Thursday, May 12, 2005

The turning point in the Crusader battle in November 1941

The British doctrine was that you fought tanks with tanks, and so their armoured formations charged the German infantry and artillery covering the tanks, and were badly shot up by the 5cm PAK38's. The Crusader tanks were also mechanically unreliable, and broke down frequently. By November 23, the British had lost about 300 of their 450 cruiser tanks. General Cunningham requested that General Auchinleck fly out to the army headquarters to discuss the situation. Cunningham was ready to pull back, in the face of the losses. Fortunately, Cunningham's commanders disagreed, and wanted to continue the battle. Auchinleck had a sense that Rommel's forces were in as bad shape as the British, and decided to continue to prosecute the battle. By the end of November 23rd, the Germans were down to 100 running tanks. Rommel had sensed that Cunningham had lost his nerve, and decided on a bold stroke. He led his forces through a succession of British headquarters and swung across the desert toward the Egyptian border ("The Wire"). What ensued was what General Norrie dubbed "The Matruh Stakes", as it was a race for the border. Auchinleck's reaction was to order the 8th Army to continue to attack. It turns out that the German advance achieved nothing, and they were unsupplied, as well. They stayed in the "Omars" for for the 24th and 25th, and then withdrew. The Germans had hit the 4th Indian Division, which was holding the area around Sollum, Capuzzo, and Halfaya Pass. They repulsed the German assault, and inflicted considerable losses. They were losses that the Germans could ill afford. While Rommel was off swanning through the desert, 30th Corps struck at the critical point. When they reached Sidi Rezegh airfield, Colonel Fritz Bayerlein frantically called Rommel. But General Cunningham was suffering from exhaustion from the strain of the an unfamiliar situation that was out of his control. Auchinleck reluctantly removed him and replaced him with one of the few available options, Lt-General Neil Ritchie. This is based on Correlli Barnett's narrative in The Desert Generals.

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