No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

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Fatboy Coxy
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No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Fatboy Coxy » 28 Sep 2021 21:38

Hi all

The North African Campaign was dominated by logistics, given the geographical nature of the theatre, what would have been the positives and negatives towards the British not chasing Rommel all the way back to El Agheila after the Operation Crusader victory.

Let’s say having broken the Axis lines at Gazala, the British only advance as far as a Derna – Mekiti line before halting, and continued, as historically, to mop up the surrounded garrisons left at Bardia, Sollum etc.

The Eighth Army then rests and recuperates, planning a further push forward sometime in the future, when they are stronger and the supply line has improved.

This would mean that the Axis retain Benghazi, and what supplies can be brought into that port and Rommel’s supply line doesn’t shorten all the way back to El Agheila.

It gives up the extremely tempting gain of the airfield around Benghazi being used to support operations around Malta, but on the other hand the three-day battle at El Haseia doesn’t happen, and so the 22nd Armoured Brigade doesn’t get badly mauled.

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Fatboy Coxy

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Urmel
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Re: No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Urmel » 01 Oct 2021 12:01

Why would they do that? I mean, given what they knew at the time, what would be the reason?
The enemy had superiority in numbers, his tanks were more heavily armoured, they had larger calibre guns with nearly twice the effective range of ours, and their telescopes were superior. 5 RTR 19/11/41

The CRUSADER Project - The Winter Battle 1941/42

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Re: No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Fatboy Coxy » 03 Oct 2021 20:27

Hi Urmel, thank you for replying to my post

I’ll say now, my understanding of the North Africa Campaign is poor and sketchy, I’m much better off with the initial campaigns in Burma and Malaya against the Japanese. But sometimes you have to look at other theatres to understand the limitations within your own. You’re probably the best person to reply to me, given your extensive and wonderful work on the Crusader Project.

So please feel free to correct my assumptions, because I’m sure I’m going to get a few wrong, but at the end hopefully I’ll get a better understanding of why things played out as they did.


Why did Rommel retreat?

Logistics, my take on the outcome of the battle was that Rommel had to retreat due to Logistics. If he stayed, they would have quickly run out of fuel, would have become static, easily isolated and destroyed piecemeal by a more mobile British force.

As the Axis forces fell back to the west, they retreated onto their own line of communications, the distances from Benghazi and more importantly, Tripoli, shortened, while at the same time the British supply lines increased. This would increasingly move in favour of the Axis as they retreated.

For the British, with the Axis frontier garrisons holding out so long, at Halfaya Pass, Sollum and Bardia, all British supplies were having to make a big detour around, causing delay and further wear and tear on supply columns


Why they might not pursue Rommel?

Normally after a successful battle you would try to mount a pursuit of the fleeing enemy, often this is the point when you do the real damage, causing the most casualties, taking prisoners, capturing arms and equipment. But Operation Crusader wasn’t a ‘Normal’ battle, in part because of the ever-open flank to the south, and in part because in the desert climate, and with both sides using captured vehicles, it could be difficult to identify your enemy. So quite often your enemy could be behind you. The lack of many easily identifiable features meant units often weren’t quite sure where they were, and for the commanders, even more so.

I believe this confusion played a considerable part in the British not realising quickly enough that the Axis was retreating, and so pursuit was somewhat delayed. Secondly, as I mentioned earlier, logistic was playing a big part in this, any pursuit meant stripping down other units to provide enough for the advancing force.

Dreams of achieving what Connor did a year earlier when he was able to intercept the Italian retreat at Beda Fomm, destroying their Tenth Army must have been in the mind, but this was a different foe now, commanded much more aggressively, and far more capable. Secondly, the British forces, relatively, were in a much poorer shape than a year ago owing to the intensity and length of this battle.

So, were they capable of repeating last year’s victory, and destroying the Axis army, I’m not sure they were?


The reduction of British strength

The fighting in the battle was brutal, most of the 2nd New Zealand Division was withdrawn on the 1st December, badly mauled, needing a period of recovery, the South African 1st Division had started the battle with only 2 Bdes and the 5th Bde had been annihilated, the remaining Bde showing no interest in committing to any further heavy fighting. And the armoured component of three Bdes was reduced to just one.

There was a rejigging of command between 13th and 30th Corps, 13th to manage all units in the west, while 30th Corp managed those mopping up the frontier units. I understand Auchinleck was having to consider moving 30th Corps into a reserve, with concerns about the German advance into the Caucuses, possibly having them available to deploy in the east to protect the oilfields of Iraq and Iran (Persia) if the need arose.

Right in the middle of the battle, the war with Japan began, on the 9th December, before the Eight Army had started to assault the Gazala position, the 18th Infantry Division, in convoy rounding the cape, bound to Suez, and as a reinforcement to the Eight Army, was diverted to Malaya.

Worse than this, seen as a quick reinforcement, the RAF was having to give up a lot of aircraft, around 300, to the Far Eastern theatre, while the Mediterranean fleet was also being told send ships east. This was a similar pattern, although for different reasons, to what had happened a year earlier.

The Eight Army and its support was getting steadily weaker.


Historical outcome

So, the little I know is this led to the Germans stopping at El Agheila, with the 7th armoured Division opposing them, with just one tank Bde, the 4th Indian Division at Benghazi, and the rest of the army still stuck at Gazala. If I’m right, the question I ask, is did the British think they would be able to build up their forces and supplies this far from their own supply back in Egypt, quicker, that the Germans and Italians could from Tripoli? Or was this simply responding to pressure from Churchill?


Alternative option

So come 17th December, when the Axis abandon the Gazala line, maybe the British forces don’t chase the Axis back, but stop and begin a period of rest and recovery. They know their own forces are becoming weaker, as formations are siphoned off. How best to manage this?

With no pursuit, the Axis forces are unable to withdraw to El Agheila, (they just can’t abandon the territory) meaning their resupply will be slower, as lines of supply are still quite long, and their recovery will take a little longer.

My understanding, and I could be very wrong here, was the allies had an excellent idea of what reinforcements were being sent by sea, and their own success of interdiction. This meant the British should have been able to provide a reasonable prediction of how well the Axis forces might recover

With the decision to stop and dig in, the best ground can be found and prepared with plenty of time, while the tank force is preserved, and not wasted away. The British forces are not dispersed, cannot be destroyed in piecemeal, and could hope to have further battle in the future where they might have an opportunity to destroy the Axis army

Is this a reasonable option or just something you might suggest with the benefit of hindsight?

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Fatboy Coxy

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Urmel
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Re: No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Urmel » 03 Oct 2021 21:53

My understanding, and I could be very wrong here, was the allies had an excellent idea of what reinforcements were being sent by sea, and their own success of interdiction. This meant the British should have been able to provide a reasonable prediction of how well the Axis forces might recover
That's actually not correct. On 17 December all major supply efforts had failed since late October, and only single runners had crossed, and there was no reason to expect this to change. It was also known that Ariete was either completely out of, or down to single-digit numbers of tanks, and the D.A.K. somewhere in the low 20s. The British had no idea that new tanks would arrive in Benghazi in two days. These new tanks were instrumental in enabling the D.A.K. to strike back first at Saunnu and then a week or so later at Uadi al Faregh.

From the perspective of 13 Corps and 8 Army, there was no indication that the Axis would recover, and forces had been put in place to attempt the cutting off, in the form of BenCol and by re-directing E Force to el Haselat, while a refreshed 22 Armd Bde was fed into battle as well, relieving 4 Armd Bde. For what should have been a beaten enemy this was supposed to be sufficient.

So with the benefit of hindsight you are completely correct. But at the time and on the spot, the odds looked far more favourable and the gamble was worth taking. If the Royal Navy had managed to sink Ankara or force M.42 to return to port, delaying it even a few days, history might have been different.

I've written a bit about this period here, but you need to pierce it together.

http://rommelsriposte.com/2020/02/28/be ... -in-libya/

http://rommelsriposte.com/2010/10/24/re ... -dec-1941/

http://rommelsriposte.com/2017/03/05/be ... objective/

http://rommelsriposte.com/2010/07/30/be ... -planning/

http://rommelsriposte.com/2013/11/17/mo ... mber-1941/
The enemy had superiority in numbers, his tanks were more heavily armoured, they had larger calibre guns with nearly twice the effective range of ours, and their telescopes were superior. 5 RTR 19/11/41

The CRUSADER Project - The Winter Battle 1941/42

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Re: No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Fatboy Coxy » 04 Oct 2021 06:25

Hi Urmel, thank you for this

The logistical problems of just maintaining these armies was massive, I have a couple of questions
Had big was the rail head a Mersa Matruh, was there many sidings, a turntable or wye, repair sheds etc
And how did the supply columns navigate, it must hard finding the fighting formations, given the frequent movements

Reading the other bits, its clear the British hoped for another success like last year, and the geographical feature of the coast bulging out into the Med, with the desert tracks shortcutting it at the base, must have been a major concern for whoever held Benghazi and Derna, both so easily cut off, Rommel must have been very concerned about this.

Where did the tanks come from to 'refresh' 22 Armoured Bde, I thought they had given the few tanks they had left to 4 Bde, and retired.

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Fatboy Coxy

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Urmel
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Re: No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Urmel » 04 Oct 2021 11:29

By the time of CRUSADER the railhead was south of Matruh, and by December it had reached Misheifa south of Barrani.

The railhead was laid out like this one in Bramley, apparently:

https://bdrs70d.com/CT_Pages/CT_ordnance_survey.htm

The tanks for 22 AB were from TDS, they would have been rebuilt battle/mechanical casualties or recent arrivals.
The enemy had superiority in numbers, his tanks were more heavily armoured, they had larger calibre guns with nearly twice the effective range of ours, and their telescopes were superior. 5 RTR 19/11/41

The CRUSADER Project - The Winter Battle 1941/42

Fatboy Coxy
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Re: No British Pursuit After Operation Crusader Victory

Post by Fatboy Coxy » 09 Oct 2021 20:03

Thank you Urmel, all my questions answered

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