The failure to capture the Free French defensive “box” at Bit Hacheim greatly delayed and disrupted Gen. Erwin Rommel’s Gazala offensive. The Germans and Italians broke though the British lines above Bir Hacheim but couldn’t exploit the breach. Rommel’s forces formed what became known as “The Cauldron” while they waited for the Free French position to be reduced which would allow the Axis mechanized and motorized forces to proceed east without a worry to their flank and rear.
The British Eighth Army launched their armoured brigades at the Cauldron according to their commander, Lieut Gen Neil Ritchie’s plan, Operation Aberdeen, but the Germans cut them to pieces when they neared the screen of 88mm anti tank guns. As the British approached, they were accurately engaged by the longer ranged 88mm guns, and in the confusion, counterattacked by Rommel’s panzers. Moreover, the British counterattacks were uncoordinated brigade sized assaults, of which Rommel commented, “if you attack me in penny packets, then I shall defeat you in detail.” The failure of the Operation Aberdeen allowed Rommel to take the time to reduce Bir Hacheim in a deliberate manner.
Bir Hacheim fell on 9 June 1942, and Rommel unleashed the Afrika Korps two days later on the southern and eastern end of the British Gazala Line, on 11 June.
Even though the Germans were attacking this time, Rommel’s tactics worked just as effectively as they had during Operation Aberdeen. As the German and Italian tanks approached the boxes at Knightsbridge and El Adem, the British tanks charged forward in the grandest tradition of the Scots Greys and Household Cavalry to engage them. They were then consistently massacred by the waiting 88mm anti tanks guns, in position due to superior German radio intercepts, then mopped up by the panzers. With the only British counterattack threats neutralized, Rommel went about systematically reducing the remaining defensive boxes, rendering the Allied defenses to the north and west untenable.
On 13 June 1942, the British lost nearly 400 tanks, and the Knightsbridge box fell. Rommel’s panzers were now in a position to isolate the port of Tobruk, and more importantly cut off the remainder of the British Eighth Army on the coast road and Gazala Line. The damage to the Eigth Army was so extensive that many troops referred to 13 June 1942, as “Black Saturday”. Gen Claude Auchlinek, the commander of all Allied troops in the Western Desert, authorized Ritchie to withdraw from the Gazala Line to a position south of Tobruk, and if that couldn’t be held, to the Egyptian frontier.
The Gazala Line was broken. British, Commonwealth, and Allied troops streamed east, and in some cases counterattacked east. Rommel wouldn’t relent on his assaults and the Eighth Army had no time to consolidate a defensive line anchored on Tobruk. The British fled further east to reach the safety of the bottlenecks on the Egyptian frontier: whether Mersa Matruh, or the small town of El Alamein.
The painstaking gains made by Operation Crusader the year prior were erased in less than three weeks. Despite superiority in men, tanks, artillery, and equipment of all kinds, Ritchie could not contain Rommel. He lost nearly a thousand tanks, including almost all of his new lend lease American Grant tanks, and left Rommel with the initiative. The Battle of Gazala was Rommel’s finest moment, though it was almost entirely due to his cryptanalysts and 88mm anti aircraft guns used in a now familiar role. Nonetheless, through Rommel’s leadership, the Axis troops leveraged their asymmetrical advantages against his adversaries’ self imposed constraints, namely limiting the size of the armoured formations, to great effect.
The Germans and Italians would capture countless tons of much needed Allied equipment, and chased the British far into Egypt. The advance would call into question the need for Operation Herkules, the invasion of Malta, then in its final preparations. Tobruk would fall under siege a second time.
Tobruk had held out the year before for nine months, but it would not do so again.