Friday, March 13, 2015

Air-Battle: CRUSADER (1941)

British code name for support of Allied ground operations in a desert environment during World War II. German Afrika Korps commander Erwin Rommel’s first offensive in Africa recaptured most of Cyrenaica in the spring of 1941, but the Allies maintained control of the coastal fortress of Tobruk, cut off by land from the main Allied army. Through the summer of 1941, the Axis and Allied armies opposed each other along a line approximating the Egypt-Libya frontier. RAF bombers repeatedly struck the Italian-held ports of Benghazi and Tripoli, and RAF aircraft on Malta struck shipping and ports on the Italian mainland. Both sides rushed to gather the necessary supplies for an offensive, a race won by the British, who launched Operation CRUSADER on 18 November 1941 with the intent of relieving the Tobruk fortress.

The RAF under Air Marshal Arthur W. Tedder fielded 700 aircraft that faced only 437 Axis aircraft at forward bases, but the proximity of Italian bases in Tripolitania, Italy, and the Balkans made Axis reinforcement easier. The RAF gained a margin of air superiority for much of the battle and successfully harassed and attacked Axis columns. The open desert terrain helped considerably in successful target acquisition, particularly in attacks against German columns during the bold move by Rommel to the Egyptian frontier (the so-called Dash to the Wire).

After hard fighting, Tobruk was successfully relieved. In mid-December, the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies retreated toward El Aghelia. CRUSADER was the first significant British ground success against German forces.

References Playfair, I.S.O., et al. History of the Second World War: Meditteranean and Middle East, Volume 3: British Fortunes Reach Lowest Ebb. London: HMSO, 1960.

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