Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Nature of the Desert War

Northwest Europe was the most urbanized and industrialized theater of war in the world. In 1940, it was simply impossible to conduct mobile war there without collateral damage, but this did not make civilians either active participants in the war or the deliberately selected targets of the uniformed services. Peacetime armies, too, easily saw terrain as a space for maneuver, where the landscape was strangely devoid of human occupation and where the only obstacles were those set by nature, such as mountains and rivers. The desert came closest to this ideal. In the North African campaign, both sides could focus on each other, with the result that – in the German title of The Rommel Papers – it was a “war without hate.” The British more often expressed admiration than animosity for the Germans and particularly for Rommel himself. Private J. M. Butler, an Australian at Tobruk in 1941, wrote, “the German is a worthy opponent and in this campaign at least he is a clean and fair fighter – I have yet to see a German who is afraid: I have yet to see a German who resorts to low and mean subterfuge.” On the other side of the line at about the same time, a German tank officer was “inclined to think of the romantic idea of a knight’s tourney.” Chivalry was a word that both sides used at least occasionally, and it found reflection in the humane treatment both of the wounded and of prisoners of war.

It is easy to see the fighting in North Africa as peripheral – a throwback to an anglocentric view of the war, where the key issues are operational, where armies fought each other rather than partisans, where political ideology was less important than military honor, and where genocide and terror have been airbrushed out of the historical record. Although a major theater for Italy, it was – after all – a minor one for Germany.

Thus, its evidence that fighting in the Second World War was capable of being conducted along lines that accorded with convention can be marginalized. But what is interesting is that Rommel himself did not see the desert campaign in those terms. The talk of chivalry and its evocation of antiquity should not obscure the fact that for him, “of all theatres of operations, it was probably in North Africa that the war took on its most advanced form. The protagonists on both sides were fully motorised formations, for whose employment the flat and obstruction-free desert offered hitherto undreamed-of possibilities. It was the only theatre where the principles of motorised and tank warfare, as they had been taught theoretically before the war, could be applied to the full – and further developed.”

Rommel regarded the campaigns in Poland and France as inappropriate pointers to the future because in those theaters Germany’s enemies had still “to take account of their non-motorised infantry divisions and had thus to suffer the disastrous limitation in their freedom of tactical decision which this imposes.” By contrast, the British in North Africa were fully mobile, and “out of this pure motorised warfare, certain principles were established . . . These principles will become the standard for the future, in which the fully-motorised formation will be dominant.”

For Rommel, therefore, the most modern form of war was not necessarily total war: the future of war was an operational matter, and its means was the maintenance of high tempo. But Rommel’s analysis, even within his circumscribed perspective, was deficient. His summary of the technical and organizational aspects of desert warfare made no mention at all of air power despite his recognition of the dependence of tempo on up-to-date intelligence and on regular resupply. And, second, although he recognized that it was “the flat and good-driving terrain” that had enabled operational success, he made the mistake of assuming that methods evolved in one geographical environment could be applicable to another. Terrain could determine totality in war.

When the war extended to northwestern Europe in 1944, the principles governing the employment of armor were very different from those advocated by Rommel or that had been applied in 1940. In both the earlier campaigns, tanks were massed and were deployed where the going favored them. They were creatures of the open countryside. By 1944, they were integrated with infantry to provide direct fire support not only in the bocage of Normandy but also in towns and cities. The destruction of Rouen and especially Caen symbolized the value of a city as a defensive node, and its vulnerability to the fire of tanks and artillery as well as to close air support and interdiction bombing. Thus modern war proved to be all-arms war in a way that Rommel had failed to grasp.

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