Marshal Graziani's offensive against Egypt in September 1940 was the first of five
campaigns which have been fought over the Western Desert.
This first offensive, starting from Bardia on the Libyan-Egyptian border, pushed
only as far as Sidi Barrani in Egypt before it was halted by the British. The
first British offensive (second campaign), launched in December, crushed any
hopes Graziani may have had of moving on to the Suez Canal, for Wavell's troops
not only accomplished their objective of pushing the Italians over the border
into Libya, but moved on across Cyrenaica as far as El Agheila, where over-extended
lines of communication finally halted the drive in February 1941. The second
Axis drive (third campaign), against British forces depleted by withdrawals
from the Balkan Campaign, introduced Rommel's Afrika Korps, which, with
the Italians, drove the British to the frontier during March and April
of 1941. Apart from the Battle of Salum in June, the front was relatively
quiet, until the second British offensive (fourth campaign) in
November 1941 again carried them to El Agheila, only to be pushed
back by a heavy counterattack (January 1942) to the Gazala-Bir Hacheim
line. In May of this year, Rommel attacked (fifth campaign) and forced a British
retreat to the present Alamein positions.
In all this fighting, no clear-cut decision has been reached. Despite Axis
domination of most of the Mediterranean, Britain still holds the
Middle East, since a reinforced Eighth Army, massed on the short
Alamein line, blocks Rommel's path to the Nile Delta.
The desert has not only been the scene of a struggle for strategic control
of the Mediterranean and the Middle East; it has also been a closely watched
proving ground for tactics, techniques, and equipment--"a tactician's paradise
and a quartermaster's hell." These subjects have been discussed in
detail in this and other Military Intelligence Service publications; the
following resume of the fighting is intended only to summarize the five
campaigns as a background for the future operations in this theater.
THE FIRST CAMPAIGN
The long-expected Italian assault on Egypt began on September 14, 1940. The
advancing forces consisted of two mechanized columns of light and medium
tanks heavily supported by artillery. The campaign, however, was of the
nature of a British withdrawal rather than an Italian advance, and
Salum, Buq Buq and Sidi Barrani were occupied by the Italians in a few
days and without heavy fighting. Apparently the need for additional preparations
prevented Graziani from attempting to push on to the next logical objective, the
British railhead at Mersa Matruh.
THE SECOND CAMPAIGN
Forced to stop at Sidi Barrani, Graziani disposed his troops as follows: the 1st Libyan
and 101st Blackshirt Divisions occupied Sidi Barrani itself and positions about 15 miles
east of it. The 2d Libyan Division occupied positions extending some 16 miles south of
Sidi Barrani, while the 63d Metropolitan Division covered the escarpment from a point
north of Rabia westward for about 18 miles. The 62d Metropolitan Division occupied
Fort Capuzzo and, with the 104th Blackshirt Division, Salum.
Either the Italians assumed their defensive positions to be only temporary, or else
they showed a rather naive concept of fortifications and security measures. All
camp perimeters were clearly marked by loose stonewalls about 2 feet high
with a 2-foot trench in front. Little barbed wire was used, and along the
perimeters, in line, were strung the rifles, mortars, machine guns, antitank
guns, artillery, and grenades. Defense in depth, mutually supporting
fire, outposts, and patrols were all lacking. Troops, stores, and equipment
were kept inside the perimeter.
British troops, consisting of the 7th Armored Division (including two tank brigades
and a support group) and the 4th Indian Division (3d and 11th Indian Brigades
and 16th British Brigade), prepared to attack. The objective was to isolate and
destroy all Italian troops east of a gap between the escarpment and the southern
positions of the 2d Libyan Division. On December 9, 48 infantry tanks, followed
by the 3d Indian Infantry Brigade on trucks, moved in against the northwestern
perimeter of the southern positions at 0800. Although the British tanks met
heavy defensive fire, they broke through the perimeter into the middle of a
group of 25 Italian tanks, which they managed to neutralize. Indian infantry
moved in after the tanks, proceeded to mop up, and captured about4,000 officers and
men. By afternoon, infantry tanks and the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade had moved
north and captured 7,000 more prisoners in other positions south of Sidi Barrani.
The next British move was a direct assault on Sidi Barrani itself, executed by the
three brigades of the 4th Indian Division from the south and southwest, and
the 4th Armored Brigade from the west. A simultaneous move on Maktila was made
unnecessary by the withdrawal of its garrison into the Sidi Barrani fortifications.
The attack was highly successful; the British captured 15,000 officers and men, while
the 7th Armored Brigade and Support Group moved to the vicinity of Buq Buq, where
operations against retiring Italian columns took 12,000 to 14,000 more prisoners.
Italian columns were attacked during the 12th by British tanks and armored cars, while
the infantry of the 4th Indian Division spent most of its time attempting to handle the
flood of prisoners.
Positions around Rabia were being abandoned, and the retreating Italians poured into the
frontier defenses of Halfaya, Capuzzo, and Salum. RAF fighters attacked the
retiring enemy while bombers dropped heavy loads on Bardia and Tobruk. At the
frontier, the enemy defenses stiffened, and the Italian Air Force began effective
action against the advancing British. Salum was taken on the 13th, however, and
on the 14th, British armored-car patrols of the 7th Armored Division and
the Free French bypassed Bardia to cut the coastal road to Tobruk.
Bardia was still intact, except for damages from heavy bombing, and on the 16th the
Italian frontier forces withdrew into its defenses, after evacuating their remaining
positions in the Salum-Capuzzo-Halfaya area. From the 17th to the 21st; the 7th Armored Division
and the Support Group moved to reinforce the patrol on the Tobruk road and to
prevent a retreat from Bardia.
Bardia itself was fortified by three belts, consisting of a number of mines, concrete
bunkers, and tank traps in addition to the familiar loose stone walls of the
Sidi Barrani fortifications. While the foremost mobile British units began the
encirclement of Tobruk, and the RAF bombed Bir el Gubi, Gazala, Tmimi, Derna, and
Tripoli, the British prepared to assault Bardia. Elements of the 7th Armored Division
blocked the road from Bardia to Tobruk, and the 16th British Brigade, plus the newly
arrived Australians, attacked the southern perimeter at dawn on January 3, while
the Support Group of the 7th Armored Division contained the western defenses. Because
of the stronger antitank defense, infantry and engineers preceded the tanks in the
attack. Different sectors surrendered individually, but it was not
until January 5 that the last Italians in the coastal area stopped fighting. Total
prisoners for the operation amounted to 32,000 men.
British forces were already being reduced by withdrawals to Greece, but the British
decided to push on. The Bardia attack had proved successful, and the same tactics, preceded
by the reduction of outposts outside the actual perimeter, brought the fall of Tobruk. The
British captured 20,000 Italians at the capitulation of that city on January 21.
The campaign's high spot came, however, on February 4, when the 7th Armored Division
made a 150-mile dash from Mekili to Antelat, completely surprised the Italians
retreating from Bengasi, and decisively defeated them. The campaign ended with the
occupation of El Agheila a few days later.
THE THIRD CAMPAIGN
The advance elements of the German Afrika Korps debarked at Tripoli on February 12, and
it soon became obvious that an offensive would be undertaken against the weakened British forces.
By March 31, when the Axis offensive actually started, British forces in Cyrenaica consisted
only of about 40 armored cars, one armored brigade of 75 tanks (of which two-thirds were
obsolescent light tanks or captured Italian tanks), 5 battalions of infantry, 3 weak regiments
of light artillery, and a few antitank and antiaircraft guns--hardly a force to meet the
threatened Axis offensive. When the Germans struck with a frontal attack on the forward
British infantry positions in the north, and an enveloping attack along the edge of the
salt marshes in the south, the British were forced to withdraw through Antelat to a
position about 30 miles east of Bengasi. In addition to fighting rear-guard actions, the
British had to contend with the difficulty of providing transportation from an
extremely limited supply of trucks.
Communications had also broken down, and the armored brigade, as well as the 3d Motorized Indian Brigade
in the vicinity of Mekili, was out of contact most of the time with headquarters. By April 6, German
armored columns were advancing on the British left flank, where they engaged the
Indian Brigade and threatened to outflank the main British force. The armored brigade
had not arrived to reinforce the Indian brigade as planned, having followed the
main body of British troops on to the coastal road; the Indian Brigade was defeated, and
with the left flank gone, withdrawal all the way to the frontier was undertaken.
The withdrawal continued until the Axis forces had taken Salum and Halfaya Pass, leaving
only an isolated Tobruk in the hands of the British.
THE BATTLE OF SALUM
The Axis attitude of passive defense, and reports of substantial withdrawals of German air
strength from the Middle East, led the British into a decision to attack on June 15, 1941, in
an attempt to destroy the German and Italian forces in the frontier area and relieve the
besieged garrison of Tobruk. The British units available for this attack were considerably
weaker than the total German and Italian forces in the Tobruk and frontier
sectors, particularly in tanks and antitank guns. However, it was hoped that the
Axis frontier defenses would be destroyed before reinforcements from the Tobruk area
could be brought up. The British attackers were divided into three main groups: a
Coastal Force, consisting of a brigade of Indian infantry, one platoon of tanks, an
antitank company, and one regiment of light and medium artillery; an Escarpment Force, composed
of an armored brigade, a battalion and a half of infantry, a regiment of field artillery, and
antiaircraft and antitank units; and, third, an armored brigade group supported by a
brigade of infantry. The first of these forces was to attack the Halfaya Pass position
from along the coast, below the escarpment. This attack was to be supported by a portion
of the Escarpment Force (second column) from above. The third column, with the remainder
of the Escarpment Force was to move on toward the fortified positions along the border
and then attack Fort Capuzzo and Salum.
Except for the failure of the Coastal Force to capture the Halfaya Pass position, the
British plans for the initial phases were carried out successfully. The Escarpment Force, made
up of the 4th Indian Division and a tank brigade, with other units attached, proceeded to the
wire fence at the Libyan-Egyptian border and launched successful attacks on small fortified
areas and on Fort Capuzzo and Salum. The 7th Armored Brigade and the Support Group
protected the left flank of the 4th Indian Division as ordered. The 7th Armored Brigade, however, was
driven out of its position in the northwestern sector by superior numbers of tanks of
the 15th German Armored Division, and the Support Group in the southwestern sector was
outnumbered by the motorized and armored forces of the 5th German Light Motorized Division, which
included a battalion of 86 tanks.
Threatened with an enveloping movement against his weakening flank, the
commander of the 4th Indian Division was forced to withdraw in order to
prevent his lines of supply and communication from being cut. The decision to
withdraw was also influenced by the fact that the Coastal Force on the right
flank, in spite of determined assaults, had been unable to take the Halfaya Pass
position and join the forward units. The withdrawal was completed on the night
of June 17. The Axis forces did not pursue the retreating British, probably
because the opening of the German offensive against Russia was only 5 days off.
THE FOURTH CAMPAIGN
By the middle of November, the British Eighth Army had accumulated the requisite
strength for an offensive, and on the night of November 17-18 the British
7th Armored Division, the 1st New Zealand Infantry Division, and
the 1st South African Division (less one brigade) crossed the frontier wire to
attempt an enveloping movement against the German armored troops lying between
the Axis-held Salum area and the British fortress of Tobruk. The 4th Indian Division
was given the mission of containing the Axis forces in the heavily defended frontier
triangle, which included Bardia, Sidi Omar, Salum, and Halfaya Pass. From the 19th
to the 23d, Axis and British tanks (including one brigade of 166 light U.S. M3's) battled
to gain armored superiority, while the Tobruk garrison began, on November 21, to
fight its way out of the ring of Italian infantry in an attempt to make contact
with the British armored and infantry forces in the Sidi Rezegh area.
On the first day of fighting, November 19, the British 22d Armored Brigade successfully
engaged the Italian Ariete Armored Division at Bir el Gubi. Meanwhile, the 7th Armored Brigade
and 7th Support Group moved toward Sidi Rezegh, and the 4th Armored Brigade, with
American tanks, engaged strong German tank units halfway between Bir el Gubi and
the Omars. This dispersion of British armored forces was, perhaps, the most serious
mistake of the campaign, for it enabled Rommel to strike the British units in
detail and thus neutralized the initial British numerical superiority. By the
night of November 21, the British tank units had been brought together at
Sidi Rezegh, but by that time they were so depleted that the concentration
brought little striking power.
During the tank actions, the 1st New Zealand Division had moved north and northeast, around
the Omars, into Fort Capuzzo on November 20, and on to the Tobruk-Bardia road the
next day. One brigade was left behind to contain Bardia, and the remainder of the
division started to fight its way along the coastal road toward Tobruk, where they
were to assist the garrison's attempt to break out.
The 4th Indian Division, in the frontier area, attacked and reduced the fortified
Omars position on November 22. One infantry brigade, two squadrons of heavy
infantry tanks, and most of the division artillery, used in the action were which
netted much Axis materiel and equipment, and about 3,600 prisoners.
At the end of the armored battles, the Axis armored units were also heavily
depleted; two days were spent in harrassing activities, until, late on the 24th, Rommel
gathered all his remaining tank strength and made a drive toward the Omar-Sheferzen area. This
seriously disrupted the British rear-area installations and caused a great deal of
confusion, although few casualties resulted. Inconclusive actions continued throughout
the next few days while the British brought in tank reinforcements and made repairs.
Finally, on November 26, the New Zealanders made contact with the Tobruk garrison, causing
Rommel to withdraw his tanks to the north in an attempt to separate the Sidi Rezegh
and Tobruk forces, which he did on December 1 and 2. More British reinforcements
arrived, however, and, as the Indians and South Africans mopped up isolated resistances
in the battle area, the strengthened 7th Armored Division renewed activities against
enemy tank and infantry units.
It became obvious by December 6 that Rommel was withdrawing to the west, where he
attempted to establish fortified positions: first, between El Adem and Bir el Gubi; and a
few days later, in the Gazala area. These were finally reduced by December 16, and the
Axis troops continued to withdraw, fighting successive rearguard actions until
finally on January 7 the British occupied Agedabia.
On January 2, the 2d South African Division had made a highly successful tank and
infantry attack on the isolated Axis troops in Bardia, taking 8,500 prisoners and
liberating 1,150 British troops. A short time later Salum, and then Halfaya Pass, fell
to the South African infantry after the isolated and weakened garrisons had been
subjected to extensive and heavy bombardment by artillery and air.
The British 22d Armored Brigade had suffered heavily at Agedabia on December 28, and
when the 2d Armored Brigade was defeated near Antelat on January 23, the
position of the Eighth Army in the Bengasi area became untenable, and General Ritchie
decided to withdraw to the east. There the British set up a mined and fortified line
extending from Gazala to Bir Hacheim and started to build up strength for a new
offensive. Axis troops also prepared for renewed attack, and little activity took
place until the fifth campaign started on the night of May 26.
THE FIFTH CAMPAIGN
With his mobile Afrika Korps, Rommel moved around the fortified position of
Bir Hacheim to attack the British armored units in rear of their minefield. Both
of the German armored divisions and the 90th Light Division were used in the
complete envelopment. The Italian Ariete Armored Division and Trieste Motorized Division
halted at the southern end of the minefield to attack Bir Hacheim on the morning
of May 27. The British, who had been led by extensive Axis demonstrations to
expect a frontal assault in the northern sector, were not entirely prepared for
the flanking attack; the 4th Armored Brigade, one motorized infantry brigade, Headquarters
of the 7th Armored Division, and some elements of the 22d Armored Brigade were struck
in detail by the German columns before they could be concentrated to repulse the attack.
The 1st Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim successfully repulsed the initial Italian
attack, destroying some 30 to 50 enemy tanks.
During the next few days, heavy fighting continued east of the British positions, and
slowly the British pushed most of the German armored forces against the rear of the
minefields. By May 29 the supply situation of the Axis armored forces was growing
acute, for the RAF, the 7th Support Group, and Free French at Bir Hacheim were effectively
neutralizing all attempts to move supplies around the southern flank. Although the
Italian Trieste Division had managed to open two small gaps opposite the armored
concentrations in the Knightsbridge area, the British were moving to close this
gap and did not feel that such narrow corridors could be effectively used for supply.
The Germans, realizing the necessity for opening an adequate route through the
minefields, circled their armored forces in the so-called Cauldron with a number of
antitank guns, and, turning their back to the British armored forces, they effectively
attacked and destroyed British infantry units attempt to close the gaps. It would seem
logical for the British to have struck the Axis armored forces from the rear with all
available strength while this action was going on, but the British attack was
delayed, and the initial gaps were widened the point where they could be used
Indecisive fighting now took place for the next few days while the Germans first
withdrew to the west through the gap, and then returned.
The next major action was the assault on Bir Hacheim. During the first week in June this
position had been subjected to increasingly severe attacks by the Italians and some units
of the German Armored Forces. Stuka dive bombers, heavy artillery (up to 210-mm), and
concentrations of tanks were now used in an effort to reduce the fortifications. Realizing
that this former flank position was no longer of any value to the British, General Ritchie
gave orders on June 10 that it be abandoned. Heavy casualties resulted during the
difficult evacuation, and by the time the Free French rejoined the British units
only one-half remained of the original garrison of 5,000.
With the fall of the Free French position, the Germans units immediately fanned out in rear
of the British, who were now forced to withdraw. The 1st South African and 50th British Divisions
in the north were to be withdrawn along the coastal road to Tobruk, and all available
British armored units were detailed to protect the southern flank for this withdrawal. This
defensive line stretched from the Knightsbridge "box'; held by the 200th Guards Brigade, to El Adem.
By this disposition, British armored units were tied down along an extended line and
deprived of their mobility. This gave Rommel his chance to achieve a much-needed numerical
superiority in tanks.
The British tanks attacked at dawn June 12, moving south from the escarpment. The groups
of German tanks, however, successfully drew the British armor onto the 88-mm and 50-mm guns
which were hidden in practically every small wadi, and among groups of derelict
vehicles. After losing a number of cruiser tanks and American mediums, the British
withdrew to their previous line along the escarpment. The Germans, attempting to
conserve their own tanks, did not attack, but successfully brought their
antitank guns within range of the British by sending forward one or two tanks
which would weave back and forth and create a cloud of dust behind which the
antitank guns were brought up. After the dust settled, the antitank guns would
open fire at ranges of 1,000 to 1,400 yards. In firing at the American
mediums, Axis guns concentrated on the vulnerable tracks and suspension system.
In addition to these new tactics, the Germans continued to lure British
tanks onto emplaced antitank guns by sending forth small motorized infantry
units as bait.
During the night the British tanks withdrew from the escarpment across the
Trig Capuzzo, and took up positions before Acroma which they were to
defend from direct Axis attack as long as possible.
On June 13 the battle continued, while the Guards Brigade evacuated the Knightsbridge
box and took up positions near Acroma. The tank battle continued throughout the day
with the Axis utilizing antitank guns rather than their armor; by the end of the
day the British had lost all but 65 of the 300 or more tanks with which they
had started on the day before.
In addition to these intensive ground operations, Axis dive-bombers attacked the
British battle positions almost continuously during June 12.
The British were now forced to withdraw at least to the Libyan-Egyptian frontier, but after
some debate it was decided that an attempt should be made to hold Tobruk. The
situation, however, was not exactly comparable to that of the previous year when
Rommel first pushed south of that fortress and isolated it. Because of a greater
Axis control of the Mediterranean, the Royal Navy could no longer undertake to
supply the port, and the German and Italian land forces were strong enough this
time to make a determined assault on the fortress. In Tobruk were left the
2d South African Division, the Guards Brigade, the 11th Indian Brigade, one Brigade
of the 1st South African Division, and at least five regiments of artillery. The main
body of the British Eighth Army withdrew to the frontier.
Advance elements of the 90th Light Division pushed on toward Bardia and
Sidi Omar; the main German and Italian forces prepared to assault Tobruk. The attack
was preceded by intense dive-bombing and artillery preparation, and on June 20 Axis
troops penetrated the southern sector; a few hours later a larger force pushed
into the city itself through the Derna-road gap in the minefields. The surrender
has been reported to have come some time in the middle of the morning, but many
British units continued to resist, and the attacking forces did
not reach the harbor area until the middle of the afternoon.
With Tobruk gone, the main Axis forces pushed on toward the British frontier
positions, and after brief fighting in that area the British decided to
withdraw to Mersa Matruh where, reinforced by the New Zealand Division, they
hoped to be able to make a stand.
On June 26 Rommel's two armored divisions and the 90th Light Division pushed
in the British covering forces and prepared to encircle and attack Matruh. Again
the British decided that the impending encirclement presented too much
danger, and, now under the direct command of General Auchinleck, what was
left of the Elghh Army withdrew to the present position on the El Alamein line. Some
British units were captured in the Matruh evacuation. By June 30, both
sides had reached a line extending from El Alamein to the Qattara Depression. Heavy
fighting raged along this line for several days, but because of stiffened
British resistance and the Axis drive's loss of momentum, Rommel failed to
Since that time intermittent fighting to gain control of the "hills" of the
position has taken place but neither side has attempted an all-out offensive.