This month we are commemorating the Battle of Gazala, which marked the high point of Rommel’s tactical success in World War II. It began well enough for the Eighth Army. In the north, 1st South African Division held the initial German push and at the southern bastion of Bir Hakkim, the Free French Brigade stopped the Italian XX corps. However, beyond this, the old hands in the Afrika Korps hooked around the static line and according to Ken Macksey: “one by one…the British formations offered themselves for destruction.”
The rot stopped in the centre at an area named Knightsbridge with the Mark 3 Grant tanks making their presence felt for the first time in the western desert. This provided an opportunity for the British commander, General Ritchie to strike a fatal blow using Cecil Haydon’s 150 Brigade as a pivot, but he sat on his hands while Rommel, who was “down to his last cup of water” boldly attacked the British position in what became known as the Cauldron.
Rommel described the British defence as “the toughest resistance imaginable”, but the gallant Brigadier Haydon, who had commanded his brigade since 1940, was abandoned by General Ritchie and sadly killed in action with thousands of his soldiers marched into captivity. The only highlight was in the north where Sergeant Quentin Smythe of the Royal Natal Carabineers was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading two attacks on German strong points despite being hit in the head by shrapnel.
There are 2,674 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen buried in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Libya. This lonely site in the desert is meticulously maintained by a friendly Libyan family who have looked after it since its creation. This week, I am giving a talk to an audience which includes the son of a padre at Gazala and will reflect on the sacrifices made by the Allied soldiers in Libya during World War II.