3rd Indian Motor Brigade
Operation Brevity was a limited offensive conducted in mid-May 1941,
Western Desert Campaign
Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Conceived
by the commander-in-chief of the British Middle East Command, General
Archibald Wavell, Brevity was intended to be a rapid blow against weak
Axis front-line forces in the Sollum–Capuzzo–
Bardia area of the
border between Egypt and Libya. Although the operation got off to a
promising start, throwing the Axis high command into confusion, most
of its early gains were lost to local counter-attacks, and with German
reinforcements being rushed to the front the operation was called off
after one day.
Egypt had been invaded by Libyan-based Italian forces in September
1940, but by February of the following year a British
counter-offensive had advanced well into Libya, destroying the Italian
Tenth Army in the process. British attention then shifted to Greece,
which was under the threat of Axis invasion. While Allied divisions
were being diverted from North Africa, the Italians reinforced their
positions and were supported by the arrival of the German Afrika Korps
Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel. Rapidly taking the offensive
against his distracted and over-stretched opponent, by April 1941
Rommel had driven the British and Commonwealth forces in Cyrenaica
back across the Egyptian border. Although the battlefront now lay in
the border area, the port city of Tobruk—100 miles (160 km)
inside Libya—had resisted the Axis advance, and its substantial
Australian and British garrison constituted a significant threat to
Rommel's lengthy supply chain. He therefore committed his main
strength to besieging the city, leaving the front line only thinly
Wavell defined Operation Brevity's main objectives as the acquisition
of territory from which to launch a further planned offensive toward
Tobruk, and the depletion of German and Italian forces in the region.
With limited battle-ready units to draw on in the wake of Rommel's
recent successes, on 15 May Brigadier
William Gott attacked in three
columns with a mixed infantry and armoured force. The strategically
Halfaya Pass was taken against stiff Italian opposition, and
deeper inside Libya
Fort Capuzzo was captured, but German
Maximilian von Herff regained the fort
during the afternoon causing heavy casualties amongst its defenders.
Gott—concerned that his forces were in danger of being caught by
German armour in open ground—conducted a staged withdrawal to the
Halfaya Pass on 16 May, and Brevity was closed down. The importance of
Halfaya Pass as a safe supply route was highlighted to Rommel, and
11 days later it was recaptured during Operation Skorpion, a German
2.1 Allied force
2.2 Axis force
3.1 Centre column
3.2 Desert column
3.3 Coastal column
3.4 Axis reactions
3.5 British withdrawal
5 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
In early September 1940, the Italian 10th Army based in Libya
Italian invasion of Egypt
Italian invasion of Egypt and three months later, the
British and Commonwealth troops of the
Western Desert Force began a
counter-offensive, codenamed Operation Compass. In two months, the
British advanced 500 miles (800 km), occupying the Italian
Cyrenaica and destroying the 10th Army. The advance was
halted in February 1941 because of supply shortages and to give
priority to the Battle of Greece. Renamed XIII Corps and reorganised
Cyrenaica Command (CYRCOM), the troops of the former Western
Desert Force adopted a defensive posture. Over the next few months,
Cyrenaica lost its commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Maitland
Wilson, followed by the
2nd New Zealand Division and the 6th
Australian Division when they were sent to Greece in Operation Lustre.
The 7th Armoured Division, with virtually no serviceable tanks left,
was also withdrawn and sent to the
Nile Delta for rest and
refitting. Wilson was replaced by Lieutenant-General Philip
Neame; parts of the 2nd Armoured Division and 9th Australian Division
were deployed to
Cyrenaica but both formations were inexperienced,
ill-equipped and in the case of the 2nd Armoured Division, well under
strength, after detachments to Greece.
British Marmon-Herrington Mk II armoured car, as operated by the 11th
The Italians responded by despatching the 132nd Armoured Division
Ariete and 102nd Motorised DivisionTrento to North Africa. From
February 1941 until early May,
Operation Sonnenblume saw the arrival
of the German
Afrika Korps in
Tripoli to reinforce their Italian
allies. Commanded by
Erwin Rommel and consisting of
the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Division, the
Afrika Korps was to block
Allied attempts to drive the Italians out of the region. Rommel seized
on the weakness of his opponents and without waiting for his forces
fully to assemble, rapidly went on the offensive. During March
and April, the remaining units of the 2nd Armoured Division were
destroyed as the Axis forces advanced, which also forced the British
and Commonwealth forces into retreat.[a] Neame and the General
Officer Commanding British Troops Egypt—Lieutenant-General Richard
O'Connor—were captured and the British command structure had to be
Cyrenaica was dissolved on 14 April and its command
functions taken over by a new HQ Western Desert Force
(Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse). The 9th Australian
Infantry Division fell back to the fortress port of
Tobruk and the
remaining British forces withdrew a further 100 miles (160 km)
east to Sollum on the Libyan–Egyptian border. With the main
Axis force conducting the
Siege of Tobruk
Siege of Tobruk a small battlegroup
(Kampfgruppe) commanded by
Maximilian von Herff continued to
press eastward. Capturing
Fort Capuzzo and
Bardia in passing, it then
advanced into Egypt; by the end of April had taken Sollum and the
tactically important Halfaya Pass. Rommel garrisoned these positions,
Kampfgruppe and ordered it onto the defensive.
Tobruk garrison received supplies from the
Royal Navy and Rommel
was unable to take the port. This failure was significant; his front
line positions at Sollum were at the end of an extended supply chain
that stretched back to
Tripoli and was threatened by the Tobruk
garrison. The substantial commitment required to invest Tobruk
prevented him from building up his forces at Sollum, making further
advances into Egypt impractical.[b] By maintaining possession
of Tobruk, the Allies had regained the initiative.
Operation Brevity order of battle
The battlefield over which
Operation Brevity was fought
General Archibald Wavell—the commander-in-chief of the British
Middle East Command—conceived
Operation Brevity as a rapid blow in
the Sollum area. Wavell intended to create advantageous conditions
from which to launch Operation Battleaxe, the main offensive that he
was planning for June. Operation Brevity's primary objectives were to
recapture the Halfaya Pass, to drive the enemy from the Sollum and
Capuzzo areas, and to deplete Rommel's forces. A secondary objective
was to advance toward Tobruk, although only as far as supplies would
allow, and without risking the force committed to the
Operation Brevity would be carried out by the
22nd Guards Brigade
22nd Guards Brigade and
elements of the 7th Armoured Division. Its armoured component
consisted of 29 cruiser tanks of the
2nd Royal Tank Regiment
2nd Royal Tank Regiment (2RTR)
and 24 infantry tanks of the
4th Royal Tank Regiment
4th Royal Tank Regiment (4RTR).[c] The
Royal Air Force
Royal Air Force (RAF) allocated all available fighters and a small
force of bombers to the operation.
Cruiser Mk IV
Cruiser Mk IV (foreground) and Matilda infantry tanks
Brigadier William Gott—in command of all Allied front-line forces
since the retreat—was to lead the operation in the field, and his
plan was to advance in three parallel columns. On the desert flank
to the south, the 7th Armoured
Brigade group was to move 30 miles
(48 km) from Bir el Khireigat to Sidi Azeiz destroying any
opposition encountered en route. This group included three small
mobile forces ("Jock columns") of the 7th Support Group, the cruiser
tanks of 2RTR, and the armoured cars of the 11th Hussars, whose task
was to patrol the open desert on the left flank and monitor the Sidi
Bardia road. In the centre, the
22nd Guards Brigade
22nd Guards Brigade group
was to clear the top of the Halfaya Pass, secure Bir Wair, Musaid, and
Fort Capuzzo, and conduct a company-sized probe toward Bardia. The
group included two infantry formations (1st Battalion Durham Light
Infantry and 2nd Battalion Scots Guards), and the infantry tanks of
4RTR. In the north, the "coast group" was to advance along the
coast road, capturing the lower Halfaya Pass, Sollum barracks, and the
town of Sollum. The group included elements of the 2nd Battalion The
Rifle Brigade, and the 8th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.
The main Axis opposition was
Kampfgruppe von Herff, positioned on the
desert plateau. It included 30–50 tanks of the 2nd Battalion Panzer
Regiment 5, an Italian motorised infantry battalion of the Trento
Division, and supporting arms. The front line area around Halfaya Pass
was defended by two companies of Bersaglieri—well trained Italian
motorised infantry—with artillery support.
On 9 May, the Germans intercepted a British weather report over the
Afrika Korps war diary noted that "In the past, such
reports had always been issued prior to the important enemy offensives
to capture Sidi Barrani, Bardi, Tobruk, and the Gebel." Rommel's
response was to strengthen the eastern side of his cordon around
Tobruk as a precaution against sorties from the garrison, and to order
Kampfgruppe von Herff to adopt a more aggressive posture. On 13 May,
Axis aircraft bombed British tank concentrations, and Herff expected
an imminent British attack. However, the following day aircraft were
unable to locate the British, and it was reported that the "enemy
intentions to attack were not known".
On 13 May, Wavell's infantry battalions began to concentrate at their
start lines, followed by the tank regiments during the early hours of
15 May. At 06:00, the three columns began their advance, supported
overhead by a standing patrol of Hawker Hurricane
Reaching the top of the Halfaya Pass, the
22nd Guards Brigade
22nd Guards Brigade group
ran into heavy opposition from an Italian
company, supported by anti-tank guns, under the command of
Montemurro. This unit fought tenaciously, doing much
to repair the poor impression Rommel had of his Italian allies.
Opening fire upon the attacking British tanks, the
their 47mm anti-tank guns to be unable to penetrate the armour of the
Matilda infantry tanks. At 400 yards (370 m), the gunners shifted
targets. Now aiming at the tracks and undercarriages, when the tanks
raised up crossing low stone walls and rocks, seven tanks were
disabled. For his conduct during this action, Rommel recommended that
Montemurro be awarded the Iron Cross First Class. At the cost of
these seven tanks, the position was taken by C Squadron 4RTR and
G Company 2nd Scots Guards, and the brigade group pushed on
towards the Bir Wair-
Musaid road. At around 08:00, it received the
surrender of a large German-Italian camp, and by 10:15 Bir Wair and
Musaid had been taken in the face of limited opposition.
Fort Capuzzo, the focal point of much of the day's fighting.
A Squadron 4RTR and the 1st
Durham Light Infantry
Durham Light Infantry (1DLI)
continued the advance toward Fort Capuzzo. Concealed in hull down
positions behind a ridge near the fort were 20–30 German tanks,
supported by anti tank guns. These engaged A Squadron, disabling
five tanks, but were forced to withdraw as the squadron pressed its
attack. On the final approach to Fort Capuzzo, contact was lost
between 4RTR's tanks and 1DLI's leading C Company, and the attack
on the fort began without armoured support. The fort was vigorously
defended, and it was not until just before midday that C Company,
reunited with A Squadron 4RTR and reinforced by A and
B Companies 1DLI, eventually took the position.
D Company 1DLI—which had been in reserve during the
attack—then made a wide left hook to capture a small landing ground
to the north of the fort.
In the afternoon, one company of the 2nd
Scots Guards probed toward
Bardia, the infantry coming under heavy machine gun fire from three
positions as they neared Sollum barracks. A group of Universal
Sergeant F. Riley—charged the gun positions
and quickly neutralised them, but one carrier was disabled when the
group was subsequently engaged by anti-tank guns. Riley executed a
second charge, silencing these too and taking their crews prisoner.
His carrier was hit three times; for his actions Riley was awarded the
Military Medal, the battalion's first decoration of the war.[d]
On the desert flank, 2RTR advanced with the 7th Armoured Brigade
group. During the morning, reports were received of up to 30 German
armoured vehicles operating nearby, and A Squadron 2RTR moved to
investigate. Most of the German force had pulled back, but three tanks
were located and brought under fire. One
Panzer IV was disabled and
the other two driven off, for the loss of one British tank due to
mechanical failure. A second force of 15 German tanks was engaged by
two tanks of No 2 Troop, destroying a
Panzer III and forcing the
remainder to withdraw. By midday, the brigade group had reached a
position west of Fort Capuzzo, and in the afternoon the nine remaining
cruisers of A Squadron 2RTR began a reconnaissance patrol towards
The advance along the coastal road—which lacked tank support—was
held up all morning by determined Italian resistance at the bottom of
Halfaya Pass. This objective was finally achieved toward
evening when S Company 2nd Rifle Brigade—supported by
Australian anti-tank gunners fighting as infantry—overran the
Italian positions taking around 130 prisoners.
Although the German and Italian commands in North Africa knew that a
British offensive was imminent,
Operation Brevity nevertheless caught
them unprepared, and Rommel recorded in his diary that the initial
attacks had caused him considerable losses. By midday on 15 May,
Axis command was showing signs of confusion. It was erroneously
believed that the offensive involved more than 100 tanks, and repeated
requests were made to both the
Luftwaffe and the
Regia Aeronautica for
a concerted effort to defeat it. Forces around
Tobruk were redeployed
east of the besieged city, to block any attempt at relief and to
prevent the garrison from breaking out to meet the British
Hans Cramer was sent to reinforce
Kampfgruppe von Herff with a tank battalion from Panzer
Regiment 8 and a battery of 88 mm (3.46 in)
anti-aircraft guns, and additional reinforcements under General
Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck
Hans-Karl Freiherr von Esebeck were despatched the following day.
Panzer II (right) and a
Panzer III (left), the main tanks in use by
Afrika Korps during 1941, advance across the open desert.
The Germans concentrated their riposte against the central column.
Herff—who had been prepared to fall back—instead launched a local
Fort Capuzzo during the afternoon of 15 May with
the 2nd Battalion Panzer Regiment 5. At around 13:30,
D Company 1DLI at the landing ground was overrun, and with no
anti-tank support more capable than the Boys anti-tank rifle, the
remaining troops of 1DLI were forced to fall back toward Musaid. A
fortuitous dust cloud aided their withdrawal, but by 14:45 Panzer
Regiment 5 was reporting that it had recaptured Capuzzo,
inflicting heavy casualties on the British and taking 70
On the desert flank, A Squadron 2RTR's patrol toward Sidi Azeiz
was being monitored by Panzer Regiment 5, but the Germans
misidentified the light cruiser tanks as heavily armoured Matilda
infantry tanks, and reported that an attack was not possible.
Herff—believing the British had two divisions operating in the
area—had grown uneasy. A Squadron's patrol was interpreted as
an attempt to concentrate south of Sidi Azeiz, in preparation for a
thrust north the next day; such a move threatened to sweep aside
Herff's force and completely unhinge the German front in the
Bardia area. In response, Herff broke contact with the
British; his plan was to join up with Cramer's Panzer Regiment 8
to mount a concentrated counter-attack the following
Pencil drawing of
Halfaya Pass by New Zealand artist, Jack Crippen
Realising that the
22nd Guards Brigade
22nd Guards Brigade group would be vulnerable to
German armoured counterattacks in the open ground around Bir Wair and
Mussaid, Brigadier Gott withdrew it during the early hours of the
morning of 16 May. By 10:00, the infantry had taken up new positions
back at Halfaya Pass, although the 7th Armoured
Brigade group was
ordered to remain west of
Fort Capuzzo for the time being.
Cramer's reinforcements arrived in the Sidi Azeiz area at 03:00 and
Fort Capuzzo at 06:30. At around 08:00, he made contact with
Kampfgruppe von Herff, but by mid-morning both groups had run out of
fuel. The German advance resumed at 16:00 before being stopped by
around 17 tanks of 2RTR. The British reported one German tank set
alight and another disabled and that an advance of up to fifty tanks
had been halted, while the Germans believed that they had repulsed a
strong British tank attack. As nightfall approached, Herff broke off
the action and went on to the defensive. He intended to repair his
damaged machines, reorganise, and resume offensive operations on 18
May. 2RTR pulled back to Bir el Khireigat, initially followed by
two German tanks, one of which withdrew after the other was destroyed.
The regiment arrived at Bir el Khireigat, from where it had set out
two days previously, at around 02:30 on 17 May.
Operation Brevity failed to achieve most of its objectives, succeeding
only in retaking the Halfaya Pass. The British lost five tanks
destroyed and a further 13 were damaged but the tank regiments
suffered no losses in personnel. Total casualties amounted to at least
206 men. The 1st
Durham Light Infantry
Durham Light Infantry suffered the most during the
operation losing 196 men killed, wounded or captured. The 2nd Scots
Guards lost one man killed and four wounded, the 3rd Coldstream Guards
lost one man killed and the
11th Hussars suffered four men wounded.
Losses among the 2nd Rifle Brigade are unknown.
German casualties numbered three tanks (a
Panzer II and two Panzer
IIIs, although several more suffered minor damage) and 258 men killed,
wounded or captured. Jack Greene and Alessandro Massignani
place total Italian losses at 395. Allied accounts record the
capture of 347 of these men.
On 5 August, Herff praised the Bersaglieri, who had defended Halfaya
Pass "...with lionlike courage until the last man against stronger
enemy forces. The greatest part of them died faithful to the
flag." Lieutenant Giacinto Cova, a platoon commander in the 8th
Bersaglieri Regiment, received a posthumous Gold Medal of Military
Valour, Italy's highest award for bravery. The medal citation reported
that Cova had organised a counter-attack and was killed attempting to
throw a hand-held bomb at a British tank. The British received
plaudits from Winston Churchill, who sent a telegram to Wavell
betraying his ignorance of events by stating: "Without using the Tiger
cubs you have taken the offensive, advanced 30 miles (48 km),
captured Halfaya and Sollum, taken 500 German prisoners and inflicted
heavy losses in men and tanks. For this twenty I tanks and 1,000 or
1,500 casualties do not seem too heavy a cost." Churchill ended
the message by asking Wavell "What are your dates for bringing Tiger
cubs into action?", in reference to the reinforcements that had
Alexandria on 12 May as part of a convoy code-named
Operation Tiger. The 11th Hussar's regimental history notes that
"it was clear that no further offensive action would be possible
before 7[th] Arm[oured Division] was fully prepared". The Tiger
convoy brought 238 tanks[e] and made it possible to refit the 7th
Armoured Division, which had been out of action since February as a
result of the losses it sustained during Operation Compass.[f]
Preparations could now be made for
Operation Battleaxe and the relief
of Tobruk. In the system of British and Commonwealth battle
honours, units that served in the
Halfaya Pass area between 15 and 27
May were awarded the honour Halfaya 1941 in 1957.
Historian Thomas Jentz suggests that Brevity could have ended in
victory for the British. While their tank forces were fighting
ineffectively, the "gutsy" actions by 2RTR and their patrol toward
Sidi Azeiz had convinced the Germans that the battle was lost by the
evening of 15 May. Because of their failure to engage 2RTR late
that day, several German commanders from Panzer Regiment 5, including
its commanding officer, were removed from their posts after the
battle. Jentz notes that a feint by the 1st and 7th RTR out of
Tobruk might have caused a realignment of the Axis forces, weakening
their overall position and perhaps even forcing them to give up the
Operation Brevity highlighted to Rommel the importance of the Halfaya
Pass; whichever side held it would have a "comparatively safe route
for his supplies" during offensives in the area. On 27 May, he
launched Operation Skorpion, during which Herff recaptured the pass
and reversed the last British territorial gain from Brevity.
World War II
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^ Only ten British tanks were lost due to enemy action; the remaining
losses were caused by breakdowns and lack of fuel.
Tripoli was the main supply base and all supplies then had to be
shipped along the coast or driven to the front.
^ The cruiser tanks were six Mk.Is, seventeen Mk.IIAs and seven
Mk.IVAs, although one of these thirty tanks was in a field depot under
repair. The infantry tanks were Matilda Mk IIs. The Allied force was
organised into informal brigade groups, with individual units of the
7th Armoured Division
7th Armoured Division detached to different brigade groups according
to their mission. As well as specific units identified in this
article, brigade groups included supporting arms such as artillery
batteries, and additional units which played no significant part in
the operation. The full order of battle is listed in Operation
Brevity order of battle.
^ Erskine states "the Company was in an exposed position at the time,
and there is no doubt that
Sergeant Riley's speed and dash saved it
from suffering heavy casualties."
^ The convoy lost 57 tanks when the Empire Song struck a mine and sunk
but not before her crew was taken off. The tank reinforcements
comprised 21 Mark VI light tanks, 82 Cruiser tanks (including 50 of
the new Crusader tanks) and 135 Infantry tanks.
^ Many of the division's personnel had also been dispersed to other
tasks, meaning the division would also have to reorganise and retrain
to become battle ready.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 362–366, 371–376, 289.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 2.
^ Jentz 1998, p. 85.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 2–5.
^ Rommel 1982, p. 104.
^ Bauer 2000, p. 121.
^ Jentz 1998, p. 82.
^ Rommel 1982, p. 109.
^ Jentz 1998, p. 101.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 19–40.
^ Latimer 2001, pp. 43–45.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 33–35.
^ a b c d e f g h i Playfair et al. 2004, p. 160.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 128–129, 131.
^ Latimer 2001, pp. 48–64.
^ Rommel 1982, p. 134.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 41.
^ a b Jentz 1998, p. 128.
^ Chant 1986, p. 21.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 159–160.
^ Jentz 1998, p. 136.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, p. 159.
^ a b Jentz 1998, p. 130.
^ Clarke 1952, p. 169.
^ a b Erskine 2001, p. 78.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 128–129.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 131–133, 142.
^ a b c Jentz 1998, p. 134.
^ a b c Greene & Massignani 1999, p. 70.
^ a b Erskine 2001, pp. 78–79.
^ Lyman 2009, p. 183.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 134, 137.
^ a b Ward & Poett 2005, p. 484.
^ a b c Rissik 2004, p. 56–57.
^ a b c d e Erskine 2001, p. 79.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 136–138.
^ a b c d Playfair et al. 2004, p. 162.
^ a b Hastings 1950, p. 70.
^ a b c Rommel 1982, p. 136.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 132–133.
^ Jentz 1998, p. 132.
^ a b Jentz 1998, p. 140.
^ a b Playfair et al. 2004, p. 161.
^ Jentz 1998, p. 133.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 139–140.
^ a b Clarke 1952, p. 170.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 140–141.
^ Jentz 1998, pp. 141–142.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 159, 162.
^ Howard & Sparrow 1951, p. 388.
^ a b c d Jentz 1998, p. 142.
^ Ward & Poett 2005, p. 485.
11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) 1941, War diary entry for 15 May
^ The United Press (5 August 1941). "Italians' Bravery Praised By Nazi
Chief in Africa". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 February
^ Cenni storici e normativa dell'onorificenza (1941). "COVA Giacinto".
Presidenza Della Repubblica. Retrieved 2 February 2015.
^ a b Neillands 2004, p. 68.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 116, 119.
^ Pitt 2001, p. 294.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 1–2, 32, 163–164.
^ Playfair et al. 2004, pp. 163–164.
^ Rodger 2003, p. 275.
^ Carver 1964, p. 24.
^ Rommel 1982, p. 136–137.
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Paterson, Ian A. "History of the British 7th Armoured Division:
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