By this time the whole course of the war had been altered by the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and Malaya. Britain and the United States at once became Allies against Japan, and within a few days – because of Hitler’s almost incredible blunder of declaring war on America – Allies against Germany and Italy. Some weeks later the Allies agreed a broad strategic policy to concentrate first on Germany’s defeat, tightening the ring round her by sustaining Russia, strengthening the Middle East and getting hold of the whole North African coast. Curiously enough, at the Führer Naval Conference four days after Pearl Harbor Hitler asked Raeder whether it was likely that the United States and Britain would abandon East Asia for a time in order to crush Germany and Italy first. At times Hitler’s strategic vision was acute. Raeder, while assuring him that the British could not put India at risk and the Americans would not abandon the Pacific to the Japanese Navy, took the opportunity to press his former strategy. While the Allies were preoccupied elsewhere, he argued, now was the time to seize Malta and the Suez Canal and prepare for a great linking-up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean: ‘The favourable situation in the Mediterranean, so pronounced at the present time, will probably never occur again.’ In fact it did occur again as a result of Rommel’s great offensive which began in January 1942, and as a result of poor generalship and a greatly weakened 8th Army, which had been robbed of promised reinforcements by the demands of the Far East, culminated in the fall of Tobruk on 21 June. Rommel’s Order of the Day was a stirring and triumphant document:
The great battle in the Marmarica has been crowned by your quick conquest of Tobruk. We have taken in all over 45,000 prisoners and destroyed or captured more than 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles and nearly 400 guns . . . you have through incomparable courage and tenacity dealt the enemy blow upon blow. Your spirit of attack has cost him the core of his field army . . . Now for the complete destruction of the enemy. We will not rest until we have shattered the last remnants of the British Eighth Army. During the days to come, I shall call upon you for one more great effort to bring us to this final goal.
The loss of Tobruk was a great blow to Churchill, although it enabled him to extract from Roosevelt 300 Sherman tanks and 100 105-mm self-propelled guns, weapons which were greatly to influence future battles in the desert. Churchill must have longed for a general of Rommel’s character and ability, who brought Blitzkrieg to the desert and had the uncanny tactical awareness, the Fingerspitzengefühl, which enabled him time after time to wrest the initiative from his slower-thinking and slower-moving adversaries. He insisted on the mixed Panzergruppen of tanks, armoured infantry, anti-tank guns and artillery, supported by Stukas, whose lightning manoeuvres so bewitched, bothered and bewildered the 8th Army. Besides, he led from the front, something which seemed to have little appeal to British generals.
Yet it was the very magnitude of his achievement in June 1942 which blinded Rommel to the true priorities. Having Tobruk in his hands, with all the fuel, trucks and stores his Panzerarmee so badly needed, he closed his ears and mind to the absolute necessity of having Malta too, if his supply and reinforcement prospects were to have even a chance of matching those of the British, so much closer to their well-nigh invulnerable lines of communication. Thus the tiny fortress of Malta, the key to mastery in the desert, was chucked aside at the very moment when its possession might indeed have opened the gates of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Persian Gulf with all its oil, so priceless to the Axis. When we consider that a few months later Hitler poured his troops and aircraft into Tunisia in order to counter the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, it is clear enough that the resources to exploit Rommel’s capture of Tobruk and defeat of the 8th Army existed, if only the strategic opportunity to reinforce success had been seized. As it was, Auchinleck took a grip on the 8th Army which was being steadily reinforced, and Rommel’s attempt to win the first battle of Alamein with inadequate resources failed. The last chance of bringing off Raeder’s great plan had gone, and shortly Churchill would appoint a battle-winning team, composed of Alexander and Montgomery, who with an even more powerful 8th Army and Desert Air Force would see to it that Rommel, the Desert Fox, would no longer be in search of quarry. He himself would be the quarry.
In his essay ‘How Hitler Could Have Won the War’, John Keegan asks this question: ‘What if, in the summer of 1941, Hitler had chosen to make his major attack not into Soviet Russia but across the Eastern Mediterranean, into Syria and the Lebanon?’ He goes on to refer to War Directive No. 30 and No. 32, which, as already shown above, referred to operations that would be considered after Barbarossa had been launched, and would deal with potential offensives to break the British position in the Middle East. He then poses the further question as to what might have happened if a thrust from Bulgaria and Greece had been chosen as the principal one instead of Barbarossa. Keegan then puts forward two variants. The first envisages making use of the Dodecanese islands, other Greek islands and Cyprus as stepping-stones to land in Syria and Lebanon. The 7th Airborne Division would be employed in, say, capturing Cyprus instead of being wasted, as it was, in an assault on Crete. Once established in the Levant, panzer columns would set about conquering Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, thus solving Hitler’s oil problem. Furthermore, success in this way would enable Germany to threaten Russia’s Caspian Sea oil resources. One advantage of this plan was that it respected Turkish neutrality, but on the other hand was so dependent on adequate shipping and protection from British naval and air attack that it might well have foundered. It certainly takes little account of the British potential to interfere.
Keegan’s second option involves the violation of Turkish territory, in short, an invasion first of European Turkey from Bulgaria and Greece, to be followed by seizing Istanbul, crossing the Bosphorus and gaining control of Anatolia: all this would not have involved the same demand for shipping and command of the sea, and could have led to a powerful strategic advantage whereby German forces could both secure Turkey’s frontier with Russia at the Caucasus and advance into Iran and Iraq to menace Arabia. Keegan concludes that had Hitler exploited his Balkan victories by plumping for this second option and so threatening Russia’s southern flank, as well as her western one, a pincer-type Barbarossa might have succeeded, thus robbing Britain, and later the United States, of the one ally who seemed to have inexhaustible supplies of time, space and manpower. Moreover, Britain’s hold on the Middle East could have been fatally damaged.
Yet there is both a third and a fourth option, as already implied above. In the first place, had Hitler listened to Raeder in 1941, seized Malta with his airborne forces and deployed even a part of the huge panzer and Luftwaffe forces that he was assembling for his attack on Russia; in short, if the Afrika Korps in February 1941 with Rommel still in charge had been a much more powerful one, supported by all the air and naval strength that Germany and Italy between them could have mustered, it is difficult to see how Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief, with their resources already overstretched, could have resisted a full-scale assault on Egypt, the Canal and beyond. But this is to suppose, as John Keegan did, that Hitler could have been persuaded to abandon or postpone his great strategic and ideological aim – to crush the Soviet Union with a direct attack from the west.
We shall therefore let this hypothesis slip, and turn instead to the actual circumstances of June 1942, with 8th Army at bay and Rommel and the Afrika Korps riding in triumph, not through Persepolis, but through the surrendered Tobruk garrison, when a major switch of the Wehrmacht’s power could have turned the scales in the battle for North Africa, and so allowed Rommel’s veterans to have enjoyed both the spoils of opportunity and Egyptian daughters of the game: what then? The answer is provided for us by our own Official History of the Middle Eastern campaign:
Had the Eastern Mediterranean arena not been successfully held during the lean years (in which case, for want of bases, no British fleet or air forces could have even disputed the control of the Mediterranean sea communications) the task of the Allies in gaining a foothold in Europe would have been rendered immensely more difficult; indeed it might well have proved to be beyond their powers.
Thus we may perhaps endorse Churchill’s emphasis on the importance of the desert flank as ‘the peg on which all else hung’. This last opportunity of seizing the Middle East may justly be thought of as the tide in Hitler’s affairs which should have been taken at the flood if his dream of Weltmacht, world power, were to be realized. If Rommel had taken Egypt and surged on from there, there would have been no Anglo-American invasion of French North-west Africa. Indeed, it is not easy to imagine what the Western Allies’ strategy for challenging the Axis would have been. But Rommel and his men were not to savour the delights of Cairo and Beirut. At the Cairo conference of August 1942 Churchill had made known his passionate concern with winning the desert war: ‘Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! What else matters but beating him?’ It is to the beating of Rommel that we must now turn our attention, and by doing so introduce another ‘if by chance’.