Britain's Desert War in Egypt & Libya 1940-1942
This week's excerpt looks at the situation in the desert in July 1942
First published in 1964 Britain’s Desert War in Egypt & Libya 1940-1942 is a concise but authoritative account of how Britain’s . Described by General Sir Nick Carter, Chief of the Defence Staff, in his 2019 introduction as ‘as sound today as it was 55 years ago’ this is an excellent overview of events and the many factors that led to the ebb and flow of German and British fortunes in North Africa.
The following excerpt looks at the situation at the end of July 1942, when the British, under the command of Claude Auchinleck, sought to counter attack from their newly established positions at El Alamein. Initially the major attack launched by the Australians on the 10th July was successful but the momentum could not be maintained:
When this fifth attack also failed Auchinleck decided that a long pause was necessary to rest, reorganize, and retrain his sadly war-torn army. Rommel had come to a similar conclusion after his own failure early in the month, and the realization that his hopes for rapid success were not to be fulfilled, and on 21st July he sent a depressing report to OKH.
After 8 weeks’ heavy fighting, he said, his German troops were down to 30 per cent of their effective strength and the Italians were near to collapse.
Particularly serious were his losses of experienced men, a problem which was exacerbated by the fact that most of the few replacements he was getting were undertrained. The supply situation was also extremely grave, the captured stocks of fuel and food being sufficient for defensive operations but quite inadequate for a major offensive. Lorries were numerous enough but the lack of British spare parts and the activities of the RAF were rapidly reducing the effectiveness of his transport system.
In fact nothing was safe from the attacks of the DAF [Desert Air Force] which were having a very serious effect on his administrative build-up and he sought urgent air reinforcements both to protect his army and to attack the British bases and supply centres. For the army he wanted German troops, anti-tank guns, recovery vehicles, and more tanks capable of outfighting the Grants.
Nevertheless the German Commander had no immediate fears of a major breakthrough by the 8th Army although the situation would remain dangerous until the 164th Afrika Division arrived, and until a mobile reserve had been formed and the front thoroughly dug and mined for defence.
The difficulties enumerated by Rommel in this report were almost exactly the same as those listed by Kesselring and Cavallero when they were pointing out the consequences of a failure to break through quickly at El Alamein. Kesselring especially found himself in a most unsatisfactory position, being faced with demands for more air support from Rommel at a time when he had already been obliged to divert much of his strength for the renewed assault on Malta.
July 1942 was a very good month for the RAF in the Middle East and Auchinleck gave them much of the credit for stopping the enemy advance at El Alamein. On average some 500 sorties a day were flown in operations against the enemy air forces, supply lines, and in support of the army, and though the losses were high, 113 aircraft, they were not exceptional in view of the amount of work that was done, which was usually in the nature of continuous operations throughout each 24 hours.
98 enemy aircraft were destroyed during the same period and the German soldiers complained bitterly about the effect of this continuous air offensive and the inability of the Luftwaffe to protect them. Despite these successes, however, the co-operation between army and RAF was not as good as it might have been. The machinery for co-operation had been dislocated during the retreat and it was to be a long time before it was again working properly, and in the meantime close support was something of a hit and miss affair with the mistakes inevitable in such circumstances.
Much of the responsibility for this must lie with Auchinleck who removed the first essential for satisfactory co-operation when he set up a Tactical HQ at El Imayid, 40 miles west of the permanent Army and DAF HQs at Amiriya. The situation gradually improved however, and by the end of the month the DAF was able to operate very close to the men on the ground, to the army’s immense satisfaction.
The Fleet had left Alexandria during Rommel’s advance when plans had been made for the destruction of the harbour and dockyard installations, but it was not long before the ships returned to the fighting. Four times in July cruisers and destroyers bombarded the Matruh area with the result that that port ceased to be of much value as a supply centre for Rommel’s army, and thereby increased his already fantastic administrative difficulties.
By the end of July both armies had fought themselves to near exhaustion and on the 31st Auchinleck gave orders for the Alamein positions to be strengthened while the army rested and retrained. He was not very worried about the likelihood of an enemy attack in August but at the same time gave mid-September as the earliest date for a renewal of the British offensive, by which time new tactical problems would require solution. With the El Alamein-Qattara region being developed for defence by both sides, stalemate seemed about to set in as minefields were sown and room for the manoeuvre of armoured formations was removed.
The July fighting ended with a British success of a somewhat strange though characteristic sort. The 8th Army, though fighting in demoralizing conditions of extreme personal discomfort, heavy casualties, few gains, and constant changes of plans and tactics, nevertheless succeeded in halting and outfighting Rommel.
This was a tremendous boost to British morale and with the cheering sight of the RAF constantly attacking the enemy and the knowledge that new formations were arriving, the army slowly began to recover its poise and confidence.
On the other hand there were a number of disconcerting features about the British performance in these battles.
As usual the troops fought bravely on all occasions but their commanders were no more successful than hitherto. It was normal for signals to break down and for contact between formations to be lost, and there arose a sad loss of confidence between infantry and armour as a result of the Ruweisat battles where the New Zealanders felt that the 1st Armoured Division had not supported them properly.
Time and again plans were made and put into effect without sufficient care having been taken to ensure that they had a real chance of success, and attacks were frequently uncoordinated, infantry and armour fighting individually and being committed in penny packets.
Read personal accounts of the war in the desert in July 1942:
This excerpt from Britain’s Desert War in Egypt & Libya 1940-1942 appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.