The War Illustrated No 132 Vol 6 July 10th 1942

ALONG THE BATTLEFRONTS by Our Military Critic, Maj.-Gen. Sir Charles Gwynn, K.C.B., D.S.O. The fortnight ending June 22 was full o f tense situations—for our Army perhaps the most tense since the days of Dunkirk —although, o f course, less crucial. There is no denying that in Libya we suffered a severe and,disconcerting reverse, and did not escape serious disaster. On the whole, however, the tide o f war continued to inflow favour o f the Allies. In Russia, Sebastopol maintained its mag­nificent resistance to desperate attempts to storm the fortress and a renewed effort by Von Bock to eliminate Tim oshenko’s menac­ing salient south o f Kharkov failed after incurring heavy losses. In the Pacific, although the Japanese secured a foothold in the Aleutian Islands, they paid a heavy price, having admittedly suffered naval losses comparable to those incurred at Midway Island. These, toadded those o f the Coral Sea and Midway Island, have completely changed the balance o f sea power in the Pacific. Japan’s losses o fair­ craft-carriers, her most formidable weapon, have been particularly severe :while American losses in all classes o f ships have been com­paratively light. Even in Libya, where we have to admit a disaster, Rommel had only partly achieved his main object—the destruc­tion o f R itchie’s Arm y—and had not yet become a serious menace to Egypt. LIBYA With his usual promptitude Rommel, after our withdrawal from Bir Hacheim, made use o f his recovered liberty o f m anoeuvre to revert to his original plan, which aimed at cutting off R itchie's troops at G azala and blocking their line o f retreat to Tobruk. Striking cast with a strong Panzer force and motorized infantry, he attempted to rush R itchie’s El Adcm post, but was driven off by the garrison and armour oured forces. Wheeling north, he attempted to reach the coast road west ofT obruk, using the whole o f his arm oured strength. Heavy fighting occurred round the defensive “boxes ”of K nightsbridge and Acrom a, and for a time it seemed that the situation would turn indecisively our favour. For it was a risky moveR itchie’s army was well under his hand, and his arm oured troops and air force made it difficult for Rommel to maintain his ammunition and petrol supplies. Then on Saturday, June 13, occurred one o f those incidents which in a battle o f man­ oeuvre may in a few minutes change the whole aspect. Whether as a protective measure or as an intentional trap, Rommel, or one of his sybordinate commanders, had concen­trated a number o f heavy anti-tank guns in a well-concealed position at Bir Behaffar, south o f Acrom a. A trap in the event it proved to be, for a concentration o four arm oured troops, evidently moving inclose formation to attack, were suddenly met .with overwhelming fire at close range and suffered disastrous casualties, leaving Rommel with decisive predominance in arm oured strength. The situation o f the AfricanS. and 50th British Divisions in the G azala position and o f the garrison o f the Knightsbridge post at once became precarious in the extreme. Ritchie promptly ordered their withdrawal— avery difficult and dangerous operation, carried out successfully next day. The South Africans, with all their equip­ment, fought their way back by the coastal road with insignificant losses, their first with­drawal being covered by the 50th Division, which remained in position—and, later, by the A crom a post and a vigorous counter­attack delivered by a much-depleted arm oured division. The 50th Division also got away successfully by most brilliant tactics. Instead o f retiring in the obvious direction covered by a rearguard, they struck westward into the Italian position, taking two divisions by surprise and throw­ing them into con­fusion. Doing all the damage they could in their passage, they wheeled south and eventually, by .along detour through an area where the enemy w a sin possession, they reached safety. Whether the plan was conceived by General Ritchie or by the GOC of the Division, it was an amazing example of what may sometimes be achieved by taking the unexpected course Rommel was in no condition to make a serious attack on our new positions before they were organized. His men admittedly were too exhausted, what with fighting and theheat. A small force, attempting to strike eastwards towards Halfaya, was sharply repulsed by the Sidi Rc’zegh post, and Ritchie had time to complete his dispositions occupying the Told obruk perimeter and also a strong position on the top, and not as formerly at the bottom ,of the Halfaya escarp­ment above Solium. The situation was there­fore much* the same as it was before Auehin- leck’s offensive last November. Then came serious disaster. Rommel at first moved cast with his arm oured divisions towards H alfaya, while his main infantry and artillery body inclosed round T obruk. Then suddenly, when within 25 miles o f the new position Hat alfaya, he turned his armour about and, acting with the speed for which he is famous, on June 20 launched an attack onT obruk with his whole strength preceded by heavy bombing by his Stukas. Attacking from the east, his armour forced its throughway the perimeter defences, still incom­pletely protected by minefields and his infantry followed through the gap. Then his tanks went on, and the end cam eon Sunday morning. Our troops fought gallantly, but probably they had not had time to organize their defences thoroughly, and there may have been a shortage o f anti-tank guns. N o doubt Rommel had received stronger rein­forcements than was expected, but one must conclude that the reviving power o f defence has not yet proved invulnerable to deter­mined and skilful attack. Rom m el’s success was no doubt due largely to his resource, vigour and daring. He probably had advantage in the heavy tanks, o f which he seems to have plenty in reserve, for though our “General Grant ”tanks were good there were not enough o f them .The same applies to our new anti­tank gun :and no doubt Rommel made very skilful use o f his numerical strength in this class o f weapon. Air power seems to have had surprisingly little influence on the course o f the battle. The R.A .F. attacks on Rom m el’s supply service, persistent and gallant as they were, never apparently caused serious interruption THE WESTERN DESERT, showing places involved in the fighting for Tobruk, which fell into enemy hands on June 21. After the evacuation of Bir Hachcim Rommel virtually surrounded the port and attacked it with overwhelming strength and drive. CcourU'sy of 1 he O bs.ucr LIBYAN CONVOY of British motorized infantry, widely outspread so as to avoid casualties, casein of an attack by dive-bombers, moving into action. All around strctches the vast expanse of the desert, barren and grim. Photo, British Ojjicial: Crown Copyright¦
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