The repeat delays to the start of CRUSADER was quite unpalatable to Winston Churchill, who had sacked Wavell over his reluctance to move faster as much as over his failure in BATTLEAXE. As has often been pointed out, Churchill had a layman’s appreciation of war, which was largely unbothered by any understanding of logistics and the needs of keeping a 1940s fighting force operational. Partially behind the delay to the start of CRUSADER was a classic case of misunderstanding and miscommunication, relating to the technical state of the new Crusader tanks (Cruiser Mk.V) of 22 Armoured Brigade, as set out in the documents in WO216/15.
Crusader Mk. I tanks during Operation CRUSADER, end of November 1941. IWM. Given the lack of markings on the tank I suspect however that this is an October picture, prior to operations commencing.
22 Armoured Brigade took 45 tanks which had been used from the UK, 10 for each of the regiments, and another 5 which were transferred to 3 CLY from 1 Amroured Brigade. This indicates that 121 tanks were factory fresh, and as was pointed out to me, it is likely that it was these new tanks which had arrived in the Middle East with some vital equipment uninstalled, but nevertheless included on the ships they arrived in, in specially marked boxes. In the expectation of the ministry of supply, the complete installation of the equipment in the base workshops should have taken 3-4 days. The missing equipment was:
- Oil filters (missing on 40 tanks)
- Track guard inserts (missing on 39 tanks)
- Modified fuel tank cock (missing on 8 tanks)
- Gear lever extension (missing on 26 tanks)
- Fan drive assembly (missing on 86 tanks)
The first items being fixes that could be implemented by the units themselves, while the last one necessitated a trip to the base workshops, of which there were two in Egypt.
What was not foreseen however was that someone in Egypt had decided that all axles needed to be reinforced, because of some failures that occurred shortly after arrival. This was in fact a known problem in England, and traced back to metal manufacture errors. But it had been decided that since the problem affected not all axles, that strengthening of them as a matter of course was not required. Not knowing this, Middle East Command presumed all axles were faulty, and subjected all tanks to a reinforcement programme, which ate up time.
On top of this, time was required for the desertification not of the tanks, but of the troops. Desert driving and navigation were skills that Middle East Command assumed would take two weeks of training to acquire.
So a simple calculation, from arrival on 2 October, has 22 Armoured Brigade ready by 2 November (two weeks of unloading, two weeks of desert training). The re-fitting of the tanks would not take extra time as it could be done while drivers train. The same for desert tactical training of tank crews. Quicker unloading (the two weeks required brought another rebuke from Churchill complaining about taking this long to unload ‘150 vehicles’) were defended by Middle East Command on the grounds that to unload the large number of wheeled vehicles took the time, not the 166 tanks, and that in any case this was not its responsibility, but that of civilian authorities. Maybe a week could have been gained here – I don’t know enough about the unloading of ships and the harbour facilities in Egypt in late 1941 to make a call either way. So on the outside 2-3 weeks might have been gained by avoiding the axle reinforcement and unloading more quickly.
But it needs to be kept in mind that 22 Armoured Brigade was not the only reason for the delay. 1 SA Division also suffered from shortcomings in desert navigation and tactical/operational training, and based on the semi-official history these were just about made up by 18 November (see Agar-Hamilton ‘The Sidi Rezegh Battles’). But in fairness it never played much of a role in the battle, so it is doubtful if this by itself would have sufficed to hold back the decision to attack. Another reason was a lack of fighter pilots, of which there weren’t enough to man the existing aircraft, and consequently there was also no operational reserve on which to draw (see AIR 20/2109, Tedder’s appreciation of 13 October).
It is of course interesting to speculate what would have happened, had CRUSADER been launched 2-3 weeks earlier. My guess is that not much would have changed. In fact, the Axis supply situation by mid-November was probably worse than it had been a fortnight before, due to the failure of the Beta convoy to make it across the Med. Also, the fortuitous intervention of the weather Gods in the form of the tempest of 17 November which not only grounded much of the Axis air force but maybe more importantly severely disrupted its communications would not have helped the Commonwealth gain air superiority.
On the other hand, the almost six weeks it took from 18 November to entering Benghazi would (presuming a similar course of the campaign) have led to Commonwealth forces entering the town at or just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, giving Middle East Command a valuable breathing space and maybe the possibility to push on to defeat the remnants of the Axis forces before having to relinquish forces for the Far East and India. It would also have left the Axis forces without the important supply convoys of late December and early January, which replenished German tank strength to a point that the counter-attack of 21 January became possible. Furthermore, two weeks earlier large parts of the German air transport fleet and Luftflotte 2 were still fully engaged in Russia, and would probably not have been able to intervene so quickly.
Finally of course it would have soothed Churchill’s nerves, and who knows what effect that might have had…