Libya, Phase Two: Battle of the Parallelogram

The War Illustrated, Volume 5, No. 115, Page 350, December 20, 1941.

Although it is not yet possible to write a complete account of the great battle of the Western Desert, sufficient information has come to hand to form a picture of the operations which constituted the opening phases. What follows is based upon official statements issued in London and Cairo and the despatches received from Reuter's correspondents with the British Forces in Libya.

The Third Battle of Libya opened with a strategical surprise. For months past war material had been pouring into the Middle East and puling up in the Western Desert, and it was obvious to everyone that a great battle was looming. Yet when General Auchinleck gave the order to advance, the Germans were taken by surprise. The British and Imperial troops swept across the frontier wire, poured down from the high ground to the escarpment, rushed across the great minefields cleared by the sappers, and were in among the enemy, behind his main defences in the very centre of his armoured troops, almost before he was aware that zero hour had struck again. But "Old Rommel", as the men of the German Afrika Korps almost affectionately call him, was swift in his recovery. Whatever may be said about the Italians, the Germans rallied immediately and fought back hard. So there began a battle which may be compared to a vast and bloody game of chess – one that is being played out in Central Cyrenaica, between the Egyption frontier and Tobruk, with thousands of tanks as the key pieces, and troop lorries and supply vehicles as the pawns.

The struggle that ensued has been called the Battle of the Parallelogram, since it was mainly fought in a vast parallelogram in the desert, bounded on the north by a road from Tobruk to Bardia and on the south by the Trigh-el-Abd track, or Slave Road, which runs from El Gobi in the west to Sidi Omar, some 40 miles south of Bardia. When the battle opened on November 18, the enemy infantry, German and Italian, occupied a series of strongly fortified posts between Bardia and Sidi Omar. To the west in the parallelogram were General Rommel's two armoured divisions, while just outside it, beyond the Tobruk-El Gobi track, lay an Italian armoured division – the Ariete.

Our attack was launched with a twofold objective. We had to overcome the Bardia-Sidi Omar line, but this would have been a difficult operation so long as the enemy's armoured forces were intact. Accordingly it was essential to compel these to give battle.

The role assigned, therefore, to our armoured forces was to sweep westwards, south of Sidi Omar along the Trigh-el-Abd, and then to bend northwards towards Tobruk, between the two German armoured divisions and the Italian armoured division. The task of our infantry was, in part, to outflank and roll up the Bardia-Sidi Omar line, and in part to follow up our armoured forces.

The result was that the two German armoured divisions, reinforced by the Italian division from the west of the Tobruk-El Gobi track, were compelled as planned, to give battle south-east of Tobruk.

So began what may be called the first phase of the Libya battle (see page 327). It was a struggle unlike anything that may be conceived on a European battlefield. All the units engaged were completely motorized and could range in any direction, regardless of natural obstacles – which, however, in any case were practically non-existent. The desert, indeed, affords as much freedom of movement to motor vehicles as does the sea to men-of-war. So fighting may begin in one area, drift into another miles distant, and may be broken off without decisive result. In this vast battlefield, so stark and strange, there was no recognizable front.

"After passing through miles of country thick with British motor transport, we were about to enter an empty patch of desert when a captain held up his hand and shouted 'Don't go on!' He told us the enemy were directly ahead, and laughed heartily at out ingenuousness, calling to his friends: 'Here's a bunch of crazy war correspondents who wanted to walk right into Jerry's parlour!'"

Very different is this sort of war from any that has been fought in the past. For instance, in this campaign the generals are in the front line. We are told of a brigadier who led his men into battle in a staff car, and when only 800 yards from 15 German tanks, stood up on the roof to observe the enemy through binoculars. Another commander of one of our tank brigades occupied the gunner's position in a tank, and started the action by himself firing upon the enemy. Yet another commander, a famous fire-eating desert veteran, whose armoured force has been in heavy action since the offensive opened, has almost constantly led his tanks in person.

"It is an amazing sight", says one of his junior officers, "to see him dashing about amidst our tanks in his car and waving the forces forward with a flag. The other day I saw him come alongside one tank, rap on its side with the butt of his flag, and bawl 'blue murder' at the erring tank commander who emerged from the turret. He had just previously received a bit if shrapnel in the shoulder, but refused to stop to have it attended to."

Another contrast is the extraordinary difficulty in refuelling tanks and other vehicles scattered far and wide across the desert; indeed, the whole question of supplies in such a campaign as this is makes the quartermaster's job, as the captured Nazi general, von Ravenstein, said, a nightmare. Yet our supply columns have kept in touch, even though they are deemed the special prey of Rommel's tanks, "armoured corsairs" specially detailed for the purpose. Many losses have been inflicted by the enemy on our swift moving columns, but the supply organization is now so vast that, so it is claimed, it would take more tanks than the Germans have in Africa to upset it. Between the battlefield and Egypt (we are told) lie mile upon mile of what was recently enemy territory, but is now covered as far as the eye can reach in any direction with British motor transport, thousands of vehicles with ample room for dispersal between each. The scene is said to be like a great trek to the American West, as envisaged by Hollywood film director. The lorries with their canvas tops look just like covered wagons, and in between them our A.A. gunners are seated comfortably on portable chairs with guns at the ready. While awaiting the order to set out, drivers while away the time by kicking a football about the sand.

While the terrific clash of the armoured forces was taking place, particularly at Sidi Rezegh – described as being littered for three miles with "tangled wrecks of some panzer regiment, blackened and twister. Ammunition and petrol lorries, now misshapen hulks of iron, shared the fate of the tanks" – the garrison at Tobruk burst south eastwards through the invading lines, and joined up with the British force which had advanced from the east and south. The junction was not consolidated, however. This was revealed in a communiqué from Cairo, on Dec. 1.

"In the afternoon of yesterday", it read, "German infantry with tank support again attacked our positions about Sidi Rezegh, where they were successful in making a penetration into our defences." And a further communiqué issued on the following day stated that "Yesterday the enemy threw into the battle all his available armour on a comparatively narrow front. Very heavy fighting throughout the day in the area Rezegh-Bir el Hamid-Zaafran resulted in a junction between the German forces which had advanced from the south and south-west with those originally disposed about Zaafran."

This brings us, then, to the beginning of December, when the position was hardly such as to warrant the optimistic accounts which had emanated from the Military Spokesmen at Cairo in the opening days of the offensive. The Germans had suffered heavy losses in tanks and lorries and in man-power, but so, too, had the British, the New Zealanders operating along the coast, and the South Africans who were literally overrun at Sidi Rezegh by Rommel's tanks during November 21-23, with the loss of some twelve hundred men.

Such had been the fury of the struggle, so heavy the casualties, so wearing the pace of the mechanized forces, that the need for a lull was paramount. For 11 days of desperate tank and infantry battles Cunningham's forces had striven with Rommel's in an attempt to bottle them up and destroy their total armoured strength. In that, so far, they had succeeded; the link with Tobruk was broken, and Rommel's forces in the desert to the west were once again in contact with his main body in the parallelogram itself. So both armies fell apart like tow exhausted wrestlers after a long bout. The first and second rounds, the first and seconds phases, were over.

Now, rather than continue the guerilla fighting which was as exhausting as inconclusive, the British Command decided to establish its forces along an "offensive line" running from El Gobi to the south-east of Sidi Rezegh. To this line the infantry units retired for a badly needed rest, while within and behind it the tanks were refuelled, regrouped, and overhauled.

Historical context, by the webmaster

The operation described is Operation Crusader.

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