By Thomas Haymes
On the afternoon of November 23, known as Totensonntag to the Germans, General Ludwig Crüwell, commander of the Afrika Korps, decided to launch both of his armored divisions at the box being defended by the 2nd South African Brigade which had laagered just south of the contested airfield at Sidi Rezegh.
The 2nd SA was augmented by remnants of the 4th Armored Brigade which had been heavily mauled the day before attacking the Afrika Korps on the airfield itself. Crüwell decided that the South African box was just too tempting a target to pass up, and set out to annihilate it with a wild charge into its weakest side.
Heinz Werner Schmidt’s Recollections
Lieutenant Heinz Werner Schmidt, until just days before aide-de-camp to General Erwin Rommel, was commanding a heavy weapons company in the attack. He described the scene as follows:
“We headed straight for the enemy tanks. I glanced back. Behind me was a fan of our vehicles—a curious assortment of all types—spread out as far as the eye could see. There were armored troop carriers, cars of various kinds, caterpillars hauling mobile guns, heavy trucks with infantry, and motorized anti-aircraft units. Thus we roared on towards the enemy ‘barricade.’
“I stared at the front fascinated. Right ahead was the erect figure of the Colonel commanding the regiment.
“On the left close by and slightly to the rear of him was the Major’s car. Tank shells were whizzing through the air. The defenders were firing from every muzzle of their 25-pounders and their little 2-pounder anti-tank guns. We raced on at a suicidal pace.”
A Costly Victory
Crüwell’s charge destroyed the South African Brigade after a fierce fight but it was ultimately self-defeating for the Afrika Korps, because it lost 72 panzers during the attacks—the highest one-day total of the entire Crusader campaign. Panzer losses proved to be the key factor in forcing Rommel’s eventual withdrawal as the three-week-long battle deteriorated into a war of attrition, which could not be won by the Germans.