The War in North Africa 1942

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The start of 1942 found Rommel back where he had started from in March 1941. However, the same problem that had afflicted him after his advance the previous year – logistical overstretch – was now a British problem. He was back near the source of his supplies, Tripoli, while the British were a long way from theirs, and Benghazi was too damaged to serve and was in range of Rommel’s dive-bombers. The British once again needed to transfer troops elsewhere: not to Greece this time, but to their crumbling position in the Far East. When Rommel launched a counter-attack, therefore, the British were pushed back in their turn, as far as the Gazala–Bir Hacheim line, which they had fortified. The battle of Gazala was one of the toughest of the Desert War. The British had learnt much about desert fighting, but Rommel’s boldness again paid off as he led a thrust deep into the British position. Meanwhile the Free French on the flank were beaten at Bir Hacheim by German and Italian units, which then swept on to help Rommel in ‘the cauldron’. On 14 June Auchinleck withdrew to a better position at Alam Halfa, where the impassable Qattara Depression protects the flank.

Tobruk was once again left as a fortress behind the enemy lines – but this time it fell quickly, on 21 June, the defences having been neglected since the breakout the previous November. Churchill, in Washington, was deeply distressed, but received in recompense a promise of supplies of the new American Sherman tank from Roosevelt. Churchill desperately needed a victory, and travelled to the Middle East in August to shake things up. Auchinleck was replaced with Alexander, and to command the 8th Army, Churchill brought General Montgomery out from England, a man with a reputation for tough fighting and efficiency. He also had a way with the troops, and from the beginning the morale of the 8th Army stiffened. It needed to, for Rommel launched a probing offensive on 31 August. This time they held firm.

Montgomery began meticulously to build up his forces; he resisted Churchillian urgings to attack until he was fully ready. Desert Air Force attacks on convoys to Tripoli had inflicted severe losses of fuel on Rommel, and the material balance, with a flow of new material coming in to Egypt via the Cape route, shifted decisively in the British favour. Montgomery had 11 divisions to Rommel’s ten, with 1,030 tanks (including the 250 Shermans) and 500 guns. Six of Rommel’s divisions were Italian, and their morale was low from past defeats. He decided to ‘corset’ these units with German ones to try and prevent the Italian parts of the line being points of weakness.

Montgomery was intent on destroying Panzerarmee Afrika, rather than just pushing them back, and fought the battle of Alamein as a grinding infantry/artillery battle, rather than one of mobile tank warfare, which he saw the Germans did much better than the British. After a week of heavy fighting, 8th Army drove two ‘corridors’ through the enemy, reducing German tank strength to 35. Rommel was refused permission to retreat by Hitler, and reinforced the corridor on the coastal road, but Montgomery knew from Ultra that he was doing so and attacked through the southern corridor. By the afternoon of 4 November, 7th and 10th Armoured Divisions had destroyed the Italian Ariete Division and was in Panzerarmee Afrika’s rear. Rommel ordered a full-scale retreat. Montgomery pursued slowly, hamstrung by the weather, but also determined not to give Afrika Korps the chance of using their mobility to reverse the result of El Alamein. His forces nearly caught them at Fuka, and the Desert Air Force harried them all the way back to Tripoli. 8th Army losses at Alamein were 13,500 killed or wounded: about 25 per cent of its infantry. Rommel had only 80 tanks left, and had lost 40,000 killed, wounded or taken captive.

On 8 November Operation Torch had begun. Contacts were made with sympathetic Frenchmen in North Africa prior to the landings, but led to nothing and there was some opposition when the troops went ashore at Algiers, Oran and Casablanca. The French would not follow Giraud, whom the Allies had wished to take charge, but Admiral Darlan, Vichy commander-in-chief, was in Algiers, and he changed sides and ordered an armistice on 8 November. The Allies swiftly took possession of the coasts of Morocco and Algeria, though creating a political problem for themselves in doing a deal with a man so recently a collaborator with the Nazis.

Hitler’s response was typically swift. The Allies had landed too far west, allowing him to despatch reinforcements to Tunisia, including the first batch of the new Tiger tank. He occupied the southern part of France on 11 November (failing, though, to capture the French fleet at Toulon), and from there the 334th, Hermann Göring and 10th Panzer Divisions headed to Tunis and Bizerta, arriving from 16 November and forming 5th Panzer Army. Allied hopes after the landings and the victory at Alamein that North Africa would easily fall into their hands were replaced with the prospect of a hard campaign.

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The war was fought in North Africa, primarily in the rocky desert plain of Cyrenaica, modern day Libya. From the coast of North Africa extending inland lies a raised, flat plain of stoney hard desert that runs 200 to 300 km in depth until the great dunes of the Sahara are reached. The war was largely fought in this region. Traversed by the nomadic Bedoins, the region is sparsely populated. The ground is a flat, hard scrabble with little or no cover, and difficult for infantry to dig into. Conditions in the desert were harsh: miserably hot during the day, while temperatures dropped precipitously at night. The great coats of the German soldier were not discarded, nor were scarfs, which were used not only for the cold of the desert night, but for the sand storms that were frequent and blinding. Sand storms made flying impossible, and travel by land difficult. Navigation was by compass, and each man had one. It was easy to become lost in the desert, and hard to be found again. The sand storms could last from a few hours to several days at a time. Sand would creep into everything, and was very hard on equipment. Replacement parts were essential. Trucks were fitted with special oil filters. Aircraft had heavily modified air intakes fitted. British built trucks were more rugged and durable in the desert than German or Italian vehicles. At times, as much as 85% of the transport in the Africa Korps was British built. Of course, this meant that spare parts for the trucks the Germans were using were hard to come by. To fight an armoured war in the desert, the two essential provisions were fuel and water. Neither of these were readily available. They had to be brought forward to the combat units, and husbanded carefully. Only the Bedoins knew where to dig in the desert for water. Beyond these difficulties, the hardest thing for the men to deal with were the flies. The millions of flies got into everything, could not be escaped and got into the food stores, making eating difficult. They also carried disease. Illness amongst the Afrika Korps was a major issue. On the British side, a variety of foods were supplied in tins. For the Germans, food was monotonous and available unevenly. Between the disease, the unvaried diet and the strain of combat, soldiers in the Axis camp typically became quite thin.

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