After several delays, the British Eighth Army launched Operation Crusader on 18 November 1941. The objective of Crusader was to destroy Rommel’s panzers. Everything else: the relief of Tobruk, the fall of Cyrenaica etc, would eventually come to pass if Rommel had no tanks. The British plan was to defeat the German and Italian tanks in Rommel’s inevitable, and frankly needed, counterattack with British armor and a breakout from Tobruk. The plan hinged on Rommel counterattacking immediately and broke down almost immediately. In fact, the day of the attack, the British, Australian, Kiwi and South African troops couldn’t find a single German or Italian soldier. The day started off with a thunderstorm which grounded the RAF, and the only Axis troops facing them were two reconnaissance bns and a company of tanks, who wisely withdrew in the face of the Allied assault. After Rommel’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in September, he was convinced that the Allies couldn’t attack until December. So he concentrated his best divisions for an assault on Tobruk while the Afrika Korps, led by GenLt Cruell, reduced to just a screening force of a weak Panzer Div, and a few Italian infantry divisions held the frontier.
As the old saying goes, “No plan survives contact”, Operation Crusader’s plan didn’t even survive NOT making contact. The realities of fighting in that portion of the Western Desert saw to that. The area of operations was about 100 miles long east to west and 60 miles wide north to south. It was so flat that it was like fighting on a chess board. It was an attackers dream: the only terrain were low isolated hills less than 200m high, and minefields. Outflanking the opposition was always an option. However target identification was a problem. The dust covered everything, sand storms were common, and both sides used captured equipment.
It took Rommel a few days to be convinced that major offensive was underway, but when he did he launched the 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer and Italian Ariete and Trieste armored divisions at the British from around Tobruk. Between 20- and 27 November, a wild melee broke out around Sidi Rezeg. Attackers, counter attackers and counter counter attackers seemed to appear from any direction. Confusion reigned on both sides as commanders struggled to envision the battlefield. (Tobruk was actually relieved twice, only for them to be cut off again) Although the British outnumbered Rommel 2-1 in tanks, it seemed the Germans had tanks everywhere, and more importantly, were doing more damage.
The Germans had the upper hand around Sidi Rezeg for three reasons. First, the British thought of their tanks as Wellington thought of cavalry: for the elan of the charge. The Germans thought of their tanks as bait for the deadly 88mm anti-tank guns. Time and again the British would spot an enemy column and charge into an engagement area. In the confusion of being systematically destroyed by an enemy they couldn’t fire back against (if they could even see them), they would be attacked in the flank by the original target. Next, any German and Italian tanks that were knocked out were recovered by maintenance teams, who then repaired very close to the front. The British had no equivalent. Their knocked out tanks sat for weeks before being recovered, and then had to be sent back to Egypt to be repaired. German maintenance teams sent nearly 100 “destroyed” tanks back to Rommel’s divisions that week. Rommel’s maintenance sent more recovered British tanks to Rommel than the British did to their own troops. Finally, the Eighth Army Commander, Sir Alan Cunningham who did so well in East Africa, was not nearly as energetic and imaginative as Rommel, who simply out commanded him in the initial clashes.
Sensing the British were about to break, on 25 Nov, Rommel launched a massive counterattack to split XIII Corps, cut off XXX Corps and destroy the corps and army rear areas. Despite months of preparation by the British, and advantages in nearly every category, Operation Crusader was still very much in doubt.