The Desert War: Bolt Action Boot Camp Preparation // Part Three: Pushing The Envelope

September 3, 2018 by oriskany

As the excitement builds for the upcoming Bolt Action Boot Camp at Beasts of War studios, we venture once more into the deserts of North Africa, discussing and recreating some of the decisive battles that took place here during World War II.

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Read The Original Article Series Here

For those just joining us, we took an overview of the Desert War’s origins in Part One, and then reviewed some of both sides’ early successes in Part Two. Now both sides are pushing the envelope, bringing in still more forces and driving them as far and as fast as they possibly can.

Care to join us? Do you have what it takes to engage and defeat an elusive and ferocious enemy, assuming the desert doesn’t kill you first?

As we saw last week, Rommel wasted no time in making an impact when he arrived in Africa. With only a handful of units from his 5th Light Division (the first battalions to get off the boat), he launched a blitz in March and April of 1941 that regained all territory the Allies had just taken in Libya. British forces took a terrible beating and their commander, General Richard O’Connor (the hero of Operation Compass), was captured along with much of his staff.

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With O’Connor doing his best to enjoy German hospitality, his boss General Archibald Wavell had to take charge personally. Wavell’s forces in Egypt were still terribly weak, however, thanks in part to Allied commitments in East Africa (Abyssinia, Eritrea, and Somalia), as well as Greece and Malta. Nevertheless, just a month after taking command, Wavell went on the offensive against Axis positions in Libya with Operation “Brevity.”

As we can see from the map below, the Desert War swung wildly back and forth through the summer months of 1941. Brevity, Skorpion, Battleaxe, none of these attacks achieved significant gains. Meanwhile, the 9th Australian Division (and other units) held out in Tobruk, withstanding repeated Axis attacks for month after month, all while standing astride the only easy road Rommel could use to draw supplies from depots in Benghazi and Tripoli.

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With these battles of 1941, we see the frustrating “see-saw” back-and-forth of the Desert War. We also see where interference from superiors often ruined a commanders’ best efforts. With Battleaxe, in particular, Wavell knew full well he wasn’t ready for an attack. But Churchill pressured him into a premature launch, and when Battleaxe predictably failed, Churchill promptly fired him.

Operation Crusader

Finally, Wavell’s replacement, General Claude Auchinleck, came up with a plan to break through to Tobruk once and for all. He called his attack Operation “Crusader.” Crusader can be a fun campaign to wargame because of the wild, free-wheeling nature of the combat.

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For the tables pictured in this article, we selected an engagement on November 27th, where exhausted remnants of 15th Panzer Division had to race backwards toward Sidi Rezegh to prevent a New Zealand breakthrough to Tobruk. Here the Germans were caught between elements of the 22nd Armoured Brigade in the west and 4th Armoured Brigade from the south.

You may have noticed our tables are getting more crowded with tanks. Indeed, the Crusader battles were fought with much larger forces than previous Desert War engagements because both sides had feverishly built up forces through the summer and fall of 1941. For starters, the British “Western Desert Force” (already upgraded to the XIII Corps) had finally been upgraded to the famous Eighth Army everyone remembers.

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Rommel, meanwhile, technically no longer commanded the Afrika Korps. His 5th Light Division had been upgraded to the 21st Panzer, and a new 90th Light Division had arrived. Also, most Italian forces in North Africa were formally placed under Rommel’s command. Thus, the “Afrika Korps” was now only part of Rommel’s newly-minted “Panzergruppe Afrika.”

So technically speaking, Rommel only commanded the Afrika Korps for about five months. The Afrika Korps (currently the 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, and 90th Light Divisions, plus attached support units) was actually now commanded by the very capable General Ludwig Crüwell. Rommel and Crüwell were known to disagree violently at times, but together they made a formidable team when faced with a crisis.

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Despite the rampant confusion that often bordered on chaos, Operation “Crusader” was an undeniable success, relieving Tobruk and ending its 241-day siege (the 9th Australian had been evacuated by sea and replaced some time ago with the 70th Infantry Division). By the time the Allies were finished on December 30th, Rommel had been tossed all the way back where he started at El Agheila just eight months before.

Churchill pressed Auchinleck to push further, but Commonwealth supply lines (stretching 650 miles back to Alexandria) yanked them to a halt like dogs at the end of iron chains.

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Rommel, meanwhile, was now much closer to his supply base at Tripoli, a factor which helped his counterattack just two months later (January 1942). Yet again the British were pushed back across Cyrenaica, although this time they managed to halt the Germans and Italians short of Tobruk. The line settled near a town called Gazala, where Rommel would soon achieve his greatest, and perhaps most flawed, battlefield masterpiece.

Gazala: The Razor's Edge

Rommel’s offensive started well. After smashing through the 7th Armoured Division, his “right hook” got behind the British easily enough. But Rommel had pushed too far behind the Allies. Soon it was difficult to tell who was “cutting off” who, the armies were like two wrestlers who had each other in a headlock.

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“Cutting off” enemy units on the operational level is actually a delicate matter of weight, momentum, logistics, and even battlefield psychology. After all, just as your forces are “behind” the enemy, so the enemy is “behind” your attacking units. Push too hard and too deep, and your “decisive thrust” behind enemy lines may find itself marooned, cut off, and annihilated. Just ask the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem during Operation Market-Garden.

For Rommel at Gazala, the matter was now a brute force and determination, with survival going to whoever choked out his opponent first. This “gut check” was the battle we recreated (in part) in these 15mm table photos, with the Germans and Italians trying to chew their way through the British 150th Brigade...and out of a trap of their own making.

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Eventually, Rommel did break through, re-opening a route back to his own lines and routes of supply. Just like that, his pocket (already known as “The Cauldron”) had become salient, pushing into the Gazala Line. The British launched an attack at this salient (after giving Rommel plenty of time to dig in), but this Operation “Aberdeen” was an absolute disaster.

The British soon mounted another semi-organized attack, but German signal intelligence intercepted the message and Rommel was able to lay the perfect trap with 15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, 90th Light Division...virtually all his armour. They hit the British as they advanced from three sides. Suffice it to say the British Tank Corps still remembers June 13, 1942, as “Black Saturday.”

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Another part of the Gazala battle that deserves mention is Bir Hacheim. Looking back at the map, we can see where this fortified “box” is the point around which Rommel’s whole army must swing. Well, the 1st Free French Brigade under General Pierre Koenig thought otherwise, and for two weeks held up the bulk of two divisions (90th Light and Italian “Trieste”). Some of these “French” soldiers were actually from Senegal, Equatorial Africa, and Madagascar.

Eight miles to the north, another position was similarly defended near Bir el Harmat by Major Liebmann and 400 Jewish volunteers recruited from British Palestine. After their protracted and heroic defence was finally overcome, Hitler ordered that these Jewish “political refugees” among the prisoners be executed.

To his credit, Rommel flatly ignored the order.

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Sadly, Gazala was the end of the road for General Ludwig Crüwell, commander of the Afrika Korps. Flying over the battlefield, he was brought down by British ground fire and captured. Despite this, and learning that his wife had passed away back home, he still kept his keen wit. When brought as a prisoner back to an opulent hotel in Cairo, he cracked: “What a fine headquarters for Rommel this will make!”

The Battle of Gazala could have easily destroyed Panzerarmee Afrika and ended Rommel’s career. Instead, it was their greatest success and wound up basically destroying the better part of Eight Army. Tobruk fell quite easily this time, Churchill recalls it as one of the darkest personal days of the war. Hitler, meanwhile, promoted Rommel to Field Marshal, but as Rommel confessed to his wife: “I wish he’d have given me another division instead.”

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Now, against orders, Germany’s youngest field marshal pushed his advantage. Ignoring the vehement protests of his superiors, he re-invaded Egypt, smashing a British defence at Mersa Matruh and pushing all the way to a tiny desert railroad town called El Alamein. He’d rolled his “risk dice” yet again but this time…he wouldn’t be getting away with it.

We hope you enjoy these continuing articles on the Desert War. Furthermore, we hope you’re getting excited about the impending Bolt Action Boot Camp, whether you’re attending the event or joining us via the live blog.

Either way, post your comments, questions, and feedback below.

"Do you have what it takes to engage and defeat an elusive and ferocious enemy, assuming the desert doesn’t kill you first?"

"The Battle of Gazala could have easily destroyed Panzerarmee Afrika and ended Rommel’s career. Instead, it was their greatest success..."

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