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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

El Alamein  

His men exhausted, his number of tanks down to almost single digits, and with supply lines extended much too far (if supplies were to be had), Rommel had done all that he could to reach Egypt. Seeing the futility of further offensives, the Desert Fox now set about to establish an impregnable defense. The lines he prepared were on different terrain from other occasions. Instead of expansive flat land to the South, both flanks were securely anchored: on the North, by the sea; and on the South, by the forbidding Qattara Depression, a huge dished out area 400 feet below sea level. It was full of quicksand and salt marshes, and impassable to vehicles.

To make things even more nightmarish for the Commonwealth forces, In the 38 miles of his defense, Rommel crammed 500,000 mines, 100,000 men, miles of barbed wire, 550 tanks, and 1,600 guns. Furthermore, his defenses were in depth. By breaking though one strong point, the enemy would come face to face with another. It was indeed a formidable obstacle.

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None of this seemed to perturb Montgomery. He was determined to break through, no matter the cost in manpower. Undaunted and unperturbed, the British general made his plans to break this line, and exploit the break with a drive to cut off the Afrika Korps. His plan was a massive artillery barrage, followed by engineers entering the minefields under cover of darkness and opening paths for oncoming infantry. The troops would neutralize the strong points, and clear the path for charging tanks. The armor would break through into the rear, and wreak havoc among the enemy’s communications and supplies.

This process he called "crumbling." One defense would fall in on another. If German armor should appear, his own tanks would be ready and engage them. The superior number of British tanks would simply overwhelm them. He was convinced it would succeed. He knew he would not have a second chance. It was do or die for Monty at El Alamein. The scrawny commander was determined that he would "do."

Operation Lightfoot

On October 23rd, 1942, close to 1,000 Allied artillery pieces of all sizes filled the air with light and thunder, as a ponderous barrage engulfed the German defenses. As planned, engineers opened paths, and the infantry moved ahead. The Germans were caught unprepared and confusion reigned. The primary reason for this was the fact that Rommel was not present at the initiation of the battle (a strange situation that would repeat itself in the invasion of Normandy nearly two years later).

Illness and the urgent need to present his situation personally to Hitler had forced him to return to Europe. On the first day of battle, various key German officers were lost for one reason or another (one with a heart attack), and communications were garbled. Even though various linkups were achieved, the battle had approached a stalemate by the third day. The British could get no further.

The Germans failed with various counterattacks. Fed up with the morass on the Eastern Front, the German Fuhrer had adapted a new policy. There would be no more retreats in the German army. To requests for withdrawal, Hitler ranted that they must hold to the last man, that not an inch of ground could be lost. Rommel had quickly returned and though doubtful of their advisability, he vainly attempted to obey the orders. It only resulted in more loss for the Axis. The German forces finally held and the British advance was checked.

Operation Supercharge

Churchill, on receiving the news, accepted it with grumblings and threats of more changes in command within the 8th Army. Montgomery, determined to vindicate himself, and restore good faith to Churchill, devised a new scheme. He reinforced the New Zealand Division with Australian, British, and Scottish brigades. They were the best of each division. Together with the 9th Armored Brigade, they were to execute "Operation Supercharge." It would live up to its name and more. It would be a super charge, with super losses. The combined force was to crack the ominous final antitank gun line beyond the minefields. Once this was done, the 1st and 10th Armored Divisions would exploit the opening, and break through.

Montgomery expected extremely heavy casualties from the initial assault, but ordered it anyway. The attacking force was decimated, especially the 9th Armored brigade. It was similar to a cavalry charge with the same resulting losses. Over 85 per cent of its tanks were destroyed. In a last effort to stem the tide rushing over him, Afrika Korps’ General von Thoma attacked in his command tank, escaped as it went up in flames, and then stood quietly on the smoking battlefield waiting to be taken prisoner. Both sides suffered a disastrous destruction of guns and armor. Montgomery could afford the loss. Rommel could not. On November 3rd, the Axis retreat began. As news of this victory reached England, church bells rang from one end of the country to the other. It was the turning point in this war.

Operation Torch

With demands from Stalin and pleas from Churchill for a second front to alleviate the pressure on Russia, Roosevelt conferred with military leaders. An assault on Europe was out of the question. The British attempt at Dieppe in 1942 was proof that it would be at least another year before the mainland of Europe could be invaded.

An alternative was found in the fighting in North Africa. If the Americans could win over the Vichy French in Morocco and Algiers, then important ports would be open for the entrance of American troops into the war. This would force Rommel to fight on two fronts. It would give U.S. soldiers combat experience, and bring the war in the Middle East to an end.

The landings came on November 8th, 1942, as planned. Three simultaneous landings were effected with three task forces, The Western, the Center, and the Eastern (see scenario Desert 23). Over 650 ships were involved, including aircraft carriers and battleships. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was placed in charge of all Allied troops. It was anticipated that the Vichy French (those who accepted Hitler’s authority), would not fight, but nothing was known for certain. They did in fact fight against American forces until the 10th of November, when an armistice was reached.

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Major General George S. Patton, Commanding General I
Armored Corps, reviews Native troops with French
General Nogues at Rabat, Morocco on 20 December 1942.

The month of November was momentous for a number of reasons. Guadalcanal in the Pacific was finally secured, and the offensive had been taken successfully to the Japanese by a hand full of heroic Marines. At Stalingrad, the Red Army encircled an entire German army of over 600,000 men, and in the Middle East, time was running out for the Desert Fox.

At El Agheila (again), Rommel was now faced with the enemy on both sides, and slowly squeezed into a corner of Tunisia. He was still bold, however, and cunning in battle. In a surprise maneuver, he established a series of defenses called the Mareth Line. Leaving a subordinate in charge there, he then took his armor and struck against the Americans.

He felt that their inexperience would count against them. He wished to instill in them a spirit of defeatism and inferiority. If he could do so, with his supply lines shortened, and the enemy’s stretched to the maximum, he could deliver a series of offensive blows that would perhaps change the course of the war. Severe winter weather stalled any Allied attacks, as the cold and mud slowed movement to a crawl.

By now Rommel was ready, and on February 14th, he launched a major assault against the Americans (see scenarios Desert 25, 26,and 27). It was the old Rommel all over again; the quick surprise thrust, the reeling enemy, the Desert Fox at the head of his troops. Two Panzer columns ripped through the American lines, converged on a mountain gap called Kasserine Pass, brushed aside its defenses, and poured through the opening.

Some 12 miles further west, at a place called Thala, he was stopped abruptly by stout American and British defenses. The GIs were learning how to fight. "They recovered very quickly after the first shock," Rommel wrote of the American defenders. Two weeks later, he tried again, against the British Eighth Army at the Mareth Line, and once more he was repulsed. Tired, his body racked with sickness, the German leader was removed from Africa on March 9th, 1943. He would not return.

At the end of April, The American 2nd Corps and the British First Army assaulted the two strongest defensive points in the Mareth Line. The U.S. forces took on Hill 609, while the English assaulted Longstop. Casualties were horrendous on both sides, but the objectives were taken. On May 6th, 1943, the British took Tunis and American forces occupied Bizerte. In another week, it was all over. May 13th marked the end of fighting in North Africa. Over 275,000 Axis prisoners laid down their arms and an endless flow of dejected enemy troops filed into prison camps. It was a major defeat of Germany and Italy, and another step in the climb to complete victory in World War II.

Author Information:

Wild Bill Wilder, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, was introduced to modern warfare as a tot in World War II when his father and uncle went off to war in the USAAF. It was an experience that influenced him greatly throughout his life. After graduating from Toccoa Falls College in 1962, he spent the next 10 years in public service in various countries in Central America. He then worked in public transportation until his retirement in 1999.

Wild Bill now has even more time to dedicate to his passion – wargaming. In 1997 he formed a group called "Wild Bill’s Raiders." From small beginnings the Raiders expanded into five separate web sites and gave top-notch coverage to a number of popular wargames.

Bill has also been a vital part of the production of 13 different games, including SPWAW, Combat Mission, The Operational Art of War,  and John Tiller’s Squad Battles series. He has authored over 1300 scenarios and campaigns for these and other games over the last nine years. At age 68, Bill is also a prolific writer, with his primary focus on warfare of the 20th century. To quote him, "Wargaming is a passion that never dies with the passing of the years. Instead it only intensifies as new and better wargames are produced. It is in military history that one finds often written in blood the glory and the grief of mankind!"

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