The Desert War – August 1942

December 25 1942, Mena
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2022

August 80 years ago and although the situation in the desert starts off mostly quiet all hell is breaking out at sea. The Axis are desperate to resupply Rommel and the Allies are equally desperate to stop them and there is the small question of keeping Malta supplied as well as the Allied forces in Egypt.

On the 4th Churchill arrived in Cairo to meet with Auchinleck. That day U-372 was located by a Wellington, depth charged and had to surface where the 4 destroyers sent to deal with her only had to rescue the crew. The next day Churchill and Auchinleck inspected the front at El Alamein. The Auk was sacked and his replacement was to be General Gott.  On the 7th submarine HMS Thorn attacked an Italian convoy near Crete but was herself sunk with the loss of all crew. William Gott, the replacement for Auchinleck, was killed when his aircraft was shot down. On the 8th submarine HMS Turbulent sank the Italian destroyer Strale that had been run aground on 21 June when under attack from British torpedo bombers.

On the 10th came bad news for the Italian frogmen. Their submarine Scirè was sunk off Haifa by HMS Islay. 55 were killed including 10 frogmen who were to have attacked Haifa Harbour. Ultra decrypts had given the game away. The Pedestal convoy of 13 merchant ships, the tanker Ohio and 59 warships left Gibraltar headed for Malta. Lying in wait were 21 Axis submarines and 800 aircraft. On the 11th U-73 sank carrier HMS Eagle near Majorca with the loss of 131 crew. HMS Furious launched 37 Spitfires for Malta and returned to Gibraltar. The first air attacks on Pedestal were from Sardinia but were repulsed. Destroyer HMS Wolverine rammed Italian submarine Dagabur as she attempted to torpedo HMS Furious on its way back to Gibraltar. On the 12th Monty, Gott’s replacement, arrived in Cairo ready to take charge of the 8th Army. Submarine HMS Porpoise laid mines outside Tobruk.

At midday on the 12th Pedestal came under sustained attack close to Tunisia. Carrier HMS Indomitable was hit by 2 500lb bombs, wrecking her flight deck. Off Bizerta destroyers HMS Ithuriel and Pathfinder found Italian submarine Cobalto and depth charged her forcing her to surface then Ithuriel rammed and sank her, most of the crew survived. Later Italian submarine Axum sank cruiser HMS Cairo, damaged cruiser HMS Nigeria and damaged the tanker Ohio. Italian SM.79 torpedo bombers broke the back of destroyer HMS Foresight. By midnight the convoy was near Cape Bon, the northern point of Tunisia, when 3 merchant ships were sunk and another badly damaged. 6 Italian cruisers and 17 destroyers left Messina to intercept the convoy.

On the 13th Montgomery took command of the 8th Army after the first choice, William Gott, had been killed. By this time the convoy was close enough to Malta that air protection could be provided. Submarine HMS Unbroken damaged Italian cruisers Bolzano and Muzio Attendolo off Sicily. Torpedo boats, 7 German and 8 Italian, attacked Pedestal, they sank 4 freighters and severely damaged cruiser HMS Manchester. Tanker Ohio was abandoned while the RAF provided air cover allowing 3 merchant ships to sail into the Grand Harbour. The RAF cover also encouraged the Italian warships to abandon their plans to intercept the convoy, there were also whispers that the Germans didn’t trust the Italian Navy and ordered it back to base. On the 14th 3 British destroyers and a minesweeper began towing tanker Ohio to Malta. Freighter Brisbane Star limped into Malta that afternoon in reverse. There was a massive torpedo hole in her bow. On the 15th submarine HMS Porpoise sank Italian freighter Lerici to the west of Crete and tanker Ohio was towed into Valletta harbour still carrying the fuel supply. She later sank in the harbour but not before her cargo of fuel, 170,000 barrels, had been unloaded.

On the 15th Malta only had enough petrol to last another fortnight. Now supplies for the next three months had arrived. Most of the RAF pilots had lost two stone in weight because of the rationing and the same must have been true for everybody on Malta. They all got the same rations. The price of Pedestal was high, the losses were nine merchant ships, one aircraft carrier, two cruisers and one destroyer along with many more damaged.

The Luftwaffe had almost given up attacking Malta, no more bombers arrived, just a few fighters most days. As a result the RAF went on the offensive and started attacking airfields in Sicily with considerable success.

On the 16th HMS Furious left Gibraltar carrying 32 Spitfires for Malta, her escort was one cruiser and 13 destroyers. Submarine HMS Turbulent damaged Italian merchant ship Nino Boxio off Greece. This ship was carrying 3,200 Allied PoWs and they were most of the 336 who were killed, not the first time this had happened. On the 17th U-83 sank Canadian troopship Princess Marguerite near Port Said with 49 fatalities but 1,083 were rescued. Submarine HMS Safari sank another Italian sailing ship near Sardinia. HMS Furious sent her 32 Spitfires to Malta, two were lost taking off. Churchill arrived back in Cairo after his time in Moscow. On the 18th submarine HMS United attacked an Axis convoy near Pantellaria island off Tunisia and sank one merchant ship but was herself damaged in the action.

On the 22nd Italian torpedo boat Generale Antonio Cantore was sunk by a mine off Tobruk, submarine HMS Porpoise had laid the mines ten days previously. On the 23rd Dwight Eisenhower ventured his opinion to the Combined Chiefs of Staff that Operation Torch, the proposed landings in Morocco and Algeria, would not be viable until November, this was a month later than the original date. On the 27th submarine HMS Umbra sank an Italian merchant ship near Crete. On the 29th destroyers HMS Aldenham and Eridge shelled the Axis controlled airfield at El Daba in Egypt. During this action an Italian torpedo boat hit HMS Eridge. On the 30th the Axis began an offensive at El Alamein. The Desert Air Force bombed the hell out of it and it was stopped in its tracks. News had already reached Allied commanders from Bletchley Park that the offensive was coming. On the 31st British tanks fought their German counterparts near Alam el Haifa, the Germans abandoned their attack after losing 22 tanks to the British loss of 21 tanks. Also on the 31st the previously mentioned Hans-Joachim Marseille shot down a Spitfire over Alam el Haifa bringing his score to an amazing 104.

And in other news …. on the 1st the British Army Air Corps and Glider Pilot Regiment were established, on the 4th at the DOJ in Washington, the 8 German saboteurs were sentenced to death by the electric chair including the defector George Dasch, on the 5th the wine ration in France was reduced to 2 litres per person per week (I know, puffins will be absolutely aghast, upset will be really upset), on the 8th Dwight Eisenhower set up his HQ in England and six of the 8 saboteurs were executed, two, including George Dasch, had their sentences reduced to 30 years imprisonment, on the 9th Mahatma Ghandi was arrested in Bombay for starting the “Quit India” campaign, on the 10th Churchill along with Generals Wavell and Alan Brooke flew to Moscow to tell the Russians about Operation Torch, on the 13th Churchill arrived in Moscow, on the 14th a P-38 Lightning from Iceland shot down a plane in the European theatre, it was a FW 200 maritime patrol and it was the Lightning’s first kill in this theatre, on the 15th the RAF founded the Pathfinder force, filled with elite crews it would grow to 19 squadrons by the end of the war, on the 17th came the first all-American bomber raid over Europe using 12 B-17s attacking Sotteville-les-Rouen but due to German fighter interference it was not at all effective, on the 18th came Adolf’s infamous Commando Order that all commandos in or out of uniform should be shot immediately, on the 19th came the catastrophic Dieppe Raid, 5,000 of the 6,000 or so troops were Canadian, 907 were killed, 586 wounded and 1,946 captured, the RAF lost 106 aircraft and the Navy lost 33 landing craft and one destroyer, a message for Stalin ?, on the 22nd the working week for foreign workers in Germany was increased to 54 hours, on the 24th 809 Japanese Landing forces left Rabaul New Britain heading for Papua, 450 troops also left Buna, all heading for the Milne Bay invasion, the second one was attacked by 12 Aussie Kittyhawks that destroyed all barges, on the 25th the Duke Of Kent, younger brother of King George VI, was killed when the Sunderland he was flying in crashed in Caithness, a conspiracy theorist’s dream (was he really going to try and arrange a peace with the Germans ?), on the 26th the commie newspaper the Daily Worker (communist, worker, an oymoron if there ever was one) was re-licensed by Mandelscum’s grandfather Herbert Morrison after he had banned it on 21 Jan 1941 and finally on the 30th Luxembourg was annexed into the third Reich leading to a general strike, those erics are not as popular as they think they are.

At the end of August things were looking better for the Allies in North Africa. Rommel had been stopped at the first Battle of El Alamein, Malta was having a respite from Axis air attacks and the supply convoys to Rommel were being hammered by air and sea and still going to Tripoli not Tobruk. The planning for the second Battle of El Alamein including the deceptions were well under way and Operation Torch, the invasion of Algeria and Morocco was also being planned. All were originally planned for October but they all started in November.

The Dieppe raid was one of many disasters in a war littered with them. As background Stalin was pushing for a second front to relieve pressure on the Eastern Front. All protestations of “we are not ready” were met with “we might make peace with the Germans” so he needed to be convinced the second front was not viable yet. Whether the Dieppe raid convinced him or not is unsure but there are rumours that the raid was deliberately betrayed to the Germans by the Allies to ensure lots of casualties, most of which turned out to be Canadian. This is not a very convincing theory, Stalin’s indifference to deaths must have been well known and if the Allies had said we will suffer a million dead and wounded if we launch a second front Stalin would have been unmoved. Perhaps the imminent Operation Torch calmed him down.

© well_chuffed 2022