The Desert War – February 1942

well_chuffed, Going Postal
March 1943, Sidi Bishr (Nr Alexandria)
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

January had finished with the Allies on the back foot in Libya, the Axis was advancing. It was all going pear shaped again. Although Tobruk had been relieved, the Axis armour hadn’t been destroyed, merely withdrawn and then lived to fight another day. See the Duke of Wellington’s tactics during the Peninsula War for more details. Having run out of steam, the Allies’ attack has petered out and predictably, the Axis forces were now on the move.

On the 3rd the 1st Armoured Division left Mechili and the Indian 4th Division left Derna. On the 4th the British seized the royal palace in Cairo to force the abdication of the 22 year old King Faroukh who was more inclined to the Axis than the Allies. I have heard he didn’t like British troops marching about Cairo singing rude songs about him. On the 5th the Axis took control of Derna and Tmimi in Libya. On the 6th the Germans entered Benghazi but their move to the west ran up against the Gazala Line and faltered. on the 7th destroyers HMS Zulu and Lively sank an Italian trawler and another small boat near Malta.

On the 8th Hans-Joachim Marseille rears his ugly head again. While coming into land at Martuba airfield five Hurricanes attacked his Me 109. He resumed his flight and shot two of them down. Later that day several Blenheims escorted by P-40s and Hurricanes bombed the airfield. He shot two of the Blenheims down. On the 9th Italian aircraft bombed Alexandria and German aircraft damaged cruiser HMS Cleopatra near Malta and destroyer HMS Farndale off Egypt. On the 12th submarine HMS Una sank Italian tanker Luciana south of Italy. Luciana had previously been given safe passage because she refuelled ships transporting civilians back from Italian East Africa. Destroyer HMS Maori was sunk in Malta Harbour during an air raid, luckily most of the crew were sleeping ashore, the resulting explosion also damaged destroyer HMS Decoy. On the 13th Italian torpedo boat Circe attacked submarine HMS Tempest. Tempest had surfaced because of damage to her batteries which were leaking chlorine gas. The 24 survivors were taken prisoner and Circe attempted to tow Tempest back to Italy but the submarine sank.

On the 13th Grand Admiral Raeder visited the Führer in Berlin with a plan to invade Malta. This would pave the way for a final solution in North Africa followed by the subjugation of the Middle East. Adolf agreed and the attack was codenamed Operation Hercules but it would be April before any real planning would be done. Meanwhile in Malta itself nearly a thousand tons of bombs were dropped in February and the total was rising alarmingly. The Luftwaffe had stepped up their sorties and the RAF did not have the forces available to both defend the island and attack the convoys.

On the 14th submarine HMS Thresher survived an Axis air attack but with two unexploded bombs stuck in her deck casing. Lt, Peter Roberts and PO Thomas Gould spent 40 minutes removing the explosives. The submarine might have been forced to dive at any time and leave them trapped. For this they both received a VC. In her only successful attack, submarine HMS P38 sank Italian ship Ariosto but didn’t realise that of the 410 aboard, 294 were Allied PoWs, the 252 survivors were rescued by Italian ships. Number 94 Squadron arrived at the North African front with their Kittyhawks. On the 15th 94 Squadron lost four Kittyhawks in fighting over Martuba airfield, Squadron Leader Ernest Mason was in one of the four planes shot down.

On the 21st Italian transport ships left Messina and Corfu, they would meet to form convoy K7 with a destination of Tripoli. On the 22nd General Albert Kesselring, Wehrmacht commander-in-chief South and therefore in charge of North Africa landed at Martuba to meet with Rommel. On the 23rd HMS P38 tried to attack convoy K7 90 miles east of Tripoli but was located and sunk by Italian boat Circe, all 32 on board died.

On the 26th an unhappy Churchill had a pop at General Auchinleck about the lack of offensive spirit in North Africa, the writing was on the wall for the Auk. Eagle-eyed puffins may have realised by now that Churchill was not a strategic genius, his forté was motivating people; his Generals carried the can when things went wrong. On the 27th HMS Eagle left Gibraltar carrying 15 Spitfires for delivery to Malta.

The Germans were pushing back but were stuck at the Gazala Line though they had taken Benghazi. The Navy as usual was in almost non-stop action and the Allied air forces were busy. It wasn’t all about tanks charging up and down the desert.

And in other news …. on the 1st the RAF Regiment was formed to guard airfields as the British Army could not provide such services, on the 6th the British declared war on Thailand, on the 7th Brigadier Orde Wingate was summoned to meet General Wavell in India, initially he was ordered to reconnoitre northern Burma, on the 10th British Police were given powers to curb “gambling parties” (no, me neither), on the 12th Sigmund Rascher (remember him asking for concentration camp prisoners to use as guinea pigs) reported that men who had been exposed to extreme cold were more effectively revived by warm baths than nude women (‘kin pervy Nazis, I ask you, puffins may like to experiment themselves), on the 19th FDR signed Executive Order 9066 allowing the US Military to move Japanese Americans to internment camps, on the 20th a DC-3 arrived at RAF Hendon bringing Brigadier General Ira Eaker and six other senior officers whose job was to prepare for the arrival of the US Army Air Force into the European part of the war, on the 23rd “Bomber” Harris took charge of RAF Bomber Command and finally on the 25th the first A4 rocket (later known as the V2) was placed on a test stand at Peenemünde.

In case anyone detects some levity with the extreme cold experiments detailed above there were many many victims who were callously frozen to death during these attempts to figure out how air crews could survive the cold if they had to ditch. In fact when the Allies found the documentation of such experiments after the war there was heated discussion about whether the results could be used or not based on the disgusting and evil way they were achieved. Wonder if Fauci would have been prepared to do these things, my two cents worth says he would have.

The next few months in 1942 were destined to be very difficult in this theatre. The Axis were getting the upper hand in the desert and Malta was going to suffer from lack of supplies as the convoys were stopped. All is not lost, towards the end of the year there was a massive improvement in our fortunes.


© well_chuffed 2022