The Desert War – Some Impressions

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Previously unpublished photo courtesy of DJM’s uncle David, © 2022

Having spent a while researching the Desert War series, it is only fair to leave you my impressions based on the many thing that have passed before my eyes. It takes a while to weed out what you need from all the available sources.

Rommel’s reputation was perhaps somewhat overblown. Although he led the armoured drive to Dunkirk his greatest successes in the desert were when he had intelligence from the unwitting American military attaché in Cairo. He also had the habit of outrunning his supplies and having reached their limit he was obliged to sit and wait in the hope that something would turn up. Often nothing much turned up and he had to back off. This was noted in the upper reaches of the Wehrmacht and held him back. He was not considered suitable for higher command. Every time anything went wrong it was the fault of his Italian allies. When it went right it was down to his leadership. He was not above a bit of kidology either. When the Africa Corps arrived in Tripoli he made the tanks go round the block a few times on parade to make out there were more than had actually arrived. I suspect somebody backstage was repainting numbers as they paraded round and round.

Montgomery’s great success at the second battle of El Alamein was masterful but he waited until he had overwhelming superiority in weapons. I think I might have done the same. Once he had the Axis on the run, he was not held back by distractions like Greece. Had Churchill allowed the initial rout of the Italians to go on to Tripoli and further, it could all have been over much sooner but helping Greece was more important to Winnie even though it turned out to be a disaster.

The 2nd battle of El Alamein could have been a lot worse and could have got bogged down. Luckily it didn’t but the initial assault took longer then planned.

The deceivers played a great role in North Africa and even East Africa. There always remains the question of how much the Germans swallowed but it was apparently much of the deception. It worked so well that the deceivers were in on Operation Torch at the very beginning and even more so on D-Day where the deceptions confused everyone but especially the Führer and he was the one that mattered. Hitler had very fixed ideas and was intransigent to the point of lunacy. If intelligence did not support his views then it was obviously wrong. In comparison Stalin could not believe how good the intelligence from the Cambridge 5 was and always suspected he was being played by the British, how come nobody was keeping tabs on these people as would have been the case in the Soviet Union. It is amazing how these despots assume other countries are run just like theirs.

The American preparations before Pearl Harbour are seldom mentioned but it looks like they were staging forces in many places in case they were needed and they gradually increased their attacks on the Germans in the Atlantic. It is entirely possible FDR turned a blind eye to any Pearl Harbour intelligence because he wanted to get involved in the war and Pearl Harbour was the justification he was looking for. The clues are legion that this was the case. The perceived wisdom was that America was caught on the hop and totally unprepared by the Japanese attack whereas in reality they had been ramping up preparations in many places for quite a while. It may be worth looking further into America getting ready to take on the Axis. I don’t remember ever seeing anything about these measures, everyone has been mesmerised by Pearl Harbour.

All of the navies were heavily involved in the Desert War. The unsung heroes were the Merchant Navies of all nations, the poor devils were unarmed and at the mercy of all, the Royal Navy deserves credit for taking the fight to the enemy, its Captains were expected to be aggressive and if not it was a court martial. The Italians were more cautious but also played a part. The Kriegsmarine was only involved with submarines but they took a heavy toll on the Allies and lost quite a few themselves.

The Italian Air Force was not as effective as it should have been. Firstly they had started re-arming quite early and some of their planes were out of date though a few were extremely good. One of the odd things was that they were obsessed with staying in formation and this did not lend itself to shooting down the enemy, rather the opposite. They still dropped a lot of bombs on Malta though.

The standard jokes about the Italians need to be forgotten when discussing the Italian frogmen or the 10th Light Flotilla to give it its official title. These men were truly brave. Most of their missions ended up with the participants being taken prisoner or killed but their effectiveness was astounding. A couple of men on their chariot, or manned torpedo, could put battleships out of action. Eventually we had to copy their methods to get the Tirpitz. At least one of their number actually wanted to die in the service of his country. I believe his wish was granted.

After Operation Torch the British started referring to the Americans as “our Italians” based on the perception that they were initially not very good at fighting when compared to the Desert Rats who been fighting the Germans and Italians for more than 2 years. As a contrast Harold Macmillan, appointed as liaison to Eisenhower, said to Dick Crossman, Director of Psychological Warfare at Allied Forces HQ we must play the Greeks to the Americans’ Romans. We must run AFHQ as the Greeks ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.

The German pilot Hans-Joachim Marseille had the most astounding tally of kills and yet he was not the man with the most kills in WW2. None of the Allied pilots came anywhere near his totals. The record was an incredible 352 by Erich Hartmann who earned the coveted Knights Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. I wonder if the Germans were as strict about counting kills as the RAF was. Perhaps not, they are prone to cheating in sporting arenas so I don’t suppose they are much different on the world stage.

History has given Churchill a massive reputation for his conduct in WW2. He predicted as much when he decided to write the history himself. I feel his genius was for motivating people, both military and civilians. His strategic decisions were sometimes disastrous as we have seen when he decided to stop chasing the Italians across Libya and to help the Greeks. We lost most of the kit we moved to Greece and the German Africa Korps arrived to shore up the Italians. He was obsessed with the soft underbelly of Europe, or Italy as we know it, did not want to invade France across the channel but wanted to go in via the Balkans (aka Europe’s armpit (sic)) even at the expense of invading southern France. He was responsible for Gallipoli in WW1 and luckily did not get his way to have a Gallipoli v2 in the second war. I think history has been more than kind to him but then again, had he not been PM would we have even fought.

Stalin’s obsession with the 2nd front was something he never ceased to beat the US and the UK with. He desperately needed to have the Germans distracted from the eastern Front and did not care how many of us got killed to achieve that. He would have had us launching a D-Day every month if he could. His big fear was that we would conclude a peace with Germany and start on him while he threatened to do exactly that himself. I suspect he would have fitted in well with our present day Tories, he most certainly would not have gotten on with our present day lefties.

Mussolini was a very silly boy. He should have stayed out of attacking France, Egypt and Greece. He might then just have survived the way Franco did though with a reduced Empire. Instead he had delusions of grandeur and had no clue how weak his military really was. The original troops in Libya were little more than gendarmes and he used these to attack Egypt. No wonder he failed. I think the performance of these troops was the reason the Italians got such a bad reputation. The Italians also had the first Long Range Desert Group and we copied this, crewed often by New Zealanders. Later the Italians often acquitted themselves well but the damage was done. Rommel was another one who blamed all of his reverses on his Italian Allies. In contrast the Italian troops in East Africa were regular Army.

Was there a threat of the Germans in Africa linking up with the Germans in the Caucasus. I think there was a real possibility this could have happened. Had the Germans taken Egypt it was not a massive step to get to Palestine, Jordan, Iraq and Iran. Remember Vichy France had Syria.  The Germans would then have more than enough oil to keep them going.

Every so often the Royal Navy would capture or sink sailing vessels in the service of the Italians. I don’t know if the Italians thought metal warships would ignore wooden boats or not but if they did, it did not work.

These were just a few of my experiences reading about this part of the war. Much of this is my opinion, feel free to disagree. I have been known to be wrong before.

© well_chuffed 2023