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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Operation Battleaxe

15 to 17 June 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. Germany: General Erwin Rommel's Deutsches Afrika Korps including 5th Light Division and 15th Panzer Division.
Outcome: A failed attempt to relieve the siege of Tobruk.

A group of British soliders in Libya before the fall of Tobruk
A group of British soliders in Libya before the fall of Tobruk©
After Operation Brevity failed to lift the siege of Tobruk in May 1941, a second attempt was launched on 15 June. Beresford-Peirse planned to take Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo using the 4th Indian Division. The tanks of 7th Armoured Division would both support the infantry and advance to the Hafid Ridge, beyond Fort Capuzzo, where they would engage enemy tank forces.

While Operation Battleaxe was planned out in detail, the plan was based on a drastic underestimation of enemy capabilities. Rommel's expanding forces now included the 15th Panzer Division, trained and equipped for tank and anti-tank warfare; his Italian contingent had been redeployed to maintain the siege of Tobruk.

The 4th Indian Division rapidly took Fort Capuzzo and beat off a counter-attack, but elsewhere the news was bad. British tanks entering Halfaya Pass ran into a trap: a battery of 88mm anti-tank guns, dug into the sand and effectively invisible from a distance.

The advance into 'Hellfire Pass' was a disaster: all but one of the tanks were lost. Tanks approaching the Hafid Ridge fared little better, meeting anti tank artillery fire rather than the tank sortie they aimed to provoke. By midday on 16 June, three-quarters of the 200 British tanks deployed had been lost.

Rommel now launched a counter-offensive. The 15th Panzer Division attacked Fort Capuzzo from the north while the 5th Light Division drove eastward to encircle Beresford-Peirse's 7th Armoured Division. General Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, ordered an immediate retreat. Operation Battleaxe was an expensive failure.

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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