When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th June 1940, he already had over a million men in the Italian Army based in Libya. In neighbouring Egypt the British Army had only 36,000 men guarding the Suez Canal and the Arabian oil fields.
On 13th September, 1940, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani and five Italian divisions 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.
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, 1942, 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.
In July 1942, General Erwin Rommel and the Italo-German Panzer Armee Afrika, (part of 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 became commander of the Eighth Army.
On 30th August, 1942, Erwin Rommel attacked at Alam el Halfa but was repulsed by the Eighth Army. Montgomery responded to this attack by ordering his troops to reinforce the 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 the day after the 900 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 Depression (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions.
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 forced 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.
The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 12th November, 1942. During the El Alamein 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 victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."
Allied troops continued to advance on Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. General Kenneth Anderson got to within 12 miles of Tunis before being attacked at Djedeida by General Walther Nehring and the Deutsches Afrika Korps. A further attempt by the Allies to reach Tunis was halted by bad weather on 24th December, 1942.
General Jurgen von Arnium now arrived to take control of the German forces in Tunisia. In January 1943 he was joined by General Erwin Rommel and his army in southern Tunisia. Rommel was in retreat from Egypt and was being chased by General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army.
Montgomery now spent several weeks in Tripoli building up his supplies. Arnium and Rommel decided to take this opportunity to attack Allied forces led by General Kenneth Anderson at Faid Pass (14th February) and Kasserine Pass (19th February). The Deutsches Afrika Korps then headed for Thala but were forced to retreat after meeting a large Allied force on 22nd February, 1943.
General Harold Alexander was now sent to oversee Allied operations in Tunisia whereas General Erwin Rommel was placed in command of the German forces. On 6th March 1943, Rommel attacked the Allies at Medenine. General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army fought off the attack and the Germans were forced to withdraw. Rommel now favoured a full retreat but this was rejected by Adolf Hitler.
On 9th March, Rommel left Tunisia on health grounds and was replaced by General Jurgen von Arnium as commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. Arnium now concentrated in defending a 100 mile arc across north-east Tunisia.
By April 1943 the Allies had over 300,000 men in Tunisia. This gave them a 6-to-1 advantage in troops and a 15-to-1 superiority in tanks. The Allied blockade of the Mediterranean also made it difficult for the German Army to be supplied with adequate amounts of fuel, ammunition and food.
The Allies now decided to make another effort to take Tunis. General Omar Bradley, who had replaced General George Patton, as commander of the 2nd Corps, joined General Bernard Montgomery for the offensive. On 23rd April the 300,000 man force advanced along a 40 mile front. At the same time there was a diversionary attack by the 8th Army at Enfidaville.
On 7th May 1943, British forces took Tunis and the US Army captured Bizerte. By 13th May all Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered and over 150,000 were taken prisoner.
The uncomfortable truth, however, remains that our Air Force in Egypt and in the Sudan is even at present heavily outnumbered. You will recall how great, perhaps decisive, was the part played by the German Air Force against the French Army in May. Proportionately, aircraft will, I believe, prove even more important in fighting in the Desert in Africa. Dive-bombing may be an unpleasant experience for troops fighting in comparatively enclosed country; it must be still more difficult to endure where cover or concealment is so much harder to contrive.
This letter is, therefore, a plea to you to consider whether, despite the very heavy calls upon you for the Battle of Britain, it might not be possible for you to spare some further reinforcements for the Middle East.
Auchinleck spent a long weekend with me at Chequers. As we got to know better this distinguished officer, upon whose qualities our fortunes were now so largely to depend, and as he became acquainted with the high circle of the British war machine and saw how easily and smoothly it worked, mutual confidence grew. On the other hand, we could not induce him to depart from his resolve to have a prolonged delay in order to prepare a set-piece offensive on November 1. This would be called "Crusader", and would be the largest operation we had yet launched.
Since the Panzer divisions now seemed to be committed to battle and were supported to be losing a considerable number of tanks, General Cunningham allowed the signal to be given for the Torbruk sorties to begin and the XIIIth Corps to start operations. On November 21 however our difficulties began. The enemy, as was to be expected, reacted at once to the threat to Sidi Rezegh, and his armoured divisions evaded the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades. The whole of the enemy armour then combined to drive us from the vital area and to prevent help reaching the Support Group and the 7th Armoured Brigade, which were isolated there. Neither of these formations was designed to carry out a prolonged defence, and it is greatly to their credit that they managed to do so, unaided, throughout the 21st.
Next day all three armoured brigades joined in the defence of the area. But our tanks and anti-tank guns were no match for the German, although they were fought with great gallantry, and on the evening of November 22 the XXXth Corps was compelled to retire, having lost two-thirds of the tanks and leaving the garrison of Tobruk with a huge salient to defend.
The enemy rounded off his success in spectacular fashion. In a night attack he surprised and completely disorganized the 4th Armoured Brigade, whose hundred tanks represented two-thirds of our remaining armoured strength. On the 23rd he practically annihilated the 5th South African Infantry Brigade, one of the only two infantry brigades General Norrie had under command - there was no transport for any more - and then on the 24th with his armoured divisions he made a powerful counter-stroke to the frontier.
Throughout the day our mobile forces continued successfully to attack the enemy, whose general trend of movement in north-west. A number of engagements took place, but owing to the wide area covered and the the difficulties of communication detailed reports have not been received.
Enemy troops and transport sheltering behind defences immediately west of El Adem were attacked by British armoured units, while farther to the west British and South African mobile columns pressed the enemy back all day in a north-westerly direction.
Small pockets of enemy infantry and armoured cars left in the area north of Bir Hacheim are being dealt with.
In the late afternoon our armoured forces attacked and drove off a number of German tanks which were endeavouring to interfere with operations being carried out west of El Adem by Sikhs, Punjabis, and the Royal Sussex Regiment.
Some miles south-west of Acroma British armoured units shelled a concentration of enemy motor transport, burning some and damaging others.
At Tobruk itself, Polish units, maintaining pressure on the enemy, captured two posts on the western defences. Enemy air action against Tobruk yesterday was on a somewhat increased scale, but ineffective.
Further east South African troops continued to clear up the area north of the Trigh Capuzzo, where a few enemy stragglers are still being captured. New Zealanders are also engaged in mopping-up operations in the area immediately east of Tobruk.
Supporting ground forces, our air forces carried out continual sweeps over the whole area of operations. Enemy concentrations and motor transport were attacked and near Acroma, in particular, a number were damaged and set on fire. Ground troops shot down one German Me. 110.
Bad weather in the desert is making any clear picture of the operations difficult to obtain. For two days heavy sandstorms have blown incessantly, but in this thick, greyish pall which overhangs everything the British advance continues.
Under continual pressure Rommel's men are withdrawing quickly westwards. Our advance is three-pronged. New Zealanders from Tobruk have struck rapidly along the coast and have now reached the eastern outskirts of Gazala, while Indian and British troops have pushed up from the south-east and have reached the other side of Gazala. On the southern flank our columns continue their slow but steady advance, mopping up enemy positions as they go. Finally, hard pressure on the central sector has not been lifted since the attack opened last week. Should the northern and southern prongs advance more rapidly than the enemy withdraws and eventually meet the encircling movement will be complete.
Because we have succeeded in pushing on our advance and there are not any particular reports of enemy opposition it should not be imagined that the enemy is not fighting back strongly. Rommel is still full of fight, but he clearly does not think the present conditions favourable. While withdrawing his troops he is putting up strong resistance; and every mile of ground we take has to be fought for.
7th June: Winston rang up twice in morning. First about Libya battle, as to which we agreed that reports were disappointing. We were both depressed by extent to which Rommel appears able to retain offensive. "I fear that we have not very good generals," said Winston.
14th June: Libyan battle is raging fiercely. Rommel still seems to have the initiative and either his resources are much greater than our people judged, or his losses have been considerably less than they estimated. On their calculation he should have few tanks left, yet he always comes up strong.
In the Middle East the morale of all our people was most deplorable. Auchinleck had completely lost confidence in himself. Everybody was always looking over their shoulders towards prepared positions to which to retreat. The units at the Front were hopelessly mixed up, and there was no evidence of good staff work. Auchinleck had 180 Generals on his staff. This number has now been reduced to 30 by his successor. We should, of course, have hit Rommel hard when he reached his furthest point of advance. Winston Churchill and Sir Alan Brooke both went up to the line and followed different routes, and met that evening to compare notes. "Both", said Morton, "came back with faces like boots." They were both convinced that drastic and speedy action must be taken. Already there had been a very great improvement. But it was only just in time. Alexander, Auchinleck's successor, has hitherto been in charge of brilliant retreats. He was the last man off the beaches at Dunkirk and since then he has done Burma.
Auchinleck took me into his map-room and shut the door; we were alone. He asked me if I knew he was to go. I said that I did. He then explained to me his plan of operations; this was based on the fact that at all costs the Eighth Army was to be preserved "in being" and must not be destroyed in battle. If Rommel attacked in strength, as was expected soon, the Eighth Army would fall back on the Delta; if Cairo and the Delta could not be held, the army would retreat southwards up the Nile, and another possibility was a withdrawal to Palestine.
I listened in amazement to his exposition of his plans. I asked one or two questions, but I quickly saw that he resented any question directed to immediate changes of policy about which he had already made up his mind. So I remained silent.
My first step in restoring morale, therefore, was to lay down the firm principle, to be made known to all ranks, that no further withdrawal was contemplated and that we would fight the coming battle on the ground on which we stood. General Montgomery fully concurred in this policy, and communicated it to the Eighth Army H.Q. staff at a meeting held on the second evening of his arrival; and it went out to him as a written directive when I formally took over the Middle East command.
There is no doubt at all that Montgomery, during his address, gave brilliant emphasis to the agreed policy. He informed his audience that he had ordered all withdrawal plans to be burnt, that the defence of the Delta meant nothing to him, that all resources earmarked to that end were to be used to strengthen the Eighth Army.
The Eighth Army continue to advance all alone the line in hot pursuit of Rommel's force, which, on the coast road in particular, are being relentlessly attacked by our aircraft and artillery.
It has not been disclosed how far back the enemy has moved. Our correspondent in Cairo reported last night that in the north the old front, has been left far behind and the Italians yesterday spoke of "bitter and bloody fighting between El Alamein and Fuka" and of a subsequent Axis withdrawal "to new lines to the west." Fuka is 60 miles west of El Alamein and 40 miles from Mersa Matruh. There are isolated pockets holding out in the desert twenty to thirty miles from the coast.
A British United Press war correspondent cabled last night that the artillery and armoured screen behind which the enemy were retiring to the north had been pierced at many points and that our fighting columns had pushed ahead.
Rommel is giving priority to the Germans in the attempt to escape and his Italian allies are being largely used - and sacrificed to cover his withdrawal.
Recovery in the style of which Rommel has shown himself a master in the past will now be rendered difficult by a shortage of transport and a shortage of petrol. Another convoy, including a tanker, was stopped yesterday between Greece and Tobruk. For the past few weeks not a single tanker has got through to the ports of Cyrenaica.
During Monday night, unnoticed by the enemy, Rommel carried out a regrouping of his forces behind a more than thin security chain. But even after the last regrouping had been completed in full daylight early yesterday and the bulk of the Axis forces had calmly taken up positions on newly prepared defence lines and settled down there - that is 48 hours afterwards - the British High Command still did not believe their reconnaissance.
Only when the security chain had to leave its position owing to shortage of ammunition did the British penetrate into the Axis defence system which had already been evacuated by us. The fact that this operation as daring in its planning as in its execution could be carried out in almost parade-ground order without losses worth mentioning in men and material and without the British being able to intervene is principally due to German and Italian troops holding the security chain and fighting against the overwhelmingly superior enemy to their last hand-grenade and the last bullet.
When the foremost German security lines were spent all their ammunition and were impotently facing the enemy, who was attacking in mass formation. General Ritter von Thoma, at the head of a small tank unit, pushed deep into the enemy formations and fought a fierce battle with a number of heavy British tanks, lasting for several hours.
Although, in view of the enemy's superiority the issue of the battle was not in doubt the British penetrated the already evacuated positions only after the last shell had been fired and the few German tanks had been put out of action. Von Thoma fell into enemy hands far in front of the German lines.
The battalion commanded by Colonel Borchardt with equal gallantry held a large sector of the security screen. Without tank support and without anti-tank guns, the battalion covered the regrouping for two days against the attacking mass of British tanks which, in spite of repeated attacks was unable to dislodge the tank grenadiers. Their task completed, the remnants of this battalion fought their way through to the German lines.
Here, as well as in the adjoining sector held by an Italian tank unit, the British were made to pay for their penetration with enormous losses in men and material. The Italians fought to the last man.
One of the most fascinating studies of the last war was the contrast between these two great commanders, Montgomery and Rommel, each in his own way an outstanding general, yet utterly and absolutely different in almost every respect. Rommel was probably the best armoured corps commander produced by either side. Utterly fearless, full of drive and initiative, he was always up in front where the battle was fiercest. If his opponent made a mistake, Rommel was on to it like a flash, and he never hesitated to take personal command of a regiment or battalion if he thought fit. On one occasion he was found lifting mines with his own hands. His popularity with the soldiers was immense, but a great many officers resented his interference with their commands.
All this reads like the copybook general but, in point of fact, this is not the best way to control a swift-moving, modern battle. Very often at a critical moment no one could find Rommel, because he was conducting personally some battalion attack. He tended to become so involved in some minor action that he failed to appreciate the general picture of the battlefield.
Monty was not such a dashing, romantic figure as his opponent; nor would you find him leading a forlorn hope in person, for the simple reason that if he was in command forlorn hopes did not occur. He had an extraordinary capacity for putting his finger straight on the essentials of any problem, and of being able to explain them simply and clearly. He planned all his battles most carefully - and then put them out of his mind every night. I believe he was awakened in the night only half a dozen times during the whole war.
Their handling of the battle of Alam Haifa makes the contrast clear. Having made the best possible plan to win the battle, yet at the same time to husband his resources, Monty dismissed Alam Haifa entirely from his mind and concentrated on the next one.
While Rommel was leading his troops in person against strongly-held defensive positions on the Alam Halfa ridge, Montgomery was planning the battle of Alamein. That was the difference between the two.
Tobruk is again in our hands. Last evening's reports that our heavy and medium bombers on the way to attack the Tobruk area on Armistice night found the target already lit by scores of fires confirmed the conclusion, based on estimates of his losses, that the enemy's remnants could not attempt to stand on that position. Our troops, continuing their
pursuit, the pace of which is illustrated by the fact that they recently covered 130 miles in two days - almost twice Rommel's best speed, - took Sollum and Bardia yesterday and this morning entered Tobruk.
Inland our forces were in touch with the rearguard of the enemy yesterday in the El Adem area south of Tobruk. The next hurdle is the Gazala line, but it is realised now that though the Axis retreat was orderly as far as Ghazal, twelve miles east of Daba; it has since grown more precipitate, The capture o£ some eighty Ariete tanks in running order in that area, of railway trucks loaded with guns for Matruh, of several large intact ammunition dumps, and in the frontier zone of men of the motorised Italian Pistoia Division without their transport tells a tale of unseemly flight at least on the Germans' part, who nevertheless are fighting spiritedly when brought to battle. !
Our constant day and night air attacks ensure that the enemy will be unable to regain his cohesion. West of Tobruk his columns have been bombed and machine-gunned, and farther west still where the coast road curves sharply round Gazala Bay, hemmed between sea and cliff so that vehicles have no escape; an enemy concentration of trucks were heavily punished.
One low-flying aircraft, after good work with machine-guns, ringed the transports with incendiaries. The effect on the enemy's moral of these constant air attacks can be imagined when it is realised that his harassed troops are not provided with any fighter screen whatever.
Raw troops in tropical kit were fit subjects only for music-hall jokes. We looked, and felt, ridiculous. The authorities were terrified their charges would contract heatstroke, so we always had to wear 'coal-scuttle' helmets in the heat of the day, and the buttoned-up portions of our shorts had to be turned down to protect our delicate knees. How it was possible for our authorities to rule a country like Egypt for generations and persist in believing in a myth like that of sunstroke defies explanation. The helmets, which were heavy, were soon replaced by light pith topees, and these, in turn, soon disappeared in favour of the familiar forage cap. The comic shorts were also replaced by more modern ones, with the result that we looked and felt much smarter. On active service in the desert many men went further, particularly those of
dark complexion, and were bare to the waist, with perhaps a handkerchief to protect the back of the neck. Hats were rarely worn in action.
I believe that the first and great principle of war is that you must first win your air battle before you fight your land and sea battle. If you examine the conduct of the campaign from Alamein through Tunisia, Sicily and Italy you will find I have never fought a land battle until the air battle has been won. We never had to bother about the enemy air, because we won the air battle first.
The second great principle is that Army plus Air has to be so knitted that the two together from one entity. If you do that, the resultant military effort will be so great that nothing will be able to stand against it.
The third principle is that the Air Force command. I hold that it is quite wrong for the soldier to want to exercise command over the air striking forces. The handling of an Air Force is a life-study, and therefore the air part must be kept under Air Force command.
The Desert Air Force and the Eighth Army are one. We do not understand the meaning of "army cooperation". When you are one entity you cannot cooperate. If you knit together the power of the Army on the land and the power of the Air in the sky, then nothing will stand against you and you will never lose a battle.
I thought he (Montgomery) was very cautious, considering his immensely superior strength, but he is the only Field-Marshal in this war who won all his battles. In modem mobile warfare the tactics are not the main thing. The decisive factor is the organization of one's resources to maintain the momentum.
At Alamein Rommel was utterly defeated but not annihilated: Alamein was a decisive victory but not a complete one. It is easy to look back after eighteen years and suggest that the Afrika Korps could have been destroyed by a more vigorous exploitation after the breakthrough, but let us remember the realities of the time.
Monty had his first big command. He was new to the desert. He was fighting a great battlefield tactician in Rommel, whose troops were seasoned warriors: he and they had won some remarkable victories; whereas the Eighth Army had only recently been reformed and given the material to take on the Axis at better odds; many of our fresh reinforcements were new to desert conditions; and although our Intelligence was good we couldn't know accurately what punch the Germans were still nursing.
The ships were combat-loaded in Norfolk for the African invasion. Everything was put on backwards, to be taken off and go onto the beach in proper order. For example, the vehicles were put on last, so they could come off first.
The invasion was in three groups. The Western Task Force, the one I was in, attacked Morocco. The Central landed at Oran. The third, at Algiers. Actually we were opposing the Vichy French at the time. It's absolutely remarkable that in two years an American army could organize such an invasion force. The boys on the ship had no idea where they were going. It was a strongly kept secret; none of us really knew. I didn't know until we were at sea.
The ship was loaded with all these crates of weapons that nobody had ever seen before. Bazookas. We didn't know what bazookas were. We had no training with them at sea. There were a lot of things we didn't know about them. You'd fire it, and unburned powder grains would hit you in the face as the projectile went out. The first guy that pulled that trigger had red spots all over his face. We found out that you had to wear goggles and keep your face covered.
The French capitulated very quickly after some desultory fighting. We went into intensive training, not knowing why they didn't send us up into Tunisia. Here, early on, the American forces got the heck kicked out of them at Kasserine Pass. Here we were, the best armored division in the world, we thought, sitting back three hundred miles from the action, not being used. We found out afterwards we were keeping French Morocco from getting involved in the war. We were also a strategic threat to Spanish Morocco and keeping the Nazis or the Italians from using it as a base.