> Military history of Britain during World War II
The United Kingdom, along with France, declared war on Nazi Germany in 1939 as part of the United Kingdom's pledge to defend Poland to the invasion of Poland. Japan entered the war by attacking Britain's colonies in Asia. The axis powers were defeated with the aid of the United States, the Soviet Union, the Polish and nominally the Chinese in 1945.
Britain had increased military spending prior to the 1939 because of the threat of Nazi Germany. However, forces were initially weak by comparison.
The Beginning of WWII
On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany, 24 hours after Britain had issued an ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from Poland.
The Army immediately began despatching the British Expeditionary Force to help defend France. At first only regular troops from the pre-war Army made up its numbers. In 1940, however, men of the Territorial Army divisions being mobilised in the UK were sent. In the end, the BEF had I, II and III Corps under its command, controlling some 14 divisions. The Royal Air Force also sent significant forces to France at the start of hostilities. Some were Army cooperation squadrons to help with matters like reconnaissance for the Army. Others were Hawker Hurricane squadrons from Fighter Command. Separately, Bomber Command sent the Advanced Air Striking Force, comprised of squadrons flying the Fairey Battle and other machines that did not have the range to reach Germany.
During the Phony War, the RAF carried out small bombing raids and the Royal Navy imposed a blockade on Germany.
Western Europe, 1940
The Battle of France
On 10 May the Phony War ended with a sweeping German invasion of the Benelux. German troops entered France through the Ardennes on 13 May. Most Allied forces were in Flanders, anticipating a re-run of the World War I Schlieffen Plan, and were cut off from the French heartland. As a result of this and superior German communications, the Battle of France was shorter than virtually all prewar Allied thought could have conceived, with France surrendering after six weeks. Britain and its Empire were left to stand alone.
During the Battle of France, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, to be replaced by Winston Churchill, who had opposed negotiation with Hitler all along.
Main article: Battle of Dunkirk
Fortunately for Britain, much of its army escaped capture from the northern French port of Dunkirk. In total, 330,000 troops were pulled off the beaches, of which 230,000 were British. However almost all the army's heavy equipment had been abandoned in France — many soldiers were unable to bring even their rifles.
The Battle of Britain
The Germans prepared for an invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion. Air superiority was considered a pre-requisite, and the Luftwaffe began operations to destroy the Royal Air Force (RAF). This became known as the Battle of Britain. Initially the Luftwaffe sought to bomb RAF ground installations and draw their fighters into airborne combat. In the Autumn of 1940, Hitler, having grown impatient with the failure to destroy the RAF, ordered Goering to switch to bombing major British cities. Commonly known as The Blitz, this was intended to demoralise the British people and destroy British industry. This change of tactics may well have saved the RAF, which was on the verge of collapse. Towards the end of 1940 it became clear to German planners that the RAF defences were not being worn down, and plans for the invasion were called off.
The Battle of Britain marked a turning point. It ensured the survival of an independent Britain and represented the first failure of the German war machine.
Churchill honoured the RAF, saying that "Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few". The pilots who fought the battle were referred to as "The Few" from then on.
The War at Sea
At the start of the war the British and French expected to have command of the seas, as they believed their navies were superior to those of Germany and Italy. The British and French immediately began a blockade of Germany, which had little effect on German industry. The German Navy began to attack British shipping with both surface ships and U-boats. The German Panzerschiff (a heavy cruiser) Admiral Graf Spee was sunk in the Battle of the River Plate.
British losses: one battleship (Royal Oak), one aircraft carrier (Courageous), one heavy cruiser (Exeter)* and two destroyers
German losses: one heavy cruiser (Admiral Graf Spee), two destroyers
(*) It has been said that she was damaged beyond economic repair; but Churchill chose to carry out repairs so that she could not be reported as having been destroyed.
See also Operation Weserübung.
Norway was vital for Germany and Britain because of the great iron ore deposits in northern Sweden. During the winter months the Gulf of Bothnia freezes over, so Sweden then has to transport its ore by train to Narvik in Norway for export. Convinced that Britain might make a move against Norway to stop the flow of ore from Narvik, Hitler ordered a strike.
In the early spring of 1940, virtually all of the Kriegsmarine slipped out of their anchorages. Some left earlier so that a coordinated assault could be made on the whole of Norway, sinking one British destroyer on the way. The day before (May 8th) the United Kingdom had sent a task force to Norwegian waters to plant a minefield to cut the route used for German iron ore. The Germans succeeded in their mission, landing a large force at the vital strategic points of Norway at virtually the same time. However, the landings proved expensive for the Germans, losing the cruisers Blücher (through the fortress of Oscarsborg) and Karlsruhe (through the British submarine Truant); the cruiser Königsberg, damaged by a Norwegian fortress, was sunk by Blackburn Skuas the next day. It was the first large warship ever sunk by air attack. Both the Germans and the English thus had violated Norwegian neutrality.
The British were too late to stop the German landings, but an action did ensue between HMS Renown and the cruiser Birmingham and the Kriegsmarine ships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The German ships were returning from escorting forces to northern Norway by a circuitous route and outdistanced the old British battlecruiser.
British land forces were quickly sent to Norway, landing in the centre at Åndalsnes (Major-General Sir Bernard Paget) and Namsos (Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton De Wiart) and in the north of the country at Narvik (Admiral of the Fleet, William Boyle, 12th Earl of Cork). The south was already denied by German airpower.
Further naval operations developed at Narvik, where German forces were well outside the range of the Luftwaffe and were therefore not as secure as further south. Two naval battles happened in April at Narvik. In the first a British destroyer flotilla with five destroyers attacked four German destroyers and escaped, with both sides losing two ships. The second battle saw a more powerful group of British destroyers, backed up by the battleship HMS Warspite, engage the Germans again three days later. The eight involved German destroyers were sunk (to a total of ten).
In central Norway, Royal Navy aircraft carriers and RAF fighter squadrons could not keep the established bases secure. Central Norway was thus evacuated. In the north the Germans were driven out of Narvik after they had captured it, helped by the first amphibious assault of the war involving British forces. However, as Luftwaffe aircraft came into range, it was found again impossible to sustain bases in the face of that threat. British forces in Narvik were withdrawn as well. A second factor in the withdrawal was the opening of the German campaign in France, which demanded maximum British attention.
During the pull-out from Norway, disaster overtook part of the British navy. The aircraft carrier HMS Glorious, escorted by only two destroyers, was caught by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The carrier did not have any aircraft aloft carrying out searches. The German vessels sank all three British ships, although a destroyer torpedo did necessitate repairs for Scharnhorst.
British losses in Norway: one aircraft carrier (Glorious) and five destroyers
German losses in Norway: one heavy cruiser (Blücher), two light cruisers (Königsberg and Karlsruhe) and ten destroyers
Fall of France
When France fell the position changed drastically. A combination of the French, German and Italian navies could potentially deny Britain command of the Atlantic and starve her into submission. Unable to discover whether the terms of the French surrender would permit Germany the use of French warships, it was decided that their use must be denied to the enemy. Those that had taken refuge in British ports were simply taken over (many volunteered to join the British). See below for details of how the British neutralised the French Mediterranean Fleet.
Battle of the Atlantic
- Main article see Second Battle of the Atlantic
First Happy Time
With the fall of France, ports such as Brest were quickly turned into large submarine bases from which British trade could be attacked. This resulted in a huge rise in sinkings of British shipping. The period between the fall of France and the British containment of the threat was referred to as the first happy time by the U Boat commanders.
By 1941 the United States was taking an increasing part in the war. British forces had occupied Iceland when Denmark fell to the Germans in 1940, the US was persuaded to provide forces to relieve British troops on the island. This relief had an important side effect, as American warships began escorting convoys to Iceland, and had several hostile encounters with U-boats. The United States Navy also helped escort the main Atlantic convoys.
More American help came in the form of the destroyers for bases agreement. Fifty old American destroyers were handed over to the Royal Navy in exchange for 99 year leases on certain British bases in the western hemisphere.
Second Happy Time
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent German declaration of war on the United States had an immediate effect on the campaign against the U Boats. With German ships conducting a campaign against American coastal traffic. The British, paradoxically benefited from the attacks on American coastal shipping as a large decrease in attacks on Atlantic convoy ships occurred. Officially named Operation Drumbeat (Paukenschlag), the German sailors called it the "second happy time". The British aided the United States with what could be spared.
Success Against the U Boats
The institution of an interlocking convoy system on the American coast and in the Caribbean Sea in mid-1942 created an enormous drop in attacks in those areas. Attention shifted back to the Atlantic convoys. Matters were serious, but not critical throughout much of 1942.
The winter weather provided a respite in early 1943, but in the spring large wolf packs of U-boats attacked convoys and scored big successes without taking large losses in return. For a few weeks it almost seemed as if the convoy system had been defeated, serious thought was given to an alternative. However, in May 1943 a sudden turnaround happened. Two convoys were attacked by large wolf packs and suffered losses. Yet unlike earlier in the year the attacking submarines were also mauled. After those battles merchant ship losses plummeted and U-boat losses rocketed, forcing Dönitz to withdraw his forces from the Atlantic. They were never again to pose the same threat.
What had changed was a sudden convergence of technologies. Escort groups had been honing their techniques and systematic training was given to all forces. The large gap in the middle of the Atlantic that had been unreachable by aircraft was closed by long range B-24 Liberator aircraft. Centimetric radar came into service, greatly improving detection and nullifying German radar warning equipment. The introduction of the Leigh Light enabled accurate attacks on U-boats re-charging their batteries on the surface at night. With convoys securely protected there were enough resources to allow escort carrier groups to aggressively hunt U-boats.
- Main article see Arctic convoys of World War II
There were 78 Arctic convoys between August 1941 and May 1945. At first the convoys sailed from Iceland but after September 1942 they assembled and sailed from Loch Ewe in Scotland. The route was around occupied Norway to the northern ports of Russia - Murmansk, Archangel and the Kola Inlet. The route was particularly dangerous due to the proximity of Axis air and marine forces and, severe weather.
About 1,400 merchant ships delivered vital supplies to Russia. 85 merchant vessels and 16 Royal Navy warships were lost. The Germans lost several vessels, including one battlecruiser and at least 30 U-boats, as well as a large number of aircraft. The material significance of the supplies was probably not as great as the symbolic value - hence the continuation, at Stalin's insistence, of these convoys long after the Russians had turned the German land offensive.
Outside of the Pacific War battles, the Mediterranean saw the largest conventional naval warfare during WWII. British forces struggled to supply the island fortress of Malta, fighting through several heavily escorted convoys. Malta took a heavy toll on Axis convoys supplying Rommel's forces in Africa. There were also several skirmishes between British and Italian forces.
The French Mediterranean Fleet
With the surrender of France to the Germans in 1940 the French navy in the Mediterranean was a threat to the Royal Navy so it was imperative for the British that this threat was neutralised. The French squadron at Alexandria was dealt with via negotiations, mainly because the two commanders, Admirals Godfroy and Cunningham, were on good personal terms. The bulk of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in North Africa was destroyed on July 3, 1940 by the British after refusing to surrender. The Vichy French government broke off all ties with the British as a result. See Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir.
Battle of Taranto
On November 11, 1940, the Royal Navy crippled or destroyed three Italian battleships in the Battle of Taranto.
Crete and Matapan
Malta at Bay
Operation Neptune and the Normandy Landings
Operation Neptune was the greatest amphibious assault ever. Over 1,000 fighting ships and some 5,000 other ships were involved. The sheer number of vessels involved meant that nearly all of the major ports of the United Kingdom were at capacity immediately preceding the assault.
The five assault divisions crossed the channel in five great assault groups. There were two task forces, the Anglo-Canadian Eastern Task Force and the American Western Task Force. Coastal Command secured the western flank of the invasion route against interference by German U Boats from the western French ports. The surface forces assisted by protected the assault convoys from the small German surface forces in the area. Overlord saw an enormous minesweeping operation, with hundreds of minesweepers clearing and maintaining channels. The bombardment forces were on an enormous scale, with eight battleships taking part in the assault. The formidable defences of the Atlantic Wall were difficult to contend with, and many duels between the heavy ships and shore battries were fought during the invasion.
On the whole the assault went well, although disaster came nearest to occurring at the American Omaha Beach. There the naval forces provided crucial backup for the assaulting forces, with destroyers coming in very close to the beach the blast the German defences. British losses to enemy attack both during the initial assault and the building of the bridgehead were comparatively small. Virtually no ships were sunk by German naval surface forces as this force was largely destroyed prior to the invasion.
Two of the ports used by the German light forces were heavily bombed by the Allied air forces. The larger German ships based in France, three destroyers from Bordeaux were defeated in a destroyer action well to the west of the main assault area. Larger problems were caused by U-boats and especially mines, but the U-boats were hunted down and the mines swept effectively enough to make the invasion a success.
Indian Ocean Disaster
Though the Indian Ocean was a backwater during WWII, there were several vital operations in that area. British convoys running through the western Indian Ocean were vital for supplying forces fighting Rommel. They faced a small but consistent submarine threat from both German and Japanese boats. Tankers sailing from the oil terminals of Persia also had to run the same gauntlet.
The major operations in that Indian Ocean took place in early 1942 and 1944.
British forces in the Far East were reinforced by HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse in December 1941. However, three days into the war those two ships were sunk by Japanese aircraft, marking the only modern Allied battleship sunk during the entire war and the first time that a battleship at sea and free to manoeuvre had been sunk by air attack.
More British forces came into the area in 1942. On paper the fleet looked impressive, boasting five battleships and three aircraft carriers. However four of the battleships were old and obsolete and one of the aircraft carriers was small and virtually useless in a fleet action. Following successes pver American forces in the Pacific, the Japanese carrier forces made their one and only foray into the Indian Ocean in April 1942. Nagumo took the main force after the British fleet and a subsidiary raid was made on shipping in the Bay of Bengal. During those attacks two British heavy cruisers, an aircraft carrier - the obsolete HMS Hermes and a destroyer were sunk and large numbers of merchant ships were damaged or sunk.
Indian Ocean Retreat
Following those attacks, the British fleet retreated to Kilindini in east Africa, as their more forward fleet anchorages could not be adequately protected from Japanese attack. The fleet in the Indian Ocean was then gradually reduced to little more than a convoy escort force as other commitments called for the more powerful ships.
One exception was Operation Ironclad, a campaign launched when it was feared that Vichy French Madagascar might fall into Japanese hands, and be used as a submarine base. Such a blow would have been devastating to British lines of communication to the Far East and Middle East, but the Japanese never contemplated it. The French resisted more than expected, and more operations were need to capture the island, but it did eventually fall.
Indian Ocean Strike
It was only after the war in Europe was coming to an end that large British forces were despatched to the Indian Ocean again after the neutralisation of the German fleet in late 1943 and early 1944. The success of Operation Overlord in June meant even more craft from the Home Fleet could be sent, including precious amphibious assault shipping.
During late 1944, as more British aircraft carriers came into the area a series of strikes were flown against oil targets in Sumatra to prepare British carriers for the upcoming operations in the Pacific. USS Saratoga was leant for the first attack by the United States. The oil installations were heavily damaged by the attacks, aggravating the Japanese fuel shortages due to the American blockade. The final attack was flown as the carriers were heading for Sydney to become the British Pacific Fleet.
After the departure of the main battle forces the Indian Ocean was left with escort carriers and older battleships as the mainstay of its naval forces. Nevertheless, during those months important operations were launched in the recapture of Burma, including landings on Ramree and Akyab and near Rangoon.
Blockade of Japan
British forces consistently played a secondary role to American forces in the strangling of Japan's trade, albeit they still did have a significant role. The earliest successes were gained by mine laying. The Japanese minesweeping capability was never great, and when confronted with new types of mines they did not adapt quickly. Japanese shipping was driven from the Burmese coast using this type of warfare.
British submarines also operated against Japanese shipping, although later in the war. They were based in Ceylon, Freemantle and finally the Philippines. A major success was the sinking of several Japanese cruisers
The North African Desert
See also: Italian military history of World War II
On 13 September 1940, the Italian Tenth Army crossed the border from the Italian colony of Libya into Egypt, where British troops were protecting the Suez Canal. The Italian assault carried through to Sidi Barrani, approximately 95 km inside Egypt. The Italians then began to entrench themselves. At this time there were only 30,000 British available to defend against 250,000 Italian troops. The Italian decision to halt the advance is generally credited to them being unaware of the British strength, and the activity of Royal Navy forces operating in the Mediterranean to interfere with Italian supply lines. There were Royal Navy seaports at Alexandria, Haifa, and Port Said. Following the halt of the Italian Tenth Army, the British used the Western Desert Force's Jock columns to harass their lines in Egypt.
Britain goes on the offensive
On 11 November 1940, the Royal Navy crippled or destroyed three Italian battleships in the Battle of Taranto.
Then, on 8 December Operation Compass began. Planned as an extended raid, a force of British, Indian and Australian troops succeeded in cutting off the Italian troops. Pressing their advantage home, General O'Connor pressed the attack forward and succeeded in reaching El Agheila (an advance of 500 miles) and capturing tens of thousands of enemy. The Italian army was virtually destroyed, and it seemed that the Italians would be swept out of Libya. However at the crucial moment Churchill ordered that the advance be stopped and troops dispatched to defend Greece. Weeks later the first German troops were arriving in North Africa to reinforce the Italians.
Greek Interlude and Crete
See also: Balkans_Campaign and Battle of Crete
The Italians attacked Greece from Albania in late 1940. Not only did the Greeks stop the attack, they forced the Italians back. Eventually, in the spring of 1941, the Germans intervened in Greece. They also invaded Yugoslavia concurrently.
The Greeks had been reluctant to acquiesce to British ground forces into the country, because Britain could not spare enough forces to be guaranteed to forestall a German attack. They had, however, accepted aid from the RAF in their war with the Italians in Albania. The trigger for British forces moving to Greece in large numbers was the entry of German forces into Bulgaria, which made clear the German intent to invade Greece.
British forces took position on a defensive line running north west to south east across the northern part of Greece. However, there were critical weaknesses in the defences. The Greek forces in the area were further forward than the British forces, and the Greek Government refused British advice to withdraw to a common line. The Greek forces were thus defeated in detail. There was also a large gap between the left flank of British forces and the right flank of the Greek forces in Albania. That was exploited to the full by the Germans.
After being thrown off the Greek mainland, British forces retreated to Crete. There, the Germans again exploited weaknesses in the defences with a bold invasion plan. In the largest and last German airborne assault, paratroops landed at several points on the island. In all but one location, they were cut off and destroyed, and the follow-on seaborne forces were dispersed by the Royal Navy. However, that one location was enough, and reinforcements were flown in to the point where the Germans were strong enough to break out and take the rest of the island.
Iraq, Syria and Persia
In late 1941, to add to British troubles in the area, a rebellion broke out in Iraq. A pro-German ruler took power in the coup and ordered British forces out of Iraq. There were two main British bases in Iraq, around Basra and at Habbaniya north east of Baghdad. Basra was too well defended for the Iraqis to consider taking. However, Habbaniya was a poorly defended air base, situated in the middle of enemy territory. It had no regular air forces, being only a training centre. Nonetheless, the RAF personnel at the base converted as many of the training aircraft as possible to carry weapons.
When Iraqi forces came to Habbaniya, they surrounded the base and gave warning that any military activity would be considered as hostile, leading to an attack. However, the RAF training aircraft took off and bombed the Iraqi forces, repelling them from the base. Columns then set out from Habbaniya and Basra to capture Baghdad, and put an end to the rebellion. They succeeded at relatively low cost, but there was a disturbing development during the campaign.
A Luftwaffe aircraft was shot down over Iraq during the advance on Baghdad. The nearest Axis bases were on Rhodes, and so the aircraft had to stage through somewhere to be able to get to Iraq. The only possible place was Vichy Syria. This overtly hostile action could not be tolerated. Consequently, after victory in Iraq, British forces invaded Syria and Lebanon to remove the Vichy officials from power there. Vigorous resistance was put up by the French against British and Australian forces moving into Lebanon from Palestine. However, pressure there eventually told, and when this combined with an advance on Damascus from Iraq, the French surrendered.
The final major military operation in the war in the Middle East took place shortly thereafter. The Soviet Union desperately needed supplies for its war against Germany. Supplies were being sent round the North Cape convoy route to Murmansk and Archangel, but the capacity of that route was limited and subject to enemy action. Supplies were also sent from American to Vladivostock in Soviet-flagged ships. However, yet more capacity was needed, the obvious answer was to go through Persia. The Shah of Persia was somewhat pro-German, and so would not allow this. Consequently British and Soviet forces invaded and occupied Persia. The Shah was deposed and his son put on the throne.
In addition the well known campaigns in the western desert during 1940, a front was opened against the Italians in June 1940. That was around their colonies of Ethiopia, Italian Somaliland and Eritrea in east Africa.
As in Egypt, British forces were massively outnumbered by their Italian opponents. However, unlike Libya, Ethiopia was isolated from the Italian mainland, and thus cut off from resupply.
The first offensive moves of the campaign fell to the Italians. They attacked in three directions, into Sudan, Kenya and British Somaliland. Only in the final case did they enjoy success. The British garrison in Somaliland was so outnumbered, and had little enough territory to defend that it had to be evacuated to Aden. In Sudan and Kenya the Italian penetration was little more than a few tens of miles.
After their offensives petered out the Italians, as in Egypt, adopted a passive attitude and waited for the inevitable British counterattack. Attention then shifted the naval sphere.
The Italians had a small squadron based at Asmara in Eritrea. This was a threat to the British convoys heading up the Red Sea. It consisted of a few destroyers and submarines. However, the squadron was not used aggressively and mostly acted as a fleet in being. As supplies of fuel decreased, its opportunities for action also decreased. The Italians made one major attempt to attack a convoy, and they were roundly defeated in doing so. Following that attack, most of the surface ships of the squadron were sunk, and the submarines that escaped travelled around the Cape of Good Hope to return to Italy.
British forces were thin on the ground in east Africa, and the two nations that made the greatest contribution to victory on land were South Africa and India. South Africa provided much needed airpower and troops from the Indian Army made up the mainstay of the British ground forces. In the end, two Indian divisions saw combat in Ethiopia.
An important aspect of the campaign to retake Ethiopia was irregular forces. Major Orde Wingate, later to gain fame in Burma with the Chindits was a major mover behind the Ethiopian 'patriots' as they were referred to by the British. The irregulars, formed into the Gideon Force, disrupted Italian supply lines and provided vital intelligence to British forces.
The regular push to take Ethiopia began once reinforcements arrived from Egypt. The arrival of the first Australian division had released Indian 4th Infantry Division to be sent to the area. It quickly took the offensive from Sudan, and was supported by a thrust from Kenya. An amphibious assault was made on British Somalialand, staged from Aden. The three thrusts converged on the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, which fell early in 1941. The Italians made a final stand around the town of Golkar, before they were finally defeated in the middle of 1941.
The arrival of the German Afrika Korps under General Rommel reversed the initiative. Rommel's first offensive saw the British forces thrown out of Cyrenaica and back into Egypt. Rommel eventually halted at Sollum. However, the important port of Tobruk remained in British hands, with a largely Australian garrison. It withstood a siege for several months. After this first offensive by Rommel, initiative see-sawed between the two sides as each gained more supplies and troops.
To and fro in the Western Desert
After Rommel's first offensive, a reorganisation of British command took place. In November 1941 the Eighth Army was activated under command of Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham. Its first offensive failed disastrously as Rommel blunted the thrust. British operational doctrine was at fault through failing to use tanks effectively; a prerequisite for successful desert warfare. Cunningham was relived of command and Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie was put in his place. However, a second British offensive in late 1941 turned Rommel's flank and lead to the relief of Tobruk. Again Cyrenaica fell into British hands, this time the advance went as far as El Agheila. However outside events again intervened to impede British efforts; as the British attack reached El Agheila Japan attacked in the Far East. That meant that reinforcements that had been destined for the Middle East went elsewhere. This was to have disastrous effects.
Rommel took the offensive again in January 1942. He had been instructed by his high command to only conduct a limited offensive against British positions. However, he disobeyed orders and exploited the British collapse. In this he laid the seeds of his own downfall.
An operation had been planned to take Malta, and thus reduce its strangulation of Rommel's supply lines. However, with his new offensive, Rommel was consuming materiél meant for the Malta attack. It came down to a choice of attacking Malta or supporting Rommel and Rommel's attack won out. At the time Malta seemed neutralised, but this mistake was to come to haunt the Axis later.
Confusion in British ranks was horrendous as attempts to shore up the position failed time and again. Rommel not only drove the British out of Libya, and somewhat into Egypt, he pushed deep into the protectorate. Tobruk fell quickly, and there was no repeat of the epic siege that Rommel's last advance had produced. A prepared defensive line at Mersa Matruh was out flanked, and disaster beckoned. Ritchie was captured during Rommel's advance and Auchinlek, the Commander-in-Chief Middle East came forward to take command of Eighth Army himself. After Matruh there was only one more defensive position before Cairo itself; El Alamein.
Auchinlek managed to stop Rommel's offensive with the First Battle of El Alamein.
A new command team arrived in the Middle East, with Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery assuming command of the Eighth Army. Rommel tried to break through again during the Battle of Alam Halfa, but his thrust was stopped. Montgomery then began preparations for a great breakthrough offensive that would result in the pursuit of Axis forces all the way to Tunisia.
Operation Torch and El Alamein
8 November 1942 saw the first great amphibious assault of WWII. In Operation Torch, an Anglo-American force landed on the shores of Algeria and Morocco. However, even in Algeria despite having a large British content the allies maintained the illusion that this was an American operation in order to reduce possible resistance by the French.
After the attack by Force H on the French fleet at Mers el Kebir in 1940, anti-British feeling ran high among the French. This had been exacerbated by later British operations against Vichy-controlled territories at Dakar, Syria and Lebanon, and the invasion of Madagascar. It was feared that any British attack on French soil would lead to prolonged resistance. Ironically, the attack which saw the greatest resistance was that wholly-American landing in Morocco. A full scale naval battle was fought between French and American ships, and ground fighting was also heavy.
The resistance did not last long. The French surrendered and then shortly afterwards joined the Allied cause. One of the main reasons for quick switch of sides was because the Germans had moved into unoccupied France, ending the Vichy regime, shortly after the north African garrisons had surrendered.
Once resistance in Algeria and Morocco was over, the campaign became a race. The Germans were pouring men and supplies into Tunisia, and the Allies were trying to get sufficient troops into the country quickly enough to stop them before the need for a full scale campaign to drive them out occurred.
At the same time as Torch, the Second Battle of El Alamein was being fought in Egypt. The new commander of the Eighth Army, Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Montgomery, had the opportunity to conclusively defeat the Panzerarmee Afrika under Erwin Rommel, since Rommel was at the end of enormously stretched supply lines, the British were close to their supply bases, and Rommel was about to be attacked from the rear by Torch.
The Second Battle of El Alamein saw enormous use made of artillery. Rommel's forces had laid enormous amounts of mines in the desert, and the terrain of the area prevented his position being outflanked, and British naval forces were not powerful enough to land a significant force directly behind Rommel to cut his supply lines directly at the same time as Operation Torch. Consequently, the German lines had to be attacked directly. However, that did not mean that Montgomery did not try to use feint and deception in the battle. Dummy tanks and other deceptions were used liberally to try to fool the Germans where the stroke would fall.
The main attack went in, but it was turned back by the extensive minefields. Montgomery then shifted the axis of advance to another point to throw the Germans off balance. What had formerly been a spoiling attack was developed into the new major thrust. Through a grinding battle of attrition, the Germans were thrown back.
After El Alamein, Rommel's forces were pursued through the western desert for the last time. Cyrenaica was retaken from Axis forces, and then Tripolitania was won for the first time. Rommel's forces, apart from small rearguard actions to hold up Montgomery's men, did not turn and fight again until they were within the Mareth Line defences of southern Tunisia.
Battle for Tunisia
As British forces swept west through Libya and Anglo-American forces closed in from Algeria, the Axis began to pour reinforcements into Tunisia. A new command under Colonel General Jurgen von Arnim was set up. von Arnim was a confirmed enemy of Rommel, and so German command relations did not get off to a good start.
Rommel turned to face Montgomery's forces who had caught up with the Panzerarmee Afrika at last at the Mareth Line. The Mareth Line was a series of old French border defences against Italian forces from Libya. Rommel took them over and improved them greatly. It took a major effort for British forces to break through. However, by this time Rommel had left Africa never to return.
It was decided that First Army should make the main thrust to destroy Axis formations in Africa. II Corps was moved from the south to north of the front, and the French XIX Corps took up station on the right wing of First Army. Eighth Army was to make a subsidiary thrust along the coast to pin down Axis forces.
The final offensive began at the end of March 1943, and by May, Axis forces had surrendered. 250,000 men were taken prisoner, a number comparable to Stalingrad.
The Italian Campaign
Invasion of Sicily
Sicily was invaded on 19 July 1943. The operation named Operation Husky was directed from Malta. British forces attacked on the eastern flank of the landing, with Eighth Army's XXX Corps coming ashore at Cape Passero and XIII Corps at Syracuse. The Army's job was to advance up the east coast of Sicily. Originally British forces were to have the main role in the attack on the island but, when their advance stalled the US Seventh Army on the west side of the island swept around the enemy flank instead.
Eighth Army eventually battered its way past the German defences and enveloped Mount Etna; by this time the Germans and Italians were retreating. By 17 August all the Axis forces had evacuated the island, and Messina was captured that day.
Surrender of Italy
After operations in Sicily, the Italian Government was teetering on the brink of collapse. Mussolini was deposed, and peace feelers were put out to the Allies. However, the invasion of Italy still proceeded.
The first attacks were made directly across the Straits of Messina by Eighth Army in Operation Baytown on 3 September. V and XIII corps carried out that attack. Montgomery's forces leap-frogged up the toe of Italy over the next few days. A subsidiary landing, Operation Slapstick, was also made on 9 September at the Italian naval base of Taranto by the British 1st Airborne Division.
The main attack, Operation Avalanche, was delivered on the same day at Salerno. Salerno was chosen for the site of the attack because it was the furthest north that the single-engined fighters based in Sicily could realistically provide cover. Escort carriers also stood off shore to supplement the cover given by land-based aircraft. News of the Italian surrender was broadcast as the troop convoys were converging on Salerno. The Germans reacted extremely quickly to the surrender, disarming the Italian troops near their forces, and took up defensive positions near Salerno.
The landings at Salerno were made by the US Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark. It consisted of the US VI Corps landing on the right flank and the British X Corps landing on the left. Initial resistance was heavy, However heavy naval and air support combined with the approach of Eighth Army from the south eventually forced the Germans to withdraw. By 25 September a line from Naples to Bari was controlled by Allied forces.
Further relatively rapid advances continued over the next few weeks, but by the end of October, the front was stalled. The Germans had taken up extremely powerful defensive positions on the Winter Line. There the front would remain for the next six months.
The lynchpin of the Winter Line position was the town and monastery of Monte Cassino. The extremely powerful position dominated a key route to Rome and thus it had to be captured. British forces on the left flank of Fifth Army tried to cross the Garigliano River and were also driven back, as was a joint French-American attempt.
After the initial failure, the front was reorganised. V Corps was left on the Adriatic, but the rest of Eighth Army was moved over the Appennines to concentrate more forces to take Rome. The front of Fifth Army was thus considerably reduced. X Corps also moved to Eighth Army as the complicated arrangement of British forces under American command was removed. Several battles for Cassino followed, contested by Indian, New Zealand and Polish forces. In the end, Cassino lost its pivotal position as operations elsewhere on the front managed to turn its flanks. These included a brilliant demonstration of mountain warfare by the French Expeditionary Corps.
Anzio and Rome
Another major factor in the breaking of the winter line was the Anzio landings, an attempt to outflank the Winter Line by using the advantage of Allied sea power. The last great amphibious assault in the Mediterranean took place on 23 January 1944. The assaulting formations were controlled by the US VI Corps, but as with Salerno, there was a substantial British component to the assault force. The British 1st Division and British 2nd Commando Brigade comprised the left flank of the assault.
Again, like Salerno, there were serious problems with the landings. The commander, Lieutenant General John Lucas, did not exploit as aggressively as he might have done and was relieved for it. If Lucas had pushed too far, however, his forces could have been cut off by the Germans. The Germans came even closer than Salerno to breaking up the beachhead. They pushed through the defences to the last line before the sea. Again massive firepower on the Allied side saved the beachhead.
After the initial attack and after the German counterattack had been repulsed, the Anzio beachhead settled down to statemate. The attempt at outflanking the Winter Line had failed. It was May before a breakout from the beachhead could be attempted. By May, VI Corps had been reinforced to a strength of seven divisions. In Operation Diadem, a concerted attack was made at both Anzio and the Winter Line. The German defences finally cracked.
British forces were not well handled during Diadem. Oliver Leese, the commander of Eighth Army, made an enormous mistake by sending the heavily mechanised XIII Corps up the Liri Valley towards Rome. An enormous traffic jam developed. There was also controversy over the handling of American forces. VI Corps had originally been supposed to interpose itself on the route to Rome and cut off the German forces retreating from the Winter Line. However, Clark ordered only a comparatively token force into a blocking position and ordered the rest of the Corps to head for Rome. The Germans brushed aside the blocking force and thus a major part of their formations escaped encirclement.
Rome fell on 4 June, and the pursuit continued well beyond the city, into northern Italy.
The Gothic Line and Victory in Italy
By the end of August, Allied forces had reached Pisa and Pesaro on each coast. As with the previous year, the advance then slowed greatly. The composition of the forces in Italy had changed again, with the withdrawal of the French forces to form the core of some of the assault forces for Operation Dragoon. The
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