Search
Resources
Service Info
Community
Reference
Historical
Military.com History...Continued
www.thehistorynet.com

Battlefield North Africa | Part 1 2


Military.com Image
On the defensive -- for the time being -- an Afrika Korps infantryman emplaces a land mine. (National Archives)

Tobruk fell on June 21, and the Axis forces captured 2.5 million gallons of much-needed fuel, as well as 2,000 wheeled vehicles. The fall of Tobruk, however, had unforeseen consequences for the Axis. Churchill heard the news during a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the United States. The American president immediately offered help. The resulting 300 Sherman tanks and 100 self-propelled guns would later play a pivotal role at El Alamein.

The British fell back to defensive positions at Mersa Matruh, about 100 miles inside Egypt. Rommel, who had been promoted to field marshal for his success at Gazala, pursued. Auchinleck relieved Ritchie and personally assumed command of the Eighth Army. With only 60 operational tanks, Rommel attacked at Mersa Matruh on June 26 and routed four British divisions in three days of fighting. The British fell back again, this time to the vicinity of El Alamein, another 120 miles to the east.

Battling To A Standstill

Now less than 100 miles from Alexandria, Auchinleck was determined to hold near El Alamein. Under constant pressure from Rommel's forces, Auchinleck improvised a fluid defensive line anchored on Ruweisat Ridge, a few miles south of the El Alamein defensive perimeter. Rommel attacked on July 1, attempting to sweep around El Alamein. For three weeks, Auchinleck skillfully battled Rommel to a standstill. Auchinleck launched a major counterattack on July 21-22, but gained no ground. Exhausted, both sides paused to regroup.

Despite the fact that Auchinleck had finally halted Rommel's advance, Churchill relieved him in early August and named General Sir Harold Alexander commander in chief of the Middle East. Sir William Gott was promoted to general and given command of the Eighth Army. On August 7, the day after his appointment, Gott was killed when his airplane was attacked by a German fighter during a flight to Cairo. The relatively unknown Lt. Gen. Sir Bernard L. Montgomery succeeded Gott as commander of the Eighth Army.

Although Churchill desperately wanted to win a clear victory for political purposes and to raise morale, neither Alexander nor Montgomery was inclined to take the offensive without first amassing an overwhelming advantage. On August 31, 1942, Rommel launched what he believed would be the final attack in the Axis drive to the Nile. The British, however, had made extensive preparations around El Alamein, based on a plan developed by Auchinleck and adopted by Montgomery. The British commander also had the advantage of knowing Rommel's intentions through Ultra intercepts.

El Alamein

Rommel planned to sweep south around Ruweisat Ridge, then cut off El Alamein and take it from the rear. In preparation, the British laid extensive minefields and heavily fortified Alam el Halfa Ridge, which was located behind El Alamein to the southeast. By September 3, the Axis attack had run short of fuel and petered out. Montgomery counterattacked immediately, but broke off the operation as soon as the Axis forces were pushed back to the vicinity of their starting positions. Both sides again hunkered down to build up their strength. Taken together, the battles of Ruweisat Ridge and Alam el Halfa were the real strategic turning point of the war in North Africa.

Montgomery used the time after the Battle of Alam el Halfa to rest and train his troops, integrate the new American tanks he had received, and carefully plan his counterattack. Rommel, meanwhile, became ill and returned to Germany on sick leave. When Montgomery finally launched the attack, his forces and equipment were three times greater than his opponent's.

The Battle of El Alamein began on October 23 with a massive artillery barrage fired by 900 British guns. Rommel immediately returned from Germany to resume command. The Allies tried for five days to break through the Axis positions, sustaining 10,000 casualties in the process. On October 30-31, Montgomery renewed the attack with strong support from the RAF. Critically short on fuel and ammunition, Rommel started to disengage on November 3. At first, Hitler insisted on his usual no-retreat orders. On the 4th, he grudgingly gave Rommel permission to withdraw, and the 1,400-mile pursuit to Tunisia began.

Allied Coordination

For the next three months, Montgomery followed Rommel across the northern coast of Africa. Despite constant urging from his German and Italian superiors, who wanted him to save Libya, Rommel was more interested in preserving his force to fight another day. He paused at El Agheila between November 23 and December 18, and again at Buerat and Wadi Zemzem, from December 26, 1942, to January 16, 1943. Rommel reached Tripoli on January 23 and the Tunisian border at the end of the month. By the time he got to Tunisia, however, another Allied force was there waiting for him.

On November 8, 1942, just four days after Rommel started his long withdrawal, the British and Americans had executed Operation Torch, the Northwest African landings. In a coordinated series of landings, the Western Task Force, under Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr,. landed on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, Morocco; the Center Task Force, under Maj. Gen. Lloyd Fredendall, landed just inside the Mediterranean around Oran, Algeria; and the Eastern Task Force, under Maj. Gen. Charles Ryder, landed near Algiers. Although all the landing sites were in Vichy French territory, the ultimate objectives of the operation were the Tunisian port and airfield complex of Bizerte and the capital city of Tunis. Command of those facilities would allow the Allies to bomb Sicily, protect the Malta convoys, and strike at Rommel's supply lines.

While the Allies established themselves ashore and attempted to negotiate terms with the Vichy French, the Germans reacted swiftly, sending troops from Sicily to Tunisia on November 9. Hitler also gave the order for the German military in occupied France to take control of the remainder of Vichy France. The French fleet at Toulon, however, was scuttled before the Germans could seize it.

Fighting For Tunis

From the moment the Allies landed, the campaign in Northwest Africa and the race for Tunis was a logistical battle. The side that could mass forces the fastest would win. For the Germans, control of the Tunis complex was critical to prevent Rommel from being trapped between Montgomery in the east and the newly formed British First Army in the west. On November 28, the Allies reached Tebourba, only 12 miles from Tunis, but a well-conducted Axis counterattack drove them back 20 miles in seven days.

The Germans won the initial race for Tunis because they had shorter supply lines, and their aircraft, operating from closer bases, had greater time over the contested area. In January 1943, the winter rains and resulting mud brought mechanized operations to a halt in northern Tunisia. Waiting for better weather in the spring, the Allies continued to build up their forces. The British First Army, under Lt. Gen. Sir Kenneth Anderson, was organized into three corps -- the British V Corps, the U.S. II Corps and the French XIX Corps. The Axis forces in northern Tunisia now consisted of Lt. Gen. Hans-Jürgen von Arnim's 5th Panzer Army.

Once Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika crossed into southern Tunisia, it occupied positions in the old French fortifications of the Mareth Line. Rommel's 10 divisions were well below half strength, with only 78,000 troops and 129 tanks. Before he had to face the rapidly closing Montgomery, Rommel intended to eliminate the threat of the British First Army to his north.

Control Of The Kasserine Pass

On February 14, the Germans launched the first leg of a two-pronged offensive, with Arnim's forces attacking that day through the Faid Pass toward Sidi Bou Zid. The following day, Rommel, in the south, attacked toward Gafsa. The bulk of Rommel's forces, however, remained in the Mareth Line. By February 18, Kasserine Pass was in Axis hands, and U.S. ground forces had suffered their first major defeat of the war. Rommel tried to advance north toward Thala through Kasserine Pass on February 19, but the support he expected to receive from Arnim did not materialize. After several days of slow advances, he reached Thala on February 21 but could advance no farther. Hampered by a divided German command structure and rapidly massing Allied reinforcements, the attack stalled. The Allies pushed forward and recaptured Kasserine Pass on February 25. Rommel returned to the Mareth Line and prepared to face Montgomery.

When the Eighth Army reached Tunisia, the Allies modified their command structure to conform with decisions made at the Casablanca Conference in January. General Dwight D. Eisenhower became supreme commander of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean west of Tripoli. Alexander became Eisenhower's deputy and, at the same time, commander of the Eighteenth Army Group, which controlled the First and Eighth armies and the now separate U.S. II Corps. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder assumed command of the Allied air forces, and Admiral Cunningham retained command of the naval forces.

Final Potent Attack

On February 24 the Axis also realigned its command structure. Rommel became commander of Armeegruppe Afrika, which included the Afrika Korps, Arnim's 5th Panzer Army, and the Italian First Army under General Giovanni Messe. The Axis forces finally had a unified command structure in Tunisia, but Rommel probably was not the best choice. By that point in the war, he had become frustrated and dispirited, the cumulative effect of the long seesaw campaign. To make matters worse, Arnim, who detested Rommel, continued to do pretty much as he pleased.

The Axis position in North Africa was hopeless, the final outcome clearly in the hands of the logisticians. As the Allies consolidated their control over the northwest African coast, the Axis pressure on Malta eased, which in turn enabled the Allies to further restrict the Axis supply convoys from Sicily. Without first coordinating with Rommel, on February 26 Arnim launched Operation Ochsenkopf, a drive toward Beja. By March 3, that offensive had stalled, at the cost of 71 precious tanks.

Montgomery's forces, which had crossed into Tunisia on February 4, had reached Medenine on the 16th and established defensive positions. Hoping to catch the British off-balance, Rommel attacked south from the Mareth Line on March 6. Spearheaded by 140 tanks, it was the most potent offensive Rommel mounted since arriving in Tunisia. It would also be the last. Warned by Ultra intercepts, Montgomery was waiting. The Germans ran into skillfully prepared anti-tank defenses and lost 52 tanks. Right after the failure of the Medenine attack, Rommel returned to Germany a sick man. Arnim assumed overall Axis command, and Messe took command in south Tunisia.

Squeezing The Axis

After the American debacle at Kasserine Pass, command of the U.S. II Corps passed to Patton. He wanted to mount an attack to drive to the coast, but Alexander would authorize only limited attacks designed to draw German forces away from the Mareth positions. At that point, Alexander simply did not trust American units. In fact, many among the British forces disparagingly referred to their American allies as "our Italians." Patton's limited attack between March 17 and 25 was successful, however, tying down the 10th Panzer Division near El Guettar.

On March 20, Montgomery attempted a night penetration of the center of the Mareth Line. The attack had failed by March 22. The next day, he shifted the weight of the main attack around the southwestern flank of the line, through the Matmata Hills. By March 26, his forces broke through the Tebaga Gap. The Italian First Army and the remainder of the Afrika Korps were forced back. Under continuous pressure from the Eighth Army on one side and the U.S. II Corps on the other, the Axis forces withdrew to Enfidaville.

By April 7, the Allied First and Eighth armies linked up, squeezing the Axis into a small pocket. On the east coast, the Eighth Army took Gabés on April 6, Sfax on April 10, Sousse on April 12, and Enfidaville on April 21. In the north, the U.S. II Corps, now under Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, took Mateur on May 3 and Bizerte on May 7. Montgomery's 7th Armoured Division captured Tunis on May 7. The remaining Axis forces in Tunisia were caught in two pockets, one between Bizerte and Tunis, and the other on isolated Cape Bon.

Cementing The "Grand Alliance"

Arnim surrendered his forces on May 13, 1943. The Royal Navy, waiting in strength offshore, made sure that few Germans or Italians escaped to Sicily. Axis losses in Tunisia alone totaled 40,000 dead or wounded, 240,000 prisoners, 250 tanks, 2,330 aircraft and 232 ships. British and American casualties were 33,000 and 18,558 respectively. For the entire North African campaign, the British suffered 220,000 casualties. Total Axis losses came to 620,000, which included the loss of three field armies.

On the strategic level, the North African campaign was a watershed for the Western Allies. For the first time in the war they had decisively defeated the Axis, and especially the Germans, on the ground. The psychological value of the victory cannot be minimized. The U.S. Army, too, had finally gotten into the war and acquitted itself well after a shaky start at Kasserine Pass. The British and Americans perfected the combined command structure that would serve the "Grand Alliance" for the remainder of the war. The various Free French factions were finally united and organized under the Allied command. And perhaps most important, the British proved the value of Ultra intelligence and refined the system for getting the necessary information to the field commanders.

On the downside, the Allies were now out of position with a huge force of almost 1 million men and their equipment. With very limited means of transportation and no way for that force to strike directly at Germany, a follow-up campaign in Sicily was almost the only feasible next course of action for the Allies.

Hitler's Meager Grasp Of Strategy

The loss was a stunning strategic setback for Germany. At first, North Africa had been a rather effective economy-of-force campaign. At the risk of only three German divisions and a number of Italian divisions of questionable quality, the Axis was able to tie down a proportionately larger force and at the same time pose a significant threat to one of Britain's strategic lines of communication. But after the defeat at El Alamein, Hitler's sense of pride once again overcame his meager grasp of strategy, and he committed a second field army to North Africa that he could neither sustain logistically nor afford to lose. The forces Hitler threw away in May 1943 just might have made some difference for the Germans fighting in Russia or Sicily.

On the tactical and operational levels, several factors conspired against the Axis despite the battlefield brilliance of Rommel and the superb fighting of the Afrika Korps. Although North Africa was a logistician's hell, logistics was the deciding factor. In the end, the Allies triumphed with sheer mass. The Axis forces could not overcome Allied air and sea power -- both of which enhanced Allied logistics and degraded Axis logistics.

Today's History Archive

Copyright (c) 2000, PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, Inc.


 E-Mail This Page
 Printer-Friendly Format

© 2014 Military Advantage
A Monster Company.