British Eighth Army

From Academic Kids

The Eighth Army was one of the best-known formations in World War II, fighting in the campaigns in North Africa and Italy. It was "British" in name, and was always commanded by a British general, although many of its component units were from British Commonwealth countries, including Australia, India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia. There were also significant contributions from Free French and Polish units. British units included the 7th Armoured Division (The Desert Rats) and the 51st Highland Division. Following the outbreak of the Pacific War, in December 1941, most of the Australian I Corps was recalled for home defence duties, although the 9th Division remained until mid-1943.

The Eighth Army was formed from the Western Desert Force in September 1941 and put under the command of Lt-Gen Sir Alan Cunningham. It first went into action as an Army on November 17, 1941, when it crossed the frontier of Cyrenaica to meet the thrust of Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps. The Commander-in-Chief Middle-East, General Sir Claude Auchinleck, replaced Cunningham with Major General Neil Ritchie. Ritchie proved unable to halt Rommel and was in turn replaced when Auchinleck himself took command. The Afrika Korps were eventually halted by Auchinleck at the First battle of El Alamein. Auchinleck proved unable to build on this success and was in turn replaced as Commander-in-Chief Middle-East by General Alexander and as Eighth Army commander by General Bernard Montgomery.

After losing ground the Eighth Army gained the initiative after the Second Battle of El Alamein under its new commander and participated in the ejection of the Axis forces from North Africa.

The Eighth Army then participlated in the Italian Campaign. Elements landed in the 'toe' of Italy in Operation Baytown, and 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.

During the stalemate on the Winter Line, in early 1944, the Eighth Army was removed from the shore of the Adriatic Sea to concentrate all forces, except the British V Corps, on the western side of the Apennines in order to punch through to Rome. Forces from 8th Army were those that finally captured the ancient monastery in the Battle of Monte Cassino.

After the capture of Rome, Eighth Army returned to the Adriatic coast. The end of the summer campaign found Allied forces butting up against the Gothic Line. The Gothic line was forced, 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.

In the spring of 1945, Eighth Army resumed its offensive. It cut off and destroyed large parts of the opposing Army Group C during April and then made a rapid advance through northeast Italy and into Austria. Problems occurred where British and Yugoslav forces met. 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 May 2, 1945 troops of Yugoslav Fourth Army together with Slovene 9th Corpus NOV liberated Trieste and the same day the Eighth Army together with 2nd New Zealand Division entered the town.

In its early days, 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.

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