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In October 1941 the new Australian Labor government led by John Curtin recalled General Sir Thomas Blamey, Commander of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in the Middle East, to Australia for discussions. Since he had arrived in the Middle East some sixteen months earlier, Blamey’s forces had fought in North Africa, Greece, Syria and at the siege of Tobruk. So he was well aware of the seriousness of the war against Germany and Italy.
Despite the qualified successes of Operation ‘Crusader’, Britain was faced with a disastrous turn of events in early 1942. The entry of Japan to the war had compelled a redistribution of force to the Far East, while some key British losses and new in-theatre German commitments had further redefined the Mediterranean balance of power. Chapter 5 outlines how the British were forced to adopt a defensive posture throughout the theatre, as their gains from ‘Crusader’ were rapidly reversed. As the Axis then advanced into Egypt, Malta was subjected to an intense aerial siege and came perilously close to being starved into submission. The difficulties in conducting anti-shipping operations during this period were numerous. Yet in a reversal of the thesis advanced by historians such as van Creveld and Gladman, the chapter demonstrates that significant sinkings (of over 300,000 tons) were achieved during this period. The continued attrition was greatly troubling for the Axis, contributing to a shipping shortage that was to reach crisis point later in the year.
Chapter 6 begins by illustrating the respective positions of each side by September 1942. It shows that while the Axis position can in retrospect be viewed as highly precarious, the British evinced real concern about a complete collapse in Egypt. It highlights the resurgent emphasis that was placed on the Mediterranean from Whitehall, and on anti-shipping operations by the theatre commanders. These attacks were pursued with a ruthless prioritisation; even after clear evidence that some Axis vessels were carrying British prisoners of war. This allowed anti-shipping operations to thrive, aided by the effective use of intelligence to target the most critical cargoes of fuel and ammunition. As a result, over the three-month period, ninety-five vessels of nearly 200,000 tons were sunk, with grave effects on the Axis. These sinkings helped curtail the final Axis offensive in Egypt and contributed to the vital British victory at El Alamein by depriving the Axis of essential fuel and ammunition. In contrast to arguments put forward by scholars such as van Creveld, Barnett and Gladman, the book uses a mix of Italian, German and British material to conclusively show that the supply shortages suffered by the Axis were primarily the result of seaborne sinkings.
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