6. THE TANK STRIKING FORCE
German defensive theory emphasizes the role of the armored striking force, stating that defense is simply a temporary expedient. The 8th Tank Regiment meant it to be temporary indeed, for by 1030 on the first day of the action they were well up from their assembly area north of Capuzzo, and by 1130 one company was already engaged on the frontier. Reinforced by a second company, it nevertheless had to withdraw before superior numbers. In doing this it ran out of ammunition, allowing the British to take Capuzzo.
By this time two Mk. III tanks had been knocked out, and some others had fallen out with damage to their guns and engines. A third company was now called in to prevent the British from breaking through west of Capuzzo, but it also had to retire. Later in the day the 1st and 2d Battalions of the 8th Tank Regiment attacked Capuzzo in succession, but failed to get through and withdrew before dark to a position near the Bardia road. The 8th Tank Regiment had violated the rules of German tank doctrine by attacking in detail.
Next day, June 16, the regiment was ordered to attack Capuzzo once more, this time with both battalions combined. The 1st Battalion had now only 6, 4, and 9 of the 8 Mk. IV, 18 Mk. III, and 13 Mk. II tanks, respectively, with which it started the battle. The British tanks struck out of the morning mist, and once more there were heavy casualties in the 3d Company. The commander of the 1st Battalion had his tank shot through twice by fire from infantry tanks at 330 yards, and the 1st Battalion had to withdraw with only three operative Mk. III tanks and one Mk. II. It is clear that if British tanks had been able to take Bardia, the 8th Tank Regiment would have been finished.
By the evening of the second day, two Mk. II, nine Mk. III, and two Mk. IV tanks had been repaired (the damage had been mostly to guns), and stood ready to defend Bardia.
The report of the 1st Battalion of the 33d Antiaircraft Regiment explains some of these moves. The four 88-mm guns attached to the regiment had participated in the first frontier action. After opening up at 2,000 yards, they had knocked out 12 tanks, 2 of them infantry tanks struck at 1,320 yards. British artillery then forced the 88-mm guns to withdraw (it will be noted increasingly that the chief fear of the Germans is British artillery). During these engagements a 20-mm gun knocked out an infantry tank with a lucky hit on the exhaust at 275 yards.
In the Capuzzo action of the second day 88-mm guns, firing through a mist, knocked out eight infantry tanks, including one hit in the turret at 550 yards. British artillery, however, forced the crews of the 88-mm guns to take cover and British tanks meanwhile approached to within 330 yards and damaged three of the four guns. The one intact 88-mm and two 20-mm guns knocked out three more British tanks at ranges between 275 and 350 yards, but the German tanks were not in condition to follow up this advantage.
The 2d Battalion of the 8th Tank Regiment was now ordered to cross the frontier and join with the 5th Tank Regiment of the 5th Division. An infantry officer who observed the resulting action attributed the regiment's success in breaking through a British tank force on the frontier to the artillery and antiaircraft support. The 88-mm guns appear here in a new role. The tank battalion bad picked up those which had saved Point 208, and had repaired at least two others damaged at Capuzzo. Some of these ran on the flank of the advance, others went 220 yards ahead of the leading tanks. The first group knocked out 2 infantry tanks and the second plunged straight ahead at the British formation of 20 infantry tanks, destroying seven of these before the German tanks had opened up. The way was clear to a rendezvous with the 5th Tank Regiment, as well as to Halfaya. The 1st Battalion of the 8th Tank Regiment suffered heavy losses from two British air attacks while en route to join the 3d Battalion. The first attack was by six strafing Hurricanes and the second by numerous bombers. Total losses were one Mk. IV (knocked out), one Mk. III (crew casualties), and one ammunition, one fuel, and one transport truck (rendered unserviceable). Five of the personnel were killed and 16 were wounded. The battalion turned back from this rendezvous.
The German defensive system had contributed heavily to a victory which might easily have been a defeat. Future historians may say that the battle was won by the 88-mm gun and the 5th Tank Regiment's 50-mile drive through the desert to Sidi Suleiman, but it was the stubborn defense of stützpunkte that gave an opportunity for the employment of offensive tactics. The organization of these defensive positions in depth had allowed them to hold out until a typical German limited counteroffensive could be put in motion.
Without the 88-mm gun, however, none of the positions could have
repulsed the British drive. It opened fire either at 2,200 to 1,760 yards
or at 880 to 550 yards, but its most effective ranges were certainly
in the lower bracket. British sources state that artillery is the
most effective means of combating this gun, which is said to have
destroyed 79 tanks as compared with the 64 claimed by the tanks
of the 8th Tank Regiment.