Desert Generals II

Desert generals: From left: Winston Churchill, Eric Dorman-Smith, William Gott.

General Montgomery with his three Corps Commanders, left to right : Lieut. General Leese, G.O.C. 30 Corps. Lieut. General Lumsden, G.O.C. 10 Corps. General Montgomery. Lieut. General Horrocks, G.O.C. 13 Corps.

But first we may note that even at the relatively late stage following Rommel’s repulse at Alam el-Halfa, one member of the German Naval staff made an appreciation of the situation, dated 8 September, remarkable for its brevity and perspicacity:

In order to safeguard our position in the Mediterranean, to protect Italy, to prevent a planned British offensive, to frustrate the enemy’s plans for a defensive front and to create the prerequisites for a direct connection between Germany and Japan, the Naval Staff believes that the following requirements must be met:

1 North Africa must be held, if at all possible, from the Alamein position.

2 The Luftwaffe must be greatly reinforced.

3 Malta must be seized.

4 The plan of an offensive against Suez at a later date must be adhered to.

No one would have endorsed this proposal more ardently than Rommel himself, although he was all too well aware that while being required to fulfil the first and fourth requirements, there was little likelihood of OKW’s agreeing to provide the resources without which the second and third ones could not be met. Even so, while on leave Rommel tried once more to persuade Hitler during a meeting at the Berlin Chancellory on 1 October to provide at once powerful Luftwaffe forces and at least 30,000 tons of supplies each month if he were to conduct a successful defence against a forthcoming British attack on the Alamein position. Hitler made promises. Tiger tanks, self-propelled guns, rocket launchers and all the fuel the Panzerarmee would need. But no arrangements were made for the indispensable conditions of providing sufficiently powerful air and sea forces which would enable such reinforcements to get to North Africa.

The actual battle of El Alamein had five parts: the break-in on the night of 23–24 October; the so-called crumbling operations of 24 and 25 October, when Rommel returned to the desert, operations which did not clear the way for 10 Corps; Rommel’s counter-attacks and Montgomery’s change of plans from 26 to 28 October; Operation Supercharge on the night of 1–2 November which wore down the Panzerarmee to the point when it could no longer prevent a break-out; finally, the break-out itself, from 3 to 7 November. It is the third of these five parts which mainly concerns us here.

After the battle of El Alamein, Montgomery was fond of declaring that it had been fought exactly in accordance with his master plan. In saying this he did scant justice to 8th Army, Rommel’s Panzerarmee, his closest advisers and his own flair for managing a battlefield. Quite apart from von Moltke’s contention that no plan survives contact with the enemy – and this was notably true of El Alamein – by suggesting that he had to change nothing, Montgomery detracts from one of his strongest faculties as a commander, the trick of remaining ‘balanced’. What he might have said with more accuracy about his master plan is that the broad idea of it – feint in the south, breakthrough in the north – was adhered to, but that it succeeded by virtue of his having adequate reserves at the outset and creating more later, thus allowing him to adapt the master plan in detail and emphasis. This was what is meant by balance. You are then able to adjust your dispositions, concentrations and intentions without serious enemy interference, while ensuring that the enemy is himself constrained to respond to your movements and activities and cannot therefore develop his own influence on the course of the battle in the way he would like to. He dances to your tune. His plans are ‘cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in To saucy doubts and fears’. Yours are ‘Whole as the marble, founded as the rock, As broad and general as the casing air’.

Yet there came a point during the battle of El Alamein when it must have seemed to Montgomery that even his plans were subject to saucy doubts and fears. On 26 October he needed to practise his balancing act, for although 8th Army had driven a deep and wide wedge into the Axis defences, and crumbling was proceeding, there appeared to be no immediate prospect of getting right through these defences and finishing off the job. To do this would require a major rethink and a major redeployment. And the choice of place for the Schwerpunkt of this second attack would be critical. It is ironic that Rommel guessed correctly where Montgomery would be inclined to do it. If there had not been a change, the attack might have failed. As it was, counsels other than Montgomery’s prevailed.

One of the most priceless commodities which may be possessed by a general in charge of a battle is calm. Montgomery had it. He was able to shut himself off from the hurly-burly of a battle, to stand back and contemplate the next step without being unduly swayed by the happenings of the moment, to insulate himself from the heat of activity. He would withdraw to his caravan, trusting his subordinate commanders to conduct operations as he had directed, and quietly make up his mind what to do next. Realizing that the impetus of his offensive was waning, he decided to regroup his forces in order to create a reserve with which to restore momentum to the battle. What this amounted to was that 13th and 30th Corps would adjust their formations in such a way that he could draw into reserve the New Zealand Division, including 9th Armoured Brigade and two armoured divisions, the 7th and 10th. All this reorganization was to be completed by 28 October. Meanwhile Rommel, who judged that the British were ‘operating with astonishing hesitancy and caution’, mustered what reserves he could and began to launch a series of counter-attacks, which the British anti-tank defences and tanks were able to contain.

Rommel was not the only one to misjudge Montgomery’s pause for reorganization. Churchill too, on reading reports of withdrawals of troops from the front, concluded that the battle was petering out, and on the morning of 29 October levelled a storm of reproach at the CIGS, General Brooke. ‘What was my Monty doing now, allowing the battle to peter out?’ was the way Brooke later recorded Churchill’s complaints. Monty was always Brooke’s Monty when things were not going well. ‘Why had he told us he would be through in seven days if all he intended to do was to fight a half-hearted battle? Had we not got a single general who could even win one single battle?’ At a Chiefs of Staff meeting later that day Brooke, supported by Smuts, succeeded in persuading Churchill that the battle was proceeding satisfactorily. It might not have done so without the intervention of some of Montgomery’s advisers.

Having further strengthened his reserves by withdrawing 1st Armoured Division, Montgomery’s initial intention was that the final infantry attack would be made in the north by 30 Corps, while 10 Corps HQ would prepare to take charge of the subsequent break-out. The idea was for the 9th Australian Division to assault on the axis of the coast road and make way for the reinforced New Zealand Division to launch itself westward along the coast, making a hole for 10 Corps to break out. Rommel had guessed correctly where Montgomery wanted to make his final, decisive effort and had consequently reinforced the northern sector with 90th Light Division, part of 21st Panzer Division and the Italian Trieste Division. During the morning of 29 October, however, while the Australian attack was still under way, Montgomery was conferring with Richard Casey, Minister of State for the Middle East, accompanied by Alexander and his Chief of Staff, General McCreery. During their conference, some new battle information came in which prompted an instant review of the situation. This in turn led to a dramatic change of direction for the final offensive.

Up until then Montgomery had resisted suggestions from his staff that it was a mistake to persist in attacking the strongest part of the enemy defences. But now McCreery strongly recommended an alternative – to attack at the point where German and Italian forces joined up, just north of Kidney Ridge. Brigadier Williams, Montgomery’s chief of Intelligence, emphatically supported this view, and Montgomery allowed himself to be convinced, no doubt further influenced by the opinion of own Chief of Staff, de Guingand, who also backed McCreery’s insistent voice. Alexander, well aware of the contribution to victory made by his Chief of Staff, wrote later: ‘There is no doubt at all in my mind that this was the key decision of the Alamein battle.’ Even Montgomery himself, never lavish with praise for others, remarked that the change of thrust-line for Supercharge, as the operation was called, proved most fortunate. It is a view reinforced by many of those who did the actual fighting and achieved the actual break-out. One of them points out that when Dick McCreery was asked for his opinion as to where the attack should go in, and gave it, it was accepted reluctantly by Montgomery, ‘and was successful after severe fighting . . . I really believe that had we gone further north as Monty wanted, we should never have got out of the minefields. It was therefore Dick McCreery’s decision that won Alamein for Monty.’ Allowing always for hyperbole, there is a germ of truth in Nigel Nicolson’s observation on first meeting Lettice McCreery: ‘Of course, you do realize, don’t you, that it was your husband who won the battle of Alamein!’

Supercharge did succeed: Rommel withdrew and 8th Army followed. It was 4 November 1942. Four days later Anglo-American forces landed in French North Africa. While it was clear that El Alamein had been a great victory for the British, whether it was strategically desirable at that moment may be questioned, for we only have to imagine in what a precarious position Rommel and his Panzerarmee would have been if Rommel’s lines of communication had still stretched all the way to the Alamein defences at the time of the Anglo-American landings in Algeria and Morocco. This leads us in turn to a further strategic If. It was by chance that McCreery was at Montgomery’s HQ on the morning of 29 October. If he had not been, would the decision to change the thrust-line for Supercharge have been taken? And if Montgomery had persisted in his original choice of Schwerpunkt, what would the outcome have been?

Let us take two hypotheses, either of which might have had a profound effect on the battle for North Africa and the Mediterranean, and in order to be even-handed, one case will on the face of it be advantageous to the Axis, the other to the Allies. We must bear in mind that Churchill was insistent that the timing of Montgomery’s offensive at El Alamein should be such that its successful conclusion, that is, beating Rommel, would precede the planned Anglo-American landings in French North Africa, whose D-Day was to be 8 November. Montgomery’s second bite of the cherry, Supercharge, began on 2 November and two days later had succeeded in opening the door for British armoured regiments to break out. Thus Rommel became preoccupied with extraction of his forces and withdrawal to another defensive position. Now comes the first hypothesis. There is no change of thrust-line for Supercharge, Montgomery sticks to his original plan of attacking in the north, 8th Army does not get through the minefields, Rommel’s defences remain firm, there is once more stalemate. Moreover, this further loss of momentum while Montgomery has to think yet again, regroup yet again and plan a further attempt to break through all lasts for the best part of a week, that is, until after 8 November. The situation that Churchill hoped for – Rommel beaten and on the run – has not come about.

The second hypothesis presupposes a decision of strategic boldness relatively rare in Allied counsels but which nevertheless might have paid high dividends in one way while robbing the Allies of substantial gains in another. Operation Torch, the landings in French North Africa, was first discussed and agreed in principle when Churchill conferred with Roosevelt in December 1941 soon after America’s entry into the war. Although the American military men wanted a direct assault on Europe, it became clear after Roosevelt’s undertaking to Russia that a second front would be opened in 1942, that this could not be done in Europe. It was then that Churchill renewed his proposal about French North Africa, and despite opposition from General Marshall and General Eisenhower, who regarded the idea as a dissipation of resources away from the decisive area of Europe itself, Roosevelt overruled his generals and gave orders that Torch would take place in 1942. There were still disagreements between the Allied countries, first as to the strategic consequences of executing Torch, second as to the actual method of doing so. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff, saw the operation as part of creating a defensive circle round Europe. The British saw it rather as a means both of securing the Middle East, its oil and the Mediterranean sea routes, and of closing the ring, not to stand defensively on it but by tightening it, to throttle the Third Reich. The second disagreement revealed that although the Americans were keen to get to grips with the German armies, they were thinking circumspectly and wanted to land only on the Atlantic coast of Africa, then move eastwards, whereas the British were aiming to capture Tunis and the straits there quickly, so proposed to land as far east as possible.

General Eisenhower’s appointment to command the operation was both timely and beneficial, as he proved a splendid coordinator, and once converted to Torch embraced it wholeheartedly. Like the British, he too wanted to land as far east as Bône. Churchill added his weight to the argument for landing as far east as possible. In signalling Roosevelt, he insisted that to land too far west would be to rob Torch of all its strategic promise, that Algeria must be occupied, that landings at both Oran and Algiers were essential, so that Bizerta and Tunis could swiftly be taken, even if the Allies had to fight the Germans for them. It would all be a necessary prelude to subsequent attacks on Italy. In the end it was agreed that there would be simultaneous landings at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers.

It was a bold enterprise considering the risks being run: an amphibious operation with largely untried troops; a gauntlet of U-boats; the danger of enemy air attack; the uncertainty of French reaction – welcome or resistance? Yet the Axis was taken completely by surprise, so much so that there is a lot to be said for Admiral Cunningham’s subsequent comment to the effect that bold as the plan had been, it had not been bold enough, for had the Allies landed forces as far east as Bizerta and Tunis, with among other tasks that of capturing the airfields there, the Axis would have been forestalled and success complete. With the principal airfields and ports of Tunisia in Allied hands, together with powerful air and naval forces, no German and Italian divisions would have been transported there, the French would have swung completely to the side of the Allies, and Hitler would have been presented with a very different problem.

Given, then, the situation in the second week of November 1942 as we have now depicted it – the Allies established in Algeria and Tunis; Rommel and his Panzerarmee still defiantly hanging on at El Alamein – what would Hitler have done? There would have been two broad options – to continue to put up some sort of resistance in North Africa or to have abandoned it. Given the first of these, it would no doubt have been possible with a supreme effort to transport troops, weapons and supplies by sea and air via, say Tripoli, to reinforce Rommel and guard against a further Allied advance from Tunis eastwards. But to have done so would almost certainly have meant that such reinforcements would prove to be hostages to fortune in view of Allied air and naval superiority, together with their ability to win the race for which side could build up more quickly. Sooner or later Montgomery, assuming he did not get the sack from Churchill, would again have mustered sufficient reserves to mount yet another assault on Rommel’s defences, supported by overwhelming artillery and air power.

Yet what strategic advantage could Hitler have hoped to wrest from further resistance in North Africa, other than that of time? If he were to choose the second option and abandon the campaign there, and at the same time rescue Rommel and his army to fight again another day, it would involve another huge air and sea effort, with all the dangers of counter-action by the Allies, to embark and ferry the troops and their weapons back to Italy or Greece; it would moreover allow the Allies time to prepare for an earlier assault on what Churchill had described as ‘the soft underbelly of Europe’. We may perhaps judge Hitler’s likely action in these hypothetical circumstances by recalling his actual orders to Rommel when the Desert Fox had urged withdrawal from the Alamein position on 2 November 1942: ‘in your situation there can be no thought but of persevering, of yielding not one yard, and of hurling every gun and every fighting man into the battle’. After promises of air reinforcements and supplies, Hitler assured Rommel that the enemy must be at the end of his strength. It would not be the first time in history that the stronger will had triumphed over stronger battalions. ‘To your troops therefore you can offer no other path that than leading to Victory or Death.’ In the event Rommel conducted a skilful withdrawal, even though slowly but surely being pushed further west by 8th Army, and won one spectacular battle against the Americans at Kasserine in Tunisia in February 1943; but even he could not prevail against the combined Allied advances from east and west. He handed over command of Army Group Africa to von Arnim on 9 March 1943 and flew to Rome. The battle for Tunisia went on until May 1943 when the Axis forces capitulated with the loss of all their equipment and nearly a quarter of a million men, a number comparable with German losses at Stalingrad when von Paulus’s 6th Army – Hitler had vetoed his request for permission to break out before it was too late – surrendered to the Red Army. Hitler’s battles of conquest were over. Those of resistance were about to begin.

We may therefore conclude that of these two hypotheses, one – that of a further setback for Montgomery at El Alamein – would probably have made little difference in the end, whereas the other – a bolder Torch which rapidly took possession of Tunisia – would have had benefits for both sides: for the Allies because they would have obtained control over the whole of North Africa and the Mediterranean earlier; for the Axis because the reinforcements poured into Tunisia would have been available to contest the next Allied strategic move – the assault on Italy. Churchill had referred to Europe’s soft underbelly. When this belly was attacked, however, it turned out to be somewhat harder than expected.

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