4

Contesting the Littoral

September 1939–June 1942

You seem to be the only enemy I can be sure of defeating these days.

Lord Wavell, playing backgammon with the Countess of Ranfurly, 3 May 19411

‘Before Alamein, we never had a victory,’ Churchill wrote in his war memoirs. ‘After Alamein we never had a defeat.’ Like so many generalizations, the remark had a kernel of truth, even if one ignores the huge exception of the battle of Britain. But Churchill should have qualified his words with ‘over the Germans’, because Britain won spectacular victories over the Italians in Africa. Indeed these were so significant that they encouraged Hitler to contest the Mediterranean with resources that would have been far better employed in Russia. Faced with the defeat of Fascism in Africa, Hitler decided to try to save his ideological soulmate, Benito Mussolini, in Africa (and later in Greece), even though his strategy dictated that neither place would be the key to the victory he sought, which was always going to be in Russia.

The first of several British commanders in the long Western Desert campaign was Archibald Wavell, a fine example of the British Army officer of the old school. Wavell’s family came to Britain with William the Conqueror, both his father and grandfather had been generals, he had had a brilliant school career and was personally brave in action. A natural sportsman (especially golf and polo), captain of the regimental hockey team, a fine shot, an excellent linguist (Urdu, Pashtu and Russian), he served in the Boer War and on the North-West Frontier and entered Camberley Staff College in 1909 with an 85 per cent exam pass. He married a colonel’s daughter called Queenie, of whom he wrote admiringly to a friend: ‘She rides well to hounds.’ Much to his chagrin, Wavell was stuck at the War Office when the rest of the Army decamped to France and Flanders in August 1914, but although he did later see action it was as a liaison officer with the Grand Duke Nicholas’ army in Turkey, and later serving under General Allenby in Palestine, that Wavell spent most of the Great War. He not only distinguished himself, but got to know the Middle East and was sent out to command in Palestine in 1937–8. He was also the most literary and reflective of Britain’s Second World War generals.

Yet there were always severe personality differences between Wavell and Churchill, amounting at times to mutual detestation. Even though Wavell had supported the creation of Ralph Bagnold’s Long Range Desert Group in North Africa and later encouraged Orde Wingate in his unorthodox fighting practices in the Burmese jungle, Churchill thought him too cautious and conventional a commander, and longed to replace him. When in August 1940 Wavell returned to London to brief the War Cabinet’s Middle East Committee, Anthony Eden thought his account of operations ‘masterly’, but Churchill’s curt cross-questioning left him feeling bruised and insulted.2 Nonetheless, great risks were run in Africa that month, virtually denuding Britain of tanks while the country was still under threat of invasion, in one of the toughest decisions of the war.

In mid-September Mussolini, fancying himself a second Caesar, sent Marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s Tenth Army to invade Egypt with five divisions along the coast, taking Sidi Barrani. He stopped 75 miles short of the British, in Mersa Matruh, while both sides were reinforced. It was a nerve-wracking time for the British in Egypt. ‘We actually made dummy tanks, dummy guns, and from the air when reconnaissance planes came across it looked as though we had a really good, strong army,’ recalled Private Bob Mash, an engineer with the Nile Army. ‘We’ve blown up rubber tanks, put them in position, taken them down in the evening, taken them three or four miles further away, blown them up again and laid them there, and from the air it looks as if we had plenty of tanks. Just the same as on the Canal Zone… every other anti-aircraft gun was a wooden one.’3

On 8 December 1940, Wavell’s friend, Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force (numbering only 31,000 men, 120 guns and 275 tanks), counter-attacked fiercely against a force four times his size, concentrating on each fortified area in turn.4 Operation Compass had close support from the Navy and RAF, and, aided by a collapse in Italian morale, by mid-December O’Connor had cleared Egypt of Italians and 38,000 prisoners were taken. Bardia fell on 5 January and on the 22nd the 7th Armoured Division (the ‘Desert Rats’) captured the key port of Tobruk, which was to loom large in the fortunes of both sides over the next two years. As so often, air superiority was vital, especially as there was less possibility of concealment in the desert than in other terrains. The RAF quickly established dominance over the Italian Air Force, the Regia Aeronautica.5 British naval control of the North African littoral also helped O’Connor, because much of the coastal road was within the range of the large-calibre guns of the Royal Navy.

Encouraged by his success in the north, Wavell then moved to cover his southern flank. When Italy had declared war the Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of Ethiopia (Abyssinia), had crossed into the Sudan with 110,000 troops and taken Kassala, then into Kenya to capture Moyale, and also into British Somaliland, seizing Berbera. Wavell had bided his time before responding, but in late January 1941 he sent two British Commonwealth forces totalling 70,000 men – mainly South Africans – to exercise a massive pincer movement utterly to rout Aosta. Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham occupied Addis Ababa on 4 April, having averaged 35 miles a day for over a thousand miles, taking 50,000 prisoners and gaining 360,000 square miles of territory at the cost of 135 men killed and four captured.6 The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia returned to his capital on 5 May, five years to the day since it had fallen to the Italians. Aosta and his enormous but demoralized army surrendered on 17 May, leaving the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden open to Allied shipping once more.

Meanwhile, in the north, very great victories greeted O’Connor, who saved the Suez Canal and drove the Italians back along the coast road to Benghazi. As the 6th Division forced Graziani into headlong retreat, O’Connor sent the 7th Division through the desert via Mechili to slice through the Cyrenaican bulge and cut off the Italians. At the battle of Beda Fomm on the Gulf of Sirte between 5 and 7 February 1941 the British Empire and Commonwealth won its first really significant land victory of the Second World War. In two months from 7 December 1940, the Western Desert Force had achieved successes that utterly belied Churchill’s statement quoted above; they had destroyed nine Italian divisions and part of a tenth, advanced 500 miles and captured 130,000 prisoners, 380 tanks and 1,290 guns, all at the cost of only 500 killed and 1,373 wounded. In the whole course of the campaign, Wavell never enjoyed a force larger than two divisions, only one of them armoured. It was the Austerlitz of Africa, and prompted his prep school to note in the Old Boys’ section of the Summer Fields magazine: ‘Wavell has done well in Africa.’

Armoured mobility had been a key factor, yet as Michael Carver – later a field marshal but then GSO2 (Operations) at the headquarters of Lieutenant-General C. W. M. Norrie – recalled, up until then ‘Nobody, senior or junior, whatever their arm of service, had any experience of highly mobile operations, ranging over wide areas, in which tanks fought each other… Everyone was learning on the job, even the Royal Tank Regiment had to rely on theory or… pragmatic common sense or even happy-go-lucky intuition.’7There was also the low morale of the Italians, which Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Belchem of 7th Armoured Division described as ‘a synthetic morale inspired by repetitive propaganda and one was very conscious that if they suffered a defeat this would probably peel off like a plastic wrapper, which in fact was the case’.8 It is not true that the Italians lacked courage, William ‘Strafer’ Gott told Anthony Eden, but they were simply not properly trained for the realities of desert warfare.9

Yet after Beda Fomm Wavell decided not to allow O’Connor to press on to try to capture the Axis stronghold of Tripoli, instead ordering him to halt at El Agheila. For Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in October 1940 led to the British War Cabinet’s decision to support the Greeks militarily, as desirable and understandable a decision politically as it was disastrous militarily. Already very badly short of men in his Middle East Command, Wavell had to find extra troops to send across the Mediterranean as an expeditionary force, weakening him everywhere else in a command that stretched from the Persian Gulf to Malta to East Africa. Lieutenant-General Henry ‘Jumbo’ Maitland Wilson took a large number of troops off to Greece under orders from Churchill. This was an error when the Mediterranean theatre was still far from safe. As an assistant secretary to the War Cabinet, Lawrence Burgis, noted in April 1941, when ‘a terribly important convoy of tanks destined for Egypt was about to risk the perilous Mediterranean route, the PM informed the Cabinet of the timetable, adding: “If anyone’s good at praying, now is the time” ’.10

It was O’Connor’s victory over the Italians in Libya that persuaded Hitler that Mussolini needed immediate support there. Five hundred planes were flown from Norway to Sicily, and their subsequent bombing of Benghazi meant that O’Connor could not use the port. Denuded of troops by the Greek and Crete campaigns, the Western Desert Force was anyway reduced to only one armoured division, part of an infantry division and one motorized brigade. In March 1941 Hitler sent Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel to Tripoli to command the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions, which had begun debouching on 12 February 1941. In August the force was raised to the status of Panzer group, and the 5th was renamed the 21st Panzer Division. Although technically only the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions made up the Afrika Korps, the name came to encompass all of the German forces under Rommel’s command in the desert, including the 90th Light Division. Although Rommel was formally under the command of the more senior Italian generals in Africa – but not Graziani, who had resigned after Beda Fomm – he actually took orders solely from Hitler. His success in the 1940 campaign against France had only added to his already high reputation in the Wehrmacht – he had been awarded the Pour le Mérite medal in the Great War, Germany’s highest decoration for valour – and he was now ready to become the iconic ‘Desert Fox’.

Back on 4 October 1940, when Hitler and Mussolini had met on the Brenner Pass, the Führer did not warn the Duce that he intended to occupy Romania only three days later.11 What has been called ‘the brutal friendship’ was not based on much mutual trust and understanding. Similarly, Mussolini’s invasion of Greece on 28 October, under General Sebastiano Visconti Prasca, was undertaken from occupied Albania with ten divisions without Hitler’s prior knowledge. With temperatures of –20 Celsius, difficult territory and stiff Greek resistance under General Alexander Papagos, the Italians were soon forced back into Albania. ‘Raging rivers, bottomless mud and bitter cold’, wrote a contemporary commentator, ‘completed the destruction of an Italian offensive that was politically inept and militarily under-prepared.’12 Helped by units of the RAF sent by Wavell – who was keen to have bases from which to bomb Romania’s highly productive Ploesti oilfields – the Greeks had marched so far into Albania by Christmas Eve that the Italian Chief of Staff, Marshal Pietro Badoglio, was forced to resign. Hitler, who had already decided to shore up the Italians in North Africa, was now faced with having to protect them from the Greeks and British as well.

To make matters worse for the Germans, Prince Regent Paul of Yugoslavia chose this moment to join the Axis and sign the Germany-Italy–Japan Tripartite Pact on 25 March 1941, causing outrage in Belgrade. Allied successes in Greece, Albania and Libya encouraged the eighteen-year-old Prince Peter II of Yugoslavia to declare himself of age and overthrow Paul the following night, assisted by SOE. Hitler was rendered incandescent with rage by this coup. Ever since 29 July 1940, he had been instructing the OKH to draw up plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, his right flank in south-east Europe looked as if it might house a hostile Graeco-Yugoslav-British bloc. He ordered that Yugoslavia be subjected, ‘with merciless brutality’, to ‘a lightning invasion’.13 The brutality can be gauged by the fact that 17,000 Yugoslavs were killed by the Luftwaffe on a single day, almost as many certified deaths as the RAF were to cause in Dresden in February 1945.14

On 6 April 1941, just ten days into their new-found freedom, with only two-thirds of their thirty-three divisions mobilized, with no armour, little modern equipment and 300 planes, the Yugoslavs were subjected to a massive invasion from the north, east and south-east by over half a million Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians. It was a miracle of German Staff work and efficiency.15 Zagreb fell on the fourth day, Belgrade on the sixth, Sarajevo on the ninth and Yugoslavia formally surrendered after eleven days, on 17 April, with King Peter and the Government escaping with only hours to spare. Total German losses amounted to 558 men, against 100,000 Yugoslav casualties and a further 300,000 taken prisoner. Mellenthin observed that ‘Only the Serbs were really hostile to us,’ otherwise the Germans pacified Croatia – which was given its independence – Slovenia and Bosnia very quickly.16 Later on, Colonel Draža Mihailović led the pro-monarchist Chetniks and Marshal Tito led the pro-Communist partisans against the Germans (and each other), but for the moment Hitler had scored yet another lightning victory to follow those over Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland.

Nor did he lose a moment before also attacking Greece, which had been reinforced by Wavell on the command of the War Cabinet. In retrospect, the Commonwealth expedition to Greece was one of the worst British blunders of the war, stretching Wavell’s forces far too thin, which did not allow him to fight effectively in either Greece or Libya. The Greeks and British – who did not co-ordinate their responses effectively, as the Greeks wanted (patriotically but wildly over-optimistically) to fight for Thrace, Macedonia and Albania – were outmanoeuvred by swift Panzer thrusts around Mount Olympus, forcing the surrounded Greek Army to capitulate on 23 April.17 The swastika was hoisted over the Acropolis four days later. After gallant Australian and New Zealand defence at Thermopylae, full of historical echoes of an earlier defence of Western civilization, some 43,000 British Commonwealth forces were evacuated from eastern Peloponnesian ports to the island of Crete and elsewhere, although little heavy equipment could be saved. For German losses of only 4,500, Britain suffered 11,840 killed, wounded or captured and Greek casualties topped 70,000.18 Nor would the Germans stop there.

Major-General Bernard Freyberg vc, nicknamed by Churchill ‘the Salamander’ because he had been through fire so often – wounded twelve times and winning four DSOS – was in command of the defence of Crete. He had 15,500 troops who had been evacuated (defeated and exhausted) from Greece, 12,000 troops from Egypt, 14,000 Greeks, little artillery and only twenty-four serviceable fighter aircraft to face the first wave of General Karl Student’s XI Fliegerkorps (airborne corps) of 11,000 fresh, crack paratroopers. With control of Crete the Germans could threaten the eastern Mediterranean, bomb Egypt and Libya and protect the Corinth Canal, through which much of Italy’s oil was transported. On the morning of 20 May, Operation Merkur (Mercury) was launched against three airfields on the north coast of the island composed of 716 aircraft (including 480 bombers and 72 gliders) which dropped General Alexander Lohr’s 7th Airborne Division and, the next day, the 5th Mountain Division. One of the airfields, Maleme, was taken from the New Zealand 5th Brigade on 21 May, albeit with heavy German losses. It was then hugely reinforced; between 20,000 and 30,000 German paratroopers had landed on Crete by 27 May. Engagements between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Navy, as Norway had already proved, were an unequal contest: three cruisers and six destroyers were sunk, and two battleships and one aircraft carrier, HMS Formidable, which lost all her fighters, were badly damaged.19 Although Freyberg was forewarned by the GCCS cipher decrypts codenamed Ultra to expect the attack on the northern airfields, he was prevented from acting on the information too obviously, for fear of compromising its all-important source.

When Wavell met the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, Sir Andrew Browne Cunningham (elder brother of Lieutenant Alan Cunningham), on board HMS Warspite in Alexandria on the morning of 26 May, the unanimous advice of the Staff was that Freyberg’s entire force would have to surrender, because if the Royal Navy suffered any further losses in evacuating them the Allies could lose control of the eastern Mediterranean. The Germans would then take Syria and the Persian and Iraqi oilfields and cut off Britain’s oil supply. Wavell added that it would also take three years to build a new fleet. In this gloomy analysis Wavell was supported by the Commander-in-Chief of Australian forces in the Middle East, General Sir Thomas Blamey, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Peter Fraser, and the commander of the RAF in the Middle East, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder. This prompted one of the great ripostes of the war, when Cunningham, who spoke last, said:

It has always been the duty of the Navy to take the Army overseas to battle and, if the Army fail, to bring them back again. If we now break with that tradition, ever afterwards when soldiers go overseas they will tend to look over their shoulders instead of relying on the Navy. You have said, General, that it will take three years to build a new fleet. I will tell you that it will take three hundred years to build a new tradition. If, gentlemen, you now order the Army in Crete to surrender, the Fleet will still go there to bring off the Marines.20

Churchill meanwhile telegraphed from London: ‘Victory in Crete essential at this turning point of the war. Keep hurling in all aid you can.’ Wavell nonetheless ordered Freyberg to evacuate Crete without equipment from 28 May, and over the following four nights, coincidentally the first anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, 16,500 men were embarked. The British had lost 2,011 Royal Navy killed and wounded, 3,489 Army killed and 11,835 captured, for the German casualty figure of 5,670.21 However, the Germans had lost 220 planes destroyed and 150 damaged, and were never to employ another airborne assault again. This was extremely fortunate in the case of Malta the following year, which was vulnerable to such an attack.

Greece was to suffer fearfully under German occupation. In the first eighteen months, no fewer than 40,000 Greeks starved to death, and the population was reduced by some 300,000 in the course of the war.22 Olive oil became a major currency as inflation meant that a single loaf of bread could cost 2 million drachmae. The German Army resorted to methods of barbarism to keep control, as when all the male inhabitants of Kalavryta in the northern Peloponnese – 696 people in twenty-five villages – were shot by the 117th Jager Division in December 1943 in reprisal for guerrilla actions.

Rommel on 24 March 1941 unleashed his Libyan offensive. Spread far too thinly because of political imperatives – in Greece, Crete, East Africa, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Ethiopia and Egypt – Wavell’s forces could not hold back the Afrika Korps in Cyrenaica. O’Connor was ordered to fall back to the high ground east of Benghazi if necessary, and not to expect reinforcement until May.23 El Agheila fell on the first day and Rommel sent the 21st Panzers off through the desert via Mechili to Tobruk, which they tried unsuccessfully to capture from the 7th Australian Division between 10 and 13 April. Rommel flew from place to place in his Fieseler Storch plane – in which he at one point was in peril of being shot down by the Italians – but finally settled down to besiege Major-General J. D. Lavarack’s 7th Australian Division in Tobruk on 14 April, a siege that was to last a gruelling seven and a half months. Although 238 tanks and 43 Hurricanes got through the Mediterranean on 12 May, the pressure was on.

O’Connor, one of the most talented British commanders of the war so far, was seized on 17 April and held in Italy. ‘It was a great shock to be captured,’ he said later. ‘I never thought it would ever happen to me – very conceited, perhaps – but it was miles behind our own front and by a sheer bit of bad luck we drove into the one bit of desert in which the Germans had sent a reconnaissance group and went bang into the middle of them.’24 He managed to escape in December 1943, after which he fought in Normandy, but he was hors de combat when desperately needed to face Rommel in the desert.

‘The Axis decision to open a Mediterranean front’, a leading historian considers, ‘was a critical strategic mistake that the Allies would have been foolish not to exploit.’25 In the long term, Germany’s explosion into the Mediterranean theatre weakened the war effort against Russia in ways that could not have been predicted in the spring of 1941. It drew off German strength from the war’s main Schwerpunkt, and in 1943 the invasion of Sicily meant that Luftwaffe units had to be brought down from Norway where they had been threatening the Murmansk route. In the short run, however, Germany won significant victories, and expected more.

Halfaya Pass, 65 miles east of Tobruk, nicknamed Hellfire Pass, was one of the few places where vehicles could negotiate the 500-foot escarpment from the coastal plain to the desert plateau, and was thus an important strategic point. Wavell’s counter-offensive designed to relieve Tobruk – Operation Battleaxe – failed there between 15 and 17 June, with no fewer than fifteen of the eighteen Matilda tanks involved in one attack being lost to mines and anti-tank fire from a battalion of German tanks and four powerful 88mm guns.26 During this battle Churchill decided to relieve Wavell, who, he told the new Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, lacked ‘that sense of mental vigour and resolve to overcome obstacles which is indispensable to a successful war’. Other similarly negative assessments from Churchill were that Wavell was like a golf-club chairman, ‘a good average colonel’ and – intended as equally damning – ‘a good chairman of a Tory association’.27 It was bad enough to scapegoat Wavell for errors of the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff without having to insult him too, but Wavell’s victories over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941, including Sidi Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk and Benghazi, had come to a crashing end after mid-February 1941 when the German Army landed in Tripolitania. ‘I had certainly not budgeted for Rommel after my experience with the Italians,’ Wavell said ruefully years afterwards.

Churchill had been furious when Wavell drew up a ‘Worst Possible Case’ Plan for withdrawing the British Army from Egypt altogether. ‘Wavell has 400,000 men,’ the Prime Minister blustered. ‘If they lose Egypt, blood will flow. I will have firing parties to shoot the generals.’28 Wavell never tried to shift the blame on to other shoulders; when finally he was packed off to be commander-in-chief in India on 22 June 1941 he bore the humiliation stoically, perhaps even welcoming it, and agreed with Churchill’s telegram that said ‘a new hand and a new eye’, in the shape of General Sir Claude Auchinleck, were required.

The story was not entirely woeful for Britain throughout the Middle East in the spring and summer of 1941. Between April and August, the British had acted decisively in three important areas – Iraq, Syria and Iran – to protect and guarantee her all-important oil supplies for what turned out to be the rest of the war. ‘The campaigns were not large,’ writes their historian, ‘they were conducted without much fanfare and each with laughably limited resources… but they were crucial for Britain’s survival.’29 Although the (still neutral) United States produced 83 per cent of the world’s oil in 1941, and the Middle East only 5 per cent, American oil had to be shipped over the submarine-infested Atlantic and had to be paid for in Britain’s rapidly diminishing hard currency. The 8.6 million tons of Iranian and 4.3 million tons of Iraqi oil that fuelled Britain’s ships and tanks each year did not.

Worth more than hard currency, however, were the agreements that Churchill and Roosevelt came to at their momentous meeting, codenamed Riviera, at Placentia Bay, off the village of Argentia in south-east Newfoundland from 9 to 12 August 1941. Churchill arrived in the 35,000-ton battleship HMS Prince of Wales and Roosevelt in the heavy cruiser USS Augusta and their conversations set the (very wide) parameters for Anglo-American co-operation for the next three years of the conflict. Before the United States entered the war, the Roosevelt Administration had afforded Britain invaluable help, and Placentia Bay was to see this greatly increased. As well as allowing Britain to buy much-needed arms and other vital supplies under the Lend-Lease system, the United States Navy had given the Royal Navy fifty destroyers in return for long leases on various British military bases in September 1940, and had also begun patrolling areas of the Western Atlantic against U-boats in such a way that had led to several clashes, usually to the Germans’ cost. Yet at Placentia Bay this spirit of help and co-operation was massively extended, aided by an instantly good personal rapport that sprang up between Roosevelt and Churchill, who had not seen one another since an inauspicious meeting in 1918 (an occasion that Churchill had forgotten all about anyway).30

As well as agreeing that, in the event of having to fight against Germany and Japan simultaneously, Britain and the United States would concentrate on defeating Germany first, a crucial consideration for the hard-pressed British, on 12 August Roosevelt and Churchill signed what was soon afterwards dubbed the Atlantic Charter by the Daily Herald of London. This succeeded in putting eight Anglo-American war aims into a single, stirring declaration, one that emphasized the democratic, progressive values for which so many people were fighting and dying. By the following January it had been signed by twenty-four more countries.

The preamble announced that the two leaders, ‘being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world’. It then stated that Britain and America ‘seek no aggrandisement, territorial or other’, ‘desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned’, ‘respect the rights of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.’ There were five other such principles, covering economic collaboration, political liberty, ‘freedom from fear and want’, access to the world’s oceans and ‘the abandonment of the use of force’. Several of these were frankly utopian, and were to be flagrantly ignored as the nations of eastern Europe fell into the Soviet maw in 1945, but in 1941 they provided an idealistic basis that set the Second World War apart from the dynastic, commercial and territorial conflicts of the past.

In April 1941 a military coup in Iraq brought to power the Anglophobic General Rashid Ali, whose ‘government of national defence’ declared independence and besieged the British garrison in the Habbaniya air base on the Euphrates on 2 May. The commander of the flying school there, Air Vice-Marshal Harry Smart, fought off the attack after three days, and a column from Transjordan captured Baghdad at the end of the month. Rashid Ali escaped to Iran and was replaced by a pro-British regent. Next it was Vichy-controlled Syria’s turn, which had agreed to supply Rashid Ali with German arms during the uprising. Along with the Free French, British forces attacked on 8 June, and by an armistice agreed only weeks later on 5 July established the right to occupy Syria for the rest of the war. The balance of power in the region had shifted dramatically on 22 June 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia and Churchill automatically declared Britain to be in alliance with the USSR. After the Iranian Government had refused an Anglo-Soviet demand to expel German agents from the country, the two powers invaded on 25 August, after which nationalist resistance collapsed in less than a week. The Shah was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, and British and Russian troops occupied Teheran on 17 September. Although Iraq, Syria and Iran thenceforth stayed firmly in the Allied camp for the rest of the war, with all that that implied for British oil supplies, there is no doubt that had Egypt fallen to Rommel there was very little that Britain could have done to protect her gains there.

With Tobruk still holding out behind him, and being resupplied by sea and air, Rommel could not push on further east until it fell, so the Afrika Korps sat out a long hot summer besieging it, until campaigning could be resumed when the weather cooled in November 1941. Meanwhile Churchill directed on to Auchinleck the ceaseless telegrams calling for the relief of Tobruk that Wavell had so long endured. The Prime Minister also wanted airfields established that could protect the air route between Alexandria and Malta. Auchinleck, by contrast, was more interested in protecting the Nile Valley and securing the vital oil sources of the Persian Gulf. Only once the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian operations were finished successfully would he contemplate action, telegraphing Churchill on 4 July: ‘No further offensive [in the] Western Desert should be contemplated until base is secure.’31 It was not what Churchill wanted to hear.

Campaigning did not therefore start again until the night of Monday, 17 November, with the opening of Operation Crusader, the largest armoured offensive the British had launched to date. There was a serious risk involved; Michael Carver recalled that some of Auchinleck’s tanks were so infirm that they had to be carried to the battle on transporters.32 Nonetheless, in the intervening four months the Commonwealth’s Eighth Army, which had been constituted in September 1941 from the Western Desert Force and reinforcements, had been enlarged to two corps and the attack took Rommel by surprise. Debouching from Mersa Matruh, the British were checked in the desert tank battle of Sidi-Rezegh from 19 to 22 November, and a sortie from Tobruk was also repulsed. German tanks were simply better than British ones at that stage of the war, something the Chiefs of Staff privately and reluctantly accepted. The man who took over as chief of the Imperial General Staff on 1 December, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote to ‘My dear Auk’ – the nickname was apposite considering Auchinleck’s beaky appearance – admitting that ‘One of the fundamental defects that requires remedying is the lack of gun-power of our tanks. We are doing all we can to get the six-pounder in as quickly as possible… I can promise you we shall do all we can to press on with the 6-pounders.’33 In March Churchill called for a special War Office inquiry to investigate why he had not received a report on how to counter the 4½-pound projectiles that German tanks could fire. In the course of a War Cabinet Defence Committee discussion, Brooke said that two defects had developed in the Cruiser tank, in the fan-belt drive and the lubrication system, although the necessary spares and equipment were being flown out.34

Although Rommel counter-attacked, even sending part of his force on a wide flanking movement towards Egypt, Auchinleck’s nerve held, and by Sunday, 7 December the Afrika Korps was forced west of Tobruk, which was relieved that day. It was a significant moment, but entirely overshadowed in history by the attack on Pearl Harbor on the same date. The Eighth Army, by then commanded by General Ritchie, forced Rommel all the way across Cyrenaica back to El Agheila by the end of the year. Just as events in Yugoslavia had forced Wavell to denude the Western Desert of troops, so the spectacular entry of Japan into the war cost Auchinleck his two excellent Australian Divisions, the 7th and 9th, which the Australian Government demanded be sent back to defend their homeland.

January 1942 saw the Afrika Korps and Eighth Army facing each other at El Agheila. The Axis had lost 24,500 killed and wounded since the launch of Crusader and 36,500 captured (mainly Italians), to British Commonwealth losses of 18,000. Rommel attacked on 21 January, capturing Benghazi and large quantities of stores, before the two lines settled down between 4 February and 28 May at Gazala. The British mined the 40-mile Gazala–Bir Hacheim Line, their 125,000 men, 740 tanks and 700 aircraft outnumbering Rommel’s 113,000 men, 570 tanks and 500 aircraft – but being Rommel it was always likely he would attack next.35

The fighting in the desert, partly because there were fewer opportunities for German atrocities against civilians, has been considered more ‘gentlemanly’ than that in Europe, especially on the Eastern Front. An aspect of this was witnessed in February 1942 when the former commander of the Afrika Korps’ 21st Panzer Division, Lieutenant-General Johann von Ravenstein, who had been captured by New Zealanders the previous November, wrote to Major-General Jock Campbell to express ‘the greatest admiration’ for his 7th Armoured Division and to avow that ‘The German comrades congratulate you with warm heart on the award of the Victoria Cross. During the war your enemy, but with high respect, Von Ravenstein’.36

Rommel’s offensive against the Gazala Line on 28 May inaugurated three weeks of heavy fighting. Carver later calculated that between 27 May and 1 July he averaged two and a half hours of sleep in every twenty-four.37 On 31 May the Italians broke through the minefield and, despite coming under heavy attack from the RAF, on 13 June Panzers took a strategic crossroads nicknamed Knightsbridge. ‘Messervy’s unfortunate experiences in the Gazala battles illustrate the typical difficulties of a desert commander,’ recalled Carver of the commander of the 7th Armoured Division, Major-General Frank Messervy. ‘When he stayed with his headquarters, it was overrun; when he left it, he was ignominiously forced to seek refuge down a well.’38 Rommel now threatened the Eighth Army’s rear and, after the Free French had evacuated Bir Hacheim on the night of 10 June, Ritchie had no choice but to withdraw to Halfaya on the Egyptian border, once more leaving Tobruk behind to be besieged. This time, however, the day after the British reached Halfaya on 20 June, Tobruk fell to the Afrika Korps’ concerted ground and air attacks, in one of the greatest blows to befall British arms in the Second World War. Churchill was in Washington at the time conferring with President Roosevelt (who actually handed him the note containing the news of Tobruk) and General Marshall, and on his return had to face a restive House of Commons. He won the vote, but was under no illusions about how long he would last if the string of defeats continued. It is sometimes forgotten that, despite Churchill’s inspiring leadership in the Second World War, defeats such as Greece, Crete, Singapore and now Tobruk caused him serious political worries even as late as mid-1942.

Although the RAF had established local air superiority, helped as in the battle of Britain by the fact that its bases were far closer to the front line than the over-extended German ones, Rommel’s Staff officers were soon planning which hotels in Cairo they would stay in, and which they would take over as their headquarters. Before they could relax, visit the Pyramids and bask in the Cairo sunshine, all they had to do was get past a small railway station about 60 miles west of Alexandria, set in hundreds of miles of absolutely nothing, called El Alamein. It lay in the shortest line of defence between the sea and the Qattara Depression only 40 miles inland from the Mediterranean, which closed off to Rommel any southern flanking movement. It was also the last line of British defence before the Suez Canal.

With the Alamein Line between the sea and the Depression forming the perfect defensive position for Auchinleck, Rommel should not have attacked on 1 July, but he did so because of the recent British defeat and perceived British demoralization, and because he succumbed to the lure of Cairo. The Afrika Korps was exhausted as well as over-extended, and after a counter-attack by Auchinleck on 2 July the rest of the month was spent in an inconclusive slogging match with neither side giving ground. At the beginning of August, the two sides settled down for the summer. Rommel constructed a massive minefield – a sure sign of the onset of defensive-mindedness – while the British brought up proportionately much greater quantities of supplies. In early August Auchinleck, who Churchill and Brooke had concluded was insufficiently offensive-minded, was replaced by General Sir Harold Alexander as commander-in-chief and Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery as commander of Eighth Army. The scene was thus set for the second battle of El Alamein in the autumn. Rommel could not have known it, but the capture of Tobruk was to be the greatest, but almost the last, victory of his career.

‘If we speak of soil in Europe today,’ Hitler had written in Mein Kampf of land that he believed Germany needed for Lebensraum, ‘we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.’39 He had been drawn into Yugoslavia and Greece in April and May 1941, which were not Russian border states, and had bailed out his militarily bankrupt junior partner and ally Mussolini in North Africa, while leaving the British unconquered in the west. So far the cost to him had been trifling in south-east Europe and the Mediterranean, and the propaganda effect of further effortless victories was welcome, but that did not alter the fact that he had departed from the important strategic principle of concentration. This did not matter so much in 1941, but it certainly did when events started to go awry in his next great campaign. This adventure was to dwarf everything that had taken place in the war so far, indeed in any war in the history of mankind, before or since.

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