The Battle of Sidi Rezegh was part of Operation Crusader during World War 2, and one in which there was substantial South African sacrifice and bravery.
The battle was primarily a clash of armour between Allied (British and Commonwealth) and Axis (German and Italian) forces to try to relive the German Afrika Korp’s siege of Tobruk and took place around a strategic airfield. A feature in the battle was the white tomb of Sidi Rezegh shown here with battle debris around it.
The South Africans fought valiantly in this battle but the losses were incredibly high, the 5th South African Infantry Brigade had gone into this action with a brigade strength of 5 800 and had come out with a strength of under 2 000. The balance had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
The German General, Rommel attacked with 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions (battle tank and armoured divisions) and captured the airfield located there. Fighting was desperate and gallant, The fighting at Sidi Rezegh continued through 22 November 1941, with South African Division’s 5th Infantry Brigade by that time engaged to the south of the airfield. An attempt to recapture it failed and the Axis counter-offensive began to gain momentum.
The most memorable action during the North African campaign of the 3rd Field Regiment, (Transvaal Horse Artillery) was during the battle of Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941. The South Africans were surrounded on all sides by German armour and artillery, subjected to a continuous barrage. They tried to take cover in shallow slit trenches. In many places the South African soldiers could only dig down to around 9 inches [23 cm] deep due to the solid limestone underneath their positions.
The Transvaal Horse Artillery engaged German tanks from the 15th and 21st Panzer divisions, the gunners firing over open sights as they were overrun. This continued until many of the officers were dead and the gunners had run out of ammunition.
Many of the gun crews were captured. As darkness fell, those that could escaped back to Allied lines under cover of darkness. The artillerymen of the 3rd Field Regiment managed to save 5 of their 24 guns from the battlefield. They later recovered a further 7 guns.
Although initially a German success, this battle ultimately proved disastrous for the German Afrika Korps as they lost 72 of their tanks to the hard fought attrition and resistance of the Allies and especially the South African forces and this would ultimately turn the tide of the North African theatre of operations to the Allies.
This is summed up best after the battle of Sidi Rezegh by Acting Lieutenant General Sir Charles Willoughby Moke Norrie stated that the South African’s “sacrifice resulted in the turning point of the battle, giving the Allies the upper hand in North Africa at that time”.
The image below shows a Afrika Korps tanks and armoured vehicles burning in the assault by the 15th Panzer Division (8th Panzer Regiment) in November 1941.
The images below show some of the South African involved – left to right Lt Col Ian Buchan ‘Tiger’ Whyte, DC, and a captain of the 3rd Field Regiment (THA) pose in front of some of the 32 German tanks knocked out by their guns at Sidi Rezegh on 23 November 1941, secondly Some South African survivors of Sidi Rezegh, members of what remained of the 3rd Field Regiment (THA) being returned to Mersa Matruh in Egypt to be re-formed as a fighting unit and finally a South African Machine Gun Platoon 27 Battalion At Sidi Rezegh
The feature image shows a Afrika Korps work shop which was overrun at Sidi Rezegh: South African War Museum as published in: Klein, Harry Lt-Col (1946). Springbok Record.
References – Wikipedia and the Military History Journal Vol 14 No 5 – June 2009 Sidi Rezegh : Reminiscences of the late Gunner Cyril Herbert Glass, 143458, 3rd Field Regiment (Transvaal Horse Artillery)