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Churchill and the Western Desert Campaign, 1940-43

FINEST HOUR 128, AUTUMN 2005

BY ROBERT J. BROWN

Mr. Brown, who was in Libya in the British Army in 1949-50 and has visited battlefields in Egypt, Tripolitania and Tunisia, is past president of the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill Society of British Columbia. Christopher Hebb suggested that Mr. Brown might like to recast his remarks in article form for FH readers. Illustration: Computer-generated “mosaic” reproduced by permission of metalorange.com, illustrators. Originally produced for The Complete History of the SAS, by Nigel McCreary (2003).

ABSTRACT
THE DESERT MOSAIC: victories, defeats, intelligence, counterintelligence and deception were ingredients of the hard-fought campaign that turned the tide for the Anglo-American allies in World War II. Some of the episodes read like fiction.

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On 13 September 1940, Italian Marshal Rudolfo Graziani, with considerable misgivings but under pressure from Mussolini, invaded Egypt with 150,000 troops. Graziani felt he lacked sufficient mechanized armor necessary to oppose the British. Arrayed against him was the British Western Desert Force commanded by General Richard O’Connor and General Sir Archibald Wavell, C-in-C, Middle East, based in Cairo, whose responsibilities ranged from East Africa, to Egypt, and across the Middle East from Lebanon to Iran.

The Italian invasion stalled sixty miles inside Egypt, near Sidi Barrani. The Italians built a series of fortified camps, each manned by an infantry brigade, with supporting tanks and artillery, whose major weakness was that they were too widely spread to be mutually supporting. O’Connor’s Operation Compass was planned as a four-or five-day raid, but on 26 November, Churchill wired Wavell:

IF SUCCESS IS ACHIEVED,
PRESUME YOU HAVE PLANS
FOR EXPLOITING IT TO THE FULL

It proved an amazing success, one of the most brilliant actions of the entire war, and one of the most successful campaigns in military history. O’Connor has sometimes been referred to as “the Forgotten Victor,” for there is no other instance in World War II where a small force was able to kill or capture an opposing force five or six times its size.

The Western Desert Force, driving between the fortified camps, attacked them from the rear, one by one. Up to the capture of Tobruk, they captured about 100,000 Italian prisoners. The Italians began to retreat around the coast through Derna, Cyrene and Benghazi. O’Connor sent the Seventh Armoured Division (later known as the “Desert Rats”) across the Jebel Akhdar through the interior to Beda Fomm on the Gulf of Sirte.

This small force of about 3,000 waited for the ponderously moving Italian Tenth Army to appear. When it did, the entire Italian force was put “into the bag.” General Bergonzoli (nicknamed “Barba Electrica” or “Electric Whiskers”) went into captivity singing Italian opera. The British troops were startled to see so many Italians carrying well-packed suitcases!

In two months, the British force of about 25,000 front line soldiers had advanced 500 miles, destroyed an Italian Army of ten divisions, and captured about 130,000 prisoners, some 400 tanks, and over 800 guns— at a cost of less than 2000 killed, wounded and missing. Anthony Eden merrily paraphrased Churchill’s words about the RAF a few weeks earlier: “Never had so much been surrendered by so many to so few.”

Hitler, far from angered or disappointed by the Italian disaster, was distinctly amused by it, remarking in almost Churchillian terms: “Failure has had the healthy effect of once more compressing Italian claims to within the natural boundaries of Italian capabilities.”

Three factors now prevented a virtually unopposed British advance to Tripoli, capital of Italian Libya: (1) The Western Desert Force was at an extreme distance from its base of supply; (2) Major units were detached and sent to Greece, which had been attacked by Germany: a political decision which caused the Germans to postpone the invasion of Russia, and had major long-term strategic consequences for Germany*; and (3) German General Erwin Rommel arrived in Tripoli.

In March 1941, a British Army Intelligence summary stated: “detachments of a German Expeditionary Force, under an obscure German General Rommel, have landed in North Africa.” He did not remain obscure for long.

Immediately on arrival, Rommel reviewed his troops in Tripoli with the intention of impressing the local population, and the British, with a spurious show of strength. Rommel’s tank force was not large, but on the parade in the main square outside the Castello entrance to the old city, he made sure that the tanks turned into a side street, the Avenida Vittorio Emanuele, and back onto the main square, to pass the saluting base again and again. After this they immediately started their eastwards drive towards the British forces in Cyrenaica.

This was one of the first acts of deception in the North Africa campaign, and it worked. British spies in Tripoli, as Rommel hoped, duly reported the arrival of his major tank force, and this news had a negative effect on British forces in the months to come.

Rommel’s Afrika Korps made contact with the British at El Agheila at the base of the Gulf of Sirte, where the Germans made a reconnaissance in force. These minor probes found that the British were either very weak, or had already pulled out. Typically, Rommel ignored his orders and took off in pursuit, in a drive which would force the British to make a “strategic withdrawal” (a British euphemism for “headlong retreat”) all the way back to Egypt.

On the way, the Germans captured Major General Gambier-Parry, and later a much bigger prize, General O’Connor himself, along with General Neame VC. Wavell appointed General Sir Alan Cunningham to replace them. Tobruk was invested, and remained a thorn in Rommel’s side until it was relieved on 21 December 1941.

In June 1941, Churchill wrote that “at home we had the feeling that Wavell was a tired man. The extraordinary convergence of five or six theatres, with their ups and downs, upon a single commander-in-chief, constituted a strain to which few soldiers have been subjected.” Churchill thus appointed Wavell Commander-in-Chief India, and brought in Sir Claude Auchinleck from India to command the Middle East.

On 18 November 1941, Auchinleck’s Operation Crusader was launched to relieve Tobruk. Auchinleck replaced General Cunningham with General Neil Ritchie, a GHQ staff officer who had never commanded large formations of troops in the field. Rommel was driven back to El Agheila, where his initial attack had started. But British supply lines were again very stretched.

On 21 January 1942, Rommel attacked and Benghazi was quickly captured. At this point there were high-level German discussions about halting Rommel after capturing Tobruk, and concentrating on the capture of Malta. But Malta was not attacked. Possibly one of the factors weighing on this decision was the level of casualties suffered by the German airborne forces under General Kurt Student in Crete. Malta would remain a vital base from which planes, submarines and ships interrupted much of Rommel’s urgently needed supplies.

Rommel won the argument that Cairo was within his grasp, and was allowed to continue the attack towards Egypt. After the disastrous Battle of Gazala, in which the German 88 mm. guns made mincemeat of British tanks, Tobruk, under South African General Klopper, surrendered on June 21st, along with about 30,000 prisoners and major stores. Rommel, aged only 50 and having been a Lieutenant Colonel a mere four years earlier, was now made a Field Marshal.

Tobruk was the second-worst British surrender in World War II (the worst was Singapore, which fell to a much smaller Japanese force on 15 February 1942). In the desert, Rommel was regarded as an almost superhuman figure, so glamorous and omnipotent that Auchinleck mounted a campaign to deflate his reputation, saying that he should not be regarded as a “magician” or “bogey-man.” Realistically evaluating his enemy, and with customary candour, Churchill told Parliament: “We have a very daring and skilful opponent against us and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.”

On the black day when Tobruk surrendered, Churchill, visiting Roosevelt in Washington, made no attempt to hide his shock from his American ally. “I am,” he reportedly said, “the most miserable Englishman in America since Burgoyne” (the English general who surrendered Saratoga during the American Revolution). Roosevelt anxiously asked what he could do to help, and diverted a large shipment of about 300 Sherman tanks, and about 100 guns, earmarked for other theatres, to Egypt. These would eventually provide General Montgomery’s superiority in weapons and equipment.

After the fall of Tobruk, the Eighth Army began the Eighth Army began another headlong retreat into Egypt. On May 27th Rommel attacked the First Free French Brigade at Bir Hakeim in his attempt to do a “right hook” behind the British lines. General Koenig rejected a call to surrender with the words, “We are not here to surrender.” Rommel is reported to have said, “Nowhere in Africa was I given a suffer fight.” During the nights of 10 and 11 June the French Brigade broke out of encirclement, and escaped with its wounded and usable equipment.

Rommel drove the British back to the El Alamein area, which bordered in the south by the impassable Qattara Depression. At this point Auchinleck sacked Ritchie, took personal command of the demoralized force, and with brilliant generalship and leadership, halted Rommel at the First Battle of Alamein. Ritchie was later to become an effective Corps Commander under Montgomery in Western Europe. Rommel’s career was at its zenith.

It is generally known that the British were “reading Rommel’s mail” through ULTRA. Less well known is that Rommel, in 1942, was “reading the British mail” from three different sources. Colonel Bonner Fellers, the American Liaison Officer in Cairo, was kept informed of everything by GHQ, Cairo, and was sending the information to Washington in the Black Code used by the American Military and Diplomatic Service.

What was not known at the time was that an Italian employee of the American Ambassador in Rome, before America entered the war, was a skilled safe-cracker, and had broken into the ambassador’s safe, copied the Black Code, and passed it on to the Italian Security Service, who, in turn gave it to the Germans.

The German Y-Dienst Company, a front-line unit at Alamein commanded by Captain Alfred Seebohm, monitored clear voice British radio traffic, and received and passed on to Rommel intelligence unwittingly provided by Colonel Bonner Fellers. This unit also received information from two German spies who had been infiltrated into Egypt under the code name Operation Condor. It was the subject of a fictionalized Hollywood movie called “The Key to Rebecca.”

OPERATION CONDOR

The two spies providing intelligence to Rommel were Peter Monkaster, a tall, blond oil mechanic who had spent many years in East Africa; and John Eppler, a 28-year old Abwehr agent born in Alexandria of German parents, but with an Egyptian stepfather. Eppler was a Muslim, spoke Arabic, and could pass as an Egyptian. They were guided across the southern Egyptian desert by German-Hungarian Arabist Count Ladislaus de Almaszy, who was fictionalized in the film, The English Patient.

A story about Operation Condor, which has little corroboration from other sources and may not be completely accurate, was told by Anthony Cave Brown in his two-volume book, Bodyguard of Lies.** It relates that the two spies had forged papers showing Eppler to be an Anglo-Egyptian merchant and Monkaster to be an American oil-rig mechanic. Carrying two U.S. Hallicrafter transmitters and a vast quantity of English currency, they passed easily as Anglo-Americans.

Arriving in Cairo, they met Egypt’s premier belly dancer, Hekmet-Fahmy, hired for a “navel engagement” at the Kit Kat Club. Violently anti-British, she was spying for the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Free Officers Association. Her main contacts were two Egyptian officers with now-familiar names—Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat, each of whom later became president of Egypt. Her main source of information, according to Cave Brown, was her English lover, one “Major Smith” of British GHQ, Cairo. Eppler and Monkaster rented a nearby houseboat, and Hekmet-Fahmy let them see the contents of Major Smith’s briefcase while she was “entertaining” him.

Eppler then made a comedy of errors. First, at several bars, dressed as a British officer, he paid in sterling, which he thought was still legal tender. He picked up a bar girl, Yvette, bought expensive champagne with more British currency, took her back to his houseboat for a night’s romp, and paid her £20 in five-pound notes.

But Yvette was spying for the Jewish Agency, which worked with MI6. Eppler was German, she reported; he had a Saarland accent, and far too much money. The British Paymaster’s Office for Egyptian currency had also become suspicious about Eppler’s sterling notes, which were found to be counterfeit.

Returning, Yvette found both Eppler and Monkaster drunk and asleep, and looked around. She found a copy of Rebecca, as well as notepaper covered with gridded squares and six-letter groups. Noting the numbers of the pages which appeared to be used, she copied the first of the cipher groups on each line of the document. This enabled the British to break the Rebecca-based code, and transmit disinformation to the Germans which would alter the course of the war in North Africa.

Eppler’s and Monkaster’s third mistake was buying £300-worth of luxury goods, paying in counterfeit sterling and asking that the goods be delivered to their houseboat. Major A. W. Sansom, Chief of Field Security, was informed, and crept aboard the suspect houseboat with an armed party. Monkaster just had time to dump the Hallicrafter, his copy of Rebecca, and the mission’s back traffic into the Nile. The Hallicrafter was recovered from the mud. It was inoperable but the dial was set to a telltale wavelength. The British could now transmit disinformation to the Germans.

Eppler, Monkaster and Hekmet-Fahmy were arrested. The Germans refused to talk, but Hekmet-Fahmy “sang like a canary” about Eppler’s contacts. Anwar el Sadat was arrested. Sadat’s biography states that when Churchill was in Cairo in August 1942, with thenew commanders, Alexander and Montgomery, he interviewed Eppler and Monkaster who, once Churchill promised that their lives would be spared, talked freely.

SPECIAL FORCES IN THE DESERT

There were three separate Special Forces operating in the Western Desert, under the general command of the Eighth Army:

The Long-Range Desert Group was founded by Major Ralph Bagnold, with Wavell’s encouragement, before the Italian invasion in 1940. It attacked enemy supply columns and depots, attacked airfields, observed Rommel’s supply columns on the coastal road from Tripoli, and ran a regular long distance reconnaissance service as far as Tunisia in preparation for future battles.

Popski’s Private Army roamed behind the lines attacking depots, airfields and even freeing prisoners of war. Led by Col. Vladimir Peniakoff, a Belgian-born officer of Russian parents, this commando unit operated initially from 1942 as a Libyan Arab unit, mainly from the Senussi tribe. Later, with a number of hand-picked British and Commonwealth troops usually numbering fewer than 100, it operated in Tripolitania, Tunisia, Italy and even Austria. The New Zealanders found Peniakoff’s name rather a tongue-twister so dubbed him POPSKI. It was amazing that in two years of fighting, largely behind enemy lines, the PPA lost only twelve killed.

The Special Air Service (SAS) was founded by David Stirling with an initial complement of sixty-six men. Today the elite unit of the British Army, it specialized in raiding operations behind enemy lines.

The most bizarre SAS operation was the raid in Benghazi harbour by David Stirling, Randolph Churchill, and Fitzroy Maclean.*** It was made easier because Fitzroy McLean spoke perfect Italian, having lived in Florence before the war.

They entered Benghazi in a vehicle painted to look like an Italian staff car, passed the Italian sentries by saying they were staff officers, and entered the perimeter of the harbour with an inflatable dinghy. Unfortunately the dinghy was punctured, and as they were trying to inflate it, an Italian sentry asked what they were doing. Fitzroy told him to mind his own business.

They now had the problem of getting out with their damaged dinghy, and unused limpet mines, so they marched up to the guard room, called out the guard, and Fitzroy then tore a strip off the sergeant guard commander for lax security, stating that, for all he knew, they could have been British saboteurs attempting to blow up ships in the harbour! In his best Italian, he bawled them out for being a slovenly bunch of soldiers.

The SAS group then marched out the gate, put their arms around each other’s shoulders as if they were drunk, wandered up the main street of Benghazi, where the Germans thought they were Italians and the Italians thought they were Germans. Finding their hidden vehicle, they drove off. This story comes from Sir Fitzroy McLean’s autobiography, Eastern Approaches.

THE BATTLE OF ALAM HALFA

Occurring between 30 August and 6 September 1942, this was Rommel’s “last throw.” The “Desert Fox” knew tliat the British were building huge reserves of men tanks, stores and equipment for an offensive; and that if he was to conquer Egypt, he would have to get in first. He planned a typical Rommel manoeuvre: a huge “right hook” which would swing north behind the Eighth Army.

His maps and intelligence told him that the British defenses at the southern end of the line were thin. Here is where he would attack. By night Rommel moved his units south, leaving dummy vehicles and trucks behind so as to fool the British. He wired his intentions to Rome and Berlin. His plans were in Montgomery’s and Alexander’s hands immediately.

General Sir Francis de Guingand, Montgomery’s chief of staff, noticed on maps that the Ragil Depression, where Rommel was expected to strike, had deep, shifting and treacherous sands. Through the disinformation coming from the now British-controlled CONDOR spy system, a message was sent saying that the British in the south were awaiting reinforcements, and not ready for more than a makeshift defence. Then de Guingand had his cartographers make a map showing that the ground was hard and suitable for panzers. The problem was how to get the map to Rommel in such a way that he would believe it. A scout car loaded with explosives was sent towards the German lines with an already dead driver and detonated. The Germans sent a patrol to investigate and found the corpse, along with the false map.

Rommel’s attack began on August 30th, and quickly bogged down in the newly-sown British minefields. Tanks, armoured cars, half-tracks, and trucks found themselves floundering in the “hard ground” on the false map, and were bombed and strafed by the RAF. Rommel ordered the attack to turn north, just as Montgomery had planned, and ran straight into the firepower of four armoured divisions where his intelligence had told him that there was only one.

Rommel withdrew. Montgomery did not pursue him. His mind was focused on the coming major battle which would decide the entire North African campaign.

THE BATTLE OF ALAMEIN

In terms of men and material this battle, on 23 October 1942, was an unequal contest. The Eighth Army had about 195,000 men against Rommel’s 104,000, of whom only about 50,000 were German. In terms of equipment, the British preponderance in field guns was 1.6:1, in anti-tank guns 3:1, in tanks 2.7:1.

What happened is well known. What is less well known is the deception employed by Montgomery, Operation Bertram, designed to deceive the enemy, minimize casualties and maximize success.

As General de Guingand said to Col. Dudley Clarke, who masterminded the deception: “You must conceal 150,000 men, with 1000 guns and 1000 tanks, on a plain as flat and hard as a billiard table, and the Germans must know nothing about it, although they will be watching every movement, listening to every noise, and charting every track. Every bloody wog will be watching you and telling the Germans what you are doing for the price of a packet of tea. You cannot do it, of course, but you’ve bloody well got to.” Clarke and his team succeeded brilliantly.

Montgomery planned his major attack in the north, so he had to convince Rommel that it was coming in the south. A dummy water pipeline was built to the south. A five-mile trench was laid with empty oil drums. At night, another five-mile trench was dug, the oil drums were moved into it, and the previous five-mile trench was filled in. The pace of construction was such that it would not reach the south at least forty-eight hours after the date of the major attack in the north. Dummy pumping stations were also built. 

At the southern end of the “pipeline” a nine square-mile patch of desert was transformed into a phony depot of about 9000 tons of ammunition, food and petrol, which was simulated by about 700 “stacks.” Telegraph poles were laid in gun pits to simulate artillery, with camouflage netting which was allowed to rot, so that the Germans would see they were dummies and take no notice of them.

Then, just before Montgomery mounted an attack to justify all this activity, the telegraph poles were removed, and real guns were put in their place. Suddenly, guns the Germans believed to be dummies belched fire at them. It was a double bluff.

In the north, multiple “sunshields” of phony ten-ton trucks large enough to hold a tank were constructed. To the Germans they appeared to be fixtures. Just before the attack, tanks were moved into the shelter of the dummy trucks which appeared not to have moved. Barrage guns, with their limbers and movers, were similarly in position to resemble three-ton trucks.

That night over 900 guns opened up a fifteen minute barrage on the German lines in the north. The object was to punch a hole in the German lines, then exploit it with armour. On November 4th, Montgomery broke the Axis front, precipitating a general retreat, even though Hitler had ordered Rommel to stand firm.

Shortly after the start of the attack, three events occurred which contributed to Rommel’s hopeless position. First, General Stumme, Rommel’s deputy during the latter’s absence in Germany, died of a heart attack. General Ritter Von Thoma, his successor, voluntarily surrendered and was invited to dinner by Montgomery.

Second, German coast watchers reported the likelihood of a major British amphibious landing behind their lines. Behind a smokescreen there were noises and a smell of engines, the rattling of chains, voices of men shouting over loud-hailers, and flares. It was all a British sonic and naval ruse, provided by recordings aboard MTBs close to the beaches.

Finally, Rommel’s fuel situation became desperate. He prevailed on Mussolini to send five tankers with urgently needed fuel for his tanks. GHQ Cairo knew about this from ULTRA intercepts, but the danger was that if all were sunk, particularly in foggy weather, Rommel would likely conclude that his secure communications were being compromised.

The decision had to go all the way up to Churchill, who (despite the unfounded rumour that he failed to defend Coventry to protect his intelligence source in 1941) was quite willing to risk ULTRA if the stakes were high. In short order the tankers Proserpina, Tripolino, Ostia, Zara and Brioni were located from the air and sunk, one of them in Tobruk harbour.

Sure enough, it was soon learned from ULTRA that Rommel suspected the security of his communications, if not Italian treachery. MI6 in Cairo then sent a message, in a code which they knew the Germans would be able to read, to a phantom group of agents in Naples congratulating them on their timely information, and offering them a raise in pay!

THE END OF THE BEGINNING

On 10 November 1942, Churchill spoke in the Guildhall at the Lord Mayor of London’s banquet: “I have never promised anything but blood, toil, tears and sweat. Now, however, we have a new experience. We have a victory—a remarkable and definite victory. A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers, and warmed and cheered all our hearts.” (More of this speech will be found on the back cover.) For the first time in two years the church bells in Britain were rung. Prior to that, they would have signaled a German invasion.

Rommel became further disillusioned with Hitler on receiving a directive to fight to the last man. Rommel ignored it, and it was rescinded. His forces retreated skilfully, evading Montgomery’s attempts to cut him off. A brief defence was made at the Homs-Tarhuna line before Rommel fell back to Tripoli, which was abandoned on 23 January 1943.

Montgomery held a victory parade in Tripoli, attended by Churchill, who made a speech in which he said: “In days to come, when asked by those at home what part you played in the war, it will be with pride in your hearts that you can reply, ‘I marched with the Eighth Army.'”

Rommel made a stand at Medenine in Tunisia, and again at the Mareth Line which dominated the Tripolitanian and Tunisian plains. Montgomery turned his flank by pouring through Wilder’s Gap in the south, which had been discovered by the Long-Range Desert Group many months before. The Americans recovered from a “bloody nose” given them by Rommel at Kasserine Pass on February 14th and, after the Battle of Wadi Akarit, linked up with the Eighth Army. Rommel left Tunisia a sick man, never to return. His successor, General Kurt Von Arnim, surrendered about 200,000 Axis troops at Cape Bon on 13 May 1943.

On 10 August 1942, Churchill had sent this directive to General Alexander:

Your prime and main duty will be to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German-Italian army commanded by Field-Marshal Rommel, together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya.

2. You will discharge or cause to be discharged such other duties as pertain to your command, without prejudice to the task described in paragraph 1, which must be considered paramount in His Majesty’s interests.

While in Tripoli, Churchill received, from Alexander in Cairo, one of the most famous telegrams of the war. Nigel Nicholson, in Alex, his biography of Alexander, writes that the Prime Minister said to Alexander, “Pray let me have a message which I can read in the House of Commons when I get back—and make it dramatic and colourful.” Alexander, Nicholson writes, rose to the occasion:

Sir, The orders you gave me [on 10] August, 1942, have been fulfilled. His Majesty’s enemies, together with their impedimenta, have been completely eliminated from Egypt, Cyrenaica, Libya,**** and Tripolitania. I now await your further instructions.

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*Churchill’s decision to aid Greece is often viewed as a romantically inspired misadventure and a very serious mistake, which militarily it may well have been. But in 1946 General Jodl, formerly Field Marshal Keitel’s deputy at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), told Field Marshal Jan Smuts of South Africa that Germany had lost the war “because she had been obliged to divert divisions to meet the British landing in Greece. That meant that she lost six weeks. She lost time—and with time, she lost Moscow, Stalingrad, and the war.”

**Bodyguard of Lies should be read circumspectly, since many of its assertions are doubtful, including the canard that Churchill let Coventry be bombed to protect his sources of secret intelligence. (See “Leading Churchill Myths,” by Peter Mclver, Finest Hour 114.)

***Later named Churchill’s personal representative to Tito, Sir Fitzroy Maclean enjoyed a long career as soldier, adventurer, writer and Member of Parliament. He spoke twice to Churchill Centre tour parties visiting his famous inn at Strachur on Loch Fyne, Scotland, and his absorbing remarks on his experiences may be found in Proceedings of the International Churchill Society 1987. He was also the banquet speaker at the Winston S. Churchill Societies of British Columbia, Edmonton and Calgary in 1980, where he confirmed this story.

****A slight technical inaccuracy is that Libya includes Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (as well as the Fezzan in the south, which was never a battleground between British and Axis forces)—so the addition of “Libya” to the message was superfluous. After von Arnim had formally surrendered on 13 May 1943, Alexander sent the Prime Minister a final telegram reporting that “the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are now masters of the North African shores.” 

 

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