Battle of Gazala and Fall of Tobruk (26 May - 22 June 1942) Worst Humiliation of British Army since Fall of Singapore

On the morning of 27 May 1942, Lieutenant D. F. Parry overheard an exchange between a British ‘forward’ officer from 3rd Indian Brigade at the southernmost tip of the Gazala Line held by 8th Army covering Tobruk and Egytian Libyan border and a colleague embedded at XXX Corps headquarters at El Adem. Had it not been reported verbatim, the conversation might be presumed to have formed part of a Monty Python sketch forty years later.

OFFICER : There is a cloud of dust to the south; it has the appearance of a military formation.

REPLY FROM XXX CORPS : There are no, repeat no, troops to your south …

OFFICER : The cloud of dust is growing larger. It is undoubtedly a military formation.

REPLY ( slightly irritable ): We repeat, there are no, repeat no, troops to your south.

OFFICER : Through the haze I can now identify tanks, difficult to identify but possibly German Mark IVs.

REPLY ( irritably ): We repeat, there are no troops, repeat no troops, to your south.

OFFICER : I am counting Mark IVs – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven – there is no doubt, repeat no doubt, that this is a large German force. Mark IVs number over thirty, and there are also Mark IIIs and a large number of motorized infantry. This could be, I repeat, this could be the Afrikakorps moving at a speed of approximately 30 miles per hour towards El Adem.

REPLY ( with air of resignation ): There are no forces in your area.

OFFICER : I have been spotted by the enemy and am under fire. I repeat, it is a large enemy formation and probably the Afrikakorps moving fast northwards.

REPLY ( very bored ): There are no enemy forces in your area.

OFFICER : It is undoubtedly the Afrikakorps moving at speed towards El Adem. I am under … In the background it was possible to hear the sound of exploding shells …

Then there was silence. Rommel’s blitzkrieg – Operation Venezia – had been unleashed.


‘It will be hard, but I have full confidence my army will win it,’ Rommel had written to his wife the previous evening, ‘After all, they know what battle means. There is no need to tell you how I will go into it. I intend to demand of myself the same as I expect from each of my officers and men.’ Under cover of darkness he then took his place with the Afrikakorps, in a column, which along with the 90th Light Division and the XX Italian Corps, numbered 10,000 vehicles. ‘I was tense and keyed-up, impatiently waiting the coming day. What would the enemy do? What had he already done? These questions pounded my brain.’

Six days earlier, General Claude Auchinleck commander of British Mediterranean and Middle East Theater , who was in Cairo, had sent a long letter to General Neil Ritchie commander of Eighth Army at Army headquarters. Clearly concerned about Ritchie’s well-attested limitations but anxious not to undermine his confidence (in this stage both Auchinleck and Ritchie were becoming strong candidates for worst Allied generals of war after Maurice Gamelin , Semyon Buıdyeni and Arthur Percival ) , Auk who had noidea how matters work in frontline thousands of miles away from Cairo wrote, ‘Do not think I am trying to dictate to you in any way, but this coming struggle is going to be so vital that I feel you must have the benefit of our combined consideration here.’ He identified two possible lines of attack that Rommel might open up. The first would be ‘to envelop our southern flank, seizing or masking Bir Hacheim en route, and then driving on Tobruk’; the second would be ‘a heavy attack on a narrow front … with the object of driving straight to Tobruk’. This, he warned, might be accompanied ‘by a feint against Bir Hacheim … with the aim of drawing off the main body of your armour to the south and so leaving the way open for the main thrust’. While he was careful to remind Ritchie that he should be prepared to face either option, he judged that ‘the second course is the one he [Rommel] will adopt, and is certainly the most dangerous to us’.

Unfortunately, Auchinleck had got it complately wrong. Rommel’s plan of attack was precisely the opposite of what the British commander-in-chief supposed. His feint was to the north, not the south. And Auckinleck having benefit of ULTRA intelligence about timing and general concentration of Panzer Army making that kind of blunder and not checking his errenous assumptions with air reconnicance (RAF grounded all of its recon flights before Axis offensive and neither British theater command nor Eighth Army command did not ask any recon flights ! till 26th May ) then misdirecting his less experienced and much more indecisive subordinate General Neil Ritchie (whom he kept in that position despite objections and votes of no confidence from his subordinates because Auckinleck assumed he could “hold his hand” and manage him and besides relieving his own staff officer Ritchie who had been loyal to him would look bad as a loss of face and demoralising) by interfaring his operations and planning , are a string of blunders made by a theater command rare in history of warfare. (In Red Army any theater commander made same mistakes and gaffes Auckinleck and Ritchie made , were relieved of command and executed immediately)


General Claude Auchinleck Commander in Chief of British Mediterranean and Middle East , strangely due to displaying a better image of British Army , his blunders and bad decisions in desert campaign were hushed by historians instead he was credited with halting Rommel’s already exhausted and out of breath and supply Panzer Army before Alamein Line which was impossible to outflank and under complate RAF air cover but none acknowledges or emphasizes his responsibility and misjudgements in defeat at Battle of Gazala , Fall of Tobruk and Mersa Matruh with 51.000 British and Commanwealth troops and vast amounts of supplies captured by a numerically inferior but way better led Panzer Army Africa that advanced all the way to Alamein before that. After First Battle of Alamein he was relieved of command finally and sent to India (where his heart was as an officer of Indian Army) as Indian Theater Commander in Chief. He should never been appointed to North Africa or Middle East in first place


General Neil Ritchie , both young and inexperienced , could not impose his authority on his subordinates , he should never been appointed to lead a multi national Eighth Army command which happened due to misjudgement of Auchinleck who assumed he could direct operations all the way from Cairo via Ritchie. Later Ritchie became an able if not outstanding corps commander in North West Europe Campaign.

Five hours before Rommel’s force headed for Bir Hacheim, his second-in-command, General Cruewell, launched a frontal attack with a German brigade and two Italian divisions for diversion to the north. But this was not ‘the main thrust’ towards the Gazala Line which Auchinleck had anticipated. His entire strength consisted of two small armoured units accompanied by camouflaged trucks, each mounted with whirring aero-engines that kicked up great clouds of dust which wafted across the desert to provide a convincing impression that a major onslaught was underway. Meanwhile Rommel’s ‘right hook’ advanced without impediment. Guided by dim lights concealed in used fuel cans planted in the sand, Rommel’s column swept south along a meticulously prepared route until, a little before dawn, they reached a location some twelve miles to the south-east of Bir Hacheim, the southern most fortress along the Gazala Line.

Destiny in Desert , The Road to El Alamein - Jonathan Dimbleby , BBC


To begin with, Rommel’s ruse went as planned. As soon as dawn broke, ‘this great force’ as Rommel described it, set off northwards in the direction of their ultimate objective, Tobruk, and very soon, ‘in a swirling cloud of dust and sand, thrust into the British rear’. By 10 a.m. the 90th Light Division – to the initial disbelief of the hapless radio officer at XXX Corps headquarters – had reached El Adem, a mere twenty miles south of the Tobruk perimeter. The British 7th Armoured Division, almost alone in protecting the southern flank, was overrun. In the midst of what he was to describe as ‘an awful muck of a battle’, their commanding officer, General Frank Messervy (who had replaced the kilted Brigadier Jock Campbell, killed in a motor accident two months earlier), was taken prisoner; but, after pulling off his insignia, he persuaded his captors that he was a humble batman and managed to escape soon afterwards to rejoin the division the following day.

In the confusion of these early hours, the British were at a loss. The commander of a Royal Horse Artillery battery, Major Jerry Birkin, scouting for evidence of the advancing panzers, sighted a dust cloud. At that moment a shell landed beside his armoured car. The next round scored a direct hit. ‘I didn’t realise it had hit us,’ his driver, Bobby Feakins, recalled, ‘and I turned round and there were two radio operators without heads – absolutely nothing from the shoulders. I had blood and muck all over me. Major Birkin slumped into my arms and he was actually dead at that point, hit right in the tummy. I was wounded in the legs. In the inter-battery wireless, I said, “We’ve been hit. We’ve been hit!”’

Under shellfire, the Major’s brother, Captain Ivor Birkin, who belonged to the same regiment, arrived to witness the carnage: his brother’s corpse, and, in the words of Sergeant Harper, his driver, ‘those two lads, their hands still holding their mouthpieces, although their heads were lying on the floor’, while Feakins, the only survivor, was ‘gabbling out the message’. They managed to haul themselves onto the top of a passing tank but Feakins, who had lost the feeling in his legs, soon fell off into the sand.

After a while another tank came by heading vaguely in the direction of the enemy. ‘The Commander said, “What the hell are you doing here?” “Having an afternoon cup of tea, you silly bugger.” He replied, “Well I’m sorry old chap, I’m going into action now, but on my way back I’ll pick you up.” And he went away. An hour and a half, two hours, watching shells drop round me … Fear because you didn’t know what was going to happen. But he did come back, and I felt that heaven had opened up.’

Despite his blitzkrieg, Rommel was unable to maintain the momentum. As his panzers advanced northwards through the mine-laden military maze of the Gazala Line, they came under fire from British artillery dug in to the north, the east and the west. Even more seriously, they found themselves matched for the first time in the desert by the US-built M3 Grant tanks, recently arrived from America and in use on the North African battlefield for the first time. Despite their usually reliable intelligence, the Germans had also seriously underestimated the number of British tanks ranged against them; rather than the 85 they had thought, they faced 284, of which 167 were the fearsome Grants. Despite a heavy toll exacted by the German artillery, the 1st Armoured Division, which had been humiliated by Rommel’s onslaught four months earlier, fought with heroic resolve and, in the words of General von Mellenthin, ‘in some cases forced their way up to the very muzzles of the guns and wiped out the crews’.

In the afternoon the Axis columns came under such heavy and sustained fire that many of them broke in confusion, and, in Rommel’s words, ‘fled away to the southwest, out of the British artillery fire’.

By the evening, his advance had been forced to a standstill, and, as he noted ruefully, ‘The advent of the new American tank had torn holes in our ranks. Our entire force now stood in heavy and destructive combat with a superior enemy.’ Although the Panzerarmee had wrought havoc with the 7th Armoured Division and the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, Rommel had lost more than a third of his entire armour; his transport columns were on the run from British motorised infantry units, the Light 90th Division had become separated from the Afrikakorps and Rommel himself had become separated from both. It was a grim reckoning at the end of a day which had started out so well for the Desert Fox.



M3 Grant tank model

The British, on the other hand, were mightily relieved not only to have survived the onslaught but to have seen off their attackers. The Gazala Line had held and the enemy advance had been arrested. According to Auchinleck’s Director of Military Intelligence, Freddy de Guingand, ‘Eighth Army were feeling quite pleased with themselves and everyone was quietly confident. We knew that the enemy’s tank losses had been considerable, that his advance had been held up and that the coastal attack had been defeated. The enemy’s main column stretched for miles … Here the Desert Air Force found great opportunities and reports of hundreds of burning vehicles came pouring in. Our great belt of minefields had not been penetrated. So far so good.’

Over the next four days there was fierce, scattered and confused fighting along and behind the Gazala Line as Rommel, who had made contact again with the Afrikakorps and the 90th Light Division, once more marshalled his troops with his customary flamboyance and energy. During these decisive battles at the end of May, with the Afrikakorps coming under severe pressure, he came close to death twice on the same day. Soon after dawn on 28 May, as he scanned the horizon, detecting an enemy column on the move, his command post came under fire. ‘Shells flew all round us and the windscreen of our command omnibus flew into fragments. Fortunately we were able to get away in our vehicles out of range of the British fire,’ he wrote afterwards.


Rommel at Battle of Gazala

In the early afternoon, with the Afrikakorps virtually surrounded and under intense bombardment, Rommel – defying convention yet again and demonstrating an elan that few, if any, other army commanders would have dared to essay – set off with his Chief of Staff, General Gause, to find a way through to the beleaguered German armour. The alarming news that the 15th Panzer Division had run out of ammunition made it critically important to open up a supply line to the imperilled laager in which it was now at bay. Identifying a navigable route around the British positions, the two men set off back to Rommel’s headquarters. On the way, as Rommel laconically described the encounters, they had ‘a brush’ first with a British and then with an Italian column. Unhappily the latter ‘took us for hostile and opened up a wild fire, which we escaped by a quick withdrawal’. The next morning at daybreak, he led the supply column through to the beleaguered panzer division without being observed.

During these days, Rommel seemed to be everywhere at once, urging his men on, devising new tactics, and all the time on the move. There could not have been a greater contrast between his leadership and that of the Eighth Army’s commander-in-chief, who preferred to oversee the battle from well behind the lines. This was not for want of courage on Ritchie’s behalf but because he adhered to a stolid military convention which – like his immediate predecessor – he did not question. Cautious and plodding, he was psychologically and intellectually unable to react with the incisiveness required on a battlefield, the character of which altered as rapidly and dramatically as a constantly shaken kaleidoscope. Thus, rather than seizing the initiative at a point when his adversaries feared he would achieve ‘a crushing victory’, Ritchie dithered. In this vacuum, Rommel’s commanders were able to regroup, repair armour and artillery, and take up defensive positions from which they were able to ward off the uncoordinated and sporadic attacks launched against them.

The balance and disposition of the two armies meant that Rommel should have been on his knees before the superior might ranged against him; instead the flexibility, ferocity and discipline of his troops served yet again as a reminder of how he had earned his nickname: he was quicker, more imaginative, and more skilled in the deployment of his armour. Even in retreat, the Axis troops – Italian as well as German – displayed a sangfroid and expertise that forced Auchinleck to concede, ‘Although his lightning attack had failed, the enemy nevertheless gained a solid advantage.’

Describing one of the many confusing battles along the front, Auchinleck wrote with barely suppressed frustration of the way in which an entire Italian division (the Trieste) managed to escape through a British minefield (at Trigh Capuzzo) despite coming under heavy fire from Ritchie’s tanks. ‘Our armour strove to interpose itself between the enemy and the paths through the minefield,’ he wrote, ‘but he covered his retirement in characteristic fashion with a powerful anti-tank screen which our armour could neither penetrate nor outflank … The whole of our armour was thus powerless to close on the gaps.’

It was even worse than that. In the many weeks during which they constructed the chain of boxes along the Gazala front, the Eighth Army commanders had failed to ensure that the minefields strung between them were adequately covered from each box by artillery fire to pick off any enemy tank seeking to navigate the maze of buried explosives. The result of Ritchie’s oversight, as Auchinleck later confessed (which Auchinleck was equally responsible since he was supposed “to hold Ritchie’s hand” ) , was that after four days of sustained fighting, the panzers ‘had succeeded in breaching our front and creating a dangerous salient in our main position’.


Nonetheless, the Germans were in a precarious situation. By 31 May, Bayerlein judged the panzer division under his command to be ‘in a really desperate position, our backs against the minefield, no food, no water, no petrol, very little ammunition … We were being attacked all the time from the air. In another twenty-four hours we should have had to surrender’. Accompanied by the commander of the Afrikakorps, General Walther Nehring, he therefore ‘begged Rommel to break off the battle’. According to Bayerlein, however, ‘he wouldn’t hear of it’.

Instead Rommel ordered his panzers to launch an offensive against Got el Ualeb, one of the Gazala Line boxes, which was defended by 150th Brigade. Once again Ritchie was wrong-footed. As though numbed by Rommel’s ruthless daring, instead of rushing troops and tanks in a co-ordinated move against the exhausted Germans and to support 150th Brigade, he failed to take any action at all. Thus the British brigade, which was at the point of exhaustion, was left to its own increasingly desperate devices.

‘Yoicks. Tally ho, tally ho,’ yelled a colonel leading a suicidal tank charge against a battery of 88mm anti-tank guns. One of the junior officers under his command, a Royal Horse Artillery observer, Captain William Pringle, was aghast and tried to stop him. ‘When I eventually got him on the wireless, he told me he knew where he was going, and that it was my job to do what I was told. We went straight at them. The first gun was on him in seconds and BWHUUFF – he’d gone and the whole lot came to a screaming halt, there was total chaos everywhere.’ Pringle ordered his driver to retreat. But the gears were stuck and the tank was trapped and disabled. Eventually, between them, they managed to engage reverse gear. ‘We reversed seven miles. I told the driver, “Don’t you stop, I’ll murder you if you stop.”’

Elsewhere in the chaos, Major Robert Daniell managed to make contact with his commanding officer. ‘Bob, you are to stand and fight in the position where you are now, you are not to move,’ he was instructed. ‘Do you understand me? You are not to move at all.’ Daniell told him that if he obeyed, he would lose every single man in his regiment. The brigadier replied, ‘You are a Horse Artillery officer, you have been properly brought up and you know that in battle you will obey orders or take the consequence.’

Everywhere the British turned they seemed to come up against a well-concealed and perfectly positioned panzer tank or 88mm gun. Sergeant Ray Ellis, who, as we have seen, had narrowly avoided death at Sidi Barrani eighteen months earlier, was almost killed when a shell landed on his gunnery position, killing the rest of his unit. With no sense of bravado, he described how as one man fell, another came forward to take his place. One of them, who was not even a gunner, was caught by a burst of machine gun fire. ‘He was terrified. I crouched down trying to console him, “You’re all right lad, you’re all right. Don’t worry, you’re not badly wounded, we’ll soon have you away …” Trying to ease his fear, I noticed sand settling on his eyes. He died in my arms.’

Soon Ellis was left alone. Every gun was out of action. He walked across to a British armoured vehicle. Inside he found two dead bodies, one of whom had been a good friend. ‘I looked down on his lifeless face and burst into tears, seeing an old pal from the day I joined the regiment.’ A few moments later a German tank rolled up and a sergeant beckoned him to jump aboard. ‘We looked at one another, we’d been fighting each other all day. We both shrugged our shoulders and looked up to heaven – what a bloody silly thing it was. It was a matter of two enemies who had no enmity.’

By late afternoon, 150th Brigade had run out of ammunition and the panzers were about to overrun their positions.

With Ritchie in remote control away from the front, not only out of touch but ill informed by his own subordinate commanders, Rommel himself led the panzer infantry platoon which made the final break through the perimeter to seize the Got el Ualeb Box, where they took 3,000 prisoners and 124 guns.

The gallant remnants of 150th Brigade did their best to escape. According to Major Dobson,

it really became sauve qui peut . I went off with four or five others in a scout car. We hoped we might manage to drive through the minefield. We got a long way before there was the usual explosion and the wheel was blown off. We just sat there hoping we hadn’t been seen, but we had and we were shelled – it was very unpleasant. That night we set off to walk back towards (we hoped) our lines, but after a long night’s walking we ran into a German LOC unit who, praise them, were very good to us.

The capture of Got el Ualeb not only marked a critical moment but came as a huge relief to the Axis forces. ‘If we had not taken it on 1 June,’ General Bayerlein Rommel’s Chief of Staff recalled, ‘you [the British] would have captured the whole of the Afrikakorps … we were surrounded and almost out of petrol. As it was, it was a miracle that we managed to get our supplies through the minefield in time.’ But once they had found a route, they opened a relatively safe corridor through which the Axis commanders were able to resupply their front line. ‘Our mines’, de Guingand observed bleakly, ‘were thus turned to the enemy’s advantage, for they gave him much-needed protection.’

BBC correspondent Richard Dimbleby visited a casualty clearing station a little to the rear of the mayhem but in the path of the advancing panzers. The noise of the battle shook the heavy canvas sides of the hospital tents and once or twice a heavier explosion rattled the medical instruments in the operating theatre. Inside, he saw three men robed in white bent intently over a polished steel table. Directly above them a powerful bulb shone against the shiny insides of some petrol tins which had been sliced open to form a wide reflector to direct the light onto the table. On the ground he saw a severed leg in a long enamel dish. Someone had thrown a cloth over the leg, ‘leaving the toes sticking up, blue and grubby’. As the patient was wheeled away, two bombers roared overhead. The orderlies, clearing away the bloody instruments and dressings, took no notice. The surgeon, washing his hands at a bowl of steaming water, similarly ignored the intrusion. His face was tired and strained. ‘These battles are hell,’ he told the BBC correspondent. ‘That’s the fourth amputation today and the fourteenth operation. I’ve been at it since eight o’clock this morning and there’s a queue like Bank Holiday at the cinema.’ Outside, Dimbleby counted thirty soldiers waiting patiently for their turn on the operating table. All over the battlefield – on both sides – the grisly human detritus of war endured in pain and with patience.

A while later he came across a tank unit manned by members of the 3rd County of London Yeomanry. ‘Most of them had been in action for twenty-four hours non-stop. They were covered with sand and dust and splashes of oil … I spoke to three men from one tank as they sat against its tracks in a tiny pool of shade. The driver was a Bible seller in peacetime; his comrades were a bank clerk from Westminster and a hotel manager on the Great North Road.’ They were remarkably phlegmatic, comparing the recently arrived American Grants with their own vehicle, which the Bible seller patted ‘as affectionately as if it were a horse’. They asked Dimbleby what was happening on the rest of the battlefield; how were things? ‘They could be better,’ the reporter replied. ‘You know I’m getting bloody fed up with this desert,’ the Bible seller said, ‘It’s the same old tale every time. Push them back, and they come up to knock us down. It isn’t getting us anywhere.’

With Ritchie paralysed by indecision, the soldiers under his command were left to protect a line of boxes which by now had lost all useful purpose. A signaller in the Royal Artillery, Robert Lee, recalled one incident : Coming at us, we had artillery shells, airburst rapid fire, machine gun-fire. German armour and German vehicles got right up on us. They were in full view … Vehicles and Valentines [British infantry tanks] burning all around us, palls of that acrid smoke, the smell of human flesh roasting, burning. The first taste of hell. But not the last. All our positions were overrun like a farmer ploughing his fields. Their infantry and their quick-firing guns on portees were advancing on us … We’d no alternative, apart from committing suicide. We laid down our weapons. We spread out. We walked towards individual soldiers with our hands raised and open. The young German I came to said ‘Nicht boom-boom’, and I said ‘Nein’.

Destiny in Desert , The Road to El Alamein - Jonathan Dimbleby

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Rommel’s troops swirled back and forth across the Gazala Line at a pace and with an ingenuity that left the Eighth Army floundering. His goal was still Tobruk, but he faced a familiar problem: the reinforcement of supply lines which now extended forward to the new positions the panzers had taken up amid the minefields along the Gazala Line, a battleground which both sides referred to as the Cauldron. To this end Rommel had to establish a secure route around the southernmost edge of the Gazala Line. On 2 June, the panzerarmee commander duly despatched the German 90th Light and the Italian Trieste Divisions to Bir Hacheim, which was defended by the Free French under General Koenig, who had so far managed to stave off a succession of panzer attacks.

At Eighth Army headquarters, Ritchie and his senior commanders discussed how best to counter Rommel’s latest moves. In a note to Auchinleck, he wrote, ‘I am distressed over the loss of 150th Brigade after so gallant a fight but still consider the situation favourable to us and getting better daily.’ (?) ; Ritchie had no evidence to support this extravagant assessment and – given the dull-witted irresolution he now displayed – provided no grounds for supposing that he had any idea of how to seize back the initiative. One of his senior commanders, General William Ramsden, remembered hearing one of his colleagues emerging from one of many interminable staff conferences, to say ‘I think Ritchie is going to do this or that.’

Auchinleck in Cairo at the other hand was filled with misgivings. ‘It seemed to me’, he wrote later, ‘that, if the enemy were to continue to occupy a deep wedge in the centre of our minefield, the whole Gazala Line and Bir Hacheim in particular would become untenable.’ With unconfirmed reports that large numbers of panzer tanks were advancing into the Cauldron, he concluded lugubriously – and in sharp contrast to Ritchie – ‘We appeared to be rapidly losing the initiative we had gained by bringing his first attack to a standstill.’ Unless Ritchie could regain the initiative, Tobruk would soon be in grave danger while the Eighth Army would have to contemplate a further retreat to the Egyptian border and beyond.

It was not until 5 June that Ritchie belatedly made his next move. In the early hours of the morning, units of the Eighth Army, under cover of an intensive artillery bombardment, launched a direct attack on Rommel’s forces in the heart of the Cauldron. Had this counter-offensive been launched two days earlier, it might well have prospered, but Ritchie’s days of indecision had given Rommel vital time to reinforce his key positions on a salient where the Axis was dug in on the high ground.

At first the British seemed poised to make a breakthrough as two Indian brigades supported by the 22nd Armoured Brigade drove the Italian Ariete Division off its stronghold on Aslagh Ridge. But when the British tanks advanced deeper into the Cauldron to take Sidi Muftah Ridge, they came under devastating tank and artillery fire and were forced to wheel off to the north, leaving the 9th and 10th Indian Divisions trapped in the middle of the minefield.

Everything now went wrong. With tight-lipped precision, Auchinleck described the dismal failure of another attempt to enter the Cauldron via an assault on Sidra Ridge, where 21st Panzer was dug in. ‘The 32nd Army Tank Brigade’, he wrote, ‘was attacked on its right flank by enemy tanks, and having run onto an uncharted enemy minefield and so lost fifty tanks out of its original seventy, could give the infantry no support when they in their turn were attacked by tanks.’ Von Mellenthin described the same attack from the German standpoint. Noting that it might have been ‘gravely embarrassing’ had it been made under cover of darkness, he wrote incredulously, ‘the heavy British tanks lumbered forward in daylight, providing perfect targets for our anti-tank guns and ending up on a minefield where they were simply shot to pieces. From the tactical point of view this was one of the most ridiculous attacks of the campaign.’

Captain Rea Leakey was on one of the tanks spearheading this ‘ridiculous’ attack: "In the first second we must have received at least four direct hits from armour-piercing shells. The engine was knocked out, a track was broken and one shell hit the barrel of the 75-mm gun and broke it. Then quite a heavy high-explosive shell dropped on the mantlet of my 37-mm gun and pushed it back against the recoil springs … I suffered nothing more than a ‘singing in the ears’. But a splinter hit the subaltern in the head and he fell to the floor of the turret dead … Almost every tank in the battle met with the same treatment.

With the Eighth Army reeling, Rommel stepped up the pace and variety of his assault and the panzers were soon running amok through the British positions. With tactical headquarters overrun, wireless sets destroyed, communications severed, tents and trucks set on fire, it was clear to Colonel Desmond Young (later to become Rommel’s biographer), who was serving with the Indian Army, that the enemy ‘had, indeed recovered the initiative which General Ritchie had wrested from him and had no intention of giving it up. 5 June was the turning point of the battle, though the chance of winning it outright went three days earlier.’

By 6 June, the Axis divisions which Rommel had despatched to Bir Hacheim four days earlier had surrounded the fortress. Now Rommel pressed home his advantage with ground and air attacks against the Free French who showed rare tenacity despite mounting losses. Ritchie was well aware of the importance of Bir Hacheim; that – in Auchinleck’s words – its loss would require him to ‘form a new and extended front facing southwards behind which we might be hemmed in and deprived of our power of manoeuvre. The threat to our rear would be increased.’ Accordingly, he despatched tank and infantry units to confront the 90th Light and Trieste Divisions. Rommel countered by sending further reinforcements to the same location.

On 8 June, with cover from dive-bombing Stukas and artillery fire, an Axis unit penetrated a corner of the garrison. But, despite the continued aerial bombardment, the Free French refused to yield, resisting with such valour that von Mellenthin was moved to record that ‘in the whole course of the desert war we never encountered a more heroic or well-sustained defence’. From London, General de Gaulle broadcast: ‘General Koenig, know and tell your troops that the whole of France is looking at you and you are her pride.’ Koenig responded ‘We are surrounded. Our thoughts are always with you. Long live Free France.’

But by 10 June it was clear that heroism alone could not prevail. Ritchie gave the orders for the survivors to break out. Under heavy aerial and artillery bombardment but partially protected by the 7th Armoured Division, 2,400 of the original 3,700 defenders of Bir Hacheim fought their way out using bayonets. An officer who observed them as they reached the British front line, noted that ‘some of these tough, bearded Frenchmen were almost in tears when they described their anger and frustration … They would have preferred to stay and die.’ De Gaulle was greatly affected. In a flush of high-flown rhetoric, he proclaimed, ‘When a ray of glory touched the bloodstained brows of her soldiers at Bir Hacheim, the world recognised France.’ After the war, as President of France, he ordered a Métro station near the Eiffel Tower to be renamed ‘Bir Hacheim’ in honour of its defenders.

Destiny in Desert , The Road to El Alamein - Jonathan Dimbleby

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