The strategic impact of the counteroffensive

In “Decisive Battles of World War II – The German View”, the former head of Operations in OKW, General Walter Warlimont wrote about the North African campaign in 1942 as one of these decisive battles under the title “Decision in the Mediterranean”. He traces the revival of the strategic consideration of a move into Egypt back to the successful counter-offensive by the Axis forces at the end of the winter battle. This offensive, prepared in total secrecy and successfully carried out started on 21 January 1942 swiped away the inexperienced and understrength British 1st Armoured Division in the desert, and almost trapped and annihilated the 4th Indian Infantry Division in the Djebel on the northern coast of Cyrenaica, around Benghazi and Barce.  In the view of Warlimont:

[…]this tremendous offensive drive […] encouraged German leaders to revert to their ambitious project of the previous year, linking it this time with plans for a further offensive in the Caucasus.

The inherent weakness of this development, in which strategic considerations limped along in the rear of tactical success, was glossed over by Rommel’s brilliant victory in the desert, and it was optimistically assumed that Rommel’s tremendous reputation and his undoubted skill as a leader in the field would more than compensate for the steady increase of enemy strengths which was to be expected.

A few comments on this:

  • There are shades of the June 1942 attack into Egypt after the fall of Tobruk here, where strategic considerations (this time the capture of Malta) again ‘limped’ along in the wake of the capture of Tobruk.
  • Warlimont completely ignores in this analysis the fact that the Axis forces, which not three months before, on 21 November 1941 were supposed to seize the Tobruk fortress and then prepare to break across the frontier into Egypt had barely escaped with the hides on their back from Auchinleck’s offensive.  Rommel was in my opinion outgeneralled in November and December 1941, and quite badly and soundly beaten outside Tobruk, the obvious successes, such as the destruction of 5th South African Brigade and the near destruction of the New Zealand Division notwithstanding. But somehow this near desaster was forgotten by a fast drive across a mostly empty desert and the pushing back of the enemy halfway to Tobruk.
  • So while I agree that the counter-offensive was a tactical (and in fact a strategic success), I hesitate to subscribe to the view that either it or indeed the whole winter battle was a ‘brilliant victory’, despite the fact that the Axis side did not hesitate to slap itself on the back over just escaping total ruin in North Africa.
11th Indian Brigade in Crusader

11th Indian Brigade in Crusader

The Brigade had a short but interesting history during Operation CRUSADER, and served well. In a letter written to a senior officer in India by Major-General Tuker, GOC 4th Indian, following the loss of the Brigade at Tobruk in June 1942, he refers to 11 Indian Brigade as the finest fighting formation in the desert.

11 Indian Brigade was one of three in the “Red Eagle” division (nicknamed after its shoulder patch), 4 Indian Infantry, together with 5 and 7 Indian Brigades.  At the outset of Operation CRUSADER, only 7 Brigade was in active operations, with 11 Brigade guarding the coast east of Sollum/Halfaya, and 5 Brigade acting as a reserve. 11 Indian Brigade at that time consisted of the 2/5 Mahratta Light Infantry, 2nd Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders and 1/6 Rajputana Rifles, under the command of Brigadier Anderson.  

Following two weeks of quiet on the eastern front of the border fortifications, the Brigade crossed the wire at the border to Libya on 1 December 1941, to support the operations of 13 Corps, and quickly became engaged.

11pow

An Indian soldier guards a group of Italian prisoners near El Adem aerodrome, during the pursuit of Axis forces westwards after the relief of Tobruk. (IWM E7180)

Bir el Gobi

The Brigade was not involved in the battle of the Omars on the Egyptian frontier, and only entered battle attacking the Italian strongpoint at Bir el Gobi on the desert track south of Tobruk.  The attack was badly prepapred due to a lack of time (faulty intelligence, and no communication with the supporting artillery) and this, together with the heroic resistance by the Giovanni Fascisti (Young fascists), led to very high losses of the attacking units of the 11th Brigade, in particular 2nd Cameronians on the first day. While it was believed that the objective of the 2/5 Mahrattas was strongly held, while the objective of the Cameron Highlanders was lightly held, in reality it appears to have been vice versa.

As a consequence of this erroneous assessment, the available 12 Valentine Tanks were split into two groups, 9 for the Mahrattas and 3 for the Cameron Highlanders. The Mahrattas captured their objective in a bayonet charge, taking 250 Italian prisoners and capturing 50,000 gallons  (about 2,000 tons) of fuel. After this success, the Mahrattas tried to support the Cameron Highlanders, in two further attacks but even this did not help to dislodge the defenders. The next morning, 5th December, a silent attack was tried, but again to no avail.

At Bir el Gobi on 5 December, the battalion lost its commanding officer, Lt.Col. Butler O.B.E. killed, together with 13 men, British 2/Lt. Wilson, and Vice Roy Commissioned Officer Jemadar Maida Ram of B Company, and 48 wounded, including two British officers and two VCOs, with one soldier dying of wounds on 20 December. A Sepoy (private) in 2/5 Mahrattas was awarded the Indian Order of Merit medal for his actions during  one of these attack, a decoration available only to Indian soldiers, and ranking one or two classes under the Victoria Cross. The history (probably working from the citation) reads:

Notable devotion to duty for which he deservedly won the posthumous award of the I.O.M. was displayed by Sepoy Babaji Desai who, when his section commander had been killed, took command and used his Bren gun very effectively in assisting the advance of the company against heavy  enemy machine-gun fire.  Later the Sepoy was ordered to remain in position covering the withdrawal of his company and carried out his task so well that the company suffered few casualties from the fire of the enemy’s machine-guns on its immediate front.  Sepoy Babaji Desai and the two men with him were killed before they could themselves withdraw.

After abandoning the attack, 11th Brigade leaguered in the desert west of el Gobi when 2/5 Mahrattas were attacked and overrun by the tanks of the Afrika Korps.  The history of the Mahratta Light Infantry states:

The 2nd Battalion was again heavily engaged in the action at Bir el Gobi on 4th/6th December 1941, when during a powerful enemy counter-attack two companies were overrun by a concentration of German tanks losing in casualties 3 British officers, 5 Indian officers, and 240 other ranks.

What happened was an attack of about 25 tanks, according to ‘The Tiger Kills’, with supporting infantry.  They overran A and C companies of the Mahrattas, but in the process were delayed and engaged sufficiently to allow the remainder of the battalion to withdraw. 

11matilda

A Matilda tank supporting Indian troops, 24 December 1940. (IWM E3870E)

The Djebel

In fact, 11th Brigade had been mauled so badly in the three days it was in action that it was withdrawn into Tobruk, out of line for the pursuit of the Axis forces to the Gazala line. It also lacked transport to participate in a more mobile battle. 5 and 7 Brigades continued the pursuit, first to the Gazala line, where 5 Brigade was mauled on 13 December, and then on to Benghazi.

11 Brigade only re-entered the winter campaign at a later stage, when it occupied part of the Djebel on the coast between Benghazi and Ain el Gazala and became embroiled in the German counteroffensive.  One of its battalions (1/6 Rajputana Rifles) was detached as security detail for the HQ of 13 Corps in the Msus/Antelat area, leaving 2/5 Mahrattas and 2 Camerons, which had been reinforced by ‘E’ Force, a raiding force based on 29 Indian Brigade’s 3/2 Punjab Regiment. One of the 1/6 Rajputana companies was overrun by German tanks during the retreat, while the remainder of the battalion had a close shave due to lack of transport (and at one time refuelled at one end of a dump while the Germans were using the other end) but managed to escape.

11th Brigade as a whole was cut off in the Barce area with the rest of the division following the loss of Benghazi to the Axis counter-stroke on 21st January. During a brilliantly executed retreat, it managed to disengage and cause heavy damage to the Axis forces. The defensive action of the Brigade was instrumental in allowing the remainder of the division to escape the trap it found in, relatively unscathed, and it sufficiently delayed the advance of German combat groups through the Djebel to prevent them from bouncing the Gazala Line towards Tobruk.

In the brief history of the division printed shortly after the war, this engagement of the 11th Brigade is described as “[…]perhaps the most brilliant defensive engagement in divisional history.” The battalion commander of the 2/5 Mahrattas, Lieutenant-Colonel M.P.Lancaster, was awarded the DSO for his “[…]able handling of the battalion in successive rearguard actions covering the withdrawal of 11th Brigade from the Barce-Benghazi area from 24th January to 4th February.”

After CRUSADER

When 4th Indian Division came into the Gazala line, it was immediately split up, and its brigades distributed all across the Mediterranean for several months. 11 Brigade eventually ended up defending the eastern sector of Tobruk during the gazala battles, and was destroyed when Tobruk fell, with Brigadier Anderson becoming a prisoner of war.  At that time, the Brigade was pretty much left alone in the face of the German assault, and could not withstand it due to its over-extended frontline.  

Featured picture showing men of probably 7 Indian Brigade. Men of the 4th Indian Division with a captured German flag at Sidi Omar, North Africa. (E6940)

Some views on the Matilda II

The Matilda II was the iconic early-war tank of the British Army. When it was first encountered by the Germans in France, and the Italians in North Africa, it was very bad news to them, since none of their standard AT guns did a good job at dealing with it.  By the time of Operation CRUSADER however, it had gone past its heyday in fighting the Germans, and it was about to be replaced by the Valentine, which continued to serve in Europe until the end of the war if not as a main-line battle tank then as a chassis for specialised conversions, such as bridgelayer.  The Matilda II however served as a main battle tank in the Pacific until the end of the war. Nevertheless, even in November 1941  in the desert the Matilda was still potent enough to be a real headache for Axis infantry and tankers, as one can see in this prior post, and it was arguably the Matildas of the Royal Tank Regiment that helped the infantry win the battle in December, while their cruiser colleagues were licking their wounds in the desert, a point well made by Bryan Perett.

The views below come from the late Major Alexander McGinlay MC and Bar (see this post about how he got his first MC), a Matilda commander in 7 RTR and while not representative, are certainly quite interesting. I would like to thank his family for allowing me to auote them here.  Then Lieutenant McGinlay arrived in Egypt in time for Wavell’s (really O’Connor’s) counteroffensive against the Italians in late 1940, and commanded the first tank into Tobruk.  He then served in the area until the fall of Tobruk in 1942, when he was injured and captured, and again at the end of the war in a Churchill in Italy, after his escape.  In the course of his service he gained the MC and bar, one during the breakout from Tobruk in November 1941, the second during the battle for Rigel Ridge.

Some of the points made:

  • The Matilda had a high quality of workmanship going into it, the case in point here being that all tanks of the regiment started up without problems after their 5-week sea voyage to Egypt.
  • The armour protection was very good, with the officer in question surviving a direct hit at short-range by a 105mm field gun, with the armour only splitting open at the welding seam.
  • Until the introduction of a “new”  50mm solid shot round by the Germans, the Matilda crews seem to have been relatively unbothered by this gun. (maybe a reference to the introduction of sub-calibre rounds with higher penetration, or maybe the officer is referrring to the first encounters with the more capable 50L60 anti-tank/tank gun). In one incident a 50mm round partially penetrates the tank, cutting the hydraulics of the power traverse on the turret, leading to the crew being well covered in hot oil.
  • The only drawback is seen in the 2-pdr gun which is giving the Germans a big advantage
  • Crews had practiced and executed fire on the move tactics, which the officer sees as an advantage compared to the German tactic of firing only when stopped (see below)
  • The most surprising statement is that on arrival in Egypt in 1940 the tanks had some high-explosive (HE) rounds available.  It is generally accepted that no 2-pdr HE made it to the desert.  (I have followed this up with David Fletcher from the Bovington RAC Tank Museum, who suspects that maybe it was an error in remembering – there is no evidence for 2-pdr HE being delivered in the desert, but the stowage  diagrams show only AT supposed to be in the tank)

Below an interesting excerpt from the papers on how the German gun advantage was overcome by the British tankers:

The enemy had the gun advantage, but things were evened up a bit by the fact that we were better trained, in that we could, and did, fire our main gun on the move.  They had to stop.  So, by putting down smoke, either ourselves, or our back-up artillery, we could use the smoke to cut down the distance between them and us.  When the smoke cleared, we were in among them, firing on the move.  They did not like it. Our lighter armoured divisions especially took good advantage of this tactic.

A few comments on this very interesting passage:

  • German tactics were very different, and trained the tankers to stop before firing the main gun. This was seen to improve effectiveness by the Germans. The main issue with firing on the move is keeping the gun on target – with lighter guns, provided a shoulder mount was installed (as it was in the Matilda)
  • Smoke from the supporting artillery depended on good co-operation between the tanks and the guns.  Not something the Commonwealth forces were proficient in until much later in the desert war, although it appears that the Tobruk fortress forces did very well in this regard.
  • Smoke from tanks could be provided by the close-support tanks of which two were on strength in every squadron, normally attached to Squadron HQ. These tanks were equipped with 76mm howitzers instead of 2-pdr guns, and carried almost entirely smoke rounds.

A fine book on the Matilda is Bryan Perett’s “The Matilda Tank”.  Good luck getting a copy at a reasonable price – I failed and paid a lot.