Chapter 9 THE CONQUEST OF LIBYA
Eighth Army’s next task was the invasion of Cyrenaica, and in preparing for this its leaders had to bear in mind three main factors. First was the need to capture the airfields in the Cyrenaican ‘Bulge’, in particular those at Martuba, in time to provide fighter protection for the convoy needed to save Malta. Since this would end Rommel’s last chance of ever taking Egypt, all else had to be subordinated to it.
Next came the need to ensure that Eighth Army was not halted at El Agheila but was able to press on towards Tripoli. If the enemy could maintain a hold on French North Africa, as turned out to be the case, and prevent or at least delay an Eighth Army advance into Tripolitania; or better still could hit back once more from El Agheila so that Cyrenaica remained a battleground, then it would become impossible for the Allies to attack southern Europe and knock Italy out of the war during 1943. From the Axis point of view it was obvious that everything feasible should be done to postpone the continuing progress of Eighth Army, since this could have a decisive effect on the outcome of the war.
This factor was very much in the mind of both sides. When von Thoma had dined with Montgomery, he was, reports de Guingand, ‘very careful not to give away any future plans’, but he made it clear that he ‘hoped Rommel would be able to stage a comeback from Agheila’. For his part, Montgomery was well aware how Rommel’s counter-offensive after CRUSADER had robbed that victory of its fruits. References to the ‘Djebel Stakes’ were still being made on all sides with mingled cynicism and dread, and Montgomery was quite determined that past history would not be repeated.
And lastly there was the permanent problem of supplies. As Kesselring notes with some satisfaction, ‘even a victorious army cannot keep up a pursuit of thousands of miles in one rush; the stronger the army the greater the difficulty of supply. Previous British pursuits had broken down for the same reason.’ Moreover the ‘piece of elastic’ was under still greater pressure than usual. Montgomery had learned from the errors not only of his predecessors but of his opponent. Whereas Rommel in his dash for the Nile had left his airmen straggling far behind, the Eighth Army Commander, who always believed in the vital necessity for co-operation with the Air Arm and indeed looked on it, sometimes to the airmen’s annoyance, as virtually another branch of his command like his engineers or his artillery, was insistent that the Desert Air Force should advance with him. That meant that at the start of the new campaign some 11,500 RAF and AA personnel had to be brought forward, together with the supplies needed for them and for their aircraft, particularly aviation fuel.
So important did Montgomery consider this that he gave ‘his’ Air Force special priority. It was a wise choice, for the Axis Air Forces, now falling back on their own bases, were able to intervene once more. Fortunately their Allied opponents were ready for them. On 11 November, first day of the Cyrenaican campaign, the Kittyhawks of No. 2 Squadron SAAF attacked fifteen Stukas, and for the loss of two of their own machines, claimed eight destroyed and four ‘probables’, all of which it appears also went down.
As a result of the supply problems, however, Eighth Army, contrary to popular report, was not able to advance with overwhelming numbers. The New Zealanders were forced to halt in the frontier area. Only 7th Armoured Division, which had now reclaimed 4th Light Armoured Brigade, was able to continue Eighth Army’s progress, and it was suffering from a number of shortages, not least of water.
Nonetheless Eighth Army never lost is momentum. Bardia fell to 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, which formed part of 22nd Armoured Brigade on the afternoon of 12 November. On the following night, the Axis rearguard – 90th German Light yet again – fell back from Tobruk, the capture of which had once provided PanzerArmy Afrika with its greatest moment but which Rommel was now hastily stating ‘possessed only symbolic value’. 4th Light Armoured Brigade occupied the fortress without fighting next morning.
With Tobruk secured, Tedder sent a signal urging that Eighth Army dispatch a force across the Cyrenaican ‘Bulge’ to trap the Axis troops in the same way the Italians had once been. Montgomery did send light units, notably armoured cars, to Msus, which fell on 17 November, but he was not prepared to move any stronger forces across the open desert. Montgomery’s biographer Nigel Hamilton feels in retrospect that he should have been, arguing that: ‘Monty missed what was to be a unique – because entirely unexpected – opportunity to … cut off the retreat of the Panzer Army rearguard at Benghazi. This missed opportunity was the first evidence of excessive caution by the Eighth Army Commander after Alamein.’
By contrast de Guingand, normally so good natured, waxes positively indignant over Tedder ‘sitting back in Cairo and not in possession of all the facts’. These were, he relates, that ‘administration was becoming very stretched’ and Montgomery ‘could not afford to embark on ventures of this sort which might overstrain his resources’; that ‘the weather was uncertain’ and ‘rain might well have strangled such a move’; and that only ‘very meagre air support’ could have been provided. In this connection it may be noted that rain did indeed prove a problem, and the enemy air forces a greater problem, giving Eighth Army’s advanced forces ‘a rather unpleasant time’ until 26 November, when the Desert Air Force could establish its fighters in Msus. Bearing these points in mind, de Guingand believes that it is ‘very open to doubt’ whether an outflanking force could have ‘achieved its object’; on the contrary, such a move, he feels, would merely have given Rommel ‘a chance to launch a counter-stroke’.
An additional factor was that Montgomery could not believe that Rommel would linger in the ‘Bulge’ long enough to provide any chance of his being cut off. The Eighth Army Commander had every reason for this opinion, for after CRUSADER Rommel had paused only at Gazala before retreating in one movement all the way back to El Agheila; and the Axis defeat in CRUSADER did not approach that at El Alamein. Montgomery’s strongest motive though, is, curiously enough, not mentioned by de Guingand. He wished to concentrate his strength for an advance along the coast road mainly because he was not prepared to take even the slightest risk that Rommel might, in Nigel Hamilton’s words, ‘dispute possession of the Martuba airfields’. Their capture was essential and the margin for error was desperately small.