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Posted on Jan 10, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Desert Knights – An Overview of the War in North Africa

By Wild Bill Wilder

Operation Compass

"Operation Compass" was initiated on December 9th, 1940. Wavell’s little army, after a stealthy approach across the desert, fell upon the enemy defenses. Sidi Barrani was taken quickly. Then an event totally unanticipated by the Commonwealth forces took place. A precipitous, headlong Italian retreat began. Quickly one enemy bastion after another across North Africa fell into British hands. The Italian forces kept retreating. In fact, it might better be described as a chaotic rout. So quickly were they withdrawing toward Tripoli that they seemed to be outrunning the Allies.

Wavell knew that he had an opportunity that would probably never present itself again. His commanders realized that to cut off the enemy forces would eliminate them in the future as fighters. Quickly plans were made for an "end run." An advance scratch unit called "Combeforce" was immediately formed from whatever was at hand. It then raced across country and set up defensive positions to cut off the Italians in their hasty retreat.
By the middle of February 1941, the British Army had moved over 500 miles and now controlled almost all of Libya. With 30,000 men, Wavell’s troops had captured 130,000 Italian soldiers, 380 tanks, and over 800 pieces of field artillery. The victory-starved England exulted in the triumph. It was the first good news they had received on the land war since they had first entered France some nine months earlier.


A New Threat

At the moment when complete victory in North Africa was almost in British hands, Churchill stripped the Eighth Army of some of its best troops and sent them to help defend Greece. Other Italian divisions were reaching out to posses the Balkans. German troops were reinforcing their efforts. Without some sort of intervention, Greece would quickly fall. Churchill felt that he had no choice but to honor his commitment in the area. The only troops readily available were those of the 8th Army.

Almost simultaneously, the debacle in North Africa demanded some solidifying. Hitler had promised whatever aid necessary to Il Duce earlier. Now Mussolini cashed in on Hitler’s promise of aid, pleading piteously for help in a hurry. The German answer came in the "Afrika Korps", under the command of General Erwin Rommel. This German commander had achieved great fame and respect during his command of the 7th Panzer Division during the Blitzkrieg that smashed French armies in weeks.

On arriving by plane in Tripoli on February 12th, Rommel seemed to sense that here was his destiny. An unprecedented opportunity was before him, and he would not squander it. On March 24th, he struck, and drove the British from El Agheila. The Western Desert Force seemed to melt before the German onslaught. Rommel was relentless. He pursued the enemy all the way back across the desert to Tobruk. Unable to take it, he placed it under siege, bypassed it, and continued the advance.

British infantry shelters behind a knocked out
Pzkfw III as German artillery fire lands nearby.

By April, the British forces, beaten and bedraggled, were once again in Egypt, with the "Desert Fox" snapping at their heels. Churchill, seeing the possibility of disaster, urgently requested the shipping of massive amounts of lend lease equipment from the United States to Wavell, thus strengthening the Eighth Army. Far exceeding all Axis expectations, the German high command became alarmed at the rapidity of the advance. Some felt that it was too great a risk and could boomerang into real problems. Rommel was ordered to halt at the border of Egypt. He was unable to continue at any rate. His men were exhausted; his equipment, worn out. Few functioning tanks remained and his supply line was stretched to the limit. The German advance halted.

Operation Battleaxe   

General Wavell, in the meantime, once again used the respite to prepare for a new assault. New equipment and more manpower were arriving daily in Egypt to strengthen his weary 8th Army. Tobruk was holding fast. Rommel had tried three times to break through the defenses, but had failed. Now, with Rommel’s supply lines stretched to the limit and his forces worn out and weak, was another great opportunity to repeat the rout suffered by the Italians a year earlier.

A new offensive was prepared. This one was called "Operation Battleaxe."   The plan was to break Rommel’s shield at Sollum and Bardia, then advance to the West some 70 miles and lift the siege of Tobruk. For this to be done, Halfaya Pass, an important gap in the coastal escarpment near Sollum, would have to be taken.  The 4th Indian Division would be in charge of this phase.

The armor, in the meantime, would sweep south and around the Germans. Wavell anticipated a major armor engagement here, but was confident of victory. He knew he greatly outnumbered the "Desert Fox" in manpower and tanks. In Wavell’s mind, it was simply a matter of numbers. German and Italian forces would not be able to withstand this attack. So he thought.

The reality was harsh for the British. The offensive was a disaster. Well placed long range antitank guns decimated the Allied armored spearheads. The British were reminded of that dreaded gun, the "88", a dual-purpose antiaircraft and antitank gun. Its 21 pound shell had enormous hitting power. Even the thick-skinned Matilda tanks, previously almost invulnerable to antitank fire, were blown apart. Though Rommel had a small number of these cannons, they were well hidden, and the flashless powder made them all but invisible.

Behind this disaster, the tanks of the newly arrived 15th Panzer Division fell upon the confusion and administered the Coup de Grace. The British were beaten soundly and forced back whence they came. Churchill was furious. He now saw no alternative but a change of command in North Africa. Auchinleck replaced Wavell.

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