DESERT WAR PART FIVE: THE BATTLE OF GAZALA
DATE: MAY 26 – JUNE 21 1942
The Battle of Gazala was fought from May 26 to June 21 1942, during the Western Desert Campaign. Despite having been thrown back in
late 1941, General Erwin Rommel began pushing east across Libya early the following year. Responding, Allied forces constructed a
fortified line at Gazala which extended south from the Mediterranean coast. On May 26, Rommel opened operations against this position
by attempting to flank it from the south with the goal of trapping Allied forces near the coast. In nearly a month of fighting, Rommel was
able to shatter the Gazala line and send the Allies retreating back into Egypt.
In the wake of Operation Crusader in late 1941, Rommel's German and Italian forces were compelled to retreat west to El Agheila.
Assuming a new position behind a strong line of fortifications, Rommel's Panzer Army Afrika was not attacked by British forces under
General Sir Claude Auchinleck and Major General Neil Ritchie. This was largely due to the British need to consolidate their gains and build
a logistics network after an advance of over 500 miles. Largely pleased with the offensive, the two British commanders had succeeded in
relieving the siege of Tobruk.
As a result of the need to improve their supply lines, the British reduced their frontline troop strength in the area of El Agheila. Probing
the Allied lines in January 1942, Rommel found little opposition and began a limited offensive east. Retaking Benghazi on January 28
and Timimi on February 3, he pushed on towards Tobruk. Rushing to consolidate their forces, the British formed a new line west of
Tobruk and extending south from Gazala. Beginning at the coast, the Gazala line extended 50 miles south where it was anchored on the
town of Bir Hakeim.
To cover this line, Auchinleck and Ritchie deployed their troops in brigade-strength "boxes" which were linked by barbed wire and
minefields. The bulk of the Allied troops were placed near the coast with progressively fewer as the line extended into the desert. The
defense of Bir Hakeim was assigned to a brigade of the 1st Free French Division. As the spring progressed, both sides took time to
resupply and refit. On the Allied side, this saw the arrival of new General Grant tanks which could match the German Panzer IV as well as
improvements in coordination between the Desert Air Force and troops on the ground.
Assessing the situation, Rommel devised a plan for a sweeping flank attack around Bir Hakeim designed to destroy the British armor and
cut off those divisions positioned along the Gazala Line. To execute this offensive, he intended the Italian 132nd Armored Division
“Ariete” to assault Bir Hakeim while the 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions swung around the Allied flank to attack their rear. This maneuver
would be supported by the 90th Light Afrika Division Battle Group which was to move around the Allied flank to El Adem to block
reinforcements from joining the battle.
To complete the attack, elements of the Italian XX Motorized Corps and 101st Motorized Division “Trieste” were to clear a path through
the minefields north of Bir Hakeim and near the Sidi Muftah box to supply the armored advance. To hold Allied troops in place, the Italian
X and XXI Corps would assault the Gazala Line near the coast. At 2:00 PM on May 26, these formations moved forward. That night,
Rommel personally led his mobile forces as they began the flanking maneuver. Almost immediately the plan began to unravel as the
French mounted a vigorous defense of Bir Hakeim, repelling the Italians.
A short distance to the southeast, Rommel's forces were held up for several hours by 7th Armoured Division's 3rd Indian Motor Brigade.
Though they were forced to withdraw, they inflicted heavy losses on the attackers. By midday on the 27th, the momentum of Rommel's
attack was faltering as British armor entered the battle and Bir Hakeim held out. Only the 90th Light had clear success, overrunning 7th
Armoured Division's advance headquarters and reaching the El Adem area. As fighting raged over the next several days, Rommel's forces
became trapped in an area known as "The Cauldron".
This area saw his men trapped by Bir Hakeim to the south, Tobruk to the north, and the minefields of the original Allied line to the west.
Under constant assault by Allied armor from the north and east, Rommel's supply situation was reaching critical levels and he began to
contemplate surrender. These thoughts were erased when, early on May 29, supply trucks supported by the Italian Trieste and Ariete
Divisions, breached the minefields north of Bir Hakeim. Able to resupply, Rommel attacked west on May 30 to link up with the Italian X
Corps. Destroying the Sidi Muftah box, he was able to split the Allied front in two.
On June 1, Rommel dispatched the 90th Light and Trieste divisions to reduce Bir Hakeim, but their efforts were repulsed. At the British
headquarters, Auchinleck, fueled by overly-optimistic intelligence assessments, pushed Ritchie to counterattack along the coast to reach
Timimi. Rather than oblige his superior, Ritchie instead focused on covering Tobruk and reinforcing the box around El Adem. On June 5 a
counterattack did move forward, but Eighth Army made no progress. That afternoon, Rommel decided to attack east towards Bir el
Harmat and north against the Knightsbridge Box.
Axis forces succeeded in overrunning the tactical headquarters of two British divisions leading to a breakdown of command and control
in the area. As a result, several units were severely beaten through the afternoon and on June 6. Continuing to build strength in the
Cauldron, Rommel conducted several attacks on Bir Hakeim between June 6 and 8, significantly reducing the French perimeter.
By June 10 the Bir Hakeim defenses had been shattered and Ritchie ordered them to evacuate. In a series of attacks around the
Knightsbridge and El Adem boxes between June 11-13, Rommel's forces dealt the British armor a severe defeat. After abandoning
Knightsbridge on the evening of the 13th, Ritchie was authorized to retreat from the Gazala Line the next day.
With Allied forces holding the El Adem area, the 1st South African Division was able to retreat along the coast road intact, though the
50th (Northumbrian) Division was forced to attack south into the desert before turning east to reach friendly lines. The boxes at El Adem
and Sidi Rezegh were evacuated on June 17 and the garrison at Tobruk was left to defend itself. Though ordered to hold a line west of
Tobruk at Acroma, this proved unfeasible and Ritchie began a long retreat back to Mersa Matruh in Egypt. Though Allied leaders
expected Tobruk to be able to hold out for two or three months on existing supplies, it was surrendered on June 21.
The Battle of Gazala cost the Allies around 98,000 men killed, wounded, and captured as well as around 540 tanks. Axis losses were
approximately 32,000 casualties and 114 tanks. For his victory and the capture of Tobruk, Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal by
Hitler. Assessing the position at Mersa Matruh, Auchinleck decided to abandon it in favor of a stronger one at El Alamein. Rommel
assaulted this position in July but made no progress. A final effort was made in the Battle of Alam Halfa in late August with no results.
M’44 SCENARIOS FOR THE BATTLE OF GAZALA
Desert War Part Five: The Battle of Gazala includes 28 scenarios, including 1 Overlord (OL) map and 3 Breakthrough (BT) maps. These
scenarios chronicle the major engagements of the Battle of Gazala, and include only the best available in the Scenarios from the Front
(SFTF) files section on the DoW website, as well as 6 official scenarios by Richard Borg.
No campaign rules are included; not all M’44 players have access to the Campaign books. Instead, simply tally up the number of medals
won in each scenario after playing both sides. This campaign is broken down into 3 smaller campaigns. Separate medal tally tables for
each, as well as a final medal tally table are included below.
Scenarios include armies of various nations. Although optional, it is suggested that you use the unofficial Battle of Nations rules when
playing the sides of these armies. Unless stated otherwise, BCF command rules and Italian Royal Army rules are in effect for all
THE BATTLE OF GAZALA PART ONE
1. MAY 27: Unpleasant Surprise at Point 171 6. MAY 27: Panzers versus Grants
2. MAY 27: Flanking Maneuver at Bir Hakeim 7. MAY 27: 1st Armored to the Rescue
3. MAY 27: Bir Hakeim – Action 1 8. MAY 27: Counter Attack on Bir El Harmat (Left) BT **
4. MAY 27: Crossing the Minefields 9. MAY 27: Counter Attack on Bir El Harmat (Right) BT **
5. MAY 27: The Clash of Tanks
** Scenario notes:
1. Counter Attack on Bir El Harmat BT: in both scenarios, Conditions of Victory should read 10 medals.
There are a total of 118 medals if all scenarios are played and 78 medals without the 2 Breakthrough maps.
SCENARIO (+ total medal count) P1…………. P2………….
1. Unpleasant Surprise Point 171 (12)
2. Flanking Maneuver Bir Hakeim (10)
3. Bir Hakeim – Action 1 (12)
4. Crossing the Minefields (12)
5. The Clash of Tanks (12)
6. Panzers ver