Monday, December 24, 2012

World War 2:North Africa Campaign part 2



On September 13, 1940, Graziani reluctantly moved into Egypt, almost a month after he had been ordered to do so by Mussolini. Some six Italian divisions drove east, bypassing a small British covering force along the border, and halted at Sidi Barrani, just short of the main British positions at Mersa Matruh. Graziani apparently had no intention of going any deeper into Egypt. Italian control of the airfield at Sidi Barrani, however, seriously reduced the operational reach of British air power and posed a threat to the Royal Navy in Alexandria. With the Battle of Britain reaching its climax and Great Britain facing a possible German invasion, the British were in no immediate position to counter the Italian thrust.
By October 1940, the threat of a German invasion of the British Isles had eased, and the British began to reinforce Wavell. Through that December, an additional 126,000 Commonwealth troops arrived in Egypt from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India. On November 11, British naval air power seriously damaged the Italian navy in a surprise attack against Taranto. On December 9, the Western Desert Force, under Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O'Connor, attacked the Italians at Sidi Barrani.
The British pushed the Italian Tenth Army out of Egypt and then, on January 3, 1941, scored a major victory at Bardia, just inside Libya. Driving into Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), the British took the vital port of Tobruk on January 22. O'Connor continued to pursue the Italians, trapping them at Beda Fomm on February 7, 1941. The Italian Tenth Army collapsed. In two months, a British force of about two divisions had advanced 500 miles, destroyed 10 Italian divisions, and captured 130,000 prisoners, 380 tanks and 845 guns. In the process, the British had suffered 555 dead and 1,400 wounded.
Following the British successes in North Africa, Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided on February 22 to commit British troops to defend Greece against the Axis. Most of those forces came out of Cyrenaica, which left Wavell only five brigades in Libya. Just a few weeks earlier, however, Adolf Hitler had decided to shore up the Italians in North Africa by committing German forces. On January 8, theLuftwaffe's Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily from Norway and immediately began attacking Allied shipping destined for the Libyan port of Benghazi. That threat forced the British forward units in Libya to resupply through Tobruk, more than 450 miles away.
Two German divisions and two additional Italian divisions began crossing from Italy into Libya. On February 12, Brig. Gen. Erwin Rommel assumed command of the German units that later became the famed Afrika Korps. He lost no time in regaining the initiative. Rommel probed El Agheila on March 24. When he found that the British defenses were thin, he launched a general offensive despite Hitler's orders to maintain an overall defensive posture.
Near the end of March, O'Connor was replaced by Lt. Gen. Sir Philip Neame as commander of the Western Desert Force. The magnitude of the German attack became apparent when the British were forced out of Benghazi on April 3. O'Connor was sent back to the front as an adviser to Neame. The Germans captured both British generals from their unescorted staff car on the night of April 6.
Rommel drove rapidly to the east, surrounding Tobruk on April 10. Unable to take the port on the run, he left a siege force of mostly Italian units there and continued his push for the Egyptian border. It was a decision Rommel later regretted. The Tobruk garrison, which held out against the siege for 240 days, remained a thorn in Rommel's side–an annoying sideshow that tied down vital Axis manpower.
On April 14, Rommel's main force reached Sollum on the Egyptian border, and his troops occupied the key terrain of the Halfaya Pass. The German high command, meanwhile, was concerned about the speed of Rommel's advance and his failure to take Tobruk. They sent General Friedrich von Paulus to North Africa to assess the situation and 'bring Rommel under control. Paulus' report back to Berlin described Rommel's weak overall position and his critical shortages of fuel and ammunition. The report also reached Churchill via Ultra intercepts.
From this report, Churchill wrongly concluded that the Germans were ready to collapse with one strong push, and he started pressuring Wavell to mount an immediate counteroffensive. Meanwhile, a British supply convoy, code-named Tiger, made its way to North Africa carrying 295 tanks and 43 Hawker Hurricane fighters. Despite heavy air attacks, the Tiger convoy arrived on May 12 after losing only one transport that carried 57 tanks.
Prior to launching his counterattack, Wavell wanted to gain control of Halfaya Pass. On May 15, he launched Operation Brevity, under the command of Brig. Gen. William Gott, to secure the pass and Fort Capuzzo beyond. Rommel skillfully parried the thrust, and the British withdrew from Fort Capuzzo the next day. By May 27 the Germans had recaptured Halfaya Pass. Unable to advance any farther because of supply shortages, they dug in and fortified their positions with 88mm anti-aircraft guns. The British troops began referring to the heavily fortified and fiercely defended Halfaya Pass as Hellfire Pass.
Under continuing pressure from Churchill, Wavell launched his major offensive on June 15. Operation Battleaxe began with a frontal attack on the Sollum-Halfaya Pass axis. Skillfully using the 88mm anti-aircraft guns as anti-tank weapons, the Germans blunted the British attack. Then Rommel counterattacked. Battleaxe was over by June 17, and Wavell had lost 91 of his new tanks. Churchill relieved Wavell on June 21 and replaced him with General Sir Claude Auchinleck. General Sir Alan Cunningham (the brother of Admiral Cunningham) was given command of the Western Desert Force, recently redesignated the British Eighth Army.
Auchinleck resisted Churchill's constant pressure for an immediate British counterattack. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on June 22, Rommel's force in North Africa became even less a priority for Germany's logistical support. Most of the Luftwaffe units in the Mediterranean were sent to Russia, which gave the British a freer hand in attacking Rommel's supply convoys at sea and from the air. Rommel continued to grow weaker. By November, he had 414 tanks, 320 aircraft and nine divisions (three German), four of which were tied down in the siege of Tobruk. The British had some 700 tanks, 1,000 aircraft and eight divisions.
The British became increasingly obsessed with eliminating Rommel. On the night of November 17, 1941, a small commando force, led by 24-year-old Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, tried to penetrate Rommel's headquarters and assassinate the Desert Fox. The raid failed–Rommel was not even there–and Keyes died in the attempt. The Germans gave Keyes a funeral with full military honors, and the gallant Rommel sent his personal chaplain to conduct the services. The British later awarded Keyes, the son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Operation Crusader opened on November 18, with the British XIII Corps advancing on Halfaya Pass and the XXX Corps attempting to sweep around Rommel's southern flank to reach the besieged garrison at Tobruk. The XXX Corps reached Sidi Rezegh, 20 miles southeast of Tobruk. After a series of fierce tank battles on November 22 and 23, Rommel drove deep into the British rear with two panzer divisions. He attempted to relieve the Axis forces at Halfaya and at the same time cut off the Eighth Army.