The Desert War – August 1940

well_chuffed, Going Postal
LRDG Headquarters Section (note markings on “Louise”) of Chevrolet 30 cwt. The first two vehicles are armed with Vickers guns, and have canvas sand mats rolled up and stored on the front wheel arches.
Unknown author / Public domain

We reach August 1940, eighty years ago. Things still looking bleak for the Brits and it doesn’t really improve this month and we moan about the lockdown, albeit with some justification. The Italians had been scheduled to attack Egypt this month but they managed to prevaricate a bit longer.

On the 2nd 12 Hurricanes flew from HMS Argus to Malta, their defences were finally getting some modern equipment though it has to be said the Gladiators had performed more than magnificently. On the 6th and 8th, two British submarines arrived in Malta with spare parts for the Hurricanes.

On the 10th the Italian Navy issued orders for a September attack on Alexandria and an October attack on Gibraltar though this was later amended to be simultaneous attacks in September.

On the 3rd the Italians invaded British Somaliland from Abyssinia heading for the port of Berbera and this is the location where most of the action takes place this month. The Italians had 24,000 troops and the British had 4,000, no heavy vehicles or aircraft. On the 5th the Italians reached the port of Zeila and on the 6th they took Odweina. By the 12th the British had been pushed back and were on the defensive. On the 14th withdrawal to Berbera was authorised and began on the 15th. The Royal Navy had already been evacuating civilians from Berbera and on the 16th they began evacuating military personnel. By the 19th the British left Berbera having extracted about 7,000 people and the Italians took over.

In terms of reinforcements, on the 7th the 1st Battalion of the 2nd Punjab Regiment arrived in Somaliland and on the 8th the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch arrived but they were not enough to save the day. Reinforcements were ordered to march (yes march though surely that should mean trains or ships) from Egypt but naturally enough they got nowhere near the action before it was all over.

On the 9th in the Battle of Britain, Goering made his big blunder and switched attacks from airfields to cities. The Germans had come to the conclusion that there were too many airfields and they were never going to suppress them all. Big mistake luckily for us. They had also underestimated our aircraft production and the Luftwaffe was constantly surprised at how many fighters were attacking them. In their eyes it wasn’t possible, we were down to our last few planes or so they thought.

On the 15th came Black Thursday for the Germans in the Battle of Britain when they suffered their greatest losses, on our side it is known as the Greatest Day. On the 18th came our Hardest Day when the Luftwaffe made an all out attempt to destroy fighter command. We shot down twice as many planes as they did but they destroyed many aircraft on the ground roughly equalling out the losses. On the 20th after losing 60 Stukas in 11 days the Luftwaffe withdrew them from the Battle of Britain.

On the 11th the decision was made to reinforce the British Army in Egypt. 150 tanks and other vehicles were to be sent. These 150 tanks were half of those remaining in Britain, the losses at Dunkirk had been enormous and the cupboard was almost bare. The sea voyage was around Africa and took about 70 days. Soon after this they tried flying the planes across from West Africa after assembly on the spot but the 3500 mile route meant the planes needed servicing on arrival as did their exhausted crews.

On the 15th 4 manned torpedoes left la Spezia for Libya on the destroyer/torpedo boat Calipso accompanied by the submarine Iride but on the 21st the sub was sunk in the Gulf of Bomba off Libya by, once again, Swordfish from HMS Eagle. They also sank a depot ship and a torpedo boat in that action. Iride had been converted specifically to carry manned torpedoes and the Italians were carrying out tests when they were discovered. The Italians were testing their human torpedoes, not that they were really ready but orders were orders as they say. The torpedoes had been transferred to the cradles on the deck of the submarine but then the real torpedoes came from the Swordfish. The original plan was for the submarine to take them to Alexandria on the 22nd after tests had been completed. The Italians would get to Alexandria but not until later.

There is not that much in the way of other news this month … on the 1st the Duke of Windsor and his septic bint finally got off the pot and buggered off to well deserved obscurity in the Bahamas and on the same day the erics started planning for Operation Barbarossa, on the 8th the pay of a Private was increased to 17s 6d a week – a generous 88p in today’s money or about £50 in today’s value. You’d be far better off on bennies today. On the 20th the tramp’s hero, Leon Trotsky NHRN (in reality Lev Bronstein), was attacked in Mexico with an ice pick, at the request of Joe Stalin. In the unintelligible world of communist theory it is easiest to say Trots are in favour of permanent revolution though it is hard to fathom. On the 21st Trotsky breathed his last and Uncle Joe probably breathed a sigh of relief; they were out to get him you know. On the 31st it was reported that over 51,000 Brits had registered as conscientious objectors, or conchies as they were more widely known. The ancestors of a few of our modern day politicians were on that list, the father of the revolting Jack Straw and the grandfather of the equally revolting Mandelslime amongst others, nothing to be deduced there I’m sure. Even Barry Bucknell succumbed and joined the Fire Service, those puffins of a certain age will remember his TV shows about DIY, unexpectedly he was on the BBC who always like that kind of person.

During the month the RAF continued with attempts to sink the Tirpitz with no success. The eventual solution would come via the Italian frogmen’s example but in the meantime there were many RAF missions trying to bomb her.

Having been formed in June 1940, the Long Range Desert Group were still busy training. Many of the members were from New Zealand (when asked for volunteers, half the NZ Division stepped forward), a Kiwi farmer being recognised as the ideal template for an LRDG member. These units had been preceded by the Italian Auto-Saharan Companies who had been formed in the 1930s and had much the same function. The Italians even had their own reconnaissance planes alongside their vehicles and continued in service up to the Axis North African collapse in 1943.

September next, the more bloodthirsty amongst you will be pleased to learn that the action begins in earnest during that month.

© well_chuffed 2020

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