Interactive: Italian Attack at Bir Hakeim, 1942 | HistoryNet MENU

Interactive: Italian Attack at Bir Hakeim, 1942

By Jerry D. Morelock
7/20/2017 • HistoryNet

Choose the correct tactical plan for an Italian tank crew attacking French defenders in North Africa.

You are Lieutenant Tomasio LoPresti, commander of a Fiat M13/40 tank and three-man crew of 132d Armored Regiment, Italian Ariete Division, fighting in North Africa. Yesterday, May 26, 1942, an Axis military force consisting of your division, other Italian units and the German Afrika Korps, under the over all command of German General Erwin Rommel, launched a new offensive. Rommel’s plan is to defeat 1st Free French Division forces supported by British and Commonwealth troops near Bir Hakeim and then press on to capture the important fortress city of Tobruk.

At 9:30 a.m. today, your regiment and 8th Bersaglieri (Infantry) Regiment moved forward to attack the French defenses at Bir Hakeim. As Ariete Division units advanced across the open desert, an enemy artillery barrage caught 8th Bersaglieri troops still riding in their truck transports. Heavy fire forced the unarmored vehicles to withdraw temporarily, resulting in the tanks moving far ahead of their supporting infantry. In addition, the barrage caused the tanks to disperse over a wide area.

Now, an hour after your journey began, your tank arrives at the French-held trenches near Bir Hakeim. The trench line in your sector is centered on the ruins of an old abandoned fort. Although you do not observe any heavy weapons or anti-tank guns, you estimate that approximately 80-100 French infantrymen armed with rifles and a few light machine guns are in the immediate area. Based on previous experience, you assume that mines are buried in front of the trenches. However, you have no way to know if they are anti-tank mines or merely anti-personnel mines, which pose less danger to tanks and crewmen.

Rommel has repeatedly stressed that his units must boldly press their attacks to maintain the momentum of the overall offensive. But you are concerned that your infantry support has not yet arrived and the regiment’s other tanks are still scattered across the desert.

As you contemplate the tactical situation, your tank driver asks, “Lieutenant, should I proceed? I think we can run right over these Frenchies since I see only rifles and machine guns against our armor.”

WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT LOPRESTI?

ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION

The battle for North Africa – Axis German and Italian forces versus Allied British, Commonwealth and Free French forces – has seesawed back and forth across the desert since 1940. By 1942, both sides have learned hard lessons in the parameters of deadly desert warfare. Harsh conditions make the fighting especially daunting and take a toll on soldiers, weapons and vehicles alike. Temperatures range from one extreme to the other (sweltering in daytime, freezing at night), wind-driven sand chokes engines and fouls weapons, ever-present swarms of flies make life miserable for troops, and supplies (particularly water and ammunition) must be transported over great distances.

Tactically, desert warfare presents unique challenges to both sides. The lack of cover puts a premium on executing effective maneuvers to avoid enemy strongpoints, and the vast distances make it difficult for forces to secure their flanks against envelopment. Typically, defenders emplace minefields in front of their positions and employ artillery to disrupt attacking forces. The speed, mobility and armor of tanks make them vital weapons in desert warfare; however, they must avoid being drawn into well-prepared anti-tank gun positions where they can be trapped and knocked out one by one.

The French defenses you face do not appear particularly formidable, as they consist of a single trench line manned by enemy infantrymen with no heavy weapons in sight. Your tank’s armor is invulnerable to small arms and light machine-gun fire, and your 47 mm main tank gun appears to be the heaviest weapon present.

POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION

You see two options for proceeding with the attack in your sector, yet both entail some risk.

The first course of action is to attack at once without waiting for your infantry support to catch up. This plan fits with Rommel’s directive, as it boldly maintains the offensive’s momentum by striking the trench line before the enemy can bring up heavy weapons or call in artillery strikes. Since your tank’s armor is impervious to small arms fire, you could quickly overrun the trench line and likely send the enemy infantrymen into full retreat. However, you could also detonate an anti-tank mine and immobilize your tank, or the enemy could have an anti-tank gun hidden and waiting to knock out your vehicle.

The second option is to delay the attack until your infantry support arrives, since tanks and infantrymen operate best when providing mutual support. The infantrymen can clear a path through the minefield and prevent the enemy soldiers from getting close enough to immobilize your tank with grenades or improvised explosives. The supporting infantrymen can also occupy the seized position – which your tank cannot do by itself – and defend it against any attempts at a counterattack. This plan, however, may give the Allied forces time to reinforce their defenses, call in artillery fire, or move up heavy weapons that could defeat your tank-infantry attack.

TANK COMMANDER’S ORDERS

In response to your driver’s question, you yell, “Do not attack! We will wait until the infantrymen have arrived and then launch a combined tank-infantry assault. The threat of anti-tank mines and the possibility of antitank guns pose too great a risk for us to go it alone. When we launch our attack, we must strike with the strongest force we can muster.

“Reverse 200 meters! From there, we will soften up the Frenchies with fire from our main gun while we await the Bersaglieri.”

 

 Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, “Armchair General” Editor in Chief.

HISTORICAL NOTE: At 9:30 a.m. on May 27, 1942, the Italian Ariete Division (132d Armored Regiment and 8th Bersaglieri Regiment) attacked 1st Free French Division defenders at Bir Hakeim. A French artillery barrage soon forced the Bersaglieri (riding in unarmored trucks) to retreat; but despite losing infantry support, the division’s tanks continued the attack. After many of the tanks were lost in a minefield, only six Italian tanks penetrated French lines. All were destroyed by anti-tank guns and artillery. The Ariete Division attempted a flanking attack but lost 32 of its remaining 33 tanks and was forced to retreat. Rommel, however, defeated British and Commonwealth forces north of Bir Hakeim, opening the way for his army to besiege and eventually capture Tobruk on June 21, 1942.

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.

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