The Wehrmacht into the Mediterranean Theatre

Concentration of force and effort were not dominant characteristics of Hitler’s Reich. The Führer had initially reacted to Italy’s debacle in North Africa and its frustrated invasion of Greece with the amused malice the Germans call Schadenfreude. His interests in the Mediterranean involved encouraging support for Germany’s Atlantic ambitions on the part of Vichy France and Falangist Spain, and attracting Balkan support for the developing attack on the Soviet Union. Neither end was best served by Italian-initiated upheavals that challenged the status quo by open-ended claims to enlarged spheres of influence. They were served even worse, however, by open-ended military catastrophe.

The Italian defeat in Greece created opportunities for Britain to negotiate a Balkan front of its own, supporting it by stationing planes on Greek bases. The oil fields of Romania were only the most obvious potential target. If the Italians were driven from North Africa, the stresses on British shipping would be reduced by the reopening of the Mediterranean. The French North African colonies might reconsider their allegiance to Vichy. An Italy subject to air and naval strikes would face the consequences of a loss of prestige that could potentially lead to the collapse of the Fascist system itself.

Hitler grew correspondingly determined to take action. As early as July 1940, the High Command had suggested dispatching a panzer division to North Africa. Spanish veteran Wilhelm von Thoma, sent to evaluate the situation, reported any serious mobile operations would require at least four divisions for an indefinite basis. In the run-up to Barbarossa, that proposal had no chance. As the Italian situation continued to deteriorate, the commitment of ground forces in the Mediterranean basin nevertheless seemed necessary.

The General Staff responded by projecting a large-scale mechanized offensive in the Balkans, to be mounted in the spring of 1941—quick in, quick out. Hitler entertained hopes that its threat would be sufficient: that the Greek government would reject British support and Yugoslavia would align itself with the Axis. Hitler sweetened the latter prospect by offering to exchange Yugoslavia’s copper, zinc, and lead for modern weapons. The former prospect grew increasingly remote, particularly as Greece observed the steady movement of German planning missions and combat aircraft—specifically the ground-support specialists of VIII Air Corps—into Bulgaria and Romania. When Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia formally joined the Axis in November 1940, allowing German troops transit rights across their territory, the question regarding war became not if but when. Even then it was not until the first arrival of British ground troops in Greece on March 7 that the German redeployment began in earnest.

From the beginning, the Balkan operation had been planned around the panzers. This flew in the face of Great War experience, of unpromising terrain, limited road networks, undeveloped infrastructures, and just about every other common-sense reservation that prudent staff officers could conceive. In another context, however, the projected force structure reflected, more clearly than at any time since the occupation of Austria, Hitler’s conception of the ideal relationship between diplomacy and force. He sought to expand the basis for war in the eastern Mediterranean, to secure the southern flank of his forthcoming attack on the USSR, and to sequester Balkan economic resources for German use. None of those ends was best achieved by the use of force as a first option, and Hitler was correspondingly willing to keep talking. But time was an enemy when wasted. Even at the last minute, the panzer divisions could be turned loose to crush both local opposition and the burgeoning British presence in Greece—immediately and unmistakably, not least to discourage intervention by the Soviet Union, perhaps Turkey as well.

The actual deployment underwent a series of changes that both illustrated German skill in operational planning and reinforced confidence in the skill’s applicability to the wider Russian stage. The final dispositions put a worked-in command and staff team on the Greek frontier: List’s 12th Army and Kleist’s renamed Panzer Group 1. With three panzer divisions and two motorized ones plus Grossdeutschland and two similarly configured claimants to elite status, the SS Leibstandarte and the Luftwaffe’s Hermann Göring Brigade, Kleist was expected to overrun Greece from a standing start.

On March 27 the situation changed utterly. A coup deposed the Yugoslav government. Hitler responded with Operation Punishment: the destruction of Yugoslavia with “merciless harshness.” Kleist swung his group 90 degrees and, beginning on April 8 as the Luftwaffe eviscerated Belgrade, drove into Yugoslavia’s side with the force of a knife thrust. Breaking through initially stubborn resistance and scattering two Yugoslav armies, the group drove north as another panzer corps came south from Hungary into Croatia. Belgrade was the objective. What remained of it capitulated on April 12. The Yugoslav army, its morale shaken by recent political events, divided along ethnic lines. Lacking modern equipment, it never had much of a chance. In a week the panzers had shattered its fighting spirit and its fighting power alike by speed and shock, in terrain regarded as less suitable even than the Ardennes for mobile warfare, and without breaking a military sweat. The major challenge to the rear echelons was coping with the thousands of Yugoslavs trying to surrender. On April 14 the Yugoslav government called for terms.

A country was dismembered; a stage was set for more than a half century of civil war; and the panzers were responsible. Kleist’s divisions were pulled into reserve as quickly as possible for redeployment to the Russian frontier, with a collective sense of a job well done that suggested favorable prospects for the future. The new divisions and the new commanders had performed well compared to the standards of 1940. A continuing tendency to outrun the infantry had no significant tactical consequences; the tanks alone spread demoralization wherever they went. Logistics posed occasional problems, but the fighting ended before they metastasized. Total German casualties were 150 dead, 400 wounded, and 15 missing. Nothing emerging from Yugoslavia, in short, inspired any last-minute second thoughts about another operation against a Slavic army and culture.

Kleist’s turn to Yugoslavia left a suddenly diminished 12th Army the task of dealing with Greece. The initial German commitment to a Balkan blitz is indicated by an order of battle that even without the panzer group included a motorized corps headquarters, the first-rate 2nd and 9th Panzer Divisions, and the Leibstandarte motorized brigade of the Waffen SS—with Richthofen’s Stukas flying close support. The Viennese tankers overran a Greek motorized division, seized Salonika, and took 60,000 prisoners, all in four days. The 9th Panzer Division, the Leibstandarte, and the Stukas on the Germans’ other flank scattered an entire Yugoslav army, and then turned south into the plains of Thessaly. It took until April 12 to break through Greek, Australian, and New Zealand resistance and the British 1st Armored Brigade and cut off the strong Greek forces reluctant to retreat from Albania. But yet again, once through the forward defenses, the panzers set the pace. Never out-fought, the Greek army was increasingly overmatched. On April 21 the British decided to evacuate.

From the perspective of the Anzacs and the tankers, the rest of the campaign was a long fighting retreat, enduring constant air attack and bloodying the Germans where they could. For the panzers it was more of a mop-up, with the lead role played by 5th Panzer Division. Transferred from Kleist’s group after the fall of Yugoslavia, it was bloodied at Thermopylae where a rear guard knocked out 20 of its tanks as they moved through the still- narrow pass. Recovering, the division pursued the British south, crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, and took more than 7,000 prisoners on the beaches of Kalamata, men left behind when the ships were withdrawn.

The Balkan Operation also laid the groundwork for a legend. On February 12, 1941, Erwin Rommel was appointed commander in chief of German troops in Libya. It was a fancy title for a force composing only one of the new panzer divisions, the still-organizing 15th, a scratch brigade grandiloquently titled 5th Light Division (later upgraded as the 21st Panzer Division), and another mixed bag that became the 90th Light Division. Renamed the German Africa Corps (Deutsches Afrika Korps) it would make two years of history.

Hitler seems initially to have made his choice of commander as much on grounds of Rommel’s availability as from any intuitive sense that he was giving a wider stage to a budding genius. German intervention in North Africa was originally intended as a minimum-scale holding operation. No senior panzer general suggested Rommel might be more useful against Russia; no one requested him as a corps commander in a mobile force needing a half dozen new ones. Instead he was dispatched to a sideshow that he would move to history’s center stage by a spectacular succession of battlefield victories—the first of them enabled by the drawdown of British forces in the desert in favor of the campaign in Greece.

There are fashions in generalship as there are in clothing. For a quarter century after World War II, Rommel was considered a paragon of mobile war at the tactical and operational levels. In the next quarter century, military historians and professional soldiers have judged him with a sharper pencil. Nevertheless there remains an Erwin Rommel for every military writer’s taste. There is the muddy-boots general leading from the front, inspiring his men by sharing their hardships as he led them to victory. There is the brilliant opportunist, master of forcing mistakes and exploiting them, dancing rings around British generals with courage and character but no imagination. There is the master of war on a shoestring, using Germany’s military leftovers to frustrate and challenge the major land effort of a global empire. There is the soldier, making war by the rules, upholding the army’s honor albeit serving a criminal regime. And there is the maverick, defying his superiors, his allies, and the Führer himself to fight and win his way.

In Britain these images ameliorate two years of humiliation. In the United States they play into idealized concepts of what a real general should be. There is, however, another side to the scale. That one depicts a general whose leadership style generated as much confusion as success. It presents a commander consistently overreaching his operational capacities, and correspondingly indifferent to issues of logistics and sustainability. It highlights an extensive, long-term network of connections between Rommel and Hitler—not least a publicity machine that critics describe as creating a myth from lucky breaks and obliging enemies. What emerges is a good corps commander, challenged beyond his talent by the problems of war-making at higher levels.

The desert war’s principal contribution to the panzer mystique is its status, affirmed alike by Rommel’s critics and supporters, as a “clean” war. Explanations include the absence of civilians and the relative absence of Nazis; the nature of the environment, which conveyed a “moral simplicity and transparency”; and command exercised on both sides by prewar professionals, encouraging a British tendency to depict war in the imagery of a game and a corresponding German pattern of seeing it as a test of skill and a proof of virtue.

The nature of the fighting also diminished the close-quarter actions that are primary nurturers of mutual bitterness. Last stands, as opposed to stubborn defenses, were uncommon. Usually a successful German attack ended with a compound breakthrough. With tanks seeming to appear everywhere on the position, with no effective means of close defense, capitulation was an acceptable option. The large numbers of troops usually involved also inhibited both on-the-spot killings and post-action massacres. Hard war did not necessarily mean cold murder. Surrender offered and accepted correspondingly became part of the common law of the desert.

Creating preconditions for surrender was another problem. The two-year seesaw conflict across North Africa has been so often described in so much detail that it is easy to exaggerate its actual impact on Hitler’s panzers. The campaign involved only three mobile divisions and never more than around 300 tanks at any one time. Technically the Germans maintained a consistent, though not overwhelming, superiority—reflecting as much the flaws in British tank design as the qualities of the German vehicles. The Panzer III, especially the L version with the 50mm/62-caliber gun, was the backbone of Rommel’s armor, admirably complemented by the Panzer IV, whose 75mm shells were highly effective against both unarmored “soft-skinned” vehicles and unsupported infantry, even when dug in.

Not until the arrival in autumn 1942 of the US M3 medium did the balance begin to shift. With a 37mm high-velocity gun in its turret and a sponson-mounted 75mm, the M3 was a poor man’s Char B without the armor of its French counterpart, with a high silhouette that made it difficult to conceal, and with a gasoline engine that caught fire easily. But there were a lot of them, and their reinforcement in time for El Alamein by more than 300 Shermans definitively tipped the armor balance in Allied favor. The Sherman’s mid-velocity 75mm gun, able to fire both armor piercing and high-explosive rounds, made it the best tank in North Africa—except possibly for the later marks of Panzer IV, who brought their even higher velocity 75mm gun on line in numbers too small—never more than three dozen—to make a difference.

Nor was the Afrika Korps a chosen force, the best of the best. Its medical preparation consisted of cholera and typhus inoculations. Its equipment was Wehrmacht standard, with the addition of a few hundred sun helmets—most of them soon discarded in favor of field caps—and a few thousand gallons of camouflage paint in varying shades of brown. But the Germans had confidence in themselves and their officers, in their training and in their doctrine. Their divisions were teams of specialist experts trained to fight together, combining and recombining as the situation changed. Assembling them was like working with a child’s set of Legos: individual pieces, once fastened together, would hold even if the construction seemed awkward.

That flexibility proved vital. German doctrine based on avoiding tank-on-tank combat meant that when it occurred it was likely to be a close-quarters melee. German gunnery training after the 1940 campaign stressed snap shooting and rapid fire—not least because of the limited effect of single hits on French armor plate. The British for their part during much of the campaign remained committed to destroying German armor by direct action, and their tanks were usually fast enough to counter the tactical maneuvering effective in 1940.

Rommel and his subordinates in consequence recast the section of the panzer-war handbook that addressed antitank operations. In their developed and ideal form, German positions were structured by interlocking antitank-gun positions supported by infantry, the panzers deployed behind them. Contrary to belief at the time, which eventually acquired the status of myth, the 88mm gun was not a standard element of German antitank defense in the desert. Its high silhouette made it vulnerable; its limited numbers made it an emergency alternative. The backbone of German defenses was the 50mm gun, able to knock out any British tank that could move well enough to survive in desert conditions. By 1942 these were being supplemented and replaced in turn by 75mm pieces, heavy and difficult to move but effective even against the new American Grants and Shermans. Eventually the 90th Light Division would be configured as a virtual antitank formation, with 75mm Pak 40s assigned at rifle company level.

British tanks repeatedly and obligingly impaled themselves on the German guns. Robert Crisp, a South African-born officer serving with the Royal Tank Regiment, observed that British tank design and British tactical doctrines reflected a mentality that wanted to make a tank that was as much like a horse as possible, then use it as horses had been used in the Charge of the Light Brigade. As Rommel once asked a captured British officer, “What does it matter if you have two tanks to my one, when you spread them out and let me smash them in detail?”

British armor enmeshed and worn down by the antitank guns was disproportionately vulnerable to counterattacks from flank and rear by panzer forces numerically inferior but with the advantage of surprise—an advantage enhanced by the ubiquitous clouds of dust obscuring desert battlefields as powder smoke had done in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Superior numbers were unnecessary. Properly timed, a single hard tap could shatter an already-confused British armored brigade like glass. Success depended on timing, and for that the excellent German radios were important. But even more important were situational awareness, initiative, and mutual confidence—the infantrymen and antitank crews knowing they were not being sacrificed; the artillery concentrated to provide fire support; the tankers confident the screening forces would hold while they moved into position. Time and again, from Operation Battleaxe in 1941 through Operation Crusader in November 1941 to the Battle of Gazala in May-June 1942, the technique worked—and set up the attacks that became Rommel’s signature.

The panzers’ offensive tactics in the desert followed and extended patterns established in Europe. Speed, shock, and flexibility repeatedly proved devastating against a British opponent whose reaction times were sluggish, whose tactics were uninspired, and whose coordination was so limited that desert humor described it as existing only when the commanding officers involved had slept with each others’ wives before the war—a significant handicap, one might think, to multiunit operations.

Encirclement was, however, likely to prove chimerical. There were no obvious terrain features or cultural sites with deep meaning to encourage last stands. Even Cairo was not Verdun. The wide-open terrain and the Germans’ always limited “desert sense” facilitated breakouts, the most familiar examples being the French at Bir Hacheim and 201 Guards Brigade at Knightsbridge. The British were even more completely motorized than the Germans, and correspondingly able to outrun them. The “Gazala gallop” of May 1942 may not have been heroic, but it did preserve much of 8th Army to fight again at El Alamein.

British defense systems were also far more formidable than anything encountered even in France during Case Red. The often-derided “boxes” developed as fixed position at mid-campaign usually featured elaborate minefields to disable vehicles, complex barbed wire systems to frustrate infantry, and defenders ready to fight to the limit, like 5th South African Brigade at Sidi Rezegh and 150th Brigade’s stand in the Cauldron during Gazala. Losses in both men and vehicles incurred while overrunning these positions were likely to be high and, given the theater’s low priority for replacements, permanent.

If the Afrika Korps did not want to conquer itself to death, an alternate approach must be developed. Rommel would respond by taking flexible movement to the operational level. His first major offensive, in April 1941, was undertaken despite a direct order to the contrary. Once the vulnerability of the thinly manned British positions was exposed, the battle became an exercise in deep penetration on a level not seen even in France. Columns became lost in broken, poorly mapped terrain, or were deceived by mirages. Engines overheated in 120-degree temperatures. Sandstorms slowed rates of march. But the German tanks, artillery, antitank guns, and motorized infantry wove tactical tapestries that baffled their counterparts.

Rommel seemed to appear everywhere he was needed, driving and inspiring. Benghazi fell on April 3. With the British reeling backward and the fortress of Tobruk besieged, Rommel set the next objective as the Suez Canal. His spearheads reached the Egyptian frontier. When the massive counterattack of Operation Crusader rolled the Germans back in turn, Rommel checked the drive, and then swung completely behind the British. This “dash to the wire” overextended his forces so badly that his own staff called it off while Rommel was out of touch at the front.

This time the pendulum swung all the way back to Rommel’s original starting point around El Agheila. Two weeks later he counterattacked, taking the British by surprise and forcing them back 350 miles to the partially prepared Gazala line. Both sides reinforced as best they could, but again it was Rommel who struck first. On May 26, 1942 his last great offensive began. A month later the port of Tobruk and its 30,000 man garrison were in German hands. Eighth Army, what was left of it, had retreated to the El Alamein line. In Cairo, rear-echelon commandos were burning documents. In London, Churchill faced—albeit briefly—a vote of no confidence on the House of Commons.

Gazala was by any standards a striking victory. But by most standards the Axis troops were fought out. Men and equipment were worn to breaking points, depending on captured fuel and supplies for momentum. Down to fifty tanks at the sharp end, Luftwaffe support left behind in the wake of the ground advance, Rommel was nevertheless convinced that only by attacking could his force sustain the initiative. To halt was to be attacked by massively superior forces, and another backward swing of the desert pendulum might well be the final one. Better to try ending the process altogether: roll the dice, take the British off balance, and regroup in Cairo.

“Attack” had worked for Rommel in North Africa as it had in France. It had been the armored force’s mantra since the beginning. It was a keystone of the German approach to war-making. This time under a new commander, Bernard Law Montgomery, 8th Army held. At Ruweisat Ridge on July 1, the panzers broke in. For the first time in the desert, they failed to break through. An end run was stopped cold at Alam Halfa by a mixture the Germans had patented: combined-arms tactics in a context of air supremacy. By this time Rommel’s health had declined sufficiently that he returned to Germany, partly to recover and partly to lobby for more of everything. Rommel informed his doctor, “Either the army in Russia succeeds in getting through . . . and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or . . .” He accompanied his unfinished sentence with a dismissive gesture suggesting defeat.

The stalemate at El Alamein is frequently described as the final, fatal consequence of either Rommel’s fundamental ignorance of logistics or his culpable carelessness in supervising them. He thus epitomizes a senior officer corps whose tactical and operational proficiency manifested tunnel vision, with caste pride, misunderstood professionalism, or exaggerated vitalism relegating administration to those unsuited to command troops in combat.

When Halder asked Rommel what he would need to conquer Egypt and the Suez Canal, Rommel replied that another two panzer corps should do. When Halder asked how Rommel proposed to supply that force, Rommel replied that was Halder’s problem. Rommel was being neither arrogant nor insouciant. He was expressing the mentality of the German army as reorganized after 1933. Even Halder declared after the war that quartermasters must never hamper the operational concept. Rapid expansion encouraged a more pragmatic, hands-on ethic than had been the case prior to the Great War. The pace Hitler demanded encouraged focusing on the operational level of war. Planning in turn revolved more than ever around operational considerations; the logisti cians were called in afterward.

Rommel saw as well as anyone on either side of the war that victory in the desert depended on supply. He also understood that he had relatively little control of his logistics. Germany was a guest in the Mediterranean, depending on Italian goodwill and Italian abilities to sustain a small expeditionary force. From his arrival, Rommel successfully cultivated Italian senior officers and gained the confidence of Italian fighting formations. The Ariete Armored Division was close enough in effectiveness to its German stablemates to be virtually the Afrika Korps’ third panzer division for much of the campaign. Italian infantry, artillery, and engineers time and again were the fulcrum on which the lever of Rommel’s mobile operations depended.

The Italian army was not as retrograde in its understanding of mobile war in tactical and operational contexts as is frequently assumed. By 1940, Italian theorists had studied German successes in Poland and France and developed a doctrine of guerra di rapido corso (fast-moving war). Strategically, however, their generals considered Rommel’s focus on Cairo and the Suez Canal as culpable overextension. The Wehrmacht High Command understood the Mediterranean theater’s strategic function was to cover the German southern flank during the decisive struggle in Russia. North Africa was an outpost, best secured by a flexible defense.

On the other hand, Hitler had been reappraising Germany’s strategic prospects ever since Pearl Harbor. The German navy was calling for systematic cooperation with Japan in a campaign designed to produce a junction in the Indian Ocean that would bring about the final collapse of the British Empire. For Hitler, the war’s globalization only confirmed his decision for a 1942 campaign against the Caucasian oil fields. Hitler saw the Japanese conquests in Asia as weakening Britain’s imperial position sufficiently that the presence of Axis troops in the southern foothills of the Caucasus would convince Britain to negotiate, and leave Russia to be finished off before the industrial potential of the United States, which Hitler admitted he had no idea how to defeat, could be developed and deployed.

If America’s entry into the war threatened the Reich with grand-strategic encirclement, the military situation provided a window of opportunity—six to eight months, perhaps—for consolidating Germany’s position in a continental redoubt of the kind depicted by geopoliticians like Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Mastery of what they called the “Heartland”—the Eurasian landmass—would set the stage for eventual mastery of the world.

Rommel had a complementary strategic vision. He believed, especially given the growing imbalance in material resources between Germany and its opponents, the best approach in North Africa involved maintaining the offensive at operational levels, taking advantage of German leadership and fighting power to demoralize the British, keep them off balance, and eventually create the opportunity for a decisive blow. That was a common mind-set among Germany’s panzer generals as the war reached its middle stages. Rommel, though anything but an “educated soldier” in the traditions of the German General Staff, took the concept one level higher. He realized British strength would continue to be renewed as long as North Africa remained the primary theater where Britain could deploy modern ground forces. Yet he was also convinced that through operational art he could conquer Egypt and eventually move northeast toward the Caucasus, providing the southern pincer of a strategic double envelopment that would secure the oil fields of south Russia and drive across Iraq and Persia, breaking permanently Britain’s power in the Middle East.

The prospect of Rommel at the head of a full-blooded Axis drive into the Middle East continues to engage counterfactual historians. It is a staple chapter in the alternative histories that show Germany winning World War II. But a crucial prerequisite for large-scale offensive operations in the Middle East was Axis maritime superiority in the Mediterranean. The Germans could make no significant contributions. The Italian navy had suffered heavy losses that its construction and repair facilities could not replace. Air power was no less vital, and here too the burden would have fallen on an Italian air force whose effectiveness was steadily declining. Obsolescent aircraft, lack of fuel, and indifference at senior levels proved a fatal trifecta. As for the Luftwaffe, those human and material resources not deployed to Russia were increasingly being reassigned to home defense.

Any Middle East offensive mounted from the Mediterranean would require a port. Alexandria, even if captured relatively undamaged, would be no more than the starting point for an increasingly long line of communication over terrain even more formidable, and less developed, than Russia. The survivability of German and Italian trucks in the mountains of Syria and the deserts of Iraq was likely to be less than on the Rollbahns of the Soviet Union. The Middle East lacked anything like a comprehensive, developed railway network. The problem of securing a thousand miles and more of natural guerilla/bandit country would have daunted the most brutal Nazi specialists in genocide.

The final damping factor of a Middle East campaign was its dependence on a successful drive through southern Russia to the Caucasus. Should Rommel’s panzer strength be doubled, without regard for the demands of the Russian front, or for how the additional tanks and trucks would be supplied, the offensive through Egypt would nevertheless remain a secondary operation. If German tanks did not appear in the southern passages of the Caucasus by early winter, any successes Rommel might achieve were likely to prove all too ephemeral. And yet the question remains: What might Rommel have achieved with a couple of additional panzer divisions, a little more gasoline . . . ?

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