Chapter 3: The Winter Battle—2
GENERAL RITCHIE’S plan for renewing the offensive was as follows. He believed, quite correctly, that the enemy were hard pressed, and he wished to give them no breathing-space. He decided that as a first step the 30th Corps should seize El Adem, a vital centre of communications to the enemy—as vital as the Belhamed-El Duda area in which the German armour now seemed to be settling down behind a strong screen of anti-tank weapons. Mobile columns were to raid the enemy’s supply lines between Tmimi and Acroma. The 30th Corps was to have command of the 7th Armoured Division, the 22nd Guards Brigade, the 1st South African Brigade, and the whole of the 4th Indian Division as soon as it could be relieved by the 2nd South African Division; until then only the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade would be available. General Ritchie wished the 13th Corps to hold the ground it had won in the new Tobruk salient, but left Godwin-Austen free to withdraw to the old perimeter if he thought it necessary. Back on the frontier the 2nd South African Division was to prevent the enemy from sending supplies westward from Bardia and would mop up the Axis positions as opportunity offered. The 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigade would remain under command of the 2nd South African Division, and the rest of the New Zealand Division was to refit at Maaten Baggush.
On 1st December, the day these orders were issued, General Auchinleck arrived at 8th Army Headquarters to be at hand if needed. He stayed for ten days, but left the conduct of operations entirely to General Ritchie. His own main care was to set in train the move of reinforcements for the Desert front. The 1st Armoured Division, which had sailed from England at the end of September, had begun to disembark at Suez during the second half of November.1 The 12th Lancers (armoured cars) and the divisional artillery were ordered to join the 8th Army as soon as possible, and the 2nd Armoured Brigade (60 Stuart and 106 Crusader tanks) was to undergo intensive desert training. The Royal Dragoons (armoured cars) were to be sent forward from Syria and the newly formed 38th Indian Infantry Brigade from Egypt. From Cyprus was to come the 150th Infantry
Brigade and from Palestine the 50th Divisional Reconnaissance Battalion;2 these were both ordered to Maaten Baggush to be in general reserve.
When General Godwin-Austen reported that the 13th Corps could not only hold the Tobruk salient but could also attack, General Ritchie became more than ever anxious to begin his new phase quickly. But he did not want any half measures, and decided to leave the timing to General Norrie, who had most to arrange. Norrie at first proposed to attack on 3rd December, but soon felt the need of a few more days.
No one was more anxious than Air Vice-Marshal Coningham for the new phase to begin, for the unexpectedly slow progress of CRUSADER had caused many difficulties for the Air Force. The plan had been for the fighters to ‘hop’ in turn to Fort Maddalena, Gambut, and Gazala, reaching Barce and Maraua by the beginning of the second week. The day-bombers, taking longer strides, would move from Bir Khamsa to Gambut and on to Barce and Maraua in the path of the advancing fighters. As it turned out, the fighters had to operate from Fort Maddalena and the day-bombers from bases well to the cast of the frontier for much longer than had been expected. In particular the course of the fighting seriously delayed the initial ‘hop’ to the Gambut area, so that the fighters could not move forward and the day-bombers could not be refuelled nearer to their targets. Only out of sheer necessity had the tactical reconnaissance squadrons moved forward to be near their Corps Headquarters.
General Rommel had deduced from signals intercepted on 1st December that he was unlikely to be attacked before the 3rd, and his anxiety about his frontier garrisons led him once more to make a move in their direction. The tanks of both Panzer Divisions were immobilized for badly needed repairs and maintenance, and the reason for making what could only be a rather tentative move without them is not entirely clear. Overruling Crüwell’s protests against what looked like a feeble repetition of a previous mistake, Rommel ordered columns to go along the coast road and the Trigh Capuzzo to reconnoitre and disperse any enemy forces met. Each column was to consist of roughly an infantry battalion, an anti-tank company and some guns. The 20th Corps would move along the Trigh Capuzzo and guard the southern flank. The weather had deteriorated again on 2nd December, and the conditions were bad enough to ground most of the aircraft on both sides. On the 3rd they were still bad, but a little better, and both German columns were seen from the air. The northern one was ambushed ten miles from Bardia by the 5th New
Zealand Infantry Brigade and almost annihilated. The southern column collided with a small force from 4th Indian Division, was heavily shelled, attacked by Blenheims and Hurricane fighter-bombers, and withdrew. In spite of these setbacks the Germans intended to try again next day, and also to retake El Duda, which in British hands was no doubt being a nuisance by blocking the Tobruk by-pass road.
It is always possible that Rommel’s real reason for despatching these two columns was to mislead his enemy. This view is unsupported by contemporary evidence—which is not surprising—but the move had some such effect, for Ritchie gave orders that the 4th Armoured Brigade was to be placed where it could intervene, and this prevented it from being quickly available for the coming action near Bir el Gubi.
See Map 14
General Norrie meanwhile had not been idle. Reconnaissance had discovered an enemy position about six miles north-west of Bir el Gubi and he decided that it must be captured before the advance on El Adem could begin. General Gott gave the task on 3rd December to the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier A. Anderson) supported by sixteen ‘I’ tanks of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment, the 7th Medium Regiment RA, part of the 51st Field Regiment RA and a battery of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment RA. The operation was carried out with exemplary speed. From his position on 3rd December thirty miles east of Bir el Gubi Brigadier Anderson could only form an outline plan, which was certainly a bold one—to make an unreconnoitred night march of over twenty miles and attack from the west such of the enemy as daylight should disclose to be in front of him. To the credit of the Brigade and its supporting arms the night march was successfully accomplished, the attack made, and part of the objective taken. Renewed attacks on 5th December did not succeed and meanwhile the enemy had reacted to the threat.
On the morning of 4th December the Germans attacked El Duda and were repulsed. By noon General Rommel felt he could not disregard the happenings at Bir el Gubi, because an outflanking move from this quarter would be dangerous. He broke off the action at El Duda, recalled the columns heading for Bardia and Sidi Azeiz, and decided to send both Panzer Divisions and the Ariete and Trieste Divisions to the southern flank. This meant weakening himself so much in front of Tobruk that he would have to withdraw from the eastern face, and during the night the process of thinning out began. On 5th December he intended to use all his mobile troops to deal with the British at Bir el Gubi and then sweep on into the rearward area of the 30th Corps, but this plan did not come off. The Ariete Division, harried by columns of the 7th Support Group, never arrived and the
Trieste Division does not seem to have left its assembly area on the southern escarpment. The 8th Panzer Regiment and some lorried infantry overran part of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, but did not pass on any farther.
The danger from the south caused the enemy’s air force to make great efforts to interfere with the movements of the British troops about Bir el Gubi. Large formations of escorted dive-bombers made frequent attacks, causing casualties and damaging vehicles. Many of these attacks were intercepted and broken up by the British fighters, and as the days passed the numbers of dive-bombers fell until only fighters were usually encountered. The rising rate of losses in these engagements caused some anxiety, however, and pointed to the need for a fighter (such as the Spitfire V) to combat the Me.109F whose rate of climb and speed made it superior to any British single-engined fighter in the Middle East. Apart from this a general increase in the numbers of German and Italian fighters was becoming evident.
Conversely, the southerly move of the Axis mobile forces and the large volume of traffic passing El Adem presented many targets to the British medium bombers and Hurricane fighter-bombers, and by night the Wellingtons and Fleet Air Arm Albacores kept up the pressure by attacking transport along the road from El Adem through Acroma to Gazala. The need now arose for more day-bombers, since the flow of Marylands had ceased and the Baltimores were behind schedule. Accordingly the Bostons of No. 24 Squadron SAAF, hitherto employed on tactical reconnaissance, joined the day-bomber force. To harass still further the retreating enemy the junction of the Tobruk by-pass road with the Tobruk–Gazala road was bombarded on several nights by the gunboat Aphis with the help of flares dropped by the Fleet Air Arm.
The evening of 5th December had found the higher commanders on both sides in some perplexity. Generals Rommel and Bastico, it will be remembered, had appealed urgently to Rome for reinforcements of all kinds. The answer was brought on 4th December by Colonel Montezemolo, head of the Operations Branch of Comando Supremo, his unwelcome news being that British naval and air activity in the Mediterranean was preventing anything being sent save small quantities of fuel, food, and medical stores.’ Nothing better was to be expected until the end of December, when the operations of the Luftwaffe from Sicily might enable regular convoys to be run. General Rommel thereupon painted a depressing picture of what might happen. He expected the British to outflank him from the south and he might have to withdraw to Tripolitania. He would hope to extricate most of the immobile (chiefly Italian) infantry, but much material would be lost. The frontier garrisons were almost out of supplies and
The relevant naval and air operations are described in the following chapter.
would have to retire into Bardia, whence they might have to be withdrawn by sea and air.
It had been General Norrie’s intention to advance towards El Adem on 6th December, and in order to make the whole of the 4th Indian Division available he decided that the 22nd Guards Brigade should relieve the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade west of Bir el Gubi early on 6th December, and that it should clear up the situation there while the main advance went on. By dawn on the 6th, however, Norrie had become less hopeful, and felt that it was necessary to use the 4th Indian Division in the Bir el Gubi area and at the same time reconnoitre widely to discover the enemy’s new dispositions. The 8th Army’s intelligence staff were inclined to think that the enemy was about to withdraw, and while not himself convinced of this General Ritchie urged Norrie to avoid Bir el Gubi and apply pressure in a north-westerly direction. That afternoon the DAK tried to advance on Bir el Gubi but the plan miscarried because of unwonted muddles between the two Panzer Divisions, and the more familiar failure of the Italians to arrive at the right place at the right time. In the end, towards evening of 6th December, the 15th Panzer Division clashed with the Guards Brigade, was heavily bombed and shelled, lost several tanks and accomplished nothing. Its commander, Major-General Neumann-Silkow, was mortally wounded.
Early next morning General Rommel went forward to see things for himself. He found Crüwell anxious about the British concentration in the south. The British were superior on the ground and in the air, and the condition of the Axis troops was growing worse. Petrol and ammunition were becoming dangerously scarce. Then and there Rommel decided to call off any further attacks and to make a fighting withdrawal to the Gazala position. This was the defensive position chosen in May 1941 after the Axis attacks on Tobruk had failed and when their policy was to hold Western Cyrenaica regardless of who held Sollum, Bardia, or even Tobruk. To this end a position was constructed on the eastern edge of the Jebel Akhdar with its left at Gazala and its right thrown well back into the desert. Work was begun at once and good progress had been made by June. Now, six months later, the defences were not in good order, but they were better than nothing. Four Italian divisions were to occupy them; the Italian mobile corps was to be on the southern flank, and wider still, echeloned back, the DAK.
Very early on 7th December General Norrie was told to begin his advance during the day as soon as the situation seemed favourable. He was to communicate his intentions to General Godwin-Austen, who was eagerly waiting to make a move towards El Adem from El Duda. The 13th Corps and 2nd South African Division were ordered to clear the enemy from the country between Tobruk and Bardia
north of the Trigh Capuzzo, especially from airfields and landing-grounds—which were badly needed for the move forward of the air forces.
The enemy’s delaying tactics on the 30th Corps’ front were so successful, however, that no progress was made that day, and General Gott even began to think that the enemy was being reinforced. General Norrie decided that the moment to advance had not come, and informed General Ritchie who correctly judged the true position to be that Rommel was hitting out to cover an imminent withdrawal. Ritchie would therefore have liked 30th Corps to strike, but as it was at least occupying the attention of the hostile armour he did not insist, and merely told Norrie to keep up the pressure and to by-pass the enemy where possible. Godwin-Austen, on the other hand, was to begin his operations.
Accordingly that night two battalions of the 23rd Infantry Brigade (Brigadier C. H. V. Cox) and a few tanks broke out of the western face of the El Duda salient and advanced almost as far as the Tobruk–El Adem road. Early next morning, 8th December, it became clear that the enemy was retiring from the neighbourhood of Bir el Gubi and General Norrie directed the 7th Armoured Division to advance to the track junction (later to become famous as Knightsbridge) about twelve miles south of Acroma. The 4th Indian Division was to move northwards to the escarpment which runs west from El Adem towards Knightsbridge, and then extend its right to join hands with the 13th Corps. From the rate of progress it seems that the enemy’s delaying tactics must have been effective, for nowhere was the withdrawal much interfered with.
By 10th December the Brescia and Trento Divisions had withdrawn from their positions opposite the western half of the Tobruk perimeter. Thus the siege of Tobruk—which had begun on 11th April—came to an end after eight months. It had been hoped that its relief would occur within a week of the start of CRUSADER, and the fact that it took three weeks threw a great strain on the cross-country transport and caused immense quantities of petrol to be consumed in carrying supplies anything up to 120 miles from railhead. It was realized that the arrival of the first bulk-loaded ships at a newly opened port does not solve all the problems of supply, for not until some retail stocks are built up can day-to-day demands be met. Some stocks had been built up at Tobruk, but the course of the fighting in and around the corridor had led to much of them being used up. It was obvious that the land link forward from railhead would still be wanted for some time and this pointed to the need for clearing the coast road past Halfaya, Sollum and Bardia, so as to open a shorter and better route.
An important result of the relief of Tobruk was to make the group of landing-grounds Tobruk, El Adem, Sidi Rezegh and Bu Amud
available for the British fighters, and on 11th December Headquarters No. 262 Fighter Wing arrived to take control of the fighters of Nos. 262 and 258 Wings on these landing-grounds. This meant that fighter escorts would be able to reach well beyond Bir el Gubi and El Adem, which they could not do when the fighters were forced to remain back at Fort Maddalena instead of moving to Gambut as intended. There had in fact been considerable losses in operations by day-bombers unescorted by fighters, and even the Hurricane fighter-bombers had suffered in this way; cloud cover could sometimes be used, but in those conditions the targets were often obscured. Another important result of the move to the new landing-grounds was that fighter cover could be provided over Tobruk and ships could unload in daylight.
All this time the Wellingtons and other aircraft from Malta were steadily attacking Tripoli, the Italian ports of departure, and various targets in Sicily and on the Italian mainland.
It is not surprising that in view of their troubles over sea convoys at this time the Germans and Italians should have made great use of their numerous transport aircraft for carrying essential stores to North Africa. The Italians flew from Italy and Sicily, and ferried loads (in particular, of ammunition) forward from Tripoli, and now a steady German traffic began between Maleme, in Crete, and Derna. In an attempt to counter this move, in which Whitehall showed great interest, the Wellingtons from Egypt attacked Maleme while Mary-lands, Blenheims and Beaufighters were pressed into service as intruders against the transport aircraft in flight. Painted green and black, and flying very low over the sea, the Ju.52s were not easy to attack, and only the Beaufighters were really suitable for the task. But there were too few of these to interfere seriously with the traffic, which continued virtually unhindered.
In the enemy’s High Command the suggestion that the whole of Cyrenaica might have to be given up had caused a great stir. After receiving Colonel Montezemolo’s report Comando Supremo sent instructions to General Bastico on 7th December agreeing that it was necessary to give up the siege of Tobruk. But although freedom of action was left to Bastico, they thought that an attempt should be made to defend Cyrenaica in order to retain Benghazi, and that a retreat into Tripolitania was a last resort. In either case it was imperative to hold Agedabia strongly and to recapture Jalo, in order to prevent a wide British outflanking manoeuvre and keep secure the lines of communication with Tripoli. Next day Bastico met Rommel, who began an ill-tempered conference by enlarging upon the shortcomings of Italian troops and of General Gambara. General Bastico took offence at these remarks, but agreement was reached eventually to occupy the
Attempts to turn the Gazala Position 15th–16th December 1941
On 9th December General Ritchie gave orders for an adjustment of the chain of command, of which he had given warning two days earlier. This was that the 13th Corps would control the operations to drive the enemy out of Cyrenaica while the 30th Corps took charge of the reduction of the enemy’s positions on the Egyptian frontier. Among his reasons were that a single commander would be able to control all the troops that could be maintained west of Tobruk, and as Tobruk would be the supply base, and the 13th Corps was already there, General Godwin-Austen was well placed to take command with the least delay. What mattered most was to give the enemy no respite, and Ritchie set aside General Norrie’s prompt suggestion that Headquarters 30th Corps was the better fitted to conduct mobile operations—having indeed been formed for that very purpose. (As against this, there was only one armoured division, which now had only one armoured brigade.) An additional reason was that General Auchinleck was contemplating withdrawing the 30th Corps into GHQ reserve as an insurance against a possible threat to the northern front. On 11th December the 13th Corps took over the 7th Armoured Division and the 4th Indian Division, and next day the 30th Corps left for the frontier area. General Ritchie announced also his intention of taking the 22nd Guards Brigade under his direct command and sending it as soon as possible by the desert route to capture Benghazi and prevent the enemy escaping to Tripolitania.
See Map 15
The extent of the enemy’s position at Gazala was fairly accurately known. It ran in a bold curve from the coast to the Alem Hamza ridge about twelve miles inland, south of which there were no recognizable defences. By 13th December the British had closed up, and the enemy’s attitude suggested that he was going to make a stand. General Godwin-Austen therefore hoped to force a decisive battle. His plan was briefly for the 5th New Zealand Brigade (which had been brought up from the frontier) to pin the enemy east of Gazala, while the Polish Brigade (from Tobruk) on its left swung north to cut the coast road west of Gazala. The 4th Indian Division was to attack westward from Alem Hamza while the 7th Support Group dealt with any enemy south of Sidi Breghisc. The 4th Armoured Brigade was to make a wide flanking movement, passing south of Rotonda Segnali to Bir Halegh el Eleba from where it would operate against the rear of the enemy in the area Bir Temrad–Sidi Breghisc. The Brigade was to reach Bir Halegh el Eleba not later than 11 a.m. on 15th December. The enemy was thought to have about fifty tanks, and Godwin-Austen impressed upon General Gott how important it was to destroy these. In his belief the
4th Armoured Brigade with its 90 Stuart tanks had a rare opportunity in its grasp.3
On 15th December the 13th Corps began its attack. Near the coast the New Zealanders made some progress and took several hundred Italian prisoners, as did the Polish Brigade (Major-General S. Kopanski), which was nevertheless unable to work round to the west of Gazala. Both brigades of the 4th Indian Division had a hard day. The 1st Battalion The Buffs, of the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier D. Russell), had already made ground to Pt 204, three miles west of Alem Hamza, and the plan was for the rest of the Brigade to take Alem Hamza from the south while on the left the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade captured Sidi Breghisc. Both attacks failed. In the afternoon, after a heavy shelling, the 8th Panzer Regiment and 2nd Machine-Gun Battalion counter-attacked Pt 204 and after a fierce action lasting an hour and a half overran the Buffs and their attached troops, who lost altogether over a thousand men, many of whom were taken prisoner.4 On the other hand the 8th Panzer Regiment—the hard core of the enemy’s armour—appears to have lost 9 (or possibly 12) of the 23 tanks with which it started the day. All these actions, disappointing though they were, did at least mean that the enemy was thoroughly occupied, and General Godwin-Austen had great hopes of the effect which the arrival of the 4th Armoured Brigade in the enemy’s back area would have. As it happened it had hardly any.
The Brigade had to cover nearly seventy miles to reach Bir Halegh el Eleba, where it was due at IT a.m. Over bad going—and on this day some of the going was very bad indeed, entailing much running in low gear—this was beyond the limit of the Stuart tanks. By loading them with spare petrol and by ‘topping up’ on the way the Brigade managed to reach its destination at 3 p.m. That evening General Gott realized that the petrol vehicles of ‘B’ Echelon, which had themselves been late in replenishing, would not reach the Brigade that day. Rather than risk the tanks being caught with very little petrol so far behind the front, he authorized Brigadier Gatehouse to move south next morning to meet the petrol vehicles. He signalled to 13th Corps that the Brigade would not be able to operate until the early afternoon of 16th December. To this Godwin-Austen replied that it was to attack as soon as possible the enemy opposing the 4th Indian Division, which was to hold fast until this attack was made. The 7th Armoured Division was also to send a column to cut the coast road at Tmimi.
But on 16th December, in spite of General Godwin-Austen’s hopes, there was no decisive action. The small column sent to Tmimi shot up a few vehicles and captured a handful of prisoners before it withdrew for want of petrol—an enterprise which does not seem to have worried the enemy although his main line of retreat ran through Tmimi. At 7 a.m. the 4th Armoured Brigade set off south to meet its petrol and supplies. After replenishing it seems to have moved shortly after noon to a point south of Sidi Breghisc where it exchanged fire with some hostile guns. A small detachment sent to Bir Temrad had some indecisive skirmishing. General Godwin-Austen, seeing what he thought was a great opportunity slipping away, continued to urge Gott to cut the enemy’s line of retreat. By evening the enemy showed clear signs of preparing to withdraw. The 4th Armoured Brigade was unable to interfere, and during the night the enemy broke away.
If the British armour could not interfere with this orderly disengagement and withdrawal, what of the air force? It has been mentioned that the British day-bombers had been unable to apply their full weight against targets west of a line Bir el Gubi–El Adem because they could not be given fighter escorts from the Fort Maddalena landing-grounds. This meant that while the enemy was moving back to take up his new dispositions at Gazala he could not be heavily attacked by day from the air. This handicap was not likely to recur because of strenuous efforts to prepare fighter landing-grounds well forward, only a few miles east of Gazala, in readiness for the next stage.
As soon as the fighters began to operate from around Tobruk the whole of the enemy’s new deployment area could have been attacked by escorted day-bombers. Unfortunately, during the four days from 13th to 16th December, when the enemy was halted in the Gazala position, the Army seems to have been unable for one reason or another to give the Air Force any worthwhile targets. The weather was not particularly good; indeed the 15th was a day of gales, rain, and sandstorms. Another reason seems to have been that General Godwin-Austen’s plan for biting off the northern part of the enemy’s front and for encircling the remainder—he also had it in mind to send columns to raid the coast road—made it difficult to choose a ‘bomb-line’, or line beyond which anything seen could be attacked from the air, without danger to the British troops. There was still the old problem of identification and there seems to have been a feeling that if the enemy did begin to withdraw the fact would become apparent and some marvellous targets for air attack would appear. The result was, as Air Vice-Marshal Coningham reported sadly, that for nearly three days the enemy’s troops in the comparatively small area south-west of Gazala had not one bomb dropped on them.
See Map 16
In the enemy’s High Command the disagreements had continued. On 13th December General Rommel reported to OKH that he would probably be compelled to withdraw during the night 14th/15th to Derna and Mechili. General Bastico received this news by liaison officer and at once asked Comando Supremo whether the final decision was to be his or Rommel’s. His own opinion was that the Gazala line could be held. He seems to have become suspicious of Rommel and to have formed the idea that if a crisis occurred the Germans would retire and leave the less mobile Italians to fend for themselves. Next day a compromise was arranged—to hold on for the moment but to prepare to withdraw to Derna and Mechili.
On 15th December Rommel got news of the move of the 4th Armoured Brigade, heading as he thought for Mechili. This convinced him that he would have to withdraw from the Gazala position during the night 16th/17th. General Cavallero, accompanied by Field-Marshal Kesselring, flew from Rome to try to resolve the differences with Bastico, and on the morning of the 16th he put to him the argument that events outside the Mediterranean (he was no doubt thinking of the Far East) might influence the campaign and that one object should therefore be to gain time. Tripolitania was to be defended at all costs but large reinforcements could not be counted upon. When Cavallero visited Rommel that afternoon he learned that he had already taken his own decision to withdraw from Gazala and that the movement had begun; the 21st Corps was directed through Tmimi on Derna, and the 20th Corps and DAK on Mechili. Rommel’s intention was to concentrate finally about El Agheila and Marada. Cavallero was content to point out that the defence of Tripolitania was the main object, but that Cyrenaica must only be given up gradually in order to save equipment and stores.
Next morning, 17th December, there was yet another meeting and this time Rommel said that he meant to hold on at Derna and Mechili as long as he could, but that if the British advanced to Mechili, or south of it, it would be necessary to retreat from Cyrenaica leaving only rearguards behind. Cavallero agreed in general terms. That afternoon a German air report reached Rommel that British columns (in fact the 7th Support Group) were advancing towards Tengeder, and he informed Cavallero that this made a further withdrawal essential. Cavallero, who doubted the correctness of the air report, later sent the liaison officer with an urgent request for delay on the ground that the Italian troops were exhausted and short of transport. Rommel replied that there was not a moment to lose, and that he intended to leave nothing save a mobile rearguard east of a line Beda Littoria-Maraua. He suggested that the Italian Command would perform a most valuable service if they retired to Tripoli and organized
the reinforcements. He then ordered General Crüwell to move south of Benghazi and be ready to operate towards Agedabia. The Italian Corps were to make for Benghazi. When Cavallero heard of these orders he set off with Bastico and Gambara to protest to Rommel. The meeting was stormy, but there was nothing for it but to confirm Rommel’s decision.
While General Rommel was determined to get back with all speed to Agedabia and El Agheila, and hand to the British the drag of a rapidly lengthening line of communication, General Ritchie had thought it likely that the enemy would fight delaying actions as far back as Derna and Mechili. Accordingly the 4th Indian Division was directed on Lamluda and the 7th Armoured Division on Mechili, while a strong column was to slip round the southern flank and harry the enemy as far to the west as possible. The 22nd Guards Brigade Group (or ‘Bencol’), commanded by Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott, under the direct control of 8th Army, was to cross the desert farther south still and make all speed for Benghazi, which it was to seize and hold. But the units of ‘Bencol’ had first to be assembled from other tasks, and many of their worn out vehicles replaced. Not until 20th December could the force be ready. On the 18th Ritchie realized that the enemy did not mean to stand at Derna and Mechili, and he thereupon changed the role of ‘Bencol’ from capturing Benghazi to preventing the enemy escaping southward from it. The strong harassing column which 7th Armoured Division had been ordered to send westward was cancelled, and General Gott was directed by General Godwin-Austen to press on to Benina and Benghazi. Next day ‘Bencol’ was ordered to pass south of Tengeder, and send one detachment to secure the landing-ground at Msus and another through Sceleidima towards Ghemines; the main body was to advance to the south-west of Antelat—a large number of tasks for such a small force if it should meet with any strong opposition.5
By this time-19th December—the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade had reached Derna, where it parted with most of its transport to sustain the advance across the desert. Reconnaissance troops and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade pushed on as best they could, delayed by bad weather and by demolished roads and tracks. The Support Group of the 7th Armoured Division reached Charruba on the 20th and made touch with rearguards of the Trieste and Ariete Divisions. The weather and going were very bad and there was trouble over petrol. Next day the enemy had disappeared, the going became worse, and there were again doubts whether petrol would arrive. General Gott decided to send a small column (named ‘Pepys’) at once to the important Benina
airfield, and to send the rest of the Support Group across the better going towards Msus and Antelat on the 22nd December. By the evening of 21st December ‘Bencol’, which had made good speed, had one squadron of the 11th Hussars near Sceleidima and one near Antelat, the Coldstream Guards fifteen miles east of Antelat, and the Scots Guards near Msus.
At this time the enemy’s divisions, which had also been having their troubles from weather, bad going, and shortage of petrol, apart from being much harassed from the air, were situated as follows. The 15th Panzer was at Beda Fomm and the 21st Panzer at Ghemines; the Ariete, Trieste and Pavia were near El Abiar; the Trento and Brescia near Barce and Tocra; and the 90th Light and the Bologna were at Agedabia. General Rommel’s plan was for the mobile troops to hold off the British advance from the east long enough to enable the Italian infantry to escape to the south.
When the idea of sending a column across the desert to Benghazi was first thought of, it was proposed to attach an air component of five or six squadrons. But by the time ‘Bencol’ was ready to start the landing-ground at Mechili had become available for the fighters, which made the provision of a special air component unnecessary. During the advance through Cyrenaica Nos. 208 and 237 (Rhodesian) Tactical Reconnaissance Squadrons, operating at first from Tmimi, were responsible for most of the information about the enemy’s movements. In view of the large area to be covered, however, some of the long-range Hurricanes of No. 33 Squadron were used to extend the range of reconnaissance, and other fighters engaged on offensive sweeps were also given reconnaissance tasks. As early as 18th December a considerable force of fighters had been established at Gazala and, in spite of the Army’s great difficulty in finding transport for lifting petrol forward, the fighters were operating from Mechili on the 20th and from Msus on the 23rd. Shortly afterwards No. 262 Wing established an advanced headquarters at Msus to control the fighter operations.
When the enemy had begun to retreat from Gazala the British day-bombers were moving forward to landing-grounds at Gambut, Sidi Rezegh and Bu Amud. The 8th Army chose a bomb-line a long way ahead, and attacks were at once made on the retreating columns, especially where the main road winds up and down the coastal escarpment near Derna, where traffic was likely to pile up. Later these attacks were lifted on to the two roads running west from Lamluda. Meanwhile the route from Mechili to Charruba was harassed, until the main road north and south of Benghazi became in turn the principal object of attack. The Wellingtons and Albacores carried the attacks on into the night, but it is doubtful whether the targets they could find were worth the effort. The scale of all these operations was not as heavy as had been hoped, and ideas of turning the retreat into
a rout were not realized. The enemy’s diaries make frequent mention of the harassing effect of the British air attacks, but there is no doubt that the retreat as a whole was delayed very little—indeed the speed with which it was conducted is evidence of this. Nevertheless it was plain for all to see that the losses of vehicles and equipment from air attacks had been heavy.
The fact is that the day-bombers were passing through a difficult time. The weather was bad, which made it harder than ever to distinguish friend from foe. (Not that the enemy was free from this trouble, for on several occasions Stukas are known to have dive-bombed their own troops.) There was a shortage of transport for moving fuel and supplies from Tobruk and from railhead, and also for bringing forward bombs and other heavy stores from previously occupied airfields. The day-bombers had certainly not been given many good targets in direct support of the Army, but that did not mean that they had been idle, and the prolonged operations in desert conditions had greatly reduced the number of aircraft fit to fly. Bostons were having much engine trouble and the flow of Marylands (which the Bostons were replacing) had ceased, so that Nos. 12 and 21 Squadrons SAAF had to be put together to form one squadron. Blenheims were beginning to leave for the Far East. In short, the enemy’s retreat came at a time when the British were at full stretch in the air as well as on the ground.
This made it all the harder to maintain a just proportion between attacks on the enemy’s troops and on his air force. The latter, though shaken and struggling, could not be disregarded, and the more it was smothered the more would the Royal Air Force be easing the task of the British troops. The German and Italian Air Forces were now being forced back and their airfields were becoming congested. This was the moment to attack them. On 17th December Air Vice-Marshal Coningham began to deal systematically with the principal airfields, by night as well as by day, particularly Benina, Maraua, Berka and Barce. Large numbers of aircraft were eventually found abandoned on these airfields—at Benina, for instance, there were sixty-four of which all but two were German.
Further heavy air attacks were made on Benghazi harbour on 17th December and succeeding nights, stimulated by reports that a convoy was expected there. German records show that in fact the 4,700-ton merchant ship Ankara of No. 52 Convoy arrived at Benghazi on the
9th, the rest of the convoy having made for Tripoli. The Ankara’s cargo included twenty-two tanks, which were safely received by the 8th Panzer Regiment a few days later.6 In the circumstances the
unloading and clearing of this ship’s cargo must have been a creditable performance, though it is hard to say how bad the state of the harbour was before the enemy carried out the deliberate demolitions which ‘Pepys’ Column saw and heard from Benina on the 23rd. Certainly when the King’s Dragoon Guards and ‘Pepys’ Column entered the town on the 24th—not long after the Brescia Division’s rearguard had moved out—they found the town and port in chaos and the harbour encumbered with wrecks.
On 21st December General Ritchie, much impressed by reports of an accumulation of fighter aircraft on El Magrun airfield, ordered ‘Bencol’ to turn and threaten it—if possible, that night. He then took the obvious step of placing ‘Bencol’ under 13th Corps, whereupon General Godwin-Austen ordered it to complete its operation at El Magrun and to secure in turn Agedabia and El Agheila and to patrol towards Marada. The 7th Armoured Division—in effect the Support Group—was to harass the enemy retreating by the coast road. These tasks are evidence of the strong desire for bold action, but in view of what is now known of the enemy’s dispositions they had very little chance of succeeding. However, ‘Bencol’ was to be reinforced by the 12th Lancers (armoured cars) and by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (Stuart tanks). The relief of the 7th Armoured Division by the newly arrived 1st Armoured Division was now in progress, and the reconstituted 22nd Armoured Brigade, with 80 cruisers and 30 Stuarts, had already relieved the 4th Armoured Brigade (less the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment) at Mechili.7
Little progress was made on 22nd December. The 22nd Armoured Brigade prepared to set off from Mechili towards Saunnu. The 7th Support Group reached a point about fifteen miles south of Sceleidima. ‘Bencol’ did its best to do everything at once. The detachment heading for El Magrun was held up at Sceleidima and the 12th Lancers were held up farther north. A company of the Coldstream Guards with a few field and anti-tank guns was sent towards Beda Fomm and another company towards Agedabia. Early next morning part of the 15th Panzer Division near Beda Fomm saw its opportunity and attacked the small column of the Coldstream Guards and drove it, with the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment which had come up in support, east of Antelat. Later, on the appearance of the Support Group, which had been recalled from its previous task, the German force withdrew. Meanwhile the Italian infantry divisions, except the Brescia, slipped away down the coast road. For some time Ritchie and Godwin-Austen did not realize what had happened, but believed that the bulk of the
Italians were still near Benghazi and that ‘Bencol’ was successfully engaging the remains of the enemy’s armour. Orders for the 24th were that the 7th Support Group was to clear up between Benghazi and Antelat; ‘Bencol’ (with 3rd Royal Tank Regiment) was to seize Agedabia; and the 22nd Armoured Brigade was to advance on the southern flank and encircle the enemy. Brigadier Reid’s Oasis Force, which had reached Giof el Matar from Jalo on 22nd December, was to cut the coast road as far south of Agedabia as it could.
Little came of these orders. On 24th December the Support Group failed to intercept the enemy withdrawing along the road from Benghazi; ‘Bencol’ moved a few miles towards Agedabia; the 22nd Armoured Brigade reached Saunnu and ran out of petrol for twenty-four hours. By the evening the Brescia Division, the last to leave Benghazi, had joined the 20th Corps and the DAK in the neighbourhood of Agedabia. Rommel’s intention of making a clean break away from Gazala and concentrating as soon as possible at Agedabia had succeeded.
The Oasis Force had sent out a number of small columns to harass enemy transport on the coast road north and south of Agedabia. Further enterprises behind the enemy’s lines were carried out by a detachment of the Special Air Service Brigade, and by three Patrols of the Long Range Desert Group which had joined Brigadier Reid at Jalo. Between them they raided Tamet landing-ground twice and Agedabia airfield once in the second half of December, claiming on each occasion to have destroyed from twenty to thirty Italian aircraft.8
Christmas Day was spent in gaining contact with the enemy’s new positions. By the next evening it seemed likely that the enemy would hold on until turned out, and as his units were now very weak, and the Italians in particular very tired, it might be that the opportunity still existed to deal a telling blow. General Godwin-Austen accordingly arranged for the 22nd Guards Brigade to attack during the night 26th/27th and for the 22nd Armoured Brigade to operate on the southern flank next morning. The 22nd Guards Brigade was spread out over a wide area, and what actually happened was that one battalion made a hastily prepared and difficult night advance in the rain, and followed it with an unsuccessful attack. On the flank the armour had some indecisive skirmishing. This disappointing result did not deter Godwin-Austen from trying to press on with all speed, and a renewal of the attack was ordered for 28th December.
It had always been the intention to use Tobruk as an advanced base as soon as possible, and it has already been seen that certain reserve stocks had been built up there. The replacement of the Australians had used shipping space which would otherwise have been available, and subsequently the course of the fighting had resulted in the stocks being much depleted. When it became necessary to supply forces west of Tobruk the first difficulty was the lack of certain items and the next was a shortage of transport needed to carry forward supplies over ever-growing distances. The Royal Navy had relieved the worst of the initial shortages, of ammunition in particular, by special shipments towards the end of November, and naval parties had begun on 26th November to restore the port to full working order. The plan to carry lighters to Tobruk in the Infantry Landing Ship Glenroy broke down, for on the 23rd November the Glenroy was torpedoed by an Italian Savoia 79 and reached Alexandria with difficulty. Fortunately there were a few lighters already at Tobruk, and three tank landing craft and some Jaffa lighters arrived with the first regular convoy on 2nd December so that unloading could proceed. After 13th December, when the Royal Air Force was able to provide fighter cover over Tobruk, Admiral Cunningham allowed ships to arrive in daylight.
The essential work of the little ships in running a supply line to Tobruk and beyond was hampered by exceptionally bad weather and by attacks from the air and from a growing number of German U-boats. In November and December HMAS Parramatta, HMS Salvia, Chantala and Chakdina and the merchant ships Shuntien, Warszawa and Volo were sunk, and HMS Flamingo and Glenroy and the water carrier Myriel were damaged. During the same period HMS Farndale sank the submarine Caracciolo, HMS Hotspur and Hasty sank the U.79, and HMS Kipling sank the U.75. In mid-December the composition of the Western Desert Escort Force was changed when the 10th Corvette Group (HMS Peony, Salvia and Hyacinth) replaced the 25th (South African) Anti-submarine Group (HMSAS Falk, Flo, Cocker, and Thorgrim).
There were too few warships to meet all the demands, and the strain on them was severe. Besides protecting the convoys for supplying the Army’s advance, escorts had to be provided for the vital oil traffic between Haifa and Alexandria and for convoys to and fro between Alexandria, Port Said, Cyprus and the Levant ports. In all some 55 anti-submarine vessels were required and Admiral Cunningham had 45 serviceable on the average, including the Fleet destroyers. In appealing for more he told the Admiralty he could ‘by no means guarantee the security of the Army’s supply to Tripoli should we reach there’.
From the opening of CRUSADER on 18th November until 25th
December some 18,000 tons, of which more than half was petrol and aviation spirit, had arrived at Tobruk. By the end of December the port was handling 600 tons a day and the rate was rising, but even so this did not cover the current needs and at the same time allow for reserves to be built up fast enough. Consequently it was still necessary to run large convoys of lorries across the desert from railhead at Misheifa; this tied up vehicles which were badly wanted farther west and used a lot of petrol. It was soon clear that there could be no question of pursuing the enemy with a strong force; all the available transport would have to be used to maintain a comparatively small one. Field Maintenance Centres were opened in succession at Sidi Muftah (south of Gazala) on 15th December, near Tmimi on the 18th, and at Msus on the 24th. The last of these, stocked by convoys from Tobruk, supplied all the troops south of Benghazi. The worst shortage was of petrol, for only enough for the barest needs of 13th Corps was reaching Tobruk, and a great deal was being wasted by the appalling leakage from the flimsy 4-gallon tins: it was estimated that a convoy sometimes lost as much as 40 per cent. The decision by 8th Army that the roads through the hilly Jebel country were not to be used for maintenance convoys, because of the demolitions and the danger from air attack, added to the difficulties, for the bad going in the desert was made worse by frequent sand-storms and an unusual amount of rain. On 26th December there was no petrol at all in the FMC at Msus, and on the 28th only 32,000 gallons arrived in response to a demand for 60,000. There were difficulties over other stores also, for Headquarters 8th Army was now controlling the contents of convoys to Msus, and the state of the wireless communications was such that the 8th Army did not always know what was most urgently required.
General Crüwell, whose armoured force was situated to the south of Agedabia, had noticed on 27th December that there was a wide gap between the British 22nd Armoured Brigade at Chor es Sufan and the 22nd Guards Brigade north of Agedabia. General Rommel agreed with his suggestion to defeat the British armour in detail and the result was a clash on 28th December between the two Panzer Divisions, with about sixty tanks of which forty-four were Pzkw IIIs and IVs, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade with ninety tanks, of which thirty-five were Stuarts and the remainder Crusaders.9 The result was a notable success for the Germans, who drove the 22nd Armoured Brigade south across the Wadi Faregh with the loss of 37 tanks—many,
it is said, through mechanical breakdown. Seven German tanks were destroyed.
This success did not alter General Rommel’s intention to withdraw to El Agheila—to which Mussolini had now agreed—but he decided to give battle at Agedabia for a little longer in order to gain time for his infantry to rest and reorganize, and in the hope of damaging the British sufficiently to prevent them following up. On 30th December the DAK again attacked the 22nd Armoured Brigade, which by this time had been drawn in to Belandah. Once again the Germans won the day, and twenty-three out of sixty-two British tanks were destroyed or damaged; again the Germans recorded the total loss of seven of their own. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, whose remaining tanks were nearly all Stuarts, was then withdrawn to refit.
General Ritchie could now do no more than try to gather a sufficient force to turn the enemy out of his positions at Agedabia, but for reasons which are discussed in Chapter VI he could not do this at once. General Rommel, for his part, believed that the DAK’s recent successes had for the time being removed the danger to his right flank, and expected a few days’ breathing space. Finding it difficult to reorganize and supply his troops in their present positions he decided to retire to El Agheila and there use the respite he had won to recruit his strength. The movement began on 1st January, and although some thinning-out was noticed by patrols and much traffic was seen, the British were not convinced until the 5th that a withdrawal was taking place, nor could they have interfered seriously with it even if they had known. The weather then grew worse and the enemy’s rearguards left Agedabia on 6th January under cover of a day-long sandstorm. Small British columns followed, and within a week they had discovered that the enemy was holding a series of defended localities from Mersa Brega on the coast towards Bir es Suera, with their desert flank drawn back to Sidi Tabet and Alem el Mgaad. Part of this front was protected by impassable salt marshes and the rest was mainly soft sand dotted with ‘camel humps’, over which the going was said to be as bad as anywhere in the desert.
In the air both sides were feeling the strain of prolonged operations, bad weather, and all the maintenance troubles which, severe at any time in the desert, were made much worse by the constant change of airfields. The intensity of bombing had fallen off greatly; the Germans made occasional raids with escorted Stukas, and the British day-bombers, whose difficulties have already been referred to, also made attacks from time to time in connexion with the fighting round Agedabia. The German records mention in particular a very successful attack by ten British aircraft on 29th December, which caused
over forty casualties. Of the eight day-bomber squadrons two were refitting and two were under orders for the Far East.10 Two were being used on the reduction of the Halfaya defences—to be described presently—leaving only two, No. 11 Squadron and No. 21 Squadron SAAF, to support the operations around Mersa Brega.
The conditions on land meant that much depended upon the tactical reconnaissance squadrons for information of the enemy, and, as usual, these were worked very hard. Fighters on both sides were active in patrolling and in attacking vehicles on the roads and desert tracks, and the long-range Hurricanes of No. 33 Squadron and the Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron again carried their attacks and extended the range of reconnaissance into the enemy’s back area. In general the British had a large measure of air superiority although the enemy managed on occasions to operate in considerable strength; on 28th December, for example, they sent up—according to their own records—over a hundred aircraft.
The Me.109F was still a cause of anxiety, but on New Year’s Day the new Kittyhawks of No. 3 Squadron RAAF had their first combat near Antelat with a large mixed force. The Germans recorded no losses on that day, but this new fighter, better armed and with greater speed and rate of climb than the Tomahawk, was very welcome, even though it had not the all-round performance of the Me.109. Another newcomer was a Liberator, which on 11th January dropped a large load of 500-lb. bombs on Tripoli, more as an experiment than as a normal operational flight. With the introduction into the Royal Air Force of a new category of heavy bombers (Liberator, Lancaster, Halifax, Stirling), the Wellingtons were reclassified as ‘medium’ and the Blenheims, Marylands, Bostons and Baltimores as ‘light’ bombers, and will be so referred to hereafter. Yet another first appearance was that of the Italian CR42 biplane fighter in the role of fighter-bomber: an up-to-date use of a fighter as a direct support aircraft, but a very out-of-date aircraft (comparable with the Gladiator) to adapt for the purpose.
The scale of the Axis air effort in North Africa at the turn of the year was limited principally by maintenance, and the chief interest of both the Italians and Germans lay in neutralizing Malta in order to ease the passage of their badly needed supplies. Conversely, the British did all they could to interfere by surface, submarine, and air attacks on enemy shipping at sea and by air attacks on the ports. From Malta the Wellingtons continued to attack Tripoli, and the Blenheims joined in and also attacked some of the minor landing places on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte which reconnaissance had
shown to be used by coastal shipping. Wellingtons from Egypt continued the attacks on these targets by night, refuelling at El Adem. The German air transport traffic, bringing petrol from Crete to Derna, and the measures taken to interrupt it, have already been referred to. After Cyrenaica was lost the transport aircraft began to concentrate at airfields in Sicily, and on 4th January large numbers were seen at Castel Vetrano where they were attacked by a force of Blenheims from Malta; seventy-five aircraft were found parked wing-tip to wing-tip and the airfield was left a smoking ruin. That night the Wellingtons rekindled the flames. The Italians recorded that many aircraft were lost in these attacks.
As the heavy German air offensive against Malta took effect, the supply situation of the Axis forces in North Africa began to improve. Italian air activity, for example, which had sunk very low, showed signs of reviving directly after nearly 2,300 tons of aviation fuel arrived in Tripoli on 5th January.11 The further consequences of the renewed flow of supplies to Tripolitania are considered in Chapter VI.
See Map 17
Early in December the difficulty of maintaining land and air forces in Western Cyrenaica had pointed to the need for clearing the enemy from the Egyptian frontier, thus opening the way for an extension of the railway to Fort Capuzzo—seventy miles in advance of the present railhead at Misheifa. This would not only halve the mileage run by lorry convoys to Tobruk but would enable them to use the Trigh Capuzzo and Via Balbia, both of which had comparatively good surfaces, although the former was only a track. Indeed, the capture of the enemy’s frontier positions which blocked the way was essential if the momentum of the advance in Western Cyrenaica was to be restored and the pursuit carried on into Tripolitania. It was from this point of view that Air Vice-Marshal Coningham agreed to use the four squadrons of No. 270 Bomber Wing at Gambut to co-operate with General Norrie’s 30th Corps, a decision which drew a telegram of surprise from the Air Ministry, but which, in the light of all the facts, was undoubtedly sound.
When General Norrie was given control of these operations he had under his command the 2nd South African Division (Major-General I. P. de Villiers), the 1st Army Tank Brigade, and the 1st South African Division whose 2nd Brigade was in reserve at Buq Buq while the 5th was refitting at Matruh. A few days previously the enemy had given up some minor localities but continued to hold two separate sectors: the Bardia Sector, within the original perimeter, and the
Halfaya Sector, comprising the localities of Halfaya Pass, ‘Faltenbacher’, ‘Cirener’ and Lower Sollum. At Bardia were about 2,200 Germans mostly of the administrative services, and 6,600 Italian troops and a few guns, all under the German Major-General Artur Schmitt. In the Halfaya Sector (Major-General Fedele De Giorgis) were some 4,200 Italians of the Savona Division and 2, 1 co Germans under Major Bach of the tooth Lorried Infantry Regiment. Supplies were scarce, because the DAK had helped itself during its expedition to the frontier towards the end of November, and only small quantities could be brought in by aircraft, submarine, and motor ferry barge.12 Nevertheless the garrisons were ordered to hold out because the Axis High Command believed (rightly) that they were doing valuable service by blocking the coast road, and they were after all locking up more than a division of British troops. On 19th December General Rommel reported to Rome that the garrisons could not be supplied indefinitely and were too badly equipped to resist a heavy attack. He repeated his previous suggestion that they should be withdrawn to Crete in Italian warships, but Comando Supremo again insisted that they must hold out, and OKW agreed.
The 2nd South African Division was not yet fully equipped and its state of training was still elementary. Since 5th December it had acted as cat to the frontier mouse and had also successfully cleared up enemy detachments and installations between Tobruk and Bardia. In addition, General Ritchie had asked General de Villiers to try to mop up the frontier garrisons, but with the least possible loss. General de Villiers decided to attack the north-western front of Bardia with the 3rd South African Brigade (Brigadier C. E. Borain) on 16th December, but the enemy’s strength and morale were found to be higher than was expected and the task proved to be beyond the power of a single brigade. General de Villiers wisely broke off the operations after two days’ fighting and then, under General Norrie, began to prepare a much heavier attack.
On this occasion General de Villiers decided to use his whole division, and was allotted the 8th and 44th Royal Tank Regiments of the 1st Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier H. R. B. Watkins) with Valentine and Matilda tanks; the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry Regiment with light tanks and Bren carriers; the 67th and 68th Medium Regiments RA and the 211th Medium Battery RA; the 7th Field Regiment SAA and the 1st Carpathian (Polish) Field Regiment.
No. 270 Wing RAF (Nos. 14, 45, 84, and Lorraine Squadrons) carried out preliminary bombing and No. 451 Squadron RAAF did the tactical and artillery reconnaissance. They were helped by the weakness of the enemy’s anti-aircraft fire and by the fact that none of his fighters in North Africa could reach the area, while the weather was too bad for any intervention from Crete.
Supported by the fire of the cruiser Ajax and the gunboat Aphis, and by intense bombing from the air, the attack began on the southern front on 31st December, and was driven home by the 3rd and 4th South African Brigades (the 4th—Brigadier A. A. Hayton) in spite of the worsening weather. On 2nd January General Schmitt surrendered, with Rommel’s approval. The British casualties were 139 killed and 295 wounded, and 1,171 British prisoners of war were released from captivity.
It was soon the turn of the Halfaya Sector. For some days a policy of close investment, bombardment, and propaganda was followed in an attempt to avoid the casualties of an attack. Only two squadrons—No. 14 RAF and the Lorraine (both with Blenheims)—were available, as Nos. 45 and 84 had been withdrawn for despatch to the Far East. This had no result, so on 11th January the 6th South African Brigade (Brigadier F. Cooper) attacked Lower Sollum, which surrendered next day, and the enemy’s last access to the sea was cut off. A careful plan was made for reducing the remaining localities but it was not needed. Hungry, thirsty, bombed, shelled and short of ammunition the enemy could endure no more. On the 17th General De Giorgis and Major Bach surrendered.
Thus the British had succeeded in their object of clearing Cyrenaica of the enemy, though not by means of a rapid stroke, as had been planned, but only after a long and costly struggle which consumed so many of their resources that by the time they reached the western end of Cyrenaica their blow was spent. It had been realized that the difficulties of supply would increase enormously in Western Cyrenaica, and it was for this reason, wrote General Auchinleck in his Despatch, that he had been anxious to destroy the enemy as far east as possible.
In a sense the Winter Battle was not yet over, for before January was out history had repeated itself and Rommel was driving the British out of Western Cyrenaica very much as he had done in the previous April. Before describing this reverse it will be necessary to deal with some immensely important events which had been taking place in November and December 1941—notably the struggle for the vital sea communicate ns in the Mediterranean and the entry of Japan and the USA into the war. The high-water mark of the British offensive is nevertheless a suitable point at which to consider
briefly some of the hard facts and outstanding features of this first big clash in the desert between two well-equipped modern forces.
The casualties were approximately as follows. They have been rounded off because the dates for which the figures are available do not quite correspond. However they cover all the serious fighting of November, December and the first half of January.
|Total Forces||Killed||Wounded||Missing||Total Casualties||Percentage of Total Force|
* Of these, 13,800 were taken prisoner at Bardia and Halfaya.
It is interesting to compare the parts played by the high commanders on the two sides. General Auchinleck had, with the Naval and Air Commanders-in-Chief, laid down the policy for the British offensive and he had approved the plan, into which he had gone very thoroughly before entrusting it to the Army Commander to execute. When a crisis arose over the heavy losses of the British armour Auchinleck came forward and gave the courageous decision to continue the offensive. Thereafter he spent days at a time close to Army Headquarters, not interfering with General Ritchie but ensuring that his own advice and support were available if they were wanted. All important operational matters were discussed between the two. It may be wondered whether, in these circumstances, there could have been much distinction between ‘advice’ and ‘orders’. Besides all this the Commander-in-Chief continued to deal with the many problems which concerned the Middle East as a whole.
General Bastico, the Commander-in-Chief of the Axis Armed Forces in North Africa, was in a somewhat uneasy position. He had in General Rommel a commander of great experience and proved ability who was in his element in the desert, where his ideas on the handling of armoured forces had full play. Rommel was ready to accept any amount of responsibility; in fact his self-reliance made him impatient of interference from behind and he did not hesitate to short-circuit General Bastico by communicating with Rome or Berlin if it suited him. In practice Bastico’s control over Rommel was what
Rommel chose to accept. While things went well he was left to himself, but after the relief of Tobruk he was constantly being called to conferences and meetings at which Bastico tried to establish his authority, and there were times when Rommel was openly critical of the back-seat drivers. His severest trial came when his many counsellors—among whom was Kesselring—pressed him to stand and seek a decision at Gazala, or at the worst to retire slowly step by step. They loaded him with reasons against drawing right back to the frontier of Tripolitania, but Rommel, in close touch with the tactical situation, was adamant. The British were slow, but they would press doggedly on and he would not be able to stop them. A retreat was therefore inevitable, and could only succeed if it took place before the British could interfere seriously. If General Rommel had weakened on this decision there is little doubt that the Axis forces would have been destroyed and the whole course of the war in the Desert changed. He deserves great credit for seeing the issue clearly and for refusing to be shaken from his decision.
In the air the systems of command on the two sides differed in several respects. The German air force in Cyrenaica was a detachment of Fliegerkorps X, whose commander, General Geisler, had his headquarters in Greece and had been mainly concerned with the maritime air war. With the arrival of the headquarters of Luftflotte 2 in November 1941 his immediate superior became Field-Marshal Kesselring, who gave him the additional task of helping to neutralize Malta. The Fliegerführer Afrika, Major-General Frohlich, had been responsible to Geisler, but now came directly under Kesselring, though he was still in the unenviable position of having to satisfy the demands of General Rommel without being under his command, and without being his equal in rank. To complete the picture, Rommel was not in any way subordinate to Kesselring. The Italian air forces were separate, and co-operated by a system of liaison.
The British Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Marshal Tedder, had allotted every possible squadron to the Desert Air Force, whose commander, Air Vice-Marshal Coningham, controlled all the air operations directly connected with CRUSADER. Coningham lived and moved with the commander of the 8th Army, and together they were responsible for carrying out the plan approved by the Commanders-in-Chief in Cairo. This was the basis of all the subsequent successful co-operation between the two Services.
The action taken by the Royal Air Force in the weeks before CRUSADER undoubtedly won a large measure of air superiority, which contributed greatly to the surprise achieved by the offensive when it came. It resulted also in the air attacks on the troops being comparatively light, and those units which were well dispersed had few losses. (Indeed it was often said that our dispersion was overdone; certainly
the Germans habitually used closer formations.) It had been realized that a state of air superiority, once reached, might not last for long, and the main object of placing all the British air forces under an Air Officer in close touch with Army Headquarters was to ensure that he could concentrate all his resources to meet the principal need of the moment—which might well be to resume the fight for air superiority. But no battles go quite as expected, and as CRUSADER swayed between Sidi Rezegh and the Egyptian frontier it was evident that even if the air situation in general is favourable it may be locally and temporarily unfavourable. And as the front moved westward and our blows grew weaker, the enemy was able to hit back from his more stable bases. For this among other reasons a time was soon to come when air superiority in Western Cyrenaica hung in the balance; indeed, for a short period it was to pass to the enemy.
None of this alters the fact that during CRUSADER the Army enjoyed the best air support it had ever had, and the diaries show how appreciative it was. From 18th November to 20th January the Germans in Libya lost, according to their own records, at least 232 aircraft from all causes and the Italians at least 100. The totals must in fact have been higher, for on the airfields and landing-grounds from Gambut to Benina no fewer than 228 German and as many Italian aircraft were found abandoned in various states of disrepair, apart from many others scattered about in the desert or discarded in scrap heaps. It was the first time the Luftwaffe had been bundled off its airfields, and at Benina in particular, which had been a centre of organization and supply, there was much of interest to be learned from the records and equipment. The British losses in aircraft in the Desert during the same period were about 300, the total number of sorties (including those of Malta’s bombers on tasks other than shipping strikes) having been nearly 12,000, which means an average of more than 190 sorties a day over the nine weeks.
A great deal of equipment was lost by the land forces of both sides, especially by the Italians, who had not the transport to move it. The recorded data for tanks do not allow of exact statements under the headings of those destroyed, damaged, or broken down. They do, however, point to the broad conclusion that the British lost in combat, destroyed and damaged, far more than the Germans and had many more mechanical breakdowns. The course of the fighting made it often possible for the Germans to recover their damaged tanks immediately after a combat, but the eventual advance by the British meant that a large proportion of their tank casualties were recovered also. In this connexion the figures for tanks of the 7th Armoured Division handled by the recovery and repair units show what an important part these organizations played:
|Date||Battle casualties and breakdowns*||Initial recoveries*||Number repaired*||Number under repair|
|23 Nov||about 200|
|29 Nov||about 300||187||72||46|
|1 Jan||about 600|
* denotes cumulative totals.
In addition to the above numbers there were just over 200 casualties to British ‘I’ tanks.
The probable figure for German losses is 220 and for Italian about 120. These figures do not include tanks returned to their units after being damaged and repaired, of which there must have been a great many in the case of the Germans.
Although CRUSADER achieved a large measure of success, and caused the enemy heavy losses, there were many disquieting features. The British tank crews felt handicapped by being armed with nothing more powerful than the 2-pdr gun. The latest cruisers were far too prone to mechanical breakdown. The Stuarts were faster and much more reliable, which had quickly made them popular with the crews, but their vulnerability and short radius of action, added to the weakness of their gun, had seriously limited their value. The lack of a more powerful anti-tank gun than the 2-pdr was widely felt, and had it not been for the 25-pdr field artillery weapon the anti-tank position would have been serious indeed. And in the air the Me.109F was superior in performance to any British fighter in the Middle East.
It must not be supposed, however, that shortcomings in equipment were solely to blame for the failure of CRUSADER to gain a more decisive success. The British showed that they had much to learn about the handling of large land forces. This was not altogether surprising, because in peace nothing existed (except on paper) larger than a division—and that usually in skeleton, so that higher training was largely a matter of make-believe. Since 1940 the pace of events in the Middle East had hurried formations into action almost as soon as they were created. A great deal had therefore to be learned the hard and costly way—in battle.
The fundamental failing of the British at this time was the habit of fighting at a disadvantage owing to not having concentrated their
strength at the decisive place. The German report on the battle emphasizes the point and attributes the British failure to achieve final success to ‘this fundamental tactical mistake’. As has been seen,
General Crüwell was quick to take advantage of it on several occasions. Unfortunately the lesson had not been fully learned, and the story of the fighting in the early summer of 1942 will be found to contain some further examples—with disastrous consequences. During CRUSADER the neglect of such a well-established principle seems to have been largely due to a feeling that tanks were required to counter tanks, with the result that part of the British armour was often given the role of protecting some unarmoured formation.
The British must nevertheless be given credit for having made a bold, imaginative plan. It was felt that any kind of repetition of the BATTLEAXE plan (which began with an attack on the frontier defences) was to be avoided as smacking too much of the obvious, although this is not in itself a sufficient reason for discarding such a course. A wide sweep and a deep penetration by a highly mobile force was decided upon, and a piece of ground at Sidi Rezegh was chosen as the provisional objective. This was judged to be of such importance to the enemy that he would be obliged to try to regain it. So far so good, but the corollary was surely twofold; first, to occupy the Sidi Rezegh area ‘fustest with the most men’13 and prepare to defend it strongly; and second, to dispose the 30th Corps so that it could deal decisively with the expected incursion by the enemy’s armour, and not merely fend it off. Instead of making sure of these aims, or even one of them, the British were ready for neither. They did not take a firm hold of the vital ground, nor did they succeed in concentrating a superior force against the enemy’s armour, which reacted in the way that General Auchinleck had foreseen.14
It may be wondered how the enemy, who were so short of transport, were able to keep themselves supplied during this prolonged struggle. The answer is that their problem was unlike the one that faced the British, whose plan necessitated a very long line of communication across the open desert, where the wear and tear and the consumption of petrol were enormous. Most of the hard fighting took place within reach of the enemy’s depots—such as Gambut, Acroma, and Gazala—which had been stocked during the preceding months and were close to the well surfaced roads. On the few occasions when the Axis troops operated at a distance from these depots they were soon in trouble. They would have been in still greater trouble had they not captured a large amount of British transport.
As time went by, many of these depots were captured, and at others the stocks were depleted by the severity of the fighting. Consequently the enemy grew increasingly anxious about the arrival of fresh supplies
by sea—especially of fuel and ammunition. The air attacks on the ports of loading and on Tripoli, Benghazi, Derna and the smaller off-loading places in the Gulf of Sirte have already been referred to. It remains to describe the efforts of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to damage the remaining link in the chain by sinking as many ships on passage to North Africa as possible. The whole struggle was essentially one, and the successes and setbacks at sea belong as much to the CRUSADER story as does the fighting in Cyrenaica itself.