British counterattack in North Africa

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

The naval war of the Mediterranean 1939-1945

The British counterattack in North Africa

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,"The Conclusions of

the Naval War of the Mediterranean 1939-1945", Athens 1961)

 

“The British had well prepared in the autumn of 1942, their counterattack in North Africa.  During the months that had elapsed, the Army had been reinforced and supplied with modern war equipment. At the front it disposed of about 500 airplanes, relatively few, but among the best of that period and with excellent personnel.  General Alexander, the new Commander in Chief, had a written instruction by the British prime minister’s own hands that “his first and main mission was at the first opportunity to take prisoners or destroy the German-Italian Army under the command of General Rommel and the supplies and ammunitions of the Axis.”   On the other hand, General Montgomery, Commander of the 8th British Army, as soon as he took over his command he communicated to his troops the instruction “no retreat” that he applied with absolute consistency.

 

The British attacked was launched on October 13, 1942, and that same day the general who provisionally replaced Rommel was killed.  Rommel returned on October 26, with instructions from Hitler not to withdraw at any price. However, he quickly realized the seriousness of the situation and asked the authorization from Hitler to retreat. He received from the later the answer “victory or death”.

 

On November 1, Rommel marked in his diary: “this is the end, we are facing the eve of Africa’s Dunquerque.”  Two days later, when his best units at the front had been destroyed, ignoring Hitler’s orders he started to retreat.  On November 20, the 8th British Army was seizing Benghazi.

 

With the fast advance of the enemy and the successive seizure of Cyrenaica ports by him, the supply problem of the Axis armies was becoming tragic.  The British, on the other hand, were disposing plenty of land transportation means and the Mediterranean Fleet was securing the sea supply of the 8th Army.  The ports seized by the British were quickly repaired and in Alexandria numerous tow ships, minesweepers and other small units were ready to intervene.  In just 3 days after the seizure of the port of Tobruk it was possible to unload 3,000 tons of supplies per day.

 

In the mean time the Allies were completing preparations for landing in North Africa.  The Axis was aware of these preparations, but while the Supreme Command of the Italian Navy – from information that had collected – considered the operation as imminent and with most probable landing area the French North Africa, the Germans believed that the Allies weren’t in position to undertake such operation before the following summer and that the most probable landing area was the South of France.

 

However, even if the Axis leadership knew the exact date and area of the allied landing, it didn’t dispose at that time the means to prepare a successful resistance.  Berlin had replied to an Italian request that, because of the situation in the other fronts, they shouldn’t be expecting any significant reinforcement of the German land, sea and air forces in the Mediterranean.

 

On the other hand, there was no doubt that the Allies would support the operation with powerful naval forces and the Italian Fleet had the obligation – even if there were few chances of success- to react with the all available large and small units.  It was of course necessary to dispose the necessary quantities of fuel, effective air reconnaissance and - to a certain degree at least – air coverage for the ships.

 

The Italians were expecting all the above from the Germans and because the later couldn’t provide, when the landing time came the Italian Fleet didn’t move.  The Allied naval forces were only confronted with submarines and the Air force.”