Egypt in the Second World War

Egypt in the Second World War

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Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1805 when the appointment of Khedives in Cairo virtually removed the power of the Turkish Sultan over the region.

In 1882 the British Army occupied Egypt in order to protect the Suez Canal. They remained in Egypt and the British government installed a Counsul-General to rule the country.

After nationalist agitation the British government recognized Egypt's sovereign independence in 1922. The following year Sultan Ahmad Fuad became King Faud I.

In 1936 an Anglo-Egyptian Treaty provided for the gradual withdrawal of British forces except for those needed to protect the Suez Canal. On the outbreak of the Second World War the British Army had 36,000 men guarding the canal and the Arabian oil fields.

On 13th September, 1940, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani and five divisions of Italian Army began a rapid advance into Egypt but halted in front of the main British defences at Mersa Matruh. Although outnumbered, General Archibald Wavell ordered a British counter-offensive on 9th December, 1940. The Italians suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back more than 800km (500 miles). British troops moved along the coast and on 22nd January, 1941, they captured the port of Tobruk in Libya from the Italians.

Adolf Hitler was shocked by the defeats being suffered by the Italian Army and in January 1941, sent General Erwin Rommel and the recently formed Deutsches Afrika Korps to North Africa. Rommel mounted his first attack on 24th March 1941, and after a week of fighting he pushed Archibald Wavell and the British Army out of most of Libya. However, under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead the British managed to hold vital forward supply base at Tobruk.

Archibald Wavell attempted a counter-attack on 17th June, 1941, but his troops were halted at Halfaya Pass. Three weeks later he was replaced by General Claude Auchinleck.

On 18th November, 1941, Auchinleck and the recently formed Eighth Army went on the offensive. Erwin Rommel was forced to abandon his siege of Tobruk on 4th December, and the following month had moved as far west as Archibald Wavell had achieved a year previously.

Aware that Wavell's supply lines were now overextended, Rommel, after obtaining reinforcements from Tripoli,launched a counterattack. It was now the turn of the British Army to retreat.

After losing Benghazi on 29th January, Claude Auchinleck ordered his troops to retreat to Gazala. Over the next few months the Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Neil Richie, established a line of fortifications and minefields. Erwin Rommel launched his offensive on 26th May. The Italian infantry attacked at the front while Rommel led his panzers round the edge of the fortifications to cut off the supply routes.

Ritchie outnumbered Rommel by two to one but he wasted his advantage by not using his tanks together. After defeating a series of small counter-attacks Rommel was able to capture Sidi Muftah. On 12th June, two of the three British armoured brigades were caught in a pincer movement and were badly defeated. Two days later Neil Richie, with only 100 tanks left, abandoned Gazala.

Rommel returned to Tobruk and took the port on 21st June, 1942. This included the capture of over 35,000 British troops. However, Rommel now only had 57 tanks left and was forced to wait for new supplies to arrive before heading into Egypt.

The following month Erwin Rommel and the Deutsches Afrika Korps were only 113km (70 miles) from Alexandria. The situation was so serious that Winston Churchill made the long journey to Egypt to discover for himself what needed to be done. Churchill decided to make changes to the command structure. General Harold Alexander was placed in charge of British land forces in the Middle East and Bernard Montgomery replaced Claude Auchinleck as commander of the Eighth Army.

On 30th August, 1942, Erwin Rommel attacked at Alam el Halfa. Montgomery responded by ordering his troops to withdraw to El Alamein and to establish a good defensive line from the coast to the impassable Qattara Depression. Montgomery was now able to make sure that Rommel and the German Army was unable to make any further advances into Egypt.

Over the next six weeks Montgomery began to stockpile vast quantities of weapons and ammunition to make sure that by the time he attacked he possessed overwhelming firepower. By the middle of October the Eighth Army totalled 195,000 men, 1,351 tanks and 1,900 pieces of artillery. This included large numbers of recently delivered Sherman M4 and Grant M3 tanks.

On 23rd October Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot with the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War. The attack came at the worst time for the Deutsches Afrika Korps as Erwin Rommel was on sick leave in Austria. His replacement, General George Stumme, died of a heart-attack during the 1000 gun bombardment of the German lines. Stume was replaced by General Ritter von Thoma and Adolf Hitler phoned Rommel to order him to return to Egypt immediately.

The Germans defended their positions well and after two days the Eighth Army had made little progress and Bernard Montgomery ordered an end to the attack. When Erwin Rommel returned he launched a counterattack at Kidney Ridge (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions, which they managed to hold despite a series of German attacks.

Winston Churchill was disappointed by the Eighth Army's lack of success and accused Montgomery of fighting a "half-hearted" battle. Montgomery ignored these criticisms and instead made plans for a new offensive, Operation Supercharge.

On 1st November 1942, Montgomery launched an attack on the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Kidney Ridge. After initially resisting the attack, Rommel decided he no longer had the resources to hold his line and on the 3rd November he ordered his troops to withdraw. However, Adolf Hitler overruled his commander and the Germans were forced to stand and fight.

The next day Montgomery ordered his men forward. The Eighth Army broke through the German lines and Erwin Rommel, in danger of being surrounded, was eventually given permission by Hitler to retreat. Those soldiers on foot, including large numbers of Italian soldiers, were unable to move fast enough and were taken prisoner.

For a while it looked like the the British would cut off Rommel's army but a sudden rain storm on 6th November turned the desert into a quagmire and the chasing army was slowed down. Rommel, now with only twenty tanks left, managed to get to Sollum on the Egypt-Libya border.

On 8th November Erwin Rommel learned of the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria that was under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His depleted army now faced a war on two front.

The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 13th November, 1942, bringing the battle at El Alamein to an end. During the campaign half of Rommel's 100,000 man army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He also lost over 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 of their tanks were damaged. However, of these, 350 were repaired and were able to take part in future battles.

Winston Churchill was convinced that the battle of El Alamein marked the turning point in the war and ordered the ringing of church bells all over Britain. As he said later: "Before Alamein we never had a defeat, after Alamein we never had a defeat."

In 1952 General Mohammed Neguib and Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser forced Farouk I to abdicate. After the Egyptian Revolution Neguib became commander-in-chief, prime minister and president of the republic whereas Nasser held the post of Minister of the Interior.

In April 1954 Nasser replaced Neguib as prime minister. Seven months later he also became president of Egypt. Over the next few months Nasser made it clear he was in favour of liberating Palestine from the Jews. He also began buying fighter aircraft, bombers and tanks from the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

Gamal Abdel Nasser redistributed land in Egypt and began plans to industrialize the country. He also began the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser was convinced that this would extend arable lands in Egypt and would help the industrialization process. He also advocated Arab independence and reminded the British government that the agreement allowing to keep soldiers at Suez expired in 1956.

President Dwight Eisenhower became concerned about the close relationship developing between Egypt and the Soviet Union. In July 1956 Eisenhower cancelled a promised grant of 56 million dollars towards the building of the Aswan Dam. Nasser was furious and on 26th July he announced he intended to nationalize the Suez Canal. The shareowners, the majority of whom were from Britain and France, were promised compensation. Nasser argued that the revenues from the Suez Canal would help to finance the Aswan Dam.

Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, feared that Nasser intended to form an Arab Alliance that would cut off oil supplies to Europe. Secret negotiations took place between Britain, France and Israel and it was agreed to make a joint attack on Egypt.

On 29th October 1956, the Israeli Army, led by General Moshe Dayan, invaded Egypt. Two days later British and French bombed Egyptian airfields. British and French troops landed at Port Said at the northern end of the Suez Canal on 5th November. By this time the Israelis had captured the Sinai peninsula.

President Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, grew increasingly concerned about these developments and at the United Nations the representatives from the United States and the Soviet Union demanded a cease-fire. When it was clear the rest of the world were opposed to the attack on Egypt, and on the 7th November the governments of Britain, France and Israel agreed to withdraw. They were then replaced by UN troops who policed the Egyptian frontier.

Gamal Abdel Nasser now blocked the Suez Canal. He also used his new status to urge Arab nations to reduce oil exports to Western Europe. As a result petrol rationing had to be introduced in several countries and two months after the invasion Anthony Eden resigned from office.

Nasser was now acknowledged as leader of the Arab world. Egypt now joined with Syria to form the United Arab Republic. In March 1958 Yemen and the United Arab Republic formed the United Arab States. Nasser also encouraged Arab nationalism and revolution took place in Iraq. However, deployment of US and British armed forces stopped this happening in Jordan and the Lebanon.

Nasser status was undermined by the heavy losses suffered during the Six-Day War. He resigned on 9th June 1967 but following large demonstrations supporting him he reversed this decision. Nasser remained in office until dying of a heart attack in 1970. He was replaced by his friend Anwar Sadat.

High defence spending severely damaged the Egyptian economy and in 1977 President Anwar Sadat decided to obtain a peace settlement with Israel. He announced the Sadat Initiative and offered to go to Jerusalem and plead the Arab cause before the Knesset. This offer was accepted and Sadat visited Israel to meet Menachem Begin (19th - 21st November).

Although criticised by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the governments of Syria, Libya and Algeria, Sadat had discussions with Begin at Leeds Castle and Camp David. In September 1978, with the support of Jimmy Carter, the president of the United States, Sadat and Begin signed a peace treaty between the two countries. As a result both men shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1978.

SOLDIERS WITHOUT REWARD Africans in South Africa's Wars

Introduction and background
To recount the part played by the African peoples of South Africa in the wars that have been fought by South Africans, one has only to turn back the pages of early South African history, for since those early years until the present Africans have played a by no means insignificant role.

From the earliest times, the white people of South Africa have been in the habit of drafting Africans under their sphere of influence in their wars against other African chiefdoms. The immigrant Boers deployed the Bakgatla of Saulspoort in the Rustenburg district when they fought against Baga-Mokopane near Potgietersrust in 1854, and the Basotho of Moshoeshoe in 1865-6. In 1879 they drafted two Baphalane regiments in support of the Boer campaign against Sekhukhune in the northern Transvaal and in 1894, they drafted three Bakgatla regiments in their war against Mmalebogo in Blaauwberg, also in the northern Transvaal. During the South African War of 1899-1902, in which the writer's maternal grandfather participated on both sides, the Boers conscripted the Africans for various purposes to work on the farms, to dig trenches, collect firewood, accompany the commandos as labourers, wagon drivers, achterryers (after-riders), touleiers (leaders) and to stand sentry and as ancillaries performing menial jobs. The British also used them as spies, messengers, watchmen in blockhouses, etc. At Mafeking, 200 Africans were enrolled to assist Colonel R S S Baden-Powell (later Lord Baden-Powell) in defence of Mafeking town and the neighbouring 'Native Stadt'. There were also occasions when they were found on the battlefield as armed 'non-belligerents' fighting side by side with whites on both sides!

In 1906, the regiment, Natal Native Horse, was deployed by the British against Chief Bambatha in the rebellion.

The Great War, 1914-18
Although the Union of South Africa had its own defence force since 1912, it must be noted that South Africa was technically not a sovereign state but a part of the British Empire. The constitutional status of the dominions, of which South Africa was one, precluded any of them remaining neutral in a British war.(1)

On 29 July and 1 August 1914, the Union government was informed by London that the position was critical and that South Africa was to take precautions. On 4 August General Louis Botha, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, offered to help Great Britain by releasing the Imperial garrison in South Africa so that those troops could be used elsewhere.(2)

The outbreak of the war also gave the African people of South Africa another opportunity to prove their worth. The South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the predecessor of the African National Congress (ANC), which was holding its annual conference in Bloemfontein, passed a resolution of loyalty to the empire and promised not to criticize the government publicly, while continuing its agitation against the 1913 Natives Land Act. Although General J C Smuts had declined African and Coloured offers to fight because it was a 'white man's war', 83 000 Africans and 2 000 Coloured men did serve in a non-combatant capacity.(3)

While the Cape Corps saw action in East Africa, Egypt, Palestine, Northern Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa as a combatant unit, the Africans served not as attested soldiers, but as civilian batmen and as labourers and were formed into labour corps that assisted General Louis Botha in German South West Africa and General Jan Smuts in German East Africa.

As a result of the splendid work performed by the South African Labour Corps in Africa, a South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) was recruited for service overseas. Of the first convoy, two ships landed safely in France, but the third, the SS Mendi, with over 600 men, was sunk off the Isle of Wight on 21 February 1917 as a result of a collision with another vessel, the SS Darro, in the thick fog. Paying tribute to the splendid work of the African soldiers in France, the Prime Minister of South Africa, General Louis Botha, said in the Union Parliament on 10 March 1917:

'If we have ever lived in times when the Native people of South Africa have shown great and true loyalty, it is in times like the present. I have all my life dealt with the Natives, but at no other time have they displayed greater loyalty than they have done in the difficult, dark days through which we are now passing. These people (the Natives) said: "This war is raging and we want to help", and in so doing they have shown their loyalty to their flag, their King, and country, and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.'(4)

On 17 July 1917, King George V, in a speech to the SANLC in Abbeville, called them 'part of my great Armies which are fighting for the liberty and freedom of my subjects of all races and creed throughout the Empire. '(5)

At the conclusion of hostilities, the African troops were returned to South Africa and disbanded. They were bitterly disappointed and resented the fact that despite their sacrifices they were awarded no medals or ribbons. To compound their misery, blacks from the High Commission Territories who had served in the same units were issued medals, as were blacks who had served in South West Africa with the South African Artillery and the South African Mounted Rifles (SAMR).(6)

The Second World War, 1939-45
In sharp contrast to what happened in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War, when the ANC had passed a resolution of loyalty to the Empire and expressed its willingness to assist the Union in its war effort, in 1939 the ANC's annual conference in Durban passed a resolution to support the Union government only on condition that the African soldiers were armed. This resolution was, however, subsequently amended by the President-General of the ANC, Dr A B Xuma. The congress finally declared that the government was correct in going to war, and that it was time to 'consider the expediency' of admitting the African and other non-European races into full citizenship, with all the rights, privileges, duties and responsibilities that went with it and that the territorial integrity of the country could be effectively defended only if all sections of the population were included in the defence system on equal terms with whites.(7)

The government was prepared to utilize African manpower, but this time in a non-combatant capacity. Africans were used in a variety of non-combatant roles such as motor transport drivers, motor mechanics, carpenters, builders, boot makers, stretcher-bearers and medical aids, clerks, typists, telephone operators, etc.

Africans from the British Protectorates of Bechuanaland and Basutoland were promised arms, but when they arrived in the Western Desert, they were given knobkieries and assegais so as not to upset the Africans from the Union. It must be conceded, however, that during this war 'emergencies had more than once arisen in the battle zone where arms had been issued to some of them [ie, members of the Native Military Corps]'(8)

During heavy fighting at Sidi Rezegh in Libya, North Africa, in which South African soldiers were killed, among them a number of African stretcher-bearers, the soldiers were buried in a common grave. When South African Army Headquarters heard of this, an order was sent commanding that the bodies be disinterred and buried in separate black and white graves.(9) Thus, even in death, South Africans were unequal. What a daring step to take in a foreign country!

In view of the splendid job the Africans had performed in the Great War, the authorities decided to attest Africans for services in non-combatant capacity in the Union Defence Force (UDF) and thus in July 1940 four battalions of Native Military Guards were created. The 1st Battalion consisted of the amaZulu from Zululand, the 2nd Battalion of Africans from the northern Transvaal, the 3rd Battalion was made up of the amaXhosa from the Transkei, and Africans from the urban areas formed the fourth battalion, called the Witwatersrand Battalion. Lt Col B W Martin became the Officer Commanding the guards. By the end of July 1940, there were already three 'non-white' units from South Africa, who would serve in various parts of Africa, Madagascar and Italy during the war, namely, the Cape Corps, Indian Corps and the Native Military Guards Brigade, later called the Native Military Corps (NMC).

Recruitment of Africans into the Union Defence Force was very successful so much so, that at the end of the recruitment period, 80 479 African men had been recruited into the Native Military Corps.(10) Members of the NMC were trained in various support functions, such as stretcher-bearers, etc. After training they were posted to the various frontline units and were in the thick of the fighting on the battle fronts of East Africa, Abyssinia, Egypt, Cyrenaica (Libya) and Italy. Many of them provided invaluable service with the South African Engineers in the railway tunnelling companies in Syria and Palestine using the experience they had gained on the Rand goldmines.

The authorities were quick to realise that African soldiers made excellent stretcher-bearers and medical aids, and so special courses were designed to train them for active service with the South African Medical Corps. They were attached to all units in the field and many reports spoke highly of their courageous efforts in saving lives.

The Native Military Corps distinguished themselves in various ways on the field of battle. On 5 October 1945, His Excellency the Officer Administering the Government, the Rt Hon N J de Wet, presented medals gained on the fields of battle for conspicuous bravery and Naval Services.

In introducing His Excellency, the Director of Non-European Army Services, Senator Brigadier, the Hon E T Stubbs, CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), said: 'The purpose of His Excellency's presence here today is to present awards gained by members of the Cape Corps and Native Military Corps on the various battlefields during the greatest war in human history, now happily ended with a glorious victory for the Allied armies. Everywhere and in every sphere of activities, these units have according to high military authority given a good account of themselves.'(11)

The highest award gained by an African soldier in the Second World War was the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) awarded to a stretcher-bearer, Lucas Majozi (1916-1969).

The DCM was the second highest British award for gallantry after the Victoria Cross. It was awarded to Lucas Majozi for the great bravery that he displayed during the epic battle of El Alamein which commenced on 23 October 1942 when the British 8th Army under command of General B L Montgomery attacked the German/Italian forces under command of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The 1st South African Division played a spearhead role. It had to breach the German minefield which had been sown with more than half a million mines. The 1/2 FFB, soon after the battle began, was pinned down in the minefield by German machine gun and artillery fire. The regiment suffered very severe casualties. Throughout the night of 23 October, the stretcher-bearers worked under heavy enemy fire, tending to the wounded and evacuating them from the battlefield. For the purpose of this article, the citation given to Lucas Majozi, NMC, for the DCM is given below: No N 17525 Cpl Lucas Majozi, NMC, a Zulu from Zastron, Orange Free State att. FFB - Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The citation to the Award says:
'On the night of October 23-24, Majozi accompanied his company into action as a stretcher-bearer. In the later stages of the action when he was within 100 yards of the enemy and under heavy fire, he thought nothing of his personal safety and continued to evacuate casualties assisted by co-bearers.

He was then wounded by shrapnel, but he continued evacuating the wounded. Told by a medical corporal to go back to the regimental aid post, he replied that there were many wounded men still in the minefield.

He went back, and with the assistance of other stretcher-bearers, he brought back more wounded. After his co-bearer had become a casualty, he did not waver, but carried wounded men back alone on his back to the aid post.

When he was eventually told by the Company Commander to go back, he smilingly refused and remained on duty, working incessantly till he collapsed next morning through sheer exhaustion, stiffness, and loss of blood. His extreme devotion to duty and gallant conduct under continuous enemy fire throughout the night saved the lives of many wounded men who would otherwise have died through loss of blood or possible further wounds.'(12)

At a parade in Egypt after the battle, the commander of the 1st South African Division, Major-General Daniel Hermanus Pienaar (popularly known as Dan Pienaar) said of Lucas Majozi: ' This soldier did most magnificent and brave things. With a number of bullets in his body he returned time after time into a veritable hell of machine gun fire to pull out wounded men. He is a man of whom South Africa can well be proud. He is a credit to his country.'(13)

After the war, Majozi returned to the town of his birth, Zastron. In 1948 he joined the South African Police (SAP), attaining the rank of sergeant. He died in 1969. The South African National Museum of Military History is in possession of both his portrait (by the famous artist, Neville Lewis) and his medal group.

Another notable contribution to the war record of the NMC was that of Job Maseko. Maseko was employed as a delivery man in Springs before he volunteered for service with the Native Military Corps. After completion of basic training, he was sent to North Africa with the 2nd South African Division. Maseko became a prisoner of war (POW) on 21 June 1942 when Major-General Henry Belsazar KIopper, a former farmer from the Orange Free State, surrendered to Rommel at Tobruk with 32 000 men, including 10 722 South Africans of the 2nd Division, of whom 1 200 were members of the Native Military Corps.(14) Job Maseko was later presented with the Military Medal (MM) by Major-General F H Theron.

The following extract is appropriate here: (15) 'The King has been graciously pleased to approve the following award in recognition of gallant and distinguished service in the Middle East:-
No N 4448 L/Cpl Job Masego [sic) - Native Military Corps
For meritorious and courageous action in that on or about the 21st July, while a Prisoner of War, he, Job Masego, sank a fully laden enemy steamer - probably an "F" boat - while moored in Tobruk Harbour.

This he did by placing a small tin filled with gunpowder in among drums of petrol in the hold, leading a fuse therefrom to the hatch and lighting the fuse upon closing the hatch.

In carrying out this deliberately planned action, Job Masego displayed ingenuity, determination and complete disregard of personal safety from punishment by the enemy or from the ensuing explosion which set the vessel alight.'

According to Neville Lewis, the first official war artist for South Africa during the Second World War, Job Maseko was recommended for a Victoria Cross but, being 'only an African', he had received the Military Medal instead.(16) Lance Corporal Job Maseko died in 1952 and was buried with borrowed money in the Payneville Township Cemetery in Springs.

To honour this unassuming hero, the community of KwaThema near Springs has a primary school in the township named after him. The main road linking the town of Springs to KwaThema Township has also been named after him.

Conditions of Service
It was not only the inferior status of the Native Military Corps which caused great dissatisfaction among the African soldiers, but also the actual conditions of service which led to disillusionment and apathy. The highest rank to which volunteers in the Cape Corps (including the Indian and Malay Corps) could rise was warrant officer I. The highest rank open to Africans was staff sergeant. In terms of pay and allowances, the whites were also at an advantage. A Select Committee on Soldiers' Pay and Allowances was appointed in February 1943 to compare the rates of pay and allowances payable to soldiers and their dependents in other parts of the British Commonwealth of Nations and to make recommendations regarding payments of soldiers from the Union. The committee recommended that Coloured soldiers were to be paid out one-half of the rates for whites, and that Africans were to receive two-thirds of the rates for Coloureds. Annual leave was to be 30 days for whites, 24 days for Coloureds, and eighteen days for Africans.(17)

The general rule governing pension awards was that Coloured pension scales should amount to three-fifths and African pension scales to two-fifths of the rate applicable to whites. But this rule did not apply in regard to disablement pensions, widow's pensions, and children's allowances, parent's and separated wive's pensions. A 100 % disablement pension for a white soldier was 200 Pounds per annum, 75 Pounds per annum for a Coloured pensioner and a mere 50 Pounds per annum for an African. White children were also entitled to allowances up to the age of eighteen for males and 21 for females, while the age limit for African children was fourteen for males and sixteen for females.(18)

During the Second World War, nearly 37 % of South African field strength (122 254 men) in the UDF were Africans.(19)

In April 1944 the Directorate of the UDF started a demobilization scheme. No definite plans were made to accommodate African soldiers in that scheme regarding their future until July 1944. However, the government's declared policy towards Africans was to endeavour to reinstate the soldiers in their pre-enlistment status and occupations and in keeping with the training they had received in the army. To that end legislation had been enacted while the war was still in progress, which aimed at compelling employers to re-employ employees who had, with their employer's permission, given up their occupations in order to enlist.(20) In fact, the African soldiers had every reason to believe that their lot would improve after the war, for the Prime Minister of the Union, General J C Smuts, had expressed himself in favour of fair treatment for African soldiers in February 1942 when he said: 'I want the natives to be treated fairly and decently and not just discarded when their service is finished.'(21) Despite such assurances from so eminent a person as Smuts, African hopes were shattered after the war. Africans were discharged on account of a number of unsubstantiated reasons such as being medically unfit, unsuitable for specific duties, alleged bad conduct, etc. Several ex-soldiers who were discharged before the scheme of demobilization was finalized, received no compensation. Official policy was that no African soldier who was to be discharged could be kept on paid military strength. However, white soldiers were retained on army strength with ordinary pay until suitable employment had been found for them.

Those who had entertained high expectations about their future as a result of the Prime Minister's pronouncements of February 1942 were rudely disillusioned after the war. After they had received a cash allowance of 2 Pounds, a khaki suit worth 2 Pounds, and a gratuity according to their length of service, the government considered that to be the end of the matter.(22) Those who had secured an employment in the interim also received a bicycle. The purpose of a bicycle was to help the ex-servicemen get to his place of employment with minimum delay.

A Financial Assistance Scheme was also established to help ex-soldiers re-establish and adjust themselves to civilian life. The total amount of financial assistance awarded by the Directorate of Demobilization was 10 019 844 Pounds for male whites, 135 566 Pounds for female whites, 70 964 Pounds for members of the Cape Corps and a mere 5 795 Pounds for members of the Native Military Corps.(23)

A special land settlement scheme for ex-servicemen was also mooted. The Department of Native Affairs was to undertake that project on behalf of the African ex-servicemen. By the end of 1947, however, despite repeated representations, no land settlement scheme comparable in any way to schemes for whites, had been instituted for African ex-volunteers.(24)

From the foregoing discussion it has become abundantly clear that most African ex-servicemen who had cherished high hopes of their post-war world were rudely disillusioned when they discovered that they could not find employment commensurate with the new skills they had acquired in the army, that the new status and standard of living to which they were accustomed whilst members of the UDF were things of the past and that, for the members of the NMC, post-war South Africa was very much the same as the pre-1939 South Africa - the 'Native' was expected to know his place.

Inferior in status and dehumanised by law, the African ex-serviceman accepted his lot with bitterness and bemusement.

1. S B Spies, 'The outbreak of the First World War and the Botha Government' in South African Historical Journal, No 1, November 1969, pp 47-57.
2. S B Spies, 'South Africa and the First World War' in S B Spies and B J Liebenberg (eds), South Africa in the 20th Century, p 94.
3. C Saunders (ed), Reader's Digest Illustrated History, p 303.
4. S Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record in South Africa in E Hellman (ed), Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa, 1949, pp 537-8.
5. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 538.
6. K W Grundy, Soldiers without politics: Blacks in the South African Armed Forces, p 56.
7. E Roux, Time longer than rope, p 305 H J & R E Simons, Class and Colour in South Africa, p531.
8. W K Hancock, Smuts: The Fields of Force, 1919-1950, p 370.
9. Roux, Time Longer than Rope, p 307.
10. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 542.
11. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 544.
12. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', p 545.
13. E Rosenthal, General Dan Pienaar: his life and his battles, p 180.
14. Klopper had acquitted himself so shamefully at Tobruk that Rommel, his adversary, was led to remark to the captured Allied officers later: 'Gentlemen, you have fought like lions and been led by donkeys.' J L Pimlot (ed), The World at Arms, p 102.
15. Cited by S Blendulf, 'Job Masego - Portrait of a Desert Hero', SANMMH, Saxonwold, Johannesburg (nd), p 1.
16. Cited by S Blendulf, 'Job Masego - Portrait of a Desert Hero', SANMMH, Saxonwold, Johannesburg (nd), p 3.
17. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 546-7.
18. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 547.
19. Grundy, Soldiers without Politics, p 76.
20. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 551. 21. Quoted by Louis Grundlingh in 'Prejudices, Promises and Poverty' in South African Historical Journal, No 26, 1992, p 118. 22. Liebenberg and Spies (eds), South Africa in the 20th Century, p 291.
23. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 552.
24. Horwitz, 'The Non-European War Record', pp 555.

Ballinger, M, M P,' Post War Reconstruction and Native Policy' Address delivered before the South African Association for Advancement of Science, (Johannesburg, 1 July 1942, Lovedale Press).
Blendulf, S, 'Job Masego - Portrait of a Desert Hero'. Document obtained from the South African National Museum of Military History, (Johannesburg,ed.)
Gleeson, I "The Unknown Force: Black, Indian and Coloured Soldiers through Two World Wars", (Ashanti Publishing, Rivonia, 1994).
Grundlingh, L 'Prejudices, Promises and Poverty: The experience of discharged and demobilized Black South African soldiers after the Second World War' in South African Historical Journal, 26 (1992), pp 116-135.
Grundy, K W, Soldiers without Politics: Blacks in the South African Armed Forces, (University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London, 1983).
Hancock, W K, Smuts: The fields of force, 1919-1950, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1968).
Horwits, S, 'The Non-European War Record in South Africa' in Hellman, E (ed), Handbook on Race Relations in South Africa (SAIRR, Cape Town, 1949).
Liebenberg, B J, and Spies, S B (eds), South Africa in the 20th Century, (J L van Schaik, Pretoria, 1993).
Martin, H J and Orpen, N, South Africa at War, (Purnell, Cape Town, 1979).
Nkosi, S T, 'The lot of the Africans in the Second World War, 1939-1945', (BA Hons research paper, Vista University, 1992).
Pimlot, J L (ed), The World at Arms: The Reader's Digest Illustrated History of World War II, The Reader's Digest Association Ltd, 1989).
Potgieter, D J (ed), Standard Encyclopedia of South Africa, Vol II, (Nasionale Publishers, London, 1975).
Rosenthal, E, General Pienaar His Life and His Battles, (Afrikaansepers Bpk, Johannesburg, 1943).
Roth, M 'If you give us rights we will fight: Black involvement in the Second World War' in South African Historical Journal, November 1983, No 15, pp 85-104.
Roux, E, Time Longer than Rope: A History of the Black Man's struggle for freedom in South Africa, (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1978).
Sadie, J L 'The Demographic forces in South Africa' (Bureau for Economic Research, University of Stellenbosch) Paper read at the National Conference on the effects of Population Growth held at the University of Cape Town on 28-30 April 1976.
Saunders, C (ed), Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa, The Reader's Digest Association of South Africa (Pty) Ltd, Cape Town, 1988).
Simons, H J & R E, Class and Colour in South Africa, 1850-1950, (Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1969).
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Tylden, G, Major, The Armed Forces of South Africa, (Johannesburg, 1954).
Interview with the late Mr B S Khumalo (b 1920), ex-serviceman, Dube Village, Soweto, Johannesburg, 15 March 1994.
Interview with Mr S B Maredi (b 1925), ex-serviceman, Saulsville, Pretoria, 15 March 1994.
Interview with Mr S M L Sexwale (b 16 February 1918), ex-serviceman, Dube Village, Soweto, Johannesburg, 15 March 1994.


In the wake of its victory at the Battle of Gazala (May-June, 1942), Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Panzer Army Africa pressed British forces back across North Africa. Retreating to within 50 miles of Alexandria, General Claude Auchinleck was able to stop the Italo-German offensive at El Alamein in July. A strong position, the El Alamein line ran 40 miles from the coast to the impassable Quattara Depression. While both sides paused to rebuild their forces, Prime Minister Winston Churchill arrived in Cairo and decided to make command changes.

Second Battle of El Alamein

  • Conflict:World War II (1939-1945)
  • Date: November 11-12, 1940
  • Armies and Commanders:
  • British Commonwealth
  • General Sir Harold Alexander
  • 220,00 men
  • 1,029 tanks
  • 750 aircraft
  • 900 field guns
  • 1,401 anti-tank guns
  • Axis Powers
  • Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
  • Lieutenant General Georg Stumme
  • 116,000 men
  • 547 tanks
  • 675 aircraft
  • 496 anti-tank guns

2. Dogs

Members of ‘L’ Section, Auxiliary Fire service, West Croydon, London and Spot, a stray terrier they adopted as their official mascot, March 1941.

Dogs performed a variety of roles during the war including as watch dogs who, using their keen senses of hearing and smell, would bark at the approach of troops.

Combat dogs were trained to directly tackle the enemy and rescue dogs carried medical supplies out to stranded soldiers under fire. Other dogs were used to carry messages or were specially trained to sniff out land mines or casualties buried under rubble in places that had been bombed.

The 1930's and the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936

Egypt was hard hit by the Great Depression of the 1930's which started in the United States and spread around the world. Countries like Egypt that depended heavily on its export crop of cotton were particularly hard hit. (For an explanation of the origin of the Great Depression see Great Depression.

In Europe fascist parties came to power that preached nationalism and socialism. Egypt's version of this movement came in 1933 as Young Egypt, a nationalist organization with fascist leanings. Its paramilitary youth organization was called the Green Shirts in emulation of Italy's Black Shirts and Germany's Brown Shirts. It was founded by Ahmad Hussain and advocated the emergence of a new Egyptian Empire consisting of Egypt and Sudan for a beginning.

Ismail Sidqi

The major opponent of the Wafd in the 1930's was Ismail Sidqi and the parties he controlled. He represented monarchist sentiment in the political contests of the time. When the opportunity arose, King Fuad asked Sidqi to form a government. When Sidqi was Prime Minister he abolished the constitution of 1930 and formulated its replacement. There were great concerns about Sidqi's dictatorial ways. Although Sidqi had been asked by King Fuad to form a government he was not a popular prime minister and after he had been away from Egypt for a few months because of health problems he had to tender his resignation as Prime Minister.

Although the popular support for the Wafd had diminished somewhat it still commanded an overwhelming majority in elections. In the election in 1936 the Wafd candidates captured 159 out of the 211 seats in the parliament. The Wafd received almost 90 percent of the vote. Mustafa Nahhas of the Wafd became Prime Minister.

Two other events of great political significance occurred in 1936. King Fuad died and his son Farouk became king. Farouk in later years became notorious for his lavish, degenerate life style and his unreliability in political matters.

The second major event of 1936 was that the British decided to formalize their relationship with Egypt. The British protectorate of Egypt has been unilaterally renounced in 1922 without any negotiation with the Egyptian government. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that was negotiated by the Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Nahhas and the British high commissioner for Egypt, Miles Lampson, allowed Britain to keep a defense force in Egypt for the protection of the Suez Canal. The Treaty left the governance of Sudan entirely in British hands even though at that time Sudan was considered an integral part of the nation of Egypt.

The treaty did eliminate the special courts run by the British to handle the legal problems of foreigners in Egypt. The treaty further provided that the official representative of Britain in Egypt would be called an ambassador instead of high commissioner. The command of the Egyptian army would be held by an Egyptian instead of, as in the past, by a British officer.


Libya Edit

Cyrenaica (Libya) had been an Italian colony since the Italo-Turkish War in 1911–1912. With Tunisia, part of French North Africa to the west and Egypt to the east, the Italians prepared to defend both fronts through a North Africa Supreme Headquarters, under the command of the Governor-General of Italian Libya, Marshal of the Air Force, Italo Balbo. Supreme Headquarters had the 5th Army (General Italo Gariboldi) and the 10th Army (General Mario Berti) which in mid-1940 had nine metropolitan divisions of about 13,000 men each, three Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (Blackshirt) divisions and two Libyan divisions with 8,000 men each. Italian army divisions had been reorganised in the late 1930s, from three regiments each to two and reservists were recalled in 1939, along with the usual call-up of conscripts. [2]

Morale was considered high and the army had recent operational experience. The Italian navy had prospered under the Fascist regime, which had paid for fast, well-built and well-armed ships and a large submarine fleet but it still lacked experience and training. The air force had been ready for war in 1936 but had stagnated by 1939 and the British did not consider it capable of maintaining a high rate of operations. The 5th Army, with eight divisions, was based in Tripolitania, the western half of Libya, opposite Tunisia and the 10th Army, with six infantry divisions, held Cyrenaica in the east. When war was declared, the 10th Army deployed the 1st Libyan Division Sibelle on the frontier from Giarabub to Sidi Omar and XXI Corps from Sidi Omar to the coast, Bardia and Tobruk. The XXII Corps moved south-west of Tobruk, to act as a counter-attack force. [2]

Egypt Edit

The British had based forces in Egypt since 1882 but these were greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and Commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route. The canal was vital to British communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. In mid-1939, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the new Middle East Command, over the Mediterranean and Middle East theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice, French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5th Army on the western Libyan border. In Libya, the Royal Army had about 215,000 men and in Egypt, the British had about 36,000 troops and another 27,500 men training in Palestine. [3]

British forces included the Mobile Division (Egypt) under Major-General Percy Hobart, one of only two British armoured training formations. In mid-1939 it was renamed the Armoured Division (Egypt) and on 16 February 1940, it became the 7th Armoured Division. The Egypt–Libya border was defended by the Egyptian Frontier Force and in June 1940, the headquarters of the 6th Infantry Division under Major-General Richard O'Connor took command in the Western Desert, with instructions to drive back the Italians from their frontier posts and dominate the hinterland if war began. The 7th Armoured Division, less the 7th Armoured Brigade, assembled at Mersa Matruh and sent the 7th Support Group forward towards the frontier as a covering force, where the RAF also moved most of its bombers. Malta was also reinforced. [4]

The HQ of the 6th Infantry Division, which lacked complete and fully trained units, was renamed the Western Desert Force on 17 June. In Tunisia, the French had eight divisions, capable only of limited operations and in Syria, three poorly armed and trained divisions, about 40,000 troops and border guards, on occupation duties against the civilian population. Italian land and air forces in Libya greatly outnumbered the British in Egypt but suffered from poor morale and were handicapped by inferior equipment. In Italian East Africa, another 130,000 Italian and African troops with 400 guns, 200 light tanks and 20,000 lorries. Italy declared war on 11 June 1940. [5]

Terrain Edit

The war was fought primarily in the area known as the Western Desert, which was about 240 mi (390 km) wide, from Mersa Matruh in Egypt to Gazala on the Libyan coast, along Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia), the only paved road. The Sand Sea, 150 mi (240 km) inland, marked the southern limit of the desert at its widest points at Giarabub and Siwa. In British parlance, the term "Western Desert" applied to the desert of Egypt west of the Nile but came to describe the whole area of conflict, including eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. From the coast, a raised, flat plain of stony desert extends inland about 150 m (500 ft) above sea level and runs south for 120–190 mi (200–300 km) from the coast to the edge of the Sand Sea. [6] Scorpions, vipers and flies abound in the region, which was inhabited by a small number of Bedouin nomads. [7]

Bedouin tracks linked wells and the more easily traversed ground navigation was by sun, star, compass and "desert sense", good perception of the environment gained by experience. When Italian troops advanced into Egypt in September 1940, the Maletti Group got lost leaving Sidi Omar, disappeared and had to be found by aircraft. In spring and summer the days are miserably hot and the nights very cold. [8] The Sirocco (Gibleh or Ghibli), a hot desert wind, blows clouds of fine sand, which reduce visibility to a few metres and coat eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment motor vehicles and aircraft need special oil filters and the barren terrain means that supplies for military operations have to be transported from outside. [9] German engines tended to overheat and the life of their tanks' engines fell from 1,400–1,600 mi (2,300–2,600 km) to 300–900 mi (480–1,450 km) and this problem was made worse by the lack of standardized spare parts for the German and Italian motor types. [10]

Supply Edit

Axis Edit

Italian supply shipments to Libya went about 600 mi (970 km) west around Sicily, then approached the coast of Tunisia before going on to Tripoli, in order to avoid interference from the British aircraft, ships and submarines based at Malta. In Africa, supplies had to be hauled huge distances by road or in small consignments by coaster. The distance from Tripoli to Benghazi was about 650 mi (1,050 km) and to El Alamein was 1,400 mi (2,300 km). A third of the Italian merchant marine was in ships berthed in British-controlled ports and was interned after Italy declared war. By September 1942 half of the remainder had been sunk, although much was replaced by new shipbuilding, salvage and transfers of German ships. From June 1940 to May 1943, 16 per cent of supply shipments were sunk. [11]

Tobruk was pressed into use in June 1942 but Allied bombing and its long approach route led this effort to be abandoned in August. The Germans assumed that the maximum distance a motorised army could operate from its base was 200 mi (320 km) but on average about a third of Axis lorries were unserviceable and 35–50 per cent of the fuel deliveries were consumed transporting the remainder to the front. Fuel oil shortages in Italy, the small size of the ports in Libya and the need to meet civilian demand, required the inefficient dispatch of large numbers of small convoys. Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH, German army high command) concluded that German forces in Libya could not be supplied for a decisive offensive unless Italian forces were withdrawn to Italy, which was politically impossible. [12]

British Edit

The geographical position of Italy made it possible for it to close the Mediterranean if war came and force the Mediterranean Fleet based in Egypt to rely on the Suez Canal. In 1939, Wavell began to plan a base in the Middle East to support about fifteen divisions (300,000 men), six in Egypt, three in Palestine and the rest further afield. Many of the supplies needed by the British were imported from the colonies and the rest obtained locally by stimulating the production of substitutes. The plan for a garrison of nine divisions in Egypt and Palestine was changed to fourteen divisions by June 1941 and then to 23 by March 1942. [13] Once the Italians declared war in 1940 and until 1943, merchant ships travelled east from Britain around the Cape of Good Hope, which made Egypt as distant as Australia and New Zealand. The Middle East Supply Centre (MESC) operated in Egypt, Palestine and Syria to co-ordinate imports and create local substitutes for civilian rations and promote agricultural efficiencies. By March 1943 the MESC had replaced about 100 Liberty Ship deliveries' worth of imports with increased local production of potatoes, cooking oil, dairy products and fish cattle drives from Sudan obviated the need for refrigerated shipping. [14]

In 1940, British military forces had a base at the terminus of the Egyptian state railway, road and the port of Mersa Matruh (Matruh) 200 mi (320 km) west of Alexandria. Construction began on a water pipeline along the railway and the British surveyed sources of water. Wells were dug but most filled with salt water in 1939 the primary fresh water sources were the Roman aqueducts at Mersa Matruh and Maaten Baggush. Water-boats from Alexandria and a distillation plant at Matruh increased supply but rigorous rationing had to be enforced and much water had to be moved overland to outlying areas. Not enough vehicles were available in 1939 and lorries were diverted to provide the Armoured Division with a better rear link. Only desert-worthy vehicles could be risked cross-country, which left tanks unable to move far from Matruh which was 120 mi (190 km) east of the Libyan border. [15] From the border there was no water at Sollum or for another 50 mi (80 km) east of Sollum to Sidi Barrani, along a very poor road. An invader would have to move through a waterless and trackless desert to reach the main British force. [16] In September 1940, the New Zealand Railway Battalion and Indian labourers began work on a coastal railway, which reached Sidi Barrani by October 1941 and Tobruk by December 1942, 400 mi (640 km) west of El Alamein, carrying 4,200 long tons (4,267 t) of water per day. [17]

Frontier skirmishes Edit

On 11 June 1940, hostilities commenced.

British troops were ordered to dominate the frontier and isolate Giarabub. They crossed into Libya that night, exchanged fire with Italian troops at Sidi Omar and discovered that some Italians were unaware that war had been declared. On 14 June, the British captured Fort Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena, taking 220 prisoners. Two days later, the British raided a convoy on the Tobruk–Bardia road, killed 21 Italian soldiers and took 88 prisoners, including Generale di Brigata (Brigadier General) Romolo Lastrucci [it] , the 10th Army Chief Engineer. At an engagement near the frontier wire at Nezuet Ghirba, a mixed force of British tanks, artillery and motorised infantry defeated an Italian force of 17 light tanks, four guns and 400 infantry. [18] [19]

The British patrolled the frontier area as far west as Tobruk, establishing dominance over the 10th Army. [20] On 5 August, thirty Italian tanks engaged the 8th Hussars in an inconclusive action and Wavell concluded that vehicle wear made it impractical to continue operations when an Italian offensive loomed. Sand wore out equipment quickly, shortening the track life of tanks. Spare parts ran out and only half the tank strength could be kept operational. [21] A lull fell from August to early September as Operation Hats, a naval operation, reinforced the Mediterranean Fleet and helped to bring an army convoy of tanks and crews via the Cape. The British claimed to have inflicted 3,500 casualties with a loss of 150 men between 11 June and 9 September. [22] Further afield, both sides established scouting groups, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and Auto-Saharan Company (Compagnie Auto-Avio-Sahariane) which ranged the desert, raided and observed enemy dispositions. [23]

Operazione E Edit

Benito Mussolini had no plans to invade Egypt, intending to remain on the defensive in Libya if war came. After the fall of France in 1940, the 5th Army could send reinforcements east and on 7 August, Mussolini ordered an invasion to occupy Egypt and establish a land connexion with Italian East Africa. In August a lull fell on the frontier. Most British armoured units had withdrawn to Mersa Matruh, in order to conserve their ability to defend the port. The 7th Support Group took over and established observation posts from Sollum to Fort Maddalena, ready to delay an Italian offensive and the Hussars reconnoitred further into Libya. [24]

The Libyan divisions lacked the transport necessary to operate with the Maletti Group, which had one medium, two mixed and four light tank battalions on the escarpment and were redeployed to the coast road. On 9 September, the Maletti Group got lost en route to Sidi Omar and Rodolfo Graziani cancelled a flanking move and concentrated on the coast road, with five divisions and the Maletti Group the 4th Blackshirt and 64th Infantry Division "Catanzaro" divisions stayed in reserve at Tobruk. The 5th Squadra, a mixed air unit with about 300 serviceable aircraft, airfield equipment and transport, stood by to support the advance and occupy airfields. [25]

The Italian invasion of Egypt on 13–18 September began as a limited tactical operation towards Mersa Matruh, rather the strategic objectives sketched in Rome, due to the chronic lack of transport, fuel and wireless equipment, even with resupply from the 5th Army. Musiad was subjected to a "spectacular" artillery bombardment at dawn, then occupied. [26] The 1st Libyan Division Sibille took Sollum and the airfield. By evening the 2nd Libyan and 63rd (Cyrene) divisions, the Maletti Group from Musaid and the 62nd (Marmarica) Division from Sidi Omar, pushed past British harassing parties and converged on Halfaya Pass. [27]

The British withdrew past Buq Buq on 14 September and continued to harass the Italian advance. They fell back to Alam Hamid the next day and to Alam el Dab [sv] on 16 September. An Italian force of fifty tanks attempted a flanking move so the British rearguard retired east of Sidi Barrani, which was occupied by the 1st Blackshirt Division and Graziani halted the advance. The British resumed observation and the 7th Armoured Division prepared to challenge an attack on Mersa Matruh. [27] Despite prodding from Mussolini, the Italians dug in around Sidi Barrani and Sofafi, about 80 mi (130 km) west of the British defences at Mersa Matruh, repairing roads demolished by the British, cleaning wells and beginning work on a water pipeline from the border, accumulating supplies for the resumption of the advance in mid-December. Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis and Italian aircraft bombed Cairo on 19 October. [28]

British naval and air operations to harass the Italian army continued and caused damage which prisoners reported had lowered morale. Armoured car patrols dominated no man's land but a lack of landing grounds reduced the effectiveness of the RAF and Malta was out of range. Operation Compass, a British counter-attack to an Italian advance on Matruh, planned to destroy Italian forces and most of the WDF was moved up to the port. An additional armoured car company joined reconnaissance operations far behind the front line. The WDF had been reinforced with a new tank regiment with Matilda II tanks. Rather than wait for the Italians, the British began after about a month to prepare a raid of 4–5 days' duration on the central group of the Italian encampments and then on Sofifa. [28] [29]

Operation Compass Edit

In December 1940, the 10th Army in Egypt had been reinforced with the 1st and 2nd Libyan divisions and 4th Blackshirt Division, in the fortified camps from Sidi Barrani to the Tummars and Maktila. The Maletti Group was based at Nibeiwa, the 63rd Infantry Division Cirene at Rabia and Sofafi, the 62nd Infantry Division Marmarica was on the escarpment from Sofafi to Halfaya Pass and the 64th Infantry Division "Catanzaro" was east of Buq Buq, behind the Nibeiwa–Rabia gap, supported by about 500 aircraft of the 5° Squada (General Felip Porro). [30] The RAF attacked airfields on 7 December and destroyed 39 aircraft on the ground. Operation Compass (Battle of Marmarica/Battle of the Camps), began when Selby Force advanced from Matruh to isolate Maktila early on 9 December. The 4th Indian Division and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment (7th RTR) attacked Nibeiwa at dawn and overran the camp, then moved on Tummar West, which fell in the afternoon. A counter-attack from Tummar East was repulsed and the camp taken the next day. [31]

Battle of Sidi Barrani Edit

A 7th Armoured Division screen to the west prevented the reinforcement of Sidi Barrani and on 10 December, the British cut the coast road and the 7th Armoured Division mopped up around Buq Buq, taking many prisoners. On 11 December, the Italians were defeated at Sidi Barrani Rabia and Sofafi were abandoned and the 7th Armoured Division pursued along the coast and the escarpment. Late on 14 December, the 11th Hussars cut the Via Balbia between Tobruk and Bardia, captured Sidi Omar on 16 December and forced the Italians to retreat from Sollum and Fort Capuzzo to Bardia, leaving garrisons at Siwa Oasis and Giarabub in the south. From 9 to 11 December, the British took 38,300 prisoners, 237 guns, 73 tanks and about 1,000 vehicles for 624 casualties. [32]

Battle of Bardia Edit

Bardia fell between 14 December and 5 January 1941 the British suffered 456 Australian infantry casualties and lost 17 of 23 tanks, for 40,000 Italian casualties and prisoners, more than 400 guns, 130 tanks and hundreds of lorries. At dawn on 21 January, Australian infantry broke into Tobruk and made a path for 18 British I tanks. The Australians pressed on and captured half of the Tobruk defences by nightfall. The Australians took 25,000 prisoners, 208 guns and 87 tanks, for a loss of 355 Australian and 45 British troops. [33] The 7th Armoured Division drove 100 mi (160 km) towards Derna and the Babini Group (BCS – Brigata Corazzata Speciale under General Valentino Babini), with about 300 tanks, at Mechili. The BCS slipped away and from 26 to 28 January the British tanks bogged down in heavy rain Derna was abandoned next day. The 7th Armoured Division sent Combeforce, a flying column, to Beda Fomm and cut off the 10th Army. [34]

Battle of Beda Fomm Edit

Estimated POW numbers:
Western Desert and Cyrenaica

(9 December 1940 – 8 February 1941) [35]
Place PoW Tanks Guns
Sidi Barrani 38,289 73 297
Sidi Omar 900 0 8
Bardia 42,000 130 275
Tobruk 25,000 87 208
Mechili 100 13 0
2,000 10 24
25,000 107 93
Total 133,298 420 845

In late January, the British learned that the Italians were evacuating Cyrenaica along the Via Balbia from Benghazi. The 7th Armoured Division, under Major-General Sir Michael O'Moore Creagh, was dispatched to intercept the remnants of the 10th Army by cutting through the desert south of the Jebel Akhdar via Msus and Antelat, as the 6th Australian Division pursued the Italians along the coast road north of the Jebel Akhdar. The terrain was hard going for the British tanks and Combeforce (Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe), a flying column of wheeled vehicles, was sent on ahead. [36]

Late on 5 February, Combeforce arrived at the Via Balbia south of Benghazi and set up roadblocks near Sidi Saleh, about 32 north of Ajedabia and 30 mi (48 km) south-west of Antelat. The forward elements of the 10th Army arrived thirty minutes later and found the Via Balbia blocked. The next day the Italians attacked to break through the roadblock and continued to attack into 7 February. With British reinforcements arriving and the Australians pressing down the road from Benghazi, the 10th Army surrendered. From Benghazi–Agedabia, the British took 25,000 prisoners, captured 107 tanks and 93 guns of the totals for Operation Compass of 133,298 men, 420 tanks and 845 guns. [34]

On 9 February, Churchill ordered the advance to stop and troops to be dispatched to Greece to take part in Operation Marita of the Greco-Italian War, since a German attack through Macedonia was thought imminent. The British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila anyway, because of vehicle breakdowns, exhaustion and the effect of the much longer supply line from the base in Egypt. A few thousand men of the 10th Army escaped the disaster in Cyrenaica but the 5th Army in Tripolitania had four divisions. The Sirte, Tmed Hassan and Buerat strongholds were reinforced from Italy, which brought the 10th and 5th Armies up to about 150,000 men. German reinforcements were sent to Libya to form a blocking detachment (Sperrverband) under Directive 22 of 11 January. These were the first units of the Afrika Korps of (Generalleutnant [Lieutenant-General] Erwin Rommel). [37]

Tobruk Edit

Greece Edit

A week after the Italian surrender at Beda Fomm, the Defence Committee in London ordered Cyrenaica held with the minimum of forces and all spare troops sent to Greece. In the Western Desert Force (now XIII Corps), the 6th Australian Division was fully equipped and had few losses to replace. The 7th Armoured Division had been operating for eight months, had worn out its mechanical equipment and had withdrawn to refit. Two regiments of the 2nd Armoured Division with the WDF were also worn out, which left the division with only four tank regiments. The 6th Australian Division went to Greece in March with an armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division the remainder of the division and the new 9th Australian Division, minus two brigades and most of its transport, was sent to Greece and was replaced by two under-equipped brigades of the 7th Australian Division. The division took over in Cyrenaica, on the assuming that the Italians could not begin a counter-offensive until May, even with German reinforcements. [38] [a]

Unternehmen Sonnenblume Edit

In early 1941, after the big British and Commonwealth victory in Cyrenaica, the military position was soon reversed. The best-equipped units in XIII Corps went to Greece as part of Operation Lustre in the Battle of Greece. Adolf Hitler responded to the Italian disaster with Directive 22 (11 January) ordering Unternehmen Sonnenblume (Operation Sunflower), the deployment of a new Afrika Korps (DAK) to Libya, as a Sperrverband (barrier detachment). The DAK had fresh troops with better tanks, equipment and air support and was led by General Erwin Rommel, who had enjoyed great success in the Battle of France. [40] The Axis force raided and quickly defeated the British at El Agheila on 24 March and at Mersa el Brega on 31 March, exploited the success and by 15 April, had pushed the British back to the border at Sollum and besieged Tobruk. The new commander of XIII Corps (now HQ Cyrenaica Command) Lieutenant-General Philip Neame, O'Connor and Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry, commander of the 2nd Armoured Division were captured. The Western Desert Force HQ took over under Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, who had been recalled from East Africa. Apart from an armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division, which had been withdrawn for the Greek campaign, the rest of the division had been destroyed. Several Axis attempts to seize Tobruk failed and the front line settled on the Egyptian border. [41]

Siege of Tobruk Edit

Tobruk was defended by a force of some 25,000 Eighth Army troops, well stocked with supplies and linked to Egypt by the Royal Navy. The garrison had armoured cars and captured Italian tanks, which could raid Axis supply convoys as they passed through Tobruk for the frontier, thus preventing the Axis from invading Egypt. [42] Rommel attempted to take the port but the 9th Australian Division under General Leslie Morshead, resolutely defended the port. The Italians were slow to provide blueprints for the port's fortifications and several attacks were repulsed. After three weeks Rommel suspended the attacks and resumed the siege. [43] Italian infantry divisions took up positions around the fortress while the bulk of the Afrika Korps maintained a mobile position south and east of the port. [44]

Operation Brevity Edit

Operation Brevity (15–16 May) was a limited offensive, to inflict attrition on Axis forces and secure positions for a general offensive towards Tobruk. The British attacked with a small tank-infantry force in three columns, Desert, Centre and Coast. Desert Column, with British cruiser tanks, was to advance inland and destroy tanks found en route to Sidi Aziz. Centre Column was to capture the top of the Halfaya Pass, Bir Wair and Musaid, then press on to Fort Capuzzo. Coast Column was to take Sollum and the foot of Halfaya Pass. Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo were captured but then the fort was lost to a counter-attack. A German counter-attack on 16 May threatened the force at the top of the pass and a retreat was ordered, covered by Desert Column. The Germans took Musaid back and a general British retreat began, to a line from Sidi Omar to Sidi Suleiman and Sollum, which left only the Halfaya Pass in British hands. [45] Brevity failed to achieve most of its objectives and only briefly held the Halfaya Pass. The British lost 206 casualties. Five tanks were destroyed and 13 damaged. German casualties were 258 men, three tanks destroyed and several damaged. Italian casualties were 395, of whom 347 were captured. [46] On 12 May, the Tiger convoy lost one ship and arrived in Alexandria, with 238 tanks, to re-equip the 7th Armoured Division and 43 aircraft. On 28 May, planning began for Operation Battleaxe. [47]

Unternehmen Skorpion Edit

During the evening of 26 May, Kampfgruppe von Herff under Oberst [Colonel] Maximilian von Herff comprising three panzer battalions, assembled on the coast at the foot of Halfaya Pass and attacked the next morning, intending to bluff the British into retreat. [48] The pass was defended by the 3rd Coldstream Guards of Lieutenant-Colonel Moubray and supporting units but the bluff became a genuine attack and secured a commanding position, leaving the British in danger of being surrounded. Brigadier William Gott authorised a withdrawal and Moubray extricated the battalion. There were no reinforcements nearby and Gott ordered a withdrawal from the pass, which Axis forces re-occupied. [49] The Italo-German positions on the border were fortified with barbed wire and minefields and covered by 50 mm and 88 mm anti-tank guns. Behind the new defences the Axis began to accumulate supplies and receive the 15th Panzer Division, which began to arrive on 20 May. [50]

Operation Battleaxe Edit

Operation Battleaxe, 15–17 June 1941 , was intended to lift the Siege of Tobruk and re-capture eastern Cyrenaica. The attack was to be conducted by the 7th Armoured Division and a composite infantry force based on the 4th Indian Division headquarters, with two brigades. The infantry were to attack in the area of Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and Capuzzo, with the tanks guarding the southern flank. For the first time in the war, a large German force fought on the defensive. The Halfaya Pass attack failed, Point 206 was captured and only one of three attacks on Hafid Ridge had any success. At the end of 15 June, 48 British tanks remained operational. On 16 June, a German counter-attack forced back the British on the western flank but was repulsed in the centre. However, the British were reduced to 21 operational Cruiser tanks and seventeen infantry tanks. [51]

On 17 June, the British only just evaded encirclement by two Panzer regiments and ended the operation. Despite British overextension, the Germans failed to turn a defensive success into an annihilating victory. Intelligence had provided details of British moves but the RAF had seen German counter-moves and slowed them enough to help the ground forces escape. [52] The British had 969 casualties, 27 cruiser and 64 I tanks were knocked out or broken down and not recovered. The RAF lost 36 aircraft. German losses were 678 men and Italian losses are unknown, with in addition twelve tanks and ten aircraft lost. The British failure led to the sacking of Wavell, the XIII Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse and Creagh, the 7th Armoured Division commander. General Claude Auchinleck took over as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Command. In September, the Western Desert Force was renamed the Eighth Army. [53]

Operation Crusader Edit

The Eighth Army under Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham) conducted Operation Crusader from 18 November to 30 December, aiming to relieve Tobruk and capture eastern Cyrenaica. The Eighth Army planned to destroy Axis armour before committing its infantry but was repulsed several times, culminating in the defeat of the 7th Armoured Division by the Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh. Rommel ordered the panzer divisions to relieve the Axis positions on the Egyptian border but failed to find the main body of the Allied infantry, which had bypassed the fortresses and headed for Tobruk. Rommel pulled his armour back from the frontier towards Tobruk and achieved several tactical successes, which led Auchinleck to replace Cunningham with Major-General Neil Ritchie. The Axis forces then pulled west of Tobruk to the Gazala Line and then back to El Agheila the Axis garrisons at Bardia and Sollum surrendered. The British lost 17,700 men vs. 37,400 Axis casualties, many of them captured at Halfaya and Bardia. Tobruk had been relieved, Cyrenaica recaptured and airfields captured to cover convoys supplying Malta. [54]

Axis supply: 1940–1941 Edit

Axis supplies from Europe to Libya were moved by road and after Operation Compass (December 1940 – February 1941), only Tripoli remained as an entrepôt, with a maximum capacity of four troopships or five cargo ships at once and an unloading capacity of about 45,000 long tons (45,722 t) per month. Tripoli to Benghazi was 600 mi (970 km) along the Via Balbia and only half way to Alexandria. The road could flood, was vulnerable to the Desert Air Force (DAF) and using desert tracks increased vehicle wear. The Axis advance of 300 mi (480 km) to the Egyptian frontier in early 1941 increased the road transport distance to 1,100 mi (1,800 km). Benghazi was captured in April coastal shipping there had a capacity of only 15,000 long tons (15,241 t) and the port was within range of the DAF. About 1,500 long tons (1,524 t) of supplies per day could be unloaded at Tobruk but lack of shipping made its capture irrelevant. [55]

A German motorised division needed 350 long tons (356 t) of supplies a day and moving its supplies 300 mi (480 km) required 1,170 2.0 t (2 long tons) lorry-loads. [56] With seven Axis divisions, air force and naval units, 70,000 long tons (71,123 t) of supplies were needed per month. The Vichy French agreed to Axis use of Bizerta in Tunisia but this did not begin until late in 1942. From February to May 1941, a surplus of 45,000 long tons (45,722 t) was delivered attacks from Malta had some effect but in May, the worst month for ship losses, 91 per cent of supplies actually arrived. Lack of transportation in Libya left German supplies in Tripoli and the Italians had only 7,000 lorries for deliveries to their 225,000 men. A record amount of supplies arrived in June but shortages worsened at the front. [57]

There were fewer Axis attacks on Malta from June and ship losses increased from 19% in July, to 25 per cent in September, when Benghazi was bombed and ships diverted to Tripoli air supply in October made little difference. Deliveries averaged 72,000 long tons (73,155 t) a month from July to October but the consumption of 30 to 50 per cent of fuel deliveries by road transport and truck unserviceability of 35 per cent reduced deliveries to the front. In November, a five-ship convoy was sunk during Operation Crusader and ground attacks on road convoys stopped journeys in daylight. Lack of deliveries coupled with the Eighth Army offensive forced a retreat to El Agheila from 4 December, crowding the Via Balbia, where British ambushes destroyed about half of the remaining Axis transport. [58]

Convoys to Tripoli resumed and losses increased but by 16 December the supply situation had eased except for the fuel shortage. In December, the Luftwaffe was restricted to one sortie per day. Vichy sold the Axis 3,600 long tons (3,658 t) of fuel, U-boats were ordered into the Mediterranean and air reinforcements were sent from Russia in December. The Italian navy used warships to carry fuel to Derna and Benghazi and made a maximum effort from 16 to 17 December. Four battleships, three light cruisers and 20 destroyers escorted four ships to Libya. The use of an armada for 20,000 long tons (20,321 t) of cargo ships, depleted the navy fuel reserve and only one more battleship convoy was possible. Bizerta was canvassed as an entrepôt but it was within range of RAF aircraft from Malta and was another 500 mi (800 km) west of Tripoli. [59]

Unternehmen Theseus Edit

The Eighth Army advance of 500 mi (800 km) to El Agheila transferred the burden of an over-stretched supply line to the British. In January 1942, the British withdrew from the front to reduce the supply burden and to prepare for Operation Acrobat, a 1941 plan to advance west against Tripolitania. Vichy authorities in Tunisia were pressed to allow British troops and then the Anglo-Americans, after December 1941, into French North Africa, which made it possible to invade Sicily. [60] The British overestimated Axis losses during Operation Crusader and believed that they faced 35,000 troops, rather than the true total of 80,000 men and also misjudged the speed of Axis reinforcement from Europe. The Eighth Army expected to be ready by February, well before an Axis attack. [61] The new 1st Armoured Division held the area around El Agheila and from <28 to 29 December was engaged near Agedabia and lost 61 of 90 tanks, vs. seven German tanks lost. [60]

Panzerarmee Afrika began Operation Theseus on 21 January and defeated the 2nd Armoured Brigade in detail. [62] By 23 January, the brigade was down from 150 to 75 tanks, against a German loss of 29 tanks out of 100. Benghazi fell on 28 January and Timimi on 3 February. By 6 February, the British were back to the Gazala line, a few miles west of Tobruk, from which the Panzerarmee had retreated seven weeks earlier. The British had 1,309 casualties from 21 January, had 42 tanks knocked out and another 30 damaged or broken down and lost forty field guns. [63] The commander of XIII Corps Lieutenant-General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen resigned over differences with Eighth Army commander Neil Ritchie. [64]

Battle of Gazala Edit

By February the front was at the Gazala Line, just west of Tobruk. In the spring both sides prepared for another battle. [65] The British planned Operation Buckshot for June to destroy the Panzerarmee and re-capture Cyrenaica but in early May defensive measures on the Egyptian border took priority, as an Axis attack became imminent. [66] [b] Unternehmen Venezia (the Battle of Gazala) from 26 May to 21 June 1942, began when Afrika Korps and Italian tanks drove south, around the flank of the Gazala line and were isolated by Free French and other Allied troops at Bir Hakeim, who intercepted Axis supply convoys. [68]

Rommel retreated to a position abutting the British minefields and Ritchie ordered Operation Aberdeen, a counter-attack for 5 June. To the north, the 32nd Army Tank Brigade lost 50 of 70 tanks. [69] The 7th Armoured Division and the 5th Indian Infantry Division on the eastern flank attacked at 2:50 a.m. and met with disaster when the British artillery bombardment fell short of the German anti-tank screen. The 22nd Armoured Brigade lost 60 of 156 tanks and turned away, leaving the 9th Indian Brigade stranded. [70] [71] An afternoon counter-attack by the Ariete and 21st Panzer divisions and a 15th Panzer Division attack on the Knightsbridge Box overran the tactical HQs of the two British divisions and the 9th Indian Division. The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and smaller units were dispersed and command broke down. The 9th Indian Brigade, a reconnaissance regiment and four artillery regiments were lost and the British fled from the Gazala Line on 13 June, with only 70 operational tanks. [72]

Fall of Tobruk Edit

Gott, now a Lieutenant-General and commander of XIII Corps, appointed Major-General Hendrik Klopper to the command of the 2nd South African Division, to defend Tobruk. Along with two South African brigades, were the 201st Guards (Motorised) Brigade, 11th Indian Infantry Brigade, 32nd Army Tank Brigade and the 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade. [73] Tobruk had been besieged for nine months in 1941 but this time the Royal Navy could not guarantee the supply of the garrison and Auchinleck viewed Tobruk as expendable but expected that it could hold out for two months. [74] [75] On 21 June, 35,000 Eighth Army troops surrendered to Lieutenant-General Enea Navarini, the commander of XXI Corps. [76] Auchinleck relieved Ritchie, took over the Eighth Army and stopped the Axis advance at El Alamein, 70 mi (110 km) from Alexandria after the First Battle of El Alamein Auchinleck was also sacked. [77]

Unternehmen Herkules Edit

Italian plans to invade Malta by sea began during the Second Italo-Abyssinian War (3 October 1935 – May 1936). [78] An opportunity to capture Malta occurred in April 1941 but Operation Mercury (20 May – 1 June 1941), the invasion of Crete, was conducted first, with such losses of parachute troops and transport aircraft that a second operation in 1941 was impossible. Luftwaffe units apart from Fliegerkorps X then went east for Operation Barbarossa and by June 1941, the island air defences had recovered. [79] Luftwaffe units returned to the Mediterranean in spring 1942 and managed to neutralise the offensive capacity of the island garrison. [79] In April, Hitler and Mussolini agreed to mount Unternehmen Herkules, an Italian-German air and sea invasion. Two Fliegerkorps with hundreds of Junkers Ju 52 transport aircraft, gliders (including 24 Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigants) and about 200 Regia Aeronautica transport aircraft were assembled for the invasion. [80] [81]

The Italian navy assembled an armada of Marinefährprahm (MFP), converted civilian ships and mine layers and 74 smaller boats. German MFPs, Siebel ferries, Pionierlandungsboote, Sturmboote, large inflatable rafts and the Seeschlange (Sea Snake a portable landing bridge), were contributed by the German navy. [82] [83] [c] Rommel wished to attack, having refitted the force in Libya, to forestall an Eighth Army offensive, which was agreed by Hitler and Mussolini, with the proviso that an advance would stop at Tobruk, ready for the invasion of Malta in August. After the success of Unternehmen Venezia and the capture of Tobruk in June, the advance by the Panzerarmee kept going after the fall of Tobruk. The pursuit of a defeated enemy had more appeal than the hazards of the Malta operation. [84] Herkules was cancelled, in favour of Unternehmen Aïda, an invasion of Egypt to capture the Suez Canal. [85]

Unternehmen Aïda Edit

Panzerarmee Afrika advanced into Egypt after the victory at Gazala in pursuit of the Eighth Army, which made a defensive stand at Mersa Matruh. The speed of advance of the Panzerarmee enabled it to get behind XIII Corps and X Corps but the Axis forces were too weak to prevent the British from escaping. XIII Corps withdrew on the evening of 27 June,but poor communication left X Corps on its own in the fortress of Mersa Matruh. X Corps broke out the following night but left 6,000 men and a great deal of equipment and supplies behind. The Eighth Army continued to retreat eastwards, colliding with Axis forces several times en route. An attempt to regroup at Fuka was cancelled and Auchinleck ordered a 99 mi (160 km) retreat all the way to El Alamein, 62 mi (100 km) west of Alexandria. The retreat brought the Eighth Army close to its base, which made supply much more efficient and the geographical bottleneck of the Qattara Depression, 40 mi (64 km) to the south, made an Axis outflanking move much more difficult. [86] By 25 June, the Afrika Korps was down to 60 tanks and the Italian XX Corps had only 14 operational tanks. Using supplies captured at Tobruk on the frontier and at Mersa Matruh, the Panzerarmee reached El Alamein on 30 June. Supplying the Axis forces so far east of Gazala became much harder as most of their supplies still had to come from Tripoli, 1,400 mi (2,300 km) away. [87]

First Battle of El Alamein Edit

An attempt to drive the Eighth Army out of the Alamein position took place in the First Battle of El Alamein (1–27 July 1942). After four days Rommel called off the attempt due to the strength of the Eighth Army defence, depleted Axis supplies and dwindling forces, with German divisions down to 1,200–1,500 men each. By 5 July, the number of serviceable German tanks fell to around thirty. After a lull, the Panzerarmee planned to attack again, with about fifty German tanks, 2,100 German infantry, 54 Italian tanks and 1,600 Italian troops but the Eighth Army attacked first, at Tel el Eisa from 10 to 14 July, which exhausted both sides. [88] The Eighth Army began to attack Italian units, located with information from Ultra, at Ruweisat Ridge (14–17 July) and from 21 to 23 July, again at Tel El Eisa on 22 July and Miteirya Ridge (22 and 26 July), after which another lull fell. [89] The Germans lost about 10,000 men Italian casualties are unknown but 7,000 Axis prisoners were taken, against 13,250 in Eighth Army losses. [90]

Battle of Alam el Halfa Edit

Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army in mid-August. Rommel tried to destroy the British and reach Cairo before Allied reinforcements, due in September, made an Axis victory in Africa impossible. Panzerarmee Afrika was in poor condition and the physique of many of the Germans had declined due to climate and battle exhaustion 19,000 German troops had been in Africa since March 1941. Reinforcements had brought the four German divisions up to 90,000 men, 17,000 men below establishment and 12,600 vehicles. Only 34,000 of these men were fighting troops. The Panzerarmee had accumulated about 200 German and 243 Italian tanks, vs. 700 British tanks. In the Battle of Alam el Halfa (Unternehmen Brandung, 30 August – 5 September), Axis units sought to surround the Eighth Army by advancing around its southern flank. [91]

The British were forewarned by Ultra (decoded German radio messages) and left only patrols in the south. The bulk of the British tanks and guns were concentrated at the Alam el Halfa Ridge, which blocked the Axis advance 20 mi (32 km) behind the front. The tanks stayed on the ridge and fought a static defensive engagement, rather than a battle of manoeuvre. Allied aircraft bombed and strafed Axis troops continuously from 30 August to 4 September, which destroyed few tanks but pinned them down and denied fast maneuvering and concentration to the Panzerarmee. Axis attacks on the ridge failed, supplies ran short and Rommel ordered a withdrawal on 2 September. [92] Late on 3 September, a New Zealand brigade and a British brigade counter-attacked to cut off the Axis retreat but Operation Beresford was a costly failure and by 5 September the Axis retreat was complete. [93] The Eighth Army lost 1,750 men and 68 tanks the Axis lost 2,900 men, 49 tanks, 36 aircraft, 60 guns and 400 lorries. [94]

Second Battle of El Alamein Edit

When the Eighth Army offensive began on 23 October, the Panzerarmee had 104,000 men, including 50,000 Germans, of whom only 24,173 were front line troops. There were 496 Axis tanks, 290 of which were Italian, 500 guns and 850 anti-tank guns. The Eighth Army had 195,000 men, 1,029 tanks, another 1,000 under repair, 908 guns and 1,451 anti-tank guns. The Allied troops were well fed and in good health,whereas the Axis troops were undernourished and susceptible to illness. The Panzerarmee had only 180 mi (290 km) of fuel per vehicle. By 27 October, the Panzerarmee was down to 114 German tanks and by 2 November the Panzerarmee had expended most of its ammunition and had only 32 German and 120 Italian tanks left. Rommel decided to retreat but Hitler ordered the Panzerarmee to stand fast. On 4 November, the Eighth Army broke through Axis defences and Rommel ordered the retreat to begin, abandoning the non-motorized units, particularly Italian formations, in the centre and south. [95]

Panzerarmee Afrika had suffered 37,000 casualties, 30 per cent of the force and had lost 450 tanks, and 1,000 guns. The Eighth Army suffered 13,500 casualties, a far smaller proportion of the force and 500 tanks (only 150 of them destroyed) and about 110 guns (mainly anti-tank guns). The Panzerarmee was reduced to about 5,000 men, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns. [96] Attempts to encircle the Axis forces at Mersa Matruh failed and the bulk of the Afrika Korps had escaped by 7 November. The Axis forces retreated along the coast road but lack of tanks and fuel for a mobile defence of the open southern flank, made a stand at the Halfaya Pass or any other position impossible. [97] Tobruk was retaken by the Eighth Army on 13 November and the Axis retreat continued Benghazi fell on 20 November and the captured ports were quickly repaired to supply the British advance. [98]

Battle of El Agheila Edit

Panzerarmee Afrika retired to the El Agheila defences (Mersa Brega line) but Axis supply and reinforcement priority was given to the forces opposing the British First Army (Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson) and Operation Torch, leaving the Italo-Germans with no capacity to counter-attack. Hitler ordered the Mersa Brega line to be held at all costs but Rommel favoured a fighting retreat to the Gabès Gap in Tunisia, which would increase the supply distance for the Eighth Army to 1,500 mi (2,400 km). On 24 November, Ugo Cavallero agreed to withdraw 200 mi (320 km) west to Buerat, 50 mi (80 km) beyond Sirte, if the Panzerarmee was attacked by a superior force. The Eighth Army reached El Agheila on 15 December and the New Zealand Division was sent to outflank the Mersa Brega line from 14 to 16 December as the 51st (Highland) Division attacked frontally and the 7th Armoured Division attacked inland at Bir el Auera. The outflanking move failed with the loss of 18 tanks and the Panzerarmee retreated behind an obstacle course of deep mine-fields and booby-traps, which slowed the pursuit. [99] [100]

Axis supply: 1942 Edit

El Agheila is 460 mi (740 km) closer to Tripoli than the Egyptian frontier the arrival of the second Italian battleship convoy on 6 January 1942 and the discovery of 13,000 long tons (13,209 t) of fuel at Tripoli, eased the supply crisis, despite the delivery of only 50,000 long tons (50,802 t) of supplies in January. The Panzerarmee had room to manoeuvre and a much shorter supply line against an opponent who now had the burden of an over-extended supply line. The arrival of the Luftflotte II in Sicily had also restored Axis air superiority in the region. Rommel asked for another 8,000 lorries but this utopian demand was rejected and Rommel was warned that an advance would cause another supply crisis. On 29 January, the Panzerarmee recaptured Benghazi and next day ammunition supply to the front line broke down. By 13 February Rommel had agreed to stop at Gazala, 900 mi (1,400 km) from Tripoli. [101]

Until May, monthly deliveries averaged 60,000 long tons (60,963 t), fewer than the smaller Axis force received from June to October 1941 but sufficient for an offensive. The 900 mi (1,400 km) advance to Gazala succeeded because Benghazi was open, reducing the transport distance for about 33 per cent of the supplies of the Panzerarmee to 280 mi (450 km). The Italians tried to restrain Rommel by advocating the capture of Malta, which would postpone another offensive in Africa until autumn but agreed to an attack on Tobruk for late May. An advance would stop at the Egyptian frontier, another 150 mi (240 km) east and the Luftwaffe would redeploy for Operation Herkules. The capture of Malta would not alter the constraints of port capacity and distance protecting convoys and a large port close to the front would still be necessary for victory. [102]

The capture of Alexandria made Malta irrelevant but a defensive strategy would be needed while Benghazi was extended, supplies accumulated and substantial reinforcements brought to Libya. More troops would increase the demand for supplies, which would exceed the capacities of Tripoli and Benghazi and the transport needed to move them. On 26 May, Unternehmen Venezia, the Battle of Gazala, began Tobruk was captured intact on 22 June and shipping losses barely increased. Deliveries to Libya fell from 150,000–32,000 long tons (152,407–32,514 t), due to a fuel shortage in Italy and the supplies were unloaded at Tripoli, which made the position of the Panzerarmee untenable. Operation Herkules was postponed the capture of 2,000 vehicles, 5,000 long tons (5,080 t) of supplies and 1,400 long tons (1,422 t) of fuel at Tobruk enabled the Panzerarmee to advance another 400 mi (640 km) by 4 July, when lack of supplies, exhaustion and the rally of the Eighth Army ended the advance. [103]

Tobruk could only take 20,000 long tons (20,321 t) of supplies a month, was within DAF bomber range and the railway could carry only 300 long tons (305 t) per day. Small deliveries could be made to Tobruk, Bardia and Mersa Matruh or be landed at Tripoli and Benghazi, 1,300 and 800 mi (2,100 and 1,300 km) away. Ship losses in August rose by 400 per cent and deliveries fell by half, to 51,000 long tons (51,818 t). Supplies were diverted back to Tripoli and the Battle of Alam Halfa consumed 10,000 long tons (10,160 t) of fuel. A retreat from El Alamein was forbidden by Hitler and deliveries fell as far fewer ships were sent from Italy. Shipbuilding, repairs and German replacement ships, had limited the net Italian loss of merchant ships to 23 per cent since 1940. On the eve of the Second Battle of El Alamein, the railway from Tobruk flooded and 10,000 long tons (10,160 t) of supplies were stranded, leaving the Panzerarmee with only ten per cent of the fuel it needed. [104]

Buerat Edit

Rommel planned to defend the Gabes Gap in Tunisia east of the French pre-war Mareth line by holding the port of Buerat, while Army Group Africa (Generaloberst [Colonel-General] Hans-Jürgen von Arnim), already in Tunisia, confronted the British First Army, which contained the II US Corps and French troops. [105] The front was 400 mi (640 km) from Tobruk and with such supply difficulties, the Eighth Army was unable to use all its strength. Buerat was not strongly defended and despite intelligence on the state of the Axis forces, Montgomery paused until 16 January 1943, when the Eighth Army had a 4:1 superiority in infantry and a 7.5:1 superiority in tanks. [106] Bombing began on 12 January and XXX Corps attacked on 15 January, picking its way along the coast road through minefields, demolitions and booby-traps. The 2nd New Zealand Division and the 7th Armoured Division swung inland via Tarhuna, supplied by the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) and the New Zealand Army Service Corps. The Eighth Army needed to capture the port quickly to avoid a supply shortage. Rommel withdrew from Buerat on 15 January, retreated from Tripoli on the night of 22/23 January, after destroying the port and then conducted a delaying action into Tunisia. The 7th Armoured Division entered Tripoli on 23 January the last elements of Panzerarmee reached the Mareth line, another 200 mi (320 km) west, on 15 February, as LRDG patrols surveyed the defences. [107]

Tripoli Edit

The main British attack was made along the coast road by the 51st (Highland) Division and an armoured brigade as the 7th Armoured Division advanced via Tarhuna, Castel Benito and Tripoli. The 90th Light Division fought delaying actions along the road, which exacerbated the Allied transport difficulties. From 20 to 21 January, the 90th Light Division made a stand at Corradini, having made 109 craters in the road from Buerat to Homs. The vanguard of the 7th Armoured Division reached the vicinity of Aziza on 21 January and next day the 51st (Highland) Division reached Castel Verde. A race developed and the Germans retired from Tripoli during the night the 11th Hussars were the first into Tripoli, 675 mi (1,086 km) west of Benghazi, on the morning of 23 January. [108] Five hours later, a Naval Base Party arrived and surveyed the wreckage of the port. On 26 January, five ships anchored outside the port and began to unload via lighters on 30 January, 3,000 long tons (3,048 t) of stores were landed. In March the Eighth Army entered Tunisia and on 9 March, Rommel returned to Germany to communicate to Hitler the realities of conditions in North Africa. Rommel failed to persuade Hitler to allow the Axis forces to be withdrawn and was not allowed to return to Africa, ostensibly on health grounds. [109]

Analysis Edit

In 1977, Martin van Creveld wrote that Rommel had claimed that if the supplies and equipment, sent to Tunisia in late 1942 and early 1943, had been sent earlier, the Axis would have won the Desert War. Creveld disagreed, since only the German occupation of southern France after Operation Torch made French merchant ships and Toulon available for dispatch and Bizerta available for receipt, which did not apply in 1941. The extra distance from Bizerta to the Egyptian border would also have negated the benefit of using a larger port. Axis supply had always been determined by the small size of the ports in Libya, a constraint that could not be overcome and attacks on Axis shipping had compounded chronic supply difficulties. With the German army bogged down in the USSR, there was never sufficient road transport available for the Afrika Korps and the Panzerarmee, despite the relatively lavish scale of transport compared to other fronts. [110]

The cancelled attack on Malta in the summer of 1942 had less influence on events than the small size of Tobruk harbour and its vulnerability to air attack. Only a railway, similar to the one built by the British, could have alleviated Axis supply difficulties but lack of time and resources made it impossible to build one. The influence of Axis ship losses on the defeats inflicted on the Panzerarmee in late 1942 has been exaggerated, because lack of fuel was caused by the chronic difficulty of transporting goods overland, rather than lack of deliveries from Europe. During the Second Battle of El Alamein, 1 ⁄ 3 of the fuel destined for the Panzerarmee, was stranded at Benghazi. Rommel wrote that Axis supply difficulties, relative to those of the British, determined the course of the military campaign and were a constraint that was insoluble. [111]

Montgomery has been criticised for failing to trap the Axis armies and bring them to a decisive battle in Libya. His tactics have been seen as too cautious and slow, since he knew of the exiguous supply situation of the Panzerarmee and Rommel's intentions from Axis signals decrypts and other intelligence. [112] In 1966, the British official historian Ian Playfair wrote that the defensive ability of the Afrika Korps in particular and British apprehensions of another defeat and retreat, would have constrained the freedom of action of any commander. Warfare in the desert has been described as a "quarter-master's nightmare", given the conditions of desert warfare and the supply difficulties. Montgomery emphasised balance and refrained from attacks until the army was ready Eighth Army morale greatly improved under his command. [113] The Axis forces retreated through Libya into Tunisia and fought the Tunisian campaign, eventually to be trapped between the Anglo-American forces of the First Army to the west and the Eighth Army from the east. [114]

Electricity and the Second World War

After a discussion on r/todayilearned about balloons causing power outages in Germany during WW2 ( I have decided to start a discussion on electricity during the Second World War.

Back in 2015, when I was working for a utilities company, I wrote an ultimately unpublished article on the electricity network during the Second World War in my country. I am planning to get a version of the article together for this sub, but in the meantime, Iɽ share the summary I wrote:

Back in 2015, when I was working for a utilities company, I wrote an ultimately unpublished article on the electricity network during the Second World War in my country. I am planning to get a version of the article together for this sub, but in the meantime, Iɽ share the summary I wrote:

· 56% increase in sale of electricity from 1938/1939 to 1944/45

· Shortages of rubber, lead and steel led to use of paper and plastic insulation in cables

· 50 Mutual Aid Groups set up for operators to help each other in emergency street works

· Precautions proved worthwhile maximum temporary loss of only 400 MW

· 42% of overhead line damage due to our own barrage balloons

As international tensions increased, extensive preparation was made for the electricity grid system in the event of a war. Walls were thickened, windows were reinforced and supplies of reserve equipment stockpiled for emergency. RAF aerial photography of sites led to those more conspicuous being camouflaged by repainting, changing roof layouts and later removing company names from signs once the war began, warning signs would themselves be removed for a time.

Generating stations would get up to 20 minutes of warning to prepare for massive drops in load as people took shelter. Larger substations were linked by telephone to the air raid system and got up to 10 minutes alert smaller ones just had to rely on the air raid sirens.

In a period before automation, switchgear had to be manually operated on site this entailed people having to stay at major substations ready to throw blade-style switches if lines came down. In order to provide some degree of protection, two-man individual air-raid shelters were provided which could cope with a large amount of falling masonry landing on them.

Direct raids on substations and facilities were rare most of the reports show generally superficial damage to windows and doors. More common was the need to disconnect destroyed houses from the network and make safe exposed mains something made more challenging by damaged water mains, rubble and potential further explosions.

Almost as common as damage by bombs was damage by barrage balloons or low-flying aircraft the former were prone to breaking loose and drifting into wires, causing a short circuit.

However, the national network generally coped very well, with problems only emerging near the end of the war and after due to delays in maintenance, as well as bad winters.

What did the British do in Egypt during the second world war.

My grandfather is a world war 2 veteran, and for years he has told us the same thing about his time served.

"I dug a hole and said wake me when the war is over." For some reason I never fully believed him because of a story he told me.

When he was 16 years older he and his brother left Ireland, lied about their age, and joined the army. His brother was soon discovered when he broke his leg during training so soon it was just him.

One night in their barracks he was showing off to his mates. He could stand behind a chair, jump up over the backrest, and land on the other side.
He would always make extra money doing this as it was always a little bit hard to believe.

Anyway, one night he did this and just as he landed he saw the captain walking by. Immediately the captain bee lined it over to him. His first instinct was that he was under arrest and facing a discharge for "recklessly placing the Queens property in harm's way". Such was not the case this time. The captain said "do that again" and with much more pressure this time around my grandfather did.

The captain told him to gather his things and quickly ushered him away. He was taken from his regiment and put into "special training" very hush hush. Once his training was complete he was told to board a b24 Liberator, retro fitted with seats where the bomb racks once were.

Halfway through their flight he says they sprung a gas leak (it was pooling at their feet) and had to change course to Egypt. Once in Egypt they were told to dig a fox hole and wait. Supposedly, that's what he did.

I've always believed his special training was that of the early SAS. He's very tight lipped about it but he does have some funny, non war related stories he shares about his time in Egypt.

Is there any way I can dig deeper into this? Not sure what resources I have at my disposal.

Second Battle of El Alamein

Although General Claude Auchinleck had stopped Rommel in his tracks during the First Battle of El Alamein in early July 1942, Churchill was becoming increasingly impatient with progress in the Western Desert. In early August that year, he arrived in Cairo and handed over command to General Bernard Montgomery. Auchinleck left for India.

Montgomery restructured the 8th Army, bringing in new divisions and generals and lifting the army's morale with his bold fighting talk - declaring among other things that he would 'hit Rommel for six out of Africa'. He also improved relations between the army and the Desert Air Force, ensuring a more unified attack plan.

Rommel attempted an attack between 30 August and 7 September (the battle of Alam Halfa), but the 8th Army held its ground, largely due to the excellent cooperation between the army and the air force. Montgomery did not make a counter-attack - he knew that reinforcements were on their way and he was biding his time.

Rommel knew that a major attack was inevitable, and did his best to prepare for it. He was a master of mobile warfare, but he had to change his preferred tactics due to a lack of fuel and transport. He chose to shelter his force behind a deep and complex minefield - dubbed 'the Devil's Gardens' by the Germans - backed by strong anti-tank gun positions.

But things were not going well on the German side. Rommel was plagued by illness and departed for hospital in Germany on 23 September, leaving General Georg von Stumme in command of a depleted Panzerarmee.

Montgomery planned his attack in two phases. The first, Operation Lightfoot, would consist of a powerful artillery bombardment followed by an attack by the infantry divisions of 30th Corps in the north, and 13th Corps in the south. They would open paths in the minefield through which the armoured divisions of 10th Corps would pass.

The bombardment started on the night of 23 October, but crumbling the German defences proved more difficult than expected. There was heavy fighting and the 8th Army slowly ground its way forward.

On 25 October, Rommel returned from Germany to take command, after Von Stumme died of a heart attack during battle.

On the night of 1 November, Montgomery launched the second phase of his attack, Operation Supercharge, which was designed to break through the last part of the German defences. The infantry units cleared the way for the armoured divisions, and Rommel, his army depleted and his petrol almost finished, decided the battle was lost.

On 2 November, Rommel warned Hitler that his army faced annihilation. The Allies intercepted his message and Montgomery had the deciphered note in his hands by the next morning.

On 2 November, Rommel warned Hitler that his army faced annihilation. The Allies intercepted his message and Montgomery had the deciphered note in his hands by the next morning.

Hitler ordered Rommel to 'stand and die', but the Panzerarmee had already begun to retreat by the time the order was received. At midday on 4 November, Rommel's last defences caved in and that evening he received orders from Hitler to withdraw.

The Second Battle of El Alamein was a turning point in the North African campaign. It ended the long fight for the Western Desert, and was the only great land battle won by the British and Commonwealth forces without direct American participation. The victory also persuaded the French to start cooperating in the North African campaign.

A Quick Guide To The Air War Over North Africa In The Second World War

When fighting commenced in North Africa in June 1940, the Royal Air Force's (RAF) Air Headquarters Egypt immediately mounted bombing missions against Italian targets in Libya and helped repel the Italian offensive into Egypt.

The RAF was initially under-strength and equipped with the obsolete Gladiator and Blenheim aircrafts until modern aircraft began to arrive in Egypt. In 1941, as Greece came under attack from Germany, units were diverted to Greece and, in Libya, German air and ground forces pushed the weakened British back.

During the Desert Campaigns of 1941-1942, the RAF provided essential battlefield support to the often-beleaguered ground forces, attacking enemy armour and supply lines despite extremely difficult operating conditions.

In October 1941, to achieve closer air-ground co-operation, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commanding RAF Middle East, oversaw the formation of the Western Desert Air Force (WDAF). Its Commander, Air Vice-Marshal Arthur Coningham, developed a mobile, highly effective tactical air force, which in August 1942 began to receive modern fighters capable of competing with the German air force for air superiority.

By November, the WDAF comprised 29 British, Australian and South African squadrons which, augmented by other Allied units, were able to offer overwhelming air support to the 8th Army's offensive at El Alamein.

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