Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Action on the third day of Operation Battleaxe: 17 June 1941

The two German armored divisions were on the move very early on 17 June 1941, the third day of Operation Battleaxe. The German 15th Armored Division was the premier division of the two German armored divisions. The 15th Armored Division, equipped with towed 88mm guns encountered the 7th Armoured Brigade. The 5th Light Division was also active. They entered Sidi Suleiman a little while later. News of these movements caused General Messervy to keep the 4th Armoured Brigade in support of the 4th Indian Division.

The events of 17 June caused the 7th Armoured Division commander to ask General Beresford-Peirse to come to his headquarters to make a decision. General Wavell was at Beresford-Peirse's headquarters, so they both traveled to the 7th Armoured Division headquarters. While that was happening, General Messervy had orcered his men to abandon Fort Capuzzo. By the time that General Wavell had arrived, he authorized ending the operation.

Rommel was apparently trying to catch the British at Fort Capuzzo. He was unsuccessful, as the remaining infantry tanks of the 4th Armoured Brigade covered the withdrawal from Fort Capuzzo.

Australian anti-tank gunners were involved in Operation Battleaxe. One battery was with the column on the desert flank. The Australian gunners performed well during the operation and got hits on German armored cars and some tanks.

British infantry tank losses were heavy in the battle. They started the operation with about one hundred infantry tanks. They lost 64 tanks either destroyed or disabled and abandoned. The British had about ninety cruiser tanks at the start of the operation. They lost 23 of them during the operation. The Germans only lost 12 medium tanks (mostly Pzkw III) and captured 12 operable British infantry tanks. The Germans, in fact, only had 81 running or recoverable medium tanks. At the time, the British believed that the Germans had more than that number. Churchill was apparently the only one who thought that the Tobruk defenders should have made an attack to draw the Germans from the frontier.

The main result of the battle was that General Wavell was informed that he would exchange places with General Auchinleck. It is not clear that General Wavell was particularly responsible for the loss. The actions of his commanders did affect the outcome in a negative way, though. We will see that Auchinleck had the same problems in choosing men to command under him. General Dill, the CIGS, told Churchill to either back Wavell or fire him. Churchill said that the choice was not that easy. General Dill did not have confidence in Auchinleck and told Churchill that. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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