The war in the sun

10 mile­stones on the road to El Alamein

BBC History Magazine - - Victory At El Alamein -

1 Mus­solini goes on the at­tack

The Ital­ian leader de­clared war on Bri­tain in June 1940 and be­gan desul­tory at­tacks on the Bri­tish is­land of

Malta ly­ing at the heart of the Mediter­ranean. On 4 July the Bri­tish de­stroyed the French fleet at Oran on the coast of French Al­ge­ria – to pre­vent it from fall­ing into Ger­man hands – and on the 9th the Royal Navy’s Mediter­ranean fleet fought the Ital­ians at the bat­tle of Cal­abria.

2 The Ital­ians are put to flight

In Septem­ber 1940, the Ital­ian Tenth Army ad­vanced into Egypt. In Oc­to­ber, the Ital­ians also in­vaded Greece, but were swiftly re­pulsed. On 9 De­cem­ber, the 36,000-strong Western Desert Force un­der Gen­eral Richard O’Con­nor coun­ter­at­tacked in Egypt and over the next three months routed Tenth Army and much of the Ital­ian Fifth Army, cap­tur­ing 131,000 men out of 160,000 Ital­ian troops in north Africa. Bri­tish forces also at­tacked Ital­ian forces in Abyssinia, east Africa. Cut off from all but air sup­ply, the Ital­ians were soon in re­treat.

3 The Ger­mans en­ter the fray

In Fe­bru­ary 1941, Hitler sent Gen­eral Er­win Rom­mel with two di­vi­sions of the newly formed Afrikako­rps to Tripoli to stiffen the Ital­ian forces there. In April, Ger­man forces in­vaded Yu­goslavia, quickly over­ran the coun­try and then ad­vanced into Greece.

4 Rom­mel sweeps all be­fore him

Hav­ing forced the Ital­ians back to El Agheila half­way to Tripoli, Bri­tish troops were with­drawn from the Western Desert Force and sent to Greece. It was too lit­tle too late and, lack­ing strong enough air sup­port, Greece soon be­fell the same fate as Yu­goslavia. In north Africa, Rom­mel ad­vanced well be­yond his or­ders, re­cap­tur­ing Cyre­naica, push­ing the Bri­tish back into Egypt, and be­sieg­ing the port of To­bruk.

5 The Ger­mans cap­ture Crete

The ma­jor­ity of Bri­tish troops were safely evac­u­ated from Greece but, in the third week of May, Ger­man air­borne troops at­tacked Crete. Fa­tal er­rors of judg­ment by the com­man­der of Cre­force, New Zealan­der Gen­eral Bernard Frey­berg, and the lo­cal com­man­ders at Maleme air­field, en­sured the Ger­mans got a toe­hold they were then able to ex­ploit, al­beit at con­sid­er­able cost and just a few weeks be­fore their in­va­sion of the Soviet Union. Crete fell to the Ger­mans and, though most Bri­tish troops were evac­u­ated, the Royal Navy suf­fered con­sid­er­able losses.

6 Auchin­leck is thrown into the fray

In June 1941, the Bri­tish coun­ter­at­tacked the Ger­man- Ital­ian forces

in Egypt but made lit­tle head­way and Gen­eral Wavell, C-in- C Mid­dle East, was sacked and re­placed by Gen­eral Claude Auchin­leck. In June, Bri­tish and Free French troops at­tacked Vichy-French Syria and, by July, had ob­tained its sur­ren­der. Pro- Ger­man re­volts in Iraq and Iran were also quelled.

7 The Eighth Army pum­mels Rom­mel

In Novem­ber, the newly formed Eighth Army coun­ter­at­tacked Rom­mel’s forces in north Africa. Weak­ened after three­quar­ters of his sup­plies had been de­stroyed by mostly Malta-based air­craft, ships and sub­marines, Rom­mel’s army was pushed back and To­bruk relieved.

8 Bombs rain down on Malta

At the end of 1941, Field Mar­shal Kes­sel­ring had been made C-in- C of Axis forces in the south and, recog­nis­ing that Malta needed to be neu­tralised, be­gan an aerial blitz of the is­land. By April, Malta had be­come the most­bombed place on Earth. But a planned in­va­sion was post­poned.

9 The Bri­tish face an­ni­hi­la­tion

Rom­mel’s Ger­man-Ital­ian Panz­er­armee coun­ter­at­tacked again on 26 May, smash­ing the Gazala Line and

cap­tur­ing To­bruk on 21 June 1942 in what was un­ques­tion­ably one of the worst-con­ducted bat­tles the Bri­tish fought in the en­tire war. Eighth Army, now in full re­treat to the Alamein Line just 60 miles from Alexan­dria, was only saved from an­ni­hi­la­tion by the round-the- clock ef­fort of the RAF’s Desert Air Force. Eighth Army com­man­der Gen­eral Neil Ritchie was sacked and Auchin­leck took over di­rect com­mand.

10 Stand­still in the sand

The Alamein Line, un­like else­where in north Africa, could not be eas­ily out­flanked be­cause of the deep Qat­tara De­pres­sion es­carp­ment 40 miles to the south. In the first bat­tle of El Alamein Rom­mel tried to force his way through but in a se­ries of clashes

that raged through the month of July, nei­ther side was able to force a de­ci­sive out­come. Stale­mate en­sued – un­til the sec­ond bat­tle of El Alamein

Bri­tish troops pic­tured in Greece, 1940

Ben­ito Mus­solini’s troops were routed by the Bri­tish in Egypt

Civil­ians clear de­bris fol­low­ing an air raid on Val­letta, Malta

Claude Auchin­leck over­saw the de­fence of the Alamein Line

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