Operation "BATTLEAXE" Account

Discussion in 'North Africa & the Med' started by Tom OBrien, May 28, 2021.

  1. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    Inspired by a discussion in another thread, I thought I'd post up some accounts of BATTLEAXE that I seem to have collected from Kew over the years to see whether they help or hinder the debate.

    This first one is an account in the war diary of 2 RTR (WO169/1410):

    "Record to record extreme bravery of Capt. V.D.C. York, 2nd Bn. the Royal Tank Regt.

    (Operation “BATTLEAXE”) M.E.F. – 15th June 1941


    Operation “Battle Axe” – BIR HAFID – 15 Jun, 1941/

    This story is written as a result of accounts by the then OC. 2nd Bn. RTR and OC “B” Sqn, Tpr Goddard (Capt V.D.C. York’s operator) and other statements made by Prisoners of War from “B” Sqn to the International Red Cross.

    It is designed to record the extreme bravery of Capt V.D.C. York.


    On the morning of 16 Jun 41, “B” Sqn 2 RTR. was acting as the leading Sqn of the Regt., who, in turn, were the leading Regt. of the leading Brigade (7 Armd Bde) – in fact, they were the spearhead of the advance of the Western Desert Force.

    Just before crossing the frontier at Gap 40, the CO was ordered by Bde to turn North, and dislodge the enemy on the BIR HAFID feature, who were holding up the advance of another Division on our right. Having advanced some 2 miles the far side of the wire, “B” Sqn came under fire from A/Tk guns, dug in, from the direction of BIR HAFID ridge, about 2000 yds to their front.

    OC “B” Sqn reported this fact to his CO and ordered his Sqn to halt in hull-down positions, keeping the enemy under observation. The CO on instructions from Bde, ordered OC “B” Sqn to attack supported by the fire of one battery, 4 RHA. He also ordered “A” Sqn to attack frontally, taking their time from the progress of “B” Sqn’s attack.

    The CO was told by Bde that the attack was essential to the success of the whole operation, and was to be carried out at any cost.

    There was a certain amount of dead ground on his left flank, which influenced the Sqn Comdr to put in a left flank attack. He, therefore, ordered his Sqn to wheel left in a box formation, and under cover of the supporting fire to charge, over-run the A/Tk guns and Infantry, and shoot up the soft vehicles, of which there was a considerable number.

    The time was almost midday, and mirage made observation very difficult, however, as he moved over to the left flank , the Sqn Comdr was able to see the enemy in considerably greater strength that he at first imagined, which fact he reported to his CO. Bde ordered the attack to proceed.

    The Sqn then wheeled right to over-run the enemy. Very great confusion and heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy and all the A/Tk guns, which included some 88mm guns, with the exception of one, were either over-run or destroyed.

    A simultaneous attack by another armoured unit on our left flank, which was to have taken place, never materialised, and the attack by “A” Sqn was not pressed home.

    During the attack – at 1202 hrs, to be exact, York came up on the wireless to report that Capt. Duncan’s tank had been hit and had caught fire, and that he was going back to pull the crew out.

    York’s tank had broken through the enemy position, creating havoc among the gun crews and transport.

    Immediately, he ordered his driver to turn round, and go back to Duncan’s tank, where he found Duncan lying across his near side track, his clothes on fire and severely wounded in the thigh and the remainder of the crew killed.

    He attended to Duncan, putting out the fire and dressing his wound, and then with the help of Tpr Goddard, he managed to lay Duncan across the front of his own tank.

    York’s driver, Tpr Meadows, was about to move the tank off, when his tank received a direct hit. The shell penetrated the turret, wounded severely York in his right arm, and Tpr Meadows.

    Tpr Goddard was blown out of the tank, and Tpr Miller, the gunner managed to bale out. Miller and Meadows reached a neighbouring tank, in charge of Sgt Cross, which was also subsequently hit.

    Meanwhile, York had run over to Goddard, and seeing him severely wounded, exclaimed “My God, Goddard”, and rushed back to his tank, presumably to get a shell dressing and morphia.

    As soon as he disappeared from Tpr Goddard’s view, there was intense MG fire from very close, and it can only be assumed that York...

    - 2 -

    ...was killed by this fire. Immediately afterwards, a German drove up and picked up Goddard and Meadows.

    Without doubt, York deliberately turned back in an endeavour to save a comrade’s life, while under direct fire from large calibre A/Tk guns and MGs at close range. It is a miracle that he managed to reach Duncan, let alone dress his wounds, whilst under fire from guns not more than 75 yds away.

    There is no doubt that York performed a most heroic feat, worthy of the highest award, and that, by his deat[h] the Army as a whole, and his Regiment in particular, lost an officer of outstanding bravery, and an inspiration to all in contact with him. He always displayed an apparent complete lack of fear.

    Previously in FRANCE, in a rearguard action fought on the River Seine, and at the Battle of BEDA FOMM, Feb 41, York had displayed courage and initiative of the highest order."


    It would obviously be interesting to compare this account with that of 7th Bde HQ and see if it was possible to understand the haste with which 2 RTR appears to have been launched into an attack on what, to a non-expert, appears to have been a good target for artillery.


    4jonboy and Chris C like this.
  2. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian Patron

    Am I right in thinking that the artillery was dispersed? Support from a single battery does not seem like it would impress but more may not have been possible if the batteries were operating separately.

    (According to wikipedia, the Brigade Support group did include 3 RHA and 4 RHA, but again from wikipedia, it seems like 3 RHA had two-pounder AT guns, so they had one regiment of 25 pounders to call on.)
  3. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member


    Yes, definitely. 4 RHA war diary (WO169/1429) for 15 June 1941 reads:

    15 June 1941
    HQ D Bty and F Tp were with AJEW COL (Major HC Withers ?]. G Tp with MEDO COLN. A Tp with JAXO COL (Major JRC Christopher). HQ C Bty & B Tp with TOGS COL.


    There are further accounts for several of the columns including this account which matches that above in many respects:


    Brief Account of operations 14 – 18th June, 1941 – PAUL

    COLUMN. Reference Map SALUM 1/100,000.

    PAUL Column left SAFAFI WEST area at 1600 hrs 14th June and leaguered that night with 2nd R.T. West of KHIREIGAT.

    The Column advanced at 0400 hrs 15th June and O.P. with forward Sqn 2nd R.T. occupied 207 Camp at first light. A Tp C Bty R.H.A. were in action in area Pt. 203 518360 North of SIDI SULEIMAN ready to engage any enemy debouching South from Pt. 206 and Gap 38.

    At 0715 the O.P. and gun area were taken over by the 31st Field regiment, R.A. of 4th Armoured Brigade, and PAUL Column advanced in support and on the left flank of the 6 R.T. through Gap 43.

    The 2 R.T. were held up on HAFID RIDGE by artillery and A/Tk fire and “A” Troop was ordered to engage these and co-operate with the 2 R.T.

    The Commander of PAUL Column with Captain Cook and the Leading Sqn Leader of the 2 R.T. made a plan to give artillery support to the 2 R.T. in their attack on the ridge.

    Briefly, the plan was as follows:-

    A Sqn of the 2 R.T. was to advance round the left flank of the ridge, turn East and engage enemy behind the ridge with observed fire from “A” Troop at normal rate for the first phase and intense for their final advance. The O.P. was moved as far forward on the Ridge as enemy shelling permitted.



    Chris C likes this.
  4. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian Patron

    Well, if 31 Field Regiment RA was there then wikipedia is a most definitely incomplete source. Ugh.
  5. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello Chris,

    You really ought to ignore wiki and the "expertise" of the wiki warrior.

    31 Fld Regt RA were most definitely involved in BATTLEAXE.
  6. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Depends on what you mean by 'dispersed'.

    No, all the artillery, about 80 Fld guns and 16 Med guns (off the top of my head), were not all grouped together in a single command and a single location. So, in that sense, they were dispersed.

    If you mean were all of those guns broken down into penny packets of sections of 2 guns dispersed all over the battlefield, then no is again the answer.

    The guns of 4 RHA were nor grouped together but dispersed amongst four columns. The guns of 8, 25 and 31 Fld Regts were grouped by regiment with 8 and 31 Fld regiment and a Med bty forming the Artillery Gp of 48 guns.[/QUOTE]

    Well, whether a single battery suffices or not depends entirely upon the specific task under discussion.

    A single RHA Fld regiment allocated to an armoured division was the perceived doctrinal norm at the time.
  7. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Please bear with me but I have, I think, most of the relevant documents. In time, I can put it up here or send to you by other means.

    But off the top of my head... 2RTR made two seperate approaches to Pt.208 (HAFID).

    The first 'attack' could best be termed a probe forward. It was sqn of tanks trundling forward, unsupported, which, on contact turned around and trundled back to the start position.

    The second attack is the one your narrative refers to. It was preceeded by an artillery barrage from the 25-pdrs supporting 7 Armd Bde but, according to the report by the German commander on Pt.208, was ineffective as it missed the position.

    The third attack of the day was conducted by 6RTR. They were offered arty support but turned it down and conducted an unsupported frontal charge on the position similar the 4.30 at Haydock Park.
  8. Chris C

    Chris C Canadian Patron

    Well, I'm sorry, I don't happen to have an accurate OOB for Battleaxe at my fingertips.
  9. MarkN

    MarkN Banned


    No worries.

    Bear with me and I'll pull one out of the contemporary documentation for you.
  10. Tom OBrien

    Tom OBrien Senior Member

    This is from the War Diary of 8 Field Regiment which was one of the field regiments in 4th Indian Infantry Division (WO169/144&);

    WO169/1447 – 8th Field Regiment R.A.



    15th to 18th. 23rd June, 1941.

    B.R.A., G.H.Q., MIDEAST.
    “G” 4 Ind Div
    S.O.R.A., 7 Armd Div.
    All C.Os., including 8 Fd Regt, A.A. and A.Tk. Regts.

    22 Gds Bde
    4 Armd Bde
    R.A. H.Q.
    8 Fd Regt R.A.
    31 Fd Regt R.A.
    212 Med Bty R.A.
    65 A.Tk Regt R.A.
    4 Lt A.A. Bty R.A.
    9 Aus Lt A.A. Bty

    1. CONTROL.

    (a) C.R.A. and Bde Major were in an armd car with a No.9 set through to the following units and officers:-

    (i) Intelligence Officer in a wireless truck.
    (ii) Staff Captain in a wireless truck.
    (iii) O.C., “B” Echelon.
    (iv) 8 Fd Regt. R.A.
    (v) 25 Fd Regt. R.A.
    (vi) 31 Fd Regt. R.A.
    (vii) 212 Med Bty. R.A.

    (b) Speech was maintained with all these sets throughout the operation although a great deal of difficulty was found in getting messages through in the hours of darkness.
    I put this satisfactory result down to the fact that these sets and operators had gone through a concentrated course of wireless discipline and maintenance during the previous week under the Signal Officer.

    (c) The sets for (i), (ii) and (iii) were made available by using the Signal Section of the 68 Med Regt which were not functioning as such. (i) was a reserve set in case the armd car broke down.

    (d) The C.O. and Adjt of 68 Med Regt were used as liaison officers and it was invaluable to have two senior and experienced officers acting in this capacity.

    (e) The 2nd i/c 68 Med Regt was put in charge of “B” Echelon and 2nd Line amn lorries and was of the greatest assistance to our A/Q.

    (f) It was never possible to lay out telephone wire during these operations.

    - 2 -


    (a) During the afternoon of June 15th the 31 Fd Regt were in support of 4 Armd Bde during their attack on CAPUZZO.

    (b) Both Bty Comds went forward as F.O.Os. in I Tanks and gave valuable close support when the tanks were held up.

    (c) When a tank versus tank battle was actually taking place the dust and confusion make it impossible for the guns to give any support.

    (d) The I tanks of both F.O.Os. were both disabled by enemy fire during the action but apart from that they are considered unsuitable for the purpose the following reasons:-

    (i) They are too slow.

    (ii) Very difficult to control the driver.

    (iii) F.O.O. has to carry out one of the crew’s duties as well as his own.

    (iv) To observe, the F.O.O. has to have his head and shoulders outside the tank as the periscope is useless for observation of fire.

    (v) A valuable tank is lost to the battle.

    (e) The three alternatives appear to be a carrier, a light tank or an armoured car.

    . Low to the ground, inconspicuous and good for observation. On the other hand, is liable to break down and is very vulnerable to all types of fire.

    Light Tank
    . Easily controlled, good observation and not needed in battle. But liable to break down, slow and vulnerable to fire except S.A.A. and F.O.O. has to carry out one of the duties of the crew.

    Armoured Car
    . Very good observation, fast, easily controlled and room for R.A. wireless operator and B.C.A.
    Same vulnerability as Light Tank.

    In my opinion the best vehicle for an F.O.O. in support of armoured formations is an Armoured Car.

    (f) Before being sent out in support it is essential that the F.O.O. should have at least one hours instruction in the tank or armd car he is going to use.

    (g) On 16th June the 8 Fd Regt, R.A., were in support of 4 Armd Bde.
    No I Tanks were available for F.O.Os., who used their trucks and placed them close beside an I Tank to get protection from at least one flank. Out tanks that day were in a position of observation with good O.Ps. and our support consisted of down concentrations on the enemy tanks when they attempted to advance. At least three advances were turned back by these concentrations and the 4 Armd Bde were very grateful for the support. On the other hand this type of concentration does not knock out tanks and is very wasteful of amn.

    During the afternoon....

    - 3 -

    During the afternoon of June 16th the 8 Fd Regt R.A. fired 800 rds in this way and I doubt if they disabled any enemy tanks. This amn could ill be spared and I suggest that this type of support should not be encouraged.


    (a) 25 prs and A.Tk guns had few opportunities of shooting at tanks at close ranges. During the morning of June 16th at CAPUZZO the 257 Bty of the 65 A.Tk Regt put up a very gallant show and stopped and disabled at least 16 medium tanks. The ranges varied between 800 and 500 yds. During the same attack the 116 Bty of the 31 Fd Regt got direct hits on and disabled two medium tanks at a range of 900 yds firing H.E. with the fuze cap on.

    (b) The universal opinion of both Fd and A.Tk gunners is that greater execution could have been done if our I tanks could have persuaded to hold their fire.
    During June 16th the CAPUZZO area was very strongly manned by A.Tk guns and 25 prs in an anti tank role and with them in the perimeter were some I tanks. On several occasions parties of about 30 enemy tanks approached the posn and were turned back by the I Tanks opening fire at ranges between 1500 and 2000 yds. If only the I Tanks could have held their fire a large number of these tanks could have been disabled. No 25 prs or A.Tk guns opened fire during these abortive attacks.


    (a) Both batteries did excellent work and two enemy planes were brought down by them.

    (b) All guns are inclined to place themselves on the summit of rocky hills where they cannot or will not dig in.

    (c) Orders have been issued that the tops of hills are to be avoided, even at the risk of losing field of fire and that positions are to be chosen where it is possible to dig.

    (d) Each Bofors should have one Bren A.A. in position beside it.


    (a) This form of attack is very effective in rocky ground and between 80% and 90% [of] our casualties came from it.

    (b) The most serious attack was against the 8 Fd Regt at BIR NUH at 1700 hrs on June 17th.
    The whole regiment was in action except for one troop which was actually getting into action when the attack was made. Most of the casualties occurred in this troop for the following reasons:-

    - 4 -

    (i) Vehicles were closely bunched together.

    (ii) The tank and air observers detailed for each vehicle had relaxed their vigilance and as a result this troop neither saw nor heard the arrival of the planes.
    The men were getting out of their vehicles when the bombs arrived and had not time to lie flat on the ground.

    (iii) They had no A.A. protection.

    (c) The attack was carried out by 17 STUKAS and caused about 100 casualties. The bombs were mostly anti-personnel with an occasional big bomb thrown in.

    The sewing of large pieces of sandbags cut into odd shapes onto the nets is a great success. About 90% of the net is covered, thicker in the middle than at the sides.
    Guns dug in some 18” to 2 ft and covered with these nets, which are made flat on the top and gently sloping down to the ground, can hardly be spotted at 400 yds.


    (a) Smoke was not used on the escarpment but was once used on percussion with great success by the 25 Fd Regt to extricate some infantry who were pinned by enemy machine guns. I consider that more use of smoke might have been made by this regiment to blind machine guns during the attack.

    (b) Supercharge. I consider that 20% supercharge is the minimum which should be allotted. It is easy to carry and invaluable in the desert. It must be carefully controlled and only used for specified targets chosen by the Bty Comd.


    (a) The system of ammunition supply adopted was a failure. It was based on the one practised by the Armoured Div and whereas it may be adequate for the Armoured Div fighting against Italians, it is quite inadequate for an inf div fighting against Germans.

    (b) The system was as follows:-

    (i) Corps made a dump at RABIA of four lifts and guaranteed to keep this full.

    (ii) ARP was at HALFWAY HOUSE some 20 miles further West.

    (iii) The guns were in action near the wire about 30 miles West of ARP.

    (iv) It was impossible to keep an AP on wheels as all our 2nd Line was occupied in moving amn from RABIA to the Wagon Lines, a distance of some 50 miles over bad country, where the speed was a maximum of 8 m.i.h.

    (v) The suggestion was that unit 1st Line should send back to ARP but this was impossible as single vehicles could not safely be sent back and it was obviously out of the question to wait until echelons were empty before sending back to a place which would entail vehicles being away 7 hours.

    - 5 -

    (vi) The result was that only one lift per day (75 rds) could be delivered to the guns and this was inadequate to support the division.

    (vii) Regiments never actually ran out of amn but it was almost impossible to keep a reserve in the gun lines in case of a determined counter attack.

    (viii) I suggest the following system as one likely to have been successful:-

    (a) Corps dump at RABIA.

    (b) 3rd Line moving amn from RABIA to HALFWAY HOUSE ARP.

    (c) A.P. on wheels about 5 miles back from gun lines.

    (d) 2nd Line drawing from ARP.

    (ix) This would involve a 3rd Line, which did not exist, but I consider that unless such a 3rd Line is provided an operation of this type is not feasible.


    (a) It is difficult to get details of enemy artillery, but they were not in great strength and did little to influence the battle.

    (b) 75mm Fd guns were met and 4 of them were captured at BIR W.

    (c) A H.V. gun or guns were used at HALFAYA against our I Tank with some success. I suggest that these were A.A. guns of some sort.

    (d) About 4 medium guns were also used at HALFAYA and a naval gun firing from the coast up the wadis.

    (e) 75mm guns in M4 tanks were used as close support guns to their medium tanks. This seemed a successful solution to this difficult problem.


    In open warfare over good tank country of this type, where large scale armoured engagements are expected, a medium battery is more a liability than an asset.
    They are defenceless against tanks and the fact that all amn has to be dumped at the guns make them slow in and out of action.
    They did valuable work in the taking of SOLLUM Barracks but otherwise were little used.
    The decision to use a battery with this force was arrived at after due consideration. It was considered that it was essential to have one battery South of the escarpment to support the triangle CAPUZZO – BIR WAIR – MUSAID, once it had been consolidated and it was thought questionable whether it would be possible to get them up HALFAYA PASS.

    COAST FORCE. 11 Ind Inf Bde.

    25 Fd Regt.
    27/28 Med Bty.


    (a) The artillery here had a very difficult task in the all positions on the plain were in full view of the escarpment and only a few of the wadis were suitable for artillery.

    (b) I consider that their dispositions and fire plans were well worked out.

    - 6 -

    These failed on two important occasions and the reasons for these failures are as follows:-

    (a) F.O.O. had to follow the infantry over very difficult country when [sic: where] vehicles could not go and wire and wireless had to be manhandled. The No.11 set with its batteries does not lend itself to portage.

    (b) During June 15th, Ind Bde H.Q. was some 8 miles behind the front line. Telephone cable was not available for linking batteries to Group H.Q.

    (c) Batteries soon ran out of telephone cable and had to rely on wireless.

    (d) Units were short of wireless batteries and had no charging sets. Batteries ran down and wireless communication failed at two critical moments.

    (e) Owing to the difficult nature of the ground and the shortage of trained signallers it was not found possible to use visual.

    (f) To sum up, Regiments must be either given trained signallers or given the time to train them. And signalling equipment must be kept up to establishment.

    3. The 27/28 Med Bty gave valuable support throughout the operation.

    4. By the time the 25 Fd Regt had to withdraw in the evening of the 17th, the Germans had got behind the guns on top of the escarpment and were firing at them at point blank range with 75mm guns in M4 tanks and MGs. I consider it most creditable that this withdrawal was carried out in such an orderly manner.


    8 Fd Regt They started the battle 7 tractors, ? 30cwts and 32 miles of telephone cable short, which very much cramped their style, and prevented them sending back for ammunition.

    25 Fd Regt They started deficient of the following vehicles:-
    4 Tractors
    4 amn trailers
    6 15 cwts
    25 miles telephone cable
    20 wireless batteries
    NO charging sets
    NO high power units
    NO telescopic anti tank sights.
    These shortages were promised up to the last moment but never arrived.

    31 Fd Regt (a) Started deficient of:-
    4 Tractors
    3 15cwts
    26 miles of telephone cable.

    (b) The front springs of the 15cwt Bedfords break every 10 miles or so and welding is only a temporary cure. It is essential that more serviceable springs be issued or the Bedfords replaced.

    - 7 -

    68 Med Regt Gun wheel tyres are too vulnerable and it is strongly recommended that runflats be issued. It is only owing to tyres being burst that it was found necessary to abandon the two 6” Hows which had been disabled by dive bombing. These Hows had been rendered useless for further firing.

    65 A.Tk Regt The present portée from which the gun cannot fire is quite useless for the support of mobile columns. It takes them 2½ minutes to get into action and between 3 and 5 minutes to get out of action.
    If the guns are towed and fired from the wheels, they are quicker in and out of action, but the equipment suffers accordingly.
    A compromise has been arranged whereby the guns are kept in the portée as long as possible and when tank action is likely they are taken in tow.
    This is most unsatisfactory and it is strongly recommended that a portée be provided as soon as possible from which it is possible to fire the gun.

    Lt A.A. Btys. The 6-wheeled Morris Tractor was not a success. It got continually stuck in the soft sand and broke a number of spring shackles.
    They had no spare wheels and one or two tractors had to be abandoned as a result.


    To sum up, we all know that every gunner vehicle and article of equipment takes a definite part in bringing fire to bear on the enemy and establishments have been pruned down to the bare minimum.
    To start an operation of this kind with regiments short of their bare essentials must effect [sic] their efficiency and make their task a very much more difficult one.
    Finally it was once more quite evident that one spare tractor per troop is an absolute necessity.




    Chris C likes this.
  11. MarkN

    MarkN Banned

    Hello Chris,

    Here's the 4th Indian Division orbat from their own documents showing how each unit and sub-unit was allocated to the various combat groups. Note 31 Field Regiment RA.

    [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Chris C likes this.

Share This Page