Chapter 5: Rommel Strikes
THE lull at Gazala- Bir Hacheim ended on 27 May when Rommel attacked on plans which called for the destruction of Eighth Army and the capture of Tobruk in four days. Eighth Army lost the battle. It was decisively defeated, but not in the contemptuous fashion Rommel envisaged. Tobruk did not fall until 21 June, twenty-five days later.
For Eighth Army the battle ended in disaster. A crisis was created with far-reaching strategicl and tactical repercussions which, incidentally, involved the New Zealand Division and the Dominion’s subsequent contribution to the war in North Africa and Europe. From the crisis, all that followed in eastern North Africa was inevitable.
Yet within the disaster that befell Eighth Army there was victory. The valour and endurance of the British, Indian, French and South African troops at Gazala- Bir Hacheim and in the fighting back to the Egyptian frontier, rather than the last-ditch stand at Alamein, saved the Middle East base. Rommel refreshed himself with the loot of Tobruk and received there the incentive to push on into Egypt. But such heavy toll was taken of his divisions in Cyrenaica that, when they arrived at Alamein, they lacked the strength to burst through to Cairo, Alexandria and the Suez Canal.
Indecisiveness in the British command contributed to the defeat. Auchinleck’s direction of the campaign developed at times into detailed direction of phases of the battle. When he was not at Eighth Army Headquarters, he sent signals, letters, and staff officers to convey his views to the Army Commander, Lieutenant-General Ritchie.1 Events often outpaced the signals and instructions. Doubts and hesitations at Army Headquarters concerning the Commander-in-Chief’s ideas and wishes added to the normal confusion of the battlefield. The fighting formations sensed the indecision and envied the enemy not only his equipment and tactical skill, but also the apparent firmness of his direction. To the regimental officers the battle lacked a theme. The legend of Rommel’s invincibility, of his
superiority over British generals, became firmly grounded at Gazala- Bir Hacheim.
Eighth Army’s confidence was also shaken by the manner in which formations were broken and their components shifted from command to command. In the vital set-piece attack of 5 June in the ‘Cauldron’, an operation intended to turn the scales against the enemy, units and formations from no fewer than four divisions and two corps were committed on a plan prepared by two divisional commanders who were to succeed each other in command during the fighting. Neither Army nor corps headquarters co-ordinated the operation.
The speed and number of these moves dazed brigade, division and corps headquarters. The cohesion and unity of purpose and practice that transform individual men and their equipment into the welltried entity of a division were again deliberately forfeited. The multiplicity of formations in which the British and Indian units of the Indian divisions found themselves baffles their historian. ‘Some-times [5th Division] had two brigades, sometimes one, on occasions none at all. Brigades of the 4th and 10th Indian Divisions also came under command, only to disappear again, while the gunners were for ever changing.’2
Eighth Army lost the battle although Rommel’s plans were presented to it as if on a platter. It had ample warning of the imminence of the attack. The enemy’s approach march to the open southern flank of the Gazala- Bir Hacheim position was observed from the air and by armoured-car reconnaissance squadrons. On the night 26–27 May the enemy’s armoured divisions were seen in laager 15 miles south-east of Bir Hacheim. And in the early stages of the battle captured documents revealed the complete plan of attack.3
Yet Rommel won the battle. He won against an army that out-numbered him by nearly two to one in men, was stronger in field artillery, and whose numerical superiority in tanks and anti-tank guns was expected to offset the superior mechanism and fire power of the enemy’s equipment. He won against an army encouraged by its command to believe that the approaching battle would be a welcome prelude to its own crushing and possibly final offensive. Rommel won because, in spite of his apparent dispersions, he concentrated superior forces against isolated British formations.
One such formation was the staunch 150 Brigade of 50 Division. The brigade, with field and anti-tank artillery, held the Sidi Muftah box between the Trigh el Abd and Trigh Capuzzo, along which the
enemy cut supply lines through the British minefields. The brigade kept the supply lines under artillery fire and, although it was unable to stop the flow of traffic, it made the route so ineffective that the enemy armoured divisions to the east of the minefields were reduced to a parlous state for petrol, ammunition and food. Their water ration was down to half a cup a man.
Against this isolated brigade, the enemy committed parts of 15 Panzer, Trieste Motorised and 90 Light Divisions, supported finally by heavy bombing attacks. ‘The encircled enemy, supported by numerous infantry tanks, again resisted most stubbornly,’ Panzerarmee Afrika said in its daily battle report. ‘Each separate element within the fortress-like strengthened defences had to be fought for. The enemy suffered extraordinary heavy, bloody losses. Eventually the operation, which also caused considerable losses to our troops, ended in complete success.’4
Mention may also be made of 9 and 10 Indian Brigades which, with four regiments of field artillery, were overrun in the enemy’s armoured counter-attack following the uncoordinated attack referred to earlier in this chapter. They went under in a ‘mournful and unmitigated disaster’, redeemed only by the heroism of the British and Indian soldiers who, ‘confronted with every mischance of battle, thirst, wounds and isolation, matched their bare flesh against steel machines and stood to their duty to the last.’5
When Rommel cleared his supply lines through the minefields and made an end to the ‘Cauldron’, he proceeded from success to success and Eighth Army from disaster to disaster. Although out-numbered on the field as a whole, the enemy commanders produced concentrations which gave them local superiority. Eighth Army’s brigades and units, armoured and infantry, were truthful when they said they had yielded only to vastly superior force. The evacuation of Bir Hacheim, the Gazala positions and El Adem box, stubbornly defended by 29 Indian Brigade, led to the final disaster of Tobruk and the invasion of Egypt.
Rommel’s offensive had been limited to clearing Cyrenaica and pursuit into Egypt with light mobile forces to prevent British air interference with a projected German-Italian assault on Malta. He had been given six weeks for this task, and the Malta operation was to be undertaken by mid-August at the latest. The German naval
staff in Rome disagreed with an advance deep into Egypt because of supply difficulties, but Rommel’s confidence carried the day.6
On 22 June Rommel reported to Rome that the first object, that of ‘smashing the enemy’s field forces and taking Tobruk’, had been completed. In the same message he said: ‘The condition and morale of our troops, the supply position (as a result of the quantities captured), and the enemy’s present weakness, all make it possible for us to pursue him deep into Egypt. I therefore request the Duce to release me from the limitations so far imposed on my liberty of movement, and to make all the troops now under my command available for the continuation of the campaign.’7
In the early hours of 24 June, General von Rintelen, the German general at Italian General Headquarters, advised Rommel that the ‘Duce is in agreement with the Panzerarmee’s plan of following the enemy into Egypt’ and that General Count Ugo Cavallero, Italian Chief of Staff, would return to Africa next day to issue further instructions.8 Hitler agreed that ‘now is the historic moment in which Egypt can be conquered and that it must be seized.’ On instructions from the Italian Supreme Headquarters, the attack to capture Malta was postponed until September, but Mussolini impressed on Hitler that ‘the neutralisation of Malta was unconditionally necessary if supplies were to be kept up to the Panzerarmee and the advance to the Nile Delta assured.’ He stressed that the resumption of Royal Air Force operations from Malta had led to a critical supply situation in Africa.
Cavallero, accompanied by Field Marshal Kesselring, German Commander-in-Chief South, met Rommel at Sidi Barrani shortly before midday on 26 June, by which time Panzerarmee was assembling for the attack on Matruh. He passed to Rommel the following orders from Mussolini:
a. The main body of Panzerarmee is to occupy the defile between the Arabian Gulf and the Qattara Depression [otherwise the Alamein Line or bottleneck] immediately. These positions must be the base for all future operations.
b. The first step is to capture the fortification in the Matruh–Baggush area and to destroy the enemy garrison of Mersa Matruh. The advance cannot go on until these fortifications are taken.
c. Further operations from the base mentioned in ( a) are to be coordinated with the general situation in the Mediterranean.
Cavallero also told Rommel that the utmost advantage should be taken of the successes to date but warned him that the supply situation was difficult. As a result of air activity from Malta, the route to Tripoli must be abandoned in the meantime and the route to the Cyrenaica ports was threatened. Plans had been made to neutralise Malta again and air formations were being moved from Germany to that end. This would take time ‘and a period of crisis [concerning supplies] in the immediate future cannot be avoided.’9
In the light of later developments, the importance should be noticed of the instructions to seize the Alamein Line as a base for further operations and of the warning concerning supply problems.
Next day, while the attack was being made on Matruh, the Italian Supreme Command gave Rommel the following additional orders:10
After the enemy now opposing our advance is defeated, operations from the base between the Qattar Depression and the Arabian Gulf will be continued on the following lines:
1. Objective: the Suez Canal. Advances will be made on Suez and Ismailia and from Ismailia on Port Said as soon as possible. Aim: to block the canal and prevent the enemy from receiving reinforcements from the Middle East.
2. If this advance is to be carried out it will first be necessary to occupy Cairo firmly, including the southern front and the airfields in that area.
3. The roads from Alexandria are to be blocked to secure us from attacks from there before we can occupy the city.
4. The army’s rear must be secured against any enemy landings. This will be done by occupying key points on the coast and having an adequate mobile reserve to go to the help of any threatened points.
5. The Duce expects German and Italian troops in equal numbers to take part in the advance to the canal. Directives on the behaviour of our headquarters towards the Egyptian Government and people will follow very soon.