The Desert War: Bolt Action Boot Camp Preparation // Part Four: Turning The Tide

September 10, 2018 by oriskany

For the past three weeks, we’ve been gearing up for the imminent Bolt Action Boot Camp with this article series looking at some of the more decisive desert engagements of World War II, fought primarily in North Africa.


In a nutshell, our aim is to help players and hobbyists approach this subject with a little more confidence and perspective, offering as much background and context as they may be interested in before the event kicks off at the end of September.

Desert War Part 4 A

Read The Original Article Series Here

For those just joining us, our progress thus far has been presented in Parts One, Two, and Three. We’ve seen the Italians start this war almost by accident, followed by the British coming within inches of victory only to have Rommel show up and hurl them back. Through the “Crusader” battles of late 1941 and the Gazala offensive of 1942, both sides have thrown heavy blows as the Desert War see-sawed bitterly back and forth.

But in the late summer of 1942, after two years of attack and counterattack, a crisis point has finally been reached. Having been thrown back halfway across Egypt, the Allies can retreat no further. Having exhausted their supplies and reinforcements, the Axis can wait no longer. The Allies are out of space, the Axis is out of time. One way or another, a decision will now be made at a tiny desert railroad town...called El Alamein.

Desert War Part 4 B

As we saw last week, “Panzergruppe Afrika” roundly defeated the British and their Commonwealth allies at the Battle of Gazala. Rommel was thus able to overrun Tobruk (which had held out for 240 plus days the last time the Germans had been here) and push the Allies back into Egypt. The British attempted to make a stand at Mersa Matruh but were outflanked and defeated again. This time the retreat took them all the way back to El Alamein.

In direct violation of orders, Rommel went after them. His superiors knew this was a bad idea, to push this deep into Egypt against numerically superior forces would badly overstretch his already-vulnerable supply lines. The British knew it, too, and were using every weapon they had to strike at these supply routes. One of these weapons was the Long Ranged Desert Group (LRDG), which was about to carry out their most famous raid.

Desert War Part 4 C

“Operation Caravan” was an LRDG strike at the Axis airfield at Barce, on the northern coast of Libya. It was part of a larger series of commando-type operations aimed at disrupting Panzerarmee Afrika’s lines of communication and supply, involving the SAS, British Commandos, the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy, and even a battalion of line infantry.

Interestingly, the Italians largely defeated all of these operations except Operation Caravan. The operation is also unusual because the LRDG was usually deployed as a reconnaissance force rather than a “commando strike” unit. Experts in desert navigation and survival, they often took the SAS to their targets, rather than strike the targets themselves. But as they certainly showed at Barce, the LDRG could “get messy” with the best of them.

Desert War Part 4 D

Ironically, the LRDG’s attack on the Barce was not a complete surprise, they’d actually been spotted some time ago by the Italian Air Force. Throughout the career of the LRDG, Italian air reconnaissance was almost always the biggest threat, besides of course the lethal conditions of the desert itself.

However, the Italians at the airfield did not expect the LRDG attack to come straight off the main road, especially since one of their own columns had just passed up that same road. These Italians and the LRDG actually passed each other in the night, going so far as to wave hello. Such was the “fog of war” in the desert, especially in darkness.

Desert War Part 4 E

The raid was a success, with just four of the LRDG attackers wounded. Accounts vary on how much damage they did, ranging between 16 and 32 aircraft destroyed. But four LRDG vehicles had been wrecked, so many of the men had to walk across the desert back to other LRDG rendezvous points. They were attacked from the air and harried by Italian counterattacks, and some LRDG raiders were captured.

This just goes to show that, despite the movies, “special forces” are just as fragile as any other troops. As units, they’re even more fragile because of their small size and lack of heavy weapons support. These operations are complex and dangerous, and it doesn’t take much for something to go awry...especially with your ride home.

Desert War Part 4 F

Lots of people are bringing LRDG-themed armies to the Boot Camp. Warlord has some great lists to work with if you’re interested in giving the LRDG a try. I’ve actually started building one myself – the very first 28mm miniatures I’ve ever worked with. This is just one of those units that screams Hollywood, reading their exploits sounds like the script to countless 60s and 70s action movies...except that for these men, the adventure was all too real.

Showdown At El Alamein

Back at the Alamein Line, meanwhile, the Eighth Army was trying to pull itself together after the twin disasters of Gazala and Mersa Matruh. Now set up at the superb defensive position at El Alamein, they knew there could be no further retreats. Alexandria was just ninety miles behind them, with Cairo, the Nile, and the Suez Canal beyond. After El Alamein, there was also no further defensive position. At El Alamein, it was stand or die.

Fortunately, things finally started to turn around for the Allies. In early July, Rommel hit them yet again in a series of attacks. But with the Qattara Depression blocking his favourite “hook around the south” strategy, came to bloody grief. Rommel had come to the end of his leash. Generals Auchinleck and Ritchie hit back, heavily mauling Panzerarmee Afrika but failing to push them back. This “First Battle of El Alamein” is largely considered a draw.

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Meanwhile, Winston Churchill came to Egypt to have a look around for himself. Despite the recent checking of Rommel at the First Battle of El Alamein, Churchill yet again switched out his commanders. Auchinleck was rather unfairly replaced as C-in-C Middle East by Harold Alexander, while Ritchie was replaced as Eight Army commander by General Gott.

Gott, however, was shot down by two Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighters, then strafed and killed as he tried to help others out the wreckage. Next in line, almost by mischance, just happened to be a bloke named Bernard Law Montgomery. History would never be the same.

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While Montgomery undoubtedly inherited a great defensive position and reinforced Eighth Army from Auchinleck, “Monty” also went about restoring his army’s cohesion and esprit de corps. After all, this army had been under six commanders in two years, constantly reorganized, and pummelled repeatedly by an army one-third its size. This army needed to find its confidence, and through hard training and discipline, Monty gave them exactly that.

Meanwhile, the exhausted, ill-supplied, and terribly exposed Panzerarmee Afrika tried one last time to break Eighth Army’s line at the Battle of Alam Halfa. Again the Germans were defeated, further strengthening Eight Army’s resolve. Furthermore, a massive new convoy had just arrived from England, and the British took delivery of hundreds of their new “wonder weapons,” the American Sherman tank.

The Sherman gets kind of a “bad rap,” and through much of its operational history, deservedly so. But right at this moment and this place, the Sherman was an “alpha predator” killer. This isn’t Russia, remember, and there are no Tigers in Africa yet. Even up-gunned PzKpfwIVs are rare. On this one battlefield, the Sherman is actually a beast.

Desert War Part 4 I

Another of Montgomery’s better traits was that he would not be pushed around by Churchill. Constantly Churchill ordered British generals into premature attacks that came to predictable disaster (then Churchill would fire the hapless commander). Monty would have none of it. Despite the incessant pressure, he meticulously trained, reequipped, and reorganized his Eighth Army. He would attack only when he and his men were ready.

Thus, when Eighth Army finally hit Panzerarmee Afrika on October 23, 1942, it did so with the force of a thunderbolt. The artillery barrage was horrific, some sources claim it was the biggest single barrage outside of Russia since 1918. But the Germans and Italians held out. After all, just as the Alamein battlefield had been a great defensive position for the Allies, so it was for Panzerarmee Afrika now that the positions were reversed.

Desert War Part 4 J

Behind this massive artillery barrage, Allied infantry delicately cleared lanes in the sprawling minefields (the operation was ironically code-named “Lightfoot”), through which British armour was intended to strike. It didn’t work at first. Axis minefields were too deep, Italian infantry were too stubborn, and German 88s were just too accurate. After four days, however, the Allies steadily bent and eventually cracked the Axis line in the north.

Frantic to contain this threat, Rommel hurled his three heaviest divisions (15th Panzer, 21st Panzer, and Italian “Littorio” Armoured) into a pincer assault on the flank of the Allied salient, which was anchored on a very modest “hill” called Kidney Ridge. Both sides knew what defeat would mean here, and accordingly, the battle at Kidney Ridge was savage, desperate, heroic, and extremely bloody.

Desert War Part 4 K

In the end, the British at Kidney Ridge held. The Allied drive into Rommel’s northern wing was secure, and Panzerarmee Afrika had expended the very last of its strength. Montgomery reorganized and hit the Axis again with “Operation Supercharge,” which finally shattered Rommel’s defences.

Utterly broken, the Germans began a retreat all the way out of Egypt, all the way across Libya, and eventually all the way to the Tunisian border. So starved was the Axis for fuel that Rommel could only evacuate his German units, tens of thousands of Italians were simply abandoned to be captured by the Allies. The tide had turned, this time for good. The mythical aura of the “Afrika Korps” and the “Desert Fox” were forever shattered.

As Winston Churchill remarked: “No, this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps...the end of the beginning.”

Desert War Part 4 L

Even worse for Rommel, entirely new Allied forces had landed behind his forces in Tunisia. These, of course, were the “Operation Torch” landings in the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria. Now the remnants of Panzerarmee Afrika would face not only British and Commonwealth forces, but for the first time, American forces as well.

Of course, the Germans would also be getting help. New units, new generals, and new tanks would all be pouring in, turning “Panzerarmee Afrika” into “Army Group Afrika.” Come back next week as this restored and recovered Axis force meets its new enemies for the final, climactic showdown in the Desert War.

Put your comments, questions, and feedback below, and tell us if you’re ready to get your boots in the sand with the rest of us!

Getting fired up for the Bolt Action Boot Camp yet?

"...reading their exploits sounds like the script to countless 60s and 70s action movies except that for these men, the adventure was all too real!"

"“No, this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps...the end of the beginning.”"

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