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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Battle of Gazala

26 May to 30 June 1942

Theatre: North Africa
Location: Cyrenaica (the eastern province of Libya).
Players: Allies: Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie and General Claude Auchinleck's 8th Army, comprising 13th Corps and 30th Corps. Axis: General Erwin Rommel's Armeegruppe Afrika including Panzerarmee Afrika, Deutsches Afrika Korps and the Italian 10th, 20th and 21st Corps.
Outcome: Loss of British positions in Cyrenaica.

'What difference does it make if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?' - The German General Erwin Rommel to a captured British officer

The British line at Gazala ran about 65km (40 miles) south from the Mediterranean coast. It was made up of extensive minefields and fortified 'boxes' - instant fortresses which could be defended against attack from any direction.

Rommel advanced during the night of 26 May, cunningly driving around the southern end of the line - 32km (20 miles) south of his starting position at Rotonda Segnali - then turning north into the heart of 30th Corps. This tactic achieved total surprise; by 9am on 27 May, two Panzer divisions were due west of Rotonda Segnali, on the British side of the minefields.

Rommel's divisions took heavy losses and only narrowly escaped encirclement. On 1 June, however, Panzerarmee Afrika broke through the line to its west, securing its supply lines. The 30th Corps retreated back east to Egypt.

On 11 June Rommel advanced towards El Adem, south of Tobruk. Battered, disorganised and outflanked, on 14 June the 13th Corps also withdrew to Egypt, leaving a South African division to garrison Tobruk. The city, which had withstood an eight-month siege the year before, fell on 21 June after a siege of one day, and 19,000 soldiers were taken prisoner.

Auchinleck, the Commander in Chief Middle East, now took personal command of the 8th Army. After a chaotic flight eastward and an abortive stand at Mersa Matruh, 160km (100 miles) inside Egypt, on 30 June the 8th Army reached its final defensive position at El Alamein, about 100km (60 miles) west of Alexandria. Army morale was shattered and the Deutsches Afrika Korps was close behind.

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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