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Posts Tagged ‘General Archibald Wavell’

As May of 1941 rolled into June, the situation for the British in the Mediterranean was bleak.  North Africa was under siege from Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps, Greece had been occupied by the Germans, and Crete has just fallen to a daring (and costly) German paratroop assault.  British General Archibald Wavell faced a daunting task:  keep the Suez Canal and the Middle East’s vast oil supplies from falling under the “crooked cross” of the Axis flag.

But manpower was scarce.  In fact, there was really none to be had.  So Wavell turned to Colonel Dudley Clarke, and tasked him with figuring out a solution to the problem.  In his recently-published book Deathly Deception (which focuses on Operation Mincemeat), Denis Smyth writes, “In such straitened military circumstances deception could act as a force multiplier, dissuading the enemy from assaulting a particularly weak point in British defences.”

In the closing days of May 1941, that weak point was Cypus.  Located just 300 miles straight east from newly-acquired Crete, the British believed it presented a juicy target to the Germans, offering a chance to dominate the Mediterranean, ease supply to Rommel in North Africa, and look straight down the chute of the Suez Canal.  And Cyprus was defended by a less-than-adequate 4,000 British soldiers of, shall we say, not front-line caliber.

So Clarke and his men decided to convince the Germans that Cyprus had more men than it really did.  He created the 7th Division and “placed” it on Cyprus.  And on June 13, 1941, the deception began.  There were dummy headquarters and dummy tanks (like the one shown above) placed around the island.  There were phony divisional signs and directions placed on the roads and intersections.  Since a divisional HQ generates quite a bit of radio traffic, that was contrived as well.  In fact, the British went so far as to leak some information about the island’s defenses to a known Axis collaborator.

As it turns out, the Germans didn’t really have plans for Cyprus at all.  But the deception was valuable anyway.  The German High Command completely fell for the ruse.  The 7th Division didn’t go away.  In fact, over time, more fictional forces were created, and they wreaked havoc on the German planning. Field Marshal Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein brought with it the capture of German documents, which overestimated British tank counts by 40% and infantry strength by a staggering 45%, thanks in part to phony forces.

When preparing for the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943, and ultimately, the Normandy coast in 1944, these ficticious units served to dilute the German defenses, forcing them to keep busy in lots of places for no good reason.  And the 7th Division, created out of thin air in June 1941?  In German minds, it never went away.  That division (along with others) figured into German planning all the way to the end of the war, almost 4 years later.

Recommended Reading:  Deathly Deception – A mostly fascinating look at one of the most famous deception campaigns of the Second World War.

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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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