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.
The attack 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. Instead, the 2x250kg bombs hit the rest home of 149 AT Regiment Royal Artillery, causing 50 casualties in that single strike.
A Humber Armoured Car on Watch. IWM
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.