Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The situation in the Western Desert becomes critical and Prime Minister Churchill interferes

Rommel had been reinforced with tanks that allowed him to push the British back to the Gazala line. In the process, the 1st Armoured Division lost 90 of its 150 tanks. The Gazala line was based on a minefield that extended some 45 miles to the south into the desert. The line was really based on Tobruk. There were ridges that had defensive positions prepared. The Gazala line held for about three months. The struggle to defend Malta was happening in parallel to the fighting in the desert. While the air force controlled airfields in Cyrenaica in early 1942, one convoy was run through to Malta. After that, the situation became much worse. One four-ship convoy dispatched in February lost all four ships. Another convoy was run through to Malta in March, but most ships were lost with their supplies.
While General Auchinleck must have had some idea that his army commanders in the desert were inferior, Winston Churchill was oblivious to that fact. Churchill assumed that everyone was capable and that all that was needed was a new offensive to push the enemy back. It was incomprehensible that an attack not be launched when it was so desperately needed. Therefore, Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff in Britain pressured General Auchineleck for a new offensive.
The Eighth Army commander, General Ritchie, was a fine man, but he lacked the experience needed to successfully command an offensive. General Auchinleck had the necessary experience and expertise to command the offensive, but he felt burdened by his duties as theater commander. He only took charge when everything had collapsed and the whole enterprise was about to fail. Auchinleck was the only British commander able to defeat Rommel in battle before Bernard Law Montgomery arrive on the scene. The Australian historian did not give Auchinleck credit for winning the Crusader battle, but it was his intervention that defeated the enemy forces and pushed them back to Tripolitania. Auchinleck again won a critical battle at the First Battle of El Alamein when he stopped Rommel from advancing any further into Egypt. This is based on the account in Vol.III of the Australian Official History and our general knowledge of the campaign.

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