Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Operation Battleaxe plans

We have noted that General Wavell had very pessimistic expectations about Operation Battleaxe. He told the CIGS, General Dill, that they had 230 cruiser tanks, of which 90 were in the workshops. He also had 217 infantry tanks, with 30 in the workshops. He also mentioned that there were the two German armored divisions and one Italian armored division in North Africa. He thought that by September, there might be another two or three German armored divisions. He had no idea that the Germans were about to invade Russia, which changed the actual prospects. He also thought that the Germans might get permission to send more armored divisions through Turkey. What Wavell was asking for were more armored reinforcements to be sent to North Africa. He expected that they would be needed in Egypt as soon as August and they needed to be ready for action.

On 6 June, Wavell told the CIGS that for the Tobruk garrison to mount an attack during the initial phase of Operation Battleaxe might compromise their ability to defend the fortress, especially if Battleaxe had problems. He thought that Tobruk just needed to be on the defensive at first, and if the first phase when well, they might carry out offensive operations in the second phase. Wavell did not expect to do well enough with Battleaxe to reach Tobruk.

In a Middle East meeting on 13 June 1941, General Wavell suggested that if the main forces were driven to the east, that they might abandon Tobruk and leave it without a garrison. We can imagine what Churchill might have said if he were aware of those plans. Battleaxe was planned for 15 June 1941. While that date was inadequate for having the newly arrived tanks in the hands of units that were thoroughly trained. There was no hope of that happening. The driving issue to keep the date as early as possible was that they expected that Rommel's supply situation would improve after the capture of Crete. Also, the Royal Navy had taken heavy losses in the Greek and Crete campaigns, so that they would have greater problems with interdicting the Axis supply lines to Libya.

Wavell had a plan for Battleaxe that included about 200 tanks, with about 100 being Infantry tanks with the rest being cruiser tanks. They believed that the Germans had about 100 tanks near the frontier and another 120 near Tobruk. The Germans also had about 70 light tanks (Pzkw I and II tanks). The Pzkw III and IV tanks counted as medium tanks. Wavell thought that the Germans might actually have up to 300 tanks to face the 200 British tanks. The Australian historian says that the actual situation was better than Wavell thought. The Germans actually had less than 200 tanks available for the battle and the British infantry at the Egyptian frontier was about twice the number of Axis soldiers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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