The Western Desert Campaign

14 Mar


When one thinks of the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War, what does one think of? The titanic clash of armor? The names Erwin Rommel and Bernard Montgomery? Perhaps even the names of villages or towns, such as El Alamein, Benghazi, Tobruk, and Gazala? The Western Desert Campaign was a massive chapter in an even greater theater of the Second World War. While conflict raged in Eritrea, Abyssinia, Somaliland, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the struggle for North Africa between the forces of Great Britain, battered, bruised, and horrifically outnumbered, against the forces of Italy and her vaunted counterpart, Nazi Germany, a veritable juggernaut thought invincible until November 1942’s Battle of El Alamein. While side campaigns tainted the sands of Africa and Palestine red, the valiant, even romantic, war in the Western Desert captured the hearts and minds of those regarding the unfurling events on the sidelines, and forever molded itself into a recess of the annals of history, a modern day David and Goliath.

In 1879, Ahmed Urabi, an Egyptian nationalist, spearheaded a revolt inside Egypt, directed against Tewfiq Pasha, the son of the Egyptian nationalist Isma’il Pasha. Following the completion of Ferdinand De Lesseps’s Suez Canal in 1869, the Khedive of Egypt was placed under an immense amount of debt, held in the hands of British and French creditors, and if left unpaid, could potentially prompt a European invasion. Such was the case with Benito Juarez and Napoleon III, prompting a French invasion of Mexico in 1861. Urabi’s revolt unwittingly prompted British intervention in the nation, with the first troops arriving at Alexandria in 1882, followed suit by an entire army, crushing the revolt with brutal force at Tel el-Kebir and seizing Cairo. Charles George Gordon was placed at the helm as pasha of Egypt and Sudan, a capacity he held until his death in January 1885 at the hands of Egyptian and Sudanese nationalists in Khartoum. British military presence remained in Egypt throughout the First World War and well into the 1930s until the start of the Second World War. In 1936, the Kingdom of Egypt and Great Britain entered into an agreement stating that the volume of British troops inside the nation would be significantly reduced, to return some autonomy to the Kingdom of Egypt, although full autonomy would not be returned until 1952. Simultaneously, Italian forces bolstered their forces in Italian North Africa, straddling Egypt’s western border, in preparation for a war both nations knew was looming over the horizon, yet neither wished to confront.

In 1912, Italian forces defeated Ottoman Turkish forces in North Africa, shattering the fragile backbone of an already disintegrating empire. In the wake of their victory, the Italians seized Libya, reinvigorating their African domain, which had been jeopardized in 1896 with the Italian defeat at Adowa in Ethiopia at the hands of Menelik II. Yet the Italians would return, and in 1935, Italian forces arrived in Abyssinia under General Rudolfo Graziani, intent on defeating the forces of the Abyssinian patriarch Haile Selassie. By May of the following year, it had been completed, and the dream of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s new Roman Empire was being pieced together, brick by brick, nation by nation. Libya, known as Italian North Africa, was straddled between the dual Allied powers of Great Britain to the east and France to the west, with French forces controlling Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. The Italian 5th Army had been deployed against a potential French threat, while the 10th Army sat along the frontier with Egypt in anticipation of a potential British incursion, and that was the way it remained so until June 1940.

On June 22nd, 1940, the French government of President Albert Lebrun capitulated to the invading German forces, roughly one month and two weeks following the German invasion of France and the Low Countries on May 10th. While two thirds of France sat crushed beneath the oppressive heal of the Nazi jackboot, the final third remained independent, in what came to be known as la zone libre. The Free Zone, or Vichy France. Established with its capital in the metropolitan center of Vichy in southern France, it had been forged in a deal struck between German representatives and former hero of the First World War and architect of the defense of Verdun Marshal Henri Philippe Petain. The area would remain free of German occupation while the Vichy French would reluctantly ally themselves with Nazi Germany, although the alliance was really only on paper. Simultaneously, former French general Charles de Gaulle entered exile in Great Britain, and through radio communiques established the Free French, an organization of French troops and underground resistance movements inside France, known under the collective title of the Maquis. The Vichy French would also administer all of France’s overseas colonies, including Vietnam, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Senegal. The sudden release in pressure on Libya’s western frontier allowed for a sudden shift in troops, from western Libya to a series of fortifications along Libya’s border with Egypt. Facing the Italians were roughly 50,000 British troops under General Sir Archibald Wavell and the newly formed Middle East Command. The majority of Wavell’s troops fell under the command General Richard O’Connor’s 6th Infantry Division, dubbed Western Desert Force and later VIII Corps following December 1940’s Operation Compass. Facing the British were roughly 215,000 Italian troops of the 5th and 10th Armies under the command of recently arrived General Rudolfo Graziani, who replaced Marshal Italo Balbo as commander of Italian forces in North Africa and governor-general of Libya following Balbo’s death due to friendly fire on June 28th, 1940. While the Italians outnumbered the British, the British outclassed the Italians, with better equipment, superior armor and training. The Italians outnumbered the British, yet were plagued with inferior supplies, World War I-surplus armor, and sub-par command quality. During the first three months of war in the desert, the combat unfurled incredibly unhurried. British and Italian scouting missions exchanged fire, and in early August an inconclusive action took place outside Fort Capuzzo, yet nothing of real substance had occurred. In September, under pressure from Mussolini to pursue offensive action, Graziani launched a full-scale invasion of British Egypt. Initially, the operation was a stunning success, seizing the passes at Halfaya and Sollum vital to success in Egypt, yet just seven days into the incursion, Graziani halted at Sidi Barrani, citing supply problems. Graziani had knocked the bewildered British off their feet, yet he had simultaneously done the same to himself. His invasion ground to halt near Sidi Barrani, just 80 miles short of the major British garrison of Mersa Matruh. If taken, the garrison would have yielded a rich haul of up to 25,000 British troops, casualties the British Middle East Command could not afford so early in the war. Mussolini urged Graziani forward, yet Graziani remained persistent in stating that without ample supplies, his army could not advance on Mersa Matruh, Cairo, or Suez. Graziani stated that offensive actions could be renewed in December. Yet the Italian had made an enormous blunder. In halting his advance, he had allowed the British forces to consolidate, and in doing so, the British were ready to rid Egypt of the pesky Italian invaders, and that removal came in the form of December 9th, 1940’s Operation Compass, launched under the tenacious General Richard O’Connor.

O’Connor commanded the Western Desert Force, Middle East Command’s only significant force facing the might of two Italian armies. The Force consisted initially of one infantry division, bolstered by several armored corps under the command of General Percy Hobart. With the Italian attack, the Force was bolstered with the arrival of the Indian 4th Infantry Division, and the Operation steamrolled over Italian troops, reaching Bardia, just across the Libyan border, in early January, yet just prior to O’Connor’s arrival in Bardia, General Wavell had made the choice to replace the Indian 4th Infantry with the Australian 6th Infantry, under General Iven Mackay. The choice horrified O’Connor, who had become increasingly reliant on the battle hardened and proven Indian troops, who were now being redeployed to counter the Italian forces in Abyssinia and Eritrea along the Sudanese frontier. Yet Mackay’s Australians were able to prove their mettle at Bardia, opening a narrow window for O’Connor that made it capable for him to seize Tobruk, the premier port between Alexandria and Tripoli, nearly one thousand miles from each other. With the possibility of taking Tobruk, O’Connor pushed across the desert, seizing Tobruk in mid-January, and with it, a rich haul of nearly 67,000 Italian prisoners-of-war. O’Connor dispatched General Michael O’Moore Creagh ahead to establish a roadblock to stem the retreat of the fleeing Italians, now caught in utter disarray at the stunning British victories at Bardia and Tobruk. The Italian retreat was finally halted at Beda Fomm on February 5th, leading to the death of the Italian 10th Army two days later. 130,000 Italian troops had been taken prisoner, destroying the last vestiges of Italian prestige in North Africa. O’Connor’s Western Desert Force, renamed VIII Corps, had advanced nearly 500 miles across North Africa and Egypt’s Western Desert, from Sidi Barrani in northwest Egypt to Beda Fomm in north-central Libya. Mussolini was horrified, and utterly humiliated. He had waged his campaign to impress not only the world, yet his arrogant compatriot, the German chancellor Adolf Hitler. Hitler’s stunning successes in northwestern Europe in the opening months of 1940 had captured the anxious attention of the world, from the fall of Copenhagen and Oslo to the surrender of Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. In October 1940, against the warnings of Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, Mussolini ordered an invasion of northern Greece through Italy’s Balkan possession Albania. The invasion possessed little strategic value, if any at all, and was designed primarily to impress Hitler. Mussolini also wished to demonstrate that he was capable of a blitzkrieg of his own, against a force thought much weaker. Yet General Alexandros Papagos’s Hellenic Army proved to outclass and outmatch the Italians, forcing their beleaguered Alpini Corps troops to continuously be sent reeling after failed strikes through the heavily garrisoned Pindus Mountains, bristling with well-placed Greek firepower. Mussolini was again humiliated with Germany’s joint invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, Operations Punishment and Marita respectively, in which the Germans tore a massive hole in the Greeks’ defensive network in Macedonia, Epirus, and Thrace, and dashed down the country toward Thermopylae, Marathon, and Athens. The German intervention in Greece would prove to be yet another demonstration of German superiority of their Italian counterparts, a sequel to an intervention two months earlier.

Following Graziani’s defeat at the hands of O’Connor in February 1941, Adolf Hitler realized the necessity for deploying troops to North Africa to bolster his beleaguered ally. Comando Supremo and Mussolini were horrified with these developments. A war Mussolini had desired to keep strictly Italian now included his triumphant ally, and, on top of that, one of Hitler’s premier generals: Erwin Rommel. Rommel had been dispatched to Tripoli in early February 1941, taking with him the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, under the title of the Afrika Korps, a title that would become synonymous with the North African campaign.

With Rommel’s arrival, O’Connor sat at a significant disadvantage. Troops from VIII Corps were constantly being ferried north to bolster the forces under Generals Henry Maitland Wilson and Bernard Freyberg in Greece against the impending storm of a German invasion. Middle East Command was also combating Italian troops in Abyssinia and Somaliland, mainly in Eritrea and along the Sudanese and Kenyan frontiers. With O’Connor’s strength becoming increasingly depleted, and with his men exhausted from their nearly unopposed 500 mile advance across the Sahara, Rommel struck. With the advantage of surprise, superior strength and firepower, Rommel launched Unternehmen Sonnenblume, or Operation Sunflower, striking out from Tripoli, stunning the British at El Agheila, and pushing the British back across the Libyan frontier into Egypt’s Western Desert. The stunning strike caught the entire British Army off guard, and sent the routed and wounded VIII Corps reeling back into Egypt, with a major loss. In late March, at the height of the attack, General Phillip Neame, the commander of HQ Cyrenaica Command, General Michael Gambier-Parry, newly appointed commander of the British 2nd Armored Division, and General Richard O’Connor himself were captured, and the Australian 9th Infantry Division under General Leslie Morshead was simultaneously surrounded at Tobruk. The port had proved too resilient to fall in a single blow, and so Rommel had chosen to divert his forces around its southern flank and pursue the wounded British back across Cyrenaica into Egypt. Morshead’s Australians were determined to hold out, yet the odds were increasingly stacked against them. General Wavell was persistent in his wishes to relieve the men at Tobruk and free them from the German siege, the new focus of the German command in Africa. Wavell ordered on May 15th Operation Brevity to be launched, a mission to relieve Tobruk, yet after just one day it halted and was instantaneously reversed by a German counterattack. The British resumed the offensive in June, with the June 15th, 1941, Operation Battleaxe. Battleaxe lasted just two days, and never reached its designated target of Hell-Fire Pass. The ill-fated operation had been supported by the forces of Colonel Ralph Alger Bagnold’s Long Range Desert Group and Colonel David Stirling’s Special Air Service, two newly created special forces groups, although even their support did not affect the outcome, nor could they halt the replacement of General Archibald Wavell for his failure to relieve Tobruk. Churchill ordered Wavell’s replacement in July following Battleaxe’s failure, replacing him with General Claude Autchinleck of India Command. With Wavell departing, he would take over Autchinleck’s vacated position in Southeast Asia, with the two men essentially swapping posts. On November 18th, 1941, Autchinleck launched his first offensive, known as Operation Crusader, to relieve Tobruk. The operation was a stunning success, forcing Rommel and his Afrika Korps back to El Agheila, their starting point for offensive operations against Tobruk. Operation Crusader had been the first victory of British forces over German troops during the Second World War, and led to General Alan Cunningham’s replacement by General Neil Ritchie as commanding officer of the British 8th Army, rapidly skyrocketing to the premier British force in the Western Desert. Throughout the campaigns of 1941, British forces were constantly being diverted to the Middle East, primarily in Palestine, in order to subdue Vichy French possessions, such as Syria and Lebanon, as well as countering an attempted pro-Nazi coup in Iraq and a joint invasion of Iran alongside Soviet forces. 1941 also saw the capture of Asmara by British forces, officially sealing defeat for Italian forces in the Horn of Africa.

In January 1942, offensive operations resumed, and Rommel came back with a vengeance. Bitter from his defeat at Tobruk, Rommel launched a series of flanking operations, directed at Ritchie’s 8th Army, working his way back to Tobruk. The Australians under Morshead had been replaced, much to Rommel’s delight, by South African troops under General Hendrik Klopper. The Australians were a vicious enemy, yet the South Africans had never gone into combat before, and were not known for their military vigor and valiance, unlike their Australian counterparts, who had proved their mettle before in 1915 at Gallipoli against the Ottomans. Rommel advanced on the city in May 1942, and took it within 24 hours, and with it, over 35,000 South African troops. The action was the largest single haul of British prisoners in the Atlantic, and the second largest behind the Japanese capture of Singapore in February 1942, and caused Rommel to be promoted to field marshal. Rommel then shifted his attention to the British Gazala Line, a defensive position spanning from the Mediterranean Sea to the garrison at Bir Hakeim, manned by Free French Legionaries. Between February and May 1942, Rommel pounded the Line, composed of heavily fortified “brigade boxes”, outflanking Ritchie’s positions, although his forces were surrounded in an area known as the Cauldron before breaking out and causing chaos within Ritchie’s lines, forcing him to retreat with his 8th Army. During the course of the battle, General Ludwig Cruwell had been flying above his forces in order to scout his positions, and with his aircraft low on fuel, his pilot landed in British lines, mistaking the British troops for German. Cruwell was captured, posing a setback to Rommel’s advance at Gazala. Autchinleck was disgusted, and replaced Ritchie, taking over command of the 8th Army personally, halting Rommel’s nearly unopposed advance 70 miles short of Alexandria in the summer of 1942 at a small train station straddling to Mediterranean coast, known as El Alamein.

In August, Churchill shifted officers in Middle East Command yet again. With Ritchie relieved of command of the 8th Army, Autchinleck commanded the whole of Middle East Command and British front line troops, yet due to his inability to halt the German advance at Gazala and his rash behavior following the battle had caused Churchill to call for his replacement. In his wake, Churchill proposed General Harold Alexander, strongly recommended by the British General Staff. A calculating and cautious commander, Alexander struck when his adversary least expect it. With Alexander in command of Middle East Command, Churchill and the Imperial General Staff set about appointing a replacement commander of the 8th Army. Their choice immediately fell upon General William Gott, a matter-of-fact commander with a no-nonsense take on the war, as well as acting against his enemy in guided, yet somewhat impetuous, strikes. These attributes appealed to both Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary and future Prime Minister in Churchill’s wake, yet Gott’s selection caused anxiety among the Imperial Staff, mainly in Chief of Staff General Alan Brooke, who wished to select a more reserved and meticulous general rather than Gott. Yet, as Gott was flying into Egypt, his plane was struck with copious amounts of ground fire, and he was killed when the aircraft crashed in the desert. In the wake of his death, Churchill selected a less well-known general, and something of a thorn in the Imperial Staff’s side. Bernard Montgomery.

Montgomery arrived just as Autchinleck was departing, and Autchinleck briefed Montgomery broadly on the situation, including the position of the 8th Army and the impending German assaults. The Germans would have to take the high ground at Alam Halfa ridge in order to take El Alamein. El Alamein was the last defensive line between the Germans and Cairo. If El Alamein fell, the Germans would be capable of riding to Cairo within seven days. At Tobruk, Rommel had even cabled Mussolini telling him to come and ride into Cairo as the victor of this glorious battle. Mussolini arrived the next day, along with his white stallion for the victory parade. Rommel wished to push on toward El Alamein and Cairo, yet he was continuously forced to shelve further offensive operations due to his commanding officers’ wishes. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring wished to renew bombing of the tiny island of Malta, which housed a considerable British naval and air presence that continued to hound Rommel’s supplies being ferried between Sicily and Italy and Tobruk and Tripoli. Supplies were reduced to a trickle, and Kesselring wished to subdue the island before attempting to seize El Alamein. The island had nearly fallen during raids in 1941, yet had withstood the siege, severely battered and bruised, yet triumphant. Meanwhile, Generals Ettore Bastico and Ugo Cavallero, his Italian superiors, wished to maintain a decent sized Italian presence in the area. Rommel was not thrilled at the idea of having Italian superiors, considering the Italians were regarded with a varying amounts of contempt by the German soldiers they fought alongside. In October 1942, Rommel was finally prepared to undertake offensive actions against El Alamein. Rommel immediately attempting to flank and seize Alam Halfa, yet the assault was thrown back by deeply entrenched British armor under Montgomery. Rommel continuously attacked in frontal assaults with air power, courtesy of Field Marshal Kesselring, yet the British continuously fought the attacks back or to a standstill. The Germans attempted on several occasions to breach the British minefields lining the ample attacking routes, yet each time they came under fire from British artillery. Finally, by late October, the fighting came to a stalemate. Rommel needed to breakthrough, and soon. Unbeknownst to him, a convoy had departed from the United States carrying 107,000 American troops destined to land along the northern coast of Morocco and Algeria against possible Vichy French resistance by French troops under General Henri Giraud. In early November 1942, Rommel threw his exhausted troops against the British defenses again, yet this time, the attack was not repeated. Montgomery pursued Rommel, launching Operation Supercharge just six days prior to American forces landing in North Africa during Operation Torch. Supercharge threw Rommel and his Afrika Korps back reeling, and so started the long retreat from the Western Desert, back across Libya, and into the defenses of the Mareth Line in southeastern Tunisia. As the hard-pressed Germans retreated, they were continuously harassed by Montgomery and his 8th Army, pursuing them incessantly across the scorching desert. On November 8th, 1942, General George S. Patton landed with his 107,000 American forces, supported by British Commandos, at Oran, Algiers, Casablanca, and Fesbala, wading ashore under Vichy French machine gun and artillery fire, while simultaneously being strafed by French fighters from an airfield outside Oran. The Americans had not known French intentions, due to the British attack on the French fleet moored at Mers-el-Kebir in June 1940, obliterating a French fleet at anchor and killing 1,200 French sailors. The attack had left the Vichy French with a bitter taste in their mouths regarding the Allies, and Americans were left wondering if that bitter taste included them. General Mark Clark came ashore aboard the British submarine HMS Seraph to discuss the French situation with General Henri Giraud, yet after he asked to take command of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean in return for ordering his men to hold their fire, and with Clark informing him that that position was already given to General Dwight Eisenhower, the negotiations disintegrated, leaving Clark unsure as to French intentions regarding the Allied landings. Following the American landings, in late November, the Vichy French capitulated, prompting a German invasion under Unternehmen Lila, or Operation Purple. During the invasion, the French fleet at Marseilles was scuttled to prevent its capture by German forces. In Africa, Admiral Francois Darlan was placed in command as governor-general of all French African possessions, outraging General Charles de Gaulle, who viewed himself as more acceptable to the Allied cause if said position was given to him. Eisenhower was becoming swamped with political problems regarding schisms in the French government, and simultaneously, Montgomery was pursuing Rommel across Libya into Tunisia. Rommel had been plagued by supply problems almost continuously from arriving in Tripoli to arriving at El Alamein. The Italians were far too focused on domestic issues, and Hitler had his eyes turned toward Russia, ignorant of overtures from Rommel for the succor of supplies. When Rommel had arrived at El Alamein, only twelve of his tanks remained functional. The retreat to Tunisia had left Rommel in a serious pinch, with both flanks covered by Allied armies bottle-necking him into the narrow strip of country along the Mediterranean coast. Rommel dug his eastern flank into the Mareth Line fighting a defensive war against the battle hardened and proven British forces, and lashed out against the untested Americans under Patton at the Kasserine Pass in February 1943. Rommel had wished to pursue the injured American war machine into Algeria, yet at the behest of his commanding officer, General Hans Jurgen von Arnim, he had been forced to consolidate his position. Southern Tunisia was the only region where Allied operations were capable. Too far north and American forces would be forced to advance through the nearly impenetrable Atlas Mountains, and to the east was the Mediterranean Sea. Yet Rommel and von Arnim were continuously hounded by Allied operations, and March 1943’s Operation Pugilist, combined with May 1943’s Operations Vulcan and Retribution pounded through the Mareth Line, while American armies advanced toward Tunis. In May 1943, Rommel and his staff fled to Sicily, leaving behind 300,000 German and Italian troops to the mercy of the Allied armies, and setting the stage for July 1943’s Operation Husky, and the future competition between Generals Patton and Montgomery, seen for the first time in their respective drives for Messina.

The British had informed the Americans of the necessity of warfare in Africa when American forces began to arrive in England in 1942. The Americans had arrived with a spirit of breaking the Germans’ back in western Europe and marching on to Berlin, yet the British had assured them it was impossible. The Americans, spearheaded by Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, had drawn up plans for landing in France, code-named Operations Sledgehammer and Roundhammer, yet the British had contested to a significant landing, and had stated that it would be impossible until 1944. The Americans had believed the British only wished to fight in Africa to expand their own territorial ambitions after the war, and instead prompted the British to land 6,000 Canadians at Dieppe in August 1942, leading to the deaths of the majority of the men, under Lord Louis Mountbatten, who landed. With a landing in mainland Europe proven impossible, the Americans diverted their attention to Africa and assisting the British. Following Operation Torch, the breakthrough at El Alamein, and the collapse of German resistance in Tunisia, the Allies would land at Sicily on July 10th, 1943, Italy on September 9th, 1943, and would continue fighting up the Italian peninsula well into April and May 1945. Fighting would slow in the winter of 1943 at the Winter Line, primarily at Monte Cassino and the American landings at Anzio during January 1944’s Operation Shingle. On June 5th, 1944, one day prior to the landings in Normandy, General Mark Clark’s 5th Army, separated from the British 8th Army under General Oliver Leese, having landed at Calabria and Taranto in September 1943’s Operations Baytown and Slapstick, by the Apennine Mountains, seized Rome unopposed. The campaign in Italy would reach to river Po in spring 1945, following months of bitter advances in the hotly contested mountain ranges and river valleys of northern Italy, with American troops reaching Milan, Genoa, and Venice in May 1945, just in time for Germany’s surrender. On June 6th, 1944, 175,000 British, Canadian, and American troops landed either by amphibious landing or airborne drops in Normandy, France, with the paratroopers or glider-borne infantry seizing key bridges, knocking out artillery positions, and causing mayhem behind enemy lines, although the majority were severely miss-dropped due to inexperienced pilots and the sheer volume of antiaircraft fire. The British would advance on the metropolitan center of Caen, while the Americans would seize Carentan, linking Omaha and Utah beaches into a single continuous beachhead, and advance on Saint-Lo, preparing for Operation Cobra, the breakout from Normandy. In August, with both Caen and Saint-Lo secured, that breakout came in the form of surrounding over 100,000 German troops of Army Group B under General Gunther von Kluge in a narrow pocket near the towns of Falaise and Chambois. After bitter fighting for over a week, the German forces managed to withdraw, leaving behind 60,000 dead, including General von Kluge, who had committed suicide out of disgrace for his defeat. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt arrived to take his place from the Eastern Front, and throughout August into September, the Allies advanced steadily across France, taking Paris on August 25th after General Dietrich von Choltitz refused to burn the city to ashes on orders from Hitler. By mid-September, the American 12th Army Group under General Omar Bradley, consisting of the 1st Army under General Courtney Hodges and the 3rd Army under General George S. Patton, sat along the rivers Saar and Rhine, with American forces of the 1st Infantry Division advancing into Aachen in October 1944, the first German city to be attacked by Allied ground forces. The British 21st Army Group, consisting of the U.S. 9th Army under General William Simpson, 2nd Army under General Miles Dempsey, and Canadian 1st Army under General Harry Crerar, under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, withdrawn from the Italian campaign in preparation for the Normandy campaign, sat along the Dutch frontier in northern Belgium. On September 17th, 1944, over 40,000 British, American, and Polish paratroopers were dropped on a sixty-mile span of highway in the southeastern Netherlands to secure eight bridges to allow British armor of General Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps to outflank the defenses of Germany’s vaunted Siegfried Line and enter northern Germany and advance on Berlin. Operation Market Garden, as it was known, was the largest airborne invasion in history, and ended in complete disaster, with the British 1st Airborne and Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade becoming surrounded near Arnhem. In December 1944, with the front secured along the expanse of the river Rhine, 13 German divisions counterattacked into the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg as part of Operation Watch on the Rhine, intent on reaching the port city of Antwerp, captured by the Canadians in October, along the Scheldt Estuary, secured by the Canadians in November, and finally advancing on the river Meuse in northern France to negotiate an Allied surrender. The attack was turned back at Elsenborn Ridge and Lanzerath by the 1st Infantry, recently arrived from Aachen, as well as failing to secure the crossroads town of Bastogne, held fast by men of the 101st Airborne Division. In late January, General Patton’s 3rd Army arrived from northern France to lift the German siege and push the overwhelmed and under-supplied German troops under Generals Sepp Dietrich and Hasso von Manteuffel back into western Germany through the Siegfried Line. In late January, another counterattack, Operation North Wind, was launched in Alsace-Lorraine by the Waffen-SS, yet to no avail. Throughout February and into March 1945, Allied forces secured the western bank of the river Rhine, as part of General Dwight Eisenhower’s “broad front strategy”. During Operations Veritable, Grenade, Lumberjack, and Queen, the western bank was secured, and in late March, Operations Plunder and Varsity were launched in northern Germany by Field Marshal Montgomery, crossing the river Rhine into western Germany, although Patton had already crossed the rivers Saar and Rhine into the Rhineland-Palatinate. Throughout April into May, the Allies advanced throughout western Germany, with the British reaching Hamburg and the Americans reaching Torgau on the river Elbe by the time of the German surrender on May 9th, 1945, during the Battle of Berlin against the might of the Soviet Red Army.


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