14 November 2012

The Desert War: 1942 - Montgomery turns the Hinge

Tanks waiting to advance at El Alamein

As 1942 began, it marked the end of a year where key events had dramatically altered the war. Both the USSR and the USA had been attacked by the Axis, becoming full members of the Grand Alliance (as Churchill termed it). Things had not been going that well for the former and were a disaster for the latter.

The USSR wished for a Second Front in Europe to relieve some pressure from their forces, who were  taking the brunt of the Axis firepower and would continue to do so. A significant portion of American public opinion favoured concentrating on the Pacific (who had actually attacked them) and those who favoured some involvement in Europe believed that the best use of American forces would be the invasion of France - feeling that the shortest route between two points was a straight line.

While the shortest route did ultimately prove to be a straight line (it took nine months from Normandy to the Rhine, as opposed to the over two years from Sicily to Austria), a land based invasion of France in 1942 was a complete non-starter; Dieppe was bad enough and a failure on that scale would have probably cost Churchill his job.

He was going to have enough political problems as it was.

The end of Crusader and Rommel's counterattack

Bardia fell on 2 January and the Allies continued to advance, reaching El Agheila. However, Rommel's supply lines were shortening and those of Auchinleck were getting longer. Thus Rommel was able to replenish his forces.

On 21 January, Rommel launched a surprise counter-attack. Meant initially to be a reconnaissance in force, lighter resistance than expected led this to turn into a full offensive and by early February 8th Army found itself back at the Gazala Line, where it had been in December.

At this point, both sides stopped and dug in.

Gazala and the fall of Tobruk

The British established a series of forts on a 50 mile line running south from Gazala to the old Turkish fortress of Bir Hakeim, believing that anything south of that was impenetrable by the Germans. Yep, it's one of those classic blunders. They also received new M3 Lee tanks and changed their air strategy from air superiority to combat support.

Rommel was also building up his supplies and had the advantage of shorter lines - the Mediterranean was still a risky proposition for Allied shipping (who were also dealing with the siege of Malta) and so those supplies tended to come the long way round.

On 26 May, after his 'good source' revealed the British were preparing a counter-offensive Rommel's forces launched an attack at the centre of the Gazala Line - aiming for Tobruk. It was a feint and the British fell for it. After the sun set, the tanks went south and round the line to the south, taking the British completely by surprise. Bir Hakeim was encircled, the start of a siege that would last until 11 June, when the remaining unwounded Free French troops managed to get out, having run out of ammunition.

The Allies launched two big counter-attacks and both ultimately failed.

With Bir Hakeim in his grasp, Rommel's forces raced forward, the British abandoning Gazala and having to leave a new line before they could settle in. Tobruk was now open.

Despite Churchill's desire to defend Tobruk to the end, Auchinleck was not of the same opinion. It's important to remember that there was no effective real-time communication between Egypt and London. Any messages would have to be sent over the radio in code - this took time to cipher and decipher. The local commanders had to have considerable freedom of action as a result.

(The Axis forces in Europe had the advantage of telephone links that Bletchley Park could not tap)

Tobruk was surrounded on 17 June and the final assault against the South Africa, British and Indian forces there began on the 20th with a heavy bombardment. The tanks raced through to the port facilities, capturing them by day's end. A breakout failed and the following day, 35,000 Allied soldiers surrendered.

Churchill, in Washington for a summit with FDR, is reported to have turned white when he heard the news. The American President's response was to send 300 vitally needed Sherman tanks to the British in Egypt. The British PM then went home and faced down a censure motion in the Commons (sitting in Westminster Hall as the Commons Chamber was destroyed in the last big raid of the Blitz - fortunately it was empty at the time).

For Rommel's part, he was promoted to Field Marshal.

First El Alamein

The British began to realise information was leaking - a German radio play in which an American attaché was depicted sending information to Washington may well have finally tipped them off. On 29 June, Fellers was reassigned out of Egypt. This did not close the leak immediately, but it was starting to help.

On 30 June 1942, German tanks reached a small railway halt in the middle of nowhere that would soon enter the history books. Auchinleck had declared that a line going through the town of El Alamein and ending with the effectively impassable Qabala Depression (as any forces would have head deep into the Sahara to go round it) would be the final defensive point - they had to hold here or Egypt was in grave danger of being lost.

In Cairo, panic was beginning to set in - documents were burned at the Embassy and the ex-pat community began to leave. Hitler and Mussolini relished the possibility of a huge victory - they were not going to get one.

Rommel decided not to give his forces a rest and pushed on, encountering heavy resistance. Both sides ground up against each other, with many casualties as the British held firm, while Allied forces launching attacks frequently got separated from their armour support, got lost or ended up in minefields.

On 10 July, an assault at Tel el Aisa resulted in the overrunning of 621st Signal Battalion's positions. This unit had been assisting Rommel by listening in on British communications, the British demonstrating a major failure of radio discipline. Rommel was now cut off from his information source.

After an offensive called Operation Manhood broke down and was cancelled on 31 July, things ended in a stalemate. Rommel, blaming his losses on a lack of supplies, poor Italian equipment and command (but not the soldiers) would go no further east.

The Allies took about 13,250 casualties (killed, wounded and missing) - the Axis around 17,000.

Enter Monty

Winston Churchill was not happy with merely holding the line, especially while possessing a bigger force. He took a very noisy, risky and uncomfortable flight to Cairo along with the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Alan Brooke. While there, he fired Auchinleck from his post, the General ending up in command of the Indian Army.

To replace Auchinleck, a Lieutenant General named William "Strafer" Gott, who had commanded the Desert Rats was appointed to take over 8th Army. As he was flying back to Cairo, however, his transport plane was jumped by German fighters and took enough damage to make it crash - yet the 109s came back for another pass as it was going down. This highly unusual move (it's a waste of ammo to shoot up an aircraft that you've already effectively destroyed) has been taken by many, including the pilot of the transport - who survived the war - that the Germans knew he was on there

Brooke had not wanted Gott in charge, preferring a general with no experience of the desert called Bernard Montgomery. "Monty", a Western Front veteran who had survived a bullet wound that looked so bad that a grave was dug for him. He won the Distinguished Service Order as a subaltern (it usually goes to those above Lieutenant Colonel), which is usually given for acts of gallantry that just miss out on the Victoria Cross.

He was not really someone who played well with others - he lived a spartan life, opened a brothel for his troops to the disquiet of his fellow commanders and later expressed public support for apartheid. His ego was rather large. From a biography I read of him, he comes across (although I am no mental health expert) as borderline Asperger's. He had a fierce rivalry with the equally abrasive George Patton and would later come close to insubordination with Eisenhower.

At any rate, he proved to be a highly dynamic officer who made a strong effort to visit his men, acquiring a distinctive black tanker's beret on one of these visits. He ordered there would be no further retreat.

On 30 August, Rommel launched another offensive. However, with the advantage of ULTRA decrypts, the British knew it was coming and used their aircraft to harass the enemy supply lines, destroying 400 trucks. Short of fuel, the Desert Fox decided to withdraw on 2 September.

Montgomery launched a counter-offensive, but after suffering heavy casualties, a general known for his caution called it off. He would get a lot of criticism for this - as it allowed the Germans to escape to fight another day, but he felt his relatively inexperienced forces weren't ready for it.

Second El Alamein

Churchill, after refusing point blank to countenance any cross-channel invasion in 1943, got the agreement of the Americans to an amphibious landing in the Vichy French territory of North Africa. He wanted, for political reasons, a big victory before this landing happened.

Thus, on 23 October 1942, with the extra tanks and equipment promised by Roosevelt, Operation Lightfoot was launched at 2140 local time. The plan was to penetrate the German minefield near El Alamein (which was 5 miles thick) in the space of a single night, while launching a series of feint attacks. It would be a tall order even today - so it's no surprise that it didn't work like that.

Monty had the advantage of German command problems. Ill-health affected a lot of the forces in the desert - dysentery, malaria etc. Rommel was in Germany recuperating from stomach problems and had to rush back to take command. The local commander died of a heart attack, but his deputy took command in the meantime.

The fighting was heavy, but the British had the advantage of numbers as well as the fact the Germans believed they were fighting on a broad front. Rommel's tanks were running out of fuel, his units were being decimated and he was now seeking to withdraw. Hitler, not a man known for his military competence, was having none of it.

Monty's first offensive broke down, but he changed his dispositions and launched another, codenamed Supercharge. Rommel withdrew some of his forces, while his rear guard continued to fight hard.

On 4 November, the Desert Fox ignored Hitler and ordered a general withdrawal. By Armistice Day, the remaining Axis forces were either out of Egypt, dead or captured.

Montgomery's forces advanced more slowly than the retreating Germans - another example of caution that he has been criticised for, although in his defence he had supply problems. Thus, when he liberated Tobruk on 13 November, the enemy escaped again.

Rommel pulled his forces back to El Agheila, then by year's end to Buerat, well west of Sirte. He was going to be going a lot further back, for the Americans had arrived.

Torch and Tunisia 

On 8 November, the American forces landed in Morocco and Algeria. Onky resistance by Vichy French land and air forces was expected, although the reaction of the Navy (who had been attacked by British forces in 1940 seeking to eliminate their capital ships) was less predictable.

The previous day, an attempted coup by a local French officer who had switched sides led to local defences being bolstered, but resistance only lasted four days. The Americans cut a deal with Vichy French Admiral François Darlan that he would be given control (and allowed to maintain a Vichy-style regime) if he switched sides. This infuriated a lot of the Free French - Darlan was shot dead on Christmas Eve, but the tactic worked and eventually the local government got rid of its Vichy leadership, coming under the control of de Gaulle.

Also furious was Berlin and Rome, who launched an occupation of the main part of Vichy France, undertaken with minimal resistance - although in their last act, the French fleet at Toulon was effectively destroyed when the locals scuttled 77 ships.

With the Americans in his rear, it was one more reason for Rommel to pull back.

Churchill was ecstatic at these victories - he ordered that the church bells of Britain, silent since 1940, ring out in celebration. With the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, it was clear that this was (to quote Churchill's Mansion House address that year) "the end of the beginning".

Rommel was now in full retreat, but he wasn't done yet.

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