The name for the Battle of Gazala is itself an irony insofar as it implies precisely what General Rommel intended the British to believe...that his marginal attack towards Gazala near the Libyan coast would be the schwerpunkt of his main assault. In fact, Rommel prodded his mobile forces far to the south, pivoting them around the Bir Hacheim strongpoint (the furthest extent of the Allied fortifications) and then thrust them into the unfortified southern flank of the British defensive network. It is at this stage that the game Cauldron begins.
Tobruk, once again, was the crux of the battle; as a port, and particularly because of its natural breakwater geography shielding the harbor from the Mediterranean Sea, Tobruk was probably the most important anchorage in all of North Africa west of Alexandria (as it had been, in fact, for thousands of years). Rommel’s intended thrust into Egypt could not be possible without first capturing Tobruk, and both sides knew it. It is no wonder that the British undertook such elaborate efforts to sew innumerable mines across nearly fifty miles of desert (from the coast southward as the crow flies) to defend a city of only 5,000 inhabitants.
Rommel’s plan (known to the Axis as Operation Venezia) was a dichotomy of boldness and riskiness; the offensive absolutely surprised the British command, although it was not without its setbacks...Rommel had tasked the Italian Ariete Division to assault and capture the Bir Hacheim fortified “box” (as the British termed their various outposts in Cyrenaica), but encountered a full brigade of stalwart Free French that meted out punishing fire from their heavily fortified position. As the lynchpin of Rommel’s pivoting maneuver, Bir Hacheim’s stiff resistance upset the offensive’s tempo, and so the entire battle then began to develop into a wider engagement of dueling armored vehicles further out in the middle of the desert...an area that became known as the “Cauldron”. This presented a severe danger to the German offensive if any British mobile units could get around and isolate Rommel’s panzers (which were now very far afield while fighting to reach Tobruk). Rommel was thus forced into a defensive posture while he detached an entire division to double-back and overrun Bir Hacheim, although the French brigade there continued to hold their position steadfastly nonetheless; Bir Hacheim had become the proverbial—almost literal—thorn in the Desert Fox’ side.
It was then that the British overplayed their hand; General Auchinleck ordered a massive armored counterattack that benefitted the Germans’ well-honed defensive tactics—particularly their employment of superior guns—that mauled the attacking British tank formations. Rommel was quick to exploit his serendipitous ambush with aggressive panzer assaults that inflicted additional losses upon the decimated British armor, which soon forced them into a wholesale retreat. British tank losses were so severe (~75% by some estimates) that the defense of Tobruk became practicably untenable thereafter, compelling Auchinleck to order a withdrawal of all Allied forces to more defensible positions to the east, and thus the abandonment of Tobruk altogether. Fortunately for the Allies, Rommel’s own losses exceeded his available replacements, and so the Germans could not pursue the withdrawing British into Egypt...at least not immediately.
In game terms, the Allies field nearly as many units as the Axis (if including the arriving reinforcements), but nearly 100 more aggregate combat strength points (i.e., attack and defense strength points). However, most Allied units are out of position during the first turn of the game, and the German allotment of Support Fire markers is appreciably greater than the British (i.e., 11 versus 6). Nevertheless, the German player must be careful about his casualties because the British can afford “Ex” (Exchange) results more easily than the Germans; the loss of combat power for each “Ex” result borne by the Axis will be felt more acutely, particularly over the long term. Ergo, a battle of attrition is an inefficient German strategy, to say the least...especially when considering that the German player is granted 26 game turns to reach Tobruk...ample time to orchestrate a methodical campaign.
Operationally, the primary concern for both sides is the exposure of their respective forward supply hexes (El Adem for the British, and the depot in hex 2924 for the Axis...the latter representing continuous supply convoys feeding Rommel’s offensive). These locations become strategically important during the game, just as they were historically. Players will understand why the Allied position at Bir Hacheim cannot be bypassed, and also why El Adem was the focal point of the fighting in the “Cauldron”. If a supply hex becomes captured, the very tangible consequences (i.e., that player’s allotment of Support Fire markers becomes halved) are exceptionally problematic...probably more so for the German player (any loss of Support Fire markers would downshift the entire Axis offensive, perhaps even halting it altogether). The British player’s situation is substantively different because he can withdraw his forces to a defensive position behind the ring of anti-tank ditches around Tobruk’s perimeter...and hope to hold out. But this situation is not ideal at all when the enemy can wield considerably more Support Fire markers. In view of the game’s length, no defensive line can be expected to withstand repeated attacks that are augmented by surplus support fire (unless, perhaps, enemy casualties have been excessive —or at least significant—up to then). This very circumstance is what compelled Auchinleck to order the remnant Allied forces to retreat back to Egypt (rather than attempt to hold Tobruk) after the devastation of British armor in the Cauldron.
In this way the game replicates the actual battle well. Despite the historic outcome, the victory conditions in Cauldron are very achievable for either side. Of course, the Axis ultimately won the battle, but Rommel had considered his situation to be very tenuous from the outset...fully aware of the risks involved (calculated risks, albeit). Indeed, throughout Rommel’s entire military career ‘risks’ were emblematic of his style of battle, though they were not always lucrative. At the Battle of Gazala, Rommel’s risk to dash around the British defenses—hundreds of miles from his supply sources—would prove to be, arguably, his most profitable gamble of the war.