Operation Crusader: The Battle of Totensonntag

Totensonntag, the Sunday of Death, is a Lutheran holiday to remember those who went before, akin to All Soul’s Day in Catholicism. In Germany in 1941, it was also the day that the country remembered its dead from the First World War. The night before Totensonntag outside Sidi Rezeg, a decorated veteran of that war, Erwin Rommel sensed an opportunity.

Rommel sent detailed instructions over the wireless to the Afrika Korps HQ. Then he drove there to direct the next day’s operations, certain that they would win the battle. However, he never made it: he drove straight into the 6th NZ Brigade’s assault positions, and only a quick three point turn by his driver saved them from being captured. He found refuge at Point 175, a small escarpment notable only for an Islamic tomb and a mosque that served as the Regt HQ of the German 361st Infantry Regt. When the Kiwi’s attacked, Rommel was cut off and spent the day playing regimental commander.

GenLt Ludwig Cruell, commander of the Afrika Korps, received Rommel’s instructions and promptly disregarded them as “out of touch”. The only thing Rommel had right was there was an opportunity. After two confused days of fighting Cruell personally managed to consolidate the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and convinced the Italian tankers of the Ariete Division to coordinate an attack. One of his reconnaissance bns identified a gap at the weakened and disorganized British 7th Armoured Division which he had mauled the day before. They were intermingled between the New Zealanders of the XIII Corps, and the 1st South African Division of the XXX Corps.

Despite the threat the New Zealanders posed, Cruell planned to drive east and south into the gap, then boldly strike west and north into the rear of the 5th SA Brigade and the Brit 22 Arm Bde. The loss of these two Bdes would hopefully break the British, and the captured supplies, especially fuel, would sustain the Korps another few days.

At 0430 on Totensonntag 23 Novemeber, 1941, Cruell and his chief of staff (Col Fritz Bayerlain, we will hear his name again) took off in his command vehicle, a captured British Mammoth Armoured Car, to accompany the 15th Panzer into battle. Half an hour after Cruell left, the Kiwis that chased Rommel away overran the Afrika Korps headquarters and captured the entire staff. Nevertheless, the Korps marched to their assault positions relatively unmolested, linked up with the Italians and launched their attack.

Initially it was field day for the panzers: they surprised the transport and supply columns of both brigades, and the 7th Armoured Div logistics (7 Spt Grp) columns. Supply trucks, fuel tankers, maintenance sheds, recovery vehicles – it was target rich environment. They were in “Happy Land” – every tanker’s dream. The columns scattered. But the South Africans were tough and well disciplined, and soon they were fighting back. In particular the South African artillery (of all types cannon, AT, and AA) made quite an impression on the Germans, as they leveled guns and fired over open sights. Though many South Africans fled, enough stood and fought that the attack became fixed. A lost column of 4th Brigade crusader tanks marched to the sound of the guns, and caused more problems. Then the 22nd Brigade counterattacked and the fight soon devolved into a brawl.

Cruell, like his superior, was always close to the fighting. About 1100, he heard an urgent banging on the rear of his command car. Bayerlain, in the back at the map board, leaned over and unlocked the door. When it opened he was horrified to find that he was face to face with a very surprised British sergeant. Both fumbled to shoot each other, but a random burst of 20mm flak from an unknown source sent the Brit scurrying back to his tank. Cruell stuck his head through the cupola and was equally horrified to see six British Matilda tanks surrounding the command car. They were part of the 22nd Bde’s hasty counterattack into the Cruell’s flank, and they thought the Mammoth command car, which Bayerlain captured months before at Mechili, was South African. They had no idea the prize in their midst. Cruell yelled, and his driver sped away. Only the lack of ready ammunition in the Matildas saved them.

But in the confusion, leadership matters most, especially at the lowest levels, and here the Germans decisively defeated the Allied troops. The unexpected South African resistance and British counterattacks slowed but did not stop the German advance. 88’s systematically picked off British tanks, and with the transports in chaos, the South African artillery eventually ran out of ammunition. By the time the 5th SA Bde HQ was overrun about 1600, the battle was over. Three Allied brigades were effectively destroyed (5 SA, 22 Arm, 7th Arm), and one was “temporarily useless as a fighting entity” (4th Arm). Furthermore, a giant hole was torn in the Allied line. At dusk, the Afrika Korps consolidated on the Sidi Rezegh airfield, right where they started 15 hours before.

That night, thirty miles away at the Eighth Army Headquarters at Maddalena, LieutGen Cunningham was distraught and broken upon the news of the of the Afrika Korps’ attack. There was a lot of fight left in the Eighth Army, but not so much left in its commander.

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