Wednesday, February 9, 2011


MAY 26-27 1942

The 8th Army front extended from Gazala to Bir Hacheim and was interlaced with huge minefields of a scale and complexity never encountered before. Behind this line loomed the strongly defended boxes of Knightsbridge and El Adem and finally Tobruk, occupied by experienced desert fighters. Even Rommel underestimated the strength of the forces mustered here. However, within 3 weeks of opening his offensive, Rommel would reduce this magnificent British army to a state of complete rout.

There is no question tat the British infantry divisions were among the finest in the world, and compared to the Italian 10th and 21st Corps, were far better equipped and superior in numbers. Auchinlek admitted that the British had a superiority in field artillery and tank strength, plus a healthy reserve to draw upon. Rommel entered this battle with 333 German tanks, plus 228 Italian tanks, while the British had a front line strength of over 700 tanks, and a superiority in armoured cars of 10 to 1.

By this time the American-built M3 Grant medium tank with a sponson-mounted 75mm main gun and turret-mounted 37mm gun had arrived in goodly numbers, about 200. Of the 220 PzKpfw.IIIs now in the German lineup, only 19 were equipped with the long barreled 50mm guns. The British by now also received their new 6-pdr antitank guns, and Rommel was now fielding newly arrived 76.2mm guns captured in Russia. Nine of these weapons were mounted on 5-ton halftracks and supplemented the 605th PzJg.Abt.

Due to their great superiority in armoured cars, and superb radio security, the British were able to mask their positions from German recon units. Rommel had no idea that the 22nd Armoured Brigade were just behind the Gazala Line, nor was he aware of the strength of the Knightsbridge Box, and its 201st Guards Brigade. Other surprises would be the 29th Indian Brigade at Bir el Gubi and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade southwest of Bir Hacheim.

Rommel in is "Greif" observing the assault at the Gazala line
Rommel's plan of attack, code named "Case Venezia" (and also referred to as "Theseus"), would once again involve a wide sweep around the British left flank with his tank forces, while the rest of the Armeegruppe Afrika applied pressure to the main Gazala Line. "Group Cruewell" made up of the German 15th Rifle Brigade and Italian 10th and 21st Corps, commanded by Gen. Cruewell would attack the 1st S.A. and British 50th Divisions frontally. The main strike force, led by Rommel would consist of AfrikaKorps (under Gen. Nehring), the Italian 20th Corps (Ariete & Trieste), and the 90th Light Division. Moving rapidly by night, this force would advance beyond the minefields, move south of Bir Hacheim, and sweep north towards Acroma, hopefully causing chaos in the British rear.

Ariete Division in the Gazala Line

Ariete Armored Division would make an attempt to capture Bir Hacheim, but AfrikaKorps and 90th Light would bypass it well to the south. Events would later prove that the strength and tenacity of the Free French forces in Bir Hacheim had been greatly underestimated. This outpost would remain a thorn in Rommel's side and greatly disrupt his supply lines. In hindsight, it would appear that reaching Acroma on the first day of the attack was asking a bit much os his troops, and his decision to send 90th Light and the recon groups off towards El Adem would acheive very little.

Throughout the day of May 26 the AfrikaKorps formed up in columns at their concentration area east of Rotonda Segnali in the midst of a persistent dust storm, which helped conceal their movements from air recon. Each column would be headed by about 20 tanks, and well to the front were combat engineers, ready to cut paths thru any British minefields encountered.

As darkness fell Rommel placed himself at the head of the AfrikaKorps and moved out under bright moonlight. These columns consisted of over 10,000 vehicles of all types, which were about to move nearly 50 miles in the dark, and compass bearing, speeds, and distances had to be meticulously calculated to hold the formation together. Dust raised by the massive columns ahead would be a problem, and each commander was instructed to move at a slow pace to keep dust down.

This dust problem had nothing to do with being spotted by the British, but was meant to prevent the hordes of vehicles travelling side by side from colliding with their neighbours in the dark. Along the route sappers had planted dim lights concealed in gasoline drums as marker point references. As they rolled on to their refuelling point southeast of Bir Hacheim, all went well and morale was high. The AfrikaKorps was ready for battle again, and confident of success.

Unknown to them, the 4th South African Armoured Car Regt. had been keeping their move under close observation, and was sending detailed reports back to 7th AD HQ. Obviously the British thought that this movement southwards was simply a ploy to try and draw their forces away from the obvious attack coming along the Trigh Capuzzo, and when the AfrikaKorps finally swung into battle formation the following morning there was no organized resistance to be seen.

The Ariete on the left flank plowed thru the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, while on the right, 90th Light and several recon units swept over the Retma Box. 90th Light had been supplied with trucks mounting huge fans which could raise enough dust to simulate the movement of a large armored force. This was meant to bait the British armor and draw it away from the main advance of 15th and 21st Pz.Divisions.

The full force of 15th Panzer came to bear on the 4th Armoured Brigade while it was in the midst of deploying, capturing 7th AD HQ and their divisional supply echelons. However, 15th Panzer suffered severe losses and was relieved to see 21st Panzer come to its assistance. The 8th Hussars was totally destroyed as a fighting force, and 3rd RTR lost 16 of its Grant tanks. The 7th AD had been severely mauled, and did its best to retire toward Bir el Gubi and El Adem, with 90th Light on its tail.

The newly arrived M3 Grants had been divided fairly evenly among the 8th Army units, with the hope that their presence would boost morale. In the early morning of May 27th the 4th Armoured Brigade was warned of a strong enemy force approaching from the southwest. With a light squadron of M3 Stuarts about 2,000 yards in front, the Grants of "B" and "C" squadrons of 3 RTR moved out in line formation. Within 10 minutes they received reports of large dust clouds about 3 miles ahead. By the time the Grants had closed ranks with their Stuarts, large formations of PzKpfw.IIIs and IVs had been identified.

These were the forward elements of 8th Pz.Regt., and when the range closed to 1,000 yards the Grants opened fire. For the first time in the desert war the Germans were facing tanks that outranged them! Although suffering heavy losses 15th PzDiv. pressed forward and by noon the remaining Grants, their ammo exhausted, were forced to withdraw. The leader of "C" squadron had had 3 Grants shot out from under him, and "B" squadron's leader was on his fourth tank. Out of the original 19 Grants, only 7 arrived at their rendezvous point to refuel and rearm. The fighting continued throughout the afternoon and by the end of the day 3 RTR was down to 4 Grants and 8 Stuarts.

Again, the British had failed to concentrate their armor and motorized units. The 1st AD fell prey next, when its 22nd Armoured Brigade ordered to move south, ran headlong into the DAK. However, as it withdrew, its rearguard of 75mm armed Grants inflicted heavy losses on the German tanks in pursuit. At this point Rommel considered the battle won, and congratulated Nehring on their success. Little did he know what was YET TO COME!

Battle for Gazala by David Pentland.
DHM774. Battle for Gazala by David Pentland.
Panzer IIs and IIIs of the African Korps, 15th Panzer Division drive towards Arcoma during the epic battles for the Gazala line.
Signed limited edition of 1150 prints.
Image size 25 inches x 16.5 inches (64cm x 42cm) 

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