The Eighth Army

This fa­mous WW2 field army had a multi-na­tional roll-call of names

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The Eighth Army was one of the most fa­mous of the Bri­tain’s Sec­ond World War field ar­mies, fight­ing across North Africa and then in the in­va­sion of the Ital­ian main­land. Its or­der of bat­tle reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of the em­pire at large – with English­men and Scots fight­ing side by side with di­vi­sions from South African, New Zealand, Aus­tralia and the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent. At the time of the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein, it even in­cluded a bri­gade each of Greek and Free French sol­diers.

Their suc­cess against Rom­mel would not have been pos­si­ble with the air su­pe­ri­or­ity pro­vided by the West­ern Desert Air Force (WDAF), a divi­sion of the RAF formed a year ear­lier. By the start of Op­er­a­tion Light­foot, the WDAF could field 29 squadrons drawn from Bri­tain, Aus­tralia and South Africa, a fleet of 1500 bombers, short-range fight­ers and re­con­nais­sance planes.

It was their crush­ing su­pe­ri­or­ity that pro­tected the re­treat from Mesra Ma­truh, pre­vented the Luft­waffe and Re­gio Aero­nau­tica from play­ing any sig­nif­i­cant role in the bat­tles of El Alamein that fol­lowed, and – at the end of Oc­to­ber, as the Eighth Army bat­tled on the ground – sank the Ital­ian oil tankers Tergestea and Proser­pina as they ap­proached to To­bruk, dash­ing Rom­mel’s last hope of re­fu­elling his Panz­ers. On the 24th alone, the WDAF recorded 1000 sor­ties over the Axis lines.

The records of RAF per­son­nel who served in World War 2 are held by the Min­istry of De­fence but can be ob­tained by im­me­di­ate next-of-kin via the RAF Dis­clo­sures Sec­tion ( www.raf.mod.uk/con­tact-us.cfm). The Na­tional Archives holds RAF com­bat re­ports for 1939-45; th­ese are the af­ter-ac­tion ac­counts filed by pi­lots and gunners fol­low­ing en­gage­ments with the en­emy.

An Amer­i­can Kit­ty­hawk Mark III in RAF ser­vice dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Light­foot

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