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Posted on Sep 13, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Night Warriors of the Desert

By Wild Bill Wilder

Quite distinct from the first six months of 1941, the months of July through October of that year were relatively quiet on both sides of the battlefield. Rommel’s Afrika Korps rapid advance across North Africa from Tripoli to the proximity of the Libyan-Egyptian border, plus the heated engagements, Brevity and Battleaxe, had left the Desert Fox dangerously short on supplies, and tanks, along with some very weary troopers. In the same vein, the British Army had suffered horrendous losses. The gift to General Wavell from Prime Minister Churchill of around 300 tanks to send Rommel packing had not done the job. Most of them were now smoking hulks on the desert battlefields. Superb leadership and tactics on the German side had blunted the edge of "Battleaxe."

Much of the latter half of 1941 was to be a time rebuilding, with both sides anxious to be ready for the next confrontation. There was one big problem for the German leader. The British fortress of Tobruk had not fallen. Located on the coast of North Africa at about the halfway mark between Rommel’s starting point and his final line of advance, it was proving to be a spoiler to German attempts to get the job done.


In spite of repeated assaults by Italian and German troops, Tobruk stood as an ugly reminder to Rommel that the job was not yet complete. For the Desert Fox, the failure to capture Tobruk was a ragged splinter in his mind, something that had to be corrected. Of course, during the last months of 1941, the fact that Tobruk remained under allied control in the rear of his lines became a knife poised to plunge into his back at any moment.

Field Marsall Erwin Rommel in 1941

Now pushed back to almost the original line of departure a year earlier, things would be different. As he prepared for his new offenses in early 1942, he was determined that Tobruk should be taken. The German supply line stretched tenuously over nearly 1,000 miles of desert, with only one main highway, the "Via Balbia" as the most dependable supply route.

Tobruk’s continual defiance also meant that a detour from the main highway would have to be taken to avoid attacks and shelling on the Axis convoys. To add to Rommel’s grief, the Allied death grip on the Mediterranean meant that few supplies could get through. There was at least an equal amount or greater of German supplies and equipment that were lost in route to Rommel as those that arrived.

True, the plunder in Rommel’s advance in 1941 had been rich in fuel and equipment. But it had all been spent in the movement across the desert and the subsequent fighting. Now as 1941 drew to a close, the commander of the Afrika Korps was forced to take a defensive posture. So were the British. For the moment, it was a stalemate.

That is not to say, however, that there was no activity during those months. Both sides patrolled the "no man’s land" between them. As both sides sent out units to check the lines or perhaps conduct a surprise raid, sudden stabs of light, or the quick glare of an exploding vehicle, which quickly subsided to a pulsing glowing ember in the blackness, punctuated the darkness of the night. The grotesque forms of armored cars on both sides could occasionally be distinguished as ghostly silhouettes in the night. They sparred and jabbed at one another, racing back and forth, firing machine guns and smaller caliber cannons, skidding and swerving to avoid death.

Some found it unavoidable. The first rays of morning light would reveal vehicles canted crazily in one direction or another. Some were burned out blackened hulks of what they had been. Others showed no apparent sign of damage, but lay dead in the sand. Occasionally spirals of oily black smoke curled lazily upward as a silent salute to their dead crews.

In addition to the constant forays and invasive patrols, both sides had their own brand of Special Forces. They were men trained to a fine edge in combat, with bold spirits and a desire to take chances. They lived a dangerous and sometimes very short life as they moved silently behind enemy lines.

The German force came to be known as "Brandenburgers." The unit was formed in Brandenburg, Germany by Captain von Hippel, hence their name. A group of elitist SS troopers, their main contribution the German cause came on the eastern front.

They were also used during the Battle of the Bulge, this time in American uniforms posing as military police to confuse Allied troops, create havoc and destroy key installations. There were rumors that one group had been given the task of assassinating General Eisenhower at SHAEF headquarters, though this has never been substantiated.

In North Africa the Brandenburgers were of a "Ranger" type nature, conducting raids behind British lines well past the border of Libya with Egypt. They were excellent at gathering information as well as creating confusion behind enemy forward positions.

The British also had their special units. They have become better known was The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). These were well-trained men in arms and living off the land. They were in superb physical condition and prepared to work in the enemy’s rear. A second group of British troops prepared for this type of warfare was the Special Air Service (SAS).

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