A reassessment of the tank battle between 4th Armoured Brigade and Panzerregiment 5 during Operation Crusader in North Africa on 19 November 1941

  • Andreas Biermann


Operation Crusader took place in the wide context of an integrated, multi-servicetheatre-level offensive operation in the Western Desert and the Mediterranean fromOctober 1941 through to January 1942. Seen through this lens, Operation Crusader wassimply the Army and the Royal Air Force component of a multi-service theatre-leveloffensive conducted by Allied forces. The operation ended with an almost completedefeat of the Axis troops, the lifting of the seven-month siege of Tobruk and the retreatof the surviving Axis forces to a position on the border of the colonial provinces ofTripolitania and Cyrenaica, in central Libya.Operation Crusader was the first army-level offensive undertaken by the Alliedforces in World War II, lasting from 17 November 1941 to 15 January 1942.355 Theaim of Operation Crusader was to trigger a large-scale tank battle with Axis tank forcesoutside the besieged desert port of Tobruk in Libya, to destroy the Axis armouredforces, and to pave the way to lift the siege of Tobruk, which had been conducted bythe Axis forces since April 1941. Operation Crusader was the first step in a set of threeoperations expected to lead to the clearing of the North African coast from Axis forcesand subsequently allow an invasion of Sicily in 1942. The battle was the largest tankoffensive conducted by Allied forces in either World War I or World War II until theSecond Battle of El Alamein in late October 1942. It was characterised by a number oftank battles between the Axis forces under the command of General der PanzertruppenErwin Rommel and Allied infantry and armoured forces under Lieutenant-General AlanCunningham and then Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, who fought under the overalldirection of General Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East. 356 357The conduct of the battle showed weaknesses in the doctrine of British armouredforces, but it ultimately ended in a victory for the Allied forces. This article analysesthe first clash of British and German tanks during Operation Crusader and provides anew perspective on the performance of an experienced British cruiser tank regiment,which calls into question the overall assessment of how British armour performedduring the battle. The re-assessment provided in this article is in particular related to theperformance of both sides in the battle and the performance of both sides against theirtactical objectives on the day, as well as the comparative losses in tanks.  The article covers the first engagement of British 4th Armoured Brigade with Germanarmour during the opening stage of Operation Crusader between 17 and 20 Novemberin which it managed to thwart a German counterattack. Utilising primary documents,such as war diaries, messages and reports, this article provides a new perspective on theestablished view of the battle that also affects our view of the performance of Britisharmoured units at regimental level during this period of the Desert War. The articlepresents a reassessment of comparative tank combat performance in the early phaseof Operation Crusader by analysing the first engagement between Allied and Germanarmour with a view to correcting misconceptions that have until now clouded thehistorical record, such as the one expressed in General Auchinleck’s despatch on theperiod, “But our tanks and anti-tank guns were no match for the German, althoughthey were fought with great gallantry:”.358 It also considers hitherto unused primaryevidence to shed new light on the losses in tanks suffered by both sides during the battle,and considers how the opposing forces performed in the context of their operationalobjectives.
How to Cite
Biermann, A. (2021). A reassessment of the tank battle between 4th Armoured Brigade and Panzerregiment 5 during Operation Crusader in North Africa on 19 November 1941. Scientia Militaria - South African Journal of Military Studies, 49(1), 91-114. https://doi.org/10.5787/49-1-1319