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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Operation Crusader

18 November 1941 to 31 January 1942

Theatre: North Africa
Location: Cyrenaica (the eastern province of Libya)
Players: Allies: Lieutenant General Alan Cunningham and Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie's 8th Army comprising 13th Corps, 30th Corps and 70th Division. Germany: General Erwin Rommel's Panzergruppe Afrika including the Deutsches Afrika Korps and the Italian 10th, 20th and 21st Corps.
Outcome: The relief of the siege of Tobruk.

After Operation Battleaxe failed to relieve the siege of Tobruk in June 1941, General Archibald Wavell was replaced as Commander-in-Chief Middle East by General Claude Auchinleck.

Lieutenant General Cunningham, fresh from victory in East Africa, was given command of the new 8th Army, comprising 13th Corps, supplemented by a New Zealand division, and 30th Corps, incorporating South African troops. The Australian division garrisoning Tobruk was replaced by 70th Division, incorporating Polish troops.

Rommel now headed the expanded Panzergruppe Afrika, incorporating the Deutsches Afrika Korps; he also had operational control over three Italian divisions.

On 18 November, 30th Corps advanced through the southern desert, aiming to engage and destroy enemy tanks before turning north west to rendezvous with a breakout at Tobruk. By 21 November, both 30th Corps and 70th Division were pinned down by the artillery of Rommel's 90th Light Division.

The situation was saved by the advance of 13th Corps, which began engaging enemy positions along the coast on 22 November; by 26 November 13th Corps' New Zealand Division had cleared a corridor between Tobruk and 30th Corps. Auchinleck now replaced Cunningham with Ritchie.

The Deutsches Afrika Korps withdrew on 6 December, creating a new front line at Gazala, west of Tobruk. In December further skirmishes in western Cyrenaica, with heavy British losses, were followed by German withdrawal to Tripolitania.

However, this apparently favourable British position was undermined by inadequate forward defences and an unrealistic assessment of Rommel's intentions. A massive and apparently unexpected counter attack in January destroyed British positions in the south and west, bringing Rommel back to Gazala. The gains of Operation Crusader had proved to be painfully limited.

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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