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El Alamein 1942
By Pier Paolo Battistell
The History PressCopyright © 2011 The History Press
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A Crossroad of Strategic Opportunities
Means and ends would eventually make the difference in the Mediterranean and North African theatres of the war, all too often meaning that opportunities were lost while both theatres turned into some kind of a sideshow to the main events in Europe. Italy, protruding into the Mediterranean and with her European borders closed by the barrier of mountains, should have had her main operational areas in both the Mediterranean and North Africa, but she was the first to lose those opportunities. Before the outbreak of the Second World War there were talks about planning a major offensive against Egypt, with the aim of seizing Alexandria and the Suez Canal area, and also the possibility of linking-up with Italian East Africa via the Sudan. Had this been done, the Italians would have gained access to the Middle East and the Red Sea, as well as to the Indian Ocean, with all the possible consequences one can imagine. However, talks came to an end in 1939 when the Italian Navy, facing the threat of a joint Anglo-French menace in the event of war against both countries, openly stated the impossibility of supplying Libya. So the Western Desert turned into a secondary theatre of war, filled with second-rate troops only intended to hold out as long as possible in case of either a French or a British offensive.
The fall of France in June 1940, following shortly after Italy's declaration of war against her and Great Britain, brought no real change; with Britain apparently doomed by the German war machine, there was no urgent need for a major offensive against Egypt. Such a lack of strategic insight was matched by a lack of tactical and operational capabilities on the side of the Italian command in Libya. The Italian drive into Egypt, dictated by the political need to match the German offensive against Britain, was arranged using Kitchener's drive into Sudan in 1898 as an example with all its logistical preparation and slow, footslogged advance. The result was a nineteenth-century style offensive, which took no advantage of the available tanks shipped from Italy during the summer of 1940, and blunted the edge of Italian superiority in terms of men and materiel. The condition of Britain's forces at the time reveals the true extent of the missed opportunity; with the bulk of her army badly mauled at Dunkerque, Britain could only rely on the 7th Armoured Division (the other division in the area, 6th Infantry, was used to create the headquarters (HQ) of the Western Desert Force), and on those Imperial, Commonwealth and Dominion forces that became available. These included the 4th Indian Division plus, later on during the same year, the 6th Australian and the 2nd New Zealand divisions. As such, more than 220,000 Italians were faced by some 50,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers.
The First British Offensive: Operation Compass
The Italian advance to Sidi Barrani, started on 16 September 1940, soon turned from a potential threat against the British positions in Egypt into an opportunity. Churchill's decision to send a reinforcement of tanks to the area was not only bold, given the German threat against Britain, but was also an acknowledgement of how important the area was to the British strategy since, with the fall of France, this was the only land theatre of war left. The events that followed would serve to reinforce how available means heavily influenced the war in the Western Desert. Directed by General Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, and led by General Richard O'Connor, Operation Compass was aimed at driving the Italians from the town of Sidi Barrani but, following their collapse, it turned into a major offensive that ended on 7 February 1941 at Beda Fomm after the Italian force had been destroyed. Total Italian losses for the Operation Compass were c. 130,000, although figures are uncertain and probably include dead, wounded, POWs and the missing.
During the summer and autumn of 1940 Germany did actually consider the possibility of intervening in the Mediterranean, particularly because of the difficulties she faced with an invasion of the British Isles. Following the strategic thoughts of the German naval command, two basic aims were set: the seizure of both Gibraltar and the Suez Canal, which would have driven the Royal Navy out of the Mediterranean and given the Italians access to the Atlantic Ocean. Not only would the British positions in the Middle East have been in danger, but also the joint efforts of the German and Italian navies might have seriously endangered the sea lanes to Britain. Events soon turned these plans into nothing; both the German talks with the Spanish government about the attack against Gibraltar, and the Hitler–Mussolini talks about the deployment of a German Panzer Division in Libya, were inconclusive. Eventually, the ill-fated Italian attack against Greece, launched on 28 October, saw every strategic opportunity crumble. By December 1940 the German Navy concluded that it was no longer possible to seek a strategic victory in the Mediterranean and, less than two months later, Hitler decided to send the Panzer Division to Libya, but only to prevent an Italian collapse.
In February 1941, when the first German units arrived in Libya, it was Churchill's turn to re-direct Britain's strategic priorities; with the impending German attack against Greece, the decision was made to send British and Commonwealth forces to help defend the country. Since these could not come from anywhere other than the Middle East, that also meant the end of any chance to advance to Tripoli, regardless of whether this was actually possible. However, after only a few weeks the strategic settings were altered again: Italy sent the bulk of her mobile forces (the armoured 'Ariete' and the motorised 'Trento' and 'Trieste' divisions) to Libya, while Hitler decided to send an entire Panzer corps – the future Afrika Korps. In the meantime one out of the three British and Commonwealth divisions in the Western Desert had been sent to Greece; the balance of power had turned again to the Axis' favour. The offensive started the following April by the commander of the Afrika Korps, the then rather unknown General Erwin Rommel, made things worse; still understrength, the Axis forces recaptured Cyrenaica and pushed on to the Libyan–Egyptian frontier, bypassing the crucial fortress of Tobruk, firmly held by the Australians.
Rommel's command significantly turned the war in the Western Desert into a matter of personalities; had he chosen to abide by his orders, things might have been different. But in the spring and summer of 1941 events were to unfold rapidly. While Rommel re-conquered Cyrenaica, in April the bulk of the Italian forces in East Africa surrendered, while in the Balkans the German offensive led to the seizure of both Yugoslavia and Greece, followed in May by the airborne capture of Crete. Also in May the uprising in Iraq was crushed by the British forces, who by mid-July also seized the Vichy (i.e. pro-German) forces in Syria. The German attack against the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 turned, from the German point of view, the whole of the Mediterranean theatre into a sideshow. This was not true, however, for both Italy and Britain which, since then, focused their efforts on both the Western Desert and the Mediterranean, where a decisive battle was fought to keep the sea lanes open in order to reinforce and supply the Axis forces.
Means were again well short of the ends; Germany apart, both Britain and Italy (which, although busy on other fronts as well, had in the Mediterranean and the Western Desert their most active theatres of war) were still rebuilding their armies, which were largely spread serving duties in other areas (the Italians garrisoning the Balkans; the British in the Far East, in Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, namely Gibraltar and Malta). Attention shifted to the Mediterranean, where the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF) – mainly thanks to the possession of Malta – effectively succeeded in virtually cutting off the sea lanes to Libya by the end of 1941. Thanks also to the regrouping of the British and Commonwealth forces in the Western Desert, the new Middle East Commander, General Claude Auchinleck, launched on 18 November 1941 a major offensive (Operation Crusader) with the aim of relieving Tobruk. Worth noting is that, at the time, Britain provided about half of the forces for the operation, with the 7th Armoured and the 70th Infantry Division (built from the Western Desert Forces and used to replace the Australians at Tobruk), and the rest made up of the 1st South African, 2nd New Zealand and 4th Indian divisions. The newly formed British Eighth Army managed not only to relieve Tobruk, but also to inflict severe losses on Rommel's Panzer Army Africa, which on 8 December 1941 started a withdrawal west, back to their April starting positions.
Meanwhile developments in the Mediterranean, following the arrival of the German 2nd Air Fleet and of eighteen German submarines, undermined success on the battlefield; heavily attacked, the British sea and air forces were forced off from Malta, thus re-opening the sea lanes to Libya. Early in January 1942 Rommel received reinforcements, and on 21 January he attacked again, re-conquering western Cyrenaica up to the Gazala line, west of Tobruk.
From Tobruk to El Alamein
Once again, the strategic settings changed: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States of America into the war, while in December 1941 the Soviet counterattack outside Moscow put an end to the German illusions of a swift victory on the Eastern Front. While forces were withdrawn from the Mediterranean, the Western Desert was to turn into one of the decisive theatres of war.
With both sides still understrength on the battlefield, the Germans and Italians reorganised their forces to the concept of 'more weapons, less men' (i.e. by having their units strongly armed but with less personnel); on the other side there were in May 1942 three British divisions, two of them armoured, alongside two South African and one Indian. The Axis leadership realised that control of the central Mediterranean, i.e. Malta, was vital to the war in the Western Desert since, given the role it played in strangling the Axis sea routes, only its neutralisation could re-open the supply lines. A plan was developed to seize Malta, and an agreement was reached with Rommel about its timing: he was to strike first in the desert, and after he managed to seize Tobruk the Italians and the Germans would attack Malta. Thus, having secured the sea lanes of supply, the Axis forces would have been able to plan a future offensive into Egypt.
Rommel's attack against the Gazala line, which was launched on 21 May 1942, soon turned into a major failure, with the bulk of the Afrika Korps trapped east of a large minefield and of the British defences. Poor command and leadership within the British Eighth Army, namely its commander General Neil Ritchie, overturned every possible advantage; uncoordinated British armoured attacks were repulsed by the German anti-tank guns, and eventually the Panzer Army Africa succeeded in crushing the British 150th Brigade. This allowed the Germans to open a passage through the minefields and to seize the southernmost position on the Gazala line, the Bir Hakeim stronghold, which had been held by a Free French brigade. Following the capture of another stronghold on the line on 13 June, British and Commonwealth forces withdrew east of Tobruk, which was attacked by Rommel on 20–21 June 1942. Defended again by Australian forces, this time the fortress could not withstand the attack as it had in 1941; the more experienced, and better prepared, Axis forces quickly seized Tobruk, also taking a huge booty in the process. This was the turning point in the Western Desert war; fully confident in his victory, and in the defeat of the enemy forces, Rommel managed to persuade the German High Command that there was a chance to strike deep into Egypt, down to the Suez Canal. The plans to seize Malta (which apparently no-one had really believed in) were thus abandoned, and Rommel was given a green light for his offensive into Egypt.
Between June and July 1942 it did seem that the British positions in the Western Desert and the whole of the Middle East were threatened like never before. On 23 June the spearheads of the Afrika Korps crossed the Libyan–Egyptian border, while on the Eastern Front the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa and eventually reached Stalingrad and the Caucasus, leaving the Middle East open to attack. On 25 June the Panzer Army Africa attacked Mersa Matruh and seized it three days later, the Mediterranean Fleet vacated its base in Alexandria for Haifa. On 1 July the German and Italian forces attacked the Alamein line, and were soon to reveal how Auchinleck (who said Rommel's offensive 'was based on a bluff') had been right. Tired, and with its supply lines overstretched, the Panzer Army Africa's attack was called off two days later, and Rommel's army suffered its first, major crisis while facing the British and Commonwealth counterattacks that, starting on 10 July, would come to an end on the 28th with both sides digging a defensive line. Rommel's second attempt to break through the Alamein line started on 31 August–1 September 1942, eventually leading to the battle of Alam Halfa that was decided both by the stubborn British defence on the ridge and by the lack of supplies on the Axis side, namely the shortage of fuel.
As happens all too often, the twists of fate turned a would-be disaster into a major opportunity; Rommel's failure (and the failure of the German offensive on the Eastern Front) not only meant the Middle East was no longer in danger, but it also doomed the flawed Axis strategy in the Mediterranean and the Western Desert. In August Malta was reinforced, although still heavily under attack, the Axis sea lanes in the Mediterranean were threatened again and Alamein was no longer just a position to be held, but rather the place where the decisive battle of the Western Desert was to be fought. This was true for both sides: for the Axis, being forced out from Egypt would mean abandoning (publicly) every hope to reach Alexandria and the Suez Canal. For Britain, knowing that, in November, the American and British forces would have invaded the French colonies in North-West Africa, this was something like a last chance to defeat the enemy with her own forces.
The Opposing Forces
Both sides were reinforced, with the Italians throwing into the Western Desert the last of their best units (armoured and airborne), while, for the first time since July 1942, the size of the British Army forces surpassed those of its Commonwealth, Imperial and Dominion counterparts. With more than ten divisions or equivalents, six of them British and four from other countries (Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa), the Eighth Army largely outnumbered its enemy with more than 220,000 men, approximately one thousand tanks and one thousand artillery pieces. On the contrary the Panzer Army Africa, which included four armoured (two German and two Italian) and two motorised divisions (one each), six infantry divisions (one German and five Italian, plus one German parachute brigade), only fielded some 110,000 men with about 500 tanks and 500 artillery pieces. Although enjoying some advantages, Rommel's forces now faced an Eighth Army onslaught that might not just simply dislodge the Axis forces from their positions, but rather completely destroy them.
Everyone knew what was at stake: if the Axis won, even if forced to withdraw back to Libya, there was still a chance to put Malta under pressure and re-open the sea lanes, thus prolonging the war in the Western Desert (or in North Africa) for many months, and making it very difficult for the Allies to invade Italy. On the other hand, if the British Eighth Army managed to defeat the Axis forces, or even to destroy them (as envisaged by Montgomery), the combined drive from both the east and the west would have brought to an end – after some twenty-six months of war – the presence of the Axis forces in the Western Desert and in North Africa as a whole, starting thus another phase in the war in the Mediterranean. For the first time since June 1940, at El Alamein, means and ends were finally equal.
Excerpted from El Alamein 1942 by Pier Paolo Battistell. Copyright © 2011 The History Press. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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