The campaign in North Africa’s Western Desert began with the Italian invasion of Egypt, a British protectorate at the time. Afterwards the British launched Operation Compass, a raid that led to the destruction of the Italian 10th Army. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sought help from his German allies. Thus, the German Afrika Corps was formed, which, under the command of Erwin Rommel, launched a campaign that pushed the British back from Libya, into Egypt, and up to the port of Tobruk, which was besieged until relieved by the British during Operation Crusader. The Axis forces managed to regroup and take Tobruk during the Battle of Gazala, but failed to obtain a decisive victory.
The first of several British commanders in the long Western Desert campaign was Archibald Wavell, a fine example of the British Army officer of the old school. He was also the most literary and reflective of Britain’s Second World War generals. Yet there were always severe personality differences between Wavell and Churchill, amounting at times to mutual detestation. Even though Wavell had supported the creation of Ralph Bagnold’s Long Range Desert Group in North Africa, Churchill thought him too cautious and conventional a commander, and wanted to replace him.
From the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, Benito Mussolini announced to the bellowing multitudes below that Italy had declared war on France and Britain. In effect, Mussolini’s declaration of war reflected his deep commitment to the Rome-Berlin Axis. It also reflected the megalomaniacal aims of Mussolini and his followers to turn the Mediterranean into an Italian mare nostrum (our sea). Italy’s entrance into the war could not have come at a worse time for the Allies. Mussolini’s decision embodied his lusts, the ideology of his regime, and the overconfident expectations of the Italian upper and middle classes.
Benito Mussolini, fancying himself a second Caesar, sent Marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s Tenth Army to invade Egypt with five divisions along the coast, taking Sidi Barrani. He stopped 75 miles short of the British, in Mersa Matruh, while both sides were reinforced. It was a nerve-wracking time for the British in Egypt.
Wavell’s friend, Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, commander of the Western Desert Force, counterattacked fiercely against a force four times his size, concentrating on each fortified area in turn. Operation Compass had close support from the Navy and RAF, and, aided by a collapse in Italian morale, O’Connor cleared Egypt of the Italians, and 38,000 prisoners were taken. Bardia fell and the 7th Armoured Division (the ‘Desert Rats’) captured the key port of Tobruk, which was to loom large in the fortunes of both sides over the next two years. The British pursued the Italians until El Aghelia, a coastal city in the Libyan province of Cyrenaica.
Encouraged by his success in the north, Wavell then moved to cover his southern flank. When Italy had declared war the Duke of Aosta, Viceroy of Ethiopia, had crossed into the Sudan with 110,000 troops and taken Kassala, then moved into Kenya to capture Moyale, and also into British Somaliland, seizing Berbera. Wavell sent two British Commonwealth forces totalling 70,000 men – mainly South Africans – to exercise a massive pincer movement to utterly rout Aosta. Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham occupied Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.
It was O’Connor’s victory over the Italians in Libya that persuaded Hitler that Mussolini needed immediate support there. Hitler sent Lieutenant-General Erwin Rommel to Tripoli to command the 5th Light and 15th Panzer Divisions, which had begun moving out. The force was raised to the status of Panzer Group, and the 5th was renamed the 21st Panzer Division. Although technically only the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions made up the Afrika Korps, the name came to encompass all of the German forces under Rommel’s command in the desert.
Rommel unleashed his Libyan offensive. Spread far too thinly because of political imperatives – in Greece, Crete, East Africa, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Ethiopia and Egypt – Wavell’s forces could not hold back the Afrika Korps in Cyrenaica. O’Connor was ordered to fall back to the high ground east of Benghazi if necessary, and not to expect reinforcement until May. El Agheila fell on the first day and Rommel sent a part of his force off through the desert via Mechili to Tobruk, which they tried unsuccessfully to capture from the 7th Australian Division.
Rommel flew from place to place in his Fieseler Storch plane – in which he was at one point in peril of being shot down by the Italians – but finally settled down to besiege Major-General J. D. Lavarack’s 7th Australian Division in Tobruk, a siege that was to last a gruelling seven and a half months.
Halfaya Pass, 65 miles east of Tobruk, nicknamed Hellfire Pass, was one of the few places where vehicles could negotiate the 500-foot escarpment from the coastal plain to the desert plateau. It was thus an important strategic point. Wavell’s counter-offensive designed to relieve Tobruk – Operation Battleaxe – failed there. Fifteen of the eighteen Matilda tanks involved in one attack were lost to mines and anti-tank fire from a battalion of German tanks and four powerful 88mm guns. During this battle Churchill decided to relieve Wavell and replace him with General Sir Claude Auchinleck.
Churchill directed on to Auchinleck the ceaseless telegrams calling for the relief of Tobruk that Wavell had so long endured. Campaigning could not start again until operations in Syria, Iraq and Iran were completed. After the British had secured the vital oil in those countries, Operation Crusader, the largest armored offensive the British had launched to date, started. The attack, taking the Germans by surprise, succeeded, and Tobruk was relieved. Rommel had to withdraw all the way to Gazala, and then El Aghelia. This was the first ground victory by the British over the Germans in the war.
January 1942 saw the Afrika Korps and Eighth Army facing each other at El Agheila. Rommel attacked, capturing Benghazi and large quantities of stores, before the two lines settled down at Gazala. The British mined the 40-mile Gazala-Bir Hacheim Line, their 125,000 men, 740 tanks and 700 aircraft outnumbering Rommel’s 113,000 men, 570 tanks and 500 aircraft – but being Rommel it was always likely he would attack next.
Rommel’s offensive against the Gazala Line inaugurated three weeks of heavy fighting. The Italians broke through the minefield and, despite coming under heavy attack from the RAF, Panzers took a strategic crossroads nicknamed Knightsbridge. The British had to withdraw into Egypt, and Tobruk fell in a single day. The battle is one of the greatest victories of Rommel’s career.
Rommel’s Staff officers were soon planning which hotels in Cairo they would stay in, and which they would take over as their headquarters. Before they could relax, visit the Pyramids and bask in the Cairo sunshine, all they had to do was get past a small railway station about 60 miles west of Alexandria, set in hundreds of miles of absolutely nothing, called El Alamein. It was the last line of British defense before the Suez Canal.