Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseIn Oct and Nov 1941, the British Eighth Army developed a plan to disrupt Axis defense at various locations just before the launch of the Operation Crusader major offensive by commando attacks; the plans included the assassination of Erwin Rommel at Beda Littoria, Libya, should the opportunity arise. The operation was launched on 10 Nov 1941 as submarine HMS Torbay (carrying Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes' group of 28 men) and HMS Talisman (carrying Lieutenant Colonel Robert Laycock's group of 28 men) departed from Alexandria, Egypt.
ww2dbaseDuring the night of 14 to 15 Nov, HMS Torbay disembarked Keyes' group at Hamama, Libya, where the commandos met up with three men already behind enemy lines. Later on the same night, HMS Talisman was met with rough seas and was only able to disembark Laycock and seven others. With fewer men than originally planned, Laycock decided to eliminate two of the four targets. He set up a headquarters near HMS Talisman's landing beach in hope that the weather would ease to allow HMS Talisman to disembark the remaining men, and dispatched Keyes with a group of men for Rommel's headquarters and Lieutenant Cook with a group of six men for an Axis communications facility.
ww2dbaseKeyes' group moved to a hiding spot during prior to daybreak on 15 Nov, and remained there during daylight. After sundown, they moved up a 1,800-foot rise and then marched 18 miles before hiding again. After sundown on 16 Nov, they reached Rommel's headquarters. At 2359 hours, they approached the main building after bypassing the perimeter guards. Unable to find open doors or windows, Captain Campbell pounded on one of the doors, shouting in German. A German soldier opened the door and entered into a struggle, which had to be ended with a gunshot, which alerted the Germans nearby. A fire fight soon began. Keyes was shot and killed by the Germans, while Campbell was shot by friendly fire shortly afterwards. The group soon decided to abandon their objective and retreat back to Laycock's position.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, Cook's group failed to achieve its objective as well.
ww2dbaseWaiting at the beach for weather to improve so that they could board the submarine, Laycock's position was discovered and attacked. Laycock ordered the commandos to disperse into smaller groups and make their own way back to friendly lines. After 37 days, only Laycock and one other man returned safely; 30 British were killed or captured.
ww2dbaseAfter learning of the attack, Rommel gave Keyes a burial with full military honors at a local Catholic cemetery; Keyes was also given a posthumous Victoria Cross medal by his home country.
ww2dbaseThe Main Offensive
ww2dbaseIn Jun 1941, the Allies launched the Operation Battleaxe offensive and it failed. With a new commander at the helm, Claude Auchinleck, the Allies planned a new offensive against the Axis forces in Libya, with particular focus on relieving the siege at Tobruk. While the British planned for such an attack, an effort was launched in parallel to deceive the Axis into thinking that the British would not be able to launch any major offensive until early Dec 1941; additionally, false intelligence was shaped in a way that, to the Axis leadership, it appeared that the offensive would come from the area of Giarabub, an oasis village far to the south. The offensive was planned under the codename "Crusader", inspired by the new tanks by the same designation that were now arriving in the theater in larger numbers.
ww2dbaseThe offensive was to be conducted by two British corps. The British XXX Corps, under Lieutenant General Willoughby Norrie, was consisted of Major General William Gott's British Armoured Division, Major General George Brink's South African 1st Infantry Division (two brigades), and the independent 22nd Guards Brigade. The British XIII Corps, under Lieutenant General Reade Godwin-Austen, was consisted of Major General Frank Messervy's 4th Indian Infantry Division, Major General Bernard Freyberg's New Zealand 2nd Division and the 1st Army Tank Brigade.
ww2dbaseOn the Axis side, two formations stood in the British offensive's path. German General Erwin Rommel's force was consisted of the German 15th Panzer Division, the German 21st Panzer Division, the German 90th Light Infantry Division, the Italian 55th Infantry Division "Savona", and General Enea Navarini's Italian XXI Army Corps (4 divisions). The other formation defending Axis territory was the Italian XX Motorized Corps, which was consisted of the Italian 132nd Armored Division "Ariete" and the Italian 101st Motorized Division "Trieste". A good portion of the Axis forces were near Tobruk as Rommel was planning on launching a major offensive against Tobruk on or around 24 Nov.
ww2dbaseBefore dawn on 18 Nov, the British Eighth Army advanced southwest from Mersa Matruh, Egypt, with the British 7th Armoured Division at the spearhead; this main column of the offensive crossed the Egyptian-Libyan border near Fort Maddalena and then turned northwest. Meanwhile, the South African Division protected the southern flank, and the British XIII Corps and the British 4th Armoured Brigade held the area west of Sidi Omar to counter a potential Axis counter offensive through that area. The opening phases of the invasion was originally to be assisted by some of the 724 British and Commonwealth aircraft assigned to the operation, but all ground support missions were canceled due to the unexpected bad weather; on the other side of the token, the bad weather aided the Allied efforts by preventing Axis reconnaissance flights from being launched, which could have detected the preparations for the operations. The first day of the offensive no resistance was met. In the morning of 19 Nov, the Italian Ariete Division halted the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the British 7th Armoured Division at Bir el Gubi; however, the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group of the same division were able to advance near Tobruk, capturing the Sidi Rezegh airfield during the process. Meanwhile on the same day, the British 4th Armoured Brigade engaged 60 tanks, supported by 8.8-centimeter guns, of the German 21st Panzer Division on the offensive's northern flank. On 20 Nov, the British 22nd Armoured Brigade continued its fight with the Italian Ariete Division, the British 7th Armoured Brigade repulsed an infantry counter attack launched by the German 90th Light Infantry Division and the Italian Bologna Division at Sidi Rezegh, and the British 4th Armoured Brigade fought a second tank battle with the German 21st Panzer Division.
ww2dbaseIn the afternoon of 20 Nov, the British 4th Armoured Brigade engaged with tanks of the German 15th Panzer Division. After losing about 40 tanks during this engagement, the British 4th Armoured Brigade was now down to about 120 tanks; it had began the campaign with 164 tanks. On the German side, the 21st Panzer Division was temporarily withdrawn for refueling. At dusk, the British 22nd Armoured Brigade arrived on the scene, but it was too late to assist the British 4th Armoured Brigade. During the night, Rommel withdrew all his tanks northwest in order to launch a major counter attack on Sidi Rezegh.
ww2dbaseOn 21 Nov 1941, the Allied garrison at Tobruk attempted a break out, which surprised the Axis forces. By mid-afternoon, the Allied advance from Tobruk had advanced about 5.6 kilometers. It was at that time that the Tobruk garrison learned that the British 7th Armoured Brigade, which was supposed to attack in the direction of Tobruk starting at 0830 hours, had changed its plans due to the unexpected presence of 200 German tanks to the southeast. Instead of a full offensive spearheaded by armor, the tanks of the 7th Armoured Brigade turned to face the new German threat, leaving the attack to infantry. Without tanks, the advance was slow, thus by mid-afternoon the link up attempt was abandoned. Meanwhile, German Panzer troops captured the airfield at Sidi Rezegh in the early afternoon, while fighting in the immediate area continued into the next day with heavy tank losses on either side, though the British saw more tanks lost. Also on 22 Nov, heavy fighting developed between New Zealand and Italian troops near Sollum, while troops of the Indian 7th Brigade captured Sidi Omar. On 23 Nov, troops of the New Zealand 5th Brigade advanced toward Sollum, cutting off Axis supply routes from Bardia. Also on 23 Nov, Rommel gathered the remainder of his two armored divisions and launched an attack together with the Italian Ariete Division to cut off and destroy the rest of the British XXX Corps; brutal fighting led to heavy casualties on both sides.
ww2dbaseOn 23 Nov, the Italian High Command in Rome, Italy agreed to put the Italian XX Mobile Corps, which included the Ariete Division and the Trieste Division, under Rommel's direct command.
ww2dbaseOn 24 Nov, German and Italian tanks sped for Sidi Omar, splitting the British XXX Corps. Pressing on, Rommel ordered further advances on 25 Nov toward Sidi Azeiz, but the column was discovered and attacked by Allied aircraft. At Sidi Omar, the German 5th Panzer Regiment attacked positions manned by troops of the Indian 7th Brigade, which fought off the repeated assaults with the help of their 25-pounder artillery; at the end of the day, the German 5th Panzer Regiment found itself exhausted. On 26 Nov, German and Italian forces converged toward Fort Capuzzo; by dusk, they met defenses manned by the New Zealand 5th Brigade.
ww2dbaseIn the morning of 27 Nov, Rommel withdrew the weakened German 21st Panzer Division from the fighting at the Egyptian-Libyan border, redeployment it at Tobruk to help counter the Tobruk garrison's attempts to break out; en route west, the 21st Panzer Division was harassed by troops of the New Zealand 22nd Battalion, delaying their arrival at Tobruk for a day. The German 15th Panzer Division, however, remained on the offensive. At Sidi Azeiz, the German 15th Panzer Division engaged in combat in the morning against outnumbered New Zealand troops, and captured the position with 700 prisoners captured; Rommel personally oversaw this attack from the front. At this point, the Axis forces were within four miles of the British Eighth Army's main supply base, but this fact was not known to Rommel until later. At noon, the German 15th Panzer Division reached Bir el Chleta, but was halted by the British 22nd Armoured Brigade and Allied aircraft. By the early afternoon of 27 Nov, it was clear to Allied leaders that the Axis offensive was beginning to lose steam. During that night, however, Rommel knew his tanks could still press on. For the most of the day on 28 Nov, the German 15th Panzer Division engaged British tanks, succeeding in pushing them back toward the west despite being outnumbered. Elsewhere, an Italian attack of two motorized battalions near Tobruk saw the capture of a New Zealand field hospital, which resulted in the capture of 1,000 troops and 700 medical staff members.
ww2dbaseOn 29 Nov, the German 15th Panzer Division started westward south of Sidi Rezegh in the morning. In the afternoon, the Italian Ariete Division overran the New Zealand 21st Battalion at Point 175. In the evening, the South African 1st Brigade was placed under the command of the New Zealand 2nd Division, which launched an attack in attempt to recapture Point 175. On 30 Nov, New Zealand 24th and 26th Battalions were battered by Axis attacked at Sidi Rezegh. At 0615 hours on 1 Dec, the German 15th Panzer Division began an assault on Belhamed, supported by large numbers of artillery pieces. The British 7th Armoured Division was ordered to counterattack at Belhamed, and they might had been able to do so successfully given they outnumbered the German tanks, but miscommunications resulted in the British tanks moving into rear positions to cover a potential retreat by the Allied troops. By the end of the day, the New Zealand 20th Battalion was practically wiped out.
ww2dbaseBetween 4 and 6 Dec, fighting took place across the front without decisive outcomes. The Allied reserves began to be committed as attrition began to take a toll, but the Allied leadership saw the situation as favorable to them. On 7 Dec, Rommel began to pull back by 10 miles toward Gazala, abandoning the Tobruk front. On 10 Dec, the siege at Tobruk was lifted.
ww2dbaseThe British Eighth Army launched an attack on the Gazala Line on 13 Dec. During the attack, the New Zealand 5th Brigade and Indian 5th Brigade attacked Alem Hamza, which was repulsed by the defending Italian Trieste Division, losing only Point 204 to the west. The Germans attempted a counterattack with 39 tanks followed by 300 trucks full of infantry, but the attack was stalled, albeit at a high cost for the Allies. On 14 Dec, the Polish Independent Brigade was moved to the front in preparation for a new offensive beside the New Zealand troops, which began at 0300 hours on 15 Dec; the attack surprised the Axis defenders, but it failed to breach the line. Later on that day, the Axis forces attacked and recaptured Point 204, causing high casualties among the Indian units defending that position. At the end of the day, Rommel decided to fall back from the Gazala Line during the night. Over the following ten days, the Axis forces fell back to the line between Ajedabia and El Haseia.
ww2dbaseOn 27 Dec, after the Axis forces were able to replenish, an attack was launched that resulted in a tank battle of El Haseia; the British 22nd Armoured Brigade suffered heavy casualties. Nevertheless, this would prove to be the last attack during this period, and Rommel's forces were now unable to return to the border area between Libya and Egypt. On 2 Jan 1942, the last Axis garrison on the Egyptian-Libyan border, Bardia, surrendered to the South African 2nd Division, resulting in 7,000 men captured. Sollum was captured by South African troops on 12 Jan. Halfaya Pass, with a 5,000-strong garrison, surrendered on 17 Jan after running out of supplies. On 21 Jan, Rommel tried one last major counterattack, capturing Benghazi by the first week of Feb, but the offensive was halted at the Gazala Line. Rommel would find himself not able to regain the offensive momentum for the months to come.
ww2dbaseWith Tobruk relieved, Operation Crusader was considered an overwhelming success, and it was the first major victory over German forces in North Africa. At the end of the operation, the Allies suffered 17,700 casualties and lost 278 tanks and 300 aircraft; the Axis suffered 38,300 casualties and lost 300 tanks and 600 aircraft.
Operation Crusader Timeline
|10 Nov 1941||Operation Flipper was launched, with submarines HMS Torbay and HMS Talisman, with commandos aboard, to be delivered behind enemy lines in Libya.|
|14 Nov 1941||Operation Flipper: After dark, submarines HMS Torbay and HMS Talisman delivered 36 (of planned total of 59, due to rough seas) British commandos of No. 11 (Scottish) Group behind enemy lines in Libya.|
|16 Nov 1941||British Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes' team, tasked with capturing or assassinating Erwin Rommel in Libya, hid during daylight and moved into positions after sundown.|
|17 Nov 1941||British Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Keyes led the daring Operation Flipper commando raid to either kill or capture Rommel at his Afrika Korps Headquarters at Sidi-Rafa. He was mortally wounded and the other commandos were forced to withdraw. Only two men made it back, the rest being either killed or captured. Keyes would be awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross even though the raid was doomed from the start - Rommel was not even at Sidi-Rafa.|
|18 Nov 1941||British, New Zealand, and Indian troops launched Operation Crusader, a major offensive from Egypt into Libya. Surprise was achieved, and the attack met no serious resistance on the first day. The Germans would later call this offensive Winterschlacht. After sundown, British cruisers HMS Naiad and HMS Euryalus and destroyers HMS Kipling and HMS Jackal bombarded German positions at Halfaya Pass.|
|19 Nov 1941||Italian Ariete Division halted the advance of British 22nd Armoured Brigade at Bir el Gubi, Libya; 40 British Crusader tanks were destroyed or disabled. Elsewhere, British 7th Armoured Brigade continued its advance toward Tobruk, capturing Sidi Rezegh airfield in the process. To the north, tanks of the British 4th Armoured Brigade engaged German tanks of the 21st Panzer Division.|
|20 Nov 1941||The British 7th Armoured Brigade repulsed a counter attack launched by the German 90th Light Infantry Division and the Italian Bologna Division. In the afternoon, the British 4th Armoured Brigade engaged with heavier tanks of the German 15th Panzer Division, losing several American-built M3 tanks. After dark, British cruisers HMS Ajax and HMS Neptune and Australian cruiser HMAS Hobart bombarded Bardia, Libya.|
|21 Nov 1941||The Allied garrison at Tobruk, Libya attempted a breakout to link up with the main attack force coming from Egypt, which engaged with German 15th Panzer Division in a large-scale tank battle that would last for the next three days near Sidi Rezegh. Pressed for fuel, Erwin Rommel dispatched Italian cruiser Cardona from Brindisi, unescorted, to bring fuel to Benghazi.|
|22 Nov 1941||Italian cruiser Cardona arrived at Benghazi, Libya with fuel badly needed by Axis vehicles on the front line; the journey was made without any escorts due to the pressing need. On land, New Zealand and Italian troops engaged in fighting near Sollum, Egypt while the Indian 7th Brigade captured Sidi Omar, Libya.|
|23 Nov 1941||The Italian High Command in Rome, Italy agreed to put the Italian XX Mobile Corps, which included the Ariete Division and the Trieste Division, under Erwin Rommel's direct command. On the same day, at the Battle of Totensonntag, Axis troops outflanked British forces south of Sidi Rezegh, Libya, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing the British 7th Armored Division to withdraw 20 miles.|
|24 Nov 1941||German and Italian tanks advanced and split the British XXX Corps in Libya, but Allied aircraft halted the attack. The offensive was uncoordinated and achieved little.|
|25 Nov 1941||Indian 7th Brigade repulsed an attack by the German 5th Panzer Regiment at Sidi Omar, Libya. Australian troops from Tobruk linked up with advancing New Zealand forces at Ed Duda, Libya. After dark, Erwin Rommel conducted an inspection of the front, got lost, and was forced to wait until daybreak to find his way back.|
|26 Nov 1941||German and Italian forces fought the New Zealand 5th Brigade en route to Fort Capuzzo, Libya. Meanwhile, Erwin Rommel's staff recalled the troops at Sidi Rezegh, Libya, allowing British 7th Armoured Division to capture the town.|
|27 Nov 1941||As the German 21st Panzer Division withdrew to the west for resupplying, the 15th Panzer Division captured Sidi Azeiz, Libya, taking 700 prisoners.|
|28 Nov 1941||British 7th Armored Division attacked German 15th Panzer Division with numerical superiority, but the Germans continued to press on toward Tobruk, Libya. Nearby, commanding officer of the German 21st Panzer Division General Johann von Ravenstein was captured by troops of the New Zealand 2nd Infantry Division.|
|29 Nov 1941||Operation Crusader: Italian Ariete Division overran the New Zealand 21st Battalion at Point 175 in Libya.|
|30 Nov 1941||New Zealand 24th and 26th Battalions were battered by Axis attacks at Sidi Rezegh, Libya. German forces launched a fresh attack on Tobruk, Libya. Out at sea, British aircraft from Malta sank Italian ship Capo Faro and damaged Italian ship Iseo, which were en route from Brindisi, Italy to Benghazi, Libya; they were carrying fuel and other supplies that were very much needed for the Axis campaign in North Africa.|
|1 Dec 1941||German 15th Panzer Division practically wiped out the 20th Battalion of New Zealand 2nd Division at Belhamed, Libya, but the attack was driven off by tanks of the British 4th Armoured Brigade.|
|2 Dec 1941||The Axis attack on Tobruk, Libya that began on 30 Nov 1941 was halted as Axis tank losses reached such a level that repairs must be made before any further operations were possible.|
|3 Dec 1941||The Axis attempt to reach Bardia in Libya and Sollum and Halfaya Pass in Egypt failed to breach the Allied positions that stood in the way.|
|4 Dec 1941||The British 4th Armoured Brigade moved east to counter the Axis advance toward Bardia, Libya and Sollum, Egypt. Erwin Rommel responded by pulling back the advances toward Bardia and Sollum for a concentrated attack toward Tobruk.|
|5 Dec 1941||British 4th Armoured Brigade remained in the Libyan-Egyptian border region despite observing the withdrawing of Axis troops, unsure of Erwin Rommel's intentions. Meanwhile, German tanks attacked positions held by the Indian 11th Brigade near Tobruk, Libya. On the same day, Rommel was advised that supply situation would turn badly soon, and he considered withdrawing to the Gazala Line.|
|7 Dec 1941||Erwin Rommel ordered his forces to pull back by about 10 miles toward the Gazala Line, abandoning the Tobruk objective.|
|10 Dec 1941||Operation Crusader: The siege of Tobruk, Libya was lifted.|
|11 Dec 1941||In North Africa the Italians reformed the line running south from the coast at Gazala with their armour on the right flank. Rommel's Afrika Korps, reduced to just forty operational tanks after the Operation Crusader battles, protected the open southern flank.|
|13 Dec 1941||New Zealand and Indian troops of the British Eighth Army launched an attack on the Gazala Line in Libya while the Germans launched a counterattack. British tanks exploited the gap opened by Indian troops, but the advance was soon halted by German tanks. Both sides incurred heavy casualties in men and equipment after the day's fighting.|
|14 Dec 1941||British 4th Armored Brigade moved south toward Bir Halegh el Eleba, Libya in a plan to outflank Axis forces on the Gazala Line. On the same day, the Polish Independent Brigade was deployed under a New Zealand division in Libya.|
|15 Dec 1941||Erwin Rommel ordered the Cyrenaica region of Libya abandoned, using his remaining tanks to guard Point 204 on the Gazala Line as rearguard for the troops that would begin to fall back. To the southwest, British 4th Armoured Brigade arrived at Bir Halegh el Eleba at 1500 hours where they planned to outflank the Axis forces.|
|16 Dec 1941||As Axis troops in North Africa began to fall back towards El Agheila in Libya in earnest, British 4th Armoured Brigade failed to outflank the retreat in the Bir Halegh el Eleba region. To supply the Axis forces operating in Libya, the Italian Navy dispatched a convoy of four freighters from Taranto, Italy, escorted by a powerful fleet of four battleships, five cruisers, twenty destroyers, and one torpedo boat.|
|18 Dec 1941||British 4th Armoured Brigade reached Mechili, Libya, too far behind the main body of the retreating Axis forces to achieve its goal of out-flanking the retreat, specifically the German tanks.|
|19 Dec 1941||Indian 4th Division captured Derna, Libya. To the west, 30 tanks arrived at Benghazi as Axis reinforcement.|
|21 Dec 1941||Allied troops pursued retreating Axis units toward Beda Fomm, Libya.|
|22 Dec 1941||Allied troops reached Beda Fomm, Libya while pursuing retreating Axis troops, but was halted by a group of 30 German tanks. Further west, Axis forces began evacuating Benghazi by ships. Out at sea, German ship Spezia and Italian ship Umbra Cadamosto ran into an Italian minefield off Misrata and were destroyed.|
|26 Dec 1941||Erwin Rommel ordered the withdraw of tanks to Agedabia, Libya.|
|27 Dec 1941||At the battle of El Haseia in Libya, German tanks flanked British 22nd Armoured Brigade, destroying many tanks, but failed to break through.|
|30 Dec 1941||German and British tanks clashed near El Haseiat, Libya; the Germans destroyed 65 tanks at the loss of only 30.|
|2 Jan 1942||7,000 Axis troops at Bardia, Libya surrendered to the Allies. Among the prisoners of war was General Artir Schmitt.|
|6 Jan 1942||German forces successfully evacuated Agedabia, Libya.|
|12 Jan 1942||South African 1st Division captured Sollum, Egypt.|
|17 Jan 1942||5,000 Axis troops at the Halfaya Pass, Egypt surrendered to the South African 6th Infantry Brigade.|
|21 Jan 1942||German General Erwin Rommel began his counterattack into Cyrenaica from El Agheila, Libya.|
|22 Jan 1942||Axis forces captured Antelat, Libya.|
|25 Jan 1942||German troops captured Msus, Libya, capturing 30 British Valentine tanks.|
|27 Jan 1942||Erwin Rommel sent a small column of tanks from Msus, Libya eastward across the desert towards Mechili as a feint to draw out the British 1st Armored Division; meanwhile, his main force moved towards Benghazi.|
|28 Jan 1942||Indian troops destroyed port facilities at Benghazi, Libya as German forces approached.|
|29 Jan 1942||50 German tanks forced the Indian 4th Infantry Division out of the defensive positions at Benghazi, Libya, capturing British vehicles and supplies.|
|30 Jan 1942||The British 1st Armoured Division in Libya withdrew toward Gazala.|
|3 Feb 1942||In Libya, British 1st Armoured Division evacuated Mechili while Indian 4th Division evacuated Derna.|
|5 Feb 1942||Axis forces captured Derna and Tmimi, Libya.|
|6 Feb 1942||German troops captured Benghazi, Libya, but the westward offensive had been halted at the Gazala Line.|
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Thomas Dodd, late 1945