ANNEX: THE CAMPAIGNS IN AFRICA FROM JUNE TO AUGUST 1946
Above left: Italian troops dug in near Tobruk, 2nd July 1946. Above right: British Cromwell tanks
advance on the first day of Operation Plantagenet.
From ‘The Hitlerian Wars’ by Jason Corell, Tormeline 1973
Operation Plantagenet was launched at 21:30 on the night of 12th June. The RAF had made attacks on Italian airfields in the late afternoon and destroyed or damaged 45 aircraft on the ground while British artillery, which had been brought into position the night before, had begun a bombardment at 18:00.
Fighting during the night was fierce, but by sunrise on 13th June the British forces had broken through all along the front and the crescent of fortified positions from Maktila to Sofafi were all in British hands, as were large numbers of prisoners. XIII Corps consisting of 7th Armoured Division, 4th African (Nigerian) Division and the 6th Infantry Brigade had advanced 70 miles (113 kilometres) from their start lines and were moving towards Sidi Barrani from the south. Sidi Barrani was the first major town under Italian control and had been bombarded by the Monitor HMS Havelock and the cruiser HMS Leander while Maktila had been shelled by the cruiser HMS Sussex.
On 15th June, elements of the 4th African Division advanced to attack Sidi Barrani from the south. While advancing across open ground they took casualties, but with support from artillery and tanks they were in position to block the south and south–western exits to the town by early afternoon. The British 16th Infantry Division attacked from the east at 4:00 p.m. and the town fell by nightfall; the remains of three Italian divisions were trapped between the British 16th Infantry Division and XIII Corps. On 17th June, the same day that the news of the German surrender in South East England reached the front lines, the Italian garrison in Sidi Barrani surrendered. Later that day elements of the 7th Armoured Division advanced in the Buq Buq area and captured large numbers of men and guns. A patrol from the 6th Infantry Brigade entered Rabia and found it empty. The Italians had withdrawn from both Rabia and Sofafi overnight and fallen back on the Halfaya Pass.
Over the next few days 8th Army paused to reorganise, resupply and deal with the large number of prisoners that had been taken. This was roughly twenty times the number that had been expected and their presence impeded the advance. Havelock and the two cruisers fired on the Sollum area all day and most of the night of 19th June. By 20th June, the only Italian positions left in Egypt were the approaches to Sollum and the Halfaya pass. Total Italian casualties in ten days of fighting were 2,007 killed, 2,951 wounded and 41,000 captured. They had also lost 81 tanks and 256 guns. Total British casualties were 1,041 killed and injured.
On 22nd June, the British advance resumed. Halfaya Pass and Sollum were quickly taken and Fort Capuzzo in Libya fell on the 23rd.That same day, Warwick, Hereward and Beaumont bombers carried out raids on the Italian air bases in Benina, Castel Benito and El Adem, destroying or damaging 46 aircraft and wrecking infrastructure. The British strategy was to concentrate on securing the coastal towns and by–pass Italian garrisons further south in the desert.
Fort Capuzzo which was 40 miles (64 kilometres) inland, was captured without a fight by 7th Armoured Division as it advanced westwards to Bardia which they reached on 26th June. They then halted south–west of Bardia, waiting for the arrival of the South African Division. The offensive was resumed on the 28th as news of the Italian defeat at the Battle of Cape Akritas reached both sides (See Annex 13 in Drake's Drum: Currents of Fate). Assisted by air support, naval gunfire and artillery barrages. Fighting in around Bardia continued for three days before the Garrison surrendered with the capture of 9,000 prisoners. Italian casualties also included more than 5000 killed and wounded.
The strategically vital port of Tobruk was taken on 3rd July by the South African Division with the capture of 20,000 prisoners, 278 guns, 107 tanks and an enormous quantity of supplies and provisions for the loss of 356 South African casualties. Italian casualties were 2,976 killed and wounded. The port itself had been mined and some of the dockside buildings destroyed but, vitally, the stores were largely intact and the port was re–opened by 24th July.
So the campaign continued. Position after position fell to the British advance, Gazala on 5th July, Mekili on the 7th, Derna the following day, Beda Fomm on the 15th and Msus and Benghazi on the 18th. At Bengazi the British again captured large amounts of supplies. General Bergonzoli mounted a desperate counter-attack from his position at El Agheila on the 23rd, but after two days of hard fighting he surrendered the remnant of his command. The Italian 10th Army had been completely destroyed and the way to Tripoli was open.
The British now paused in the campaign to build up supplies and consolidate their advance by opening the port of Benghazi and the Benghazi–El Agheila railway line both of which had been mined and sabotaged as the Italians retreated. (Note 1) To reinforce O’Connor’s success another infantry division was despatched from Britain as well as an armoured division from South Africa and a second colonial infantry division drawn from West Africa.
Attention now turned to East Africa. While the British had taken the coast of Cyrenica, Italian garrisons still held Jarabub 150 miles (240 km) south of Sollum, the Oases of Aujila, Jikheira and Jalo at the west end of the Great Sand Sea and the Kufra Oasis which was 250 miles (410 Km) south of Jalo. General Henry Wilson, C in C of Britain’s Middle East Command ordered that Jarabub be captured immediately and the oasis fell on 29th July to the 2nd South African Armoured Regiment and a Nigerian infantry battalion. Further south, on the far side of the Sand Sea, Kufra was attacked by Free French forces from French Equatorial Africa (Now Chad), in combination with the British LRDG and fell on 5th August.
The Italian Viceroy in East Africa was Baron Aterno (Giacomo Acerbo) who had succeded the Duke of Aosta upon the later’s death from Tuberculosis in 1942. (Neither man had much military experience.) Aterno had fallen out of favour with Mussolini over Il Duce’s support of Nazi Nordicist theories and had been essentially exiled to Italian East Africa to get him out of the way. (Note 2) The troops under his command were even worse prepared for war than Bergonzoli’s 10th Army and were demoralized by Italian losses in Malta and North Africa. Aterno withdrew from the frontiers and concentrated his forces within what he saw as a defensible position.
The campaign opened on the night of 30th–31st July with air raids by Warwick bombers from Egypt on the Italian naval base at Masawa. The following day, carrier aircraft from HMS Ocean of Rear Admiral Ralph Kerr’s Force R attacked military targets in and around Mogadishu. At the same time, Beaufort and Beaufighter torpedo bombers from Aden hit Masawa again and sank or damaged most of the Italian Red Sea squadron in the harbour.
The British launched a two-pronged offensive from Sudan in the north and Kenya in the south. The invading army was a mixture of regular and irregular troops drawn from Indian, Nigerian, Ghanaian, Abyssinian, Sudanese, and South African forces. From Sudan, the Commonwealth 34th and 35th Divisions marched into Eritrea on 1st August under the command of Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks. From Kenya, Lieutenant General Harry Wetherall opened a second front in Italian Somaliland on 5th August while seaborne landings at Berbera opposite Aden in what had been British Somaliland took place on 22nd August.
The campaign was drawn out and Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, did not fall until October. Emperor Haile Selassie, who had been exiled by the Italians in 1936, returned with great fanfare on the 26th, but the final surrender of Baron Aterno’s forces did not take place until 7th November. Even then sporadic guerrilla fighting continued until the Italian collapse in 1948.
The declaration of allegiance to the Free French by the French colonies of Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Senegal in April 1946 meant that the Americans could concentrate on the planned invasion of Morocco and Spanish Sahara. This was to be an opposed Seaborne landing and the operation was given the name ‘Sideline’. The landings were to take place at four locations on the Atlantic coast of Morocco at Mogador, Safi, Casablanca and Port Layouti. Eisenhower had ordered planning for the operation to begin in late 1945 but it was realised that it would not be possible before August 1946.
The German base at Dakar in the French Colony of Senegal had a garrison made up of two battalions of the 38th Waffen SS Charlemagne Division which was drawn from French volunteers. These numbered 4,500 men with 260 French and 69 German officers. A similar number of regular French Army of Africa soldiers (Moroccan Tirailleurs) and some 300 German naval personnel and dockworkers were also part of the garrison. In addition, there were about a hundred German, Spanish and Italian civilians. The Waffen SS troops were a more capable force than the Americans had previously met in the liberation of the French and Belgian African colonies. However, on 13th April, when the news of the re–occupation of metropolitan France by the Germans reached Dakar, fighting broke out when the SS troops moved to disarm the regular French Army forces in their barracks. The streets of Dakar echoed with gunfire as vicious fire–fights took place throughout the day and into the night, but by dawn German forces had control of the town.
Against the advice of his Generals, Hitler had ordered that Dakar be reinforced as early as February 1946, but this presented an impossible task for the Kriegsmarine who had moved the bulk of their forces to Trondheim in Norway. Planning for a convoy had been initiated, but the ships required to fight it through to Dakar were needed elsewhere. Resupply of the garrison was by fast destroyer or by air as other communications simply did not exist. By early May the interior of Senegal was in open insurrection against the Germans. Only the Dakar peninsular remained under German control.
On 25th May, after a raid by 100 B39s from the Azores, the Americans landed the 3rd Infantry Division at Bargny Goudou, some 20 km south of Dakar. By the following day they had invested the city and carrier aircraft from the USS Ranger supported their attack through the suburbs. The fighting lasted less than 48 hours before the Garrison surrendered.
The next task for the Americans was the invasion of the Canary Islands which took place on 22nd June when the American 2nd Marine Division were landed by Task Force 21. The Spanish Garrison put up some resistance but, cut off as they were from any prospect of aid, surrendered after 36 hours.
Although thought was given to bringing Operation Sideline forward by two weeks this proved logistically impossible and a date of 5th August was set. The Spanish Army consisted of some 40 effective divisions at this point though more than half were garrison troops or of low quality while two divisions, the Azul and Brunette, had to be rebuilt after the First Battle of Gibraltar (See Annex 11). Franco ordered that the Army of Africa be strengthened to 11 Spanish divisions with almost 200,000 men. A quarter of these were ‘Regulares’ Moroccan mercinaries who had proved to be among the most effective forces in the Nationalist Army in the Spanish Civil War. Franco also appointed General Antonio Barroso y Sánchez–Guerra, an Army of Africa veteran, to command it. In addition, some 90 aircraft of the Ejercito del Aire were deployed to the region, though many of these were obsolete. Spanish appeals for more reinforcements from their Axis partners were unsuccessful but the Luftwaffe also provided two Kampf Gruppen (Bomber wings) and one Jagd Gruppe (fighter wing).
With the German contingent under Generalleutnant Hasso von Manteuffel, this force was divided into three corps. Five of the Spanish infantry divisions were deployed along the coast to oppose a landing at the beachheads. The German units, together with a Spanish infantry division of Regulares, were concentrated inland and made up a mobile reserve.
The U.S Navy deployed four amphibious task forces to land The United States Fourth Army to seize the key ports and airfields in Morocco. They were to land at Mogador, Safi, Casablanca and Port Lyautey. The entire force sailed directly from the United States in two large convoys of almost 300 ships carrying 90,000 troops covered by the US Atlantic Fleet. Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley was in overall command of the American land forces.
The landings went ahead as planned on 5th August after a preliminary bombardment by the ships of the Atlantic Fleet and air strikes from naval aircraft. Casablanca was an important port but only three old Spanish destroyers and a submarine were based there when the landing took place. All were sunk at their moorings by gunfire from American warships. Operation Sideline saw the first major airborne assault carried out by Allied Forces. The United States Army’s 101st Airborne Division flew via the Azores and Canaries and dropped on the airfields at Anfa and Sale, high winds caused the formation to scatter and many of the paratroops landed far from their objectives.
The 1st Ranger Division landed north east of Port Lyautey, scaled the cliffs opposite the beaches and quickly captured the shore battery at Skhair. An attempt was made to land U.S. infantry at the harbour directly, in order to prevent destruction of the port facilities, but the ships that were meant to land the American troops turned back under heavy fire from shore batteries.
At Mehdia (south of Port–Lyautey), the landing parties came ashore in the wrong place and the second wave was delayed. This gave the Spanish defenders time to bring up artillery and the remaining landings were conducted under a bombardment. With the assistance of air support from the carriers, the troops pushed ahead, and the initial objectives were captured by nightfall.
The 2nd Armoured Division landed south west of Casablanca town, but came under heavy fire from dug in Spanish troops. It took four hours to clear the area surrounding the beach before the Americans wheeled north to start fighting in the suburbs of Casablanca. The fighting was hand to hand and progress was slow even though the Spanish had no armour. By the morning of 7th August, 2nd Armored had managed to link up with the men of the 101st Airborne who had been pinned down near the air base at Anfa.
The aim of the landings at Safi was to capture the port facilities so the central force's medium tanks could come ashore. Although the landings were eventually successful they started behind schedule and at first Spanish snipers pinned down the assault troops (most of whom had not seen combat before) on the beaches. Carrier aircraft destroyed a Spanish truck convoy bringing reinforcements to the beach defences in the afternoon but the garrison at Safi did not surrender.
At Mogador the landing beaches again came under heavy Spanish fire after daybreak. As with the other landings there was some delay and confusion before the troops got ashore and many of the landing ships were damaged because the water was shallower than first thought. Although observations of the beaches had been carried out by submarine periscope, no reconnaissance parties had landed on them to determine local conditions at first hand. This was a lesson well learned and in later amphibious assaults considerable attention was paid to pre–invasion reconnaissance. The beachheads were secured by the end of the day.
On the afternoon of 8th August, von Manteuffel’s 7th Panzer Division in conjunction with the German 61st Infantry Division and the Spanish ‘Carmesi’ Division mounted a counter attack against the American forces at Mehdia and Casablanca. Warned by reconnaissance aircraft that the Germans were coming, the American tanks advanced into the open country east of Casablanca. What followed was a disaster with 2nd Armored Division cut to pieces by the more experienced and better equipped Germans. The Americans retreated in disarray until a ferocious naval bombardment also caused the Axis forces to retreat.
The Americans were equipped with M4 Sherman tanks. The much better M26 Pershing had just entered service but was not yet sufficiently reliable or available in large enough numbers to be issued to front line troops. The Tiger I and Panther I tanks equipping the Germans were far superior. (The Americans fared much better against the Spanish Panzer IIIs and IVs) After this setback, the M26 was rushed into service as quickly as possible.
A counter attack against the American forces at Safi met with considerably less success and was repulsed with heavy losses due largely to fierce and accurate American artillery bombardments. The American 1st Infantry and 1st Armored divisions under the command of Major General George S. Patton set to the grim task of fighting house to house in the town. By 11th August, the remaining defenders, who had been pinned down in small pockets, surrendered. This permitted the bulk of the American forces to race up the coast road to join the siege of Casablanca. Patton’s tanks met little resistance in the open country north of Safi and he covered the 170 miles (274 km) in three days, but when they arrived they found the city had not yet fallen. The Spanish defenders at Mogador also put up a strong fight and it took two weeks to eliminate all resistance in the town and open the port, but by this time the American lodgement was firmly established.
Sánchez–Guerra decided to shorten his lines. There was no possibility of withdrawing what remained of his forces from southern Morocco because the railway line ran through Casablanca which was now held by the Americans. This southern force had to fall back on Marrakesh while the Axis forces in the north retreated to a line that ran from Kenitra on the coast along the Wadi Sebou to Fez. With the Atlas Mountains to the east, the position was designed to contain any American advance north or east but the forces left to Sánchez–Guerra were depleted. The two German divisions were at roughly 65% strength, the Spanish armoured division at 80% strength and the four Spanish infantry divisions at 60% strength. Axis air power had been badly degraded by both the American carrier air groups and a rapidly expanding USAAF presence in Morocco.
Sánchez–Guerra’s request for reinforcements was met with the transfer of two of the German divisions from southern Spain – the 23rd SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division Nederland which was drawn from Dutch volunteers and the 27th SS Volunteer Division Langemarck which was drawn from Belgian volunteers. These came with a caveat however, they were to come under the direct command of Manteuffel who was promoted to General. In addition to this, Franco ordered the transfer of two more Spanish infantry divisions. A request for reinforcements was also sent to the French garrison in Oran but Marcel Peyrouton, the French Governor General of Algeria, demurred; offering the excuse that what troops he had were needed to maintain order in Algeria.
The Americans laid siege to Marrakesh, took Casablanca and consolidated their position in central Morocco, landing two more Divisions, but by this time the Axis were ready to counter attack. On 23rd August Manteuffel’s force, supported by a Spanish infantry division, attacked the American lines around Bouknadel, using the Forest of Mamora to conceal their advance.
The Americans were forced back from the area and then suffered a further reverse at Sale the following day. Perhaps heartened by news of the Regia Marina’s success at the Battle of Sidra (See Appendices), the Axis forces pushed on down the coast to Rabat and then to the outskirts of Casablanca by the 28th. The American retreat was rapid until substantial reinforcements halted the Axis advance on the 1st. A counter-attack by Patton’s 2nd Armored Division caused the Germans to fall back to Rabat though American losses were heavy.
The Axis forces again advanced southward on the 6th, this time a Spanish Corps attacked at Meknes, but were easily repulsed by the Fourth Army. Both Manteuffel and Sánchez–Guerra counselled the Axis leaders to permit a withdrawal to a defensible line but were rebuffed. On 13th September, Sánchez–Guerra was relieved of command and replaced by Manteuffel, but despite the addition of two more divisions from Germany the Axis now had to spread their forces over 150 miles (240 km) of northern Morocco. Worse than this, on 19th September, the Americans, with 16 infantry and three armoured divisions, launched a major assault northward that took Rabat by 1st October.
In Tripoli, the Italian 6th Army under Generale di Corpo d'Armata (Lieutenant General) Pietro Maletti, prepared to confront the renewal of the British offensive. Maletti’s task was an unenviable one, the losses of military equipment in Malta and Cyrenica had severly depleted Italy’s warfighting capability. Far from knocking Britain out of the war in a cheap and quick victory the Axis had found an enemy reinvigorated and well prepared. Italy in particular was woefully unready for war in 1946 and, Like Franco, Mussolini had permitted wishful thinking and German promises to lull him into a false sense of security.
Maletti’s force consisted of a mere 50,000 men in five under–strength and poorly equipped divisions. He had barely 300 modern tanks and more than half of these were of the L16/44 type, a fast light tank that was completely outclassed by the British Cromwell. (See Appendices) Resupply from Italian factories was slow (The Axis defeats had caught Italian industry flat–footed and factories were frantically converting operations to the manufacture of weapons rather than consumer goods). The ports at Tunis and Tripoli were small and under constant British Air attack. The trickle of supplies and reinforcements he received was completely inadequate and worst of all he had barely 100 aircraft. The British, bolstered by reinforcements from the UK had more than 400 by this time.
O’Connor renewed the attack on 5th August, the same day the Americans landed in Morocco. The three-week lull in 8th Army’s advance had permitted the build-up of stores and more importantly the infrastructure and planning to provide his force with the 2,400 tons of supplies per day that it required. The railway line from Benghazi to El Agheila, despite having been sabotaged in over 100 places, was quickly repaired and had already transported 120,000 tons of supplies. The port of Benghazi was able to handle 2,700 tons a day by the second week of August. The plan of attack was given the name ‘Broadside’.
The initial attack sent 1st South African Infantry Division along the coast road with 7th Armoured Division on their inland flank. The following day the 2nd Indian (Colonial) Infantry Division, moving on lorries, started a deeper flanking manoeuvre to cut the Italian line of retreat along the coast road in the rear of the Italian defensive position at Ras Lanuf. The South Africans made a rapid advance and 7th Armoured also met practically no resistance.
This pattern was repeated all along the coast road and 8th Army reached Sirte on 9th August. However, west of Sirte, they had to pause to regroup and prepare an attack at Wadi Zemzem near Buerat which was 230 miles (370 km) east of Tripoli. Maletti sent a request to the Italian high command in Rome to withdraw the bulk of his forces to Tunisia where the terrain was more suitable for a rearguard action and he could draw support from the Axis forces opposing the American advance into Algeria. However, Mussolini’s reply was that 6th Army must hold the line at Buerat.
Despite Mussolini’s order, Maletti quickly collapsed his position when the British attacked on the 12th. Buerat was not heavily defended and intelligence reports on the state of the Italian forces persuaded O’Connor to continue the pursuit. Although the coast road was peppered with minefields and booby–traps, progress was good. The British 31st Infantry Division and the 1st South African Armoured Division turned inland and then struck north west towards Tarhuna which was a mere 40 miles from Tripoli.
Maletti withdrew his small force from Buerat on 14th August, evacuating them overnight by Destroyer to Tripoli. Although he had insufficient time to prepare, it was at Tripoli that he decided to make a stand. The British forces reached Turhana (south of Tripoli) and Homs (east of Tripoli) on 19th August. Again, logistics and the need to regroup compelled them to pause.
On 22nd August, still digesting the astonishing news of the surrender of the Fortress of Gibraltar, O’Connor launched both of his African colonial infantry divisions and the 51st (Highland) Division, who had recently arrived from the UK, in a frontal attack on the eastern suburbs of Tripoli while sending the 1st South African Infantry Division, 31st Infantry Division and 7th Armoured Division around the inland flank of the Italian line to surround the city. The fighting was fierce but the inadequately supplied and demoralised Italians, bereft of either air cover or naval support surrendered on the 27th. Maletti was captured with 30,000 of his men.
What was left of 6th Army, now led by generale di divisione (Major General) Clemente Primieri tried to conducted a fighting retreat along the coast road as best they could and withdraw to the Mareth Line. This was the French–built southern defence of Tunisia and the last Italian forces, harried by elements of the British LRDG, reached it on 1st September.
Note 1 The Tripoli – Benghazi Railway had been started to great fanfare in 1941 OTL but construction was stopped almost as soon as it had started. In TTL, the sections from Tripoli to Sirte and from Benghazi to El Agheila have both been completed by 1945.
Note 2 Aterno was deeply sceptical of Nazi Nordicism in OTL too. This philosophy classified Italians (and other Mediterranean people) as inferior to the Nordic and Germanic races. As Italy allied more closely with Nazi Germany, Mussolini began to give Italian Nordicists prominent positions in the Italian Fascist Party (PNF), which aggravated the original Mediterraneanists in the party, like Acerbo. In 1941 OTL, the Mediterraneanists, led by Acerbo, held that the Italian race was primarily Mediterranean. The Mediterraneanists were enraged by Mussolini's promotion of Nordicist figures with the selection of Nordicist Alberto Luchini to be in charge of Italy’s Racial Office in May 1941, and also with Il Duce’s interest in Julius Evola’s essay ‘Synthesis of a Doctrine of Race’ and the notion of ‘Spiritual Nordicism’. Acerbo and the Mediterraneanists in a government department called The High Council on Demography and Race, sought to realign Italian Fascism to Mediterraneanism by denouncing the creeping influence of the pro–Nordicists.
Top left: American soldiers come ashore during Operation Sideline. Above right: A Tiger I tank in Morocco shares the road with camels. Centre left: American M26 Pershing tanks were rushed into service to counter the formidable German armour deployed to Morocco. Centre right: Spanish Pzkfw IIIs on a road near Oujda. Lower left: A knocked out Italian M26/43 tank in the ruins of Bardia. Lower right: Italian prisoners near Tripoli.