The Mediterranean Théâtre 1942 - 1943

par le Major Général Strawson

Mesdames et Messieurs, je voudrais vous remercier, de votre acceuil et de votre courtoisie. Aujourd'hui nous discuterons une affaire militaire et nous savons comme Alfred de Vigny nous l'a dit la vie militaire se compose de la grandeur et de la servitude ; alors le problème que nous confrontons c'est d'assurer que ma contribution à vos études ne constitue pas un exemple de la servitude. C'est pour m'assister dans cette tâche que je vais faire cette contribution aussi courte que possible. Pour moi, naturellement, cette journée est un exemple sans pareil de grandeur parce que ce n'est pas chaque jour qu'on a l'occasion de s'adresser à une assemblée aussi distinguée que cette assemblée. Mais maintenant, si vous le permettez et pour rendre ma tâche plus facile, je vais parler en anglais.

If we wish to understand what happened in the Mediterranean theatre in 1942 we must very briefly go back to 1941, for it was then that Hitler turned away from the Mediterranean in order to concentrate the Wehrmacht for his attack on Soviet Russia. Hitler had by then achieved his immediate aims. He had rescued his ally, Italy, from her failures in Africa and the Balkans, Italy was still fighting. The Balkans were secure. The British were more or less at bay, having been pushed out of Cyrenaica by Rommel and the Afrika Korps. The German Army could now turn on the Soviet Union.

If Hitler, however, had taken the advice of his naval Commander in Chief, Admiral Raeder, to concentrate instead against England, particularly in the Mediterranean, the pivot of their world empire - what a different year 1941 might have been ! If Rommel had been given only a few of the many panzer divisions, which assaulted Russia in june 1941, and given also the necessary air, naval and logistic support, the British position in Egypt and the Middle East would have been dealt a deadly blow.

Happily Hitler rejected Raeder's advice, yet although Germany could turn away from the Mediterranean, Italy could not. Nor could the British. Winston Churchill was never in doubt about the grave consequences of losing Egypt and the Middle East. Therefore the British would fight to the last inch and ounce for Egypt. The desert flank was the peg on which all else hung and from this resolution British strategy emerged. The CIGS1, Sir Alan Brooke, was convinced in 1941 that our war policy must be to get control of all North Africa. Then we would be able to open the Mediterranean for shipping and attack Italy. Therefore the British reinforced the Middle East and in november 1941 counter-attacked Rommel.

While this battle was being fought, two remarquable things happened. First Japan attacked both the United States' fleet and the British in the Far East. Secondly, Hitler committed a strategic error of incalculable proportions by declaring war on the United States. Thus Germany now had three enemies - Russia, America, and the British Empire. There soon followed a meeting between British and American leaders, who agreed a broad plan for prosecuting the war. Japan would be denied the means to wage war, while the Allies concentrated on the defeat of Germany. They would tighten the ring round Germany by supporting Russia, by strengthening their position in the Middle East and by seizing the whole of the North African coast. The stage is now set for 1942.

Early in 1942 President Roosevelt promised Molotov and thus Stalin that the United States Army would begin to fight the German Army somewhere before the end of the year. This led in july 1942 to an Allied decision to invade North West Africa - which had a most powerful effect on the subsequent conduct of the war. How did this decision come about ? The British and Americans had already agreed that nothing should interfere with the plan to invade Werstern Europe in 1943 (in the event this proved impossible, as we know). United States forces began to assemble in the United Kingdom and General Eisenhower was appointed to command them. But what was to be done in 1942 ? This was the big question. That something must be done by the Western Allies was imperative, for the Russians desperately needed help and relief. The Russians demanded a Second Front, yet the Allies knew they could not successfully invade Western Europe in 1942. Therefore, in view of Roosevelt's promise to create a Second Front in 1942, something else has to be done.

It was then - in May/June 1942 - that Churchill again put forward what he had first suggested in December 1941 - a joint Anglo-American occupation of French North Africa. President Roosevelt was enthusiastic. His generals were not. Marshall and Eisenhower thought it would mean dissipation of resources away from the decisive arena in Europe itself. Roosevelt, listened to Churchill, who insisted that to invade North West Africa was the best way of relieving the Russian front. It was probably the

only stroke that could be delivered that autumn. It would be the second front of 1942. In spite of opposition from his own Chiefs of Staff, Roosevelt gave orders that Operation Torch, as it became called, should go ahead.

The Allied generals also disagreed at first as to how the thing should be done. The Americans, altought eager to fight the German Army, wanted to land only on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then make their way eastward. The British wanted Tunis and the straits there quickly, and so wanted to land as far east as possible. Again the problem was resolved by the personal intervention of Churchill who signalled to Roosevelt that to land too far west would rob Torch of all its promise. Algiers, Churchill argued, must be captured on the same day as Oran, then the Allies could take on the Germans in a fight for Tunis. Also French cooperation would be essential for the campaign's success and this cooperation might depend on the rapid occupation of Algeria, which in turn would help the Allies seize Tunis and Bizerta. It was therefore agreed that there would be simultaneous landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers.

There were many uncertainties. Would the French welcome or resist the invaders ? Would the Germans attempt to rush through Spain and grab Gibraltar ? Or would they content themselves with reinforcing Axis forces in North Africa ? If so, in view of the Italian fleet's poor showing, how would they do it ? In the event the Axis was taken completely by surprise. Even reports on 5 november of a great fleet of ships in the Straits of Gibraltar - the same day that Rommel began to withdraw his Panzerarmee from the Alamein position - even this did not click. When Hitler heard about it he thought it might be to reinforce Montgomery's 8th Army, or -although unlikely in view of Allied caution - to land in central Italy. If so there would be no resistance - the Allies would block routes from northern Italy, and Rommel would get no supplies. When Hitler knew where this great Allied armada had gone and what it had done, however, his reaction was shift, dramatic and effective in blocking Allied aims.

On 8 november all three landings went well. At Algiers American and British divisions landed in three places, and although there was some fighting, by agreement with general Juin, Algiers was occupied by the Allies at 7 o'clock that same evening. At Oran there was more resistance and it was not until midday on 9 november that Oran was taken. At Casablanca opposition was stronger still, and fighting by French forces went on until 11 november. Only as a result of admiral Darlan's general order, did Casablanca stop fighting. By this time Allied forces were secure and now came the task of driving on to Tunis. This task, however, was not to be so easy.

There were some people who argued that bold as this invasion had been, it had not been bold enough and that if the Allies had landed forces as far east as Bizerta and Tunis, seizing the airfields, the Axis would have been forestalled and success would have been complete. Both Admiral Cunningham, who commanded the Expeditionary Force, and General Anderson, commanding British 1st Army, were of this opinion. But as the Allies did not do this, they had to face heavy ennemy reinforcements. Hitler's response was remarkably prompt and violent. The Germans occupied Vichy France, leading to self-destruction by the French fleet at Toulon. Hitler despatched troops rapidly and in large numbers to Tunis. By the end of November there were 15 000 German soldiers there, including Parachute and Glider troops, Panzer Grenadiers and Panzer Regiments with the new Tiger tank, mounting the famous 88mm gun. The whole of 10th Panzer Division was soon there, plus four more divisions, two German, two Italian. General Nehring, temporarily in command, was determined to prevent the Allies from reaching Bizerta and Tunis. That the Germans had been able to reinforce so strongly and quickly was a great tribute to their use of transport aircraft and Italian shipping. Kesselring's Fliegerkorps II was strengthened and the transport fleet trebled. By mid-November the Luftwaffe had 81 fighters in Tunis and 28 dive bombers. On 8 December General von Arnim took command.

Thus there was no question of the Allies bouncing their way into Tunis. Indeed ennemy counter-attacks pushed them back from the Tunis plain into the mountains. And in late December the rains set in properly, putting an end to motorized manoeuvre off the roads. Eisenhower signalled to his Chiefs of Staff that there was no chance of an immediate attack on Tunis. If things went slowly on land, however, at sea the Royal Navy and the Allied air forces were establishing a mastery which they were never to lose.

Yet von Arnim's forces were being kept supplied and Eisenhower's army was waterlogged. Meanwhile Montgomery and the 8th Army at the other end of North Africa was advancing, recapturing airfields, bringing further relief to Malta and so allowing that incomparably important island to receive more convoys for its resupply. The Battles for French North Africa in November and December 1942 had been very different from those in Libya. There had been little manoeuvre and the Allies had been stopped dead by German intervention. It was however only a matter of time. Churchill had said shortly after the invasion of North West Africa that this was not the end, not even the beginning of the end, but it was perhaps the end of the beginning.

From November 1942, therefore, there was not one land battle for North Africa, but two, the first conducted by Montgomery with 8th Army, the second by Anderson with 1st Army. Not for three months would their efforts be concentrated under a single command. At first 8th Army seemed to be doing better, reaching Tripoli on 23 January 1943, and making Rommel withdraw to the Mareth Line. Before fighting a battle there, however, Rommel turned west and savaged the Americans at Kasserine in February. It gave Patton's Corps valuable experience.

During these three months, December, January, February, the French Forces, although not yet equipped with modern material, fought gallantly. General Juin, in spite of Giraud's reluctance put them early in January under operational control of general Anderson with whom he cooperated friendly.

Meanwhile the Allied leaders, Churchill and Roosevelt plus their Chiefs of Staff, had met at Casablanca, and it was here, after much argument as to how their decisions would affect the intended invasion of North West Europe, that the so-called Mediterranean Strategy was agreed. The problem facing these great men, realizing as they did that there would not be enough men or material to mount cross-Channel operations before 1944, was how to make use of North Africa to speed up the defeat of Germany. They agreed that there should be three objectives - to open the Mediterranean and so release shipping ; to divert German pressure from Russia ; and to force Italy to capitulate. These things were to be done - by invading Sicily !

On 23 February Rommel assumed command of Army Group Africa. He was struggling to find some way of inflicting a major defeat on his enemies, but realized that his shortage of supplies - always the principal problem of battles in North Africa - made it impossible. Nevertheless he mounted one last spoiling attack on 8th Army at Medenine in March. The Afrika Korps assaulted Montgomery's prepared defences in typically gallant style, but the British positions and air power were far too strong. After this Rommel left Africa, never to return. He had been one of the brightest stars in the whole North African Campaign, and there would still be much for him to do in Normandy.

Next 8th Army broke through the Mareth Line and followed 1st Panzer Army to Wadi Akarit where there was another battle. Meanwhile, General Patton, while not making much progress with II United States Corps, posed such a threat to the right flank of 1st Panzer Army, that von Arnim (Rommel's successor in overall command) was obliged to switch some formations away from those facing Montgomery to reinforce those facing Patton. At sea and in the air, the battle for supply and reinforcement was being decisively won by the Allies. Axis shipping was being devastated by submarine and air attack, and the Luftwaffe's huge Messerschmitt 323 transport aircraft were subjected to such losses that at one point Göring cancelled all transport flights to Africa.

And so it went on, until at last General Alexander issued his orders for the final phase - an Army Groupe battle. 1st Army was to capture Tunis ; Patton's II Corps would take Bizerta ; and 8th Army would advance to Enfadille - Hammamet - Tunis. In this last battle the French forces played a significant and honourable role (they had of course already won golden opinions for their gallantry and perseverance at Bir Hakcheim in June 1942). The Army Group battle was successful and at the end a breakthrough to Hammamet by the British 6th Armoured Division had all the speed, dash and annihilating effect of the Afrika Korps in its heyday.

On 13 May 1943 HQ Afrika Korps sent a signal to his superior headquarters saying that all ammunition had been shot off, arms and equipment had been destroyed and that it could fight no more. Perhaps not, but whenever these things are talked of or written about, their astonishing feats of arms are remembered. On the same day General Alexander sent a message to Winston Churchill declaring that the campaign was over, that the Allies were masters of the North African Shores and that he awaited further orders. What, asked Churchill, to whom the redemption of this continent had been so great a goal, were they to do with their victory ? He was not slow to answer his own question. He was determined that the British and British controlled armies in the Mediterranean should not stand idle. At Casablanca it had already been agreed that Sicily should be invaded to distract German forces and put further pressure on Italy. The next goal was to be Italy itself.

For Churchill and the commanders of these victorious armies, the impulse to carry the battle into Italy was emotional as well as strategic. Certainly the armies were not idle. They were on the threshold of Italy and to Italy they went. Churchill had always maintained that a right-handed thrust into southern Europe and a left-handed thrust across the Channel should complementary, and each could be exploited as opportunity and resources permitted. The spoils of opportunity were to be greater for the left-handed blow than the right-handed one. But the strategy of exploiting success in North Africa was nonetheless sound and correct. The distraction of Italy did cause the Germans to move valuable divisions away from the Russian front and away from where the Normandy landings would take place. The Mediterranean Strategy may have been a subsidiary one, but it was still an irreplaceable stepping stone to victory in the West.

Two of the most significant things about the landings in North West Africa and the Tunisian campaign were these. First, the opportunity for the French armed forces to play their crucial and honourable part in liberating France itself and other European countries was created ; secondly, the pattern for future Allied strategy leading to the Italian campaign (where French forces were soon to be in action) was firmly established. Indeed it could be said that once Operation Torch had been agreed by Allied counsels, the future deployment of resources in what became known as the Mediterranean Strategy was irreversible. Through all these campaigns, the courage and devotion to duty of the individual soldiers, sailors and airmen - no matter which countries they came from - shines like a beacon, undimmed and never to be forgotten.

Et ceux d'entre nous qui ont participé à ces évenements historiques dans le théâtre de la Méditerranée se souviendront peut-être du sentiment exprimé il y a si longtemps par Lucien Bonaparte vis à vis du maréchal André : que de souvenirs, que de regrets !

 

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Notes:

1 CIGS : Chief of Imperial General Staff.

 

 

 Copyright www.stratisc.org - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin