Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

As another disastrous month at the keyboard winds down – I either need to get it back together or let this proposition go – let’s talk a bit about President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and North Africa.

With the first half of 1942 “in the books”, President Roosevelt found himself in the middle of a debate concerning when and where American soldiers should fight the Germans.  To be sure, we were already doing battle with Japan – the Coral Sea and Midway engagements were recent history and Operation Watchtower (the landings at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands) were just around the corner.  But we had yet to make a concerted effort against the Axis’ primary belligerent.  And the President had already stated his “Germany First” policy, but where to put it into action?

Britain’s Prime Minister had his idea.  North Africa.  Churchill saw a boat-load of advantages to offensive action there, and he was happy to enumerate them.  Occupation of North Africa (particularly Algeria and Tunisia) would trap Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps between those forces and the British Eighth Army that was already protecting Egypt and the Suez Canal.  North Africa offered American soldiers a way to “get their feet wet” in a situation less dangerous and difficult than a frontal assault on France.  Removing the German presence from the Mediterranean would allow supplies to be shipped through the Suez Canal, which saved a massively long trip around the southern tip of Africa through German-infested waters.  And it got American soldiers into battle against Germans (thereby relieving the Russians) in 1942, rather than further down the road.  It made sense to Winston Churchill, and he told Roosevelt, saying, “This has all along been in harmony with your ideas.  In fact, it is your commanding idea.  Here is the true second front of 1942.”

Roosevelt’s military commanders most assuredly did not agree.  They saw North Africa as a sideshow.  They didn’t believe an invasion there would pull a single German soldier from the Russian steppes or from the approaches to Stalingrad.  In fact, American commanders believed that action in North Africa was more about protecting Britain’s flagging empire than winning a war against an aggressor, and they wanted none of it.  A frontal assault on Germany’s stronghold in Europe, though not feasible in 1942, certainly made more sense to them.

And in the middle sat Roosevelt.  He took these arguments in and then added his own ideas to the mix.  There was politics.  It was 1942, and mid-term elections were coming.  Early indications showed that a restless populace, eager for action against Germany, could give his party a ballot-box beating in November.  But ultimately, it came down to doing something – anything – to help the Russians in 1942.  Earlier in the year, he had stated “the simple fact that the Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis materiel than all the other twenty-five United Nations put together.”

And on July 30, 1942, the President made his decision.  As the sun set on summer-time Washington, D.C., Roosevelt gathered his military commanders and told them North Africa was the target.  A European invasion, while on the cards, would not be happening this year.

The torch of Operaton Torch had been officially lit.

Recommended Reading:  An Army at Dawn

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As the end of May loomed in 1942, the vaunted Imperial Japanese Navy was bending all of its thought, and much of its military power, toward the small central Pacific atoll of Midway.  Island AF (as they called it) was important to the Japanese, not so much because of what it offered (an airfield, some decent fishing, and not much else), but because of what else it offered.

A chance to wipe out the remnants of the United States Navy.

Admiral Yamamota knew without a doubt that the only way to defeat the Americans was to convince them to cease hostilities before their superior war machine could become fully engaged.  So that meant sneak attacks and ruses.

The sneak attack had been pretty successful at Pearl Harbor the previous December.  The ruse?  Well, that was still to play out.  A Japanese attack force had left for the Aleutian Islands off Alaska’s coast.  The hope was that the remaining US Fleet would make for Alaska.  En route, they would be intercepted by a much larger, much more powerful Japanese fleet…and destroyed.

Pearl Harbor would be largely unguarded, all of Hawaii threatened, and the United States’ presence in the Pacific would be over.  That was the plan.

The problem was that the US Navy knew way too much about the Japanese plans.  Enough of the Japanese Navy’s coding system had been broken to see the light on the Japanese operations, so as May ended and the Japanese were focused on Midway, the US was focused there as well.

Of course, the Japanese had no clue that the US knew their secrets, so they continued to play their games, attempting to confuse their enemy.

As night fell on May 30, 1942, the Japanese launched a diversionary attack at, of all places, Diego Suarez…on the northern tip of Madagascar.

Yep…Madagascar, that big island off the southeast coast of Africa.  I bet some of you had no idea that Madagascar was involved in the Second World War.  Well, you’re not alone.  For most of my life, I didn’t know it, either.

But we come by our ignorance honestly, because relatively speaking, it wasn’t much of an attack.  A couple of midget submarines (like the ones used so unsuccessfully at Pearl Harbor) were launched and entered the harbor, where they managed to sink the tanker HMS British Loyalty and seriously damage the HMS Ramillies (shown above), a WWI-era battleship.

The Japanese hoped that this minor operation (along with another like it at Sydney, Australia), coupled with the larger forces steaming toward not-yet-a-state Alaska, would give the US Navy further pause and maybe divide their forces a little more.

The US Navy wasn’t buying it.

Recommended Reading: Miracle at Midway

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It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached the 9th day of March, and this is the first piece of the month.  But work continues to swamp, and some other things have interrupted the daily routine as well.  I hope I can get this thing back on track.

Let’s take a quick run to North Africa tonight.  Erwin Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps was in serious trouble.  The German victory at Kasserine Pass just weeks before had rung hollow in Axis ears.  And now, they were on the defensive.  Operation Capri, a German defensive action, had completely fallen apart.  Field Marshal Rommel had, in the course of a day, lost a third of his tanks.  He lamented, “This operation was pointless from the moment it turned out that we had not taken the enemy by surprise.”

It never crossed his mind that the Allies were reading the mail.  In his book An Army at Dawn, Rick Atkinson writes, “The slaughter had been so lopsided, the battle so plainly anticipated by the British, that the field marshal suspected treachery, perhaps from the Italians, a suspicion Kesselring came to share.”

But in some sense, little of this mattered anymore.  Rommel knew that the story had been written in Africa.  For another two months, men on both sides of the fight would continue to do their duty and die for their cause.  But North Africa was lost for the Axis.  And Erwin Rommel was a sick man.

Hans von Luck, Rommel’s reconnaissance commander, reported, “I hadn’t seen him for some weeks and was shocked at how unwell he looked.  He was visibly weak…and completely worn out.”  It was time for him to say goodbye to Africa.  At 7:50am on March 9, 1943, Erwin Rommel boarded a plane at Sfax and took off for Rome.  Other commanders would finish the fight in North Africa.  Some would die and most would go into captivity.

Rommel would never return to North Africa.

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The Grand Dorsal sounds like some part of a large dolphin, but it has nothing to do with swimming mammals.  To learn a little more about it, you need to consult an atlas.  Go to west-central Tunisia, just a stone’s throw (or an artillery shell’s throw, in this case) from the country of Algeria, and find the city of Kasserine.  Just to the west is the Grand Dorsal, and right there is a break in the Dorsal’s spine, forming the Kasserine Pass.

This two-mile gap was the scene of one of the more famous engagements fought in North Africa during the Second World War.  The Battle of Kasserine Pass was the first real meeting between the vaunted Panzers led by Erwin Rommel and U.S. forces.  And to say the battle (actually a series of battles), which began on February 19, 1943, didn’t go well for the Americans would be an understatement.

In fact, in terms of territory lost, the 85-mile retreat forced on the men over the course of the week-long battle was the worst shellacking of the war.  Harry Butcher, a former CBS executive turned naval aide and confidant to General Eisenhower, wrote, “The proud and cocky Americans today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history.”  Eisenhower himself would say (to General Marshall), “Our people from the highest to the very lowest have learned that this is not a child’s game.”

It was a tough defeat.  Casualties exceeded 20% of men involved, a staggering total.  Hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces, and trucks with the American star littered the area as burned out hulks, while on the German ledger, losses were less than a 1,000 casualties (including just 200 dead).

But even in defeat such as this, there was hope.  The loss was tactical, not strategic.  For all their military prowess, Rommel’s forces had not reached (nor captured) any Allied supply depots.  Allied forces, particularly the British First Army, had not been forced back into Algeria.  And in general, Allied offensive capabilities had not been stopped, which meant that once America’s superior war production replaced the losses, the Axis would have to fight all over again.

And at the top, there was Eisenhower, who admitted his mistakes, learned from them, and then made the necessary adjustments (and personnel changes) to hopefully avoid them in the future.  The Battle of Kasserine Pass was a definite loss for the Americans, still getting their feet wet in war against a much more experienced foe.

But the takeaways, like many of the other engagements in North Africa, served to turn relatively green troops into a fighting machine that would, within months, stand victorious on the shores of Tunis.

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I’ve been away from the keyboard for a few days again.  Well, that’s not strictly true, as my “day job” has me sitting behind one 8 (or more) hours a day.  But I’ve been away from here, partly due to work and partly to some aggravating back trouble that makes it somewhat difficult to stay comfortable sitting and typing.  Normally a trip to the chiropractor fixes things right up, but she’s on maternity leave right now, so that’s off the table.  But I finally went to the doctor this afternoon, who took one look my back and sent me straight to the pharmacy.  So things should start improving…or not, but at least the muscle relaxants should make me think they are.

I would love to know a lot more about the North African theater of the Second World War than I do, but I don’t.  I’ve got several good books on the subject, but I’ve only read a couple and the ones that I really want to read (that deal with activity from 1940-42) keep getting pushed back.  I’ve got the Founding Fathers to thank for that.  But along with finishing Madison’s biography and Chernow’s new book on Washington this year, my other goal is to get at least one of my North Africa books read, too.

And I imagine when I read it, I will get a lot of information about Tobruk.  This port city in eastern Libya was the scene of some memorable engagements, and warring parties fought for its control on several occasions.  As 1940 ended, Britain was up to its neck in trouble.  As we all know, she stood alone against the burgeoning Axis onslaught in western Europe.  And in Africa, Britain was doing everything possible to protect the Suez Canal.  But the time for action had come, and it arrived in the form of Operation Compass.  Launched in December, it met with spectacular success for the British, despite being significantly outnumbered in all respects.

The British headed west and, together with Australian forces, attacked Tobruk and captured it on January 22, 1941.  It was a remarkable victory…like I said, the Italian forces had more than a 4-to-1 advantage in troops and a 12-to-1 advantage in artillery.

Of course, the following month (February 1941) would see the arrival of the Deutsches Afrikakorps and its leader, a German General named Erwin Rommel.  And he had plans for North Africa, and Tobruk, as well.  We’ll be back here again.

Recommended Reading:  Triumphant Fox – I have an earlier edition of Mitcham’s book.

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I’m not sure if I’ve been dreaming of a white Christmas, but we’re going to get one regardless.  It started snowing early this morning and it has been floating down most of the day.  It’s not been blizzard-like or anything, but we’ve probably got…I don’t know…five inches or so.  But everyone has their lights on and, as the night takes over, it really looks pretty out there.

In 1942, there wasn’t snow in Algiers on Christmas Eve.  Rick Atkinson describes the scene in An Army at Dawn“Algiers on Christmas Eve was festive if not quite spiritual.  The white houses spilling down the hills gleamed beneath a mild winter sun.  Palm fronds stirred in the sea breeze.  French mothers bustled from shop to shop in search of toys and sweets for their children. … Nipping from hidden casks of wine, troops washed their uniforms in gasoline and gave one another haircuts in preparation for midnight chapel services.”

Allied soldiers had landed back in November in an effort to drive the German and Italian military from North Africa and now, as Christmas loomed, everyone hoped for a day of peace and quiet.  They wouldn’t get one.

Admiral Francois Darlan was not Algiers’ most popular resident.  In fact, the Frenchman was one of the most reviled men in the war.  When Pétain took over in France in 1940, Darlan became one of his deputies and promoted an alliance between Vichy and Nazi Germany, which made him an enemy of the Free French.  When Darlan ordered part of the fleet to French North Africa, he gave assurances to British Prime Minister Churchill that it wouldn’t fall into German hands.  But Darlan’s duplicity gave Churchill no comfort (he referred to Darlan as “a bad man with a narrow outlook and a shifty eye”), so he ordered the French fleet destroyed at Mers-el-Kebir.

When the Allies landed in North Africa, it was expected that Darlan would order his forces to cease fighting.  But it took General Mark Clark three days (and numerous threats) to finally get Darlan to give the orders, which didn’t sit well Eisenhower.  And then Darlan couldn’t convince Admiral Jean de Laborde to spirit much of the remaining French fleet out of Toulon, and that didn’t endear him to anyone.

So Darlan was pretty much hated by everyone on the Allied side of the fighting.  He was now hated by the Germans (for surrendering Vichy forces in North Africa).  And he was hated by pro-Vichy, pro-Nazi elements, who now considered him to be a traitor.

But only Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle acted on his feelings.  This 20-year-old son of a French journalist was an ardent anti-Vichyiste.  Shortly after 3:00pm on December 24, 1942, he waited until Darlan returned to his office, where he promptly shot the Admiral twice in the head and once in the abdomen.  Darlan would die a short time later on the operating table, and Chapelle would be executed the day after Christmas.

The reaction to Francois Darlan’s death was, well, I think Atkinson’s words are way better than mine, so let’s allow him to finish up.  “While Mark Clark considered that Darlan’s death was ‘like the lancing of a troublesome boil,’ he moved quickly to score propaganda points by implying Axis complicity in the murder.  An official AFHQ statement declared, ‘Complete order reigns in Algiers notwithstanding general indignation caused by the event.’  The suggestion that the citizenry might riot in pique at Darlan’s demise struck many as ludicrous.  One correpsondent observed that he had ‘never seen happier faces in Algiers.’

It’s a bit morbid, but Christmas Eve in Algiers got a little better for a lot of people.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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This “every third day” thing is getting to be something of a rut.  It’s not a goal to do that, but it’s the way things have gone for a bit here.  But I’ve got a couple things that might interest you history buffs on today’s list, so we’ll see if I can get both in.  First for this morning…

Today’s History Lesson has made no secret of the fact that Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was a most capable tactician, one of Germany’s finest.  And rightly so…history has pretty well established it.  It’s no surprise that he was revered by the German people.  He had his detractors in the circle that was the German military, but most military authorities knew he was a gifted leader.  And it’s no shock that Allied leaders, all the way up the chain, respected both his conduct of war and his conduct in war.  He was tough but chivalrous…a brutal opponent on the battlefield and one who detested brutality when the battle was done.

But of course, in war, the opponent you respect the most is the guy on which you place the biggest target.

A year ago, we talked about Operation Crusader.  This British-led offensive had as its goal the relief of Tobruk.  Located in Libya (just west of the Egyptian border), it had been under siege by Rommel’s forces since April of 1941.  It was hoped that General Claude Auckinleck’s forces would come in and break the siege…just before Rommel could strike (what he thought would be) the victory blow.

So, if you’re going to attack Rommel’s forces, wouldn’t it be great if the head guy could be taken out of the picture?  The British thought so, and launched Operation Flipper.  It sounds all nice like that friendly dolphin that was on TV years ago with Annette Funicello or Gidget or whoever, but don’t kid yourself.  Operation Flipper had as its main objective the death or capture of Erwin Rommel.

The mission began on the evening of November 14th.  A pair of British subs arrived to drop off the assualt team, but  horrible weather conditions and strong surf meant that only about half of them made it to shore, the others remaining on-ship.  The target was Beda Littoria, roughly 20 miles from the drop-zone and more than 100 miles further west of Torbruk.  It was there that Rommel was reportedly headquartered and had a villa.  Over the next couple days, the commandos, led by Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, made their way to Beda Littoria, fighting rains, cold, and lots of mud.  And if things were bad leading up to the raid, they only got worse when the bullets started flying.

The raid began just before midnight on November 17, 1941.  Keyes was shot and killed almost immediately, and things just went downhill.  Rommel wasn’t in the villa, and he wasn’t in the HQ.  In fact, he wasn’t anywhere on the African continent.  He was in Rome, and not due back until the following day.  The British had missed their opportunity by 24 hours.

It gets worse.  The surviving commandos were forced to make their way back to the beach.  When they arrived, the weather was still so bad that they couldn’t get to the subs.  And then they were discovered by the enemy and forced to scatter.  In the end, only 2 men reached safety of the 37 that made it to shore on the 14th.  The rest were killed or captured.

Operation Flipper was a major Flopper.

And Field Marshal Rommel, even as the main target, responded with the class and dignity many of his German peers sorely lacked.  He ordered that Lt. Col. Keyes be buried in a Catholic cemetery…with full military honors.

Recommended Reading:  The Story of the No. 11 Commandos – All of their exploits, with a detailed look at Operation Flipper.

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