Sunday, December 23, 2012

World War 2:North Africa Campaign part 1


The battle for North Africa was a struggle for control of the Suez Canal and access to oil from the Middle East and raw materials from Asia. Oil in particular had become a critical strategic commodity due to the increased mechanization of modern armies. Britain, which was the first major nation to field a completely mechanized army, was particularly dependent on the Middle Eastern oil. The Suez Canal also provided Britain with a valuable link to her overseas dominions–part of a lifeline that ran through the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the North African campaign and the naval campaign for the Mediterranean were extensions of each other in a very real sense.
The struggle for control of North Africa began as early as October 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia from its colony Italian Somaliland. That move made Egypt very wary of Italy's imperialistic aspirations. In reaction, the Egyptians granted Britain permission to station relatively large forces in their territory. Britain and France also agreed to divide the responsibility for maintaining naval control of the Mediterranean, with the main British base located at Alexandria, Egypt.
Italy was the wild card in the Mediterranean strategic equation at the outset of WWII. If the Italians remained neutral, British access to the vital sea lanes would remain almost assured. If Italy sided with Germany, the powerful Italian navy had the capability to close the Mediterranean. The navy's main base was at Taranto in southern Italy, and operations from there would be supported by Italian air force units flying from bases in Sicily and Sardinia.
Italy did remain neutral when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. When Germany invaded France in June 1940, however, Benito Mussolini could not resist the opportunity to grab his share of the spoils. On June 11, 1940, six days after the British evacuation at Dunkirk, France, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Britain and Italy were now at war in the Mediterranean.
On paper, at least, Italy enjoyed a considerable advantage over Britain in the Mediterranean theater of operations. In June 1939, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet had only 45 combat ships against the Italian navy's 183. The Italians held an especially large edge in submarines, with 108 against Cunningham's 12. The French surrender on June 25, 1940, placed the entire burden of controlling of the Mediterranean sea lanes on the Royal Navy.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) was in a slightly better position, with 205 aircraft against the Italian air force's 313 planes. On the ground, Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani had some 250,000 troops in Libya, while General Lord Archibald Percival Wavell, British commander in chief of the Middle East, had only 100,000 troops to defend Egypt, Sudan and Palestine. The British ground forces, however, were far better organized, trained and equipped and had superior leadership.
The British and Italian armies faced each other across the Libyan-Egyptian border in an area known as the Western Desert. It was an inhospitable region with no vegetation and virtually no water. From Mersa Matruh in western Egypt to El Agheila on the east side of Libya's Gulf of Sidra, only one major road connected the region's few towns and villages. A sandy coastal strip of varying width ran along the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Inland, a sharp escarpment rose to the 500-foot-high Libyan Plateau. There were only a few passes where wheeled or even tracked vehicles could ascend the escarpment. Once on the plateau, however, military vehicles had good cross-country mobility across limestone ground covered by a thin layer of sand. The commander of Germany's 21st Panzer Division, Lt. Gen. Johann von Ravenstein, described the area as a tactician's paradise and a logistician's hell.