The Battle of Bir el Gubi, also known as Bir el Gobi, has earned an honored place in Italian military history; this clash was to be a true test for one of Italy’s newly constructed Armoured Divisions, as it faced an enemy’s armor head to head on the battlefield for the first time. The Battle of Bir el Gubi, and the Italian’s overall performance during Operation Crusader, would end up serving as a wakeup call for Italy’s adversaries and partners alike. It helped to demonstrate that this was not going to be the same Italian army that had been swept away from Egypt somewhat easily during their failed invasion of 1940. Noted British historian Richard Humble stated when reflecting back on the Italian’s performance throughout Operation Crusader that “…Crusader should be remembered as the battle in which the Italian army can claim to have recovered its self respect”. The Battle of Bir el Gubi can be looked on as the beginning of redemption in the desert for the Italian military.
In Mid November of 1941, British Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham and his staff were putting the final touches on their plans for the pending Allied campaign, Operation Crusader, which they hoped would deal a devastating blow to the Axis forces in North Africa. Crusader’s design was to destroy the Axis forces positioned in Libya, while also attempting to relieve the siege of their own trapped forces in the city of Tobruk. The plan, in a nut shell, called for the British tanks from 7 Armour and 22 Armour to engage the German Afrika Korps in an overwhelming attack and destroy their armor in a series of devastating battles.
As they formulated their attack for the upcoming battle, the British were aware that the Italians were situated on the Germans flank near Bir el Gubi, but the planned operation hardly seemed to pay much concern to them. It was felt that the British would be able to either ‘fence’ the Italians in with their forces, or that the Italians might simply retreat when confronted with a direct engagement. The British could then advance on to Sidi Rezegh to face the Germans, the main target of their offensive.
Crusader also called for British XIII Corps, with 4th Armoured, to circle in from the west, and the 70th Division to join the fight as they broke out of the siege at Tobruk. The key for the British for the operation however was the firepower of the tanks in 7th Armoured. British planners felt that the time was right for the annihilation of the Axis forces in Africa. The date for the attack to begin was set for November 18th, and Allied expectations ran high for a decisive victory. Hardly a second thought was given to Bir el Gubi.
The Axis were also making plans of their own for an offensive to finally take Tobruk form the Allied forces holding it. This Axis operation was to take place on November 24th, with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions leading the attack while the Italians were to be assigned a support role for the intended operation.
That November, the Italians for the first time had a fully equipped Armored Division in the theater, the 132 Ariete. The previous year during Italy’s failed invasion into Egypt, the Italian Army did not have a true Armoured division fighting in the desert. Their very immobile invasion force consisted mainly of infantry and motorized units, with light tanks and a handful of M13/39 tanks asserted in haphazardly. Some M13/40 tanks arrived with the Italian XXII corps later in the conflict, but in far too few of numbers to do any good. Overwhelming British strength, specifically in armor, lead to the Italian forces defeat that year, and they were driven back out of Egypt after an initial advance.
During the rout of the previous year, the moral of the Italian soldier was crushed as it appeared that they possessed no means to counter the British armor that opposed them, in particular the seemingly unstoppable Matilda tank. The Matilda possessed 78mm thick frontal armour that was basically impervious against anything the Italians could muster against it from either their armor or anti-tank guns. This often led to scenes of panic as the lumbering Matildas could ravage Italian positions basically unmolested. In his book Pendulum of War, Niall Barr stated “… the Germans had also panicked when first confronted with the Matilda during the Arras counterattack in France”. The Germans eventually realized that they were able to utilize against the Matildas their Flak 38 88mm gun, which had the fire power to penetrate the tanks armor, in an anti-tank role. Unfortunately for the Italians fighting in the desert, they did not employ such a weapon to challenge the dominance of the Matilda.
The few tanks the Italians did posses at the start of that campaign were for the most part completely outmatched by the armor of the British, and were in fact more on par with the enemy’s Bren carriers. As the British’s armor pounded anything the Italians could face against them, a sense of fatalism spread through the Italian ranks, which sapped their overall ‘fighting spirit’.
The Italians avoided the complete destruction of their North African troops by finally stabilizing the front lines after greatly benefiting from having the British over extend their own supply lines, which forced a slowdown in operations on their part. The British Empire was also compelled to divert much of it’s men and supplies to other theaters of battle around the world, greatly limiting their ability to continue their offensive in the desert.
In November of 1941, things were quite different for the Italians however. The Ariete Division boasted 146 tanks, most all of them M13/40 Mediums. The M13/40 weighed in at 15 tons and sported a 47 mm main gun. While by no means considered a great tank, it was a marked improvement over the bulk of what the Italians could field previously.
Of almost equal importance to the increase in quality and quantity of their tanks, the training and skill level of the Italian tank crews was greatly improved from those prior. The Italians had been quick studies on the tactics that their German counterparts employed in battle, and this new knowledge would be put to good use on future battlefields.
For artillery at Bir el Gubi, the Ariete maintained 16 105MM guns, over 30 75MM cannons, and an assortment of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. The Italians also had made an ingenious ‘secret’ weapon, by taking several 102mm naval guns from a damaged war ship and mounting them on FIAT 634 trucks. This gave them a powerful mobile anti-tank punch. They were also supported here by two Infantry regiments, and a regiment of Bersaglier light infantry.
General Erwin Rommel positioned the Italians on the flanks of his Afrika Korps for his planned offensive. The Trieste Motorized Division at Bir Hacheim, and the Ariete to his southeast at Bir el Gubi. It would be the Ariete’s responsibility to defend against a British counter attack from Egypt, or as Rommel suspected, probing attacks to distract him from his main effort.
On November 18th first contact was made between the two opposing armies. Recon forces scouting ahead for Operation Crusader from the British 22 Armoured Brigade ran into a patrol of Italian armored cars. Shots were exchanged, and the Italian patrol pulled back to report their findings. General Gastone Gambra, General Ettore Bastico’s chief of Staff, radioed the details of the encounter to Rommel. Gambra felt that an imminent and large British attack was forthcoming in this sector. Part of his belief was based on intercepted Allied transmissions that the Italians had obtained over the previous days. Over the past few days, General Bastico had also attempted in vain to persuade General Rommel postpone his planned attack in belief that they must prepare for a large British strike.
Rommel though was not convinced; he believed the activity was nothing more than a reconnaissance in strength by the British to distract the Axis forces. Rommel in fact remained unconvinced that any large scale Allied offensive would be coming in the near future. Rommel recommended to General Gambra to remain vigilant, but not to be overly concerned about the encounter. General Gambra decided however to follow his instincts and ignore Rommel’s suggestion. Later that night, he placed his troops on high alert and advised them to prepare for an imminent attack. It turned out to be the right decision.
British 22 Armoured, along with 7 support group, had been ordered to advance towards Bir el Gubi on the 19th. As mentioned, the British expected that the Italians might simply fade away when they saw the British force approach their position since the Ariete was isolated from German support. After that, the British believed they could move in their infantry, 1 South African Division, and occupy the area the Italians vacated. The British plan to pen in or simply ‘scare’ the Italians away changed that morning however. British General Gott decided to launch a full attack against the Italians at Bir el Gubi. He likely believed this would be a quick one sided affair, this assumption based primarily on the Italians performance the previous year, and he would then have a completely guarded flank after the victory.
Another reason that General Gott altered the original Crusader plan was that he likely figured the strength he was about to throw at the Italians would be more than sufficient to clear the area of his adversaries. The British forces under his command here boasted 158 Crusader tanks to employ in battle. The Crusader tank was very comparable to the Italian M13/40, but with a few advantages. The armament was very similar, with the Crusader tank having slightly better armor protection and a somewhat more powerful engine. 22 Armoured also boasted a battery of 25 pound artillery and a company of infantry attached to them. British intelligence had however underestimated the Italian’s strength, and the sides were fairly evenly matched in the amount of armor that each opposing General had at his disposal.