Battle of Gazala
26 May - 21 June 1942

The Battle of Gazala, considered the peak of German General Erwin Rommel's career, was a successful offensive of the German-Italian forces in Libya against the British and their allies.

Reinforcements Before the Battle of Gazala

In late 1941, the British Eighth Army had a great accomplishment during Operation Crusader, relieving Tobruk and causing the withdrawal of the Axis forces up to El Agheila. The British were in the process of building supply depots due to the expansion of the communications line. Among the new tanks received stood out M3 Grant of American provenience.

On the other hand, the arrival of Fliegerkorps II in Sicily had largely neutralized the British air and naval attack capabilities in Malta, facilitating the Axis forces supply in North Africa. The Afrika Korps divisions, weakened as a result of Operation Crusader, received reinforcements in men and equipment.

Stubborn French Defense at Bir Hakeim

In late January 1942, elements of the Afrika Korps conducted a reconnaissance to test the British defense and, noticing its weakness, launched an offensive that led to the retreat of the Eighth Army up to Gazala, where the British succeeded to stop the advance of the Axis forces.

The Gazala Line was stretching from the Mediterranean coast in the north to the old Turkish fortress of Bir Hakeim in the south. After both sides had prepared for a couple of months, the one who struck first was Rommel. On 26 May 1942, Afrika Korps, while simulating a frontal assault, carried out a flanking maneuver south of the Gazala Line.

However, the Bir Hakeim fortress, defended by the Free French Forces, withstood much longer than Rommel expected, making vulnerable the German and Italian supply lines.

Rommel Takes Tobruk

The prolonged situation at Bir Hacheim prompted Rommel to adopt a defensive posture dubbed "the Cauldron," within the British lines, with the flanks secured by minefields. The British tanks attacked "the Cauldron" but were repulsed, suffering heavy losses, which prompted the Eighth Army to regroup for defending Tobruk.

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-443-1599-20 / Zwilling, Ernst A. / [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Then the Afrika Korps' panzers gave the coup de grace, attacking surprisingly from the southeast, which led to the surrender of the Commonwealth forces in Tobruk after just one day. The Axis forces occupied Tobruk, which previously had resisted for months under siege, taking 35,000 prisoners and many welcomed supplies. The British retreated hundreds of miles up to El Alamein in Egypt and the war in North Africa never seemed so close to being won by Rommel.