After the fall of France in June 1940, the German offensive in Western Europe stopped at the English Channel. The German army got ready for its next move- the invasion of Great Britain.
Hitler told Mussolini of his plan. Mussolini decided to expand his Libyan colony in North Africa.
Battle of Britain
In the summer and fall of 1940, the Royal Air Force turned back the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force) in the Battle of Britain. The RAF victory forced Hitler to scrap the idea of invading Britain.
Mussolini sent five divisions (a division is 20,000 soldiers) into British-held Egypt. He attacked the coastal village of Sidi Barrani. Italian forces outnumbered the British by 200,000 to 40,000 soldiers.
The British Army retook the city and captured 38,800 Italian soldiers and four generals. After the raid to re-capture Sidi Barrani, the Brits went westward. They captured the Libyan province of Cyrenaica and another 130,000 Italian soldiers.
Mussolini asked for help. Hitler sent newly promoted Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel.
Rommel arrived in Tripoli, the capital of Libya, on February 14, 1941. Rommel had under his command two German divisions- one light and one panzer (tank)-with two Italian divisions. Together they made up the Afrika Korps.
He led the fast-moving Afrika Korps in a blistering blitzkrieg campaign against the British. He wasted no time in taking back Mussolini’s losses. By mid-April he’d taken back all the land except for Tobruk, a port city on Libya’s eastern Mediterranean coast, near the border with Egypt.
The Desert Fox
The British had not expected a German counterattack until June. Rommel had “outfoxed” them. His daring and cunning actions earned him the nickname the “Desert Fox.”
In May and June 1941, Rommel beat back two British counterattacks. Short supplies were becoming a problem.
On June 22, 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa- the invasion of the Soviet Union. The new offensive drew arms and supplies that should have gone to Rommel.
In November, a third British counterattack forced him back into Libya, but not for long. The Afrika Korps got reinforcements and fresh supplies. It became the Panzer Army or “Panzerarmee.” The seesaw desert began again in January 1942.
Rommel drove eastward in another desert-style blitzkrieg to the Gazala Line. The line was a zone of “fortified boxes” set up by the British.
The boxes were linked by minefields. It went from Mediterranean port of Gazala to the southern strongpoint at Bir Hacheim.
With his latest offensive, Rommel’s reputation grew. He was promoted to the rank of colonel (full) general. He was awarded the Swords of the Oak Leaves of the Knight’s Cross (Swords and Oaks Leaves are a higher order of the original medal).
On May 26, he sent a small force to feint an attack on the British Eighth Army’s Gazala Line. At the same time he circled around the southern end of the line with his main force of 10,000 vehicles.
He planned to seize Bir Hacheim, knock off the string of strong boxes one by one, and mount an assault on Tobruk in a northward sweep. After three weeks of intense fighting he did it.
On June 17, Rommel captured a huge British supply dump east of Tobruk. Four days later, Tobruk and its 30,000 defenders fell to Rommel’s Panzer Army.
“The booty was gigantic,” Rommel’s chief of staff said later. “It consisted of supplies for 30,000 men for three months.” Rommel was promoted to field marshal for this remarkable achievement.
At forty-nine, Rommel was the youngest- and most famous- field marshal of the German army. He was now ready to drive the British back to Egypt.
Rommel explained the North Africa desert was ideal for the mobile offensive tactics of panzers. He explained for panzars, “…for whose employment was flat and obstruction-free desert offered hitherto undreamed-of possibilities. It was the only theater where the theory and principles of motorized and tank warfare could be applied fully and developed further. It was the only arena in which pure tank battle between major formations could be fought.”
Rommel was at the high point of his military career.
After the fall of Tobruk, the British withdrew to a line at Mersa Matruh, then back to the El Alamein.
El Alamein represented the last-ditch defense for the British of Alexandria. Rommel pressed forward. He arrived in El Alamein on July 1.
He ran short of supplies. He was weakened by RAF along the way. He could not penetrate the British defenses in the First Battle of El Alamein. The fighting ended in a standoff on July 27.
Lieutenant General Bernard L. Montgomery took command of the British Eighth Army in Egypt. On October 23, 1942, Montgomery launched his first offensive. In the Second Battle of El Alamein, he faced Rommel’s Panzer Army.
Montgomery organized his tanks and artillery pieces to fight a “crumbling” battle. His idea was to switch the focus of his attack from point-to-point along the line. He forced Rommel’s armor to react.
Rommel got sick and returned to Germany for treatment. He was absent for part of the battle. He resumed command of the Panzer Army at dusk on October 25. By then, his reserves were committed.
It was too late to make any decisions to might turn the tide of the battle. In several furious tank battle Montgomery prevailed over Rommel.
On November 4, Rommel withdrew his army to the west. Four days later he received news that American and British troops were pouring ashore at nine different places in Morocco and Algeria.
The jaws of an Anglo-American vise were closing. Later he wrote in his diary,”This spelt the end of the army in Africa.”
In February 1943, Rommel achieved his last victory in North Africa. He defeated the green troops of the US II Corps at Kasserine Pass, Tunisia. Rommel’s glory days of Blitzkrieg triumphs in North Africa were over.
With guts, cunning and some luck Rommel wrote a new chapter in the book of lightning warfare. Hitler awarded him with Oaks Leaves with Swords and Diamonds to his Knight’s Cross (a diamond was the highest award of the medal).
He was exhausted after two years of fighting. He suffered from severe desert sores (bacterial infections that you get from hot, dry conditions) and deep depression.
Rommel’s genius was in understanding the nature of desert war. It was a war of swift movement.
Rommel didn’t care in where the ‘front line’ was. ‘”in a vast ocean like desert,” one soldier of Rommel’s Afrika Korps said, “we were taught that there can never be a front line.”
Rommel led armored raids. He practiced the same tactics he had used in the German invasion of France the previous year.
Rommel believed that motorized units should attack with all guns blazing. It didn’t mattered if the enemy knew what they were aiming at. It created an effect of “shock and awe.”
Rommel was defeated in Africa and then in Normandy. His bright, if brief, flash of brilliance in the Libyan desert continues to attract our gaze even to this day.