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Totensonntag – An Italian Account

By Mario Montanari – from his book Le operazioni in Africa settentrionale vol II Tobruk (p. 489-503)
Translated and annotated by Jeffrey W.S. Leser


For The Lutheran Church, Sunday, November 23, 1941 was the « Sunday of the Dead » (Totensonntag), dedicated to the fallen of the First World War. The name of the religious celebration that coincided with the climatic day of the first battle of Sidi Rezegh was considered, by some, [to be] named for the losses on that one day of the battle; that fight, the truth being told was not particularly bloody, but did represent the largest clash of armored fighting in North Africa.

The British deployment south-east of Tobruk was roughly parallel to the ridge of Bir Bu Creimisa (sketch n. 46). Its center was formed by the 5th South African Brigade [Brigadier Armstrong], and following their dispositions, was more or less triangular (at the top, facing north, was the [3rd] Transvaal Scottish, only battalion employed there), and there were numerous vehicles of the B Echelon. A couple of kilometers to the west was the 22nd Armoured Brigade [Brigadier Scott-Cockburn], or rather its remains: an ad hoc regiment with thirty tanks. To the east was positioned the 7th Support Group [Brigadier Campbell], with their own B Echelon behind it. Since Campbell’s unit had suffered considerable wear and tear, it had been reinforced with the II Scots Guards and an ad hoc squadron of the 7th Armoured Brigade [Brigadier Davy], positioned on the extreme right (39). As for the 4th Armoured Brigade [Brigadier Gatehouse], it is difficult to say exactly where they were located after the troubles of the day before; in general, their center was in the area north of el-Hagfet Hareiba. It was, in essence, a compact disposition, but with little defensive significance: it is clear that on the one hand Norrie did not intend to stop trying to take q. 178 [height 178] with the Armstrong’s South Africans to improve the situation, on the other hand he needed a longer time to reorganize the armored units. It is less clear how he intended to use the isolated 6th New Zealand Brigade [Brigadier Barrowclough] coming from Sidi Azeiz in conjunction [with the other units].

Sketch 46

During the night the Afrikakorps had refined its deployments. The 21st Panzerdivision had gathered on the conquered airfield, with Group Knabe on the ridge of Sidi Rezegh. The 15th Panzerdivision had stopped at Abiar en-Nbeidat, between the two points of the supporting wings: q. 175, held by 361st Infantry, and q. 178, manned by II/155th Infantry. The Italian XX corpo d’armata continued to blockade Tobruk; to south-east was the « Bologna » which consolidated its investment [of Tobruk] in positions further back. The corpo d’armata manovra [CAM] [General Gambara] had deployed its reconnaissance group [RECAM], just arriving from the Jebel, north of the « Ariete ». Rommel, who gained a more complete picture of the situation, his estimate of the British was an approximation far greater than enemy losses. On the evening of the 22 he calculated that 30th Corps had lost 207 tanks to the Afrikakorps and 55 to the « Ariete », i.e. more than a third of its armored forces. Consequently, at 22.30 he verbally confirmed the directive formulated in the afternoon, after an exchange of views with Gambara:

“(..) 2. The Panzergruppe will resolve the battle on November 23 in the south-east of Tobruk by a concentrated attack of DAK and part of Corps Gambara. The Corps Gambara will attack with the divisione corazzata « Ariete » at 0800, from el-Gobi towards Gambut.
3. The DAK will attack at 0700, weighting the effort on the left, in the direction of El Gobi, attack the enemy and destroy him (…).
4 3rd Reconnaissance Group reinforced open the way to Bardia away and will carry out an armed reconnaissance of Bardia, advancing towards Capuzzo. The 33rd Reconnaissance Group (…) will carry out an armed reconnaissance in the direction of Sidi Bin Oman-Ghirba (…).
5. II XXI Corps prevent sortie attempts by Tobruk. Divisione « Pavia » will remain in its current location.
6. II 155th Infantry and 361st Afrika will remain in their current positions as army reserve (…)” (40).

In essence, the Afrikakorps would attack from the east and towards the south, while « Ariete » would fall-in behind 30th Corps. The maneuver scheme had been drafted since 1600 hours and according to Crüwell – that [due to] an interruption in the private radio broadcasts with Rommel [delaying receipt of the plan]– he had already issued his own orders by midnight, orders that, among other things, take into account the latest events of the previous evening. In summary, most if not all, the infantry available – the 104th Infantry of the 21st Panzerdivision, Group Mikl (i.e. the 155th Infantry from the Afrika Division) and 361st Infantry Afrika – had to block any enemy attempt to break through in the direction of Sidi Rezegh. While the 15th Panzerdivision, reinforced by the 5th Panzerregiment of the 21st [Panzerdivison], along with « Ariete » would isolate the 7th Armoured Division from the 1st South African and prevented them from linking up. Afterwards the entire armored force would turn north to destroy their adversaries. In order that the Afrikakorps was ready to move at 0700, Crüwell intend to kick off at 6.45 and any future orders would be supplementary. Rommel’s radio message arrived at 4.30. It was very long and Crüwell could not wait for the full reception (41): he left Bir el-Chieta at 5.45 with Bayerlein, without imagining that within a half an hour afterwards his staff would be taken en-bloc by Barrowcloughand’s New Zealanders. They [Crüwell and Bayerlein] arrived at q. 175 at 6:30, where Neumann-Silkow had placed the headquarters of the 15th Panzerdivision. The 5th Panzerregiment was late, so at 7:30 the 15th [Panzerdivision] moved without any further delay, with the 8th Panzerregiment in the lead. Crüwell followed the first armored echelon.

In the British camp the alarm was given by some of the 4th South African armored cars, except that the report of a hundred tanks three kilometers south of Abiar en-Nbeidat and their advance towards the southwest was met with skepticism. A few minutes later, the first cannon shots from the panzers did change their mind. The 8th Panzerregiment, moving quickly on flat hard desert terrain, suddenly [encountering] a huge mass of parked supply vehicles, a mix of guns and armored vehicles, and using initiative the unit veered to the right and threw itself on the B Echelons of the [7th] Support Group and the 5th South African Brigade making a killing and causing a disorderly stampede. The only elements of some significance were the ad hoc squadron of the 7 Armoured Brigade, which was escorting 700 German prisoners to Bir er Regem el-Gharbi, more than twenty kilometers further south and was to then remain there in reserve, as well as a part of the 3rd Royal Tanks that was heading south-east. Watching the Panzers arrive, the Cruisers moved to the front. In the total chaos, the most notable action again was the initiative and bold energy of Brigadier Campbell, using what was in hand to try to contain the avalanche. The reaction, disorganized and fragmented as it was, affected both Neumann-Silkow and Crüwell, but suggested different proposals. The former would abandon the original plan to aim towards Bir el Gobi and preferred to take the advantage acquired to complete the destruction of the British forces into which they had stumbled. Crüwell, however, while recognizing the temptation to continue the attack, thought the enemy so superior in number – one must remember that the 5th Panzeregiment had not yet arrived – and it was necessary to link with the « Ariete » and he preferred a different and more effective attack from the southeast. The 15th Panzerdivision disengaged with some difficulty and moving a sufficient distance, stopped in the area north-west of el-Hagfet Hareiba to regroup and refuel. Here, around 11, it was joined by the 5 Panzerregiment and, little more than an hour later, by the « Ariete ».

The Italian division had been ordered, late the previous afternoon, to send a strong raggruppamento in the direction of Sidi Muftah to take part in the battle in which the Afrikakorps intended to eliminate the British armored forces. At 0800 a column (42), under the command of gen. Nisio, deputy commander of the division, left Bir el Gobi. The movement did not last long. Around 1000 the head of the raggruppamento encountered a line of artillery fire, hastily set up by the 5th South African Brigade under the direction of [General] Gott, covering the B Echelons from attacks from the south. Nisio, absolutely unaware of the local situation, thought this to be the front of a large enemy, because he stopped and assumed a temporary defensive: The VIII Tank Battalion faced north while the IX [Tank Battalion] faced southeast. The stop lasted for a couple of hours, then [Italian] patrols pushed to the northeast and met elements of the German reconnaissance [units] and the column continued its movement and joined the 15th Panzerdivision.

Collecting all his forces, Crüwell quickly formulated his maneuver plan. It was his intention to push the enemy forces north and press them against the static defenses of 21st Panzerdivision and destroy them. The action was to start at 1400 with a basically linear formation: The 132° reggimento carri (80 tanks) to the left, 8th Panzer (120 tanks) in the center and the 5th Panzer (40 tanks) to the right. To the rear, a few hundred meters, was the motorized infantry: the V/8 ° Bersaglieri [behind the 132°] and 15th Rifle Brigade, with the 115th Rifle behind the 8th Panzer and 200th Rifle behind 5th Panzer. The impact was to come at full speed and the infantry to remain on their trucks for as long as possible. But from all the evidence it was not at all a closely coordinated action. Whatever the reasons – and one of them it could be constituted by the fact that Crüwell had been deprived of his staff to accompany him – the above-sketched framework accurately describes and identifies two distinct and complex forces: « Ariete » on the left and 15th Panzerdivision on the right; elements with significant freedom to address [the situation], if not entirely autonomous.

On the British side, the disengagement of the Germans was first regarded with astonishment, then explaining the enemy attack by attributing to it the character of an incursion without a particular goal. Why did Norrie prepare to rearrange the line with relative calm[?]. Amazing, had he not been advised that Rommel intended to resolve the issue soon and in a radical method. The fact was that the 7th Armoured Division had not yet assembled, the 1st South African remained divided into two sections, and the 6th New Zealander Brigade was abandoned by itself.

The 1st South African Division seemed destined never to reassemble. Gen. Brink, who had closely watched German raid in the rear of the 5 Brigade, was immediately detained by Pienaar while waiting for things to clear up. Therefore the two brigades remained on the defensive. The 5th [SA Brigade] was unaware of being dangerously exposed. Gott had spent the night in the area and perceived the scale and complexity of the problem, although he had not formed a precise idea about German intentions.

Armstrong counseled a box system with artillery on each side and was also worried about the area to the south. Then he [Gott] put the II Scots Guards and a battery of the 3rd Horse Artillery (anti-tank) under his [Armstrong’s] command, temporarily removing them from the Support Group. In the late morning the brigade was ready with the 3rd Battalion Transvaal Scottish and a battery of 25 lbs. in the north, on a front of about three kilometers; the I [SA] Irish, two half batteries of 25 lbs. and a 2 lb battery on the west side, about five kilometers long; II Botha and a section of anti-tank guns facing east; the B Echelon with a battery and a half of 25 lbs, a section 18 lbs. and of 2 lbs. facing south. Outside of the box, the 22nd Armoured Brigade with two batteries of 25 lbs. was stationed to the south-west, while the opposite side the 4th Horse Artillery was deployed. To the north-east was the 4th South African Armored Car [Regiment] and then the 26th New Zealand Battalion. Conversely, the [7th] Support Group was set back to the southeast, over Bir er-Regem. It was not much [Support Group]: it was the Group headquarters and the remnants “rounded-up” here and there by Campbell, but the 7th and 4th Armoured Brigades were concentrating in that area, which – according to Brigadier Davy – “was not completely under control” (43). Using the pause, all proceeded to refuel to be able to intervene in support of South Africans.

Around noon counter-battery fire from the German artillery placed on Belhamed reinforced Armstrong’s perception of a real threat from the north, but Gott renewed his warning of the danger that could come from the south. At 1400, before leaving the command post of the 5th [SA] Brigade, Gott met the commander of the 4th [SA] Armored Car Regiment in which he informed Gott that the Germans were forming a line to the south-east facing north. Gott was not manifestly surprised and said, “Your South African brigade seems stuck down with glue. They won’t move and they won’t turn their artillery around and they are not dug in – I’m sorry for them. “(44).

Meanwhile, Brink had personally arrived at the tactical command post of the 30th Corps to explain his situation. Norrie repeated to him the prospect of an even bigger tank battles and urge him to hasten the assembly of the entire division. New objection from Brink: a reinforced battalion [I Royal Natal Carbineers] was left in a position in front of Bir el Gobi, and [the division] did not have its own reserve, and he considered the 1st [SA] Brigade not strong enough to open up a passage and join the 5th [SA Brigade]. Norrie cut him off and immediately ordered the return of the detachment left by Pienaar to await the Guards, but they arrived almost at dusk. Returning to his command post, Brink received a soothing message sent by Armstrong at 13:35: the situation is clearer, the enemy had been counterattacked and New Zealanders had made contact with his right. Brink’s reply (about 15.30) was in line with the communication of the 30th Corps just received and resulted in the reporting of 85 enemy tanks a few kilometers north-west of el-Hagfet Hareiba and 15 tanks and 300 vehicles a little south-west of Bir el-Haiad, for the moment stationary. A subsequent brief conversation with Pienaar was not very encouraging for Brink. According to Pienaar, there still remained the same enemy mass between the two South African brigades and he was worried about his right flank. “At 15.55 the advanced headquarters of the South Africa division was sending a message to the chief of staff of the 5th South African Brigade, when latter ‘suddenly interrupted the communication,’ “Wait!”. It was the last word for that element”(45).

The news of the arrival of the New Zealanders was auspicious. It lacked detail, it is true, but you could trust, at least, in a strengthening of the whole force facing Bir Bu Creimisa and Sidi Rezegh airfield. The 6th New Zealand Brigade, after a stop in Gasr el-Arid, departed at 3 am [traveling] westbound. Barrowclough had decided to circumvent Bir el-Chieta as he knew it was in German hands and then go up on the escarpment reaching Wadi Sciomar, about three kilometers from q.175. However darkness effected the deviation too soon, and when it was reported on the Trigh Capuzzo he realized he was precisely in Bit el-Chleta. Both the New Zealanders and Germans were surprised. The latter (200), about to leave, only realized what was happening when their vehicles began to leap up and burst into flames by enemy shells, and after a brief and confusing shootout [the Germans] surrendered. The commander of the 6 New Zealand then got a second and most welcome surprise: he had captured much of the Afrika Korps headquarters. With a little more luck he would have even taken Crüwell! The blow was severe for the Germans, for not only the ciphers, but also the entire communications center was lost, the damage lasting for a couple of weeks.

Barrowclough, of course, did not intend to rest on his laurels and correcting the error of direction, climbed the ridge going towards Sidi Rezegh. He had a skirmish with the 3rd German Reconnaissance Group, but at 10.30 he reached the wadi. Here, shortly after, a liaison officer sent by the 30th Corps headquarters put him abreast of local events and of the presence of fifty Italian tanks south of Hagfet el-Hareiba. Barrowclough then decided to occupy q. 175 with the 25th Battalion, reinforced by the squadron of Valentines and supported by the 24th, and to contact the 5th South African Brigade by sending to Hareifet en-Nbeidat the 26th Battalion with a battery of 25 lbs. and a section from 2 lbs. Evidently he was not fully aware of the situation. Shortly before noon the units departed.

25th Battalion moved with a lot of optimism and in fact initially things seemed to go well. The tanks proceeded in two echelons: the first leading the way, the latter was in close contact with the infantry. The appearance of Valentines took the defenders of q. 175 by surprise, after an initial resistance they began to surrender, except that on the back of the height ran a deep wadi, along which were stationed German anti-tank guns. In a few minutes, of the sixteen Valentines, six were knocked out one by one, two “reduced to a tangle of scrap” and four seriously damaged. The action of the infantry line split into a series of platoon clashes. The Germans launched a counterattack by I/361st in the afternoon and were was able to regain much of the lost ground, nor could the intervention of the 24th New Zealand Battalion change things. At dusk, when the fight was suspended, the losses of the two battalions amounted to 450 causalities, more than a quarter of them were dead. However, the middle and higher position had remained in their hands and will be of great advantage in the second battle of Sidi Rezegh. The 26th Battalion had better luck. Towards half past twelve p.m. it came to within a kilometer from the far right of the 5th South African brigade, south-west of Haneifet en-Nbeidat, and made a connection. Its commander was immediately informed of the likely imminence of an attack by Panzers from the south and, moreover, the bombardment by the German batteries of Belhamed mentioned earlier was also to fear an offense from the north. The battalion then settled down with its front to the north, but also looking at its flanks and rear.

Before proceeding to the description of what has been called “the charge of the Afrikakorp” (46), it is necessary to determine the direction of the German-Italian attack (a good part of Ariete, in fact, took part in the action) (sketch n. 47). According to Bayerlein is was a concentric operation: from east was part of the 15th Panzerdivison; south the « Ariete » and the bulk of the 15th Panzerdivison and the west were elements of the 21st Panzer Division (47), but the reconstruction cannot be considered reliable, as is apparent from a comparison with what has been stated about the earlier events. The official British source indicates a starting line substantially oblique to the 5th South African Brigade, to the southeast, and a south-to-north line of attack (48). The South African official source suggests an oblique starting line but to the south-west and a southwest-to-northeast line of attack (49). Other sources, including Italian, are too vague and general to be taken seriously. Ultimately for the numerous details mentioned, the quoted sources and the detailed identification of the location and actions of the individual units, the South African study is considered the most convincing, which is therefore used as the basis of this examination.

Sketch 47

After their assembly, Crüwell’s forces began to prepare for the great decisive battles. The three armored regiments were arranged on a line running roughly from Bir el-Haiad, down to the southeast. The deployment was taken under fire by British and South African batteries, called to halt a threat that now loomed real and imminent. Fires, to be clear, far from accurate but, as the attack developed, rapidly become deadly. Suddenly a little after 1500, almost 250 Axis tanks moved forward followed by hundreds of vehicles of various types and artillery tractors. The center, that is, the 8th Panzerregiment with 120 tanks, was the spearhead and proceeded towards the southwest corner of the 5th South African Brigade.

Of course, Crüwell had deliberately taken a linear formation to move against a quadrangular box that exposed an edge for the first impact. It was not humanly possible to know the location of enemy units – it was already difficult to know their own! – He intended to move and rake, pushing against the Bir Bu Creimisa ridge and positions of Sidi Rezegh, everything he encountered which he knew to be the remains of the 7th Armoured Division and the 1st South African Division. The concept of maneuver was thus reduced to a simple powerful frontal impact at maximum speed to crush one ‘opponent against the infantry of the 21st Panzer Division. Perhaps that is why “it would appear that no provision of coordination has been given about the objectives, reference lines, artillery support and connections” (50). On the German side the fight is presented as very difficult:

A terrifying fire front of more than a hundred guns focused on the two attacking tank regiments and the two rifle regiments which followed closely on the vehicles. A mass of pieces anti-tank unusual in this theater of operations, and cleverly hidden in the midst of enemy vehicles placed out of action in the morning, inflicted heavy losses to the two regiments. Particularly annoying was the fire from the left side, the sector assigned to the divisone corazzata « Ariete », not even immediately in the fight (..)” (51)

In fact the 25 lb guns the enemy had facing south were, at most, thirty, but the 8th Panzerregiment saw almost all of them against him, because the 5th Panzer proceeded along the outside of the eastern flank of the enemy and the 132° Italian carristi had immediately lost ground being unable to keep the speed of the Germans. In addition, shortening distances and arriving within a few hundred meters, the 8th Panzer was faced by all the 2lb guns and machine guns of Armstrong’s southern line. The reaction was definitely very hard for the [Germans] due to the rapid loss of several commanders who fell dead or wounded at the head of their units. Thus, as a gap was opened in the South African front by 1530, the point-blank fire of the defenders and the sudden loss of certain links in the chain of German command necessitated a quick rearrangement of 8th Panzer and 115th Rifle in the rear. At 1600, back on track, the 8th Panzer broke through the lines of defense and, as the I Battalion went to the north, and the II [Battalion] veered slightly to the west to deal with the counterattack of the 22nd Armoured Brigade.

The result of the employment of the « Ariete », as we know, M 13 tanks, on the left wing of the armored line, moving with low speed, caused an increasing separation with the majority of the 15th Panzerdivision. The left side of the central force, although protected by a battery of 88mm [guns], found itself “in the air” and the ad hoc regiment of the 22nd Armoured Brigade was favorably placed for a counterattack in the 5th South African area. This intervention took place just as the panzers broke over the front lines of the South Africans. It was a difficult time for the German formation, not only because there was a danger of a gap between the tanks of the 8th Panzer and the companies of 115th Rifles, but the rear of the infantry was also very vulnerable. After a fierce fight the Crusaders had to fall back toward the northeast. At the same time the « Ariete » arrived to complete the envelopment.

To the right, the 5th Panzerregiment, although its action was to a certain extent autonomous and certainly less demanding, also had setbacks. After a few kilometers, the head of the battalion came under the fire of the 4th Horse Artillery and the 60th Field [Artillery], then had to undergo a brief but violent fight with a group of Campbell’s or Davy’s tanks from the southeast, after which they moved towards the northwest despite some Bofors anti-aircraft fire and broke the South African’s eastern front, breaking the B echelon and spreading panic. The most significant setback, however, relate to the 200th Infantry. Initially it was facing south, against the 1st South African Brigade and the [7th] Support Group and had to spend a good twenty minutes to disengage and set about following the 5th Panzer. When it left, therefore, there is already a significant gap with the armored echelon and, to make matters worse, the firing of 4th Horse Artillery caused brief confusion in the 15th Motorcycle Battalion. Finally, when the 5th Panzerregiment moved towards the northwest, the [200th Infantry] regiment, without the protection of the tanks, found itself in serious quandary against the furious reaction of fire that the remains of the 7th Armoured Division were directing at it from all sides. At the fall of darkness, however, it managed to make its way and to participate in the spoils.

The irruption of the Panzers into the South African defensive perimeter was of course decisive: “The breakthrough [brought] our opponent to his knees” – said the report of the 8th Panzer – “Wherever our tanks appeared, the enemy surrendered” (52). The remaining tanks still fighting recoiled, supported by anti-tank pieces and field [guns]. Armstrong had followed the progress of the battle from his command post and sent an officer to ask for the anti-tank guns of the 26th New Zealand Battalion, but it was too late: when he learned that the Panzers were close, they were already on him. At 16:15 the headquarters of the brigade fell prisoner. The organized defense was at the end, however, they continued [to fight] isolated for over two hours [more].

While [the Germans were] accomplishing the annihilation of the 5th South African Brigade, the 6th New Zealand Brigade, while willing, couldn’t do anything. Its strength was committed on q.175: it needed to maintain possession all costs its set objective, but undoubtedly avoided the 21th Panzerdivision as its focus was entirely to the south, not counting that it would certainly encountered serious difficulty had ventured into the desert. As for the 26th [NZ] Battalion, the early afternoon passed in relative calm, but suddenly there began a disorderly outflow of individuals and then groups of vehicles of the South African B Echelon, leaving the dusty mass of clouds looming over the 5th [SA] Brigade, they were trying to escape to the north east: they crossed the New Zealand lines and disappeared into the desert. Having received Armstrong’s request, the commander of the battalion took all the guns available from the western side, turned them south, and opened fire on the 200th German infantry. At dusk he realized that as soon as possible they would be attacked and, in compliance of the orders received, decided to retire. At midnight the battalion was reunited with the rest of the brigade, at the wadi esc-Sciomar.

The Command Post of the 7th Armored Division was located in Bir Berraneb, exactly twenty-five kilometers east of Bir el Gobi. During the night they slowly concentrated the remains of the defeated units between Bir el-Hareiba and Hagfet Berraneb, a disorderly ebb of men, vehicles, tanks, guns, armored cars and vehicles of all kinds. Soon it was possible to know the facts and results; the live impression before the eyes was only that of disaster. After leaving Armstrong, Gen. Gott had been outside the South African defensive perimeter for some time with his command tank and two Crusaders, crossing the battlefield, escaping capture and shells, and reached his command post with many doubts about how solid were the remains of the division. As a rough guess, 5th South African Brigade had disappeared as a combat unit, the 1st [SA Brigade] was still available, and the 7th Armoured Division was unlikely to be used anytime soon. This was reported to the 30th British Corps.

The reality, however, was not as bad as it seems at the time. Leaving aside Armstrong’s brigade, which had the 224 dead, 379 wounded and 2,800 prisoners, Gott’s losses were relatively light. But most of this situation – obscured by the darkness of the night on 24 and yet to be ascertained – was a factor that would count in the favor of the 8th Army: the German losses. The Afrika Korps had left on the field due to enemy action or mechanical failure, 72 of the 162 Panzers with which he started the “charge” that afternoon. And a total of 90 Panzers still available were all that remained of the 250 available on 19 November. And there was another painful subject: the loss of many unit commanders. The 8th Panzerregiment had lost two battalion commanders and five out of six company commanders; the 115th Fusiliers, the regimental commander and two battalion commanders; we are ignorant of the specific losses of 5th Panzer and 200th Infantry, however they are definitely lower. Was it a Pyrrhic victory? According to Liddell Hart, “the onerous cost of this German tactical success was, strategically, the most damaging to the enemy than any other [event]” (53). In the light of subsequent events one can agree with this statement, but it seems legitimate to ask what alternative did Crüwell have and, especially, would the judgment remain the same if Rommel had not immediately decided to race to the frontier, against the British rear?

Around midnight the High Command A.S. reported the day’s events to the Supreme Command. What had happened in the area south of Bir Bu Creimisa was summarized as follows: Encircling maneuver according to the plan previously indicated and in which a detachment of the Ariete participated and the Raggruppamento CAM is not yet complete. The Italian and German wings joined at 12.30 at Dahar er-et Regem and encircled masses of enemy tanks, the encirclement grows smaller hour by hour (…)” (54). The Operations Office tried to set-down the situation the situation on paper. It was not easy because of the lack of information; in fact that sketched did not correspond with reality (sketch n. 48).

Sketch 48

[The main sources don’t provide the Italian losses on this day. Playfair states that the reconnaissance elements of the Italian column were engaged at 1000 in the morning and 7 light tanks were destroyed [1]. « Ariete’s » war diary reports that 2 M13s were destroyed and 3 more damaged [2].]


Text in ( ) are in the original; text in [ ] added for clarification/ease of reading.

Footnotes (the original footnote numbers were retained):

39. The remains of the 7th Armoured Brigade consisted of 3 tanks in the brigade headquarters, 10 in the 7th Hussars, and a few others in the 2nd and 6th Royal Tanks. In particular, the staff of the latter was traveling to Egypt to reorganize and reequip the regiment.
40. XX corpo d’armata historical diary.
41. According to the DAK war diary “the message was too long and contained a quantity of details that weren’t important for the Afrika Korps”.
42. The column consisted of: Headquarters 132nd fanteria carrista (Tank Regiment), VIII and IX M13 tank battalions; (each with 2 companies), V/8th bersaglieri reinforced, I/132nd Artillery, the Gruppo batterie with 65/17 guns detached from the RECAM, a battery of 105/28 and one with 102/35 guns. The V/8th at Bir el Gobi had to be replaced with a battalion from the « Trieste ».
43. J.A.I Agar-Hamilton and L.C.F Turner, op citata, p. 249.
44. Ibid.
45. Ibid. p. 253.
46. Ibid.
47. E. Rommel, op citia, schizzo p. 78. This sketch, such as those related to the clashes of 21 and 22 (p. 76), and very summary and inaccurate, is to give the idea of a concept of maneuver completely different from reality.
48. I.S.O. Playfair, op citata chart 9, p. 44.
49. J.A.I Agar-Hamilton and L.C.F Turner, op citata, p. 253 and et seq.
50. Rainer Kriebel (an officer of the headquarters of the 15th Panzerdivison) Feldzug in Nordafrika 1941-1943, vol. I, reported in Agar-Hamilton and Turner, op. citata p. 243.
51. Rainer Kriebel, op. citata, reported in Agar-Hamilton and Turner, op. citata p. 255.
52. J.A.I Agar-Hamilton and L.C.F Turner, op citata, p. 260.
53. Ibid, p. 271.
54. DSCSAS, tele 19734/Op. date 23.11.1941, 2345 hours.
[1] I.S.O. Playfair, op citata, p. XX.
[2] Ariete’s War Diary recovered 5 November 2015


  1. I’m a little confused like you Peleliu81 why Jeff would want to do an article focusing on the Africakorps on a site that’s called: ComandoSupremo? As you commented, the Italian side is often under-reported in much of the literature, so why carry on this “tradition” on a site that’s clearly devoted and should be focused on, the Italian war effort?? Even the title, Totensonntag, is clearly German. Again, the article is mostly about the Germans, the Brits, the New Zealanders and South Africans, Cruwell, Gott and Barrowclough, etc. Hardly any mention of the Italians? Were they simply “ghosts in the night”, background foil for the “real fighters” – the Germans and the Brits? Old habits die hard, it seems Peleliu81?

  2. Hey I can finally log in to say, nice article. Italian role is under reported (as usual), so thanks for some detail.


  3. Not sure why Montanari believes the Italian report of the battle was unreliable or too general. Still, it is worth reading for those who wish to read it.

    Ariete’s Actions on Totensonntag – Italian Report

    The report below originates from Ariete’s files held at NARA. It is the official after action report from the command of Ariete’s 132nd Tank Regiment, and covers the actions of the Colonna di Nisio (see an overview of its organisation also at this link) during the battle of Totensonntag, November 23, 1941, when it operated with the D.A.K. to destroy 5 South African Brigade and the remainder of the Allied forces on the Sidi Rezegh air field. It is probably the only source that quantifies the losses in tanks that Ariete suffered on the day.

    132 Armoured Regiment Command Staff

    Report on Actions at Bir bu Cremisa

    23 November 1941 – Year 20 of the Fascist Era

    On higher orders, under the command of Brigadier General di Nisio, Deputy Commander of the Ariete Division, an armour-mechanised column was formed, consisting of two companies of the 8th Tank Battalion and two of the 9th Tank Battalion, one group of 75/27 [guns], one light detachment of portee trucks with 65mm guns, two battalions of Bersaglieri, and two (?) sections of 20mm guns. Its task was to move into the area Bir bu Cremisa, to work with the German forces coming from Gambut. At 08.30 hours, leaving behind in the zone of Bir el Gubi the remainder of the tanks and vehicles, the column, pointing east, moved to reach the target destination.

    At about 09.50 hours, after only a few kilometres, enemy vehicles coming from the north-east were recognised. The column continued its march with the tanks in the van, and most of the vehicles closing up. The tanks pushed forward decisively, and soon were in contact with the enemy elements, leading to lively engagements which the adversary however managed to extract himself from thanks to the higher speed of his vehicles. – About 10.00 the column has to stop because of signs of violent artillery fire from flying enemy batteries from the centre of resistance. The stop is protracted until 13.00 hours and the tanks, in reaction to the situation, form a defensive front with the 2 companies of the 8th facing north, and the 2 of the 9th facing out. At about 13.40 hours, coming from the north-west, a great dust cloud announces the arrival of a column with a certain strength of numerous vehicles. At 14.00 hours the Italian and German forces make contact, fusing into a block of steel that now points, in straight union, at the enemy forces advised to be in the area. After a brief halt, the German forces move pointing in the direction of Bir bu Cremisa, and the Italian forces remain on their left, with the same objective. At 14.25 hours the Germans close up with the enemy from the north, while our armoured vehicles find themselves embroiled with similar English vehicles. At 16.00 hours the fight shows itself to be violent and decisive. The tanks move on the attack in waves, in combat formation, and sustain the collision with resoluteness, stopping various British vehicles in the area. The light artillery of the C.A.M. is launched on the left flank and in-between the M.13 with the order to support with anti-tank fire the fire of our armoured vehicles. The German forces meanwhile continue their operation to annihilate, with their flank protected by our forces. Intense fire from the field artillery continues amid the clash of tanks while dense high columns of smoke engulf the horizon. Close-knit formations of planes survey the area incessantly in search for opportunities to strafe, but are frustrated by the immediate intervention of the anti-air artillery.

    At 17.00 hours the struggle does not abate but rather increases in fury and intensity similar to that which happened during the encounter at Bir el Gobi. Regardless, all the tanks proceed orderly with their advance extinguishing the last resistance of the adversary. At 17.30 hours the English waver and rescue the last surviving vehicles, by moving to flee. During this time the daylight diminishes, and the dark gathering on the horizon renders the flames of the fires even more lively. An endless line of similar fires on many places shows the line of retreat of the enemy. German and Italian forces, cooperating closely, now find themselves among the remains of the defeated enemy, as they were during their decisive action of destruction. Also during this action, like the previous one, the tank men have been above any praise. They demonstrated their superb aggressive intent and their sense of unity with their weapon up to making the supreme sacrifice. Against the numerous but unquantifiable losses of the English and an immense number of prisoners stand one dead and four wounded, and two tanks lost (fuori combattimento) and three lightly damaged.

    • Jeff Leser says:

      Thanks for adding this report. I will note that most of what is in the report is included in Montanari’s account. There are also a few bits that are completely at odds with all the other accounts. When you match up all the pieces (the various AARs and eyewitness counts), Ariete was not heavily engaged during the actual attack, trailing behind and to the west of the German formations.

      I would have liked to have known more about the Ariete and the other Italian divisions/formations and their commanders rather than what Rommel and Co were up to.

      I only translated the part which focused on the battle of Totensonntag. There is more on the actions of the Italians force on that day.

  4. I would have liked to have known more about the Ariete and the other Italian divisions/formations and their commanders rather than what Rommel and Co were up to. All the sources appear to be Anglo or German. Where are the Italian sources and point of view? Did Montanari even use Italian sources?

    • Jeff Leser says:

      Yes, Montanari extensively used Italian sources. Please note his comment in the translation about the lack/quality of Italian accounts for this one action. A historian must use what is available. Reading Ariete’s AAR for this one day confirms his assessment. Pista Jeff

  5. Great article, Jeff!


  6. Great article! Thanks.
    I noticed one error:
    “39. The remains of the 7th Armoured Brigade consisted of 3 tanks in the brigade headquarters, 10 in the 11th Hussars, and a few others in the 2nd and 6th Royal Tanks. In particular, the staff of the latter was traveling to Egypt to reorganize and reequip the regiment.”

    7th AB was composed of 7th Hussars, 2nd RTR and 6th RTR.
    11th Hussars was equipped with armoured cars.



    • Jeff Leser says:

      Good catch. That was a transcription error on my part. Montanari indeed lists the 7th Hussars in that footnote (page 516). (I resti della 7th brigata corazzata erano costituiti da tre carri del comando brigata , dieci del 7° ussari e pochi altri del 2° e 6°Royal Tanks. In particolare, il personale di quest’ultimo era in viaggio per l’Egetto per riorganizzare e riequipaggiare il reggimento.)

      I must have had 11th Hussars on my brain while I was typing. Corrected. Pista! Jeff

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