7. Descriptions of the More Important Battles
a. 31 March-19 April 1941: The First Counterattack to Reconquer the Cyrenaica
Contrary to the views of General Garibaldi, commander in chief of the Italian forces in Africa, Rommel, who had arrived in the theater of operations on 11 February 1941 as commander of the German Africa Corps, was of the opinion that waiting would worsen the situation, The British forces were still in a long drawn-out column and were momentarily in a precarious condition, which had to be exploited immediately. Rommel was able to substantiate his opinions by reconnaissance and, therefore, his views prevailed. Immediately after the 5th Light Division commenced landing at Tripoli on 11 February 1941 and moving up to the front, Rommel commenced a series of reconnaissance thrusts west of Agheila on 24 March, which he followed up on 31 March by an attack with limited objectives in the direction of Agedabia. The sole objective of this attack was to drive back the British troops in the advanced positions of Agedabia. Since these British troops retreated immediately, Agedabia itself was attacked and taken on 1 April, the enemy withdrawing toward Benghasi. The attack toward Benghasi that then followed was also successful, and on 4 April, that city and the port were taken by German forces.
In view of the obvious weakness of the British, who had been taken by surprise by the German attack, it seemed advisable to continue the advance. Rommel decided not to continue the pursuit through the Cyrenaica but rather to launch an enveloping attack through the desert in order, if possible, to prevent the retreat of considerable enemy forces. For this reason, he pushed forward the bulk of the 5th Light Division south of Benghasi straight through the desert towards Mechili and Derna, with weaker forces moving by way of Msus in a flanking drive. This move also succeeded, and on 6 April, more than 2,000 prisoners were taken at Mechili, Derna being captured on the same day.
On 9 April, the pursuing columns reached the Libyan-Egyptian border at Bardia so that all territory lost in Libya had been recovered. Only the Tobruk fortress remained in British hands. It was enveloped with weak forces by 11 April. Two attempts to take it in raids on 13 and 14 April and a third attempt, in a properly prepared attack on 30 April, failed. The forces available were inadequate for the task.
Rommel now had to decide whether to break off the siege of Tobruk and to withdraw to the elevated terrain of Ain el Gazala or to maintain the siege-with the disadvantage that he would have to establish a second front in a line level with Sidi-OmarSollum-Bardia. He decided on the second solution. Chiefly Italian troops-namely, the X and XXI Corps, with a total of four infantry divisions (which were to be increased to five at a later stage)-were to maintain the siege of Tobruk. The Sidi-Omar-Sollum front was held only in strongpoints in order to release the bulk of the German forces for mobile employment in the open field. To summarize:
(1) The units that took part in the actual offensive operations were as follows:
The 5th Light Division at that time consisted of three battalions; one tank regiment; and one each of reconnaissance, light artillery, antitank, engineer, and signal battalions.
(2) The important factors that brought about this speedy and thorough success were the following:
(a) The momentary weakness of the British forces, whose supply transportation had not yet been able to catch up fully with the rapid advance.
(b) German supremacy in the air.
(c) The direct attack through the desert, which the enemy had not expected.
(3) A special feature of these operations was the advance through the desert from south of Benghasi toward Mechili and Derna, which was ordered by Rommel in spite of the serious misgivings of most of the commanders serving under him. The actions brought out the necessity of having the commanders of mobile units far ahead in the unit column in desert warfare and of employing all means, including liaison planes, to maintain contact within the pursuing force. There is no other possible way of remaining close on the heels of the retreating enemy.
(4) Logistical requirements were not given the proper consideration. This is the reason why some of the units failed in the desert. But, on the other hand, Rommel could not afford to wait for the arrival of further fuel transports, as he would then have lost contact with the enemy.
(5) Here, for the first time, the units had to cross a long stretch of desert, some units for 300 kilometers and more, and while doing so, they had to gather the experience they lacked. This experience included recognition of the necessity to carry along ample supplies of fuel and water and the difficulties of orientation. In the desert, it is almost impossible to establish one's position by the sun, since the sun is usually almost directly overhead. The available maps, which were reprints of Italian maps, were inadequate. Practically no reference points existed so that all orientation had to be done by compass. Furthermore, the eyes of the troops had to become accustomed to the glare of the sun, which made contours unclear. Thus, it was extremely difficult to recognize objects-for instance, to differentiate between tanks and trucks.
(6) Together with the fact that any movement caused immense clouds of dust, the above factor was originally exploited by Rommel, who had his supply and baggage trains move in tank formation in order to mislead the enemy, Later, this came to the notice of the enemy, and later attempts to employ this ruse were unsuccessful.
(7) At that stage, the German forces suffered little from enemy air attacks.
(8) Here, for the first time, the 88-mm antiaircraft guns proved effective antitank weapons. Later, they became indispensable for this purpose.
b. May-June 1941: Battles for the Positions on the Border
The British left Rommel no peace and in these months seized the initiative several times in attempts to take from the Germans the border positions that commanded the outpost area. The British, particularly, attempted to take the Halfaya Pass. In the mountain range extending from the coast to the interior of the desert (a distance of more than thirty kilometers), the Halfaya Pass was the only point at which tanks could cross.
On 15 May, the British succeeded in recapturing Sollum, Capuzzo, and the Halfaya Pass. Two days later in an immediate counterattack, Rommel succeeded in retaking Sollum, and Capuzzo, while the Halfaya Pass remained in British hands. On 27 May, however, the pass was finally retaken in an attack in which the 15th Panzer Division, which had meanwhile reached the front, also took part.
On 15 June, after careful preparations, the British launched a major offensive that aimed at retaking the border positions and advancing on Tobruk. The British bypassed the German border positions and pushed forward almost as far as Bardia. The situation was critical. However, on 17 June, Rommel, again employing the 15th Panzer Division, succeeded in defeating the enemy by concentrating his forces in an attack on the west flank of the enemy, who had advanced northwards. The enemy forces were compelled to withdraw southward to avoid the encirclement of some of their units.
The more important features of these operations are as follows:
(1) The pursuit phase was now over, and the actions described were those of attack and defense.
(2) Stronger forces were employed on both sides than had hitherto been engaged. On the German side, both divisions, the 5th Light and the 15th Panzer-minus certain elements tied down on the Tobruk front-were fully employed, as well as one Italian division. Without the 15th Panzer Division, the German forces would not have been able to hold their own, particularly in the battle from the 15th to 17th of June.
(3) Whereas the fighting during the pursuit in March and April took place on either side of the Via Balbia, all the actions just described took part in the desert.
(4) The German side no longer had absolute mastery of the air; British bombing units were taking part in the fighting in concentrated attacks for the first time.
In these skirmishes and battles, the 15th Panzer Division gained its first experience in desert warfare. The fields in which experience was gained were the same as those described for the 5th Light Division.
New features in this operation were as follows:
(1) For the first time, all German units were exposed to lively enemy activity in the air, a feature they were to experience daily from now on. At first, several instances occurred where severe losses were suffered owing to the bunching up of vehicles and troops. It was weeks before the troops learned to counter this new combat factor by a wide dispersal of units in breadth and depth-a particularly important requirement in the desert, where no cover whatever is to be found. (The minimum distance between vehicles should be 50 and if possible 100 meters.) It also proved necessary to dig in immediately all vehicles that were halted for any considerable time. They were to be dug into the ground to at least a depth that protected the axles in order to lessen the effects of bomb fragments. In the same measure, it was also necessary to camouflage the vehicles. This was only possible with the use of camouflage nets so that it was extremely difficult. Furthermore, it was now necessary for each and every man to dig a foxhole as protection during air raids.
(2) The danger of radio stations being intercepted and located made it imperative to have all radio instruments, and particularly central radio stations, removed at least one kilometer from headquarters sites in order for them not to interfere with the functioning of staff headquarters. The resultant delay in the transmission of orders and reports had to be accepted as an unavoidable disadvantage. This delay had to be reduced as far as possible by the use of messengers with motor vehicles.
During the time discussed above, consolidated measures were also taken in the envelopment of Tobruk. The intention to withdraw all German troops from the besieging force could not becarried out, particularly at Ras el Medauuar, on the southern front, where two German battalions remained in position until the autumn of 1941.
(3) The danger of enemy tanks breaking through the front made it necessary to develop all-around defense positions protected by antitank mines. Rommel issued a bulletin describing the development of such positions, each held by a reinforced company in a system of strongpoints. Above all, this system was adopted along the border, where the Italian Sauona Division was employed in addition to five German oasis companies.
c. July-Mid-November: The Siege of Tobruk and Preparations for the Attack
It was clear to Rommel that Tobruk had to be taken as soon as possible, and it was obvious that the enemy would do everything possible to prevent this happening. Speed was therefore necessary. The following factors made it difficult for Rommel to take the steps that he recognized as essential:
(1) The necessity of awaiting the arrival of further troops, infantry and particularly heavy artillery, and large supplies of ammunition from Europe, since the available forces were inadequate.
(2) The steadily decreasing capacities for German seaborne transportation as the result of the mounting losses of ships.
As early as July, it became evident that it would definitely not be possible for the Germans to commence any systematic attack before mid-September. At an early stage, it was realized that this deadline would have to be extended to October, then to November, and finally to December. Gradually, German doubts grew that the attack could be launched before the expected British offensive commenced.
The summer months were spent in executing the following measures:
(1) Reinforcement of the enveloping forces by artillery and through development of the terrain.
(2) Improvement of training.
(3) The movement of large quantities of ammunition and fuel to Benghasi and farther east.
(4) Improvement of the medical services, which had hitherto necessarily been neglected.
(5) Overhauling and maintenance of arms, equipment, and vehicles.
The following is pertinent to the activity during these months:
(1) All attempts to reduce frontage and thereby strengthen the enveloping line failed, since the Italian troops, by whom the greater part of the line was held, were not able to withstand counterattacks by the British.
(2) The reinforcement of the artillery forces was pressed forward vigorously; for this purpose, a special artillery commander was assigned. Flash and sound ranging proved indispensable in the location of the enemy batteries.
(3) Again and again, the order had to be stressed that all units employed were to dig themselves in as deep as possible in order to reduce losses.
(4) Demonstration exercises took place to improve the standard of training, with particular emphasis on combined infantry-artillery-tank, artillery-tank-air force actions and the practical application of the all-around-defense strongpoint system.
(5) It was only from Tripoli and Benghasi that ammunition and fuel supplies could be moved forward to the front. The lack of any rail connections proved a serious disadvantage. Investigations showed that to construct a railroad to meet even the most modest demands, at least 60,000 tons of shipping space for locomotives, cars, rails, understructures, and so forth, would be required, and a period of about twelve months for the Tripoli-Benghasi section and an additional three months for the extension to Derna would be needed.
Ammunition and fuel had to be stored in the open, both in the vicinity of the ports and near the front, since tank installations and shelters were nonexistent. This made wide dispersal and the burying and camouflage of all supplies at the storage depots all the more important. These precautions were frequently disregarded so that unnecessary losses occurred.
(6) Warm clothing after sundown was particularly important in the desert, and especially so for new arrivals, as a precaution against dysentery and skin diseases, since the difference between the daytime temperatures and those at night was extreme. After sunset, it was absolutely essential for every man to wear trousers and bellybands. Experience showed, in fact, that it was advisable to wear the latter day and night.
An appropriate diet was essential to prevent jaundice, which occurred frequently. A large proportion of the cases of jaundice that occurred in 1941 resulted because the rations issued included large quantities of pulses (ie., leguminous plants) and conserved meat with a high fat content. Above all, food with a high Vitamin B and C content proved necessary, and on the whole, the food had to be light. Vitamin C tablets could not take the place of fresh vegetables. Owing to inadequate transportation space aboard aircraft, it was usually only possible to fly in fresh vegetables and fruit for air force personnel in Africa.
(7) In weapons maintenance, protection of the inside parts of the weapons against sand proved a particularly important point. For this reason, all bolts and moving parts of the weapons were wrapped in sailcloth-besides the use of the standard muzzle covers. All weapons had to be cleaned very carefully, but after cleaning, they were oiled only thinly; otherwise, the dust would eat its way into the surface. No special means to protect the weapons against dust were available. What has been said about the care of weapons applies in equal measure to the care of other equipment and motor vehicles.
(8) A high standard of training in the use and care of weapons, equipment, and vehicles was particularly important in desert warfare, and the work of the higher-echelon ordnance technicians in handling weapons, equipment, and vehicles was of great significance in maintaining the combat efficiency of the troops.
In an overseas theater of operations, extensive maintenance services with well-equipped workshops for the repair and maintenance of weapons, tanks, and other motor vehicles were just as indispensable as stocks of all types of spare parts, particularly for tanks.
It was also during the summer that Italian forces constructed the road to bypass Tobruk; it was roughly sixty kilometers long, This road was graveled and tarred, and its construction, which took three and a half months in the heat of summer, must be regarded as an outstanding performance. On the whole, the German troops, who were unaccustomed to the heat, also came through the summer with few losses.
On 14 and 15 September, Rommel launched a reconnaissance in force from the border positions in the direction of Bir el Habata (in the Egyptian desert). The operation was directed by the headquarters of the German Africa Corps and was carried out by the 21st Panzer Division, which had been organized from the 5th Light Division. This operation, which was designated Sommern Achtstraum, must be considered a failure, since it failed in its purpose of discovering how far the British were along in their preparations for their offensive. No opponent was contacted, as the British reconnaissance forces had recognized the German intentions and had withdrawn in good time. On the other hand, the 21st Panzer Division suffered considerable losses in a number of air attacks, owing to the fact that it lost three and a half hours on Egyptian terrain in refueling, as the fuel trucks first had to be moved forward. These losses could have been avoided if sufficient fuel had been carried along in cans and if the fuel column had accompanied the combat units. Further losses were sustained while moving back through German minefields, the locality of which was not known precisely to the various units.
d. Mid-November 1941-Mid-January 1942: Repelling the British Autumn Offensive and the Retreat to the Gulf of Sirte The British offensive opened on 18 November 1941. At the strategic level, it had been expected, but nevertheless it came as a tactical surprise, This was because, from the end of October on, the German air reconnaissance hardly ever succeeded in penetrating into Egypt, and the enemy had concealed all general preparations and signal traffic with extreme skill.
Excluding the Tobruk garrison (one and one-half divisions and one armored brigade), the ground forces of the enemy, which had meanwhile been consolidated to form the British Eighth Army, consisted of XIII and XXX Corps headquarters, 3 motorized divisions, 1 armored division, and 1 armored brigadewith a total of about 700 tanks.
Apart from the Italian 5th Division, one German division, and the GHQ artillery besieging Tobruk, Rommel had available for operational employment: 2 German armored divisions, with roughly 360 serviceable tanks; I Italian armored division, with roughly 150 inferior tanks; and 1 Italian motorized division, the efficiency of which was also limited.
The XXX British Corps, with the bulk of the available armor, advanced through Maddalena to relieve Tobruk, while the British XIII Corps enveloped the border positions from the south.
The 21st Panzer Division, which was echeloned forward in the direction of Bir el Gubi, had the mission of halting the British advance but met with no success in its efforts. For a long while, the situation remained unclear to Rommel, because the division reported too infrequently and its reports were confusing. On 23 November, it seemed that the situation would improve when Rommel succeeded at Sidi Rezegh in battering the British XXX Corps so badly that the commander of the British Eighth Army seriously considered breaking off the offensive. Overestimating the scope of his success, Rommel then decided on an enveloping pursuit on the next day. On 24 November, he advanced with the Africa Corps in the direction of Maddalena, then wheeled north, and arrived back at the Tobruk front on 28 November. Here, the situation had developed unfavorably in the meantime, since the enveloping forces had not been able, in the long run, to beat off the repeated attempts of the enveloped British forces to fight their way out. The enveloping ring had been breached already on 22 November at El Duda, although the breach was locally restricted. The Africa Corps now only had roughly 100 serviceable tanks available and was no longer strong enough to restore the situation. Thus, it became necessary to raise the siege on 7 December. The difficult maneuver of swinging the Italian Division, the Africa Division, and the artillery forces westward was performed successfully, and a new front was established in the Ain el Gazala line. This position had to be abandoned on 16 December because it was in danger of being enveloped from the south.
For tactical reasons, Rommel thought it impossible to the Cyrenaica, which protruded northward and provided ideal opportunities for the enemy to bypass it, although the Italian command, for political reasons, demanded that he do so. He therefore decided to withdraw toward Benghasi-Agedabia.
This movement was carried out in the following manner:
(1) The Africa Division was dispatched through the Cyrenaica in order to take possession of the important town of Agedabia before the arrival there of an enemy column reported to be advancing westward through the desert.
(2) The Italian Division was also moved through the Cyrenaica to the rear on vehicles of the supply transportation columns.
(3) The Africa Corps and the motorized Italian division at Mechili were to advance straight through the desert to Benghasi. The motorized units carried out the movement successfully, but the available transportation space was unfortunately inadequate to move all Italian infantry forces to the rear.
On Christmas, the Panzer Group was ahead of Agedabia. On the last day of the year, the Africa Corps, which was echeloned to the right, was once again clearly successful in a defensive action against the pursuing enemy forces and destroyed a large number of enemy tanks.
Two additional factors alleviated the situation for the armored group. One factor was the considerable reinforcement of the German air forces through the transfer of the Second Air Force Command-with the II Air Corps from the Eastern Front-to Italy and Sicily, a transfer that had commenced toward the end of November. As a result of this closer disposition of German air forces, the hitherto overwhelming superiority of the British in the air was somewhat reduced. The second factor favoring the Germans was that the extremely tense supply situation was relieved by the arrival of two big convoys at Tripoli with supplies of all sorts, replacement tanks, and two tank companies and artillery, which became organic to the units in Africa. This was the first supply shipment to arrive between 16 September and 15 December 1941, during which period not a single ship had reached African ports.
In spite of the relieved situation, Rommel decided not to await the enemy attack in the Agedabia area, and in early January retired to the Marada-Marsa el Brega line, where he hoped that his right flank would be better protected by the salt marshes.
The more important lessons learned in the battle (that has been described above in broad outline) are as follows:
(1) The old maxim that reports should be sent in as frequently as possible was frequently not observed, although orders had been given that a brief radio report was to be sent in every two hours-with the provision that the single word "unchanged" or a statement of position would be sufficient.
(2) Similarly, not all of the units reacted automatically to any development by carrying out new reconnaissance.
(3) The use of the "directional line," with the aid of a few natural reference points in reporting and in issuing orders, proved an excellent system, particularly under desert conditions. This system is as follows:
A directional line is drawn between two points on the map, from point A to point B. Starting at point A, this line is marked and numbered consecutively at intervals of one centimeter. Positions can now be reported by this line; for instance, three right of thirty-seven would indicate a point on the map three centimeters east of thirty-seven on the map. The starting number for the consecutive numbering of the centimeter markings can be fixed as desired. Brief orders can be signaled in clear text with the aid of the directional line. It goes without saying that the line must be changed frequently.
(4) Not all unit commanders or their general staff officers were at all times precisely informed on the supply situation of their units, which had adverse effects on operations. At all times, all unit commanders and their assistants must know exactly how much of the more important types of fuel and ammunition their units have available, what quantities of supplies are to be expected Within the next twenty-four hours, and what percentage of the most important weapons are ready for action. This knowledge is indispensable as a basis for all command decisions.
(5) Under desert conditions, the frequent penetrations by armored forces and the open terrain expose the higher-level staffs to danger to a far greater extent than is the case in any other theater of operations. Thus, all staffs must be protected by close-defense antitank weapons. For this reason, the Panzergruppe and the Africa Corps had - organized so-called combat detachments consisting of tanks and antitank and antiaircraft guns in battalion and company strength. These units also proved useful as a tactical reserve.
(6) One feature peculiar to the desert operations in 1941-42 was the constant threat to the southern flank of the side that happened to be on the defensive-the northern flank generally being well protected since it extended to the coast. The danger to their right flank made it necessary for the Germans to have strong mobile forces, with ample supplies of fuel, echeloned far to the right to avoid their being forced to abandon a position bypassed by the enemy.
(7) In desert warfare, retrograde movements will usually be restricted to roads and will be difficult owing to the lack of natural obstacles favoring new defensive lines. Only if a firm control of units is maintained during retrograde movements over great distances will it be possible to prevent a retreat continuing beyond the intended point and endangering unit cohesion. For this reason, it is necessary to compel the rear echelons, such as transportation columns and so forth, to halt at intervals.
(8) Owing to the dust that is caused by any movement on the ground, it is difficult to differentiate between friend and foe from the air. For this reason, bombing "stoplines" must be established and clearly defined with due allowance for safety factors.
e. Mid-January-End of May 1942: The Counteroffensiue to Retake the Cyrenaica and Preparations for the Attack on Tobruk
On 10 January 1942, the Panzer Group reached the Marada-Marsa el Brega line, where new defense positions were to be established. However, the remaining units, particularly the Italian troops, had been so far reduced in numbers during the previous fighting that they would hardly be able to hold the sixty kilometers of frontage against any major attack by the enemy for longer than twenty-four hours. A careful examination of the situation revealed that the enemy forces were still echeloned far to the rear so that they were in a critical situation similar to that which they had been in during the previous year. The coastal road remained closed to them until 17 January, when Rommel approved the surrender of the troops holding the Halfaya Pass since their supplies of ammunition and foods were exhausted. A careful examination of the strength ratios at the moment showed that the German and Italian forces were superior to the hostile forces at the front. Now was the moment to take preventive action, interrupt the assembly of the enemy forces through a counterattack, and delay his preparations for the continuation of the offensive. Rommel, therefore, decided to launch an attack with limited objectives while deciding on further action as the situation developed.
The attack was scheduled for the morning of 21 January. Various deceptive measures were taken to conceal the German intentions, including strict secrecy concerning the intended attack. Thus, regimental commanders were informed only one day before the attack was to start. Also, all vehicular traffic in the direction of the front was to cease during daylight from the fourth day preceding the attack. From then on, vehicular traffic toward the front was firmly restricted to the nights. These measures proved fully successful.
As part of the attack, the 90th Light Division, hitherto the Africa Division, was to break through the enemy lines on either side of the coastal road and to advance toward Agedabia. The motorized Italian corps was to follow immediately and was then to advance south of the Via Balbia, while the Africa Corps was to start out from an assembly area thirty kilometers south of the Via Balbia, in an enveloping pursuit designed to prevent the retreat of as many as possible of the enemy forces. The breakthrough by the 90th Light Division succeeded as planned, but Army Headquarters, to which the command had been upgraded on 21 January 1942, received no reports from the Africa Corps for a long time. The corps had run into a patch of deep sand and could only move forward with difficulty. The intended envelopment thus failed.
On 22 January, Agedabia was taken. In the following days, two attempts to pocket sizable enemy forces in the AntelatSaunnu area failed as the German forces were too weak, and their intention had been recognized at an early stage. However, large quantities of materiel were captured in a surprise raid on Msus.
The Italian Supreme Command approved an advance as far as Agedabia-but not beyond that point. It feared reverses that might again endanger the Italian infantry divisions because of their lack of mobility. The employment of these divisions forward of the Marada-Marsa el Brega line was therefore not permitted, Rommel, nevertheless, persisted in his intention to take advantage of the opportunity of the moment. He advanced through the desert at the head of a specially organized battle group, and on the evening of 29 January, he captured the Benina quarter of the city of Benghasi. There, he received Mussolini's belated approval of his advance. On 30 January, Benghasi was captured and a brigade takenprisoner. In the following days, the pursuit was continued straight through the Cyrenaica. Derna was taken on 4 February.
The condition of the troops and the lack of fuel prohibited any attempt to attack Tobruk, so from 7 February on, the units were compelled to organize themselves in defense positions, with the north flank based on the Bay of Bomba in front of the British positions at Ain el Gazala.
Since it was now to be expected that the exhaustion of the troops on both sides would lead to a period of comparative quiet, Rommel flew to Rome and Germany to learn the intentions of the Italian Supreme Command and Wehrmacht High Command with regard to the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean in 1943. He found that practically no plans existed and that the Italians were even very averse to any offensive operations before autumn.
In April, Rommel therefore again took the initiative on his responsibility. His opinion was that it was necessary to own responsibility. His opinion was that it was necessart to take preemptive action against a new offensive by the enemy, which he expected in June, with probably even stronger enemy forces than before. It was vitally important to the Germans to capture both Tobruk and Malta, the latter of which, as a naval and air base, interfered to an intolerable extent with German seaborne supply traffic. Since the German Air Force could support only one of these operations at a time, however, it would be necessary for them to take place in succession. Rommel considered it desirable to attack Malta first and then Tobruk. However, if the preparations for the capture of Malta required too much time, he thought it best to attack Tobruk first so that after that town had been taken and the border line from Sidi Omar-Bardia reached, all air force strength could be concentrated against Malta.* Rommel's suggestion was that the attack on Tobruk should open in the second half of May.
*An advance into the interior of Egypt was thus not discussed.
After some argumentation, this suggestion was approved, and it was decided that Tobruk was to be attacked first, because it would take longer to prepare for the attack on Malta. The supply situation was exceptionally favorable in May so that adequate quantities of fuel were available in Africa by the intended date of the attack, 26 May. To a considerable extent, the ammunition situation was also relieved.
Important lessons were learned in this phase of the campaign:
(1) In pursuit actions, success depends not so much on the strength of the pursuing force as on speedy action and, thus, to a considerable degree, on the personality of the commander involved. Relatively small units under young and energetic commanders (colonels) proved most effective.
(2) It is highly important to assign air liaison staffs to the pursuit forces. These staffs must be equipped with radios, so they can direct the close-support air units to worthwhile targets and, above all, so they can constantly report the lines reached to units in the air and thus prevent the air forces from bombing their own forces on the ground.
(3) Enveloping enemy forces is more difficult in the desert than elsewhere, since natural obstacles, such as rivers and so forth, where enemy manpower can be concealed, do not exist.
(4) It is not to be expected that any attempt to take the enemy by surprise through the use of deceptive measures that have once proved successful, such as air attacks on an enemy's headquarters, will meet with subsequent success.
(5) Terrain reconnaissance cannot be carried out too carefully.
f. Late May-July 1942: The Battle of Tobruk and the Pursuits to El Alamein
The operational plan underlying Rommel's new offensive was as follows:
(1) Frontal attacks by the Italian X and XXI Infantry Corps, which had been consolidated temporarily to form Armee Abteilung Cruewell,* to commence on the afternoon of 26 May in order to tie down the enemy forces in the Gazala position.
*A temporary organization commanded by a corps commander with a corps-type staff.
(2) Advance of the five mobile units under the personal command of Rommel in a move around the right flank of the enemy at Bir el Hacheim in order to wheel in on the rear of the enemy on the 27th and complete the envelopment by 28 May. Counting from the right, the five units were disposed as follows: 90th Light Division; German Africa Corps, with the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions; the Italian motorized corps with the Ariete Armored and the Trieste Motorized Divisions.
(3) An attack on Tobruk, after the elimination of the bulk of the British Eighth Army's forces in the field.
These plans miscarried for a number of reasons. First, the two Italian infantry corps were too weak to tie down the strong enemy forces effectively. Initially, the enemy was admittedly taken by surprise by the forces that bypassed his southern flank. Then, however, the attacking column spread out fanwise as the result of the 90th Light Division turning northeast and the German Africa Corps turning north. At the sanie time, the Italian motorized corps, pivoting on the inner flank, was forced to move toward Bir el Hacheini and also reduce the speed of its advance. This fanlike disposition of the attacking forces greatly facilitated the defense.
On the evening of 27 May, the attacking mobile force, which had split into three groups, was in a critical situation and in serious danger of being encircled. Furthermore, up to 29 May, Rommel to a great extent was unable to exercise his command, having become separated from most of his radio stations. Supplies had to be routed around Hacheim and, as convoy forces were lacking, large amounts of materiel and numerous vehicles were lost.
Nevertheless, in spite of this unfavorable development, Rommel steadily persisted in his intention to take Tobruk. He concentrated his forces once again, established a defensive front facing east, and from 1-6 June succeeded, one after the other, in eliminating a number of enemy strongpoints south and west of the main enemy position. In this way, and in coordinated action with Armee Abteilung Cruewell, he succeeded by 31 June in opening up a direct supply route. The route, however, was under fire during the daytime in most parts.
Having thus eased the situation behind the center of the enemy front, Rommel proceeded to eliminate Bir el Hacheim, a bastion in his rear. This point was well fortified with field-type positions and tenaciously defended; it was not taken until 12 June. Now the German Africa Corps advanced northward on Acroma, where it destroyed considerable armored forces by 14 June and threatened to cut off the two divisions in position in the northern sector. One of these divisions fought its way out eastward, while the other cut its way through the Italian forces by way of Bir el Hacheim toward the south, Now, at last, the road was open to Tobruk, which the British were determined to defend. A new deceptive ruse of Rommel's now proved successful. In the afternoon of 19 June, he moved his German Africa Corps eastward past Tobruk on the south, moved it back during the dark, and on the morning of 20 June, attacked the fortress from the southeast. On the following day, the fortress, with its garrison of 25,000 men and enormous stocks of supplies, was compelled to capitulate. On 23 June, Rommel crossed the border with the bulk of his forces, the 90th Light Division already having advanced to Sidi Barani.
Thus, the operational objective had been gained, and the time had arrived to release the bulk of the air forces for operations against Malta. The Italian Supreme Command and Field Marshal Kesselring, commander of the German Second Air Force, still intended to direct their attention to Malta, but Rommel believed that he now had an opportunity that would never recur of pushing ahead to the Nile. He was supported in his,opinion by the German High Command and succeeded in getting his way. The attack on Malta was postponed, and the main mission of the air forces was to continue supporting the pursuit in the direction of the Nile.
On 28 June, Mersa Matruh was captured, and on 30 June, Rommel arrived with his thoroughly exhausted troops and only fifty serviceable tanks before the Alamein position, which was better fortified than any position he had hitherto encountered. Two attempts to break through this newly established British front failed on 1 and 10 July, whereas serious crises resulted from numerous counterattacks by the British between 15 July and the end of the month, the British directing their attacks chiefly against sectors of the front that were held by Italian troops.
Supply traffic again diminished considerably so that for this reason alone, if for no other, any new offensive was out of the question. It was found that Tobruk, as a naval base, had far smaller off-loading capacities than had been expected.
To hold the front of about seventy kilometers, new German units had to be transferred to Africa, and the 164th Light Africa Division, the Parachute Instruction Brigade, and the Italian Folgore Parachute Division were brought across by air and sent into action. Transport of the Italian infantry divisions from Libya took a great deal of time.
The more important lessons to be learned from this phase of the campaign were the following:
(1) Once again, several tactical surprise actions had been successful because methods were changed each time. On the other hand, the "dust deception" ruse was no longer effective. Rommel had had airplane propellers installed in a number of vehicles for the purpose of creating clouds of dust. These vehicles had been organized into a dust-producing platoon from which he expected good deceptive results. These, however, did not materialize.
(2) It is dangerous for a force to leave a major strongpoint in its rear unguarded, even temporarily. If the forces available are inadequate to envelop the strongpoint, strong reconnaissance forces capable of combat should at least be left to keep it under observation and, if possible, to contain it.
(3) The British minefields, the extent and distribution of which were unknown to the German command, and the mined zones in the Ain el Gazala position frequently compelled the command to make tactically disadvantageous changes in its plans. Minefields also proved a good substitute for terrain obstacles, of which there is a lack in deserts.
(4) Attack columns must be held together tightly, and units should only be detached for some separate purpose in cases of extreme urgency.
(5) Commanders at higher levels should not change their positions too frequently, even if the attack is progressing favorably. The commander definitely must designate some specific spot as his command post and must maintain that post as a fixed point, even if the situation is unclear.
(6) In the case of air attacks on enveloped strongpoints or bases, it is necessary to designate the targets to be bombed with minute precision in order not to endanger the attacking ground forces. This is particularly difficult under desert conditions.
(7) Supply columns are defenseless and require protection in convoys when the situation is unclear or confused; otherwise, they are apt to fall prey to enemy reconnaissance.
(8) In defense positions, tanks also should be dug in at once. This should be done in such a manner that they can drive out of the positions immediately if necessary. The space between the tanks and the surrounding ground in the trenches provides good protection for personnel against enemy fire and bombs.
g. August-Early November 1942: The Battles Around Alamein
At the beginning of August, the strengths on both sides were about equal. Neither the British Eighth Army nor the German forces had any appreciable measure of superiority. Nonetheless, it was clear to Rommel that time was working against him and that as soon as the enemy had brought forward sufficient reinforcements, he would launch a powerful counteroffensive. Rommel, therefore, did everything possible to improve the German positions, with particular stress on the use of mines, including air bombs that were buried and prepared for electrical detonation. He even had what he called "mine gardens" laid in the outpost area and had all battalion command posts surrounded by minefields. In distributing the forces in the northern half of the defense line, which he considered the most endangered and which were in the zone of the Italian XXI Corps, he placed Italian battalions and battalions of the 164th Light African Division alternately.
As soon as the supply situation permitted, Rommel intended to make another effort from the other end of the line to break through to Alexandria. However, for the moment, this was not possible, especially because of the fuel situation. Toward the end of the month, sufficient supplies of fuel would at last be available, if a large tanker that had left Europe managed to reach Tobruk, It was on this hope that Rommel-on the night of 30-31 August, supported by the Italian Supreme Command and by Kesselring-based his plan to break through the southern part of the front (which was held by weaker forces than the rest of the British line) and advance by way of Alam el Halfa to Alexandria.
The breakthrough-which was to take place at night, at two points, as part of two waves-was delayed until after daybreak with the German Africa Corps on the right and the 90th Light African Division on the left, followed by the Italian motorized corps as the second wave. After the commencement of the attack, the commander of the 21st Panzer Division was killed, and the commanders of the German Africa Corps and 90th Division were both wounded. When this blow was followed in the morning by the news that the German tanker, on its arrival in Tobruk, had been torpedoed and sunk, Rommel intended to break off the operation. However, the chief of staff of the German Africa Corps induced him to continue the attack, which was making good headway, Field Marshal Kesselring also emphatically favored continuation of the attack. The attack soon began to move forward, but already by the evening of 31 August, the shortage of gas began to make itself seriously felt. Furthermore, a sandstorm, which had been blowing continuously, stopped after several hours, and enemy air attacks commenced with an intensity that had not been experienced before. At this stage, the five German and Italian divisions were behind the enemy front, days. Meanwhile, they were attacked by the enemy air forces daily between 0700-1700 and 2200-0500 and suffered very heavy losses in personnel and materiel. Kesselring had promised to deliver 400 tons of fuel per day by air if necessary, but only a fraction of this quantity reached the troops. The reason for this was that most of the fuel was consumed by the transporting planes themselves on the long trip. It was only on 3 September that sufficient fuel was available for the Germans to commence moving back to the jump-off positions, which were reached on 6 September.
The following weeks were utilized mainly to further improve the defense positions. The three German and three Italian mobile divisions (the Italian Littoria Armored Division had arrived meanwhile) were organized in three tactical reserve groups, one German and one Italian division to each group, and held ready for action. Toward the end of September, heavy air attacks were launched by the enemy against German airfields and ground installations of the German Air Force, signaling an impending British offensive.
The offensive commenced at 2300 during the night of 23 October, which was a dark, moonless night.
In this offensive, the British Eighth Army employed the following:
3 armored divisions
7 motorized infantry divisions
7 tank regiments, which operated independently
For the defense, Rommel had available:
2 panzer divisions
2 light divisions
1 parachute division
2 tank divisions
1 motorized division
1 parachute brigade
4 infantry divisions
The British had 1,200 tanks, among which were some of the latest Grant models. Rommel had 200 German and 250 Italian tanks, the latter of little value in combat. In the air, the Allied superiority was more pronounced than ever before, reaching a ratio of 10:1 at times in heavier-type bombing aircraft. In artillery and ammunition supplies, the enemy likewise was overwhelmingly superior.
The British attack opened on the northern part of the front, with the point of main effort shifting southward later, and by 29 October, the defenders had been forced to throw their last tactical reserves into the battle. The first attack was on the Italian strongpoints, and after taking these, the British enveloped the points still held by German forces.
The "mine gardens" referred to previously did not have the desired effect because many of the mines had been detonated by the artillery fire or during bombing attacks.
Although every inch of ground was hotly contested, a few kilometers being lost each day at the utmost, it was impossible for the Germans to hold the field permanently. Rommel, therefore, found himself forced to withdraw, if he did not want to risk complete destruction at Alamein. Consequently, he commenced withdrawing at the last possible moment on 3 November, contrary to Hitler's express orders. By that time, the enemy had broken through the German lines on a front of twenty kilometers. The 90th Light Africa Division had been moved to the rear previously to take up support positions at Fuka, where no defense line had been prepared owing to the lack of forces. The bulk of the Italian forces were captured, because no vehicles were available to render them mobile, as had been done with the Parachute Instruction Division and the 164th Division. A great part of the German divisions succeeded in escaping capture.
From this phase of the campaign, the following important lessons were learned:
(1) The decision to attack on 30 and 31 August with a very insecure supply situation and the hope that the 5,000 tons of fuel would arrive was risky, but to persist in this decision, after it was learned that the fuel tanker was sunk, resulted in dire consequences.
(2) Once again, it was proved that only fully motorized units can be used in the desert.
(3) The defense would have been more successful if some of the mines laid within the main battle zone had been used in the rear to compel the enemy to change the direction of his drive frequently. In this way, the effectiveness of the main defensive weapon would not have been spent so soon.
(4) In transporting fuel by air, due allowances must be made for the fuel that the transporting planes themselves will consume.