Relief of Tobruk attempted

German Mk III panzer in the desert, May 1941.

On the 15th May an attempt was made to relieve the besieged garrison of Tobruk with ‘Operation Brevity’ – an armoured thrust westwards. Some initial success was achieved but the Germans soon counter-attacked. This was one of the first clear demonstrations the effectiveness of the German 88mm Anti-Aircraft gun in the anti-tank role, a weapon that was to prove a fearsome deterrent to British tanks in the coming battles. This was accompanied by a number of fierce actions from within Tobruk as attempts were made to expand the perimeter. The Australian commander Brigadier Wootten had just issued these orders:

The responsibility will immediately fall upon each line unit therefore: not only to maintain intact the line and territory which it takes over; but also to put in hand at once a policy of aggression against the enemy;

to exert and maintain a superiority of morale over him;
to systematically wipe out his forward posts and to occupy with its own troops the same ground,
and thus incessantly to exert pressure upon the enemy and relentlessly drive him back bit by bit on battalion fronts, under arrangements made within battalions.

It is to be made perfectly clear to all ranks that we are not simply there to hold a line ; but that we are there definitely with the purpose and intention of regaining ground previously lost, and of inflicting loss on the enemy by every means in our power.

On the 15th of May, simultaneous offensive operations were carried out by our troops in the Sollum-Sofafi area and by the Tobruk garrison.

The former operation gained considerable initial success and our leading elements penetrated as far as Fort Capuzzo, seven miles west of Sollum. Later in the day an enemy counter-attack, supported by about 40 medium and heavy tanks, necessitated a withdrawal to positions in the Sidi Suleiman-Halfaya area with forward posts in Sollum. Heavy casualties in personnel and A.F.V.’s were inflicted on the enemy and 500 prisoners were taken.

On the 18th of May the enemy attempted an advance eastwards towards Halfaya and Sidi Suleiman with a force which included 70 tanks. The southern flank of this force was attacked) by our armoured troops and the enemy withdrew later in the day.

The operations in the Tobruk area took the form of an advance by our fighting patrols and tanks in the Medawar salient, the western extremity of the defensive perimeter, a position which was recently occupied by the enemy. The enemy counter-attacked vigorously during the following night and recovered some of the ground which he had lost, but by the 16th of May our position in the salient had been consolidated with an average gain of about 600 yards.

Casualties have not yet been fully assessed, but it is believed that in all these operations the balance is in our favour.

From the Military Situation Report for the week see TNA CAB 66/16/32

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