Here's What You Need to Know: The first armored battle of Operation Crusader was an Axis—more appropriately, an Italian—victory.
February 1941 saw the fortunes of war favor the British in the North African wasteland of Cyrenaica (modern Libya). Two months prior the Italian 10th Army, over 250,000 strong under Marshal Rodolfo Granziani, had been swept from the area sustaining 12,000 men killed and missing, another 130,000 captured, with the loss of 400 tanks, hundreds of aircraft, as well as 850 artillery pieces.
This crushing defeat had been inflicted by a Commonwealth force under the command of Lt. Gen. Richard N. O’Connor, numbering just 36,000 soldiers, 300 tanks, 190 aircraft, and 150 cannon. O’Connor’s loss had been under 2,000 men.
Anxious to save his ally Benito Mussolini from further humiliation, Adolf Hitler dispatched two German panzer divisions to North Africa under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel. By April 1941, Rommel had taken back the barren Cyrenaica, invested the port town of Tobruk with its Australian garrison, and driven the British forces, renamed the Eighth Army, back across the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. The British government was determined to reverse this unexpected setback.
Ordered to throw the Italian-German foe out of Libya, relieve Tobruk, and eventually conquer Algeria, thus erasing the presence of the Axis in North Africa, Eighth Army embarked on several fruitless counteroffensives in the spring of 1941. The first, Operation Brevity (May 15-17), after initial success, faltered from lack of strength to carry it through. The second effort, Operation Battleaxe, launched on June 15, was defeated two days later by a strong counterattack from the panzers of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.
As the British repaired over the Egyptian border to lick their wounds after Battleaxe, Prime Minister Winston Churchill urged his new Commander-in-Chief Middle East, General Sir Claude J.E. Auchinleck, to prepare another invasion of Libya. Churchill demanded an immediate attack. However, Auchinleck wanted to carefully build up his strength in order to bring as much military might as possible to bear next time Eighth Army met the enemy. The result was that despite unrelenting pressure from Churchill, the general, from July to November, refused to move while slowly and deliberately marshaling and reorganizing his resources and plotting his next move.
Auchinleck’s laborious summer and fall preparations were designed to initiate Britain’s decisive offensive in the Western Desert, codenamed Operation Crusader (also referred to as the Winter Battle). The C-in-C Middle East had decided, in keeping with the aim of recapturing the whole of Cyrenaica, that the immediate objective of the offensive would be to destroy the enemy’s armored forces. Toward that end, in September he instructed Eighth Army commander Lt. Gen. Sir Alan Cunningham to study two broad plans: one for an advance from Jarabub through Jalo to cut the enemy’s supply line in the vicinity of Benghazi, the other for a main thrust directly toward Tobruk with feint attacks in the south. Regardless of the line of advance chosen, Auchinleck specified that the British would carry out a general offensive into Libya in early November.
Responding to his chief’s directive, Cunningham rejected a drive for Benghazi by way of the desert flank. He felt that such a move might not induce the enemy to respond at all since his forward area supplies would make him independent of the need to draw logistical support from the threatened town. Further, the time and distance required to reach the Benghazi vicinity would cost the British the element of surprise, stretch the attacker’s supply lines, and limit friendly air power support the farther west the advance was made. Instead, Cunningham favored a direct move on Tobruk. This would allow British armor to stay concentrated, avoid extended and vulnerable lines of communication back to the Egyptian border, and assure a German reaction and the desired early tank battle since the Axis could not stand idly by while Tobruk was relieved. This plan was accepted in the first days of October.
The Preparations on Both Sides
Operationally, Cunningham planned to cross the frontier between Sidi Omar and Fort Maddalena. The main body of the British armored force would move northwest with the object of engaging the hostile armor near Tobruk, after which the siege would be raised in conjunction with a sortie by the garrison. Meanwhile, another force would contain and envelop enemy frontier troops and then go on to clear the area between Bardia and Tobruk. The 30th Corps, under Lt. Gen. Charles W. Norrie, held all three of the British armored brigades. It was tasked with the destruction of the enemy tank forces and preventing them from attacking the left flank of 13th Corps, the mainly infantry formation under Lt. Gen. Alfred Goodwin-Austin, which was to operate in the frontier area.
As a prelude to the decisive tank action, the British armored brigades, 4th Armored Brigade Group, 7th Armored Brigade, and 22nd Armored Brigade, all part of British 7th Armored Division under Maj. Gen. W.H.E. Gott, would use the first day of the offensive to move to Gabr Saleh, a central point about 30 miles west of Sidi Omar. From there they would march north to Tobruk or Bardia according to how the enemy reacted.
Axis tank units were known to be near Gambut, including the 15th Panzer Division; just west of Sidi Azeiz was the 21st Panzer Division; and at Bir el Gubi the Italian Ariete Armored Division. In addition, three Italian and one German infantry division closely invested Tobruk. The breakout from Tobruk was not to commence until the German-Italian armor had been defeated or otherwise been prevented from interfering with the attempt. When the latter had been accomplished, the garrison from Tobruk would capture the El Duda escarpment while 30th Corps took the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. Between these two ridges, situated south of Tobruk, ran the main enemy line of communication.
While the British completed their preparations, the Italian and German high commands agreed that possession of Tobruk was the essential prerequisite to any advance into Egypt and then on to the vital British-held Suez Canal. As his own supply situation slightly improved after September, Rommel planned to attack Tobruk during the third week of November 1941. Although observing the signs of the British military buildup across the border in Egypt, Marshal Ettore Bastico, head of all Axis forces in North Africa, and Rommel, in charge of the Axis operational formations, discounted any imminent enemy advance. But even if the Commonwealth forces did attack Rommel felt confident that his mobile units could successfully deal with that threat if carried out before his own offensive began, or even while Tobruk was being attacked.
Rommel came to believe in early November that his adversary would make some move to divert his attention away from Tobruk but that it would be a limited diversion designed to delay his own plans to capture the city. As a result of his mind-set about British intentions, not fully cognizant of the extent of the enemy buildup of men, tanks, and matériel, Rommel resolved to make no hasty response to any initial move by his opponent regardless of what it might be. However, the development of Eighth Army’s battle plan hinged largely on the enemy’s reactions. This curious mix of expectations on both sides would cause all British and German planning to become rapidly irrelevant during the first days of the Operation Crusader.
An Uneven Advance
The weekend of November 16-17, 1941, saw Cunningham’s command—100,000 men, 600 tanks, and 5,000 assorted other vehicles—rumble over the 130 miles from its main railhead in Egypt at Mersa Matruh to the Libyan-Egyptian border. This was done in a driving rainstorm, which turned the desert dust into liquid mud. From there Norrie’s 30th Corps on the 18th motored 60 additional miles to the area around Gabr Saleh, as planned, while 13th Corps curled around the fortified Axis posts on the frontier.
At dusk the several elements of the armored fist of Eighth Army leaguered near the following points: 7th Support Group, a mixed mobile infantry and artillery brigade, screening the front of 7th Armored Division, south and east of Gabr Saleh; 7th Armored Brigade about 10 miles to the northwest of Gabr Saleh; 22nd Armored Brigade 10 miles due south of Gabr Saleh; and 4th Armored Brigade Group 10 miles east of Gabr Saleh astride the Trigh el Abd. Forming a cordon of infantry behind 30th Corps running from south of the 22nd Armored Brigade to the coast just east at Sollum were the 1st South African, the New Zealand, and 4th Indian Infantry Divisions of 13th Corps tasked with first cutting off enemy troops on the Egyptian frontier, then advancing westward.
The approach march to the vicinity of Gabr Saleh on November 18 was relatively uneventful. At mid-morning the tank columns halted their procession to refuel. Meanwhile, various armored car platoons spearheading the advance of 7th and 4th Armored Brigades raced westward in search of the enemy. A number of these scouting parties reported their German counterparts from the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 21st Panzer Division just ahead covering the Trigh el Abd. Sporadic clashes occurred between the opposing armored car sections, but casualties were few. On the negative side of the ledger, an alarming number of tank breakdowns had occurred—7th Armored Brigade lost 22 of its original 141 tanks, while 22nd Brigade was reduced from 156 to 136.