Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala

Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala

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Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala

The Bir Hakeim box was the site of very heavy fighting during the Battle of Gazala, and saw a Free French garrison disrupt Rommel's plan of attack by holding out for fourteen days. Sadly their great efforts weren't rewarded with success, and the battle ended as a triumph from Rommel.

World War II: Battle of Gazala

The Battle of Gazala was fought May 26 to June 21, 1942, during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II (1939-1945). Despite having been thrown back in late 1941, General Erwin Rommel began pushing east across Libya early the following year. Responding, Allied forces constructed a fortified line at Gazala which extended south from the Mediterranean coast. On May 26, Rommel opened operations against this position by attempting to flank it from the south with the goal of trapping Allied forces near the coast. In nearly a month of fighting, Rommel was able to shatter the Gazala line and send the Allies retreating back into Egypt.

Battle of Gazala "Rommels Greatest Victory"

After the defeat in "Operation Crusader" in late 1941 the axis forces had retreated to a defensive line at "El Agheila" the British at the time assumed that Rommels DAK (Deutsches Afrika Korps) is behind fortifications now so British forces (8th Army) under General Sir Claude Auchinleck and Major General Neil Ritchie did not attacked instead they consolidated their positions also 8th army after advance of 800km had already overstretched it's supplies.

On 21st Jan 1942 Rommel sent out three armored reconnaissance columns but as Rommel was he grabbed the opportunity and turned it into an offensive and on 28th Jan he re-captured Benghazi and on 3rd Feb Timimi. After this British fell back to a line stretching from Gazala to Bir Hakeim.

Axis: Erwin Rommel aka "Desert Fox" and Ettore Bastico

Allies: Claude Auchinleck and Neil Ritchie

The allies overestimated the casualties they inflicted upon axis during OP Crusader. The allies thought total axis fighting strength is around 35,000 men where as in reality axis forces had total strength of 80,000 men (50,000 of whom were Germans rest Italians) and in total 560 tanks. The Allies on the other hand had over 100,000 men an 850 tanks and over 140 in reserve.

Afrika Korps (commanded by Lt. Gen Nehring) contained 15th Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Divison, the mobile elements of 90th Light Division and three Reconnaissance Battalions (Nos.3, 33 and 580).

XX Italian Corps contained the Ariete armoured and Trieste motorised divisions.

Group Cruewell was a largely infantry force and contained the X Italian Corps, XXI Italian Corps, the HQ of the XV German Lorried Infantry Brigade

Tanks at Rommels disposal

-251 Pz III's of which on 19 were armed with the long L/60 50mm Gun rest were old Pz III's.
-42 Pz IV armed with short barreled 75mm.
-50 Pz II's
-228 Italian tanks

-500 (not much info available on it)

Panzer III and Rommels command car during Gaza battles

British 8th Army responsible for operations in Libya was split into two corps XXX corps containing the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions.

XIII Corps containing 50th (Northumbrian) Division, 1st South Africa Division and 2nd South Africa Division.

-167 M3 Grant medium tanks
-149 M3 Stuart light tanks
-257 Crusader cruiser tanks
(Commanded by 1st and 7th Armored).
-166 Valentines and 110 Matilda IIs
(Under command of XIII Corps).

General Ritchie addressing his commanders, 31 May 1942
Rommel's Plan

Rommel planned to use Cruewell's infantry to launch a feint against the main Gazala line. Once this was well underway he would lead the Afrika Korps on an outflanking attack which would pass to the south of Bir Hakeim. While the XX Italian Corps dealt with Bir Hakeim, the German armour would swing north and advance behind the British front line towards Acroma, half way between Tobruk and the main Gazala Line. This would provoke a tank battle in which the Allied armour would be destroyed.

90th Light Division would be sent east through El Adem heading for the coast east of Tobruk, to prevent reinforcements reaching the port from Egypt (as had happened before the siege of Tobruk in the previous year). Rommel would then crush the defences of Tobruk before the defenders could prepare for another siege. The bulk of the Allied infantry would be trapped in the Gazala position, unable to interfere further east. The main strike force was given enough fuel for 482km and enough supplies for 96 hours of operations. Fresh supplies were to come along the Trigh Capuzzo and Trigh el Abd, two tracks that Rommel believed passed through the Gazala line between the northern boxes and the isolated garrison of Bir Hakeim. This was the biggest weakness in Rommel's plan – he was unaware of the existence of the 150th Brigade Group Box, which blocked these tracks.

Rommel's outflanking move was given the name Operation Venezia.

The Allies were depending on the Gazala Line to repel any Axis attack this line was a large minefield than ran south from the coast near Gazala for 69km. A series of defensive 'keeps' or 'boxes' had been built within the minefields, each intended to hold a brigade group and all of its supplies. A second line was under construction, running east frm Sidi Muftah to El Adem.

At 14:00 on 26 May, the Italian X and XXI Corps, after a heavy artillery concentration, launched a frontal attack on the central Gazala positions, beginning Unternemen Venezia (Operation Venice). Involving four Italian divisions and a German infantry brigade, they soon reached the Allied lines. Rommel's strike force formed up just to the south of Cruewell's attack, before late in the day it moved off to the south-east. The two Italian divisions (Trieste and Ariete) were on the left, the 90th Light Division on the right, and 15 Panzer and 21 Panzer in the centre. By the early morning of 27 May most of this force was in place to the south of Bir Hakeim, but the Trieste division got lost in the dark, veered off to the left and headed for the 150th Brigade Group box, as yet unknown to the Germans.

In the early hours of 27 May, Rommel led the elements of Panzerarmee Afrika, the(DAK), Italian XX Motorised Corps and the German 90th Light Afrika Division, in a bold flanking move around the southern end of the Allied line, using the British minefields to protect the Axis flank and rear.

The first clash came with the 3rd Indian Motorised Brigade, which was positioned to the south-east of Bir Hakeim. This was attacked by Ariete and 21 Panzer and scattered with the loss of 440 men. Ariete was then sent to attack the Bir Hakeim box. On the German right 90th Light ran into the 7th Motorised Brigade at Retma, 24km further to the east. The British managed to escape to the east, heading for Bir el Gubi, but leaving the route to El Adem unguarded. The first British response ended badly.

4th Armoured Brigade, which was posted to the north of 7th Motorised, attempted to help the Indians, but ended up exposed to a flank attack by 15 Panzer. This time the fighting was more even, and the 75mm armed Grant came as a nasty surprise to the Germans, but the 4th Armoured Brigade ended up retreating to the north-east. Another column from 15 Panzer had some luck, finding the HQ of the 7th Armoured Division at Bir Beuid (where it had originally been protected by the two Armoured Brigades), and captured Major-General Messervy, the divisional commander, and most of his staff but he later escaped.

As the Germans moved north, they kept running into fresh British armoured formations. Next was 22nd Armoured Brigade (1st Armoured Division), but this formation ran into both German panzer divisions and was forced to retreat after losing 30 tanks. As the retreating 22nd Armoured moved back towards the Knightsbridge position (a British administrative centre on the Trigh Capuzzo track), the pursuing Germans were attacked from the east by the 2nd Armoured Brigade and from the west by the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The main thrust towards Knightsbridge was held up by this opposition. One column from 15 Panzer, operating on the German right, reached Bir Lefa, on the track running east from Knightsbridge, and 90th Light Division continued to push towards El Adem, but elsewhere the Ariete attack on Bir Hakeim failed, and the precious supply convoys were missing. By the end of the day Rommel may have lost up to one third of his tanks, and he was running short of fuel and water.

On 28 May Rommel continued to push north. 21 Panzer reached Commonwealth Keep, a smaller British position near the top of the escarpment that overlooked the coast road. Ariete, following the Germans north, ran into 2nd Armoured Brigade at Bir el Harmat, to the south of Knightsbridge, and had the worst of a hard fought battle. 90th Light's attack on El Adem was foiled by the 4th Armoured Brigade. By the end of the day Rommel was dangerously short of supplies, and apparently isolated on the wrong side of the Gazala line. This would have been a good time for a British counterattack, but Ritchie decided to wait and see.

25-pounder field gun in action during the fighting in the 'Knightsbridge' area.

The overall plan was rash, and by accompanying the outflanking movement Rommel had cut himself off from his own Army HQ. His air support couldn't act, as they didn't know where their own forces were. Cruewell had no idea where his boss was.

BUT Rommel was also an inspirational leader. Late on 28 May he decided to concentrate his forces to the south-west of Knightsbridge, and he then left to try and find his supply convoys. During the night he found the vulnerable trucks, and personally led them north to bring vital supplies to the Afrika Korps.

Axis advance, opening of Operation Venice

The Bir Hakeim box was defended by the 1st Free French Brigade under Marie-Pierre Koenig. Italian tank battalion of the "Ariete" Division, stumbled in the French positions and launched a hasty attack, which was a costly failure against the French 75 mm guns and mines. But on 9 June reinforced with a further combat group, the Axis attacked Bir Hakeim again on 9 June and overran the defences by the following day. Under fire through the night, many of the French were able to find gaps in the line and made their way some 8 km to the west, to rendezvous with transport from the 7th Motor Brigade. About 2,700 troops (including 200 wounded) of the original garrison of 3,600 escaped and about 500 French troops, many of whom were wounded, were captured when the 90th Light Division occupied the position on 11 June.

Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala

29 May saw the start of a prolonged period of fighting in a shallow depression known as the 'Cauldron', between Knightsbridge and the 150th Brigade Group Box. despite some heavy fighting with 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades. An attempt by the Italian Sabratha Division to break through the Gazala Line was repulsed by 1st South African Division, so Rommel was still isolated. He also lost one of his most trusted subordinates. General Cruewell was captured when his aircraft flew over an unknown British position and shot down. By chance Kesselring was in Africa at the time, and he took temporary control of Cruewell's force.

Rommel now decided to change his plan. He would go onto the defensive on the eastern edge of the British minefields. His antitank guns would form a defensive line to deal with any British counterattack, while his engineers opened a line through the minefields. He would use that to resupply his panzers. The one problem with this plan was that Rommel had only now discovered the 150th Brigade Group Box, which sat exactly in his way.

By the morning of 30 May Rommel's engineers had made one narrow line through the minefields, and were thus in contact with the rest of his army. However this line ran just to the north of the 150th Brigade Box, and was under constant artillery fire. Further south Bir Hakeim still held out. Rommel decided to focus all of his offensive resources against the Box, while his guns fought off any British counterattack. This was the crisis of the battle. Rommel was running short of water once again, and admitted to one of his prisoners that if he didn't get any more then he might have to surrender. A major 8th Army counterattack at this stage might have been disastrous for Rommel, but Ritchie still failed to move.

"In the afternoon [30th May] I personally reconnoitred the possibilities for an attack on Got el Ualeb [the Sidi Muftah box] and detailed units of the Afrika Korps, 90th Light Division and the Italian Trieste Division for an assault on the British positions next morning. The attack was launched on the morning of the 31st May. German-Italian units fought their way forward yard by yard against the toughest British resistance imaginable.[. ] Nevertheless, by the time evening came we had penetrated a substantial distance into the British positions. On the following day the defenders were to receive their quietus. After heavy Stuka attacks, the infantry again surged forward against the British field positions.[. ] Piece by piece the elaborate British defences were won until by early afternoon the whole position was ours. The last British resistance was quenched. We took in all 3,000 prisoners and destroyed or captured 101 tanks and armoured cars, as well as 124 guns of all kinds." - Rommel

Acting on mistaken reports about German tank losses, Auchinleck strongly urged Ritchie to counter-attack along the coast, to exploit the absence of German tanks and break through to Timimi and then Mechili.

Finally on 5th June Ritchie ordered the Eighth Army to counter-attack against the Afrika Korps on 5 June but they were met by accurate fire from tank and anti-tank guns positioned in the cauldron. In the north, XIII Corps made no progress but the attack by 7th Armoured and 5th Indian divisions on the eastern flank of the cauldron at 02:50, initially went well. An important element of the plan was the destruction of the Axis anti-tank screen with an artillery bombardment but because of an error in plotting its position, the bombardment fell too far to the east. When the 22nd Armoured Brigade advanced, it was met by massed anti-tank fire and the advance was checked. The 32nd Army Tank Brigade advancing from the north, joined the attack at dawn but also ran into massed fire, losing fifty of seventy tanks. But failure was so severe that Rommel decided to launch his own counterattack later on the same day. This was much better handled – the British attackers were overrun, and the British lost around 6,000 men and 150 tanks.

On 11 June Rommel launched a two-pronged assault. 21 Panzer attacked in the north, heading east along Sidra Ridge. 15 Panzer and 90th Light were attacked in the south, heading east towards El Adem. On the British side General Norrie attempted to organise a counterattack, but General Messervy (who had escaped from his brief captivity) went missing on his way to the crucial planning conference and the attack never happened.

On 13 June, the 21st Panzer Division advanced from the west to join the battle, engaging the 22nd Armoured Brigade. The Afrika Korpsdemonstrated a superiority in tactics, combining tanks with anti-tank guns while on the offensive Rommel acted rapidly on intelligence obtained from Allied radio traffic intercepts. By the end of the day, the British tank strength had been reduced from 300 tanks to about 70 and the Afrika Korps had established armour superiority and a dominating line of positions, posing a severe threat to cutting off the XIII Corps units on the Gazala line. By the end of 13 June, the Knightsbridge box was virtually surrounded and it was abandoned by the Guards Brigade later that night. Due to these defeats, 13 June became known as "Black Saturday" to the Eighth Army.

On 14 June, Auchinleck authorised Ritchie to withdraw from the Gazala line. The defenders in the El Adem and two neighbouring boxes held firm and the 1st South African Division was able to withdraw along the coast road, practically intact. Ritchie wanted to withdraw all the way to the Egyptian border, accepting a second siege of Tobruk. Auchinleck didn't want another siege, and instead ordered Ritchie to hold a new line that ran south from Acroma (west of Tobruk), south-east to El Adem and then south to Bir el Gubi.

The retreat began fairly successfully. The 1st South African Division was back around Tobruk by the morning of 15 June. 50th Division managed a dramatic move that Rommel would have been proud of. Aware that the Germans now dominated the area to their east, General Ramsden decided to attack west, break a hole in the Italian line, then swing south, and follow Rommel's earlier route to the south of Bir Hakeim. By 0400 on 14 June the breakthrough had been completed, and the division turned south. They safely made it around Bir Hakeim, and then headed east across the desert. Around 96% of the troops involved in the breakout managed to reach the Egyptian frontier safely. Throughout the day, the defensive boxes at El Adem and Sidi Rezegh were also attacked by the Afrika Korps.

On 17 June, both were evacuated and any chance of preventing the encirclement of Tobruk vanished. Ritchie ordered the Eighth Army to withdraw to the defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, some 160 km east of the frontier, leaving Tobruk to hold out and threaten the Axis lines of communication, in much the same way as in 1941.

The fighting now moved to the Tobruk area. Ritchie and Auchinleck disagreed about what to do about Tobruk, with Ritchie willing to accept a second siege, and Auchinleck insistent that the new defensive line should include Tobruk. The Germans soon took the decision out of their hands.

On the night of 16/17 June General Norrie was forced to abandon El Adem, to the south of Tobruk. Late on 17 June the 4th Armoured Brigade had to withdraw from Sidi Rezegh, to the south-east of Tobruk. The port was now besieged for a second time, but this time it wouldn't hold out for any length of time.

On 20 June Rommel launched a full scale assault on the south-eastern side of the defences, and by the end of the day he was in the port. Early on 21 June General Klopper, the Allied commander in Tobruk, was forced to surrender.

35,000 Allied troops surrendered.

Tobruk had withstood a siege of nine months, before being relieved by Operation Crusader in December 1941. Allied leaders expected it to be able to hold out for two months with the supplies in the fortress.

-Hitler rewarded Rommel with a promotion to the rank of field-marshal, the youngest German officer ever to achieve this rank.
-With the capture of Tobruk, the Axis gained a port nearer the Aegean–Crete route and a large amount of British supplies.
-Auchinleck dismissed Ritchie on 25 June and assumed command of the Eighth Army.
-In August, Auchinleck was replaced as Eighth Army commander by the XIII Corps commander.

-Casualties amounted to 90,000 men (either killed, wounded or missing 32,000 captured)
-540 tanks (destroyed, damaged or captured)

-3360 men killed, captured or wounded. (I can't confirm the axis casualties a lot of conflicting reports.
-114 Tank destroyed, damaged or captured

Forgotten Fights: The Free French at Bir Hacheim, May 1942

The courageous Free French defense of the remote desert fortress of Bir Hacheim in May 1942 helped turn the tide of the war in North Africa.

Top Image: French Legionnaires in action, June 1942. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museums, E 13313.

One of WWII’s most stirring “Forgotten Fights” took place in May 1942 at the North African desert outpost of Bir Hacheim (also Bir Hakeim.) In this encounter, German and Italian forces under the command of Germany’s “Desert Fox,” General Erwin Rommel, faced off against Free French forces, including African colonial troops, under Brigadier General Marie-Pierre Koenig. The French fought hard for two weeks before finally giving way, allowing Rommel’s forces to continue their advance toward the Suez Canal. Even in tactical defeat, however, the French had won a significant strategic victory.

As May began, approximately 90,000 German and Italian troops, including 560 tanks, faced about 110,000 British, British imperial and allied troops and 840 tanks along the Gazala Line in Libya south and west of the important port of Tobruk. Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, commanding the British Eighth Army, deployed Koenig’s 4,000-man 1st Free French Brigade at the Gazala Line’s southern end, some forty miles deep in the Sahara Desert, at a desolate, crumbling old fort at Bir Hacheim.

Koening’s command was a hodgepodge, consisting of French Marines, Foreign Legionnaires, and soldiers from French African colonies such as Senegal, Madagascar, and what is now Central Africa. Though lacking tanks and much heavy equipment, Koenig’s men were tough warriors determined to prove their worth against a foe that had rolled triumphantly across mainland France just two years earlier. The Foreign Legionnaires included many refugees from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, equally determined to avenge the loss of their homelands.

On May 26, Rommel sent Italian forces in a frontal attack against the Gazala Line. But this was merely a feint. While the Italians demonstrated, the Desert Fox led the 15th and 21st Panzer divisions and the Italian Ariete armored division south into the desert, defeating British armored units and arriving before Bir Hacheim on May 27. Surmising that the French would be pushovers, Rommel continued onward with his German divisions and left the Italians to deal with Bir Hacheim. That, as it turned out, was a costly mistake.

Italian tankers, brave but operating flimsy, obsolete equipment, immediately assaulted the French positions. Although they penetrated the wire in some spots, however, Koenig’s well-dug in forces knocked out 32 tanks and drove off the attackers. Rommel meanwhile continued north, destroying other British outposts and completing the encirclement of Bir Hacheim.

Victorious in small unit actions but unable to entirely unhinge the Gazala Line, Rommel fumed at Koenig’s continued grim resistance at Bir Hacheim. When the Free French commander brushed off a surrender demand, Luftwaffe fighters and bombers began mercilessly bombing and strafing the tumbledown fortress. Rommel also ordered his artillery to pound the French positions, and, pulling back his German troops from their advanced posts further north, sent them and Italian infantry and tanks to attack Bir Hacheim day and night. Koenig’s Legionnaires had constructed their positions well, however, and despite growing shortages of ammunition, and especially water, the French held on.

By the end of the first week of June, Koening knew that his men were near the end of their tether and radioed for permission to break out of the encirclement and withdraw. That permission was denied, for the British, anticipating the final destruction of the Gazala Line, were preparing fall-back positions at El Alamein in Egypt. Koenig dutifully returned to the fight as his men, under constant bombardment in blazing heat and subsisting on thimblefuls of water, beat back one attack after another.

On the night of June 10-11, knowing that Bir Hacheim’s fall was imminent, Koenig ordered a breakout under cover of darkness. At first the French tried to withdraw in formation, but as the Germans discovered the movement the retreating garrison broke up into groups of a few men and individuals. Over the next couple of hours, they grappled the Germans and Italians in hand to hand combat. Incredibly, the majority of the surviving garrison broke out to safety. Just as incredibly, General Koenig was driven out of the fortress by Susan Travers, an Englishwoman assigned to the French medical detail as an ambulance driver. “It is a delightful feeling, going as fast as you can in the dark,” she later remembered. “My main concern was that the engine would stall.” Her bullet-riddled Ford safely carried the duo back into British lines. Travers would later be formally admitted to the Foreign Legion.

Rommel said of Bir Hacheim that, “seldom in Africa was I given such a hard fought struggle.” The courageous defense of the desert outpost seriously upset Rommel’s plans for victory in North Africa. Although he would shatter the Gazala Line and capture Tobruk, the British gained valuable time to prepare their defenses at El Alamein where, several months later, the tide of the war in Africa would finally turn.

The Battle of Gazala

The Battle of Gazala was fought in North Africa in 1942 and culminated with the Allies losing Tobruk – a defeat Winston Churchill called a “disgrace”. The Battle of Gazala came after there had been a lull in the war in North Africa from February to mid-May 1942. Erwin Rommel was keen to continue his campaign in the region while Churchill wanted his military commanders there to show a more offensive approach. The loss of Tobruk was a huge blow to the morale of the Allies and seemed to typify the different strategies shown in North Africa – Rommel’s willingness to go on the offensive and improvise his plans, compared to the conservative strategy adopted by Lieutenant-General Ritchie, commander of the 8th Army.

Rommel’s attack on Gazala came at an interesting time during the war. To all intents the Axis forces were doing well in mid-1942. Most of Europe was under Axis control, the Germans seemed to have recovered from their failure to capture Moscow and were developing their forces for a massive attack on Stalingrad. In the Far East, British and Indian forces were in retreat in Burma while the Japanese were consolidating their power in the huge region they had conquered.The war in the desert had been ongoing since June 1940 with neither side able to deliver a knockout blow. The terrain made a cohesive strategy nearly impossible as a victory was difficult to follow up. The sheer distance between each side’s headquarters in North Africa – 1,300 miles – gives some indication that communication was also a major issue. A campaign in the desert tended to go in fits and starts. The Afrika Korps was a poor cousin to the forces being readied for Operation Barbarossa in terms of the equipment they were given. Rommel had a constant battle getting OKW to supply him with enough fuel and modern equipment despite his apparent success there. In late-January 1942, Rommel had re-captured western Cyrenaica and had advanced his two divisions to within 26 miles of Gazala and 64 miles from Tobruk. The came a lull in fighting during which both sides reorganised their men and equipment. Little took place between late January and late May.

The success of the Axis forces may well have led their leaders to become overconfident. OKW believed that Rommel had the necessary forces to take Egypt and the Suez Canal. The value of the capture of such a target for the Germans was massive. The lull between January and May allowed for both forces to regroup. Churchill became a major critic of General Auchinleck (Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East) for his failure to be more aggressive. Churchill had his reasons for taking this stand. The Allies were not doing well against the Axis forces – and he needed a victory or at least signs of an aggressive campaign – to bolster Allied morale. There was also a real fear that Malta would be invaded.

Malta was a serious problem for the Germans. Their air force and U-boats were dominant in the western Mediterranean but the RAF bases in Malta and the naval force stationed there did a great amount of damage to the Germans attempt to supply the Afrika Korps in North Africa. Malta took a pounding from the air and was awarded the George Cross by George VI for the heroism shown by the whole population. However, by late Spring 1942, there was a real fear that the island would be invaded and that the Germans would have a near free-hand with regards to supplying the Afrika Korps. Hence why Churchill wanted Auchinleck to be more aggressive with regards to his strategy. In particular, Churchill wanted Cyrenaica retaken as planes from the RAF could use the air bases there to attack Axis shipping if Malta did fall.

Auchinleck did not share Churchill’s viewpoint – and many senior commanders in North Africa agreed with the ‘Auk’. If any Allied attack was to take place, Auchinleck believed that it should be well planned and the force involved well equipped for the attack. Such an attack would need time to prepare. This attitude put him on a collision course with Churchill who sent him a ‘comply or resign’ telegram. Auchinleck promised an offensive in June.

Ironically, Rommel faced a different problem. His superiors wanted him to be more cautious in his approach. OKW’s mind was no doubt on Barbarossa but on May 1st they did give Rommel permission to attack Tobruk when they realised that success here would greatly help ‘Operation Hercules’ – the planned invasion of Malta.

By the middle of May both sides were planning an offensive campaign – the British to recapture Cyrenaica and the Germans to capture Tobruk.

British forces in the region known as the Gazala Line numbered 100,000men. The 8th Army was led by Lieutenant-General Ritchie and was made up of the 13th Corps, led by Lt-General Gott, and the 30th Corps led by Lt-General Norrie. The 8th Army was served by 849 tanks, made up of Grants, Stuarts, Crusaders, Valentines and Matildas. Of 320 planes in the region, only 190 were in service. British forces in Gazala and Tobruk were protected by the Gazala Line – a massive defensive barrier that consisted of huge minefields (one extended for 43 miles inland from the coast) and a series of inland ‘keeps’ which housed a complete brigade. ‘Keeps’ or ‘boxes’ were designed to house a large number of men and equipment – the most important were at Bir Hakeim, which housed the Free French, and at Knightsbridge, which housed the 150th Brigade of the 50th (Northumberland) Division. On paper, the Gazala Line was a formidable defensive barrier. However, it had serious weaknesses. British planners assumed that Rommel would attack along the coast road. Therefore a disproportionate amount of men and equipment was held in the coastal region, at the expense of inland positions. The ‘keeps’ in particular had less artillery ammunition than they wanted. When some was ‘acquired’ from Tobruk for the ‘keeps’, senior officers ordered its immediate return to Tobruk. Rommel’s intelligence suggested quite clearly that the British strength in the south of the Gazala Line was not as strong as the British wanted to portray.

Rommel’s forces numbered 90,000 men. He had access to 560 tanks of which 332 were German and 228 were Italian. He also had available 497 serviceable planes.

Rommel attacked on May 26th 1942. He sent a decoy attack along the coastal route while he planned to send the majority of his force, his famed Panzer units, in a sweeping arc south and attack the Gazala Line primarily from the south and drive north to Tobruk. So confident was Rommel of success, that he only gave his armoured units food, water and fuel for four days – as he assumed that the battle would be over by the end of May 30th.

Rommel’s initial success nearly overwhelmed the British forces behind the Gazala Line. However, the Afrika Korps’ success had one major problem – Rommel’s armoured columns were so successful that they moved too far from their supply lines – primarily fuel. Whereas the British forces were in close proximity to their supplies. The superior armour that Rommel had access to (in terms of quality) could not work without fuel. The British M3 General Grant tank was well suited to the desert but inferior to the Panzer Mark III’s and VI’s, especially the III and VI Specials. However, in the second phase of the battle, these tanks had fuel supply problems whereas this was less of a problem for the Grants.

By May 28th, Rommel’s success was almost his downfall. His armoured units had moved too far from his fuel supplies. British Intelligence had also concluded that Rommel only had 250 tanks at his disposal to Ritchie’s 330 – quite a disparity.

On the night of May 28th, Rommel himself searched for his supply convoy. After he found it, he personally guided it to where his Panzer divisions were. Critics of Ritchie claim that if he had been more aggressive in his strategy he could have taken great advantage of Rommel’s precarious position. However, by the 29th, the time had passed.

Rommel was, by this time, in a better position in terms of supplies but he was not in a position to do what he wanted to do – attack and take Tobruk. Therefore, after a series of inconclusive battles on the 29th, Rommel decided to go on the defensive. He placed his armoured divisions within a formidable defensive barrier surrounded by feared 88-artillery. However, he had placed his forces near a huge British minefield and near the 150th Brigade Box – one of the heavily armed ‘keeps’ placed away from the coast that gave Ritchie a major military presence inland. By any standards, Rommel’s tactics were unconventional. The area in which he had placed his troops and vehicles was to be called the ‘cauldron’ for very good reasons.

German sappers worked tirelessly from May 29th to the 30th to clear a path through the minefield. Their success meant that Rommel could at least have a clear line with the Italians forces supporting him.

Though Rommel appeared to be in a better position, he himself recognised the fact that they were still in danger. When a POW, Major Archer-Shee complained to Rommel about water rations for POW’s, Rommel stated that POW’s were getting the same ration of water as men in the Afrika Korps – half-a-cup a day. Archer-Shee later stated that Rommel said:

“But I agree that we cannot go on like this. If we don’t get a convoy through tonight I shall have to ask General Ritchie for terms.”

The 8th Army did not exploit this vulnerability and only launched a major attack on Rommel on June 3rd, thus allowing the ‘Desert Fox’ to reorganise his forces. It was this perceived hesitancy by Ritchie that was to induce the anger of Winston Churchill.

In later years the Afrika Korps General Bayerlein claimed:

“We were in a really desperate situation, our backs against a minefield, no food, no water, no petrol, very little ammunition, no way through the mines for our convoys Bir Hakeim still holding out and preventing our supplies from the south. We were being attacked all the time from the air.”

While Ritchie decided on what the 8th Army should do, Rommel used the full might of the Afrika Korps to attack the 150th Brigade Box commanded by Brigadier Haydon based at Got-el-Ualeb. The 150th held out for 72 hours but finally succumbed on June 1st. The attack on the 150th Brigade Box was all-or-nothing for Rommel. If he lost the battle, he would have had little choice but to retreat. General Bayerlein admitted after the war:

“It all tuned on the 150th Box Brigade at ‘Got-el-Ualeb. If we had not taken it on June 1st, you would have captured the whole of the Afrika Korps.”

Why was the attack on the 150th so important? Victory meant that Rommel had secure supply lines for the first time in months. Fully equipped, he could select when to attack the 8th Army. Auchinleck advised Ritchie to launch an attack on Rommel’s position with due speed after June 1st if only to let the Afrika Korps know that the 8th Army was still a formidable fighting force. Auchinleck was also concerned that no action would allow Rommel too much time to consolidate his position.

“I view the destruction of the 150th Brigade Box and the consolidation by the enemy of a brad and deep wedge in the middle of your position with some misgiving.”Auchinleck

Severe desert sand storms meant that the 8th Army could do little on June 1st and 2nd. However, patrols sent out to hinder the Afrika Korps were successful. Sergeant Q. Smythe of the 1st South African Division won the Victoria Cross for action against the Germans in one such patrol. A major attack by the 8th Army against Rommel started on June 5th – ‘Operation Aberdeen’. Unfortunately it was poorly managed and coordinated and led to large scale losses in the 8th Army – 6,000 killed or wounded, 150 tanks lost and 4,000 POW’s. Tank units felt the full force of expertly placed German 88’s and without proper armoured cover, the infantry units that followed on suffered accordingly.

Rommel next turned his attention to the French based at Bir Hakeim. Short of supplies and attacked from the air by Stuka’s , the French, on the orders of Ritchie, withdrew on June 10th. With this success, Rommel had destroyed 50% of the Gazala Line. Just two days later, 30th Corps, with just 70 tanks remaining, was on the verge of collapse after being attacked by the Afrika Korps. With total control of the ‘Cauldron’ to the south of Tobruk, Rommel had control of the coastal road that led to Tobruk. By June 14th, Ritchie contemplated withdrawing to the Egyptian frontier to give the 8th Army time to reorganise. However, such a move would have made Tobruk very vulnerable. Auchinleck sent out an order from Cairo – “Tobruk must be held”. Ritchie decided to withdraw to a position that was meant to have protected Tobruk and the withdraw started on June 14th. Rommel was so confident of success as a result of the seeming disarray within the 8th Army that on June 15th he signalled:

Ritchie ordered that a defensive perimeter was to be put around Tobruk which extended out to 30 kms from the city. ‘Fortress Tobruk’ was placed under the command of Major-General H Klopper, commander of the 2nd South African Division. Klopper had at his disposal about 35,000 men and a total of 2,000 military vehicles of various types. Supplies of all sorts were designed to last for 3 months. However, Klopper also faced a number of serious problems. The Desert Air Force had moved to bases that were too far away from Tobruk to give it any form of air cover when the attack was to come from Rommel. Secondly, he had no modern anti-tank weapons at his disposal as he was primarily equipped with about 40 outclassed 2-pounders against Rommel’s tank force. His third serious problem was that there were very large gaps in the mine fields that surrounded Tobruk.

At 08.00 on June 20th, Rommel attacked Tobruk. By 10.00, the Afrika Korps had penetrated nearly 3 kms into the 30 kms perimeter put around Tobruk. Defensive positions crumpled and by 19.00 the XXI Panzers were actually in Tobruk. The capture of Tobruk had taken less than one day. Klopper formally surrendered to Rommel on the morning of June 21st and all fighting had ended by the end of that day.

Why did ‘Fortress Tobruk’ fall so quickly? The initial air onslaught followed by a massive mechanised attack did a great deal of damage in a very short space of time. News of the Afrika Korp’s success led to Klopper ordering the destruction of all his signaling equipment in his headquarters. Without this equipment, Klopper could not communicate with his subordinates. The breakdown in the chain of command was an undoubted assist to Rommel’s victory.

What did Rommel achieve? The capture of such a major North African base was a great psychological blow to the Allies. Rommel captured 2,000 tons of petrol, 5,000 tons of supplies and 2,000 serviceable military vehicles. he also had to take care of 33,000 POW’s. According to German records, the Afrika Korps lost 3,360 men but 300 of these were officers (70% of the officers who fought in the attack on Tobruk). Rommel himself was made a Field-Marshal by a delighted Hitler.

“This was one of the heaviest blows I can recall during the war. Not only were the military effects grim, but it affected the reputation of British arms…….Defeat is one thing disgrace is another.”

Ironically, the defeat did have some positives. It was to propel into the limelight Bernard Montgomery. The defeat also led to Roosevelt sending 250 new Sherman tanks to help out in the desert war.



With the capture of Tobruk, the Axis gained a port nearer the Aegean–Crete route and a large amount of British supplies. If the British could not stop the Germans in Egypt, they would take the Suez Canal (forcing Britain to use supply lines twice as long, often targeted by U-boats) and potentially drive for the oilfields in the Middle East. Hitler rewarded Rommel with a promotion to the rank of Field-Marshal, the youngest German officer ever to achieve this rank. [65] Rommel remarked he would have preferred Hitler had given him another panzer division instead. [66]

Auchinleck dismissed Ritchie on 25 June and assumed command of the Eighth Army through the First Battle of El Alamein, where he stopped Rommel's advance. [68] In August, Auchinleck was replaced as the Eighth Army commander by the XIII Corps commander, Lieutenant-General William Gott and as C-in-C Middle East Command by General Sir Harold Alexander. Gott was killed when his aircraft was shot down and Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed as his replacement. [69]


Subsequent operations

Panzerarmee Afrika began Unternehmung Aïda (Operation Aïda) an advance upon Egypt, while the Eighth Army fell back to El Alamein. Auchinleck decided not to hold Mersa Matruh, choosing to fight a delaying action with X and XIII corps. The Afrika Korps was delayed at 6,000 prisoners, forty tanks and a large quantity of supplies. [78] Auchinleck had ordered the bulk of the Eighth Army to retire another 160 kilometres (99 mi) to El Alamein, 100 kilometres (62 mi) from Alexandria. The retirements brought the Eighth Army closer to its base and the Qattara Depression, south of El Alamein closed the southern flank. The Allied and Axis forces fought the First Battle of El Alamein, the Battle of Alam el Halfa and the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein. Operation Agreement, a British landing at Tobruk during the night of 13/14 September, to rescue Allied prisoners, was a failure. [79]

The Battle of Gazala – Rommel’s Masterpiece

“It was only in the desert that the principles of armoured warfare as they were taught in theory before the war could be fully applied and thoroughly developed. It was only in the desert that real tank battles were fought by large-scale formations ” Erwin Rommel

The wide open spaces and lack of inhabited areas have always given desert warfare its own particular quality. In World War II, the campaigns fought in the coastal desert of Italian Libya had their own special importance for believers in the tank and in the blitzkrieg. They offered the chance of manoeuvre and the interplay of rapidly moving armoured forces almost in their purest form. It was in this arena that Erwin Rommel, perhaps the most famous of all the German generals of the war, earned his formidable reputation as a winner of armoured battles.

The battle that was fought south of Gazala in eastern Libya, between 26 May and 14 June 1942, is crucial in that it was Rommel’s greatest victory over the British Eighth Army. His German Afrika Korps, combined with substantial Italian elements, took on and decisively defeated British, Imperial, and Allied forces which were dug-in behind minefields in a strongly defended position. Furthermore, the Eighth Army had a narrow superiority in numbers of men, tanks, and guns. This might seem unexceptional, were it not that orthodox tactics required a 3:1 advantage to the attacker, which was precisely what Montgomery demanded before he attacked Rommel at El Alamein 6 months later. Seen in this light, Rommel’s victory was nothing less than miraculous. Yet it should also be remembered that it almost never came to pass, and that for 12 hours at the battle’s crisis it was Rommel who contemplated surrender.

The British Plans

The British Eighth Army was no easy opponent for Rommel. Not only had it tasted victory over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941, but it had also driven back an over-extended Afrika Korps to El Agheila in `Operation Crusader’ at the end of 1941. In May 1942 it was in position covering Tobruk (held by its 2nd South African Division), because it had been forced back there by Rommel’s outflanking manoeuvre in January. Yet Rommel had been compelled to halt before the apparently well-planned defences of the Gazala Line. Almost 60 miles of minefields (known as the `mine marsh’) stretched south from the coast to the fortress at Bir Hacheim, designed to protect the desert flank of Eighth Army from encirclement.

About 100,000 strong, the bulk of Eighth Army formations were concentrated into `boxes’, independent strongpoints combining infantry and artillery. In the north, there was the 1st South African Division, then the British 50th (Northumbrian) Division, stretching as far as the Sidi Muftah box in the centre of the position. A brigade-sized force of Free French under Major General Joseph Pierre Koenig held Bir Hacheim, yet 20 miles of mine marsh between these two boxes was left uncovered by artillery.

In addition, the British commander Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie had forgotten the lessons of the early desert war. While one of his successful predecessors, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor, had recognized the need to keep a deep cushion of reconnaissance forces between him and the enemy, Ritchie had almost all his infantry in the front line. His tank formations, 1st Armoured Division, and the famous 7th Armoured Division (the `Desert Rats’), were kept a little to the right rear of the main position, but they were not properly integrated into the defence and not capable of coordinating with the other arms to best effect. This was despite reforms instituted by the commander-in-chief in the Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck (known as The Auk’ to all). The `Crusader’ operation, although eventually successful, had proved the inflexibility of grouping armour and infantry in separate divisional formations, so Auchinleck broke them down into self-contained brigade groups with their own engineers and supporting artillery. By the start of the Gazala battle an armoured division was, theoretically at least, composed of an armoured brigade and two motorized infantry brigade groups, and the intention was to combine armour and anti¬ tank weapons in imitation of successful German tactics.

Yet the Eighth Army lacked the tactical doctrine to operate these novel formations effectively, and the infantry and armour were condemned to fight separate battles. Ritchie’s unimaginative deployment was matched by the clumsy command structure. The area north of the Trigh Capuzzo highway he designated as under XIII Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General William (`Strafer’) Gott. South of this line lay XXX Corps under Lieutenant General Baron Willoughby Norrie, who commanded troops in the boxes as well as the two armoured divisions, an unhappy arrangement further worsened by their scattered dispositions. Auchinleck advocated a concentration of armour centrally around the box code-named `Knightsbridge’, but Ritchie did not take this advice. Both British commanders were aware that a sweep around Eighth Army’s left or desert flank was a likely option but they were expecting an attack on the centre of their position along the Trigh Capuzzo.

The German Plans

The German attack was code-named `Operation Theseus’. Field Marshal Rommel’s plan, as expressed in his planning order of 1 May, was no less than the destruction of the enemy forces opposing him and the subsequent capture of Tobruk. This fortress had held out against an eight-month siege in 1941, and seizing it was crucial to the wider plan of Rommel’s attack upon Egypt. Axis forces numbered about 90,000, including 561 tanks, although 228 of these were of Italian manufacture, known to the British as `mobile coffins’. Rommel’s 333 German tanks, or Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw), included 220 PzKw IIIs, most of the rest being PzKw IVs with short-barrelled guns more effective in the infantry support role. There were also upgraded versions of both types, known as `Specials’, whose long 75-mm guns gave them greater penetration, but Rommel had only 4 PzKw IV Specials and 14 PzKw Specials at the beginning of the battle. This was important because it meant that the Germans did not have the decisive qualitative superiority in armour with which they have so often been credited. The British possessed an enormous numerical superiority in armour – 849 tanks – although only 167 were the new US-built M3 Grants, which carried a 75-mm gun and were superior to the PzKw Ills.

A crucial part of the Desert War was fought in the air. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring of the Luftwaffe, Rommel’s immediate superior, was acutely conscious of the need to keep the Panzerarmee supplied with petrol, food, and other necessities. In order to do this he directed an intensive bombing campaign against Malta, the British island base which threatened the Axis supply route from Naples to Tripoli. The results led to Kesselring prematurely declaring on 11 April that: `Malta as a naval base no longer demands consideration’. In the build-up to the Gazala battle, supplies reaching Rommel greatly increased. In January 1942, the Afrika Korps received 60,000 tons of fuel in April this had risen to 150,00 tons. Also, on 26 May, Kesselring was able to assemble some 260 aircraft to support Rommel’s attack. Against them, the British Desert Air Force could only muster 190 aircraft, and its US-built P-40 Kittyhawk and Hawker Hurricane fighters proved inferior to the new Messerschmitt Bf 109F. As a result, the Germans were able to maintain a considerable air superiority throughout the battle.

The Opening Moves

Rommel launched his attack on the afternoon of 26 May. Gruppe Cruewell under Lieutenant General Ludwig Cruewell, himself a former Afrika Korps commander, consisting of four Italian infantry divisions under X Corps and XXI Corps, attacked the British and South African positions north of the Trigh Capuzzo. This was a feint to persuade the enemy that Cruewell’s was the main point of attack.

In fact, Rommel was already leading 10,000 vehicles southeast. At about 9.00 p. m., on the pre-arranged codeword `Venezia’ (Venice), Rommel swung this force around Eighth Army’s southern flank. On the inside of the wheel were the Italian Trieste Motorized Division, then their Ariete Armoured Division, then the German mobile forces: 21st Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division, and, on the extreme right flank, 90th Light Division. The last named carried aircraft propellers to create more dust and convince the British that theirs was also a tank formation.

At 6.30 a. m. on 27 May the Ariete fell upon the surprised 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade and, although held up momentarily, dispersed it with the help of a few tanks from 21st Panzer Division. One hour later, 90th Light Division came into contact with the 7th Motorized Brigade (part of 7th African Division) was supposed to coordinate with 22nd Armoured Brigade’s 156 tanks, but this simply failed to happen because the infantry and armour had not trained together. In the north, an attack by 32nd Army Tank Brigade was struck in the flank by German panzers, and of the 70 Matilda and Valentine infantry tanks only 20 survived the attack.

On the afternoon of 5 June the Germans counter-attacked a pincer movement with 21st Panzer Division and Ariete in the north and 15th Panzer from the south. That evening, Major General Messervy’s headquarters was overrun again, and the Indian units’ command and control broke down completely 22nd Armoured Brigade was unable to provide any support, having already been withdrawn into leaguer for the night. It too had been severely handled, losing 60 tanks. The following day 15th Panzer struck through Bir el Harmat to close the line of retreat: 3,100 prisoners, 96 guns, and 37 anti-tank guns fell into German hands. Eighth Army had lost over half its cruiser tanks (down from 300 to 132), and 50 out of 70 infantry support tanks. Rommel’s assessment of the situation was that Ritchie had missed a great opportunity to form a Schwerpunkt (`critical point of an attack’) in front of 21st Panzer Division.

One area in which the British did enjoy success was in raids upon the German supply line. On 8 June, Italian positions were overrun by four troops from 8th Royal Tank Regiment supported by South African armoured car and reconnaissance units. On the same day an infantry column of 2nd Rifle Brigade destroyed over 40 lorries, 4 tanks, and 7 artillery pieces. Important though such moves were, they were no more than flea bites in comparison to the kind of response that was needed to hold Rommel in check. With the hapless British assault crushingly repulsed, he was able to turn his attention to the destruction of the isolated Free French at Bir Flacheim.

Crisis at Bir Hacheim

From 2 June to 9 June there were 1,300 German air attacks on the Bir Hacheim position, 120 on the last day alone. Rommel appreciated the difficulty of the task, since he considered the carefully prepared strongpoints within Bir Hacheim as `practically proof against air and artillery attacks’. Effective ground attacks began on 6 June, the day that Rommel broke out of `The Cauldron’, when two attacks by infantry with tank support were beaten off. On 8 June, 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division, combined with 15th Panzer Division and supported by heavy Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive- bombing attacks, eventually began to the crack the position – `the thorn in my side’, as Rommel described it. Attacks the next day left 250 Axis dead in front one defending battalion’s position alone. But by the end of 9 June it was apparent to Koenig that Bir Hacheim could no longer be held.

Still, Rommel was unwilling to try and overrun the position with tanks because of the heavy losses which he knew he would have to take. On 11 June, Koenig engineered a breakout which left only 500 men in German hands, although losses in equipment had been heavy. By holding on so determinedly the Free French had bought time for their Allies. Could this now be used to the best advantage? Although Rommel had turned Eighth Army’s flank, all was not lost for the British. They held a strong defensive position stretching from the original Gazala Line in its northern portion and along the Trigh Capuzzo from the Knightsbridge box over 20 miles east to Sidi Regezh. This was defended in depth, and behind lay the garrison of Tobruk, although crucially, the town’s fortifications had not been repaired since its recovery six months earlier. Also, the Afrika Korps had taken substantial damage. It was below half its original strength and some, infantry units were down to a third the Germans had 160 tanks and the Italians 70 tanks, although the Axis artillery was almost entirely intact, and was to be increased in strength by the large numbers of captured British guns which were distributed to its units.

The End of the Battle

For the next phase of the battle, Rommel was determined to repeat the medicine as before. Once more he intended the total destruction of the enemy. On the afternoon of 11 June, 90th Light Division moved south and leaguered for the night 7 miles south of El Adem, while 15th Panzer followed as far as Naduret el Bhesceuasc. The new British plan was to break through southeast to Bir el Gubi with 2nd Armoured Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, which would bring them upon the flank of 15th Panzer as it attacked El Adem. But the British armour was still forming up on 12 June when it was attacked from the north by 21st Panzer and Ariete and counter-attacked from the south by 15th Panzer. Although 22nd Armoured Brigade came to the assistance, it was severely mauled by German tanks. The other armoured brigades were then surrounded and destroyed. Although the figures are uncertain, it seems that on the morning of 12 June there were some 250 cruiser tanks and 80 infantry tanks available to the British by the next day these had been reduced to 50 and 30 respectively, with 4th Armoured Brigade having only 15 tanks, and 2nd and 22nd Armoured Brigades only 50 tanks between them.

On 12 June, Auchinleck flew up from Cairo to assume direct command from Ritchie, but he was too late to save the situation. Almost the only factor in Eighth Army’s favour was the extreme exhaustion of the German forces, whose attacks began to falter towards the end of 13 June. The Gazala Line had become untenable. Auchinleck drew up plans for a new defensive position, centred upon Acroma, to prevent the investment of Tobruk, and Eighth Army troops west of this line were effectively abandoned to the enemy. On the night of 14 June, the South Africans in the north of the original line fell back down the Via Balbia to Tobruk. Elements of 50th (Northumbrian) Division actually broke through the Italians opposing them and swung through the desert, escaping to Egypt. For the rest of the British forces, Tobruk provided an illusory refuge. They fell back in disorder to a position that had not been maintained to provide an effective defence. Unlike the previous year when the garrison had held out for eight months, the situation was to prove impossible, and by 21 June the town had fallen. Some 35,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including over 13,000 South Africans) were taken prisoner, together with huge amounts of guns, ammunition, and especially fuel essential to the Afrika Korps’ continued mobility.

After the Battle

Rommel’s plan had succeeded brilliantly. Although it had come near to failure on 29 May, and he himself had been prepared to surrender, Rommel was able to rescue the situation and inflict upon Eighth Army the most severe defeat it had ever suffered. His signal of 21 June epitomizes his style of command: Tor all troops of the Panzerarmee… Fortress of Tobruk has capitulated. All units will reassemble and prepare for further advance’. Five days later he was at El Alamein, the last-ditch defence line before Egypt – but that is another story. – Summer 1942 was the zenith of Rommel’s career in North Africa. He himself summed up why the British could not beat him by asking, `What is the advantage of enjoying overall superiority if you allow your enemy to smash your formations one after another your enemy who manages in single actions to concentrate superior forces at a decisive point?’ That was the essence of the kind of war he practised: blitzkrieg.

Bir Hakeim after the battle of Gazala - History

Bir Hakeim:
Seventy-Five Years Later
By Philippe Léonard
August 2017

A few weeks ago, the rocks and sand of a desolate place in the Libyan desert called Bir Hakeim probably throbbed in silence to mark seventy-five years since the guns roared there. In France, that particular celebration day was not forgotten, since Bir Hakeim has a deep meaning for French military prestige and history.

In the first days of June 1942, the southernmost fortified position of the Gazala line was stubbornly defended by a Free French brigade led by General Pierre Koenig against repeated German and Italian assaults. Impeding the supply route of Rommel&rsquos Army swirling around the Gazala line, the Free French had been re-armed by the British but still wielded their very own rag-tag collection of weapons and equipment.

The French resistance at Bir Hakeim truly was a question of honor. The disgrace of the 1940 defeat had to be erased in a heroic battle in order that France and the movement led by Charles de Gaulle would have a future. Determined to obtain such a result, the high morale French troops dug in at Bir Hakeim included tough Foreign Legion volunteers but also Tahitians, Moroccans and Africans, all united to restore the honor of their country.

The fortifications they built in the desert around some old Roman dry wells proved to be a tough nut to crack. The stronghold of Bir Hakeim stretched for about 16 square kilometers, an area centered on a crossroads of caravan routes. At the crossroads stood the ruins of three water tanks, now long buried by the desert sand, indicated by the French on their maps as &ldquoLes Mammelles&rdquo (&ldquoThe Tits&rdquo). The &ldquotits&rdquo stood near Height 186, the highest point of the field, connected by a ridge to the ruins of an old Turkish fort.

At the end of May 1942, after three months of heavy work, Bir Hakeim had been fully entrenched following the French Vauban fortress model. The walls were replaced by minefields and deeply dug-in trenches. Three gates allowed traffic in and out: one in the north-west near the &ldquotits&rdquo at the point of the &ldquoV&rdquo minefield a second in the south-west beside the ruins of the old Turkish fort and the third one in the east. The stronghold was surrounded by minefields and subsequently by a Marais (marsh) of mines that extended for 20 kilometers to the north almost to the 150th British Brigade box and to other directions for different depths, which came to more than two kilometers. To build minefields and marshes, 130,000 anti-tank landmines and 2,000 anti-personnel mines were used.

During the night of 10 to 11 of June, after several days of bitter fighting against Rommel&rsquos troops, the encircled French eventually decided to risk a sortie. This bold episode of Bren carriers, trucks and Legionnaires charging 20mm AA guns and brand-new MG 42s in the night has fueled French mythology ever since.

Mike Benninghof also has a story to tell about Bir Hakeim: "When I was in graduate school, Gunther Rothenberg sponsored me for my Fulbright scholarship even though I wasn't one of his students. I've always been grateful for that, and even though he always called me silly for becoming a wargame publisher instead of professional historian and berated me for wasting my talent on trivialities, I do still remember his kindness now that he's gone.

"Gunther was an escaped Jew from Berlin who volunteered to fight the Nazis despite having safely escaped to the United States. He first told me of the Jewish unit that was near Bir Hacheim at the time and overrun, and was rescued by the Legion. I&rsquom no longer sure whether Gunther was present himself, or had friends who were there and related the story to him."

The first time I&rsquove heard that story I must admit I found it a bit strange since no mention of Jewish troops is made in French recollections of the battle. However, François Milles, author of Des juifs dans le Désert (Jews in the Desert), indeed describes the hard fight of about 400 troops from the Zionist Jewish Brigade, which took place just to the north of Bir Hakeim. They had been deployed laying mines, and were caught by the Axis offensive without heavy weapons or many supplies. Led by Major Liebmann, these soldiers stoutly resisted Italian and German assaults and finally joined the French sortie on June 11.
However this story is often contested, especially on internet forums, since it is not very well documented, absent from General Koenig&rsquos memoir, and strangely located: the Jewish position is supposed to be near Bir-el-Harmat which is a long way to the north-east of Bir Hakeim. Since this story was rather intriguing, I decided to investigate further and what I found is rather interesting. Have a look at the following map of the Bir Hakeim area drawn just after the war.

It clearly appears from the map that Bir-el-Harmat is effectively very close to Bir Hakeim while another area, with a similar name (El Hamrah), is the location farther north, near « Knightsbridge » where most of the Gazala fighting between Panzer Armee Afrika and the British took place. It&rsquos very strange that most of the historical sources mistake one place for another.

In anyway, this simple map observation is a true gift to celebrate the Free French stand at Bir Hakeim alongside their brothers-in-arms from the Jewish Brigade.

Battle of Gazala - Battle - Rommel Makes A Flanking Attack

At 14:00 on 26 May, the Italian X and XXI Corps, after a heavy artillery concentration, launched a frontal attack on the central Gazala positions. For deception purposes small elements of the Afrika and XX Mobile Corps were attached to the assault groups to give the impression that all the Axis forces were committed to this assault. The deception was reinforced by further elements of the mobile units continuing to move north towards the point of attack. However, that evening, under cover of darkness, all the armoured and mobile elements returned to their concentration point at the southern end of the Gazala line.

In the early hours of 27 May, Rommel personally led the elements of Panzer Army Afrika — the Afrika Korps, the Italian XX Motorised Corps, and the German 90th Light Afrika Division — in a brilliant but risky flanking maneuver around the southern end of the Allied lines, trusting to the enemy's own minefields to protect his flank and rear.

Rommel's plan started to go wrong at Bir Hacheim. The Ariete and Trieste divisions of XX Motorized Corps and elements of 21st Panzer Division were held up for three hours by 7th Armoured Division's 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, dug in some four miles south east of Bir Hacheim and suffered heavy losses before overrunning them. The Bir Hacheim box, defended by the 1st Free French Brigade under Marie-Pierre Koenig, proved to be a bigger problem than Rommel had anticipated (see Battle of Bir Hakeim), and the Ariete failed to take the position while suffering heavy losses from the French 75 mm guns in the process.

Further to the east, the 15th Panzer Division had engaged 7th Armoured Division's 4th Armoured Brigade which had been ordered south to support the 3rd Indian and 7th Motorised Brigades, and inflicted heavy casualties but also took significant losses, surprised by the range and power of the 75 mm guns on the newly arrived Grant tanks. The 4th Armoured Brigade then withdrew towards El Adem and spent the night near the Belhamed supply base east of El Adem.

By late morning, the Axis armoured units had advanced more than 25 mi (40 km) north, but by midday their momentum had been blunted when they came into contact with and were held by 1st Armoured Division in heavy fighting which saw both sides taking losses.

On the far right of the Axis advance, the 90th Light Afrika Division had engaged the 7th Motorised Brigade at Retma and forced it to withdraw east towards Bir el Gubi. Resuming their advance towards El Adem the 90th Light mid-morning came upon the advanced HQ of 7th Armoured Division near Bir Beuid, dispersing it and capturing a number of key officers including the division's commander, Frank Messervy. However, he pretended to be a batman and escaped. Nevertheless, the disruption caused by this meant that the division was without effective command for the next two days.

As planned, 90th Light division reached the El Adem area by mid-morning and captured a number of supply bases. The Allies were slow to react but by afternoon there was stiff fighting. The following day however, 4th Armoured Brigade were sent to El Adem and the 90th Light were driven back to the south west.

The tank battle continued for three days and with Bir Hakeim holding out, the Panzer Army Afrika found itself trapped in a region known as "the Cauldron", with Bir Hakeim to the south, Tobruk to the north, and the extensive mine belts of the original Allied front line to the west, and assailed by Allied armour from the north and east. Rommel's supply position by the evening of 31 May was getting desperate. Tasked to defend the German rear, the Ariete Armoured Cavalry Division in the meantime fought off repeated attacks by the British armoured brigades on 29 May and during the first week of June.

From a German account of this action:

During the first ten days of our attack against the French the British had remained amazingly calm. The "Ariete" Division alone was attacked by them on 2 June, but it defended itself stubbornly. After a counterattack by the 21st Panzer Division the situation again there became quiet.

Read more about this topic: Battle Of Gazala, Battle

Famous quotes containing the word attack :

&ldquo We attack not only to hurt someone, to defeat him, but perhaps also simply to become conscious of our own strength. &rdquo
&mdashFriedrich Nietzsche (1844�)

Military conflicts similar to or like Battle of Bir Hakeim

Fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, west of the port of Tobruk in Libya, from 26 May to 21 June 1942. Axis troops of the Panzerarmee Afrika (Generaloberst Erwin Rommel) consisting of German and Italian units fought the British Eighth Army (General Sir Claude Auchinleck, also Commander-in-Chief Middle East) composed mainly of British Commonwealth, Indian and Free French troops. Wikipedia

Part of the Western Desert Campaign in Libya during the Second World War. Fought by Panzer Army Africa an Axis (German–Italian) military force in north Africa, which included the Afrika Korps, led by Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel) and forces from the United Kingdom, India, South Africa and Allied contingents in the British Eighth Army (General Neil Ritchie). Wikipedia

The Battle of Alam el Halfa took place between 30 August and 5 September 1942 south of El Alamein during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Envelopment of the British Eighth Army (Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery). Wikipedia

The main theatre in the North African campaign of the Second World War. Military operations began in June 1940 with the Italian declaration of war and the Italian invasion of Egypt from Libya in September. Wikipedia

In the Libyan desert at 31.6°N, 23.48333°W and is the site of a former Ottoman Empire fort built around the site of an ancient Roman well, dating to the period when the oasis was part of Ottoman Tripolitania. About 160 km west of Sollum on the Libyan coast and 80 km south-east of Gazala. Wikipedia

Fought from 26 to 29 June 1942, following the defeat of the Eighth Army at the Battle of Gazala and was part of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The Panzer Army Afrika , consisting of German and Italian units. Wikipedia

Timeline of events that occurred during World War II in 1942. 1942: January· February·March· April·May ·June·July·August· September· October·November·December Wikipedia

Battle of the Second World War that took place near the Egyptian railway halt of El Alamein. The First Battle of El Alamein and the Battle of Alam el Halfa had prevented the Axis from advancing further into Egypt. Wikipedia

Battle of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, fought in Egypt between Axis forces (Germany and Italy) of the Panzer Army Africa (Panzerarmee Afrika) (which included the Afrika Korps under Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Erwin Rommel) and Allied (British Imperial and Commonwealth) forces (Britain, British India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) of the Eighth Army (General Claude Auchinleck). The British prevented a second advance by the Axis forces into Egypt. Wikipedia

Series of battles that took place in Tunisia during the North African campaign of the Second World War, between Axis and Allied forces. The Allies consisted of British Imperial Forces, including a Greek contingent, with American and French corps. Wikipedia

German Generalfeldmarschall of the Luftwaffe during World War II who was subsequently convicted of war crimes. In a military career that spanned both world wars, Kesselring became one of Nazi Germany's most highly decorated commanders, being one of only 27 soldiers awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. Wikipedia

The Siege of Tobruk lasted for 241 days in 1941, after Axis forces advanced through Cyrenaica from El Agheila in Operation Sonnenblume against Allied forces in Libya, during the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) of the Second World War. In late 1940, the Allies had defeated the Italian 10th Army during Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941) and trapped the remnants at Beda Fomm. Wikipedia

The first large British military operation of the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) during the Second World War. British, Indian, Commonwealth and Allied forces attacked Italian forces of the 10th Army (Marshal Rodolfo Graziani) in western Egypt and Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya, from December 1940 to February 1941. Wikipedia

Brief engagement of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. It took place in December 1942 between Allied forces of the Eighth Army (General Bernard Montgomery) and the Axis forces of the German-Italian Panzer Army (Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel), during the long Axis withdrawal from El Alamein to Tunis. Wikipedia

1942 World War II military operation organised by the Abwehr under the command of the Hungarian desert explorer László Almásy. Conceived in order to assist Panzer Army Africa by delivering two German spies into British-held Egypt. Wikipedia

The name given to the dispatch of German troops to North Africa in February 1941, during the Second World War. The Italian 10th Army had been destroyed by the British, Commonwealth, Empire and Allied Western Desert Force attacks during Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941). Wikipedia

German fighter pilot and fighter ace who served during World War II in the Luftwaffe. Born on 24 October 1915 in Sachsen. Wikipedia

The First Battle of Bir el Gubi took place on 19 November 1941 near Bir el Gubi, Libya. One of the opening engagements of Operation Crusader and the first tank battle in North Africa where Italian armoured forces achieved a success, after their previous poor performance during Operation Compass. Wikipedia

Effort to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare, and largely at the initiative of the manufacturers. The first tank produced by France, and 400 units were built. Wikipedia

British Army offensive during the Second World War to raise the Siege of Tobruk and re-capture eastern Cyrenaica from German and Italian forces. The first time during the war that a significant German force fought on the defensive. Wikipedia

Series of battles of the Tunisia Campaign of World War II that took place in February 1943 at Kasserine Pass, a 2 mi gap in the Grand Dorsal chain of the Atlas Mountains in west central Tunisia. The Axis forces, led by Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, were primarily from the Afrika Korps Assault Group, elements of the Italian Centauro Armored Division and two Panzer divisions detached from the 5th Panzer Army, while the Allied forces consisted of the U.S. II Corps (Major General Lloyd Fredendall), the British 6th Armoured Division (Major-General Charles Keightley) and other parts of the First Army (Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson). Wikipedia

Limited offensive conducted in mid-May 1941, during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Intended to be a rapid blow against weak Axis front-line forces in the Sollum–Capuzzo–Bardia area of the border between Egypt and Libya. Wikipedia

The opening battle of Operation Compass, the first big British attack of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Attacked by British, Commonwealth and imperial troops, who re-captured the port. Wikipedia

Fighter wing of the Luftwaffe during World War II. Given the name "Africa" for serving in the North African Campaign predominantly alone in the period from April 1941 to September 1942. Wikipedia

Corps of the British Army during the Second World War. Formed in the Western Desert in September 1941. Wikipedia

Axis offensive operation in Tunisia from 26 February to 4 March 1943, during the Tunisia Campaign of the Second World War. Intended to gain control of Medjez el Bab, Béja, El Aroussa, Djebel Abiod and a position known as Hunt's Gap, between the British First Army and the Axis Army Group Africa . Wikipedia

The Battle of Gabon (French: Bataille du Gabon), also called the Gabon Campaign (Campagne du Gabon), occurred in November 1940 during World War II. The battle resulted in the Free French Forces taking the colony of Gabon and its capital, Libreville, from Vichy French forces. Wikipedia

Infantry division of the army of the Union of South Africa. During World War II the division served in East Africa from 1940 to 1941 and in the Western Desert Campaign from 1941 to 1942. Wikipedia

The rapid British advance during Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941) forced the Italian 10th Army to evacuate Cyrenaica, the eastern province of Libya. In late January, the British learned that the Italians were retreating along the Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia) from Benghazi. Wikipedia

Battle fought between 21 and 22 January 1941, as part of Operation Compass, the first offensive of the Western Desert Force in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. After defeating the Italians in the Battle of Bardia (3–5 January 1941), the 6th Australian Division and the 7th Armoured Division pressed on and made contact with the Italian garrison in Tobruk on 6 January. Wikipedia

Watch the video: 7AD Campaign. Chapter 2: End of the Beginning. 1: Rommel Strikes Back I - The Battle of Gazala