Hitler’s War in Africa 1941 - 1942
Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword Military, 2021
Hardcover 176pp RRP $59.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, October 2022
The Libyan Desert campaign was fought 80 years ago and may be almost forgotten. Mr Mitchelhill-Green's comprehensive and well-researched study of the campaign shows that it should not be forgotten, as it was the first campaign involving troops of the all-volunteer 6th, 7th, and 9th Divisions of the 2nd Australian Expeditionary Force. During this long and at times bitter struggle, these troops tasted both the sweetness of victory and the bitterness of defeat.
It is a very thorough analysis of the campaign and is structured in the correct chronological sequence of events. The author has used a wide range of sources, including unit war diaries, official military archives from both Allied and Axis units, published research papers and public media. He has also had access to letters and published and unpublished memoirs of combatants. [One extract is from the diary of an AIF Signals sergeant who served in Tobruk during the siege, and later on the Kokoda Track – and who happened to be this writer's brother-in-law]. The many photographs, mostly from the author's own collection, add to the narrative.
There were several phases to the campaign. Initially, General Graziani advanced, with his 180,000 Italian troops, from Libya to the Egyptian village of Mersa Matruh, believing, as the Italian dictator Benito Mussolin believed, that he could easily overcome the 35,000 strong British garrison of Egypt, commanded by General Sir Archibald Wavell. In this he was wrong. General O'Connor's Western Desert Force of barely 30,000 inexperienced men drove the Italian forces back some 500 miles to El Aghelia, taking 130,000 prisoners, but losing only 426 killed and 1,223 wounded.
Although less than 400 miles from Tripoli and facing the remnants of two poorly-motivated Italian Divisions, O'Connor was ordered to halt his advance, as troops were to be re-deployed to Greece to help drive out an Italian invasion of that country. This led to a weakening of the British forces in Libya at the same time as Hitler sent one of his most effective young generals, Erwin Rommel, with two German divisions, to Tripoli to build up the Axis forces in North Africa. O'Connor, with his Western Desert Force badly weakened, could only make a controlled withdrawal to the Egyptian border, leaving a largely British/Australian garrison to hold Tobruk, and so depriving Rommel of a forward supply port.
Mitchelhill-Green goes on to clearly describe the ebb and flow of the battle between the Egyptian border and El Agheila, and the siege of Tobruk by German and Italian forces, and the attempts to lift the siege and drive the Axis forces back to El Agheila.
Rommel also had problems. The Axis supply channels were inadequate for the needs of the German motorised infantry and 'Panzer' Divisions, and he was forced to halt his advance at Halfaya Pass and Sollum. General Alexander, who had replaced Wavell as GOC Mediterranean Area, forced the Afrika Corps back to the west of Benghazi, and the siege of Tobruk ended.
Axis naval units then managed to re-supply the Afrika Corps with over 230,000 tonnes of fuel, equipment and munitions, and the consequent attack caught the Allied 8th Army unawares. Rommel had his eyes set on Cairo again. Re-equipped with up-to-date American armour and artillery, the 8th Army, now under the command of Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, was able to push the Axis forces into retreat after the Battle of Alamein, of which it was said that prior to it, Britain had not achieved a victory, but after it, never suffered defeat.
One of the characteristics of this campaign was that casualties among senior officers, on both sides, were heavy, through combat losses and removal by Higher Commands. Also, several commanders were taken prisoner. Both sides suffered heavy casualties in the battle of Alamein – the Allies lost 11,200 in combat with more than 2,000 'missing'. Axis losses totalled 7,000 killed and wounded and 23,600 captured and they were forced to retreat all the way back to French Tunisia, with over 100,000 men of the 8th Army in pursuit.
In late 1942 the United States and Britain had made a landing of more than 100,000 men in French North Africa. The Axis supply system had lost the ability to keep the Afrika Corps moving forward - it could only fall back on the old French-built Mareth Line in Tunisia but was unable to hold this position against the 8th Army moving up from Libya and the Anglo-American forces moving eastward from Morocco and Algeria.
This book explains the importance of the victory at Alamein for the Allied cause. It is well-presented and easily read and explains the major events and issues, making it easy to follow the course of the campaign, from Bardia in late 1940 to Alamein just over 2 years later. It will appeal to the serious student of the History of World War 2 as well as to the casually-interested reader who wants a clear narrative of this important campaign.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.