With a new war raging in Libya, Second World War veteran Patrick Delaforce teases out the lessons of the 1940-1943 campaign in the Western Desert.
Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, when Winston Churchill had a seat in the War Cabinet, he wrote: ‘Should Italy become hostile, our first battlefield must be the Mediterranean … All her troops in Libya and in Abyssinia would be cut flowers in a vase …’
So, for nearly four years, an astonishing war took place in the North African desert. By December 1940, in Operation Compass, the British had annihilated the Italian General Bergonzoli’s army. Moreover, they had captured all the key ports in eastern Libya – Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, and Benghazi.
From Tripoli eastwards, the Italians had built a magnificent road through Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, up to the Egyptian border, linking up the coastal ports. Along its 1,000 miles, the Italians had stationed garrisons, which had required set-piece attacks by Army, Navy, and RAF to eliminate. Later on, of course, the two great sieges of Tobruk by Axis forces were to be famous (the first) and infamous (the second).
Hitler could not allow his Italian allies to be humiliated and sent General Erwin Rommel – a brilliant armoured commander – with (eventually) three magnificent divisions, which became the Deutsche Afrika Korps (DAK). From February 1941 until May 1943, there were desperate battles between the Axis armies and the Allies, reinforced by sturdy Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians, and some Free French. Without these formidable formations, Rommel and his panzers would have invaded and captured Egypt and the vital Suez Canal – severing key oil-supply routes.
Logistics dominate desert campaigning: everything hinges on maintaining supplies
The Allies had the advantage of troop numbers and of almost complete command of the air, but the German tanks were usually superior in gunnery performance and armour, whilst their huge, ungainly, but first-class 88mm dual-purpose AA/Anti-tank gun ruled the battlefield.
Rommel’s panzer tactics were usually superior. He used his tanks to neutralise Allied infantry and to terrorise all support services, not for tank-on-tank combat. The German tank repair-service (usually at night) was superb, and always had the bulk of their damaged battle-tanks in action the following morning. And German engineer squads mined and booby-trapped everywhere.
British generals came, tried, failed, and were replaced. Rommel launched a successful counter-attack in March-May 1941, was pushed back in November-December 1941, but then mounted a second successful counter-attack in January-February 1942. The war had a distinct ‘see-saw’ character. The same is true today. The reason is simple.
The offensive loses momentum as it advances. Losses mount, supply-lines lengthen, and vulnerability to counter-attack by an enemy falling back on his bases and probably being reinforced increases. This is especially true of Libya, where the coast road runs 1,000 miles from west to east, most of it through desert. Logistics dominate desert campaigning: everything hinges on maintaining the supply of water, food, fuel, ammo, spares, and reinforcements.
The see-saw war continued until General Bernard Montgomery, with vital American tanks and much secret help from Bletchley Park’s ULTRA, won the day. After the Battles of Wadi Halfa and El-Alamein, slowly but surely, the Allies in Operation Supercharge forced the DAK back, once again through Libya, past Benghazi, Mechili, Msus, Agedabia, Agheila, Sirte, Beurat, Misurata, and finally to Tripoli.
The grand victory parade on 4 February 1943 was attended by Winston Churchill and Generals Alexander, Alan Brooke, Freyburg, and Montgomery. In Tripoli, on the Corso Italo Balbo, Churchill was full of praise for the Eighth Army and ‘his Desert Rats’.
Adolf Hitler refused to admit defeat in North Africa, and eventually, when Tunis was captured on 6-8 May by the converging British First and Eight Armies, 250,000 German and Italian troops were put ‘in the bag’.
Lieutenant-Colonel Pete Pyman, a distinguished Desert Rat veteran of the campaign, wrote: ‘The whole battleground was open negotiable desert, but large areas, sometimes flooded and intersected with wadis, sometimes strewn with boulders, scarred with hummocks, soft sand patches, and escarpments, greatly reduced the speed of the best cross-country vehicles. Mirage and heavy dust, created by continuous movement, always made friend extremely difficult to distinguish from foe, and wherever there was fighting, there was thick haze.’
Patrick Delaforce is a military historian and author of Churchill’s Desert Rats (Pen & Sword).
Have your say: if you have a point of view on historical or military matters you would like to express in print, let us know at email@example.com.