After Operation Crusader, 18 to 29 November 1941, although Commonwealth forces outnumbered those of the Germans and Italians, the offensive was, ultimately, not a success as it failed to destroy the Akrika Korps. Crusader was a swirling, complex battle that eventually caused Rommel to initiate a tactical withdrawal. Franz Kurowski, Adrian Stewart, Robin Lewin and Wikipedia tell us the last days of this withdrawal and the start of Rommel's major victories in the desert campaing.
Map of movements and battles during Operation Crusader [Via]
The fact that Rommel had won the day in the decision on whether to withdraw was the salvation of the Axis forces in Africa. The British Official History notes: “If general Rommel had not remained by his decision, then the Axis forces would have undoubtedly been eliminated . . . He deserves the highest praise for completely grasping the situation and refusing to deviate from his decision, once it had been made."
The fact that the withdrawal went smoothly was in large measure due to the efforts of Kradschützen-Bataillon 15. At the start of the withdrawal, it had 500 men. Within four weeks, it had lost 400 of them. The new battalion commander, Major Ehle, was able to mold his men into a band of brothers, who almost always succeeded in holding back the enemy and allowing the foot soldiers to escape.
Agedabia was reached on Christmas Day. There was a battle there two days later. The 8th Army attempted to expel the Germans with the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions attacking from the front, while the 22nd Armoured Brigade attempted to maneuver south to outflank. The motorcycle infantry of Major Ehle and elements of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 33 succeeded in stopping the enemy initially, while the German armored forces and heavy weapons positioned themselves. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, fully equipped, advanced from El Haseiat. The battle raged for three days.
The 8.8-centimeter Flak of Major Hecht were the first weapons to claim victims. Flak-Regiment 135 was in its element. The enemy tanks were being taken out at a distance of 2,000 meters, long before they could get off a single effective round.
Another battle in which the ‘eighty-eights’ distinguished themselves and their Luftwaffe crews was the series of actions near Agedabia in January 1942. Prominent was a crack Air Force unit, Major Hecht’s Flak Regiment 135 [Via]
When the enemy tanks closed on the German positions and the tanks of the 22nd Armored Brigade also started coming in from the south and southwest, Crüwell committed his 60 remaining tanks in an immediate counterattack (though sixteen of these wer Mark IIs). They knocked out 37 of the 22nd Armoured Brigade’s 90 tanks, while losing only 7 of their own in those dramatic engagements. Another attempt by the British resulted in the loss of an additional 23 tanks, while the Germans again lost only 7. In all, some 136 enemy tanks were counted scattered along the German front when the fighting was over.
The British divisions that had attacked frontally pulled back to the northeast. Rommel used the opportunity to pull his forces back in an orderly and disciplined fashion to the positions at Marsa el Brega, after New Year’s was celebrated at Agedabia. For the first time in the desert, the German national anthem could be heard being sung from position to position. The Axis troops then resumed their retreat to El Aghelia which they reached on on 6 January, 1942, without further molestation.
On 13 January 1942, Rommel had made up his mind. He announced the following during the evening staff meeting: “We’re going to attack again!” He based his intention on the following: “If we allow the 8th Army to rest until February, then he will have been so heavily reinforced that nothing will be able to stop him. We cannot wait. Instead, we need to spoil the enemy’s plans".
Began the path to Tobruk and El Alamein. On 21 January, the Afrika Korps had already 84 tanks and the Italians another 89, then Rommel launched from El Agheila a surprise counter-attack. Although the action had originally been a "reconnaissance in force", finding the Eighth Army forward elements to be dispersed and tired, in his typical manner he took advantage of the situation and drove Eighth Army back to Gazala where they took up defensive positions along Rommel's old line. Here a stalemate set in as both sides regrouped, rebuilt and reorganized.
While it may have proved a limited success, Operation Crusader showed Rommel's Afrika Korps could be beaten and is a fine illustration of the dynamic, back and forth fighting which characterized the North African Campaign.