Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseIn late Mar 1941, Axis forces under the direction of Erwin Rommel launched an offensive, placing Tobruk, Libya under siege as of mid-Apr and by end of that month capturing the strategically important Halfaya Pass in Egypt. British Middle East Command chief General Archibald Wavell developed the plans for an offensive to capture Halfaya Pass and strike Sollum to relief Tobruk of some of the pressure; additionally, the operation was also to capture territory from which a future large scale offensive could be launched to lift the Tobruk siege. Named Operation Brevity, this limited offensive was assigned to the British 22nd Guards Brigade, supported by 29 cruiser tanks of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment and 24 infantry tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment, both of the British 7th Armoured Division. The Royal Air Force was to lend assistance as well. The operation was commanded by Brigadier General William Gott. Gott planned to advance in three parallel columns, with a column on the southern flank driving from Bir el Khireigat toward Sidi Azeiz, a center column taking Halfaya Pass, Musaid, and Fort Capuzzo in Libya, and finally a northern column advancing along the coastal road to capture the lower Halfaya Pass and Sollum.
ww2dbaseOn 9 May, prior to the operation's start, German intelligence intercepted a British radio-transmitted weather report. By this time the Germans had already known that British commanders tended to request this type of reports just prior to the launch of an offensive in North Africa. In response, Rommel ordered to strengthen his forces to the east of Tobruk. On 13 May, the day the British troops began to amass for the offensive, Axis aircraft discovered and bombed British tank concentrations, thus confirming that an attack was forthcoming. On 14 May, Axis aircraft failed to locate any tank concentrations, and some of the Axis commanders thought perhaps there was no offensive planned.
ww2dbaseOperation Brevity was launched at 0600 hours on 15 May 1941. In the center, the 22nd Guards Brigade reached the Halfaya Pass, which was manned by an Italian infantry company with anti-tank guns; 7 British tanks were knocked out before British troops captured the pass. The center column then pushed down the Bir Wair-Musaid road, capturing a large Axis camp at 0800 hours, followed by the capture of Bir Wair and Musaid at 1015 hours. At Fort Capuzzo, the British advance was slightly halted by more than 20 German tanks and several anti-tank guns, but at about noon time the fort was taken as well. German Colonel Maximilian von Herff, positioned in the desert plateau to the south, launched a local counterattack toward Fort Capuzzo in the early afternoon after receiving his reinforcements, overrunning forward British positions by 1330 hours. At 1445 hours, the German Panzer Regiment 5 reported that Fort Capuzzo had been recaptured and 70 British prisoners were taken. In the afternoon, one company of the 2nd Scots Guards probed toward Bardia, mapping out the positions of defensive positions, silencing several machine gun nests in the process.
ww2dbaseThe southern column in the desert saw some limited tank actions in which one German Panzer IV tank was disabled, one German Panzer III tank was destroyed, and one British tank lost due to mechanical failure. By noon, the 9 remaining British cruiser tanks of A Squadron of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment reached positions west of Fort Capuzzo. In the afternoon, they conducted a reconnaissance patrol toward Sidi Azeiz. German Colonel Herff, mistakenly believe that this British column was stronger than it really was, and firmly believing Fort Capuzzo was a more important target anyway, spent minimal effort against this column.
ww2dbaseThe northern column along the coast lacked tank support, thus was easily held up by Italian troops since the morning. The Italian positions were not taken until the evening, yielding 130 prisoners of war.
ww2dbaseIn the early hours of 16 May, Brigadier General Gott withdrew the 22nd Guards Brigade, thinking that his troops were vulnerable to a German armored counterattack in the open area near Bir Wair and Musaid; most of his forward troops moved back into the Halfaya Pass, but some remained west of Fort Capuzzo. Gott's suspicion of a potential German armored counterattack was correct, for at about 0630 hours Lieutenant Colonel Hans Cramer, with a tank battalion and a battery of anti-aircraft guns, arrived at Fort Capuzzo for just such an attack. At 0800, Cramer made contact with Herff's main group, but by mid-morning the group was unable to advance due to low fuel situations. At 1600, the Germans finally were able to resume the 50-tank advance, engaging 17 tanks of the British 2nd Royal Tank Regiment shortly after. Unable to advance, Herff broke off the action as night fell, intending to take 17 May to recuperate before launching a new offensive. In the late hours of 16 May, however, the British withdrew as well, arriving at Bir el Khireigat at about 0230 hours on 17 May 1941. This marked the end of Operation Brevity.
ww2dbaseOperation Brevity failed to achieve most of its objectives. At the cost of 5 tanks and 206 casualties, the only Axis position captured by the British was Halfaya Pass, while not particularly changing the strategic situation in their favor. On the German side, 3 tanks were lost, and there were 258 casualties. Italian casualty numbers were unknown, however, Allied records showed the capture of 347 Italian soldiers during this operation.
ww2dbaseEpilogue: Operation Skorpion
ww2dbaseIn the evening of 26 May 1941, German Colonel Herff launched Operation Skorpion. Three assault groups attacked Halfaya Pass in the following morning. Brigadier General Gott authorized the defenders to fall back, allowing the Germans to regain the pass. The British suffered 173 casualties and lost 4 field guns, 8 anti-tank guns, and 5 infantry tanks. This also marked a complete reversal of the principle gain made during Operation Brevity merely 10 days prior.
Last Major Update: Dec 2010
Operation Brevity Timeline
|9 May 1941||German intelligence intercepted a British radio transmission containing weather information in the Libyan-Egyptian border region; this gave suspicion that an offensive was about to be taken place.|
|13 May 1941||British troops began gathering for the Operation Brevity offensive in the Libyan-Egyptian border region. Axis aircraft discovered and bombed one tank concentration.|
|14 May 1941||Axis aircraft attempted to locate British troop concentrations near the Libyan-Egyptian border as a British offensive was suspected; none were found.|
|15 May 1941||In the Libyan-Egyptian border region, British forces advanced in three columns and captured Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo before noon, capturing 347 Axis prisoners (mostly Italians). A German Panzer battalion counterattacked, recapturing Fort Capuzzo by 1445 hours, taking 70 British prisoners.|
|16 May 1941||Brigadier Gott withdrew British tanks and infantry from the desert around Sollum and Fort Capuzzo, Libya to consolidate a hold on Halfaya Pass on the Egyptian-Libyan border.|
|17 May 1941||Operation Brevity: German Colonel Maximilian von Herff launched a counterattack in the area near Bir Wair and Musaid after 1600 hours. British Brigadier General William Gott withdrew his troops into the Halfaya Pass, Egypt, ending his offensive operation.|
|26 May 1941||Operation Skorpion: German Colonel Maximilian von Herff launched an offensive and captured Halfaya Pass in Egypt, near the border with Libya.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945