Operation Crusader (i)

This was a British offensive intended to lift the Axis siege of Tobruk (18 November 1941/6 January 1942).

Tobruk had been invested since 10 April 1941 by the later stages of the 'Sonnenblume' advance of Generalleutnant (from 1 July General) Erwin Rommel’s newly arrived German forces. The operation to lift the siege was undertaken by Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham’s 8th Army, under the overall control of General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commanding the British forces in the Middle East, and reflected the fact that the failure of ‘Battleaxe’ had spurred Prime Minister Winston Churchill to demand the replacement of General Sir Archibald Wavell by Auchinleck, who was under strict instruction to launch a major offensive as rapidly as possible.

At this time Tobruk was held by Major General R. M. Scobie’s 70th Division (three infantry brigades), General brigady Stanisław Kopański’s Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade and Brigadier A. C. Willison’s 32nd Army Tank Brigade.

To support 'Crusader' (i), on 18 November the Australian sloops Parramatta and Yarra escorted the 1,360-ton ammunition ship Hanne from Alexandria to Tobruk.

Under pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to support 'Crusader' (i), on 23 November Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham took the Mediterranean Fleet to sea from Alexandria in two groups 1.

An air-launched torpedo from an Axis warplane damaged the 9,809-ton landing ship Glenroy as she was delivering supplies for Tobruk, and the ship was taken in tow by the light anti-aircraft cruiser Carlisle, escorted by the escort destroyers Avon Vale and Eridge, and beached at Mersa Matruh. The troops on the landing ship were transferred to the escort destroyer Farndale, which carried them to Tobruk. The destroyers Hasty, Jackal, Kipling, Napier and Nizam were ordered to assist the landing ship. The sloop Flamingo and tug St Issey departed Alexandria. Glenroy was refloated on 27 November and taken in tow by the tugs St Issey and St Monace, escorted by the destroyers and two anti-submarine trawlers, later reinforced by the escort destroyer Avon Vale and later still by the escort destroyers Eridge and Farndale. Glenroy reached Alexandria on 29 November.

On the eve of ‘Crusader’ (i) and excluding the garrison of Tobruk, the 8th Army was deployed with Lieutenant General A. R. Godwin-Austen’s XIII Corps on the right and Lieutenant General C. W. M. Norrie’s XXX Corps on the left 2. In all, the 8th Army was a motorised and partially armoured force with 724 tanks in its front-line units and 200 in reserve. Powerful air support was provided by the 16 fighter, eight bomber and three reconnaissance squadrons of Air Vice Marshal H. Coningham’s Western Desert Air Force, which had something in the order of 1,000 aircraft.

On the other side of the front line, the combined German and Italian forces under the command of Generale d’Armata Ettore Bastico, the governor of Libya and commander-in-chief of the Axis forces in Libya, comprised Generale di Corpo d’Armata Gastone Gambara’s Italian XX Corps and Rommel’s Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’ 3. The Axis forces had 414 tanks and initially 345 serviceable aircraft, although this latter was later increased to more than 800.

For ‘Crusader’ (i), Auchinleck devised a bold scheme in which the XIII Corps was to use its Indian 4th Division to pin the Axis forces between the Halfaya Pass and Sidi Omar while its New Zealand 2nd Division hooked round Sidi Omar in the south and then struck to the north and then to the north-east against Fort Capuzzo and Sollum on the coast, and the XXX Corps was to strike yet farther to the south before turning to the north-west to engage the Axis armoured formations in the region of Gabr Saleh and only then pushing on to the relief of Tobruk, which was holding against the XXI Corps supported by the 15th Panzerdivision and Division zbV ‘Afrika’ in preparation for the operation planned by Rommel to seize Tobruk before 4 December.

In overall terms, the 8th Army had 118,000 men, 738 tanks (477 in the XXX Corps, 135 in the XIII Corps and 126 in the Tobruk garrison) and 724 aircraft of which 616 were serviceable, while the Axis forces had 119,000 men, between 390 and 414 tanks, and 536 aircraft of which 342 were serviceable.

Auchinleck’s overall plan was to be supported by the ‘Collect’ deception plan to persuade the Axis military leadership in North Africa that the main Allied attack would not be ready until early December and would be a sweeping outflanking move through Jarabub, an oasis on the edge of the Great Sand Sea, more than 150 miles (240 km) to the south of the real point of attack. This proved successful to the extent that Rommel, refusing to believe that an attack was imminent, was not in Africa when ‘Crusader’ (i) was launched.

The 8th Army launched its surprise attack before dawn on 18 November, advancing west from its base at Mersa Matruh and crossing the Libyan border near Fort Maddalena, some 50 miles (80 km) to the south of Sidi Omar, and then pushing to the north-west. The 8th Army was relying on the Western Desert Air Force to provide it with two complete days without serious air opposition, but torrential rain and storms the night before the offensive resulted in the cancellation of all the air activities which had been planned for the interdiction of the Axis airfields and the destruction of most of the Axis aircraft on the ground.

Despite this setback, all went well at first for the British-led forces. Brigadier J. H. Anstice’s 7th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division advanced to the north-west in the direction of Tobruk with Brigadier J. Scott-Cockburn’s 22nd Armoured Brigade on its left. The XIII Corps and New Zealand 2nd Division made their flanking advance with Brigadier A. H. Gatehouse’s 4th Armoured Brigade on the left and Brigadier H. R. Briggs’s Indian 7th Brigade of the the 4th Indian Division on the right at Sidi Omar. On the first day no resistance was encountered as the 8th Army closed on the Axis positions.

On the morning of the following day the advance of the 22nd Armoured Brigade was blunted at Bir el Gubi by the 132nd Divisione corazzata, which inflicted heavy losses on the British armour during this opening phase of the battle. In the division’s centre the 7th Armoured Brigade and Brigadier J. C. Campbell’s 7th Support Group raced forward almost to within sight of Tobruk and took Sidi Rezegh airfield, while on the British right flank the 4th Armoured Brigade came into contact that evening with a force of 60 tanks supported by barreries of 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and anti-tank units of the 21st Panzerdivision, which had been moving to the south from Gambut, and became engaged in heavy fighting.

On 20 November the 22nd Armoured Brigade fought a second engagement with the 132nd Divisione corazzata and the 7th Armoured Brigade beat off a counterattack by the infantry of the Division zbV ‘Afrika’ and 25th Divisione autotrasportabile at Sidi Rezegh. The 4th Armoured Brigade fought a second engagement with the 21st Panzerdivision, pitting the greater speed and agility of its Stuart light tanks against the heavier firepower of the German tanks. The 8th Army was fortunate at this time that the 15th Panzerdivision had been ordered to Sidi Azeiz, where it found no British armour to tackle. However, the 4th Armoured Brigade soon started to receive indications that the two Panzer divisions were joining forces.

In his original battle plan, Cunningham had hoped for this so that he would be able to bring his own larger tank force to bear on and defeat the Deutsches Afrikakorps’ armour. By attaching the 4th Armoured Brigade to the XIII Corps, allowing the 22nd Armoured Brigade to be sidetracked in fighting the 132nd Divisione corazzata and permitting the 7th Armoured Brigade to forge towards Tobruk, however, Cunningham had permitted his armoured concentration to become dispersed. The 22nd Armoured Brigade were therefore ordered to break off from its fight with the 132nd Divisione corazzata and move to the east to support the 4th Armoured Brigade, leaving the infantry and artillery elements of the South African 1st Division to hold the 132nd Divisione corazzata, and the 4th Armoured Brigade was released from its task of defending the XIII Corps’ left flank. During the afternoon of 20 November the 4th Armoured Brigade was engaged with the 15th Panzerdivision, the 21st Panzerdivision having pulled back on a temporary basis to refuel and rearm. It was too late in the day for a decisive action, but even so the 4th Armoured Brigade lost some 40 tanks, and by this time was reduced to less than two-thirds of its initial strength of 164 tanks. The 22nd Armoured Brigade arrived at dusk, too late to effect any real effect on the situation, and during the night of 20/21 November Rommel pulled all his armour away to the north-west for an attack on Sidi Rezegh.

The 8th Army’s plan for 21 November was for the 70th Division to break out of Tobruk and cut the Axis lines of communication to the troops on the Egyptian/Libyan border to the south-east. At the same time the 7th Armoured Brigade was also to advance from Sidi Rezegh firstly to link with the forces of the Tobruk garrison as they sortied and secondly to roll up the Axis positions surrounding Tobruk. Meanwhile the XIII Corps’ New Zealand 2nd Division was to exploit the the receding threat of the 21st Panzerdivision and 15th Panzerdivision by making a 30-mile (48-km) advance to the north-east toward the area of Sidi Azeiz overlooking the Axis defences at Bardia. The strength of the 70th Division’s attack took the Axis forces by considerable tactical surprise, for Rommel had underestimated the garrison’s size and, especially, its armoured strength.

On the evening of November 20 Scobie, commanding the 70th Division in Tobruk, had ordered a break-out. Although the main attack by the Tobruk garrison on 21 November was to be made by the 70th Division using the 2/Black Watch of Brigadier B. H. Chappel’s 14th Brigade, the 2/King’s Own and 2/Queen’s of Lieutenant Colonel R. F. C. Oxley Boyle’s 16th Brigade, and the 4th Royal Tank Regiment (with Matilda infantry tanks) of Willison’s 32nd Army Tank Brigade, the Polish Independent Carpathian Brigade was to mount its own diversionary attack just before dawn in order to keep the 17th Divisione autotrasportabile pinned. The attacks were to be preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment, and during the first day 100 pieces of artillery were to pound the positions of the 25th Divisione autotrasportabile, 27th Divisione autotrasportabile and 17th Divisione autotrasportabile on the Tobruk perimeter with 40,000 rounds.

The fighting was intense as the three-pronged attack, comprising of the 2/King’s Own on the right, the 2/Black Watch in the centre and the 2/Queen’s Own on the left, advanced to capture a series of prepared strongpoints barring the way to Ed Duda. The Italians were initially stunned by the artillery bombardment which descended on them, and a company of the 17th Divisione autotrasportabile was overrun in the pre-dawn dark, but the resistance of the 25th Divisione autotrasportabile gradually increased. By the middle of the afternoon elements of 70th Division had advanced some 3.5 miles (5.6 km) toward Ed Duda on the main supply road, and then paused as it became clear that 7th Armoured Brigade would not be able to link with them. The 2/Black Watch’s central attack involved a charge under heavy machine gun fire, attacking and taking various strongpoints, until its reached the ‘Tiger’ strongpoint. The 2/Black Watch lost about 200 men and its commanding officer. The British attack was slowly brought to a halt.

On the same day a fierce and costly action was fought between elements of the 155th leichte Infanterieregiment, Böttcher’s Artilleriegruppe ‘Böttcher’ and 5th Panzerregiment on the one side and the 4th, 7th and 22nd Armoured Brigades on the other side for possession of Sidi Rezegh and the surrounding heights held by the infantry and anti-tank guns of the 25th Divisione autotrasportabile. On 22 November Scobie ordered the position to be consolidated and the corridor widened in the hope that the 8th Army would still be able to effect a junction. The 2/York and Lancaster of the 14th Brigade, with tank support, took strongpoint ‘Tiger’, leaving a 7,000-yard (6400-m) gap between the corridor and Ed Duda, but attempts to clear the ‘Tugun’ and ‘Dalby Square’ strongpoints failed. In the fighting on 22 November the defenders of the ‘Tugun’ strongpoint brought down devastating fire, reducing the strength in one attacking company to just 33 men.

On 23 November, the 70th Division launched another major attack against the 25th Divisione autotrasportabile in an attempt to reach the area of Sidi Rezegh, but support from elements of the 17th Divisione autotrasportabile soon arrived and checked the attack. On 26 November Scobie ordered an attack, which was successful, on the Ed Duda ridge and in the early hours of 27 November the Tobruk garrison had linked with a small force of New Zealanders.

The 7th Armoured Brigade had planned its attack to the north-west in the direction of Tobruk for 08.30 on 21 November, but at 07.45 patrols reported the arrival from the south-east of a mass of Axis armour, some 200 tanks in all. The 7th Armoured Brigade, together with a battery of field artillery, therefore turned to meet this threat, in the process leaving the four infantry companies and the artillery of the 7th Support Group to carry through the attack to the north-west in anticipation of being reinforced by Brigadier B. F. Armstrong’s South African 5th Brigade, which had been detached from the South African 1st Division at Bir el Gubi facing the 132nd Divisione corazzata and was currently heading north to join them. Without armoured support, the 7th Support Group’s attack to the north-west was unsuccessful, and by the end of the day the 7th Armoured Brigade had lost all but 28 of its 160 tanks and was reliant mainly on the artillery of the 7th Support Group to check the Axis attacks.

The South African 5th Brigade was now dug in south-east of Bir el Haiad, but had the German armour between it and Sidi Rezegh. However, by the evening of 21 November the 4th Armoured Brigade was 8 miles (13 km) to the south-east of Sidi Rezegh and the 22nd Armoured Brigade was in contact with the German armour at Bir el Haiad, about 12 miles (19 km) to the south-west of Sidi Rezegh.

During the night Rommel yet again divided his strength, with the 21st Panzerdivision going onto the defensive alongside the Division zbV ‘Afrika’ between Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk, and 15th Panzerdivision moving 15 miles (24 km) westward to Gasr el Arid to prepare for a manoeuvre engagement which, Crüwell believed, would favour the Deutsches Afrikakorps. This presented Rommel with a good chance to break through to Tobruk as the whole of 7th Armoured Division was concentrated and facing only the weakened 21st Panzerdivision. However, the commander of the XXX Corps, Norrie, was fully aware that the 7th Armoured Division now had only 200 tanks and decided to opt for caution. Instead, in the early afternoon Rommel attacked Sidi Rezegh with the 21st Panzerdivision and captured the airfield n desperate fighting. Despite being considerably weaker in armour, the 21st Panzerdivision proved tactically superior and drove back the 7th Armoured Division, which lost another 50 tanks, most of these being vehicles of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. The fighting at Sidi Rezegh continued through 22 November, with the South African 5th Brigade becoming embroiled to the south of the airfield.

An attempt to recapture the airfield was a failure, and the Axis counterattack now started to develop momentum. The 7th Armoured Brigade withdrew with all but four of its 150 tanks unserviceable or destroyed. In four days of fighting, the 8th Army had lost 530 tanks against Axis losses of about 100 tanks.

On the XIII Corps’ front, 22 November saw Brigadier J. Hargest’s New Zealand 5th Brigade of the New Zealand 2nd Division spreading to its right and advancing nto the orth-east to capture Fort Capuzzo on the main road linking Sollum and Bardia. The brigade’s attack on Bir Ghirba, to the south of Fort Capuzzo and the location of the headquarters of the 55th Divisione autotrasportabile, was not successful, however. Farther to the south, Briggs’s Indian 7th Brigade took Sidi Omar and most of the strongpoints on the Libyan side of the frontier, but the losses in its supporting tank units made further attacks on the other strongpoints impractical until more armour had arrived.

On 23 November the New Zealand 5th Brigade maintained its advance to the south-east along the road from Fort Capuzzo toward Sollum, and thereby isolated the Axis forces’ positions in the area of Sidi Omar, Sollum and Halfaya from Bardia and its supply route. Meanwhile Brigadier H. W. Barrowclough’s New Zealand 6th Brigade, on the division’s left flank at Bir el Hariga, had received orders to move to the north-west along the Trigh Capuzzo (the track leading from Capuzzo to El Adem) and aid the 7th Armoured Division at Sidi Rezegh. The brigade reached Bir el Chleta, some 15 miles (24 km) to the east of Sidi Rezegh, at first light on 23 November, and was then delayed by a sharp firefight after inadvertently stumbling on the headquarters of the Deutsches Afrikakorps. The headquarters was destroyed and most of its staff captured, although Crüwell was not present at the time and thus escaped. As a result, no supplies got through to either of the Panzer divisions during this day.

Later in the day Brigadier L. M. Inglis’s New Zealand 4th Brigade was also ordered to the west, but to the north of the New Zealand 6th Brigade, and thereby apply pressure on the besiegers of Tobruk even as the New Zealand 5th Brigade remained covering Bardia and the positions at Sollum and Halfaya.

On 23 November Rommel concentrated his two Panzer divisions and the 132nd Divisione corazzata in a co-ordinated attack designed to cut off and destroy the rest of the XXX Corps as the starting point of ‘Brandung’. In this the German commander was somewhat optimistic, but in the pocket Rommel hoped to destroy were the remnants of the 7th Armoured Division, South African 5th Brigade and elements of the recently arrived the New Zealand 6th Brigade. There was desperate fighting and each side suffered heavy losses. By the end of the day the South African 5th Brigade had been destroyed and what remained of the defending force broke out of the pocket, heading to the south in the direction of Bir el Gubi.

After Rommel’s success at Sidi Rezegh, the Comando Supremo (Italian supreme headquarters in Rome) agreed to put the XX Corps, comprising the 132nd Divisione corazzata and 101st Divisione motorizzata, under Rommel’s direct command. By 23 November, the 132nd Divisione corazzata, 101st Divisione motorizzata and 55th Divisione autotrasportabile between them had probably destroyed some 200 British tanks and disabled a similar number. In overall terms, the Axis forces had certainly destroyed more than 350 tanks and severely damaged another 150 in the period between 19 and 23 November.

After considering how best to exploit his success, and bearing in mind that after the battle the Deutsches Afrikakorps had only 40 tanks available for immediate action, Rommel decided that his first priority, now that the immediate threat of the relief of Tobruk was over, was to reimpose himself on the border positions. On 24 November, therefore, ‘Brandung’ began as the Deutsches Afrikakorps and 32nd Divisione corazzata headed for Sidi Omar, in the process scattering the mainly rear-echelon support units in their path, and also splitting the XXX Corps and almost cutting off the XIII Corps. After reaching the Egyptian/Libyan border, Rommel planned to attack and surround the considerable forces he mistakenly thought were investing the Axis border strongholds. This grand stroke, which Rommel thought would effectively destroy the 8th Army’s combat capability, was revealed by events to have been an error, and that greater results would probably have accrued from further thrusts toward the headquarters of the 8th Army, the main British supply dumps and the Western Desert Air Force’s main air strips.

It was Rommel’s hope to lift the British siege of Bardia, Sollum and Halfaya, and also to pose a threat large enough to the British rear echelon for ‘Crusader’ (i) to be called off. Rommel’s thinking was derived from the fact that the 7th Armoured Division had been defeated, but at the same time the German commander ignored intelligence reports of British supply dumps lying on his path on the border, and this was to cost him the battle.

On 25 November the 15th Panzerdivision departed to the north-east in the direction of Sidi Azeiz, and soon discovered that it was moving into empty desert rather than an area occupied by major forces investing the northern sector of the Axis border positions. The division had been found by the Western Desert Air Force, moreover, and was taken under steady attack from the air.

To the south of the border positions, the 21st Panzerdivision’s 5th Panzerregiment attacked the positions of the Indian 7th Brigade at Sidi Omar and was driven off by the fire of the 25-pdr gun/howitzers of the 1st Field Regiment Royal Artillery firing over open sights at a range of 550 yards (545 m). A second attack resulted in the effective destruction of the 5th Panzerregiment by the end of the day. The other elements of the 21st Panzerdivision had meanwhile advanced to the north-east in the direction of Halfaya. By the evening of 25 November the 15th Panzerdivision was to the west of Sidi Azeiz, the location of the New Zealand 5th Brigade’s headquarters, but down to a strength of only 53 tanks. This was almost the entire tank strength left to the Deutsches Afrikakorps. However, the Axis column was now very exposed and supply became a major logistical problem, for its main supply dumps lay on the coast between Bardia and Tobruk, and supply convoys therefore had to find a way past the New Zealand 4th and 6th Brigades.

On 26 November the 15th Panzerdivision bypassed Sidi Azeiz and directed its course toward Bardia to resupply, arriving at about 12.00. Meanwhile the remnants of the 21st Panzerdivision attacked to the north-west from Halfaya in the direction of Fort Capuzzo and Bardia, and the 132nd Divisione corazzata, which was approaching Bir Ghirba, some 15 miles (24 km) to the north-east of Sidi Omar, from the west, was now instructed to head for Fort Capuzzo, clear any opposition and join the 21st Panzerdivision .They were to be supported by the 15th Panzerdivision’s much reduced 115th Infanterieregiment, which had been instructed to advance with some artillery to the south-east from Bardia toward Fort Capuzzo.

The two battalions of the New Zealand 5th Brigade between Fort Capuzzo and Sollum Barracks were engaged by the converging elements of 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision at dusk on 26 November, and during the night the 115th Infanterieregiment got to within 800 yards (730 m) of Fort Capuzzo before being ordered to switch its attack toward Upper Sollum to meet the 21st Panzerdivision arriving from the south.

During the early hours of 27 November, at Bardia, Rommel met Neumann-Silkow and von Ravenstein, commanders of the 15th Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision respectively. The three German commanders agreed that the most important thing was now for the Deutsches Afrikakorps to return to the Tobruk front, where the 70th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division had gained the initiative.

On 25 November there was a resurgence of heavy fighting on the Tobruk front. In the sector of the 102nd Divisione motorizzata, the 2/Queen’s attacked the ‘Bondi’ strongpoint but was driven back in heavy fighting, and the ‘Bondi’ position was not be evacuated by the Italian division until the general withdrawal of the Axis forces some two weeks later. In the meantime, the defence of the ‘Tugun’ strongpoint, now held by an exhausted force which had lost about half of its men and short of ammunition, food, and water) surrendered during the night of 25/26 November. While the Artilleriegruppe ‘Böttcher’w as fighting desperately to contain the British armoured attacks in the sector of the 25th Divisione autotrasportabile, Navarrini and Gotti assembled a battalion of Bersaglieri from the 101st Divisione motorizzata and used this to repulse the British break-out from Tobruk.

Rommel was still determined to resolve the fighting on the border to the advantage of his Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’. He accepted that the 21st Panzerdivision no longer possessed the strength to make an offensive impact, and ordered the division to head to Tobruk. The orders he gave to the 15th Panzerdivision were to deliver a broad-front attack on the British-led forces he still thought were investing the border positions between Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Omar. The 15th Panzerdivision would first have to capture Sidi Azeiz to provide space for this ambitious manoeuvre. Neumann-Silkow felt the plan had little chance of success, however, and resolved to advance to Sidi Azeiz, where he believed there was a major British supply dump, before heading to Tobruk. Defending the headquarters of the New Zealand 5th Brigade at Sidi Azeiz was a company of its 22nd Battalion together with the armoured cars of the divisional cavalry plus some field artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and machine gun units. Heavily outnumbered, the New Zealanders were overwhelmed in a fierce exchange on the morning of 27 November and forced to surrender. Though some 700 men were taken prisoner, the armoured cars managed to escape.

Meanwhile the 21st Panzerdivision, heading to the west from Bardia in the direction of Tobruk, had run into another infantry battalion of the New Zealand 5th Brigade at Bir el Menastir and after an exchange lasting most of the day had been forced to detour south via Sidi Azeiz, delaying its return to Tobruk by a day. By a time early in the afternoon the 8th Army headquarters had learned from radio intercepts that both of the Deutsches Afrikakorps’ divisions were moving west toward Tobruk, as indeed was the 132nd Divisione corazzata to their south. The overly audacious ‘dash to the wire’ manoeuvre by the Deutsches Afrikakorps had failed, though only by a small margin, having come within 4 miles (6.4 km) of the 8th Army’s main supply base but without knowing of this fact. The southern dash of the Deutsches Afrikakorps had removed a severe threat to the left flank of the New Zealand 2nd Division, though Freyberg had not been aware of the threat because in the confusion of the battle news of the 7th Armoured Division’s losses had not reached the XIII Corps and German armour losses had been radically over-estimated. The New Zealand 2nd Division became engaged in heavy fighting with elements of the Division zbV ‘Afrika’ and the 101st Divisione motorizzata, 25th Divisione autotrasportabile and 17th Divisione autotrasportabile advancing to the west to retake Sidi Rezegh airfield and the positions overlooking the route north to Tobruk.

The 70th Division’s offensive was resumed on 26 November, and by 27 November elements had linked with the advancing New Zealand 4th Brigade at Ed Duda on the Tobruk bypass road, and the New Zealand 6th Brigade had finally cleared the Sidi Rezegh escarpment after taking heavy casualties.

At 12.00 on 27 November the 15th Panzerdivision reached Bir el Chleta, where in ran straight into the reorganised 22nd Armoured Brigade, which was now nothing more than a composite regimental-sized unit of fewer than 50 tanks. By the middle of the afternoon the 22nd Armoured Brigade was under pressure but holding, and 4th Armoured Brigade, with 70 tanks, had arrived on the left flank of the 15th Panzerdivision after dashing more than 20 miles (32 km) to the north-east across country and was causing confusion in the Panzer division’s rear echelons. The Panzer division was also suffering heavy casualties from bombing. As night fell the British tanks disengaged to replenish, but inexplicably moved to the south for this purpose, leaving the route to the west open for the 15th Panzerdivision.

Once again the New Zealand 2nd Division, engaged in heavy fighting on the south-east end of the tenuous corridor into Tobruk, would yet again come under direct threat from the Deutsches Afrikakorps.

By 27 November matters were once more looking better for the 8th Army: the XXX Corps had more or less got itself reorganised after the chaos of the breakthrough, and the New Zealand 2nd Division had linked with the Tobruk garrison. Auchinleck had spent three days during the period of the breakthrough at Cunningham’s headquarters. Cunningham had wished to bring ‘Crusader’ (i) to a halt and pull back the 8th Army, but on 25 November Auchinleck given Cunningham written orders including the words ‘…There is only one order, Attack and Pursue.’ Auchinleck returned to Cairo on 26 November and, after conferring with London, replaced Cunningham with his own deputy chief-of-staff, Major General N. Ritchie, now promoted to acting lieutenant general.

On 26/27 November units of the 70th Division killed or captured the defenders of several Italian concrete pillboxes before reaching El Duda. On 27 November, the New Zealand 6th Brigade fought a fierce battle with a battalion of the 9th Reggimento Bersaglieri, which had dug itself in and used its machine guns very effectively. Despite fierce opposition, the New Zealand brigade managed to link with the 32nd Army Tank Brigade at El Duda. The New Zealand 6th Brigade and 32nd Army Tank Brigade secured and maintained a small bridgehead on the Tobruk front but this was to last for only five days.

By 28 November, the 25th Divisione autotrasportabile had regrouped largely in the Bu Amud and Belhamed areas, and was now extended along a front of some 8 miles (13 km) from the Via Balbia to the bypass road, and there was fighting in several places.

During the 27/28 November Rommel had discussed with Crüwell plans for the next day, indicating that his priority was to cut the Tobruk corridor and destroy the British forces fighting there. Crüwell was concerned by the threat of the 7th Armoured Division’s tanks to the south, however, and felt this needed attention first.

The 15th Panzerdivision spent most of 28 November engaged once again with the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades, and in trying to improve its supply situation. Even though it was outnumbered 2/1 in tanks, and at times immobilised by lack of fuel, the 15th Panzerdivision was nonetheless able to drive the British armour back to the south while itself moving to the west. Heavy fighting continued through 28 November around the Tobruk corridor with first one side dominant and then the other. Here it had proved impossible to establish a firm communications link between the 70th Division and New Zealand 2nd Division, which made co-ordination difficult.

When two motorised Bersaglieri battalions, together with tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery, moved toward Sidi Rezegh, they overran a New Zealand field hospital, where they captured 1,000 patients and 700 medical staff, and also liberated some 200 Germans being held captive in the enclosure on the grounds of the hospital.

On the night of 28 November Rommel, conscious of the Axis forces’ total lack of success with direct attacks during the months that had followed their investment of the port early in April, rejected Crüwell’s plan for a direct advance toward Tobruk and instead decided instead for a circling movement to attack Ed Duda from the south-west and then to press forward to cut off and destroy the British-led forces outside the Tobruk perimeter.

On the morning of 29 November the 15th Panzerdivision moved off to the west along an axis to the south of Sidi Rezegh. The remnants of the 21st Panzerdivision were supposed to be moving up on the right to form a pincer, but were in disarray after von Ravenstein had failed to return from a reconnaissance that morning, having been captured. In the afternoon, to the east of Sidi Rezegh, the New Zealand 21st Battalion was overrun on the much contested Point 175 by elements of the 132nd Divisione corazzata, which the New Zealanders had thought to be reinforcements from the South African 1st Brigade that had been due to arrive from the south-west to reinforce the XIII Corps. The New Zealand 24th and 26th Battalions met a similar fate at Sidi Rezegh on 30 November, and on 1 December a German armoured attack on Belhamed practically destroyed the 20th Battalion. The New Zealanders suffered heavily in these attacks, losing 880 dead, 1,699 wounded and 2,042 captured.

Meanwhile the leading elements of the 15th Panzerdivision reached Ed Duda but made little progress before nightfall against determined defences. However, a counterattack by 4th Royal Tank Regiment, supported by Australian infantry, recaptured the lost positions and the German units fell back 1,000 yards (915 m) to establish a new position.

During 29 November the two British armoured brigades were strangely passive. The South African 1st Brigade was effectively tied to the armoured brigades, unable to move in open ground without them because of the threat from the Panzer divisions. On the evening of 29 November the South African 1st Brigade was placed under command of the New Zealand 2nd Division and ordered to advance to the north to recapture Point 175.

Meanwhile, radio intercepts had persuaded the 8th Army that the 21st Panzerdivision and 132nd Divisione corazzata were in trouble, and Ritchie ordered the 7th Armoured Division to maintain close contact. Following the resistance at Ed Dedu, Rommel decided to withdraw the 15th Panzerdivision to Bir Bu Creimisa, 5 miles (8 km) to the south, and relaunch his attack to the north-east from there on 30 November along an axis between Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, and thus leave Ed Dedu outside his encircling pocket. By the middle of the afternoon the New Zealand 6th Brigade was under heavy pressure on the western end of the Sidi Rezegh position. The weakened 24th Battalion was overrun, as were two companies of 26th Battalion, though on the eastern flank of the position the 25th Battalion repelled an attack by the 132nd Divisione corazzata advancing from Point 175.

At 06.15 on 1 December the 15th Panzerdivision renewed its attack toward Belhamed with the aid of a major artillery effort, and once again the New Zealand 2nd Division found itself under great pressure. During the morning the 7th Armoured Division was instructed to move forward and provide direct assistance. The 4th Armoured Brigade arrived at Belhamed and could have had the opportunity for a decisive intervention as it outnumbered the force of about 40 tanks which the 15th Panzerdivision had to attack the position. However, the commander of the armoured brigade believed that his orders were to cover the withdrawal of the remnants of the New Zealand 6th Brigade and he therefore opted not to attack the German armour. What was left of the New Zealand 2nd Division was now grouped near Zaafran, 5 miles (8 km) to the east of Belhamed and slightly farther to the north-east of Sidi Rezegh.

During the morning of 1 December, Freyberg saw an 8th Army signal indicating that the South African 1st Brigade was now to be subordinated to the 7th Armoured Division, and deduced that the 8th Army had abandoned all hope of holding open the Tobruk corridor. Freyberg therefore signalled, in the middle of the morning, that without the South Africans his position would be untenable and that he was planning a withdrawal; Freyberg ordered his division to be prepared to move east at 17.30.

The 15th Panzerdivision, which had been refuelling and rearming, renewed its attack at 16.30 and the 101st Divisione motorizzata severed the narrow link which had been established with Tobruk. The New Zealand 2nd Division now became involved in a desperate fighting withdrawal from its western positions, but with great discipline the division was nonetheless formed by 17.30 and, after waiting for an hour for the tanks and artillery to join it from the west, moved off at 18.45. The New Zealand 2nd Division reached the lines of the XXX Corps with little further interruption, and in the early hours the 3,500 men and 700 vehicles which had emerged were heading back to Egypt.

Yet again, Rommel became concerned with his units isolated in the border strongpoints and on 2 December, believing that the battle at Tobruk had been won, sent battalion-sized advance guard units led by Oberst Erich Geissler and Oberstleutnant Gustav-Georg Knabe to open the routes to Bardia and to Capuzzo, and thence Sollum. On 3 December Geissler’s unit was heavily defeated by elements of New Zealand 5th Brigade on the Bardia road at near Menastir. To the south, Knabe’s unit at the same time fared slightly better on the Trigh Capuzzo (the main track to Capuzzo), coming up against ‘Gold’ Force that was based on the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment of the New Zealand 2nd Division and pulling back after an exchange of artillery fire.

Rommel insisted once again on trying to relieve the frontier forts. All of the Deutsches Afrikakorps’ tanks were undergoing overhaul, so he ordered the rest of 15th Panzerdivision and the XXI Corps to the east on 4 December in a move which, when spotted, occasioned considerable alarm at the headquarters of the 8th Army. Rommel soon appreciated that he could not deal both with the situation at Tobruk and the despatch of a powerful force to the east, and the 132nd Divisione corazzata thus went no farther than Gasr el Arid.

On 4 December Rommel launched another attack on Ed Duda, but this was driven back by Chappel’s 14th Brigade of the 70th Division. After it had become clear that the attack would fail, Rommel decided to pull his forces back from Tobruk’s eastern side so as to make it possible for him to concentrate all his strength against the growing threat from the XXX Corps to the south.

After the withdrawal of the New Zealand 2nd Division, Ritchie had reorganised his rear-echelon units to release to the front line reinforcements in the form of Brigadier D. Russell’s Indian 5th Brigade and Brigadier A. Anderson’s Indian 11th Brigade of the Indian 4th Division, as well as Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott’s 22nd Guards Brigade of the XXX Corps’ corps troops. By 4 December the Indian 11th Brigade was heavily engaged in action against a strongpoint near Bir el Gubi, some 25 miles (40 km) to the south of Ed Duda. Here, from a position at the top of Point 174, the 1 and 2/136th Reggimento ‘Giovani Fascisti’ fought off repeated attacks by the British armour and Indian infantry units during the first week of December.

Once again the British infantry was exposed to a possible armoured attack as the 8th Army had ordered Norrie to send the 4th Armoured Brigade to the east to provide cover against the threat that was emerging to Bardia and Sollum. On 4 December, the 17th and 102nd Divisioni motorizzate counterattacked the 70th Division in an attempt to contain the British formation within the Tobruk perimeter, and reportedly recaptured two strongpoints. On 5 December the Indian 11th Brigade continued its costly fight to take Point 174. As dusk approached the Deutsches Afrikakorps and 132nd Divisione corazzata intervened to relieve the battalion group of the 136th Reggimento ‘Giovani Fascisti’ on Point 174 and cause pandemonium in the ranks of the Indian 11th Brigade.

Crüwell was unaware that 4th Armoured Brigade, now with 126 tanks, was more than 20 miles (32 km) distant and pulled back to the west. The Indian brigade was broken and had to be withdrawn to refit, and arrangements had to be made to bring in the 22nd Guards Brigade in its place. Crüwell could still have struck on 6 December as the 4th Armoured Brigade made no effort to move up in support of the 22nd Guards Brigade, but hesitated until too late in the day and was unable to strike a conclusive blow before dark. By 7 December the 4th Armoured Brigade had then closed up and the opportunity lost.

Worse still for the Germans, the 15th Panzerdivision’s commander, Neumann-Silkow, was mortally wounded late on 6 December.

On 7 December the 4th Armoured Brigade engaged the 15th Panzerdivision, disabling another 11 of its decreasing tank strength.

Rommel had been told on 5 December by the Comando Supremo in Rome that the supply situation could not be improved until the end of the month, when an air supply route from Sicily would become available. Realising that success was now unlikely at Bir el Gubi, Rommel decided to narrow his front and shorten his lines of communication by abandoning the Tobruk front and withdrawing to the positions at Gazala, 10 miles (16 km) to his rear, which had been in preparation by Italian rear echelon units and which he had occupied by 8 December. He placed the X Corps and XXI Corps on the coastal and inland ends of this line, while the weakened XX Corps anchored the southern end of the line at Alem Hamza and the Deutsches Afrikakorps was placed behind the southern flank ready to counterattack.

It was on 6 December that Rommel ordered his divisions to retreat to the west, leaving the 55th Divisione autotrasportabile to hold out as long as it could in the area of Bardia, Sollum and Halfaya: the Italian stay-behind garrisons did not surrender until 17 January 1942.

On the night of 6/7 December the 70th Division captured the German-held ‘Walter’ and ‘Freddie’ strongpoints without meeting any resistance, but one battalion of the 17th Divisione autotrasportabile made a stand on Point 157, its entrenched infantry inflicting heavy losses on the 2/Durham Light Infantry.

Tobruk was finally relieved on 10 December after a 19-day battle.

Ritchie now made efforts to revitalise the 8th Army, largely by improving infantry and armour co-ordination. Ritchie transferred 7th Armoured Division to the XIII Corps, which also received the Indian 4th Division and the New Zealand 5th Brigade, and ordered the XXX Corps to take Major General Isaac de Villiers’s South African 2nd Division under command from reserve and undertake the reduction of the border forts.

The 8th Army began its offensive against the Axis positions on the Gazala line during 13 December. The New Zealand 5th Brigade attacked along an 8-mile (13-km) front from the coast inland, and the Indian 5th Brigade made a flanking attack at Alem Hamza. Although the 101st Divisione motorizzata held Alem Hamza, the 1/Buffs of the Indian 5th Brigade took Point 204, some miles to the west of Alem Hamza, but was thus in a vulnerable salient. The Indian 7th Brigade to its left was therefore ordered to despatch its 4/11th Sikhs, supported by guns from 25th Field Regiment and 12 Valentine infantry tanks of the 8th RTR, to ease the Buffs’ situation. This force was met by the Deutsches Afrikakorps with 39 tanks, guns and 300 truck loads of infantry. Yet again the 7th Armoured Division was not able to intervene, so it was left to the British force’s artillery and supporting tanks to face the threat. Despite heavy casualties, the British force knocked out 15 German tanks and stalled the counterattack.

Godwin-Austen ordered Gott to get the British armour to a position from which it could engage the Deutsches Afrikakorps, but did not know that Gott and his senior commanders no longer believed, despite their numerical superiority, that they could defeat the the Germans in a direct confrontation as a result of the the German superiority in tactics and anti-tank artillery. Gott therefore favoured a wide detour to attack the Axis soft-skinned elements and lines of communication as a way of immobilising the Germans.

On 14 December the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade was brought forward to join the New Zealanders and prepare a new attack for the early hours of 15 December. The attack went in at 03.00, and took the defenders by surprise. The two brigades made good progress but narrowly failed to breach the line.

On 14 December, meanwhile, there was little activity from the Deutsches Afrikakorps to the south, and the Indian 7th Brigade was limited to patrolling as supply problems meant that it was short of ammunition. At Alem Hamza the Indian 5th Brigade renewed its attack but made no progress against determined defence, and at Point 204 the Indian 5th Brigade’s 1/Buffs, with the support of 10 infantry tanks, an armoured car squadron of the Central India Horse, a company of Bombay Sappers and Miners, the guns of the 31st Field Regiment, elements of the 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment and some anti-aircraft guns, was attacked by the last 10 to 12 tanks of the 132nd Divisione corazzata, which it drove off.

On 15 December, the 27th Divisione autotrasportabile and 17th Divisione autotrasportabile, with the 102nd Divisione motorizzata in support, repelled a strong Polish andNew Zealand attack, thus freeing the 15th Panzerdivision, which had returned to the Gazala line, for use elsewhere.

Rommel believed that Point 204 was a key position, and therefore committed a significant part of the armoured and infantry units in the area to an attack on it during the course of 15 December. In severe fighting the 132nd Divisione corazzata and 15th Panzerdivision, with Bersaglieri motorcycle troops and the lorried infantry of the 115th leichte Infanterieregiment, overran the 1/Buffs and its supporting elements during the afternoon. The Buffs and their supporting elements lost more than 1,000 men killed or captured, and a mere 71 men and a battery of field artillery escaped. Fortunately for the rest of the Indian 5th Brigade, by that time it was too late in the day for the attacking force to collect itself and advance further for an intervention at Alem Hamza. The attackers too had suffered heavily in the engagement: the German commander was heard on a radio intercept to report the inability of his force to exploit his success because of his force’s losses.

By 15 December the Deutsches Afrikakorps had only eight serviceable tanks, and the 132nd Divisione corazzata about 30. Rommel, who had greater respect for the capabilities of 7th Armoured Division at this time than either Crüwell and, indeed, Gott, became worried about a perceived flanking move to the south by the British armour. Despite the vehement objections of the Italian generals and Crüwell, he therefore ordered that the Gazala line positions be abandoned during the night of 15/16 December. The 27th Divisione autotrasportabilep rovided cover for the Axis retreat.

By the afternoon of 15 December the 4th Armoured Brigade, had bypassed the end of the Axis line to the south and had reached Bir Halegh el Eleba, about 30 miles (48 km) to the north-west of Alem Hamza and was ideally placed to attack the rear of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and also for an advance to the north to cut the coastal lines of communication on which the Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’ was reliant. Godwin-Austen urged the brigade to do just that, but early on 16 December only a small detachment was sent to the north, which caused serious confusion in the Axis forces’ rear echelons but was too small to be decisive. The rest of the brigade headed south to meet its petrol supplies.

In the afternoon the 15th Panzerdivision, moving to the west, was able to pass round the 4th Armoured Brigade’s rear and block any move to the north. The opportunity for the British to gain a decisive victory had been missed.

Even so, the combination of Auchinleck’s determination and Ritchie’s aggression had thus removed the Axis threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal, at least for a time.

Over the 10 days which followed, the Axis forces withdrew to a line between Agedabia and El Haseia, thereby shortening and securing their lines of communication, and avoiding being cut off and surrounded as the Italians had been in the previous year. As his lines of supply shortened and supplies to El Agheila improved, Rommel was able to rebuild his tank force while, on the other hand, the 8th Army’s lines of communication became correspondingly longer and more strained. On 27 December, in a three-day armoured battle at El Haseia, Rommel was able to inflict heavy damage on the 22nd Armoured Brigade and so force the 8th Army’s leading echelons to recoil. This made it possible for the Axis forces to fall back to a tactically more desirable defensive line at El Agheila by 31 December, and during the first two weeks of January 1942 begin the process of short-term recovery without having to deal with pressure from the British forces.

The battle up to this time had cost the British-led forces some 17,700 casualties, about 800 tanks destroyed or disabled, and about 300 aircraft lost; on the other side of the front, the Axis forces had suffered 38,300 casualties, 340 tanks destroyed or damaged, and more than 330 aircraft lost. However, Rommel had failed to relieve the isolated Italian and German strongholds on the Egyptian/Libyan border and the 7,000-man garrison at Bardia surrendered on 2 January 1942 after an attack by the South African 2nd Division. Sollum fell to the South Africans on 12 January after a small but fiercely fought engagement.

This completed the isolation of the heavily fortified Halfaya position, which included the escarpment, the plateau above it and the surrounding ravines, and cut it off from the sea and therefore any chance of supply by ship. The 5,000 defenders, mainly of the 55th Divisione autotrasportabile, were already very short of food and water, and after this had to rely on limited air drops for supplies. The carefully prepared positions allowed the defenders to hold out obstinately against the heavy artillery and aerial bombardment with relatively few casualties, but hunger and thirst finally forced them to surrender on 17 January.

On 21 January Rommel’s revitalised forces struck to the east from Agheila in a surprise countermove. This ‘Theseus’ operation had been designed as a reconnaissance in force but, finding the 8th Army’s forward elements dispersed and tired, Rommel exploited the situation in typically audacious fashion and drove the 8th Army back to Gazala, where it occupied defensive positions along Rommel’s old line. Here a stalemate set in as both sides regrouped, rebuilt and reorganised in preparation for what later took place as the Battle of Gazala.

In overall terms, while ‘Crusader’ (i) was only a limited British success in objectively military terms, it was perhaps of greater psychological importance in showing that the combination of German and Italian forces in North Africa could in fact be beaten on the battlefield.

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Under Cunningham’s command, Force 'A' comprised the battleships Barham, Queen Elizabeth and Valiant, and destroyers Decoy, Griffin, Hasty, Jackal, Jervis, Kipling, Napier and Nizam. Under the command of Rear Admiral H. B. Rawlings, Force 'B' comprised the light cruisers Ajax, Arethusa and Neptune, light anti-aircraft cruisers Euryalus and Naiad, and destroyers Hotspur, Kandahar, Kimberley and Kingston.
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The XIII Corps comprised Major General B. C. Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division, Major General F. W. Messervy’s Indian 4th Division and Brigadier H. R. B. Watkins’s British 1st Army Tank Brigade, while the XXX Corps comprised Major General W. H. E. Gott’s British 7th Armoured Division (473 armoured fighting vehicles in the form of 310 Crusader cruiser tanks and 163 M3 Stuart light tanks), Major General G. L. Brink’s South African 1st Division and Brigadier J. C. O. Marriott’s British 22nd Guards Brigade.
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The XX Corps comprised Generale di Divisione Mario Balotta’s 132nd Divisione corazzata ‘Ariete’ and Generale di Divisione Alessandro Piazzoni’s 101st Divisione motorizzata ‘Trieste’, while the Panzergruppe ‘Afrika’ (created on 15 August) comprised Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell’s Deutsches Afrikakorps and Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini’s XXI Corps. The Deutsches Afrikakorps included Generalmajor Walter Neumann-Silkow’s (from 7 December Generalmajor Gustav von Vaerst’s) 15th Panzerdivision, Generalmajor Johannes von Ravenstein’s (from 30 November Generalmajor Karl Böttcher’s) 21st Panzerdivision (latterly the 5th leichte Division and thus low in armour), Generalmajor Max Sümmermann’s (from 10 December Generalmajor Richard Veith’s) Division zbV ‘Afrika’ (from 28 November 90th leichte Afrikadivision) and Generale di Divisione Fedele de Giorgis’s 55th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Savona’. The XXI Corps included Generale di Divisione Bortolon Zambon’s 27th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Brescia’, Generale di Divisione Giuseppe de Stefanis’s 102nd Divisione motorizzata ‘Trento’, Generale di Divisione Alessandro Gloria’s 25th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Bologna’, and Generale di Brigata Antonio Franceschini’s 17th Divisione autotrasportabile ‘Pavia’.