2. THE PLAN UNFOLDS
On May 7 the commander of the 15th Armored Division reiterated previous defensive instructions which had been disregarded. Because of the width of the African front, he discarded the theoretical subdivision into advanced positions, battle outposts, and chief battle line, and divided defended areas into battle outposts, a main defense line, and reserves. The battle outposts, because of the huge front, were to be placed only where the enemy could approach unawares; their role was reduced to that of observation posts by day and listening posts at night. The main defense line (U.S. main line of resistance) must be completely covered by fire. It is pointed out that this line must not be thin for two reasons: because in a thin line a penetration rapidly develops into a breakthrough, and because casualties are heavy when the artillery has registered on a line. During the day only a part of the machine guns are moved up. This 15th Armored Division directive indicates that at least one-quarter of each company, battalion, and regiment must be kept in reserve for counterattack.
Following these principles, the commanding general of the 15th Armored Division gave his orders. The building of new defenses was to begin the next night. Half of the available force was to work in a zone 550 yards behind the front line; reserves and rear pickets were stationed farther back. Heavy weapons were to be sited the same night, the heavy machine guns on the flanks, the antitank guns echeloned in depth, with antitank rifles and some antitank guns in front of the positions. Sector reserves were to be formed—one or two sections to each company, one company to each battalion. Emphasis was placed on constructing dummy positions, removing and shuffling landmarks, and cutting radio masts to 1 or 2 yards in order to conceal headquarters.
Groups varying from 20 to 80 men, supported by antitank and antiaircraft guns, were pushed forward to operate as battle outposts. By May 10, 2 nights after the order, some 560 positions were being planned, including rifle positions in depth 1,000 yards from the wire. Work started immediately on some of them.
In the pivotal Ras Meduaaur salient (map No. 3), positions were laid out in depth and heavy weapons were sited on the night of May 8/9. There was a company front to every 550 yards and an antitank gun to every 200 yards. The salient was held by one battalion, with two companies in reserve.
The Meduaaur defenses were tested on May 17, when the British attacked a stützpunkt on the German left flank. The defense proved sound. Two German companies fought on in their antitank trenches after the position had been penetrated by tanks, finally repulsing the British. A second attack was driven off by a reserve of one tank company.
A separate group from the 15th Armored Division was located in the frontier area. On May 14 construction was ordered of a scarp sector3 and of two sectors of advanced positions at Point 191, just south of Salum coastal sector. Prior to this, advanced positions had been outlawed. On the coast there were to be an antitank ditch, wired on either side and covered by fire; field positions for light and heavy weapons, connected by crawl trenches; and antitank emplacements with wire and mines in front of the positions and within them. Low sandbag fortifications had to be used on the scarp, where digging was impossible. Here nests were to be built around antitank weapons placed in groups, wire was to be laid around both nests and groups of nests, and the area between groups was to be strewn with mines and wire. The work was to be done at night and camouflaged by day against air observation.
Upon further orders from the corps to build positions on the frontier for "a long period of defense," the commanding officer of the Frontier Group appointed a reconnaissance headquarters of four officers to start work immediately at Fort Capuzzo. The principles laid down in the directive were: these stützpunkte must be held by weak forces until the mobile reserve could counterattack; they must have all-around defense; they must be laid in areas where there is natural security against tanks, natural cover for infantry, obstacles, and OP's; and there must be dummy positions.
The front (to be plotted on May 19) was to be made up of four positions: Sidi Omar, Point 206, Point 191, and a coastal position in contact with Point 191 (map No. 2). The rear (to be plotted on May 20) was to contain another group of four positions—Point 208, Fort Capuzzo, Musaid, and Upper Salum. About 500 men daily were needed for the work.
It can hardly be said that a free hand was given to the reconnaissance headquarters, for on May 19 there was an order to start construction of two stützpunkte on May 20, one at Point 206 and another at Point 196. The former is 5 miles south of Fort Capuzzo, while the latter includes Qalala. Each of these stützpunkte was to have an advanced point. Work was to be done day and night in two shifts—0200 to 0900 hours, and 1500 to 2000 hours. Two German engineer platoons and 160 men from the Italian battalion were to be used on each position, and they were to be heavily screened by tanks, armored cars, artillery, antiaircraft guns, and motorcycle troops. The garrisons considered necessary to hold the stützpunkte were—
2 infantry companies.
1 heavy machine-gun platoon.
1 heavy mortar section.
3 37-mm and 1 50-mm antitank guns.
3 20-mm and 1 88-mm antiaircraft guns.
1 artillery OP and an alternative OP.
1 infantry company.
1 heavy machine-gun platoon.
1 heavy mortar section.
1 light infantry gun battery.
13 37-mm and 1 50-mm antitank guns.
3 20-mm antiaircraft guns.
Several artillery OP's.
Gun positions for 1 or 2 artillery batteries.
1 reconnaissance section in foxholes.
Meanwhile, however, the main defense works of the German Afrika Korps were being constructed at Gazala (map No. 3) by a labor force of nearly 2,000 men. Great pains were taken; reconnaissance lasted from May 9 to 13. Marking out began on May 14, and the whole advanced position at Bir el Heial (Point 209), 6 miles to the east, was finished by May 23. Work on the antitank defenses and at Alani Hamza began the next day.
The work was governed by three principles: all-around defense; the theory of the stützpunkt, or main defensive position; and a model circular platoon position planned by Rommel himself, 270 by 270 yards and laid out in an interdependent series.
The view was that the Wadi Embarech was the key to the Gazala position, and it was therefore planned that it should be covered by a defensive area 2½ miles south of Km 110 on the Via Balbia, between Points 179 and 181. The position was divided into five sectors as follows:
(1) Bir el Heial.—At this advanced position were 11 platoon defense areas between Point 209 and the escarpment. This fits into no known conception of advanced positions or battle outposts, but, as it was finished first, this position was probably meant simply to cover the rest of the work in case of an accident at Tobruk. The Germans felt that the situation on the frontier was "tense" at this period.
(2) Coast.—Between the forward position on the escarpment at El Azragh and the sea at Point 22 (dune) were nine platoon areas.
(3) Desert.—Between the main position, Points 179-181, and Alam Hamza were 15 to 20 platoon areas.
(4) Rocks.—Between Points 179-181 and the Via Balbia were 11 platoon areas.
(5) Block.—An antitank trench was placed at Km 107 on the Via Balbia, covered by antitank guns from caves in the scarp face.
Thus, at the main defensive position, including the outpost of Alam Hamza, there were to be 26 to 30 platoons out of a total of 46 to 51 platoons—that is, a total of about two regiments of infantry.
The alternative of defense on an arc was rejected because the front would then be too long. Positions were organized in depth with self-contained infantry squads as the basic units. Three of these squads formed a platoon area and three platoon areas made up a company defense area.
It was proposed that the Gazala position should be held either by two Italian divisions or by two Italian regiments, according to their strength, of which Rommel was ignorant. These were to be stiffened by German "corset stays." It was noted in particular that, as visibility south of the scarp is 5 to 7 miles, the advantage is with the position that has its back to heavily intersected country. The Wadi Embarech thus gives good battery positions, while Wadi Balban and Wadi el Aasi give protection against tanks.
At last a German theory of defense in the desert was emerging—a discontinuous line of big stützpunkte, each crystallized out of model "triplices" (see figs. 1 and 2): three sections in the platoon, three platoons in the company, each of these small units capable of all-around defense. As yet, however, there had been no statement on the siting of the heavy weapons within the infantry group.
The frontier defenses then consisted of—
A Salum group as the main "defense-front," with one "positional battalion"—actually a battalion of the 104th Motorized Infantry Regiment had to support this position battalion; the 33d Reconnaissance Unit and a Bardia group on the right flank and in the rear; and a tank group and the divisional reserve ready for mobile intervention.
Salum and Musaid were finally ordered built into independent stützpunkte on the principles outlined on May 18 and 19, and Qalala also was ordered built by the Italians into a stützpunkt after the operation of May 26 and 27. A fourth important position had been laid down on May 18, but the order apparently had been countermanded the next day.
The tank group was to stand ready 4½ miles north of Capuzzo, with forward troops at Alam Abu Dihak and Qalala.
Although the main work was done at Gazala, the main proving ground was felt even now to be the frontier. On May 23 the commander of the Panzergruppe Ost, which now included most of the whole of the 15th Armored Division, warned that "The British may at any time try to relieve Tobruk, either by a thrust to the north against the 15th Armored Division, then encircling us from the west, or by a drive northwest from south of Sidi Oinar while containing our positions at Salum and Capuzzo." On the strength of this estimate he ordered positions to be held at Point 208, Salum, Point 206, and Qalala.
More heavy weapons were promised—88-mm dual-purpose guns, Italian heavy artillery, and an antitank battalion. An entire antiaircraft battery was brought up. Artillery was to concentrate particularly on the area west of Capuzzo, and the tank patrol contact at Point 206 and Qalala, and was to move with the 8th Tank Regiment, being prepared to lay a general barrage on the area west of the stützpunkt.
In short, the development looks large on the map, but contains no new ideas on the details of defense.
On May 26 and 27 the Germans captured Halfaya Pass from the British and were able to make further plans. Musaid and Salum ceased to be important positions; they became Rückhalten—in baseball terminology, backstops. The center of the defense became Halfaya, with Qalala only a second stützpunkt, and Point 206 again an important position.
Forces were redistributed, and orders given for defense as follows:
(1) Halfaya.—A Salum-Halfaya Pass Group was formed, consisting of one infantry battalion, two antiaircraft batteries, and one Italian mobile artillery regiment. Both routes up the scarp to the plateau were to be held; the bulk of the antitank weapons were to be put on the right wing, above the scarp; an Italian company was to be located in the center; the left wing on the coast was to be weak, but well mined; an outpost was to be put at Bir el Siweiyat; Qalala was to be held by a reinforced company; and one or two Italian platoons were to be the backstop.
(2) Capuzzo.—The defenses of Point 208 were to be started on May 27; Point 206 was to be held by a reinforced company.
There had been work in this defensive period, not only at Gazala, Meduaaur, and Ofl the frontier, but also at the fourth German point of contact with British forces, on the Tobruk-el Adem road. Here, by May 23, two machine-gun battalions had created a regimental stützpunkt of enormous size. On a truncated ellipse of 9 miles running out from the scarp they had built 76 groups, each of three positions placed checkerwise. The depth of the defended belt averaged 550 yards. Over the 5 miles of front accorded to one machine-gun battalion were 26 heavy machine guns, 13 light machine guns, and about 30 antitank guns, an average of just over 270 yards to every antitank gun. The principal development, however, is that here the trefoil principle of defense first finds its place on a German map in North Africa. Also the battle outpost recurs, well-mined but ill-armed.
(3) Security and reconnaissance.—A reinforced tank company was to cover the guns at Qalala and a reinforced reconnaissance unit was to patrol the line Sidi Omar—Qaret Abu Faris—Sidi Suleiman—Bir el Siweiyat.
There were only slight modifications on May 31, when the main stützpunkte of the frontier finally crystallized into four—Halfaya, Qalala, Point 206, and Point 208.
At the same time new orders were given to the 15th Motorized Infantry Brigade, which held the Meduaaur salient, to prepare all-around defenses to meet a possible attack from either the north or the south. Holtzendorff, who had made a defensive reconnaissance at Gazala, was appointed infantry commander. Both battalions of the 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment, one battalion of the 104th Motorized Infantry Regiment, and two oasis companies4 were placed under him. These were assigned to three sectors—the battalion of the 104th Motorized Infantry Regiment (left); one battalion of the 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment (center); one battalion of the 115th Motorized Infantry Regiment (right). The other companies were held in reserve, as was one battalion of the 5th Tank Regiment, which was south of brigade headquarters. The 39th Antitank Battalion, one company of the 33d Antitank Battalion, and one company of the 605th Antitank Battalion—a total of 50 antitank guns—were allotted to the salient, in addition to an artillery regiment and an engineer battalion. The whole position was at once reconstructed on Holtzendorff's arrival. The southeastern bulge or nose of the salient was given up after it had been thoroughly mined between June 2 and 6, and booby traps were planted in the dead ground.
Under the new plan each battalion had two rifle companies forward, the heavy weapons company halfway back to battalion headquarters, the heavy machine-gun company somewhat farther forward, and the third rifle company in battalion reserve. Sketches of the layout show the great bulk of the light machine guns up against the wire in pairs, with intervals of 40 to 80 yards. Half of the antitank guns were in the front line. Company frontages were about 830 yards, and positions were between 445 to 500 yards deep. The average front of a light machine gun was 55 yards. There was a total of six antitank guns for each company front, or two to every 280 yards. The siting of these antitank guns conformed with the laws of depth.
As usual, defense plans involved the preparation of a counterattack, this time on the right flank with two rifle companies, tanks, antitank guns, and the usual reserve company. The Italians on either flank were always a problem, and when the Ariete Division on the right was relieved by the Pavia on June 4, their extreme left stützpunkt was occupied and improved. This was done by the 10th Oasis Company, which turned it into three platoon positions, while the reserve company of the 2d Battalion, 115th Motorized Infantry, turned its rest area into a well-organized defense area with platoon stützpunkte. Barrage schedules were prepared for heavy machine guns and mortars. Under the new plan eight antitank guns, with infantry guns and heavy mortars, were concentrated on either side of the new mine field in the center. Much had been accomplished, but on June 7 still further improvement was made by bringing up the guns of one battery of the 18th Antiaircraft Regiment.
A few days later there was a weakening of antitank forces, to be explained by the threat of action on the frontier (on June 12, 3 days before the British offensive). Only nine of the antitank guns outside the battalions remained, and the 33d Engineer Battalion was also moved. Infantry reserves were reallotted.
The 33d Engineer Battalion left a record of its work in the
Meduaaur salient. Besides taking part in several attacks with its
special storm sections, it had removed 3,000 British and 800 Italian
mines under fire by early May. On May 19 it began to
straighten the salient, and finished by June 1. During this
period it had built 33 stützpunkte and 10 special
positions, each for two antitank guns and one machine gun. It
had used 5,185 sandbags, constructed a 3,170-yard double fence, and
The improvement in German defensive practice is exemplified by the layout of the weapons in the 2d Battalion of the 104th Motorized Infantry, which was in the left flank of the salient on June 20. There were groups of weapons extending all the way back to battalion headquarters; the light machine guns were thinned out in the front line until there was only one each 110 yards; the antitank guns were placed at 330-yard intervals; company frontage was 990 yards; and company depth (to battalion headquarters) was 1,100 yards.
FIGURE 1.--Typical German trefoil (platoon illustrated).
Major Halierstedt, a German officer who at this time wrote a report on positional infantry warfare in Africa, was not yet satisfied. He emphasized the difficulties of Africa, where the climate required that work be done at night and with limited control. It was difficult also to find sufficient fields of fire for the numerous light machine guns in mobile units. A battalion sector in the Meduaaur salient was about 1,780 yards, and on the basis of a two-company front, each company with 18 light machine guns, there were only 50 yards for each weapon.
The answer was the old one: disposition in depth. Heavy weapons too must be withdrawn to positions where they could fire over the forward lines and be controlled by one officer, the Führer schwerer Waffen (heavy weapons commander). It was easy to cover every point with fire, for there were 80 heavy and light weapons in a motorized infantry battalion. Indirect machine-gun barrages at 2,200 yards had failed, for the troops had forgotten accuracy and correction in France. Barrage fire from all weapons, he said, should be brief, only a quarter or a half minute; otherwise it would cost too much ammunition. Antitank guns should be hidden and should fire only when tanks attacked. Battalion antitank guns should remain hidden, also firing only when tanks attacked. Battalion antitank guns (three) should support the front line; other antitank guns (generally two platoons, or six guns of an antitank company) should remain somewhere near battalion headquarters. Any part of the battalion system which they do not control must be mined.
An officer named Ballerstedt made the first statement in writing on the trefoil (fig. 1) in defense, which was mapped by the 8th Machine-Gun Battalion. All weapons must, he said, be placed in half-moon triplices, the heavy in the center and the two light machine guns on the sides. We shall see later how this developed under the instructions of Major General von Ravenstein.
The time approached when German theory was to be put to the test. Orders warning of the approaching tanks came on June 12. They indicated the attack, but not that it would be a general offensive.
4 The organization of an oasis company is not known.
5 The "S," or Shrapnel, antipersonnel mine is cylindrical, about 4 inches in diameter and 6 inches high. It weighs about 9 pounds and contains 1 pound of explosive studded with 250 steel halls. The mine is detonated by a push-or-pull igniter operated by contact boards, pull wires, etc. It is projected into the air by a secondary charge before its shrapnel charge explodes.
6 The "T," or Teller, antitank mine weighs 22 pounds and contains 11 pounds of TNT; it is 15 inches in diameter and