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Posted on Jan 10, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

Desert Knights – An Overview of the War in North Africa

By Wild Bill Wilder

Operation Crusader

Both sides were unable to continue the battle, and a lull of some five months ensued. During that time, Germany initiated Operation Barbarossa, the mighty invasion of Russia. Because of this enormous investment of manpower and hardware, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was relegated to second place in resupply and reinforcement. England, however, was pouring in men and equipment in unprecedented numbers.

By November 1941, Auchinleck was ready to strike. Oddly enough, Rommel had likewise had also been planning a new offensive, and his preoccupation with its planning had left him oblivious to the coming British offensive. On November 22, 1941, "Operation Crusader" was unleashed on the unsuspecting Germans.

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It consisted of a number of heated battles over a period of weeks in which the German lines were assaulted and penetrated. Ground that the British won, such as at Sidi Rezegh was taken, then lost, then retaken. At one point, the British were only 10 miles from the siege lines against Tobruk (still in British hands, but behind enemy lines), but were repulsed.

Finally, superiority in numbers began to sway the effort toward the British. By December 7th, 1941, Rommel had only 30 functioning tanks. His supplies were exhausted. So were his troops. That same day, halfway around the world, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and now Britain and the United States were full partners in the war effort. At that point, Rommel began a carefully planned withdrawal. By early January, he was back at El Agheila, his starting point some nine months before. It was a hard blow for the Germans. Rommel suffered a severe bout of depression, but as a true commander, rebounded with new enthusiasm.

Undoubtedly, Crusader was a Triumph for the Commonwealth. It did not, however, inspire the enthusiasm of earlier victories. It had been far too costly and too many mistakes had been made. It was a classic example of what is known as a Pyhrric victory. Instead of triumphant marches and exaggerated speeches of greatness, It was more a time of healing wounds, and reflecting on decisions made. Interestingly enough, Rommel’s reputation and stature, even in the defeat, had increased. His ominous shadow stretched longer and longer across the wastes of North Africa.

The Prime Minister of England himself saw in the "Desert Fox" a commander of ingenuity and tenacity. In January 1942, Churchill stated to the House of Commons: "We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and may I say across the havoc of war, a great general." For the old Bulldog of England to praise an enemy in such a way demonstrated the hold that Rommel was taking over the world.

In fact, the Desert Fox was already busy preparing to gain back lost ground. The winter months were good to the Afrika Korps. A number of shipments of new equipment, tanks and much needed supplies succeed in reaching him. Suddenly the German-Italian forces were becoming a threat again to the Commonwealth soldiers. In March, he feinted the British out of Benghazi, capturing huge stocks of supplies and fuel to keep his offensive moving. In a matter of weeks, the Commonwealth soldiers had again been pushed backward. Finally a defensive line at Gazala, 35 miles west of Tobruk was established and held by the Allies.

Operation Venezia

The island of Malta, located in the Mediterranean Sea, was a British fortress. It provided the means to cripple the supply line for Rommel between Europe and North Africa. During early 1942, a massive effort by the Luftwaffe successfully neutralized this threat, and enormous amounts of supplies reached the Afrika Korps. Rommel’s forces were now almost on a par with England’s and he formulated his own operation, called "Venezia." On May 26, he assaulted the Gazala Line, and swept around it. Finding himself cut off, he imbedded himself in the enemy positions, opened the way for supplies to reach him and reinforced himself.

One enemy strongpoint after another was neutralized. Suddenly, there was nothing before Rommel and the renewal of the attack against Tobruk. For Rommel, the failure to take Tobruk a year earlier had always eaten away at him. Even though he bypassed the besieged port garrison, he was never comfortable with them at his back. Further, he felt that his inability to take Tobruk was a reflection upon his capabilities as a commander. He was determined this time to have it.

Sadly, the garrison defending the port city was not composed of the crack units that were there when it was attacked and placed under siege in 1941. The massive weight of the Afrika Korps slammed against the city, and on June 21st, it was surrendered. The Germans and Italians confiscated an abundance of supplies, weapons, and fuel.  The Commonwealth forces were now in full flight. It was called the "Gazala Gallop." They entered Egypt on the run. The Naval base at Alexandria was being dismantled. Secret documents were being burnt at Cairo, and it seemed that all of Egypt, including the Suez Canal was doomed to fall to German power.

Another New Commander

Winston Churchill was angry. He had received word of the fall of Tobruk while in conference with President Roosevelt, and silently passed the note to him. He said nothing, and Roosevelt could sense that he was at a very low point mentally and emotionally. In an effort to encourage him, the US president offered any assistance to alleviate the crisis. Churchill was quick to take him at his word and secured the delivery of 300 of the new M-4 Sherman tanks along with an abundance of other equipment and supplies.

With that problem resolved, the next item on Churchill’s agenda was a change of command in the Middle East.  Shortly after his visit with Roosevelt, the Prime Minister made a trip to Egypt. He was determined to make the necessary changes that would turn the war in North Africa around once and for all. Clenching a big cigar in that bulldog jaw, he toured the Alamein line, talking with the troops, and questioning officers. As a result of his visit and talking with his soldiers, Churchill made some serious changes. He removed Auchinleck as commander of the Middle East Forces, and replaced him with General Sir Harold Alexander.

The man chosen to head the Eighth Army was Strafer Gott, a veteran of the war in Africa, respected, and an accomplished leader of men. Shortly after appointed, however, Gott was killed in a plane crash. His replacement was Bernard Montgomery, long time soldier and regarded as a masterful tactician in the British Expeditionary Forces that had tried to defend France.

na4.jpg
A British officer inspects a Pzkfw III amidst a park
of abandoned German tanks
following the
Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942

Montgomery, or "Monty", as he was called, was a tireless soldier, and a stickler for discipline. He showed little emotion, and demanded everything from his subordinates. Those that served in command under him did not care for him. American generals quickly labeled him, and perhaps rightfully so, as a glory seeker (but weren’t they all to a point?). Montgomery went to work immediately. He fully acquainted himself with the Eighth Army, and began at once to make radical changes.

Shortly after the shift in British command, Rommel was becoming increasingly concerned. His visions of occupying Alexandria and perhaps linking up with German forces in southern Russia were becoming a fading dream. Things weren’t going well at all for Germany in the Russian campaign. An expected three month war had dragged on and on. The situation seemed to be deteriorating more every day on the Eastern Front. It was an open mouth that hungrily devoured everything that the German war industry could produce and throw into it.

The British, on the other hand, were growing much stronger than he was every day. He quickly realized that he had an opportunity for one more offensive, and that it had to occur immediately. He chose August 31st, 1942 as the day and went to the attack. It would be the last major offensive of his entire career. It was his first combative meeting with Montgomery as head of the British troops. Once again trying to sweep the British flank, the German forces suddenly found themselves enmeshed in deep minefields, smothered by attacks from the Desert Air Force, and submitted to ruthless artillery fire. His troops bravely fought on, but the well-entrenched enemy was too much for them. It was at Alam Halfa Ridge that Rommel saw the beginning of the end. The Germans could not break through, and were forced to retreat with terrible losses.

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