Along the Battle Fronts
The period here under review was marked by events of far-reaching importance, although neither side could claim clear cut victory on land.
Terrific as their effects were, the four figure raids of May 30 on Cologne and June 1 on Essen are even more important as indications of what is to come when American aircraft add their weight to the R.A.F. Under such attacks not only will the war industries of Germany be affected to a degree that must eventually cripple her powers of offensive action, but obviously the whole economic organization of the country will be disturbed by the necessity of clearing wreckage, carrying out essential repairs, evacuating large sections of the population and redistriuting food supplies. The effect of these and subsequent raids may not be immediately felt on the fighting fronts, for it must be assumed that great reserves of munitions have already been collected there, though in view of the demands made to meet the Russian winter offensive they are unlikely to be sufficient for prolonged intensive operations failing a constant and immense flow of replacement from home resoures.
The preceding raids on Rostock and Lübeck aimed at more immediate results on troop movement to Finland, and on output of U-boats and aircraft. What the effect on German morale may be is unsafe to forecast, for a spirit of desperation may be engendered.
Timoshenko's offensive in the Krakhov region ended on May 31, although before that date Von Bock's counter-attack, which from Izyum dangerously threatened his left flank and communications, had been defeated after heavy fighting.
By disrupting German plans for an early offensive toward the Caucasian oil fields, of which the capture of Kerch was evidently the opening move, Timoshenko achieved his main object. There can be no doubt that the troops of Von Bock used for his counter-attack were those designed to strike into the Donetz basin in cooperation with a direct attack on Rostov, and probably with an attempt to cross the straits at Kerch. Kharkov itself would also probably have been the base of an attack to cover the left of the southern thrust, and to turn the Russian defences on the Donetz. Timoshenko not only compelled the Germans to expend men and great quantities of accumulated material, but forced them to take action in directions which upset their arrangements.
The drive toward Caucasia will probably be re-staged, for it is even more important for the Germans to deprive Russia of oil than it is to obtain new sources of oil supply for themselves. But Timoshenko has secured a position from which he can threaten the flank of a southern offensive and check a sooperative attempt from Kharkov. He may have hoped to force the Germans to withdraw from Kharkov by flanking it, but he does not appear to have made a determined effort to capture the city which, strongly defended, might have been desperately costly. He may be well satisfied with the results achieved, for, as in the case of Stalin's winter offensive, the effects produced on the German army were of more importance than the recapture of territory. The winter offensive was primarily intended to compel the Germans to fight under conditions of terrible hardships, and to prevent recuperation. The effect aimed at was longterm and moral. Timoshenko's object, on the other hand, was to remove an immediate danger. In neither case was it intended to initiate a decisive counter-offensive for which, as Stalin has said, the time has not yet arrived.
The fact that so many "hedgehog" key points are still held by the Germans may have disappointed onlookers, but it must be realized that under winter thaw conditions it was impracticable to employ heavy weapons against them, and that in the neighbourhood of railways the German defences could be stronlgy held. It was at a distance from railways, where supply conditions limited the size of detachments, that Russian lightly-armed troops achieved successes.
A feature of the recent fighting has been the increased power of Russian armaments. Tanks, both of Russian and Allied construction, are fully a match for those of the Germans, and aircraft are definitely superior. In meeting counter-attacks the new Russian anti-tank rifle proved its value. It enables the infantry to protect itself from tank attack, a long-felt want, although artillery support and heavy anti-tanks weapons are still essential. These, however, are easier for the enemy's artillery to knock out of action than the less conspicuous weapons of well-entrenched infantry.
What will be the developments of the immediate future is uncertain. Although the southern German offensive has been postponed, there are indicators that an offensive is in preparation having the primary target of relieving the pressure on the "hedgehog" key points of the Germain salient west of Moscow. This may indicate an intention to revive the threat on the capital.
An offensive in the Leningrad region seems also probable, though possibly only with the object of strengthening the investing force east of the city which has with difficulty retained its position during the winter. Leningrad itself is still strongly defended, and an attempt to take it by assault seems improbable so long as it can closely be invested. An attempt to bypass the city, such as was defeated at Tikhvin last year, may be made; for Vologda, on the Moscow-Archangel railway. is a tempting objective, since its capture would interrupt the inflow of munitions. A renewal of attempts to Murmanks is also threatened.
There is, of course, a possibility that German plans may again be forestalled by Russian offensives, and the Russian salient formed during the winter south of Lake Ilmen, is a potential danger to the communications of the northern German armies.
At the moment, although strong local attacks and counter-attacks are reported at a number of places, the intentions of the opponents are obscure and, in a major sense, there is a lull on the whole front.
Rommel on May 27 ended the stalemate which since the beginning of the year had existed in Libya. Intensified bombing of Malta has made it impossible to use the island an an offesive base and this had enabled strong reinforcements to reach Libya in comparative safety. They probably were not strong enough to justify a far-reaching attempt to invade Egypt, but they must at least have convenced Rommel that he was strong enough to defeat General Ritchie's 8th Army. Desert conditions and indifferent communications set a limit to the size at which Ritchie's army could be maintained, and the desert afforded unique opportunities for a Panzer attack on his vulnerable communications. Difficulties of supply and and great distances made invasion of Egypt a much more ambitious project unless a cooperative attack from the east, or possibly an air-borne attack from Crete, could be relied on. It is therefore unnecessary to assume that Rommel aimed at more than the defeat of the 8th Army, the recapture of Tobruk and Bardia, and the re-establishment of his position at Halfaya. The moral effect of such a success would have been great, although it would have had no material effect on the situation in Russia.
It is possible that Rommel may have underestimated Ritchie's strength, knowing demands that had been made for reinforcement of the Far Eastern theatre. It was no secret that Australian and other troops that had fought in Libya had gone east. It is probable too that he counted on finding Ritchie's tanks still under-gunned and his anti-tank weapons too light, for the "General Grant" tanks and 6-pdr. anti-tank guns had been well-kept secrets.
Ritchie's strongly entrenched position with its belt of minefields at Gazala was clearly too strong to be overrun by a direct attack, but south of Bir Hacheim his flank was open, though to turn it meant a long detour involving a vulnerable supply line. The situation closely resembled in reverse direction that which faced Auchinleck last November with the exception that in each case Tobruk was in British hands. Wavell's bold decision to hold on to Tobruk had far-reaching effects. Now Tobruk and possibly Bardia were the advanced suppy bases for the 8th Army, and Rommel's primary intention was to interrupt communicaton between them and Gazala even if he failed to capture them both at once.
With about half of his Panzer troops Rommel swept around Ritchie's open flank, and his advanced detachments succeeded in reaching the coastal road both east and west of Tobruk altough they could not maintain their hold on it when counter-attacked, and in danger of failure of supplies, fell back on the main body which was itself faced with supply difficulties.
Bir Hacheim, which Rommel had hoped to carry by a coup de main, and thus shorten the detour of his supply services, and resisted all attack; and it was no till two gaps had been in the minefields north of Bir Hacheim that the danger of running short of petrol and ammunition was reduced.
Rommel in spite of his difficulties made desperate efforts to establish himself on the coast road between Tobruk and Gazala, and a great tank battle went on for three days in the Knightsbrige area where Ritchie had only just established a strong position which, now with its anti-tank guns, formed a valuable pivot , resisting all attacks. The failure of two other features of his plan added to Rommel's difficulties; he had hoped to break through the Gazala defences near the coast road while at the same time a force was to land close behind them. The South Africans repelled the former attack and the Navy broke up the latter.
But Rommel had strong forces to the west, and in order to get in direct touch with them and to ease his supply problems he drew back into the gaps in the minefield establishing strong defences at their eastern exits. Under cover of this protection he succeeded in capturing the locality held by a Brigade of the 50th Division which separated the two gaps; and thus improved his position by throwing them into one. There followed a comparative lull partly due to heavy dust storms and partly to exhaustion and the necessity of regrouping forces. Rommel's intentions were not clear, but he was still strong and certainly not prepared to admit failure. He made several attacks on Bir Hacheim which the Free French, though now isolated and running short of supplies and ammunition, magnificently defeated with the aid of British mobile troops operating against the rear of the attackers.
On June 5 Ritchie's troops which had been closing in on Rommel's bridge-head launched a determined attack against it. Fierce fighting ensued with attack and counter-attack during which Rommel again attempted to break out eastwards using all available armoured reserves which had by now joined him from the west. This attempt was again repulsed and Rommel again fell back into the gap.
He then concentrated on an attempt to capture Bir Hacheim using heavy guns, tanks and dive-bombers. With the pressure on the position reaching such intensity, and with supplies running short, General Ritchie decided to withdraw the garrison, and this was successfully accomplished on the night of June 10. Rommel might claim a success of considerable moral importance and some improvement of his position, but he had paid a heavy price; and Ritchie, relieved of a responsibility, was at greater liberty to concentrate his armoured troops.
Whether Rommel will now abandon his offensive and withdraw to his original position or fight it out remains to be seen. It is evident however that he can now have little hope of victory and risks decisive defeat. If he withdraws he may be able to re-establish stalemate conditions, but with Malta recovering its potentialities as an offensive base since the withdrawal of the Luftwaffe from Sicily his prospects of receiving reinforcements on a large scale must be small. Should he fight it out to a clear cut decision and be heavily defended, the whole situation in Libya and in the Mediterranean may be changed.
A feature in the battle has been the greatly increased part of the R.A.F. has taken in the ground fighting which indicates a change of tactical policy.
Of the Far Eastern situation I have little to say. Control of sea communications, by air or naval action, is still the dominating issue.
In Burma the Japanese are in possession of, undisputed except by air counter-attacks; but General Alexander's fighting withdrawal gained valuable time. The monsoon season and lack of roads make a serious attack on India from Burma by land for the moment out of the question; while at the same time the reinforcement of both the land and air forces in India and Ceylon would seem to make an amphibious attempt prohibitively dangerous. Fighting on the Burma Road continues and the Chinese have had considerable success. Their object may be to retain their hold on the western end of the road in order to eventually be in a position to cooperate in any attempt to reopen communications. It seems improbable that the Japanese aim at invading China seriously by such a roundabout route.
Their majoe operation against China is in Chekiang with the defensive purpose of denying it as a base for American air forces. The Chinese are resisting stubbornly, and the Japanese operations in the Canton region are probably intended to prevent the reinforcement of the Chinese in Chekiang and to exhaust China's munition reserves.
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