Diamond cut Diamond – The Desert War – Dr Phil Judkins – 17th Jan 2022

   This was the third visit by Dr. Judkins of the University of Leeds, this time talking to us about the North African Desert War in WW2, and the vital role played by intercepted communications.

   ‘’The Enemy is Listening Too’’ was a mantra espoused by both warring parties. So the Germans had the enigma machine, with its trillions of different combinations, which they thought was impossible to decipher. Bletchley Park had other ideas.

   The British had their Typex machine, similar to the Enigma, but not deciphered by the Germans. Or was it?

   The Western desert war started in June 1940, and in September ‘40 the Italians invaded Egypt, with no help from the Germans. General Wavell was able to decrypt the enemy messages and the British soon overpowered the Italians, who were pursued back as far as Al Agheila on the Libyan coast.

   (The Eastern desert war in Ethiopia came to a stalemate in Aug. ’40, when the British defeated the Italians. Decrypts of messages were also vital to this success.)

   In Feb. 1941, Hitler sent Rommels very motivated forces to Tripoli. His orders were only to halt the British advance. But, he surprised the British by very quickly advancing up to 300 miles a day. Rommels communication systems were primitive and old, but his SIGINT division was nevertheless successful with local intercepts because the British were careless. And Rommel used captured landlines that had been laid by the British. Their own landlines were not very good.

   The British under General Wavell were not ready for Rommel. They were pushed back over the Egyptian border, but the Germans were halted as their supply lines were disrupted. There was only one surfaced road, along which everything had to be supplied. However, the British did hold on to Tobruk in Libya, for 9 months (Apr. to Nov. 41).

   In June ’41, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union as Hitler only saw the North African war as a ‘’side-show’’. Gone was the original strategy of a pincer movement to secure the Suez Canal and the Middle East oil and onwards to India.

   The British Operation Battleaxe in Jun. ’41 was meant to lift the siege of Tobruk. The Germans intercepted all messages, due to lax British communications, and the British took heavy losses. Tobruk remained under siege, so General Wavell was replaced by General Auchinleck.

   At this time, intercepts at Bletchley Park were only sent to the War Office, and reached Wavell sometimes a month late. Churchill intervened and by August 1941, the British had good and speedy intelligence and began to get the upper-hand.

   Malta was a suggested target by Rommel as it was crucial for supplies and defence,. However, Hitler was still concentrating on defeating Russia. Malta survived.

   Operation Crusader in Nov.’41 managed to relieve Tobruk because intelligence was good from Bletchley. Simultaneously, Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war and the Soviet Union began to repel the Germans.

   With a female spy in America and his effective SIGINT intercepts, Rommel counter-attacked and started to gain the upper hand. In June ’42, Tobruk fell to the Germans where they acquired supplies but crucially, not fuel, which was destroyed by the British. On 27th June supplies dried up and on 10th July the Germans surrendered, and the British got the upper-hand.

    In the confusion of Tobruk, did the Germans acquire a Typex machine? Prisoners admitted that they had. The British always maintained that they had destroyed all sets, but did they?

   Jul ’42 Rommel attacked El Alamein. Bletchley Park now came good although the British panicked in Alexandria and Cairo. In Aug./Sept. ’42 Rommel attacked again but became too stretched, and retreated.

   Malta in 1942 was only just saved.

   Nov. ’42 was another battle of El Alamein and despite stiff opposition, Monty broke through to Libya. The Germans took over Vichy France and invaded Tunisia, and planes were diverted from Russia to Africa, but, to no avail.

   Rommel left Africa in May’ 43, when the Americans entered the desert war, and the Germans lost their telephone link to Europe. In Jun. ’43 the British  reached Tripoli where Rommel had taken his last stand, and Monty was victorious.

   Throughout, Rommel was not aware of Bletchley Park and thought there was a traitor in their midst, even though General Paton nearly gave the game away, when he pronounced that ‘’he had been told by a reliable source….’’

   Communications were shown to be crucial throughout this conflict. It shaped strategy and the result of battles.

                                   THE ENEMY IS LISTENING TOO.

   A well illustrated and delivered talk, much enjoyed by the members.