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Bomb Damage at Mersa Matruh, late 1942

Bomb Damage at Mersa Matruh, late 1942

Bomb Damage at Mersa Matruh, late 1942

Here we see the damage caused by Allied bombing at Mersa Matruh, with the most damage nearest to the harbour. The picture was taken in the second half of 1942, when the port was in Axis hands (North African Campaign)

Siege of Tobruk

The siege of Tobruk lasted for 241 days in 1941, after Axis forces advanced through Cyrenaica from El Agheila in Operation Sonnenblume against Allied forces in Libya, during the Western Desert Campaign (1940–1943) of the Second World War. In late 1940, the Allies had defeated the Italian 10th Army during Operation Compass (9 December 1940 – 9 February 1941) and trapped the remnants at Beda Fomm. During early 1941, much of the Western Desert Force (WDF) was sent to the Greek and Syrian campaigns. As German troops and Italian reinforcements reached Libya, only a skeleton Allied force remained, short of equipment and supplies.

United Kingdom


  • Italian Libya

Operation Sonnenblume (6 February – 25 May 1941), forced the Allies into a retreat to the Egyptian border. A garrison, consisting mostly of the 9th Australian Division (Lieutenant-General Leslie Morshead) remained at Tobruk, to deny the port to the Axis, while the WDF reorganised and prepared a counter-offensive. The Axis siege of Tobruk began on 10 April, when the port was attacked by a force under Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel and continued during three relief attempts, Operation Brevity (15–16 May), Operation Battleaxe (15–17 June) and Operation Crusader (18 November – 30 December). The occupation of Tobruk deprived the Axis of a supply port closer to the Egypt–Libya border than Benghazi, 560 mi (900 km) west of the Egyptian frontier, which was within the range of RAF bombers Tripoli was 930 mi (1,500 km) to the west in Tripolitania.

The siege diverted Axis troops from the frontier and the Tobruk garrison repulsed several Axis attacks. The port was frequently bombarded by artillery, dive-bombers and medium bombers, as the RAF flew defensive sorties from airfields far away in Egypt. Allied naval forces, such as the British Mediterranean Fleet (including the Inshore Squadron) ran the blockade, carrying reinforcements and supplies in and wounded and prisoners out. On 27 November, Tobruk was relieved by the Eighth Army (which controlled British and other Allied ground forces in the Western Desert from September 1941) in Operation Crusader.

WI: Barbarossa delayed, Soviets attack Germany in 1942

Pardon? If you mean what do they do then they attack Egypt. I think the Germans would send 3rd and 7th Panzer divisions ITTL and later a motorized division. Rommel already knew 7th Panzer and 3rd Panzer contributed it's Panzer regiment IOTL to form 5th light division, but with no Barbarossa there is no reason not to send the division. Supporting them would probably be Kesselring's 2nd air fleet as they did in 1942, but ITTL without Barbarossa it isn't needed for Russia in 1941. The Balkans campaign and Greece can happen as per OTL. Except another air fleet would be based in the Aegean after Crete is seized instead of moving X. Fliegerkorps there away from Malta. Without moving Luftwaffe bombers off of Malta in May 1941 then Malta falls in June due to the supply situation the Brits had written it off and refused to send any ships to supply it as it was too risky with the German anti-shipping air unit was in Sicily once it left they could send more fighters and fix up the airfields and send modern fighters and radar. The Malta because a fortress and offensive base. Instead with full Luftwaffe commitment Malta surrenders in June due to unremitting bombing and Royal Navy refusal to send supply ships. That means Rommel doesn't start experiencing the supply famine from July 1941 on, so can assault Torbuk in August at the latest. Then they can rip up British forces on the Libyan-Egyptian border before they can build up for Operation Crusader.

Thanks to no Malta, plus Crete as an offensive base and a weaker British force with even less experience and no way for the Brits to risk a convoy through the Central Mediterranean to Egypt with AFV reinforcements as per OTL (Tiger Convoys) means that Rommel can take Egypt before the end of 1941 and threaten to open a Middle Eastern Front. The Aegean air bases can be used to really hurt the Brits, especially if Rommel is on the Nile Delta and canal, preventing British supplies from reaching Cyprus and Palestine via the Red Sea. That means an even longer detour to Basra in the Persian Gulf and then shipments by rail from Iraq to Palestine. The Mediterranean Fleet for the Royal Navy would base out of Cyprus if Alexandria fell (their OTL plan in 1942), which means it is trapped and can even be attacked by air from Rhodes and Crete. So come 1942 the Germans might well be deep in the Middle East with major forces so when a Soviet attack comes they can't pull Rommel out, they have to leave him and remove half of any Luftwaffe units in the Mediterranean. Of course if Egypt falls only 1 German air fleet would be needed in the Eastern Mediterranean to support him, rather than one in Sicily and one in Greece. Italy could handle the Central Mediterranean once Malta fell. Britain might be on the edge of making peace if it had not already due to the loss of Egypt and threat to the Middle East.


Deleted member 1487


Pardon? If you mean what do they do then they attack Egypt. I think the Germans would send 3rd and 7th Panzer divisions ITTL and later a motorized division. Rommel already knew 7th Panzer and 3rd Panzer contributed it's Panzer regiment IOTL to form 5th light division, but with no Barbarossa there is no reason not to send the division. Supporting them would probably be Kesselring's 2nd air fleet as they did in 1942, but ITTL without Barbarossa it isn't needed for Russia in 1941. The Balkans campaign and Greece can happen as per OTL. Except another air fleet would be based in the Aegean after Crete is seized instead of moving X. Fliegerkorps there away from Malta. Without moving Luftwaffe bombers off of Malta in May 1941 then Malta falls in June due to the supply situation the Brits had written it off and refused to send any ships to supply it as it was too risky with the German anti-shipping air unit was in Sicily once it left they could send more fighters and fix up the airfields and send modern fighters and radar. The Malta because a fortress and offensive base. Instead with full Luftwaffe commitment Malta surrenders in June due to unremitting bombing and Royal Navy refusal to send supply ships. That means Rommel doesn't start experiencing the supply famine from July 1941 on, so can assault Torbuk in August at the latest. Then they can rip up British forces on the Libyan-Egyptian border before they can build up for Operation Crusader.

Thanks to no Malta, plus Crete as an offensive base and a weaker British force with even less experience and no way for the Brits to risk a convoy through the Central Mediterranean to Egypt with AFV reinforcements as per OTL (Tiger Convoys) means that Rommel can take Egypt before the end of 1941 and threaten to open a Middle Eastern Front. The Aegean air bases can be used to really hurt the Brits, especially if Rommel is on the Nile Delta and canal, preventing British supplies from reaching Cyprus and Palestine via the Red Sea. That means an even longer detour to Basra in the Persian Gulf and then shipments by rail from Iraq to Palestine. The Mediterranean Fleet for the Royal Navy would base out of Cyprus if Alexandria fell (their OTL plan in 1942), which means it is trapped and can even be attacked by air from Rhodes and Crete. So come 1942 the Germans might well be deep in the Middle East with major forces so when a Soviet attack comes they can't pull Rommel out, they have to leave him and remove half of any Luftwaffe units in the Mediterranean. Of course if Egypt falls only 1 German air fleet would be needed in the Eastern Mediterranean to support him, rather than one in Sicily and one in Greece. Italy could handle the Central Mediterranean once Malta fell. Britain might be on the edge of making peace if it had not already due to the loss of Egypt and threat to the Middle East.

Deleted member 1487


Those 800K were called up only a month in advance of Barbarossa, took a month to reach their formations, and then Barbarossa immediately broke out. There was no time to do remedial training. ITTL, there will be about a month. More if Stalin decides for extra preparation time.

They'll certainly be better equipped then the OTL 1941 reservist formations. Even if their given the hand-me-downs of equipment being phased out of the standing army, that will still leave them better equipped then they were OTL '41 when all that equipment was largely destroyed along the border.

Direct attack would be disruptive, but unless immediately followed up by ground assault would deal little damage against the better trained and psychologically prepared Soviet forces. Interdiction of supply lines would be more significant, but the Luftwaffe in that mission would be inhibited in that by the improved VVS and Soviet air defenses. They'll contribute, but the most critical aspect will be German ground forces.

In all likelihood, the Soviets won't make it to the Vistula. Their remaining tactical defaults and the fact they'll still be facing the bulk of German combat forces means the Germans will be able to effectively absorb the blow and halt the Soviet spearheads at a very shallow depth.

Uncertain. A prototype had been completed and there were tentative plans to conduct, but I don't know.

More a cruder, premature King Tiger. I do agree that it probably wouldn't matter all that much.

1,400 T-34Ms by May 1942. I don't know how production ramp-up and switch-over would affect that, so eh. I'll throw a dart and say

6,500 T-34s and KV-1/2s. The remaining gaps in the TO&E would probably be filled in by BT-7Ms and T-50s until more T-34Ms coming off the assembly line. The T-26s, early-series BTs, T-28s, A-30/32s, and so-on likely get shoved into reservist and training formations.

Deleted member 1487

Those 800K were called up only a month in advance of Barbarossa, took a month to reach their formations, and then Barbarossa immediately broke out. There was no time to do remedial training. ITTL, there will be about a month. More if Stalin decides for extra preparation time.

They'll certainly be better equipped then the OTL 1941 reservist formations. Even if their given the hand-me-downs of equipment being phased out of the standing army, that will still leave them better equipped then they were OTL '41 when all that equipment was largely destroyed along the border.

Its a minor point not really worth quibbling over, those reserves would have a combat value much less than standing troops built up over 1941, with worse equipment and be used for flank guards and replacements for existing units.

The Soviet 1942 offensive would be like a bigger, bloodier 2nd Kharkov with worse results for the Soviets. The Luftwaffe was a critical element of shattering that and with the fight on German turf they will have a massive advantage in the air thanks to pre-war German airbases, excellent supply lines, FLAK and radar networks, and poor Soviet power projection abilities.

Agreed, but perhaps the Germans will draw them in to deepen the pockets and make the riposte more damaging.

1,400 T-34Ms by May 1942. I don't know how production ramp-up and switch-over would affect that, so eh. I'll throw a dart and say

6,500 T-34s and KV-1/2s. The remaining gaps in the TO&E would probably be filled in by BT-7Ms and T-50s until more T-34Ms coming off the assembly line. The T-26s, early-series BTs, T-28s, A-30/32s, and so-on likely get shoved into reservist and training formations.

We've already been over the major problems in van Creweld's 'analysis' of the logistics of north africa. It isn't worth the paper it is printed on because he gets very basic facts wrong about Axis port capacity and how much damage Malta had done to Axis shipping. He states maximum capacities for Axis port in Libya and totally ignored the month of June 1941 when those very ports took in double what he said was their absolute maximum.
This book even specifically calls out his errors and provided numbers refuting a number of his claims:

Also in 1942 Egypt was invaded by a larger force than Rommel had in 1941 based on the equipment and supplies he captured at Tobruk in 1942 when he takes Toburk in 1941, which is a given once Malta falls without X. Fliegerkorps diverting to Greece, then he gets a huge bonanza of supplies and vehicles. Neither the Italians in early 1941 nor the Brits in 1942 managed to destroy the port or their supplies and British defenses in Egypt are much weaker in 1941 than in 1942, they have less effective AFVs, and far less experience against Rommel. Egypt falling in 1941 is much more likely and in fact probable in 1941 if Malta wasn't a problem.


But higher then they did OTL 1941, which is all they need to halt the Germans when they move into the USSR.

They'd be used as a reserve. They'd be slotted in behind the frontline armies.

Not likely. The improvements to the Red Army and shallow penetrations means that when the Germans move onto the counter-attack, many of them will likely escape. They'll rout the Soviets, but a "bigger, bloodier 2nd Kharkov" is a gross underestimation of the ITTL Red Army.

Which is nice, except in order to interdict Soviet supply lines they have to go over Soviet territory and fight the VVS there.

Unlikely. The Germans weren't ever very inclined to let the Soviets in.

Except no? As I pointed out the last time we went over it and the last time you cited that book:

"Even without an offensive, however, Rommel's demand for a second division had already jeopardized his supplies. Together with the Italians, the Axis force in Libya now totalled seven divisions which, when air force and naval units were added, required 70,000 tons per month." - Page 185.

He then notes that the addition of a third German division in 1942 and the attendant logistical support then jacked up the requirements to around a monthly of 100,000 tons (page 194). Given that according to the Germans (specifically, Rommel's) own estimates, they would have needed a further two-to-four panzer divisions to successfully take Alexandria (page 195) that actually gives us a good basis for supposing what the minimum demand would have been (a minimum which ignores that the logistical requirements scaled more exponentially then linearly due to the poor infrastructure of the region): 160,000-220,000 tons of supplies. Or 10,000-60,000 tons more then what you yourself have been saying the Italians ever managed to even embark.

Which is mostly in line with Crewald's statement of an "average of 72,000 tons" monthly for the July to October period.

Oh, so your saying that Crewald actually underestimated Axis demand? I hardly see how this helps your position given that it increases the numbers above.

Not to mention this is all still about the number of supplies getting from ports in Italy to ports in North Africa and doesn't address at all the issue of getting those supplies from the ports in North Africa to the frontline along the Libyan-Egyptian border.

Deleted member 1487

Reserve units yes, reserve manpower gets used for all sorts of roles, including replacements, which is effectively how the Soviets used them during the war once they had enough units created.

Depends on how shallow the penetration, but the mess of the Soviet CiC system on the attack out of the poor logistics of East Poland, improper doctrine and structure (especially the lack of trucks in the MC), the rail gauge change over, etc. will make them highly vulnerable on the attack. Plus unlike OTL May 1942 that Soviets lack a wealth of experience attacking German forces and none had ever attacked the Germans on their own pre-war turf at that stage in the war.

Up to the Vistula there was nothing worth holding except East Prussia, which will be held tooth and nail, but Zhukov's thrust will mainly be in South Poland where terrain highly favors the defenders, especially the more west you let them. Plus at this point Hitler has no experience with 'Stand Fast' orders for him to base his plan on not giving ground.

Yes and your reply was and is still rubbish and contradicted by the information in the book. In June 1941 IOTL all the ports in Libya in Axis hands, pretty much just Benghazi and Tripoli, took in over 125k tons. Malta cut that down in July and bottomed it out in late 1941 at something like 30k tons. Malta would fall in June 1941 without the Luftwaffe moving their support to Greece (unnecessary in this scenario due to the entire Luftwaffe being available to the Mediterranean), which means the July offensive against Axis shipping doesn't happen. Plus Crete would be an offensive air base against Egypt by June-July and the Eastern Mediterranean become 'bomb alley' as it was in 1942. So historically nearly double the 70k ton needs you mention would be available. The book I cited specifically breaks down needs for civilians in Africa too, stating that June 1941 import totals actually exceeded total needs in Libya (military and civilian) by 25k tons and gave Rommel the surplus he needed to build up to attack Tobruk in August. Taking Tobruk and it's supply bonanza (as per OTL in 1942) would then open up yet another port for Rommel close to the front, which means Bardia and Derna also become options. ITTL the USAAF and RAF don't have heavy bombers operating out of Egypt and Palestine against Rommel's ports either, so his supply situation is infinitely better than in 1942 and of course 1941 with Malta out of the way, while he is further aided by Crete becoming an offensive air base and allow the staging of convoys via Greece as per OTL in 1942.

In 1941 Rommel didn't need an additional 2-4 Panzer divisions, the Rommel Papers specifically said that would be the requirement for an effort in 1943! In 1941 the Italian units, 2 panzer divisions, and 1 motorized infantry division were enough to attack and take Egypt once Tobruk had fallen, as he had smashed up British relief offensives in June-July and left them weakened enough that he had the room to take Tobruk, take those supplies and open that port and then turn on Egypt where a passive Western Desert Force stood waiting for reinforcements that didn't come until October. They were extremely vulnerable to attack between August-October, but Malta destroyed Rommel's supply lines IOTL, so he was never able to accumulate supplies enough to make the effort and burned through his stockpiles started in June to maintain his position until Crusader kicked him back to Tripoli in December. Rolling over the British forces on the Egyptian-Libyan border would yield even more supplies, as it did in 1942 when he rolled over them at Mersa Matruh after taking Tobruk and using those supplies to invade Egypt. The thing is there are no reserves left in Egypt for the Brits to bring up at El Alamein in 1941, reinforcements weren't there until October thanks to the delayed trip around South Africa to the Red Sea. So Rommel had a golden opportunity to seize Egypt in 1941 if he invaded in August-September after seizing Tobruk.

IOTL in 1941 they did, Rommel had a surplus in June that was being built up and if supplies didn't increase after Malta fell, just stayed near June numbers, then he'd have more than enough to attack Tobruk and take it in early August. OTL supply system to Torbuk worked just fine before Malta killed what was actually coming into Libya the problem in 1941 was getting it to port, not from the port to the front.

IOTL in 1942 he was 60 miles away at El Alamein. In 1941 the Brits are weaker and don't have a reserve once he rolls over the forces left the Egyptian-Libyan border. Those didn't arrive until October. He had inflicted such damage in the border fighting in July that they were passive until those reinforcements came. In combat the British were even more inept in 1941 than they were in 1942 and had weaker tanks and other weapons, so Rommel had a much better chance in 1941 than in 1942 after taking Tobruk. It wasn't just captured stuff from Tobruk, it was also the stuff he got IOTL in 1942 when he rolled over British forces at Mersa Matruh on the way to Alamein, but ITTL that fight will happen to the West at the border, which is easier for Rommel actually. Then convoys, without Malta to worry about and covered by the Luftwaffe out of Crete, can stage out of Greece and Italy to drop supplies at Torbruk, Bardia, and Mersa Matruh when he gets there (it had a port), plus air lift supplies out of Crete (also done in 1942). He also can capture them from British units he'd overrun on the way as he did historically in 1942. He doesn't have to source supplies from Tripoli or Benghazi (though both would have a lot more intake without the 1942 heavy bomber offensive from Palestine).

Logistically his best chance was in 1941 and the Brits were far less prepared to stop him then than in 1942.

Thursday, 4 December

Destroyers ECLIPSE and FURY departed Scapa Flow at 1200 for the Humber to refit at Hull and Immingham, respectively. The destroyers arrived in the Humberat 1410/5th.


German steamer EDITH FAULBAUM (1318grt) was sunk on a mine off Warnermunde.


Submarine TRUSTY sank Italian steamer ERIDANO (3586grt) off Argistoli.


Italian submarine GUGLIEMO MARCONI was declared lost after failing to return from a patrol in the Atlantic . Some sources suggest the submarine was sunk in error in November by U.67, but this is not possible.


Destroyers JERVIS, HERO, and HAVOCK departed Alexandria to patrol off Derna. The destroyers returned to Alexandria during the night of 5/6December.


Gunboat APHIS bombarded Derna - Tobruk road early on the 4th.


Convoy AT.2 departed Alexandria for Tobruk. The slow section was two store ships and three landing ship tanks A lighters, escorted by sloops YARRA and FLAMINGO and two anti-submarine trawlers departing at 1600. The fast section was armed boarding vessel CHANTALA and steamer CRISTA (2590grt) and WOLBOROUGH (459grt), escorted by destroyers HEYTHROP and AVONVALE and one anti-submarine trawler departing a short time after the slow section. The convoys arrived at Tobruk on the 6th. The sloops proceeded to carry out an anti-submarine sweep in the area.


Destroyers SIKH, ZULU, HIGHLANDER, and HESPERUS arrived at Gibraltar from Londonderry .


Submarine P.31 arrived at Malta from patrol off Colonne.


Convoy SC.58 departed Sydney, CB, escorted by corvettes DRUMHELLER, KAMSACK, SHAWNIGAN, and SUMMERSIDE and minesweeper THUNDER. These escorts were detached on the 6th when the convoy was joined by destroyer ST LAURENT and corvettes BUCTOUCHE, HEPATICA, MOOSE JAW, NASTURTIUM, PICTOU, and WINDFLOWER. Corvette WINDFLOWER was lost in a collision on the 7th and corvette NASTURTIUM was detached. The remaining escorts were detached on the 15th when relieved by destroyers BROKE and WATCHMAN and corvettes CAMELLIA and MONTBRETIA. Destroyer BROKE was detached on the 16th, corvette CAMELLIA on the 18th, destroyer WATCHMAN on the 19th, and corvette MONTBRETIA on the 20th. The convoy arrived at Liverpool on the 21st.


Convoy ST.10 departed Freetown, escorted by destroyer WILD SWAN, sloop BRIDGEWATER, and corvettes CLOVER, FREESIA, and NIGELLA. The convoy arrived at Takoradi on the 9th.


Steamer ELLENGA departed Singapore with one naval and one hundred and sixty three miltary personnel. She called at Penang where she embarked three RIN and ninety five military personnel. Light cruiser DANAE escorted the steamer to 81E. Steamer ELLENGA continued unescorted and arrived at Madras on the 14th.


Destroyer EXPRESS departed Singapore.


Eighteen Japanese transports departed Hainan with 26,640 troops for the Malaya landings. The transports were escorted by the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla with light cruiser SENDAI, destroyers MURAKUMO, SHINONOME, SHIRAKUMO, and USUGUMO of the 12th Destroyer Division, ISONAMI, URANAMI, SHIKINAMI, and AYANAMI of the 19th Destroyer Division, and AMAGIRI, ASAGIRI, and YUGIRI of the 20th Destroyer Flotilla.

Heavy cruiser CHOKAI (Ozawa) with destroyer SAGIRI of the 20th Destroyer Flotilla accompanied the convoy.

A covering force of heavy cruisers KUMANO, MIKUMA, MOGAMI, and SUZUYA and destroyers FUBUKI, HATSUYUKI, and SHIRAYUKI of the 11st Destroyer Division was deployed.

On the 5th, this force was joined by minesweepers W.1, W.5, and W.6, a submarine chaser division, minelayer HATSUTAKA, and two transports from Poulo Condore Island .

Also on the 5th, minesweepers W.2, W.3, and W.4 join from Camranh Bay.

Light cruiser KASHII with four transports and frigate SHIMUSHU with three transports departed Saigon and joined the force on the 6th south of Cape Camao .


Admiral Kondo was in charge of the distant cover force for the Malayan - Luzon landings. His force departed the Pescadores with heavy cruisers ATAGO and TAKAO of the 1st Division of the 4th Cruiser Squadron, battleships HARUNA and KONGO of the 2nd Division of the 3rd Battleship Squadron, and destroyers ARASHI, HAGIKAZE, MAIKAZE, and NOWAKE of the 4th Destroyer Division, IKAZUCHI and INAZUMA of the 2nd Group of the 6th Destroyer Division, and ASASHIO, OSHIO, MICHISHIO, and ARASHIO of the 8th Destroyer Division.

Bomb Damage at Mersa Matruh, late 1942 - History

By Arnold Blumberg

An old cliché admonishes, “Bad things always come in threes.” Whether it was thought of as a law of nature or merely coincidence, a rapid succession of events in North Africa during the summer of 1942 seemed to confirm this widely held notion among the officers and men of the British Eighth Army.

The first event was the Battle of Gazala (May 26-June 15), which witnessed a resurgent German-Italian Panzerarmee Afrika under Erwin Rommel tear through the fortified British Commonwealth defensive lines. That success forced the British—almost in rout—to flee east over the Libyan-Egyptian border. The second event was the surprisingly quick collapse in just two days (June 20-21) of the British fortress of Tobruk, which had the year before withstood an Axis siege of eight months. And with Tobruk’s fall came the capture of 32,000 Commonwealth troops and a promotion to field marshal bestowed on its conqueror, Rommel. The third event was Eighth Army’s bungled defensive stand at Mersa Matruh, with the loss of a further 7,000 British prisoners of war, on June 26 and 27, which should have delayed if not stopped the enemy’s advance, resulting instead in another precipitate British retreat deeper into Egypt.

On June 25, just before the fiasco at Mesra Matruh, the commander of all British forces in the Middle East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, took personal charge of Eighth Army’s operations. From the fall of Tobruk to the moment the stampede of English units out of the Mersa Matruh defense locale toward the east began, Auchinleck’s objective was to keep Eighth Army together. Although it had suffered severe losses in men and material and was much disorganized, it was more bewildered than demoralized its basic framework was still intact and was certainly capable of further efforts. Auchinleck correctly identified that the continued existence of Eighth Army, no matter how much territory was given up, made the present critical situation retrievable. Indeed, Auchinleck knew that considerable reinforcements were on their way to Suez. These included 300 American M4 Sherman tanks, 100 self-propelled artillery pieces, and a large number of U.S. Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers originally destined for China but rerouted to Palestine. Further, the British 8th Armored Division and the 44th and 51st Infantry Divisions were en route to Suez.

If the fight against the Panzerarmee could be maintained until at least some of these reinforcements reached Egypt, then defeat might be averted and a victory over a dangerously overstretched Axis army might be achieved. But this did not alter the fact that Eighth Army was at the time heading back to a last-ditch position with a determined enemy constantly nipping at its heels and trying to strike a mortal blow.

The El Alamein Line

The last-ditch position to which Auchinleck was shepherding his battered command was a point 300 miles east of the Libyan-Egyptian frontier—and less than 100 miles from the city of Alexandria and the vital Suez Canal—at a small railway station known as El Alamein. Already, several brushes had taken place in the desert inland of El Daba between small parties of British and Germans, all determined to make the “Alamein line” as quickly as possible. By June 30, the majority of the retreating Eighth Army had either reached or was close to entering the Alamein line. Among them were members of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who after hearing a BBC radio announcer report that Eighth Army had reached the El Alamein line, looked around at the empty desert, indistinguishable from the miles of sand to the east and west, and commented with curses and derision as only riflemen could. There was no line at Alamein on July 1, only a widely scattered series of defensive boxes in disrepair.

The name El Alamein came from the rail stop British engineers built there in the 1920s. While surveying the route of the pending track, the engineers planted two flags in the sand to mark the stop. Local Bedouin tribesmen then called the spot “el Alamein,” meaning “two flags.” In 1942, the place was an empty space except for the small group of railway buildings standing in the desert. North of the rail line near the coastal road rose a shoulder of rock, which formed a small line of hills sloping away to the salt marsh on the coast. To the south the ground was made up of desert covered with clumps of camel thorn. However, the desert surface alternated from a rocky limestone bed with a thin covering of sand to areas of deep soft sand. Roughly 10 miles south of the tracks was Miteiriya Ridge, which stretched in a wide arc across the desert landscape.

Ten miles farther to the south running west to east was a low hump of rock known as Ruweisat Ridge. About 15 miles southeast of the station and seven miles to the east of Ruweisat Ridge sat Alam el Halfa Ridge. All three ridges were made of hard rock barely covered with loose sand, which made the construction of field defenses on them very difficult. In addition to the ridges there were a number of mounds (tels) and various sized shallow depressions called deirs. A little more to the south the ground changed in to a much rougher, rockier terrain culminating in a series of high hills that overlooked the cliffs at the edge of the impassable Qattara Depression.

Before the war the Alamein line, which stretched for 38 miles, had been recognized as a possible site for a position from which to defend the Nile River Delta. As a result, in early 1941 the British had laid out a defense line consisting of three fortified boxes across the Alamein chokepoint. The most important box was constructed as a 15-mile semicircle around the rail center designed to hold an infantry division. Halfway down the desert another box was laid out at Bab el Qattara. Farther south the Naqb Abu Dweiss box commanded the approaches leading to the depression itself. The boxes were 15 miles apart and, therefore, were out of mutual supporting distance. As a result, they could never be held independently.

Improvising a Defense

The assumption in 1941 was that a strong armored force would be employed to maneuver between the boxes to assure their successful defense. But in July of the following year the battered Eighth Army, with only 137 functioning tanks at El Alamein, did not possess enough armored fighting vehicles to protect the boxes. Further, after the November 1941 counteroffensive to relieve Tobruk (Operation Crusader) was initiated, the buildup of the El Alamein position was ignored. With little more than some barbed wire strung and a few mines laid to protect them, the boxes that constituted the Alamein line were really nothing more than a line on a map.

As the fragmented Eighth Army fell back to El Alamein in July 1942, Auchinleck scrambled to devise a way to defend it. His solution was based on the tactic that part of the army would hold positions to channel and disorganize any enemy advance the rest would remain mobile to strike the foe from flank and rear. Auchinleck ordered his infantry divisions to form their maneuver elements into artillery battle groups (or brigade groups) whose activities were to be personally supervised by their division commanders. Corps leaders were to make sure that maximum forces were concentrated at the decisive points, even if those points were outside their assigned sectors.

Regardless of Auchinleck’s resolve to stop the Italian-German army at El Alamein, he realized that he might not be able to do so. If he could not, Auchinleck intended to fight step by step through Egypt, making stands at defensive positions that had been set up covering the western approaches to Alexandria, the Nile Delta, and Cairo. As a last resort, Auchinleck might hold the Suez Canal with part of his mobile force while the remainder withdrew along the Nile River.

In the meantime, as the plans for the worse case scenarios took shape, the British desperately tried to build up the strength of the El Alamein position in the face of the onrushing Panzerarmee. The 1st South African Infantry Division, after retiring from the Gazala line, had been sent to the El Alamein position and spent two weeks improving the defenses of the Alamein box by drilling out new sites, roofing in existing ones, laying down thousands of yards of barbed wire, and burying thousands of mines. The South Africans were also ordered to send out two mobile columns, that is, battle groups (the Army chiefs favored a composite force made up of an infantry brigade supported by two batteries of artillery) to watch the desert to the west and south of the box.

Auchinleck was determined that no troops should be left to be encircled in the static positions being beefed up on the El Alamein line. As a result of this understandable mind-set, only one infantry brigade of the South African division would be available to hold the Alamein box, although it was backed up by four artillery regiments. This assemblage of artillery was a step in the right direction since it signaled that the guns of the Eighth Army, about 500 pieces of all calibers, were finally being concentrated to deliver effective massive support fire.

Meanwhile, the remnants of the 50th Infantry Division were formed into three columns and deployed to cover the gap between El Alamein and Deir el Shein, with the 18th Indian Infantry Brigade placed in the latter box. Ten miles farther south, the 6th New Zealand Infantry Brigade, 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division, was deployed in the Bab el Qattara box, while the 4th and 5th New Zealand Infantry Brigades underwent reorganization. In the far south, the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade held the box at Naqb Abu Dweiss, but was nearly isolated from the rest of the line due to a lack of transport.

“Our Only Offensive Weapon is Our Air Striking Force”

As late as midday on June 30, although most of the Eighth Army’s infantry formations (a combined strength of around 30,000 combat troops) had settled into the El Alamein front, all its armor forces had yet to arrive. The surviving elements of the 1st and 7th Armored Divisions, along with the 2nd, 4th, and 22nd Armored Brigades, were still 50 miles to the west near Fuka and motoring toward El Alamein with only the slightest notion of where they were to be placed. Until the tanks could reach their allotted positions to support their friendly infantry, the El Alamein line was simply too thin to resist Rommel’s armored spearheads. Further complicating the situation was the fact that the army had lost thousands of vital tons of ammunition, fuel, food, engineer supplies, and transport, which would be needed to defend the El Alamein position. Almost all of the loss was from supply bases originally sited at or near Tobruk and captured by the Germans when that bastion fell.

As the Eighth Army was reeling from its defeats at Gazala, Tobruk, and Mersa Matruh and heading farther into Egypt, its comrades of the Desert Air Force, under Air Vice Marshal Arthur Coningham, provided an offensive punch, the only one the British possessed at the time in the Western Desert. According to Maj. Gen. Eric Dorman-Smith, Auchinleck’s chief of staff, in the face of the Panzerarmee’s superiority in armored maneuver warfare, the Eighth Army had to buy time to rebuild its tank force through a defense of the Red Sea ports. Dorman-Smith went on to say that as a result of the weakness of the army’s armored formations, “Our only offensive weapon is our air striking force … it alone enables us to retain any semblance of initiative.” In contrast to the noticeable lack of the presence of the Luftwaffe, the Desert Air Force dominated the skies over the Eighth Army as the ground forces moved back to El Alamein. The Australia-born Coningham committed every available plane he had to the defense of the army as it retreated, hoping to disrupt the enemy’s advance as much as possible.

From June 23 to June 26, the fighters and bombers of the Desert Air Force made a maximum effort to slow down the oncoming Panzerarmee Afrika even as it leapfrogged to the rear itself. After June 25, a program of round-the-clock bombing was initiated, which continued for the rest of the Desert War. The result was that the Axis forces were compelled to move and bivouac dispersed even at night, thus slowing their movement and preventing a concentration of forces when attacking.

Rommel Outruns the Luftwaffe

Although slowed by exhaustion and the rain of aerial attacks on it during the last days of June 1942, the Panzerarmee forged ahead after the action at Mersa Matruh. Rommel knew speed was critical if he was to throw the enemy out of his last defensive position. His divisions were drawing on their last reserves of morale and physical strength as they moved forward. A lack of transport to deliver replacements, ammunition, and fuel to the units, which had fought hard and suffered losses and traveled nonstop since May, resulted in seriously depleted combat formations. At the end of June total armored strength available to Rommel stood at 55 German and 70 Italian tanks. His artillery comprised 330 German and 200 Italian pieces. It was Rommel’s force of will that kept Panzerarmee’s weak spearheads driving forward.

Rommel sought to swing around the British left flank during the Battle of Alam el Halfa, but Montgomery massed his field artillery and launched armored counterattacks to nullify Rommel’s gains.

Regarding air support, the Panzerarmee was at a distinct disadvantage. In pushing his command so far and fast Rommel had outrun the Luftwaffe’s ability to provide air cover. The Luftwaffe simply did not have the means to keep up with Rommel’s blistering pace. Also, its resources were stretched too thinly since it was not only tasked with aiding Rommel in his land campaign, but also committed to the reduction of Malta, which was deemed essential to alleviating the horrible supply shortages the Panzerarmee continued to endure. The Luftwaffe’s efforts to support Rommel during the Battles of Gazala and Tobruk were massive but could not be sustained. As a result, when the Panzerarmee crossed into Egypt on June 23, friendly air support evaporated. If Eighth Army had been subjected to continuous enemy air attack during its retreat after the loss of Tobruk, the defeat would have turned into a catastrophe.

The First Battle of El Alamein

Even with all the problems facing the Panzerarmee, as it closed in on El Alamein at the end of June, Rommel felt optimistic about his prospects of breaking British resistance and capturing the Nile Delta. At the start of the month, Rommel initiated an assault that spawned a series of nearly continuous and heavy battles over the next 30 days on El Alamein line.

The contests began with a typical Rommel operation, which was a repeat of his successful stroke at Mersa Matruh. His intent was to penetrate between the Alamein box and Deir el Abyad with the object of cutting the coastal road, then make a sweep south with his armor to eliminate the Qattara box. But this thrust was blocked by British XXX Corps (composed of mostly infantry) in the north, while XIII Corps (mainly British armor) tried to attack the Axis southern flank. This encounter, which commenced on July 1, led to three days of battle during which the Panzerarmee assaulted the British-held Ruweisat Ridge twice but failed to gain all of it. Meanwhile, XXX Corps continued to bar the way to the coastal road while XIII Corps maneuvered to outflank the enemy by moving to the north and northwest, but without success. Stymied in his efforts and under pressure from a reinforced Eighth Army, Rommel suspended his attacks and dug in on July 4.

The British now went on the offensive. On July 10, they attacked near the coast at Tel el Eisa hoping to advance to Deir el Shein and the German-held airfields at Ed Daba. Their efforts were met by strong German counterattacks on July 12. Between July 14 and 16, Auchinleck struck the Italians holding the Axis center on Ruweisat Ridge and gained a foothold on that height. The fight for the slope continued on July 21-23. To relieve the pressure on their ally on Ruweisat Ridge, the Germans counterattacked but were repulsed. On July 22, the British captured Tel el Eisa. Initiating Operation Manhood on July 27, the armor of XIII Corps captured and consolidated its hold on Tel el Eisa and occupied the Miteirya Ridge however, the latter was lost to a German counterattack. On July 31, Auchinleck felt compelled to suspend further offensive moves and pause to reinforce, retrain, and reorganize his battered army.

The fighting in July, which is known as the First Battle of El Alamein, had been costly to both sides and was in many respects disappointing to each, but it brought the Axis advance to a standstill and ended the run of British battlefield disasters.

As for the Panzerarmee, it had fought the July battles against an enemy constantly absorbing replacements of men and material, while it barely received a trickle of those commodities. As exhausted as their opponents, Rommel’s forces not only held their own but also delivered sharp counterpunches that stopped the British in their tracks. Most importantly, the German field marshal had preserved his army and prevented its destruction.

While the exact number of those killed and wounded in the Panzerarmee during the July fighting is unknown, at least 7,000 prisoners (5,000 Italian and 2,000 German) were captured by the British. During this period the Eighth Army suffered 13,000 casualties. Even as combat took place, the El Alamein line was being greatly strengthened in anticipation of the inevitable Axis offensive.

Reorganizing the Eighth Army

In preparation for the next blow Rommel was sure to deliver, Auchinleck acted on the premise that due to a paucity of seasoned German infantry an attack on the El Alamein line’s northern sector could be discounted. Accepting the views of his veteran armor corps commander, Lt. Gen. William H.E. “Strafer” Gott , the commander in chief expected Rommel to hook around Eighth Army’s southern flank and head for the Alam el Halfa Ridge. The possession of that height provided excellent observation and good terrain to the coastal road. Alam el Halfa, as Gott strenuously pointed out, was not only vital to any German advance down the coast to Alexandria, but also vital to the Eighth Army for holding its present positions on the El Alamein line.

Hoping to achieve better cooperation between his infantry and armor, Auchinleck proposed to defend his position by abolishing the distinction between armored and infantry divisions, creating in their place mobile divisions composed of one armored and two infantry brigades.

Auchinleck also planned a new Eighth Army offensive with the main blow coming from the north. In the meantime, he ordered that the El Alamein line be fortified in depth and in breadth. To that end, in the northern zone two defensive lines were built. These were held by the infantry of XXX Corps. To hold the important Alam el Halfa Ridge, Gott assigned its defense to the reliable 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division. He replaced the two brigade boxes, which could not mutually support one another, with the entire New Zealand Division backed up by massive artillery. Alam el Halfa thus became the main bulwark protecting the west and southern faces of the El Alamein line. Just to the south and west of that slope the bulk of the army’s armor was posted to intercept the expected Axis armored turning movement as it rounded Eighth Army’s southern flank. Auchinleck’s scheme was a novel one, but he would not be around to see if his new ideas for attack and defense worked.

Even before the July fighting on the El Alamein line finished, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had urged Auchinleck to undertake a general offensive to clear the Germans and Italians from North Africa. Auchinleck responded that such an effort was not possible before September 1942, if even then. A perplexed Churchill decided to visit Egypt in early August to determine future strategy for the Middle East.

Bernard Montgomery Takes Command

It was not long after his arrival in Cairo that the British leader determined to replace Auchinleck with someone he felt would be more offensive minded. His choice was Gott, a veteran of the Desert War since its beginning in 1940, and commander of Eighth Army’s main armor component, the XIII Corps. Unfortunately, on August 7, 1942, Gott was killed when the bomber he was traveling in was shot down by two German fighter planes. Churchill then appointed his second choice, Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery, to take over the Eighth Army.

As soon as the 55-year-old veteran of World War I, an active participant in World War II since 1939, reached his new command, Montgomery started to remake the Eighth Army in his own image. His first address to his new staff made a tremendous impact. The defense of Egypt lay at El Alamein, Montgomery said, and if the Eighth Army would not stay there alive it would stay there dead. There would be no more backward looks, and if Rommel chose to attack so much the better.

Montgomery further declared that under him the army would fight differently. No more brigade groups divisions would fight as entire divisions. No more isolated defensive boxes all defensive positions would be integrated and mutually supporting. What he never admitted was that the basic outline for the British conduct of the Battle of Alam el Halfa followed the concept of his much underestimated predecessor, Claude Auchinleck.

The entire army was impressed by its new chief’s can-do attitude. Churchill also was impressed. On August 21, Churchill wrote: “A complete change in atmosphere [in Eighth Army] has taken place … the highest alacrity and activity prevails.” The prime minister might also have noticed the new Eighth Army commander’s trademark: meticulous planning and preparation.

Rommel Requires a Rapid Victory

As Eighth Army recovered from the July 1942 battles, it not only greatly improved the defensive capabilities of the El Alamein line but also received a vast influx of men and material. From July to August the army received 730 tanks, 820 artillery pieces of all kinds, more than 15,000 vehicles, and thousands of tons of supplies. Eighth Army’s manpower in August rose to around 150,000 men.

Rommel lacked air cover at Alam el Halfa, which left his mechanized columns at the mercy of allied bombers such as the Martin Baltimore Mark II.

On August 30, 1942, Rommel wrote to his wife: “There are such big things at stake. If our blow succeeds, it might go some ways in deciding the whole course of the war. If it fails, I hope at least to give the enemy a pretty thorough beating.” The field marshal, after being stymied during the July battles, had decided to launch his army in one last attempt to reach the Nile Delta. He knew it would be a now or never proposition.

During August 1942 the Panzerarmee existed in a quartermaster’s nightmare with the troops living from hand to mouth on captured food, fuel, and ammunition. Supplies for the army shipped from Italy were regularly sunk by the British Navy and Air Force, and whatever got through to Benghazi or Tobruk was eaten up by the long haul to the front. Of the 100,000 tons of supplies the Panzerarmee required each month, only a fraction ever got to the troops in Egypt. With this in mind, Rommel knew he had to attack before the British received more men and tanks and before the enemy could weave a shield of defensive minefields, which would be too dense to permit a rapid breakthrough of their lines.

Discounting any idea of assailing the heavily defended northern sector of the British line, Rommel opted to strike in the south, using his tanks and mobile forces to encircle and destroy Eighth Army in a repeat of the Gazala battle. His strike force would not be concentrated until the eve of the attack, and to maintain the element of surprise there would be no artillery or air preparation. Limited infantry attacks would be mounted along the entire front to pin down and confuse his opponent. Once his armored and motorized elements were assembled south of Deir el Qattara, they would push through the British minefields, which recent Axis reconnaissance assured would be easy to clear, drive east, then turn north for the coast road. The plan was to encircle the opposition and cut him off from his supplies.

The force Rommel had by late August consisted of 84,000 German and 44,000 Italian troops and 234 German and 281 Italian tanks. But his supply of transport, fuel, and ammunition was barely sufficient to sustain anything but a rapid victory.

The Afrika Korps’ Offensive Begins

On the night of August 30, 1942, Rommel began his offensive. The tanks of the Afrika Korps (15th and 21st Panzer Divisions), the 90th Light Motorized Infantry Division, and the Italian armored divisions Ariete and Littorio (containing barely half their full 16,000-man complement) assembled on the southern flank of the German line around the El Taqua plateau. The plan called for this entire force to pass through the British minefields north of Qaret el Himeimat and then drive east. Rommel’s tanks were to be protected on the left flank by reconnaissance battalions and on the right by Italian armor.

Near the Munassib Depression behind Eighth Army’s front line, the 90th Light Division would act as a hinge between the static Axis forces to the north and the advancing Afrika Korps. The whole force was then to wheel north, bypassing Alam el Halfa and heading for the British rear at the eastern end of Ruweisat Ridge. Meanwhile, it was hoped that Eighth Army would be distracted by the German 164th Light Motorized Infantry Division and the Italian X and XXI Infantry Corps, which were to mount raids all along the enemy’s front. Unfortunately for Rommel, air superiority was with the British. It was a bold plan requiring speed, surprise, and enough fuel to make it work.

As darkness descended over the desert, the Africa Korps approached the British minefields. It appeared that the attackers had achieved surprise, but then around midnight they clashed with the 7th Motor Brigade, British 7th Armored Division. Soon the Desert Air Force began dropping bombs on the Afrika Korps. Bunched up to pass through the British minefields, a number of German tanks, infantry carriers, and supply trucks were destroyed.

As the Germans were hung up in the minefield under air assault, they were met by fierce resistance from the three battalions of the 7th Motor Brigade defending 13 miles of the British front. After four hours of fending off the enemy, the Motor Brigade, covered by the British 4th Light Armored Brigade, was forced back by overwhelming German pressure. Rommel’s hope to traverse the 42 miles to the east and then turn toward the coastal road during the moonlit night of August 31 was frustrated.

Rommel’s Great Mistake

Seriously delayed by the stout defense by the 7th Motor Brigade, mines, and air raids, it was not until 5 am that German engineers were able to clear gaps in the British minefields and allow the panzers to push forward. More misfortune struck the Afrika Korps when an air attack hit its headquarters, wounding the corps commander, General Walther Nehring. Colonel Fritz Bayerlein, Rommel’s chief of staff, took charge of the corps. Twenty minutes later, Maj. Gen. Georg von Bismarck, commander of the 21st Panzer Division, was killed by mortar fire. The command and control of the Afrika Korps was badly disrupted at a critical moment.

Farther north, the actions conducted by the Italian engineers and German paratroopers designed to tie down the British forces in that sector were generally a failure. One exception was the advance of the Ramcke Paratrooper Brigade against a British position held by the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade, 5th Indian Infantry Division, on Ruweisat Ridge, although the Germans were eventually forced to retreat.

By 8 am, the 21st and 15th Panzer Divisions found themselves about three miles east of the enemy minefields and preparing to drive eastward. After arriving at Africa Korps headquarters that morning, Rommel realized that the minefields had not only caused time delays and casualties, but also consumed large amounts of fuel he could not replace. Therefore, he modified his original battle plan. Due to insufficient fuel to make the planned wide sweep to the east, he directed his panzers to turn immediately to the north after Bayerlein persuaded him to continue the attack.

The objective now for the Afrika Korps was Point 102 situated on the Alam el Halfa Ridge, with the Italian XX Corps ordered to take Alam Bueid. Because the Ariete and Trieste Divisions were held up in the British minefields, they could not attack their objective until that evening thus depriving the German tanks of support when the latter attacked Alam el Halfa. More valuable time was lost when, in attempting to implement the new plan, the Littorio Division trespassed onto 21st Panzer’s route of march. It took more than an hour to untangle the two divisions and proceed toward Alam el Halfa.

As it turned out, Rommel’s decision was the worst he could have made. His new scheme was going to pit his tanks against the 22nd Armored Brigade and 44th Infantry Division, both entrenched on Alam Halfa and waiting for Rommel’s armor.

Fighting Through a Sandstorm

As the afternoon of August 31 wore on, the Axis turning movement continued. Ahead of it the 7th Motor Brigade, supported by 22nd and 4th Light Armored Brigades (also part of 7th Armored Division), fell back to the Ragil Depression. The 7th Armored Division had done its job, seriously slowing Rommel’s tanks. The 23rd Armored Brigade was attached to XIII Corps and moved south to cover the gap between the New Zealand defensive position and the 22nd Armored Brigade at Point 102 on Alam el Halfa.

In the air, the Desert Air Force was now restricted in its efforts due to a sandstorm. On the Axis side, sorties by 240 fighters and 70 dive bombers of the Luftwaffe and Italian Air Force had little effect on the ground battle.

About 1 pm, in a raging sandstorm that was blowing in the face of the British defenders and reduced visibility to 100 yards, the 21st Panzer Division, with 120 tanks in three waves, turned directly for Point 102. Ahead of the advancing panzers stood the antitank guns of the British 1st Rifle Brigade, supported by the Crusader tanks of the 22nd Armored Brigade’s 4th County of London Yeomanry Tank Regiment. When the panzers were just 300 yards from them, the Rifle Brigade’s 6-pounder antitank guns opened up. Along with accurate artillery fire, the antitank screen destroyed 19 German tanks. Unsupported (the 15th Panzer Division during the attack had to curtail its movements due to lack of fuel), the 21st Panzer Division’s strike was more hesitant than usual, and it stopped its attack at 4 pm, drawing off toward the Ragil Depression at nightfall. The division claimed it had eliminated 12 enemy tanks and six antitank guns in this action. In the meantime, Montgomery ordered 23rd Armored Brigade with its Valentine tanks and the 2nd South African Infantry Brigade, 1st South African Infantry Division to take station just north of Alam el Halfa Ridge as a ready reserve.

That evening, Bayerlein suggested to Rommel that both panzer divisions break contact with the British and attack Point 102 from the flank. It was a good idea, but lack of fuel made it impractical. British airpower returned hitting, both German armor and supply transport congregating at the Ragil Depression.

To the north, a small force of Australian infantry supported by a squadron of tanks mounted an attack near Tel el Eisa as a diversion to disrupt the main Axis attack in the south. The assault was quickly counterattacked by elements of the German 164th Light Motorized Infantry Division, forcing the attackers to retreat.

Italian tanks, carrying sandbags for better traction and protection, advance through a depression along the El Alamein line. The depressions—which featured escarpments and fine powdered sand—were difficult for armor to traverse.

Montgomery Regroups

With barely any fuel reaching them on September 1, the tanks of the Afrika Korps could do little that day. While 21st Panzer settled into a defensive posture due to dry fuel tanks, the 15th Panzer Division was ordered to renew the attack on Alam el Halfa. Its probing of the ridge was stopped cold by the efforts of the 22nd and 8th Armored Brigades. The 8th lost 13 M3 Grant tanks to a German antitank screen while destroying eight Panzer III tanks and one Panzer IV. By that night, the Afrika Korps was out of fuel and confronted by all the tanks of the Eighth Army, which had gathered around Alam el Halfa Ridge.

Throughout the day, the British massed seven field artillery regiments near the New Zealand positions and pummeled the static German and Italian armored units leaguered to the south. The Desert Air Force flew 125 sorties against the same enemy targets.

Montgomery used that afternoon to leisurely “regroup so as to form reserves and make troops available for the closing of the gap between the New Zealanders and Qaret Himeimat and seizing the initiative.” These moves were not completed until September 2, due to a lack of urgency on the part of Montgomery and a lack of transport vehicles to move the troops.

Operation Beresford

Throughout the morning of September 2, the Germans and Italians remained camped waiting for an enemy counterattack that never came. At 10 am, new orders were received by the German mobile forces. Rommel had decided to break off the offensive due to the severity of enemy air attacks and the lack of fuel. His subordinates were shocked at the decision and felt they could still defeat the enemy if given the needed fuel in a timely manner. Battle groups from each panzer division were to be formed to cover the retreat.

The Littorio Division was ordered to hold its position while the German tanks pulled back. After that occurred, the Littorio, Trieste, and 90th Light Divisions also withdrew. The retreat started the next day, and by that evening the strike force of the Afrika Korps was ensconced just west of Deir el Munassib. That point, as well as Qaret el Himeimat, which afforded good observation of the surrounding area, were retained by the Axis and incorporated in their new defense line. It was, in effect, a consolation prize for the sacrifice they made to lever the enemy from the El Alamein line.

Realizing that the enemy was withdrawing, Montgomery, rather late that day, directed his XIII Corps to pursue and harry the beaten enemy and close the gap the Germans had opened in the British lines at the commencement of their attack on August 30. With only small units of the 7th Armored Division ordered to carry out Montgomery’s belated instructions, the Axis withdrawal was virtually unhindered. The only real damage to the withdrawing enemy was caused by the Desert Air Force, which during 176 sorties dropped 112 tons of bombs.

Instead of a vigorous pursuit, Montgomery ordered Operation Beresford, an infantry attack designed to “reestablish the minefield to the south of the New Zealanders’ position.” It was to be carried out by the 132nd Infantry Brigade, 44th Infantry Division, supported by the 5th and 6th New Zealand Brigades covering the 132nd on each flank. The attack fell on the positions held by the Italian 27th Brescia Infantry Division, X Infantry Corps.

The operation was a dismal failure, costing the 132nd Infantry Brigade 697 men and the 5th New Zealand Brigade 275 soldiers. One battalion of the Brescia Division lost heavily during an engagement with the 5th New Zealand. Soon after the attack began, the 6th New Zealand Brigade joined the action against the 101st Trieste Motorized Infantry Division and the 90th Light Division. One bright spot in the whole sordid tale of Operation Beresford was that it showed how well the British artillery had learned to play its role in supporting infantry and armor. Its timely intervention prevented the destruction of the 5th New Zealand Brigade.

The End of the “Six Days’ Race”

With the failure of Operation Beresford, the Eighth Army’s attempts to interfere with the Panzerarmee’s withdrawal ended. Patrols from the 7th Armored Division and the 8th and 22nd Armored Brigades harassed the Axis rear guards. By September 5, the fuel situation for Rommel’s army had improved somewhat, allowing it to operate for the next seven days. On the 6th, the Battle of Alam el Halfa ended.

The “Six Days’ Race,” as the Axis troops dubbed the Battle of Alam el Halfa, was over. It was Rommel who had received a beating. The cost to the Eighth Army amounted to 1,750 men killed, wounded, or captured. The British lost 67 tanks, 10 pieces of artillery, and 15 antitank guns. The Panzerarmee sustained 1,859 German troops killed, wounded, and missing, as well as 49 German tanks, 55 pieces of artillery, and 300 trucks destroyed. The Italians lost 1,051 men, 22 guns, 11 tanks, and 97 other vehicles.

Both Rommel and Montgomery made mistakes during the struggle. The latter was fortunate that his rigid static defense strategy was not compromised. His foe had run out of fuel and could not maneuver at will. The former was lucky that he faced an opponent who, due to his inherent caution, did not make an all-out attempt to destroy his immobile strike force as it sat in front of Alam el Halfa Ridge. Rommel’s good fortune continued when Montgomery did not pursue him as his command was retreating and hampered by a lack of fuel.

In the final analysis, Rommel seems to have learned little from the battle as far as the interdependencies of his logistical situation and how those considerations hampered his operations.

As for the British, even if the Eighth Army had not exploited its advantages during the battle, it still gained a conclusive victory over a previously unbeaten antagonist. The British victory at Alam el Halfa caused the morale in the army to soar and gave the troops every confidence in Montgomery’s leadership. The victory also assured the soldiers that the next time they met the Panzerarmee in combat, the British would be doing the attacking, with every chance of a successful outcome. And so it was.


The battle was a stalemate, but it had halted the Axis advance on Alexandria (and then Cairo and ultimately the Suez Canal). The Eighth Army had suffered over 13,000 casualties in July, including 4,000 in the 2nd New Zealand Division, 3,000 in the 5th Indian Infantry Division and 2,552 battle casualties in the 9th Australian Division but had taken 7,000 prisoners and inflicted heavy damage on Axis men and machines. Γ] ⏏] In his appreciation of 27 July, Auchinleck wrote that the Eighth Army would not be ready to attack again until mid-September at the earliest. He believed that because Rommel understood that with the passage of time the Allied situation would only improve, he was compelled to attack as soon as possible and before the end of August when he would have superiority in armour. Auchinleck therefore made plans for a defensive battle. 𖏦]

In early August, Winston Churchill and General Sir Alan Brooke—the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS)—visited Cairo on their way to meet Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, in Moscow. They decided to replace Auchinleck, appointing the XIII Corps commander, William Gott, to the Eighth Army command and General Sir Harold Alexander as C-in-C Middle East Command. Persia and Iraq were to be split from Middle East Command as a separate Persia and Iraq Command and Auchinleck was offered the post of C-in-C (which he refused). 𖏧] Gott was killed on the way to take up his command when his aircraft was shot down. 𖏨] Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed in his place and took command on 13 August. Γ] [lower-alpha 8]

Heraklion operation [ edit | edit source ]

The Heraklion operation was commanded by George Jellicoe and included four members of the Free French Forces under Georges Bergé (the other three being Jacques Mouhot, Pierre Léostic and Jack Sibard) and lieutenant Kostis Petrakis of the Hellenic Army. Things went out of plan for the party of six saboteurs which were transferred to Crete on board the Greek submarine Triton: rowing in three inflatable boats, they set ashore in the Gulf of Malia on the dawn of June 10, further east from the intended Karteros beach and behind schedule. Δ] Spending the days hiding and the nights marching, they reached Heraklion airfield on the night of 12 to 13 of June. However, they were unable to mount an assault due to the increased traffic caused by a succession of night sorties that was in progress. Eventually, the attack took place on the night of June 13, when the group managed to enter the area of the airfield while it was being bombed by the RAF. In total, about 20 aircraft (Ju 88) were destroyed using Lewes bombs. While all six saboteurs managed to escape from the airfield, their retreat was betrayed resulting in 17-yr old Pierre Léostic being killed and the other three French being arrested. Jellicoe and Petrakis managed to escape to Egypt. Ε] Ζ]


Retreat from Gazala

Following its defeat at the Battle of Gazala in Eastern Libya in June 1942, the British Eighth Army had retreated east from the Gazala line into north-western Egypt as far as Mersa Matruh, roughly 100 mi (160 km) inside the border. Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie had decided not to hold the defences on the Egyptian border, because the defensive plan there relied on his infantry holding defended localities, while a strong armoured force was held back in reserve to foil any attempts to penetrate or outflank the fixed defences. Since Ritchie had virtually no armoured units left fit to fight, the infantry positions would be defeated in detail. The Mersa defence plan also included an armoured reserve but in its absence Ritchie believed he could organise his infantry to cover the minefields between the defended localities to prevent Axis engineers from having undisturbed access. [6]

To defend the Matruh line, Ritchie placed Indian 10th Infantry Division (in Matruh itself) and 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division (some 15 mi (24 km) down the coast at Gerawla) under X Corps HQ, newly arrived from Syria. [7] Inland from X Corps would be XIII Corps with Indian 5th Infantry Division (with only one infantry brigade, Indian 29th Infantry Brigade, and two artillery regiments) around Sidi Hamza about 20 mi (32 km) inland, and the newly arrived New Zealand 2nd Division (short one brigade, the 6th, which had been left out of combat in case the Division was captured and it would form the nucleus of a new division) at Minqar Qaim (on the escarpment 30 mi (48 km) inland) and 1st Armoured Division in the open desert to the south. [8] The 1st Armoured had taken over 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades from 7th Armoured Division which by this time had only three tank regiments between them. [9]

On 25 June, General Claude Auchinleck—Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) Middle East Command—relieved Ritchie and assumed direct command of Eighth Army himself. [10] He decided not to seek a decisive confrontation at the Mersa Matruh position. He concluded that his inferiority in armour after the Gazala defeat, meant he would be unable to prevent Rommel either breaking through his centre or enveloping his open left flank to the south in the same way he had at Gazala. [nb 3] He decided instead to employ delaying tactics while withdrawing a further 100 miles (160 km) or more east to a more defensible position near El Alamein on the Mediterranean coast. Only 40 mi (64 km) to the south of El Alamein, the steep slopes of the Qattara Depression ruled out the possibility of Axis armour moving around the southern flank of his defences and limited the width of the front he had to defend.

Battle of Mersa Matruh

While preparing the Alamein positions, Auchinleck fought strong delaying actions, first at Mersa Matruh on 26–27 June and then Fuka on 28 June. The late change of orders resulted in some confusion in the forward formations (X Corps and XIII Corps) between the desire to inflict damage on the enemy and the intention not to get trapped in the Matruh position but retreat in good order. The result was poor coordination between the two forward Corps and units within them.

Late on 26 June, the 90th Light and 21st Panzer Divisions managed to find their way through the minefields in the centre of the front. Early on 27 June, resuming its advance, the 90th Light was checked by 50th Division's artillery. Meanwhile, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions advanced east above and below the escarpment. The 15th Panzer were blocked by 4th Armoured and 7th Motor Brigades, but the 21st Panzer were ordered on to attack Minqar Qaim. Rommel ordered 90th Light to resume its advance, requiring it to cut the coast road behind 50th Division by the evening. [12]

As the 21st Panzer moved on Minqar Qaim, the New Zealand 2nd Division found itself surrounded. It succeeded in breaking out on the night of 27 June without serious losses [13] and withdraw east. Auchinleck had planned a second delaying position at Fuka, some 30 mi (48 km) east of Matruh, and at 21:20 he issued the orders for a withdrawal to Fuka. Confusion in communication led the division withdrawing immediately to the El Alamein position. [14]

X Corps meanwhile, having made an unsuccessful attempt to secure a position on the escarpment, were out of touch with Eighth Army from 19:30 until 04:30 the next morning. Only then did they discover that the withdrawal order had been given. The withdrawal of XIII Corps had left the southern flank of X Corps on the coast at Matruh exposed and their line of retreat compromised by the cutting of the coastal road 17 mi (27 km) east of Matruh. They were ordered to break out southwards into the desert and then make their way east. Auchinleck ordered XIII Corps to provide support but they were in no position to do so. At 21:00 on 28 June, X Corps—organised into brigade groups—headed south. In the darkness, there was considerable confusion as they came across enemy units laagered for the night. In the process, 5th Indian Division in particular sustained heavy casualties, including the destruction of the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade at Fuka. [15] Axis forces captured more than 6,000 prisoners, in addition to 40 tanks and an enormous quantity of supplies. [16]

Stresa Revived - an Allied Mussolini TL

British economic and military interests in the region were seriously threatened and Prime Minister Anthony Eden was under pressure to do something from Conservative MPs, who directly compared the events of 1956 to the Munich Agreement in 1938. Popular opinion was to hit the Egyptians hard and fast, although Eden was worried about being denounced as an aggressor in the UN Security Council or getting the majority of the UN General Assembly against him. Additionally, at this point Canada wasn’t affected by the events while to New Zealand and Australia the Panama Canal was much more important: all three weren’t very interested in supporting a war against Egypt . Britain ’s non-white dominions supported Egypt ’s actions as admirably anti-imperialistic, and compared Arab Nationalism as similar to Asian nationalism. French Prime Minister Guy Mollet, in the meantime, was outraged about Nasser ’s move and was determined to not let him get away with it. Mollet even held up a copy of Nasser ’s book “The Philosophy of the Revolution” during an interview and called it “ Nasser ’s Mein Kampf.” The French parliament decided on military action and condemned the lackadaisical attitude of the Eisenhower administration, which merely proposed diplomacy.

A 23 nation conference attended by the canal’s main users led to two proposals: the American-British-French supported international operation of the Suez Canal while Ceylon , India , Indonesia and the USSR would go no further than international supervision of the canal. Italy was the only country that flat-out refused a compromise from the outset, condemned Egyptian actions as illegal and abandoned the negotiations, while engaging in secret talks with Britain , France and Israel . A secret summit with Mussolini, French Prime Minister Mollet and the British and Israeli ambassadors to France in Paris led to the formation of an anti-Egyptian four power coalition.

Especially Mussolini was keen on revenge and had, in fact, been massing forces at Tobruk for days while being pushy toward France and Britain concerning the need for military aggression (he got them to abandon the idea to deploy ships with gun calibres no larger than 5 inches to limit civilian casualties). The 1st through 3rd Libyan Infantry Divisions, the 1st Libyan Armoured Battalion, the 1st Bersaglieri Regiment and the Ariete Armoured Division stood poised to strike. All-in-all this boiled down to 65.000 men, 500 tanks and 400 aircraft. The Regia Marina deployed in force with all four Littorio-class battleships, aircraft carrier Falco equipped with its first A-4 Skyhawks, heavy cruisers Zara, Pola, Trento and Bolzano , eight light cruisers and a destroyer screen. France deployed battleships Richelieu and Jean Bart with an escort.

The Royal Navy deployed its last commissioned battleship HMS Vanguard and the extremely aging but prestigious HMS Warspite, an indication of how serious they took this and an attempt to gain American support. After the official surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay in September 1945, by which time she’d seen thirty years of service, Warspite had leisurely steamed back to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for maintenance and necessary repairs. From there she had conducted a good will tour and visited several American cities on both the western and eastern seaboards of the United States before finally returning home to Portsmouth in January 1946. Upon arrival she was put in reserve as a training vessel and the admiralty decided not to restore her again since the effort wouldn’t be worth it: time had taken its unavoidable toll, the ship had endured shellfire, bombing, ramming and mines, and aircraft carriers had displaced battleships as the most important capital ships. In May 1947 the admiralty finally made the decision to scrap her after much deliberation, which provoked an outrage among Pearl Harbor veterans and the American public since Warspite was still viewed as “the ship that saved Pearl Harbor .” The wave of negative publicity and outright demands from the “Pearl Harbor Veterans for Warspite” lobbyists to retain her in some form startled the admiralty, who hadn’t expected this reaction. The decision to scrap her was quickly reversed and instead Warspite travelled to Belfast for a complete renovation. During the trip she encountered her sister ship Barham, which was ignominiously headed to Faslane for scrapping, and they greeted each other one last time. By the mid 1950s Warspite was among the oldest capital warships in active service, along with the Andrea Doria and Conte di Cavour class-battleships, which were also World War I veterans.

Warspite was restored to fighting shape, but apart from that mostly just sat in port since the Royal Navy had little use for her, at least until 1956. Apart from the usefulness of her big guns, she was mostly sent into action to gain American sympathy, which had a modicum of success. At least some viewed Nasser as a closet communist who was in bed with Khrushchev, including the vocal American fascist movement which vilified Eisenhower for failing to support his European allies. Overall, the attitude of the Eisenhower administration toward Nasser didn’t change and Warspite therefore didn’t prove a trump card in mobilizing anti-Nasserism in the US . She was finally retired in 1957 after an illustrious 42 year career and was turned into a museum ship at Portsmouth , where she remains until today and has recently seen her centenary.

65.000 Italians were joined by 175.000 Israeli, 45.000 British and 34.000 French troops who were opposed by 300.000 Egyptians. Otherwise highly motivated British forces suffered from the economic and technological limitations imposed by post-war austerity: due to the Cyprus Emergency parachutist training had been neglected in favour of counterinsurgency tactics and the Royal Navy suffered from a shortage of landing vehicles. The RAF had just introduced two long-range bombers, the Vickers Valiant and the English Electric Canberra, but owing to their recent entry into service proper bombing techniques hadn’t been established yet. Despite this, General Sir Charles Keightley, the commander of the invasion force, believed that air power alone was sufficient to defeat Egypt . By contrast, General Hugh Stockwell, the Task Force’s ground commander believed that methodical and systematic armoured operations centred on the Centurion battle tank would be the key to victory. French soldiers were well motivated but they too suffered from post-war austerity and in 1956 the French were heavily involved in the Algerian War. The “Regiment de Parachutistes Coloniaux” was extremely experienced and battle hardened and had distinguished itself in Indochina and Algeria , but other French troops were described as “competent, but not outstanding.” The French Navy also suffered from a shortage of landing craft. Israeli forces were outstanding with ingenious and aggressive commanders while superior pilot training gave them an unbeatable edge in the air. The IDF, however, suffered from deficiencies like doctrinal immaturity, faulty logistics and technical inadequacies. Ironically, the Italians were now much better prepared for war than France and Britain , since its oil money had saved its armed forces from austerity measures instead, Italy ’s defence budget had increased annually in the 1948-1956 period. By the mid 1950s, in fact, the Regia Marina wasn’t that much smaller than the Royal Navy.

The commanders of the four power anti-Egyptian coalition, however, needn’t worry too much. In the Egyptian Armed Forces, politics rather than military competence was the main criterion for promotion. The Egyptian commander, Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, was a purely political appointee who owed his position to his close friendship with Nasser . A heavy drinker, he would prove himself grossly incompetent as a general during the Crisis. In 1956, the Egyptian military was well equipped with weapons from the Soviet Union such as T-34 and IS-3 tanks, MiG-15 fighters, Ilyushin Il-28 bombers, SU-100 self-propelled guns and AK-47 assault rifles. Rigid lines between officers and men in the Egyptian Army led to a mutual “mistrust and contempt” between officers and the men who served under them. Egyptian troops were excellent in defensive operations, but had little capacity for offensive operations, owing to the lack of “rapport and effective small-unit leadership.”

War finally erupted on October 29th when Israel started Operation Kadesh, its invasion of the Sinai Desert , and the same day the Regia Aeronautica started to bomb targets selected because they’d cripple the Egyptians. Israeli armour, preceded by parachute drops on two key passes, thrust south into the Sinai and routed local Egyptian forces in five days. Feigning to be alarmed by the threat of fighting along the Suez Canal , the UK and France issued a twelve-hour ultimatum on October 30th to the Israelis, Italians and the Egyptians to cease fighting. When, as expected, no response was given, Operation Musketeer was launched. Vanguard, Warspite, Richelieu and Jean Bart used their guns for coastal bombardment at Port Said and pulverized coastal defences, after which Egyptian units stayed away from the coast. By then the Regia Aeronautica and the Israeli Air Force had suppressed most Egyptian airfields, winning the battle for air superiority in two days. A strategic Italian bombing campaign with P.109 heavy bombers severely hindered the Egyptian military by destroying most of its fuel stocks.

On November 5th, The British 45th Commando and 16th Parachute Brigade landed by sea and air near Port Said while the French seized Port Fuad, opposite Port Said . Anglo-French air attacks neutralized what little remained of the Egyptian Air Force and their ground forces quickly seized major canal facilities. Egyptian attempts to sink obstacles in the canal and render it unusable were stopped dead in their tracks by air attack. The 3rd Battalion Parachute Group captured El Cap airport by airborne assault, the Commando Brigade captured all its objectives, and elements of the 16th Parachute Brigade and the Royal Tank Regiment set off south along the canal bank on November 6th to capture Ismailia .

By far the most effective operation was the Italian ground offensive that started on October 31st, preceded by two days of strategic bombings and accompanied by tactical air support. Italian battleships followed the army along the coast, using their 15 inch guns to pulverize Egyptian forces that were too much trouble, while Aquila and Falco functioned as mobile airbases. In four days from October 31st to November 3rd, the Regio Esercito spectacularly advanced about 170 kilometres from the Libyan border to Mersa Matruh, bringing the Egyptian Army to the brink of collapse. As the Italians advanced further eastward and started to bomb El Alamein on November 5th 1956 , pressure mounted on the Egyptians. Then on November 6th Italian amphibious and parachutist landings took place at key locations in and around El Alamein to the rear of Egyptian frontline units, which were counterattacking at Mersa Matruh and failing miserably. A military coup placed Nasser under house arrest. His more moderate former comrade Muhammad Naguib saw the end of two years under house arrest and was reinstated as President. A ceasefire was signed and the frontlines froze as of November 7th 1956 . Nasser , in the meantime, was placed under house arrest himself until cardiovascular disease and diabetes made him so sick, despite getting the best medical care, that he was released on health grounds in 1976, twenty years later. He died in 1980, aged 62.

The intervention against Egypt was a total military victory for the Anglo-French-Italian-Israeli alliance, crushing the Egyptian armed forces and affecting a leadership change. The international response, however, was mixed. Along with the Suez Crisis, the US was also dealing with the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and Vice President Nixon later explained: “We couldn't on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.” Besides that, President Eisenhower believed that the US couldn’t be seen acquiescing to this attack on Egypt without causing a backlash in the Arab world.

The attack on Egypt greatly offended many in the Muslim world. In Pakistan, 300.000 people turned up for a rally in Lahore to show solidarity with Egypt while in Karachi a mob chanting anti-British slogans burned down the British High Commission. In Syria , the military government blew up the Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline that allowed Iraqi oil to reach tankers in the Mediterranean to punish Iraq for supporting the invasion, and to cut Britain off from one of its main routes for taking delivery of Iraqi oil. King Saud of Saudi Arabia imposed a total oil embargo on Britain and France , but it was rendered ineffectual because Italy and its PESA partners picked up the slack. The Soviet Union also solidly backed Egypt , but Khrushchev shied away from military intervention.

Khrushchev preferred to make his point symbolically rather than jeopardize the ongoing thaw in US-Soviet relations, never mind risking nuclear war with a country that had ten times as many nuclear weapons as well as superior delivery systems. He demanded sanctions against the four invading powers, but as permanent members of the UNSC Britain, France, Italy and South China vetoed his motion (Chiang Kai-shek remembered Italian support for him in the Chinese Civil War and now returned the favour, even though he was sympathetic to the Egyptian position Sino-Soviet support for Egypt, however, greatly uncomplicated his position toward Nasser). Commonwealth members Australia and New Zealand , Iraq , Italy ’s San Remo Pact allies of Portugal , Spain , Croatia , Greece , Turkey and Iran , PESA members Ecuador and Venezuela , and the pro-fascist regimes in Argentina and Paraguay expressed their support for the intervention. Apartheid South Africa , ruled by the Afrikaner minority, was opposed to Nasser but believed it would benefit economically from a closed canal and politically from not opposing a country’s right to govern its internal affairs.

The prospect of becoming an observer country to the San Remo Pact with all the benefits that entailed, such as investment opportunities in South America , changed Prime Minister Strijdom’s mind. It would prove to signal fascist support for neo-colonialism and white minority regimes in Africa , such as military support for Spain so it could keep Spanish Morocco, Ifni and the Western Sahara . In 1956, Italy deployed 10.000 men to Spanish Morocco in order to discourage the recently independent Kingdom of Morocco from taking military measures.

France was reaffirmed as a great power and Britain retained its superpower status due to their military success against Egypt . They engaged in neo-colonialism, decolonizing more slowly and methodically while creating a middle class to administrate the country and (hopefully) have friendly post-independence rulers in charge. At times they played ethnic and religious groups against each other, with Sudan being a good example: the British heavily favoured the Christians in the south and promised them a separate country. Rather than be ruled by the Muslim Arabs, South Sudan chose to remain a British protectorate under the name Juba when Sudan became independent in 1956. Juba remained under British rule for another decade and in 1966 became independent together with Uganda and Kenya . Britain also tried to keep some of its holdings by offering them devolved government within the context of the United Kingdom . Over the course of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s a number of possessions were given devolved government. They became British Overseas Territories which meant that they were under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of the United Kingdom but weren’t part of it. The Maltese people liked the security of British rule and voted for this option in 1964 and Cyprus , fearing Turkish irredentism, did the same and both remain British Overseas Territories until today. In 1958, Britain merged Jamaica , the Cayman Islands , the Turks and Caicos Islands , Barbados , Antigua and Barbuda , Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla, Montserrat , Dominica , Saint Lucia , Saint Vincent and the Grenadines , Grenada , and Trinidad and Tobago into the West Indies Federation , a customs union with freedom of movement. The early years were rocky since the larger islands were worried about mass immigration from the smaller islands while the smaller ones feared their economies would be overwhelmed. The British had, however, implemented a strong federal government, federal taxation and freedom of movement. This initially went against the wishes of many locals, but it helped the federation survive its fragile earlier years. The West Indies Federation today has a population of 5.1 million people and economically it’s a major player in the Caribbean . It remains a British Overseas Territory under a Governor-General (the background was the desire of the smaller islands to have a check on the larger ones). Many Pacific Islands also chose such a course and Singapore preferred major autonomy inside a reformed British Empire over being subsumed by Malaysia or getting picked off by Indonesia .

Lastly, the Royal Navy chose to maintain a presence in the Trucial States. Britain maintained its dominance in the Middle East for another decade through CENTO, mainly because of Britain ’s prestige as a “superpower.” This superpower status faded as Britain decolonized. The Central Treaty Organization, which included Iraq , Jordan , Pakistan , the Trucial States and Britain was de facto dissolved in 1968 when Iraq and Jordan abandoned it. Even after that, Britain maintained its presence on the Persian Gulf via its continued naval presence in the Trucial States.

The USSR , in the meantime, was affected too. Khrushchev’s position was gravely weakened due to his lack of a more serious response to the Suez Crisis. Khrushchev sought to find a lasting solution to the problem of a divided Germany and of the enclave of West Berlin deep within East German territory. In November 1958, calling West Berlin a “malignant tumour”, he gave the United States, United Kingdom and France six months to conclude a peace treaty with both German states and the Soviet Union. If one was not signed, Khrushchev stated, the Soviet Union would conclude a peace treaty with East Germany . This would leave East Germany , which was not a party to treaties giving the Western Powers access to Berlin , in control of the routes to the city. This ultimatum caused dissent among the Western Allies, who were reluctant to go to war over the issue. Khrushchev, however, repeatedly extended the deadline and his failed political gambles resulted in a coup by a triumvirate of Molotov, Malenkov and Kaganovich who replaced him with Bulganin as Secretary General in 1959. Though the Soviet Union did not return to terror and purges, under these Stalinist hardliners it became much more repressive. Khrushchev was made ambassador to Albania , far away from the Kremlin, and served in that capacity for another decade during which he became an embittered recluse. He was allowed to retire and return to Moscow in 1969, where he died in 1971.

In the meantime, the US had threatened to financially cut off Britain which would have provoked a further devaluation of the pound sterling and jeopardized Britain ’s post-war economic recovery. In the end they couldn’t afford to alienate their most important ally and did nothing. American actions against Britain and France remained solely limited to words since any serious measures would cause a split in the Western World, something that the Soviets were hoping for. Eisenhower’s language singled out Italy since its contribution to the invasion was greater and because the Italians had conducted human rights violations by strafing columns of fleeing civilians a few times. Rome strengthened its relations with Israel , even though Mussolini had serious reservations toward Zionism, and compensated for lack of relations in the Arab world through intensifying its cooperation with Imperial Iran. Mussolini responded to Eisenhower’s denunciatory talk with political brinkmanship, threatening to totally break off relations. Furthermore, he summoned the American ambassador to his office in the Palazzo Venezia and angrily lectured him, stating: “American interference in the Mediterranean Sea – the Mare Nostrum we have fought and bled for and require for our security and prosperity – would be the equivalent of us colonizing or intervening in Latin America . This would violate the Monroe Doctrine. Mr. Ambassador, tell me, would your government tolerate that?” The Duce concluded by stating, in subtle terms, that the US government could shove any further criticisms where the sun doesn’t shine. Mussolini’s response confounded Eisenhower. Italy , for all of its power and influence, was still too weak to stand alone in the Cold War without US backing against the Soviet bloc so its behaviour was irrational.

The rationale behind Mussolini’s behaviour became clear soon enough. Like Stalin, Mussolini had noticed how, from 1942, Western scientific journals had suspiciously stopped publishing papers on the topic of uranium fission despite their progress in that area until then. In July 1942, Enrico Fermi – who was one of Italy ’s and one of the world’s leading nuclear physicists – wrote a letter to Mussolini explaining the potential power of an atomic bomb. In early 1943, Il Duce decided to launch his own atomic bomb program known as Project Jupiter, even though he lacked the resources for it, and appointed Fermi as its chief researcher. A lot of theoretical work was done, but there were little practical results due to lack of money and a strong industrial base, besides the fact that in 1943 most of Italy ’s resources were devoted to fighting in the north of the country. After the war in Europe ended, support for Project Jupiter increased only marginally because the country was rebuilding and because the war in Asia was still ongoing. Funding saw a major increase in 1945 after the American announced they had the bomb and showed the footage of the Trinity test, but in the end the project saw its greatest progress when oil money became available. From then on Project Jupiter became the main expense of the defence budget.

By the early 1950s its existence had correctly been deduced by the CIA and Soviet intelligence due to large Italian uranium imports, although both incorrectly assumed Italy would need at least another two decades to get the bomb. Fermi told Mussolini he’d have a bomb in 1960, but Il Duce wanted it sooner and applied pressure to speed things up. Fermi did what he could and settled for a smaller amount of fissile material to bring forward the test date. Besides that, he decided to emphasize the gun-type design, which was easier to make but also more inefficient than the spherical implosion-type bomb that used plutonium rather than uranium-235. In early July 1958, three weeks before Mussolini’s 75th birthday, Fermi reported that a bomb was ready for testing to which the latter reportedly said “this is the best birthday gift you could have given me.” The bomb was shipped to a test site in the centre of the Libyan Desert in secrecy for the “Jupiter-1” test and on July 12th 1958 seismographs in neighbouring countries detected a tremor. The Soviets and later the US detected radioactive fission products, traced them back to their origins and, based on the strength of the tremors, correctly deduced that a 10 kiloton nuclear explosion had taken place in Italian Libya. On July 28th, the start of a week of celebrations in honour of Mussolini’s 75th birthday, the Duce bombastically announced that Italy had become the world’s fourth nuclear power (after the United States , the Soviet Union and Great Britain ).

The following year, Italy conducted a test with an implosion-type weapon that produced a yield of 23 kilotons. A tritium boosted bomb was detonated in 1960 with an explosive force of 45 kilotons, after which a few more boosted fission devices with yields up to 150 kilotons were tested. In 1967 Italy tested its first hydrogen bomb, known as Jupiter-11, which exploded with a force of 2.2 megatons. In 1959, Italy had only one atomic bomb available in the event of war and by 1960 that had increased to only four. By 1970 Italy would have 175 nuclear weapons and its stockpile peaked in 1975 at 300. Mussolini had joined the nuclear weapons club and now the fascist bloc could go toe to toe with NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It was the crown to his life’s work.

German Fighter Ace befriends a Black South African POW & defies the Nazi status quo!

This is an extraordinary featured photograph for a variety of reasons. This is Hauptmann (Captain) Hans-Joachim Marseille, the German WW2 Fighter Ace known to the Axis Forces as “The Star of Africa” on the extreme left and Corporal Mathew ‘Mathias’ Letulu, a South African Prisoner of War who was pressed into becoming his ‘batman’ (personal assistant to an officer) in 1942 but eventually became his close and personal friend, is seen on the extreme right of the photograph.

It’s quite intriguing that Hans-Joachim Marseille had a South African assistant on the one hand when on the other hand he was the most feared of the German Pilots in the North African campaign, arguably one of the best combat pilots the world has ever seen, he clocked up quite a number of South African Air Force “kills” in his enormous tally of destroying well over 100 Allied aircraft – consisting mainly of aircraft from the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the South African Air Force (SAAF).

It’s equally a measure of Hans-Joachim Marseille as a man in that he directly baulked against the Nazi policies of racial segregation and openly befriended a Black man, especially amazing considering his role as a senior commissioned officer in the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) and hero of the Reich.

Over time, Marseille and “Mathias” Letulu became inseparable. Marseille was concerned how Letulu would be treated by other units of the Wehrmacht and once remarked

Marseille secured promises from his senior commander, Neumann, that if anything should happen to him (Marseille) Cpl “Mathias” Letulu was to be kept with the unit. Unusual behaviour for a German officer in the Third Reich, but Marsaille was no card carrying member of the Nazi party, in fact he despised them.

No ardent Nazi

In terms of personality Hans-Joachim Marseille was the opposite of highly disciplined German officer, he was “the funny guy” and almost kicked out of Luftwaffe several times for his antics. The only reason he wasn’t was because his father was a high ranking WW I veteran and an army officer and Hans-Joachim Marseille tested how far this protection would go.

If you look “misbehaving scoundrel” in dictionary there should be an image of Hans’ smirking face next to it. On one occasion he actually strafed the ground in front of his superior officer’s tent. He could have been court marshalled for that alone, but by then he was starting to demonstrate his superior pilot skills as an upcoming Fighter Ace.

He hated Nazis and he despised authority in general and always had strained relations with his authoritarian father who was the model of a strict Prussian officer. Hans was truly the opposite of his father.

His American biographers Colin Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis recall in ‘The Star of Africa’ that he once landed on the autobahn simply to relieve himself. Tired of his undisciplined behaviour, a superior officer had him transferred to North Africa in 1941. Here he thrived, his dazzling record earned him the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, and acclaim at home. But the record suggests he was no ardent Nazi.

He listened to banned Jazz music openly, drank a lot and sometimes showed up to service smelling of booze and in hangover, he was a known womanizer, going against Nazi ideology in every possible manner – and getting away with it.

An incident happened which really shows the metal and attitude of the man. It occurred when Hans-Joachim Marseille was summoned to Berlin as Hitler wanted to present him with decorations. As a gifted pianist Marseille was invited to play a piece at the home of Willy Messerschmitt, an industrialist and the designer of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter Marseille had achieved so much success in.

Guests at the party included Adolf Hitler, party chairman Martin Borman, Hitler’s deputy and Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler and Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. After impressing them with a display of piano play for over an hour, including Ludwig van Beethoven’s Für Elise, Marseille proceeded to play American Jazz, which was considered degenerate in Nazi ideology. Hitler stood, raised his hand, and said “I think we’ve heard enough” and left the room.

Magda Goebbels found the prank amusing and Artur Axmann recalled how his “blood froze” when he heard this “Ragtime” music being played in front of the Führer.

But a more telling incident of his attitude to Nazism was to come. On one occasion when he was summoned to Germany, he noted that Jewish people had been removed from his neighbourhood (including his Jewish family Doctor who delivered him) and grilled his fellow officers as to what happened to them – what he then heard were the plans for the Final Solution – the extermination of the Jews of Europe. This shocked him to the core and he actually went AWOL (Absent without Leave), he became a de facto deserter and went to Italy were he went into hiding ‘underground’.

The Nazi German Gestapo (Secret Police) however managed to track him down and forced him to return to his unit where other pilots noticed that he appeared severely depressed, concerned and wasn’t anything like his normal happy self that they were used to.

Friendship with Corporal Mathew Letulu

Marseille’s friendship with his ‘batman’ (personal helper) is also used to show his anti-Nazi character. In 1942 Marseille befriended a South African Army prisoner of war, Corporal Mathew Letulu. Marseille took him as a personal helper rather than allow him to be sent to a prisoner of war camp in Europe.

“Mathias” was the nickname given Corporal Mathew Letulu by his captors. Cpl Letulu was part of the South African Native Military Corps and was taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) by the Germans on the morning of 21 June 1942 when Tobruk and the defending South Africans under General Klopper were overrun by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.

‘Black’ POW where treated differently to White ‘POW’ by Nazi Germany, instead of mere confinement under the conventions, Black POW were but to unpaid ‘labour’ assisting the Nazi cause, resistance to which was a grim outcome. Letulu was put to work by the Germans – initially as a driver. The vehicle belonged to 3 Squadron of Jagdgeschwader – or Fighter Wing – 27 (JG 27) based at Gazala, 80km west of Tobruk. Here, Letulu came to the attention of the reckless and romantic Hans-Joachim Marseille.

By this time Letulu had advanced a little in his lot to a helper in 3 Squadrons club casino, where he took a particular liking to Marseille. In need of personal assistants for officers (known in the military as a “batman”) some POW’s where snapped up by German Officers, Hans-Joachim Marseille was no different and Cpl Letulu was taken on initially as his batman, but very quickly became a close friend.

Marseille knew that as his kill score grew, the chance of him being pulled from the front lines increased every day, and if he was to be taken away, Cpl “Mathias” Letulu, who because he was a black man, might be in danger given the Nazi racial philosophy. With utmost seriousness, he had his fellow pilot Ludwig Franzisket promise to become Mathias’ protector should Marseille lose the capability to be in that role.

Corporal Letulu also knew that by sticking with Marseille he stood a better chance of surviving the war and eventually escaping, and because they viewed each other in an extremely positive light, Letulu made Marseille’s life in the combat zone as comfortable as possible.

The following on their unique bond comes from “German Fighter Ace – Hans-Joachim Marseille, The life story of the Star of Africa” by Franz Kurowksi.

“Through few odd twists of fate Hans had Mathew assigned to his personal assistant but he treated him in every way like a friend, having long talks with him and possibly even sharing alcohol and listening to music together, just hanging out like a couple of friends who happened to be in a war and on different sides.

Besides Mathew, Hans would often see other captured Allied pilots and talk to them in English and socialise. Hans would also violate a direct order not to notify the enemy of the fate of their pilots – he would take off solo with a parachute note explaining the names of the captured pilots and that they were alive and well. As he flew over enemy airfields to drop these notes he would be attacked by AA fire, so he was risking his life to let the families of his enemy pilots know that the pilots were alive and well – or dead, removing their MIA (Missing in Action) status. According to various sources he was like that. Person who believed in chivalry who’s country was taken over by Nazis.

Eventually Hans would become even protective of Mathew especially against the Nazis”

The “Star of Africa”

Hans-Joachim Marseille’s record of 151 kills in North Africa where nothing short of staggering – he destroyed Allied (RAF, SAAF and RAAF) squadrons shooting down One Hundred and One (101) Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk/Kittyhawk fighters, 30 Hawker Hurricane fighters, 16 Supermarine Spitfire fighters, Two Martin A-30 Baltimore bombers, One Bristol Blenheim bomber and One Martin Maryland bomber.

Hans-Joachim Marseille with Hawker Hurricane MkIIB of 274. Squadron RAF, North Afrika – 30 March 1942 (coloured)

As a fighter pilot Marseille always strove to improve his abilities. He worked to strengthen his legs and abdominal muscles, to help him tolerate the extreme ‘G forces’ of air combat. Marseille also drank an abnormal amount of milk and shunned sunglasses, to improve his eyesight.

To counter German fighter attacks, the Allied pilots flew “Lufbery circles” (in which each aircraft’s tail was covered by the friendly aircraft behind). The tactic was effective and dangerous as a pilot attacking this formation could find himself constantly in the sights of the opposing pilots. Marseille often dived at high-speed into the middle of these defensive formations from either above or below, executing a tight turn and firing a two-second deflection shot to destroy an enemy aircraft.

Marseille attacked under conditions many considered unfavourable, but his marksmanship allowed him to make an approach fast enough to escape the return fire of the two aircraft flying on either flank of the target. Marseille’s excellent eyesight made it possible for him to spot the opponent before he was spotted, allowing him to take the appropriate action and manoeuvre into position for an attack.

In combat, Marseille’s unorthodox methods led him to operate in a small leader/wingman unit, which he believed to be the safest and most effective way of fighting in the high-visibility conditions of the North African skies. Marseille “worked” alone in combat keeping his wingman at a safe distance so he would not collide or fire on him in error.

In a dogfight, particularly when attacking Allied aircraft in a Lufbery circle, Marseille would often favour dramatically reducing the throttle and even lowering the flaps to reduce speed and shorten his turn radius, rather than the standard procedure of using full throttle throughout. Emil Clade said that none of the other pilots could do this effectively, preferring instead to dive on single opponents at speed so as to escape if anything went wrong.

Marseille’s South African associations went beyond his bond with Cpl “Mathias” Letulu and was far more lethal in respect to South African pilots. In the weeks before the two met, Marseille is credited with shooting down three SA Air Force pilots west of Bir-el Harmat on May 31, including Bishops’ old boy Major Andrew Duncan (who was killed), and three days later, another six South African Air Force “kills” in just 11 minutes, three of whom were high-scoring aces. One of them, Robin Pare, was killed in the combat.

Death of Hauptmann Hans-Joachim Marseille

On 30 Sep 1942, Marseille’s brilliant total record of 158 career-kills came to an end (151 of them with JG 27 in North Africa).

After the engine of his Bf 109G fighter developed serious trouble, he bailed out of the aircraft close to friendly territory under the watchful eyes of his squadron mates. To their horror, Marseille’s fighter unexpectedly fell at a steep angle as he bailed out, the vertical stabilizer striking him across the chest and hip. He was either killed instantly or was knocked unconscious in either case, his parachute did not deploy, and he struck the ground about 7 kilometers south of Sidi Abdel Rahman, Egypt.

Messerschmitt Bf 109F-4 , Hans Joachim Marseille, colorised picture.

His friend and fellow JG 27 pilot and Knights Cross recipient Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket along with the squadron surgeon Dr. Winkelmann, were the first two to arrive on the scene, bringing Marseille’s remains back to the base.

Mathias was the first to greet them, and the following is accounted from a memoir by Wilhelm Ratuszynski.

Although the heat didn’t encourage any activity, something told Mathias to wash Hans’ clothes. Hans liked to change into a fresh uniform after the flight. He always liked to look presentable. Mathias opted to use gasoline this time. They wash would dry in just few minutes.

Usually, this was done by scrubbing uniforms with sand to rid it of salt, oil and grime. Everything was in short supply. Being a personal batman for Hans-Joachim Marseille, the most famous Luftwaffe pilot, had its advantages. For instance he was given a little of aircraft fuel for washing. Mathias liked being Jochens servant and he liked Jochen himself.

They were friends. Mathias had barely started his chore, when the sound of approaching aircraft signaled to ground personnel to change torpidness for activness. Mathias put the lid on the soaking uniforms and started to walk towards the landing aircraft. He was looking for familiar plane which supposed to have number 14 painted in visible yellow on fuselage. It was supposed to land last. He noticed that three planes were missing, and last one to touch down had different number on it.

Unalarmed, he turned toward Rudi who had already jumped on the ground from wing of his 109. He saw Mathias coming and cut short his conversation with his mechanic. His face was somber when he looked at Mathias and slowly shook his head. And Mathias understood immediately. He kept looking straight into Rudi’s face for few more seconds, slowly turned and walked away. He noticed a strange sensation. No anger, sorrow, grief, nor resignation. He was calm yet something gripped his throat. Muscles on his neck tightened and he found it hard to swallow. He walked for few minutes without noticing others who were staring at him. He came to Jochen’s colorful Volks (volkswagen car) called “Otto” and sat behind steering wheel. For a moment he looked like he wanted to go somewhere, but climbed out and approached the soaking uniforms.

He looked at the canvas bag with initial H-J.M laying right beside it. He reached into his breast pocket for matches. Slowly but without any hesitation he struck a match and threw it on the laundry. Flames that burst out added to the already scourging heat. At that moment last rotte was flying in. Mathias intuitively lifted his head, following them. The lump in his throat got bigger.

While the entire squadron was devastated at the loss of such a great fighter ace, Mathias, despite having known Marseille only for a short time, was deeply depressed at the loss of a dear friend.

Marseille was initially buried in a German military cemetery in Derna, Libya during a ceremony which was attended by leaders such as Albert Kesselring and Eduard Neumann. He was later re-interned at Tobruk, Libya.

Ludwig Franzisket

After Marseille’s death, as promised to his friend, Hauptmann Ludwig Franzisket took Cpl Letulu in, and in turn he became his personal servant. Cpl Letulu remained with the Squadron even after Franzisket was forced to bail out whereby he too struck the vertical stabilizer, shattering a leg in the process. After been nursed to health, Franzisket returned to his Squadron and Cpl Letulu continued serving him in Tunisia, Sicily, and finally Greece.

By the summer of 1944 the situation there had grown critical with a British invasion of the Greek continent imminent. The chance had come to “smuggle” Cpl. “Mathias” Letulu into one of the hastily established POW camps, where he could then be “liberated” by the British. Franzisket planned this coup together with Hauptmann Buchholz. “Mathias “became “Mathew” again and was a corporal in the South African Division. Everything went off without a hitch. He was set free by British troops in September of 1944 and allowed to return home at the end of hostilities.

By coincidence, after the war, former members of JG 27 learned that Cpl “Mathias” Letulu was still alive. They immediately sent him an invitation, paid for the journey and other expenses, and finally, at the tenth reunion of the Deutsches Afrikakorps in the fall of 1984, they were once again reunited with their old South African friend.

The former pilots were elated to see him and invitations rained from all around. The following words, spoken in German as a tribute to Hans-Joachim Marseille by “Mathias” Letulu at the happy conclusion of his odyssey, and it gives some insight into the bond which had united Letulu with his German friend:

“Hauptmann Marseille was a great man and a person always willing to lend a helping hand. He was always full of humor and friendly. And he was very good to me.

In 1989, a new grave marker and a new plaque was placed at his grave site Marseille’s surviving Luftwaffe comrades attended the event, including his Allied friend – Mathew “Mathias” Letulu who flew out specifically from South Africa to attend the ceremony.

Watch the video: Una giornata tranquilla a Marsa Matruh (January 2022).