The Battle of Bir el Gubi, also known as Bir el Gobi, took place in Libya on 19 November 1941. It has earned an honored place in Italian military history. This clash resulted in a baptism of fire for one of Italy’s newly constructed Armored Divisions. The Ariete faced armor from Commonwealth forces head to head for the first time on the battlefield.
The Battle of Bir el Gubi and Italy’s overall performance during Operation Crusader became a wakeup call for Italy’s adversaries and partners alike. It demonstrated that this was not the same Italian army that had been swept easily away from Egypt during the failed Italian invasion of 1940. The First Battle of Bir el Gubi should be looked on as the beginning of redemption for the Italian military.
Reflecting back on the Italian’s performance throughout Operation Crusader, noted British historian Richard Humble stated:
Crusader should be remembered as the battle in which the Italian army can claim to have recovered its self-respect.
Objectives of Operation Crusader
In Mid November of 1941, British Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham and his staff put the final touches on their plans for the pending Allied campaign, Operation Crusader. They hoped this plan would deal a devastating blow to the Axis forces in North Africa. Crusader’s objective was to destroy the Axis forces positioned in Libya. It also attempted to relieve the siege of their own trapped forces in the city of Tobruk. The plan, in a nutshell, called for the British tanks from 7 Armor and 22 Armor to engage the German Afrika Korps in an overwhelming attack and destroy their armor in a series of devastating battles.
As they formulated their attack for the upcoming battle, the British became aware of the Italians situated on the Germans flank near Bir el Gubi. But the planned operation hardly seemed to pay much concern to them. The British believed they could ‘fence’ the Italians in with their forces. Alternatively, the Italians might simply retreat when confronted with direct engagement. The British could then advance on to Sidi Rezegh to face the Germans, the main target of their offensive.
Crusader also called for British XIII Corps, with 4th Armoured, to circle in from the west, and the 70th Division to join the fight as they broke out of the siege at Tobruk. The key for the British for the operation, however, was the firepower of the tanks in 7th Armored. British planners felt that the time was right for the annihilation of the Axis forces in Africa. The date for the attack was set for November 18th. Allied expectations ran high for a decisive victory. Bir el Gubi hardly received a second thought.
Axis Plans to Take Tobruk
The Axis were also making plans of their own for an offensive to finally take Tobruk from the Allied forces holding it. This Axis operation was to take place on November 24th, with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions leading the attack. The Italians had been assigned a support role for in this operation.
Italy’s Lack of Armor in 1940
That November, the Italians for the first time had a fully equipped Armored Division in the theater, the 132 Ariete. During Italy’s failed invasion into Egypt the previous year, the Italian Army did not have a true Armored division fighting in the desert. Their very immobile invasion force consisted mainly of infantry and motorized units. Light tanks and a handful of M13/39 tanks were haphazardly deployed. Some M13/40 tanks arrived with the Italian XXII corps later in the conflict, but in far too few numbers to do any good. Overwhelming British strength, specifically in armor, lead to the defeat of the Italian forces that year. They had been driven out of Egypt following their initial advance.
During the rout of the previous year, the Italian soldier’s morale had been crushed due to the belief that they possessed no means to counter the British armor opposing them. In particular, the seemingly unstoppable Matilda tank. The Matilda possessed 78mm thick frontal armor that was basically impervious against anything the Italians could muster against it from either their armor or anti-tank guns. This often led to scenes of panic as the lumbering Matildas could ravage Italian positions basically unmolested.
Superior British Armor
In his book Pendulum of War, Niall Barr stated ”… the Germans had also panicked when first confronted with the Matilda during the Arras counterattack in France”. The Germans eventually realized that they were able to utilize their Flak 38 88mm gun against Matildas. They had the firepower to penetrate the tank’s armor when used in an anti-tank role. Unfortunately, the Italians did not possess such a weapon in the desert to challenge the dominance of the Matilda.
For the most part, British armor outmatched the few tanks Italy possessed at the start of that campaign. In reality, Italian tanks were more on par with the Bren carriers. As the British’s armor pounded anything the Italians could put against them, a sense of fatalism spread through the Italian ranks, which sapped their overall ‘fighting spirit’.
The Italians avoided the complete destruction of their North African troops by finally stabilizing the front lines. Italian forces greatly benefited by British forces overextending their own supply lines. This forced a slowdown in British operations. The British Empire had been compelled to divert much of it’s men and supplies to other theaters of battle around the world. This greatly limited their ability to continue their offensive in the desert.
Arrival of the Ariete Armored Division
In November of 1941, things were quite different for the Italians however. The Ariete Division boasted 146 tanks, almost all of them M13/40 Mediums. The M13/40 weighed in at 15 tons and sported a 47 mm main gun. While by no means considered a great tank, it was a marked improvement over the bulk of what the Italians could field previously.
Of almost equal importance to the increase in quality and quantity of their tanks, the training and skill level of the Italian tank crews also greatly improved. The Italians incorporated the tactics of their German counterparts employed in battle. This new knowledge would be put to good use on future battlefields.
Ariete Artillery and Infantry Support
For artillery at Bir el Gubi, the Ariete maintained 16 105mm guns, over 30 75mm cannons, and an assortment of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns. The Italians also made an ingenious ‘secret’ weapon. They obtained several 102mm naval guns from a damaged warship and mounted them on FIAT 634 trucks. This gave them a powerful mobile anti-tank punch. Two Infantry regiments and a regiment of Bersaglier light infantry also supported the Ariete.
Ariete Protects Afrika Korps Flanks
General Erwin Rommel positioned the Italians on the flanks of his Afrika Korps for his planned offensive. The Trieste Motorized Division at Bir Hacheim, and the Ariete to his southeast at Bir el Gubi. It would be the Ariete’s responsibility to defend against a British counter-attack from Egypt. Or as Rommel suspected, probing attacks to distract him from his main effort.
First Shots Exchanged
On November 18th the two opposing armies made first contact. Recon forces scouting ahead for Operation Crusader from the British 22 Armoured Brigade ran into a patrol of Italian armored cars. Shots exchanged, and the Italian patrol pulled back to report their findings. General Gastone Gambra, General Ettore Bastico’s chief of Staff, radioed the details of the encounter to Rommel. Gambra felt that an imminent and large British attack was forthcoming in this sector. Part of his belief was based on intercepted Allied transmissions that the Italians obtained over the previous days. Over the past few days, General Bastico had also attempted in vain to persuade General Rommel to postpone his planned attack in belief that they must prepare for a large British strike.
Rommel Unconvinced of Imminent British Attack
Rommel though was not convinced. He believed the activity was nothing more than a reconnaissance to distract the Axis forces. Rommel suggested General Gambra remain vigilant, but not to be overly concerned about the encounter. General Gambra decided, however, to follow his instincts and ignore Rommel’s suggestion. Later that night, he placed his troops on high alert and advised them to prepare for an imminent attack. It turned out to be the right decision.
British Assumption on Italian Forces
British 22 Armored, along with 7 support group, received orders to advance towards Bir el Gubi on the 19th. The British expected the Italians to simply fade away upon seeing the British force approach especially since the Ariete remained isolated from German support. Once the Ariete dispersed, the British intended to move in their infantry, 1 South African Division, and occupy the area the Italians vacated.
The British plan to pen in or simply ‘scare’ the Italians away changed that morning. British General Gott decided to launch a full attack against the Italians at Bir el Gubi. He likely believed this would be a quick one-sided affair. This assumption is based primarily on the Italian performance the previous year. Gott would then have a completely guarded flank after the victory.
Another reason General Gott altered the original Crusader plan is that he likely figured the strength of his forces was more than sufficient to clear the area of the Italians. British forces under his command boasted 158 Crusader tanks to employ in battle. The Crusader tank was very comparable to the Italian M13/40, but with a few advantages. The armament was very similar, with the Crusader tank having slightly better armor protection and a somewhat more powerful engine. 22 Armored also boasted a battery of 25-pound artillery and a company of infantry attached to them.
British intelligence underestimated the Italian’s strength. Each side was fairly evenly matched in the amount of armor at their disposal.
First Batte of Bir el Gubi Begins
Around noon of the 19 November 1941, the Battle of Bir el Gubi began in earnest. The Italians sent a group of 16 M13’s a few miles ahead of the defensive line to act as a screening force. The British spotted the group and fired off artillery in their vicinity. A pack of about 40 Crusaders then quickly approached and engaged the M13’s. A brief but fierce encounter ensued, with each side losing a few tanks. Greatly outnumbered, the Italians retreat back to their defensive line.
Artillery from both sides opened fire on each other following the initial opening skirmish. The British unleashed their main attack. The bulk of their tanks came roaring across the sand toward the Italian lines. Italian defense opened up with almost everything they had. The right side of the Italian line received the brunt of the initial British thrust. Unfortunately for the Allied forces, it was the most heavily defended side. Italian defenders poured down 75mm fire, and several groups of Bersaglieri unloaded 47mm anti-tank cannons against opposing armor.
British Forces Break Through Italian Lines
The M13’s positioned on this portion of the line added their fire into the fray as well. The British were unable to break this strong point. They started to funnel their tanks to the left under the withering fire hoping for a more favorable position to advance. As they moved farther down the line, they hit a weaker point in the Italian defense and broke through.
Italians Exploit British Advance
The British tanks started to tear up the second wave of defensive fortification in this area as they moved forward. Advancing tanks forced the surrender of several Bersaglieri. However, the Italians quickly realized that the British tanks had advanced so far down the left from their main body that they lost their infantry escorts. Many Bersaglieri who at first surrendered, now picked up their weapons and once again joined the battle.
The Italians in the meantime were able to bolster the defense here against this localized British breakthrough. This blocked the British advance in this sector. A further group of British tanks tried to outflank the Italian position on the far left. The minefield considerably slowed them down, as well as heavy artillery fire directed upon them. As a group of Crusaders picked their way through the mines and incoming fire, they spotted in the distance what looked like a group of Italian transports or supply vehicles. British tanks immediately raced in for the kill on what they assumed would be easy targets.
Italy Unleashes 102mm Truck Mounted Naval Guns
It was to their great surprise to see this group of vehicles open fire as the British approached. These vehicles were not just mere transports. In fact, they contained the group of mobile 102mm naval guns mounted aboard Fiats and cleverly hidden amongst the other vehicles. Several Crusaders received hits and immediately burst into flames or became disabled. Italian guns fired armor-piercing rounds designed to blast through ship’s armor plating. They proved very effective against the advancing Crusaders. Several British tanks had their turrets blasted off and into the air from the force of the impact. British tanks in this area quickly turned around and pulled back to avoid complete annihilation.
Italian Forces Order of Battle at Bir el-Gobi (Montanari)
Ariete Armored Division
132° reggimento carri medi
VII° battaglione carri M13/40
VIII° battaglione carri M13/40
IX° battaglione carri M13/40
8° reggimento bersaglieri
V/8° battaglioni bersaglieri
battaglione armi accompagnamento
battaglione controcarri (47/32)
132° reggimento artiglieria
I/132° artiglieria (75/27)
1 gruppo/3° Celere artiglieri (75/27)
1 gruppo/24° artiglieria d’armata (105/28)
MILMART (seven 102mm guns)
The battle raged on. Though British forces were doing considerable damage and inflicting casualties onto the defenders, they were unable to break through or force an Italian retreat. It was at this point that the Italians unleashed their counter-attack against the unsuspecting British. The Ariete had kept between 80 and 100 of their M13/40 tanks in reserve for just this moment. The tanks raced out from the rear and poured fire into the British armor and troops before them. The British were once again surprised, as their intelligence had underestimated the number of tanks the Italians possessed.
The now outnumbered Crusaders returned fire. Italian infantry charged forward to help eliminate disabled British tanks, ensuring they would not return to the battle. Late in the afternoon, the British retreated out of range to regroup. The battlefield lay littered with dozens of burning tanks from both sides. Their smoke slowly rising into the air before dispersing on the desert winds.
First Successful Italian Tank Battle in North Africa
The First Battle of Bir El Gubi is considered the first tank battle where Italian forces achieved success over Allied forces in North Africa. The battle contained all of the elements associated with large scale desert warfare in World War Two; large concentrations of tanks moving out across the sand, dust billowing in their wake as they speed forward. The deafening thunder of artillery guns blasting off their deadly payloads at targets unseen over the horizon. Troops dug into the earth waiting for the proper range with anti-tank and machine guns. They watched the dust trail of the armored giants racing towards them spewing death from their cannon. The somehow coordinated yet chaotic attack and counter-attack played out with 15-ton behemoths on a battlefield blessedly free of innocent civilians.
Bir el Gubi also contained all of the horrors of desert warfare; troops felled by bullets that ripped through flesh and bone. Artillery rounds slamming into the earth, uncaringly tearing apart anything in the blast. Men desperately trying to extract themselves from tanks or vehicles engulfed in hellish, all-consuming flame. It was war.
British Forces Underestimate Remaining Italian Strength
The evening of the 19th, the British commanders were confused and in somewhat disbelief on what had transpired earlier in the day. They had not anticipated the resistance they encountered on the field of battle that day. As the evening grew dark, they concluded the Italians must have been almost completely destroyed during the battle. They reasoned that if their own troops took such a beating, surly the Italians must be almost completely wiped out. With this line of thinking, British command now ordered the 1 South African Infantry Division to advance and secure the Italian positions. Once accomplished, they planned to send the remaining 22 Armoured to Sidi Rezegh to assist 7 Armoured against the Germans.
The British, however, changed their minds on this plan as more reports filtered back from the battle. The 22 Armored received orders to remain with 1 South African Infantry. This was a wise choice. Sending an infantry division in by themselves without tank support against an Armored Division could have been disastrous for the British forces. British leaders had envisioned while drawling up Crusader that both 7 and 22 Armored assisted by 1 South African by now would have moved forward to face the Africa Korps. However, the stout defensive stand by the Ariete Division put their plans in disarray.
A Second Attempt to Take the Italian Position
The next morning the British reconsidered their strategy once again. They assumed the Italians must be in worse shape than their own troops following the previous day’s battle. They decided to send in 1 South African Brigade against the Italian lines with 22 Armored kept back in reserve to assist if needed. The armored cars in the lead element of the British advance quickly came under heavy artillery fire as they approached the well dug in Italians. The Italians were still there and did not plan to yield as the British had hoped. The British once again fell back following an exchange of artillery fire.
With the full 1 South African now regrouped and assembled later in the day, the British released 22 Armored and quickly rushed them to reinforce 4 Armor Division against the German 21 Panzer Division at Gabr Saleh. The British felt their remaining forces at Bir el Gubi, with artillery support, could at least keep the Italians where they currently were. The rest of the day the Italians and British exchanged artillery fire, but neither side made any further advances.
Additional Skirmishes at Bir el Gobi
On the 21st, the British attempted a flanking maneuver at the Italian line with a group of armored cars, but Italian tanks stopped this advance. Later that same day, the Italians launched about 30 tanks at the British lines. However, heavy artillery fire and a group of Crusader tanks broke up the attack. Italians pulled back to their own lines.
The day of the 22nd was relatively quiet. The Ariete Division received orders late that afternoon that the bulk of their tanks would pull out the next day to coordinate on another attack with the Germans. This plan called for Ariete to advance on the British troops near Sidi Rezegh and attempt to crush them between elements of 21 Panzer. The first Battle of Bir el Gubi was over.
An Italian Battlefield Victory
The Battle of Bir el Gubi had been an impressive victory for the Italians. They had not only stood up under the weight of a large British armored offensive but inflicted heavy damage to the attacker while retaining the ground they defended. With their forces unexpectedly tied up with the Italians, only one full-strength Armored unit reached Sidi Rezegh. Rommel’s Afrika Korps subsequently crushed it. The battle might have turned out differently had the British hit the Afrika Korps with the intended strength they had planned for.
The battles fought during Crusader over the next month would rage back and forth. The British eventually broke the siege at Tobruk when the Axis army pulled back to the more defensible area of Gazala as supplies started to run out for them. The Axis would take back some of this lost land in fierce fighting before the whole of the battle came to a standstill in January.
Onward to El Alamein
The siege of Tobruk lifted, but the British failed to destroy the Axis forces as Crusader had called for. The Axis troops under Rommel would make them pay for that failure in 1942. They would drive deep into the heart of the Allies through Egypt, setting up the final showdown at El Alamein.
Casualties at Bir el Gobi
The British lost close to 50 tanks and suffered nearly 100 casualties during the fighting at Bir el Gubi. The Italians lost about 35 tanks and suffered close to 200 casualties during the successful defense staged in those hot sands of Libya.
Back on November 23rd, the Ariete division moved out of Bir el Gubi to link up with the Germans. They did so with a renewed sense of pride and confidence. As troops pulled away in their tanks and support vehicles, Bir el Gubi disappeared behind them into the hazy desert horizon and into Italian military history.
Iron Hulls Iron Hearts: Mussolini’s Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa
Rommel’s North African Campaign: Jack Green
The Rommel Papers: Erwin Rommel, Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart
Italian Army 1940-1945: Philip Jowett
Decisive Campaigns of the Second World War: John Gooch
Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein: Niall Barr
Le operazioni in Africa Settentrionale Vol. II – Tobruk (Marzo 1941-gennaio 1942), Mario Montanari