Operation Skorpion

scorpion

This was the Axis operation by General Erwin Rommel’s emergent Deutsches Afrikakorps to reach and retake the Halfaya Pass in the immediate aftermath of ‘Brevity’, thereafter reopening the way for an Axis advance into north-western Egypt, and at the same time seek to distract British attention from the Greek theatre where the ‘Merkur’ airborne assault on Crete was about to begin (26/27 May 1941).

The operation was Rommel’s first significant undertaking against General Sir Archibald Wavell’s British forces in Egypt after the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht and Oberkommando des Heeres had decided to send a Sperrverband ‘Libyen’ (Libyan blocking force) to Libya in support of the Italians, whose 10th Army, under the command of Generale d’Armata Annibale Bergonzoli, had been routed by the British-led forces in ‘Compass’.

At this time the British-led forces in the Western Desert were elements of Lieutenant General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse’s Western Desert Force, and included Brigadier W. H. E. Gott’s Mobile Force. On 15 May, at the beginning of the ‘Brevity’ probing operation, the Mobile Force to the east of Sollum had a Coast Group on the coastal road and farther inland Brigadier I. D. Erskine’s 22nd Guards Brigade Group and Brigadier H. F. Russell’s 7th Armoured Brigade Group. The unsuccessful end of ‘Brevity’ left the Coast Group (2/Rifle Brigade and one regiment of field artillery) in possession of the narrow coastal shelf below the Halfaya escarpment and the two brigade groups on the open ground inland of the escarpment with only the Halfaya Pass providing them with access to the coastal strip and associated road to the east of Sollum.

In the ‘Skorpion’ undertaking which now unfolded, the German blocking force changed decisively from its originally intended defensive grouping into an offensive force. After a small lull in the fighting following ‘Brevity’, the Germans deployed Oberst Maximilian von Herff’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Herff’ in three assault groups: the 2/5th Panzerregiment was to advance from Sidi Azeiz and retake Fort Capuzzo, von Herff’s own 8th Panzerregiment was to sweep round Sollum from the north-west and fall on the Halfaya Pass from the south-east, and the 54th leichte Regiment was to advance onto the coastal strip via the road linking Musaid and Sollum and then move along the coastal strip past Sollum to take the lower part of the Halfaya Pass.

The Germans had assembled by the evening of 26 May and attacked on the following morning. The 3/Coldstream Guards and some supporting units fought well but could not stop the Germans from securing a commanding position, leaving the British in danger of being surrounded and cut off. During the morning Gott authorised a withdrawal and Lieutenant Colonel Moubray extricated his force with great skill at the cost of 173 casualties, four field guns, eight anti-tank guns, and five infantry tanks. This meant that the Deutsches Afrikakorps had now retaken all the ground, including the vital Halfaya Pass, lost to the British during ‘Brevity’.