Libyan and Mediterranean Operations.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 23rd June 1942.

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Photo of Mr Clement Attlee Mr Clement Attlee , Stepney Limehouse

It is now just three weeks since the Prime Minister made a statement to the House upon the battle which was then developing in Libya, as the result of the attack upon our positions by the Axis forces. He then read to the House a statement which he had received from General Auchinleck as to the situation on the preceding day, in which it was stated: Fierce fighting is still proceeding, and the battle is by no means over. Further heavy fighting is to be expected, but whatever may be the result, there is no shadow of doubt that Rommel's plans for his initial offensive have gone completely awry and that this failure has cost him dear in men and material. The Prime Minister, after summarising the latter part of General Auchinleck's telegram, added: From all the above, it is clear that we have every reason to be satisfied, and more than satisfied, with the course which the battle has so far taken, and that we should watch its further development with earnest attention."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd June, 1942; cols. 532–3, Vol. 380.] That statement took the events up to 1st June. Unfortunately, after this initial check to General Rommel, and after the fight had swayed to and fro for some days, events have gone against us, in spite of the splendid courage and morale of our troops, which still remain unbroken. When the noble Lord, on Thursday last, asked for a statement on the Libyan campaign, I asked for and obtained a report from General Auchinleck. This gives an account of the events up to 20th June, which I propose to read to the House: An enemy attack during the last few days of May was expected, and preparations had been made accordingly. The Eighth Army, on positions stretching from Gazala Southwards to Bir Hacheim, was awaiting the attack, and the Royal Air Force began counter-offensive action about a week beforehand. The enemy's first attempt to encircle Bir Hacheim and go Southwards was met by our armoured forces in the Knightsbridge-E1 Adem area. Most bitter fighting ensued, in which the enemy was constantly attacked by our armoured and air forces. At first things appeared to be going well. The enemy, in spite of a gap which he had forced in our minefields, was having difficulty with supplies, and all our efforts, including an intense air attack, were devoted to increasing his embarrassment. This was probably a crucial moment in the battle. The enemy was exhausted. Had we been able to take advantage of the enemy's condition, we might have turned the scale. In point of fact, however, we were equally exhausted, and this was impossible.On the 3rd June the enemy succeeded in overrunning the 150th Brigade and in establishing for himself a forward base in our minefield area. In an attempt to restore the position and to drive him out, General Ritchie counter-attacked on the 4th June.On the information available at the time, the chances of success of this attempt seemed good, and it was preceded by adequate and careful reconnaissance, but it is now clear that it was, in fact, premature. The enemy put in a fierce counter-stroke in the face of which we were forced to withdraw with considerable losses. The enemy then concentrated his attention on Bir Hacheim, which was garrisoned by the Free French and had already been subjected to heavy pressure for a period of nine days. Every effort was made to relieve the pressure on this defended locality by the employment of mobile troops. Intense air support was provided by the Royal Air Force. In the event, however, General Ritchie decided that the risk of maintaining this isolated garrison was too great, and he accordingly decided to withdraw it on June 10th. The Free Frenchmen defended Bir Hacheim with the utmost tenacity and endurance, and their efforts served to delay the enemy and to contain considerable enemy forces.With the fall of Bir Hacheim, these enemy forces were released, and the enemy pressed his attack in the Knightsbridge to El Adem area. Heavy fighting ensued, and although our troops and air forces fought with the greatest skill, three days later we were forced to abandon some positions at Knightsbridge, which opened the way for the enemy to break through to the coast and to try to cut off the 1st South African and 50th Divisions in their position south of Gazala. General Ritchie decided rightly to withdraw these two divisions, an operation which was carried out with skill, and was very largely successful. Under cover of our armoured forces, which held off the enemy panzer divisions, and under the covering protection which the Royal Air Force provided (in spite of the fact that we were at the same time engaged in protecting a convoy to Malta) both these divisions succeeded in joining General Ritchie to the East of Tobruk.The enemy then pressed his attack in the E1 Adem area. A fierce battle ensued, in which he succeeded in establishing himself East of the E1 Adem defended local area at Sidi Rezegh. For four days the enemy was held in the air and on land, until eventually on the 17th, General Ritchie decided to withdraw to the E1 Adem—E1 Duda—Sidi Rezegh area under the effective cover of our air forces, and concentrated his main forces towards the frontier, leaving what was considered to be an adequate garrison in Tobruk.On the morning of the 20th June the enemy attacked Tobruk from the South-East, and succeeded in penetrating the perimeter and positions of that portion of the Tobruk area East of the Tobruk—E1 Adem road. The garrison is still fighting hard, and a gallant attempt to save what appears to be an impossible situation is being made. But the fall of Tobruk is imminent if it has not already fallen.The battle is not yet over. Our air forces are still actively offensive and still maintaining the moral superiority they have gained over the enemy. The Eighth Army is still in the field and has already received and is still receiving further reinforcements. This is the end of General Auchinleck's statement. Since then we have received definite news of the fall of Tobruk. The attack on Tobruk began during the morning of 20th June. A heavy air bombardment was followed by an infantry attack, which succeeded in making an initial breach in the South-East face of the perimeter. Enemy tanks and lorried infantry passed through this gap and were brought to battle inside the perimeter during the afternoon. We lost very heavily in tanks, and as a result the situation deteriorated rapidly. During the night the mobile portion of the garrison began to fight its way out. We have as yet no details of the results of the fighting, nor have we any information as to what part of the garrison has been able to escape capture. It is not possible to give the House any further information at this stage of the battle.

The fall of Tobruk and the capture of a large part of its garrison is a heavy and an unexpected blow. There were in the garrison troops from this country, from India, and from South Africa. We deplore the loss of all these gallant troops. I am sure this House will join me in expressing our sympathy with Field-Marshal Smuts in the loss which he and the people of South Africa have sustained in the capture of forces which have played such a distinguished part in the campaign. The position is difficult, but the fight for Libya continues. We still have strong forces in the field. Substantial reinforcements, both land and air, which had already been despatched, are arriving, while others are on their way. The House may be assured that every possible step is being taken to restore the position. Any further advance by the enemy, who has also had heavy losses, will be stoutly opposed by our ground and air forces. It is a situation that calls for the greatest courage and devotion from our soldiers and airmen and for steadfastness and resolution among our people. I am sure that these qualities will be forthcoming and that we shall all meet this setback in the spirit that inspires that fine statement made yesterday by Field-Marshal Smuts.

I turn now to the second part of the noble Lord's Question, relating to the operations in the Mediterranean. The gallant resistance of Malta deserves every possible effort we can make to sustain the people and garrison in their great fight. The passage of convoys for this purpose has for a long time been a hazardous operation. Whether these come from Gibraltar or from Alexandria, their assembly and departure become known to the enemy and he can lay plans for their interruption. Whether from the East or the West, they must steam about 1,000 miles, mostly through waters under constant enemy air and submarine reconnaissance and within easy striking distance of the enemy s main sea and air bases. Thus they must fight their way through. On this occasion it was decided to sail two convoys, one from the West and one from the East. The enemy must then either concentrate on one or other of the convoys, or attempt to attack both with smaller forces against each. That, in effect, is what happened. The Western convoy, under the command of Vice-Admiral Curteis, was sighted and shadowed by enemy aircraft before it reached the Sardinia-North Africa Channel, but in spite of violent air attack and the threat of attack by two enemy cruisers and four destroyers, which were driven off, this convoy reached Malta, although with serious losses, in the early hours of Tuesday, 16th June. During this passage 43 enemy planes were destroyed for certain and 22 probably destroyed, as well as many others damaged, by A/A gunfire from the convoy and escorts by naval aircraft and by aircraft of the R.A.F. Attacks were made on the enemy cruisers and destroyers by our aircraft, which claimed several hits, and a large enemy destroyer was seen to be hit by torpedoes both forward and aft and to suffer a violent explosion amidships.

After supply ships had been passed into Tobruk, the Eastern convoy, under the command of Rear-Admiral Vian, was steering towards Malta on Sunday, 14th June, when our air reconnaissance reported an enemy force consisting of two battleships of the "Littorio" class and four cruisers and at least eight destroyers, which was evidently attempting to bar the passage of the convoy to Malta. Avoiding action was accordingly taken by Admiral Vian, and meanwhile air striking forces were despatched from Malta and from the Western Desert to attack the enemy fleet. These attacks developed at intervals during the forenoon of Monday, 15th June. One of these attacks was witnessed by one of our submarines, who saw a 10,000-ton cruiser of the 8-inch gun "Trento" class hit, set on fire and stopped. The submarine closed in and sank this cruiser by torpedo. It is certain that other damage was inflicted upon the enemy. In particular, one of the enemy battleships was hit by a torpedo. During this day the enemy main fleet cruised between the Eastern convoy and Malta, but by nightfall the arrival of the Western convoy was ensured. The delay during the air attacks on the enemy battlefleet resulted in an expenditure of fuel by the Eastern convoy which necessitated the return of this convoy to Alexandria. Full reports of the losses inflicted on the enemy air forces during air attacks on this convoy have not yet been received, but it is known that at least 15 aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire of His Majesty's ships and that R.A.F. fighters alone accounted for seven enemy aircraft certainly and damaged several others. The House will have already gathered that the relief brought to the Malta garrison by the convoy was not carried through without considerable loss. In summary, the balance-sheet of naval and aircraft losses is as follows:

Royal Navy losses: One light cruiser, four destroyers and two escort vessels sunk.

Enemy losses actually known: One battleship torpedoed, one 8-inch cruiser sunk, two destroyers sunk, one U-boat sunk.

It is also known that the enemy lost at least 65 aircraft. As against this, our losses amounted to 30 aircraft, including those both of the R.A.F. and of the Fleet Air Arm. General Lord Gort has expressed great appreciation, on behalf of Malta, of the gallant men of all Services who made it possible to replenish the supplies of the island and has specially mentioned the officers and men of the Merchant Navy. The Government also desire to express their grateful thanks for the help rendered to the Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm by the American bombers, who took part in the operation with success.

The House will, I think, desire to have an early opportunity of discussing these events and the situation in the Mediterranean theatre of war. Should this be so, the Government will, of course, meet the wishes of the House. As I have already pointed out, our information about the events in Libya is incomplete. The battle is still in an acute stage. The men in command are very fully occupied in dealing with the immediate and pressing needs of the situation, and Members will wish to be put in possession of all the facts that could be given, before coming to any judgment on these events. In those circumstances, I suggest to the House that it would be well to wait a few days in order that as full a statement as possible may be made and a fruitful Debate take place.