IN the ten months of campaigning covered by this volume, that is from November 1941 to September 1942, both sides had experienced success and failure. The worst disasters had befallen the British, and yet the end of the period found them in a better position in this theatre than their opponents, and able to prepare once more to give the Desert pendulum a push westwards. It has been seen that each side possessed the advantage in striking power when its forces were reasonably close to their bases; conversely, they were much weaker when reaching out at full stretch. It follows that somewhere between the extreme positions there should have been a place where both sides could maintain forces comparable in size. This was in fact the case from February to May 1942 at Gazala, where the Axis forces were served by the port of Benghazi and the road from Tripoli, and the British by Tobruk and the road and railway from Alexandria.
Here, after three months of preparation, a trial of strength took place between the comparable forces, in which the 8th Army was decisively defeated. Seizing his opportunity General Rommel took Tobruk almost in his stride and then made the fateful decision to pursue as far as he could, to Cairo, perhaps, or even to the Canal. The plan to halt on the Egyptian frontier at a convenient distance ahead of Tobruk was scrapped. The air forces which should then have taken part in an attack on Malta had suddenly to join in an improvised pursuit and support the army as best they could. The result was that Malta began to strike again, with disastrous consequences for Axis shipping. Not only was Rommel’s land front now a long way ahead of the nearest port—Tobruk—but owing to the heavy losses at sea the supplies to be fed into the road system ran short in many important respects, notably ammunition and petrol.
Thus it happened that the British, after their long retreat and some very anxious moments, were nevertheless able to hold their vital bases. Their lean days were over. Their strength on land was growing every day. The first American Sherman tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns were arriving, and the 6-pdr was rapidly replacing the 2-pdr anti-tank gun—changes which made for a great increase in confidence. The Royal Air Force in the Middle East was becoming a powerful influence in the war at sea and on land, the American squadrons were becoming acclimatized and battleworthy, and the Desert Air Force was looking forward with relish to the prospect of playing havoc with a retreating enemy.
By September 1942 the monthly figures for Allied world-wide
shipping losses had fallen well below the desperately high figure for June, though mastery of the U-boats was still not in sight. Attacks by the Royal Air Force on Germany were steadily becoming heavier (the first ‘1,000 bomber raid’ on Cologne was made on 30th May) and United States heavy bombers were beginning to operate by day over occupied territory in Europe. In southern Russia there was heavy fighting near Stalingrad, and in the Caucasus the Germans were still advancing, though more slowly than before. In the Far East the British had been driven out of the whole of Burma and were awaiting the end of the monsoon to start what looked like being the long process of winning the country back again. In the Solomon Islands the great battle of attrition on Guadalcanal had begun, and in New Guinea the Japanese attempt to seize Port Moresby by an advance over the Owen Stanley range had been held. The battle of Midway Island, in which the Japanese had lost heavily, had removed the danger to shipping in the Indian Ocean from aircraft carriers; and the Allied landing in Madagascar had reduced the danger from submarines—German as well as Japanese—by depriving them of a potential fuelling base. These results were of great importance to the Middle East, which depended so largely upon shipping from India and Australia and up the east coast of Africa. To sum up: while the situation viewed as a whole gave no cause for complacency, there were hopeful signs that the enemy was being held and that some of the crises were past. German morale was still high, but that of the Italians was sinking fast.
Now, in the autumn of 1942, in this general setting the Allies were preparing to seize the strategic initiative in the Mediterranean area. They were to do this by assailing the enemy from both directions—from Egypt and from French North Africa. Both these operations depended basically upon the merchant ships, escort vessels, fleet cover, air patrols, air striking forces and securely held ports, fuelling stations, and naval and air bases which go to make up maritime power. This power had been relentlessly working for a long time to build up the 8th Army and Desert Air Force; it was now about to be applied in another and more spectacular way. For while the assault to be made on the confined front at El Alamein would be of necessity a bludgeon blow, the complementary operation in French North Africa would be a swoop from the sea in the grand manner. Together they were destined to change the course of the war.