WW2 Campaigns in Africa
- 1 First British Offensive in North Africa June 1940-February 1941
- 2 British Expedition to Greece and Crete: April-May 1941
- 3 Iraq and Syria: April-June 1941
- 4 East Africa and the Red Sea: June 1940 – November 1941
- 5 Arrival of the Germans in North Africa: February 1941-May 1942
- 6 Naval Operations in 1941
- 7 British Defeats in North Africa and the Turn of the Tide: May-November 1942
- 8 Anglo-American Invasion of French North Africa: November 1942-May 1943
French and British staff conversations, which began in London at the end of March 1939, included the broad outline of plans for conducting joint operations in the Mediterranean. Later, in May and June, meetings between British and’ French commanders in the Mediterranean and the Middle East were held at Rabat, Aden, and Jerusalem.
With the outbreak of war between Germany and the Allies on Sept. 3, 1939, Italy found herself in a difficult position. She had an extensive African empire, consisting of the older colonies of Eritrea, Italian Somaliland, and Libya and the more recently acquired Ethiopia. Even if her Axis partner gained early successes in northern Europe, Italy’s communications with her African possessions would be cut except for the occasional ship or aircraft which might make a hazardous journey. The British and French navies dominated the Mediterranean with powerful fleets based on British naval bases at Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria and on French bases at Toulon, Bizerte, Algiers, and Oran. In Libya the Italian garrison was sandwiched between strong French forces in French North Africa and considerable British forces in Egypt; and Italy’s other colonies were surrounded by potential enemies on all sides, although the forces arrayed against her were not very formidable in the early stages of the war. Under these conditions the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, adopted the only practical course of remaining nominally neutral while giving all possible support to Germany.
With Italy neutral and Germany without access to the area (except for an occasional submarine that might slip through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar), the Mediterranean theater remained inactive for the first nine months of the war. During this period the Allies took steps to improve their position and perfected their plans for joint action in the event of a hostile Italy. In June 1939, Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Archibald Wavell (later 1st Earl Wavell) was appointed commander in chief of all British land forces in the Middle East with headquarters in Cairo. The first contingents of Australian and New Zealand troops arrived in Egypt to reinforce his command in February 1940.
On May 10, Winston Churchill became prime minister and minister of defense, and on the same day, Hitler’s armies invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. German success was spectacular. By June 22, France had signed an armistice with Germany, and hostilities had ended; the British Expeditionary Force had withdrawn to the United Kingdom; and the northern half of France and all of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg became German-occupied countries. Meanwhile, on June 10, Italy had declared war on Great Britain and France (effective June 11). France also signed an armistice with Italy, on June 24, and the British Commonwealth was then alone in arms against Germany and Italy.
The effect of these events on the Mediterranean theater was alarming from the British point of view. The authorities in French North Africa, the other French African dependencies, and Syria decided to recognize the new French government at Vichy under Marshal Philippe Petain and to obey his orders. The carefully laid Anglo-French plans for joint action had collapsed. The burden of keeping open sea communications in the Mediterranean, defending the Suez Canal, and dealing with the Italians in East Africa now fell entirely on the British Navy and on General Wavell’s scanty forces centered in Egypt.
As of the beginning of June, the Commonwealth had 1 battleship, 1 six-inch cruiser, and 9 destroyers based on Gibraltar, and 4 battleships, 8 six-inch cruisers, 1 aircraft carrier, and 20 destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean based on Egypt, while Italy had 6 battleships (2 of which did not join the fleet until July), 7 eight-inch cruisers, 12 six-inch cruisers, and 50 destroyers. Commonwealth land forces included 1 armored division, 1 incomplete Indian division, 1 New Zealand brigade, 1 horsed cavalry division, part of an Australian division, 2 independent cavalry regiments, 19 British infantry battalions, and 2 artillery regiments, totaling about 63,500 troops, in Egypt and Palestine; and about 9,000 troops in the Sudan, 1,500 troops in British Somaliland, and 8,500 troops in Kenya, or a total of about 19,000 in East Africa. Italy had 9 metropolitan (regular) divisions, 3 Black Shirt divisions, and 2 Libyan native divisions, totaling about 200,000 troops, in Libya; and about 91,000 European and 199,000 native troops, with 400 guns and 200 light tanks, in East Africa. The Commonwealth units were generally considerably understrength, but those of the Italians were at full strength. British Commonwealth aircraft of all types numbered 375 (205 in Egypt and Palestine and 170 in East Africa) ; Italian aircraft, 638 (313 in Libya and 325 in East Africa).
In addition to General Wavell, the principal commanders on the British Commonwealth side were Adm. (later Admiral of the Fleet) Sir Andrew Cunningham (later 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope) and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, in charge, respectively, of naval and air operations in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Henry Maitland Wilson (later 1st Baron Wilson of Libya and of Stowlangtoft) was in command of British troops in Egypt; Lt. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) Richard N. O’Connor, of the Western Desert Force; Lt. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) William Platt, of troops in the Sudan; and Lt. Gen. Douglas P. Dickinson, of the East African Force, based on Kenya. General Dickinson was replaced by Lt. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) Alan G. Cunningham, younger brother of Admiral Cunningham, on November 1. On the Italian side, Marshal Italo Balbo, who was killed in an air accident in June, was succeeded as commander in chief in Libya by Marshal Rodolfo Graziani. The duke of Aosta served as viceroy and commander in chief in Italian East Africa.
First British Offensive in North Africa June 1940-February 1941
The first clash between British and Italian forces took place in the Western Desert in the early hours of June 11, before the Italian troops concerned had been told of the declaration of war. During the next six months the British carried out many small raids against Italian positions in Libya. In addition, there were numerous patrol clashes in which the superiority of. the British Commonwealth troops became apparent. On July 3, the British Navy sank or put out of action a number of units of the French Fleet at Oran and Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent their falling into German hands. French warships at Alexandria were immobilized on the following day. Later, on September 2325, British and Free French forces failed in an attempt to land at the Vichy French port of Dakar but succeeded in badly damaging the battleship Richelieu. Meanwhile, between September 13 and September 18, the Italians advanced in strength approximately 60 miles into Egypt but halted at Maktila, east of Sidi Barrani. It was a disappointment to the British that they did not advance farther, for plans had been made to deal them a heavy blow with the 7th Armored Division as they approached Matruh. During the advance the Italians lost more than 3,000 men; the British, about 150.
On October 28, Italian troops based on Albania invaded Greece. A fortnight later, on November 11, the British Fleet Air Arm attacked the Italian Fleet at Taranto and, for a loss of two aircraft, put half of its major units out of action for about six months.
In December, the Western Desert Force, consisting of the 7th Armored Division and the Indian 4th Division, began the first major British offensive in North Africa. Operations were under the direction of General Wavell, with General O’Connor in executive command. The offensive began on December 9, and by December 11, Sidi Barrani had been taken with a loss to the Italians of 38,300 prisoners. Important decisions now had to be made. The offensive had been planned to last no more than five days and to stop after the capture of Sidi Barrani. Its success had greatly exceeded expectations, and General Wavell, urged by General O’Connor, agreed to the continuance of the advance. Arrangements had been made, however, to send the Indian 4th Division to East Africa, where it was required for offensive operations: shipping was already standing by at Suez to carry it to Port Sudan. The Indian division was therefore withdrawn from the Western Desert Force on December 14, and replaced immediately by the Australian 6th Division, but the exchange caused a delay in the resumption of the offensive.
Successes followed in quick succession. Bardia was captured on Jan. 4, 1941 (32,000 prisoners were taken), and Tobruk on January 22 (about 25,000 prisoners). By this time the Italian Tenth Army (together with considerable reinforcements sent from the Fifth Army in Tripolitania) had been greatly depleted in strength, and General O’Connor decided on a bold step to complete the destruction of the Italian forces in Cyrenaica. This plan required the 7th Armored Division to make a desert march to Bedafomm near the coast with a view to getting behind and cutting off the remaining Italian troops, while the Australian 6th Division was to advance on Benghazi by the coastal route. This operation was completely successful. The 7th Armored Division reached Mekili (El Mechili) on January 27, Msus on February 4, and the Bedafomm area on February 5. Meanwhile, the Australian 6th Division, having captured Derna on January 30, advanced on Benghazi, which it reached on February 6. After some brisk fighting at Bedafomm, in which gallant efforts were made to break through the British positions, the Italians surrendered on the morning of February 7. There were about 25,000 prisoners, including Gen. Giuseppe Tellera, commander of the Tenth Army, who was mortally wounded. Immediately after the surrender a small protective group was established at El Agheila, with patrols out for 40 miles along the coast toward Sirte.
The campaign had been a remarkable success. The 13th Corps (as the western Desert Force was renamed on Jan. 1, 1941) had never exceeded a strength of 31,000 men. Between Dec. 9, 1940, and Feb. 7, 1941, it had advanced more than 500 miles and captured more than 130,000 prisoners, about 400 tanks, nearly 850 guns, and thousands of wheeled vehicles. The 13th Corps’ own losses were about 500 killed, 1,373 wounded, and 55 missing.
With the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army and the occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica, the British were faced with a difficult problem. The only Italian forces left in North Africa were 5 very weak and dispirited divisions of the Fifth Army around the port of Tripoli. General O’Connor was confident that the 13th Corps could advance and capture Tripoli, with the prospect of eliminating all Axis forces from North Africa, and he immediately drew up plans for doing so. There was, however, another urgent call in a very different direction. When the Italians began invading Greece, they had met with some initial success, but very soon the Greeks counterattacked and drove them back into Albania. Partly to help their ally and partly for other reasons, the Germans decided to advance through Yugoslavia and occupy Greece. German preparations for this move had been apparent to the British intelligence service for some time. Hitherto the Greeks had declined British aid, but on Jan. 29, 1941, Premier loannes Metaxas died, and his successor, Alexandros Korizes, intimated that he would welcome British help against what he regarded as an imminent German threat. British resources in the Middle East were insufficient to allow both an advance to Tripoli and aid to Greece. After numerous exchanges of views between the British government and General Wavell and discussions in Cairo and Athens (Athenai ), which were attended by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir John Greer Dill, it was decided to send a force to Greece and remain on the defensive in North Africa.
British Expedition to Greece and Crete: April-May 1941
The force sent to Greece was commanded by General Wilson and consisted of about 24,200 British (including an armored brigade), 17,100 Australian, and 16,700 New Zealand troops. The dispatch of British troops from Egypt began on April 5, and on the following day, German forces invaded Yugoslavia and Greece. By April 16, British and Greek forces had been withdrawn to a front south of Mount Olympus (Olymbos) . In the face of superior German forces and of an Italian offensive from Albania, the situation deteriorated rapidly. The decision was made to withdraw British Commonwealth forces from Greece, and the withdrawal was carried out between April 24 and May 1. Meanwhile, on April 27, German troops entered Athens.
From the outset the British authorities had realized the risks involved in the Greek venture, but the political advantages were thought to outweigh the military hazards. Viewed in the light of later knowledge, it seems that the chances of success were remote in the extreme. The expedition was hurriedly planned, the headquarters was an improvised one, the troops were not the most experienced or the best trained, and the Greeks, although brave, were ill equipped. The expedition cost the British approximately 12,000 casualties. In contrast, the German invasion of Greece was carefully planned and made in considerable strength, with well-equipped and well-trained troops. The Greek expedition deprived the British of the chance of seizing Tripoli and of expelling the Italians from North Africa.
Following the decision to evacuate British troops from the Greek mainland, the question arose as to whether Crete should be held. Prime Minister Churchill insisted that it must be held, and on April 30, General Wavell flew to the island to discuss plans for its defense. Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Bernard Freyberg (later 1st Baron Freyberg), commander of the New Zealand Division, was placed in command. By May 3, he had disposed his troops as follows: the 14th Infantry Brigade at Candia (Herakleion), the Australian 19th Brigade at Rethymnon (Retimo ) and Georgeopolis, a composite force of 14,800 men in the Suda Bay-Canea (Khania) area, and two brigades of New Zealanders in the Maleme Airfield sector. In addition, Greek battalions were distributed among the various sectors. The total strength was about 42,500 troops. Many of them had recently been fighting on the mainland, some were comparatively untrained administrative personnel, and there was an acute shortage of arms and heavy equipment.
Under the direction of Gen. (later Col. Gen.) Kurt Student and the executive command of Col. Gen. Alexander Lohr, the Germans decided to attack and capture the island mainly with airborne troops. The aircraft available consisted of about 500 serviceable bomber, fighter, and reconnaissance planes, about 500 transport aircraft, and 72 gliders. The bombing of Allied positions and installations began on May 14, and the first airborne troops landed on May 20. The capture of Maleme Airfield on the following day enabled the Germans to fly in reinforcements rapidly. As the Germans built up their strength, the British position gradually deteriorated. By May 24, General Freyberg had abandoned hope of holding Crete, and, in view of the heavy losses being suffered by the Royal Navy, the decision to evacuate the island was made on May 27. Severe losses were sustained in attempts to embark troops from the northern parts of the island. The last evacuation was made from a beach at Sphakia (Chora Sphakion) on the south coast on May 31. Allied casualties in the campaign were about 17,500 killed, wounded, and prisoners; German losses, just over 6,000. In addition, 9 British warships were sunk, and 17 were damaged.
For a more detailed account of operations in Greece in 1941, see Balkan Campaigns.
Iraq and Syria: April-June 1941
In 1941, Italy’s ally, Germany, began to interest herself in Iraq and French-held Syria. On April 3, a pro-German politician, Rashid `Ali al-Gailani, brought off a successful coup d’etat in Iraq. At the same time, reports reached General Wavell that German cadres of officers and technicians were arriving in Syria in French aircraft.
On April 17, an Indian brigade was sent to protect the oil pipeline running from Iraq to Haifa. British Commonwealth forces engaged the insurgent forces in Iraq on May 2, and on May 31 occupied Baghdad. The pipeline was secured, and the regent, Emir `Abdallah, was reinstated.
By June 8, it was clear that German forces had infiltrated into Syria in some strength, and that the Vichy commander, Gen. Fernand Dentz, was supporting them. In the next six days, British Commonwealth forces under General Wilson advanced into Syria and, in a sharp campaign, defeated the Vichy forces and occupied the country.
East Africa and the Red Sea: June 1940 – November 1941
Because of the negligible strength of British forces in East Africa, the four months following Italy’s declaration of war saw a number of Italian successes. In the Sudan, Italian troops occupied the frontier towns of Kassala and Gallabat on July 4, 1940, and in Kenya they captured Moyale on July 15. Then, between August 5 and August 19, they occupied British Somaliland.
By November 1940, the British were able to adopt a more aggressive attitude, though still on a limited scale, and by February 1941 they were in a position to mount a large-scale offensive. The situation was also greatly improved by the growth of a considerable patriot movement in Ethiopia, where native forces organized by Maj. (later Maj. Gen.) Orde C. Wingate and other British officers were increasing rapidly in strength and efficiency. At the time the offensive started, the Indian 4th and 5th divisions were stationed in the Sudan. In Kenya the units were more diversely organized and of more varied composition. Of the 77,000 troops in the area, 27,000 were European South Africans; 6,000, Europeans serving in East and West African forces; 33,000, East Africans; 9,000, West Africans; and 2,000, of various nationalities.
The British plan called for an advance eastward from the Sudan through northern Ethiopia to Eritrea and the Red Sea, together with an approximately simultaneous advance northward from Kenya through southern Ethiopia to the capital, Addis Ababa, and also eastward from Kenya to Italian Somaliland. The terrain in many parts of this area affords a striking contrast to the Western Desert. Much of Ethiopia is mountainous with wide and torrential rivers. The country favors highly trained troops, and it also gave the Ethiopian guerrillas full scope.
The British offensive started early in February. Progress was rapid, and the various columns inflicted heavy losses on the Italian troops and took arge numbers of prisoners. By February 25, forces from Kenya had captured most of Italian Somaliland, including the ports of Kismayu and Mogadishu. A force from Aden, escorted by warships, landed at Berbera on the coast of British Somaliland ( Somaliland Protectorate) on March 16. On April 6, Addis Ababa was occupied. Meanwhile, forces from the Sudan captured Keren, Eritrea, on March 27, and by April 4 the area between Lake Tana and Addis Ababa had been occupied. Massawa was occupied on April 8. On May 16, after stubborn fighting, the duke of Aosta surrendered at Amba Alagi ( the formal surrender took place on May 20) . Organized resistance ended, but isolated detachments continued to fight for some months, and it was not until November 27 that Gondar, the last place to hold out, surrendered.
The two most important battles of the East African campaign were those fought at Keren and Amba Alagi. The British land forces were well supported by the air force. Typical of this assistance were the attacks made by the South African Air Force on the airfield at Addis Ababa on April 4, 5, and 6, when about 30 Italian aircraft were destroyed.
All of the Italian forces, white and native, who had not been killed or who had not deserted (as many of the native troops had) became prisoners of war. Total Italian losses were estimated at 289,000. There had at times been serious fighting, but it is true to say that, from the British point of view, the East African campaign was a struggle against the climate and disease rather than against the Italian enemy. Between June 1940 and May 1941, British Commonwealth troops suffered only 1,154 battle casualties but 74,550 cases of sickness or accident, of which about 10,000 were due to dysentery and 10,000 to malaria; 744 of these died.
In East Africa as in other campaigns, Italian arms had not prospered. The campaigns in Africa, as well as that against the Greeks in Albania, had shown Italian troops to be poorly led and trained. They were badly equipped, especially in tanks, and logistically ill found. In Africa they had been completely defeated in two campaigns by British Commonwealth forces of greatly inferior strength. Not less than 420,000 Italians (including Italiantrained native troops) had been killed or captured, as compared with approximately 3,100 British Commonwealth battle casualties. The Italians also lost hundreds of tanks, guns, trucks, and aircraft and vast quantities of other equipment and stores. The collapse in East Africa was Italy’s third serious .defeat since entering the war. By early February 1941, she had been decisively beaten in Cyrenaica. By mid-March, her last effort to defeat the Greeks without German aid had failed. For the British the campaign in East Africa was the last of the easy victories. Thereafter they were to meet Germans, who were well led, well trained, and well equipped.
Arrival of the Germans in North Africa: February 1941-May 1942
After the Battle of Bedafomm in February 1941, the bulk of the British forces in the Western Desert were withdrawn in preparation for the expedition to Greece. The defense of Cyrenaica was then left to the Australian 9th Division and part of the 2d Armored Division. Later the Indian 3d Motor Brigade was sent to the desert as a reinforcement. This force, which was much less experienced than the Australian 6th Division and the 7th Armored Division which it had replaced, was under the command of Lt. Gen. (later Sir) Philip Neame.
Up to this time the Germans had participated in the Mediterranean operations only in the air ( since early January, the Luftwaffe had made attacks on British warships and convoys from Italian airfields). The predicament of the Italian forces in North Africa after their serious defeats in Cyrenaica, however, had convinced the German High Command that a substantial force must be sent to the assistance of their Axis partner. The decision to do so had been made on January 11, and on February 5 the formation of the German Africa Corps was made known to the Italians. The new corps, which was to consist of the 5th Light Motorized Division and the 15th Panzer Division, was placed under the command of Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel. Within three months, German efficiency and equipment and Rommel’s skill in armored warfare, combined with the reduction in British strength, were to change the whole position in North Africa and see the British driven back to the Egyptian frontier.
Rommel arrived in Tripoli on February 12, and at once began organizing the defenses of the area with such Italian troops as were available and making plans for offensive action as soon as the Africa Corps arrived. General Wavell and his intelligence staff estimated that Rommel would not be able to stage a major offensive before May 1. In this they were wrong. In early March, there were a number of clashes between the opposing light forces in the El Agheila area. Then, on March 24, Axis forces occupied El Agheila, and on April 1 they took Mersa Brega. Thereafter their advance was rapid. The weak British forces were outmaneuvered and thrown into confusion. On April 3, Benghazi fell, and on April 7, Generals O’Connor and Neame were captured by a German reconnaissance unit. Mekill was taken the next day, and by April 11, Axis forces had reached Bardia and Sallum. In the face of this serious threat to the Suez Canal, General Wavell had decided to hold the port of Tobruk with the Australian 9th Division, the Australian 18th Brigade, and some armored and other ancillary units. Their task was facilitated by the existence of the old Italian defense works on the landward side, which were still in fairly good condition. By April 11, Tobruk had been invested, but the speed with which Rommel’s forces pressed on past the port made it apparent to Wavell that the Axis objective was the Suez Canal, and that it was necessary to make a stand somewhere in the neighborhood of the Libyan Egyptian frontier. The reconstituted Western Desert Force, consisting of all the troops Wavell could make available, was put under the command of Lt. Gen. Sir Noel M. de la P. Beresford Peirse; it comprised the Indian 4th Division, the Australian 7th Division, the incomplete 6th Division, and a mobile force equivalent to a brigade.
Between April 13 and April 17 and again between April 30 and May 4, Axis troops unsuccessfully attacked Tobruk. Meanwhile, British defenses along the Egyptian frontier had been organized, and it soon became clear that this factor, combined with the threat to their flank from Tobruk and logistic difficulties, had brought the Axis offensive to a halt. Between May 15 and May 17, the British carried out a local offensive in the Halfaya-Sallum-Capuzzo area. Although this offensive was partially successful, the Germans recaptured Half aya on May 27.
Meanwhile, on May 12, a sea convoy code named Tiger had arrived in Egypt with 82 cruiser tanks, 135 infantry tanks, and 21 light tanks, and this made it possible to start rebuilding the 7th Armored Division. By the end of the month, the British forces had been reorganized and reequipped sufficiently to assume the offensive, and on May 28, General Wavell issued orders for Operation Battleaxe. The Western Desert Force was to defeat the enemy on the frontier and occupy the Bardia-Sallum-CapuzzoSidi Azeiz area, then attack the enemy around Tobruk and relieve the port, and finally move on Derna and Mekili. The forces available were the 7th Armored Division, the Indian 4th Division, the Indian 11th Infantry Brigade, and the 22d Guards Brigade. Axis forces consisted of the 15th Panzer Division in the frontier area, with three Italian infantry battalions around Capuzzo and the rest of the weak Trento Division and Bardia.
The attack began on June 15 and achieved some initial success, but on the following day progress was slow, and further advance was checked by enemy counterattacks. By the morning of June 17, losses in tanks and the generally unfavorable situation made it clear that the attack had failed. The order to withdraw was given, and the British forces retired to their original area. British casualties totaled about 960. Of 90 cruiser and about 100 infantry tanks which began the battle, 27 cruisers and 64 infantry tanks were lost. The air force lost 36 aircraft. The Axis forces sustained about 800 casualties, mostly Germans. They had 12 tanks destroyed and about 50 damaged; and they lost 10 aircraft.
The British failure in Battleaxe was attributable to the haste with which it was mounted, the lack of opportunity to train the troops with new equipment, and the lack of tactical training, especially in armored units. Cooperation between air and ground forces also left much to be desired. The Axis defenders occupied well-prepared positions and showed marked skill in handling their antitank weapons and in staging counterattacks. It was clear to the British that a much greater effort was required if the Axis forces were to be eliminated from North Africa. The next. six months were to be a period of preparation by both sides. Meanwhile, on June 22, Germany attacked the USSR, and Prime Minister Churchill at once acclaimed the Soviets as an ally with whom his country would cooperate to the fullest extent.
On July 5, General Wavell was replaced as commander in chief in the Middle East by Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Claude J. E. Auchinleek. It would be hard to imagine a more difficult military task than that which had faced General Wavell during his two years in command. With the entry into the war of Italy and the fall of France, he found himself with totally inadequate forces, imperfectly trained and not fully equipped. He was outnumbered on all fronts. In less than 12 months he had completely defeated the Italians in North Africa and East Africa, and had killed or captured more than 400,000 of the enemy at a cost of just over 3,000 British Commonwealth casualties. These results were attained despite distractions in Syria and Iraq. In April, on political grounds, he was compelled to send a large force to Greece, but in spite of this contingency and the arrival of the German Africa Corps in North Africa, he succeeded in carrying out his main task, which was the defense of the Suez Canal. Those Allied commanders who came to the Middle East and the Mediterranean later never experienced the same difficulties: their resources in men and materials were incomparably greater.
During the summer of 1941 there was little change in the dispositions of either side. Planning for the next British offensive, known as Operation Crusader, began in August. On September 18, the Western Desert Force was redesignated the Eighth Army and placed under the command of General Cunningham, who had earned such a high reputation in East Africa. Meanwhile, in July, there were reports of German intrigues in Iran, and on August 17, a joint Anglo-Soviet note was sent to the Iranian government. British forces from India entered the country on August 25. There was some resistance at first, but it ceased by August 28. At about the same time, Soviet forces entered Iran from the north, and on September 17, British and Soviet troops occupied Teheran, the capital. The occupation of Iran prepared the way for the development of a supply route to the USSR. While these events had no influence on the war in the Mediterranean, the denial to the Germans of access to that part of the world relieved General Auchinleck of any anxiety from that quarter.
By the beginning of November, plans had been completed for Operation Crusader. The twofold objective of the operation was the relief of Tobruk and the occupation of the whole of Cyrenaica, to which General Auchinleck added the rider that this must be accompanied by the destruction of the enemy’s armor. The British Eighth Army (including the Tobruk garrison) consisted of 1 armored division, 3 armored or tank brigades, and the equivalent of 6.5 infantry divisions, or about 118,000 troops. There were about 680 British tanks, with 500 tanks in reserve or on the way to North Africa. The Axis forces comprised 2 German and 1 Italian armored divisions and 1 German and 6 Italian infantry divisions, or about 119,000 troops. There were about 390 German and Italian tanks, with practically no reserves. The German-Italian numerical inferiority in armor was in some respects compensated by the superiority of their best tanks in performance and gun power. The real superiority of the Axis lay, however, in antitank guns that fired a much heavier missile than the British 2pounders, had a much longer range, and were handled with great skill.
The offensive began on November 18. The first attempt to relieve Tobruk failed, and British losses in armor were heavy. On November 26, General Auchinleck relieved General Cunningham of command of the Eighth Army on the ground that his plans for the future were not sufficiently aggressive. Cunningham was replaced by Maj. Gen. (later Gen. Sir) Neil M. Ritchie, who had been deputy chief of staff in the Middle East. The offensive was resumed on December 5, and on December 10, Tobruk was relieved. The Axis forces withdrew from El Gazala on December 16, and on December 24, British troops entered Benghazi, having advanced about 300 miles. There the offensive ended. The Eighth Army had attained its first objective, the relief of Tobruk. It had also occupied Cyrenaica, although the occupation was to be a fleeting one. It destroyed many Axis tanks, but its own losses were also very heavy. The German Africa Corps showed remarkable powers of recovery, and on Jan. 21, 1942, Rommel resumed the offensive. By January 28, the British had withdrawn from Benghazi to the El Gazala-Bir Hacheim line. There was then a lull in the Western Desert until the end of May.
Since Operation Crusader began in November 1941, British casualties had totaled about 17,700, and those of the Axis about 38,300. Tank losses are more difficult to assess accurately. Up to December 12, the 7th Armored Division suffered 526 battle casualties and breakdowns in tanks, of which about 281 became battleworthy again. How many again took part in Crusader is not known. In addition, more than 200 British infantry tanks became casualties, although many of these were eventually recovered and used again. Axis losses in tanks were around 340, many of which were recovered and repaired. British losses in aircraft totaled about 300; those of the Axis, about 332. Crusader was a British victory, but the price paid, especially in tank losses, was heavy. It was apparent that British equipment and standards of tactical training, although more than a match for Italian troops, were still below those of the German Africa Corps.
Meanwhile, outside the Mediterranean theater, great events had taken place. On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese delivered a crippling air assault against the United States naval base of Pearl Harbor. This brought the United States into the war against Germany and Italy. With Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States in alliance, eventual victory over Germany and Italy, and the new Japanese enemy, seemed certain.
As all British Commonwealth personnel and supplies for the land forces in the Mediterranean had to come by sea, except for a small proportion sent by air, it was of vital importance to keep water communications open. This was comparatively easy in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea, through which reinforcements and supplies from Australia, New Zealand, India, and, frequently, North America, arrived, although there was some anxiety for this route when japan entered the war. The Mediterranean was, however, by far the more important area of naval warfare. There the British and Italian navies, supported by seaborne and shorebased aircraft, strove to safeguard their own communications and cut those of their opponents.
After the attack on Taranto by British air craft in November 1940, the chief events of naval interest were the bombardment of Genoa ( Feb. 9, 1941) , the British naval success at Cape Matapan (Tainaron; March 28), and numerous actions and convoy work connected with the British expedition to Greece and the subsequent occupation of Crete (April-May). An Italian motorboat attack on the harbor of Valletta, on July 25-26, was completely defeated, but the British subsequently lost the warships Ark Royal (November 13) and Barham (November 25), and attacks by Italian “human torpedoes” on the harbor of Alexandria resulted in severe damage to the Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant (December 19).
Throughout 1941, Malta was a target for Axis shore-based aircraft. The many attempts to reinforce, revictual, and fly fighter aircraft to Malta from aircraft carriers cost the British many lives, the carrier Ark Royal and numerous other warships, and many merchant ships, valuable cargoes, and aircraft. But Malta held out and was of inestimable value during the Allied invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland in 1943.
British Defeats in North Africa and the Turn of the Tide: May-November 1942
At the beginning of May 1942, the British war cabinet was pressing for an early offensive in the Western Desert, and General Auchinleck made the necessary plans. In this he was anticipated by General Rommel, as on May 27, Axis forces attacked the El Gazala-Bir Hacheim position in strength. For several days the battle hung in the balance, but on June 5 the Axis began to get the better of the fighting, and there followed a series of disasters for the British. By June 12, the so-called “Cauldron” Battle had been lost; the Free French troops, after heroic resistance at Bir Hacheim, had been withdrawn; and British armor had suffered a major defeat. The decision to withdraw from the El Gazala line was made on June 14. On June 21, the mainly South African garrison of Tobruk was forced to surrender. Four clays later, General Auchinleck assumed direct control of the Eighth Army, which took up a defensive position running from north to south, with its right on the sea near El Alamein and its left on the Qattara Depression. Attempts by Rommel to break through this position between July 1 and July 5 failed, and on July 10, General Auchinleck started a series of counterattacks with limited objectives that lasted until July 26. By this time both sides were exhausted, the British through a series of defeats and heavy losses, and the Axis mainly because of logistic difficulties but also because of considerable casualties. Once again German armor had demonstrated its superiority in material qualities, training, and tactical handling. It was, however, the last Axis success in Africa.
Between August 4 and August 10, Prime Minister Churchill visited Cairo and held a series of meetings, in which he was joined by Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts, prime minister of South Africa; Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Alan F. Brooke (later 1st Viscount Alanbrooke), chief of the Imperial General Staff; and General Wavell, who was now commander in chief in India. As a result, major changes were made. On August 13, Lt. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Bernard Law Montgomery (later 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein), assumed command of the Eighth Army, and two days later Gen. (later Field Marshal) Sir Harold Alexander (later 1st Earl Alexander of Tunis) succeeded General Auchinleck as commander in chief in the Middle East. A number of lesser appointments also changed hands about this time.
The directive given by Churchill to General Alexander stated that his main duty was to destroy as early as possible the German-Italian army commanded by the recently promoted Field Marshal Rommel. Immediately after General Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army, he began the task of reorganizing and redisposing his troops. He also made known that there would be no further retreat, and that, if attacked, the army would fight where it stood, on what was known as the Alam el Haifa position. The British had not long to wait, for by August 25 it was apparent that Rommel was about to assume the offensive. Available to him for this operation were 4 German and 6 Italian divisions, of which 2 German and 2 Italian divisions were armored. To meet this force, Montgomery had 7 divisions, of which 2 were armored.
The attack began against the southern flank of the Alam el Half a position in the early hours of August 31. Fighting continued throughout that day and the next, but the British held fast. By the evening of September 2 the Axis armor was short of fuel, and, with little prospects of success, Rommel began to withdraw his forces. He was in full retreat by the following day. The retreating Axis columns were heavily attacked from the air, but Montgomery did not press the pursuit with his ground troops. For this he was criticized in some quarters, but he suspected a trap to lure his armor onto the powerful and numerous Axis antitank guns and was doubtful if his troops were yet a match for the Germans in fluid operations. By September 7, the battle was over.
After Alam el Haifa, Churchill pressed strongly for an early offensive, but Montgomery was adamant that this would be unwise. He informed the prime minister that an early offensive would fail, but that he guaranteed the success of one late in October. Meanwhile, the greatest energy was displayed throughout the Eighth Army to accustom the troops to new equipment (which was now being delivered in increasing quantities), to reorganize the forces, and above all to improve the standard of tactical training. By October 20, all was ready for the Battle of El Alamein. Montgomery disposed of the equivalent of 11 divisions (3 armored), organized in three corps. To meet this force Rommel had 13 divisions, 4 of which were German. Of his 4 armored divisions, 2 were German and 2 Italian. The British attack opened on the night of Oct. 23-24 with a massive artillery bombardment. Bitter fighting continued for several days, during which both sides lost heavily and fortunes fluctuated. After a short pause to regroup, Montgomery renewed the attack on November 2. By November 5, the battle had turned in favor of the British, and Rommel began to withdraw, pursued by the British 30th Corps (the 1st and 7th armored divisions and the New Zealand 2d Division).
Anglo-American Invasion of French North Africa: November 1942-May 1943
The Battle of El Alamein was not only the beginning of a series of unbroken victories; it was also the start of a new phase in North Africa. Henceforth the campaign in the Mediterranean was to be a joint Anglo-American undertaking. For some months the American and British staffs had been working on a plan for the occupation of French North Africa, with a view to the elimination of all Axis forces from Africa and as a preliminary to the invasion of Italy. At the end of August 1942, an Allied headquarters had been established in London for Operation Torch, the code name for the enterprise. The over-all command of sea, land, and air forces was vested in the American Lt.Gen. (later General of the Army) Dwight D. Eisenhower. The land forces consisted of the British First Army under Lt. Gen. (later Gen.) Sir Kenneth K. N. Anderson and the United States 2d Corps under Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Lloyd R. Fredendall. Initially these formations were very weak, the First Army being little more than a weak corps, but as the campaign proceeded they greatly increased in strength.
The first landings took place on November 8, and by the morning of November 11, Algiers (Alger), Oran, and Casablanca were in Allied hands. The French troops, acting under orders from the Vichy government, offered some resistance, but nowhere was this wholehearted, and in many places it was merely token. On November 11, all hostilities between the Allies and the French in Algeria and Morocco ceased, and on the following day, Adm. Jean Francois Darlan, now recognized as the French high commissioner in North Africa, handed over the French territories to the Allies and appealed to the French Fleet at Toulon to cross over to North Africa. Events moved quickly. By the end of November, the Germans had occupied the whole of France, and most of the French warships at Toulon had been scuttled by their crews. Meanwhile the Axis forces in Tunisia were being heavily reinforced by air and through the ports of Bizerte and Tunis.
On December 11, the Allied advance in Tunisia was halted by Axis counterattacks in the area of Medjez-el-Bab. Then, on December 24, the already difficult political situation between the Allies and the French authorities was complicated by the assassination of Admiral Darlan. By this time the Allies were supported by numerous French troops under Gen. Henri Giraud; these, although at first inadequately armed, greatly improved in quality toward the latter stages of the campaign.
During January 1943, both sides confined themselves to local operations and attempted to build up sufficient strength for a decisive offensive. Then, on February 14, Axis forces launched a powerful attack against the United States 2d Corps, which, heavily outnumbered, was driven back about 50 miles between Faid Pass in the north and Gafsa in the south. Kasserine and Sbeitla were captured, and the enemy, advancing up the Kasserine Pass, threatened the important centers of Tebessa and Thala. This advance was serious, for it endangered some of the Allied forward airfields. By February 23, the advance of the Axis forces had been halted, however, and between February 26 and March 3 they were driven back to approximately their original positions. It had been a difficult period for the Allies, but General Eisenhower had demonstrated that he was a field commander of the first order.
Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army, after its victory at El Alamein, had made rapid progress. Tobruk was captured on Nov. 13, 1942; Benghazi, on November 20; Tripoli on Jan. 23, 1943; Mareth, on March 20; and Gabes, on March 29. On April 6, Wadi Akarit was attacked, and on the following day troops of the Eighth Army made contact with the Allies advare;ng in Tunisia. In mid-February, General Alc°ander had flown from Egypt to join General Eisenhower as his deputy. In that capacity he was charged with coordinating the action of the First and Eighth armies and of all Allied ground troops operating in North Africa-American, British, and French. Mid-April saw an extensive regrouping of Allied forces, including the transfer of several of the Eighth Army’s best troops to the First Army, as it was considered that better and quicker results would be achieved if the final blow was struck in the north rather than in the south, where the country was more difficult and unsuitable for armor.
On May 1, the 120-mile Allied front ran roughly from Enfidaville northwestward to Pontdu-Fahs and then northward to the coast about 18 miles west of Bizerte. The British Eighth Army was on the right, French units on the right center, the British First Army on the left center, and the United States 2d Corps on the left in the coastal strip. The main attack, by the First Army and the 2d Corps, began on May 4, the British drive being directed on Tunis and the American drive on Bizerte. The assaulting troops were supported by a powerful force of aircraft, and the attack was preceded by a heavy artillery bombardment. Although the Axis troops fought with great determination, by May 6 the defense had cracked, and on the following day American and British troops entered Bizerte and Tunis, respectively. Confused fighting occurred from May 7 to May 12, but the British succeeded in clearing the Cape Bon Peninsula, where it had been thought that the Axis troops might make a last stand.
On May 13, all Axis forces laid down their arms in surrender. About 240,000 prisoners were taken, including 125,000 Germans. Col. Gen. Dietloff Jurgen von Arnim, the German commander in Tunis, was among those captured. Field Marshal Rommel escaped.
With the surrender of Axis forces in Tunis, no Germans or Italians remained in arms in Africa. From the time that Italy entered the war in June 1940, the number of Axis soldiers killed or captured in Africa totaled about 950,000. Approximately 2,400,000 gross tons of Axis shipping were sunk, and 8,000 aircraft were destroyed. In addition, 6,200 guns, 2,500 tanks, and 70,000 trucks were captured or destroyed. Allied shipping losses and British losses in army equipment in 1942 were also heavy and serious. Casualties in personnel, however, were only a fraction of those suffered by the Axis. Apart from the heavy Axis losses, the latter stages of the campaign in North Africa brought the Allies many advantages. Very soon the victory was to result in Italy’s defection from the Axis partnership, and it paved the way for the reentry of the Allies to the European mainland. Moreover, the Tunisian campaign showed that American and British sailors, soldiers, and airmen could fight efficiently as one team, under one commander, against the common enemy.