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A comparison of the 1917 campaign in Palestine to the fighting in North Africa during WWII





Contributors to the BGG wargame forum are certainly familiar with the campaign in North Africa during WWII. Events in places like Gazala or El Alamein are instantly recognized and commanders like Montgomery or Rommel are considered to be old acquaintances.

The narrative of the 1917 campaign in Palestine shares a number of elements with the struggle in Egypt and Libya during the Second World War. In fact, the fighting during the Great War was (in many ways) a preview of the battles between the 8th Army and the Afrika Korps.

While the strategic situation was not the same the basic theme of both campaigns was similar: the events in Palestine were a sideshow to the tragedy on the Western Front and the events in North Africa were a sideshow to the epic conflict on the Russian Front. This article will use board games to explore the links between these two campaigns and prove once again that military history contains a number of essential components that echo through the ages.






My latest project is a Commands & Colors version of the attack on Gaza and the breakthrough at Beersheba in the fall of 1917, often called the Third Battle of Gaza. This was a successful British attempt to crack the Turkish defenses protecting the approach to Jerusalem. This massive scenario uses a modified Memoir '44 system and a pair of large Memoir '44: Breakthrough boards. In this configuration the compass would point north to the upper left corner of the map.






The similarity between this campaign and the battle of Gazala in 1942 struck me immediately. During the events in WWII a defensive line was anchored on the coast and then stretched across the desert to a distant point, where it ended abruptly at the edge of increasingly inhospitable terrain. This left the southern flank of the line exposed to enemy action. The classic SPI game Cauldron was a favorite in my youth so that map will be used illustrate the situation.






By the autumn of 1917 Gaza was a fortress and probably equal to the fortified "boxes" created by the British in 1942. Obviously, the Mediterranean Sea protected the northern flank during both campaigns.






In both situations the center of the line was also fortified, but not to the same extent. In the Gazala battle minefields linked mutually supporting "boxes" that formed a series of strongpoints. In 1917 the Turks used a system of redoubts and trenches to create a similar barrier. Here is a quote from the official British history of the campaign describing the Turkish defenses:

"No attempt was made to establish a continuous line of defense, but the position was well chosen, with a long field of fire, all approaches being within the zone of one redoubt and generally of more than one."






The southern end of the Allied line at Gazala was the isolated transportation hub of Bir Hakeim. A garrison of Free French soldiers held this point for several days, slowing Rommel's advance on Tobruk. The southern end of the Ottoman defensive position was Beersheba. This transportation hub was also several miles away from the main line of trenches. Like Bir Hakeim, Beersheba was somewhat protected by forbidding terrain but the British commander (Allenby) carefully constructed a supply network that would support an overwhelming attack on this Turkish strongpoint.







Logistics are always important. In a desert campaign the challenges may often seem insurmountable. During WWII every commander in the theater faced all of the usual problems plus an insatiable need for petroleum products to fuel tanks, trucks, and other vehicles. The famous battle at the "Cauldron" was a successful attempt by Rommel to reopen a supply line and refuel the Panzers.






Although the British used a few tanks and armored cars in 1917 true operational mobility for both armies was provided by cavalry formations. Allenby executed a logistical tour-de-force by establishing a series of watering points for his mounted units that allowed the cavalry to sweep around the exposed flank at Beersheba. Like Rommel in 1942, Allenby rolled the dice when he risked his mobile force in an all-or-nothing gamble to seize the crucial wells at Beersheba.






Even casual students of the campaign in North Africa know about Monty's elaborate deception plan before the final struggle at El Alamein. Rommel's attention was to be distracted from the actual site of the attack in the northern sector to focus on the southern end of the line. Operation Bertram included dummy equipment, the construction of an extensive system of water lines heading south that didn't really exist, and other gimmicks like this tank hidden under a false truck canopy.






Allenby had used a similar stratagem 25 years earlier. Turkish attention was to be focused on Gaza in the north while the actual attack struck Beersheba in the south.

Simulated wireless traffic on the island of Cyprus was combined with naval activity along the coast to convince Ottoman commanders that an amphibious invasion was planned behind the Gaza line. The daily construction of the southern railroad extension (absolutely vital to the British plan) was hidden from Turkish aircraft by covering the tracks with brush or other camouflage. A phony railroad station was built to convince the Turks that the line actually ended miles to the rear. Camps emptied as the assault troops were moved forward were kept active by lighting fires at night and other trickery.

Perhaps the most interesting deception was the "lost haversack" episode. An officer on a fake reconnaissance patrol pretended to be wounded and dropped a blood-stained satchel containing sandwiches, British pound notes, personal letters, and a stack of official documents. Of course, these documents indicated that the main assault would be directed at Gaza with a diversionary move on Beersheba. According to most sources the enemy commanders were deceived by this trick.

Contributors familiar with the famous "Man Who Never Was" deception used before the invasion of Sicily will immediately recognize the similarity of this technique.






Thanks for taking a few minutes to read this lengthy article.

Time for me to get back to my scenario. A lavishly illustrated Session Report will be posted on BGG in a couple of weeks.
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Captain Nemo
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Quote:
Perhaps the most interesting deception was the "lost haversack" episode. An officer on a fake reconnaissance patrol pretended to be wounded and dropped a blood-stained satchel containing sandwiches, British pound notes, personal letters, and a stack of official documents. Of course, these documents indicated that the main assault would be directed at Gaza with a diversionary move on Beersheba. According to most sources the enemy commanders were deceived by this trick.

Contributors familiar with the famous "Man Who Never Was" deception used before the invasion of Sicily will immediately recognize the similarity of this technique.


Papers left in a scout car blown up on a minefield in no-mans-land at El Alamein.
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Good article! Both the Western Desert campaign in WW2 and the Sinai/Palestine campaign in WW1 are my #1 favorite subject in the respective conflict.
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hammurabi70 wrote:
Quote:
Perhaps the most interesting deception was the "lost haversack" episode. An officer on a fake reconnaissance patrol pretended to be wounded and dropped a blood-stained satchel containing sandwiches, British pound notes, personal letters, and a stack of official documents. Of course, these documents indicated that the main assault would be directed at Gaza with a diversionary move on Beersheba. According to most sources the enemy commanders were deceived by this trick.

Contributors familiar with the famous "Man Who Never Was" deception used before the invasion of Sicily will immediately recognize the similarity of this technique.


Papers left in a scout car blown up on a minefield in no-mans-land at El Alamein.


Good one! Thanks.
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Taskforce 58 wrote:
...the Western Desert campaign in WW2 and the Sinai/Palestine campaign in WW1 are my #1 favorite subject in the respective conflict.


From the perspective of a scenario developer the fighting at Gaza in Palestine (and at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia) is certainly more interesting to me than trench warfare in France... except for Cambrai 1917.
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pete belli wrote:
Taskforce 58 wrote:
...the Western Desert campaign in WW2 and the Sinai/Palestine campaign in WW1 are my #1 favorite subject in the respective conflict.


From the perspective of a scenario developer the fighting at Gaza in Palestine (and at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia) is certainly more interesting to me than trench warfare in France... except for Cambrai 1917.

What's so special about that fight?

-M_R
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midnight_reaper wrote:
pete belli wrote:
Taskforce 58 wrote:
...the Western Desert campaign in WW2 and the Sinai/Palestine campaign in WW1 are my #1 favorite subject in the respective conflict.


From the perspective of a scenario developer the fighting at Gaza in Palestine (and at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia) is certainly more interesting to me than trench warfare in France... except for Cambrai 1917.

What's so special about that fight?

-M_R


A valid question.

Ctesiphon is an engagement which featured cavalry, armored vehicles, gunboats, and aircraft... plus room to maneuver.



BGG article: Ctesiphon 1915 -- the battle for Mesopotamia
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BGG article on the 1917 campaign: Palestine 1917: Gaza and the breakthrough at Beersheba
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