Erwin Rommel had arrived in Libya in mid February to take command of German forces that were supposed to work in co-ordination with the Italians. The German High Command expected Rommel to spend some time building up his forces. But with the British diverting many of their best equipped and most experienced troops to Greece Rommel sensed, from his first probing attacks, that the time was ripe for an immediate assault on the British lines.
The first major clashes between the British and the Germans in Libya began at the end of March 1941. L. E. Tutt was with a gun battery near Mersa Brega on the 1st April 1941:
Our battery position was shielded by some low hills. We saw [German] tanks coming over them, wireless aerials with pennants atop like a field full of lancers. They assumed hull-down positions and blasted the thin screen of recovered tanks which were deployed to face them.
The men of the Tower Hamlets went forward to face them in Bren carriers and were virtually destroyed in a matter of minutes; their bravery was unquestioned but they should never have been asked to face such odds.
Both our batteries fired a heavy concentration on the German Mark Ills and some Mark IVs and they were forced to withdraw slightly, but it was only a temporary respite as their infantry moved against the flank exposed by the withdrawal of the Free French.
Fortunately the Northumberland Fusiliers turned up with their heavy machine-guns and plugged the gap, allowing us to withdraw and regroup – otherwise we might have ended our contribution to the war there and then.
The Fusiliers had a most fearsome reputation. The unit was made up of hard, uncompromising men of little polish; they obeyed their own officers but treated anyone else in authority with contempt, particularly base depot personnel. They were the dourest fighters we were to meet in a long day’s march and we were always glad to have them about.