The Desert War – March 1941

well_chuffed, Going Postal
September 1942, about to brew up at Point 189
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

Into March and while there is a bit of a lull in Libya, The Balkans start to figure large and Italian East Africa gets smaller and smaller.

Let’s start with a look at Libya. The British advance had run out of steam plus resources were being transferred to Greece and the Germans were building up. The resources being set to Greece included 50,000 troops and 8,000 vehicles. On the 1st Free French troops from Chad captured Kufra, on the 2nd Free French Major Leclerc pledged not to lay down his weapons until the tricolour flew over Strasbourg Cathedral once more, he was at Kufra so had entered Libya from Chad. Why Strasbourg Cathedral, no idea, maybe he came from that area. On the 3rd Rommel moved his 5th Light Division to a narrow pass a few miles from El Agheila, the westernmost Allied outpost. He also ordered defensive positions be dug south of there in the desert to stop the Allies bypassing the place. On the 8th the Panzer Regiment of the 5th Light Division left Naples bound for Tripoli.

On the 9th, with minesweeping work in the Suez Canal complete, HMS Formidable was able to sail from the Red Sea through the Canal, arriving in Alexandria on the 10th, and 4 British subs attacked an Italian convoy off Tunisia managing to sink one ship. On the 10th the Panzers arrived in Tripoli and held a parade. There are rumours the tanks went round the town more than once to make it seem more had arrived than actually had. After the parade they headed for Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace, in fact he was born towards the end of the Desert War, my fevered brow speculates somewhat. On the same day one of those 4 British subs sank another Italian freighter 100 miles north of Tripoli. On the 13th Rommel moved his HQ to Sirte, steady now, there is no proof whatsoever, anyway Muammar was born in 42 or 43, the bedouins were not big on paperwork. On the 16th another British sub damaged an Italian ship near Malta.

On the 17th Rommel sent a message to the besieged Italian garrison Giarabub asking them to hold on for a few more weeks before he could relieve them and a British ship carrying Italian PoWs hit a mine and sank plus Swordfish from Malta attacked Tripoli Harbour. On the 18th Rommel went back to Germany to meet with Adolf. On the 19th during his discussions with the Führer Rommel was told he could expect no more reinforcements until May but was awarded Oak Leaves for his Knights Cross.

On the 21st the Aussies began their assault in Giarabub, this was the one Rommel asked the Italians to hang on to. On the 23rd the Aussies captured Giarabub and Rommel left Germany for Libya, presumably not happy about Giarabub falling after his plea. On the 24th Rommel got back to Libya and at 6am retook Giarabub while the British 2nd Armoured Division retreated 30 miles to Marsa Brega. The day after this Rodolfo Graziani stepped down as Governor General of Libya to be replaced by Italo Gariboldi. Graziani then returned to Italy and headed forces suppressing internal dissent, not a nice chap is the diplomatic way of putting it.

On the 26th Churchill sent a message to Wavell admonishing him for timidity for not resisting the enemy’s advances vigorously enough. On the 27th 3 battleships, a carrier and 9 destroyers left Alexandria to search for an Italian fleet that had left Italy. On the 28th a British sub sank one German ship and damaged another off Tunisia. On the 29th after 3 days of sandstorms German tanks and armoured cars moved towards El Agheila and engaged the British between El Agheila and Mersa Brega. On the 30th Rommel ordered his men to capture Mersa Brega and they did this by 7pm on the 31st. The British withdrew 30 miles northeast in the direction of Agedabia instead of attempting a counter attack.

In Libya March finishes with the British on the back foot and the Germans starting to move forwards with the Italians reduced to spectators for now.

In Malta during March a small convoy reached the island as bad weather covered their approach. Twelve Mark II Hurricanes were flown off the Ark Royal in the hope they could match the Me 109s. The RAF were hard pressed to defend Malta and had no spare planes to attack the convoys delivering the Africa Korps to Tripoli.

Down in Italian East Africa things were going well for the British and their Empire.

Wingate’s Gideon Force was moving closer to its goal. The Italians were as usual over-estimating the size of his force and retreating to their forts.The end result was that the Italians abandoned the Gojam Heights. The South African Air Force also destroyed 30 Italian planes on the ground before they could take off making a severe dent in what had been Italian air superiority.

On the 1st two Battalions of the Indian 4th Division and 2 Free French Battalions reached Mescelit Pass near Keren. On the 2nd the British 11th African Division began marching from Mogadishu to Jijiga in Abyssinia chasing the retreating Italians. On the 10th the British Nigerian Brigade began fighting Italian units at Degehabur in Abyssinia, about 100 miles south of Jijiga. On the 15th the Indian 4th and 5th Divisions attacked the Italians near Keren capturing hilltops by the end of the day. On the 16th the 2nd West Yorkshire Regiment climbed up a steep mountain to attack Fort Dologorodoc at night. The Italian troops had left the fort to fight the Indian 5th Light Infantry at the foot of the mountain and therefore the Yorkies could take the fort at 6:30am. At Berbera 2 Indian Sikh Battalions landed at the port and the 60 Italians defending surrendered without a fight. On the 17th the British 11th African Division captured Jijiga unopposed. On the 18th the Italians bombarded Fort Dologorodoc  which they had only just lost. On the 20th Indian troops captured Hargeisa in Italian occupied British Somaliland.

On the 21st the Nigerian Brigade attacked the Italians at Marda Pass, that is east of Hadew in eastern Abyssinia. The Italians did resist but only for a few hours. On the 22nd the British and Indians continued to hold fort Dologorodoc  in spite of repeated Italian counter attacks and shelling. The Italians at Harar in Abyssinia declared it to be an open city. On the 23rd the South African 2nd Division landed in Berbera by sea and the Nigerian Brigade advanced towards Addis Ababa. On the 24th German and Italian ships continued to leave Massawa in Eritrea while British warships tried to intercept them. On the 25th British and Indian troops attacked the Dongolass Gorge in Eritrea at 3am and captured it at 5:30am. On the 26th the Italians at Dongolass withdrew to Keren and the Nigerian Brigade captured the open city of Harar unopposed. On the 27th Allied tanks and infantry advanced to Keren capturing it at 10am as the Italians ran away to Asmara. The Battle of Keren had cost the Allies 536 killed and 3,229 wounded, the Italians suffered 6,500 casualties.

On the 28th Indian troops chased the Italians fleeing Keren. The Italians fought to delay the advance and thereby bought some time. On the 29th the South African 1st Brigade relieved the Nigerian Brigade and headed further into Abyssinia capturing Diredawa and its airfield. On the 31st British and Indian troops broke through roadblocks between Keren and Asmara and 3 Italian destroyers left Massawa to attack British port facilities at Port Sudan. One struck rocks and the other two had to sink it after which they went back to Massawa. Things are looking bad for the Italians in their East Africa and it can’t be too long before they are finished there.

Meanwhile brown stuff was hitting the whirling blades in Greece and the Balkans. On the 1st German troops entered Romania and Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact which gave Germany the option of invading Greece via Bulgaria, in return Bulgaria was promised the return of territories she had lost to Yugoslavias and Greece after WW1. On the 2nd the German 12th Army moved into Bulgaria. On the 3rd Italian bombers hit Larissa in Greece, 5 were shot down by RAF Hurricanes. On the 4th Prince Paul, Regent of Greece, arrived at Berchtesgaden where Hitler ramped up the pressure for the Yugos to also join the Tripartite Pact. Hitler offered Salonika and part of Macedonia in return for allowing German troops access to Greece, four freighters left Alexandria and Port Said with supplies for Greece. General Wilson arrived in Athens to take charge of Allied forces in Greece but found that the Greeks were sticking to their own plans for their defence instead of the “agreed” ones.

On the 5th British reinforcements arrived in Greece from North Africa and the British government broke off diplomatic relations with Bulgaria. On the 6th two more convoys left Alexandria, one with troops the other with tanks and equipment. On the 7th Field Marshal Jan Smuts arrived in Cairo where he gave his support to Anthony Eden’s decision to commit troops to the Greek mainland and yet more troops from North Africa arrived at Piraeus.

On the 9th Il Duce (a journalist by trade) visited Tiranë and announced he would personally lead a renewed offensive against the Greeks, sounds a bit like Piss Moron running a British offensive somewhere to me. As if by magic, 12 Italian Divisions attacked the Greeks but the Greek 1st Army mostly held their lines. On the 13th Germany repeated their demands for Yugoslavia to join the Axis. On the 14th, seeing as the Greeks had repulsed the Italian attacks, General Cavellero recommended that Benito call off the Spring Offensive and Swordfish attacked Vlorë in Albania sinking two ships at the cost of one aircraft. On the 16th the Spring Offensive was called off after the Italians had suffered 12,000 casualties, never trust an effing journalist (are you listening Piss Moron in case you are ever tempted) to lead an Army ! On the 18th the British bombed Vlorë again sinking a torpedo boat.

On the 19th Adolf gave an ultimatum to Prince Paul asking him to join with the Axis in 5 days or face an invasion. The following day four Yugoslavian ministers resigned their positions. On the 25th two Italian destroyers, each carrying three 2 ton assault boats loaded with 300 kg of explosives, left Leros for Suda Bay in Crete. At 11pm they released the boats 10 miles off Suda Bay. At about 4:45am on the 27th cruiser HMS York was badly damaged by these boats, all 6 of whose drivers survived but were captured.

On the 25th Prince Paul signed the Tripartite Pact but was overthrown on the 27th by General Simovic along with other anti-German officers (anti-German should must be the default position of any non-German officer), Prince Paul being replaced by King Peter II. Before they could revoke the Pact Adolf ordered the invasion instructing Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria to join them.

On the 28th off Cape Matapan an Italian seaplane spotted a group of four Allied cruisers, three Italian cruisers moved in to attack and they were joined by Italian battleships three hours later. All four Allied cruisers were damaged by near misses but in the afternoon Allied torpedo bombers from HMS Formidable attacked putting battleship Vittorio Veneto out of action for 90 minutes. In the evening those planes returned joined by land based planes from Crete. They put a cruiser out of action but Vittorio Veneto had limped back to Taranto after some quick repairs. Just before midnight three British battleships moved to less than 2 miles from the Italian cruisers and opened fire. On the 29th 2 Italian cruisers and two destroyers were sunk and another destroyer heavily damaged. The damaged cruiser Pola was finished off with torpedos after her crew was captured. British ships rescued 905 Italian matelots but left quickly at daybreak fearing Luftwaffe attacks; they radioed the coordinates to an Italian ship so it could continue picking up survivors. The battle of Cape Matapan cost the Italians 5 warships and 2,303 killed, the British lost only 3 killed, the crew of a torpedo bomber on the first day.

March was yet another bad month for the Italians (did they ever have a really good one) but the Germans were moving ominously closer to being a big threat. The casual reader may think why on earth so much about Greece and Italian East Africa and the reason is because the British withdrew some forces from North Africa to help the Greeks defend against the Germans and Italian East Africa was a bit of a distraction. Much has been made of the decision to assist Greece, not the least because it took scarce resources away from North Africa just as the Germans entered on the side of the Italians. Had those forces not been withdrawn, it seems to me that the Germans would still have done what they did. It might have taken a bit longer but a couple of Divisions spread across a wide area would not have been able to delay Rommel by much. Other may disagree but all the top commanders on our side either agreed with it or at least didn’t resign because of it. After Wavell getting a bollocking from Churchill the writing was on the wall, he would be replaced in the future as would his successor. That is yet another side story to this campaign, the search for someone who could beat the Germans.

And in other news …. on the 1st the bread ration in Italy was halved so they could increase food exports to the Fatherland, very teutonic and no doubt very popular in Italy *cough*, on the 4th came the Lofoten Islands raid where 500 British commandos ran amok, found some enigma coding rotors and took 228 erics prisoner, on the 5th Herman Goering met with General Antonescu in Vienna demanding Romanian participation in the impending invasion of the Soviet Union, on the 7th Jews in Germany began to be pressed into forced labour, on the 8th a prescient Grand Admiral Erich Raeder warned the Führer of a possible American landing in North Africa if the US joined the war, on the 9th Jews from Auschwitz (I use the German name because it then was part of Germany) were deported to Chrzanow and no doubt returned later, on the 16th U-100 became the first sub to be tracked by radar, it was sunk with depth charges, on the 17th in Britain jam and marmalade was rationed to 8oz per person per month, on the 19th mass produced vegetable casseroles went on sale in Britain for 8p per lb, on the 22nd future traitor Edward Heath was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the Royal Artillery, on the 24th the RAF did its first bombing raid of the year on Berlin, on the 25th the meat ration in Britain was reduced to 6oz per person per week (imagine that, a smallish steak once a week except you probably couldn’t get steak), on the 26th British conscripts could now opt for civil defence duties, on the 28th Adolf ordered Operation Barbarossa to be postponed, on the 30th at a conference in Washington the US and UK agreed on military coordination in the event the US entered the war, just to be on the safe side the Americans seized 2 German, 26 Italian and 35 Danish ships berthed in US ports along with 850 Italian and 63 German officers who went to jail though it is unclear which laws they had broken.


© well_chuffed 2021

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