August 24, 2015 by crew
In this article, we continue our journey through the North African campaigns of World War II, discussing how these battles can be brought to the tabletop. If you’re just joining us, please check out Part One of the series, where we take an overview of the Desert War and examine its opening campaigns. But for now, pull on your sand goggles and climb back in that turret, it’s time once more to brave the windswept desert!
In Part One, we saw how the Italian Tenth Army, striking out of their colony in Libya, invaded the British protectorate of Egypt in September 1940. Despite a huge advantage in numbers, Marshal Rudolfo Graziani’s 200,000+ men (compared to just 30-35,000 of General Richard O’Connor’s “Western Desert Force,” or WDF) advanced only as far as Sidi Barrani, about 60 miles inside Egypt. There they stopped, and simply dug in.
The Italian 10th
There were many reasons for Italian hesitation. The Tenth Army was almost completely unmotorized, and 200,000 men can’t just walk across the Egyptian desert. Also, many Italian commanders only wanted to establish a foothold in Egypt so they could claim it when the Germans forced England to surrender. But of course Britain didn’t surrender, and O’Connor was soon ready to strike back with a plan he called Operation “Compass.”
One of the first big engagements of Operation Compass would be called “The Battle of the Camps,” where the Commonwealth would hit the Italian encampments around Sidi Barrani in a series of flanking attacks. Among these was O’Connor’s heaviest striking unit, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment (about fifty of the heavy Matilda II tanks), hitting the encampment of the Italian “Maletti Group” near Nibeiwa, Egypt.
Essentially, the Italian camp was set up like a Roman fort of old, with a square perimeter and neatly arranged “streets” of tents arrayed within. The perimeter was well-braced with barbed wire and mines, but a lane was left through the minefield in the back of the fort to allow Italians to enter and exit. This was the fatal gap that the British were aiming at, having swung easily around the camp’s southern flank to strike it from behind.
The 7th RTR was a very special unit. At the time it comprised the only heavy armour in North Africa, and these 50 Matilda II tanks were half of those available to the entire British army. Attached first to the 4th Indian Division, then 6th Australian Division at Bardia, and finally the 7th Armoured Division, they spearheaded virtually every attack in Operation Compass.
As discussed above, Operation Compass was an unqualified success. By the time it was over, O’Connor’s troops were reporting POWs taken in “acres” (e.g., “we have 5 acres of officers and 200 acres of other ranks”). It could have kept going, perhaps to take all of Libya and end the Desert War almost before it started. So why didn’t it?
The Desert War Continues
First, the machines couldn’t take it. The Matildas of 7th RTR (those that remained after two months of solid combat) were falling apart. Significant forces were also needed for the British counter-invasion of Italian East Africa (taking Ethiopia, Italian Somalia, and Eritrea, and RE-taking British Somalia). At a stroke, O’Connor lost the 4th Indian Division, a third of his force.
But the real deathblow for Compass came from Winston Churchill himself. Back in Europe, the Germans were preparing invasions of Yugoslavia (the pro-German Croatian government had been ousted by anti-German Serbs) and Greece. Determined as always to hold the eastern Mediterranean and protect the Suez Canal, Churchill ordered the 6th Australian to the Balkans, where it was largely destroyed in the hopeless battles of Greece and Crete.
This left O’Connor with only one division, the 7th Armoured, and it had shaken itself to pieces in “Compass.” So, while it was refitting back at Alexandria, the British could only dig in at their forward positions in El Agheila. To add to their woes, meanwhile, a new player was just then arriving in North Africa: Erwin Rommel and the “Afrika Korps.”
Despite his orders to remain on the defensive, Rommel immediately started planning for the attack. This was especially daring considering that most of his “Afrika Korps” hadn’t even arrived yet, and he started his first big offensive with only two battalions of the 5th Light Division (less than 1,000 men).
Fortunately for Rommel, the British were in even worse shape. To replace the 4th Indian Division (transferred to East Africa), the 6th Australian (being chewed up in Greece and Crete), and 7th Armoured (refitting in Alexandria), they brought in the 9th Australian and 2nd Armoured Divisions.
Now while the 9th Australian would later become one of the most famous units of the Desert War, here the division was inexperienced, incomplete, and under-equipped. The 2nd “Armoured” was even worse, they hardly had any tanks and had to use wretched M13/40s captured from the Italians during Operation Compass.
The first scraps involving the Germans in North Africa came in late February 1941, with skirmishes of armoured cars and motorcycles running into British and Australian patrols near El Agheila. Later, as 5th Panzer Regiment of the 5th Light Division arrived, Rommel grew more aggressive. In late March he ordered 5th Light Division’s commander (General Johannes Streich) to break through the British positions at El Agheila and capture the port of Mersa Brega.
Our fourth game attempted to recreate part of the action along the El Agheila-Mersa Brega road, fought on March 30, 1941. The Germans fielded part of the 5th “Panzer” Regiment, made up of extremely light Panzer I and II tanks. But with only captured Italian M13/40s and a light screen of 2-pounder antitank guns, the inexperienced 6th Royal Tank Regiment (2nd Armoured Division) was unable to stop them.
Once it began, the German blitz back to the Egyptian border was unstoppable. Tobruk was cut off and bypassed. On April 10, Rommel tried to take it on the fly with parts of his newly-arrived 15th Panzer Division but the 9th Australian gave him a bloody nose for his trouble (killing the battlegroup commander, a German Count of all things). Nevertheless, the 9th Australian was bottled up in the city, and the historic “Siege of Tobruk” had begun.
There was more bad news for the British. The German offensive through Libya was so fast that their commander, General Richard O’Connor, was actually captured along with a good part of this staff. Yet once he reached the Egyptian border, Rommel was compelled to stop just as the British had been against the Italians. Supply lines could only be stretched so far, and Rommel’s “corps” of divisions was still woefully incomplete.
Of course, the Desert War was far from over. On the contrary, it was rapidly growing from a colonial scuffle to a full-fledged “front” of World War II. As both sides tried to reinforce their armies, they ran into the cruel limitations of what could be accomplished in such a harsh environment, especially with enemy aircraft, warships, and submarines sinking so many supply ships.
Such factors further evolved the Desert War into a full air-land-sea campaign, one of the most complex and misunderstood arenas of World War II. Next week we’ll be taking a look at the next stage of the campaign, including the dazzling successes of “Operation Crusader” and Gazala where both sides captured stunning successes, only to see them turn to sand in their hands.
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"...this left O’Connor with only one division, the 7th Armoured, and it had shaken itself to pieces in “Compass.""
"Once it began, the German blitz back to the Egyptian border was unstoppable..."