The Desert War – November 1942

well_chuffed, Going Postal
May 1943, somewhere in the M.F.
Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2020

November would see the assault at El Alamein succeed and the Axis would now be on the back foot as they withdrew towards Tripoli and eventually Tunisia.

On the 16th November the Stoneage convoy of four merchant ships made its way from Alexandria arriving in Malta on the 20th at 1:30am. The main naval casualty was HMS Arethusa, a light cruiser, from an air attack where 156 men were killed but the ship sailed backwards to Alexandria. Now the Allies could provide air cover to these convoys 24/7. The days of hunger in Malta were about to end. A second convoy from Gibraltar was cancelled because Operation Torch was taking place in its path. Supplies during October and November had been delivered to Malta by submarine, HMS Welshman and its sister ship Manxman but it needed a full convoy to resupply the island. This effectively marked the end of the siege of Malta. Since January 1941 escorting convoys to Malta had cost the Allies two aircraft carriers, four cruisers, 16 destroyers and five submarines.

Operation Torch began on the 8th. It was of course, preceded and accompanied by much deception. The landings would take place in 3 places, Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. The landings at Casablanca would be done by ships sailing from the USA. The U-Boats didn’t find them neither did the long range Fw Condor flights either. Over 100 ships and 35,000 troops arrived safely off Morocco. The other two convoys came from the UK and also managed to reach their objectives without much disruption. Because of rumours and false reports (including the double cross system) the Germans were watching Dakar in West Africa and thought the other convoys were headed for Malta and Sicily. They were not expecting them to land in Algeria and their traps were laid too far east. A spectacular success for the deception wallahs.

Of course there were no rehearsals and little in the way of reconnaissance for these landings. Somehow the forces muddled through, it could have gone much worse than it did. Firstly the Allies did not expect the Vichy French to put up a fight but some did. Secondly the landing beaches had not been surveyed and the approaches were not always what were expected. Thirdly some airborne units either didn’t make it to North Africa, one group landed in Spain and were interned, or some others landed miles from their targets. 39 C-47s took off from Cornwall aiming at Algeria, around 30 made it but not all of them hit their targets. Lessons were learned (where have we heard that before), this time they really were and the Normandy landings were much more thoroughly organised.

On the 1st Rommel began to devise a plan to withdraw his forces at El Alamein, Egypt westward to Fuka, but he would not activate the plan yet. Kittyhawk fighters of No. 112 Squadron RAF spotted 30 German Stuka dive bombers with Bf 109 fighters in escort in North Africa. In the ensuing engagement, 7 Stuka aircraft were shot down by surprise before Bf 109 fighters reacted; only 1 Kittyhawk fighter was lost in this attack.

On the 2nd Operation Supercharge was launched at El Alamein, Egypt, destroying many Axis tanks and guns. Axis tanks counterattacked at 1100 hours, which failed to stop the Allied advances. During the night, Rommel requested permission from Hitler to fall back, which was denied on the next day. The use of the word Rückzug, or retreat in English, was guaranteed to incur the wrath of the military genius that was Adolf.

On the 3rd after sundown the Allies launched renewed attacks at the weakened Axis defensive positions near El Alamein.

On the 4th Axis forces slowly fell back to the west toward Fuka, Egypt, but the rear guard continued to cause heavy casualties against the pursuing Allied troops. Seeing victory was now impossible, Rommel disobeyed Hitler’s orders and gave the orders for a general withdrawal towards the Egyptian-Libyan border. In Egypt, the British 7th Armoured Division caught and encircled the Italian Ariete Division which, against tremendous odds, fought to the last tank in a desperate running battle.

General Wilhelm von Thoma, Commanding General of the Deutsche Afrika Korps, was taken prisoner in Egypt by British troops.

On the 5th British tanks attempted, but failed, to out-flank the retreating Axis forces in Egypt.

On the 6th “Ring out the bells”, General Harold Alexander signalled Prime Minister Winston Churchill, “Prisoners estimated now at 20,000, tanks 350, guns 400, Motor Transport several thousand. Our mobile forces are south of Mersa Matruh. The Eighth Army is advancing.” Churchill did not in fact ring the bells until nine days later, when he knew that the landings in North West Africa were also going well, but when he did it was to celebrate Bernard Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein, Egypt, not the later landings. Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower flew from London, England, United Kingdom to his headquarters in Gibraltar from where he would direct Operation Torch.

On the 7th in the morning, the British 7th Armoured Division fought the German 21st Panzer Division about 24 kilometers southwest of Sidi Haneish, Egypt. British tanks won the engagement, destroying many tanks and guns, but failed to prevent the Germans from withdrawing to Mersa Matruh. Vichy French General Antoine Béthouart attempted a failed coup d’etat in North Africa, which alarmed the Vichy French.

On the 8th Axis defences in Egypt fell back to Sidi Barrani. The first combat victory by the new Seafire naval fighter occurred when a New Zealander, Sub-Lieutenant A. S. Long, shot down a Vichy French Martin 167 bomber over Mers-el-Kébir harbour in French Algeria. Allied forces attacked French forces at Algerian ports of Oran and Algiers during Operation Torch. Algiers surrendered at 1800 hours. Allied forces attacked French forces at Moroccan ports of Safi and Casablanca during Operation Torch, capturing the former.

On the 9th American troops continued to attack the French fort of Kasbah, French Morocco. Meanwhile, in French Algeria, the French garrison at Oran surrendered in the face of overwhelming British naval power and an American airborne attack in its rear. French Admiral Darlan signed an armistice with General Dwight Eisenhower, but fighting would continue for two more days. Luftwaffe combat aircraft consisting of 27 Bf 109G fighters from 1/JG53 and 24 Ju 87D Stuka dive bombers of II.StG 3 were transferred to Tunisia from Sicily, Italy. The Tunis airfields were found to be in good condition with concrete runways and revetments. Once a ground organisation had been created, relays of Ju 52/3m aircraft would commence the movement of ground troops into the region. On the front lines, Axis troops under Walter Nehring attacked Vichy French positions as Vichy French forces in North Africa were apparently switching sides to aide the Allies.

On the 10th French submarine Le Tonnant attacked USS Ranger off French Morocco at 1000 hours; all four torpedoes missed, and the American counterattack was equally ineffective. On land, American troops captured the French fort of Kasbah, which led to the fall of Port Lyautey. At Casablanca, American ships sortied to respond to an attack by French sloops only to be surprised by an operational French battleship the Jean Bart; aircraft from USS Ranger were launched to sink Jean Bart in shallow water by bombing. Allied forces in French Algeria pushed into Tunisia. In response, Axis transport aircraft were being prepared to bring in reinforcements.  77th P-40F fighters of USAAF 33rd Fighter Group launched from USS Chenango and proceeded to the French airfield at Port Lyantey, French Morocco.

On the 11th Germany withdrew 25 submarines from the North Atlantic to attack the Allied shipping off North Africa; on the same day, submarine U-173 damaged destroyer USS Hambleton, oiler USS Winooski and troopship USS Joseph Hewes near Casablanca, French Morocco, sinking Joseph Hewes and killing 100. On land, the French garrison at Casablanca officially surrendered to the Americans. Allied troops pushed all Axis troops out of Egypt. The British 36th Infantry Brigade landed at Bougie, Algeria unopposed. TBF Avengers from escort carrier USS Suwannee, using aerial depth charges, attacked and sank a Vichy-French submarine southwest of Casablanca in what would be the first successful attack of an enemy submarine by aircraft from an escort carrier.

On the 12th the British 3rd Parachute Battalion conducted an airborne attack on Bone, Algeria, capturing the airfield.

On the 13th Allied troops captured Tobruk, Libya. In Algeria, men of British No. 6 Commando captured the harbour of Bone, while other troops captured Djedjelli.

On the 15th Allied forces captured Derna, Libya, along with the nearby Martuba airfield, which immediately became the new forward base for conducting air operations and happily covered the convoy route to Malta. British troops captured Tebarka, Tunisia and American paratroopers captured Youks-les-Bains, Algeria. In Britain, church bells pealed for the first time since Jun 1940 to celebrate Montgomery’s British 8th Army’s victory at El Alamein, Egypt.

On the 16th American destroyers sank German submarine U-173 off Casablanca. The Italian Air Force merged its “Loreto” combat engineers battalion and the 1st Air Force Paratroop Unit to form the 1st Air Force Assault Regiment “Amedeo d’Aosta” at Marsala in Sicily.

On the 17th American troops captured Gafsa in Tunisia and the British 36th Brigade engaged German forces at Djebel Abiod, Tunisia. German General Walter Nehring arrived in Tunis to lead a counterattack against the Allies. The Italians formally absorbed the French Protectorate of Tunisia into the borders of Italian North Africa. The Stoneage convoy departed Alexandria, Egypt for Malta.

On the 19th Axis forces under General Walter Nehring attacked and penetrated the Vichy-French defence line at Majaz al Bab, Tunisia.

On the 20th British troops entered the city of Benghazi, Libya, and found ports and facilities destroyed by Germans before their withdrawal. The 3rd Battalion of the “San Marco” naval infantry regiment of Italian Navy began arriving in Tunisia from Corsica, France. German paratroop Engineer Battalion “Witzig” and the Italian 1st Paratroop Battalion were deployed together at Djebel Abjod, Tunisia.

On the 21st German Paratroop Engineer Battalion “Witzig” and the Italian 1st Paratroop Battalion attacked British troops near Djebel Abjod, Tunisia; initially successful, they suffered heavy casualties when the British counterattacked later in the day.

On the 23rd Axis forces evacuated Agedabia, Libya.

On the 25th British submarine HMS Utmost (Lieutenant John Walter David Coombe) was depth charged and sunk by the Italian gunboat Groppo off Sicily.

On the 26th the British 36th Brigade reached Jefna, Tunisia and ran into a German ambush, suffering heavy casualties. Meanwhile, British 11th Brigade captured Majaz al Bab unopposed. The 1st Battalion of US 1st Armoured Regiment cheekily raided the Axis airfield at Djedeida, shooting up 23 Ju 87 dive bombers and 14 Bf 109 fighters.

On the 27th German forces in Tunisia counterattacked, capturing 286 men from the British 11th Brigade.

On the 28th Infantry of the British 11th Brigade and tanks of US 1st Armoured Division attacked Djedeida, Tunisia unsuccessfully, losing 19 tanks in the process.

On the 29th the British 2nd Parachute Battalion was dropped near Depienne airfield, Tunisia.

On the 30th the British 2nd Parachute Battalion reached high ground at Prise de L’Eau in Tunisia one day after having been dropped into the country.

And in other news – on the 1st Prototype of the Welkin fighter, a twin engined heavy fighter, took its maiden flight, on the 3rd merchant seaman Duncan Scott-Ford was hanged at Wandsworth prison in London, England, United Kingdom following his conviction for selling information to the enemy, on the 6th Groves and Oppenheimer visited Los Alamos, New Mexico, United States and agreed that it was suitable as the location for Site Y for the Manhattan Project, on the 8th 25 Jewish professional watchmakers were transferred from Majdanek Concentration Camp to Auschwitz Concentration Camp; they were later transferred to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp where they would work in a workshop to sort and repair watches stolen from killed Jews for use by German troops, on the 9th Adolf Hitler informed Italy, via Galeazzo Ciano, that he intended to occupy Vichy France soon, on the 10th As Pierre Laval visited Adolf Hitler in Germany, Hitler told the French Prime Minister that Germany intended on moving its forces into Vichy France and Tunisia; Hitler did not share the timetable and gave no indication that it was to happen soon. Laval did not protest. At 2030 hours, Hitler gave the order to launch the occupation on the following day on the 11th Vichy France was occupied by German and Italian troops in order to defend against a potential Allied invasion. The American embassy in Vichy was seized by German troops by force Italian naval infantry landed on Corsica, France in Operation C2, on the 13th Adolf Hitler promised France that Germany would leave the French fleet at Toulon, France alone, on the 15th Gabriel Auphan attempted, but failed, to convince Jean de Laborde to sail the French fleet out of Toulon, France, on the 17th Archibald Wavell gave up the amphibious component of the planned assault on Arakan Peninsula, Burma (largely due to the lack of landing craft, the majority of which were assigned to Operation Torch in North Africa and to the Pacific Theatre), and told Noel Irwin to focus on a ground assault through the Mayu Hills only, on the 18th Gabriel Auphan resigned from his position as the head of the French Navy, on the 19th a raid on the German-controlled Vemork heavy water plant at Telemark, Norway, went horribly wrong when the gliders carrying 34 commandos crashed – after torturous interrogations, all survivors were shot by the Germans, on the 22nd the British Admiralty Operational Intelligence Centre (OIC) urged the staff of Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England, United Kingdom to focus on Germany’s new four-rotored Enigma machines, on the 25th Adolf Hitler ordered the seizure of the French fleet at Toulon, France, on the 27th Dupleix received extensive damage as her own crew set off demolition charges to prevent German capture as the Germans entered Toulon, France and the Germans occupied the naval base at Toulon, the French Navy scuttled warships to avoid German capture and finally on the 29th the United States began to ration coffee.

One can easily imagine that the colour of Rommel’s underwear changed significantly when the Operation Torch landings happened while he was being hammered hard in Egypt. He was short of supplies, especially fuel, and now he had a second front to contend with. Hitler’s dreams of linking Rommel’s forces up with those on the Eastern Front disappeared in a flash.

The Führer’s word was now proven to be less than worthless. On the 13th he promised to leave the French Fleet alone but 12 days later he ordered his forces to seize the Fleet in Toulon. He would say and do anything to achieve his aims though I suppose most politicians are like that.

© well_chuffed 2022