The Desert War – February 1941

well_chuffed, Going Postal
November 1942, On the road in Egypt
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

The second month in 1941 was not up to the joys of January for the Allies. The Germans started arriving in North Africa and the push into Libya did not go much further. There was better news in Italian East Africa but the Royal Navy had its hands full in the Mediterranean. There was also the question of Greece and the highly debatable decision to remove some troops and equipment from North Africa to bolster the Greeks.

In terms of strategy this was one of the bad months for the Allies. Churchill thought he saw the bigger picture and wanted to stop the Germans taking over Greece. Seeing as his opinion was that the British Army could not fight, this decision looks even stranger. It was only after the second battle of El Alamein that Winston changed this opinion of his Army. By weakening his forces in North Africa, he left the door open for the Afrika Korps to push us back to just about where we had started from. On the other side, Malta was wide open to invasion but the Germans and Italians dithered and decided not to. With the RAF in Malta stretched to the limit defending the island, they did not have the resources to attack the convoys that delivered the Germans to Tripoli. That would not be the case later and how the Axis must have regretted not invading when they had a good chance of succeeding.

February was the month that Dudley Clarke started putting some flesh on the bones of his fictitious SAS. He dressed a couple of well briefed men with SAS shoulder flashes and they appeared in a few bars in Cairo and Alexandria. They generally hinted they were off to Crete or behind the lines in Libya and swiftly disappeared. There were also parachute drops with dummies to wet the lips of the Axis spies. There were ten followed by one extra fictitious SAS Detachments, A to K and this is why the first real one was L Detachment. Clarke had named his deception unit “A” Force where “A” was deliberately vague but might have stood for Airborne.

Between 1941 and 1945 Clarke invented fictional forces as follows; 7 Brigades, 32 Divisions,10 Corps and 3 entire Armies including the very successful FUSAG for D-Day deceptions. Having fed the Axis a story it was very satisfying for Clarke when David Stirling’s real SAS hit the ground and confirmed the enemy’s worst fears. Some very high ranking officers declared later that Dudley Clarke was one of the most influential people in the whole war.

In North Africa on the 2nd the Aussies advanced west from Derna, On the 3rd Rommel was appointed head of the “German Army in Africa”. On the 4th the Italians began evacuating Benghazi and the 7th Armoured Division headed quickly for Jebel Al Akhdar, 150 miles away, hoping to cut off the Italian retreat. On the 5th, after crossing 150 miles of desert in 30 hours, the 7th Armoured Division set up roadblocks at Sidi Saleh to the south of Benghazi and that evening the 4th Armoured Brigade reached Beda Fomm 10 miles north of the roadblocks preventing an Italian retreat to the east.

On the 6th on the Benghazi-Tripoli road, the Italian 10th Army tried to break out but failed. The Australian 6th Division captured Benghazi while the 7th Armoured Division took Sceleidima ensuring the Italian 10th Army was surrounded. That same day the Germans ordered Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower) which was the organisation and transfer of a German force to reinforce the Italians in North Africa. Rommel was recalled from leave and went straight to Libya to be commander of the German troops there.

On the 7th the Italian Special Armoured Brigade made an unsuccessful attempt to break out of the trapped 10th Army. The 25,000 strong 10th Army surrendered before the end of the day. On the 8th German troops left Naples heading for North Africa and on the 9th Allied troops captured El Agheila in Libya and that was the end of Operation Compass whose original objective had been to remove the Italians from Egypt and Rommel was promoted to Lieutenant General.

On the 10th Churchill ordered Wavell to prioritise the campaign in Greece over that in North Africa while the first German convoy carrying German troops left Palermo on its way to Tripoli. On the 11th the first German troops arrived in Africa followed by Rommel himself on the 12th when the second German convoy left Naples. On this day German and Italian naval leaders held a two day conference at Merano in Italy. The second German convoy arrived in Tripoli on the 14th. On the 16th came the first skirmish between British and German troops in North Africa near Sirte in Libya. Sirte’s claim to fame is that is the birthplace of Muammar Gaddaffi who was born in 1942. I often wonder if his real father was one of the soldiers fighting in North Africa at the time.

When Rommel got his first tanks in Tripoli he paraded them three times around the same palace to make it look as though he was stronger than he really was. He also set the Italians to build 200 mock tanks on car chassis. There was deception on both sides in North Africa. Rommel has been described as an actor but in fairness most famous Generals are exactly that. Patton with his ivory handled pistols, Montgomery with his non standard beret. Many of them are just massive egos but if that’s what it takes, then so be it.

On the 17th an Italian Auto-Saharan Company attacked Free French and British forces at Kufra but failed to take it. The Auto-Saharan Companies were the Italian version of the Long Range Desert Group but pre-dated them by several years and in fact the LRDG was created as a bit of a tribute act. Also on the 17th the decision was taken to send a BEF to Greece. Its planned size was reduced by 2 divisions who would be held back to defend Tobruk. On the 18th German aircraft mined the Suez Canal forcing the carrier HMS Formidable to delay its journey to the Mediterranean and the 21st Panzer Division was formed in North Africa.

On the 19th Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden met with the military leaders in Cairo to discuss diverting forces from North Africa to help Greece and the “German Army in Africa” was renamed to the German Afrika Korps. On the 20th the newly named Afrika Korps clashed with British patrols near El Agheila between Benghazi and Tripoli and on the same day another German convoy was attacked and one ship damaged but it was towed to Tripoli. On the 22nd HMS Terror, of bombarding Bardia fame, was seen by a German plane off the Libyan coast and was then attacked by 5 Ju-88 bombers. Heavily damaged as a result of several near misses HMS Terror was abandoned at 10pm and all attempts to tow her back to port failed.

On the 24th a German patrol with tanks and armoured cars ambushed a British and Australian patrol west of El Agheila taking 3 prisoners and 3 He-111s bombed ships in Tobruk harbour sinking the destroyer HMS Dainty with yet another 500 kilo bomb. This month the Germans started to make their presence in North Africa count.

On the eastern side of Africa the Italians were still under pressure. Orde Wingate was still making his way towards Addis Ababa while the Italians were withdrawing into what they thought were impregnable fortresses. It has been noted that the Italian forces in East Africa were superior to those in Libya. They were for the most part local troops with Italian Sergeants and officers. Rather like the Gurkhas, they were excellent troops and their officers needed to be a cut above the rest to keep their loyalty often displaying first world war levels of bravery.

Wingate needed to convince the Italians that he was much stronger than he really was. He was helped by the perpetual Italian overestimating of their opposition. This he did by splitting his already meagre forces and using hit and run attacks in the dark. He finished the month by bottling up 37,000 Italian troops with only a few thousand men. As he did this there were several other attacks being made on the Italians by more conventional forces.

On the 1st the Indian 4th Division captured Agordat in Eritrea and the 5th Division took Metemma in Abyssinia. This day 2nd Lt. Premindra Singh Bhagat won the first VC for the British Indian Army in WW2. On the 2nd the Indian 5th Division overran the Italians at Barentu in Eritrea and HMS Formidable launched aircraft to mine Mogadishu Harbour. On the 3rd the Italians in Eritrea withdrew into the mountains.

On the 5th British and Indian troops attacked the Italians the hills near Dongolass Gorge on their way to Keren. On the 6th the 3rd Battalion of the 14th Punjab Regiment attacked Brig’s Peak but in a rare Italian success they were pushed back by the Italian 65th Infantry Division but on the 10th they managed to take it.

On the 14th African Commonwealth troops captured the port city of Kismayu about 100 miles inside Italian Somaliland. On the 18th the South African 1st Division captured Mega in Abyssinia. On the 20th some Italian and German ships broke out of Massawa in Eritrea and headed for the Indian Ocean. On the 22nd the British 11th and African 12th Divisions overran the Italians at Jilib in Somaliland. The 12th then marched along the Juba river towards Abyssinia and the motorised Nigerian Brigade headed for Mogadishu. On the 25th Mogadishu was taken by the Nigerian Brigade along with 400,000 gallons of fuel.

There didn’t seem to be much news of Malta convoys but there were several attacks on German and Italian ships by at least five British submarines. Both German and Italian aircraft began dropping parachute mines onto Valletta harbour, some of them exploding in the dockyard. Halfway through the month the Germans brought in Messerschmidt 109s. The Hurricane pilots were hard pressed to keep up. Luqa was heavily bombed and at least six Wellington bombers were destroyed. Each loss was a stab in the heart for the RAF. The Germans could easily send more planes to Sicily to make up their losses. Thus far the Axis had lost over 100 planes over Malta whereas the RAF had only lost sixteen.  The RAF continued to get a trickle of planes through to Malta from carriers (remember at this time the British carriers could only take less than 20 planes for onward delivery). The Luftwaffe could add far more and much more easily.

Towards the end of the month there was an attempt by the British to take the Italian held Greek island of Kastelorizo which is a fairly small island just off the Turkish coast near Rhodes. On the 26th the Royal Navy landed 200 commandos and 24 Royal Marines and they captured a small Italian garrison. The next day the Italians landed 240 troops and then bombarded British positions. On the 28th the British landed 20 more troops as more Italian ships were sent to attack the island. The British then decided to withdraw and beat a hasty retreat unfortunately leaving 40 commandos behind who were taken prisoner.

On the Greek mainland it was fairly quiet this month, on the 8th Bulgaria agreed to let German troops transit to Greece. On the 22nd/23rd the British and Greeks held talks on how best to defend Greece against the Germans. There was not much agreement on where to try and make the defence. On the last day of the month German troops began crossing Bulgaria and over Albania, one squadron of Hurricanes and one squadron of Gladiators shot down 27 Italian aircraft while supporting Greek troops.

And in other news …. on the 1st the Air Training Corps was started to provide pre-entry training for those over 16 intending to join the RAF or Fleet Air Arm, on the 3rd German military leaders presented detailed plans for Operation Barbarossa to Adolf, on the 5th the United Service Organisation was established to maintain the morale of America’s military, on the 23rd Dr Glenn T Seaborg discovered the new element Plutonium at the University of California, on the 26th Franco refused Hitler’s 6th Feb request for Spain to enter the war and on the 28th the bread ration was reduced from 350g to 280g in Vichy France. There were at least two further attempts to bomb the Tirpitz, and still they did not hit her with the bombs.

A good month for us in Italian East Africa but ominous signs elsewhere of German involvement building up. There has been much discussion since about the decision to support the Greeks against the Germans. We didn’t really have enough resources in North Africa and diverting some to Greece obviously didn’t help. Would we have had more of a chance if we hadn’t sent any troops or supplies to Greece, perhaps if we had reached Tripoli and that was entirely possible, the Afrika Korps could not have landed in Libya but they would still have Tunisia, under Vichy French control, as a potential base. Did we have any influence on the German invasion of Greece, that remains to be seen next month but again, probably not. It’s the usual story of being spread too thin. This Empire thing is much over-rated.  The Germans had no forces East of Suez (a sixties buzz phrase) whereas we had many colonies out there and the nips were on the move.

The real benefit of this set of strategic errors is that the Germans eventually decided to invade Crete instead of Malta. Their losses in Crete were so severe they decided such invasions could only work if they had air superiority and although they came close, they never got air superiority over Malta. Had Churchill not decided to help Greece there would have been no opposed Crete landings and Malta could have suffered the fate of Crete. Although I call the help given to Greece a strategic error, its lasting effect was to ensure Malta remained an Allied island and as its forces grew stronger, they eventually throttled the Axis supply lines to Rommel. The Axis not invading Malta was a major mistake, at times it was there for the taking bar the infamous Italian overestimating the enemy’s strength, but there was always a mistake waiting in the Führer. He might have seen the big picture but he often missed the most important parts.


© well_chuffed 2021

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