Crusader Offensive

Date from 18 November 1941
Date to 10 December 1941
Place Tobruk
Category Offensive
Conflict Second World War, 1939-1945

Operation Crusader was the third attempt made by British and Commonwealth forces during 1941 to relieve the besieged fortress of Tobruk. The previous two operations - Brevity (15-27 May 1941) and Battleaxe (15-17 June 1941) - had both failed, largely due to poor tactics, particularly relating to the employment of armour. After the failure of Battleaxe large quantities of reinforcements and resources were shipped to the British forces in Egypt to facilitate a new offensive. Crusader was launched on 18 November 1941. The plan was for the 13 Corps, a predominantly infantry formation, to outflank and contain the frontier defences and then strike north to the main coastal road. Further to the south, 30 Corps, an armoured formation, was to sweep across the desert, engage and destroy the German armoured units and effect a junction with the Tobruk garrison.

The attack initially achieved surprise but poor handling of 30 Corps' armour lead to its brigades and units becoming separated and defeated in detail. Seizing on the opportunity this presented, the German armoured forces mounted a lightning counter-stroke towards the Egyptian frontier on 24 November hoping it would cause a withdrawal by the British. Command changes alleviated the panic that the German move created amongst some British senior officers, and the offensive continued with 13 Corps making steady progress towards Tobruk. Contact was made with the garrison on 27 November. The focus of operations then became the point of this junction just to the south east of the Tobruk perimeter. The fighting was desperate and one of the units involved was the 2/13th Battalion, the last Australian unit remaining in the Tobruk garrison. Contact was lost on the 29 November and not re-established until 5 December. By this time, however, the Axis forces had less than 60 tanks left in action, and a freshly reinforced British armoured force was moving to cut off their withdrawal route. Orders to withdraw were given on 4 December and the last positions overlooking Tobruk were abandoned on 10 December.

Crusader was only a limited victory for the British and Commonwealth forces. They had come close to defeat for a third time, and although Tobruk had been relieved the offensive had not succeeded in its other objective of destroying the Axis forces in Cyrenaicia. The Axis forces retreated in good order, their rearguards inflicting heavy casualties on their pursuers. After a period of reinforcement and reorganisation they would advance into Cyrenaica again in February 1942.

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