The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo by the British, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 26 May and the early hours of 3 June 1940, when British, French and Belgian troops were cut off by the German army during the Battle of Dunkirk in the Second World War.


As mentioned in the previous episode, Aly Maher Pasha’s Cabinet fell because of the Prime Minister’s notorious animosity towards the British Empire, which was reciprocated, and his decision to sacrifice his cabinet to protect his King against any British retaliation.  As far as the Brits were concerned, the military situation of the Empire was precarious to say the least; the fall of France and its surrender to Germany by its new ruler, Marshal Philippe Petain, the evacuation of a large contingent of British Forces, along with some French elements, from Dunkirk (1) and the entry of Italy in the conflict beside Germany constituted a serious menace to the Empire and particularly to its interest in the Middle East. 

This being the case, it was very important to establish in Egypt a Government sympathetic to the British cause which could help defending the British interests.

At King Farouk’s request, the leaders of all the Egyptian Political Parties met for the purpose of forming  a coalition Cabinet that would represent them all except the Wafd Party, whose leader Mustafa El Nahas Pasha vehemently refused to share power.  The Parties, minus the Wafd, agreed to participate in a Cabinet led by Hasan Sabri Pasha, an obscure politician, lawyer and ex cabinet Minister. That choice was very acceptable and welcome by the Brits since Sabri Pasha was, before his Cabinet posts, Minister Plenipotentiary to England in 1934, before raising that position to Ambassadorship after the signature of the 1936 Treaty.

Educator, Diplomat, Politician, Cabinet Minister and Premier.  Trained at the Higher Teachers College and the Khedivial Law School, Hasan Sabri was appointed headmaster of the Muhammad Ali School in Cairo.  He later taught mathematics, history and geography at the El Azhar University.  He was elected to represent Shirbin (Gharbyya Province) in the Chamber of Deputies in 1926 and in the Senate in 1931, later becoming the Vice-President of that body.  In 1933, Abdel FattahYahya Pasha named him Minister of Finances.  In 1934 he became Egypt’s last Minister to London before its Legation was raised to Embassy Status.  Returning to Egypt he became Ali Maher Pasha’s Minister of Commerce then Communications and then War Minister in the Cabinet of Mohammad Mahmoud Pasha.  Upon taking charge of the Cabinet, in 1940, Sabri Pasha took the office of Foreign Minister and later added the Interior portfolio beside his Premiership.  His sudden death while reading the annual speech from the throne before Parliament was never explained.  A non –partisan technocrat, he was committed to carry on and implement the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty (2).

The previous Cabinet of Ali Maher Pasha was supposed to be a coalition Cabinet but in fact was composed of mostly Saadists with an independent Premier.  As for the new Cabinet led by Hasan Sabri Pasha (3), it was a genuine coalition of all political Parties except the Wafd.  It was composed of six independent technocrats, including the Prime Minister, four Saadists, four Liberal Constitutionals (AHRAR DESTOURYYINE) and one Cabinet post for each of the Unionist Party (HIZB AL ITTIHAD) and the National Party (AL HIZB AL WATANI).

Like his predecessor, Sabri Pasha  resisted the British pressure to get Egypt to declare war against the Axis Powers, but, unlike Ali Maher Pasha supported the British war effort short of military participation which enraged the Saadists members of his Cabinet who believed that, since Italy invaded Egypt, the country had a moral obligation to defend its territories.  Even though the Saadists Ministers were the predominant members of his Cabinet, Sabri Pasha insisted on maintain Egypt’s neutrality which led the Saadists to resign their ministerial positions.

After the resignation of its Minister, the Saadist Party launched a fierce anti-Government campaign particularly after the Italian Forces advanced deeply into the Egyptian Western Desert (4).  The attack was against the person of the Prime Minister and, since Ahmad Maher Pasha, the Leader of the Saadist Party was also the speaker of the House of Deputies, the conflict was moved to the House Flour which began to discuss the Government neutrality policy.

During its short tenure, five months all in all, the Cabinet‘s best achievement was the disbandment of the Debt Fund (SANDOUQ AL DAYN), on July 17, 1940.  The Fund was established by decree, on May 2, 1876, during the reign of Khedive Ismail Pasha, to supervise the Finances of Egypt and reimburse the foreign debt accumulated by the Country and the regular payment of the heavy interest; the Fund was run by foreign delegates representing those countries who participated in financing the loans.  The Fund appointed itself as gerent of the Country’s economy and operated from its luxurious head office, close to the beautiful opera house built prior to the inauguration of the Suez Canal.  Various Egyptian Governments approached the Countries running the Fund, which were England, France and Italy for the purpose of closing the Fund and attaining a total sovereignty on Egyptian Finances, but without the success achieved by Sabri Pasha’s Cabinet.

For the first time in the history of Egypt the Cabinet decided to adopt a summer time system thus advancing the time by sixty minutes as from July 15 until September 30, with the understanding that this measure would be under trial.  That decision was taken at the request of the military authorities and in spite of a strong opposition based on the possibility that such an act could affect the Moslem prayers time!!

The Cabinet also decided to retire Lt. General Aziz Al Masri Pasha from his position as Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Army and replaced him with Lt. General (FARIQ) Ibrahim Atallah Pashawho was one of the “aide de camp” (A.D.C.) of King Farouk; the Cabinet claimed that the decision was adopted because of the health of El Masri Pasha.  In fact, the fired General was well known for his animosity to the Brits’ presence in Egypt and his sympathy to the Axis Powers which was not a secret. 

On the negative side and also to satisfy the Brits who were not pleased with the Cabinet’s refusal to declare war against the Axis Powers, the Cabinet agreed to extend for another forty years the contract allowing the National Bank of Egypt, which was then a British Bank, to print the Egyptian banknotes and control their distribution.  Needless to say that such a decision was well received by the British Authorities which extended their fiducially control of the Egyptian Economy for many years to come!!

On November 14, 1940 and at the inauguration of the new session of the Parliament, which was attended by King Farouk, Hasan Sabri Pasha, the Prime Minister of Egypt, fell dead in the middle of reading the CROWN SPEECH!!

(To be continued)

Kamal Karim Katba


On 10 May 1940 Hitler’s armies struck westwards across Europe. Within three weeks Holland and Belgium had surrendered and German Panzer (tank) divisions had split the British and French armies. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a substantial number of French troops were trapped in a diminishing pocket of land centred on the port of Dunkirk. On 25 MayBoulogne was captured and on the following day Calais fell. That evening the Admiralty signalled the start of Operation Dynamo - the evacuation of the troops stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk.

Operation Dynamo was masterminded by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who had been given less than a week to prepare. From his headquarters in tunnels beneath Dover Castle, he directed and inspired a small staff who had the awesome task of planning the evacuation of up to 400,000 British and French troops under constant attack from German forces. By 26 May Ramsay had assembled 15 passenger ferries at Dover and a further 20 at Southampton. These it was hoped would be able to embark troops direct from the quays at Dunkirk. To help in the evacuation and to provide escorts for the merchant ships Ramsay had a force of destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers and naval trawlers. These ships were augmented by cargo vessels, coasters and some 40 Dutch self-propelled barges. 

Minefields and shelling from German batteries on the French coast forced evacuation convoys to take longer routes to Dunkirk. The first convoy, after sustaining heavy air attacks, found the port of Dunkirk and its oil tanks ablaze and only the passenger ferries ‘Royal Daffodil’ and later the ‘Canterbury’ succeeded in berthing. By the end of the first day only 7,500 troops had been rescued and it was clearly impossible to use the port. Captain Tennant, in charge of the naval shore party at Dunkirk, signalled for the rescue ships to be diverted to the beaches east of the town. But here shallow waters prevented the large ships getting within a mile of the shore and troops had to be ferried in smaller craft from the beaches to the ships. There was an alternative, a spindly concrete pier with a wooden walkway, never designed to have ships docking against it but it was found that it could be used. Differences in loading speeds were dramatic HMS ‘Sabre’ took 2 hours to load 100 troops from the beach, but from the pier it took only 35 minutes to board 500 troops.

In London the Admiralty’s Small Vessels Pool had been collecting all available seaworthy pleasure craft. With volunteer crews, many of whom had never sailed out of sight of land before, they were checked at Sheerness Dockyard and then sent to Ramsgate to await final sailing orders. The pleasure craft were joined by lifeboats, trawlers, Thames sailing barges, tugs and other small craft. The first convoy of ‘little ships’ sailed from Ramsgate at 10pm on 29 May and by the next day they were streaming across the Channel in seemingly unending lines. The dangers were great, ships, both large and small, were targets for German fighters, bombers, submarines and coastal batteries plus the random danger of mines. Fortunately, throughout the evacuation, the seas remained abnormally calm. Most of the small craft headed for the beaches to act as tenders, while some of the larger trawlers and drifters loaded troops directly in Dunkirk Harbour. 

On the evening of 2June, with the German forces closing in, Ramsay despatched a large force of ships, including 13 passenger ships, 14 minesweepers and 11 destroyers. At 11:30 pm Captain Tennant sent the historic signal from DunkirkBEF evacuated.” By now, the German forces were nearly in the outskirts of the town. Only one more night evacuation was possible. On the night of 3 June a final effort was made using British, French, Belgian and Dutch ships to bring out as many of the French rearguard as possible and over 26,000 were saved. 

Between 26th May and 4th June 338,000 troops were rescued from Dunkirk, over 200,000 of them passing through Dover. During the nine day period the Southern Railway laid on a total of 327 special trains, which cleared 180,982 troops from Dover. 4,500 casualties were treated at the town's Buckland Hospital and all but 50 of these seriously ill men were saved. 

The evacuation owed everything to the unstinting bravery of the French troops fighting at the Dunkirk perimeter. It was their sacrifice, as well as that of heroic British units right on the Dunkirk perimeter itself that allowed so many to be taken off the beaches. 

The German Luftwaffe has spent the last week making life hell for those trying to leave Dunkirk. The RAF lost some 60 pilots in these actions and many more planes. The feared dive-bomber, the Stuka, would have done a lot more damage had it not been for the Spitfires, the Hurricanes and the Defiants. The German bombers would have had a field day with the massed ranks of Allied soldiers on the beaches if they hadn't had Fighter Command to deal with.

Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, addressed the House of Commons and reminded the gathered Members of Parliament that, "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."

But it would always be known as ‘The miracle of Dunkirk’.  The nine days of Dunkirk stopped what was a disastrous campaign becoming a tragedy of epic proportions. If the army had been lost there then so too could have been the war. Britain could in time replace the huge amount of equipment lost but not her professional army. Left behind on the beaches of Dunkirk were some 2,472 guns, 84,427 vehicles of all kinds and 657,000 tons of ammunition.



Arthur Goldschmidt Jr., is Professor Emeritus of Middle East History at Pennsylvania State University. He is (with Lawrence Davidson) the author of A Concise History of the Middle East, Eighth Edition, and is the author as well of Modern Egypt: Foundation of a Nation-State, Second Edition. He is the recipient of the Amoco Foundation Award for Outstanding Teaching and the 2000 Middle East Studies Association Mentoring Award. Goldschmidt has been known during his years at Penn State for having created a series of courses that stimulated undergraduate interest in Middle Eastern history and culture. Educated at Colby College and Harvard University, Goldschmidt has held fellowships from the Social Science Research Council and the Fulbright Faculty Research fund, among others. He is author of numerous books and many articles and essays on Middle Eastern history. He was an elected faculty senator, chaired its committee on student affairs and served as secretary. He chaired the Middle East Studies committee for 25 years. He also was instrumental in helping to devise courses in non-western history and in developing the successor to those courses for the general education curriculum.

In addition, he is one of the most respected authorities on Egypt's Modern history.Prof. Goldschmidt is a frequent contributor on the Internet, including the prestigious and oldest forum: Egypt Net.

For meaningful and serious discussions about the History of Modern Egypt,  join Egypt Net group (The oldest  continuous Egyptian forum on the internet since 1985.) 






Erwin Johannes Eugen Rommel  (15 November 1891 – 14 October 1944), popularly known as the Desert Fox (Wüstenfuchs, About this sound listen, was a German Field Marshal of World War II. He won the respect of both his own troops, as well as the enemies he fought.

He was a highly decorated officer in World War I, and was awarded the Pour le Mérite for his exploits on the Italian front. In World War II, he further distinguished himself as the commander of the 7th Panzer Division during the 1940 invasion of France. However, it was his leadership of German and Italian forces in the North African campaign that established the legend of the Desert Fox. He is considered to have been one of the most skilled commanders of desert warfare in the war

Rommel's reward for his success was to be promoted and appointed commander of the 5th Light Division (later reorganised and redesignated 21st.Panzer-Division) and of the 15.Panzer-Division which, as the Deutsches Afrikakorps,(About this sound listen  were sent to Libya in early 1941 in Operation Sonnenblume to aid the demoralised Italian troops which had suffered a heavy defeat from British Commonwealth forces in Operation Compass. It was in Africa where Rommel achieved his greatest fame as a commander.

His campaign in North Africa earned him the nickname "The Desert Fox." On 6 February 1941 Rommel was ordered to lead the Afrika Korps, sent to Italian Libya to help shore up the Italian forces which had been driven back during Operation Compass, launched by British Commonwealth forces under Major-General Richard O'Connor during December 1940. Initially ordered to assume a defensive posture and hold the front line, the Axis High Command had slated a limited offensive towards Agedabia and Benghazi for May, planning then to hold the line between those cities. Rommel argued that such a limited offensive would be ineffective, as the whole of Cyrenaica would have to be captured if the front lines were to be held. The task of even holding the remaining Italian possessions seemed daunting, as the Italians had only 7,000 troops remaining in the area after O'Connor's successful capture of 130,000 prisoners and almost 400 tanks during the previous three months of advance.

On 24 March 1941 Rommel launched a limited offensive with only the 5th Light Division supported by two Italian divisions. This thrust was to be minor, in anticipation of Rommel receiving the 15th Panzer Division in May. The British, who had been weakened by troops being withdrawn to fight in the Battle of Greece, fell back to Mersa el Brega and started constructing defensive works. Rommel decided to continue the attack against these positions in order to prevent the British from building up the fortifications. After a day of fierce fighting, the Germans prevailed and the advance continued as Rommel disregarded holding off the attack on Agedabia until May. The British Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, General Archibald Wavell, overestimating the strength of the Axis forces and already apprehensive about the extent of his advances during the previous winter, ordered a withdrawal from Benghazi in early April to avoid being cut off by Rommel's thrust.

Rommel, seeing the British reluctance to fight a decisive action, decided on a bold move: the seizure of the whole of Cyrenaica despite having only light forces. He ordered the Italian Ariete armoured division to pursue the retreating British while the 5th Light Division was to move on Benghazi. Genera major Johannes Streich, the 5th Light Division's commander, protested this order on the grounds of the state of his vehicles, but Rommel brushed the objections aside because, in his words, "One cannot permit unique opportunities to slip by for the sake of trifles."The Italian Commander-in-Chief, General Italo Gariboldi, tried repeatedly to halt Rommel's advance but was unable to contact him.

After Benghazi had been secured following the British withdrawal, Cyrenaica as far as Ghazalah was captured by 8 April. This was despite fervent protests from Italian GHQ, which felt Rommel was going beyond his orders, especially since he was supposedly under Italian command. Rommel had received orders from the German High Command that he was not to advance past Maradah, but he turned a blind eye to this as well as to protests from some of his staff and divisional commanders. He believed he was grasping a great possibility to largely destroy the Allied presence in North Africa and capture Egypt. Rommel decided to keep up the pressure on the retreating British and launched an outflanking offensive on the important port of Tobruk during which he managed to capture on 9 April the Military Governor of Cyrenaica, Lieutenant-General Philip Neame as well as O'Connor, who at this time was his advisor. 

With Italian forces attacking along the coast, Rommel decided to sweep around to the south and attack the harbour from the southeast with the 5th Light Division, hoping to trap the bulk of the enemy force there. This outflanking could not be carried out as rapidly as was necessary owing to logistical problems from lengthening supply lines and spoiling flank attacks from Tobruk, so Rommel's plan failed. By 11 April the envelopment of Tobruk was complete and the first attack was launched. Other forces continued pushing east, reaching Bardia and securing the whole of Libya by 15 April.

The following siege of Tobruk lasted 240 days, with the garrison consisting of the Australian 9th Division under Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead and reinforced by all the British troops who had withdrawn to the port city, bringing the defenders to a total of 25,000. Impatient to secure success, Rommel launched repeated small-scale attacks. These were easily defeated by the defenders. Rommel later criticised the Italian High Command for failing to provide him with the blueprints of the port's fortifications (which the Italians had built before the war), but this was due to his surprising advance so far beyond the agreed point, hardly allowing them time to produce the plans. Reflecting on this period, General Heinrich Kirchheim, then commander of the 5th Light Division, said: "I do not like to be reminded of that time because so much blood was needlessly shed." Kirchheim had been reluctant to launch further attacks on Tobruk, as the costs of earlier assaults had been very high Rommel remained optimistic that success was imminent.

In his memoirs, he claimed that he immediately realised that the enemy was determined to cling to Tobruk; however, this seems to be in doubt. In a letter to his wife dated 16 April, he wrote that the enemy was already abandoning the town by sea, and he remained confident that the enemy were not going to defend the town until well into April. In reality, the ships arriving at the port were not evacuating the defenders but unloading supplies and even some reinforcements.

A letter of his written on 21 April, suggests that he was beginning to realise this while the arrival of the Italian blueprints of fortifications provided further grounds for discouragement. Nonetheless, Rommel continued to insist that success was imminent. His relations with his subordinate commanders were at their nadir at this point, especially with Streich, who was openly critical of Rommel's decisions and refused to assume any responsibility for the attacks. Rommel began holding a series of courts-martial, though ultimately he signed almost none of the verdicts. This state of affairs led Army Chief Walther von Brauchitsch to write to him that instead of making threats and requesting the replacement of officers who "hitherto had excelled in battle", rather "... a calm and constructive debate might bring better results."Rommel remained unmoved.

Rommel was furious with what he perceived as the lack of fighting spirit in his commanders and Italian allies. However, on the insistence of Paulus and Halder, he held off further attacks until the detailed plans of the Tobruk defences could be obtained, the 15th Panzer Division could be brought up to support the attack, and more training of his troops in positional warfare could be conducted. For Streich, however, it was too late. He was transferred from command of 15th Panzer. When he met Rommel for the last time as he was taking his leave, Rommel told him that he had been "too concerned for the well-being of your troops";Streich shot back: "I can recognise no greater words of praise", and a new quarrel ensued. After the decision was made to hold off attacks on Tobruk for an indefinite period, Rommel set about creating defensive positions, with Italian infantry forces holding Bardia, the Sollum–Sidi Omar line and investing Tobruk. The mobile German and Italian formations were held in reserve to fight any British attacks from Egypt. To this end, Halfaya Pass was secured, the high water mark of Rommel's offensive. An elaborately prepared great assault was scheduled for 21 November 1941, but this attack never took place.

Whereas the defenders of Tobruk could be supplied by sea, the logistical problems of the Afrika Korps greatly hampered its operations, and a concentrated counterattack southwards by the besieged Allies might have succeeded in reaching El Adam and severing the lines of communication and supply of the Axis forces at Bardia, Sollum and Halfya covering the Egyptian border. General Morshead, however, was misled by intelligence overestimates of the German forces investing Tobruk, and so no major action was attempted.

General Wavell made two unsuccessful attempts to relieve Tobruk (Operation Brevity (launched on 15 May 1941) and Operation Battleaxe (launched on 15 June 1941). Both operations were easily defeated, as they were hastily prepared, partly owing to Churchill's impatience for speedy action. During Brevity the important Halfaya Pass was briefly recaptured by the British but was lost again on 27 May. Battleaxe resulted in the loss of 87 British for 25 German tanks in a four-day battle raging on the flanks of the Sollum and Halfaya Passes, with the British being unable to take these well-fortified positions.

In August, Rommel was appointed commander of the newly created Panzer Group Africa. His previous command, the Afrika Korps, comprising the 15th Panzer Division and the 5th Light Division, which by then had been redesignated 21st Panzer Division, was put under command of Generalleutnant Ludwig Crüwell, with Fritz Bayerlein as chief of staff. In addition to the Afrika Korps, Rommel's Panzer Group had the 90th Light Division and six Italian divisions, the Ariete and Trieste Divisions forming the Italian XX Motorized Corps, three infantry divisions investing Tobruk, and one holding Bardia.

Operation Crusader: Allied counter offensive

Following the costly failure of Battleaxe, Wavell was replaced by the Commander-in-Chief of India, General Claude Auchinleck. Allied forces were reorganised and strengthened to two corps, XXX and XIII, and became the British Eighth Army under the command of Alan Cunningham. Auchinleck, having 770 tanks and 1,000 aircraft to support him, launched a major offensive to relieve Tobruk (Operation Crusader) on 18 November 1941. Rommel had two armoured divisions, the 15th and 21st with a total of 260 tanks, the 90th Light Infantry division, and three Italian corps, five infantry and one armoured division with 154 tanks, with which to oppose him.

The Eighth Army deeply outflanked the German defences along the Egyptian frontier with a left hook through the desert, and reached a position from which they could strike at both Tobruk and the coastal road, the "Via Balbia". Auchinleck planned to engage the Afrika Korps with his armoured division, while XXX Corps assaulted the Italian positions at Bardia, encircling the troops there. But the British operational plan had one major flaw. When XXX corps reached the area of Qabr Salih, it was assumed that the Afrika Korps would attack eastward, allowing the British to surround them with a southerly armour thrust. Rommel, however, did not find it necessary to do as the British planned, and instead attacked the southernly armoured thrust at Sidi Rezegh.

Rommel was now faced with the decision of whether to continue the planned attack on Tobruk in late May, trusting his screening forces to hold off the advancing British, or to reorient his forces to hit the approaching British columns. He decided the risks were too great and called off the attack on Tobruk.

The British armoured thrusts were largely defeated by fierce resistance from antitank positions and tanks. The Italian Ariete Armoured Division was forced to give ground while inflicting heavy losses on the advancing British at Bir el Gobi, whereas the 21st Panzer Division checked the attack launched against them and counterattacked on Qabr Saleh. Over the next two days the British continued pressing their attack, sending their armoured brigades into battle in a piecemeal fashion, while Rommel, aware of his numerical inferiority, launched a concentrated attack on 23 November with all his armour. The 21st Panzer Division held their defensive positions at Sidi Rezegh, while 15th Panzer Division and the Italian Ariete Division attacked the flanks and enveloped the British armour. During this battle, among the biggest armoured battles of the North African campaign, the British tanks were surrounded, with about two-thirds destroyed and the survivors having to fight themselves out of the trap and head south to Qabr Saleh

Rommel's counterattacks

On 24 November Rommel, wanting to exploit the halt of the British offensive, counterattacked into the British rear areas in Egypt with the intention of exploiting the disorganisation and confusion in the enemy's bases and cutting their supply lines. Rommel considered the other, more conservative, course of action of destroying the British forces halted before Tobruk and Bardia too time consuming. Rommel knew his forces were incapable of driving such an effort home, but believed that the British, traumatised by their recent debacle, would abandon their defences along the border at the appearance of a German threat to their rear.

General Cunningham did, as Rommel had hoped, decide to withdraw the Eighth Army to Egypt, but Auchinleck arrived from Cairo just in time to cancel the withdrawal orders. The German attack, which began with only 100 operational tanks remaining, stalled as it outran its supplies and met stiffening resistance. The counterattack was criticised by the German High Command and some of his staff officers as too dangerous with Commonwealth forces still operating along the coast east of Tobruk, and a wasteful attack as it bled his forces, in particular his remaining tank force. Among the Staff officers who were critical was Friedrich von Mellenthin, who said that "Unfortunately, Rommel overestimated his success and believed the moment had come to launch a general pursuit." In Rommel's favour, the attack very nearly succeeded: Cunningham ordered a withdrawal, and only Auchinleck's timely intervention prevented this.

Second German offensive: Battle of Ghazalah

Following General Kesselring's successes in creating local air superiority and suppressing the Malta defenders in April 1942, an increased flow of vital supplies reached the Panzer Armee Afrika. Previously it had been receiving about a third of its needed supplies for several months. With his forces thus strengthened, Rommel began planning a major push for the summer. He felt the very strong British positions around Ghazalah could be outflanked, and he could then drive up behind them and destroy them. The British were planning a summer offensive of their own and their dispositions were more suited for an attack rather than a defence.

Rommel in North Africa (June 1942)

The British had 900 tanks in the area, 200 of which were new Grant tanks, whereas Rommel's Panzer Army Africa commanded a mere 320 German, 50 of which were the obsolete Panzer II model, and 240 Italian tanks, which were no better than the Panzer IIs. Therefore Rommel had to rely predominantly on 88 mm guns to destroy the British heavy tanks, but even these were in short supply. In infantry and artillery Rommel found himself vastly outnumbered also, with many of his units under-strength following the campaigns of 1941. In contrast to the previous year, the Axis had more-or-less air parity.

On 26 May 1942 Rommel's army attacked in a classic outflanking Blitzkrieg operation in the Battle of Ghazalah. His Italian infantry assaulted the Ghazalah fortifications head on, with some armour attached to give the impressions that this was the main assault, while all his motorized and armoured forces outflanked the positions to the south. On the following morning Rommel cut through the flank and attacked north, but throughout the day a running armour battle occurred, where both sides took heavy losses. The attempted encirclement of the Ghazalah position failed and the Germans lost a third of their heavy tanks. Renewing the attack on the morning of 28 May, Rommel concentrated on encircling and destroying separate units of the British armour. Heavy British counterattacks forced Rommel to assume a defensive posture and not pursue his original plan of a dash north for the coast. On 30 May he attacked eastwards to link with elements of Italian X Corps which had cleared a path through the Allied minefields to establish a line of supply. On 2 June 90th Light Division and the Trieste Division surrounded and reduced the Allied strongpoint at Bir Hakeim, capturing it on 11 June. With his communications and the southern strongpoint of the British line thus secured, Rommel attacked north again, forcing the British back, relying on the minefields of the Ghazalah lines to protect his left flank. On 14 June the British began a headlong retreat eastwards, the so-called "Ghazalah Gallop", to avoid being completely cut off.

On 15 June Axis forces reached the coast eliminating any escape for the Commonwealth forces still occupying the Ghazalah positions. With this task completed, Rommel set off in pursuit of the retreating Allied formations, aiming to capture Tobruk while the enemy was confused and disorganised. Tobruk, isolated and alone, was now all that stood between the Axis and Egypt. The defenders were the 2nd South African Infantry Division and some disorganised units recovering from the Ghazalah battle. On 21 June, after a swift, coordinated and fierce combined arms assault, the city surrendered along with its 33,000 defenders, including most of the South African 2nd Division. Only at the fall of Singapore, earlier that year, had more British Commonwealth troops been captured. Hitler made Rommel a Field Marshal for this victory.

By this time, Rommel's gains caused considerable alarm in the Allied camp. He appeared to be poised to deliver a crippling blow to the British by conquering Egypt. The Allies feared Rommel would then turn northeastward to conquer the valuable oil fields of the Middle East and then link up with the German forces besieging the equally valuable Caucasian oil fields. However, these required substantial reinforcements that Hitler refused to allocate. Ironically, Hitler had been sceptical about sending Rommel to Africa in the first place. He'd only done so after constant begging by naval commander Erich Raeder, and even then only to relieve the Italians. Hitler never understood global warfare, despite Raeder and Rommel's attempts to get him to see the strategic value of Egypt.




© Kamal Katba 2011


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