Second World War

Battle at Sidi Rezegh Airfield

During Operation Crusader, Rommel's forces, although weakened, showcased German tactical superiority at Sidi Rezegh prior to the Siege of Tobruk.

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At the end of the second day of battle, the visibility at Sidi Rezegh airfield had diminished almost completely. The area, littered with the remnants of war—ranging from ME-109 aircraft to M3 “Honey” tanks and Panzer IIIHs—transformed into a chaotic scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Despite the obscured visibility due to dust suspended in the air, the airfield in the North African desert continued to attract thousands of men and vehicles, drawn inexorably to the conflict like moths to a flame.

The Strategic Importance of Sidi Rezegh

The airfield at Sidi Rezegh emerged as a critical location in a campaign otherwise noted for its fluid battle lines. Holding this airfield was seen as key to controlling the fate of the nearby besieged city of Tobruk. Theoretically, the side that controlled the airfield could significantly influence the ongoing siege. However, the battle’s outcome would ultimately be decided by distant events during the three-week long Operation Crusader. Despite this, both sides relentlessly fed troops and resources into what had become a fiercely contested and deadly ground.

This part of the North African desert, near Tobruk, was notorious as a perilous zone with no cover, where many men and machines perished in November 1941. General Erwin Rommel, leading the Panzergruppe Afrika, initially demonstrated superior tactics, allowing German forces to outmaneuver the British while executing a strategic withdrawal. This move was marked by scenes of German panzers advancing towards the rising smoke from destroyed British tanks.

DYYPCA German tanks on the march to Tobruk, 1942

Transition from Airfield to Combat Zone

Originally established by the Axis powers as a forward airbase, Sidi Rezegh had been under Luftwaffe control since shortly after Rommel’s counteroffensive in April 1941. The airfield’s primary role was to support the Axis forces surrounding Tobruk. This changed dramatically in late November 1941 when the British 7th Armored Brigade launched a sudden assault to lift the siege on Tobruk. The brigade, equipped with Cruiser tanks, captured or destroyed the remaining Axis aircraft grounded at the airfield. Alongside them, the divisional support group, commanded by Brigadier “Jock” Campbell—who later received the Victoria Cross—began fortifications under the nearby escarpment.

The night prior to the attack, the 7th Armored Brigade, known as the “Desert Rats,” crossed into Axis-held territory from Egypt. As a key component of the Eighth Army, their mission was to engage and neutralize German armor, clearing the path for allied forces along the coast road to relieve Tobruk. Major General William “Strafer” Gott framed the operation as a decisive armored confrontation, emphasizing the importance of tank commanders engaging effectively to dominate the battlefield.

Operation Crusader: The Battle for Sidi Rezegh

Operation Crusader was set to provoke a large-scale armored confrontation with the Afrika Korps at a remote desert location near Gabr Saleh, far south of Tobruk. Despite early intelligence, Rommel, preoccupied with his plans to assault Tobruk, initially ignored the reports of advancing British forces. It wasn’t until General Ludwig Crüwell convinced him that the two Panzer divisions, the 15th and 21st, were dispatched southwards on November 19. By then, the British had already repositioned, evading the German force.

In the absence of Rommel’s immediate reaction, Lieutenant General Alan Cunningham, commander of the Eighth Army, proactively sought engagement. This led the 22nd Armored Brigade into a clash with the Italian Ariete Division at Bir Gubi, resulting in significant tank losses. Meanwhile, the 4th Armored Brigade was tasked with protecting the northern flank along key desert routes. Major General William Gott then redirected the remaining forces, including the 7th Armored Brigade and supporting artillery, to seize the strategically vital Sidi Rezegh airfield.

The Fall of Sidi Rezegh Airfield

General Sir Claude Auchinleck.
General Sir Claude Auchinleck.

The capture of Sidi Rezegh airfield was a critical juncture, prompting Rommel to reassess the situation. Initially dismissing the British southern movements as minor threats, he was forced to recognize their significance following the skirmish where the Germans suffered minimal tank losses but maintained control of the battlefield. Rommel then reallocated resources to reclaim the airfield, understanding its strategic importance.

On the evening of November 20, from his vantage point on Belhamed Hill, Rommel observed the substantial British armored forces fortifying at the airfield. He immediately instructed Crüwell to disengage from current conflicts and rally at the airfield. This strategic move was timely as the Afrika Division, soon to be the 90th Light, was simultaneously pressured from Tobruk and the airfield.

Rommel took direct command, deploying his artillery to bombard the British positions at the airfield. This was complemented by a crucial anti-tank screen that played a pivotal role in defending against the Tobruk forces and the incoming attacks from Sidi Rezegh. The 6th Royal Tank Regiment suffered heavy losses during an assault against well-positioned 88mm guns. In the ensuing chaos, the arrival of German armored divisions marked by dust clouds from the south prompted the 7th Armored Brigade to reengage. Unfortunately, a tactical misstep by Brigadier G.M.O. Davey involved deploying only a portion of his forces against the advancing German tanks, leading to a disorganized defense and leaving one regiment in reserve at the airfield.

Strategic Missteps at Sidi Rezegh

The British command’s decision to split their armored forces into smaller units proved costly during Operation Crusader. This approach, characterized by deploying small groups or “penny-packets” of tanks, led to significant losses in both equipment and lives. On the battlefield, the British 7th Hussar Regiment’s cruiser tanks were effortlessly countered and decimated by German anti-tank guns, highlighting the effectiveness of the German strategy to conserve armor by relying predominantly on anti-tank units. This engagement resulted in the heavy attrition of two-thirds of the 7th Armored Brigade without any substantial damage to German tanks.

As the battle intensified, the remaining British forces at Sidi Rezegh airfield faced dire circumstances. With only a handful of operational tanks left, the 7th Armored Brigade and its Support Group were pushed into a defensive position. Had the brigade initially integrated their tanks with the anti-tank guns for a unified defensive stance, they might have stood a better chance against the German onslaught. Instead, the scattered and vulnerable tanks were easily picked off by German forces.

In a frantic effort to stabilize the situation, Brigadier “Jock” Campbell attempted to rally the Support Group as they faced an aggressive drive by German armor. Despite being heavily outmatched, the British managed to inflict some losses on German panzers, forcing General Ludwig Crüwell to temporarily withdraw his forces for resupply. This move allowed the British remnants at the airfield to maintain a tenuous hold over the area.

Overwhelmed by German Counterattacks

The following day, November 22, the situation escalated as the Germans launched a multi-directional assault on the airfield. The 21st Panzer Division and elements of the newly renamed 90th Light Division pressured the remaining British armor and Support Group. During these intense engagements, Lieutenant Robert Crisp of the 4th Armored Brigade faced overwhelming odds against a vastly superior force of “70” panzers. Despite his valiant efforts, Crisp was ultimately forced to retreat, and the 4th Armored Brigade could not regroup effectively after their command post was overrun, leading to significant losses.

In the midst of chaos, the 22nd Armored Brigade made a last desperate charge across the airfield, directly into the line of German anti-tank fire, resulting in catastrophic losses. With the 4th Armored Brigade scattered and unable to regroup, the British commanders recognized the futility of their position and ordered a withdrawal across the southern escarpment. This retreat marked the culmination of a series of strategic errors that led to the loss of over two-thirds of the 7th Armored Division, securing a costly but definitive tactical victory for the Germans with minimal losses.

British gunners, protected behind a parapet of stones
British gunners, protected behind a parapet of stones, prepare to engage Rommel’s panzers with a captured Italian 47mm anti-tank gun.

Control Shifts at Sidi Rezegh

As the situation at Sidi Rezegh became increasingly untenable for the British forces, General William Gott commanded the remnants of the 7th Support Group and the 7th Armored Brigade to retreat towards the positions held by the 5th South African Brigade, which had formed a defensive perimeter south of the airfield. By nightfall, the Germans had regained full control over the airfield, marking a significant shift in the battle’s momentum.

The following day, November 23, known as “Totensonntag” in remembrance of World War I’s fallen, saw a shift in focus a few miles south to the defensive box held by the South Africans and the battered remnants of the British armored divisions. Contrary to General Erwin Rommel’s strategy to engage British forces further south through a pincer movement with the Italian Ariete Division, General Ludwig Crüwell directly attacked the South African positions with his panzer divisions. Despite the defensive efforts of the South Africans, they were overwhelmed by the superior numbers of the German forces, leading to the destruction of the 2nd South African Brigade, although this victory cost the Germans 72 tanks.

British Matilda II, with Brodie helmets hanging from the turret
During Operation Crusader, tanks from both sides crisscrossed the desert in search of the enemy. Here a British Matilda II, with Brodie helmets hanging from the turret, stands ready for action.

Hard Supply for German Loss

The losses suffered by the German forces during these engagements, though initially light, began to mount significantly. The destruction of 72 panzers during the assault on the South African box was indicative of the high cost the Germans paid for their tactical victories. This attrition proved to be problematic, as the German forces faced a lack of reserves and dwindling supplies. By early December, Rommel was informed of severe supply shortages, compounding the strategic challenges faced by the Afrika Korps.

Rommel’s strategic situation was further complicated by a breakdown in communications, exacerbated by the unexpected capture of the Afrika Korps headquarters by the 1st New Zealand Division. This loss of communication meant that Rommel remained unaware of significant battlefield developments, including the New Zealanders’ movements. In response, Rommel redirected the German panzer divisions eastward in a sweeping motion towards Egypt, distancing them from the immediate conflicts around Sidi Rezegh and Tobruk.

Meanwhile, the 1st New Zealand Division, equipped with heavy infantry tanks including Matildas and Valentines, advanced towards the airfield from the north. Their assault in the evening of November 25 targeted the Italian and German positions that now controlled the airfield. The Italian Bersagli Regiment, positioned on the escarpment overseeing the airfield, initially held firm against attacks from the New Zealand 6th Brigade but was ultimately compelled to retreat westward under sustained pressure. This series of events highlighted the fluid and dynamic nature of the battle for Sidi Rezegh, characterized by rapid shifts in control and intense combat engagements.

German Panzers advance through the desert toward Tobruk
German Panzers advance through the desert toward Tobruk and the British forces at Sidi Rezegh.

Respite and Reinforcement for British Forces

Following intense engagements, part of the 1st New Zealand Division successfully linked up with the Tobruk garrison on El Duda Hill. This strategic move allowed the New Zealanders to establish a fortified position at the airfield, crucial for maintaining an open corridor to Tobruk amidst ongoing conflicts. During this period of relative calm, the scattered units of the 7th Armored Division regrouped south of Sidi Rezegh, bolstering their ranks with over 130 tanks drawn from vast reserves in Egypt.

General Sir Claude Auchinleck, taking over command from Lt. Gen. Alan Cunningham on November 25, exhibited decisive leadership during critical moments of the battle. His primary focus was to secure the corridor to Tobruk across Sidi Rezegh airfield. Auchinleck’s orders were clear: he directed the New Zealanders to fortify their positions and prepare for the inevitable return of the Afrika Korps.

By November 29, the Afrika Korps, under the strained command of Rommel, who had been temporarily out of touch due to operations deep in the desert, recognized the strategic threat posed by the New Zealanders. Rommel’s return was marked by a concerted effort to realign and focus German forces against the fortified positions at Sidi Rezegh. However, the German forces that launched the final assault were significantly depleted, with the 21st Panzer Division reduced to nine tanks and the 15th to a mere 43 tanks. Despite their weakened state, the Germans initiated an artillery-heavy attack, followed by a ground assault to dislodge the New Zealand defenders from their positions.

Battle of Sidi Rezegh, 27 November 1941
ERG8DR The Eighth Army – WWII. Battle of Sidi Rezegh, 27 November 1941. The morning after the Tabruk garrison took El Duda. Tank. Image shot 1941. Exact date unknown.

A Pyrrhic Victory for Germany

The attack, though initially successful in pushing back the New Zealanders, came at a high cost to the Germans. The persistent lack of reserves, coupled with critical shortages in fuel and ammunition, severely hampered their operational capabilities. The Italian command informed Rommel that the losses in tanks would not be replenished for at least a month, further exacerbating the situation. Despite these challenges, the Germans managed to secure a temporary victory, reclaiming the airfield once more.

This victory was short-lived as the overall strategic situation for the Germans continued to deteriorate. The British, with their ability to replenish armor from reserves, quickly regained strength, ultimately forcing Rommel to order a general withdrawal from the area east of Tobruk. This decision marked the end of the siege and highlighted the unsustainable nature of the German position, driven by attrition and supply constraints.

The series of battles around Sidi Rezegh, and subsequent engagements in the region, underscored the tactical superiority of German armored warfare and combined arms techniques. However, it also exposed the critical vulnerabilities related to supply lines and reserve management. These lessons would not be fully absorbed by Allied forces until later in the war, illustrating the evolving nature of tactical warfare during World War II. The repeated engagements at Sidi Rezegh provided valuable insights that would later influence larger scale operations across different theaters of the war.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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