Erskine (centre) with Bernard Montgomery (left)

Erskine (centre) with Bernard Montgomery (left).

(June 11, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, Allied forces, commanded by Gen. Sir Noel Beresford-Peirse, reluctantly, and under pressure from London, launched “Operation Battleaxe.”

The Allied forces, now designated XIII Corps, included the British 7th Armored Division, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Michael O’Moore Creagh; the 4th Indian Division, commanded by Maj.-Gen. Frank Messervy; and the 22nd Guards Brigade, commanded by Brig.-Gen. Ian D. Erskine.

It was a feeble attempt at relieving the siege of Tobruk, which today has a population of 120,000, and is approximately 90 miles west of the Egyptian border, 270 miles east of Benghazi, 260 miles east of Agedabia and 630 miles east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli.

The initial targets were Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo, to be attacked by Maj.-Gen. Messervy’s Indians, while Maj.-Gen. Creagh’s 7th Armored Division — the “Desert Rats” — would swing around with a “left hook” and cut off the coastal garrisons at Sollum and Musaid. These were the same objectives which had been briefly gained —and lost — by Allied forces during Operation Brevity the previous month.

Halfaya Pass is located in western Egypt, two miles south of the Mediterranean Sea, near the border with Libya. If one could not traverse the pass, the trip around was much longer, to the south, through the Sahara Desert.

During the war, it held much strategic importance. Sollum is in Egypt on its border with Libya, 91 miles east of Tobruk. Musaid is on the Libyan side of the border. Fort Capuzzo is also located near the border, on the Libyan side, about 50 miles south of Musaid.

For the offensive, Gen. Beresford-Peirse established his headquarters at Sidi Barrani, Egypt, a five-hour drive from the front, while RAF commander Arthur Tedder established his headquarters even further west at Maaten Baggush. He had only been on the job since June 1, and then only because Air Marshal Owen T. Boyd was captured when his plane, en route from Malta to Egypt, was forced to land in Sicily by Italian fighters.

Meanwhile, Gen. Erwin Rommel had established his headquarters at Sidi Azeiz, 10 miles northwest of Fort Capuzzo, on the Egyptian/Libyan border, where the Axis had established a small airfield.

The offensive was originally scheduled to begin on June 7, 1941, but was postponed at the insistence of Gen. Creagh, because his “Rats” had not received their promised new tanks, which had arrived in Alexandria on May 12. Finally, on June 9, they were delivered, giving the soldiers, and, as importantly, the mechanics, less than a week’s training with the new machines.

British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill had insisted that the tanks be shipped straight through the shorter, more dangerous route of the Mediterranean Sea, to the consternation of the Royal Navy, rather than by the far longer, and safer, route around Africa and through the Suez Canal.

That route exposed the cargo to the depredations of Italian and German submarines, the Luftwaffe, Regia Aeronautica and the Regia Marina. But Churchill was in a hurry to get the tanks to Commonwealth forces so they would have no excuse not to launch the offensive upon which he was insisting.

The 300 Allied tanks outnumbered the 185 German tanks. But unlike the previous December, when the Commonwealth’s Matilda’s had run roughshod over the Italians, things had changed. Now the Matildas would be facing superior German and Italian tanks and the German “88,” as well as superior Italian artillery. And now, the Italian soldiers had a leader in whom they had confidence — Rommel — and consequently they performed better.

Rommel, “The Desert Fox,” ordered that “Halfaya will be held and the enemy beaten.” It was garrisoned by 400 Italian and 500 German soldiers, supported by five “88s,” four 3.9-inch howitzers and a battery of French-built 155 millimeter guns.

After briefly losing that position to the last Allied offensive, Operation Brevity, the Axis had dug the “88s” into the rocks of the pass, so that they were invisible from 50 yards out. And, of course, there was no tank, anywhere, that could withstand an “88.” The defense of Halfaya Pass was aided by the mines the Axis defenders had laid.

During the attack, the British tank commander, Major C.G. Miles, reported, “... they are shooting my tanks to pieces.” Within the hour he was dead, and all but one of his 17 Matildas was destroyed. The British dubbed the position “Hellfire Pass.”

Things went better inland. By noon of the first day, Fort Capuzzo was captured, for the fourth time, by the 7th Royal Tank Regiment. By the end of the day, Halfaya Pass was surrounded. Gen. Rommel ordered the German 5th Light Panzerdivision to relieve the garrison at Halfaya Pass and 15th Panzerdivision to retake Fort Capuzzo.

Gen. Walter Neumann-Silkow had only been in command of the 15th for a week, while the Light Panzerdivision’s Johannes Streich couldn’t get along with his boss and was on his way out.

The next day, the “Desert Rats” met the German Panzers, and though it was a close-run thing for the Germans, their superior weapons and training gave them the edge. Rommel sent a message to the troops defending Halfaya Pass saying, “Our counterattack now making fine progress from the west. Enemy forced onto the defensive. Victory depends on your holding the Halfaya Pass and the coastal plain.” By midmorning, the Commonwealth was down to 39 tanks. This was the largest tank battle, in North Africa, up to that time.

In the evening of June 17, Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell, commander-in-chief, Middle East, arrived and agreed with the field commanders that it was time to withdraw. By 4 p.m., Allied troops were withdrawing, Fort Capuzzo was, once again, in Axis’ hands, Halfaya Pass relieved, and the Siege of Tobruk continued.

The Axis losses were 685 Germans, 592 Italians, 12 tanks and 10 planes. The Commonwealth losses were 969, plus 91 tanks, of which 64 were Matildas, and 36 planes. Holding the battlefield proved a significant advantage, as the Germans were able to recover and repair many of the disabled tanks — from both sides.

The Commonwealth defeat resulted in a change of command. Gen. Sir Claude Auchinleck (The “Auk”) replaced Gen. Sir Archibald Wavell on July 5, 1941, as commander-in-chief, Middle East, with Gen. Wavell taking The Auk’s place as commander-in-chief, India.

Churchill believed that “The Auk” would immediately launch an offensive. Much to his chagrin, it was not until November that the new Eighth Army went over to the offensive. Gen. Beresford-Peirse was also replaced by Lt.-Gen. Reade Godwin-Austen. William (“Strafer”) Gott took over command of the 7th Armored from Gen. Creagh.

Change of command also occurred on the Axis side. On July 12, Gen. Italo Gariboldi, who had been governor-general of Libya, was recalled to Italy and sent to the Russian Front, where he was given command of the newly formed Italian Eighth Army. His replacement, Gen. Ettore Bastico, arrived on July 19.

Gen. Bastico was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, where he had commanded the Corpo Truppe Volontarie, which participated in the Nationalist victory at the Battle of Santander. Rommel referred to him as “Bombastico” and described him as “difficult, autocratic and violent.”

On July 23, Johan von Ravenstein took command of 5th Light Division, which, in September, would be renamed 21st Panzerdivision. Gen. Bastico’s second in command, Gen. Gastone Gambara, was given command of the Corpo D’Armata di Manovra. Gen. Gambara served as the last commander of the Corpo Truppe Volontarie in Spain during the Catalonia Offensive.

Next Week: “Operation Barbarossa” - The Invasion of the USSR.

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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