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Winston Churchill: Debates Libyan Operations & Bombing Germany in the House of Commons

(June 2, 1942)

Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons Official Report, June 2, 1942.

I thought the House would wish to have some news of the important and very severe battle which has now been proceeding for a week in the Libyan Desert. Accordingly, I asked General Auchinleck for a statement. I do not think I can do better than read it out in his actual words:

"On the evening of 26th May, General Rommel launched the German Afrika Korps to the attack. He was at pains to explain, in an order of the day issued to all Italian and German troops in his pay, that in the course of great operations they were to carry through a decisive attack against our Forces in Libya, and that for this purpose he had made ready and equipped a force superior in numbers, with perfected armament and a powerful air force to give it support. In conclusion, he hailed His Majesty the King of Italy and Emperor of Ethiopia, the Duce of the Roman Empire, and the Fuehrer of great Germany. We had foreseen this attack, and were ready for it.

From captured documents it is clear that Rommel's object was to defeat our armoured forces and capture Tobruk. The main ingredients of his plan were, first, to capture our defended locality at Bir Hacheim held by our gallant Allies the Free French; secondly, to pass round by the South of Bir Hacheim the German Afrika Korps, comprising the 15th and 21st German Armoured Divisions to be followed closely by the German 90th (Light) Division, and the 20th Italian Mobile Corps, comprising the 132nd Ariete Armoured Division and the 101st Trieste Motorised Division; thirdly, to attack in strength our positions running South from the coast at Gazala to the Capuzzo Road. These were held by the South African and 50th British Divisions, the latter including battalions of the East Yorkshire Regiment, Green Howards and Durham Light Infantry.

Air reconnaissance had clearly indicated enemy preparations for attack, and in consequence our Air Forces opened a counteroffensive on the 21st with heavy attacks against enemy forward aerodromes. These attacks were continued each night and supplemented by low flying dawn and dusk attacks by light bombers and fighters. The enemy paid us the compliment of trying to emulate our example on the three nights prior to his final advance on the 27th. He failed to achieve any success and lost a number of aircraft to our fighters and anti-aircraft artillery. On the night of 26th-27th May the German Afrika Korps carried out its part of the plan and passed to the south of Bir Hacheim, moving north with great rapidity towards Acroma, and also towards the old battlefields of El Duda and Sidi Rezegh, which were actually reached by some of its most forward troops. These were soon driven off by our armoured forces. Some Axis tanks actually reached the escarpment or cliff overlooking the coast road north of Acroma, but failed to interrupt communication between Tobruk and the South African troops holding our forward positions.

It is now known that on the same night the enemy attempted a landing from the sea at this spot, presumably with the object of joining up with these tanks, but the hostile craft were driven off by our naval forces, acting in close co-operation with the Army.

Long before they approached El Adem or Acroma the Axis armoured and motorized troops were brought to action by 1st and 7th British Armoured Divisions, ably seconded by the British Heavy Tank Brigades which were in the area.

The full brunt of the enemy initial advance to the east of Bir Hacheim was taken by the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade Group, which was overborne by sheer weight of metal, but not until after it had inflicted heavy losses on the enemy and seriously impeded his advance. In addition, his columns were subjected to repeated attacks by our fighters and bombers. Meanwhile the attack on Bir Hacheim by the Italian Mobile Corps had been beaten off by the Free or Fighting French troops, with heavy loss, and the northward advance of this force seems to have been seriously delayed in consequence.

The third part of the enemy's plan, namely, the attacks against the northern front of our main positions south of Gazala, materialised on the 27th. They achieved little or nothing. Nevertheless, they seem to have cost the enemy a number of casualties. An attempt to break through our defenses along the coast road by the Gazala inlet was easily stopped by 1st South African Division.

Throughout the 28th, 28th and 30th May there was very heavy and continuous fighting between our armoured divisions and brigades, and the German Afrika Korps backed up by the Italian Mobile Corps. The battle swayed backwards and forwards over a wide area, from Acroma in the North to Bir Hacheim, 40 miles to the South, and from El Adem, which is near Tobruk, to our minefields 30 miles to the westward. Our troops gave the enemy no rest, and, finding himself running short of supplies and water, he had to make gaps in our minefields, one along the general line of the Capuzzo Road and another 10 miles to the South. These two gaps lay on either side of the defended area held by a brigade of infantry from the North of England. This brigade strenuously resisted the enemy's attempts to pass his transport through their ranks, and on the 28th Air Vice-Marshal Cunningham decided to direct his whole Air Force onto low attack against the enemy armour and motor transport in this region. These attacks were maintained with maximum intensity throughout the following three days, reaching their peak as the enemy endeavoured to pass through the gaps. It is still difficult to give a firm estimate of the number of vehicles and tanks knocked out or disabled by these attacks, but there has been ample confirmation that the effect was very great.

Meantime each night our night bombers were attacking enemy forward airfields and his communications.

By nightfall on 31st May the enemy had succeeded in withdrawing many of his tanks and much transport into one or other of the gaps, which he then proceeded to protect from our attack from the East by bringing many of his anti-tank guns into action, with which he is well equipped. A large number of his tanks and many transport vehicles, however, remained on the wrong side of this barrier, and these are still being ceaselessly harried and destroyed by our troops, vigorously aided by the bombers and fighters of our Air Force. The latest reports show that the enemy may have withdrawn some of his tanks from the gap areas and a good deal of transport as far back as 20 miles West of our forward positions, but this is unconfirmed. The country to the East of Bir Hacheim which is in our area is being mopped up by our troops, which have destroyed many tanks and vehicles in this area and captured two large workshops.

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 Axis air forces have been very active throughout the operations and have made continuous attacks on our troops and communications, but they too have lost heavily at the hands of our Air Forces and our anti-aircraft guns. The speed and effectiveness with which Air support has been given has shown once again the intimate co-operation which has been achieved between the two Services in this theatre.

There has not been time to assess the damage inflicted on the enemy, but a conservative estimate gives the number of his tanks destroyed or captured as about 260, and there is no doubt at all that the number of his transport vehicles destroyed or captured is very large. We have also had our losses, and it is inevitable that in a battle of this kind between armoured forces the casualties of both sides in tanks should be high. Our recovery organisation is, however, working very well, and whereas we have retained control of the battlefield and so can save our tanks, the enemy cannot recover many of his, which should be permanently lost to him.

Owing to the three days' concentration on low attack and the consequent desperate attempts by the enemy fighters to protect their land forces, their ground forces, our Air losses have not been light, though in a number of instances our pilots have returned safe and our aircraft are being recovered."

General Auchinleck ends by repeating that the battle is not yet over, and the issue still remains to be decided, but he says that the spirit and morale of our men in Libya, both Army and Air Force, whether they come from India, South Africa, the United Kingdom or elsewhere in the British Commonwealth, and that of our most gallant Allies, the Free French, is magnificent. In a further telegram the Commander-in-Chief adds:

"The skill, determination and pertinacity shown by General Ritchie and his Corps Commanders, Lieutenant-Generals Norris and Gott, throughout this difficult and strenuous week of hard and continuous fighting, have been of the highest order."

He further dwells upon the excellent performance of the American Grant tanks, with which all users are well pleased, and says that our new heavy anti-tank gun has done great execution.

That finishes the message from General Auchinleck. 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.

I ought not to sit down without referring to the mammoth air raid delivered by the Royal Air Force on the Cologne region during the night of 30th-31st May. In this triumph of skill, daring and diligence against the enemy, all previous records of night bombing have been doubled and excelled. On that occasion no fewer than 1,130 British-manned aircraft operated across the sea. The results have been of a devastating character, but accurate photography has so far been hampered by the pall of smoke which hung over the smitten area. Last night, also, 1,036 machines of the Royal Air Force visited the Continent. Nearly all of these operated on the Essen region, and first reports received indicate numerous and widespread conflagrations. From this second large-scale raid 35 of our bombers are missing.

I do not wish it to be supposed that all our raids in the immediate future will be above the four-figure scale. Methods of attack will be continually varied according to circumstances. On the other hand, these two great night-bombing raids mark the introduction of a new phase in the British air offensive against Germany, and this will increase markedly in scale when we are joined, as we soon shall be, by the Air Force of the United States. In fact, I may say as the year advances German cities, harbours and centres of war production will be subjected to an ordeal the like of which has never been experienced by any country in continuity, severity or magnitude.

I am sure the House will wish me to express its compliments to Air Marshal Harris and the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the Bomber Command, including the efficient and devoted maintenance staffs, upon the work which they are doing and the results achieved. Congratulations upon this encouraging event are also due to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Air, to the Chief of the Air Staff and to the Air Ministry upon the activities of those committed to their charge.

Sources: ibiblio