Operation Battleaxe (i)

This was a British offensive in North Africa designed to pin the Axis forces in front of Sollum while a combined infantry and armoured force swung to the north-west round the Axis forces’ desert flank to take the Hafid Ridge and so open the way for a drive to relieve the garrison of beleaguered Tobruk and also to pave the way for the expulsion of the German and Italian forces from eastern Cyrenaica (15/17 June 1941).

Soon after the ‘Sonnenblume’ arrival of Generalmajor Hans Freiherr von Funck’s Sperrverband ‘Libyen’ as the first German element of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel’s Deutsches Afrikakorps (Generalmajor Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron’s 15th Panzerdivision and Generalleutnant Johannes Streich’s 5th leichte Division) in Libya in the Italian-escorted convoys of 8/11 February (three German freighters) and 12/14 February (four German freighters), Rommel was ordered to remain on the defensive but immediately went over to the offensive and quickly captured the British forward position at El Agheila and then pressed an offensive which, in less than two months, had advanced as far to the east as Sollum in western Egypt.

The sole remaining Allied position in Libya was the heavily fortified port of Tobruk, which Rommel had taken under siege. On 20 April, as a response to Rommel’s rapid gains and siege on Tobruk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the despatch of the ‘Tiger’ convoy operation to deliver tanks and fighters not by the long route round the Cape of Good Hope but rather by the more direct, faster but more dangerous route through the Mediterranean.

The Oberkommando der Wehrmacht was concerned by Rommel’s audacity, which it perceived as foolhardiness with a fortunate outcome, and sent Generalleutnant Friedrich Paulus, the deputy chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, to investigate and report on the situation. After witnessing one of Rommel’s costly failed attempts to assault Tobruk, Paulus sent a report to the OKW describing Rommel’s position as weak, with critical shortages of both fuel and ammunition. In response to this, and with the ‘Barbarossa’ invasion of the USSR imminent, Generalfeldmarschall Walther von Brauchitsch, commander-in-chief of the German army, ordered Rommel to advance no farther or to attack Tobruk again, but merely to hold his position and conserve his forces.

‘Ultra’ decrypts gave the British the details of Paulus’s report and Churchill, believing that one strong push would dislodge the German forces from their investment of Tobruk, began to increase the pressure on General Sir Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief in the Middle East and North Africa, immediately to launch an offensive. This was made possible by the arrival in Alexandria on 12 May of the ‘Tiger’ convoy with 238 tanks (21 Mk VIC light tanks, 82 cruiser tanks [including many of the new Crusader type] and 135 Matilda infantry tanks) as well as 43 Hawker Hurricane fighters. This gave the British forces a useful quantitive if not qualitative armoured superiority at a time when Rommel’s Axis forces were exhausted by an advance that had taken them to the end of overextended lines of communication.

Forbidden to make any further advance, Rommel had therefore halted in good defensive positions behind emplaced 88-mm (3.465-in) Flak guns, which were to prove phenomenal tank-killers during the forthcoming ‘Battleaxe’ (i).

The operation therefore pitted some 20,000 or more British-led troops, supported by 190 tanks and 203 aircraft (98 fighters and 105 bombers) against an Axis force of 13,200 men supported by some 196 tanks and 214 aircraft (130 fighters and 84 bombers).

It was on 28 May that Wavell issued his orders for ‘Battleaxe’ (i), which had been planned as a three-phase undertaking. In the first phase the Axis forces were to be defeated on the frontier and to allow the Halfaya, Sollum, Capuzzo and Sidi Azeiz area to be secured; in the second, Lieutenant General N. Beresford-Peirse’s XIII Corps (Western Desert Force) was to advance and take the Tobruk and El Adem area; and in the third the XIII Corps was to take the Derna and Mechili area.

In the first phase, the British forces were to make a three-pronged assault to clear the frontier region. For this, along the coast and in the centre there would be Major General F. W. Messervy’s ‘Coast Force’ (Indian 4th Division with Brigadier R. A. Savory’s Indian 11th Brigade and Brigadier I. Erskine’s 22nd Guards Brigade) and Major General M. O’Moore Creagh’s ‘Escarpment Force’ respectively, the former to take Halfaya Pass and the latter to seize rest of the frontier, namely the area of Fort Capuzzo, Musaid and Sollum using Brigadier H. F. Russell’s 7th Armoured Brigade with cruiser and light tanks, backed by the two artillery regiments of Brigadier J. C. Campbell’s 7th Support Group, to engage and destroy the Axis armour, which was believed to be located at Hafid Ridge, and in the process encircling any Axis units on the frontier between itself and the rest of the British forces.

After capturing the frontier area, the constituent elements of Creagh’s 7th Armoured Division (Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade with infantry tanks, the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group) were to re-form and continue north to the relief of besieged Tobruk. Once joined by the garrison of Tobruk, the combined forces were to move west, driving back the Axis forces as far as they could.

Three days before the scheduled launch of ‘Battleaxe’ (i), the RAF was to start to soften up the Axis forces with bomber attacks on the key port city and supply base at Benghazi while all its lighter warplanes with a ground-attack capability, under command of Air Vice Marshal R. Collishaw’s No. 204 Group, assaulted the Axis forces along the frontier. Once the battle began, fighter aircraft were then to patrol defensively over Allied ground forces while medium bombers were to stand ready for assisting the ground forces in tackling Axis movements.

Such was the importance attached to ‘Battleaxe’ (i) that the chiefs-of-staff in London ordered Air Marshal A. W. Tedder, commanding the RAF in the Middle East, to make all possible efforts to support ‘Battleaxe’ (i) even if this meant that significant risks had to be accepted in other theatres.

Both Beresford-Peirse and Tedder were headquartered well behind the front at Sidi Barrani and Maaten Baggush respectively. Despite the fact that it was more than five hours’ drive from the front, Beresford-Peirse had selected Sidi Barrani as it possessed the most advanced airfield for reconnaissance aircraft and was also the most forward position with effective communications to the even more distant Maaten Baggush.

Wavell’s plan was based on intelligence information, which was in fact poor as a result of shortages of proper equipment and of pilots adequately trained for the specialised photo-reconnaissance role. As a result of this poor reconnaissance, Wavell’s staff incorrectly believed that about two-thirds of the Axis armoured strength was situated around Tobruk, which suggested the availability of only a limited tank strength in the frontier area.

The start of ‘Battleaxe’ (i) was initially scheduled for 7 June, but had to be delayed as Creagh’s tank units did not start to receive their new equipment until 9 June. ‘Battleaxe’ (i) therefore started on 15 June after Creagh’s units had been afforded six days in which to become accustomed to their new vehicles.

On the other side of the front line, where the Axis forces were under the overall command of Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi, Rommel had learned from ‘Brevity’ that, despite the fact that the British had not gained any territory, the Axis front-line defences could be breached with little difficulty. Knowing that the British would inevitably seek to push the front line to the west of the Egyptian/Libyan frontier, Rommel ordered the construction of a line of fortified positions from Halfaya to Sidi Azeiz, locating anti-tank guns and anti-tank minefields in the Halfaya Pass and round Point 206 south of Forth Capuzzo and Point 208 west of Fort Capuzzo on the Hafid Ridge. The primary responsibility of the frontier defence was entrusted to the 15th Panzerdivision, commanded since 26 May by Generalmajor Walter Neumann-Silkow, who also exercised tactical command over the 7,500-man detachment of Generale di Divisione Giuseppe de Stefanis’s 102nd Divisione motorizzata ‘Trento’).

The Axis forces received a nine-hour warning of the start of ‘Battleaxe’ (i) as a result of the 7th Armoured Division’s poor signals security, which gave away many details of the British dispositions and intentions. On the basis of this warning, Rommel deployed the 5th leichte Division, commanded since 16 May by Generalleutnant Karl Böttcher, to the south of Tobruk in a location from which it could be moved against either the Sollum area or Tobruk as the situation developed. Rommel also ordered a major artillery bombardment of Tobruk during the night before the start of ‘Battleaxe’ (i) to deter any breakout by the port’s garrison, which was centred on Major General J. D. Lavarack’s (from 18 June Major General A. S. Allen’s) Australian 7th Division. Though he was confident of his troop dispositions, Rommel was nonetheless greatly concerned by his forces’ severe shortage of petrol, which would impose major restrictions on tactical mobility.

As the 5th leichte Division was being kept in reserve with the 96 armoured vehicles (57 gun tanks) of the 5th Panzerregiment as its main strength, the initial defence of the frontier had devolved onto the 15th Panzerdivision, whose most important element was Oberstleutnant Hans Cramer’s two-battalion 8th Panzerregiment, which had about 100 armoured fighting vehicles including only some 50 PzKpfw III battle tanks and PzKpfw IV medium tanks. Most of the division’s other units had been dispersed to strongpoints along the Axis defence line. Also under the operational control of the 15th Panzerdivision was the rest of the 102nd Divisione motorizzata: while most of this formation was stationed in and around Bardia, on the coast some 10 miles (16 km) to the north of Sollum, three infantry battalions and an artillery regiment had been deployed as the garrison of of the area of Sollum, Musaid and Fort Capuzzo.

All went according to plan for the XIII Corps on the first day of ‘Battleaxe’ (i). Axis supply columns and airfields had been hit repeatedly by air attacks up to the start of the attack and, once the operation began on 15 June, British columns were able to move unmolested, thanks to the overhead presence of effective fighter patrols, from their starting points at Sofafi and Buq Buq to their destinations: there were only six Axis air attacks during the day.

On the northern side of the offensive, at 05.15 the ‘Coast Force’, under Savory’s tactical command, started to advance on the Halfaya Pass. On the top of the escarpment was the ‘Halfaya Group’ (2/Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 12 Matilda infantry tank and one light tank of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment’s C Squadron, and one battery of the 31st Field Regiment). To this group’s east and below the lip of the escarpment were the 1/6th Rajputana Rifles and 2/5th Mahratta Light Infantry, two troops of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment’s A Squadron, and a few 25-pdr gun/howitzers.

At 05.40, the British artillery supporting the ‘Halfaya Group’ was scheduled to open fire on the Axis forces stationed in the Halfaya Pass to provide cover for the tanks and infantry, but the battery had become bogged down by soft sand. After waiting until 06.00, 15 minutes after the fighting had started to the west below the escarpment, the commander of C Squadron ordered his tanks to attack at the top of the pass, but these almost immediately ran into the fire of the Axis anti-tank guns, and within a few hours all but single infantry and light tanks had been destroyed. The Cameron Highlanders at first managed to press their advance, but were soon driven back by a detachment of German armoured cars and motorised infantry.

The British forces below the escarpment did not fare much better, as four of the Matilda infantry tanks were disabled by anti-tank mines which were supposed to have been cleared, and this blocked the path of the remaining two tanks and reduced the small tank force to acting in a pillbox capacity. The Rajputs and Mahrattas made several attempts to reach the pass, but were repelled each time.

In the central thrust, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment had reached Fort Capuzzo by 12.00 and scattered the defenders, who pulled back to the north to join the 15th Panzerdivision on the road to Bardia. Soon after this, however, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment was counterattacked in the first of several times by a battalion of the 8th Panzerregiment. After being joined by the 22nd Guards Brigade, the British tanks faced the final and largest counterattack at 18.30, but managed to repulse it. These were not serious assaults as Rommel was still not prepared to commit the 15th Panzerdivision to battle without more information. Instead, the 8th Panzerregiment’s primary tactic was to skirmish briefly and then feign a disordered rout in order to lure the Matilda tanks into a chase leading them straight into the fire of concealed anti-tank guns. Neither side had sustained much damage in these actions.

In response to the British capture of Fort Capuzzo, and concerned with the possibility of an attack on Sollum and Bardia, Rommel ordered the 5th leichte Division to move forward to Sidi Azeiz in preparation for a possible counterattack.

With the exception of the units which had been detached to support the attack on the Halfaya Pass, the 4th Royal Tank Regiment had been used as a flank guard for the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. While B Squadron was kept in reserve, the three remaining troops of A Squadron (12 tanks) had initial success against Battle Position 38, capturing 200 Axis prisoners and eight field guns with virtually no loss. These gains were lost when A Squadron was driven back at Point 206 and German forces counterattacked at BP 38. In the evening, after A Squadron had been reduced to just one tank, the 16 tanks of B Squadron were brought into action and Point 206 was captured. In capturing these objectives, the British also took prisoner more than 500 Germans and Italians.

During the night the 2/Scots Guards of the 22nd Guards Brigade, was able to advance farther to the east and take the outpost at Musaid.

On the western side of the attack, the 7th Armoured Brigade had placed the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, equipped with older cruiser tanks, in front of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment so that the new Crusader cruiser tanks of the latter could be used as a surprise weapon. The force reached the Hafid Ridge (actually three separate ridges) by about 09.00. After the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment had crossed over the first ridge, it was engaged at almost pointblank range by dug-in anti-tank guns, which destroyed two A9 cruiser tanks before the rest could retreat. This development posed a serious problem for the brigade, whose cruiser tanks were armed with the 2-pdr gun for which there was no HE round of the type needed for the effective engagement of infantry and artillery. Moreover, artillery support was not immediately available as it was attached to the 7th Support Group in the south-west, where it was covering the flank of the 7th Armoured Brigade. As a frontal attack would be prohibitively costly, it was decided to attempt a flanking attack while waiting for the artillery to arrive.

A small force of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was sent to the western part of the Hafid Ridge with orders to turn into the first valley. The attack went well at first, as the tanks caught the Axis forces unaware and were able to strafe the Axis trenches with their machine guns, losing only one tank in the process. As this detachment neared Point 208 on its eastward advance, the commander became aware of the area’s defences and ordered his units to disengage: as a result of equipment shortages, however, only one tank per troop was equipped with a radio and five of the tanks did not receive the order and therefore continued toward Point 208 and their destruction by the Germans’ emplaced 88-mm (3.465-in) guns.

Reports now started to arrive from British aircraft that German tanks were approaching the scene of battle, and the order was given to clear the ridges so that its advantageous terrain could be used for the imminent armoured battle. At 17.30 reports from forward observers revealed that the Germans were withdrawing from the Hafid Ridge and, as this seemed to present the most opportune moment to strike, B Squadron of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment was ordered to attack. After the squadron had cleared the first of the three ridges it seemed that the reports were accurate, for German trucks and towed guns were spotted moving away over the second crest. The British tanks pursued, but as they crested the second ridge, the Axis forces sprang their trap and fired on the Crusader tanks, again at almost pointblank range, with waiting guns. Within minutes 11 Crusader tanks had been destroyed and six more heavily damaged.Even so, the Axis infantry and anti-tank guns, fighting in the open, also sustained significant casualties.

It was at this moment that more than 30 German tanks of one of the 5th Panzerregiment’s battalions, which had earlier been stationed to the north at Sidi Azeiz, were seen arriving from the west. Night was beginning to fall, so neither side closed with the other and the 7th Armoured Brigade slowly withdrew during long-range fighting.

By the end of the first day of ‘Battleaxe’ (i), therefore, Fort Capuzzo was held by the British while the Halfaya Pass and the Hafid Ridge both remained in Axis hands. The British had lost a significant number of tanks. In the 7th Armoured Brigade, the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment had left just 28 cruiser tanks and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment only 20 of its original 50 Crusader tanks. Many of the tanks which had been disabled, but could have been repaired, were abandoned as the 7th Armoured Brigade withdrew from the Hafid Ridge, leaving them to be seized by German tank recovery teams. From its original strength of about 100 Matilda infantry tanks, the 4th Armoured Brigade had only 37 serviceable vehicles, although 11 more were repaired by the following morning.

The Germans losses in tanks had been insignificant, though the forces holding the Hafid Ridge, Point 206 and Fort Capuzzo had suffered somewhat more heavily.

Beresford-Peirse’s plan for the next day was to have the 11th Brigade continue its attack on the Halfaya Pass, the 22nd Guards Brigade hold its position, and the 4th Armoured Brigade reinforce the 7th Armoured Brigade so that the two combined could successfully engage an outnumbered 5th leichte Division.

Radio intercepts had given Rommel a good assessment of the British situation, including losses, problems and Beresford-Peirse’s new orders. Rommel’s main concern was for the force at the Halfaya Pass, which was now caught between the 22nd Guards Brigade and the 11th Brigade, and was low on supplies. His plan therefore was to have the 5th leichte Division, which by 24.00 had almost fully reached Sidi Azeiz, attack to the south in the direction of Sidi Omar on the British forces’ open western flank and then veer to the east toward Sidi Suleiman, and finally to the north-east toward the Halfaya Pass, thereby falling on the 11th Brigade from the rear. In order to prevent the redeployment of Matilda infantry tanks, either to reinforce the 7th Armoured Brigade as Beresford-Peirse planned or to assist the British forces at the Halfaya Pass, Neumann-Silkow was ordered to undertake a committed attack against Fort Capuzzo, starting while it was still dark as the British intended to resume their own operation shortly after dawn.

On 16 June the 11th Brigade renewed its assault on the Halfaya Pass, but with no greater success than on the preceding day. The head of the pass was held by Hauptmann Wilhelm Bach’s 1/104th Regiment (mot.) of the 15th Panzerdivision, which was short of supplies, outnumbered, completely surrounded but still holding its position.

Seeing the lack of progress, Messervy disregarded Beresford-Peirse’s order to release his tanks and decided to retain the few remaining Matilda tanks to breach the Axis defence. Neumann-Silkow began his attack on the British at Fort Capuzzo at 06.00 after organising his 80 tanks into two columns so that Fort Capuzzo could be assaulted from each side. The attack went poorly from the onset, the 15th Panzerdivision running straight into heavy artillery fire from 25-pdr gun/howitzers which had been brought up during the night and the Matilda tanks which had been dug in. By 10.00 the 15th Panzerdivision had lost some 50 tanks, and by 12.00 had been forced to retreat. Soon after this, the Scots Guards advanced and took the Sollum barracks to prevent Axis forces from either flanking on the east or linking up with the Halfaya Pass garrison.

Starting at dawn, the 5th leichte Division began to advance to the south past the western edge of the Hafid Ridge. The 7th Armoured Brigade kept pace with the German formation to the east, joined by the 7th Support Group as the two forces approached Sidi Omar. During the running skirmish, the British tanks made a few successful attacks against unarmoured German transport vehicles, but found themselves at a significant disadvantage any time they engaged the German armour, which made use of an extremely effective tactic. Armed with 75-mm (2.95-in) guns capable of firing an HE projectile to an effective range of 3,000 yards (2750 m), the PzKpfw IV tanks opened fire while still well out of the 500-yard (455-m) range of the British tanks’ 2-pdr guns. While this practice produced little damage on the British tanks, it decimated their towed 25-pdr artillery, which therefore had to withdraw. Without artillery to concern them, the PzKpfw IV and PzKpfw III tanks, the latter armed with 50-mm guns, then safely closed the range with their British counterparts and picked off the thinly armoured cruiser tanks while still remaining beyond the range of the British tanks' guns. If the British tanks attempted to move forward to engage their opponents, the latter would quickly retreat behind a pre-established screen of anti-tank guns while lighter armoured elements would begin to move around the British flanks. To make matters worse, the 7th Armoured Brigade suffered reliability problems with their tanks, many of which broke down.

By the evening, both of the 7th Armoured Brigade’s regiments had retreated to the east of the frontier, and the 7th Support Group had pulled back still farther. At 19.00, just as dusk fell, the 5th leichte Division further weakened the 7th Armoured Brigade with a strong attack which ended only at nightfall.

After watching several of the engagements between the 7th Armoured Brigade and 5th leichte Division, Rommel decided that the time was now ripe for a full thrust against the 7th Armoured Brigade. At 16.00 he ordered the 15th Panzerdivision to leave only minimal elements at its position to the north of Fort Capuzzo and move as rapidly as possible to the northern flank of the 5th leichte Division, which was pressing eastward toward Sidi Suleiman. Rommel thus hoped to cut off the main part of the British forces, encircling and then eliminating them.

During the afternoon, Wavell had flown to Beresford-Peirse’s headquarters the better to make major decisions on a timely basis. When he arrived, Beresford-Peirse was absent at a meeting with Messervy and Creagh, where he reaffirmed his instructions for the infantry to maintain its attack on the Halfaya Pass and hold Fort Capuzzo while the 4th Armoured Brigade joined the 7th Armoured Brigade to confront the 5th leichte Division off to the west. That night, on learning of the 5th leichte Division’s advances, Messervy took the initiative and ordered his forces to withdraw. In order to facilitate this, he ordered the 4th Armoured Brigade’s surviving Matilda infantry tanks to establish a defensive screen to protect the retreating infantry from the advances of the German armour to the west.

In terms of forces, at time time the 7th Armoured Brigade had lost more than half of the cruiser tanks with which it had started the day, and now had only 21 left serviceable. The 4th Armoured Brigade was in no better condition, being reduced to 17 Matilda tanks.

At 04.30 on 17 June the German armour began its advance. The 5th leichte Division encountered the 7th Armoured Brigade at 06.00 and began to drive it back. By 08.00 the Germans had reached Sidi Suleiman. At Fort Capuzzo, the early morning movements of the 15th Panzerdivision persuaded Messervy that another attack was imminent, so he cancelled Beresford-Peirse’s orders for the 4th Armoured Brigade to reinforce the 7th Armoured Brigade in order to ensure that he would still be able to call on armoured support. The combination of these two events strongly worried Creagh, who sent a message to Beresford-Peirse requesting his presence for instruction.

Now with Beresford-Peirse, Wavell at this point assumed personal command of the operation and boarded an aeroplane to fly to Creagh’s command post at Halfway House. By this time the 5th leichte Division and 15th Panzerdivision, striking from the south-west and north-west respectively, were only 9 miles (14.5 km) distant from the Halfaya Pass. At 10.00, as the German armour pushed to the east, they ran into the remaining Matilda tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade, joined on the flank by the remaining cruiser tanks and artillery of the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group. The armour had now formed a screen to protect the 22nd Guards Brigade and Indian 11th Brigade as these retreated toward Halfway House.

At 10.45 Messervy contacted Creagh by radio and, speaking Hindustani for security, informed him that he had ordered his infantry to pull back from Fort Capuzzo and the Halfaya Pass from 11.00.

At 12.00 Wavell and Beresford-Peirse arrived at Halfway House and learned of the retreat Messervy ordered, and Wavell concurred that this had been the right thing to do. The armoured clash raged throughout the afternoon as the British tanks stalled the Panzer advance to the Halfaya Pass until 16.00, by which time the 22nd Guards Brigade had escaped. With the British forces defeated and with no reserves available, Egypt now lay wide open to Rommel. However his critical supply position and the continuing threat in his rear from the Tobruk garrison prevented him from attempting to exploit his success, and ‘Battleaxe’ (i) therefore ended.

The casualties on each side had been relatively light and fairly even: the British had taken 969 casualties (122 killed, 588 wounded and 259 missing), the Germans had sustained 678 casualties (93 killed, 350 wounded and 235 missing), and the Italians had sustained 592 casualties in total. The battle’s tank losses reflected a greater imbalance, in this case against the British, who had lost 91 tanks (27 cruiser and 64 Matilda vehicles) either through enemy action or from mechanical breakdown, while the Axis forces had lost about 50 tanks disabled, not including those knocked out and repaired during the battle itself. This was not truly reflective of the final outcome, however, for the Axis forces now controlled the battlefield and were thus able to recover all disabled vehicles, Axis and British, for salvage and repair: in the end, the Germans lost only 12 tanks. In terms of aircraft, the British suffered considerably higher losses (33 fighters and three bombers) than the Germans and Italians (10 German aircraft). The primary reasons for the British losses were inadequate pilot training and the need to maintain continuous air cover, the latter demanding numerous weak patrols rather than larger numbers of stronger patrols.

The failure of ‘Battleaxe’ (i) had major ramifications in the British military establishment. Churchill was inordinately unhappy with the results, for he had been expecting nothing less than total success, and was then faced with the information that not only had the operation failed, but that a sizeable proportion of the tanks he had specially despatched had also been lost.

Churchill therefore wished to remove Wavell, whom he deemed responsible for the failure, but could do anything that might imply that Wavell was in any way being punished, for this would raise the possibility that Wavell’s supporters might be able to reflect the blame back on London in general and Churchill in particular. Moreover, it was politically undesirable that Wavell should be brought back to the UK, for this could result in the asking of embarrassing questions. Churchill therefore hit on the expedient of having Wavell exchange postings with General Sir Claude Auchinleck, the commander-in-chief in India and the officer Churchill now wanted as the British commander-in-chief in the Middle East.

Another victim of Churchill’s purge was O’Moore Creagh, who was replaced by W. H. E. Gott.

Beresford-Peirse was criticised for both his plan and his overall control of ‘Battleaxe’ (i), and on 4 October was sent to command the British forces in Sudan, where he succeeded Lieutenant General Sir William Platt, recently promoted to commander-in-chief of the newly created East Africa Command. Beresford-Peirse was in turn replaced in command of the XIII Corps by Lieutenant General A. R. Godwin-Austen, who had been promoted from commanding the 12th (African) Division in the East African campaign.