Second Battle of Bir el Gubi

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Second Battle of Bir el Gubi
Part of Operation Crusader during the Second World War
Mortaio 81 grande capacita.jpg
Members of the "Giovani Fascisti" Division operating a Mod. 35 (81 mm) mortar in North Africa.
Date 4–7 December 1941
Location Bir el Gubi, Libya
Result Italian victory
Belligerents
 United Kingdom Italy Italy
Nazi Germany Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Willoughby Norrie
United Kingdom Andrew Anderson
Italy Ferdinando Tanucci  (WIA)
Nazi Germany Ludwig Crüwell
Strength

XXX British Corps
-11th Indian Brigade around 3,000 men[1]
-7th Armoured Division 14,964 men[2]

22nd Guards Brigade around 3,000 men[3]
136th "Giovani Fascisti" Regiment
1,454 men
10 guns
2 tanks and 12 tankettes
later reinforced by 3 armoured divisions
Casualties and losses
300 killed
250 wounded
71 prisoners
12 tanks
60 killed
117 wounded
31 missing and prisoners[4]
10 tankettes

The Second Battle of Bir el Gubi was fought near Bir el Gubi, Libya, between 3 and 7 December 1941, between Italian (later reinforced by German) and Commonwealth forces. It followed by two weeks a previous unsuccessful Allied attempt to capture Bir el Gubi, a strategic position whose fall would have allowed the Allies to outflank the German-Italian forces in Cyrenaica. The battle was part of Operation Crusader.

Background

On 18 November, north of Bir el Gubi, the Commonwealth forces started a new offensive, Operation Crusader. On 19 November the Ariete Division repelled a first British attempt to capture Bir el Gubi, and on 23 November a great tank battle, called "the Battle of Totensonntag (Sunday of the Dead in German)", took place in the desert. Meanwhile, in Bir el Gubi the "Giovani Fascisti" Regiment and some Bersaglieri units took position in Bir el Gubi. A tank company of the I Battalion of the 32nd Tank Regiment (Ariete Division) was also sent for support, with ten Fiat L3 tankettes and two M13/40 medium tanks.

The Italian soldiers strengthened the existing fortifications, building machine gun and anti-tank gun posts, building barbed wire barriers and digging holes in the ground. These fortifications allowed Bir el Gubi to be defended from attackers coming from any direction. One of the two M13/40s and some of the L3 tankettes, immobilized by mechanical breakdowns, were interred and used as defensive positions.[5] The soldiers took position in the holes in the evening of 1 December, under torrential rain. The garrison also had ten 47/32 mm guns, 24 Breda Mod. 37 machine guns, 12 Mod. 35 anti-tank rifles, six Solothurn S-18/100 anti-tank rifles and eight 81 mm mortars.

The GGFF made their mark during Operation Crusader. Tasked to defend the small hill known as Bir el Gobi, they fought off repeated attacks by the 11th Indian Brigade and British 7th Armoured Division during the first week of December, 1941. Despite overwhelming odds, they inflicted massive casualties on the Allies and held their ground despite severe hunger and thirst.[6]

Battle

Following the withdrawal of 2nd NZ Division Ritchie had reorganised his rear echelon units to release to the front line 4th Indian Infantry Division's 5th and the 22nd Guards Brigade. By 3 December 11 Indian Brigade (belonging to the 4th Indian Infantry Division) was heavily engaged in action against a strongpoint near Bir el Gubi, some 25 miles south of Ed Duda. The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Italian 136th "Giovani Fascisti" Regiment from this hilltop position successfully fought off repeated attacks by the British armour and Indian infantry units during the first week of December. At 12:00 on 3 December, Allied artillery started shelling the Italian positions, causing some losses (among them Major Fulvio Balisti, commander of the I Battalion of the "Giovani Fascisti" Regiment, who was wounded). During the night, all the Italian units outside of the perimeter of Bir el Gubi were captured, along with their vehicles and equipment.

In the morning of 4 December, the Allied forces launched two attacks against Bir el Gubi. Hundreds of men from the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders (part of the 11th Indian Infantry Brigade), supported by tanks and by an artillery barrage, attacked the positions of the I Battalion, while the rest of the 11th Indian Brigade, supported by Valentine tanks of the 7th Armoured Division, attacked the lines of the II Battalion, further north. Both attacks were repelled, and the attackers left dozens of killed on the ground; they did manage, however, to encircle the Italian positions.

Around 14:00 on the same day, a third attack was launched against the Italian lines; the Italian defenders resisted for several hours in the face of increasing infantry and artillery pressure, but in the evening the 4th Company had to abandon Point 188 and withdrew to Point 184.

The L3 tankettes proved useful against infantry, thanks to their two machine guns and their armour, but were powerless against tanks, and all ten of them were destroyed. General Willoughby Norrie had an overwhelming superiority in the area, but he failed to concentrate and co-ordinate the action of his forces.[7] The Italians, instead, effectively coordinated the action of their infantry, artillery, and light tanks.[8]

During the fighting, Colonel Ferdinando Tanucci, commander of the Giovani Fascisti Regiment, was wounded; Lieutenant Colonel Alfred George Butler, of Rajputana Rifles, was killed.[9] Between 4 and 7 December the XXX British Corps launched seven attacks, all repelled with heavy losses by the Italian defenders. Hunger and lack of supplies, however, started to weaken the Italian garrison, which asked for reinforcements; Erwin Rommel decided to send armoured forces (15th and 21st Panzer Divisions) to support the Italians in Bir el Gubi.

At dawn on 5 December, the first German armoured units arrive near Point 188, which they recaptured after a fiery clash between German and British tanks. After this, the German tanks headed towards Bir el Gubi. The Ariete and Trieste Divisions were also sent, but the former was stopped by an Allied attack, and the latter lost its way in the desert. Crüwell was unaware that 4th Armoured Brigade (part of the 7th Armoured Division), now with 126 tanks, was over 20 miles (32 km) away and he withdrew to the west. The Indian Brigade was broken and had to be withdrawn to refit and arrangements made to bring 22nd Guards Brigade into their place.[10]

Tank clashes continued; during the following night the Ariete Division managed to reach Bir el Gubi and joined the German Panzers of general Ludwig Crüwell, and their combined force repelled the last British attacks. With the arrival of the Ariete, the Commonwealth force had lost its numerical superiority, and finally withdrew thus ending the battle.

Aftermath

Crüwell, however, had lost the opportunity to strike a heavy blow on 6 December as 4th Armoured Brigade (part of the 7th Armoured Division[11]) made no move to close up to 22nd Guards Brigade; he waited too long, and on 7 December the 4th Armoured Brigade closed up.[12] Worse, 15th Panzer's skilful commander, Neumann-Silkow was mortally wounded late on the 6th.[13]

Axis forces were later forced to abandon Bir el Gubi with the progress of Operation Crusader.

References

  1. ^ John Gooch. Decisive campaigns of the Second World War. Chapter: The North African Campaign
  2. ^ John Gooch. Decisive campaigns of the Second World War. Chapter: The North African Campaign
  3. ^ Murphy, W. E. (1961). Fairbrother, Monty C., ed. The Relief of Tobruk. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945 (New Zealand Electronic Text Collection ed.). Wellington, NZ: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affaire, p. 483.
  4. ^ Roggiero, Roberto: El Alamein, Delta Editrice, 2007 p. 128
  5. ^ Cappellano, Filippo: Carri leggeri in Libia, Storia militare n. 208/2011, Albertelli Edizioni, Parma, p. 30
  6. ^ John Gooch. Decisive campaigns of the Second World War. Chapter: The North African Campaign
  7. ^ Gooch, John, ed. (1990). Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War, London: Frank Cass, p. 100.
  8. ^ World War II Desert Tactics.
  9. ^ Rommel's North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942
  10. ^ Murphy 1961, p. 479.
  11. ^ http://www.desertrats.org.uk/bde/4thABhistory.htm
  12. ^ Murphy, W. E. (1961). Fairbrother, Monty C., ed. The Relief of Tobruk. The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945 (New Zealand Electronic Text Collection ed.). Wellington, NZ: War History Branch, Department of Internal Affaire, p. 483.
  13. ^ Murphy 1961, p. 483.

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