Following the British attack to relieve the besieged garrison of Tobruk with Operation Crusader, Rommel had launched a dramatic panzer thrust deep into the British held territory. There were no clear front lines in the desert and the manoeuvre eventually proved to have limited value. Out of contact with their supply lines and in danger of becoming isolated the tank force would have to withdraw. While it lasted it caused great confusion and no little consternation in the British HQ.
By the evening of the 25th November the Panzers were well behind the New Zealand Brigade HQ. Alan Moorehead was present in the desert as a journalist, his account has the immediacy of someone who was a witness the confusion as well as some overall perspective:
[Rommel] had detached a part of his tanks and armoured cars and flung them straight across the desert through the British lines of communication. A tank among unarmed lorries is like a shark among mackerel. In a spectacular night attack, the German Panzers had almost entirely overwhelmed the 5th South African Brigade and then they had plunged straight into Egypt and attempted to rejoin their infantry forces left on the frontier.
British soft transports had scattered before them and confusion more deadly than shellfire spread everywhere. And now lost groups of men roamed about, passing and repassing through enemy lines. Convoys of vehicles were scattered over a hundred miles of desert, not knowing where to go. Batteries of guns and groups of tanks were left stranded in the empty desert.
Men who believed they were holding the end of a continuous salient suddenly found the enemy behind them. And north of them and south of them and all round them. Then the enemy in tum would seek to carry off his booty and prisoners only to find that his own base had vanished and that he was in the midst of a strong British formation.
Prisoners became gaolers. Men were captured and escaped three or four times. Half a dozen isolated engagements were going on. Field dressing stations and hospitals were taking in British and German and Italian wounded impartially, and as the battle flowed back and forth the hospitals would sometimes be under British command, sometimes under German.
Both sides were using each others’ captured guns, tanks and vehicles and absurd incidents were taking place. A British truck driven by a German and full of British prisoners ran up to an Italian lorry. Out jumped a platoon of New Zealanders and rescued our men. Vehicles full of Germans were joining British convoys by mistake – and escaping before they were noticed. Generals themselves were taking prisoners and corporals and brigadiers were manning machine-guns together.
On the map the dispositions of the enemy and ourselves looked like an eight decker rainbow cake, and as more and more confused information came in, Intelligence officers threw down their pencils in disgust, unable to plot the battle any further.