Western Desert Campaign until the Fall of Tobruk
British and Axis forces battle for control of Libya and Egypt
9 September 1940 - 21 June 1942
author Paul Boșcu, May 2019
The war in Libya and Egypt started when Italian forces attacked British positions in Egypt. The British counter attacked and soon routed the Italians from Egypt and entered Libya in pursuit of their enemy. At the point of collapse, the Italians soon received aid from their German allies. Under the command of General Erwin Rommel, the German Afrika Korps attacked the British lines who were forced to withdraw to the Egyptian border. Soon the port city of Tobruk would be under siege by the Germans. After several attempts the British managed to lift the siege and relieve the exhausted Tobruk garrison. Soon a new German offensive followed and Tobruk was finally captured. The British were forced to withdraw into Egypt, were they established defensive positions at El Alamein.

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.

In two months, the Western Desert Force had achieved resounding successes; they had destroyed nine Italian divisions and part of a tenth, advanced 500 miles and captured 130,000 prisoners, 380 tanks and 1,290 guns, all at the cost of only 500 killed and 1,373 wounded. In the whole course of the campaign, Archibald Wavell, the British commander, never enjoyed a force larger than two divisions, with only one of them armored. It was the Austerlitz of Africa, and prompted his prep school to note in the Old Boys’ section of the Summer Fields magazine: ‘Wavell has done well in Africa.’

Lieutenant-General Henry ‘Jumbo’ Maitland Wilson took a large number of troops from the western desert to Greece under orders from Churchill. This was an error when the Mediterranean theater was still far from safe. As an assistant secretary to the War Cabinet, Lawrence Burgis noted in April 1941, when ‘a terribly important convoy of tanks destined for Egypt was about to risk the perilous Mediterranean route, the PM informed the Cabinet of the timetable, adding: “If anyone’s good at praying, now is the time.”’

Faced with the defeat of fascism in Africa, Hitler decided to try to save his ideological soulmate, Benito Mussolini, in Africa (and later in Greece), even though his strategy dictated that neither place would be the key to the victory he sought, which was always going to be in Russia.

In the long term, Germany’s explosion into the Mediterranean theater weakened the war effort against Russia in ways that could not have been predicted in the spring of 1941. It drew off German strength from the war’s main theater. In 1943 the invasion of Sicily meant that Luftwaffe units had to be brought down from Norway where they had been threatening the Murmansk route. In the short run, however, Germany won significant victories, and expected more.

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.

Wavell’s family came to Britain with William the Conqueror, both his father and grandfather had been generals, he had had a brilliant school career and was personally brave in action. A natural sportsman, captain of the regimental hockey team, a fine shot, an excellent linguist (Urdu, Pashto and Russian), he served in the Boer War and on the North-West Frontier and entered Camberley Staff College in 1909 with an 85 percent exam pass. He married a colonel’s daughter called Queenie, of whom he wrote admiringly to a friend: ‘She rides well to hounds.’

Much to his chagrin, Wavell was stuck at the War Office when the rest of the Army decamped to France and Flanders in August 1914. Although he did later see action, Wavell spent most of the Great War as a liaison officer with the Grand Duke Nicholas’ army in Turkey, later serving under General Allenby in Palestine. He not only distinguished himself, but got to know the Middle East and was sent out to command in Palestine in 1937-8.

When in August 1940 Wavell returned to London to brief the War Cabinet’s Middle East Committee, Anthony Eden thought his account of operations ‘masterly’, but Churchill’s curt cross-questioning left him feeling bruised and insulted. Nonetheless, great risks were run in Africa that month, virtually denuding Britain of tanks while the country was still under threat of invasion, in one of the toughest decisions of the war.

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.

There had never been a ‘good’ Mussolini; his relatively pacifistic behavior in the 1920s was simply an adaptation to an international environment that left little room for his schemes. Hitler’s ascent to power in the next decade fed Mussolini’s growing ambitions.

Not surprisingly, the Italian military believed that Italy would not have to fight; Mussolini, on the other hand, wished to conquer a Mediterranean empire that would transform Italy into a great power. This misunderstanding between leader and military bedeviled strategic planning throughout the summer of 1940, when France’s collapse and Britain’s weakness offered Italy substantial opportunities to strike in the Mediterranean. But both the regime and its military leadership decided that Italy would fight a ‘parallel war’ in the Mediterranean, one that remained entirely independent of German influence and support.

Italy’s entrance into the war was anything but smooth. The rudimentary decision-making processes of the Fascist regime rested on the Duce’s will. Of planning there was none. The services were not ready for war. The army had carried out an expansion program far beyond its means and operational good sense. The navy had good ships but neither the leadership nor industrial support required to operate them effectively in wartime, while the air force possessed nothing but obsolete aircraft. The bravery of the Italian people had no hope of making up for such deficiencies.

In the last days of France’s resistance, the Italians launched a muddled attack on the few French forces in the Alps. Order and counterorder flew back and forth between Mussolini, Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of General Staff, and the field commanders. The result was wholly negative: no gains with heavy casualties.

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.

‘We actually made dummy tanks, dummy guns, and from the air when reconnaissance planes came across it looked as though we had a really good, strong army,’ recalled Private Bob Mash, an engineer with the Nile Army. ‘We’ve blown up rubber tanks, put them in position, taken them down in the evening, taken them three or four miles further away, blown them up again and laid them there, and from the air it looks as if we had plenty of tanks. Just the same as on the Canal Zone… every other anti-aircraft gun was a wooden one.’

The ensuing performance of Graziani’s subordinates speaks volumes about his military leadership. General Pietro Maletti, the ‘wolf of the desert’ in Graziani’s memoirs, failed to pick up his Arab guides or the requisite maps, lost his way, and had to be found by the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian Air force, just before his column exhausted its water.

The advance to Sidi Barrani on the northwestern Egyptian coast pushed the British back without doing any damage. Motorized Italian formations, accompanied by a few tanks, came to rest in static positions, none mutually supporting, at the end of tenuous lines of communications, and with their southern flank up in the air in the desert. Graziani’s bombast that the British soldier would soon ‘learn to recognize the valor of the Italian soldier’ could not cover his lack of resolution. Meanwhile, the British assembled their strength.

The Italians halted after their initial advance to Sidi Barrani and for months argued about the next step toward Alexandria: an offensive to seize the railhead eighty miles to the east at Mersa Matruh. Every few weeks the Italian commander, Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, either promised to move or received orders to do so. He was still contemplating when the British struck back.

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.

As so often, air superiority was vital, especially as there was less possibility of concealment in the desert than in other terrain. The RAF quickly established dominance over the Italian Air Force, the Regia Aeronautica. British naval control of the North African coast also helped O’Connor, because much of the coastal road was within the range of the large-caliber guns of the Royal Navy.

In spite of the danger of invasion of the home islands, the British had sent significant reinforcements to Egypt. Though nothing like the forces subsequently engaged in the North African campaign, the extra tanks, planes, and troops — the last primarily from India and Australia — added to the units defending Egypt enabled the British commander to launch an offensive. Surprising and overwhelming the Italians, the attacking forces quickly destroyed the armored and infantry units in the Sidi Barrani area; in a few days the British disposed of three Italian divisions and pushed almost sixty miles to the Egyptian-Libyan border.

Great victories greeted O’Connor, who saved the Suez Canal and drove the Italians back along the coast road to Benghazi. As the British forced Rodolfo Graziani into headlong retreat, O’Connor sent the 7th Division through the desert via Mechili to slice through the Cyrenaican bulge and cut off the Italians. At the battle of Beda Fomm on the Gulf of Sirte, the British Empire and Commonwealth won its first really significant land victory of the Second World War.

Armored mobility had been a key factor, yet as Michael Carver – later a field marshal but then GSO2 (Operations) at the headquarters of Lieutenant-General C. W. M. Norrie – recalled, up until then ‘Nobody, senior or junior, whatever their arm of service, had any experience of highly mobile operations, ranging over wide areas, in which tanks fought each other… Everyone was learning on the job, even the Royal Tank Regiment had to rely on theory or… pragmatic common sense or even happy-go-lucky intuition.’

A factor that helped the British was the low morale of the Italians, which Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Belchem of 7th Armoured Division described as ‘a synthetic morale inspired by repetitive propaganda and one was very conscious that if they suffered a defeat this would probably peel off like a plastic wrapper, which in fact was the case.’ It was not true that the Italians lacked courage, General William ‘Strafer’ Gott told Anthony Eden, but they were simply not properly trained for the realities of desert warfare.

After Beda Fomm, General Wavell decided not to allow O’Connor to press on to try to capture the Axis stronghold of Tripoli, instead ordering him to halt at El Agheila. Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in October 1940 had led to the British War Cabinet’s decision to support the Greeks militarily. Although from a political point of view this decision was both desirable and understandable, it was disastrous militarily. Already very badly short of men in his Middle East Command, Wavell had to find extra troops to send across the Mediterranean as an expeditionary force, weakening him everywhere else.

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.

The isolation of Italian East Africa was increased and made almost absolute when the concentration of Italian air transportation efforts on re-supplying the faltering forces in Albania ended even this tenuous link with the distant garrison. The British counterattacked from Kenya, and then landed on the coast of both British Somaliland and Eritrea. Meanwhile an expedition under Orde Wingate headed for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, from the Sudan. In short order the main Italian forces were defeated.

Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia returned to his capital, five years to the day after it had fallen to the Italians. Aosta and his enormous but demoralized army surrendered, leaving the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden open to Allied shipping once more.

Over 100,000 more Italian soldiers had become prisoners of war; the conquest of Ethiopia, Mussolini's proudest accomplishment, had been undone; for the first time, a country occupied by the Axis had been liberated. The United States government could claim that the Red Sea was no longer a war zone and thus open to American shipping; United States ships could now go to Suez to carry supplies directly to the British forces there and relieve the pressure on British shipping.

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.

Although Rommel was formally under the command of the more senior Italian generals in Africa – but not Graziani, who had resigned after Beda Fomm – he actually took orders solely from Hitler. His success in the campaign against France had only added to his already high reputation in the Wehrmacht – he had been awarded the Pour le Mérite medal in the Great War, Germany’s highest decoration for valor – and he was now ready to become the iconic ‘Desert Fox’.

An Italian defeat in North Africa leading to the British occupation of all of Libya would open the Mediterranean to British shipping, Italy itself to attack from the south, and quite possibly cause the defection of the Vichy-controlled French colonies in North and West Africa. In view of these facts, the Germans moved promptly to assist their ally.

Whatever the doubts and sarcastic comments of some German officials and officers, Hitler himself was absolutely determined to take action to save his friend. He might at times dictate military strategy and priorities to Mussolini, but he was always careful to try to do so in a manner calculated to offend Mussolini as little as possible. This was because he recognized then, as he had repeatedly stressed earlier, that only Mussolini assured Italy's loyalty to the Axis.

The British victory at Beda Fomm, which led to the destruction of the rest of Italy's 10th Army, seemed to both Germans and Italians to open the way for a complete British occupation of Libya. Only a larger German force could, it was believed, keep the British from doing to the Italians in North Africa what the Greeks were evidently too exhausted to do to them in Albania. We now know that even before Beda Fomm, the British had decided to halt their North African offensive; but the Germans were taking no chances.

As a newly promoted corps commander, Rommel had a simple mission. He was to prevent a complete collapse of the Axis position in North Africa. Given the momentous preparations already underway in Eastern Europe, Franz Halder, the Chief of the General Staff, saw this task as entirely defensive, to protect Tripoli. Rommel, however, had no intention of remaining immobile. His sixth sense suggested the British were not prepared, and he struck.

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.

O’Connor, one of the most talented British commanders of the war so far, was seized and held in Italy. ‘It was a great shock to be captured,’ he said later. ‘I never thought it would ever happen to me – very conceited, perhaps – but it was miles behind our own front and by a sheer bit of bad luck we drove into the one bit of desert in which the Germans had sent a reconnaissance group and went bang into the middle of them.’ He managed to escape in December 1943, after which he fought in Normandy, but he was hors de combat when desperately needed to face Rommel in the desert.

As soon as Rommel had his first advance detachments in place, he wanted to attack before the British could bring in reinforcements and while they were busy in southeast Europe. Rather than wait for the armored division, he decided to attack with the segments of the 5th Light Division already on the spot. He drove his forces forward, relying heavily on the Italian units which were not really under his command, and in less than two weeks chased the British out of Cyrenaica.

The spectacular advance also catapulted Rommel into the public limelight and Hitler's favor, and led some elements in Egypt to look to Germany for support; both King Farouk himself and some nationalist officers imagined that a German victory would help them.

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.

With Tobruk still holding out behind him, and being resupplied by sea and air, Rommel could not push on further east until it fell, so the Afrika Korps sat out a long hot summer besieging it, until campaigning could be resumed when the weather cooled.

The quick drive with limited resources made it impossible for Rommel to accomplish any greater purpose. As his forces advanced, the British pushed added strength into the advanced port of Tobruk and held it against the Germans. Rommel insisted on a series of poorly planned and executed attacks on the Tobruk perimeter. These failed in bloody fighting.

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 told the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, that Wavell lacked ‘that sense of mental vigour and resolve to overcome obstacles which is indispensable to a successful war’. Other similarly negative assessments from Churchill were that Wavell was like a golf-club chairman, ‘a good average colonel’ and – intended as equally damning – ‘a good chairman of a Tory association’. It was bad enough to scapegoat Wavell for errors of the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff without having to insult him too, but Wavell’s victories over the Italians in late 1940 and early 1941 had come to a crashing end after the German Army landed in Tripolitania.

Churchill had been furious when Wavell drew up a ‘Worst Possible Case’ Plan for withdrawing the British Army from Egypt altogether. ‘Wavell has 400,000 men,’ the Prime Minister blustered. ‘If they lose Egypt, blood will flow. I will have firing parties to shoot the generals.’ Wavell never tried to shift the blame onto other shoulders; when he was finally packed off to be Commander-in-Chief in India he bore the humiliation stoically. He agreed with Churchill’s telegram that said ‘a new hand and a new eye’, in the shape of General Sir Claude Auchinleck, were required.

Operation Battleaxe exposed the depth of British weaknesses. Wavell, under pressure from Churchill, launched a two-pronged attack. Well-sited German 88mm anti-aircraft guns, used as anti-tank weapons, wiped out the first offensive move. British forces, in three disjointed columns, failed to support one another. The British, having no coherent doctrine, much less one for mechanized warfare, fought isolated battles, while German armor, infantry, and artillery fought as highly coordinated teams. Only a precipitous retreat saved the British from complete defeat.

There will always be arguments over the causes of the British defeat in this battle. Forces which had barely recovered from the disaster in Greece and the subsequent even bloodier defeat on Crete had to be directed to campaigns first in Iraq and then in Syria. This dramatically reduced the strength available for operations in the western desert. A second factor was one which the British did not remedy for a very long time: faulty tactics in armored warfare which failed to take account of the strength of German anti-tank fire.

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.

The Prime Minister also wanted airfields established that could protect the air route between Alexandria and Malta. Auchinleck, by contrast, was more interested in protecting the Nile Valley and securing the vital oil sources of the Persian Gulf. Only once the Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian operations were finished successfully would he contemplate action, telegraphing Churchill: ‘No further offensive [in the] Western Desert should be contemplated until base is secure.’ It was not what Churchill wanted to hear.

Leaving Mersa Matruh, the British were checked in the desert tank battle of Sidi-Rezegh, and a sortie from Tobruk was also repulsed. German tanks were simply better than British ones at that stage of the war, something the Chiefs of Staff privately and reluctantly acknowledged. The man who took over as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, wrote to ‘My dear Auk’ – the nickname was appropriate considering Auchinleck’s beaky appearance – admitting that ‘one of the fundamental defects that requires remedying is the lack of gun-power of our tanks. We are doing all we can to get the six-pounder in as quickly as possible… I can promise you we shall do all we can to press on with the 6-pounders.’

Although Rommel counterattacked, even sending part of his force on a wide flanking movement towards Egypt, Auchinleck’s nerve held, and the Afrika Korps was forced west of Tobruk, which was relieved. It was a significant moment, but entirely overshadowed in history by the Japanese attack on the American base at Pearl Harbor on the same date.

There was a serious risk involved; Lord Michael Carver recalled that some of Auchinleck’s tanks were so infirm that they had to be carried to the battle on transporters. Nonetheless, in the intervening four months the Commonwealth’s Eighth Army, which had been constituted from the Western Desert Force and reinforcements, had been enlarged to two corps, and the attack took Rommel by surprise.

Churchill called for a special War Office inquiry to investigate why he had not received a report on how to counter the 4½-pound projectiles that German tanks could fire. In the course of a War Cabinet Defence Committee discussion, Brooke said that two defects had developed in the Cruiser tank, in the fan-belt drive and the lubrication system, although the necessary spares and equipment were being flown out.

The Eighth Army, by then commanded by General Neil Ritchie, forced Rommel all the way across Cyrenaica back to El Agheila by the end of the year. Just as events in Yugoslavia had forced Wavell to denude the Western Desert of troops, so the spectacular entry of Japan into the war cost Auchinleck his two excellent Australian Divisions, which the Australian Government demanded be sent back to defend their homeland.

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.

The fighting in the desert, partly because there were fewer opportunities for atrocities against civilians, has been considered more ‘gentlemanly’ than that in Europe, especially on the Eastern Front. An aspect of this was witnessed in February 1942 when the former commander of the Afrika Korps’ 21st Panzer Division, Lieutenant-General Johann von Ravenstein, who had been captured by New Zealanders the previous November, wrote to Major-General Jock Campbell to express ‘the greatest admiration’ for his 7th Armoured Division and to avow that ‘The German comrades congratulate you with warm heart on the award of the Victoria Cross. During the war your enemy, but with high respect, Von Ravenstein.’

Help was on the way for the hard-pressed Afrika Korps. Hitler ordered Luftflotte 2 (Second Air Force) and its commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, from Russia to the Mediterranean. Luftflotte 2 made an immediate difference. The flow of supplies to Rommel improved, and he counterattacked and drove the British back to Gazala. There the front stabilized for the next four months, as the exhausted armies settled down in the winter rains to prepare for a resumption of heavy fighting in the spring.

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.

‘Messervy’s unfortunate experiences in the Gazala battles illustrate the typical difficulties of a desert commander,’ recalled Carver of the commander of the 7th Armoured Division, Major-General Frank Messervy. ‘When he stayed with his headquarters, it was overrun; when he left it, he was ignominiously forced to seek refuge down a well.’

Rommel now threatened the Eighth Army’s rear and, after the Free French had evacuated Bir Hacheim, Ritchie had no choice but to withdraw to Halfaya on the Egyptian border, once more leaving Tobruk behind to be besieged. This time, however, the day after the British reached Halfaya, Tobruk fell to the Afrika Korps’ concerted ground and air attacks, in one of the greatest blows to befall British arms in the Second World War.

Churchill was in Washington at the time Tobruk fell, conferring with President Roosevelt (who actually handed him the note containing the news of Tobruk) and General Marshall, and on his return had to face a restive House of Commons. He won the vote, but was under no illusions about how long he would last if the string of defeats continued. It is sometimes forgotten that, despite Churchill’s inspiring leadership in the Second World War, defeats such as Greece, Crete, Singapore and now Tobruk caused him serious political worries even as late as mid-1942.

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.

In desperate fighting, the British 8th Army held the Axis onrush at the El Alamein position, picked because it was short and practically impossible to outflank. Assuming personal command of the battle, Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck fought the German-Italian forces to a standstill but could not dislodge them from their advanced positions. The struggles ended in stalemate at the El Alamein line with both sides hoping to go on the offensive again.