THE END OF THE DUCE’S DREAM
Faced in 1940 with overwhelming Italian superiority in manpower, General Sir Archibald Wavell, the British Commander-in -Chief, Middle East,decided to deploy his small Western Desert Force with maximum guile. Details were left to the Force commander, Major-General Richard O’Conner, an original and audacious tactician. The New Zealand author,
When Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, her overseas Dominions - politically independent, but linked emotionally to the mother country by culture and kinship - did the same. Though their governments, facing no immediate or direct military threat, rejected conscription, volunteers came forward in their thousands. This, webpage on the Empire at war in 1939 - 45, relates the course of events in the earlier years up to the fall of Singapore - a disaster which placed Australia, New Zealand and India in the front line against Japan and thus, for the Empire, turned a European conflict into a world war.
It is a truism of history that in war are the seeds of destruction of empires - just as, in their prime, empires wax and grow in war. No clearer illustration of this can be shown than in the performance of the British Empire in the two world wars.
On August 1, 1914, King George V had declared war on behalf of the whole Empire. The threat from growing German sea-power and the specifically imperial ambitions of the Hohenzollerens was clear and menacing. Four years later, the British Empire had emerged greatly enhanced by mandate and annexation.
But in 1939, with the white dominions and India much more independent than in 1914, the entry into war , like the policies which preceded it, was a much more ragged affair. The British ultimatum expired on September 3, and the declaration of war applied to the Crown Colonies as well. The governments of Australia and New Zealand followed the British example at once without consulting their Parliaments. In South Africa, General Hertzog, the Prime Minister, wished to remain neutral. The Governor refused Hertzog a dissolution; Smuts became Prime Minister and declared war on September 6. The Canadian government waited for their Parliament and declared war on September 10.
In Delhi, the Viceroy declared war on behalf of India. The Nationalist Indian Congress was affronted. Constitutionally they were impotent, but a statement was issued: “If co-operation was desired in a worthy cause,, this cannot be obtained by compulsion and imposition.” Only Ireland managed to step aside.
The lack of thoroughgoing imperial unity was reflected in several tentative assertions of Dominion independence. In September 8, the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Mckenzie King, declared that conscription for overseas service would not be necessary and repeated his pledge that it would not be introduced in Canada by his administration.
In Canberra, Mr. Robert Menzies, the Australian Prime Minister, was equally categorical, stating on October 20, 1939: “It must be made clear that there is no obligation for service abroad, except as a volunteer.”
In Cape Town, General Smuts, while pledging South African assistance, if need arose, to British colonies in southern Africa, restricted service outside the Union to Volunteers.
What was the Empire fighting for? Residual loyalties and memories of 1914 played their part. The ties of blood and tradition made it politically impossible for the Dominion Parliaments to stay out.
But in strategic terms it was hard to identify any direct threat from Germany to imperial territories. Indeed involvement in the European theatre of war was a positive weakener for Australia and New Zealand who were increasingly apprehensive of Japanese influence in the Far East. Even for Canada, to whom the war would bring obvious industrial benefits it was not easy to resist the isolationist case when no military aircraft could fly the Atlantic non-stop, and when the German navy possessed neither heavy battleships nor aircraft-carriers.
These uncertainties were reflected in the attitude and policies of the British Cabinet in London. There was, first of all, confusion over whether Russia or Germany was to be regarded as the main enemy.It took German successes on the continent to make Britain realise that it was Hitler who posed the real threat to the Western world and the Empire, that Britain’s hopes of a purely European war were untenable and that the attempt should be made to rally Empire support for the mother country.
At first however, the British leaders, deeply influenced by the experience of 1914-18, saw the struggle solely in European terms and on this basis faced the need to go to war. But they did not know how. They confidently expected a repeat of the first world War, with Germany fighting on two fronts. As it was, the Germans attacked Poland, thus forcing both Britain and France into declarations of war, and demolished her in three weeks. Neither Britain or France made the slightest attempt to draw German strength away from the east; thus the possibility of a war on two fronts (to which Hitler had ascribed defeat in 1914-18 and to which he vowed never to subject the Third Reich), was eliminated as a strategic possibility - Russia by the 1939 non-aggression pact, Poland and Czechoslovakia by their eclipse.
The Allies now had to consider how - if at all - the war as to be prosecuted. Germany was stronger, both numerically and in terms of quality of men and equipment. He British Chiefs-of-Staff had originally planned to fight the war on the assumption of stalemate in western Europe, where the Maginot and the Siegfried Lines were assumed to balance each other, and to direct their surplus strength against Italy in the Mediterranean, scooping up the Italian African colonies at the same time as they made for Suez and made the route to India secure. It took the enormously successful German advance and the heroic retreat from Dunkirk to galvanise Britain into demanding a deep imperial commitment. The Germans again took Western intelligence completely by surprise with the opening of their spring campaign nd invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940. It was now apparent that German military technique and, in particular, the skill and vigour with which armour and air-power were combined, was many years ahead of Allied practice. But before these lessons could be absorbed in the thinking of higher command, much less inculcated in the training of rank and file, the Germans struck again in May, through the Low Countries and into France.
The Allied plan - a response” would be better word, for detailed tatical planning was notably absent - entailed starting off at the same time as the Germans attacked, advancing in a broad line and assuming that the two armies would meet in the middle of Belgium. But the Germans were pushing their broad front forward with infantry, and had concentrated all their armour in a narrow thrust through the Ardennes to cross the Meuse at Sedan.
This immensely powerful force- with the highest striking power of any army since the dawn of history- obliterated the seedy French territorial's in its path and for several days clattered across the summer countryside of France in a deep and menacing curve, virtually without resistance. By May 17 it was clear that a gigantic right-wheel was going to cut off the whole of the Allied strength in Belgium to the north, into which all those units had been blithely advancing a week earlier.
After a hard-fought British counter-attack at Arras had petered out, the German tanks halted at Gravelines and the trapped Allied forces were left to the Luftwaffe. As it happened the Luftwaffe was not able to prevent the vast rescue operation at Dunkirk and the British gained time to rebuild their army.
On June 16, 1940, Churchill composed a message to all the Dominion Prime Ministers in the Cabinet Room at Downing Street. He explained that Britain’s resolve to continue to struggle alone “was not based on mere obstinacy or desperation,” but “upon an assessment of the real strength of our position.”
Churchill’s assertions of confidence and power got a mixed and generally un-enthusiastic reception in the Empire. Canada , New Zealand and Australia made congratulatory responses - although the Pacific Dominions were now deeply uneasy at the naval implications of British strategy and of their own vulnerability.
South Africa’s attitude was harsher. General Hertzog sponsored a motion in the House of Assembly advocating that South Africa conclude a separate peace with Germany and Italy. His own assessment of Britain’s predicament differed radically from Churchill’s, I.e. That Britain stood alone adjacent to a defeated continent and threatened by superior forces. The motion failed by only marginally and Smuts’s position as a supporter of Britain was weakened. In India, Nehru was less brutal but just a firmly set against involvement.
In the last days of June, 1940, Mussolini had brought Italy into the war so as to get in on the victory parade. This gave the British the opportunity they had planned for, and with amazing strategic sang-froid they immediately committed over half heir remaining tank strength - including 80 of the “I tanks - to the water, sending them in a fast convoy on the two-month journey round the Cape of Good hope to Egypt.
Meanwhile one of the most critical battles in the history of civilisation was being fought over the skies of the mother country, a battle that, despite the slow political response of imperial leaders, involved several pilots from imperial territories. The British had rejected Hitler’s peace overtures, made after the French surrender, and the Fuehrer as determined to invade. The German General Staff, exceedingly apprehensive, insisted on total air superiority over south-east England as a prerequisite to the movement of troops across the Channel. This was a major tactical miscalculation, for it committed the Luftwaffe to a prolonged series of daylight sorties over territory where their fighter escorts had a combat endurance of less than 20 minutes; a landing effort on the other hand, would have taxed the R.A..F. To its limits and could possibly have worn down Britain’s air strength before the autumn.
The Luftwaffe’s advantage in numbers was nullified by the fact that its fighter escorts could only operate for half the time the British defenders. In equipment there was parity. The Spitfire was slightly better than, the Hurricane slightly inferior to, the Messerschmidt 109. In morale too, there was a direct collision between two rival indoctrinations - the short intense and crude philosophy of the Herrenvolk , and the 200 year-old tradition of imperial education in the secondary public schools; the high-minded toughness, the conditioned certainty - strengthened by childhood reading of Kipling and Henty - that one must never give up, that Right was always on our side, that “Britain always won the last battle.” And win she did
Within days of the war’s outbreak experienced pilots from all parts of the Empire were volunteering for the Royal Air Force. Raw recruits anxious to play a part were trained as aircrews at special schools in Canada and Rhodesia. The first test for these imperial flyers was the Battle of Britain, fought during the summer of 1940. Over the sparkling fields of Kent, men such as South Africa’s “Sailor” Malan who shot down 35 enemy aircraft, created legends of courage.
Before he could hope to launch a successful invasion of Britain, Hitler had to gain air superiority and in August 940, he launched a massive onslaught against the R.A.F.’S fighter bases in the southern counties of England. To resist the Luftwaffe’s 2750 fighters and bombers, Fighter command was able to send up only 884 Spitfires and Hurricanes. But the British planes took a heavy toll, roughly at the rate of two German aircraft for every one of their own. Of the 3,000 R.A.F. Pilots who fought in those critical summer weeks, 256 were from the Dominions and Colonies.
Typical were the odds faced one morning by a Squadron-Leader and his mainly Canadian crew. “I counted six blocks of aircraft - all bombers - with 30 ME-110 fighters behind and above. There were nine of us. I sent the pilot from Calgary to take ... Three Hurricanes up to keep the 110’s busy, while the remaining six of us tackled the bombers...
“One pilot sent a Hun bomber crashing into a greenhouse. Another bomber went headlong onto a field... A third went down into a reservoir. Apart from our bag of 12 a number probably never got home.” In September the Luftwaffe suddenly switched its attention to another objective - London. The long ordeal of winter nights under the Blitz was about to begin.
By October the Germans’ attack had run down and they, too, had to accept stalemate in Europe, turning their attention to the south and east. Here the British were already busy fighting the Italians who had invaded Egypt from Libya in September. The arrival of an Australian and an Indian division had given Britain’s Middle East Commander, General Wavell, the extra strength he needed to face the Italian army in North Africa, which, still outnumbered the imperial forces 6:1. The safe unloading of the great tank convoy assured him of an absolute technical superiority.
In December, imperial forces moved from Egypt to Cyrenacia using the “I” tanks as an armoured wrench to prose open the Italian costal fortresses in quick succession, while, inland, the faster cruiser tanks and highly trained Hussar regiments cut the Italian infantry to pieces. The Fourth Indian Division was the prime infantry unit in Wavell’s army. He used this unit, fully up to strength, and equipped with armoured carriers and artillery, as his assault force to storm the Italian front at Sidi Barrani. In 48 hours the Indians had mashed the entire Italian defence system and taken three times their own number in prisoners.
Wavell then ordered the division south, where it repeated its performance at Fort Gallabat in the Sudan and pursued the Italians deep into East Africa. Then the task was taken up by the Australian division which reduced in turn the vital fortified ports of Bardia and Tobruk.
During those engagements, the Australians made excellent use of “Bangalore Torpedoes,” pole-shaped mines , highly dangerous to handle, which had to be slipped by hand under the enemy’s barbed-wire entanglements. The invincible “I” tanks, dubbed Matilda’s by the Australians who marched alongside them to the tune of Waltzing Matillda.
In February 1941, victory at Beda Fomm, the last battle of the campaign,raised the total number of prisoners taken by the imperial forces to nearly 250,000 and cleared the whole of Cyreniaca.
Over a thousand miles to the south-east, the South African divisions and the Indians were fast reducing the Duke of Aosta’s armies in East Africa and opening the Red Sea to British shipping.
These victories in the early months of 1941, marked the final point of strategic balance for the British Empire in its old form. It was a balance established by a not wholly committed Empire, and the equilibrium was upset almost immediately by the extension of the war to the Balkans and by the emergence of differences in the Empire countries.
Winston Churchill was deeply influenced by his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, who had secured Britain’s safety by a European campaign and by William Ptt, who had enlarged the empire whilst encouraging other nations to contain Britain’s enemies in Europe. Churchill now welcomed the chance to move the victorious army to Greece, threatened in the spring of 1941 with German invasion. Tactically speaking, the result of the Greek campaign was a foregone conclusion. The Greeks were exhausted by their heroic battles of the winter, while the British who were sent in to support them were in unfamiliar terrain without proper air support or logistic backing. But strategically the outcome was equally catastrophic for the Germans. The fight them moved to Crete where fierce fighting was engaged in between New Zealand troops and the German parachute regiment the very flower of the Wermacht.
Although the Germans won the island of Crete, their airborne forces had been so severely mauled that they were never used again in this way. The price for the British had been even higher. Operating in brilliant sunshine and within ten minutes flying time of the Stuka fields, the Mediterranean Fleet had suffered crippling losses. In three days the German dive bombers sank two cruisers and four destroyers and damaged one battleship, two cruisers and four destroyers so severely that they had to be sent to American east coast ports for repair. The Mediterranean Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, reported that “Sea control in the eastern Mediterranean could not be retained after another such experience.”
But Tobruk had to be taken. The outer defences consisted of a far-flung perimeter built originally by the Italians to protect the port from direct shell-fire. This perimeter was made up of a double ring of concrete posts behind an anti-tank ditch and barbed wire entanglement.
Rommel had made two attempts to rush the fortress on April 13 and 16, but these had been repulsed. The Australians had then set about building an inner defence ring known as the “blue line” set back about two miles from the old Italian perimeter; the area between was filled with mines.
On April 27, before “blue line” as completed, the Germans had again attacked Tobruk. This assault was mounted by the newly arrived 15th Panzer Division which took cruel punishment at the hands of the courageous and skilful marksmen of the 26th Australian Brigade. Here the Germans were taught a lesson that few of their crack units had yet learned, though they would soon receive a through and grisly schooling on the grim Russian Steppes: resolute infantrymen who hold their fire while the tanks pass through can take their pick of the foot soldiers who follow behind.
Imperial strength in Africa continued to grow. The bulk of the Italian troops in East Africa were forced to surrender and the Red Sea coast was cleared. At Churchill’s prompting Wavell occupied the whole of Iraq, deposing the pro-German premier Rashid Ali, and securing the countries oil reserves for the Allied cause. With a hastily assembled force of British and Free French, Wavell also attacked and, after stiff fighting overcame the Vichy French colony in Syria.
By June 15, 194, the bounds of the British Empire - that area of the globe which could legitimately be coloured red - were at the widest extent they ever attained. But that month occurred an event that altered the whole course of the war and, in a round about way, marked the beginning of the end of that Empire.
In June 1940, Mussolini pushed Italy into the war, and in September launched an army of some 200,000 men, cream of the Fascist legions, upon Egypt, with the Suez Canal as their main objective. For Britain, it was a perilous time. With Germany and Italy victorious on the Continent, she stood alone. To oppose the Italians in North Africa, she had only the western Desert Force of 30,000 British, Indians and later Australians. Yet in ten weeks they smashed the Italian armies and advanced 500 miles. It was a resounding but short-lived triumph. Early in 1941, General Rommel’s Afrika Korps arrived; thereafter for 18 months the tide of battle ebbed and flowed across the desert sands until General Montgomery swept to victory at El Alamein in November 1942.
EMPIRE AT EL ALAMEIN
By the summer of 1942 Rommel and his Afrika Korps had forced the British and Empire forces to abandon their spectacular winter gains from the Italians. Relying on speed and surprise and the fact that his tanks were more mobile and better armed than the British, Rommel overran Cyenaica and pressed on into Egypt until at the beginning of July, he came up against the strong defensive position at El Alamein, only 60 miles west of the Nile. Here the exhausted remnants of the British Eighth Army now virtually without armour, managed to hold the Afrika Korps in stalemate. Fresh supplies and equipment were rushed to Egypt and in August General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery assumed command of the Eighth Army. He began immediately to prepare his forces - British, Australian, New Zealand, Indian and South African - for a decisive attack.
This opened on the night of October 23 with a crushing artillery barrage. After 12 days of heavy fighting involving tanks and planes, the British armour thrust its way through the German lines and Rommel was forced to order a wholesale German retreat. Most of his troops managed to get way, but the Eighth Army took 30,000 prisoners mainly Italians, destroyed most of the German tanks, and was set on the irresistible advance towards Italy.
It was not only in the eastern Mediterranean that British sea-power no stood in jeopardy. The 45,000 ton German battleship “Bismark” had broken out into the North Atlantic and sunk the battle-cruiser Hood the finest ship in the Royal Navy. Far from being able to reinforce the Far East stations, it was becoming necessary to withdraw ships from there, stopping them at the shipyards of Aden to replace their white Pacific livery with grey camouflage paint.
On land too the position had worsened to such an extent that Churchill was trying to draw additional Dominion forces out of the Far East to North Africa. The Afrika Korps commanded by Rommel, who had been waiting to settle a score with the British tank crews for the mauling they gave his units at Arras, had advanced over 300 miles. He had isolated and by-passed the Australians at Tobruk and only halted when he reached Egypt.
Alan Morehead, who was there as a war correspondent, has described how O’Conner ordered his troops to “make one man appear to be a dozen and one tank look like a squadron. This little robin hood force.... Attacked, not as a combined force, but in small units, swiftly, irregularly and by night... It stayed an hour, a day, a week in position, then disappeared. “ Tricked into believing that they faced at least five armoured divisions, the enemy became rattled and seizing the opportunity, O’Conner attacked in force on December 8. By February 5 the whole of Italian Cyrenaica was in British hands together with 113,000 prisoners and 1300 guns. Ten Italian divisions had been destroyed. The price of victory was 438 imperial soldiers killed 355 of them Australians.