The Western Desert Campaign, or the Desert War, was the major stage of fighting in North Africa during the Second World War. Following the British defeats in Greece and Crete, the Western Desert was a significant avenue for Churchill and the British army to continue the fight against Germany, and therefore was central to the war effort. For Adolf Hitler and a German military committed to waging a war in the vastness of Russia, the war in the desert was a holding action of minor importance. The German command never committed the resources necessary to achieve a victory. Only when the issue was nearly settled did it assume real significance in the mind of the German leader.
The Western Desert Campaign was a back-and-forth struggle which began in September 1940 with the Italian invasion of Egypt. Italian forces in Libya advanced upon British and Commonwealth forces, who were stationed in Egypt to protect British interests there. The Italians halted to bring up supplies, and the British counterattacked. What started as a five-day raid in December 1940 turned into a major offensive operation, resulting in the destruction of an Italian army. With his holdings in Africa threatened, Benito Mussolini pled with Hitler to provide a contingent of ground and air forces to prevent a total collapse. This was done when a small unit was dispatched from Italy to Tripoli, the first of a number of units that were transferred to Africa under the command of Erwin Rommel. Though all Axis forces in Africa were nominally under Italian command, Germany was the dominant partner in the pairing.
Over the course of the next two years, Axis forces under Rommel launched assaults three times against the Allies. Each time, the Axis forces pushed the Allies back to the Egyptian frontier, but each time the Allies regrouped and counterattacked. On the final Axis push the Allies were driven deep into Egypt. However, at El Alamein the Allies recovered and then drove the Axis forces west. Axis forces never recovered, and were driven completely out of Libya to Tunisia. The final chapter of the Axis in Africa concluded with the Allied victory in Tunisia.
Cyrenaica (Libya) had been an Italian colony since the Italian Royal Army defeated the Ottoman Imperial Army during the Italo-Turkish War in 1912. With French North Africa to the west and Egypt to the east, the Italians prepared for conflicts on both sides. Italy had two armies in Libya under the command of the Governor-General of Italian Libya, the charismatic Marshal of the Air Force, Italo Balbo. The 5th Army in Tripolitania, comprising nine infantry divisions, was commanded by General Italo Gariboldi. The 10th Army in Cyrenaica was led by General Mario Berti and was made up of five infantry divisions. The 10th Army was the principal force on the border with Egypt.
The British had forces in Egypt since 1882, but these were greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The relatively modest British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt were there primarily to protect the Suez Canal. The canal was vital to Britain's communications with her Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories. The British forces in Egypt included Mobile Force (Egypt) commanded by Major-General Percy Hobart, an armoured warfare proponent and innovator in the British army. This was one of only two British armoured training formations. At the outbreak of war, this force was renamed "Armoured Division (Egypt)" and ultimately became the 7th Armoured Division. The 7th Armoured, nicknamed the "Desert Rats", served as the principal force defending the Egyptian border with Libya at the start of the war.
At the end of July 1939, Lieutenant-General Archibald Wavell was appointed General Officer Commanding-in-Chief (GOC-in-C) of the newly created Middle East Command, with responsibility for the Mediterranean and Middle East theatre. The troops opposing the Italians in Libya were the 6th Infantry Division under the command of Major-General Richard O'Connor. They were redesignated the Western Desert Force and O'Connor given the rank of lieutenant-general in October as his command was reinforced and expanded.
According to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the approximately 215,000 Italians in Libya faced approximately 35,000 British in Egypt. In all respects, the Italian land and air forces (Regia Aeronautica) in Libya greatly outnumbered the British in Egypt. The British, however, had the advantage of better mobility and quality.
Skirmishes on the frontierEdit
The British initially covered the western Egyptian border with Cyrenacia using a light mobile force. It included light tanks of the 7th Hussars, armoured cars of the 11th Hussars, two motor battalions of the 60th Rifles and the Rifle Brigade, and two regiments of motorised Royal Horse Artillery.
On 11 June 1940, the day after Italy declared war on the Allies, the Italian forces in Libya and the British and Commonwealth forces in Egypt launched a series of small raids upon each other. On 14 June, the 11th Hussars, the 7th Hussars, and one company of the 60th Rifles captured Fort Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena, with 220 prisoners taken. Two days later, a raid deep into Italian territory resulted in the interception of a convoy on the Tobruk-Bardia highway, part of the Via Balbia. An Italian general was captured and 12 Italian tanks destroyed.
On 25 June, France and Italy signed the Franco-Italian Armistice, ending their conflict. As a result, Italian soldiers and materials from the 5th Army in Tripolatania could be sent east to reinforce the 10th Army on the Egyptian frontier. In time, the 10th Army grew to 10 divisions, leaving the 5th Army with four. By mid-July, the Italians were able to reinforce the forces on the Egyptian frontier to a strength of two full infantry divisions and elements of two more.
On 28 June, Marshal Balbo was in transit to Tobruk when his plane was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft gunners. His aircraft had arrived over the port city shortly after a British air raid and was mistaken for a British bomber. The general was killed in the accident. Balbo's replacement as Commander-in-Chief and as Governor-General was Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.
On 5 August, a large but inconclusive action took place between Sidi Azeiz and Fort Capuzzo. Thirty Italian M11/39 medium tanks made contact with the 8th Hussars in an effort to re-establish themselves in the area. General Wavell concluded that he was in no position to deny the Italians.
Wear and tear on the armored vehicles of the 7th Armoured Division from the desert actions was great. The sand was very hard on the equipment, the track life of the tanks was far shorter in the desert than in other theaters. The British repair workshops were back-logged. With an average of only one half of his tank strength available for action and realising that his one effective force was being worn out to no strategic purpose, Wavell curtailed further operations on the frontier and handed over the defence to the 7th Support Group under Brigadier William Gott and the 11th Hussars under Lieutenant-Colonel John Combe. These units would provide a screen of outposts to give warning of any Italian approach.
Throughout the rest of August and the early days of September, an uneasy calm settled upon the desert. The calm was broken only by sharp contact between patrols and sporadic aerial fighting as both sides sought knowledge of the other side's intention. While a formidable spy network in Egypt kept the Italians informed, the British chose other ways to obtain information. The Long Range Desert Group was formed under Major Ralph A. Bagnold, and soon Italian movements far behind the lines were being reported by sky-wave radio links.
Benito Mussolini desired to expand Italian influence in the Mediterranean by linking Italian North Africa (Africa Settentrionale Italiana) with Italian East Africa (Africa Orientale Italiana), capturing the Suez Canal and the Arabian oilfields in the process. He ordered the invasion of Egypt on 8 August. A month later, on 9 September 1940, the largely unmotorized Italian forces under the overall command of Marshal Rodolfo Graziani invaded Egypt from their base in Cyrenaica. Sollum, Halfaya Pass, and Sidi Barrani were taken by the invading Italians. Fearful of extending beyond his supply capabilities, Graziani halted the advance a week later on 16 September. Despite Mussolini's urging to continue, Graziani dug his Italian forces in around Sidi Barrani and established several fortified positions (represented on the adjacent map as small red circles). His plans were to return to the offensive once he had brought up enough supplies to support the next step in the invasion. The advance had stopped some 80 mi (130 km) west of the British defensive positions at Mersa Matruh. Graziani planned to advance on Mersa Matruh in mid-December.
On 9 December 1940, the Western Desert Force (including portions of the Indian 4th Division and the British 7th Armoured Division) launched Operation Compass, a counterattack. The Italians were caught completely off-guard. By 10 December, the British and Indian forces had taken more than 20,000 Italian prisoners. The following day, they attacked Sollum, supported by ships of the Mediterranean Fleet. Sidi Barrani fell on the same day.
To O'Connor's shock, Wavell then replaced the experienced 4th Indian (who were immediately rushed to Port Sudan – see East African Campaign) with the newly arrived Australian 6th Division. The Australians then pressed on to capture Bardia and Tobruk, capturing 67,000 prisoners, over 500 guns, while losing 180 dead. In early February, the Italians were retreating along the coast, pursued by the Australians.
O'Connor ordered the 7th Armoured to advance overland through Mechili to Beda Fomm and cut off the Italian line of retreat. Major-General Michael O'Moore Creagh sent Combe Force—an ad hoc flying column—racing ahead of his tanks. Combe Force reached Beda Fomm some 45 minutes before the Italians who were coming down the coast road from Benghazi. The Italians were surprised to find Combe and his force blocking their retreat. After a number of desperate efforts to push past Combe's men, the Italians surrendered. 25,000 men, 200 artillery guns, 100 tanks and 1,500 vehicles were captured.
In this swift campaign, the British captured 130,000 Italians at a cost of 2,000 casualties. Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, paraphrasing Churchill, quipped "Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few." The remaining Italian forces of the Tenth army, some 8,000 men, retreated to El Agheila by 9 February 1941.[N 1]
During the course of this battle, the Western Desert Force was renamed as XIII Corps.
Rommel's first offensiveEdit
In early 1941, after the decisive British and Commonwealth victory in Cyrenaica, the military position was soon reversed. Wavell ordered a significant portion of O'Connor's XIII Corps to support Greece as part of Operation Lustre. While Wavell was reducing his forces in North Africa, German dictator Adolf Hitler responded to the Italian disaster by ordering Operation Sonnenblume ("Sunflower"). This was the deployment of the newly formed German "Afrika Korps" (Deutsches Afrikakorps) as reinforcements to the Italians to prevent total collapse. The German corps included fresh troops with better equipment and a charismatic commander, General Erwin Rommel.
When Rommel arrived in North Africa, along with six Italian divisions which included the Trento and Ariete, his orders were to assume a defensive posture and hold the front line. Finding that the British defences were thin, he quickly defeated the Allied forces at El Agheila on 24 March. He then launched an offensive which, by 15 April, had pushed the British back to the border at Sollum, recapturing all of Libya except for Tobruk, then under the command of the Australian Leslie Morshead which was encircled and besieged. During this drive, the new field commander for HQ Cyrenaica Command (the new designation of XIII Corps)—Lieutenant-General Philip Neame—and O'Connor himself—who had been recalled to assist—were captured as was Major-General Michael Gambier-Parry, commander of the newly arrived British 2nd Armoured Division. With Neame and O'Connor gone, British and Commonwealth forces were once more brought under the reactivated Western Desert Force HQ. In command was Lieutenant-General Noel Beresford-Peirse, who had returned to Cairo from commanding the Indian 4th Infantry Division in the East African Campaign.
Rommel's first offensive was generally successful and his forces destroyed the 2nd Armoured Division. Several attempts to seize the isolated positions at Tobruk failed and the front lines stabilised at the Egyptian border.
The siege of TobrukEdit
Tobruk was a fortified port due south of the German occupied eastern Mediterranean island of Crete. The capture of Tobruk would shorten the supply route to the Axis forces in the desert, allowing them to push on into Egypt and the vitally important Suez canal. Strategically, this in turn would open the door to controlling the Middle East oil reserves. Inside Tobruk was a force of some 25,000 Commonwealth soldiers, well stocked with supplies and with the Royal Navy committed to keeping them that way. At their disposal were armoured cars and captured Italian tanks, giving them the potential mobility to seriously interdict supply transports being brought past their position. The Tobruk garrison precluded any further moves by the Axis into Egypt. The fortress had to be taken for the Axis to win the campaign in Africa.
Rommel immediately attempted to take the port, but the defenders, largely made up of the 9th Australian division and led by General Leslie Morshead, were intent on holding the port.[N 2] Adding to the difficulty, the Italians, who had built the fort defences before the war, were slow to provide blueprints for the port fortifications. A number of attempts were driven off with losses from understrength attacks on well placed, well armed, determined defenders. After three weeks Rommel came to realize he did not have the material strength to take the fortress. What followed was a lengthy siege, with the Italian infantry divisions taking up positions about the fortress while the bulk of the Afrika Korps maintained a mobile position south and east of the port, to ward off any moves of the British while still being in position to exploit any opening in the port's defenses. The stalemate continued for eight months.
General Wavell launched a limited offensive on 15 May 1941 and code named Brevity to secure a better position to launch a major offensive. The British briefly seized Sollum, Capuzzo, and the important Halfaya Pass, but Rommel reinforced with a battalion of panzers and the offensive lost momentum and was called off, the British withdrawing from all but Halfaya Pass. On 26 May the Germans counter-attacked, and the British were forced to abandon the pass as well.
Meanwhile, Churchill pressed Wavell to push the Germans back, and sent a convoy straight through the Mediterranean to provide him with the tanks and aircraft to support the attack.[N 3] Wavell needed time to get the new equipment conditioned for the desert, and the new men needed to be trained in desert combat. In June Wavell succumbed to the political pressure being applied upon him and launched a major offensive, Operation Battleaxe, in an attempt to relieve Tobruk. In the resultant battle his forces were defeated soundly. The British tanks funneled into Halifaya Pass and many were torn apart by well-placed 88 mm guns; Rommel's Panzer forces then counterattacked and chased away the survivors. After the failure of Battleaxe, Churchill replaced Wavell with Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief Middle East.[N 4] The British forces were further reinforced with the newly formed XXX Corps.
The overall Allied field command now became British 8th Army, formed from units from many countries, including 9th Division and 18th Brigade from the Australian Army and the Indian Army, but also including divisions of South Africans, New Zealanders, a brigade of Free French under Marie-Pierre Koenig and the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade.
On 18 November 1941, Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham commanded the 8th Army in their winter offensive, Operation Crusader. The Axisforces achieved several tactical successes, which led to Auchinlek's decision to replace Cunningham with Major-General Neil Ritchie, but 8th Army relieved the siege of Tobruk and the Axis garrisons at Bardia and Sollum soon had to surrender. In the end Rommel was forced to withdraw, once more moving behind the defensive positions at El Agheila.
Rommel's second offensiveEdit
Following reinforcement by several successful convoy runs to Tripoli, the strength of the Afrika Korps was adequate for Rommel to move back onto the offensive. The relatively inexperienced British 1st Armoured Division, which formed the principal defence were dispersed around El Agheila. Rommel's Afrika Korps attacked on 21 January scattering the British 1st Armoured Division's units. The 2nd Armoured Brigade was committed piecemeal and were decimated by the more concentrated German forces. Both units were forced back across the Cyrenaica line into eastern Libya, along with the 201st Guards Motor Brigade, in the process giving up both Msus and Benghazi to the German forces.
By February the front line settled down at the Gazala line, just west of Tobruk. Axis screening forces were located here, with the bulk of the Afrika Korps held back in a reactive position. Through the spring the British attempted to build up supplies and reinforcements for a summer offensive, and to a smaller degree, the Axis forces did so as well.
To forestall the British move, Rommel struck first. In June 1942 after a lengthy armoured battle and multiple attempts at encirclement, he defeated the Allies in the Battle of Gazala. A day later he successfully attacked the fortress of Tobruk, capturing the port. Auchinleck relieved Ritchie and assumed personal command of 8th Army, halting Rommel in the First Battle of El Alamein at the Alamein Line only seventy miles from Alexandria, just before Churchill relieved him of command.
Montgomery's Allied offensiveEdit
Anxious to gain a victory in the desert, Churchill replaced General Auchinleck with General Harold Alexander as Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command. He chose General William Gott, the commander of XIII Corps, to take command of the 8th Army. Gott's aircraft was intercepted by a group of Me 109Es on a return flight to Cairo from the battlefield. The plane was shot down and the general killed. Subsequently, Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery took over as commander of the 8th Army.
Montgomery patiently built up the 8th Army and trained it for the upcoming offensive. A pre-emptive Geman assault was turned back sharply at the Battle of Alam el Halfa in August 1942. In October the 8th Army began its offensive, winning a decisive victory in the Second Battle of El Alamein. In a brilliant rearguard action, Rommel was able to extract the mobile units of his army, but the non-motorized units, particularly the Italian formations in the center and south, had to march out with limited water. These were all lost, and their capture by the British took on a humanitarian aspect.
Attempts to encircle the Axis forces at Marsa Matruh were frustrated, and the bulk of the Afrika Korps had escaped by 7 November. The coast road remained in possession of the retreating Axis forces, but lack of fuel and armor for a mobile defense of the open southern flank made making a stand at Halfaya Pass or any other position impossible. Egypt was cleared, and Tobruk retaken on 13 November. Rommel's forces continued to withdraw, with 8th Army unable to cut off their escape. Benghazi fell on 20 November. These two port towns aided the resupply of the forward campaign. An opportunity to outflank Rommel at Agedabia was cautiously declined, in case of counter-attack.
The Germans and Italians retired to a prepared defence line at El Agheila. Axis supplies and reinforcements were now directed into Tunisia at Rommel's expense: he was left with no capacity to counter-attack and was critically short of fuel. Hitler ordered that the El Agheila line should be held at all costs, whereas Rommel's view was for a fighting retreat to Tunisia and a strong defensive position at the Gabès Gap. Permission was granted for a withdrawal to Buerat, 50 mi (80 km) east of Sirte. An attempt to outflank El Agheila between 14 and 16 December once again failed to encircle the enemy – Rommel had exercised his authority to withdraw and his line of retreat was adequately defended.
At this stage, the front was over 400 mi (640 km) from the nearest usable port at Tobruk and the difficulties of supply now hampered Montgomery's ability to deploy his full strength. Allied pressure continued as the Axis forces reached Buerat. This line was not strongly defended, however, and the pursuit continued. Tripoli was captured on 23 January 1943. The port was brought into use and, by mid-February 1943, nearly 3,000 short tons (2,700 t) of stores were landed daily. In March the 8th Army had entered Tunisia. On 9 March, Rommel returned to Germany to communicate to Hitler the realities of conditions in North Africa, and to try to get him to allow the Axis forces be withdrawn. He was unsuccessful in this, and was not allowed to return to Africa, ostensibly on the grounds of his poor health.
Montgomery has been criticised for his failure to trap the Axis armies and bring them to a decisive battle in Libya. His tactics have been seen as too cautious and too slow. The counter arguments point out the defensive skills of German forces generally and the Afrika Korps in particular, and Montgomery's need not to relapse into the "see-saw" warfare of previous north African campaigns. Warfare in the desert has been described as a "quarter-master's nightmare", given the conditions of desert warfare and the difficulties of supply. Montgomery is renowned for fighting "balanced campaigns" and husbanding his resources: no attack until his troops were prepared and properly supplied. The 8th Army's morale greatly improved under his command.
Desert fightingEditThe war was fought in North Africa, primarily in the rocky desert plain of Cyrenaica, modern day Libya. From the coast of North Africa extending inland lies a raised, flat plain of stoney hard desert that runs 200 to 300 km in depth until the great dunes of the Sahara are reached. The war was largely fought in this region. Traversed by the nomadic Bedoins, the region is sparsely populated. The ground is a flat, hard scrabble with little or no cover, and difficult for infantry to dig into. Conditions in the desert were harsh: miserably hot during the day, while temperatures dropped precipitously at night. The great coats of the German soldier were not discarded in Africa, nor were scarfs, which were used not only for the cold of the desert night, but for the sand storms that were frequent and blinding. Sand storms made flying impossible, and travel by land difficult. "The Ghibli" was the Bedouin name for the hot desert wind of Libya which produced the sandstorms. Navigation was by compass, and each man had one. It was easy to become lost in the desert, and hard to be found again. The sand storms could last from a few hours to several days at a time. Sand would creep into everything, and was very hard on equipment. Replacement parts were essential. Trucks were fitted with special oil filters. Aircraft had heavily modified air intakes fitted. British built trucks were more rugged and durable in the desert than German or Italian vehicles. At times, as much as 85% of the transport in the Africa Korps was British built. Of course, this meant that spare parts for the trucks the Germans were using were hard to come by. To fight an armoured war in the desert, the two essential provisions were fuel and water. Neither of these were readily available. They had to be brought forward to the combat units, and husbanded carefully. Only the Bedoins knew where to dig in the desert for water. Beyond these difficulties, the hardest thing for the men to deal with were the flies. The millions of flies got into everything, could not be escaped and got into the food stores, making eating difficult. They also carried disease. Illness amongst the Afrika Korps was a major issue. On the British side, a variety of foods were supplied in tins. For the Germans, food was monotonous and available unevenly. Between the disease, the unvaried diet and the strain of combat, soldiers in the Axis camp typically became quite thin.
With the Axis forces driven out of Libya, they would soon find themselves trapped, in the Tunisia Campaign, between the recently landed Anglo-American forces of the British 1st Army to the west and the 8th Army pursuing from the east.