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North African Campaign - Part I: It Makes One Cry!
by Pete Gade

Waiting on a friend …

In the gathering light, men wander and men flee. The separated seek to return to their units, while others on the verge of capture continue their flight. Nothing unusual, nothing unusual at all, really. Such is what one can expect after a night attack in the desert. The New Zealander lieutenant lowered his field glasses for a moment and assessed the situation.

The night prior, his unit surprised and overran a series of Italian positions scattered around Point 63, situated atop Ruewiesat Ridge. It’s quiet now, more or less, but he’s anxious, and with good reason.

The ridge has not yielded to picks and shovels. Made of hard rock, the ground prevents digging in and his troops stand exposed above the desert floor. Only a few roughly assembled sangar stone barricades provide any cover, and the positions formerly held by the Italians are of no help. Frankly, they stunk. Literally. Apparently, the former inhabitants hadn’t been adequately trained in maintaining a hygienic fortification.

Most troubling, though, was the silence.

At dawn, he expected the rumble of British armor arriving to support the breakthrough spearheaded by his troops. Still, they would make do with what they had. They set up Vickers machine guns, emplaced 6-pdr anti-tank guns, and kept a wary eye westward toward the Italian troops still lurking about in that direction.

Once again, he raised his field glasses, sweeping his gaze south for the tanks he knows that will arrive.

Come on. Come on….

A glint of steel flashes in the distance. Tanks!

Straining for a better look at their markings, he sees two formations approaching—one from the west, and one from the east. Shouldn’t they be coming from the south?

B-rrrrrrrp!

The tanks greet the breaking day with bursts of machine gun fire. Germans! The New Zealand troops clamor for cover amidst the scrabble and stone. Gunners swing the 6-pdrs into position, and shouts from the west let everyone know that groups of Italian infantry have come out of hiding. All bloody hell has broken loose.

Where are those tanks? Where are our tanks!

“Too little, too late”

Such was a popular assessment of English armor at various points of the North African campaign, at least if one asked an Allied infantryman serving in the theatre.

Many begrudged the British armored formations, calling them “an army within an army.” Historians note that orders given to these units were not absolute, at least in the minds of British armor commanders. Subject to some level of interpretation, orders became a sort of template to these men. In fact, British General Bernard “Monty” Montgomery sensed this tendency himself and addressed it directly through a rider attached to one set of orders: “Protesting or belly-aching about the matter is forbidden.” This scenario, though, pre-dates Monty’s arrival as commander of 8th Army. In July 1942, orders and operational planning remain somewhat pliant and open to interpretation to commanders on down the line.

Meanwhile, Germany’s youngest-ever Field Marshal, Erwin Rommel, pressed Britain’s back against the wall. Riding the wave of his latest victory at Gazala, Rommel and his combined German and Italian force routed the British far into Egypt by July 1942. With nowhere else to go, the British and Commonwealth forces essentially drew a line in the sand near the railway town of El Alamein, just 60 miles from Cairo. Victory here meant knocking the Allies out of North Africa.

Rommel gave it a serious go during what became known as The First Battle of Alamein.

Here, each side traded a series of wild haymakers as the combatants wheeled around each other in search of some vulnerability or sign of weakness. In the wide-open desert, there was not shortage of either, opportunities rose and fell with each passing hour. Initiative-takers and cagey commanders reaped significant gains, yet many victories displayed a fleeting and ephemeral quality. The Axis forces, thwarted by supply lines that stretched hundreds of miles of newly captured desert, couldn’t always maintain their gains. Meanwhile, the British and Commonwealth forces displayed a lack of co-ordination between armor and infantry, and thus couldn’t fully press the advantage they held by holding a line so close to their Egyptian supply head.

In some ways, it was as if the Axis forces were like a schoolyard bully who has chased his quarry across the playground. Finally he pins the kid against a chain-link fence, but finds himself too winded to deal the final blow.

Scenario: It makes one cry!

Rommel wrote pithy, yet candid letters to his wife while he served in North Africa, and through these missives one gains a sense of his exasperation at this point. Seemingly he sensed a change in the campaign, and that his advantage had long since fallen by the wayside. Essentially, instead of hammering through a beaten, demoralized enemy, Rommel found himself plugging numerous holes of his own:

17. Jul. 1942

Dearest Lu!

It is going pretty badly for me. The enemy’s superior infantry is taking out one Italian unit after another. German units much to weak to halt them alone. It makes one cry!

In this scenario, we stare down the dark thoughts Rommel harbored during First Alamein and heap Britain’s own worries into the mix—that of their under-performing armor.

Based upon the freewheeling Battle of Ruweisat Ridge, both sides will both attack and defend in this scenario. The Allied player will see the tables turned as a stunning nighttime infantry victory over Italian defenders turns into a desperate struggle for survival in the face of a German armored counterattack. Likewise, Axis play demands bold moves in the early going, for the British armor that was meant to help secure the infantry’s gains is slated to show up.

The only question is when.

Aftermath

The tanks never arrived. Not in time, anyway. Axis & Allies Miniatures is all about giving each commander a fighting chance, but history doesn’t always play that way.

British and New Zealander accounts vary on the details, but both parties agree that the British armor wasn’t on the scene at dawn once the New Zealand troops took the ridge. Despite a bold stand, the New Zealanders simply could not bear the Axis armored assault alone. Once captors, the New Zealanders became captives.

On paper, it appears that the Battle of Ruweisat Ridge could have ended quite differently. The Allied infantry performed well, but poor co-ordination with British armor undermined a battle that should have “been in the bag” for the Allied troops.










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