Updated: Dec 15, 2021
About the Series This article is part of a series: Maps of the Desert War. In this series I explore battles and operations that took place during the WW2 North African Campaign (or more precisely – its Western Desert part). The maps are FREE TO USE (we only kindly ask you to credit us when you do so). If you wish to subscribe to this blog, you can do it on the bottom of the homepage: https://www.attackatdawn.com/ If you wish to watch the YouTube series in which I will show detailed gameplay of each of these operations described here, subscribe to our YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdEM-oS4qFVdZN0pplI7fCg If you wish to support the game, be sure to wishlist it on STEAM: https://bit.ly/2NDSNbW Intro Operation Crusader (18 November-30 December 1941) was Rommel's first defeat in North Africa. It was a very complex operation, which will be described here with a series of maps. I will try to show the situation day-by-day, and zoom in on the action when needed. I will also accompany each map with a short description of events. If you wish to learn more about the operation, I advise you to look at the Sources section at the end of this article.
As this was a long and complex operation, my research and map design is not done and this will be the first post on the subject of Crusader. It will show the maps for the period from 18th November until the Totensonntag on 23rd November. I will be creating and uploading the second post in some future time, when I conclude my research on the subject.
The main Axis force was Panzer Group Afrika, under the command of General der Panzertruppe Erwin Rommel. It consisted of two corps: German Afrika Korps (15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, Afrika division, and Savona), and Italian XXI Corps (Pavia, Brescia, Trento and Bologna infantry divisions). There was also the Italian motorised XX Corps (Ariete armoured division, Trieste motorised division, RECAM reconnaissance group) which was under separate, Italian command.
The Libya-Egypt frontier was held by the Italian Savona Division, and some smaller German troops. The two Panzer divisions were held in reserve, between Tobruk and Bardia. Afrika division was on the Tobruk perimeter, and around Sidi Rezegh airfield. The Italian XXI Corps (of four infantry divisions) was besieging the Tobruk fortress. The Italian XX Corps was holding the southern flank - between Bir el Gubi and Bir Hacheim. Rommel was planning of capturing Tobruk, and positioned himself in preparation for this offensive which was scheduled to begin on 23 November. However, the Allied attack will begin several days before that. Allied Situation
The Allied forces were a newly formed British Eighth Army, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham. It was a Commonwealth force, consisted primarily of British, Indian, New Zealand and South African troops. It was split into two corps: XIII and XXX Corps. The XIII Corps was an infantry force, containing the 2nd New Zealand Division, 4th Indian Division and 1st Army Tank Brigade. The XXX Corps was an armoured force, containing the 7th Armoured Division (Desert Rats), 1st South African Division and 22 Guards Brigade. The Tobruk fortress was defended by the garrison, made up of 70th Division, Polish Carpathian Brigade Group and 32nd Army Tank Brigade. The Allied plan was for XIII (infantry) Corps to contain the Axis frontline garrisons (stretching from Sidi Omar to Halfaya Pass), and to isolate them from the main Axis forces around Tobruk. The XXX (armour) Corps was given the task of finding and destroying the bulk of German armour. It was to move north-west in the direction of Tobruk, and to provoke the clash with the German Afrika Corps. After the defeat of the German armour, both Corps were to move towards Tobruk and attack the besieging forces. The Tobruk garrison was to attack the siege ring from within in order to link up with the relief forces. The Battle 18 November Eighth Army launches the operation. Heavy rain keeps the Axis air reconnaissance on the ground and the XXX Corps reaches Gabr Saleh unopposed. There are some skirmishes with Axis recon units, while XIII Corps advances to the border garrisons at the line Sidi Omar-Halfaya Pass.
19 November XIII Corps begins its move around the border fortifications. 7th Armoured Brigade and 7th Support Group move north-east and capture the Sidi Rezegh airfield. 22nd Armoured Brigade advances to Bir el Gubi, attacks the Italian Ariete armoured division and suffers heavy losses. 4th Armoured Brigade remains at Gabr Saleh, covering the link with XIII Corps. Kampfgruppe Stephan is sent south-west towards Gabr Saleh, where German panzers clash with 4th Armoured Brigade with inconclusive results.
20 November 15th and 21st Panzer are sent southwards, and attack the lone 4th Armoured Brigade around Gabr Saleh, inflicting heavy losses. 22nd Armoured arrives too late to assist, and both armoured units fall back and regroup south of the track.
21 November Rommel realises that the crisis is developing around Sidi Rezegh, and orders 15th and 21st Panzer to move there. 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades follow close behind, but are kept at bay by the German AT guns. Cunningham orders the 70th Division to begin its breakout attack. 2nd New Zealand Division advances north, taking position in the area between Sidi Azeiz and Fort Capuzzo. 4th Indian Division prepares to attack Sidi Omar.
22 November 5th South African Brigade tries to capture point 178 and position south of Sidi Rezegh airfield. This attack fails, and 21st Panzer division counter-attacks between two ridges and towards the airfield. It hits 22nd and 7th Armoured Brigades, with heavy losses for both sides. The British are forced to retreat south-west towards 5th South African Brigade.
23 November (Totensonntag) 23 November is German "Totensonntag" – the Sunday of the Dead, a day of rememberance for those lost in the Great War. But on this holy day, Rommel decides to destroy the bulk of the enemy force. Three armoured divisions (15th, 21st Panzer and Ariete) are moved south of the Allied concentration of troops, and they attack nortwards - crushing the Allies between tanks and German infantry in the north. The attack falls so hard on the 5th South African Brigade, that it virtually ceises to exist, while the brigades of 7th Armoured Division suffer significant losses and are forced to retreat once more. Meanwhile, in the north the 6th New Zealand Brigade arrives from the frontier and advances towards point 175 near Sidi Rezegh. General Cunningham becames very concerned about the progress of the battle, and even considers breaking the offensive. But on the Auchinleck's insistance, the offensive is continued and the spearhead is shifted to XIII Corps - with infantry taking the initiative.
This concludes the first part of Operation Crusader. See you next time!
Le Operazioni In Africa Settentrionale Vol. II Tobruk (Marzo 1941-Gennaio 1942)
Stato maggiore dell'esercito, Ufficio storico, Mario Montanari. 1993. The War in the Mediterranean and the Middle East Volume III. British Fortunes Reach their Lowest Ebb Naval & Military Press, Major-General I. S. O. Playfair; and others. Uckfield, UK, 2004. The Crucible of War: Western Desert 1941 Paragon House, Barrie Pitt. New York, 1989. Operation Crusader 1941. Rommel in Retreat Osprey Publishing, Ken Ford. Oxford, UK, 2010. Battle Orders: Rommel's Afrika Korps, Tobruk to El Alamein Osprey Publishing, Pier Paolo Battisteli. Oxford, UK, 2006. The Sidi Rezeg Battles 1941 Oxford University Press, J.A.I. Agar-Hamilton & L.C.F. Turner. Oxford, UK, 1957. Panzer Battles Spellmount Limited, Major-General F.W. von Mellenthin. Stroud, UK, 2008. Crusader: Eighth Army's Forgotten Victory, November 1941-January 1942 Leo Cooper, Richard Humble. 1987. Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940-november 1942 (Great Campaigns) Combined Publishing, Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani. Conshohocken, USA, 1999. The Rommel Papers DaCapo Press, Erwin Rommel & B.H. Liddell-Hart (ed.). 1982. Operation Crusader 1941 FULL WW2 Documentary BATTLESTORM YouTube, uploaded by TIK. 2019. https://youtu.be/Ji7MZYB4dho The Crusader Project https://rommelsriposte.com/