The North African desert war highlighted another British vulnerability: its reliance on Egypt and the Suez Canal to reach its Asian interests, including food and raw materials from south and southeast Asia and oil from Persia (Iran) and Arabia. Threatening Suez meant threatening Britain’s ability to hold its own and keep fighting. But the desert war exposed major weaknesses in the Italian part of the Axis equation and also in blitzkrieg warfare itself, which proved inadequate over the long empty spaces of Libya.
The struggle began in September 1940 with an attack from Libya into Egypt by the Italian army, a large but ill-trained and immobile force with obsolescent tanks and aircraft. The British had fewer troops and offered only modest resistance, but the Italians halted after 60 miles to resupply and never resumed their advance. Britain scraped together additional troops, including some armor, for a “5-day raid” that turned into a major offensive. In 61 days the Desert Army advanced 500 miles along the coastal roads of the great hump of Libya, captured 130,000 Italian prisoners and mountains of supplies, occupied the key port of Tobruk, and pushed the Italians past Benghazi.
Two events conspired to reverse things. Churchill— alarmed that Hitler had drawn Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia into the Axis orbit and was preparing to help Mussolini in Greece and Crete—ordered troops from North Africa to Greece, a move that failed to hold Greece but weakened the Desert Army. Hitler meanwhile sent Erwin Rommel with two crack panzer divisions and air support to bolster Italy in Libya. Ever bold, Rommel immediately counterattacked, using vigorous flanking movements to retake all the ground just lost and more, except for Tobruk, which grimly held. In April 1941, having reached Egypt but with his fuel running low and defenses stiffening, Rommel halted.
Britain took the field again in late 1941 with a new commander, an infusion of Lend-Lease equipment, and fresh divisions. Rommel retreated to a point west of Benghazi, but the Desert Army, weakened by its own supply problems and the diversion of forces to the Far East to face Japan, could not follow through. Rommel was now avid to seize Suez, and he was confident that he could outmaneuver the British on the southern end of their defensive positions and stop their counterattacks by using the vaunted 88-mm antiaircraft gun as an antitank weapon. He therefore went on the offensive, grinding out a major advance and finally taking Tobruk.
The British stopped the bleeding only after fierce fighting at El Alamein, mere miles from Alexandria. The stage was thus set for the sixth and final push in this strange seesaw war. This began on October 23, 1942, when the British 8th Army, newly christened and under yet another commander (Bernard Law Montgomery), jumped off for an offensive that would ultimately clear Libya of Axis troops.
The Desert War revealed some hard truths about armored warfare. Because the vehicles consumed fuel that had to be hauled to the front, blitzkrieg worked best over short distances, as in Poland or France. Over North African distances, the system did not work; the result was a “rubber band” effect whereby armies stretched their supply lines to the breaking point and then “snapped back” to their original position. Also, blitzkrieg worked in Europe partly by sowing mass confusion among civilians, who clogged the roads and prevented mobilization and movement. In a thinly populated region such as North Africa, this did not happen, leaving enemy communications and transportation strained but intact. And the Germans enjoyed air superiority in Europe but not in the desert, partly because the Luftwaffe was busy attacking the island of Malta.
Rommel was a tactical but not a strategic or logistical genius. He did not have the strength or supplies to seize and hold the Canal or link with German forces in Russia, and most General Staff officers did not want him to try. In making the attempt, he exposed the entire Axis position on the African continent.
Barnett, Corelli, The Desert Generals (London, 1983)
Rommel’s North Africa Campaign: September 1940-November 1942 by Jack Greene, Alessandro Massignani.