Operation Brevity was a limited offensive conducted in mid-May 1941, during the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. Conceived by the commander-in-chief of the British Middle East Command, General Archibald Wavell, Brevity was intended to be a rapid blow against weak Axis front-line forces in the Sollum–Capuzzo–Bardia area of the border between Egypt and Libya. Although the operation got off to a promising start, throwing the Axis high command into confusion, most of its early gains were lost to local counterattacks, and with German reinforcements being rushed to the front the operation was called off after a day.
Egypt had been invaded by Libyan-based Italian forces in September 1940, but by February of the following year a British counter-offensive had advanced well into Libya, destroying the Italian Tenth Army in the process. British attention then shifted to Greece, which was under the threat of Axis invasion; while Allied divisions were being diverted from North Africa, the Italians were being reinforced with the German Afrika Korps under General Erwin Rommel. Rapidly taking the offensive against his distracted and over-stretched opponent, by April 1941 Rommel had driven the British and Commonwealth forces in Cyrenaica back across the Egyptian border. Although the battlefront now lay in the border area, the port city of Tobruk—100 miles (160 km) inside Libya—had resisted the Axis advance, and its substantial Australian and British garrison constituted a significant threat to Rommel’s lengthy supply chain. He therefore committed his main strength to besieging the city, leaving the front line only thinly held.
Wavell defined Operation Brevity’s main objectives as the acquisition of territory from which to launch a further planned offensive towards Tobruk, and the depletion of German and Italian forces in the region. With limited battle-ready units to draw on in the wake of Rommel’s recent successes, on 15 May Brigadier William Gott attacked in three columns with a mixed infantry and armoured force. The strategically important Halfaya Pass was taken against stiff Italian opposition, and deeper inside Libya Fort Capuzzo was captured, but German counterattacks regained the fort during the afternoon causing heavy casualties amongst its defenders. Gott, concerned that his forces were in danger of being caught by German armour in open ground, conducted a staged withdrawal to the Halfaya Pass during 16 May, and Brevity was closed down. The importance of the Halfaya Pass as a safe supply route was highlighted to Rommel, and eleven days later it was recaptured by a German counterattack.