IL-2 Desert Wings – Tobruk (Part 1) – The Desert War

Introduction

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Welcome to Tobruk

Guest writer Chuck Owl, celebrated author of the Chuck’s Guide series, is back with a comprehensive review of this IL-2 Sturmovik: Cliffs of Dover – Blitz add on. IL-2 Strumovik: Desert Wings – Tobruk moves the World War 2 flight sim Cliffs of Dover product from the skies over the English Channel during the Battle of Britain to the air war over Northern Africa.

As is his pattern, Chuck has gone into a detailed deep-dive. This series will cover four articles over the next few days focusing on:

  • Part 1 – The Desert War – An overview of the history of the North Africa Desert War covered by Tobruk;
  • Part 2 – “I Don’t Like Sand” – A review of the map, environments and units you will encounter;
  • Part 3 – The Aircraft – Which I think that you can guess, is about the aircraft that you get to fly;
  • Part 4 – Under the Hood & Final Thoughts;

Strap in and make sure you are hydrated, the hot desert sun awaits!

Note: this article/review is not sponsored and reflects the thoughts and opinions of the author only.

PART 1 – The Desert War

Before we start talking about the “Wings” in “Desert Wings”, let’s explain the historical setting first.

The year is 1940. The Second World War’s Battle of Britain is over, which resulted in the Axis’ failure to gain air supremacy over Britain and postponed an invasion of the British Isles indefinitely. The United Kingdom’s survival largely depends on its extensive supply network spread through its colonial empire. With France being occupied and the Allies running out of manpower and material, the British desperately need to maintain control of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal.

Military operations begin in June 1940 with the Italian declaration of war and the Italian invasion of Egypt in September, which is dubbed Operazione E. The Italian 10th Army (10ª Armata) under Rodolfo Graziani gains initial success and rapidly overwhelms the British forces. The Italians reach the Sidi Barrani harbor on September 16, 1940. However, the Italian army has to stop its advance and wait for supplies for more than two months.

The British WDF (Western Desert Force), under Sir Archibald Wavell, put that time to good use and amass soldiers, tanks and aircraft to mount Operation Compass, a five-day raid in December 1940. Spearheaded by the 7th Armored Division which would later become known as the “Desert Rats”, the forces under Major-General Richard O’Connor push the rest of the Italian 10th Army out of Egypt and capture the ports along the Libyan coast. The Australian 6th Division capture Tobruk in January 1941. The 10th Army is ultimately cut off as it retreats towards Tripolitania and is defeated at the Battle of Beda Fomm, the remnants being pursued to El Agheila on the Gulf of Sirte.

The WDF is unable to continue beyond El Agheila, due to worn out vehicles and the diversion in March 1941 of the best-equipped units in Operation Lustre for the ill-fated Battle of Greece. Italian reinforcements are rushed to Libya to defend Tripoli. Germany sends its own Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel. He is to lead a relief force comprised of the Deutsches Afrikakorps (DAK) and the Luftwaffe to regain the lost territory.

In the spring of 1941, Rommel leads Operation Sonnenblume (Sunflower). German panzers punch through the Allied lines and push the Allies back to Egypt. However, a pocket of resistance remains at Tobruk. Its garrison, consisting mostly of the 9th Australian Division (which would later become known as the “Rats of Tobruk”) under Leslie Morshead, turns the harbor-city into a fortress to deny the port to the Axis while the WDF reorganises and prepares a counter-offensive.

“Boxes”, which are strongpoints comprised of fixed groupings of infantry and supporting arms such as anti-tanks guns, ditches, anti-tank & anti-personnel mines, booby traps, barbed wire, are dug around the defensive lines. The Australians also use the ring of forts built by the Italians, which prove to be formidable obstacles for the Germans who attack tirelessly the defensive positions with tanks and aerial bombardment.

Controlling Tobruk is crucial . A quote by historian Stephen W. Sears wrote in his book “Desert War In North Africa” sums up why:

Desert War imposed its own special rules. Rule number one was that armies brought with them everything they needed. There was no such thing as living off the country.

Tobruk has a strong, naturally protected deep harbour. It is probably the best natural port in northern Africa. Its occupation by the British deprives the Axis of a supply port closer to the Egypt–Libya border than Benghazi, 900 km west of the Egyptian frontier, which is within the range of RAF bombers. Tripoli is even further; 1,500 km to the west in Tripolitania. A significant part of Axis supplies never reach the frontlines, being destroyed by Royal Navy bombardment or Royal Air Force attacks. Logistics are the main challenge of the desert war, since basically everything has to be imported from the mainland: fuel, food, water, tanks, planes, guns, ammunition… which is the reason why Tobruk is so fiercely contested by both sides.

On May 15 1941, a British offensive dubbed Operation Brevity is launched. Brevity is intended to be a rapid blow against weak Axis front-line forces in the Sollum–Capuzzo–Bardia area of the border between Egypt and Libya. Although the operation gets off to a promising start, throwing the Axis high command into confusion, most of its early gains are lost to local counter-attacks, and with German reinforcements being rushed to the front the operation is called off after one day. Brevity comes at a time when Rommel is hard-pressed to repel it. After numerous losses in the assaults against Tobruk, the Germans are in no position to halt, much less counter, enemy action.

On June 15 1941, a more ambitious attack to lift the siege at Tobruk is conducted by the 7th Armoured Division and a composite infantry force based on the 4th Indian Division: Operation Battleaxe. The infantry are to attack in the area of Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo, with the tanks guarding the southern flank. For the first time in the war, a large German force fights on the defensive. The British lose over half of their tanks on the first day and only one of three attacks succeed. The British achieve mixed results on the second day, being pushed back on their western flank and repulsing a German counter-attack in the centre. On the third day, the British narrowly avoid disaster by withdrawing just ahead of a German encircling movement.

From the Germans’ perspective, the invasion of the Soviet Union starts on June 22 1941 with Operation Barbarossa. This means that most resources are allocated to the newly created Eastern Front, leaving the Afrika Korps under-supplied, under-equipped and under-manned. From the British side, after the failure of Battleaxe, Sir Archibald Wavell is replaced by Claude “The Auk” Auchinleck. The Western Desert Force is reorganized and renamed the Eighth Army under the command of Alan Cunningham (which is later replaced by Neil Ritchie). The Eighth Army comprised two Corps: XXX Corps and XIII Corps.

XXX Corps is made up of 7th Armoured Division, the under-strength South African 1st Infantry Division with two brigades of the Sudan Defence Force and the independent 22nd Guards Brigade. XIII Corps is comprised of the 4th Indian Infantry Division, the newly arrived 2nd New Zealand Division and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The Eighth Army also includes the Tobruk garrison with the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, and the Australian 9th Division which (in late 1941), is in the process of being replaced by the British 70th Infantry Division and the Polish Carpathian Brigade. In reserve, the Eighth Army has the South African 2nd Infantry Division, making a total equivalent of about seven divisions with 770 tanks (including many of the new Crusader Cruiser tanks, after which Operation Crusader is named.

In an effort to relieve the besieged garrison at Tobruk, Operation Crusader begins on November 18, 1941. The armored push suffers brutal casualties from anti-tank guns, but the offensive is successful. A contingent of British and South African troops rush to Sidi Rezegh to capture the Italian-held airfield, but are almost annihilated by a fierce and skilled German counter-attack. On 27 November 1941, the New Zealanders finally reach Tobruk, relieving the exhausted garrison after a gruelling 9 months of siege.

The battle continues into December, when supply shortages force Rommel to narrow his front and shorten his lines of communication. On 7 December 1941 Rommel withdraws the Axis forces to the Gazala position and on 15 December orders a withdrawal to El Agheila.

However, Rommel still has a card to play. On 21 January 1942, Panzerarmee Afrika begins Operation Theseus, which pushes the Eighth Army back to the Gazala Line, 60 kilometres west of Tobruk. Operation Venezia (also known as the Battle of Gazala) begins on 26 May 1942 when Afrika Korps and Italian tanks drive south, round the flank of the Gazala line, and are isolated by Free French and other Allied troops at Bir Hakeim, who intercept Axis supply convoys. On May 29, Rommel retreats to a defensive position abutting the British minefields called “the Cauldron”, which suffers numerous air attacks by the Royal Air Force.

The British mount a counter-attack, Operation Aberdeen on 5 June, but meets with disaster. An afternoon counter-attack by the Ariete and 21st Panzer divisions and a 15th Panzer Division attack on the Knightsbridge Box overrun the tactical Headquarters of the two British divisions and the 9th Indian Infantry Brigade. The 10th Indian Infantry Brigade and smaller units are dispersed and command breaks down. The 9th Indian Brigade, a reconnaissance regiment and four artillery regiments are lost and the British flee from the Gazala Line on 13 June, with only 70 operational tanks,

Tobruk had been besieged for nine months in 1941 but this time the Royal Navy cannot guarantee the supply of the garrison… and Auchinleck views Tobruk as expendable but expects that it cannot hold out for two months. On 21 June 1942, 35,000 Eighth Army troops surrender at Tobruk, which is a crushing blow to the British.

This pretty much sums up the events that take place during Il-2 Desert Wings. The Axis forces eventually push further East to a railroad station near the sea called El Alamein, where they are driven back. The Desert War continues well into 1943 with Operation Torch and the Invasion of Morocco and Algeria by the U.S. forces, but this is a topic for another time.