Thursday, March 12, 2015

British lessons learnt during Operation Crusader

The lessons learnt during Operation Crusader about fighting methods and doctrine were eagerly studied, especially since they revealed that much remained to be done in terms of training, with particular problems highlighted. In January 1942 the BGS Eighth Army directed: 'Every opportunity will be taken to carry out training ... so as to develop an established technique in this type of operation, and to ensure that different units can carry it out in combination even if they have not had an opportunity of training together beforehand.' To assist in instruction a Training Branch at GHQ Middle East was set up under Maj. Gen. John Harding, which set up and ran several training establishments teaching the lessons of the Desert War. Middle East Command also produced a series of Middle East Training Pamphlets to meet the demand for the latest up-to-date information, although technically in-theatre publications were forbidden by the War Office to prevent confusion and diversion from official sources of information. Several desert training areas were developed near lsmailia, Port Tewfik and the Pyramids for collective training by larger formations, especially those new to the theatre of war.

The ability to train formations before being committed to battle remained a luxury denied British High Command for most of 1941-12. Given the high tempo of operations for much of the Desert War and constant demands for fresh troops and equipment after heavy losses in battle, most new formations were thrown into battle as soon as they deployed in North Africa. Pleas to give them the three months collective training under desert conditions was simply ignored. Much, therefore, still had to be learned the hard and costly way - in battle. The inexperienced and poorly trained 1st Armoured Division was quickly destroyed south-east of Agedabia, for example, when DAK struck back after Crusader. The British High Command knew what was needed, but an opportunity to effect real and meaningful changes and remedy the continuing training deficit was largely denied them. The hurly burly of the Desert War simply robbed British commanders at all levels of a sufficiently long quiet inactive period for rest, reflection and training. While some meaningful instruction was carried out by some motivated commanders of formations out of the line for rest it was not enough. Indeed, not everyone was clear about what was happening and how to correct battlefield mistakes. Logistical problems and shortages of equipment hampered training efforts. Petrol shortages and fear of wear and tear to vehicles was also a problem.

The Eighth Army Montgomery inherited in August 1942 had made considerable progress in improving overall training standard, but was still in need of work. Indeed, the new GOC quickly judged his troops as being 'somewhat untrained' with the result that he scaled back his original plans for his offensive as he feared he might be asking too much of them. Following the Battle of Alam Haifa Montgomery had an opportunity denied previous commanders of Eighth Army to carry out a period of rigorous training needed to prepare for the offensive that drove the Axis out of Egypt and Libya. In some respects the scope of training required was more limited given the breakthrough battle planned. As a result, with only a short time before battle began, he insisted it focused on the type of battle that lay ahead at EI Alamein. To do so the armoured divisions and New Zealand Division in 10th Corps were withdrawn behind the lines, but the remainder were tied down in the forward defences at EI Alamein. To give them some instruction, a complex system of reliefs was arranged a brigade at a time. The importance of combined-arms training was clearly recognized by the new GOC. In an Army Training memorandum issued on 30 August 1942 he directed: 'It cannot be emphasised too strongly that successful battle operations depend on the intimate co-operation of all arms, whether in armoured or unarmoured formations. Tanks alone are never the answer; no one arm, alone and unaided can do any good in battle.' Great attention was paid to passing through minefields at night. An Eighth Army Minefield Clearance School was formed to study and train for this specialized task.

The careful training carried out before Second EI Alamein built enormous confidence and in turn reaped enormous dividends throughout the remainder of the Desert War. Training remained an ongoing process as new lessons were learnt. By the end of the war in North Africa Eighth Army had achieved a new confidence, professionalism and skill it had never possessed before, which stood it in good stead for the invasion of Sicily and the Italian campaign.

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