THE first of this series of six volumes covered the opening stages of the war in the Mediterranean and Middle East, where by early in 1941 the British had scored great successes over the Italians at sea, in East Africa, and in the Western Desert. Germany then came to the help of her ally, and our second volume told how the British were bundled out of Greece and Crete and lost nearly all their gains in the Western Desert. But they still held their vital bases—Gibraltar, Malta and Egypt—and in the autumn of 1941 they were able, with strength growing, morale high, and resolution unweakened by past shocks and setbacks, to try once more to drive the Axis forces from the Western Desert. With this offensive the present volume opens.
In our first volume we pointed out the need to take constant account of the weapons and equipment which were developing so rapidly under the stimulus of war. The period covered by the present volume saw many innovations, some of the most important being those which bore upon the perpetual struggle between tanks and the various means of countering them—armour, guns and mines. Stages in this struggle are summed up in the text from time to time, and relevant details are given in Appendices 7 and 8. In 1941 and early 1942 the British had a great deal of leeway to make up in arms and equipment. Their shortcomings of 1939 had been made worse by the appalling losses in France in 1940, and the resulting plight forced them to keep on manufacturing many obsolescent weapons—because it was these weapons or nothing until the plant to make new types could be set up. The Germans, on the other hand, in settling the basic design of much of their armament by pre-war research and practical trials, had allowed for developments; after the campaign in France, for example, they were able to make improvements to their tanks with little delay and without interfering with production.
It should therefore cause no surprise to read in the present volume that the British armoured forces in the Middle East were still handicapped in several ways. Before the (American) Grant tank and the 6-pdr anti-tank gun came upon the scene tank crews were conscious of being continually at a disadvantage, and felt that the British equipment was partly to blame. For instance, their tanks easily caught fire—the Crusader was the worst offender—a horrible fact upon which the enemy remarked. The British crews deserve admiration
for their steadfastness in this bad period, coming up again and again to endure punishment and to strive to return it.
At this point it is right to recall once more that, important as the material factors were, the usefulness of weapons and all the other aids to success in battle lay in the hands of the men who served and tended them. This thought might well stand as a headline to every page of this book, as a reminder of the men whose conduct was of such outstanding importance in this tale of thronging events, but has in the main to be taken for granted. It may be recalled, too, that the purpose of the ‘campaign volumes’ of this History is to provide a broad survey of events from an inter-Service point of view. A volume which covers a whole crowded year of struggle by sea, land, and air must leave out a great deal, and to the usual difficulty of deciding what to discard is added the problem of keeping a fair balance. Our aim has been to tell a story which will show the essential unity of the war in this theatre and the dependence of the Services on one another. Above all, in following the fighting in the Western Desert it must be remembered that the British were able to fight there at all, or indeed anywhere in the Mediterranean and Middle East, only because the sea communications with their sources of supply were kept open.
By 1942 the pressure on space becomes intense and the accounts of the Army’s operations tend to deal more and more with the principal actors and the larger formations, and to exclude—to our great regret—many exciting adventures of units and detachments. A great deal of hard, devoted, and often gallant work by the supporting arms and ancillary services must also be taken for granted.
The same is true of the air forces, with the added difficulty that the results of their operations over the land cannot be expressed in terms of ground won or lost. Their activities were diverse: protecting bases and lines of communication, attacking those of the enemy several hundred miles away, attacking the opposing air forces, intervening directly in the land fighting, and so on. The results can best be judged over a period, for the air’s influence on the land battle was cumulative. In this theatre it is rarely possible to be sure of the result of any particular attack, but when evidence has come to light we give it. Our method in general is to describe the effort expended on a particular mission in terms of the number of sorties flown over a period. We often set out the figures as so many aircraft every 24 hours, a scale which is reasonably easy to picture. We hope in this way to give the reader a yardstick with which to measure the steady growth of the British air effort and to compare the intensity of attacks on the more important targets. We possess fairly complete records of the Luftwaffe’ s day by day losses in aircraft from all causes, and less complete, though useful, details of those of the Italians.
A word is needed about Orders of Battle. That of the Mediterranean Fleet (App. 3) presents no difficulty. The forces controlled by the Royal Air Force, Middle East Command, varied but slightly over quite long periods, and we have given in App. 5 the Order of Battle of all the Middle East air forces in November 1941, and of the Western Desert Air Force in May 1942 (at the beginning of the fighting at Gazala) and in September 1942 (during the battle of Alam el Halfa). In the case of the Army, however, there were a great many units that one would like to mention, but they were frequently being changed about or temporarily re-grouped. For this reason alone a comprehensive Order of Battle would be unmanageable and a selective one misleading. We therefore show in App. 4 the outline distribution of the Army in October 1941 and again in May 1942, and either in the text or in a footnote we give the actual composition of formations whenever it seems necessary.
Most of the photographs reproduced in the two previous volumes were chosen to illustrate conditions on different fronts. But after the summer of 1941 the fighting on land is confined to the Western Desert, so we have now been able to make room for illustrations of some of the most important weapons and equipment used by both sides in 1941 and 1942.
We have been helped in our work by many persons with first-hand knowledge who have been good enough to read our drafts. We have had the benefit of comments by the Official Historian of Australia, Mr. Gavin Long; of New Zealand, the late Sir Howard Kippenberger and Brigadier M. C. Fairbrother; of the Union of South Africa, Mr. J. A. I. Agar-Hamilton; also by Dr. Kent R. Greenfield and Brig.-General Paul M. Robinett of the Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington, DC We have had much help from the Heads of the Historical Branches, Commander P. K. Kemp, Brigadier H. B. Latham and Mr. J. C. Nerney, and from the Archivists, Librarians, and Keepers of the various records and photographs in the Cabinet Office, the Ministries, and the Imperial War Museum, and their staffs. We have had the use of narratives compiled by Brigadier G. F. Ellenberger, Lieut.-Colonel G. R. Johnson, Lieut.-Colonel M. E. S. Laws, and Squadron Leader G. T. Johns. Others who have helped us particularly with this volume are Commanders G. A. Titterton and L. J. Pitcairn-Jones, Brigadier W. P. Pessell and Squadron Leader W. M. Mills. On German and Italian documents we have been helped by Mr. B. M. Melland and Commander M. G. Saunders, and in particular by Mrs J. M. Hamilton and Squadron Leader L. A. Jackets; also by Dr. G. W. S. Friedrichsen, who has handled for us the German material in the United States. All but a few of the maps have been drawn by Mr. M. J. Godliman and Mr. D. K. Purle, of the Cabinet Office Mapping Section, under the direction of Colonel
T. M. M. Penney. General research has been done by Mrs G. F. Oakley, Miss Jean Burt, and Miss D. F. Butler, and secretarial work and the typing of drafts by Miss D. G. Plant. To all these, and to the Editor for his unfailing support and advice, we wish to express our gratitude.