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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Operation Brevity

15 to 27 May 1941

Theatre: North Africa
Location: Cyrenaica (the eastern province of Libya), on the border with Egypt.
Players: Allies: Lieutenant General Noel Beresford-Peirse's 13th Corps consisting of 7th Armoured Division and 4th Indian Division. Axis: General Erwin Rommel's Deutsches Afrika Korps including 5th Light Division and three Italian divisions (Ariete, Brescia, Trento).
Outcome: A failed attempt to relieve the siege of Tobruk.

Following the Allied withdrawal from the eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica in April 1941, 13th Corps was reconstituted under Beresford-Peirse and refitted. On 12 May a convoy arrived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria with reinforcements including 220 tanks. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, was under continual pressure from Churchill to engage Rommel and make amends for the defeat earlier that year.

Operation Brevity was launched on 15 May 1941. The goal was to push Rommel back from the border between Egypt and Libya, dislodging the German forces from their positions at Sollum and Fort Capuzzo; once this was achieved, Wavell aimed ultimately to relieve the siege of Tobruk.

At the first objective, Halfaya Pass above Sollum, Italian forces were defeated in short order. German troops holding Fort Capuzzo were also forced to withdraw, but they recaptured the fort when tank forces were deployed.

As the balance of forces became more unfavourable to the British, 13th Corps withdrew to Halfaya Pass. The pass was held for two weeks before it fell to a German counter-attack.

The operation had gained no territory and the damage inflicted on German tanks and artillery was more than balanced by the loss of British equipment, much of which the Germans were able to recover.

Following the British withdrawal, Rommel fortified the frontier with minefields and 88mm anti-tank guns - a weapon superior to any then deployed by the British.

Operation Brevity was a bitter lesson for the Allies: to deal with an enemy like Rommel, equally skilled in deploying tanks to outgun infantry and artillery to stop tanks, new levels of preparation and planning would be required.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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