Destiny in the Desert, by Jonathon Dimbleby
North Africa obviously hugely important for both sides. British needed it to keep connections with their
Empire. Italy saw it as their rightful backyard and Hitler needed it to be at least contained so that he could focus on the Russian campaign.
Initial Italian advanced checked and 35k (+) taken prisoner by a lightly equipped British counter attacked. Officer quoted about "3 acres of officers and 16 acres of other thanks" taken prisoner. Italians pushed back to Tripoli and it is almost taken but the British hesitate and stop. Meanwhile, about a 1/4 of the force, an Indian regiment, is ordered South to fight in Sudan and try to push the Italians from Ethiopia.
Mussolini attacked Greece from Albania because he was annoyed at Hitler's deployment of troops in Romania. Mussolini had not been told this was going to happen and he felt annoyed that Hitler now stood poised to be the dominant force in the Balkans. To preserve what he felt was his "back yard" Mussolini attacked. And it was a disaster. So much so that Hitler, much to his annoyance, felt obliged to send his army - gathering for the Soviet invasion - South. They did and met with great success.
Hitler at this point became worried that the Italians might fold in Africa - and leave his flank exposed for his planned assault on Russia. Churchill however, misread Hitler and felt he was gearing up to take Greece with his Italian partners in order to attack Egypt and therefore take the British Empire.
Accordingly, much of the "Army of the Nile" as Churchill insisted on romantically calling it, was sent into Greece. Upon arrival, it met a Greek army in full retreat. In fell back to Crete and tried to make a stand. It turned into a debacle. The Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet suffered serious losses to the Luftwaffe as it tried to lift men from the island. In total 5000 British troops were killed or wounded and 12000 were captured.
Hitler sent Rommel, with a small but highly equipped panzer force. It was mostly designed to ensure the Italians didn't collapse, rather than to in itself take the fight to Britain.
Rommel raved ahead, 400km in 2 weeks
Pushing the British back to Egypt. But here he let hubris get the better of him. With Iver stretched supply lines he attacked Tubruk. Bitter defence from the Australian army and the Royal Horse Artillery checked their advance. Hundreds of Germans were taken, prisoner. Rommel's recklessness was seized by Goebbels as a great success and his propaganda machine swung in behind him, however, other generals were aghast at how he was ignoring every basic rule of conflict and running way ahead of his supply lines.
Rashid Ali rose up in Iraq against the British. Yet more Indian troops had to be diverted
to put it down. The uprising caught both sides off guard and the Germans were only able to offer a few aircraft to help, long after the decisive battles had been fought.
Paulus, the German general who lost at Stalingrad, had already proposed that the next step, once Southern Russia was seized, would he to move on to Egypt, capturing the Middle East between the Nile and Tiber - and therefore cut the British Empire in two.
Rommel proved effective but then pushed too far too fast. Allowing the British planned "Operation Crusader" to cause a huge defeat to the Germans. A battle was largely forgotten in the light of events still to come, but one that was equal on a scale - 2/3s of the German forces were killed or captured. Field Marshall Auchinleck, in charge of the British forces, can claim a great victory.
After the fall of Singapore, the Australian PM (Curtin?) put pressure on Churchill, aggressively so, to withdraw the Australian soldiers in the Middle East and Africa and bring them home for defence of the motherland. I never knew anything about the arguments between GB and Australia.
Rommel was helped by the Italian military intelligence. They had an agent in the US embassy in Rome who had stolen the US code books. A US observer with the British was reporting back to Was
hington - and telling the Italians everything the British were doing, their numbers, their morale, their future plans, their struggles, and all manner of other details.
Rommel's counter-attacking blitzkrieg caught the British completely by surprise. They even
refused to believe the radio reports from their own officers detailing their advances. Their route had long been planned, with advanced forces having buried oil barrels in the sand where the panzers could refuel.
The fall of Tubruk. Churchill was in Washington at the time. Humiliation for him. When he got back home there was a vote of confidence in his handling of the war he won it 400 something to 20 something, but 100 of his own MPs abstained - a warning shot.
Meanwhile in Egypt Alexandria was evacuated, Cairo was in a panic - the British embassy was burning its papers and black plumes of smoke drifted over the city. Shops began displaying welcome signs in German and Luftwaffe propaganda leaflets were dropped telling the Egyptian women to get ready for the arrival of the German soldiers. El Duche was so confident of success he flew to North Africa with a plane of his household and a barrel of boot polish for his soldiers to use before the victory parade in Cairo. Egyptian nationalist groups celebrated the imminent downfall of the British and started printing new bank notes with Mussolini standing in front of the pyramids and fascist slogans on the back. (When Mussolini landed his ac crashed on landing - killing his chef and barber, but leaving him unhurt).
Things did begin to turn at this point though. Bletchley Park realised there was a leak and identified the US attache in Cairo as the source- and informed the US their codes had been broken. They plugged this gap but the embarrassment this caused the US administration also helped GB secure 300 Sherman tanks - the newest type of US tank, previously untested by any US regiment. They were shipped to Africa.
Auchinleck dug his forces in for the last stand - at El Alamain. So began 'the first battle of El Amain'. The British forces, a mix of Indians, South Africans, Australians, and NZs, held.
Churchill now moved to remove Auchinleck. He wanted General Gott. Gott was killed after his ac was intercepted by the Luftwaffe. There was left only one candidate.
As soon as he was in post he set to work discrediting Auchinleck. He claimed his processor was planning a retreat to Cairo - when he really only planned to dig in and fight. Churchill enthusiastically embraced the scapegoating of Auchinleck. After the war he had to settle out of court
a case brought against him for libel against Auchinleck.
He didn't have the look of a famous general. High-pitched voice, skinny legs. However, he had a knack for winning the support of his men. He focused on getting his men post from home, a new issue of cigarettes and creating new NAFIs (shops). He toured the men like a politician looking for votes. Some men felt he was a bull shitter, but, it help build morale.
Meanwhile, Rommel was running low on supplies and fuel. Not helped by Operation Pedastal, which reinforced Malta - boosting its ability to intercept Axis supply ships from Italy.
Rommel decided an urgent attack was required, despite warnings from others in the German High Command against it. They urged him to wait for more fuel and supplies, he argued to wait would to lose the initiative. He attacked without the supplies.
Ultra (Bletchley Park) was able to give Montgomery Rommel's attack route. The British adjusted their positions accordingly.
A fake map was made, depicting an area of treacherous sand as stable and ideal for tanks. It was allowed to he captured, Rommel took the bait and sent 2 Panzer divisions straight into the trap.
The attack, when it came, stalled. The RAF had taken control of the skies and could pick off German and Italian tanks stuck in sand or in minefields. The London Yeomanry and their anti-tank guns had great success in a close-range shooting battle with the Germans. One day into the advance Rommel ordered a withdrawal.
Montgomery now had his turn to attack. The second and third battles of El Al
Amain sealed Rommel's fate. Lots of factors. The American tanks helped. More than that however was the RN's dominance of the Mediterranean. Rommel was pushing for an invasion of Malta, but Hitler kept stalling it. Malta acted as the perfect base to intercept the Africa Korp's supplies and they slowly began to be strangled. Montgomery's tactics deliberately forced the Panzer tanks to move far and fast in reaping to his attacks, draining their fuel supplies.
When the British attacks came the bulk of the fighting was done by the Australians, New Zealanders and Highland regiments. Montgomery's tactics however were not especially innovative and on many occasions, British loses were very high - the author believes his actions would have triggered a recall and an investigation in today's army. However, the sheer logistics were overwhelmingly on Montgomery's side by this point. The RAF had control of the skies and their sortie rate and explosives dropped were almost 10 times that of the Luftwaffe during the battles. Montgomery's tactics were not especially successful and casualties were higher than they needed to be perhaps - but the weight of numbers finally won the day.
Tens of thousands of Axis prisoners were taken. It was a total victory.
The idea was for this assault to be a distraction to Rommel and to weaken him prior to Operation Torch, the first US landing of the war. When they finally did happen they met little resistance. The Vichy French were not going to fight on knowing the bulk of the Italian and German armies had already been destroyed by the British further down the coast.
Churchill gave his rousing "end of the beginning" speech and bells rang out across England. Stalin, who was busy organizing the counterattacks around Stalingrad and was annoyed at the recent British decisions to suspend the Arctic Convoys, didn't even acknowledge it.
Rommel took what was left of his army and fell back in a very disciplined withdrawal along the coast. Meanwhile, Hitler was becoming increasingly divorced from reality and kept sending messages both public and private about his confidence of victory.
Just as Rommel was flying back to see Hitler the Soviets launched Operation Uranus, a counter-attack that
pinned Paulus and his Wehrmacht army inside Stalin.