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