Chapter 8: The Desert Fighting in May and June 1941
See Map 2
On 27th April General Paulus, the emissary of the German Army High Command, arrived at General Rommel’s headquarters. General Halder noted in his diary that he had been chosen as being ‘perhaps the only man with enough influence to head off this soldier gone stark mad.’ His task was to send back a clear picture of the situation, assess the chances of a successful defensive should Sollum be lost, try to discover Rommel’s intentions, and make him understand that OKH had very few resources from which to send him any further help.
General Paulus arrived to find an attack on Tobruk planned for 30th April, but refused to sanction it until he had examined matters for himself. Two days later he gave his approval, and General Gariboldi, who paid a visit on 28th April, also agreed to the plan. There was no talk now of Suez as an objective; indeed Paulus noted that if Tobruk fell he would order the Afrika Korps to secure Cyrenaica by holding the general line Siwa–Sollum. On behalf of the German High Command he evidently intended to take good care that the desert theatre should not again, be allowed to become an embarrassment.
This time the chosen front of attack at Tobruk was in the southwest, opposite the defences on each side of the small hill named Ras el Medauar. General Rommel had by now lost confidence in General Streich and had placed about half the 5th Light Division, including over seventy tanks, under General Kirchheim, who was hurried up from Tripoli, where he had been recovering from a wound. The units of the newly arrived 15th Panzer Division can have had very little time to find their feet; 104th Regiment, for example, only arrived in Africa on 29th April. Thus although a fortnight had elapsed since the previous attempt, the attack seems to have been insufficiently prepared.
Tobruk, on the other hand, was undoubtedly stronger than it had been at the time of the Easter battles. The garrison had done much to improve the defences, of which the minefields were a very important feature. It happened that the field between the forward and reserve positions in the south-west sector was the first to be laid, which proved to be a wise decision. A welcome reinforcement of twelve ‘I’ tanks had
come by sea, and during the month the Royal Navy had delivered nearly 5,000 tons of stores. The harbour was heavily and frequently bombed, and HMS Fiona and Chakla (small and useful merchant ships which had been commissioned by the Royal Navy) were sunk by air attack—a warning of how difficult it would be to maintain supplies.
General Rommel’s plan was for the two German divisions to make the break in, 5th on the right, 15th on the left, beginning at 8 p.m. on 30th April. Into the breach would pass assault groups of the Ariete and Brescia Divisions to roll back the defences on each flank. Meanwhile German troops would push eastward to discover whether a main thrust to Fort Pilastrino and the harbour could follow at once. If not, the Italians would hold the flanks, the supporting artillery would be brought forward, and the German troops would renew the assault, probably next day.
The blow fell on the 26th Australian Infantry Brigade, whose 2/23rd and 2/24th Battalions were holding the front, with 2/48th Battalion in reserve on the Wadi Giaida. The attack was no surprise, for the perimeter had been bombed and shelled on 29th April, and during the afternoon and early evening of the 30th infantry were seen assembling—probably for attack; they were dispersed by artillery fire. Later, the posts immediately north and south of Ras el Medauar were heavily shelled and dive-bombed, and under cover of dust and darkness the Germans began to filter in. There followed hard fighting, of which little, save that it was going on, was known at brigade headquarters.
In fact the Germans had made a lodgement at about 9.30 p.m. on a narrow front, but from then onwards their plans went astray. Several Australian posts could not be overcome; the reconnoitring detachment vanished; and the Italians muddled their tasks. The night passed in outbursts of fighting and attempts by the Germans to assemble the troops for the next phase, for which the new plan was that part of Kirchheim’s group should mop up the Ras el Medauar area and part strike south-eastward along the perimeter. This was not successful: some of the Australian posts were still holding out in the morning and a thick mist made control difficult. The German tanks moved east rather than south-east, struck the inner and unreconnoitred minefield, were met by anti-tank fire, and turned back. 15th Panzer Division, moving north, did not get far. All the available German troops had now been used. The foremost infantry had reached a point south of Giaida, but were much exhausted and a rising sandstorm added to their hardships and difficulties. General Paulus intervened to advise that there was no prospect of success and General Rommel decided merely to try to extend to the right the front of penetration. Accordingly in the early afternoon the German tanks began to move south-east towards Bir el Medauar.
Up to this time the reserve battalion of the 26th Australian Brigade
had not been committed, and General Morshead had kept his tanks in hand. He now sent a force of fifteen cruisers and five ‘I’ tanks against the German armour. Five British tanks were lost in the fight which followed, but the enemy gave up the attempt to advance along the perimeter. Later in the evening the 2/48th Battalion tried to recapture Ras el Medauar, met stubborn resistance, and was recalled. Nos. 73 and 274 Squadrons had maintained standing fighter patrols over the battlefield throughout the day.
All next morning, 2nd May, in a thick dust-storm, hard fighting continued west of Giaida with the Germans again trying to trickle forward. Both sides hung doggedly on until, on the night of 3rd May, General Morshead used his reserve brigade—the 18th—in a counterattack on Ras el Medauar. The attack was a converging one by two battalions; it was not a success and soon became a series of unrelated combats. As no progress was being made, and as he did not wish his troops to be caught in exposed positions in daylight, General Morshead called the attack off in the small hours of 4th May.
This ended the second major battle for Tobruk. The enemy had broken into the perimeter on a front of nearly three miles to a greatest depth of less than two, and had gained a good observation point and a possible jumping off place for a future attack. This had cost the Germans about 650 casualties, and the Italians some 500. Although General Paulus referred to it as an important success, he directed that the attack was not to be renewed unless the enemy left Tobruk of his own accord. The principal task of the DAK was to hold Cyrenaica regardless of who held Sollum, Bardia, or even Tobruk. For the present the troops were to be disposed in depth round Tobruk, and a defence line was to be prepared on the eastern edge of the Jebel Akhdar, with its left at Gazala and its right thrown well back into the desert.
General Paulus summed up his impressions in a written report dated 12th May. He pointed out that the DAK was in difficulties tactically and that its supply situation was most unsatisfactory; strong action was necessary, he thought, if a serious crisis was to be avoided. The first essential was to provide for the proper defence of the sea routes to Tripoli and Benghazi and of the harbours themselves, and in his opinion any additional air and anti-aircraft units should be German. As regards the DAK itself the most urgent requirements were ammunition, petrol and rations; next, vehicles. Only when enough stocks had been accumulated should any further troops be sent, and then the medium and anti-tank artillery should come first.
The lack of air defence at Benghazi was particularly serious. Together with the damage that had already been done to the port it meant that only small coastal vessels could be used; the main stream of shipping had to use Tripoli. Concerning cargo General Halder noted in his diary that the Germans and Italians in North Africa together
needed 50,000 tons a month; other contemporary documents indicate that about 30,000 tons were for current maintenance and the rest for building up the stocks without which no further advance would be possible. The total capacity of the coastal shipping was only about 29,000 tons a month, so that even if Benghazi had not been out of action from time to time it would have been necessary to carry a large tonnage overland from Tripoli. The minor ports of Buerat and Sirte were of little value, and Derna was of use only to receive ammunition run in by submarine. The overland route was comparatively safe, but it was immensely long; 1,000 miles from Tripoli to Tobruk, and another 100 miles on to the frontier. There was no proper administrative headquarters to control the rearward services over this long line of communication, and there was a desperate shortage of transport vehicles both German and Italian. Small wonder that Halder thought the situation ‘unpleasant’. ‘By overstepping his orders’ he wrote in his diary, ‘Rommel has brought about a situation for which our present supply capabilities are insufficient.’
Life in Tobruk now settled down to a round of aggressive patrolling, air attacks, and minor operations—some to improve the position in the Medauar salient, and others in connexion with the operations of the Western Desert Force. The siege was to last until 10th December, when it was raised by the British offensive which began in November. By that time however the greater part of the garrison had been changed by a series of reliefs, as will be described in the next volume of this history. During the eight months’ siege everything depended on the ability of the Royal Navy to keep the place supplied, a dangerous and exacting task for which the main responsibility rested with the Inshore Squadron. Hostile airfields lay close to the port and, as has been described, the defending air forces were unable to provide sufficient cover. Ships had therefore to face heavy air attacks, and the harbour and its approaches were constantly mined and were kept clear only by the great exertions of the few minesweepers, among which were some South African whalers which had arrived in January. Supplies were carried in regularly by destroyers and captured Italian schooners and other small craft. All warships which visited Tobruk carried in stores and brought away men. Water-tankers and petrol-carriers were so few and valuable that they had to be sailed in during the dark of the moon, when the risk was less. All unloading had to be done at night with the greatest speed, and it was necessary for ships not to approach Tobruk before dusk and to be well clear before dawn.
In May 1,688 men were landed and 5,918 (including prisoners and useless mouths) taken away. 2,593 tons of supplies were carried in, giving a daily average of 84 tons against the 70 tons a day which had been hoped for. In June 1,900 men were landed and 5,148 evacuated,
and the average daily quantity of supplies carried in rose to 97 tons. An event of the highest importance to the defence was the arrival on 3rd June of the petrol-carrier Pass of Balmaha, escorted by HMS Auckland and HMSAS Southern Maid.
Losses were sadly high. In April the hospital ship Vita had been attacked and badly damaged, and on 4th May another, the Karapara, was dive-bombed and hit. Thereafter casualties were evacuated by destroyer. On 18th May, just south of Kaso Strait, yet another deliberate dive-bombing attack was made on a hospital ship, the Aba. Warships came to her aid and drove off several more attacks. It was during one of these that Petty Officer A. E. Sephton of the Coventry won the Victoria Cross for continuing to direct the fire of his guns after being mortally wounded.
On 12th May the Ladybird was bombed and sunk, as was the sloop Grimsby on 25th May, and six other vessels of various types were sunk or damaged during the month. By early June Admiral Cunningham was compelled, for a short time, to use destroyers, whose speed enabled them to do more of the run under cover of darkness. On 24th June the sloops Auckland and Paramatta, escorting the Pass of Balmaha once more to Tobruk, were attacked first by torpedo-bombers, then by three formations of dive-bombers, each of sixteen aircraft, and a few hours later yet again. The Auckland was sunk, and the Pass of Balmaha—badly damaged—was towed in by HMAS Waterhen. This was the Waterhen’ s last exploit for on 29th June she was sunk by bombs when once more proceeding to Tobruk. The carrying in of supplies nevertheless went on. The destroyers, working in pairs, unloaded on two nights out of three, and the small vessels soon began to play their part once more. Without this steady maintenance by sea, Tobruk could not have been held. For the equally steady and resolute defence the garrison of the 9th Australian Division, with attached British, Australian and Indian troops, the whole under the command of Major-General L. J. Morshead, deserves high praise. A special word is owed to the anti-aircraft artillery, which was incessantly in action against attacks of all kinds, from all heights, but especially by dive-bombers. Headquarters 4th AA Brigade RA, commanded by Brigadier J. N. Slater until September, and then by Brigadier J. S. Muirhead, was responsible for the spirited and successful anti-aircraft defence throughout the siege. The units changed from time to time, but 153rd and 235th Heavy AA Batteries RA, Headquarters 14th Light AA Regiment RA, and 39th, 40th and 57th Light AA Batteries RA, saw the whole siege through.
In spite of the defeat of the early attacks on Tobruk and the successful start of Brigadier Gott’s operations on the Egyptian frontier,1
General Wavell had ample cause for anxiety, mainly on account of his weakness in tanks, especially cruisers. To make things worse, by 18th April a second German division, suspected of having reached Tripoli early in the month, had been identified as an armoured division. (This was in fact 15th Panzer Division). If this could be kept supplied—and recent experience indicated that the Germans’ performance was apt to exceed the British estimate of what was possible—this armoured division would take a lot of stopping.
On the British side there was only a weak unit of mixed tanks in Tobruk and one squadron of cruisers at Matruh. The output from workshops would yield perhaps thirty or forty during the next six weeks, but none was likely to return from Greece. And although Tobruk might hold out, it was unlikely that sallies by the garrison would ever succeed in severing the German lines of communication to the frontier. These lines passed well to the south of Tobruk, in the open desert, and before a sortie could reach them there would have to be a major action with the investing force, which the garrison was not strong enough to risk.
It was this appreciation that led the Defence Committee in London to decide on 21st April to send the TIGER convoy of tanks and Hurricanes through the Mediterranean.2 This was good news to General Wavell, who could now, with luck, count upon a strong armoured reinforcement for the offensive—operation BATTLEAXE—which he had in mind. After the decisive defeat of General Rommel’s second attempt to capture Tobruk it became evident that the enemy had been fought almost to a standstill and General Wavell wished to take full advantage of their difficulties before they could recover. The TIGER convoy would soon be arriving, but without waiting for it General Wavell decided to strike a rapid blow in the Sollum area, and for this purpose allotted all the available armour, such as it was, to the Western Desert Force. The operation—BREVITY—was entrusted to Brigadier Gott, with orders to drive the enemy from Sollum and Capuzzo, inflict as much loss as possible and exploit success towards Tobruk as far as supply would allow and without endangering his force.
Meanwhile the Navy was carrying out such operations, in addition to the supply of Tobruk, as its larger commitments permitted. Bombardments of Benghazi on 8th and 11th May have already been described in Chapter 6. On the 2nd the Ladybird fired on enemy positions near Derna, and on the next night the destroyers Decoy and Defender shelled troops engaged in the closing stages of the Tobruk battle. Gazala airfield too was twice shelled: on the night of 10th/11th May by HMS Ladybird (her last bombardment) when several fires were started, and a week later by HMS Gnat.
Since the occupation of the Halfaya Pass by the Herff Group at the end of April, there had been continual sparring by both sides in the vicinity of the frontier. Reasonably good information had been built up about the units and weapons of the enemy’s composite force in this area; it was known, for instance, to have from thirty to fifty tanks. But, apart from Sollum, Halfaya, and Capuzzo, which were known to be held, there was no certainty where the enemy would be met. In fact the stage was set for an encounter battle, for which, on the British side, support from the air was to be given by a concentrated effort against hostile supply columns behind the battlefield. The little damage done by Italian aircraft to British tanks during the first desert offensive had led Air Commodore Collishaw to conclude that tanks were comparatively unprofitable targets. If the enemy’s petrol, ammunition and supplies could be destroyed or prevented from reaching the battlefield, his tanks must come to a standstill or withdraw. It is of course open to doubt whether this result could be achieved by a small number of aircraft.
Brigadier Gott’s plan for BREVITY was to advance by three parallel routes. On the desert flank the so-called 7th Armoured Brigade Group (consisting of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment at a strength of only two squadrons, or 29 cruiser tanks in all, and three columns of the Support Group) was to advance some thirty miles from Bir el Khireigat to Sidi Azeiz and destroy any enemy encountered on the way. In the centre, above the escarpment, the 22nd Guards Brigade Group with 4th Royal Tank Regiment (two squadrons of 24 ‘I’ tanks in all) under command was to clear the top of the Halfaya Pass, secure Fort Capuzzo and exploit northwards. (It shows the state of the British forces at this time that a lot of transport had to be borrowed from the 4th Indian Division to make 22nd Guards Brigade mobile.) The third, or Coast, Group, consisting mainly of the 2nd Rifle Brigade and 8th Field Regiment RA, was to prevent the enemy moving out from Sollum and was then to capture the lower Halfaya Pass and Sollum barracks and village.
The operation began early on 15th May, with Hurricanes of No. 274 Squadron maintaining a standing patrol over the advancing columns. 2nd Scots Guards and a squadron of 4th Royal Tank Regiment soon overran the position above the Halfaya Pass, although seven tanks were knocked out or damaged. Bir Wair and Musaid were quickly taken, and 1st Durham Light Infantry and another squadron of tanks made for Capuzzo. Contact between tanks and infantry was lost, but after a sharp fight the position was captured. Nine tanks had now become casualties and no exploitation to the north was possible. Meanwhile, the Coast Group, although assisted by eight Blenheims of No. 14 Squadron, was unable to dislodge the enemy from the broken ground below Halfaya Pass. On the desert flank the 7th Armoured Brigade Group drove before it light covering forces and advanced towards Sidi Azeiz.
Intercepted signals had warned the Germans to expect an attack, which, when it came, caused some apprehension, for it was thought to be the beginning of an attempt to relieve Tobruk, and there was not enough transport to send forward strong reserves to deal with it. General Rommel strengthened the eastern flank of the force investing Tobruk and took precautions against a sortie by the garrison. Colonel Herff prepared to give ground on the frontier, but first ordered a counter-attack by 2nd Battalion 5th Panzer Regiment, which succeeded in driving the Durham Light Infantry back to Musaid with heavy loss.
During the day the Royal Air Force had effectively attacked transport and other targets on and west of the battlefield. On the desert flank part of the 7th Armoured Brigade reached the neighbourhood of Sidi Azeiz, and tried unsuccessfully to ease the pressure on the British force at Capuzzo. Towards evening the Coast Group captured the positions below the Halfaya Pass and took 124 prisoners. In spite of his success at Capuzzo Colonel Herff’s uneasiness grew as the day wore on, in the belief that the British had two divisions available; he therefore prepared to fight a delaying action next day west of Sidi Azeiz. But General Rommel soon gauged the British strength more shrewdly and ordered Herff to make an early counter-attack; a reinforcement of one battalion of tanks would reach him by dawn.
Brigadier Gott was uneasy too, for he realized that the Guards Brigade Group in the open ground above the escarpment would be in a precarious position if the enemy attacked them with tanks. At 9 p.m. he signalled to Western Desert Force that if this seemed likely he would recommend a withdrawal to Halfaya Pass. This report was much delayed and not until 2.45 a.m. on 16th May did General Beresford-Peirse reply, advising Brigadier Gott to hold on and saying that he himself would review the situation after receiving the first reports from the air. But just before 2 a.m. Brigadier Gott had ordered the Guards Brigade Group to withdraw and the 7th Armoured Brigade to remain in a covering position near Sidi Azeiz.
The first of the German tank reinforcements—1st Battalion 8th Panzer Regiment—reached Sidi Azeiz at about 3 a.m. on the 16th. It then ran out of petrol and was unable to move until 5 p.m. Colonel Herff began his advance from Capuzzo in the early afternoon. 7th Armoured Brigade, though much hampered by breakdowns among the cruisers, delayed this advance until dark and then retired to the area Bir el Khireigat. The Germans halted on the general line Sidi Omar–Sidi Suleiman–Sollum, where Herff was ordered to stand on the defensive.
Operation BREVITY was therefore a failure; the only British gain was the Halfaya Pass. The Durham Light Infantry had suffered over 160 casualties, five ‘I’ tanks had been lost, and thirteen others damaged. German records show 12 killed, 61 wounded and 185 missing and three tanks destroyed. A number of Italian prisoners were taken. The Desert Air Force lost six of its small force in combat, while no loss is recorded by the enemy.
The arrival of TIGER convoy on 12th May with its valuable cargo of 82 cruiser, 135 ‘I’ and 21 light tanks, made it possible to begin to rebuild the 7th Armoured Division. After BREVITY the enemy was known to be still in administrative difficulties and was unlikely for some
time to be able to do more than make reconnaissances in force. Brigadier Gott was ordered to hold the Halfaya Pass and to operate as far to the west as possible. This would allow the offensive (operation BATTLEAXE, which was to aim at driving the enemy beyond Tobruk) to start from as far west as possible and would allow of the use of the coastal road to Sollum during the early stages of the advance. Accordingly the 3rd Coldstream Guards, with detachments of ‘I’ tanks and field, anti-tank and AA artillery, held the Halfaya Pass, while columns of the Support Group operated on the southern flank.
By this time the Germans had three battalions of tanks on the frontier—some 160 in all—but were unable to use them to any great distance owing to shortage of fuel. On 26th May Colonel Herff began an operation designed to bluff the British by a display of force into giving up the plateau above the escarpment. It developed, however, into a serious attack, in greatly superior strength, on the Halfaya Pass. 3rd Coldstream Guards and the supporting arms fought well but could not prevent the enemy from securing a commanding position and were in danger of being completely surrounded. Early on the 27th Brigadier Gott authorized a withdrawal and Lieut.-Colonel Moubray extricated his force with great skill, but it suffered 173 casualties, and four field guns, eight anti-tank guns and five ‘I’ tanks were lost.
See Map 16
On 28th May, the Chiefs of Staff signalled their views on the situation in the Middle East. It seemed that there was no immediate danger of an attack through Turkey, though political and military action was necessary for the security of this flank. But the German occupation of Crete called for more urgent measures. The enemy could now set up a line of sea communication to Cyrenaica via the west coast of Greece. To interfere with this, and to maintain Malta easily, and to continue to attack the Tripoli route, it was imperative to re-establish British air forces in the part of Cyrenaica between Sollum and Derna. It must be our object therefore to gain a decisive military success in the Western Desert and to destroy the enemy in a battle fought with our whole available strength.
On 28th May also General Wavell gave his orders for operation BATTLEAXE, for which he had issued preliminary instructions on 1st May. The Western Desert Force was first to defeat the enemy on the frontier and secure the area Bardia–Sollum–Capuzzo–Sidi Azeiz. Next it was to defeat the enemy forces in the area Tobruk–El Adem, and then exploit to Derna and Mechili. General Beresford-Peirse was to fix the role, which was to be vigorous, of the Tobruk garrison during each stage.
The date of readiness for BATTLEAXE was governed mainly by the
time required to re-equip the 7th Armoured Division. After the TIGER convoy had arrived at Alexandria a number of vexing difficulties and delays occurred in the unloading of the tanks, modifying them for the desert, and even giving some of them a necessary overhaul. The business of re-equipping made 10th June the earliest possible date for the attack to begin, but before pitting a virtually new division against the experienced Germans something more was necessary. Many of the tank crews were strangers to the newest types of cruisers and tanks, and needed instruction. Moreover, 7th Armoured Division had not existed as a formation since February; many of its officers and men had been dispersed to other tasks, and it required both organizing and practising. It was now to consist of the 7th Armoured Brigade with two regiments of cruiser tanks, the 4th Armoured Brigade with two regiments of ‘I’ tanks, and the Support Group. A scant five days was added for training, and 15th June was fixed as the day for the offensive to begin. All these delays angered the Prime Minister, who felt that each day lost would tell in the enemy’s favour, and he bombarded General Wavell with detailed questions.
Having captured Halfaya Pass the enemy settled down in earnest to improve his positions on the frontier, on the new Gazala line, and surrounding Tobruk. The 5th Light Division was withdrawn after its strenuous two months, and the frontier zone was entrusted to 15th Panzer Division. The new divisional commander, General Neumann-Silkow, took over from Colonel Herff on 8th June. The troops in the frontier zone were almost entirely German, except in the area Sollum–Musaid—Capuzzo, which contained three Italian battalions and one Italian artillery regiment.3 The rest of the weak Trento Division was at Bardia. The localities at Halfaya, Qalala, Point 206 and Point 208 (the Hafid ridge) were prepared for all-round defence and were well concealed, but owing to difficulties of supply they were not fully stocked with ammunition, fuel and water.
British information about the enemy was reasonably correct as regards strengths, but proved to be incomplete in some details. Two plans for BATTLEAXE were considered before a third was decided upon. The first was for an attack by ‘I’ tanks and infantry in the area Sollum-Bardia, while the cruiser tanks made a wide and rapid move against the enemy who were investing Tobruk; this plan was rejected because the forces and transport available were not enough. It was therefore decided that the advance on Tobruk should be carried out at a later stage, and that as a first step in defeating the enemy in the frontier
area the 7th Armoured Division would advance to the west of Capuzzo with the object of drawing the enemy’s armoured forces into battle and destroying them. General Wavell disliked this plan because it did not allow of engaging the enemy with all the forces available and might not bring on the desired battle. The final plan aimed at employing the largest force that could be maintained: this was calculated to be the 7th Armoured Division, the headquarters and artillery of the 4th Indian Division and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade—back from Eritrea—and the 22nd Guards Brigade.
The plan for the first stage was briefly as follows. The main task of 4th Indian Division (Major-General F. W. Messervy), with both infantry brigades and the 4th Armoured Brigade under command, was to destroy the enemy forces in the area Bardia–Sollum–Halfaya–Capuzzo. The tasks of 7th Armoured Division (Major-General Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh) were to cover the left flank of 4th Indian Division and cooperate in the destruction of the enemy forces in the frontier area.
4th Indian Division gave the task of capturing the Halfaya area to the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade Group, to which were attached 1½ squadrons of tanks. In the centre the rest of the division, i.e. 4th Armoured Brigade (less 1½ squadrons) and 22nd Guards Brigade, were to attack Point 206 and Capuzzo from the south-west, this direction having been chosen as a result of information from the air which suggested that a more direct approach would run into a newly erected tank obstacle. On the left, under 7th Armoured Division, the 7th Armoured Brigade and ‘Jaxo’ Column from the Support Group were to advance by bounds to the Hafid ridge and beyond, while the remainder of the Support Group formed a screen towards Sidi Omar.4 It was foreseen that, if this advance drew the German armour and a general tank battle seemed likely, 4th Armoured Brigade would have to rejoin 7th Armoured Division; no time was therefore fixed for the centre attack to begin. No special task was given to the garrison of Tobruk during this stage, because it was thought unwise to commit it to a large sortie until the Western Desert Force drew nearer.
General Beresford-Peirse decided to place his own headquarters for the coming battle at Sidi Barrani. This had the disadvantage of being about sixty crow-flight miles, or more than five hours desert driving, from the battlefield, but it was the most forward point from which sure communications could be established with No. 204 Group RAF.
a hundred miles away at Maaten Baggush. At Sidi Barrani also was the most advanced airfield which tactical reconnaissance aircraft could use.
A further indication of the importance attached by the Chiefs of Staff to a rapid success in the Western Desert was that Air Marshal Tedder was urged to accept great risks elsewhere in order to provide the maximum air support for BATTLEAXE. He was advised to throw in everything possible at the outset, to gain the initiative. He contrived to make available four squadrons of Hurricanes and one of Tomahawks; two squadrons of Blenheim bombers and one of Marylands; three and a half squadrons of Wellingtons; and one squadron of Marylands and one of Hurricanes for reconnaissance. But four of these squadrons had just come from East Africa; they were new to the Desert and had had no experience of fighting Germans. Owing to the losses suffered in Greece and Crete other squadrons were much below strength in experienced crews; many of their pilots had just arrived from the United Kingdom. The approximate strengths of the opposing air forces, with the serviceable aircraft shown in brackets, were as follows. The British had 128 (105) heavy and medium bombers and 116 (98) single and twin engine fighters; the Germans 79 (59) bombers and dive-bombers and 76 (60) single and twin engine fighters, and the Italians 49 (25) bombers and 156 (70) fighters. In addition to these, certain German and Italian heavy bombers were available from bases outside Libya.
Since the investment of Tobruk began, the aim of the Air Force had been to interfere with the enemy’s build up of his land and air forces in eastern Cyrenaica. Wellingtons attacked Benghazi harbour every night, while Blenheims and other Wellingtons attacked airfields. By day, Blenheims attacked road convoys. The plan was to continue these attacks until 12th June and then, for the next three days, to concentrate on enemy movement between Tobruk and the frontier and all airfields within reach, while the Wellingtons made their maximum effort against shipping at Benghazi. During the battle itself, at the particular request of General Beresford-Peirse, the fighters were to maintain defensive patrols over the troops. The medium bombers were to be at the call of the Army for attacking enemy columns and vehicles in the battle area.
The Royal Navy’s task was to prepare to open Sollum harbour, and to continue the arduous and dangerous service of supplying Tobruk. It was decided not to use ships for bombarding during BATTLEAXE because fighters to protect them could be made available only at the expense of tactical support for the Army. As it was, two Hurricane squadrons, reinforced by pilots of the Fleet Air Arm, were providing protection to shipping on the Tobruk run—protection which was all the more necessary after the German occupation of Crete.
This, then, was the plan in outline, and it seemed to General Wavell that the British would at, any rate start the operation stronger than the enemy. But certain disquieting facts had come to light since the first week of May when he had predicted that an effective blow might be struck in about a month’s time. The British armoured cars had proved very vulnerable to air attack and were out-gunned and out-paced by the heavy German cars; this was a great handicap in the fight for information. The ‘I’ tanks were too slow for the armoured battle in the desert and yet were vulnerable to the larger German anti-tank guns. The cruisers, a little faster than the German mediums, were too liable to breakdowns. General Wavell confided all this to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Dill, in a telegram of 28th May, and added that for these reasons he had doubts about the measure of success to be expected of BATTLEAXE. He did not think that the first stage would fail, but he thought it possible that at the end of it there might be insufficient strength left for the second. He had complete confidence in his troops, and had impressed upon General Beresford-Peirse that this very important operation was to be carried out with the utmost boldness and resolution.
The opening phase of the air operations took place as planned. Benghazi was attacked nightly, and as 15th June drew closer the enemy’s airfields and supply convoys were attacked by day and night. Fighter aircraft covered the long approach march, and the concentration of the British force was not molested. On 15th June itself, the Royal Air Force quickly established a local air superiority, and the enemy made only six air attacks, all light, during the whole day.
On the ground it was a day of varying fortunes. The attacks by the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade Group on the Halfaya Pass position failed, mainly because of the powerful anti-tank defence; above the Pass the German guns accounted for eleven out of twelve tanks engaged, while the minefields below trapped four out of six. On the desert flank the advance was held up all day at the Hafid ridge. The leading troops of 7th Armoured Brigade, who had previously seen only enemy patrols, had discovered by 9 a.m. that a defensive position of some sort lay ahead. A morning mist had made it difficult to see the ground, indeed the enemy’s exact dispositions were never found out because of a series of ridges among which the Germans were disposed in depth and well concealed. During the day the British tanks, supported by ‘Jaxo’ column’s troop of 25-pdrs, attacked three times, rather blindly. One attack overran part of the defences but no impression was made on the remainder. In this area the Germans had in fact four 88-mm. guns and several smaller ones, but few tanks—at first only a squadron of the 8th Panzer Regiment, which was replaced in the afternoon by one battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment from Gambut. The British tanks, however, had many casualties, and by
nightfall the 7th Armoured Brigade had only 48 cruisers fit to fight.
In the centre General Messervy’s attack began at about 10.30 a.m., when the 4th Royal Tank Regiment advanced against Point 206. This thrust drew into action a battalion of 8th Panzer Regiment and a hot engagement began. While it was going on General Messervy decided to attack Fort Capuzzo, and at about 1.30 p.m. the 7th Royal Tank Regiment was launched against it. This double attack by 4th Armoured Brigade drove the German tanks north-eastward and after some time Point 206 fell. Meanwhile 7th Royal Tank Regiment broke through at Capuzzo and passed beyond, but the infantry, owing apparently to a failure in communications, were late in following up to consolidate the ground won. This resulted in the tanks having to hang about, instead of rallying to replenish and reorganize. The enemy, who were thoroughly alarmed at the possibility of a breakthrough towards Bardia, made several counter-attacks which were all repulsed. It was then some time after 6 p.m. The day had therefore ended with a failure at Halfaya on the right, a success in the centre, and a sharp check at the Hafid ridge on the left. The air had reported large numbers of vehicles moving eastward along the Trigh Capuzzo, which showed that the enemy was reinforcing his front.
The plan for the next day was for the 4th Indian Division to renew the attack on the Halfaya Pass, improve its hold on the Capuzzo area, and try to exploit towards Bardia. 4th Armoured Brigade was to rejoin 7th Armoured Division, whose task would be to destroy the enemy’s armour in the Hafid area and continue to protect the desert flank.
The enemy’s preparations for 16th June were, however, well advanced. The Afrika Korps had been paying careful attention to the analysis of wireless traffic, which pointed to a regrouping and redistribution of the British forces, and this, coupled with other indications (such as increase of air activity, and rail traffic), had proved convincing enough for General Rommel to expect to be attacked, possibly on 15th June, in spite of the general impression that the British had not the necessary forces. Dispositions had been made to guard against a sortie from Tobruk, and parts of the 5th Light and Ariete Divisions were already in a state of readiness. By noon on 15th June the 5th Light Division, whose 5th Panzer Regiment had about 96 fit tanks, was sent forward to Gambut and warned for action next day. A detachment of one Panzer battalion, part of the Reconnaissance Unit and some guns was sent on ahead to join 15th Panzer Division.
Meanwhile at the front the situation seemed none too good to the enemy. They had lost a considerable number of guns; the fate of Point 206 was in doubt; 8th Panzer Regiment had been severely battered; the infantry and anti-tank guns of the mobile reserve had been scattered in the fighting at Capuzzo; Halfaya was isolated; and the fear of a British breakthrough to Bardia had not passed. The arrival in the
Hafid area of the advanced detachment of 5th Light Division had been a welcome relief and the remainder of the division was anxiously awaited, General Rommel having ordered it to press on to Sidi Azeiz. (It arrived at midnight.) However, to set against these doubts and anxieties, a good picture of British strength and dispositions had gradually emerged from captured documents and wireless intercepts, and by nightfall on the 15th General Rommel had decided that 8th Panzer Regiment should attack at Capuzzo at dawn next day and that 5th Panzer Regiment should circle round through the desert to strike at the British flank and rear.
On 16th June the 8th Panzer Regiment’s attack came in as intended, but the 4th Armoured Brigade, the 31st Field Regiment RA and the Buffs hammered and broke it. The Scots Guards, who had taken Musaid in the small hours, later captured Sollum barracks. General Messervy nevertheless judged the situation on his front to be too tense to allow the release of 4th Armoured Brigade to join the Armoured Division. Below the escarpment the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade Group twice attacked, but without success. On the left, the 7th Armoured Brigade and two columns of the Support Group engaged the 5th Light Division all day. This fight soon moved away from the Hafid area and zigzagged down the frontier towards Sidi Omar, where was the remainder of the Support Group, whose guns now came into action. The Germans repeatedly tried both to get round the western flank of the armoured brigade and to drive a wedge between the 2nd and 6th Royal Tank Regiments. These attempts were thwarted, but by evening these two British regiments had left only about twenty-one tanks fit to fight.
General Beresford-Peirse visited both divisional commanders in the early afternoon and made no change in their tasks. Later, General Wavell, with his flair for knowing when he was likely to be wanted, arrived at Sidi Barrani. At the front Generals Creagh and Messervy agreed between themselves in the evening that, because the 22nd Guards Brigade was now securely consolidated at Capuzzo, the 4th Armoured Brigade should join 7th Armoured Division next day, 17th June, for a concerted attempt to smash the enemy’s armour.
In spite of General Rommel’s timely moves much of the day had been anxious for the enemy. 8th Panzer Regiment had had many tanks damaged—and many quickly repaired; 15th Panzer Division was for some hours uneasy lest the British should advance from Capuzzo; and the Halfaya garrison was running short of supplies. For a long time there had been uncertainty about what 5th Light Division was doing and how it was faring. British air attacks had disorganized and delayed transport on the Trigh Capuzzo. Late in the afternoon, however, General Rommel assured General Neumann-Silkow that the situation was developing favourably; he was to hold
on at Halfaya but was to postpone until next morning an attack towards Sidi Suleiman which had been planned. Later, having pieced together the British intentions for the next day, General Rommel issued orders to anticipate them. Both divisions were to attack at dawn, the 5th through Sidi Suleiman towards Halfaya, the 15th towards the same objective by a circuit through Alam Abu Dihak.
At daybreak both these attacks came in. The 4th Armoured Brigade, which had begun to move off for its new role, was drawn into the fight and the attack by 15th Panzer Division was staved off, but farther south the 5th Panzer Regiment pressed back the 7th Armoured Brigade south-eastward and by about 8 a.m. reached Sidi Suleiman. The situation was now serious, because the enemy were well placed to cut off the 22nd Guards Brigade, whose few supporting ‘I’ tanks were running short of ammunition, and to get above and behind Brigadier Savory’s force at Halfaya.
Wireless communication had been proving unreliable, and it was 9.30 a.m. before General Creagh could explain the situation to Western Desert Force and report that there now remained only twenty-two cruisers and seventeen ‘I’ tanks. General Wavell saw that a vital decision must be made, and determined to make it himself. He flew with General Beresford-Peirse to 7th Armoured Division’s headquarters near Halfway House and arrived at 11.45 a.m. to find that General Messervy had acted. Deciding that only an immediate withdrawal could extricate the 22nd Guards Brigade, he had ordered it to begin at 11 a.m. General Wavell saw that it was too late to countermand this order even if he had wished to, but after carefully studying the enemy’s probable strength he cancelled the order which he himself had given for General Creagh to counter-attack at Sidi Suleiman. He decided instead to break off the operations and ordered formations to withdraw and refit, and as many crippled tanks as possible to be recovered. He then flew back to Cairo to give attention to the Syrian campaign and the many other responsibilities pressing heavily upon him.
On the morning of 17th June all the available fighters went up again to protect the troops, but after 10 a.m. the main air effort was directed against enemy vehicles and columns, the bombers being escorted by fighters while other fighters covered the retiring troops. So effective was the protection that the enemy made only one successful dive-bombing attack, but this caused nearly 100 casualties. On the ground above the escarpment, the withdrawal was covered by the remnants of both armoured brigades. Below, the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, which had lost heavily, was successfully extricated from its now precarious position. By nightfall the forward troops of the Western Desert Force were back on the general line Sidi Barrani—Sofafi. The enemy reoccupied his positions on the frontier. This result was sadly disappointing, to none more than to the Navy, who had taken such risks to deliver
the weapons which it was hoped would turn the scale. To General Wavell himself it was no satisfaction to know that his misgivings had been justified. As usual, he shouldered the entire responsibility for what had happened; he had approved the plan and was satisfied that it had been carried out resolutely. He considered that General Messervy’s decision to withdraw the Guards Brigade was the only one possible in the circumstances.
The Western Desert Force lost in BATTLEAXE 122 officers and men killed, 588 wounded, and 259 missing. Four guns were lost, and, of the 90 cruisers and roughly 100 ‘I’ tanks which began the battle 27 cruisers and 64 ‘I’ tanks were lost from enemy action or breakdown. The Royal Air Force lost 33 fighters and three bombers.
German records show 93 officers and men killed, 350 wounded, and 235 missing. The 8th Panzer Regiment began the battle with about 100 tanks, of which probably 50 were gun tanks; the 5th Panzer Regiment had 96 tanks, of which 57 were gun tanks.5 8th Panzer Regiment had eight tanks destroyed and 5th Panzer Regiment four. The number of German tanks damaged or broken down is uncertain, but was probably about fifty in all, apart from those that were repaired during the three days of the battle. Ten German aircraft were lost.
The Italian casualties are uncertain: the British claimed to have taken 350 prisoners and to have turned most of them loose before withdrawing.
General Wavell gratefully acknowledged the effective protection given to the Army by the Air Force. The heavy losses in fighters were attributed by Air Marshal Tedder partly to insufficient training and experience and partly to the fact that in order to maintain a continuous umbrella over the troops the fighter patrols were individually weak. Although this use of the fighters may perhaps have been justified in the opening phase of the battle, it could not have been continued during an advance of any size, for the fighter strength would have dwindled away and the enemy would have gained air superiority. Cooperation between air and ground was found to be unsatisfactory in many respects and there was obviously a great deal to learn about integrating the efforts of the two Services in battle. One of the important results of BATTLEAXE was that this problem came to be tackled in a practical and determined manner.
This account of the operations in the Western Desert in May and June of 1941 has purposely not been complicated by frequent reference to the crises in Iraq, Crete, or Syria, though to the Commander-in-Chief these were highly important matters. The extent to which events in Syria, in particular, made demands upon General Wavell’s attention
and resources at a time when he was preparing for BATTLEAXE will be apparent from Chapter 10. Accustomed though he was to making do, he could not help feeling on this occasion—as Sir Arthur Longmore had already felt—that too much was being asked of him and his forces.
There were many reasons for the failure of BATTLEAXE. The armoured units in particular had been severely handicapped by the haste with which the operation was mounted. Many tank crews had not handled a tank since February, and some had to man tanks of types that were new to them. Some regiments did not receive all their tanks till near the end of May, which left little time for training. There was no training of the armoured brigades or of the armoured division as a whole.
Several important facts and considerations influenced the plan for the worse. One of the armoured brigades consisted of cruiser tanks, and the other of ‘I’ tanks, which were much slower and had a short radius of action. There was no time to practise the combined action of these two brigades, which would be likely to resemble badly matched partners in a three-legged race. It was true that the enemy’s armoured regiments contained tanks of different types also, but these types had grown up and been practised together. Nor were their speeds so markedly different. In the circumstances, therefore, it was not certain that the British armoured division could bring the enemy’s more experienced formations to battle. And if it did, the tactics of the battle had not been worked out and tested. These considerations did not by any means rule out all hope of combining the action of the two British types of tank, but they did argue against the use of the armoured division as the principal instrument in some wide turning movement or attempt at deep penetration. They were supported by the fact that there was not enough transport to maintain operations of this sort. To ease the administrative difficulties it was necessary to gain the use of the coast road and to land supplies at Sollum as soon as possible. This meant that the Halfaya and Sollum localities had to be attacked, and could not be by-passed, as they were to be in the much more lavish CRUSADER offensive in the following November.
When an attack upon the Sollum–Halfaya localities had been accepted as the first phase of the operation, it was logical to give an important part in it to the ‘I’ tanks, which had been designed for just such a purpose. Unhappily there was no time for tanks and infantry to train together before BATTLEAXE, and there was not enough artillery in the Western Desert Force to enable the attacks to be made with any likelihood of success unless the ‘I’ tanks took part. It was foreseen, however, that these attacks might bring on a general armoured battle, and if this happened it was clearly desirable that the ‘I’ tanks should
bring their gun-power to the help of the cruisers. Thus the ‘I’ tanks came to be cast for two parts, and it was left to the two divisional commanders to decide, in consultation, when the time had come to change from one to the other. The compromise would have been less of a weakness if the commander of the Western Desert Force could have overcome the difficulties of communication, especially with the Air Force, and have placed himself well forward in immediate control of a complicated battle.
BATTLEAXE gave the British in the Middle East their first experience of German preparedness for encounters between armoured forces, though it is doubtful if they fully appreciated the German conception, which was that the primary use of tanks was to deal with troops and thin-skinned vehicles and that the task of destroying the enemy’s tanks was largely one for the anti-tank guns. At all events, it was soon clear that the most heavily armoured British tank—the Matilda—was suffering severely from the heavy shell of a large high-velocity gun. This was in fact the 88-mm. gun, firing a 16-lb. shell. It was at the time primarily an anti-aircraft weapon, but it had been designed for low-angle fire also. Its performance against tanks was well known to the Germans, who, in August 1940, had tested it against Matildas captured in France. It is not surprising, therefore, that among the first German troops to arrive in Africa in February 1941, with the special role of countering British armour, was a detachment equipped with 88-mm. guns. The Matildas played an important part in BREVITY and when, at the end of May, the Germans recaptured Halfaya Pass and decided to hold positions on the Egyptian frontier, they dug in a few 88-mm. guns in the Halfaya area and at the Hafid ridge. These big weapons were concealed as well as they could be and proved deadly to any British tank at as much as 2,000 yards. Although their presence in Libya had been suspected they were not at once identified, mainly because survivors from a stricken tank know little more than that it has been hit hard: there was no opportunity for the methodical examinations of dead tanks in cold blood that were made later. During BATTLEAXE the Germans seem to have seen the possibility of using these guns, in spite of their size, in cooperation with their own tanks, and they developed this technique with great skill during later fighting in the desert.
The Germans had not many of these powerful 88-mm. guns; there were probably five in the Halfaya area, four at Hafid ridge, and four with the 8th Panzer Regiment. But their more numerous and much handier 37-mm. and 50-mm. anti-tank guns seem also to have done much damage, especially the long 50-mm. with its 4½-lb. shell and its special armour-piercing shot for use at short ranges.6
There were four types of German tanks at this time—Pzkw I, II, III and IV.* Pzkw I and II were light tanks. In the medium class, Pzkw III mounted a 50-mm. gun as its main armament, but with a shorter barrel than the anti-tank gun of the same calibre. It is obviously impossible to say how many successes this gun scored in the fighting between tanks. The short 75-mm. gun of the medium Pzkw IV was not designed as a tank-killer, although its 15-lb. high-explosive shell could ‘crock’ British tanks at an unpleasantly long range; it was a support weapon, useful also against the British anti-tank guns. The impression gained by the British during BATTLEAXE was that their own 2-pdr tank gun was not being effective at a sufficiently long range; in other words, that the German tanks were getting their punishing blow in first. It now seems that many of the British tanks had been drawn into the fire of the German anti-tank guns, and it is probable that these guns caused a large number of the casualties. A further feature of BATTLEAXE was that the Germans had the great advantage of possessing enough well tested mobile equipment to recover and repair damaged tanks, and they used it boldly and skilfully. The British had as yet very little recovery equipment, and when the tide in BATTLEAXE turned against them they were compelled to abandon many damaged but repairable tanks.
The fundamental cause of the troubles of the British in the armoured field was that between the wars they had allowed research and experiment on their own invention the tank, and also its manufacture, to dwindle almost to nothing. The main reasons for this state of affairs were financial stringency and a policy which for many years assumed that a major war was not to be expected. The Germans, in contrast, had given the tank much practical study, and by 1939 had a long lead in production from well tested designs. When events compelled the British to face the need to rearm their forces they had not a clear idea of what sort of war they might have to fight. In consequence there were demands for the light and cruiser tanks which seemed necessary for highly mobile armoured warfare and for the ‘I’ tank capable of acting against troops in fortified positions. As war with Germany approached and the idea grew that it would be defensive in its opening stages, the emphasis on the ‘I’ tank increased. As a result of the campaign in France the British Army was practically disarmed; its losses in tanks were nearly 700, and in anti-tank guns 850. The cry was now to rearm rapidly for home defence, for which purpose cruiser tanks, whose speed and mobility had been so well exploited by the Germans in France, were wanted in preference to ‘I’ tanks. But production cannot be switched about at a moment’s notice, and the choice was not between
* The German word for a tank is Panzerkampfwagen, abbreviated to Pzkw.
a good tank and a better one, but between a fairly good tank and no tank at all. The result was that some of the armoured divisions had to be armed with ‘I’ tanks.
The Germans on the other hand had gained some solid advantages from their theoretical studies and thorough practical tests. They had overcome the teething troubles of the tanks in service, and had provided in the component parts a safety factor sufficient to allow larger weapons and heavier armour to be mounted with confidence if the need to do so should arise. They had also standardized many parts and fittings and were therefore able to spread manufacture over a large number of firms.
The British nevertheless succeeded in building tanks which in many respects compared favourably with German tanks, in particular the Matilda of which the Germans thought highly in spite of its limitations. But British cruisers were on the whole not mechanically reliable in Middle Eastern conditions, and cruisers and ‘I’ tanks alike had a serious weakness owing to the failure to provide a more powerful gun. The story of this failure shows that it is one thing for the General Staff to decide what is wanted, and quite another to get it into the hands of the troops. The need for a more powerful gun than the 2-pdr as a tank and anti-tank gun had been foreseen in April 1938, ‘but the design was not pursued owing to the urgency of other design work.’7 In June 1939 the matter received some impetus, and in the following April the 6-pdr was ready for trials. But in the critical days after Dunkirk it was decided that, in spite of the desire of the General Staff for a more powerful gun than the 2-pdr, the supply of the new 6-pdr must be governed by the effect on the output of 2-pdrs. Towards the end of 1940 the conversion of one factory from 2-pdrs to 6-pdrs was considered, but it was estimated that only 100 of the larger guns would be obtained in the year instead of 600 of the smaller; it was therefore decided that the production of the 6-pdrs must come from new capacity, and this of course meant delay. Delivery in good quantity did not begin until November 1941, and by the end of May 1942 few more than 100 guns had reached the Middle East.8 The 2-pdr was undoubtedly a good gun—better than its opposite number, the German 37-mm. But by 1940 the Germans were producing, and not merely designing, a short 50-mm. gun, which was ready in time to equip the first Pzkw IIIs to go to Africa, while the long-barrelled version was ready in small quantities as an anti-tank gun. The British were hard put to recover from this bad start in the weapon race. The field artillery 25-pdr gun came to the rescue over the worst period, but its use in the anti-tank role forced some undesirable compromises upon its tactics.
In April 1941 the design of a still bigger British gun for tank and anti-tank use—the 17-pdr—was begun. This was a whole year before even the 6-pdr was in the hands of the troops in Egypt. The 17-pdr did not become available in Egypt until January 1943.