The Desert War – July 1941

Nov 1942 On Road to matruk-Galal
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

We reach July 80 years ago, it was quiet on the ground in North Africa but the navies were as busy as ever. There was no news from East Africa and precious little from Greece now that it was fully under German control.

On the 1st Rommel was promoted to General der Panzertruppe or General of the Armoured Forces. On the 14th Ju-88s based in Crete attacked Suez in Egypt damaging the harbour and some ships. On the 17th Axis aircraft attacked airfields on Malta. On the 19th Italo Gariboldi resigned as Governor General of Libya to be succeeded by Ettore Bastico. On the 20th an Italian torpedo boat sank submarine HMS Union with depth charges near Pantellaria, an island presently overflowing with migrants from Africa all trying to reach Treasure Island which may or may not be the nearest safe country.

The Luftwaffe had decided to reinforce Vichy Syria. This led to an invasion and it fell on Bastille Day, 14th July after the British had warned that such a reinforcement would result in military action.

On the 21st Churchill’s heaviest cross, Charles de Gaulle, met British Minister of state Oliver Lyttleton (a relation of Humphrey no less) in Cairo. Charles was complaining as usual, he did little else other than look for slights. He was not happy that his Free French troops in the Middle East were under British command. He was assured that Free France would take direct control on 24th July. On the same day Allied convoy “Substance” left Gibraltar for Malta. It contained six transports, carrier HMS Ark Royal, battlecruiser HMS Renown, battleship HMS Nelson, several cruisers and six destroyers. On the 22nd an Italian submarine fired four torpedoes at Operation Substance but all missed. 23 Italian bombers took off from Sardinia to attack the same convoy but they couldn’t locate the ships and a 2,000 ton Italian tanker underway from Palermo to Tripoli caught fire when an ammunition ship in the same convoy was bombed and exploded. The tanker was taken under tow but British aircraft scored direct hits and sank her. By British calculations 70% of the supplies sent to North Africa were being sunk.

On the 25th HMS Edinburgh was attacked by a German torpedo bomber in Malta but the torpedo missed. HMS Cachelot left Malta for Alexandria.

In one of the most bizarre episodes in the story of Malta came news of what was effectively a suicide mission. The suicide attack on Malta by 9 E-Boats and several other motor boats was the brainchild of Vittorio Moccagatta and Tesso Tesei at the frogmen school at River Serchio. They were equipped with both chariots and E-Boats. It took a while to sell the idea, including visits to the bosses in Rome, but eventually they found someone to approve it. The objection was basically that there were no targets in Valletta worth attacking and those that visited were in and out in no time. Nevertheless the raid went ahead. There were a couple of recce runs before the actual attack and even though they spotted no worthwhile targets, it did not discourage the sponsors. Some of the frogmen were willing to go on suicide missions so they could die in the service of their country.

The E-Boats were moved to the Sicilian naval base at Augusta ready to check out the Grand Harbour’s defences. Finally on June 23 the Supemarina authorised the assault. Unknown to Moccagatta radar had been installed at Valletta and his recces were picked up on it as opposed to his belief they had heard his engines.

Nine E-Boats and two human torpedoes would be carried by the destroyer Diana to a point 20 miles from the Grand Harbour from where they would be launched. Mussolini had previously used the Diana as his private yacht. Unknown to the Italians, the radar on Malta had picked them up at 10:30 pm. Only one of the human torpedoes made it to the bridge guarding the harbour and at 4:30am the bridge was blown but much of it fell and blocked the entrance. This was the signal for the first wave of E-Boats to rush in and rush they did, straight into a hail of fire from the defences which destroyed all of them.

The remaining boats waiting to come in for the kill headed back to Sicily after the total destruction of the first wave but they were also destroyed by the RAF. this debacle was followed by a restructuring of the special unit after so many losses.

On the 30th submarine HMS Cachalot was scuttled after a tussle with an Italian torpedo boat north of Benghazi.

Back in the Balkans on the 7th Yugoslavia was carved up between Germany, Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria while Croatia became an independent state. On the 13th came the first armed uprising in Nazi-Occupied Europe when 6,000 members of the Communist Party and its Youth League rebelled against the Italians in Montenegro.

Meanwhile in Italy on the 22nd Count Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister wrote in his diary that Mussolini had staged a mock air raid over Rome with anti-aircraft guns firing. It was supposed to convince the people of Rome that a serious war was going on. No, me neither.

In July Renato Levi, who was already working for the Italians, agreed to work for the British as well. He immediately invented a fictitious agent called Paul Nicosoff. It seems the Italians soon caught one he was a double and started feeding him false information. This was immediately recognised by our side but he was left in place on the grounds that we could now see where the Italians were trying to deceive us and that, it was determined, was almost as good as their real secrets.

And in other news …. on the 1st the Special Air Service (initially called “L” [A-K had already been allocated to Dudley Clarke’s fictitious SAS] detachment, Special Air Service Brigade) was formed by Colonel David Stirling and coal deliveries to all addresses in Britain were limited to one ton a month, on the 3rd the British Communist Party oddly decided to stop campaigning for peace and instead supported the war effort, must have been something to do with the Nazis no longer being the allies of their heroes in the Soviet Union, obviously encouraged by this on the next day Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden officially ruled out any chance of peace negotiations with Germany, on the 8th the RAF attacked Wilhelmshaven using B-17 bombers for the first time, on the 13th the first Spanish volunteers for the Eastern Front left Spain for training in Germany, on the 16th those who were 50% or less Jewish or married to women who were 50% or less Jewish were suddenly allowed to serve in the German military reversing a previous decision, on the 19th Churchill decided to share Ultra intelligence with the Russians without telling them where it came from, they of course knew all about it because Cairncross had been shipping tons of the stuff to them already, on the 21st Hugh Dalton told Churchill his SOE was ready to set Europe ablaze, on the 22nd, in a touching gesture, Adolf sent an armoured train with anti aircraft weapons to Mussolini as a birthday present (every boy wants a train set), on the 27th the UK nationalised railroads for the duration of the war (*cough*) and on the 29th Marshal Georgy Zhukov resigned as Chief of Staff of the Soviet forces.

A relatively quiet month but there would have been the usual shelling and patrols going on as well as the perpetual carnage at sea.


© well_chuffed 2021

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