Desert Generals I

Erwin Rommel

Rommel struggled with depression throughout his career and his diary and letters home at times depict a man racked by self-doubt. With the Afrika Korps position in North Africa deteriorating in 1942 he wrote home to his wife Lucie: “…this means the end. You can imagine what kind of mood I’m in… The dead are lucky, it’s all over for them.”

We have noted that Napoleon called for lucky generals. He would have been more than happy with Montgomery, whose luck knew no bounds. Montgomery was lucky to get command of 8th Army in the first place. Churchill, supreme arbiter of such matters, wanted someone else – Gott – and only Gott’s death in an aeroplane crash gave Montgomery his chance against Rommel. He was lucky that Rommel was at the end of his tether – emotionally, physically, and above all logistically. He was lucky to take command at a time when the pendulum of supplies and reinforcements had swung so completely in favour of the British. During August 1942 Rommel’s Panzerarmee consumed twice the amount of supplies he received. He was short of 1,500 trucks, 200 tanks, several hundred troop-carriers and 16,000 men. In the same month the British received 400 tanks, 500 guns, 7,000 vehicles and 75,000 tons of stores. During the six months ending in August their reinforcements in all services totalled a quarter of a million men, roughly two and a half times the size of Rommel’s army and five times the number of his German soldiers.

Nor was Montgomery’s luck confined merely to material and numbers. The Desert Air Force was at the peak of its strength and skill. Ultra – the cipher-breaking device which enabled the British to read the German High Command signals – gave Montgomery complete and continuous information about Rommel’s supply position and his intentions. As if this were not enough, Montgomery enjoyed immense freedom – freedom to choose his own subordinates, freedom to plan the nature and timing of the battle, freedom from interference. Alexander backed him absolutely and left him alone: even Churchill let him have his own way. And Montgomery’s knowledge that the great Allied armada, Operation Torch, was to land in North-west Africa about two weeks after his own planned attack on the El Alamein line must have been a comfort.

  1. G. Macdonnell described Wellington’s task in the Peninsula as the easiest that has ever faced a general. Whilst we may demur, we might say that he would perhaps have revised this judgement had he written about the North African campaign. Incomparably good intelligence of what the enemy was up to, overwhelming strength, an imminent landing by an Allied army to his opponent’s rear, this opponent’s critical lack of supplies and mobility, meant that short of some cardinal error of disposition or deployment – and Montgomery was far too cautious and calculating for that – he was practically bound to win.

Yet in spite of all this, there came a point in the battle when it seemed that the master plan – Montgomery was very fond of referring to the need to have a master plan and deploring other generals’ failure to have one – met with a snag, and it is speculation as to what might have happened if this snag had been tackled differently that will present us with this particular chance. But first we must set the scene more fully. It must be conceded that Montgomery made good use of all his luck. With his victory, a legend was born. The nation, indeed the whole Western world, was avid for a victory, any victory, and Montgomery made sure that the need was satisfied. He thereupon made the best of it. He was the finest public relations officer in the whole British army, and soon the country had a new name to play with, a hero, a battle-winner, and justifiably so, for as Fred Majdalany put it: ‘At a moment when the future of the Western world was in the balance and history held its breath, he [Montgomery] rallied his country’s soldiers as Churchill had rallied his people.’ This, we may conclude, was Montgomery’s greatest achievement; he made the ‘brave but baffled’ 8th Army, and thereafter the other armies and Army Group he commanded, believe in their capacity to win and go on winning.

Shortly after his arrival in Cairo on 4 August 1942, Churchill decided on ‘drastic and immediate’ changes in the Middle East command arrangements. Alexander would replace Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief and Gott would take over 8th Army. Gott’s death resulted in Montgomery’s appointment, and he arrived on 12 August and almost at once took over command of 8th Army. Alexander was just the man to exercise high command while leaving it to Montgomery both to plan and fight the forthcoming battle, and to bask in public esteem. Whereas Montgomery courted and relished adulation, Alexander shunned it. Besides, 8th Army should identify itself with its own commander. So, as Nigel Nicolson put it, ‘Alexander gave Montgomery his chance, never countermanding his orders, rarely suggesting an element in his plan, and supporting him by every possible means, political, administrative and psychological, to achieve their common object, the defeat of Rommel.’

It was to Alexander that on 10 August 1942 Churchill gave a directive notable for its clarity and simplicity: ‘Your prime and main duty will be to take or destroy at the earliest opportunity the German-Italian Army commanded by Field-Marshal Rommel, together with all its supplies and establishments in Egypt and Libya.’ The earliest possible moment turned out to be some nine months later, for it was not until May 1943 that Alexander was able to report that he had fully discharged this prime and main duty.

In preparing for this great task, Montgomery was highly successful in restoring high morale in 8th Army. That eminent historian, Ronald Lewin, recorded how quickly Montgomery imposed his will on his officer corps and his personality on the troops. He created the impression that it was his army and that under his command things would go well. This injection of a new sense of purpose and confidence was so striking that when Churchill paid another visit to the desert on 19 August and listened to Montgomery’s analysis of the situation and plans to deal with it, he found

a complete change of atmosphere . . . the highest alacrity and activity prevail . . . it seems probable that Rommel will attack during the moon period before the end of August . . . The ensuing battle will be hard and critical, but I have the greatest confidence in Alexander and Montgomery, and I feel sure the Army will fight at its best.

We may perhaps look more closely at the two principal actors in what was to be a curtain-raiser for the final phases of the Desert War: the one more or less at the end of his tether, the other at the outset of a career which was to take him to unimagined heights of public popularity and self-stimulated aggrandizement. In the forthcoming duel between them, we see once more how character determines incident and how incident illustrates character. David Irving’s assessment of the two men touches on their similarities and differences alike. Both Rommel and Montgomery had more enemies than friends among their fellow generals; both could be high-handed and arrogant, awkward, even insubordinate, when subjected to what they regarded as incompetent direction, yet in sole command they shone; they had no intellectual interests, but enjoyed winter sports; both had a flair for public relations. Yet in their style and exercise of command they differed absolutely. Rommel’s whole attitude to war was chivalrous; Montgomery simply wanted to kill Germans. Rommel led from the front; Montgomery retired to his caravan. Rommel relied on his Fingerspitzengefühl to outmanoeuvre and confound his enemy; Montgomery used other people’s brains and in the end won by sheer weight of numbers.

As the days of August 1942 advanced, the shadows were lengthening for Rommel and the Afrika Korps. They still had not received the fuel and ammunition necessary for a successful operation, while Montgomery’s force was daily growing stronger and more confident. On the eve of the coming battle, the last time that he would attack 8th Army, except for a half-hearted affair at Mededine in March 1943, Rommel confided to his doctor that this decision was the hardest he had yet taken: ‘Either we manage to reach the Suez Canal, and the army in Russia succeeds in reaching the Caucasus, or . . .’ He indicated with a gesture that the alternative could mean only defeat.

The irony of it all was that only two months earlier Rommel had been riding high, with the Afrika Korps exulting in its victory, its capture of Tobruk relieving immediate logistic needs, 8th Army reeling from the shock, still disorganized, still lacking reinforcements which were to arrive in the coming weeks, desperately trying under the firm leadership of Auchinleck to stabilize some sort of defensive barrier at El Alamein: if Rommel could have then persuaded Hitler to neutralize Malta and send him additional panzer and Stuka power and supplies, what might not have been achieved? There would have been no doubts then. Even Hitler’s fellow dictator, Benito Mussolini, not exactly famed for exploiting victory, strongly supported the idea of one more decisive push to the Suez Canal and beyond, picturing himself riding into Alexandria on a white horse at the head of his troops. That all this could have been done in July is clear enough when we remember that later that year, in order to counter the Anglo-American descent on French North-west Africa, Hitler acted with lightning speed and despatched to Tunisia sufficient strength to delay the Allied advance to Bizerta and Tunis for months.

The Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria had taken place on 8 November. By the end of that month there were 15,000 German soldiers in Tunisia, including Parachute and Glider Regiments, Panzer Grenadiers, reconnaissance companies, and several Panzer Regiments, some of which were equipped with the Tiger tank, mounting the famous and deadly 88-mm gun. Soon the whole of 10th Panzer Division would follow, plus two more German and two Italian divisions. That the Germans had been able to reinforce so strongly and rapidly was a tribute to Hitler’s prompt reaction and use of German transport aircraft and his ally’s shipping, all supported by a strengthened Fliegerkorps II with no fewer than eighty-one fighters and twenty-eight dive-bombers. What could Rommel not have done with even half this addition to his Panzerarmee? Indeed, had Rommel broken Auchinleck’s defences in late July or early August 1942, Operation Torch, the invasion of North-west Africa, might itself have been put in question. The whole strategic balance of the war against Germany might have been turned inside out.

But we cannot call back yesterday or bid time return. Rommel did not wait or demand instant, powerful reinforcement. Instead he pushed on with inadequate strength and was met at El Alamein by 8th Army, which under Auchinleck, well advised by his Chief of Staff, Dorman-Smith, was concentrated, fought in integrated battle groups, massed its artillery, husbanded its armour, formed a light armoured brigade for flank reconnaissance and wore down the Italian divisions. Rommel himself conceded that Auchinleck was handling his forces with great skill. He commanded with great coolness, was not going to be rushed, and had the huge advantage of a Desert Air Force which dominated the battlefield. In a word, Auchinleck was keeping balance, a requirement which Montgomery was later to make so much of. By maintaining this balance and by refusing to be thrown off it, Auchinleck was able to make decisive use of the advantage inherent to his position – important ground, assured supplies, superior fire-power, ready reinforcements. He beat the Afrika Korps at its own game, and succeeded in drawing its panzers on to his own armour and artillery fire posted firmly on ground of his own choosing.

If Auchinleck was able to check Rommel in July 1942, how infinitely more likely it was that Montgomery would be able to repeat the performance at the end of August when he enjoyed even greater strength. ‘The more one examines the record of the Alam Halfa battle,’ wrote Ronald Lewin, ‘which Rommel launched during the night of 30/31 August, the more clearly one sees that it was doomed from the start.’ The Afrika Korps was given an immensely difficult task – a night move through a major minefield whose depth and density were far greater than expected, and unfamiliar going over thirty miles to be accomplished by dawn the following day, in order to charge off to the north and the coast. Even at the height of its powers and confidence, with adequate supplies and an unsure enemy, the Afrika Korps might have found the task too much. But the Afrika Korps was no longer at the peak of its form; its supplies were niggardly; its two Panzer Divisions were down to less than 100 miles of petrol. Moreover, Rommel launched his attack against an adversary who not only knew what he was going to do, but how and when he was going to do it, an adversary who had sufficient strength in hand to defeat forces more powerful than those at Rommel’s disposal.

It was not therefore surprising that Montgomery’s 8th Army was able to win the battle of Alam el-Halfa. Nor was it surprising that Montgomery made the best possible copy out of his victory:

My first encounter with Rommel was of great interest. Luckily I had time to tidy up the mess and to get my plans laid, so there was no difficulty in seeing him off. I feel that I have won the first game, when it was his service. Next time it will be my service, the score being one-love.

Montgomery made much use of such sporting metaphors. He was less inclined to give credit to others, however, and made no mention of the point that fundamentally 8th Army’s plan for defence at Alam el-Halfa was the same as the one previously outlined by Auchinleck and his staff. Now would come the real test, the game when it was Montgomery’s service. He had spoken of hitting Rommel for six out of North Africa. How did he propose to do it?

There were three things that 8th Army had to do if it were successfully to carry out the task set by Churchill, to take or destroy the Panzerarmee: first, to punch a hole in the enemy position; second, to pass 10 Corps with all its armoured mobility through the hole; third, to develop operations so as to destroy Rommel’s forces. In the end this last requirement meant encircling the Panzerarmee, and to have done so with sufficient strength and speed was probably always beyond 8th Army’s powers. None the less Montgomery made plans to do so. His first idea was to launch his main attack with Leese’s 30 Corps in the north, break the enemy’s defences, cut two lanes in the minefields, and allow Lumsden’s 10 Corps – what Churchill called ‘the mass of manoeuvre’ – to pass through, position itself on ground which controlled the enemy’s supply routes and so oblige the Panzer Divisions to attack Lumsden’s armour under conditions favourable to the British, both in terms of ground and numbers. Then, with the enemy armour neutralized, his infantry would be rounded up. Meanwhile, Horrocks’s 13 Corps would attack in the south in order to prevent Axis concentration against 8th Army’s main northern thrust and also to crack about behind the enemy’s positions and advance towards El Daba.

Although in broad terms the plan remained the same – to break through in the north while making a secondary attack in the south – the method of doing so changed. As Montgomery himself explained, whereas his initial idea was to destroy Rommel’s armour first and then deal with the infantry, his revised plan reversed the process. He would hold off or contain the enemy armour while methodically destroying infantry holding the defensive system. Montgomery referred to this latter operation as a ‘crumbling’ process, arguing that as enemy armour would be unlikely to remain inactive while this crumbling was going on, and would launch counter-attacks, this very reaction would enable his own armour to take on the enemy’s from positions of advantage. The whole thing depended on 30 Corps’ ability to establish corridors through the minefields quickly so that 10 Corps could pass through, but if this did not happen, the armoured divisions would have to fight their own way through. This notion, as experienced armoured commanders knew to their previous cost, was a recipe for disaster when troops were up against the mixed panzer groups of the Afrika Korps. And in the end a second great infantry effort became necessary, after the first one faltered, before the mass of manoeuvre broke clear. It is with this faltering and the controversy which arose as to how it was to be overcome that our ‘if by chance’ of this particular battle has to do.


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