Battle of Gazala (May 26 to June 21, 1942)
Promoted to Lieutenant General and assigned command of the newly formed Deutsches Afrika Korps in February of 1941, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s first year in North Africa wasn’t a smashing success. Both he and his British opponents shared a few victories and failures, and the year ended with both sides controlling relatively unchanged positions. 1942 would not follow the same path. On January 5th, the Afrika Korps received desperately needed reinforcements and supplies, and Rommel launched an assault two weeks later. Given the tenuousness of his supply chain, Rommel needed the port city of Tobruk, a prize he’d tried, and failed, to capture throughout 1941.
Rommel’s attack surprised the Allies, who lost over 110 tanks and control of the cities Benghazi and Timimi. Caught by surprise by the Afrika Korps, the Allies lost over 110 tanks and other heavy equipment. The Axis forces retook Benghazi on 29 January and Timimi on 3 February, and General Sir Claude Auchinleck, commander of the allied army, established a defensive line to protect Tobruk near the Gazala. Rommel, however, had no intention of attacking their prepared defenses. Unbeknownst to the Allies, the communication codes used by the US State Department in Egypt was compromised, and until June of 1942, Rommel had detailed knowledge of his enemy’s deployment and military strength.
The information Rommel received was critical. 200 of the new Grant tanks, superior to anything under Rommel’s command, had reinforced the British, and the Allies outnumbered the Germans. The British had 110,000 infantry, 843 tanks, and 604 aircraft, whereas Rommel’s forces included 90,000 infantry, 560 tanks, and 542 aircraft. Time was not on Rommel’s side. He needed to slow the tide of reinforcements to the Allied armies and shorten his supply lines. Rommel had to capture Tobruk as soon as possible.
Following Luftwaffe victories near Malta in April 1942, long awaited supplies finally reached the Afrika Korps, and Rommel began preparing an offensive in May. The British were planning to attack, and Rommel had no intention of surrendering the initiative. Thus, in late May, Rommel attacked first at Gazala. The attack, however, was not what it seemed. Infantry with a small contingent of armor assaulted the fortifications, but only as a feint. The bulk of Rommel’s armor and motorized forces swept around the British’s left flank under the cover of darkness and attacked the allies from behind. Both sides took heavy losses. Packs of Panzers had to swarm the Grant tanks, and their superior armor, individually.
The mobile forces fought for two days. Rommel, however, ran low on fuel, and shifted to a defensive position that became known as the “Cauldron.” He used the British minefields to the west to cover his flank, and mangled the Allied forces that closed in to attack. Rommel’s infantry cleared a path through the minefield, and fuel was rushed through. Rommel counterattacked through the minefield’s path immediately, achieving complete and total surprise.
The British 150th Brigade surrendered on June 1. Allied forces holding the Free French strongpoint at Bir Hakeim fled on the 10th, and Rommel swung north and raced to the sea. The bulk of British forces remained in Gazala, but Rommel’s advance to the sea separated the Allies from the city they were protecting. Rommel ignored the fortified British at Gazala, and swung east, capturing Tobruk in a single day, and accepting the surrender of 32,000 defenders, a desperately needed port, and a massive quantity of supplies.