Field Marshal Erwin Rommel knew what full-scale assaults looked like, and this didn’t look like one. Having just returned to North Africa from Italy (where he had celebrated his 50th birthday), he was greeted with the news that a large contingent of tanks…British tanks…were gathering to the east. But Rommel had plans, and he didn’t want them interrupted by a British “sortie”. And in Rommel’s mind, a “sortie” is what it was.
Field Marshal Rommel was wrong.
That large contingent of British tanks was actually a force numbering almost 750, nearly twice the number of tanks Rommel possessed. Their destination?…Tobruk. Coincidentally, those plans of Rommel’s that I mentioned?…they involved Tobruk as well.
Several months back, we mentioned the tremendous initial success Rommel had when he arrived in North Africa in early 1941. Rather than sit around, he immediately took the offensive and began pushing the British out of Libya. Tobruk was a British-held port city just west of the Egyptian border. After the Desert Fox’s initial push, it became the last British bastion in Libya, and had been under seige since early April.
The Afrika Korps was preparing its final assault on Tobruk, scheduled for November 20th, when it was interrupted by British General Claude Auchinleck’s forces from the west. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June had taken immense pressure off the British, and they were able to move more arms and equipment to Egypt, assembling a considerable force with one objective: relieving Tobruk.
On November 18, 1941, the relief of Tobruk (Operation Crusader) began as the British, with help from New Zealand, Indian, and Polish forces, crossed from Egypt into Libya. They had desperately hoped their numerically superior air forces would be able to preface the operation with successful air strikes of their own, but massive storms with torrential rains put paid to that. Those storms would also affect some pre-operation clandestine missions that we’ll discuss in the future.
Anyways, Operation Crusader got off to a pretty good start for the British. And as we’ll probably see, it would continue to go well, eventually pushing the Afrika Korps back some distance westward and relieving Tobruk.
Recommended Reading: The Battle of Alamein – I’ve got a couple good sources dealing with North Africa, but haven’t mananged more than a cursory browse through any of them. That will change next year.