On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel was appointed commander in chief of German troops in Libya. It was a fancy title for a force composing only one of the new panzer divisions, the still-organizing 15th, a scratch brigade grandiloquently titled 5th Light Division (later upgraded as the 21st Panzer Division), and another mixed bag that became the 90th Light Division. Renamed the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps) it would make two years of history.
Hitler seems initially to have made his choice of commander as much on grounds of Rommel’s availability as from any intuitive sense that he was giving a wider stage to a budding genius. German intervention in North Africa was originally intended as a minimum-scale holding operation. No senior panzer general suggested Rommel might be more useful against Russia; no one requested him as a corps commander in a mobile force needing a half dozen new ones. Instead he was dispatched to a sideshow that he would move to history’s center stage by a spectacular succession of battlefield victories—the first of them enabled by the drawdown of British forces in the desert in favor of the campaign in Greece.
There are fashions in generalship as there are in clothing. 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. Nevertheless there remains an Erwin Rommel for every military writer’s taste. There is the muddy-boots general leading from the front, inspiring his men by sharing their hardships as he led them to victory. There is the brilliant opportunist, master of forcing mistakes and exploiting them, dancing rings around British generals with courage and character but no imagination. There is the master of war on a shoestring, using Germany’s military leftovers to frustrate and challenge the major land effort of a global empire. There is the soldier, making war by the rules, upholding the army’s honor albeit serving a criminal regime. And there is the maverick, defying his superiors, his allies, and the Führer himself to fight and win his way.
In Britain these images ameliorate two years of humiliation. In the United States they play into idealized concepts of what a real general should be. There is, however, another side to the scale. That one depicts a general whose leadership style generated as much confusion as success. It presents a commander consistently overreaching his operational capacities, and correspondingly indifferent to issues of logistics and sustainability. It highlights an extensive, long-term network of connections between Rommel and Hitler—not least a publicity machine that critics describe as creating a myth from lucky breaks and obliging enemies. What emerges is a good corps commander, challenged beyond his talent by the problems of war-making at higher levels.
The desert war’s principal contribution to the panzer mystique is its status, affirmed alike by Rommel’s critics and supporters, as a “clean” war. 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 command exercised on both sides by prewar professionals, encouraging a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game and a corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtue.
The nature of the fighting also diminished the close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. Last stands, as opposed to stubborn defenses, were uncommon. Usually a successful German attack ended with a compound breakthrough. With tanks seeming to appear everywhere on the position, with no effective means of close defense, capitulation was an acceptable option. The large numbers of troops usually involved also inhibited both on-the-spot killings and post-action massacres. Hard war did not necessarily mean cold murder. Surrender offered and accepted correspondingly became part of the common law of the desert.
Creating preconditions for surrender was another problem. The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.
Not until the arrival in autumn 1942 of the US M3 medium did the balance begin to shift. With a 37mm high-velocity gun in its turret and a sponson-mounted 75mm, the M3 was a poor man’s Char B without the armor of its French counterpart, with a high silhouette that made it difficult to conceal, and with a gasoline engine that caught fire easily. But there were a lot of them, and their reinforcement in time for El Alamein by more than 300 Shermans definitively tipped the armor balance in Allied favor. The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.
Nor was the Afrika Korps a chosen force, the best of the best. Its medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Its 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. But the Germans had confidence in themselves and their officers, in their training and in their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Legos: individual pieces, once fastened together, would hold even if the construction seemed awkward.
That flexibility proved vital. German doctrine based on avoiding tank-on-tank combat meant that when it occurred it was likely to be a close-quarters melee. German gunnery training after the 1940 campaign stressed snap shooting and rapid fire—not least because of the limited effect of single hits on French armor plate. The British for their part during much of the campaign remained committed to destroying German armor by direct action, and their tanks were usually fast enough to counter the tactical maneuvering effective in 1940.
Rommel and his subordinates in consequence recast the section of the panzer-war handbook that addressed antitank operations. In their developed and ideal form, German positions were structured by interlocking antitank-gun positions supported by infantry, the panzers deployed behind them. Contrary to belief at the time, which eventually acquired the status of myth, the 88mm gun was not a standard element of German antitank defense in the desert. Its high silhouette made it vulnerable; its limited numbers made it an emergency alternative. The backbone of German defenses was the 50mm gun, able to knock out any British tank that could move well enough to survive in desert conditions. By 1942 these were being supplemented and replaced in turn by 75mm pieces, heavy and difficult to move but effective even against the new American Grants and Shermans. Eventually the 90th Light Division would be configured as a virtual antitank formation, with 75mm Pak 40s assigned at rifle company level.
British tanks repeatedly and obligingly impaled themselves on the German guns. Robert Crisp, a South African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment, observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use it as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As Rommel once asked 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?”
British armor enmeshed and worn down by the antitank guns was disproportionately vulnerable to counterattacks from flank and rear by panzer forces numerically inferior but with the advantage of surprise—an advantage enhanced by the ubiquitous clouds of dust obscuring desert battlefields as powder smoke had done in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Superior numbers were unnecessary. Properly timed, a single hard tap could shatter an already-confused British armored brigade like glass. Success depended on timing, and for that the excellent German radios were important. But even more important were situational awareness, initiative, and mutual confidence—the infantrymen and antitank crews knowing they were not being sacrificed; the artillery concentrated to provide fire support; the tankers confident the screening forces would hold while they moved into position. Time and again, from Operation Battleaxe in 1941 through Operation Crusader in November 1941 to the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942, the technique worked—and set up the attacks that became Rommel’s signature.
The panzers’ offensive tactics in the desert followed and extended patterns established in Europe. Speed, shock, and flexibility repeatedly proved devastating against a British opponent whose reaction times were sluggish, whose tactics were uninspired, and whose coordination was so limited that desert humor described it as existing only when the commanding officers involved had slept with each others’ wives before the war—a significant handicap, one might think, to multiunit operations.
Encirclement was, however, likely to prove chimerical. There were no obvious terrain features or cultural sites with deep meaning to encourage last stands. Even Cairo was not Verdun. The wide-open terrain and the Germans’ always limited “desert sense” facilitated breakouts, the most familiar examples being the French at Bir Hacheim and 201 Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge. The British were even more completely motorized than the Germans, and correspondingly able to outrun them. The “Gazala gallop” of May 1942 may not have been heroic, but it did preserve much of 8th Army to fight again at El Alamein.
British defense systems were also far more formidable than anything encountered even in France during Case Red. The often-derided “boxes” developed as fixed position at mid-campaign usually featured elaborate minefields to disable vehicles, complex barbed wire systems to frustrate infantry, and defenders ready to fight to the limit, like 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh and 150th Brigade’s stand in the Cauldron during Gazala. Losses in both men and vehicles incurred while overrunning these positions were likely to be high and, given the theater’s low priority for replacements, permanent.
If the Afrika Korps did not want to conquer itself to death, an alternate approach must be developed. Rommel would respond by taking flexible movement to the operational level. His first major offensive, in April 1941, was undertaken despite a direct order to the contrary. Once the vulnerability of the thinly manned British positions was exposed, the battle became an exercise in deep penetration on a level not seen even in France. Columns became lost in broken, poorly mapped terrain, or were deceived by mirages. Engines overheated in 120-degree temperatures. Sandstorms slowed rates of march. But the German tanks, artillery, antitank guns, and motorized infantry wove tactical tapestries that baffled their counterparts.
Rommel seemed to appear everywhere he was needed, driving and inspiring. Benghazi fell on April 3. With the British reeling backward and the fortress of Tobruk besieged, Rommel set the next objective as the Suez Canal. His spearheads reached the Egyptian frontier. When the massive counterattack of Operation Crusader rolled the Germans back in turn, Rommel checked the drive, and then swung completely behind the British. This “dash to the wire” overextended his forces so badly that his own staff called it off while Rommel was out of touch at the front.
This time the pendulum swung all the way back to Rommel’s original starting point around El Agheila. Two weeks later he counterattacked, taking the British by surprise and forcing them back 350 miles to the partially prepared Gazala line. Both sides reinforced as best they could, but again it was Rommel who struck first. On May 26, 1942 his last great offensive began. A month later the port of Tobruk and its 30,000 man garrison were in German hands. Eighth Army, what was left of it, had retreated to the El Alamein line. In Cairo, rear-echelon commandos were burning documents. In London, Churchill faced—albeit briefly—a vote of no confidence on the House of Commons.
Gazala was by any standards a striking victory. But by most standards the Axis troops were fought out. Men and equipment were worn to breaking points, depending on captured fuel and supplies for momentum. Down to fifty tanks at the sharp end, Luftwaffe support left behind in the wake of the ground advance, Rommel was nevertheless convinced that only by attacking could his force sustain the initiative. To halt was to be attacked by massively superior forces, and another backward swing of the desert pendulum might well be the final one. Better to try ending the process altogether: roll the dice, take the British off balance, and regroup in Cairo.