Operation Brevity

This was a British limited offensive in the Western Desert against the Axis positions in the Halfaya Pass (15/17 May 1941).

This area had been seized by the German-led Axis forces on 25 April 1941, at the end of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel’s first headlong ‘dash to the wire’ along the coast of North Africa into north-western Egypt after his forces had arrived in ‘Sonnenblume’. ‘Brevity’ was undertaken within the context of the British desire to lift the siege of Tobruk, which the Axis forces had invested during their eastward dash.

The situation in the region had stabilised as both sides built up their strengths and consolidated after the headlong German advance and British retreat. ‘Brevity’ was planned as a precursor to ‘Battleaxe’ with the object of taking the tactically vital but only initial objectives of the Sollum and Halfaya passes along with Fort Capuzzo and Bardia, and then to drive forward to relieve Tobruk, the larger Libyan port farther along the coast to the west, and held by two brigades of Major General Leslie J. Morshead’s Australian 9th Division.

‘Brevity’ achieved a promising start, throwing the Axis theatre command into confusion, but most of its early gains were lost to local counterattacks, and as German reinforcements were being rushed to the front the operation was called off after only one full day.

Early in September 1940 the Italian forces based in Libya had moved east to invade Egypt, and three months later the British and commonwealth troops of the Western Desert Force began their ‘Compass’ counter-offensive, and in two months the British forces advanced 500 miles (800 km), occupying the Italian province of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya) and in the process destroying Generale d’Armata Mario Berti’s Italian 10th Army. The British halted this successful undertaking in February 1941 so that major formations could be diverted in ‘Lustre’ to bolster the defences of Greece, which was increasingly threatened by Germany and Italy.

The Western Desert Force, now renamed XIII Corps (Major General F. W. Messervy’s Indian 4th Division and Major General M. O’Moore Creagh’s British 7th Armoured Division, the latter with 220 tanks) and reorganised under the headquarters of the Cyrenaica Command, had to go over to the defensive. Over the next few months the Cyrenaica Command lost its commander, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, to take command in Greece, and Major General B. C. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division and Major General Iven G. Mackay’s Australian 6th Division as they were redeployed to Greece. Creagh’s 7th Armoured Division, with virtually no serviceable tanks left after ‘Compass’, was also pulled back to the Nile delta for rest and refitting.

At this stage Wilson was replaced by Lieutenant General P. Neame, and Major General M. D. Gambier-Parry’s 2nd Armoured Division and Morshead’s Australian 9th Division were deployed to Cyrenaica: both formations were inexperienced, poorly equipped and, in the case of the 2nd Armoured Division, well below establishment strength.

The Italians responded by despatching Generale di Divisione Ettore Baldassare’s 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’ and Generale di Divisione Luigi Nuvoloni’s 102nd Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Trento’ to North Africa, where they joined Generale di Divisione Antonio Franceschini’s 17th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Pavia’ in Cyrenaica, while between February and a time early in May ‘Sonnenblume’ saw the arrival in Tripoli of the Deutsches Afrikakorps to reinforce the Italians. Comprising Generalleutnant Johannes Streich’s 5th leichte Division and Generalmajor Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck’s 15th Panzerdivision, the Deutsches Afrikakorps had as its task the blocking of British attempts to drive the Italians out of the region. However, Rommel seized on the weakness of his opponents and, without waiting for the full assembly of his forces, went onto the offensive without delay. During March and April he destroyed the 2nd Armoured Division and forced the British forces into a headlong retreat.

The British were further discomfited by the capture of Neame and Lieutenant General R. O’Connor, commander of the British Troops Egypt, so the British command structure had to be reorganised. HQ Cyrenaica was replaced on 14 April by a reactivated HQ Western Desert Force under Lieutenant General N. Beresford-Peirse. The Australian 9th Division retired into the fortress port of Tobruk, and the remaining British forces pulled back another 100 miles (160 km) eastward to Sollum just on the Egyptian side of the Libyan/Egyptian border.

With Tobruk besieged by the main Axis force, Oberst Max von Herff’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Herff’ continued to press forward to the east. Capturing Fort Capuzzo and Bardia in passing, this Kampfgruppeadvanced into Egypt, and by the end of April had taken Sollum and the Halfaya Pass. Rommel garrisoned these positions, reinforcing the Kampfgruppe and instructing it to remain on the defensive.

Although cut off by land, the garrison of Tobruk continued to receive essential supplies by sea, and Rommel was not able to take the port. This failure was significant as the Axis forward positions at Sollum were at the end of a lengthy line of communications that extended back to Tripoli and was under threat should the Tobruk garrison make a major sortie, and the demands of the siege of Tobruk made it impossible for Rommel to increase the Axis strength at Sollum, thereby rendering any advance into Egypt impractical. Thus, through their retention of Tobruk, the British had regained a measure of the initiative over the Axis forces under the overall command of Generale d’Armata Italo Garibaldi.

It was at this juncture that Wavell conceived ‘Brevity’ as a rapid blow in the Sollum area with the object of preparing the situation for the launch of ‘Battleaxe’, the main offensive planned for June. ‘Brevity’ was therefore to recapture Halfaya Pass, expel the Axis forces from the area of Sollum and Capuzzo, and degrade the Axis strength, and as a secondary task advance toward Tobruk, although only as far as supplies would allow, and without undue risk to the force committed to the operation.

‘Brevity’ was to be carried out by Brigadier I. D. Erskine’s 22nd Guards Brigade and elements of the 7th Armoured Division. Its armoured element comprised 29 cruiser tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and 24 infantry tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment. The RAF committed all available fighters and a small force of bombers.

Brigadier W. H. E. Gott, in command of the British front-line forces since the retreat, was to lead the operation in the field. Gott planned an advance by three parallel columns. On the desert flank to the south, Brigadier H. F. Russell’s 7th Armoured Brigade was to move 30 miles (48 km) from Bir el Khireigat to Sidi Azeiz, destroying any opposition it met. This group included three small mobile forces (‘Jock columns’) of the 7th Support Group, the cruiser tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, and the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars, whose task was to patrol the open desert on the left flank and monitor the road linking Sidi Azeiz and Bardia. In the centre, the 22nd Guards Brigade was to clear the top of Halfaya Pass, secure Bir Wair, Musaid and Fort Capuzzo, and undertake a company-sized probe toward Bardia. The group included two infantry battalions (the 1/Durham Light Infantry and 2/Scots Guards), and the infantry tanks of the 4th RTR. In the north, the so-called ‘Coast Group’ was to advance along the coast road, capturing the lower part of Halfaya Pass, Sollum barracks, and the town of Sollum. The group included elements of the 2/Rifle Brigade, and the 8th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

The principal Axis opposition was the Kampfgruppe ‘von Herff’, which was holding the desert plateau and included some 30 to 50 tanks of the 2/5th Panzerregiment, one infantry battalion of the 102nd Divisione motorizzata, and supporting arms. The area around Halfaya Pass was held by two Bersaglieri companies with artillery support.

On 9 May the Germans intercepted a British weather report over the radio and, knowing that such reports often indicated the imminence of an attack, Rommel bolstered the eastern side of his investment of Tobruk against the possibility of a sally by the garrison, and ordered the Kampfgruppe ‘von Herff’ to adopt a more aggressive posture. On 13 May, Axis aircraft bombed British tank concentrations, and von Herff expected an imminent British attack. On the next day, though, Axis aircraft could not locate the British, and it was reported that the ‘enemy intentions to attack were not known’.

On 13 May the British infantry started to concentrate along its start lines, and the armour followed in the early hours of 15 May. At 06.00, the three columns began their advances, supported by a standing patrol of Hawker Hurricane fighters. Reaching the top of the Halfaya Pass, the 22nd Guards Brigade met determined resistance from a Bersaglieri company with anti-tank gun support but, for the loss of seven tanks, the position was quickly overrun by C Squadron of the 4th RTR and G Company of the 2/Scots Guards, allowing the brigade to drive forward toward the road linking Bir Wair and Musaid. At about 08.00 the brigade received the surrender of a large Axis camp, and by 10.15 Bir Wair and Musaid had been taken against only limited resistance. A Squadron of the 4th RTR and the 1/DLI continued toward Fort Capuzzo.

Concealed hull-down behind a ridge near the fort were 20 to 30 German tanks of the 2/5th Panzerregiment with anti-tank gun support. These engaged A Squadron, disabling five tanks, but were forced to withdraw as the squadron pressed its attack. On the final approach to Fort Capuzzo, contact was lost between the 4th RTR’s tanks and the 1/DLI’s leading C Company, and the attack on the fort began without armoured support. The fort was defended with determination, and it was not until just before 12.00 that C Company, reunited with A Squadron of the 4th RTR and reinforced by A and B Companies of the 1/DLI, took the position. D Company of the 1/DLI, which had been in reserve during the attack, then made a wide left hook to capture a small landing ground north of the fort. During the afternoon one company of the 2/Scots Guards probed toward Bardia, the infantry coming under heavy machine gun fire from three positions as they neared Sollum barracks. A group of Universal Carriers charged the gun positions and quickly neutralised them, but one carrier was disabled when the group was subsequently engaged by anti-tank guns. The carriers made a second charge, silencing the guns and capturing their crews prisoner.

Meanwhile, on the desert flank, the 2nd RTR advanced with the 7th Armoured Brigade. During the morning, the 7th Armoured Brigade received reports that as many as 30 German armoured vehicles were in the vicinity, and A Squadron of the 2nd RTR moved to investigate. Most of the German vehicles had pulled back, but three tanks were located and brought under fire: one PzKpfw IV battle tank was disabled and the other two driven off for the loss of one British tank as a result of mechanical failure. A second force of 15 German tanks was engaged by two tanks of No. 2 Troop, destroying one PzKpfw III medium tank and forcing the remainder to withdraw. By 12.00 the brigade had reached a position to the west of Fort Capuzzo, and in the afternoon the nine remaining cruiser tanks of the 2nd RTR’s A Squadron embarked on a probe toward Sidi Azeiz.

The advance of the ‘Coastal Group’ along the coast road had no armoured support and was checked right through the morning by determined Italian resistance at the bottom of Halfaya Pass. This objective was finally achieved towards evening when S Company of the 2/Rifle Brigade, supported by Australian anti-tank gunners fighting as infantry, overran the Italian positions and took about 130 prisoners.

Although the Axis commanders in North Africa had known that a British offensive was imminent, ‘Brevity’ had nonetheless caught them by tactical surprise, and by 12.00 on 15 May the Axis commanders were revealing signs of confusion. It was erroneously believed that the offensive involved more than 100 tanks, and repeated requests were made to both the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica for a concerted effort to defeat it. Oberstleutnant Hans Cramer was despatched to reinforce the Kampfgruppe ‘von Herff’ with a battalion of the 8th Panzerregiment and a battery of 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns, and more reinforcements were despatched under von Esebeck’s command on the next day. The Germans concentrated their reply on the 22nd Guards Brigade, and von Herff, who had been prepared to fall back, now launched a local counterattack toward Fort Capuzzo during the afternoon of 15 May with the 2/5th Panzerregiment.

At about 13.30, D Company of the 1/DLI at the landing ground was overrun, and with no anti-tank weapons other than obsolete and wholly ineffective Boys anti-tank rifles, the rest of the battalion was compelled to fall back toward Musaid. A dust cloud aided the British withdrawal, but by 14.45 the 2/5th Panzerregiment was able to report that it had recaptured Fort Capuzzo, inflicting heavy casualties on the British and taking 70 prisoners.

On the desert flank, the probe of the 2nd RTR’s A Squadron in the direction of Sidi Azeiz was being watched by the 5th Panzerregiment, but the Germans misidentified the light cruiser tanks as heavily armoured Matilda infantry tanks and therefore reported that an attack was not possible.

Believing that the British had two divisions operating in the area, von Herff was uneasy. A Squadron’s patrol was interpreted as an attempt to effect a concentration to the south of Sidi Azeiz in preparation for a thrust to the north on the following day, which would have swept aside von Herff’s force and completely unhinged the German front in the area of Sollum and Bardia area. von Herff therefore broke contact with the British and planned to link with Cramer’s battalion of the 8th Panzerregiment to mount a concentrated counterattack during the following morning.

Now appreciating that the 22nd Guards Brigade was potentially vulnerable to a German armoured counterattack in the open terrain around Bir Wair and Mussaid, Gott withdrew it during the early hours of the morning of 16 May. By 10.00 the infantry had taken up new positions back at Halfaya Pass, though the 7th Armoured Brigade was instructed to remain to the west of Fort Capuzzo in the short term. Cramer’s reinforcements arrived in the area of Sidi Azeiz at 03.00 and reached Fort Capuzzo at 06.30. At about 08.00 Cramer’s force made contact with the Kampfgruppe ‘von Herff’, but by the middle of the morning both groups had exhausted their fuel and been brought to a halt. The German advance resumed at 16.00 with the 8th Panzerregiment and 54th leichte Regiment in the van on the right and left respectively, but was halted by about 17 tanks of the 2nd RTR. The British reported one German tank set alight and another disabled, and that an advance of up to 50 tanks had been halted, while the Germans believed that they had repulsed a strong British armoured assault. As dusk neared, von Herff broke off the action and went over to the defensive. von Herff planned to effect repairs to his damaged tanks, reorganise his force and resume offensive operations on 18 May. However, the 2nd RTR pulled back to Bir el Khireigat, initially followed by two German tanks: one was destroyed and the other then retreated. The regiment arrived at Bir el Khireigat, from where it had set out two days previously, at around 02.30 on 17 May.

‘Brevity’ had thus failed to achieve most of its objectives, ultimately succeeding only in retaking Halfaya Pass. The British lost five tanks and at least 206 men killed, wounded or captured. German casualties numbered three tanks and 258 men killed, wounded, or captured. Losses among the Italian forces included 347 men taken prisoner.

‘Brevity’ highlighted to Rommel the importance of Halfaya Pass: the side holding it would have a comparatively safe supply route in subsequent offensives.

The failure of the operation may be discerned in the fact that the British did not exploit their initial successes with speed and determination, and used their armour in a piecemeal fashion. Secondary factors were the failure to co-ordinate ground and air forces, and the failure to co-ordinate with the Australian 9th Division defending Tobruk, also helped doom the operation.

After the failure of ‘Brevity’, the XIII Corps withdrew to Egypt and Rommel planned ‘Skorpion’, which was launched on 27 May by von Herff and recaptured the pass and reversed the last British territorial gain of ‘Brevity’. Then Rommel planned to fortify the passes with minefields and hidden emplacements of highly effective 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns. In the following month, when the same two British and commonwealth divisions attacked under the same commander and at the same location, they would receive a bloody surprise and a costly lesson in ‘Battleaxe’.