The Battle for North Africa
301 pages
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The Battle for North Africa


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En savoir plus
301 pages


In the early years of World War II, Germany shocked the world with a devastating blitzkrieg, rapidly conquered most of Europe, and pushed into North Africa. As the Allies scrambled to counter the Axis armies, the British Eighth Army confronted the experienced Afrika Corps, led by German field marshal Erwin Rommel, in three battles at El Alamein. In the first battle, the Eighth Army narrowly halted the advance of the Germans during the summer of 1942. However, the stalemate left Nazi troops within striking distance of the Suez Canal, which would provide a critical tactical advantage to the controlling force. War historian Glyn Harper dives into the story, vividly narrating the events, strategies, and personalities surrounding the battles and paying particular attention to the Second Battle of El Alamein, a crucial turning point in the war that would be described by Winston Churchill as "the end of the beginning." Moving beyond a simple narrative of the conflict, The Battle for North Africa tackles critical themes, such as the problems of coalition warfare, the use of military intelligence, the role of celebrity generals, and the importance of an all-arms approach to modern warfare.

List of Maps
Introduction: The Eyes of the Whole World, Watching Anxiously
1. Military Background
2. The First Battle
3. Drastic and Immediate Changes
4. Alam Halfa
5. Preparations and Plans
6. Attempting the Break-In
7. Slugging It Out
8. Operation 'Supercharge'
9. Assessment



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Date de parution 22 septembre 2017
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9780253031433
Langue English
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Afric A
TheTwentieth-Century Battles
Spencer C. Tucker, editor
Balkan Breakthrough: Te Batle of Dobro Pole 191 R8 ichard C. Hall
Te Batle of An Loc James H. Willbanks
Batle of Dogger Bank: Te First Dreadnought Engagement, January 19 15
Tobias R. Philbin
Te Batle of Leyte Gulf: Te Last Fleet Act Hio. Pn . Willmot
Te Batle of Heligoland Bight Eric W. Osborne
Te Batle for Manchuria and the Fate of China: Siping, 19 H46arold M.
Te Batle for Western Europe, Fall 1944: An Operational Assessmen Jothn
A. Adams
Te Batle of the Otranto Straits: Controlling the Gateway to the Adriatic in
World War I Paul G. Halpern
Batle of Surigao Strai Atnthony P. Tully
Te Brusilov Ofensive Timothy C. Dowling
China’s Batle for Korea: Te 1951 Spring Ofensive Xiaobing Li
D-Day in the Pacifc: Te Batle of Saipa Hn arold J. Goldberg
Te Dieppe Raid: Te Story of the Disastrous 1942 Expedit Rionobin
Te Imjin and Kapyong Batles, Korea, 1951 S. P. MacKenzie
In Passage Perilous: Malta and the Convoy Batles of June 194 V2 incent P.
Invasion of Norway, 1940
Midway Inquest: Why the Japanese Lost the Batle of Midw Dayallas
Woodbury Isom
New Georgia: Te Second Batle for the Solomon Rs onnie Day
Operation Albion: Te German Conquest of the Baltic Islan Mdsichael B.
Prelude to Blitzkrieg: Te 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Roman ia
Michael B. Barret
Te Second Batle of the Marn Me ichael S. Neiberg
Te Siege of Kut-al-Amara: At War in Mesopotamia, 1915–19 N16ikolas
Where Chiang Kai-shek Lost China: Te Liao-Shen Campaign, 1948 Harold
M. Tanner
Writen in Blood: Te Batles for Fortress Przemyśl in WW GI raydon A.
Tunstall Jr.BAttle
Afric A
El Alamein and the Turning Point for World War II
glyn harper
Indiana University Press
TheTis book is a publication of Manufactured in the United States of
Indiana University Press
Ofce of Scholarly Publishing Library of Congress
Cataloging-inHerman B Wells Library 350 Publication Data
1320 East 10th Street
Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA Names: Harper, Glyn, author.
Title: Te batle for North Afri ca : El Alamein and the turning point for
World War II / Glyn Harper.
© 2017 by Glyn Harper Description: Bloomington : Indiana
All rights reserved University Press, 2017. | Series:
Twentieth-century batles | Includes
No part of this book may be reproduced bibliographical references and index.
or utilized in any form or by any meansI,d entifers: LCCN 2017020636 (print) |
electronic or mechanical, including LCCN 2017019231 (ebook) |
photocopying and recording, or by ISBN 9780253031433 (e-book) |
any information storage and retrieval ISBN 9780253031426 (cloth : alk.
system, without permission in writing paper)
from the publisher. Te Association of Subjects: LCSH: El Alamein, Batle of,
American University Presses’ Resolution Egypt, 1942.
on Permissions constitutes the only Classifcation: LCC D766.9 (print) |
exception to this prohibition. LCC D766.9 .H335 2017 (ebook) |
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meets the minimum requirements of .gov/2017020636
the American National Standard for 1 2 3 4 5 22 21 20 19 18 17
Information Sciences—Permanence
of Paper for Printed Library Materials,
ANSI Z39.48-1992.Contents
· List of Map s vii
· Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: Te Eyes of the Whole World, Watching
Anxiousl y1
1 Te Military Backgrou nd8
2 Te First Batle: July 194 236
3 “Drastic and Immediate” Chan ge75s
4 Alam Halfa: Rommel’s Last Atem pt92
5 Preparations and Pl an1s16
6 Atempting the Break-I: On ctober 23–2 4144
7 Slugging It O ut170
8 Operation Supercharge: Te Breakthroug h204
9 Refections and Reputat ion23 s7
· Bibliography 257
· Index 265List of Maps
1. Opening day of First Alamein: July 1 , 19 3472
2. Te batle of Alam Halfa: August 30–September 7, 1 94927
3. Te October 24 atack showing the objectives and progress
made 150
4. Te three crumbling Australian opera ti1o82ns
5. Te initial atack and progress of OperSauptieo rn charge 214
All publications are a team efort. For me, one of the most enjoyable
parts of the publishing process is being able to acknowled -ge the assis
tance I have received in writing a book and to thank people for their
c on t r i b u t i on s .
I must begin by ofering my thanks to Spencer C. Tucker, the initial
editor of this series of books. In 2010, Spencer took a great d- eal of in
terest in a visiting Fulbright Scholar to the Virginia Military Institute.
A friendship developed and it was at Spencer’s invitation t - hat I com
menced work on this book. I remain immensely grateful for the faith
he placed in me and for his ongoing support. Indiana University Press
has been delightful to work with and has easily overcome the tyranny of
distance in dealing with an author who lives a long way from the USA.
Also overcome, but perhaps not so easily in my case, has bee-n the dif
ferent spellings used in both countries. I also wish to acknowledge the
work of Janice Frisch, Peggy Solic, and Ashley Runyon and thank them
for their support, efciency, and sound advice.
Te primary source material for this book has been obtained from
research institutions in four separate countries. Without fail, the stafs
at all these institutions have been friendly, courteous, and helpful. I am
deeply indebted to them for their professionalism, assistan-ce, and dedi
cation. I must especially acknowledge Neil Frances and the staf of the
Wairarapa Archive in Masterton, New Zealand. Neil and his colleagues
searched their photograph collections of the Second World War and
provided all the images used in this book. Tey did not charge for this
service and I am grateful for their generosity.
ixx Ack now l e dgm e nts
Paul Lumsden produced the excellent maps from his farm near Ward
in New Zealand’s South Island. As I live in New Zealand’s other large
island, this process also meant there were problems of distance involved.
Tanks to the internet, the rural phone service, and Skype, any problems
were easily overcome.
Massey University, New Zealand’s defning university, was fully
supportive of this project. Te University gave me the time t - o under
take the research and to write this book. Massey University’s School
of Humanities also provided some fnancial assistance tow ard its
Finally, I wish to acknowledge and thank my wife, Susan Lemish,
for her support and all the work she has put into this book. Susan read
all the frst drafs twice, assisted with the research, checke-d all the foot
notes and bibliography, and undertook a myriad of other tasks necessary
to bring this book to publication. It is not surprising, then, that Susan
does not want to hear about the batles of El Alamein for some time now.
Glyn Harper
Palmerston North, New Zealand
January 2017BAttle
Afric A
TheIntroductIon: the eyes
of the whole world,
watchIng anxIously
On the evening of October 23, 1942, Lieutenant General Berna-rd Mont
gomery setled in for a good night’s sleep. Montgomery later claimed
that he retired to his caravan early as was his habit, read a few pages from
1a novel “and some time afer nine o’clock he went to s Ilef ept.”his was
true, it was a remarkable display of calm, steely resolve and composure
given what was at stake. Earlier Montgomery had writen a Personal
Message to be read to the men of his Eighth Army that morning. Part of
his Message read:
When I assumed command of the Eighth Army I said that the mandate was to
destroy ROMMEL and his Army, and that it would be done as soon as we were
We are ready NOW.
Te batle which is now about to begin will be one of the decisive batle-s of his
tory. It will be the turning point of the war. Te eyes of the whole world will be
2on us, watching anxiously which way the batle will swing.
Montgomery was in no doubt that the batle would swing his way. It
was part of the reason he claimed to sleep so soundly that night. Earlier
he had dined with Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese, his 30 Corps
commander. On learning that Leese intended to watch the ope-ning bar
rage timed for 9:40 p.m. that evening, Montgomery counseled against it.
Leese recalled what Montgomery said to him:
My job, he said, was to go to bed early so as to appear fresh in the morning and
be able by my appearance to give confdence to the troops. I had then to be on
top of my form so as to accept the inevitable shocks of batle; and be able to plan
3quickly and soundly the next night’s atacks. He could not have been more right.
12 The Battle for North Afr ica
Montgomery may have been right, but Leese ignored his advice and later
moved to a slight ridgeline from which he could observe the opening
barrage. It was the largest fred by the British Army in the war up to that
time. But Montgomery, despite his claims, was also awake watching the
barrage. His Chief of Staf, Brigadier Francis (Freddie) de Guingand,
was at a vantage point on the coast road that night and his notes on the
4batle make it clear that Montgomery was with h Ainm d . Montgomery
recorded the event in his diary. Te opening barrage was:
a wonderful sight, similar to a Great War 1914/18 atack. It was a still night and
very quiet. Suddenly the whole front burst into fre, it was beautifully timed and
5the efect was terrifc; many large fres broke out in enemy gun areas.
Tis was clearly not the dream of a slumbering army commander. It
shows that Montgomery, despite what he wrote later, knew how - impor
tant this batle was to the Allied war efort and to his own career.
At 9:40 p.m., the artillery barrage opened right on time. Te noise
from nearly 900 guns was a crescendo of sound that made t -he air vi
brate; the muzzle fashes lit up a cloudless black light. Twenty minutes
afer this opening barrage, the infantry from fve divisions and a Free
French brigade crossed their start lines. Montgomery had been correct
in his assessment. A turning-point batle of the war had commenced
and the eyes of the world were turned to this life-and-death s truggle in
North Africa.
Twenty minutes afer the sound of the guns shredded the night air,
the frst enemy artillery rounds passed over Lieutenant General Bernard
Freyberg’s forward headquarters. Te GOC of the 2nd New Zealand
Division had just received news that the “Infantry are of – both bdes
[brigades] are away to a good start.” General Freyberg turned to his G1,
the principal staf ofcer, and remarked:
If there was ever justice in a cause this is it. I don’t think the Itys will stick it and
I don’t think the Boche will either—they didn’t in the last war. . . Auchinleck
could have won the war by puting in Blamey instead of Ritchie. Mind you this is
6going to be a stif fght.
Freyberg was right, but this had also been anticipated by Montgomery.
Tat day, Montgomery, no stranger to the cost of large-scale set piece
batles, had writen in his diary a grave reality:I n t roduct ion 3
Te batle will be expensive as it will really become a killing match. I consider
that the dog fght of the “crumbling” operations may last for a week, during
which time we shall never let go our stranglehold. I have estimated for 10,000
casualties in this week’s fghting.
7All we need now is average luck and good weather.
Both Freyberg and Montgomery were correct. Te Eighth Army had a
stif fght ahead in what would become a real “killing match.” But this
October batle of El Alamein would be the turning-point military action
of the North African campaign. Montgomery’s opponent was the famed
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who commanded Panzerarmee Afrika,
the name of his Italian-German desert army from mid-1942. Up until
this October batle, Rommel and the Panzerarmee had held the initiative
and had dominated this theater of war. Te multinational Eighth Army,
comprising soldiers from the British Empire and some of Britain’s allies,
decisively defeated the Axis opponents during this batle. Freyberg was
right in that the Italians and Germans on the Alamein position could not
“stick it” against the weight of manpower and materiel wielded against
them by an Army commander who demonstrated considerable skill in
their use.
While this second batle of Alamein has been praised by some c- om
mentators as a great and important victory, it was a batle that never
ran to the detailed and careful script Montgomery had prepared. Te
intense infantry fghting that required soldiers to close with and defeat
an entrenched enemy was primarily carried out by just four of the eleven
divisions of Eighth Army. Te three armored divisions of Eighth Army
had mixed performances, and some units demonstrated considerable
reluctance to follow Montgomery’s repeated orders to engage with the
enemy. While Rommel was defeated on this batlefeld, he was able to
extricate the remnants of his shatered Panzerarmee Afrika a - nd recon
stitute it to fght yet more batles in North Africa. Tree ti-mes wide en
circling movements, described as “lef hooks,” almost managed to “bag”
the Afrika Korps, Panzerarmee’s main German component. Tat they
failed to do so was the product of excessive caution by the Eighth Army,
combined with their faulty tactics and several poor command decisions.
Te pursuit of the defeated Axis forces afer the batle has atracted less
atention and considerable criticism than the batle itself.4 The Battle for North Afr ica
* * *
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this batle to the B -ritish Em
pire and its people. To date there had been litle to celebrate in this war,
as by mid-1942 there had been few victories and a string of defeats and
disasters. A future Prime Minister of the United Kingdom wrote that
the disasters of the frst six months of 1942 “marked the lowest point of
8our fortunes and put the greatest strain upon ou r T m e oUrnaliet.”ed
Kingdom had endured much since the start of the war in September
1939, but the “continued misfortunes” of the spring and summer of 1942
9“were harder to bear G.” eneral Harold Alexander recalled that when
he arrived in the Middle East in August 1942 to assume command of an
army that was bafed and sufering a crisis of morale, “the situation did
not look good.” Alexander wrote that on his appointment, “For me the
war so far had been nothing but defeats, rearguard actions and eforts
10to stave of disaster.” But he believed that things would soon c hange.
Alexander was right and both he and Montgomery, the man who by
accident had been appointed Eighth Army commander, were primarily
responsible for the change in the United Kingdom’s fortunes. Te change
was sudden, too, and occurred within weeks of both men assuming their
respective commands. It was a remarkable transformation. Te October
Alamein batle was at the heart of this change. It was never a forgone
conclusion that the Eighth Army would win this batle, nor did the batle
go according to plan. Few batles ever do and this one, so profound in its
impact on the Axis and the Allies, never did stick to the script that had
been writen for it.
Victory at El Alamein in October 1942 saved reputations a- nd es
tablished others. According to Stephen Bungay, this batle saved the
reputations of both Churchill and the British Army. Churchill was not
exaggerating when he wrote that “all our fortunes turn upon the speedy
11and decisive defeat of Romm Tel.”e British Army at last showed it
could beat the German Army in batle, even though that army had been
made up largely of Italians. It also afected Churchill’s reputa-tion, en
abling him to become “not just the rallier of a nation in defeat but the
12standard bearer of a nation in vict Iot aryl.s”o frmly established the
reputation of the Eighth Army and made its commander famous almost
overnight. He was later awarded the impressive title Field Marshal the I n t roduct ion 5
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. Afer so many disasters and defeats,
many of them in the last year in this very theater of war, the October
batle of El Alamein “seemed to be a true watershed in Brita -in’s for
13tunes during the war B.”ungay wrote that although “not a very big batle
by the standards of the war,” the October Alamein batle was one that
14Montgomery, Eighth Army, and the British Empire “had to win.”
While the October batle of Alamein was an undoubted victory and
a turning-point batle, it was not without its controversies. Tis book
examines what happened at El Alamein in October 1942 and its place in
the history of the North African campaign and the Second World War. It
also looks at the two earlier batles on the El Alamein position. At frst, it
had been intended to include both these batles in a background chapter.
However, as they were both pivotal to what occurred in the fnal batle at
Alamein, more detailed explanations of them was necessary. Tey have
therefore been allocated a separate chapter each.
Tere were three batles fought on the Alamein position. T - ese ear
lier batles have ofen been ignored by military historians, especially
the one that occurred in July. Tis July batle, known now as the First
Batle of El Alamein, was a confused and seemingly unconnected series
of engagements, but it was this batle that halted Rommel’s triumphant
advance into Egypt. Te August batle, the batle of Alam Halfa, was
signifcant in that Rommel’s last atempt to get to Cairo was halted by
a combination of factors, including exemplary air-land cooperation and
the skillful use of signals intelligence intercepts. At last British military
commanders were learning how to use their vast military as-sets cor
rectly. It is not possible to understand what occurred during the October
or Second Batle of El Alamein without some knowledge of wha-t had oc
curred in the recent months leading up to it. Finally, this boo-k also con
siders whether the reputations won and lost at El Alamein were deserved
and analyzes the signifcance of the batle to the Allies and to Germany.
So why write another book on the batles of El Alamein? Without
doubt, the Second World War was one of the most catastroph -ic and har
rowing events in human history. It is deservedly one of the most
writenabout subjects in history. A search of the British Library catalogue on the
topic of the Second World War in July 2016 showed them holding almost
1510,000 titles on the subjec At.mongst these holdings, the campaigns in 6 The Battle for North Afr ica
North Africa were well served with 1,807 titles devoted to Montgomery
16and 140 to his opponent Romme I ln 2. 011, the library held 308 titles on
the North African campaign, which amounted to more than four books
a year on the subject or a book every three months of the sixty-nine years
17since the November batle T. e United States Library of Congress has
similarly impressive holdings. In July 2016, it held 10,000 titles on World
War II. In relation to the North African campaign, the US Library of
Congress held 359 titles on the topic Alamein and 270 titles on North
Africa–World War II. Te titles it held on Bernard Montgom -ery num
18bered 189; those on his opponent Rommel were more than triple a t 611.
With such impressive coverage, it would seem that another book
on the El Alamein batles of 1942 is not necessary. Tere are, however,
several reasons for doing so. First, interest in the North Af- rican cam
paign remains high. A reason for this is that so many countries were
involved in what was a unique theater of war. From December 1940 and
lasting for more than two years, “over a million men from ten faraway
19countries fought here, and more than 50,000 of them dAs Jioedh.n ”
North has writen, the October Alamein batle is the story of “a great
batle . . . fought in the desert” and of “two armies . . . locked in deadly
20combat for months on en Wd.”ith the 75th anniversary of the batles
approaching, interest in what happened at Alamein and why it w- as im
portant is unlikely to wane. Second, a large number of the books on the
North African campaign have taken a partisan approach to -the vari
ous commanders involved or have told the story of the Alamein batles
from a particular national perspective. Tis book atempts to avoid these
limitations. Tird, there is no doubt that the October Alamein batle was
an important turning point in the war. It marked, albeit on a smaller
scale than other turning-point batles of the war, the frst decisive defeat
on land of an army commanded by a German general and containing
panzer and infantry formations of the Wehrmacht. While Rommel’s
defeated Panzerarmee contained many Italian formations, it is a myth
that these units did not fght well in North Africa in the Alamein batles.
Such an important event in the history of the Second World W- ar is al
ways worthy of further study. It is hoped that this book will provide a
fresh and unbiased perspective of a critical batle of the Second World
War. Finally, the batles of Alamein, even afer so many years, remain I n t roduct ion 7
contested ground. Part of this was fueled afer the war in a “third batle of
El Alamein,” when so many of the participants published their accounts
of what happened. Te state of Eighth Army in early August 1942, who
was responsible for success at Alam Halfa and the October batle, and
how important all three batles were all still remain controversial and
debated topics. As Jonathan Fennell wrote in 2011, “Afer close to seventy
years of scholarship, the causes of Eighth Army’s success at El Alamein
21are still contested I.”t is not expected that this book will resolve these
debates, although it is hoped that it adds substantially to them.
Not e s
1. Nigel HamiltonM, onty: Te Making of a General 1887–194. (2 London: Hamish
Hamilton, 1981), 774.
2. Ibid., 770.
3. Ibid., 768–769.
4. Niall BarrP, endulum of War: Te Tree Batles of El Alamei. (n London: Pimlico,
2005), 309.
5. Ibid., 309.
6. Freyberg’s War Diary 23 October 1944, WA II 8/44, Archives New Zealand. Te
Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga (ANZ).
7. HamiltonM, onty, 771.
8. Harold MacmillanT, e Blast of War 1939–194. (5 London. Macmillan & Co. Ltd.,
1967), 81.
9. Ibid., 166.
1 0. John North, edT., e Alexander Memoirs: 1940–1945. (London: Cassell & Company
Ltd., 1962), 12.
11. I.S.O. Playfair, and C.J.C. Molony, with F.C. Flynn, T.P. GleTave Me,
editerranean and the Middle East, Volume IV. Te Destruction of the Axis Forces in Afi. ca
(London: HMSO, 1966), 1.
1 2 . S t e phe n B u n g ayA, lamein. (London: Arum Press, 2003), 215.
13. Barr, Pendulum of Wa,r xxxvii.
1 4 . B u n g a y , Alamein, 3.
15. Te British Library, accessed July 13, 2016, Te exact fgure was 9,794.
16. I bid .
17. Jonathan Fennell, “‘Steel my soldiers’ hearts’: El Alamein ReappraisedJo,u” i rnn al
of Military and Strategic Stud ( iVesol.14, Issue 1, Fall 2011): 1.
18. Library of Congress, accessed July 13, 2016, htps://
19. Bu ngay, Alamein, 2.
2 0 . N o r t hT, e Alexander Memoirs, 5.
21. Fennell, “Steel my soldiers’ hearts,”
The MiliTary Background
Since late 1940, afer Italy joined the war on the side of the Axis on June 10
that year, both sides had waged military ofensives in the Western Desert
with varying degrees of success. Egypt was a vital cog in Britain’s war
1efort, described by John Connell as “the fulcrum of the Bri tish Empire.”
Egypt protected the sources of oil in the Middle East and its route to the
United Kingdom. It was a center of communications for the far-fung
parts of the Empire “east of Suez” and a critical base for naval operations
in the Mediterranean. For these reasons, Egypt became the l - argest Brit
ish military base outside of the United Kingdom. It was a vital, strategic
asset. But, afer June 1940, one of Britain’s Axis enemies was just across
the border in Libya with a huge military force. Italian forces in Libya,
under Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, numbered 250,000 organized into two
armies and fourteen divisions. British forces in Egypt under General
Sir Archibald Wavell had just 36,000 men and consisted primarily of an
understrength armored and two infantry divisions. Te Western Desert
Force, as these were called—there were not yet enough assets to form
a corps or an army—was short of much essential equipment including
artillery, tanks, transport, and logistical support.
Given their overwhelming force, it was natural that the Italians
should strike frst. Tey took some time doing so, though. It was not
until September 13 that the Italians crossed the border and began a slow,
ponderous advance into Egypt. Afer four days, all the time harassed by
artillery fre, minefelds, and bombed by the Royal Air Force (RF), the
Italians reached Sidi Barrani, just sixty-fve miles into Egypt. Tere they
halted, dug in, and planned their next moves.
8The Military Background 9
Tey were still contemplating them when, on December 9 -, the West
ern Desert Force launched Operation C. Iompt a acsshieved complete
surprise and was a stunning success. Within two days, the Sidi Barrani
position was captured, four Italian divisions destroyed, and t- he remain
der of the Italian force sent reeling back in uter defeat. Amongst the
38,000 Italian prisoners taken were four generals. Also captured were
237 guns, seventy-three tanks, and more than 1,000 vehicles. Losses in
2the Western Desert Force were 624 killed, missing, or w Aous nded.
an exultant Anthony Eden informed British Prime Minister Winston
Churchill, “debasing a golden phrase” in the process, “Never before has
3so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”
In the pursuit phase that followed the Italians’ rout, British forces
advanced deep into Libya. On January 3, 1941, they captured Bardia just
over the border and pushed on. On January 22, Tobruk was captured,
Derna eight days later, and Benghazi fell on February 7. Two days later,
the Western Desert Force, now renamed 13 Corps, reached El Agheila,
where they halted. Tis was the frst British ofensive of the Second
World War and their frst land victory. It was a signifcant one, too. In
just two months, a British force, never numbering more than 30,000 men,
had advanced some 500 miles, destroyed ten Italian divisions, captured
130,000 prisoners, 850 guns, 400 tanks, and given the British C -ommon
wealth something to celebrate in the darkest of times. British casualties
4had been fewer than 2,0 I0t 0w. as an impressive victory and the Allies
would not have another like it for nearly two years.
Te success of the British forces in Operation h C a od tmpa hse es - f
fect of tarnishing the reputation of the Italian army there. But Operation
Compass was an aberration where Italian troops had been inexperienced,
lacked vital equipment, and were poorly led. Te Italians fought in North
Africa for almost three years, “its longest campaign of the Second World
War.” From 1941–43, in concert with its German allies, “most Italian
5soldiers fought well against the Britis Ih ftaloiracn les.o” sses in various
actions were similar to German losses, indicating that their formations
had fought equally hard. Te North African campaign would eventually
result in twenty-six Italian divisions being destroyed, with 12,000 Italian
6soldiers being killed in action.10 The Battle for North Afr ica
Two developments occurred in capital cities thousands of miles
from the fghting that were to have profound implications on this theater
of war. First, on the same day that Bardia fell, Churchill took the decision
that ofensive operations in the Middle East were to be ha-lted, the ad
vance should not proceed beyond Benghazi and the position there made
secure. Ten all military assistance should be rendered to Greece in their
fght against the Italian invaders there. Tis was to be the m - ilitary prior
ity now. From his already stretched resources, Wavell was directed to
prepare a sizable expeditionary force to Greece. Ten, just over a month
later on February 2, 1941, Adolf Hitler wrote to Mussolini expressing his
concerns about events in North Africa and ofering a German armored
division to assist in the defense of Tripoli. Mussolini reluctantly accepted
the assistance and things moved quickly from here. On February 6, Adolf
Hitler summoned one of his favourite generals to see him. Afer giving
“a detailed account of the situation in Africa,” Hitler informed Erwin
Rommel that Rommel “had been recommended to him as the man who
would most quickly adapt himself to the altogether diferent conditions
7of the African the Ratreom.”mel was elated with his new appointment
and wrote to his wife, Lucie-Maria, that evening apologizing for cuting
short his leave. “Tings are moving fast,” he informed her. “Te new job
8is very big and important.”
Tings were certainly moving fast. On February 11, Lieut-enant Gen
eral Erwin Rommel arrived in Rome to discuss military arrangements.
Only three days later, the frst German units arrived in Tripoli and were
immediately dispatched to the front. Tey would eventually become
the famed Deutsches Afrika Korps (DAK). Te timing was crucial. Just
as the British were winding down their operations and diverting their
forces to meet other commitments, “a new and formidable factor had
9entered the desert w Iat wor.” uld soon be the British forces’ turn to
be surprised and it began the period for them that David Fraser called
10“the habit of defe Oatn F.” ebruary 16, just two days afer their arrival,
the Germans were in action against the depleted British for- ces and Rom
mel had taken command of the batle front. At the end of March, despite
the reluctance of his Italian allies and in defance of orders from the
German Oberkommondo des Heeres (Army High Command), Rommel
launched a raid in force against the British positions in Libya. It turned The Military Background 11
into much more than that. Rommel wrote to his wife on April 3 that their
atack had met with “dazzling success” and that the British forces were
11“falling over each other to get a It wwa ays t.” rue. By April 10, the Axis
forces had pushed the British back across the Egyptian border, leaving
just the isolated Tobruk garrison holding out now eighty miles behind
the frontline. By the end of April, the Axis were occupying all the old
Italian positions along the frontier and had established a f- orward out
post at Halfaya Pass, ten miles inside Egypt. Axis casualties had been
light and three British generals, including the Army commander Richard
O’Connor, had been captured. Rommel and the Axis had clearly won
this round of the “Benghazi Handicap” as the race across North Africa
was now called. His success was as immensely satisfying to him as it was
galling to his British opponents. He wrote to his wife that -, “It’s wonder
12ful to have pulled this of against the B Burt titish e.”re was a tactical
thorn that threatened to prick his growing reputation. T- e town of To
bruk and its wide defended perimeter held out against the Axis. It was
defended largely by the 9th Australian Division, which was determined
not to lose it. As Barrie Pit has writen, Tobruk “was to prove a continual
distraction to Rommel’s further ambition and his atempts to storm its
defences were to cause him serious losses in both men and ma- terial dur
13ing the months which follow It wed.o” uld cause considerable losses for
the British forces, too.
While Tobruk was besieged, with its harbor providing a tenuous
lifeline, three atempts were made by the British to drive the Axis forces
back from the Libyan-Egyptian border and lif the siege. Te British
Army in these early years of the war was hampered by two serious faws,
both of them a legacy of the First World War. While the British Army
had pioneered tank development in the 1914–18 war, it had then seriously
neglected its development in the decades that followed. Tanks, many felt,
were a marginal asset and were certainly unreliable. Tey were expensive
and defnitely not as likeable as horses. So it was then that “the British
Army entered the Second World War without a coherent doctrine of
armoured operations, and with litle general understanding of how those
14operations might change the whole patern of w It warfaas a res.”er- i
ous gap in the British Army’s warfghting doctrine, one that would be
responsible for several disasters ahead and that would afect how the last 12 The Battle for North Afr ica
Alamein batle would be fought. It was also the reason that the British
failed to produce a quality tank during the war that could match those
of the Germans. In response to the German challenge, “we produced
15tanks with too thin a skin or too feeble a weapon, o It wr bao s nth o .”t
until mid-1942 during the Gazala batle that the M3 Grant provided the
British with a tank that could match the best of the German tanks. Later
in the year, the British received an even beter US-designed M4 tank:
the Sherman, which would eventually become the mainstay of British
armored formations. Te other faw refected the shadow of the barbed
wire of the trenches of the Western Front. Te defense, it was assumed,
was the strongest and the wisest method of war. It also engendered, as
the historian/soldier David Fraser admited, “a spirit of caut- ion and hesi
tancy [that] was never completely eradicated from all parts of the British
Command.” But as Fraser acknowledged, ofen bold ofensive moves can
lead to fewer casualties when a cautious approach can accumulate many
16casualties for small gains.
Te frst atempt to relieve Tobruk was the appropriatel-y named Op
eratioBn revity launched on May 15. Te ofensive began well. Te British
forces achieved a tactical surprise and initially captured the key border
locations of Halfaya Pass, Sollum, and Fort Capuzzo. But the ofensive
was brought to an abrupt halt when the Axis forces launched spirited
counteratacks and the British tanks encountered for the frst time in
this theater the powerfully efective 88 millimeter (mm) anti-aircraf
gun being used in an anti-tank role. Te range and hiting power of this
weapon was devastating on the lightly armored British tanks. Te 88 mm
gun came to have an important efect on the morale of British armored
formations from this time. It soon became “the most feared weapon in
17North Africa C .” uriously, the British had their equivalent of the 88 mm
in the 3.7-inch (94 mm) anti-aircraf gun, but hide-bound British staf
ofcers refused to allow it to be used in a dual role. One anti-aircraf
gunner, Lieutenant David Parry, felt there was “no excuse for the sheer
18stupidity” of this decis Aion 8n. 8 mm gun had three times the e- fec
tive range of a two-pounder gun. Unfortunately, the two-pounder gun
was the standard armament of British tanks and their an-ti-tank weap
onry at this stage of the war. An 88 mm gun “could completely destroy a
19Crusader tank with one shot from a distance of one-and-a -half miles.”The Military Background 13
With its range and sheer velocity, the 88 mm gun “wrought havoc” on the
20North African batlefelds and “remained queen of the desert.”
Afer ten days and with the loss of fve tanks and around 200 men,
the ofensive was called of. It was a humiliating defeat for the British 13
Corps. Rommel, who recaptured the last position lost to the British on
May 27, recorded a succinct summary of the fghting:
Te British were soon driven out and fed in panic to the east, leav-ing consider
able booty and material of all kinds in our hands. Our losses were comparatively
It was an inauspicious start to lifing the siege of Tobruk.
Te next atempt, Operation Batl,e laxeaunched on June 14, was
22even worse. Barrie Pit summed it up as “a disastrous fa Rilueire-n.”
forced by the arrival of more than 200 new tanks and press-ured by Win
ston Churchill to use them as soon as possible, the atack revealed just
how much the British had to learn in this type of warfare. Te army
commander Wavell was not confdent and identifed part of the problem
in a report on May 28. Wavell wrote:
Our infantry tanks are really too slow for a batle in the desert, and have been
sufering considerable casualties from the fre of the powerful enemy anti-tank
guns. Our cruisers have litle advantage in power or speed over German medium
Wavell, however, hoped to “succeed in driving the enemy w-est of To
23bruk.” Wavell’s dashed hopes would lose him the command of the
Middle East. As indicated above, the new tanks were not suited for desert
conditions and their crews were unfamiliar with how they could be used.
Worse still was the fact that an all-arms approach to the batle was not yet
part of British doctrine. British armored units did not know how to work
in tandem with the infantry, artillery, and engineer formations that made
up their land force in this theater. Cooperation and coordination with
the Royal Air Force was also nonexistent. Tese were fundamental faws
and doomed Operation Batlea txo fe ailu. Are nd by the time Batleaxe
was launched, Rommel’s forces had been strengthened by the arrival of
an additional formation—the 15th Panzer Division.
On the frst day, the British armor skirted around the f- ortifed po
sitions on the border but came up against strong German defenses at 14 The Battle for North Afr ica
Fort Capuzzo. Tere they were atacked by the tanks of the 15th Panzer
Division and routed. Within the space of a few short ho-urs, the Brit
ish armored formations had lost more than half their tanks. Te next
day, the third of the batle, Wavell called of the operation and his army
retired ignominiously to their start lines. Inferior British equipment,
poor planning, faulty doctrine, inadequate training, and B- ritish gener
24alship that was “remote and inexpert” had caused th Iis dn t efhe eat.
United Kingdom, Winston Churchill described the failure o f Batleaxe
as “a most biter blow.” Victory in the Western Desert was of “supreme
consequence” and “all our hearts at home had been set on be-ating Rom
25mel.” Churchill was deeply disappointed by the British forces’ dismal
performance in Batlea axned d ecided a new commander was needed
to deliver him the victory he so desperately needed in the Middle East.
“Te fact remains,” he wrote somewhat defensively in his history of the
war, “that afer ‘Batleaxe,’ I came to the conclusion that there should be
26a change.” Wavell was informed on June 21 that he was being relieved
of command of the armies in the Middle East.
Te Germans soon recovered their lost tanks and many o - f the Brit
ish ones, too, and restored them to working order. So severe had been
their defeat that the original intent of destroying Rommel’s forces and
lifing the Tobruk siege was kept hidden from the British public. It was
27described to them as “merely a reconnaissance in f Toe Grcer.” mans
were not deceived, though, and Rommel was elated with his success. He
described it to his wife as a “complete victory.” Afer the b - atle, Rom
28mel went around the front line troops to thank them p T ee rsonally.
morale of the Afrika Korps troops was “tremendous” and Rommel’s
confdence soared. “Now the enemy can come,” he wrote, and “he’ll get
29an even bigger beating T.” e enemy would not be coming for s everal
months now.
* * *
Appointed as the commander to deliver Churchill the elus-ive land vic
tory against German ground forces he so desperately wan ted was an
impressive-looking general nicknamed “Te Auk.” Tis was General
Sir Claude Auchinleck, who had limited experience for such a crucial
appointment. Auchinleck was a major general at the start of the war in The Military Background 15
1939, and the following year had commanded Allied land f- orces dur
ing the later half of the ill-fated Narvik expedition in Norway. He
then commanded a corps in England and was promoted as the GOC
Southern Command. Auchinleck’s star was defnitely on the rise in
1940 and in November, he was promoted to general and appointed as
the Commander-in-Chief India. It was in this role that Auchinleck’s
swif dispatch of soldiers to deal with an uprising in Iraq in 1941 caught
Churchill’s eye. He appeared to be the decisive, skilled commander he
needed to replace Wavell. But Auchinleck was, like the Du- ke of Wel
lington, a “Sepoy General” from the Indian Army. In the British Army,
“he was not widely known, nor did he widely know others.” Tis would
lead to a fatal faw. While his own soldierly qualities we-re clearly evi
dent, Auchinleck was a poor selector of subordinates. As David Fraser
has writen, Auchinleck “did not choose subordinates wisely, nor judge
30their performance as shrewdly as was ne Ien tdedh .”e batles ahead, this
would become glaringly obvious and cost Eighth Army dearly.
Auchinleck arrived to take over the Middle East command in July
1941. His instructions were simple. He was to take ofensive action against
the Axis forces immediately and expel them from Egypt frst and then
from North Africa. But Auchinleck refused to be rushed. Afer a good
look at his forces and the terrain over which they must fght, Auchinleck’s
frst cable to Churchill made it clear that immediate ofensive action
was too risky. Instead, Auchinleck needed time to secure his main base
and build up his forces, including having an adequate reserve of armor.
An “adequate” armored reserve for Auchinleck meant 50 percent of the
total with this being equally divided between those in workshops under
repair and those available for immediate replacement of batle casualties.
Churchill was furious, writing: “Generals only enjoy such comforts in
31heaven . . . And those that demand them do not always ge It tn t hheere .”
months that followed, additional reinforcements were sent to the Middle
East from the United Kingdom as well as considerable mate-rials, includ
ing vast supplies of fuel, munitions, armor, and vehicles. With each new
shipment came pressure from Whitehall for military action. It was not
until mid-November, though, that Auchinleck felt ready to move. On
November 18, 1941, he launched the newly named Eighth Army against
the Axis forces with the aim of driving them back and relieving Tobruk. 16 The Battle for North Afr ica
OperatioCnr usader, the codename of this new ofensive, would be “the
32third lap of the Benghasi Hand icap.”
Te Eighth Army was an unusual creation. It was a multinational
force comprising soldiers from across the British Empire-. It also con
tained soldiers from Allied nations, including Poles, Free French, and
Greek units or formations. Such a polyglot force caused s- erious prob
lems. Until the arrival of Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery in
August 1942, Eighth Army lacked a sense of shared purpose. Niall Barr
wrote that in July 1942, at a time of severe crisis in the North African
campaign, Eighth Army was still “not a unifed army with a strong sense
of collective identity but a collection of units with som -etimes compet
33ing identities T.” is lack of cohesion, this understanding of a shared
purpose in working together as part of a larger team, cont-ributed signif
cantly to the many disasters ahead for Eighth Army.
OperationC rusader was a critical if greatly confused batle in the
North African campaign. Te New Zealand ofcial historian warned
that it was “A play with a cast of 250,000, a seting the size of Italy, and
34a plot like a pot of eels, twisting and turning in all d It irewacs tions.”
an apt description of what became a real soldier’s batle. Generalship on
35both sides “was at second best lev Telw.”ice Rommel led spectacular
armored thrusts, which certainly unnerved his opponent but diverted
crucial assets away from the batle’s tipping point around Tobruk. But
Eighth Army commander Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham
performed so poorly that Auchinleck was forced to reliev- e him of com
mand midway through the fghting. He was replaced with a staf ofcer,
Major General Neil Ritchie, whose last combat experience had been as a
major in Palestine in 1918. Ritchie, “a large, afable Scot,” had risen from
major to Major General in the space of four years but always in staf roles.
Bierman and Smith atribute this rapid promotion “more to his ability to
36get on with people than to a particularly sha rIp n mthinis dt.”heater
and at this stage of the war, being “clubbable” or a “good c- hap” was es
sential to receiving an army command.
Meanwhile, as much of the British armor had been destroyed in
piecemeal clashes, British Commonwealth infantry bore the brunt of the
fghting around key pieces of terrain such as Sidi Rezegh, Belhamed, and
Ed Duda. Teir losses soon mounted, especially for the South Africans The Military Background 17
and New Zealanders. In the end, victory went to the side with the biggest
purse. Afer his two impetuous armored dashes into Egypt, Rommel
was critically short of armor, fuel, ammunition, and other vital supplies.
Te ofen-forgoten eforts of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy had
sent most of the Axis supplies to the botom of the Mediterranean and it
made a telling diference. In mid-December, Rommel reluctantly made
the decision to abandon the siege of Tobruk and withdrew his forces back
to El Agheila. He wrote two telling leters to his wife. Te frst informed
her that, “We’re pulling out. Tere was simply nothing else for it.” Te
next ofered some explanation why the withdrawal was necessary:
Retreat to Agedabia. You can’t imagine what it’s like. Hoping to get the bulk of
my force through and to make a stand somewhere. Litle ammunition and petrol,
37no air support. Quite the reverse with the enemy.
If Churchill now had his victory, it was a pyrrhic one at best. British
casualties, some 17,700, were heavy; unnecessarily so. Of tho- se forma
tions involved, one, the 2nd New Zealand Division, had sufered more
38than 30 percent of them, some 4,620 in t T otis “alv.ictory” had cost
the New Zealanders far more in casualties than their two -previous mili
tary disasters of Greece and Crete. Tere was also the strong feeling
throughout Eighth Army that the victory had been won by default and
was undeserved.
Afer Crusader, rather than being elated with their success, many
Eighth Army soldiers had litle confdence in their army’s m -ilitary lead
ership and believed their weapons systems to be thoroughly inferior to
their opponents’. Tis especially applied to Eighth Army’s main
antitank weapon—the two-pounder gun. Introduced in 1936 a-nd reason
ably efective in 1939, the two-pounder anti-tank gun was “dangerously
39obsolete” in 1941 I. t could penetrate the heavier armored German
tanks only at close range. Te 75 mm guns of the German t- anks eas
ily outranged them. In contrast, the Afrika Korps was equipped with
two of the best anti-tank guns of the war. Tese were the 5 cm Pak gun,
which had a low profle and a range of 1,000 yards—double that of the
British two-pounder—and the much-vaunted 88 mm anti-aircraf gun.
When used in the anti-tank role, the 88 mm “could destroy British tanks
40at 2,000 yards range L.”itle wonder British tanks greatly feared the

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