Emblem of the British Eighth Army
Western Desert Campaign|
|Battle honours||El Alamein|
It was a British formation, always commanded by British officers, however its personnel came from throughout the British Empire and Commonwealth; complemented by units composed of exiles from Nazi-occupied Europe. Subordinate units came from Australia, British India, Canada, Free French Forces, Greece, New Zealand, Poland, Rhodesia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
The Eighth Army was formed from the Western Desert Force in September 1941 and put under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Cunningham. It got its number from the fact that the French had fielded seven armies previously in the same war, the British had fielded the British Expeditionary Force. At its creation, the Eighth Army comprised two Corps: XXX Corps under Lieutenant-General Willoughby Norrie and XIII Corps under Lieutenant-General Reade Godwin-Austen. XXX Corps was made up of British 7th Armoured Division (commanded by Major-General William Gott), the South African 1st Infantry Division (commanded by Major-General George Brink) and the 22nd Guards Brigade. XIII Corps composed of the 4th Indian Infantry Division (commanded by Major-General Frank Messervy), the 2nd New Zealand Division (commanded by Major-General Bernard Freyberg) and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. The Eighth Army also included the Tobruk garrison (the British 70th Infantry Division, under Major-General Ronald Scobie), and the Polish Carpathian Brigade. In reserve, the Eighth Army had the South African 2nd Infantry Division making a total of seven divisions.
By the time the army was fighting the Second Battle of El Alamein, it had reached a size of over 220,000 men in 10 divisions and several independent brigades.
The Eighth Army first went into action as an Army as part of Operation Crusader, the Allied operation to relieve the besieged city of Tobruk, on 17 November 1941, when it crossed the Egyptian frontier into Libya to attack Erwin Rommel's Panzer Army Africa. On 26 November the Commander-in-Chief Middle East Command, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, replaced Cunningham with Major-General Neil Ritchie, following disagreements between Auchinleck and Cunningham. Despite achieving a number of tactical successes, Rommel was forced to concede Tobruk and was pushed back to El Agheila by the end of 1941. In February 1942 Rommel had regrouped his forces sufficiently to push the over-extended Eighth Army back to the Gazala line, just west of Tobruk. Both sides commenced a period of building their strength to launch new offensives but it was Rommel who took the initiative first, forcing Eighth Army from the Gazala position. Ritchie proved unable to halt Rommel and was replaced when Auchinleck himself took direct command of the army. The Panzer Army Afrika were eventually stopped by Auchinleck at the First Battle of El Alamein. Auchinleck, wishing to pause and regroup the Eighth Army which had expended a lot of its strength in halting Rommel, came under intense political pressure from Winston Churchill to strike back immediately. However, he proved unable to build on his success at Alamein and was replaced as Commander-in-Chief Middle-East in August 1942 by General Harold Alexander and as Eighth Army commander by Lieutenant-General William Gott. Gott was killed in an air crash on his way to take up his command and so Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery was appointed in his place. Alexander and Montgomery were able to resist the pressure from Churchill, building the army's strength and adding a pursuit formation, X Corps, to the Army's XIII and XXX Corps.
At the beginning of November 1942 the Eighth Army defeated Rommel in the decisive Second Battle of El Alamein, pursuing the defeated Axis army across Libya and reaching the Mareth defensive line on the Tunisian border in February 1943 where it came under the control of 18th Army Group. The Eighth Army outflanked the Mareth defences in March 1943 and after further fighting alongside the British First Army, the other 18th Army Group component which had been campaigning in Tunisia since November 1942, the Axis forces in North Africa surrendered in May 1943.
The Eighth Army then participated in the Italian Campaign which began with Operation Husky, the invasion of the island of Sicily. When the Allies subsequently invaded mainland Italy, elements of the Eighth Army landed in the 'toe' of Italy in Operation Baytown and at Taranto in Operation Slapstick. After linking its left flank with the US Fifth Army which had landed at Salerno on the west coast of Italy south of Naples, Eighth Army continued fighting its way up Italy on the eastern flank of the Allied forces.
At the end of 1943, General Montgomery was transferred to Britain to begin preparations for the Normandy invasion. Command of the Eighth Army was given to Lieutenant General Oliver Leese. Following three unsuccessful attempts in early 1944 by the US Fifth Army to break through the German Winter Line, the Eighth Army was covertly switched from the Adriatic coast in April 1944 to concentrate all forces, except the V Corps, on the western side of the Apennine Mountains alongside the US Fifth Army in order to mount a major offensive with them and punch through to Rome. This fourth Battle of Monte Cassino was successful with Eighth Army breaking into central Italy and Fifth Army entering Rome in early June.
After the Allied capture of Rome the Eighth Army continued the fight northwards through central Italy to capture Florence. The end of the summer campaign found Allied forces butting up against the Gothic Line. Eighth Army returned to the Adriatic coast and succeeded in forcing the Gothic line defences, but ultimately the Allied forces could not break into the Po valley before the onset of winter forced an end to serious offensive operations. During October, Leese was reassigned to South East Asia Command, and Lieutenant General Sir Richard McCreery replaced him.
The spring 1945 offensive in Italy saw the Eighth Army back in action. Working in conjunction with the U.S. 5th Army on its left flank, it cut off and destroyed, (during April), large parts of the opposing Army Group C defending Bologna and then made a rapid advance through northeast Italy and into Austria. Problems occurred where British and Yugoslavian forces met. Josip Broz Tito's forces were intent on securing control of the area of Venezia Giulia. They arrived before British forces, and were very active in trying to prevent the establishment of military government in the manner that had applied to most of the rest of Italy. They even went as far as to restrict supplies through to the British zone of occupation in Austria and tried to take over part of that country as well. On 2 May 1945, the 2nd New Zealand Division of the Eighth Army liberated Trieste, and that same day, the Yugoslav Fourth Army, together with Slovene 9th Corpus NOV entered the town.
In its early days, the Eighth Army had seen many tribulations. However, since the Second Battle of El Alamein, the worst that could be said of its operations was that they degenerated into temporary stalemates. Its advance from El Alamein to Tunisia was one of the greatest military logistical feats of all time, and it had distinguished itself fighting under difficult conditions during the campaign in Italy. It ended its days by being redesignated British Forces in Austria; controlling the British forces occupying part of that country.
Commanders of the British Eighth Army 1941–45
- 9 September – 26 November 1941 Lieutenant-General Alan Cunningham
- 26 November 1941 – 25 June 1942 Lieutenant-General Neil Ritchie
- 25 June 1942 – 13 August 1942 General Claude Auchinleck
- 13 August 1942 – 29 December 1943 General Bernard Montgomery
- 29 December 1943 – 1 October 1944 Lieutenant-General Oliver Leese
- 1 October 1944 – July 1945 Lieutenant-General Richard McCreery
Corps which passed through the Eighth Army
- British V Corps
- British X Corps
- British XIII Corps
- British XXX Corps
- Canadian I Corps
- New Zealand Corps
- Polish II Corps
After the war, veterans from the Eighth Army organized Annual Reunions at the Royal Albert Hall. Then, in the late 1970s, the Eighth Army Veterans Association was formed. At the height of its membership, there were over 35 branches, with a particular strength in the North West of the UK. Reunions were held at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool. Eventually, in 2002 the National Association disbanded. However, the Manchester Branch decided to continue, under the title of Eighth Army Veterans, City of Manchester. It has an active membership, who hold regular meetings and events. Its newsletter, "The Manchester Veteran", is still distributed to 300 ex-servicemen and women, or their dependents, and is a lively forum for the community it represents. A facility exists for Schools Talks to be given, in the Manchester/North Cheshire area.
- Eighth Army Veterans (City of Manchester), accessed October 2012.
- Moorehead, Alan, The March to Tunis: The North African War 1940–1943, Harper and Row, New York, 1967.
- Stewart, Adrian. Early Battles of the Eighth Army: Crusader to the Alamein Line. Barnsley, England: Pen & Sword, 2002.
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