Deutsche Afrika Korps 1941-1943 : Combats in North Africa : the Battle in Marmarica, the Tank Battle near Bir Sciafsciuf, the Tank Battle on Memorial Sunday, November 23 1941, the Assault into Egypt, the Battle of Bir el Gobi, the Withdrawal to Sirts, the Battle of Gazala, the Tank Battle of Bir el Harmat, Actions up June 2 1942.
Battle in the Marmarica, Winter 1941-1943
Ever since October 1941, Rommel had reckoned with the possibility of a British offensive against Tobruk. The English had sent great quantities of war material and large reinforcements to Egypt in early autumn. The dispatch of the South African Division and the New Zealand Division from the delta of the Nile to Marsa Matruk had been discovered in September by radio reconnaissance and had later been confirmed through the interrogation of war prisoners. Nevertheless, the 21.Panzer-Division’s reconnaissance in force into Egypt in the area south of Sidi el Barani in mid-September did not give evidence upon which to base suspicion of an impending attack. Aerial observation in the border area was not able to establish the presence of enemy supply dumps capable of sustaining a large scale attack although, as it later developed, the enemy in preparation for the advance had built up and excellently camouflaged over a long period of time many such dumps, not only in the border area but also far behind the German-Italian line of defense.
The assembly of the enemy troops for the offensive was not discovered by the German reconnaissance. The concealment of British preparations was excellent, especially since in the desert this is an exceptionally difficult feat. Since radio silence had been imposed, warning of the advance of the troops into assembly position could not be intercepted by radio reconnaissance. The British locations were probably not noticed as a result of the fact that their troops marched at night and utilized an excellent system of camouflage by day. In the desert clouds of dust betray even, the movements of small units. For this reason the British only advanced on moonless nights. In the daytime they camouflaged themselves by entrenching personnel, material and vehicles and by making abundant use of camouflage nets.
An increase in the tracks of vehicles, which might have pointed to large movements of troops, could not be discovered by the German aerial observation, since tens of thousands of such tracks were visible in the assembly area and it was impossible to determine whether these tracks were fresh or old. In contrast to conditions in Europe, the assembly area in a desert can be far removed from the point of departure, since the lack of terrain obstacles permit vast areas to be covered in very short periods of time. As a result the troops can arrive at the point of departure very shortly before the beginning of the attack.
In each of their offensives, the British, by holding the attack forces back until the last moment, have been successful in properly camouflaging the moment for the start of the attack. An additional reason lies in the fact that no German aerial reconnaissance could be completed on November 17, as a cloudburst made the airfields useless for operations. It often happened in the rainy period in the desert (Oct/Nov) that sudden rain squalls cause floods. The German airfields had been built directly on the sand without any other auxiliary means; the British, on the other hand, successfully utilized steel landing mats to make the runways firm and thus kept their fields usable in the worst weather. Not until the afternoon of November 18 after the enemy movements had already commenced did the German command realize that a major attack was in the making.
The German reconnaissance forces were pushed back by superior enemy units from a security line running between Bir el Gobi and Sidi Omar. The statement of a captured British soldier belonging to the staff of the 4th Indian Division gave the German command detailed information on the enemy troops and their plans as follows : the XXX Corps was to thrust toward Tobruk from the area around Maddelena. The 7th Armoured Division composed of the 4th Tank Brigade, the 7th Tank Brigade and the 22d Tank Brigade, would act as a main attack group, the 1st South African Division as flank protection and the Guards Brigade as a reserve. The XIII Corps was employed from the area northwest of Hebata, in order to attack the Sollum front with the 4th Indian Division and then, circumventing the Sollum front, to thrust into the area between Bardia and Tobruk with the New Zealand Division.
The German and Italian forces were organized as follows on November 18. The Sollum front was held by non-motorized mixed Italo-German troops, who had been charged with drawing the enemy forces in their direction and thus split up the attack. The Fortress of Tobruk was besieged by Italian divisions and the German 90.Afrika-Division in order to prevent a breakout on the part of the enemy and a union of the garrison with the advancing offensive forces. As for the mobile German and Italian forces, the Trieste Division was in the vicinity of Bir Hakeim and the Ariete Armored Division in the vicinity of Bir el Gobi. They had been ordered first to prevent enemy envelopment movements in the area west of Tobruk and then, if the occasion would arose, they were to be employed for mobile defense together with the German armored divisions.
The D.A.K. was located in the area between Bardia and Tobruk. The 21.Panzer-Division, southeast of Gambut, and the 15.Panzer-Divisionth, north of the town, were ready to be employed for mobile defense against the enemy forces. By noon of November 18, the whole area between Maddalena, Sidi Omar and Gabr Saleh was covered by thick clouds of dust. The Afrika Korps armored reconnaissance established an advance by armored forces in unknown strength from this area in the direction of Sidi Rezegh. Rommel decided to use the 21.Panzer-Division, which was available south east of Gambut, to push into the enemy line of march in the direction of Gabr Saleh and thus disorganize the enemy forces and divert them from their goal at Tobruk.
The 15.Panzer-Division was not ready to march until evening, because the heavy rainfall of the previous night had so wrecked havoc with units camping in the wadis north of Gambut by flooding the dumps and washing away weapons and equipment that a state of march readiness was not secured until the morning of November 19. The 21.Panzer-Division advance southward through the plain. The Panzer Regiment served as advance force with about sixty tanks, Mark III and Mark IV, both battalions being committed in waves. The artillery and several 88-MM gun batteries followed immediately behind the tank waves in order to give the tanks fire protection in the event of contact with the enemy. Antitank units secured the flanks of the attacking Kampfgruppen.
The terrain along the route of advance was a completely flat plateau overgrown with camel’s-thorn bushes. Hardly any possibilities for cover existed. As a result shortly after the division reached the Srigh Capuzzo in the area of Bir Bu Maliha, a strong enemy armored unit was sighted, which was slowly advancing the direction of Sidi Rezegh. The division artillery immediately took up position and secured the advance of the Panzer Regiment, which was organized in depth. A favorable opportunity to hit the enemy tanks in the flank seemed to have risen. Speeding up the armored regiment began to attack, supported by the 88-MM batteries and the 2.Panzer-Battalion. Violent battle developed with the surprised enemy, which had presumably not expected an attack from this direction. The enemy advance was halted and during the time the British tanks were turning from their previous direction to the northeast the armored group was attacked in an envelopment movement from the east and southeast by the 2.Panzer-Battalion. This attack was a decisive success. Forty tanks were destroyed and the enemy thrown back to Gabr Saleh by evening. By sunset the Panzer Regiment had reached the area of Bir Uaar, where it took up an all around defense position.
The other elements of the division were distributed in depth through the entire area as far back as Trigh Capuzzo and also took up all around defense positions as Kampfgruppen. The bold attack of the division had halted the advance of the enemy and had driven a wedge into the enemy offense group. If the 15.Panzerdivision could also have participated in this attack, a really decisive success would have been gained. While this fighting was taking place, British forces in the strength of an armored brigade had pushed forward to a line Sidi Rezegh – Bir Sciafsciuf and had engaged the weak Italo-German security forces in heavy combat. The latter defended themselves valiantly at the edge of the djebel southeast of Tobruk. These forces had completely inadequate equipment and only a few tanks, but they were able to prevent the enemy from pushing on to Tobruk by way of the cross-country highway and uniting with the besieged garrison.
In the meanwhile the Sollum Position was surrounded from the east and south by the 4th Indian Division and by elements of the New Zealand Division from the west. The strong points were involved in heavy defensive fighting. Rommel decided to strike the New Zealanders, who had been reported to be advancing with a brigade reinforced by an armored battalion, from the area west of Sidi Omar toward Sidi Azeiz. He, therefore, employed both armored division against this enemy force on November 20. The 21.Panzer-Division headed toward Sidi Omar from the area of Bir Uaar in the early hours of the morning, secured to the west and south. The 15.Panzer-Division, which had recovered rom the consequences of the catastrophe occasioned by the flood, advanced south of the Trigh Capuzzo toward Gabr Lachem. In view of these superior forces, the reinforced New Zealand brigade fell back by way of Sidi Omar to the south, without suffering losses of any great size. This brought both armored divisions of the German Afrika Korps into the area west of Sidi Omar by the evening of November 20. On the following morning they were to attack the flank and rear of the main enemy attack group located between Gabr Saleh and Sidi Resegh.
The mission was begun in the early morning. Both armored division advanced side by side on a broad front and echeloned in depth. At Gabr Sredi they met a strong armored group composed of about 100 tanks, which were attacked immediately. While the 15.Panzer-Division was occupied with this enemy, the 21.Panzer-Division, advancing to the left, pushed forward energetically to Sidi Muftan and there encountered the rear elements of the British 4th Armoured Brigade which was attacking the German defenders at the djebel edge near Sidi Rezegh. The division attacked the enemy in the late afternoon and was able to destroy about twenty tanks, whereupon the enemy fell back to the southwest toward Bir el Gobi. Approaching darkness prevented pursuit. The 21.Panzer-Division built up an all-around defense position in the area north of Sidi Muftan for the night of November 21. The reconnaissance forces of new enemy tanks, approaching from the southeast, were already trying to feel out the division. After successful combat in the vicinity of Bir Bu Meliha, the 15.Panzer-Division had reached the ridge near Bir Sciafsciuf and had built up an all around defense position. Here too, there were new enemy feelers.
Tank Battle near Bir Sciafsciuf
The newly arrived enemy forces and the unfavorable battle terrain – the steep rim of the plateau restricted mobile operations to the north diminished the operation possibilities which existed for the DAK. Therefore, the 15.Panzer-Division was transferred eastward by way of the Trigh Capuzzo during the night of November 21 and assembled in the area south of Gasr el Arid. It was intended to attack the flank and rear of the newly arrived enemy group, which was obviously also heading in the direction of Tobruk. The 21.Panzer-Division was employed for the defense at Sidi Resegh – Belhamed, in order to prevent an enemy breakthrough to Tobruk and a subsequent union with the garrison in the fortress.
By noon of November 22, the new enemy group had reached the area south of Bir Sciafsciuf by way of Bir Bu Meliha. The 15.Panzer-Division arrived from the area of Gabr el Arid and one column (one armored battalion, one artillery battalion and one 88-MM battery) attacked the enemy’s flank near Hagfet Hauna. The second column (one armored battalion, two artillery battalions, one 88-MM battery and a rifle regiment) lunged through Bir Bu Melina and hit the rear of the enemy group. Violent tank combat developed, in the course of which about eighty enemy tanks were put out of action. By evening the enemy group, the 4th Armoured Brigade, reinforced by artillery, was surrounded on three sides and its commander offered to capitulate. Nevertheless, elements of the brigade managed to escape westward, since the pocket could not be closed on that side. While this was going on, a strong attack, supported by fifty infantry tanks, was made from the southeast section of the fortress of Tobruk. The enemy broke through the encirclement front, penetrated across the main highway and destroyed a good part of the Italian Bologna Division. A counterattack by elements of the 21.Panzer-Division succeeded in restoring the situation, thus shattering the enemy aim of uniting the garrison at Tobruk with the attacking group from Egypt. The Italian garrison at Bir el Gobi succeeded in repulsing strong enemy attacks and thus preventing an enemy advance into the area west of Tobruk.
The British Offensive was based on the idea of thrusting with superior forces from the Egyptian border to Tobruk, of relieving the fortress and destroying the German forces in the Marmarica. The English armored forces which were employed were about four times as strong as their German opponents. The Italian tanks did not count for much because of their limited capacity. Despite this numerical superiority enjoyed by the enemy, Rommel, by utilizing the mobility of his forces and the lack of barriers in the terrain, managed in four days of battle to nullify the British plan. While the British were throwing one after another of their tank brigades into the combat and thus draining their strength, Rommel concentrated his armored forces at the most favorable spot and dealt one British brigade after the other considerable damage. He was moreover thus able to prevent a union of the offense group with the fortress. If the British had not stubbornly followed the orders prepared so long in advance, that is to thrust toward Tobruk, and if they had instead attacked the German armored forces wherever they found them and according to the situation at the moment and then destroyed them by a concentration of their own forces, they would certainly have achieved their second objective, the elimination of the German armored units. The above-cited fighting is an example of how one can conduct mobile operations in the desert. It is necessary to grasp the situation quickly and promptly take the proper measures. Desert terrain with its lack of barriers is ideal for a rapid concentration of forces at decisive points.