Operation Crusader: Rommel’s Riposte
Italian mines and Luftwaffe air superiority had isolated Malta and allowed two entire Italian convoys to arrive intact at Tripoli in January of 1942. Also, Auchinleck was forced to send the 7th Armoured Brigade to Burma to stem the tide of Japanese crossing from Thailand. Auchinleck had chased Erwin Rommel back across Cyrenaica, but this allowed Rommel to fall back on his supply lines, and drew the British further away from theirs. This situation at the point of Auchinleck’s most victorious hour gave Rommel a local superiority in the only two logistics numbers that he cared about: number of tanks and liters of petrol.
Against the orders of his Italian superiors, Rommel struck back. On 21 January 1942, the Afrika Korps attacked out of El Aghelia into very surprised and overextended Commonwealth troops. On 23 January they carved up and defeated the newly formed 2 Armoured Brigade and destroyed or captured just about every working British tank in Libya. Moreover, both of Auchinleck’s headquarters staffs (MidEast and Eighth Army, he was still dual hatting for the overwhelmed Cunningham) had assumed they would have time to prepare for Rommel’s inevitable counterattack and were thrown into chaos when they didn’t.
Rommel brushed aside British resistance, and only quick thinking by the Indian commander who had just captured Benghazi prevented Rommel from seizing the all-important port facilities intact. By the 25th, the Eighth Army was in full retreat and only stopped at Gazala, about fifty miles west of Tobruk at the eastern end of the Cyrenaican hump, when Rommel had to refuel. On the 30th the exhausted Germans and Italians reached Gazala and dug in. The defeated British seemed content to allow them to do so.
The quick ten day attack had shortened the distance that Rommel’s spring offensive would have to travel by a third. Furthermore, it denied the British the use of Cyrenaican airfields for Malta’s defense, and left the beleaguered island terribly vulnerable in the first half of 1942. Operation Crusader was at an end.
For six months in 1941, Auchinleck had painfully and frustratingly stockpiled supplies, trained formations, spent enormous political capital to do so, and was the priority of the British Empire for men and material.And the only tangible thing he had to show for it was the relief of Tobruk. But more importantly, he now knew how to defeat Rommel. The new question was whether he’d be permitted, by Rommel and Churchill, to put his hard earned knowledge to use.