In early February 1941, the Italian Army was retreating through Cyrenaica to eastern Libya as fast as possible while trying their best to slow down the Australian advance along the coast road. On the 6th, the Aussies overwhelmed their blocking force at Benghazi and the Italian retreat turned into a rout.
Cutting across the base of the Cyrenacian Hump were the Desert Rats of the British 7th Armored Division, who were determined to prevent the Italian escape. But the realities of fighting in the unforgiving Western Desert far from their supply depots in Egypt had slowed the advance considerably. All the necessities of modern mechanized warfare: fuel, water, ammunition, spare parts, lubrication etc, had to be convoyed hundreds of miles in trucks that were using most of the very fuel they were tasked to move forward. The Desert Rats’ Matilda and Crusader tanks could go no further, and the division stopped to reoganize and conduct maintenance at Mechilli, about 150 miles from cutting off more than 40,000 men of the Italian X Army.
But the division commander, MajGen Creagh, was not going to abandon his mission. He formed an ad hoc force from all of his brigades’ armoured car battalions, two infantry battalions and some engineers in trucks, and a few towed batteries of field guns and anti-aircraft guns. It was desgnated “Combeforce” after it’s commander Lieut. Col. J.F.B. Combe.
Combeforce raced ahead (at an average of 5mph) for 30 hours over brutal terrain and arrived at Beda Fomm on the coast road in the late afternoon on 7 Feb. They immediately set up a hasty ambush, and fortunately for them they did so because the Italians appeared less than 30 minutes after they arrived. Combeforce attacked and forced the shocked Italians back north. The trap was sprung.
The next morning the Italians conducted a series of increasingly desperate combined arms attacks to breakout. The British armored cars were clearly outmatched by the Italian tanks, and the infantry lacked any viable anti-tank weapons, short of climbing on the tanks and throwing grenades in them. In many instances, they just let the Italian tanks roll over them to engage the supporting Italian infantry at close quarters. The final Italian attack was only stopped by Combeforce’s battery of 25pdrs firing point blank over open sights, in one case, at less than 30 yds.
Unable to break through the British to their south and with the Australians bearing down on them from the north, the Italian X Army surrendered the next day: 25,000 men, and over two hundred tanks and artillery pieces.
The road to Tripoli was open, but the Brits and Aussies were wrecked in the process. The Battle of Beda Fomm is the classic case of culmination – the Allies were spent and they wouldn’t get any closer to Tripoli, or throwing the Axis out of Africa, for another two years.
At the beginning of 1941, Adolf Hitler was furious at Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and his failing adventures in the Balkans and Africa. The Italians simply couldn’t hold onto any territory they took: they invaded Greece in the autumn of 1940, and in the process they were not only thrown out of Greece but also lost a third of their colony in Albania. The British were pushing on Italian Somaliland, just landed to retake British Somaliland, and were pounding into Eritrea. Finally, and most disconcertingly, the Australians stormed Tobruk, and British armor was spotted just east of El Alghelia in Libya.
These Italian failures threatened the flank of Hitler’s upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union in the late spring. As part of a deception plan to hide his intentions in the East, he just railed against Britain and spoke of the upcoming amphibious invasion of the British isles. So seizing Greece and shoring up the Italians in North Africa would help that effort (or so the logic went).
As part of Germany’s Southern strategy was the Deutches Afrikacorps, or the German Africa Corps or DAK. On 5 February 1941, MajGen Erwin Rommel was given command and tasked with forming the DAK, transporting it to Libya, and securing North Africa. It was really just a sideshow of a sideshow at the time. The DAK would be formed around the the 3rd and and 15th Panzer Divisions. For the next week, Rommel organized the two divisions for rail movement to Southern Italy. In the process, he fast tracked (ha!) the 5th Panzer Regiment, an infantry battalion, and engineer, medical, anti aircraft, and water purification companies for immediate transport and told his executive officer to follow with the rest. Newly promoted LieutGen Rommel flew to Tripoli on 12 Feb 1941 ahead of the world’s first brigade combat team, where he met them two weeks later. (The rest of the DAK would arrive over the course of the next three months .)
Rommel, with the first units of the Africa Corps, would attack the British as soon as the 5th Panzer Regiment was off the ships.
In December 1940, the British launched Operation Compass against the Italians in the Western Desert. What started as a spoiling attack transformed into a full fledged offensive once the Italians started surrendering en masse around Sidi Barrani, Egypt. On 5 January, 1941 and to much acclaim, the 6th Australian Division broke through the Italians making a stand at Bardia in Libya and raced towards the big prize in the Western Desert: the city of Tobruk. The Western Desert Campaign was a three year see saw struggle where success was based almost entirely on the supply situations of the respective sides. And there was no more important city logistically in the area than Tobruk.
Tobruk was the mid-way point on the coastal highway between the two gateways to the Western Desert, El Agheila in the west and El Alamein in the east. It also has a deep water harbor that allowed an occupier to receive vast quantities of supplies that would otherwise have to be trucked hundreds of miles overland. Finally it was at the base of the “Cyrenaican Hump” and forces there could be used to cut off anyone at Benghazi or Derna. The advantages of Tobruk were not lost on the Italians and they turned it into a fortress.
On 21 January, the Australians cleared paths through the wire and minefields outside Tobruk for 18 British Matilda tanks and several captured Italian tanks. Once inside the city, the tanks with the supporting Australian infantry were unstoppable. Lacking any effective anti tank weapons, the defenders surrendered in droves. The Australians took 25,000 prisoners, and forced the Italians to abandon all of Cyrenacia. For the rest of January and into February, the race was on: Could the British capture Libya faster than the Italians could abandon it? If they could Tunisia laid defenseless and the campaign in North Africa would be over.
The years long struggle between the Royal Navy, and the U-boats and surface raiders of the German Kriegsmarine to cut off Great Britain of supplies from the Americas and Asia during the Second World War is usually known as the Battle of the Atlantic. However, this is misleading because that fight took place across the world’s oceans, and nowhere fiercer than the southern reaches of the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The shipping lanes around South America and South Africa were prime targets, not for the resource heavy U boats, but for the hilfkreuzers, or auxiliary cruisers, essentially fast merchantmen armed with guns scavenged from obsolete First World War warships. They were the scourge of the South Seas. Though they were no match for any proper naval ships, they preyed on the merchantmen far from the naval bases of the North Atlantic. Ton for ton they were the most effective commerce raiders in the German Navy. And none was more feared than HK 2 “Pinguin”
By early 1941, the Pinguin had already sunk or captured over 100,000 tons of shipping, and sent more than few back to Nazi occupied France with prize crews. She had two seaplanes for scouting, a plethora of cannon, two torpedo tubes, and carried more than 300 mines. She survived almost exclusively on the captured stores of her victims and routinely posed as a Norwegian freighter to evade the Allied navies. (The Norwegian navy and merchant marine were under the control of Great Britain after its occupation by Germany in the summer of 1940.)
On Christmas Eve 1940, while prowling the seas near South Georgia Island, the Pinguin intercepted a message between two Norwegian ships on a whaling expedition off of Antarctica. Posing as a supply ship on 14 January 1941, the Pinguin appeared out of the fog and slipped next to the whaling fleet’s factory ships. Her crew quickly and quietly boarded and overtook them. Then with a bit of speed, subterfuge, and distributed decisive action, took control of all of the whalers and the supply ships. In a bloodless victory, the Pinguin captured the entire Norwegian national whaling fleet of 14 ships, totaling 36,000 tons of shipping, 10,000 tons of fuel oil, and enough whale oil to supply the German Navy for a year. Additionally, prize crews would take all but two of the ships back to France where the factory ships were converted into auxiliary cruisers, and the whalers into minelayers.
In Berlin, Admiral Raeder was ecstatic at the news, and immediately issued orders for other German surface forces to break out into the Atlantic. (If a slow, lightly armed merchantman could do such damage, imagine what a real cruiser, of even a battleship, could do? …or so the thinking went.) In early February the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau made a successful foray into the Atlantic. Although the shipping sunk was limited, their sortie threw the convoy system into chaos as the Royal Navy reacted. Buoyed by the success, Raeder began planning an even bolder sortie to unleash the most powerful German battleship into the Atlantic: the Bismarck.
For two months, Gen Archibald Wavell, commander of British Forces in the Middle East, had watched the slow buildup of more than 140,000 Italian men and their supplies around Sidi Barrani since its capture in September. Gen Wavell could not lose Egypt and the Suez Canal, and he was grossly outnumbered with only 36,000 troops. So he decided to attack.
On 8 December, 1940, troops of the Maj Gen Richard O’Conner’s Western Desert Force, the Red Eagles of the 4th Indian Division and the Desert Rats of the British 7th Armored Division, moved into assault positions for what they thought was another training exercise. They had been training all week on what they didn’t know were exact mock ups of Italian positions around Sidi Barrani that were identified by the Long Range Desert Group. In the morning of 9 December, Wavell launched Operation Compass. Initially, British and Indian artillery bombarded the Italian base camps also id’d by the LRDG. Later that morning, the Western Desert Force attacked.
The Italian defense was completely surprised and almost immediately collapsed. In three days, the British overran the Italian camps around Sidi Barrani and took over 38,000 prisoners, suffering just 650 casualties.
After their loss in the Battle of Britain, Luftwaffe generally stopped large daylight bombing raids. However, they still continued “The Blitz” on London and other British cities at night. Ostensibly to destroy industry, but like the Royal Air Force nighttime bombing raids, doing damage to residential and commercial areas much more often than not. On the night of 14 November 1940, the largest Luftwaffe raid to date hit the British city of Coventry.
Just after supper, fifteen modified He-111 bombers, using special radio navigation equipment, dropped marker flares for the follow on bombers. Coventry was thought to be a poor nighttime target for bombers due to the surrounding terrain so it lacked adequate barrage balloons and anti aircraft guns. But the pathfinding bombers mitigated this. Soon after, the first wave of Luftwaffe bombers dropped high explosive bombs and naval mines with parachutes (the shock of landing would simulate the strike of a ship, and because they didn’t make a crater their explosions went generally outward instead of generally upward). These were intended to destroy the water mains, the telephone exchanges, and overwhelm and slow down the first responders, particularly firefighters. The next wave dropped phosphorus and magnesium incendiaries to start large fires which were intended to spread. The next wave dropped antipersonnel bombs to kill any fire fighters that made through the rubble caused by the first wave. In all, 515 German bombers made several sorties through the night against Coventry.
About 2 am on the morning of 15 November, a firestorm developed in the city center. Most of the civilian deaths from the raid came about because this conflagration consumed the oxygen out of the air raid shelters. When the all clear sounded the next morning, 1/3 of Coventry was leveled, and 1/3 more of its buildings were damaged. Civilian casualties were considered “light” as most citizens left the city at night after earlier raids.
The Luftwaffe Raid on Coventry had a number of firsts: it was the first bombing raid to use pathfinder aircraft, the first to use incendiaries, and the first to use “block busting” bombs. The Luftwaffe would continue to bomb British cities for the next two years but would never be able to mass on one like they did on Coventry for various reasons. But Raid on Coventry did set several precedents, precedents that the RAF, and eventually the US Eighth Air Force, would mimic hundreds of times against German cities.
The Italian build up at Sidi Barranni was proceeding slowly but steadily, and by early December the Italians would be prepared for a final push into Egypt. The British needed to slow the supplies that were ferried from Italy to North Africa, but the Italian Navy, the Regina Marina, had a significant firepower superiority in the Mediterranean. On the heel of the Italian boot at the naval base of Taranto, the Regina Maria had a fleet of six battleships, sixteen cruisers and thirteen destroyers. The Italian naval threat forced the British Mediterranean Fleet to inefficiently operate en masse against the Italian supply lines linking North Africa and Italy.
On the afternoon of 11 November, 1940, a naval task force under Rear Admiral Lumley Lyster, Britain’s foremost carrier tactician, quietly approached Taranto. Lumley had just one aircraft carrier, and four cruisers and five destroyers. At dusk, Lumley launched his obsolete Swordfish torpedo bombers from the HMS Illustrious. Two hours later around about 10 pm, 21 Swordfish biplanes screamed out of the flare lit darkness, and struck the Italian battleship row. They sunk one battleship, severely damaged two others and damaged two heavy cruisers for the loss of just a single plane. The Raid on Taranto shocked the Italians. In the space of one hour, the Regina Marina went from a dangerous threat to the British Navy in the Mediterranean to a fleet-in-being which would rarely leave port for the rest of the war.
The Japanese naval attaché in Berlin, Lieutenant Commander Takeshi Naito, flew down to Taranto and documented the raid. Naito passed on the information to his friend, carrier pilot Commander Mitsuo Fushida. Fushida went on to plan and lead the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor just over a year later
On 13 October, 1940, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, until the spring of 1941. By October it became obvious that the Luftwaffe grossly underestimated the Royal Air Force’s fighter capacity, and capability to contest the air over Southern England, control of which was necessary for any German invasion to take place. The Luftwaffe pilots’ morale was almost bottomed out after being repeatedly told that RAF Fighter Command was on its last legs, only to find them waiting over London or some other city. However, the terror bombings, or what the British people referred to as “The Blitz”, continued for another year, mostly at night.
Hitler’s postponement of Operation Sea Lion until the spring of 1941 was only a ruse though: he wanted to convince Communist spies that his focus was still on Britain. In actuality, Hitler postponed Sea Lion indefinitely, and began moving the troops east. The planning for his next big operation was well under way, and the battle in the west was indecisive in his eyes.
Two weeks before on 27 September, Hitler signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan and Italy which formed the Axis against Great Britain and the Commonwealth. The next day, the Pact was extended to Germany’s de facto ally, the Soviet Union. Stalin’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (of Molotov Cocktail fame) took the offer back to Moscow to work on the economic details of the alliance. Stalin welcomed the alliance, but felt that more economic concessions could be wrung from the Germans, who were in desperate need of the Soviet Union’s raw materials.
But neither Hitler nor Stalin had any intention of honoring a “Quadpartite Pact”. Stalin knew that any form of Socialism requires an enemy and when Hitler was done with Britain, he was the only remaining option in Europe. Stalin needed time to rebuild the Red Army after the purges of 1937/38, and the disastrous, if victorious, Winter War with Finland. A formal alliance with Germany could buy him that time.
Hitler had no intention of even that much, despite accepting Molotov’s economic counterproposals in November. He was just stallin’ (Ha!). Hitler would string the talks out about formal military alliance with Stalin until the spring, when he planned to launch, not Operation Sea Lion, but Operation Barbarossa — the invasion of the Soviet Union.
Though Churchill and the British people didn’t know it, the Battle of Britain was over. Hitler had moved on.
In December 1939, the Royal Navy light cruiser HMS Ajax became famous as part of the small squadron that took on the German pocket battleship and commerce raider, Admiral Graf Spee, in the Battle of the River Platte, and forced her crew to scuttle her (Britain’s first real victory of the Second World War). In October 1940 the Ajax was screening a convoy in the Mediterranean to resupply Malta.
On the night of 11-12 October, 1940, the Ajax was just southeast of Sicily on the last leg of the journey to the small fortress island. Around 0030, an Italian patrol boat spotted the lone light cruiser, and the ships of the Regina Marina (Italian Royal Navy) were alerted for what they thought would be an easy kill before descending upon the convoy. An hour later, the Ajax made contact with an Italian destroyer squadron of three torpedo boats and four destroyers, supported by a slow moving heavy cruiser. The battle should have been no contest: the Ajax was out maneuvered, out gunned, and outnumbered by her nimbler, more modern, and heavier hitting Italian foes.
30 minutes after first contact, the Italians broke off the engagement, thoroughly humiliated. Two torpedo boats and two destroyers were sunk, and the rest of the Italian flotilla was damaged in some way. The heavy cruiser turned around without firing a shot. The Italians fought valiantly but only landed two hits on their lone adversary, whereas every shell fired from the Ajax seemed to hit its mark. The mighty Ajax was waiting seemingly in ambush at every instance she was spotted, when she was seen at all, usually only by her gun flashes.
The Italians attributed the lopsided British victory to excellent gunnery skills and superb use of star-shells. They were only partly correct. The Ajax had an asymmetric advantage unknown to the Italians. The Ajax was retrofitted with radar after the Battle of the River Platte, and the Battle of Cape Passero was the first use of radar in a naval engagement in history.
The German and Soviet occupation of Poland in the summer of 1940 was a brutal affair, and thousands joined the growing resistance. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of political prisoners were rounded up, some for the simple offense of not seeing a German walk past and bowing quickly enough. Most, if not outright killed, were sent to a growing series of concentration camps that sprung up across the country. The largest and fastest growing camp was outside of the Polish town of Oswiecim.
On 19 September, 1940, resistance member and former cavalry troop commander, Witold Pilecki volunteered to be captured and get sent to the camp where he would conduct a detailed reconnaissance, and set up a resistance movement inside if possible. The next day he was picked up in a random sweep and nearly beaten to death. A few days later he was transferred to the camp outside of Oswiecim, more commonly known to the Germans as Auschwitz.
Pilecki stayed in Auschwitz for the next three years and sent weekly reports to the Polish Underground which eventually made their way to British Intelligence. Additionally, he led and coordinated the resistance movements inside the camp, synchronized escapes, planned a camp uprising, and set up services and amenities for the prisoners including a news service and a secret hospital (the Germans killed sick prisoners). But it was his documentation of the Holocaust that would be the most benefit to Mankind.
Pilecki documented the abuses of the guards, the conditions of the prisoners, and later the daily arrival of Jews and other “undesirables”. His organization meticulously detailed the extermination of hundreds of thousands of people by the National Socialists. His reports were the first evidence of genocide on an industrial scale to reach the outside world. He escaped the prison in 1943, after the guards made known that the Polish prisoner camp “staff” (Pilecki was a baker) was going to be liquidated and replaced with new arrivals.
Pilecki fought in the Home Army against the Germans for the rest of the war. After the German surrender, the Soviets rounded up any Poles with connections to the British backed Polish Government-in-Exile. Witold Pilecki, a man who survived the absolute worst the National Socialists could devise, was arrested, given a show trial, and executed by Soviet socialists for “Crimes against the People.”
The night before he was executed, he told his wife, “”I cannot live. They killed me because Oświęcim (Auschwitz) was just a trifle compared with them (the Soviets).”