Flowers and chocolates are lovely, but my husband knows the way to my heart.
His timing couldn’t have been better. Those of you who’ve been following my blog know that I’ve been writing a series on major events in the Second World War, the last being on The Blitz.
I’ve had some trouble continuing the series.
The difficulty of writing about WW2 history is the sheer SCOPE of the conflict. (It’s like it involved most of the world or something…) So many simultaneous events in so many locations make it difficult to know where to focus.
The new book helped. It goes through the war day by day, highlighting events in every theater of the conflict. It was enough to give me direction.*
So… it’s back to 1940 and ’41!
As Britain braced for German invasion under the rain of thousands of pounds of bombs, and U-boats attacked and sank hundreds of thousands of tons of shipping, the Allies faced off with Italian and German forces in North Africa and in the Balkans.
Upon entering the war in July of 1940, Italy sought to extend her influence, especially in Africa. Thousands of troops began to mass along the road from Tripoli, facing the frontier of Egypt and the British and Allied forces there. They dug in, but didn’t attempt to overrun the Allied lines. Not yet.
Facing them were about 50,000 troops from the 4th Indian, New Zealand and 7th Armored Divisions, along with some British battalions under General Wavell.
The outnumbered Allies didn’t launch a major offensive action, but who likes to just sit around? As soon as Italy declared war, they kept occupied harassing and raiding the Italian lines, claiming the desert territory as their own. (Sources say that they began these actions even before some of the Italian troops got word that they were at war. Surprise!)
Mussolini also had his eye on European real-estate. Italian forces invaded Greece on October 29th. Here, too, his forces were numerically superior- he may well have had high hopes.
He must have been disappointed.
The Greeks resisted, fighting valiantly to keep the Italian army at bay. They continued to push the Italians back through November and December.
On December 9th, the Allies began the first Western Desert Offensive. General Wavell’s troops broke through the Italian lines at Sidi Barrani. In 4 days of fighting they took 38,000 prisoners (including 4 generals.)
They continued to push the Italians back across the desert. With the addition of Australian troops, they pierced the line at Bardia on January 5th. Following the victory, Mr. Eden, (Churchill’s Foreign Secretary,) wrote to congratulate him, saying, “If I may debase a golden phrase, “Never has so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”” (From Winston Churchill’s The Grand Alliance, pg. 14.)
The Allies continued on, taking the fortified port of Tobruk and setting up a garrison there. The British advanced across North Africa until they held all of Cyrenaica.
With longstanding ties to Greece, Britain planned to secure North Africa, then send aid. They also had hopes of creating a united Balkan front by enlisting Turkey and Yugoslavia to help block the expected German advances.
They gathered the men for the British Expeditionary Force to Greece, and left a somewhat small number of less experienced troops behind to hold their newly-won positions.
As they departed, a new German General arrived in North Africa- Erwin Rommel.
The first contingents of his Afrikakorps landed in Tripoli in mid-February. The situation in North Africa quickly turned against the Allies.
The Balkan situation deteriorated as well. Back on the 27th of September, 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan had signed the Tripartite Pact, agreeing that they were entitled to establish their ‘new order,’ in Europe and in Asia. Now, Hitler pushed the Balkan nations to sign. Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria cooperated. Hitler gave Yugoslavia an ultimatum on the 19th of March.
Some of the Yugoslavian leadership gave in on the 25th and signed the Pact. Protests broke out in Belgrade, spreading over the country. On the 27th, the government was replaced in a bloodless coup.
Yugoslavia’s new leadership refused to work with Hitler. Enraged, Hitler vowed to crush the country.
On April 6th Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece.
Within 6 days, Belgrade fell to ‘Operation Punishment.’
The Greek army, under tremendous pressure, surrendered 70,000 men.
The North African situation was not much better. Rommel, who had been steadily advancing East and retaking lost Axis positions, took back Bardia and continued towards Egypt.
Tobruk was left an island, it’s garrison besieged. (Radio Berlin disparagingly named the stranded troops the “Rats of Tobruk,” a name which they embraced with pride.)
By April 19th the Greeks had surrendered. The rearguards of the British force in Greece struggled to hold positions at Thermopylae- struggled to safeguard the routes for evacuation.
Most of the force made it out, but more than 11,000 troops were left behind.
In the midst of the losses, one bold move paid off. The British Admiralty had gambled on sending a shipment of over 300 tanks through the Meditteranian rather than via the safer route around the Cape. Dubbed ‘Operation Tiger,’ the risk was a success- the troops at Egypt received their much-needed vehicles.
Would they be enough to answer Rommel’s threat?
“Looking back upon the unceasing tumult of the war, I cannot recall any period when its stresses and the onset of so many problems all at once or in rapid succession bore more directly on me and my collegues than the first half of 1941. The scale of events grew larger every year; but the decisions required were not more difficult.” (Winston Churchill, The Grand Alliance, pg 3)
Many thanks, as always, for visiting!
For more details on this period:
Here is a wonderful animated map of the North African Campaign on through 1943
*Most of my information came from The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill, and my new book World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle Edited by Hal Buell. I used various websites to double-check and verify dates and places.