Intelligence In North Africa

“Intelligence however brilliant, cannot provide dramatic success where military strength or preparedness does not exist 1

Intelligence had two key roles in North Africa; aiding the fight for supremacy in the Western Desert and contributing towards the ability to supply ones army, whilst preventing the enemy from doing so. Intelligence in the Desert was fraught with difficulties from gathering or interception right through to the processing of its findings. In the Mediterranean intelligence and in particular Ultra, the Allied codename for the Axis Enigma ciphers played a very significant role, helping the Allies to devastate the Axis supply convoys and gain a distinct edge over ‘The Desert Fox’ Erwin Rommel). It was the Allied knowledge of the German Air Force (GAF enigma ciphers that was of most use in North Africa as the German Air force was involved in most operations in the Mediterranean and in the desert; its dispositions and movements could give indications as to the whereabouts of enemy units and activity whilst also helping plan the Allied air strategy. In March 1941 Ultra revealed that the Germans had induced the Italians into positive action against the British convoys and this resulted in the overwhelming British victory at the Battle of Mattapan, which kept the Italian fleet at port for the best part of the war and gave the British command of the Mediterranean sea.

Once the data is analysed it becomes apparent that the role of intelligence differed greatly between theatres and also between the different aspects of warfare. For instance, it can be argued that intelligence played a much more significant role where supplies were concerned as opposed to land warfare in North Africa; events moved too quickly in the latter for intelligence to be able to distribute its findings whilst their relevance remained. Although Ultra is a much celebrated topic in literature on the Second World War, it is fair to say that its role was severely limited for several reasons in the North African theatre. Ultra played its most important role in the field of supplies, helping to obliterate the Italian Merchant fleet, , which ultimately led to victory in the North African theatre and made the Torch landings possible in November 1942. It is most important to stress the fact that Knowledge of the enemy's weaknesses is of no practical value unless you have the capability to exploit it and this was the single most important reason why intelligence only played a supplementary role in North Africa, rather than being a decisive factor.

Ultra was only one intelligence source among many. Other sources ranged from reconnaissance, both ground and air, POW interrogation, other SIGINT and reports from contacts on the front line and the relevant commanders history in battle. From analysing their impact upon the conflict it is possible to assert that they were themselves more significant a factor than was Ultra, although again it always had the potential to be decisive. Ultra was never used as an infallible source, but instead it was corroborated with these other sources to gauge its reliability. From the interception of Ultra signals all the way to the information being put to use on the strategic or tactical maps there were numerous difficulties at every stage. In gathering and analysis as well as distribution and application, intelligence as a whole faced bureaucratic, technical, human and logistical limitations which resulted in its potential not being exploited to the full and its significance as a whole to the North African Campaign being reduced considerably. Intelligence was only one piece in a very big jigsaw and even when it was used effectively it could not turn a battle around single-handedly. From the history of the Second World War it can be seen that intelligence was not always significant, but it did possess the continual, but unreached potential to be the decisive factor in battle, which can be seen at Alam Halfa and El Alamein. So if it had the potential to be a decisive factor then why wasn’t it so on most occasions ?

“Not many of the decrypts directly illuminate the enemys intentions and of these some necessarily reached the Western Desert too late to be of immediate use.2 Protection of the top secret Ultra source meant that the distribution of Ultra was extremely slow and by the time it had reached the relevant commander it was often out of date and therefore at best useless and at worst dangerously mis-leading. Another limitation was the fact that it was almost all low grade SIGINT that was intercepted, which gave details of movements, equipment specifications and supplies on some occasions, but most of which contained trivial information. Again there was the potential and on rare occasions high grade SIGINT was intercepted and decrypted, but this never revealed the whole picture, warned of future attacks or unveiled the enemy’s strategy. Rommel was not a static enemy and ciphers were regularly being changed, some never being broken again and others taking valuable time to re-break. These operational problems added to the limitations that intelligence faced throughout the Desert War. Technological factors also destined the distribution of intelligence findings to be extremely slow as communications technology was not developed enough to provide swift delivery over long distances with the required security. “Information about the enemy was frequently treated as interesting rather than valuable3 , so when Ultra decrypts were finally received by the relevant commander they were not always trusted. Montgomery particularly disliked the rather ungentle manly form of warfare and therefore thought it not as important as maybe they should have. Intelligence was hindered in its gathering, analysis and application from weather conditions to bureaucracy, but still proved itself valuable on several occasions. Signal intercepts of information concerning the supply movements from Sicily and southern Italy to North Africa resulted in decisive strikes on Italian convoys by Force K in Malta, Force H in Gibraltar and Force B in Alexandria, which in August 1942 at Alam Halfa forced Rommel to strategically switch to the offensive when tactically he wouldn’t have done otherwise.

Therefore from analysis it can be seen that intelligence and in particular Ultra did not in itself enable the Allies to win the Desert War, but was simply another important factor to the Allies advantage. Thousands of decrypts were analysed and only a very few were found to be worthy of passing up to a higher authority and of those, even fewer would be acted upon. Information was confused by the enemy's uncertainty4as and indeed preceding the battle of Gazala in North Africa in 1942 the Allies were misled entirely into thinking Rommel had lost the best part of his armour and was planning to deploy defensively, when in actual fact, due to the fact that he had received new panzer tanks with face hardened armour plating, he was being indecisive and eventually decided on offensive action with superior armoured forces. The limitation of intelligence in a nutshell is the problem of distinguishing between having intelligence about the enemy and being able to use it.5

The role of intelligence in the Second World War was supplementary; to add to the information known by Allied commanders, and any exaggeration of this role is misleading. Intelligence alone did not change a commander’s mind and indeed its consultation was preceded by other far more immediate and significant concerns, such as one’s own capability. The situation in Crete illustrates the fact that Intelligence however brilliant, cannot provide dramatic success where military strength or preparedness does not exist6 ,and although intelligence could give vital information to the Allies, it could not win the battle itself. The limited Allied capability in the Mediterranean was the primary factor that led to the fall of Crete and there was nothing that Ultra could do about this. Knowledge of the enemy’s weaknesses is of no practical value unless you have the capability to exploit it. The Allied knowledge gleaned from Ultra that the Germans were about to attack Greece did allow the them to send forces, but the Allied capability was such that it was not possible to have a realistic chance of winning the conflict there. Again in May 1942 although the Eighth Army had “good general warning of the imminence of Rommel`s attack, the British lost the battle of Gazala.7. Ultra was an extra weapon in the Allied armoury, not their primary source of wisdom. It was consulted by commanders in planning stages or when an important decision was to be made, but was not the basis of their decision.

It is worth mentioning that Ultra achieved long term successes in North Africa, in as much as the consequences of its input were more long term than immediate. For instance it is true to say that although detailed Ultra decrypts failed to stop the successful invasion of Crete, the resistance the Allied forces were able to give (as the precise plans of the invasion were known) helped to persuade the Axis powers to firstly postpone and then to cancel a similar invasion of Malta. Ultra also had a negative role in the North Africa, by which the Allies could gauge if their deception techniques were being successful and whether the Axis forces had knowledge of Allied operations or not. This 'no news is good news' role which Ultra performed especially well preceding the Allied Torch landings in November 1942 was extremely useful to the Allies in the planning of future operations too. The effectiveness with which intelligence was processed was significantly improved towards the end of the war which led to its role being enhanced to some extent.

Since the release of many documents Ultra's role in the Second world War has been greatly exaggerated, being elevated to the rank of a decisive factor. Such an assertion involves the overlooking of the numerous and crippling limitations of this form of intelligence, technically and operationally. Through analysis of such limitations, in relation to its isolated successes, it can be seen that Ultra was no more than a supplementary factor in the Allies favour, complimenting their knowledge of the Axis powers and their forces in North Africa. Intelligence occasionally enabled the Allies to know vital information about the Afrika Korps and, although rarely in the short term, due to the slow speed of its distribution , Ultra did achieve decisive victories for the Allies in the long-term over its Axis counter-parts, but for the most part intelligence provided very minute parts of an ever-changing jigsaw which although significant, was not decisive in itself.

Towards the end of the Desert War intelligence was becoming established as a significant weapon in the Allied armoury, with Ultra being more effectively used, whilst still remaining undetected. Ultra indeed had the potential to be a decisive factor and on selective occasions it was, and its use certainly was to the Allied advantage as was shown at Alam Halfa, but its role should not be exaggerated further, as the usefulness of its findings were vastly restricted and as a result it cannot be said to have won or even shortened the Desert War for the Allies. The most important role of intelligence was to aid the British in devastating the Italian Merchant Fleet and it was far more effective in this role than it was in the land warfare in North Africa and the fact that the Axis forces did not possess this type of source was of great significance to the entire campaign.

1 1 F.H Hinsley, British Intelligence In The Second World War - Volume Two, p367

2 F.H Hinsley, British Intelligence In The Second World War - Volume Two, p376

3 F.H Hinsley, British Intelligence In The Second World War - Volume One, p 215

4 F.H Hinsley, British Intelligence In The Second World War - Volume Two, p312

5 F.H Hinsley, British Intelligence In The Second World War - Volume Two, p367

6 F.W Winterbotham, The Ultra Secret, p187

7 F.H Hinsley, British Intelligence In The Second World War - Volume Two, p366


Diverted and Committed Troops

Weapons In North Africa

Commanders and their tactics

High Command Disputes And Interference

Concluding thoughts on the North African Campaign

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