History of the Second World War: United Kingdom Military Series

Edited by Sir James Butler

The Mediterranean and Middle East: Volume 3

British Fortunes Reach Their Lowest Ebb

September 1941 to September 1942

By Major-General I. S. O. Playfair, CB, DSO, MC, with Captain F. C. Flynn, RN, Brigadier C. J. C. Molony and Group Captain T. P. Gleave, CBE


Her Majesty’s Stationery Office

Crown Copyright Reserved

The authors of the Military Histories have been given full access to official documents. They and

the editor are alone responsible for the statements made and the views expressed.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1: The growth of the CRUSADER plan

Reorganization of the Army—The plan in outline—The administrative implications—The Royal Air Force’s preparations—The enemy picture—The situation at Tobruk—The armoured forces compared

Chapter 2: The Winter Battle, 1941, (CRUSADER)—1

The conditions—The first encounters (18th and 19th November)—The DAK moves east (20th November)—Sidi Rezegh and the sortie from Tobruk (21st–23rd November)—Rommel’s dash for the frontier (24th November)—The DAK on the frontier (25th–27th November)—The fighting south-east of Tobruk (25th–26th November) and return of the DAK—Sidi Rezegh, El Duda, Belhamed (28th November–1st December)—The stage reached by 1st December

Chapter 3: The Winter Battle—2

The fighting at Bir el Gubi and the relief of Tobruk.—The enemy’s stand at Gazala (1st–16th December 1941)—The pursuit to Benghazi (16th–24th December)—The fighting round Agedabia—The air situation at the end of the year—The reduction of the frontier defences (16th December–17th January)—Some aspects of CRUSADER in retrospect

Chapter 4: The Struggle for Sea Communications (November–December 1941)

Force K’s successes against Axis shipping—Loss of the Ark Royal and the Barham—The night encounter off Cape Bon—The First Battle of Sirte and the disaster to Force K—The Queen Elizabeth and the Valiant damaged by human torpedoes—The Mediterranean Fleet at the close of 1941

Chapter 5: The Situation after the Entry of Japan into the War

The exploitation of CRUSADER—Diversions and withdrawals from the Middle East—The command in Persia and Iraq—The political crisis in Egypt—The German view

Chapter 6: Retreat to Gazala

The position in Western Cyrenaica—The enemy’s intentions—The advance begins—1st Armoured Division avoids the net—The move on Benghazi—Withdrawal from the Jebel—Some disquieting thoughts

Chapter 7: Malta Convoys and the Second Battle of Sirte

Malta convoys in January 1942 . The enemy’s ‘Battleship convoys’—The February convoy fails—Conditions in Malta in January and February—The March convoy and the Second Battle of Sirte—Air and submarine operations—Axis designs on Malta

Chapter 8: Malta’s Greatest Trial (April–May 1942)

Admiral Cunningham departs—April: climax of the German attack—May: the raids slacken, but Malta has been neutralized—Axis plans and preparations

Chapter 9: The Lull in the Desert (February–May 1942)

The question of a new offensive—The RAF and its problems—The Army’s dispositions and plans—The enemy’s intentions

Chapter 10: The Battle of Gazala (26th May–15th June)

The enemy’s advance is stopped (26th–29th May)—The enemy tears open a gap at Sidi Muftah (30th May–1st June)—The Cauldron disaster (5th–6th June)—The loss of Bir Hacheim (10th June)—The defeat of the British armour (11th–13th June).—The problem of Tobruk (15th–16th June)—The withdrawal from the Gazala position (14th–15th June)

Chapter 11: The Battle of Gazala (contd.): The Loss of Tobruk

The problems of the 8th Army and the Desert Air Force—The Tobruk defences—General Rommel’s plan—The defensive battle—Events leading to the surrender—Conclusion

Chapter 12: The Retreat to El Alamein

The change in Axis strategy—The decision not to stand on the frontier—The delaying action of the Desert Air Force—General Auchinleck takes command—The fighting of 26th and 27th June—The 10th Corps left in the lurch—Back to El Alamein

Chapter 13: Malta and the War at Sea (June–September 1942)

The Malta convoys in June—HARPOON—VIGOROUS—The Navy leaves Alexandria—The August convoy to Malta—PEDESTAL—The battle of supplies

Chapter 14: The Fighting in the El Alamein Line

The El Alamein line—Outline of the July fighting—The part played by the Desert Air Force—The enemy’s situation—Rommel’s advance is held (1st–4th July)—The British attack at Tell el Eisa (10th–14th July)—‘First Ruweisat’ (14th–17th July)—‘Second Ruweisat’ (El Mreir) (21st–22nd July)—The last British attack—at Miteiriya (26th July)

Chapter 15: The Momentous Decisions of July and August 1942

The shape of future strategy—Changes in Command—Growing strength—American organization in the Middle East—The Persia and Iraq Command—Changes in the Axis Command

Chapter 16: August 1942 and the Battle of Alam el Halfa

Air operations—The enemy’s intentions—The defence plan—The battle


Chronology of Main Events from September 1941 to September 1942

Appendix 1: Principal Commanders and Staff Officers in the Mediterranean and Middle East

Appendix 2: Principal Italian and German Commanders and Staff Officers

Appendix 3: Strength of the opposing Fleets

Appendix 4: Distribution of the Army

Appendix 5: Distribution of the Royal Air Force

Appendix 6: A note on the Persia and Iraq Command

Appendix 7: A note on artillery weapons

Appendix 8: A note on tanks, armour, and anti-tank guns

Appendix 9: Some particulars of British and enemy aircraft

Appendix 10: Arrivals of reinforcement aircraft

Appendix 11: Operational code names



Maps and Diagrams

1. The Mediterranean and Middle East Theatre of War

2. The Western Desert, November 1941

CRUSADER—The opening moves, 18th–21st November

3. 18th November Dispositions after the British advance

4. 19th November Capture of Sidi Rezegh airfield

5. 20th November Moves of the DAK

6. 21st November Break out from Tobruk

CRUSADER—Sidi Rezegh and the frontier

7. 21st November The German armour hurries north

8. 22nd November Loss of Sidi Rezegh airfield

9. 23rd November Destruction of 5th South African Brigade

10. 24–26th November Rommel’s dash to the frontier

CRUSADER—Renewed fighting round Sidi Rezegh

11. 27th–28th November Return of the Panzer Divisions

12. 29th November Attack on El Duda and loss of Pt 175

13. 30th November–1st December Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed

14. 4th–5th December Bir el Gubi and Tobruk

15. Attempt to turn the Gazala position

16. The pursuit by 13th Corps

17. Operations at Halfaya and Bardia

18. Action off Cape Bon, night of 12/13th December

19. Fleet movements, 16th–18th December

20. Attack by Human Torpedoes at Alexandria

21. The enemy’s advance to Benghazi, January 1942

22. Fleet movements, 21st–23rd March 1942

23. Action in the Gulf of Sirte, 22nd March

24. Malta, showing airfields in April 1942

25. Gazala: dispositions at dawn 27th May 1942

26. Rommel concentrates in the Cauldron

27. British plan of attack on the Cauldron

28. The decisive armoured actions of 12th–13th June

29. Tobruk, 20th June 1942

30. The Delta and Western Desert of Egypt, summer 1942

31. Matruh, 26th–27th June

32. Convoy to Malta: operation HARPOON, 14th–15th June

33. Operation HARPOON: action on 15th June

34. Operation VIGOROUS, 14th–16th June

35. Convoy to Malta: operation PEDESTAL, 11th–13th August

36. The end of Rommel’s advance: El Alamein, 2nd July

37. ‘First Ruweisat’, 14th–15th July

38. ‘Second Ruweisat’ (El Mreir), 21st July

39. Alam el Halfa: Rommel’s plan of attack on 30th August

40. Persia and Iraq


Most of the photographs are Crown Copyright and are reproduced by courtesy of the Imperial War Museum and the Ministries concerned.

Frontispiece: Meeting of ‘All the Talents’ at Cairo, August 1942—The loss of HMS Ark Royal, November 1941—British cruisers at the Second Battle of Sirte—HMS Breconshire, hit and disabled—The Pampas bombed in harbour, Malta—Albacores over Malta—The bombing of Floriana, Malta, April 1942—RAF attack on a German airfield—Benghazi harbour, January 1942—The Infantry tank Matilda—The Valentine, used first as an ‘I’ tank and later as a cruiser—American light tank, General Stuart—American medium tank, General Grant—British cruiser tank, Crusader—A British tank transporter—German Pzkw III Special with long 5-cm gun and spaced armour—Pzkw III with short 5-cm gun—Pzkw IV with short 7.5-cm gun—Pzkw IV Special with long 7.5-cm gun—German half-tracked infantry carrier—Italian M 13/40 medium tank—British 2-pdr anti-tank gun portée—25-pdr field guns—6-pdr anti-tank gun—40-mm Bofors, the British light AA gun—German 5-cm Pak 38 anti-tank gun—The 8.8-cm Flak 36 on its trailer—British 4.5-inch gun—British 3.7-inch heavy AA gun—The Bishop self-propelled gun—Humber armoured car—Italian 75/18 self-propelled gun—Bren carriers—German AA gunners in action against the RAF—The end of a Ju.87 (Stuka)—Bostons taking off from a desert airfield—Flight of Hurricanes over the desert—Operation PEDESTAL: HMS Victorious, Indomitable and Eagle—HMS Indomitable hit, 12th August 1942—Operation PEDESTAL: the damaged Ohio being nursed into harbour—The Ohio in the Grand Harbour, Malta, August 1942