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Egypt in World War II

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Map of modern Egypt.
Map of modern Egypt.

In 1882, Egypt was occupied by the United Kingdom, following the Orabi Revolt against the Egyptian khedive. The Kingdom of Egypt was essentially under British control thereafter, even after the formal recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922, with British troops remaining around the Suez Canal zone. Full Egyptian self-rule was not realised until the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

Background

History of British influence

Egypt had long been viewed by the British as strategic link to India. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 badly destabilized the local Mameluke dynasty and the Ottoman Turks invited the British to play a more direct role in Egypt. In 1875, the British government purchased the local Egyptian government's remaining shares of the Suez Canal.

In 1882 Ahmed Urabi led a revolt of Egyptian military officers and commoners against European and Ottoman domination of Egypt. A British expeditionary force crushed this revolt. While this was meant to be a temporary intervention, British troops stayed in Egypt, marking the beginning of British occupation and the inclusion of Egypt within the British Empire, nominally as a kingdom ruled by the Muhammad Ali dynasty. In deference to growing nationalism after World War I, the UK unilaterally declared Egypt independent in 1922. British influence, however, continued to dominate Egypt's political life and fostered fiscal, administrative, military and governmental reforms.

King Farouk of Egypt

Throughout World War II Egypt was ruled by King Farouk I, who had ascended the throne in 1936 and would remain in power until 1952. During the hardships of the war, criticism was leveled at Farouk for his lavish lifestyle. His decision to keep all the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria, during a time when the city was under blackout in fear of an Italian bombing, particularly angered some.[1] The royal Italian servants of Farouk were not interned and there is an unconfirmed story that Farouk had told British Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, "I'll get rid of my Italians, when you get rid of yours." This remark was a reference to the ambassador's Italian wife.[2] Egypt had severed relations with the Axis powers soon after the outbreak of the war but remained technically neutral until near the war's end.

Following a ministerial crisis in February 1942, the British government, through its Ambassador, Sir Miles Lampson, pressed Farouk to have a Wafd or Wafd-coalition government replace Hussein Serry Pasha's government. On the night of 4 February 1942, British troops and tanks surrounded Abdeen Palace in Cairo and Lampson presented Farouk with an ultimatum. Farouk capitulated, and Mostafa El-Nahas formed a government shortly thereafter.[3]

After the war, King Farouk brought large numbers of German former military and intelligence personnel and ranking ex-Nazis to Egypt as "advisors". This move infuriated the British, who had been training and assisting the Egyptian Army since the creation of the Kingdom of Egypt in 1922.[4]

Italian invasion

"The Protectors of Islam enter Cairo". British propaganda newspaper showing captured Italian troops under British guard marching into Cairo, January 1942.
"The Protectors of Islam enter Cairo". British propaganda newspaper showing captured Italian troops under British guard marching into Cairo, January 1942.

The Italian invasion of Egypt (13–18 September), began as a limited tactical operation towards Mersa Matruh, rather than for the strategic objectives sketched in Rome, due to the chronic lack of transport, fuel and wireless equipment, even with transfers from the 5th Army. Musaid was subjected to a "spectacular" artillery bombardment at dawn and occupied. The British withdrew past Buq Buq on 14 September but continued to harass the Italian advance. The British continued to fall back, going to Alam Hamid on the 15th and Alam el Dab on the 16th. An Italian force of fifty tanks attempted a flanking move, which led the British rearguard to retire east of Sidi Barrani, Graziani halted the advance.

Despite prodding from Mussolini, the Italians dug in around Sidi Barrani and Sofafi, about 80 mi (130 km) west of the British defences at Mersa Matruh. The British anticipated that the Italian advance would stop at Sidi Barrani and Sofafi and began to observe the positions. British naval and air operations continued to harass the Italian army as the 7th Armoured Division prepared to confront an advance on Matruh.

Italian defeat

Selby Force guarded the eastern approaches to Sidi Barrani, as the rest of the WDF attacked the fortified camps further inland. On 10 December, the 4th Armoured Brigade, which had been screening the attackers from a possible Italian counter-attack from the west, advanced northwards, cut the coast road between Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq and sent armoured car patrols westwards. The 7th Armoured Brigade remained in reserve and the 7th Support Group blocked an approach from Rabia and Sofafi to the south.

The 16th Brigade, supported by a squadron of Matilda II tanks, RAF aircraft, Royal Navy ships and artillery fire, started its advance at 9:00 a.m.. The fighting continued for many hours, without substantial gains, until 1:30 p.m., when the Blackshirts holding two strongholds on the western side suddenly surrendered. The brigade continued advancing with the last of the Infantry tanks, an extra infantry battalion and support from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment.

The second attack began just after 4:00 p.m.. Italian artillery opened fire on the infantry as they were dismounting. The last ten Matildas drove into the western face of the Sidi Barrani defences, and although they were met by Italian artillery, it was ineffective. At 6 p.m., approximately 2,000 Blackshirts surrendered. In two hours the first objectives had been captured, only a sector 2 mi (4 km) east of the harbour, held by a Blackshirt legion and the remains of the 1st Libyan Division, was still resisting. The British continued advancing until they reached Mersa Brega by February, 1941.

German intervention

Adolf Hitler sent his army to North Africa starting in February 1941 (see Operation Sonnenblume). Nazi Germany's General Erwin Rommel's Deutsches Afrikakorps coming from victories at Tobruk in Libya, and in a classic blitzkrieg, comprehensively outfought British forces. Within weeks the British had been pushed back into Egypt.

German defeat

Rommel's offensive was eventually stopped at the small railway halt of El Alamein, just 150 miles from Cairo. In July 1942 the First Battle of El Alamein was lost by Rommel because he was suffering from the eternal curse of the desert war, and long supply lines. The British, with their backs against the wall, were very close to their supplies, and had fresh troops on hand. In early September 1942 Rommel tried again to break through the British lines during the Battle of Alam el Halfa. He was decisively stopped by the newly arrived British commander, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery.

With British forces from Malta interdicting his supplies at sea, and the massive distances they had to cover in the desert, Rommel could not hold the El Alamein position forever. Still, it took a large set piece battle from late October to early November 1942, the Second Battle of El Alamein, to defeat the Germans forcing them to retreat westwards towards Libya and Tunisia.

Egyptian participation

Although Egypt was part of the British Military Operations zone and British forces were stationed there, many Egyptian Army units also fought alongside them. Some units like 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th Infantry Regiments, 16th and 12th Cavalry Regiments, 17th Horse Artillery Regiment and 22nd King's Own Artillery Regiment. Some other units also fought but its names are unknown. Beside these units, the Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiments all over Egypt played a vital role in destroying Luftwaffe attacks on Alexandria, Cairo, Suez and Northern Delta.

Allied victory

British General Bernard Law Montgomery, victor of El Alamein
British General Bernard Law Montgomery, victor of El Alamein

The leadership of the United Kingdom's General Bernard Montgomery at the Second Battle of El Alamein, or the Battle of Alamein, marked a significant turning point of World War II and was the first major victory by British Commonwealth forces over the German Army. The battle lasted from 23 October to 3 November 1942. Following the First Battle of El Alamein, which had stalled the Axis advance, British general Bernard Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army from Claude Auchinleck in August 1942. Success in the battle turned the tide in the North African Campaign. Some historians believe that the battle, along with the Battle of Stalingrad, were the two major Allied victories that contributed to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

By July 1942 the German Afrika Korps under General Rommel had struck deep into Egypt, threatening the vital Allied supply line across the Suez Canal. Faced with overextended supply lines and lack of reinforcements and yet well aware of massive Allied reinforcements arriving, Rommel decided to strike at the Allies while their build-up was still not complete. This attack on 30 August 1942 at Alam Halfa failed, and expecting a counterattack by Montgomery's Eighth Army, the Afrika Korps dug in. After six more weeks of building up forces the Eighth Army was ready to strike. 200,000 men and 1,000 tanks under Montgomery made their move against the 100,000 men and 500 tanks of the Afrika Korps.

The Allied plan

With Operation Lightfoot, Montgomery hoped to cut two corridors through the Axis minefields in the north. Armour would then pass through and defeat the German armour. Diversionary attacks in the south would keep the rest of the Axis forces from moving northwards. Montgomery expected a twelve-day battle in three stages — "The break-in, the dog-fight and the final break of the enemy."

The Commonwealth forces practised a number of deceptions in the months prior to the battle to wrong-foot the Axis command, not only as to the exact whereabouts of the forthcoming battle, but as to when the battle was likely to occur. This operation was codenamed Operation Bertram. A dummy pipeline was built, stage by stage, the construction of which would lead the Axis to believe the attack would occur much later than it in fact did, and much further south. To further the illusion, dummy tanks made of plywood frames placed over jeeps were constructed and deployed in the south. In a reverse feint, the tanks for battle in the north were disguised as supply lorries by placing a removable plywood superstructure over them.

The Axis were dug-in along two lines, called by the Allies the Oxalic Line and the Pierson Line. They had laid around half a million mines, mainly anti-tank, in what was called the Devil's gardens.

The battle

'Fight for Egypt', 1943 film about the battle

The battle opened at 2140 hours on 23 October with a sustained artillery barrage. The initial objective was the Oxalic Line with the armour intending to advance over this and on to the Pierson Line. However the minefields were not yet fully cleared when the assault began.

On the first night, the assault to create the northern corridor fell three miles short of the Pierson line. Further south they had made better progress but were stalled at Miteirya Ridge.

On 24 October the Axis commander, General Stumme (Rommel was on sick leave in Austria), died of a heart-attack while under fire. After a period of confusion while Stumme's body was missing, General Ritter von Thoma took command of the Axis forces. Hitler initially instructed Rommel to remain at home and continue his convalescence but then became alarmed at the deteriorating situation and asked Rommel to return to Africa if he felt able. Rommel left at once and arrived on 25 October.

For the Allies in the south, after another abortive assault on the Miteirya Ridge, the attack was abandoned. Montgomery switched the focus of the attack to the north. There was a successful night attack over the 25-26th. Rommel's immediate counter-attack was without success. The Allies had lost 6,200 men against Axis losses of 2,500, but while Rommel had only 370 tanks fit for action Montgomery still had over 900.

Montgomery felt that the offensive was losing momentum and decided to regroup. There were a number of small actions but, by 29 October the Axis line was still intact. Montgomery was still confident and prepared his forces for Operation Supercharge. The endless small operations and the attrition by the Allied airforce had by then reduced Rommel's effective tank strength to only 102.

The second major Allied offensive of the battle was along the coast, initially to capture the Rahman Track and then take the high ground at Tel el Aqqaqir. The attack began on 2 November 1942. By the 3rd Rommel had only 35 tanks fit for action. Despite containing the Allied advance, the pressure on his forces made a retreat necessary. However the same day Rommel received a "victory or death" message from Hitler, halting the withdrawal. But the Allied pressure was too great, and the German forces had to withdraw on the night of 3–4 November. By 6 November the Axis forces were in full retreat and over 30,000 soldiers had surrendered.

Aftermath

Churchill's summation

Winston Churchill famously summed up the battle on 10 November 1942 with the words "now this is not the end, it is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

The battle was Montgomery's greatest triumph. He took the title "Viscount Montgomery of Alamein" when he was raised to the peerage.

The Torch landings in Morocco later that month marked the effective end of the Axis threat in North Africa.

Egyptian fleet damages

In total, 14 Egyptian ships were sunk during the war by U-boats, those included: one ship sunk by German submarine U-83, three ships sunk and one survived with damage by German submarine U-77, nine ships sunk by German submarine U-81.

Date Ship sunk/damaged by Tonnage Fate
16 April 1942 Bab el Farag U-81 105 Sunk
16 April 1942 Fatouhel el Rahman 97 Sunk
19 April 1942 Hefz el Rahman 90 Sunk
22 April 1942 Aziza 100 Sunk
11 February 1943 Al Kasbanah 110 Sunk
11 February 1943 Sabah al Kheir 36 Sunk
20 March 1943 Bourgheih 244 Sunk
28 March 1943 Rouisdi 133 Sunk
25 June 1943 Nisr 80 Sunk
8 June 1942 Said U-83 231 Sunk
30 July 1942 Fany U-77 43 Sunk
1 August 1942 St. Simon 100 Sunk
6 August 1942 Adnan 155 Damaged
6 August 1942 Ezzet 158 Sunk

See also

External links

References

  1. ^ Hughes, Andy (November 19, 2011). The Pocket Guide to Royal Scandals. Remember When. p. 89. ISBN 978-1844680900.
  2. ^ Smith, Colin; John, Bierman (September 26, 2002). Alamein: War Without Hate. Viking. ISBN 0670911097.
  3. ^ Smith, Charles (1979). "4 February 1942: Its Causes and Its Influence on Egyptian Politics and on the Future of Anglo-Egyptian Relations, 1937-1945". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 10 (4): 453–479. doi:10.1017/S0020743800051291. JSTOR 162213.
  4. ^ Walters, Guy (7 December 2014). "Hitler's Henchmen in Arabia". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 28 January 2020.
This page was last edited on 25 November 2020, at 21:13
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