This was a British attack by Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s 8th Army on the forces of General Ludwig Crüwell’s (from 29 May Generalleutnant Walther Nehring’s) Deutsches Afrikakorps of Generaloberst Erwin Rommel’s Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ trapped in the area known as ‘The Cauldron’ during ‘Venezia’, otherwise the Battle of Gazala (26 May/17 June 1942).
The origins of this operation can be found in the exhaustion of the Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’ (from January 1942 the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’) in the aftermath of its ‘dash to the wire’ of 24/27 November 1941 along the Egyptian frontier when it had defeated the British-led forces in the latter’s ‘Crusader’ offensive. With the British forces recovering more quickly (to the extent that Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps offered a credible threat of outflanking the Italo-German right wing and then advancing to the Mediterranean coast to cut the lines of communication serving the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’) and his own forces exhausted and running short of essential supplies, Rommel opted for a withdrawal first to Gazala, starting on 16/17 December 1941 and then, for fear of being cut off in the ‘Benghazi bulge’ between Tobruk in the east and Benghazi in the west, all the way back to Abu el Agheila on the border between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania on the south-eastern edge of the Gulf of Sirte.
The British forces followed this withdrawal but, believing that the Axis forces would be unable to resume offensive operations for some time, dispersed their own formations for a much-needed refit. The British local high command, in the form of General Sir Claude Auchinleck and Ritchie, commanders-in-chief in the Middle East and of the 8th Army respectively, was wrong in this respect, for a series of heavy Axis air attacks on the British island fortress of Malta had crippled its ability to intercept Axis convoys with submarine and air attacks, with the result that Rommel’s forces were then revitalised more quickly than had been expected. Rommel therefore decided not to await the 8th Army’s next move, which would inevitably take the form of an offensive into Tripolitania, but to pre-empt this with an offensive of his own designed to drive the British-led forces right back into Egypt.
The offensive of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’ (Crüwell’s Deutsches Afrikakorps, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Ettore Baldassarre’s Italian XX Corpo d’Armata, Generale di Corpo d’Armata Benvenuto Gioda’s Italian X Corpo d’Armata and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s Italian XXI Corpo d’Armata, the first two linked by Generalleutnant Richard Veith’s 90th leichte Division) started on 21 January 1942, caught the 8th Army completely off guard and balance, and drove it back toward Agedabia. Finding this only lightly held on 22 January, Rommel decided to push forward with all possible speed to Antelat and Msus, which his forces took on 25 January. Here Rommel divided his force, the XX Corpo d’Armata and 90th leichte Division striking north to take Benghazi on 29 January while the main weight of the Deutsches Afrikakorps moved on Er Regima and Charruba to threaten the 8th Army’s line of retreat.
Ritchie decided that this threat was too real for comfort, and therefore ordered his 8th Army to fall back to its main defensive position at Gazala, lying on the south-eastern corner of the Gulf of Tmimi and covering the main approach to the strategically vital port of Tobruk, which the Axis forces had failed to take in the previous year. The Gazala position was a formidable defensive obstacle, comprising a series of wire-protected minefields extending from the coast to a point as far south as Bir Hakeim and held by a series of ‘keeps’ each garrisoned by a brigade group of Lieutenant General W. H. E. Gott’s XIII Corps (Major General W. H. C. Ramsden’s 50th Division, Major General D. H. Pienaar’s South African 1st Division and Major General H. B. Klopper’s South African 2nd Division).
It was now fully appreciated that Rommel’s favourite tactic was a deep outflanking movement round the south (desert) flank of the British forces with his mobile forces while his infantry pinned the centre, and against this eventuality Ritchie had posted the mobile elements of Norrie’s XXX Corps (Major General H. Lumsden’s 1st Armoured Division and Major General F. W. Messervy’s 7th Armoured Division) behind the XIII Corps’ left flank with most of the 849 available tanks to tackle any Axis outflanking movement to the south. This was indeed Rommel’s intention, his plan being for Crüwell’s infantry-based Gruppe ‘Crüwell’ (from north to south Generalmajor Erwin Menny’s 15th Schützenbrigade and Generale di Divisione Mario Soldarelli’s 60a Divisione ‘Sabratha’, Generale di Divisione Carlo Gotti’s 102a Divisione motorizzata ‘Trento’, Generale di Brigata Giacomo Lombardi’s 27a Divisione ‘Brescia’ and Generale di Divisione Arturo Torriano’s 17a Divisione ‘Pavia’ of the X Corpo d’Armata and the XXI Corpo d’Armata) to pin the 8th Army’s front while the rest of the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’, under Rommel’s personal supervision and comprising from right to left Generalleutnant Ulrich Kleemann’s 90th leichte Division, Nehring’s Deutsches Afrikakorps (Generalleutnant Gustav von Vaerst’s 15th Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Georg von Bismarck’s 21st Panzerdivision), Generale di Divisione Giuseppe de Stefanis’s 132a Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’ and Generale di Divisione Arnaldo Azzi’s 101a Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’ with a total of 560 armoured fighting vehicles, swung to the south and then to the east before altering its axis of advance to the north-east after outflanking the southern edge of the 8th Army’s defences at Bir Hakeim.
The battle pitted 90,000 Axis soldiers with 561 armoured vehicles against 110,000 British-led troops with an initial strength of 849 armoured vehicles.
The armour available to the Axis forces comprised 50 PzKpfw II light tanks, 223 PzKpfw IIIH medium tanks armed with a 50-mm (1.97-in) high-velocity gun, 19 PzKpfw IIIJ medium tanks armed with a 50-mm (1.97-in) medium-velocity gun, 40 PzKpfw IVE battle tanks armed with a 75-mm (2.95-in) low-velocity gun, four PzKpfw IVF2 battle tanks armed with 75-mm (2.95-in) high-velocity gun, and a total of 228 M13/40 medium tanks armed with a 47-mm (1.85-in) medium-velocity gun and Semovente 75/18 self-propelled guns armed with a 75-mm (2.95-in) howitzer.
The armour available to the British forces comprised 166 Infantry Tanks Mk III Valentine armed with a 2-pdr (40-mm) high-velocity gun, 110 Infantry Tanks Mk II Matilda armed with a 2-pdr (40-mm) high-velocity gun, 167 M3 Grant medium tanks armed with a 75-mm (2.95-in) medium-velocity gun and a 37-mm high-velocity gun, 257 Cruiser Tanks Mk VI Crusader armed with a 2-pdr (40-mm) high-velocity gun, and 149 M3 Honey light tanks armed with a 37-mm high-velocity gun.
The key to this plan was the resupply of Rommel’s mobile force, as it then struck to the north toward Acroma and the investment of Tobruk, by convoys moving along the Trigh el Abd and Trigh Capuzzo tracks, but Rommel’s intelligence apparatus had failed to appreciate that both these routes were blocked by the ‘keep’ occupied by Brigadier C. W. Haydon’s 150th Brigade Group of the 50th Division. ‘Ultra’ intelligence provided Ritchie with information that the Axis forces were about to attack and also the date on which they would do so, but did not include the tactically vital information that Rommel did indeed plan to sweep round the southern edge of the British line before hooking back north toward the coast.
It is also worth noting that although the 8th Army had an overall tank superiority over the Panzerarmee ‘Afrika’, the situation in the air was reversed, the Axis forces being able to call on 704 warplanes but the British and commonwealth forces on only 320.
This tactical situation paved the way for the four phases of the Battle of Gazala, which lasted up to 17 June and was then capped by the surrender of Tobruk to the Axis forces: the four phases were the first, in which the German and Italian forces were on the offensive (26/29 May) but failed to destroy the 8th Army’s Gazala position, the second in which Rommel consolidated his position in ‘The Cauldron’, opened his lines of communication to the west and fought off the British attempt to destroy his armoured force in the ‘Aberdeen’ offensive proper (30 May/11 June), the third in which the Axis forces broke out of ‘The Cauldron’, overran the Bir Hakeim position and outflanked the 8th Army to the south (11/13 June), and the fourth in which the 8th Army was forced to pull back and Rommel’s forces took Tobruk (14/21 June).
The first phase of the battle began on 26 May, when the Gruppe ‘Crüwell’ (commanded by Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘Süd’, as an emergency measure after Crüwell’s capture on 29 May) moved forward to pin the front held by the South African 1st Division on the left and the 50th Division on the right (the XIII Corps’ other formation, the South African 2nd Division, was the garrison of Tobruk). This first move was successful in its primary aim, and in the evening of the same day Rommel committed his mobile force to the move designed to outflank the Bir Hakeim ‘keep’ held by Général de Brigade Marie Joseph Pierre François Koenig’s 1st Free French Brigade Group of the 7th Armoured Division. Although the 101a Divisione motorizzata on the left flank of the mobile force became lost and veered off its intended south-westerly axis to the west, where it blundered into the ‘keep’ occupied by the 150th Brigade Group, the three German formations kept on course and up to schedule, and by the morning of 27 May had pushed back Brigadier A. A. E. Filose’s Indian 3rd Motor Brigade Group, Brigadier J. M. L. Renton’s 7th Motor Brigade Group and Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division. This was the start of the mobile force’s swing to the north-east in the rear of the ‘keeps’ occupied by the Free French 1st Brigade Group and 150th Brigade Group, but as the mobile force advanced across the Sidra Ridge behind the keep of the 150th Brigade Group it was taken under heavy fire from the west and east respectively by Brigadier W. O. L. O’Carroll’s 1st Army Tank Brigade under the command of the XIII Corps and Brigadier R. Briggs’s 2nd Armoured Brigade Group and Brigadier W. G. Carr’s 22nd Armoured Brigade Group of the 1st Armoured Division. These attacks slowed the advance of Rommel’s force and cost it about one-third of its armour at a time that this force was running short of water and also beginning to exhaust its fuel supplies.
For two days Rommel sought to break the British stranglehold on his flanks, but in this time his water and fuel situation became critical as the planned resupply route was still firmly blocked by the 150th Brigade Group. Rommel now decided to call off the attack toward Tobruk and pull all his surviving forces into a defensive position around Sidi Muftah to the immediate west of Sidra Ridge and there await the inevitable British counterattack. This position, with its back to the minefield at the points where it was crossed by the Trigh Capuzzo and Trigh al Abd, was to become known as ‘The Cauldron’.
In the next four days the 150th Brigade Group was finally overwhelmed, opening the Axis supply routes and allowing the delivery of water, food, fuel, ammunition and spare parts. Thus by 2 June the Deutsches Afrikakorps in ‘The Cauldron’ had only 130 tanks serviceable out of 320 with which it had begun the operation, but this figure began to climb rapidly as damaged tanks were restored to operational condition.
For some inexplicable reason the 8th Army’s counterattack, which constituted the second phase of the battle, did not start until 5 June. By this time ‘The Cauldron’ was held by three Axis divisions in a strong defensive position backed against the minefield, which therefore protected its western side: the Axis formations were the 21st Panzerdivision in the north, 132nd Divisione corazzata in the east and 15th Panzerdivision in the south.
Auchinleck initially suggested not a direct attack on ‘The Cauldron’ but rather a westward advance by elements of the XIII Corps to take Bir el Temrad in the rear of the Gruppe ‘Crüwell’ and thus threaten the Axis forces’ lines of communication, but Ritchie and his corps commanders were fearful that Rommel would then merely have to strike north from ‘The Cauldron’ to cut the XIII Corps’ lines of communication. Auchinleck then decided that a deep outflanking movement south was not practical for lack of equipment and supplies, and finally opted for the crushing of the Axis forces in ‘The Cauldron’ in an operation planned as ‘Aberdeen’.
For this the XXX Corps would advance to the west from its positions lying to the south of ‘Knightsbridge’, the point at which the Trigh Bir Hakeim and Trigh Capuzzo crossed near the eastern end of the Sidra Ridge just to the west of the ‘keep’ held by Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott’s 201st Guards Brigade Group: the infantry would then drive a wedge through the Axis forces’ anti-tank defences in the dark, allowing the armour to drive straight into ‘The Cauldron’ at first light on the first day of the offensive. As a secondary move, elements of the XIII Corps would seize Sidra Ridge from the 21st Panzerdivision and then push to the west in an effort to reach Tmimi on the Axis forces’ lines of communication.
In greater detail, this plan was to be undertaken in two phases. In the first, Brigadier C. H. Boucher’s Indian 10th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division (XXX Corps) was to penetrate the front of the 132a Divisione corazzata after an exceptionally heavy artillery bombardment as Brigadier A. C. Willison’s 32nd Army Tank Brigade (XIII Corps) took the Sidra Ridge. Then in the second phase the 7th Armoured Division (with Carr’s 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division replacing Gatehouse’s battered 4th Armoured Brigade and with Brigadier B. C. Fletcher’s Indian 9th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division under command) was to penetrate ‘The Cauldron’ as far as Sidi Muftah as the 1st Armoured Division prevented any Axis breakout to the north or north-east as well as preparing for a development to the west as soon as the situation in ‘The Cauldron’ permitted.
The operation began at 02.50 on 5 June and initially made good progress, although it became apparent only later that this good progress had been made possible by the fact that the Axis defensive positions were farther to the west than had been expected. Thereafter it all went wrong for the 8th Army, and ‘Aberdeen’ ended the second phase of the Battle of Gazala on 6 June as another very costly British reverse. Meanwhile the 101a Division motorizzata and 90th leichte Division had been seeking to break the hold of the Free French 1st Brigade on the Bir Hakeim ‘keep’ with the aid of increasingly heavy German air attacks, and on 8 June Rommel sent the 15th Panzerdivision to the south from ‘The Cauldron’ to ensure that Bir Hakeim was overrun with no further delay. Bir Hakeim was finally abandoned on Ritchie’s order on 10 June, and with his right flank freed from this last threat, Rommel’s forces broke out from ‘The Cauldron’ on the following day and headed to the south, then the east and finally the north-east to pass south of Tobruk and thus to threaten the 8th Army’s lines of communication.
The 8th Army responded to this threat with piecemeal counterattacks that were beaten off without undue difficulty, and then with a fairly precipitate retreat eastward toward Bardia from 13 June, thereby ending the third stage of the Battle of Gazala.
In the battle’s fourth and final phase, the Axis forces invested Tobruk by 18 June. The garrison was not as well prepared as it had been for its first siege between April and December 1941, and as a result the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision broke through the south-eastern part of the defensive perimeter on 20 June, and on the following day the garrison capitulated.
It was a moment of immense crisis for the 8th Army and British fortunes in North Africa, and an almost immediate result was the mid-August replacement of Auchinleck and Ritchie by General the Hon. Sir Harold Alexander and Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery respectively. The Battle of Gazala cost the Axis forces some 32,000 men dead, wounded or captured out of the 90,000 who had started the battle, as well as 114 tanks destroyed, while the British and commonwealth forces lost 50,000 men dead, wounded or captured out of the 110,000 who had started the battle, as well as 540 tanks destroyed. The number of British and commonwealth troops who were lost with the surrender of Tobruk totalled some 35,000 men.