Rommel was not one of the war's great generals. Many Germans express surprise that the British and American public know his name: they think of him as a product of Nazi propaganda. Rommel led from the front and his style suited divisional command. He became a hero for Allied front-line soldiers who seldom if ever saw their own top commanders at the front. British generals preferred to have their HQs about 60 miles behind the fighting fronts. Besides, Rommel had for his Afrika Korps exceptional leaders such as Cruewell, Nehring and Bayerlein. But all that said, few other men could have inspired this mixed and demoralized German-Italian desert army in the way that Rommel did. He revelled in popularity and delighted in the sort of informality that the desert provided to both sides. In his paper Modern Military Leadership he wrote:
The commander must try, above all, to establish personal and comradely contact with his men, but without giving away an inch of his authority when an attack is ordered the men must never be allowed to get the feeling that their casualties have been calculated in advance according to the laws of probability.
The deciding factor in Rommel's North African campaign was the shipping and the ports. Even Tripoli was in no way equipped for the massive traffic that such armies demanded. Had the Axis coaxed the French for use of Tunisian facilities and used Tripoli and other less good Libyan ports with impeccable efficiency, and given proper attention to their road transport, they might have mustered the strength to capture Egypt.
Then, having captured the port of Alexandria and got it working, they might have fed through it reinforcements enough to occupy Egypt and the Canal Zone. Even then such a strategy would almost certainly have faltered; German factories after the summer of 1941 were to be hard pressed by the demands of the Russian front.
Such a scenario was never a real possibility. Rommel's fatal flaw was his inability to see the importance of logistics. He liked to blame the Italian navy for his shortages, and historians have too readily accepted this judgement. In fact, Italian merchant seamen were nothing less than heroic in their performance. John Ellis reckons that the Axis forces were getting an average 800 tons per division per day, and points out that 'voracious US armoured divisions in North West Europe required only 600 tons of supplies per day, including fuel .
It was Rommel's own land-supply movements that brought him down. In fact his troubles arose from a combination of his own daring and improvisation and a disregard for the terrible problems such impulsive decisions made for his supply staff. He is quoted as saying that he left logistics to his staff officers. It is significant that his supply officer in 1941 had the lowly rank of major.
As an indication of this major's problems, the trucks taking 1,000 gallons of fuel from the docks at Tobruk to Alamein consumed 120 gallons of fuel plus 9.6 gallons of other lubricants. Wastage and spillage in the hot climate would account for at least 10 per cent.
Deduct fuel needed for the return journey, and they will have brought no more than 636 gallons to the front. But still more fuel was needed to bring up ammunition and food and all the other supplies. The map reveals that Tobruk, 300 miles from the front, is the key to supplying the desert war. It spent much of the war in British hands, and when in German hands it was a favourite target for the R.A.F bombers. Tripoli Rommel's main port was often 1,500 miles from his front! For their supplies the British used whenever possible the coastal railway out of Alexandria. It was economical and efficient. When Rommel captured 300 miles of it (in 1942) he did little to keep it functioning.
There can be no doubt that much of Rommel's reputation as a general was due to his skilful use of intelligence. Many tactical moves were based upon secrets picked up by his highly efficient Fernmeldeaufklarung.
This mobile radio monitoring service listened to everything it could pick up; casual battlefield chat, tank to tank calls, headquarters messages and supply depot reports. Rommel's traffic analysts reaped a rich harvest, for British units in 1941 had not learned of the dangers that poor radio discipline brought. In addition to this tactical intelligence, Rommel was receiving something even better than the British Enigma intercepts: the intercepted messages sent to Washington by the United States military attache in Cairo.
At this time the British were showing this American everything and anything that he wanted to see. Not only did his messages contain details of British armour strengths and positions, they also reported forthcoming operations such as commando raids. Instead of the spotty information from the Enigma intercepts, Rommel was getting material about air, land and sea operations and getting it with a speed and continuity that BP could never equal. The most knowledgeable historian on this subject remarks:
And what messages they were! They provided Rommel with undoubtedly the broadest and clearest picture of enemy forces and intentions available to any Axis commander throughout the war.
Determined defence of Tobruk by Australian infantry and British artillery denied that port to Rommel even when the remainder of the British army had retreated back to the Egyptian border. Now Rommel came to a stop and concentrated on Tobruk.
Rommel's unexpected advance in April 1941 surprised Berlin and prompted the high command to send a senior observer, Generalleutnant F. Paulus, to find out what this upstart Rommel was doing. Tall and slim, Paulus was one of the army's brightest staff officers and an expert on mobile warfare.
His work as chief of staff for the 6th Army during its victorious campaigns in Poland, Belgium and France had resulted in him being selected to be deputy chief of the general staff and told to produce a strategic survey for invading the Soviet Union. Paulus, nicknamed 'the noble lord', was an oldfashioned but meticulous theoretician, who bathed as often as possible and wore gloves to protect himself against dirt. He had been Rommel's conmpany commander in the 1920s and did not care for his cavalier way of waging war.
Arriving on his inspection tour on 27 April, Paulus voiced great reservations about Rommel's proposed attack on Tobruk, which had now become a fortress. His scepticism proved well founded after concentrated bombing and shelling made no more than a dent in the Tobruk perimeter and both sides settled into a state of siege punctuated by bloody clashes at night. The Tobruk perimeter consisted mostly of rock-hard ground, so digging trenches or foxholes was not easy. Given the lack of cover, the Australians had to endure baking heat where a careless movement brought accurate sniper fire. On the night of 5-6 May, the defenders were given new hope when for the first time a ship brought supplies into the beleaguered port. From now onwards destroyers would make regular nightly visits, and each week reinforcements would be exchanged for wounded men.
The caustic report resulting from Paulus's inspection tour said that Rommel's supply lines were overstretched, his men exhausted and his reserves inadequate. He was told to forget about reducing Tobruk and withdraw to Gazala or Mechili and operate within his resources.
The Enigma experts at Bletchley Park sent the intercepted signal to Churchill, who reasoned that if Rommel was weak and overextended this was the chance to knock him reeling back to Cyrenaica. It was especially urgent since Enigma signals also revealed that 15 Panzer Division would soon be reinforcing Rommel. Ignoring the warnings of everyone around him, Churchill took all the fighter planes and tanks to be spared in Britain and loaded them onto a convoy which, against more advice, he sent through the Axis-dominated Mediterranean. Four of the five freighters got through with 238 tanks and 43 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes and docked in Alexandria in mid-May.
While this newly arrived equipment was distributed and made ready, a limited offensive, code named Brevity, was launched. Its object was to capture key areas in preparation for a major offensive to come.
One account of the desert war, says: "Operation Brevity began at dawn on May 15, and it soon became evident that neither Rommel nor his local commander .. . were either aware of or in agreement with the conclusions drawn by Paulus." The British attack captured one of its objectives, Halfaya Pass, but was otherwise a failure. Rommel's signals intelligence had given him good warning of what was coming, and even a weak and over-extended Afrika Korps was too much for the British as he staged a counter-attack that recovered the Ilalfaya Pass.
And when the British armour was unloaded from the convoy that had come through the Mediterranean at such risk it proved to be a mixed collection. Eight out of twenty tanks required a complete overhaul.
Many of the others were already halfway through their effective life and some of the Matildas were in need of major repairs. All of them required 'tropicalization' and painting. Long before the armour was fit for battle, Rommel's 15 Panzer Division reinforcements had arrived.
On 15 June, in the terrible desert heat of summer, the promised British offensive, Operation Battleaxe, began. Repeatedly the Germans enticed the British tanks on to their well concealed guns. Only thirteen 8.8-em guns were in action but their role was decisive. The British stuck to their 'naval battle' tactics, sending in tanks to fire broadsides at enemy tanks. Despite the consequences, some of the tank units many of them smart cavalry regiments preferred this dashing style and didn't want support from infantry and guns. There was no sign that the British, at any level, were learning lessons from their chronic losses. After only three days' fighting Wavell sent Churchill a cable: "I regret to report the failure of Battleaxe."
Churchill sacked him.
The Germans were getting acclimatized to the desert. In the first few months they were given a monotonous diet of black bread, tinned sardines, tinned meat and grated cheese. This sort of diet led to medical problems, particularly jaundice. It also spurred them into action. British stores were coveted if only for the change of menu they provided.
"Our black bread in a carton was handy," said a German war correspondent, 'but how we used to long to capture one of your field bakeries and eat fresh white bread! And your jam!" When ally ovens came, fresh bread remained scarce; the German quartermaster supplied the Afrika Korps with the standard field bakeries fired by logs. In most of Europe logs were easy to find, but they are not common in the desert. Fresh bread remained scarce.
Though the desert war seemed to come to a stop, this was an illusion.
In fact the whole war was changing. There were changes of men, of methods and of machines. On 22 June Germany invaded Russia. It would be months before this took full effect, but from now on the Eastern Front would always dwarf the North African fighting. Henceforth Rommel's calls for men, armour, transport and fuel would be subordinated to other more urgent needs.
Wavell was dispatched to India. The day-to-day demands upon him had been greater than anyone could have imagined. He had been fighting too many battles hundreds of miles apart with skinny resources. Sir Claude Auchinleck came to Cairo as the new commander-in-chief for the Middle East. The appointment of a number of subsidiary commanders ensured that he would never have the power that Wavell had wielded. New aircraft arrived and Bostons, Marylands, Beaufighters, Tomahawks and tropical Hurricanes were to be seen flying over the desert. There were new Crusader tanks, new ideas and even a new name for the desert army: the Eighth Army.