Eighty years ago the days of easy German victories in the western desert and the eastern front come to an end


The battleship HMS Barham was torpedoed by U-331 near Alexandria. She keeled over  and her magazines exploded; more than two-thirds of her complement were lost. The images were captured in hideous clarity by a British Pathe film crew aboard her sister HMS Valiant. The loss severely depleted the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean and it was concealed from the public in the hope that that the Axis might not fully realise this. Next-of-kin were only notified some weeks afterwards and were instructed not to mention the loss outside the family. The spiritualist medium, Helen Duncan, later claimed to be in touch with dead sailors from Barham in a seance which led to her being the last person convicted (and imprisoned) under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem had found his way to Germany via Italy after fleeing successively Palestine, Iraq and Iran. He was received by Hitler and their conversation touched on the establishment of a homeland for Jews in Palestine; the Mufti was naturally opposed. He sought support for a programme under which the racial future of Palestine would be turned over to Arabs - implicitly under his leadership. Hitler, though, baulked at a declaration of outright support for Arab nationalism in the area as he feared it would have alienated Vichy France and brought support to de Gaulle.

The Germans suffered their first significant defeat in their invasion of the Soviet Union. At the far south of their front just north of the Black Sea an exposed thrust had taken the city of Rostov-on-Don. When the Red Army counter-attacked the German fron commander, Gerd von Rundstedt recognized that the position was untenable and ordered a retreat. Hitler did not accept this and sacked von Rundstedt. somehow his successor Reichenau succeeded in having the retreat order reinstated and the city was recaptured. The Soviet victory was anything but decisive, but as the drive to encircle Moscow stalled, it was clear that the phase of the war in which the Germans faced no serious reistance had come to an end.

The British Crusader attack in the western desert achieved its major, immediate objective by relieving the besieged garrison of Tobruk. Rommel's thrust into the British rear ran out of steam and he was forced to pull back. The British had showed that the Germans could be pushed back, but the battle fell well short of a major victory.


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