The Desert War

The Desert War

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When Benito Mussolini declared war on the Allies on 10th June 1940, he already had over a million men in the Italian Army based in Libya. In neighbouring Egypt the British Army had only 36,000 men guarding the Suez Canal and the Arabian oil fields.

On 13th September, 1940, Marshall Rodolfo Graziani and five Italian divisions began a rapid advance into Egypt but halted in front of the main British defences at Mersa Matruh. Although outnumbered, General Archibald Wavell ordered a British counter-offensive on 9th December, 1940. The Italians suffered heavy casualties and were pushed back more than 800km (500 miles). British troops moved along the coast and on 22nd January, 1941, they captured the port of Tobruk in Libya from the Italians.

Adolf Hitler was shocked by the defeats being suffered by the Italian Army and in January 1941, sent General Erwin Rommel and the recently formed Deutsches Afrika Korps to North Africa. Rommel mounted his first attack on 24th March 1941, and after a week of fighting he pushed Archibald Wavell and the British Army out of most of Libya. However, under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead the British managed to hold vital forward supply base at Tobruk.

Archibald Wavell attempted a counter-attack on 17th June, 1941, but his troops were halted at Halfaya Pass. Three weeks later he was replaced by General Claude Auchinleck.

On 18th November, 1941, Auchinleck and the recently formed Eighth Army went on the offensive. Erwin Rommel was forced to abandon his siege of Tobruk on 4th December, and the following month had moved as far west as Archibald Wavell had achieved a year previously.

Aware that Wavell's supply lines were now overextended, Rommel, after obtaining reinforcements from Tripoli,launched a counterattack. It was now the turn of the British Army to retreat.

After losing Benghazi on 29th January, 1942, Claude Auchinleck ordered his troops to retreat to Gazala. Over the next few months the Eighth Army, under Lieutenant General Neil Richie, established a line of fortifications and minefields. Erwin Rommel launched his offensive on 26th May. The Italian infantry attacked at the front while Rommel led his panzers round the edge of the fortifications to cut off the supply routes.

Ritchie outnumbered Rommel by two to one but he wasted his advantage by not using his tanks together. After defeating a series of small counter-attacks Rommel was able to capture Sidi Muftah. On 12th June, two of the three British armoured brigades were caught in a pincer movement and were badly defeated. Two days later Neil Richie, with only 100 tanks left, abandoned Gazala.

Rommel returned to Tobruk and took the port on 21st June, 1942. This included the capture of over 35,000 British troops. However, Rommel now only had 57 tanks left and was forced to wait for new supplies to arrive before heading into Egypt.

In July 1942, General Erwin Rommel and the Italo-German Panzer Armee Afrika, (part of the Deutsches Afrika Korps) were only 113km (70 miles) from Alexandria. The situation was so serious that Winston Churchill made the long journey to Egypt to discover for himself what needed to be done. Churchill decided to make changes to the command structure. General Harold Alexander was placed in charge of British land forces in the Middle East and Bernard Montgomery became commander of the Eighth Army.

On 30th August, 1942, Erwin Rommel attacked at Alam el Halfa but was repulsed by the Eighth Army. Montgomery responded to this attack by ordering his troops to reinforce the defensive line from the coast to the impassable Qattara Depression. Montgomery was now able to make sure that Rommel and the German Army was unable to make any further advances into Egypt.

Over the next six weeks Montgomery began to stockpile vast quantities of weapons and ammunition to make sure that by the time he attacked he possessed overwhelming firepower. By the middle of October the Eighth Army totalled 195,000 men, 1,351 tanks and 1,900 pieces of artillery. This included large numbers of recently delivered Sherman M4 and Grant M3 tanks.

On 23rd October Montgomery launched Operation Lightfoot with the largest artillery bombardment since the First World War. The attack came at the worst time for the Deutsches Afrika Korps as Erwin Rommel was on sick leave in Austria. His replacement, General George Stumme, died of a heart-attack the day after the 900 gun bombardment of the German lines. Stume was replaced by General Ritter von Thoma and Adolf Hitler phoned Rommel to order him to return to Egypt immediately.

The Germans defended their positions well and after two days the Eighth Army had made little progress and Bernard Montgomery ordered an end to the attack. When Erwin Rommel returned he launched a counterattack at Kidney Depression (27th October). Montgomery now returned to the offensive and the 9th Australian Division created a salient in the enemy positions.

Winston Churchill was disappointed by the Eighth Army's lack of success and accused Montgomery of fighting a "half-hearted" battle. Montgomery ignored these criticisms and instead made plans for a new offensive, Operation Supercharge.

On 1st November 1942, Montgomery launched an attack on the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Kidney Ridge. After initially resisting the attack, Rommel decided he no longer had the resources to hold his line and on the 3rd November he ordered his troops to withdraw. However, Adolf Hitler overruled his commander and the Germans were forced to stand and fight.

The next day Montgomery ordered his men forward. The Eighth Army broke through the German lines and Erwin Rommel, in danger of being surrounded, was forced to retreat. Those soldiers on foot, including large numbers of Italian soldiers, were unable to move fast enough and were taken prisoner.

For a while it looked like the the British would cut off Rommel's army but a sudden rain storm on 6th November turned the desert into a quagmire and the chasing army was slowed down. Rommel, now with only twenty tanks left, managed to get to Sollum on the Egypt-Libya border.

On 8th November Erwin Rommel learned of the Allied invasion of Morocco and Algeria that was under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His depleted army now faced a war on two front.

The British Army recaptured Tobruk on 12th November, 1942. During the El Alamein campaign half of Rommel's 100,000 man army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner. He also lost over 450 tanks and 1,000 guns. The British and Commonwealth forces suffered 13,500 casualties and 500 of their tanks were damaged. However, of these, 350 were repaired and were able to take part in future battles.

Winston Churchill was convinced that the battle of El Alamein marked the turning point in the war and ordered the ringing of church bells all over Britain. As he said later: "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."

Allied troops continued to advance on Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. General Kenneth Anderson got to within 12 miles of Tunis before being attacked at Djedeida by General Walther Nehring and the Deutsches Afrika Korps. A further attempt by the Allies to reach Tunis was halted by bad weather on 24th December, 1942.

General Jurgen von Arnium now arrived to take control of the German forces in Tunisia. In January 1943 he was joined by General Erwin Rommel and his army in southern Tunisia. Rommel was in retreat from Egypt and was being chased by General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army.

Montgomery now spent several weeks in Tripoli building up his supplies. Arnium and Rommel decided to take this opportunity to attack Allied forces led by General Kenneth Anderson at Faid Pass (14th February) and Kasserine Pass (19th February). The Deutsches Afrika Korps then headed for Thala but were forced to retreat after meeting a large Allied force on 22nd February, 1943.

General Harold Alexander was now sent to oversee Allied operations in Tunisia whereas General Erwin Rommel was placed in command of the German forces. On 6th March 1943, Rommel attacked the Allies at Medenine. General Bernard Montgomery and the 8th Army fought off the attack and the Germans were forced to withdraw. Rommel now favoured a full retreat but this was rejected by Adolf Hitler.

On 9th March, Rommel left Tunisia on health grounds and was replaced by General Jurgen von Arnium as commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps. Arnium now concentrated in defending a 100 mile arc across north-east Tunisia.

By April 1943 the Allies had over 300,000 men in Tunisia. This gave them a 6-to-1 advantage in troops and a 15-to-1 superiority in tanks. The Allied blockade of the Mediterranean also made it difficult for the German Army to be supplied with adequate amounts of fuel, ammunition and food.

The Allies now decided to make another effort to take Tunis. General Omar Bradley, who had replaced General George Patton, as commander of the 2nd Corps, joined General Bernard Montgomery for the offensive. On 23rd April the 300,000 man force advanced along a 40 mile front. At the same time there was a diversionary attack by the 8th Army at Enfidaville.

On 7th May 1943, British forces took Tunis and the US Army captured Bizerte. By 13th May all Axis forces in Tunisia surrendered and over 150,000 were taken prisoner.

The uncomfortable truth, however, remains that our Air Force in Egypt and in the Sudan is even at present heavily outnumbered. You will recall how great, perhaps decisive, was the part played by the German Air Force against the French Army in May. Proportionately, aircraft will, I believe, prove even more important in fighting in the Desert in Africa. Dive-bombing may be an unpleasant experience for troops fighting in comparatively enclosed country; it must be still more difficult to endure where cover or concealment is so much harder to contrive.

This letter is, therefore, a plea to you to consider whether, despite the very heavy calls upon you for the Battle of Britain, it might not be possible for you to spare some further reinforcements for the Middle East.

Auchinleck spent a long weekend with me at Chequers. As we got to know better this distinguished officer, upon whose qualities our fortunes were now so largely to depend, and as he became acquainted with the high circle of the British war machine and saw how easily and smoothly it worked, mutual confidence grew. On the other hand, we could not induce him to depart from his resolve to have a prolonged delay in order to prepare a set-piece offensive on November 1. This would be called "Crusader", and would be the largest operation we had yet launched.

Since the Panzer divisions now seemed to be committed to battle and were supported to be losing a considerable number of tanks, General Cunningham allowed the signal to be given for the Torbruk sorties to begin and the XIIIth Corps to start operations. On November 21 however our difficulties began. The enemy, as was to be expected, reacted at once to the threat to Sidi Rezegh, and his armoured divisions evaded the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades. The whole of the enemy armour then combined to drive us from the vital area and to prevent help reaching the Support Group and the 7th Armoured Brigade, which were isolated there. Neither of these formations was designed to carry out a prolonged defence, and it is greatly to their credit that they managed to do so, unaided, throughout the 21st.

Next day all three armoured brigades joined in the defence of the area. But our tanks and anti-tank guns were no match for the German, although they were fought with great gallantry, and on the evening of November 22 the XXXth Corps was compelled to retire, having lost two-thirds of the tanks and leaving the garrison of Tobruk with a huge salient to defend.

The enemy rounded off his success in spectacular fashion. In a night attack he surprised and completely disorganized the 4th Armoured Brigade, whose hundred tanks represented two-thirds of our remaining armoured strength. On the 23rd he practically annihilated the 5th South African Infantry Brigade, one of the only two infantry brigades General Norrie had under command - there was no transport for any more - and then on the 24th with his armoured divisions he made a powerful counter-stroke to the frontier.

Throughout the day our mobile forces continued successfully to attack the enemy, whose general trend of movement in north-west. A number of engagements took place, but owing to the wide area covered and the the difficulties of communication detailed reports have not been received.

Enemy troops and transport sheltering behind defences immediately west of El Adem were attacked by British armoured units, while farther to the west British and South African mobile columns pressed the enemy back all day in a north-westerly direction.

Small pockets of enemy infantry and armoured cars left in the area north of Bir Hacheim are being dealt with.

In the late afternoon our armoured forces attacked and drove off a number of German tanks which were endeavouring to interfere with operations being carried out west of El Adem by Sikhs, Punjabis, and the Royal Sussex Regiment.

Some miles south-west of Acroma British armoured units shelled a concentration of enemy motor transport, burning some and damaging others.

At Tobruk itself, Polish units, maintaining pressure on the enemy, captured two posts on the western defences. Enemy air action against Tobruk yesterday was on a somewhat increased scale, but ineffective.

Further east South African troops continued to clear up the area north of the Trigh Capuzzo, where a few enemy stragglers are still being captured. New Zealanders are also engaged in mopping-up operations in the area immediately east of Tobruk.

Supporting ground forces, our air forces carried out continual sweeps over the whole area of operations. Enemy concentrations and motor transport were attacked and near Acroma, in particular, a number were damaged and set on fire. Ground troops shot down one German Me. 110.

Bad weather in the desert is making any clear picture of the operations difficult to obtain. For two days heavy sandstorms have blown incessantly, but in this thick, greyish pall which overhangs everything the British advance continues.

Under continual pressure Rommel's men are withdrawing quickly westwards. Our advance is three-pronged. New Zealanders from Tobruk have struck rapidly along the coast and have now reached the eastern outskirts of Gazala, while Indian and British troops have pushed up from the south-east and have reached the other side of Gazala. On the southern flank our columns continue their slow but steady advance, mopping up enemy positions as they go. Finally, hard pressure on the central sector has not been lifted since the attack opened last week. Should the northern and southern prongs advance more rapidly than the enemy withdraws and eventually meet the encircling movement will be complete.

Because we have succeeded in pushing on our advance and there are not any particular reports of enemy opposition it should not be imagined that the enemy is not fighting back strongly. Rommel is still full of fight, but he clearly does not think the present conditions favourable. While withdrawing his troops he is putting up strong resistance; and every mile of ground we take has to be fought for.

7th June: Winston rang up twice in morning. First about Libya battle, as to which we agreed that reports were disappointing. We were both depressed by extent to which Rommel appears able to retain offensive. "I fear that we have not very good generals," said Winston.

14th June: Libyan battle is raging fiercely. Rommel still seems to have the initiative and either his resources are much greater than our people judged, or his losses have been considerably less than they estimated. On their calculation he should have few tanks left, yet he always comes up strong.

In the Middle East the morale of all our people was most deplorable. Auchinleck had completely lost confidence in himself. Everybody was always looking over their shoulders towards prepared positions to which to retreat. The units at the Front were hopelessly mixed up, and there was no evidence of good staff work. Auchinleck had 180 Generals on his staff. This number has now been reduced to 30 by his successor. We should, of course, have hit Rommel hard when he reached his furthest point of advance. Winston Churchill and Sir Alan Brooke both went up to the line and followed different routes, and met that evening to compare notes. "Both", said Morton, "came back with faces like boots." They were both convinced that drastic and speedy action must be taken. Already there had been a very great improvement. But it was only just in time. Alexander, Auchinleck's successor, has hitherto been in charge of brilliant retreats. He was the last man off the beaches at Dunkirk and since then he has done Burma.

Auchinleck took me into his map-room and shut the door; we were alone. He asked me if I knew he was to go. I said that I did. He then explained to me his plan of operations; this was based on the fact that at all costs the Eighth Army was to be preserved "in being" and must not be destroyed in battle. If Rommel attacked in strength, as was expected soon, the Eighth Army would fall back on the Delta; if Cairo and the Delta could not be held, the army would retreat southwards up the Nile, and another possibility was a withdrawal to Palestine.

I listened in amazement to his exposition of his plans. I asked one or two questions, but I quickly saw that he resented any question directed to immediate changes of policy about which he had already made up his mind. So I remained silent.

My first step in restoring morale, therefore, was to lay down the firm principle, to be made known to all ranks, that no further withdrawal was contemplated and that we would fight the coming battle on the ground on which we stood. General Montgomery fully concurred in this policy, and communicated it to the Eighth Army H.Q. staff at a meeting held on the second evening of his arrival; and it went out to him as a written directive when I formally took over the Middle East command.

There is no doubt at all that Montgomery, during his address, gave brilliant emphasis to the agreed policy. He informed his audience that he had ordered all withdrawal plans to be burnt, that the defence of the Delta meant nothing to him, that all resources earmarked to that end were to be used to strengthen the Eighth Army.

The Eighth Army continue to advance all alone the line in hot pursuit of Rommel's force, which, on the coast road in particular, are being relentlessly attacked by our aircraft and artillery.

It has not been disclosed how far back the enemy has moved. Our correspondent in Cairo reported last night that in the north the old front, has been left far behind and the Italians yesterday spoke of "bitter and bloody fighting between El Alamein and Fuka" and of a subsequent Axis withdrawal "to new lines to the west." Fuka is 60 miles west of El Alamein and 40 miles from Mersa Matruh. There are isolated pockets holding out in the desert twenty to thirty miles from the coast.

A British United Press war correspondent cabled last night that the artillery and armoured screen behind which the enemy were retiring to the north had been pierced at many points and that our fighting columns had pushed ahead.

Rommel is giving priority to the Germans in the attempt to escape and his Italian allies are being largely used - and sacrificed to cover his withdrawal.

Recovery in the style of which Rommel has shown himself a master in the past will now be rendered difficult by a shortage of transport and a shortage of petrol. Another convoy, including a tanker, was stopped yesterday between Greece and Tobruk. For the past few weeks not a single tanker has got through to the ports of Cyrenaica.

During Monday night, unnoticed by the enemy, Rommel carried out a regrouping of his forces behind a more than thin security chain. But even after the last regrouping had been completed in full daylight early yesterday and the bulk of the Axis forces had calmly taken up positions on newly prepared defence lines and settled down there - that is 48 hours afterwards - the British High Command still did not believe their reconnaissance.

Only when the security chain had to leave its position owing to shortage of ammunition did the British penetrate into the Axis defence system which had already been evacuated by us. The fact that this operation as daring in its planning as in its execution could be carried out in almost parade-ground order without losses worth mentioning in men and material and without the British being able to intervene is principally due to German and Italian troops holding the security chain and fighting against the overwhelmingly superior enemy to their last hand-grenade and the last bullet.

When the foremost German security lines were spent all their ammunition and were impotently facing the enemy, who was attacking in mass formation. General Ritter von Thoma, at the head of a small tank unit, pushed deep into the enemy formations and fought a fierce battle with a number of heavy British tanks, lasting for several hours.

Although, in view of the enemy's superiority the issue of the battle was not in doubt the British penetrated the already evacuated positions only after the last shell had been fired and the few German tanks had been put out of action. Von Thoma fell into enemy hands far in front of the German lines.

The battalion commanded by Colonel Borchardt with equal gallantry held a large sector of the security screen. Without tank support and without anti-tank guns, the battalion covered the regrouping for two days against the attacking mass of British tanks which, in spite of repeated attacks was unable to dislodge the tank grenadiers. Their task completed, the remnants of this battalion fought their way through to the German lines.

Here, as well as in the adjoining sector held by an Italian tank unit, the British were made to pay for their penetration with enormous losses in men and material. The Italians fought to the last man.

One of the most fascinating studies of the last war was the contrast between these two great commanders, Montgomery and Rommel, each in his own way an outstanding general, yet utterly and absolutely different in almost every respect. Rommel was probably the best armoured corps commander produced by either side. Utterly fearless, full of drive and initiative, he was always up in front where the battle was fiercest. If his opponent made a mistake, Rommel was on to it like a flash, and he never hesitated to take personal command of a regiment or battalion if he thought fit. On one occasion he was found lifting mines with his own hands. His popularity with the soldiers was immense, but a great many officers resented his interference with their commands.

All this reads like the copybook general but, in point of fact, this is not the best way to control a swift-moving, modern battle. Very often at a critical moment no one could find Rommel, because he was conducting personally some battalion attack. He tended to become so involved in some minor action that he failed to appreciate the general picture of the battlefield.

Monty was not such a dashing, romantic figure as his opponent; nor would you find him leading a forlorn hope in person, for the simple reason that if he was in command forlorn hopes did not occur. He had an extraordinary capacity for putting his finger straight on the essentials of any problem, and of being able to explain them simply and clearly. He planned all his battles most carefully - and then put them out of his mind every night. I believe he was awakened in the night only half a dozen times during the whole war.

Their handling of the battle of Alam Haifa makes the contrast clear. Having made the best possible plan to win the battle, yet at the same time to husband his resources, Monty dismissed Alam Haifa entirely from his mind and concentrated on the next one.

While Rommel was leading his troops in person against strongly-held defensive positions on the Alam Halfa ridge, Montgomery was planning the battle of Alamein. That was the difference between the two.

Tobruk is again in our hands. Last evening's reports that our heavy and medium bombers on the way to attack the Tobruk area on Armistice night found the target already lit by scores of fires confirmed the conclusion, based on estimates of his losses, that the enemy's remnants could not attempt to stand on that position. Our troops, continuing their

pursuit, the pace of which is illustrated by the fact that they recently covered 130 miles in two days - almost twice Rommel's best speed, - took Sollum and Bardia yesterday and this morning entered Tobruk.

Inland our forces were in touch with the rearguard of the enemy yesterday in the El Adem area south of Tobruk. The next hurdle is the Gazala line, but it is realised now that though the Axis retreat was orderly as far as Ghazal, twelve miles east of Daba; it has since grown more precipitate, The capture o£ some eighty Ariete tanks in running order in that area, of railway trucks loaded with guns for Matruh, of several large intact ammunition dumps, and in the frontier zone of men of the motorised Italian Pistoia Division without their transport tells a tale of unseemly flight at least on the Germans' part, who nevertheless are fighting spiritedly when brought to battle. !

Our constant day and night air attacks ensure that the enemy will be unable to regain his cohesion. West of Tobruk his columns have been bombed and machine-gunned, and farther west still where the coast road curves sharply round Gazala Bay, hemmed between sea and cliff so that vehicles have no escape; an enemy concentration of trucks were heavily punished.

One low-flying aircraft, after good work with machine-guns, ringed the transports with incendiaries. The effect on the enemy's moral of these constant air attacks can be imagined when it is realised that his harassed troops are not provided with any fighter screen whatever.

Raw troops in tropical kit were fit subjects only for music-hall jokes. We looked, and felt, ridiculous. The authorities were terrified their charges would contract heatstroke, so we always had to wear 'coal-scuttle' helmets in the heat of the day, and the buttoned-up portions of our shorts had to be turned down to protect our delicate knees. How it was possible for our authorities to rule a country like Egypt for generations and persist in believing in a myth like that of sunstroke defies explanation. The helmets, which were heavy, were soon replaced by light pith topees, and these, in turn, soon disappeared in favour of the familiar forage cap. The comic shorts were also replaced by more modern ones, with the result that we looked and felt much smarter. On active service in the desert many men went further, particularly those of

dark complexion, and were bare to the waist, with perhaps a handkerchief to protect the back of the neck. Hats were rarely worn in action.

I believe that the first and great principle of war is that you must first win your air battle before you fight your land and sea battle. If you examine the conduct of the campaign from Alamein through Tunisia, Sicily and Italy you will find I have never fought a land battle until the air battle has been won. We never had to bother about the enemy air, because we won the air battle first.

The second great principle is that Army plus Air has to be so knitted that the two together from one entity. If you do that, the resultant military effort will be so great that nothing will be able to stand against it.

The third principle is that the Air Force command. I hold that it is quite wrong for the soldier to want to exercise command over the air striking forces. The handling of an Air Force is a life-study, and therefore the air part must be kept under Air Force command.

The Desert Air Force and the Eighth Army are one. We do not understand the meaning of "army cooperation". When you are one entity you cannot cooperate. If you knit together the power of the Army on the land and the power of the Air in the sky, then nothing will stand against you and you will never lose a battle.

I thought he (Montgomery) was very cautious, considering his immensely superior strength, but he is the only Field-Marshal in this war who won all his battles. In modem mobile warfare the tactics are not the main thing. The decisive factor is the organization of one's resources to maintain the momentum.

At Alamein Rommel was utterly defeated but not annihilated: Alamein was a decisive victory but not a complete one. It is easy to look back after eighteen years and suggest that the Afrika Korps could have been destroyed by a more vigorous exploitation after the breakthrough, but let us remember the realities of the time.

Monty had his first big command. He was new to the desert. He was fighting a great battlefield tactician in Rommel, whose troops were seasoned warriors: he and they had won some remarkable victories; whereas the Eighth Army had only recently been reformed and given the material to take on the Axis at better odds; many of our fresh reinforcements were new to desert conditions; and although our Intelligence was good we couldn't know accurately what punch the Germans were still nursing.

The ships were combat-loaded in Norfolk for the African invasion. Everything was put on backwards, to be taken off and go onto the beach in proper order. For example, the vehicles were put on last, so they could come off first.

The invasion was in three groups. The Western Task Force, the one I was in, attacked Morocco. The Central landed at Oran. The third, at Algiers. Actually we were opposing the Vichy French at the time. It's absolutely remarkable that in two years an American army could organize such an invasion force. The boys on the ship had no idea where they were going. It was a strongly kept secret; none of us really knew. I didn't know until we were at sea.

The ship was loaded with all these crates of weapons that nobody had ever seen before. Bazookas. We didn't know what bazookas were. We had no training with them at sea. There were a lot of things we didn't know about them. You'd fire it, and unburned powder grains would hit you in the face as the projectile went out. The first guy that pulled that trigger had red spots all over his face. We found out that you had to wear goggles and keep your face covered.

The French capitulated very quickly after some desultory fighting. We went into intensive training, not knowing why they didn't send us up into Tunisia. Here, early on, the American forces got the heck kicked out of them at Kasserine Pass. Here we were, the best armored division in the world, we thought, sitting back three hundred miles from the action, not being used. We found out afterwards we were keeping French Morocco from getting involved in the war. We were also a strategic threat to Spanish Morocco and keeping the Nazis or the Italians from using it as a base.

Last of the Desert Rats Passes Away at 107 Years of Age

Jimmy Sinclair passed away at the age of 107. Before his death, he had the distinctions of being both the oldest living person in Scotland and the last surviving member of the Desert Rats.

The Desert Rats were the British troops that fought and defeated Erwin Rommels North Afrika Korps during World War II. Sinclair fought with the Cheshunt Troop of the 1 st Regiment Horse Artillery in the 7 th Armoured Division.

His death came just weeks after being celebrated on the 75 th anniversary of VE Day.

Tobruk, Libya, 18 November 1942.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, called Sinclair “one of the most remarkable people” she had ever met. She went on to say that she was proud to call him friend.

“As the proud Patron of the Desert Rats Association, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Jimmy Sinclair at the astonishing age of 107.

“He was a true one-off, a man of remarkable humility, kindness and good humour.”

— Clarence House (@ClarenceHouse) May 29, 2020

The heads of two different Scottish charities for veterans called Sinclair an “incredible man.” They noted in a joint statement that Sinclair refused to wear his medals received for his service out of solidarity with his comrades who did not survive the war.

Sinclair was born in 1912. His mother died a month after he was born so he was raised by his grandparents.

After school, he began work as a slater. He joined the Territorial Army in 1931 and served with the Newburgh platoon of the Black Watch.

World War II began shortly after he married and he joined the Royal Artillery. He received medals for his part in the siege of Tobruk, the battle of El Alamein and assaults on Monte Cassino in Italy.

When explaining why that group became known as the Desert Rats, he recalled a time that he held a piece of chocolate in his hand and a rat came out from between the sand bags to take the chocolate and then disappear back into the bags.

Monte Cassino in ruins

He was badly burned at Monte Cassino which left him in the hospital for eight weeks. After his recuperation, he became the driver for Hugo Baring of Baring Bank.

After the war, Sinclair played trombone in an acclaimed brass band and worked for the Control Commission in Berlin.

His wife passed before him. He is survived by two children and three grandchildren.

Until the end, Sinclair enjoyed a shot of whiskey every evening before bed. When asked the secret to his long life, he responded simply, “Johnny Walker.” He also stressed the need to have a sense of humor and to keep a good attitude at all times.

He maintained a correspondence with Camilla, Duchess of Rothesay, whose father also served in the Desert Rats. She regularly sent letters and photographs to Sinclair. The Duchess called Sinclair “a true one-off,” and praised him for his humility, his kindness and his sense of humor. She went on to say that it was a privilege to have known him.

Sinclair never held a grudge against the Germans saying that the soldiers on both sides did not want to be there. He even began a friendship with Rommel’s son that continued until the junior Rommel’s death in 2013.

Sinclair had been the oldest known living man in Scotland since the death of Alf Smith in 2019 (at 111 years old). He was the last surviving Scottish soldier to have served with Field Marshall Montgomery in the 7 th Armoured Division. His death came just one day before the death of Bob Weighton who was the oldest living man in the UK at the time.

Maps of the Desert War

Post by jurisnik » 06 Mar 2021, 10:03

Maps of the Operation Battleaxe

About the Series
Welcome to the Maps of the Desert War. In this series of articles I will explore operations that took place during the WW2 North African campaign. For decades I've been reading about the campaign, but I've often had hard time to find maps that go with the riveting stories I read. But since I've started the research for my new game design, I needed to have a well researched and detailed (to a battalion-level) maps, in order to create game scenarios. And this is how this series came to be - as a result of my ongoing research.

Operation Battleaxe was an allied offensive that took place between 15 and 17 June 1941, during WW2 North African campaign. The goal of the operation was to raise the axis siege of Tobruk, and link with the besieged 9th Australian Division. Allied tried a similar offensive a month before (operation Brevity), and failed. This time, the British planned to use a new tank - Cruiser Mk VI, also known as “Crusader”. The expectations of this new vehicle were such that the British Government chose to ship the tank contingent via a short, but dangerous route – through the Mediterranean. The risk of tank convoy being sunk by Axis air and naval assets was deemed acceptable, because it was thought that the tank would give the British forces an edge in the offensive ahead. The so-called “Tiger convoy” arrived in Alexandria on 12 May, bringing 21 Mk VI light tanks, 82 Cruiser tanks (including 50 Crusaders) and 135 Matilda II Infantry tanks.

Axis Defences
The German-Italian frontier positions were well prepared for the British attack. Unlike the previous month (when the British have caught them off-guard), a series of fortified positions (so called Stuetzpunkte) was built. Apart from that, two reserve kampfgruppen (combat groups) were formed – one panzer, and one infantry group, and they would be used at the right moment to counterattack and break the enemy assault. If necessary, additional reinforcements could be sent from the Tobruk area.

Map of Graziani’s Advance and Wavell’s Offensive from Sidi Barrani in the East to Benghazi in the West, from 12 September to 7 February. Source: Department of History at the United States Military Academy, Public Domain

The British WDF (Western Desert Force), under Sir Archibald Wavell, put that time to good use and amass soldiers, tanks and aircraft to mount Operation Compass, a five-day raid in December 1940. Spearheaded by the 7th Armored Division which would later become known as the “Desert Rats”, the forces under Major-General Richard O’Connor push the rest of the Italian 10th Army out of Egypt and capture the ports along the Libyan coast. The Australian 6th Division capture Tobruk in January 1941. The 10th Army is ultimately cut off as it retreats towards Tripolitania and is defeated at the Battle of Beda Fomm, the remnants being pursued to El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte.

The WDF is unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to worn out vehicles and the diversion in March 1941 of the best-equipped units in Operation Lustre for the ill-fated Battle of Greece. Italian reinforcements are rushed to Libya to defend Tripoli. Germany sends its own Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel. He is to lead a relief force comprised of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) and the Luftwaffe to regain the lost territory.

In the spring of 1941, Rommel leads Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower). German panzers punch through the Allied lines and push the Allies back to Egypt. However, a pocket of resistance remains at Tobruk. Its garrison, consisting mostly of the 9th Australian Division (which would later become known as the “Rats of Tobruk”) under Leslie Morshead, turns the harbor-city into a fortress to deny the port to the Axis while the WDF reorganises and prepares a counter-offensive.

Two photos showing an anti-tank gun emplacement and a German tank crossing a partially filled in anti-tank ditch

“Boxes”, which are strongpoints comprised of fixed groupings of infantry and supporting arms such as anti-tanks guns, ditches, anti-tank & anti-personnel mines, booby traps, barbed wire, are dug around the defensive lines. The Australians also use the ring of forts built by the Italians, which prove to be formidable obstacles for the Germans who attack tirelessly the defensive positions with tanks and aerial bombardment.

Controlling Tobruk is crucial . A quote by historian Stephen W. Sears wrote in his book “Desert War In North Africa” sums up why:

Desert War imposed its own special rules. Rule number one was that armies brought with them everything they needed. There was no such thing as living off the country.

Tobruk has a strong, naturally protected deep harbour. It is probably the best natural port in northern Africa. Its occupation by the British deprives the Axis of a supply port closer to the Egypt–Libya border than Benghazi, 900 km west of the Egyptian frontier, which is within the range of RAF bombers. Tripoli is even further 1,500 km to the west in Tripolitania. A significant part of Axis supplies never reach the frontlines, being destroyed by Royal Navy bombardment or Royal Air Force attacks. Logistics are the main challenge of the desert war, since basically everything has to be imported from the mainland: fuel, food, water, tanks, planes, guns, ammunition… which is the reason why Tobruk is so fiercely contested by both sides.

On May 15 1941, a British offensive dubbed Operation Brevity is launched. Brevity is intended to be a rapid blow against weak Axis front-line forces in the Sollum–Capuzzo–Bardia area of the border between Egypt and Libya. Although the operation gets off to a promising start, throwing the Axis high command into confusion, most of its early gains are lost to local counter-attacks, and with German reinforcements being rushed to the front the operation is called off after one day. Brevity comes at a time when Rommel is hard-pressed to repel it. After numerous losses in the assaults against Tobruk, the Germans are in no position to halt, much less counter, enemy action.

On June 15 1941, a more ambitious attack to lift the siege at Tobruk is conducted by the 7th Armoured Division and a composite infantry force based on the 4th Indian Division: Operation Battleaxe. The infantry are to attack in the area of Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo, with the tanks guarding the southern flank. For the first time in the war, a large German force fights on the defensive. The British lose over half of their tanks on the first day and only one of three attacks succeed. The British achieve mixed results on the second day, being pushed back on their western flank and repulsing a German counter-attack in the centre. On the third day, the British narrowly avoid disaster by withdrawing just ahead of a German encircling movement.

Two maps showing the Operation Brevity and Operation Battleaxe areas. Maps from “The Road to Tobruk”, distribution authorized by author Akhil Kadidal

From the Germans’ perspective, the invasion of the Soviet Union starts on June 22 1941 with Operation Barbarossa. This means that most resources are allocated to the newly created Eastern Front, leaving the Afrika Korps under-supplied, under-equipped and under-manned. From the British side, after the failure of Battleaxe, Sir Archibald Wavell is replaced by Claude “The Auk” Auchinleck. The Western Desert Force is reorganized and renamed the Eighth Army under the command of Alan Cunningham (which is later replaced by Neil Ritchie). The Eighth Army comprised two Corps: XXX Corps and XIII Corps.

XXX Corps is made up of 7th Armoured Division, the under-strength South African 1st Infantry Division with two brigades of the Sudan Defence Force and the independent 22nd Guards Brigade. XIII Corps is comprised of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, the newly arrived 2nd New Zealand Division and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The Eighth Army also includes the Tobruk garrison with the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, and the Australian 9th Division which (in late 1941), is in the process of being replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division and the Polish Carpathian Brigade. In reserve, the Eighth Army has the South African 2nd Infantry Division, making a total equivalent of about seven divisions with 770 tanks (including many of the new Crusader Cruiser tanks, after which Operation Crusader is named.

In an effort to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Operation Crusader begins on November 18, 1941. The armored push suffers brutal casualties from anti-tank guns, but the offensive is successful. A contingent of British and South African troops rush to Sidi Rezegh to capture the Italian-held airfield, but are almost annihilated by a fierce and skilled German counter-attack. On 27 November 1941, the New Zealanders finally reach Tobruk, relieving the exhausted garrison after a gruelling 9 months of siege.

Two maps showing the details of unit movements for Operation Crusader from 18-23 November. Maps from “The Road to Tobruk”, distribution authorized by author Akhil Kadidal

Two maps, one showing the unit movements for The Battle of Sidi Rezegh and the other for Operation Crusader from November 24 to 29. Maps from “The Road to Tobruk”, distribution authorized by author Akhil Kadidal

The battle continues into December, when supply shortages force Rommel to narrow his front and shorten his lines of communication. On 7 December 1941 Rommel withdraws the Axis forces to the Gazala position and on 15 December orders a withdrawal to El Agheila.

A map of North Africa showing Auchinleck’s Offensive, from Sidi Barrani in the East to Benghazi in the West, from 18 November to 31 December. Source: Department of History at the United States Military Academy, Public Domain

However, Rommel still has a card to play. On 21 January 1942, Panzerarmee Afrika begins Operation Theseus, which pushes the Eighth Army back to the Gazala Line, 60 kilometres west of Tobruk. Operation Venezia (also known as the Battle of Gazala) begins on 26 May 1942 when Afrika Korps and Italian tanks drive south, round the flank of the Gazala line, and are isolated by Free French and other Allied troops at Bir Hakeim, who intercept Axis supply convoys. On May 29, Rommel retreats to a defensive position abutting the British minefields called “the Cauldron”, which suffers numerous air attacks by the Royal Air Force.

Map of The Gazala Line (Rommel’s Opening Blow). Map from “The Road to Tobruk”, distribution authorized by author Akhil Kadidal.

The British mount a counter-attack, Operation Aberdeen on 5 June, but meets with disaster. An afternoon counter-attack by the Ariete and 21st Panzer divisions and a 15th Panzer Division attack on the Knightsbridge Box overrun the tactical Headquarters of the two British divisions and the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade. The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and smaller units are dispersed and command breaks down. The 9th Indian Brigade, a reconnaissance regiment and four artillery regiments are lost and the British flee from the Gazala Line on 13 June, with only 70 operational tanks,

Map of Rommels Capture of Fortress Tobruk. Map from “The Road to Tobruk”, distribution authorized by author Akhil Kadidal.

Tobruk had been besieged for nine months in 1941 but this time the Royal Navy cannot guarantee the supply of the garrison… and Auchinleck views Tobruk as expendable but expects that it cannot hold out for two months. On 21 June 1942, 35,000 Eighth Army troops surrender at Tobruk, which is a crushing blow to the British.


In the United States Army, [1] United States Air Force, British Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, New Zealand Defence Force, Singapore Armed Forces and Canadian Armed Forces, military personnel will become AWOL if absent from their post without a valid pass, liberty or leave. The United States Marine Corps, United States Navy, and United States Coast Guard generally refer to this as unauthorized absence. Personnel are dropped from their unit rolls after thirty days and then listed as deserters however, as a matter of U.S. military law, desertion is not measured by time away from the unit, but rather:

  • by leaving or remaining absent from their unit, organization, or place of duty, where there has been a determined intent to not return
  • if that intent is determined to be to avoid hazardous duty or shirk contractual obligation
  • if they enlist or accept an appointment in the same or another branch of service without disclosing the fact that they have not been properly separated from current service. [2]

People who are away for more than thirty days but return voluntarily or indicate a credible intent to return may still be considered AWOL. Those who are away for fewer than thirty days but can credibly be shown to have no intent to return (for example, by joining the armed forces of another country) may nevertheless be tried for desertion. On rare occasions, they may be tried for treason if enough evidence is found.

There are similar concepts to desertion. Missing movement occurs when a member of the armed forces fails to arrive at the appointed time to deploy (or "move out") with their assigned unit, ship, or aircraft. In the United States Armed Forces, this is a violation of the Article 87 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The offense is similar to absence without leave but may draw more severe punishment. [3]

Failure to repair consists of missing a formation or failing to appear at an assigned place and time when so ordered. It is a lesser offense within article 86 of the UCMJ. [4] See: DUSTWUN

An additional duty status code — absent-unknown, or AUN — was established in 2020 to prompt unit actions and police investigations during the first 48 hours that a Soldier is missing. [5]

During the First World War, the Australian Government refused to allow members of the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to be executed for desertion, despite pressure from the British Government and military to do so. The AIF had the highest rate of soldiers going absent without leave of any of the national contingents in the British Expeditionary Force, and the proportion of soldiers who deserted was also higher than that of other forces on the Western Front in France. [6] [7]

In 2011, Vienna decided to honour Austrian Wehrmacht deserters. [8] [9] In 2014, on October, 24th a Memorial for the Victims of Nazi Military Justice was inaugurated on Vienna's Ballhausplatz by Austria's President Heinz Fischer. The monument was created by German artist Olaf Nicolai and is located opposite the President's office and the Austrian Chancellery. The inscription on top of the three step sculpture features a poem by Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1924–2006) with just two words: all alone.

In Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Spanish: FARC) insurgency were highly affected by desertion during the armed conflict with the Military Forces of Colombia. The Colombian Ministry of Defense reported 19,504 deserters from the FARC between August 2002 and their collective demobilization in 2017, [10] despite potentially severe punishment, including execution, for attempted desertion in the FARC. [11] Organizational decline contributed to FARC’s high desertion rate which peaked in the year 2008. [10] A later stalemate between the FARC and government forces gave rise to the Colombian peace process.

According to the Dutch Shot at Dawn website, from 1914 to 1918 approximately 600 French soldiers were executed for desertion. [12]

In addition, according to this website, the 10th Company of the 8th Battalion of a mixed Algerian soldier regiment refused an order to attack and retreated. Subsequently, they were subject to decimation (the shooting of every tenth person in a unit) and they were shot on December 15, 1914 near Zillebeke in Flanders, Belgium. [12]

Conversely, France considered as highly praiseworthy the act of citizens of Alsace-Lorraine who during WWI deserted from the German army. After the war it was decided to award all such deserters the Escapees' Medal (French: Médaille des Évadés).

During the First World War, only 18 Germans who deserted were executed. [12] However, the Germans executed 15,000 men who deserted from the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. In June 1988 the Initiative for the Creation of a Memorial to Deserters came to life in Ulm. A central idea was, "Desertion is not reprehensible, war is". [13] [14]

During the First World War 28 New Zealand soldiers were sentenced to death for desertion of these, five were executed. [15] These soldiers were posthumously pardoned in 2000 through the Pardon for Soldiers of the Great War Act. [15] Those who deserted before reaching the front were imprisoned in what were claimed to be harsh conditions. [16]

World War II Edit

Order No. 270, dated August 16, 1941, was issued by Joseph Stalin. The order required superiors to shoot deserters on the spot. [17] [ dead link ] Their family members were subjected to arrest. [18] Order No. 227, dated July 28, 1942, directed that each Army must create "blocking detachments" (barrier troops) which would shoot "cowards" and fleeing panicked troops at the rear. [18] Over the course of the war, the Soviets executed 158,000 troops for desertion. [19]

Afghan Civil War Edit

Many Soviet soldier deserters of the Soviet War in Afghanistan explain their reasons for desertion as political and in response to internal disorganization and disillusionment regarding their position in the war. [20] Analyses of desertion rates argue that motivations were far less ideological than individual accounts claim. Desertion rates increased prior to announcements of upcoming operations, and were highest during the summer and winter. Seasonal desertions were probably a response to the harsh weather conditions of the winter and immense field work required in the summer. A significant jump in desertion in 1989 when the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan may suggest a higher concern regarding returning home, rather than an overall opposition towards the war itself. [21]

Inter-ethnic explanation for desertion Edit

In the beginning of the Soviet invasion, the majority of Soviet forces were soldiers of Central Asian republics. [21] The Soviets believed that shared ideologies between Muslim Central Asians and Afghan soldiers would build trust and morale within the army. However, Central Asians' longstanding historical frustrations with Moscow degraded soldiers' willingness to fight for the Red Army. As Afghan desertion grew and Soviet opposition was strengthened within Afghanistan, the Soviet plan overtly backfired. [22]

The personal histories of Central Asian ethnic groups – especially between Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, caused tension within the Soviet military. Non-Russian ethnic groups easily related the situation in Afghanistan to Communist takeover of their own states' forced induction into the USSR. [23] Ethnic Russians suspected Central Asians of opposition, and fighting within the army was prevalent. [22]

Upon entering Afghanistan, many Central Asians were exposed to the Koran for the first time uninfluenced by Soviet propagandist versions [ clarification needed ] , and felt a stronger connection towards the opposition than their own comrades. [23] The highest rates of desertion were found among border troops, ranging from 60 to 80% during the first year of the Soviet invasion. [24] In these areas, strong ethnic clashes and cultural factors influenced desertion.

As Afghan soldiers continued to desert the Soviet army, a united Islamic Alliance for the Liberation of Afghanistan began to form. Moderates and fundamentalists banded together to oppose Soviet intervention. The Islamic ideology solidified a strong base of opposition by January 1980, overriding ethnic, tribal, geographic and economic differences among Afghans willing to fight the Soviet invasion, which attracted Central Asian deserters. [22] By March 1980, the Soviet army made an executive decision to replace Central Asian troops with the European sectors of the USSR to avoid further religious and ethnic complications, drastically reducing Soviet forces. [24]

Soviet disillusionment upon entering the war Edit

Soviet soldiers entered the war under the impression that their roles were primarily related to the organization of Afghan forces and society. Soviet media portrayed the Soviet intervention as a necessary means of protecting the Communist uprising from outside opposition. [23] Propaganda declared that Soviets were providing aid to villagers and improving Afghanistan by planting trees, improving public buildings and “generally acting as good neighbors”. [23] Upon entering Afghanistan, Soviet soldiers became immediately aware of the falsity of the reported situation.

In major cities, Afghan youth that originally supported the leftist movement soon turned to Soviet oppositional forces for patriotic and religious reasons. [23] The opposition built resistance in cities, calling Soviet soldiers infidels that were forcing an imperialist Communist invasive government on Afghanistan's people. [23] As Afghan troops continued to abandon the Soviet army to support the mujahideen, they became anti-Russian and antigovernment. [25] Opposition forces emphasized the Soviets' atheism, demanding support for the Muslim faith from civilians. [23] The hostility shown towards soldiers, who entered the war believing their assistance was requested, grew defensive. The opposition circulated pamphlets within Soviet camps stationed in cities, calling for Afghan freedom from the aggressive Communist influence and a right to establish their own government. [23]

The native Afghan army fell from 90,000 to 30,000 by mid-1980, forcing Soviets into more extreme combative positions. The mujahideen's widespread presence among Afghan civilians in rural regions made it difficult for Soviet soldiers to distinguish between the civilians they believed they were fighting for and the official opposition. Soldiers who had entered the war with idealistic viewpoints of their roles were quickly disillusioned. [22]

Problems in Soviet army structure and living standards Edit

The structure of the Soviet army, in comparison to the mujahideen, set the Soviets at a serious fighting disadvantage. While the mujahideen structure was based on kinship and social cohesion, the Soviet army was bureaucratic. Because of this, mujahideen could significantly weaken the Soviet army by the elimination of a field commander or officer. Resistance forces were locally based, more ready to address and mobilize the Afghan population for support. The Soviet army was centrally organized its regime structure emphasized rank and position, paying less attention to the well-being and effectiveness of its army. [21]

The initial Soviet plan relied on Afghan troops' support in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan. The majority of the Afghan army support crumbled easily as forces lacked strong ideological support for Communism from the beginning. [26]

The Afghan army, comprising 100,000 men before 1978, was reduced to 15,000 within the first year of the Soviet invasion. [23] Of the Afghan troops that remained, many were considered untrustworthy to Soviet troops. [23] Afghans that deserted often took artillery with them, supplying the mujahideen. Soviet troops, to fill Afghan soldiers' place, were pushed into mountainous tribal regions of the East. Soviet tanks and modern warfare was ineffective in the rural, mountainous regions of Afghanistan. Mujahideen tactics of ambush prevented Soviets from developing successful counterattacks. [23]

In 1980, the Soviet army began to rely on smaller and more cohesive units, a response to mirror mujahideen tactics. A decrease in unit size, while solving organizational issues, promoted field leaders to head more violent and aggressive missions, promoting Soviet desertion. Often, small forces would engage in rapes, looting, and general violence beyond what higher ranks ordered, increasing negative sanctions in undesirable locations. [24]

Within the Soviet army, serious drug and alcohol problems significantly reduced the effectiveness of soldiers. [24] Resources became further depleted as soldiers pushed into the mountains drugs were rampantly abused and available, often supplied by Afghans. Supplies of heating fuel, wood, and food ran low at bases. Soviet soldiers often resorted to trading weapons and ammunition in exchange for drugs or food. [22] As morale decreased and infections of hepatitis and typhus spread, soldiers became further disheartened.

Soviet deserters to the mujahideen Edit

Interviews with Soviet soldier deserters confirm that much of Soviet desertion was in response to widespread Afghan opposition rather than personal aggravation towards the Soviet army. Armed with modern artillery against ill-equipped villagers, Soviet soldiers developed a sense of guilt for the widespread killing of innocent civilians and their unfair artillery advantage. Soviet deserters found support and acceptance within Afghan villages. After entering the mujahideen, many deserters came to recognize the falsity of Soviet propaganda from the beginning. Unable to legitimize the unnecessary killing and mistreatment of the Afghan people, many deserters could not face returning home and justifying their own actions and the unnecessary deaths of comrades. Upon deserting to the mujahideen, soldiers immersed themselves into Afghan culture. Hoping to rectify their position as the enemy, deserters learned the Afghan language and converted to Islam. [20]

Historically, one who was paid to enlist and then deserted could be arrested under a type of writ known as arrestando ipsum qui pecuniam recepit, or "For arresting one who received money". [27]

Napoleonic Wars Edit

During the Napoleonic Wars desertion was a massive drain on British army resources, despite the threat of court martial and the possibility of the capital punishment for the crime. Many deserters were harboured by citizens who were sympathetic to them. [28]

First World War Edit

"306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were executed for. desertion during World War I," records the Shot at Dawn Memorial. Of these, 25 were Canadian, 22 Irishmen and five New Zealanders. [12]

"During the period between August 1914 and March 1920 more than 20,000 servicemen were convicted by courts-martial of offences which carried the death sentence. Only 3,000 of those men were ordered to be put to death and of those just over 10% were executed." [29]

Second World War Edit

Throughout the Second World War, almost 100,000 British and Commonwealth troops deserted from the armed forces. [30]

Iraq War Edit

On May 28, 2006, the UK military reported over 1,000 absent without leave since the beginning of the Iraq War, with 566 still missing since 2005 and that year to date. The Ministry of Defence said that levels of absence were fairly constant and "only one person has been found guilty of deserting the Army since 1989". [31]

Legal definition Edit

According to the United States Uniform Code of Military Justice, desertion is defined as:

(a) Any member of the armed forces who–

(1) without authority goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently
(2) quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service or
(3) without being regularly separated from one of the armed forces enlists or accepts an appointment in the same or another one of the armed forces without fully disclosing the fact that he has not been regularly separated, or enters any foreign armed service except when authorized by the United States is guilty of desertion.
(b) Any commissioned officer of the armed forces who, after tender of his resignation and before notice of its acceptance, quits his post or proper duties without leave and with intent to remain away therefrom permanently is guilty of desertion.

(c) Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct. [32]

War of 1812 Edit

The desertion rate for American soldiers in the War of 1812 was 12.7%, according to available service records. Desertion was especially common in 1814, when enlistment bonuses were increased from $16 to $124, inducing many men to desert one unit and enlist in another to get two bonuses. [33]

Mexican–American War Edit

During the Mexican-American War, the desertion rate in the U.S. Army was 8.3% (9,200 out of 111,000), compared to 12.7% during the War of 1812 and usual peacetime rates of about 14.8% per year. [34] Many men deserted in order to join another U.S. unit and get a second enlistment bonus. Others deserted because of the miserable conditions in camp, or in 1849-1850 were using the army to get free transportation to California, where they deserted to join the California Gold Rush. [35] Several hundred deserters went over to the Mexican side nearly all were recent immigrants from Europe with weak ties to the United States. The most famous group was the Saint Patrick's Battalion, about half of whom were Catholics from Ireland, anti-Catholic prejudice reportedly being another reason for desertion. The Mexicans issued broadsides and leaflets enticing U.S. soldiers with promises of money, land grants, and officers' commissions. Mexican guerrillas shadowed the U.S. Army, and captured men who took unauthorized leave or fell out of the ranks. The guerrillas coerced these men to join the Mexican ranks—threatening to kill them if they failed to comply. The generous promises proved illusory for most deserters, who risked execution if captured by U.S. forces. About fifty of the San Patricios were tried and hanged following their capture at Churubusco in August 1847. [36]

High desertion rates were a major problem for the Mexican army, depleting forces on the eve of battle. Most of the soldiers were peasants who had a loyalty to their village and family but not to the generals who conscripted them. Often hungry and ill, never well paid, under-equipped and only partially trained, the soldiers were held in contempt by their officers and had little reason to fight the Americans. Looking for their opportunity, many slipped away from camp to find their way back to their home village. [37]

American Civil War Edit

During the American Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy had a desertion problem. From its 2.5 million or so men, the Union Army saw about 200,000 desertions. Over 100,000 deserted the Confederate army, which was less than a million men and possibly as little as a third the size of the Union one. [38] [39]

New York suffered 44,913 desertions by the war's end, and Pennsylvania recorded 24,050, with Ohio reporting desertions at 18,354. [38] About 1 out of 3 deserters returned to their regiments, either voluntarily or after being arrested and being sent back. Many of the desertions were by "professional" bounty men, men who would enlist to collect the often large cash bonuses and then desert at the earliest opportunity to repeat another enlistment elsewhere. If caught they would face execution otherwise it could prove a very lucrative criminal enterprise. [40] [41]

The total number of Confederate deserters was officially 103,400. [39] Desertion was a major factor for the Confederacy in the last two years of the war. According to Mark A. Weitz, Confederate soldiers fought to defend their families, not a nation. [42] He argues that a hegemonic "planter class" brought Georgia into the war with "little support from non-slaveholders" (p. 12), and the ambivalence of non-slaveholders toward secession, he maintains, was the key to understanding desertion. The privations of the home front and camp life, combined with the terror of battle, undermined the weak attachment of southern soldiers to the Confederacy. For Georgian troops, Sherman's march through their home counties triggered the most desertions.

Adoption of a localist identity caused soldiers to desert as well. When soldiers implemented a local identity, they neglected to think of themselves as Southerners fighting a Southern cause. When they replaced their Southern identity with their previous local identity, they lost their motive to fight and, therefore, deserted the army. [43]

A growing threat to the solidarity of the Confederacy was dissatisfaction in the Appalachian mountain districts caused by lingering unionism and a distrust of the slave power. Many of their soldiers deserted, returned home, and formed a military force that fought off regular army units trying to punish them. [44] [45] North Carolina lost 23% of its soldiers (24,122) to desertion. The state provided more soldiers per capita than any other Confederate state, and had more deserters as well. [46]

First World War Edit

Desertion still occurred among American armed forces after the U.S. joined the First World War on April 6, 1917. Between April 6, 1917 and December 31, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) charged 5,584 servicemen and convicted 2,657 of them for desertion. 24 AEF troops were eventually sentenced to death, but all managed to avoid execution after President Woodrow Wilson commuted their death sentences to prison terms. [47] Deserters were often publicly humiliated. [12] One U.S. Navy deserter, Henry Holscher, later joined a UK regiment and won the Military Medal. [48]

Second World War Edit

Over 20,000 American soldiers were tried and sentenced for desertion. Forty-nine were sentenced to death, though forty-eight of these death sentences were subsequently commuted. Only one U.S. soldier, Private Eddie Slovik, was executed for desertion in World War II. [49]

Vietnam War Edit

Approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted during the Vietnam War. [50] Some of these migrated to Canada. Among those who deserted to Canada were Andy Barrie, host of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio's Metro Morning, and Jack Todd, award-winning sports columnist for the Montreal Gazette. [51] Other countries also gave asylum to deserted U.S. soldiers. For example, Sweden allows asylum for foreign soldiers deserting from war, if the war does not align with the current goals of Swedish foreign policy.

Iraq War Edit

According to the Pentagon, more than 5,500 military personnel deserted in 2003–2004, following the Iraq invasion and occupation. [52] The number had reached about 8,000 by the first quarter of 2006. [53] Another source states that since 2000, about 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have deserted. More than half of these served in the U.S. Army. [54] [ unreliable source? ] Almost all of these soldiers deserted within the United States. There has been only one reported case of a desertion in Iraq. The Army, Navy, and Air Force reported 7,978 desertions in 2001, compared with 3,456 in 2005. The Marine Corps showed 1,603 Marines in desertion status in 2001. That had declined to 148 by 2005. [53]

Penalties Edit

Before the Civil War, deserters from the Army were flogged after 1861, tattoos or branding were also used. The maximum U.S. penalty for desertion in wartime remains death, although this punishment was last applied to Eddie Slovik in 1945. No U.S. serviceman has received more than 24 months imprisonment for desertion or missing movement after September 11, 2001. [55]

A U.S. service member who is AWOL/UA may be punished with non-judicial punishment (NJP) or by court martial under Article 86 of the UCMJ for repeat or more severe offenses. [1] [56] Many AWOL/UA service members are also given a discharge in lieu of court-martial. [55] [57] [58] [59] [60] [61]

The 2012 edition of the United States Manual for Courts-Martial states that:

Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct. [2]

Under international law, ultimate "duty" or "responsibility" is not necessarily always to a "government" nor to "a superior", as seen in the fourth of the Nuremberg Principles, which states:

The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

Although a soldier under direct orders, in battle, is normally not subject to prosecution for war crimes, there is legal language supporting a soldier's refusal to commit such crimes, in military contexts outside of immediate peril.

In 1998, UNCHR resolution 1998/77 [a] recognized that "persons [already] performing military service may develop conscientious objections" while performing military service. [62] [63] [64] [65] This opens the possibility of desertion as a response to cases in which the soldier is required to perform crimes against humanity as part of his mandatory military duty. [ citation needed ]

Desert Rats

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Desert Rats, byname of the 7th Armoured Division, group of British soldiers who helped defeat the Germans in North Africa during World War II. The Desert Rats, led by Gen. Allen Francis Harding, were especially noted for a hard-fought three-month campaign against the more-experienced German Afrika Korps, led by Gen. Erwin Rommel (“The Desert Fox”).

The term “Rats of Tobruk,” a moniker applied by the Nazi propagandist broadcaster William Joyce (“Lord Haw-Haw”), referred more generally to any of the Allied troops who defended Tobruk, Libya. Tobruk, a key deepwater port city, had been captured on January 22, 1941, by the Desert Rats and the 6th Australian Division as part of a major Allied offensive that saw Italian forces under Rodolfo Graziani effectively wiped out. A counteroffensive launched by Rommel in March enjoyed spectacular success, negating most of the Allied territorial gains, with the notable exception of Tobruk.

By April 13, 1941, Tobruk had been encircled, but its tenacious defenders—including 14,000 Australians from the 9th and 7th Divisions, roughly 4,000 troops of the Polish Independent Carpathian Rifle Brigade, and some 8,000 British and Indian troops—held out for nearly eight months until Allied forces could lift the siege. During that time, the Rats of Tobruk were subjected to near constant shelling and aerial bombardment, but they emerged from their defenses at night to carry out an effective guerrilla campaign against their attackers. British control of the Mediterranean allowed the Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy to ferry vital supplies to Tobruk’s defenders and to relieve or reinforce battle-worn units. The garrison’s defiance in the face of the German military juggernaut provided a valuable morale boost to Allied armies at an especially dark time of the war.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Editor.

The death of a German hero told by his son

Rommel’s son, Manfred, was 15 years old in 1944 and was enrolled in an antiaircraft crew near home. On October 14, Manfred received permission to go home, where his father was still recovering, being under house arrest.

Manfred recounted those last moments spent with his father.

“I arrived in Herrlingen at 7 am. My father was having breakfast. They quickly brought a cup for me and we ate together, then we took a walk in the garden.

«At 12 o’clock two generals will come here to discuss my future», my father said. «So today I will see what is planned for me, the People’s Court or a new command post in the East.»

«Would you accept such a job? », I asked him. He took my arm and replied: «My dear boy, our enemy in the East is so horrifying that any other matter goes to second place. If the enemy manages to conquer Europe, even temporarily, it would be the end of everything that makes life worth living. Of course I would go. »

Shortly before 12 o’clock, my father went up to his room on the first floor and changed his civilian clothes which he usually wore over his riding pants and put on the Afrika tunic, his favorite uniform because of its open collar.

Around 12 o’clock a dark green car with a Berlin registration plate stopped in front of the gate. The only men in the house, besides my father, were captain Aldinger, a corporal, war veteran, badly wounded and I. Two generals – Burgdorf and Maisel – stepped out of the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and they asked for the permission to speak with my father in private. Me and Aldinger left the room. «So they will not arrest him.», I told myself with relief while I was going up stairs to look for a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father coming upstairs, entering my mother’s room. Eager to find out what happened, I stood up and followed him. He was staying in the middle of the room with a pale face «Come outside with me. », he told me with a tense voice. We went into my room. «I just had to tell your mother that in a quarter of an hour I will be dead. » He then calmly continued: «It is hard to be killed by your own people. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is accusing me of treason. Taking into consideration the period I served in Africa, they will give me the chance to die by poisoning. The two generals brought the poison with them. It is fatal in three seconds. If I accept this, the usual measures will not be taken against my family, that is against you. Also, they will leave my staff alone. »

«Do you believe all of this? », I interrupted him. «Yes, I think. It is in their interest not to leave this whole affair to light. By the way, I was instructed to make you promise that you will keep silence. If a single word of this comes to light, they will no longer feel bound to this agreement. »

I tried again, asking if we could not defend ourselves. He told me: «There is no point. It is better for one man to die than all to be killed in an uproar shooting. And anyway, we virtually have no ammunition. » We said goodbye to each other and then he told me to call Aldinger.

Meanwhile, Aldinger was talking to the General’s escort so that he could not approach my father. At my call he went upstairs running. He was shocked when he found out what was going on. My father spoke faster now. Once again, he told us how useless it would be to defend ourselves. «Everything has been prepared down to the smallest details. They will give me a state funeral. I asked that it will take place in Ulm. In a quarter of an hour, you Aldinger, will receive a phone call from Wagnerschule hospital in Ulm and they will inform that I suffered cerebral seizures on the way to a conference. » He checked his watch. «I have to go. They only gave me ten minutes. » He said goodbye once again. Then we went downstairs together.

I helped my father put on his leather jacket. All of a sudden he pulled out his wallet. «There are 150 marks here. Should I take the money with me? » «It doesn’t matter anymore, Herr Field Marshal. », Aldinger said.

My father put his wallet back in his pocket. While he was entering the hall, the little dachshund he received when it was just a puppy, a few months ago, jumped at him with joy. «Lock the dog in the office, Manfred. » he told me and he waited in the lobby while me and Aldinger pushed the enthusiastic dog in the office. Then we left the house together. The two generals were standing at the gate. We slowly walked along the alley…

Approaching the generals, they lifted their right arm as a greeting «Herr Field Marshal» said Burgdorf as he was making way for my father to come through the gate. A group of villagers was standing beside the road.

The car was ready. The SS driver opened the door. Father put his marshal baton under his left arm and shook hands with me and Aldinger before getting into the car. The two generals quickly took their seats and the doors were slammed. Father did not turn his head when the car left and disappeared after a curve. After he left, me and Aldinger walked back home in silence.

Twenty minutes later the phone rang. Aldinger answered and my father’s death was reported to him.

At that point it was not clear what happened to him after he left us. Later I found out that the car stopped a few hundred meters away from our house, in an open space, at the edge of the forest. Gestapo people, who came in force from Berlin in that morning, were watching the scene and they were instructed to shoot my father and storm the house if he resisted. Maisel and the driver got out of the car, leaving my father and Burgdorf inside. When the driver was allowed to return, about 10 minutes later, he saw my father collapsed with his marshal baton falling from his hand.”

According to official statements, Rommel had died because of suffered injuries. In order to support the tragic death of the general, Hitler declared a day of mourning to commemorate Rommel, burying him with full military honors.

Desert Storm

Operation Desert Storm, popularly known as the first Gulf War, was the successful U.S.-Allied response to Iraq's attempt to overwhelm neighboring Kuwait. Kuwait's liberation in 1991 brought to the battlefield a new era of military technology. Nearly all battles were aerial and ground combat within Iraq, Kuwait, and outlying areas of Saudi Arabia. Iraq inflicted little damage on the American coalition however, they fired missiles on Israeli citizens. History At the request of the Kuwaitis, Kuwait had become a British Protectorate in 1889. British forces protected the area until 1961. Kuwait was a part of Iraq until 1923, when borders were drawn. On June 19, 1961, British protection ended and Kuwait joined the Arab League. Iraq objected strongly and claimed that Kuwait was part of their territory. Kuwait formed its own constitution on January 1963. Accordingly, the emir held the executive power, organized with a group of ministers. By January 23, a national assembly was elected. By October, 1963, Iraq gave up its claim on Kuwait. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wanted to regain that lost land for Iraq, and so he invaded. Leading up to war On August 2, 1990, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been making threats against Kuwait for some time, but his actual invasion caught most of the world by surprise. The magnitude of the invasion also was a surprise. Those who had expected an attack, such as the commander of U.S. Central Command, Norman Schwarzkopf, expected a limited attack to seize Kuwaiti oil fields. Instead, within a number of hours, Iraqi forces had seized downtown Kuwait City and were headed south toward the Saudi Arabia border. Word of the Iraqi attack reached Washington, D.C., as Iraqi forces assembled at the Saudi border. The Pentagon had plans in place to aid the Saudis, and U.S. forces went on standby for the Saudis' request. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and General Schwarzkopf met with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to brief him on the plans, which he approved. Within minutes of the meeting, orders were issued, and thus began the largest buildup of American forces since the Vietnam War. Within a short period, members of the 82nd Airborne Division, as well as 300 combat aircraft, were headed for Saudi Arabia. A deadline set for Saddam Hussein By the end of September 1990, there were nearly 200,000 American personnel in Saudi Arabia — enough to repel any Iraqi attack. The initial plan to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait called for a direct offensive aimed at Kuwait City but Schwarzkopf and other American commanders thought that the risk was too great against heavily armed, well-entrenched defenders. Instead, they called for additional troops to prepare for the largest military cleanup ever seen. President Bush (with Saudi approval) ordered an additional 140,000 soldiers, including the Third Armored Division with its Abrams M1A tanks. During that period, reinforcements from numerous other nations arrived, including British, French, Egyptian and even Syrian forces. On November 29, the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorizing the use of force if Iraq did not withdraw from Kuwait by January 15.

Superior U.S. air power On the morning of January 16, 1991, Allied forces began the first phase of Desert Storm, also known as Desert Shield. American forces first destroyed Iraqi border radar stations, then other key elements of the Iraqi anti-aircraft network lastly, they began to bomb key targets in downtown Iraq, including the presidential palace, communication centers, and power stations. The Allied forces lost only two aircraft during the attacks. The assault continued day and night. Those initial air attacks constituted the first time the American military witnessed how their new arsenal performed in combat conditions. With such ground systems as the M1A1 Abrams missile and the MIM-104 Patriot missile, the Iraq military had little opportunity to defend themselves. Also, such other groundbreaking technology as the Global Positioning System (GPS), helped to pinpoint hits by the Tomahawk missile and other weapons. The damage done by U.S. air attacks was devastating to Saddam's vaunted Republican Guard. The following U.S. aircraft left "a big hurt" on the enemy during the war: AH-64 Apache helicopters, B-52 Stratofortress bombers, E-3 AWACS surveillance aircraft, F-117A Stealth fighters, E-8C JSTARS radar command posts, and the RPVs (drones). Overall, the coalition air campaign (consisting mostly of U.S. pilots) accumulated a total of 109,876 sorties over the 43-day air war — averaging 2,555 sorties per day. Of those, more than 27,000 sorties struck enemy Scuds, airfields, air defenses, electrical power, biological and chemical weapons caches, headquarters, intelligence assets, communications, the Iraqi army, and oil refineries. Scuds fired at Israel and the attack on Al Khafji At 3 a.m on January 17, the Iraqis fired seven Scud missiles at Israel. Israelis were awaiting the Scuds with gas masks on, thanks to Saddam's previous threats to burn half of Israel with chemical weapons. As it turned out, the Scuds bore only conventional warheads, but their terror value was high. To avoid a wider war, U.S. officials pleaded with Israeli officials to not respond to the Scud attacks. The Israelis agreed because the Americans promised to target all Scud missile sites and knock them out. On January 29, following two weeks of punishing coalition air assaults, the Iraqis mounted their one and only attack subsequent to the invasion at the Battle of Khafji. The Iraqi Fifth Mechanized Division attacked south, capturing the Saudi town of Al Khafji eight miles south of the Kuwaiti border. The Iraqis overran the first Saudi force that attempted a counterattack and, despite massive American air attacks, they held on to the town through the day and night. The next day was a different story, however, when Saudis recaptured the town, forcing the remaining Iraqis to flee to the Kuwaiti border. Operation Desert Sabre After a 38-day air campaign, Operation Desert Sabre, a massive ground attack, was launched by Americans and the coalition into both Iraq and Kuwait. Day One ground attack. On February 24th at 4 a.m., Allied troops led by U.S. Marines crossed the border into Iraq. During the days before the attack, Iraqi troops had been subjected to merciless air attacks every imaginable target was destroyed with accuracy. The Allied offensive targeted three major offensive venues: the first aimed at Kuwait City, the second to the west aimed at the Iraqi flank, and the final one far to the west, beyond the major Iraqi lines that would totally outflank Iraqi lines. In the first day of the war the marines advanced halfway to Kuwait City and the western advances proceeded without difficulty — while capturing thousands of Iraqi deserters. The first day of ground fighting resulted in minimal American casualties. Day Two ground attack. As Day Two approached, an Iraqi Scud missile destroyed the U.S. barracks in Dhahran, killing 28 U.S. soldiers. With morale nevertheless high, American troops advanced on all fronts. The marines approached Kuwait City, while the western flank began to cut off the Iraqi Army's retreat route. Coalition casualties for Day Two were, once again, light. Day Three ground attack Day Three dawned on the largest tank battle in history. The American armored forces engaged the tank forces of the Iraqi Republican guard. Like shooting fish in a barrel, the American tanks destroyed the Iraqi heavy armor without losing a single tank. On February 26th, Iraqi troops began to retreat from Kuwait while setting fire to an estimated 700 Kuwaiti oil wells. A long convoy of Iraqi troops, as well as Iraqi and Palestinian civilians, formed along the main Iraq-Kuwait highway. That convoy was bombed so relentlessly by the Allies that it came to be known as the "Highway of Death." One hundred hours after the ground campaign began, President Bush declared a cease-fire — declaring the liberation of Kuwait on February 27, 1991. Postwar epilogue On April 5th, 1991, President Bush announced that U.S. relief supply airdrops would be made to Kurdish refugees in Turkey and northern Iraq. After Iraq issued its acceptance of a cease-fire, Task Force Provide Comfort was formed and deployed to assist the Kurds. The U.S. transport delivered some 72,000 pounds of supplies in the first six Operation Provide Comfort missions. By April 20, the construction of the first Provide Comfort tent city began near Zakhu, Iraq. By war's end, U.S. forces released 71,204 Iraqi prisoners to Saudi control. U.S. casualties

Commentary: Early in 1943 the British and their Allies marched to commemorate victory in North Africa.

Newsreel Commentary: In 80 days the Eighth army had advanced close on 1400 miles, a feat unparalleled in military history. Throughout the battle and advance, for every casualty suffered it had inflicted five on the enemy. In the words of Mr. Churchill &ldquoyou have altered the face of the war, in a most remarkable way.&rdquo

Commentary: And this was the man credited with leading the Eighth Army to success. Lt General Bernard Law Montgomery. His name would forever be associated with a battle which took place deep in the desert of East Africa. Here, starting in October 1942 at a place called El Alamein.

Words of Sam Bradshaw: Give credit to Montgomery, before Montgomery came we used to go into battle and not know what the hell we were doing. Montgomery insisted that every man was told, his briefing was massive. I remember this what I call the Nelson touch, where he said that every officer and man should be of stout heart, with the determination to win this battle. Let no man who is unwounded surrender, and may God who is himself mighty in battle give us the victory. That was his final message.

Commentary: Montgomery&rsquos triumph at El Alamein was made all the more special because this man had been his opponent- Erwin Rommell, one of the most brilliant military commanders of the Twentieth Century. So did El Alamein demonstrate- as many thought at the time- that the British possessed a warrior even more gifted than the best of the Germans? Well, no, not really.Montgomery&rsquos victory at El Alamein had only been made possible by the destruction of German supply lines to North Africa. Crucially Allied planes and ships prevented Rommel from receiving adequate fuel supplies for his tanks. And the relative air superiority the Allies had gained over the desert by the time of El Alamein made Rommel&rsquos armoured columns especially vulnerable. Then there was the straightforward question of numbers. At El Alamein, Montgomery had twice as many troops under his command than Rommell did. All these are reasons why a number of professional historians don&rsquot rate Montgomery that highly at all.

Antony Beevor: Well, Montgomery, shall we say, certainly overrated himself. After the war he claimed that he should be treated on the same level as Wellington and Marlborough. I mean, that was preposterous. Monty was a very good trainer of troops, he was also good for increasing determination and the fighting spirit, but as a commander, he was very 'staff-cology' as Ismay would have said. Everything had to be done in a very coherent and logical fashion, and he was not quick.

David Cesarani: Montgomery was running coalition warfare. He was first of all running an Imperial Army in North Africa with lots of allies, not all of whom he got on very well with. New Zealand, Australians, he was constantly having arguments with them, treating them rather badly. But I think Montgomery is grossly overrated as a military leader and his political ineptitude is absolutely breathtaking. You know, how he ever became the Chief of the Imperial General Staff after the Second World War beggars the imagination.

Commentary: And another vital factor in the Allied victory in North Africa - one that is often overlooked - is that on the 8th of November 1942, just four days after victory at El Alamein, the Allies landed 60,000 troops in West Africa in Algeria and Morocco.

Newsreel Commentary: In successive waves, the first assault troops, and then wave after wave of British and American infantrymen, signalmen, artillerymen, engineers, medics, armoured forces arriving on the North African beaches and gathering their countless quantities of supplies and equipment, to consolidate their landings. The Allies have arrived.

Commentary: The Allies now could move on the Germans in a giant pincer movement, from both West and East. To no one&rsquos surprise, by the middle of May 1943 the Germans had been defeated in Africa, with Rommel flying back to Germany on sick leave just weeks before. What the Allied triumph in the desert demonstrated, more than anything else, was the power in war of superior weapons, supplies and sheer numbers of soldiers. Monty was just lucky, perhaps, that Rommell himself never had access to an army this size.

Desert raiders: the Long Range Desert Group in the Second World War

In June 1940, a science writer named Ralph Bagnold was authorised to create a British special forces unit which would operate in Italian-occupied Libya during the Second World War, gathering intelligence and carrying out raids behind enemy lines. Bagnold called the unit the Long Range Desert Group – and it would become a vital part of the 8th Army's desert operations. Here, writer and historian Gavin Mortimer shares the formation of the innovative unit and explores their missions in the heart of the Libyan desert…

This competition is now closed

Published: July 17, 2017 at 5:08 pm

Ralph Bagnold was not your typical special forces commander. Slight of build, studious by nature and in his early forties in 1939, he was earning a living as a science writer when the Second World War began. Yet within a year he had raised Britain’s special forces unit, the Long Range Desert Group, and earned a reputation as an intrepid innovator of warfare.

Bagnold had explored large swathes of the North African desert in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he was stationed in Cairo with the British army. Travelling into the brutal terrain in Model T Fords, he and a small group of like-minded adventurers had been the first Europeans to penetrate into the heart of the Libyan Desert.

When he was recalled to the army on the outbreak of war, Bagnold was posted once more to Egypt and he quickly saw the possibility of forming a small reconnaissance force to enter Italian-occupied Libya and spy on the enemy.

Authorised by Middle East Command in June 1940 to raise such a unit – which Bagnold called the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) – he recruited his men from the ranks of the New Zealand division and stipulated that: “Every vehicle, with a crew of three and a machine gun, was to carry its own supplies of food and water for 3 weeks, and its own petrol for 2,500 miles of travel across average soft desert surface, and each patrol was to carry a wireless set, navigating and other equipment, medical stores, spare parts and further tools.”

The LRDG embarked on its first patrol in August 1940, reconnoitring Italian positions in the Libyan desert (roughly the same size in land mass as India) and so successful were the missions that followed that in November that year, Bagnold was promoted to acting Lt-Colonel, given permission to form two new patrols and instructed to launch a series of hit-and-run raids against Italian targets in Libya.

For his new recruits, Bagnold turned to the British army, forming two new patrols from the Guards (G Patrol) and from the Yeomanry Divisions (Y Patrol). For its inaugural operation, G Patrol was placed under the command of 44-year-old captain Pat Clayton, and given a target of Murzuk, a well-defended Italian fort in south-western Libya with an airfield close by. The fort was approximately 1,000 miles west of Cairo, a gruelling two-week journey for 76 raiders, who travelled in 23 vehicles.

On 11 January, the raiding party stopped for lunch just a few miles from Murzuk and finalised their plan for the attack Clayton would lead the attack on the airfield while G Patrol targeted the fort.

Michael Crichton-Stuart, commander of G Patrol, recalled that as they neared the fort they passed a lone cyclist: “This gentleman, who proved to be the Postmaster, was added to the party with his bicycle. As the convoy approached the fort, above the main central tower of which the Italian flag flew proudly, the Guard turned out. We were rather sorry for them, but they probably never knew what hit them.”

Opening fire 150 yards from the fort’s main gates, the LRDG force split, with the six trucks of Clayton’s patrol heading towards the airstrip. The terrain was up and down, and the LRDG made use of its undulations to destroy “a number of pill boxes scattered about, including an anti-aircraft pit”. By the time his patrol withdrew, they had destroyed three light bombers, a sizeable fuel dump and killed or captured all of the 20 guards.

Meanwhile G Patrol had subjected the fort to a murderous mortar barrage, and after a brief firefight, the garrison surrendered. Clayton selected two prisoners to bring back to Cairo for interrogation and the rest were left in the shattered remnants of the fort.

In February 1941, the demoralised Italian force in North Africa was bolstered by the arrival of General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps. Within a few weeks of his arrival, Rommel – soon to be dubbed the ‘Desert Fox’ by his adversaries – had regained much of the territory lost by the Italians in the previous months.

LDRG and the SAS

Bagnold, meanwhile, worn down by the heat and the stress of raising the LRDG, handed over command of the unit in August 1941 to Lt-Col Guy Prendergast. Prendergast’s first challenge was to organise five LRDG patrols for a new large-scale Allied offensive in November 1941, the aim of which was to retake eastern Libya and its airfields.

The LRDG’s role was the observation and reporting of enemy troop movements, alerting General Claude Auchinleck, commander of the 8th Army, as to what Rommel might be planning in response to the offensive. But they had an additional responsibility: to collect 55 British paratroopers after they had attacked enemy airfields at Gazala and Tmimi, a small unit which had been raised four months earlier by a charismatic young officer called David Stirling and had been designated L Detachment Special Air Service (SAS) Brigade.

Stirling had convinced Middle East HQ that the enemy was vulnerable to attack along the line of its coastal communications and various aerodromes and supply dumps, by small units of airborne troops attacking not just one target but a series of objectives.

Stirling and his men parachuted into Libya on the night of 17 November and into what one war correspondent described as “the most spectacular thunderstorm within local memory”. Many of the SAS raiders were injured on landing, others were caught by the Germans in the hours that followed. The 21 storm-ravaged survivors were eventually rescued by the LRDG and driven to safety, among them a bitterly disappointed Stirling. Seeing Stirling’s disappointment, Prendergast suggested that in future it might be more practical if the LRDG transported the SAS to their targets

On 8 December, an LRDG patrol, comprising 19 Rhodesian soldiers and commanded by Captain Charles ‘Gus’ Holliman, left Jalo Oasis to take two SAS raiding parties (one of which was led by Stirling, the other by his second-in-command, Blair ‘Paddy’ Mayne) to the airfields at Tamet and Sirte, 350 miles to the north-west. Although Stirling’s party didn’t meet with success, Mayne and his men wreaked havoc on Tamet, blowing up 24 aircraft and killing a number of aircrew as they relaxed in their billet.

More successful cooperation between the LRDG and the SAS ensued with a five-man raiding party led by Lt Bill Fraser destroying 37 aircraft on Agedabia airfield. Mayne returned to Tamet at the end of December, laying waste to 27 planes that had recently arrived to replace the aircraft he’d accounted for a couple of weeks earlier.

Bernard Montgomery and the LDRG

Stirling and the SAS continued to rely on the LRDG as their ‘Libyan Taxi Service’ for the first six months of 1942, as they launched hit-and-run raids against German targets. But in June 1942 Rommel launched a major offensive that pushed the Allies out of Libya and into Egypt. One consequence of the German advance was the removal of General Auchinleck as 8th Army commander, replaced by Bernard Montgomery.

‘Monty’, as the new commander was known, instructed the LRDG and the SAS “to do everything possible to upset the enemy’s communications behind the Alamein line and to destroy aircraft on his forward landing grounds”, preparatory to an offensive of his own which would come to be known as the battle of El Alamein.

By July the SAS had acquired their own transport, allowing the LRDG – now comprising 25 officers and 278 other ranks – to focus on their crucial role as Montgomery’s eyes and ears. For weeks, the LRDG carried out reconnaissance patrols in the heart of the Libyan desert, penetrating enemy territory through the ‘Qattara Depression’, an astonishing natural feature 150 miles long, half as broad, and 450 feet below the Mediterranean at its deepest point. It was a pin-prick on the earth’s surface but a crueller, more desolate spot would be hard to imagine, particularly in July under the midday sun. The Axis forces believed the Depression was inaccessible to vehicles so it was left unguarded, enabling the LRDG to drive through and observe enemy troop dispositions. Noting everything they saw, from the weight of traffic on the road to what the trucks were carrying, their intelligence provided Montgomery with important information about the strength of the enemy. “Not only is the standard of accuracy and observation exceptionally high but the Patrols are familiar with the most recent illustration of enemy vehicles and weapons,” concluded the director of military intelligence in Cairo in December, adding: “Without their reports we should frequently have been in doubt as to the enemy’s intentions, when knowledge of them was all important.”

By December 1942 the battle of El Alamein had swung the desert war decisively the way of the Allies, and as the 8th Army pursued the Germans west across Libya towards Tunisia, so the LRDG was in the vanguard of the advance. Rommel was compelled to pull back all the way to the Mareth Line, approximately 170 miles west of Tripoli, so in January 1943, Montgomery ordered the LRDG to reconnoitre the country to the south of the Line where he intended to outflank the Germans with what he called his ‘left hook’. This the LRDG carried out with their customary diligence and determination, blazing a trail for the 8th Army that eased their advance into Tunisia, and contributed to the defeat of the Afrika Korps. In a letter to Colonel Guy Prendergast on 2 April, Montgomery thanked him for the work of his men in winning the war in North Africa.

… I would like you to know how much I appreciate the excellent work done by your patrols and by the SAS. Without your careful and reliable reports the launching of the ‘left hook’ by the NZ Division would have been a leap in the dark with the information they produced, the operation could be planned with some certainty and as you know, went off without a hitch.

Please give my thanks to all concerned and best wishes from Eighth Army for the new tasks you are undertaking.

Gavin Mortimer is a best-selling writer, historian and television consultant and the author of The Long Range Desert Group in World War II, (Osprey Publishing 2017)

Watch the video: World War II: The War in the Desert - Full Documentary