Battle of Gazala
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
After a heavy artillery bombardment on the Allied lines, the Italian X and XXI Corps (Sabratha, Trento, Brescia and Pavia Divisions) and the German 150th Infantry Brigade launched an attack toward Tobruk, Libya at the center of the Allied-held Gazala Line at 1400 hours on 26 May 1942, supported by some Axis tanks. This attack would prove to be a feint, however. After sundown, all of the Axis tanks moved to the southern end of the Gazala Line to join the main mobile force.
In the morning of 27 May, the main offensive was launched, which was conducted by troops of the German 15th Panzer Division, German 21st Panzer Division, Italian Ariete Armored Division, Italian Trieste Motorized Division, and German 90th Light Afrika Division. With this attack, German Colonel General Erwin Rommel planned to encircle the Allied defenses and subsequently capture Tobruk. To the east, the German 15th Panzer Division engaged the British 4th Armoured Brigade; the new British Grant tanks, supplied by the United States, surprised the Germans, but ultimately they would not be able to hold against the surprise attack and would fall back toward El Adem. On the far right of the offensive, the German 90th Light Afrika Division engaged the British 7th Motorised Brigade at Retma and pushed the British troops back toward Bir el Gubi, and later overran the headquarters of the British 7th Armoured Division, which rendered the division ineffective for two days; by mid-morning, German 90th Light Afrika Division reached El Adem and captured a number of key supply bases.
The first day of the offensive was successful in all areas but one, Bir Hakeim, a fort near the namesake oasis that was held by the 3,703-strong Free French 1st Brigade under General Marie Pierre Kúnig, which was consisted of two Foreign Legion battalions, two colonial battalions, one battalion of naval infantrymen, and one marine battalion, and other miscellaneous units. At 0900 hours on 27 May, Rommel order General De Stefanis of Italian Ariete Armored Division to began the attack on Bir Hakeim from the southeast, which was the rear of the fort. At 0930 hours, the first wave struck, followed immediately by a second wave of attack; the Italian tanks were able to get through the minefield and close in on the fort, but anti-tank fire destroyed all of the tanks that got through, forcing the Ariete Armored Division to retreat at about 1015 hours. 32 Italian tanks were lost in this failed attack, while only killing two French soldiers and only destroying one cannon and one truck. To the north, however, the Italians were able to force British 4th Brigade and British 7th Motorized Brigade to retreat with heavy attacks, thus succeeding in the encirclement of Bir Hakeim. The French troops would prove to be able to hold this fort for many days to come; the combat at Bir Hakeim would later be known by some as the Battle of Bir Hakeim.
Beginning on 28 May, and for the several days, the Allies counterattacked, pushing the Axis forces back. The British 4th Armoured Brigade removed German 90th Light Afrika Division out of El Adem, while British tanks repeatedly attacked positions held by the Italian Ariete Division. The British Royal Air Force also joined in the counterattack, strafing Axis columns from above. At Bir Hakeim, however, the aerial attacks turned into a chapter of friendly fire. On the previous day, the failed Italian offensive left several destroyed tanks immediately outside of the fort; not realizing that these were disabled tanks, RAF aircraft dropped many bombs on them, some of which landed on the fort. After this repeated again on 29 May, Kúnig ordered some of his men to destroy the wrecks so to avoid repeated episodes.
On 29 May, Rommel felt pressure briefly as he was trapped between Tobruk, British tanks, and an extensive minefield to the west; however, a supply convoy guarded by Italian troops was able to breach through Allied lines to replenish the Axis troops, thus allowing the offensive to continue. On 30 May, a new attack was formed, attacking westward toward the original Axis front lines to link the original front lines and the territories recently taken. During this successful attack, the British 150th Infantry Brigade was wiped out at Sidi Muftah.
Back in Bir Hakeim, on 31 May, 50 trucks were able to reach the fort with fresh water, relieving a water shortage issue that was in danger of becoming serious; on the way out, the trucks took on prisoners of war and the wounded. During the night of 1 Jun, Rommel dispatched German 90th Light Afrika Division and Italian Trieste Division to mount a renewed attack on Bir Hakeim, which commenced at 0800 hours on 2 Jun. Italian troops attacked from the south, while the Germans attacked from the north. At 1030 hours, two Italian officers offered surrender terms, which was rejected by the French; on 3 Jun, Rommel sent a hand-written note to Kúnig urging surrender to avoid needless bloodshed, which was ignored as well. On 3 and 4 Jun, twice German artillery, Italian artillery, and German Stuka dive bombers bombarded the fort, followed by ground assaults, but both attacks were repulsed.
On 5 Jun, 10 days after the Axis had launched the offensive, the British Eighth Army finally launched a large scale counter offensive. The British 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 5th Infantry Division attacked from the east at 0250 hours on 5 Jun; although they saw initial success, but by mid-morning the advances had largely been stopped by heavy fire, and about 50 British tanks were destroyed. In the early afternoon, Rommel ordered the Italian Ariete Division and the German 21st Panzer Division to attack to the east toward Bir el Hatmat; the attack cut communications between the field headquarters between the two British divisions, seriously disrupting the Allies' ability to coordinate movement, and many units were destroyed as they remained under fire without orders.
Between 6 and 8 Jun, the fighting at Bir Hakeim intensified. The French defensive perimeters shrank considerably, but the fort held. During the night of 8 Jun, in a thick fog, an Allied supply convoy successfully reached the fort. On 8 Jun, Rommel launched the final assault on the fort, personally leading the attack column from the north. While the previous night's fog allowed the Allies to resupply the fort, it also gave cover for the Axis forces to move their guns forward without detection, and during this attack they fired at close range directly at the fort. That night, Kúnig told his officers that he would only attempt to hold through 10 Jun; he would order a retreat on 11 Jun. Early on 10 Jun, the RAF dropped 170 liters of water into the fort. The fort was then subjected to an aerial bombardment by 100 German Stuka dive bombers, and then its defenders repulsed yet another Axis attack. At this point, the defenders had practically run out of ammunition, but without this knowledge, Rommel pulled back his forces and regrouped for another attack on the following day. At 2300 hours, Kúnig issued his order for withdraw, starting with sending out sappers to clear the minefield in the southwest so that the vehicles in the fort could be evacuated. While the sappers worked, the effort was detected by the Axis forces, and an illumination round was fired, lighting the entire area. With no choice, Kúnig ordered the retreat to begin early despite path through the minefield was still far too narrow. Many vehicles were blown up by mines during the retreat, while several units became disarrayed as they were attacked by Axis troops. By 0800 hours on 11 Jun, the evacuation was complete. When Axis forces captured the fort later in the day, they found and captured only 500 wounded; all able-bodied French troops had successfully made their attempt to escape. Although the French had suffered 1,084 casualties, 2,619 men (about 200 of whom were wounded) with some equipment were successfully evacuated to fight another day, while incurring 3,330 casualties on the Axis side.
With the threat of Bir Hakeim eliminated, Rommel pushed for El Adem on 11 Jun. The British 201st Guards Brigade was pushed back toward Tobruk on 12 Jun, while on the same day an Axis attack on El Adem was repulsed by the Indian 29th Infantry Brigade. To the east, however, the British 2nd and 4th Armoured Brigades were pushed back by four miles by German tanks in such haste that they had to abandon damage tanks in the field. On 13 Jun, another tank battle went in favor of the Axis forces, causing the British armored forces to fall back toward Tobruk while leaving the Gazala Line cut off. The 13 Jun fighting caused so much damage that some British troops called the day "Black Saturday". On 14 Jun, British commander-in-chief in the region General Claude Auchinleck authorized the abandonment of the Gazala Line; he ordered the troops to form a new defensive line running southeast from Acroma to Bir El Gubi, with El Adem in the center. Before this new line was formed, however, Axis forces had attacked with such ferocity that the British had no choice but to withdraw to the east toward Mersa Matruh, meaning that Tobruk would once again come under the threat of siege.
At this time, Tobruk was held by the South African 2nd Division, which consisted of two brigades; the division was also supported by the British 201st Guards (Motorised) Brigade, Indian 11th Infantry Brigade, the British 32nd Army Tank Brigade, and the British 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade. Although Tobruk had previously successfully defended against a long siege, Auchinleck had decided that, should Tobruk become besieged again, it was not to be defended with the same intensity. Without the same support as the garrison had in the first siege, the Allied troops in Tobruk fought for only about one week before surrendering on 21 Jun. 35,000 men were captured with this surrender, and it exacted a heavy toll on Allied morale.
The month-long struggle for the Gazala Line and Tobruk in Libya cost the Axis forces over 30,000 casualties. The losses suffered by the Allies were greater, estimated at over 40,000 casualties and 35,000 captured. For taking Tobruk, Rommel was promoted to the rank of field marshal. His counterpart on the Allied side, Major General Neil Ritchie, was relieved of his command of the British Eighth Army; Auchinleck would soon take personal command of the Eighth Army. With Tobruk firmly under control, Rommel wished to use it as a base for his next offensive to the east toward Egypt. The Battle of Gazala, however, had worn out his units; many of the tanks he lost during this battle would be difficult to replace as the Axis did not have complete control of the Mediterranean Sea.
Battle of Gazala Timeline
|26 May 1942||A feint was launched by German General Ludwig CrŁwell at the center of the Gazala Line in Libya, drawing Allied troops away from the main offensive to be launched on the next day. All available Axis tanks were assigned to the main offensive, and CrŁwell's men mounted unused aircraft engines on trucks to create dust clouds similar to those caused by tank movements.|
|27 May 1942||The main offensive against the Gazala Line in Libya, which was a mobile tank assault around the southern end of the line, was launched by Axis armor divisions. Several Allied supply bases were overrun, including those guarded by men of the Indian 3rd Motor Brigade, but the French-held fort at Bir Hakeim, Libya would prove to be troublesome for the Axis forces for many days. While the left side of the offensive paused at Bir Hakeim, the right side reached El Adem by mid-morning, capturing the headquarters element of the British 7th Armored Division, including the commanding officer General Frank Messervy.|
|28 May 1942||The Allies began counterattacks two days after the Axis offensive began in Libya, forming the "Cauldron" that attempted to envelope Axis forces on three sides. British General Neil Ritchie still believed that the feint that the Axis forces launched on 26 May 1942 near the coast to be the main attack, however, thus refusing to send additional tanks to the southern end of the Gazala Line.|
|29 May 1942||An Italian supply convoy got through the British minefield and reached the Axis forces in the "Cauldron" south of Tobruk, Libya, which British General Neil Ritchie still failed to realize was the main assault force. To the north near the coast, the Storch observation aircraft which General Ludwig CrŁwell was aboard was shot down, leading to his capture.|
|30 May 1942||Axis forces attacked westward in Libya, the direction the offensive originated from, in order to consolidate territories recently taken.|
|31 May 1942||50 trucks reached Bir Hakeim in Libya, bringing badly-needed fresh water and evacuating Indian troops and Italian prisoners of war. After sundown, Axis tanks attacked westward from within the Cauldron on the southern end of the Gazala Line, assaulting positions held by British 150th Brigade.|
|1 Jun 1942||Axis tanks broke through positions held by British 150th Brigade at Sidi Muftah, killing Brigadier Clive Haydon, which caused 3,000 British troops to surrender. This cut off the last remaining supply line into Bir Hakeim.|
|2 Jun 1942||Troops of German 90th Light Division and Italian Trieste Division mounted a new attack on the French-held fort of Bir Hakeim, Libya; French General Kúnig refused to surrender.|
|3 Jun 1942||German General Rommel sent French General Kúnig a hand-written note, urging the surrender of Bir Hakeim in Libya to avoid needless bloodshed: "To the troops of Bir Hakeim. Further resistance will only lead to pointless loss of life. You will suffer the same fate as the two Brigades which were at Got el Ualeg and which were exterminated the day before yesterday - we will cease fighting as soon as you show the white flag and come towards us unarmed". Kúnig ignored the request.|
|4 Jun 1942||French troops at Bir Hakeim, Libya repulsed another Axis attack.|
|5 Jun 1942||British troops mounted a large counter offensive south of Tobruk, Libya in Operation Aberdeen; it was met with initial success, but it was halted after German tanks penetrated into the area between British divisional field headquarters and disrupted communications.|
|6 Jun 1942||Axis troops routed 3 Indian infantry battalions and 4 artillery regiments that failed to flee as the Operation Aberdeen offensive was called off on the previous day in Libya. With victory secured at this battle, Erwin Rommel moved the German 90th Light Division to reinforce the siege on Free French-held fort of Bir Hakeim.|
|7 Jun 1942||German engineers penetrated the minefield outside of Bir Hakeim, Libya, but the attack was repulsed by Free French fighters with British air support.|
|8 Jun 1942||Thick fog allowed an Allied supply convoy to supply French troops at Bir Hakeim, Libya; meanwhile, the same fog also allowed the Axis build-up to be completed without being detected, which led to the start of what would be the final assault on the fort; this final assault would be personally led by Erwin Rommel. In the evening, French General Pierre Kúnig decided the fort would be abandoned on 11 Jun 1942.|
|9 Jun 1942||German 15th Panzer Division launched an attack on the Free French troops at Bir Hakeim, Libya at 1300 hours, supported by artillery pieces and dive bombers. The French Legionaires (now reduced to half a cup of water per man per day) were cut off from the rest of the brigade, but by dusk the tenacious defenders were still hanging on desperately to their positions.|
|10 Jun 1942||German Stuka dive bombers preceded another assault on the French-held fort at Bir Hakeim, Libya, but the defense repulsed another infantry attack. By the end of the day, the French troops had practically run out of ammunition; at 2300 hours, Kúnig began the process to evacuate from the fort.|
|11 Jun 1942||French troops evacuated Bir Hakeim, Libya after 16 days of stubborn defense that incurred 3,330 casualties on the Axis side; the French suffered 1,084 casualties while defending this fort; 500 seriously wounded troops were left behind in the fort. During the evacuation, heavy German artillery bombardment caused a panic and caused several French vehicles to drive off of the cleared path into surrounding minefields, detonating several in the process. The retreating forces made contact with British forces at 0400 hours. With Bir Hakeim secured, the Germans pushed toward El Adem later in the day and Knightsbridge in the evening. After 1900 hours, a few long range shots were exchanged between British and German tanks, but Erwin Rommel chose not to engaged in full combat that night.|
|12 Jun 1942||Axis forces pushed British troops back toward Tobruk, Libya, destroying many tanks; meanwhile, an attack on nearby El Adem was repulsed by Indian troops. The Allied defense line at Gazala was now in danger of being cut off.|
|13 Jun 1942||German 21st Panzer Division, 15th Panzer Division, and 90th Light Division surrounded British troops in the Knightsbridge box near Tobruk, Libya, eventually forcing the British to fall back after sundown. The heavy fighting and the resulting heavy casualties caused the British troops to name this day "Black Saturday".|
|14 Jun 1942||British General Auchinleck authorized the abandonment of the Gazala Line in Libya.|
|15 Jun 1942||The British 8th Army withdrew from Libya and fell back to Egypt.|
|16 Jun 1942||Axis troops attacked El Adem and Sidi Rezegh near Tobruk, Libya.|
|17 Jun 1942||Axis troops surrounded Tobruk, Libya; to the east, Axis troops pursued the Allied forces falling back toward Egypt.|
|18 Jun 1942||Axis troops captured the supply road between Bardia and Tobruk in Libya; to the west, Axis troops captured RAF Gambut 40 miles west of Tobruk.|
|19 Jun 1942||German troops gave chase to retreating British forces in Libya throughout the day. After sundown, the Germans reversed direction and moved westward, intending on striking Tobruk, Libya by surprise on the next day.|
|20 Jun 1942||Axis troops launched what would be the final attack on Tobruk, Libya, preceded by a heavy artillery and air bombardment at 0530 hours. At 0700 hours, 100 German and Italian tanks rushed through a gap in Tobruk's southeastern lines. The port facilities were captured by 1900 hours, and British troops destroyed stocks of fuel and supplies to prevent capture.|
|21 Jun 1942||At dawn, Allied troops attempted a breakout from Tobruk, Libya, but was met with failure. At 0645 hours, South African minesweeping whalder HMSAS Parktown was disabled by four Italian MAS torpedo boats just outside the harbor, killing many; Parktown would be scuttled after all survivors were rescued. At 0800 hours, the 35,000-strong Allied garrison (19,000 British, 13,400 South African, and 2,500 Indian) surrendered.|
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George Patton, 31 May 1944