The Afrika Korps and Rommel
The North African Campaign opened the day following Romeís declaration of war, when British armored cars crossed from Egypt into Libya to ambush unarmed Italian trucks near Fort Capuzzo. After three days of fierce fighting, Capuzzo and another Italian fort (Maddalena) were captured. While units of the British Army and the R.A.F. launched a series of relentless raids throughout Libya, English engineers excavated a powerful defensive line at Mersa Matruh, 300 miles west of the Suez Canal. The conquest of Italian North Africa seemed under way.
Responding to these British advances, the Duce worked out an aggressive counter-offensive with his most able military leader, Marshal Italo Balbo, an aviation pioneer, who led the first squadron flight from Europe to America (Rome to Chicago), in 1930. The strategy they devised called for a massed attack of infantry, accompanied by anti-tank guns and field artillery screened by advancing units of light and medium tanks, and covered by fighters and bombers of the Regia Aeronautica, the Italian Air Force. They had high hopes for the Campaign, so long as Italian initiative was maintained. A prolonged struggle would only work to the advantage of the British, who were richer in supplies.
Italyís tragedy was Balboís death on June 28th, the day he was to begin operations in Libya. His plane was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft, either by accident or design. A dedicated Fascist, pro-British traitors in the royal House of Savoy may have ordered his assassination. He was succeeded by the Army Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Rodolfo Graziani, who launched the Mussolini-Balbo Offensive on July 4. It instantly over-ran the key posts at Kassala and Gallabat on the Sudan borders with Eritrea and Abyssinia, from which Italian forces swept into Somaliland.
On August 17, the British were Dunkirked a second time, when they were evacuated by Royal Navy ships from the port of Berbera. A few hours later, all of Somaliland fell to the Italians. Their swift and far-ranging advance through the desert allowed them to threaten the southern entrance of the Red Sea, seriously jeopardizing Englandís oil supplies in the Middle East, and her vital line of communication with India and the Far East through the Suez Canal.
These victories were in large measure assisted by the Italiansí technological superiority in desert warfare, particularly their Sahaina. Ideally suited for combat through Libyaís trackless sands, the heavily armed (with 20mm Soluthun and 47/32 anti-tank guns, together with 13.2 mm heavy machine-guns), long-ranging (800-kilometer) patrol-car was a design far ahead of its time. The British fielded nothing like the Sahaina, which backed up Italian tanks, and often replaced them more successfully.
The "cheap and easy victory" Churchill felt sure he could win over the despised Italians had blown up in his face like an exploding cigar. In the very midst of the Battle of Britain, when her every resource was pressed to the limit, he dispatched a large convoy carrying abundant munitions, artillery, aircraft, and 150 tanks to his beleaguered forces in North Africa. Since the Italian Navy still dominated the Mediterranean Sea, the convoy had to be diverted the long, time-consuming way---around the Cape of Good Hope. It docked at Port Said more than a month after setting out.
With their capture of Somaliland, the Italians suddenly halted their advance to replenish supplies. "Time is working against us," Mussolini urged Marshal Graziani. "The loss of Egypt will be the coup de grace for Great Britain." He knew that Italian supremacy in manpower and materiel was only temporary. A fat convoy was on its way that would tip the scales in the enemyís favor. The moment to resume the attack was now or never. But Graziani complained of the heat and of the anti-tank guns that awaited his armor; he suggested the offensive be renewed in October. "That would be too late!," the Duce countered. He agreed that the struggle was difficult, and that losses would probably be high. But the Italians must not lose their momentum now. 1940 was their best and perhaps only chance to succeed. Still, Graziani hesitated, while Mussolini fumed helplessly and sent him more supplies.
Finally re-equipped with additional armor and Fiat CR-42 fighters, the reluctant Marshal began the invasion of Egypt on September 13. His five divisions with 200 tanks stormed across the border, taking Sollum, while the British Western Desert Force, consisting of the 7th Armored and 4th Indian Divisions, fell back. Just two days later, the Italians had penetrated sixty miles, over-running Sidi Barrani. At the height of their success, Graziani halted again, this time to build a series of fortified camps, allowing General Wavell, commanding British forces, time to organize his own counter-attack. The Duce was furious, and demanded the advance be resumed at once. Incredibly, Graziani refused. But because he was protected by the House of Savoy, the Marshall could not be fired. Time, as Mussolini argued, was running out.
By September 24, the heavy-laden convoy reached Britainís Western Desert Force, which was now fully supplied with weapons and munitions. Yet, Wavell was himself slow to launch his offensive, which would not be ready until late autumn. Even days after that December counter-offensive got under way, his Australian Division was still unfit for combat. Had Graziani continued his hitherto successful march into Egypt, instead of stopping to construct defenses at Sidi Barrani, the North African Campaign would have undoubtedly climaxed in an Italian victory before Wavellís preparations were completed. Unfortunately, Balbo was not in command to maintain the initiative, which was passing to the enemy.
Even if Graziani resumed the offensive in October, as he planned, he could have still over-run the British, catching them unready and ill-organized. But the Marshall changed his mind. He took months strengthening and expanding his fortified camps in and from Sidi Barrani. While they pinned-down the enemyís anticipated attack, the Italian 10th Army would resume the offensive. Mussolini, in yielding to Graziani for additional supplies, had spoiled him. It was much easier and safer to hold up behind the fortified camps, accumulating supplies, than to risk an assault against English anti-tank guns in which the British also enjoyed numerical superiority.
In fact, Wavellís counter-offensive had been seriously thrown off in late October by Churchillís insistence to support the Greeks fighting an Italian invasion. Mussolini had invaded Greece to divert British supplies and forces from North Africa. There he continued to fortify Graziani, hoping the reluctant marshall would seize the opportunity by renewing offensive operations against his divided and diluted opponent.
To the outrage of not only General Wavell, Englandís Minister of War Anthony Eden and the Cabinet, Churchill rushed head-long into the Duceís trap, and sapped the British Desert Army by robbing its units to serve in Greece. The rotund Prime Minister almost gutted that Army by diverting many of its men and materiel to the Aegean, offering a superb opportunity for Graziani to attack. Instead, he frittered away his last chance by continuing to wait for the British behind his fortified camps.
At last, on December 9, warships of the Royal Navy heavily bombarded Sidi Barrani and Maktila, as the 4th Indian Division took forts at Nibeiwa and Tummar East and West. But the attackers paid dearly for these conquests. On just the first day of fighting, the British lost fourteen tanks to Tummarís defenders, and warriors of the Fascist Maletti Group knocked out 35 of 57 attacking Matilda tanks. Meanwhile, the 7th Armoured Division cut off Sofafi and Rabia, from which, however, the Italians staged a successful break-out.
Until now, their loses had been light, with some 3,500 fatalities. But Wavellís counter-offensive swallowed up 38,000 prisoners, 237 artillery and 73 tanks, reducing Italian holdings in Egypt to Sollum, Fort Capuzzi and Sidi Omar. Grazianiís men put up a determined defense at the vital port of Bardia, beginning on December 21. Out-numbered, out-gunned and down to their last supplies, they fought off the tough Australians for more than two weeks.
On January 7, the British XIII Corps captured Tobruk within 24 hours. By then, the Italian 10th Army had more than 100,000 men taken prisoner. The Italians put up stiff resistance at various strong-holds, such as the Mechili fort and near Derna, but the tide had turned against them. Efforts to block the enemy advance toward Tripolitania at El Aghelia were cut-off by the 7th Armoured Division, which reached the coast 70 miles south of Benghazi. Refusal to obey Mussoliniís orders by maintaining the momentum of the offensive had cost Graziani dear.
In late January, the entire North African Campaign was on the verge of complete collapse, when the Italians suddenly and quite unexpectedly turned the tables on their pursuers. With the reversals of his desert forces during the previous month, Mussolini realized that, together with Grazianiís insubordination, the 10th Army suffered for lack of sufficient armor. He moved quickly to organize a Brigata Corazzato Speciale, or "Special Armored Brigade", of M-11 tanks operating in squads accompanied by infantry specializing in anti-tank weapons and tactics.
In hardly more than a month, the Duce dispatched this improvised force to General Valentino Babini, in Libya, just in time to confront the massed assault of 177 Matilda tanks and other armored vehicles. During a single engagement, on January 24, 1941, the badly out-numbered Fascist soldiers of the BCS quickly knocked out and disabled the first 21 enemy tanks. The rest turned around on their treads, and beat a hasty retreat toward Cairo. Mussolini, Babini and their men had parried General Wavellís anticipated "death blow" to the Italians, who until then, were losing ground forces on a debilitating scale.
These huge numbers of prisoners, often taken by relatively small British units, helped foster Allied propaganda characterizing the Italians as cowards, or, at any rate, unwilling, unenthusiastic participants in "Mussoliniís war". Actually, most Italians fought with unrivaled courage and skill. When, for example, new R.A.F. pilots arrived in Egypt with their state-of-the-art Spitfires, they laughed at the antiquated-looking bi-planes of the Regia Aeronautica. But their commanders sternly brought them up sharp by warning, "Your planes may be faster than theirs, but if you ever get into a dog-fight with them, theyíll kill you!"
As an example, a Spitfire pilot reported after his encounter with a Fiat CR-32 Falco, "I dived to attack. As I opened fire, he half-rolled very tightly, and I was completely unable to hold him, so rapid were his maneuvers" (Adams, p.74).
In its assessment of the fighting across Libya and Egypt, the British VIIIth Army newspaper concluded that "the Black Shirt and Bersaglieri Divisions were often comparable in courage and fighting spirit to the best troops in the Campaign." These Fascist elements had fought with extraordinary heroism, especially when the battle had gone against them, while most of the other Italian soldiers had been trained and led, as was Marshal Graziani himself, by the hostile, even pro-British aristocracy in the House of Savoy.
The North African Campaign that could have concluded after just four or five months in an Italian victory, had only the Duceís orders been followed, would go on for two more years, killing many thousands more men, and eventually climaxing in an Axis withdrawal.
Tragic as these events were for Italy, the Fuehrer began to regard North Africa as a great, strategic trap for the British. He observed how they devoted all their energies, even while hard-pressed during the Battle of Britain, to protect their holdings in Egypt. North Africa might divert the British from interfering in his up-coming invasion of the Soviet Union. They could be induced to weaken themselves in operations involving minimal German forces. But to waste the British out of strength in the desert Hitler needed the most daring, innovative and dauntless Wehrmacht commander available.
On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel landed at Tripoli with just two divisions---one light, the other Panzer---that formed the Deutsche Afrika Korps. He arrived just in time to prevent the enemyís total conquest of North Africa. Less than a week before, General Wavell, recovering from his defeat at the hands of the Brigata Corazzato Speciale, destroyed 80 Italian tanks and captured seven generals at Benghazi. Worse came the next day, when he took 120 tanks, 200 artillery pieces and 20,000 troops.
Undaunted by these otherwise catastrophic reversals, Rommel went over on the offensive with an imaginative flair rarely encountered in warfare. In little more than two months, he made Wavell give up all the gains won from the Italians. During the next two years, Rommel led the British on a merry chase through the desert, often deceiving them with unorthodox ploys.
For example, when confronted by a numerically overwhelming force of Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and Indians, he dragged farming implements behind his tanks. The resultant clouds of sand were so great, the enemy were fooled into believing that they were opposed by a gigantic Panzer army, and called off their attack.
Rommelís daring was exampled in the Battle of Knightsbridge, between June 11 and 13, when his 124 Panzers audaciously attacked 248 British tanks, trapping and destroying most of them. Suddenly, the main supply route for the 50th and 1st South African Divisions was threatened, and they fled toward Egypt. In every engagement---either wriggling out of an encirclement, or spear-heading a sudden assault where it was least expected---the Afrika Korps seemed unbeatable.
What made the Campaign so frustrating for the British was its lack of real territorial goals. Rommelís chief objective was less the capture of Cairo or Suez, than wearing out the enemyís land forces, to keep them away from the European Continent at relatively low cost to the Axis. He could go on racing around the desert indefinitely, so long as his supplies held out.
To keep him well-equipped was the chief responsibility of the Italian Navy. Whatever damage had been done to Italyís reputation by Grazianiís failures in Egypt was more than adequately repaired by the unswerving courage demonstrated by Mussoliniís sailors aboard the convoys to North Africa. Relentlessly savaged from the air by anti-shipping bombers of the R.A.F. and under the sea by Royal Navy submarines, Italian freighters pushed on against terrible losses.
But they were the life-line of the Afrika Korps, fueling its non-stop victories, despite everything the British could throw at them. From June, 1942, however, Italian sinkings began to increase dramatically. And the Luftwaffe spared additional aircraft to protect Axis convoys, which were invariably intercepted by the enemy.
Rommelís capture of Tobruk on the 21st bagged him large stocks of materiel that made up for dwindling supplies, but this windfall could not be expected to last him for long. Thus well provisioned, although only temporarily, he decided on capturing Egypt and putting an end to the North African Campaign, before his supply problems became too critical.
Thanks to Ultra, the British knew long in advance of his next attack, but their long series of defeats rendered them too weak to oppose it. The Royal Navy evacuated Alexandria, where port authorities prepared to blow up the harbors at a momentís notice. In Cairo, British Army headquarters staff burned classified papers and prepared for a retreat into Palestine. But Italian losses at sea mounted, and Rommelís advance ground to a halt.
Mussolini had good reason to suspect that House of Savoy traitors in the Navy were passing the sailing times and courses of his convoys to the enemy. Even long after the war, historians concluded either espionage or treason was responsible. Not until the 1960s was the so-called "Ultra Secret" revealed. Having broken all the Axis military codes, Allied commanders were simultaneously reading the top secret orders of their German and Italian counterparts. In the beginning, however, Ultra was often too slow to keep up with the rapid, last minute changes inherent in desert warfare, and even missed reporting many important Italian convoys.
Meanwhile, U.S. supplies were reaching General Montgomery, commanding British forces in Egypt, in ever growing numbers. The Afrika Korps continued to score one victory after another, in spite of these heavy odds. But with the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in June, 1942, traitors in the German Abwehr and General Staff helped fill in the missing gaps for Allied intelligence. So much so, that the following September, supplies were virtually pinched off. The entire North African Campaign was dominated by supplies and military intelligence.
But the key factor, of course, was Rommel himself. His genius always made the difference between victory and defeat, no matter what the circumstances. The British realized this better than anyone, so they staged a massive raid on Tobruk during the night of September 13, specifically aimed at killing or abducting the Desert Fox. Insidiously known as "Operation Agreement," the large-scale assault by land, sea and air was also designed to destroy the harbor installations (too many Italian freighters were still getting through to Tobruk), and knock out Axis air bases at nearby Barce and Benghazi.
Some warplanes were destroyed on the ground at Barce, but Italian anti-aircraft defenses at Benghazi succeeded in totally repulsing attacks by elite R.A.F. bomber squadrons of the Special Air Service. Tobrukís harbor went unscathed, while three Royal Navy destroyers were sunk, and many British infantry were killed or captured. Rommel, of course, escaped assassination in this latest Churchillian fiasco. In fact, he was not even in Tobruk during the raid.
He was a mortal human being, however, and his over-long tour of duty began to tell on his nerves. He became guilty of obvious errors, such as failing to pursue the Americans routed at Kassarine Pass. Had he followed up on that victory, he might have driven them back into the sea. The stress of 18 months non-stop combat was beginning to have its effect on his health.
On September 23, he was flown to several hospitals in Europe, suffering from acute liver problems and high blood pressure. Ultra code-breakers flashed the news to General Montgomery, who used Rommelís absence to launch the Battle of El Alamein on the night of October 23, opening with a barrage of 900 artillery pieces, virtually all of them U.S. made.
By then, Montyís shot-up British equipment had been more than amply replaced by American stock piles of armor and ammunition, without which "Operation Lightfoot" would never have been possible. And, to be sure, he had advance copies of all German and Italian intentions, supplies and movements on his desk, thanks to Ultra. His counter-attack went well until Rommel returned on the 25th.
The Desert Fox once again turned the tables on his opponents, despite all the odds in their favor, until he had just enough stores to withdraw his own forces. Aware that the Panzers were desperately low on fuel, Montgomery tried to cut them off at Fuqa, but failed. Then he tried to pin down the out-numbered, under-equipped Germans at Mersa Matruh, but they escaped him again. For all his efforts to capture the Afrika Korps, it continued to elude his grasp.
Even so, Rommel was not strong enough to regain the initiative, as he had in the past, because only a dwindling, insufficient number of Italian freighters was now able to successfully run the Allied gauntlet of Ultra-guided anti-shipping aircraft and naval units.
Although Rommel had been turned back in Egypt, through no fault of his own or his men, his withdrawal did not fundamentally alter the Afrika Korpsí raison díart; namely, to waste the Alliesí strength, keep them away from Western Europe, and prevent them from assisting the Soviets on the ground---all at minimal cost to the Axis. Even after El Alamein, the North African Campaign would go on to fulfill this strategy.
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