Operation Crusader

Operation Crusader
Operation Crusader
Part of Western Desert Campaign
A Crusader mk.I passes a burning German Panzer IV.
Date 18 November–30 December 1941
Location Egypt and Libya
Result Allied marginal victory, Axis forces managed to avoid destruction and retreated in good order.
 United Kingdom
 South Africa
 New Zealand
Poland Poland
Czechoslovakia Czechoslovakia [1]
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Claude Auchinleck
United Kingdom Alan Cunningham
United Kingdom Neil Ritchie
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Ettore Bastico
Nazi Germany Erwin Rommel
Nazi Germany Ludwig Crüwell
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946) Gastone Gambara
118,000 men[2]
738 tanks[nb 1]
724 aircraft (616 serviceable)[nb 2]
119,000 men[nb 3]
390[nb 4]–414 tanks[nb 5]
536 aircraft (342 serviceable)[nb 6]
Casualties and losses
17,700 casualties[nb 7]
~800 tanks destroyed, damaged, or broken down[6][nb 8]
~300 aircraft[8]
38,300 casualties[nb 9]
340 tanks destroyed or damaged[nb 10]
at least 332 aircraft lost[nb 11]
Battle Area of Operation Crusader 18 November 1941 – 31 December 1941 (Click to enlarge)
Map of movements and battles during Operation Crusader (Click to enlarge)
Relief of Tobruk 1941: Schematic of the battlefield (click to enlarge)

Operation Crusader was a military operation by the British Eighth Army between 18 November–30 December 1941. The operation successfully relieved the 1941 Siege of Tobruk.

The Eighth Army's initial plan to destroy the Axis armoured force before advancing its infantry came apart when, after a number of inconclusive engagements, the British 7th Armoured Division were heavily defeated by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh. Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel's subsequent advance of his armoured divisions to the Axis fortress positions on the Egyptian border failed to find the main body of the Allied infantry, which had bypassed the fortresses and headed for Tobruk, so Rommel had to withdraw his armoured units to support the fighting at Tobruk. Despite achieving some tactical successes at Tobruk, the need to preserve his remaining forces prompted Rommel to withdraw his army to the defensive line at Gazala, west of Tobruk, and then all the way back to El Agheila. It was the first victory over the German ground forces by British-led forces in the Second World War.[10]



An Italian soldier surrenders to a British Indian Army soldier during the initial successful phase of allied operations.

Following the costly failure of Operation Battleaxe, General Archibald Wavell was relieved as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command and replaced by General Claude Auchinleck. The Western Desert Force was reorganized and renamed the Eighth Army under the command of Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham.

Order of battle

Eighth Army comprised two Corps: British XXX Corps under Lieutenant-General Willoughby Norrie and British XIII Corps under Lieutenant-General Reade Godwin-Austen. XXX Corps was made up of 7th Armoured Division (commanded by Major-General William Gott), the understrength South African 1st Infantry Division with two brigades (newly arrived from the East African Campaign and commanded by Major-General George Brink) and the independent 22nd Guards Brigade. XIII Corps comprised 4th Indian Infantry Division (commanded by Major-General Frank Messervy), the newly arrived 2nd New Zealand Division (commanded by Major-General Bernard Freyberg) and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. Eighth Army also included the Tobruk garrison with the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, and where the Australian 9th Division under Major-General Leslie Morshead had been replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division and the Polish Carpathian Brigade, under Major-General Ronald Scobie, the Commander of 70th Division, as fortress commander. In reserve Eighth Army had the South African 2nd Infantry Division making a total equivalent of about 7 divisions with 770 tanks (including many of the new Crusader Cruiser tanks, after which the operation was named, as well as the new American light Stuart). Air support was provided by up to 724 combat planes of the Commonwealth air forces in the Middle East and Malta, with direct support under the command of Air HQ Western Desert.[nb 12]

Opposing them were the German and Italian soldiers of Panzergroup Africa under General Erwin Rommel, with the Afrika Korps comprising the 15th Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division (total of 260 tanks ), the Afrika Special Purpose Division which had been formed in Africa as a composite formation, and was redesignated the 90th Light Africa Infantry Division in late November, and 5 Italian infantry divisions (the 55 Infantry Division Savona, 17 Infantry Division Pavia, 102 Motorised Division Trento, 27 Infantry Division Brescia and 25 Infantry Division Bologna) (the latter four forming the Italian XXI Army Corps under General Enea Navarini). Directly under the Italian High Command in Libya remained the XX Motorised Corps with 132 Armoured Division Ariete with 146 medium tanks M13/40 and 101 Motorised Division Trieste. The Axis forces had built a defensive line of strongpoints along the escarpment running from near the sea at Bardia and Sollum and further along the border wire to Fort Capuzzo. Elements of the 21st Panzer and the Savona divisions manned these defences whilst Rommel kept the rest of his forces grouped near or around the Tobruk perimeter where a planned attack on 14 November had been put back to 24 November due to supply difficulties.[11] Axis initial air support consisted of about 120 German and 200 Italian serviceable planes, but these could be reinforced quickly by transfer of additional units from Greece and Italy.


Eighth Army battle plan

The plan was to engage the Afrika Korps with the 7th Armoured Division while the South African Division covered their left flank. Meanwhile, on their right, XIII Corps, supported by 4th Armoured Brigade (detached from 7th Armoured Division), would make a clockwise flanking advance west of Sidi Omar and hold position threatening the rear of the line of Axis defensive strongpoints which ran east from Sidi Omar to the coast at Halfaya. Central to the plan was the destruction of the Axis armour by 7th Armoured Division to allow the relatively lightly armoured XIII Corps to advance north to Bardia on the coast whilst XXX Corps continued northwest to Tobruk and link with a planned breakout by 70th Division.

There was also a deception plan which used every means to persuade the Axis 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 it came.[12]

Eighth Army advances

Before dawn on 18 November, Eighth Army launched a surprise attack, advancing west from its base at Mersa Matruh and crossing the Libyan border near Fort Maddalena, some 50 miles (80 km) south of Sidi Omar, and then pushing to the northwest. Eighth Army were relying on the Desert Air Force to provide them with two clear days without serious air opposition but torrential rain and storms the night before the offensive resulted in the cancellation of all the air-raids planned to interdict the Axis airfields and destroy their aircraft on the ground.[13] However, initially all went well for the Allies. 7th Armoured division's 7th Armoured Brigade advanced northwest towards Tobruk with 22nd Armoured Brigade to their left. XIII Corps and New Zealand Division made its flanking advance with 4th Armoured Brigade on its left and 4th Indian Division's 7th Infantry Brigade on its right flank at Sidi Omar. On the first day no resistance was encountered as Eighth Army closed on the enemy positions.

On the morning of 19 November the advance of the 22nd Armoured Brigade was blunted by the Ariete Division at Bir el Gubi which continued to take a major toll of British armour in the opening phase of the battle.[14] In the division's center 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group raced forward almost to within sight of Tobruk and took Sidi Rezegh airfield while on the right flank 4th Armoured Brigade came into contact that evening with a force of 60 tanks supported by 88 mm gun batteries and anti-tank units[15] from 21st Panzer Division (which had been moving south from Gambut) and became heavily engaged.[16]

On 20 November 22nd Armoured Brigade fought a second engagement with the Ariete Division and 7th Armoured Brigade repulsed an infantry counter-attack by the 90th Light and Bologna Divisions at Sidi Rezegh. 4th Armoured Brigade fought a second engagement with 21st Panzer pitting their Stuart tanks' greater speed against the enemy's heavier guns.

Eighth Army were fortunate at this time that 15th Panzer Division had been ordered to Sidi Azeiz where there was no British armour to engage. However, 4th Armoured Brigade soon started to receive intelligence that the two German Panzer divisions were linking up. 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 and defeat the Afrika Korps armour. However, by attaching 4th Armoured Brigade to XIII Corps, allowing 22nd Armoured Brigade to be sidetracked fighting the Ariete Division and letting 7th Armoured Brigade to forge towards Tobruk, his armoured force was by this time hopelessly dispersed. 22nd Armoured Brigade were therefore disengaged from the Ariete and ordered to move east and support 4th Armoured Brigade (while infantry and artillery elements of 1st South African Division were to hold the Ariete) and 4th Armoured were released from their role of defending XIII Corps' flank.[17]

In the afternoon of 20 November 4th Armoured were engaged with 15th Panzer Division (21st Panzer having temporarily withdrawn for lack of fuel and ammunition). It was too late in the day for a decisive action but 4th Armoured nevertheless lost some 40 tanks and by this time were down to less than two-thirds their original strength of 164 tanks. 22nd Armoured arrived at dusk, too late to have an impact, and during the night of the 20th Rommel pulled all his tanks northwest for an attack on Sidi Rezegh.[17]

Tobruk garrison joins the attack

Eighth Army plans for 21 November were for 70 Division to break out from Tobruk and cut the German lines of communication and supply to the troops on the border to the southeast. At the same time 7th Armoured would advance from Sidi Rezegh to link with them and roll up the Axis positions around Tobruk. Meanwhile, XIII Corps' New Zealand Division would take advantage of the receding threat from 21st and 15th Panzer and advance 30 miles (48 km) northeast to the Sidi Azeiz area, overlooking the Axis defences at Bardia.

The strength of 70th Division's attack surprised their opponents, Rommel having underestimated the garrison's size and particularly its armoured strength. Fighting was intense as the three pronged attack, consisting of the 2nd King's Own on the right flank, the 2nd Battalion, Black Watch as the central force and the 2nd Queen's Own on the left flank, advanced to capture a series of prepared strongpoints leading to Ed Duda.[18] By mid afternoon they had advanced some 3.5 miles (5.6 km) towards Ed Duda on the main supply road when they paused as it became clear that 7th Armoured would not link up.[19] The central attack by the Black Watch involved a murderous charge under heavy machine gun fire, attacking and taking various strongpoints, until they reached the strongpoint code named Tiger. The Black Watch lost an estimated 200 men and their commanding officer.[18] On 22 November General Scobie ordered the position to be consolidated and the corridor widened in the hope that Eighth Army would link up. The 2nd York and Lancaster Regiment, with tank support, took strongpoint Tiger leaving a 7000 yard gap between the corridor and Ed Duda. On 26 November Scobie ordered a successful attack on the Ed Duda ridge and in the early morning hours of 27 November the Tobruk garrison had linked up with a small force of New Zealanders.[18]

A German account of the action of the 70th Division is given by Generalmajor Alfred Toppe of the German Wehrmacht:

A strong attack supported by fifty infantry tanks, was made from the southeast section of the fortress of Tobruk. The enemy broke through the encirclement front, penetrated across the main highway and destroyed a good part of the Bologna Division. A counterattack by elements of 21st Panzer Division succeeded in restoring the situation.[20]

In summing up the experience of the 2nd Battalion the Black Watch in the attack, the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War wrote that "The superlative élan of the Black Watch in the attack had been equalled by the remarkable persistence of the defence in the face of formidable tank-and-infantry pressure."[21]

7th Armoured had planned its attack northward to Tobruk to start at 08.30 on 21 November. However, at 07.45 patrols reported the arrival from the southeast of a mass of enemy armour, some 200 tanks in all. 7th Armoured Brigade, together with a battery of field artillery turned to meet this threat leaving the four companies of infantry and the artillery of the Support Group to carry through the attack to the north in anticipation of being reinforced by 5th South African Infantry Brigade which had been detached from the 1st South African Division at Bir el Gubi facing the Ariete Division and was heading north to join them.[22]

Without armoured support the northward attack by the Support Group failed and by the end of the day, 7th Armoured Brigade had lost all but 28 of its 160 tanks and were relying by that time mainly on the artillery of the Support Group to hold the enemy at arm's length. The South African brigade meanwhile were dug in southeast of Bir el Haiad but had the German armour between them and Sidi Rezegh. However, by the evening of 21 November 4th Armoured Brigade was 8 miles (13 km) south east of Sidi Rezegh and 22nd Armoured Brigade were in contact with the German armour at Bir el Haiad, some 12 miles (19 km) southwest of Sidi Rezegh.[23]

7th Armoured Division defeated at Sidi Rezegh

Overnight Rommel once again split his forces with 21st Panzer taking up a defensive position alongside the Afrika Division between Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk and 15th Panzer moving 15 miles (24 km) west to Gasr el Arid to prepare for a battle of manoeuvre which General Cruewell believed would favour the Afrika Korps. This presented a clear opportunity for a breakthrough to Tobruk with the whole of 7th Armoured Division concentrated and facing only the weakened 21st Panzer. However, XXX Corps commander Norrie, aware that 7th Armoured division was down to 200 tanks decided on caution. Instead, in the early afternoon Rommel attacked Sidi Rezegh with 21st Panzer and captured the airfield. Fighting was desperate and gallant: for his actions during these two days of fighting Brigadier Jock Campbell, commanding 7th Support Group, was awarded the Victoria Cross. However, 21st Panzer, despite being considerably weaker in armour, proved superior in its combined arms tactics, pushing 7th Armoured Division back with a further 50 tanks lost (mainly from 22nd Brigade).[24]

The fighting at Sidi Rezegh continued through 22 November, with South African Division's 5th Brigade by that time engaged to the south of the airfield. An attempt to recapture it failed and the Axis counter-offensive began to gain momentum. 7th Armoured Brigade withdrew with all but four of their 150 tanks out of commission or destroyed.[25] In four days the Eighth Army had lost 530 tanks against Axis losses of about 100.[26]

In the meantime the Italian forces had succeeded in repulsing a strong thrust from Tobruk aimed at penetrating into the area of Sidi Rezegh, as a German narrative recorded:[27]

After a sudden artillery concentration the garrison of Fortress Tobruk, supported by sixty tanks, made an attack on the direction of Bel Hamid at noon, intending at long last unite with the main offence group. The Italian siege front around the fortress tried to offer a defence in the confusion but was forced to relinquish numerous strong points in the encirclement front about Bir Bu Assaten to superior enemy forces. The Italian "Pavia" Division was committed for a counterattack and managed to seal off the enemy breakthrough.

XIII Corps isolate the Axis strongpoints on the Egyptian border

On the XIII Corps front 22 November saw the New Zealand Division's 5th Brigade spread right and advance northeast to capture Fort Capuzzo on the main Sollum to Bardia Road.[28] The Brigade's attack on Bir Ghirba, south of Fort Capuzzo and the headquarters of the Savona Division, however, was not successful. Radio Rome reported:[29]

On the Solum front, fierce attacks launched by three enemy divisions against positions held by the Savona division have been smashed by the iron-like resistance of our troops. The attackers suffered further bloody losses and failed to achieve any success. More than twenty tanks were destroyed and many others were hit.

Meanwhile, to the south, 7th Indian Brigade captured the Sidi Omar and most of the Libyan Omar strongpoints, the two westernmost strongpoints of the Axis border defensive positions but attrition in its supporting tank units made further attacks on the other strongpoints impractical until replacement tanks could arrive.[30]

One of the New Zealand military unit’s historians described the fighting days as the 7th Indian Brigade’s most difficult, with the men of the 4/16th Punjab Battalion having "fought all morning to overcome resistance" and the German 12th Oasis Company having "formed the backbone of the defence of the whole position".[31]

Another version of the fighting is given in Information Bulletin Number 11, U.S. War Department. This says:

All Italians captured between 22 November and 23 November in the Omars belonged to the Savona Division and were reported to be tougher on the whole and better disciplined than the Italians of the Trento Division captured in December 1940 and June 1941. The prisoners were a well-clothed, well-disciplined group, who had put up a good fight and knew it. The 6 German and 52 Italian officers, as well as the 37 German technicians, were very bitter about their capture and would not speak.[32]

On 23 November 5th NZ Brigade continued its advance southeast down the main road from Fort Capuzzo towards Sollum and completed the cutting off of the Axis Sidi Omar - Sollum - Halfaya positions from Bardia and its supply route. Meanwhile, 6th NZ Brigade Group on the Division's left flank at Bir el Hariga had been ordered northwest along the Trigh Capuzzo (the track leading from Capuzzo to El Adem) to provide assistance to the hard-pressed 7th Armoured Division at Sidi Rezegh.[33] They arrived at Bir el Chleta, some 15 miles (24 km) east of Sidi Rezagh, at first light on 23 November where they were delayed by a sharp firefight having stumbled on the Afrika Korps headquarters. The HQ was wrecked and most of its staff captured, although Cruewell himself had not been present at the time. As a result, no supplies got through to either panzer division on that day.[34]

Later in the day the 4th NZ Brigade Group were also sent westward but north of 6th NZ Brigade to apply pressure on Tobruk itself, while 5th NZ Brigade remained covering Bardia and the Sollum / Halfaya positions.

Rommel's dash to the Egyptian border

On 23 November Rommel gathered his two panzer divisions in a co-ordinated attack with the Ariete Armoured Division to cut off and destroy the rest of XXX Corps. In this he was somewhat optimistic but in the pocket were the remains of 7th Armoured Division, 5th South African Infantry Brigade and elements of the recently arrived 6th NZ Brigade. There was desperate fighting with heavy losses on both sides.[35] By the end of the day 5th SA Brigade was destroyed and what remained of the defending force broke out of the pocket, heading south towards Bir el Gubi[35] Following his success at Sidi Rezegh the Italian supreme command (Comando Supremo) in Rome agreed to put the Italian XX Mobile Corps, including the Ariete Armoured and the Trieste Motorised Divisions, under Rommel's direct orders.[36]

Rommel considered how to exploit his success, bearing in mind that after the battle the Afrika Korps had only 40 tanks ready to be committed.[37] He decided that his first priority, now the immediate threat of Tobruk being relieved had passed, was to reimpose himself on the border positions. On 24 November the Afrika Korps and Ariete division headed at speed for Sidi Omar, causing chaos and scattering the mainly rear echelon support units in their path, splitting XXX Corps and almost cutting XIII Corps off.

Having reached the border area Rommel planned to attack and surround the considerable forces he mistakenly thought were investing the Axis border strongholds. This grand stroke, which he believed would effectively bring Eighth Army's fighting capability to an end, was probably an error. Further thrusts towards Eighth Army HQ and its main supply dumps and the Desert Airforce's main air strips would probably have yielded better results.[38]

On 25 November 15th Panzer set off northeast in the direction of Sidi Azeiz to discover only thin air rather than massed formations investing the northern side of the border positions. They had however, been found by the Desert Air Force and were constantly harried by them. South of the border 21st Panzer's 5th Panzer Regiment attacked 7th Indian Brigade's positions at Sidi Omar and were repulsed by the 25 pounder artillery of the 1st Field Regt RA, firing over open sights at a range of 500 metres (547 yd). A second attack resulted in 5th Panzer virtually ceasing to exist by the end of the day.[39] The rest of 21st Panzer had headed north east, south of the border, to Halfaya.

By the evening of 25 November 15th Panzer were west of Sidi Azeiz (where 5th NZ Brigade was headquartered) and down to 53 tanks, practically the entire remaining tank strength of the Afrika Korps.[40]

However, the Axis column was now very exposed and supply became a huge problem as its main supply dumps were on the coast between Bardia and Tobruk and supply convoys had to find a way past the 4th and 6th NZ Brigade Groups. On 26 November 15th Panzer, bypassing Sidi Azeiz headed for Bardia to resupply, arriving around midday. Meanwhile the remains of 21st Panzer attacked northwest from Halfaya towards Capuzzo and Bardia[41] and the Ariete Division who were approaching Bir Ghirba (15 miles (24 km) northeast of Sidi Omar) from the west, were ordered towards Fort Capuzzo to clear any opposition and link with 21st Panzer. They were to be supported by 15th Panzer's depleted 115th Infantry Regiment which was ordered to advance with some artillery southeast from Bardia towards Fort Capuzzo.[42]

The two battalions of 5th NZ Brigade positioned between Fort Capuzzo and Sollum Barracks were engaged by the converging elements of 15th and 21st Panzer at dusk on 26 November. During the night 115th Regiment got to within 800 yards (732 m) of Capuzzo but was disengaged to switch their attack towards Upper Sollum to meet 21st Panzer coming from the south.

In the early hours of 27 November Rommel met with Walter Neumann-Silkow and Johann von Ravenstein, the commanders of 15th and 21st Panzer at Bardia. It was becoming increasingly pressing for Afrika Korps to return to the Tobruk front where the 70th and New Zealand Divisions had gained the initiative but Rommel was still determined to resolve the fighting on the border. He accepted that 21st Panzer was no longer strong enough to make an offensive impact and ordered the division to head to Tobruk. The orders he gave to 15th Panzer were to attack on a broad front the enemy forces he still thought were besieging the border positions between Fort Capuzzo and Sidi Omar. 15th Panzer would first have to capture Sidi Azeiz to provide space for this ambitious manoeuvre. Neumann-Silkow, however, felt the plan had little chance of success and resolved to advance to Sidi Azeiz (where he believed there was a major British supply dump) before heading to Tobruk.[43]

Defending the 5th Brigade HQ at Sidi Azeiz was a company of its 22nd Infantry battalion and 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. Rommel was present to congratulate Brigadier James Hargest on the determined conduct of his men's defence. Some 700 prisoners were taken although the armoured cars escaped.[44]

Meanwhile, 21st Panzer while heading west to Tobruk from Bardia had run into 5th NZ Brigade's 22nd battalion at Bir el Menastir and after an exchange lasting most of the day had been forced to detour south via Sidi Azeiz, delaying their return to Tobruk by a day.[45]

By early afternoon it became clear to Eighth Army HQ through radio intercepts that both Afrika Korps divisions were heading west to Tobruk, as indeed were the Ariete Division on their left.[46] The audacious manoeuvre by Afrika Korps had failed, but only just, having (unknowingly) come within four miles of Eighth Army's main supply base.[47]

A group of Sikh soldiers from the British Indian Army during the operation.

XIII Corps profit from the redeployment of the Axis armour

The dash of the Afrika Korps to the south removed a severe threat to the New Zealand Division's left flank (although they had not been aware of the threat because in the confusion of the battle news of 7th Armoured Division's losses had not reached XIII Corps and German tank losses had been wildly over-estimated). The New Zealand Division became engaged in heavy fighting with elements of the Afrika, Trieste, Bologna and Pavia divisions, advancing west to re-take Sidi Rezegh airfield and the overlooking positions to the north leading to Tobruk. 70 Division's offensive was resumed on 26 November and by 27 November elements had linked with the advancing New Zealanders of 4th NZ Brigade at Ed Duda on the Tobruk by-pass road and 6th NZ Brigade had finally cleared the Sidi Rezegh escarpment after taking heavy casualties.[48]

Afrika Korps returns to the Tobruk fighting

At midday on 27 November 15th Panzer reached Bir el Chleta and came into head-on contact with the reorganised 22nd Armoured Brigade (now a composite regiment of under 50 tanks). By mid afternoon 22nd Armoured were under pressure but holding and 4th Armoured Brigade, with 70 tanks, had arrived on the 15th Panzer's left flank having dashed over 20 miles (32 km) northeast cross country and was causing confusion in the panzer division's rear echelons. The panzer division was also suffering heavy casualties from bombing.[46]

As night fell the British tanks disengaged to replenish but inexplicably moved south to do this, leaving the route west open for 15th Panzer. Once again the New Zealand Division, engaged in heavy fighting on the southeast end of the tenuous corridor into Tobruk, would be under direct threat from the Afrika Korps.[49]

Cunningham is replaced

By 27 November, things were therefore once more looking better for Eighth Army: XXX Corps had more or less got itself reorganised after the chaos of the breakthrough and the New Zealand Division had linked up with the Tobruk garrison.

Auchinleck had spent three days during the period of the breakthrough at Cunningham's headquarters. Cunningham had wanted to halt the offensive and withdraw but Auchinleck had handed Cunningham written orders on 25 November which included the sentence "...There is only one order, Attack and Pursue"[50] On returning to Cairo on 26 November, after conferring with his superiors, Auchinleck relieved Cunningham and appointed to command Eighth Army his deputy Chief of Staff, Major-General Neil Ritchie, whom he now promoted to Lieutenant-General.

Rommel plans to surround NZ Division

On the night of 27 November Rommel had discussed with Cruewell plans for the next day indicating that his priority was to cut the Tobruk corridor and destroy the enemy forces fighting there. Cruewell, however, was concerned by the threat of the 7th Armoured Division tanks to the south and felt this needed attention first. 15th Panzer spent most of 28 November once more engaged with 4th and 22nd Armoured, and dealing with supply problems. Despite being outnumbered by two to one in tanks and at times immobile because of lack of fuel, 15th Panzer succeeded in pushing the British tank force back southwards while itself moving west.[51]

Fierce fighting continued through 28 November around the Tobruk corridor with the battle ebbing and flowing. It had not been possible to create a firm communications link between 70th and the New Zealand Divisions making coordination between the two somewhat rudimentary. When two Italian motorized battalions of Bersaglieri together with supporting tanks, anti-tank guns and artillery moved towards Sidi Rezegh, they overran a New Zealand field hospital. The Bersaglieri captured 1,000 patients and 700 medical staff.[52] The New Zealand Official History mentions the capture of 1000 patients and implies that they were captured by Germans:

The cooks were preparing the evening meal in the grouped MDSs on 28 November when over the eastern ridge of the wadi appeared German tracked troop-carrying vehicles, from which sprang men in slate-grey uniforms and kneeboots, armed with tommy guns, rifles, and machine guns. ‘They're Jerries!’ echoed many as the German infantrymen ran down into the wadi and, as if to show that they did not intend to be trifled with, fired a few bullets into the sand.[53]

On the night of 28 November Rommel rejected Cruewell's plan for a direct advance towards Tobruk (having had no success with head-on attacks on Tobruk during all the months of the siege). He decided on a circling movement to attack Ed Duda from the southwest and carry on through to cut off the enemy forces outside the Tobruk perimeter and destroy them.[54]

On the morning of 29 November 15th Panzer set off west travelling south of Sidi Rezegh. The remnants of 21st Panzer were supposed to be moving up on their right to form a pincer but were in disarray when von Ravenstein failed to return from a reconnaissance that morning, having been captured. In the afternoon, to the east of Sidi Rezegh, the 21st Battalion of New Zealanders was overrun on the much contested Point 175 by elements of the Ariete Division.[55] The New Zealanders were caught wrong-footed, having mistaken the attackers for reinforcements from the 1st South African Brigade which had been due to arrive from the southwest to reinforce XIII Corps.[56]

According to Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Kippenberger who later rose to command the New Zealand 2nd Division:

About 5.30 p.m. damned Italian Motorized Division (Ariete) turned up. They passed with five tanks leading, twenty following, and a huge column of transport and guns, and rolled straight over our infantry on Pt. 175.[57]

The 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.[58] The New Zealanders suffered heavily in the attacks: 880 dead, 1,699 wounded, 2,042 captured.[citation needed]

Meanwhile the leading elements of 15th Panzer 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 (914 m) to form a new position.[59]

During 29 November the two British Armoured Brigades were strangely passive. 1st SA Brigade were to all intents and purposes 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 1st SA Brigade was placed under command of 2nd New Zealand Division and ordered to advance north to recapture Point 175. Meanwhile, radio intercepts had given Eighth Army to believe that 21st Panzer and Ariete were in trouble and Lieutenant-General Ritchie ordered 7th Armoured Division to "stick to them like hell".[60]

Following the resistance at Ed Dedu Rommel decided to withdraw 15th Panzer to Bir Bu Creimisa, 5 miles (8 km) to the south, and relaunch his attack northeast from there on 30 November aiming between Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed while leaving Ed Dedu outside his encircling pocket. By mid afternoon 6th NZ Brigade were being heavily pressed on the western end of the Sidi Rezegh position. The weakened 24th Battalion was overrun as were two companies of 26th Battalion although on the eastern flank of the position 25th Battalion repelled an attack from the Ariete moving from Point 175.[61]

At 06.15 on 1 December 15 Panzer renewed their attack towards Belhamed supported by a massive artillery effort and once again the New Zealand Division came under intense pressure. During the morning 7th Armoured Division were ordered to advance to provide direct assistance. 4th Armoured Brigade arrived at Belhamed and may have had the opportunity for a decisive intervention since they outnumbered the 40 or so 15th Panzer Division tanks attacking the position. However, they believed their orders were to cover the withdrawal of the remains of 6th NZ Brigade and precluded an offensive operation.[62]

The remains of 2nd NZ Division were now concentrated near Zaafran, five miles east of Belhamed and slightly further northeast of Sidi Rezegh. During the morning of 1 December Freyberg commanding 2nd New Zealand Division saw a signal from Eighth Army indicating that the South African Brigade were now to be under command of 7th Armoured Division. He drew the inference that Army HQ had given up hope of holding the Tobruk corridor and signalled mid-morning that without the South Africans his position would be untenable and that he was planning a withdrawal. Orders were issued by Freyberg to be ready to move east at 17.30. 15th Panzer, which had been resupplying, renewed its attack at 16.30 and the New Zealanders became involved in a desperate fighting withdrawal from its western positions. Nevertheless, the division, showing admirable discipline, was formed up by 17.30 and having paused an hour for the tanks and artillery to join them from the west set off at 18.45. They reached the XXX Corps lines with little further interruption and in the early hours the 3,500 men and 700 vehicles which had emerged were heading back to Egypt.[63]

Rommel tries again to relieve the Sollum positions

Once again Rommel became concerned with the cut off units in the border strongpoints and on 2 December, believing that he had won the battle at Tobruk,[64] he sent the Geissler Advance Guard and the Knabe Advanced Guard battalion groups to open the routes to Bardia and to Capuzzo and thence Sollum. On 3 December the Geissler Advance Guard were heavily defeated by elements of 5th NZ Brigade on the Bardia road at near Menastir. To the south the Knabe force at the same time fared slightly better on the main track to Capuzzo (Trigh Capuzzo), coming up against Goldforce (based on the Central India Horse reconnaissance regiment) and retiring after an artillery exchange.[65]

Rommel insisted once again on trying to relieve the frontier forts. All Afrika Korps tanks were undergoing overhaul, so he ordered the rest of 15th Panzer and the Italian Mobile Corps eastwards on 4 December which caused considerable alarm at Eighth Army HQ. However, Rommel soon realised he could not deal with the situation at Tobruk and also send a strong force east and the Ariete went no further rhan Gasr el Arid.

Ed Duda is held

On 4 December Rommel launched a renewed attack on Ed Duda which was repulsed by 70th Division's 14th Infantry Brigade. When it was clear that the attack would fail Rommel resolved to withdraw from the eastern perimeter of Tobruk to allow him to concentrate his strength against the growing threat from XXX Corps to the south.

Eighth Army commits reserves to XXX Corps

Following the withdrawal of 2nd NZ Division Ritchie had reorganised his rear echelon units to release to the front line 4th Indian Infantry Division's 5th and 11th Brigades as well as 22nd Guards Brigade. By 4 December 11 Indian Brigade was heavily engaged in action against a strongpoint near Bir el Gubi, some 25 miles south of Ed Duda. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Italian 136th "Giovani Fascisti" Regiment from this hilltop position successfully fought off repeated attacks by the British armour and Indian infantry units during the first week of December. One British historian reports:[66]

Although Norrie had an overwhelming superiority in every arm in the area of Bir Gubi, the failure to concentrate them and co-ordinate the action of all arms in detail had allowed one Italian battalion group to frustrate the action of his whole corps and inflict heavy casualties on one brigade.

Once again the Allied infantry were exposed to a possible armoured attack as Army HQ had ordered Norrie to send 4th Armoured Brigade east to cover against the developing threat to Bardia and Sollum.[67]

On 5 December 11 Indian Brigade continued in its attritional grind against point 174. As dusk approached the Afrika Korps, its 49 tanks back in action, intervened to relieve the Young Fascist garrison at point 174 and cause mayhem in 11th Indian Brigade. Cruewell was unaware that 4th Armoured Brigade, now with 126 tanks, was over 20 miles (32 km) away and he withdrew to the west. The Indian Brigade was broken and had to be withdrawn to refit and arrangements made to bring 22nd Guards Brigade into their place.[67]

Cruewell still had the opportunity to strike a heavy blow on 6 December as 4th Armoured Brigade made no move to close up to 22nd Guards Brigade. However, he hesitated until too late in the day and was unable to strike a conclusive blow before dark. By 7 December 4 Armoured Brigade had closed up and the opportunity lost. Worse, 15th Panzer's skilful commander, Neumann-Silkow was mortally wounded late on the 6th.[68]

Axis withdraws to the Gazala position

On 7 December 4 Armoured Brigade engaged 15th Panzer disabling 11 more of its dwindling tank supply. Rommel had been told on 5 December by the Italian Comando Supremo that supply could not improve until the end of the month when the airborn supply from Sicily would start. Realising that success was now unlikely at Bir el Gubi he 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.[69] He placed Italian X Corps at the coastal end of the line and Italian XXI Corps inland. The weakened Italian Mobile Corps anchored the southern end of the line at Alem Hamza while the Afrika Korps were placed behind the southern flank ready to counterattack.[70]

Tobruk had finally been relieved on 10 December after a nineteen day battle.

Eighth Army reorganises

In the hope of getting better coordination between his infantry and armour, Ritchie transferred 7th Armoured Division to XIII Corps and directed XXX Corps HQ to take South African 2nd Division under command and conduct a siege of the border fortresses. He also sent forward to XIII Corps the 4th Indian Infantry Division and 5th NZ Infantry Brigade.[70]

Eighth Army attacks the Gazala line

Damaged Panzer IIIs at Belhamed, 16 December 1941.

Eighth Army launched its attack on the Gazala line on 13 December. 5th NZ Brigade attacked along an eight mile front from the coast while 5th Indian Infantry Brigade made a flanking attack at Alem Hamza. Although the Trieste Division successfully held Alem Hamza, 1st battalion The Buffs from 5th Indian Infantry succeeded in taking point 204, some miles west of Alem Hamza. They were thus left in a vulnerable salient and 7th Indian Infantry Brigade to their left were ordered to send northwards 4th battalion 11th Sikh Regiment, supported by guns from 25th Field Regiment and 12 Valentine tanks from 8th Royal Tank Regiment, to ease their position.[71] This force found itself confronted by the Afrika Korps fielding 39 tanks together with 300 lorries of infantry and guns.[71] Once again the 7th Armoured Division were not in place to intervene and it was left to the force's artillery and supporting tanks to face the threat. Taking heavy casualties they nevertheless managed to knock out fifteen German tanks and stall the counterattack.[72]

Godwin-Austen ordered Gott to get the British armour to a position where it could engage the Afrika Korps unaware that Gott and his senior commanders were no longer confident they could defeat the enemy directly, despite their superiority in numbers, because of the Germans' superior tactics and anti-tank artillery, favoured making a wide detour to attack the enemy's soft-skinned elements and lines of supply to immobilise them.[73]

On 14 December the Polish Independent 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 taking the defenders by surprise. The two brigades made good progress but narrowly failed to breach the line.[74]

Meanwhile on 14 December, to the south, there was little activity from the Afrika Korps and 7th Indian Infantry Brigade were limited to patrolling through shortage of ammunition as supply problems multiplied.[75] At Alem Hamza 5th Indian Brigade renewed their attack but made no progress against determined defence and at Point 204 5th Indian Brigade's battalion of the Royal East Kent Regiment ("The Buffs"), supported by ten I tanks, an armoured car squadron of the Central India Horse, a company of Bombay Sappers and Miners and the artillery of 31st Field Regiment and elements of 73rd Anti-Tank Regiment and some anti-aircraft guns,[76] were attacked by ten or twelve tanks, the remnants of the Ariete Armoured Division, which they beat off.

Rommel considered Point 204 a key position and so great part of the available neighbouring armoured and infantry units were committed to attack it on 15 December and in fierce and determined fighting the attacking force spearheaded by Mark III and Mark IV panzers supported by artillery and the 115th Lorried Infantry Regiment overran The Buffs and its supporting elements during the afternoon. The Buffs lost over 1,000 men killed or captured with only 71 men and a battery of field artillery escaping.[77] Fortunately for the rest of 5th Indian Brigade it was by then too late in the day for the attacking force to collect itself and advance further to intervene at Alem Hamza.[78] 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 losses sustained.[77] In the meantime a mixed force of Italian infantry, tanks and anti-tank guns was also active in the area of Sidi Breghisc, claiming over 300 prisoners.[52]

By 15 December Afrika Korps were down to eight working tanks, although the Ariete still had some 30. Rommel, who had greater respect for the capabilities of 7th Armoured at this time than either Cruewell (or apparently even Gott), became very concerned about a perceived flanking move to the south by the British armour. Despite the vehement objections of the Italian generals as well as Cruewell he ordered an evacuation of the Gazala line on the night of the 15th.[79] The Brescia Division covered the Axis withdrawal.

British armour misses an opportunity

By the afternoon of 15 December 4th Armoured Brigade, having looped round to the south, was at Bir Halegh el Eleba, some 30 miles (48 km) northwest of Alem Hamza and ideally placed both to strike at the rear of the Afrika Korps and advance north to cut Panzer Group Afrika's main lines of communication along the coast, which Godwin-Austen was urging them to do. However, early on 16 December only a small detachment was sent north (which caused serious confusion among Panzer Group Afrika's rear echelon but was not decisive) while the rest of the brigade headed south to meet its petrol supplies. In the afternoon 15th Panzer moving west were able to pass by 4th Armoured's rear and block any return move to the north. While the mere presence of the British armour had tipped Rommel's hand to withdraw from Gazala, the opportunity to gain a decisive victory had been missed.[80]


Rommel conversing with his staff near El Agheila, January 12, 1942.

Auchinleck's determination and Ritchie's aggressiveness had removed the Axis threat to Egypt and the Suez Canal for the time being.

Over the following ten days Rommel's forces withdrew to a line between Ajedabia and El Haseia, maintaining his lines of communication and avoiding being cut off and surrounded as the Italians had been the previous year. As his lines of supply shortened and supplies to El Agheila improved he was able to rebuild his tank force while correspondingly the Eighth Army lines of supply became more and more stretched. On 27 December he was able in a three day tank battle at El Haseia to inflict heavy damage on the 22nd Armoured Brigade forcing the leading echelons of Eighth Army to withdraw. This allowed the Axis forces to fall back to a tactically more desirable defensive line at El Agheila during the first two weeks of January without having to deal with pressure from the enemy.[81]

However, Rommel had failed to relieve the isolated German-Italian strongholds on the Libya–Egypt border and the 7,000 strong garrison at Bardia surrendered on 2 January 1942 after an attack by 2nd South African Division. Sollum fell to the South Africans on 12 January after a small fiercely fought engagement. This completed the surrounding 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 any potential seaborne supply. The 5,000 defenders were already desperately short of food and water and after this had to rely on meagre supplies from air drops. 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 forced a capitulation on 17 January.[82]

On 21 January Rommel launched from El Agheila a surprise counter-attack. Although the action had originally been a "reconnaissance in force", finding the Eighth Army forward elements to be dispersed and tired, in his typical manner he took advantage of the situation and drove Eighth Army 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 reorganized.

While it may have proved a limited success, Operation Crusader showed Rommel's Afrika Korps could be beaten and is a fine illustration of the dynamic, back and forth fighting which characterized the North African Campaign.

See also


  1. ^ XXX Corps had 477 tanks available, XIII Corps 135 tanks available and the Tobruk garrison a further 126. 339 of their tanks were various cruiser models, with 210 of them being the latest A15 Crusader. 201 of the total number of tanks were Infantry tanks, the vast majoirty being Matilda II's. 173 of the total were M3 Stuarts and the remaining 25 were other various light tanks.[3]
  2. ^ 650 planes (550 serviceable) were based within Egypt and the remaining 74 (66 serviceable) were based in Malta.[4]
  3. ^ 65,000 German soldiers and 54,000 Italian.[2]
  4. ^ 70x Panzer II, 139x Panzer III, 35x Panzer IV L/24 and 146 Fiat M13/40.[3]
  5. ^ 260 German (15x Panzer I, 40x Panzer II, 150 Panzer III, 55x Panzer IV L/24) and 154 Italian tanks.[5]
  6. ^ There was a potential axis servicable reserve of 750 aircraft based within Tripolitania, Sicily, Sardinia, Greece and Crete but excluding transport aircraft, aircraft based within mainland Italy or part of the Italian Navy.[4]
  7. ^ 2,900 killed, 7,300 wounded and 7,500 missing. Casualties have been rounded by source due to underlying flaws with primary source data but cover all the serious fighting of November, December and the first half of January.[2]
  8. ^ Liddel-Hart states that while British tank losses during the operation were heavy, large numbers of tanks were able to be recovered and repaired as a result of Rommel's retreat leaving only 278 tanks permanently lost.[7]
  9. ^ 14,600 German casualties broken down as follows: 1,100 killed, 3,400 wounded and 10,100 missing. 23,700 Italian casualties broken down as follows: 1,200 killed, 2,700 wounded and 19,800 missing. Casualties have been rounded by source due to underlying flaws with primary source data but cover all the serious fighting of November, December and the first half of January.[2]
  10. ^ Editorial comment made by Liddle Hart, he states this figure includes both German and Italian tank losses.[9]
  11. ^ "From 18th November to 20th January the Germans in Libya lost, according to their own records, at least 232 aircraft from all causes, and the Italians at least 100. The totals must in fact must have been higher, for on the airfields and landing-grounds from Gambut to Benina no fewer than 228 German and as many Italian aircraft were found abandoned in various states of disrepair..."[8]
  12. ^ 650 planes (550 serviceable) were based within Egypt and the remaining 74 (66 serviceable) were based in Malta.[4]
  1. ^ Jaroslav Hrbek and Vít Smetana: Draze zaplacená svoboda I, Paseka Praha 2009 p. 117 (czech)
  2. ^ a b c d Playfair, p. 97.
  3. ^ a b Playfair, p. 30.
  4. ^ a b c Playfair, p. 15.
  5. ^ The Rommel Papers, p. 156 (Chapter written by Fritz Bayerlein).
  6. ^ Playfair, p. 100
  7. ^ The Rommel Papers, p. 178 (editorial comment by Liddel-Hart).
  8. ^ a b Playfair, p. 99
  9. ^ The Rommel Papers, p. 178 (editorial comment made by Liddle-Hart)
  10. ^ Taylor 1974, p. 86
  11. ^ Clifford, p. 123
  12. ^ Hunt (1990), pp. 72–73
  13. ^ Clifford, p. 127
  14. ^ French, p.219
  15. ^ Toppe, p.A-8-3
  16. ^ Clifford, pp. 130–133
  17. ^ a b Murphy & Fairbrother pp. 88-90
  18. ^ a b c Maughan, pp. 439-442
  19. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 91-93
  20. ^ Toppe, Alfred Annexe 8 p. A-8-6
  21. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p.93
  22. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 96
  23. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 98
  24. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 103-105
  25. ^ Clifford, pp. 142-144
  26. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 108
  27. ^ Toppe, p. A-8-8
  28. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 119
  29. ^ The New York Times, Thursday 27 November 1941
  30. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 124-127
  31. ^ Murphy & fairbrother, p. 214
  32. ^ U.S. Military Intelligence Service (15 April 1942). "Information Bulletin No. 11, U.S. War Department". The Battle of the Omars. Lonesentry.com. p. 41. http://www.lonesentry.com/battleoftheomars/section3.html. Retrieved 2008-04-14. 
  33. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 136-137
  34. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 151
  35. ^ a b Toppe, pp.A-8-7 to A-8-8
  36. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 203
  37. ^ Toppe, p.A-8-9
  38. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 298
  39. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 299
  40. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 304
  41. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, Chapter 18
  42. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 325
  43. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 330-331
  44. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 336-340
  45. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 342
  46. ^ a b Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 354
  47. ^ Clifford, pp. 149-150
  48. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, Chapter 16
  49. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 355
  50. ^ Clifford, p.157
  51. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 367
  52. ^ a b "I Bersaglieri in Africa Settentrionale website" (in in Italian). 2003. http://digilander.libero.it/avantisavoiait/I%20Bersaglieri%20in%20Africa.htm. Retrieved 2008-04-08. 
  53. ^ McKinney (1952), p.168
  54. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 390
  55. ^ Kiwi veterans' website: The Western Desert Accessed 29 December 2007
  56. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 400-402
  57. ^ Kippenberger (1949), p. 101
  58. ^ Mason (1954), p.105
  59. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 406
  60. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 411
  61. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 418-422
  62. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 452
  63. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 458-464
  64. ^ See translation of Order of the Day published by Panzergruppe on 2 December 41 on the CRUSADER Project
  65. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 476-478
  66. ^ Gooch, p. 100
  67. ^ a b Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 479-480
  68. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 483
  69. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 484
  70. ^ a b Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 490
  71. ^ a b Mackenzie (1951), p.166
  72. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 495
  73. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 496
  74. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 497
  75. ^ Mackenzie (1951), p.167
  76. ^ Mackenzie (1951), p. 168
  77. ^ a b Mackenzie (1951), p. 169
  78. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 499-500
  79. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, p. 501
  80. ^ Murphy & Fairbrother, pp. 502-504
  81. ^ Toppe, p. A-8-15.
  82. ^ Clifford, pp. 219–21.


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