Despite tenacious Italian resistance in the spring of 1941, swiftness of action, solid logistical planning, unconventional solutions, and engaged leadership allowed ad hoc and diverse Allied forces to reverse all of the Italian gains from the year before.
In the north, a large conventional invasion of Eritrea took place from the Sudan in November of 1940 led by the “Gazelle Force”, a mobile column used to conduct reconnaissance, raid, and screen the two division invasion force…kind of like an armored cavalry regiment. It took six months of hard fighting, and not a few setbacks, including a defeat or two, through well-fortified Italian positions before the Italians were routed at the Battle of Keren in late March. (Brig William Slim was wounded by a strafing Italian fighter during this advance).
In the east, Sikhs, Punjabis, Baluchs, and Somali commandos of the 5th Indian Division landed at Berbera in March to recapture British Somaliland. It was the first Allied amphibious assault of the war. Berbera significantly cut down on supply difficulties of supporting from Kenya. After quickly defeating the surprised Italians, they reformed the Somali Camel Corps, and moved inland to meet the Africans moving up from Italian Somaliland.
In the south from his base in Kenya, Lieut Gen Cunningham, (Adm Cunningham’s little brother, funny “Howe” the Brits do that… I fukin kill me) split his command and invaded both Italian Somaliland and southern Ethiopia. Somaliland was seized thru a surprise joint and combined amphibious and land invasion into the teeth of an Italian defense that was expecting them. In the space of five months, the 11th (East) African Division, and the 12th (West) African Div, consisting of units from 14 different nations, arrived, organized, resourced, trained, planned, prepared, rehearsed, staged, and then coordinated a two prong attack into Italian Somaliland. (What can we do in five months?) They seized Mogadishu on 1 March and turned north into Ethiopia.
Cunningham’s other attack was a logistical nightmare across the barren and dry Chelbi Desert by the South African and Rhodesians, in coordination with the separate 8000 man Belgian “Force Publique” from the Congo. This attack went from the trackless desert of Chelbi to the jungles of the Ethiopian highlands at the height of the monsoon. Cunningham hoped to instigate an uprising, but southwest Ethiopia consisted of Ras (kingdoms) that were loyal to the Italians. This attack ended up fighting a brutal counterinsurgency as they moved toward Addis Ababa.
In the fight for Addis Ababa, the successes of Major Orde Wingate’s “Gideon Force” caused Ethiopian “Patriot” units to materialize all across the central, western, and northern parts of the country. The Italians, tied to their bases in the midst of a hostile population, had great difficulty massing on the Patriot units, and when they did, they were ambushed by the Gideon Force. The Italian commander of East Africa, the Duke of Aosta, feared the slaughter of Italian civilians in the capital, and retreated from the city in April.
On 5 May 1941, Emperor Haile Selassie, the Ras Tafari and Lion of Judah, made a triumphant entry into Addis Ababa exactly five years after he was forced into exile by the Italians. He was escorted by his Patriots, and Orde Wingate and the Gideon Force. The Duke of Aosta retreated to Amba Algi but was encircled by Lieut Gen Platt (and Slim) from the north, and Cunningham from the south and east. Aosta would surrender 18 May.
Isolated Italian units would resist for another five months and a vicious insurgency would go on for years, but with the Italian defeat, five divisions of troops became available for operations elsewhere: Rommel was pushing on Egypt, the Australians were hard pressed holding Tobruk, Iraq was declaring war, Persia was leaning towards Germany, and the Japanese were threatening to occupy French Indochina, which threatened Burma, Malaya, Singapore, and India. The victory in Ethiopia was none too soon.
The successful East African campaign was the first victorious Allied land campaign of the war. The first Allied amphibious invasion of the war. And the first Axis territory liberated by the Allies in the war.
After a failed escape attempt to seize the notorious island prison’s boat launch, rioting prisoners took hostages and fortified themselves in one of the cell blocks. On 3 May 1946, prison authorities summoned assistance from nearby Treasure Island Naval Station and the US Army post at The Presidio. Two platoons of marines and coast guardsmen led by Gen Joe Stillwell and BG Frank Merrill arrived the next morning. Using tactics they learned fighting dug in Japanese; the marines and the prison guards isolated the prisoners from the hostages and then stormed the cell block. Three prisoners and two guards were killed, with about a dozen wounded. Two captured prisoners were eventually executed in the gas chamber.
By May 1941, Great Britain was slowly being strangled and was down to less than six months of the food and essential supplies required to continue the war. In his memoirs, Winston Churchill would say that the only thing that really scared him during the Second World War was the U-boat threat.
On the morning of 9 May 1941, the German submarine U-110 was part of a Wolfpack that attacked a convoy south of Iceland. One of the escorts, HMS Bulldog, depth charged U-110 and severely damaged it. On the second pass, the Bulldog dropped more depth charges below the U-boat and forced it to the surface.
The German crew abandoned the sub, thinking it was going to sink. But it didn’t. The crew tried to re-board but some machine gun fire from a quick thinking sailor on the Bulldog convinced most of them of the folly of that action. None the less, the U-boat captain died trying: he assumed there was no need so he didn’t destroy the cipher books, message logbooks, or the Enigma machine, used to decode messages from fleet headquarters, before abandoning ship. A boarding party from the Bulldog recovered it all.
The capture of U-110 was an intelligence bonanza for Dr Alan Turing and the British code breakers at Bletchley Park. The Allies were already reading the Luftwaffe’s mail, within the month they were also reading the Kriegsmarine’s. The combination of the two allowed the British to reroute convoys away from German reconnaissance planes, surface raiders, and U-boats, not to mention target Rommel’s supply convoys between Italy and Libya. Merchant marine losses dropped significantly. It was the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic that year.
On 12 May 1941, Group Captain Beamish walked into LieutGen Freyberg’s “office” in the quarry on the neck of Crete’s Akrotiri peninsula, ostensibly to get his ass chewed for the Luftwaffe’s “Daily Hate”, and the RAF’s lack of response, but actually to give the commander his brief on the latest Ultra intercept. Of the 35,000 Allied troops on the island, only Beamish and Freyberg knew of the source, and even existence, of the “Most Reliable Sources” or “Orange Leonard” communiques.
OL-2168, dated 12 May 41 was the analysis of a Luftwaffe order delaying the invasion of Crete from 17 May to 20 May due to the need for an Italian tanker filled with aviation fuel to make its way down the Adriatic. The Luftwaffe order also detailed a change in the invasion’s task organization: the initial landing would still be made by the 7th Fallschirmjaeger Division, but the follow on troops would not be made by the 22nd Air Landing Division, which would stay in Romania, but by the 5th Mountain Division, which was badly mauled in the Greek campaign but reorganized and reinforced for Crete. After the parachutists seized an airfield, the 5th Mountain would be air bridged to Crete from Greece just as the Luftwaffe gad done for Franco’s army from Morocco to Spain five years before.
But the Bletchley Park analyst that composed OL-2168 either misread the order, or more likely, presented the worst case scenario to cover his ass. OL-2168 stated that the invasion of Crete would be made by not two, but three divisions, the 7th FJ, 22nd AL, and 5th Mtn with airborne and air landing components, and a supporting sea borne landing. Freyberg assumed the 5th Mtn was going to make an amphibious assault, as opposed to a landing on a stretch of beach already secured by the parachutists. Despite all of the other evidence to the contrary: a Luftwaffe commander, airfield objectives, lack of German or Italian landing craft, British naval dominance around Crete at night etc. (including future OL comms that clarified the situation) Freyberg was convinced the amphibious invasion was the main effort and altered his orders and disposition accordingly. Nearly half his troops, and almost all of his artillery, now guarded beaches against a non-existent threat.
Churchill’s “fine opportunity for killing parachutists” was slowly turning into a fine opportunity for killing and capturing British, Commonwealth, and Greek troops.
On 27 April 1941, the German army raised the Nazi flag over the Acropolis in Athens and the last Allied troops were evacuated to Crete from the Peloponnese. Crete was the obvious next target. The loss of Crete would isolate Turkey, seal the flank of the upcoming German invasion of the Soviet Union, put permanent Luftwaffe bomber airfields in range of Egypt, prevent the British from easily supporting the already troublesome Greek and Jugoslav partisans, and most importantly, keep British bombers from targeting Hitler’s only dependable supply of natural oil, the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. The three big, and new or expanded airfields on the north coast of the island were the keys to Crete. On 30 April 1941, MajGen Bernard Freyberg was given command of Crete with the explicit task of keeping the airfields out of German hands.
Freyberg was a larger than life and barrel chested man, personal friend of Winston Churchill, and the senior operational officer from New Zealand. He earned the Victoria Cross in the First World War, and was fearlessly aggressive: he was wounded 27 times though he did tell Churchill once that it was only half that as “you usually get two wounds each time – one coming in and one going out”. As the 2nd Zealand Division commander, he inherited “Creforce” with more than 40,000 soldiers. He had three of his Kiwi brigades, one large Australian brigade group, the British brigade sized garrison, three Greek brigades, and a surprisingly effective composite Greek brigade consisting of Greek officer cadets, NCO and basic trainees, their cadres, and the Cretan gendarme. A formidable force to repel any German invasion, on paper at least.
Unfortunately, 15,000 were noncombatant soldiers from which he could only form a single under strength composite brigade. The rest were “mouths to feed” and “useless, except for causing problems with the civilians”. Crete had a food shortage that the extensive vineyards, and olive and orange groves were no help mitigating. Furthermore he had woefully inadequate artillery and AA, only 24 working tanks, few trucks, and only 15 fighter aircraft. Moreover, the exiled Greek Royal family was on the island, and made the local political situation delicate. But most troubling were the few operational radios, and a supply and communication’s system based on runners and vulnerable wire along the single coast road. However, what he lacked in essential resources, it was thought was made up with numbers, a generous to a fault, warlike, and zealously anti-German population, and near perfect intelligence.
The morning Freyberg assumed command, he met with RAF Group Captain George Beamish, ostensibly to discuss the appalling air defenses of the island. But Beamish had a more important additional duty: he was the only officer on the island allowed to decode and view the “Orange Leonard” communiques, the Ultra intercepts of high level Luftwaffe operations orders. Through Beamish and Ultra, Freyberg knew the German objectives (the airfields, particularly Maleme), the German units involved (7th FJ Div, and 22nd Airlanding Div), the invasion method (airborne with supporting seaborne landing), the German commander (Luftwaffe Gen Kurt Student, the Father of the Fallshirmjaeger), the supporting air groups, their airfields, and finally the invasion date – 16 May.
Later that evening, Winston Churchill cabled his support to his friend and said the upcoming battle was, “a fine opportunity for killing parachute troops”.
TBy late April, 1941, the British, Commonwealth and Greek forces were in full retreat to the Peloponnesian peninsula where the British navy was already evacuating thousands of troops to Crete off the east coast. In order to reach the Peloponnese, the evacuating troops had to cross over the narrow Isthmus of Corinth which was cut by a canal that linked the Gulf of Corinth and the Aegean Sea.
At dawn on 26 April 1941, the 2nd Fallschirmjaeger (parachute) Regiment landed on both sides of the canal to seize the bridges in order to cut off the withdrawal and open up an avenue for the pursuing panzers to cross the canal. The parachute landings surprised the defending Australian battalion, but by the time the Germans managed to get organized and find their weapons (Fallshirmjaeger parachuted unarmed and gathered their weapons from canisters parachuted separately), the Australian infantry and British Matilda tanks were already counterattacking. However, German Stuka dive bombers broke up the attacks, and within the hour there was hand to hand fighting on both sides of the highway bridge and foot bridge.
About 0800, the bridge exploded. There are two theories: 1. The Australians detonated the charges (the simple and most likely theory) and 2. The German paratroops seized the bridge, cleared the explosives, cut the wires, and a rogue shell fired by a Kiwi artillery piece eight miles away set the explosives off (an account given by a German officer who would have suffered severe repercussions for allowing the bridge to be destroyed. Needless to say this account is most favored by German historians and airborne enthusiasts).
You, intelligent reader, judge for yourself.
In any case the bridge was destroyed, and the 2nd FJ took extensive casualties. The 1st SS Leibstandarte Division was delayed crossing the canal, which allowed another 22,000 Allioed troops to evacuate from Nafplio. The cut off British rearguard, the 4th New Zealand Bde retreated to Megara, near Athens, and was evacuated with great difficulty by the British navy the next day.
From 10 April to 30 April 1941, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead’s 9th Australian Division defeated every attempt by Rommel’s Afrika Korps to seize the vital city and port of Tobruk on Libya’s northeast coast. On 1 May, Rommel invested the city with five Italian divisions and continued on to Egypt before the British could regroup. The British Navy provided enough supplies for the the garrison to hold out indefinitely, despite much hard fighting when the Italians made a deliberate assault. The Australians’ aggressive nighttime patrolling and numerous spoiling attacks kept the Italian’s attacks to a minimum. Furthermore, they launched raids on Afrika Korps supply lines from the city which caused great frustration to Rommel’s precarious logistics situation. Morshead held out until the end of August when his Australians were replaced by Poles, Czechs, and Brits brought in by the British Navy.
The British naval victories at Taranto and Cape Matapan allowed Adm. Cunningham to anchor the 14th Destroyer Squadron in Valletta Harbor on Malta to raid Axis shipping heading to Libya. The first fruits of that opportunity came on the night of 15-16 April, 1941 just off the coast of Sfax, Tunisia.
Three days before, four troopships carrying the remainder of the 15th Panzer Division (less vehicles), and one ammunition ship carrying three basic loads, departed Naples escorted by three Italian destroyers. The British, informed by ULTRA intercepts, tracked the convoy by seaplane until it was in the shallow waters off Tunisia, where it couldn’t disperse if attacked.
On the evening of 15 April, the four destroyers of the squadron: HMS Jervis, HMS Nubian, HMS Mohawk, and HMS Janus, exploited the Italian’s lack of radar and snuck to within 2000m of the convoy. Just before 2 am, the British destroyers ambushed the convoy and immediately sank or damaged all three destroyers with torpedoes or 4.7″ guns. They then turned their guns on the defenseless and cornered transports and sank all five. Only the heroic efforts of an Italian ensign, the surviving officer aboard the destroyer Luca Tarigo, prevented a one sided victory. The young 20 year old officer rallied what remained of the crew, and attacked the British flotilla as they were systematically destroying the transports. He managed to put two torpedoes into HMS Mohawk, whom had to be abandoned and scuttled.
On 8 April 1941, the German 6th Mountain Division cracked the Metaxas Line in the most unlikely of places: the extremely mountainous far west of the line, after scaling the twin heights of Demir Kapou and Kale Bair. Both mountains were over 7000 ft (twice the height of Riva Ridge) and thought by the Greeks to be insurmountable. Nonetheless, the feat was almost in vain as just west, the 2nd Panzer Division blew through Yugoslavia and raced near unopposed toward Thessalonica. To the northwest, the advanced guard of the 1st SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Brigade, Hitler’s elite bodyguard, entered the northern end of the Monastir Pass, whose southern exit outflanked Gen Maitland Wilson’s Force W along the Halciamon Line.
Wilson knew of the German advances in near real time due to Ultra intelligence intercepts but couldn’t convince the Greeks to retreat. He couldn’t compromise the nature of his information, and in any case the Greeks were experiencing great success on the eastern end of the Metaxas Line, and were unwilling to disengage from a “winning” battle. Wilson dispatched an Australian brigade group to the southern end of the Monastir Gap, but even by force marching they barely made it there in time. Wilson essentially sacrificed them to save the rest of Force W. Wilson was only able to stay ahead of the Germans due to his Ultra intelligence. Force W, and any Greeks nearby, retreated first to the Mt Olympus Line, and then to the Thermopylae Line further south. But both would be outflanked, and two more brigades, Kiwis these times, would be sacrificed to slow down the advance so the rest of Force W could evacuate to Crete.
Even the brilliant victory off Cape Matapan couldn’t salvage Great Britain’s foreign policy in Balkans, Mid East, and Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek government was in chaos after the unexpected death of Ioannis Metaxas. Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was the personal guest of Adolf Hitler at the Eagle’s Nest and signed Tripartite Pact. German troops were openly preparing for the Invasion of Greece, and Gen Archibald Wavell, the CinC MidEast was already making plans to evacuate the British expeditionary force there. And even worse, Turkey, watching the complete rout of O’Conner’s troops in Libya (O’Conner was captured by Rommel on 4 April) was leaning dangerously towards siding with Germany, as they had 25 years before. Turkey was no longer “The Sick Man of Europe” and its large and professional army would spell disaster for the British in the Middle East. And unlike the First World War, there would be no “Arab uprising” by new Lawrences of Arabia. As it was, the British could barely contain the pro German and pro Italian sympathies of many Arabs, particularly in Iraq.
In 1932, the Kingdom of Iraq was granted independence but as part of the treaty Britain retained some petroleum, passage, and basing rights. However as 80% of the British Empire’s oil came from Iraq, Persia (Iran), and Kuwait, British diplomats continued to meddle in Iraqi affairs. On 1 April 1941, Rashid Ali, a former pro German prime minister, led a coup with the four top Iraqi army and air force generals aka “The Golden Square”, against the pro-British monarchy. The Prince Regent fled to the RAF airbase at Habbaniyah, halfway between the towns of Ramadi and Fallujah. Over the next few days, Rashid Ali had all pro-British supporters arrested and formed the National Defense Government. Wavell could nothing to stop the coup: he had but a single battalion in Mandate Palestine, and a reinforced battalion defending RAF Habbaniyah. All four divisions of the Royal Iraqi Army sided with Rashid.
Turkey was now surrounded on all sides by pro German countries: National Defense Iraq, a nominally pro German but neutral Persia, the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Vichy French Syria. Only Greece and the small British expeditionary force there remained as a symbol of Allied power in the area.