‘Black Saturday’ for the British Eighth Army

German panzer III tank with burning British lorry.

Rommel at a staff conference in the Desert.

In the Desert the battle continued,as it had done since May 27th. After finally breaking the Bir Hakeim box Rommel was at last able to launch a mass tank assault on the British Gazala line. His tactical use of a combination of anti-tank guns and tanks was to prove devastating. By the end of the day he was in a position to decisively break through the British line, outflanking the the most northerly of the British boxes. Alan Moorehead was in the field as a journalist, a witness to the confusing battle and in a position to later develop an understanding of it:

With the first light the two armies were engaged. Almost at once the battlefield was covered over with rolling sand and the smoke of buming oil. Confused orders and messages were flying over the radio on both sides.

The front line British tanks called for assistance, and launched an attack from the north to cut through the base of Rommel’s wedge. They ran at once on the 88-millimetre guns that had been concealed in the night. Simultaneously, the tip of the enemy wedge threatened the British armoured headquarters which were forced to decamp hurriedly eastwards. During this move the headquarters lost contact with a great part of the tanks joined in battle.

And the battle was ferocious. In an attempt to get within range the British charged headlong upon the German positions. In a few minutes it was a massacre for both sides. From dozens of concealed positions the 88s opened up a tremendous belt of fire. Those British tanks, which had somehow escaped the opening salvoes and got right up to the enemy, found themselves exposed and deserted by their comrades who had fallen by the way.

Those who were only slightly hit at first and tumed to get away were caught by the second and third barrages of gunfire. Those who came in as reinforcements found themselves in a confusion of blown sand, burning vehicles and deadly shellfire that raked the plain again and again. When at last the British sighted the German tanks and went forward at them they were led onto other guns and demolished.

Then and not until then, the German tanks came out and ran upon the British forces that had been largely cut up by anti-tank guns.

….

One after another the British squadrons reported that they were taking heavy losses and needed immediate support. It was the Germans who were charging now, charging past the burning hulks and they forced the depleted defenders to give battle. In this tremendous follow-up the British became isolated from one another and were forced to fight in small groups. These groups in turn got separated from their own anti-tank guns and their supply vehicles. Many tanks ran out of petrol and had to be abandoned.

The bad news began to come in to British headquarters toward evening. Little haggard groups of men began filtering back out of the chaos and each with a story of overwhelming Gennan forces that had crushed them first with the gun and then the tank.

See Alan Moorehead Desert War Trilogy: The Classic Trilogy on the North African Campaign 1940-43

Knocked out British tanks lie abandoned in the Desert, 1942.

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