Operation Crusader Prelude: The British Eighth Army

After the failure of Operation Battleaxe to relieve Tobruk and the sound thrashing the British received from the Vichy French in Syria in June 1941, the CinC Middle East Archibald Wavell was replaced by Gen Claude Auchinleck (They essentially switched jobs). Unlike Wavell, the no nonsense Auchinleck was not intimidated by Churchill’s constant demands for action, specifically to attack Rommel. Auchinleck’s first action as CinC MidEast was to fly to London and explain to Churchill the realities on the ground. To defeat Rommel, he needed two, preferably three armoured divisions, control of the air, enough training time for arriving troops, and enough supplies to push across Cyrenaica and into Libya without culminating. Furthermore, he needed enough troops to secure the Caucasus’ passes against German penetrations from the north in Russia. (It seems silly in hindsight, but it was a very real concern in the summer and autumn of 1941). Auchinleck expertly and calmly laid out his case, and Churchill reluctantly agreed on a November offensive. Auchinleck later told his staff, Churchill “couldn’t browbeat facts”.

In August and September, Auchinleck reorganized his command into two armies, the Ninth Army in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, and the Eighth Army in Egypt. He successfully courted American officials to ensure that he wouldn’t be forgotten in the scramble for Lend Lease supplies. When those supplies began arriving in bulk in September, Auchinleck, behind an elaborate deception operation and secure in the knowledge that Rommel wouldn’t attack before he took Tobruk, he pulled his mobile units out of the line for refit and rearming (That’s why the Afrika Korps found nothing during the recce/raid of Mersa Matruh in late September). The British tankers loved the mechanical reliability and speed of the US Stuart light tanks (if not the gas mileage and tiny gun), dubbing them “Honeys”. However, they needed more. What the Americans couldn’t provide, Home Defense would have to and Churchill delivered.

Churchill wasn’t happy, but he recognized that an invasion of the Home Islands was unlikely while Hitler was fighting in the Soviet Union. Rommel had to be defeated before Russia fell and the Wehrmacht turned its attention back to Great Britain. To the howling protests of the Home Guard and the Imperial General Staff, Churchill sent a sizable portion of the all-important RAF Fighter Command in England to North Africa, and more importantly, virtually the entire mobile reserve of Great Britain, the 1st UK Armoured Division, whose primary task up til then was to counterattack any German landings in England.

On 9 November, 1941, the division’s long trip around Africa finally ended when the last convoy from Great Britain containing the Valentine and Matilda tanks of the 1st UK Tank Brigade passed through the Suez Canal and arrived in Port Said, Egypt. By 16 November, the entire Eighth Army was in its assault positions for the long awaited operation to relieve Tobruk and push Rommel out of Africa:

Operation Crusader.

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