Chapter 6: Retreat to Gazala
See Maps 2 and 21
THE middle of January 1942 found the British and Axis forces in loose contact in the difficult country near the bend of the Gulf of Sirte. General Auchinleck had always intended to chase the retreating enemy into Tripolitania, and had caused plans to be made for doing so. By the end of December, however, it was evident that the British could not keep up the momentum of their advance even against slight opposition; moreover, the unsuccessful tank actions of 28th and 30th December showed that the German armour, although weak in numbers, was still full of fight. Clearly, if the British were to advance any farther they would first have to build up an adequate force and, equally important, accumulate the supplies to support it. General Godwin-Austen was given these tasks, and used as a basis a plan for attacking the enemy frontally with one infantry brigade while the greater part of an armoured division passed round the desert flank; simultaneously another infantry brigade was to land from the sea in the enemy’s rear.
As usual, administrative problems were dominant. It has already been seen how the failure to defeat the enemy quickly in November led to great difficulties in nourishing the battle, and these difficulties grew more serious as the front moved westward. By the first week in January the position was briefly as follows. To supply the 13th Corps and its attached troops, and to provide the Royal Air Force with those commodities and services for which the Army was responsible, required some 1,400 tons a day. The average daily amounts received at Tobruk by sea and by lorry convoys from the railhead at Misheifa together came to 1,150 tons. Far from there being any surplus for building up reserve stocks, without which there could be no advance, there was thus a shortfall of some 250 tons on daily needs alone. An obvious remedy was to increase the port capacity at Tobruk, stock Derna wholly by sea, and restore Benghazi to working order. The transport at present locked up in convoys from Misheifa could then be used to deliver from these ports.
When Benghazi was first captured in February 1941 little use could be made of the port, mainly on account of its inadequate air defences. The experiences of 1942 were to be depressingly similar, though for different reasons. This time the harbour, which was strewn with
wrecks, had been devastated, and there were gaps in the wall through which the sea could break. (See Photo 8). As early as 25th December 194 z—the day after the last enemy troops left—Axis aircraft began to lay magnetic mines. The Naval port party was quickly at work, and four minesweepers arrived on the 29th, followed a week later by Army Dock and Port Operating Companies. The first convoy of three merchant ships arrived on 7th January, followed by the administrative units needed to staff the Advanced Base. The almost incessant westerly gales, the lack of tugs, and the fact that a wreck still prevented deep-draught ships passing the entrance, made the rate of discharge very uncertain.
The fact is that the administrative resources of the 8th Army were now stretched to the limit. The troops were still living ‘hard’, and it was possible to improve only slightly the monotonous battle-ration which they had been eating for seven weeks. The over-riding need for certain commodities, especially petrol and lubricants, often shut out such desirable things as bacon, oatmeal, cigarettes and rum. No reserve stocks could be built up, the sea routes were precarious, and the consumption and waste of petrol by transport on the long desert journeys were appalling. Taking one thing with another, there can have been little hope of beginning offensive operations before the end of February. As it turned out, this was not soon enough.
The intention to relieve the 7th Armoured Division by the 1st Armoured Division has already been mentioned, and it has been related how the 22nd Armoured Brigade replaced the 4th before the start of the move across the desert from Mechili. The 1st Armoured Division had had an unlucky year. It had had a short experience of fighting in France in 1940, was reorganized after Dunkirk, and by February 1941 contained, with a few exceptions, the units which it later took to the Middle East. By April 1941 it possessed a strange assortment of tanks, from which almost all the latest cruisers were then withdrawn in order to make up the TIGER convoy for the Middle East. By early July good progress was being made with re-equipping the Division, when the Chiefs of Staff decided once more to remove the latest cruisers for modification preparatory to sending them to the Middle East. Shortly afterwards the further decision was taken to send the 22nd Armoured Brigade, which accordingly sailed in August, made up with most of the available Crusader tanks. The rest of the Division sailed during the second half of September, before it could be completely equipped with modern cruisers. The effect of all these changes upon training was of course deplorable.
The exploits of the 22nd Armoured Brigade in CRUSADER are already familiar. The main body of the Division began to arrive in Egypt during the second half of November. During December it moved forward, but not as a whole. It came under the 13th Corps on 3rd
January 1942, and Major-General Messervy took temporary command in place of Major-General Lumsden, who had been wounded in an air attack, and Major-General Tuker took over command of the 4th Indian Division from General Messervy. Just previously to this the 22nd Armoured Brigade had suffered the reverses near Agedabia which have already been described, and had to be withdrawn to Tobruk to refit. Thus it befell that, as in April 1941, the British armoured division on guard at the gateway to Cyrenaica had had very little training as a division and lacked half its armour. Its one armoured brigade—the 2nd—not only had no petrol with which to continue its training but suffered from another handicap. It had been thought in December that a first need would be for a strong armoured brigade group well forward. The 2nd Armoured Brigade had therefore been given 1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade, 11th (HAC) Regiment RHA and 76th Anti-Tank Regiment RA, from the 1st Support Group. These units had trained with the Brigade on the long march up from Matruh, but now, in consequence of the decision that the 1st Support Group should relieve the 7th, they reverted to the 1st Support Group and were replaced by units new to the 2nd Armoured Brigade and its ways.
General Auchinleck and his senior Commanders were agreed, however, that it would be almost impossible for the enemy to take the offensive for a long time; the evidence concerning the German and Italian losses, their lack of reinforcements, and their supply difficulties, all pointed to this conclusion. But if the unexpected should happen, and if the enemy could not be immediately stopped, it was intended that the 13th Corps should fight on the line Agedabia-El Haseiat. General Messervy’s tasks were accordingly, first, to harass the enemy with mobile columns while the British offensive was being prepared, and second, to be ready for a defensive battle. To the latter end he had delaying positions reconnoitred, but his suggestion that the 4th Indian Division should move forward to Agedabia and the 2nd Armoured Brigade to Giof el Matar was not agreed to, because the supplying of so many troops so far forward would have seriously delayed the preparations for the intended offensive. This was the reason given at the time, but the fact is that the administrative machine could not have maintained these additional troops so far forward. Consequently the 4th Indian Division continued to have one infantry brigade group at Benghazi and one at Barce. (The third was refitting at Tobruk). The only troops within a hundred miles of the enemy were those of the incomplete 1st Armoured Division, the 22nd (now re-numbered 200th) Guards Brigade, and part of Oasis Force, which was being broken up.
On the thirty miles of front from Mersa Brega to the Wadi Faregh were the 200th Guards Brigade (Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott) on the
right,1 and the 1st Support Group (Brigadier C. M. Vallentin) on the left.2 Each of these formations was divided into small columns of infantry and artillery for carrying out the division’s primary role of harassing the enemy. As the Guards Brigade had only enough artillery for four columns, which required in all the infantry of one battalion, the second battalion was stationed back at Agedabia. There was no third battalion in this brigade. On the left, the 1st Support Group was of comparable strength but was new to its surroundings, having only relieved the 7th Support Group on 19th January. It had some appallingly hummocky ground to work over, which had tried the skill of the most experienced desert drivers; General Messervy described it as the only large area he knew over which tracked vehicles were faster than wheeled. To make matters worse for the 1st Support Group a number of their vehicles turned out to be not fully desert-worthy and there was much trouble with burst tyres and lack of spare parts. Even the three armoured car regiments that had been patrolling on that front had had so many vehicles damaged that all except one squadron had been withdrawn to refit.
Under command of the Support Group was a composite squadron of twenty-four Stuart tanks, apart from which there were no tanks forward of Antelat, where the 2nd Armoured Brigade Group (Brigadier R. Briggs) was assembled to carry out some desert training.3 The three regiments of this Brigade had each about twenty-six cruiser tanks and eighteen Stuarts, having lost in all twenty cruisers from mechanical breakdown during the move forward from Egypt.4
Air Vice-Marshal Coningham’s chief concern was to prepare to support the advance into Tripolitania. His estimate of the squadrons required for the purpose was ten single-engine and one twin-engine fighter, four day-bomber and two tactical reconnaissance squadrons, and, in addition, various other reconnaissance aircraft and air transports, together with the radar, maintenance, administrative and
armoured car units for essential ground duties. To free his headquarters of the task of administering those squadrons and units that would remain in Cyrenaica, No. 21 I Group, hitherto a nucleus headquarters, was brought in and assumed the appropriate local responsibilities. By 20th January the main units of the Desert Air Force were disposed as follows. Nine single-engine fighter squadrons were at Antelat, and four were divided between Benina, Derna, El Adem and Tobruk protecting the ports and shipping. The Beaufighters were at Gerawla. The day-bomber force consisted of only two squadrons at Gambut and Bu Amud, instead of the requisite four, one having been withdrawn for re-equipping and one transferred to Syria. The forward radar units were at Benghazi, Derna and Tobruk, while Air Vice-Marshal Coningham’s headquarters, with Air Commodore G. R. Beamish now as Senior Air Staff Officer, were at Tmimi.
It was indeed true that the enemy had reached his selected defensive position at Mersa Brega considerably exhausted, and the deduction that he was in no fit state to start an offensive was a fair one. On 5th January, however, a convoy reached Tripoli bringing, among other badly needed items, 54 tanks, their crews, and a consignment of fuel. By 10th January General Rommel felt sure that the British were awaiting reinforcements and that there was hope of a valuable breathing space. But at a staff conference held on 12th January his senior intelligence officer, Major F. W. von Mellenthin, predicted that for the next fortnight the Axis forces would be slightly stronger than the British immediately opposed to them. Thereafter the British would grow stronger: even now, if they were to concentrate their forces, they should be able to bite off a part of the Axis position. He therefore thought it dangerous to continue on the defensive. Colonel Westphal, the head of the Operations Section, then suggested that their dispersion and local weakness made the British susceptible to a spoiling attack in the Agedabia area—not that any success could be exploited, owing to the scarcity of German troops and supplies. General Rommel did not jump at the idea, but finally agreed. It was to be a dead secret and the preparations were to be explained, plausibly enough, as measures to meet an imminent British attack.5
On 14th January the equipment recently unloaded at Tripoli began to reach the front. The next day wireless messages were intercepted which suggested that the British were in administrative difficulties and not completely ready for action. On the 17th more equipment
arrived from Tripoli, and the German strength in tanks rose to 84 and the Italian to 89. On the 18th General Rommel issued his orders for an attack on the 21st. The DAK would advance on the south, with its right on the Wadi Faregh; the (Italian) 20th Corps in the centre; and a special Group under Colonel Marcks on the left, along and to the north of the coastal road.6 The Marcks Group would later be directed either towards Agedabia or to the south-east, according to how things went. A simple and modest plan.
The comparative quiet of the past few weeks had enabled the enemy to regain some of his strength in the air. By the third week of January there were 515 German and Italian aircraft in Tripolitania, of which goo were serviceable. On the British side the Desert Air Force was still very much stretched and was suffering from many shortages; of its 445 aircraft about 280 were immediately available for operations. The weather, which had distinctly favoured the British on the eve of CRUSADER, now helped the enemy, whose preliminary movements were obscured by sand-storms. On the night 20th/21st there were also heavy squalls of rain, which might be thought to have affected both sides alike but for the fact that the worst conditions of all were at Antelat, where the airfield was turned into what an eyewitness described as ‘a chocolate blancmange’. To avoid the risk of all the aircraft being caught on the ground, four squadrons of fighters were with great difficulty flown off early on 21st January to Msus and one squadron to Gazala. At these airfields the conditions were much better, but a great deal of range was thereby sacrificed. This explains the German claim that the British ‘scarcely put in an appearance’ in the air on that day. Nevertheless, an aircraft of No. 208 Squadron did report large concentrations of vehicles around Mersa Brega and some distance inland.
The enemy’s advance began soon after 8 a.m. on 21st January. The weak British columns fell back by their pre-arranged routes, inflicting as much damage as they could. On the left the Support Group was soon in trouble on account of the bad going, the frequent dive-bombing, and general inexperience of desert tactics. During the day sixteen field guns were lost, some from enemy action and some because the tractors became ditched in the soft sand; many other vehicles were lost in the same way. The enemy had his difficulties too, and even the veteran 15th Panzer Division, advancing just north of the Wadi Faregh, became partially stuck in the dunes. By nightfall the whole enemy’s front had advanced roughly ten or twelve miles, and the
Germans recorded that the British Guards Brigade and Support Group had, by withdrawing, escaped destruction.
To General Messervy it was evident that the enemy had probed forward on a wide front, but the information at the end of the day suggested that the chief danger would be where the Guards Brigade and the Support Group joined. He therefore ordered the former to remain south of Agedabia and the latter to prolong the left flank to near El Haseiat; the 2nd Armoured Brigade (Brigadier R. Briggs) was to advance to Giof el Matar and be ready to attack the enemy’s flank if he broke through.
But General Rommel had no particular designs on the British centre, and he ordered the advance to continue as far as Agedabia on 22nd January. Starting very early the Marcks Group set off along the main road, was delayed but not stopped by the guns of the Guards Brigade’s columns, and reached Agedabia by 11 a.m. Rommel at once saw his chance. He met General Crüwell and announced his plan, which was to spread a net from Agedabia to Antelat and on to Saunnu. The 2nd Machine-Gun Battalion would make for Antelat, the Marcks Group for Saunnu, and the DAK and 20th Corps, in that order, would deploy between the Marcks Group and Agedabia. All would then turn south-east against the trapped British and drive them away from their lines of supply. The day was to be spent in getting into position.
Realizing that some of the enemy were slipping past his right flank, General Messervy ordered the Guards Brigade to block the main road. But Brigadier Marriott had sent the 2nd Scots Guards back towards Antelat because they had no supporting arms, and his columns were outpaced. The enemy had therefore no great difficulty in reaching his positions on ‘the net’. The destination of the 2nd Armoured Brigade was changed from Giof el Matar to a point about twelve miles north of it, where it arrived by the evening.7 By then the 200th Guards Brigade (less the 2nd Scots Guards) and the 1st Support Group were roughly on the line Agedabia-El Haseiat.
General Godwin-Austen, whose advanced headquarters had moved from Antelat to Msus, was anxious lest the enemy should do just what they were in fact doing. Realizing the danger to the supplies at Msus, on which the Armoured Division depended, he ordered General Messervy to block the tracks leading to Msus from Agedabia and Saunnu. Suspecting also an approaching threat to the whole of Western Cyrenaica he told the 4th Indian Division to hold up any enemy on the coast road and, as a precaution, to be prepared to cover an evacuation of Benghazi. The 7th Indian Infantry Brigade accordingly moved out about twelve miles south of Benghazi.
As on the previous day the German and Italian Air Forces were very active, and flew nearly 500 sorties in the two days. Antelat airfield was still in a shocking state, and on the morning of the 22nd the remaining fighters began to fly off to Msus. At about 1 p.m. the danger to the airfield caused 13th Corps to tell the Officer Commanding No. 262 Wing to leave Antelat. It was as well that most of the fighters had already gone, for each aircraft had to be manhandled to a short narrow strip of barely serviceable ground. The airfield came under shell-fire as the last aircraft took off, and the remaining maintenance parties were rescued by Nos. z and 2 Armoured Car Companies, RAF Blenheims and long-range Hurricanes now began to take a hand in attacking columns reported by aircraft on tactical reconnaissance, and that night some of the Wellingtons from Sidi Barrani set out to try to hinder enemy reinforcements which might be coming from Tripolitania.
During the afternoon of the 22nd General Ritchie returned from a visit to Cairo, where he had been working on the coming advance into Tripolitania. In his view Rommel was probably trying to gain elbow-room east of the El Agheila defile, meaning to make a counteroffensive when he was strong enough. Before then the Axis could maintain nothing more than strong reconnaissance forces east of Agedabia and El Haseiat. Ritchie was therefore undismayed. As a first step he intended to give the 4th Indian Division enough transport to enable it to act within supporting distance of the Armoured Division. He believed that the enemy was holding back most of his tanks well to the south-west of Agedabia, and was confident that there would be a ‘God-sent opportunity to hit him really hard when he puts out his neck as it seems possible that he may be already doing’.
This was a robust reading of the situation, but not an accurate one. If any neck had been stuck out it was a British neck, which the enemy was now menacing with strong forces. In spite of the object-lesson provided by the reverse which had befallen General Wavell’s army the year before, the British dispositions had again been such as to invite attack without possessing the necessary strength to meet it. Many people wondered why the British High Command had not turned the earlier experiences to better account.
On the strategic level powerful interests were at work. Events in Russia and the Far East, and the possibility of an Allied landing in French Morocco, all made it very desirable to exploit CRUSADER by advancing into Tripolitania as soon as possible—operation ACROBAT. But a pause for building up the 8th Army’s resources was clearly essential, and General Auchinleck had to decide which of two courses would be the quicker: to maintain active contact with the enemy about El Agheila and accept the risk of the British light forces in that area being driven back, or, alternatively, to yield some 150 miles of desert
and develop his strength in the neighbourhood of, say, Msus and Benghazi—this course being simply a withdrawal ‘pour mieux sauter’. General Auchinleck judged, very nearly rightly, that Rommel was unlikely for some time to be able to mount an offensive in strength after the hammering he had received during CRUSADER, and decided that the policy must be to keep up such pressure as was possible rather than break away altogether. The risk of a reconnaissance in force by the enemy must be accepted. General Ritchie, knowing his Commander-in-Chief’s wishes, was not the man to act otherwise than with energy and enthusiasm in giving effect to them, but as Dr. Cruttwell has so happily put it in commenting on the Mesopotamian Campaign of 1915 ‘too often the capacity to advance is identified with the desirability of advancing.’8 As has been seen the capacity of the 8th Army to advance was over-estimated; it could barely maintain itself where it was. Had not the enemy judged the situation very shrewdly in the middle of January, and after some hesitation taken the right action, the British bluff—for that is what it was—might have succeeded. As it happened, the British High Command took a chance which did not come off.
The basic idea of each side on 23rd January was simple enough: the British wanted to draw back the 1st Armoured Division and the enemy wanted to catch as much of it as possible in their net. The result was a number of separate encounters during the day, spread over a wide area.
At 4.45 a.m. General Godwin-Austen signalled to General Messervy that it was vital for him to be able to prevent the enemy advancing on Msus. The Germans were known to have reached not only Antelat but also Saunnu, where they would be a menace to the Armoured Division’s tail. Messervy ordered Brigadier Briggs to send a regiment to clear up Saunnu—the Bays were sent—and with the rest of his brigade to get astride the Msus track to the north-cast of Antelat. The Support Group and the Guards Brigade (less the 2nd Scots Guards, who were out of touch) were to join up north-cast of Antelat by moving towards Saunnu or even farther east if necessary.
The two Panzer Divisions, according to their own reports, seem to have been under the impression that their main task was to block the retreating British, who, with their main line of supply cut, would naturally be expected to try to fight their way out. The information up to dark on the night before suggested that some of the British might try to break away along the Trigh El Abd, and this is probably why the Marcks Group was sent off early on the 23rd to Maaten el Grara. It left Saunnu at 5 a.m., with the result that the Bays arrived to find
the place clear. General Rommel intended the 21st Panzer Division to take the place of the Marcks Group at Saunnu, but there was a mistake in the transmission of the order and the Division did not move.
Ground haze hampered the air forces of both sides during the early part of the morning. A steady stream of enemy traffic was seen, however, moving along the coast road and between Agedabia and Antelat, and was attacked by the long-range Hurricanes of No. 33 Squadron. No Blenheims were available, as they were wanted for use against an Italian convoy at sea. Over the battle area the fighters from Msus worked hard to regain their ascendancy, and on this day the air attacks on the British troops began to wane. The need for information about the enemy’s movements was so great that the practice now began of using some of the fighter squadrons to get it.
Realizing that the enemy was present in strength between Agedabia and Antelat, General Messervy ordered the 2nd Armoured Brigade to protect the western flank of the Division as it withdrew to the north of Antelat. At about 10 a.m. the leading regiment, the 9th Lancers, ran into the 21st Panzer Division and was ordered by Brigadier Briggs to pin the enemy while the 10th Hussars took the lead. This was done, and at about noon the Goth Hussars struck more enemy (also almost certainly of the 21st Panzer Division) and went into action. The 21st Panzer Division’s call for help was received by the much stronger 15th Panzer Division, which lay just to the west. This Division had been ordered to reconnoitre towards Giof el Matar, and possibly for this reason felt unable to respond without the permission of DAK, which it did not succeed in getting. (Perhaps the 21st Panzer Division had not got over its old habit of sending alarmist reports.)
Brigadier Briggs had now nothing in hand, and turned to join the Bays who had been recalled from Saunnu. He ordered the other two regiments to break away and follow, but the 10th Hussars were too closely engaged, and the 9th Lancers could not comply at once without uncovering the move northwards of Divisional Headquarters and various other units which all needed protection. This protection the two regiments gave.
Meanwhile General Rommel had set the two Panzer Divisions in motion, with the 21st directed on Saunnu. The 1st Support Group, moving north, collided with the 15th Panzer Division and was chased eastwards until nearly dusk. There was much confusion, but Brigadier Vallentin at length got his force in hand again a few miles south of Saunnu. The 9th Lancers reached Saunnu at about 5 p.m., almost at the same moment as the 21st Panzer Division. There was an immediate clash, and the 21st Field Battery, South African Artillery, in action at point blank range, was overrun, but not before it had knocked out
several tanks. The 10th Hussars, who had had great difficulty in disengaging, were also caught up in the DAK’s drive and their supporting artillery suffered heavily in fighting their guns to the last. In each of these actions the Artillery had upheld its best traditions.9 Both sides leaguered on the field.10
After joining with the Bays the Headquarters of the 2nd Armoured Brigade had managed to reach the Msus track some seven miles from Antelat, but the whole brigade, much reduced in strength, was not reunited in this area until next morning. The Support Group also joined up, as did the tooth Guards Brigade which had been lucky enough to reach the north-east of Saunnu with no other incident than a brush with part of 15th Panzer Division.
During the day the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade left Tobruk for Barce. General Tuker intended this brigade to take over the close defence of Benghazi from 7th Indian Infantry Brigade, which would then move south to operate on the right flank of the Armoured Division. General Ritchie, who had visited 13th Corps during the morning, was still full of confidence and informed the Commander-in-Chief that the situation was well in hand and that he intended to defeat the isolated enemy columns which he felt were all that the enemy could maintain so far forward. His purpose was still to turn to the offensive on a big scale.
Meanwhile General Rommel was having troubles of a different nature. General Bastico had become alarmed because the limited spoiling attack, to which he had agreed, was turning into a full-blown offensive of which he strongly disapproved. He signalled his fears to Comando Supremo, and asked that General Rommel should be made to take a more realistic view. This brought Cavallero to Rommel’s headquarters on 23rd January, accompanied by Field-Marshal Kesselring and bringing a directive from Mussolini. In this it was stated that there was no immediate prospect of sending supplies and reinforcements to Africa in the face of the present British naval and air opposition. A defensive line should be held from Mersa Brega to Marada, in advance of which the mobile troops might carry out strictly limited offensives. Appealed to by Cavallero to call off the present operations, Rommel replied that he meant to attack as long as he could, and that only Hitler could stop him because most of the fighting would be done
by Germans. Rommel noted in his diary that after Kesselring had made some attempt to back up Cavallero the latter ‘went off growling’.
The 24th January was something of an anti-climax. It seems that Rommel was imperfectly informed of the encounters of the previous day, and still had the idea of rounding up all the British in the area Saunnu–Maaten el Grara–Agedabia. The general move south-eastwards was therefore resumed, and much time and petrol was wasted before the ‘pursuit’ was called off, and the DAK was ordered to get ready to move north next day.
The events of 23rd January had bred doubts in General Godwin-Austen’s mind which he expressed in a signal to General Ritchie early on the 24th. He felt that no great damage had been done to the enemy, whose striking power we had underestimated; that an advance on the coast road could not be seriously resisted; and that the Armoured Division could not defend the Msus track and also protect the open eastern flank. He therefore asked for discretion to order a general with draw-al towards Mechili. To this Ritchie quickly replied that although the news was disquieting the enemy must be near his limit, and there might yet be a chance of attacking him. For this it was necessary to collect forces at Msus and south of Benghazi, because the enemy would not be strong enough to deal with a double threat. Therefore the 13th Corps must stand at Msus and cover Benghazi, giving ground for tactical reasons only. But he authorized Godwin-Austen to withdraw if necessary, and as a precaution he was to begin to clear administrative units from Benghazi and Msus and to prepare demolition plans. Godwin-Austen replied that he thought there was a grave danger of the 1st Armoured Division being too weak to hold the desert flank. He had ordered General Messervy to impose as much delay as possible without jeopardizing his force, but he was most anxious that a series of local withdrawals should not entangle him in a running fight, and he had given Messervy permission to withdraw to Mechili if in danger. That evening General Ritchie reported to the Commander-in-Chief the gist of the day’s exchange of views, and pointed out that the preparations for withdrawal were an insurance policy. For the same reason he had ordered General Norrie to reconnoitre delaying positions in the area Gazala-Tobruk.
Air Vice-Marshal Coningham’s reaction to these conflicting views was to prepare for the worst case, and to give orders for the withdrawal of all maintenance and heavy ground units, including radar. The main force of fighters would be kept fully mobile for rearguard action, moving first to Mechili and then, if necessary, successively to Gazala and Gambut. Two fighter squadrons would remain for the present at Benghazi, and would fall back on Martuba to join two other squadrons; all four would ultimately move to El Adem. The day-bombers would remain temporarily in the Tobruk area. All captured air force
material would be destroyed, and arrangements would be made to destroy any fuel and unserviceable transport that could not be towed away.
The move of the fighters from Msus to Mechili meant that only limited action was possible on the 24th, but the enemy’s activity was also much less. Only one formation was encountered, of which three Ju.87s were destroyed without loss. Meanwhile Beaufighters of No. 272 Squadron struck at road transport in the neighbourhood of Nofilia, now deep in enemy territory. That evening the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, influenced no doubt by the feeling of frustration in Cairo, signalled that he was sending forward twelve cannon-fighter Blenheims with aircrews and maintenance parties to ‘help stop this nonsense’.
On 25th January the whole of the DAK struck northwards and drove the 1st Armoured Division towards Charruba where some supplies had been collected. The diary of 15th Panzer Division remarks that its armoured regiment ‘broke into the enemy at a tearing speed and threw him into complete confusion’. Rommel stopped the chase at Msus because his fuel was running out, but he felt that he had hit the British hard enough to prevent them from resuming the offensive. The spoiling attack had in fact succeeded. A pause was essential, and gave him time to consider what to do next.
The events of the 25th had seemed to confirm General Godwin-Austen’s views. That evening he used his discretionary powers and ordered the 4th Indian Division to withdraw from Benghazi, which was then cleared of all seaworthy ships, and the 1st Armoured Division to move to Mechili. But during the afternoon the Commander-in-Chief and Air Marshal Tedder had come forward to Ritchie’s headquarters and together they came to the conclusion that the German thrust to Msus must have been the exploitation of an unexpected success, and that there was still time to repel it. At 8.30 p.m. General Ritchie gave orders which put a brake on 13th Corps’ withdrawal, and just before midnight he cancelled it altogether, on the ground that the enemy must be in serious difficulties over his maintenance. The 4th Indian Division was to send columns against his lines of communication north-east of Agedabia; the 1st Armoured Division was to oppose any advance towards Charruba and protect the left flank of the 4th Indian Division between that place and El Abiar. ‘The most offensive action is to be taken’, wrote General Ritchie, ‘together with greatest risks.’
Speaking to the Army Commander by radio-telephone General Godwin-Austen formally objected to the change of plan, mainly because he believed that the 1st Armoured Division could have
scarcely more than forty tanks, and was unequal to its tasks. General Ritchie insisted, and took the 4th Indian Division under his own command. Godwin-Austen gave the necessary orders, but sent a personal message protesting against the new plan and the want of confidence in himself suggested by the refusal of his advice. General Ritchie soon found that the two divisional commanders also had their doubts. At noon on the 26th General Messervy reported that he had forty-one tanks fit to fight, and forty field guns, and followed this up by saying that he could do no more for the day than hold on at Charruba and patrol the track to El Abiar with armoured cars. Meanwhile General Tuker sent a message to 8th Army doubting if his new role was practicable, because his troops in hand amounted to one brigade and he could not expect much help from the Armoured Division. General Ritchie however was not to be diverted from his purpose, and plans to carry it out were pushed ahead.
During 26th January General Rommel, unable to do more for the present than ‘take on supplies and salvage the extensive booty’, made up his mind what to do next. He had intercepted enough wireless traffic to suggest that there were disagreements among the British commanders and that Benghazi might be given up. He decided not to continue his advance to the north-cast for fear of exposing his supply lines to a stroke from Benghazi, but rather to go for Benghazi itself from an unlikely direction. He decided to send the Marcks Group and the 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units to approach Benghazi across the notoriously difficult country from the south-east. They would then capture Benina and block the main road at Coefia to the north while the 10th Corps advanced by Sceleidima, Soluch and Ghemines, and the 90th Light Division moved up the main road from Beda Fomm. An essential part of the plan was that the DAK was to manoeuvre so as to make the British expect the next thrust to be made towards Mechili. The attack would begin on 28th January. It was thus destined to forestall the 13th Corps’ operations, which, after further disagreements and discussions on 27th January, were timed to begin on the 29th.
Meanwhile, on 25th January, the Desert Air Force was doing all it could to hamper the enemy’s progress. Some of the fighters attacked ground targets, and the Beaufighters struck at enemy columns well in rear. The two day-bomber squadrons, which were attacking traffic between Antelat and Agedabia, were reinforced at night by forty Wellingtons, which carried on the attacks in depth as far as El Agheila. From Malta Air Vice-Marshal Lloyd gave what help he could with his limited resources in circumstances of great difficulty, as his airfields were being heavily attacked and were much affected by the wet weather. However, Tripoli was attacked by a small force of Wellingtons by night, and ports in Sicily by Blenheims during the day. Road
traffic and rearward installations in Tripolitania between Tripoli and Sirte also received attention, though on a small scale.
On 26th January fierce sand-storms grounded the day-bombers and greatly hampered the fighters. Visibility was again very bad on the 27th, and the preliminary moves of the enemy’s troops were concealed from the air, but, as luck would have it, the DAK’s feint towards Mechili was seen and reported by two Tomahawks of No. 250 Squadron. That evening General Ritchie issued an order in which he referred to the enemy’s thrusts towards Mechili and Benghazi, and stated that the first was probably the main effort. The 1st Armoured Division was to be directed against the rear of the force advancing east on Mechili, while the 4th Indian Division struck at the force advancing west on Benghazi. ‘The enemy has divided his forces’, wrote General Ritchie, ‘and is weaker than we are in both areas. The keyword is offensive action everywhere.’
By noon on 28th January General Tuker reported a new threat in the form of two large columns which included 47 tanks approaching Sceleidima and Soluch from the south. (This was the Italian 20th Corps.) Tuker proposed to withdraw unless he could be given air support and the co-operation of the 1st Armoured Division. General Ritchie replied that the 1st Armoured Division could not help because it was operating towards Mechili. General Tuker then said that Benghazi should be evacuated at once, adding that he was not faced by Italians only, for he had positive identifications of troops of both the 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions.11 Ritchie accepted this view, and Tuker then ordered the demolitions in Benghazi to be blown and told the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade Group (Brigadier H. R. Briggs) to withdraw that evening and to be north of Benghazi by first light on the 29th.
But the enemy was making the most of his initiative. That afternoon the 20th Corps overran a detachment of the Welch Regiment at Sceleidima and moved on to Soluch. The Marcks Group had managed to make its way across appalling country in the dark and in the rain. Just short of Er Regima they were joined by Rommel in person. The 3rd Reconnaissance Unit then began to feel its way towards Benghazi, while the 33rd scrambled across country to Coefia, where it arrived at 6 p.m. The main road here ran on a raised causeway with a deep ditch on each side, so that vehicles could not leave it. The enemy blocked the road just in time to catch the transport of the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade, and there was quickly a tangle of ditched and reversing lorries. The leading detachments of fighting troops were unable to dislodge the Germans. Brigadier Briggs already knew that there was little chance
of breaking out to the east, and decided to try to dodge the enemy who were advancing from the south. Three columns, about 4,100 strong in all, accordingly set off during the night in the general direction of Soluch, Antelat and Saunnu—right across the enemy’s busy back area. To reduce loads and save petrol a good deal of equipment had to be destroyed, but nearly all the arms and ammunition were brought away. It would have been too much to expect that the whole of this impudent move would pass unnoticed, but there were only a few encounters, during which some German and Italian prisoners were taken. The adventure ended with all the columns homing successfully either at Mechili or El Adem.
The Royal Air Force had been feeling the strain of operating in very bad weather and at the same time carrying out a step-by-step withdrawal. The enemy’s air forces, for their part, were finding it hard to support such a sudden and unexpected advance, and by 28th January they were almost inactive. (Not until 5th February did the Luftwaffe establish itself on Benina airfield.) The principal air activities on the British side after the fall of Benghazi consisted of reconnaissance in depth over the desert, which established the fact that no wide movements were taking place, and over the Jebel country to keep a watch on the enemy following up. The fighters at this time were meeting practically no opposition, and they and the day-bombers made frequent attacks on columns on the roads, in the course of which many vehicles were destroyed or damaged. The Wellingtons of No. 205 Group continued their tactical work of attacking road transport in the Agedabia–El Agheila area, in which they were reinforced by the few available Liberators. Early in February the bad weather put a stop to night attacks of this sort.
The fact that Tripoli was now out of range of any aircraft based on Egypt (except the Liberators, whose employment was still experimental) gave added importance to the operations based on Malta. The Wellingtons from Malta attacked Tripoli, and to a lesser extent Naples, while the Blenheims were used against Tripoli and the Sicilian ports. While engaged on these tasks No. 21 Squadron RAF lost seven aircraft and aircrews in three days. One Blenheim, while turning to correct an error in navigation, flew into the sea; three crashed into a hillside in cloud; and three were shot down into the sea within sight of Malta.
In the fortnight since the enemy’s attack at Mersa Brega began, the Middle East air force (including Malta’s bombers) had flown about 2,000 sorties on tasks other than shipping strikes. Nineteen German and at least as many Italian aircraft were destroyed, for a loss of 45 British aircraft, mostly in the Desert.
By 6th February the 8th Army had fallen back to the line Gazala-Bir Hacheim, back in fact to the very place where, only seven weeks before, General Rommel had broken away because he judged the tactical balance to be against him. The fighters were back again at El Adem and Gambut, and the day-bombers at Sidi Barrani and Maaten Baggush. The details of the withdrawal through the Jebel may be passed over. The enemy followed with only light forces, and, although there were some anxious moments, the 13th Corps was never in danger. Of greater interest are the changes in policy on both sides. General Ritchie had at first decided that the enemy, having secured Benghazi, would be unlikely to press the pursuit. As he intended to return to the offensive himself he wished to give up as little ground as he could. But on the morning of 30th January General Messervy reported that the 1st Armoured Division could not oppose more than 25 German medium tanks with any prospect of success. Ritchie thereupon agreed with Godwin-Austen’s proposal to organize a defensive position at Gazala. General Tuker, whose division was still directly under Ritchie and was (less 7th Indian Infantry Brigade) retiring through the Jebel, suggested that there could be little profit and many dangers in trying to spin out the opposition. General Ritchie agreed and accepted a plan for withdrawing to the Gazala position by 4th February, but stipulated that mobile columns were to operate from Derna, Mechili and Tengeder for as long as possible. The withdrawal took place with little interference.
By to a.m. on 29th January General Rommel and his Group had occupied Benghazi, where they were joined that evening by the Ariete Division. There was not enough fuel left for a pursuit. Close on the heels of the event came permission (which may have caused some amusement) from Mussolini to occupy Benghazi with a small mobile force if the British withdrew. Two groups under Colonels Marcks and Geissler started to follow up as best they could, but were much delayed by road blocks, mines, and air attacks. At this stage Rommel had some difficulty in reconciling what he felt to be right with what Mussolini directed to be done. The Duce still regarded the area Jalo-Agedabia-Mersa Brega-Marada as the Axis defence zone, in front of which only mobile forces were to operate. But by 2nd February Rommel was considering whether to attack the British again, for they seemed to be exceptionally weak and demoralized. He decided, however, that he had not enough petrol. He told General Bastico that in order to hold [Western] Cyrenaica firmly it would be necessary to bring forward the infantry and the 20th Corps to the area Gazala–Tengeder.12 This would have the advantage of providing a good jumping-off place for future
operations. Bastico replied on 4th February by sending a directive he had received from Mussolini three days before. Briefly, this stressed that it was very difficult to send supplies to Libya by sea because the stocks of oil fuel were nearly exhausted, and laid down once more that the chief task of the Axis forces was to defend Tripolitania and that this would govern their dispositions.
General Rommel was confident that the British could not attempt offensive operations for six or eight weeks. His own casualties in the past fortnight had been very light, but the time had come to make good the heavy losses incurred earlier during the CRUSADER battle. He interpreted Mussolini’s directive very broadly and decided to keep a small German and Italian mobile force well forward, backed by the rest of the DAK and 90th Light Division in the Jebel; most of the 20th Corps and one division were to be near Benghazi; two divisions around Antelat; and two back at Mersa Brega and Marada.
On 2nd February, when the situation was clearly growing stable, General Godwin-Austen asked to be relieved from the command of the 13th Corps. He gave as his reasons that General Ritchie had shown a want of confidence in him, and that this had been remarked by his staff and subordinates, which made it impossible for him to continue in command. He referred to Ritchie’s apparent disregard of his advice, to his having taken direct command of the 4th Indian Division, and to his having ordered certain reports from lower formations to be sent direct to the Army instead of through the Corps. General Auchinleck accepted Godwin-Austen’s resignation, and this, in the circumstances, was understandable. The impression remains, however, that General Godwin-Austen’s reading of the situation, unwelcome though it undoubtedly was, had at least been realistic.
On the enemy’s side, too, the chain of command creaked from time to time, but the firm hand of General Rommel made up for its many weaknesses. He was not the Commander-in-Chief, it is true, but he was emphatically the man whose views mattered, for he did what he felt to be militarily right in spite of the frequent protests of his superior, General Bastico. And then, having made up his own mind on the policy, he had a habit of becoming a tactical leader, and, by taking command personally at the most important spot, ensuring that his ideas were carried out. This habit may have infuriated some of his subordinates and undoubtedly troubled his staff, but it must have been an inspiration to many. It certainly ensured that when drive was needed drive was forthcoming—and at once.
The British army casualties between 21st January and 6th February were about 1,390 officers and men killed, wounded, and missing.
Forty-two tanks were probably destroyed, and thirty others damaged or abandoned after breaking down. Forty field guns were lost.
The surprise, speed, and success of General Rommel’s advance caused disappointment and concern not only to the Commanders-in-Chief but also in London. This unwelcome sequel to CRUSADER seemed to have turned success into failure and to have spelt the ruin of ACROBAT. The defeat of the British armour was particularly disturbing.
The fundamental reason for the whole reverse has already been dealt with earlier in this chapter. At the time a number of post-mortem telegrams passed to and from London, and in one of them General Auchinleck made some sombre comments to the Prime Minister. He stressed once again the weakness of the 2-pdr gun and the unreliability of the British cruiser tank. He added that the tactical leadership of our armoured units was not good enough to offset the Germans’ material advantages. He saw signs ‘that personnel of the Royal Armoured Corps are in some instances losing confidence in their equipment’.
In fairness to the 1st Armoured Division it must be remembered that it had no experience of desert warfare. In General Messervy’s opinion it was necessary to give newly arrived troops three months’ training before they could with confidence be thrown into battle in the desert. That this was not an isolated view is shown by a signal from General Alexander (then Commander-in-Chief, Middle East) to the Prime Minister in October 1942, just before the Battle of El Alamein. ‘... New formations from the United Kingdom require much training under local conditions and much desert experience before they can pull their full weight in battle.’ These views naturally prompt the thought: how did the enemy manage? The answer is probably twofold. First, that the basic German tactical training was more thorough, and secondly that their formations and units were not replaced by new ones, but received drafts of trained men. When, on 23rd January, during their first action, the 9th Lancers and 10th Hussars were successfully covering the withdrawal of the rest of the division, they were opposed by some of the most experienced leaders, tank crews, and anti-tank gunners in the desert—diluted, it is true, by recent arrivals, but nevertheless forming a hard core of knowledge and skill.
It is relevant here to turn to the Panzerarmee Afrika’s report to Hitler on the fighting from 18th November to 6th February. Documents of this sort often contain tactful (and even artful) padding. They do not usually belittle the deeds of the enemy, and are often at pains to point out how stiff was the opposition and how heavy the odds in the enemy’s favour. This report is no exception, but some of its references to the British were clearly not prompted entirely by self-praise. Thus:
‘The assembly of all the forces for the autumn offensive was cleverly concealed (wireless deception was also used) and was favoured by the weather. The attack therefore came as a complete surprise. But although the British command showed skill and prudence in preparing the offensive they were less successful when it came to carrying it out. Disregarding the fundamental principle of employing all available forces at the most critical point, elements only of the 8th Army attacked on 18th and 19th November. Consequently the isolated formations were so severely knocked about that parts of them had to be withdrawn as unemployable while operations were still in progress. Never anywhere at any time during the fighting in Libya did the British High Command concentrate all its available forces at the decisive point. This fundamental tactical mistake was one of the reasons why the British offensive failed to achieve final success.’
‘British troops fought well on the whole, though they never attained the same impetus as the Germans when attacking. Officers were courageous and self-sacrificing but rather timid if they had to act on their own initiative. NCOs were good throughout.’
And in conclusion:
‘The military result was that the British 8th Army was so severely beaten that it was incapable of further large-scale operations for months afterwards.’
It would be truer to say that the 8th Army had over-reached itself and paid the penalty. But the estimate of the time needed to mount another offensive was not far wrong: the attempts to do so are described in Chapter IX, and it will be seen that the next British offensive, had it been allowed to take place, would not have begun before June.