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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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