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.
“Attack” had worked for Rommel in North Africa as it had in France. It had been the armored force’s mantra since the beginning. It was a keystone of the German approach to war-making. This time under a new commander, Bernard Law Montgomery, 8th Army held. At Ruweisat Ridge on July 1, the panzers broke in. For the first time in the desert, they failed to break through. An end run was stopped cold at Alam Halfa by a mixture the Germans had patented: combined-arms tactics in a context of air supremacy. By this time Rommel’s health had declined sufficiently that he returned to Germany, partly to recover and partly to lobby for more of everything. Rommel informed his doctor, “Either 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.
The stalemate at El Alamein is frequently described as the final, fatal consequence of either Rommel’s fundamental ignorance of logistics or his culpable carelessness in supervising them. He thus epitomizes a senior officer corps whose tactical and operational proficiency manifested tunnel vision, with caste pride, misunderstood professionalism, or exaggerated vitalism relegating administration to those unsuited to command troops in combat.
When Halder asked Rommel what he would need to conquer Egypt and the Suez Canal, Rommel replied that another two panzer corps should do. When Halder asked how Rommel proposed to supply that force, Rommel replied that was Halder’s problem. Rommel was being neither arrogant nor insouciant. He was expressing the mentality of the German army as reorganized after 1933. Even Halder declared after the war that quartermasters must never hamper the operational concept. Rapid expansion encouraged a more pragmatic, hands-on ethic than had been the case prior to the Great War. The pace Hitler demanded encouraged focusing on the operational level of war. Planning in turn revolved more than ever around operational considerations; the logisticians were called in afterward.
Rommel saw as well as anyone on either side of the war that victory in the desert depended on supply. He also understood that he had relatively little control of his logistics. Germany was a guest in the Mediterranean, depending on Italian goodwill and Italian abilities to sustain a small expeditionary force. From his arrival, Rommel successfully cultivated Italian senior officers and gained the confidence of Italian fighting formations. The Ariete Armored Division was close enough in effectiveness to its German stablemates to be virtually the Afrika Korps’ third panzer division for much of the campaign. Italian infantry, artillery, and engineers time and again were the fulcrum on which the lever of Rommel’s mobile operations depended.
The Italian army was not as retrograde in its understanding of mobile war in tactical and operational contexts as is frequently assumed. By 1940, Italian theorists had studied German successes in Poland and France and developed a doctrine of guerra di rapido corso (fast-moving war). Strategically, however, their generals considered Rommel’s focus on Cairo and the Suez Canal as culpable overextension. The Wehrmacht High Command understood the Mediterranean theater’s strategic function was to cover the German southern flank during the decisive struggle in Russia. North Africa was an outpost, best secured by a flexible defense.
On the other hand, Hitler had been reappraising Germany’s strategic prospects ever since Pearl Harbor. The German 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. For Hitler, the war’s globalization only confirmed his decision for a 1942 campaign against the Caucasian oil fields. Hitler 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 convince Britain to negotiate, and leave Russia to be finished off before the industrial potential of the United States, which Hitler admitted he had no idea how to defeat, could be developed and deployed.
If America’s entry into the war threatened the Reich with grand-strategic encirclement, the military situation provided a window of opportunity—six to eight months, perhaps—for consolidating Germany’s position in a continental redoubt of the kind depicted by geopoliticians like Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Mastery of what they called the “Heartland”—the Eurasian landmass—would set the stage for eventual mastery of the world.
Rommel had a complementary strategic vision. He believed, especially given the growing imbalance in material resources between Germany and its opponents, the best approach in North Africa involved maintaining the offensive at operational levels, taking advantage of German leadership and fighting power to demoralize the British, keep them off balance, and eventually create the opportunity for a decisive blow. That was a common mind-set among Germany’s panzer generals as the war reached its middle stages. Rommel, though anything but an “educated soldier” in the traditions of the German General Staff, took the concept one level higher. He realized British strength would continue to be renewed as long as North Africa remained the primary theater where Britain could deploy modern ground forces. Yet he was also convinced that through operational art he could conquer Egypt and eventually move northeast toward the Caucasus, providing the southern pincer of a strategic 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.
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 World War II. But a crucial prerequisite for large-scale offensive operations in the Middle East was Axis maritime superiority in the Mediterranean. The Germans could make no significant contributions. The Italian navy had suffered heavy losses that its construction and repair facilities could not replace. Air power was no less vital, and here too the burden would have fallen on an Italian air force whose effectiveness was steadily declining. Obsolescent aircraft, lack of fuel, and indifference at senior levels proved a fatal trifecta. As for the Luftwaffe, those human and material resources not deployed to Russia were increasingly being reassigned to home defense.
Any Middle East offensive mounted from the Mediterranean would require a port. Alexandria, even if captured relatively undamaged, would be no more than 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 anything like a comprehensive, developed railway network. The problem of securing a thousand miles and more of natural guerilla/bandit country would have daunted the most brutal Nazi specialists in genocide.
The final damping factor of a Middle East campaign was its dependence 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 remain 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. And yet the question remains: What might Rommel have achieved with a couple of additional panzer divisions, a little more gasoline . . . ?