th Armoured Brigade was organizing itself to carry out this task, an enemy attack was launched by 15th Panzer Division on Capuzzo and either side of it. This led Major-General Messervy to tell Major-General Creagh that he could not release 4th Armoured Brigade. This was a sad blow to us, and very irritating; we felt that 4th Armoured Brigade had been lent to 4th Indian Division to see them on to their objective and now this had been done the brigade would be best employed in a concentrated tank battle, while 4th Indian Division defended itself with its guns.

Clearly it was a Corps decision, and Major-General Creagh was anxious to get in touch with the Corps Commander. But word came from the rear-link that they could not contact Corps. I was sent over from ACV I to investigate. No, not a titter from Corps, by voice or by Morse key. Is it our transmitter? This was tested and found in working order. Corps H.Q. was a very long way back; communication had not been too good yesterday but Corps had not sent out a ‘step-up’ set in order to relay messages and now radio conditions were worse and nothing could be heard. Of course we could send a set back to relay, but by the time the wireless vehicle had got into position 4th Armoured Brigade would be fully committed to 4th Armoured Division’s plans. So we, perforce, had to give up the idea of getting back 4th Armoured Brigade and get on with what we had; but not without cursing Beresford-Peirse for letting himself get out of touch in what was very much a corps battle.

Meanwhile the German 5th Light Division was thwarted by 7th Armoured Brigade, and at the same time the attack launched by 15. Panzer Division on Capuzzo had been repulsed. But in holding off the enemy and through mechanical failure, particularly with the Crusaders of 6th R.T.R., tank strength was now lower: 6th R.T.R. ten 2nd R.T.R. fifteen.

A further attempt was made by the enemy at about 1900 hours to renew this outflanking movement. A slow withdrawal by 7th Armoured Brigade enabled this movement to be held, but just before dark the CO of 2nd R.T.R. was wounded and the rear link tank was disabled and so control was temporarily lost.

Because of this enemy out-flanking movement, our H.Q. moved back some twenty miles; the artillery was moved back so that it would not be cut off. In view of our tank strength and the danger of the outflanking movement cutting off 4th Indian Division it was again agreed that 4th Armoured Brigade would come under the command of 7th Armoured Division for concerted armoured action on the following day.

However, at dawn the next day there was great activity by the enemy opposite the 4th Indian Division in the Capuzzo area. Major-General Messervy was quite sure there was going to be another attack by 15th Panzer Division. No, he was sorry but he couldn’t possibly let 4th Armoured Brigade go. As the morning wore on and there was no attack on 4th Indian Division Major-General Creagh thought he would like another try made to enable him to speak to the Corps Commander. We were now some 25 miles nearer Corps H.Q.; there was no difficulty. Yes, the Corps Commander would come up to see us and would bring another important person with him.

An hour later, under cover of some Hurricanes, the Lysander arrived with Beresford-Peirse and Wavell. They came into ACV I; I made myself as scarce as possible, just hanging on to a long lead from the wireless set and keeping the earphones round my neck so I could hear what was being said by the various commanders and also hear if there was a call on the wireless. Major-General Creagh gave General Wavell the story and up to date situation. Rikki filled in with a few details. The great men said little though Wavell did grunt a few times, and then at the end said, ‘Well you’ve got a lot 25-Pounders, if you can’t stop them I don’t know who can.’ He and Beresford-Peirse then boarded their Lysander and flew away.

We returned to ACV I and looked at one another. What does one do now? It was a very unhelpful meeting. In a history of 7th Armoured Division called The Desert Rats written by Gerald Verney (a Guardsman who commanded the division for a month in Europe) he states ‘Having studied the situation the Commander-in-Chief gave the order to withdraw….’ That is just not true: no order was given, nor suggestions made, nor even helpful advice tendered. However, the withdrawal went ahead and part of 4th Indian Division just avoided being cut off largely due to a gallant counter-attack by 4th R.T.R. in their Matildas, though the regiment was down to fifteen tanks.

When it was seen that the Germans were going to make no further advance, H.Q. 7th Armoured Division withdrew leaving the Support Group under 4th Indian Division. The armour clearly needed an opportunity to re-organise. It had been a disappointing battle
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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by John Hilly » 24 Nov 2019 15:09

Interesting inside story. Thanks!
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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by MarkN » 24 Nov 2019 17:38

Thanks for taking the time to post that. Interesting read from a 'fly on the wall' highlighting just how poor British effort was against the Germans in respect of both tactical thinking and commanders' ability. The British held all the aces in BATTLEAXE - and managed to squander the lot.

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by ClintHardware » 25 Nov 2019 11:17

MarkN wrote:
24 Nov 2019 17:38
Thanks for taking the time to post that. Interesting read from a 'fly on the wall' highlighting just how poor British effort was against the Germans in respect of both tactical thinking and commanders' ability. The British held all the aces in BATTLEAXE - and managed to squander the lot.
Thank you for your thank you.

Having put over 400 pages of text together on BATTLEAXE I don't agree with your above statement. However, would you like to debate your points here? I promise not be be sarcastic.

Can you please assist by giving one point to begin with because I don't have time to reply to more than one at a time.

Thanks
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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by MarkN » 25 Nov 2019 15:48

ClintHardware wrote:
25 Nov 2019 11:17
MarkN wrote:
24 Nov 2019 17:38
Thanks for taking the time to post that. Interesting read from a 'fly on the wall' highlighting just how poor British effort was against the Germans in respect of both tactical thinking and commanders' ability. The British held all the aces in BATTLEAXE - and managed to squander the lot.
Thank you for your thank you.

Having put over 400 pages of text together on BATTLEAXE I don't agree with your above statement. However, would you like to debate your points here? I promise not be be sarcastic.

Can you please assist by giving one point to begin with because I don't have time to reply to more than one at a time.
I don't understand what you are asking for.

"Interesting read from a 'fly on the wall' highlighting just how poor British effort was against the Germans in respect of both tactical thinking and commanders' ability." Roberts' words that you posted above are an indictment of the British tactics and British commanders. I believe that is self-evident. Do you wish to have a discussion about whether his words are true and accurate?

"The British held all the aces in BATTLEAXE - and managed to squander the lot." This is my commentary, as opposed to Roberts'. Do you wish to have a discussion about why l consider the British to have held all the aces and/or a discussion about whether BATTLEAXE was a failure?

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by Urmel » 25 Nov 2019 19:03

Presume that’s ‘Pip’ Roberts, later GOC 11 Armoured?
The enemy had superiority in numbers, his tanks were more heavily armoured, they had larger calibre guns with nearly twice the effective range of ours, and their telescopes were superior. 5 RTR 19/11/41

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by ClintHardware » 25 Nov 2019 21:48

Mark: No but you do and that is why you made a simple sweeping statement.
Urmel: Yes
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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by Tom from Cornwall » 25 Nov 2019 22:42

Was that an immediate appreciation by Roberts? Or something he generated later?

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Tom

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by MarkN » 25 Nov 2019 22:52

ClintHardware wrote:
25 Nov 2019 21:48
Mark: No but you do and that is why you made a simple sweeping statement.
I don't understand at all.

What does your "no" refer to?

No you don't want to have a discussion about the truth and accuracy of Roberts' words or whether the British started with all the aces or whether BATTLEAXE was a failure of no to something else entirely?

What do you want to have a discussion about?

"But l do" what? If you are suggesting l am telling fibs about not understanding you or what you want to discuss, then you are very mistaken.

Rather than being cryptic, or posting riddles, please just state what you want to discuss.

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by MarkN » 25 Nov 2019 22:55

Tom from Cornwall wrote:
25 Nov 2019 22:42
Was that an immediate appreciation by Roberts? Or something he generated later?
Excerpt from his book but compares very favourably to the contemporary reports in the WDs etc.

I've got a stack of contemporary reports about BATTLEAXE if you are interested.

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by Urmel » 25 Nov 2019 23:05

I am
The enemy had superiority in numbers, his tanks were more heavily armoured, they had larger calibre guns with nearly twice the effective range of ours, and their telescopes were superior. 5 RTR 19/11/41

The CRUSADER Project - The Winter Battle 1941/42

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by ClintHardware » 26 Nov 2019 05:00

Mark if you want to begin a debate go ahead.

Your offer of contemporary reports is interesting what are you offering and how much for each item. I assume you are selling not giving.

Cabinet level reports tend to be politically edited and Wavell would not have recorded what Roberts witnessed in the field. The most reliable are combat reports by the officers who survived and intelligence summaries wirtten up within days and also months of the ground action as new information became revealed. Remember that Lieutenant Hore-Ruthven was edited out of the Msus incident report that Churchill received and yet Hore-Ruthven's account was of what he had to do based on the most logical choices open to him discussed with Major Mitford of the LRDG.

My interest lies in what equipment, weapons, ammunition and organisation the ground units had, and in what effect and damage they achieved in the field.

If your point or points are interesting I will repond to them.
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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by MarkN » 26 Nov 2019 14:56

Urmel wrote:
25 Nov 2019 23:05
I am
No problem. I'll get back to you. ;)

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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by ClintHardware » 26 Nov 2019 17:50

MarkN wrote:
26 Nov 2019 14:56
No problem. I'll get back to you. ;)

Meanwhile.....

Trooper McGregor’s account below covers a number of important moments during the 15th June: the Royal Artillery Officer he mentions is likely to have been Major Renton, the German infantry were likely to have been Oberstleutnant Knabe’s men that he had led back into Capuzzo after 7th R.T.R. had earlier withdrawn. Of technical note are McGregor’s Besa coax firing at 1200 r.p.m., several penetrations from types of A.P. projectiles that may not have contained an H.E. filler or failed to detonate after penetration, and the appalling effect of what may have been an A.P.C.B.C.H.E. or A.P.B.C.H.E. projectile detonating inside the turret of another Matilda.

Trooper Duncan McGregor ‘C’ Squadron 7th R.T.R. (ex ‘A’ Squadron 1st R.T.R.)
Some of our other squadrons went into action that day and got a pretty hot reception. Our task was to provide cover protection for the infantry and to hold Fort Cupuso [sic]. Zero hour for us came at 1630 hours that afternoon and as we were on the startline a Royal Artillery Officer came into our tank. His job was to direct shelling at the enemy wherever they were, and he checked with Radio Operator Trooper Warburton that the set was transmitting. This was essential so that he could relay orders to his gunners. For some unknown reason the set would not transmit although Warburton tried frantically for some time with no response whatsoever.

The officer couldn’t wait and jumped off our tank to cross to another one some 40 yards away. He hadn’t even reached it before our radio started transmitting. The commander from the other tank crossed over to us and we were on the move. What a feeling of apprehension, stark fear and yet anticipation. I can remember it vividly even today. As we [moved forward] with eyes anxiously flicking from side to side we reached the fort which turned out to be just rubble with no action and no enemy in sight. We moved on and suddenly, about a hundred yards away, hundreds of German infantry, complete with backpacks, rose and ran as fast as they could. Out tank commander gave the order “Gunner action. German infantry 80 yards FIRE!”. The [Besa] was blazing at 1200 rounds per minute as I traversed it from side to side guided more by the tracer [of the] bullets than the ranger. All at once our tank shook as a shell crashed into it, but we moved on and the Germans rose and ran again. Now tanks appeared and I took the same fire orders from the commander firing shell and after shell. The tank commander said “You’ve hit it! Hit it again!” I tried to oblige and the infantry continued to retreat before us. We were hit again and again by anti-tank shells – crunch after crunch shaking the tank and we couldn’t understand what was happening. A German despatch rider came across our path, and the fire orders barked out “Despatch rider – passing our front at 100 yards FIRE!” I just kept firing across his route until he ran into the bullets. Everything was happening. We were firing machine gun bullets almost continually between shelling the tanks and armoured cars. The heat in the tank was 120 degrees and the telescope was dripping with condensation as the sweat poured from my chin. The smoke from my guns filled the tank but we were so close to the enemy that we had to close down and we were in effect in a sealed box.

A shell hit us. It passed the driver and smashed the batteries so it was a blessing the engines were diesel. We moved this way and that as we continued to be hit with anti-tank shells. One shell actually came through the body of the tank at my feet and we began to wonder how on earth we could survive this onslaught. Then another shell hit the gun cradle and took a chunk out of it. All at once the gun cradle on my shoulder took a jolt and faced into the ground.

As an attacking force we were finished but we still had to stay and take what was coming. Now I could hardly believe what I was seeing as a sold line of German tanks counter-attacked. We tried to turn around but it was a slow business and we weren’t even sure where the shells had hit us. Our tank came to a halt as it became apparent that our engines had been hit – thirteen times in fact – causing them to seize up. We had to bail out. As we hit the ground machine gun bullets whizzed all around us. We ran four our lives and it was fortunate for us that the light was beginning to fade. As we ran towards our rear position a tank approached and the driver told us he was looking for a crew – commander, gunner and radio operator. We climbed aboard and were met by an unbelievable sight. A shell had drilled through the 3-inch turret killing the rest of the crew and flesh and blood spattered to inside of the tank. The smell of death was strong – the blood and charred flesh – and our commander decided we could not possibly engage the enemy in these conditions. We moved back until we came to one of our own replenishing lorries where I spent an uncomfortable night being nipped by the back of the petrol cans it carried. By the next day however, we were out of the frontal area and only then heard that the tank that had gone into action with the artillery officer had been hit with the loss of all crew.
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Re: Major G. P. B. Roberts' assessment of BATTLEAXE

Post by MarkN » 26 Nov 2019 18:19

MarkN wrote:
26 Nov 2019 14:56
Urmel wrote:
25 Nov 2019 23:05
I am
No problem. I'll get back to you. ;)
Me again.

I have neglected to do any file sorting for the past 3 years so my HDs are now all a bit of a mess. With a brief search, l think l have the following post-battle reports:
XIII Corps, 4 Ind Div, 7 Armd Bde, 22 Gds Bde, 7 Armd Bde, 7 Spt Gp, 2 RTR, 4 RTR, 6 RTR and 7 RTR. I also have, I know but have yet to relocate, a bunch of translated, captured German docs too. I know you have the relevant DAK and similar KTBs.

For me the more interesting part of this research is a consideration of what they planned to do against what they actually attempted and then compare that to what they should have been doing doctrinally. For that one has to delve into all the other related material not just the after-battle reports. However, in respect of BATTLEAXE, my interest waned some time ago.

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