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

Abstract

Operation Crusader took place in the wide context of an integrated, multi-service
theatre-level offensive operation in the Western Desert and the Mediterranean from
October 1941 through to January 1942. Seen through this lens, Operation Crusader was
simply the Army and the Royal Air Force component of a multi-service theatre-level
offensive conducted by Allied forces. The operation ended with an almost complete
defeat of the Axis troops, the lifting of the seven-month siege of Tobruk and the retreat
of the surviving Axis forces to a position on the border of the colonial provinces of
Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, in central Libya.
Operation Crusader was the first army-level offensive undertaken by the Allied
forces in World War II, lasting from 17 November 1941 to 15 January 1942.355 The
aim of Operation Crusader was to trigger a large-scale tank battle with Axis tank forces
outside the besieged desert port of Tobruk in Libya, to destroy the Axis armoured
forces, and to pave the way to lift the siege of Tobruk, which had been conducted by
the Axis forces since April 1941. Operation Crusader was the first step in a set of three
operations expected to lead to the clearing of the North African coast from Axis forces
and subsequently allow an invasion of Sicily in 1942. The battle was the largest tank
offensive conducted by Allied forces in either World War I or World War II until the
Second Battle of El Alamein in late October 1942. It was characterised by a number of
tank battles between the Axis forces under the command of General der Panzertruppen
Erwin Rommel and Allied infantry and armoured forces under Lieutenant-General Alan
Cunningham and then Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie, who fought under the overall
direction of General Claude Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East. 356 357
The conduct of the battle showed weaknesses in the doctrine of British armoured
forces, but it ultimately ended in a victory for the Allied forces. This article analyses
the first clash of British and German tanks during Operation Crusader and provides a
new perspective on the performance of an experienced British cruiser tank regiment,
which calls into question the overall assessment of how British armour performed
during the battle. The re-assessment provided in this article is in particular related to the
performance of both sides in the battle and the performance of both sides against their
tactical objectives on the day, as well as the comparative losses in tanks.  The article covers the first engagement of British 4th Armoured Brigade with German
armour during the opening stage of Operation Crusader between 17 and 20 November
in 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 the
established view of the battle that also affects our view of the performance of British
armoured units at regimental level during this period of the Desert War. The article
presents a reassessment of comparative tank combat performance in the early phase
of Operation Crusader by analysing the first engagement between Allied and German
armour with a view to correcting misconceptions that have until now clouded the
historical record, such as the one expressed in General Auchinleck’s despatch on the
period, “But our tanks and anti-tank guns were no match for the German, although
they were fought with great gallantry:â€.358 It also considers hitherto unused primary
evidence 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 operational
objectives.

Published
2021-05-21
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
Section
Articles