The Party That Failed
An Insider Breaks With Beijing
MANY months ago the ill-fated General von Ravenstein, just captured while leading the German Twenty-first Armored Division, remarked to the young Scottish major acting as his escort: "The Western desert may be the tactician's paradise, but it is the quartermaster's hell!"
The first reaction of new arrivals in the Western desert always was: "What a wonderful place to have a war!" No houses to destroy, no mud, except for a couple of months in the winter, only one natural feature of any importance -- the rock escarpment running parallel to the coast a few miles from the Mediterranean all the way from the now famous Qattara Depression to Sollum and, after a short gap, continuing once again to Tobruk and Derna. It was, at any rate, a wonderful place for the British, and then the Americans, to learn the lesson of supply. In Africa we went to school for Europe.
About two thousand years ago the coastal area of the Western desert was a grape-growing district with settlements of cultivators. It is now a brown expanse of inhospitable rock and sand, inhabited only by a few verminous Bedouin tribes, a rare gazelle and the usual collection of candidates for the Reptile House. There is no water, except that provided by the ingenuity of man.
When the war began a good metalled road ran below the rock escarpment from Alexandria to Sollum, the Egyptian frontier port. Close by it, the Egyptian State Railway stretched in peacetime as far as the Western desert's only port (apart from tiny Sollum) -- Mersa Matruh. British and New Zealand military engineers, helped by labor companies from Mauritius, India and other parts of the British Commonwealth, extended the railway line first to the Italian frontier post of Fort Capuzzo, then to Belhamed and finally as far as the Cirenaican port of Tobruk. Similarly, the road was linked with the Italian "Littoriana" coastal road and eventually provided uninterrupted communication from Alexandria to Tunis and beyond, via Mersa Matruh, Sidi Barrani, Sollum, Capuzzo, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Tocra, Bengazi, Agheila, Buerat, Homs, Tripoli, Zuara, Mareth, Gabes, Sfax and Sousse. Each town, with the exception of Sidi Barrani, Capuzzo, Agheila and Tocra, was a port of sorts -- that is to say, each had a jetty, although it was sometimes capable of berthing only one fishing smack. Tripoli, Bengazi and Tobruk, as well as Mersa Matruh, have harbors able to take ocean-going ships. What port facilities existed in any of these places before the outbreak of hostilities were almost entirely destroyed by the Allied and enemy air forces in the course of the fighting and by heart-breakingly thorough demolitions by both sides during the many retreats.
A few words about the military setting for the great events of October 1942. On July 2, Britain's Eighth Army, driven and harried by Rommel's Armored Army of Africa, had reached El Alamein. There it had dug its heels into the sandy ridges which divide the Qattara Depression from the smiling blue waves of the Mediterranean, and had turned around and fought like wildcats.
Rommel's men, no less tired than their quarry, made a few more efforts to reach the flat Nile Delta. But the distance to their nearest sizeable seaport, Tobruk, was 381 miles. The railroad which linked Belhamed, the nearest station to Tobruk, with their railhead at Daba, was denuded of locomotives and rolling stock and what little there was became a main target for the increasingly active Royal Air Force. To bring supplies up by road was a constant nightmare to the Armored Army's Intendantur, for the Germans and the Italians always suffered from a shortage of motor transport. Even by utilizing the captured vehicles they could not bring up enough supplies to mount an offensive of the intensity necessary to smash a way through Britain's lines. Rommel failed to reach the Nile.
The period between August 1 and October 23, 1942, was taken up with preparations for the British attack. It has been an accepted tradition that for cool, meticulously efficient and farseeing planning, one must go to the German General Staff for examples. Yet even the enemy are today unstinting in their admiration for the perspicacity with which the hitherto much-maligned British Staff Officer set about creating the requisite structure of supply and maintenance (quite apart from actual planning of operations) which enabled the "Desert Rats" to tear open the Axis lines and hungrily to stream across the wastes of sand and rock which stretch west from El Alamein for nearly five hundred miles.
Britain's forces had been planning an offensive when Rommel attacked with such devastating effect at Gazala at the end of May 1942. Consequently there had been a considerable accumulation of stores, fuel and ammunition as far forward as Tobruk and Belhamed. In view of the shipping situation, this material was not easy to replace. From the point of view of "Q" Branch, responsible for supplying fighting troops with the sinews of battle, the problem resolved itself into two parts. The first consisted of bringing up supplies to the front line in sufficient quantities to mount an offensive. Thanks to the shortened lines of communication, this was comparatively easy. The second was the problem which "Q" staffs of armies for many centuries had failed to solve -- the problem of sustaining the momentum of an offensive along the Mediterranean littoral by a constant flow of supplies; and this problem automatically subdivided itself into questions of men, materials and means of transport. The last had to be available in increasing quantities.
All armored and infantry divisions, plus Fighting French and Greek Brigades, were reinforced in the course of August, September and October. The Eighth Army's vehicle allotment rose approximately to a third of the total in the whole Middle East Command. No wonder the eyes of Britain's military authorities twinkled good-humoredly when a misguided representative of a civilian firm of haulage contractors in England announced to the press that he thought the Eighth Army should take advice from his firm because it had experience in handling 500 trucks! A complicating factor in the planning of motor transport was that a large proportion of the divisions available were newly-arrived formations from the United Kingdom, equipped with trucks without four-wheel drive. Bitter experience had shown that such vehicles were not suitable for the desert.
Arrangements for dumps in preparation for the attack involved seven days' supplies plus three days' reserves. Hundreds of thousands of shells for every caliber gun were stacked at widely dispersed and well-camouflaged points. Enormous quantities of gasoline, with at least three days' supplies further back in reserve, were placed in position. The Western Desert Railroad worked as never before, delivering more than 60,000 tons of material to the Eighth Army in the first 20 days of October. To cite a few items: in the period September 1 to October 22 the Royal Army Ordnance Corps issued to the Eighth Army 35,000 pairs of socks, 19,000 pairs of boots, 45,000 blankets, 125,000 water containers, 610 portable cookers.
At 1,000 hours on October 23, 1942, gun position officers of artillery regiments from Qattara to the coast raised megaphones to their lips and shouted "Fire!" A colossal barrage signalled the beginning of the Eighth Army's 1,800 mile advance.
To maintain the rapidity of the advance railroad construction troops were moved up to be in a position to repair the Western Desert Railroad as quickly as possible. Heavy damage to the coastal road was to be expected as a result of the attention that the Royal Air Force would bestow on retreating Axis motorconvoys, and two road-construction parties equipped with excavators were brought up in readiness to repair damage to the road. Water supply, as usual, took high priority in the planning. Quantities of water-piping were moved up and buried, and a special party was equipped to repair the pipe-line at top speed. Other parties got ready with excavating plant to repair aqueducts then in enemy hands and later to build new ones. Well-boring sections were organized, 400 pumps were issued, and, in addition, water barges for the transport of drinking water by sea were accumulated at Alexandria.
While the road and the railroad might suffice for maintaining the Army in the initial stages of its advance, it was foreseen that with the lengthening lines of communication sea-transport would assume an increasingly important rôle. The Royal Navy pooled its resources with those of the Eighth Army's Chief Engineer, the late Brigadier Kisch, to open up ports on the prospective road of advance. The Army provided dock-operating companies and plant, while the Navy, in addition to undertaking to clear underwater obstructions, provided small self-propelled craft with a total capacity of 3,000 tons, plus tugs, dumb lighters and launches. Pontoons to enable light draught vessels to berth alongside big ships were constructed, and a pontoon bridge capable of handling 300 tons daily was prepared at Alexandria. Personnel were detailed for each of the first four ports along the line of advance, while ocean-going ships and smaller ones were loaded with mixed stores and made ready to put to sea as soon as a port had been occupied and made workable.
Nothing was forgotten. In the past it had been found extremely difficult to supply detachments cut off from the main force by the enemy. The obvious answer was supply by air and arrangements were made accordingly. One of the minor feats was the supply of the Army's daily rations by the Royal Army Service Corps at a time when the variety and quality of vegetables was at its worst; fresh vegetables were distributed on a wider basis than in any of the previous campaigns.
Britain's forces knew that fighting Rommel's hand-picked Afrika Korps would be no pleasure trip. To meet anticipated casualties, clearing stations with a total of 1,625 beds were established forward. More serious cases were to be evacuated to hospitals in the Delta. In the desert it is extremely important for wounds and burns to be treated as soon as possible, and, to obviate the necessity of long and painful journeys over sand ruts before wounded could receive adequate attention, eight field surgical units were formed and sent forward. To facilitate blood-transfusions a "blood-bank" in the form of a refrigerator truck containing 3,000 bottles of Group 0/4 blood was attached to advanced units.
A feature of the coöperation between the Allies was the arrival of 21 Diesel locomotives from the United States for the Western Desert Railroad. Their superiority to the ordinary steam locomotive for desert use is considerable. The Diesel can be filled with 35 gallons of water in ten minutes and runs on it for 24 hours. The steam locomotive requires 250 gallons of the precious water
in the boiler and 4,000 gallons in the tender and gobbles the water up at the rate of 40 to 50 gallons per hour. Moreover, the Diesel needs very little maintenance, although when it does break down it requires expert attention. An American maintenance company which was sent out for that purpose did not arrive with the machines themselves and they had to be operated by British personnel in the initial period; but the American maintenance men performed yeoman service on the Western Desert Railroad later. How sturdy that service was is suggested by the fact that between October 23 and November 24 the railroad delivered 132,000 tons and that in the first four months of the advance, 37,780 items of heavy equipment were "doctored" in desert workshops.
On November 13, 21 days after the opening of the offensive, Britain's armored cars entered battle-scarred Tobruk. The 381 miles of railway track between El Alamein and Tobruk were a shambles, as a result of enemy demolition and British gunfire and air-bombing. In addition, heavy rain caused serious flooding, and from Daba westward an enormous number of German "Teller" (plate) mines had been placed under the track. Further worry came from the necessity of providing sufficient water to keep locomotives working -- it was a blessing to have the American Diesel machines at this time -- and establishing signals communication along the length of the track. Yet 17 days after advanced units entered Tobruk (or what was left of it), a railhead was opened to serve the port. The Royal Navy had pledged to clear the harbor of mines within seven days of occupation by the Army, but, as at Mersa Matruh, they beat the Army by doing their job before the parties from Docks Operating Companies had arrived. Mersa Matruh port was opened on November 11 and within ten days 4,376 tons had been unloaded; even before the port was workable cargoes from two ships and two self-propelled barges had been discharged at neighboring beaches.
The water problem was no less difficult than anticipated. The water pipe running parallel to the railroad was damaged in 400 places, and the floods mentioned above prevented breaks from being located quickly. Twenty-five miles of piping had been removed by the enemy in the course of their occupation, and relaid elsewhere. Reservoirs were damaged. Nevertheless, except for one day, shortage of water never limited rail traffic. By November 13, wells had been drilled and were working at Daba, Fuka, Mersa Matruh and Sidi Barrani, and the following day saw aqueducts in operation at Bagush and Mersa Matruh. Six days later aqueducts were gushing at Buqbuq, Bardia and Tobruk.
The transport of wounded by air was the heaviest single item undertaken by the Royal Air Force and the British Overseas Airways Corporation transport aircraft. By November 13 a total of 11,066 cases of sick and wounded were evacuated by rail, 5,883 by road and 770 by air. It had been decided as a matter of principle that air transport could never supplant the normal methods of feeding troops in the field and could act only as an auxiliary to them.
The taking of Tobruk raised acutely the problem of the administration of lines of communication. It was too much to expect Eighth Army Headquarters to fight the Axis and at the same time to ensure that its rear was properly tidied up in a "smart and soldier-like manner." Generals Montgomery and Alexander had agreed in conference that G.H.Q. in Cairo should assume responsibility for the latter, and therefore, as the Army moved forward, Cairo provided commanders of Area and Sub-Area Headquarters with staffs, who were responsible for administering the lines of communication and facilitating in every way the dispatch of stores and supplies. In addition, they did extremely good work in clearing up the battlefields and collecting salvage.
Up to November 13, 2,400 new vehicles had been delivered to the Eighth Army; and, so far, lack of transport had not interfered with supply and the conduct of operations. But the problem of repairing and maintaining roads was becoming acute, although road construction companies were working flat out. As troops moved forward, the roads between Tobruk and Derna and the roads south of Bengazi, which had suffered severely from the rains, increased in importance. The advance had proceeded more rapidly than had been anticipated. To meet this situation all road maintenance east of Tobruk was stopped and the personnel and equipment available were rushed up to clear the roads serving the Army from the newly-opened port of Tobruk, and later, of Bengazi. Similarly, at an early stage of the move beyond Tobruk, the ports of Mersa Matruh and Bardia were closed down and the docks parties moved up to help at Tobruk and Bengazi. The latter town was occupied on November 20. Within six days, in spite of extensive enemy demolitions, which included gaps in the outer mole and craters in most of the remaining quays, two ships and three self-propelled barges were discharging their cargoes. High priority was given to vast quantities of cement and the breach in the outer mole was partially repaired, although the work had to be done in very rough weather. Day and night shifts of soldiers and seamen toiled in icy winds and rain, constantly in danger of being washed away by the huge seas which broke over the breach in the mole. While these efforts were gradually meeting with success the flow of supplies was naturally limited and a brake was put on the speed of the Eighth Army's advance.
The enemy had dug himself in at Agheila. At last the Army Commander deemed that supplies were reaching his men in sufficient quantities to allow for the assault to begin. On December 15 Rommel's men were driven out of Agheila and began their headlong retreat to Buerat. And on that day the tired but enthusiastic "Desert Rats" completed a further feat -- a 478-mile advance from Tobruk in 32 days, in spite of highly complex supply difficulties.
In this period, November 10 to December 17, the solution of supply problems was based on the maximum use of the railroad up to Tobruk, pending the full working of Bengazi port. Although the railroad transported the major amount of war material, 102,131 tons, no small quantity came by sea.
One service sent supply ships from Alexandria to Bengazi direct. Another was available to pick up material brought by rail as far as Tobruk and carry it by sea to Bengazi, where it was off-loaded onto trucks which carried it to the troops by road. In this manner Tobruk (including a comparatively minor sharing of work by Bardia and Derna) handled 32,519 tons between November 10 and December 17, while Bengazi dealt with 33,545 tons -- a total of 66,064.
The weight of material carried by air dropped from November 10 to December 17, owing to the distances involved and in conformity with the principle that air transport can aid normal means of supply only in times of difficulty. As before, sick and wounded constituted the greatest single item carried by air, 1,353 men being thus evacuated. Motor ambulance convoys dealt with an additional 3,796 cases while hospital trains and hospital ships transported 3,185 and 1,455 cases respectively.
At this juncture a South African and an Australian Division which had been withdrawn earlier arrived in the Delta and it was discovered that of the 3,000 vehicles originally issued to the South African Division only 20 were fit for immediate reissue. The vehicles of the Australian Division were in a similar condition. Such is the wear and tear of desert warfare; but the R.E.M.E., a newly-created Corps of electrical and mechanical engineers, rolled up their sleeves and, in spite of a heartbreaking shortage of trained personnel, sent these vehicles back "as good as new."
Although the enemy's retreat from Agheila before "Monty's tin-cans" was headlong, and although the Royal Air Force gave him no respite, Rommel turned round at Buerat and fought. On December 29, when advanced British units reached Buerat, another halt had to be called to gather enough kit and supplies to strike.
There was an air of suppressed expectation in the desert. Tripoli, apple of Mussolini's imperial eye, lay at last within striking distance. Word was sent out to the "supply merchants" to redouble their efforts to cope with the increased road-haul from Bengazi and to raise the capacity of the port. Red-eyed drivers roared along the deserted and storm-swept desolation of the "Littoriana." Over the horizon, out at sea, lookouts swept the wave-tops for sinister periscopes of U-boats, and the skies for the rakish shapes of Stukas. Far back, the railroad was doing well. Between December 18 and January 16, 62,875 tons were unloaded at Tobruk railhead.
The bad weather continued. The climax came on January 4. In the harbor lay a number of ships, their derricks unceasingly discharging tanks, guns, cases
of food, ammunition and spare parts into fussy lighters. Then it broke -- one of the worst storms recorded in that part of the world. It seemed as if the elements had made up their minds to cheat the Desert Army of their prize. Huge seas crashed hungrily against the partially repaired breach in Bengazi's outer mole. The concrete, barely set, seemed to groan with agony. On the Spanish Mole a small group of anxious officers watched. The outer mole gave way under the strain and, roaring with triumph, the sea poured through the breach in mountainous waves. The vessels in the harbor seemed to bow their heads to meet the shock. Three of them were driven on the shore and wrecked, and several others damaged. Harbor installations, on which the Docks Operating Company had been toiling unceasingly, suffered in proportion. Lighter berths, vital in the process of transferring cargoes from ships to crane-denuded quays, lay smashed to matchwood.
On January 3, 2,500 tons had been discharged at Bengazi. On the next day, the storm prevented anything at all from being landed. The results of the storm became even clearer when on January 5 the figure was only 350 tons, in spite of every effort by both the naval and the military port authorities. Gangs of men toiled to make good the damage done by the storm. Two further gale warnings did not help and between January 4 and 31 the average daily discharge dropped to 1,530 tons. "Never say die" has helped Britain out of more serious situations than this in the past, and efforts continued unabated. In spite of its misfortunes Bengazi played a vital part in the preparation for the next stage of the offensive. Between December 18 and 27, 25,314 tons had been discharged. In the next ten days a further 13,348 tons were landed and between January 7 and 16, yet another 12,005 tons were safely piled up on the quays. In all, 54,067 tons of supplies reached Bengazi by sea between December 18 and January 16, including 2,600 tons unloaded from small craft on nearby beaches.
Now the supply staffs of the Eighth Army and of G.H.Q. had to start thinking how they were going to use the harbor of Tripoli. From the point of view of supply and administration the advance in the desert was taking on an entirely new shape. What had originally been an onrush of men and vehicles with ever-lengthening lines of communication across land now began to assume the character of an overseas expedition. Base installations began to be built around sea-heads: the planners envisaged Tripoli as a prospective base port.
As soon as the Desert Army had pushed the enemy out of the Buerat position, starting him on the retreat which took him to the Tunisian frontier, he began demolitions in Tripoli harbor. A certain amount was known about the installations there, thanks to the painstaking collection of data from all sources, and it was also known that the German Command had ordered the sinking of blockships at the harbor entrance. The harbor suffered extensive damage, from both the enemy and the R.A.F., and for some time Bengazi, badly crippled though it was by the storms of January 4, and February 12 and 15, was the main port. Between January 17 and February 15, a total of 47,249 tons was unloaded there. But the Eighth Army entered Tripoli on January 23, and Tripoli soon began to pick up. Three days after its capture tank-carrying craft began to unload at the patched-up wharves, and 23 days later the material landed had totalled 30,041 tons.
Almost forgotten in this stage by the troops, the once familiar feature of the landscape before them, the Western Desert Railroad, was slogging on, maintaining the high standard it had set at the beginning. Between January 17 and February 15 it carried 61,799 tons. Part of this tonnage would then proceed by road, but the greater proportion would be loaded onto ships at Tobruk harbor and carried either direct to Tripoli, but more often to Bengazi, whence motor transport columns carried it onward. In this period supplies carried by motor road between Bengazi and Tripoli came to about 800 tons -- no small amount when one realizes that 674 miles separate the two towns and that for the material to reach the troops then at the Tunisian frontier it had to travel another 100 miles. Perhaps a better understanding of the distances involved is obtained from the fact that it took 20 days to convoy vehicles from Delta base installations to Bengazi and another 15 from Bengazi to Tripoli. The months of January and February saw 3,340 new trucks reach the Eighth Army; and a steady stream of reinforcements went forward.
In March and April the "Q" staff met a new problem -- that of feeding the population of Tripolitania. The enemy had encouraged looting and hoarding of civilian stocks prior to retiring. Had it not been that the British had taken steps in advance to meet the emergency, the civilian population would have starved. To have allowed the civilian population to starve would have been quite in accordance with enemy methods, as shown in Greece, Jugoslavia, Poland and the U.S.S.R., but in Tripolitania civilians were fed.
Now the Eighth Army girded its loins and took on a job as hard as any that had come its way since the original break-through at El Alamein: the assault on the Mareth Line, followed by the capture of Gabes, Sfax and Sousse. Contact having been established with the First Army and the Americans, the chain of command underwent a drastic change with the establishment of 18 Army Group Headquarters to direct and coördinate the operations by the Allied Forces which culminated so triumphantly on May 14.
Looking back on the whole effort, from the point of view of supply, perhaps the most striking impression is the care with which Britain chose the men responsible for ensuring the flow of materials. New men brought new methods, new imagination, new energy. There lay the key to the saga of planning which began even before Rommel had driven the Eighth Army back to El Alamein.
Analyzing the lessons of the campaign from the point of view of administration and supply, Major General Robertson, the Eighth Army's Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster-General, remarked with a mixture of earnestness and humor: "The Army Commander clearly is always looking ahead. He wants to know what he can do within the limits of administrative possibilities. The Deputy Adjutant and Quartermaster-General must know sufficient of his administrative situation to be able to give an immediate answer in general terms. It is most important that this administrative answer should be reasonably accurate. On it the general will frame his plan in more detail and give his ideas on the date and weight of the attack. Having said what he is going to do, a commander must not cheat. He must not 'beat the pistol' nor 'wangle up' additional troops nor sneak his troops further forward than he said he would. A good administrative officer does not over-issue and cannot be cheated without unfortunate consequences. Some generals have no morals. Fortunately General Montgomery does not cheat -- whether that is due to his innate honesty or the fact that I watch him like a cat does not matter -- and moreover, he does not let other people cheat."
It has been noted earlier that the campaign gradually came to take on the character of an overseas expedition, with an ever-increasing proportion of supplies coming up by ship. The experience gained in the course of the campaign in opening up seaheads rapidly, of making good the damage done by enemy demolition and bombing, and in perfecting coöperation among the Army, the Navy and the Allied Air Force has been vital. The "supply merchants" of the Middle East did their apprenticeship for the invasion of Europe along the coast of Africa.