23 October 2012

The Desert War: Introduction

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Battle of El Alamein, one of the turning points in the European Theatre of the Second World War. 

As I planned, I am going to be doing another history series on this blog, covering the North African campaign from start to finish. This will be split into six parts:
  • Introduction: Setting the scene and the terrain
  • 1940: Italian involvement and early British victories
  • 1941: Rommel's arrival and Tobruk 1
  • 1942: The furthest advances of Rommel, Tobruk 2 and El Alamein itself, then Operation Torch.
  • 1943: The final defeat of the Axis in Africa.
  • Conclusion: Was North Africa worth it? What can we learn from it?
So, let us begin.


Benito Mussolini stands on a CV33 tank

When war broke out in 1939, the northern coast of Africa was divided among colonial empires. In what are now Morocco, Algeria and Tunis, the Fourth Republic controlled what was known as French West Africa, although the southern side of the Pillars of Hercules were (and still are) under control of Spain, who would remain neutral in this war.

Going along the coast, Fascist Italy ran what is modern-day Libya, one of their few colonial possession. They had gained another, Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in a brutal invasion of a completely outclassed sovereign state, wrecking the reputation of Italy in the world community - were it not for this invasion, Mussolini may well have come onto the Allied side.

On the east lay the ancient state of Egypt. Independent since 1922, the monarchy was still under heavy British influence and the area around the Suez Canal continued to host British forces, although the plan was to withdraw them by 1949.

I'll provide you with Adrian Chapman's rather good map to show things a bit more clearly:

I've mentioned the Suez Canal. This canal, opened in 1869, allowed shipping to go from Europe to the far east in a far quicker time than previously, as they now longer had to take the hot and time-consuming long way round Africa. The British relied on it to bring goods from India and maintained military bases at Aden and Cyprus, providing them with air and naval cover of the approaches to Suez.

Losing this area to the Axis powers would not only disrupt one of the lifelines for Britain's war industry, but would also allow Hitler access to Middle Eastern oilfields. The British presence in Palestine and Trans-Jordan was not very popular among the locals (in fact, there has a three-year revolt from 1936 to 1939); there was a liking for Hitler from figures like Haj Amin al-Hussein, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who would later provide propaganda support and aid in the recruitment of a Muslim SS Division. Any entrance to that area by German tanks might well have been welcomed by the Arab street.

Furthermore, Italy was seen as an easier target than Germany once it entered the war - the "soft underbelly" as it was dubbed.

It was to prove anything but.

The terrain

If you look at a satellite image of North Africa, you will see a great deal of yellow and brown. Most of it is hilly, sandy desert or both, interspersed with the odd oasis or settlement separated by many miles. Much of it is wide open territory, but unless you've got a decent sat nav on your tank, an looping assault across the open desert like Norman Schwarzkopf would do in 1991 is likely to result in you getting lost, as in many cases you have few frames of reference. You could get stuck in the sand - during a sandstorm. Or for that matter, run into a mine that the other side has planted and neither of them can actually find.

As such, forces were limited to operating along the few roads that ran between the towns and cities, where they were open to air attack and had little cover from enemy fire. If you remember the Libyan Civil War last year, much of that involved forces going back and forth between various towns on the coast in 'technicals' - flat bed trucks with weapons mounted on them.

This brings us to another problem in this theatre - it's a desert. Hot during the day, freezing at night and with limited water. A considerable proportion of the supply train therefore was needed just to ensure that the troops didn't get dehydrated. In addition, a pilot bailing out in the desert might die of thirst before being rescued or reaching safety - as happened to the pilot of a Kittyhawk recently found in Egypt. The sand or dust was liable to get anywhere and everywhere.

It was this unpleasant (to put it mildly) environment that Italy and Britain would first clash in June 1940.

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