Chapter 4: The CRUSADER Plan
BATTLEAXE had been viewed at GHQ MEF as a disaster and it was only by displaying this spectre, with dire warnings of possible repetition, to the service and political heads in London that Auchinleck was able to delay CRUSADER until administrative facilities promised adequate support. It was plain enough that BATTLEAXE had been uncomfortably constricted by the inability of the supply services to support an ambitious tactical plan and Auchinleck was determined not to let CRUSADER suffer under the same handicap. The comparative freedom from administrative limitations, however, was like strong and unaccustomed wine to the planners and went to their heads. Much time was wasted on a quite impracticable scheme to by-pass not only the frontier defences but the Tobruk front as well and make the main thrust across the base of the Cyrenaican bulge to the Gulf of Sirte. It is curious that this was one of the two alternatives Auchinleck put to his new army commander,1 General Cunningham, on 2 September, the other being to attack ‘from the coastal sector, south of the escarpment, and to feint from the centre and south’ – the centre presumably being the Tobruk front. The ultimate aim was to drive the enemy out of North Africa, but CRUSADER was concerned only with capturing Cyrenaica, to be achieved in the first instance by destroying the enemy’s armoured forces.
Cunningham elected to try to trap the enemy armour between the frontier and a line some miles west of Tobruk. With half again as many tanks as the enemy (as he estimated in an appreciation of 28 September) he should have no great trouble in disposing of the German-Italian armour despite a similar disparity of air strength in favour of the enemy. Meanwhile the mass of mobile infantry would guard the L of C and watch the frontier strongpoints. If the shape of the tank battle allowed, the Tobruk garrison might break out to link up with the armoured force; but the relief of Tobruk ‘must be incidental to the plan’.
More CRUSADER details were revealed at a conference at Army Headquarters on 6 October attended by divisional and corps commanders and corps and army staff officers. General Freyberg listened intently as the plan unfolded but said nothing until the New Zealand Division was discussed. With a superiority in tanks of five to four (not counting the I tanks), as it was now estimated, Eighth Army proposed to fight the opening and decisive battle with part of the armoured corps only – two out of the three armoured brigades, the third having a dual role which might make it unavailable. Since all depended on the outcome of this armoured clash, the confidence thus reposed in two armoured brigades to achieve the main purpose of the campaign almost unaided is as remarkable in its way as the time wasted on Auchinleck’s Gulf of Sirte alternative. Both indicate a readiness to abandon accepted principles which is hard to explain even years after the event. Those chiefly concerned must have looked on their new-found freedom from supply limitations and the extreme mobility of their forces on the desert plateau as a licence to ignore the principle of concentration of force or the tactical importance of ground. Neglect of the latter was obscured at this stage by the vagueness of the proposals put forward for the armoured force which specified, reasonably enough, that the British armour would accomplish its mission by ‘threatening the forces investing TOBRUK in order to make the enemy deploy his armd forces’ but did not venture into details. If the intention was to concentrate on vital ground, as many of those present no doubt imagined, all should be well; but this was later found not to be the case.
Freyberg was unwittingly first to cast doubt on it. His division, as part of the infantry corps,2 was to drive behind the frontier strongpoints to isolate them from the main battle and he was not at all in favour of such a move while there was any likelihood that strong panzer formations might oppose it. The dual role of one of the armoured brigades – to co-operate with either the infantry or the armoured corps as the situation demanded – was not in itself sufficient. ‘I made it clear’, he says, ‘that I did not agree ... to go out into the blue against unbeaten armoured formations.’ That the armoured brigade would be ‘in support’, he added, ‘meant nothing to me, as they would be ordered away in a crisis and ... unless we had tanks under our immediate command we should not be moved across the [frontier] wire until the armoured battle had commenced.’
The principle at issue was that infantry in mobile operations could not be expected to defeat a full-scale panzer attack and from this, Freyberg says, ‘we never willingly departed.’3
Thus began an argument, which echoed through later discussions at Corps and Army level, about the command of the third armoured brigade group. Lieutenant-General Godwin-Austen, backing up Freyberg, wanted it under his command; Lieutenant-General Norrie, now commanding the armoured corps, naturally wanted all armoured brigades under his wing; Cunningham was ready to compromise and retain direct command himself, which pleased neither side. The wisdom of Solomon was called for but was not forthcoming and the issue was never properly settled. That the armour and infantry should fight in close conjunction as a concentrated force was remote from current consideration.
The plan as outlined at this conference promised to disperse Eighth Army in a way that was daring, to say the least. Thirteenth Corps (Northern Force) was to make a left hook northwards to hem in the frontier positions, 30 Corps (Southern Force) was to drive north-westwards to Tobruk, and the third armoured brigade (Centre Force) was to operate between them. The Tobruk garrison was to break out south-eastwards when the time was ripe to link up with Southern Force, while far to the south an unspecified number of armoured cars and lorried infantry with artillery support was to skirt the edge of the Libyan Sand Sea from Jarabub to capture Jalo and Aujila, 250 miles from the likely battleground of the main armoured forces. Such a wide deployment of forces was inconceivable unless it was a foregone conclusion that the enemy’s armoured forces would be decisively defeated in the opening stages – an assumption not lightly to be made about German armour, with its record of outstanding success in many theatres, marred by nothing more serious than the rebuff outside Tobruk at the beginning of May. The official minutes of this conference are nevertheless quite clear on this vital point: 7 Armoured Division (with only two brigades) would be stronger than the two panzer divisions put together and each armoured brigade would be ‘slightly stronger’ than a panzer division, the basis of the comparison evidently being a mere counting of tanks. That an Italian armoured division might also have to be dealt with was scarcely considered; its tanks, the minutes broadly hinted, were inferior.
The strength and capabilities of the British armoured force were matters for the experts and Freyberg was in no position to pass judgment on their assessments. At his own conference of 17 October
he pointed out that the numerical superiority of the British tanks (now reduced to 5 to 4) was partly offset by the better quality of the Pzkw III and possibly of the Italian M13 too, though it was still thought that a British armoured brigade was stronger than a panzer division. What was proposed for the infantry was a different matter and in some ways worrying. Frequent mention of brigades instead of divisions and the detailed allotment of tasks raised suspicions that Eighth Army was too ready to fight with detached brigade groups, which would reduce the potential of the force as a whole and make inefficient use of the field artillery. Freyberg therefore specified at his first CRUSADER conference with his brigadiers on 17 October that the field regiments were ‘not to be decentralised4 unless necessary’, an instruction which the plan as it emerged in detail relegated to no more than a forlorn hope. Dispersion was to be the order of the day and it was now too late to change. Eighth Army tended also, he felt, to underrate the opposition likely to be put up by German troops. Tobruk was tightly besieged and it seemed to him that the final link-up with its garrison would call for more infantry than the plan provided. This task had been given to only two brigades of 1 South African Division, which had already served under General Cunningham in East Africa and was theoretically well-suited for operating in conjunction with armoured forces in a fast-moving battle. It was designed to have a full complement of troop-carrying vehicles permanently allotted (i.e., it was ‘fully mobile’); but the lorries which had served faithfully in the long haul from Kenya to Addis Ababa and beyond were not desert-worthy, and pending replacements for them the division was for many months without the bare essentials for training. The desert demanded an entirely new range of skills and techniques for navigation, movement, deployment and minor tactics (to say nothing of administration) which the South Africans had had little chance of learning, particularly while stationed at Matruh and subject to endless requisitions for labour on the local defences. As late as mid-October, therefore, the division was woefully ill-prepared for the trial ahead of it and was still short of 2271 vehicles. This figure fell by the end of the month to 1203 and was further halved in the next day or two, but time was running out and the situation was critical in the extreme. The division was not nearly ready for action and for less versatile troops the allotted role would have been out of the question. As it was, Major-General Brink of the South African division was only able to accept his commitments when Cunningham allowed him three more days to get ready and
made it a matter of honour. Otherwise 4 Indian Division would have changed places with 1 South African Division, or so Cunningham said, though it would in fact have been even harder to get that division ready in time. Brigadier Pienaar’s 1 South African Brigade had had first call throughout on equipment and transport and had managed to conduct two brigade exercises, but Brigadier Armstrong’s 5 Brigade first assembled in the open desert when it moved forward to meet the enemy.
As if these handicaps were not enough, the South African division was condemned to leave its third brigade behind in Matruh, a detail of the plan which attracted Freyberg’s attention. He was under threat of a somewhat similar sentence himself, since he had been warned to have one brigade ready to move westwards to join 30 Corps if the need arose; a larger force, he was told, could not be maintained so far west. This made him study the scheme for breaking through to Tobruk, and the more he looked at it the less he liked it. When the time came he suspected that he would be asked to drop current commitments and make for Tobruk to help join hands with the garrison. In such an eventuality he wanted all three brigades together, to develop the full fighting potential of the Division. As he wrote to Mr Fraser on 18 December, the plan to relieve TOBRUK was not strong enough. It was entrusted to two Brigades of the South Africans with the Armoured Force.
Two days before we marched out to the Battle I asked for an appointment with the Army Commander and said ‘You are attacking Five Italian Divisions and more than a German Division with two Brigades of South Africans and you will fail & we shall be ordered in the end to march upon TOBRUK. We are ready to do so. All our plans have been made with that object in view. I do wish to say that it is imperative that we should go as a complete Division not a two Brigade Division as in Crete’. I went on to say that we had been trained to work and fight as a complete Division and as such we were only half as strong if one of our three Brigades were detached.
‘I doubt if I made any impression on General Cunningham,’ he wrote later to the Minister of Defence (6 February 1942). ‘He thought I was over-anxious and I thought him over confident.’
With these reservations – that he disliked what he later called the Brigade Group Battle and that he was reluctant to move into Libya until enemy armour was fully committed against 30 Corps – Freyberg indicated no serious misgivings about the plan. At his conference of 17 October he told Brigadier Inglis5 that it was ‘good
to be going into a well-planned campaign at last’.6 Even after the campaign Freyberg wrote (to Mr Fraser) that the ‘plan they had worked out was a very good one. ...’ He warned the Defence Minister on 9 October of heavy fighting ahead and concluded that in the circumstances ‘proposed operations difficult but offer good chance success.’ Battle plans embody prophecies and the main forecast of the CRUSADER plan, that the first great tank clash would be decisive, seemed reasonable enough. As he explained in the same cable,
This like all modern battles is in first place battle of machines and exploitation by lorry borne fighting troops of all arms.7
Had he been party to the discussions which settled the details of the armoured corps plan and the sally from Tobruk he might have felt rather less confident.
The plan for the armoured corps was a curious mixture, reflecting, long-standing uncertainties of armoured doctrine in the British Army which left the main questions of command and organisation still unanswered. Differences of outlook between the cavalry and the Royal Tank Corps had not been resolved by combining them in the Royal Armoured Corps. The development of two main kinds of tank (cruisers and I tanks) was symptomatic, springing from and in turn encouraging divergent and mutually exclusive schools of thought about their uses. Even more important, attitudes within the RAC had not led to harmony with other fighting arms – the gunners, sappers and infantry – which was a major ingredient of success in German mobile operations. The desert war thus far had raised false gods and nurtured heresies and frequent changes of command had gravely weakened the Inquisition. Successes against the Italians might in some quarters be scorned; but they were victories nevertheless, and how were the newcomers to know, for example, how much the British tanks owed to the tight divisional control of the guns at Nibeiwa and the Tummars in December 1940, and how much to the eager and fast-moving infantry of 4 Indian Division?
Against this background General Cunningham’s assignment appears formidable. With no established body of theory to guide him and no real experience of tank warfare, he was to take into battle by far the largest British tank force yet assembled. Important parts of the scheme, moreover, had already been settled when he arrived – the establishment of his main striking force (7 Armoured Division), for example, and how the I tanks were to be used.
The Headquarters of 30 Corps, like that of Eighth Army, was newly formed and the plan was well advanced by the time General Norrie assumed command. Norrie himself was new to the desert and naturally took careful note of the opinions of the veterans of the desert war, foremost among whom was his old friend, Major-General Gott. Of remarkable personal appeal and bravery, Gott had risen from a battalion to an infantry brigade command and was now GOC 7 Armoured Division, an astonishing climb for an infantryman and testimony enough to the esteem in which he was held. But he was firmly convinced that under the new conditions of mechanised warfare ground had little if any tactical importance: the one essential was to ‘keep mobile’. Of the misconceptions which hampered the development of British armoured doctrine in the desert this was one of the most damaging.
The armoured corps headquarters lost its first commander, Lieutenant-General Pope, and his two senior staff officers in an air accident on 5 October, the headquarters was not fully mobilised until a week later, and Norrie was barely in the saddle before he had to attend a conference with the Army Commander and Major-General Scobie of the Tobruk garrison on the 15th.
One of the worst features of the plan, as expressed in the minutes of this conference, was the treating of the role of the armoured corps as if it were a specific objective. The role was, as Cunningham wrote a few weeks later, to ‘seek out and destroy’8 the enemy armoured forces, which put the emphasis in the first instance on ‘seek’. This could easily lead to a wild-goose chase across the desert hinterland if the enemy armour chose not to give battle, and Norrie took the sensible view that he should proceed at the outset to occupy ground too vital for the enemy to ignore. He proposed reaching El Adem, south of Tobruk, with his armoured division on the same day he crossed into Libya. There, astride the main enemy supply lines, he could meet on ground of his own choosing the strong enemy reaction his move was sure to provoke. There also he could link up with a sally by the Tobruk garrison. Behind his armour would be 1 South African Division, ready to join with the garrison in rolling up the leaguers outside Tobruk, and from El Adem the South Africans might well be able to swing north-westwards to cut off the escape routes of the enemy west of Tobruk.
This was a bold scheme and, granted the assumption that the British armour could defeat the panzer divisions, a sound one; but Cunningham would not accept it. He doubted whether the enemy armour would be drawn and feared that it might move instead against ‘our other columns’ – presumably 13 Corps. The enemy
might, in other words, exploit the 60-mile gap between his two corps, a weakness inherent in the Army plan. The better answer was not to disperse the Army in this way; but it so happened that this weakness was more than counter-balanced by a built-in dispersion of the enemy’s efforts between Tobruk and the frontier positions 60-odd miles away. The enemy was therefore poorly placed to take advantage of any openings Norrie’s scheme offered him.
Here after months of privation was the reward offered by the stout defenders of Tobruk and the inherent tactical superiority of Eighth Army’s situation over that of the enemy in Cyrenaica; and for the first time administrative facilities allowed the British to turn it to full account. But Cunningham’s plan would not permit it. Instead the British armour was to move a short distance into Libya and then wait and see how the enemy reacted, conforming to enemy movements and yielding the priceless possession of the initiative. Norrie protested, but in vain.
The main outline of the campaign as Cunningham visualised it is set out with admirable clarity in the minutes of the conference: first the tank battle, then the relief of Tobruk, and then the pursuit to Benghazi; but the details are curiously jumbled. ‘Troops of N.Z. Div might possibly be the first to reach TOBRUK’, says the opening sentence with prophetic insight not matched elsewhere in this document; but no special Signals provision was made for this, nor was 7 Armoured Division to be able to get in direct touch by wireless with the garrison, though it might very well be operating close at hand long before the South Africans came on the scene. Again, ‘N.Z. Div might act as a bait to draw the enemy armd forces out’; but why the enemy should react to a mere bait and yet not to the cutting of his main arteries at El Adem is hard to see.
Auchinleck chewed over the various alternatives offered the enemy at different stages and set down the results in notes of 30 October for Cunningham’s benefit. He was emphatic that Eighth Army must make an ‘obvious move to raise the siege of Tobruk’ but this valuable insight was clouded with worries lest the enemy should escape westwards. Thus he recommended activities to confuse the enemy as to the ‘time and direction of the main thrust’, and he acquiesced in separating the main striking force into two corps fighting different battles and even, if the enemy chose to withdraw, in breaking up the leading forces into ‘highly mobile columns’ for the pursuit. One possibility, he thought, was that the enemy might post his two panzer divisions by his supply dumps alongside the Via Balbia between Bardia and Tobruk and refuse to be drawn even by a threat to the siege front: in this case the armoured corps was somehow to ‘secure escarpment, picquet gaps, so as to prevent tank
movement’ – i.e., lock up the enemy armour north of the chain of escarpments on a front of some 40 miles – and then proceed to relieve Tobruk. While ready for these eventualities, 30 Corps must be able to deal with the ‘most likely course’ open to the enemy, which would entail his moving
his armoured forces south of escarpment to a suitable area north of Trigh el Abd and west of Capuzzo with object of striking at our 30 Corps in flank and heading it off Tobruk, his eastern flank being protected by his Sidi Omar - Halfaya defences.
In that event ‘we must accept battle and concentrate the strongest possible armoured force against him in this area’ – other than I tanks that is.9
Despite his confusing elaborations, Auchinleck was reasonably clear about driving with all available cruiser tanks towards Tobruk and thereby bringing the enemy armour to battle and (he hoped) to destruction, and he expected the garrison to ‘sally out and assist main attack by threatening enemy rear and flank and distracting his attention.’10 But this was not what Cunningham intended. The garrison was to take no part in the battle until the enemy armour was defeated or in course of destruction, and 7 Armoured Division with only two armoured brigades might well be fighting this crucial battle a few miles outside the Tobruk perimeter without any kind of help from either the garrison or the rest of Eighth Army. ‘The day for the sorties will depend on the result of the armoured battle’, the minutes of the 15 October conference state; ‘this in turn may mean that the S.A. Div may not reach the escarpment [south of Tobruk] for perhaps three days.’
There was no way by Cunningham’s plan of concentrating the strength of Eighth Army against the enemy’s mobile forces. The garrison could throw in a considerable weight of tanks, guns and infantry, but only if the main battle took place somewhere near El Adem, in which case one armoured brigade group would have to be left guarding the flank of 13 Corps in the frontier area, far outside the vital arena. All three armoured brigades could operate together in the frontier area if the enemy obliged, but this would allow 13 Corps a minor part and the South African division and the Tobruk garrison no part at all in the decisive battle.
Norrie pleaded at a corps commanders’ conference on 21 October to be freed from the encumbrance of guarding the flank of 13 Corps, so that he could take all three armoured brigades towards Tobruk, ready to ‘strike hard in any direction’; but Godwin-Austen objected. The New Zealand Division would be in a ‘most precarious’ position
unless an armoured brigade could protect it against a strong panzer attack and he wanted this brigade under his command while such a possibility remained.11
As time passed it became clearer in some quarters that the best plan was to despatch the full striking force of 30 Corps to El Adem, and when this suggestion was raised at another conference on 29 October Godwin-Austen concurred (though in a letter to Freyberg of 7 November he expressed himself as being ‘a bit nervous as to the complete security of our left in spite of the Army’s Order to 30 Corps to be responsible for it’). Such a move would inevitably attract the bulk of the panzer forces and he was prepared to meet unaided any likely thrust in his direction by German armour, up to the strength perhaps of a full panzer division. This was a solid concession to the ‘go for Tobruk’ school; but Cunningham refused it. He stuck to his scheme for the British armour to assemble at Gabr Saleh on the opening day of the offensive – a name on the map 50 miles south-east of Tobruk and some 25 miles inside the frontier. There on the evening of D 112 at the earliest Cunningham intended to study enemy reactions and decide in which direction to continue the advance: if towards Tobruk then one armoured brigade group should stay to protect 13 Corps no matter how much this might conflict with the main aim of destroying the enemy armour. Norrie could not see the point of standing at Gabr Saleh, which would not necessarily provoke immediate enemy reaction. But there the matter stood and on 9 November it was confirmed in a written directive to Norrie, followed on the 13th by another to Godwin-Austen.
In its final shape, therefore, the armoured corps plan was to cross the frontier at Fort Maddalena, 45 miles inland, after a carefully concealed approach march, and then drive north-westwards to Gabr Saleh, with armoured-car patrols fanning out to the Trigh Capuzzo. The enemy was expected to show his hand at once and Cunningham would then decide whether Norrie should head towards Bardia or Tobruk. If the latter, then ‘it may be necessary to leave a portion of the armour to protect 13 Corps’ – a vaguesounding provision, though current organisation into brigade groups made it unlikely that a smaller ‘portion’ of armour would in fact be side-tracked from the main battle. Norrie was to order the start of the sortie from Tobruk, but not until the enemy armour was defeated or rendered incapable of interfering.
In this phase 13 Corps was merely to prevent enemy mobile forces from passing through the frontier fortress line to threaten the L of C of Eighth Army. A motorised force was to be ready to drive
round the frontier line, when Cunningham gave the word, and isolate this line and Bardia from the main battle area, its left (or western) flank being covered by 30 Corps until such time as ‘this protection can be dispensed with’. The next step would be to release ‘the maximum number of troops which can be spared’ to advance westwards, to overcome any enemy ‘who may have been cut off East of Tobruk’, and then to come under command of 30 Corps if need be to help relieve the garrison. Some of these troops should be ‘detailed beforehand’ and made ready to move at a moment’s notice. The reduction of the frontier strongpoints and Bardia was to follow the relief of Tobruk and would therefore conflict with the needs of the pursuit if any sizable body of the enemy got away westwards.
Norrie made a final appeal at a conference on 14 November to be freed from the task of protecting 13 Corps, and was told that this was ‘really the same as the protection of the lines of communication of the 30th Corps’,13 a reply which seemed to squeeze the role of 13 Corps in the opening phase into virtual insignificance. If the British armour was indeed so powerful that it could thus afford to undertake two such conflicting tasks with the confidence which the battle plan implied, it might be inferred that the motorised infantry would be called on for nothing more arduous than mopping up non-mobile enemy troops left behind by the victorious British armour when, in due course, their isolation enforced surrender. But this was not General Freyberg’s view. It is interesting to note that Freyberg and his senior officers were studying closely a scale relief model of the escarpments south-east of Tobruk which he had caused his sappers to construct. He believed that this region, particularly Sidi Rezegh, where the two main enemy supply routes of the Trigh Capuzzo and the recently built Tobruk by-pass road passed through a bottleneck overlooked by two escarpments of paramount tactical importance, would be the scene of the hardest fighting of CRUSADER campaign.
This remarkable confidence in the British armour was maintained, too, in the face of steadily accumulating evidence of changes in enemy dispositions which promised heavier opposition than had been bargained for. Two mobile Italian divisions were now known to be guarding the desert flank along the line of the Trigh el-Abd westwards from Bir el-Gubi, 35 miles south of Tobruk. One of these, Ariete Armoured Division, was now well placed at Bir el-Gubi to intervene in the projected tank battle or to oppose the relief of Tobruk, and whatever its weaknesses (actual or imagined) it could
scarcely be ignored. Yet the documents, indicate a complete absence of anxiety on this account and it seems to have been left to the commander of 7 Armoured Division to make any special provision he cared in this connection, with the further handicap that 1 South African Division, which had been meant to cover his left flank, was as a result to be held back at El Cuasc, 15 miles farther south than previously ordered. The enemy was stronger, yet the South Africans with their valuable artillery, including a medium regiment, would not now be at hand. The British armoured force which was thus expected to take in its stride the addition of another armoured division to the strength of its opponents was itself anything but homogeneous. Its most experienced armoured brigade, the 7th, was equipped with an odd assortment of cruiser tanks of various kinds and ages, including only one full regiment of the latest Crusaders. Another brigade, the 4th, which had successfully engaged 15 Panzer Division in BATTLEAXE with the heaviest I tanks, was now re-equipped with American tanks which were light even for cruisers (and which needed special ammunition and petrol). The one brigade which was completely equipped with the latest tanks, the 22nd, did not reach Egypt until October and was further delayed by modifications to its tanks, so that its desert training, to which much importance had been attached, was drastically curtailed. Curious reasoning determined the following allocation, of supporting arms between these formations:
|Formation||25-pdr Field||2-pdr Anti-tank||Motorised Infantry|
|7 Armoured Brigade Group||16||4||One company|
|22 Armoured Brigade Group||8||4||One company|
|4 Armoured Brigade Group||24||12||One battalion|
(Each brigade also had a troop of Bofors light anti-aircraft guns and a troop of sappers.)
The 4th Armoured Brigade Group was detailed to guard the left flank of 13 Corps, which possessed an I-tank brigade and a mass of mobile artillery and infantry. The other two brigades, with a smaller quota of supporting arms and perhaps no outside help, were to ‘seek out and destroy the enemy armour’. The Support Group had 36 field guns, 36 anti-tank 2-pounders and 16 Bofors as well as two motorised infantry battalions (each less one company). No BRA was appointed to 30 Corps till 19 October, however, too late for him to initiate a firm policy of concentration for the large number of 25-pounders in the armoured division. The invaluable medium regiment in 30 Corps was to take no part at all until the armoured battle was decided. Thus 7 Armoured Division was to enter the fray with three armoured brigades and the Support Group,
all designed and intended to fight largely independent actions, and it was thought not unreasonable to hope that the enemy armour would be defeated by the loosely co-ordinated operations of two brigades, the heterogeneous 7 Armoured Brigade and the untried and scarcely desert-worthy 22 Armoured Brigade.
It could be said of the contributors to the Army plan that, like a certain Biblical tribe, their name was Legion; but the plan was in a special sense Cunningham’s own. It disregarded his Commanderin-Chief’s main injunctions and Norrie’s weighty objections (with which in the end Godwin-Austen concurred) and reserved for an army commander with no experience of armoured warfare or desert conditions the decision on which the whole shape of the battle depended. In effect Cunningham was making a highly unusual effort to plan an encounter battle – and with unfamiliar forces and techniques.14 Whatever its logical status, this aim was the perhaps inescapable consequence of the object he had given Norrie, to ‘seek out and destroy’ the enemy armour, and his confidence that it could be achieved was shared by all concerned. Nobody pointed out the exorbitance of the demands the plan made on his own powers of perception. With every device of deception the British armour would approach the frontier. Then it would drive 70–80 miles and the reconnaissance units more than 100 miles on the opening day, still rigidly maintaining wireless silence, before the enemy could give any sort of indication of how he proposed to cope with the intruders. Only after the enemy reacted – and he had more reason than his opponents to hold his hand – could Cunningham make his decision. Yet Scobie would have to know this by 6 p.m. if the Tobruk garrison was to exert its strength next day, the best augured case.
This was an impossible condition and ruled out a sally by the garrison before the third day. That Cunningham was not altogether unaware of this is suggested by his undertaking to remain close to Norrie ‘from D1 until sufficient battle information is forthcoming to enable a decision to be given as to your future movement from the area GABR SALEH’.15 Wireless silence en route was not calculated to hasten the decision-making, particularly in view of the enemy’s devotion to wireless interception for tactical Intelligence. The plan was silent as to how the momentum of the advance could
be maintained beyond Gabr Saleh; indeed, Cunningham was prepared to let the enemy call the tune. ‘If he split his forces’, the Eighth Army report quotes him, ‘we could split ours’, an open defiance of established principle, all too sadly in keeping with the dispersion of effort which was the outstanding characteristic of the CRUSADER plan.