Until Italy joined the war on 10 June 1940, the Second World War was mainly a European affair. The German war machine overran Western Europe within the time span of a few months and as the main focus of Adolf Hitler, the German dictator, was the conquest of the Soviet Union. Africa would have played virtually no role in this, had it not been for the dreams of conquest by the Italian leader, Benito Mussolini. He wanted to exploit the precarious position of Britain and France in Europe to expand the Italian colonial empire in Africa. Thus, on 10 June 1940, Italy declared war on Britain and France.
During October of the same year, Mussolini indicated that he wanted to incorporate British colonial territory into the Italian Empire. He was especially interested in the Sudan and Egypt. At that stage it looked like an easy venture as Britain was engaged in a life-and-death struggle in order to prevent a German invasion of the United Kingdom. The British forces in the Middle East and North Africa were small and the Arab population was dissatisfied with their presence in their territories.
By 1940, British control of this region included an area from the Egyptian/Libyan border to the Persian Gulf that for its geographic position and abundance of crude oil was of cardinal importance to the British war effort.
British grand strategy entailed playing for time until the United States of America joined the war on the Allied side. Thus, a force could be built up to return to the European continent in force and defeat the Germans. In the meantime, the priority would have to be the safeguarding of the Middle East and the conquest of Italian territory in North Africa. Consequently, the British government regarded the Middle East and North Africa, next to the integrity of the United Kingdom itself, as the first priority in imperial defence.
However, by 10 June 1940 the British were in a precarious situation. Only 50 000 troops were available for the whole Middle East region. In contrast, the Italian forces in Libya counted 500 000 and in East Africa 200 000, while only 9 000 British troops were deployed in the Sudan and Kenya respectively. British reinforcements were on their way, but because of the presence of the Italian air force and navy in the Mediterranean, most of these had to be transported via the Cape sea route. Therefore, it would take some time before a substantial build up of forces could take place to reinforce the British position in the Middle East.
Both sides were faced with long lines of communication from their homelands to the theatre of operations, which inhibited their ability to sustain their forces, in contrast with Europe where commanders could get fuel from civilian filling stations and receive food from the population. In North Africa, sustainment was virtually completely dependent on outside sources. The Axis forces could use Tripoli, Benghazi and Tobruk, but the British were in control of the best harbour on the North African coastline, Alexandria. Another important factor was that Axis convoys from Italy were very vulnerable due to the attacks of British naval and air forces from Malta, a small island between Sicily and North Africa. This was achieved with relatively small forces, as British crypto-analysts exploited the carelessness of Italian Navy radio operators by breaking their radio codes. This enabled them to know exactly when logistic ships due for North Africa left the Italian harbours.
In spite of their quantitative advantage, the Italian forces in North Africa, under command of Marshall R. Graziani, were inactive until September 1940. The small British forces in Egypt had conducted periodic raids until this time, and on 13 September the Italians half-heartedly invaded Egypt. After advancing more or less 80 kilometres, they erected a series of fortifications near Sidi Barrani. The British forces conducted an orderly withdrawal and after Italian inactivity for two months, the arrival of reinforcements placed the British forces in a good position for a counter-offensive. From the start the British counter-offensive experienced little resistance from the Italians who were driven 800 kilometres westward. Reaching El Agheila on 9 February 1941, the British conquest of the whole of Italian North Africa seemed possible.
In East Africa, the Italians were also driven back on different fronts. On 19 January 1941, British forces invaded Ethiopia from the Sudan and on 10 February from Kenya. By April 1941, the Italian forces in East Africa were virtually defeated. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that the war in Africa would be over within weeks.
However, after the German invasion of Greece, Churchill ordered Lord Wavell, the British commander in the Middle East, to halt operations in North Africa and send some of his forces to Greece. In doing so the British forfeited an immediate opportunity to win the war in North Africa. The British forces in Greece had virtually no influence on the outcome of the Axis victory there and it gave the latter the opportunity to recuperate and send another task force to North Africa. This time around it would include a German contingent, lengthening the war in Africa until 1943.
German entry into North Africa
Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel, the newly appointed commander of the German contingent for North Africa, arrived in Tripoli ahead of his forces on 12 February 1941. Two days later a reconnaissance battalion and an anti-tank unit arrived. Rommel immediately despatched them to El Agheila to stem a possible British advance. On 11 March, the first German tank regiment and a Luftwaffe contingent arrived in Tripoli. Rommel's disposition did not allow him to sit and wait to see what the enemy would do first. Contrary to instructions he took the initiative and launched an offensive. This took the British by surprise and the pendulum swung back. By 11 April, the Axis forces had reached the Libyan/Egyptian border, although they could not capture the harbour town of Tobruk. For the rest of the year, British strategy in North Africa was aimed at driving Rommel's forces back westward and to relieve Tobruk, at this stage besieged by the Axis forces. Rommel tried to thwart this and capture the town. It was clear that the British faced a tough adversary and that the war in North Africa would not be over quickly.
A closer look at the events reveals that the British were sufficiently reinforced to start operation "Brevity" in May 1941, the first attempt to drive the Axis forces westward and relieve Tobruk. Although Rommel's forces were initially driven back, he launched a surprise counter-attack on 27 May 1941 and occupied the strategic Halfaya pass. This placed the Axis forces in a good position to counter the next British operation, called "Battleaxe" (15-18 June). Both British efforts were in vain, in spite of their numerical strength. During the last operation, for example, they had a numerical advantage of 4:1 in tanks alone.
Rommel's success strenghened Churchill's resolve even more to defeat the Axis forces in North Africa. Large numbers of reinforcements were sent to Egypt, in spite of strong indications that the Commonwealth forces in the Far East were too weak to cope with a possible war against Japan. Churchill went even further; Wavell was recalled and Lieutenant General C.J.E. Auchinleck was appointed in his place. The name of the force in Egypt, known until then as the Western Desert Force, was changed to the 8th Army, with command vested in Lieutenant General A. Cunningham.
Operation "Crusader" started on 18 November 1941. Both sides suffered heavy losses in battles raging across the desert. The Axis forces lost 38 000 men and 300 tanks, while the British lost 18 000 men and 278 tanks. By the beginning of December, Rommel realised that his manpower and logistic situation had become untenable and he withdrew to Gazala. Realising that they could be enveloped from the south at this position, the Axis forces started with a general withdrawal on the night of 16/17 December and by the end of the month they were back at El Agheila.
On 7 December 1941, Japanese forces attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbour and two days later Hitler declared war on America. In this way an alliance was established between the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States of America whose first priority was to win the war in Europe.
America's entry into the war did not immediately influence the British position in North Africa. The American armed forces were ill prepared for war and it would take a few months for their industries to convert to full-scale war production. Also, the British and American chiefs of military staff decided that Germany could still achieve victory over the Soviets, in spite of setbacks near Moscow. Consequently, aid to the Soviet Union was seen as the first priority. The British were therefore more or less dependent on their own resources for the war in North Africa.
The success of operation "Crusader" inflated British hopes. However, upon reaching El Agheila in January 1942, they encountered the same problem that Rommel's forces had on the Libyan/Egyptian border, namely long lines of communication that bedevilled logistic supply. The British troops were also tired and their equipment needed an overhaul. The extension of the war to the Far East also meant that urgently needed reinforcements had to be diverted to that theatre, depleting the 8th Army. Rommel now possessed shorter lines of communication and the accumulation of forces under his command proceeded rapidly. Within three weeks into the new year he launched a counter-offensive. By May 1942, the British had retreated to Gazala, 400 kilometres east of El Agheila.
South Africa enters the war
The Union of South Africa entered the Second World War on the Allied side on 6 September 1939. As Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, General J.C. Smuts was the driving force behind South Africa's war effort. Smuts was convinced that the Union should play an important role in the war against the Axis forces, but the country and the Union Defence Force were not ready for war. A huge backlog existed in terms of military preparedness, equipment and the manufacturing of war material that would have to be rectified.
During the rest of 1939 and early in 1940, three infantry divisions were created to participate in the war. The 1st Division, under command of Major General G.E. Brink, consisted of the 1st, 2nd and 5th Brigades; the 2nd Division, under command of Major General J.P. de Villiers, consisted of the 3rd, 4th and 6th Brigades. The 3rd Division was under command of Major General H.N.W. Botha and consisted of the reserve brigades for home defence. A major effort was also undertaken to get modern equipment for the Air Force, while the South African Navy was re-established on 15 January 1940, after this organisation had ceased to exist in 1934.
In June 1940, the first South African ground forces arrived in East Africa - the 1st South African Brigade under command of Brigadier D.H. (Dan) Pienaar. In December of the same year, the rest of the division joined them. The division and a contingent of the South African Air Force participated in operations against the Italians until April 1941, when it was decided to send them to North Africa. They arrived in Egypt on 4 May and by the end of the month they were deployed at Mersa Matruh, where they helped with the erection of defensive works and underwent training in desert warfare. The 2nd Division was sent to Egypt in June 1941 and at the end of August of the same year, it was deployed in the vicinity of El Alamein, where they underwent training in desert warfare and helped with the development of defensive works. In the meantime, contingents of the South African Air Force and Navy were also sent to Egypt.
On 17 November, the 1st Division crossed the Libyan border and was instructed to attack at Bir el Gubi. Hereafter the division was supposed to advance via Sidi Rezegh to Tobruk in support of the British 7th Armoured Division. On 20 November contact was made with the Axis forces but the South Africans did not make any progress as heavy artillery fire from both sides made it difficult to advance. In spite of this, the 5th South African Brigade was ordered to advance towards Sidi Rezegh and link up with the garrison in Tobruk. However, after heavy fighting, the brigade was prevented from advancing more or less five kilometres south of Sidi Rezegh, where on 23 November a strong German armoured counterattack overwhelmed and destroyed this brigade as a fighting entity.
The 1st South African Brigade was ordered on 22 November to advance from Bir el Gubi to the 5th South African Brigade deployment area. The advance of the brigade did not progress far before they were beaten back by a determined German armoured counterattack. Consequently this formation had to retreat to Taib el Essem, where it beat off determined Axis attacks on 25 November. On the same day, the brigade had to retreat further, but on 28 November again had to advance to support the New Zealand Division's attack on Sidi Rezegh. After being further involved in heavy fighting between 30 November and 1 December the 1st Brigade again had to retreat south to Taib el Esem. On 20 December, they were sent back to Egypt to recuperate.
In the meantime the 2nd South African Division was detached to the 13th Corps and participated in the fighting at Bardia, Sollum, Cova and Halfaya. The 3rd and 4th Brigades participated in the heavy fighting in the capture of Bardia on 2 January 1942. A total of 7 775 prisoners of war were taken, while the South Africans lost 353 men. On 12 January the 6th South African Brigade captured Sollum and on 17 January, the Axis forces at Halfaya surrendered. During the operations at Bardia, Sollum, Cova and Halfaya, the 2nd South African Division lost 500 men, killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war.
The expansion of the war
Japan's entry into the war in December 1941 and an increase in the activities of German U-boats in the southern oceans brought the war closer to South Africa. As indicated, there was a danger that the Axis forces could threaten traffic along the Cape sea route. Thus, the South African government again had to reconsider the country's role in the war.
In spite of these developments, Smuts was adamant that the Union's largest contribution should still be in the Middle East. He agreed that the series of Japanese victories in Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia and Northern New Guinea was worrying, but he believed that they did not have the resources to fight the American forces in the Pacific and launch large-scale operations against India and Australia, until such time that an Allied counter-offensive could begin. He reiterated his point of view that a victory over Italy and Germany should be the first priority and that the first step in this process was to drive the Axis forces from North Africa. He was also more concerned about the progress of the German offensive in the Soviet Union, which could make the British position in the Middle East untenable. Thus, according to him, the Union had to contribute as much as possible to the effort to defeat Rommel's forces.
Between January and March 1942, the two South African divisions were used to strengthen the defensive lines of the 8th Army in Libya. The 1st Division was deployed at Gazala. The division consisted of the headquarters, the 1st Brigade, 2nd Brigade and the Polish Carpatian Brigade. On 21 March, the 3rd Brigade was transferred from the 2nd to the 1st Division, while the Poles were placed under command of another formation. From 10 March 1942, Dan Pienaar, now a major general, was the officer commanding the division. The 2nd South African Division moved to Tobruk at the end of March. A South African, Major General R.B. Klopper, was placed in command of the garrison of 33 000 men, of which more or less a third were South African soldiers.
Crisis in the desert
American forces would only be available for North Africa by the end of 1942. The implication of this was that British forces had to be deployed on three fronts, namely Egypt, the so-called Northern Front (Syria, Iraq and Persia) and India. At the same time, any Axis success on any of these fronts would weaken the other fronts for the British. Thus, Churchill put pressure on Auchinleck to attack as soon as possible as victory in the Western Desert would ease pressure on the Persian Gulf region and India. It would also neutralise the series of defeats inflicted by Rommel's forces.
Characteristically, Rommel acted first and on the evening of 26 May 1942, his forces attacked the 8th Army at Gazala. The Axis forces enveloped the British position to the south with the aim of destroying the British armour and cutting off the rest of their forces from Egypt. The operation lasted until 13 June. Several British tanks were destroyed and the then commander of the 8th Army, Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie, decided to withdraw his forces to the Libyan/Egyptian frontier. However, Tobruk was not evacuated according to plan as Churchill at the last moment decided that the fall of the fortress would be detrimental to the morale of the British forces in the theatre. On 21 June, Rommel captured Tobruk, together with 33 000 Commonwealth forces and large amounts of supplies.
The British war cabinet expected that the Axis advance would soon continue. Because of a shortage of tanks in North Africa, permission was granted on 21 June that the 8th Army should retard Rommel's advance on the frontier, while preparations were made to defend 200 kilometres to the east at Mersa Matruh.
On 25 June, Auchinleck relieved Ritchie of his command and, in addition to his responsibilities of commander of the British forces in the Middle East, also took personal command of the 8th Army. In the process of change of command, Rommel struck at Mersa Matruh and, when it became clear that the 8th Army's position had become untenable, Auchinleck decided to withdraw further eastward. His main considerations were to keep the 8th Army intact as a fighting entity and the fact that the position at Mersa Matruh was too vulnerable.
Thus, the decision was made to withdraw to El Alamein, where the British forces could rest their flanks on two impenetrable obstacles with only a 60 kilometre gap between them. These obstructions were the Mediterranean to the north and the Qattara Depression to the south. The latter consisted of a series of saltpans and soft sand that would be impassable to motorised and tracked vehicles. A defensive line here would limit Rommel's ability to manoeuvre as he could not envelop the 8th Army to either the south or the north as was done on numerous previous occasions during the desert war. The 8th Army's lines of communication to the Nile Delta would be very short, while those of the Axis forces were stretched to the extreme.
On 28 June 1942 Rommel's tanks move swiftly forward to prevent the 8th Army establishing a defensive line at Fuka. On the morning of 30 June the Axis forces were only 160 kilometres from Alexandria. By that evening they had reached the vicinity of a small, unknown railway siding called El Alamein, 90 kilometres from Cairo. On face value, it seemed a matter of time before the whole of Egypt would be under Axis control. Mussolini had arrived in Tripoli the previous day to prepare for a triumphant entry into Cairo.
In the Soviet Union, the German offensives in the direction of Stalingrad and the Caucasus were making good progress and the possibility existed that these forces could, in conjunction with Rommel, execute a gigantic pincer movement to conquer the Middle East and the Caucasian oil fields. The Second World War had reached a turning point.
Retreat to El Alamein
Rommel's forces' attack on Gazala on 26 May 1942 directly impacted on the South African forces. By 13 June, the possibility existed that the 1st South African Division could be cut off by the victorious Axis forces and on the next day the division received the expected order from 13th Corps Headquarters to evacuate the Gazala line. Without suffering more significant losses, the division reached Mersa Matruh by the end of the month. However, the 2nd Division was less fortunate. The development of operations at Gazala caused the garrison in Tobruk to be cut off by Rommel's forces while the rest of the 8th Army retreated across the Libyan/Egyptian frontier. Contrary to British expectations, Rommel did not besiege the town but launched an attack from the southeast. The defences were breached and the garrison, in spite of heavy fighting, was forced to surrender on 21 June.
The Axis forces' capture of Tobruk was a serious military and psychological setback for the Allied war effort. South Africa's military prestige in particular was tarnished, as the commander was a South African, and 10 722 of the total of 33 000 men had been taken prisoner. Nearly a whole division that formed a large part of the Union's military forces was lost. It now became the task of the 1st Division and the air and naval contingents to restore South Africa's military pride.
However, detachments to the 2nd Division during May had weakened the 1st Division as most of these elements had also been lost at Tobruk. A compiled battalion group of the 1st Division was under command of the 4th South African Brigade at Tobruk. This group consisted of companies of the 1st Royal Durban Light Infantry (ROLl), the 1st Battalion of the Imperial Light Horse (ILH) and the 1st Battalion of the Rand Light Infantry (RLI). This group was known as the Blake group, in deference to its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel E.H.R. Blake. Nearly all of them were lost at Tobruk, forcing their original formation, the 3rd Brigade, to cope without them for the rest of the desert war. Another compiled battalion group of the 1st Division was the so-called Beer group, under command of Lieutenant Colonel J.M. de Beer. This group consisted of companies of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Natal Carbineers (RNC), the 1st Battalion of the Duke of Edinburgh's Own Rifles (DEOR) and the 1/3rd Transvaal Scottish Regiment. Only 240 members of this group escaped from Tobruk. Another loss to the 1st Division was a battery of the 1st South African Field Regiment.
On 21 June, the 1st Division received orders to move from the border to El Alamein. The commander of the 8th Army decided that the division needed rest and should not be deployed at Mersa Matruh. The 1st Brigade started moving on 22 June, while the rest of the division followed the next day. By the evening of 25 June 1942, the main force of the division was deployed in the vicinity of the El Alamein Station.
From 26-28 June, Elements of the division participated in the fighting at Mersa Matruh. The 2nd Anti-tank Regiment was detached from the 2nd Division at Gazala. This unit withdrew with the 1st Division to El Alamein, but on arrival had to move back to Mersa Matruh, where they. were placed under the command of the British 50th Division. On 28 June, the regiment broke out of the encirclement of the Axis forces at Mersa Matruh, but only 324 reached El Alamein and most of their guns were lost. A few members were detached to the 1st Anti-tank Regiment under command of the 1st Division, but most were sent to the Nile Delta to recuperate.
From 25 June, the 5th and 11th Engineer Field Companies were detached to the British 50th Division at Mersa Matruh. Their mission was to lay mines in the western part of the defensive line and to conduct demolition tasks in the area. While busy with this in Mersa Matruh Harbour, the Axis forces attacked and the South African contingent had to break out. Individuals reached El Alamein, some only by 5 July.
At El Alamein, the South African Engineers were also tasked to support other British formations. At Deir el Shein, the IIth Field Company helped troops of the 18th Indian Brigade to lay mines and erect defensive positions and barbed wire. A section of this company was also sent to Bab el Qattara, where they helped the New Zealand infantry prepare defensive positions.
South African armoured cars patrolled west of the El Alamein Line and informed the headquarters of the 8th Army on the movement of the Axis forces. On arrival at El Alamein, the 4th Armoured Car Regiment was transferred to the British 7th Armoured Division. During July 1942, they permanently deployed one squadron with two in reserve. Their area of responsibility was from Bab el Qattara to the Qattara Depression. The 6th Armoured Car Regiment was still under command of the 1st South African Division. Their area of responsibility was the west of the El Alamein Station and north of Bab el Qattara. They did not only report to the South African Division Headquarters, but also directly to 8th Army Headquarters.
Auchinleck's decision to withdraw to El Alamein confirmed a judgment by the British General Staff that this would be the best position from which to defend Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal. The so-called El Alamein Line was the last obstacle between Rommel and the Suez Canal. In contrast to the image of an impenetrable defensive line of fortifications, minefields and barbed wires, portrayed by the BBC and British newspapers, it was not much more than a line on a map.
The defensive position was divided into three corps areas, with the 30th Corps near the coast and the 13th Corps in the south. In the Nile Delta, the 10th Corps was deployed in depth. In the north, near El Alamein, the defensive position prepared in 1941 by the 2nd South African Division, was in a dilapidated state. It was from here to the northern slope of the Ruweisat Ridge that the 1st South African Division would be deployed by the end of June 1942.
The 18th Indian Brigade was deployed on the western part of the ridge at Deir el Shein. They had just arrived from Iraq and had been hastily placed in prepared defensive positions. They had to cover a 12 kilometre gap between the 30th and 13th Corps. The 1st British Armoured Division was earmarked to deploy east of this position but were still on their way from Mersa Matruh.
The British 13th Corps had to defend the area from the southern slope of the Ruweisat Ridge up to the Quattara Depression with weakened infantry, while the 7th British Armoured Division was also on its way from Mersa Matruh. The impassability of the Quattara Depression implied that the opposing forces would have to fight it out in the northern sector near the coast.
On 1 July, Panzerarmee Afrika tried to break through between the South African positions at El Alamein and the Ruweisat Ridge. The 18th Indian Brigade took the full onslaught of Rommel's forces and the South Africans also felt part of this.[v] These attacks continued on 2-3 July, but by 4 July Rommel was forced to deploy his forces defensively. From 4-7 July, the 8th Army conducted limited counter-attacks. The Australian capture of Tel el Makh Khad near the coast threatened Rommel's lines of communication and he responded with a counterattack against the El Alamein positions of the South African forces, but it was beaten back. From 14-26 July, Auchinleck tried to regain the initiative with a series of counterattacks, but could not break through Rommel's defensive positions. By 28 July, he decided to postpone the destruction of Panzerarmee Afrika. The tempo of British reinforcements was so slow that a large scale offensive could only be undertaken by September.
The 1st Battle of El Alamein was the most crucial encounter of the war in North Africa. Had Rommel's forces not been stopped during 1-3 July, the Suez Canal and Alexandria would have been under Axis control. The control of this harbour would have solved all Rommel's logistic problems and made the task of conducting a campaign to capture the Persian Gulf oil fields so much easier. South African losses were relatively light compared to the rest of the 8th Army, but the defensive position near the station was the crucial pivot around which Auchinleck's plan turned.
During August, the command structure of the British forces in the Middle East changed drastically. Auchinleck was replaced by General Harold Alexander as commander of the Commonwealth forces in the Middle East, while B.L. Montgomery took over as commander of the 8th Army.
In contrast to the 1st Battle of El Alamein, the South Africans were to play only a secondary role during this battle. The 1st phase entailed elaborate efforts to breach the extensive minefields which Rommel created during July-October. The 1st South African Division formed the left flank of four infantry divisions of the 8th Army that moved along the lanes created by the engineers, supported by a massive artillery bombardment. During the first night alone, the artillery of the South African Division fired 62 000 rounds of 25-pounder ammunition.
At 22:00 the infantry moved forward. The 1st Natal Mounted Rifles led the 2nd Brigade attack, while the 1st Rand Light Infantry led the 3rd Brigade attack. They attained their first objectives and the 1st and 2nd Field Force Battalion, the 1st Cape Town Highlanders, and the 1st Royal Durban Light Infantry and the 1st Imperial Light Horse continued the attack. The 3rd Brigade reached its objective but the 2nd Brigade suffered heavy casualties and was delayed.
Montgomery initially planned that the infantry should breach the minefields and then British armour would move along the lifted lanes, form up and engage the panzers from terrain of their own choosing. Eventually the British armour only reached the first of two stop lines and did not proceed to the second. Montgomery changed his plan so that the British armour would fix the panzers rather than destroying them. The focus of main effort now became a process of attrition with firepower, with artillery, aircraft and armour to destroy as much as possible of the Axis infantry formations. Afterwards, the panzers could be dealt with.
The attrition battle started on 24 October and carried on to the 31st. On the start of this battle the South African were deployed on the Miteriya ridge, anchoring the positions of the rest of the 8th Army. Even before the British breakthrough, the South Africans were moved again to form part of a strategic reserve. The only active role was played by the artillery which provided supporting fire to neighbouring formations, and the armoured cars, which helped with reconnaissance at different sectors of the 8th Army. South African casualties during the 2nd Battle of El Alamein were 734, killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war.
Armoured cars and engineers participated in the follow-up of Rommel's retreat up to Benghazi, but the rest of the division's role in the desert war had come to an end. The decision was that conversion to an armour division would take place and that it be done in the Union of South Africa itself. Total South African casualties in North Africa were 20 279, of which battle deaths amounted to 2 104, a total of 3 928 were wounded and 14 247 were taken prisoner of war.
The first two squadrons of the South African Air Force arrived in Egypt in April 1941 and between that date and May 1943, with a total of eleven squadrons operating at one time, flew 33 991 sorties and destroyed 342 Axis aircraft. They were involved in most operations, starting with the evacuation of Crete in 1941, the first efforts to relieve Tobruk, the retreat to El Alamein in 1942 and the follow-up of Rommel's retreat, up to the fighting in the Mareth Line and the last air raids in May 1943 against the Axis forces in North Africa. In spite of the threat of German and Japanese submarines to shipping off the South African coastline, the South African Naval Forces also participated in the Mediterranean theatre. They played an important part in providing anti-submarine protection to the exposed sea route between Alexandria and Tobruk. Hence they participated in most of the operations up to the invasion of Sicily in 1943.
In comparison to other countries, the South African contribution to the war in North Africa was small, making the country's role to be part of a larger team. Coincidently, during the most crucial battle of the campaign, the South Africans played a vital role. During the first few days in July 1942, Rommel had a slight chance of disrupting the British defences, destroying their armour still in retreat from Mersa Matruh and occupying Alexandria and Cairo.
After the 1st battle of El Alamein the Axis forces could never again muster enough forces to win the war for possession of the Nile Delta. During the battles of Alam Halfa and the 2nd battle El Alamein, the strength of the Allies and the massive input of American industrial power could clearly be seen. At this stage the Germans were already bogged down in attrition warfare in Stalingrad. Thus, the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf oil fields were safe. Subsequently, after July 1942, the South African contribution reverted back to that of a minor role player, albeit one that contributed substantially taken into account the country's small population and industrial base.
Paper presented to MHS on 13 June 2013
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