The Desert War – June 1941

Italian & German Prisoners – En Route Matruk-El Daba
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

And so to June, the first anniversary of the Desert War and it was a hot month in more ways than one in Libya and Egypt. There is also a small report on East Africa and the aftermath of Crete where Churchill once again criticised one of his commanders.

While reading about Commando raids up to 1942 in the hope that something in North Africa would feature, it didn’t in that book, there was a tenuous connection with the Bruneval raid. This operation has already featured on GP, BP if memory serves, but it seems that on the afternoon before the airborne troops took off they were encouraged to do some Egyptian PT. This turns out to be having a sleep and was no doubt coined by some sharp eyed type who had served there.

On the 2nd some troops were moved from Malta to its smaller sister island Gozo just in case the Axis decided to use that route to invade. With a fair amount of the Luftwaffe being moved from Sicily to what would become the Eastern Front, pressure eased on Malta and during June 70% of the Axis convoys to North Africa were sunk, many by forces based in Malta.

Speaking of invading Malta the latest Lindybeige has a very good assessment of how the Victorians decided to organise the defence of the island on little more than a shoestring budget. It seems that after Napoleon’s visit the Maltezers asked the British to guarantee their safety. The Corsican’s visit to anywhere never endeared him to the locals. The Victorians, for obvious reasons, didn’t allow for aerial bombing as a means of attack.

On the 5th submarine HMS Triumph sank an Italian gunboat and two small transports off the coast of Libya using her deck gun. On the 6th Operation Battleaxe, an offensive in Libya intended to weaken the German siege of Tobruk, was delayed because the British were still waiting for their tanks which arrived on the 9th. On the 8th two German air raids on Alexandria prompted an evacuation of 40.000 residents. On the 11th submarine HMS Taku sank a German ship in Benghazi harbour. On the 14th British tanks took up positions on the Libyan border ready for a major offensive, the Germans bombarded Tobruk with artillery and two British carriers with support sailed from Gibraltar and 47 Hurricanes later flew to Malta losing only 4 on the last leg.

On the 15th the British began Operation Battleaxe, they laid siege to the Halfaya Pass and captured Fort Capuzzo but lost about half of their tanks. On the 16th the Germans launched a counter attack which was fought off but again at the cost of many British tanks that ran up against the Panzer IIIs and IVs. On the 17th the Germans broke through the Allied lines in Libya and the Allied military decided to call off Operation Battleaxe having lost most of their tanks. The initial fall back order between the British Generals was communicated in Hindustani for security reasons. The failure of this operation would soon cost General Wavell his position as British commander-in-chief in the region, he would go on to take charge of Burma. On the 21st Wavell was duly replaced by Auchinleck as Churchill wanted more aggression. The Auk would himself be replaced later on.

It has to be said that the objective of Operation Battleaxe was the relief of Tobruk and the recapture of eastern Cyrenaica. It was a miserable failure.

During Battleaxe the British lost 27 Crusader and 64 Matilda tanks, many to breakdowns, the Germans lost about 50 tanks but they still controlled the battleground and could recover their tanks and repair them. After repairs they only really lost 12 tanks. The British also lost 33 fighters and 3 bombers while German air losses were 10 aircraft.

Over in Crete we managed to evacuate 3,710 troops on the 1st but lost an anti-aircraft cruiser (to air attack) as it escorted the convoy. The efforts of the Royal Navy had extracted 16,511 men from the mire but there were still 5,000 on the island. These 5,000 were surrendered by Australian Lt. Colonel Theo Walker by the end of the day and so ended another glorious defeat for us. On the 5th Germany announced that 15,000 British and Commonwealth personnel were captured on Crete. On the 12th submarine HMS Torbay sank an Italian schooner off the island of Skiros, they were still using sailing boats.

The last word on Crete belonged to Churchill. In a letter to General Ismay, his military advisor, Churchill criticised the tactical handling of the defence of Crete. He questioned why no counter attack had been launched against Maleme airfield for 36 hours. The answer is that General Freyberg was convinced the main assault would come from the sea and held back. By the time he realised his mistake it was too late.

Only 1 day’s worth of news from East Africa. On the 11th the 15th Punjab Regiment captured Assab in southern Eritrea thus ensuring the Italians could not use the Red Sea.

The invasion of Russia meant that the Luftwaffe had been transferring some planes from Sicily to the Eastern Front and this gave hard-pressed Malta a much needed respite. Malta is smaller than Greater London and it was bombed far more than London ever was.

And in other news …. on the 1st clothes were rationed, everyone got 66 clothing coupons a year, a dress needed 16, pyjamas 8, underpants 4 and so on, on the 2nd the first Mosquito reconnaissance plane was delivered to the RAF and  braggart Goering boasted that after Crete no island was safe, on the 6th 454 Lancasters were ordered with Merlin engines and two prototypes with Bristol Hercules engines, on the 9th Adolf called his top military leaders to Berchtesgaden to finalise plans for the invasion of Russia, on the 12th the US Naval Reserve was called to active duty, on the 14th assets of German and Italian nationals in the US were frozen and Croatia joined the Tripartite Pact which now had far more than 3 signatories, on the 15th German units moved into position ready to invade the Soviet Union, the following day Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano met von Ribbentrop who denied rumours of the invasion but assured him that if war came victory would be swift, on the 17th Finland began the secret mobilisation of its military ready for its simultaneous invasion of Russia, on the 20th German troops on the border with Russia were told they were involved in a large exercise, on the 22nd the invasion began and Mussolini finally got a message at 3am, the next day Slovakia declared war on the Soviet Union, on the 25th nominally neutral Sweden allowed the Wehrmacht to transit from Norway to Finland via Sweden, on the 28th Hungary declared war and on the 29th Albania declared war on Russia.

The stalemate in the desert continued with both sides only able to go about  things half heartedly because of lack of resources.The issue of supplies in North Africa was always impacting what the military of both sides were capable of doing. I remember my dad saying that was what really beat Rommel. The importance of keeping Malta was perhaps the key to the whole campaign. Whatever happened on land, the navies of both sides were always busy trying to sink each other.

The use of Hindustani for security reasons reminds me of a story about Burma. Some of the RAF pilots flying over Burma often used to speak to each other in French, possibly with a dreadful accent, and this was the only code the Japanese never broke.


© well_chuffed 2021

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