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Italian Libya. 5th Light Division has stopped in it’s tracks during the middle of a major
offensive. There’s no fuel, they can only mount defensive maneuvers. Their commander,
Streich, predicts he’ll need four days to refuel the division. Rommel has none of it.
He tells Streich to strip all vehicles he can spare and send them back for fuel. Thanks
to Rommel, instead of four days, the 5th Light Division is ready to move only 24 hours later.
Intro text It’s the 12th of February 1941. Rommel reaches
Tripoli and meets the new commander of the -shattered- Italian forces, General Gariboldi.
The British have just won a stunning victory, annihilating the Italian 10th Army during
Operation Compass, and there’s barely anything between them and the last Italian port at
Tripoli. Both Rommel and Gariboldi agree to hold Sirte, thinking that the British will
come forwards. Rommel throws elements of the German 5th “Light” motorized division
at Sirte, even before the whole unit arrives - such is the desperation and almost panic
on the Axis side. This was Rommel’s one and only chance to save Italian North Africa.
And yet, there’s no contact with the British. They never come forwards. Wavell, Commander
in Chief of the Middle East, is on the brink of total victory. Yet, what could have been
his, is now squarely in Rommel’s hands. And the opportunity for Wavell to remove Axis
forces from North Africa is missed... Because Churchill wants to go to Greece.
For Britain’s Prime Minister, Greece was more important, and priority of reinforcements
and resupply should go to Greece and not to the Western Desert. Wavell, who is about to
be fighting five different campaigns at the same time, is forced to concede to the Prime
Minister’s wishes and has no choice but to send everything he can spare away from
Libya. O’Connor abandons his plan to take Tripoli. He knows it’s unlikely that the
Italians can stop him, but it is never to be. By the time Rommel arrives, the Western
Desert Force is no longer. A new static HQ is set up - Cyrenaica Command - lead by General
Neame. 7th Armoured Division is cast throughout Egypt for rest and refit duties, and the 6th
Australian Division is sent to Greece. Effectively, in a blink of an eye, Churchill robs O’Connor
and Wavell of total victory. And through intelligence reports, Wavell knows the Germans are coming.
It’s the 1st of March. Rommel is an unknown. His forces are weak. And the might of the
British Empire stands before him. His goal is to prevent that Empire from crushing him.
And taking what’s left of Italian Libya. He concludes that there aren’t many British
units at the front and so decides to defend - not from Sirte - but from El Agheila, which
is currently held by the British. The marshes running south from the coast about 20 miles
west of El Agheila would provide better protection on the defense than Sirte. Rommel sends his
forces forwards, and the Germans occupy the Oasis of Marada on the 13th March whilst the
Italian Armoured Ariete Division moves East of Nofilia. Commanded by Major General Streich,
the German 5th Light Division is actually a new unit… formed from a cadre of troops
from the 3rd Panzer Division, veterans of the French campaign. Despite being a “Light”
division, it boasts 70 light and 80 medium tanks. It’s not really “light”.
And it’s certainly better than what the British have. Wavell has little choice but
to leave Cyrenaica in the hands of Cyrenaica Command and General Neame. In his youth, General
Neame won and is still to this day, the only person to ever win both a Victoria Cross and
an Olympic Gold Medal. But Neame is pessimistic about the entire situation. His HQ has a severe
lack of trained staff and is incapable of controlling mobile operations. Neame has the
difficult task of defending the whole of Cyrenaica with only one incomplete armoured formation.
2nd Armoured Division is commanded by General Gambier-Parry, except the Division isn’t
really a division. It only has one armoured brigade, the 3rd (commanded by Brigadier Remington),
and that only has two out of its three regiments in the area - the 5th Royal Tank Regiment,
armed with British light tanks, and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, armed with captured Italian
M11/39 tanks. Captured Italian tanks, whose performance was awful during Operation Compass.
2nd Armoured Division’s Support Group lead by Brigadier Latham is equally as poor. Split
up and nowhere near full-strength, it consists of only one motor battalion, one 25 pounder
regiment, an anti-tank battery and one machine gun company. So basically 2nd Armoured Division
isn’t an armoured formation and lacks equipment to make it even an effective fighting force.
Wavell isn’t happy with Neame’s pessimistic attitude, the terrain, or the strength of
the enemy reinforcements. He instructs Neame to fall back if attacked and try to preserve
his forces. Wavell gambles everything on the idea that the Germans won’t be able to attack
in strength before May. If he can delay long enough, he might be able to reinforce Cyrenaica.
Rommel suggests to Gariboldi that an all-out offensive against the British is a possibility.
He states his aims as reoccupying Cyrenaica and pushing on into Northwest Egypt. All with
the ultimate aim of taking the Suez canal. He sends plans for this offensive to the German
High Command. But the OKH see his plans as far too ambitious. Chief of the General Staff,
Franz Halder, dislikes Rommel, and urges caution and a defensive posture, which Rommel ultimately
accepts, much to the relief of Gariboldi. Gariboldi knows the Italians aren’t prepared
for war. A major offensive is out of the question, especially since the last one went so badly.
But it wouldn’t be down to him. On the 18th of March, Rommel guesses that the British
have no offensive capability and are perhaps even thinning out the front. He flies to Berlin,
and the OKH once again tell him to go slow. They suggest that the supply situation is
too weak to mount a major attack, but would allow a limited offensive to take the Agedabia
area. Once that battle is over, they would decide if Rommel was to move from there, onwards.
Rommel is also told that there are no more units to come after the 15th Panzer Division
is offloaded, except replacements for losses sustained in the campaign. Without reinforcements
and without the real support of his superiors, or his allies, Rommel is effectively on his own.
Frustrated, he’s back at his HQ on the 23rd of March, to witness the British withdrawing
from El Agheila. In the previous days, General Streich of 5th Light Division planned a reconnaissance
raid in force against the British-held Mersa Brega area. And when Rommel learns of the
plans he sanctions the raid, and also states that El Agheila is to be captured too. Getting
past the town would open the door to the Cyrenaica desert beyond and Rommel sees his chance.
The 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, with their 8 wheeled armoured cars fitted with 20mm cannon,
drive the British patrols from El Agheila, whose own armoured cars simply can’t hope
to match the Germans. 30th of March, Streich is ordered to take Mersa Brega the following
day. Rommel knows that if the British have time to dig in at Mersa Brega it would present
a formidable obstacle to any future advance. He knows he must take it now. Gariboldi reluctantly
approves Rommel’s plan, but forbids any advance beyond Mersa Brega, unless he gives
consent. So Rommel orders his units forwards towards Mersa Brega.
The battle begins. 31st of March, 10am. Mersa Brega. The cautious advance of 3rd Recon is
met by the British, and successfully resisted in the morning. But concerned that a prolonged
battle would wear out his men, Latham, commander of 2nd Armour’s Support Group asks for Remington’s
3rd Armoured Brigade to attack the German right flank. It’s the afternoon, and Gambier-Parry
doesn’t think there’s enough time to get his forces onto the offensive this day. And
so Remington’s Brigade doesn’t move. 5pm. Under Rommel’s direct leadership, the Germans
dive-bomb and then assault the British right flank. Latham and the Support Group hold their
positions all day, but it looks like they’ll be surrounded if they stay here. With no choice,
Latham orders a retreat and they fall back to a position southwest of Agedabia. The bottleneck
at El Agheila and Mersa Brega is taken and the British right flank is now open for Rommel
1st of April. “Attack, momentum, force”. Rommel faces a dilemma. The door to Cyrenaica is open,
but his orders forbid him from any further advance. Rommel turns to Streich, and asks
“When are we going to meet in Agedabia?”. Streich says “I don’t know - we’ll have
to see about that”. British air reconnaissance spots a large force of vehicles near El Agheila.
The Germans advance in two columns. 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, accompanied by 8th Motorized Machine
Gun Battalion and 5th Panzer Regiment, advance down the main coastal road. They have artillery
and anti-tank support. The 2nd Motorized Machine Gun Battalion and a Panzerjager unit attempt
to encircle the British from the south. Unfortunately, the second column is slowed and then halted
by the terrain. Behind them all, the Ariete and Bresca Division sit ready to move at a
The 2nd of April, 7am. 5th Light Division is moving towards Agedabia. 2nd Support Group
is attacked. Neame orders Latham to block the road to Benghazi should the Germans commit
to the attack. Neame also orders General Gambier-Parry to move 3rd Armoured Brigade to Sceleidima
with the intention to strike west or south-east on the flank of an enemy advance, depending
on which way the Germans move. Wanting to preserve his forces, Neame tells Gambier-Parry
not to commit 3rd Armoured Brigade unless he has Neame’s expressed permission. Having
heard of the attack, General Wavell arrives at Barce to see what’s going on at the front.
He’s not happy with the situation, or with Neame’s performance.
In the afternoon the unsupported Support Group is battered by the Germans. Rommel catches
up to Streich. “What’s going on here?” he asks. “I thought we ought not to give
the enemy a chance to dig in all over again,” Streich said, “so I’m moving my whole
division forward, and I’m about to attack Agedabia.” “Those were not my instructions,
but I approve.” Rommel is sliding over into the realm of insubordination. And Gariboldi
is furious. “This is in contradiction to what I ordered! You are to wait for me before
continuing any advance!” If things go wrong, Italian forces will be caught out in the open
and will probably be destroyed. The majority of the Italian units are unmotorized, so if
the Germans retreat, the Italians will be left to the mercy of a British counterattack.
But Rommel ignores Gariboldi’s protests and presses on with his attacks. It’s a
gamble that, if it was to fail, could result in serious consequences for his military career.
But he cannot allow the British to dig in and regain their strength. He must defeat
the British now.
Gambier-Parry acknowledges Neame’s new order not to commit the 3rd Armoured Brigade to
battle prematurely. but he requests permission to make the decision to commit when he thinks
it’s best, since he’s closer to the action and has a better understanding of what’s
going on. He understands the situation is turning against the British and needs to withdraw
from Agedabia. But he disagrees with Neame’s idea to send the Support Group down the coast
road and split it from the rest of 2nd Armoured. Neame wants the coast road covered, especially
because the inexperienced Australian 9th Division would be exposed if it isn’t covered. But
Gambier-Parry fears that if his division splits in two, both parts will be weak and isolated,
and he wants to avoid a defeat in detail. This eventuality has a real chance of coming
true, since only 22 cruisers and 25 light tanks remain in 3rd Armoured Brigade, and
they’re in poor repair as it is. Gambier-Parry knows he cannot split his force as that would
be a disaster.
Neame is about to agree with Gambier-Parry when Wavell intervenes. He has no confidence
in Neame’s ability to parry Rommel’s attack. Wavell orders Benghazi to be covered. He insists
that the 2nd Armoured Division is to operate together up until El Magrun, at which point
the Support Group is to go up the coast and the rest of the Division is to withdraw through
Sceleidima to El Abiar and cover the flank of the 9th Australian Division. Wavell is
trying to block the road to Benghazi, thinking that this is Rommel’s ultimate goal. But
his order to cover the 9th’s retreat directly contradicts his previous orders to conserve
the armoured forces and to intentionally give up ground to the enemy. It places 2nd Armoured
Division on the coast, opening up it’s right flank for Rommel. Wavell guesses (based on
recent intelligence reports) that the Germans aren’t ready for a major operation and must
be going for a quick objective like Benghazi. It’s his only hope. He knows that the German
High Command hasn’t sanctioned a major attack and Rommel is most likely just probing forwards.
And besides, he has to protect the 9th Australian Division.
The withdraw of the 2nd Armoured Division begins. With Latham’s group no longer able
to hold, 5th Royal Tank Regiment covers the rear, which is harassed by 2nd Battalion of
the 5th Panzer Regiment. In one engagement, 5th Royal Tank Regiment loses five tanks and
the Germans three, which is enough to force the British to continue their withdraw. The
problem is that the further the British retreat, the more tanks they lose. They’re suffering
from a strained logistics chain that stretches back all the way to Alexandria.
Getting spare parts to the front is proving a nightmare. The tanks are at the end of their
life-spans, and are so badly in need of repair they’re suffering one breakdown every ten
miles. And on the retreat, they can’t repair them, and so have to abandon them.
Brigadier Harding, who is Neame’s staff officer, confirms Wavell’s fears about Neame’s
performance. Not only does Neame not fully understand where his units are or seek that
information out, but Harding also begs Wavell to bring O’Connor back. Wavell takes command
of operations and sends a message to Cairo. O’Connor, Wavell’s desert ace, sets off
And as the front collapses, General O’Connor arrives on the 3rd of April with Brigadier
Combe. Both are experienced desert commanders who’d beaten the Italians during Operation
Compass, O’Connor being Wavell’s ace up his sleeve. Wavell is concerned. He has so
little confidence in Neame by this point that he desires to make O’Connor commander of
Cyrenaica Command. Placing O’Connor in command would pit a proven and veteran commander against
Rommel and shift the odds in the British favour. But O’Connor points out that a change of
leadership at this point could cause more confusion than it’s worth. O’Connor does
not know the units and is reluctant to take control in the middle of a battle that was
progressing so badly. O’Connor shares Neame’s view that Rommel will go straight across the
desert - just like O’Connor had done earlier in the year. Doing so will cut off British
forces in North Cyrenaica and result in a decisive victory. O’Connor proposes that
Wavell should leave Neame in command and O’Connor would become Neame’s “advisor” for now.
Wavell agrees. So effectively, Cyrenaica Command now has two commanders, with a third breathing
down their neck.
Rommel needs every tactical advantage he can get if he is to slay the Cerberus, and so
decides to lead from the front. He robs fuel from the rest of 5th Light Division and takes
charge of 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, driving up towards Soluch. Rommel’s advance prompts
the start of the demolition plan in Benghazi to get rid of the captured Italian ammo. But
there is that much of it that it looks like the British won’t have time to destroy it
all. Rommel orders other units to press on in whatever manner they can. Lieutenant Colonel
Graf Schwerin (commander of 200th Schutzen Brigade) forms a Kampfgruppe (a battle-group)
from various units, including an infantry unit which is detached from the Italian Ariete
Division. This Kampfgruppe recons towards Msus.
In the afternoon of the 3rd, 2nd Armoured reaches Sceleidima with 6th Royal Tank Regiment
forming a rearguard with its Italian tanks. But this opens the British flank, with nothing
to stop the Germans moving through Antelat to Msus. Knowing this, Gambier-Parry orders
a regrouping of units, and confusion reigns in 3rd Armoured Brigade as a string of contradictory
orders are received from both Gambier-Perry and Cyrenaica headquarters.
At the worst possible time, 3rd Armoured Brigade’s
wireless sets decide to fail after the unit begins a move towards Msus, only for Remington
to hear a new order to go to El Abiar. Unable to communicate with his superiors to verify
the change of orders, Remington decides to continue to Msus, only to find that the French
Motor Battalion there has destroyed all the petrol and a portion of the other stores before
withdrawing. So most of 2nd Armoured Division is now at El Abiar, whilst 3rd Armoured Brigade
is at Msus, thirsty for fuel.
But the fuel situation for the Germans is worse. The bulk of 5th Light Division is now
stopped completely between Agedabia and Zuetina. There’s so little fuel left, they can only
mount defensive maneuvers. Rommel hadn’t informed his quartermaster about his attack,
and there had been no time to arrange the supplies and convoys needed to carry fuel
to the Panzers. Worse, Streich looks at the situation and predicts he will need four days
at the current logistical rate to refuel his division. Rommel isn’t having any of it.
He loses his patience with Streich, orders the division to strip all vehicles it can
spare and sends them back all the way past El Agheila for fuel, which they then take
back to the division. The 5th Light Division is ready to move by the evening of the 4th
of April, 24 hours later. This decisive move allows Rommel’s offensive to continue.
3rd of April, evening. Gariboldi catches up to Rommel and forbids him from advancing any
further. He warns Rommel to check with Comando Supremo (Mussolini) before advancing as he
is directly disobeying his orders. Rommel says that it would be too slow a process to
contact Comando Supremo and insists that he will have freedom to do what he must. As they
argue, a letter comes from the German high command ordering Rommel not to advance any
further. But Rommel calls Gariboldi’s bluff, and tells Gariboldi that the letter gives
him permission from his superiors to act as he wants. Gariboldi, who can’t read German,
argues that he is Rommel’s superior and that Rommel has to listen to him. As he is
doing this a second letter arrives announcing that Benghazi has fallen. Gariboldi leaves
without saying a word. Rommel has directly disobeyed orders to complete an objective
he was ordered to take perhaps a month or two down the road. And he gets away with it.
He has a bigger problem though - the British Empire! Orders or not, Rommel will advance.
And so Benghazi falls to the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion that evening as the clock slips
over to the 4th of April. When Rommel arrives in the town, he comes across a blackboard
where a British soldier has written “Please keep tidy! Back soon!” Rommel grins and
says “We’ll see about that!” He orders 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion to move towards
Mechili as soon as the Brescia division arrives. Then orders his forces to split into several
Kampfgruppen - or battlegroups - are ad hoc formations of various units grouped together,
given a leader and a task. The Germans use kampfgruppen successfully throughout the war
as their doctrines make it easy for units to reorganise under new commanders with little
confusion. Usually these kampfgruppen are given names, but in this case they aren’t.
So since no one else has named them, we will name them now.
Kampfgruppe Streicht (5th Light Division’s commander) is made up from the entirety of
Ponath’s 8th Motorized Machine Gun Battalion, as well as a squadron from 5th Panzer Regiment
and one anti-tank Panzerjager company. This Kampfgruppe races off towards Tobruk. Kampfgruppe
Olbrich is made up of Olbrich’s 5th Panzer Regiment with 2nd Motorized Machine Gun Battalion,
as well as tanks from the Ariete Division. This kampfgruppe sets off towards Msus, with
the eventual goal of Mechili. Kampfgruppe Schwerin with the rest of his 200th Schutzen
Regiment, with other German units and an Italian recon unit from the Ariete Division, is sent
straight towards Tmimi.
The Fabius unit (which was actually named by the Italians) - is formed from a motor cyclist
unit supported by guns from Ariete Division - and is sent towards Mechili, followed by
the rest of the Ariete. Rommel flies between all the different units, urging them to go
forwards as fast as they can. Such is the severity of Rommel’s drive that Major General
Kirchheim, who is only visiting North Africa, is pressed into service and ordered to push
the Brescia Division through the Jebel area, which he does. Gariboldi is outraged! Splitting
your forces up when your enemy isn’t defeated in battle flies against every rule in the
book. But Rommel won’t listen.
Whilst the German side is getting complicated, on the British side things are slipping beyond
the control of their commanders. Neame wants to withdraw to Derna and Mechili. O’Connor
agrees and issues orders for this to happen, as Cyrenaica HQ moves from Barce to Maraua,
near Slonta. 9th Australian Division is ordered to move from Torca to East of Barce and 2nd
Armoured is ordered to move to Charruba to cover the Australian flank. The German’s
3rd Reconnaissance Battalion hits the 2/13th Australian Battalion holding a wide front
at Er Regima. The Germans are checked and withdraw. However, the Australians are ordered
to retreat after their victory. Why? Because the “rot” has set in. British units now
found themselves retreating faster than the Germans could catch them. Vehicles that broke
down are abandoned as men hitch rides on other vehicles rather than spend even a few minutes
trying to fix minor problems. Units are soon scrambling down the same roads, adding to
the confusion, and battlefield formations lose their coherency as the hours moved on.
The effectiveness of Cyrenaica Command is being eaten away by its own flight.
4th of April, the afternoon. 3rd Armoured Brigade, due to poor fuel and vehicle maintenance,
has arrived at Charruba with only two tanks left. The rest are abandoned and destroyed
after sifering their fuel for the better tanks. 3rd Armoured Brigade is no longer a fighting
formation even though it hadn’t actually done much fighting. Remington’s brigade
abandoned most of its tanks because of breakdowns, a lack of fuel or simply in their haste to
get away from Rommel’s Panzers.
But Rommel isn’t having it all his own way. In the evening, Schwerin’s group has completely
run out of fuel and is stranded at Ben Gania with no supplies. Streich is at Maaten el
Grara and the Italians are strung out behind the front in a complete mess. Both sides are
in a state of disarray.
The 5th of April. Hurricanes of the RAF manage to shoot down nine JU 87s this day. A huge
loss to the Luftwaffe in North Africa. On the ground, Schwerin finally receives fuel
and reaches Tengedar, but everyone else is behind him. 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion is
checked West of Charruba by the remains of Latham’s Support Group. Olbrich reaches
Antelat, with his Machine Gun Battalion at a point east of Sceledima. Kirchheim has one
column at Driana and one at Er Regima. If this sounds like chaos, that’s because it
is. The Germans and Italians are strung out all over the place, and the supply situation
is becoming desperate.
But the situation is now the beyond control of the British. Neame is concerned with the
southern flank and so orders General Morshead to withdraw the 9th Australian Division to
Wadi Cuff (next to Slonta). 2nd Armoured is ordered to cover the flank by moving once
again to Mechili. Neame hesitates.
He cancels the order to withdraw the Austrialians, even though the units had started
moving. With no choice, General Morshead has to try and bring his units back to their original
starting positions that night.
At this point, Rommel realises that the British have no intention of standing and fighting
and so orders everyone to converge on Mechili. The German soldiers are so exhausted though
that Rommel has to collect Ponath’s 8th Motorized Machine Gun Battalion and lead them
towards Mechili throughout the night. Once again, his personal leadership drives his
forces forwards, and on the 6th of April, Ponath’s Battalion and Schwerin’s advanced
guard reach the approaches to Mechili. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade at Mechili repulses
an early attack, which leads O’Connor to act on his own initiative and order an immediate
withdraw of all units to Mechili, just as Neame had done and then not done the night
before. It’s good fortune for O’Connor, since Neame is out visiting troops and he
can therefore issue orders on his own. However, he’s inherited a bad situation, and he’s
not even in complete control. Gambier-Parry is already moving towards Mechili anyway,
and in a series of confused retreats, 3rd Armoured Brigade moves to Maraua in a desperate
attempt to scavenge petrol.
9th Australian Division withdraws towards Derna, covered by 1st Battalion King’s Royal
Rifle Corps, an experienced motor battalion that just arrived from Egypt. The 9th Australian
is lead by General Morshead who is a very capable commander. Unfortunately, just like
the 6th Australian Division was before Operation Compass, it’s inexperienced and not equipped
for battle right now, and Wavell wants to prevent its premature destruction at Rommel’s
hands. 3rd Armoured Brigade, having found some petrol, moves on through Berta to Derna.
It mixes in with the withdrawing Australians, upsetting movements and causing confusion.
Worse, Brigadier Remington’s car overturns on the way and he’s captured later, leaving
3rd Armoured Brigade without it’s commander.
A sizeable British force is now trapped at Mechili. Eager to press on, Rommel orders
Ponath to move on ahead towards Derna. The 2/13th Australian Battalion spots Ponath’s
group as it makes it’s way to to the coast. The 26th Australian Infantry Brigade reaches
Tmimi, where they quickly dig in and defend the place as units to the north escape through
Derna. Luckily for the British (with the exception of Ponath’s Battalion) the Germans haven’t
made much progress - the German 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion and Olbrich have barely moved, and
Kircheim is struggling to keep up, with one column at Maddalena and one at El Abiar.
The 7th of April. Ponath reaches the coast and takes Derna airfield, clashing with the
5th Royal Tank Regiment. Two German attacks are beaten off and the four remaining British
tanks counter-attack, only to be knocked out. However, this allows 5th Royal Tank Regiment
to escape, along with the remaining troops in Derna. But not everyone gets out. Heading
towards Tmimi in the same car, Generals Neame and O’Connor, accompanied by Combe, take
the wrong turn on the way and head off towards Derna instead. Ponath’s detachment happily
takes them prisoner.
Say goodbye to O’Connor. We won't see this legendary commander for the next two years
of war. In one fell swoop, the British lose their most experienced desert General, and
the Cerberus is dead.
At Mechili sits Gambier-Parry’s HQ, along with Vaughan’s 3rd Indian Motorized Brigade
and a few other units, including Captain Barlow’s 18th Indian Cavalry Regiment. A patrol of
the Long Range Desert Group hovers on Rommel’s southern flank to try and cause a diversion.
The Fabius, Artiete (now one group again) and Streich’s group have all arrived at
Mechili, surrounding the British trapped inside the pocket.
Gambier-Parry and Vaughan are summoned twice by the Germans and asked to surrender. They
refuse. They want to try and fight their way out. Captain Barlow’s tank squadron brakes
out and turns back to fight the Italian guns who are now firing at the main body of vehicles.
Some units get away. But most are captured. The British forces at Mechili are destroyed.
The spoils of victory. Rommel liberates a pair of British sand goggles, which he wears
on his General’s cap. And commandeers a armoured British command truck. He calls it
Cyrenaica Headquarters had originally been at Maraua but has just arrived at Tmimi. The
staff officer, Brigadier Harding, decides (wisely) to establish the main headquarters
at Tobruk. Harding informs Wavel that Generals Neame and O’Connor, as well as Combe, are
captured. Not only does Wavell not have anyone immediately to replace them… but he is visibly
dismayed by their loss. One of his staff officers described Wavell as being in shock and had
never seen him so moved.
9th Australian Division, minus the 24th Infantry Brigade, is at Acroma, fifteen miles west
of Tobruk, accompanied by what remained of the Support Group. Brigadier Gott, who had
been in command of 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group during Compass, takes command
of 2nd Armoured Division’s Support Group, which he quickly reorganised into an effective
fighting force. Tobruk is defended by the 18th and 24th Infantry Brigades - the 18th
only just arrives from the sea as the move of the 7th Australian Division to Greece is
cancelled. Wavell flies to Tobruk on the 8th of April to try and fix everything. He places
Australian Major-General Lavarack in temporary command of all troops in Cyrenaica and tells
him to hold Tobruk with his 7th Australian Division, even though a good chunk of the
division hasn’t arrived. Wavell’s plan is to set up a mobile force at Bardia. He
wants to delay Rommel there, whilst he sets up a larger defence at Mersa Matruh. But Rommel's
forces are racing past Tobruk and it looks unlikely he’ll have anything to stop them
Wavell responds by reactivating the Western Desert Force. Ex Commander of the 4th Indian
Division, Lieutenant General Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, is now appointed commander of the Western
Desert Force. He has the incomplete 6th Division commanded by Major General Evetts and the
new “Mobile Force”, under Brigadier Gott. “Gentleman” Gott’s Mobile Force is the
reorganised 2nd Armoured Support Group and is now located in the Sollum area. Gott knows
he has to delay the Germans and prevent them advancing further to the east. Tobruk is now
commanded by General Morshead, and Lavarack resumes command of the 7th Australian Division
Morshead decides that the defense of Tobruk is to be aggressive. Using the original Italian
positions, the defenses lack depth, which will be vital for any siege. The posts at
the front are well sited but are isolated from each other. The anti-tank ditch is incomplete
and the barbed wire defenses has gaps. Morshead has the defenders start to form a new line
two miles inside the perimeter to give the defenses more depth, should the Germans break
through the outer ring. The two battalions of 24th Australian Infantry Brigade and the
newly arrived 18th Australian Brigade dig in on the old defense line. They’re covered
by the 20th and 26th Australian Brigades who are on the outside of the defenses.
3rd Armoured Brigade is being reformed inside Tobruk, thanks to reinforcements by sea. It
consists of one regiment of Armoured Cars, two regiments of light and cruiser tanks,
and one troop of Matilda II tanks. However, these are severely under strength, meaning
3rd Armoured Brigade only has 15 light tanks, 26 cruiser tanks and 4 Matlida II tanks available
at the moment. For the whole of Tobruk, there is no medium artillery, and only four 25 pounder
regiments. They do have two anti-tank regiments, one British and one Australian, but there’s
one less battery in each. The good news, each infantry brigade does have one anti-tank company, meaning
there is a reasonable amount of firepower available to the defenders. This is coupled
with the 16 heavy and the 59 light anti-aircraft guns of 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade Royal Artillery,
who prepare to defend the harbour area. All in all, 36,000 people are in Tobruk, although
a third of these are Libyan refugees or prisoners.
Morshead decides to stand and fight. There is to be no retreat across land or sea, and
his declaration of this increases morale within Tobruk dramatically. He tells his men that
the enemy will break through the outer defenses, but are told to make them pay when they do.
For this, his troops nickname him “Ming”, after Ming the Merciless from the Flash Gordon
comic book series.
8th of April. Major General Kirchheim, visitor to the African Front, is wounded but remains
in action. And worse news for the British - Major General Heinrich von Prittwitz und
Gaffron, commander of the 15th Panzer Division has arrived without his division. But no matter!
Prittwitz takes command of a Kampfgruppe of various units and presses on past Tobruk.
Streich and the 5th Light Division advance from the Southwest, whilst the Brescia division
advances directly from the West. Rommel orders the Ariete Division to El Adem, whilst Ponath’s
Battalion pushes ahead.
With these movements, the 20th and 26th Australian Brigades have to withdraw inside the Tobruk
perimeter on the 9th.
The 10th of April. Rommel sets his sights on the Suez Canal, thinking that the British
are collapsing. But he can only get there if he gets supplies. Rommel’s supply situation
is pretty awful. The German soldiers complain about the quality of Italian fuel, and the
staff - the logisticians - of the Afrika Korps have trouble getting supplies to the front
lines. Not only do supplies have to cross the Mediterranean, which the Italian Navy
are struggling to hold against the British, but also have to travel by truck from Tripoli
to the front. Of course, the further the Germans and Italians advance, the longer their supply
lines became, and fewer supplies were reaching the troops. It’s therefore critical for
both sides to take the ports along the coast. For Rommel, he has to take Tobruk. It all
depends on Tobruk. If Rommel takes Tobruk, he can continue the advance. If Ming the Merciless
can hold it, Rommel’s offensive is over.
He surrounds Tobruk with the 5th Light Division on the Eastern side and Prittwitz’s Kampfgruppe
on the southern side. Scouting out the Tobruk defences, Prittwitz’s vehicle is hit by
a British anti-tank gun and both he and his driver are killed. So 15th Panzer Division’s
commander is killed barely two days after he arrives at the front and before the rest
of his division has even materialised. Schwerin takes command of Prittwitz’s Kampfgruppe
as German morale takes a severe hit.
In the east, the Germans reach the Egyptian frontier. 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion moves
into Bardia. And Knabe of 15th Panzer Division’s 15th Motorcycle Battalion forms a Kampfgruppe
and takes Sollum. In response, General Beresford-Pierce orders Gott’s Mobile Force to play for time
and delay the Germans as much as possible. At this point the Mobile Force is made up
of the 22nd Guards Brigade Group as well as four columns of 25 pounders, infantry, armoured
cars and light tanks. It’s spread out around Halfaya, Sofafi, Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani.
In support, a company of the French Motor Battalion holds the escarpment pass at Halfway
House. The Halfaya and Sofafi columns harass the German advance, and Gott receives support
on the 10th and 11th of April by the Aphis and Gnat gunboats. The Royal Navy then sweeps
the coast on the 12th, bombarding numerous targets. On the 13th, the Gnat, plus the destroyers
Stuart and Griffen, cooperate with Gott’s operation against Sollum. Capuzzo and Bardia
take bombardments and the Ladybird shells Gazala airfield again, and again, and again.
All these efforts successfully blunt the German advance and help prevent them moving further
to the east.
Meanwhile, Rommel is still having difficulty resupplying his men. If he could take Tobruk,
Italian ships could offload their cargo at Tobruk and shorten the supply routes dramatically.
With this in mind, he decides to concentrate on Tobruk before advancing further to the
east. Now, the British have been withdrawing for the past couple of weeks, and Rommel is
used to the idea that the British have no stomach for the fight. He’d witnessed this
in France, and is seeing it now. He therefore decides to take Tobruk quickly, thinking the
British will likely withdraw, just as they had been doing in the previous engagements.
As a result, he doesn’t carefully plan out the first battle of Tobruk like you would
expect in a set piece battle.
11th April. The 5th Panzer Regiment scouts the Tobruk perimeter, west of the El Adem
road. They suffer from a heavy artillery bombardment as well as strafing and bombing from the RAF.
These bombardments break the cohesion of the German tanks. The 20th Australian Infantry
throws out the German infantry fumbling around near the anti-tank ditch. After this failure,
the 5th Light Division tries again after dark on the 13th, with 8th Machine-gun Battalion
accompanied by engineers trying once again to secure a bridgehead over the Anti-Tank
ditch. A vicious night battle ensues. The Australians engage in bitter hand-to-hand
fighting that sees the German infantry suffer heavily. But by dawn, German tanks have secured
a bridgehead inside the perimeter. They head north in 2 columns, hoping to take Tobruk
and then take out the fleeing British garrison. Except, the British aren’t fleeing. Concentrated
artillery fire blasts the German tanks. 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery fire over open
sights, brew up several tanks and cause the Panzer Battalions to become entangled and
stop. Cruiser tanks of 3rd Armoured Brigade engage them in hull-down positions. They hit
them from all sides. Outflanked. The Germans suffer heavy losses and withdraw. The battle
is over by noon, and the Germans lose 16 out of 38 tanks. Ponath’s 8th Motorized Machine
Gun Battalion loses 3/4th it’s strength. The British and Australians have lost 26 killed
and 64 wounded, 2 tanks and one 25 pounder gun. It’s nothing short of a disaster for
Rommel has to deal with the consequences of sending his troops forwards in ill planned
attacks. With two attacks ending in failure, German officers complain about being thrown
against the Tobruk defenses without proper planning and support. Heated arguments were
had with Rommel, who loses the support of his own officers. Without their backing, Rommel
decides to personally direct an attack in the west.
16th April. He sends the Ariete Division with 62nd Infantry Regiment of the Trento Division
into the Australian defenses and watches as the Australian 2/48th Battalion counterattacks
the Italians, leading to the surrender of 26 Italian officers and 777 men. The Ariete
Division continues the attacks the next day, but because the infantry can’t keep up with
the tanks, they’re forced to fall back, and the division loses losing 5 more tanks.
Rommel’s early raids are a complete failure. So much so that his commanders now openly
complained about Rommel’s lack of proper planning and strategy. Because he cannot take
Tobruk, he can’t effectively supply his men. Without supplies, he can’t advance.
Morshead now wants to strike back at the German and Italian forces surrounding him, but he
doesn’t have the strength to really do that. Instead he sends out aggressive patrols, which
take even more prisoners. Rommel puts great effort into speeding up the arrival of 15th
Panzer Division so that he can combat the Tobruk Garrison. But Rommel’s first desert
offensive is over. Stopped, not by the enemy, but by logistics. Rommel may have had the
drive, but his tanks don’t have the fuel, and without that they can’t succeed.
Both sides are now exhausted after two weeks of intense fighting and must lick their wounds.
A stunning victory by Rommel is won at a cost, and this is situation at the end of Rommel’s
first desert offensive. The Germans have run out of fuel on the Egyptian frontier and cannot
advance. The British have suffered a decisive defeat and have lost their most experienced
desert Generals. But the campaign is now at a stalemate. The question is, who would break
Back in Rome, Mussolini urges the OKW to halt Rommel so that their logistics and exhausted
forces can recover. The Fuhrer agrees, as did Rommel. Rommel is now focused on Tobruk
and requests reinforcements, especially to the Luftwaffe. He even requests transport
planes, simply because he needs them to help with the supply situation. These reinforcements
don’t come. General Halder, Chief of the General Staff OKH is worried about Rommel.
He dislikes Rommel and believes he’s in a mess. Which he is. There’s simply no units
that can be spared from Operation Barbarossa, as that’s about to begin. So rather than
send units, Halder sends another general to Afrika. This general’s task is not to reinforce
Rommel, but to report on the state of Rommel’s forces and the terrible situation he’s now
in. That general is General Paulus We’ll find out what Paulus has to say next time
we visit the Western Desert Campaign.
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wait to come back to the Western Desert Campaign and see what Rommel gets up to next. He certainly
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