Operation Crusader: The Dash to the Wire

“The Auch”, the Commander Middle East Gen Claude Auchinleck, was having none of it – the Eighth Army would attack until the last British soldier physically couldn’t, despite what its commander thought. When he appointed Cunningham to lead the Eighth Army, he thought he was solid, if unimaginative. He didn’t think he would crack after one bad day. Auchinleck didn’t trust the Operation Crusader reports reaching him in Cairo, so decided to see for himself. Fortunately he did because when he arrived, Cunningham was about to withdraw the Eighth Army back to Egypt.

Over his dead body: Auchinleck spent months preparing for this offensive. He hoarded supplies and practically beggared himself kissing American ass for weapons and tanks. And he took a huge political gamble with Churchill waiting until November. He wasn’t going to waste all that effort, not to mention the lives of his men who died in the last week, just because their commander lost his nerve.

Cunningham had to go, but he would wait until after the offensive was over out of respect for Cunningham’s elder brother, the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet. Despite the loss of three brigades and 300 tanks the day before, the British still outnumbered Rommel two to one in tanks, three to one in infantry, five to one in artillery, and most importantly the supplies and fuel to continue fighting for at least another month.

Auchinleck knew Rommel’s weak point was fuel. Math didn’t lie: at the tail end of a 500 mile supply line, the Germans and Italians couldn’t have more than ten days of petrol for offensive operations. This was even confirmed, via Ultra, when it was found that Rommel was so desperate for fuel that German U boats were screening fast Italian cruisers from Italy to Benghazi, filled not with fuel oil for naval operations but with petrol for the Afrika Korps. Every minute the Eighth Army continued to fight, was one minute closer to Rommel’s inevitable retreat.

This unfortunate fact was not lost on Rommel. He planned to have enough fuel in mid November to capture Tobruk, no more. He wasn’t expecting to throw back a major offensive, much less advance into Egypt. But now that opportunity had shown itself.

After the Afrika Korps’ victory on Totensonntag, Cruell wanted to advance just far enough to consolidate the battlefield and secure all the “wonderful loot” abandoned by the Eighth Army – tanks, trucks, food, water, ammunition etc. But Rommel knew he needed to keep pounding on the British weak point: it’s leadership. He needed to break Cunningham before his own fuel situation broke. (He did, but wasn’t counting on the Auch personally taking over command from Cunningham) The only way he could do that was to attack: one last big push before logistics forced him to withdraw closer to his depots near Benghazi on the far side of Cyrenaica.

On 25 November 1941, Rommel ordered the entire Panzerarmee Afrika on the offensive. The plan was essentially Operation Crusader in reverse: Their objectives were relieving the cut off Italian garrison at Bardia, destruction or capture of any British armor they found, and the capture of any Eighth Army supply dumps. The dumps had to be near the Egyptian frontier, which was marked by enormous amounts of barbed wire. (With any deliberate offensive preparation, the attacking unit always pre-positions supplies as far forward as possible. This mitigates the increasing distance the convoys travel to the forward elements as they advanced. For Crusader that meant near the frontier with Libya, which is exactly where they were.)

When Auchinleck woke that day in the Eighth Army HQ at Magdalena, effectively if not officially taking command of the Eighth Army himself, he received the first reports of panzers slashing through the seam between the XIII and XXX Corps.

Rommel’s “Dash to the Wire” was on.

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