Back to articles page

A look on what might have happened:

This is a special 1jma article, since it looks at a fictional battle in WWII. But it might serve quite well as a thought provoker on how the desert war could have worked out, if the British didn't got to Greece in early 1941 but continued on to clear the North African Shore.

Thanks to Jeff for sending this one in:



In late 1940 the British troops in Egypt were about to move onto the offensive, Italian Generals had ponderously moved their forces to Sidi Barrani in Sept 40 and had deployed their divisions in a number of fortified camps around the small town.

British troops had been steadily gaining valuable information through patrolling the area, 7 Armoured & 4 Indian Divisions moved up to Mersa Matruh and the stage was set for Operation Compass to begin.

In the background, further plans were being looked at and fine tuned.

A substantial force was being gathered in the Palestine/Egypt zone, 6 more infantry Divisions were in various stages of training and an Armoured Division and Commando force was on its way from England. The RAF had received some reinforcement and the "Cross Africa" air ferry from Takoradi was just opening. Churchill had advised the War Office of his "desire" to clear the African Continent of all Axis Forces, except for the Prisoners of course. "Action This Day!!!"

The plan was to "leap frog" forces so that the advance was continued by approximately 1 Armoured and 1 Infantry Division.

After 4 Indian Div was replaced by the 6 Aus Div, the Australians and 7Armoured Div cleared the Ports of Bardia, Tobruk, Derna & Bengazi and had chased the Italian Forces to Agedabia by 10 Feb.

In the meantime, arrangements had been made with the Greek Government to occupy Crete which was garrisoned by 2 Geek Divisions, The NZ Div, Polish Bde, 1 Bde of 6 Br Inf (14th) and 1 Bde of 1 Cavalry Div. These forces were supported by 2 Hurricane, 2 Blenheim & 2 Wellington Sqns, and were digging in and preparing airfields for later operations

7 Aus Div had moved up behind the XIII Corps and cleared Bardia & Tobruk, In early Feb 9 Aus Div passed through to clear Derna & Bengazi (Under Control of 1 Aus Corps)
Bengazi port was quickly cleared and put into use, the RAF basing 4 Hurri Sqns in the vicinity with bombers based at El Adem near Tobruk. In this period every effort was made to recover abandoned Italian weapons and Vehicles, over 130 Medium tanks, 2000 motor vehicles and 600 guns had been recovered in working order. The trucks, many of them heavy diesel units, were of great use in distributing supplies from forward dumps and ports. The guns were using in static defense (and shipped to the Greeks) and the tanks sent to the Div Cav Rgts and to equip one battalion of the RTR.

O'Connor ordered a short rest, the next stage was to thrust the 2nd Armd Div (2 & 3 Arm Bdes, 2 Sppt Gp) plus the 7 Aust Div (18, 25, 21 Bdes) plus Recce Units and one Sqn of 7RTR (Matildas) through Sirte, Misurata and on to Tripoli. Intelligence sources gave them until 20 March before the German 5th Light Div would be capable of action.
To aid the attack, a raid would be made on Tripoli by Layforce of 2 Cdos with a Bde of 6 British Division basing from Bengazi, as follow up, to be made when XIII Corps was in reach of Tripoli.

6 Aus Div & 7 Arm Div would rest and regroup in the Tobruk area, with 22 Gds Bde & 3 Indian Motor Bde forming in the Delta & Palestine. This was due to kick off on 17 Feb, first target Sirte by 20 Feb.

The enemy forces in the Agedabia area were minimal, little more than a Rgt of Inf plus a Lt Tk Bn with units of 132 (Ariete) Armd at Sirte & Misuarata, also app a Rgt plus a Lt Tk Bn

In the Tripoli area there were more substantial forces, 17(Pavia), 25(Bologna), 27 & 55 Inf Divs with Trento arriving from 8/2/41 and the advance units of 5 Lt Div (3 Recce Bn, 605 AT Bn, 2 Inf Bns of 104 Rgt & I/115 Art Bn) trickling in from 12/2/41

Luftwaffe forces were a Sqn each of bf110 and bf109's at Tripoli and Medium Bombers based from Sicily, Italian aircraft were the remnants of the forces sent to Cyrenaicca.

Gen Erwin Rommel had arrived in Tripoli on 12 Feb to find the Italians in disarray and, at the next blow, prepared to evacuate. By the 16th he had reviewed the position and ordered 3 Divs to Misuarata and a mobile force with German troops further forward.

The plans of both sides were set with the British ready to go.

7 Australian Division hit out along the main road with an attached Bn from 3 Arm Bde while the 2 Arm Div shadowed their moves further inland. The main opposition came from the terrain which had alternate patches of deep sand and nearly impassable rocks while the Italian forces fell back steadily in front of them.
The 200 miles to Sirte were covered by 27 Feb, here the Axis had gathered a defensive force of 2 Italian Infantry Bns, 2 Germ Infantry Bns, 1 German Recce Bn, 1 Italian Light Tank Bn and 1 Germ Art Bn, they took up position astride one of the many wadis leading from the Desert to the sea and under Rommels command prepared for battle.

O'Connor, hoping to hit them on the run, planned for an attack on the evening of 28 Feb.

Here, Rommel's aggression brought his downfall through 2 incidents.
British Intelligence & reconnaissance aircraft had discovered that the first instalment of Panzers would be arriving at Tripoli on the 27th February, Rommel had firmly instructed the Port Authorities that "First preference MUST go to unloading the Vehicle Carriers, even if you have to do it under lights!!!" The RAF had been intermittently been raiding Tripoli at night but without great effect and the presence of the Bf109 & 110's had made daylight raid suicidal.
When the news came through of the imminent arrival, the RAF put on a "maximum effort", 85 Wellingtons from 5 squadrons flew to Bengazi from Egypt & Crete, refuelled and set off for Tripoli.

One of the major problems in attacking Tripoli had been navigation over the Gulf of Sirte and many raids had not even found Africa, let alone their targets, the story would have been the same this night, except for the actions of the Port Commander at Tripoli, fearful of the consequences if he ignored Rommel's orders (He was one of Hitler's Lackeys after all), had all unloading Crews hard at work, and with the overhead arc lights glaring, gave the RAF Bombers a target that could bee seen for over 50 miles, which was just as well as they were off course again. The result of this was one of the best bombing efforts of the war so far, 3 valuable vehicle carriers and 30 Pzkw III & IV went to the bottom of the harbour and substantial supplies and fuel went up in flames, by 3 am on the morning of 29 February the RAF was on the way back to their bases and Tripoli was in flames.

At Sirte, 7 Aus Div had set off into the night to find a crossing point in the wadi's which had been found by the LRDG in previous weeks, led by KDG they cleared the gap against light opposition with 18 & 25 Bdes and prepared a solid bridgehead which would be used by 2 Arm Bde & 21 Aus Bde to breakout of at first light. Rommel saw his chance to hit the attackers, he put together of force consisting of 33 Recce, 1/104 Mot Inf and 58 Italian Lt Tank Bn and thrust at the western flank of the 18 Aust Bde. The light armoured cars and tanks moved out briskly and were soon moving past the dug in infantry, however the following Infantry ran into heavy fire from the recovering Aussies, they had done a lot of marching and were finally getting a good fight. Behind the lines the A/c & Lt Tks were now being hit heavily by 25pdr and 2 pdr AT fire, many vehicles were destroyed and, as the day passed on, the first of the 6RTR squadrons made it through the wadi after being delayed by heavy sand and accurate artillery fire and provided the final blow to Rommels chances of disrupting the British advance. Over 40 vehicles were destroyed, 200 killed and over 500 prisoners taken, Rommel was nearly captured but escaped, though badly injured. The Aussies lost 50 dead, 10 prisoners and the advance was delayed by 24 hours.

From Sirte, through Beurat, Misurata the British pushed on, only small rearguards of mainly German troops provided harassment to the flow. But problems started to occur, the Tanks which had now travelled many hundreds of miles on their tracks started to show increasing signs of wear. After clearing the (very) small port of Sirte and receiving a trickle of Supplies, O'Connor decided that a restructure of his forces was required and that the Royal navy & Layforce be put on alert.

3 Groups of units were created, each with an Armoured Bn, 2 Infantry Bns, an Artillery Rgt plus Recce & AT support, this was only managed by consolidating the tanks from & Rgts to 3 and by grounding 5 of the 9 Australian Bns.

The combined force moved on, until the Gebel Nefusa which covers Tripoli from the east was reached. Reports coming in from Tripoli and "secret" sources were leading to the fact that the Italians had started evacuating there forces back to Italy, though Air & naval strikes had made this perilous, the Germans had more luck with a shuttle of Ju52's though they could only carry troops and not heavy weapons or equipment. O'Connor pushed his weary force harder, the Gebel was crossed by 3 roads, each was followed by one of the Brigade Groups, Italian settlements were occupied with fascist slogans painted on every building, after 4 days of laborious effort, with the fear of attack at every corner the hills were left behind.

At this point O'Connor called up Cunningham to set in motion the Landing Force, with only 100 miles to cross the Navy and the Army should be arriving at the same time. This only showed O'Connor's lack of understanding of naval tactics. The Royal Navy had supported the Army all along the North African Shore, sailing out to sea was invariably a small fleet with one of more of the Navy's Monitors ready to provide heavy support on call, further to sea and out of sight was the main fleet with the heavier units, Battleships such as Warspite, Barham & Valiant, Cruisers Ajax, Naiad, Perth & Sydney and numerous Destroyers. Especially for the landing the Carriers Formidable & Illustrious each with Sea Hurricane & Swordfish aircraft.
A B Cunningham, who had already given the Italian fleet a series of body blows at Taranto in November and had raided the Italian Coast was not slow off the mark, Staging out of Tobruk & Bengazi the Infantry landing ships were carefully including in a Resupply convoy to Malta which had been running for some months, as night fell they changed course and by the early morning were well on the way to Tripoli.

Unfortunately the heavy going, battered vehicles and stronger resistance offered had slowed the Army, they were going to need another 48 hours to be in place to support the landing force, Cunningham decided to hold off the landings, though this meant a threat from the Luftwaffe which strangely had not been seen in much strength. Rather than waste his time though, Cunningham planned a brisk bombardment of Tripoli port and those Airfields within range.

The early morning in Tripoli was abuzz, numerous transport aircraft were getting off the ground before the RAF had its patrols to attack them, ships were unloading supplies and loading soldiers and their equipment. An almighty scream came through the air as the first of Warspite's 15-inch shells roared into the harbour. A steady bombardment feel for an hour, then like clockwork, the RN turned back to sea, Tripoli harbour was in flames and the major airfields in ruins with massive craters in the runways.

Within 4 hours the Italian Commandant had made contact with the British troops outside the town, could they talk surrender terms. Gen Lavarack, CO of the Australian Division, was brought up to define the terms, immediate & unconditional surrender or the RN would be back, the Italians agreed, ceasefire and the Capitulation of Italian North Africa would be in place at Midnight.

MHT Glenroy came in early the next morning and landed 8 Commando which warily entered town, The Aussies and the Tankers tidied up and drove in from the desert, all were shock, though clearly the military occupiers of the town, they were treated as liberators by the inhabitants.

(hey, Bernard Cornwall has them)

The British in the Desert were sent in all directions by Churchill, it is possible that if Dorman-Smith was able to get a phone call in to the Chiefs of Staff, Greece may have been "put aside"

All of the Troops listed were available,
6 Aus went to Greece, 7 Aus was listed for Greece, 18Bde was at Tobruk with the rest of the Div defending Egypt, 9 Div, the least trained, was sent to undying fame as the Rats of Tobruk.
The New Zealand Div went to Greece & Crete.
6 British Div was never to fight a battle, its Brigades were scattered around the Mid East to Crete(14 Bde), formed Selby Force at Sidi Barrani and garrisoned Egypt.
The Polish Brigade, like 7 Aus, was earmarked for Greece but ended in Tobruk
7 Armoured, the Desert Rats fought to Agedabia, was sent back for rest & recuperation but had its experienced troops scattered to all corners (As was the XIII Corps staff)
2 Armoured sent a Brigade to Greece and a Brigade to Agedabia, here its worn out tanks suffered far more losses from breakdown than through enemy action. It was destroyed and never rebuilt.
Layforce was arriving in Feb 1940, was thrown away as a rearguard on Crete and totally wasted.

The Italian & German troops are pretty historical, though I held back further reinforcements

Rommel did order the lights turned on at Tripoli, only the RAF wasn't there,

For the section between Agedabia & Tripoli I had a read of Kippenberger's "Infantry Brigadier" detailing the movement of the 2nd New Zealand Div in 1942/43

Apart from this, its all made up………..

If you have any comments, please mail me