Tuesday, December 30, 2008

British problems at Gazala

The British lack of success in the Desert at the Battle of Gazala seemed to have been caused by several factors: the unwillingness to fight with concentrated forces and the poor communiction between forces at the front and the commanders in headquarters in the rear. The Germans solved the second problem by having commanders lead their troops at the front. The disadvantage of that was that commanders were often killed or captured and they risked being out of touch with their forces that were not in their immediate vicinity. The Germans fought with concentrated groups of all arms that were highly mobile (when they were supplied). The British tried to have troops everywhere and to cover large expanses with small forces. That meant that they were always fighting superior forces and had their small groups overwhelmed by the concentrated German and Italian battlegroups in Rommels army.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The next blow: 7th Armoured Division HQ overrun

Soon after the neutralization of the 4th Armoured Brigade, the 7th Armoured Division advanced HQ was overrun by German armoured cars and General Messervy and some staff officers were captured near Bir Beuid. The 30th Corps commander did not learn of the loss until later on the night of 27 May 1942. General Messervy was able to escape, but the 7th Armoured Division was without a commander for another two days. The Army Commander, at first, wouldn't believe that it had happened until 28 May. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

27 May 1942 early in the day

Brigadier Filose, 3rd Indian Motor Brigade commander, told General Messervy at about 6:30am that he was faced with a German panzer division. In fact, it was the Italian Ariete Armoured Division and some 21st Panzer Division tanks. The 3rd Indian Motor was overrun and lost prisoners and equipment. The survivors were sent back to Egypt to reform the brigade. Two hours later, the Axis forces attacked the 7th Motor Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Renton, at Retma. Brigadier Renton was able to withdraw his brigade to Bir el Gubi. After 7:30am, the 4th Armoured Brigade, ordered forward to support the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, was hit by the 15th Panzer Division The 8th Hussars ceased to exist as a coherent unit and the 3rd RTR was "roughly handled". the 4th Armoured Brigade was able to damage the German division, but had to withdraw towards El Adem. The 90th Light Division followed the British brigade for a while. The British seemed to have made the usual mistake of committing their units piecemeal. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The battle starts: 26 May 1942

The Battle of Gazala started on the afternoon of 26 May 1942 when General Cruewell's battle group moved out towards the British positioned between Gazala and Sidi Muftah. The battle group was seen by British screening forces consisting of elements of the 4th South African Armoured Car Regiment and the 2nd King's Royal Rifle Regiment from the 7th Motor Brigade. They followed a column that was heading for Bir Hacheim, where the Free French were located. Rommel's Operation Venezia had commenced, but without surprise. At 6:30am on the 27th, the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade was overrun after a short battle. They lost 440 men and what little equipment they had. this is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Battle of Gazala in three phases

In Chapter X of Vol.III of the Official History, the Battle of Gazala is described as having three phases. The first phase was 26 to 29 May 1942. This commenced with the sweep around the British southern flank by German mobile forces. This failed to dislodge the British forces that were in the line stretching south from the sea to the far end at Bir Hacheim. In the second phase, the Axis mobile forces sat in "the Cauldron" turned on the defensive, decisively defeating a British attack on 5 June. The third phase was the deciding attack on 11 to 13 June that defeated the British armoured forces. In response, General Ritchie resigned the British to defeat and planned to withdraw towards Egypt. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The start of the battle: 26 May 1942

The Battle of Gazala lasted four weeks and ended with the capture of Tobruk. The first phase started in the afternoon on 26 May 1942 when the DAK and Italian 20th Corps started forward to the southeast with the intent to sweep around the southern flank of the Gazala line. Four Italian infantry divisions (Sabratha, Trento, Brescia, and Pavia were opposite the British infantry positions west of Gazala. The Italian Trieste motorized division turned too soon by mistake and was separated from the main body. That left the Ariete Armoured Division, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, and the 90th Light Division to sweep down around Bir Hacheim. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The air forces in late May 1942

The British waited for the coming Axis offensive in a distinctly inferior position in the air. They were both at a numeric and a qualitative disadvantage. There were 312 Italian and 392 German aircraft in North Africa, "of which 497 were servicable". The British only had 320 aircraft in the "Desert Air Force", but they only had about 190 servicable aircraft of that number. Admittedly, in the entire Middle East, the British had 739 servicable aircraft, but the Axis had about 1000 aircraft. Besides, the British did not have a fighter that could compete with the Bf-109f.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The opposing sides

Not counting the Italian Littorio Armoured Division, which was still in the process of arriving in the desert, the Axis forces had the following strengths:

332 German tanks
50 Pzkw IIs
223 Pzkw IIIs
19 Pzkw IIIJ 50mm L60
40 Pzkw IVs

228 Italian tanks
mostly M13/40 and M4/41 tanks

In reserve
10 Pzkw IIs
38 Pzkw IIIs
19 Pzkw IIIJ 50mm L60
1 Pzkw IV
9 Pzkw IV Ausf F2 75mm L43

The British had a considerable force, as well:

1st and 7th Armoured Divisions
167 Grant tanks
149 Stuart tanks
257 Crusader tanks

1st and 32nd Army Tank brigades
166 Valentine tanks
110 Matilda tanks

1st Armoured Brigade (ordered to join)
75 Grant tanks
70 Stuart tanks

This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History with German tank types from Peter Chamberlain and Chris Ellis

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Axis plan

Axis leaders decided on 1 May 1042 that Rommel should attack at the end of May with the aim of capturing Tobruk. They wanted Rommel to stop at the Egyptian border and wait for Malta to be captured. Rommel intended to feint near the sea while he, Rommel, led a force consisting of the German mechanized forces and the Italian XXth Corps driving through Bir Hacheim and then turn northwards. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, November 28, 2008

British expectations circa 20 May 1942

General Ritchie actually foresaw that the Axis attack would go south around the end of the British defensive line. General Auchinleck thought that would be a possibility, but really expected that Rommel would feint to the south and attack through the defensive line. Whatever happened, General Auchinleck wanted to keep the British armour concentrated. The uncertainty, however, led the other commanders to position the 7th Armoured Division further south behind Bir Hacheim while the 1st Armoured Division was north, to the southwest of Tobruk, near El Adem and Knightsbridge. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The British defences in the Desert in late May 1942

The British forces, in late May 1942, were spread across the desert. The 1st South African Division, with the lost brigade replaced by the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade Group sat to the immediate west of Gazala and stretched a short distance from the coast. One their flank was situated the 50th Division. The 150th Brigade, from the 50th Division, was located further southeast, leaving a gap defended only by the minefield. The 1st Free French Brigade Group lay isolated and exposed at Bir Hacheim far to the south. To their east, about 15 miles, sat the two armoured divisions (the 1st and the 7th). This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

May 1942

The downside of having the huge stockpile of fuel and supplies at Belhamed was that the base was really too far forward. That meant once the battle started, the British were forced to use forces to defend Belhamed rather than to be able to fight as the battle flowed. Already by 10 May 1942, General Auchinleck was informed that the British needed to fight in May, and as soon as possible, as a German offensive was imminent. The army was still not really prepared to fight. General Ritchie's forces were widely spread across the desert, generally out of supporting distance. The Free French at Bir Hachiem, were hung out 13 miles from the 150th Infantry Brigade and six from the 69th Infantry Brigade. With their forces spread out wide, they relied heavily on minefields to block the gaps. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

British preparations up to 25 May 1942

General Auchinleck had hoped to be able to build up the British army in the Western Desert to the level that they would be superior in strength to the Axis army. He did not want to be pushed into a premature action where the strength that they had would be squandered. To be ready for the planned offensive, the British had built three forward bases: Tobruk, Belhamed, and Jarabub. Belhamed was the largest with 26,000 tons of supplies. Tobruk had 10,000 tons and Jarabub only had 1,000 tons. The coastal railroad was pushed forward so that the railhead was now up to Capuzzo. By late May, they had reached Belhamed, although the railhead was still incomplete and temporary. By the 25 May 1942 date, they had 80% of the supplies that were needed, although they only had two thirds of the fuel that they wanted to have on hand. The shortfall was created by the loss of fuel ships to attacks on the run west along the coast. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Grants and 6pdr anti-tank guns by May 1942

As Grants arrived in the desert, the expedient measure was taken of mixed armoured regiments. A portion of the regiments were equipped with two Grant squadrons and one Stuart squadron. Another variant organization had two Crusader squadrons and one Grant squadron. The plan was for some armoured brigades to have all Grants and Stuarts, while others would be equipped with Crusaders and Grants. The armoured divisions still had two armoured brigades, as the new organization with one armoured brigade and one motor brigade was still just a plan and had not been implemented. In the event, the Germans attacked before the British were ready. The best British equipment were the Grants and the 112 6pdr anti-tank guns which had arrived. At least the three British armoured brigades were up to strength in tanks at the time of the Axis attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

New equipment in the Desert in early 1942

The British had received Crusader II tanks with thicker armour but still very unreliable mechanically. They still did not have capped armour piercing rounds to deal with German face-hardened armour. Only the American Stuart tanks had capped armour piercing rounds, but only of 37mm caliber.

The Germans started to receive new Pzkw III tanks ("Specials") with the 50mm Kwk L60 gun developed to deal with the Russian T-34 tanks. While most of the Pzkw III tanks on hand only had the 50mm KwK L42 guns, they had 19 of the Specials by the beginning of the Gazala battle.

The one bright spot for the British is that they now were receiving American-made Lee tanks (they were generally called Grants, but the first arrivals were actually named the General Lee tank). The Lee and Grant tanks had a hull-mounted 75mm gun in a sponson. The gun was medium velocity, but fired a useful HE round which was useful against German soft vehicles, infantry, and artillery. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reorganizing the army in the desert

General Auchinleck had been displeased with the lack of coordination between infantry, armour, and artillery during the Crusader battle. He made organizational changes to reshape units more in line with what the Germans were thought to use. Armour divisions no longer would consist of two armour brigades and a support group, but would have one armour brigade and one motor brigade, with supporting artillery at the division level. Infantry brigades and motor brigades gained artillery which had been segregated in the past. The infantry tanks were kept in the Army tank brigades, not attached to divisions. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Desert Air Force from February to May 1942

The Desert Air Force needed time, just like the Army, for "rest, refitting, and training". There problem was that there was no time for anything but intensive operations. Those operations proceeded with difficulty for a number of reasons. The new Hurricane Mk.IICs with four 20mm cannon mechanisms were clogged by dust. Kittyhawks had problems with their Allison engines and were difficult for Hurricane pilots to learn to fly. From early February 1942 to late May, "nearly 14,000 sorties" were flown. At the cost of almost 300 aircraft lost, the destroyed "89 German and over 60 Italian aircraft". All this occurred during the lull in ground operations following the German advance from El Agheila after the Crusader Battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Axis air effort in April to May 1942

The Axis air effort in March 1942 had concentrated on eliminating Malta as a threat against Axis shipping. They succeeded in that effort. By April, they concentrated against targets that would help the planned May land offensive. They hit Tobruk, the railroad along the coast, the forward airfields and troops deployed near the front. Particularly the German air force recommenced hitting Alexandria and the Suez Canal. the British night fighters of No.89 Squadron had a field day against Axis night bombers. Fighters and bombers were shifted from Sicily to North Africa, as well as to Greece and Crete. The operational tempo greatly increased by the third week of May. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Increased air activity from March

Because of the convoy run from Alexandria to Malta in March 1942, the air activity increased considerably. The British made a special effort against the Axis air forces, especially the Luftwaffe. In conjunction with the convoy, the army conducted raids against Rommel's army. These were supported by fighter cover and resulted in three Me-109's destroyed, although at the cost of five Kittyhawks and one Hurricane. At the same time, Wellington bombers raided airfields and ports.

When the Germans started flying supplies and troops over the sea in Ju-52's, long-range Kittyhawks and Beaufighters were sent against them. After a successful action on 12 May 1942, the Germans resorted to escorting the Ju-52's with Me-109's fitted with "extra fuel tanks". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Axis fighter-bombers

The Axis air forces in the desert started using fighter-bombers in response to the British operations. El Adem and Gazala received visits from Me-109 fighter-bombers, which achieved "considerable success". Due to the impact of dust on operations, the British pulled their fighters back to Gambut and Gasr el Arid. They were further from the front, which gave sufficient time to intercept German raiders. They also had better communications and AA defenses. Before ground operations began in May, British fighters mainly operated in defense of Tobruk, shipping, roads, rail transport, and airfields. They had to contend with Me-109's using the sun to attack. Four Hurricanes were jumped by six or eight Messerschmitts. Two were shot down and two were badly damaged. The British adopted the tactic as well with equal success. They shot down six Macchi 200 fighters over Tobruk. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The air war in March through May 1942

After the British fighter bombers and day bombers achieved some successes against Axis airfields in Western Cyrenaica, the Germans resolved to do something to put a stop to it. They decided to go after British airfields with the aim, as the Official History quotes, "to regain air supremacy".

The British aircraft also staged a low level of attacks on the Axis supply line. Why this was only a low level, we have a hard time understanding, but that is what it was. During this period, about one hundred sorties against ground targets were carried out by Beaufighters, Hurricane and Kittyhawk fighter-bombers. Particularly successful were the Hurricanes that operated at night against encampments, transport, and aircraft.

Another change was that tactical reconnaissance units were replacing Hurricane Is with Tomahawks. In the period leading up to May, tactical reconnaissance in the forward areas was critical, so the effort to improve the survivability of reconnaissance aircraft was very important. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Malta neutralized

Unlike May and June 1941, Malta was not a factor in the war in North Africa in May 1942. A few Wellingtons still operated from Malta, but they were only able to make sixty sorties against Tripoli during the "lull" in the fighting. They did have a few successes while raiding Palermo, Sicily, sinking or damaging ships.

Only Liberators from Egypt could now hit Tripoli, and they only arrived in numbers by May 1942. Because of that, the main successes against Axis shipping were achieved by raiding Benghazi, due to the closeness of Desert air fields. Bombers operating around the clock made 741 sorties against the port and installations at Benghazi from February to May. As the enemy showed signs of an imminent land attack, Kittyhawks and Bostons appeared over Benghazi during daylight. The attacks seemed to not seriously interrupt the supply buildup, however. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Fighter Bombers

In the Spring of 1942, there was a shortage of British day bombers in North Africa. As a way to make up for the shortage, fighters came to be fitted with "one or more bombs". Fighters could always shed their bombs if they needed to perform as fighters, so there was little negative about their role as fighter bombers. Both Hurricanes and Kitty Hawks were fitted with bombs in May 1942. One Hurricane and three Kitty Hawk squadrons started operations as fighter bombers. Initially, they carried two 250lb bombs, but Kitty Hawks eventually came to be armed with a single 500lb bomb. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History,

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Day Bombers

The priority for day bomber crews was bombing practice. The usual altitude was eight to ten thousand feet, in level flight. Training also was conducted in 15,000 foot altitude bombing and bombing in a shallow glide. The Douglas Boston was replacing the older day bombers and had the advantage of higher speed than the Martin Maryland and Bristol Blenheim. The new arrangements in late spring of 1942 facilitated greater cooperation between British fighters and day bombers. Now, the two were based in close proximity and that allowed the fighters to usually escort the bombers. Interestingly, one of the new procedures was to avoid flying "down sun". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Bf-109F threat (Me-109F)

The Bf-109F (the official history calls it the Me-109F) was present in enough strength in early 1942 that the fighter plane was causing problems for the British over the desert (as many problems as it was causing the Russians). British pilots tended to be under trained in the desert and they were not very accurate in firing. As part of the measures implemented to better counteract the Bf-109F, British pilots started "shadow firing", rather than firing at a towed drogue. Radar coverage had improved to better detect low-flying Bf-109F's and there were more ground observers equipped with radios. For more flexibility and to reduce the number of targets for the German planes, the British instituted patrols with 4 to 6 fighters. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The British air force in the Middle East

By Spring 1942, the British air strength was greatly strained by the military situation. They were especially short of trained aircrew. One of the ongoing complaints about the air crews in the Middle East was the lack of operational training. The Middle East needed reinforcements, but the home forces were so taxed that there was little available to send. Bomber Command was in such as state that there was only one pilot per heavy bomber at this date. The Air Ministry reacted negatively to Air Marshall Tedder's plea for more air crew for the Middle East, but they stretched enough to send some reinforcements.

An important piece of the plans for the upcoming land offensive was to have a stronger air strength available to both protect the troops and to attack the Axis forces on the ground and sea. A new fighter group headquarters, No.211 Group, was built from two wing headquarters. Group Captain K.B.B. Cross was the first commander. He had been a senior wing commander during the recent Crusader battle. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Richard O'Connor

I was reading the Wikipedia entry for General Sir Richard O'Connor, who beat the Italians in Operation Compass that took Cyrenaica from the Italians, starting from late 1940 and ending at Beda Fomm. What interested me was that O'Connor served under J.F.C. Fuller, as brigade major of the Experimental Brigade, from 1921 to 1935. General Fuller was an early advocate for the use of combined arms forces, including armour, artillery, infantry, and aircraft in support. O'Connor had this mysterious knowledge about mobile forces that I could not explain.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Royal Air Force in the Desert from February to May 1942

The end of the Crusader Battle left the RAF to rebuild. They had suffered great losses in the battle during a transition period when some aircraft types were out of production while their replacements were slow in arriving. As the Hurricane I had lost its effectiveness, there were not many Hurricane IIs in the pipeline. This was the case for a number of aircraft:

Old Model Status New Model Status
Hawker Hurricane I outperformed Hawker Hurricane II slow in arriving
Curtis Tomahawk production ended Curtis Kittyhawk few arriving
Martin Maryland production ended Martin Baltimore few arriving,
needed modifications
Bristol Blenheim IV engine troubles Douglas Boston engine troubles

One positive move was the arrival of Consolidated Liberator and Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers in the Middle East. They were much more capable than the older Vickers Wellington medium bombers. They belonged to the original twin-engined heavy bomber category that had gradually become obsolescent. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Malta and North Africa in May 1942

The Middle East commanders continued to obliviously send communications to Britain that greatly incensed the prime minister and the Chiefs of Staff. For example, on 9 May 1942, they stated that they thought that the loss of Malta would not be fatal to the position in North Africa, as long as the supply lines through the Indian Ocean remained open. The restated their opinion, which proved correct, that an attack without adequate force strength would result in the loss of the attackers. If there was no reserve, Egypt would be lost. They did acknowledge that the Axis forces seemed to be grouping for an attack on the Gazala line. The Middle East commanders thought that such an attack risked the loss of significant Axis strength and might even open the way to a successful counterattack. The Prime Minister would have none of it, however: "We are determined that Malta should not be allowed to fall without a battle being fought by your whole army for its retention". This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Chiefs of Staff and Prime Minister force premature action

The Prime Minister and Chiefs of Staff refused to acknowledge that the army in North Africa was seriously out-matched by the Axis forces in May 1942. They were back to the late 1940 mentality that thought that the army needed to go forward when needed, regardless of the consequences. Strategic factors outweighed the facts on the ground. General Auchinleck was also concerned about the situation in the Far East and was fully prepared to go in the defensive so that more forces could be sent East. The concern in Britain, though, was that Malta was very vulnerable and could be easily lost. They felt that such a loss would seriously compromise the entire Commonwealth defense posture. Therefore, the army had to attack soon to relieve the pressure on Malta and allow air forces to operate closer in support. Those in Britain also had reason to expect an Axis attack in North Africa in June and wanted to forestall that attack. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Early April 1942

Naturally, the decision to allow time for training the troops greatly angered the Prime Minister. He decided that his men who he had sent to the Middle East had simply not answered the arguments. Churchill assumed that he was correct and that the commanders in the Middle East were wrong! After accepting mid-May, the commanders in the Middle East decided that they could not commit to an attack, even at that date. All this had occurred very early in April 1942. By 9 April, the Chiefs of Staff had become very concerned about the safety of Ceylon, and ordered the Middle East to send further forces East. They were ordered "to send 30 Hurricane IIs, 20 Blenheim IVs and a squadron of Beaufort torpedo-bombers". When the Middle Eastern commanders inquired about the situation, they were warned that the Japanese could well threaten India and very soon. General Auchinleck's reaction was that under the circumstances, it would be foolhardy to risk and offensive in North Africa when the situation in the East was so grim. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Prime Minister is angered

Churchill, as always, was pressing for a premature offensive in the desert. General Auchinleck presented the reasons why such a move would be risking disaster. Churchill, in fit of pique, wanted to bring Auchinleck back to Britain to confront him. Auchinleck argued that he did not want to be absent from the theater, as he did not want anyone but himself to be responsible for even a short period. In a compromise, Sir Stafford Cripps, who was travelling to India, was diverted to the Middle East to meet with Auchinleck and his commanders. The Vice-CIGS, General Nye, was also present. They met with Auchinleck and were convinced that he was correct. One factor ignored by the Prime Minister and others in Britain was the urgent need for training of raw troops. Churchill was extremely displeased, but he grudgingly accepted the date of mid-May 1942 for the offensive against Rommel's forces. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Middle East was to be further stripped of forces

The Middle East was informed on 17 February 1942 that they would lose the 70th Division, which was to be sent to the Far East, in the face of Japanese advances. They were also warned that they were likely to lose the 9th Australian Division, as well. At the same time, Alan Brooke, the CIGS, warned General Auchinleck that a division in Iraq would be withdrawn to India. At best, one more division was would be sent from Britain to the Middle East before the fall of 1942. The Chiefs of Staff in London was ready to assume a defensive posture in the Middle East in order to stop the Japanese offensive in the Far East. In response, General Auchinleck replied that an offensive in the Western Desert prior to 1 June would put the entire enterprise in North Africa at risk. The one spot that the Chiefs of Staff were determined to protect was Malta. They were prepared to commit a considerable force to pass a convoy through with supplies and arms. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A shortage of Ordnance Workshops in the Middle East

One of the continual complaints in the Middle East from mid-1941 onwards was the long period required to return damaged tanks to action. Besides the inherent shortcomings of the Crusader and other tanks, a major factor was the scarcity of Ordnance Workshops. This shortage was acknowledged, but a series of events thwarted sending more to the Middle East. In October 1941, the commanders had decided that replacement drafts were more important than Ordnance Workshops, so they were bumped from several convoys. Only two were in transit by March 1942. Another workshop was blocked by the intended convoy being diverted to the Far East. The ongoing battle between the commanders and staff in Britain, who desired an attack as quickly as possible and the commanders and staff in the Middle East, who did not want to attack until they had prospect of success. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The British plan for an offensive in 1942

Because of the pressing need for the British to base aircraft in western Cyrenaica, a plan was prepared that envisioned a force of "three armoured divisions, two armoured brigade groups, one army tank brigade, and three infantry divisions" by mid-April 1942. This plan was made as early as February 1942. A tank superiority of 3:2 was needed to fight the Germans, due to the inferiority of the Crusader tank. There was increasing pressure from the staff in Britain to launch an early offensive, but the commanders in North Africa, including General Auchinleck resisted an attack before a superior tank force could be assembled. The goal was not just to take Cyrenaica but to advance into Tripolitania. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The plan with respect to Tobruk

In February 1942, General Auchinleck had told General Ritchie to do everything possible to keep Tobruk from capture. What General Auchinleck resolved not to do was to have a division in Tobruk and have the Axis forces surrounding the fortress. The intent was to withdraw to the frontier rather than allow a division to be tied down and put at risk. The commanders in chief concurred, apparently, at least in February. February to May would be spent in building up the tank forces for a new offensive that would reconquer the western Cyrenaican airfields. They were desperately needed to allow convoys to run to Malta and to operate against Axis shipping. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

The plan to invade Malta in early 1942

Taking the island of Malta would have been a much more difficult task than taking Crete, a year before. While Crete was taken by airborne forces, Malta would require troops and equipment landed from sea. The first stage would have 8300 men landing on the island by landing craft. These initial troops would be supported by artillery and tanks also landed. Supplies and reinforcements would follow, also by sea. The Italian fleet would prevent British surface ships from reaching the island. There would also be a flotilla of German submarines to protect the attacking forces and to prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching Malta. Germany would also supply Italy with "40,000 tons of oil fuel and 12,000 tons of aviation spirit". Three corps were allocated for the attack. The one Airborne Corps had one German and one Italian airborne division. Of the other two corps, one had two Italian divisions and the other would have three. Additional forces included six independent Italian battalions, "two tank battalions, some armoured cars, self-propelled artillery, motor-cyclists and ancillary units and a few German tanks". Between 370 and 470 tranport aircraft would carry the airborne forces. These would include 155 Italian SM.82's, the rest being German Ju-52's. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Rommel decides against attacking Malta

Back in March 1942, Rommel still thought that taking Malta soon should be a priority. He changed his mind, along with everyone else in authority on the Axis side. Field Marshal Kesselring had wanted to attack Malta early because he knew that the German air strength would be greatly reduced to meet other needs. The Italians knew that they would not be ready for an amphibious attack before July, so they opposed an early attack. By April, Rommel realized that he would need to attack in the desert before the British, who were planning to attack in May. Taking Tobruk was now the top priority for the Axis side. While the focus shifted to the western desert, a joint staff with Germans and Italians continued to plan for a later attack on Malta. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Submarine losses in April and May 1942

One reason that the Axis convoys to North Africa were safer was that the British had lost three submarines. Two U-class submarines, the famous Upholder and the Urge were both lost in April 1942. Lt-Cdr Wanklyn's luck had run out when the Upholder was sunk by an Italian torpedo boat on 14 April. The Urge was lost without a trace after sailing from Malta on 27 April. The Official History suggests that she was mined. The third submarine, the Olympus, was mined a short distance from Malta on 8 May.

The Germans lost three submarines during May. A Lockheed Hudson from No.233 Squadron attacked U.573 and forced her into internment in Spain. A Consolidated Catalina from No.202 Squadron and the destroyers Wishart and Wrestler sank U.74 a day later. A Short Sunderland from the same squadron damaged a submarine late in May. U.568 was sunk by the destroyers Eridge, Hero, and Hurworth northeast of Tobruk. The air connection, in this case, was that a Blenheim from No.203 Squadron had sighted the submarine and alerted the destroyers.

This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Some analysis

From what we have seen so far in 1942, following the Japanese attacks in the Far East, the British and Commonwealth forces were stretched to the breaking point. We can say with hindsight that the Middle East was stripped down too far and the British paid dearly during the spring and summer, because of that. The situation in the Pacific was stabilized not by the force of arms on the ground but because of naval successes at the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. The battle that was spread across 1942 into 1943 in the Solomons was what finally wore down the Japanese enough that the Allies were able to go on the offensive. Because of that overreaction, which is understandable but regrettable, North Africa was almost lost. Another factor as the Axis air superiority, partly due to their geographical advantage in Cyrenaica and partly due to better aircraft in the Bf-109f. More Spitfire V's had to be sent to the Mediterranean theater to restore the situation in the air. The great influx of American-built aircraft also helped, even when the fighter aircraft were inferior, initially. It was only when the P-51B's entered service that there was a better aircraft available.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

British naval operations in May 1942

After the destruction of three of four of Captain Poland's destroyers, no further surface operaations could be mounted from Alexandria in May 1942. The destroyer division had been attacked by several waves of aircraft, mostly Ju-88 divebombers, but also some He-111's. The Ju-88's were based at Heraklion and had just completed training in anti-shipping operations. In mid-May, the Italians had mounted another "human torpedo" attack, but this one was ineffective. Meanwhile, submarine operations continued unabated, but submarine losses rose on both sides. The submarine ace Lt-Commander Wanklyn and the Upholder were lost in May to an Italian torpedo boat. One factor would ease the dire British naval situation. The Germans were forced to shift combat aircraft to Russia in increasing numbers. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Admiral Harwood arrives in the Mediterranean

A replacement for Admiral Cunningham finally arrived on 20 May 1942. The new commander was Admiral Sir Henry Harwood, the commander of the cruisers that fought the Admiral Graf Spee in 1939. Admiral Harwood agreed with the commanders that what was needed were long range aircraft with endurance sufficient to allow them to find Axis convoys at sea so that they could be attacked. Just between 1 April and 13 April, there had been 26 convoys that passed east of Malta. Only five were seen by reconnaissance aircraft soon enough to allow them to be intercepted. Admiral Harwood wanted 12 Consolidated Liberators for this role, but they were not available for this sort of role. In early May, a destroyer force from Alexandria was almost wiped out by air attack while they stalked a convoy. They put to sea on 10 May, but where attacked by air on 11 May. Only the Jervis eventually returned to Alexandria, while the other three destroyers, the Lively, Kipling, and Jackal, were all sunk. The Jackal was torpedoed by the Jervis after an attempt was made to tow the ship. The Jackal had a fire in one boiler room that could not be extinguished, so the decision was made to torpedo the ship so that the lone survivor might escape back to Alexandria. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The war against Axis shipping to North Africa in April and May 1942

With Malta being so heavily bombed, all anti-shipping sorties had stopped by April and into May 1942. Because of this, the Axis forces were able to ship supplies in relative safety during this period. In all of April and May 1942, only 13 German Italian merchant ships were sunk in the Mediterranean Sea, and all but one of these were due to British submarines. A large number of RAF anti-shipping sorties were flown in April and May, but the 750 sorties only sank one ship. The German air superiority over the Mediterranean, coupled with the Axis advance to Gazala meant that less of the Mediterranean could be searched for targets by the British aircraft. One disastrous attack mounted on 14 April 1942 cost the RAF five Beauforts and one Blenheim with no targets sunk. By the middle of May, 2,500 tons of supplies reached Benghazi every day. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Official History.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Status and some idle thoughts

In case you had figured this out, I have a situation going that is leaving me with little time to write. I would hope that I will eventually have more time again. My plan includes acquiring more of the Official History books from the war in North Africa, if not other theaters, as well. I would summarize those and comment on them, as well as books such as Harry Klein's Springboks in Armour: The South African Armoured Cars in World War Two. I also would like to acquire some more of the basic source books for the war in North Africa, as well as more information about British armoured fighting vehicles, if not German, French, Italian, American, and Russian.

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