26 MAY-21 JUNE 1942
“It was only in the desert that the principles of armoured warfare as they were taught in theory before the war could be fully applied and thoroughly developed. It was only in the desert that real tank battles were fought by large-scale formations ” Erwin Rommel
The wide open spaces and lack of inhabited areas have always given desert warfare its own particular quality. In World War II, the campaigns fought in the coastal desert of Italian Libya had their own special importance for believers in the tank and in the blitzkrieg. They offered the chance of manoeuvre and the interplay of rapidly moving armoured forces almost in their purest form. It was in this arena that Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most famous of all the German generals of the war, earned his formidable reputation as a winner of armoured battles.
The battle that was fought south of Gazala in eastern Libya, between 26 May and 14 June 1942, is crucial in that it was Rommel’s greatest victory over the British Eighth Army. His German Afrika Korps, combined with substantial Italian elements, took on and decisively defeated British, Imperial, and Allied forces which were dug-in behind minefields in a strongly defended position. Furthermore, the Eighth Army had a narrow superiority in numbers of men, tanks, and guns. This might seem unexceptional, were it not that orthodox tactics required a 3:1 advantage to the attacker, which was precisely what Montgomery demanded before he attacked Rommel at El Alamein 6 months later. Seen in this light, Rommel’s victory was nothing less than miraculous. Yet it should also be remembered that it almost never came to pass, and that for 12 hours at the battle’s crisis it was Rommel who contemplated surrender.
The British Plans
The British Eighth Army was no easy opponent for Rommel. Not only had it tasted victory over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941, but it had also driven back an over-extended Afrika Korps to El Agheila in `Operation Crusader’ at the end of 1941. In May 1942 it was in position covering Tobruk (held by its 2nd South African Division), because it had been forced back there by Rommel’s outflanking manoeuvre in January. Yet Rommel had been compelled to halt before the apparently well-planned defences of the Gazala Line. Almost 60 miles of minefields (known as the `mine marsh’) stretched south from the coast to the fortress at Bir Hacheim, designed to protect the desert flank of Eighth Army from encirclement.
About 100,000 strong, the bulk of Eighth Army formations were concentrated into `boxes’, independent strongpoints combining infantry and artillery. In the north, there was the 1st South African Division, then the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division, stretching as far as the Sidi Muftah box in the centre of the position. A brigade-sized force of Free French under Major General Joseph Pierre Koenig held Bir Hacheim, yet 20 miles of mine marsh between these two boxes was left uncovered by artillery.
In addition, the British commander Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie had forgotten the lessons of the early desert war. While one of his successful predecessors, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, had recognized the need to keep a deep cushion of reconnaissance forces between him and the enemy, Ritchie had almost all his infantry in the front line. His tank formations, 1st Armoured Division, and the famous 7th Armoured Division (the `Desert Rats’), were kept a little to the right rear of the main position, but they were not properly integrated into the defence and not capable of coordinating with the other arms to best effect. This was despite reforms instituted by the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck (known as The Auk’ to all). The `Crusader’ operation, although eventually successful, had proved the inflexibility of grouping armour and infantry in separate divisional formations, so Auchinleck broke them down into self-contained brigade groups with their own engineers and supporting artillery. By the start of the Gazala battle an armoured division was, theoretically at least, composed of an armoured brigade and two motorized infantry brigade groups, and the intention was to combine armour and anti¬ tank weapons in imitation of successful German tactics.
Yet the Eighth Army lacked the tactical doctrine to operate these novel formations effectively, and the infantry and armour were condemned to fight separate battles. Ritchie’s unimaginative deployment was matched by the clumsy command structure. The area north of the Trigh Capuzzo highway he designated as under XIII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General William (`Strafer’) Gott. South of this line lay XXX Corps under Lieutenant General Baron Willoughby Norrie, who commanded troops in the boxes as well as the two armoured divisions, an unhappy arrangement further worsened by their scattered dispositions. Auchinleck advocated a concentration of armour centrally around the box code-named `Knightsbridge’, but Ritchie did not take this advice. Both British commanders were aware that a sweep around Eighth Army’s left or desert flank was a likely option; but they were expecting an attack on the centre of their position along the Trigh Capuzzo.
The German Plans
The German attack was code-named `Operation Theseus’. Field Marshal Rommel’s plan, as expressed in his planning order of 1 May, was no less than the destruction of the enemy forces opposing him and the subsequent capture of Tobruk. This fortress had held out against an eight-month siege in 1941, and seizing it was crucial to the wider plan of Rommel’s attack upon Egypt. Axis forces numbered about 90,000, including 561 tanks, although 228 of these were of Italian manufacture, known to the British as `mobile coffins’. Rommel’s 333 German tanks, or Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw), included 220 PzKw IIIs, most of the rest being PzKw IVs with short-barrelled guns more effective in the infantry support role. There were also upgraded versions of both types, known as `Specials’, whose long 75-mm guns gave them greater penetration, but Rommel had only 4 PzKw IV Specials and 14 PzKw Specials at the beginning of the battle. This was important because it meant that the Germans did not have the decisive qualitative superiority in armour with which they have so often been credited. The British possessed an enormous numerical superiority in armour – 849 tanks – although only 167 were the new US-built M3 Grants, which carried a 75-mm gun and were superior to the PzKw Ills.
A crucial part of the Desert War was fought in the air. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe, Rommel’s immediate superior, was acutely conscious of the need to keep the Panzerarmee supplied with petrol, food, and other necessities. In order to do this he directed an intensive bombing campaign against Malta, the British island base which threatened the Axis supply route from Naples to Tripoli. The results led to Kesselring prematurely declaring on 11 April that: `Malta as a naval base no longer demands consideration’. In the build-up to the Gazala battle, supplies reaching Rommel greatly increased. In January 1942, the Afrika Korps received 60,000 tons of fuel; in April this had risen to 150,00 tons. Also, on 26 May, Kesselring was able to assemble some 260 aircraft to support Rommel’s attack. Against them, the British Desert Air Force could only muster 190 aircraft, and its US-built P-40 Kittyhawk and Hawker Hurricane fighters proved inferior to the new Messerschmitt Bf 109F. As a result, the Germans were able to maintain a considerable air superiority throughout the battle.
The Opening Moves
Rommel launched his attack on the afternoon of 26 May. Gruppe Cruewell under Lieutenant General Ludwig Cruewell, himself a former Afrika Korps commander, consisting of four Italian infantry divisions under X Corps and XXI Corps, attacked the British and South African positions north of the Trigh Capuzzo. This was a feint to persuade the enemy that Cruewell’s was the main point of attack.
In fact, Rommel was already leading 10,000 vehicles southeast. At about 9.00 p. m., on the pre-arranged codeword `Venezia’ (Venice), Rommel swung this force around Eighth Army’s southern flank. On the inside of the wheel were the Italian Trieste Motorized Division, then their Ariete Armoured Division, then the German mobile forces: 21st Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division, and, on the extreme right flank, 90th Light Division. The last named carried aircraft propellers to create more dust and convince the British that theirs was also a tank formation.
At 6.30 a. m. on 27 May the Ariete fell upon the surprised 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade and, although held up momentarily, dispersed it with the help of a few tanks from 21st Panzer Division. One hour later, 90th Light Division came into contact with the 7th Motorized Brigade (part of 7th African Division) was supposed to coordinate with 22nd Armoured Brigade’s 156 tanks, but this simply failed to happen because the infantry and armour had not trained together. In the north, an attack by 32nd Army Tank Brigade was struck in the flank by German panzers, and of the 70 Matilda and Valentine infantry tanks only 20 survived the attack.
On the afternoon of 5 June the Germans counter-attacked; a pincer movement with 21st Panzer Division and Ariete in the north and 15th Panzer from the south. That evening, Major General Messervy’s headquarters was overrun again, and the Indian units’ command and control broke down completely; 22nd Armoured Brigade was unable to provide any support, having already been withdrawn into leaguer for the night. It too had been severely handled, losing 60 tanks. The following day 15th Panzer struck through Bir el Harmat to close the line of retreat: 3,100 prisoners, 96 guns, and 37 anti-tank guns fell into German hands. Eighth Army had lost over half its cruiser tanks (down from 300 to 132), and 50 out of 70 infantry support tanks. Rommel’s assessment of the situation was that Ritchie had missed a great opportunity to form a Schwerpunkt (`critical point of an attack’) in front of 21st Panzer Division.
One area in which the British did enjoy success was in raids upon the German supply line. On 8 June, Italian positions were overrun by four troops from 8th Royal Tank Regiment supported by South African armoured car and reconnaissance units. On the same day an infantry column of 2nd Rifle Brigade destroyed over 40 lorries, 4 tanks, and 7 artillery pieces. Important though such moves were, they were no more than flea bites in comparison to the kind of response that was needed to hold Rommel in check. With the hapless British assault crushingly repulsed, he was able to turn his attention to the destruction of the isolated Free French at Bir Flacheim.
Crisis at Bir Hacheim
From 2 June to 9 June there were 1,300 German air attacks on the Bir Hacheim position, 120 on the last day alone. Rommel appreciated the difficulty of the task, since he considered the carefully prepared strongpoints within Bir Hacheim as `practically proof against air and artillery attacks’. Effective ground attacks began on 6 June, the day that Rommel broke out of `The Cauldron’, when two attacks by infantry with tank support were beaten off. On 8 June, 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division, combined with 15th Panzer Division and supported by heavy Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive- bombing attacks, eventually began to the crack the position – `the thorn in my side’, as Rommel described it. Attacks the next day left 250 Axis dead in front one defending battalion’s position alone. But by the end of 9 June it was apparent to Koenig that Bir Hacheim could no longer be held.
Still, Rommel was unwilling to try and overrun the position with tanks because of the heavy losses which he knew he would have to take. On 11 June, Koenig engineered a breakout which left only 500 men in German hands, although losses in equipment had been heavy. By holding on so determinedly the Free French had bought time for their Allies. Could this now be used to the best advantage? Although Rommel had turned Eighth Army’s flank, all was not lost for the British. They held a strong defensive position stretching from the original Gazala Line in its northern portion and along the Trigh Capuzzo from the Knightsbridge box over 20 miles east to Sidi Regezh. This was defended in depth, and behind lay the garrison of Tobruk, although crucially, the town’s fortifications had not been repaired since its recovery six months earlier. Also, the Afrika Korps had taken substantial damage. It was below half its original strength and some, infantry units were down to a third; the Germans had 160 tanks and the Italians 70 tanks, although the Axis artillery was almost entirely intact, and was to be increased in strength by the large numbers of captured British guns which were distributed to its units.
The End of the Battle
For the next phase of the battle, Rommel was determined to repeat the medicine as before. Once more he intended the total destruction of the enemy. On the afternoon of 11 June, 90th Light Division moved south and leaguered for the night 7 miles south of El Adem, while 15th Panzer followed as far as Naduret el Bhesceuasc. The new British plan was to break through southeast to Bir el Gubi with 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, which would bring them upon the flank of 15th Panzer as it attacked El Adem. But the British armour was still forming up on 12 June when it was attacked from the north by 21st Panzer and Ariete and counter-attacked from the south by 15th Panzer. Although 22nd Armoured Brigade came to the assistance, it was severely mauled by German tanks. The other armoured brigades were then surrounded and destroyed. Although the figures are uncertain, it seems that on the morning of 12 June there were some 250 cruiser tanks and 80 infantry tanks available to the British; by the next day these had been reduced to 50 and 30 respectively, with 4th Armoured Brigade having only 15 tanks, and 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades only 50 tanks between them.
On 12 June, Auchinleck flew up from Cairo to assume direct command from Ritchie, but he was too late to save the situation. Almost the only factor in Eighth Army’s favour was the extreme exhaustion of the German forces, whose attacks began to falter towards the end of 13 June. The Gazala Line had become untenable. Auchinleck drew up plans for a new defensive position, centred upon Acroma, to prevent the investment of Tobruk, and Eighth Army troops west of this line were effectively abandoned to the enemy. On the night of 14 June, the South Africans in the north of the original line fell back down the Via Balbia to Tobruk. Elements of 50th (Northumbrian) Division actually broke through the Italians opposing them and swung through the desert, escaping to Egypt. For the rest of the British forces, Tobruk provided an illusory refuge. They fell back in disorder to a position that had not been maintained to provide an effective defence. Unlike the previous year when the garrison had held out for eight months, the situation was to prove impossible, and by 21 June the town had fallen. Some 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including over 13,000 South Africans) were taken prisoner, together with huge amounts of guns, ammunition, and especially fuel essential to the Afrika Korps’ continued mobility.
After the Battle
Rommel’s plan had succeeded brilliantly. Although it had come near to failure on 29 May, and he himself had been prepared to surrender, Rommel was able to rescue the situation and inflict upon Eighth Army the most severe defeat it had ever suffered. His signal of 21 June epitomizes his style of command: Tor all troops of the Panzerarmee… Fortress of Tobruk has capitulated. All units will reassemble and prepare for further advance’. Five days later he was at El Alamein, the last-ditch defence line before Egypt – but that is another story. – Summer 1942 was the zenith of Rommel’s career in North Africa. He himself summed up why the British could not beat him by asking, `What is the advantage of enjoying overall superiority if you allow your enemy to smash your formations one after another; your enemy who manages in single actions to concentrate superior forces at a decisive point?’ That was the essence of the kind of war he practised: blitzkrieg.