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A British tank next to a burning German tank.

Operation Crusader was a military operation ordered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and carried out in the final months of 1941, in order to end the Siege of Tobruk.

Launched on 18 November 1941, Crusader was the first counter offensive by the newly formed British 8th Army, and pitted seven British divisions with 748 tanks against three German and seven supporting Italian divisions with 395 tanks of superior quality.[1] (Many of the British tanks involved were so worn out that they had to be carried to the battle area on transporters)[2]

In June 1941, General Sir Claude Auchinleck was appointed Commander in Chief, Middle East Forces. At Churchill’s urging, Auchinleck began preparing Operation Crusader, to reconquer Cyrenaica and clear the Axis forces out of North Africa. In September the Western Desert Force was renamed the 8th Army, led by Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham.


In the morning of 19 November, the Ariete Division derailed the advance of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the British 7th "Desert Rats" Armoured Division at Bir el Gubi. However, the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group of the "Desert Rats" were able to continue their advance to Tobruk, capturing the Sidi Rezegh airfield during the process.

Meanwhile, the British 4th Armoured Brigade attacked 60 panzers and supporting 88mm flak guns of the 21st Panzer Division. On 20 November, the British 22nd Armoured Brigade engaged the Ariete Division, the British 7th Armoured Brigade repulsed an infantry counter attack launched by the German 90th Light Infantry Division at Sidi Rezegh, and the British 4th Armoured Brigade fought a second tank battle with the 21st Panzer Division.

In the afternoon of 20 Nov, the 4th Armoured Brigade fought another action with tanks of the German 15th Panzer Division, losing another 40 tanks. At dusk, reinforcements fromthe British 22nd Armoured Brigade arrived, but it was unable to assist the 4th Armoured Brigade in time. During the night, Rommel withdrew all his panzers from the battlefieldt in order to rest and refuel before launching a new attack on Sidi Rezegh.

On 21 November, the British 70th Division at Tobruk attempted a break out through the Bologna Division sector, but were frustrated by the Italian-held Tugun strongpoint. Meanwhile, German Panzer troops captured the airfield at Sidi Rezegh in the early afternoon, while fighting in the immediate area continued into the next day with heavy tank losses on both sides. On 22 November, heavy fighting developed between the 2nd New Zealand Division and Savona Division near Sollum, whiletroops of the Indian 7th Brigade captured Sidi Omar. On 23 November, troops of the 5tj New Zealand Brigade advanced toward Sollum, cutting off Axis supply routes from Bardia. Also on 23 November, Rommel gathered the remainder of his two panzer divisions and launched an attack together with then Ariete Division to cut off and destroy the rest of the British 30tj Corps; brutal fighting led to heavy casualties on both sides.

On 29 November, the 15th Panzer Division pressed forward from positions south of Sidi Rezegh in the morning. In the afternoon, the Ariete Division overran the New Zealand 21st Battalion at Point 175 and field hospital nearby, capturing 400 New Zealanders. On 30 November, the New Zealanders from the 24th and 26th Battalions were overrun by German attacks at Sidi Rezegh. At 0615 hours on 1 December, the 15th Panzer Division attacked Belhamed, while the Trieste Division severed the New Zealand supply route established with Tobruk. The British 7th Armoured Division was ordered to counterattack at Belhamed, and they might had been able to do so successfully given they outnumbered the German tanks, but miscommunications resulted in the British tanks moving into rear positions to cover a potential retreat by the friendly forces. By the end of the day, the New Zealand 20th Battalion was practically destroyed.

Between 4 and 6 December, fighting took place across the front without decisive outcomes. The British Commonwealth reserves began to be committed as attrition began to take a toll, but the British command saw the situation as favorable to them. On 7 Dec, Rommel began to fall back to Gazala, abandoning the Tobruk front. On 10 December, the siege at Tobruk was lifted when Polish troops captured the Italian-defended White Knolll stronghold..

The British Commonwealth forces launched an attack on the Gazala Line on 15 December. During the attack, the New Zealand 5th Brigade and Polish Carpathian Brigade attacked the Trieste and Pavia Divisons, which was repulsed by the Italians, losing only Point 204. Rommel attempted a counterattack with the 15th Panzer and Ariete Divisions followed by hundreds of trucks full of German and Italian infantry, but the attack was stalled, albeit at a high cost for the defending British Royal East Kent Regiment, "The Buffs". At the end of the day, Rommel decided to fall back from the Gazala Line during the cover of darkness. Over the following ten days, the Axis forces conducted a fighting withdrawal to new positions between Ajedabia and El Haseia.


Crusader had been partially successful with the Tobruk garrison relieved and Rommel’s forces forced back to western Cyrenaica. The operation had not, however, achieved the decisive victory the British had sought. They had been badly hit because their tank and anti-tank guns were inferior to the German panzers and flak guns and because Italian code breakers had allowed Rommel to preempt the Allied moves[3]and would continued to do so for the next six months. [4]The British Commonwealth forces still had much to learn about the need to concentrate and coordinate the use of armour, supporting infantry and artillery.

The battles had been very costly for all involved. Losses in the 2nd New Zealand Division were 4620, with 879 killed, 1699 wounded and 2042 POWs. The commander of the division, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, emphasized that of all the actions the New Zealanders undertook, none was more important than the advance towards Tobruk on 23 November 1941 in the early stages of the operation. ‘If we had not done so the battle of Alamein would have been fought a year earlier – and without the Sherman tank.’

And in the opinion of a noted British observer, "Crusader should also be remembered as the battle in which the Italian army can claim to have recovered its self-respect."[5]


  1. Goralski, Robert. World War II Almanac 1931-1945. Hamish Hamilton Ltd. 1981. ISBN 0 241 10573 0 Page 181
  2. Roberts, Andrew. The Storm of War - A new history of the Second World War. Penguin Books. ISBN 978 0 141 02928 3. (2010). Page 132
  3. "The Afrika Korps ... received a priceless cryptological gift, for which it was indebted to Loris Gherardi, an obscure Italian messenger, and the Italian Military Information Service (Servizio Informazione Militare, or SIM) ...Gherardi, an embassy employee for two decades, was doubling as an agent for SIM. One of his duties for two decades, was doubling as an agent for SIM. One of his duties was to carry enciphered telegrams from the embassy to the Italian telegraph bureau. Copies were made available to SIM, but they were no help without knowledge of the American cryptosystem. Gherardi solved that problem by gaining access to the military attache's safe." Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies: How Spies and Codebreakers Helped Shape the Twentieth Century, James Gannon, Potomac Books, Inc., 2001
  4. " important source of enemy intelligence was no longer available after June 29, the day Marsa Matruh was stormed. After that day, the American military attache in Cairo had stopped transmitting the radio messages that had been decrypted and had provided invalulable information about British strategy and tactics, since 1941." Nazi Palestine, Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Martin Cüppers, Krista Smith, Enigma Books, 2013
  5. Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War, John Gooch, p. 92, Routledge, 2012

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