Chapter 5: Eighth Army and Panzer Group Africa
THE Axis leaders were also guilty of dividing their forces in the Mediterranean and it was this, allied with the huge demands of the war against Russia, that was at the root of their failure to get adequate supplies and reinforcements to North Africa, the abiding weakness of their desert army. Air power was in this respect critical and the air strength at hand was enough had it been used in direct support of supply lanes. Instead it was frittered away in raids on Alexandria, the Canal area, Haifa and elsewhere, and from this point of view the move of German air units from Sicily to Crete was a mistake. Thus by a world-wide effort in factory, field and workshop, on the high seas and in the air, supplying the Middle East, slipping small ships through to Tobruk and occasional convoys to Malta, and blocking the short Axis sea routes to Libya by all possible means – and by waging with relentless vigour the Battle of the Atlantic – the British built up a slight and precarious superiority in men and material for the coming offensive. A tiny fraction of this effort concentrated by the Germans and Italians on the vital sea lanes could have reversed this situation; but their advantage of interior lines, never more clear-cut than this, was thrown away.
The tale of sinkings between Italy and Libya was told by Germans and Italians throughout summer and autumn in the bare terms of official signals and reports or in sorrow, anger or despair according to the teller’s viewpoint. Ships of all shapes and sizes sailed from Naples, Brindisi and Taranto, in guarded convoys or alone, to be awaited at Tripoli, Benghazi or Derna with fateful uncertainty. In August Nita went down, then Maddalena Odero, Esperia on the 20th and Egadi a few days later. Aquitania was badly damaged on the 27th, and on the 29th–30th Cilicia was sunk, Riv damaged by bombing at Tripoli, and the tanker Pozzarika set on fire (though its 585 tons of oil were miraculously saved). And so the tale continued in September (with two 19,500-ton liners, Oceania and Neptunia, going down), a brief respite in the second half of October, then a chapter of calamity in November when surface attack by the light
cruisers Penelope and Aurora with attendant destroyers from Malta was added to air attacks and the lurking danger from submarines. Seven strongly escorted merchant ships from Naples were all sunk on 9 November together with two Italian destroyers, a disaster which the Italian Foreign Minister, Ciano, found ‘inexplicable’ and which left Mussolini ‘depressed and indignant’.1
Though the opening days of CRUSADER saw a further deterioration in the Axis supply situation, the long pause in the fighting had nevertheless allowed the Germans to build up reserves of ammunition, petrol and rations which seemed adequate for the operations Rommel contemplated, and his quartermaster reported accordingly on 11 November. The enormous strain to which his organisation was shortly to be subjected was unforeseen; but it proved that despite the almost incessant barrage of German complaints about Italian shortcomings on their L of C, the Germans had managed to acquire a considerable amount of ‘fat’ and were able to live off it in an emergency.
The long-term outlook for Axis supplies in North Africa had come under Hitler’s scrutiny and he had taken the first steps to improve it some months earlier. The thorough overhaul of the whole supply system which was long overdue, however, was not easy to carry out. This was an Italian province and Hitler was well aware how deeply Italian self-esteem was committed. Though the Germans had already achieved effective control of operations in the desert they maintained (with occasional lapses) the somewhat implausible fiction that Rommel owed allegiance to the Italian commander-in-chief, General Bastico. The difficulty in the central Mediterranean was that the naval and air operations to supply Libya were conducted not from the fringes of the distant Sahara but from Comando Supremo in Rome. It was there, on the Duce’s doorstep, that Hitler had to assert his claim for a controlling interest in central Mediterranean operations, a matter of some delicacy.
The first step was to commit U-boats, half a dozen in August and more later.2 Then Luftwaffe units were brought back from Crete to Sicily for convoy protection; the order was of 13 September, but the change took several critical weeks and was not carried out as Hitler intended. Then came the prime move: by doubling Luftwaffe strength in this theatre at the expense of the Eastern Front Hitler was able to bring on the scene a very senior officer, Field-Marshal Kesselring, commander of Luftflotte 2. By extending Kesselring’s responsibilities in a vague fashion acceptable to the Italians, but intended to soak up by degrees most of the initiative
they currently enjoyed in disposing their own naval, air and anti-aircraft forces on the routes to Africa, Hitler hoped to win his point. With Mussolini’s concurrence the post of Oberbefehlshaber Süd3 was thus created; but the Italians failed to conform. Though Kesselring was no more amenable to General Cavallero’s orders than Rommel was to Bastico’s, he found his Italian naval and air colleagues stubbornly independent.
Hitler’s bid to win the battle for supplies came too late to forestall CRUSADER and he was too attentive to Italian sensibilities to achieve his main purpose of a unified Italo-German command under Kesselring. Nor was he able to make his way to good effect through the political maze of relations with Vichy France and Spain. The French North African authorities provided a trickle of equipment and supplies but refused use of the short sea route by way of Bizerta, the Spanish government hedged on the question of Gibraltar, and an attack on Malta was as far off as ever. By attacking rather than waiting, therefore, the British were calling the tune, a situation to which Hitler was quite unaccustomed.
However much Hitler might have wished to temporise in this theatre and concentrate on defeating Russia, his desert commander was not at all disposed to sit and wait, and it was a blessing for the newborn Eighth Army that its desert enemy was preparing in the main not to meet attack but to capture Tobruk. As the hot summer months merged into dusty autumn this long-contemplated enterprise became an obsession of Rommel’s, and Italian apprehensions of a British offensive became a vexing irritation which made him less and less inclined (after SOMMERNACHTSTRAUM) to weigh with care any evidence pointing in that direction. The documents are eloquent on the inability of the Axis partners to see eye to eye on this point, though Mussolini remained anxious throughout to regain Tobruk. Bastico blew hot and cold with bewildering ease. Gambara was opposed, according to Ciano, on the grounds that ‘when we attack Tobruk this will be followed by a British attack on our flank at Sollum which he feels we cannot resist’;4 but in conference with Rommel on 29 October he gave every indication of satisfaction. A British counter-offensive or diversionary attack had in any case been carefully provided for by Rommel and his staff and they pointed out that it was largely immaterial whether the almost inevitable British move was one or the other; the Tobruk operation was expected to end well within
the three days which they estimated as the shortest time within which either counter-move could take effect. What the Germans and, for the most part, the Italians refused to consider in detail was that the British might strike first, though Rommel admitted to Gambara in a rare moment of expansion that the forthcoming posting of Ariete Armoured Division at El Gubi and Trieste Motorised Division at Bir Hacheim had taken a great load off his mind. Even OKH Intelligence showed a remarkable uncertainty as to British intentions and was apt to see things not as Bastico saw them, but in an exactly opposite light.
Preparations of the magnitude required for CRUSADER were impossible to hide satisfactorily and the steady advance westwards of the desert railway told its own story. OKH Intelligence reported on 8 October an ominous British build-up evidently intended for a desert offensive, but a month later on the flimsiest evidence it changed its mind. Rommel’s mind, however, had long since been closed to everything but the Tobruk project. He had carefully be down in July five conditions to be met before the attack could be mounted. The first was that there should be no signs of impending attack on the Sollum front and no great change in British grouping there. Another condition – that there should be adequate air support – had been stipulated also by Hitler himself, and Rommel well knew that it could not be met. None of the conditions were in fact met and at the last moment, with overwhelming evidence of an imminent invasion from Egypt on the largest scale, Bastico was near to panic. He wrote to Cavallero on 11 November (with a copy to Rommel) listing the unfavourable omens and begging him to reconsider ‘in the minutest detail’ the date for starting the attack, a matter which was supposed to be for Bastico alone to decide. By November, however, the priestess of the Delphic Oracle could not have dissuaded Rommel, though he continued to go through the motions of consulting the Italians. He had flown to Rome on 1 November and there, when Bastico’s letter arrived, he was soon able to win Cavallero’s support and extract from him a stern order that the operation must start as soon as possible. The tentative date was the 20th but a final decision on that rested as before with Bastico, a situation more in keeping with comic opera than with the heavy drama of war. Rommel returned to his headquarters at Gambut (halfway between Bardia and Tobruk) on the 18th to be greeted with a telegram from Berlin reiterating the Fuehrer’s insistence that air support should be adequate. At that stage he hoped to attack on the 21st and the necessary regrouping of his forces was already far advanced; but CRUSADER had already started.
Rommel’s confidence in his ability to ward off an attack from Egypt rested on an almost fatal misconception that his own L of C were inherently more secure than those of the British. He had lived for too many months too close to his own situation to see its essential weakness and he assigned the line of frontier forts built during the summer under his watchful eyes a greater tactical influence on British operations than the facts warranted. This line would indeed force the British to move deep into the desert to outflank it, and he thought that in so doing they would inevitably expose their L of C to a counter-thrust. His categories of thought on this subject were naturally restricted by the material shortages which were his daily burden and the keynote of his very existence, and he could not conceive of the vast dumping plan for CRUSADER utilising great fleets of lorries and techniques altogether beyond his resources. Thus he could not see that the farther south within reason the British swung the less vulnerable would be their L of C and the better placed they would be to cut off his own supplies at the El Adem bottleneck.
One detail of the Panzer Group Africa order for the attack on Tobruk, issued on 26 October, gave rise to an odd touch of drama. Both sides had selected the same sector, the Axis troops to break in and the garrison to break out, and both went to great trouble to hide their intentions and achieve surprise. Each counted on striking the other where he was comparatively weak, an illusion which was soon to be shattered at a cost of many lives, providing a harsh introduction to desert fighting for newly-arrived units, both British and German.
The Tobruk garrison, as things turned out, was the chief loser from the successive postponements of CRUSADER. The plan required it to be ready to start its sally by dawn on the second day and operation orders were therefore issued on 12 November, to be followed by a pause of uncertain duration. As the uncertainty was prolonged the pause grew into an uncomfortable hiatus during which Africa Division relieved 25 Bologna Division in the eastern sector, guns of all calibres were moved into battle positions on this front, and 15 Panzer Division, Bologna and 17 Pavia Division began to assemble for their roles in the assault.
Prejudice combined with deliberate deception to keep each side very much in the dark as to the other’s activities and intentions. General Headquarters, Middle East, was almost as reluctant to accept that an attack on Tobruk was imminent as Panzer Group was to admit of the possibility of being forestalled by a British offensive.
The Cairo authorities were ‘not convinced’ by testimony of prisoners in mid-November about Axis intentions; and similarly, when a Panzer Group staff officer read in his copy of Bastico’s letter to Cavallero of statements by captured British signals officers he noted, ‘These are certainly lying.’ That the far-reaching changes in Axis dispositions passed practically unnoticed may be balanced against German under-estimates of the strength of the garrison which were, under the circumstances, no less remarkable. How far these erred may be seen from the following table:–
Superiority of the Assault Force Over the Tobruk Garrison5
|In number of tanks||In light guns||In heavy guns||In infantry battalion|
|Estimated||3½ times||Twice||10 times||2½ times|
|Actual||Roughly equal||Twice||8 times||Twice|
Thus what was estimated to be a comfortable margin of superiority for the assault on which Rommel was prepared to stake his whole reputation was in reality rather different. Even his great predominance in artillery was worth less than its face value in view of organisational and doctrinal obstacles to its use in proper concentration at the point of assault. Moreover, the garrison disposed of heavy anti-aircraft and coast guns, many of which could be used landwards. In numbers of British tanks the final estimate was nearly 90 short, and 69 of these were Matilda tanks, the kind which had inflicted heavy losses on 15 Panzer Division in BATTLEAXE. In infantry he had to rely on ill-equipped and under-strength Italian units for 13 of his 20 attacking battalions. A surprise was surely in store for him if only Eighth Army held its hand.
But this was not to be. The earliest Rommel could attack was the 21st;6 and the longest respite Cunningham dare grant the South Africans was until the 18th. By this narrow margin CRUSADER prevailed and the assault on Tobruk became a desert mirage, flickering and fading in Rommel’s eyes until seven months later, in very different circumstances, it suddenly materialised.
When Sir Winston Churchill wrote of Auchinleck’s failure to mount CRUSADER by September 1941 at the latest as ‘a mistake and a misfortune’7 he was expressing his faith in action as opposed to delay, in vigour rather than passivity. But the delay gave Auchinleck a greater increment of strength than his desert enemies and it was
not until mid-November that he could field an army with reasonable prospects of success. Even then the margin was slim and the haste in some ways excessive.
As late as the end of September, when Eighth Army was born, British strength in the desert was little greater than it had been before BATTLEAXE; in some respects it was less. By mid-November cruiser-tank units and mobile infantry were trebled and the number of I tanks doubled and administrative backing allowed considerable freedom of manoeuvre, while the level of training, though still in many ways disappointing, was much higher. The main German striking force, on the other hand, had changed very little. A division of ‘positional infantry’ had come into being and an army artillery command, and there were now five Oasis Companies to help garrison the frontier strongpoints. With the creation of Panzer Group Africa these German troops had strengthened Rommel’s claims to a decisive influence on Axis land operations in North Africa. At the last minute, too, much-needed German medium and heavy artillery (up to 210-millimetre) reached the Tobruk front. But German contributions to mobile operations depended as before on the normal two divisions of Africa Corps, which had undergone what might be called a partial face-lift. A reshuffle of existing resources with the addition of one or two sub-units of artillery enabled 5 Light Division to be redesignated 21 Panzer; but one of its two motorised infantry battalions was tied to the Sollum defences and its tank strength was still below the pre- BATTLEAXE figures. By November 15 Panzer Division, with a full complement of tanks and an enlarged infantry component, was much the stronger of the two.
The increments to Axis strength in a battle of manoeuvre were chiefly Italian: 20 Mobile Corps, consisting of Ariete Armoured Division backed by Trieste Motorised, arrived at the last minute in the forward area. Both of these divisions, however, were woefully deficient in guns, transport and essential services and the tanks of Ariete (Italian M13s) inspired no confidence either among their users or their German associates. The arrival of the Italian Savona Division in the autumn, however, enabled the frontier positions to be held in strength with less call on German resources.
The positional infantry at Tobruk8 and on the frontier was in its current form incapable of mobile operations and not really suitable for other than defensive fighting even in static warfare, the Italians particularly so. Two of the Italian divisions, indeed, were not intended for anything more: Brescia in the western sector of the Tobruk front and Savona in the frontier area. The other three
Italian divisions besieging Tobruk, Trento, Pavia and Bologna, were to be motorised when equipment came to hand; but at the moment Ariete and Trieste had priority and were still much below establishment. Africa Division had some of its supporting weapons motorised; but though intended as the spearhead of the assault on Tobruk, it was an odd assortment of units in varying degrees of preparedness. Its infantry consisted of 155 Infantry Regiment of three battalions, which had been arriving since the beginning of June and was still incomplete and very short of transport, 361 Africa Regiment of two battalions (at least one of which was of former French Foreign Legionnaires) whose transport and heavy equipment was rusting in Naples awaiting shipment, and two under-strength battalions detached from regiments now serving in Russia, III Battalion of 347 Infantry Regiment and III Battalion, 255 Infantry Regiment. By mid-November the divisional commander, Major-General Sümmermann, still had only a skeleton staff and a few vehicles, he was at loggerheads with Bologna about details of the relief, and his war diary viewed the early stages of CRUSADER with understandable alarm. Africa Regiment, on the escarpment east of Sidi Rezegh, still had no anti-tank weapons at all. The Sollum Front (as the Germans called it) was in rather better condition. Shortage of anti-tank mines had entailed a last-minute rush to complete the all-round defences of the southern strongpoints, ‘Frongia’ and ‘Sidi Omar’. But the deep minefields from there to Halfaya made a formidable barrier, covered by the strongpoints of ‘Cova’, ‘d’Avanca’, ‘Cirener’, ‘Faltenbache’9 and Halfaya, with Italian garrisons reinforced by Oasis Companies or, in the case of Halfaya, by a battalion of 104 Infantry Regiment and supported by powerful German 88-millimetre or Italian 75-millimetre HAA guns in anti-tank roles. Behind this line was a minor position at Sollum, held by another Oasis Company, and the strong and well-manned defences of Bardia. From ‘Cirener’ to Sidi Omar was designated West Sector and came under Major-General de Giorgis of Savona Division, with headquarters at Bir Ghirba; but ‘Faltenbache’ and Halfaya were lumped, with Sollum, under Major-General Schmitt in Bardia as East Sector, though the bulk of the troops in both cases were Italian. The whole front came directly under Panzer Group command, together with 21 Panzer Division and two German reconnaissance units, for quick action in case the British did attack while the Tobruk project
was under way. This in turn led to another division of responsibilities between the German reconnaissance troops and those of the Italian Mobile Corps under Gambara, complicated by the fact that the dividing line between the two groups ran diagonally across the line of advance selected for 30 Corps.
The Germans nevertheless possessed one advantage which, in the event, almost outweighed all their disabilities: their anti-tank guns and tactics outclassed those of the British. In the long stalemate which followed BREVITY and BATTLEAXE (when these German weapons were introduced) the British neglected to find a way of overcoming this handicap.
One solution, the introduction of a more powerful tank and anti-tank gun, the 6-pounder, was denied them; for it was only just going into production after much delay.10 The 2-pounder on which the desert forces had to continue to rely had only armour-piercing ammunition (solid shot) and as a tank gun was therefore ‘reserved for penetrating armour’,11 which restricted its role and narrowed the tactics of the British armour. With the larger gun and HE ammunition tank crews could have retaliated against the guns which plagued them, including the 88s. As an anti-tank gun, moreover, the 6-pounder would greatly have increased the value of the infantry of Eighth Army, particularly in the eyes of those who believed that ‘tank units were capable of winning an action without the assistance of other arms’.12 As a makeshift a few 75-millimetre guns with ‘platforms’ like those of the 25-pounder were commissioned as anti-tank guns (one four-gun troop per battery in the anti-tank batteries of the New Zealand and South African Divisions), slightly narrowing the gap in performance between the British and German equipments. To complicate the picture, a few Pzkw IIIs were fitted with reinforcing plates which made them almost invulnerable to the 2-pounder except on the sides and these encouraged the myth that the British tanks were outgunned. Such were the tactical consequences of a decision, taken when France fell, to carry on making 2-pounders rather than to slow up production drastically by changing over to 6-pounders. Because of this decision, correct though it might then have been, Eighth Army had to face German formations which were much superior in anti-tank strength.
The Germans could therefore deploy detached elements – reconnaissance troops, for example, and flank and rear-guards –
with relatively little worry that they might be overrun by tanks. This was indeed an advantage; for on the British side there was no such assurance. The ‘go it alone’ British tank enthusiasts (an influential minority in the RAC) were thereby reinforced in their views, and when things went wrong for them they blamed their tanks and not their tactics. At the end of CRUSADER Auchinleck remarked to his Army Commander that ‘British soldiers with inferior tools have often beaten ... enemies much better equipped than they were in the past, and they will do it again if properly led.’13 In the present case, however, the inequalities in equipment were not great, except in anti-tank guns.
Two partial remedies of even this deficiency were already at hand: in the 25-pounder the British had a gun well-adapted to the task of neutralising the German 88s, a clumsy and vulnerable weapon in its current form, and to a lesser extent the 50-millimetre anti-tank gun;14 and in anti-tank mines the infantry had one means of holding tanks off their positions, as the Tobruk garrison had long since demonstrated. The first, however, entailed careful tactics for locating anti-tank guns and combining field guns and tanks in counter-measures, and no such tactics had been developed. As a poor alternative it was laid down that field guns should, whenever possible, take up positions from which they could engage tanks over open sights in an anti-tank role, a task which conflicted with the primary field role and for which in any case the 25-pounder was not well suited. As to the second, it ran contrary to the doctrine that ground had no tactical significance, and the fact that anti-tank mines could be lifted as quickly as they could be laid made no impression, leaving infantry formations with the desperate alternatives of a do-or-die action with field guns blazing away over open sights or ignominious flight.
Eighth Army was badly organised to meet this deficiency. The armoured corps which was to fight the crucial battle against enemy tanks had far fewer field and anti-tank guns than 13 Corps and had no heavily armoured I tanks at all. The British I tank Mark II, the heaviest tank in the desert, had long since acquired a reputation among the Germans and Italians of being invulnerable to anti-tank fire except at short ranges, and the damage it inflicted on 8 Panzer Regiment on 16 June was still fresh in the minds of men of 15 Panzer Division. Throughout CRUSADER the Germans were constantly reporting the presence of the much feared ‘Mark II’ (as they called the Matilda); it had become a bogey in much the same way that
the Pzkw IV (the ‘Mark IV’) played on the minds of British troops. But its low speed and short radius of action were deemed serious disabilities in the armoured regiments, which felt themselves well rid of the Matildas when these were allotted exclusively to 13 Corps and the Tobruk garrison. The Valentines, which had a longer radius of action than the Matildas but were less heavily armoured and were vulnerable in their suspensions, were slightly less unwelcome among the cruiser tanks and they, too, were excluded from the armoured corps. The Germans thought otherwise, for it was a captured Matilda which led 8 Panzer Regiment, for example, in the attack on Belhamed on 1 December. After disaster struck the British armour in the early days of CRUSADER there were loud and long complaints of serious disparities in armour and armament between the British and German tanks, which illustrates that even after the event it was not realised that the most dangerous adversary of the British tank was the German anti-tank gun.