Crowning the splendid achievement of the 8th Army in its 1,400-mile advance from within the Egyptian frontier was the capture of Tripoli, last surviving capital of Mussolini’s “Roman Empire.” Tripoli fell before Montgomery’s relentless advance on January 23, 1943. The Eight Army accomplished this ‘miracle of dash and endurance’ in some 80 days.
The Eight Army continued the pursuit… These words appeared time and again in the bulletins issued from General Alexander’s H.Q. in Cairo in the early days of November 1942. The nine days of hard slogging, infantry combat, mine detection and destruction, terrific aerial bombing and artillery bombardments, bore their fruit. A great gap had been torn in the enemy front by Lieutenant General Oliver Leese’s men of the 30th Corps, and the fissure was fatal. Through it poured Lumsden’s tanks of the 10th Armoured Corps, while Horrocks’s 13th Corps cleaned up the Italians left behind in the dreary wastes beside Qattara.
The break-through was achieved on November 4th 1942. At Fuka there was a grim and savage combat between the British armour and the remains of German Panzer columns, in which almost the whole of the latter was destroyed, and by November 8th on enemy forces of any importance were left in Egypt. Mersa Matruh had fallen. Halfaya Pass, Buqbuq and Capuzzo were jammed with traffic, bombed relentlessly by the R.A.F. What was left of Rommel’s armour streamed away westwards across the frontier, and every available truck was commandeered to permit the remnants of the Africa Korps to escape from the field where everything had been lost. As for the Italian’s, they were left behind. Some fought gallantry enough; the others, and the majority, as soon as they realized their desertion by their German allies, stumbled wearily to the prisoner-of-war enclosures. The Italian prisoners were counted by the thousands, and for the most part their condition was appalling, since they had lain out for days in the unsheltered deserts, now swept by heavy rainstorms, and had little food and water. The British patrols who roamed the vast battlefield were engaged in truth on an errand of mercy as they put the humble victims of Mussolini’s megalomania “in the bag”.
Sidi Barrania was recaptured by the 60th Rifles on November 10th, and on the same day British armour cut off the German retreat by the way of Halfaya. Far ahead, somewhere near Sollum, Montgomery’s spearhead was thrusting fiercely at the fleeing mass on the road beside the Mediterranean. Halfaya Pass was occupied on November 11th, and on the next day the Eighth Army over ran the ruins of Bardia, Sollum, and Fort Capuzzo. El Adem aerodrome outside Tobruk was being attacked by the advanced guard. Then on November 13th Pienaar’s South Africans stormed into Tobruk. To fill the cup of their triumph they found in the town a number of south African auxiliary troops who had been captured with Tobruk by Rommel’s five months before.
That day Montgomery (just granted a Knighthood and promoted General in honour of the Alamein victory) sent another message to his victorious troops.
“When we began the battle of Egypt on October 23. I said that we would hit the Germans and Italians for six right out of North Africa. We have made a very good start, and today there are no Germans and Italian soldiers on Egyptian territory except prisoners. In three weeks we have completely smashed the German and Italian army and pushed the fleeing remnants out of Egypt, having advanced ourselves nearly 300 miles up to and beyond the frontier”
Four German divisions; the 20th Italian Corps and the 21st Italian Corps had ceased to exist. The prisoners numbered already 30,000. (A few days later Gen. Alexander estimated the total enemy loss at 75,000.) The enemy’s losses in tanks, guns and aircraft were crippling. This was a very fine performance, concluded General Montgomery, but (he preceded) “our task is not finished yet. The Germans are out of Egypt, but there are still some left in North Africa. There is some good hunting to be had farther to the west in Libya, and our leading troops are now in Libya ready to begin. On with the task, and good hunting to you all!”
It was indeed a hunt, and a speedy one. On November 14 the Eight Army reached Tmimi, on the 15th Martuba, on the 16th Derna and Mekili, on the 17th Cirene; and on the 20th Benghazi was once again occupied by British and Dominion troops.
So far history had repeated itself. Men’s eyes were fixed anxiously on the spot marked El Aghelia on the map. Would Rommel stand again where he had stood before? And if he made a stand, would he be able to recruit his strength and set the pendulum of the battle swinging violently back again towards Egypt? General Alexander told the correspondents at Cario that Rommel and his Africa Korps had been “knocked groggy,” but they had shown no weakness at Alamein and stiff fighting must still be expected.
By the end of November Rommel was dug in at Aghelia and doing his upmost to restore his shattered legions. From Sicily transports and supply ships ran the gauntlet of the British submarines, and the roads from Tripoli were busy with trucks. But by now the Anglo-American thrust in Tunisia was making itself felt, and not all Rommel’s demands for men and equipment were met. On December 12th Montgomery, who had been quietly massing for the assault, resumed the offensive. Terrific bombing and shelling forced the enemy to abandon his very strong position at Mersa Brega, and he withdrew from El Agheila shortly afterwards, not making any serious attempt to withstand the weight of the Eighth Army’s onslaught. Once again, the Africa Korps plunged down the coastal road, closely pursued by Montgomery’s armoured cavalry, while the R.A.F. pounded and blasted the retreating columns.
Between Wadi Matratin and the Italian memorial dubbed by the British Tommy “Marble Arch” there was “confusing and swirling fighting” on December 16th and 17th, when forward elements of the Eight Army emerged from the desert, struck suddenly northwards to the sea and cut Rommel’s fleeing host in two. A considerable force was cornered, and although some German tanks and infantry succeeded in breaking out to the west, most of the trapped formation was accounted for.
After this brilliant little stroke, Montgomery resumed the pursuit in strength. On Christmas Day Sirte was occupied, but heavy rain and dust storms took it in turn to hamper operations. Rommel seized the respite to dig in at Buerat; but after a fortnight’s preparation Montgomery’s troops overwhelmed the enemy line on January 15th 1943. Rommel did not stay to meet Montgomery’s full strength, but slipped away once more to the west. The pursuit was continued, and there was no stopping the pursuers now. On they pressed, driving the enemy from one battered township after another: Misurata on January 18th, Homs on the 20th, El Aziez on the 21st, Castelverde on the 22nd. Rommel’s rear guard put up a good show, but they were swept aside by Montgomery’s veterans.
Before the offensive started in October, “Monty” was reported to have told war correspondents that Tripoli would be in Allied hands on January 22nd. He was good to his word. Before nightfall on the appointed day British columns were in the city’s suburbs, and at dawn on January 23rd 1943 Montgomery stood on the Diebel heights and watched his victorious troops steam along the roads and tracks into the capital of Tripolitania, the last city of Italy’s once great imperial dominion. From the south marched in the New Zealanders and two columns of British armour. The Highlanders of the 51st Division entered by way of the coast road from the east. Another column approached from the west. When Montgomery gave the signal – at 5a.m. on January 23rd – the entry in full force began, but an hour before a patrol of 11th Hussars had driven into the city and out again. “If anyone deserves the honour of being the first in Tripoli,” wrote Alexander Clifford, the famous correspondent of the Daily Mail, “it was the Hussars, who have been so long in the desert that they glory in the nickname of ‘Desert Rats.’” Seven Gordon Highlanders clinging to a tank were the first British infantry to enter the city. Close behind (said Clifford) were “Seaforth Highlanders…singing machine-gunners of the Middlesex Regiment, and men of the Buffs and Queen’s followed.”
Formal surrender of the city was tendered to Gen. Montgomery at noon, as he stood at the Porto Benito crossroads just outside the wall, by the Lord Mayor of Tripoli, the Vice Governor of Libya, and the Prefect. The Italians were in full uniform, glittering with decorations. The General was wearing battledress, two sweaters (of different colours) and his famous beret. The little ceremony was over soon over. “I have nothing against the civilian population,” said Montgomery. “provided it remains orderly. My war is against the Italian and German armies.” Then inside the city he took the salute. To the skirl of the bagpipes his men passed by in triumphant procession and the Union Jack fluttered high above the City Hall.
The news of Tripoli’s fall was broadcast from Rome. “The great battle of the past 32 months on the African coast and the Mediterranean has reached its end…the enemy can justly claim a victory, but he has paid dearly for it. Our sacrifice of this territory is very painful, because the regions concerned have belonged to Italy for a third of a century and have been fertilized with much blood.” A few hours after the victory parade the commander of the Eight Army made his acknowledgements to the men he had led to so great a triumph. “I have nothing but praise for the men of the Eight Army: they have done what I expected of them.”
From El Alamein to Tripoli is a matter of 1,400 miles. The Eight Army covered the distance in some 80 days, their average rate of advance being 17 ½ miles a day, or 30 miles a day if the major pauses at El Aghelia and Burat are excluded. It was not an unopposed advance, said Sir James Griggs, Britain’s War Minister, in a special broadcast on January 23rd; all the time there was fighting. It had been a miracle of organization, of ceaseless effort, of complete devotion by the administrative services. The Western Desert is threaded by rough, ill-defined tracks, and by one good road with an asphalt surface which runs the whole distance, keeping all the way to the coastal region. There was one railway, from the Nile Valley to Tobruk, very largely constructed since Wavell’s offensive in 1940; once again in British hands, bringing up scores of thousands of toms of supplies. The rule was “supplies must get through,” and the work was carried out, to the limits of what was possible, to an imperative time table, over some of the worst going in the world, along a route strewn with mines. An elaborate gradation of aid detachments and workshops retrieved the transport cripples and put them on the road again; thousands of craftsmen laboured to keep the vehicles in action; and more thousands toiled in keeping the road surface in good repair.
Rommel fled as Montgomery advanced, but fleeing, he had the advantage of prepared dups along the road from which he could draw supplies, while our men had to carry everything, in particular water and petrol. And what that meant is seen from the fact that during one week in a later stage of the advance over 3,000,000 gallons of petrol were delivered at the front, and over 8,000 tons of ammunition.
On average each man required five lb. weight of food (and containers) per day, as well as 50 cigarettes and two boxes of matches a week. As for water, the Eighth Army wanted 5,000 tons of water a day, and very small quantities were available in the local wells. Half of it was brought from the Nile, along a pipeline to Tobruk; another 1,500 tons of Nile water were shipped daily to Benghazi, 300 tons were landed on the beaches from lighters, and the balance of 700 tons conveyed to forward troop by water-companies operating with water waggons.
A fortnight after Tripoli’s fall Winston Churchill arrived there to review the conquerors. “The fame of the Desert Army has spread throughout the world,” he told the assembled troops. “I am here to thank you on behalf of H.M. Government, of British Isles, and all our friends the world over. I do so from the bottom of my heart. Hard struggles lie ahead. Rommel, the fugitive of Egypt, Cyrenaica, and Tripolitania, in a non-stop race of 1,400 miles, is now trying the present himself as the deliverer of Tunisia. But the days of your victories are by no means ay an end, and with forces which march from different quarters we may hope to achieve the final destruction or expulsion from Africa of every armed German or Italian”. In the years after the war they would be able to boast that “I marched and fought with the Desert Army”; and “when history is written and all the facts are known, your feats will gleam and glow and will be the source of song and story long after those of us gathered here have passed away.”
Yet a few days more, and in the House of Commons on February 11th the Prime Minster spoke again in glowing terms of the Desert Army. “I have never in my life, which from my youth up has been connected with military matters, seen troops with the style and air of those of the Desert Army. Talk about ‘spit and polish’! The Highland and New Zealand Divisions paraded after their immense ordeal in the desert as if they had come out of Wellington Barracks. There was an air on the face of every private of that just and sober pride which comes from dear-bought victory and triumph after toil.” Then came recognition of the two commanders; Montgomery, “this Cromwellian figure, austere, severe, accomplished, tireless, his life given to the study of war, who has attracted to himself in an extraordinary measure the confidence and the devotion of the Army”
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SOURCE: The Second Great War, 51st Highland Division in North Africa.