The Desert War – September 1942

well_chuffed, Going Postal
November 1942, On the road in Egypt
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

A funny old month September 1942 in the desert. A few attempts to break through on the sand but only half hearted. The navy was still in the thick of it and the air war continues without pause. Statistics say that this month 33% of Axis military and fuel supplies for Libya were sunk.

On the 1st Hans-Joachim Marseille shot down 17 planes in three sorties and finished the day on a score of 121. Before the sun came up Wellingtons bombed German supply routes between Benghazi and Tobruk meaning that only some of Rommel’s Panzers were able to attack All El Haifa because there was not enough fuel. On the 2nd patrols G1 and T1 of the LRDG left Falyum, south of Cairo, in Egypt. Armoured cars of the 4/8th Hussars of the 4th Armoured Brigade broke through Axis lines near Alan el Haifa. Rommel decided to withdraw because he had nothing to counter with. On the 3rd, late in the evening, Monty called off the attack. A group of Valentine tanks wandered into a minefield and 12 were lost trying to get out. On the 4th the New Zealand 5th and the British 132nd Brigades continued attacking the retreating Germans.

On the 5th 15 commandos of the Italian Marines attacked the British rail line near El Alamein destroying a part of it, they were all captured. Axis troops returned to their original positions west of El Alamein after the offensive launched on 30th Aug failed. Captain Timpson, leader of G1 patrol of the LRDG was injured in an accident en route to Barce, Sergeant Dennis took over from him. Submarine HMS Traveller sank Italian merchant ship Albachiara off Derna. On the 9th RAF torpedo bombers sank Italian Hospital Ship NE off Tobruk.

On the 13th the George Medal was presented to the people of Malta by Lord Gort the recently arrived Governor. In Operation Agreement Allied commandos landed near Tobruk in preparation for a raid, around 50km away the LRDG started their raid against Barce. On the 14th HMS Sikh was sunk by coastal batteries during the raid on Tobruk. The raid resulted in failure, 745 Allied troops were killed, wounded or captured compared to 66 Axis casualties. The LRDG raid was more successful destroying 16 aircraft on the ground but Italian aircraft strafed the escape and they lost several vehicles. Italian submarine Alabastro was sunk by British aircraft off Algeria. Operation Agreement was far from being a success.

Italian Operation GG began by sending three frogmen from auxiliary ship Olterra to Gibraltar. This was portrayed in the 1958 film “The Silent Enemy” where Laurence Harvey played Lieutenant Lionel “Buster” Crabb. On the 15th Italian frogmen infiltrated into Gibraltar harbour, their limpet mines sank merchant ship Ravens Point. Allied forces attacked Jalo in Libya after dark. The Germans had learned of this attack and knew exactly how to fend it off. The attack was called off on the 19th.

On the 21st submarine HMS Unruffled sank Italian minesweeper Aquila off Tunisia with her deck gun and Vichy French freighter Liberia with torpedos. On the 22nd HMS Unruffled struck again and sank Italian merchant ship Leonardo Palomba. On the 24th Greek submarine Nereus sank an Italian freighter off Rhodes.

On the 30th Hans-Joachim Marseille’s luck ran out. The engine of his 109 caught fire and as he bailed out he was hit in the tail. He fell to his death 5km south of Sidi Abdel Rahman just before midday. His tally stood at 156, an incredible number but amazingly far short of the record held by Erich Hartmann.

(Ed. According to Wiki and the doco I watched just a couple of days ago:

Under the guidance of his new commander, who recognised the latent potential in the young officer, Marseille quickly developed his abilities as a fighter pilot. He reached the zenith of his fighter pilot career on 1 September 1942, when during the course of three combat sorties he claimed 17 enemy fighters shot down, earning him the Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub, Schwertern und Brillanten (Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds). Only 29 days later, Marseille was killed in a flying accident, when he was forced to abandon his fighter due to engine failure. After he exited the smoke-filled cockpit, Marseille’s chest struck the vertical stabiliser of his aircraft. The blow either killed him instantly or incapacitated him so that he was unable to open his parachute.)

And in other news …. on the 2nd the Hawker Tempest flew for the first time, originally intended as the Typhoon II there were so many changes they gave it a new name, on the 4th the protesting prisoners in Singapore abandoned their protest against promising not to escape, dysentery won the day, on the 7th FDR asked Congress to give him the power to control prices, he did casually mention that if they didn’t agree he would do it anyway, on the 9th in another blunder German intelligence decided that the Soviets had used up all their reserves though this may have been their way of keeping Adolf happy because that was his big belief (you only had to tell Adolf what he already believed otherwise he thought you were wrong), on the 18th the future Pope Paul VI wrote to Pope Pius XII that the massacre of the Jews had reached frightening proportions, on the 20th American production of Liberty ships was at last greater than the rate the Germans were sinking them, on the 21st the Inter-Allies Information Committee estimated that the Germans had executed over 207,000 people in occupied Europe (socialism at work),  on the 26th the SS began to confiscate the property of the Auschwitz and Majdanek prisoners, the proceeds were sent to SS HQ, or at least what wasn’t pilfered by the confiscators (more socialism at work) and on the 29th 3 RAF Squadrons were transferred to the US Army Air Force, these Squadrons were manned by American volunteers.

On the 16th the two deception planners, Geoffrey Barkas and Tony Ayrton went to meet Brigadier Freddie de Guingand who explained the plan of the next offensive. It was something like World War 1 and involved punching a hole in the Axis front where the rest of the forces could follow up. This attack would be in the north at El Alamein and this attack needed to be concealed.  In the south there should be a big show to suggest the real attack was coming from there. The story would be that the attack was being delayed until November because of problems with the Sherman tanks that had just arrived. The objective was to encourage Rommel to keep half his armour in the south.

In the desert it is impossible to hide anything. You have to make it look like something else. A lorry could be made to look like a tank and vice versa, a supply dump could be made to look like a lorry. There was a device called a Cannibal made of poles and canvas. With this artillery could be made to look like a lorry.

At El Alamein there were masonry lined trenches. These were use to store fuel cans and food was stacked to look like a truck. All of this was covered with camouflage netting. As well as hiding real tanks or lorries the shields used to conceal them might conceal nothing. There was also a water pipeline running south and a dummy pipeline was extended to the supposed attack area.

The deception involved dummy tanks, dummy guns and dummy lorries. All of this was started in September and the attack was scheduled for 23rd October. The Allies knew from Ultra intercepts that Rommel only had enough fuel to move his southern armour one time so every day it could be held back in case the real attack was in the south was pure gold for Monty.

As a small aside, Dudley Clarke had invented the name Special Air Service in 1940 for a fictitious force of paratroopers. He had learned that the Italians were terrified the British had paratroopers ready to use in North Africa, they didn’t, but Clarke invented a force that was training near Amman and was ready to spring into action. Later in June 1941 David Stirling created the real thing using Clarke’s SAS name. because Clarke was a very influential man. Having just seen a Spencer Tracy film about Rogers Rangers, Clarke met Bill Donovan of OSS fame and convinced him to form the Rangers in the US Army. He had already penned the name Commandos so he was responsible for naming three real famous bunches of special forces.

For the film buffs and Sid James fans out there – according to the book “A Biography Of Sid James”, James was offered the role of Chief Petty Officer Thorpe in the Silent Enemy on the recommendation of his friend Laurence Harvey, but their friendship ended during the filming. He found Harvey to be “pompous and full of his own importance”. It’s said that the two never spoke to each other again after filming had ended.

© well_chuffed 2022