First Battle of Bir el Gobi – What Happened There?

Much has been made of the defense of Biro l Gobi on 19 November 1941 by the Italian Ariete division. One can easily argue that this is where it all started to go wrong for the Commonwealth. But then again, with the possible exception of the taking of Sidi Omar by 7 Indian Brigade, it is hard to see what went right at the start…

Facts

22 Armoured Brigade put in a piecemeal attack on Bir el Gobi early on 19 November. They got checked by the Ariete division and its supporting units, and had to withdraw after suffering losses. The attack was not renewed, instead 22 Armoured Brigade went to help out (and be destroyed in the process) at Sidi Rezegh on 21 to 23 November, and 1 South African Division’s 1 South African Brigade was then tasked with ‘masking’ the Bir el Gobi position. Ariete stayed in the area a few more days before moving off north to participate in the ‘dash to the wire’ on 24 November.

Claims

Now for some of the claims that are being made. These include that 22 Armoured Brigade lost over 50 tanks that day; that this battle was a big victory of the Italian forces; that it demonstrated the prowess of the Italian army at arms; that it derailed CRUSADER; that 22 Armoured Brigade and 7 Armoured Division command blundered into the position, not knowing that Ariete was there; that 22 Armoured Brigade put in a mindless Balaklava frontal charge into the position; that Ariete was supported by German forces; that the Commonwealth forces did not consider Italian tanks serious opponents, and were not aware of their number, underestimating Ariete’s strength; that the Commonwealth command considered Bir el Gobi a defeat at the time.

Sources

War diaries are available online at this link for the three armoured regiments participating (2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars RGH, 3 and 4 County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) CLY), with 4 CLY missing November 1941 at this link, unfortunately, and for the 11 Hussars, the reconnaissance unit of 22 Armoured Brigade. 22 Armoured Brigade war diary, and after battle reports and war diaries from 7 Armoured Division are available too, including its message log. None of these conclusively addresses the issue of British tank losses, but taken together they help form a picture. Further material is available in the UK archives, as well as an after action report by Ariete, which is held at NARA, in College Park. War diaries for Ariete are also available. We also have access to the regimental history of the 2 Royal Gloucestershire Hussars, and hopefully soon to that of both CLY regiments, as well as Viscount Cranley’s book about 3 CLY. The UK sources are of variable quality and reliability, and the Italian report is written in that peculiar Italian style…

In our book, we intend to discuss this battle in detail, drawing on the period sources available to us. We hope we will be able to deal with some of the misconceptions at least, and provide as closely as possible a definitive account of the battle. This is just one of the areas where we hope to add to the knowledge of what happened during Operation CRUSADER.

7 thoughts on “First Battle of Bir el Gobi – What Happened There?

  1. Here’s a couple of Italian Ariete f/h accounts on the Nov. 19 Bir el Gobi fight you could bring to bear: Col. Oderisio Taeggi’s DIARIO DI UN COMBATTENTE (Bari, 1946) + Lt. Pietro Ostellino’s letters in Andrea Rebora, ed., CARRI ARIETE COMBATTONO (Rome, 2009). The latter is I think currently available at the Libreria Militare bookstore site. From the other bits and pieces I’ve seen, including some of the unit diaries you mention above, both sides got badly bloodied, with 22nd Armored Brigade getting quite the worst if it. Looks like 22nd might have lost around 60 tanks, with perhaps one-third of these as mechanical breakdowns before and during the battle. What I still cannot find, published or on the net, is any substantial f/h account from a 22nd Armored Brigade tanker…just a fragment here and there. Which may in itself be suggestive: being whipped by the “eyeties” maybe not have been something they’d want to write a lot about.

    • Hi. 60 sounds about right when mechanical failures on the approach march are included. I’d suggest the regimental histories for eyewitness account. They can be had through the regimental museum websites.

      Cheers

      Andreas

    • I did get the 2 RGH history now. There are 1st-hand accounts in it. It also nicely clarifies the situation on their tank losses. 🙂

  2. Dear Sirs,

    my name is Andrea Rebora and I am the writer of “Carri Ariete combattono” published by Prospettiva Editrice in 2009.
    What I tried to do in my book, first of all, was to reconstruct in details the history of the Ram armoured division during his stay in the North of Africa from 1941 to 1943. In order to follow the real facts I read all the letters and authentic papers written by my grandfather Pietro Ostellino who was a lieutenant – tank man involved in this war in that desert land for two years. He fought before using the L3 tank and after the M13 tank. I have emphasized the military operation Crusader and the Bir El Gobi battle in chapter XXI- XXII trying to make a real reconstruction of this fight but following the point of view of the Italian armoured division. The lieutenant Ostellino with a small squad of the 32th tank men and other Ram detachments (twelve L3 tanks and one M13 tank hidden) was subjected to a laughter against the Bir El Gobi garrison troops on the 4th December 1941. The English troop tried to attack for seven times with no success thanks to the efforts of the tank men and fascist division. In one of his letter stopped because of the battle and finished three days after it, Pietro Ostellino was talking about these terrible times.
    In my opinion this is a real and essential testimony about the reconstruction of the Crusader operation.
    It is possible to find and buy my book on line or if you are interested I can send you also by
    e-mail some Italian copies of the pages where I am talking about this battle.
    Thank you very much for your attention.
    Kind Regards to everybody.

    • Caro Andrea

      Grazie mille. Many thanks. It would be very interesting to read your book, and I will see that I can order it.

      With kind regards

      Andreas

  3. Ordered and got a copy of the 2nd Glocestershire book, and it is just what I was looking for in terms of f/h accounts…a real gem. Also obtained Andrea Rebora’s book and it looks to be all red meat as well, tho I haven’t started translating yet.

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