Chapter 9: Rommel’s Battle Plans
WHEN the attack on the frontier defences revealed that Eighth Army was withdrawing to Matruh, Rommel, now a field marshal as a reward for his recent prowess, ordered ‘ruthless pursuit.’ Afrika Korps and 90 Light Division were given as their objective for 24 June the general area south-east of Sidi Barrani, some 60 miles east of the frontier and 35 to 40 miles from the regrouping areas after the attack on the frontier defences.
Afrika Korps’ orders to 21 Panzer Division illustrate the emphasis placed on speed, with the object of overtaking Eighth Army and denying it time to reorganise at Matruh. Shortly after starting the pursuit, the division reported that it had only one-third of a fuel unit as the fuel supply columns had not come up.1 Korps Headquarters promptly responded with the order: ‘Division will advance in such a manner that shortage of fuel will not impair its fighting power. Set yourself an interim target you can reach. There you will form a pursuit group composed of all weapons. This group will be supplied with all the fuel still in the division. Division will advance after refuelling.’2 Next day 21 Panzer was further advised that, if it was short of fuel, it must push forward at least parts of the division.
For the advance the Italian XXI Infantry Corps, partly motorised, was placed on the coast road and was followed by X Italian Infantry Corps which also had a motorised component. The Germans had the inland route on top of the escarpment, with 90 Light Division on their left flank in contact with the Italians, and 21 Division was south of the railway. The latter was followed by 15 Panzer Division. Still further in rear came the Italian XX Corps, comprising Ariete and Littorio Armoured Divisions and Trieste Motorised Division. The whole were grouped under the title Panzerarmee Afrika.
The enemy knew at this stage that the New Zealand Division had returned to the desert but his intelligence service erred concerning the dispositions of Eighth Army. It placed ‘2 NZ Div in Mersa
Matruh along the Siwa track, next to it 10 Ind Div and 1 South African Div, and on the southern flank 7 Armd Div. In the area Garawla and south probably the remains of 50 British and 1 Armd Divs.’3
Owing to lack of fuel, Afrika Korps ( 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions) could not pursue at the speed demanded and by the evening of 24 June was only in the area south-east of El Hamra. The 21st Panzer, however, had formed and pushed forward a pursuit group. This group appears to have been responsible for a further severe blow suffered by 3 Indian Motor Brigade of the covering force. The brigade was caught off balance near Sofafi and lost most of its field and anti-tank guns. The best progress was made by 90 Light Division whose reconnaissance units reached the area south-east of Sidi Barrani by nightfall. On the coast road, motorised units of XXI Corps got as far as six miles from Sidi Barrani.
Panzerarmee’s daily report for 24 June had a note of regret that, in spite of the rapid advance, ‘it had not been possible to bring the enemy’s main body to battle.’ But the headquarters consoled itself with the thought that ‘a deep penetration had been made into the west Egyptian area without appreciable loss’ and that ‘the enemy divisions in Matruh had been denied the time for the organisation of the defence.’
Vigorous reconnaissance by Eighth Army’s covering force was reported by Panzerarmee on 25 June, but the numerous skirmishes between advanced and rear guards did not impede the march of the enemy’s main body. Most of the enemy’s difficulties were created by Royal Air Force bombing and by petrol shortages due to lack of supply vehicles. Panzerarmee made light of the bombing, reporting that, generally speaking, the losses suffered were inconsiderable. Most of the divisions, however, were more explicit with details of supply columns destroyed or dispersed. For example, 21 Panzer Division reported that because a supply column had been dispersed, the division had been reduced to half a fuel unit, or enough for little more than 30 miles. Continuous bombing attacks were reported by 90 Light Division, whose diary for 25 June has the ironic entry: ‘At 0915 hours, welcomed with great joy, the first German fighters appear.’
Concurrently, indirect but deadly pressure was being applied against Panzerarmee by the Royal Air Force in another part of the theatre. Aided by the withdrawal of considerable units of the German Air Force from Italy and Sicily for a new offensive in Russia, the British temporarily recovered air supremacy over the Central Mediterranean. Vice-Admiral Weichold noted an immediate
result. In June, supplies to the German forces in North Africa dropped to barely 5000 tons, compared with 34,000 tons in May. Against 2000 vehicles delivered in May, only 400 got through in June.
‘Once again the threatening monster of reduced supplies for Africa loomed on the horizon,’ Weichold laments in his essay. ‘While at the front the soldiers of Afrika Korps fought and conquered, far from the decisive area of the land fighting the British were systematically throttling the supplies of the German-Italian Panzerarmee.’ Weichold regarded this revived Royal Air Force activity over his domain as a shrewd and timely British counterstroke to the defeat in North Africa.
There was another ominous cloud on Rommel’s horizon as he closed on Matruh. When, after Tobruk, he had advised Rome that his supply vehicle situation was ‘very critical’, he had asked for more trucks and ‘continuation and reinforcement of the German naval protective forces in North Africa.’ A steady flow of munitions and equipment from Italy was vital. It was equally essential in Panzerarmee’s march to Cairo and Suez that the strain on land transport should be relieved by lighters operating between the small ports of Cyrenaica and Egypt.
On 25 June Rommel reported to Rome that he had been advised by German naval headquarters that it was intended to remove the German naval forces soon for special duty. He asked that all these, but especially the supply lighters, should be left with him ‘at least for the duration of the operations because, if they are lost, all sea transport east of Benghazi will be stopped and the supplying of Panzerarmee in its present area will become impossible.’
This was probably the first hint Rommel received that the German Supreme Command did not intend to exploit his success to the full. His reflections on the North African campaigns4 suggest that he anticipated difficulties with the Italian supply authorities, but that ‘All that was wanted was a man real personality to deal with these questions in Rome, someone with the authority and drive to tackle the problems involved.’ Rommel could not believe that the German Supreme Command would not see the glittering prizes awaiting Panzerarmee and fail to give his forces every help in seizing them. His opponents in the field had similar views.
If Rommel had cause to doubt the future, he did not check the speed of Panzerarmee’s advance or revise his administrative arrangements. On 25 June he issued orders designed to convert the pursuit without pause into a decisive battle. His plan, simple and elastic
enough to cope with the unknown, was based on the belief that ‘the beaten enemy has withdrawn with what remains of his forces into Matruh which he intends to defend stubbornly with a New Zealand Division and the remainder of his troops, as has been learned from captured enemy documents.’5
In the north, on Panzerarmee’s left flank, the Italian X and XXI Corps were ordered to attack the fortress perimeter defences from the west and south-west. The 90th Light Division was instructed to cross the Siwa road midway between Charing Cross and the inland escarpment and advance to Minqar Abu Gabr. East of that height, the division was to turn north-east and find the quickest route down the coastal escarpment to cut the main road about Garawla. Thus the garrison of the fortress would be encircled.
Afrika Korps, commanded by Lieutenant-General W. Nehring, was ordered to move on 90 Light Division’s right on and below the inland escarpment. The Korps placed 21 Panzer Division below the escarpment with Bir Shineina, east of the Khalda track, as its objective. The 15th Panzer Division was to climb the escarpment about the Siwa road and move along the top to Bir Abu Shayit, a well which, unknown to Panzerarmee, was to be included in the New Zealand area at Minqar Qaim.
The Italian XX Corps, which had been following Afrika Korps from the frontier, was brought forward and ordered to have two divisions, Ariete and Trieste, in line on the inland escarpment three to four miles west of Kanayis and Sidi Husein ready to attack by five o’clock the next afternoon. The corps was thus placed on Panzerarmee’s right flank and was instructed to contain the British forces on the escarpment by infantry attacks and heavy artillery fire. It was also to be ready to follow Afrika Korps, at first with elements and later with its main body. As a further guard on the right flank, 3 Reconnaissance Unit was instructed to reconnoitre to the southeast of the escarpment. Littorio Armoured Division was taken from XX Corps into army reserve under orders to fill its tanks and be prepared to exploit the breakthrough.
The plan was not bold in the sense Rommel used the term. Nevertheless, it complied with the core of his definition of a bold operation in that, in case of failure, he would be left ‘with sufficient forces in hand to be able to cope with any situation.’6 As will be seen, he had sufficient forces in hand to cope with the situation when 1 Armoured and the New Zealand Divisions were unexpectedly encountered on the inland escarpment.