Middle East

Finding Work

The other major endeavor of late 1940, work with the French, proved difficult to arrange. In June General de Gaulle had escaped from France to London with the assistance of Major-General Edward Louis Spears. In England he organized the Forces Françaises Libres, or Free French, to fight with the Allies. In August 1940, Mr. Galatti offered the services of the AFS to this force, but the French were then still too little organized to be able to do more than accept in principle. Nothing further materialized until the American novelist Mary Borden, wife of General Spears and later Lady Spears, started to reorganize the mobile hospital unit she had operated in France in 1939 and 1940. Her new unit was to be attached to the Free French force, which was scheduled to be sent from England to Africa.[...]

The AFS contingent of this unit was to be attached to a British group serving a French unit attached to a British Army. For a time there was uncertainty whether this would be in Equatorial or North Africa. The doctor who was asked to recommend the necessary inoculations added typhus to the list in the event that the volunteers might be going to a region "where the inhabitants wear clothes."

A unit of 17 men was organized, including 5 veterans of France 1940 (L. R. Ball, F. A. Foster, P. U. Muir, A. H. Ransom, and L. Smith), and 2 near-veterans (A. R. and L. R. Stuyvesant), and one gentleman rumored to carry among his effects a Confederate flag that was scheduled for use, if necessary, as his shroud. On 1 January 1941 under the leadership of Captain Muir, this group left Miami by plane for Rio de Janeiro, whence they went by sea to Capetown and Suez, arriving in early February. Unfortunately, Mrs. Spears and most of the equipment had not yet arrived, and for three months there was little to do ...

George Rock. "Interim Activities." History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956

A Critical Time

Hitler had tried to ignore the North African campaign. He was planning to invade Russia; he despised Italian inefficiency; and he was not prepared to bolster up Mussolini's tottering army with modern German arms. However, he was advised by the German High Command that if nothing was done to stiffen up resistance, the Italian armies would be pushed out of Libya, and the German position in Tunisia, which they had taken from the French would be endangered.

Katharine Savage. "War in the Libyan Desert." The Story of the Second World War. New York: Scholastic Books, 1957

In Egypt during the long wait for the arrival of the Hadfield-Spears unit, Peter Muir had been occupied with an important mission for the American Field Service. The huge interest and backing that Stephen Galatti had built up in the United States, the nation-wide organization, and (not least) Mr. Galatti's own vast energies could not be allowed to go unused at such a time simply for want of an outlet. Muir was under instructions to arrange for AFS units to be attached to an active Army---the Forces Françaises Libres by choice, or, failing that, the British. [...]

Mr. Galatti continued to raise money as a matter of principle, hoping the French would make some specific request of the AFS, as he was reluctant, and probably would have found that the government would not allow him, to send men or equipment for anything so uncertain as the French had thus far suggested. Although the Field Service then had no commitments, and because of its past would have preferred to work exclusively with the French, no clear-cut arrangement could be achieved. [...]

Muir next offered an AFS unit to the British, who were also short of transport and manpower. The battle of Anglophiles vs. Francophiles began at this moment and took many forms in the following years, not all of them edifying, though none of them was capable of obscuring Mr. Galatti's great purpose. It was always understood that the American Field Service had been founded to help France and that it ever wanted to work for France---and usually it was so doing, if on a smaller scale than either would have liked. When the political situation was such that the French could not be so specific as they might have liked, it was fortunate that the Field Service could work for the British.

George Rock. "Interim Activities." History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955. New York 1956

 

The Mediterranean Theatre of War

Katharine Savage. "War in the Libyan Desert." The Story of the Second World War. New York: Scholastic Books, 1957

IN THE AUTUMN of 1940, when the Battle of Britain was over, fighting flared up in a new area. The thunder of battle rolled from Britain to the shores of the Mediterranean. [...]

The conquest of Egypt was Mussolini's crowning ambition. He craved the riches of the Nile Delta, the cities of Cairo and Alexandria and control of the Suez Canal. [...]

In the center of the North African coast line, adjoining Egypt, was Libya, Italy's largest colony. This was well garrisoned with Italian troops. But Egypt had a British garrison, for Britain had a treaty with Egypt which allowed her to keep troops there to protect the interests of both Great Britain and Egypt. [...]

Reports filtered through the lines that Italian morale was low, and General Wavell planned to reduce it further. [...]

By December 1940 the British troops had gained useful desert experience, and the Seventh Armored Division, composed of some of the best units in the army, was ready to strike.

General Wavell drew up a plan so secret that it was never put down on paper until the final orders were given. [...]

After ten weeks of continuous action a British force of two divisions had advanced seven hundred miles and destroyed an army of ten divisions. The men were exhausted and their vehicles were worn out and broken down; but it was a tremendous triumph.

The tired British forces were granted little time to rest on their success. [...]

In October 1940, true to totalitarian form, Mussolini attacked Greece. She instantly appealed for British aid. Britain was heavily engaged in the battle in the Western Desert. It was a fearful risk to take troops out of the lines, leaving Egypt lightly defended against large Italian forces. [...]

The Greeks put up a far stronger resistance than the Italians expected and held them at bay all winter. In the spring, however, Hitler decided to rescue his blundering partner. On April 6 German troops crossed the Greek frontier, and on April 24 the Greek Army surrendered. The British and Commonwealth forces were faced with an evacuation on the lines of Dunkirk, but far from home and with little air support.

They crossed from the Greek mainland to the island of Crete and took up a stand. The battle that followed was fought with intense fury. [...]

In the end the Navy, with heavy loss, took off about half the heroic garrison. The rest had been killed or driven into hiding in the mountains. [...]

Even as the Germans were invading Yugoslavia and dropping paratroopers into Greece to bail out their Italian ally, they were also going to Italy's rescue in the Western Desert. [...]

Hitler agreed to send out an armored division, the Deutsche Afrika Korps. In command was General Erwin Rommel, who had so successfully led the Panzer divisions across the Meuse and on to victory in France. [...]

Rommel wasted no time. On March 31, six weeks after his arrival in North Africa, he had gotten together enough troops and armor to launch an attack from his position at Agheila. The British forward troops were overrun by a superior tank force, and a withdrawal was ordered. [...]

Rommel halted his forces at Bardia, on the Egyptian frontier, and the British forces tried to reorganize in Egypt. It was at this gloomy time that the battles in Yugoslavia, Greece, and Crete drew to a disastrous close.