Chapter 10: The Battle of Gazala
(26th May–15th June)
See Map 25
THE Battle of Gazala is the name given to the series of actions which began on 26th May and ended four weeks later with the fall of Tobruk. The present chapter covers three phases. First, the failure of General Rommel’s attempt to crack open the British positions from the rear—26th to 29th May. Second, his pause in the so-called ‘Cauldron’ to recover and re-establish his communications; here he was unsuccessfully attacked on 5th June with great loss to the British. Third, his counter-stroke which led to the defeat of the British armour between 11th and 13th June, after which General Ritchie decided to withdraw from the Gazala position.
In the afternoon of 26th May the Crüwell Group, covered by heavy artillery fire and bombing, began to make ground towards the British positions between Gazala and Sidi Muftah. Before dark a large concentration of vehicles was seen near Rotonda Segnali, and others were detected from the air moving north-east. These indications of coming activity in the northern sector were soon matched by reports from the 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment and patrols of the 2nd KRRC (7th Motor Brigade) who were observing and shadowing large columns of enemy vehicles heading south-east in the moonlight—that is, towards Bir Hacheim. If General Rommel expected operation ‘Venezia’ to come as a surprise he was to be disappointed, but fortunately for him the British made but poor use of their information.
At 6.30 a.m. on the 27th Brigadier Filose, commander of the newly arrived 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, reported to General Messervy that he faced ‘a whole bloody German armoured division’. It was in fact the Ariete Division and a few tanks of 21st Panzer Division, and a short fierce fight followed in which the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, after doing some damage, was overrun. It lost about 440 officers and men and much of its scanty equipment, and the survivors were sent right back east of the frontier to re-form. At about 8.30 a.m. the 90th Light Division fell upon the Retma position, which was partly broken into, but Brigadier Renton extricated his troops and withdrew to
support to the Army, as it had intended to do. Only on the southern flank, in the direction of Bir Hacheim, Bir el Gubi and El Adem, were the day-bombers and fighter-bombers (the Kittyhawk was making its first appearance in this role) able to find suitable targets, many of which were provided by the 90th Light Division. Meanwhile the enemy’s fighter patrols were active, reaching out as far as the British forward landing-grounds. Their fighters were also employed on tactical reconnaissance, while others escorted formations of dive-bombers. Six of the British fighter squadrons were withdrawn from Gambut for the night as a precaution, and at dusk the South African Bostons visited Tmimi airfields as ‘intruders’ and attacked aircraft in the dispersal areas, as they had done at Martuba the night before.
The day ended with the British higher command more satisfied with the day’s fighting than was General Rommel. His Panzer Divisions had penetrated as far north as Bir Lefa and Maabus er Rigel, but had lost one-third of their tanks, and 15th Panzer was already short of fuel and ammunition; 90th Light was out of touch somewhere south of El Adem; the Ariete had failed to capture Bir Hacheim and had lost many tanks before sheering off to Bir el Harmat; and Trieste was apparently bogged down in the minefields well to the west. Thus his striking force lay scattered in the midst of enemy forces whose armoured formations, though battered, were by no means destroyed, and the supply columns which had followed the DAK were in trouble south of Bir el Harmat, completely separated from the fighting troops.
Nevertheless General Rommel decided to advance again next day, though this move had to be confined to the 21st Panzer Division, for the 15th was out of fuel. It resulted in the capture of Commonwealth Keep after a stubborn defence, but that was all. General Lumsden had intended the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades to attack the expected northward move in flank, and the 22nd remained watching the immobile 15th Panzer Division. The Ariete Division, moving northwards from Bir el Harmat, was attacked by the 2nd Armoured Brigade from the east and by the 1st Army Tank Brigade from the north-west, an engagement which ended slightly in favour of the British. Farther to the east the 4th Armoured Brigade reappeared on the scene at El Adem, attacked the 90th Light Division, and chased it south and west.
Air Vice-Marshal Coningham had agreed to use his fighters as much as possible in low-flying attacks on enemy columns. Most of the targets found were near El Adem and Bir Hacheim, though both the fighters and day-bombers made attacks in poor visibility on what was probably the 15th Panzer Division. The enemy’s air forces provided cover over the area generally but made few attacks, probably because they were ignorant of the whereabouts of their own scattered troops.
At the end of 28th May General Ritchie was still satisfied with the progress of the battle. He considered rightly that Rommel’s plan, which had been revealed by captured orders, had been badly upset. He estimated that the DAK and Ariete together had about 250 fit tanks. He felt that his own forces were well placed to deal with what might come, and there was a good chance of destroying the enemy completely. He could concentrate against the enemy armour some 240 cruisers and 90 ‘I’ tanks, and expected 4.0 more cruisers and 30 ‘I’ tanks to arrive on the 29th.1 General Auchinleck, too, was optimistic, but urged quicker action to destroy the enemy lest he should recover from the setback. There had in fact been a development of which the full significance had not yet been grasped—the Pavia and Trieste Divisions had begun to gap the minefields near the Trigh Capuzzo and Trigh el Abd in places not continually covered by fire.
See Map 26
General Rommel, for his part, was anxious. He had had about 200 tank casualties, his striking force was still scattered over a large area and his own Headquarters had been dispersed. The problem of supply was becoming more and more serious, because the route round Bir Hacheim, which the run of the battle had brought into temporary use, was proving vulnerable, and the Trigh Capuzzo and Trigh el Abd were still blocked by minefields, and also by the 150th Infantry Brigade, although this does not seem to have been realized as yet. Rommel decided that at all costs he must concentrate his forces on the 29th; that was as far ahead as he could see. Colonel Westphal, his senior operations officer, had taken upon himself to ask General Crüwell to come to the rescue by breaking through the 13th Corps’ position towards Eluet et Tamar. Accordingly at dawn on 29th May the Sabratha Division attacked the South Africans north of Alem Hamza, but gained nothing and lost 400 prisoners.
Meanwhile, early in the morning, the supply vehicles from Bir el Harmat, led by Rommel himself, had succeeded in making their way up to the DAK The Axis forces began to close in to the west and south-west of Knightsbridge and were attacked at 8 a.m. by the 2nd Armoured Brigade, which soon found itself in a fierce battle with German armour-21st Panzer Division to the north and 15th to the west—and with the Ariete Division to the south. Two regiments of the 22nd Armoured Brigade came to its help, and a violent artillery and tank action continued all day in a rising sandstorm which prevented the 4th Armoured Brigade reaching the battlefield, as it had been ordered to do. By evening both sides were severely battered and completely exhausted, but the Axis formations had partly succeeded
in concentrating; even the 90th Light Division had joined up. The commander of the 15th Panzer Division, General von Vaerst, had been wounded.
Again the British fighters and fighter-bombers had focused their attention on enemy transport. It might be thought that the concentration of enemy troops west and south-west of Knightsbridge would have produced some good targets for the day-bombers, but in fact these were not called upon to act until the evening. An accurate attack was made by nine Bostons of No. 12 Squadron SAAF against Commonwealth Keep, but an attempt to retake this place did not succeed.2 At last light other Bostons bombed Derna harbour where a destroyer was seen alongside the mole.
On the enemy’s side the fighters had been active. They attacked Gambut, and patrols flew over the battlefield escorting dive-bombers on no very obvious plan. Perhaps the key to this scrappy day in the air is supplied by an entry in General von Waldau’s diary: ‘... Owing to a complete lack of information of our ground situation and plan of action, we were forced to resort to guess-work based on the results of aerial reconnaissance and the behaviour of the enemy’s air force. We are sometimes obliged to make decisions without having the least idea whether they are appropriate to the over-all military situation.’ The recorded losses during these three days were: British, 16 aircraft; German, 10; Italian, 7.
By the evening of 28th May it was clear to Brigadier C. W. Haydon, commanding the 150th Infantry Brigade, which stretched from the Trigh Capuzzo to the Trigh el Abd, that he was now threatened with attack from the east.3 He therefore drew in his southern battalion, which had been holding up the advance of the Trieste Division, and prepared his brigade for all-round defence. On the morning of 29th May he was reinforced by the Tactical Headquarters of the 1st Army Tank Brigade, with the 44th Royal Tank Regiment and one squadron of the 42nd—thirty tanks in all.
The same day an interesting capture was made in the person of General Crüwell, who was shot down while flying over the battlefield in his Storch. With his capture there passed from the desert stage one of its outstanding figures. Crüwell had commanded the DAK all through CRUSADER in good times and bad, and, although he was frequently interfered with and to a large extent overshadowed by Rommel, he had shown himself to be a brave and energetic leader
and a good judge of a tactical situation. Field-Marshal Kesselring, who was visiting the front, agreed to take over temporary command of the Crüwell group.
General Rommel had no illusions about his critical situation, and in particular about the shortage of ammunition and fuel in his Panzer divisions. He swiftly decided to abandon his plan of pressing on to the north and cancelled the landing from the sea; instead, he would hold off the British on the east with a thick anti-tank screen, and smash a wide gap in the minefields to the west. This would open up both a supply route and a way of escape, if need be. He was far from beaten, and the perils of the situation seem to have been matched by his confidence and determination.
On the British side there was a feeling of general satisfaction. The enemy’s striking force seemed to be pinned against the minefields and would probably consume its remaining supplies during the next day. General Ritchie thought that there was a chance of shelling the armour to pieces, while his own tanks and motor brigades sought out and destroyed the supply columns. Indeed there seemed to be a prospect of making a counter-offensive, and General Auchinleck joined in with ideas of a possible advance to Bir Temrad, Sidi Breghisc and Rotonda Segnali, and of light mobile forces pushing on to Mechili and Benghazi. Quite rightly the British commanders were thinking big. But the basis of their hopes, which were that the enemy armour was cornered and wasting away, was soon to be shattered.
Early on the Both May strong detachments of the DAK, including 5th Panzer Regiment, were sent to open up a supply route to the west of Sidi Muftah. The operation was called off after eleven tanks had been lost, and it was then realized for the first time that the ground between the Trigh Capuzzo and the Trigh el Abd was well fortified and held by strong forces, including ‘I’ tanks. On the 31st May the Trieste and 90th Light Divisions joined in, but made little progress in the face of a defence which the German diaries record as skilful and stubborn. Next day, 1st June, after heavy dive-bombing, the assault was resumed, the attacking force having again been strengthened, this time by more artillery and by various units of the 21st Panzer Division. Early in the afternoon, after bitter fighting, the opposition was overcome by a series of concentric attacks. It is sad that General Rommel had felt able to withdraw so many troops from the northern and eastern sides of the area beginning to be known as ‘the Cauldron’, with which to overwhelm the single brigade, so stoutly defending more than five miles of front and facing attack from every direction at once.
By the time that the situation of the 150th Infantry Brigade was
realized at Corps and Army Headquarters to be desperate it was too late to do anything effective to help. On 30th May the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades of the 30th Corps had attacked the anti-tank screen which now faced them, but these attacks failed. Meanwhile half the 4th Armoured Brigade was sent southward on a wild-goose chase after some damaged enemy tanks. The same evening a column from the 201st Guards (Motor) Brigade set off westward along the Trigh Capuzzo from Knightsbridge with the object of occupying harassing positions. It ran into a watchful enemy and was driven back having lost five 25-pdr and seven 6-pdr guns and 157 men missing. For the moment the 30th Corps had shot its bolt.
During this time the British higher command undoubtedly seems to have kept in mind the enemy’s probable embarrassments and even made a plan for the 13th Corps to attack towards Tmimi. This was postponed, however, because the enemy’s armour in the Cauldron showed no signs of withdrawing, and General Ritchie considered that it must first be eliminated. He decided that on the night 1st/2nd June the 13th Corps was to establish a brigade group on the ridge Hagiag es Sidra, while the 30th Corps established another one west of Bir el Harmat. These and the locality of 150th Infantry Brigade (whose fate was not known) would be the jumping-off places for attacks to destroy the enemy in the Cauldron. General Auchinleck agreed with these preliminaries, but gave a warning that ‘the enemy may yet try to resume the offensive, and, as we have learned, he has surprising powers of recovery’.
The British operations on the night 1st/2nd June were a fiasco. A single battalion of the 151st Infantry Brigade was launched at the Sidra ridge and failed to reach it, while the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade, hastily summoned from near Tobruk to establish the southern strongpoint, received its orders too late to be acted on. General Ritchie, who now knew that he had lost the 150th Infantry Brigade, thereupon began to make fresh plans which he hoped to put into effect ‘in 48 to 72 hours’. From the Commander-in-Chief came another warning—this time that the loss of the Sidi Muftah position might mean that the initiative was passing to the enemy.
Indeed, although General Rommel had given up his original plan, at any rate for the time being, and although he had placed his armour on the defensive, he had no intention of doing nothing. Directly after capturing the Sidi Muftah locality, which made the position of his troops in the Cauldron much less precarious, he decided to capture Bir Hacheim, and on 2nd June sent the 90th Light and Trieste Divisions south for this purpose. By now he had lost two important members of his own staff, General Gause and Colonel Westphal having been wounded.
The main effort of the British fighters and fighter-bombers had been
directed during 30th May to the attack of enemy transport driving through gaps in the minefields, and, as was to be expected, this brought on many encounters with German fighters, and twelve British aircraft were lost during the day. The tactical reconnaissance squadrons—No. 40 SAAF and No. 208—strove hard to keep their Corps Commanders informed of the latest moves on the ground, and during the afternoon the Bostons were sent to attack the large quantity of transport seen to eastward of the gaps. This they did, under heavy fighter escort, with apparently good results. Within an hour of their return the Bostons were off again, this time to attack concentrations farther east towards Knightsbridge. That night, because it was thought that the enemy was short of water, the Bostons attacked a known water-point at Tmimi.
The 31st May, in spite of many dust-storms, was an active day for the fighters and fighter-bombers, which attacked vehicles over a wide area. The German fighters were up in force, and sixteen British aircraft were lost against a loss of three German fighters and two dive-bombers. These heavy losses prompted Air Vice-Marshal Coningham to draw Air Marshal Tedder’s attention to the serious matter of replacements, for squadrons were now reduced to seven or eight serviceable aircraft each.
It has been mentioned that early on 1st June the enemy’s dive-bombers heavily attacked the 150th Infantry Brigade’s position as a preliminary to its capture. British air operations, however, were seriously hampered by dust-storms, and indeed the Desert Air Force, whose strength was much reduced, needed a rest after the intense activity of the past few days. The attacks on Rommel’s supply columns had added greatly to his anxieties, but they had been strongly opposed by fighters and anti-aircraft and small arms fire, and in the five days from the 27th May, during which the British fighters had flown over 1500 sorties, 50 out of 250 serviceable aircraft had been lost. There was now a dearth of Kittyhawks in reserve and it was therefore necessary to conserve the declining fighter force and to stop attacking from very low altitudes. An encouraging sign, however, was the arrival of the first Spitfires—six belonging to No. 145 Squadron. It was decided to use them on patrols high up, sometimes as cover to the Hurricanes, so that they could ‘jump’ enemy fighters without becoming embroiled in combat.4
The 2nd June was again a day of sandstorms, but next day the Luftwaffe began to attack Bir Hacheim in earnest. What with the numerous dive-bombers and the growing concentration of German and Italian troops in the area there was plenty for the RAF to attack, and the scores of burning vehicles in full view of the Free French
garrison did much to keep up the morale of General Koenig’s stout-hearted troops. At the end of 4th June he signalled to Air Vice-Marshal Coningham: ‘Bravo! Merci pour la RAF’ which drew the immediate reply: ‘Merci pour le sport’. In two days, apart from the damage done on the ground, ten Stukas, one Ju.88, two Me.109s, and three Italian aircraft had been shot down for the loss of thirteen British.5 The shift of main interest to the Cauldron area on the following day gave the French a brief respite from attack.
The clearing away of all opposition from where the Trigh Capuzzo and Trigh el Abd crossed the minefields had made the enemy’s supply position much easier. It did not mean, however, that his supply columns were now entirely secure, for apart from air attacks they suffered much during the first ten days of June from frequent raids by columns from the 1st South African Division, the 50th Division, and the 7th Motor Brigade. On 3rd June the 1st South African Brigade made a very well-handled raid on the Trento Division, in which Sergeant Q. Smythe, 1st Royal Natal Carbineers, won the Victoria Cross.
Partly, perhaps, to draw attention from Bir Hacheim and partly to upset the preparations for the British attack which General Rommel knew must come, he sent the 21st Panzer Division to make a strong demonstration towards Eluet et Tamar on 2nd June, in the course of which twelve tanks of the 5th RTR (4th Armoured Brigade) were destroyed. No major tank actions then occurred for a few days because the armoured formations on both sides were busy reorganizing. On 2nd June the DAK recorded that it had 130 serviceable tanks out of the 320 with which it began the battle, but that the number was now rising.
General Auchinleck still had the idea of making a bold thrust from 13th Corps’ front towards Bir el Temrad, but General Ritchie stuck to his view (which was shared by his Corps Commanders) that he might not be able to hold the enemy’s armour while such an advance was being made. For the same reason, and because of supply difficulties, he had given up the idea of making a wide turning movement round the southern flank. He decided that the first essential was to crush the enemy’s forces in the Cauldron. To this end the 30th Corps would advance westward from the south of Knightsbridge, using infantry to drive a wedge through the enemy’s anti-tank screen in the dark. The armour would then pass ‘through this corridor into the
rear of the enemy and close the gaps behind him’. The 13th Corps would co-operate by seizing the Sidra ridge and would later exploit the success gained in the Cauldron by advancing on Tmimi. Such was Ritchie’s expressed intention early on 3rd June; the operation was to begin during the night 4th/5th.
The final plan for the attack on the Cauldron is illustrated in outline on Map 27. It was to be in two phases. In the first phase the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade (of Major-General H. R. Briggs’s 5th Indian Division) was to capture the first objective in the early hours of 5th June after a really heavy artillery bombardment. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade (of 13th Corps), with 7th Green Howards under command, was then to capture the Sidra ridge. In the second phase the leading role would pass to General Messervy’s 7th Armoured Division with the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade (of 5th Indian Division) under command, its object being to destroy the enemy in the Cauldron. The 1st Armoured Division, whose reorganized 22nd Armoured Brigade was now in the 7th Armoured Division (replacing the rather battered 4th Armoured Brigade), was to prevent the enemy breaking out to the north or north-east and was to be ready to exploit success westwards.
The system of command adopted for this very important operation deserves notice. In the first place, no single commander below the Army Commander was responsible for co-ordinating the attacks on the two fronts. This may have been because General Gott’s 13th Corps was to have exploited west towards Tmimi, and not south through Sidra. On the 30th Corps’ front there was no single commander either, for General Norrie had delegated the command to Generals Briggs and Messervy in turn and they worked out their parts of the plan as best they could. It is interesting to note that the 22nd Armoured Brigade was to help the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade in the second phase, but was to give its first thought to destroying the enemy’s tanks. The infantry’s action was to depend on any armoured engagement that might occur, but it was laid down that ‘In case of armoured action infantry are self-protecting. They will not hamper the movement of 22nd Armoured Brigade.’ The planned movement of 22nd Armoured Brigade was a right-handed sweep through the Cauldron, or, as one regiment put it, ‘To mop up the enemy en route and be at B 104 for breakfast’. At the last moment the 1st Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, which had arrived in Tobruk from Iraq on 3rd June, was rushed out to act as left flank-guard at Bir el Harmat. The Tactical Headquarters of the 7th Armoured and 5th Indian Divisions were together near Bir el Harmat.
The attack began in moonlight at 2.50 a.m. and made good progress. All the battalions of the 110th Indian Infantry Brigade (Brigadier C. H. Boucher) supported by tanks of the 4th RTR reached their
objectives with trifling loss. By daylight the 2nd HLI were in the area B 204—Bir et Tamar, 4/10th Baluch Regiment at B 178, and 2/4th Gurkha Rifles at B 180. Soon afterwards the 50th Reconnaissance Battalion and the 107th Regiment RHA (of 22nd Armoured Brigade Group) also arrived near B 180, and the 4th, 28th and 157th Field Regiments RA moved into positions near the Baluch Regiment and the Gurkhas. The 2nd Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment (of 9th Indian Infantry Brigade), who had been supported by a squadron of 4th RTR, reached their objective on the Dahar el Aslagh.
Unfortunately, the main reason for this prosperous beginning had been that the enemy’s defensive positions lay farther to the west than had been thought and had escaped the weight of the British bombardment. Evil consequences were to follow quickly. The 22nd Armoured Brigade had begun its advance with 156 Grant, Stuart, and Crusader tanks, and the leading regiment had reached about two miles west of the Dahar el Aslagh when it ran into the concentrated fire of most of the German artillery. The whole brigade checked and wheeled north to between Bir et Tamar and B 178. The 2nd HLI had meanwhile lost part of its objective to a local counter-attack; it did its best to consolidate under intense fire, but was unable to do so before a heavy attack led by tanks (probably of 8th Panzer Regiment) came in at noon. Part of this attack fell on the 22nd Armoured Brigade, which was soon embroiled. Because divisional orders had absolved—for so they were understood—the armour from responsibility for the infantry, the 22nd Armoured Brigade gave no help to the HLI, who were at length driven back to the Gurkhas’ positions and were later ordered back to the Trigh Bir Hacheim to re-form. Farther south the 2nd West Yorkshires had been dangerously isolated and were withdrawn. Meanwhile the 32nd Army Tank Brigade’s dawn attack on the Sidra ridge had been met by intense anti-tank fire and had run into an unsuspected minefield. The attack was called off but not before about 50 of the 70 ‘I’ tanks in action had been lost.
The unpleasant turn taken by the battle was soon realized at the Tactical Headquarters of the 7th Armoured and 5th Indian Divisions, but each was occupied with its own problems and there was nobody in sole command to concert their actions. Each division determined to hold on, but was unable to do anything effective to regain the initiative. The 2nd Armoured Brigade Group (of one armoured regiment, one motor battalion, and one regiment RHA) had been sent as a reinforcement from Eluet et Tamar to a point seven miles south of Knightsbridge. Here it was placed under command of 7th Armoured Division, but received from it a number of orders which cancelled each other out.
Early in the afternoon General Rommel judged that the situation
was well in hand and his northern flank safe. He decided to strike east with the Ariete and 21st Panzer Divisions, and from the south towards Knightsbridge with part of the 15th Panzer Division, using a gap made in the minefield south-west of Bir el Harmat the previous day. This group first overran the DCLI and then, joined by other units from Bir Hacheim and by Rommel himself, dispersed in confusion the Tactical Headquarters of both British divisions, the Headquarters of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade and two of its battalions (the third, 3/9th Jats, had been sent to reinforce the 2/4th Gurkhas), the Headquarters of the 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and the survivors of the 2nd HLI. Communication and control broke down completely. The Tactical Headquarters of the 7th Armoured Division took refuge in Knightsbridge and that of 5th Indian Division in El Adem, where the disorganized units of the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, and most of the HLI, also assembled. The armoured regiments of the 22nd Armoured Brigade, under renewed attacks by the 15th Panzer Division, withdrew to leaguer east of the Trigh Bir Hacheim in no state to restore the situation; in the course of a dispiriting day they had lost some sixty tanks. The extent of all these reverses was not grasped for some time by the higher formations. It is true that towards midnight General Ritchie realized that a strong thrust had driven back the 5th Indian Division, but he hoped to play for time and reorganize his armour.
It had been a disappointing day for the Royal Air Force also. Once more it seems to have been impossible for the Army to lay down a satisfactory bomb-line, though there was at least one example of a successful attack early in the morning; this was made by the Bostons against positions south of Dahar el Aslagh. Either because of the need to conserve the day-bombers and fighter-bombers or because it was felt that they might get a chance of intervening with telling effect at a later stage of the battle, numerous requests for air support seem to have been turned down during the day. The enemy’s air activity had been on a small scale.
There now remained in the Cauldron near B 180 the 4/10th Baluch Regiment, 2/4th Gurkha Rifles, 3/9th Jat Regiment, 50th Reconnaissance Battalion, the 4th, 28th and 157th Field Regiments RA and the 107th Regiment RHA. On these the storm broke on 6th June. First the Baluchis were overrun, and then, during the afternoon, the Gurkhas. By evening the same fate had overtaken the 50th Reconnaissance Battalion and all the artillery. This day was both a splendid and a tragic episode in the history of the Royal Artillery, for the gunners fought their guns to the last and died where they stood. From the infantry battalions a few sub-units and individuals escaped eastwards. No help reached the doomed units in the Cauldron, for although the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades had been placed under General
Messervy, who was now in sole command, he was unable in the prevailing confusion to bring them into action.
It was also unfortunate that the Desert Air Force could not help. Though low cloud seriously interfered with their operations, it was the absence of a clearly defined bomb-line which ruled out any employment whatever of the day-bombers in the battle area. Air Vice-Marshal Coningham had therefore to be content with using them, together with the fighter-bombers, to attack enemy columns beyond the fringe of the fighting. A good omen for the future, however, was the arrival of the first Hurricane IID tank-destroying aircraft, as yet untried, armed with two 40-mm. cannons. No 6 Squadron started operations with nine of them.
So ended the attempt to destroy the Axis forces waiting in the Cauldron for the attack they knew was bound to come. General Rommel had judged to a nicety the strength necessary to hold it, and had hoped to see the British exhaust themselves—as indeed they did. With his quick eye for the run of a battle he soon saw that their plan had gone astray, and showed his quality by being ready to take advantage of it. Of the courage and self-sacrifice of the British troops there is no doubt, as the enemy noted with admiration. Signs that two old lessons were being relearned—which was encouraging for the future—were the concentration of a strong force of artillery, and the use of infantry to effect a ‘break in’ by night in order to clear a passage for the armour. But there seems to have been a too optimistic view of the probable course of the battle after the hard core of the enemy’s resistance had been reached. The British system of command was too complicated to deal with the unexpected, and was no match for the strong personal control of the enemy Commander. This caused an unfair burden to be laid on the divisional commanders and resulted in many fine troops being thrown away.
All this time the Trieste and 90th Light Divisions, together with other troops, had been trying unsuccessfully to capture Bir Hacheim with the help of the Luftwaffe—somewhat grudgingly given, to judge from General von Waldau’s repeated complaints about the misuse of the air forces. But General Rommel was anxious to have done with Bir Hacheim before reverting to his original intention of attacking the main Gazala positions from the rear. After the successful outcome of the fighting in the Cauldron, he gave orders for Bir Hacheim to be captured on 8th June, and when that plan failed he sent the hard-worked 15th Panzer Division south to join the investing force. He still hoped to resume the northward move of his Army on the 9th.
Outside the ring at Bir Hacheim columns of the 7th Motor Brigade and 29th Indian Infantry Brigade and of the Free French themselves
had been harassing the enemy’s communications. As early as 6th June General Ritchie was in two minds whether to continue to hold Bir Hacheim: the enemy had now got a more direct route of supply, and if the 7th Motor Brigade were used, as Ritchie wished, to operate more intensively against this supply route west of the Cauldron, he doubted whether Bir Hacheim could still be supplied. However General Auchinleck advised against giving the place up, and Ritchie decided that General Koenig should hold on.
On 8th June the Luftwaffe’s attacks on Bir Hacheim began to be much heavier, and early that morning they used no fewer than 45 Ju.87s, three Ju.88s, and ten Me.110s, escorted by 54 single-engine fighters. The Free French were also heavily shelled and were engaged in repelling infantry attacks most of the morning. In the afternoon General Koenig reported that his troops were much exhausted, that they had had heavy casualties and were starting to consume their reserve supplies. He asked for a full-scale operation to relieve him, and for more air support. The first of these requests could not be met at short notice, but the Royal Air Force, who had been uncertain whether to give priority that day to Bir Hacheim or to the Cauldron area, now went all out to help the Free French. The British fighters flew 478 sorties—the highest total so far on any one day in the desert. In all, on the 8th, the British lost eight aircraft, the Germans one, and the Italians three. That night Hurricanes and Bostons dropped supplies for the garrison.
On 9th June the heavy shelling and the onslaught from the air continued unabated. On land the enemy made two furious attacks, broke into the defences and was thrown out. Unfortunately the British air effort was limited because many aircraft were temporarily unserviceable. The fighter-bombers managed to fly twenty-five sorties, and the fighters had several encounters, in which one German fighter and one bomber were shot down for the loss of two fighters, and another German fighter fell to British AA guns. Under cover of these operations two Hurricanes dropped medical supplies for the garrison. Meanwhile the 30th Corps had arranged for columns of the 7th Motor Brigade, the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade and the 4th Armoured Brigade to distract the enemy, but their attacks were not strong enough to do so, although part of 90th Light Division had to turn and defend itself against one of the columns. On the evening of 8th June a warning order had been issued to prepare to evacuate the garrison, and on 10th June General Ritchie decided that they should withdraw the same night. During the morning of 10th June a particularly heavy raid by twenty Ju.88s and forty Ju.87s, with some fifty Me.109s and 110s in attendance, was made on Bir Hacheim, where in the whole day a total of 130 tons of bombs was dropped. As a further protection to his bombers the enemy kept fighter patrols over Bir Hacheim and
also a screen over the El Adem area to intercept the British fighters coming from Gambut. Sweeps by Hurricanes and Spitfires nevertheless made some interceptions and two German aircraft were shot down for the loss of two British fighters.
During the day a strong group, under General Rommel’s personal command, mainly from the DAK (but without any tanks) had broken into the defences in the north and established itself. Late that night Rommel reported to OKH that he was confident of capturing Bir Hacheim next day. It is interesting to note that Field-Marshal Kesselring had been pressing Rommel hard to bring down stronger forces, including tanks, to hasten the capture, but Rommel wished to keep his tanks for more open fighting and thought that they would merely be thrown away on the minefields.
The moment for the withdrawal of the garrison was therefore well chosen. The 7th Motor Brigade ran a large convoy of lorries and ambulances to a point about five miles west of Bir Hacheim, and the Free French broke out to this rendezvous, not—as was to be expected—without some clashes. About 2,700 troops (including 200 wounded) of the original garrison of 3,600 were brought away. The defence of Bir Hacheim had served several purposes. At the outset it had made longer and more difficult the enemy’s temporary supply route; it had caused him many casualties; and it gave the British a chance to recover from their defeat in the Cauldron. General Koenig’s Brigade made a great impression upon the enemy by their courageous and enterprising resistance, and their success gave a well-won fillip to the pride of the Free French who, for the first time in the Middle East, had fought the Germans and Italians in a complete formation of their own.6
Between 2nd and 10th June the Desert Air Force had done its best to help the garrison. It had flown close on 1,500 sorties and lost 19 fighters in the process. During the same time the Germans had flown about 1,400 sorties against Bir Hacheim and lost at least 15 aircraft; the Italians lost at least 5. Both sides felt the strain of such a prolonged effort, and the maintenance crews deserve a word of recognition for their work which enabled many aircraft to make four, and even six, sorties in a day.
The 7th Motor Brigade, too, had made great efforts to support the Free French in their besieged position. Under Brigadier J. M. L. Renton, it was responsible for running in convoys of supplies, ammunition, and water, which it did on four nights between 31st May and 7th June. When it is remembered that the defended locality was
merely a piece of open desert almost entirely surrounded by minefields and to a varying extent by the enemy also, it will be appreciated that each of these supply runs was a tricky operation, and there was no certainty that they could continue for very long.
After the Cauldron battle General Auchinleck had feared that the enemy, unless fully engaged, might recover from his losses—although these had undoubtedly been heavy—and that a stalemate might occur. He considered nevertheless that the British armour should not now attack, but hoped that Rommel might be induced to do so and exhaust himself. The 8th Army would then strike westward against his rear from the 13th Corps’ front at Alem Hamza. General Ritchie was also thinking on these lines, and on 6th June had actually ordered the 13th Corps to make a thrust westward. General Gott, after discussion with General Pienaar, decided upon a raid by not more than one brigade group between Bir Temrad and the coast, and on 7th June General Pienaar sent out a number of small detachments to find soft spots. No results were achieved and the South Africans suffered 280 casualties.
By 11th June the British defensive system had still not been cracked open. From the sea to south of Alem Hamza the original defences of the 1st South African and 50th Divisions were intact, while between this point and Acroma to the east were five new strong-points, each held by a garrison of roughly a battalion, a field battery, and a few anti-tank guns.7 The 201st Guards (Motor) Brigade Group still held Knightsbridge, and now had the 2nd Scots Guards on the Maabus er Rigel to guard the crossing to Acroma. From Acroma a minefield had been completed to the sea. El Adem was held by the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, which had one battalion on the escarpment where this is climbed by the Tobruk by-pass road. Tobruk itself was held by the 2nd South African Division, and there were other defended localities at Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed. Thus there was a framework of defences which might help to check or disrupt the enemy’s further advance and serve to some extent as pivots of manoeuvre for the British armour. The state of this arm must now be examined.
On 10th June General Ritchie estimated that he had about 250 cruiser and 80 ‘I’ tanks fit to fight, though an analysis of unit records suggests that the true figures were: in the three armoured brigades 77 Grants, 52 Crusaders and 56 Stuarts, and in the 32nd Army Tank Brigade 63 ‘I’ tanks. Attempts to bring the armour up to strength had been most complicated and not very successful, the basic cause being the differences between the three sorts of cruiser tank. To get the required tank with a suitable crew to the unit that wanted it was not
easy. It led to sub-units being combined, or sometimes lent to other units. Even single tanks and crews had to be sent here and there. Regimental organization was disrupted, and theist Armoured Brigade, much to its disgust, had been used as a pool of immediate requirements. In fact expediency ruled, and any fairly well-filled till was raided for the benefit of empty ones. Units disliked this policy intensely. They complained also of many defects in their replacement tanks—of missing wireless equipment and of guns arriving rusted or in grease. All the armoured brigades had changed divisions at least twice, which was unsettling and led to administrative difficulties. But all in all the British armour was numerically still a factor of great importance. A cause for more anxiety was the shortage of artillery, for since 26th May the equivalent of seven field regiments had been lost.
General Rommel lost little time after the fall of Bir Hacheim in setting his forces in motion again. The DAK had now 25 Pzkw IIs, 83 IIIs and 8 IVs, and, in addition, 27 III Specials which mounted a long 5-cm. gun, and 6 IV Specials which mounted a long 7.5-cm. gun. In all, 124 tanks apart from the Pzkw IIs, roughly equally divided between the two Panzer Divisions. There were also about 60 Italian cruisers. The enemy’s losses had therefore been considerable, though the increase in the numbers of new and powerful types is significant. A serious matter was that one-third of the German infantry had become casualties. Nevertheless on 11th June General Rommel ordered 15th Panzer, 90th Light and Trieste Divisions to advance north-east towards El Adem while 21st Panzer Division demonstrated northwards from the Sidra ridge. These movements had not gone very far by nightfall, but they led General Norrie to see that the enemy had spread his forces on a very wide front, and he thought there was now an opportunity ‘to go in and smash him’.
During the morning the British fighters began by protecting the withdrawal of the Free French. No enemy aircraft appeared on this flank until about 9 a.m., by which time the Brigade had got safely away. The Luftwaffe celebrated its release from Bir Hacheim by spreading its operations all over the place, but not until the afternoon had any targets been given to the Desert Air Force, and then the South African day-bombers with some of their escorting Kittyhawks carrying bombs attacked transport in the Knightsbridge area. One of the targets turned out to have been the Panzerarmee’s battle headquarters, which reported some casualties.
See Map 28
Early on 12th June General Norrie, wishing to profit by the enemy’s dispersal, had in mind a move south by the 2nd and 4th Armoured
Brigades, who would then turn east and attack the 15th Panzer Division.8 General Messervy, however, feared that this would divide the British armour and decided that he must confer with Norrie. After leaving his Headquarters to do so he was headed off by the enemy near El Adem, and for some hours was out of touch with everyone. Meanwhile the two armoured brigades, east and west of Pt 169, where they were awaiting the order to move, resisted a not very vigorous attack by the 15th Panzer Division. This division had in fact been told to stay on the defensive because General Rommel had reason to expect (from an intercepted message) that the 4th Armoured Brigade was about to advance, and wished to let it blunt itself in so doing. Nothing much having happened by noon, Rommel ordered both Panzer Divisions to attack the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades—the 15th frontally and the 21st from the rear. These orders were to have disastrous consequences for the British.
At about this time, the whereabouts of General Messervy being still unknown, General Norrie decided to put all three armoured brigades under the 1st Armoured Division. General Lumsden quickly brought down the remains of the 22nd Armoured Brigade to the Knightsbridge area, where they were just in time to delay the advance from the west of a battle-group of 21st Panzer Division consisting of a battalion of 5th Panzer Regiment and some guns. The scanty and conflicting records make it impossible to disentangle the details of the ensuing fighting. However, by about 4 p.m. the 15th Panzer Division was outflanking the 2nd Armoured Brigade on the east and pushing the 4th
Armoured Brigade northwards. General Lumsden now decided to shorten his eastern front by holding a line between B 652 on the Batruna escarpment and B 604 east of Knightsbridge-4th Armoured
Brigade on the north, 2nd Armoured Brigade on the south. Owing to misunderstandings and enemy pressure the depleted regiments of the 4th Armoured Brigade were forced over the escarpment and down the other side. The 2nd Armoured Brigade reached and maintained its
appointed position and at nightfall the remnants of the 22nd came into position between it and Knightsbridge at Bir Bellefaa.
During the late afternoon of 11th June the enemy’s moves northeast from Bir Hacheim had been seen from the air, and early on the 12th the presence of 90th Light Division near El Adem was confirmed. Owing to the lack of definite information from the Army as to a bomb-line in the Knightsbridge area it was decided to concentrate on 90th Light Division. Throughout the day, bombers, fighters, and fighter-bombers of the Desert Air Force shuttled to and fro, stopping only just long enough to rearm and refuel. Altogether nineteen separate attacks were made, and considerable damage seemed to have been done. The diary of 90th Light Division, however, refers to low-flying and bombing attacks throughout the whole day—in all about twenty attacks made by six to ten aircraft at a time—which, they said, had had no effect upon the morale of the division and had done only slight damage to their vehicles. The division was greatly disappointed, however, that not a single German aircraft showed itself, in spite of requests to the Luftwaffe.
The enemy’s aircraft had nevertheless been very active all day, especially about Knightsbridge and Acroma. (During the evening the 15th Panzer Division was dive-bombed by its own Stukas.) At about 8 p.m. a large formation, reported as over zoo aircraft, appeared over El Adem, and six fighter squadrons engaged it in the biggest air combat of the battle. It was believed that eleven of the enemy had been destroyed for the loss of five British fighters. The German records disclose the loss of only two, and the Italian none. Altogether during the day eleven British aircraft were lost—the highest figure since 1st June. It was another record day for the fighters, which flew no less than 583 sorties.
The 12th June was a costly day for the British armour also.9 In the heavy fighting during the afternoon it appears that full advantage of the prevailing haze and dust was taken by the German anti-tank gunners to push boldly forward, and they did great execution. General Lumsden realized that his losses had been heavy and considered that he could do no more than consolidate round Knightsbridge. General Norrie, while not yet aware of the losses, was thinking of further offensive action, but communication between the two commanders failed and Lumsden was left to make his own decision, which was to hold Knightsbridge for one more day.
Back at Army Headquarters General Ritchie was beginning to feel that the weakness of the British armour might allow the enemy to advance north and cut off the 1st South African and 50th Divisions. (This is exactly what Rommel intended to do.) In his opinion the
choice lay between fighting the present battle out and withdrawing his whole force to the Egyptian frontier. The first course held the risk that the armour might be defeated and the infantry divisions cut off; the second course entailed a difficult withdrawal and the danger of becoming involved in a running fight, besides raising an awkward problem of what to do about Tobruk. General Ritchie decided to stand and fight, and General Auchinleck, who was visiting him, agreed. When the Prime Minister heard the news he telegraphed: ‘Your decision to fight it out to the end is most cordially endorsed. We shall sustain you whatever the result. Retreat would be fatal. This is a business not only of armour but of will-power. God bless you all.’
As it seemed to General Ritchie on the evening of 12th June that the 13th Corps would now be in the centre of the battle, he placed the 1st Armoured Division under its command. Not being in touch with General Gott, General Lumsden did not get any orders until the next day. General Ritchie wished the armour to be kept concentrated and make full use of the support afforded by the infantry positions, and Gott’s orders were for Lumsden to secure the area Acroma–Knightsbridge–Maabus er Rigel–Eluet et Tamar and engage the enemy actively whenever possible. Meanwhile the 30th Corps had ordered the 7th Motor Brigade to strike at the enemy’s rear between El Adem and Knightsbridge. The 10th Indian Division, by General Ritchie’s order, was to engage the enemy in the El Adem area.
The enemy’s plan for 13th June was for the 15th Panzer Division to move west along the Hagiag er Raml and the 21st Panzer Division east along the Maabus er Rigel and thus cut off Knightsbridge. The 90th Light Division was recalled from the position it had reached near El Adem. During the morning, although the pressure was severe, the 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades and a few tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade just managed to hold their own cast of Knightsbridge. Then in the afternoon the 21st Panzer Division began its attack upon the position at the western end of Maabus er Rigel held by the 2nd Scots Guards supported by one battery of 11th Regiment RHA and the 6th South African Field Battery. By 3 p.m. the danger here seemed so great that the 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades (the latter from its overnight position north of the Hagiag Batruna) were ordered to help. There was little air activity on either side because of the dust-storms; indeed Gambut airfield was out of action for most of the day. A few small operations were carried out and there was one fight between a formation of Kittyhawks and some heavily escorted Ju.88s in which four Kittyhawks were lost.
It was in the tail-end of one of these dust-storms that the final armoured clash of the day took place—a most confused action which lasted until dark and ended with the western part of the Scots Guards’ position in enemy hands. For great gallantry on this day and on earlier
occasions Lieut.-Colonel H. R. B. Foote, 7th Royal Tank Regiment, was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The 2nd Armoured Brigade was holding, with difficulty, the northern edge of the Rigel feature, and the 4th Armoured Brigade was withdrawing towards Acroma. It had meanwhile become clear that Knightsbridge was almost surrounded and General Gott ordered it to be abandoned the same night.
The British armour was now reduced to about 50 cruiser and 20 ‘I’ tanks and was no longer in a position to recover its damaged tanks from the battlefield. Ever since the opening of the battle the British had striven hard to get damaged tanks into action again quickly, and a few figures will suffice to show not only what a large number of casualties had occurred, but what good work the tireless recovery and repair teams had been doing. Up to the 13th June no less than 417 damaged tanks had been recovered; of these 210 had already been repaired, 122 had been sent off to the base workshops, and the rest were under repair locally. (All this over and above the hundreds of ‘roadside’ repairs.) In addition, up to the previous day—there is no record for 13th June—138 damaged ‘I’ tanks of 13th Corps had been recovered, making a total of at least 555 tanks damaged and an unknown but undoubtedly large number destroyed or damaged beyond repair. In a sadly high proportion of these the crew, if not killed outright, must have been trapped when their tank caught fire, as so often happened after one had been penetrated—especially if it was a Crusader. There is ample evidence that the experienced crews were by this time only too well aware of the shortcomings of their own tanks. The Stuart, after many months of service, was now regarded as no more than a fast and reliable reconnaissance vehicle or a mobile artillery observation post. The Grant had justified the confidence placed in it: its 75-mm. gun had given good results in spite of its limited traverse and the fact that the best armour-piercing ammunition was not yet available, while its armour gave excellent protection—much better than the Crusader’s. As for the British 2-pdr gun, the Middle East reported that the fighting had conclusively shown it to be outmatched and that its uncapped shot, which was all it had, broke up against the face-hardened plates of the German tanks. Armour-piercing capped and ballistic capped ammunition was required with ‘the utmost urgency’ to improve the performance of this gun and of the new 6-pdr anti-tank gun.
All through the battle the British supply arrangements had worked well in spite of many difficulties and the occasional capture of vehicles by a roving enemy. Only one field maintenance centre was actually overrun, but the course of the battle made it necessary to maintain
most of the troops from the base at Belhamed, which placed a severe strain on the transport units. Yet there were no real shortages. Demands for 25-pdr ammunition were particularly heavy (estimated at one time as 20,000 rounds a day for the two armoured divisions alone) and issues were restricted to save transport, without however any apparent ill effect; indeed the restriction curbed wasteful expenditure and the practice of building up private reserves.
Work had been going steadily on to extend the railway towards Tobruk and to complete the lay-out of the railhead at Belhamed, and it was ironical that on the very day set for the opening of this railhead, 12th June, all work had to be stopped because of the tactical situation. Worse still, on 14th June it was decided that all stores must be removed from the Belhamed Forward Base. This task was begun immediately on a pre-arranged plan, and by 16th June almost everything had been cleared except nearly a million rations and a million and a half gallons of petrol. That morning General Ritchie decided that the petrol must be leaked away. By nightfall the men of the Base, half poisoned by fumes and with their boots rotted from their feet, had accomplished this depressing and dangerous task. And so the Belhamed base, which had cost so much to create, ceased to exist.
There remained of course Tobruk, with its great accumulation of stores and supplies, including 3 million rations, 21 million gallons of petrol and 270,000 rounds of ammunition for guns of various calibres, a visible sign that the British had been determined that their offensive, when it came, should not fail for want of administrative backing. The question was whether this enormous stock would now be an invaluable asset or a hostage to fortune.
The work of the Wellington medium bombers was less closely connected with day-to-day events of the land fighting than that of the day-bombers, and it is convenient to consider their action over a longer period. No. 205 Group, under Air Commodore L. L. Maclean, had been working at high pressure since 26th May and by 13th June had flown 403 sorties—an average of 22 aircraft every night. Its two main tasks had been the mining of Benghazi harbour, which was done on four occasions, and the persistent attack of rearward airfields, especially Tmimi, Martuba, Berka and Derna. It will be realized that from Malta, only now beginning to recover from her terrible ordeal, no help could be given against targets in North Africa. Indeed, on the five nights from 8th June the Wellingtons of No. 205 Group were employed in attacking Italian ports and airfields in preparation for the passage of two important convoys to Malta, one from Gibraltar and one from Alexandria, the fortunes of which are related in Chapter XIII.
An air operation of a type new to the Middle East took place during this period. It was mentioned in the last chapter that a force of American Liberators, known as the Halverson Detachment, had arrived in Egypt to attack the Ploesti oilfields in Rumania. On the night of 11th/12th June thirteen of these aircraft took off from Fayid on the Suez Canal to make their attack. The plan was for them to depart individually at short intervals and to rendezvous shortly after dawn on the 12th in order to concentrate their bombing. Afterwards they were all to proceed to Habbaniya, in Iraq. In the event they did not join up, and most of the aircraft released their bombs either above the clouds at the estimated time of arrival or else immediately after breaking cloud. In the circumstances it is improbable that any damage was done. On the return flight four aircraft landed in Turkey, two in Syria and seven in Iraq. The American authorities had agreed that the Halverson Detachment should also take part in operations to cover the passage of the Malta convoys already referred to; seven Liberators did so, and their activities are included in the story of the VIGOROUS convoy.10
It will be recalled that early in February the three Commanders-in-Chief had decided not to accept a second siege of Tobruk. General Auchinleck had accordingly laid down that the 8th Army was to make every effort to prevent Tobruk being lost, but was not to continue to hold it once the enemy was in a position to invest it effectively.11 These words must have rung in General Ritchie's ears as he faced the hard facts of the situation on the evening of 13th June. So easy to say, so hard to do. The previous day he had made the decision to 'stand and fight', and that fight had now been lost. He no longer possessed an armoured force strong enough to protect the long southern flank from Alem Hamza to El Adem, nor could such a force be built up quickly. It was consequently only a matter of time before the enemy would cut the communications of the two divisions in the Gazala line. Therefore these divisions must be withdrawn, but where to? Not to Tobruk, where they could not prevent themselves being invested. The only position they were likely to be able to secure, behind which the armour could be built up and from which the enemy's desert flank could be harried, was the Egyptian frontier. By 7 a.m. on 14th June he had given orders to the 13th Corps to withdraw the 1st South African and 50th Divisions to the frontier, where they would be in Army reserve. At 9.30 he gave a guarded report to the Commander-in-Chief on the telephone and an hour later set forth his views in a long signal which reached Cairo at 1.15 p.m.
The question was: what to do about Tobruk? It seemed to General Ritchie that as long as Tobruk remained in British hands the enemy was unlikely to try to advance into Egypt, and the better would be the chances of rebuilding the 8th Army for a fresh offensive. Therefore there would be advantages in holding it for a time, even if it was completely invested. He would hope initially to hold the western half of the perimeter and the localities of El Adem and Belhamed. A mobile force would operate from the south, and help to keep the coastal road open as a supply route. There was a risk that this back door might be closed, but Tobruk had a month’s supplies and if the situation could be restored within that time the place might be denied to the enemy and all the installations saved from destruction. The alternatives were therefore:
(a) to accept the risk of a temporary investment,
(b) to give up Tobruk and withdraw the whole Army to the frontier.
General Ritchie added that he could not guarantee the safety of the Gambut airfields after the 14.th June, though he hoped the tactical situation would allow of their continued use as advanced landing-grounds. He then asked General Auchinleck the direct question: ‘Do you agree to me accepting the risk of investment in Tobruk?’
This message crossed one that General Auchinleck had sent off at 11.30 a.m., at which time he was not fully aware of the state of the 8th Army nor of General Ritchie’s precise intentions. He seems to have assumed that Ritchie, in choosing to ‘stand and fight’, had discarded altogether the idea of withdrawing the Army to the frontier and that, although it had become tactically necessary to disengage the 1st South African and 50th Divisions, they would re-enter the battle in the neighbourhood of, but outside, Tobruk. General Auchinleck’s message ran:
‘1. If in your opinion situation has so deteriorated that you can no longer leave t SA and 50 Divisions in main Gazala position without certain risk of their being cut off and isolated, then I agree to their withdrawal undesirable as this is in view of tactical advantage this bastion gives us.
2. While I realize that our armoured forces have been defeated and are now weaker in quantity as well as quality than those of enemy, I must stress my opinion that enemy, who so far has won all his successes with two German armoured and one German motor divisions, helped to some extent by one Italian motor division, cannot really be in a position to carry out large scale offensive operations for indefinite period at pace he has been doing. He must, I feel, have lost heavily, and we know his ammunition is short. Moreover, we are definitely superior to him in the air [sic].
3. This being so, Tobruk must be held and the enemy must not be allowed to invest it. This means that Eighth Army must hold the line Acroma-El Adem and southwards and resist all enemy attempts to pass it. Having reduced your front by evacuating Gazala and reorganized your forces, this should be feasible and I order you to do it.
4. If you feel you cannot accept the responsibility of holding this position you must say so.’
From this it is clear that General Auchinleck believed that the enemy’s capabilities were not so great as to make it necessary to abandon Tobruk, and he was not prepared to allow the place to be invested.
General Ritchie did not see this message until he returned at 4 p.m. on 14th June from visiting his Corps Commanders. At 5.30 he telephoned to Cairo and spoke to the Deputy Director of Operations, who had just returned from a visit to the 8th Army, bringing with him the latest information. General Ritchie said that he accepted the task and would do his best, but that he could not guarantee to hold the line from Acroma to El Adem and southwards. If he failed, and was compelled to withdraw to the Egyptian frontier, he wished to accept the investment of Tobruk and again asked for the Commander-in-Chief’s approval.
But General Auchinleck saw no reason to change his mind. If the enemy could be kept fighting there was a good chance of exhausting him. At 7.50 he issued another order, which was received at 8th Army just before midnight. In it he referred to the fatigue and losses of the Germans, and to the relative freshness of the troops from the Gazala position and in Tobruk. In order to destroy the enemy General Ritchie was first to deny the line Acroma-El Adem-Bir el Gubi. The message then described the type of offensive/defensive which was to be carried out. It ended with a summing-up:
‘. . . 7 (a) The general line Acroma–El Adem–El Gubi is to be denied to the enemy.
(b) Our forces will not be invested in Tobruk, and your army is to remain a mobile field army.
(c) The enemy’s forces are to be attacked and destroyed as soon as we have collected adequate forces for an offensive. ‘
General Ritchie had already issued two important instructions, one before and one after receiving the message sent by the Commander-in-Chief at 11.30 a.m. The first gave as his intention ‘To withdraw to the frontier and occupy the frontier defences’, and laid down that the enemy was to be denied for as long as possible the western perimeter of Tobruk and El Adem. The 10th Indian Division was to protect the Gambut airfields until the Air Officer Commanding no longer required them, and was then to occupy Sollum and the Omars. A
destination near the frontier was also given to the 5th Indian Division. The second instruction, timed 8.30 p.m., was addressed to General Norrie, and reflects the Commander-in-Chief’s decision about Tobruk.
‘Greatest danger present time is enemy investing Tobruk. Main contribution which 30 Corps can make is in conjunction with 13 Corps to prevent enemy closing eastern exits Tobruk. Your role therefore is to deny to enemy escarpment Pt 162 4141 to Belhamed [approximately the line of the by-pass road, east of El Adem]. To do this, necessary you will prevent enemy operating in area El Adem-Belhamed-Gubi and keep him as far west of this area as possible. I consider that enemy armour must be nearing exhaustion and may give us a few days’ respite during which I will do my utmost to strengthen you. You are not restricted in the use of such armour as may be allotted to you. Having regard to your resources a mobile policy will probably best achieve your object and an organization will be set up to enable all available columns with their gun power to be concentrated on a threatened area. Great sacrifices may have to be incurred to achieve this end on which 13th Corps are so dependent.’
General Ritchie was clearly uneasy about the task he had undertaken, and at 11.10 p.m. he sent a further message to General Auchinleck explaining what he was doing to strengthen the 7th Armoured Division by giving it all the available motorized units and armour for employment on the southern flank. As soon as possible the artillery of the 1st South African and 50th Divisions would be reorganized with the same object. The danger was that the enemy would not allow time to do this, and might get astride the eastern exits from Tobruk, in which case a decision would be required whether to accept investment or order the garrison to fight its way out—which it could probably do, but with much disorganization and loss. Ships in Tobruk (diverted, because of damage or lack of speed, from the convoy intended for Malta) would bring the local stocks up to two months’ supply.12 Ritchie strongly recommended that if he failed to prevent the place being surrounded he should accept investment rather than order the garrison to fight its way out in difficult circumstances. He ended: ‘If this is a correct interpretation of your ideas I accept responsibility.’
Meanwhile in London the decision to withdraw the two divisions from Gazala had aroused interest, and on 14th June the Prime Minister asked where they were to go. He presumed that there was no question of giving up Tobruk; as long as Tobruk was held no serious advance into Egypt was possible. To this General Auchinleck replied on 15th June giving the gist of his order to General Ritchie timed 7.50 p.m.
the previous evening. He said that the two divisions from the Gazala line would be available to help in denying to the enemy the general line Acroma–El Adem–Bir el Gubi. He repeated, in slightly shorter form, his summing up, and went on to say that he intended to build up a reserve in the area Sollum-Fort Maddalena with the object of launching a counter-offensive as soon as possible. The New Zealand Division from Syria and the 8th Armoured Brigade from the Delta had been ordered forward to the Western Desert.13 But the Prime Minister had one more question: did General Auchinleck mean that, if the need arose, enough troops would be left in Tobruk to hold the place for certain? It happened that early on the morning of 16th June Auchinleck had given Ritchie an answer to his persistent question in a new form. Briefly, the garrison was not to be invested, but it might be isolated for short periods. In reply to the Prime Minister General Auchinleck said that his interpretation was correct. General Ritchie was putting into Tobruk what he considered to be an adequate force to hold it even if it should be temporarily isolated. El Adem would be held as a pivot of manoeuvre, and all available mobile forces were to be used to prevent the enemy establishing himself east of El Adem or Tobruk.
After this summary of the exchanges that led to the decision to accept the temporary isolation of Tobruk, it is time to resume the story of events in the battle area where it was left on the evening of 13th June.
During the night 13th/14th June the 201st Guards (Motor) Brigade was withdrawn from Knightsbridge. That left intact the defended posts at B 154 and Eluet et Tamar—both manned by troops of the 1st South African Division; Pt 187 by 1st Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment and the 62nd Field Battery RA of 29th Indian Infantry Brigade Group; and Acroma and Commonwealth Keep each with a small garrison from the 2nd South African Division. The armour was more or less concentrated south and west of Acroma.
General Rommel intended to reap the benefits of his success of the previous day by cutting the coastal road, and did his utmost to goad on his tired troops. He failed, owing to the extreme fatigue of the DAK, the well-coordinated artillery fire and the determined defence of the garrisons of Eluet et Tamar and Pt 187, and the timely intervention of the 22nd and part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade. After further attacks Pt 187 had to be given up, but a resolute and successful
rearguard action by the British armour and artillery, assisted by an attack by the day-bombers, held off the 15th Panzer Division until dark. Meanwhile the 21st Panzer Division heavily attacked Eluet et Tamar, penetrated part of the defences, and was driven out by artillery fire and a counter-attack by the Cape Town Highlanders.
Early that morning, 14th June, the 1st South African and 50th Divisions received their orders to withdraw from the Gazala line and make for destinations on the Egyptian frontier. A plan already existed for such a move, but now that the enemy was almost in Acroma and El Adem it had to be modified: 1st South African Division was to move by the coast road through Tobruk and the 50th Division was to break out south-west through the Italian 10th Corps and make its way south of Bir Hacheim and across country to the frontier. The 50th Division was to hold its positions until 6 p.m. that evening and the South Africans theirs until first light on 15th June.
General Pienaar protested against being made to withdraw by daylight in the face of a certainly aroused enemy, and it was agreed that he too should hold his positions until 6 p.m. on the ,4th and that his rear parties should pass into Tobruk by 7 a.m. on the 15th. The 13th Corps had already ordered that Bir Heleisi (50th Division), B 154 and Eluet et Tamar (1st South African Division), Commonwealth Keep and Pt 187 (2nd South African Division) would be held until 9 p.m. on 14th June, after which the garrisons would be withdrawn by their parent formations. Furthermore 2nd South African Division, supported by 1st Armoured Division, would hold the line of the minefields from El Mrassas to Acroma until further orders, and their columns would operate as far west as the Tobruk by-pass road.
In both divisions all reserves of food, water, fuel, and certain stores were silently destroyed or made useless during the day, and in the 1st South African Division unessential units and vehicles were sent away early. The 1st South African Infantry Brigade, helped by a dust-storm, withdrew during the afternoon, and the 2nd and 3rd Brigades after dark. There then remained the rearguards, made up of detachments from the three brigades, each of a composite company of infantry with a few field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, the whole commanded by Brigadier C. L. de W. du Toit. The withdrawal of the Division went well except for some casualties and damage from air attacks. The Germans near Acroma failed to move early enough to intercept the main bodies. This they could have done, because by first light on the 15th there were no troops facing them on the escarpment west of Acroma. Pt 187 had been given up; the remaining posts had been withdrawn by their parent formations during the night; and 13th Corps, deciding to get the 1st Armoured Division away to reorganize, had ordered it to withdraw at 10 p.m. on the ,4th. However, between 8 and 9 a.m. on 15th June a battalion of German infantry and some
tanks drove a small protective detachment of the 2nd South African Division from its position at El Mrassas and blocked the main road. On the wrong side of this block were the rearguards of 2nd and 3rd South African Brigades and some units of the 50th Division who had been obliged to take this route also. Brigadier du Toit and his headquarters had already passed by, so that effective command was lacking. At length Lieut.-Colonel J. E. S. Percy, 9th Durham Light Infantry, collected a miscellaneous force and in the afternoon broke through the German screen. The bulk of the South African rearguards did not seize the opportunity to follow, and towards dark they were captured or dispersed by the enemy. During its retreat the 1st South African Division lost 27 killed and 366 wounded or missing, and 13 guns.
General Ramsden, commanding the 50th Division, decided to break out just after dark in two main groups, one under Brigadier L. L. Hassell (69th Infantry Brigade) and the other under Brigadier J. S. Nichols (151st Infantry Brigade). In each group one battalion with supporting arms was detailed to smash a gap in the Italian positions and hold it open while the rest, in their self-contained columns, passed through. The afternoon dust-storm helped by concealing the preparations, and the break-out was made with great vigour. The 5th Battalion East Yorkshire Regiment and the 8th Battalion Durham Light Infantry made the gaps, and the columns, with a few exceptions, ran through the enemy’s fire (and even over his positions) before gaining the open desert. The 9th Battalion Durham Light Infantry (of 151st Infantry Brigade) and its attached troops suffered various delays until the chances of getting through the thoroughly roused enemy seemed very slender. Lieut.-Colonel Percy decided instead to make for the coast road. He was joined by various stray detachments and reached Tobruk after the encounter at El Mrassas already described. The bulk of the division began to assemble east of the Egyptian frontier on 16th June.
It happened that on 14th June one of the important convoys for Malta—VIGOROUS, already referred to—was passing between Crete and Cyrenaica. This attracted much of the air effort on both sides, Ju.87s and 88s being sent to attack it and fighters of the Desert Air Force to protect it when it came within their range. To keep down the weight of attack on the convoy a few Bostons and a small force of Wellingtons had bombed airfields at Derna and elsewhere on the
night of the 13th. On the following day, however, dust-storms interfered with flying, and the day-bombers were grounded until the evening, when they were urgently required to give air support in the Acroma area. Fighter activity was also seriously restricted. A few Italian aircraft and a small force of Me.110s attacked troops withdrawing from Gazala along the congested coast road, but, like the
British, the enemy was preoccupied with the convoy, and his dive-bombers were almost wholly employed against it. Thus, for one reason or another, air activity over the Desert on 14th June was much less than usual.
On 15th June General Rommel wrote ‘The battle has been won, and the enemy is breaking up.’ This was unpleasantly near the truth, for although the 8th Army still occupied Tobruk, and had detachments at El Adem and Belhamed, it had been out-manoeuvred and driven from its chosen battlefields and most of it was re-forming eighty miles away. Its force of cruiser tanks had been reduced to one weak brigade of composite regiments, the organization of most of its infantry divisions had been disjointed, and no significant reserves were within reach. The enemy, too, had suffered heavily, but although he had failed to round up the divisions in the Gazala line he had at last prised them loose, had defeated the British armour, and had made great captures of men and material. He was now almost within reach of his objective, which was Tobruk; moreover he was quite clear as to his object, which was to capture it quickly. The British, on the other hand, were by no means clear what they meant to do, and were soon to pay the penalty.