Rommel in the Desert, and the North African War

Things have been really, really busy in the last couple months, but I have four or five posts in the works, including one on Wolfram von Eschenbach, a postscript to The Swerve, a couple annotated lists on my medieval top thirty books, primary sources, articles, etc., and maybe, though this is stretching, periodic posts on the Eastern Front (this being the 70th anniversary of Kursk, after all). In the mean time, below is an edited version of some thoughts I emailed to my students today, after we covered the North Africa and Italian campaigns in military history. It felt good to revisit a topic that I spent several years studying…

First, while the Mediterranean became a major drain on Germany’s resources, the Russian Front always retained top priority for OKW. Even when the Italian Front was tying down 20-30 divisions (estimates vary), the Russian front occupied between 150 and 210.

Second, regarding the question of Hitler’s responsibility for strategic decisions, it was Hitler who ordered Rommel to stand at El Alamein, when he could still have extracted a fair number of his troops. And it was Hitler who insisted on creating a strategically unsustainable bridgehead in Tunisia.

Third, the challenges of coalition warfare require a type of commander whose personality actually can pull off that kind of war. Patton, for example, would emphatically NOT have been a good supreme commander—and he knew that. It is worth remembering this when thinking about Michael Lyons’ assessment  of Eisenhower in World War II, A Short History. It is worth assessing the areas which required Anglo-American cooperation, and thinking about how cooperation might have been retarded had more abrasive personalities been directing the war.  Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won is essential reading for this type of assessment, and also for assessing the outcome of the war in general.

Fourth, Rommel. It is my professional opinion that Rommel was a decent but over-promoted general, who used his ‘favorite’ status with Hitler and Goebbels to obtain first a panzer division, and then a corps command, but without any appreciable training in or knowledge of staff work. This after having commanded Hitler’s bodyguard, and lunching frequently with Goebbels, among other things: ambitious he definitely was; politically naïve, as his friends insisted after the war, not a chance (we’ll leave the discussion of the Einsatzgruppen in Tunisia, and one destined for Palestine, for another time). His successes against the British 8th Army were well-earned. However, it was not until May, 1942, that he showed appreciable development as a commander (having lost the November-December ’41 battles in a very disheartening fashion). And I am not sure that he ever had any grasp of strategy, until the strategic impossibility of the Axis situation descended on him like a thunderclap after Alam Halfa. Attempting to overrun the Nile Delta with less than 20,000 men and 100 tanks (actually 44 tanks on June 24, when the Afrika Korps crossed the Egyptian border), was…ill-judged, to say the least. Von Mellenthin insists that “there can be no absolute answer” to the decision to invade Egypt, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that there can be, and the answer is, it was the wrong decision.

Fifth, this brings us to the question of why the Axis lost in North Africa (by the numbers a much more costly defeat than even Stalingrad). The Germans were tactically superior to every Allied army in North Africa, that much IS true. But, they were assisted by a number of temporal and temporary factors that evaporated over time, such as atrocious British radio security, the ability to read British codes, the pernicious effects of British armored doctrine (using unsupported cruiser tanks against anti-tank screens), inexperienced British and American commanders, an allied command culture that was as lackadaisical  and…well, it was not “transformative,” shall we say. All things that the Allied forces could improve over time, while the Axis forces wouldn’t get any better. Which brings us back to strategic limits: distance, consumption, interdiction of sea lanes by the British at Malta, and the manpower-to-space ratio that rendered dreams of Rommel linking up with Army Group South in Northern Iraq just that, dreams. Unless the British command suffered a loss SO astounding that their willpower evaporated, AND at the same time the Germans were assisted by a massive popular uprising in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria (not completely far-fetched, but unlikely as long as the 8th Army was in the field, and the 10th Army in Palestine still had a presence on the streets).

Sixth, Rommel, then, is the ultimate example of the German army attempting to redress strategic imbalance via operational success. He is also the perfect example of what happens when you pin the outcome of the war on that approach. And yes, he was “frozen in place” at Alamein by Hitler’s “no retreat” order, but he had often flouted, defied, and “misinterpreted” his orders in the past, and in June 1942 had secured permission directly from Hitler, over the heads and advice of every other general officer in his chain of command, for the invasion of Egypt, because he had promised success.

Seventh, we need to stop making fun of the Italian army. At the risk of being reductionist, the situation is fairly simple: the Italian government was saying that there was a strategic, national, military issue at stake, but Mussolini never convinced the Italian people that there really was. Aside from a minority, who constituted Italy’s colonial administration and settler population (the latter in Libya especially). The Italian military proved itself every bit as vicious as the German in Ethiopia, and in the way they handled the Arab population in Libya.  However, in terms of military effectiveness, the Italian forces that served with Rommel did very well in extremely trying circumstances. Their infantry used a 45mm mortar, which left them under-supported compared to British and German platoons. Their tanks broke down frequently, and their armor protection was inadequate, but the gun of the M13/39 could handle every early British tank except the Matilda (which even German tanks couldn’t handle), and the Ariete Armored Division used German armored tactics very effectively. The Italians had a superb self-propelled gun in the Semovente, an excellent AA/AT gun with their 90 mm, decent medium and heavy artillery, an excellent fighter plane, excellent ships, a decent medium bomber, and good transport trucks. After the debacle of 1940, when 133,000 surrendered to O’Conner’s 30,000 British, they fought much harder than anyone thought they would.

Eighth, El Alamein and Blitzkrieg. It is interesting, in reading the ego-driven personal accounts of the battle, to see how obsessed the British were with replicating German armored warfare (the Americans were the same, the American attaché to the 8th Army sending back a long, rather fascinating analysis of the 15th Panzer Division’s attack in the Gazala Battles). One British officer, reflecting on Montgomery’s concern with PR, commented that what ticked him off the most was that his “corps de chasse” (tank-heavy X Corps) didn’t “chasse.” In other words, there was no real breakthrough, no rapid armored exploitation. Montgomery was essentially fighting an updated version of a classic World War I battlefield scenario, the ‘breakthrough.’ It was expensive in equipment, perhaps more than it needed to be (I withhold judgment till such time as I can refresh my research on the battle), but breaking through a defensive position in a set-piece, positional battle was essentially NOT an exercise in “blitzkrieg” operations. Though the difference between Alamein and Operation Cobra is striking in this regard.  The key aspect of the battle really came down to the British turning the tables on the Germans, and forcing the Germans, in order to prevent a breakthrough AND the complete destruction of their infantry, to counterattack into the teeth of British anti-tank guns. But already, the fascination with the German armored operations had begun to subtly distract Allied operational art, playing on the egos of commanders to emphasize form over function or outcome.

Ninth, it is worth noting that the American army basically used the same equipment set from North Africa to Germany. The American weapons systems were changed and modified over the course of the war, but they remained essentially the same. This should raise questions about what ultimately makes the difference in an industrialized war: excellent tactical ability, with mechanically unreliable, wastefully developed equipment, or somewhat less tactical ability (though hardly bad), with well-researched, well-thought out, adaptable, reliable equipment.

Tenth, of all the books on the Desert War, I would recommend three in particular: first and foremost, Robert Crisp’s Brazen Chariots, probably the best memoir I’ve yet read about World War II. It covers the author’s experiences in Operation Crusader in 1941.  Martin Kitchen’s Rommel’s Desert War (2009) is probably the best, most thoroughly researched study to be done in recent years, and thankfully makes use of Italian sources as well.   Chapters 13-16 in F.H. Hinsley’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, Abridged Edition, will be an eye-opening experience, in showing how commanders are gathering and assessing intelligence and making decisions (hopefully in that order!). If you can get a hold of the unabridged, multi-volume edition, that is even better.  As an after-thought, I slightly hesitate to recommend von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles, but his account of Gazala and Tobruk is lucid, vivid, and derives from his own experiences. The book’s influence on shaping the Wehrmacht’s postwar reputation has been considerable, and rather baleful, and one needs to take the Russian chapters with a pinch of salt; but regardless of the dubious axes it grinds, it is an important book. Finally, to put the desert war in operational and strategic context, Robert Citino’s Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 is a no-brainer choice.

On 9 September, 1942, von Mellenthin left North Africa, to be treated for acute amoebic dysentery. Rommel gave him a situation appreciation to deliver to OKW, and it ended with a reference to the frontier garrisons he had had to sacrifice in December, 1941, after losing the Operation Crusader battles: “If the absolutely essential supplies cannot reach the Panzerarmee, the latter will not be in a position to resist the united forces of the U. S. A. and the British Empire, i.e. of two world powers [emphasis added]. Despite its bravery the Panzerarmee will sooner or later suffer the fate of the Halfaya garrison” [Panzer Battles, 146].

For all the flash and drama of the North African war, that assessment seems to be the ultimate summary of what in fact happened.

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