The Battle of Gazala (near the modern town of Ayn al Ghazālah) was fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, around the port of Tobruk in Libya from 26 May - 21 June 1942. The battle was fought between the Axis forces (Germany and Italy) of the Panzer Army Africa (also known as the Africa Corps) commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and Allied (specifically British Imperial) forces (Britain, British India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) of the Eighth Army, commanded by General Claude Auchinleck.
Following Operation Crusader in late 1941, the Eighth Army had relieved Tobruk and driven the Axis forces from Cyrenaica to El Agheila. The Eighth Army advance of 800 kilometres (500 mi) over-stretched its means of supply and in January 1942, the British reduced the front line garrison, to work on lines of communication and supply dumps, preparatory to another westwards advance against Tripolitania.
On 21 January 1942, Rommel sent out three strong armoured columns to make a tactical reconnaissance. Finding only the thinnest of screens, Rommel changed his reconnaissance into an offensive, recaptured Benghazi on 28 January and Timimi on 3 February. By 4 February, the Axis advance had been halted and the front line had been stabilised, from Gazala on the coast 48 km (30 mi) west of Tobruk, to an old Ottoman fortress at Bir Hakeim, 80 km (50 mi) to the south, known as the Gazala Line. The Gazala Line was a series of defensive boxes accommodating a brigade each and laid out across the desert behind minefields and wire, watched by regular patrols between the boxes. The line was not evenly manned, with a greater number of troops covering the coast road, leaving the south less protected.
The Axis forces distracted the British with a decoy attack in the north and made the main attack round the southern flank of the Gazala position. The advance succeeded but the defence of the French garrison of Bir Hakeim at the southern end of the line left the Axis with a long and vulnerable supply route behind the British line. Rommel retired to the Cauldron, a defensive position backing onto the British minefields, forming a base in the midst of the British defences and created a route through to the Axis side to receive supplies.
When the Eighth Army counter-attacked the operation was poorly co-ordinated and was defeated in detail, many tanks were lost and the Axis forces were able to regain the initiative. The British withdrew from the Gazala line and the Axis troops overran Tobruk in a day. With the capture of Tobruk, the Axis forces gained a port nearer the Aegean–Crete route and a large amount of British supplies.
The Rand Light Infantry, which formed part of the 3 South African Infantry Brigade, now under the 1st South African Division, moved to the Gazala Line in April 1942 and was located nearest the coast. The RLI participated in the defence of the Line, and when the Line was abandoned on 14 June, the 3rd Brigade retired to the El Alamein Box.
The battle is considered the greatest victory of Rommel's career. Rommel exploited the success by pursuing the British into Egypt, denying them time to recover from the defeat. As both sides neared exhaustion, the Eighth Army managed to check the Axis advance at the First Battle of El Alamein.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, The Rand Light Infantry was mobilised on the 4 August 1914 as part of the expeditionary force to seize control of the German Imperial Colony of South West Africa.Read more
The Western Desert Campaign (Desert War) was a theatre in the North African Campaign during the Second World War and took place in Libya and the Western Desert of Egypt.Read more
The Battle of Bardia was fought over three days in the city of Bardia in Libya from 3-5 January 1941, as part of Operation Compass, the first military operation of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War.Read more
The Battle of Gazala (near the modern town of Ayn al Ghazālah) was fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, around the port of
The First Battle of El Alamein was fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, around the town of El Alamein in Egypt from 1–27 July 1942.Read more
The Second Battle of El Alamein was fought during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, around the town of El Alamein in Egypt from 23 October – 11 November 1942.Read more