The war in the sun
10 milestones on the road to 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Having forced the Italians back to El Agheila halfway to Tripoli, British troops were withdrawn from the Western Desert Force and sent to Greece.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