Operation "Orange Fire" : The Eastern Libya Campaign
Final Day : November 24th 1949The final day of the campaign opens with renewed dawn air raids on British supply infrastructure in a stretch west and east of Tobruk. Much to the relief of the British, the nerve gas used is sarin and not the more deadly VX used earlier in the campaign.[the priority on VX stocks having been shifted west to confront the Americans after Hitler changes his mind and relents to his general's wishes]
Still, an already severely wounded British logistical system is battered further in the intensive attacks. Also hit are more British radar sites, putting more holes in an already ragged network. Again fighters clash in the skies throughout the day as greater British numbers offset their higher rate of losses. Missiles are also used in the morning hours, as they have been on most days of the operation, with a dozen ballistic missiles causing moderate and scattered damage at Tobruk.
On the ground, the British 8th Armored division under Field Marshall Thomas Harding is forced to break off its counter-attack by mid afternoon, having been stopped 5 miles east of Al Bayda by German tank busting jet aircraft as well as armored and anti-tank forces. To the southwest the British 7th Armored division has surrendered several days after running out of fuel, and some 200,000 British and Imperial soldiers are now trapped in the gradually shrinking Benghazi pocket. Italian forces have remained unable to make much progress and have by now simply dug into a holding position while events unfold to their northeast. The British supply situation in the Benghazi pocket is grim, but not yet fatally grim. They have stocks sufficient to hold out for months, though the men will soon go hungry on strict rations.
British Field Marshal Thomas Harding stared at the charred remains of another 8th armored tank and saw only the ruins of his career and the coming loss of Libya. His counter-attack to re-take Al Bayda had failed under a storm of jet stuka cannon fire, anti-tank rockets from highly skilled German panzergrenadiers, and stubborn German armored defenders. This alone was bad enough, but the entire British 7th armored division had already been forced to surrender the day before for lack of fuel. Benghazi would now remain isolated, and Harding would have no choice but to fall back upon Tobruk and await the transfer orders that would strip him of command.
How could he have been so utterly defeated, when every advantage had been his? Overhead, contrails marked the paths of bombers and the roar of jets was audible. Small arms fire and the heavier reports of cannon fire still cut the air as two of his battalions fought a rear-guard action so the rest of his division could withdraw to the east in good order. He had let down himself, his nation, and his King. He would be a failed footnote of history; The week that America invaded Africa and Europe while the British 8th Armored Division under Field Marshall Thomas Harding lost Libya in the east. For a fleeting moment he glanced at his pistol and considered the peace of oblivion....
Suddenly, a blinding white light forced Thomas to shield his eyes with an outstretched hand. The roaring blast and concussion came a moment later, and dust filled his lungs and put him into a coughing fit. Wiping dust from cracked lips, Thomas looked up to the west again and felt hope at the terrible visage he saw; A towering dark pillar, split across with angry orange streaks of flame, was soaring vertically up into the clear blue sky.
Even as he watched, the mushroom cloud gathered itself together as the awful, by now familiar, toadstool cap formed at the top of the roiling tower of dust and flame. And with that terrible hell of heat and carnage, fuel sufficient to supply an armored division for a month blazed brightly in untold fury, its untapped energy now rapidly spent. A grim smile split Thomas's dirt smeared face, and the orange fires of hell reflected in satisfied eyes. The boundless destruction of the split atom had just saved the British in North Africa, and pulled Field Marshall Thomas Harding's legacy from the ashes of eternal shame.