Today sees the anniversary of Operation Brevity, a (very) limited offensive conducted in mid-May 1941, during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Conceived by the commander-in-chief of the British Middle East Command, General Archibald Wavell, Brevity was intended to be a rapid blow against weak Axis front-line forces in the Sollum - Capuzzo - Bardia area of the border between Egypt and Libya.
Halfaya Pass (English colloquial: Hellfire Pass) is located in Egypt, near the border with Libya. A 600-foot (180 m) high escarpment extends south eastwards from the Egyptian-Libyan border at the coast at as-Salum (or Saloum, Solum, Sollum), with the scarp slope facing into Egypt. Halfaya Pass is about two miles (3 km) inland from the Mediterranean and provides a natural route through.
The escarpment is known as Akabah el-Kebir ( "great ascent") In World War II, the engineered route up the escarpment had been destroyed and the pass had great strategic importance. The only ways westwards into Libya were to assault the pass or to out-flank it to the south.
After the defeat of the Italian 10th Army on 7 February 1941 during Operation Compass, the Italians were reinforced by German units (Afrika Korps under Erwin Rommel) and the British forces were forced out of Libya, leaving a besieged garrison at Tobruk. On 14 April 1941. Rommel's main force reached Sollum on the Egyptian border and occupied the Halfaya Pass. There were several allied attempts to recapture the Halfaya Pass and relieve Tobruk.
The first attempt on 15 May, was Operation Brevity. Rommel counter-attacked: the British withdrew and by 27 May the Germans had recaptured Halfaya Pass, a passage of time in which Major Edward Thomas earned his Military Cross. Supply shortages obliged the Germans to curtail their advance, so they dug in and fortified their positions at Halfaya with 88 millimetre guns. This was the anchor for the Axis positions, which opposed the Allied forces during the next allied attack — Operation Battleaxe on 15 June. German armour was deployed to draw the British tanks (11th Hussars) onto the concealed 88 mm guns and the first wave was cut down in a few minutes (11 out of 12 tanks were destroyed), earning the pass the nickname "Hellfire Pass". The allied commander, Major Miles, was last heard on the radio reporting, "They are tearing my tanks apart."
The third attempt, Operation Crusader opened on 18 November, with a direct attack on Halfaya Pass and an attempt to outflank Rommel to the south and relieve Tobruk. This was done on 29 November. Rommel, now under pressure, withdrew to El Agheila.
Halfaya Pass was the location of the accidental death of Major-General 'Jock' Campbell (VC), then commander of the British 7th Armoured Division. On 26 February 1942, a month after assuming command, his staff car skidded on a newly laid clay road surface, killing him outright.
The First Battle of Hellfire Pass:
Operation Brevity: Following the Allied withdrawal from the eastern Libyan province of Cyrenaica in April 1941, 13th Corps was reconstituted under Beresford-Peirse and refitted. On 12 May a convoy arrived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria with reinforcements including 220 tanks. General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief Middle East, was under continual pressure from Churchill to engage Rommel and make amends for the defeat earlier that year.
The operation got off to a promising start, throwing the Axis high command off balance. However most of its early gains were lost to local counterattacks, and with German reinforcements being rushed to the front. The operation was called off after a day.
Egypt had been invaded by Libyan-based Italian forces in September 1940, but by February of the following year a British counter-offensive had advanced well into Libya, destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process.
British attention then shifted to Greece, which was under the threat of Axis invasion; while Allied divisions were being diverted from North Africa, the Italians were reinforced with the German Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel's command. Rapidly taking the offensive against his distracted and over-stretched opponent, Rommel drove the British and Commonwealth forces in Cyrenaica back across the Egyptian border by April 1941.
Although the battlefront now lay in the border area, the port city of Tobruk—100 miles (160 km) inside Libya—had resisted the Axis advance, and its substantial Commonwealth and British garrison constituted a significant threat to Rommel’s lengthy supply chain. He therefore committed his main strength to besieging the city, leaving the front line only thinly held.
Wavell defined Operation Brevity’s main objective as the acquisition of territory from which to launch a further planned offensive towards Tobruk, depleting German and Italian forces in the region as he went. With limited battle-ready units to draw on in the wake of Rommel’s recent successes, on 15 May Brigadier William Gott attacked in three columns with a mixed infantry and armoured force.
The strategically important Halfaya Pass was taken against stiff Italian opposition, and Fort Capuzzo, lying deeper inside Libya, was captured. German counterattacks regained the fort during the afternoon causing heavy casualties amongst its defenders. Gott, concerned that his forces were in danger of being caught by German armour in open ground, conducted a staged withdrawal to the Halfaya Pass during 16 May. Brevity was scuttled. As the balance of forces became more unfavourable to the British, 13th Corps withdrew to Halfaya Pass. The strategically important pass was held for two weeks before it fell to a German counter-attack.
The operation had gained no territory and the damage inflicted on German tanks and artillery was more than balanced by the loss of British equipment, much of which the Germans were able to recover.
Following the British withdrawal, Rommel fortified the frontier with minefields and 88mm anti-tank guns - a weapon superior to any then deployed by the British.
Operation Brevity was a bitter lesson for the Allies: to deal with an enemy like Rommel, equally skilled in deploying tanks to outgun infantry and artillery to stop tanks, new levels of preparation and planning would be required.