The Desert War – November 1941

Photo collage of images from the Greco-Italian war. All photos from public domain sources
SJCAmerican / CC BY-SA

We reach November 80 years ago. In the 16 or so months since the start of the campaign in June 1940 we have seen us nibble at the Italians in Libya, the Italians attack us in Egypt, we counter attacked and reached well past Benghazi. The Germans arrived and pushed us back to Egypt leaving just Tobruk as our only Libyan possession. The Royal Navy has been at it hammer and tongs most if not all of these 16 months and this month the land war gets somewhat warmer.

Apart from the Italian garrison at Gondar in Abyssinia surrendering on the 27th to the British 12th African Division after they captured two mountain passes overlooking the town, all the action was North African or related.

As part of the deception planning for Operation Crusader a dummy railway and rail depot were built by the camofleurs. The real rails ran to Misheifa and a place called Depot 1. The dummy ran for 9 more miles westwards and ended at Depot 2. This was outfitted with a dummy steam engine complete with a stove to make smoke and dummy supplies. The Germans actually bombed Depot 2 but it seems they then realised it was just a dummy setup allegedly dropping a wooden bomb on it afterwards. When they ran out of real rails the camofleurs used tin cans beaten to look like rails. Of course the Air Force had to discourage Axis reconnaissance planes from getting too close to it or it would be spotted for what it was.

On the 6th Wellingtons from Malta bombed Naples overnight. On the 8th two cruisers and and two destroyers, aka Force K, were sent from Malta to intercept an Axis convoy details of which had been discovered by Ultra in Bletchley Park. A Maryland aircraft was sent up to create the illusion that the convoy had been spotted from the air. The convoy consisted of two German freighters, three Italian freighters and two Italian tankers and carried 223 troops, 389 vehicles, 35,000 tons of supplies and nearly 18,000 tons of fuel. It was escorted by 2 Italian cruisers and 7 Italian destroyers.

At 1am on the 9th the British ships intercepted the convoy, all 7 merchant ships and one destroyer were sunk using radar gunnery then submarine HMS Upholder got in on the act and damaged another Italian destroyer which later sank under tow.

On the 10th came the start of Operation Flipper, aka the Rommel Raid, which was designed to capture or kill Rommel. Submarines HMS Torbay and HMS Talisman were to deliver commandos behind enemy lines. The Operation Perpetual convoy left Gibraltar for Malta. Carriers Ark Royal and Argus escorted by a battleship, a cruiser and seven destroyers were to deliver 37 Hurricanes to Malta. On the 12th the carriers launched the planes. On the 13th U-81 sank HMS Ark Royal, luckily there was only one fatality, 1,487 sailors survived. The escorting destroyers attacked the U-boat but it managed to escape.

On the night of the14th the two submarines delivered 36 of the planned 59 commandos behind enemy lines in Libya. Bad weather stopped the delivery of all the commandos. The men were mainly from the 11th (Scottish) commando. The official plan was to

  • attack Rommel’s HQ in Beda Littoria (now Al Bayda)
  • attack the wireless station and intelligence centre at Apollonia
  • attack the Italian HQ and cable mast at Cyrene
  • attack the HQ of the Italian Trieste Division near Slonta

this was rather an ambitious plan for 89 men ! There was no official mention of Rommel himself but it was probably the major objective in reality, one of the men later said that Lt Col Keyes had said they were going to get Rommel.

Also on the 14th the British sent unescorted freighters disguised as French, Italian and Spanish ships with supplies for Malta. Operation Astrologer began with two freighters bound for Malta, one of these ships was found and sunk by Italian SM-79 torpedo bombers, the second was found and sunk the following day.

On the 15th Lt Col Geoffrey Keyes, leader of the commandos, began the march through torrential rain to Rommel’s HQ arriving at midnight. The intelligence had not been good. Rommel was not there, nor even in Libya he had gone to Rome to plead for more supplies and his HQ had been moved nearer to Tobruk a few weeks before. Keyes, leading from the front, was the only casualty and died shortly after for which he was awarded the VC. The commandos then had to fight their way back to the coast through Italian patrols and only 3 men made it out of there, the rest were captured.

On the 17th an Ultra intercept confirmed that Rommel was not there but it was too late to recall the team. When Rommel was told about the raid he was most indignant that British would believe his HQ was 250 miles behind the front, he preferred to be near the front line with his troops.

On the 18th British, NZ and Indian troops launched Operation Crusader, this was a major offensive from Egypt into Libya. It achieved complete surprise and there was little serious resistance on the first day. The Germans later called this offensive Winterschlact, or Winter Slaughter. When darkness came two cruisers and two destroyers bombarded German positions in the Halfaya Pass. The next day the 4th Armoured Brigade took on the 21st Panzer Division, the 7th Armoured Brigade continued advancing towards Tobruk capturing Sidi Rezegh airfield but the Italian Ariete Division stopped the advance of the British 22nd Armoured Brigade at Bir el Gubi. The Italians managed to destroy or disable 40 Crusader tanks.

On the 20th the 7th Armoured Brigade held off a counter attack from the German 90th Light Infantry Division and the Italian Bologna Division. The 4th Armoured Brigade clashed with the German 15th Panzer Division losing some American built M3 tanks. Yet again in the darkness three cruisers bombarded Axis positions, this time at Bardia.

On the 21st submarine HMS Utmost damaged Italian cruiser Trieste near Sicily and the Allied garrison at Tobruk attempted to break out and link up with the 4th Armoured Brigade coming from Egypt. This Brigade would be involved in a large tank battle with the 15th Panzer Division for the next 3 days near Sidi Rezegh. In desperate need of fuel, Rommel sent Italian cruiser Cardona from Brindisi to Benghazi without escorts to bring fuel for his vehicles. On the 22nd his gamble paid off when the Cardona arrived in Benghazi. Meanwhile at Sollum in Egypt the Italians and the New Zealanders were fighting for control of the town and the Indian 7th Brigade captured Sidi Omar in Libya.

On the 23rd the Italian High Command agreed to put the 20th Mobile Corps under the direct control of Rommel. This day was known to the Germans as Operation Totensonntag (Sunday of the dead), they had some success but at a cost. They pushed the Allies back and had destroyed many tanks but at the end of the day, the Germans were down to 40 Panzers themselves.

On the 24th Rommel ordered his troops and the Italian Ariete Division to head east hoping to relieve the siege of Bardia. Under constant attack by the RAF, they did not get very far. On the 25th Australian troops from Tobruk linked up with the New Zealanders at Ed Duda in Libya. Rommel conducted an inspection of the front but got lost and had to wait for daybreak to be rescued. The first Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore (Thunderbolt) fighters reached Libya. This fighter was better than the Hurricanes and P-40s of the RAF.

On the 26th the Germans and Kiwis fought over Fort Capuzzo but Rommel recalled his troops from Sidi Rezegh leaving it open for the 7th Armoured Division. Lt Colonel Yeo took his 44th Royal Tank Regiment on a night attack, predicted as impossible, and broke through the besieging lines to link up with the Tobruk garrison. They were to do another “impossible” attack in January. Lt General Neil Ritchie was appointed commander in chief of the British Eighth Army. On the 27th the 21st Panzer Division withdrew west but the 15th Panzer Division captured Sidi Azeiz collaring 700 prisoners. The NZ 2nd Division assisted by 90 tanks broke through the German encirclement of Tobruk to enter the city. The 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions moved to counter attack but Australian and British troops stopped them during the day only for them to make another attempt in the dark.

On the 25th the battleship HMS Barham was sunk by three torpedos from U-331. Over 800 men were killed but nearly 500 were saved. The news was kept secret for several weeks to avoid panicking the population and even then only next of kin were informed and asked to keep it quiet. It was officially announced in January 1942. Film of the almighty explosion that finished off the Barham was used in training films for many years.

On the 28th the 7th Armoured Division attacked the 15th Panzer Division to stop their move towards Tobruk but the Germans were still advancing. The commanding officer of  the 21st Panzer Division was captured by the New Zealand 2nd Infantry Division. On the 29th the Italian Ariete Division overcame the NZ 1st Battalion and in Malta, Force B consisting of two cruisers and two destroyers arrived to operate alongside Force K. On the 30th The Kiwis were under sever pressure at Sidi Rezegh and the Germans were still pressing their attacks on Tobruk but out in the Med British aircraft from Malta sank one Italian merchant ship and damaged another that were busy bringing supplies to Benghazi. Will the Germans run out of gas again, we have to wait for next month’s instalment.

And in other news …. on the 2nd over 2,000 Jews from Zagare in Poland working as slave labourers attacked their Lithuanian guards wounding seven of them. The reprisal was predictable, 150 were shot on the spot and the rest were executed later, on the 17th the US delivered escort carrier Archer to the UK, the first of 38 to be delivered under the lend-lease Act and the rationing of canned meat, fish and beans (at least one Puffin would have starved in that case) began in the UK, on the 22nd the US Navy produced Task Force Ultrasecret Operation’s first order, the mission was to conduct pre-emptive strikes on any potential threats against Hawaii, in those days still a territory rather than a state,  on the 25th the German 2nd Panzer Division was stopped in its tracks by British built and supplied Matilda tanks of the Soviet 146th Tank Brigade at Peshki, 35 miles north west of Moscow, the Matilda also figured heavily in North Africa and some were captured by the Germans after Operation Battleaxe and pressed into service for the Reich causing some confusion among the Allies.

The Royal Navy was still in the thick of it, as was the Merchant Navy but after lull of several months it had all kicked off in the desert again. The question of supplies is raised again, the Axis were having trouble getting their ships through to Libya and Panzers need fuel, lots of it. They needed nearly 1,200 lorries to transport the fuel from Tripoli to the front lines, the Italians only had 700 available. The lorries themselves used lots of fuel just to transport what remained. Another reason why Rommel always had fuel problems.


© well_chuffed 2021