“The Eighth Army with about 75,000 men excellently armed and equipped, have started a general offensive in the Western Desert with the aim of destroying the German-Italian forces in Africa.”
—BBC Radio Cairo News Bulletin
When Operation Battleaxe, the June 1941 British Army offensive to lift the siege of Tobruk, Libya failed, Prime Minister Winston Churchill determined a change of command in the Middle East was necessary. Commander in Chief Middle East Gen. Archibald Wavell was shipped to India. His replacement was Gen. Claude Auchinlek, known affectionately as “the Auk,” and British troops in Egypt were reorganized under a new name – Eighth Army. Appointed C-in-C Middle East on June 30, 1941, Auchinlek began making plans for Operation Crusader, the second major British campaign in North Africa.
The goal of Operation Crusader was the destruction of Axis armored forces in the Cyrenaica region of Libya and the lifting of the siege of British and Commonwealth troops in Tobruk. Churchill liked the offensive’s objectives. What he didn’t like was its start time – November 1941. Impetuous and impatient, Churchill wanted an immediate offensive. Auchinlek refused. The troops he had inherited were tired and dispirited. New troops from England needed desert warfare training and acclimatization. Though he had more tanks and armored vehicles, their armor and firepower was inferior to that of the Germans, requiring him to develop new tactics to counter this deficiency. While Churchill fumed and fulminated, Auchinlek trained and built up his forces.
Operation Crusader kicked off on Nov. 18, 1941, an attack that surprised Lt. Gen. Erwin Rommel, commander of the German and Italian forces, who expected it in December. Crusader succeeded in achieving one goal, lifting the siege. But Rommel managed to extricate the bulk of his army before it was enveloped, and by the end of December had successfully retreated to defensive positions at the Gulf of Sirte port of El Agheila.
Churchill blamed Auchinlek for the incomplete victory of Crusader. But Alan Moorehead, a journalist assigned to the Eighth Army, in his history of the British North African campaign, March to Tunis, confirmed one of the problems identified by Auchinlek, and identified another, “[A]ll our tanks were out-gunned and . . . however many vehicles the Germans lost they were going to get a far greater number back into action than we could because of their efficient recovery system.”
Desert warfare in North Africa during this period has often been compared to naval warfare, where the ebb and flow of combat more resembles battles between fleets of ships, with territory changing hands numerous times before the outcome is decided. It was also noted for its sense of chivalry.
A British field hospital located near the Egyptian-Libyan border was overrun by German troops on Nov. 25, a week after Crusader was launched. This change of possession was ignored by its chief surgeon, Maj. Ian Aird, who had been working on wounded troops almost non-stop in his operating tent, a lean-to set up behind a three-ton army truck. At about noon, a German stretcher party entered the tent, carrying the seriously wounded Col. Fritz Stephan, commander of the Fifth Panzer Regiment. The German doctor with them requested Aird apply a pressure dressing to Stephan’s chest so he could be flown back to a German hospital. Aird said Stephan needed immediate surgery or he would die. Aird then began prepping Stephan for the operation while the doctor left to advise his superiors outside.
British artillery began falling near the German formations when the doctor returned and told Aird, “The Herr General asks you to be so good as to proceed with surgery.” At one point Aird looked up and saw that a group of senior German officers had entered the tent. One of the concerned observers, a general, was wearing at his throat the Pour le Mérite, the top German decoration for valor in World War I. When the artillery rounds started falling closer the officers left the tent and departed in their vehicles; the German general pausing long enough to thank Aird.
Hours later the field hospital was back in British hands. Col. Stephan, however, died shortly after surgery. After the war, Aird met the colonel’s widow. He described to her, then, the circumstances of her husband’s death, and of the touch of humanity displayed by the general who wore the Pour le Mérite, Erwin Rommel.