Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseOn 28 May 1941, British Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East General Archibald Wavell, pressured by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to launch an offensive to weaken the German siege on Tobruk in Libya, distributed the attack plan for Operation Battleaxe. The plan called for a three-stage attack: The first stage called for a three-column advance to defeat the Axis forces in the Halfaya Pass, Sollum, Fort Capuzzo, and Sidi Aziez; the second stage called for the British XIII Corps to push toward Tobruk and El Adem; and finally in the third stage, British troops were to take Derna and Mechili. If all went well, the siege on Tobruk would be lifted, and a possibility for an immediate further offensive would be created. The attack was originally scheduled to launch on 7 Jun, but it had to be delayed because the British 7th Armoured Brigade Group was still awaiting their tanks. The tanks finally arrived on 9 Jun, and the date for launch was set to 15 Jun. The overall ground commander for the operation was Lieutenant General Noel Beresford-Peirse of the British XIII Corps. Under him, Major General Frank Messervy commanded the Coast Force and Escarpment Force, consisted of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, the 22nd Guards Brigade, and the 4th Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division. Also under Beresford-Peirse was Major General Michael O'Moore Creagh, who commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group of 7th Armoured Division. A total of 20,000 infantrymen and under 200 tanks were dispatched for this operation. The ground forces were covered from the air by six fighter squadrons and eight bomber squadrons of the Royal Air Force, which totaled 98 fighters and 105 bombers.
ww2dbaseOn the Axis side, German General Erwin Rommel had already improved his defenses at Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo with anti-tank guns after studying the British attack during Operation Brevity of May 1941. Most of the initial defense against this new round of British attack would fall on the shoulder of the German 15th Panzer Division, whose commanding officer, General Walter Neumann-Silkow, had just taken over the command on 8 Jun. Neumann-Silkow's troops, both German and Italian, were dispersed across the line, but he did the 8th Panzer Regiment amassed for mobile operations, which had 57 medium tanks and 39 light tanks. Nine hours prior to the launch of Operation Battleaxe, German intelligence intercepted British radio messages that gave Rommel enough hints to conclude that an attack was likely. He ordered the German 5th Light Division to a new position south of Tobruk to act as a reserve force, ready to launch a counterattack at any Allied weak point. He also ordered a large artillery bombardment against Tobruk itself, to take place immediately, to break up any British attempt to amass forces within Tobruk for a break-out effort. In total, the Axis forces had about 13,200 infantrymen in the region (about 5,700 German and 7,500 Italian), 89 light tanks, 107 medium tanks, 130 fighter aircraft (60 German and 70 Italian), and 84 bomber aircraft (59 German and 25 Italian).
ww2dbaseOn 15 Jun 1941, Operation Battleaxe was launched. At 0515 hours, British troops began marching for Halfaya Pass, aiming to reach the pass at 0540. With soft sand making artillery transport difficult, the attack was delayed. At 0600, Major C. G. Miles decided to attack the top of the pass without waiting for the artillery pieces to arrive; by this time, exchange of small arms fire had already been underway for about 15 minutes. This attack failed as German and Italian anti-tank guns knocked out all but one of Miles' tanks. At the bottom of the pass, anti-tank guns knocked out the leading tanks of the attack, and anti-tank mines knocked out four more; the wrecks blocked the path toward the pass, thus the remaining two tanks were forced to act as stationary guns.
ww2dbaseMeanwhile, the British 7th Royal Tank Regiment reached Fort Capuzzo around noon time. The Axis defenders at the fort fled north to join the 15th Panzer Division. Shortly after, a battalion of the 8th Panzer Regiment of the German 15th Panzer Division launched several limited counterattacks, attempting to lure the British tanks out into the open; the British tanks did not take the bait, thus it appeared to the British commanders that they had repulsed every counterattack.
ww2dbaseTo the west, the British attacked Hafid Ridge with the 7th Armoured Brigade at about 0900 hours. The tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment were ambushed by dug-in anti-tank guns; firing at point-blank range, two of the regiment's older Cruiser Mk I tanks were knocked out immediately. Unable to move forward, the remaining tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regimen performed a flanking move, surprising Axis troops by surprise as tank guns and machine guns opened up behind them; one tank was lost by the British during the flanking attack. As the tanks moved toward Point 208, lack of radio led to the order to halt not being communicated, and five of the tanks moved ahead without support and were easily knocked out by German 88-millimeter anti-tank guns. In the mid-afternoon, British reconnaissance aircraft detected German tanks approaching, thus the British withdrew into an area advantageous for the expected battle against the attacking German tanks. At about 1730 hours, however, reports came in noting that the Axis forces were fleeing from Hafid Ridge. Taking advantage of this unexpected Axis withdraw, Squadron B of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment was dispatched to give chase, but only to find that it was a trap; 11 Crusader tanks were destroyed as they drove into a field of anti-tank gun fire, and a further 6 were heavily damaged. Shortly before sundown, German tanks from a battalion of the 5th Panzer Regiment arrived for attack; they were of the force that British aircraft had observed earlier. There were some combat, but as the sky darkened, both sides broke off the engagement.
ww2dbaseOn the first day of the operation, the British lost a significant number of tanks. The 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was down to 28 Cruiser Mk I tanks, the 6th Royal Tank Regiment was down to 20 Crusader tanks, and the 4th Armoured Brigade was down to 37 Matilda tanks; some of these units lost half of their tank strength in one day. On the Axis side, German tank losses were minimal, but they suffered heavy casualties during some of the fighting.
ww2dbaseOn the second day of the operation, 16 Jun 1941, the British 11th Infantry Brigade launched a new attack on Halfaya Pass; although the Axis troops continued to repulse every attack at the pass, the garrison was surrounded, and the British intended to fight until the Axis forces run out of supplies. At 0600 hours, 80 German tanks of the 15th Panzer Division attacked Fort Capuzzo from two sides; after heavy fighting, by 1000 hours, 50 German tanks were lost, and the attack was called off at noon. Taking advantage of this failed counterattack, British troops moved forward and captured the barracks at Sollum to prevent Axis forces from reinforcing Halfaya Pass.
ww2dbaseAnother German counterattack was launched at dawn toward the western edge of Hafid Ridge; this attack was conducted by troops of the German 5th Light Division. As the German troops advanced toward Hafid Ridge, troops of the British 7th Armoured Brigade moved in parallel to the east, and the combat was best characterized as a series of running skirmishes. During these engagements, German Panzer IV tanks, with longer range, effectively controlled the momentum of the battle, destroying many British artillery pieces; whenever British tanks successfully closed up the distance, German tanks withdrew behind a screen of anti-tank guns while light tanks and armored cars flanked the British advance, forcing them to hold position or back down. These skirmishes ended as the sun set; during these engagements, the British 7th Armoured Brigade lost half of its tank strength and was now down to 21 Cruiser Mk I tanks.
ww2dbaseAt the end of 16 Jun, the British 4th Armoured Brigade was down to 17 serviceable Matilda tanks.
ww2dbaseDuring the second day of the British operation, German General Erwin Rommel personnel witnessed several engagements between the British 7th Armoured Brigade and the German 5th Light Division. At 1600 hours, he decided that it was almost time to conduct a full-scale counterattack, and ordered the 15th Panzer Division to leave only minimal defense at its position north of Fort Capuzzo, and move most of its strength to the northern flank of the 5th Light Division. The attack was to begin on the following day.
ww2dbaseOn 17 Jun 1941, German tanks began a major counteroffensive at 0430 hours. The German 5th Light Division encountered the British 7th Armoured Brigade at 0600 hours, and immediately began pushing the British troops back. By 0800 hours, German troops had reached Sidi Suleiman. It was about that time when British command structure began to break down. During the previous day, Beresford-Peirse had ordered the Messervy to move the 4th Armoured Brigade to reinforce the 7th Armoured Brigade, but the German attack that began at dawn led Messervy to ignore the order to retain the strength for his own defense. Creagh of the 7th Armoured Brigade then messaged Beresford-Peirse so that the commanding officer could re-issue the order. Wavell, who had arrived on the front on the previous day to observe the progress of the offensive, decided to relieve Beresford-Peirse and take command of the operation. Rommel, who had learned of this series of events from intercepted radio messages, knew that the German offensive was beginning to throw off British plans.
ww2dbaseAt 1000 hours, German tanks ran into the remaining Matilda tanks of the British 4th Armoured Brigade, supported at the flank by the Cruiser Mk I tanks of the British 7th Armoured Brigade. After 45 minutes of fighting, Messervy contacted Creagh over the radio and informed him that he was about to order his infantry to fall back from Fort Capuzzo and Halfaya Pass; this message was in the Hindustani language for security purposes. At 1100 hours, Wavell approved Messervy's retreat order, realizing that the withdraw was absolutely required as his troops were now in danger of being encircled. At 1600 hours, after the British infantry had safely fled the area, German tanks broke through, destroying many of the remaining British tanks during the process. Operation Battleaxe was now officially considered a failure.
ww2dbaseDuring the entire operation between 15 and 17 Jun 1941, the British suffered 122 killed, 588 wounded, and 259 missing. On the Axis side, the Germans suffered 93 killed, 350 wounded, and 235 missing while the Italians suffered 592 casualties. In terms of tanks, the British lost 27 Cruiser Mk I tanks and 64 Matilda tanks; these two figures included vehicles broken down in action due to mechanical issues. The Germans lost 50 tanks in action. Because the Axis forces controlled the battlefield at the end of the operation, some of the lost tanks were successfully recovered, repaired, and placed back into service; ultimately, after the recovery efforts were completed, only 12 German tanks were truly lost during Operation Battleaxe. In the air, the British lost 33 fighters and 3 bombers, while only 10 German aircraft were lost.
ww2dbaseChurchill, extremely disappointed with the outcome, wanted to remove Wavell from his duties, but was fearful of the political consequences of such an action. Instead, he had Wavell exchange responsibilities with General Claude Auchinleck, who was the British chief in India prior to the exchange. Creagh was replaced by William Gott. On 4 Oct, Beresford-Peirse was transferred to become General Officer Commanding, Sudan; he was replaced by Lieutenant General Reade Godwin-Austen.
Operation Battleaxe Timeline
|28 May 1941||British General Archibald Wavell ordered Operation Battleaxe against Axis positions in Libya; it was to be launched on 7 Jun.|
|7 Jun 1941||British Operation Battleaxe, an offensive against Axis positions in Libya, was delayed.|
|14 Jun 1941||British tanks gathered on the Egyptian-Libyan border to prepare for a major offensive; Germans reinforced the front lines and strengthened the siege on Tobruk, Libya as they detected the British movement. After sundown, German artillery bombarded Tobruk.|
|15 Jun 1941||The British launched the Operation Battleaxe offensive toward in Libya at 0200 hours, engaging Axis defenses by 0600 hours. On the first day of the offensive, British troops were able to besiege Halfaya Pass and capture Fort Capuzzo, but at the high price of about half of their tank strength.|
|16 Jun 1941||German troops launched limited counterattacks at British positions in Libya; the attack at British troops at Fort Capuzzo was fought off, but the series of skirmishes toward Hafid Ridge saw many British tanks destroyed by the superior German Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks. At 1600 hours, Erwin Rommel decided to launch a decisive counterattack on the next day.|
|17 Jun 1941||A German counterattack launched at 0430 hours broke through the Allied lines in Libya, threatening to cut off the Allied forces attacking Halfaya Pass. In the afternoon, the Allied leadership decided to call off the Operation Battleaxe offensive. The British 7th Armoured Division tanks formed a rearguard against pursuing German tanks until 1600 hours to allow Allied troops to fall back. The failure of the operation, especially in regards to the heavy losses in tank strength, would soon cost Wavell his position as the British commander-in-chief in the region.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935