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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I very nearly published this piece a week early…I had the wrong date attached to it in the master spreadsheet.  Good thing I double-checked first.  I occasionally get facts messed up, but completely missing the date would have been really embarrassing.  Anyways…

With the fall of France to German forces in June of 1940, it didn’t take a whole lot of brain matter to see that the British were in a bad way.  Their only remaining “ally” in Europe was Vichy France, but this was only in the loosest sense, as its government, run by Philippe Pétain, was nothing more than an Axis puppet.

Of greatest concern to the British was the powerful French Navy.  When Germany had invaded back in May, the French fleet had scattered, some to British ports, but most to the French Algerian port of Mers-el-Kebir.  When the armistice was signed, Vichy was allowed to keep its navy and the Germans promised to make no demands for it.  But of course, Adolf Hitler had made – and broken – numerous promises before, so this one gave little comfort to the British.

So rather than risk a German takeover of the French Navy, the British decided on a bold move to protect themselves.  Known as Operation Catapult, it called for the British Navy to settle the “French fleet question” once and for all.  On July 2, 1940, the British sent an ultimatum to French Admiral Marcel-Bruno Gensoul.  In it were four options.  The French could join the British and fight againt Germany, they could hand over their ships to the British, they could disarm their ships, or they could scuttle them.

Admiral Gensoul chose to do none of them.

So new Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered his own fleet to attack the French.  It was not a decision made lightly, as the French and British had been “brothers in arms” just two weeks before.  But business was business, and war was war.  Churchill gave the orders and said that history would determine the rightness of his actions.

For French ships in British ports, the “attacks” amounted to boarding and seizing the ships.  But at Mers-el-Kebir, things would be different.  Planes from the HMS Ark Royal mined the entrance to the harbor in an effort to prevent ships from escaping.  Once negotiations failed, the legendary battlecruiser HMS Hood opened fire on July 3, 1940.  Her first salvo to hit plastered the battleship Bretagne, sending her down with 977 men.  The battleships HMS Valiant and Resolution added their gunfire to the fray, and it little more than 15 minutes, the damage was done.

In addition to Bretagne, the Dunkerque had been heavily damaged, a destroyer had been grounded and three others badly damaged.  The French battleship Strasborg was able to pick its way through the mines and falling shot and escape, but that was the only good news for the French.  Nearly 1,300 French sailors had been killed, while the British suffered the loss of a half-dozen aircraft and six men.

As intrepid readers of Today’s History Lesson know, this was not the last time the Allies would try to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands.  Nor was it the last time the French would refuse to comply.  But this refusal and the subsequent British attacks cost the French most dearly in terms of lives lost.

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Our ISP seems to have conquered the Internet ills it had yesterday.

The Civil War battle at Fort Donelson earned Ulysses S. Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender” Grant (see it there?…”Ulysses S”…”U. S.”…”Unconditional Surrender”?).  But you probably didn’t need to be reminded of that, much less have it explained.  It’s one of those pieces of Americana that just never goes away.

But that same demand, emanating from the mouth of President Franklin Roosevelt at the end of the Casablanca Conference 80 years later on January 24, 1943, was probably a little more surprising, particularly considering the circumstances under which he said it.  In 1862, Fort Donelson was beaten and General Grant’s Union forces had clearly won the day.  In January 1943, the same could not be said for Allied forces fighting around the world.

To be sure, there had been victories.  The Wehrmacht had been stopped and reversed at Moscow.  Leningrad was suffering badly, but holding on.  And Paulus and his men had been outflanked (brilliantly, I may add) and then surrounded at Stalingrad…a massive defeat there was looking inevitable.  But even with those losses, German strength in the east was formidable.

In North Africa, the forces of America, Britian, and France were struggling to make good progress against a German enemy that, even in a somewhat weakened state and at the end of a very long supply line, was still a formidable foe.  To the east, British forces were pushing the remnants of Rommel’s powerful Afrika Korps towards Tunisia.

And American Marine and Army forces were on the verge of seizing Guadalcanal in the Pacific.

So there had been gains and some considerable victories, but calling for “unconditional surrender” at this point was not all that unlike the Indianapolis Colts calling for the Jets to forfeit the game this afternoon when the Colts were down 17-13 in the 3rd quarter (though Manning’s men had gained the momentum).  The Allied forces clearly had momentum, but they were still behind with a long ways to go.

But Roosevelt was convinced that (eventual) victory was certain, and he had discussed the policy with his Joint Chiefs prior to leaving for Casablanca.  And so, at the conclusion of the Conference, in front of the cameras and with Prime Minister Churchill sitting next to him, he stated that, “The elimination of German, Japanese, and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy, and Japan.”

Prime Minister Churchill reaction, which he controlled very well, was still one of surprise.  In his book War Summits, David Stone recognizes this but also clarifies the Prime Minister’s position.  He writes, “Apparently, although he had certainly broached the subject with Churchill beforehand, Roosevelt’s decision to announce it at this press conference took the British leader by surprise.  However, this would appear to have been more a question of presentation and timing rather than an indication of any disagreement over policy, and Churchill immediately endorsed and reinforced Roosevelt’s announcement at the January 24 press briefing.”

Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill had the clairvoyance to see that the Second World War was going to last another two-and-a-half years, but they had laid down the terms under which it would end.

Recommended Reading:  War Summits

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Field Marshal Erwin Rommel knew what full-scale assaults looked like, and this didn’t look like one.  Having just returned to North Africa from Italy (where he had celebrated his 50th birthday), he was greeted with the news that a large contingent of tanks…British tanks…were gathering to the east.  But Rommel had plans, and he didn’t want them interrupted by a British “sortie”.  And in Rommel’s mind, a “sortie” is what it was.

Field Marshal Rommel was wrong.

That large contingent of British tanks was actually a force numbering almost 750, nearly twice the number of tanks Rommel possessed.  Their destination?…Tobruk.  Coincidentally, those plans of Rommel’s that I mentioned?…they involved Tobruk as well.

Several months back, we mentioned the tremendous initial success Rommel had when he arrived in North Africa in early 1941.  Rather than sit around, he immediately took the offensive and began pushing the British out of Libya.  Tobruk was a British-held port city just west of the Egyptian border.  After the Desert Fox’s initial push, it became the last British bastion in Libya, and had been under seige since early April.

The Afrika Korps was preparing its final assault on Tobruk, scheduled for November 20th, when it was interrupted by British General Claude Auchinleck’s forces from the west.  Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June had taken immense pressure off the British, and they were able to move more arms and equipment to Egypt, assembling a considerable force with one objective:  relieving Tobruk.

On November 18, 1941, the relief of Tobruk (Operation Crusader) began as the British, with help from New Zealand, Indian, and Polish forces, crossed from Egypt into Libya.  They had desperately hoped their numerically superior air forces would be able to preface the operation with successful air strikes of their own, but massive storms with torrential rains put paid to that.  Those storms would also affect some pre-operation clandestine missions that we’ll discuss in the future.

Anyways, Operation Crusader got off to a pretty good start for the British.  And as we’ll probably see, it would continue to go well, eventually pushing the Afrika Korps back some distance westward and relieving Tobruk.

Recommended Reading:  The Battle of Alamein – I’ve got a couple good sources dealing with North Africa, but haven’t mananged more than a cursory browse through any of them.  That will change next year.

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As General Mark Clark was preparing to depart from his secret rendevous in North Africa, Vichy commander General Charles Mast quietly said to him, “The French navy is not with us.  The army and the air force are.”  So in the early morning hours of November 8, 1942, as Allied forces made ready to disembark, there was a little hope that the French captains manning the wheelhouses in Casablanca had changed their minds in the previous weeks.

They hadn’t.

At just after 7:00am, the main coastal batteries at El Hank let loose on the fleet arrayed before them, straddling the battleship USS Massachusetts.  The French battleship Jean Bart then opened up as well.  Jean Bart (shown above) was France’s most modern battleship, but she was unfinished and unable to leave port, having but one of her two main turrets installed.  But the one functioning had four rifles, each capable of launching a 15-inch shell that could seriously damage (or sink) any ship on the other side.

As U.S. navy spotters saw the flashes of guns firing at them, they excitedly yelled “Batter up!” into their radios.  Hearing the coded reply of “Play ball!”, the fleet responded in kind, unfurling the guns and filling the skies with high-speed metal projectiles.  Jean Bart, immobile at her moorings, was a sitting duck.  The Massachusetts pelted her with 15″ shot, destroying the one active turret and adding holes in at least three different places.  The not-completed French slugger settled where she sat in shallow water.

Shellfire chopped up the docks, the mooring areas, French submarines docked there, and ten merchantmen that could do nothing but absorb incoming fire and sink.  Admiral Gervais de Lafond, commander the 2nd Light Squadron, quickly put his 16-ship force (destroyers and a cruiser) to sea to avoid disaster.  He actually got himself in a reasonable position to do heavy damage to Allied transports as his enemy battled with Jean Bart and the coastal batteries.

But the shells were coming fast, U.S. carrier aircraft were screaming in with guns blazing, and Lafond’s battle force was badly outgunned.  This engagement would not go well for the French as, one by one, Lafond’s destroyers (and eventually the cruiser) were sunk in shallow waters or beached as burning hulks.  Only the destroyer Alcyon was undamaged.  In all, the French lost 16 ships and 8 submarines.  An injured Admiral Lafond watched helplessly as the U.S. fleet (minus the destroyer USS Ludlow, which had taken significant damage and fled the action) continued on.

The Vichy-controlled French fleet in Casablanca could have decided not to fight against a much larger foe.  But, despite the gallantry of the men, the decision to do otherwise was little more than an irritant in the day’s activities.

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The last two months had been particularly unkind to the Afrika Korps.  Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s gamble at Alma el Halfa had not paid off, and early advances merely gave way to a retreat that, ten days later, found them back where they started…with a smaller force.  And that was the good news.  Two weeks later, Rommel was on his way to Germany, as the constant wear-and-tear of war and his relentless drive across North Africa left him sick and exhausted.

The British were in much the same position, bone-weary but grateful to have at least checked their enemy’s eastward advance.  There is little doubt that the narrow “fighting corridors” around El Alamein had helped General Montgomery, who had replaced Claude Auchinleck in mid-August.  Furthermore, British supply lines were much shorter and the Mediterranean Sea was becoming more “pro-British”.  So supplies destined for Rommel’s forces not only had much, much further to travel, they first had to make their way across an increasingly hostile body of water.

It was against this backdrop that General Montgomery, in early October of 1942, laid the groundwork for what would become the Second Battle of El Alamein.  It commenced on October 23rd with a massive artillery barrage by the British that, apparently, Field Marshal Rommel heard from his convalescent home in Germany.  Two days later, he was back in the theater.

But things would go very differently for the Desert Fox this time.  The vaunted Afrika Korps had been whittled down and, good as it was, the lack of consistent supply meant they simply didn’t have the firepower.  Ever the “man of attack”, Rommel tried a feeble counter-offensive, but there would be no breakthrough this time.  By November 2nd, the men under the Swastika had but 32 tanks intact.  Erwin Rommel had returned from illness to crushing defeat.

He sent word to Hitler, requesting a withdrawal.  The next day, Hitler returned a long eloquent reply that, summarized to just 3 words, said, “Stand and die.”.  On November 4th, Rommel began moving westward anyway, taking with him the 12 (12!!) tanks he had left.

And on November 5, 1942, as a massive invasion fleet closed in on the North African coasts from the west, General Montgomery began his counterattack from the east.  They immediately began capturing thousands of Germans, either too injured to escape or too exhausted to care any longer.  The westward drift would continue for both Axis and Ally until it met with the Allies coming from the west.

There would be many hard-fought battles to come, but the North African dominance of the Desert Fox ended here.

Recommended Reading:  Pendulum of War

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It was October 21, 1942.  In Virginia, the mid-afternoon sun shone down on an invasion fleet.  To date, it was largest of its kind ever assembled.  It’s destination?…the coasts of North Africa where Operation Torch would be unleashed.

An ocean away, off the coast of North Africa, it was also October 21, 1942.  But the sun had ceased shining hours before, giving way to a sliver of moon.  Had anyone been in the right place at the right time (near the small fishing port of Cherchel in Algeria), they may have seen another invasion fleet silhouetted against the Mediterranean waters…albeit a much smaller fleet.

In fact, this “pre-invasion” invasion consisted of just one vessel…the submarine HMS Seraph.  And its mission was not to shell or torpedo or blow up anything.  It’s mission was to, as quietly as possible, drop off General Mark Clark (shown on the left).

The biggest question with the upcoming Allied landings was whether or not the armed forces of Vichy France would fight.  Since France had been overrun more than 2 years before, a Nazi-puppet government, overseen by Phillippe Pétain and centered in Vichy, had been in control.  But many generals and officers were still anti-German and looking for a way to turn and fight.  Operation Torch provided that avenue in North Africa.

But those leaders wanted a couple things.  First, they wanted to meet with a high-ranking American officer.  Second, they wanted a Frenchman in command of any invasion force, so French forces wouldn’t be seen again as “surrendering to an enemy”.  And that’s why General Clark was on a submarine, off the coast of Africa, hoping not to get caught.

Over the next 24 hours, he would meet with military leaders on a small farm, narrowly escaping capture by local police forces who were told of suspicious activity at the farm.  In addition, he and the men with him were successful in spiriting General Henri Giraud (shown on the right) back to the Seraph and out of North Africa.

Giraud had been designated to lead all Free French Forces that landed in Operation Torch…which inevitably led to the next problem.  The French General was under the (self-created) impression that he would be in overall command of all the Allied landing forces, which would have been a problem even had that position been available.  It was already taken…by General Dwight Eisenhower, who was certainly not interested in either giving up or sharing his position with a French officer who, while anti-Nazi, was also pro-Vichy and pro-Pétain.

And so, with just a couple days until U.S. forces left their berths in Virginia, and little more than two weeks until those men would land on African soil, the Allied high command already had a difficult diplomatic task ahead of itself.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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When we last visited North Africa, things were going pretty well for the Germans.  It was July of 1942, and Erwin Rommel was having a field day at British expense.  The Field Marshal had pushed his opponent out of Libya and 200 miles east into Egypt.  The British ended their retreat and threw down their stakes at a small railroad station called El Alamein, with Rommel in hot pursuit.

What came to be known as the First Battle of El Alamein lasted the entire month of July and ended with both sides completely exhausted.  Supplies were low, vehicles badly needed repair, and the men were beyond wiped out, hungry, and in need of ammunition.  If one were to “assign” victory to one side, it would probably have to be the British…but not by a lot.  They had fortified El Alamein and had held against an aggressive and talented foe.  Their retreat into Egypt had, at July’s end, been halted.  They had worn the enemy down.  And they still held Cairo, Alexandria, and the Suez Canal.

For both sides, August was resupply time.  And if one were to “assign” victory to one side in this aspect of the war, it would probably have to go to the British…and by a lot.  Rommel’s supply lines were extremely long.  His closest port (Tobruk) was more than 400 miles back west.  His best port, Tripoli, was worthless as it was well over 1,000 miles west.

His supplies, crossing the Mediterranean, were open to air attack from British squadrons operating from Malta.  If you recall, Malta had been under intense attack since 1940.  But Rommel’s aggression meant Luftwaffe fighters and bombers were retasked with assisting the Field Marshal.  Malta was quickly re-armed, re-manned, and re-planed by the British.  And now the Germans were feeling the bite as one supply ship after another was sent the Mediterranean’s floor.

The British were having a much better time of it.  Having been backed up almost to Alexandria, their lines were negligible once supplies reached port.  And with the U.S. now contributing to the cause, more stuff was arriving.  The first examples of the M4 Sherman tank were arriving.  Its 75mm gun was much more powerful, its armor was improved, and its design was fairly simple, making it a formidable weapon in the desert.  Bigger anti-tank guns were also coming on-station…the better to put holes the Afrika Korps.

And Rommel knew the score.  He knew his supply operations weren’t going well.  He knew those of the British were.  He knew that if he waited, he would be in dire straits.  He knew he didn’t have enough fuel and ammunition for a sustained attack.  But he believed that if he struck hard and fast, he might be able to defeat the British before they were ready.

On the night of August 30, 1942, Rommel basically gambled everything with an attack at Alma el Halfa.  Situated just to the south and east of El Alamein, it was the Desert Fox’s attempt to finally surround the British and force a surrender.  And the battle got off to a bad start for the Germans.  They were spotted by the British RAF and attacked.  When they hit the British minefields, they were bigger than expected.  British armor had been instructed to give way in a defensive retreat to force the Germans (whose tanks only had enough fuel for 150 miles) to keep moving.

Within the first few hours, Field Marshal Rommel and his counterpart, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, both knew the battle would be a close-run thing.  A week’s worth of war would determine the outcome.

Recommended Reading: Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein

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In 1940, the Horn of Africa had taken on a distinctly Italian flair.  And that was to be expected, since much of it had been conquered by Italy.  Eritrea became an Italian possession in 1935, Abyssinia was invaded in late 1935 and overrun in May of the following year.  Italian Somaliland had been under Italian control for some time.

In the late 19th Century, Britain, France, and Italy had all gained footholds in the area around Africa’s Horn.  All had signed pacts with the local sultans to gain access to the African ports because of their close proximity to the Suez Canal.  So each European country had its “Somaliland” counterpart…Italian Somaliland, French Somaliland…you get the idea.

The Italians wanted all this territory.  The small territory of French Somaliland they sort of won by default when France capitulated in June of 1940.  But there was still British Somaliland hanging around, and the British, of course, did not capitulate.  So, on August 3, 1940, the Italian army tried to provide them some incentive to quit (at least in Africa) when they invaded British Somaliland.

Italians forces consisted of 25,000 troops, some light and medium tanks, air support, and artillery.  Under the direction of Lt. General Guglielmo Nasi, they attacked the eastern part of the territory.  Facing them were a smattering of a few thousand British forces.  It was a total mismatch, and the British knew it.  So General Archibald Wavell, in overall command of the Middle East theater, ordered his subordinates to fight essentially a rearguard action.  By mid-August, the British were being loaded onto Navy ships Dunkirk-style.

Two weeks after the invasion began, British Somaliland was no longer British.  Prime Minister Churchill strongly criticized the actions of the military, and Wavell’s decisions in particular, claiming there was little or no fighting or defense of the territory.  But there was little else to do against such overwhelming opposition and, like Dunkirk, the evacuated troops could fight much more effectively down the road than captured or dead ones.

The Italians had their “place in the sun”.

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In July of 1941, El Alamein was an unknown dot on the African map.  Located 65 miles west of Alexandria and the Nile River Basin in Egypt, the town was a backwater railroad station of little concern.  But what a difference a year makes!

In July of 1942, El Alamein, the little train depot on the Mediterranean, became the focus of one (well, actually two) of the most important battles fought during the Second World War.

The British had been fighting the Italians in Africa and were having a pretty good go of it.  But things changed when General Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps arrived in early 1941.  Here was a serious foe.  And it didn’t take long for Rommel’s forces to get cranked up.  Having been given orders to “hold the line” and operate defensively, Rommel sensed British weakness and “operated defensively” by pretty much clearing all but eastern Libya of the British and besieging Tobruk…in roughly 60 days.  Though Tobruk would eventually be relieved, Erwin Rommel’s reputation as a master of desert warfare had now been firmly established.

With America’s entrance into the war in December and fighting breaking out in the Pacific, the British and Australians siphoned off troops from North Africa for the Pacific.  And again, the Desert Fox struck, this time in early 1942.  British forces were simply too disorganized and spread too thin to resist their enemy, and could do little but fall back.  The German Panzers stopped, rested, and regrouped.

And then they proceeded to preempt a British offensive with one of their own.  In June of 1942, the Battle of Gazala was decisively won by the Afrika Korps and Tobruk was captured, earning Rommel the baton of a Field Marshal.  Britain’s stay in Libya (for the time being) was over and the push into Egypt began.  The decision for the British to stand at Marsa Matruh was abandoned and General Claude Auchinleck, who had recentely appointed himself head of the retreating British, continued the eastern retreat nearly 200 miles into Egypt…to the place nobody knew…El Alamein.

The train station had little strategic value of its own, but its location was critical.  Thirty miles to the south was the Qattara Depression, and tank operations there were impossible.  If Rommel was to flank the British, he’d have to go far to the south and into the Sahara Desert.  Auchinleck’s decision forced the Germans into a frontal assault along a relatively narrow front, which gave the British a much tighter defensive line.

And on July 1, 1942, Rommel’s forces, pushed ruthlessly by their relentless commander, exhausted, and running low on supplies, attacked the British at El Alamein.  For the British, there was no fallback position.  Defeat here meant the loss of Alexandria, the loss of Cairo, the loss of Egypt, the loss of the Suez Canal, and the loss of Africa.  And for the next month, the battle would wage.

Recommended Reading: Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein

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That’s how General Alexander concluded the message sent to his boss, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, at 1:16pm on May 13, 1943.  The North African campaign, fought over a 6-month period, was finally over.  But the cost had been high for the Allies.  More than 6,000 British soldiers had been killed, along with more than 9,500 French and nearly 3,000 American soldiers.  Total casualties (wounded, missing, or captured) would top the 70,000 mark.

On the Axis side of the ledger, determining numbers is more difficult, as the loser in a war rarely gets a chance to number the fallen, and the victors rarely take the time.  12,000 Italian and German dead is probably the low-end of the estimates with another 40-50,000 wounded.  Numbers of captured were huge, as thousands laid down their arms in Bizerte and Tunis.  In addition, the 5th Panzer Army, which we left last week on the Cape Bon Peninsula, surrendered as well.  A total prisoner count of 300,000 is probably about right, as the photo above (of a German POW camp near Mateur) seems to bear out.

And for U.S. troops, their first fighting experience had been hard, but valuable.  Rick Atkinson, in his book An Army At Dawn (which I’ve recommended numerous times) writes, “Four U.S. divisions now had combat experience in five variants of Euro-Mediterranean warfare:  expeditionary, amphibious, mountain, desert, and urban.  Troops had learned the importance of terrain, of combined arms, of aggressive patrolling, of stealth, of massed armor.  They now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machine-gunned, and to fight on.”

The U.S. Army was now a fighting machine and, what’s more, they had fought against the vaunted Wehrmacht, and come out on the better end.  The North African landscape was dotted with burned-out tanks and artillery pieces, remnants of shattered aircraft, and not a few human remains.  Towns had been destroyed and the landscapes marred.

Decades later, unexploded bombs, mines, and artillery shells were (and are) being dug up at the rate of dozens per month.  But nobody was fighting in North Africa, and Adolf Hitler’s double-disasters in North Africa’s desert and in Stalingrad’s frozen streets meant 1943 was the beginning of the end for him and his aspirations.

Many of the men believed they would be sent home.  But many others looked to the northwest, just as their German counterparts had done the week before.  But the Germans had looked that direction with hope and longing for a rescuer from the Allied trap.  Allied soldiers looked that way with the somber knowledge that more Germans were waiting.

Sicily was next, with Italy not far behind.

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Meanwhile, in North Africa…

Yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve said anything about it, but Allied forces (predominantly U.S. and British) had been working for six months to expel the German and Italian forces from the northern coasts of Africa.  Opposing armies and navies had worked at the end of extremely long supply lines trying to outfit and feed their soldiers.

At the same time, U.S. soldiers and their commanders had been doing a lot of “under-fire” training…making decisions, making mistakes, regrouping, and trying again.  Tremendous frustration and repeated defeat had given way to a more cohesive, more effective machine that was fighting an ever-weakening foe.

And as April gave way to May, the Allied goals of capturing Tunis and Bizerte had become a reality, as they had moved to within shouting distance of both targets.  The Germans, who had seen their stream of supplies reduced to a trickle, were now only fighting to prolong the inevitable.

Early in the morning of May 6, 1943, the final Allied offensive in North Africa began.  Simply called Operation Strike, it called for the American II Corps to make for the port of Bizerte.  In the meantime, the British First Army, located 30 miles south, was bearing down on Tunis.  The British Eighth Army, still further south, acted as a diversion in order to tie up as much of the German 5th Panzer Army as possible.

The Germans collapsed and, on May  7, 1943, both Bizerte and Tunis traded hands.  The German 5th Panzer Army, the only cohesive enemy force left on the continent, had been pushed back to the Cape Bon Peninsula.  I’m guessing that many a German soldier looked longingly to the northeast, toward Sicily, hoping for a Dunkirk-style miracle that wouldn’t be coming.

It would take another week to finalize things, but the Axis presence in North Africa was finished.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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In all of our discussions of World War II, we’ve spent precious little time in North Africa.  And unfortunately, that’s been somewhat intentional, because I’m not well-versed in that theater.  But I’ve been doing more reading on the subject, hoping to find some gray matter than can absorb the information.  Let’s see how I’m doing.

The Allied landings in North Africa in November of 1942, accomplished with relative ease, had given way to a collection of missteps, errors in judgement, and some poor decision-making.  But as we’ve said before, this was the U.S. Army’s first large-scale land action of the war.  Indeed, it was the first real warfare since its brief involvement in World War I.  So a good bit of “rust in the war machine” was understandable.

Furthermore, the Allies in general, and the Americans in particular, operated from an extremely long supply chain, stretching thousands of miles from Africa to the American coasts.  But in spite of that, it was the ability of the Allies to re-supply their forces that made as much of a difference as the actual fighting itself.  And American soldiers and officers could learn very quickly.

By March of 1943, the campaign in North Africa had turned in the Allies’ favor.  The November goals of capturing Tunis and Bizerte were now looking attainable.  German and Italian forces, meanwhile, were reduced to fighting delaying actions and launching counterattacks, not so much in an attempt for victory, but more to delay the inevitable.

Operation Capri was one such initiative.  Begun in the early morning hours of March 6, 1943, it was centered around the town of Medenine in southeast Tunisia and was an attempt to stop the British, who had been moving steadily westward since their stunning victory at El Alamein in early November.  It failed miserably.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, now in poor health from two years of criss-crossing the African terrain, had not been very involved in the planning of this counter-offensive, and it was plainly evident.  The British had placed their artillery pieces and tanks well, and pounded the weakened Panzers to mush.  Even the Luftwaffe’s presence made no difference.  The attack faltered very quickly and, by day’s end, was pretty much over.  The Germans had not only lost dozens of tanks and any real hope of maintaining a presence on African soil, they had lost Rommel as well.

The Field Marshal was recalled to Germany just four days later, mostly due to his health, and would not return to the desert again.  The fighting would continue for another two months, primarily with lots of small skirmishes like Capri.  But North Africa, from the German view of things, was lost.

Recommended Reading: An Army at Dawn

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“We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us. And may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”

I don’t think he paid very many compliments to the enemies arrayed against him, so those words, spoken by Prime Minister Winston Churchill concerning Erwin Rommel, scream in effusive praise for the German General (and later Field Marshal).

When we discuss Germany’s participation in World War II, we often do so with this concept of harsh brutality in the back of our minds.  Ideas like “the Germans butchered millions of innocent people“.  And “Adolf Hitler laughed as he watched innocent people hang from meathooks until they died”.  Or “the dictator ordered his own country completely destroyed at the end of the war”.  And don’t get me wrong…all of those things are true.  There were special killings squads (called Einsatzgruppen) whose purposes were unbelievably evil.  There were millions of innocent people slaughtered at the hands of the German war machine.

But these things are emphatically not true of all German soldiers.  I think we have to realize that there were many who fought with chivalry and decency, many who treated prisoners with respect and even a little courtesy, and a great many who abhorred the atrocities of which they heard.

They include men like Captain Hans Langsdorff, who we discussed in connection with the Admiral Graf Spee.  And General Erwin Rommel must certainly be included.  It was on this day, February 12, 1941, that his Afrika Korps first landed in Libya’s capital of Tripoli.  I suppose I should call this force by its actual name, since “Deutsches Afrikakorps” is more correct, but regardless of title, this was one tough bunch of fighters.

They were sent to North Africa to assist Italian forces, which were being routed by the British.  And over the next two years, places like Tripoli, Casablanca, Bizerte, and even a little town called El Alamein would become synonymous with Rommel’s forces, where conflicting armies battled for control.

And through it all, Rommel and his tanks and his gunners would fight with bravery, tremendous skill, and (as I just mentioned) decency.  In fact, in all its engagements and all the corresponding killing and bloodshed, the Deutsches Afrikakorps was never once (to my limited knowledge) accused of commiting atrocities or war crimes.

Erwin Rommel’s war conduct trickled down to his men and influenced the way they handled themselves…conduct that stands in stark contrast to the actions of many others.  War is always ugly, but these “Knights in Chariots” fought with a relatively high degree of humanity.

Recommended Reading: Pendulum of War: The Three Battles of El Alamein – I’m working through 3 different books right now, but this one is the 4th on my list.  If you haven’t read it, let’s learn from it together.

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