Chapter 2: The Winter Battle, 1941 (CRUSADER)—1
See Map 2
CRUSADER was a British victory, in that Tobruk was relieved, the enemy was driven from Cyrenaica with heavy losses, and all the Axis troops holding positions on the Egyptian frontier were destroyed or captured. This all took longer than expected, however, and in doing it the British exhausted themselves.
The region Sollum-Fort Maddalena-Bir el Gubi-Tobruk, where the first fortnight’s fighting took place, is a corner of the Western Desert larger than Norfolk and Suffolk.1 Except near the coast the surface is generally hard, flat, and open, so that desert-worthy vehicles can roam almost anywhere except after heavy rain. Along an imaginary line from Bardia to El Adem the ground breaks up into undulations, with the ridges running east and west; the northern faces are usually the steeper, forming escarpments passable by vehicles at only occasional places. A few miles farther north runs the coast road—the Italian Via Balbia—and the ground then tumbles in a tangle of wadis to the sea.
The ridges or escarpments lie roughly in two rows, one wholly to the north of the Trigh Capuzzo and one partly north and partly south of it. Towards El Adem the Trigh runs between the two, as also does the Tobruk by-pass road. This road was built by the enemy to take the place of that portion of the Via Balbia denied to them by our occupation of Tobruk. Twelve miles east of El Adem, that is just opposite Sidi Rezegh, the by-pass road turns north and passes between minor hill-features at El Duda on the west and Belhamed on the east.2 The area Sidi Rezegh–El Duda–Belhamed, which was obviously a sensitive spot on the enemy’s communications, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of all.
CRUSADER was a complicated battle, and in order that its essential features shall stand out clearly the dispositions and movements on Maps 3 to 16 have been drawn as simply as possible. But to form a
true picture of the scene it is necessary to bear in mind a few facts.
First, the enormous number of vehicles. By now the 8th Army was almost entirely motorized, that is to say nearly all the men and equipment were carried in some sort of mechanical transport—armoured car, tank, towing vehicle, tracked Bren carrier, special vehicle, or truck. Some men fought in their vehicles, some on foot. In a ‘motorized’ battalion the transport was permanently allotted, but in others only the ‘specialists’ (signallers, mortar platoons, etc.) had permanent transport, and extra lorries from the transport pool were needed to lift all the other men if the battalion had to move any distance quickly. Broadly speaking, all the units of 30th Corps were motorized, while some of 13th Corps were not. As for the enemy, in their three armoured divisions (15th, 21st and Ariete) and their one motorized division (Trieste) everyone was carried. In the incomplete German Afrika Division none of the infantry was as yet lorry-borne.3 The other Italian divisions had not enough transport to make them mobile. Altogether there may have been anything up to thirty thousand vehicles moving about in the region between Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier.
To avoid attention from the air it was usual for vehicles to move widely dispersed, whether they were lifting troops or delivering ammunition, petrol, water or food, or were returning to refill either empty or carrying casualties, prisoners or salvage. The Germans dispersed their vehicles less widely than the British, but neither side moved in the compact columns and blobs shown in the history books, except at night or when it was necessary to concentrate for some tactical purpose. The usual pattern by day was one of diffuse swarms or long strings of widely separated vehicles trying to avoid bunching or looking in any way conspicuous. When they halted for the night for rest, maintenance, or replenishment they would normally close up into a more compact formation—called a leaguer—for better control and defence.
So much movement in extended formation made great demands upon the skill and self-reliance of drivers and crews, especially during the time when each side was burrowing far behind the other’s ‘front’. Then, even in the back areas, every move, and sometimes every halt, became an adventure. Friend and foe would suddenly meet, stray vehicles would be pounced upon, headquarters would be overrun, and leaguers would be shot up. A breakdown could be serious, for apart from the danger of being lost there was always the chance that the next vehicle to appear would be hostile. Rommel himself was very nearly captured, and many other important persons had narrow
escapes. But the freedom of movement in the desert also gave experienced and mobile troops a good deal of security because they could easily dodge trouble.
It is easy to imagine what complex patterns these mechanical armies got themselves into. Not even from the air could they be completely sorted out. The battlefield was large and much of it almost featureless, so that the exact position of anything seen was often difficult to describe. After the first two wet days the weather gradually improved, but even so an aircraft flying low—as it often had to—had only a small field of view, while the prevalent low cloud and whipped-up sand made visibility from a greater height very uncertain. Moreover, the numbers of aircraft on each side specifically devoted to tactical reconnaissance were quite small; the British, for instance, started the battle with three squadrons in which the pilots were specially trained in such duties. Their reports were supplemented, of course, by what the fighter and bomber pilots saw, but the broad result was that although a great deal was observed and accurately reported of the enemy’s moves and dispositions the plots on the map did not always represent the whole story and sometimes made little sense.
Another of the difficulties of the Air Force in helping the Army was that the ‘bomb-line’, or line beyond which anything seen might be attacked, was not easy to define in practice, for instead of there being a clearly defined front the forces of the two sides were often biting each other’s flanks or tail. Aircraft were rarely able to join in a swaying fight between the armoured forces, and even on the fringe of such a fight they could not always tell friend from foe. The Army was loath to paint large distinguishing marks on its vehicles, though it was later forced to follow the enemy’s lead in this respect. Difficult as it was to distinguish troops from the air it was not always easy to do so from the ground either. One vehicle at a distance or at an angle is much like another, especially when the silhouettes are broken by festoons of sandbags, kit, and spares, and to make matters worse each side made great use of vehicles captured from the other.4 The British armoured car regiments, however, were good at recognition and their reports were generally accurate.
There was another important aspect of the struggle to gain information. During battle a commander wants to have timely and accurate information not only of the position of the enemy’s troops, but also of their condition. The first news about the enemy’s losses usually came from the unit that had caused them, and for some time this would
be all the higher commanders had to go upon. The Germans often seemed to have recovered in a remarkable way, and it is now clear that the first estimates of the numbers of their tanks destroyed were usually far too high. Indeed, the total would have accounted for the two Panzer regiments several times over, and this would only have been possible if the Germans had received constant and considerable reinforcements of tanks, whereas in fact they received hardly any. It is only fair to say that the enemy also suffered from exaggerated reports.
Yet another factor tended to thicken the fog of battle at this time. Even at night, when there would often be a pause, it was not always possible for the higher headquarters to get accurate and up-to-the-minute information of the state or even the position of their own troops. This was because the great extent of the battlefield and the speed of movement compelled at all levels a wide use of wireless communication (in addition to other methods) and this was much less reliable than it later became.5 Not only had pre-war economy hindered the development of the Army’s signal equipment (partly no doubt because the Army could carry out its peace time duties with less dependence upon wireless than could the other Services) but the size of the requirement in desert warfare had been underestimated. More channels were required for operational and administrative control in highly mobile desert warfare than elsewhere, and there were not enough wireless sets. Nor, with the exception of the short-range sets for tank-to-tank and intra-unit communications, did the wireless equipment possess the necessary range, and there was much trouble from fading, particularly in the hours of darkness. The pre-war medium-range sets had proved quite unsuitable for the desert, and pending the production of a satisfactory type, a medley of equipment, procured from various sources, had to be employed as a makeshift. Again, there was difficulty in finding the means and the time to charge the batteries of short-range sets under battle conditions. This was a particularly thorny problem for tanks, which used the tank-engine for charging, because it was found that the time spent on the move (i.e. with the engine running) was less than had been expected; the batteries had therefore to be charged frequently by some external means. At this time there was a serious shortage of charging plant, and the expenditure of spare batteries was consequently enormous.
The net result was that in 1941 there were liable to be interruptions to wireless communications at critical times, especially on the longer links; indeed, Army Headquarters was on occasions out of telegraphic
and telephonic touch with one or both Corps.6 Thus there were frequently serious delays between the issue of an order and its receipt by all the units which were required to act on it. A further difficulty arose from ciphering delays, aggravated by a shortage of cipher staffs. Attempts were made to evade the need for ciphering by such dodges as ‘veiled’ conversations, but the enemy’s records show that he gathered much information from these rather ingenuous attempts. The German diaries disclose that they also had their troubles, for there are many references to the failure of wireless communications at crucial moments.
The foregoing remarks will perhaps explain some of the differences in this particular battle between what is now understood to have happened and what the commanders on both sides believed to be happening.
The main forces under General Cunningham’s command and their initial tasks in the plan already outlined were as follows:
30th Corps (Lieut.-General C. W. M. Norrie)
To advance north-west, find and destroy the enemy’s armour, and protect the left flank of the 13th Corps:
7th Armoured Division (Major-General W. H. E. Gott)—7th and 22nd Armoured Brigades.
4th Armoured Brigade Group (Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse).
To protect the communications of the 7th Armoured Division on the west and south-west; later to capture the Sidi Rezegh ridge:
1st South African Division (Major-General G. L. Brink)—1st and 5th South African Infantry Brigades.
To protect the communications, supply dumps and landing-grounds in 30th Corps’ area:
22nd Guards Brigade (Brigadier j. C. 0. Marriott).
13th Corps (Lieut.-General A. R. Godwin-Austen)
To pin down and cut off the enemy’s troops on the Egyptian frontier; later to advance west:
New Zealand Division (Major-General B. C. Freyberg)—4th, 5th and 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigades.
4th Indian Division (Major-General F. W. Messervy)—5th, 7th and 11th Indian Infantry Brigades.
1st Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier H. R. B. Watkins).
Tobruk Garrison (Major-General R. M. Scobie)7
To make a sortie when ordered:
70th Division—14th, 16th and 23rd Infantry Brigades.
Polish Carpathian Infantry Brigade Group (Major-General S. Kopanski).
32nd Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier A. C. Willison).
Oasis Force (Brigadier D. W. Reid)8
To secure Jarabub, advance to protect landing-ground 125, and seize Jalo:
29th Indian Infantry Brigade Group.
6th South African Armoured Car Regiment.
2nd South African Division (Major-General I. P. de Villiers)—3rd, 4th and 6th South African Infantry Brigades.
On 16th November the Mediterranean Fleet from Alexandria, Force H from Gibraltar, and Force K from Malta, together with some merchant ships, began the series of movements to simulate the passage of a convoy from Gibraltar through the Mediterranean, with the object of attracting the attention of the enemy, and of his air forces in particular.
At midnight on 17th November the concentration of the 8th Army and Desert Air Force was complete. The night, as usual at this time of year, was bitterly cold. Good driving, wide dispersion, the use of simple camouflage, strict wireless discipline, the low cloud, and the success of the Royal Air Force in hampering the enemy’s reconnaissance had all helped to conceal the British intentions and had led General Rommel to conclude—in spite of Italian misgivings—that the only action to be expected would be some sort of counter to his own attack on Tobruk. What is more, he calculated that anything the British might do would be too late. He was therefore content to rely upon the armoured cars of Reconnaissance Units 3 and 33 to give warning of any British movements. Accordingly on 18th November only these units lay in the path of the British 30th Corps.
See Map 3
At dawn the 30th Corps began to cross the frontier, and by evening had approximately reached its objectives for the day.9 The 13th Corps
had closed up to the enemy’s frontier positions.10 Though the weather, by continuing to ground the Axis air forces, had favoured the British, visibility from the air was poor. On the ground nothing had been seen of the enemy except their reconnaissance troops, so there was nothing to guide General Cunningham in deciding what to do next. He had taken the first step by moving his own armour one day’s march to a central and threatening position, and had intended the next step to be the sequel to some move of the enemy’s, but as yet the enemy had not moved.
At the enemy’s headquarters opinion was in fact divided. General Crüwell, commanding the DAK, was inclined to see in the British moves the start of an offensive. Rommel, however, who had just arrived back from Rome, believed them to indicate no more than a reconnaissance in force, and made no changes in his dispositions. The 15th Panzer Division remained assembled between Tobruk and Gambut, ready to take part in the coming attack on Tobruk. The 21st Panzer Division lay some twenty miles to the west of Sidi Azeiz in a convenient position for supporting the frontier garrisons. The Ariete Division was at Bir el Gubi, covering the desert flank. Headquarters DAK was due to leave Bardia for Gambut next day—a further preliminary to the attack on Tobruk.
Thus we now know that Rommel did not intend to react, even on the next day, in the way that the British commanders hoped. They were eager for him to do something which would help them to judge where and when the great armoured battle might be fought. They were therefore in the odd position of possessing the initiative, and, because the enemy did not act, of being uncertain how to use it. General Gott’s orders for the 7th Armoured Division early on 19th November reflect this state of mind. The task was to secure Bir el Gubi and later Sidi Rezegh. The 4th Armoured Brigade was to remain where it was to protect the right flank of the Division and the left flank of 13th Corps. The 7th Armoured Brigade was to reconnoitre towards Sidi Rezegh and to secure an area on the escarpment if an opportunity occurred. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to reconnoitre towards Bir el Gubi and to secure ground in that area as opportunity offered. The Support Group was to be ready to act with either the 7th or 22nd Armoured Brigades.
See Map 4
The 22nd Armoured Brigade (Brigadier J. Scott-Cockburn), of three newly arrived Yeomanry regiments armed with the latest Crusader tanks, was nearing Bir el Gubi when General Gott arrived and –
according to its own diary—ordered it to attack.11 He may have felt that it would be unwise to leave the Ariete Division unmolested on his left flank, and may have thought that there was a chance of doing some damage to it at little cost. He may have wished to give the 22nd Armoured Brigade some battle experience before they met the Germans, but without becoming heavily committed. Anyhow, the Brigade attacked, perhaps rather impetuously, with the support of only one 25-pdr battery, and after driving in the covering troops came under strong fire from the Italian prepared positions. At length it broke off the action having lost 25 of its 136 tanks. 34 Italian tanks were destroyed and 15 were damaged, and 12 Italian guns were lost.12
Meanwhile the 7th Armoured Brigade (Brigadier G. M. O. Davy), advancing north, had seen no enemy, and towards one o’clock was ordered to seize a position east of Sidi Rezegh.13 It moved fast and surprised Sidi Rezegh airfield, capturing 19 Italian aircraft. There it remained, to the alarm of those troops of the 90th Light (Afrika) Division deployed along the escarpment which lay north of the airfield, who had at the moment very few anti-tank guns.
The morning’s reports strengthened General Crüwell’s view that a British offensive was developing. Rommel, however, would have none of it, though he yielded to the extent of allowing 15th Panzer Division to be moved south-west of Gambut, whence it could reconnoitre, and agreed that 21st Panzer Division should send a battle group to support its armoured cars which were being chased towards Sidi Azeiz by the King’s Dragoon Guards. The Stephan group was accordingly formed of 5th Panzer Regiment, probably with 80 to 90 tanks and some field and anti-aircraft guns. This set off towards Gabr Saleh and ran headlong into the 4th Armoured Brigade Group (Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse) just before 4 p.m.14 The fight was evenly matched in numbers of tanks for one British armoured regiment (3rd Royal Tank Regiment) had been sent off to support the armoured cars in the direction of Sidi Azeiz. It was recalled, but did not rejoin its brigade before dark, by which time Colonel Stephan had disengaged. The British had 23 Stuart tanks put out of action, and the Germans recorded 2 of theirs destroyed and 6 damaged.
While the 30th Corps was fighting these widely separated and indecisive engagements, the 13th Corps was having an uneventful day. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade lapped round the Omars, and the New Zealand Division moved a few miles forward. During the previous night the cruisers Naiad and Euryalus had bombarded the Halfaya defences.
The enemy’s air force was still largely grounded, though the weather had improved enough for Beaufighters to attack the Stuka base at Tmimi, and Wellingtons were able to continue their night attacks on grounded aircraft at Derna, Gazala, Martuba and Tmimi. During the day tactical reconnaissance aircraft of No. 451 Squadron RAAF saw many enemy tanks and vehicles between Gambut and Fort Capuzzo, which were then attacked by almost the full strength of the two medium bomber wings. The inference from enemy movements observed during the day was that the general trend was westward.
Apart from this the day had again given General Cunningham little to go upon, but there had been some success in the north and he decided to exploit it. He therefore ordered the 7th Support Group to join the 7th Armoured Brigade at Sidi Rezegh; the 1st South African Division to move up close to Bir el Gubi and hold one brigade ready to move to Sidi Rezegh in the afternoon; the 22nd Armoured Brigade to operate north of Bir el Gubi; and the 4th Armoured Brigade to remain at Gabr Saleh.
The evening of 19th November found General Rommel still preoccupied with Tobruk. It now seemed that the British were trying to prevent his attack or even to raise the siege. He therefore ordered General Crüwell to destroy them before they could interfere. Crüwell decided to use both his armoured divisions against the British columns in turn, and chose as the first victim a force which had been reported to have advanced north-east almost to Sidi Azeiz.15 In this belief he ordered the 15th Panzer Division to move east, while the 21st made for Sidi Omar to prevent the enemy escaping southwards. The frontier garrison would bar the way to the east. A typical German plan for encirclement.
See Map 5
Early on 20th November General Cunningham left General Norrie’s headquarters and returned to his own. Here reports of the move of Headquarters DAK from Bardia towards Tobruk, and other westerly trends of movement, had given the impression that the enemy might be trying to slip away. General Gott was now at Sidi
Rezegh. It seemed to him that the enemy here were weak, and at about to a.m. he suggested to General Norrie that the Support Group should be able to gain touch with the 70th Division if General Scobie were ordered to make his sortie on the morning of 21st November. Norrie was attracted by this suggestion, although it meant a radical change from the previous intention of defeating the enemy’s armour first. It will be referred to again presently.
Meanwhile General Crüwell’s two Panzer Divisions were slowly moving east, and some hours went by before he realized that there was nothing in front of him except some armoured cars. Mid-way between Sidi Omar and Sidi Azeiz the 21st Panzer Division halted, out of fuel and short of ammunition. Crüwell asked Rommel’s permission to advance with the 15th Panzer Division on Gabr Saleh, but was told to do this early next day, using both divisions. In spite of this Crüwell sent 15th Panzer Division ahead with orders to gain contact, and told the 21st to join it by a night march. The German armour was reacting as General Auchinleck had foretold.
Some of the German messages which arranged all this were intercepted. As a result the 8th Army warned General Norrie at 11 a.m. on 20th November that the two Panzer Divisions had joined forces and would attack the 4th Armoured Brigade at noon. Norrie at once gave orders for the 22nd Armoured Brigade to be recalled from Bir el Gubi, twenty-five miles away, their task of masking the Ariete Division to be taken over by the 1st South African Division. There is little doubt that the British Commanders now considered that the armoured battle, which had been such a feature of their plans, was imminent. What is more, it may be inferred that they were confident of the outcome, although at best the four German tank battalions would be faced by six British, because the 7th Armoured Brigade was ‘off the board’. If this confidence did not exist, it is difficult to explain the decision now taken about the sortie from Tobruk. For at about 4 p.m. General Cunningham approved Gott’s suggestion, put to him by Norrie, who then ordered the 70th Division to make its sortie at dawn on 21st November. One of the South African brigades was to reach Sidi Rezegh by 7 a.m., to co-operate with the Support Group, and the other was ‘to mask the Italians at Bir el Gubi’. This was a change from the original plan in which the whole 1st South African Division was to co-operate with the sortie from Tobruk after the enemy’s armour had been decisively engaged.
Just as this decision was being taken the 15th Panzer Division, with 135 tanks,16 gained contact with the 4th Armoured Brigade—later than had been expected. Even so, the 22nd Armoured Brigade did not arrive from Bir el Gubi in time to play an effective part, and the
battle was indecisive. Twenty-six British tanks were lost or damaged; the German records do not establish their losses for that day, though the British thought they had damaged about thirty.17
Just before 5 p.m. the 5th South African Infantry Brigade (Brigadier B. F. Armstrong) began to move towards Sidi Rezegh. At dusk it halted, with General Gott’s approval, because General Brink did not consider the troops sufficiently desert-wise to make the move in the dark. At 8 p.m. Gott gave his orders for the operations next day, which aimed at securing the airfield and making ground towards El Duda. He was not in signal touch with Tobruk, where General Scobie was preparing to carry out his well-rehearsed plan for capturing two main and several subsidiary localities between the south-east corner of the perimeter and El Duda, thus creating a defended ‘corridor’ leading into Tobruk. The principal attacks were to be made by tanks and infantry in close co-operation, of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier A. C. Willison), the 14th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier B. H. Chappel) and the 16th Infantry Brigade (Brigadier C. E. N. Lomax).18
By 20th November the enemy’s airfields had dried sufficiently for his aircraft to take off and try to hinder the British movements and gain some much needed information. This led to some minor encounters in the air. The Beaufighters again attacked Tmimi, and the Germans record a loss of eight aircraft in the day. On the ground a westerly trend of movement was still apparent, and the medium bombers were sent to interfere with it by attacking transport on the Tobruk by-pass road. An attempt by other medium bombers to help the 4th Armoured Brigade in its fight near Gabr Saleh did not succeed owing to the difficulty of telling friend from foe, and the pilots had the mortification of returning to base with their bombs. It was on the 20th that the fighter-bomber made its first appearance in the Desert, the Hurricanes of No. 80 Squadron RAF having been adapted to carry eight 40-lb. bombs each. This was an important step in the development of what proved to be a formidable weapon for supporting the Army. After dark on the 20th aircraft dropped flares and spotted for the cruisers Ajax, Neptune and Hobart, which bombarded groups of vehicles in an area some three miles south-west of Bardia.
The Panzer Army Group’s Battle Report for 20th November shows that the events of the day had at last made it clear that the British were not merely fighting a spoiling battle but had launched a major offensive. In reaching this conclusion the Germans had been helped, so they said, by a British broadcast from Cairo which announced that the object of the large and well-equipped 8th Army was to destroy the Axis forces in North Africa and make contact with the Free French. General Rommel now knew what his problem was, and viewed with some concern the prospect of a long struggle for which his resources were none too plentiful. He decided, however, to hold his frontier positions, maintain the siege of Tobruk for as long as possible, and try to defeat the British forces in detail. Believing the 4th Armoured Brigade to have been disposed of already, he ordered General Crüwell to move the whole DAK from Gabr Saleh towards Sidi Rezegh and destroy the British force there next day.
See Map 6
The fighting about Tobruk and Sidi Rezegh which began on 21st November, and lasted with few pauses for three days, was the fiercest yet seen in the desert. Round Sidi Rezegh airfield in particular the action was unbelievably confused, and the rapid changes in the situation, the smoke and the dust, the sudden appearances of tanks first from one direction and then from another, made great demands on the junior leaders. They certainly did not fail, as the many stories of individual gallantry prove. No fewer than four Victoria Crosses were won: by 2nd Lieutenant G. Ward Gunn, Royal Horse Artillery; by Rifleman J. Beeley, The King’s Royal Rifle Corps; by Captain P. J. Gardner, The Royal Tank Regiment; and by Brigadier J. C. Campbell, Commander of the 7th Support Group. The magnificent example of ‘Jock’ Campbell, RHA, became a Desert legend. He was already known as an outstanding leader of enterprise and daring; at Sidi Rezegh his conduct was an inspiration.
During the night 20th/21st November the 70th Division carried out the intricate preliminaries of its sortie with speed and secrecy. Gaps through the wire and minefields were made and marked, and four bridges (with a spare for each) were laid over the anti-tank ditch. Tanks, guns, and infantry moved into position for the break-out, as did some armoured cars, the crews of which, each helped by a sapper, were to lift mines. The break-out (with diversions by the Polish and 23rd Infantry Brigades elsewhere) began at dawn on 21st November.
For co-operation from the south General Gott and Brigadier Davy had made the following plan. At a suitable time on the 21st the 7th
Armoured Brigade and the Support Group, both under Brigadier Davy’s command, were to attack northwards from Sidi Rezegh
airfield to secure part of the ridge overlooking the Trigh Capuzzo.19 The right of the attack was given to the 1st KRRC, and the left to the 6th RTR followed by one company of the 2nd Rifle Brigade. The remaining troops had covering and reserve roles, and artillery support was to be given by the 3rd and 4th Regiments, RHA, and the 60th Field Regiment, RA. When the objective had been gained the 6th RTR was to move down past Sidi Rezegh with a view to joining hands with the forces from Tobruk at El Duda.
At about 8 a.m., half an hour before the attack was to begin, enemy tanks were reported approaching from the south-east. (These were the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, which had been making their best speed from Gabr Saleh.) It was past the time for the sortie from Tobruk to have begun, so Brigadier Davy could not alter his plan for co-operation. Placing Brigadier Campbell in command of the northern attack he turned with the 7th Hussars and the 2nd RTR to engage the German armour. The heavy fighting thus begun lasted until late in the afternoon.
The northward attack partially succeeded; the 1st KRRC and the Rifle Brigade’s company gained and held their objectives, but the 6th RTR in crossing the Trigh Capuzzo lost three-quarters of its tanks, mainly to guns on the opposite ridge. In the south the 7th Hussars and 2nd RTR fought many close engagements, into which as the day went on guns of the Horse and Field Artillery, the survivors of the 6th RTR, and the remainder of the 2nd Rifle Brigade were drawn. Casualties were heavy and included four commanding officers. At the end only 28 tanks were fit to fight. But the enemy had been held off and the ground deemed vital was still in British hands.
See also Map 7
During the morning the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades had been ordered to follow and engage the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions but they had been delayed for one reason or another—refuelling, boggy ground and the enemy’s skilful rearguards—so that the jaws of the British armour did not close on the Panzer Divisions, as everyone had been hoping they would.
The sortie from Tobruk was opposed partly by Germans, and not entirely by Italians as had been expected. The enemy were well dug in behind wire and mines. They resisted stubbornly and brought down intense artillery and machine-gun fire. The fighting probably reached its height at the defended locality known as ‘Tiger’, which fell to the 1st and 4th Royal Tank Regiment and 2nd Black Watch.
By the afternoon 70th Division had won a salient nearly 4,000 yards deep and about as broad. 550 German and 527 Italian prisoners had been taken. General Scobie had intended to continue his thrust in the afternoon towards El Duda, but decided not to do so when he heard that he would get no help from the 7th Armoured Division and because of strong counter attacks. The 5th South African Brigade had halted on General Gott’s orders clear of the mêlée.
The situation was now so extraordinary that a brief summary will not be out of place. Over the twenty or so miles of country from the front of the Tobruk sortie to the open desert south-east of Sidi Rezegh airfield the forces of both sides were sandwiched like the layers of a Neapolitan ice. In turn, starting from the north, there were (a) the troops of the 70th Division who had broken out, opposed by (b) German and Italian troops facing north and west; (c) a layer of Axis troops facing south, opposing (d) part of the 7th Support Group north of Sidi Rezegh airfield; the rest of 7th Support Group and 7th Armoured Brigade facing south to oppose (e) the bulk of DAK heading north, pursued by (f) the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades. To complete the picture there were troops of the 361st Afrika Regiment on Pt 175 to the east of Sidi Rezegh airfield, and the whole of the 155th Regiment to the west. A complicated situation indeed, which, if suggested as the setting of a training exercise, must have been rejected for the reason that in real life these things simply could not happen.
At the Headquarters of 30th Corps and 8th Army the impressions formed during the day were favourable. General Norrie interpreted the move of the German armoured divisions towards Sidi Rezegh as a withdrawal, and hoped that the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades would catch them in flank and rear. He therefore suggested that the Army Commander might consider unleashing the 13th Corps. General Cunningham agreed and ordered Godwin-Austen to advance ‘as he pleased’ but without taking undue risks. By evening the New Zealand Brigade Groups had reached the positions shown on Map 7: one brigade, which had been directed on Tobruk, had begun to advance along the Trigh Capuzzo; the other two were carrying out their tasks of getting behind the enemy in the Bardia-Sollum area, after ships of the 7th Cruiser Squadron had bombarded groups of vehicles (thought to be tanks) reported from the air. The 4th Indian Division was preparing to attack Sidi Omar Nuovo.
The impression of a hard but prospering battle at Sidi Rezegh grew during the day. One report estimated that 170 German tanks had been damaged; another suggested that 60 were surrounded southeast of Sidi Rezegh. 209 British tanks remained fit to fight, and General Gott intended to clear up the situation at Sidi Rezegh next day with a view to attacking again toward El Duda.
The day’s fighting left General Crüwell in a cautious mood. The
successful sortie from Tobruk, the failure to defeat Brigadier Davy’s force near Sidi Rezegh, and a general over-estimate of the British strength made him feel that his armour was in danger of being surrounded. He decided to move the DAK eastwards to the Gambut area during the night and thus regain some liberty of manoeuvre. Rommel on the other hand knew little of the situation at Sidi Rezegh and was worried by the sortie from Tobruk. At 9.30 p.m. he ordered Crüwell to hold on in the Belhamed-Sidi Rezegh area; 155th Infantry Regiment and the Afrika Regiment were placed under his command and the armour was to stand by to counter-attack. Crüwell then tried to compromise. He sent the 15th Panzer Division east towards Gam-but and the 21st Panzer Division to Belhamed. These moves were carried out during the night although some tanks, for want of fuel, were still south of Pt 175 at dawn on the 22nd.
See Map 8
Next morning, 22nd November, desultory fighting took place around Sidi Rezegh airfield. The 5th South African Infantry Brigade began to move northwards at 10.30 a.m. and General Gott ordered them to capture part of the southern escarpment about Pt 178. The attack was made at 3 p.m. and failed, the leading battalion—3rd Transvaal Scottish—being pinned down by fire and suffering 117 casualties. The Brigade withdrew at dark and took up a defensive position about two miles to the south-east of Pt 178. Meanwhile General Crüwell, anxious to regain the initiative, and seeing his opportunity, had decided to attack the British forces in the airfield area in the afternoon. The 21st Panzer Division was given the task; the 5th Panzer Regiment (with 57 tanks) was to advance from the west over the ground held by the 155th Regiment, while the 104th Lorried Infantry Regiment attacked from the north.
The German attack was met by the 7th and 22nd Armoured Brigades (with 107 tanks in all) and the greatly weakened Support Group. The 4th Armoured Brigade (with about 100) had been following some stragglers from 15th Panzer Division and had reached a position five miles to the east. General Gott recalled it, but it arrived to find the battlefield drenched in smoke and dust and the situation so obscure that it was unable to intervene effectively. Meanwhile the 15th Panzer Division, from about eighteen miles to the east, had been ordered to make a wide encircling move and join the battle from the south-west. The struggle around the airfield raged on, and a large part of the Support Group was overrun and driven off. Many tanks had been knocked out, and Gott decided to fall back at dark on to the 5th South African Infantry Brigade. The 4th Armoured Brigade would be on the east flank and the 22nd on the west.
This disengagement succeeded, but a stroke of misfortune followed. A call for support from the 21st Panzer Division had caused the 15th Panzer Division to abandon its encircling move and march to the sound of the guns. Its new course led straight through the area where part of the 4th Armoured Brigade was leaguering, and shortly after dusk the Germans literally crashed over Brigade Headquarters and the 8th Hussars. The enemy claimed to have captured 267 prisoners and about 50 tanks: certainly the Brigade was dispersed, and communication and control were not restored until the morning of 24th November. Apart from this disaster, the day’s fighting had reduced the 7th Armoured Brigade from 28 fit tanks to 10, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade from 79 to 34. The Germans had retaken the vital ground and still had 173 tanks fit to fight.
Elsewhere, however, during 22nd November British operations had gone well. The 70th Division improved its position in the Tobruk salient, but because of the obscure situation at Sidi Rezegh General Norrie ordered General Scobie not to press his sortie. The New Zealanders took Fort Capuzzo and Musaid, cut the Bardia water pipe and all the enemy’s telegraph and telephone lines, and blocked the Bardia-Tobruk road. Two battalions of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier H. R. Briggs), supported by 42nd Royal Tank Regiment and one squadron 44th Royal Tank Regiment, captured Sidi Omar Nuovo and the greater part of Libyan Omar.20 This sharp action was very costly in tanks, of which 37, mostly Matildas, were put out of action by anti-tank guns and mines.
During the day General Cunningham had become convinced that the fighting would become more and more an affair of infantry. He waited until midnight for reports from the battlefield of Sidi Rezegh. Then, as they did not come, he gave orders for the New Zealand Division to move on Tobruk, and the Commander of 13th Corps directed that it was also to continue to contain the Bardia-Capuzzo area with minimum strength. The 30th Corps was to maintain its object of defeating the enemy’s armour and was to be ready to help the New Zealand Division should it be attacked by tanks. The true state of all the British armour was not yet known at Corps or Army Headquarters, nor even at 7th Armoured Division. The much depleted 7th Armoured Brigade was to hold on south of Sidi Rezegh airfield.
That same evening General Rommel was considering what he could
do to help the hard pressed Sidi Omar-Sollum front.21 Air reconnaissance had shown that there were still strong British forces about, and as these represented a threat to the encirclement of Tobruk they must first be destroyed. He therefore ordered General Crüwell to attack with his whole Corps towards Bir el Gubi, whence the Ariete Division was to advance to meet it. The British were to be crushed between the two. Crüwell altered this plan by ordering 15th Panzer Division and 5th Panzer Regiment (from the 21st Panzer Division) to join forces with the Ariete Division. The whole armoured force was then to attack north, acting as a giant hammer, the anvil being formed by the rest of 21st Panzer Division (that is, the division less its armour). It is noticeable that the Germans were constantly trying to get a grip of vital ground with their infantry and supporting arms, and use the positions thus secured as a pivot of manoeuvre for their armour. To this end they made full use of the mobility of their lorry-borne infantry.
Very early on 23rd November General Cunningham visited General Godwin-Austen and modified his orders. The 13th Corps was now to take control of ‘the infantry operation against Tobruk’ from a time on the 24th to be decided between the two Corps Commanders. The 13th Corps would take the 70th Division under command and probably both South African Brigades also. The task of the 30th Corps remained much as before. It was not until now that the true state of the British armour began to be suspected at advanced Army Headquarters: the 4th Armoured Brigade was said to have four tanks, and the 22nd fifty. Of the 7th nothing was known. Moreover, it was soon evident that the enemy was attacking again.
See Map 9
In fact General Crüwell had not waited for the 5th Panzer Regiment, which was late, and hurried the 15th Panzer Division off to meet the Ariete Division. On the way it cut through the 7th Support Group and scattered its vehicles. Then, swinging west, it smashed into the halted transport of the 5th South African Brigade, where it did a good deal of damage but received some sharp buffets in return. Shortly after noon it met the Ariete to the north-east of Bir el Gubi. Here they were joined by the 5th Panzer Regiment, but there were various delays and Crüwell’s hammer-blow began an hour late at 3 p.m. His plan was to launch the 150 tanks at the South African position and follow them closely with his lorried infantry. The South
Africans, having had time to prepare for this onslaught, gave it a hot reception; in particular the German accounts make much of the intense artillery fire. The 22nd Armoured Brigade did its best to relieve the pressure but the odds were too great. By nightfall the defence had been overcome. The 5th South African Brigade had 3,394 casualties—mostly prisoners—and ceased to exist as a fighting formation. The 22nd Armoured Brigade lost one third of its thirty-four tanks. The Germans did not escape lightly: at least sixty (and possibly seventy) tanks were destroyed or damaged and although their human casualties were imprecisely recorded the loss in officers and non-commissioned officers was very high. It was not long, however, before Rommel was hounding DAK on to further exertions, and it speaks very highly for their efficiency that they were able to respond so quickly. Before recounting their fresh adventures it will be convenient to summarize the positions on the various fronts and then consider the situation from General Cunningham’s point of view.
At 30th Corps General Norrie decided that he must withdraw the 7th Armoured Division to reorganize, and bring in the 1st South African Brigade (Brigadier D. H. Pienaar) to guard the western flank. His present supposed total of 75 tanks would increase by repairs and from reserves, and he still hoped to be able to attack again. The policy of the 13th Corps was to contain and harass the enemy in the frontier area in the hope that his supplies would run out. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade therefore continued to clear Libyan Omar, while the 5th New Zealand Brigade (Brigadier J. Hargest) captured Sollum barracks. The rest of the New Zealand Division was advancing towards Tobruk; the 4th Brigade (Brigadier L. M. Inglis) occupied Gambut and the 6th (Brigadier H. E. Barrowclough), by a happy mistake in navigation, ran upon and dispersed the main headquarters of the DAK near Gasr el Arid. This brigade was hastened on by General Norrie, under whose command it had been placed: it climbed the escarpment and making good speed westwards captured part of Pt 175 from the 361st Infantry Regiment, with the help of one squadron of Valentine tanks of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment. The casualties were heavy—over 400 in all.
Away to the south the Oasis Force (Brigadier D. W. Reid) had all this time been advancing through the desert westwards towards Aujila. Landing-ground 125 was established nearly midway between Jarabub and Agedabia and from it two fighter squadrons supported the further advance.22 The force suffered much from German and Italian bombing, but pressed on with determination and took Aujila on 22nd November and Jalo, with over 600 Italians, on the 24th. The consumption of petrol had been higher than expected, owing to
the heavy going, and very little was found at Jalo. Brigadier Reid was consequently restricted to sending out light reconnaissances over the ground towards Agedabia with a view to operating against the coastal road later. The force remained at Jalo with little petrol and on half rations until 20th December.
During the three days’ fighting at Sidi Rezegh the tactical reconnaissance squadrons, helped by the Bostons of the South African Air Force, had been making strenuous efforts to keep the Corps Commanders informed of events on the ground. The enemy’s air forces had shown increased activity, and had had the advantage of working from bases nearer to Sidi Rezegh than were the British advanced landing grounds at Fort Maddalena. The Germans suddenly resorted, rather unexpectedly, to fighter sweeps, which led to some encounters. One of these, on the 22nd, ended in the loss by No. 3 Squadron RAAF and No. 112 Squadron RAF of seven Tomahawks for a recorded loss of only three Me.109s, but the enemy then gave up fighter sweeps and contented himself with trying to pick off stragglers and unescorted bombers, which suggests that he did not want any more fighting of this sort. Whatever the reason, this enabled Air Vice-Marshal Coningham to divert more and more fighters to the low-level attack of ground targets, especially vehicles, which was to become such a feature of desert warfare. During these three days the fighters flew as many as 715 sorties.
Meanwhile the British medium bombers attacked vehicles on the fringe of the battle; on the 21st at Bir Hacheim, on the next two days at Bir el Gubi and on the road between Acroma and El Adem. On one of these tasks a force of six Blenheims of No. 45 Squadron was caught by German fighters, and four were lost; after this the day-bombers were given close fighter escorts.
The attempts by the day-bombers to provide direct support proved disappointing. Many of them were kept ‘at call’ awaiting the opportunity to deal quickly with some worth-while target chosen by the army, but the call seldom came. As the supply of petrol was causing some anxiety (three days’ estimated requirement having been used in one day) the day-bombers’ activities might have been curtailed in any case, but the experience showed that there was much room for improvement in the system of integrating the work of the medium bombers with that of the army in a complicated battle of this type.
Beyond the battle area the Wellingtons from Malta and Egypt by night, and the Beaufighters by day, kept up the pressure against the enemy’s airfields in Western Cyrenaica from which bomber and Stuka forces were operating. At sea the Navy had carried out its planned diversions, but their effect on the distribution of enemy aircraft or on the movements of shipping is not known.
We must now turn to Army Headquarters. By the evening of 22nd November General Cunningham had become worried by the rate at which British tanks were being lost, and on the 23rd his anxiety increased. Reports that morning caused him to think that he had about 44 tanks fit to fight, and that the enemy had about 120. It seemed clear that he no longer had the superiority in armour on which the whole plan was based, and this was such a serious matter that he asked the Commander-in-Chief to fly from Cairo to hear a first-hand report. General Auchinleck arrived late in the afternoon, and General Cunningham told him that because of the losses of cruiser and Stuart tanks the enemy was probably superior in fast types. They would therefore be able to attack the British infantry without interference from the British armour. They might even be able to cut off the British formations in the Sidi Rezegh area, and if this happened there would be practically nothing in reserve with which to stop a hostile advance into Egypt. He wished the Commander-in-Chief to decide whether he was to break off the battle and adopt a defensive attitude or continue the offensive. He pointed out that the second course might result in there being no fast tanks left at all.
There can be no doubt that General Cunningham was right to put matters squarely before the Commander-in-Chief. He had every reason to be alarmed at the British losses and his fear that the enemy would try to invade Egypt was, as will be seen, not far wide of the mark. But General Auchinleck never wavered. He shouldered the responsibility and told Cunningham to continue the offensive, confirming this decision in a Directive of which a part reads: ‘You will therefore continue to attack the enemy relentlessly using all your resources even to the last tank. Your main object will be as always to destroy the enemy tank forces. Your ultimate object remains the conquest of Cyrenaica and then to advance on Tripoli ...’
General Cunningham thereupon issued fresh orders. General Godwin-Austen’s 13th Corps was to be responsible from midnight 23rd/24th for all operations against the enemy investing Tobruk. Under his command would come the ‘70th Division and all infantry north of a line east and west through Sidi Azeiz. His task was to capture Sidi Rezegh and El Duda ‘at all costs’ and to exploit westward. The 11th Indian Infantry Brigade was to be relieved on the lines of communication by a brigade of the 2nd South African Division and would come under 13th Corps. The 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was also to be released from guard duties on the line of communication and would rejoin its division. The 30th Corps was to reorganize, but was to be ready to protect 1st South African Brigade and the New Zealand Division from attack by tanks.
See Map 10
The next four days, 24th to 27th November, saw this remarkable battle take a new turn. After a short lull, fighting broke out again to the south-east of Tobruk, but of a quite different character from that of the preceding few days. Its outcome had an important effect on the other operations about to be described, but these operations will, for the sake of clarity, be dealt with as a continuous story before the scene shifts back again to the neighbourhood of Sidi Rezegh.
The hard pounding of 23rd November left not only the British but also the DAK in some confusion. General Crüwell had been out of touch with Rommel all day and not until 6 a.m. on the 24th did the two meet. By that time Crüwell felt able to report that he had destroyed most of the 7th Armoured Division and the 1st South African Division, though parts of both had escaped to the south. He suggested that he should pursue them and finish them off, but Rommel would have none of this and told Crüwell that he intended to move with the whole of DAK straight to Sidi Omar and take the pressure off his frontier troops. The Ariete and Trieste Divisions would also move east. A small force under General Boucher would be left to prevent the New Zealanders from gaining touch with the Tobruk garrison.23
Whether this was a good decision is an interesting point. There can be no doubt that the moment had come to exploit the success gained around Sidi Rezegh; the question was how to do it. Crüwell, on the one hand, saw a chance of wiping out the British armoured force altogether, and the effect of this on any subsequent operations would be very great. He was strongly against leaving the present battlefield without reaping what he regarded as the full fruits of his victory. It has already been seen that Rommel, on the other hand, had been eager for an opportunity to go to the help of his frontier troops. He had not tried to do so before because he was determined not to let the British raise the siege of Tobruk. But when Crüwell made his report on the morning of 24th November it must have seemed to Rommel that although the British armour could not be written off it could be disregarded for the time being. The enemy must be off his balance, which meant that the moment for bold action had come. General Rommel may have thought of previous occasions on which the British had shown themselves very sensitive to roaming armoured forces—at Mechili in April and in BATTLEAXE in June. The sudden appearance of tanks so far to the east of the recent armoured battles ought certainly to embarrass them; it might even lead to a general withdrawal. The great thing was to strike at once. Waving aside General Crüwell and his remonstrances, Rommel set off to lead in person an adventure after his own heart.
Meanwhile at Headquarters 8th Army there was renewed confidence in spite of the disaster to the 5th South African Brigade. The latest calculations of the enemy’s strength suggested that most of his effort had been spent and that he could have few tanks left. Early air reconnaissance saw no signs of a fresh advance. During the morning General Cunningham visited Norrie at Gott’s headquarters to the south-west of Gabr Saleh. Little seems to have been known of the situation, except that a front of sorts was being formed from about seven miles south of Pt 175 to midway between Bir el Gubi and Gabr Saleh. The 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades were at the northern end of this front.
At 10 a.m. the 21st Panzer Division, with Rommel and the 5th Panzer Regiment in the lead, set off southwards from near Sidi Rezegh to gain the Trigh el Abd and follow it to the frontier.24 At noon the 15th Panzer Division started in the same direction.25 Although this advance happened to pass out of snapping distance of most of the 7th Armoured Division’s remaining teeth, it swept before it many units and stragglers belonging to the British tail. The advanced and rear headquarters of the 30th Corps were caught up in the flurry and some of the staff were captured together with a quantity of water, petrol, and other stores. As might be expected, rumour spread rapidly among the vehicles, many of which were unarmed and most of which were already streaming east on their legitimate business. Acted on by rumour a stream of this sort tends to swell and gain speed. This one was no exception. Some lorries had never travelled so fast before. To use the current slang, there was a good deal of ‘flap’.
Meanwhile the 22nd Armoured Brigade was joined by the 4th to help in the task of covering the left flank of the New Zealand Division, and for some time these brigades remained more or less where they were. The 7th Support Group and the very weak 7th Armoured Brigade, however, were able to make bites at the northern flank of the moving German columns, and the artillery with the 1st South African Brigade engaged such targets as they could identify. These clashes and scuffles delayed the 5th Panzer Regiment, but Rommel and portions of the 21st Panzer Division reached the frontier near Gasr el Abid at about 4 p.m. having covered some sixty miles in six hours.
It is interesting to see what was known of all this. General Cunningham left the 7th Armoured Division just before noon because General Norrie feared that the German advance might overrun the landing-strip on which his aircraft was waiting. (In fact the aircraft was shelled while taking off.) At 1.45 p.m. he flew to Sidi Azeiz, to see General
Godwin-Austen. At 2.15 p.m. a report from 30th Corps reached Advanced Army Headquarters that enemy tanks and transport were moving south-east near Gabr Saleh but were a nuisance only. Just before 4 p.m. hostile tanks were reported approaching the frontier and half an hour later General Cunningham, returning in his aircraft, saw columns advancing along the Trigh el Abd. Defensive measures were ordered, but everyone was in the dark as to what was happening.
It was a difficult day for the Royal Air Force. The tactical reconnaissance squadrons had been working from landing-grounds at Gabr Saleh and Sidi Azeiz, and eight of the fighter squadrons from those near Fort Maddalena—not far from the frontier. Because the Army could not guarantee to protect them, and because the situation was so obscure, Air Vice-Marshal Coningham reluctantly decided to withdraw temporarily to landing-grounds farther east. This was a complicated move, which had to be made at short notice, and led to some dangerous congestion. That night there were as many as 175 aircraft standing wing-tip to wing-tip on one landing-ground, but the enemy was evidently unaware of this unusual target. The day’s uncertainty had tended to lessen the opposition by air to the movements of the DAK, but the British fighters made several attacks, in which they were severely handicapped by the difficulty of telling friend from foe, made worse by the enemy’s use of quantities of captured British vehicles. The day-bombers attacked transport in the vicinity of Bir el Gubi, El Adem, and Acroma, though most of them remained ‘on call’ by the Army and were not given many targets.
At 5 p.m. Rommel met Crüwell at Gasr el Abid and announced his plan for the next day, which was to surround and destroy all the British forces on the Egyptian frontier. Briefly, the 21st Panzer Division was to cross the frontier, turn, and attack west. The 15th was to strike north astride the frontier. The Ariete and Trieste Divisions would advance eastwards towards Fort Capuzzo.26 The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was to make for Habata and raid the British supply line. Rommel had already sent on towards the Halfaya Pass Major-General von Ravenstein and any units of his 21st Panzer Division that had arrived, but the 5th Panzer Regiment was too late to follow and spent the night at Gasr el Abid. The 15th Panzer Division was still fifteen miles west of the frontier. The Ariete Division was only a few miles east of Bir el Gubi.
General Crüwell disliked this plan, and his dislike grew with its unfolding. For one thing, the administrative difficulties of this sudden swoop by the whole DAK were very great; for another, the piecemeal arrival of the units in the race to the frontier led in many cases to their receiving two sets of orders—one from General Rommel and
one from General Crüwell. It will be seen that for much of the time the DAK was in considerable confusion. (Incidentally, both Rommel and Crüwell lost their way during the first night and narrowly escaped capture.) It was unfortunate that during this confusion the British tactical reconnaissance squadrons were to be very much handicapped by having to withdraw a long way from the scene. Their chances of getting much-needed information were consequently reduced, and their close links with both Corps Headquarters temporarily broken.
General Auchinleck, still at Headquarters 8th Army, was able to discuss the situation with General Cunningham. It seemed that a few enemy tanks, supported by infantry and artillery, were making for railhead at Misheifa. It was decided that the operations of the 13th Corps at Tobruk were to continue; the 4th Indian Division was to stand fast; the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade was to move and cover the railhead; a force of tanks was to be organized from reserves; the 2nd South African Division was to be warned; and any disorganized units were to be collected as they reached the frontier.
Meanwhile General Norrie had taken steps to protect the valuable No. 62 Field Maintenance Centre, which seemed to be a likely objective for enemy raiding parties. The 22nd Guards Brigade moved there during the day; the 4th Armoured Brigade, which had chased and scattered an enemy supply column, leaguered about sixteen miles to the north, and the Support Group and 7th Armoured Brigade arrived during the night.
The plot of movements on the frontier on 25th and 26th November resembled the scurrying of ants. Neither side had much idea of what was happening—the Germans because they had little help from their air forces, the British because their ground and air observers could get no continuous picture of the scene but only scattered, if numerous, sightings of hostile columns, which seemed to be here, there, and everywhere. It will be best to summarize events from the enemy’s point of view for the reason that he held the initiative.27
Early on 25th November Rommel told Crüwell that the Ariete Division had not arrived and that the plan was changed. The 15th Panzer Division was therefore to attack eastwards between Sidi Omar and Sidi Azeiz, and the 21st westwards from the direction of Halfaya
Pass (as before). A small mixed column was to be held at Rommel’s disposal for capturing Jarabub, 120 miles to the south.
Crüwell accordingly sent off the 5th Panzer Regiment to rejoin von Ravenstein, but Rommel—impatient perhaps of delays—intercepted it and ordered it to advance northwards instead. It was checked and turned back after a hot duel in the open to the north-east of Sidi Omar with the 1st Field Regiment RA who, with the utmost steadiness, let the tanks approach within 800 yards before opening fire. Five guns were knocked out and the Regiment had 66 casualties in the course of this exemplary action. In the afternoon the 5th Panzer Regiment again tried to advance, this time farther to the west (in full view, incidentally, of General Messervy’s headquarters). Again it ran into severe artillery fire and again withdrew.28 The regiment’s records show a loss of 18 tanks that day. By night it was still south of Sidi Omar with 25 fit tanks.
Meanwhile the 15th Panzer Division had got itself (with its 53 tanks) strung out between Sidi Omar and Sidi Azeiz and was in supply difficulties, while, in the absence of his Panzer Regiment, von Ravenstein and the rest of his division had remained near the Halfaya Pass. To conclude this record of a bad day the intended thrust to Habata was a fiasco, for the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, short of many of its scout cars, was delayed for want of ammunition and was repeatedly attacked by the Royal Air Force, lost about twenty vehicles, and never started on its raid at all. On this day the full power of the British day-bomber force was used against the enemy columns which were astride the frontier or had crossed it. The attacks on the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit cannot be separated from the general onslaught, but they were probably the work of Blenheims of Nos. 11, 14, 45 and 84 Squadrons RAF, the Lorraine Squadron, and Marylands of Nos. 12 and 21 Squadrons SAAF.
An entry in the DAK’s diary for 25th November reads: ‘Continuous heavy raids in the Sidi Omar area. Heavy losses among our troops. Where are the German fighters?’ Part of the answer is that since the 4th New Zealand Brigade had reached Gambut the German fighters were deprived of the use of the landing-grounds there. They were thus faced with the same difficulty in reaching the frontier as the British fighters had experienced when the land battle was at Sidi Rezegh and the fighter airfields were in the neighbourhood of Fort Maddalena.
General Rommel’s troubles were not confined to the frontier area. The Ariete Division had bumped into the 1st South African Brigade west of Gabr Saleh, and had wasted the whole day before disengaging
and moving off to the north-east. Worse still, a message was received at 4.30 p.m. from Lieut.-Colonel Westphal, the Operations Officer at Panzer Gruppe headquarters at El Adem, timed 9.45 a.m., reporting that the Boucher Group was being attacked near Belhamed and was in difficulties. Another message towards midnight, however, was more reassuring: all was quiet.
Next morning, 26th November, Rommel visited Crüwell, who firmly believed that the DAK ought to return to Tobruk at once. Rommel, however, wished first to defeat the enemy on the Sollum front and do it quickly. But the 15th Panzer Division, under orders to attack towards Fort Capuzzo, was still short of ammunition, fuel, and water, and had to go to Bardia to refill. On the way it encountered some New Zealanders at Sidi Azeiz, and Crüwell came to the conclusion that this indicated that a British force was advancing towards Tobruk, a view which was strengthened by the receipt of a new message from Westphal reporting that the Boucher Group was again being attacked. Crüwell, with his mind always on Tobruk, decided that the New Zealanders at Sidi Azeiz must be attacked, and that he would use the bulk of 15th Panzer Division when it was ready. He sent the 115th Lorried Infantry Regiment to clean up the area Capuzzo–Sollum and himself went south to organize an attack on Sidi Omar with the 5th Panzer Regiment and the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit. This could not be made for want of fuel. The attack by the 115th Lorried Infantry Regiment was not made either, for Rommel himself called it off just as it was beginning. The force for raiding Jarabub never started, and indeed was never fully assembled.
There seems to have been no contact with von Ravenstein since the previous day, and he may well have been growing restive. Anyway, for some reason which is not clear, he launched the rest of his division towards Fort Capuzzo from the east, broke through the 28th (Maori) Battalion and reached Bardia at midnight. By this time the Ariete, making slow progress, was about fifteen miles west of Fort Capuzzo.
As the evening wore on General Rommel realized that the situation at Tobruk required the speedy intervention of the DAK, and late that night gave orders for the 21st Panzer Division (less its detachment at Sidi Omar) to move towards El Adem next morning. Still hoping to snatch something from the wreck of his plans he ordered the 15th Panzer Division to clear up the situation at Sollum, after which it too was to make for El Adem. Later in the night he tried to save time by launching this Division in the dark, but before it was ready—it does not seem to have hurried—he cancelled the order and told it to start at once for Tobruk. There was some confusion with von Raven-stein’s Group of the 21st Panzer Division, but eventually, leaving the
115th Lorried Infantry Regiment to demonstrate, the Division got under way. At Sidi Azeiz it attacked and eventually overran the headquarters of the 5th New Zealand Brigade and captured some welcome supplies.29 It then continued to head for Tobruk, followed in the afternoon by the 115th Lorried Infantry .Regiment. Meanwhile von Ravenstein’s force had started west from Bardia only to be held up by a battalion group of the 5th New Zealand Brigade at Menastir and was forced to move down to the Trigh Capuzzo.30
In the Sidi Omar sector the 5th Panzer Regiment and 3rd Reconnaissance Unit filled up with captured British petrol and attacked in the afternoon with the object of retaking the ground captured by the 4th Indian Division. They received two sets of orders, got into difficulties with the minefield, and made ‘a very half-hearted attack’—in the words of the 4th Indian Division’s diary. In the afternoon DAK called the action off. After a difficult night march the force caught up the 15th Panzer Division and found enough fuel in captured British vehicles to continue its move westwards.
So ended General Rommel’s spectacular stroke. Without compelling the British to alter their plans it had caused some temporary embarrassment and local confusion. It failed completely in its purpose of relieving the frontier troops. The Germans lost at least thirty of their hundred tanks, while the British armour was given a chance to refit—a chance of which good use was made. As for dislocating the British supply lines, there is no evidence that this was anything but a subsidiary object, and neither of the two intended raids even started. In the Tobruk area the British, taking no notice of the fracas on the frontier, proceeded to do just what Rommel had previously been at such pains to prevent. In short, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if Rommel had behaved on this occasion more like le bon général ordinaire, and less like the impulsive leader who was accustomed to see his exploits succeed provided they were bold enough, matters might have turned out much worse for the British. The enemy’s frontier garrisons deserve sympathy, for not only had they not been rescued but much of their accumulated stocks had been used up by their would-be rescuers.
What must command admiration, however, is the discipline, skill and general efficiency of the DAK—and not least the mechanical reliability of its tanks—which enabled it to take on this ambitious adventure so soon after three days of strenuous manoeuvring and fighting. At the end it was weakened—indeed, the 21st Panzer
Division was limping badly and was of little use for a long time—but the 15th Panzer Division was by no means at the limit of its endurance.
The difficulties and uncertainties of the past few eventful days had made great demands on the Desert Air Force, which responded by making a tremendous effort. It has been seen that the DAK was withdrawn from the frontier on account of the fighting near Tobruk, which is shortly to be described in some detail. But although there had thus been two land fronts, fifty miles apart, the air was all one to the Desert Air Force, whose squadrons had ranged from the frontier to Tobruk, striking at the enemy’s columns whenever and wherever they could be identified, and providing air cover for the British troops over a large area. For example, on 25th November, while the day-bombers were attacking the enemy around Sidi Omar, a fighter wing of twenty-three Tomahawks was sweeping over El Duda and Belhamed. Here it met a force estimated at from sixty to eighty German and Italian aircraft which was evidently carrying out some planned operation with dive-bombers, bombers, escorts, top cover, and all. In the ensuing fight, which took place in full view of the troops, eight enemy aircraft were shot down for the loss of two Tomahawks. Thus the enemy’s air forces were far from negligible, and the fact that they had not much effect on the ground operations is a striking tribute to the Desert Air Force and its vigorous handling.
With the object of weakening the enemy still further and of interfering with his flow of supplies, Wellingtons from Egypt attacked Benina and Berka airfields and the port of Benghazi, while others from Malta attacked Naples and targets at Sirte and other places along the coastal road. Particular attention was paid to the arrival at Derna airfield of transport aircraft thought to be bringing fuel and other cargoes from Greece.
On 26th November the weight of the British day-bombers was shifted from Sidi Omar to the Tobruk area, and all the fighters were again working from the Fort Maddalena landing-grounds. The air force was thus ready for the next phase.
On 25th November General Auchinleck flew back to Cairo and that evening took a decision on a matter which had been occupying his mind. He had been satisfied with General Cunningham’s conduct of the battle and with the steps taken to carry out the instructions that he had himself given after he had come forward at General Cunningham’s request. He had nevertheless formed the opinion that Cunningham was thinking in terms of defence rather than of offence and he (Auchinleck) had therefore lost confidence in the Army Commander’s ability to press to the bitter end the offensive he had been ordered to
continue. The decision to remove General Cunningham from his command was an extremely painful one to take, but General Auchinleck was convinced that it was right.. It was of course vitally necessary to install the new Army Commander at once. There was no time for a newcomer to get into the Commander-in-Chief’s mind or to learn the conditions and study the plan. He must be steeped in all this already, and must have character, energy and enthusiasm. General Auchinleck therefore decided to appoint his own Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Major-General N. M. Ritchie, who took over command of the 8th Army next day. General Cunningham, though he could not bring himself to agree with the Commander-in-Chief’s reasons, took the heavy and unexpected blow with complete loyalty and selflessness.
See Map 10
It is now time to describe the events which forced General Rommel to withdraw from the frontier.
While the DAK was moving south-east on 24th November the New Zealand Division (less the 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade left behind in the area Bardia-Sollum-Sidi Azeiz) and the 1st Army Tank Brigade (less one regiment) with 86 ‘I’ tanks were on their way towards Tobruk.31 The 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade had reached Pt 175 on the previous day and the 4th was advancing west of Gambut.
Early on 25th November the 4th New Zealand Infantry Brigade reached Zaafran unopposed, while the 6th made ground to the west along the escarpment, up to and including Sidi Rezegh airfield. General Godwin-Austen’s orders were that the New Zealand Division was to capture Belhamed, Sidi Rezegh and El Duda, after which the 70th Division would break out and join them. General Freyberg accordingly ordered a night attack in which his 4th Brigade was to take Belhamed and the 6th Sidi Rezegh and El Duda. At 9 p.m. the attack began. Most of the Belhamed feature was taken against stout opposition, but dawn found the 6th Brigade somewhat disorganised and holding on precariously about Sidi Rezegh having been unable to press on towards El Duda.
On 26th November there was much confused fighting in the New Zealand sectors. At noon General Scobie, hearing that the attacks had been held up, decided to take El Duda himself. By about 3 o’clock this had been done by the 32nd Army Tank Brigade with the 1st Essex Regiment and a machine-gun company of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers under Brigadier Willison’s command. For great gallantry in a duel between the tanks and some enemy guns Captain
J. J. B. Jackman of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers was awarded the Victoria Cross.
That night the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade made another attack on Sidi Rezegh and this time succeeded, but with considerable loss. At the same time a detachment from Belhamed consisting of the 19th New Zealand Battalion and a squadron of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment moved across to El Duda and came under command of Brigadier Willison. With Belhamed, El Duda, and Sidi Rezegh all lost it is no wonder that General Crüwell was anxious about his communications.
As often happens in war, however, the trials were not all on one side. In the disorganization which attended the DAK’s rush for the frontier it had not been possible for regular convoys to reach the New Zealand Division and its supplies were running low. General Godwin-Austen realized that this Division, short of its third brigade, could do no more than hold its ground, and that the 70th Division could do no more than hold Tobruk and the ‘corridor’. In response to his request for another infantry brigade General Ritchie allotted him the 1st South African Infantry Brigade which was to move to a rendezvous, chosen by him, under control of the 30th Corps. Intercepted signals now showed that the DAK and the Ariete Division were about to return. Only the Royal Air Force and the 7th Armoured Division could do anything to prevent the New Zealanders being attacked from behind. As luck would have it the weather on 27th November was bad, and air operations were much restricted.
See also Map 11
After three gruelling days the morning of 24th November had found the 7th Armoured Division licking its wounds, but it was soon required to guard 6th New Zealand Brigade’s southern flank, attack the speeding German columns, and move to the protection of No. 62 Field Maintenance Centre. The heavy casualties of the last three days had necessitated a good deal of reorganization, and the 7th Armoured Brigade was withdrawn to Egypt after sending considerable reinforcements of tanks and crews to the other two brigades. There was much recovery, salvage, and maintenance to be done and many new crews to be absorbed. The Support Group, also much weakened, broke up into small raiding columns to prey on the rear of the enemy in the area of the frontier and to find and harass the Ariete Division.
On the morning of 27th November these columns were out as usual and the armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards were watching the Trigh Capuzzo. Shortly after noon they reported a column approaching Gasr el Arid. General Gott ordered the 22nd Armoured Brigade to head it off and the 4th Armoured Brigade to attack its
flank.32 This was done, though their messages show that the movements of the two armoured brigades were not well co-ordinated. The enemy column was the 15th Panzer Division, which reacted vigorously, shaking out quickly into battle formation with its field artillery and anti-tank guns supporting its tanks—a good example of efficient battle-drill. Medium bombers of the RAF made several attacks, the results of which were difficult to observe in the bad weather, but the King’s Dragoon Guards reported having seen some effective bombing. Fighting went on until dark, by which time both sides had suffered appreciable losses, though the enemy was evidently less disorganized than would appear from the British reports. He had, however, been roughly handled, and the German accounts speak highly—as they so often do—of the British artillery fire.33 At all events, the British armour withdrew a few miles south to leaguer, and early next morning the armoured cars reported an enemy force in position above the escarpment near Bir Sciafsciuf. An extract from the diary of the 15th Panzer Division shows what had happened.
‘The divisional commander [General Neumann-Silkow] decided to push on during the night in order to gain a favourable point on the escarpment by daybreak from which to continue his advance. After about 12 km the division reached the area south of Sciafsciuf and secured the pass up the escarpment. The division then took up an all-round defensive position.’
At 6.45 p.m. the previous evening General Ritchie had signalled to the 30th Corps that it was of the utmost importance to prevent the enemy escaping westwards south of the Sidi Rezegh escarpment, and General Gott gave orders to this effect as soon as he heard of the armoured cars’ report. The Support Group was to continue to harass the Ariete Division and prevent it from joining the armoured battle.
During the morning of 28th November there was only scrappy fighting. More columns were reported coming up the Trigh Capuzzo, but the Air Force could do little to hinder them as it was a day of ‘ten-tenths’ cloud. Not until the afternoon did the 15th Panzer Division again move west, by which time the British Armoured Brigades had been given the additional task of protecting the 1st South African Infantry Brigade which was to be moved up to the help of the New Zealanders. 15th Panzer Division (with 43 tanks) then moved along the escarpment towards Sidi Rezegh airfield. On the way it overran a group of New Zealand Dressing Stations which was in a wadi to the east of Pt 175, capturing a thousand patients and all the staff. (In
this battle without fronts or flanks many other medical units had similar experiences. Nearly all continued to work, taking in wounded from both sides and treating them under terribly difficult conditions.) In the absence of the 21st Panzer Division, whose troubles on the frontier and at Bardia had greatly delayed it, the commander of the 15th Panzer Division was most anxious that the Ariete Division should move up on his southern flank. This is what the Support Group was trying to prevent.34
The attempt to bring the 1st South African Infantry Brigade rapidly to the help of the New Zealanders did not succeed. At about 2.30 p.m. on 28th November General Norrie told Brigadier Pienaar to move north from Taieb el Esem and secure the area Pt 175–Sidi Rezegh which was in 13th Corps’ area. After the Brigade had covered about eleven miles there was a muddle—which cannot be explained—between the two Corps about a message, and it halted for the night about the same distance from the objective. Later that night the headquarters of the 13th Corps and rear HQ of the New Zealand Division moved into Tobruk, though General Freyberg himself remained outside with a small staff.
See Map 12
General Rommel, with his forces once more within striking distance of the vital triangle Belhamed–Sidi Rezegh–El Duda, was determined that Tobruk should not be relieved. His idea was for General Crüwell to form up north of Belhamed and strike west and south-west. Crüwell submitted that his present dispositions and the lie of the ground (particularly the escarpments) favoured a converging attack, and spent the day reconnoitring and making preparations. At 8 p.m. on 28th November he issued his orders. The 21st Panzer Division was to take Belhamed from the east, supported by a bombardment by 90th Light Division. The 15th Panzer Division was to attack El Duda from the south-west and the Ariete Division was to hold the ring on the south. At about 9 p.m. a message came from Rommel laying down a different object, namely, to prevent the enemy escaping into Tobruk. Crüwell decided that it was too late to alter his orders, and let them stand. Early next morning he met his divisional commanders, but General von Ravenstein was missing from the meeting as he had driven into 21st New Zealand Battalion’s position at Pt 175 and been made prisoner. General Boucher succeeded him in command of 21st Panzer Division, and Colonel Mickl took over the Boucher Group.
Early on 29th November the 15th Panzer Division began to move westwards, passed south of Sidi Rezegh, descended the escarpment where it was easy, and turned at about noon to attack El Duda from the west. The 21st Panzer Division, on the other hand, was slow in moving on Belhamed and by dusk had not even reached its start line at Zaafran. The Ariete was gradually approaching from the south-east.
The British armour was occupied in protecting the 1st South African Infantry Brigade, which had been told by General Norrie to move north as soon as its reconnaissance elements had gained touch with the New Zealanders.35 While carrying out this task both Armoured Brigades became engaged with the Ariete Division, other parts of which were being harassed by the columns of the Support Group farther to the east. Early in the afternoon the Armoured Brigades were told to do everything they could to interfere with the expected attacks on the New Zealand Division, and their artillery, together with that of the South African Brigade, came into action with this object.
Late in the afternoon, however, some Italian tanks of the Ariete Division managed to reach the neighbourhood of Pt 175, and owing apparently to an error in identification they were allowed to penetrate into the position which they thereupon captured—a sad sequel to the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade’s previous successes in this locality. It was also an unhappy ending to a day which had started well for the New Zealand Division, for shortly after dawn a large convoy of over 250 lorries had arrived with food, ammunition and water. It will have been obvious that the fluid character of the operations must have made the work of the supply echelons very difficult, and great credit is due to them for the way they carried out their unending task. This particular convoy was a little out of the ordinary. It assembled near Fort Maddalena and took on most of its loads at No. 62 Field Maintenance Centre. From there it was led for forty miles by a New Zealander, Brigadier G. H. Clifton, the Chief Engineer of the Both Corps. Escorted by South African armoured cars and by a detachment of Stuart tanks on their way to join the 4th Armoured Brigade the convoy made its hazardous way through the night to the east of Pt 175, bumped down the escarpment, and reached its destination westward along the Trigh Capuzzo—a fine achievement by the RASC drivers.
At El Duda there had been heavy fighting all through the afternoon of the 29th. The 15th Panzer Division’s attack from the west came in at about 2 p.m. and by 6.30 p.m. it had taken the western end of the position. The 1st Essex Regiment, which had lost the best part of two companies, clung to the ground it still held, while the 2/13th Australian Battalion and the 1st RHA beat off attempts by the enemy infantry to infiltrate elsewhere. The 104th and 107th Regiments
RHA supported the defence. Soon after 1.30 a.m. two companies of Australians and eleven ‘I’ tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment counter-attacked in the moonlight and regained all the lost ground. It is interesting to learn from the diary of the DAK that the 8th Panzer Regiment (of 15th Panzer Division) was intended to win El Duda back again, but a wrongly decoded signal caused the Regiment to be withdrawn towards El Adem.
General Ritchie was convinced of the need to send the 1st South African Infantry Brigade to the help of the New Zealanders; again General Norrie tried to do so and again he failed. Early in the afternoon of 29th November one South African armoured car (of a patrol of three) succeeded in reaching General Freyberg and formed a wireless link by which an order was sent to Brigadier Pienaar to move up to Pt 175. Shortly after 5 p.m. Pt 175 was lost by the New Zealanders and this information was passed on to Pienaar. At 6.25 p.m. 30th Corps placed Brigadier Pienaar under command of the New Zealand Division and told him that General Ritchie was most anxious that he should link up with it that night. A little later General Freyberg again told Brigadier Pienaar to push on to Pt 175. Wireless communication then broke down and Pienaar did not feel the situation clear enough to justify him in going on with his move. Some of the messages sent by Army, Corps, and Divisional headquarters are evidence of a strong desire to help the New Zealanders while ensuring that the 1st South African Brigade should not suffer the same sort of fate as the 5th had suffered six days before, but they added to the general uncertainty instead of clearing it up. At the time the situation must have seemed very confused; it was perhaps not realized that 15th Panzer Division had all passed to the west of Sidi Rezegh, nor that 21st Panzer Division was in very poor shape indeed. It had in fact only twenty tanks, and was submitting what the DAK diary calls ‘alarmist reports’ as it struggled to make for Zaafran, with its flank and rear on the Trigh Capuzzo being harassed by light British columns and attacked by the medium bombers. If all this had been known the 7th Armoured Division might have, concentrated on the task of holding off the Ariete Division until the South Africans could reach Pt 175.
See Map 13
Early on 30th November the enemy deduced from his air reports that fresh British forces were collecting to the south. General Rommel decided that his immediate purpose must be to defeat the New Zealand Division before these forces could smash the ring which was being drawn round it. The plan was for the Ariete Division to make ground westward from Pt 175 while the Mickl Group captured Sidi Rezegh; the 15th Panzer Division, whose armoured regiment’s false move to
El Adem had been stopped, was to support the Mickl Group and then advance on Belhamed while the 90th Light Division came south to meet it. The 21st Panzer Division had still the task of advancing westward through Zaafran, but was making very heavy weather and could not be counted on to add much pressure.
It was afternoon before all this could be arranged and the morning passed to the accompaniment of greatly increased artillery fire. The attack on Sidi Rezegh began at about 3 p.m. Of the four battalions of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade two were below and two were slightly over 200 strong, and for more than three hours the 24th and 26th New Zealand Battalions, on whom the main weight fell, resisted before being overrun at dusk. The Germans claimed 600 prisoners and several guns.
As the 7th Armoured Division was apparently unable to counter the moves of the German armour, General Freyberg, feeling hard pressed, asked General Godwin-Austen if he might send what remained of the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade into Tobruk. This request was refused on the ground that the South Africans were to recapture Pt 175 during the night, and then go on to Sidi Rezegh, and that armoured help had been asked for early next morning. Unfortunately, these hopes were not to be fulfilled.
During 30th November the 1st South African Infantry Brigade led by General Norrie in person had moved slowly north-east to Bir Sciafsciuf, covered by the 4th Armoured Brigade which had now absorbed all the remaining tanks of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. The intention was to capture Pt 175 from the east. The advance towards this point began in the evening, but there were many delays and by dawn on the 1st December the South African Brigade was still more than a mile from its objective and unable to make further progress. In the course of several brushes the Ariete Division had 19 light and medium tanks destroyed or damaged.
Before he knew of this General Godwin-Austen had sent, early on 1st December, a signal to the Army Commander about future policy. If the attempt to retake Pt 175 failed, and if the British armour could not prevent the constant attacks by the enemy’s armour, it might be necessary to decide whether to withdraw the 13th Corps into Tobruk, as much more fighting might weaken the Corps to the point of endangering its ability to hold the place.36 General Ritchie, who was intent upon resuming the offensive at the earliest possible moment, flew to headquarters 13th Corps to explain his ideas for the future. Meanwhile the New Zealand Division had taken another severe blow.
On the morning of 1st December, as soon as 15th Panzer Division was ready, the next stage of the enemy’s attempt to drive the New
Zealand Division away from the vicinity of the Tobruk perimeter began with a heavy attack on the escarpment at Belhamed. This was gallantly opposed by the 4th New Zealand Brigade, but it succeeded and the 20th Battalion was overrun. General Freyberg’s Division was thus cut in two.
Shortly after 8 a.m. the enemy appeared to be preparing to turn against Brigadier Barrowclough’s 6th New Zealand Brigade from the west and north-west, and at this moment some British tanks were seen approaching from the south. The accounts of what followed, as recorded by commanders on the spot, are in many respects contradictory, but certain facts can be established. The British tanks belonged to the 4th Armoured Brigade, which was moving to the help of the New Zealanders with orders to ‘counter attack the enemy’s tanks at all costs’. Its two leading regiments, 5th RTR and 8th Hussars, reached the exposed positions north of Sidi Rezegh occupied by the remains of the 6th New Zealand Brigade, and at about 9 a.m. Lieut.-Colonel H. D. Drew, commanding 5th RTR, reported to Brigadier Barrow-dough in order to learn the situation and make a plan. Only preliminary action had been taken when a message was received over the radio-telephone from Headquarters 4th Armoured Brigade transmitting an order from General Gott for the New Zealanders to retire. The commanders of the tank regiments thereupon made preparations to cover this retirement, which they understood would be made south-ward—that is in the direction from which they themselves had come. The whole airfield area and the escarpment above it were now under heavy artillery fire from the Germans on the west and the Ariete Division on Pt 175. Instead of withdrawing south (as Colonel Drew and Brigadier Gatehouse had expected) the New Zealanders made off towards their own divisional axis. In this way what was left of the New Zealand Division became concentrated about Zaafran. By 2 p.m. General Freyberg came to the conclusion that his sole practicable course was to withdraw altogether and refit. The only superior commander with whom he was in signal touch was General Norrie, who took upon himself to agree—a decision which General Ritchie later approved.
During the whole of this phase of the fighting near Tobruk the weather was none too good for flying. Nevertheless the reconnaissance aircraft, working at high pressure, produced much valuable information. The land fighting was now concentrated into a comparatively small area, and the main day-bomber effort was applied to helping the New Zealand and 70th Divisions by attacking vehicles of all kinds in the El Adem area. On the Both the weather improved and many targets were seen between El Adem and Sidi Rezegh, the result, no doubt, of the move of the Trieste Division and the deployment of its artillery in support of the Mickl Group. Day-bombers had now to be
escorted by fighters, and in fact about half the total fighter sorties—which in these four days totalled 1,029—were used in this way, the remainder being devoted to offensive sweeps and ground attacks in the main battle area. The Beaufighters continued to make low-flying attacks on airfields.
During the night of 1st December the New Zealand Division successfully disengaged from the scene of its successes and failures, and made its way east from Zaafran, then south across the Trigh Capuzzo and from there right back to the Egyptian frontier. General Norrie, who witnessed the early stage of the withdrawal, wrote ‘I was much impressed by the discipline of the NZ troops in spite of the very rough time they had had ... ’ The ten remaining fit tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade, which had supported the New Zealanders so stoutly in the week’s fighting, withdrew also. Certain New Zealand units, including the 19th and part of the 20th Battalion, joined the Tobruk garrison. The 1st South African Brigade went back to Taieb el Esem.
General Godwin-Austen on the afternoon of 1st December had still been in some doubt whether to hold on to El Duda, as this might stretch the 70th Division somewhat riskily. A message from Lieut.-Colonel J. S. Nichols, of the 1st Essex Regiment, commanding at El Duda, settled the matter: the defences, he said, were growing stronger every hour, and he felt confident of resisting attack from any direction. General Scobie replied ‘Well done, I admire your spirit,’ and the decision to hold on was taken.
Back on the frontier the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade had finally cleared Libyan Omar, and a re-assembled 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade was bottling up Bardia. To free these troops for General Ritchie’s next phase the 2nd South African Division was moving forward to take over the frontier area from 4th Indian Division.
On 30th November General Bastico, whom Rommel was not in the habit of consulting, came forward to El Adem to discuss the situation. Rommel explained that the battle had become one of attrition, and the outlook, he said, was grave. Both sides had lost heavily and this was particularly serious for the Axis because their losses could not speedily be made good. The British on the other hand were bringing up fresh troops. Both Commanders sent urgent requests to Rome for men and material of all kinds, particularly tanks, armoured cars, medium artillery, signal equipment, and desert-worthy vehicles. They must have realized, however, that the present battle would have to be fought with what they already had, except for the few men and stores that could be hurried over by transport aircraft. It seems that what they really wanted was to force an approach to the French for permission to use the Tunisian ports, especially Bizerta, so as to expose the convoys to a much smaller risk of attack, and thus enable forces to be collected for the effective defence of Tripolitania. Mussolini took
up this question once again with Hitler, pointing out that in November only 40,000 of the required 120,000 tons of stores and supplies had been shipped to North Africa and that the rate of dispatch was falling.37 General von Rintelen added that in his view a regular schedule of troop shipments could not be resumed unless Luftflotte 2 succeeded in keeping Malta in check.
Meanwhile occasional small freighters, mostly carrying fuel or ammunition, were reaching Benghazi, where the Royal Air Force were trying to make it as difficult as possible to unload and clear their cargoes. An especially determined effort was made on the four nights from 28th November to 1st December, for which purpose the Wellingtons of No. 205 Group in Egypt were reinforced by others from Malta and eighty sorties were flown, carrying a high proportion of 4,000-lb. bombs.38 It is difficult to assess the damage caused by this and other attacks, for though the results were thought to be satisfactory with hits on the quays and on ships at anchor, the port of Benghazi seems to have continued to cope with the small number of ships arriving. As will be seen, a few very important cargoes arrived later in December and were successfully cleared.
CRUSADER was a long way from being over, but an important stage had been reached: the British were able to introduce fresh troops and the enemy was not. This shows how wise General Auchinleck had been in insisting that the pressure must be kept up, and how right General Ritchie now was in seeking to renew the offensive. These decisions required some courage to make. The British had rightly judged that the enemy could not afford to lose the ground around Sidi Rezegh, and now, after a gruelling fortnight and sadly heavy losses, all the vital ground except El Duda was still in enemy hands. Tobruk had been open to the outside world for a short time, and was now sealed off again with an enlarged perimeter. The great armoured clash on which the British had pinned their hopes had never come off: instead there had been a number of separate actions in which the British armour usually found itself at a disadvantage. Either it was without much of its artillery—and the value of the 25-pdr against tanks had been amply proved—or one or both of its motor battalions, or else one at least of its armoured brigades was out of the hunt for one reason or another, usually in order to protect some other formation. When to these handicaps are added the inherent weaknesses, such as the short effective range of the British tank and anti-tank guns, the
proneness of the cruisers to mechanical breakdown, and the short radius of action of the Stuarts, it is easy to see how much the tenacity, skill and courage of the troops had to make up for. The Germans, on the other hand, were adept at committing their forces to battle in a sound tactical manner, thereby giving them the best possible chance of success, and the action of the various arms was closely related. A glaring exception was the piecemeal use of the 21st Panzer Division on the frontier from 25th to 27th November, but it is unlikely that this would have happened if General Crüwell had been given a clear task and left to carry it out.
British superiority in the air made the failure to make full use of the day-bombers all the more disappointing. Since the start of CRUSADER these aircraft had spent much of their time at the call of the Army, waiting for the ideal target and no doubt allowing many good ones to escape. Their chances of intervening in a swaying fight must have been very small, even if friend could have been distinguished from foe, and it is hardly surprising that there were many complaints of their bombs falling among their own troops. Similar complaints appear in the diaries of German units and there is also a record of a meeting at which Rommel asked the Commander of Fliegerkorps X to give him a liaison officer competent to order up fighters and bombers if speedy intervention were needed; the request was refused on the ground that it would be against the best use of the air force as a whole. The interesting point is that, contrary to an impression widely held at the time, the enemy in North Africa did not have a highly organized and efficient system of army/air co-operation; the British had at least laid the foundations of a system and were bent on making it work although they had not yet overcome all the difficulties.
The broad impressions left by the first fortnight of CRUSADER are that the British airmen and the better trained of the troops had shown themselves in morale and skill to be at least a match for the Germans. The Army had still much to learn about the use of large armoured forces and especially about the art of combining the various resources on the battlefield. There was room for improvement, too, as regards the help that the Army and Air Force could give one another.