#01a - Enter Rommel (31 March 1941) - PzC 04 Tobruk '41
#01a - Enter Rommel (31 March 1941)By Wig Graves
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Mersa el Brega, 31 March 1941: After their glorious victory over the Italians in December 1940, the British were beset with demands for their meager resources. As troops were dispatched to other theaters, mostly to West Africa and Greece, the Western Desert was held by the green British 2nd Armoured and the under trained, and some would say misfit, 9th Australian Division. The breathing space given to the Axis was unfortunate, as Rommel would arrive in Africa on 12 February, along with the lead elements of German troops sent to support their Italian allies. By the end of March he had accumulated enough force to test the British defenses and el Agheila, the gateway to Cyrenaica, fell on 24 March without a single casualty. However, 25km to the east lay the small anchorage of Mersa el Brega and the last natural defensive position between el Agheila and el Alamein, 1000 kilometers to the east. It was here, amongst the salt marshes, that the British 2nd Armoured Division decided to make its stand, and to give the German 5th Light Division their first set piece battle of the Africa Campaign. The main action was fought in the area of the coast road, where the Support Group repulsed repeated German attacks, giving them their first taste of concentrated 25-pounder fire. In the late afternoon, German infantry infiltrated among the coastal sand dunes and, finally, turned the British infantry out of their positions. Ordered not to squander the paltry strength of the British armor, made up of various derelict cruiser and captured Italian tanks, General Gambier-Perry refused to counter-attack with the 3rd Armoured Brigade, and the Division abandoned the position during the night. Rommel then began his famous cross-desert move and the running of the "Benghazi Handicap", the race to evacuate the 9th Australian Division from the Benghazi area before the Germans could cut-off their retreat, had started.