This was the Axis counterstroke in the final stages of the ‘Crusader’ (i) battle in North Africa (24/26 November 1941).
With Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s British XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham’s British 8th Army concentrated in the area to the south-east of Sidi Rezegh, on 24 November General Erwin Rommel, commanding the Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’, conceived the notion of a ‘dash to the wire’ along the Egyptian/Libyan frontier to relieve the Axis forces holding out against Lieutenant General A. R. Godwin-Austen’s British XIII Corps and also to cut the British lines of communication. This undertaking was allocated to part of the Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’, which had been created on 15 August on the basis of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell’s Deutsches Afrikakorps and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s Italian XXI Corps.
The Deutsches Afrikakorps, which was the formation used in ‘Brandung’, included Generalmajor Walter Neumann-Silkow’s 15th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Johannes von Ravenstein’s 21st Panzerdivision (until 1 August the 5th leichte Division and thus low in armour), Generalmajor Max Sümmermann’s 90th leichte Afrikadivision and Generale di Divisione Fedele de Giorgis’s Italian 55th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Savona’.
In ‘Brandung’, therefore, the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision advanced to the east, reaching the Libyan/Egyptian frontier and then wheeling north, with the 21st Panzerdivision to the west of the 15th Panzerdivision, so that the 21st Panzerdivision reached the Halfaya Pass on 25 November.
Rommel then learned that Major General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division was about to relieve Tobruk, which was garrisoned by Major General R. M. Scobie’s British 70th Division, Major General S. Kopański’s Polish 1st Carpathian Brigade Group and Brigadier A. C. Willison’s British 32nd Army Tank Brigade and surrounded by the XXI Corps supported by the 90th leichte Afrikadivision. This would in turn threaten the Axis lines of communication in the east, and on 26 November Rommel therefore ordered that the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision, which had joined forces at Bardia late on the preceding day, should move to the west at about the time that the New Zealand 2nd Division and British 70th Division met at El Duda. Generale di Divisione Alessandro Piazzoni’s Italian 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’ had severed the link by 1 December, but by then Rommel’s forces were exhausted and again threatened from the Bir el Gubi area by a revived XXX Corps.
Rommel accordingly opted for a strategic withdrawal to El Agheila, which he reached on 31 December 1941. The weary British pursued, reaching Rommel’s new positions on 6 January 1942. Tobruk was relieved properly on 10 December 1941, and other major towns to fall into British hands were Derna, Barce, Benghazi and Agedabia between 19 and 25 December. There now followed a lull as both sides recouped, the Axis having lost 24,500 men killed and wounded, 36,500 men taken prisoner, 386 tanks and 850 aircraft to the British and commonwealth losses of 18,600 men and 275 tanks.
Auchinleck’s determination and Ritchie’s aggression had removed the Axis threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal, if only for a time. The Italian garrison of Bardia, now isolated well behind the front, surrendered on 2 January 1942 with another mass surrender at Halfaya following on 17 January, bringing the total number of Axis prisoners to more than 30,000. The British 8th Army now pursued the Axis forces from Agedabia to El Agheila, but it had taken heavy losses in the previous month’s fighting and overextended itself.
On 21 January 1942, Rommel launched one his surprise counterattacks against the tired and dispersed British forces, driving them all the way back to Gazala, where they took up defensive positions along Rommel’s old line. Here a stalemate set in as both sides regrouped, rebuilt and reorganised. While it was only a limited British success in purely military terms, ‘Crusader’ (i) was perhaps more important in showing that the Deutsches Afrikakorps could be beaten.