Chapter 13: The Consequences of the German Attack on Russia
See Maps 1 and 23
On 22nd June the Germans attacked the Russian front in great strength. The British Chiefs of Staff had for a long time thought that this might happen, for German relations with Soviet Russia were uneasy, to say the least of it, and although Germany was known to dislike the idea of war on two fronts she was at present quite secure in the west because the British were far too weak to undertake a serious offensive. But it had become quite clear that invasion of the United Kingdom was likely to be a costly business for the Germans, so there was something to be said for settling quickly with Russia, and seizing the corn of the Ukraine and the oil of the Caucasus: then, free from any disquieting thoughts about a large Russian army and air force intact in the east, Germany could turn her whole strength against the United Kingdom. At one time it had seemed possible that the capture of Gibraltar might be contemplated, seeing that this would handicap the British severely in the Mediterranean and also in the Atlantic, which in turn would have its effect upon their capacity to resist invasion at home.
Early in March German troops were known to be moving towards the Soviet frontier in occupied Poland, and it looked as if Germany might intend to attack the USSR during the summer, or alternatively as if she meant to stand no Russian interference with her own plans for south-east Europe. Troop movements continued to be reported during April, and during May the attacks by the German air force against Malta and the United Kingdom and shipping in the Atlantic began to fall off appreciably, indicating that the Luftwaffe was turning elsewhere. Rumours were rife; one of them was that Rumania was likely to join with Germany in attacking Soviet Russia. Meanwhile the Germans continued with their long-term preparations for the invasion of the British Isles and held practices in landing operations. By the end of May, however, there were thought to be something like 100 German divisions in East Prussia, Poland, and Rumania, and the Rumanian armed forces had been mobilized.1 It appeared to the
British Chiefs of Staff that the preparations for an attack on Russia were so complete that they could not be mere bluff. On 31st May they warned the Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East that the large concentration of German land and air forces probably meant that concessions were shortly to be demanded of the Russians and that if they were refused the Germans would march. But without the formality of any ultimatum the attack began early in the morning of 22nd June.
That evening Mr. Churchill broadcast to the nation and made the British position clear. He described the German attack on Russia as being no more than a prelude to an attempted invasion of the British isles. The Germans were trying to do what they had done so often before, namely, to destroy their enemies one by one. The Russian danger was therefore our danger. We should give to the Russians whatever help we could.
In the Middle East the danger was even more pressing, for the attack on Russia might be the first move in a general south-easterly advance. The Germans were obviously heavily committed, and would be unlikely to undertake any other major offensive for the present, at any rate by land. But the question was: how long would Russia last? If she collapsed there would be large German forces readily available for exploitation to the south-east, and the Middle East base would then become liable to attack from a new direction. For more than a year this threat from the north was constantly in the minds of the Commanders-in-Chief. Only if this is realized can many of their decisions be properly understood. We know now that the threat never materialized, but it was not safe for them to assume that it never would.
The security of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria might be threatened from the direction of the Caucasus and Persia, or through Anatolia towards Syria, or both. If there was a very early Russian collapse, the Germans might reach the Caucasus by mid-August, but poor road and railway communications would delay them so much that even if Persia offered no resistance they could hardly be in a position to operate against Iraq, except from the air, before April 1942. Α threat to Syria through Anatolia could occur earlier than this if the Germans were able to disengage forces from the Russian front in August, and against a strong attack it was doubtful if Syria and the Mosul area of Iraq could be defended. The Chiefs of Staff considered that the first British object should be to secure the Anglo-iranian oilfields and the Abadan refinery, for their loss would make it very difficult indeed—and perhaps impossible—to carry on the war in the Middle East. The country round Mosul, in the north of Iraq, would be useful for air bases from which to bomb the Caucasus, and at all events the oil of the north Iraq oilfields should be denied to the enemy. Basra was a potential base for air reinforcements to the Middle East and a staging point on the air route to India; it was also the port for the
land route between the Persian Gulf and Egypt. For all these reasons the security of Basra and of its sea communications was essential. The present position was that India was preparing the Basra area as a base for three divisions. On 1st September the Chiefs of Staff suggested that this figure should be raised to ten divisions and thirty air squadrons.
At about the same time the Chiefs of Staff issued a review of the whole strategic situation which is of great interest in retrospect, for although it was written before the entry of Japan and the United States into the war, and although the fate of Russia was in the balance, it shows very clearly that the British had at least got a plan, even though they had not as yet the means to carry it through. The vital consideration, they said, was to ensure the security of the United Kingdom and of our sea communications, while we built up and deployed the forces for a subsequent offensive. Imports could not be allowed to fall any lower, and indeed would have to be increased, if a powerful offensive against the Germans was eventually to be undertaken. It was expected that, by the summer of 1942, these purposes would be greatly helped by the results of the big shipbuilding programme which the United States had just begun. The principal shortage at home was of armoured formations, but the prolongation of Russian resistance meant that the threat of invasion had receded; it might therefore be safe to release more forces from the United Kingdom for tasks overseas, if they could be replaced for certain in time for the next invasion season. The loss of our position in the Middle East would be a military calamity of the first magnitude, for if the enemy gained access to the Indian Ocean this would be disastrous to our vital communications to the East. Our present positions afforded depth to the north of the shores of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, and by holding on we could extend the German forces while we harassed their communications and took toll of Axis shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. ‘In the future as Axis power declines we shall have a base from which we can launch offensive operations against North Africa, and eventually even against Europe through Turkey or Sicily’.
The Chiefs of Staff therefore intended that the Germans should be made to fight for every inch of the way. They had every hope that our position in the Middle East could be maintained. The strength and duration of Russian resistance were still in doubt; if successfully continued it would have a profound effect upon our immediate prospects but not upon our fundamental strategy, for even if the Russians were able to maintain an eastern front the German forces in the west were too strong for the British to overthrow. Consequently it would be necessary to attack German economy, morale, and supplies, on which their war machine depended, before the final object of returning to the Continent and occupying German territory could be attained.
The methods of attack would be blockade, bombing, and subversive activities. The main effort in the final phase would be developed from a landing on the northern coast of France with the aid of Patriot forces secretly armed beforehand.
The Commanders-in-Chief were thus left in no doubt of the continued importance of the Middle East position to the Allied war effort, and it is no wonder that the new threat from the north caused them great anxiety. In the large programme of road and rail development already in hand in the Middle East a high priority had now to be given to the improvement of communications in Syria and to the construction of a railway connecting Syria to Palestine. At the same time General Wavell, now Commander-in-Chief, India, began work on expanding the base at Basra to maintain the large forces now contemplated. He, with his recent experience of building a base in the Canal zone, found the prospect extremely unpromising. The estimated daily tonnage to be unloaded at Iraqi ports was 8,000, or more than twice their present capacity. It would be necessary to double the railway from Basra to Baghdad and provide large numbers of additional locomotives and wagons. The extra track could only partly be found by tearing up Indian lines. Transportation, base and line-of-communication units would be required, and these would compete with those for the Middle East and Malaya. In short, General Wavell thought that it would be much more realistic to reduce the number of divisions from ten to six. The Chiefs of Staff stuck to their proposal, however, and the scheme was sanctioned by the Prime Minister on 10th September. It then became India’s responsibility to implement it.
Meanwhile, the difficult question of the command of the land forces in Iraq had arisen again. It will be remembered that during the time of the revolt in Iraq the Indian troops had been placed under the Middle East, because effective support for northern Iraq could be sent only from Palestine and because the air operations were all controlled by the Middle East. The command of the land forces had reverted to India on 29th June. In August the Chiefs of Staff reconsidered the matter, having in mind the possibility of a German attack through Anatolia. This would be opposed by troops from both Syria and Iraq, so that there should, at any rate at first, be a single commander for both areas. Moreover this attack might well be made simultaneously with one in the Western Desert, and a crucial decision might have to be made as to the use of the troops in reserve. Finally the advantage of giving to the land and air Commanders-in-Chief more or less coincident areas of responsibility was as great as ever.
On the other hand, it might be necessary to retreat from Syria and northern Iraq, in which case the lines of communication running to Basra and Egypt would diverge. The Commander-in-Chief, India, in cooperation with the naval Commander-in-Chief, East Indies, would
be better able than the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, to control the operations based on the Persian Gulf. Secondly, if the enemy advanced through Persia, and operations were under the Middle East, the Command would be stretched to an almost impossible extent. The strongest argument, perhaps, was that the bulk of the troops for Iraq were provided by India and the handing over of the responsibility for them might have a bad effect on India’s war effort, especially as informed opinion in India was well aware of the bearing that the integrity of Iraq had upon India’s security.
The Chiefs of Staff came to the conclusion that for the present it would be best to leave the division of responsibility as it was. Nevertheless they accepted as a principle that an immediate threat of an enemy advance into Northern Iraq and Syria would require the command of all land forces in those areas to be vested in the Commander-in-Chief, Middle East. The fact that General Auchinleck had so recently been Commander-in-Chief, India, would make things easier. This arrangement held good for the rest of 1941.
In all these plans and preparations a great deal obviously depended on the attitude of Turkey. Her territory contained the best natural position for defence against a German advance, but an invitation from the Turks at the last minute to move into their country, without the opportunity of previous reconnaissance and of proper preparation, would be a very doubtful advantage. If, on the other hand, the Allied forces did not move in at all, it would probably be necessary for them to withdraw from north Syria and north Iraq owing to the lack of enough armoured troops to meet the Germans in the open country. This would mean giving up an area which contained many air bases and could provide many more. For a little while too it seemed as if a new factor in Anglo-Turkish relations had been introduced, for on 18th June, only four days before the Germans attacked the Russians, Turkey and Germany signed a Treaty of Friendship and Non-Aggression. A week later it was ratified, but the Turkish Foreign Minister announced that Turkey’s relations with the United Kingdom would be unaffected. By the end of July Syria had passed into Allied control, the German attack had made great progress towards Moscow, and the Turks, feeling that they might well be the next victims, and knowing how much value to place on the new treaty, expressed a wish for secret staff talks with the British. The Chiefs of Staff welcomed this approach and gave the Commanders-in-Chief the general line they were to take.
The talks were to have been held in Cyprus, but early in August there was a hitch, for the news had leaked to the Germans, and the Turks became unwilling to send their representatives out of Turkey. The status of the talks was then whittled down to an exchange of military information in Ankara between the British Attachés and the
Turkish staffs. By the middle of September some progress had been made; it was agreed that no German attack was likely before spring 1942 and the Turks accepted the proposal that preparations to receive British forces should be begun. If Turkey were attacked the British offered to send her four infantry divisions and four fighter squadrons, and in addition, but subject to the situation in Cyrenaica, one armoured brigade, two heavy and seven medium bomber squadrons, three army cooperation squadrons and four more fighter squadrons. Many of the subjects for discussion followed the usual lines: the British insisted on the importance of reconnoitring and improving ports, base areas, and communications generally, and on the siting and development of airfields; while the Turks asked for the delivery of war materials and equipment, especially anti-aircraft, to be hastened.
As if there were not distractions enough for the Commanders-in-Chief in India and the Middle East, a new storm-centre now arose in Persia. As early as 1939 there were known to be about three thousand German nationals in Persia and throughout the latter part of 1940 the British Minister in Teheran had drawn attention to the danger from this potential fifth column. More Germans entered Persia after the British occupation of Iraq in May 1941 and many of them obtained important positions on the railways and in Government service. This meant that the vital supply line from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian, by which it was hoped to send material aid to the Russians, was in danger of being interrupted and might well be closed altogether. Both General Auchinleck and General Wavell expressed themselves strongly in favour of taking a very firm line with the Persian Government, and when it became clear that the Persians would not agree to expel these Germans it was decided in London to concert action with the Russians. A joint Anglo-Soviet Note was accordingly presented on 17th August and drew an unsatisfactory reply. A few days later the Chiefs of Staff ordered General Wavell—who, as Commander-in-Chief in India, was responsible for Persia and Iraq—to take military action in order to bring pressure to bear on the Persian Government. He was first to occupy the oilfields at Ahwaz, near the head of the Persian Gulf, and at Khanikin to the north-east of Baghdad. With the help of the Russians he was then to obtain control of the communications through the country. The operations were directed by Lieut.-General E. P. Quinan, commanding the troops in Iraq, and began on 25th August.
The occupation of the southern oilfield area was carried out by the 8th Indian Division with little opposition. Ships of the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy, and Royal Indian Navy cooperated, and of the five German and three Italian merchant ships which had
long been sheltering at Bandar Shahpur all but one, which was wrecked by her crew, were captured. In the north, troops of the 10th Indian Division, released for the purpose from north-eastern Syria, and the 2nd Indian and 9th (British) Armoured Brigades advanced eighty miles into Persia to Shahabad. These brigades were in fact motorized and not armoured; but the 2nd Brigade had one British regiment of light tanks. Seven squadrons of the Royal Air Force under Air Vice-Marshal D’Albiac cooperated by reconnaissance and by a show of force; only at one point was it necessary for them to make an attack. On 28th August all resistance ceased; the Persian Government fell; the Shah abdicated in favour of his son, who announced the intention of his Government to cooperate with Great Britain and Russia. Meanwhile the 5th Indian Division, from the Western Desert, had been moved across to Iraq in case of need and the 6th Division had been put in readiness to follow. On 17th September British and Russian forces entered Teheran.
The next task was to develop the communications between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian along which war material would be sent to the Russians. Owing to the very difficult nature of the country, and the low capacity of the trans-Persian railway, this was a very formidable addition to the administrative development to which India was already committed in order to maintain forces in Iraq to face a German invasion from the north. It meant yet another call on transportation materials of all kinds, for which, as has been seen, there was already a great need elsewhere. It was not until American help on a large scale became available for the Persian Gulf area that this route of supply to Russia began to deliver large quantities of war materials.
When the new Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Auchinleck, arrived from India at the end of June to take up his duties, he was immediately faced with a big decision, fairly and squarely put to him by the Prime Minister. It was for him to decide, wrote Mr. Churchill, whether to renew the offensive in the Western Desert, and, if so, when. He was to have especial regard to the temporary German preoccupation with their invasion of Russia, and to the situation at Tobruk and the process of enemy reinforcement of Libya. He was to consider the vexatious dangers that might follow any flagging of the operations in Syria and would appreciate the need for a decision on one or both of these fronts. He would naturally be impressed by the urgency of these issues and was to state his views as early as possible. General Auchinleck replied that he fully realized the critical nature of the problem and his view was that no further offensive in the Western Desert should be contemplated until the Middle East base was secure,
which meant that the occupation and consolidation of Syria and Iraq was of first importance and that Cyprus must be adequately defended against all forms of attack.
There was no conflict of opinion over the need to secure the base but it soon became clear that there was a fundamental difference over the timing of a possible offensive. The Defence Committee in London attached the greatest importance to seizing the initiative in the Western Desert and making the Germans fight there while they were still heavily involved in Russia. The Commanders-in-Chief, on the other hand, considered that the object should be to eliminate the enemy from North Africa entirely, and that they would not have the necessary trained forces for even the first stage, which would be the capture of Cyrenaica, before the end of the year. Having failed to resolve this difference by telegram, the Chiefs of Staff decided to ask General Auchinleck to go to London and talk the matter over. Accompanied by Air Marshal Tedder, he arrived by air on 29th July.
The Defence Committee thought that the case for taking some form of action quickly was very strong. Politically it was undesirable that the Russians should be able to say that they had won the war while we looked on. If they failed, and were beaten, not only should we have lost the chance of attacking while the enemy opposing us was comparatively weak but we should be accused—and rightly—of having done nothing to help the Russians. Our information was that very few German reinforcements were reaching Libya, and there were signs that our attacks on the ports and sea routes were causing the enemy much anxiety and loss. If we could obtain use of the Cyrenaican airfields these attacks could be made in much greater strength, and the enemy’s forces in Libya might wither away altogether. At the same time shore-based fighter cover for our own Fleet would be improved, which would mean that it would be less difficult to run supplies to Malta, and it was necessary above all to be able to continue to use Malta as a base for attacking the enemy’s sea communications.
As for the timing, it seemed that there was no likelihood of a threat from the north by land before the middle of September at the earliest. Until then the British could probably count on having a decided superiority in the air, although a Russian collapse would soon bring about a change. There were in the Middle East 500 or so tanks—cruisers, infantry tanks, and American Stuarts—and it would be difficult in the near future to get any more of these except Stuarts. The forces in the United Kingdom would have to be at concert pitch to face an invasion from September onwards, and the despatch of any considerable number of cruiser tanks, which could only come from there, would need very serious consideration. Moreover, they would have to go round the Cape, for it was impossible to repeat TIGER through the Mediterranean now that the German Air Force was
established in Crete. Finally, there was Tobruk—which was undoubtedly a thorn in the enemy’s side; the capture of this place seemed to be an indispensable preliminary to any serious invasion of Egypt. But Tobruk was proving costly in shipping, and what its value as an offensive base would be in two months’ time it was impossible to foretell. The only sure conclusion was that the sooner an offensive from Egypt into Cyrenaica could be begun the better chance would there be that the forces in Tobruk would be able to take an active part by keeping the enemy engaged there. In short, it seemed that the general position could not become any better after the middle of September, and indeed it might well become worse.
The answer given to these arguments was that what was desirable and what was possible were two very different things. There was now stalemate in the Western Desert, for neither side had the preponderance necessary for a successful offensive. Mere numbers of men were not enough; the decisive factor in desert fighting would be the armour. Infantry divisions had their uses, but only armoured divisions could deliver a major blow. The enemy had two modified German armoured divisions, one partially armoured Italian division of doubtful value, one Italian motorized division, and four infantry divisions. General Auchinleck considered that he would require at least two and preferably three fully equipped and trained armoured divisions if he was to retake the whole of Cyrenaica. At present he had one—the 7th; the other, the 2nd, had ceased to exist after the retreats from Greece and Benghazi. Apart from light tanks, which were of no fighting value against the Germans, he had indeed over 500 tanks, but half of these were of the heavy infantry type which were not suitable for the fight with the enemy’s armour. They were too slow; their radius of action was too short; and their radio was not designed for the distances over which armoured encounters took place. For these reasons the ‘I’ tanks would have to be withdrawn from the 7th Armoured Division, leaving it with one armoured brigade of British cruisers and a second brigade (the 4th) for which there were not enough British cruisers and which would gradually be equipped with American Stuarts. They would still be below strength by the end of September.
The speed and mechanical reliability of the Stuart had made a favourable impression, but its particular type of gun ammunition was scarce, and it was not suitable for desert fighting as it stood. Many modifications had been found necessary and this was delaying its arrival in the hands of the troops, to whom it was, of course, quite unfamiliar. The extra work thrown on to the workshops competed with the programme of current repairs and overhauls, which was already so formidable that General Auchinleck estimated that a reserve of about 50% was necessary to cover tanks in workshops and to provide a pool immediately available to replace casualties.
The process of changing over from one type of tank to an entirely different one meant a further heavy commitment for training, complicated by the need to maintain a reasonable state of readiness in case the enemy should decide to test our strength. In General Auchinleck’s opinion the importance of training could hardly be overstated. Operation BATTLEAXE had shown that the present standard was not high enough; the result was plain to see and the mistake ought not to be repeated. The problem was not confined to training the units which make up an armoured division—a formidable task in itself—but each brigade, and the division itself, needed to be trained and practised as a whole. By the end of September there would not be a single completely equipped and trained armoured division; by mid-October there would be one, and, in addition, one army tank brigade of ‘I’ tanks. (it may be mentioned here that the Germans were also struck by the poor standard of the British training and commented upon it frequently.)
After this valuable exchange of opinions the Defence Committee decided to send out the 22nd Armoured Brigade (of the 1st Armoured Division) from the United Kingdom as soon as possible. This brigade had of course been trained in an anti-invasion role and would require a certain amount of preparation on arrival—in desert navigation, for instance. The British cruisers with which it was equipped would need a few alterations to fit them for local conditions. All this would take time, but it was hoped that the brigade would reach Egypt about the middle of September and be ready for action by 1st November. In the event, its convoy did not arrive until 4th October.
See also Map 3
The report of the visiting General Paulus, made on 12th May, had confirmed the view already held by the Italian High Command that no further advance in North Africa ought to be attempted until the supply arrangements had been put on a satisfactory footing. This was largely a matter of obtaining greater security for the sea routes, and with this end in view each of the Axis partners had suggested steps which might profitably be taken by the other. The Germans proposed that more Italian naval and air forces should be used to protect the coastal areas, and that Italian submarines should be withdrawn from the Atlantic to reinforce the Mediterranean. The Italians, on the other hand, suggested that after the mainland of Greece had been conquered the German Fliegerkorps X should be further used for reinforcing North Africa. The Germans, however, had other ideas for Fliegerkorps X, and suggested that the best thing would be for the Italians to capture Malta. The Italians thought that this would be very difficult and proposed instead that the Germans should capture the Suez Canal
through Turkey—a project in which Mussolini saw many advantages.
On 2nd June the two Dictators met on the Brenner at Hitler’s request, as he wished to inform Mussolini about the negotiations with the French. The opportunity was taken for Field-Marshal Keitel, the Chief of OKW, to discuss military matters with General Cavallero, the Chief of Staff of the Italian Armed Forces. Field-Marshal Keitel explained how the German intention to give effective aid to Iraq had been frustrated by the collapse of the will of the Iraqis to defend themselves; the German forces had now been withdrawn. Orders had been sent for the Germans in Syria to be withdrawn also, in order to remove any pretext for a British attack, as it was to the advantage of the Axis that Syria should not fall into British hands. The key to the defence of Syria was the island of Cyprus, whose capture would have a large influence upon the command of the Eastern Mediterranean. But it must be done quickly, because the British would soon ensure that the island’s defences were strengthened. At present the Germans could not undertake to capture it because the parachute and airborne forces used at Crete had suffered such losses that they needed to be refitted. Could not the Italians make a landing from fast warships supported by the Luftwaffe ? General Cavallero agreed to consider the suggestion, but nothing came of it.
Turning to North Africa the two Chiefs of Staff were agreed that in order to build up the necessary stocks for an offensive it was essential to increase the capacity of the sea routes and to strengthen the air defences. The Italians were anxious to obtain the use of the port of Tunis, but Field-Marshal Keitel pointed out that it was advisable for all demands on the French to be made by the Germans, and he did not think that they would agree to the thin end of an Italian wedge being inserted at Tunis. It was too reminiscent of the Italian pre-war claims. However, the French had provisionally agreed that Bizerta might be used for unloading cargoes, and it was hoped that French vehicles might be provided for clearing them.
The two Chiefs had to admit that no offensive against Egypt could begin before the autumn. General Cavallero pleaded that the Italian forces were seriously depleted and should be built up, ready for any eventuality, but Field-Marshal Keitel pointed out that it was difficult enough to supply those troops that were already there, and that the number of mouths must therefore be kept to a minimum. The experience of the 5th Light Division had been that the quality of a division, the type and number of its weapons, and the sufficiency of its supplies counted more than numbers of men. It was necessary to free the armoured divisions for mobile action, for this was the only way in which the Sollum area could be held. A suitable force for the offensive might be the two German armoured divisions, with the Ariete and the Trento Divisions, which must be brought up to strength. Two or three
motorized divisions would be needed in addition, as well as troops for safeguarding the lines of communication. A strong air force, plenty of anti-aircraft artillery, and ample fuel, ammunition and supplies were necessary. Fliegerkorps X had best continue to Operate from Crete.
It was agreed that the fighter, anti-aircraft and coastal defences in North Africa should be strengthened, and that more medium and heavy artillery should be sent over for use against Tobruk. Benghazi harbour was to be restored to its full capacity as quickly as possible and special provision made for its defence against attack by air or sea. As an experiment, single ships would be sent from Bari and Brindisi direct to Benghazi; if this proved successful it was proposed to use Piraeus as a port of departure as soon as rail traffic to Greece could be resumed.
It is appropriate here to take notice of some of the problems of organization which faced the Italian and German High Commands at about this time and the difficulty they were experiencing in working together. The Italians had been labouring under a system in which Mussolini was Head of the Government, Duce of Fascism, Supreme Commander, Minister of War, Minister of Marine and Minister of the Air Force. Under him were the three Service Chiefs of Staff. One of these—Marshal Graziani—was permanently away, commanding in Libya. The other two Chiefs of Staff were, in addition, Under Secretaries of State for Marine and Air Force. Just before the outbreak of war in June 1940 the Duce had done something towards combining the efforts of the three Services by appointing as his strategic adviser, with the title of Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Marshal Badoglio, a distinguished officer whose professional attainments were rated very high. Mussolini did not use him, however, as a coordinator, but as an extra technical adviser, and the Marshal became little more than a fifth wheel to a rather unbalanced coach.
One of the first consequences of the Italian failure in Greece was the replacement of Badoglio by General Ugo Cavallero. For some time the new Chief of Staff occupied himself almost exclusively with the Greek campaign. When, thanks to German intervention, this was successfully concluded, he turned his attention to improving the machinery for conducting the war. He could have had little difficulty in pointing to the shortcomings of the existing system and quickly obtained Mussolini’s agreement to a reorganization by which many of the Duce’s powers were transferred to himself as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. This Staff Stato Maggiore Generale—not to be confused with the General Staff of the Army—became in fact the Supreme Command, responsible to the Duce for the planning, preparation, and direction of all military operations. It was directly over the Chiefs of Staff of the three Services and the Commanders-in-Chief abroad. General Cavallero’s own position thus became comparable with that
of Field-Marshal Keitel, the Chief of OKW. By the middle of June Mussolini had agreed to the reorganization and on 27th June it became law.
Shortly before this the Commander-in-Chief in North Africa, General Gariboldi, had been surprised and irritated by the sudden appointment of a new German liaison officer at his headquarters. This was Lieut.-General Alfred Gause, who had been sent by OKH with the dual role of representing the interests of OKH and of the Afrika Korps. He brought such a large staff that the Italian Comando Supremo required some persuasion before they would accept him, particularly as there was already a representative of OKW at General Gariboldi’s headquarters, who was to remain. The new appointment was designed to tighten the grip of OKH on affairs in Libya and to improve the supply organization for the Afrika Korps. General Gause was to work in close touch with General von Rintelen over matters of sea transport; he was to take on certain responsibilities for coastal defence; and the Commander of the Lines of Communication was to be placed under his orders.
This arrangement was even less attractive to General Rommel than it was to General Gariboldi, and he wrote to OKH pointing out that there would now be no final German authority in Africa; he and General Gause would regard problems from different angles, and there would inevitably be differences of opinion. It would be difficult to conceal these from the Italians, and this would not be in the best German interests. Rommel maintained that his own relations with Gariboldi had been very good, and that his position in the eyes of the Italians had now been weakened. As regards supplies, he did not like the introduction of a new intermediary: the whole problem of supply in North Africa was extremely difficult and it was essential for the Commander in the field to control his own supply organization. (it was at about this time that the British Prime Minister was setting up a ‘General Gause’ in the Middle East under the title of Intendant-General.) General Rommel ended by suggesting that General Gause should not serve two masters but should be made responsible to him.
The whole question was bound up with the express desire of Comando Supremo that there should be an Army Headquarters in North Africa to fill the gap between the troops and the High Command in Tripoli. The Germans thought this a good idea, provided that the commander was a German, to comply with the condition that their troops should remain under German command. General Cavallero’s view was that, if there was to be a new Army Headquarters, the Commander must either be General Rommel, whose successes in Cyrenaica had made his name renowned in italy, or else an Italian General. This did not appeal to OKH, who had found it quite hard enough to control Rommel as it was, and they finally gave up their
attempt to achieve direct liaison with the Italian Command in North Africa.
On 12th July General Gariboldi was replaced as Commander-in-Chief in Libya by General Bastico, who was expected to stand up to General Rommel better than his predecessor. The significance of the change was not lost upon the Germans, who concluded that the Duce did not want the war in North Africa to become a predominantly German affair. On 31st July the Gause staff was converted into Headquarters Armoured Group Africa, with General Gause as Chief of Staff. General Rommel was to be the Commander, and would be subordinate to General Bastico. His Group would contain Italian as well as German troops and he would be responsible for all the necessary liaison with the Italians. Under General Bastico there would be, in addition, an Italian mobile Corps commanded by General Gambara.
The German preparations for BARBAROSSA were made on the assumption that the Russian campaign would be over by the late autumn of 1941, and before the operation began the High Command of the Wehrmacht was considering what to do next. On 11th June Hitler circulated his Draft Directive 32, in which the results of a successful BARBAROSSA were predicted. Turkey would become more amenable to pressure; Spain would once more be asked to help in driving the British from Gibraltar; and a greater measure of collaboration by the French would cause additional embarrassments to the British in the Western Mediterranean. The broad strategic conception was to be that of a concentric attack against the British position—from Libya through Egypt, from Bulgaria through Turkey, and, if necessary, from Transcaucasia through Persia.
The encouraging start of BARBAROSSA gave impetus to the study of these problems, but when towards the end of July the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, submitted his proposals, in the preparation of which he had been assisted by the local knowledge of General Paulus, the situation was less favourable than it had been six weeks before. The Russians were still resisting strongly, the British had come to terms with the French in Syria, and there were reports that they were about to occupy northern Iraq; all of which would make the Turks less amenable to pressure than had been hoped. The full effect of the sudden arrival of United States forces in Iceland was difficult to foresee, but the event was disturbing.
Von Brauchitsch stressed the importance of treating plans for action against the British in the Mediterranean and Middle East as all part of one problem. He thought that Libya could never be more than a subsidiary theatre, because the British were better able to reinforce
and supply their troops than were the Germans. The capture of Tobruk and the advance on Egypt would depend on the flow of supplies and this would not improve sufficiently until Malta and Gibraltar were either destroyed or at least badly damaged. German strategy must therefore be based on an attack on Egypt from both directions at once and, secondly, an advance to the Persian Gulf from the north. October would be the best time of year, but they could not be ready by October 1941 and a delay of a whole year could not be accepted. The conclusion was that the double attack on Egypt should be made in the spring of 1942, and that the Persian Gulf would have to wait until the following October. The necessary preliminaries were: the reduction of Malta by Luftwaffe units from Sicily; the attack on Gibraltar; and the capture of Tobruk. All these should be done in the autumn of 1941, and during the winter the forces for the advance through Syria and Palestine should concentrate on the Turkish-Syrian frontier. If Turkey were hostile she would have to be attacked from Bulgaria through Thrace and Anatolia.
The German naval staff expressed identical views, and stressed particularly the dependence of the proposals upon the progress of the Russian campaign. They also emphasized the need for persuading the French to allow the use of Tunis and Bizerta, without which the whole plan might have to be revised.
In the event very little of this grandiose conception was even attempted, for it soon became clear that Russia’s ability to resist invasion had been greatly underestimated. On 28th August a memorandum was issued to a select few with Hitler’s approval in which, for the first time, German strategy was reviewed in the light of the possibility that the objectives in Russia—the Caucasian oilfields, the Volga, Archangel and Murmansk—would not be reached before the winter. If the operations continued into 1942 the result would be that British contact with Russia through Persia could not be prevented unless Turkey came in, which was at present unlikely. In the Mediterranean the British did not appear strong enough to launch a fresh attack on the Sollum front, but in the absence of a serious German threat to the Suez Canal from Syria or Iraq they could build up their forces unmolested and would benefit from consignments of American material. The supply position of the Axis forces was still bad, and there would be advantages in capturing Tobruk; it was hoped that General Rommel would do this before the British attacked. The British aim would be to destroy the Axis bridgehead in North Africa, gain possession of the whole coastline, and thus achieve naval and air supremacy in the Mediterranean. If this plan succeeded it would mean that the Americans would have access to French Morocco and French West Africa; but unless France and Germany could be kept apart it would not succeed.
The conclusions were that the defeat of Russia must remain Germany’s first task. Gains ‘in the south’ were particularly important for political as well as for economic reasons. The fight against Great Britain could only be fully resumed after Russia had been eliminated; meanwhile, German submarines, minesweepers and motor torpedo boats were to be transferred to the Mediterranean. It was extremely desirable to gain the use of such bases as Bizerta, Ferrol, Cadiz, Casablanca and Dakar, as well as Gibraltar, but this would depend on French and Spanish consent. The entry of France and Spain into the war was not to be encouraged yet because no German forces could be spared to support them. Military and political relations with France and Spain must be strengthened.
General Rommel had made it clear that he had every intention of taking Tobruk before the end of the year, but that unless far more was done to stop interference with the sea routes, and unless the port of Bizerta could be used, his own forces would not be ready for an offensive into Egypt before February 1942. For Tobruk he would require all the forces already allocated to North Africa, so that the attack could not take place until they had arrived complete with vehicles and equipment and with adequate supplies of ammunition, fuel and rations. He expected air attacks on his lines of communication and wished to be well stocked so as to avoid administrative crises. Action by sea would be very desirable to make Tobruk harbour useless to the British, because it was doubtful if this could be done by air attack alone. The Luftwaffe would have many tasks: to reduce the enemy’s air superiority, bomb his artillery positions, prevent material being brought into Tobruk harbour, oppose any attempts to break out—all in addition to supporting the ground forces. As regards the time of the attack, the present supply situation was strained and transports were arriving irregularly. Taking everything into account the attack could not take place before the beginning of October at the earliest. A necessary condition was that there should be no sign of a British offensive on the Sollum front. There was no sign at the moment, and it should be possible to detect the preparations some time before a large attack could take place.
It has been related that, towards the end of July, the Defence Committee in London was strongly in favour of beginning an offensive as soon as possible, preferably not later than September, while General Auchinleck wished to wait until November. It is interesting, therefore, to see what use the Germans and Italians were able to make of the period from August to November for transporting troops—and especially armoured troops—to Libya. Part of one new German formation was moved across. This was the Afrika Division, a motorized
division specially formed for service in Africa, later to be renamed Both Light Division. The Italian forces were, during the same period, reinforced by artillery units and by the Trieste (motorized) Division. The Sabratha Division was re-formed after its almost complete destruction in the previous winter. No armoured formations, German or Italian, were shipped over, but the Italian Ariete Armoured Division received about 100 medium (M.13) tanks and a number of light tanks of negligible fighting value. Records of the two German Panzer Divisions (15th and 21st) show that their total number of tanks of all types in running order increased from about 180 to about 250.2 It now appears that this increase was due almost entirely to the repair of damaged tanks, and that practically no German tanks were brought over between July 1941 and the end of the year.