The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 4 — The crusader Plan
The crusader Plan
BATTLEAXE had been viewed at GHQ MEF as a disaster and it was only by displaying this spectre, with dire warnings of possible repetition, to the service and political heads in London that Auchinleck was able to delay crusader until administrative facilities promised adequate support. It was plain enough that battleaxe had been uncomfortably constricted by the inability of the supply services to support an ambitious tactical plan and Auchinleck was determined not to let crusader suffer under the same handicap. The comparative freedom from administrative limitations, however, was like strong and unaccustomed wine to the planners and went to their heads. Much time was wasted on a quite impracticable scheme to by-pass not only the frontier defences but the Tobruk front as well and make the main thrust across the base of the Cyrenaican bulge to the Gulf of Sirte. It is curious that this was one of the two alternatives Auchinleck put to his new army commander,1 General Cunningham, on 2 September, the other being to attack ‘from the coastal sector, south of the escarpment, and to feint from the centre and south’—the centre presumably being the Tobruk front. The ultimate aim was to drive the enemy out of North Africa, but crusader was concerned only with capturing Cyrenaica, to be achieved in the first instance by destroying the enemy's armoured forces.
Cunningham elected to try to trap the enemy armour between the frontier and a line some miles west of Tobruk. With half again as many tanks as the enemy (as he estimated in an appreciation of 28 September) he should have no great trouble in disposing of the German-Italian armour despite a similar disparity of air strength in favour of the enemy. Meanwhile the mass of mobile infantry would guard the L of C and watch the frontier strongpoints. If the shape of the tank battle allowed, the Tobruk garrison might break out to link up with the armoured force; but the relief of Tobruk ‘must be incidental to the plan’.
1 Headquarters Western Army was formed in Cairo early in September and on the 25th it moved to Baggush, with Rear HQ at El Daba. At midnight, 26–27 Sep 1941, it was redesignated Eighth Army Headquarters, with 13 and 30 Corps under its command, to which the Tobruk garrison was added in October.
More crusader details were revealed at a conference at Army Headquarters on 6 October attended by divisional and corps commanders and corps and army staff officers. General Freyberg listened intently as the plan unfolded but said nothing until the New Zealand Division was discussed. With a superiority in tanks of five to four (not counting the I tanks), as it was now estimated, Eighth Army proposed to fight the opening and decisive battle with part of the armoured corps only—two out of the three armoured brigades, the third having a dual role which might make it unavailable. Since all depended on the outcome of this armoured clash, the confidence thus reposed in two armoured brigades to achieve the main purpose of the campaign almost unaided is as remarkable in its way as the time wasted on Auchinleck's Gulf of Sirte alternative. Both indicate a readiness to abandon accepted principles which is hard to explain even years after the event. Those chiefly concerned must have looked on their new-found freedom from supply limitations and the extreme mobility of their forces on the desert plateau as a licence to ignore the principle of concentration of force or the tactical importance of ground. Neglect of the latter was obscured at this stage by the vagueness of the proposals put forward for the armoured force which specified, reasonably enough, that the British armour would accomplish its mission by ‘threatening the forces investing TOBRUK in order to make the enemy deploy his armd forces’ but did not venture into details. If the intention was to concentrate on vital ground, as many of those present no doubt imagined, all should be well; but this was later found not to be the case.
1 13 Corps, with NZ and 4 Indian Divisions and 1 (Army) Tank Bde (with I tanks and a field regiment). 30 Corps was to include 7 Armd and 1 South African Divisions and 22 Guards Bde.
Thus began an argument, which echoed through later discussions at Corps and Army level, about the command of the third armoured brigade group. Lieutenant-General Godwin-Austen, backing up Freyberg, wanted it under his command; Lieutenant-General Norrie, now commanding the armoured corps, naturally wanted all armoured brigades under his wing; Cunningham was ready to compromise and retain direct command himself, which pleased neither side. The wisdom of Solomon was called for but was not forthcoming and the issue was never properly settled. That the armour and infantry should fight in close conjunction as a concentrated force was remote from current consideration.
The plan as outlined at this conference promised to disperse Eighth Army in a way that was daring, to say the least. Thirteenth Corps (Northern Force) was to make a left hook northwards to hem in the frontier positions, 30 Corps (Southern Force) was to drive north-westwards to Tobruk, and the third armoured brigade (Centre Force) was to operate between them. The Tobruk garrison was to break out south-eastwards when the time was ripe to link up with Southern Force, while far to the south an unspecified number of armoured cars and lorried infantry with artillery support was to skirt the edge of the Libyan Sand Sea from Jarabub to capture Jalo and Aujila, 250 miles from the likely battleground of the main armoured forces. Such a wide deployment of forces was inconceivable unless it was a foregone conclusion that the enemy's armoured forces would be decisively defeated in the opening stages—an assumption not lightly to be made about German armour, with its record of outstanding success in many theatres, marred by nothing more serious than the rebuff outside Tobruk at the beginning of May. The official minutes of this conference are nevertheless quite clear on this vital point: 7 Armoured Division (with only two brigades) would be stronger than the two panzer divisions put together and each armoured brigade would be ‘slightly stronger’ than a panzer division, the basis of the comparison evidently being a mere counting of tanks. That an Italian armoured division might also have to be dealt with was scarcely considered; its tanks, the minutes broadly hinted, were inferior.
1 Comments on my narrative, July 1950, again with solid documentary support linking them with his contemporary views.
1 i.e., put under command of the brigades.—Minutes of the conference.
As if these handicaps were not enough, the South African division was condemned to leave its third brigade behind in Matruh, a detail of the plan which attracted Freyberg's attention. He was under threat of a somewhat similar sentence himself, since he had been warned to have one brigade ready to move westwards to join 30 Corps if the need arose; a larger force, he was told, could not be maintained so far west. This made him study the scheme for breaking through to Tobruk, and the more he looked at it the less he liked it. When the time came he suspected that he would be asked to drop current commitments and make for Tobruk to help join hands with the garrison. In such an eventuality he wanted all three brigades together, to develop the full fighting potential of the Division. As he wrote to Mr Fraser on 18 December,
the plan to relieve TOBRUK was not strong enough. It was entrusted to two Brigades of the South Africans with the Armoured Force.
Two days before we marched out to the Battle I asked for an appointment with the Army Commander and said ‘You are attacking Five Italian Divisions and more than a German Division with two Brigades of South Africans and you will fail & we shall be ordered in the end to march upon TOBRUK. We are ready to do so. All our plans have been made with that object in view. I do wish to say that it is imperative that we should go as a complete Division not a two Brigade Division as in Crete’. I went on to say that we had been trained to work and fight as a complete Division and as such we were only half as strong if one of our three Brigades were detached.
‘I doubt if I made any impression on General Cunningham,’ he wrote later to the Minister of Defence (6 February 1942). ‘He thought I was over-anxious and I thought him over confident.’
1 Maj-Gen L. M. Inglis, CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC, VD, ED, m.i.d., MC (Gk); Hamilton; born Mosgiel, 16 May 1894; barrister and solicitor; NZ Rifle Bde and MG Bn, 1915–19; CO 27 (MG) Bn, Dec 1939—Aug 1940; comd 4 Inf Bde, 1941–42, and 4 Armd Bde, 1942–44; GOC 2 NZ Div, 27 Jun—16 Aug 1942, 6 Jun—31 Jul 1943; Chief Judge of the Control Commission Supreme Court in British Zone of Occupation, Germany, 1947–50; Stipendiary Magistrate.
This like all modern battles is in first place battle of machines and exploitation by lorry borne fighting troops of all arms.2
Had he been party to the discussions which settled the details of the armoured corps plan and the sally from Tobruk he might have felt rather less confident.
The plan for the armoured corps was a curious mixture, reflecting, long-standing uncertainties of armoured doctrine in the Britis Army which left the main questions of command and organisation still unanswered. Differences of outlook between the cavalry and the Royal Tank Corps had not been resolved by combining them in the Royal Armoured Corps. The development of two main kins of tank (cruisers and I tanks) was symptomatic, springing from and in turn encouraging divergent and mutually exclusive schools of thought about their uses. Even more important, attitudes within the RAC had not led to harmony with other fighting arms—the gunners, sappers and infantry—which was a major ingredient of success in German mobile operations. The desert war thus far had raised false gods and nurtured heresies and frequent changes of command had gravely weakened the Inquisition. Successes against the Italians might in some quarters be scorned; but they were victories nevertheless, and how were the newcomers to know, for example, how much the British tanks owed to the tight divisional control of the guns at Nibeiwa and the Tummars in December 1940, and how much to the eager and fast-moving infantry of 4 Indian Division?
2 The opposite of the German doctrine by which all arms combined in the attack and the armour exploited success.
The armoured corps headquarters lost its first commander, Lieutenant-General Pope, and his two senior staff officers in an air accident on 5 October, the headquarters was not fully mobilised until a week later, and Norrie was barely in the saddle before he had to attend a conference with the Army Commander and Major-General Scobie of the Tobruk garrison on the 15th.
One of the worst features of the plan, as expressed in the minutes of this conference, was the treating of the role of the armoured corps as if it were a specific objective. The role was, as Cunningham wrote a few weeks later, to ‘seek out and destroy’1 the enemy armoured forces, which put the emphasis in the first instance on ‘seek’. This could easily lead to a wild-goose chase across the desert hinterland if the enemy armour chose not to give battle, and Norrie took the sensible view that he should proceed at the outset to occupy ground too vital for the enemy to ignore. He proposed reaching El Adem, south of Tobruk, with his armoured division on the same day he crossed into Libya. There, astride the main enemy supply lines, he could meet on ground of his own choosing the strong enemy reaction his move was sure to provoke. There also he could link up with a sally by the Tobruk garrison. Behind his armour would be 1 South African Division, ready to join with the garrison in rolling up the leaguers outside Tobruk, and from El Adem the South Africans might well be able to swing north-westwards to cut off the escape routes of the enemy west of Tobruk.
1 Eighth Army Operation Instruction No. 13 of 9 Nov.
Here after months of privation was the reward offered by the stout defenders of Tobruk and the inherent tactical superiority of Eighth Army's situation over that of the enemy in Cyrenaica; and for the first time administrative facilities allowed the British to turn it to full account. But Cunningham's plan would not permit it. Instead the British armour was to move a short distance into Libya and then wait and see how the enemy reacted, conforming to enemy movements and yielding the priceless possession of the initiative. Norrie protested, but in vain.
The main outline of the campaign as Cunningham visualised it is set out with admirable clarity in the minutes of the conference: first the tank battle, then the relief of Tobruk, and then the pursuit to Benghazi; but the details are curiously jumbled. ‘Troops of N.Z. Div might possibly be the first to reach TOBRUK’, says the opening sentence with prophetic insight not matched elsewhere in this document; but no special Signals provision was made for this, nor was 7 Armoured Division to be able to get in direct touch by wireless with the garrison, though it might very well be operating close at hand long before the South Africans came on the scene. Again, ‘N.Z. Div might act as a bait to draw the enemy armd forces out’; but why the enemy should react to a mere bait and yet not to the cutting of his main arteries at El Adem is hard to see.
Auchinleck chewed over the various alternatives offered the enemy at different stages and set down the results in notes of 30 October for Cunningham's benefit. He was emphatic that Eighth Army must make an ‘obvious move to raise the siege of Tobruk’ but this valuable insight was clouded with worries lest the enemy should escape westwards. Thus he recommended activities to confuse the enemy as to the ‘time and direction of the main thrust’, and he acquiesced in separating the main striking force into two corps fighting different battles and even, if the enemy chose to withdraw, in breaking up the leading forces into ‘highly mobile columns’ for the pursuit. One possibility, he thought, was that the enemy might post his two panzer divisions by his supply dumps alongside the Via Balbia between Bardia and Tobruk and refuse to be drawn even by a threat to the siege front: in this case the armoured corps was somehow to ‘secure escarpment, picquet gaps, so as to prevent tank page 45 movement’—i.e., lock up the enemy armour north of the chain of escarpments on a front of some 40 miles—and then proceed to relieve Tobruk. While ready for these eventualities, 30 Corps must be able to deal with the ‘most likely course’ open to the enemy, which would entail his moving
his armoured forces south of escarpment to a suitable area north of Trigh el Abd and west of Capuzzo with object of striking at our 30 Corps in flank and heading it off Tobruk, his eastern flank being protected by his Sidi Omar - Halfaya defences.
In that event ‘we must accept battle and concentrate the strongest possible armoured force against him in this area’—other than I tanks that is.1
Despite his confusing elaborations, Auchinleck was reasonably clear about driving with all available cruiser tanks towards Tobruk and thereby bringing the enemy armour to battle and (he hoped) to destruction, and he expected the garrison to ‘sally out and assist main attack by threatening enemy rear and flank and distracting his attention.’2 But this was not what Cunningham intended. The garrison was to take no part in the battle until the enemy armour was defeated or in course of destruction, and 7 Armoured Division with only two armoured brigades might well be fighting this crucial battle a few miles outside the Tobruk perimeter without any kind of help from either the garrison or the rest of Eighth Army. ‘The day for the sorties will depend on the result of the armoured battle’, the minutes of the 15 October conference state; ‘this in turn may mean that the S.A. Div may not reach the escarpment [south of Tobruk] for perhaps three days.’
There was no way by Cunningham's plan of concentrating the strength of Eighth Army against the enemy's mobile forces. The garrison could throw in a considerable weight of tanks, guns and infantry, but only if the main battle took place somewhere near El Adem, in which case one armoured brigade group would have to be left guarding the flank of 13 Corps in the frontier area, far outside the vital arena. All three armoured brigades could operate together in the frontier area if the enemy obliged, but this would allow 13 Corps a minor part and the South African division and the Tobruk garrison no part at all in the decisive battle.
2 Ibid, p. 377
As time passed it became clearer in some quarters that the best plan was to despatch the full striking force of 30 Corps to El Adem, and when this suggestion was raised at another conference on 29 October Godwin-Austen concurred (though in a letter to Freyberg of 7 November he expressed himself as being ‘a bit nervous as to the complete security of our left in spite of the Army's Order to 30 Corps to be responsible for it’). Such a move would inevitably attract the bulk of the panzer forces and he was prepared to meet unaided any likely thrust in his direction by German armour, up to the strength perhaps of a full panzer division. This was a solid concession to the ‘go for Tobruk’ school; but Cunningham refused it. He stuck to his scheme for the British armour to assemble at Gabr Saleh on the opening day of the offensive—a name on the map 50 miles south-east of Tobruk and some 25 miles inside the frontier. There on the evening of D 12 at the earliest Cunningham intended to study enemy reactions and decide in which direction to continue the advance: if towards Tobruk then one armoured brigade group should stay to protect 13 Corps no matter how much this might conflict with the main aim of destroying the enemy armour. Norrie could not see the point of standing at Gabr Saleh, which would not necessarily provoke immediate enemy reaction. But there the matter stood and on 9 November it was confirmed in a written directive to Norrie, followed on the 13th by another to Godwin-Austen.
In its final shape, therefore, the armoured corps plan was to cross the frontier at Fort Maddalena, 45 miles inland, after a carefully concealed approach march, and then drive north-westwards to Gabr Saleh, with armoured-car patrols fanning out to the Trigh Capuzzo. The enemy was expected to show his hand at once and Cunningham would then decide whether Norrie should head towards Bardia or Tobruk. If the latter, then ‘it may be necessary to leave a portion of the armour to protect 13 Corps’—a vaguesounding provision, though current organisation into brigade groups made it unlikely that a smaller ‘portion’ of armour would in fact be side-tracked from the main battle. Norrie was to order the start of the sortie from Tobruk, but not until the enemy armour was defeated or rendered incapable of interfering.
1 ‘Eighth Army Report on Operations’, Phase I, Preparations (10 Sep–17 Nov 1941), p. 4.
2 ‘D 1’ was the opening day of the offensive, ‘D 2’ the second day, and ‘D—1’ the day before, a system later changed to ‘D Day’, ‘D + 1 Day’, ‘D—1 Day’, etc.
Norrie made a final appeal at a conference on 14 November to be freed from the task of protecting 13 Corps, and was told that this was ‘really the same as the protection of the lines of communication of the 30th Corps’,1 a reply which seemed to squeeze the role of 13 Corps in the opening phase into virtual insignificance. If the British armour was indeed so powerful that it could thus afford to undertake two such conflicting tasks with the confidence which the battle plan implied, it might be inferred that the motorised infantry would be called on for nothing more arduous than mopping up non-mobile enemy troops left behind by the victorious British armour when, in due course, their isolation enforced surrender. But this was not General Freyberg's view. It is interesting to note that Freyberg and his senior officers were studying closely a scale relief model of the escarpments south-east of Tobruk which he had caused his sappers to construct. He believed that this region, particularly Sidi Rezegh, where the two main enemy supply routes of the Trigh Capuzzo and the recently built Tobruk by-pass road passed through a bottleneck overlooked by two escarpments of paramount tactical importance, would be the scene of the hardest fighting of crusader campaign.
1 Eighth Army Report, p. 5 (para. 11).
|Formation||25-pdr Field||2-pdr Anti-tank||Motorised Infantry|
|7 Armoured Brigade Group||16||4||One company|
|22 Armoured Brigade Group||8||4||One company|
|4 Armoured Brigade Group||24||12||One battalion|
(Each brigade also had a troop of Bofors light anti-aircraft guns and a troop of sappers.)
The 4th Armoured Brigade Group was detailed to guard the left flank of 13 Corps, which possessed an I-tank brigade and a mass of mobile artillery and infantry. The other two brigades, with a smaller quota of supporting arms and perhaps no outside help, were to ‘seek out and destroy the enemy armour’. The Support Group had 36 field guns, 36 anti-tank 2-pounders and 16 Bofors as well as two motorised infantry battalions (each less one company). No BRA was appointed to 30 Corps till 19 October, however, too late for him to initiate a firm policy of concentration for the large number of 25-pounders in the armoured division. The invaluable medium regiment in 30 Corps was to take no part at all until the armoured battle was decided. Thus 7 Armoured Division was to enter the fray with three armoured brigades and the Support Group, page 49 all designed and intended to fight largely independent actions, and it was thought not unreasonable to hope that the enemy armour would be defeated by the loosely co-ordinated operations of two brigades, the heterogeneous 7 Armoured Brigade and the untried and scarcely desert-worthy 22 Armoured Brigade.
It could be said of the contributors to the Army plan that, like a certain Biblical tribe, their name was Legion; but the plan was in a special sense Cunningham's own. It disregarded his Commanderin-Chief's main injunctions and Norrie's weighty objections (with which in the end Godwin-Austen concurred) and reserved for an army commander with no experience of armoured warfare or desert conditions the decision on which the whole shape of the battle depended. In effect Cunningham was making a highly unusual effort to plan an encounter battle—and with unfamiliar forces and techniques.1 Whatever its logical status, this aim was the perhaps inescapable consequence of the object he had given Norrie, to ‘seek out and destroy’ the enemy armour, and his confidence that it could be achieved was shared by all concerned. Nobody pointed out the exorbitance of the demands the plan made on his own powers of perception. With every device of deception the British armour would approach the frontier. Then it would drive 70–80 miles and the reconnaissance units more than 100 miles on the opening day, still rigidly maintaining wireless silence, before the enemy could give any sort of indication of how he proposed to cope with the intruders. Only after the enemy reacted—and he had more reason than his opponents to hold his hand—could Cunningham make his decision. Yet Scobie would have to know this by 6 p.m. if the Tobruk garrison was to exert its strength next day, the best augured case.
1 The ‘blower’ was the main medium for passing orders in tank warfare, but according to a friend Cunningham ‘hadn't a clue as to how to talk on the air’—a failing he shared with most if not all likely candidates for his command.
2 Operation Instruction No. 13.