Desert Warfare

Jo Woolley and David Smurthwaite of the National Army Museum look at Desert Warfare in the Second World War and more widely.

The period saw the transition of British Army uniform from red wool serge coats to khaki cotton, and gaiters were replaced by puttees. Pioneered on the North West Frontier of India, both had important advantages in desert conditions: puttees prevented sand from working into a soldier's boots, and the wearing of khaki, a dust-coloured uniform, ensured that troops were less prominent. Supply lines also developed – from the riverboat to the railway. In the re-conquest of the Sudan in 1898 another new development allowed  Kitchener's army to take advantage of desert visibility: the Lee-Metford fired cordite .303 rounds at a range of 2,800 yards, and at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 the British opened fire on the advancing Dervish army at a distance of over a mile. Such advanced weaponry was unmatched by the enemy force, and the British marched victoriously back into Khartoum.

British strategic interest in the area continued during the First World War and many of the Army's Kitchener volunteers began their service in 1915 by defending the Suez Canal.  In the inter-war period desert exploratory expeditions were mounted by the Army, and much of the equipment that accompanied British forces to Africa in 1940 – sand channels for moving on soft ground, sun compasses, and water condensing systems – was the result of pre-War technology.

Desert warfare has been described as a tactician’s paradise and a quarter­master’s nightmare, as was evident in North Africa in 1940-43. The desert was a relatively healthy place for a large number of soldiers to live; the nights were long and cool, and sleep was plentiful between battles. Visibility was excellent, and there were few obstacles to impede advance. Importantly, the desert is almost totally devoid of population. In such a sterile, though harsh, battlefield the professional skills of the soldier could be applied tactically for purely military purposes, without the distraction of civilian lives becoming embroiled in the fighting.

Set against these benefits was the sheer size of the terrain. In North Africa, as in other desert campaigns, the besetting difficulty was that of supply. For much of this war, a strategic ‘see-saw’ effect operated – a side defeated in battle recovered its strength far more quickly than the victor. The loser would retire towards his bases, usually growing steadily stronger as he absorbed his supply depots and reinforcements. In contrast, the further the victor advanced, the more he outstripped his supply lines. As his forces grew weaker, the advance would grind to a halt. By now the previously defeated side had recovered sufficiently to attack, and a fresh large-scale engagement would often reverse the outcome of the last and lead to the rapid movement of the front line in the opposite direction.

Aggravating the problem of supply was the necessity of dividing limited manpower and supplies throughout other fronts in other theatres of the War. This division of strategic priorities was felt on both sides. North Africa was of great importance to Britain; she had many strategic interests there and the Suez Canal was the most important artery of the Empire. Yet early in 1941 General O’Connor was robbed of the chance of destroying the opposing Italian Army by the need to send an expeditionary force to Greece. In the same year  Auchinleck’s Crusader offensive was weakened by the re-routing of troops originally destined for Egypt to the Far East. Similarly, with the start of the German invasion of Russia in June 1941,  Rommel’s increasingly desperate appeals for fuel, munitions, equipment and reinforcements were often ignored by the German High Command.

Ultimately, the victor would be the side that received the best supplies in the shortest time. Air strength was vital for this and Britain moved fast to reinforce the Royal Air Force in North Africa – during the three years of the campaign over 5,000 aircraft were transported via circuitous routes to Cairo. From Malta RAF bombers attacked ships carrying supplies from Italy destined for the Axis forces in Africa, and the sabotage of Rommel’s supplies was also carried out by British special forces, highly trained troops who performed raids deep behind the enemy lines. The most famous of these were the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) and the Special Air Service (SAS) raised in 1940 and 1941 respectively. Their ability to strike unexpectedly across thousands of miles of desert using trucks and jeeps, meant that enemy troops could never fully relax and vital manpower had to be kept out of the battle to guard rear areas.

Another development necessitated by desert warfare was mine-sweeping armoured vehicles. The explosive mine – both anti-tank and anti-personnel – played a great part in the Desert Campaign, and it was a significant defensive and delaying weapon for the Axis forces in particular. It was estimated that the Axis forces alone laid some 450,000 mines during operations around El Alamein.

The weeks before El Alamein saw the  Eighth Army finally gain a significant matériel advantage over the enemy. When Montgomery was appointed Commander of the Eighth Army in August 1942 he immediately set about the task of building up reinforcement levels of aircraft, artillery and tanks, as well as ammunition, fuel and other essentials. Owing largely to this and the change in command, morale was high when the battle opened.

From October 9th, 1942, the RAF began an air offensive on Axis bases. The air campaign bombed enemy airfields and supported the ground offensive, while fighter-bombers carried out ‘tank-busting’ work. On the ground, Rommel’s position was impossible to outflank, so, by moonlight on October 23rd, the battle of El Alamein began with Operation Lightfoot, a stealth-drive by the Royal Engineers to clear two corridors through the Axis minefields, to allow British armoured forces to pass through into open country.

Lightfoot was only partially successful; the move had been anticipated by the enemy and many tanks emerging from the minefields were met with fire from dug-in German anti-tank guns. Montgomery responded by ordering a massive infantry attack, Supercharge, to push his armour into open ground. On the night of November 1st this plan of attack succeeded. By nightfall on November 2nd, 30,000 Axis troops were captured and Rommel had given the order to retreat.
The final advance of the Eighth Army from Egypt to Tunisia in pursuit of a retreating enemy covered some 1,500 miles, and its success was due to the effective management of supplies over such a huge distance. Supply depots in the field were established behind the advancing formations, and the capture and retention of workable ports such as Tobruk  were essential. But, ultimately, the British and Commonwealth forces were victorious thanks to Churchill’s appreciation of the strategic significance of the Desert War and his commitment to ensuring his commanders in Egypt received as much aid as was available.

The British victory in Africa was vital, not only in providing a platform from which the first invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, through Italy, could be managed, but in restoring morale to a public and an army disheartened by Dunkirk, the Blitz, and defeats in Norway, Greece and the Far East. Equally importantly, it provided a long-term front on which British and Commonwealth forces could gain operational experience, especially in air-to-ground co-operation, and develop military training before the invasion of Europe, even if the environment there was dramatically different.

To an extent, the difficulties facing the forces striving for control of the North African desert in 1940–43 were shared. The common struggle against the hardships of the desert created a bond of camaraderie and chivalry between enemies, and it was a common concern on the battlefield to see that opposing troops did not suffer, either through lack of water or the absence of medical aid. In addition, the desert campaign claimed relatively few civilian lives; for both reasons it came to be known as Krieg Ohne Hass: ‘war without hate’.