Operation Brevity

Operation Brevity

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Operation Brevity was a limited offensive conducted in mid-May 1941, during the Western Desert Campaign
Western Desert Campaign
The Western Desert Campaign, also known as the Desert War, was the initial stage of the North African Campaign during the Second World War. The campaign was heavily influenced by the availability of supplies and transport. The ability of the Allied forces, operating from besieged Malta, to...

 of the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Conceived by the commander-in-chief of the British Middle East Command
Middle East Command
The Middle East Command was a British Army Command established prior to the Second World War in Egypt. Its primary role was to command British land forces and co-ordinate with the relevant naval and air commands to defend British interests in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.The...

, General Archibald Wavell, Brevity was intended to be a rapid blow against weak Axis
Axis Powers
The Axis powers , also known as the Axis alliance, Axis nations, Axis countries, or just the Axis, was an alignment of great powers during the mid-20th century that fought World War II against the Allies. It began in 1936 with treaties of friendship between Germany and Italy and between Germany and...

 front-line forces in the SollumCapuzzo
Fort Capuzzo
Fort Capuzzo was a fort in the Italiancolony of Libya, near the Libyan-Egyptian border. It is famous for its role during the World War II.Within a week of Italy's 10 June 1940 declaration of war upon Britain, the British Army's 11th Hussars captured Fort Capuzzo...

–Bardia area of the border between Egypt and Libya. Although the operation got off to a promising start, throwing the Axis high command into confusion, most of its early gains were lost to local counterattacks, and with German reinforcements being rushed to the front the operation was called off after one day.

Egypt had been invaded
Italian invasion of Egypt
The Italian Invasion of Egypt was an Italian offensive action against British, Commonwealth and Free French forces during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Initially, the goal of the offensive was to seize the Suez Canal. To accomplish this, Italian forces from Libya would have...

 by Libyan-based Italian
Kingdom of Italy (1861–1946)
The Kingdom of Italy was a state forged in 1861 by the unification of Italy under the influence of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which was its legal predecessor state...

 forces in September 1940, but by February of the following year a British counter-offensive
Operation Compass
Operation Compass was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. British and Commonwealth forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and eastern Libya in December 1940 to February 1941. The attack was a complete success...

 had advanced well into Libya, destroying the Italian 10th Army in the process. British attention then shifted to Greece, which was under the threat of Axis invasion; while Allied divisions were being diverted from North Africa, the Italians were being reinforced with the German Afrika Korps
Afrika Korps
The German Africa Corps , or the Afrika Korps as it was popularly called, was the German expeditionary force in Libya and Tunisia during the North African Campaign of World War II...

 under General Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel , popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought....

. Rapidly taking the offensive against his distracted and over-stretched opponent, by April 1941 Rommel had driven the British and Commonwealth forces in Cyrenaica
Cyrenaica
Cyrenaica is the eastern coastal region of Libya.Also known as Pentapolis in antiquity, it was part of the Creta et Cyrenaica province during the Roman period, later divided in Libia Pentapolis and Libia Sicca...

 back across the Egyptian border. Although the battlefront now lay in the border area, the port city of Tobruk
Tobruk
Tobruk or Tubruq is a city, seaport, and peninsula on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast, near the border with Egypt. It is the capital of the Butnan District and has a population of 120,000 ....

—100 mi (160.9 km) inside Libya—had resisted the Axis advance, and its substantial Australian and British garrison constituted a significant threat to Rommel's lengthy supply chain. He therefore committed his main strength to besieging the city, leaving the front line only thinly held.

Wavell defined Operation Brevity's main objectives as the acquisition of territory from which to launch a further planned offensive toward Tobruk, and the depletion of German and Italian forces in the region. With limited battle-ready units to draw on in the wake of Rommel's recent successes, on 15 May Brigadier William Gott
William Gott
Lieutenant-General William Henry Ewart Gott CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC , nicknamed "Strafer", was a British Army officer during both the First and Second World Wars, reaching the rank of lieutenant-general when serving in the British Eighth Army.-Military career:Educated at Harrow School he was...

 attacked in three columns with a mixed infantry and armoured force. The strategically important Halfaya Pass
Halfaya Pass
Halfaya Pass is located in Egypt, near the border with Libya. A high escarpment extends south eastwards from the Egyptian-Libyan border at the coast at as-Salum , with the scarp slope facing into Egypt...

 was taken against stiff Italian opposition, and deeper inside Libya Fort Capuzzo
Fort Capuzzo
Fort Capuzzo was a fort in the Italiancolony of Libya, near the Libyan-Egyptian border. It is famous for its role during the World War II.Within a week of Italy's 10 June 1940 declaration of war upon Britain, the British Army's 11th Hussars captured Fort Capuzzo...

 was captured, but German counterattacks regained the fort during the afternoon causing heavy casualties amongst its defenders. Gott—concerned that his forces were in danger of being caught by German armour in open ground—conducted a staged withdrawal to the Halfaya Pass on 16 May, and Brevity was closed down. The importance of the Halfaya Pass as a safe supply route was highlighted to Rommel, and 11 days later it was recaptured by a German counterattack
Operation Skorpion
After a small lull in the fighting following Operation Brevity, the Germans deployed three assault groups up in front of Halfaya Pass during the evening of 26 May and attacked the next morning. The Coldstream Guards and supporting units fought well but could not stop the Germans from securing a...

.

Background


In early September 1940, Italian forces based in Libya invaded Egypt
Italian invasion of Egypt
The Italian Invasion of Egypt was an Italian offensive action against British, Commonwealth and Free French forces during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Initially, the goal of the offensive was to seize the Suez Canal. To accomplish this, Italian forces from Libya would have...

, and three months later the British and Commonwealth troops of the Western Desert Force
Western Desert Force
The Western Desert Force, during World War II, was a British Commonwealth army formation stationed in Egypt.On 17 June 1940, the headquarters of the British 6th Infantry Division was designated as the Western Desert Force. The unit consisted of the 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Infantry...

 began a counter-offensive, codenamed Operation Compass
Operation Compass
Operation Compass was the first major Allied military operation of the Western Desert Campaign during World War II. British and Commonwealth forces attacked Italian forces in western Egypt and eastern Libya in December 1940 to February 1941. The attack was a complete success...

. In two months, the Allies
Western Allies
The Western Allies were a political and geographic grouping among the Allied Powers of the Second World War. It generally includes the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth, the United States, France and various other European and Latin American countries, but excludes China, the Soviet Union,...

 advanced 500 mi (804.7 km), occupying the Italian province of Cyrenaica and destroying the Italian 10th Army, but the operation was halted in February 1941 to give priority to the Battle of Greece
Battle of Greece
The Battle of Greece is the common name for the invasion and conquest of Greece by Nazi Germany in April 1941. Greece was supported by British Commonwealth forces, while the Germans' Axis allies Italy and Bulgaria played secondary roles...

. Renamed XIII Corps
XIII Corps (United Kingdom)
XIII Corps was a British infantry corps during World War I and World War II.-World War I:XIII Corps was formed in France on 15 November 1915 under Lieutenant-General Walter Congreve to be part of Fourth Army. It was first seriously engaged during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. On the First day on...

 and reorganised under HQ Cyrenaica Command, the troops of the former Western Desert Force adopted a defensive posture. Over the next few months, HQ Cyrenaica lost its commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, and the New Zealand 2nd and Australian 6th infantry divisions when they were redeployed to Greece
Operation Lustre
Operation Lustre was an action during World War II, involving the dispatch of British, Australian, New Zealand and Polish troops from Egypt to Greece in March and April 1941, in response to the failed Italian invasion and the looming threat of German intervention, revealed through Ultra.It was seen...

. The British 7th Armoured Division
British 7th Armoured Division
The 7th Armoured Division was a British armoured division which saw service during the Second World War where its exploits made it famous as the Desert Rats....

, with virtually no serviceable tanks left after Compass, was also withdrawn and sent to the Nile Delta for rest and refitting. In recompense, Wilson was replaced by Lieutenant-General Philip Neame
Philip Neame
Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame VC, KBE, CB, DSO, KStJ was a British Army officer and recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces...

 and the British 2nd Armoured
British 2nd Armoured Division
The 2nd Armoured Division was a British Army formation during the Second World War, created on 15 December 1939 and disbanded on 10 May 1941 after most of the division was captured at Mechili in Libya by German and Italian forces.-History:...

 and Australian 9th Infantry Divisions were deployed to Cyrenaica, but both formations were inexperienced, ill-equipped, and in the case of the 2nd Armoured, under strength.
The Italians responded by despatching their Ariete
Italian 132nd Armored Division Ariete
The Ariete Armoured Division was an armoured division of the Italian Army during World War II. It was formed in 1939 as the second armoured division in the Italian Army after the 131 Armoured Division Centauro. The division fought in the North African Campaign until being destroyed during the...

 and Trento Division
Italian 102 Motorised Division Trento
The 102nd Motorised Division Trento was a motorised infantry division of the Italian Army during World War II. It was formed in 1939 and kept in reserve in Italy until it was moved to North Africa in February 1941. It took part in Axis attacks across North Africa, following the Allied Operation...

s to North Africa, and beginning in February 1941 and continuing until early May, Operation Sonnenblume
Operation Sonnenblume
Operation Sonnenblume was the deployment of German troops to North Africa in February 1941, during the Second World War...

 saw the German Afrika Korps
Afrika Korps
The German Africa Corps , or the Afrika Korps as it was popularly called, was the German expeditionary force in Libya and Tunisia during the North African Campaign of World War II...

 arrive in Tripoli to reinforce their Italian allies. Commanded by General Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel
Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel , popularly known as the Desert Fox , was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops and the enemies he fought....

 and consisting of the 5th Light and 15. Panzerdivisions, the Afrika Korps mission was to block Allied attempts to drive the Italians out of the region. However, Rommel seized on the weakness of his opponents and, without waiting for his forces to fully assemble, rapidly went on the offensive. In March-April, he destroyed the 2nd Armoured Division and forced the British and Commonwealth forces into retreat. Adding to the Allied discomfiture, Neame and the General Officer Commanding
General Officer Commanding
General Officer Commanding is the usual title given in the armies of Commonwealth nations to a general officer who holds a command appointment. Thus, a general might be the GOC II Corps or GOC 7th Armoured Division...

 British Troops Egypt—Lieutenant-General Richard O'Connor
Richard O'Connor
General Sir Richard Nugent O'Connor KT, GCB, DSO & Bar, MC, ADC was a British Army general who commanded the Western Desert Force in the early years of World War II...

—were captured, and the British and Commonwealth command structure had to be reorganised. HQ Cyrenaica was dissolved on 14 April, and its command functions taken over by the reactivated HQ Western Desert Force
Western Desert Force
The Western Desert Force, during World War II, was a British Commonwealth army formation stationed in Egypt.On 17 June 1940, the headquarters of the British 6th Infantry Division was designated as the Western Desert Force. The unit consisted of the 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 4th Infantry...

 under Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse
Noel Beresford-Peirse
Lieutenant-General Sir Noel Monson de la Poer Beresford-Peirse KBE, CB, DSO was a British Army officer.-Family background:...

. The Australian 9th Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of Tobruk
Tobruk
Tobruk or Tubruq is a city, seaport, and peninsula on Libya's eastern Mediterranean coast, near the border with Egypt. It is the capital of the Butnan District and has a population of 120,000 ....

, and the remaining British and Commonwealth forces withdrew a further 100 mi (160.9 km) east to Sollum on the Libyan–Egyptian border. With Tobruk under siege
Siege of Tobruk
The siege of Tobruk was a confrontation that lasted 240 days between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War...

 from the main German-Italian force, a small battlegroup (Kampfgruppe
Kampfgruppe
In military history and military slang, the German term Kampfgruppe can refer to a combat formation of any kind, but most usually to that employed by the German Wehrmacht and its allies during World War II and, to a lesser extent, in World War I...

) commanded by Maximilian von Herff
Maximilian von Herff
Maximilian von Herff was a German Schutzstaffel general from Hanover.Herff served as an officer of the Reichswehr in the First World War, attaining the rank of colonel and winning the Iron Cross First and Second Class. During the Second World War, Herff served in North Africa as commander of the...

 continued to press eastward. Capturing Fort Capuzzo and Bardia in passing, it then advanced into Egypt, and by the end of April had taken Sollum and the tactically important Halfaya Pass. Rommel garrisoned these positions, reinforcing the battlegroup and ordering it onto the defensive.

Tobruk's garrison—although isolated by land—continued to receive supplies and support from the Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

, and Rommel was unable to take the port. This failure was significant; his front line positions at Sollum were at the end of an extended supply chain that stretched back to Tripoli and was threatened by the Tobruk garrison, and the substantial commitment required to invest Tobruk prevented him from building up his forces at Sollum, making further advances into Egypt impractical. By maintaining possession of Tobruk, the Allies had regained the initiative.

Preparations for battle



General Archibald Wavell—the commander-in-chief of the British Middle East Command
Middle East Command
The Middle East Command was a British Army Command established prior to the Second World War in Egypt. Its primary role was to command British land forces and co-ordinate with the relevant naval and air commands to defend British interests in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.The...

—conceived Operation Brevity as a rapid blow in the Sollum area. Wavell intended to create advantageous conditions from which to launch Operation Battleaxe
Operation Battleaxe
Operation Battleaxe was a British Army operation during the Second World War in June 1941 with the goal of clearing eastern Cyrenaica of German and Italian forces; one of the main benefits of this would have been the lifting of the Siege of Tobruk....

, the main offensive that he was planning for June. Operation Brevity's primary objectives were to recapture the Halfaya Pass, to drive the enemy from the Sollum and Capuzzo areas, and to deplete Rommel's forces. A secondary objective was to advance toward Tobruk, although only as far as supplies would allow, and without risking the force committed to the operation.

Allied force


Operation Brevity would be carried out by the 22nd Guards Brigade
22nd Guards Brigade
The British 22nd Guards Brigade was a British Army unit during the Second World War .-History:The 22nd Infantry Brigade was formed by the conversion of the 29th Infantry Brigade on 3 September 1939 and in March 1940 became responsible for all the troops in the Mersa Matruh Garrison area...

 and elements of the 7th Armoured Division. Its armoured component consisted of 29 cruiser tank
Cruiser tank
The cruiser tank was a British tank concept of the inter-war period. This concept was the driving force behind several tank designs which saw action during the Second World War....

s of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment
2nd Royal Tank Regiment
The 2nd Royal Tank Regiment is an armoured regiment of the British Army. It is part of the Royal Tank Regiment, itself part of the Royal Armoured Corps...

 (2RTR) and 24 infantry tank
Infantry tank
The infantry tank was a concept developed by the British and French in the years leading up to World War II. Infantry tanks were tanks designed to support the infantry in the attack. To achieve this they were generally heavily armoured compared to the cruiser tanks, to allow them to operate in...

s of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment
4th Royal Tank Regiment
The 4th Royal Tank Regiment was an armoured regiment of the British Army until 1993. It was part of the Royal Tank Regiment, itself part of the Royal Armoured Corps...

 (4RTR). The Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 (RAF) allocated all available fighters and a small force of bombers to the operation.
Brigadier William Gott
William Gott
Lieutenant-General William Henry Ewart Gott CB, CBE, DSO and bar, MC , nicknamed "Strafer", was a British Army officer during both the First and Second World Wars, reaching the rank of lieutenant-general when serving in the British Eighth Army.-Military career:Educated at Harrow School he was...

—in command of all Allied front-line forces since the retreat—was to lead the operation in the field, and his plan was to advance in three parallel columns. On the desert flank to the south, the 7th Armoured Brigade group
Brigade group
A brigade group is a term used primarily in armies of the Commonwealth of Nations for an ad hoc arrangement of forces and not a permanent organisation whereas, with a capital G, a Brigade Group is....

 was to move 30 mi (48.3 km) from Bir el Khireigat to Sidi Azeiz destroying any opposition encountered en route. This group included three small mobile forces ("Jock column
Jock column
During World War II, "Jock columns" were small combined arms groups of armoured cars, artillery, and motorised infantry, generally drawn from the 7th Armoured Division...

s") of the 7th Support Group, the cruiser tanks of 2RTR, and the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars
11th Hussars
The 11th Hussars was a cavalry regiment of the British Army.-History:The regiment was founded in 1715 as Colonel Philip Honeywood's Regiment of Dragoons and was known by the name of its Colonel until 1751 when it became the 11th Regiment of Dragoons...

, whose task was to patrol the open desert on the left flank and monitor the Sidi Azeiz–Bardia road. In the centre, the 22nd Guards Brigade group was to clear the top of the Halfaya Pass, secure Bir Wair, Musaid, and Fort Capuzzo, and conduct a company-sized probe toward Bardia. The group included the infantry battalions of the 1st Durham Light Infantry
Durham Light Infantry
The Durham Light Infantry was an infantry regiment of the British Army from 1881 to 1968. It was formed by the amalgamation of the 68th Regiment of Foot and the 106th Regiment of Foot along with the militia and rifle volunteers of County Durham...

 and 2nd Scots Guards
Scots Guards
The Scots Guards is a regiment of the Guards Division of the British Army, whose origins lie in the personal bodyguard of King Charles I of England and Scotland...

, and the infantry tanks of 4RTR. In the north, the "coast group" was to advance along the coast road, capturing the lower Halfaya Pass, Sollum barracks, and the town of Sollum. The group included elements of the 2nd Battalion The Rifle Brigade, and the 8th Field Regiment Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

.

Axis force


The principle Axis opposition was Kampfgruppe von Herff, positioned on the desert plateau. It included 30–50 tanks of the 2nd Battalion Panzer Regiment 5, an Italian motorised infantry battalion of the Trento Division
Italian 102 Motorised Division Trento
The 102nd Motorised Division Trento was a motorised infantry division of the Italian Army during World War II. It was formed in 1939 and kept in reserve in Italy until it was moved to North Africa in February 1941. It took part in Axis attacks across North Africa, following the Allied Operation...

, and supporting arms. The frontline area around Halfaya Pass was defended by two companies of Bersaglieri
Bersaglieri
The Bersaglieri are a corps of the Italian Army originally created by General Alessandro La Marmora on 18 June 1836 to serve in the Piedmontese Army, later to become the Royal Italian Army...

—well trained Italian motorised infantry—with artillery support.

On 9 May, the Germans intercepted a British weather report over the radio. The Afrika Korps war diary noted that "In the past, such reports had always been issued prior to the important enemy offensives to capture Sidi Barrani, Bardi, Tobruk, and the Gebel." Rommel's response was to strengthen the eastern side of his cordon around Tobruk as a precaution against sorties from the garrison, and to order Kampfgruppe von Herff to adopt a more aggressive posture. On 13 May, Axis aircraft bombed British tank concentrations, and von Herff expected an imminent British attack. However, the following day aircraft were unable to locate the British, and it was reported that the "enemy intentions to attack were not known".

British advance


On 13 May, Wavell's infantry battalions began to concentrate at their start lines, followed by the tank regiments during the early hours of 15 May. At 06:00, the three columns began their advance, supported overhead by a standing patrol of Hawker Hurricane
Hawker Hurricane
The Hawker Hurricane is a British single-seat fighter aircraft that was designed and predominantly built by Hawker Aircraft Ltd for the Royal Air Force...

 fighters.

Centre column


Reaching the top of the Halfaya Pass, the 22nd Guards Brigade group ran into heavy opposition from an Italian Bersaglieri infantry company
Company (military unit)
A company is a military unit, typically consisting of 80–225 soldiers and usually commanded by a Captain, Major or Commandant. Most companies are formed of three to five platoons although the exact number may vary by country, unit type, and structure...

 with anti-tank gun support. At the cost of seven tanks, the position was quickly taken by C Squadron 4RTR and G Company 2nd Scots Guards, and the brigade group pushed on towards the Bir Wair-Musaid road. At around 08:00, it received the surrender of a large German-Italian camp, and by 10:15 Bir Wair and Musaid had been taken in the face of limited opposition.
A Squadron 4RTR and the 1st Durham Light Infantry (1DLI) continued the advance toward Fort Capuzzo. Concealed in hull down positions behind a ridge near the fort were 20-30 German tanks, supported by anti tank guns. These engaged A Squadron, disabling five tanks, but were forced to withdraw as the squadron pressed its attack. On the final approach to Fort Capuzzo, contact was lost between 4RTR's tanks and 1DLI's leading C Company, and the attack on the fort began without armoured support. The fort was vigorously defended, and it was not until just before midday that C Company, reunited with A Squadron 4RTR and reinforced by A and B Companies 1DLI, eventually took the position. D Company 1DLI—which had been in reserve during the attack—then made a wide left hook to capture a small landing ground to the north of the fort.

In the afternoon, one company of the 2nd Scots Guards probed toward Bardia, the infantry coming under heavy machine gun fire from three positions as they neared Sollum barracks. A group of universal carriers
Universal Carrier
The Universal Carrier, also known as the Bren Gun Carrier is a common name describing a family of light armoured tracked vehicles built by Vickers-Armstrong. Produced between 1934 and 1960, the vehicle was used widely by British Commonwealth forces during the Second World War...

—commanded by Sergeant F. Riley—charged the gun positions and quickly neutralised them, but one carrier was disabled when the group was subsequently engaged by anti-tank guns. Riley executed a second charge, silencing these too and taking their crews prisoner. His carrier was hit three times; for his actions Riley was awarded the Military Medal
Military Medal
The Military Medal was a military decoration awarded to personnel of the British Army and other services, and formerly also to personnel of other Commonwealth countries, below commissioned rank, for bravery in battle on land....

, the battalion's first decoration of the war.

Desert column


On the desert flank, 2RTR advanced with the 7th Armoured Brigade group. During the morning, reports were received of up to 30 German armoured vehicles operating nearby, and A Squadron 2RTR moved to investigate. Most of the German force had pulled back, but three tanks were located and brought under fire. One Panzer IV
Panzer IV
The Panzerkampfwagen IV , commonly known as the Panzer IV, was a medium tank developed in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and used extensively during the Second World War. Its ordnance inventory designation was Sd.Kfz...

 was disabled and the other two driven off, for the loss of one British tank due to mechanical failure. A second force of 15 German tanks was engaged by two tanks of No 2 Troop, destroying a Panzer III
Panzer III
Panzer III was the common name of a medium tank that was developed in the 1930s by Germany and was used extensively in World War II. The official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen III translating as "armoured battle vehicle". It was intended to fight other armoured fighting vehicles and...

 and forcing the remainder to withdraw. By midday, the brigade group had reached a position west of Fort Capuzzo, and in the afternoon the nine remaining cruisers of A Squadron 2RTR began a reconnaissance patrol towards Sidi Azeiz.

Coastal column


The advance along the coastal road—which lacked tank support—was held up all morning by determined Italian resistance at the bottom of Halfaya Pass. This objective was finally achieved toward evening when S Company 2nd Rifle Brigade—supported by Australian anti-tank gunners fighting as infantry—overran the Italian positions taking around 130 prisoners.

Axis reactions


Although the German and Italian commands in North Africa knew that a British offensive was imminent, Operation Brevity nevertheless caught them unprepared, and Rommel recorded in his diary that the initial attacks had caused him considerable losses. By midday on 15 May, Axis command was showing signs of confusion. It was erroneously believed that the offensive involved more than 100 tanks, and repeated requests were made to both the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica
Regia Aeronautica
The Italian Royal Air Force was the name of the air force of the Kingdom of Italy. It was established as a service independent of the Royal Italian Army from 1923 until 1946...

 for a concerted effort to defeat it. Forces around Tobruk were redeployed east of the besieged city, to block any attempt at relief and to prevent the garrison from breaking out to meet the British advance. Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Cramer
Hans Cramer
General Hans Cramer was a Panzer General in the German army who was captured by the British during both world wars.Cramer joined Prussian cadet corps before World War I...

 was sent to reinforce Kampfgruppe von Herff with a tank battalion from Panzer Regiment 8 and a battery of 88 mm (3.46 in) FlaK gun
88 mm gun
The 88 mm gun was a German anti-aircraft and anti-tank artillery gun from World War II. It was widely used by Germany throughout the war, and was one of the most recognizable German weapons of the war...

s, and additional reinforcements under General von Esebeck
Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck
Hans-Karl Asmus Werner Freiherr von Esebeck was a German General who commanded the 15th Panzer Division in the Afrika Korps. He was also a conspirator against Adolf Hitler....

 were despatched the following day.
The Germans concentrated their riposte against the central column. Von Herff—who had been prepared to fall back—instead launched a local counterattack toward Fort Capuzzo during the afternoon of 15 May with the 2nd Battalion Panzer Regiment 5. At around 13:30, D Company 1DLI at the landing ground was overrun, and with no anti-tank support more capable than the Boys anti-tank rifle
Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55 in, Boys
The Rifle, Anti-Tank, .55in, Boys commonly known as the "Boys Anti-tank Rifle" , was a British anti-tank rifle in use during World War II....

, the remaining troops of 1DLI were forced to fall back toward Musaid. A fortuitous dust cloud aided their withdrawal, but by 14:45 Panzer Regiment 5 was reporting that it had recaptured Capuzzo, inflicting heavy casualties on the British and taking 70 prisoners.

On the desert flank, A Squadron 2RTR's patrol toward Sidi Azeiz was being monitored by Panzer Regiment 5, but the Germans misidentified the light cruiser tanks as heavily armoured Matilda
Matilda tank
The Infantry Tank Mark II known as the Matilda II was a British infantry tank of the Second World War. It was also identified from its General Staff Specification A12....

 infantry tanks, and reported that an attack was not possible. Col. von Herff—believing the British had two divisions operating in the area—had grown uneasy. A Squadron's patrol was interpreted as an attempt to concentrate south of Sidi Azeiz, in preparation for a thrust north the next day; such a move threatened to sweep aside von Herff's force and completely unhinge the German front in the Sollum–Bardia area. In response, von Herff broke contact with the British; his plan was to join up with Cramer's Panzer Regiment 8 to mount a concentrated counterattack the following morning.

British withdrawal


Realising that the 22nd Guards Brigade group would be vulnerable to German armoured counterattacks in the open ground around Bir Wair and Mussaid, Brigadier Gott withdrew it during the early hours of the morning of 16 May. By 10:00, the infantry had taken up new positions back at Halfaya Pass, although the 7th Armoured Brigade group was ordered to remain west of Fort Capuzzo for the time being.

Cramer's reinforcements arrived in the Sidi Azeiz area at 03:00 and reached Fort Capuzzo at 06:30. At around 08:00, he made contact with Kampfgruppe von Herff, but by mid-morning both groups had run out of fuel. The German advance resumed at 16:00 before being stopped by around 17 tanks of 2RTR. The British reported one German tank set alight and another disabled, and that an advance of up to 50 tanks had been halted, while the Germans believed that they had repulsed a strong British tank attack. As nightfall approached, von Herff broke off the action and went on to the defensive. He intended to repair his damaged machines, reorganise, and resume offensive operations on 18 May. However, 2RTR pulled back to Bir el Khireigat, initially followed by two German tanks, one of which withdrew after the other was destroyed. The regiment arrived at Bir el Khireigat, from where it had set out two days previously, at around 02:30 on 17 May.

Aftermath


Operation Brevity failed to achieve most of its objectives, ultimately succeeding only in retaking the Halfaya Pass. The British lost five tanks and at least 206 men killed, wounded, or captured. German casualties numbered three tanks and 258 men killed, wounded, or captured. Losses among the Italian forces are unknown, but Allied accounts record the capture of 347 men.

On 5 August, Col. von Herff praised the Bersaglieri, who had defended Halfaya Pass. The British received plaudits from Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, was a predominantly Conservative British politician and statesman known for his leadership of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the century and served as Prime Minister twice...

, who sent a telegram to Wavell betraying his ignorance of events by stating: "Without using the Tiger cubs you have taken the offensive, advanced 30 miles (48.3 km), captured Halfaya and Sollum, taken 500 German prisoners and inflicted heavy losses in men and tanks. For this twenty I tanks and 1000 or 1500 casualties do not seem too heavy a cost." Churchill ended the message by asking Wavell "What are your dates for bringing Tiger cubs into action?", in reference to the reinforcements that had arrived at Alexandria
Alexandria
Alexandria is the second-largest city of Egypt, with a population of 4.1 million, extending about along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea in the north central part of the country; it is also the largest city lying directly on the Mediterranean coast. It is Egypt's largest seaport, serving...

 on 12 May as part of a convoy code-named Operation Tiger. The 11th Hussar's regimental history notes that "it was clear that no further offensive action would be possible before 7[th] Arm[oured Division] was fully prepared". The Tiger convoy brought 238 tanks and made it possible to refit the 7th Armoured Division, which had been out of action since February as a result of the losses it sustained during Operation Compass. Preparations could now be made for Operation Battleaxe
Operation Battleaxe
Operation Battleaxe was a British Army operation during the Second World War in June 1941 with the goal of clearing eastern Cyrenaica of German and Italian forces; one of the main benefits of this would have been the lifting of the Siege of Tobruk....

 and the relief of Tobruk
Siege of Tobruk
The siege of Tobruk was a confrontation that lasted 240 days between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War...

. In the system of British and Commonwealth battle honours, units that served in the Halfaya Pass area between 15 and 27 May were awarded the honour Halfaya 1941 in 1957.

Historian Thomas Jentz suggests that Brevity could have ended in victory for the British. While their tank forces were fighting ineffectively, the "gutsy" actions by 2RTR and their patrol toward Sidi Azeiz had convinced the Germans that the battle was lost by the evening of 15 May. Because of their failure to engage 2RTR late that day, several German commanders from Panzer Regiment 5, including its commanding officer, were removed from their posts after the battle. Jentz notes that a feint by the 1st
1st Royal Tank Regiment
The 1st Royal Tank Regiment is an armoured regiment of the British Army. It is part of the Royal Tank Regiment, itself part of the Royal Armoured Corps. It was originally formed as 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in 1934....

 and 7th RTR
7th Royal Tank Regiment
The 7th Royal Tank Regiment was an armoured regiment of the British Army until 1959.-History:The 7th Royal Tank Regiment was part of the Royal Tank Regiment, itself part of the Royal Armoured Corps...

 out of Tobruk might have caused a realignment of the Axis forces, weakening their overall position and perhaps even forcing them to give up the Sollum area.

Operation Brevity highlighted to Rommel the importance of the Halfaya Pass; whichever side held it would have a "comparatively safe route for his supplies" during subsequent offensives in the area. On 27 May, he launched Operation Skorpion
Operation Skorpion
After a small lull in the fighting following Operation Brevity, the Germans deployed three assault groups up in front of Halfaya Pass during the evening of 26 May and attacked the next morning. The Coldstream Guards and supporting units fought well but could not stop the Germans from securing a...

, during which von Herff recaptured the pass and reversed the last British territorial gain from Brevity.

See also


  • North African Campaign timeline
    North African Campaign timeline
    - 1940:* 10 June: The Kingdom of Italy declares war upon France and the United Kingdom* 14 June: British forces cross from Egypt into Libya and capture Fort Capuzzo* 16 June: The first tank battle of the North African Campaign takes place, the "Battle of Girba"...

  • List of World War II Battles

External links

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