1. The British and French Tactical Doctrine After the World War
In the twenty years between the First and Second World War no new weapon was introduced except the anti-personnel and anti-tank mines. The British and the French, the victors, built their military forces on the experiences of the war; there was no change in the infantry; tanks were to be of two types, a heavy tank to break through strong defences and a faster tank for mobile warfare.
In the British army no progress was made in the mechanisation of the army after the war but Messrs. Vickers produced the Mark I Vickers tank with a speed of 20 m.p.h., a circuit of action of 130 miles and 3 pounder gun in a revolving turret; the Vickers Mark II tank appeared a little later with some improvements; Vickers produced a tractor to replace the horse for towing artillery guns and the Royal Army Service Corps developed multi-wheel drive lorries with large pneumatic tyres but these were not adopted by the army.
By 1923 the British had tanks with real mobility, they could be supplied with petrol, food and ammunition by cross country vehicles while there was no real anti-tank weapon. Tactically the Vickers tank was seen as one that could not be tied to slow moving infantry, it was to be employed to push out ahead with lorry borne infantry or to attack from a flank to enable infantry to capture a position.
The thinking in the British army continued along the lines that had developed during the First World War; heavy, powerful, slow tanks to support the infantry to break through the enemy’s main defences, this led to the development of the ‘Matilda’ infantry tank; faster, more mobile tanks, called ‘cruisers’, to act in the role of cavalry; a light tank armed with a machine gun, for the close support of the infantry, was also developed and produced in large numbers.
A school of thought, led by Captain Liddel Hart, advocated the formation of a force of all arms capable of moving a hundred miles in 24 hours; in 1927 an armoured force, consisting of a reconnaissance group of light tanks and armoured cars, a tank battalion of 48 Vickers tanks, an artillery brigade with tractors, a light anti-aircraft battery on lorries, a lorried machine gun battalion and mechanised engineer and signal companies, was formed. Trials showed that the future armoured division should have at least a brigade of tanks and a brigade of motorised infantry.
Further trials, studied the use of tanks in the reconnaissance role, in the attack and their function in a mobile role; the infantry studied how to employ armoured machine gun carriers and tanks in close support and to use mechanised first line transport.
While waiting for the formation of tank units and trials, suggestions were made about the organisation and tactical employment of tank units. Two types of tank brigades were proposed, light and mixed; the light tank brigade was to be of three light tank battalions of three companies each, each company of three sections of five light tanks. The mixed tank brigade was to consist of three mixed tank battalions of three companies each, each company of one section of five medium tanks and one section of seven light tanks.
The employment of tanks was based on the theory that troops had always fallen in two categories; the first, mobile troops that pushed forward, found the enemy, worked around his flanks, attacked him wherever he was weak and carried out a pursuit; the second, slower moving combat troops who closed with the enemy, held a defensive position or broke through the enemy’s defences to cooperate with mobile troops in the final defeat of the enemy.
Light tanks co-operating with cavalry or infantry were thought suitable for the mobile role while the mixed tank brigade was thought suitable to support infantry attacking a defensive position. It was thought that advancing infantry would be supported by light tanks that would keep anti-tank guns and machine guns under fire; the light tanks would be supported by the superior fire power of medium tanks and the infantry would pass through to mop up the enemy position.
In 1938 it was decided to form a ‘mobile’ division, a year later it became an ‘armoured’ division, with infantry and artillery and two armoured brigades; the proportion of arms other than armour, in the division, was small.
Before the start of the Second World War the British had decided to raise three armoured divisions, equipped with ‘cruiser’ medium tanks, in the role of the old cavalry division; three army tank brigades equipped with heavy infantry tanks for the support of infantry, eleven mechanised divisional cavalry regiments and one armoured car regiment. Because of production problems, at the start of the Second World War, only one armoured division was partially equipped with cruiser tanks and one tank brigade was partially equipped with the Matilda infantry tank.
The French thinking in the period between the two World Wars was purely defensive, they built the Maginot Line as unbreakable defensive line. Infantry and cavalry regarded the tank as an aid, some others saw it as a substitute for cavalry in the reconnaissance role. The French started the war with seven motorised divisions, two light mechanised divisions, a number of tank brigades equipped with heavy tanks and a partially raised armoured division.
The British and the French did not foresee the tank
as a decisive weapon.
2. The German Tactical Doctrine
Having lost the First World War the Germans learnt that national discipline, economic self-sufficiency and technology had played a vital part in deciding the outcome of the war.
The Treaty of Versailles deprived Germany of all weapons capable of offensive use and slashed her armed forces of millions to a mere 100,000; driven by these limitations, for the Germans there was a need to find ‘a better way of fighting’.
As the Chief of Army Staff, von Seeckt’s concern was of force structure, training and procurement; he constituted 57 committees of officers who had developed the successful offensive and defensive doctrines of 1917 and 1918 to examine World War I and develop a coherent picture of the battlefield. ‘Troop Leadership’ on the basis of the assessment of the war was published which emphasised flexibility, initiative at all levels, exploitation and leadership from the front.
With a numerical limitation imposed by the victors, the German armed forces, planning for the future to produce substantial fighting forces from a cadre of 100,000 men, assembled the finest body of men that they could, all recruited for long term service and carefully chosen to form the nucleus of a large army and a training ground for future commanders.
The restrictions imposed on Germany were both quantitative and qualitative, acquisition of submarines, military aircraft, armoured vehicles and tanks was forbidden. To overcome the ban, the German armament industry established factories and study centres in Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and the Soviet Union. Tanks were studied in the Soviet Union at Kazan proving grounds from 1926, there the German designers and army officers familiarised themselves with the technical and tactical problems of tank warfare.
Guderian, in 1922, as a staff captain in the transport directorate of the War Ministry, set about studying the military exploitation of motorization. He saw from the history of warfare that the Great Captains of all times had sought battlefield mobility and to this end had sought to increase their fast moving troops. Guderian, an infantry officer, visualised infantry riding into battle in vehicles to gain the ability to move fast on the battlefield while accompanying tanks.
The thinking in the German army, at this time was that if they were not going to be strong enough to fight and win a battle, they had to achieve their aim without fighting a battle by moving faster than the enemy could respond to turn the enemy tactically or pass through a gap or penetrate at a boundary or weak spot.
It was thought that a mobile force avoiding battle by going through difficult terrain, not engaging in anything more than an encounter battle or a light skirmish which could slow it down or destroy it, would gain strategic or operational surprise to penetrate to depths beyond the enemy’s reserves, this would dislocate the enemy physically and shatter the enemy commanders psychologically. The underlying thoughts were of breaking through to firstly seizing topographical objectives in great depth, a river line with its crossings or a communication centre or a regional or national government centre to act on the enemy’s political and popular will; secondly an operational objective which would separate elements of the enemy’s forces from one another and or cut the line of retreat; thirdly an envelopment to cut off, encircle and destroy the enemy.
In the period before 1931 Guderian’s initial studies and practical activities were confined to experiments with seven battalions of the Motor Transport Corps using commercial vehicles with and without tank mock-up bodies. Shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933, a new ‘Motorised Troops Directorate’ was formed under Guderian, in 1935 field trials of the armoured division organisation took place and three Panzer-divisions, three ‘light’ divisions and four motorised divisions (Panzergrenadier), were raised.
The Panzer divisions were of two types with tank-infantry ratios of 2 to 1 and 4 to 3; Panzer-grenadier divisions were formed by the motorization of infantry divisions and had a infantry-tank ratio of 4 to 1; ‘light’ divisions were formed by the mechanisation of cavalry, 4 to 1 infantry heavy, these divisions were usually reinforced with a tank brigade of three battalions and later became Panzer divisions.
The Germans brought out the Pz Kpfw I in 1932, a light tank with two machine guns in a small turret. Pz I and Pz II light tanks, remained the backbone of the German tank force till well after the beginning of the Second World War. In 1926the Germans decided that their main battle tank should be a twenty ton tank, the ‘Panzerkampwagen IV was designed on this premise. The Pz IV was introduced in 1937 and remained the main German battle tank till 1944; the last model was armed with a 75mm gun and weighed 25 tons.
When Germany went to war in 1939, there were six Panzer divisions, later four light divisions were converted; there were 17 motorised infantry divisions and three S.S. motorised divisions.
With the raising of armoured forces the importance of roads vis-a-vis railways had to be considered. The railways were too rigid and clumsy to sustain mobile operations therefore the German army had to motorise the army’s supply services. In 1939, 1,600 lorries were required to equal the capacity of a double tracked railway line, motorization on this scale meant greater consumption of fuel, spare parts, maintenance and personnel, while motorization was necessary for operational and tactical needs, it had a very limited effect on strategy and made railways economical for movement for distances over 200 miles.
At the start of the Second World War, in the German army 17 armoured, light and motorised divisions were fully motorised; infantry divisions marched on foot, they were authorised 942 vehicles each and 1,200 horse drawn wagons. In effect this meant that there was a fast moving motorised force which outran and left behind a slow moving marching force. The strictest control had to be maintained on the movement of infantry formations to prevent the obstruction of the supply columns of the armoured spearheads which required selection of routes, calculating the time it would take to move and maintaining traffic discipline.
After the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, the German Air Force surrendered nearly 20,000 aircraft to the Allies and was banned from producing military aircraft and maintaining an air force. However the air clause did not ban the production of civil aircraft and civil air aviation was used to develop the air force and to train pilots.
The German Air Force officers saw the German Air Force as an extension of the army, the aircraft as a weapon for the support of land forces; aircraft were developed keeping in view this tactical role. In Britain and America, the air forces developed on the Douhet theory of winning a war with strategic bombing, the tactical support of the land forces became a role much later.
For the support of ground forces the Germans developed close support ground attack techniques in Spanish Civil War; planes would attack troop concentrations and targets at low level, with four ten Kg bombs and a special detonator in the drop tanks, nine aircraft would approach at five hundred feet and drop their loads at the leaders nod because the aircraft then did have radios; morale of the ground troops suffered under ferocious aerial assault.
At the start of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, had 4,700 aircraft, including 552 3-engined transports and nine squadrons of ‘Junkers Ju 87 Stuka’ dive-bomber. ‘Stuka’ became a notorious word, it gave the German army a flying artillery which could be called in to deliver pin-point bombing attacks at crucial moments. The Stuka dive-bombers, trained to cooperate with armoured and motorised units of the army, their flexibility and speed without being tied down to the rigidity of traditional artillery support.
The Germans also raised paratroops, trained and
organised to seize key points ahead of advancing armour.
3. The Blitzkrieg
The Second World War started on September 1, 1939, with the refusal by Poland of the German demand for the return of Danzig, a German city ceded to Poland under the Versailles Treaty. The Germans, leaving twenty three infantry divisions to guard the French border, invaded Poland with six armoured divisions, six motorised divisions and thirty two infantry divisions; within seven days Polish resistance collapsed, Germany then occupied Denmark and overran Norway in April 1940 and then turned its attention to France.
The French had based their war plans on the premises that: (1) the Maginot Line, the French defences from the Swiss border to the Ardennes, was impregnable; (2) that the Ardennes forest prohibited the movement of large armoured forces; (3) that the Germans would repeat the Schlieffen manoeuvre as in 1914; (4) that French forces could not enter Belgium till her neutrality had been violated.
The French had 90 infantry divisions, 3 armoured divisions, 3 light armoured divisions, 5 light mechanised divisions and 27 tank battalions, a total of 2,460 tanks distributed in penny packets to support infantry. The French had three kinds of divisions, peace time active, first reserve and second reserve divisions.
The British had 10 infantry divisions, one army tank brigade with heavy tanks and five mechanised cavalry regiments with light tanks, a total of 229 tanks out of which 171 were light tanks. The Belgians had 18 divisions and the Dutch 8 infantry divisions.
The French had 1,500 effective aircraft while the British had 474 aircraft in France. With the premise that the Germans would repeat the Schlieffen manoeuvre, the Belgian plains had to be defended, the defence could be on the line of the Albert Canal, Antwerp to Liege; the second defensive line was of the River Dyle, Antwerp to Namur; the third line was the Scheldt River, Antwerp to Tournai. The Belgians decided to defend the Dyle line and the Anglo-French Allies planned to reinforce the Belgians on the Dyle or the Scheldt line.
According to the Allied plan the Belgian Army of eighteen divisions, after delaying the Germans for four or five days, was to fall back from the Albert Canal to its main defences on the Dyle river where the main Allied defences were to be based, with the Belgian divisions on the left between Antwerp and Louvain, the British Expeditionary Force, 6 divisions later 9, was to advance from Lille and deploy between Louvain and Wavre; two French armies, the 1st Army, 6 divisions and 9th Army, 9 divisions, were to advance to the Dyle, the latter pivoting on the 2nd Army between Mezeires and the Maginot Line at Longwy; the French 7th Army (seven divisions) was to advance to Breda in Holland if the Dutch neutrality was violated.
The French 1st Army, of two light mechanised divisions, three active divisions and one first reserve division, and the French 7th Army, of one light mechanised division, two motorised divisions, one active division, one first reserve and two second reserve divisions, had the better divisions because they were to advance into Belgium. The French 2nd Army with two active, one first and two second reserve divisions while the French 9th Army with one motorised, one active, two first reserve and two second reserve divisions were to defend the Ardennes Forest area which was considered bad country for a tank offensive.
The flaw in the Allied plan was that no mobile counterattack force existed to counter any breakthrough in Belgium or elsewhere.
The initial German plan was essentially a repetition of the 1914 Schlieffen Plan to be executed by three army groups; Army Group B with the bulk of the armoured divisions was to make the main thrust to the north of Brussels, on the right a force was to move through southern Holland; Army Group A was to protect the left flank of Army Group B and Army Group C was to face the Maginot Line.
Very shortly after the plan was issued in October 1939, General Rundstedt, commander Army Group A, at the suggestion of his chief of staff General von Manstein, put forward a plan of making the major tank thrust through the Ardennes forest in Luxembourg and southern Belgium but this was not approved. In January, a week before the offensive was to commence, a Luftwaffe officer courier crash landed in Belgium, documents carried by him revealed the German plan. Due to bad weather the offensive was postponed; in February, while Hitler was reconsidering where the main attack should take place, Manstein met him and explained his plan of making the main thrust through the Ardennes forest, after two war games the plan was adopted.
The final German plan was that on the German left, Army Group C of 1st and 7th Armies, 17 divisions, was to launch a feint attack and watch the Maginot Line; Army Group A consisting of the 2nd, 4th, 12th and 16th Armies, in all 37 infantry, 7 armoured and 3 motorised divisions, was to advance on the front Luxembourg-Aachen into France between Sedan and Namur to capture Amiens and Abbeville to cut off the Allies north of the Somme river; Army Group B, 6th and 18th Armies, was to protect the right flank of Army Group A, overrun northern Belgium and southern Holland. The Germans had 134 infantry divisions, 10 armoured, 4 motorised, 2,439 tanks, 4,300 effective aircraft including 600 transport aircraft.
Army Group A, commanded by von Rundstedt, was to make the main thrust, with three armies between Merzig and Aachen; on the left 16th Army, in the centre 12th Army, on the right the 4th Army. The 12th Army had the Panzer Group of Panzer Corps XIX, commanded by Guderian, facing the Luxembourg frontier and on the right Panzer Corps XLI commanded by Reinhardt, each corps was of three armoured divisions; on the right the 4th Army had the 5th and the 7th Panzer Divisions, the latter commanded by Rommel.
The German offensive started at 0535 hours on May 10, 1940. Air superiority was gained immediately, the airborne assault of Holland and Belgium started at dawn, the sensational nature of the airborne attacks seemed to confirm as to where the weight of the German offensive was going to be.
The airborne assault was made by the 7th Airborne Division, a Luftwaffe formation, commanded by Student and 22nd Infantry Division, an army airborne division commanded by Sponeck with troops trained and equipped for their various missions; the two divisions had the full support of Kesserling’s Luftflotte II.
Troops of the 7th Airborne Division occupied part of Rotterdam and Waalhaven airport and held their objectives with the support of Luftflotte II. At Dordrecht both banks of the Mass were held and the bridges on the Mass estuary were captured giving the German 18th Army access to the heart of Holland. The 22nd Division had the mission of seizing the Dutch capital, The Hague, and of obtaining the surrender and co-operation of the Dutch Crown, the division surprised and captured the airfields north, east and south of The Hague but the Dutch I Corps recaptured them.
At dawn on 10 May, Germans, pretending to be a party of Dutch soldiers escorting German deserters, approached the bridge at Gennep, opened fire on the Dutch guards at the bridge and captured it, similar attempts at Nijmegen and Roermond failed; these were carried out by the ‘Brandenburg Detachment’, German special troops. The capture of the Gennep bridge opened the road for the German 18th Army, 9th Panzer Division made contact with the 7th Airborne Division holding the Moerdijk bridges on the 12 May, this allowed it to break out into the heart of Holland. The German air force bombed Rotterdam on 14 May in what became known as the “horror raid’ which was said to have killed 35,000 civilians; casualties were later found to be 900. On 15 May Holland surrendered.
In Belgium, the 6th Army of Army Group B, advanced into Belgium on 10 May, the Belgian 7 Division was holding the Albert Canal with the right flank anchored on the fortress of Eben-Emael with two 120 mm and sixteen 75 mm guns in armoured turrets and casements. Since paratroops could not land directly on the fortress and time required to collect and direct the paratroops would have given the defenders plenty of warning, a special glider borne force of 424 men in 42 gliders was formed, this force commanded by Captain Walter Koch was given special training, including the use of explosives. On the left bank of the canal the Koch Detachment landed in the middle of the defences of the Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven bridges, taking advantage of the confusion the Germans cut the electric cables to the bridge demolition charges, threw the charges in the water and secured the bridge. Eleven gliders landed on the top of Fort Eben-Emael, 72 assault pioneers carrying 2500 Kgs of explosives set about blowing up the turrets and casements of guns according to a well rehearsed plan and within minutes many strong points were neutralised by explosive charges thrust into gun slits and hollow charges applied to armoured turrets. Attempts by the Belgian 7 Division to counter-attack were spoilt by Stuka attacks, later German machine gun detachments were parachuted and by about noon 4 Panzer Division had made contact.
German Army Group B, consisting of infantry formations hammered its way into Belgium confirming the Allied assumption that the Germans would repeat the Schlieffen Plan; the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force rushed to the rescue of Belgians and were allowed to advance without hindrance by the German air force. The Belgians instead of resisting for four or five days were in full retreat on 12 May making it impossible for the Franco-British forces to occupy defences on the Dyle. The Belgians covered their withdrawal with their Mechanised Cavalry Corps which led to the first tank battle of the campaign fought at the village of Merdorp. Superior French made 20-ton Somua and 31 ton B tanks battled against 10 ton Pz. Kw. II and 22 ton Pz. Kw. IV, due to faulty French tactics, the Cavalry Corps sustained heavy losses and was forced to withdraw behind an anti-tank entrenchment.
On 10 May the French 2nd Army and 9th Army moved cavalry divisions across the Franco-Belgian border to act as screens, the 2nd Army screens were thrown back by German tanks, on 11 May, hounded by dive-bombers and the advance guard of the two Panzer Corps, the French cavalry withdrew across the Semois. The French now realised that the main German attack was coming from the Ardennes and ordered one armoured division and three infantry divisions to reinforce the French 7th Army by 17 May and by 21 May another armoured division and five infantry divisions were ordered to reinforce this area to stop the German advance.
On 10 May, Guderian’s XIX Corps, with 1st Panzer Division leading, 2nd and 10th Panzer Divisions on the right and left crossed the Luxembourg border, by the evening of the 11 May the Corps had advanced 60 miles capturing Bouillon, the fortress town of Sedan and reached the eastern bank of the Meuse. On 13 May, from noon till 4 P.M. the Luftwaffe mounted an intensive air bombardment of French positions along the Meuse, Ju 87; ‘Stuka’ bombing struck absolute terror, troops cowered in trenches and fortifications and made no attempt to fight back with anti-aircraft weapons. After the air force had pounded the defenders the artillery took over and an assault crossing of the Meuse river was made by Guderian’s Panzer Corps, by midnight bridges were constructed and tanks poured across the river. The strategic flexibility of the break through threatened Channel ports and Paris putting the Allies on the horns of dilemma.
On 14 May Guderian started heading for the Abbeville and the English Channel with the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions while the 10th Panzer Division guarded his left flank. The Allies, in an effort to stem Guderian’s advance sent 170 bombers, mostly British, to bomb the bridges at Sedan, 85 were shot down by the defending anti-aircraft guns with no damage to the bridges. There was some confusion on 14 and 15 May in Guderian’s advance but on 16 May his tanks had advanced to Moncornet and from there to St. Quentin-Perone which were reached by 9 A.M. on 18 May.
Reinhardt’s XLI Panzer Corps reached the Meuse opposite Nouzonville and Montherme, 6 and 8 Panzer Divisions attacked on the afternoon of 13 May to effect a crossing of the Meuse but were resisted till tanks lined up on the river bank and knocked out all the French machine-gun posts then German infantry crossed in inflatable rafts and captured Montherme; 8 Panzer Division crossed at Nouzonville advanced and linked up with Guderian at Moncornet on 16 May.
Further north, XV Panzer Corps with Rommel commanding the 7 Panzer Division, established a small bridgehead at Houx, expanded it under cover of Stuka dive bombing and the divisional sappers bridged the river, the division crossed the Meuse with 5 Panzer Division following; this completed the German breakthrough.
In four days Panzergruppe Kleist and XV Panzer Corps destroyed eight divisions of the French 9th and 2nd Armies and opened a breach of 81 miles in the front held by the French 1st Army Group through which 2,200 tanks and armoured cars streamed to the English Channel.
At 7.30 A.M. on 15 May the French Prime Minister telephoned the British Prime Minister, Churchill, and told him “We have been defeated . . . the front is broken near Sedan; they are pouring through in great numbers with tanks and armoured cars.” On this day the Dutch surrendered.
With the first reports of the breakthrough at Sedan the French high command tried to restore the continuity of the allied front; between 12-17 May about twenty divisions were ordered to move to the breach in the Allied line which required the running of 500 trains and the move of 30,000 vehicles by road. German bombers disrupted the railway network isolating the sector in which Panzergruppe Kleist and XV Corps was heading for the Channel. The movement of the refugees clogged the roads and added to the confusion making military movement impossible, for example the tanks of the French 2nd Armoured Division were scattered over 75 miles of railway between Tergnier and Hirson while the wheeled vehicles struggled on the roads destroying the usefulness of the division.
At night fall on 16 May, Rommel’s 7 Panzer Division crossed the Franco-Belgian frontier at Solre-le-Chateau, drove in darkness advancing over 30 miles during the night scattering the 18 Infantry and the 1st Armoured Division taking thousand of prisoners and throwing the French 9th Army into confusion. At 2000 hours on 20 May a 2nd Panzer Division reached the Channel coast while other formations of Guderians XIX Corps established bridgeheads across the Somme at Peronne, Corbie, Amiens and Abbeville.
On the night 15-16 May Kleist ordered Guderian to halt and allow infantry to catch up, Guderian protested, offered his resignation and was allowed to carry out ‘reconnaissance in force’ which he did with two Panzer Divisions and took Peronne on the afternoon of 19 May. On 19 May, 10th Panzer Division protected Guderian’s left flank, the 1st was at Peronne, the 2nd east of Combles; 8 Panzer Division east of Beaumetz-les-Cambrai, 6th at Inchy-en-Artois, 7th at Marquion with the right flank protected by 5 Panzer Division. On 20 May 7 Panzer Division attacked Arras the others raced for the Channel; the 8th reached Heslin and pushed on to Montreuil; the 6th advanced to Le Boisle; the 2nd occupied Abbeville; and the 1st Amiens, where it at once established a bridgehead over the Somme. In 11 days the Germans had advanced 220 miles cutting off the communications of the Belgian, French and British forces in the Dyle position.
On 15 May the Allies abandoned the Dyle position and occupied a 75 mile defensive position on the Sheldt on 18 May, with the Belgians on the left, the British in the centre and the French 1st Army on the right; this position extended to Arras but left a 25 mile gap from Arras to Peronne. On 21 May one brigade of the British 50th Infantry Division with 78 tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade attacked to cut the corridor made by the German tanks, the Germans, observing the attack building up from the air, counter attacked with tanks supported by dive bombers and drove the attacking force back to Arras; the heavily armoured British infantry tanks were dealt with by the 88 mm anti-aircraft guns.
General Weygand, who had assumed the command of the Allied forces, planned a pincer attack, on 23 May, to capture Bapaume and Cambrai with eight French and British divisions attacking from Arras; a new French army group was to recapture Amiens, the centre of communications, form a front along the Somme and effect a junction with British forces at Bapaume; the Belgians were ordered to fall back to the Yser river and flood the country. The attack by the British and French forces on Bapaume was not launched because the French general who was to command was killed in a car accident, in the subsequent handing and taking over of commands several days were lost and attack orders were not issued. In the south the French 7th Army did not cross the Somme or make an attempt to drive to Bapaume because it was spread out from Peronne to Amiens and Abbeville.
By 24 May the Guderians XIX Panzer Corps had handed over the flank along the Somme to the motorised troops of XIV Corps, and moved north and north east, Boulogne and Calais were besieged, a bridgehead was established over the Aa Canal, less than 13 miles from Dunkirk when Hitler’s ‘halt order’ was received, the British were still in the area of Arras, 46 miles from Dunkirk.
On 26 May the British cabinet decided to withdraw the British Expeditionary Force, the British Navy received instructions on 20 May to prepare to evacuate the B.E.F and by 2 June it was completed. German losses in the campaign were 10,262 killed, 42,523 wounded, 8,467 missing; the Germans took 1,212,000 Dutch, Belgian, French and British prisoners, captured 2,450 artillery, anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, 11,000 machine guns and 75,000 vehicles.
The German success was based on a force of high
quality and mobility which employed strategic or operational surprise to
penetrate to depths beyond the enemy’s reserves while avoidng battle
while enemy reactions were overtaken by events, the objectives were either
topographical or operational; the topographical objectives were river
lines etc or communication centres in great depth to dislocate the enemy
psychologically; the operational objectives were to separate elements of
the enemy’s forces from one another or cut their line of retreat.
4. Mobile Warfare - Defence in the Desert
The Italian declaration of war on the Allies in June 1940 brought the war to North Africa where the numerically superior Italian forces faced the British on the Libyan-Egyptian border. On the border, skirmishing went on with the British forces raiding and harassing the Italians; in September 1940 the Italians advanced up to Sidi Barani, 60 miles into Egypt; they then stopped to extend the road and to make logistic arrangements. While waiting for the supplies the Italian 10th Army deployed in two fortified camps; one on the Mediterranean coast consisting of a group of four defensive areas, Maktila, Tummar East, Tummar West and Nibeiwa, these were garrisoned by three infantry divisions supported by tanks; the other separated by 15 miles were the defensive areas of Rabia and Sofai East, North West and North East, held by another three divisions; the Italians had 360 tanks out of which 300 were useless.
The wide and deep gaps between the Italian defences drew the attention of the British Commander-in-Chief, General Wavell, and his planners. Initially a plan was made and rehearsed in which the 4th Indian Division was to attack a fortified Italian position crossing a minefield for which there were no means of clearing and without artillery registration because it required four hours to register; the plan was rejected after consideration. Later a plan was evolved for holding the attention of the Italians with a force advancing westwards from Matruh while the main force passed through gaps in the defences to attack the Italian defences from the rear. Replicas were made of the Italian defences of Nibeiwa and Tummar and an exercise was conducted to test the plan; it was found that after an approach march when the infantry arrived in the assembly area it would take the artillery two hours to register which would give away surprise therefore the attack had to be launched without artillery registration.
Wavell had the British 7 Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division; the 7 Armoured Division consisted of two armoured brigades, 4 and 7, each of three regiments, a total of 200 light tanks and 75 ‘cruisers’, the ‘Support Group’ of the division consisted of two infantry battalions and two batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery, each with forty 25 pounder guns; the 4th Indian Division consisted of three brigades, a machine gun battalion and divisional artillery. The Corps troops consisted of five batteries of artillery and one tank regiment of 48 Infantry ‘I’ tanks. To provide air support for the operation and to deny aerial reconnaissance 48 fighters and 116 bombers were collected from as far away as Aden and Sudan. The railhead was 75 miles from the Italian front line, to maintain the attacking force, forward supply dumps were created and stocked with water, petrol and ammunition.
The 4th Indian Division moved on 6 December to Bir el Kenayis and dispersed there, then it moved during the night 7/8 December and by 1600 hours on 8 December it was concentrated 15 miles southeast of Nibeiwa, 4 Armoured Brigade was located 5 miles west and the Corps troops, including the tank regiment, 4 miles away. The tanks had started on 5 December, driven all the way and then spent 36 hours on repairs and maintenance. Part of the garrison of Mersa Matruh, consisting of artillery, a machine gun company and an infantry battalion, named Selby Force, advanced towards Maktila to engage the attention of the Italians. Aerial reconnaissance showed no unusual activity by the Italians, a lone Italian aircraft flew over the dispersal area and reported the concentration but the report was not believed.
On the night 8/9 December, lorried infantry from 4th Indian Division and 7 Royal Tank Battalion passed through the 15 mile gap, attacked from the rear and captured Nibeiwa and Tummar West on 9 December, Tummar East held out till the next morning. The 7 Armoured Division by passing the southern group of defences reached the coastal road cutting off the Italian retreat while Brigadier Selby attacked Sidi Barani on the coastal road; the Italians lost 38,000 prisoners for a loss of 624 British killed.
On 11 December, two brigades, divisional artillery and transport of 4 Indian Division were transferred to Sudan, in spite of this, General O’Connor, commanding the Western Desert Force, ordered an immediate exploitation, Bardia, Tobruk, Benghazi were taken, the advance stopped at El Agheila on 3 February. The five day raid developed into a two month campaign in which four battles were fought, an advance was made of 560 miles, 130,000 prisoners were taken, 845 guns and 380 tanks were destroyed at a cost of 500 dead, 1,373 wounded and 56 missing. The serious drawback was that British armour did not operate at night, this allowed the enemy to withdraw at night.
that remains stationary in the desert is easily surprised and out
manoeuvred by mobile troops; holding a front, maintaining depth and
adequate mobile reserves in defence raises the problem of the ratio of
troops to the hold long fronts and reserves to defend flanks and the rear.
The answer probably is an increased proportion of reconnaissance troops
with day and night observation facilities.
5 - Dislocation by Outflanking
After the defeat of the Italians and their withdrawal to Cyrenaica, on 6 February Lieutenant General Rommel was appointed to command a German expeditionary force to assist the Italians; the German force was to consist of 5 Light Division and 15 Panzer Division which were to concentrate in Libya by the end of May. In early March the bulk of 5 Light Division had concentrated, a reconnaissance battalion, a 12 gun battery of field artillery, two anti-tank battalions with some 88mm anti-tank guns, two motorised machine gun battalions and a panzer regiment of two battalions of 60 tanks each; the Italians placed all their motorised formations under Rommel’s command. Fifty dive bombers and twenty fighters of the German air force were also based in Africa to support the German land forces while long range aircraft based in Sicily were placed on call.
The German tanks were Mk III and IV which were comparable to or better than the British tanks; on arrival in the Libyan desert, tanks and vehicles were modified for desert conditions, carburettors, air and oil filters and other parts were changed; the clothing and rations of the German troops were also changed. The Germans had the advantage of experience in mechanised warfare, they had highly developed and intensively practised battle drills and co-operation between all arms. Rommel lacking experience in desert warfare, on arrival in Africa, flew over the ground to acquaint himself with the terrain.
Aerial reconnaissance by the Germans confirmed intelligence reports that the British were in some disorder because of the transfer of troops to Greece. On 15 March, Rommel dispatched a mixed German and Italian force and a German reconnaissance force to locate the British in the area south and east of the coast road and instructed the 5 Light Division to prepare to attack el Agheila on the morning of 24 March.
Wavell visited the front on 16 March, he found the defences of Benghazi unsatisfactory and badly sited, an Australian brigade was sited in a plain between Aghelia and Benghazi, with both flanks open and without any transport; the 2 Armoured Division, which had replaced the 7 Armoured Division, had one brigade with 52 cruiser tanks with half of them in the workshop and most of the others also mechanically unfit; one tank regiment was equipped with captured Italian M 13 tanks in good mechanical condition. Wavell ordered the deployment of the Australian brigade east of Benghazi and the armoured brigade on the left of the Australians. According to the intelligence available to Wavell no major threat existed till June when 15 Panzer Division would become operational and by then he would have been reinforced with three divisions.
On 24 March the reconnaissance group of 5 Light Division attacked El Aghelia, the British withdrew and started building defences at Mersa Brega and the Bir es Suera on defendable ground which if mined and wired would have been difficult to reduce and could not be outflanked due to soft sand. On 31 March, a German reconnaissance unit drove back the British forward posts at Mersa Brega, a Panzer regiment contacted the main infantry defences and was engaged by British field artillery, German dive bombers bombed the defenders then an infantry attack supported by tanks outflanked the defences and forced the British infantry to withdraw; British armour when ordered to assist the infantry, refused stating that there was insufficient daylight.
On 1 April German aerial reconnaissance revealed that there were troops deployed ahead of Agedabia; on 2 April, the reconnaissance unit of the German 5 Light Division advanced on the coastal road, followed on each side of the road were tanks and infantry. The formation south of the road contacted British tanks and knocked out seven of them, in the evening the German column contacted Agedabia; the Ariete Armoured Division and the Brescia Infantry Division captured Agedabia and the port of Zuetina; the British retreated to Benghazi and Mechili.
The British XIII Corps commander, had ordered the 2 Armoured Division to move to Antelat from where it could cover the routes to Benghazi and Mechili; on 2 April General Wavell visited XIII Corps and ordered the corps commander to relocate his armour to defend Benghazi but this was not wholly complied with.
On 3 April, Rommel split his forces in three parts: he sent an Italian infantry battalion with some German anti tank guns, under a German officer on the route Mersa el Brega - Giof el Matar - Ben Gania - Tengeder - Mechili to explore the southern flank of the British XIII Corps; the armoured cars and the motor cycle troops of the reconnaissance battalion of the 5 Light Division were sent to Soluch and Ghemines; 5 Light Division was ordered to prepare to advance to Antelat and Msus; when it was found that 5 Light Division did not have enough petrol, all the divisional vehicles were unloaded and sent to the petrol dump to bring sufficient petrol, ammunition and rations for an advance through Cyrenaica in 24 hours.
On the night 3-4 April the reconnaissance group of 5 Light Division captured Benghazi, it was relieved by an Italian division and sent towards Mechili where Rommel expected a battle to be fought. He ordered one group of 5 Light Division under the division commander to take the track to Ben Gania - Tengeder and head for Tmimi, the Italian Ariete Division was to follow in two groups, motor cyclists and light guns in advance and the rest of the division following with the task to either join battle at Tmimi or to advance to el Adem and Tobruk; the armour element of 5 Light Division, 5 Panzer Regiment and 40 Italian tanks were to advance on the route Antelat - Msus - Mechili; the Italian Brescia Division was ordered to advance on the road Benghazi- Barce - Derna. After giving his orders Rommel flew over the battle area in the afternoon checking his own and enemy dispositions, it appeared to him that the Australians east of Benghazi would be forced to withdraw to avoid being outflanked and the British armour was being trapped between the prongs of his advance.
British reinforcements started arriving, an Indian motorised brigade without artillery and anti-tank guns reached Mechili and started preparing defences. At Msus the armoured brigade reserve petrol was stored and a Free French brigade was located there, a Long Range Desert Squadron, accompanied by some light tanks approached Msus on the morning of 3 April, the French reported enemy tanks approaching, fuelled their vehicles, set the dump on fire and withdrew before tanks of the armoured brigade could be sent to investigate; after this the armoured brigade tanks dropped out of battle as they ran out of fuel.
On the afternoon of 5 April, on learning that Mechili appeared abandoned Rommel ordered the nearest troops, the group under the 5 Light Division commander which was at Tengeder, to close on Mechili. On the morning of 6 April aerial reconnaissance found that Mechili was not abandoned, when Rommel was informed he directed 5 Panzer Regiment and other troops to surround Mechili; on the morning of 8 April, Mechili garrison surrendered mistaking a sandstorm for a very large enemy force.
From Mechili the Panzer Regiment was ordered to advance to Derna, in the evening of 8 April Rommel combined 3 Reconnaissance Battalion of 5 Light Division with a machine gun battalion and an anti-tank battalion and ordered them to seize Tobruk but they failed.
On 11 April, Tobruk, with a garrison of 36,000 was encircled, an attack by an Italian division from the west and 5 Light Division from the south east stalled on the anti-tank ditch and the defensive wire. On 13 April, a German machine gun battalion with other troops attacked Tobruk from the direction of the el Adem track, after some progress the attack stalled two and half miles outside Tobruk; attacks by the Ariete Division on 16 and 17 April also failed; German infantry found itself pinned down in shallow trenches during the day while aggressive Australian patrols clashed with them at night.
The attack on Tobruk had revealed that German tank crews, trained for ‘Blitzkrieg’, rapid movement, sharp armour engagements, breakthroughs and victory were not able to cope with prepared defences which could not be outflanked and overrun. Attack on infantry in prepared defences had to be planned in detail, it had to be systematic and is slow and exhaustive.
By 19 April, the British 22 Guards Brigade was deployed around Halfaya Pass, four ‘Jock Columns’, each consisting of a company of infantry, a troop of artillery and a few light tanks or armoured cars were located at Halfaya, Sofafi, Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani and a Free French motor battalion was located at ‘Halfway House’ on top of an escarpment; the Germans drove these posts back to the Buq Buq Sofafi line. In mid May the British attacked the German positions hoping to link up with Tobruk and to drive the Germans west of Tobruk, the operation was not successful. The Germans established a defensive line Halfaya Pass - Hafid Ridge - Sidi Azeiz, anti-tank guns were dug in with wide arcs of fire and only the gun barrel above the ground level.
The 15 Panzer Division consisting of two battalions of tanks, 168 tanks and 30 reconnaissance vehicles was identified in mid-April, it was reported to have 488 tanks including 122 heavy tanks, it became operational at the end of May. On the Egyptian frontier, the Germans had a reconnaissance battalion, a lorried infantry battalion, a motor cycle battalion, anti-tank artillery battalion with 46 guns, thirteen 88mm, twelve 50mm and twenty one 37mm and a battery of field artillery; 5 Light Division was located south of Tobruk, resting and refitting. Tobruk was invested by the Ariete Italian armoured division, two Italian infantry divisions and a few companies of German infantry. From the equipment abandoned by the Italians in their withdrawal, the Germans salvaged artillery, vehicles and ammunition for their own use.
The German advance showed that in terrain where
flanks cannot be anchored on barriers reserves must be available to deal
with moves by the enemy against the flanks and the rear.
6 - Anti-tank Guns in Tank Battles
After Rommel’s advance halted the British received 238 tanks; 135 ‘Matilda’ Infantry Tanks, heavily armoured but under gunned; 82 under gunned ‘cruisers’ including 50 Mk IVs which turned out to be mechanically unreliable and 21 Mark Vs a 5 1/2 ton tank of little value in battle; the 7 Armoured Division was equipped and considered ready for battle by 14 June; the British air force received 43 fighters. With these reinforcements Churchill urged Wavell to attack and relieve the besieged Tobruk garrison.
The British and the Germans operated wireless interception services; the British organisation located in London, monitored and decoded all high level German wireless traffic and disseminated the information to the affected commands; the Germans monitored the local wireless traffic and obtained valuable information. From wireless intercepts and other intelligence sources, Rommel learnt that the British would attack along the Egyptian border and attempt to break out from Tobruk.
The aim of the British offensive, code named “Battleaxe”, was to destroy Rommel’s forces in the area of the Egyptian frontier, to link up with the garrison of Tobruk and advance to the Derna - Michili line; the attack was to be launched with XIII Corps consisting of 4 Indian and 7 Armoured Divisions. The 4 Indian Division consisting of the 11 Indian Brigade and the motorised 22 Guards Brigade, was to capture Halfaya Pass and advance to Solllum and Capuzzo; the 11 Indian Brigade, with one and a half squadrons of ‘Matildas’ was to capture Halfaya Pass; the 22 Guards Brigade, with one and a half squadrons of ‘Matilda’ tanks was to advance to the west of Halfaya to capture Capuzzo and exploit towards Bardia.
The 7 Armoured Division with 4 Armoured Brigade of two regiments of ‘Matildas’, 7 Armoured Brigade with a cruiser regiment and one of the new ‘Crusader’ tank, a Support Group of four batteries of ‘Horse Artillery’ and two battalions of motorised infantry. One regiment of 4 Armoured Brigade was employed in supporting the two brigades of the 4 Indian Division, the rest of the brigade was to advance on the western flank of the 22 Guards Brigade advance to Capuzzo. 7 Armoured Brigade was to move further west towards Hafid Ridge and the Support Group was to follow to form a shield at the rear of the 7 Armoured Brigade. The British Desert Air Force was to fly 98 fighters and 105 bombers to attack supply routes and reinforcements.
At dawn on 15 June, the 11 Indian Brigade attacked Halfaya Pass; the British battalion of the brigade, with a squadron of 13 Matilda tanks and an artillery battery moved towards their objective, the coastal end of Halfaya Pass; the artillery got stuck in soft sand and did not come into action, the tanks advanced but were engaged by artillery and anti-tank guns and all of them were knocked out except one. The infantry debussed and advanced in open formation between the burning tanks, when the objective was about a thousand yards away, German armoured cars and lorried infantry emerged from the pass and charged the battalion, overrunning one company and scattering the rest, making the battalion useless for the rest of the day.
The two Indian battalions of the 11 Indian Brigade, with two troops of three tanks each, attacked the southern end of the pass, four tanks blew up on mines, the other two got stuck and could only act as pill boxes; the infantry battalions came under artillery fire and were pinned down.
In the north, a regiment of Matildas of 4 Armoured Brigade, by-passed Point 206 and captured Capuzzo by noon, it was counter-attacked several times but the 22 Guards Brigade joined the regiment and dug in for all round defence.
Point 206, by-passed by 4 Armoured Brigade, was attacked by a squadron of Matildas, anti-tank guns knocked out eight tanks, the Point changed hands twice, it was captured after another squadron of Matildas arrived.
7 Armoured Brigade, south of 4 Armoured Brigade, by 0900 hours had reached Hafid Ridge; the Ridge had three crest lines, as the tanks cleared the first crest line they were engaged by German anti-tank guns and withdrew behind the crest, losing two tanks; the British ‘Cruiser’ tanks had 2 pounder guns which fired solid shots and were useless against dug in infantry. The tank regiment attacked the ground between the first two crests successfully from a flank but had to pull back when it discovered another anti-tank screen between the second and third crests.
7 Armoured Brigade, on being informed by the air force that German tanks were approaching Hafid Ridge from the west, prepared for a tank battle to destroy the German armour. Crusader tanks were ordered to clear the Hafid Ridge, when the Crusaders advanced the Germans seemed to be withdrawing but when they crossed the second ridge they were met with anti-tank fire by 88mm, 50mm and 37mm guns at effective anti-tank ranges, 17 British tanks were knocked out; at dusk 7 Armoured Brigade slowly withdrew; after the days action one regiment of the brigade had twenty tanks while the other had twenty eight out of fifty each that they had started with. Luring tanks on to anti-tank gun screens became the German tactics for destroying tanks.
The German 5 Light Division was located south of Tobruk, on the evening of 14 June, Rommel, learning of the British intentions from wireless intercepts and other sources, instructed the division to concentrate at Sidi Azeiz, a battalion from this division intervened at Hafid Ridge on the evening of 15 June and pushed back 7 Armoured Brigade to the Egyptian frontier.
The infantry, artillery and anti-tank guns of 15 Panzer Division fought the main defensive battle, on 15 June, the tanks of the division were not committed. The German tactics were to receive British tank attacks on anti-tank gun screens and not to accept tank versus tank action unless it was forced on them. In the German concept of the employment of tanks, a tank versus tank was to be avoided, the role of armour was to find weak places in the enemy’s defences, generally infantry positions, break through them and attack the enemy’s rear areas, anti-tank artillery was to fight tanks, infantry was to capture anti-tank artillery positions
On 15 June the Germans lost Capuzzo and Point 206, their force at Halfaya Pass was surrounded; Rommel learnt that the next day the British intended to renew the attack on Halfaya Pass with the 4 Indian Division and had concentrated 4 and 7 Armoured Brigades for a tank battle.
On 16 June 15 Panzer Division attacked Capuzzo to prevent the 4 Armoured Brigade and 22 Guards Brigade from disengaging. The attack began at 0600 hours, 80 panzers attacked in two columns and ran into a British anti-tank screen, tanks in hull down positions and artillery fire, by 1000 hours the Germans had lost 50 tanks and the attack was repulsed. At Halfaya Pass the Germans repelled an attack by 11 Indian Brigade.
The German 5 Light Division was ordered on 16 June to link up with the German force surrounded at Halfaya Pass; the division advanced south from Hafid Ridge to Sidi Omar with the remaining tanks of 7 Armoured Brigade moving parallel to them, later 7 Armoured Brigade was joined by the 7 Armoured Division Support Group. The British tanks were able to attack and drive away the supporting vehicles of the German division then German tanks attacked the British tanks and artillery. In the afternoon the 7 Armoured Brigade disengaged and withdrew across the Egyptian border, the last German attack was at dusk; on the morning of 16 June, 7 Armoured Brigade had 48 tanks, they lost 39 during the day.
Advancing westward from Sidi Omar, on the morning of 17 June, 5 Light Division contacted the British screen at Sidi Suleiman and forced it back towards Halfaya Pass, this threat forced the British withdrawal from Capuzzo and Halfaya Pass ending the battle, the British lost 100 tanks out of the 180 with which they started.
The Germans tactics were based on the characteristics of their tanks and the capability of the British tanks and artillery. The Germans had two types of tanks, Pz III armed with a 50 mm gun with an effective anti-tank range of 500 yards; the Pz IV armed with a short barreled 75 mm gun which had an anti-tank range much greater than 500 yards of the British tanks; the Mk IV also fired high explosive and could effectively engage artillery guns and soft targets at 3,000 yards range. The British tanks, with their 2-pounder guns, could only knock out the German tanks at 500 yards or less, the British 25-pounder artillery gun could knock out German tanks at about 1,500 yards range.
German Mk IV tank tactics were to approach the British at about 15 miles per hour in extended formation and open fire at the British artillery at 3,000 yards with high explosive and drive it off the battlefield, once the British artillery was driven off the out ranged British tanks were effectively engaged with Mk IV tanks at ranges greater than 500 yards.
The British comment on their armour, after the battle, was that their machine gun armed armoured cars were vulnerable to German fighter aircraft and to gun armed German armoured cars which made reconnaissance difficult; the ‘Matilda’ infantry tanks were too slow for desert warfare and fired only armour piercing shots which were not effective against infantry; the ‘cruiser’ tanks were under gunned and mechanically poor; the German 88 mm anti-aircraft gun used as an anti-tank gun out ranged all tanks and knocked them out before they could bring their guns to bear.
7 - Tank vs Tank Battles
General Auchinleck replaced Wavell on 5 July 1941 and was urged by Churchill to immediately launch an attack to expel Rommel from Africa. Auchinleck asked for three months to prepare for the offensive and four more divisions, including two or three armoured divisions. After a discussion between Churchill and Auchinleck the date for launching the offensive, code named ‘Crusader’ was set between 15 September and 1 November 1941 and later changed to 18 November due to the late arrival of 22 Armoured Brigade.
Logistics for both sides were a constant problem; from August 1941 onwards, 300 fighters, some bombers, naval ships and submarines reinforced Malta, this secured the British sea communications and reduced shipping losses to almost nil, in one the period out of forty British ships which entered the Mediterranean only one was lost. On the other hand the Germans lost 26,000 tons out of 94,000 tons in September, in October 20 per cent and in November 62 per cent of the supplies shipped from Italy.
By mid-August, 15 Panzer Division was complete, 5 Light Division was reorganised and became 21 Panzer Division, each division consisting of a Panzer Regiment of 170 Mks II, III, IV and captured Matildas, organised in two battalions, three battalions of infantry, an anti-tank battalion, an artillery regiment, a reconnaissance battalion and necessary supporting and administrative units; a new division, 90 Light Division, of two infantry regiments, one of them composed of Germans from the French Foreign Legion, an anti-tank battalion, an engineer battalion and a ‘Special Service Unit’, was added to the German order of battle. The Italian troops under Rommel’s command were the Italian XX Mobile Corps consisting of the Ariete Armoured and Trieste Motorised Divisions and the Italian XXXI Corps of four infantry divisions, three of which were investing Tobruk while one was deployed on the Egyptian frontier.
For the siege of Tobruk, the Germans created ‘Artillery Command 104’ of five artillery units equipped with nine 210 mm howitzers, forty six French 150 mm, twelve French 100 mm, eighty four Italian 149 mm, thirty six Italian 105 mm and twelve naval 120 mm guns.
Auchinleck reorganised his forces forming the British 8th Army consisting of the Tobruk garrison of the British 70 Division, a Polish Brigade and an Army Tank Brigade; in the north XIII Corps consisting of the New Zealand Division, 4th Indian Division and 1st Army Tank Brigade with 135 tanks, half Matildas and half Valentines; in the south XXX Corps consisting of 7 Armoured Division (consisting of 7 and 22 Armoured Brigades, with a total of 469 tanks, and its Support Group), 1st South African Division, 4th Armoured Brigade Group and 22nd Guards Brigade; the British had 913 tanks, including 210 Crusaders, 165 Stuarts and 201 ‘I’ Matildas and Valentines, there were 200 tanks in reserve.
According to the British intelligence estimates the Germans had 240 tanks, 35 Pz IV with 75 mm guns, the rest Pz II and III with 50 mm guns; the Italians had 146 M13s and 160 light tanks which could not take part in a tank battle.
The 8th Army plan for “Crusader” was that XIII Corps would surround and capture the German-Italian frontier defences from Sollum to Sidi Omar; the XXX Corps was to advance from Sidi Omar, deploy at Gabr Saleh forcing a tank battle in the area, after defeating the Afrika Korps it was to link up with the Tobruk garrison at Sidi Rezegh, the garrison was to break out on a given signal; the XXX Corps was then to sweep westwards to Gazala and seize Cyrenaica; there was a 20 mile gap between XIII and XXX Corps which was covered by the 4 Armoured Brigade Group with 165 Stuart light tanks.
The 8th Army moved forward in an enormous column from the area of Sidi Barrani with the armour leading, an armoured division, an armoured brigade and three infantry divisions, fourteen brigades in all. The columns crossed the frontier south of Sidi Omar, XIII Corps wheeling north to deal with the border defences, XXX Corps seeking an armour battle to destroy the German armour and to link up with Tobruk.
The movement to the Egyptian border started on 16 and 17 November; vehicles carried men, weapons, ammunition, stores, petrol and one gallon of water per man for every planned day of the operation. For the movement, vehicles were spaced ten to a mile in the columns, some columns reached their destination before the tail had started; vehicles moving across country on sandy tracks consumed four times the petrol that they consumed on roads, a large number of vehicles broke down due to broken springs, shock absorbers and other parts; the desert, a tacticians paradise and a quartermaster’s nightmare, lived to its reputation.
The British attack started on 18 November; XXX Corps, in the south, advanced with the South African Division protecting the left flank of the corps; on the right of the South Africans was the 22 Guard’s Brigade; three armoured car reconnaissance regiments led the 7 Armoured Division with 22 Armoured Brigade on the left and 7 Armoured Brigade on the right; 4 Armoured Brigade Group on the right of XXX Corps maintained the link with XIII Corps on the right.
On the XXX Corps front, one South African brigade reached Elwet el Hamra, another brigade reached el Cuasc, covering sixty miles to reach the track running south from Bir el Gubi; on the left 22 Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Division ended the day ten miles short of their objective; 7 Armoured Brigade, led by a reconnaissance regiment, had advanced sixty miles by mid-day; German armoured cars withdrew in contact and when the Germans started making a stand tanks took the lead, the brigade reached its rendezvous, about ten miles north west of Gabr Saleh. 4 Armoured Brigade Group, on the right of 7 Armoured Brigade, reached its objective, across Trig el Abd about ten miles east of Gabr Saleh, in contact with a German reconnaissance regiment. The Corps suffered almost no losses due to enemy action but 7 Armoured Brigade lost 22 tanks due to break downs reducing it to 119, similarly 22 Armoured Brigade was reduced by 19 tanks to 136.
On the XIII Corps front, the New Zealanders, on the right of 4 Armoured Brigade Group, reached their rendezvous, an Indian brigade reached the area of Bir Sheferzen, while a second Indian brigade reached Sollum, an Indian reconnaissance regiment maintained the link between the two brigades; the 1st Army Tank Brigade supported the two infantry divisions.
On 19 November, 7 Armoured Division was ordered to secure el Gubi and Sidi Rezegh on the direct route to Tobruk; el Gubi was to be taken over by a South African brigade after it was captured, another South African Brigade was ordered to secure Guerat Hamza. 22 Armoured Brigade ordered to secure el Gubi, contacted the Italian outer defences at noon and drove them back, one tank regiment attacked what was thought to be a mobile defence post five miles east of el Gubi, this turned out to be the Italian Ariete Armoured Division in prepared defences. The two tank regiments which attacked the position ran into severe trouble due to mines and anti-tank guns, the third regiment mounted a relieving attack and suffered heavily when an Italian tank regiment counter attacked. The three regiments of 22 Armoured Brigade got involved in a disorganised battle, they charged, ran into minefields covered by an Italian tank regiment and anti-tank guns, they lost 82 tanks, 50 knocked out and 32 due to breakdowns; the Italians lost 34 tanks and 12 guns.
In the north, 7 Armoured Brigade advanced with a German reconnaissance regiment withdrawing in contact, the brigade reached Sidi Rezegh, overran the airfield, when they tried to advance to the main escarpment they found that ex-French Foreign Legionnaires, now Afrika Regiment 136 dug in, reconnaissance on the el Adem - el Gubi track found the Italian Pavia Division dug in; the brigade leaguered on the airfield for the night.
When the 8th Army attacked, Rommel was preparing to reduce Tobruk, he considered the reports of the advance as a diversion to detract him from attacking Tobruk, on 19 November, with the reports of the German reconnaissance regiments and from Bardia of contact with British armoured cars and light tanks, the Germans sent ‘Battle Group Stephan’, from 21 Panzer Division, consisting 120 Pz II, III and IVs, 12 105mm howitzers and four 88mm anti-tank guns, to Gabr Saleh where the German reconnaissance battalion was in contact with 4 Armoured Brigade; the German Battle Group contacted a British tank regiment, from 4 Armoured Brigade Group, equipped with fifty Stuart light tanks.
The contact between the Germans and the British tanks led to the first big tank versus tank battle of the desert war. The British, instead of fighting an organised battle with troops and squadrons supporting each other, fought individual tank actions, relying on the speed and manoeuvrability of the Stuart tank; the German armour relied on its battle drill and co-operation with their anti-tank guns. The first charge by a British cavalry regiment took it right through the Germans and then it swept back again. German anti-tank guns co-operated on the flanks of their tank columns though they suffered from the machine gun fire of the tanks. All three regiments of 4 Armoured Brigade joined in battle one after the other and all tanks fought their own individual battles.
Towards the evening German tanks broke contact to refuel and replenish ammunition while anti-tank guns and artillery kept the British tanks away. Both sides claimed that they had won the battle, both overestimated the losses they had inflicted, the Germans claimed 24 Stuarts destroyed, 13 of which were recovered, the British claimed twenty six tanks knocked out but only two Pz III and one Pz II were left by the Germans on the battlefield.
On 20th November, Rommel, still intent on the reduction of Tobruk, gave the Afrika Korps commander the orders to deal with British armour, a German division to deal with Sidi Rezegh and the Italian Ariete Division was to deal with el Gubi. The Afrika Korps commander was not aware that 7 Armoured Division was between Bir el Gubi and Gabr Saleh, but knew of British tanks at Sidi Azeiz near Bardia, with the intention of encircling the British armour in the Bardia area from the north and the south, and to cut it off from its supplies, he sent 15 Panzer Division eastwards along Trig Capuzzo to Sidi Azeiz, 21 Panzer Division minus its armour to Sidi Omar and ordered Battle Group Stephan, the armour of 21 Panzer Division, to rejoin the division.
The infantry of 21 Panzer Division moved south-eastwards to link up with its armour at Gabr Lachem, at 0830 hours it contacted a British reconnaissance regiment, reported it as contact with tanks but was ordered to continue its movement. Battle Group Stephan was delayed by the late arrival of replenishments, when it moved it ran across the front of 4 Armoured Brigade Group, a running fight with two British tank regiments took place, the Germans disengaged when ordered to join their division and were pursued by the British for six miles; the disengagement was interpreted as a retreat in the face of a superior force.
When 15 Panzer Division arrived at Sidi Azeiz without making contact, the Afrika Korps commander, concluded that the British advance was along Trig el Abd, the spearhead of 7 Armoured Division was at Sidi Rezegh and its flank guard at Gabr Saleh; the Afrika Korps concentrated at Gabr Lachem, the commander planned to attack the flank guard first then the spearhead, but because 21 Panzer Division was out of fuel and ammunition the attack could not be launched.
The XXX Corps, with the aim of destroying the Afrika Korps, decided that Point 175 the dominant feature of the main Escarpment, overlooking the Sidi Rezegh airfield should be captured by 7 Armoured Brigade, a South African brigade was to relieve 22 Armoured Brigade which was to disengage from Bir el Gubi and with the armoured division Support Group, it was to concentrate on the airfield; the second South African brigade at Guerat Hamza was to move in a semi-circle westwards around Bir el Gubi to the airfield.
At about 1100 hours the British intercepted messages between the Afrika Korps commander and Rommel which revealed that 4 Armoured Brigade Group was about to be attacked by the Afrika Korps and 22 Armoured Brigade was ordered to reinforce 4 Armoured Brigade.
The Afrika Korps commander decided to move along Trig el Abd to Sidi Rezegh, he ordered 15 Panzer Division to clear the British flank protection force. A German panzer regiment, two infantry regiments and artillery contacted 4 Armoured Brigade Group in a defensive position, in half an hour the German tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery drove the British back from their defensive positions; when the Germans started to advance, 22 Armoured Brigade arrived on their flank, it was screened by anti-tank guns but it became dark before any further engagement could take place. The British withdrew from the battlefield, the German medical teams recovered their own and British wounded, recovery teams recovered damaged tanks and demolition teams destroyed the abandoned British tanks. 4 Armoured Brigade was reduced to 97 Stuarts and 22 Armoured Brigade to 100 Crusaders.
After 7 Armoured Brigade captured the Sidi Rezegh airfield, the Germans established themselves on the escarpment and attacked Sidi Rezegh twice on 20 November without success. The British decided to link up with the Tobruk garrison on 21 November, infantry was to clear the ridge to the north of the airfield, armour was then to make its way down the escarpment to Abiar el Amar, cross Trig Capuzzo and link up with 32 Army Tank Brigade, breaking out of Tobruk, at el Duda; a South African brigade was to secure the ground between el Duda and Tobruk - el Adem road. The Tobruk garrison was to breakout with an attack by 69 Matilda and 32 cruiser tanks with supporting infantry to link up with 7 Armoured Brigade at el Duda.
On 21 November, the Tobruk garrison quickly took its first objective with tanks and infantry, the second objective was captured without tank support and the third objective was taken by 1030 hours, in the afternoon, the Germans counterattacked and contained the breakout; at 1600 hours the 8th Army sent a message to the garrison that the link up was postponed for at least 24 hours.
For the link up with the Tobruk garrison, from the Sidi Rezegh airfield, the carrier platoons of the infantry of the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division advanced against the German and Italian infantry dug in on the escarpment and was engaged with small arms and anti-tank fire. The rest of the infantry advancing on foot across the airfield was engaged by artillery and small arms but managed to overrun the edge of the escarpment to allow tanks of 7 Armoured Brigade to advance to el Duda; when the tanks swept past the infantry they ran straight into the anti-tank guns of a German reconnaissance battalion and were stopped by them; then, from the south east the Afrika Korps appeared.
Thirty miles from the Sidi Rezegh airfield 4 Armoured Brigade Group and 22 Armoured Brigade spent the night 20/21 November preparing for a tank battle to destroy the Afrika Korps which was reported by a reconnaissance regiment to be concentrated north east of Gabr Saleh. In the morning there was a brief exchange of fire between 22 Armoured Brigade and the Afrika Korps, then the Germans withdrew towards the north east, 22 Armoured Brigade raced to put in a flank attack but was met by a rear guard, a second attack was met by 88mm anti-tank guns, the brigade remained on the flank of the Germans till it ran out of petrol and claimed that it had destroyed about 200 vehicles; 4 Armoured Brigade did not contact the Afrika Korps.
The Afrika Korps advancing, with tanks and anti-tank guns mixed with the administrative vehicles of the British 7 Armoured Division Support Group who were fleeing before it was observed by the 7 Armoured Brigade commander who considering the approaching German tanks a minor threat, sent an armoured regiment of thirty cruisers and twenty other tanks to stop them because his task was to link up with the Tobruk garrison, the Germans out ranging the British tanks, opened fire and destroyed all the British tanks except ten which had broken down before the battle was joined. The Germans established an anti-tank screen to prevent the second armoured regiment of 7 Armoured Brigade from intervening then went to el Duda to prevent the link up with Tobruk; they also captured Abiar el Amar and the airfield at Sidi Rezegh.
The infantry of the Support Group of the 7 Armoured Division, on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment was dive bombed, shelled by artillery, five Crusaders, sent to reinforce the infantry were destroyed as soon as they arrived, British field and anti-tank artillery engaged the German tanks, 21 Panzer Division after refuelling engaged the guns but ran out of ammunition. The second armoured regiment of 7 Armoured Brigade was engaged by 15 Panzer Division and all, except six tanks of the regiment were destroyed.
On 21 November, XIII Corps was ordered to clear up the German-Italian defences from Sidi Omar to Bardia in the north, with two brigades of the New Zealand division, an Indian brigade and the 1st Army Tank Brigade, equipped with Matildas; one New Zealand brigade moved towards Tobruk. The Indian brigade, supported by tanks captured Sidi Omar and Libyan Omar, some tanks were lost on mines and due to anti-tank fire. In the north, one New Zealand brigade captured Fort Capuzzo, one reached the outskirts of Bardia while the third reached Trig Capuzzo.
During the day two British armoured regiments had been destroyed, a third one seriously mauled, the breakout from Tobruk had been stemmed, by nightfall the eastern end of the escarpment was taken by the Germans but the route to el Duda remained blocked by the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division. During the afternoon the Afrika Korps had become aware of 22 Armoured Brigade to the south west, 4 Armoured Brigade Group approaching from Gabr Saleh and South African infantry containing the Italian Ariete Armoured Division, with this situation the commander of the Afrika Korps considered that his corps was encircled by superior forces.
Rommel, on the night 21/22 November, ordered the Afrika Korps with an Italian division to hold the area they had reached and Belhammed and prevent the British from linking up with the Tobruk garrison. During the night the Afrika Korps broke contact, 15 Panzer Division moved seven miles to the east to Point 196, 21 Panzer Division to Belhammed an infantry regiment was placed under the command of 21 Panzer Division to clear the British from the escarpment as soon as possible, the division deployed infantry and artillery at Belhammed. Rommel then ordered Battlegroup Knabe, the infantry element of 21 Panzer Division, to attack the Support Group while a German infantry regiment supported by tanks and artillery was to attack another portion of the escarpment; a panzer regiment was to take the northern route Belhammad - el Duda - Abiar el Amar, sweep the Sidi Rezegh escarpment from the west and annihilate the British on the airfield. The 8th Army interpreted the breaking of the contact as another defeat of the Afrika Korps, 170 German tanks were reported hit during the day.
On 22 November, a German reconnaissance battalion reported British armour at Point 175 and 15 Panzer Division probed westwards along the escarpment overlooking Trig Capuzzo.
At dawn on 22 November, a reconnaissance regiment reported the 21 Panzer Division moving away, 22 Armoured Brigade tried to follow and was prevented by anti-tank guns; 4 Armoured Brigade Group was ordered to go to Point 175 but did not make contact. Two brigades of the New Zealand division and two brigades of the South African division were ordered to concentrate in the Sidi Rezegh area, 22 Guards Brigade was sent to Bir el Gubi to relieve the South Africans and to mask the Italian Ariete Armoured Division. German infantry was reported on the southern escarpment overlooking the concentration of 22 Armoured Brigade and the remnants of 7 Armoured Brigade; the link up with the Tobruk garrison was postponed to the next day.
At 1415 hours on 22 November, a German armoured formation of about fifty tanks, was seen advancing up the slope of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment with more tanks behind and anti-tank guns protecting the flanks; 25-pounders of the Royal Horse Artillery of the 7 Armoured Division Support Group engaged the German tanks and infantry. 22 Armoured Brigade, with the remnants of 7 Armoured Brigade and a field artillery, led by the commander of the 7 Armoured Division Support Group, charged through the Royal Horse Artillery gun line; the out gunned the British tanks went up in flames and started avoiding confrontation with the Germans. German infantry supported by heavy artillery firing from Belhammed overran the Sidi Rezegh ridge by about 1600 hours.
4 Armoured Brigade Group, with their 108 Stuart light tanks, was in the area of Point 175 at about 1530 hours, the brigade advanced slowly on to the airfield which was littered with knocked out tanks, guns and vehicles; behind 4 Armoured Brigade came the 15 Panzer Division which was looking for the brigade.
The commander of the 7 Armoured Division Support Group led his brigade also and to every ones surprise, the German tanks now out of ammunition, withdrew northwards. After replenishing the German tanks and infantry returned with artillery support, the Stuart light tanks withdrew through the gun line and orders were given to fall back on the South Africans three miles away at Point 178. The South African Brigade, ordered to clear Point 178 and to advance to the airfield, failed to capture Point 178 which was defended by a German infantry regiment, it got caught in flat open country by dive bombers, then came under machine gun and artillery fire and was pinned down.
After dark the South Africans extricated themselves and occupied an escarpment, 7 and 22 Armoured Brigades now mustered 49 tanks, formed a leaguer to the west of the South Africans, the remnants of the Support Group to the east and further east the 100 Stuarts of the 4 Armoured Brigade Group. The 15 Panzer Division, which was looking for 4 Armoured Brigade and had failed to make contact during the day, in the dark, at about 1700 hours it ran into the leaguer of the brigade headquarters; the German tanks put on their headlights, tank commanders jumped out with their sub-machine guns and captured a command vehicle and 35 mixed tanks, armoured cars, guns and other vehicles. The result of the action was that for some time, the only substantial armour of XXX Corps was out of action and all the Corps codes were compromised.
The New Zealand Brigade and a squadron of Valentines from Fort Capuzzo, 22 Guard’s Brigade from Bir el Gubi and the second South African brigade, in contact with the Ariete Division, were ordered to concentrate in the area of Sidi Rezegh.
The New Zealand brigade, on its way, leaguered at night, the next morning it found that in the middle of their brigade leaguer the Afrika Korps headquarters had leaguered and captured it; vital information was obtained from the staff vehicles, the Afrika Korps commander had left the leaguer just before the headquarters was captured.
With the Sidi Rezegh airfield and the ridge held by 21 Panzer Division, an infantry regiment holding Point 175, another one holding the southern escarpment in contact with the British and South African brigades, with 15 Panzer Division located south west of Point 175, Rommel ordered the Italian Gambara Corps with the Ariete Armoured Division to advance north eastwards from Bir el Gubi starting at 0800 hours, the Afrika Korps to concentrate and advance in the general direction of el Gubi with its main effort on the left wing to encircle and destroy the British.
The Afrika Korps commander modified the orders to stiffen the Italians with a German component, he ordered the panzer regiments of the panzer divisions to concentrate south of Point 175 and accompanied by the infantry of 15 Panzer Division to drive to Bir el Gubi cutting the British lines of communications, to join the Ariete Division at el Gubi and crush the enemy against two infantry regiments, one on the southern escarpment and the other at Sidi Rezegh ridge; the infantry regiment of the 21 Panzer Division was detached to reinforce the southern escarpment.
On the morning of 23 November, 15 Panzer Division, moving to Bir el Gubi, ran into the administrative vehicles of the Support Group of 7 Armoured Division and the two South African brigades, these were located between the two South African brigades, after some disorganised resistance the vehicles scattered.
After 15 Panzer Division passed between the South African brigades, the artillery battery of the Support Group, the remaining artillery of the 22 Armoured Brigade, two Royal Horse Artillery batteries and the supporting artillery of the South African brigade took up positions around a South African brigade to protect it from an attack from the south and south east; the German heavy artillery at Belhammed sporadically shelled the South African brigade.
15 Panzer Division, later joined by the armour of 21 Panzer Division, after crashing through a gap between the two South African brigades, it linked up at el Gubi with the Italian Ariete Division; with the 100 M-13 tanks of the Ariete Division on the left, 120 tanks of the 15 Panzer Division in the centre and 40 tanks of the 21 Panzer Division on the right, with two German infantry regiments in their carriers following the tanks with orders not to dismount unless they were under heavy fire or well on the enemy position, the German and Italian combined force turned around from el Gubi to attack the two South African brigades and the remnants of 7 Armoured Division.
At 1500 hours the German-Italian armour attacked, over 100 British artillery and anti-tank guns opened fire achieving an unusual concentration of anti-tank fire, the guns were cleverly sited amongst knocked out tanks and burnt out vehicles. While the German tanks were able to withstand some of the shock of the artillery and anti-tank fire, the infantry riding in open vehicles and the anti-tank artillery, towing their guns, were completely without protection but followed the tanks; infantry and anti-tank officers standing erect in their vehicles. The German tanks broke through the British and South African gun line, the infantry at places were on the objective before the tanks because it relied on speed for protection; fierce fighting took place on the objective.
On the German-Italian left, where the Ariete Division should have been, 22 Armoured Brigade massed to charge the 15 Panzer Division infantry but was engaged by anti-tank guns, the Ariete Division came up and a tank versus tank engagement followed. In the centre 15 Panzer Division smashed through the gun line prepared by the South Africans, overran the brigade, captured the brigade headquarters and made contact with the German infantry on the escarpment; on the right the forty tanks of 21 Panzer Division chased the withdrawing administrative vehicles of the South Africans. The Germans won the battle, but on the whole, the price paid by them was heavy, about 70 tanks were knocked out (the recovery teams accompanying the divisions could not carry out the usual battle field recovery of tanks), the panzer regiment of 15 Panzer Division lost two battalion commanders, five out of six company commanders, the infantry regiment lost the regiment commander, one battalion commander and a number of NCOs.
On the evening of 23 November, Rommel estimated that half the 8th Army was spread out between the Egyptian frontier and Tobruk with a large portion of its armour destroyed, he therefore decided to cut the British lines of communications with a lightning stroke to the frontier with the Afrika Korps and the Italian Ariete Division and link up with Germans holding out at Halfaya Pass. The Afrika Korps commander suggested a days break for rest, reorganisation and salvaging the battle field, Rommel did not agree because he considered that it was necessary to act immediately against the New Zealand and Indian division before they joined with the forces deployed against Tobruk. He left the control of the Tobruk operations with his senior operations staff officer and detailed two infantry regiments to salvage the battle field and motorise themselves.
On 24 November at about 1100 hours, after spending a busy night replenishing, recovering and repairing, Rommel with 21 Panzer Division leading, the Panzer Korps headquarters in the middle, 15 Panzer Division in the rear and the Ariete Division on the right, the German-Italian armour moved south east from the previous days battlefield. On their way to Gabr el Saleh, in the triangle Bir Berraneb, Bir Taieb el Esem and Gabr Saleh, the German-Italian force ran into and scattered the headquarters units of XXX Corps, 7 Armoured Division, the South African Division and the remnants of the Support Group and 7 Armoured Brigade. While advancing on the right of the Afrika Korps, the Ariete Division ran into an enemy formation on Trig el Abd and failed to push it aside or to by pass it. At 1600 hours Gasr el Abid was reached and advance units of 21 Panzer Division were despatched to Halfaya Pass.
Because of the speed with which the Afrika Korps had advanced, it was now spread out in a fifty mile curve from Halfaya Pass to Gabr Saleh, the panzer regiment which had led in the morning had stopped to refuel and the infantry Battlegroup Knabe had taken over the lead but had only thirty running vehicles, 21 Panzer Division, which had started with about 170 tanks on 18 November, had 18 left, the panzer regiment of 15 Panzer Division had not suffered so badly but all the armoured cars of the reconnaissance regiment were lost.
For 25 November, Rommel ordered the Afrika Corps, in co-operation with the Italian Motorised Corps to destroy the enemy east and west of Sollum and at Bardia; 21 Panzer Division was to drive the New Zealanders into the minefield. After issuing his orders, Rommel drove eastwards apparently in search of the enemy’s supply dump which he did not find and was separated from his headquarters till 0700 hours the next morning.
On the evening of 22 November, the 8th Army commander, after the disaster of 7 Armoured Brigade, asked the New Zealand division to leave a small force to keep the Capuzzo - Bardia area under observation and send as large a force as possible towards Tobruk; the New Zealand division commander left one brigade on the border and sent two brigades, which in a chance encounter captured the Afrika Corps headquarters.
The 8th Army commander now gave the XIII Corps commander the command of the Tobruk garrison and the responsibility of linking up with it. The two South African brigades and the armour of XXX Corps were to protect the flank of the infantry and continue the destruction of the enemy’s armour.
The destruction of the South African brigade and the loss of the headquarters of 4 Armoured brigade unnerved the 8th Army commander, he asked Auchinleck to come to his headquarters and suggested a withdrawal of all forces from Libya. Auchinleck after visiting the 8th Army headquarters instructed the army to continue attacking with the main object of destroying the enemy’s armour.
On the morning of 25 November, while Auchinleck was visiting the 8th Army headquarters at Maddalena, a large German tank formation was reported at Gasr el Abid, about 40 miles north west of Maddalena and Auchinleck had to fly back to Cairo in a hurry; on arrival at Cairo he issued orders relieving the 8th Army commander.
On 25 November, one New Zealand brigade reached Zaafran on Trig Capuzzo and the other captured a block house two miles west of Point 175. XIII Corps ordered the occupation of dominating heights of Zaafran, Belhammed, el Duda and the Sidi Rezegh ridge; the New Zealand brigades put in night attacks, the attack on Belhammad succeeded but the attack on Sidi Rezegh ridge failed. On 26 November, the Army Tank Brigade from the Tobruk garrison captured el Duda while Sidi Rezegh was captured by the New Zealanders that night.
Rommel’s operations staff officer, got out of communications with Rommel and with the Afrika Korps on 25 and 26 November, but remained in communication with the 21 Panzer Division commander; on the afternoon of 26 November, he sent a resume of the situation to 21 Panzer Division and suggested that 21 Panzer Division should attack the New Zealanders in the rear to prevent the Tobruk front from disintegrating. 21 Panzer Division, moved with speed to Bardia to replenish, slipping between the 4 Indian Division and the New Zealand brigade at Capuzzo; 15 Panzer Division, also replenished at Bardia and had just moved out when 21 Panzer Division arrived; this movement of 21 Panzer Division was contrary to Rommel’s plans.
After reviewing the situation on the night 26/27 November, Rommel ordered 15 Panzer Division to clear up the situation on the Egyptian frontier and then join 21 Panzer Division, which was ordered to move westward on via Balbia, for a combined attack on the New Zealanders. 15 Panzer Division moving towards the frontier ran into a New Zealand brigade, captured 800 prisoners including the brigade headquarters and a huge supply dump. After the 15 Panzer Division’s clash with the New Zealand brigade, Rommel realising the danger of a link up with Tobruk diverted the division to prevent it. The Italian Ariete division on the way to the Egyptian frontier was blocked by a South African brigade on Trig el Abd, on 26 November it managed to disengage and moved towards the frontier but was ordered by the Afrika Korps commander to proceed to the Tobruk perimeter. On 26 November, the day on which the command of 8th Army changed, the Tobruk garrison linked up at el Duda.
On 27 November a review of the tank strength of XXX Corps revealed that 4 Armoured Brigade had 77 Stuarts, 22 Armoured Brigade 42 cruisers, making a total of 119 tanks in the reconstituted 7 Armoured Division. On this day strong German columns were reported to be moving on Trig Capuzzo, 22 Armoured Brigade was ordered to lay an ambush for the head of the column and 4 Armoured Brigade to move north to attack the spread out column. 22 Armoured Brigade was in position and engaged the head of the 15 Panzer Division, 4 Armoured Brigade Stuarts attacked the flank, the German anti-tank guns engaged the British tanks, the Panzer division lost some of its transport; after six hours of battle when darkness fell the British armour broke contact and retired five miles to leaguer; after the retirement the Germans resumed their movement and reached their objective; the Ariete Division and 21 Panzer Division also concentrated in the same area.
On 27 November, a New Zealand brigade and a Matilda tank regiment was at Belhammed, another New Zealand brigade held the Sidi Rezegh ridge while the Tobruk garrison infantry and tanks were at el Duda; on 28 November there was a lull in the fighting. On 29 November, 15 Panzer Division attacked from the east of Point 175, swept the Sidi Rezegh valley, went past Abiar el Amar and faced the defences of el Duda which consisted of two battalions of infantry and twenty six Matilda tanks, the Germans overran the infantry, knocked out fifteen tanks but were stopped by a battery of artillery; at night the remaining eleven tanks and two companies of Australian infantry, under the cover of artillery, attacked and recaptured the position. On 29 November the commander of 21 Panzer Division was captured by the New Zealanders near Point 175.
The British armour, having failed to stop the 15 Panzer Division, was ordered to attack Point 175 but failed to do so; the next day 22 Armoured Brigade handed over its cruiser tanks to 4 Armoured Brigade making a total of 120 tanks in the brigade. A South African brigade and 4 Armoured Brigade were ordered to clear Point 175 but failed to do so and Sidi Rezegh ridge was lost again. On the morning of 1 December, 15 Panzer Division launched an attack on Belhammed and under cover of darkness and morning mist overran the New Zealanders and their supporting Matilda tanks cutting off Tobruk again.
The 21 Panzer Division ordered to maintain a block on Trig Cappuzo, contrary to orders, moved westwards opening a gap for the remnants of the New Zealand division to retire to the Egyptian frontier, a South African brigade also moved east wards leaving Tobruk surrounded by the Afrika Korps and the Ariete Division. In twelve days of battle Rommel had destroyed two out of the three armoured brigades, one South African brigade and badly mauled the New Zealand division.
Rommel now decided to exploit by a dash to the frontier, he ordered the detachment of battalion group from the two panzer divisions to be sent to Bardia and Sidi Azeiz to be joined on 3 December by a regiment of tanks, these battalions failed to advance against resistance; the 90th Light Division, moved from the eastern perimeter of Tobruk, was to attack el Duda, the reconnaissance battalions was to locate the British armour around Trig el Abd, the Afrika Korps and the Italian XXI Corps were to hold the Tobruk perimeter in the west.
On 4 December, the German losses, since the beginning of the battle were 142 tanks, 25 armoured cars, 7 medium guns, 24 field guns, 60 mortars, 42 anti-tank guns including eight 88mm, 16 commanding officers, 3,800 men, vehicle losses were made up with captured vehicles, petrol and diesel stocks were low.
Warned that no supplies would be available till the late December, with only a handful of tanks left, on 6 December Rommel started his retreat to El Agheila, which he conducted very skillfully; the Italian ‘Savona’ Division was left to hold Bardia-Sollum-Halfaya which it held till 17 January 1942 and surrendered when food and ammunition was exhausted, ending the Crusader battle.
The British captured Benghazi on 25 December, Rommel lost 340 tanks, 32,000 Italians and 9,000 Germans were taken prisoners, 8th Army lost 18,000 in killed, wounded and prisoners.
The Germans in commenting on the British performance during the ‘Crusader’ battle, praised the preparation and the concealment of the approach to battle, they were critical of the fragmentation of force and the British inability to concentrate at one decisive point, the British troops were considered steady and reliable, the officers courageous and self-sacrificing but timid when required to act on their own initiative.
In November, the Germans sent a submarine force to the Mediterranean which sank the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the battleship Barham and the cruiser Galatea. Besides submarines Hitler sent the Luftflotte II with its commander, Field Marshall Kesserling as the German Supreme Commander South; the instructions to Kesserling were to win mastery of the air between southern Italy and Africa, to neutralise Malta, paralyse British shipping in the Mediterranean and African coast and to support the ground forces. To further add to the British difficulties in North Africa, Japan entered the war on 8 December 1941 and all reinforcements on the way to North Africa were diverted to Malaya.
By December, the Axis supply losses had reduced to 19 per cent and in January there were no losses. Pzkw III and IV tanks, captured Russian 76.2 mm guns on Czech tank chassis and Italian 75 mm self-propelled guns arrived.
On 21 January 1942, sixteen days after his rearguards had retired to El Agheila, Rommel attacked, moving with the Italian Ariete and Trieste divisions along the coastal road and the Afrika Korps inland he sent two lorried infantry battalions from 21 Panzer Division and 90 Light Division, supported by artillery, ‘Marck’s Group’, through the Italians to Agedabia, this force pushed aside the right flank of the 22 Guards Brigade and reached Agedabia at 1100 hours on 22 January, then the force went to Antelat and Saunnu. With the Italians moving along the coast road, the line Antelat - Saunnu held and the two panzer divisions advancing east of the coastal road, it was expected that the British armour would be trapped between the three forces. The trap did not succeed because Marck’s Group moved out of Saunnu too early which left the route open to the north of Antelat for the 2nd Armoured Brigade, 1 Armoured Division Support Group and the 22 Guards Brigade. On 25 January, six miles north west of Saunnu, 15 Panzer Division engaged 2 Armoured Brigade, the panzer regiment of the division, in co-ordination with anti-tank guns and artillery, routed the British brigade and pursued it for fifty miles ending at the Msus airfield. 15 Panzer Division captured 12 aircraft, destroyed or captured 96 tanks, 38 guns and 190 trucks; 2 Armoured Brigade had lost about 70 tanks up to 23 January and now ceased to be fighting force.
Rommel feinted towards Michili then turned towards Benghazi cutting off the 4th Indian Division on 27 January but it managed to breakout; on 3 February, by passing Derna the Afrika Korps reached the Gulf of Bomba and the offensive finally halted at the British defences at Gazala. Auchinleck had already complained about the inferiority of British tanks and he now gave this as the ‘only’ reason for his defeat.
On 1 May Rommel was given permission to attack the Gazala line, to capture Tobruk and to advance up to the Egyptian frontier. Churchill considered the 8th Army stronger than Rommel’s army and pressed Auchinleck to attack, finally Auchinleck agreed to attack in June.
At the end of May the British had 994 tanks including American Grants with a 75 mm gun which out gunned the Germans, they also introduced the 6-pounder anti-tank gun replacing the 2-pounder. Rommel had 560 tanks, including 282 Pzkw III, 40 Pzkw IV and the rest Italian M3 or Pzkw II; in the air the Germans had a slight edge.
After a study of the Crusader battle, the British evolved the ‘brigade group’ concept, in this the infantry brigades were provided supporting artillery, engineers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns all of whom trained together; armoured brigades were composed of three tank regiments, a motorised infantry battalion and supporting elements as in infantry brigades.
At the end of May, the 8th Army consisted of XIII and XXX Corps; XIII Corps had the 1st South African Division holding 15 miles of the front from Gazala on the coast; the British 50 Division had two brigades continuing the line from the South Africans to Trig Capuzzo while 150 Brigade, the third brigade, was dug in between Trig Capuzzo and Trig el Abd behind minefields; 1st and 32nd Army Tank Brigades, equipped with 110 Matildas and 116 Valentines, were in support; the 2nd South African Division and the 9th Indian Brigade garrisoned Tobruk. From Gazala, on the coast, to Bir Hakeim there was a minefield which ran around the French position to Bir Harmat; behind this artificial obstacle XIII Corps divisions had deployed their brigades in strong points with all round defence, reinforced with anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and ‘mine marshes’.
A thirteen miles gap, heavily mined, separated XIII Corps and the XXX Corps, the 1st Free French Brigade was at Bir Hakeim, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was located south east of Bir Hakeim, further east the 7 Motor Brigade and 29 Indian Brigade were located at Bir el Gubi, in depth 201 Guards Brigade was at the important track junction named ‘Knightsbridge’, 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions were in the rectangle Knightsbridge, Bir Harmat, Bir el Gubi and El Adem.
Rommel’s comment on the British plan was that it was made with a desire to impose on the attacker a form of warfare to the liking of the British command rather than mobile manoeuvring in the open desert. The British execution of their plan was very good but the premise on which it was based was false. In a desert with an open flank, a rigid defence system means disaster; defence to be successful in the desert must be conducted offensively. Natural and fortified lines are useful in preventing the enemy from undertaking a particular operational moves but the manning of these lines must not, under any circumstances, be at the cost of troops required for mobile defence. Rommel’s opinion was that though the British had better anti-tank guns, over a hundred 6-pounders, and better tanks, 250 American Grants, they were valueless in the hands of troops not properly trained to use them and commanders who did not understand the doctrines of armoured and mobile warfare.
Rommel, in planning his attack, divided his forces; the British forces in the north, the South African division and the British 50 Division, were to be engaged by a force under the Afrika Korps commander consisting of the Italian XXI and X Corps, two divisions each, and two regimental groups of the 90 Light Division ; a group of Italian marines and German engineers and gunners were to demonstrate from the sea; to add to the deception in the north, one German and one Italian tank regiment were to move towards the enemy raising dust to exaggerate the size of the force, these tanks were to rejoin their formations after dark. The main thrust was a hook around the southern end of the Gazala Line, commanded by Rommel, the mobile force consisting of the Italian XX Corps, consisting of a motorised and an armoured division and the Afrika Korps of two armoured divisions and the 90th Light Division; Rommel’s intention was to by pass Bir Hakeim from the north and south and cut the 8th Army’s line of communications.
The operation started at dusk on 26 May, in the north the Italian X and XXI Corps did not have the desired diversionary effect; on 27 May the Ariete Division overran the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade but was stopped by the French at Bir Hakeim, the position had 55,000 mines and a strong anti-tank gun defence; ten miles south east of Bir Hakeim, 90 Light Division routed the 7 Motor Brigade of the 7 Armoured Division and overran the 7 Armoured Division tactical headquarters, a South African reconnaissance regiment had maintained contact with 90 Light Division and made regular reports.
In between the Ariete and 90 Light Divisions, the Afrika Korps contacted 4 Armoured Brigade moving to its battle position, 15 Panzer Division, in half an hour, destroyed one armoured regiment and two squadrons of a second regiment, the remaining tanks withdrew to Belhammed.
About ten miles north of the area in which 4 Armoured Brigade had been routed by 15 Panzer Division, 22 Armoured Brigade Group from 1 Armoured Division, moving south wards from Knightsbridge, was engaged by 21 Panzer Division, the 22 Armoured Brigade lost thirty tanks and withdrew towards the 2 Armoured Brigade position at Knightsbridge.
By this time the German Italian forces were widely dispersed, the location of the Trieste Division was not known, the Ariete Division was engaged in reducing the Free French position at Bir Hakeim, 90 Light Division was near El Adem, between the 90 Light Division and the Ariete Division were the two panzer divisions, scattered British forces were attacking the German columns.
At about 1430, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, while probing in the area between Acroma and Commonwealth Keep, were attacked from the east by 2 Armoured Brigade and the remnants of 22 Armoured Brigade, and from the west by 1st Army Tank Brigade; some British tanks missed engaging the German armour but caused considerable damage amongst the German echelons.
On the night 27/28 May, the Panzer Divisions were in the area Rigel Ridge, 15 Panzer Division, awaiting the results of recovery teams, had only 29 ‘runner’ tanks and it was out of fuel and ammunition; 21 Panzer Division had 80 runners with enough fuel for a few hours of battle; 90 Light Division was south of el Adem in contact with 4 Armoured Brigade. Rommel’s headquarters were in the area Bir el Harmat, it was cut off from the Afrika Korps but was joined by the Ariete Division which had broken off the attack on the Free French.
On 28 May, the British were complacent with the idea that Rommel’s armour was contained between the Gazala defences held by South African Division, the British 50 Division and the Free French in the west and the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the armoured brigades of 1 Armoured Division in the north east and the armour and infantry of 7 Armoured Division south of Trig el Abd; no action was taken against 15 Panzer Division waiting west of Knightsbridge, similarly 4 Armoured Brigade remained in contact with 90 Light Division in the area of Bir el Harmat.
Rommel, on 28 May, ordered 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions to drive north towards Via Balbia, 15 Panzer Division was out of petrol, 21 Panzer Division went alone, reached the escarpment but could not get down from it, the division then attacked ‘Commonwealth Keep’ which was garrisoned by South Africans and British infantry.
The Trieste Division, out of contact with Rommel since the beginning of operation, had been stopped by a deep minefield between the Free French position and Trig el Abd, the division gapped the minefield and opened Rommel’s supply route. Rommel visited his formations, determined their state and found a way from the south for supply columns to replenish 15 Panzer Division; he then ordered the moves of 90 Light, Ariete, Trieste and 21 Panzer Divisions and concentrated his armour with his rear protected by the British minefields of the Gazala defences and facing the British 1 Armoured Division in the centre of the British position.
On 29 May, 90 Light Division moved westwards to Bir el Harmat; at about 1100 hours, the Ariete Division, moving north to join the two panzer divisions, saw Grant and Crusader tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade moving towards the retiring 15 Panzer Division, the Ariete Division engaged them but the British tanks continued till they caught up with the retiring German division which turned around and gave battle, protected by its anti-tank rearguard, after a while the 21 Panzer Division came down from the north and a little later 22 Armoured Brigade, sent in the morning to attack 90 Light Division at Bir el Harmat, joined the battle; the tank battle continued till sunset when the British withdrew to Knightsbridge.
Rommel’s, chief of operations, out of touch with Rommel on 29 May, requested General Cruewell, commanding the feint attack against the South Africans, to bring pressure on the South African and British infantry divisions in the north to prevent them from interfering in the battle in the south, an Italian infantry attack failed but Italian engineers managed to clear a gap through the minefield opening another supply route for Rommel.
Rommel having failed to reach the coast, decided to mass his strength in the middle of the British positions with his back protected by the British minefields, an anti-tank screen to the north, west and south and massed artillery, with this base he intended to open his supply route through wide gaps in the minefields in the area of Got el Ualeb and, with his armour rested and reorganised, to break out in the north or deal with the Free French at Bir Hakeim.
After Rommel issued his orders on the night 29/30 May he learnt that the British 150 Brigade Group, with thirty Matilda tanks, was west of 15 Panzer Division between Trig Capuzzo and Trig el Abd. On the evening of 28 May, 150 Brigade had observed the arrival of German tanks in their rear, the brigade changed front and hastily mined the new front which held against attacks on 30th May; on the night 30/31 May a column consisting of a company of infantry, a battery of artillery and two troops of anti-tank guns was sent from Knightsbridge to link up with 150 Brigade, the column ran into a screen of 21 Panzer Division and lost most of its men and guns; hard pressed 150 Brigade surrendered on 31 May after repulsing two attacks by 90 Light Division; the surrender cleared Rommel’s rear.
The 8th Army and 1 Armoured Division considered Rommel’s armour trapped, one armoured regiment attacked the Afrika Korps in the morning, they lost all their tanks except 11 Grants and 4 cruisers, a second attack, by the same regiment and a squadron from another regiment, failed with heavy losses because the artillery support programme was mis-timed. 4 Armoured Brigade sent one regiment to Bir Harmat to attack unidentified units and the rest of the brigade went to Bir Hakeim where thirty panzers were reported.
By the evening of 30th May, the losses of the British armour had convinced them that infantry should clear anti-tank screens, engineers should follow and lift mines and then tanks should go through; a two brigade attack on this basis was planned for the night May 31/1 June, a brigade group was to attack the northern Sidra Ridge and the second brigade was to attack the eastern Aslagh Ridge, but when the attack was executed on the night 1/2 June only one battalion attacked and failed.
On 3 June, the 8th Army commander proposed an attack by 5 Indian Division through the South African division, after discussion this was changed to a manoeuvre around Bir Hakeim to Tmimi to cut Rommel’s line of communications and then due to logistic difficulties it was changed to the attack originally planned on Sidra and Aslagh Ridges. On the night 4/5 June, the opening artillery bombardment on Aslagh Ridge fell on empty ground, when 22 Armoured Brigade moved up it ran into German artillery fire and an anti-tank screen which forced the brigade to change direction from the west to the north, German tanks then attacked and overran the infantry. At Sidra Ridge 32 Army Tank Brigade ran into a mine-field covered by anti-tank fire and lost 50 out of its 70 Matilda tanks.
On 5 June, 15 Panzer Division passed through a gap in a minefield south west of Bir Harmat, moving north it overran the 9 Indian Brigade, the remnants of 10 Indian Brigade, the tactical headquarters of 7 Armoured and 5 Indian Division and trapped three Indian battalions and four artillery regiments. 2 and 4 Armoured Brigades were now placed under the command of the 7 Armoured Division commander but in the prevailing confusion he could not bring them into action.
At Bir Hakeim, where the Free French were cut off, on 8 June the Germans attacked, after two days of fighting, on the night 10/11 June, the French broke out to the west, about 2,700 out of 3,600 men escaped, leaving behind guns and vehicles.
On 10 June, 8th Army estimated that it had 250 cruiser tanks in the armoured divisions and 80 Matilda tanks in the Army Tank Brigade; actually there were 77 Grants, 52 Crusaders, 56 Stuarts, making a total of 185 and 63 Matildas in the 32 Army Tank Brigade. Attempts to reorganise regiments were not successful due to difference in types of tanks, the tank crews of one regiment were not familiar with the tanks of another regiment; when tanks were transferred from one regiment to another there were complaints of deficiencies of vital components, such as wireless sets and tank crews were reluctant to serve in regiments other than their own. The relationship between the British senior commanders was unsatisfactory, the British and the South African infantry division commanders did not get on and the two armoured division commanders did not see eye to eye.
On 11 June, the British tank strength was greater than Rommel’s; out of the seven British infantry brigades, five had hardly been engaged, Rommel had 200 tanks including 85 Italian M13s or Pz IIs. The British deployment containing the Afrika Korps was 69 Brigade holding a line eastwards Bir Heleisi, a battalion holding Point 187, south west of Acroma, the Guards Brigade holding Knightsbridge with one battalion at Rigel Ridge; the 15 mile gap between Knightsbridge and El Adem was covered by 2 and 22 Armoured Brigades of 1 Armoured Division and 4 Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division; the 29 Indian Brigade was located at El Adem with a battalion detached to the Batruna Escarpment guarding the Tobruk bypass.
On the afternoon of 11 June, 90 Light Division and reconnaissance battalions moved eastwards to Ed Duda and the British supply dumps at Belhammed, bypassing El Adem from the South; 15 Panzer Division, with the Trieste Division on the left, moved north east to the airfield north of El Adem; 21 Panzer Division, on Sidra Ridge, was to keep the defenders of Bir Heleisi - Point 187 fixed in their positions and the Ariete was to fix the 22 Guards Brigade and the British armour in the area of Knightsbridge. 7 Motor Brigade and Indian infantry harassed 90 Light Division and 4 Armoured Brigade moved south east from Knightsbridge to intercept 15 Panzer Division; at nightfall 4 Armoured Brigade was on the high ground at Naduret el Ghesceauasc, within gun range of 15 Panzer Division.
On 12 June, the 8th Army commander tried to concentrate the 45 tanks of 2 Armoured Brigade of 1 Armoured Division, the 95 tanks of 7 Armoured Division with those of 4 Armoured Brigade to deal with 15 Panzer Division and 86 tanks of 22 Armoured Brigade and 63 Matildas of the 32 Army Tank Brigade to deal with 21 Panzer Division and the Ariete Division. The plan was defeated by the poor relationship between the 1 and 7 Armoured Division commanders, the former very reluctantly placed the 2 Armoured Brigade under the latter’s command. The 7 Armoured Division commander became concerned with concentrating his division which had dispersed when 15 Panzer Division passed between 4 Armoured Brigade and the 7 Motor Brigade. The 2 and 4 Armoured Brigade commanders disagreed with each other and with the 7 Armoured Division commander; the 7 Armoured Division commander on the way to confer with the corps commander, ran into a German reconnaissance unit and remained out of touch with his command for the rest of the day leaving it without direction.
Through his wireless interception Rommel learnt that 4 Armoured Brigade had refused to attack towards the south east, he ordered 15 Panzer Division to turn to the north and move towards the waiting British tanks but the attack was held off by 2 and 4 Armoured Brigades. At about noon XXX Corps commander realised that 7 Armoured Division commander was missing, he placed 2 and 4 Armoured Brigades under 1 Armoured Division and ordered 22 Armoured Brigade to join the other armoured brigades, concentrating the armour of both armoured divisions. Both Rommel and the Afrika Korps commander reacted immediately, 21 Panzer Division moved from the west to attack 4 Armoured Brigade in the flank and knocked out twenty tanks in ten minutes after making contact; 15 Panzer Division attacked 2 and 4 Armoured Brigades northwards in the Ghesceuasc area surrounding the two brigades.
When 22 Armoured Brigade arrived it drew off 21 Panzer Division opening a gap through which the remnants of 4 Armoured Brigade withdrew and did not stop till they reached the Tobruk by pass with their remaining 15 tanks; 2 and 22 Armoured Brigades, of 1 Armoured Division suffered severely. The 1 Armoured Division commander rested the right flank of 22 Armoured Brigade on Knightsbridge and extended the defence line north east to Raml Ridge parallel to the Knightsbridge - Acroma track to shield the salient held by the Guards Brigade. By nightfall on 12 June the balance of forces had changed in favour of Rommel, five British brigades were penned in fixed positions.
On the morning of 13 June there was a lull, both sides were tired; during the night 21 Panzer Division moved to the west towards Rigel Ridge and 15 Panzer Division closed up to Rigel Pass, 1 Armoured Division held open a narrow corridor to Acroma, 22 Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge faced the likelihood of being surrounded by 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions; 21 Panzer Division over-ran Rigel Ridge reducing 32 Army Tank Brigade to 20 tanks, during the night Knightsbridge was abandoned.
With Knightsbridge abandoned, a decision regarding the holding of the Gazala line had to be taken, Auchinleck ordered the holding of the line but on 14 June the 8th Army commander issued orders for the withdrawal of XIII Corps and 1 Armoured Division to the Egyptian frontier. Auchinleck then ordered the holding of the line Acroma - El Adem - El Gubi, Tobruk was not to be allowed to be invested, the 8th Army commander did not change his order and the withdrawal started on 14 June.
On 20th June, while 90th Light Division and the newly arrived ‘Littorio’ Armoured Division engaged the 8th Army, 15 and 21 Panzer Division and the Italian XX Corps attacked Tobruk from the south east, Stukas supported the attack, engineers of the 15 Panzer Division bridged the anti-tank ditch and after a days fighting Tobruk was captured with 33,000 prisoners from the 2nd South African Division, 11 Indian Brigade, 32 Army Tank Brigade and 201 Guards Brigade (reconstituted 22 Guards Brigade), a considerable number of vehicles and 2.2 million gallons of petrol..
Churchill was in Washington when he received the news of the fall of Tobruk, the American President immediately ordered the shipment of 300 Sherman tanks, 100 self propelled guns and 300 spare engines to Egypt. The Sherman tank gun, armour and reliability matched the German Pz IV.
Two days after the capture of Tobruk, Rommel crossed the Egyptian frontier driving the British to Mersa Matruh and then to a line 10 miles west of El Alamein, 60 miles west of Alexandria, running from the coast to the Qattara Depression located about 40 miles from the coast. Rommel’s advance from Halfaya to El Alamein was fast but on 1 July he had only 6,400 men, 41 tanks and 71 guns facing the British position, he attacked with these troops but did not succeed in breaking through the defences.
For the 8th Army, defending the El Alamein line, for three days the situation was critical, Auchinleck prepared to withdraw to the Nile Delta, then reinforcements arrived, the New Zealand division, the 9th Australian Division and the 4th Indian Division. Rommel tried to prevent the front from becoming static but after the tank battles and advancing 400 miles from Bir Hakeim, he mustered only 50 German and 54 Italian tanks and faced superior forces.
Between 1 and 3 July Auchinleck fought a defensive battle, he stopped Rommel’s advance on the coastal road, the Axis forces attacked the British forces from El Alamein to the dominating ground of Ruweisat Ridge, these attacks were met with concentrated artillery fire and bombardment from the air; artillery guns were deployed with infantry and used in the anti-tank role.
By mid-July the 40 mile long front from the coast to the Qattara Depression stabilised and the outcome became dependent on reinforcements and supplies.
Auchinleck, anticipating that Rommel would again attempt an outflanking from the south, planned a strong defences from the coast to Ruweisat Ridge and to lightly hold but heavily mine the area south to Hunter’s Plateau, to hold in strength Alam el Halfa Ridge to counter attack penetrations north or south of Ruweisat Ridge. He deployed the XXX Corps consisting of the 9th Australian, 1st South African and the 5th Indian Divisions to hold the front from the coast to the Ruweisat Ridge with 23 Armoured Brigade, with Valentine tanks, in support; XIII Corps, with the 2nd New Zealand Division south of Ruweisat Ridge and 7 Armoured Division slightly east of the frontline, blocking the approaches to the Ruweisat and Alam el Halfa Ridges; the 8th and the 10th Armoured Divisions and 44 and 51 Infantry Divisions were in reserve; the 1st Armoured and 50 Infantry Divisions were refitting.
Churchill having lost confidence in Auchinleck replaced him with General Alexander and Montgomery assumed the command of the 8th Army on 12 August. After reviewing Auchinleck’s plan, Montgomery increased the depth of the minefields in the south, he asked for the 44 Infantry Division which he deployed on the Alam el Halfa ridge. 22 Armoured Brigade composed of 78 remaining Grant tanks was placed on Alam el Halfa in a counter penetration role in hull down positions blasted by engineers in rocks and was instructed to fight a defensive battle and not charge the enemy; the 10th Armoured Division was placed on the western end of the ridge as a striking force.
In the period June-July 1942, the German-Italian air forces lost the air superiority to the British Desert Air Force due to increased deliveries of fighter aircraft and 117 American B-24 bombers. The pattern of the air support for the 8th Army also underwent a change, fighters now defended ground forces against enemy aircraft and attacked German ground forces; bombers, escorted by fighters, attacked German airfields, ground installations and ports; reconnaissance aircraft acted as the eyes of the ground forces. In the 22 days of the Gazala battle which started on 26 May, the British Desert Air Force flew 5,732 sorties whereas in the first 27 days of July 15,400 sorties were flown.
Rommel estimated that due to better logistics the British relative strength would improve after mid-September; Auchinleck switched the RAF from attacking front line troops to attacking the ports of Mersa Matruh, Bardia and Tobruk which extended Rommel’s supply line to Benghazi and Tripoli; Benghazi was seven days away, Tripoli was another five days of a long vulnerable road haul.
Rommel realised that to drive the British out of Egypt he had to attack before they had replaced their losses; he was reinforced by the German 164 Division, the German Ramke Brigade, an Italian division; the German 90th Light Division was motorised. Rommel’s deployment from the coast to the Qattara Depression was German 164 Division on the coast then the Italian XXI Corps of two Italian divisions, Ramke’s German Parachute Brigade and a division of the Italian X Corps; as his manoeuvre force he had the Afrika Korps with 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and the 90th Light Division and the Italian XX Mobile Corps with two armoured divisions and an infantry division; three Italian infantry divisions were in reserve between Mersa Matruh and Bardia.
In what became known as the Battle of Alam el Halfa, Rommel planned to feint in the north, a holding attack in the centre and the main attack in the south, the key of the battle was the capture of the Alam el Halfa ridge on the first day of the battle. On the night 30/31 August lanes in the southern minefields were to be cleared by German and Italian infantry, at dawn the two Afrika Korps divisions were to pass through the mine field, advance 30 miles to take the Alam el Halfa ridge and cut the 8th Army communications in the area of El Hamman; the 90th Light Division and the Italian XX Mobile Corps were to protect the left flank of the Afrika Korps, the combined German and Italian reconnaissance battalions were to protect the right flank. To gain surprise and to confuse the British, the movement of the Afrika Korps and Italian XX Mobile Corps was to start in the evening while the Italian X and XXI Corps with some German troops would attack the British frontally starting at 0200 hours at night. After the annihilation of the 8th Army, 21 Panzer Division was to head for Alexandria; the rest of Afrika Korps, 15 Panzer and 90th Light Divisions to head for Suez Canal.
On the night 30/31 August, British reconnaissance aircraft located the German armour waiting for the minefield to be gapped, bombers lighted up the assembly areas with flares and bombed them, British artillery engaged the areas where the minefields were being gapped, the German general commanding the Afrika Korps was wounded and that commanding the 21 Panzer Division was killed. Rommel estimated that with surprise lost there was no chance of reaching the first objective, el Hammam, without being engaged by the British 7 and 10 Armoured Divisions, he therefore changed the Afrika Korps objective to the Alam Halfa Ridge; the Italian XX Corps to Point 102, south west of the Alam Halfa Ridge, and 90 Light Division was to protect the left flank of the Italians; the changed plan intended to draw the Grant tanks of the 10 Armoured Division on to an anti-tank screen and destroy them. The Desert Air Force continuously hampered Rommel’s movement but a dust storm sent it away, allowed the Germans and Italians to refuel their tanks and to resume their advance at 1300 hours, but soft sand slowed the movement of tanks; the Italian XX Corps was delayed by mines and started moving at 1500 hours.
At Point 102, Grant and Crusader tanks attacked the van of the German advance, in the engagement a few German and 12 Grant tanks were knocked out creating a gap in the British defence through which the Germans advanced to an infantry position; anti-tank guns and artillery opened fire, the German tanks overran the forward platoons and as they went forward Grant tanks came charging at them; the German panzers immediately withdrew through a screen of 88mm anti-tank guns but the British armour stopped out of the range of the guns; an attack by 15 Panzer Division on Alam Halfa Ridge had also failed to draw out the British tanks. After night fell the British artillery continued to shell the known positions and the British air force bombed the German and Italian forces all night.
The next morning 15 Panzer Division had enough fuel
to mount an attack, the division probed the western end of the Alam Halfa
Ridge, the British retaliated with devastating artillery fire and the
British tanks again refused to be drawn on to a anti-tank screen. The
Desert Air Force attacked the Germans and Italians all day and continued
at night; on the morning of 2 September when Rommel went around he found
morale low due to continous air attacks and petrol supplies low, he had
reserves of one issue of 100 kilometres over good going, he, therefore,
concluded that he must withdraw and moved para-troops, the German Ramcke
Brigade and Italian Folgore to occupy defences at Muhafid and Munassib
Depressions and at Dier el Angar. Montgomery ordered the New Zealand
Division commander to capture Himeimat with a New Zealand brigade and a
British brigade from 44 Division on the night 3/4 September, the attacks
failed with over 800 casualties. On 7 September the Germans withdrew
across the mine-fields, Rommel lost about 3,000 killed, wounded and
missing, 49 tanks, 15 guns, 35 anti-tank guns, 400 vehicles and 41
aircraft; Montgomery’s losses were 1,750 killed, wounded and missing, 68
tanks, 18 anti-tank guns and 68 aircraft.
8 - El Alamien - The Breakout Battle
Before and after the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the Germans were faced with logistic difficulties whereas the British supply and reinforcement position improved, further the command of the air had passed to the British and German supply columns were constantly attacked, Rommel commenting on this said “who ever has command of the air is in a position to inflict such heavy damage on the opponents supply columns that serious shortages must soon make themselves felt. By maintaining a constant watch on the roads leading to the front he can put a complete stop to daylight supply traffic and force his enemy to drive by night, thus causing him to lose irreplaceable time. But an assured flow of supplies is essential; without it an army becomes immobilised and incapable of action.”
After the Battle of Alam el Halfa, Rommel had the choice of falling back voluntarily or fighting a defensive battle with both flanks secure. In the tank battles fought in the North African desert usually the southern flank was open for a flanking movement, after the Battle of Alam el Halfa the Germans occupied a defensive position with the northern flank secured by the sea and the other resting on the Qattara Depression which did not allow vehicular movement.
With both flanks secure, Rommel concluded that the British attack would follow a World War I pattern, he, therefore, planned his forward defences to absorb the anticipated artillery barrage and infantry attack by keeping his main defences out of artillery range. He anticipated that there would be two main attacks and one of them would be reinforced; he considered that he would have enough time to concentrate his armour in the vital area once he was sure of it but he could move only once because he was short of petrol. The German 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions had about 200 tanks, mostly Pz IIIs, the Italians had 340 tanks in their Ariete and Littorio Divisions, there were about 500 guns and 850 anti-tank guns.
The defensive minefield was 5,000 yards to 9,000 yards deep, in it 500,000 mines with 3 per cent anti-personnel mines and the German S-mine, which had almost invisible wires extending from it which when disturbed made the mine jump in the air and explode scattering ball bearings and shrapnel all round it; captured bombs and shells were also booby trapped and buried.
The forward edge of the German defences facing the British were wired and mined with minefields from 500 to 1000 yards in depth, in these minefields the forward companies of the defending battalions were located in platoon and company posts, some with watch-dogs to detect night patrols. Behind the forward minefields there was an empty belt, 1000 to 2000 yards wide, then there was another minefield, about 2000 yards deep, in which the depth companies of the defending battalions were sited with machine guns, mortars and anti-tank guns. The open space between the mine belts was cut into irregular lateral shapes by triangular minefields with their apex towards the enemy to channelise attacking troops into killing areas where they could be engaged by pre-registered artillery and machine gun fire; the other purpose of the triangles was to allow the movement of counter-attacking troops and reinforcements.
The northern flank of Rommel’s defences was held by the German 164 Division with 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division in depth; the main front was held by five Italian divisions, German para-troops and some other German units; the southern flank was secured by a German reconnaissance group; the 15th Panzer Division and the Littorio Division were in reserve in the north while the 21st Panzer Division and the Ariete Division were in reserve in the south. Rommel had 30 Panzer IV tanks with 75 mm guns, 180 Panzer IIIs with 50 mm guns and 300 Italian tanks hardly fit for battle.
On 10 August, Churchill issued a directive to Alexander to annihilate the German Italian Army before the American and British landings in Africa, scheduled for 8 November, after taking into consideration the training on the 300 new Sherman tanks, the full moon night of 23/24 October was decided for the start of the attack by the 8th Army.
For the clearing of minefields the 8th Army organised a school to train engineers, infantry and other arms in very elaborate mine clearing drills. For the clearing of gaps through minefield, the pattern of the minefields was determined from information collected by patrols and aerial photographs; the mechanical method of clearing mines was with ‘flail’ tanks, called ‘Scorpions’; manual clearing was the detection of mines with mine detectors (which were often defective), and prodding with a bayonet; a gap 24 feet wide, 200 yards long could be cleared by nine men in an hour with a mine detector while prodding with a bayonet it took two hours; the cleared lanes were marked with lamps and tapes.
Montgomery issued his orders for the attack on 6 October 1942 these were:
1. XXX Corps, in the north, to attack on a four division front and clear two corridors for X Corps to pass through.
2. XIII Corps, in the south, would mount two attacks as feints to hold the German reserves in the south.
3. X Corps was to pass through XXX Corps and deploy to prevent interference by German reserves in the XXX Corps operations. Action against German armour was to be taken after the infantry battle had been won.
There was to be a ‘break in’, a ‘shield of armour’, and a ‘crumbling process; the essence of the plan was to separate the German armour from the infantry; the battle was expected to last about twelve days.
In deciding where the front should be penetrated, it was considered that though the depth of the minefields in the south was less than in the north, if the front was penetrated in the south the Germans would fall back towards their main line of communications whereas if the front was penetrated in the north their route of withdrawal would be blocked.
XXX Corps was deployed from the coast to Ruweisat Ridge, it consisted of the 9 Australian, 51 British, 2 New Zealand, 1 South African and 4 Indian Divisions, the plan was to open two corridors through the minefields on the Corps front through which X Corps, consisting of 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions, was to pass through and engage the German armour.
In the south XIII Corps was deployed up to the Qattara Depression, it consisted of two British infantry divisions, 7 Armoured Division, two French brigades and a Greek brigade; the Corps was to carry out two feint attacks on the German right flank.
Montgomery had seven infantry divisions, a French formation, a Greek brigade, three armoured divisions and seven independent armoured brigades, about 220,000 men, 1,100 tanks, including 128 Grants and 267 Shermans with 75 mm guns and about 2,000 artillery guns including 1,100 anti-tank guns.
Elaborate plans were made to conceal concentrations and to deceive with dummy tanks, guns, vehicles, supply dumps etc. On 18 October, 450 tanks and 2000 vehicles of X Corps, openly moved to positions south of the Alam Halfa ridge where dummies of all tanks and vehicles were erected and over the next four nights the tanks and vehicles moved to their concentration area where a month earlier dummies had been erected to represent tanks and vehicles and these were removed.
After gaining air superiority in July, Tobruk, Sollum, Bardia, Mersa Matruh and Suda Bay were constantly bombed at night; for seventeen days preceding the attack, 500 fighters and 200 bombers attacked the German communications, transport, artillery and German armour concentration areas; in the last four days before the attack, fighters and bombers attacked daily to neutralise the German and Italian air forces.
The 8th Army attack was set to commence on the full moon night of 23/24 October, it started at 9.40 P.M. with artillery fire all along the front, the infantry marched through their own minefields, the engineer detachments who were to clear lanes in the German minefields followed the infantry, tanks moved into assembly areas and waited. After twenty minutes the attacking infantry entered the German minefield and advanced at a walking pace because running would have set off anti-tank mines; when the infantry entered the German minefields a barrage moved ahead of it at a 100 yards per three minutes while other artillery fire shifted to the known German forward defences; some German posts located in the minefield were charged and overrun while others were by passed.
Infantry brigade boundaries were marked with anti-aircraft tracer and search lights intersecting at specific points. Within the brigades, battalions and companies were navigated by subalterns; the barrage acted as a navigation guide as long as the infantry kept close to it. Just over half way to the final objective a ‘Red Line’ had to be reached by the attacking infantry by mid-night and then it had to wait for an hour for the mopping up of the by-passed defenders and the next wave of attackers to pass through. The final infantry objective was the ‘Oxalic Line’, the armoured divisions of X Corps had to pass through the Oxalic Line and position themselves at the ‘Pierson Line”.
9 Australian Division, on the right flank of XXX Corps, successfully attacked along the divisional northern boundary with its 24 Brigade, on the left 26 Brigade reached its first objective by mid-night and the follow up battalion reached the final objective; further south 20 Brigade reached the Red Line on time but could only advance about half way to the final objective.
The 51 British Division, on the left of the Australians, was to start the attack on a 2,500 yard front with the final objective 5,000 yards wide; on the right, like the Australians, the division could only advance about half way between the first objective and the final objective, on the left it was able to reach the northern end of the Miteiriya Ridge, its final objective.
The New Zealand Division attacked from a base of about a mile, its final objective was the three mile crest of the Miteiriya Ridge; on the right flank the Red Line was reached on time, the second wave of four battalions went in and as the front widened the battalions separated, the crest of Miteiriya Ridge was reached but the forward slope was found thickly mined, vehicles, mortars, anti-tank guns and 9 Armoured Brigade, supporting the New Zealanders, joined them as soon as the mine-field was cleared; on the right the division captured its final objective but on the left it was stopped short of the final objective. Further to the south the 2 South African Division was able to reach its final objective in the south but in the north it stopped short.
XXX Corps, as a whole, reached its objectives at the northern and southern ends of its front; it was a mile short of it in the southern half of the Australian sector and in three quarters of the 51 Division sector, the New Zealanders had reached the final objective on their northern boundary but where the corridor for armour had to be cleared, it was short of the final objective.
XIII Corps, consisting of 44 and 50 British Divisions, 4 Indian Division, two Free French brigades and 7 Armoured Division were given the task of fixing the 21 Panzer Division in its location with out getting into a tank battle; the assumption was that the German defences were the same from which they had advanced for the Alam el Halfa battle. North to South, 50 British, 44 British and the 4 Indian Division held the corps front. XIII Corps plan called for 22 Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Division to make an approach march through two defensive minefields then drive through six miles of no-man’s-land to two minefields 500 and 1,000 yards wide, cut four gaps with a mine clearing parties behind a barrage then the armoured brigade was to form a bridge head in which the 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 44 British Division would assemble; further south the 1st Free French Brigade Group was to capture Himeimat peaks. Finally 7 Armoured Division and the Free French brigade were to advance to Jebel Kalakh and Taqa Plateau while 44 and 50 British Divisions held the base.
22 Armoured Brigade started at 1845 hours, it reached the defensive minefields on schedule and halted; the carrier platoons, the reconnaissance regiment of the 44 British Division, engineers and flail tanks with two companies of infantry for protection went to the nearer minefield, a line of lights on pickets were set up to guide tanks, an infantry battalion marched to the right of the pickets. Enemy artillery opened fire on the infantry and when they ran forward they ran into the defenders. Four lanes, as planned were opened through the nearer minefield by 0430, a tank regiment passed through the minefield but when it reached the second minefield it was engaged by the enemy which also made it impossible to clear gaps in the minefield. The Free French further south, slowed by bad going, reached their forming up place near Himeimat but were attacked by Germans in captured Stuart tanks and forced to withdraw.
From Himeimat during the day the Germans observed the 7 Armoured Division between the two minefields and the slightest movement brought an immediate response. On the night 24/25 October, an infantry battalion advanced behind a barrage, the second minefield was gapped but badly marked, tanks passing through wandered on to mines and blew up while the German anti-tank guns covering the minefield took their toll. After one regiment had lost about half its tanks and the second one had lost some, it was decided not to pass more tanks through this gap. The next day it was decided to shift the attack to Munassib Depression and attack with 4 Light Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Brigade and 50 British Division.
X Corps, 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions were to move to assembly areas, refuel and start moving at 0200 hours through corridors gapped in the minefields; the northern corridor was to be cleared for 1 Armoured Division in the Australian and 51 British Division sectors, the southern corridor for 10 Armoured Division was in the New Zealand Division sector; the X Corps engineers were responsible for clearing the gaps; 18,775 lamps were to mark the gaps.
In the north 1 Armoured Division entered the northern corridor expecting to pass through the mine-field and break out to the Pierson Line. Mine clearing in the corridor was delayed due to some unidentified minefields, also when tanks moved through the cleared gap some blew up on scattered mines and when the following tanks detoured they knocked down the lane marking lamps then other tanks entered the minefield and blew up. Where the corridor through the minefield was to be made, the Australian and the 51 British Division had stopped short of their objectives with the result that the corridor though the minefield ended in a dead end. At dawn 1 Armoured Division had only reached the Red Line due to delays, but due to poor navigation they believed that they had arrived on the Pierson Line and hotly contested this with the 51 British Division.
The southern corridor, in the New Zealand division area, was cleared up to reverse slope of Miteiriya Ridge, the forward slope remained mined; 9 Armoured Brigade, supporting the New Zealanders, joined them; the vehicles of the New Zealand division, two armoured brigades and a lorried brigade tried to pass through the narrow passage causing confusion; dawn found tanks silhouetted on Miteiriya Ridge against a rising sun and were knocked out. Behind Miteiriya Ridge, 8 and 24 Armoured Brigades, of 10 Armoured Division, with their echelon vehicles, was stretched past the British defensive minefields, 133 Lorried Brigade of the division was still at El Alamein railway station.
On the morning of 24 October, Montgomery ordered priority in clearing the northern lane to get 1 Armoured Division to the Pierson Line, the Australians and the 51 British Division were to continue their attacks at night to secure their final objectives; the New Zealanders were to exploit beyond Miteiriya Ridge by driving across the South African front; 7 Armoured Division was ordered to preserve its tanks for the pursuit.
In the southern corridor the two armoured brigades of the 10 Armoured Division, were to attack from adjacent sectors in the New Zealand division’s area and advance about 3,000 yards to the Pierson Line, the 133 Lorried Brigade was to relieve one of the New Zealand brigades; 9 Armoured Brigade, in support of the New Zealand Division, the New Zealand Cavalry and the relieved New Zealand brigade was to form a line west to east from the 10 Armoured Division position on the Pierson Line. When the movement started at 2200 hours the German artillery opened fire, the mine clearing for New Zealanders advance got delayed and came under fire of their own barrage, two squadrons of the New Zealand Cavalry got through the mine-field; the routes of 9 and 8 Armoured Brigades crossed because the latter was not on the correct route; to add to the confusion an echelon vehicle of a tank regiment caught fire due to shelling and the enemy artillery concentrated on it; this stopped the movement of 8 Armoured Brigade; further the mine clearing parties of 24 Armoured Brigade of 10 Armoured Division started clearing the wrong minefield with the result that the brigade did not move.
On 25 October at 0330 hours the 8th Army situation map showed the Australians in the north firmly on their final objective, 1 Armoured Division on the Pierson Line, in the south 9 Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Cavalry and New Zealand infantry poised to commence their southward exploitation, 10 Armoured Division was on the Miteiriya Ridge unable to move. At 0800 hours on 25 October, Montgomery ordered X Corps “to locate and destroy the enemy’s armoured groups, and to ensure that the operations of the New Zealand Division south-west of Miteiriya Ridge were not interfered with by enemy armour from the west.”
Montgomery, with the assurance of 1 Armoured Division that it had 2 Armoured Brigade on the Pierson Line and in contact with 24 Armoured Brigade on the left and unaware that 8 Armoured Brigade had withdrawn, issued fresh orders at 1030 hours; 1 Armoured Division commander was to take over the command of 24 Brigade and with own 2 Armoured Brigade to act offensively against enemy battle groups; 8 Armoured Brigade was to form a line to 9 Armoured Brigade, the latter to continue to face south. 10 Armoured Division commander was to command the southern armour. A little later the 8th Army learnt that 2 Armoured Brigade had been engaged by anti-tank fire from Kidney and returned to the Oxalic Line.
The Germans and the Italians lost their telephone communications within 15 minutes of the commencement of the artillery bombardment on the night 23/24 October and British bombers flying overhead jammed their radio communications. Some German and Italian front line infantry were killed or captured, but most defences in the main defensive area held. General Stumme, commanding in place of Rommel, did not allow return artillery fire because of shortage of ammunition; he drove to the 90 Light Division at Sidi Abd el Rahman and from there he was driving to 15 Panzer Division when he came under machine gun fire, his dead body was found later.
As the battle picture cleared it appeared to the defenders that a German and an Italian battalion had been destroyed in the northern sector, fighting was going on with British troops, that Miteiriya Ridge had been lost, that the enemy was using Sherman tanks with good firepower, in the south British armour had penetrated the forward minefields but the Ramcke and Folgore units were available for counter attacks. General von Thoma assumed the command and after assessing the situation decided a counter attack by 15 Panzer Division in the north in the Kidney area was necessary and set about organising it.
Rommel, who was away in hospital in Germany, returned on the evening of 25 October, he found that only three days of petrol reserves existed, that 15 Panzer Division had only 31 serviceable tanks and the enemy’s artillery and air superiority was affecting morale. On the night of 25/26 October Kidney was lost, a counter attack by 90th Light Division at 1500 hours on the 26th was stopped by artillery fire and an attempt to attack supply columns with dive bombers was defeated by fighters and anti-aircraft fire. After studying reports, Rommel concluded that the main British attack would be in the north and accordingly moved 21 Panzer Division on the night 26/27 October.
In the afternoon of 25 October, Montgomery issued fresh orders; the Australians in the north were ordered to attack northwards; the 1st Armoured Division consisting of 2 and 24 Armoured Brigades and 7 Motor Brigades was to guard the left flank of the Australians; the 51 British Division was to continue to the Oxalic Line; the New Zealand Division and 10 Armoured Division, consisting of 8 Armoured and 133 Lorried Brigades, were to consolidate behind Miteiriya Ridge.
The Australian attack, on the night 25/26 October, captured its objective on the left flank but on the right it failed, the Germans counterattacked without success. On the 51 British Division front the dispute whether the 1st Armoured Division was at the Pierson Line or Oxalic Line continued till the 8th Army Headquarters ordered the firing of flares from the advanced positions and bearings were taken which located the armoured division on the Oxalic Line. In the New Zealand sector, 24 Armoured Brigade of the 10 Armoured Division was placed under command 1st Armoured Division while the rest of the division pulled out to the rear; XIII Corps attack on Munassib failed and 7 Armoured Division pulled back. On 26 October the Germans counter attacked the Australians without success; the rest of the XXX Corps front remained relatively quiet.
The 8th Army Headquarters assessed casualties on 26 October, 4,643 in XXX Corps, 1,037 in XIII Corps and 455 in X Corps; the German and Italian losses were estimated as 61,000 men, 530 tanks and 340 guns.
Montgomery ordered a brigade of 51 British Division to take over the Australian defences to free them to attack northwards on the night 28/29 October, armour with artillery and air support was to protect the flank of the Australians. Further south the New Zealand Division was to be withdrawn, their front was to be divided between the South African and the 4 Indian Division. XIII Corps was to be prepared to release the 7 Armoured Division to move north if the 21 Panzer Division moved north. All movement was to be completed by the dawn of 28 October and then troops were to rest and stand by for a major offensive.
On the night 26/27 October the Australians attacked to straighten their front eastward, when they were repelled they pulled back, shelled the position heavily and captured it. The 1 Armoured Division commander, to form a base from which his tanks could operate to protect the Australian flank, ordered two battalions from his motor brigade to take up positions on either side of a feature named Kidney and two others named Woodcock and Snipe, to dominate enemy anti-tank posts and create a passage for tanks to move through. The battalion which had to move to Woodcock, north west of Kidney, due to a navigation problem returned to a point near its start point. The 2 Armoured Brigade, which was to move to “Woodcock’, when it found that the infantry was not at the designated place did not move.
The second battalion, 2nd Rifle Brigade, which had to position itself at ‘Snipe’ south west of Kidney, also had a navigation problem, it followed a barrage which did not seem to be going in the right direction, it advanced about 2,500 yards, captured some prisoners, halted, called up its heavy weapons, deployed its own and the attached anti-tank artillery. At dawn a German tank leaguer was found about 1,000 yards away, the German tanks started moving away westwards exposing their flanks and 14 tanks and two guns were destroyed.
24 Armoured Brigade, when informed that the battalion was in place, while moving to the infantry position the tanks saw burnt tanks and opened fire on their own infantry, to stop the fire the intelligence officer of the battalion had to contact the tanks. The isolated infantry battalion defended itself against tanks with anti-tank guns, with spectacular success; it was without artillery support, when the artillery regiment of 2 Armoured Brigade was ordered to support the battalion and opened fire, the fire fell on the battalion.
When 24 Armoured Brigade moved into the infantry position, German artillery opened fire; Sherman tanks which out gunned the German tanks, were engaged by the Germans by laying the gun of a Mark IV ‘Special’ tank or 88 mm anti-tank guns on the Shermans, blinding them with smoke and then engaging with tank or anti-tank fire; after losing about half a squadron of tanks the brigade withdrew.
Rommel watching the British infantry battalion action at ‘Snipe’, ordered an attack on the northern sector; the 90th Light Division attack on the Australian position was repulsed by artillery and bombing; thirty German and ten Italian tanks attacked 2 Armoured Brigade across the front of the battalion at ‘Snipe’ at less than 200 yards, about thirteen tanks were knocked out and the attack failed; a second German attack, with fifteen tanks again attacked the battalion at ‘Snipe’, this also failed; during the night the 2nd Rifle Brigade withdrew from ‘Snipe’. After the Battle of el Alamien an enquiry examined the ‘Snipe’ position and the hulks of 36 tanks and self-propelled-guns were found.
That night 133 Lorried Brigade was ordered to occupy Kidney, Woodcock and Snipe; Kidney was occupied by a battalion, the battalion sent to Woodcock got lost, the battalion sent to Snipe occupied a position 1000 yards short.
On the morning of 28 October, Montgomery concluded that the Panzer Army had concentrated in the north and that his armoured divisions could not break out that way, therefore, he ordered XXX Corps to go over to the defensive, the Australians to continue their drive northwards supported by 23 Armoured Brigade.
Montgomery now ordered a drive north westwards towards Sidi Abd el Rahman with XXX Corps on the night 30/31 October, the command was given to the New Zealand Division commander, General Freyberg, one New Zealand brigade and three British brigades were placed under his command and a Greek Brigade was available if required; 9 Armoured Brigade, the brigade that had supported the New Zealanders from the beginning of the battle had all their tank losses replaced and were to protect the southern flank of the New Zealander’s advance; an armoured division was to be deployed further south to protect or exploit as required. Reconnaissance units were to move south westwards and circle around to cut communications and supply routes; the rest of the armour was withdrawn into reserve to be used against any unexpected pockets of resistance or to cut off the enemy’s retreat in the event of a breakthrough.
By 28 October the Germans and the Italians had lost 271 tanks; the Germans noted that their counterattacks were failing against heavy defensive fire, that in tank duels the British tanks were out gunning their tanks from hull down positions. Rommel, aware of the British concentration taking place in the north, reorganised on 28 October, he moved all German formations to the north except the Ramcke Parachute Brigade, he deployed the 90 Light Division in the north along the coast with their headquarters at Sidi Abd el Rahman, the rest of the Afrika Korps in a curve up-to Kidney feature and 21 Panzer Division as a mobile reserve in the rear.
The Australians continued their attack on the night 28/29 October, they were not very successful but captured a point which gave them a commanding view of the ground to the coast, all German counterattacks during the day were beaten back with heavy losses caused by artillery, anti-tank, mortar and machine gun fire; on the night 29/30 October the Australians made a small advance. On the night 30/31 October the Australians attacked northwards with one brigade and westward with another to eliminate the German salient that had formed along the fronts of their 20 and 24 Brigades. A complicated attack plan was made with a brigade attacking northwards to seize a feature dominating the railway line and the road then two battalions were to exploit eastwards while the other brigade attacked westwards; the fire support plan to support the attack involved 312 field and 48 medium guns of three divisions, the XXX Corps artillery and bombing by the air force.
The Australian 2nd 32nd Battalion captured its objective and reached the coastal road; in the second phase, the right hand battalion attacking eastwards was reduced to about three platoons by the time it reached its objective; the second battalion was reduced to about a company by the time it got near its objective; both battalions fell back to the position of the first battalion and two batteries of anti-tank artillery joined them. An Australian ‘Pioneer’ battalion attacked from the base of the 2nd 32nd to reach the coast and seal the salient, they reached the first objective 1,500 yards away but could not reach the coast because the barrage behind which they were advancing had stopped, the Germans counter attacked and recaptured the ground captured by the Pioneers. 32 Valentine tanks joined the 2nd 32nd and deployed on the railway embankment cutting off the salient.
The German and Italian troops in their dispersal areas were kept under hourly bombing attacks and whenever they assembled to counter attack devastating artillery fire broke up the attacks before they began; the German and Italian air forces were completely dominated by the British air force and Rommel’s main problem was shortage of petrol. On 30 October, Rommel ordered the reconnaissance of a defensive position at Fuka, 70 miles in his rear. On 31 October, when the Australians reached the railway line and the road, Rommel himself directed a counter-attack which, though shelled by artillery and bombed, destroyed 21 Valentines and opened the way for the withdrawal of the German troops in the salient but Rommel did not allow the withdrawal on 1 November.
By 29 October the situation map in the 8th Army Headquarters showed that Rommel had concentrated his armour in the north where the New Zealand division was to attack, a change in the point of attack to the south was suggested to Montgomery, he refused to change his plan but later relented. At 0105 hours on 2 November, the revised plan called ‘Supercharge’ jumped off.
Two British brigades attacked to clear area up to the Rahman Track, each brigade was followed by a mine clearance force and supported by a Valentine tank regiment, the northern flank was protected by a New Zealand battalion and the southern by 133 Lorried brigade, 296 field and 48 medium guns had 54,000 rounds available; all known enemy positions were attacked by the air force. Since only scattered mines were expected to be encountered, Scorpion flail tanks were to be employed for mine clearance. 9 Armoured Brigade with about 120 tanks and 1 Armoured Division with 260 tanks were to pass through to the ridge north of Tel el Aqqaqir then come under X Corps for the expected battle with the German and Italian armoured divisions. Three armoured car regiments were to break out from the northern or southern flank of the infantry position.
The infantry advanced behind a barrage 4,000 yards wide with one shell every 12 yards, moving forward at the rate of 100 yards every 3 minutes. The New Zealand battalion protecting the right flank lost about a company in securing its objectives but linked up with the Australians on the right. The right hand British brigade secured its final objective at about 0400 hours losing about 350 men; the left hand brigade also secured its objective by 0530 hours. The artillery barrage had neutralised the defenders and the supporting Valentine tanks were with the infantry.
9 Armoured Brigade was to pass through the forward locations of the two infantry brigades and open a gap for 1 Armoured Division to the Rahman Track. The brigade formed up at el Alamein railway station and had to drive 15 miles; the leading group consisted of 33 tanks of a tank regiment and 300 vehicles; the second group consisted of 44 tanks of the second tank regiment, the brigade tactical headquarter and the New Zealand Divisional cavalry; the third group was of 46 tanks of the third tank regiment and about 70 other vehicles. Only the leading vehicles of columns were able to see ahead of them, all columns were cloaked in clouds of dust which caused collisions and choked filters of vehicles which caused breakdowns and stopped the columns from moving.
The German and Italian artillery, after recovering from the shock of the barrage, re-sited their guns where necessary, and opened harassing fire on the columns of vehicles. The right hand tank regiment reached the forward infantry positions losing 12 tanks, their supporting infantry crippled and their supporting anti-tank guns left behind; the regiment on the left lost 11 tanks, the third regiment was half an hour late for the start of the next phase.
At 0615 hours the next phase started covered by a barrage, German and Italian positions were either overrun or surrendered; the two right hand tank regiments crossed the Rahman Track and ran into an anti-tank gun screen which they charged overrunning the 50 and 47 mm anti-tank guns. When the sun rose it silhouetted the British tanks against the rising sun, 88mm and 75mm anti-tank guns opened fire taking a heavy toll of the right hand and the centre regiment. The regiment in the centre advanced further than the right hand regiment, the regiment on the left had made a navigation error leaving the left of the middle regiment exposed, the German 15 Panzer Division moved in and engaged the middle and the left hand regiments in the flanks while the anti-tank guns engaged them frontally. 123 tanks had left the assembly area, 94 had crossed the infantry brigade positions, 75 were lost in the engagement, 19 survived
The 2 Armoured Brigade of 1 Armoured Division, which was to follow behind the 9 Armoured Brigade, left its assembly area at 0230 hours, the route to the infantry forward positions was congested by the infantry and 9 Armoured Brigade supply and store vehicles, ambulances, engineers clearing mines, a total of about 1,000 vehicles which delayed the movement of the brigade. The 2 Armoured Brigade moved with its three regiments up, the left hand regiment lagging behind due to a navigation error, as it came up it was engaged by artillery and anti-tank fire, no gap had been opened and wireless intercepts indicated that 21 Panzer Division was moving down from the north.
1 Armoured Division commander was ordered by X Corps commander to send 2 Armoured Brigade to the assistance of 9 Armoured Brigade but its two regiments stopped just forward of the infantry positions. Two tank regiments now faced north, two in the infantry positions faced west and two faced Southwest, all the tanks were in hull down positions.
The salient made by the two infantry brigade attacks at night was on flat ground, in the day it was packed with men, guns, vehicles and German and Italian artillery fire fell constantly causing fire, smoke and dust. The right hand regiment of 8 Armoured Brigade moving into the salient saw German tanks forming to attack the salient from the north, the regiment swung to its right and a tank battle developed. On 2 November, starting at 1100 hours, tanks of 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and the Italian Ariete Division, supported by Stuka dive bombers and 88mm anti-tank guns, put in co-ordinated attacks with about 120 mixed tanks, overhead the German air twice tried to intervene but was driven off. The British tanks, fighting from a defensive line, with tanks in hull down positions, with anti-tank guns in support, artillery on call to blanket concentrations as soon as they were identified and with air support, in two hours destroyed about 100 tanks leaving 35 German and 20 Italian tanks; the British losses in tanks were also considerable.
8 Armoured Brigade had not been heavily engaged, 7 Armoured Division had not been engaged at all, the X Corps commander now had command of all the British armour, for the night 2/3 November, he ordered a motor brigade to advance to the Rahman Track, 2 Armoured Brigade was to pass through and position itself on high ground 2,500 yards west of the track, 8 Armoured Brigade was to occupy high ground on the left of 2 Armoured Brigade on the Aqqaqir Ridge, 22 Armoured Brigade and 7 Armoured Division were to standby to swing further south and drive up to the coast, an anti-tank screen on the Aqqaqir Ridge was established which prevented armour movement.
The two battalions of the motor brigade failed to seize their objectives, the third dug in 1,000 yards short of the objective on low ground, aware that the objectives in the north had not been taken, X Corps commander ordered the 8 Armoured Brigade to probe south, the attempt, aided later by 2 Armoured Brigade failed and both brigades remained between Rahman Track and the Aqqaqir Ridge.
On 3 November, while the armoured brigades were stuck short of Aqqaqir Ridge, in the south an armoured car reconnaissance regiment found a way through the defences and informed the 8th Army Headquarters, XIII Corps reported demolitions which indicated a withdrawal, a wireless intercept reported that the German 90 Light Division had ordered the withdrawal of the troops in the salient in the north, all day a German anti-tank screen held Aqqaqir Ridge area, a night attack found the position abandoned, the Afrika Korps and the Panzerarmee had broken contact during the night and withdrawn ending the battle.
The el Alamein battle proved that with flanks secure and the front mined in depth, only infantry advancing behind a barrage, at night, could break through the defences, this was possible then because the German minefields had only 3% anti-personnel mines and the metal anti-tank mines could be detected with mine detectors; that in spite of air superiority, superiority in the number of tanks and out gunning the enemy, tanks could not easily break out of a mined front covered by effective anti-tank weapons; that all day attacks and counter-attacks with tanks failed and the only practical tank tactics were to occupy a hull down position and wait for the enemy tanks to show themselves.