Operation Brevity, 15-16 May 1941

Operation Brevity (15-16 May 1941) was a short-lived British offensive carried out to see if the German position east of Tobruk was fragile enough for the siege to be lifted without a major battle.

By the end of Rommel's first offensive (24 March-30 May 1941) the British had been pushed out of almost all of Cyrenaica, apart from the port of Tobruk, which was under siege. The British front line ended up at Buq Buq, to the east of Halfaya Pass.

North African Campaign, 1940-1942
North African Campaign,
1940-1942

On 30 April-1 May Rommel carried out an attack on the Tobruk perimeter and managed to get a foothold inside the outer line of defences, but he was unable to make any more progress. General Paulus, who had been sent to get Rommel under control, sent back a report in which he described the overall position of the Africa Corps as being over-extended and difficult to keep supplied. This message was intercepted and decoded by the British and helped convince Churchill that it might only need a minor blow to lift the siege.

General Wavell was waiting for the arrival of a 'Tiger' convoy, carrying tanks and aircraft on the direct route through the Mediterranean, but under pressure from Churchill he agreed to order a small scale offensive. General Gott was given orders to recapture Halfaya Pass, take the village of Sollum on the Egyptian side of the border and Fort Capuzzo on the Libyan side, and then exploit any success by advancing towards Tobruk, as long as that wouldn't endanger his force. This small scale offensive came at the same time as the larger attack, Operation Battleaxe, was postponed to mid June.

Gott's plan was to attack in three columns. On the left a force from the 7th Armoured Brigade (2 Royal Tank Regiment and three 'Jock' columns from the 7th Armoured Division Support Group was to sweep around the German right to reach Sidi Azeiz. In the centre the 22nd (Guards) Brigade and 4 RTR were to clear the top of Halfaya Pass and then take Fort Capuzzo. On the right the Coast Group (2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade and 8th Field Regt, Royal Artillery) was to take to the bottom of the pass and take Sollum village. 

At the start of the battle Halfaya pass and Fort Capuzzo were defended by the Herff Detachment, made up of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion (5th Light Division) and the 605th Anti-Tank Battalion, supported by some Italian guns. The 2nd Battalion, 5th Panzer Regiment, was close by around Sidi Azeiz.

On the morning of 15 May the left and central columns were generally successful. The left column made good progress towards Sidi Azeiz. 2nd Battalion Scots Guards and 4 RTR captured the top of Halfaya Pass, although only after a fierce fight in which Italian guns destroyed seven Matilda IIs. The central column then advanced towards the frontier, and by midday had take Musaid, just to the east of Fort Capuzzo. Only the coast column was struggling, and it took all day for it to clear the base of Halfaya pass. It was then able to move on to take Sollum.

After the fall of Musaid the 1st Battalion, Durham Light Infantry supported by the remaining tanks of 4 RTR captured Fort Capuzzo, but by now only nine Matildas were still operational.

Unfortunatly the Germans had detected the Allied build up, and were prepared for an attack. On the afternoon of 15 May 2/5 Panzer Regiment attacked the Durham Light Infantry, which had now become separated from its armour. Although 7th Armoured Brigade was ordered back to support the Durhams, they were forced back to Musaid.

Overnight more German reinforcements arrived. The 1st Battalion, 6th Panzer Regiment reached Sidi Azeiz at around 3am, but then had to pause to allow more fuel to arrive. At about the same time Gott decided that his positions west of the escarpment that the pass dropped down were too vulnerable. 22nd (Guards) Brigade was ordered to pull back, while 7th Armoured Brigade remained in place to cover Sidi Azeiz.

1/6th Panzer Regiment was finally ready to move by 5pm, but when it reached Capuzzo the Germans discovered that the British had retreated.

This was followed by a period of stalemate, with the British in control of Halfaya Pass. Gott was ordered to try and hold the pass, so that it could be used as the starting point for Operation Battleaxe, but Rommel was equally determined to take it. On 26-27 May a German attack forced the 3rd Battlaion, Coldstream Guards, to abandon the pass with the loss of 173 casualties, four field guns, eight anti-tank guns and five Matilda IIs.

One month later the same area would see heavy fighting during Operation Battleaxe, but once again the Germans would repel this attack, a defeat that helped to end Wavell's time as Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 February 2017), Operation Brevity, 15-16 May 1941 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_brevity.html

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