Friday, 8 May 2015


When Italy declared war on June 10, 1940 against Britain and France, The British position in North Africa seemed hopelessly outmatched. UK Army General Percival Wavell commanded 40,000 Dominion soldiers caught between 200,000 Italian troops in Libya and 250,000 to the south in Ethiopia and Somaliland.

Wavell made a bold gamble on June 10, sending a small force into Libya to show the flag. This was the opening battle in a long campaign that would frustrate both the Allied and the Axis.above from plastic warriors blog

The Italians under Marshal d’Armata Rodolfo Graziani invaded and occupied British Somaliland on August 17, 1940, possibly cutting off American merchant transit through the Red Sea and cutting of the British from India. On September 13, Graziani reluctantly invaded Egypt under pressure from Mussolini.

Wavell sent 30,000 troops on December 9 under UK Army General Richard O’Connor to reclaim Sidi Barrani, Egypt, 65 miles inside Egypt’s border with Libya. The Italians had heavily fortified the town, but the British caught them by surprise and took 20,000 prisoners. The enterprising O’Connor then turned the large-scale raid into a full-scale invasion of Libya, taking more prisoners and occupying Tobruk , Benghazi, and the whole of the Libyan province of Cyrenaica. 130,000 Italian prisoners march towards Egypt.

Then, a major shift in the balance of power occurred. Wavell was ordered to cut back his forces and send them to Greece. Hitler sent the Afrika Korps to help the Italians, led by the effective Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel. Rommel arrived on February 12, 1941. Technically under Italian command, Rommel led an armored attack that smashed through the smaller British force, capturing O’Connor and almost all of the British conquests except for the embattled port of Tobruk. The British settled in for a long siege.

Churchill overruled his advisors and sent precious military supplies and weapons to Wavell, who tried twice to beat his way through Rommel to Tobruk. Rommel developed new doctrines of desert warfare, using antiaircraft guns against tanks and employing Blitzkrieg tactics to outflank the British. Wavell had to resign in the face of these defeats.

General Sir Claude Auchinleck arrived in November 1941. The UK Desert Force became the UK Eighth Army. In Operation Crusader, he lifted the 242-day siege of Tobruk, drove Rommel back against El Agheila, and destroyed a quarter of the Afrika Korps and almost half of the Italian Army in LibyaThe Italians declared war on Britain and France on 10 June 1940 and in September began an advance into Egypt. Initial successes enabled them to reach Sidi Barrani, an advance of about 50 kilometres but on 10 December British and Indian troops counter attacked and forced them back to Bardia.

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On 3 January 1941 the 6th Division launched an attack on Bardia, which was quickly taken for the loss of 130 killed and 326 wounded. Two days later, the 6th was outside Tobruk, well into Cyrenaica. Tobruk, a major Italian fortress, was attacked on 21 January and captured the next day, with 49 Australians killed and 306 wounded.The retreating enemy was pursued relentlessly and by 6 February, the 6th Division had reached Benghazi. On 9 March the 9th Division began to relieve the 6th. In two months an Italian Army of ten divisions, some 1300 guns and 400 tanks had been destroyed.

Change was soon to occur, with advance elements of the German Afrika Korps landing in North Africa during late February. Their advance forced the withdrawal of British and Dominion troops from most of their recently captured territory in Cyrenaica. By 11 April, the 9th Division, 18th Infantry Brigade and British armoured and artillery units were besieged in Tobruk, with German forces as far forward as the Egyptian frontier.

Tobruk was heavily attacked on 30 April but, although a salient was forced on the defences, the garrison held firm. Another attack on 16 May was similarly defeated while the salient was steadily reduced by intense patrolling. During September and October the Australians were relieved for a well-earned rest. Some 3000 casualties had been sustained and 941 taken prisoner.

Further east, following a coup d’etat by Rashid Ali in early May, Iraq abrogated its treaty with Britain. The Iraqi Army was quickly defeated by British and Kurdish troops and the internal situation stabilised. However, the risk of German intervention, not just in Iraq but in areas under Vichy French control; made it strategically necessary to take control of Syria as well.

Syria was invaded on 8 June by the 7th Division (less 18th Brigade in Tobruk), together with one Indian and two Free French brigades. The attack followed three routes: the direct road to Damascus, through the mountains to the Damascus/ Beirut road at Zahle, and the coast road to Beirut. The Vichy French fought courageously, but by 15 June the allied force had reached the line Kiswe-Merdjayoun-Jezzine-Sidon.

Despite a strong Vichy counter-attack in the vicinity of Merdjayoun, Damascus was captured on 21 June. Fighting continued until 12 July when the Vichy French were granted an armistice. This campaign resulted in 1600 Australian casualties, including 416 killed in action.

In addition to their military reversals in North Africa in February and March 1941, the Italians were in danger of being driven out of Greece. On 1 March 1941 German forces had entered Bulgaria and, on 6 April, Yugoslavia. Allied assistance had been ordered to Greece, and by 3 April a British armoured brigade and the ANZAC Corps (most of the 6th Australian Division and the New Zealand Division ) had arrived. On 10 April elements of this force made contact with the Germans some fifteen kilometres south of the Yugoslav.

Outnumbered and with the enemy in total control of the air, the force was forced back through the Aliakmon and Thermopylae Lines to Athens area. Resistance finally collapsed but the skill and resolution of the Navy ensured that almost every fighting unit was evacuated, by 28 April, to Egypt or Crete.

On 20 May Germany launched a parachute and airborne attack on Crete. Awaiting them was an 'ad hoc' mixed force of British, New Zealand, Australian and Greek troops, most recent evacuees from Greece, with little heavy equipment and almost no air support. By 26 May the position of the outnumbered allies was hopeless and evacuation ordered. Despite crippling losses the Navy saved 15,000 troops. A further 12,000 including 3000 Australians could not be evacuated and were taken prisoner.

Following the entry of Japan into the war on 7 December 1941, the 6th and 7th Divisions returned to Australia. The 9th Division remained in the Middle East. Late in May 1942 reinforced Axis forces began to advance in the Western Desert, and by 20-21 June had recaptured Tobruk. They were finally halted by three days of intense fighting at the El Alamein defensive positions, only some 90 kilometres of Alexandria., The 9th Division, then in Syria awaiting transport to Australia, was hurried forward to El Alamein. On 30 August the Axis forces again attacked but were defeated at Alam el Halfa. The German General von Mellenthin was later to describe this action as 'the turning point of the desert war’.

On 23 October the 8th Army attacked at El Alamein, the battle reaching a climax a week later. An attack by the 9th Division north toward the sea gained ground which successfully held against heavy German counter-attacks. After intense effort British armoured forces then broke out through the corridor originally secured by the 9th Division and by 9 November the Axis forces were in full retreat. This success released the 9th Division to return to Australia, where it arrived in February 1943. Australian losses for the whole period of the El Alamein operations from 7 July were 5809, including 1225 dead, 3638 wounded and 946 taken prisoner.


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