Life being what it is just now, I will be going ‘off the grid’ for a bit, but I couldn’t resist one more little history article, and a chance to wish you all a happy Veteran’s Day weekend. (Remembrance Day for some of you, I believe.)
Though, come to think of it, ‘Happy’ doesn’t seem quite the right sentiment for the day.
Maybe wishing you a ‘thankful’ day is better. It fits the way I look at it, anyway.
I’m thankful for the people who serve and have served with the goal of protecting others.
I’m thankful for the stories of people who hold on to bravery in the face of fear, and who can still manage to show kindness even when surrounded by cruelty.
I’m thankful for the sacrifices others have made, who have gone where I can’t.
And to those who are still serving in the present day, God bless and watch over you, and bring you safely home.
Back to 1941.
Things were not going General Wavell’s way.
Greece and Yuglslavia had fallen to the Axis, and General Erwin Rommel of the German Afrikakorps hounded the Allied troops in North Africa, retaking the lands the Italians had lost.
True, there had been some successes- a revolt in Iraq and a struggle with the Vichy element in Syria both quelled with relatively small forces, and the Italians in East Africa were giving way before an Allied advance.
Also, the risky Operation Tiger had paid off- slipping 300 tanks through the hazardous Mediterranian Sea to help bolster Wavell’s efforts.
Still, the positives were overshadowed by Crete and Rommel.
The Allies had expected Hitler’s armies to make a play for the island of Crete, and had prepared themselves as best they could.
Even their best preparations couldn’t ready them for the assault of Goering’s elite XI Air Corps, who attacked via parachute and glider on May 20th.
By May 30th the Allies were on their final effort to get as many men off the island as possible. 16,500 were brought back to Egypt. Between 13 and 16,000 were lost- dead, wounded or captive.
(Side note: In this conflict, Axis losses were much lower, but Goering’s only airborne division was entirely spent.)
Then, of course, there was the German army in North Africa to contend with.
General Wavell had tried to get the jump on Rommel, even before the new tanks, nicknamed the “Tiger Cubs” arrived. His forces had been able to take Sollum and Capuzzo- unfortunately the Germans took them right back again.
Still, the British were able to leave a garrison at Halfaya Pass and Sidi Suleima, and a sortie by the still-isolated Tobruk garrison had some sucess.
Churchill and others ‘back home’ had high hopes that the new infusion of tanks would tip the balance.
Of course, tanks are only good if they work.
The ‘Tiger Cubs’ were not ready for action. It took time to unload them, to refit them, and to prepare for service in desert conditions.
Rommel, naturally, used this time to his advantage, preparing his own 15th Panzer Division.
He suspected that an attack to relieve Tobruck was imminent. (This was, in fact, one of Wavell’s goals with the upcoming Operation Battleaxe.) He decided to attack first, taking Halfaya Pass on May 26th.
Loosing the pass would make ‘Battleaxe’ more difficult, but it moved forward. People wanted a clear victory against Rommel.
General Wavell wasn’t certain he could give it to them. He admitted, even before ‘Battleaxe’ began that even with numerical superiority, there were weaknesses- his armored cars were too lightly armored and had no guns, unlike the German model. His infantry tanks were too slow, there was ongoing trouble with mechanical breakdowns…
…and then, of course, there was the fact that the estimates of just how many tanks the Germans could bring to bear were wrong. Rommel brought more than 200 to the show, Wavell, only 180. The Tiger Cubs’ teeth weren’t sharp enough to finish the job.
On June 15th, they took Capuzzo, but not Halfaya and they were stopped at Sollum.
On June 16th- no progress.
On June 17th, in the Winston Churchill’s words, “everything went wrong.” In short, Rommel’s armor was too much. General Wavell flew to the battle site, to find that his commanders on site had called a retreat- he agreed. Rommel did not pursue.
Battleaxe’s edge was effectively blunted.
“The powers that be” decided that perhaps General Wavell was tired, and it was time for a fresh look at the problems in North Africa. On June 21st, he was informed that he would trading jobs with General Auchinleck, the Commander-in-Chief in India. The Bristish hoped that perhaps Auchinleck was the man to finally out-fox Rommel.
The very next day the entire scope of the war changed, and events took place that would soon provide Britain with another, unexpected, ally.
On June 22nd, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa- the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Thanks, as always, for visiting!
For further information:
Here is a wonderful animated map of the North African Campaign on through 1943
Here are some recorded memories from the battle for Crete and here is a bit more on Operation Battleaxe.
*Most of my information came from The Grand Alliance by Winston Churchill, and World War II Album: The Complete Chronicle Edited by Hal Buell. I used various websites to double-check and verify dates and places.
4 thoughts on “North Africa in 1941 Continued”
Great post – I remember my parents talking about Wavell and ‘the Auk’ almost as though they knew them! But, then, I was very young. I think ‘a thankful Veterans’ Day” is very appropriate. If you’d like a bit about the UK’s remembrance service in London, try this http://bitaboutbritain.com/national-service-of-remembrance/ Oh – Crete gets a tiny mention in our next post.
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Thank you – and I’ll look forward to reading it!