Tuesday, December 25, 2012

World War 2:North Africa Campaign part 3


With his tank losses mounting, Cunningham wanted to halt the operation. Auchinlec
k immediately relieved him and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Neil Ritchie. The British continued to press the attack, and on November 29 they broke through to Tobruk. By December 7, an overwhelmed Rommel was withdrawing his dangerously depleted forces. In order to avoid encirclement in the Benghazi bulge, Rommel retreated back across Cyrenaica, reaching El Agheila on January 6, 1942. Operation Crusader resulted in a clear victory for the British, but one they were unable to exploit due to a lack of reinforcements.
As Rommel withdrew to the east, the RAF continued to attack his supply convoys in the Mediterranean. Only 30 tons of Axis supplies were shipped to North Africa in November 1941, and 62 percent of them were lost en route. Hitler reacted by shifting Fliegerkorps II from Russia to Sicily and ordering the German navy to send 10 U-boats into the Mediterranean. Throughout December, Rommel's resupply situation improved significantly, with shipping losses dropping to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused the British to reroute forces from North Africa to India and Singapore. By mid-January 1942, Rommel was operating on shorter supply lines, and his shipping losses were below 1 percent. He now was ready to return to the offensive.
On January 21, 1942, Rommel launched his second offensive and quickly drove the British back almost 300 miles. The aggressive German commander recaptured Benghazi on January 29 and continued to push east, reaching Gazala on February 4. There he halted along the Eighth Army's defensive line between Gazala and Bir Hacheim. For most of the next four months, the adversaries sat on either side of the Gazala Line, building up strength.
On May 26, Rommel launched Operation Venezia–his attack against the Gazala Line. Both forces were roughly equal in strength, but General Ritchie had his armored units widely dispersed, while Rommel kept his concentrated. Using his armor, Rommel swept around the Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim and turned north, cutting across the Allied rear. An Axis secondary attack in the north pinned down the Allied forces there.
By May 28, the Axis armored units behind the Allied lines were in trouble. Rommel had lost more than one-third of his tanks, and the remainder were running short on fuel and ammunition. On May 29, the Italian Trieste Division cleared a path through the center of the Gazala Line. That opening became a lifeline to Rommel's panzers. On the 30th, Rommel consolidated his armor in a defensive position that came to be known as the Cauldron.
On June 5-6, Rommel successfully beat off Ritchie's series of piecemeal counterattacks. On June 10-11, the Axis finally drove the Free French forces out of Bir Hacheim, and on June 11 Rommel's panzers broke out of the Cauldron. The Eighth Army once more started falling back to the Egyptian border. On June 15, German tanks reached the coast and Rommel shifted his attention to the Tobruk garrison. This time he would not make the same mistake of leaving the thorn in his side.
Tobruk fell on June 21, and the Axis forces captured 2.5 million gallons of much-needed fuel, as well as 2,000 wheeled vehicles. The fall of Tobruk, however, had unforeseen consequences for the Axis. Churchill heard the news during a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States. The American president immediately offered help. The resulting 300 Sherman tanks and 100 self-propelled guns would later play a pivotal role at El Alamein.
The British fell back to defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, about 100 miles inside Egypt. Rommel, who had been promoted to field marshal for his success at Gazala, pursued. Auchinleck relieved Ritchie and personally assumed command of the Eighth Army. With only 60 operational tanks, Rommel attacked at Mersa Matruh on June 26 and routed four British divisions in three days of fighting. The British fell back again, this time to the vicinity of El Alamein, another 120 miles to the east.
Now less than 100 miles from Alexandria, Auchinleck was determined to hold near El Alamein. Under constant pressure from Rommel's forces, Auchinleck improvised a fluid defensive line anchored on Ruweisat Ridge, a few miles south of the El Alamein defensive perimeter. Rommel attacked on July 1, attempting to sweep around El Alamein. For three weeks, Auchinleck skillfully battled Rommel to a standstill. Auchinleck launched a major counterattack on July 21-22, but gained no ground. Exhausted, both sides paused to regroup.
Despite the fact that Auchinleck had finally halted Rommel's advance, Churchill relieved him in early August and named General Sir Harold Alexander commander in chief of the Middle East. Sir William Gott was promoted to general and given command of the Eighth Army. On August 7, the day after his appointment, Gott was killed when his airplane was attacked by a German fighter during a flight to Cairo. The relatively unknown Lt. Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery succeeded Gott as commander of the Eighth Army.
Although Churchill desperately wanted to win a clear victory for political purposes and to raise morale, neither Alexander nor Montgomery was inclined to take the offensive without first amassing an overwhelming advantage. On August 31, 1942, Rommel launched what he believed would be the final attack in the Axis drive to the Nile. The British, however, had made extensive preparations around El Alamein, based on a plan developed by Auchinleck and adopted by Montgomery. The British commander also had the advantage of knowing Rommel's intentions through Ultra intercepts.
Rommel planned to sweep south around Ruweisat Ridge, then cut off El Alamein and take it from the rear. In preparation, the British laid extensive minefields and heavily fortified Alam el Halfa Ridge, which was located behind El Alamein to the southeast. By September 3, the Axis attack had run short of fuel and petered out. Montgomery counterattacked immediately, but broke off the operation as soon as the Axis forces were pushed back to the vicinity of their starting positions. Both sides again hunkered down to build up their strength. Taken together, the battles of Ruweisat Ridge and Alam el Halfa were the real strategic turning point of the war in North Africa.
Montgomery used the time after the Battle of Alam el Halfa to rest and train his troops, integrate the new American tanks he had received, and carefully plan his counterattack. Rommel, meanwhile, became ill and returned to Germany on sick leave. When Montgomery finally launched the attack, his forces and equipment were three times greater than his opponent's.
The Battle of El Alamein began on October 23 with a massive artillery barrage fired by 900 British guns. Rommel immediately returned from Germany to resume command. The Allies tried for five days to break through the Axis positions, sustaining 10,000 casualties in the process. On October 30-31, Montgomery renewed the attack with strong support from the RAF. Critically short on fuel and ammunition, Rommel started to disengage on November 3. At first, Hitler insisted on his usual no-retreat orders. On the 4th, he grudgingly gave Rommel permission to withdraw, and the 1,400-mile pursuit to Tunisia began.
For the next three months, Montgomery followed Rommel across the northern coast of Africa. Despite constant urging from his German and Italian superiors, who wanted him to save Libya, Rommel was more interested in preserving his force to fight another day. He paused at El Agheila between November 23 and December 18, and again at Buerat and Wadi Zemzem, from December 26, 1942, to January 16, 1943. Rommel reached Tripoli on January 23 and the Tunisian border at the end of the month. By the time he got to Tunisia, however, another Allied force was there waiting for him.
On November 8, 1942, just four days after Rommel started his long withdrawal, the British and Americans had executed Operation Torch, the Northwest African landings. In a coordinated series of landings, the Western Task Force, under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr,. landed on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, Morocco; the Center Task Force, under Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, landed just inside the Mediterranean around Oran, Algeria; and the Eastern Task Force, under Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, landed near Algiers. Although all the landing sites were in Vichy French territory, the ultimate objectives of the operation were the Tunisian port and airfield complex of Bizerte and the capital city of Tunis. Command of those facilities would allow the Allies to bomb Sicily, protect the Malta convoys, and strike at Rommel's supply lines.
While the Allies established themselves ashore and attempted to negotiate terms with the Vichy French, the Germans reacted swiftly, sending troops from Sicily to Tunisia on November 9. Hitler also gave the order for the German military in occupied France to take control of the remainder of Vichy France. The French fleet at Toulon, however, was scuttled before the Germans could seize it.
From the moment the Allies landed, the campaign in Northwest Africa and the race for Tunis was a logistical battle. The side that could mass forces the fastest would win. For the Germans, control of the Tunis complex was critical to prevent Rommel from being trapped between Montgomery in the east and the newly formed British First Army in the west. On November 28, the Allies reached Tebourba, only 12 miles from Tunis, but a well-conducted Axis counterattack drove them back 20 miles in seven days.
The Germans won the initial race for Tunis because they had shorter supply lines, and their aircraft, operating from closer bases, had greater time over the contested area. In January 1943, the winter rains and resulting mud brought mechanized operations to a halt in northern Tunisia. Waiting for better weather in the spring, the Allies continued to build up their forces. The British First Army, under Lt. Gen. Sir Kenneth Anderson, was organized into three corps–the British V Corps, the U.S. II Corps and the French XIX Corps. The Axis forces in northern Tunisia now consisted of Lt. Gen. Hans-J├╝rgen von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army.
Once Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika crossed into southern Tunisia, it occupied positions in the old French fortifications of the Mareth Line. Rommel's 10 divisions were well below half strength, with only 78,000 troops and 129 tanks. Before he had to face the rapidly closing Montgomery, Rommel intended to eliminate the threat of the British First Army to his north.
On February 14, the Germans launched the first leg of a two-pronged offensive, with Arnim's forces attacking that day through the Faid Pass toward Sidi Bou Zid. The following day, Rommel, in the south, attacked toward Gafsa. The bulk of Rommel's forces, however, remained in the Mareth Line. By February 18, Kasserine Pass was in Axis hands, and U.S. ground forces had suffered their first major defeat of the war. Rommel tried to advance north toward Thala through Kasserine Pass on February 19, but the support he expected to receive from Arnim did not materialize. After several days of slow advances, he reached Thala on February 21 but could advance no farther. Hampered by a divided German command structure and rapidly massing Allied reinforcements, the attack stalled. The Allies pushed forward and recaptured Kasserine Pass on February 25. Rommel returned to the Mareth Line and prepared to face Montgomery.