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Rommel surveys the battlefield from his famous Sonder Kraftwagen 250, "Greif" (griffin). Radio-equipped command vehicles allowed Rommel to lead from the front, while maintaining communication with all his forces. (National Archives)
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Battlefield North Africa: Rommel's Rise And Fall

Overwhelming Allied manpower and materiel tipped the balance in the long North African campaign.

By David T. Zabecki

The battle for North Africa was a struggle for control of the Suez Canal and access to oil from the Middle East and raw materials from Asia. Oil in particular had become a critical strategic commodity due to the increased mechanization of modern armies. Britain, which was the first major nation to field a completely mechanized army, was particularly dependent on the Middle Eastern oil. The Suez Canal also provided Britain with a valuable link to her overseas dominions -- part of a lifeline that ran through the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, the North African campaign and the naval campaign for the Mediterranean were extensions of each other in a very real sense.

The struggle for control of North Africa began as early as October 1935, when Italy invaded Ethiopia from its colony Italian Somaliland. That move made Egypt very wary of Italy's imperialistic aspirations. In reaction, the Egyptians granted Britain permission to station relatively large forces in their territory. Britain and France also agreed to divide the responsibility for maintaining naval control of the Mediterranean, with the main British base located at Alexandria, Egypt.

Italy Versus The Royal Navy

Italy was the wild card in the Mediterranean strategic equation at the outset of WWII. If the Italians remained neutral, British access to the vital sea lanes would remain almost assured. If Italy sided with Germany, the powerful Italian navy had the capability to close the Mediterranean. The navy's main base was at Taranto in southern Italy, and operations from there would be supported by Italian air force units flying from bases in Sicily and Sardinia.

Italy did remain neutral when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. When Germany invaded France in June 1940, however, Benito Mussolini could not resist the opportunity to grab his share of the spoils. On June 11, 1940, six days after the British evacuation at Dunkirk, France, Italy declared war on Britain and France. Britain and Italy were now at war in the Mediterranean.

On paper, at least, Italy enjoyed a considerable advantage over Britain in the Mediterranean theater of operations. In June 1939, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham's Mediterranean Fleet had only 45 combat ships against the Italian navy's 183. The Italians held an especially large edge in submarines, with 108 against Cunningham's 12. The French surrender on June 25, 1940, placed the entire burden of controlling of the Mediterranean sea lanes on the Royal Navy.

The Royal Air Force (RAF) was in a slightly better position, with 205 aircraft against the Italian air force's 313 planes. On the ground, Italian Marshal Rodolfo Graziani had some 250,000 troops in Libya, while General Lord Archibald Percival Wavell, British commander in chief of the Middle East, had only 100,000 troops to defend Egypt, Sudan and Palestine. The British ground forces, however, were far better organized, trained and equipped and had superior leadership.

A Logistician's Hell

The British and Italian armies faced each other across the Libyan-Egyptian border in an area known as the Western Desert. It was an inhospitable region with no vegetation and virtually no water. From Mersa Matruh in western Egypt to El Agheila on the east side of Libya's Gulf of Sidra, only one major road connected the region's few towns and villages. A sandy coastal strip of varying width ran along the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Inland, a sharp escarpment rose to the 500-foot-high Libyan Plateau. There were only a few passes where wheeled or even tracked vehicles could ascend the escarpment. Once on the plateau, however, military vehicles had good cross-country mobility across limestone ground covered by a thin layer of sand. The commander of Germany's 21st Panzer Division, Lt. Gen. Johann von Ravenstein, described the area as a tactician's paradise and a logistician's hell.

On September 13, 1940, Graziani reluctantly moved into Egypt, almost a month after he had been ordered to do so by Mussolini. Some six Italian divisions drove east, bypassing a small British covering force along the border, and halted at Sidi Barrani, just short of the main British positions at Mersa Matruh. Graziani apparently had no intention of going any deeper into Egypt. Italian control of the airfield at Sidi Barrani, however, seriously reduced the operational reach of British air power and posed a threat to the Royal Navy in Alexandria. With the Battle of Britain reaching its climax and Great Britain facing a possible German invasion, the British were in no immediate position to counter the Italian thrust.

Taranto, Tobruk, And On To Greece

By October 1940, the threat of a German invasion of the British Isles had eased, and the British began to reinforce Wavell. Through that December, an additional 126,000 Commonwealth troops arrived in Egypt from Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India. On November 11, British naval air power seriously damaged the Italian navy in a surprise attack against Taranto. On December 9, the Western Desert Force, under Lt. Gen. Sir Richard O'Connor, attacked the Italians at Sidi Barrani.

The British pushed the Italian Tenth Army out of Egypt and then, on January 3, 1941, scored a major victory at Bardia, just inside Libya. Driving into Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), the British took the vital port of Tobruk on January 22. O'Connor continued to pursue the Italians, trapping them at Beda Fomm on February 7, 1941. The Italian Tenth Army collapsed. In two months, a British force of about two divisions had advanced 500 miles, destroyed 10 Italian divisions, and captured 130,000 prisoners, 380 tanks and 845 guns. In the process, the British had suffered 555 dead and 1,400 wounded.

Following the British successes in North Africa, Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided on February 22 to commit British troops to defend Greece against the Axis. Most of those forces came out of Cyrenaica, which left Wavell only five brigades in Libya. Just a few weeks earlier, however, Adolf Hitler had decided to shore up the Italians in North Africa by committing German forces. On January 8, the Luftwaffe's Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily from Norway and immediately began attacking Allied shipping destined for the Libyan port of Benghazi. That threat forced the British forward units in Libya to resupply through Tobruk, more than 450 miles away.

Rommel And The Afrika Korps

Two German divisions and two additional Italian divisions began crossing from Italy into Libya. On February 12, Brig. Gen. Erwin Rommel assumed command of the German units that later became the famed Afrika Korps. He lost no time in regaining the initiative. Rommel probed El Agheila on March 24. When he found that the British defenses were thin, he launched a general offensive despite Hitler's orders to maintain an overall defensive posture.

Near the end of March, O'Connor was replaced by Lt. Gen. Sir Philip Neame as commander of the Western Desert Force. The magnitude of the German attack became apparent when the British were forced out of Benghazi on April 3. O'Connor was sent back to the front as an adviser to Neame. The Germans captured both British generals from their unescorted staff car on the night of April 6.

Rommel drove rapidly to the east, surrounding Tobruk on April 10. Unable to take the port on the run, he left a siege force of mostly Italian units there and continued his push for the Egyptian border. It was a decision Rommel later regretted. The Tobruk garrison, which held out against the siege for 240 days, remained a thorn in Rommel's side -- an annoying sideshow that tied down vital Axis manpower.

On April 14, Rommel's main force reached Sollum on the Egyptian border, and his troops occupied the key terrain of the Halfaya Pass. The German high command, meanwhile, was concerned about the speed of Rommel's advance and his failure to take Tobruk. They sent General Friedrich von Paulus to North Africa to assess the situation and "bring Rommel under control." Paulus' report back to Berlin described Rommel's weak overall position and his critical shortages of fuel and ammunition. The report also reached Churchill via Ultra intercepts.

"Hellfire Pass"

From this report, Churchill wrongly concluded that the Germans were ready to collapse with one strong push, and he started pressuring Wavell to mount an immediate counteroffensive. Meanwhile, a British supply convoy, code-named "Tiger," made its way to North Africa carrying 295 tanks and 43 Hawker Hurricane fighters. Despite heavy air attacks, the Tiger convoy arrived on May 12 after losing only one transport that carried 57 tanks.

Prior to launching his counterattack, Wavell wanted to gain control of Halfaya Pass. On May 15, he launched Operation Brevity, under the command of Brig. Gen. William Gott, to secure the pass and Fort Capuzzo beyond. Rommel skillfully parried the thrust, and the British withdrew from Fort Capuzzo the next day. By May 27 the Germans had recaptured Halfaya Pass. Unable to advance any farther because of supply shortages, they dug in and fortified their positions with 88mm anti-aircraft guns. The British troops began referring to the heavily fortified and fiercely defended Halfaya Pass as "Hellfire Pass."

Under continuing pressure from Churchill, Wavell launched his major offensive on June 15. Operation Battleaxe began with a frontal attack on the Sollum-Halfaya Pass axis. Skillfully using the 88mm anti-aircraft guns as anti-tank weapons, the Germans blunted the British attack. Then Rommel counterattacked. Battleaxe was over by June 17, and Wavell had lost 91 of his new tanks. Churchill relieved Wavell on June 21 and replaced him with General Sir Claude Auchinleck. General Sir Alan Cunningham (the brother of Admiral Cunningham) was given command of the Western Desert Force, recently redesignated the British Eighth Army.

Auchinleck resisted Churchill's constant pressure for an immediate British counterattack. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union on June 22, Rommel's force in North Africa became even less a priority for Germany's logistical support. Most of the Luftwaffe units in the Mediterranean were sent to Russia, which gave the British a freer hand in attacking Rommel's supply convoys at sea and from the air. Rommel continued to grow weaker. By November, he had 414 tanks, 320 aircraft and nine divisions (three German), four of which were tied down in the siege of Tobruk. The British had some 700 tanks, 1,000 aircraft and eight divisions.

Obsessed By Rommel

The British became increasingly obsessed with eliminating Rommel. On the night of November 17, 1941, a small commando force, led by 24-year-old Lt. Col. Geoffrey Keyes, tried to penetrate Rommel's headquarters and assassinate the Desert Fox. The raid failed -- Rommel was not even there -- and Keyes died in the attempt. The Germans gave Keyes a funeral with full military honors, and the gallant Rommel sent his personal chaplain to conduct the services. The British later awarded Keyes, the son of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, a posthumous Victoria Cross.

Operation Crusader opened on November 18, with the British XIII Corps advancing on Halfaya Pass and the XXX Corps attempting to sweep around Rommel's southern flank to reach the besieged garrison at Tobruk. The XXX Corps reached Sidi Rezegh, 20 miles southeast of Tobruk. After a series of fierce tank battles on November 22 and 23, Rommel drove deep into the British rear with two panzer divisions. He attempted to relieve the Axis forces at Halfaya and at the same time cut off the Eighth Army.

With his tank losses mounting, Cunningham wanted to halt the operation. Auchinleck immediately relieved him and replaced him with Maj. Gen. Neil Ritchie. The British continued to press the attack, and on November 29 they broke through to Tobruk. By December 7, an overwhelmed Rommel was withdrawing his dangerously depleted forces. In order to avoid encirclement in the Benghazi bulge, Rommel retreated back across Cyrenaica, reaching El Agheila on January 6, 1942. Operation Crusader resulted in a clear victory for the British, but one they were unable to exploit due to a lack of reinforcements.

As Rommel withdrew to the east, the RAF continued to attack his supply convoys in the Mediterranean. Only 30 tons of Axis supplies were shipped to North Africa in November 1941, and 62 percent of them were lost en route. Hitler reacted by shifting Fliegerkorps II from Russia to Sicily and ordering the German navy to send 10 U-boats into the Mediterranean. Throughout December, Rommel's resupply situation improved significantly, with shipping losses dropping to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor caused the British to reroute forces from North Africa to India and Singapore. By mid-January 1942, Rommel was operating on shorter supply lines, and his shipping losses were below 1 percent. He now was ready to return to the offensive.

Stirring Up "The Cauldron"

On January 21, 1942, Rommel launched his second offensive and quickly drove the British back almost 300 miles. The aggressive German commander recaptured Benghazi on January 29 and continued to push east, reaching Gazala on February 4. There he halted along the Eighth Army's defensive line between Gazala and Bir Hacheim. For most of the next four months, the adversaries sat on either side of the Gazala Line, building up strength.

On May 26, Rommel launched Operation Venezia -- his attack against the Gazala Line. Both forces were roughly equal in strength, but General Ritchie had his armored units widely dispersed, while Rommel kept his concentrated. Using his armor, Rommel swept around the Free French Brigade at Bir Hacheim and turned north, cutting across the Allied rear. An Axis secondary attack in the north pinned down the Allied forces there.

By May 28, the Axis armored units behind the Allied lines were in trouble. Rommel had lost more than one-third of his tanks, and the remainder were running short on fuel and ammunition. On May 29, the Italian Trieste Division cleared a path through the center of the Gazala Line. That opening became a lifeline to Rommel's panzers. On the 30th, Rommel consolidated his armor in a defensive position that came to be known as "the Cauldron."

On June 5-6, Rommel successfully beat off Ritchie's series of piecemeal counterattacks. On June 10-11, the Axis finally drove the Free French forces out of Bir Hacheim, and on June 11 Rommel's panzers broke out of the Cauldron. The Eighth Army once more started falling back to the Egyptian border. On June 15, German tanks reached the coast and Rommel shifted his attention to the Tobruk garrison. This time he would not make the same mistake of leaving the thorn in his side.

Next: The Fall Of Tobruk

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