Battle of Mersa Matruh
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseUpon defeat at the Battle of Gazala in mid-Jun 1942, the British Eighth Army fell back to Mersa Matruh, Egypt, 100 miles east of the Libyan-Egyptian border. On 23 Jun, Axis forces resumed the advance toward Egypt. Although the morale was high, Erwin Rommel's forces were actually rather weak at this point. Only 44 German and 14 Italian tanks were at its spearhead, and behind the forward forces some the infantrymen found themselves riding on Allied vehicles as their own began to break down. Rommel expected many more tanks to come as reinforcements, but he wanted to avoid sitting idle and to take advantage of the forward momentum to overrun the next Allied defensive line at Mersa Matruh.
ww2dbaseOn 25 Jun 1942, British Commander-in-Chief Claude Auchinleck assumed personal command of the British Eighth Army. Realizing that Rommel's ability to outflank the Allied forces was among the reasons why the Battle of Gazala was lost, he shifted the main defensive focus from Mersa Matruh to El Alamein, Egypt, which was 100 miles to the east, where the terrain features of the Qattara Depression disallowed Rommel to perform any flanking maneuvers to the south. With this strategy change, the mission of the defense at Mersa Matruh and other positions west of El Alamein became one of delay action.
ww2dbaseItalian troops of Brescia Division and Trento Division arrived at Mersa Matruh in the afternoon of 26 Jun, engaging in fighting against the Indian 10th Infantry Division. Late on 26 Jun the German 90th Light Division, German 15th Panzer Division, and German 21st Panzer Division penetrated the minefield at the center of the Allied defensive line south of Mersa Matruh. The penetration was slowed early on 27 Jun, however, as the German 90th Light Division was pinned down by British artillery. The German tanks, however, continued to move east; the tanks of German 15th Panzer Division were engaged by British tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade and 7th Motor Brigade, while the German 21st Panzer Division advanced to attack Minqar Qaim. Later in the afternoon, the German 90th Light Division, now down to only 1,600 men, succeeded in cutting off Mersa Matruh by gaining control of the coastal road about 30 kilometers to the east, enveloping the Indian 10th and 50th Infantry Divisions inside. During the night of 27 Jun, New Zealand 2nd Division became surrounded as the German 21st Panzer Division moved behind its positions; it was able to break out back into Allied lines without serious losses. At 2120 hours, Auchinleck ordered all Allied units to fall back to Fuka, Egypt 48 kilometers to the east of Mersa Matruh. Some of units fell back all the way to El Alamein during the confusion of the withdraw, while elements of the X Corps, already running low with ammunition, did not withdraw until 0430 hours on 28 Jun due to communications problems; the X Corps, in particular, suffered heavy losses by the German 21st Panzer Division tanks due to the poor execution of the falling back to Fuka. On 28 Jun, at Fuka, the Indian 29th Infantry Brigade was nearly wiped out by the Axis attacks. Axis forces captured Fuka by the end of the day on 28 Jun, capturing 6,000 prisoners of war, 40 tanks, and large amounts of supplies. During the night on 28 Jun, the last remaining Allied defenders at Mersa Matruh attempted, with some success, to break out of the envelopment which by now had been strengthened by the arrival of more Italian infantrymen. With victory secured at Mersa Matruh and beyond, Rommel barely rested his troops before pushing them on toward El Alamein.
Jim H., "Comando Supremo: Italy at War"
Last Major Update: Dec 2010
Battle of Mersa Matruh Timeline
|22 Jun 1942||Axis troops reached Bardia, Libya, 10 miles west of the border with Egypt.|
|23 Jun 1942||Axis forces crossed the Libyan-Egyptian border and marched toward the Allied defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, Egypt 100 miles to the east, engaging units of the British 7th Armoured Division en route at Sollum.|
|25 Jun 1942||Claude Auchinleck assumed personal command of the British Eighth Army. Meanwhile, Arthur Coningham launched around-the-clock bombing of Erwin Rommel's advancing army in North Africa. The Luftwaffe, weakened by operations at Bir Hakeim and Tobruk, could only put up 50% of their available aircraft to counter the Allied attacks. This allowed the 8th Army to successfully occupy positions at El Alamein positions, whilst the German and Italians were left short of fuel and supplies.|
|26 Jun 1942||Italian troops of Brescia Division and Trento Division reached Mersa Matruh, Egypt in the afternoon, engaging in fighting against the Indian 10th Infantry Division. To the south, German tanks and infantry moved toward Minqar Qaim.|
|27 Jun 1942||German 90th Light Division cut off the Allied forces at Mersa Matruh, Egypt as its troops reached Ras Hawala at 1900 hours. British commander Claude Auchinleck ordered his forces to fall back to Fuka 48 kilometers to the east; the withdraw was conducted with much confusion. German 21st Panzer Division surrounded New Zealand 2nd Infantry Division at Minqar Qaim, Egypt before sundown, but the New Zealand troops would be able to break out of the envelopment after dark with a bayonet charge.|
|28 Jun 1942||Axis forces captured Fuka and Mersa Matruh, Egypt.|
|29 Jun 1942||German 90th Light Division reached Sidi Abdel Rahman, Egypt.|
|30 Jun 1942||In Egypt, Allied defenses east of Mersa Matruh fell back to El Alamein.|
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939