06 November 2012

The Desert War: 1941 - Enter the Desert Fox

Erwin Rommel

Introduction, Part One

Winston Churchill publicly praised only two German officers during the war. One of these was Günther Prien, who on 14 October 1939 managed to get a U-boat into Scapa Flow, sink the battleship Royal Oak at anchor and get out again before the British realised what was going on. Then First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill conceded that one was "a remarkable exploit of professional skill and daring".

The other was Erwin Rommel, who he described in the following terms:

We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and, may I say across the havoc of war, a great general

Rommel (1891-1944) had served with distinction in the First World War, being wounded three times and receiving two gallantry decorations. After that war, he stayed in the smaller Reichswehr, becoming an instructor - throughout this time, he was highly respected by his men and other officers, demonstrating courage and strong leadership. He also published books on military manoeuvres.

He got close to Hitler and achieved the rank of General in 1939. Asking for a field command, he got 7th Panzer Division, the only commander who had not been involved directly in the Polish invasion.

In France, his forces raced ahead of the others, being the first to reach the English Channel near Dieppe and also taking places like Cherbourg. He also made enemies among his fellow officers, particularly when he commandeered their equipment for his own advances.

With things going wrong in North Africa, Hitler tapped him to lead the Afrika Korps.

The end of Compass

In North Africa, the British raced on, heading for the Italian-controlled port of Bardia in Libya. The local forces were ordered to fight to the last man and denied air support. While the British under-estimated Italian forces by about half, the town was still taken in two days, with the bulk of the Italians surrendering - 36,000 defenders ended up as POWs and the British captured a great deal of materiel, along with a pumping station - vital for fresh water.

The main forces involved were the new Australian division and their involvement earned them fame overseas, including among the neutrals.

The Italian rout continued - Tobruk was bagged in three days, Derna in one. The Tenth Army fled west and were intercepted by the British forces. After attempts at a breakout failed, the remaining forces (except for 32,000 who escaped) surrendered on 9 February.

In just ten weeks, the British had advanced 800 kilometres, reaching El Agheila and taking the important city of Benghazi. 130,000 prisoners were taken, including no less than 22 generals. 400 tanks and 1,290 artillery pieces were also captured. The Tenth Army had basically ceased to exist as a fighting force.

At this point, the German invasion of Greece led to Commonwealth forces being diverted to try and stop that (they didn't), so the offensive stopped there.

Operation Sonnenblume and Rommel's arrival

At this point, Rommel arrived in theatre, with the Germans sending a small, but potent force to Libya. While this being built up, Rommel initially built up his defences and engaged in deception measures (including building fake tanks) to make the Allies think he had more forces than he really had. They bought the ruse.

Tobruk 1

On 24 March 1941, Rommel launched his offensive, taking back El Agheila and taking the British completely by surprise. He swept along towards Tobruk, capturing the towns along the way, although the supply dump at Msus proved useless to him as the British sabotaged the fuel stored there. Bardia was recaptured in the process.

Rommel had initially considered launching a flank attack around Tobruk before a direct assault to cut off the city, but deemed the defences there weak enough to justify going straight in from the west.

On 10 April, General Heinrich von Prittwitz und Gaffron launched the assault - and got killed in the process as the 25,000 Allied forces stood firm. It was time for Plan B - or rather Plan A, with Rommel surrounding the city from its land approaches.

He then launched attack after attack, but the strong Allied defences repulsed them all - until on 10 May Rommel was order to besiege the city instead of attack it directly.

This he did, but it wasn't really a siege, as Tobruk was still open to the sea, Allied convoys were able to bring in fresh supplies and rotate forces there, as well as providing occasional fire support. The 'siege' went on.

Operation Battleaxe

In June, the British launched another offensive, which failed after only three days. Rommel had access to signals intelligence that a British attack was likely - he was able to make good preparations for this. In addition, he had some better equipment, such as the 88mm flak gun, which proved just as good at dealing with tanks as it did with planes, while his Panzer IVs out-ranged the British tanks, being able to take out their artillery.

Rommel would send in his tanks then retreat, luring the British into a trap where the 88s could destroy them. The Germans lost 50 tanks (and were able to repair 38 of those) to the Allies' 91, with the British also taking higher manpower losses as well.

Churchill considered firing Wavell at this point, but decided against it. He instead swapped his job with that of Claude Auchinleck.

"Good Source"

In the autumn, the Axis powers separately cracked the US diplomatic code - allowing them to read the messages of the neutral (but leaning to the Allies) country. In particular, this allowed them to read the reports of one Frank Fellers, the American military attaché in Cairo. He talked with the British, visited the battlefronts - and discussed pretty much everything in his dispatches. The dispatches that the Germans could now read.

Rommel called his "good source" and while not able to use it that much in 1941, he made a great use of it in 1942.

Operation Crusader 

As the year came near its end and the summer ended, the British were able to launch another attack with two whole corps. The offensive was launched on 18 November, with bad weather hitting both sides - the British lost air support, but the Germans lost aerial reconnaissance.

The attacks on both sides were brutal, with heavy losses. Rommel launched a number of counter-attacks, but ultimately his forces were cleared from the border area (pulling back to a line called the 'Gazala Line') and Tobruk was relieved. The Germans got the worst of and this was a clear Allied victory - the success continuing as 1942 began.

It wouldn't last and soon Suez would be under threat. However, events half a world a way were going to save the British and mark the 'end of the beginning'.

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