The Desert War – January 1941

well_chuffed, Going Postal
March 1943, Sidi Bishr (Nr Alexandria)
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

The start of a new year and things are getting much warmer in the Mediterranean, North Africa and East Africa. The Luftwaffe arrived in Italy ready to bomb us at sea while Operation Compass continued to push the Italians back in North Africa.

First let’s start with the goings on in Libya/Egypt. On the 1st General O’Connor’s force in Egypt was reorganised as the British 13th Corps and the RAF continued bombing the port at Bardia and the airfields at Tobruk, Derna and Bernina. On the 2nd British artillery moved into position near Bardia ready to give a dawn chorus and troops of the Australian 6th Division  prepared for the ground assault.

At 5:30 am on the 3rd the artillery barrage of Bardia began and at 6am the Australians attacked from the west firstly clearing anti-tank obstacles for the 23 tanks of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment that started off at 6:50am. Three battleships, among others, bombarded Bardia with 244 15 inch shells, 270 6 inch shells, 250 4.5 inch shells and many more smaller calibre shells. The ground forces would reach 2 miles in to the Italian lines. On the 4th by 4pm Allied troops reached Bardia splitting the Italians into two groups, many of whom surrendered.

On the 5th Australian troops supported by 6 Matilda tanks took the last Italian position at Bardia, the remaining Italian forces surrendered soon afterwards. In the battle for Bardia the Italians lost 1,000 killed, 3,000 wounded, and 36,000 taken prisoner. There was also much captured equipment including intriguingly 115 tankettes; might be useful on #FF ?

On the 6th a Free French force attacked and captured Murzuk airfield from Chad. Meanwhile, back in the north of Libya, the British 4th Armoured Division advanced 50 miles further than Bardia and captured Belhamed to the east of Tobruk along with the airfield 8 miles to the south. On the 7th the Australian 6th Division and the 4th Armoured Division nearly surrounded Tobruk after they captured Acroma, 10 miles to the west of Tobruk. By the 9th those two forces had encircled Tobruk in which 25,000 Italians were trapped.

On the 11th Hitler issued yet another Führer Directive, #22 this time, which started Operation Alpine Violets, the deployment of German units to North Africa and Albania to “help” the Italian war efforts.  On the 12th the British hurried to repair their tanks in readiness for the assault on Tobruk. and HMS Protector left Bardia for Alexandria carrying over 1,000 Italian PoWs.

On the 20th British ships started bombarding Tobruk and the RAF added Wellington and Blenheim bombers to the mix. On the 21st at 5:40am the Allies began an artillery barrage of Tobruk while Aussie engineers cleared a path for 18 Matildas and a few captured Italian tanks, 8,000 Italians were captured including a General who was offered a ceasefire but he refused because Il Duce had demanded a fight to the last man. Overnight Italian bombers attacked and inadvertently killed several hundred Italian prisoners. On the 22nd cruiser San Giorgio was scuttled by its own crew at Tobruk, in the afternoon Brigadier General della Mura surrendered the 61st Infantry Division. Fighting continued throughout the day but before it finished Admiral Vietina surrendered to the Australian troops.

On the 23rd the Allies captured Tobruk though it would take a few hours to clear the last outposts. HMT Arthur Cavanagh and HMT Milford Countess began clearing sunken Italian ships from Tobruk Harbour. On the 24th on the road to Derna the Allies ran into the newly organised Italian Special Armoured Brigade and beat them near Mechili losing 7 tanks to the Italian’s 9. On the 26th the Italians evacuated Mechili and the Allies took Derna after which General O’Moore Creagh was ordered to cut the coastal road south of Benghazi. On the 27th the Aussies took Fort Rudero near Derna but there were Italians at Wadi Derna who were still fighting. On the 29th some of the British 7th Armoured Division outflanked the Italian guns overlooking Derna forcing General Bergonzoli to withdraw them. Bergonzoli’s nickname was “electric whiskers”. This was because his beard stuck straight out of his face, rather like the spiny coat of a hedgehog giving him the appearance of someone who had suffered an electric shock.

On the 31st Free French forces from Chad attacked the Italians at Kufra in south eastern Libya, they were assisted by the Long Range Desert Group. Initially known as the Long Range Patrol Unit it was founded on 3rd July 1940 and renamed as the LRDG in November 1940. Kufra airbase was important to Italians, it was used on the way to Italian East Africa.

By the end of January Operation Compass had captured as far as Tobruk and was threatening Benghazi but with the Germans on the way, how would it turn out.

Down in Italian East Africa the British began their revenge. In preparation Dudley Clarke had set up Operation Camilla, designed to convince the Italians we would attack Somaliland. By means of his usual tricks the Italians were completely taken in but instead of reinforcing Somaliland as was expected, they withdrew their troops to Eritrea and this is where the attacks were scheduled to take place. A completely successful deception had completely the opposite consequences to those intended. This was a hard lesson for Dudley to learn.

On the 1st Wingate had managed to get his irregular forces named the Gideon force. His Zionism was as strong as ever. On the 19th British and Commonwealth troops attacked Italian Eritrea. The 4th and 5th Indian Infantry Divisions captured Kassala on the border of Eritrea and this allowed the column led by General William Platt to march south into Eritrea. On the 20th Wingate’s Gideon Force had crossed into Ethiopia with the Emperor and they held a flag raising ceremony a few yards into Ethiopian territory. Wingate then set off for Belaiya. On the 21st came the last recorded charge by cavalry against a British battery. Sixty mounted Eritreans led by an Italian officer attacked firing on the move and throwing grenades. About 40 of them were killed or wounded, the rest fled. On the same day the Indian 5th Infantry Division advanced 50 miles into Eritrea capturing Aicota and the Indian 10th Infantry Brigade with the 2nd Battalion British Highland Light Infantry headed for Keru.

On the 22nd the Indian 4th Division attacked Keru and General Fongoli along with his 1,200 men surrendered. On the 25th African troops, including Saffers, crossed into Italian Somaliland from Kenya. The Italians withdrew 100 miles behind the river Juba in response. On the 31st the Indian 4th Division outflanked and then captured Agordat in Eritrea taking 1,000 prisoners and their 43 field guns.

In Albania on the 3rd the Italians began a counter-offensive near Korcë. On the 6th the Greeks reached the Klisura Pass on the river Vjosë, the gateway to their troops on the coast. Unexpectedly the Italians gave stern resistance. On the 9th the Greeks prevailed and captured the Pass. On the 10th the Italians launched a counter attack but it failed.

On the 14th General Wavell met Greek Prime Minister Metaxas in Athens. The Greek Commander in Chief asked for 9 Divisions of British troops plus air support, Wavell could only offer 2 or 3 Divisions, about half of what the Greeks thought would be needed to deter a German invasion.

On the 19th Il Duce visited den (note the grammar, den not der) Führer in Berchtesgaden and accepted German help in North Africa but not in Albania. Adolf said he would invade Greece anyway if he thought the British there threatened the oil at Ploesti in Romania.

Finally some news about the Mediterranean and the convoys.

On the 3rd Luftwaffe X Fliegerkorps arrived in Italy, they will figure in this narrative. On the 6th two convoys left for Malta. Convoy Excess with 4 freighters and an escort of an anti-aircraft cruiser and 4 destroyers left Gibraltar. 2 cruisers and 2 destroyers with 510 Army and RAF people left Alexandria to meet up with Excess, remember that convoys are slow compared to warships. The following day Force H left Gibraltar to also support Excess, it consisted of one battlecruiser, one battleship, one aircraft carrier, one cruiser and seven destroyers. On the 8th the 2 cruisers from Alexandria arrived in Malta and disembarked the 510 non-naval people. They both then carried on westwards to rendezvous with convoy Excess.

On the 9th escort duties for convoy Excess passed from Force H to the Mediterranean fleet and most of Force H returned to Gibraltar. That same day 12 Italian Macchi C200 fighter bombers attacked Malta, four were shot down by Hurricanes of 261 Squadron based in Malta. On the 10th two Italian torpedo boats attacked convoy Excess in the strait of Sicily, one of the Italians was sunk. At 8:15am the convoy rendezvous’d with the Mediterranean Fleet. This rather begs the question why did Force H leave the day before. Then one destroyer hit a mine and had to be towed back to Malta and at 12:30 the Luftwaffe in the shape of Stukas turned up. They hit HMS Illustrious with 6 bombs and the aircraft carrier also had to return to Malta leaving the Navy with no air cover.

On the 11th there was a renewed dive bomber attack on the two British cruisers 120 miles east of Sicily. HMS Gloucester was hit by a 500 kilo bomb that failed to explode but still killed 9 and HMS Southampton was hit by 2 500 kilo bombs with 98 killed. Southampton was abandoned by the remaining 727 crew and was finished off by a torpedo from HMS Orion at 8pm. Further east convoy Excess reached its destinations of Malta, Egypt and Greece having been protected by the cruisers. On the 12th Malta based aircraft attacked the axis airbase at Catania in Sicily.

On the 16th 80 Stukas attacked Valletta Harbour in Malta damaging  4 ships but none sank. These attacks were repeated over 4 days and airfields were targeted as well. On the 4th day they again targeted HMS Illustrious but only inflicted some minor damage. It seems only one Stuka was shot down which also begs the question why weren’t a couple of Hurricanes sent up against them. On the 23rd the temporary repairs were complete on HMS Illustrious so it and four destroyers sailed for Alexandria arriving on the 25th.

On the 18th eighty Luftwaffe bombers attacked the two RAF airfields in an attempt to destroy the fighters. Eleven of those eighty were shot down, seven by fighters and four by the gunners. The next day they attacked the harbour again and the fighters shot down eleven planes and the gunners another eight.

Winston was so delighted he sent a congratulatory telegram to the Governor, General Dobbie on the 21st January. That same day, the repaired Illustrious headed out of Malta for Alexandria. This was just a sample of what was to come, the erics were building up for one of several aborted plans to invade the island. It was smaller than Greater London but the enemy was never 100% certain of what they were up against and with Crete to come as an example, overwhelming force would be needed.

Also on the 25th a minelaying cruiser and three destroyers left Alexandria after dark heading for Tobruk. They were discovered by 10 Stukas and 2 Italian trimotor SM-79s. One of the destroyers was hit by a 500 kilo bomb and sank, one other was damaged by near misses. On the 27th Swordfish sank a German ship north of Tripoli.

A quick word about the Tirpitz. The RAF mounted bombing raids on at least the 8th, 11th and 29th, all to no avail.

And in other news …. on the 1st the Germans began negotiations with Bulgaria about using their territory as a staging point for the invasion of Greece, Al-Jabeeba broadcast “The Brains Trust” for the first time and the government suppressed the Daily Worker, on the 2nd Himmler and Heydrich organised Concentration Camps into 3 categories but it made little difference, on the 3rd the Corpo Aero Italiano was recalled to Italy from Belgium after suffering heavy losses while flying alongside the Luftwaffe over Britain, on the 9th the Avro Lancaster took to the air for its first flight, On the 10th Churchill was warned by Ultra intercepts that there was a danger the Germans were looking at Greece as a target, on the 12th the erics began recruiting for the Nordland Regiment of the SS Wiking Division, on the 13th the Bulgarians stalled for time after the Germans demanded they join the Tripartite Pact (they managed to prevaricate until 1st March), on the 16th the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was founded, on the 20th compulsory Fire Watch duty was started, on the 22nd the first massacre of Jews in Romania took place, on the 23rd Charles Lindbergh testified before the US Congress and recommended the US negotiate a neutrality pact with Germany, on the 30th Lavrenty Beria (he was allegedly overly fond of 13 year old girls) was promoted to be State Security General Commissar and on the 31st Himmler accepted the oath of the first Norwegians enlisted in the Waffen-SS.

January was a good month for the Allies. The Italians were on the run in Libya and the attacks in Eritrea and Somaliland were underway. The big clouds on the horizon were the German reinforcements for North Africa and the threat of Germany invading Greece. As ever it was tough in the Mediterranean. One of the noticeable things about the convoys for Malta, Greece and North Africa was the names of the merchant ships. The same ship names keep cropping up over and over again. Those merchant seamen must have been terrified the number of times they came under attack.

Finally, not only in other news but in comparison with today, another planet, news from Cardiff. On the 2nd a rescue party dug for six hours to free a six year old boy from a bombed house. The boy could be heard singing “God save the King” while they were digging because his father, a coal miner, had told him that when men were buried underground they kept on singing to guide their rescuers so he sang the only song he knew. None of your LBGT shyte in those days.

I have to say that bearing in mind the ongoing antics of the fat Turk, Wanksock, Pretty Useless et al, it is hard to keep a lump out of my throat when checking out what was going on a mere 80 years ago. Every day I hate the left (that includes the Tories these days) a bit more.

Next month the erics arrive in North Africa and things don’t go so well for General Wavell.


© well_chuffed 2021

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