Operation 1st Action at Bir el Gubi

The '1st Action at Bir el Gubi' was fought between British and Italian armoured forces in eastern Libya in the opening phase of the British 'Crusader' (i) offensive (19 November 1941).

On 15 November 1941 General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander of the 8th Army, launched 'Crusader' (i) with the object of compelling the Axis forces in Libya to lift their siege of Tobruk and, if possible, of forcing the Axis to retreat from Cyrenaica. At this time the 8th Army comprised Lieutenant General R. Godwin-Austen’s XIII Corps, formed of infantry divisions, and Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps, which included Major General W. H. E. Gott’s 7th Armoured Division, formerly a component of the Western Desert Force that became the XIII Corps, and one of the principal agents of the destruction of the Italian 10a Armata in 'Compass'. The current British plan was to pass to the south of the Italo-German positions on the southern side of the with the 7th Armoured Division, and then to attack the Axis forces besieging Tobruk.

Erwin Rommel was planning a new attack on Tobruk and had therefore gathered his forces on the north-west, between Tobruk and the Egyptian border, near the coast. Generale di Divisione Mario Balotta’s 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' faced the XIII Corps on the eastern flank and defended the road junction at Bir el Gubi, from where supplies were moved to Bir Hakeim, Giarabub, Sidi Omar, Tobruk and El Adem.

The 132a Divisione corazzata included the 132o Reggimento carri with the VII, VIII and IX Battaglioni carri) equipped with M13/40 medium tanks, the 32o Reggimento Carri with the I, II and III Battaglioni carri equipped with L3 tankettes, the 8o Reggimento Bersaglieri with the V and XII Battaglioni motorizzati Bersaglieri and one infantry support gun battalion, the 132o Reggimento artiglieria motorizzata with two 75-mm (2.95-in) 75/27 gun groups, one 'Blackshirt' artillery militia (Milmart) battery with three 102-mm (4.01-in) 102/35 gun trucks and one Milmart section with two 102-mm (4.01-in) 102/35 gun trucks. As the 32o Reggimento carri was deployed some distance away and would therefore not take part in the battle with its L3 tankettes, the Italian forces involved in the battle would be about 130 M13/40 medium tanks.

The British forces tasked with attacking Bir el Gubi comprised Brigadier J. Scott-Cockburn’s British 22nd Armoured Brigade comprising the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars and the 3rd and 4th County of London Yeomanry, one motorised infantry company of the 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps, one battery of the 4th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery with eight 25-pdr gun/howitzers, one anti-tank section with 2-pdr anti-tank guns, one light anti-aircraft battery with Bofors 40-mm guns, and the 11th Hussars as a reconnaissance force. The British forces involved in the attack had 150 Crusader tanks as well as a number of armoured cars.

On 15 November, the 132a Divisione corazzata, facing the XXX Corps on the eastern flank, was redeployed onto the southern flank, as concentrations of British forces (the 7th Armoured Division) had been detected near Fort Maddalena. The defence was then reorganised into a line of strongholds held by Bersaglieri, directly supported by 47-mm 47/32 guns and 81-mm (3.19-in) mortars, and indirectly supported by the 75-mm (2.95-in) 75/27 batteries. Fortification work started at once, and continued until 12.00 on 18 November.

The 7th Armoured Division was divided into three armoured units, namely Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade, Brigadier J. H. Anstice’s 7th Armoured Brigade and Scott-Cockburn’s 22nd Armoured Brigade, the last having been detached from the 1st Armoured Division. The 4th Armoured Brigade moved directly to the north from its bases in order to support the advance of the XXX Corps, while the 7th Armoured Brigade headed for Sidi Rezegh, an area accommodating Axis air bases, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade, on the left flank of the 7th Armoured Brigade, headed for Bir el Gubi with the object of driving off the 132a Divisione corazzata and then attacking Generalmajor Johann von Ravenstein’s 21st Panzerdivision from the rear. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was preceded by the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars employed as a scouting force.

At 14.00 on 18 November the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars' B Squadron were spotted about 6.2 miles (10 km) to the south-east of Bir el Gubi by a platoon of M13/40 tanks, which then closed on the British vehicles and opened fire. Being faster, the armoured cars disengaged easily and broke contact, but the oncoming darkness prevented a section of the Royal Horse Artillery’s guns from approaching and allowing the armoured cars to carry on their reconnaissance. British aircraft bombed the bulk of the 132a Divisione corazzata, wounding some men and destroying a tractor of the 132o Reggimento artiglieria. Upon learning of the appearance of the British force, Balotta ordered his division to assume a defensive formation. The front line held by the Bersaglieri was shortened, the five Milmart gun trucks were deployed just to the north of Bir el Gubi, and the 132o Reggimento carri was deployed 3.7 miles (6 km) to the north-west of Bir el Gubi in order to repel possible counterattacks and to cover the road to El Adem. The III, V and XII Battaglioni Bersaglieri held the defensive line.

During the morning of 19 November, the 22nd Armoured Brigade moved toward Bir el Gubi, again preceded by the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars. One company of the VII Battaglione carri, in M13/40 tanks and supported by a section of 75-mm (2.95-in) 75/27 guns, counterattacked and forced the armoured cars to retreat. The Italian tanks were uncovered on their right flank, however, and 25-pdr fire from the Royal Horse Artillery prevented them from advancing: the Italians were thereby outflanked and attacked from the rear by the Crusader tanks of the H/2 Squadron of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars. The Italians lost three M13/40 tanks and several men, including three officers, in the fight and then retreated to their own lines, along with the artillery section.

After this action, the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars returned to their position ahead of the brigade and, at about 12.00, sighted the Bersaglieri defensive line about 2.8 miles (4.5 km) to the south of Bir el Gubi.

At 10.30. the 22nd Armoured Brigade, supported by the fire of the Royal Horse Artillery, advanced with the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars on the right and the 4th County of London Yeomanry on the left, while the 3rd County of London Yeomanry was kept in reserve. The first Italian unit to be engaged was a Bersaglieri infantry support gun battalion which, still not fully deployed, was overrun by the tanks of the H/2 Squadron of the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars. A platoon of M13/40 tanks of the IX Battaglione carri was despatched to help the Bersaglieri, but was destroyed by the combined action of G and H Squadrons of the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars. F Squadron of the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars instead faced the V Battaglione Bersaglieri which, being well dun in and supported by Milmart artillery, halted the British advance.

The British tanks then regrouped and F and G Squadrons of the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars managed to break through the line held by the infantry support gun battalion, thus opening their way to the north. The 4th County of London Yeomanry headed toward the as-yet unfortified positions held by the XII Battaglione Bersaglieri, but A Squadron, leading the attack, was stopped by Italian artillery fire, while B Squadron attempted to pass round the Italian right flank in order to outflank the Bersaglieri battalion. Several British tanks managed to break through the Italian positions and cut off the regimental headquarters, which rejoined the XII Battaglione only with difficulty.

The situation of the Italian defence had by now become desperate. At 13.30, the 132o Reggimento carri launched a counterattack: one company of the VII Battaglione carri, followed closely by another company and the entire VIII Battaglione, with 60 tanks in all, was despatched to the south to attack the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars. The Italian tanks heavily engaged the two British regiments, eventually outflanking them and forcing them to retreat. C Squadron of the 4th County of London Yeomanry was sent to try to outflank the Bersaglieri positions, but the attempt was stopped by the fire of Italian anti-tank guns and Milmart gun trucks, which inflicted heavy losses on the British troops.

The 3rd County of London Yeomanry was moved to cover the right flank of 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, and managed to surprise the Italian tank platoon which had outflanked the Royal Gloucestershire Hussars on the right-hand side: the British armour quickly defeated the Italian tanks, then left B Squadron in defensive posture to maintain contact with the other regiment, while the British regimental command advanced. At this point, however, the British force ran into the Bersaglieri anti-tank defences, which soon knocked out four tanks including that of the regimental commander.

At 16.30, 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars was forced to retreat, under pressure from Italian tanks, and constantly kept under the fire of anti-tank guns and gun trucks, and the 4th County of London Yeomanry also withdrew. The 3rd County of London Yeomanry, which had been less hard hit in the previous fight, was ordered at 16.50 to regroup and try a new attack, but the losses it suffered led to the cancellation of the order at 17.50. The attack of the 22nd Armoured Brigade had completely failed.

The '1st Action at Bir el Gubi' had been an impressive victory for the Italians, who had not only stood up under the weight of a substantial British armoured attack but inflicted heavy damage on the attacker while retaining the ground they defended. With their forces unexpectedly pinned in action with the Italians, only one full-strength British armoured unit reached Sidi Rezegh, where it was subsequently crushed by Rommel’s Deutsches Afrika Korps. The battle might have evolved differently had the British hit the Deutsches Afrika Korps with the strength they had planned, and the '1st Action at Bir el Gubi' marked the failure of the initial British move in 'Crusader' (i), an operation whose later battle of attrition would later succeed in forcing the Italian and German forces to retreat.

On the Italian side, the 132o Reggimento carri had lost 34 tanks (29 M13/40 machines and five light tanks) and 132 men (five officers and 11 men killed, five officers and 45 men wounded, and one officer and 65 men missing), while the 8o Reggimento Bersaglieri suffered the loss of none men killed, 18 wounded and 17 missing, and the 132o Reggimento artigliera six men wounded and one gun and three vehicles lost.

The British tank losses are not totally certain: the 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars lost 30 tanks and 50 men (11 killed, 19 wounded and 20 missing), the 4th County of London Yeomanry eight tanks and 26 men (four men killed and 22 missing) and the 3rd County of London Yeomanry four tanks, six men killed and an unspecified number wounded. Nearly all of the British missing were taken prisoner. Some sources, however, claim that whereas British war diaries revealed accurate losses for 2nd Royal Gloucestershire Hussars and 4th County of London Yeomanry, the losses reportedly suffered by the 3rd County of London Yeomanry were incomplete as they were all related to a single squadron, while the war diaries contain no information about the other squadrons for several days. After the '1st Action at Bir el Gubi', the 22nd Armoured Brigade reported that it had lost 82 tanks, and another account stated that it had only 10 to 20 battleworthy tanks left. These figures included not only battlefield losses but also Crusader tanks lost during the two days leading up to and including the battle as a result of mechanical problems.

The British attack was effected with Crusader tanks used without infantry support and with only long-range artillery support. The 132a Divisione corazzata, on the other hand, had learned the German tactics of tank/infantry co-ordination while training with the Panzer units of the Deutsches Afrika Korps in the course of the previous months, and had put them into effective practice at Bir el Gubi.