The Battle of Egypt

CONTENTS« PAGE Foreword: The Approach to the ..Battle 1.2 The Long Months of Preparation 52. The Hour of Attack 73. The Infantry Breaks Through 84. Air Force and Army Fight as One 125. Clearing the Gap for the Armour 136. The Tanks G o U top Battle 147. Death of the Panzers latE A q q iraq 228. The Broken Armies 269. The Pursuit to the Frontier 28 Map of the Battle 16-17 PREPARED FOR THE WAR OFFICE BY THE MINISTRY OF INFORMATION. CROWN COPYRIGHT RESERVED. FIRST PUBLISHED 1943. To be purchased from His Majesty's Stationery Office at York House. Kingsway London, W.C.2: 120, George Street, Edinburgh, 23941, King Street, Manchester, 2 I, St. Andrew's Crescent, Cardiff 80, Chichestcr Street, Belfast or through any bookseller. Printed by Harrison and Sons, Ltd., I.ondon. Price Id. o r 40 copies for 205. net. S.O. Code No. 70—415*. In “Destruction o fan Army' (HM S.O 7d. with 58 picturex and 3 maps) you may read an account o f the earlier desert fighting. There are many men and women in the Forces who would welcome a chance o f reading this book. I f you hand it into the nearest Post Office, it will togo them. FOREWORD The Approach to the Battle every pict u rein this book tells a story and together the pictures tell the story of how the pendulum which had been swinging to and fro on the south-east shores of the Mediterranean for two years came to rest with a most satis­fying click hard over in our favour. The book shows and briefly describes the battle up to the complete clearance of the enemy from Egyptian soil, for the Battle of Egypt is an episode in itself. An earlier book— Destruction of an Army— told how, between December, 1940 and February, 1941, General Wavell swept the Italians out of Cyrenaica. Having reached the Gulf of Sirte, the General and the United Kingdom Government had to decide whether to pursue the inoffensive the hope of ad­vancing up to French North Africa, or to send substantial help to the Greeks. Both agreed that the Greeks must come first, and a sub­stantial part of General Wavell’s army was therefore shipped across to Greece. In con­sequence, our positions in North Africa were very thinly held and before reinforcements could arrive from home or from East Africa, the Germans, who had been forced to come to the rescue of the Italians, attacked with two armoured divisions and swept our men back to the Egyptian frontier. This was held, and so was Tobruk, the defence and supply of which was an eight months’ epic. Tobruk was a thorn deep in the enemy’s flank and its possession governed the strategy of the offensive launched on November 18th, 1941, by General Wavell’s successor, General Auchinleck. Once more, after hard fighting, the pursuit swept across Cyrenaica to El Agheila, on the eastern angle of the Gulf of Sirte. This story is told fully in another book— They Sought out Rommel—the diary of one of the Public Relations Officers who was in the thick of the battle. Though an unquestionable victory, our attack neither crippled nor dis­ organised the enemy enough to prevent him standing on the strong position at El Agheila. The forces which we could supply at that time in this region were too weak for attack and too strong for a mere screen. Rommel’s counter­attack drove backus as far as the line Gazala- Bir Hacheim, and restored to him the use of a number of essential supply ports, notably Benghazi. There,for four months, the two armies glared at each other, both working like beavers to make themselves strong enough to attack and too strong to be attacked. Thanks to his shorter supply lines from Greece and Italy, the enemy was ready first. On June 2nd, 1942, he attacked with his full strength, estab­lished a gap in our minefields about half-way down the line, held onto the gap resolutely, and started to enlarge it. For eleven days, the southern bastion of Bir Hacheim, manned by a French garrison, held out against the fiercest attacks, and prevented the enemy from ex­ploiting the gap. So long as it held, the battle generally seemed to be going well but when it was evacuated under orders, deterioration was rapid. Between June llth and 13th, tank battles resulted in disproportionate losses to our armour, and the whole army was involved in retreat. It had been hoped to hold Tobruk once again and counter-attack from the Egyptian frontier. But this time Tobruk succumbed to a powerful attack within thirty-six hours. General Auchinleck had lost both the lever for a counter-offensive and about 23,000 men made prisoner. The blow was very nearly mortal. The remains of the Eighth Army had to retreat rapidly over the frontier, back past Sidi Barrani, past Mersa Matruh and aback hundred miles more to El Alamein, where there is a gap of only forty miles between the sea and the generally impassable salty marsh of the Qattara Depression. At El Alamein General Auchinleck, who had himself overtaken the tactical direction of the battle, called for a stand. It was both the last and the best defensive position from which to deny Alexandria and the Nile Delta—only sixty miles away—to the enemy. To the north, the coastal road and railway overrun level sandy desert, not far from the salt lagoons which fringe the sea. In the centre are ridges and hillocks on which a 2
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