The British Battleaxe Offensive – Hill 208

The next day passed in the uncertainty of waiting. More and more tanks were made serviceable. Kümmel tried repeatedly to free up a few hours for the individual platoons to go swimming. On one occasion they had just entered the water when General Rommel came driving up in his “Mammoth.” Kümmel was about to report, but Rommel gestured for him to stand easy.

“Are your men well on their way, Kümmel?” he asked.

“They are in top form, Herr General,” answered the Hauptmann.

“That’s good. Very well, carry on lads!”

The general drove away and his vehicle disappeared beyond the dunes in the direction of the regiment command post. In the next days Kümmel saw Rommel, or the “Desert Fox” as they called him, repeatedly. He was with the divisions south of Tobruk and he came to them in the area south of Bardia. He drove up to the Halfaya Pass and also inspected the positions between Sidi Azeiz and Capuzzo.

Once Hauptmann Kümmel drove reconnaissance and reached Hill 208, approximately eight kilometers west-southwest of Capuzzo. He saw Italian combat engineers fortifying the positions there. Then he came to the heavy flak battery which was set up in a reverse-slope position. An Oberleutnant came over to him.

“Ziemer!” he said.

“Kümmel,” replied the Hauptmann. They shook hands. “Good field of fire for the battery if the Tommies come up from the southeast.” He pointed from the top of the barely 600-meter-long and roughly 400-meter-wide hilltop to the southeast, where the coast stretched into the distance.

Hans Kümmel looked at the position. The four “eighty-eights” were so well camouflaged that they had virtually disappeared into the sand. Only their barrels projected beyond the sandbagged emplacements.

“It’s just that I don’t believe the enemy will attack right here,” declared Ziemer. “They will either attack along the road through the Halfaya Pass, or they will make a wide sweep through the desert around Sidi Omar. Anything else would be rubbish.”

“Yes, well one never knows that beforehand. Anyway, as a tank man this piece of desert would tempt me. For if you got pass Hafid Ridge here, you would be in Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz in no time at all.” The two officers were joined by Oberleutnant Paulewicz, commander of the 1st Oasis Company, which was in command on this small hilltop.

“If Tommy is stopped here,” he said, “then his entire offensive is down the drain.”

“Well then, Paulewicz, just make sure that they don’t get through.”

“If the panzers help us we will do it,” declared the Oberleutnant confidently.

Through his binoculars Kümmel observed the dust clouds in the desert.

“Something going on there, Bock,” he said to his adjutant, who had accompanied Kümmel and meanwhile had driven the car forward to the southeast face of Hafid Ridge.

“Yes, it looks like a whole mahalla!” nodded the Oberleutnant. “What are they doing? Have they received replacements for the tanks they lost?”

“We haven’t heard anything about a convoy. But it is hard to say. Perhaps they have received a lot of new tanks without our knowledge.”

What Hauptmann Kümmel and his superiors did not know yet was that a British convoy had got through to Africa. Following the defeat of General Wavell in Cyrenaica, British prime minister Winston Churchill had done everything he could to restore the fighting power of the 8th Army. He knew that the 15th Panzer Divisions 8th Panzer Regiment had been transported to Africa, raising the Africa Corps’s strength in the theater to two complete panzer divisions.

In the famous conference of 21 April 1941 Churchill forced the Admiralty to send the next convoy through the Strait of Gibraltar instead of around the Cape of Good Hope. This would provide a faster resupply than the Germans would be able to achieve. The convoy was dubbed “Tiger.”

“Operation Tiger” was supposed to deliver 295 tanks and 50 fighter aircraft to Africa. The Admiralty required five large cargo vessels to transport these quantities of equipment. The naval forces under Admiral Somerville were to guard the vital convoy. If it got through, the British 8th Army would have enough tanks to carry out its summer campaign, codenamed “Battleaxe.”

The “Battleaxe” plan called for the armored forces of the 8th Army to attack in three groups. The following units were available for the operation:

The 4th Indian Division with one brigade of its own and the 22nd Guards Brigade. As well the 7th Armoured Division with a brigade of Matilda tanks and one of Cruiser tanks.

Attacking on the right flank would be a brigade of the 4th Indian Division with its own Matilda infantry tanks. It was to capture Halfaya Pass and clear the entire strip of coastline.

In the central sector was the 22nd Guards Brigade with the rest of the Matildas, the 4th Armoured Brigade. Its mission was to take Capuzzo and Solium.

The 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered to advance on the left flank straight towards Hill 208 (Hafid Ridge) to take possession of this commanding high ground, and then advance toward Sidi Azeiz, linking up with the fortress garrison and closing the ring around the trapped German units.

According to General Wavell, who had assumed command in Egypt: “In the second phase of the battle we will move up the freed-up Matilda tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade as support for the 7th Armoured Brigade, for it is to be expected that the Germans will give battle with their two panzer divisions. If we succeed in relieving Tobruk and breaking the German siege, then we will be able to advance in the direction of Derna and Mechili in the third phase of the battle, unhinge the German positions and achieve ultimate victory in North Africa.’

Such were the British hopes for “Operation Battleaxe.” Air Vice Marshal Tedder had amassed 105 bombers and 98 fighters to sup- port the ground offensive, but the decisive factor was the almost 300 tanks that had arrived on the “Tiger” convoy.

The importance of this convoy is reflected in a telegram from Winston Churchill to General Wavell, in which he said: “Should ‘Tiger’ reach you, the moment has come to dare and to act. I have ordered the Hurricanes on Malta placed under your command as soon as ‘Tiger’ successfully reaches its berths. These Huns are far less dangerous when they have lost the initiative. All of our best wishes go with you.”

Crusader 7th Armoured Brigade

“Operation Tiger” succeeded, even though one of the ships (the Empire Song) hit a mine and went down with its cargo of 57 tanks and 10 aircraft. Approximately 240 tanks reached the front. This number included 135 Matilda IIs and 82 new Crusader I tanks. Already on 28 May General Wavell wired London that the tanks had been assembled and their guns aligned and that with them he would be in a position to drive back the Africa Korps, relieve Tobruk and achieve total victory.

On the afternoon of this first day of the battle the British tanks attacked the Hafid Ridge for the third time. Hill 208 simply had to fall, if it was not to remain a thorn in the side of the British.

“Let them come to within 800 meters!” ordered Oberleutnant Ziemer.

Gefreiter Huebner, gunner in the crew of gun “Anton” of 3rd Battery, I Battalion, 33rd Flak Regiment, aimed at the first tank to appear from out of the dust. He made a slight correction. It was almost a repeat of the situation they had encountered twice that morning when the mass of British tanks had headed for Hill 208. Then he pressed the firing button.

With a sharp crack the shell left the long barrel and scarcely a second later the 88-mm round smashed through the armor of a Crusader I. Flames, smoke, fleeing figures, all jumbled together in a haze of smoke.

The sun’s heat caused the sand dust to glimmer. An armor-piercing shell struck the wall of sandbags around “Anton” The men were showered with dirt. The ammunition carriers gasped for breath. All four guns were firing now. A Crusader I approached at high speed. It dodged to the side. Gun commander Unteroffizier Heintze had just ordered Huebner to target this tank. The British tank halted in preparation for firing. But the Gefreiter already had it in his sights.

The enemy tank was hit square in the front and was left immobile and smoking. From that point on other Crusader I tanks concentrated their fire on the German gun positions. The defenders had counted 85 tanks. But then German tanks arrived and joined the battle. They were tanks of the 5th Panzer Regiment under the command of Oberst Olbricht. The enemy tanks turned and fled. Hill 208 was saved.

The first day of “Operation Battleaxe” was over. The enemy had achieved a success, as the British 7th Armoured Division had advanced past Capuzzo and Musaid and had almost reached the assembly areas of the 15th Panzer Division. The British were thus just short of Bardia. Advancing past the southwest decline of the Halfaya Plateau, the enemy tanks reached Upper Solium and overran the light German forces stationed there. But the big objective, a breakthrough with all forces, had not been achieved.

At least 28 of the new British tanks brought in by the “Tiger” convoy, lay shattered in front of Hill 208. The burnt-out hulks of another eleven lay in front of the Halfaya Pass and on the pass road, while ten British tanks had met their end north of Capuzzo.

OPERATION BATTLEAXE (14th – 17th June 1941)

On 12th May 1941 a convoy codenamed “Tiger” arrived in Alexandria, bringing 135 Matildas, 82 of the new Crusader tanks (armed with 2-pdr guns) and 21 light tanks. Alas when SS Empire Song sunk after hitting a mine another 57 tanks had gone down with her. This was a total of 238 new tanks for the desert war. Wavell informed his staff and the High Command that due to difficulties in rebuilding 7th Armoured Division meant that the earliest date for moving forward from Mersa Matruh would be 7th June 1941. This all the Crusaders and the Light tanks were destined for 7th Armoured Brigade with the Crusaders being used to equip 6th RTR, while 2nd RTR was equipped with A9’s, A10’s and some A13’s. The 4th Armoured Brigade (4th and 7th RTR) was given the Matildas, so they could support the 4th Indian Division, recently returned from its triumphs against the Italians in East Africa. The Support Group consisted of 1st KRRC and 2nd Rifle Brigade, who were the Division’s Motorised Infantry supporting the tanks, and 1st, 3rd, 4th and 106th RHA, as the Division’s Artillery. At this time 3 RHA only consisted of ‘D’ Battery as ‘J’ and ‘M’ Batteries were part of the Tobruk Garrison. Alas both the Armoured Brigades lacked a third regiment and the regiments in each were not at full strength either. Additionally, having been without tanks for so long many of the crews still needed training. However, with this new equipment General Wavell planned his next offensive, “Operation Battleaxe”. His aim was to destroy the Germans and a decisive victory on North Africa, if nothing else the action may relieve Tobruk.

The plan was to attack and retake the old border posts Sollum, Fort Capuzzo and the Halfaya Pass in the first attack, using the 4th Indian Division, with 4th Armoured Brigade in close support. Once the enemy line had been breached, 7th Armoured Division would then join 4th Armoured Brigade and break through to Tobruk. Once Tobruk had been relieved the garrison and 7th Armoured Division would push on to secure a line between Derna and Mechili. The German/Italian strength was estimated to be 13,000 men and 100 tanks near the wire and a further 25,000 men and 200 tanks around Tobruk. The German Afrika Korps had the advantage in anti-tank guns with a dozen 88mm used in an anti-tank role, which could knock out even the heavily armoured Matildas at nearly 2,000 yards. In total they had 143 anti-tank guns of which 54 were the long barrelled 50mm Pak 38, which had a better performance than the British 2-pdr at 1,000 yards. The British relied upon the field artillery with its 25-pdr guns to knock out the German and Italian anti-tank guns before they could do too much damage to the advancing tanks. Therefore, part of the plan was to defeat the frontier forces before reinforcements could arrive, from Tobruk 80 miles away.

The attack started on the night of 14th-15th June, with the British advancing in three columns, with the British having some 300 tanks to the Germans 200, of which only about 100 were Panzer III & IV’s armed with guns. However, Rommel had prepared well and had placed almost all his anti-tank guns, including the 88’s near the front line. As dawn broke the right-hand column approached Halfaya Pass, over the top of the escarpment, but things started to go seriously wrong. ‘C’ Squadron, 4th RTR, supporting 2nd Cameron Highlanders came up against 88mm’s entrenched in stone sangers, with only their muzzles visible. By 10:00 hrs ‘C’ Squadron was reduced to one Matilda and one Light tank, having been “torn apart by the 88mm’s and the Camerons were forced to withdraw by infantry counter attacks, suffering great casualties in the process. The other two squadrons of 4th RTR along with 7th RTR supported 22nd Guards Brigade in their assaults on Sollum and Fort Capuzzo. The heavily defended Point 206 was bypassed, but by midday the centre column, led by 7th RTR, had captured Fort Capuzzo, with the loss of 5 tanks. Later counter attacks increased 7th RTR’s tank losses by another nine. By the end of the 15th out of the 100 Matildas that had started the battle only 37 were operational, but by morning hard work by the fitters had increased this number by another 11. This engagement became known as the Battle of Halfaya Pass, which became known as “Hellfire Pass”, by the British.

Meanwhile, the main force of 7th Armoured Division was preparing to hook round the German southern flank, led by 7th Armoured Brigade, equipped with the new Crusaders. To keep the Crusaders a surprise, the column was led by A9 and A10 Cruiser tanks from 2nd RTR. The first objective was Hafid Ridge, which was in fact three ridges. So on 15th June 2nd RTR attacked supported by an RHA Battery, but had to eventually withdraw from a isolated position having encounter a deep defensive line of enemy guns. On 2nd RTR’s left flank 6th RTR now attacked Hafid Ridge with their 52 Crusader tanks, while infantry attacks were made on Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo. There was a report that the Germans were withdrawing so 6th RTR’s ‘B’ Squadron advanced over the first ridge, only to encountered a line of guns concealed behind dummy trucks, with only 2 tanks escaping the slaughter. The Germans counter attacked and this was met by ‘C’ Squadron 6th RTR which had orders to hold this force at all cost. The battle became long range duel, with the British 2-pdrs hopelessly outclassed by the German 50mm and 75mm guns and by nightfall only 15 tanks were left. By 20:20 this was back up to 20 serviceable tanks and by dawn on 16th June 6th RTR consisted of RHQ with 3 tanks, ‘A’ Squadron with 7 and ‘C’ Squadron with 11 tanks. 2nd RTR ended the day with just nineteen serviceable tanks.

The advance of 2nd and 6th RTR had only managed to secure the first of the Hafid ridges and German tanks and anti-tank guns were hurrying from Tobruk. The Crusader tanks of 6th RTR were engaged by Panzer III and IV’s, with 17 being knocked out or simply breaking down. By the end of the first day 7th Armoured’s tank strength was down to half, while most of the German forces were still intact and receiving the reinforcements from Tobruk.

On the second day of “Battleaxe” (16th June) the 7th Armoured Division advanced for another assault on Hafid Ridge, with the help of the Matilda tanks of 4th Armoured Brigade, having been recalled from supporting 4th Indian Division. The attack was to be supported by artillery, while the Support Group and 7th Armoured Brigade stood by to either reinforce the attack or fend of any attempt to outflank the 4th Armoured Brigade. Unfortunately, Rommel struck first and while the German 15th Panzer Division counter attacked at Fort Capuzzo, the German 5th Light Division made a hook around the British flank in a effort to reach Halfaya Pass and cut off 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division from supply or escape back down the escarpment.

The German counter offensive forced the 4th Armoured Brigade to stay with 4th Indian Division and the attack on Hafid ridge was called off. The two German columns with some 80 tanks attacked in parallel and were met by a barrage of 25-pdr fire and anti-tank guns and the Matildas of 4th Armoured Brigade in hull-down positions. The British gunner and tank crews fought a very successful defensive battle and when the Germans withdraw they had lost about 50 tanks. While 4th Armoured Brigade was halting the advance at Capuzzo, the 7th Armoured Brigade heavily engaged by the German 5th Light Division. Initially the two RTR regiments had attacked and destroyed a large supply column, but the tanks of 5th Light Division (including MK IVs) had separated the two regiments, by some 6 miles. This meant that 2nd and 6th RTR being forced to fight separate engagements all day, with 6th RTR being attacked first and nightfall it only had nine Crusader tanks serviceable. The Germans then turned to attack 2nd RTR but nightfall curtailed their attack and both RTR regiments withdrew east of the wire to refuel. By nightfall 6th RTR only had nine Crusader tanks serviceable and the tank strength of 7th Armoured Brigade was reduced to just twenty-five tanks. By the end of the Operation only five of the original 52 Crusaders of 6th RTR had actually been present throughout all the battles it fought.

Rommel took the withdraw of the 2nd and 6th RTR as a sign that the British left flank was crumbling and on the night of 16th June, he concentrated both the German 15th Panzer and 5th Light Divisions and struck hard at the left flank on the 7th Armoured Division. The German attack started at 04:30 hrs with 75 tanks supported by artillery and smashed straight through the Division’s lines, with the Germans heading for the crux of the battle at Halfaya Pass. The 4th Indian Division had been pushed out of Sollum and was ordered to withdraw along the coastal plain. At Fort Capuzzo 22nd Guard Brigade were nearly trapped by the advance and General Creagh ordered the surviving tanks of both 4th and 7th Armoured Brigades to fight a defensive battle. Ably supported by the 25 pdrs of the Support Group, the British tanks fought a six hour battle, which gave time for the 22nd Guards Brigade and the 4th Indian Division to withdraw successfully. When he found out that his trap had been unsuccessful Rommel was furious. Supported by RAF bombers XIII Corps was in retreat and 17th June 7th Armoured Division was back in Sofafi, where it had started from three days before.

Morale was not good, with nearly 1,000 casualties (122 killed, 588 wounded and 259 missing), and with 91 tanks (including 58 Matildas and 29 Cruisers) being lost, nearly 81% of the British tanks were out of action within three days of the offensive starting. The Germans had lost just twelve tanks, by comparison. The Royal Tank Regiment’s history described the offensive bitterly as “Battleaxe became a byword for blundering.”

The battle had shown that the British tanks, even the heavily armoured Matilda, were no match for the dreaded 88mm. With the Germans now receiving large numbers of a long barreled 50mm anti-tank gun (PAK 38) which was nearly as effective, British tank tactics needed reviewing, as the German anti-tank gun ruled the desert battlefield. Winston Churchill was disappointed with the failure of “Battleaxe” and replaced General Wavell (sending him to India) with General Sir Claude Auchinleck. It was to be five months before the British attacked again.

THE ACTION AT POINT 208

When the attack alarm was given, two patrols from Point 208 were sent 2 miles to the south because of mist which blanketed the area. Fire was held for some time after tanks were first observed, because they were in the barrage area of Point 206. The 37-mm antitank guns opened fire first to drive off armored cars which were within 165 yards. Meanwhile the barrage from Point 206 had ceased, but Paulewicz gave orders to hold all antitank fire until vehicles approached to within close range in order not to give away antitank positions prematurely. This policy proved effective, for subsequent British artillery fire on Point 208 was inaccurate.

At 1015 on June 15, the British made a pincer attack on Point 208 with 45 tanks. The attacking force was soon reinforced to 70 tanks. Fire by all weapons was opened at close range. The left or easterly sector of the area was overrun, one 37-mm and one 20-mm antitank gun were knocked out, and one of the 88-mm guns was silenced. The commander of Point 208 immediately ordered the three 88-mm guns on the other flank to concentrate on the eastern sector, and this saved the situation for the Germans by enabling the silenced 88-mm to reopen fire. By 1130 hours 11 British tanks had been smashed and the rest driven away, and in the afternoon a new 14-tank attack was thrown back with 8 tanks knocked out. After that, Point 208 was secure and was used as a base for reforming the 8th Tank Regiment and the mobile infantry reserve.

The 1st Battalion of the 33d Antiaircraft Regiment had knocked out 19 tanks with its 88-mm guns. The description of the battle given in the battalion report differs slightly from that of Paulewicz. The 88-mm guns opened up at 1,760 yards and drove back the first tank attack without inflicting any casualties. In the pincer attack, the gun on the left flank knocked out two cruiser tanks before it was overrun. The three other 88-mm guns on the right opened fire upon the other arm of the pincers at 1,550 yards without getting hits, but later knocked out seven cruiser tanks at close range. In the third attack the 88-mm guns opened at 880 yards, knocking out eight cruiser and later two infantry tanks.

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