The first and last battle of 2 Armoured Brigade – 23 January 1942

23 January was the day the Axis won the counter-offensive, by dismembering the only armoured force standing in its way, 2 Armoured Brigade of 1 Armoured Division, in the brigades first and last battle during Operation CRUSADER.

2 Armoured Brigade was committed piecemeal, with the Queen’s Bays ordered to clear Saunnu, while the main body with 10 Royal Hussars and 9 Lancers advanced towards Antelat, with a different objective. West of Saunnu the brigade engaged the tank force of the Deutsches Afrikakorps, and was decisively defeated, essentially dropping out of the battle. On 26 January the brigade could only put a composite regiment into the field, consisting of one squadron with the remnants of the Bays and the 10 Hussars, and two squadrons and RHQ of the 9 Lancers. On 29 January this regiment reports that ‘the order to advance comes as a distinct shock’, and states it would have liked more time to sort itself out.

This day therefore removed the only mobile armoured force from the Commonwealth order of battle, and opened the way for the Axis to advance on to Msus, and then either Benghazi or Gazala.

The human cost to the Commonwealth of this was thankfully small, although 10 Hussars lamented the very heavy officer casualties they suffered.

Grave of Captain R.J. Williams, Adjutant 10 Royal Hussars, on the retreat march to the Gazala position. He was the gunner of the CO’s tank, and was severely wounded on 23 January, dying of his wounds on 28 January, during the retreat. He is now buried at Tobruk War Cemetary, while the remainder of his regiment who were killed on 23 January 1942, are now buried in Benghazi War Cemetary.

CWGC Details

70 Years Ago Today – 21 Jan 42

21 Jan 42 was the start of the Axis counter offensive, which took advantage of the temporary superiority that Axis forces had attained in the forward area, following the arrival of two successful convoys in December and January. It swiped Commonwealth forces from their positions, and undid most of the key gains of Operation CRUSADER, and in fact left the Commonwealth in a strategically weakened position.

It came as an almost total surprise to the Commonwealth command (even though this possibility had been considered for about ten days beforehand), and showed up a pattern within Commonwealth command of reaction and behaviour that would be repeated in the Gazala battles. Confusion, disorder, penny-packeting, and a total disregard of reality in favour of pre-conceived notions. In the end, all of western Cyrenaica was lost again, just four weeks after it had been conquered, Benghazi was again in Axis hands, and the stage was set for the dramatic events that would eventually lead the opposing armies to the El Alamein position.

Notable events of the day were few, other than the rapid melting away of the very weak Commonwealth columns (of 200 Guards Motor Brigade in the north, and 1 Support Group in the South) in front of the Axis positions, and a devastating attack by a single Ju 88 from Greece on a hotel in Cirene, which the Axis intelligence suspected of harbouring a high Commonwealth command staff. Insteat, the 2x250kg bombs hit the rest home of 149 AT Regiment Royal Artillery, causing 50 casualties in that single strike.

The day also showed the resurgence of the Luftwaffe in Africa, which managed to put 175 sorties into the air, 84 attack, 75 fighter, and 16 reconnaissance. This went largely unopposed because (in a reversal of fortune), the Commonwealth fighters in the forward area were operating from water-logged landing grounds.

Rommel’s order to his troops was allegedly posted on every telegraph post on the Via Balbia in the forward area:

German and Italian Soldiers

You have already endured tough battles with an enemy with shocking superiority. But your aggressive spirit remains intact.

At this moment we are stronger than the enemy in front of our positions. And it is to annihilate this enemy that today the army moves over to the attack.

We expect every soldie to do his utmost in these decisive days.

Long live Italy! Long live the Great German Reich!

Long live our leaders!

(translated from the Italian version of the order cited in Montanari Vol. III)

The first book in the series to be published will focus on this battle.