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.