When Erwin Rommel arrived in Libya in February 1941 with his Afrika Korps, he had immediately attacked British forces and driven them back to Egypt. But his Achilles heel turned out to be his supply lines; rarely did he receive sufficient supplies across the Mediterranean. The Germans were quick to heap scorn on Italian incompetence in protecting the sea lanes, but in fact this particular logistical problem was caused by the incompetence of German signals intelligence in not recognizing that the Allies had compromised Enigma. Through Ultra—intelligence based on the breaking of the most sophisticated German and Italian ciphers—British air and naval power, operating out of Malta, attacked the supply convoys escorted by the Italians and consistently interrupted Rommel’s supply lines.
The British hold on Tobruk, a port on the Libyan coast, added greatly to the Afrika Korps’ logistic burden. Tobruk placed Rommel on the horns of a dilemma: he could not advance on Egypt until he captured this port; yet a major offensive against Tobruk would expose his forces in Egypt to a British attack. Halder, the OKH chief of staff, regarded Rommel’s dilemma with grim satisfaction. Still, it must be said that Rommel was never responsible for German strategy in the Mediterranean. His mission was straightforward: to protect Libya, maintain Mussolini’s prestige, and keep the British occupied, and until October 1942 the Afrika Korps achieved these goals at relatively low cost.
In accomplishing these goals Rommel proved himself the premier battlefield commander of the war. While he had not passed the examinations for entrance to the Kriegsakademie—the preparatory step to becoming a general staff officer—he was a devoted student of military history and his profession, as well as the author of one of the most thoughtful combat memoirs ofWorldWar I. He was also a leader of men, with a profound ability to inspire his troops to do their utmost in the face of enormous difficulties. His energy, combined with a sixth sense for the battlefield, led to a boldness in combat that at times bordered on rashness. But Rommel rarely missed the opportunities that his opponents all too often provided. He was undoubtedly a firm supporter of the Nazi regime; yet on a number of occasions he disobeyed some of its more odious orders, such as the commando order. In 1941 he was clearly at the height of his powers of command, and those powers now magnified all the advantages the Germans possessed in doctrine, training, and battlefield effectiveness. Operation Battleaxe—a major British offensive in June 1941 against German defensive positions on the Halfaya Pass on the Egyptian-Libyan frontier—exposed the depth of British weaknesses. Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, commander of British forces in the Middle East, under pressure from Churchill, launched a two-pronged attack, first to capture the pass and then to advance to Tobruk. Well-sited German 88mm anti-aircraft guns, used as anti-tank weapons, wiped out the first offensive move. British forces, in three disjointed columns, failed to support one another, but such disarray was only the beginning.
Rommel arrived the next day from German positions in front of Tobruk. The British, having no coherent doctrine, much less one for mechanized warfare, fought isolated battles, while German armor, infantry, and artillery fought as highly coordinated teams. By morning of the third day, the Afrika Korps threatened to envelop much of Britain’s Eighth Army. Only a precipitous retreat saved the British from complete defeat. Tank losses suggest the extent of the debacle: the Germans lost 12, many repairable, while the British lost 91. The defeat, combined with Wavell’s mishandling of troubles in Iraq and Syria, led Churchill to replace him with General Claude Auchinleck. Yet Eighth Army learned little from their experiences. While British commanders recognized the effectiveness of 88s as anti-tank weapons, they underestimated the mobility with which the Germans used the weapon. Even more seriously, they lacked any comprehension of the enemy’s combined-arms doctrine.
In November 1941, with Operation Crusader, the British tried again. This time they caught Rommel by surprise, and in a swirling, confusing battle, Commonwealth forces enjoyed considerable superiority over their opponents— four to one in tanks (710 to 174 with an additional 500 in supply channels to replace losses). But the British wasted the advantage of surprise by divergent, unsupported brigade-sized efforts. In one action the inexperienced 22nd Brigade charged well-sited Italian anti-tank positions and lost 25 percent of its tanks. Eighth Army units consistently failed to support one another, while the Germans attacked with the full weight of the Afrika Korps’ two panzer divisions.
But the Germans had their own problems. Blinded by British air superiority, they never gained a clear idea of British intentions. A badly organized attack, delivered late near Sidi Rezegh, cost the Germans half their tanks. Rommel followed that strike with a thrust which carried the Afrika Korps to the Egyptian frontier and for a short time threatened to unhinge Eighth Army. Its commander, General Alan Cunningham, ordered the offensive abandoned, but Auchinleck personally took command and ordered the battle continued. The British now stood firm in the rear and resumed the advance on Tobruk to break through to the garrison. The Germans, on the other hand, fumbled their strike at the Egyptian frontier and, confronted with increasing danger around Tobruk as well as a worsening supply situation, broke off the battle.
The retreat took the Germans all the way back to El Agheila, where they had started in April 1941. British numbers on the battlefield had told, while British air and naval attacks from Malta on Axis supply lines had destroyed a significant percentage of the shipping crossing to Libya. But help was on the way for the hard-pressed Afrika Korps. Hitler ordered Luftflotte 2 (Second Air Force) and its commander, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, from Russia to the Mediterranean. In addition, the OKW ordered a number of U-boats transferred to the theater. Thus, the effort from Malta had an impact not only on the Battle in North Africa but on the Eastern Front and the Battle of the Atlantic as well.
Luftflotte 2 made an immediate difference. The flow of supplies to Rommel improved, and in January 1942 he counterattacked and drove the British back to Gazala. There the front stabilized for the next four months, as the exhausted armies settled down in the winter rains to prepare for a resumption of heavy fighting in the spring. The British established a defensive line of fortified infantry positions that reached deep into the desert; like the Italian positions in front of Mersa Matruh in fall 1940, these positions were not mutually supporting. Behind the front line the British deployed their armor in brigade-sized formations. The intention was to avoid fighting a defensive battle; with their superiority in numbers British commanders believed they would be on the offensive. Yet, looking at Ultra reports, Churchill could not fathom why Eighth Army was waiting to attack. But Churchill never understood the British Army’s weaknesses in doctrine, training, and combined-arms capabilities; unfortunately, neither did his commanders, who had done little to repair Eighth Army’s tactical and operational deficiencies.
Rommel struck first. Over the night of 26–27 May the Afrika Korps’ mobile force moved south around the Gazala line and the fortress defensive position of Bir Hacheim, manned by the 1st Free French Brigade. For reasons that remain inexplicable to this day, British commanders believed that a German attack, if it came at all, would come against their center. Consequently, they deployed their armor to counterattack there and not to guard against a major flank attack. Despite the fact that armored car patrols picked up Rommel’s move over the course of the night, British commanders refused to believe the warnings. As a result, powerful German forces first overran the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade, then the 7th British Motor Brigade, and then the 4th Armored Brigade in succession, none of which paid the slightest attention to what was happening to their neighbors. The Germans also overran 7th Armored Division’s command post and captured its commander, General F. W. Messervy, who had commanded 1st Armored Division four months earlier when the Germans had wrecked that unit.
Nevertheless, Rommel soon ran into difficulties. He had hoped to drive to the coast and encircle the entire Gazala line, but the Afrika Korps slammed into British armor in the center of the Gazala position and took heavy losses from new Grant tanks, provided by U.S. Lend-Lease. After a second day of fruitless attempts to break through to the coast, Rommel halted the Afrika Korps behind the Gazala line and attempted to break through British minefields and defensive positions to open up a supply channel. The balance in armor still favored the British by nearly three to one. Trapped with his back to British minefields, Rommel threw out a screen of 88s. Here, British generalship came to his rescue. General Neil Ritchie, Eighth Army commander, persisted in launching a series of ill-coordinated and unsupported armored attacks. Heavy air attacks, tank attacks, and artillery bombardments fell on German forces in the “cauldron,” but none in a coordinated fashion.
As the Germans beat off British attacks, they captured the defensive position at Sidi Muftah in the Gazala line on 1 June. They thus opened up a path for supplies to reach the panzers. A major British attack on 5 June again ran into Rommel’s anti-tank screen and suffered heavy losses—230 tanks. On 10 June, the Germans finally took the French positions at Bir Hacheim, although many of the French escaped in the night. By this point the British, though still enjoying an advantage in armor, were badly shaken. With his supplies in hand, Rommel struck out from his defensive position. Again the British failed to coordinate their operations. Rommel trapped two British armored brigades on 12 June between his panzer divisions; a third British armored brigade, rushing to the rescue, ran into the usual screen of anti-tank guns. To add to the disaster, the hapless Messervy found himself cut off from his troops for the third time in as many weeks. This battle finally tipped both the armored equation and the battle’s initiative firmly into Rommel’s hands. The British scrambled to escape.
Most of the infantry in the Gazala positions withdrew unharmed, but only because Rommel was focusing on more distant objectives. As the British debacle gathered momentum, Churchill demanded that Auchinleck hold Tobruk. Rommel’s forces swept by the fortress on 19 June and captured the air fields east of the port; the Afrika Korps was apparently headed toward the Egyptian frontier. Tobruk’s garrison was reasonably large, consisting of the 2nd South African Division, the Guards Brigade, and the 32nd Tank Brigade with 70 tanks. But none were ready for a siege. Confident that the Germans had headed east, the defenders settled down to await events. But at dawn on 20 June a massive bombardment hit Tobruk’s southeastern perimeter; the Germans had returned. Within three hours German infantry were through the defenses. On the following morning, the South African commander surrendered, and Tobruk was finally in German hands.
At this point, Rommel, newly promoted to field marshal, argued for an advance into Egypt, while Kesselring pushed for an airborne assault on Malta. Hitler, undoubtedly recalling the heavy losses on Crete and not trusting the Italian Navy, opted for a continued advance. In fact, the Afrika Korps had taken heavy losses and was in no condition to take Egypt; only a complete collapse by the British could have allowed it to reach Alexandria. Auchinleck had already intervened and relieved Ritchie. He established the Eighth Army in defensive positions near El Alamein, 60 miles from Alexandria. Lying directly south of British positions was the Qattara Depression, a great dry salt sea, impassable to heavy vehicles. There would be no open flank. In that position, Auchinleck’s successful defense halted a series of Afrika Korps attacks in early July. For a short period, the British had the chance to gain a major victory, but the Eighth Army possessed neither the confidence nor initiative required to launch a counterattack.