The Desert War – December 1942

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Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2021

Things are finally looking up for the Allies at the last month of 1942. The Axis are on the run in North Africa, Operation Torch has been a success though not without some busy bits. Tunisia is under attack from the west and the Luftwaffe has given up attacking the Allies. There is still some bombast coming from Rome but Mussolini’s days are numbered until he becomes a German puppet.

On the 1st the German 10th Panzer Division launched a counterattack in Tunisia, pushing back the British 11th Brigade. Meanwhile, the British 2nd Parachute Brigade crossed the Miliane River south of Oudna airfield and continued northwest toward El Fedja. The “Grado” Battalion of the “San Marco” naval infantry regiment of Italian Navy was attached to German Army units in Tunisia.

On the 2nd the British 2nd Parachute Battalion engaged elements of 3rd Battalion of the German 5th Parachute Regiment at El Fedja, Tunisia.

On the 3rd the British 2nd Parachute Battalion reached Ksar Tyr, Tunisia.

On the 4th Nine Blenheim bombers attacking Tunisian airfields were intercepted by 50 German Bf.109 fighters. All nine were destroyed, the last to fall being flown by the leader, Wing Commander Hugh Malcolm, aged 25, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. B-24 bombers of US 12th Air Force bombed Naples, they were the first American aircraft to attack Italy. The Church of Santa Chiara was damaged in the attack, damaging much of the interior decorations dating from between 1742 to 1762. The British 2nd Parachute Battalion linked up with US troops near Medjez-el-Bab in northern Tunisia.

On the 6th the 58th Fighter Squadron of USAAF 33rd Fighter Group, flying P-40 fighters, was ordered to go to Telepte, Tunisia. It would become the first US squadron in Tunisia in the war.

On the 7th in Operation BG 5, Italian auxiliary ship Olterra launched three manned torpedoes against Gibraltar; they failed to cause any damage and the commander’s torpedo was caught by depth charges. The two man crew were recovered and buried at sea.

On the 9th HMS Marigold (Lieutenant Halcrow) was sunk by an Italian torpedo off Algiers. Germany agreed to cede to Italy the French warships captured at Bizerte, Tunisia the previous month. They included sloops La Batailleuse and Commandant Rivière, torpedo boats Bombarde,  La Pomone and L’Iphigénie, submarines Phoque, Saphir, Requin, Espadon, Dauphin, Turquoise, Circé, Calypso, and Nautilus.

On the 10th Italian submarine Ambra launched three manned torpedoes and ten frogmen against Algiers in Operation NA 1, sinking one cargo ship and damaging two other cargo ships. All Italian torpedo crew members and frogmen were captured at the end of the operation. Algiers harbour was filled to bursting point with supply ships unloading and five of them had been put out of action. The commander of the frogmen now turned his attention to attacking New York but more of that next year.

On the 11th the Allies launched a new offensive toward Marsa Brega and El Agheila in Libya.

On the 12th the Axis rearguard engaged the attacking Allied forces near Marsa Brega and El Agheila in Libya as the main Axis force evacuated to the west. USAAF 33rd Fighter Group achieved its first aerial victory as 1st Lieutenant Charles Poillon of 58th Fighter Squadron, flying a P-40 fighter, shot down a German Ju 88 aircraft near Youks-les-Bains Airfield near Tébessa, Algeria.

On the 13th Italian troops fought off an attack by British troops north of El Agheila, Libya in a rear guard action.

On the 16th overnight and into the next morning, men of US 1st Infantry Division raided Maknassy, Tunisia, taking 21 German prisoners.

On the 17th Axis forces largely completed their evacuation from the Marsa Brega and El Agheila region in Libya.

On the 18th Axis and Allied forces engaged in brief but fierce battle at Nofilia, Libya.

On the 19th HMS Snapdragon was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe northwest of Benghazi, Libya. Captured French sloops La Batailleuse and Commandant Rivière departed Bizerte, Tunisia with Italian crews for La Spezia, Italy

On the 20th all five of USAAF 59th Fighter Squadron’s P-40F fighters were transferred to a French squadron in North Africa.

On the 22nd elements of US 1st Infantry Division and British 78th Division launched an offensive in Tunisia. Captured French torpedo boats Bombarde, La Pomone, and L’Iphigénie departed Bizerte, Tunisia with Italian crews for Palermo.

On the 23rd German 10th Panzer Division took back American and British territorial gains in Tunisia made on the previous day.

On the 24th French Admiral François Darlan was assassinated in Algiers, French Algeria by monarchist Fernand Bonnier de La Chapelle. Fernand was part of a group who wanted to restore the Count of Paris to the French throne and were opposed to the Vichy government. He was executed on the 26th after being tried and sentenced. Darlan was not missed by the Allies, he was considered pompous having asked Eisenhower to provide 200 Grenadier and Coldstream Guardsmen for an honour company to commemorate Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. Harold Macmillan, at the time a political adviser to Eisenhower described Darlan as “Once bought, he stayed bought”.

And in other news – on the 1st Ira Eaker was named the commanding officer of the US Eighth Air Force in Britain replacing Carl Spaatz, on the 3rd Adolf Hitler approved the plan to convert the captured and incomplete French cruiser De Grasse into a light aircraft carrier this was ironic considering what he did at the end of the month, on the 7th Operation Frankton had Royal Navy submarines drop off commandos to raid German shipping up the River Gironde in Bordeaux Harbour, France, on the 8th the planned Allied invasion of Burma was called off due to lack of supplies; British and Chinese troops fell back from their forward positions, on the 11th came the Cockleshell Heroes Raid: ten British Commandos in five two-man canoes had been launched from a submarine to attack enemy shipping in the port of Bordeaux, France, three canoes were lost but two paddled 70 miles up-river to plant limpet mines on ships in the harbour – 6 vessels were disabled, 2 Commandos were drowned en route, six were captured and executed and two made it back to England, on the 13th the Enigma codebooks captured by HMS Petard from the sinking of German submarine U-559 arrived at Bletchley Park’s Hut 8 and within one hour intercepts of German submarine signals allowed the British Admiralty to instantly pinpoint the location of fifteen U-Boats, on the 17th Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden reported to the British House of Commons on the mass murder of Jews by the Germans; this would be followed almost immediately by a US declaration that these crimes would be avenged, on the 18th the American newspaper New York Times published a front page story on the Nazi extermination of European Jews, on the 19th the experimental Piaggio P.119 prototype fighter took its first flight, it had a radial engine mounted mid fuselage, on the 20th the RAF used Oboe, a radar aid to bombing accuracy, operationally for the first time, on the 22nd Adolf Hitler signed the decree written by Albert Speer for the mass production of the A-4 rocket; this decree did not provide any special priority for rocket production, on the 23rd Bob Hope agreed to entertain US airmen in Alaska; it was the first of the traditional Christmas shows, on the 25th with the slaughter of over 12,000 horses, the Germans in Stalingrad, Russia received their last meat rations, on the 26th the Soviet law punishing those who were late to work for more than 20 minutes was made harsher; those who violated this law were now subjected to prison terms between two to five years, on the 31st a furious Hitler ordered the scrapping of the German Navy’s battle fleet after Royal Navy destroyers drove off the mighty Lützow and Admiral Hipper from attacking a convoy in the Barents Sea. Hitler said his battleships were useless “like so much old iron”. Admiral Raeder, commander of the Kreigsmarine, resigned and was replaced by Admiral Dönitz, commander of the submarine force.

The year 1942 ends on a bright note. The Axis has been removed from Egypt and part of Libya. Tobruk and Benghazi are back in the hands of the Allies. The Axis are now being attacked from two sides and Malta can breathe a sigh of relief. There will still be some hard fighting and some ups and downs but the writing is on the wall for the Axis in North Africa. Wonder what happened to Mussolini’s white horse, maybe his troops ate him. On the whole the Italian troops acquitted themselves well during the retreat, usually delaying the Allied advance. Rommel was too busy saving his own neck to offer his usual devastating and frequently incorrect observations on the Italian forces. For all his undoubted ability, Rommel was a bit of a politician. Anything that went well was down to him, anything else was down to the Italians letting him down.

The Allies in Libya made repeated attempts to make the equivalent of a left hook on the Axis forces but they never quite managed to trap them and most made it back to Tunisia.

During 1942 the RAF on Malta had destroyed 773 Axis planes and probably destroyed another 300. The anti-aircraft guns had shot down 182 planes. The RAF had lost 195 aircraft and 106 pilots. For the future, attacks in Sicily were to be the order of the day along with attacks on ships and planes supplying the Axis in North Africa.

There was also a concerted effort by the Allies to spread the news of the extermination of the Jews. Both British and American governments and press made headline news by announcing it. Just as well Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t around then.

© well_chuffed 2022