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.

11th Indian Brigade in Crusader

11th Indian Brigade was one of three in the “Red Eagle” division (after its shoulder patch), 4th Indian Infantry.  The other two were 5th and 7th. 11th and 5th did not join the division until later in the operation, they began as reserve force to XXX Corps.  11th Indian Brigade it 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.

Bir el Gobi

The Brigade was not involved in the battle of the Omars on the Egyptiian 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. But as a consequence of this erroneous assessment, the available 12 Valentine Tanks were split 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 precious 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.

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.

The Djebel

In fact, 11th Brigade had been mauled so badly 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.  It re-entered the campaign at a later stage, when it occupied part of the Djebel on the coast between Benghazi and Ain el Gazala.  One of its battalions (1/6 Rajputana Rifles) was detached as security detail for the HQ of XIIIth Corps in the Msus/Antelat area. One of its 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 whole of the division to escape the trap it found in relatively unscathed. 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.”

After CRUSADER

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. 11th Brigade eventually ended up defending the eastern sector of Tobruk during the gazala battles, and was destroyed when Tobruk fell.  It was pretty much left alone in the face of the German assault, and could not withstand it due to its over-extended frontline.  In a letter written to a senior officer in India by Major-General Tuker, GOC 4th Indian, he refers to 11th Brigade as the finest fighting formation in the desert.

DIARY of COMPOSITE SQUADRON 2 RTR (NEMO) from date of joining 4 ARMD BDE

First a bit of context. 2 RTR was orignally in 7th Armoured Brigade, and was one of the experienced tank regiments (i.e. battalion) in 8th Army. Its tanks were older Cruiser Mk. IV, which had reliability problems (the squaddie assessment would probably be that they were ‘shagged’). Like the rest of 7th Armoured Brigade, this regiment was hard hit in the initial tank battles of Operation Crusader, losing many vehicles due to enemy action and breakdown, and it was withdrawn to the Delta for rebuilding on 2 December, with the exception of a squadron (company) made up of the remaining tanks of the regiment. It was not to return to the desert for a while, since it was sent to the Far East in January 1942.

Thanks go to the Tank Museum in Bovington for making the transcripts of the war diaries available. They are an invaluable help to researchers, and I would like to encourage anyone looking for war diaries to contact their library.

The operations outlined below are quite interesting in the context of Crusader. Neither involved heavy fighting for the tanks, and there we have the problem of both of them. The first, on 1 December, aimed (as far as the 4th Armoured Brigade was concerned) to “extricate the New Zealand Division from its predicament at Belhamed. What they failed to realise was that Freyberg, the New Zealander’s commander, was not interested in being extricated, but in tank support to smash the attack on his division. When this was not forthcoming, he withdrew into Tobruk. The second, 6 December, was in the opinion of the tanks to “cover” the attack of 11th Indian Brigade (4th Indian Division) on Bir el Gubi. This attack failed in its main aim, to dislodge the Italian forces in el Gubi, with very heavy losses in the face of resistance by a battalion of Young Fascists (Giovanni Fascisti). This stand has become to Italians what Rorke’s Drift is to the British. And rightfully so – the utter failure by the British command to concentrate a Brigade of infantry and a Brigade of tanks to deal with a battalion of infantry is still difficult to believe. While 2 RTR talks about a successful attack, this only refers to one part of the attack, on the supply dump.

Nov 30
On this morning Composite Regiment, 22 Armd Bde was formed under the command of Major J W Dickens 3 CLY, consisting initially of a Regimental HQ of 3 tanks, and two squadrons each of 15 tanks, under the command of Major Yule and Major Rudkin MC respectively.
Lt Davidson with A Echelon, excepting three 6-ton lorries and one 8-cwt truck, left the field on this day. On arrival at 4th Armd Bde HQ. The Composite Regt formed third regiment. On this afternoon the regiment was in reserve and Bde leaguered as a whole south of Sidi Muftah (438394).

Dec 1st.
4th Armd Bde moved north to aerodrome area with the object of extricating the NZ forces. Composite ?Regt carried out the duties of protection left, while 5 RTR contacted the NZ Bde NE of the aerodrome. The operation which involved heavy engagement by 5 RTR was not however carried out, and the Bde drew south to its former area later in the day.
At 1630 hrs NEMO was ordered to move to Bir Berraneb (443374) via Bir Regham (440380), in order to intercept a force of MET with A/Cs which had been reported west of that area.

Dec 2nd and 3rd. No activity.

Dec 4th.
At 0500 hrs the Bde moved to area NE of El Gubi and in the afternoon moved north to Esc-Scerghi (421398 ) to take up a defensive position against a threat which did not materialise, although slight shelling was encountered from NW. At dusk the Bde moved back to El Haid where the composite regiment was reinforced by a further squadron from 22 Armd Bde under Major Lord Cranleigh, bringing the total strength of the Regt to 49 tanks.

Dec 5th.
4th Armd Bde moved back to Bir Berraneb owing to reports that enemy tanks had moved east towards Bardia. The day uneventful and that evening regiments went into separate leaguers for the first time.

Dec 6th.
4th Armd Bde moved into area pt 181 (427377) to cover the attack of 11 Indian Bde. on El Gubi. Composite Regt was moved protection right and an enemy column was encountered in the area pt 181. A successful attack was made by NEMO threatening the right flank of the column, and ARTHUR the left and centre. Only slight contact was made and the enemy made off hurriedly in a NW direction.
In the afternoon the Regt moved N to Esc-Scherghi and to assist him in the area NW of that place. No contact was made with the enemy except through the medium of shellfire.

Dec 7th.
4th Armd Bde moved to harass the enemy column now on the defensive in the area Bir el Gubi. At 1100 hrs NEMO was detached to 3 RTR in order to carry out a flank attack from the south.
The attack was fairly successful, was covered by Artillery fire very accurately placed from the east. NEMO was able to close in to 1000 yds at the nearest point, and to get in 10 mins of comparatively unimpeded fire before heavy artillery fire forced the squadron to withdraw. Distinguishing targets was difficult, as there were a number of derelict tanks, including one Mk IV, placed probably intentionally in position. At 1500 hrs, NEMO was sent on along offensive patrol south of El Gubi to Bir Reuid (399383). Owing to the necessity for replenishing petrol and ammunition and the difficulty in distinguishing friend from foe in the half light, the move was a complete failure, and the squadron rejoined the regiment in leaguer at about 2230 hrs at Bir El Dleuna (424371).

Dec 8th.
The Bde continued its harassing role, moved N W from Bir el Gubi to the area (404378 ). NEMO was not engaged.

Dec 9th.
Bde continued moving NW to Pt 185 (381407) in order to cover the western approaches to El Adem while the main attack was progressing. Later in the day the Bde moved east and then north to area 399409 where late in the evening contact was made with the enemy at long range by 3 RTR. The Bde leaguered 3 miles north of this place, which was then occupied by the Indian ?Div.

Dec 10th.
Bde moved to area 380412, composite regiment was now reduced to 21 effective tanks, NEMO being 9 tanks strong, and the following morning all personnel of 2 RTR were relieved by personnel of 4 CLY.