Cairo, Egypt August 5, 1942

On this date in 1942 British Prime Minister Winston Chur­chill and Gen. Sir Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff, flew into Cairo. They arrived in the Egyp­tian capi­tal 44 days after the British garri­son at Tobruk in East­ern Libya (Cyrenaica) had fallen to German Gen. (soon Field Marshal) Erwin Rommel of Panzer­armee Afrika, and just under a month after the British Parlia­ment had taken up a cen­sure motion against Chur­chill over his handling of the war against the Axis powers led by Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini.

Churchill and Brooke’s mission was to iden­tify and punish a scape­goat for recent British mili­tary reverses and short­comings in North­east Africa. British Eighth Army com­mander Gen. Claude Auchin­leck and his deputy chief of staff were sacked and Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Mont­gomery, who had served under Auchin­leck, placed in com­mand. Brooke based his choice of 54‑year-old Mont­gom­ery on his quali­ties as a supremely pro­fes­sional soldier and a hard trainer of men—the legen­dary “Desert Rats,” a nick­name the men of the Eighth Army in the West­ern Desert Cam­paign adopted. After 12 days of intense fighting in late Octo­ber and early Novem­ber 1942, the Second Battle of El Ala­mein proved a deci­sive vic­tory for the Eighth Army, allowing “Monty” to turn tables on Rommel and recap­ture Tobruk in Novem­ber and take Tri­poli in North­western Libya in January 1943. A squeeze play by Monty in the south and Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower in the west—Torch landings during the second week of Novem­ber 1942 in North­west Africa had put Eisen­hower and his men there—forced Rom­mel’s unlucky replace­ment, 53‑year-old Col. Gen. Hans-Juergen von Arnim, a by-the-textbook field officer standing in for the ailing Field Marshal on home leave, to surrender Axis armies in Tunisia in mid-May 1943.

Losing North Africa was a lethal blow to Mus­so­lini, whose Fascist sup­porters in Rome dumped him in late July 1943. Gen. Pietro Badoglio’s new Italian govern­ment promptly placed the deposed strong­man under house arrest. The capture of eight Axis divi­sions (250,000 men and equip­ment) had left Sicily and the Ital­ian main­land with­out ade­quate defenses to pre­vent the Allies from crossing the Medi­ter­ra­nean Sea and opening a second front on the Euro­pean conti­nent. The intent of Opera­tion Husky, whose makeup con­sisted of Mont­gomery’s Eighth Army and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s U.S. Seventh Army, was to reduce pres­sure on the Soviets. Since June 1941 the Red Army single-handedly man­ned the Euro­pean (Eastern) Front, bested Axis armies in the bloodiest cam­paign of the war at Stalin­grad (August 1942 to February 1943), but had not been able to relieve the killer Siege of Leningrad (September 1941 to January 1944).

Dual in the North African Desert: Rommel vs. Montgomery, 1942

Erwin Rommel in Libya, 1942Bernard Law Montgomery during Second Battle of El Alamein, November 1942

Left: Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Commander of the German forces in North Africa, with his aides during the desert cam­paign, spring 1942. Since June 1941 Axis and British forces had been trading blows across unforgiving reaches of the Libyan desert in a con­test to gain con­trol of the Eastern Medi­ter­ra­nean. Nick­named “the Desert Fox” (Wuesten­fuchs), Rommel and his Ital­ian allies seemed to be gaining the upper hand with the British loss of Tobruk for­tress and deep-water harbor in June 1942, which put the Germans one step closer to shutting down Britain’s naval base at Alexan­dria; gaining con­trol of the Suez Canal, the British life­line to the British-held Indian sub­continent; and securing or destroying the Middle East’s valuable oil fields.

Right: Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery watches British Eighth Army tanks maneu­vering during the Second Battle of El Ala­mein, Octo­ber 23 to Novem­ber 11, 1942. The British Eighth Army broke the enemy’s lines and British war­planes swept the enemy from the sky. By Novem­ber 4 Rommel’s army was reeling back­wards across the Libyan desert to the safety of Italian-held Tunisia over one thou­sand miles to the west. Chur­chill was thrilled by Mont­gomery’s sound defeat of Rommel, famously saying, “It may almost be said, ‘Before Ala­mein we never had a victory. After Ala­mein we never had a defeat’.” Inter­estingly, Mont­gomery’s “British” army was com­prised of men and women from the British Common­wealth (Indian sub­con­ti­nent, Southern Africa, Aus­tra­lia, and New Zealand), France, Greece, as well as Great Britain.

Winston Churchill with his military advisers, Cairo, August 5, 1942Winston Churchill at El Alamein front, August 1942

Left: Winston Churchill with members of his Imperial General Staff, British Embassy, Cairo, August 5, 1942. Directly behind him is Gen. Sir Alan Brooke and to Brooke’s right is Air Officer Arthur Tedder, RAF Middle East Com­mander who in 1944–1945 would serve as Deputy Supreme Com­mander at Supreme Head­quarters Allied Expe­di­tionary Force (SHAEF) beneath Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower. Chur­chill, Brooke, and mem­bers of the Imperial General Staff were fresh from a late-June meeting with Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt and his Chiefs of Staff. Taking part in the dis­cus­sions was Eisen­hower. Together the Allied leaders plotted the Anglo-Amer­ican inva­sion of North­west Africa set for Novem­ber (Opera­tion Torch), which in six months cleared Axis forces from the whole of North Africa and opened the door for the invasions of Sicily (Opera­tion Husky) and the Italian mainland (Operation Avalanche).

Right: In coat and pith helmet Churchill greets Lt. Gen. William Ramsden during a visit to the El Alamein front, August 7, 1942. Rommel’s Afrika Korps was only a few miles away. Rams­den’s XXX Corps, con­sisting prin­cipally of Aus­tra­lians, South Afri­cans, and Indians, held the north­ern line at El Alamein, a line that Rommel’s men could not break.

BBC Presentation: Rommel’s Afrika Korps vs. Montgomery’s Eighth Army, North Africa 1942

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