Thursday, July 13, 2017

The events of Operation Battleaxe on 15 June 1941

On 15 June 1941, the first reports indicated that Fort Capuzzo had been taken, but Halfaya Pass had not been. The 18th Brigade commanded by Brigadier Wooten had been waiting for the news that the attackers were within 20 miles of Tobruk, but they never got that close. The immediate judgement about Battleaxe at the time was that the operation failed. The usual situation after these battles in 1941 was that the Germans were left in control of the battlefield, while the British withdrew, leaving their disabled tanks. They had not easy way to recover the knocked out tanks. The Germans, being left of the battlefield were able to recover their damaged tanks and take them back to their workshops for repair.

Two columns advanced on Fort Capuzzo and Halfaya Pass. They were both from the 4th Indian Division, commanded by General Frank Messervy. The 7th Armoured Division was to go around the open desert flank.

Battleaxe was notable for the Royal Air Force having established air superiority over the battlefield. The RAF had fighters operating over the three advancing columns, protecting them from air attacks.

The column nearest the coast was actually divided into parts, one above the escarpment and one part below. They attacked Halfaya Pass. On the coastal plain were two battalions from the 4th Indian Division and six infantry tanks from the 4th RTR. The tanks ran onto a minefield which had not been lifted and had four tanks immobilized. The other group, in this case being above the escarpment, had the 2/Camerons and 12 more infantry tanks from the 4th RTR. There were German 88mm guns and probably 50mm PAK38's laying in wait. They caught the British infantry tanks by surprise and knocked out 11 of the 12. The infantry battalion was helpless and could not advance.

The center column, with the main force from the 4th RTR, moved on Fort Capuzzo. After some initial problems, they eventually overran Fort Capuzzo. They captured a position with eight field guns in the process. Unfortunately, German armored cars staged a counter-attack and recaptured the guns. After the 7th RTR got Fort Capuzzo, the 22nd Guard Brigade moved in to hold the position.

On the desert flank, the 7th Armoured Division had been held by artillery fire, but an attack by a squadron with artillery support was able to take come artillery.

By this time, the German command figured out that the British seemed to intend to destroy the German forces on the frontier and to break the siege of Tobruk. The initial German response was to send to the border a reconnaissance unit and artillery from the 5th Light Division. They were to head for the Fort Capuzzo area. The Germans asked the Italian government for permission to use the Ariete Division. Then the permission was received, they were given orders to move at about 3pm. At late morning, the bulk of the 5th Light Division was ordered to a position south of Gambut. The commander of the 15th Armored Division ordered his reserves to points 206 and 208 to recover their lost artillery. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History.

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