Ras El Madauur

Clearing a mine. Ras El Madauur
Rommel’s Assault on Tobruk, 30 April - 4 May 1941.
by Phil Yates

After Rommel’s failed attempt to take Tobruk on the fly in the middle of April, he needed time to bring up more forces. On the last night of April he launched more than eighty German and a similar number of Italian tanks backed by pioneers and several regiments of German and Italian infantry at the Australian defences. He expected to punch through the defences at their weakest point, and capture Tobruk. The Australians had other ideas. As their general, Morshead put it, they were not there to take it, they were there to give it.
On 12 February 1941, Rommel landed in the port of Tripoli in the Italian colony of Libya. His orders were to stop
the British, who had just conquered Cyrenaica, the western half of Libya, from taking Tripoli and the rest of the colony. Six weeks later, just two weeks after the arrival of his tanks, Rommel launched a reconnaissance in force against the British defences in Cyrenaica. His intention was to push the British back and secure the defensible terrain around El Agheila. Rommel was surprised to discover the weakness of the British forces facing him. The British, stretched to meet their commitments in Greece, chose to retire to shorten their supply lines rather than fight for empty desert. They didn’t allow for Rommel’s drive and the poor state of their own tanks. By 10 April they had lost almost all of their tanks to mechanical failure, and all of Cyrenaica except the port of Tobruk.
The inexperienced Australian 9th Divisionunder General Morshead had retreated into Tobruk just ahead of Rommel’s advancing troops. Short of just about everything, they determined to make their stand there, supplied by the Royal Navy. The Australians, and the British and Indian forces trapped with them, wasted no time in restoring the fortifications stormed by their mates of the 6th Division less than three months previously.

While Tobruk was described as a fortress, it had little in common with an old-fashioned castle. The perimeter was 28 miles (45 km) long, surrounded by barbed wire, a minefield, and an anti-tank ditch and deep wadis (dry flood channels of seasonal rivers) for much of its length. Bunkers surrounded by wire and a small anti-tank ditch were sited every 500m to 700m along the perimeter. 
German map of the Tobruk defences, 1941.
Those west of Ras El Madauur were named S1 through S45. Those to the east were named R1 through R84. The bunkers came to be known as Tobruk pits and were copied by the Germans for their defences in Normandy. They had an underground bunker with a hole in the roof at ground level for the machine-gunner to fire out of. Each post was manned by a section of ten men. Rommel waited just long enough to for his tanks to arrive before launching an attack up the El Adem road on 12 April.
Panzer II and III tanks race past British defences. Unlike the British in Cyrenaica, the Australians weren’t going anywhere. The anti-tank ditch surrounding much of the fortress, combined with heavy and accurate anti-tank and artillery fire and delays in the arrival of the pioneers, delayed the main attack until 14 April. Dawn found the German Panzers through the main defences, right in front of the British artillery lines. The gunners fought bravely, eventually driving the Germans off with the help of their own anti-tank guns and tanks.
Rommel’s first attempt at taking Tobruk had failed. He waited impatiently for the next two weeks, testing the defences as his force gathered. By the end of the month he had most of two German and one Italian armoured division, and two Italian infantry divisions available. The evacuation of the defeated British, Australian and New Zealand forces in Greece was well under way. Fearing that the troops in Tobruk would also stage a Dunkirk and escape, he ordered an immediate attack on Point 209, a low rise named Ras El Madauur.
Break In, 1900hr 30 April - 1200hr 1 May 1941.
Ras El Madauur was the highest point inside the perimeter. It was situated in the south-western sector of the defences, in the gap between the anti-tank ditch across the southern face of the fortress and Wadi Sehel along the western face. Probing attacks and other activity in the area gave Morshead time to fortify the area with an additional minefield between Ras El Madauur and Bianca at the head of the Wadi Giaida.
The attack began in the evening of 30 April 1941 with an artillery and aerial bombardment of the perimeter posts around Ras El Madauur. This cut communications to the headquarters of 2/24th Battalion (pronounced ‘second twenty fourth’, since the original 24th Battalion had fought in WWI) defending this area. After a night of conflicting  reports, the battalion was ordered to send strong patrols to determine the situation. Matilda II infantry tanks engage the marauding Panzers.

Dawn clarified the situation before the patrols could be sent out—an entire battalion of German tanks was inside the perimeter and advancing. Unfortunately the morning also brought fog, replaced by a sandstorm in the afternoon, making it difficult for either side to be sure of the other’s intentions. To make things worse for Morshead, Rommel’s Italian troops
launched diversionary attacks on both the eastern and western flanks of the fortress and probed the southern perimeter at the El Adem Road with their tanks.

The tanks inside the perimeter were the 2nd Battalion, 5th Panzer Regiment, almost Rommel’s entire tank strength.
The battalion had four composite companies with a total of 81 tanks. While the 5th Company engaged the anti-tank
guns on the left flank and assisted the pioneers on the right flank, the 6th Company lead the way towards Bianca, their immediate objective. They promptly ran onto the second minefield losing nine Panzer III and three Panzer II tanks immobilised. They spent most of the rest of the day recovering these under heavy artillery fire. With the main thrust stopped, 7th Company swung eastwards to assist the 200th zbV (Special Purpose) Pioneer Battalion to clear the bunkers to the west of the break in. This advance was halted by intense artillery fire.

The Opposing Forces at Ras El Madauur
British Forces
German Forces
2/24th Battalion, 26 (Australian) Brigade
A, C & D Companies in perimeter bunkers
B Company in reserve with 26 Brigade Anti-tank Company

II/5th Panzer Regiment, 5th Light Division
5th, 6th & 7th Light Companies with Panzer II C and III G tanks
2/48th Battalion, 26 (Australian) Brigade
A & D Companies counterattacked in evening

8th Medium Company with Panzer I A, II C, & IV D/E tanks
1st (MMG) Battalion, Royal Northumberland Fusiliers
positioned near Bianca

Total number of tanks
9x Panzer I A light tanks,
24x Panzer II C light tanks,
36x Panzer III G light tanks,
8x Panzer IV D/E medium tanks

51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (with 12x 18 pdr guns &
12x 4.5” howitzers) positioned near Bianca

2nd Machine-gun Battalion, 5th Light Division
14th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment defending artillery with Bofors
40mm guns

200th zBV (Special Purpose) Pioneer Battalion
107th Royal Horse Artillery (with 25 pdr guns firing from near
Fort Pilastrino)

Ju 87B Stuka dive-bomber support from Stuka Groups I & II.
3rd Royal Horse Artillery (with 2 pdr anti-tank guns)
Italian Forces
3rd Hussars (two troops) reconnoitring from Fort Pilastrino
VII ‘M’ Tank Battalion
with M13/40 medium tanks

STAN, HQ, 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (with 6x A9 & A10 cruiser tanks)
I ‘L’ Tank Battalion
with L3/35 tankettes and L3/35 flamethrower tankettes
PUDO, B Squadron, 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (with
5x A9 & A10 cruiser tanks)

XII Bersaglieri (Light Infantry) Battalion
DOAN, C Squadron, 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (with
9x A13 cruiser tanks)

Approximate Comparison of Forces

British
Tanks: 6 light, 20 cruiser, 18 infantry
Infantry Battalions: 2+1 Machine-guns
Artillery: at least 48 guns


German
33 light, 44 mdeium*
2 German, 1 Italian unknown.
*plus an unknown number of Italian light and medium tanks.

DYNE, D Squadron, 7th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (with
18x A12 Matilda II infantry tanks)

Counterattack, 1300hr - 1730hr 1 May 1941.
Meanwhile, Morshead sent two troops, each of three Light Mark VI tanks, to investigate reports of German tanks attacking around posts R13 and R14. They reported tanks within the perimeter, although the enemy was well south of
the wire. The British responded first with PUDO (B Squadron of 1 RTR with five A9 and A10 cruiser tanks), then later with DOAN (C Squadron with nine A13 cruiser tanks). These expended most of their ammunition shooting at the Italians and then the Germans when the 5th Company advanced to engage them at long range. After this PUDO withdrew to rearm and DOAN was sent to investigate continued reports of tank activity around the El Adem Road.

German Panzer II, III, IV tanks attack the British lines supportvy by Pioneers and dismounted motorcycle infantry. After the morning’s activity the early afternoon settled down to mutual shelling and further air attacks. DYNE (D Squadron of 7 RTR with 18 heavy Matilda II infantry tanks) was ordered to send half of the squadron west to attack the German penetration near the water tower, and half of the squadron south and then along the perimeter to find out which posts were still holding out. This was cancelled two hours later with half the squadron sent back to cover the El Adem Road, while the remaining five tanks (three had broken down and one knocked out by air attack) were sent to investigate a rumoured penetration at R11 and R12.
The three remaining tanks of PUDO and three more from STAN, regimental HQ, accompanied DYNE. They reached R12 to find that it had not been attacked. They then set off for R6, now reported to be in trouble. On reaching R8 they left PUDO and two of the Matilda tanks behind with mechanical problems. On reaching R6 they found it battered, but still holding. However, a flanking move by 5th Company combined with frontal fire by 7th and 8th Companies forced the British to retreat losing three Matilda tanks and one cruiser in the process.

Around the same time tanks and infantry from the Italian 132nd Ariete armoured division entered the perimeter through the German gap. Ariete had begun the campaign with three battalions of light L3/35 tankettes (including numbers of flame-thrower tanks) and one battalion of medium M13/40 tanks, but by this stage had just a single battalion of each. As night was falling, the Italian flamethrower tanks attacked the triangular position, but were repulsed by heavy fire. At the same time, the Italian infantry attacked the Australian posts along the perimeter supported by the remains of 5th and 7th Companies. Once again these attacks were halted by heavy artillery fire, although R6 and R7 finally fell during the night and R8 was abandoned.
Evening Attacks, 1800hr - 2115hr 1 May 1941.
While these final German and Italian attacks were being organised, Morshead was rushing 2/48th Battalion to Bianca in order to launch a counterattack intended to restore the perimeter. The odds were firmly against this counterattack. Delays in getting enough transport delayed the jump off. The artillery plan was already underway, leaving the advancing infantry without support. The Australians attacked gallantly, but were driven off all along the front.

Soon after the German tanks withdrew from the perimeter to refuel and rearm. Of the 81 tanks operational in the morning, only 35 were still operation (although only 12 were total write offs). Rommel’s attempt to capture Tobruk had failed. The fighting continued for the next two days as the Germans attempted to expand the breach, while the Australians attempted to close it, but the positions reached at the end of the first day largely remained after
the inconclusive fighting.

General Morshead sealed off the salient with a new defensive line, while Rommel withdrew to prepare for a major attack in November. Tobruk had held.

Italian M13/40 tanks, L3/35 tankettes and L3/35 flame-throwing tankettes assault the B Company defences.
Refighting Ras El Madauur with Flames Of War

The first day of the battle at Ras El Madauur makes a great wargame. The forces are quite mismatched, but balanced, as the Germans have lots of tanks, but the defending troops have plenty of guns and minefields and are determined to fight it out.
British 23pdr guns, protected by Vickers medium machine-guns, pound the German tanks and pioneers.
There are lots of ways that you could refight the battle, but since I play Flames Of War, I organised the forces and wrote some special rules for the battle using this system. To keep the forces small enough to fit our collection, I scaled things down so that a platoon represents a company.
Panzer III tanks assault through British defences supported by dismounted motorcycle infantry.
You could also wargame the pioneers attack on the night of 30 April as a small unit battle pitting a pioneer platoon against a bunker in the dark. The counterattacks on 2 and 3 May are also interesting infantry battles as both sides struggled to improve their situations.

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