THE FIRST BATTLE OF GAZALA - Jim Mclean
The Libyan village of Gazala is an unlikely strategic pivot. Located some 31 miles (50km) west of Tobruk, in 1941 it consisted of a squat mud-brick mosque and around 15 simple farmhouses. The people subsisted by herding goats, cultivating small patches of fertile land, and hunting birds in the nearby salt-marshes. It was these salt marshes, more specifically their proximity to the cliffs to the south, that gave Gazala its significance; the village marks a point where the flat coastal strip that runs along Libya’s mediterranean coast narrows to just 1.25 miles (2km) – one of the few defensible points in the otherwise featureless Western Desert.
Gazala is best known for the major battle that took place nearby between 26 May and 21 June 1942, but this was not the first major clash that had happened there. It was at Gazala, between 13 and 15 December 1941, that Rommel fought his most important rearguard action against the second wave of Operation Crusader, a British Commonwealth offensive aimed at knocking the Afrika Korps out of the war.
Crusader was the second British offensive in six months aimed at driving Rommel back from the Egyptian border and relieving the besieged garrison of Tobruk. The first, Operation Battleaxe (15–17 June), was fought to a standstill within only a few miles of its starting point. The British Eighth Army lost almost half its tanks on the first day and narrowly escaped encirclement during Rommel’s rapid counterattack.
Crusader, by contrast, started well. On 18 November the Eighth Army struck out from its marshalling areas around Mersa Matruh with more than 700 tanks and 118,000 men, opting to bypass the Axis strongpoints along the Egypt-Libya border. Rommel had a roughly equal number of men, but only about half the British force’s tanks, most of which were obsolete Italian vehicles. The Afrika Korps and its Italian allies were quickly pushed all the way back to Tobruk, where three Italian divisions were struggling to contain the fierce breakout attacks launched by the garrison. This initial phase of the operation came to an end on 21–22 November, when the British 7th Armoured Division clashed head on with the 21st Panzer Division at Sidi Rezegh, south of Tobruk. The 7th Armoured Division’s 7th Brigade was almost completely destroyed in this battle, fleeing the field with only four tanks left from its original complement of 150.
Having halted the Allied attack, on 23 November Rommel launched a daring dash towards the Egyptian border, aimed at trapping the Eighth Army’s infantry in their positions around the German fortress of Bardia. On 25 November the 15th Panzer Division reached its objective only to find there was no-one there. Further attempts to cut off the Eighth Army later that day were thwarted by the 7th Indian Brigade, whose artillery at Sidi Omar destroyed almost every single tank in the 5th Panzer Regiment. By 28 October Rommel’s high-risk counteroffensive had ground to a halt. The Afrika Korps had only around 50 working tanks, barely any fuel, and was desperately short of supporting infantry.
This then began the final stage of Operation Crusader, the British drive to the west. On 6 December Rommel fell back to Gazala, abandoning the siege of Tobruk and the vast tract of territory he had briefly held, with the British in hot pursuit. The Panzer Divisions, padded out with a few replacement vehicles, were held to the rear as a reserve while the Italians took up defensive positions on the plateau to the south of the village, guarding a frontline that extended many miles south into the desert.
The British Commonwealth attack on the Gazala line began early in the morning on 13 December, with an attack on an eight-mile (13km) front by the 5th New Zealand Brigade and the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade. Opposing these units was the Italian Trieste Division, dug in along a line of sand dunes. By the afternoon the 5th Indian Infantry had succeeded in taking a large dune known as ‘Point 204’ and, once reinforced, threatened to break the Italian lines.
In response to this threat, Rommel ordered a force from the 15th Panzer Division, Kampfgruppe Menny, to counterattack towards Point 204. The 38 Panzer III and IV tanks of Kampfgruppe Menny succeeded in forcing the Indian Infantry from their positions on the hill, but then came under fire from the anti-tank guns and howitzers of the 25th Field Artillery Regiment. Firing from exposed positions, the 25th sustained heavy losses, but by using their 25-pdr field guns with the newly issued Armour Piercing round, they were able to knock out at least 12 of the German tanks and several more Italian vehicles, blunting the counterattack.
The following day saw reinforcements arrive in the form of the Polish Independent Brigade, who assisted the New Zealand infantry in another inconclusive attack on the northern end of the Italian line. In the south the 5th Indian Infantry, accompanied by a group of 10 Valentine tanks, succeeded in recapturing Point 204 and driving off an Italian armored counterattack.
Deeply concerned by the loss of Point 204, Rommel ordered another counterattack, this time committing most of his reserves. Elements of the 15th Panzer Division, the Ariete Division, and the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment pushed forward in the early afternoon of 15 December. What followed was one of the most brutal engagements of Operation Crusader. One battalion of the 5th Indian Infantry was completely wiped out and heavy losses were sustained by the second battalion and the artillery. Before they fell, however, the men of the 5th Indian Infantry inflicted equally heavy losses on their attackers and fought them almost to a standstill. By the time Point 204 was finally secured, the ad hoc counterattacking force had been almost destroyed as an effective fighting force and was unable to push on before nightfall. This allowed the British to move up reinforcements to secure the line.
When he tallied up his forces on the morning of 16 December, Rommel was dismayed to find that he had fewer than 10 operational German tanks (along with around 30 Italian tanks). He had held the Allied advance, but was now dangerously close to collapse. He was saved by the excessive caution of the inexperienced British armored commanders. The 4th Armoured Brigade (part of the 7th Armoured Division) had succeeded in punching a hole through the German lines the previous night, but failed to capitalize on its position, launching only a minor raid against German rear-line positions on the morning on the 16th before withdrawing to refuel.
The first battle of Gazala was a disappointment to the British. Rommel was able to withdraw his men in good order over the course of the next few days, falling back to a line between Ajedabia and el Haseiat with his forces badly depleted but still more or less intact. By 31 December, Rommel was entrenched in strong defensive positions around his logistics base at el Aghelia. Though battered, he was not beaten, and with new tanks and replacements arriving weekly at the docks in el Aghelia he felt he would soon be back on the offensive. That offensive, beginning in January began in earnest with the better-known Battle of Gazala, and ended with the decisive defeat of the Afrika Korps at el Alamein.