The Desert War – May 1941

December 25 1942, Mena
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

An even busier month than April, lots going on in North Africa, Crete and Abyssinia. The Germans and Italians continued to besiege Tobruk, German paratroops invaded Crete and yet more parts of Abyssinia fell to the Allies plus Malta remained under constant attack, it was proving to be a very useful place from which to attack Axis convoys to Libya.

As this is supposed to be about the North African Campaign let’s start in Libya. On the 1st German tanks attacked Tobruk at 7:15am, impeded by a minefield, anti-tank guns and then British tanks. They lost 12 tanks to 4 British ones. In the evening the 2/48th Australian Battalion counter attacked but suffered heavy casualties. 300 km westwards, Benghazi was attacked by the RAF who sank a freighter and off Tunisia 2 German merchant ships were sunk by a British submarine. On the 2nd there were sandstorms but HMS Ladybird bombarded Derna though destroyer HMS Jersey hit a mine off the Grand Harbour in Malta and sank. On the 3rd Australian troops counter attacked again at Tobruk but this time the Italians held them off. On the 4th, seeing the attack on Tobruk stall, Paulus ordered Rommel to besiege rather than eliminate Tobruk and minesweeper HMS Fermoy was sunk by German aircraft in dock at Malta.

On the 5th British freighters with 295 tanks for Egypt passed Gibraltar. On the 6th the German 8th Panzer Regiment arrived in Tripoli and two Australian destroyers reached Tobruk, they were the first supplies to get there since the siege began. On the 7th German bombers sank another minesweeper, HMS Stoke, in Tobruk and three British destroyers bombarded Benghazi sinking two Italian ships. On the 9th German Intelligence intercepted a radio message containing weather information for the Libya/Egypt border. This was the first suspicion that there was likely to be an offensive. On the 10th 5 British destroyers shelled Benghazi, they managed to avoid damage from dive bombers and after dark HMS Ladybird shelled Gazala near Tobruk.

On the 12th the British convoy carrying 295 tanks, and 43 Hurricanes, arrived in Alexandria. 47 German dive bombers attacked Tobruk Harbour sinking HMS Ladybird. The ship settled in 10 feet of water and her 6 inch gun was still above water so she remained in service as a stationary anti aircraft gun platform. Two Italian torpedo boats sank British submarine HMS Undaunted off Tripoli killing the entire crew. On the 13th British troops began gathering on the Libya/Egypt border in preparation for Operation Brevity, some were spotted by a German plane and one group of tanks was attacked. Gunboat HMS Gnat bombarded the airfield at Gazala trying to disrupt German air attacks on Tobruk. On the 14th Axis aircraft continued searching for British troops near the border but did not find any. On the 15th the British advanced in 3 columns and captured Fort Capuzzo and the Halfaya Pass. a German Panzer Battalion counter attacked and recaptured Fort Capuzzo before 3pm.

On the 16th Brigadier General Gott withdrew British tanks and infantry from the desert around Sollum and Fort Capuzzo to strengthen his hold on the Halfaya Pass. On the 17th Operation Brevity proved to be very brief as the Germans launched a counter attack and General Gott withdrew all his forces to the Halfaya Pass. Australian destroyer HMAS Vampire reached Tobruk with fresh Australian troops and artillery which was deployed at the front line by 5:30am.

It all quietened down a bit now. On the 26th the Germans attacked Halfaya Pass and captured it. On the 27th Italian submarine Scirè again reached Gibraltar Harbour with 3 manned torpedos but they failed to damage any ships. On the 28th General Wavell ordered Operation Battleaxe, scheduled for 7th June. On the 30th Erich Raeder recommended an attack on the Suez Canal to the Führer.

In Malta there was a welcome relaxation of the German air campaign as the erics concentrated on the Allied withdrawal to Crete. Generals Keitel and Jodl favoured an attack on Malta but the High Command and especially Goering wanted to concentrate on Crete. A decision that would come back to bite them.

In Italian East Africa, or what remained of it, there was still some action. On the 1st the Viceroy of Italian East Africa, the Duke of Aosta, and 7,000 troops were in Amba Alagi, Abyssinia, with the Indian 5th Division to the north and the South African 1st Brigade to the south. On the 3rd fighting began at Amba Alagi. On the 4th the 29th Brigade of the Indian 5th Division captured 3 hills to the north of Amba Alagi. On the 5th the 3/2nd Punjab Battalion was stopped by 12 Italian machine guns and called off their attack at nightfall. On the 8th Indian troops attacked Amba Alagi again taking three more hills, the Italians counter attacked and retook 2 of the hills.

On the 9th Indian troops took the Falagi Pass and the following day they marched towards Mount Gumsa, 11,400 ft high and to the east of Amba Alagi. As night fell the Italians at Mount Gumsa withdrew into Amba Alagi. On the 11th the South African 1st Brigade arrived at Amba Alagi. On the 15th South African and Indian troops joined together at Triangle Hill near Amba Alagi. During the day Allied shelling of the Italian fortress caused a major oil leak into the fort’s only source of drinking water. On the 16th the Duke of Aosta asked the British to send fresh water which was obviously refused. He then called for a ceasefire to enable surrender negotiations. By this time his forces had suffered 289,000 casualties in defence of their East African Empire.

On the 17th the Duke of Aosta surrendered Amba Alagi to the British at 5:30pm. On the 18th Brigadier General Mosley Mayne, the British commander of the Indian 5th Division, had lunch with the Duke at Amba Alagi. The Duke agreed not to destroy guns or supplies and to dismantle or identify mines. On the 19th 4,777 Italian and Colonial troops surrendered at Amba Alagi and on the 20th the Duke himself surrendered into British captivity. This was not quite the end of the story, there were still a few pockets of Italians to finish off but effectively, Italian East Africa was no more.

Orde Wingate with his Gideon Force was chasing Colonel Maraventa and eventually cornered him. With less than 2,000 men Wingate convinced the Italian that his 14,000 men were outnumbered and he eventually surrendered thus bringing to an end Mussolini’s dreams of an East African Empire.

Now that Greece was in German hands and the British had retreated to Crete, we all know what comes next, the invasion of Crete. On the 1st General Bernard Freyberg arrived in Crete where he planned to base his defence on the airfield at Maleme. On the 6th he was given intelligence that the Germans were likely to attack on the 17th but he expected an amphibious invasion. On the 11th the Germans finally completed occupying the islands in the Aegean Sea. On the 14th cruiser HMS Dido with an escort of 4 destroyers left Suda Bay heading for Alexandria carrying £7,000,000 of Greek owned gold. It is amazing how much gold got moved round in this war.

On the 15th two British cruisers completed the move of the 2nd Battalion of the Leicester Regiment from Alexandria to Heraklion in Crete and the Luftwaffe attacked the Navy yards at Suda Bay. On the 16th even more British reinforcements arrive in Crete and yet again the Germans bombed several airfields and the docks at Suda Bay. On the 18th German dive bombers attacked British hospital ship Aba 50 miles south of Crete and 700 Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders were transported from Port Said to Tymbaki in Crete. On the 19th German aircraft attacked airfields in Crete, the British response was to evacuate all aircraft from Crete to Egypt.

On the 20th came the airborne assault at 8am on Maleme airfield and at 4:15pm and 5:30pm the second airborne assault started at Rethimnon and Heraklion. During the second wave of attacks, 1,856 German troops were killed, at Suda Bay minesweeper HMS Widnes was sunk but in the evening 3 British destroyers bombarded German airfields on Karpathos. On the 21st the Royal Navy sank 11 small Axis ships but the Germans still managed to land 650 more troops to support their paratroops at Maleme airfield, many of their transport aircraft would be damaged or destroyed before they could take off again. NZ General Freyberg held back his reserves because he was still convinced he would have to fight the Germans on the beaches. Out at sea 3 British ships were damaged and one sunk.

On the 22nd British warships were searching for an Axis convoy off the island of Milos, The Germans found them and their aircraft damaged 4 ships and sank 4 more. At 3:30am Australian and NZ troops attacked the Germans at Maleme but were beaten back. During the day the Germans flew in another Battalion of troops on Ju-52s . On the 23rd more German reinforcements arrived at Maleme but an attempt to land on the beaches was repulsed. Another British destroyer was sunk by Stukas and 5 motor torpedo boats were sunk in Suda Bay, by the end of the day the Germans controlled the western end of the island. On the 24th the Greek King George II left Crete for Cairo and Allied troops began falling back while 200 commandos were landed at Suda Bay.

German Stukas were now based at Maleme and attacked Allied lines at 4pm in preparation for a ground assault and General Kurt Student, head of the German paratroops, arrived at Maleme airfield. On the 26th Allied troops at Canea were surrounded and 3 Royal Navy ships arrived in Suda bay with 750 commandos under Colonel Laycock. These ships evacuated personnel from the naval base when they returned to Egypt. On the 27th the Germans took Canea giving them control of Suda Bay. On the 28th the evacuation of British and Commonwealth troops from Crete began. The action so far had been in the north of the island, the evacuation was running from Sphakia on the south coast. Colonel Laycock was controlling the rearguard action to delay the Germans. 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers left Alexandria to help with the evacuation. One cruiser was damaged by German aircraft and had to return to Alexandria. On the 29th and 30th about 10,000 troops were evacuated from Crete but were under German attack and two ships were lost.

On the 31st the evacuation was complete including the senior officers who were flown out. In what was not the first order of its kind, General Student authorised his troops to take reprisals against the civilian population of Crete, including women and boys, for involvement in fighting, committing sabotage and mutilating or killing wounded soldiers. Reprisals could be shooting, fines, burning villages or extermination of the male population. Several senior officers stormed out the conference where this was announced but more than enough were quite prepared to take part in executions. I know almost any nation could find people prepared to do this but the Germans always seem to find more than enough. General Student survived until 1978 having served a relatively short time in prison after the war. He should have danced the Tyburn Jig.

The one lasting result of the German invasion of Crete was a rule of thumb for invading islands. It cannot be done until you have air superiority. Even Adolf was horrified at the 3,774 killed and missing rate of the German troops plus 2,120 wounded and they were not used in airborne assaults for the rest of the war. The plans to invade Malta now included the requirement for air superiority before any troops could be landed; this is something the Luftwaffe nearly but did not quite achieve and saved Malta being overrun.

At the end of April Dudley Clarke had set off for Istanbul for some skulduggery. In the middle of May he returned via Vichy French Syria where Luftwaffe airplanes had begun landing on their way to support the rebellion in Iraq. The RAF bombed the airbases in Syria. Clarke then put about a story that the Allies were not going to invade Syria because of disagreements with the Free French. The rumour was that General de Gaulle had stormed off in a huff (well within possibilities).  Anyway, the invasion did begin and was over by Bastille Day.

And in other news …. on the 2nd a German plan to remove large quantities of food from Eastern Europe to feed Germany would likely result in millions of deaths but they did it anyway (they call it Lidl/Aldi these days but without the deaths so we are told), on the 3rd a bomb hit a shelter in North Shields at Wilkinson’s Lemonade factory killing 107 poor souls, more than half of the people in it, on the 5th a shipment of US flour arrived in Vichy France, on the 6th Henry Stimson, US Secretary for War, said the US must use its Navy to ensure the triumph of democracy, on the 10th Rudolf Hess landed in Scotland in a wild attempt to secure peace, the next day Adolf gathered top Nazis together to discuss Hess’s flight and work out how to spin the story, on the 12th despite Stalin’s refusal to believe the Germans were about to attack, General Zhukov moved 4 armies closer to the border, on the 15th the RAF formed 121 Squadron, aka the 2nd Eagle Squadron, it was made up of American volunteers, on the 15th Dr Sigmund Rascher asked Himmler for concentration camp prisoners to be made available for altitude testing (another bloody Mengele or Hancock), on the 16th German bombers performed what would be their last major raid against London (they were off to the eastern front), on the 17th Pilot Officer Mike Kolendorski became the first member of 121 Squadron to be killed, on the 18th Italy annexed Dalmatia to be within its borders, on the 21st the Vichy government confiscated all property owned by Free French troops, on the 24th HMS Hood and Princes of Wales engaged the Bismarck, HMS Hood was lost, on the 25th Bismark sailed for Saint Nazaire, on the 26th Bismark was hunted down and on the 27th she was finally sunk, on the 29th 13 British and Polish PoWs attempted an unsuccessful escape from Colditz, on the 30th Richard Sorge, one of Stalin’s top spies, reported from Japan that the Germans were planning to invade but still Uncle Joe refused to believe it and finally on the 31st British Lieutenant Anthony Allan tried to get help from the US Consulate in Vienna having escaped from Colditz earlier in the month but they refused to help him, he gave up and turned himself in to the local police and was sent back to Colditz.

Although the US did not join the war until December after the attack on Pearl Harbour, it was both getting more involved and taking steps to position itself ready to fight when the time came. The Germans were not attacking US ships but the US started attacking German submarines and there were various troop movements that placed US forces in more strategic locations. The US joining the war was not a spur of the moment event whatever their official position.


© well_chuffed 2021

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