The Desert War – June 1942

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Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

80 years ago in June things started to look bleak in the desert, the Axis was on the advance and we were retreating. At sea the Royal Navy was just as busy and the convoys were still sailing and getting attacked.

On the 1st Axis tanks beat the British 150th Brigade at Sidi Muftah, Brigadier Clive Haydon was killed and 3,000 British troops surrendered. The supply line to the Free French in Bir Hakeim had been closed. On the 2nd the Vichy government gave the Germans permission to use Bizerta in Tunisia to land non-military supplies, no troops or ammunition were allowed. A Baltimore plane of 815 Naval Air Squadron attacked U-652 near Bardia, the crew had to abandon the sub but were rescued by U-81 and at Bir Hakeim German and Italian troops attacked the fort but General Koenig refused the offer to surrender given by two Italian officers.  On the 3rd HMS Eagle sent another 31 Spitfires to Malta and Rommel sent a hand written note to General Koenig recommending surrender to avoid more bloodshed, Koenig again refused. On the 3rd and 4th the Germans and Italians attacked again but the French stood firm.

On the 5th 10 days after the Axis offensive had started, the British Eighth Army began a large scale counter attack. The 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 5th Infantry Division headed the attack but were bogged down within hours and about 50 British tanks were destroyed. In the afternoon Rommel ordered the 21st Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division to attack Bir el Hatmat, this split the Allied forces and hindered communications. Some British units were destroyed as they didn’t move having received no orders.

On the 6th the RAF started using its Hurricane tank buster Squadron, the planes being equipped with two 40mm canon and the pilots trained in low level attacks. In 10 days they damaged 31 Axis tanks. The Kittybombers attacked Axis tanks near the Knightsbridge box close to Tobruk. On the 7th German engineers got through the minefield at Bir Hakeim but the ensuing attack was beaten off by the Free French with British air support. On the 8th another blue on blue when Italian submarine Alagi sank its own destroyer Antoniotto Usodimare off Tunisia. There was thick fog around Bir Hakeim and a supply convoy reached the Free French but it also allowed the Germans to move troops and artillery closer to the fort. After more attacks General Koenig decided to abandon the fort on the 11th.

On the 9th HMS Eagle launched another 32 Spitfires to Malta and the 15th Panzer Division attacked Bir Hakeim again, the French were reduced to half a cup of water per day (in that heat !) but still managed to hang on to their positions. On the 10th even with the help of Stuka dive bombers the French held off another Infantry attack but with almost no ammunition left they began to abandon the fort at 11pm. Out at sea U-81 attacked convoy AT-49 off the Egyptian coast, later U-559 attacked the same convoy. Two ships were sunk and one damaged. On the 11th two convoys trying to reach Malta were attacked by air and sea, 12 British ships were sunk and 11 were damaged. The hasty French evacuation of Bir Hakeim meant the minefields had not been fully cleared when the Germans fired illumination flares and caught them in the act. The French still staged their withdrawal though many vehicles hit mines and the Axis forces shelled them continuously.  By 8am the abandonment was complete, the Germans captured 500 wounded French troops, over 1,000 had been killed but over 2,500 escaped. Taking Bir Hakeim had cost the enemy over 3,300 casualties.

On the 12th U-77 sank destroyer HMS Grove off Bardia killing 100 of her crew. 11 ships left Haifa in Palestine in Operation Vigorous bound for Malta. They were escorted by WW1 era battleship HMS Centurion (armed only with dummy guns and soon rumbled by the Italians), 8 cruisers, 26 destroyers and 9 submarines. This convoy was attacked south of Crete by Ju-88s with one freighter being damaged and sailing to Tobruk for repairs. That same day 5 British freighters and 1 tanker carrying 43,000 tons of supplies left Gibraltar escorted by battleship HMS Malaya, carriers HMS Argus and Eagle, 4 cruisers, 17 destroyers, 4 minesweepers, 1 minelayer and 6 motor gunboats. In other words probably more ships than the entire Royal Navy could muster today. Having taken Bir Hakeim the Axis pressed on and the British were pushed back towards Tobruk again losing many tanks. On the 13th the 21st Panzer Division surrounded British troops in the Knightsbridge box forcing them to withdraw in the dark. There were so many casualties the British called this “Black Saturday”. On the 14th General Auchinleck ordered the abandonment of the Gazala Line.

The 14th also saw the Harpoon and Vigorous convoys under heavy attack by SM.79 torpedo bombers and Ju-87 and 88s from Crete sinking 3 freighters and damaging another. Cruiser HMS Liverpool was disabled and towed back to Gibraltar by HMS Antelope. In the evening most of the warships escorting Harpoon returned to Gibraltar. Only two of the merchant ships in Harpoon would reach Malta. In the Vigorous convoy destroyer HMS Hasty was sunk and cruiser HMS Newcastle was damaged and had to return to Alexandria. On the 15th the British 8th Army withdrew from Libya and moved back into Egypt.

The Harpoon convoy was still under attack. Italian cruisers sank cruiser HMS Cairo, damaged destroyer HMS Partridge and disabled destroyer HMS Bedouin which was later sunk by Italian aircraft. The British managed to damage Italian destroyer Vivaldi. The Germans then joined in and their aircraft damaged 3 freighters which were abandoned and later sunk by the Italians. Harpoon reached Malta after the sun went down but ran into a new minefield in the Grand Harbour. A Polish destroyer was sunk, two British destroyers were damaged as was a freighter. The Vigorous convoy en route to Malta was protected by British Beaufort bombers, they attacked the Italian fleet on its way to intercept the convoy disabling cruiser Trento, later sunk by submarine HMS Umbra. The discovery of this Italian fleet led to the entire Vigorous convoy turning round and heading back to Alexandria. On this journey Axis aircraft sank destroyer HMS Airedale and damaged cruiser HMS Birmingham and destroyer HMAS Nestor. In the fatherland Adolf decide to postpone Operation Herkules, the planned airborne and seaborne invasion of Malta, this was ostensibly because Rommel had missed a deadline even though he had captured Tobruk. A lot of sadness and despair on this day for the Allied side.

On the 16th U-205 sank cruiser HMS Hermione on her way to Egypt after supporting the Vigorous convoy. Axis troops attacked El Adem and Sidi Rezegh near Tobruk. On the 17th the Axis surrounded Tobruk while others moved east towards Egypt. On the 19th the Axis troops were concentrated around Tobruk. On the 20th the attack on Tobruk started, 100 German and Italian tanks broke through and reached the port. On the 21st the remaining Allied troops in Tobruk tried to break out but failed. At 8am the 35,000 Allied troops surrendered, there would be no second siege of Tobruk. On the 22nd the Axis reached Bardia, 10 miles from the Egyptian border. 9 Beauforts and 6 Beaufighters from Malta attacked a convoy sailing from Naples to Tripoli. One German freighter was sunk  though 3 Beauforts were shot down.

On the 23rd submarine HMS Thrasher sank Italian merchant ship Sant Antonio off Libya, the counter attack failed. Axis forces crossed the Libya/Egypt border and moved towards Mersa Matruh fighting parts of the 7th Armoured Division at Sollum. USAAF B-24s which were in Egypt en route to China took advantage and bombed Axis positions at Benghazi. On the 25th General Auchinleck took charge of the British Eighth Army while Air Commodore Coningham’s planes bombed the advancing Axis forces non-stop slowing them down considerably. The Luftwaffe in reply could use only about half their planes. This would allow the Allies to set up at El Alamein. On the 26th the Italians increased their attacks on Malta by moving planes to Sicily. The Italian Brescia and Trento Divisions reached Mersa Matruh where they fought the Indian 10th Infantry Division. The Panzers moved towards Minqar Qaim.

On the 27th the German 90th Light Infantry Division reached Ras Hawala by 7pm and this cut off Mersa Matruh. The Auk ordered his men to retreat to Fuka, this turned out to be a bit of a shambles. The 21st Panzer Division surrounded the NZ 2nd Infantry Division but after dark the Kiwis broke out with a bayonet charge. On the 28th the Axis took Mersa Matruh and Fuka. On the 29th came the only amusing event of this month when Il Duce, ever the showman, flew his white horse to Libya ready for his victory parade in Cairo. The German 90th Light Infantry Division arrived at Sidi Abdel Rahman. HMS Thrasher sank Italian merchant ship Diana 100 miles north of Tobruk escaping the Italian depth charges. In Alexandria there was a bit of a wobble as cruiser HMS Dido, 7 destroyers and submarine depot ship HMS Medway were moved to Haifa as the Axis approached El Alamein which they reached on the 30th. Poor old HMS Medway underway to Haifa was sunk by U-372 only 60 miles north of Alexandria. Luckily over 1,100 survived but 30 were killed.

Meanwhile over in Greece, on the 9th the SBS raided Kastelli Pediados airfield in Crete destroying five aircraft and 200 tons of aviation fuel. On the 13th two Greek submarines delivered British commandos to Crete but they failed in their objectives however the SBS who had landed on the 9th/10th destroyed 20 Ju-88 bombers at Heraklion. On the 14th in retaliation, the Germans being Teutonic and all that, executed 50 civilians in Heraklion.

And in other news …. on the 1st Jews in Holland, Belgium, Croatia, Slovakia and Romania were ordered to wear yellow stars, on the 11th troops of the 2nd Canadian Division practised for the Dieppe raid, on the 13th an A4 rocket was successfully launched but only for 45 seconds, the motor failed, on the 14th Bomber Harris became Sir Bomber Harris on account of his 1,000 bomber raids, on the 20th having interrogated George Dasch, a saboteur who had defected, the FBI arrested 3 more German saboteurs in New York, on the 22nd Rommel was promoted to Field Marshal,  on the 23rd Leutnant Arnim Faber landed his FW-190 at RAF Pembrey in South Wales after losing his way, the plane was flown to Duxford where it was discovered that its performance was superior to the latest Spitfire in almost all respects, this coincidentally avoided a planned commando raid to steal one from an airfield in France, on the 25th Sir Bomber Harris launched his third 1,000 bomber raid, this time with 1,057 aircraft, to attack Bremen (the 1,000 bomber raids were more of a PR exercise than an effective raid), on the 27th Dr. Heinisch the German boss in Przemysl in occupied Poland declared that anyone interfering with the deportation of Jews, looting of Jewish homes or helping Jews to hide would be shot, sounds about par for the course – the Germans like shooting civilians, on the 28th German bombers, mistakenly believing that Churchill would be there, bombed Weston-super-mare killing 102, Winston was nowhere near Weston and on the 30th all Jewish schools in Germany were forced to close.

What a month that was, the Axis reached El Alamein where there will be a battle next month but we will have to wait until October for the more famous battle with Monty in charge. The aborted invasion of Malta would have been spectacular, It would have involved 29,000 airborne troops and 70,000 coming ashore from ships along with feints to distract the British. There were various reasons for the postponement, among them the continuous shuffling of troops to various parts of North Africa, Hitler’s lack of faith in paratroops after the casualty rates in the Crete invasion and doubts about the ability of the Italian Navy to resist Royal Navy attacks.

It is more than possible that Hitler was not so worried about the lives of his and the Italian paratroops but more than concerned about how many he would have to land to ensure they could achieve their objectives. He was seldom squeamish about casualties as was shown by his many “no retreat, fight to the death” orders. The Axis had a chance before the first USS Wasp delivery when we were down to six operational Spitfires. After the second delivery the number of RAF planes on Malta stopped the Luftwaffe attacks. Rommel had wanted a Malta invasion before the Greece and Crete invasions but Mussolini’s disastrous invasion of Greece somewhat forced the Axis total Greece before Malta.

The invasion plan for Malta was to land two divisions of paratroops, one German and one Italian, and these were to seize the airfields. As soon as one airfield was taken reinforcements could be flown in. Alongside a feint at Marsa Scirocco the Italian Navy would land two or three assault divisions south of Valletta who would link up with the paratroops. Seeing as the Luftwaffe no longer had air superiority it was a tall order for them to fly in the paratroops. Landing gliders was considered very unsafe because of all the low stone walls surrounding the relatively small fields of Malta. Adolf was also very wobbly about his Italian allies. He wasn’t sure they would have enough fight in them, could keep the plans secret and his opinion of the Italian Navy was not fit to print in a family newspaper. With the abandonment of Operation Hercules, it was left to Rommel to beat us in North Africa and he moved against Egypt while Hitler decided supplies could be landed via Crete at Tobruk after it fell.


© well_chuffed 2022