The Desert War – August 1941

Nov 1942, Libya
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

August 1941 was extraordinarily quiet in the theatres we are concentrating on. This month it is only news from Libya and precious little of it there is. But things were happening in Italy.

In Tobruk the mainly Australian troops were mostly evacuated and replaced over a couple of months. There are various stories explaining this but for me the most credible is that the Australian Prime Minister complained to Churchill about his troops bearing the brunt and this resulted in the change over. The replacement was handled by the Royal Navy during the night time. The troops sailed from Alexandria and those in Tobruk returned the same way. Camofleurs disguised where the ships berthed in Tobruk with netting and the Axis had no idea this was happening.

Things were also happening at the River Serchio near Livorno. After the fiasco with the suicidal E-boat raid on Malta the 10th Flotilla needed to rebuild and a new boss. The man appointed to do this was Prince Borghese. His first need was for swimmers to build up the underwater teams and he started by contacting the Italian Swimming League. After getting the names of likely candidates he discovered that, with typical military efficiency, they were all in the Army and based anywhere from the Eastern front to the North African desert. With amazing speed they were transferred to the Navy. This would normally have taken months but for once inter service rivalries were put to one side. This work would begin to show results in September.

The 10th Flotilla also acquired a new submarine, the Ambra, to replace the Iride that had been sunk in August 1940 along with 3 armed trawlers. The emphasis would now be on underwater raids as opposed to surface raids by E-boat.

On the 1st nine Blenheim bombers escorted by Hurricanes attacked Axis vehicles at Sidi Omar in Libya. On the 2nd two Australian companies attacked Italian positions near Tobruk assisted by over 60 field guns. The attacks were beaten off with heavy casualties. This was the last time the Australians tried to retake positions lost in May. German dive bombers attacked Allied convoys off Libya but they were seen off by British fighters, both sides losing three aircraft. On the 3rd 21 British Maryland bombers attacked Axis positions at Tobruk while fighters attacked nearby airfields.

On the 13th journalist Richard Capell paid tribute to the defenders of Libya mentioning the Australian, Indian and British boys who within weeks became hardened men. On the 14th Edmund Herring was appointed Major General in command of the Australian 6th Division in Egypt. On the 31st German bombers attacked Alexandria killing 2 Royal Navy officers but doing little damage to ships or port facilities which were their primary targets.

And that is it for August, very quiet, both sides were probably waiting for supplies but no doubt people still died every day.

And in other news …. on the 1st Josef Goebbels made up a quote from US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, to the effect that Britain’s situation was hopeless,  and you all thought fake news was something new, on the 6th the first Bell Airacobra was delivered to the RAF but its performance fell far short of the manufacturer’s claims, they had been achieved by a highly polished machine weighing a ton less than the one delivered, on the 8th Benito’s son, Bruno Mussolini, was killed in a plane crash and Uncle Joe promoted himself to Generalissimo of the Soviet Army, on the 11th Philippe Leclerc of Strasbourg Cathedral fame, was promoted to Brigadier General, on the 15th it became a criminal offence for Jews not to wear the yellow star of David, on the 18th Roosevelt and Churchill signed the Atlantic Charter, an agreement that would lead to the very evil United Nations, on the 16th Stalin agreed to an aid plan from the US and the UK, a decision that would lead to the loss of many lives in the Arctic convoys, on the 18th Radio Belgrade played a record that had been found in a pile of dusty 78s, it was Lili Marleen by Lale Andersen and was an instant success, the Deutsche Afrika Korps soldiers asked for it over and over again and with english lyrics it became just as popular with the Allied soldiers in the Western Desert, finally on the 21st the Germans began their siege of Leningrad.

Having occupied Crete it would seem obvious that the Germans would also take Cyprus but they never launched an attack. The reason was that both the Germans and Italians believed it was heavily guarded. This was down to Dudley Clarke who had created notional forces consisting of the 7th Division with 3 of its infantry Brigades, Divisional troops, a Special Service Battalion, lots of anti-aircraft guns and four squadrons of tanks (they were dummy tanks) and associated fake radio traffic. In reality very few men were stationed on Cyprus and they were busy creating the mirage for the Axis. Eventually the real 50th Division arrived but by then it was too late.

Clarke excelled in notional forces. From 1941 to 1945 he created out of thin air, dummy equipment and false radio transmissions the following:

  • 7 brigades
  • 32 divisions
  • 10 corps
  • 3 armies
  • the SAS

When the real SAS entered the fray it only reinforced the German belief in their intelligence, they had known about it months before it appeared; this news was greeted with much slapping of teutonic backs. Probably the most famous of Clarke’s notional units was the First US Army Group, or FUSAG, stationed in south east England ready to pounce on the pas de calais once Adolf had moved his troops to fight off the real invasion happening in Normandy. It was something like two months before that happened and by then it was too late.


© well_chuffed 2021

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