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World War II: Battle of Gazala

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World War II: Battle of Gazala

General Erwin Rommel in North Africa, 1941

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Battle of Gazala: Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Gazala was fought May 26 to June 21, 1942, during the Western Desert Campaign of World War II (1939-1945).

Armies & Commanders

Allies

  • General Sir Claude Auchinleck
  • Major General Neil Ritchie
  • 175,000 men, 843 tanks

    Axis

  • General Erwin Rommel
  • 80,000 men, 560 tanks

  • Battle of Gazala: Background:

    In the wake of Operation Crusader in late 1941, General Erwin Rommel's German and Italian forces were compelled to retreat west to a new line at El Agheila. Assuming a new position behind a strong line of fortifications, Rommel's Panzer Army Afrika was not attacked by British forces under General Sir Claude Auchinleck and Major General Neil Ritchie. This was largely due to the British need to consolidate their gains and build a logistical network after an advance of over 500 miles. Largely pleased with the offensive, the two British commanders had succeeded in relieving the siege of Tobruk (Map).

    As a result of the need to improve their supply lines, the British reduced their frontline troop strength in the area of El Agheila. Probing the Allied lines in January 1942, Rommel found little opposition and began a limited offensive east. Retaking Benghazi (January 28) and Timimi (February 3), he pushed on towards Tobruk. Rushing to consolidate their forces, the British formed a new line west of Tobruk and extending south from Gazala. Beginning at the coast, the Gazala line extended 50 miles south where it was anchored on the town of Bir Hakeim.

    To cover this line, Auchinleck and Ritchie deployed their troops in brigade-strength "boxes" which were linked by barbed wire and minefields. The bulk of the Allied troops were placed near the coast with progressively fewer as the line extended into the desert. The defense of Bir Hakeim was assigned to a brigade of the 1st Free French Division. As the spring progressed, both sides took time to resupply and refit. On the Allied side, this saw the arrival of new General Grant tanks which could match the German Panzer IV as well as improvements in coordination between the Desert Air Force and troops on the ground.

    Rommel's Plan:

    Assessing the situation, Rommel devised a plan for a sweeping flank attack around Bir Hakeim designed to destroy the British armor and cut off those divisions along the Gazala Line. To execute this offensive, he intended the Italian 132nd Armored Division Ariete to assault Bir Hakeim while the 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions swung around the Allied flank to attack their rear. This maneuver would be supported by the 90th Light Afrika Division Battle Group which was to move around the Allied flank to El Adem to block reinforcements from joining the battle.

    The Battle of Gazala Begins:

    To complete the attack, elements of the Italian XX Motorized Corps and 101st Motorized Division Trieste were to clear a path through the minefields north of Bir Hakeim and near the Sidi Muftah box to supply the armored advance. To hold Allied troops in place, the Italian X and XXI Corps would assault the Gazala Line near the coast. At 2:00 PM on May 26, these formations moved forward. That night, Rommel personally led his mobile forces as they began the flanking maneuver. Almost immediately the plan began to unravel as the French mounted a vigorous defense of Bir Hakeim, repelling the Italians (Map).

    A short distance to the southeast, Rommel's forces were held up for several hours by the 7th Armoured Division's 3rd Indian Motor Brigade. Though they were forced to withdraw, they inflicted heavy losses on the attackers. By midday on the 27th, the momentum of Rommel's attack was faltering as British armor entered the battle and Bir Hakeim held out. Only the 90th Light had clear success, over-running the 7th Armoured Division's advance headquarters and reaching the El Adem area. As fighting raged over the next several days, Rommel's forces became trapped in an area known as "The Cauldron" (Map)

    Turning the Tide:

    This area saw his men trapped by Bir Hakeim to the south, Tobruk to the north, and the minefields of the original Allied line to the west. Under constant assault by Allied armor from the north and east, Rommel's supply situation was reaching critical levels and he began to contemplate surrender. These thoughts were erased when early on May 29 supply trucks, supported by the Italian Trieste and Ariete Divisions, breached the minefields north Bir Hakeim. Able to re-supply, Rommel attacked west on May 30 to link up with the Italian X Corps. Destroying the Sidi Muftah box, he was able to split the Allied front in two.

    On June 1, Rommel dispatched the 90th Light and Trieste divisions to reduce Bir Hakeim, but their efforts were repulsed. At the British headquarters, Auchinleck, fueled by overly-optimistic intelligence assessments, pushed Ritchie to counterattack along the coast to reach Timimi. Rather than oblige his superior, Ritchie instead focused on covering Tobruk and reinforcing the box around El Adem. On June 5 a counterattack did move forward, but Eighth Army made no progress. That afternoon, Rommel decided to attack east towards Bir el Hatmat and north against the Knightsbridge Box.

    The former succeeded in overrunning the tactical headquarters of two British divisions leading to a breakdown of command and control in the area. As a result, several units were severely beaten through the afternoon and on June 6. Continuing to build strength in the Cauldron, Rommel conducted several attacks on Bir Hakeim between June 6 and 8, significantly reducing the French perimeter. By June 10 their defenses had been shattered and Ritchie ordered them to evacuate. In a series of attacks around the Knightsbridge and El Adem boxes on June 11-13, Rommel's forces dealt the British armor a severe defeat. After abandoning Knightsbridge on the evening of the 13, Ritchie was authorized to retreat from the Gazala Line the next day.

    With Allied forces holding the El Adem area, the 1st South African Division was able to retreat along the coast road intact, though the 50th (Northumbrian) Division was forced to attack south into the desert before turning east to reach friendly lines. The boxes at El Adem and Sidi Rezegh were evacuated on June 17 and the garrison at Tobruk was left to defend itself. Though ordered to hold a line west of Tobruk at Acroma, this proved unfeasible and Ritchie began a long retreat back to Mersa Matruh in Egypt. Though Allied leaders expected Tobruk to be able to hold out for two or three months on existing supplies, it was surrendered on June 21.

    Aftermath of the Battle of Gazala

    The Battle of Gazala cost the Allies around 98,000 men killed, wounded, and captured as well as around 540 tanks. Axis losses were approximately 32,000 casualties and 114 tanks. For his victory and the capture of Tobruk, Rommel was promoted to field marshal by Hitler. Assessing the position at Mersa Matruh, Auchinleck decided to abandon it in favor of a stronger one at El Alamein. Rommel assaulted this position in July but made no progress. A final effort was made the Battle of Alam Halfa in late August with no results.

    Selected Sources

  • BBC: Battle of Gazala
  • History Learning: Battle of Gazala
  • German Experiences in Desert Warfare During World War II

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