Remembering 1941 - 2001 History Conference

Remembering 1941

Alec Hill was an officer in the 9th Australian Division and in 1941 served in Tobruk. He became a school master and later joined the academic staff of the Royal Military College, Duntroon. A distinguished military biographer, he is best known for his book, Chauvel of the Light Horse. Alec Hill made an ideal speaker to open the conference 'Remembering 1941', with his observations on the broad strategic context in which Australians fought in the campaigns of 1941 in the Mediterranean theatre of war.

Australia at War 1941
Alec Hill

As a relic of 1941 I wish to make some observations about a remarkable year which was sometimes exciting and often depressing. After all it began with a victory in North Africa in which we played a part - the destruction of the Italian Tenth Army; in the mid year the Germans foolishly (and wickedly) invaded Russia and the year closed with Japan's assault upon Pearl Harbour and south-east Asia. Depressing as it was, that Japanese initiative brought the whole potential power of the United States of America into the war - the British Empire and Commonwealth was no longer alone.

My observations will relate to the war in the Mediterranean. It should be said that I am not unaware of the growing number of Australians serving with the Royal Air Force over Europe, products of the Empire Air Training Scheme, plus 10 Squadron and its Sunderlands. Nor will I deal with our small force serving in Malaya - two-thirds of the Australian Imperial Force's 8th Division, four squadrons of the Royal Australian Air Force and the destroyer Vampire. However, in 1941 the main Australian effort was the Australian Corps in the Middle East: three infantry divisions with corps troops and various supporting establishments with the prospect of an AIF armoured division. Also the Royal Australian Navy was making a useful contribution to the Mediterranean Fleet with two light cruisers and a half flotilla of ancient destroyers dubbed "the scrap-iron flotilla" by German radio. Only one squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force, the 3rd, was available to support the AIF and it was to remain in the Mediterranean until the defeat of Germany. These forces were a significant addition to British power in the Mediterranean during a very dangerous period.

Of all the interesting features of 1941 in the Mediterranean I propose to examine briefly three because they were fundamental to the development of operations. They were: the weakness of the Italian Army and of the higher direction of the Italian armed forces; the shortages in almost all the means for fighting of the British Commonwealth armed forces; the influence of Operation Barbarossa - Hitler's invasion of Russia.

Nearly twenty years of Fascist rule had failed to provide Italy with either the industrial base or the economic strength for an adequate arms industry. Much of the equipment of the army and the air force was obsolete while the navy had neither carriers nor an air arm. Material losses in the Spanish Civil War and Ethiopia had not been made up. Opposition to the alliance with Germany was rife among senior officers who were well aware of the inadequacies of the Italian forces. To complete this situation ripe for disaster Benito Mussolini, dictator of Italy and head of the services, lacked all the qualities of a head of state and commander-in-chief. Nevertheless, having ordered an invasion of Egypt aiming at the Suez canal, he also invaded Greece a month later. After all the defeats which followed in both Greece and North Africa, he insisted on sending a major Italian force to join the Germans struggling in Russia.

It was fortunate for the British based in Egypt and with vital outposts in Malta and Gibraltar, that the Italians were in such dire straits. All three of our services were short of modern equipment, especially the RAF whose best aircraft were concentrated at home where they had defeated the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. The re-equipment of the army in Britain, now expecting a German invasion, meant that little was available for the army in the Middle East where Australians and New Zealanders were arriving with rifles and bayonets but very little else. As for the Mediterranean Fleet, it was outnumbered seriously by the Italians, and the aircraft of its one carrier were no match for the enemy air especially when the Italians were reinforced by the Germans. What was not in short supply was leadership and the outstanding military qualities of commanders such as Wavell, Andrew Cunningham, Longmore, O'Connor, Tedder, Lavarack, Morshead and Freyberg. 1 The logistical problems imposed by remoteness from the United Kingdom, the real industrial base of all the Middle East forces, were immense. Reinforcement and supply convoys either faced the U-boats in the Atlantic during their 70-day voyage around the Cape of Good Hope or came in small, heavily protected convoys fought through the Mediterranean, each a major operation. To hasten RAF reinforcements a complete air route across Africa was established from Takoradi in the Gold Coast (Ghana) involving thousands of ground staff and the construction of numerous airfields. Logistical problems within the Middle East were multiplied by the sheer size of the theatre, an area much larger than the whole of Australia.

The war which began in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland can properly be called Hitler's War. Preparing for it he had already re-entered the Rhineland, absorbed Austria and seized Czechoslovakia. The destruction of Poland would complete his preparations for the war he had for long intended, the destruction of Russia but, as the Western powers had interfered, it was necessary to crush them too in a swift campaign. This had not quite come off. While France was crushed and some minor states were overwhelmed, the British had saved their army and would not see reason. Worse, his attempt to soften-up the United Kingdom from the air was defeated in the Battle of Britain by mid-September 1940. So that invasion was put off and Hitler opted for war on two fronts. As early as 31 July 1940, while the air battle raged over Britain, he decided on "the destruction of Russia's vital strength in the spring of 1941".2 On 18 December in his Directive number 21 he gave the outline orders for invasion, Operation Barbarossa.

Even before that the troubles of Mussolini's absurd invasion of Greece in October had caused Hitler to give orders (Directive number 20) for Operation Marita which contemplated the occupation of the entire mainland of Greece and the seizure of "English bases in the Greek Islands with airborne troops". The establishment of a few squadrons of the RAF supporting the Greek army in November had alerted Hitler to the possible threat to the southern flank of Barbarossa and to the oilfields of Rumania. His other local problem was the Italian debacle in North Africa - he must keep Italy in the war and Mussolini was now asking for help. Hitler was prepared to deploy up to twenty-four divisions for Marita but for Libya only two with a defensive role, a policy which was to be re-interpreted by his commander, Erwin Rommel. In spite of Admiral Raeder's frequent attempts to persuade Hitler to adopt an Atlantic/Mediterranean strategy, Hitler's obsession with the destruction of Soviet Russia dominated his thinking throughout the period of British weakness in the Mediterranean. Had he taken Raeder's advice, the war may well have followed very different paths.


[1] That is: General Sir Archibald Wavell, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, 1939-41; Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, 1939-42; Air Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Air Forces, 1940-41; Lieutenant General Richard O'Connor, Commander, Western Desert Force, 1940-41; Air Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Commander-in-Chief, Middle East Air Forces, 1941-43; Lieutenant General John Lavarack, GOC 1st Australian Corps and 7th Australian Division, 1941; Major General Leslie Morshead, GOC 9th Australian Division, 1941-43; Major General Bernard Freyberg, VC, GOC 2nd New Zealand Division, 1941-44.

[2] Militärgeschictliches Forschungsamt (Research Institute for Military History), Germany and the Second World War, New York : Oxford University Press, 1995, Vol. III, p. 204