How did Australian units defend against German combined arms attacks at Tobruk in 1941? Where better to seek out the answer than from the units themselves.
On the 19th of April a two page document named ‘Notes of the Tactics Employed in the Action at Tobruk 13/14 Apr 41’ was produced by the Headquarters of the 9th Australian Division and distributed down to units (the copy in the link is from the 2/43 Battalion War Diary). This document was produced shortly after the attack, uses simple language to describe how the Germans conducted a combined arms assault using tanks and infantry on the defences of Tobruk, the tactics Australians used to defeat the attack and concludes with lessons learned. The language is simple, easy to understand, provides some very important lessons and contains some spelling and grammar errors (an example of the 80% solution now versus the 100% solution later – commanders and staff officers take note).
The attached document provides a number of lessons for the defence as follows:
- Forward infantry must hold their ground, going to cover as enemy tanks pass over, and be ready to engage the oncoming infantry with every available weapon.
- Anti-tank weapons for forward posts to engage tanks in front and in rear after they pass through.
- All weapons to be sited in considerable depth, to stop the attack when the impetus is waning, with reserves prepared to counter attack to restore essential localities.
- All posts to hold their ground whatever the situation, as by so doing enemy success can be localised and dealt with by the tank reserve.
- Mines are to be laid inside the wire so that they cannot be picked up or disarmed. Where possible small mobile reserve to be held and used for blocking successful crossings and preventing enemy tanks from getting out.
- Finally, it is most important that units report enemy movements immediately and keep higher formations fully informed so that action can be taken to place reserves in suitable positions to deal with deep penetrations. Information on numbers and types of enemy tanks, their location and direction of movement is particularly important.
The reader should remember that these lessons are terrain and context dependent.
Australian units have not defended against a combined arms attack of this nature within lived memory. However, this does not mean it won’t happen again and the lessons are still important and relevant. Those reading the document could easily make the next link to how we would conduct this type of task now with our current systems and organisational structure. It also provides a useful complement to our current tactical defensive doctrine (Land Warfare Doctrine 3-3-7 Employment of Infantry).
This document would be of value to those in II Class at the Royal Military Collage about to conduct their defensive operations phase. It would be a useful reminder for those about to commence the Combat Officers Advanced Course, the Captains or Majors Courses and the range of Junior and Senior NCO promotion courses. In units it would be a useful primer for the conduct of a Professional Military Education (PME) sessions debating those lessons from 78 years ago.
To add further context, it can also be of benefit to then read work by a researching professional, such as a military historian, on the same subject. In this case the recent book by Mark Johnson An Australian Band of Brothers: Don Company, Second 43rd Battalion, 9th Division describes the human experience of defensive operations on the Tobruk perimeter. This adds depth to the mostly emotionless / professional description in unit war diaries.
Conducting your own research
This document was sourced from the Australian War Memorial (AWM) website. The AWM has an extensive collection of unit war diaries from the First and Second World Wars, the Korean War, Malaya and Vietnam. This is a treasure trove for researchers and also military professionals. These primary research materials are useful for many and when used with work by research professionals, such as historians, it allows the reader to further develop themselves on the subject and thus professionalise their knowledge.
The process, can be as simple as identifying a particular type of Australian military operation, searching through google to identify the units involved, and then looking through those unit war diaries for those pieces that the researcher can see value in. This may be in the form of the original orders, intelligence reports, patrol reports, contact reports and lessons learned. All can provide the military professional with a wealth of information they can then tailor to their current circumstances. This may just be the development of their knowledge on a specific subject, material for something they want to write on, inspiration for new ideas on a subject or something to generate discussion and debate as part of a formal PME session.
Another simple example is the battalion in the attack. Many instructional institutions have used the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) attack at Maryang San (Operation Commando) in Korea as a historical example. Scrolling through the 3 RAR War Diary for the month of October 1951 (when the action took place) the military professional will find copies of the orders delivered, intelligence summaries, descriptions of the action and, perhaps of most importance, the lessons learned from the attack. I would urge the reader to find these lessons themselves because they often describe lessons that are still of value. In the 3 RAR battalion level lessons there is a valuable paragraph describing situation reports (sitreps) which states:
‘Nothing is more harassing to a Coy Comd than to be asked for sitreps at an inopportune time, eg, when he has a fight on his hands. Nothing is more worrying to a CO than NOT to know what is happening, particularly when, and this has much application in the attack, the movement of other coys and the control of supporting fire depends on the situation existing within a particular company.’
In this specific example, perhaps what is of most interest is that the author does not tell you the answer. The paragraph articulates a problem from both sides — the Commanding Officer (CO) and Company Commander (Coy Comd) — but no solution is offered. This highlights that it is a real challenge and all need to be aware of it because there is no solution. The CO could direct that his needs are paramount but this would ignore the circumstances faced by the subordinate. This small example can lead to an informed debate and discussion within a PME session but it also educates the person reading this lesson.
I would encourage all to spend some time exploring the Australian Unit War Dairies from the AWM; you will find some nuggets of wisdom relating to your profession. Remember it contains the lived experience of those who want before you and it is up to you to assess that experience and how it relates to you. Balance this against other resources such as doctrine, the work of research professionals and current thinking from professional journals. The education of a military professional can be self-driven; take the time to research widely and use that research to develop yourself.
About the author: Lieutenant Colonel Duncan Foster is an Infantry Officer who is currently the Deputy Director of the Australian Army Research Centre (AARC) within Army Headquarters.