Diverting resources for an expeditionary force to Greece and for the ill-fated defence of Crete had cost Britain at least one chance for victory in the North Africa campaign. Churchill continued to press Wavell to begin a new offensive. Despite his misgivings, the latter launched Operation Battleaxe this week in the war, on 15 June 1941.The attack, planned and commanded by General Beresford-Peirse, included a frontal assault on Halfaya Pass, which was quickly nicknamed Hellfire Pass. The idea was for General Frank Messervy’s 4th Indian Division to take and hold the pass, thus supporting an armoured thrust by the tanks of the 7th Armoured Division, who would defeat the enemy in a decisive tank battle. The road to Tobruk would thus be opened, and Tobruk’s beleaguered garrison would join in the fight and rout the remnants of Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Such was the plan for Operation Battleaxe.
Wavell was not optimistic. He knew that the new British Cruiser tanks were unreliable and that the Matilda’s were vulnerable to anti-tank fire. Plus the superiority in numbers, in artillery and in air power, that would be essential for success was simply not there. (It would be there later, for Montgomery).
In the end, the attack on Halfaya Pass was bloodily repulsed and the British armour decimated by the German 88s. Rommel’s spies had discovered the British plan and his forces had been lying in wait, with the 88mm anti-tank guns dug in and carefully concealed.
The tables were suddenly turned. German panzer units advanced and were outflanking the British positions, intent in cutting off any possible retreat. Messervy ordered a general withdrawal.
By the time Wavell had flown in from his headquarters, Operation Battleaxe was at an end. That the British forces escaped at all was due to the fighting qualities of the men on the ground, the tankers and the gunners, and to the pilots of the RAF.