Eighth Army's Greatest Victories - The Conquest of Libya , November-December 1942 , Adrian Turner


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.

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On the other hand Montgomery, so de Guingand tells us, did feel that ‘a long-range harassing’ of Rommel’s supply line was very desirable – but that this was ‘a job for the RAF’. ‘Coningham,’ continues de Guingand, ‘rose to the occasion,’ and the result was a brilliant little operation to which was given the singularly unwarlike code name of CHOCOLATE.

This was carried out by thirty-six Hurricanes from Nos. 213 and 238 Squadrons which together formed No. 243 Wing under Wing Commander John Darwen. On 13 November, they flew to Landing Ground 125 deep in the Cyrenaican desert about 140 miles behind the enemy lines. Thereafter until the 16th, when, with their secret base located, the Hurricanes returned to the airfield at Fuka, they operated almost continuously against the Axis supply lines, totally destroying some 130 vehicles together with the wretched troops manning them, crippling another 170 or so, and also accounting for fifteen enemy aircraft on the ground and two more in the air. Two Hurricanes from No. 213 Squadron were lost to AA fire.

Even before Operation CHOCOLATE had ended, Eighth Army had gained the greatest strategic prize of its victory at Alamein. After a minor clash in a defile called Ain el Gazala, 4th Light Armoured Brigade captured the Martuba airfields on 15 November. Rain prevented these from coming fully into use until the 19th, but that was just soon enough for the needs of the Allies.

For on the 17th, a convoy, code-named ‘Stoneage’, left Alexandria for Malta. On the 19th, it entered ‘Bomb Alley’, but the inevitable enemy air attacks, as Captain S.W. Roskill reports in the Official History of The War at Sea,1 were ‘broken up by the excellent fighter cover sent from the desert airfields’. In the early hours of the 20th, the convoy’s four merchantmen, the British Denbighshire, the Dutch Bantam and the American Mormacmoon and Robin Locksley, reached Grand Harbour safely. ‘The offensive consequences of the relief of Malta,’ adds Roskill, ‘were immediately reaped.’ The island, its striking forces now joined by surface warships, continued, in the understandably less enthusiastic words of Kesselring, to ‘cast its shadow over everything’. When Brooke heard that the convoy had arrived, he noted in his Diary simply: ‘Thank God!’

Now that Martuba was secured, Montgomery was prepared to give more attention to the prospect of cutting off Rommel’s rearguard, particularly after an ‘Ultra’ interception on 16 November had indicated that Rommel was after all delaying his departure from Benghazi until the 19th. Montgomery therefore ordered that while 4th Light Armoured Brigade – which had captured Derna on the 15th – continued the advance along the coast road, 22nd Armoured Brigade should move across the desert in the wake of the original armoured-car columns; and to replace its now worn-out tanks, Shermans from 1st Armoured Division should be hurried forward on transporters from Sollum. These arrived late in the evening of 17 November, but it was not until mid-morning on the 19th that the re-equipped 22nd Armoured could set out. By that time it was already too late for the brigade’s mission to succeed, and it would probably not have succeeded in any event for the original outflanking columns were hampered by particularly heavy rainfall during 17 and 18 November, though they captured Antelat on the 19th. The rain also effectively ruined an attempt to airlift supplies up to the front line. On the other hand, the Desert Air Force’s fighters enjoyed great success against German transport aircraft, Junkers Ju 52s or converted Heinkel He 111s, attempting to assist in the evacuation of Benghazi. During 17 and 18 November, even allowing for exaggerated or duplicated claims, they appear to have destroyed at least fourteen German aircraft such on the ground and the same number in the air. On the 19th, 90th Light finally moved out of Benghazi; it was occupied by 4th Light Armoured Brigade next day. Rommel was now definitely committed to reaching El Agheila without further delay. 90th Light fought another skilful delaying action against 22nd Armoured Brigade at Agedabia during 22 November, before slipping away after dark, and by the following night Rommel’s men were once more safely back in ‘the strongest position in Libya’.

It had been the longest, most rapid retreat in German military history and it is rather surprising therefore to find that all criticism has been directed not at the defeated but at the victors. Eighth Army at this time has been described as ponderous, lumbering, sluggish, weary, and resembling a ‘pachyderm’ – by which presumably is meant an elephant.2 And its remarkable advance has been dismissed as ‘a dull and measured affair’, ‘not one of those mad, headlong, exciting chases’ – though remembering all those madly exciting times when the Allies had rushed headlong into the muzzles of anti-tank guns, this may not have been too disadvantageous. When assessing the Eighth Army’s advance, however, it is instructive to compare this with an earlier one which Eighth Army had made in the previous winter. At the start of CRUSADER, Eighth Army had been positioned on the Egyptian frontier, but by the time that Rommel admitted defeat, the front line had moved forward to run roughly south from Tobruk. It took Eighth Army thirty days from 7 December 1941 to 6 January 1942 to reach El Agheila from Tobruk, a distance of some 470 miles by the coast road. It took Eighth Army nineteen days from 5 to 23 November 1942 to reach El Agheila from El Alamein, a distance of some 840 miles by the coast road. But the critics never describe the advance after CRUSADER as ponderous, lumbering, sluggish, weary, dull, measured, or resembling a ‘pachyderm’; they reserve such comments for an advance of nearly twice the distance made in under two-thirds of the time. To say the least, their views would appear to be somewhat inconsistent.

Moreover the advance after Alamein had one further profound difference from that after CRUSADER: it did not end at El Agheila – though the Axis leaders were determined that it should. On 22 November, Hitler had given orders that the position should be held to the last. Two days later, despite Rommel’s protests, Kesselring, always an invincible optimist, and Cavallero who had no choice in the matter as he was following the instructions of Mussolini, similarly commanded that El Agheila must be defended. Two days after that, Mussolini requested Rommel to counter-attack Eighth Army. On the 28th, Rommel flew to Germany to appeal against his Führer’s decision, but Hitler summarily overruled him.

‘Nobody but a Führer or a Duce,’ declares Ronald Lewin in his book about the Afrika Korps, ‘would have dreamed that a stand could be made against a determined and properly planned assault’; but in fact Rommel’s situation was far from hopeless. The El Agheila position, says the Official History, was ‘very strong naturally because it was almost surrounded by salt marshes, soft sand or ground too broken and rough to give tracked or wheeled vehicles freedom to manoeuvre’. Parallel to the coast the Wadi Faregh, a deep, narrow gorge, protected Rommel’s flank, further restricting the movements of an attacker. And reinforcing the natural obstacles was a chain of strongpoints which began at Mersa Brega, a small port lying some 40 miles east of Agheila, and then curved south-westward to Maaten Giofer 25 miles south of Agheila; from which it continued due southwards for 10 miles to Sidi Tarbet. There was an outpost at Marada a further 45 miles to the south; and as a final defence, at El Mugtaa about 17 miles west of Agheila an anti-tank ditch blocked the narrow gap between the sea and the salt marshes.

In addition, all round El Agheila, at El Mugtaa, and between the various defensive posts, lay the minefields, anti-tank and anti-personnel, among which once again were booby traps of every kind. In El Alamein to the River Sangro, Montgomery reports that ‘the enemy was known to be working hard on the defences, and he used immense quantities of mines’, while Nigel Hamilton quotes Major General Wimberley as confirming that ‘never again, while I commanded the Highland Division, did we ever meet such a heavily mined area.’

Behind these defences, moreover, the Axis army was beginning to build up its strength again. The Germans had received reinforcements. The Ariete Armoured Division had been reformed and a new Italian Armoured Division, the Centauro, had arrived, as had two fresh Italian infantry divisions, the La Spezia and the Young Fascist. In consequence, Rommel was now commanding sixty to seventy thousand troops, he was well supplied with antitank guns and he had fifty-seven gun-armed tanks. In addition, the fact that they were once more behind strong, fixed defences had done much to restore the morale of both Germans and Italians. The Long Range Desert Group, whose men were keeping their enemies under observation, reported that they were ‘well disciplined and cheerful’, and could not possibly be described any longer as a ‘shattered remnant’.

It can of course be argued that Rommel was as usual short of petrol as a result of the efforts of the Malta striking forces, and his Italian infantrymen were almost without vehicles. Yet, as at Alamein, they could have put up a resolute defence from behind their fixed positions, the more so since, as will be seen, Eighth Army at the end of a long supply line did not have anything like the attacking force available that it had had at Alamein. It can also be argued that El Agheila, unlike Alamein, could be outflanked. So indeed it could, but any force attempting such a move would have to make a very wide sweep of over 200 miles through country which turned out in practice to be even more difficult than had been reported and which, despite a fine ‘recce’ mission by an armoured car patrol under Captain Chrystal of 1st Kings Dragoon Guards, was largely unknown. ‘Administrative considerations,’ reports de Guingand, ‘limited the size of the force’ that could be sent on such an outflanking mission and it could also expect to be spotted from the air, as proved to be the case, enabling the enemy to have tanks and anti-tank guns all ready to meet it as it closed in towards the coast.

In short, the defenders could have put up a powerful resistance at El Agheila had it not been for the fact that their leader had lost his will to resist. He felt, says Paul Carell, ‘that his defeat at El Alamein was more than a lost battle. He knew that he had lost the North African campaign.’ ‘He wanted,’ declares Kesselring, ‘to get back to Tunis; if possible still further away, to Italy and the Alps – wishful thinking that clouded his strategical judgement.’ Kesselring indeed considers it was ‘certainly a mistake’ to ‘leave Rommel in his command’.

So low was Rommel’s morale that he deliberately played on the fears of Mussolini and Cavallero that the unmotorized Italian divisions would once more be the chief sufferers in the event of defeat. As a result he was able by 6 December to persuade them to let him transport his Italian infantrymen to Buerat some 250 miles further west, though this was not nearly such a good defensive position as El Agheila, being less strong naturally, less well defended artificially, and considerably easier to outflank. Since this action deprived Rommel of the soldiers needed to man his outposts and used up the bulk of that petrol which he rightly claimed to be in short supply, the Axis commander had in practice surrendered the El Agheila position before his enemy could attack it.


Indeed in view of Rommel’s state of mind it can well be argued that Montgomery should have delivered his attack on El Agheila as soon as this was possible, instead of pausing to build up his forces in preparation for a planned encounter in mid-December. Yet at the time there seemed to Montgomery to be a number of good reasons why he should make very thorough preparations for his forthcoming offensive.

In part this belief arose from considerations of morale. Williams would tell Nigel Hamilton that there was in Eighth Army ‘a tremendous Agheila complex … Agheila had become a sort of bogey – because you got as far as Agheila and then back again’. ‘The desert veterans,’ relates Horrocks, ‘reminded us gloomily that twice before we had reached this position, but never got any farther.’ Moreover Montgomery was again receiving misleading Intelligence, for the ‘Ultra’ interceptions revealed that Rommel had been ordered to hold the El Agheila defences but not that he had no intention of doing so. It was not until the evacuation of the Italians on 6 December that Montgomery realized that his foes might withdraw and hurried forward his plans accordingly.

Furthermore Montgomery, at the end of an ever-lengthening supply line, needed a pause in any case so as to reorganize his army, or as de Guingand puts it, ‘to get our administration in proper order’. X Corps was pulled back into reserve in the area between Benghazi and Tobruk, thereby ensuring that there could be no successful Axis counter-offensive into Cyrenaica, whatever happened. Leese’s XXX Corps, to which 7th Armoured Division had now been transferred, moved forward to undertake the assault, while XIII Corps temporarily ceased to be. 44th (British) Division, which had suffered so severely in the past months, was also disbanded and 9th Australian and 1st South African Divisions returned to their own countries. Tragically, Major General Pienaar, whose determination to hold El Alamein with his division concentrated in fixed defences instead of split up into ‘mobile artillery battle groups’ had done so much to help preserve Eighth Army, was killed in an aircraft accident on the way home.

At this time also, another Eighth Army veteran left the scene. Horrocks took over the leadership of X Corps, while Lumsden returned to England, supposedly remarking on his arrival that the desert was not big enough to hold two such difficult characters – the quotation is not an exact one – as Montgomery and himself. Though both were undoubtedly strong-minded and self-confident, this comment was fair to neither man. It is difficult not to sympathize with Lumsden but equally difficult not to understand the reasons for Montgomery’s actions. In his Memoirs, he records that Lumsden had handled the preliminary operations in Cyrenaica ‘satisfactorily’ and that he considered Lumsden to be ‘a good trainer’. Nor does he make any mention of any failure on Lumsden’s part during the pursuit from Alamein. He had, though, been very critical of Lumsden’s handling of X Corps during Alamein. In particular he believed, unfairly, that Lumsden did not appreciate the need for co-ordination between the different branches of the Army and, more justly, that he lacked experience in putting such co-ordination
into practice. For this, it might be added, the real fault lay with Montgomery’s predecessors who had never called on Lumsden to do so and whose neglect of the subject had been almost total. Nonetheless the fact remained that Montgomery anticipated having to fight other major battles in North Africa and he believed, for the reasons stated, that ‘command of a corps’ in such an action ‘was above Lumsden’s ceiling’. The luckless Lumsden duly departed. He was later sent to the Far East as Churchill’s personal Liaison Officer to the American General MacArthur. On 6 January 1945, he was on board the battleship New Mexico watching the landings at Lingayan Gulf in the Philippines, when a Japanese ‘kamikaze’ suicide aircraft, already in flames, crashed into the bridge. Lumsden was among those killed. ‘He was,’ says General Douglas MacArthur in his Reminiscences, ‘England at its best.’

The loss to Eighth Army of such fine units as the Australians and South Africans emphasizes how far its strength had been reduced. In fact Leese could find only three divisions for his offensive against El Agheila. 51st Highland Division would attack along the coast road, apart from its 153rd Brigade which had been transferred to Harding’s 7th Armoured Division – an example of that integration of the army which Montgomery had brought about. Harding also commanded 8th Armoured Brigade which had replaced the exhausted men and machines of 22nd Armoured, and 131st Motorized Infantry Brigade. His task was to attack at Bir es Suera, about 15 miles south of the Highlanders’ advance.

These attacks went in on the night of 13th/14th December, but already on the previous night, Freyberg’s New Zealanders, accompanied by 4th Light Armoured Brigade now led by Brigadier Harvey, had set off on the lengthy march necessary to outflank the enemy positions. It may be added that Harvey’s command had consisted at first only of two armoured car regiments and the Royal Scots Greys with 17 Shermans, 4 Grants and 15 Stuarts. As a result of appeals by Freyberg, nine more Shermans from the Staffordshire Yeomanry in Custance’s brigade had joined him just before the battle. Even so this was not a strong force with which to face the Afrika Korps, particularly as the Shermans, as usual at this time, proved ‘mechanically shaky’.

The force could indeed have proved dangerously weak. Though Rommel had robbed the defence of his Italian infantry, the difficulties caused by the minefields, behind which it must be said the revived Ariete Division and the 90th Light Division offered valiant resistance, were still sufficient to block 51st Highland Division. 7th Armoured Division also found progress extremely difficult and it was not until 15 December that its men, well supported as always by the Desert Air Force, broke through to capture El Agheila.

Meanwhile at 1700 on the 14th, Freyberg’s outflanking movement had been detected by the Axis airmen well to the south. Rommel’s officers urged him to attack the New Zealanders while they were thus isolated, but Panzerarmee Afrika’s leader, having used up his petrol reserves in carrying the Italians to Buerat, felt that he dare not take the risk. In consequence Freyberg pressed on unhindered and by the late afternoon of the 15th, had reached the coast road near Merduma, well to the west of El Mugtaa, though by that time the bad going had reduced his tanks to a total of just seventeen. These facts throw an interesting light on a comment by Rommel that ‘the British commander’s planning had contained one mistake’ – he should not have ‘started bombarding our strong-points and attacking our line until his outflanking force had completed its move and was in a position to advance on the coast road in timed co-ordination with the frontal attack’. In reality, had this happened and had Freyberg been spotted by air reconnaissance as he surely would have been, he would then have been still more isolated nearer to the enemy. He would thus have been in far more danger of an assault by the panzers which he might have had great difficulty in withstanding. When it is added that the New Zealanders did in any event complete their move in time to cut off the defenders, though they were not strong enough to prevent their escape, Rommel’s criticism seems not so much ill-founded as irrelevant.
But then Rommel, while often generous to defeated opponents, rarely finds much to say in favour of the one whom he could not defeat. Perhaps it helped to console him for Alam Halfa and Alamein.

That night, Rommel determined to withdraw – Kesselring will have noted cynically that as usual he had enough petrol for this. On 16 December, splitting up into small groups, the Germans burst past the New Zealanders to make good their escape. Next day, Freyberg’s men caught up with the enemy rearguard at Nofilia but though they engaged immediately, they were held off by heavy artillery fire until darkness fell, under cover of which the Axis soldiers continued their retreat.

The Battle of El Agheila was over. It had not been a large or memorable encounter. No unusual or imaginative tactics had been employed. The Axis casualties had been small: eighteen tanks and twenty-five guns lost and about 450 prisoners taken by Eighth Army. Yet for every man in that Army at the time the victory was an immense one. ‘Eighth Army,’ as General Jackson declares, ‘had at last rounded the corner into Tripolitania.’

Once again it was 4th Light Armoured Brigade which followed up the retreating enemy. By 21 December, it had reached Sirte, from which the Axis forces only withdrew on Christmas Day, though they had in the meantime suffered losses at the hands of the Desert Air Force, now established on the landing grounds of eastern Tripolitania from which mines and booby traps had hastily been cleared, not without casualties, by the Royal Engineers. Nor were all the enemy losses inflicted from the air. On 24 December, Major General von Randow, the CO of 21st Panzer, was killed by a mine planted by the Special Air Service.

By 29 December, 4th Light Armoured was facing the Axis position at Buerat but the main formations of Eighth Army were held back 40 miles or more to the east, while preparations were made for the coming encounter. These were necessarily thorough, for as Montgomery tells us in El Alamein to the River Sangro, ‘for administrative reasons, once I struck at Buerat I intended to drive straight through to Tripoli’ – a distance of 230 miles.

It was a far more difficult task than some of Eighth Army’s critics have allowed. Buerat, though provided, in Rommel’s words, with ‘every mine we had’, was not a particularly strong position. Moreover it could be outflanked far more easily than could El Agheila since the country to the south was much less difficult – though the Wadi Zem Zem running south-west from Buerat would provide a formidable obstacle. It was once Buerat was passed, however, that Eighth Army’s difficulties would really begin.

Beyond Buerat the coast road, the Via Balbia, ran north-westward towards Misurata before turning west again to Tripoli. Between Buerat and Misurata movement was restricted to this road which was hemmed in on all sides by rough country and salt marshes. Moreover the enemy could cover any retreat by demolitions, and did – 177 craters, ten destroyed bridges and six anti-tank ditches were later encountered by Eighth Army on the Via Balbia before Tripoli could be reached, not to mention the ‘usual’ mines and booby traps. If the coast road was ignored and a wide outflanking movement executed, then this would have to cross terrain described by Alan Moorehead as ‘so rough that even the desert veterans were left speechless’ – it included every conceivable natural obstacle, from miles of soft sand, through appallingly broken ground covered with great boulders, to steep wadis and high cliffs.

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After Misurata the difficulties became even worse. About 30 miles east of Tripoli there lay what Nigel Hamilton calls ‘the best natural defensive line between Alamein and Tunisia’. De Guingand also refers to this as ‘an excellent natural defensive position’, while Montgomery describes it as ‘an immensely superior defensive position’. This was, in the Eighth Army Commander’s words, ‘the escarpment running from Horns on the coast through Tarhuna and Garian’, which curved in a great arc to protect Tripoli from the east, south-east and south. Montgomery was understandably alarmed in case the defences here which were already rendered formidable enough by nature should be made still more so by his enemies.

Montgomery records indeed that he could ‘think of no sound military reason for Rommel’s decision’ to defend Buerat rather than Homs-Tarhuna. ‘I believe,’ he adds, ‘that Mussolini ordered it.’ Mussolini had certainly originally ordered ‘resistance to the uttermost, I repeat the uttermost, with all troops of the Panzerarmee in the Buerat Line’, but by again playing on the fears of Cavallero that the Italian infantry would be cut off, Rommel was once more able to obtain consent for their withdrawal to the Homs-Tarhuna area starting on 4 January 1943. There is no doubt that had he insisted, Rommel would have been permitted to bring all his men, apart perhaps from rearguards, back to Homs-Tarhuna, for by the time the Eighth Army offensive opened his superiors had come to agree with him that Tripoli was doomed; nonetheless they ordered that the Eighth Army must be delayed for as long as possible to ensure that Tunisia could be made secure. Mussolini who, whatever his other errors, correctly evaluated the strength of the Homs-Tarhuna area, demanded that this be held for at least three weeks. That his instructions were far from being as unrealistic as some critics have claimed, is demonstrated by Rommel’s own admission that with ‘a somewhat better stock of supplies’, he could ‘have kept the enemy at bay here’ – the Homs-Tarhuna position – ‘for a very considerable time’.

There was certainly ‘an intense and justifiable longing for better supplies’ agrees Kesselring, but, he adds scornfully, ‘given leadership even our lamentably small trickle of supplies would have been ample’. He further reports that when he visited the front at the end of December, the Axis troops showed ‘no sign of depression, only disgust that they were not being given a chance to fight as they could have done’.

‘Not being given a chance’ because Rommel again had no intention of carrying out more than a delaying action at either Buerat or Homs-Tarhuna. The soldiers sent back to Homs-Tarhuna, the revived Trieste Division and the bulk of the La Spezia, Young Fascist and Pistoia Divisions, made virtually no attempt to strengthen the defences, though Montgomery admits that ‘if the energy expended on Buerat had instead been applied to the Homs-Tarhuna area, I do not think the Eighth Army would have reached Tripoli in January’. The rest of Rommel’s forces remained uselessly at Buerat, even though their leader planned to retreat at speed from here as soon as he was engaged – ‘fighting,’ snarls Kesselring, ‘went by the board’.

In practice all that Rommel had done was to disperse his forces. Indeed he would disperse them even wider than the borders of Tripolitania for on 14 January he proved very ready to ease the fears of his superiors for the safety of Tunisia by sending there the 21st Panzer Division. The division’s tanks and artillery were, however, handed over to 15th Panzer, now commanded by Major General Boroweitz, though this still left Rommel with only thirty-six tanks plus the fifty-seven inadequate ones in service with the Italian Centauro (Armoured) Division. Rommel also had his Reconnaissance Units, now three in number for the 580th had joined the veteran 3rd and 33rd Recon Regiments, 90th German Light, 164th German Light Divisions, the Ramcke Parachute Brigade and those Italian units that had not yet retired to Horns or Tarhuna. In support were just over 150 German aircraft and twice that number of Italian, though only 50 per cent of each of these totals were serviceable. The great majority of the German machines were, however, ME109s, and these, under the command of Major Joachim Müncheberg, one of Hitler’s most capable fighter pilots, inflicted a number of casualties on the Desert Air Force during its preliminary strikes in early January, No. 3 Squadron RAAF losing five Kittyhawks on the 13th, No. 450 Squadron RAAF four, and No. 250 Squadron RAF two.

Despite the disadvantages mentioned, if Rommel had defended the Homs-Tarhuna line resolutely then there is no doubt that he could have thwarted Eighth Army. Montgomery’s main problem was less the Axis soldiers and airmen than his supply lines. The ‘piece of elastic’ was being asked to stretch further than ever before – and on 4 January, nature again intervened dramatically in favour of the enemy.

On that day, in the vivid words of the Eighth Army Commander in his Memoirs, ‘very heavy gales began to rage in the Mediterranean and these created havoc and destruction at Benghazi. Ships broke loose and charged about the harbour; heavy seas broke up the breakwater and smashed into the inner harbour; much damage was done to tugs, lighters and landing places.’ Four large supply-ships were lost, one of which carried 2,000 tons of ammunition; the tonnage received by Benghazi fell from 3,000 tons a day to under 1,000 tons and later as low as 400 tons, and Eighth Army, as its leader records, was ‘thrown back on Tobruk’.

Montgomery, usually dismissed by Eighth Army’s critics as a cautious, unimaginative commander, acted immediately. X Corps which he had planned to move forward to support his offensive and later to conduct operations west of Tripoli was ‘grounded’. Its 1st Armoured Division handed over its tanks to 7th Armoured Division, and the Corps concentrated on providing a transport service, delivering supplies to the front. X Corps in general and its new commander Horrocks in particular were, says de Guingand, ‘terribly disappointed, but without grumbling they got down to the task and played their part magnificently’.

Even with their best efforts, however, the supply situation remained so serious that de Guingand calls Montgomery’s determination to proceed with his offensive on its original planned date of 15 January, ‘a brave decision’. It would be possible to provide supplies for a period of only ten days. If the Eighth Army did not reach Tripoli within that time or at least immediately thereafter, ‘the situation,’ as de Guingand puts it with some restraint, ‘would not be good, for without the use of Tripoli as a supply port, strong forces could not be maintained so far forward. If, therefore, Rommel prevented us capturing the port for, say, two weeks, it might well prove necessary to withdraw the bulk of our forces.’ ‘The problem was relentless,’ agrees the Official History. ‘Once the Army and air forces moved they had to reach Tripoli without pause in a set time or withdraw for want of supplies.’

Not only did the shortage of supplies render X Corps unable to take part in the offensive, it also resulted in 50th Division, which had originally been detailed as part of the attacking force, having to be left behind at El Agheila. The loss of this formation meant that Leese’s XXX Corps again had only three divisions available for what was code-named at the time Operation FIRE-EATER, and would later be called the Battle of Buerat. This, it may be added, much underestimates the task before XXX Corps which was in fact a threefold one: to assault Buerat, to storm the Homs-Tarhuna line and to capture Tripoli.

The divisions which had to perform such a task were the 2nd New Zealand, the 51st Highland, supported by the Valentines of 23rd Armoured Brigade, and the 7th Armoured. Harding at this time had three brigades under him, 131st Brigade of motorized infantry, 4th Light Armoured Brigade now containing only armoured cars for the Royal Scots Greys had been transferred to Freyberg’s command, and 8th Armoured Brigade which contained 57 Shermans, 27 Grants, 58 Crusaders and 4 Stuarts. In addition 22nd Armoured Brigade under Roberts was held in ‘Army Reserve’.

As always the airmen were there with the Army. A number of squadrons were resting or re-equipping but apart from those bomber units which Tedder employed from bases further afield, the Desert Air Force could still put into action the two veteran South African Boston squadrons, two British and one South African Baltimore bomber squadrons, four squadrons of American Mitchells, a number of photographic reconnaissance units including an entire Hurricane squadron, No. 40 Squadron SAAF, and an entire Baltimore squadron, No. 60 Squadron SAAF, four squadrons now of Spitfires, No. 1 Squadron SAAF having been re-equipped soon after Alamein, three squadrons of US Warhawks, eight squadrons of Kittyhawks – three British, three South African, two Australian – and last but certainly not least the night-fighter Hurricanes of No. 73 Squadron RAF.


I think Citino explains this well in his “Death of the Wehrmacht” The “Prussian method” with lower commanders having lots of authority and go on the attack themselves versus the cool controlling method of Montgomery avoiding headlong charges which just ended up wasting tanks.

The difference in WW2 was that there was the option to “control the battlefield” or actually the more modern work “BattleSpace” were Air force, Logistics, Tanks, Infantry, intelligence and Sea operations had to be coordinated over a long distances.

Obviously when Montgomery (and others) did take the calculated risk to design operation Comet against Arnhem which was later expanded into Market Garden he never got any credit as well for this daring operation. It wasn’t a 100% unlikely that Germany would collapse in September 1944 as it basically started doing after August 1918 when it was obvious as well that it was hopeless. Montgomeries methods were not a s flashy as the classic waterloo cavalry charges but make sense.


Super interesting reads. Thinking ahead it was probably the African experience which taught Rommel that Germany was doomed in the long run. Stauffenberg as well was wounded in Africa. The difference between Africa and the other fronts was that once it was lost there was NO going back to it as that would require a navy. A land counter offensive against the Soviet Union was an option (e.g. Kursk). Africa was an irretrievable loss and the chance to go after the Jews in Palestine too.

He had a great career and fantastic image within Nazi Germany just to find out his career was destined for the Abyss one way or the other! I



Yes , Monty’s critics unjustly (or maybe in trollish tease) always repreat : he was unimaginative , over cautious , had lots of equipment material and ULTRA intelligence and Rommel the romantic hero and his doomed sportsmen supermen (no mention of Italians of course) lacked logistics , supplies and left alone by Hitler OKW etc (as if US or Soviet Armies lacked logistics , material , firepower or intelligence in their most successful campaigns like Pacific Campaign in 1942-45 or Operation Bagration in 1944 ) Their main narrative had been always that in a just and sportsmanlike world (as if war always had been a gentelmanly sports match , never mention that by telling a romantic tale of daring in North Africa , they are masking the regime Rommel was serving in and Nazis intentions in Palestine Jewish communities and at Russia and its various slaw populations) Rommel should have conquered Egypt and Middle East if he had supply logistics means of Montgomery had , never mention that it was that same lack of logistics means (low tonnage of Italian merchant marine , lack of fuel for Italian Navy in Mediterranean and low unload capacity in Libyan harbours and lack of Axis motorised transport over one coastal road Via Balbia) from the beginning of African Campaign in 1940-41 that should have made Rommel and Kesselring to draw a more realistic and grounded campaign strategy with realistic objectives like defence of Libya. They did not and extended all the way to Alamein instead and as a result their command was doomed in 1942-1943 in Alamein , Libya and Tunisia. Panzer Army in over ambitious operations of their leaders always lived hand to mouth in supplies and used captured enemy supplies thanks to incompatence of initial British generals (like Ritchie , Auchinleck , Gott who always let their supply depots fall into enemy hands , Auchinleck had been main culprit here since others were assigned to their positions because of his decisions) assigned to North African Theater before Montgomery arrived (Monty never let any of his supply depots captured by enemy after he took command in August 1942) It was the captured supply stocks and vast number of British working trucks in Tobruk and Mersa Matruh in June 1942 that fell to Axis hands that allowed Rommel’s in a premature over optimism to extend all the way into El Alamein , Egypt and once they dried out , he left his army dangling at the end of a tether of 2.000 mile long rear supply line all the way to Tripoli under RAF air dominance

At the other hand , it was Montgomery who had always been aware capabilities of his forces despite temporary logistics and numbers advantage (which is fleeting in mobile pursuit operations) and what they could not do or could not afford to do , aware of what their limits were (Eighth Army had been an army of civilians) and usually made his planning accordingly. Eighth Army’s pursuit operation from Alamein to all the way to Libya and Tunisia in November 1942-January 1943 had been a master planning and execution of logistics , supply and overflanking / pursuit operations. From Alamein to Tripoli , the distance is what 2.000 km or so ? Eighth Army in step by step methodic close pursuit , never let retreating remnants of Panzer Army to settle down and deploy for defence in a defensive line , Monty never over extended its advance units to be ambushed and overwhelmed by enemy like Neame and Ritchie allowed in El Aghelia in March 1941 , El Haseiat in December 1941 or Benghazi in January 1942 , always established air superiorty first before committing any operation with advance airfields constructed first for close air support of DAF and never committed his army to any operation before opening up and enlarge unload capacity of captured Libyan ports in his rear (Bardia , Tobruk , Benghazi and Tripoli) to ease logistics burden and establish a supply build up for extended operations. That is not daring romantic popular history narrative story maybe but it is responsible and professional military leadership by him.


I think there are several layers here.
For one, the victory at El Alamein preceded the Invasion in West Africa and the encirclement at Stalingrad. Not to diminish the other defeats but Montgomery showed that he could form and 8th Army and use the right precise tactics to gain victory.

After the war historians wrote about them and when I was writing term papers they needed to be “forceful” as well. Take a narrative to defend it. History books tend to be similar as like Keegan said “contention is core business”. There are lots of books telling us Patton is great and others that he really is a wild card which needed to be saved.

The movies are much much worse, with “Patton, with the scene in Sicily that never happened” or the the “Teadrinking by British tank crews with an angry 82 Air Borne that NEVER happened as well as British Armor fighting off a Germany attack at Mook which threatened to cut the supply lines”. I kind of assumed the latter is true but movies and books have an interest to make money. I did the historical advice for a route guide 12 years ago and yes making choices and limited resources is a thing.

Monty also organized a learning conference after his victory I read. Not sure when this conference was held, need to search for it in my stack of books.

Lastly Montgomery was unbearable and didn’t like the upper layers meddling with his plans. Very understandable as a lot of micromanagement and politicians trying to shower military people with directives is always a thing. His unwillingness to follow up on those made him somewhat less bearable.

As for Rommel, in my view there are way too many fanboys who claim he didn’t know about the holocaust etc. He was a loyal follower of Hitler until it was obviously that Germany was doomed to all except the many who chose to become “cadaver discipline followers”. I don’t think there is much honourable about him. Just a wise lesson to learn, he got tons of medals from the National Socialist because of being a loyal idiot, when things went South they dumped him at a heartbeat. The best thing for his image was his death actually which made him a safe person to support as he couldn’t accidently say the wrong stuff!


Thank you. By the way I just I had a big arguement (or troll fight) on youtube comments section of last video with an anti Monty bigot (probably from States) called “Big Woody” , thet man was so entrenched with anti Montgomery prejudice , it really took an effort to put him down (not a good way to spend weekend so I had to leave for dinner) Eventually when he could not counter the points I made and listed above he resorted at last “how British used good innovcent Americans like him whose ancestors escaped from tyranny of Europe to fight a war that did not concern , interest them them…” etc as if that gave his point of view a moral high ground…You can not fight that kind of prejudice with rational conviction.

Best part was he was convinced I was British. LOL


Naa, got rid of them some time ago ;-). I think Scott Adams has a great podcast which also covers that it is almost impossible to convince people with facts alone once they have an established point of view. And once humans cannot defend it you get the word salad type of defense which just makes no sense.

We all can fall for the bias trap and consciously should stay away from it.

The sad thing is that the Allies were working together and won the largest war in history together and celebrated together. There is no need to make a top-10 and then continuous bickering on who was number 2 instead of number 1. Everyone did his/her bit!