Chapter 7: A Disastrous Beginning
THE British cause gained a valuable, if intractable, ally in the weather, which timed its intervention to perfection. ‘Sandstorm, thunderstorm and torrential rain towards evening’, the war diarist of Panzer Group wrote at Gambut on the 17th. Moving east from the Green Mountain, the storm struck the enemy first and for two vital days grounded his aircraft. Later the rain poured down impartially on both sides of the frontier, but Coningham’s fighter squadrons far south in the Maddalena area missed most of it and remained operational. All along the coast there was chaos. Water gushed down countless wadis, carried away culverts, blocked roads, cut the railway west of Matruh, flooded airfields and bivouac areas, bogged down guns, and between Derna and Benghazi brought all military traffic to a standstill.
The British reconnaissance regiments saw only the lightning flashes as they drove forward in the night 17–18 November to their various rendezvous in Libya, and suffered no immediate setback to their high hopes. All had crossed the frontier many times; yet all felt a unique quality in this experience. They shared with those following them a remarkable upsurge of feeling. In the brief interval between the work and worry of preparation and the keener anxieties of conflict the spirits of Eighth Army units soared upwards. Even desert veterans felt a somewhat boyish excitement as they passed through gaps in the Wire for the CRUSADER offensive. They could not conceive of defeat. They could feel, if they could not all comprehend, the historic nature of the occasion and no lack of the will to win would withhold from them success in full measure. They were out to gain if they could the first great land victory of the war over German forces.
These generous and general feelings were mingled with local and personal reactions to the details of the advance. B Squadron of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry pushed through the Wire before midnight on the 17th under command of 7 Indian Brigade and came to rest, after 20 miles, just short of Bir Gibni. The horizon at dawn was empty and the flat expanse of sand and shingle sprinkled
with black dust and tufted with scrub seemed to hold no menace. But vehicles soon appeared to the north, and after an hour B Squadron was lightly shelled and one troop gingerly engaged by what looked like light tanks. These hauled off when the attached 2-pounders fired at them and came back with two or three reinforcements, continuing until one was disabled, whereupon they quickly withdrew, towing the crippled tank. Light shelling and a spattering of MG fire continued for the rest of the morning.
The skyline south of B Squadron hid the mass of 30 Corps after it crossed the frontier, preceded by petrol lorries, and refuelled its 500 cruiser tanks a dozen miles inside Libya, covered by RAF fighters. Still hidden from view, it then wheeled north and fanned out with three armoured-car regiments leading on a 30-mile front, followed by their respective armoured brigades.1 Behind the armoured cars and tanks came the guns and infantry and the B Echelon lorries, and behind these the artillery and infantry of the Support Group, with the Headquarters of 7 Armoured Division 20 miles south of the leading troops, Corps Headquarters nearby, and the South African division spread out over a huge area of desert many miles south-south-west.
All went like clockwork until noon, when B Squadron saw King’s Dragoon Guards coming up on time from the south and was mystified when the armoured cars veered east and set about ‘capturing’ the right-hand troop. Their error discovered and no harm done, the King’s Dragoon Guards moved on north-westwards with red faces and soon struck more opposition, this time genuine, by Bir Gibni.
By this time all three armoured-car units of 30 Corps had run up against their counterparts on the enemy side, Wechmar Group2 along the Trig el-Abd and RECAM3 south-east of Bir el-Gubi, and, lacking the gun-power of their opponents, had to wait until the cruiser-tank units caught up and majestically brushed aside this trifling opposition. Running helplessly before this tide 3 and 33 Reconnaissance Units headed for the Trigh Capuzzo, appealing for help as they went, and RECAM retraced its steps towards El Gubi. By dusk 4 and 7 Armoured Brigades had reached their allotted stations and the 22nd, held up by refuelling troubles, was ten miles short of its destination. No more than slight skirmishes had taken place, to which the enemy near Sidi Omar added a grumbling conversation of guns with 7 Indian Brigade as the latter
moved up to the Wire. Faced with no more serious reaction than this, General Messervy promptly ordered 1 Royal Sussex to rejoin the brigade, leaving little or no infantry to cover his centre in the Playground area. Very few enemy aircraft appeared over Eighth Army, none could be tempted up even in defence of one of the main landing grounds of the Luftwaffe at Gazala, and the RAF had to go as far afield as Martuba and Jalo to find enemy on the wing.
The paucity of opposition anywhere was mystifying and the 90-mile advance of 30 Corps ended up rather lamely in a wide arc north of Gabr Saleh more or less as Cunningham had prescribed, with no more impressive trophies than one or two German prisoners and an eight-wheeled armoured car. The upshot was that at the end of the day General Norrie ‘could not give the Army Commander much information on which to base further plans’.4 To Norrie this was not surprising, for it was what he had predicted, and he warned the Tobruk garrison by wireless that its sortie would not start next day. But Cunningham’s whole plan rested on the assumption that the enemy would react quickly and thereby yield the information on which the next stage of the operations would be based. He was aware, now that the great weight of Eighth Army was actually in motion, that he could not hold back for long the various subsidiary but important moves which he had made dependent on an early and decisive clash with the German armour. The Tobruk garrison was tensed for its sortie, the South Africans ready and anxious to make their dash for Sidi Rezegh, the Indians and New Zealanders were itching to close in on the frontier strongpoints and snatch what they could of them, and the ramifications of these projects were widespread.5 Yet the day had disclosed nothing of enemy intentions.
There was no solution within the framework of his plan to Cunningham’s present predicament. All he could do for the moment was to indicate to Norrie (with whom he was travelling) a wish to relieve Tobruk as soon as possible, though he could not yet release 4 Armoured Brigade from its protective role on the right. But Gott had a mind of his own and after dark issued orders which effectively curtailed the possibilities open to Cunningham. Gott was worried about Ariete at Bir el-Gubi and directed the attention of 22 Armoured Brigade and the Support Group to that position, at the same time forbidding the 22nd to cross the Trigh el-Abd. This
virtually left only 7 Armoured Brigade free to ‘go for Tobruk’, and with 4 Armoured still tied to 13 Corps it split the British armour into three groups looking three different ways. Then came a Corps order giving both El Gubi and Sidi Rezegh as likely objectives for the next day and telling the South Africans to be ready to take over Gubi with one brigade and establish the other brigade a few miles south of it. Corps evidently thought the Italians might easily be persuaded to vacate their position and ordered bombing, not on Gubi but between El Adem and Ed Duda. Cunningham’s wish to ‘stage relief over earliest date’ was also passed on and Gott and Brink were told to ‘act energetically tomorrow’.6 The important thing, of course, was to ensure that their energies were concentrated on reaching a common goal; but there was now little chance of this. When Cunningham eventually reached a decision of sorts next morning that 7 Armoured Division should move north-west (rather than north-east) there were therefore the makings of a first-class muddle unless the enemy retired of his own accord from El Gubi, which was not likely. In the absence of evidence of enemy intentions, no clear policy for the next stage was possible, and when 30 Corps resumed its travels on 19 November it had no central aim, no single objective, and many incentives at various levels for dispersion of effort.
This was a sorry outcome to a day which offered rich reward. The weather which had cloaked Eighth Army’s approach made it doubly certain that Cunningham would achieve that traditional aim of the invader, surprise. Strategically this was more than acceptable; tactically it became an embarrassing handicap, delaying enemy reactions and trapping the Army Commander in a quandary of his own making. His plan allowed him no tactical gain from surprise and the command structure and communications put any far-reaching change of plan out of the question. Thus the vital ground at El Adem which could now be had at a cost mainly of petrol was left for a later date when it would have to be paid for with blood.
Not all of this was a fault of the plan and Cunningham could not be held accountable for freaks of the weather, lapses of German Intelligence, or the stubborn refusal of the German command to recognise CRUSADER for what it was: an attempt, unconnected with current Axis schemes, to force a decision in Cyrenaica. With no warning whatever of the approach of Eighth
Army, no responsible German staff officer could be expected to believe reports of as many as 200 British tanks practically on the doorstep of 21 Panzer Division, and indeed those of Wechmar Group who saw these unheralded intruders scarcely believed their own eyes. When 7 Indian Brigade shelled elements of 3 Reconnaissance Unit early in the morning the Italians were blamed and the German liaison officer with Savona Division was ordered to put a stop to it. Major-General von Ravenstein thought only in terms of a strong British reconnaissance and ordered a company of light tanks and a troop of field guns to reinforce Freiherr von Wechmar in the evening. Lieutenant-General Crüwell7 was rather more concerned, but at Panzer Group Headquarters Major-General Gause ‘held that an enemy offensive was out of the question’8 and the two finally agreed that the British were only trying to harass the Axis forces outside Tobruk, perhaps to delay their attack. A German battle group on its way to Gabr Saleh would take the British on the flank next day and destroy them, though 15 Panzer Division was also alerted. On the Tobruk front German artillery continued to move into position for the attack.
Rommel did not enter the discussion until eight o’clock at night (he was just back from Rome with final approval of his own plan) and remained as firmly convinced as ever that the British were in no position to forestall his attack on Tobruk. ‘We must not lose our nerves’, he told Crüwell pointedly, and von Ravenstein was told not to move the battle group to Gabr Saleh. The chapter of woe from the storm was more upsetting than the doings of a few adventurous British patrols. Major-General Sümmermann with his makeshift division poised to attack Tobruk took a very different view, however, and during the night ordered Colonel Mickl of 155 Infantry Regiment to form a front facing south and south-west between Sidi Rezegh and El Adem to guard against a stab in the back.
The contradictory elements in the orders at different levels in 30 Corps could have been reconciled during the night by more experienced staffs; but haste has its price and CRUSADER came too soon for the Corps and Army headquarters to acquire the necessary skill. Gott’s headquarters, on the other hand, was of long standing and none questioned its proficiency, so that at times the tail seemed to wag the dog. Thus Gott’s worry about his left flank, unknown to Cunningham and not properly realised even at Corps, led to a
startling and disastrous departure from the Army plan and Cunningham’s current intentions. While the Army Commander was still working up to his decision to make for Tobruk, Gott was already on his way to join Brigadier Scott-Cockburn and his yeoman regiments of 22 Armoured Brigade. Before they had gone very far Gott caught them up and ordered Scott-Cockburn to attack Bir el Gubi at once.
The 11th Hussars promptly reported enemy tanks on their objective and the troopers drove on eager to get to grips with them, which they did at noon, with Royal Gloucestershire Hussars leading, 4 County of London Yeomanry on the left, and a mere eight field guns in support. Fortunately the Italians were not yet well established at El Gubi. The tank regiment of Ariete (the 132nd) had only reached there the day before, elements of 8 Bersaglieri Regiment were digging in when 22 Armoured Brigade arrived, and the bulk of the division was still to the north. The Italians were nevertheless able to bring down very much heavier supporting fire than was available for the British tank units, 132 Tank Regiments counter-attacked strongly in the afternoon, and the day ended with the Italians still at El Gubi and both sides licking fairly extensive wounds. Some fifty Italian tanks were destroyed or damaged and at least as many Crusaders, and the 22nd captured 200 enemy, six times as many prisoners as the Italians claim.
Such results would have been highly gratifying against either of the panzer divisions, but against a formation which was not even under Rommel’s command (unbeknown to Eighth Army) and before the bulk of the German armour had been engaged they were calamitous, though sanguine first reports tended to hide this fact. Gott’s impulsive action in ordering this attack without so much as consulting his own corps commander was at the root of many of his later troubles; yet such was his prestige that when Norrie joined him in the afternoon, after getting Cunningham’s decision to make his main thrust towards Tobruk, no objections were raised. That the El Gubi attack side-tracked and caused heavy losses to half the armour available for such a thrust was not realised.
The reports which came in to Norrie and Gott at the latter’s headquarters in the afternoon suggested that the relief of Tobruk might be far more easily effected than had been imagined. The 4th South African Armoured Cars led 6 Royal Tank Regiment towards Sidi Rezegh against negligible opposition and the Crusaders dashed on to the landing ground south-east of there and rounded up numerous enemy air crews and ground staff. Two aircraft managed to take off but nineteen airworthy planes were captured, together with many others already damaged. Indeed, the chief
obstacles to the advance of 7 Armoured Brigade and the Support Group were patches of ground made soggy by the recent rain. The escarpment north of the airfield was left in enemy hands, but 7 Armoured Brigade was nevertheless within striking distance of the Tobruk siege lines and the immediate outlook seemed highly promising.
From a wider viewpoint things were less satisfactory. The 4th Armoured Brigade north-west of Bir Gibni was still tied to the left flank of 13 Corps and the British armour was thereby split up into three groups, many miles apart, on a 50-mile arc at a time when the two panzer divisions were still within reach of each other. An essentially favorable situation of the previous evening had already been converted to an unfavorable one and the spectre of defeat in detail was there for those who chose to see it. On the other hand the enemy was little, if at all, better informed than Eighth Army or more judicious in his immediate reactions.
The looseness of command which had allowed 7 Armoured Division to break up into separate groups pursuing independent aims was apparent at lower levels as well. Thus 4 Armoured Brigade allowed one of its three regiments, 3 Royal Tanks, to go chasing north-eastwards behind the King’s Dragoon Guards in pursuit of German reconnaissance troops and in its absence the main body of the brigade came under heavy attack. A more accurate assessment of the position by the enemy could well have resulted in a rapid concentration of both panzer divisions against Brigadier Gatehouse’s brigade with disastrous results. As it was, 5 Panzer Regiment with added artillery was slowly assembled under Colonel Stephan, and in the late afternoon it was despatched against the left flank of 4 Armoured Brigade. The somewhat sketchy information on which this attack was based and its over-ambitious aim – to sweep round south-eastwards to Sidi Omar and destroy the whole of the British forces in this area – indicate that neither Panzer Group nor Africa Corps had yet got down to serious thinking about the new situation. Stephan Battle Group with its two tank battalions with 40-odd tanks each,9 one to the right rear of the other, moved off under the eyes of Ravenstein and Rommel himself and soon became locked in battle with what seemed to be a force of much superior strength.
All efforts to outflank this force failed and frontal attack made little headway. After dark the Germans withdrew a few miles north, having lost eight tanks against 23 of Gatehouse’s Stuarts.
In actual fact the two groups were fairly evenly matched (in the absence of 3 Royal Tanks): Gatehouse had a few more tanks (113 all told) and Stephan had more artillery, including a troop of 88s. What gave the Germans an exaggerated picture of British strength was the superabundance (by Axis standards) of transport, a recurring factor throughout CRUSADER. The Germans never realised that the huge British B Echelons were often more hindrance than help in the heat of battle.
The absence of 3 Royal Tanks, however, drew an unexpected dividend and perhaps saved Gatehouse from attack next day by the whole of Africa Corps. Not only had 3 Royal Tanks (with King’s Dragoon Guards) holed up 3 Reconnaissance Unit on the escarpment west of Bardia: it attracted the whole of 15 Panzer Division next day to an area which by then contained no more than one or two British armoured cars. Three British battle groups had been located, one heading for Tobruk, another facing Stephan, and a third on the way to Capuzzo, and it was against the third that Crüwell mistakenly decided to make his main effort next morning. Ravenstein took a pessimistic view and preferred to hold his hand until the situation clarified, as he through the British much stronger. Neither Crüwell nor Rommel would concede this and they still looked on the British operations as a diversionary attack; but their agreement to commit 15 Panzer Division inevitably deferred the Tobruk assault, thereby yielding the British object if their diagnosis was correct.
The dispersed British armoured brigades were therefore given a few hours’ grace on 20 November to concentrate against the German armour, either in attack or in defence of vital ground. But the indecisive outcome of the first clash with the Germans was claimed in some quarters as a victory and the grave danger in which Gatehouse now stood was not recognised. The next few hours could be critical and the battle needed firm control; yet at 5 a.m. on the 20th Cunningham flew back to his Advanced Headquarters in the Maddalena area. Communications forward from there were slow and there was no system such as the Germans used whereby higher formations intercepted wireless conversations or signals between lower formations and kept in touch from minute to minute with the changing situation. Without such an aid the British method of command was ineffective and divisions and even brigades were
left to their own resources for long periods. Against an enemy who believed in tight control of operations this was asking for trouble, and the trouble was not long in coming.
Stephan Battle Group attacked southwards again in the morning of the 20th but found the fast Starts elusive and the guns of 2 Royal Horse Artillery irrepressible. The British tanks were less anxious to close than they had been before and their long-range tactics and rapid outflanking moves ate up Stephan’s ammunition faster than he could afford. Knabe Battle Group (artillery, machine-gunners and infantry of 21 Panzer Division) tried to come in on Stephan’s left but was held up by KDG, reported as a strong force of tanks and guns. In mid-morning Stephan swung to his left rear to help Knabe and by noon, with almost no ammunition left, both groups broke off the action and withdrew north-eastwards. Tank losses were by German estimates eight British against four German; but British claims were far higher and again converted an indecisive action into supposed victory. Meanwhile 15 Panzer ‘attacked’ eastwards.
That rejoicing might be premature was soon learned when 4 Armoured Brigade moved a few miles north later in the morning and was then warned that the two panzer divisions had linked up and might shortly stage a combined attack. This was just what Cunningham had sought to bring about when he crossed the frontier with all three armoured brigades and the Support Group at his disposal, and his decision to make for Tobruk now appeared premature. The enemy had played into his hands by committing Stephan Battle Group in much the same haste and ignorance of the opposition as Scott-Cockburn’s brigade had attacked El Gubi; but 7 Armoured Division had not been ready to receive this sacrificial offering. The rest of that division was committed elsewhere and Gatehouse might now have to stand alone, not only against Stephan but against both panzer divisions.
Cunningham was naturally worried and his BGS, Brigadier Galloway, warned Norrie by R/T and prompted him to order Scott-Cockburn to the aid of Gatehouse, a move which took all afternoon and turned the whole Corps situation upside-down. Other suggestions from Godwin-Austen and Freyberg that Gatehouse should avail himself of the support of the New Zealand Division, with its battalion of Valentines and its strong artillery then only a few miles to the south-east, were not accepted either by Gatehouse or his superiors, though 13 Corps did agree to release 4 Armoured Brigade from its protective role, recognising the inevitable. The three regiments of 4 Armoured Brigade meanwhile faced north confidently, apparently unaware of the anxieties felt on their behalf.
The danger was fortunately not as great as it appeared. A shortage of ammunition of which 21 Panzer had complained early in the morning developed by the afternoon into a complete breakdown of administrative services, leaving the whole division temporarily stranded a few miles west of Capuzzo. Crüwell now wanted both divisions to drive against Gatehouse’s brigade; but 21 Panzer could not move. So 15 Panzer attacked alone in the late afternoon, into the setting sun and too late to achieve a decision against the 100-odd tanks of 4 Armoured Brigade. Even this division was short of petrol and it was confused by the deceptive mass of British transport, which obscured the centres of resistance and thinned out German artillery fire as targets seemed to expand alarmingly. The three British armoured regiments were nevertheless gradually pushed back south-eastwards across the Trigh el-Abd in furious fighting, and when the leading elements of 22 Armoured Brigade arrived from the west at dusk they were more than welcome, though too late to do much this day.
This time the enemy camped for the night on the battlefield and damaged Stuarts not towed away were irretrievably lost, whereas 15 Panzer by its own accounts had lost no tanks at all. Since 4 Armoured Brigade had this day lost more than forty tanks from all causes this outcome was highly ominous, though the bad omens were hidden in greatly inflated claims of German tank losses, which had so far been no more than a dozen all told. Gatehouse now had only 97 of the 164 tanks with which he had entered Libya.
The switching of 22 Armoured Brigade from El Gubi put paid to rather vague plans of installing a South African brigade as a new tenant there in place of Ariete and of sending the 22nd to join 7 Armoured Brigade and the Support Group at Sidi Rezegh. The South Africans had done little so far other than attract the main attentions of the enemy air forces, an unsought and unwelcome distinction, and were only too willing to co-operate with Scott-Cockburn in dislodging the Italians. But this scheme was watered down even before the 22nd departed to the nebulous task of ‘masking’ El Gubi if the Italians offered determined opposition. At all events one brigade, the 1st, dug in in an arc east and south of El Gubi and, after much delay, 5 South African Brigade began to move to Sidi Rezegh, reaching two miles north of the Trigh el-Abd before darkness (and lack of training in night marches) halted it.
The need of more infantry at Sidi Rezegh had been felt acutely since dawn on the 20th. With no more than a company at hand, 7 Armoured Brigade could not seize and hold the raised rim of the escarpment just to the north and gain observation across to Ed Duda. It could not even dislodge the anti-tank guns brought up in the west during the night, nor the infantry of Africa and Bologna Divisions which had dug in facing what Panzer Group still regarded as a minor intrusion. The tank units and guns with a handful of infantry were thus condemned to hold a three-mile-wide ledge of flat desert sprinkled with scrub, which gave cover to infantry and low anti-tank guns but none to tanks or lorries. The enemy overlooked this ledge from the north and south-west and shelled it all day from guns hidden below the Rezegh escarpment, and when the Support Group arrived in mid-morning to relieve the tank units it came under accurate and persistent fire. Its five infantry companies could not attack six or seven enemy battalions, though with the backing of the 160-odd tanks of 7 Armoured Brigade they could expect to hold their ground. Four companies were stretched thinly across three and a half miles of the northern front and the fifth covered the right rear to the south-east, with two field batteries in between and the squadrons of 4 SA Armoured Car Regiment roaming widely in support. Stukas bombed the area in the afternoon but caused no casualties and did little damage.
It needed a sanguine disposition to see this as a promising situation, now 22 Armoured was diverted to the east and the South Africans had the curious role for infantry of containing an armoured division. General Freyberg’s prediction that more infantry would be needed to relieve Tobruk was already coming true. But Gott was as optimistic as ever and told Norrie as early as 10 a.m. that the Support Group would be able to link up with the Tobruk garrison if the sortle started next morning. The sortie was therefore ordered and Gott was given the task of ‘co-ordinating all troops in the SIDI REZEGH area’.10
Gott was at this time unaware that the enemy retained the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, and it came as a surprise to him when he paid another visit at night (20th–21st) and learned that Brigadier Campbell, commanding the Support Group, had ‘no real foothold’11 on this vital feature and that the enemy’s use of the Trigh Capuzzo and the By-pass road was unimpaired. An improvement could nevertheless be expected in the morning, when 5 South African Brigade was due to arrive, and Campbell therefore agreed to attack
northwards at first light on the 21st with the four companies of infantry facing the rim of the escarpment supported by his 25-pounders. With the escarpment in his hands, a link-up between 7 Armoured Brigade and the Tobruk garrison at Ed Duda should be a simple matter, or so it seemed.
This was a haphazard way of mounting an operation of immense significance for the whole campaign. In the planning stages it had been realised that a premature sortie could expose the Tobruk garrison to grave danger; yet this risk was taken before both panzer divisions had been engaged and at a time when neither of them was in any way tied to operations elsewhere. Shortly after the sortie was ordered, indeed, Gatehouse’s situation was viewed with considerable alarm and his brigade ended the day in hasty retreat from obviously superior forces. To cover operations at Sidi Rezegh both 4 and 22 Armoured Brigades were to be ready to attack northwards on the 21st, and if the enemy withdrew he was to be ‘relentlessly pursued’12 – an eventuality which might have commended itself to Gatehouse and Scott-Cockburn but which would have appeared in a very different light to those in the path of two onrushing panzer divisions.
By an ironic turn of events the enemy was planning such a move, though not as a retreat. After breaking contact at Gabr Saleh, 15 Panzer was to swing right, 21 Panzer was to come up on its right, and the two were to advance north-westwards at 6.30 a.m. on the 21st through Sidi Rezegh to Belhamed, to end in one swift stroke all chance of a junction between the invaders and the garrison of Tobruk. Anti-tank and field gunners with sapper-infantry would cover the rear and hold off the British forces now south of Gabr Saleh. Rommel’s confidence that small rearguards could achieve this was not in the event misplaced; but the scheme was risky and it is worth nothing that if these rearguards failed the whole of Africa Corps could be sandwiched in the midst of 7 Armoured Division, with South Africans and part of the Tobruk garrison piling in to complete its destruction, a situation more favorable to Eighth Army than the CRUSADER planners had dared hope for.
There was no prima facie case for preferring this move to the more obvious one of driving home the advantage which 15 Panzer had gained the previous evening by a combined attack southwards from Gabr Saleh, and Crüwell, whose idea it was to link the two divisions in an attack, had expressed no preference as to the direction or objective and asked Panzer Group to specify these. The decisive influence seems to have been Rommel’s grudging acceptance of CRUSADER as a major offensive and its corollary that the British
intended nothing less than the final relief of Tobruk. Rommel guessed further that the garrison would try to break out south-eastwards next day, and Sümmermann issued orders accordingly that strongpoints facing Tobruk must be held at all costs. The sudden departure of Africa Corps from the frontier areas, however, would leave the strongpoints there to their own resources, and Rommel therefore signalled urgently to General Schmitt to defend his positions against attacks from any direction, including the rear, and submit situation reports every three hours until further notice, and de Giorgis likewise. Rommel’s defensive scheme which had seemed admirable during the long lull now displayed its weakness. He could take his armour back towards Tobruk, but only by turning his back on Schmitt and de Giorgis, and his nagging worries on their behalf were to become a distraction which in the end fatally undermined his judgment.
Dawn on the 21st brought with it high hopes that CRUSADER would gather speed and weight and quickly achieve victory. The Tobruk garrison would direct its strong tank force and artillery and two brigades of infantry against the Italians in the east and south-east and burst through to Ed Duda, while 7 Armoured Brigade would pass through the Support Group at Sidi Rezegh and make contact with the garrison, the South Africans meanwhile consolidating the Sidi Rezegh end of the ‘corridor’ and 4 and 22 Armoured Brigades taking care of the German armour. Three hours sufficed to being these hopes crashing down.
The Tobruk sortie had been planned as a second-phase operation, after the battle of the armour. No threat of tank attack was envisaged as the break-out forces broke through to Ed Duda and linked up with 30 Corps, and from there they would begin at once to ‘roll up’ the remaining siege troops, in conjunction with the infantry of 30 Corps. But this was not what Norrie had had in mind when he proposed making straight for El Adem. He wanted the sortie on the second day (the 19th) with the enemy armour still undefeated. Cunningham did not perceive this distinction and though he rejected the ‘go for Tobruk’ suggestion he still hoped to start the sortie on that day. Even Major-General Scobie, who was present at the conference of 15 October, was not asked to face enemy armour and he had only one plan. this was to establish his army tank brigade (of mixed infantry, cruiser and light tanks) and an infantry battalion on Ed Duda with a field regiment close at hand. With British forces at Sidi Rezegh this would close the Trigh Capuzzo and By-pass road to enemy traffic. A heavier sortie was possible: Scobie had four strong infantry brigades, each with
anti-tank companies and MMGs, and could give them strong artillery support. But the question had not been put. What he planned was what had been asked of him.
The night of 20–21 November was filled with stealthy movement as four bridges were put across the anti-tank ditch in the south-eastern sector of the Tobruk perimeter and the tanks and infantry assembled for the sortie, while in the west and south the Polish Carpathian Brigade and the 23rd Infantry launched feints with thunderous artillery support and apparent success. A brief bombing by the RAF after dawn was quickly followed at 6.30 a.m. by the assault on the foremost strongpoints, with the help of timed concentrations of artillery fire. The 2nd King’s Own on the left with the 19 Matildas of D Squadron, 7 Royal Tanks, gained an easy success and 120 ‘completely surprised’13 German prisoners – the first hint that the opposition was not what had been supposed. The next hint was that all the unit carriers and many tanks fell victim to unsuspected minefields. One company had strayed to the right, but was not needed, and the strongpoint (nicknamed ‘Butch’) was soon strongly held against possible counter-attack.
The ease of this success on the left, however, was like a blue patch of sky in a thunderstorm. The 2nd Black Watch on the right suffered fearful losses and the survivors had to draw on the deepest resources of the human spirit to sustain themselves and the traditions of their regiment in its hardest struggle since Loos, 1915.14 The Black Watch were without the 50 Matildas of 4 Royal Tanks at first, as these had unwittingly veered off to the left, and the infantry came under deadly fire in front of the first objective, ‘Jill’. As the Matildas, correcting their error, drove down from the north trailed by the detached company of 2 King’s Own, B and D Companies staged a desperate and costly frontal assault. By these combined efforts Jill was taken and the King’s Own company occupied it while the Black Watch pressed on towards their final objective, ‘Tiger’. But more unlocated minefields intervened, anti-tank guns spoke up here and there, and the remaining I tanks broke up into small detachments probing as best they could for a way through. The defenders of Tiger lived up to the British nickname for their position and offered ferocious resistance, to which was added heavy fire from neighbouring strongpoints. As detachments of I tanks slowly closed in from three sides, the bagpipes (hitherto silent for security reasons) sounded above the noise of battle. One piper, wounded, continued to play where he fell. Then at 9 a.m. the battalion, now numbering fewer than 200, rose in the wake of
B Squadron and took Tiger at the point of the bayonet. One stubborn party of machine-gunners held out in the south-west until the tanks ran over it. Five officers and 160 other ranks of the Black Watch remained in action, less than a quarter of those who had set our three hours before. Their booty included 12 field and 30 machine guns (soon turned against the enemy), together with the chastened survivors of Tiger’s garrison. These Germans and Italians had no cause for shame. The superlative élan of the Black Watch in the attack had been equalled by the remarkable persistence of the defence in the face of formidable tank-and-infantry pressure. Later in the morning D Company of 1 Bedfords and Herts came up to reinforce the Black Watch, whose numbers increased by evening to eight officers and 196 other ranks.15
The carriers of 2 Queen’s had been repulsed at Tugun at 7 a.m. and tried again at ten with no better result. A heavier attack was needed but took some time to prepare. Meanwhile the Black Watch had suffered fire from ‘Jack’ a little to the north-east and ‘a weak coy’, with two troops of 4 Royal Tanks and supported by 104 Royal Horse Artillery, quickly seized this position at about 10.30 a.m. This was a more significant move than at first appeared. Not only did it forestall a much larger operation intended for the same purpose, but ‘Jack’ proved to be the headquarters of Meythaler Battalion and the kingpin of the defence on the left. Major Meythaler had signalled his divisional headquarters at 10.25 a.m. that all was quiet; ‘9 British tanks out of action on mines’, he added, and ‘10 tanks still waiting ready to attack us’. Then there was silence. Meythaler himself was captured and General Sümmermann was left to guess what had happened.
This gave a lodgment in enemy territory three and a half miles deep and ten square miles in area. An outer ring of enemy strongpoints was more loosely connected and could be more easily penetrated and there was, moreover, a considerable amount of artillery, mostly Italian, which now lay open to attack in the intervening spaces. The 28 assorted cruiser tanks and 21 light tanks of 1 Royal Tanks had been meant to sweep unaided through this area, overrunning various headquarters and creating confusion; but this naturally took no account of the many undetected minefields which interlaced the front and of the anti-tank guns which lay in ambush, to which the thickening haze of dust and smoke added another obstacle. Thus 1 Royal Tanks lost four tanks to mines at the start and was held up by guns at ‘Wolf’, south-east of Tiger, until the I tanks of 4 Royal Tanks could engage them. With this
aid C Squadron swept through the northern part of Wolf and after some delay A and C Squadrons attacked ‘Freddie’, east of Tiger, only to be turned back by anti-tank fire. Passing through Jack after its capture, 1 Royal Tanks took another forty prisoners. The regiment’s final objective was ‘Walter’, just south of the Via Balbia four miles outside the Tobruk perimeter; but there was now little hope of reaching this and 1 Royal Tanks therefore rallied north-west of Butch, leaving a light troop to defend a battery of 1 RHA which had moved forward to Jill. The more elaborate attack on Tugun went in at 3 p.m. and gained perhaps half the position, together with 250 Italians and many light field guns; but the Italians in the western half could not be dislodged and the base of the break-out area remained on this account uncomfortably narrow.
If the raids of 1 Royal Tanks had achieved less than intended and the rear areas had proved less vulnerable than the planners imagined, they had nevertheless caused much alarm in the enemy camp and brought Rommel himself to the scene. He was desperately anxious to prevent a link-up between the garrison and the British at Sidi Rezegh and came up at the head of 3 Reconnaissance Unit and a scratch force of guns of various kinds, including Sümmermann’s last company of anti-tank guns. Much of the opposition 32 Army Tank Brigade (which was now in command of the sortie) attributed to existing strongpoints undoubtedly came from this mobile force and a German author speaks of ‘bitter, costly fighting’ here.16 Yet it was not this force which chiefly hindered the feared link-up, nor even the strong Italian opposition at Tugun. The decisive influence was the adverse trend to events at Sidi Rezegh. The final thrust, to Ed Duda, was postponed from 2.20 to 4 p.m. because of Tugun; then within five minutes of zero hour word came from 30 Corps that the South Africans could not get through and Ed Duda operations was forthwith put off indefinitely.
The chief concern now was to make fast the valuable gains until the advance to Ed Duda could be resumed. Prisoners taken so far numbered 1100, half of them German, and any alarm which Scobie might feel at the addition of 10–12 miles to the length of the perimeter he now had to defend with 59 fewer tanks was surpassed by Sümmermann’s dismay at the sudden reversal of his situation. The war diary of Africa Division described the outlook as ‘very serious’ and added that the next day ‘would probably bring a crisis.’
Sümmermann’s view was more comprehensive than Scobie’s, as he was committed at Sidi Rezegh as well as Tobruk, and for him the day had provided a bewildering succession of fluctuations of fortune on both fronts, ending with as much uncertainty as it had started. At Sidi Rezegh 155 Infantry Regiment, on the escarpment north of the airfield and the lower ground to the west, was in the path of the British advance to link up with Tobruk and was told to hold its ground at all costs, as was 361 African Regiment on Point 175, just to the east. The latter, though ill-equipped, had the better position, being covered to some extent by a deep wadi – Rugbet en-Nbeidat17 – curling round from south to west and another to the east. These formations and Italians (probably of Pavia Division) who were working their way eastwards along the southernmost escarpment from Bir Bu Creimisa greatly outnumbered in infantry the British at Sidi Rezegh; but they viewed the 100-odd tanks of 7 Armoured Brigade with understandable concern.
From the British viewpoint everything depended on these tanks and on the early arrival of 5 South African Brigade. Meanwhile three companies of 1 King’s Royal Rifle Corps – the ‘60th Rifles’ – and A Company of 2 Rifle Brigade prepared to attack northwards. Planners calculated and consulted throughout the night to get this small force across the billiard-table surface of the airfield, an oblong cleared of the low scrub which dotted the surrounding desert and mercilessly exposed to enemy fire. Then the infantry was to seize the escarpment to the north and gain observation over the Trigh Capuzzo as a first step towards linking up with the Tobruk garrison. A Company of 2 Rifle Brigade was to occupy the barely discernible Point 167 on the north-western edge of the landing ground and the 300 men of the 60th Rifles would take over the rest of the escarpment as far as the Rugbet en-Nbeidat, a stretch of two and a half miles. Night patrols found no enemy on the objectives but ‘small numbers’18 were nevertheless expected to be there. These should be dealt with adequately by a concentration of all fifty available 25-pounders, and 6 Royal Tanks was to cover the left flank and move down to the Trigh Capuzzo, sending a detachment on to Ed Duda when the time was ripe. The right flank would be open but 7 Hussars could quickly move up to cover it, while 2 Royal Tanks guarded the rear.
The attack was due to start at 8.30. a.m. and an hour before this the enemy shelled the whole length of the starting line as if to
indicate it to the waiting riflemen. Then at 7.45 the South African armoured cars patrolling to the south-east reported a vast mass of enemy armour, perhaps 200 tanks with supporting arms, advancing rapidly. There was no time for elaborate counter-measures and Brigadier Davy had to act quickly. He could not call off the attack, as 70 Division had long since started its sortie and expected help at Ed Duda. The best he could do was to hand over the attacking force to Brigadier Campbell of the Support Group, detach 7 Hussars and F Battery 4 RHA, and with these and 2 Royal Tanks, 100 tanks in all, turn to meet the newcomers. Two miles to the south-east he got ready to fight what was in fact the bulk of Africa Corps.
The attack on Sidi Rezegh went in under a short concentration by the 42 remaining guns and covered by a thin smoke screen. The Bren carriers made the best of this, racing up towards the escarpment in the wake of the bursting shells. Five of the seven carriers of D Company on the right were disabled by flanking fire, but A Company’s carriers missed this and reached the edge of the escarpment only to find the enemy strongly posted in the numerous wadis. The platoon commander made for a large wadi and there the crews dismounted and carried on a series of skirmishes which brought in thirty prisoners, mostly Italian, and ended the struggle on the right. Carriers of C Company on the left came under heavy fire from the west, but met no enemy on the escarpment and stayed to guard this flank until the infantry got forward. The only remaining opposition on the objective was now in the centre, facing A Company.
The infantry, meanwhile, followed in widely extended order. A filmy veil of dust and smoke lingering from the shellfire gave welcome cover as the men trudged across the airfield and little fire came their way. All companies, however, ‘came under very severe fire from all arms and were forced to get down’ when they emerged from this veil 200 yards short of the escarpment.19 D Company managed by fire and movement to get up to the wadi containing A Company’s carriers with small loss, C Company reached the crest on the left with ‘fairly heavy casualties’20, and A Company, 2 Rifle Brigade, reached Point 167 with comparative ease despite MG fire from the left which 6 Royal Tanks failed to subdue. In front of A Company of 60th Rifles, however, resistance was fierce and it was only by heroic individual actions and pressure from the flanks that ground could be gained. Rifleman Beeley, for example, ran forward firing his Bren from his hip and killed all seven men in
one post, silencing an anti-tank gun and two MGs, but losing his own life in so doing. (His bravery and inspiring example were recognised by a posthumous VC.) The acting adjutant at great personal risk went across to the artillery FOO and directed his attention to the most troublesome source of fire, which was then silenced. The survivors of A Company rushed in ‘with fixed swords’ and all opposition ended.
The 60th Rifles lost 3 officers and 26 other ranks killed and 55 wounded in this very fine action; enemy dead might have been as many as 300 and some 700 German and Italian prisoners were collected. ‘There were large numbers of all kinds of machine guns, mortars, anti-tank rifles and quick-firing21 anti-tank guns in the positions, together with quantities of all types of ammunition. ... The positions were carefully and cleverly sited and well built up with stones’22 and it seemed that at least one German MG company had been in occupation. By noon the whole escarpment was held, enemy shelling had stopped, and men could move freely about their tasks amid the gruesome relics of the fighting. The Commanding Officer of the 60th Rifles, Lieutenant-Colonel De Salis, decided to close in to the west on Point 162, dominating the track down the escarpment past the tomb of Sidi Rezegh. There the depleted companies adapted enemy defences to their own needs in the rocky ground and artillery OPs began to direct fire on the By-pass road to the north-west.
Unfortunately 6 Royal Tanks had not waited for this propitious time to start the drive to Ed Duda. The regiment knocked out five German tanks on the way to the Trigh Capuzzo; but a ‘special detachment’ (including Regimental Headquarters) despatched unsupported towards Ed Duda drove through a German engineer company on Belhamed, causing temporary confusion but losing two tanks, and then struck more trouble, probably from the scratch force under Rommel himself. None of this detachment returned. This needless loss of the bulk of the regiment left only enough tanks to form a composite squadron and this was soon urgently summoned to help Davy.
Brigadier Davy had undertaken an almost hopeless task and had the German advance been pressed resolutely he would soon have been overrun. The 7th Hussars soon lost its CO and the bulk of its tanks, and the remaining dozen, apart from a detached troop, became separated from Brigade Headquarters and had to drive far to the east to find a way round the huge enemy force. This it did, after many tribulations, but too late to take further part in
the day’s fighting. With only 2 Royal Tanks and the guns left (all the latter now having turned to face the German armour) Davy did what he could to shield the Support Group. The enemy luckily showed some uncertainty at this stage and drew off north-eastwards, covered by anti-tank guns. South of Point 175 the German tanks refuelled, and when they came on again in mid-afternoon the 25-pounders of the Support Group gave them a fiery reception. Most of the remaining strength of 2 Royal Tanks was quickly expended in a flank attack and at this critical juncture Brigadier Campbell arrived on the scene with the composite squadron of 6 Royal Tanks. With the strength of desperation the enemy was brought to a halt, and the day ended with Sidi Rezegh still precariously in British hands and the enemy in overwhelming force just to the east. Why 7 Armoured Brigade and the Support Group had to face the whole of the German armour this day without help from the rest of their division is an unhappy story. Over-estimates of enemy tank losses made 4 and 22 Armoured Brigades only too ready to see the sudden disengagement of Africa Corps at Bir Gibni as a retreat, and Cunningham at Advanced Army Headquarters heard accordingly from Norrie at 8.45 a.m. that the German armour had ‘taken a knock’23 and the action had now developed into a running fight. Scott-Cockburn was told to intercept the enemy and Gatehouse to attack his rear; but neither could match the pace of the German force, though they managed to disable some lorries. Both had to halt for refuelling, 4 Armoured Brigade after only a few miles, and armoured cars were left to carry on the pursuit. When the brigades got under way again, the 4th on the right was held up by rain-softened desert and later by a few 88-millimetre guns eight miles from the scene of the last-ditch stand by Davy and Campbell, while the 22nd veered too far south and passed some miles beyond the battlefield before Gott could recall it. Scott-Cockburn’s Crusaders at last came to grips with tanks at Bir el Haiad in the evening, a dozen miles south of the Support Group, but only a minor skirmish ensued before the contestants retired for the night. Neither brigade suffered more than a few scratches from the day’s fighting, whereas 7 Armoured Brigade was virtually destroyed: it had 28 tanks left out of 160-odd and the Support Group was in a serious predicament. The 5th South African Brigade, far from joining the Support Group as intended, had been halted by Gott personally south-east of Bir el Haiad and told to dig in there until the route north was open. There the South Africans beat off an attack by Italian tanks from the west and knocked out eight tanks and at 2.30 p.m. repulsed
a German tank thrust from the north-east while Gott waited for the situation to clarify. He was out of touch with his other brigades and for most of the day could do little or nothing or influence the course of events.
Norrie’s hopeful interpretation of the situation early in the morning, however, had set in motion a train of events which, though intended to be subsidiary to the armoured battle, proved in the end decisive: he recommended starting the operations of 13 Corps. Cunningham had not expected this and took some time to consider it. He spoke to Norrie first, pointing out that though it ‘would probably have no immediate effect on the tank battle, the general effect might well be important’24 – true enough, but a radical departure from the CRUSADER plan, nevertheless, and all the more so since 4 Armoured Brigade was released from its protective role. Then Cunningham asked Godwin-Austen’s opinion and finally Auchinleck’s. All agreed and General Freyberg was therefore told to make for the Trigh Capuzzo at Sidi Azeiz (confirmed in writing at 9.45 a.m.), and General Messervy was authorised to carry out his tasks in the frontier area.
None of these officers had any idea of the real trend of events. One report Freyberg heard this morning, for example, was that 65 enemy AFVs25 were ‘confirmed destroyed yesterday’, and when 4 Armoured Brigade drove across the battlefield on the 21st it supplied no corrected estimate of enemy tank losses. By noon the whole of 30 Corps had broken up into brigade groups with independent aims and uncertain communications and no accurate picture of operations could emerge.
Everything put in Gott’s hands except the South African brigade had slipped through them. Norrie could learn more from Scobie than from Gott and it was about the Tobruk sortie that Cunningham began to worry. Perhaps with Freyberg’s warning in his ears, he pressed for greater effort to get the South Africans forward – both brigades if at all possible. Brigadier Napier, Norrie’s BGS, assured Galloway, and through him Cunningham, that the battle was under control and he hoped to get both of Brink’s brigades up next day to co-operate with 70 Division. To Cunningham, watching flags on the map, there was no obvious reason for the hold-up. A liaison officer arrived from 30 Corps in the late afternoon with more or less reassuring news of the battle; but the must have left before Norrie halted the sortie short of its final stage, the dash to Ed Duda. Not knowing this, Cunningham anxiously visualised Scobie’s
spearhead reaching that feature and there being stranded. He had no word of the débâcle in the morning, when a large part of 6 Royal Tanks disappeared below the escarpment at Sidi Rezegh never to return, and he had no inkling of the plight of the Support Group. His while conception of the battle was artificial and he told the LO to tell Norrie that 30 Corps must link up with the sortie if it reached Ed Duda: ‘this would appear to involve only a short night march’, he added.26 To Campbell’s embattled troops at Sidi Rezegh these words might have sounded like a message from outer space. Cunningham’s last injunction to the LO is revealing: if ‘Tobruch were not cleared up’ he would ‘certainly required to see the Corps Commander tomorrow.’27 A firm order would have been more to the point.
Cunningham’s instructions to Godwin-Austen were even less distinct. Godwin-Austen could ‘go forward as he pleased, and need not refer unnecessarily to the Army Commander’28 though he was not to take ‘undue risk’. These orders did, however, contain one meaty item: the New Zealand brigade group designated to co-operate if need be with 30 Corps – the 6th, now at Bir el-Hariga – would be despatched westwards and firm orders on this point would follow. This was the only way that the CRUSADER plan now allowed him to influence the Tobruk battle and Cunningham eagerly seized it. If the South Africans could not get through to Ed Duda perhaps the New Zealanders could. The LO from 30 Corps had been told of this and of Cunningham’s feeling that the fighting outside Tobruk would call for more and more infantry, and it must have come as a surprise when Norrie rejected the scheme. Norrie took it that the New Zealanders would come through Gabr Saleh, a route closed to infantry, whereas Cunningham meant them to drive above the escarpment south of the Trigh Capuzzo. When Norrie heard this he agreed; he was not particularly anxious for more infantry but welcomed the Valentine tanks which he wrongly understood to be with the brigade.
The Army order to 13 Corps about the New Zealand brigade stated that it was to move ‘with all possible speed’294 but this phrase was not passed on to the New Zealand Division and no sense of urgency was felt at either Corps or Divisional Headquarters. So far as Godwin-Austen and Freyberg knew, the battle was going favourably and a Corps situation report at 8.10 p.m. quoted an estimate that 170 enemy tanks had been hit, many vehicles and guns disabled or captured, and the Italians were rapidly withdrawing ‘true to form’.
In reality Eighth Army had lost 180-odd tanks this day against a loss of fewer than twenty enemy tanks (including eight Italian tanks claimed by South African guns). Had Cunningham and his corps commanders realised that by this time .30 Corps was not outnumbered in tanks by its opponents – it barely reached parity with the Germans alone – they would have been thunderstruck. So long as 1 and 32 Army Tank Brigades remained in different compartments of the battle from that of 7 Armoured Division, Gott’s major purpose of seeking out and destroying the enemy armour was now beyond his strength.
It was a stroke of luck that neither Rommel nor Crüwell saw the battle in the light. The former was still desperately anxious to maintain the siege of Tobruk and had in mind a defensive action to economise in resources and gradually adjust the balance with an enemy be thought greatly superior in strength. For the same reason Crüwell proposed a very different course of action. He was intent on a battle of manoeuver in which he felt that the superior skill and battle-worthiness of his panzer troops offered the only hope of success; supplies at hand could not sustain a long-drawn-out battle. As a compromise between Rommel’s and Crüwell’s viewpoints Africa Corps was split up, 21 Panzer going to Belhamed in a blocking role with 155 Infantry Regiment on its right and 361 Africa Regiment on its left, while 15 Panzer drove back along the Trigh Capuzzo and assembled south of Gasr el Arid. Crüwell meant to tackle the flank and rear of a force which he though stretched in one vast mass of tanks, guns and vehicles from Sidi Rezegh to Bir el-Haleizin. By so doing he took his strongest formation right off the battlefield before dawn on 22 November, and it was not until after dark that it returned to the ground it willingly gave up in the morning. While 15 Panzer was thus touring its own backyard the British armour was free to concentrate against the Germans and Italians south-east of Tobruk.
Now was the time to smash through the weaker of the two panzer divisions, the 21st, and the battered 155 Infantry Regiment and join hands with the Tobruk garrison. For the first time 7 Armoured Division could apply its full strength at one point and had every advantage of ground and observation. The situation around the newly-formed salient in the Tobruk perimeter was also favorable, the enemy there was still uncertain and confused, and from Scobie’s viewpoint there was everything to be said for pushing on to Ed Duda before opposition hardened, though not unless 30 Corps meant to meet to him there.
As General Norrie learned the details of the previous day’s fighting and formed a better appreciation of the situation, however, he gave up the idea of pushing through to Ed Duda on the 22nd and postponed the last stage of the Tobruk sortie because of ‘the unfavorable situation at Sidi Rezegh’.301 He was still at Gott’s headquarters somewhere west of Gabr Saleh and had to rely on what came over the ‘blower’, on delayed reports by LOs, and on various signals, the sum total of which made a patchy picture. The one fact which towered ominously above everything was that 7 Armoured Division now had only 204 tanks in working order. Despite gross over-estimates of enemy tank losses, which remained uncorrected, this was enough to induce caution until the situation cleared. Norrie’s attitude was reasonable, though he was ignoring Cunningham’s wishes in not forcing the issue at Ed Duda; but a heavier penalty than the Army Commander’s displeasure was to be exacted. He was shortly to be faced with the utter ruination of the armoured plan.
The morning’s operations on the 22nd were deceptive. Skirmishes took place at various points from Sidi Rezegh to Bir el Haiad, ten miles to the south, and it was not at all clear from the behaviour of some enemy units that they were trying to get away. Gunners of a battery of 60 Field Regiment, indeed, gained the opposite impression. They were rushed up to the eastern flank to meet an attack by forty tanks and blazed away at them over open sights in a heroic duel, ‘gunners dropping dead and wounded about their guns’ and other braving furious fire to bring up more ammunition. A fight to the death seemed under way when the enemy suddenly broke off and disappeared. The CO of the 60th Field31 claims credit for this one behalf of his gunners and they certainly deserved praise, but the enemy was in fact doing what he intended. Some tanks descended the Rugbet en-Nbeidat to the Trigh Capuzzo, but more got down the escarpment farther east. While 21 Panzer disposed itself at Belhamed during the morning, 15 Panzer slowly retracted its sprawling limbs and made off in the opposite direction, assembling 20 miles from Belhamed in the course of the afternoon. The 22nd Armoured Brigade followed only a short distance and came to rest on the southernmost escarpment east of Point 178, while 4 Armoured Brigade went off on a wild-goose chase after an enemy force said to be ten miles south. No such force was found and the brigade slowly retraced its steps over swampy ground back to its starting
point at Bir el-Haleizin. An effective concentration at Sidi Rezegh was as far off as ever and the two armoured brigades now showed a marked reluctance to venture on the three-mile-wide ledge between the Sidi Rezegh and southern escarpments. They voted instead for freedom of manoeuvre on the open plateau and thus threw away the reward earned by the Support Group in gaining dominance over the Trigh Capuzzo. With the main enemy on the lower ground between there and Ed Duda, the British armour could advance under cover of its field guns with splendid observation and every chance of success. But 21 Panzer was allowed to assemble at Belhamed opposed only by the field guns, and the Germans quickly regained the initiative.
The panzer troops were accustomed to a faster tempo of operations than their opponents and planning in Eighth Army was apt to be outdated by sudden and unexpected German moves. Thus Gott placed a sanguine construction on a lull at 1.30 p.m. and conferred on the landing ground with officers at hand, deciding to bring up 5 South African Brigade to repeat on a larger scale the attack of the previous morning to gain a wider base on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment next morning for a thrust to Ed Duda. At 2 p.m. he set out for the South African brigade to fill in the details of this scheme; twenty minutes later 21 Panzer attacked.
This was on Rommel’s own initiative. With a hazy idea of what Crüwell intended with 15 Panzer Division, he came up to Ravenstein’s headquarters and ordered what he thought would be a supporting operation: Knabe Group, the infantry of the division, was to take on the formidable assignment of attacking southwards straight up the escarpment into the teeth of the Support Group while 5 Panzer Regiment with attached 88s was to swing round the western edge of the same escarpment and attack eastwards up the gentle slope of the three-mile-wide ledge to regain the airfield. As an aid to a major assault from the east by 15 Panzer this was reasonable enough; as a solo effort by Ravenstein’s weaker division it would have appeared preposterous and Rommel certainly did not intend it thus. When 21 Panzer succeeded tout seul in regaining the airfield the final doom of British armoured hopes for CRUSADER was sealed.
The victory thus gained had deep foundations. Never did the panzer troops give a plainer demonstration that their battle tactics were in a class far above those of their opponents. Neither side had any shortage of courage or determination and it was the superior combination of all arms which allowed 5 Panzer Regiment to make steady progress in the face of counter-thrusts by the yeomen of 22 Armoured Brigade. Campbell and his dwindling band of gunners
and infantry performed their usual prodigies of valour, but weight of numbers and guns and the presence of panzers behind them tore loose the grip of the 60th Rifles and the company of 2 Rifle Brigade from the escarpment above the tomb of Sidi Rezegh, and the men were rounded up in sad clusters in the wadis and re-entrants and herded into captivity. German anti-tank guns on both this and the southern escarpment meanwhile formed a gauntlet which Scott-Cockburn’s Crusaders tried to run with little chance of success. Those which got farthest ended up victims to the 88s with 5 Panzer Regiment.
The 4th Armoured Brigade was slow in arriving and by the time its 108 Stuarts were within striking distance the remnants of the 22nd were making a valiant but unavailing stand on the airfield. All eyes were on the German tanks which appeared from time to time through the haze of dust and smoke, and the 25-pounders engaged them whenever they could over open sights, neglecting the 88s and 50-millimetre guns which were doing most of the damage. But this was not the occasion for a revision of British armoured tactics and the Stuarts when they came were introduced with care lest they too became burnt offerings to a more skilful enemy.
Gott and Gatehouse conferred briefly south of Point 175 and then 3 and 5 Royal Tanks edged gingerly westwards south of the airfield until the former linked up with 22 Armoured Brigade. But Brigadier Campbell was impatient. He had been driving about the battlefield all afternoon in an open car, most of his infantry were overrun, and now his gunners were fighting desperately against heavy odds. Campbell therefore led one of the RTR regiments into an attack across the airfield. This was soon repulsed (though it gave 5 Panzer Regiment some anxious moments), Campbell was wounded, his headquarters and some of his guns were overrun, and the remaining guns were in a worse plight than ever. Once again Gott conferred with his brigadiers and decided to withdraw what was left of the Support Group alongside 5 South African Brigade. The enemy continued to advance with all arms co-operating as a well-drilled team and the 25-pounders were threatened with infantry attack with strong artillery support. British tanks then intervened and the crisis passed. As night descended the troops withdrew as planned.
The 22nd Armoured Brigade had suffered heavily and now had only 34 tanks, 7 Armoured Brigade had about 15, and 4 Armoured Brigade still had about 100. These figures tell their own story, and this crushing defeat by an enemy force which had no more
than 57 tanks when the action started32 cannot be explained in terms of the current complaints that 7 Armoured Division was ‘out-numbered and out-ranged’. In the absence of 15 Panzer Division von Ravenstein had been able to defeat the British armour, with help only from the Army Artillery north of Belhamed and despite every disadvantage of ground.
‘The final scene’, as Lieutenant-Colonel Hely saw it, ‘was awe-inspiring enough. In the light of burning vehicles and dumps our guns slipped out of action, leaving the field to a relentlessly advancing enemy, who loomed in large, fantastic shapes out of the shadow into the flare of bursting shells.’ But nightfall did not end the grim struggle. It was quickly followed by a further German success of the kind that more often comes in battle to the active than to the passive participant. Crüwell had ordered 15 Panzer Division to make ‘a wide swing to the south-west’ and attack the enemy facing 21 Panzer, and in mid-afternoon this move began. The leading tanks drove rapidly over hard, flat desert and soon came upon a mass of British B Echelons, starting one of the many ‘flaps’ of the campaign, with supply lorries scattering in all directions before the tanks in ponderous disarray. After several clashes and some readjustment of the marching order the whole division halted before 7 p.m. still short of the main battlefield. After 40–50 miles it ended up a mile or two south of where it had started and the day had been wasted. The divisional commander, Major-General Neumann-Silkow, ordered 8 Panzer Regiment to close in on the escarpment to the north at Point 175 and the rest of the division settled down for the night.
The commanding officer of the leading tank battalion, Major Fenski, picked his way carefully through the darkness in his armoured command vehicle and suddenly found himself in the midst of a British laager. At ten yards he identified British tanks and with remarkable presence of mind he drove through to the far side, at the same time ordering 1 and 2 Companies to swing left and right respectively to surround the enemy. What followed is described in the divisional war diary:
The tanks shone their headlights, and the commanders jumped out with their machine pistols. The enemy was completely surprised and incapable of action.
So far there had been no firing. A few tanks tried to get away, but were at once set on fire by our tanks, and lit up the battlefield as light as day. While the prisoners were being rounded up a British officer succeeded in setting fire to a tank.
This coup on our part got the rest of 4 British Armoured Brigade with light casualties to ourselves. The brigade commander, 17 officers and 150 other ranks were taken prisoner.
One armoured command vehicle, 35 tanks, armoured cars, guns and self-propelled guns,33 other fighting vehicles, and some important papers fell into our hands.
The Germans were mistaken about the brigade commander, as Gatehouse was away at the time and escaped capture; but they captured most of brigade headquarters and 8 Hussars, together with wireless links essential for effective command. Though 3 and 5 Royal Tanks were elsewhere during this affair they, too, were to suffer disorder and dismay when they tried in the blackness of night and in ignorance of this disaster to link up with brigade headquarters and stumbled instead on the alert 15 Panzer Division. For the next day 4 Armoured Brigade was an uncomprehending and uncooperative spectator of the battle, and three days later, after communications were restored and stragglers gathered in, it still numbered only 37 tanks. On the other hand 15 Panzer had suffered its first tank losses this day, a total of 19 tanks, which brought its tank strength down to 116.
The armoured part of the CRUSADER plan had now broken down completely, and with the exception of a solitary action on the 27th the armoured brigades did no more significant fighting, though their presence (reorganized as a composite brigade) as a ‘fleet in being’ was not without some influence on the campaign. From now onwards the guns and infantry, supported by the two army tank brigades, carried Eighth Army’s burden and faced up as best they could to the still-undefeated enemy armour. Rommel and Crüwell had won the first phase and looked for ways and means of sealing their victory.
Meanwhile the South African brigade destined for Sidi Rezegh fought a sharp action of its own, curiously insulated from the main battle though little more than a stone’s throw away. Elements of 155 Infantry Regiment had been filtering along the southern escarpment and by noon reached as far east as Point 178, which overlooked the whole battlefield. Ensconced there among the rocks with anti-tank guns and MGs, they were not easy to dislodge and 11 Armoured Brigade gave them a wide berth. In his anxiety to get 5 South African Brigade to Sidi Rezegh Gott toyed with the idea of doing the same – of making a wide swing round this position and approaching the airfield from the south-east. But the nuisance-value of the enemy here became intolerable and he ordered Brigadier Armstrong to attack Point 178 and occupy the escarpment for some distance to the west.
Without much ado Armstrong sent in 3 Transvaal Scottish at about 1 p.m., supported by only eight 25-pounders. They had to cross a mile of flat desert thinly sprinkled with low camel-thorn and had some 500 yards to go when the enemy opened intense fire and forced the infantry down. Little further progress was made, the commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Kirby, was mortally wounded while urging his men on regardless of fire, and by the time the companies withdrew at dusk the battalion had lost 25 killed, 9 missing and 83 wounded and had made no impression on the enemy position.
The tank battle being in Gott’s hands, Norrie particularly concerned himself with the South Africans and conceived of a larger operation which would place the whole of 1 South African Division on the southern escarpment and on a smaller feature to the west, Hagfet en-Nezha.34 To release 1 South African Brigade from the ‘masking’ of El Gubi, he was freeing 22 Guards Brigade from its many protective tasks along the L of C and around the Maddalena landing grounds; but Brigadier Pienaar was to move at once, leaving only a small covering force and pressing northwards before dark. This was the gist of an order General Brink received at 2.40 p.m. But Norrie was to thwarted from above and from below.
Pienaar raised strenuous objections to a night march and when Brink supported him Norrie did not press the point, with the result that Pienaar’s brigade was allowed to halt at midnight ten miles east of El Gubi and 12–15 miles south of 5 Brigade, though there was no good reason why the two brigades could not have linked up this night as Norrie wanted. The Corps Commander was now banking on forming a solid infantry position in the Sidi Rezegh area made up 1 South African Division plus 6 New Zealand Brigade (with a squadron of Valentines), with flank protection by what was left of 7 Armoured Division – a radical change of policy.
Some such arrangement was essential if 30 Corps was to join hands with the Tobruk garrison in the near future, which was what Norrie had been told he must do. But Cunningham’s own resolution weakened regarding El Gubi and he began to fear that 22 Guards Brigade might not suffice for the ‘masking’ role. He therefore pressed Norrie to detach part of the South African division to reinforce it. With every evidence of embarrassment Norrie did so and a reinforced battalion group was accordingly detached from 1 South African Brigade for the next twenty-four hours, a precaution that was in vain and served only to illustrate how little the Army Commander understood the capabilities of
infantry formations against armoured forces in the open desert. Ariete was free to move in or out of El Gubi as it pleased and the ‘masking’ troops were left in the end guarding the front door of an empty building.
A junction with the Tobruk garrison was farther off then ever when the day ended, leaving Scobie poised uncomfortably halfway to Ed Duda with a greatly enlarged perimeter to defend and the spectre of ammunition shortage for his 25-pounders beginning to haunt him. During the day he enlarged the middle of the bulge by taking in ‘Lion’, a position south-west of Tiger which proved to be undefended, but another attack on the enemy half of Tugun failed. There was much evidence of confusion in the enemy camp, however, suggesting that 32 Army Tank Brigade had it tried could certainly have got to Ed Duda. In so doing it would have constricted if it did not altogether thwart the manoeuvres of 21 Panzer Division in the afternoon.
In four days Eighth Army had lost some 530 tanks35 while the enemy lost about 100.36 Of 500 cruisers 7 Armoured Division retained fewer than 90, whereas the three enemy armoured divisions still had 250 tanks (170 of them German) of the 356 with which they had started the battle. Against Ariete the score was even; against the panzer divisions the British tank units were outclassed in a way that defies explanation in terms of personalities or of relative armour and armament, the terms chiefly considered in the Middle East at the time.
The German 50-millimetre and 88s were indeed much better as anti-tank guns than their British counterparts; but the British could also boast of technical advantages. The essential difference was not of equipment, but of method. The Germans were favoured by a tactical doctrine, inspired by British prophets unhonoured in their own country,37 which had been refined by years of close study and experiment. The main instrument of this was the Panzerdivision, a powerful and versatile organisation of tank crews, gunners, engineers and infantry all trained to work in close harmony, and it had no parallel in the British Army, a fact so clouded by terminology that it was seldom perceived. British tanks there were, of course, and armoured battalions and brigades assembled in one or two armoured divisions with mobile guns and infantry; but the theoretical foundations were insecure, tactical doctrine varied from unit to unit, and damaging heresies flourished.
Among these was the belief that British heavy tanks, condemned by inadequate engine power to be slow-moving, should only be used to help infantry and the lighter and faster tanks should have independent roles requiring little or no co-operation with other arms. In BATTLEAXE 7 Armoured Division had included a brigade of cruiser tanks and one of I tanks and the failure of the offensive was officially attributed in large part to their conflicting requirements. But the I tanks had in fact more than held their own with 15 Panzer Division and in the long lull before CRUSADER the Germans were much concerned to prevent the British from again using heavily armoured Matildas with artillery support to blunt the panzer arm. Their fears were groundless. The planners of CRUSADER constructed separate compartments for the two types of tanks and only the cruisers were to tackle the enemy armour. The consequence by the end of the 22nd was the defeat of the cruiser-tank force at small cost to the panzer divisions.