One of the most critical and overlooked battles in World War II was North Africa. To the Allies, it meant a diversion from the Normandy invasion. To the Germans, it started out as a bailing out of Italian Divisions and ended up a strategic and important arena of war. The main focus of this essay will be that of the German side and the operations conducted by its leader, Erwin Rommel. He overcame strong opposition from not only the Allies, but within the German High Command as well.
The fighting in North Africa started with Italian troops. Stationed in Egypt, leader of Italy Mussolini ordered Marshal Rudolfo Graziani to attack British forces with 250,000 troops. The British had only 30,000. One key element that contributed to the battle was the fact that the British forces rode in trucks, while the Italians marched on foot, which weakened the already inferior troops. The Italians had outdated weapons and vehicles and their officers cared nothing for their soldiers. Mussolini added to the inferiority of the mechanized troops when he sold weapons and new aircraft to the highest foreign bidder to make up money problems. He then gave his troops 20-year-old artillery pieces to fight with. Their hand grenades would sometimes even blow up in the hand of the thrower. Other glaring deficiencies were Italian rationing. Their rations needed to be cooked in boiling water, which was rarely available in the desert. Graziani had an air force that consisted of 84 bombers, 114 fighters and 113 outdated aircraft. All lead to the ultimate demise of the Italian forces in Africa. To Mussolini’s aid, Hitler started sending Panzers to Africa on January 11, 1941. He then sent aircraft to Sicily. The Italians ended up suffering severe losses.
Rommel was appointed to lead the German forces in Africa and was sent to Libya in February 1941 to help the Italians. Rommel’s troops landed in Tripoli where he was ordered to defend it. It is interesting to note that the leading British commander, O’Conner, planned to capture Tripoli at the same time, but had decided to wait for reinforcements. This gave time for Rommel to organize his troops. The first British-German battle occurred on February 24 between recon forces. The British knew of a German presence only three days before. After the British miscalculated German force numbers, it took them until March to finally get them right. Rommel was presented with a unique challenge in Africa in that his troops were accustomed to fighting in Europe. He also had a huge line of communication back to the Reich. Other problems for the Germans included unsuitable clothing, over-estimation of water, and homesickness of his soldiers. Despite all this, the fact that German soldiers were better trained gave the British an immense challenge.
Rommel decided that the only way to win Africa was to go on the offensive. He received support from Hitler on a trip to Germany. Rommel rested for a week after taking El Agheila on March 24 to evaluate British positions nearby. He then attacked with an overwhelming advantage in numbers and pushed the British back. After being repulsed twice, the Germans followed cautiously as the British retreated. The British then started off towards Egypt to defend there. Rommel saw the British moving quickly and leaving much equipment behind. He realized they were leaving the area (Cyrenaica). Rommel then made plans to finish off the British before they escaped to Egypt. While British forces were retreating, they fell into confusion and chaos. Conflicting orders left them wondering what to leave behind and when to go. Needless to say, this slowed the withdrawal incredibly. Rommel took advantage of these slowing British forces by driving forward with his troops. Rommel then pushed towards Tobruk, driving away what light British resistance he came in contact with along the way. The Germans made a glaring mistake when the Panzers drove on without infantry support inside the defenses of Tobruk. The result was hundreds of dead and captured Germans as the defenders ambushed the tanks. Rommel was furious and after amassing tank reinforcements, tried to take Tobruk several times. After fighting against a strong Australian defense, the Germans slowed down. They were unsuccessful each team in taking Tobruk. After this, Rommel was ordered to forget about Tobruk and hold the previously taken Cyrenaica.
Another blunder made by the Germans was the British interception of a message that explained why Rommel’s forces were short on supplies and needing them urgently. This information prompted the English to organize an offensive, later to be known as Operation Battleaxe. This went badly for the British, as the Germans knocked out many tanks and key reinforcements. The battle ended in a few days after a counter attack by Rommel, forcing a British withdrawal. The Germans used a number of anti-tank guns and concealed them so well, that the British thought better tank guns were beating them. It is easy to overlook the difficulties in fighting desert battles. Among those are discerning enemy troops at a distance, unreliable radio messages, and the arduous task of navigating through the desert. Each side had its way of limiting these factors. The British moved in loose formations to avoid air attacks, Germans were tighter as to utilize anti-aircraft fire. They also had two different fighting styles. The British would conduct offensives by advancing, only to fall back away from the fighting to sleep and re-supply. The Germans would stand their ground after and advance and use flares to protect against counter-attacks.
One big factor that affected the African campaign in 1941 was the German invasion of Russia. The battle took much needed men and materials away from Rommel. To compound this, at around the same time the American Lend-Lease program supplied British and Russian forces with war equipment. Although this served to help the Allies tremendously, it was slow in coming.
Rommel seemed to be engrossed in retaking and attacking Tobruk and was increasingly less concerned about taking a blow from the British. He planned his attack on Tobruk while utilizing a variety of forces. He was to use a several-pronged attack supported by artillery. Inside Tobruk, the British were also planning an offensive. They planned on assaulting the German armor that surrounded Tobruk. The two planned offensives, one on either side, were
scheduled to start within a week of each other. The ensuing battle was called “Crusader.” The British gathered troops in Nov. 1941 and were to attack first. They first pushed back the German lines and then attacked north against a group of Italians. Both sides suffered losses, but it is important to note that the British lost 25 new tanks that were recently rushed in. All during the first part of this battle, Rommel insisted that the build-up for his attack on Tobruk must continue.
When German commanders started sensing a movement in the British lines, they opted to bring in reinforcements from the coast in case the British were mounting an assault. Rommel withdrew that order saying the British only wanted to harass the German lines. It seems that if the precautionary measures had been taken, the Germans would be able to overtake the British within a day. The British overtook some Italian positions, but lost a number of tanks near Ariete. As the German plans went into action, they met up with the other portion of the troops that attacked Ariete. The British attacked other German positions at about the same time and were met with fierce opposition. Some of which came from a quick counter-attack from Von Ravenstein, a German tank commander. After about 2 days of fighting the majority of the battle was being fought around Sidi Rezegh. As the battle raged on, the Germans kept racking up many British losses and a few days into “Crusader,” it seemed as though Rommel’s offensive
was going to prevail. However, after receiving reinforcements and fresh tanks, the British turned the battle around and forced the Germans back to their original
positions in Cyrencaica. This is, of course, a vague rehashing of the entire battle, but it gives a sense as to when the battle for Africa turned, and in whose favor.
In the end, Rommel was forced out of Africa and never participated in another operation. He was forced into a suicide after the assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, in which he was considered a conspirator. He was a fearless leader on the battlefield in North Africa. He turned his lack of resources into a thriving army. His battles and strategies are still being studied today. Rommel revolutionized the battlefield, in that the tank was no longer an infantry support, but rather supported by infantry. Without Rommel, Nazi Germany might have fell far sooner. All those who fought against him respected him. If Rommel had been given the proper allotment of troops and supplies, the outcome of the battles in North Africa might have been far different.