THE Mediterranean theater is generally dismissed by students of World War II as having little value to either the Allies or the Axis. Conventional wisdom describes its importance as having been exaggerated because the Mediterranean was the last opportunity for a declining British empire to play an independent, leading role; because its complexity invites speculation about alternative solutions; and not least because of the dramatic element generated by the presence and performance of Erwin Rommel.
Rommel, as surprised as everyone else in the army by his appointment, landed in Tripoli on February 12, 1941. On the way, he stopped in Rome to meet with the Italian chief of staff, and in Sicily to discuss plans with the Luftwaffe commander. Hitler insisted that the Italians be treated as equals, and Rommel understood the central importance of air support in the kind of operation he proposed to begin. The second meeting was prophetic in another way. When informed that the Luftwaffe had been asked not to bomb Benghazi because so much of the city was Italian property, Rommel appealed directly to Hitler. A telephone call, and the bombers were authorized to take off. It was by no means the last time Rommel would stage an end run around obstacles, political or military.
Rommel was initially a general without troops. Not until mid-March would the 5th Light Division arrive; the balance of the corps would take even longer. He seemed as well a general without opportunities. The Italian theater command made clear that the Germans were welcome, but as backup to their own reorganizing and reequipping forces. These were unwitting beneficiaries of one of Churchill’s most controversial strategic decisions: to shut down operations in that theater temporarily in favor of dispatching an expeditionary force to Greece. O’Connor, not pleased at losing most of his desert-experienced units, nevertheless recognized that his forces were at the end of their logistical tether and believed his enemies sufficiently disorganized that he would have time to season white-kneed replacements arriving from all over the empire.
Rommel had an entirely different set of ideas. Studying maps and intelligence reports, observing the zone of operations from a light airplane, he was convinced the best defense was a deployment not around Tripoli but forward, on the Gulf of Sirte. When his first German battalion arrived in Tripoli, Rommel paraded it through the city and sent it east. Two days later, its armored cars tangled with a patrol of the King’s Dragoon Guards. They were followed by the rest of their division, then eventually the balance of the DAK, as ships arrived and unloaded. “The desert awaits us!” Rommel greeted one group of newcomers. “We are about to embark on a great safari.” “Heya safari!” someone shouted in response. Others took it up, and the Afrika Korps had its slogan and its war cry. Uttered with enthusiasm, irony, and every emotion in between, it remains the signature of Germany’s war in Africa.
The spectacular early successes of the Afrika Korps led many Allied journalists to describe it as an elite formation, specially trained and equipped for desert conditions. The closest the men of the Afrika Korps came to being specially screened was a fairly cursory physical examination evaluating whether their level of fitmess was suitable for service in Africa. Not surprisingly, most of them passed. The men of the 5th Light and 15th Panzer did not even have the screening. Their medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Their equipment was Wehrmacht standard, with the addition of a few hundred sun helmets— most of them soon discarded in favor of field caps—and a few thousand gallons of camouflage paint in varying shades of brown. Their standing orders prescribed which of Tripoli’s many brothels they were to use. Their order of battle represented a near-random cross-section of the army’s mobile forces.
The 15th Panzer Division was the most conventional, organized to 1941 standards of two tank and four motorized battalions, a motorcycle battalion, and a reconnaissance battalion plus divisional troops. Its 8th Panzer Regiment had been transferred in as part of the general reorganization of the mobile forces. The rest of the division was new to armored service, having begun converting from the 33rd Infantry Divison only in November. The 5th Light, later retitled the 21st Panzer, drew its mechanized elements primarily from the 3rd Panzer Division: a two-battalion tank regiment an antitank battalion, a reconnaissance battalion, a motorized artillery battalion, and some support elements. Fifth Light also included a rifle regiment headquarters controlling two motorized machine-gun battalions, assigned from army troops. From army troops came as well another antitank battalion, with French guns on self-propelled mounts, and a couple antiaircraft battalions, including a dozen 88s. The 90th Light was a mixed bag of independent infantry and antitank battalions that evolved into a pivot and support force for the Panzers, whose mobility and fire-power made it formidable alike in attack and defense. The 90th was also the most colorful of Rommel’s outfits, unconventional in dress and easygoing in discipline by German standards and eventually including a regiment of men transferred (willingly or not) from a French Foreign Legion anxious to be rid of its German elements. Thee three divisions would remain the heart of the Afrika Korps until its destruction.
By this time, the basic German tank was the Mark III, the backbone of the armored force in 1941-1942. At slightly more than twenty tons, it was classified as a medium. Like its stablemates, it was fast, mechanically reliable, and carried a radio—the last proving indispensable in North African conditions. An original and inadequate 37-millimeter gun had by the time of deployment to Africa been replaced by a 5-centimeter, 42-caliber weapon, which later gave way to a 60-caliber mount, essentially the same weapon as the 5-centimeter antitank gun that proved such a formidable long-term enemy to British armor. Each of the Afrika Korps’s original Panzer regiments had a theoretical strength of 71 Mark III’s, 20 Mark IV close-support tanks with the short 75-millimeter “cigar butt,” and still no fewer than 45 Mark II’s useful primarily for scouting.
On paper, the DAK resembled the kind of ad hoc mix of men and units that British commanders in the desert constantly complained of over the next two years. But the Germans were riding the crest of a wave of victories. They had confidence in themselves and their officers, their training, and their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. This system of “battle groups” was enhanced by the German practice of providing every unit, down to companies, with the organic specialists and supporting weapons needed to perform routine missions independently. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Leggos: individual pieces once fastened together would hold even if the final construction was awkward.
The British regimental system by contrast encouraged compartmentalization, with not merely infantry, armor, and artillery, but different units of the same arm of service going their own ways. Desert humor had it that the only way two British regiments could be sure of cooperating was if their commanders had slept with each other’s wives. Relatively few of the officers and men who faced Rommel’s rapidly assembling force had had any experience of the German way of war. Most of the veterans of the 1940 campaign were in England. Most of the pamphlets and manuals describing how the Germans fought were still being written; the doctrines to counter them were in the process of development. Not until 1944 would the British army emerge from behind the tactical curve and be in a position to fight the German enemy that existed, as opposed to the one in the field a year earlier.
The DAK had one further advantage: its commander. Rommel did not take long to decide that something had happened, that the rhythm of British operations had been interrupted. He proposed to disrupt that rhythm even further. On March 11, the 5th Light Division’s Panzer regiment disembarked and started toward the front. Rommel benefited unwittingly from an apparent success on the part of British intelligence. ULTRA, the decoding service that for most of the war read most of the important German electronic mail, intercepted a direct order not to undertake any significant offensive action until the 15th Panzer Division became available in May. The British at the front drew a long breath while Rommel flew back to Germany, where he received the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross and confirmation that the Afrika Korps was a blocking force, intended to boost Italian morale for a minimum investment of resources.
Ordered to play it safe, instead, on March 31, Rommel opened a general offensive. His Italian superiors had given him two of their infantry divisions, Brescia and Pavia. In theory, these and their counterparts that would later serve under Rommel had enough organic motor vehicles to move about half their men at one time. In practice, the number was always small enough to restrict mobility to a foot pace. Rommel also had the Ariete Armored Division, with an assigned strength of around a hundred light and medium tanks that so far had proved vulnerable to almost anything the British threw at them. The Italian contribution nevertheless enabled Rommel to attack in three sectors: on the left a drive down the coast road; on the right a sweep into the desert aimed at cutting the British line of retreat; and in the center the Schwerpunkt, with most of the German armor driving for Msus and Mechili.
Rommel’s blow caught the British between wind and water, with neither a developed system of forward positions, enough reserves to organize a defense in depth, nor a doctrine for managing large-scale retreats. Rommel projected the same demonic energy he had shown in France, taking frequent advantage of Axis air superiority to keep in touch with his leading elements by light plane. When told that the 5th Light would have to suspend operations for four days, he ordered the division to devote its entire truck fleet to bringing fuel to the forward units. The improvisation worked—not least because of one of the Wehrmacht’s humbler artifacts, the robust five-gallon gasoline cans that could be stacked and jostled without springing the leaks endemic to their smaller British counterparts.
When O’Connor and his field commander Lieutenant General Sir Philip Neame were captured, theater commander Sir Archibald Wavell took over the conduct of operations from his Cairo headquarters. German senior officers were able to lead from the front, thanks to the elaborate radio networks they enjoyed. German mobile formations were all-arms groups—Mark III’s and IV’s, artillery, antitank guns, and motorized infantry—able to support each other as needed, sometimes weaving battle tapestries that baffled their counterparts, more often bypassing pockets of resistance and driving on into the British rear.
It was deep penetration on a level not seen even in France. All did not go well. Columns became lost in broken, poorly mapped terrain, or deceived by mirages. Engines overheated in 120-degree temperatures. Sand-storms slowed rates of march. Rommel himself nearly landed next to a British column by mistake. But Benghazi fell on April 3. The British reeled back, survivors and stragglers threatening to swamp still-organized units. Rommel had returned to Africa with the intention of mounting a limited attack. On April 10, he issued an order setting the Axis objective as the Suez Canal.
The vision of a great captain or the vainglory of a shortsighted one? A month earlier, Rommel had hosted a gala performance of “Victory in the West” and told his guests that he hoped the day would come for a showing of “Victory in Africa”—with the unspoken addition that the second lead would move up to a star’s role. There was no question that within weeks, Rommel had imprinted the Afrika Korps just as he had the 7th Panzer Division. He had demonstrated the same omnipresence, the same unconcern for danger, the same physical hardness, the same interest in his men’s welfare, that he had in France. Rommel was hard in other ways as well: a ruthless driver free with threats of court-martial or relief from command. At the same time, he was constantly teaching, showing officers from lieutenants to colonels better ways of getting it done.
Even more than in Europe, Rommel manifested a situational awareness, both geographic and tactical, so finely honed that men spoke of a sixth sense. A soldier of his escort describes Rommel as time after time arriving without warning in some crucial sector, standing up in his car, shouting “Attack! Attack!” and inspiring even more desperate efforts. Perhaps more than anything else, this confirmed his place as leader of the Afriksa Korps as well as its commander. To the Germans, born in a country where everything was always green, used to clear landmarks and short distances, North Africa was a completely alien environment in every way. Someone who seemed to master it with Rommel’s ease would attract followers instead of subordinates apart from any military qualities he might possess.
Tanks and trucks, however, did not respond to charismatic leadership. The Panzers’ air filters were a weak spot, unable to block the fine desert sand with the result that engines seized up and had to be replaced. Sprints and shock absorbers gave way on the rough and roadless going. As maintenance personnel complained, Rommel began acquiring his reputation as a general either ignorant in principle of logistics or culpably careless in supervising them. In a wider context, the German officer corps’s tactical and operational proficiency becomes a manifestation of tunnel vision, with caste pride or misunderstood professionalism relegating administration to those unfit to command troops in combat.
Rommel, in fact, was at the center of a paradox. The development of the internal-combustion engine made offensives in depth possible and improved the flexibility of supply systems. But the dependence of motor vehicles on fuel and maintenance imposed a limit of around three hundred kilometers on gasoline-powered advances. Nor had the Wehrmacht achieved anything like full conversion to motorization. For most of its operational life, the army depended heavily on railroads at the strategic end, horses at the tactical, with trucks more or less filling the operational gap.
A cursory examination of the Afrika Korps’s order of battle shows an emphasis on motor vehicles and motorized weapons at the expense of manpower and horsepower that was unique even in the German army’s mobile forces. Even before Rommel’s first offensive, the motor transport capactiy required by the Afrika Korps was proportionally ten times that allocated for the projected invasion of Russia. Rommel saw as well as anyone on either side of the war that victory in the desert depended on supply. He also believed that if every subordinate shared his sense of urgency, then problems of any kind were more likely to be favorably resolved. Those who did not accept and internalize that attitude seldom remained long in key positions. Rommel, perhaps reflecting his own lack of staff training, believed staffs were by definition cautious: prone to address operational questions with sharp pencils, prone to see difficulties instead of opportunities. Instead of accepting the estimates of the administrators, Rommel argued that a commander should form his own evaluations of the logistically feasible and couch his demands accordingly. There would be grumbling and complaint—but what else was new? When the 5th Light Division reported it required a two-day halt for what its commander called essential maintenance, Rommel replied that “every man and vehicle that can move, must move”—with the strong implication that if necessary, they would do so under a new CO.
The clearest expression of Rommel’s position came when, at the end of a long discussion emphasizing the need for caution in North Africa, Chief of Staff Franz Halder asked Rommel how many troops he would need to conquer Egypt and the Suez Canal. Rommel replied that another two Panzer corps should do. Halder than asked how Rommel proposed to supply that force. Rommel replied that was Halder’s problem.
Rommel and Halder did not care for each other. Yet Rommel was expressing the mentality of the German army as reorganized after 1933. The General Staff system in the Third Reich resembled a “troop staff” (Truppenstab) much more closely than the institution of the days of Moltke and Schlieffen. The army’s rapid expansion encouraged a more pragmatic, hands-on ethic than had been the case prior to the Great War. The pace Hitler demanded encouraged emphasis on the operational side of war. Planning, in turn, revolved around operational considerations; the logisticians were called in afterward. The material, Halder declared after the war, must serve the spiritual; quartermaster must never hamper the operational concept.
The development of the Reichswehr’s motor transport service into a fighting branch had removed the institution most concerned with developing a modern approach to logistics. Throughout the war, supply officers remained the “red-headed stepchildren” of staffs at all levels. Frequently reservists, their rank and status placed them lower on the scale of authority than their colleagues charged with operational matters. Indeed, the very term “logistics” was a Western importation into the West German Bundeswehr. During the war, the terms used were Versorgung and Nachschub,both meaning “supply,” and both with the narrow context of keeping forward units haversacks, ammunition pouches, nosebags, and gas tanks reasonably full.
Rommel, in short, was well within the World War II German army’s paradigm in his approach to supply matters. He also understood from the campaign’s beginning that he had relatively little control of his logistics. Germany was a guest in the theater, depending on Italian goodwill and Italian abilities to sustain a small expeditionary force. Particularly in the months before his legend took hold, Rommel’s influence on his allies was marginal. He might be able to influence tactical-level issues, as he did with fuel shortages, where he proved a master at making gasoline from captured British dumps. Otherwise, he was constrained to rely on his German superiors—and the best way to get their attention was to remind them forcibly and constantly of their own axiom that administrations must never impede operations.
The operational side of the campaign was giving Rommel enough cause for concern. Despite his alleged indifference to logistics, he wanted Tobruk—a port that would provide an ideal advance base for that drive on the Suez Canal Rommel had proclaimed as his ultimate objective. Rommel proposed to “bounce” Tobruk, capturing it by a coup de main—or rather a coup de Panzer. That decision was, in turn, based on his knowledge that Tobruk’s fixed defenses were as formidable as anything he had encountered in France. The alternative to a siege was to take advantage of the presumed British disorganization and demoralization and overrun the place in one quick rush.
On April 12, Rommel sent in the Afrika Korps. The garrison at that stage was mostly Australian. The 9th Division began life as a scratch formation of leftover brigades and battalions. Its training was incomplete when it withdrew into Tobruk’s somewhat dilapidated defenses. But its mission did not require tactical sophistication. The Aussies put the Germans to school at close quarters, containing their initial break-ins and inflicting heavy casualties on tanks and infantry. Rommel, who believed the Australians were fighting a rear-guard action as a preliminary to evacuation by sea, clashed again with the 5th Light’s CO, who said—correctly—that the ships in the aerial photos were bringing in reinforcements. Rommel responded by taking personal command of a full-scale attack on the 14th. He came away with a bloody nose. Coordination among armor, infantry, and artillery collapsed, with the tanks running into a nest of field guns and losing half of the three dozen vehicles committed to the assault. The 8th Machine Gun Battalion, spearhead of a half-dozen victorious attacks, was cut off and almost wiped out, losing four hundred of the five hundred men who crossed the line of departure.
Rommel described himself as “furious,” blaming the tank commanders for leaving the infantry in the lurch and blaming the Italians for failing to advance at all. A staff officer on a fact-finding tour reported privately to the army High Command that the Afrika Korps could not take further head-down attacks against the Australians: “. . . tough and hard opponents as individual fighters, highly skilled in defence . . . cold-blooded and skilled in in-fighting . . . and capable of standing hardships of all kinds.”
On April 16, Rommel directed another abortive attack with elements of the Trento and Ariete Divisions. It proved a fiasco, with many of the Italian tanks breaking down before they could be knocked out and large numbers of the infantrymen surrendering to the Austrailians without a fight. A few days later, the Italians provided plans of the defenses they had constructed around Tobruk. Rommel decided the better part of valor after all was to blockade the fortress with Italian infantry while withdrawing his mechanized troops for mobile operations. During the changeover, on April 27, a High Command representative arrived to evaluate the situation.
General Friedrich Paulus was close to Rommel’s personal and professional opposite as could be found in the German army. Cultivated, urbane, and polite, he was a quintessential staff officer who played a key role in planning Operation Barbarossa. He spent two weeks in North Africa and reported that Rommel was a headstrong field soldier whose limited perspective might well encourage the High Command to divert forces from the decisive campaign against Russia. Instead, Paulus recommended shortening the Afrika Korps’s supply lines by withdrawing—a move that would also improve the lot of the soldiers, which Paulus found appalling.
Pending a decision, Paulus authorized Rommel to try for Tobruk again, this time using elements of the newly arrived 15th Panzer in an attack that began on April 30. German engineers made a breach in the wire, and infantry followed on foot, in a classic example of the soft-spot infiltration tactics developed in the Great War and cultivated by the Reichswehr. Bypassing strong points, the forward elements advanced quickly. But the Australians kept their nerve and their heads, pinning down the supports with heavy and accurate fire. The tanks, advancing on their own, got as far as three miles into the defenses before running into minefields that blew the tracks off all but two of the two dozen that were still running.
In an example of the small-unit leadership that made the Afrika Korps what it was, the tank company commander ordered his disabled vehicles to keep firing, brought up infantry and engineers in support, and managed to salvage all but five of his tanks. Another wave of tanks and infantry got even farther before running into a line of twenty-five-pounder field guns and an armored counterattack. By the end of the day, half of the seventy tanks the 15th Panzer sent into the fight had been knocked out. More than 1,200 infantry were down. And the 15th Panzer needed a new commander. Major General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron died in the front line when his command vehicle took a direct hit from an antitank gun.
It took several more days of heavy fighting before Rommel decided that the Afrika Korps and its Italian allies lacked the strength to carry Tobruk by assault and would have to resort to a siege. At least that would give the large number of unmotorized Italian troops a useful mission. Rommel described himself as “extremely annoyed”—not least because Paulus, before returning to Berlin, forbade any more attacks until supplies and reinforcements could be brought up. But Rommel was not merely suffering from bruised ego. The losses of the German infantry particularly disturbed him. “The finest fighting man,” he wrote, “has no value in mobile warfare without tanks, guns, and vehicles . . . This is not the case with position warfare, . . . which is always a struggle for the destruction of men.”
In analyzing his defeat, Rommel noted the inadequate training of many of his infantry, who had been sent to the front from depot formations. He noted the collective inferiority complex of the Italians—a logical consequence of poor armament, training, and leadership. He noted the negative effects of the separation of command between the army and the air force. He even commented on the shortage of necessary supplies. He did not refer to his own ill-advised stubbornness in pursuing an objective that, if it was not gained in the first attempt, was unlikely to be achieved at all.
As Paulus had reported to the army High Command, the central Axis problem in North Africa was logistics. Each month the Afrika Korps needed 24,000 tons of supplies to maintain itself, and double that for an offensive. The Luftwaffe needed 9,000 tons, the Italians 63,000 tons. The port of Tripoli could only handle 45,000 tons a month under optimal conditions—assuming the Italian merchant marine could bring it across the Mediterranean and the Italian navy could protect the cargo ships and tankers. Neither was certain. The Italians refused to send ships forward to Benghazi because of the threat of British air attacks, which cut the port’s theoretical capacity of 2,700 tons a day to less than 800. Coastal convoys were vulnerable for the same reason. That left the land route from Tripoli—an eleven-hundred-mile stretch of dubious-quality highway that the Germans and the Italians together lacked the trucks to exploit. Apart from limited numbers, European vehicles were not designed for the kind of long-haul work in demanding environments that was the norm in the United States. Breakdown figures were correspondingly high as suplies piled up on the docks.
On May 11, Halder noted in his diary that Rommel, through his disobedience of orders, had created circumstances that ignored the possibilities of supply. “Rommel,”the chief of staff concluded, “is not equal to the situation.” Rommel was aware of his superiors’ lack of confidence and knew the British would not remain passive indefinitely. By now his men were subsisting on Italian rations whose principal component was poorly preserved beef in cans labeled “AM.” The Afrika Korps Landsers promptly translated this as “Alter Mann” (old man) or “Asinus Mussolini” (Mussolini’s donkey, in the polite version). It was hot enough that on one occasion Rommel sought—as a publicity stunt, and vainly—to fry eggs on a tank. He also tightened his grip on the Afrika Korps’s command. Fifth Light Division in particular underwent a purge. The division CO, the commander of its Panzer regiment, and a number of junior officers were relieved, both for cause and pour encourager les autres.
The 5th Light’s Brigadier General Johannes Streich later claimed Rommel told him he was too concerned for his troops and was rendered speechless by Streich’s reply that he could think of no higher compliment. The exchange, like most reports of such encounters, probably owed something to the narrator’s self-protective memory. Rommel did not judge victory by casualty lists. He was, however, convinced that speed and shock might cost lives in the beginning but would ultimately save them in the long run. Any subordinate who failed to act accordingly was at corresponding risk of his job.
Doubted by superiors not at all sorry to see Hitler’s protégé fall on his face, coping with an uncertain supply system, and adjusting to new commanders in both of his principal formations (Prittwitz’s replacement was wounded shortly after taking over and had to be replaced), Rommel was not in the best position to launch a new offensive. Nevertheless, as the fight for Tobruk died down, he began shifting German and Italian elements of his command eastward, to the Italian-Egyptian frontier. And as the Germans butted heads with Tobruk and Rommel with his subordinates, Wavell prepared to relieve the fortress and deal with the threat posed by the new Axis commander.
He was under heavy pressure from Churchill who, informed of Paulus’s reports to Berlin by ULTRA, was convinced the Axis troops were vulnerable to a full-scale counterattack. So convinced was the prime minister that he dispatched a convoy, codenamed “Tiger,” through the Mediterranean in defiance of the threat from aircraft and submarines, instead of the longer but safer route around South Africa. Its principal cargo was three hundred tanks—which Churchill delighted to refer to as “tiger cubs”—and fifty Hurricane fighters.
Front-line levels of confidence were high when Operation Battleaxe began on June 15. Wavell’s plan was to move across the frontier south of the main Axis positions, then swing north and drive on Tobruk. He had a clear numerical superiority in men and tanks. But the tanks from Britain were a new model that proved seriously unreliable. The armor and the infantry kept losing contact. British tanks that did not break down encountered an enemy that did not fight by the books of the Royal Armored Corps. British tank officers in the initial stages of Battleaxe stormed forward seeking the Panzers with an enthusiam worthy of a better outcome. Instead, they encountered screens of dug-in antitank guns, many of them second-generation: high-velocity 50-millimeter pieces brought over by the 15th Panzer Division as replacements for the 37-millimeter popguns that had proven so ineffective in France.
Rommel had brought forward a Luftwaffe anti-aircraft battalion with three batteries of 88s. The high silhouette and complex mount of the Flak-88 was anything but ideal against ground targets. Nor could the heavy gun be moved readily. But their crews had dug them in solidly at a place called Halfaya Pass, key to the coast road to Tobruk, and they tore the heart out of the initial British attack. Even the Matildas, whose armor had been impervious to anything in the theater, went up like torches, at ranges beyond any their own supporting arms could reach.
Farther south, British tankers pushed forward despite losses of fifty percent and higher in the attacking units. A Suth African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines alike reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use them as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As an obliging enemy impaled himself on the German antitank guns, Rommel ordered the 15th Panzer to counterattack while the 5th Light swung around and enveloped the British left.
Throughout June 16, the armored forces savaged each other at gun-barrel range. By nightfall, despite heavy German tank losses, Rommel was convinced the fight was turning in Afrika Korps’s favor. He ordered his two Panzer divisions to push east, then swing north with the dual objective of relieving Halfaya Pass and cutting off what remained of the British armor. Around 4 P.M. on June 17, the first German tanks rolled into Halfaya. But the British had escaped Rommel’s net, by some accounts executing a fighting withdrawal and by others retreating faster than the Germans could chase them. They left behind almost a hundred tanks. Permanent German losses totaled a dozen, half of them the expendable light models.
On one hand, Rommel was pleased. A three-day head-to-head battle had resulted in a complete tactical victory despite British air superiority, which meant heavy losses for the “soft-skinned” supply vehicles. Morale in the German units soared. Rommel might be a man with rough edges, but his professionalism struck positive chords wherever he went. The Italians under his command had also fought well, particularly at what the British now were calling “Hellfire” Pass, and Germany had a new hero: Major Wilhelm Bach, a reserve officer and an Evangelical pastor in civilian life, who commanded at Halfaya with a skill and courage that attracted the prompt notice of a propaganda apparatus that made the defeat of Battleaxe the stuff of headlines and newsreels throughout the Reich.
Hitler urged Rommel’s promotion. Halder grumbled about Rommel’s “pathological” ambition and proposed subordinating him to a “Commander of German Troops in North Africa.” The final decision was to send a liaison staff to North Africa to “coordinate” operations with the Italians. The Italian commander in North Africa said neither he nor Rommel had requested such a body and warned Mussolini it could become a stalking horse for German control of the theater. Then Rommel entered the discussion with a demonstration that he could speak General Staff perfectly and play a sophisticated game of army politics when he wanted to. The Italians, he declared, intended to create two corps headquarters for the six divisions they had placed under his command. That meant he would be commanding a minimum of eight full divisions and three corps: too many for his present small headquarters. Rommel, therefore, requested the staff officers be assigned to him temporarily—until a commander could be named for the German army necessary to command the expanded organization. Modesty forbade suggesting who the commander of that army should be.
The Italians were reluctant to accept the expansion of German authority—but if it were to be done, then only with Rommel in command. His obvious arm’s-length relationship with his own high command made him that much more acceptable to the Italians. Since his arrival in North Africa, moreover, Rommel had both successfully cultivated the Italian senior officers and gained the confidence of the fighting troops, who, after months of humiliation, cared more about winning than about the nationality of the general who led them to victory.
The High Command was unwilling to hand Rommel an army command—something no armored officer had yet received. Instead, Halder and Paulus suggested a compromise. At this stage of the war, the German mechanized divisions and corps were organized in “Groups,” which stood one step below field armies in the command structure. Why not create a “Panzer Group Rommel” and place it under Italian command? Brigadier General Alfred Gause, the senior German liaiaon officer in North Africa, concurred. According to Gause, Rommel’s “character flaws” and “inordinate ambition” combined with his support in “the highest quarters” had created a situation best met by creating a Panzer Group whose staff, composed primarily of officers assigned by the High Command, would act as a governor and a brake on its tempestuous commander. On June 1, Rommel was promoted to lieutenant-general (General der Panzertruppen), and on July 31, the liaison staff became the headquarters of Panzer Group Africa with Gause the chief of staff. Following the German pattern, the Group was under a higher headquarters: the Italian commander in chief in Libya, Marshal Ettore Bastico. Rommel could also receive orders directly from the army High Command. His chief of staff was to report to both the Italian commander in North Africa and the representative of the German supreme Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht) assigned to the Italian High Command. It was a structure reflecting the mutual commitment of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to wage parallel, as opposed to coalition, war. It was also a structure that allowed Rommel to disregard any particular chain of command by claiming to respond to an alternate one.
Rommel had won a political victory that far exceeded the scope of his triumph in the field. At seventh and last, there was no doubt that the British had escaped. Rommel noted the continuing problem of coordinating the movements of two Panzer divisions under new commanders with no desert experience. His decision to exercise command from Tobruk represented a departure from his previous practice and proved an anomaly he did not repeat. But a Panzer group had higher priorities for supply and reinforcement than a mere corps. And his new staff proved an asset from the first.
Following the German pattern, it was small relative to its British and U.S. counterparts—no more than twenty officers all told. German economy in headquarters staffs has been so widely praised that it is useful to repeat a counterpoint. Small numbers meant no relief. Everyone had to work long hours under high stress, and the resulting fatigue led to errors in judgment, exaggerated personal friction, and problems falling through cracks. All three would plague Panzer Group Africa later in the campaign.
For now, Rommel could count himself fortunate in his subordinates. Gause, whose opinion of Rommel greatly improved with exposure, exemplified the axiom that a hard-charging commander is well paired with a low-key chief of staff. More troop officer than military intellectual, Gause was easy-going by German standards and possessed—again by German standards—a sense of humor that was welcome in a headquarters where intensity was the norm. Among the junior officers, Operations Officer (Ia) Lieutenant Colonel Siegfried Westphal stood out for his character and intellect. “The best horse in the stable,” a later superior called him. Karl von Mellinthin is best known for his postwar writing on armored war, but in the desert, he handled the Panzer Group’s intelligence admirably. The rest as a group were well above the curve.
It is also significant that they came in with a collective distance from Rommel, as opposed to being his men, and within weeks gave him a rational loyalty that served far better than simple devotion would have. Their subsequent accounts reveal high levels of respect for Rommel’s military talent and for the energy he brought to his task. Rommel, in turn, made no secret of his appreciation for his smooth-working staff that also functioned increasingly as a military family—a source of relaxation for a man who spent most of his time at center stage under bright lights.
As Rommel and his staff adjusted to each other, Winston Churchill cleaned house. Wavell, who never lost his dignity while he was losing battles, was replaced by Sir Claude Auchinleck. “The Auk” was an Indian Army officer who had made a favorable impression on Churchill, and who had something of a prewar reputation as being interested in armored warfare—not much, perhaps, but the best Britain could do in the trying days of mid-1941. The same might well be said for Auchinleck’s choice as field commander for what was now designated the 8th Army. Lieutenant General Sir Alan Cunningham had presided over the British conquest of Italian East Africa the previous year and had a correspondingly stronger sense of space-time factors than someone fresh from England. He was, however, inexperienced in higher command and tended to think at a foot pace rather than tank speed. With a bit of seasoning and a bit of luck, he might have done well enough. Rommel was not the kind of opponent, however, to offer on-the-job training.
German intelligence was aware the British were planning a new offensive, on a far larger scale than Battleaxe. So much has been written about the importance of intelligence, ULTRA in particular, to the Allies’ victory in the Mediterranean that the contributions of German intelligence to Rommel’s planning tends to be overlooked. Its core was reconnaissance, whose air and ground elements were unusually well coordinated. If the German patrols never matched the effectiveness of the 8th Army’s Long Range Desert Group, the heavy armored cars of the reconnaissance battalions, frequently guided by local Arabs, nevertheless managed to put together reasonable data on British forward movements.
This material was enhanced by capture of prisoners and of paper, ranging from personal letters taken from casualties and POWs to orders and reports left in overrun command posts. The British army was strong on paperwork, especially on its administrative side; and the Germans were more likely than their opponents to control captured headquarters long enough to take advantage of the raw intelligence data they provided. As for prisoners, British soldiers were ordered to reveal nothing under interrogation beyond name, rank, age, and home. It was, however, usually possible for a skilled and sympathetic interlocutor to tease out more from men disoriented by capture and all too aware that they had suddenly become totally dependant on their enemy for such mundane benefits as a cigarette.
From the desert campaign’s beginning, both sides consciously sought to wage a “clean” war—war without hate, as Rommel put it in his reflections. Explanations include the absence of civilians and the relative absence of Nazis; the nature of the environment, which conveyed a “moral simplicity and transparency”; and the control of command on both sides by prewar professionals, producing a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game, and the corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtu. The nature of the fighting as well diminished the last-ditch, close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. A battalion overrun by tanks usually had its resistance broken so completely that nothing was to be gained by a broken-backed final stand. The result, at least in the war’s classic period before El Alamein, was a mutual goodwill that German interrogators exploited to their advantage.
Third on the list, but by no means last in importance, was signal intelligence. Rommel’s 621st Radio Company under Lieutenant Alfred Seebohm grew so good at its job that it was able to identify individual operators—a valuable aid to unit identification—and frequently translated and forwarded British messages faster than the intended recipients. British radio security was in general poor, with messages broadcast in clear or in slang. This was not mere fecklessness. As a British staff officer noted, time was everything in desert war. Speak in code, and everything slows down. Send ciphers, and hours are lost coding and decoding. Speak in clear, and make the enemy a present of your plans. “You pay your penny, and you choose your inconvenience.”
The challenge involved keeping far enough ahead of the enemy that even information gained by direct interception was useless when it was applied. And that was a skill beyond the 8th Army that launched Operation Crusader on November 18. The British had air superiority. They had more than 800 guns and as many tanks, a number of them provided by lend-lease: M-3 developments of the U.S. light tank that had been the backbone of the 1941 maneuvers. The Axis could count only around four hundred tanks in their orders of battle, and fewer than half were the combat-worthy Mark III’s and IV’s. The rest were German lights or Italian models, useful at best for reconnaissance and intimidation.
The British also had developed their intelligence service, complementing ULTRA with theater and local systems that combined to indicate Rommel was preparing to try once more for Tobruk. That shaped the British plan and its timing. A flanking attack in the south, with most of the armor, would turn northeast as though it were aiming for Tobruk. This was expected to draw Rommel’s armor into an encounter battle and onto British guns: Battleaxe in reverse. After the Panzers were engaged, a second, infantry-heavy corps would attack on the right flank of the armor, advance north to the sea around Sollum, then turn west and link up with the Tobruk garrison while the armor finished off the Panzers. As the garnish on the recipe, the 8th Army dispatched a commando raid to decapitate Panzer Group Africa.
Not for centuries had a Western army included in its battle plan the targeted killing of the enemy general. That the highly conventional British High Command approved the project speaks volumes for the respect in which Rommel was held even in these early stages. Downplayed today as unsporting in most standard histories of the commandos, it deserves remembering for its audacious planning and professional implementation. The raiders, transported by sea, reached the targeted building—more than two hundred miles behind the front—inflicted casualties and withdrew successfully. Rommel changed locations shortly before the strike, making it all for nothing.
Rommel had also apparently obliged his enemy by once again fixing his attention on Tobruk. Its capture, he declared, was essential to the successful conduct of mobile operations in North Africa—positively, by opening a supply route closer to the front, negatively by removing the substantial British forces in his rear. By this time the Australians had been replaced, mostly by British and Free Polish troops no less stubborn in defense. More serious was the loss between June and October of a quarter-million tons of Axis shipping—most of it Italian, on the North African run. Malta, far from being neutralized, was developing into a major base, with the British taking full advantage of ULTRA to savage Italian convoys by sea and air. In November, as British surface activity engaged increasing numbers of ships from a navy unable to replace losses readily, the Italians stopped running convoys into Tripoli and used only the limited capacity of Bengazi.
Rommel faced as well a set of difficulties codenamed Operation Barbarossa. On June 28, the High Command requested Rommel to prepare a draft plan for an offensive against Egypt—but only in autumn, after the Soviet Union should be destroyed. Rommel opted for two additional German divisions, then on July 3, he was told he must carry out the operation with the resources on hand. And as the pace of the German offensive slowed, Rommel expected the British to feel more comfortable mounting an offensive because they need no longer fear German tanks pouring through the Caucasus.
Seen in these contexts, Rommel’s continued focus on capturing Tobruk as soon as possible emerges as more than narrowly focused bloody-mindedness. Operating on a shoestring, able to expect no significant reinforcement in the foreseeable future, Rommel was correspondingly unwilling to resign initiative to a British force exponentially superior in armor and artillery. That alternative meant that his own already-slender resources would be eroded to no purpose, like a small-stakes player in a poker game who sees his pile of chips sinking every time he antes and does not bet. Better to use proactively the tanks, the gasoline, the ammunition on hand. Rommel planned to attack on Tobruk in the third week of November. The 15th Panzer and 90th Light—the latter just coming onto line—would do the heavy lifting, supported by four Italian divisions. The 5th Light, now rebaptized the 21st Panzer Division and benefiting from such christening gifts as a motorcycle battalion, a rifle regiment, and enough new guns to make an artillery regiment, was to keep an eye on the British, supported by Ariete and the newly arrived Trieste Motorized Division, organized as XX Corps.
Tobruk’s fall might be enough to deter the British attack German and Italian senor intelligence agencies were by now predicting. If the British came anyway, Rommel was confident in the strength of his fixed defenses in the north around Halfaya Pass, and in the striking power of the 21st Panzer and the skill of its new commander Major General Johannes von Ravenstein to buy him enough time to deal with Tobruk, then turn on the would-be relief force.
As an army commander, Rommel could not expect to intervene in the field with the effect he had obtained at lower echelons. He saw his role in the coming battle as demanding judgment, will, and strength, and his batteries badly needed recharging. He spent the first two weeks of November in Italy on furlough with Lu and in the company of the von Ravensteins, returning on November 18. The day before, signal intelligence had reported radio silence across the British front.
The British plans for Crusader have been generally criticized for resigning too much of the initiative to Rommel. If he did not oblige by launching the expected all-out attack on the armored spearhead, the 8th Army would have to improvise—not its particular strength. Tactically as well, the notion of waiting for the Germans to drive onto British tank guns seems in hindsight excessively optimistic, despite the 8th Army’s two-to-one advantage in armored vehicles. The British attack nevertheless gave the 21st Panzer in particular a very bad day before the Germans were able to regroup and counterattack. That was in good part the work of Lieutenant General Johannes Cruewell, who had succeeded Rommel in command of the Afrika Korps. Rommel initially was both reluctant to accept the British attack as the real thing and uncertain of its directions. Cruewell, intelligent and persuasive, helped the Chef make up his mind—another first. Rommel gave him the 15th Panzer and a free hand to “destroy” the British forces on his front—in other words, to see them off wherever he found them. By the evening of November 20, however, Rommel understood that this was no raid and no diversion. The British were determined to relieve Tobruk, and Rommel ordered Cruewell to begin swinging the Panzers north to choke off what he considered a threat to the entire Panzer group.
For four days, beginning on the 19th, German and British armor grappled around the airfield at Sidi Rezegh. The details of the swirling fight remain obscure and confusing after more than a half-century. At the cutting edge, German combined-arms tactics again proved superior to the British tendency to fight in compartments. Two of the 90th Light’s infantry regiments brought south by Rommel as emergency reinforcements did particular damage to the 7th Armored Division, which failed by an eyelash to crack open a way into Tobruk. The British further obliged by, as a rule, committing their armored units piecemeal by brigades, reacting to real and perceived German initiatives as opposed to concentrating and seeking to take control of the battle. In Rommel’s words to a captured British officer, “What does it matter if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”
Rommel, issuing his orders in clear, and Cruewell, disobeying those orders when it seemed necessary, were able to keep a jump ahead operationally. Von Ravenstein proved an ace in his first test as a division commander, his veteran 21st Panzer hammering the British away from Sidi Rezegh in an all-day battle on November 22. German artillery and antitank guns inflicted tank losses whose catastrophic scope remained unclear to headquarters depending on increasingly fragmentary radio reports from the front. The British nevertheless gave the Afrika Korps all the fighting it could handle. A reinforced Royal Air Force inflicted heavy losses on German units who had never before had to worry about dispersion and camouflage. When losses were tallied, the 8th Army still had numerical superiority in the sector.
The Germans were down to about a hundred fighting tanks in their two Panzer regiments. The other arm of the British offensive, moreover, was wearing down Axis defenses in the Sollum sector, prefiguring its move toward Tobruk, whose garrison had begun its own sortie on the 21st. Rommel’s decision was to go for what remained of the British armor even if that meant turning away temporarily from the fighting around Tobruk. November 23 was Sunday, and the last Sunday in November is Protestant Germany’s day of remembrance for the dead: Totensonnntag. The night before, Rommel ordered Cruewell to take what remained of the German tanks and encircle and destroy the British armor south of Sidi Rezegh.
That began one of the most daring and controversial moves of Rommel’s career: the “dash to the wire.” The reference is to the barbed wire entanglements marking the Libyan-Egyptian frontier. Cruewell protested that regroupment and consolidation were wiser options, but there was no blind-eyeing the long, coded order from Panzer Group headquarters. Cruewell’s own headquarters was overrun early in the morning, but he escaped to lead his armor into, over, and through a tangle of British supply columns that reacted by starting a headlong flight across the desert. Joining forces with Ariete, which though not part of the Afrika Korps had been “invited” to participate, Cruewell put both his tank regiments under the 15th Panzer and sent them forward, each followed by a regiment of motorized infantry. There was no time to send the infantry ahead to clear the British defenses; no time to form smaller, more flexible tank-infantry battle groups. The price paid to die-hard British tankers and antitank crews was heavy as the Boar’s Head (Saukopf ) ground its way forward. But once the Germans broke through, the panic begun that morning in the rear echelons developed and spread, as men and vehicles fled in all directions before the German machine guns.
Totensonntag was Cruewell’s battle. Rommel spent the day away from his headquarters, accompanied only by the Panzer group staff and his escort force, about five hundred men, calculating the time and the place for a decisive strike that would turn the tide by personal intervention. On the evening of the 23rd, he wrote to Lu that he was “in good humor and full of confidence.” The Tobruk sortie was progressing at a foot pace; the British advance toward the coast was slowing down. On the morning of the 24th, he briefed his subordinates. Speed is vital, he insisted. The Panzer Group must make the most of the shocks already administered to the enemy. He proposed to use what remained of his mobile forces to advance southeast to the Egyptian frontier, relieving the Sollum front, encircle its attackers, and finish the staggering British once and for all. Captured supply dumps would keep the forward units moving. Rommel intended to lead the Afrika Korps and the Ariete in person—literally lead them, from the front as he had done in France—for the first day, at any rate. He expected to be back next morning at the latest; until then Westphal would command the Tobruk front.
The West German official history, noting that Rommel himself did not write the part of his memoirs dealing with “Crusader,” questions whether he really believed a day-long excursion to the frontier would sever the 8th Army’s supply lines and cut off its retreat. The volume comes closer to the truth when it states that the “dash to the wire” had little in common with a typical General Staff exercise. Rommel’s decision certainly had few supporters in his headquarters. The situation already seemed hopelessly confused, with British troops likely to appear almost anywhere from out of the fog of war and Rommel now proposed to add to the chaos. Cruewell advocated cleaning up the opposition in his immediate sector—a formidable task in itself. Fritz Bayerlein, Afrika Korps chief of staff since September 1941, called the operation a raid and seemed to think he was being generous to an old friend.
Rommel did not see it so. When the 15th Panzer was delayed, he broke out around 10:30 at the head of the 21st Panzer alone. As the 15th caught up, a German column forty miles long slashed into the British rear, overrunning headquarters, and spreading alarm, despondency, and panic despite taking fire on its flanks from less shaken enemy units. Rommel forced the pace and came close to adding another set of generals to his POW collection: Cunningham was visiting a corps headquarters at what seemed a safe distance behind the front when the unexpected appearance of German tanks led to an undignified race for safety in what humorists dubbed the Matruh Stakes. He came even closer to being “put in the bag” himself when he and Gause crossed the wire in an unescorted command car, then could not find a way back. To add to the low comedy of the affair, Cruewell, driving by in his headquarters vehicle, offered a lift—but no one in the combined party could find the gap in the wire that led back to Libya, perhaps not least because Rommel insisted on driving. The senior officers of Panzer Group Africa spent the night in as meat on the table for any wandering British patrol.
Over the next two days, the German counterattack dissolved into a series of poorly coordinated actions, in good part due to Rommel’s insistence not only on remaining at the front with only brief stops at subordinate headquarters, but on abandoning his radio truck when it bogged down. He considered being cut off from current intelligence an acceptable risk in the context of the fluid battle he sought to force: if the Afrika Korps could set the pace, information was something for the British to worry about. “Fog and friction,” however, increasingly asserted themselves. Corps and division headquarters had their own internal communications problems, consistently losing touch with each other and their subordinate units. The Panzer divisions found resupply increasingly difficult, with captured British material only partly able to make up shortages. Ironically, the Germans bypassed the two major supply centers supporting the advance, in one case driving through the water point on the northern edge of one of them.
Above all, however, Auchinleck kept his head when most of his subordinates were losing theirs. He replaced Cunningham with Major General Neil Ritchie, took more direct control of the operation, and turned Rommel’s methods against him by pressing on with the relief of Tobruk despite the continuing havoc on his left flank. The advance was spearheaded by the 2nd New Zealand Division, arguably the best citizen-soldier division of any army in World War II. The Panzer Group staff and Marshal Bastico shared the fear that Rommel was off chasing shadows instead of concentrating against the real threat. On November 26, Westphal acted. Unable to reach his superior, he ordered the 21st Panzer back toward Tobruk and sent Rommel a signal explaining his decision.
Rommel received the message the same day. Initially furious, his considered reaction shows both the power of the German commitment to delegating authority and Rommel’s self-command. Instead of losing his temper in public, he announced he was going to lie down. The next morning, he confirmed Westphal’s decicion and turned the balance of his mobile forces against the New Zealanders.
Whatever temptations he might have had to follow his original plan dissipated in the course of the next few days. The 15th Panzer was burned by a counterattack of a British armored brigade, reequipped with whatever tanks remained available. The 21st Panzer lost its commander when Ravenstein drove into a New Zealand outpost and was captured. And the New Zealanders overran Sidi Rezegh and established contact with Tobruk during the night of November 26-27.
Rommel threw the whole Afrika Korps—what remained of it—against Sidi Rezegh. By this time, everyone on both sides was stumbling from exhaustion—everyone but Rommel, who reported to Lu that he was fresh and felt enormously fit. It was that driving energy that kept the hard-hammered Afrika Korps going around Sidi Rezegh: standing off British armor that still seemed unable to mount coordinated, large-scale attacks while simultaneously inflicting casualties on the New Zealanders that were devastating to a small country where so many people knew each other. The survivors finally drew off, escaping encirclement by a hair. If Rommel lost his focus during the dash to the wire, he had recovered it with remarkable speed. But the Panzer Group had fought itself to exhaustion. On November 30, it counted 31 Mark III’s and only nine Mark IV’s, forty fighting tanks, plus thirty “sardine boxes” in the ranks of Ariete.
In the first week of December, Rommel continued to seek the relief of his frontier garrisons and the restoration of the Tobruk envelopment. But a staff officer sent by Mussolini himself informed Rommel that no reinforcements and nothing but basic supplies could be expected until early January. With German intelligence figures showing British strength in North Africa rapidly recovering, Rommel could see it was time to cut his losses.
Essentially dependant on the Italians for supply, Rommel needed the best relations possible with the Italian High Command. With the small, almost token, force of Germans at his disposal, Rommel needed to make the best possible use of Italian troops.The Italian army was not as retrograde in its understanding of mobile war as is frequently assumend. By 1940, Italian theorists had studied German successes in Poland and France and developed a doctrine of “fast-moving war” (Guerra di rapido corso). Their defeats at the hands of O’Connor led them to reinforce their North African forces with increasing numbers of armored and motorized formations. Their standard medium tank, the M13/40, had a useful high-velocity 47-millimeter gun, and its inadequate armor was not a mortal shortcoming given Rommel’s principle of eschewing tank-on-tank combat. The Ariete Division performed as well as its German stablemates in the initial stages of Crusader. Communications was Ariete’s principal weakness: the lack of reliable radios to coordinate movements. That, and an excess of courage that too often led regimental officers to make the kind of unsupported frontal attacks against the British that the British were prone to make against the Germans.
Given German shortages in those arms, the Italian infantry and artillery were more important. The overwhelmingly Italian blocking force at Tobruk restricted the British breakout despite its superior firepower and armored strength. The Bersagliere, Italy’s elite light infantry did well at Halfaya Pass in May and June even though the Germans reaped most of the publicity; while dug-in Italian 100-millimeter guns contributed along with the 88s to the defeat of British armor in that sector. A battalion of the Young Fascists Motorized Division held off an Indian brigade for four days in the final stages of the Sidi Rezegh fight.
Rommel publicly recognized enough of these achievements to balance the acerbic remarks about Italian effectiveness with which his papers are seasoned. Some of his criticism invites interpretation as a manifestation of frustration: a simple blowing off of steam. Italian weaknesses were at higher levels. A centralized supply service controlled from the rear found it difficult to keep pace with those units that did adjust to Rommel’s pace. Too many senior officers were unwilling to take chances and seize initiative.Too many juniors confused professionalism with careerism and scorned or ignored their conscript enlisted men. Brave enough at the front, they looked to their own comfort out of battle to a degree that shocked even British regulars accustomed to a caste system at regimental levels. The Germans, who prided themselves on sharing misery equally, were even more appalled.
For all its military shortcomings, Italy in the spring of 1942 was reaching the peak of its contribution to the Axis war effort, assuming a significant share of the burdens of Balkan occupation, increasing its naval effort—successfully sinking two British battleships in a daring raid by naval commandos—and committing an entire army to the Russian campaign. That last absorbed most of the new weapons and the best of Italy’s divisions. It remains a minor question of counterfactual history what the consequences might have been if Mussolini had taken his often-proclaimed sacro egoismo seriously enough to send to North Africa even part of the force that was to disappear in the early stages of the Red Army’s Stalingrad offensive.
Rommel’s nominal superior General Bastico regarded Rommel’s commanding from the front as bizarre and ultimately unproductive. Rommel considered Bastico a “decent man with a sober military understanding and considerable moral stamina.” Bastico needed that stamina when he confronted Rommel about his proposed retreat from Cyrenaiaca. This was an Italian colony; its abandonment meant another blow to the prestige of an Italy with too many already on its war record.
Bastico’s criticism was echoed by the Italian chief of staff, General Ugo Cavallero, and by an unexpected arrival from Germany. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had begun his career in the army, transferred to the Luftwaffe on its formation, and Wehrmacht High Command had sent him to the Mediterranean in December 1941 as commander of all German forces in the theater—except for Rommel, who officially at least came directly under Italian command. It was that independent status, and not the often-implied collusion between Rommel and Hitler, that gave Rommel the continuing right to communicate directly with the Wehrmacht High Command.
Kesselring’s nickname of “Smiling Albert” reflected his optimistic character. His glass was always half full, which made him particularly attractive to Hitler. It was also typical of the Fuehrer that he sent two men with roughly equal responsibilities and roughly equal authority at the same difficult task. One could be expected to watch the other; both would complain to Hitler, who thereby held the whip hand without seeming to. Kesselring, while no desk hero—he made more than two hundred flights across enemy lines, and his Storch alone was shot down five times—considered Rommel an example of the lowest type of German senior officer: a combat commander without general staff experience, and correspondingly limited in perspective. Kesselring saw the most urgent need in the theater to be the restoring of a steady flow of supplies, and was committed to cultivating the best possible relations with the Italians. His relationship to Rommel, whom he saw as an obstacle to that policy, was correspondingly chilly.
On December 12, Bastico called on Rommel to be informed that if he interfered with any of the Italian divisions under Rommel’s command, the Germans would retreat alone and leave the Italians to their fate. Because most of these formations were infantry, without enough trucks to carry the men, even if all equipment were abandoned, this was the same as making them a present to the British. The next day, or rather night, at 11:30 P.M., Bastico returned accompanied by another Italian general and Kesselring. Bastico demanded the retreat be cancelled; Rommel refused. To remain was to sacrifice the entire Panzer Group, while ground could always be regained.
In the end, the generals left and Rommel initiated a neatly executed series of retrograde movements—generalspeak for retreats. No one was more surprised than the British, who on the basis of intercepted signals, expected the Panzer Group to remain in place. As British advance guards stumbled around abandoned positions, Rommel’s forces took advantage of bad weather to break contact, turn, and give their pursuers a bloody nose at a place called Agedabia. They celebrated the Christmas season by knocking out sixty tanks for a loss of fourteen, and in mid-January, settled into a defensive line anchored in the north on Mersa el Brega—not too far from where it had all begun so many months and lives ago.
From first to last Crusader cost the Axis 340 tanks, more than 300 aircraft, 8,300 dead and wounded, and more than 30,000 prisoners, including the frontier garrisons around Sollum and Halfaya, who had fought so bravely in Battleaxe and now held until water and ammunition were exhausted. Major Bach was among the prisoners. Tobruk had been relieved, with corresponding comprehensive effects on British morale and status. All three of Afrika Korps’s division commanders were gone: von Ravenstein a prisoner, Neumann-Silkow of the 15th Panzer mortally wounded by a shell burst, the 90th Light’s Max Suemmerman killed in an air attack. Losses among officers and senior NCOs at regimental levels had also been heavy. The German pattern of leading from the front, a near-fetish in Rommel’s command, levied disproportionate tolls on increasingly irreplaceable leaders wherever the enemy made a fight of it. And no one in Panzer Group Africa ever questioned British courage.
There are fashions in generalship as there are in clothing. Robert E. Lee, for example, is currently on a down cycle, while Ulysses Grant’s stock is high. For a quarter-century after World War II, Rommel was considered a paragon of mobile war at the tactical and operational levels. In the next quarter-century, military historians and professional soldiers have judged him with a sharper pencil. Rommel’s handling of Crusader and its aftermath has been generally criticized along three lines. The first is operational: Rommel failed to maintain the objective. Initially focused on Tobruk to a point where he refused to consider the probability of a British attack, he then sought to draw off his adversary by the “dash to the wire.” Facing another Rommel, the plan might have worked. Given the rigidity of British planning and command, the prospects of such a dramatic response were as slim as they proved in fact. Frustrated at the frontier, Rommel then turned and fought a straight-on encounter battle that for all its tactical successes used up most of his remaining German tanks and cost him qualitative losses he could not easily replace.
Rommel’s second mistake was institutional. His organization of the Panzer Group did not reflect an operational situation with three distinct sectors: the ring around Tobruk; the fixed defenses at Sollum/Halfaya; and the mobile reserve, the Afrika Korps, and the Trieste and Ariete divisions of the XX Italian Corps. Instead of responding with the German “mission system,” appointing three subordinates and supervising them as they fought their battles, Rommel established no clear lines of authority. The problems this caused with the Afrika Korps have been highlighted, but the Italian generals, more used than their German counterparts to precise orders, were also left adrift too often for their effectiveness.
That problem led in turn to a third: the psychological. Rommel under stress sought to control the entire situation by putting himself at one decisive point after another. What was just possible at division level, in a developed command structure and with reliable formations on his flanks, could not be done at army level. The distances were too great; there were too many emergencies at once. Rommel was still learning how best to use his very competent staff. In Crusader, he barely used it at all, and within days, the battle spun to the limits of his control. The problem was exacerbated by fatigue. Rommel was a fitness fetishist, with more endurance than many soldiers thirty years his junior. But he was fifty, and even his admirably toned body could only be pushed so far. Believing fatigue was a matter of will, Rommel refused to deal with getting tired. By the end of the fighting, his mental edge was becoming dulled, and no one on his staff had the moral authority to tell him he needed sleep.
Rommel, on the other hand, gets as a rule high marks for a command presence that never failed him and consistently enhanced his image with his subordinates, German and Italian alike. His tactical sense was unmatched on either side: when he was involved in a battle, he appeared to sense its flow, becoming part of the action in a near-literal sense. He knew when to cut his losses and was able to switch from advance to retreat with an easy smoothness that boded well for future operations.
Crusader developed Rommel’s moral ascendancy over an 8th Army that had failed to win a clear victory despite odds heavy in its favor. The relief of Tobruk, although welcome, was in no way a decisive blow against the Germans and Italians. The memories that remained in the 8th Army’s collective memory were of the Panzers’ daring and virtuosity around Sidi Rezegh, and in the dash to the wire. And out there beyond the horizon, Rommel was still waiting.
The structural discrepancy between the combatants was also significant. Despite the myths enveloping it, the Desert War was never a gladitorial contest. North Africa was Britain’s primary land theater, normally exercising first call on weapons, supplies, and talent—a situation, paradoxically, in good part due to Rommel’s developing mystique on the British side, from Churchill downward. Rommel, by contrast, was at the low end of German priority lists for everything. He was making war with pocket change, especially as the Russian invasion did not become the walkover the High Command was expecting.
Rommel was also caught in the most difficult form of allied command: the sandwich. Exercising authority over Italian divisions and corps, he was himself subject to Italian superiors. Italy’s priorities differed from those of Germany. So did its armed forces. As a point of comparison, even as late as the Northwest European campaign, British and U.S. formations served under each other’s command were seldom integrated below army level, and then usually only in emergencies. And while a player at the top levels of allied politics, Rommel was only a three-star general constrained to negotiate with field marshals on a regular basis. An assertive, in-your-face approach was his only practical option. Whether he could develop situational awareness in conferences to match his battlefield instincts was still an open question as the year turned.
That Rommel could have done a better job in his first command at army level is clear. The same thing can be said of virtually every commander in a large-scale action: perfect battles, like perfect storms, are few and far between. The common thread of his problem was a tendency to revert to playing a division commander’s role when addressing emergencies. This was more than regression to a comfort zone. Rommel believed in a hands-on style of command, characterized by direct, personal intervention. Like any approach, it has its strengths and shortcomings. During Crusader, Rommel experienced the shortcomings for the first time. The text mentioned earlier that division command is about the practical limit of most generals’ predictable capacities. Success at higher levels is in large part a product of trial and error, of learning on the job. Could Rommel make the transition from a battle captain to a Feldherr? The jury was out as Crusader spasmed to a final halt.
Erwin Rommel might have been a work in progress, but he never lost confidence in Erwin Rommel. As soon as his troops reached their new positions, he began planning a second attack. Kesselring did not come empty-handed. Hitler sent substantial Luftwaffe reinforcements along with him, and though the Axis air forces never succeeded in neutralizing Malta, they did ease British pressure on the convoys. On December 16-17, four ships, escorted by much of what remained of the Italian surface fleet covered the route from Italy to North Africa. On January 5, six more heavily escorted transports reached Tripoli. In addition to material for the Italian forces, they landed 51 Mark III’s and IV’s, 16 armored cars, and a number of antitank guns for the Afrika Korps.
It was as good as winning a battle—especially when Rommel and Westphal made separate flights over the Panzer Group’s positions and saw how thinly manned they really were. Westphal, who by no means shared his chief’s risk-taking propensities, confirmed the impossibility of stopping a major British offensive. That left one solution: attack. Logistics remained a problem. The prospects for constructing a railroad east from Tripoli were highly remote given the limited Italian resources. Rommel’s compensatory request for eight thousand trucks was turned down flat by a High Command seeking desperately to replace the swinging losses inflicted by the Russian winter.
Rommel was nevertheless encouraged by intelligence provided by intercepted messages from the U.S. military attaché in Cairo, Major Bonner Fellers. Axis cryptographers had cracked the U.S. diplomatic code and fully appreciated the extensive information on British plans and force structures Fellers provided to Washington. Not till the end of June would the leak be plugged. Meantime, its information combined with data from other sources to indicate the British were undertaking a major buildup for a new offensive. When Mellenthin reported January 25 as the bench date for a decisive shift of the balance of forces in Britsh favor, Rommel calculated he had a window of opportunity. With he reinforcements he had 120 German and 80 Italian tanks—the latter by now mostly M-13/ 40s. The British had about 150, but their senior armored headquarters was green, sent to the desert to gain experience. Rommel proposed to provide all the experience the newbies could handle.
The plan of attack depended on absolute surprise. Rommel did not trust Italian security and had no intention of being restrained by careful superiors. Nothing, therefore, was said to any of the Italian higher headquarters—or to Kesselring. Only Bastico’s chief of staff was made party to Rommel’s intentions, and then only because he was needed to provide the fuel and trucks the Afrika Korps lacked. On January 18, Rommel issued orders whose final version consisted of twenty-one paragraphs, each averaging no more than seven lines—a model of compact staff work. The 90th Light Division, reinforced by a detachment of motorized infantry and antitank guns called “Battle Group Marcks” for its commander, would punch up the coast road. On the Panzer Group’s right, Cruewell’s Afrika Korps would swing northeast to complete the encirclement. The Italians were to fill gaps and provide blocking forces.
Rommel accompanied Battle Group Marcks, and this time made certain his headquarters knew of his whereabouts. An indication that he was aware of what was at stake, for his troops and for him personally, is his letter to Lu describing his faith in “God’s protective hand.” Rommel was no more than conventionally religious and turned to a Higher Power primarily when he was worried! On July 19, covered by a sandstorm, the assault formations moved into position. The next day, Hitler, also unaware of Rommel’s intentions, awarded him the Swords to his Knight’s Cross.
On January 21 at 8:30 A.M., Panzer Group Africa rolled forward. Rommel, in a tribute to British front-line intercept services, had ordered radio silence in the motorized units. Initially slowed by loose sand, the attack took the British completely by surprise at all levels. The senior officers were planning their own offensive in the more comfortable environments of Cairo and Palestine. The foward units were caught flat-footed. German records complain of having achieved smaller successes than appeared possible, but that reflected primarily the British ability to run faster than the Panzers could chase them.
On January 23, Cavallero arrived at Rommel’s headquarters expressing Mussolini’s concern at the risks Rommel was accepting, and bearing an order to fall back toward his start line. Kesselring supported the Italians. Rommel refused, stating that only Hitler could order him to retreat because most of the troops engaged in the fighting were German. Because Hitler had upgraded the Panzer Group to a Panzer Army the previous day and would soon promote Rommel to full general (Colonel General or Generaloberst), he was playing from a stacked deck. It should be noted that this was part of a general, long-term redesignating of Panzer Groups. For example, Panzer Group 1, in Russia, was retitled in October 1941; Panzer Group 4 on January 1, 1942; and the normal rank of an army commander was full general.
Late on January 24, Rommel decided to keep pushing cross-country toward Msus. His fuel was running out, but his feel for the battle suggested that a move that looked like the beginning of a drive across the bulge of Cyrenaica, in the direction of Tobruk, might encourage the British to keep retreating. And although Mussolini’s order grounded the Italian infantry, it did allow the mobile forces to pursue offensives with limited objectives. That was all the loophole Rommel needed. His two Panzer divisions, supported by Ariete and the recently arrived Trieste Motorized, stormed forward at speeds reaching twenty-five miles an hour, overtaking and scattering what remained of the British armor, slowing and halting only as fuel tanks emptied. On January 26, Mussolini telephoned his congratulations. On January 29, Benghazi fell, making the Axis a gift of its extensive fuel and supply dumps, and of a forward port.
In eight days, Rommel had retaken the territory lost during Crusader. He did so in spite of continuous British air superiority; the RAF consistently failed to find or strike effectively either his spearheads or his supply lines. The reeling 8th Army fell back to the Gazala line, a network of strong points extending from the coast to Bir Hachiem in the south. By February 5, the front had stabilized. The British, confronted with the stunningly unexpected Japanese victories in the Far East, were juggling strategic reserves and reconsidering strategic priorities. Rommel was aware through reconnaissance reports of the strength of the British position, believed it would take six or eight weeks to restore their offensive capability, and understood refitting his own army would take only slightly less long. As congratulations poured in, he flew to Rome on February 16, went from there to Hitler’s field headquarters at Rastenburg to receive his Swords from the hand of Hitler, then took a month’s leave at home.
Fritz Bayerlein, talking after the war with British military writer B. H. Liddell Hart, said a desert soldier needed “physical capacity, intelligence, mobility, nerve, pugnacity, daring and stoicism.” In a commander, these qualities must be even greater, and to them must be added “. . . toughness, devotion to his men, instinctive judgment of terrain and enemy, speed of reaction, and spirit.” Rommel, Bayerlein declared, combined these traits to a greater degree than any officer he knew. Rommel had also focused his energy, keeping his staff reasonably informed of his whereabouts and spending most of his forward time with one unit, Battle Group Marcks, as opposed to dashing about among his divisions as he had done during Crusader.
The withdrawal to Gazala was not an unmitigated disaster for the British. Auchinleck, like Rommel, understood that ground in North Africa seldom possessed much intrinsic value. As early as January 19, he was considering a retreat to the Egyptian frontier rather than try to rally too far forward and be caught again by the Axis advance. The balance of casualties favored the British: since the beginning of Crusader, 18,000 as opposed to 15,000 Germans and 22,000 Italians. When it came to armor, the figures shifted drastically: 220 German and 120 Italian tanks to more than 1,600 British. In both cases, however, it was easier for the British to replace their losses—particularly as American lend-lease material began pouring into North Africa in late 1941.
The significance of Crusader and Rommel’s counterattack for the Axis did not involve losses that were bagatelles compared to those being suffered in Russia. In view of their other commitments, the Italians were increasingly considering using reconquered Cyrenaica as a glacis for defending Tripolitania. Kesselring believed the Mediterranean theater’s strategic function was to cover the German southern flank during the decisive struggle in Russia. From his perspective, North Africa was an outpost, best secured by the commitment of limited German forces to a flexible defense.
Rommel believed, especially given the growing imbalance in material resources between Germany and its opponents, the best solution involved launching economy-of-force offensives taking advantage of German leadership and German fighting power to demoralize the enemy, keep him off balance, and eventually create the opportunity for a decisive blow. This was a common mind-set among Germany’s Panzer generals as the war reached its middle stages: Rommel realized British strength would continue to be renewed as long as North Africa remained the primary theater where Britain could deploy modern ground forces. He understood as well that Malta was the bone in his logistical throat, though he had no idea of the effects of ULTRA in improving the overall effectiveness of the British war in the Mediterranean. He took corresponding advantage of his “face time” with Hitler to discuss the long-term prospects of a grand-strategic initiative in North Africa. Rommel was convinced that with the capture of Malta as a prerequisite, and with a limited increase in his Panzer forces, he could conquer Egypt and eventually move northeast toward the Caucasus, providing the southern pincer of a double envelopment that would secure the oil fields of south Russia and drive across Iraq and Persia, breaking permanently Britain’s power in the Middle East.
Hitler, for his part, had been reappraising Germany’s strategic prospects since the day of Pearl Harbor. The navy was calling for systematic cooperation with Japan in a campaign designed to produce a junction in the Indian Ocean that would bring about the final collapse of the British empire. Hitler, absorbed in the operational situation on the Russian front, considered this vision unrealistic. For him, victory over the Soviet Union was the linchpin of future operations, both for its own sake and as the best means of bringing Britain to reason and to the conference table. As early as October 1941, he had projected his intentions for a 1942 campaign directed against the Caucasian oil fields. The globalization of the war only confirmed that decision. Hitler at this stage still hoped Britain would negotiate or surrender in the face of a hopeless situation. He saw the Japanese conquests in Asia as weakening Britain’s imperial position sufficiently that the presence of Axis troops in the southern foothills of the Caucasus would produce the attitude adjustment he sought and leave Russia to be finished off before the industrial potential of a United States Hitler admitted he had no idea how to defeat could be developed and deployed.
If Hitler and Rommel had anything in common, it was that their military clocks were both set at five minutes to midnight. Like Rommel, Hitler perceived time as an enemy if wasted. America’s entry into the war threatened the Reich with a grand-strategic encirclement, while the military situation provided a window of opportunity—six to eight months, perhaps—for consolidating Germany’s position not merely in a Fortress Europe, but in a continental redoubt of the kind depicted by geopoliticians such as Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Mastery of what they called the “Heartland”—the Eurasian land mass—would set the stage for eventual mastery of the world.
As far as the Mediterranean was concerned, Hitler had been consistently skeptical of plans from any quarter for an invasion of Malta. He had little faith in the Italians, who would of necessity provide the bulk of the land and all the naval resources. After the swingeing losses suffered by German airborne forces in Crete, he was reluctant to risk them a second time in what promised to be a death ride. Nor did Hitler and the High Command consider the Luftwaffe’s increasingly limited strength best expended on bombarding an island fortress that showed no signs of capitulating to air power alone. At the end of April, the air offensive would be curtailed, the planes distributed to meet more pressing operational requirements. After flirting with various alternatives during the spring of 1942, Hitler would essentially scuttle the Malta operation on May 20 in a stormy interview with paratroop commander Kurt Student.
The Fuehrer was more sanguine about an extended operation against the Suez Canal—an operational victory sufficient to bring down a Churchill whose domestic position Hitler believed vulnerable. That was enough for Rommel, whose intention in any case was to create conditions on the ground that would compel support from Axis higher echelons. He had received an “all is forgiven” phone call from Mussolini even before capturing Benghazi. If he took Cairo, who then might be on the line?
The prospect of Rommel at the head of a full-blooded Axis drive into the Middle East continues to engage counterfactual historians. It is a staple chapter in the alternative histories that show Germany winning the war—usually by some means that involve Hitler’s not being Hitler and the Wehrmacht being something essentially different from the Wehrmacht. Reality is less dramatic. A prerequisite for large-scale offensive operations in the Middle East was Axis maritime superiority in the Mediterranean—enough sea power not merely to capture Malta, but to prevent any significant Allied intervention in the theater. The Germans could make no significant contribution to surface forces above the small-ship level, and the average of twenty U-boats the Kriegsmarine maintained in the Mediterranean was not enough to do more than harass the Royal Navy and British merchant shipping. The Italian navy had suffered heavy losses in the war’s early years. Neither its construction nor its repair facilities were in a position to replace them. The fleet’s increasing success at converting to convoy operations and its efforts to prepare for an amphibious attack on Malta correspondingly diminished its effectiveness as a ship-to-ship combat force.
Air power was vital for control of the Mediterranean, and here, too, the burden would have fallen on an Italian air force whose material and logistics proved consistently inferior to its allies and enemies throughout the war. Although improved designs were on the drawing boards in 1942, production facilities failed to keep pace. Test models do not fight. Nor were the Germans able or willing to deliver the more powerful engines required to improve aircraft performance. While the courage of Italy’s airmen could never be questioned, the quality of their training steadily declined because of lack of fuel, and from indifference at senior levels. As for the Luftwaffe, those human and material resources not deployed to Russia were increasingly being reassigned to home defense.
Diplomacy might have compensated for military shortcomings. Spanish and Vichy French participation in the war would have facilitated sealing the Mediterranean’s western end, if only by providing base facilities and operational flexibility to the Germn and Italian forces that would still have been tasked with most of the real fighting. But the possibility of bringing in either state in 1942 was for practical purposes nonexistent. Neither Franco’s nor Petain’s governments had seen any reason to join the Axis when it was riding high. Why participate in a gamble two years later?
Logistics, too, worked against an Axis Middle East offensive mounted from the Mediterranean. That operation would require a port. Alexandria was sure to have been at least damaged by the British. Transporting material, repairing demolitions, and clearing blocked channels would have strained a semi-industrialized Italy to the limit even with no other major responsibilities. Should Rommel somehow succeed in “bouncing” Alexandria, that would do no more than provide the starting point for an increasingly long line of communication over terrain even more formidable, and less developed, than Russia. The survivability of German and Italian trucks in the mountains of Syria and the deserts of Iraq was likely to be less than on the Rollbahns of the Soviet Union. The Middle East lacked even a partially developed railway network to compensate. And the problem of securing a thousand miles and more of natural guerrilla/ bandit country would have daunted the most brutal of Himmler’s specialists in genocide.
The final damping factor on a Middle East campaign was its dependance on a successful drive through southern Russia to the Caucasus. Should Rommel’s Panzer strength be doubled, without regard for the demands of the Russian front, or for how the additional tanks and trucks would be supplied, the offensive through Egypt would nevertheless be a secondary operation. If German tanks did not appear in the southern passages of the Caucasus by early winter, any successes Rommel might achieve were likely to prove all too ephemeral.
Rommel nevertheless returned to Africa in mid-March with his mood improved. Halder may have informed him that he was fighting a losing battle in trying to compete with the seemingly endless demands of the Russian Front. The Afrika Korps might still be close to the bottom of the Reich’s priority lists. But at the turn of the year, Kesselring had opened a major air campaign against Malta. In February, the Luftwaffe and the Regia Aeronautica combined for three thousand sorties. From March 30 to April 28, Kesselring increased the pressure to levels comparable with the Battle of Britain at its height. The island’s defenses might not be collapsing under the pounding, but Malta’s ability to intercept convoys steadily diminished. Italian and German figures on losses and deliveries vary, but the best available statistics indicate that the tonnage arriving in Libya doubled after December 1941 and almost tripled during February as sinking rates dropped close to zero. In March, tonnage declined by a third, but in April reached the campaign’s highest absolute figure: 56,700 tons.
This was the only month when deliveries came near matching the Panzer army’s requirement of sixty thousand tons. Moving that amount of material forward on bad roads with worn-out trucks, as Rommel observed, was as much of a headache as getting it to North Africa in the first place. Benghazi, however, was by now working up to full capacity, reducing the distance for about a third of the Panzer army’s supplies to about three hundred miles. By the end of March Rommel was convinced that within two months his force would be ready to mount another offensive. This one would be no mere raid, no riposte. It would be systematically prepared and supported by a built-up reserve of fuel and ammunition. Its immediate objectives would be the port of Tobruk and the airfields of Cyrenaica. The first would provide a forward staging point for continued operations; the second would contribute to Malta’s isolation.
Rommel’s relative restraint reflected his respect for the British Gazala Line. The 8th Army had constructed a layered network of defended positions, or “boxes,” each holding a reinforced brigade; each supplied with ample food, water, and ammunition; each surrounded by barbed wire and overlapping minefields. The areas between the forward boxes were screened by more minefields and by tanks—elements of two full armored brigades were assigned that mission by the time of Rommel’s offensive. Bir Hachiem at the southern apex, the most vulmerable point of any North African defensive system, was manned by the best infantry brigade in the 8th Army: the Free French; the bulk of the armor, two divisions, was deployed in reserve behind the boxes in the south.
The British idea was that the brigade boxes would channel the Germans into frontal attacks against superior armored forces. Should they try to maneuver, British tanks would force them into the minefields. Had Auchinleck and his subordinates been able to concentrate on what the British army in World War II did better than anything else, that is, hold ground, the next few weeks might have told a different story. Instead, Churchill insisted on an offensive as soon as possible, both for prestige reasons and to reoccupy airfields that could be used to relieve pressure on Malta. Auchinleck temporized, then in response to a direct order, fixed the date for an offensive in early June.
Rommel struck first. His intelligence was not as good as it had been, due largely to improved British radio discipline. He nevertheless possessed a sufficiently accurate understanding of British strength and dispositions to produce a characteristically bold plan. His Army Order of May 20 set the objectives as the destruction of the British army in its forward positions, followed by the capture of Tobruk. Two Italian corps would mount a series of frontal diversionary attacks in the northern sector. The mobile forces, with Trieste and Ariete on the left, Afrika Korps’s Panzers in the center, and the 90th Light covering the desert flank would envelop the British in the south with a short right hook, then roll them up from the rear. Rommel assumed command of the mechanized sweep and placed Cruewell in charge of the feints—a sign of respect for his subordinate’s ability. If the British were not held in place, the offensive was likely to achieve little, and Rommel’s time frame was tight, allowing only four days for the capture of Tobruk.
Both the German and the Italian High Commands saw this as a limited operation, a spoiling attack to disrupt British timetables. Rommel’s Order of the Day for the 26th, with its references to a decisive assault, suggested much wider objectives. Its concluding salutes were given to the King of Italy, Mussolini, and Hitler, in that order. Rommel might never be a military politician, but he knew where his supplies came from. The Axis enjoyed air superiority, four hundred operational aircraft against two hundred, with the Me 109f still the best fighter in North Africa. Rommel knew the British had more tanks—850, including 170 of the latest U.S. M-3 Grants, with 75-millimeter guns. Rommel’s 565 tanks included only 240 Mark III’s and 40 Mark IV’s. More than 200 of the rest were Italian: M-13/40s and the slightly improved M-14/41s, still not very good. Rommel counted on his 48 88-millimeter long-barrels to redress the balance. He counted even more on the skill of his desert veterans of both armies in the kind of maneuver battle he planned to fight.
By now, Rommel’s fame had spread across Germany: the rough-tongued, warm-hearted general who led from the front and did not bother with General Staff subtleties. Josef Goebbels honestly admired Rommel and threw the power of the Reich’s propaganda machine into promulgating his legend. Rommel had simultaneously achieved near-mythic status in the 8th Army. Auchinleck finally issued an army order warning against making Rommel a “magician or bogeyman” and describing him as an “ordinary German general.” As might be expected, this document had an opposite effect from that intended.
The British were taken by surprise and caught off-balance. Tank for tank, any two of the three British armored brigades in the south were capable of matching the whole Afrika Korps. Give the Germans the initiative and put Rommel at their head, and the story unfolded quite differently. The initial German advance overran an Indian motorized brigade south of Bir Hachiem, drove another brigade into confused retreat, and scattered the headquarters of the 7th Armoured Division, before encountering the main British armored force.
The Afrika Korps’s Panzers nevertheless lost heavily to the Grants despite their awkward configuration. The M-3’s sponson-mounted main gun outranged anything the German tanks carried, while even the shells of the Mark IVs did no more than dent the Grants’ armor at battle ranges. About a third of the German tanks were knocked out in the first day’s fighting alone. Had the British concentrated their armor instead of employing the three brigades separately, Gazala might have had a different outcome. Had the British armor deployed closer to the forward boxes, enabling direct cooperation between position and mobile operations, things might also have been different. As it was, the Axis tanks drove upward like a knife beneath a rib cage. By the evening of the 27th, Rommel had the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions concentrated in an area called the Cauldron, a depression in the sand a few miles south of the Knightsbridge Box, manned as the name suggests by a brigade of Guardsmen. His supply lines, ranging far into the desert, were wide open to strikes from Bir Hachiem. Its garrison, Foreign Legionnaires and Senegalese, men from Tahiti and New Caledonia, would give the Italians and the Afrika Korps elements that subsequently joined the battle for the box all the fighting they wanted for two blazing weeks.
To anyone able to read a map, Panzer Army Africa’s mobile forces were in a pocket. Rommel’s staff expected a concentrated armored counterattack against the Afrika Korps on the 28th. It was what they would have planned. As a counter, Rommel ordered the 21st Panzer, the only division that had managed to resupply, north in a spoiling attack. The 15th Panzer was literally stalled in its tracks for want of fuel. Rommel and Gause set out to find a safe supply route, and on May 29, Rommel personally led a convoy through to the 15th.
Kesselring criticized the “hussar’s trick.” Mellenthin praised it. The Afrika Korps expected it. Rommel always seemed able to pull a rabbit out of his hat when needed, and in the succeeding hours, he handled his depleted Afrika Korps like a rapier, rallying the 21st Panzer, 90th Light, and Ariete on the 15th Panzer, always just ahead of British attacks characterized more by courage than coordination. The 8th Army’s tank losses mounted. When Cruewell’s light plane was shot down and the general captured, Rommel turned command of his northern sector over to Kesselring, who was making a tour of inspection. The generals agreed the original plan of a sweep north was no longer feasible. Instead, Rommel desperately needed to open a secure supply line through the minefields that were taking an unobtrusive but heavy toll on his trucks.
He did so in reverse—from the east side, overrunning a box held by the 150th Brigade. Rommel personally reconnoitered the attack routes and oversaw the assault. The British, “as usual,” Rommel observed, fought to the last round and surrendered with their arms in their hands, but the convoys could move through, and in Rommel’s mind, the crisis of the battle was over. It had not gone the way he planned, but he was in a position to strike north or east and keep either effort supplied. The British had shown no ability to coordinate their superior numbers, but if they did launch a counterattack, the Axis armor and antitank guns were in position to chew it up. Panzer Army Africa was setting the pace and determining the agenda, and once again Rommel seemed everywhere he was needed. He paid for leading from the front with the loss of Westphal and Gause, both wounded. But the latter’s replacement, Fritz Bayerlein from the Afrika Korps, was a step upward in ability and energy. The two would make a first-rate team in the weeks ahead.
Rommel’s next move was to finish off Bir Hachiem. The box had lost its earlier tactical importance, but he was unwilling to leave its aggressive garrison in his rear and wanted its water and supplies. The attack began on the night of June 1, and despite substantial air support, made slow and costly progress against a network of trenches and bunkers defended to the last man. Rommel frequently took direct command of the attack himself, and “seldom in Africa was I given such a hard-fought struggle.” Three times he summoned the position to surrender; three times General Pierre Koenig refused. Not until June 10 did the garrison stage a daring breakout, 2,700 of them making it back to the British lines and only the rear guards, a thousand in all and many of them walking wounded, going into captivity. Hitler ordered the execution of any German nationals, political refugees, or Foreign Legionnaires. Rommel destroyed the order.
Rommel’s decision to deal personally with Bir Hachiem was facilitated by the slow pace with which the British concentrated their forces for the attack on the Cauldron Rommel knew was sure to come. An initial offensive on June 5 was shattered with a loss of sixty of the seventy tanks committed. Rommel led the counterattack that annihilated a brigade of Indian infantry, overran the headquarters of an armored brigade, and captured four thousand prisoners. With Bir Hachiem’s fall, the 8th Army’s time was out. Now the Panzer Army could resume the maneuver war at which it excelled. In a desperate effort to forestall disaster, the British threw in their last two armored brigades. Rommel caught them between his two veteran Panzer divisions, and took personal command of a head-on fight that on June 11-12 accounted for no fewer than 140 British tanks. On the morning of June 14, Ritchie, overmatched from the first, ordered the 8th Army—what remained of it—to retreat to Egypt. That night, the lead elements of the Afrika Korps reached the sea.
Tobruk remained. Auchinleck would have preferred to evacuate it. Churchill refused to consider abandoning such a potent symbol of the Empire’s resistance. Auchinleck complied, leaving an assortment of British and Indian battalions and a green South African division under an inexperienced commander as sacrifices to the power of hope. Rommel convinced Kesselring to shift the Luftwaffe’s focus temporarily from Malta to Tobruk and recycled his plan of the previous year to hit the fortress from the southeast. On June 17, his spearheads took the Gambut airfield and its fuel depots. For the next three days, Rommel drew an Axis ring around Tobruk, and on June 20, the Afrika Korps and the Italian motorized corps rolled forward behind the heaviest air and artillery bombardment Rommel had yet employed. Again he was in the forefront of the attack, his headquarters detachment directly accounting for a British strong point. By nightfall, two-thirds of the fortress had fallen. Its commander surrendered the next morning.
Hindsight argues that Tobruk’s fall had little effect on the military balance in North Africa. It may have been a blessing in disguise, encouraging as it did both Roosevelt’s willingness to commit major U.S. resources to the Mediterranean, and a scalding out of the amateurism that had so long characterized British efforts in the desert war. Such projections were at best cold comfort at the time. Thirty-three thousand prisoners, five thousand tons of supplies, fourteen hundred tons of fuel, a hundred tanks—even these statistics fail to convey the moral impact of Tobruk’s capitulation, from the 8th Army’s forward slit trenches to the British Parliament, which on June 25 tabled a censure motion Churchll regarded as a “serious challenge.” Vehicles streamed toward Egypt in what came to be known as the “Gazala Gallop.” In Cairo, plans were discussed for a retreat to Palestine, and the smoke of burning documents filled the air. In Britain, newspapers speculated on Rommel’s imminent capture of the Suez Canal and his probable drive for the oil fields of the Middle East. Egyptian nationalists cheered Rommel’s forthcoming arrival. Rumor even had it that a suite awaited him in Cairo’s flagship Shepheard’s Hotel, and many would have been unsurprised to see Rommel and his headquarters guard roll into the city at any moment.
Gazala was the apogee of Rommel’s style of command. Reflecting, he made the case for micromangement, concern with details of command and frequent visits to the front, under four headings. First, he argued, it was a mistake to assume every officer would make the most possible of every situation. Most “soon succumb to a certain inertia.” The commander’s physical presence was the best antidote. Second, the commander must keep his troops abreast of the latest tactical developments. Third, it was in the commander’s own interest to have a personal perspective of conditions at the front. Success came most freely to the general whose ideas developed from the circumstances. Finally, the commander must be able to feel and think with his men. The one basic rule was to avoid artifice and posturing. The ordinary soldier has “a surprisingly good nose” for true and false.
All this was a far cry from the command environment in the 8th Army, where senior officers routinely disliked and distrusted each other to a point where orders became starting points for discussions and cooperation was at best ad hoc. The Panzer Army was not exactly a band of brothers, but its officers knew what their general expected, and if they could not always internalize those expectations, they soon learned how to vamp them.
Rommel, whose euphoria never overcame his eye for the next chance and the main chance, sent one of his public relations officers to Berlin to tell the Panzer Army’s story. Congratulations poured in from everywhere in the German empire. Hitler responded by promoting Rommel to Field Marshal—the youngest of his rank in the army. He responded as well by begging Mussolini to exploit “a chance that will never recur a second time” and support an attack “into the heart of Egypt.” Its conquest would have global repercussions; combined with the German drive toward the Caucasus, it would demolish “the whole oriental edifice of the British Empire.”
Mussolini’s senior military commanders were less sanguine, arguing for the continued importance of Malta and warning that an advance into Egypt might open the door to an Allied landing in French North Africa. But an invasion of Malta posed a spectrum of concrete difficulties for the Italian armed forces who would bear the brunt of the operation. An attack on Egypt offered nothing but promise. There was little doubt which alternative Mussolini preferred, especially because by now he was fully under the spell of Rommel’s spectacular victories.
Roosevelt had responded to the fall of Tobruk by asking, “What can we do to help?” Churchill requested three hundred tanks. Within days, they were on their way; M-4 Shermans, the latest design, pulled from the inventories of America’s still-embryonic armored divisions. U.S. air groups began supplementing a British air force already on its way to achieving permanent superiority over a thinly stretched Luftwaffe. Rommel was more than ever convinced that his choice lay between an advance that offered at least a hope of victory and a shift to the defensive that promised only defeat.
On June 22, the newly minted field marshal requested that current limitations on his freedom of movement be removed. Four days later, he assured Kesselring and Cavallero that a breakthrough on the frontier should have the Panzer Army in Cairo and Alexandria by the end of the month. Bold words—but even as Tobruk fell, the 90th Light Division was advancing toward Egypt, meeting no resistance. The Afrika Korps and the Italian motorized corps followed, their rest days cancelled, the Panzer divisions taking heavy losses from British air attacks but reporting their men in an “aggressive and confident” mood. The Italians were running on shoestrings—Ariete was down to 10 tanks and 1,500 infantry—but their morale was high as well. Rommel had taken pains to make them feel part of the team and was generous in his praise of performances, which from the beginning of the offensive, had matched the best of the Afrika Korps when relative strengths are considered.
Ritchie and Auchinleck proposed to defend Egypt along a line based on Mersa Matruh. The position’s center was weak: minefields covered by what remained of an Indian infantry division. The 90th Light hit the Indians on the afternoon of June 26 and broke through, with the 15th and 21st Panzer following. Auchinleck, who replaced Ritchie in direct command on the same day, proposed to conduct a mobile defense built around ad hoc battle groups, sometimes cynically described as brigade groups that had been twice overrun by tanks. The Germans, even as their numbers shrank, continued to fight—and win—as divisions. The New Zealand Division was encircled, almost overrun, then cut its way out at bayonet point, partly through Rommel’s battle headquarters, which by now predictably was in the thick of the action. For the first time, credible accounts surfaced of wounded and medical personnel killed in the confused night fighting. The British corps holding the southern sector fell back in disorder—an official euphemism for blank confusion at headquarters levels and panic-stricken rout in the rear echelons. Most of the garrison of Matruh, the better part of another corps, broke out before that position was overrun on June 29, with Italian bersaglieri playing a leading role in a close-quarters fight resulting in the capture of six thousand prisoners and a division’s worth of equipment.
“Less than a hundred miles to Alexandria,” Rommel exultantly reported to Lu. He joked with a captain in the 21st Panzer that the next day they would drive together into Cairo for coffee. He noted as well that five weeks of campaigning against superior numbers had brought the Panzer Army to the brink of exhaustion. By now, most of the Germans and Italians were riding British trucks using British fuel. The Afrika Korps was down to forty operating tanks. The 21st Panzer had a day’s worth of water remaining. The Italians had long insisted that the Panzer Army could not be supported as far forward as Rommel wished without Tobruk and Matruh. Now they complained of the captured ports’ limited unloading capacity, and the effects of constant British air raids. Rommel in turn excoriated the peacetime atmosphere, the general absence of urgency, he described as prevalent in Rome. He denounced Italian bureaucracy and Fascist corruption. He went so far as to suggest defeatist elements in the Italian navy were dragging their anchors when it came to supplying North Africa.
In fact the Navy was so short of fuel oil that its big ships were operating with half-empty bunkers. The port of Tobruk was intact but could handle at best 20,000 tons a month. With ULTRA continuing to supply information on convoy routes and schedules, British air strikes made the Tobruk run a particular killing zone. The situation grew worse as shipping losses compelled the use of slower, smaller vessels on the African run. Shifting the center of gravity back to Tripoli meant increasing time required to move supplies to the front, well past the operational danger point, especially given the increasing shortage of gasoline imposed by the demands of the Russian front.
For logistic and stragetic reasons, therefore, the Italian High Command still intended the Panzer Army at most to close up to the Egyptian frontier and establish a defensive line roughly along that of 1941. Rommel still insisted no less strongly that defensive operations were a high-risk option under North African conditions, especially given the fundamental, by Hitler’s decision unalterable, imbalance of forces in the theater. Should the attack on Malta succeed—and Rommel by this time was convinced the project was mostly moonshine—the Panzer Army would remain for weeks exposed to the relentless hammering of superior Allied air power, confronting a ground buildup that would face no significant challenge. Even with Malta’s fall, transporting fuel, weapons, and reinforcements to North Africa would take time. And because the Naples-to-Tripoli route would be the shortest and safest, fuel would be used and vehicles worn out in the process of reaching the front.
Rommel’s insistence that a weaker force could counter quantity with quality, balancing numbers with leadership, tactics, and surprise, came close to epitomizing the German way of war as it had developed since Frederick the Great. In a sense, Rommel was the victim of his own successes: he had dome so much with so little that his current requests for men, tanks, and supplies tended to be filed under “R” for “Routine.” But with the British arguably in fundamental disarray since the fall of Tobruk, allowing them time to regroup violated military wisdom and common sense. Based on previous events and present circumstances, Rommel was hardly indulging in wishful thinking to believe the momentum of his victories and his reputation would carry the Panzer Army at least to the Suez Canal. Questions of the ultimate objectives and prospects of a successful overrunning of Egypt could be postponed for future consideration.
Mussolini concurred, expressing a willingness to go to Africa himself, and issuing detailed orders on how his troops should conduct themselves in conquered Egypt. A still-reluctant Italian High Command climbed on the bandwagon, defining the Suez Canal as the operational goal. On July 1, Rommel launched his first attack on what would become known as the Alamein Line. He had two options. One was to drive across the open desert in the south, directly toward the Suez Canal. That, however, meant accepting the risk of leaving the entire 8th Army in his rear, ready to slash across lines of communication that would be vulnerable at bet. He chose the second alternative.
Auchinleck had deployed the 8th Army on what has been called the only position in the North African desert with a top—the Mediterranean coast—and a bottom—the Quattara Depression, a salt marsh whose surface was more than two hundred feet below sea level, and the Great Sand Sea below it. The “Alamein Line” also possessed something like a defensible southern flank: the Ruweisat/Alam el Halfa ridge line running east/ west just above the Depression. This resembled its counterparts in World War I Flanders: a ridge line by courtesy, consisting of little more than folds in the ground that nevertheless offered favorable terrain to hull down tanks and dig in antitank guns.
Deprived by geography of tactical flexibility, Rommel opted for a direct thrust by the Afrika Korps against the Ruweisat Ridge. He expected to achieve a quick breakthrough, then turn north toward the coast and bring on the mobile battle in which he and the Afrika Korps excelled. Instead, the British stopped all three of his German divisions almost in their tracks, and Rommel found himself caught in a battle of attrition. The Germans were down to fifty tanks when the attack began, and the Panzer divisions suffered increasing losses among infantry constrained to operate without the armored cooperation to which they were accustomed. The British had not merely air superiority but air supremacy, as the Luftwaffe suffered from a lack of forward bases.
Despite these handicaps, the offensive ground forward until July 4, when Rommel finally began replacing his exhausted Panzer divisions with Italian infantry. The 8th Army, taking a leaf from the Afrika Korps’s book, promptly mounted a counterattack that just as promptly fell victim to dug-in antitank guns. As Rommel sought to rebuild the Afrika Korps and shift it southward, the 8th Army concentrated on whittling down the Italians holding the north sector of the line. On July 10 and 11, the 9th Australian Division destroyed one division and crippled two more. Rommel’s intelligence system also took a serious blow when the Australians overran and destroyed his radio interception company, its vital codebooks falling into the hands of the 8th Army. On July 15, a combined-arms attack spearheaded by the New Zealand Division eviscerated two more Italian divisions. Held in place by their lack of transport, without the antitank capacity and firepower to hold independently, the Italians fought courageously but vainly as the Panzer divisions burned themselves out plugging the worst holes.
By mid-July, it was the 8th Army that held the initiative despite continuing weaknesses on coordinating both its combat arms and its operational planning. In a meeting with Kesselring, Bastico, and Cavallero on July 17, Rommel, his last German reserves committed, questioned his ability to hold at all and insisted on his need for more supplies. By now, everyone was familiar—perhaps too familiar—with Rommel’s mercurial temperament: his prognostications of imminent disaster followed by another virtuoso rabbit-out-of-the-helmet performance. The Italians gave their word—perhaps less impressed than they might have been.
Rommel took center stage again, when the 5th Indian Division and the New Zealanders began a major offensive on July 21. The New Zealand Division mauled the 15th Panzer, but in turn suffered heavy casualties the next two days, losing most of a brigade to an Afrika Korps counterattack. The losses among supporting British tanks were heavy, with the New Zealanders becoming so disgusted at the lack of cooperation and coordination that the division refitted as a combined infantry/ armor formation. A veteran Indian brigade was overrun as well. But Afrika Korps had shot its bolt, first failing to break through the British front and seeing its tank strength reduced to about forty of all types; then constrained to disperse much of its remaining infantry as “corset stays” for Italians overmatched in material though not in courage.
Mussolini, who arrived in Libya on June 29, fretted impatiently at the delay of his projected entry into Cairo. The German propaganda machine, which initially celebrated its hero’s latest triumph, demanded fresh grist. The strength of the British Empire, Rommel noted in retrospect, had begun to tell. For a while, even the bread ration was cut in half—an important deprivation for Germans who saw the heavy, chewy loaves of Kommissbrot as a dietary basic. Rommel’s German units had been committed time and again without respite or relief, and even the best of them were feeling the strain. Personnel strength was at 30 percent of authorization, tanks at 15 percent. Too many Italian formations lacked the ability to resist the kind of hammer blows the 8th Army could now deliver as a matter of routine. Rommel’s scathing indictment of the Italian army’s officer corps was accompanied by a directive to his Italian subordinates to make increased use of the death penalty.
Reinforcements were coming on line. Elements of a garrison division from Crete, grandiloquently retitled the 164th Light Africa Division, and a crack four-battalion brigade of paratroopers were transferred to the Panzer Army. But these were both foot formations, useful primarily for stabilizing the Italians and requiring a period of acclimatization to become effective in the North African environment. The paratroopers were picked men, yet within a short time, more than half were sick from heat, jaundice, desert sores, bad food, and worse water. Rommel asked the German High Command for tanks—more of the new Mark III’s with the long 50-millimeter gun, and the Mark IV’s whose shell guns were so important in the direct support of attacks. Rommel further requested 36 88s and a hundred 50-millimeter antitank guns, more motorized infantry, more antitank gunners, plus at least a thousand trucks.
What he received was a burst of resentment from Italian authorities who stressed the exhaustion of their men by endless marching and countermarching under a German commander who seemed oblivious to the differences between trucks and feet. Rommel, whose rugged constitution and cast-iron nerves were also showing signs of wear, responded that in its present condition, the Panzer Army could meet a major offensive only by being annihilated in place, or by undertaking a strategic retreat as it had done the previous year. The Italian High Command insisted the front must be held under all circumstances. Cavallero added a recommendation he must have enjoyed dictating, that the “state of momentary depression” in Rommel’s headquarters must be “combatted.” But he also sent across the Mediterranean a full-strength armored division, the Littorio. Untested in battle but equipped with the best Italy could provide, it began arriving on June 28.
The first two weeks of July are frequently presented as the turning point in Rommel’s desert war. Two factors stand out. First, only two operational movements were possible in the Western Desert: a frontal attack somewhere from along the coast to about a hundred miles south, and a flanking movement on the desert side. These could be implemented tactically in sophisticated combinations, but the difference in terms of complexity was that between chess and checkers. As in the latter game, the loser was eventually likely to get a reasonable sense of the board. By mid- 1942, the British still made the same mistakes, but did so less spectacularly. They were learning how to survive the midgame and force an ending. Second, an Italian army that had been fighting above its weight since 1941 was finally, definitively overmatched. Rommel could no longer rely on his Italian contingent to play successfully the unspectacular static roles that had made his daring maneuvers possible. Instead, he had to expect to support his allies directly.
As the Panzer Army caught its breath, the British introduced a new command team. On August 3, Winston Churchill arrived in Cairo. From his perspective, Auchinleck had succeeded in avoiding another debacle. But the 8th Army remained shaken and confused. Its apparent lack of direction was compounded by Auchinleck’s decentralized style of command. When he balked at committing to an offensive to support the projected Anglo-American landings in Tunisia, Churchill replaced him with two generals from Britain. Sir Harold Alexander became commander in Chief Middle East. Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery was transferred from a home defense command to take over the 8th Army.
Auchinleck’s reputation has been refurbished by successive generations of postwar British soldiers and historians who highlight “the Auk’s” success in learning “desert checkers,” and his readiness to try new ideas and new men. Underlying the specifics is a scarcely concealed sense that Auchinleck was an honorable, principled gentleman, just coming into his own, supplanted by a nasty little master of public relations. The other side of the argument is that Auchinleck had had his innings and failed to impress. Montgomery was vain, egoistic, and determined to prove himself to a military system he regarded as a pack of amateurs. But he was also energetic and confident, quickly winning the confidence of subordinates at all levels, succeeding where predecessors had failed in helping the 8th Army to form a collective identity transcending its multicultural origins.
Above all, Montgomery believed in the importance of managed battle. In part, that reflected his solid understanding of the instrument at hand. Flexibility was not a strong point of the World War II British army, particularly at higher levels. As much to the point, its immediate opponent was a master of that kind of war. It made no sense to play by Rommel’s rules, with Rommel’s deck. Auchinleck had gradually reached the same conclusion. He left Montgomery a plan that influenced the latter’s execution, when not his thinking, more than Montgomery was ever willing to admit. Essentially it involved conceding Rommel the initiative in the expectation that he would respond with one of his patented sweeps around the 8th Army’s desert flank, followed by a turn north to bring on the encounter battle at which the Afrika Korps excelled. Auchinleck, and later Montgomery, proposed to hold the ridge line at Alam Halfa, then counterattack the Afrika Korps on both flanks, fixing it in position.
Montgomery, however, regarded this operation as only a preliminary to a decisive attack against the Panzer Army elements—mostly Italian—holding the line from the coast south. The 8th Army’s new commander projected a set-piece, first taking advantage of the quality of the 8th Army’s infantry combined with British air and artillery superiority—the latter not merely in number of guns but in fire control systems—to destroy the Axis infantry. The second phase involved committing what Montgomery called a corps de chasse of three full armored divisions to threaten Rommel’s supply lines and draw the Panzers north onto a prepared killing ground.
As it took shape, El Alamein was the first of the “colossal cracks” that would come to define Montgomery’s way of war. Rommel’s best chances of dealing with the blow involved preemption. In mid-August, he calculated he had about three weeks before the 8th Army’s reinforcements in men and material could come on line. His own immediate crises of personnel, equipment, and supply were easing. By the end of the month, his staff calculated, the Panzer Army would have up to 250 German tanks and almost as many Italian ones, with enough fuel for a 10-day operation. On the other hand, the tonnage unloaded in North African ports during August fell by almost half compared to July’s relative bounty. The tonnage reaching the front continued to diminish relative to the Panzer Army’s demands. British aircraft and submarines, directed by ULTRA intercepts, accounted for part of the shrinkage. The shortage of trucks and motor fuel relative to theater requirements remained a major factor. The final element of the logistics crisis reflected Fascist Italy’s comprehensive overstretch: its administrative and military systems had useful surge capabilities but could not sustain for any length of time the efforts Rommel’s intentions required.
German military writing on World War II makes frequent use of the phrase “force of circumstances” (Gesetz des Handels). An opera fan might instead borrow from Verdi and refer to la Forza del Destino, for it seemed fate itself was impelling Rommel toward a final dice throw. Rommel recognized that the El Alamein position favored his enemy, both geographically and in terms of institutional characteristics. He recognized that it could not be outflanked or otherwise finessed. Nevertheless, he proposed to take advantage of the full moon at the end of August to break through in the southern sector, destroy the British formations around Ruweisat, then continue operations “in an easterly direction.”
This time there was nothing new under the African sun—just Rommel’s confidence that the quality of his troops and his own situational awareness would see the Panzer Army through one final time. Rommel’s health was by now also becoming a matter for serious concern. He had spent nineteen months in Africa, longer than any officer over the age of forty. He suffered from jaundice, circulation problems, and digestive trouble—that last in part a consequence of a marked indifference to food. Rommel frequently spent a day in the desert with no more nourishment than a package of sandwiches or a can of sardines and a chunk of ration bread, plus a flask of cold tea.
The rest of his physical environment was similarly spartan and has generated corresponding admiration among admirers of muddy-boots generalship. Though Auchinleck paid it the compliment of emulation by deliberately creating a headquarters environment where the staff would be physically deprived, Rommel’s unnecessarily minimalist life style arguably did more than the objective hardships of the desert to damage his health and diminish his effectiveness. In Montgomery’s words, “Any damn fool can be uncomfortable.”
His personal staff babied him as unobtrusively as possible, undertaking fishing and hunting trips to provide fresh protein, scrounging eggs and chickens, having fruits and vegetables flown in. The Chef nevertheless endured enough spells of public weakness that Gauss, by now returned to his post as chief of staff, insisted on a complete examination. The doctor, a stomach specialist from Wuerzburg University and Rommel’s long-standing medical confidant, reported that Rommel was so debilitated by digestive trouble and low blood pressure that he was unfit to command the coming offensive. Recommended therapy amounted to a long rest.
Rommel himself saw no alternative to at least six weeks of treatment in Germany, which he wrote Lu should bring him around. He informed the High Command that the only officer who could take his place was Heinz Guderian, Germany’s leading armored-warfare specialist but under a cloud since Barbarossa’s failure. The reply was that Guderian was “unacceptable.” Rommel responded by convincing his doctor that he was fit to command after all, with constant medical attention and a replacement ready at hand. Hitler proposed Cruewell’s replacement as Afrika Korps commander Walther Nehring for operations and Kesselring in overall charge. The shock was enough to galvanize Rommel into writing by August 29 that his health was “very good again.” But to someone like Rommel, having his body turn on him for the first time in his life had a greater psychological effect than on someone who had not enjoyed his lifetime of robust fitness. It was one more bad omen on a growing list.
By the last week in August, indeed, Rommel was sufficiently concerned about his fuel situation to propose mounting a local attack. He changed his mind only when Kesselring offered to release fuel from Luftwaffe holdings and fly it into Africa should that become necessary. For all their personal and professional differences, Kesselring and Rommel by now both saw there was by now no turning back. Hitler and Mussolini each wanted the offensive. Steadily increasing shipments of tanks, ammunition, and aircraft from the United States were rapidly closing any window of opportunity that still existed. It was a time for promises and hopes. “Either,” Rommel informed his doctor on the morning the attack began, “the army in Russia succeeds in getting through . . . and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or . . .” He accompanied his unfinished sentence with a dismissive gesture suggesting defeat.
Rommel’s plan was that the Italian infantry, this time reinforced by German elements, once again fix the British in place along the northern and central sectors of the front. The main effort would be made in the south by the Afrika Korps’s old hands, the 15th and 21st Panzer and the 90th Light, and the Italian XX Motorized Corps with the veteran Trieste Motorized and Ariete Armored Divisions and the newcomers of Littorio Armored. Cross the British minefields, their orders stated. Advance as much as thirty miles during the night of August 30. Swing north toward the coast road and through the British supply dumps. Then pivot west and cut off the pocket that by now should contain most of the 8th Army’s infantry and much of its armor. Speed and surprise must extend the predictably long British reaction times.
By now Rommel talked and thought less of destroying the enemy than of “giving him a pretty thorough beating.” Even the latter prospect began fading when the Afrika Korps’s initial attack stalled in minefields exponentially more complex and comprehensive than expected. As pioneers worked desperately to clear paths through them, British air and artillery hammered the tanks and trucks backed up for miles across the desert. The Afrika Korps commander was wounded and the commander of the 21st Panzer killed before their tanks got across the start lines. Not until 8 on the morning of the 21st did the German tanks clear the “death gardens.” The Italians, lacking mine detectors, were still probing the sand with bayonets.
Rommel had four choices: play va banque and adhere to the original plan, set more modest objectives, go on the defensive behind the now-occupied British minefields—or call off the operation and pull back. Initially, he chose Option Two. Determined resistance by massed British armor combined with diminishing Axis fuel supplies to force a defensive stance Rommel believed would be temporary. Then he received word that the tankers promised him had not reached harbor. Half the expected tonnage had been sunk. More than half of the rest had never left Italy. British fuel dumps were still far away. Around-the-clock air attacks were doing heavy damage to vehicle columns whose camouflage discipline and local antiaircraft defense were alike sketchy.
So much has been said in praise of Panzer Army Africa’s use of anti-aircraft guns in ground roles that their resulting unavailability for their primary mission is often overlooked. Most of the strikes were at high altitudes by mass formations of medium bombers, American as well as British, with escorts strong enough that an already-weakened Luftwaffe had little impact. Rommel’s headquarters was bombed no fewer than six times in two hours on September 1. The experience contributed significantly to the field marshal’s decision that same day to disengage and withdraw, mostly to his offensive’s starting points. By September 6, his offensive was over. In the ranks of the Panzer divisions, cynical Landser joked about the “six-day race,” referring to a famous interwar bicycle race back home.
Alam Halfa was the first time Rommel had been engaged head-on and stopped cold. As a morale-booster, it correspondingly overshadowed even El Alamein. Alam Halfa was also the first triumph of the Western allies’ version of combined arms. Rommel had taught his enemies lessons at the tactical level through his flexible use of combined arms, his integration of air and ground assets, and his sophisticated reconnaissance methods. The British, by the autumn of 1942, had taken the game to the operational level, developing a plan that took systematic account of their material superiority and their military culture. combining it with the use of air power at theater level and developing sophistication in the use of ULTRA.
Rommel had informed Hitler of his plan of attack by radio on August 13. ULTRA had a translation in Montgomery’s hands within forty-eight hours. It confirmed his reading of the situation as opposed to altering it; the synergy was no less critical for a general in his first battle against an opponent of Rommel’s quality despite Montgomery’s reluctance to acknowledge it.
Ignorant of the ULTRA secret, Rommel in evaluating his defeat emphasized the third dimension. We learned one lesson at Alam Halfa, he wrote: the possiblities of ground action become very limited in the face of air supremacy. He proposed to regain some of the initiative by returning to Germany and restoring his health. In the process, he might gain the Fuehrer’s ear and at least secure a greater share of the cutting-edge armored vehicles being sent to the Russian front. He left North Africa on September 23, stopping in Rome before reporting to Berlin. Hitler, who was discussing making Rommel commander in chief of the postwar German army, greeted him with praise for his achievements, concern for his illness, and talk of command of an army group in Russia. He promised more and better weapons: multiple rocket launchers, the feared Nebelwerfer, and the new Tiger tanks, virtually invulnerable to conventional antitank weapons.
Goebbels enthusiastically welcomed Rommel as a house guest and organized a hero’s welcome, in part as a distraction from a Russian front where once again the major German offensive was beginning to bog down. Rommel responded with a never-ending supply of war stories, many of them at the expense of the Italians, and most with himself as the hero. From Berlin he traveled to the Austrian Alps and Lucie’s company, for the peace and quiet the doctors uniformly considered necessary for his physical and emotional recovery.
Peace of mind, at least, eluded the field marshal. His pleasure in the public adulation he received was diminished by having to present a picture of the situation in North Africa that was not merely optimistic, but false. Rommel, acting in his own self-interest and the hope of convincing the British to postpone their inevitable attack, nevertheless resented being thus drawn into the meshes of the Reich’s propaganda machine. He resented even more what he considered a dangerously optimistic climate in Hitler’s headquarters. When he mentioned that British fighter-bombers were knocking out his tanks from the air with 40-millimeter cannon, Goering scoffed at the impossibility, saying that Americans only knew how to make razor blades. Rommel allegedly replied that “We could do with some of those razor blades” and displayed a round he had brought from North Africa for demonstration purposes.
The story sounds pat in retrospect, but even if it did not happen in quite the way Rommel recorded it, the incident focused and reflected a still unique experience. Rommel was the first German general to face an adversary whose advantages in mass and method could not be rationalized away by emphasizing German operational superiority. The Western allies in 1940 had been embarrassingly outgeneraled. The Red Army of late 1942 was still enough of a heavy, blunt instrument that its opponents might expect to triumph by finesse. The British in North Africa were about where the Austrians had been in 1809, when, in the aftermath of an unexpectedly hard-fought victory, Napoleon reflected “these animals have learned something.”
They, and their American allies, could only learn more. Rommel had turned over temporary command of the Panzer Army to General Georg Stumme. He had led a Panzer corps in Russia with enough success to make him a reasonable choice, and enough common sense to know he had been handed a risk and an opportunity in the same package. He kept Rommel informed: the British offensive could be expected at any time, but the Panzer Army was well entrenched behind 450,000 British and German mines, should be able to stop the attack, and might well be able to resume the offensive in turn. Then, on October 24, Rommel received a phone call from Armed Forces High Command. The British had launched a major attack; Stumme was missing. Was Rommel in condition to return to Africa immediately? Two calls from Hitler confirmed that the situation was serious. On the morning of October 25, Rommel boarded a plane for Africa.
He was going into a fight whose nature was directly opposite to his talents, yet one whose matrix he had created. Rommel understood that to stand on the Alamein Line meant accepting a battle of attrition, rapier against broadsword: 500 tanks against more than 1,300, including 250 Grants and 300 of the new Shermans, whose turret-mounted 75-millimeter gun made it the master of anything across the battle line. The British, moreover, faced the same geographic situation the Panzer Army confronted at Alam Halfa: the lack of an exploitable southern flank to tempt them to seek the 8th Army’s enduring fata morgana of a mobile battle. Panzer Army Africa lacked the fuel to execute anything but local maneuver operations. A high proportion of his German as well as his Italian troops were straight-leg infantry, at their best in prepared defenses. Given British air supremacy, men on the march in trucks or on foot were likely to be picked off like targets.
Put together, these conditions suggested an operational cloak-and-sword synergy of well-prepared forward defenses and rapid, limited counterattacks—the same scenario Rommel would seek to create as a counter to Operation Overlord. Just before midnight on October 23, the desert silence was broken by a barrage whose intensity was unprecedented in the history of the desert war. More than nine hundred guns flogged the Axis forward positions. Daylight brought the infantry: Australians and South Africans, the New Zealand Division and the Jocks of the 51st Highland Division, reformed after St. Valery and played into action by its pipers. Stumme, driving forward to see the situation for himself, suffered a fatal heart attack. It was then that Panzer Army headquarters contacted Berlin.
Rommel arrived by Ju-52, Fieseler Storch, and car in the evening of the 25th. His first act was to order an armored concentration for a counterattack against a fearure the British called Kidney Ridge, where they seemed to be on the point of breaking through. His second was to send a signal announcing that he was again in command. The next four days were a death grapple, as Montgomery’s superior forces continued what he called the “crumbling” of Axis forces and positions. Nowhere did the British break through. The 8th Army’s newly elevated morale began to sag as its casualties mounted. Tankers and infantrymen resumed the mutual sniping that had characterized their relations since the coming of Rommel. But the Panzer Army’s commander was by now committing armored units to plugging gaps in his forward defensive positions. Fuel reserves shrank hourly. “I hope we’ll pull through,” Rommel confided to Lu. He informed Rome that with six thousand reinforcements and fresh supplies, he could hold. Instead, he received news that two successive tankers destined for North Africa had been sunk en route. Two more supply ships went down almost in sight of Tobruk, a forlorn hope boring in through skies the RAF ruled.
That news meant that eventually, and rather sooner than later, the British were going to break through and out of Rommel’s defenses. Given RAF’s control of the air, the result was likely to be a disaster for the Panzer Army—assuming Montgomery possessed boldness to anything like the degree he was showing determination. Rommel correspondingly confronted the necessity for a blitzkrieg in reverse: a rapid withdrawal to a new position, well behind the current front lines, before the British grasped what was happening. With his inferiority in the air and increasingly on the ground, he could not risk a fighting, mobile retreat. Instead, he ordered preparation of a position extending from the coastal town of El Fuqa, a good sixty miles behind the Alamein Line, south to the Quattara Depression.
A Rommel-organized counterattack by what was left of the 21st Panzer and 90th Light bought a few hours’ breathing space. But at 1 A.M. on November 2, Montgomery launched Operation Supercharge. The New Zealand Division, reinforced by a brigade each from the 50th and 51st Divisions, supported by an armored brigade, went forward behind a heavy barrage, to clear the way for the Corps de Chasse. Montgomery declared himself ready to accept 100 percent loss of the tanks. The leading brigade launched its attack with 94. Seventy-five were knocked out—a rate close enough for government work. Two brigades that came up to reinforce it were stopped on November 2 by an improvised antitank screen to their front and a tank threat from the flanks.
The latter was increasingly a matter of smoke and mirrors. Afrika Korps reported on the morning of November 3 that it was down to fewer than three dozen tanks. Its infantry and artillery stood at a third of their front-line strength. The same grim figure was reported for the 88s, so vital to the antitank screens. Of the Italian mobile formations, Ariete was still combat-effective. Trieste and Littorio, both hard hammered, were starting to break up.
It was clearly time to go, and by now Rommel was wondering how much he could save even of his armor. An indication of his frustration was an order to take captured British officers as hostages for the bombing of a field hospital that was in hindsight a plain accident. Reluctantly he informed Italian GHQ on the evening of November 2 that nothing could be done for the unmotorized Italian infantry. At 11:30 A.M. on the next day, he notified the German High Command that the front could no longer be held. He requested approval of retreat to Fuqa. Two hours later he received a “Fuehrer Order” from Hitler. A response to his previous signal to the Italians, it demanded the Alamein Line be held at all costs, reminding Rommel that the stronger will often triumphed over the bigger battalions and exhorting him that he could show his troops “no other road than that to victory or death.”
Generals on the Russian front had grown accustomed to such exhortations. Rommel was sufficiently shocked to say that for the first time during the campaign he did not know what to do. He had expected an unjustified degree of optimism from his higher headquarters. He had also consistently been given reason to believe Hitler admired him and had faith in his judgment. Now it was plain Hitler regarded not only Rommel but his entire army as expendable on a whim. Rommel had always demanded unconditional obedience. Now he gave it, apathetically issuing ordered for all existing positions to be held at all costs, writing Lu that “What will become of us is in God’s hands” and—perhaps more significantly for a Swabian—sending her 25,000 lire he had saved from his pay. By evening, he was sufficiently upset that when he went to take a walk in the desert, Westphal sent a junior staff officer with him. Instead of exploding, Rommel talked. If the army remained in place, he declared, it would be destroyed in three days. He also called Hitler a lunatic whose self-centered obstinacy would lead to the loss of the last German soldier and the total destruction of Germany.
In despair, Rommel was not without artifice. He ordered his public relations officer Lieutenant Alfred Berndt, who had begun his career in Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry, flown to Berlin, hoping he might somehow back-channel some sense of the truth. His daily report to the High Command stressed the continuing heavy losses: only two dozen tanks left by now in the Afrika Korps. On the morning of November 4th, Kesselring arrived at Army Headquarters. Rommel turned on him, accusing him of contributing to Hitler’s “crazy order” by infecting Berlin with his optimism. Kesselring, not for nothing known as “smiling Albert,” responded by encouraging Rommel not to take Hitler’s order seriously and contacted Berlin with a request to give Rommel a free hand dealing with a situation that became increasingly desperate in the course of the day as the British mounted a final all-out attack.
The Afrika Korps’s commander, Lieutenant General Ritter von Thoma, was captured, by some accounts while looking for either a bullet or a chance to desert. He dined that evening with Montgomery, discussing the campaign in a fashion long out of date yet somehow fitting in the desert war’s contexts. Ariete went under, its last signals coming in at mid-afternoon and impelling Rommel at 2:50 to issue orders for a general retreat to Fuka. Mussolini approved at a quarter to one that evening, and Hitler five minutes later. Thereafter, if Rommel considered Hitler a lunatic, Hitler reciprocated by referring at regular intervals to Rommel’s failure of nerve in the ultimate crisis—proof, if any was needed, to the Fuehrer’s increasingly twisted mind, that no army general could be trusted.
The retreat itself went off better than Rommel expected, thanks in part to the relative stateliness of Montgomery’s immediate pursuit, in part to the remarkable internal cohesion of the German army, and in part because stragglers had nowhere to go. Those wanting to opt out of the war had only to fall behind and wait for the enemy to pick them up. Otherwise, the alternative was to close up to retreating columns that daily and hourly grew larger and shook themselves into organized formations. Rommel’s experience in both world wars had made him something of an authority on panic. It was useless, he argued, to try reimposing order immediately. Let the flight run its first course and try only to channel it into ordered routes until the first fear has run its course.
A head count after the initial disengagement showed 7,500 men, a third of them Italian, 21 tanks, and 65 guns. Not much—but enough to bloody the 8th Army’s nose repeatedly, as Rommel again dropped a half-dozen ranks to take personal charge of everything from traffic control to vehicle maintenance. He also grew increasingly convinced that Montgomery would take no serious risks to destroy the Panzer Army’s remnants. At the same time, however, Montgomery was emerging as an opponent who would make no serious mistakes. His buttoned-up, buttoned-down style of command left no opportunity for the tactical and operational counter-strokes that were Rommel’s trademark, even had the discrepancy between the combatants been less.
The strategic and operational situation changed essentially on November 8, when British and American forces landed in French North Africa. As German and Italian High Commands responded with a massive sea- and airlift of men and supplies, Rommel took time out to think. He might have lacked formal general staff training; it was nevertheless clear to him that fresh perspectives were necessary. He requested Cavallero and Kesselring to join him for a conference. They did not take time from addressing the new crisis. Rommel, after all, was no more than a sector commander in a theater of war that was experiencing a paradigm shift. When Rommel once again dispatched Lieutenant Berndt to Berlin, he received no more from Hitler than a dusty reply to leave Tunisia out of his calculations, combined with more promises of supplies as soon as Rommel submitted his requirements.
By now it was clear that delivery dates would be sometime between the 12th of never and the 31st of June. As Rommel untangled one traffic jam after another, as British air strikes savaged his columns and British armored cars harassed their flanks, Rommel gave up hope not only of mounting a new offensive, but of sustaining a defense anywhere in Italian North Africa. When he finally met with Bastico, Cavallero, and Kesselring on November 24, Rommel presented his views in detail. The Panzer Army was currently holding positions reflecting orders from Hitler to defend them at all costs. Whatever might be the worth of such a policy in Russia, in North Africa it was impossible to implement save at the price of losing most of the survivors of El Alamein. Instead, Rommel recommended a withdrawal all the way to the Tunisian border. The broken terrain around Gabes offered opportunities for a long-term, flexible defense. A “long retreat,” moreover, would bring the Panzer Army and the growing Axis forces in Tunisia close enough to enable them to cooperate—perhaps even cripple one or both of the Anglo-American initiatives in the way Frederick the Great had done in the latter stages of the Seven Years War.
Rommel was aware that this scenario was no more than a palliative. It would buy time—but time to what purpose? Any hopes of a grand sweep through the Middle East were long vanished. A debacle loomed in the steppes of Russia, where the o once-triumphant Panzers were fighting for their lives at Stalingrad and points south. In late November, Rommel’s headquarters received a treat: movies flown in from Germany. Among them was a newsreel in which Rommel declared that German soldiers would never be forced out of Egypt. The field marshal joined in the explosive, bitter laughter of El Alamein’s survivors. By now, junior officers were saying in his presence that the war was lost and it was time for Germany to seek an armistice. One battalion commander described Rommel asserting it was necessary to force Hitler to “abdicate” and to abandon such policies as the persecution of the Jews and the churches.
Credible? Perhaps. Rommel was outspoken but not suicidal; Hans von Luck had forty years and many reasons to put those words in his commander’s mouth. Rommel had hitched his wagon to Hitler’s star. Perhaps for that reason he was even more punctilious than many of his colleagues in regarding himself as a professional soldier, while at the same time believing Hitler would ultimately respond to professional advice. On November 28, Rommel flew to Rastenburg for one more conference with his commander in chief.