Rommel arrives to Africa I

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Rommel arrives to Africa I
Panzer IIF
Panzer IIIJ

It is a military truism that supply services must be
established, lines of communication laid out, and depots set up before combat
operations can begin, for without these fundamentals a fighting force is
restricted either to that which it can carry or to being forced to live off the
land. The first German troops which debarked in Tripoli on 11 February 1941,
were, therefore, supply specialists and water purifying teams who immediately
set about establishing store depots, ration, fuel, and ammunition points, and
generally preparing the area for the arrival of the fighting troops.

The German combat units which were despatched to Africa were
the only Axis soldiers which could be considered as ready for battle and
because the original task of the force had been foreseen as a blocking
operation the group consisted principally of a number of machine gun battalions
and anti-tank units. Artillery support was afforded by .a single motorised
artillery battalion and the services detachments were a signals and an engineer
company. At a later date 5th Panzer Regiment was to come under command and this
addition of light and medium tanks increased the force’s potency. A battalion
of self-propelled (SP) anti-tank guns which arrived during March at the port of
Tripoli was not taken on strength of 5th Light Division but had an independent

From 13 February onwards the combat troops began to arrive
regularly; at first elements of 3rd Motorised Reconnaissance Battalion and 39th
Anti-tank Battalion and then, during the first weeks of March the artillery and
armoured fighting vehicles were unloaded. Although Hitler’s name for the new
unit was Africa Corps, it was not organised as such until a much later date and
for a long time there were neither Corps troops nor supply columns and the
second German division, 15th Panzer Division, which would have raised the group
to Corps level was not expected to arrive in Tripoli until the beginning of

The military situation in those anxious February days was
that the British had reached El Agheila and their armoured reconnaissance units
had appeared to the west of that place. The Axis command had to anticipate the
British intention. Would Wavell go on to capture Tripoli and to destroy not
only the Italian Army but also a major part of the Italian Colonial Empire, or
would time be given to Rommel and his battle-ready troops to establish a
defensive line in the desert south of the gulf of Sirte? The Italians
anticipated an early resumption of the offensive by Wavell’s army, which they
estimated to contain two armoured and three motorised divisions. The German
commanders were less inclined to this appreciation for they reasoned that any
advance by the British from El Agheila to Tripoli would require that Army to
cover a distance of over 400 miles, the greatest part of which advance would be
through a waterless and empty wasteland.

The British offensive, which had just smashed Graziani, had
covered more than 800 miles and the losses of men and material which would have
been incurred during that operation would have to be made good before the
offensive could roll again. Then, too, there would be supply problems; for
Wavell’s lines of communication had been extended and any attempt to use the
ports along the coast, in particular Benghasi, would be interrupted by the
Luftwaffe whose Xth Afrika Corps was now operating in Africa against British
targets and which had begun to bomb Benghasi as early as 12 February.

Rommel first sent his troops to positions in the empty
desert of the Sirte where they gave backbone to the Italians in that area and
prepared to delay any British advance. On 16 February, 3rd Reconnaissance
Battalion travelled 360 miles along the Via Balbia, took up position east of
Sirte, and sent out patrols which made contact and drove off the British
reconnaissance detachments near En Nofilia. This successful clash showed that
the British had still not reached that area in any strength. The reconnaissance
battalion then advanced to reconnoitre at Arco dei Fileni, some 100 miles to
the east, where the tactical headquarters of 5th Light Division was established
and to which the divisional units were directed to advance, once they had
debarked in Tripoli.

The Brescia and Pavia Divisions were set to build defences
in the Sirte around which Rommel formed a blocking line, set along the high
ground approximately 20 miles west of El Agheila. The right wing of these
positions was touching a salt marsh but, to guard the wide open, deep southern
flank, patrols were sent to occupy the Marada Oasis, 80 miles south of El
Agheila and Ariete Division was also positioned to give greater strength to the
southern flank.

At the beginning of March, 5th Panzer Regiment arrived in
Tripoli, held a ceremonial parade to show the flag, and moved up to the
temporarily stagnant front. The Africa Corps was now strong enough to act
offensively and could plan for the recapture of Cyrenaica. Rommel’s original
intention, to wait for the arrival of 15th Panzer Division before going over to
the offensive, was discarded and now he urged Gariboldi, his superior officer,
to bring the Italian divisions forward. Reluctantly Gariboldi agreed and
released Ariete, the armoured division and the partly-motorised Brescia. Rommel
then took this latter formation and put it into the line to relieve his German

On 23 March, after discussions with both Hitler and
Mussolini, Rommel grouped his Corps and on the following day sent a battle
group in to attack 8th Army reconnaissance troops in El Agheila. There was a
short, fierce fire fight and the British withdrew closely pursued by the
Germans. The next objective was the Marsa el Brega gap between the sea and the
difficult country to the south. Even at this early stage in his new command
Rommel had shown an independence in the conduct of his operations which often
conflicted with the intentions and even the orders of his superiors
-particularly those of General Gariboldi, a militarily timid man. He had
intended the Marsa el Brega operation to be only a reconnaissance to establish
British strength in that area. The attack, he had told Rommel, must not go in
without his approval and even OKH had stressed caution for it did not
anticipate that the Axis forces would have sufficient strength to reach
Agedabia, the principal objective, before May. Africa Corps commander had other
ideas and planned to capture Marsa el Brega by a pincer operation. The stronger
of two columns, containing the panzer regiment, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion,
8th Machine Gun Battalion, and elements from the anti-tank gun detachment, was
to advance along the Via Balbia supported by artillery. The second column, made
up of anti-tank guns mounted as SPs, together with 2nd Machine Gun Battalion
was to outflank the British positions from the south and through this threat
speed the assault of the main column.

In the event only the main column came into action and when
the attack opened on 30 March, it ran up against strong British defences manned
by 3rd Armoured Brigade lying behind extensive mine-fields and supported by an
aggressive Royal Air Force, which attacked and delayed the German advance. Not
until the second day of the offensive, and in daytime temperatures of over
80°F, did the infantry and the panzer regiment, supported by 8.8cm guns firing
over open sight and with Stukas dive-bombing ahead of them, break through and
by pursuing the British closely allow them no time to form fresh defence lines.
The southern column, meanwhile, had failed to reach the battlefield at all due
to a combination of navigational errors and bad going.

The results of this minor affair were all positive: the
British had been driven from the last good position blocking the south-western
passage into Cyrenaica, German troops had proved themselves capable of fighting
a desert campaign, and 8th Army was not as strong as Italian intelligence
officers had believed it to be. Rommel began to consider whether he might not
open an offensive, using the forces at his disposal rather than wait until the
panzer division arrived from Germany. He knew that to carry out this scheme
would flout the authority of his Italian superior, that he would be acting
without Hitler’s consent or knowledge, and that he would be ignoring the
advance of OKH. He made the decision and ordered 5th Light Division to resume
the advance upon Agedabia. On 2 April it drove up the Via Balbia, in a compact
group with the reconnaissance battalion in the van followed by the machine gun
battalion. The panzers were out guarding the flanks and from horizon to horizon
the sky was filled with pillars of dust as the vehicles ploughed their way
forward. British artillery fire forced the reconnaissance unit to deploy and to
take up battle formation but no sooner had the unit shaken itself out for
battle than the rearguard withdrew – a wearying tactic which the British used
throughout the morning. Tanks from 8th Army were reported to be in position
south east of Agedabia and Streich commanding 5th Light ordered the panzer
regiment, the anti-tank detachment, and the machine gun battalion to move east
of the road. The machine gunners began to move into position but were halted
south of the town. Rommel, up with the forward troops in his usual fashion,
swung the reconnaissance battalion round the left flank; a move which brought
it floundering in a salt marsh. The panzer regiment then struck at the British
forces, feinting and withdrawing, and enticing the British armour on to the
screen of 8.8 cm guns which stood waiting. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment, true to
cavalry tradition, charged the enemy and were brought under fire by the 8.8s at
almost point-blank range. Twenty-five of the British vehicles lay broken or
burning in front of the gun line and then the 2nd Battalion of 5th Panzer
Regiment swung back and drove the RTR, off the field and pursued them
northwards. Meanwhile the Tower Hamlets Rifles, a London territorial unit, had
come under attack and had lost a company. Only another tank charge brought the hard-pressed
British infantry relief from the German panzers.

This pressure against the British southern flank reacted
upon the stubborn defence which was being put up against the machine gun
battalion on the central sector. Thus, by midday the machine gunners had
advanced across an area dotted with the palls of black and acrid smoke rising
from tanks which 5th Panzer Regiment had ‘brewed up’ and vast clouds hanging in
the sky above depots which 8th Army had destroyed before their withdrawal.

The reconnaissance battalion having dragged itself from the
salt marsh pushed on to the town and joined forces with the machine gun
battalion. Their combined strength brought the advance across the
Tripoli-Cyrenaica frontier and onward to Zuetina. Nightfall brought a halt to
the fighting and the divisional units, having laagered, made preparations to
maintain the advance during the following day and to pursue closely the enemy
who was withdrawing upon Benghasi. Rommel’s firm order was to keep contact with
the British forces. They must not be allowed to shake off the German advanced
units. During the night the Italian divisions and the Santa Maria detachment
closed up on the German spearhead.

The battle was proceeding to that date in the manner in
which Rommel had planned that it should go. The Agedabia wells had been taken,
the way into Cyrenaica was open, and air reconnaissance as well as ground
observation indicated that the British were abandoning the province in some
disorder and were withdrawing upon Benghasi leaving behind them huge masses of
stores. The immediate threat to Tripoli had been averted and the objective
which OKH had hoped might be accomplished during May was in German hands by

It was on the battlefield at Agedabia that Rommel decided
upon his next and very controversial move. He realised that it was useless to
drive the British before the German armour; the 8th Army must be smashed in
open battle. It will be seen from the map that, starting at El Agheila,
Cyrenaica projects as a huge bulge, the Bight of Bomba, into the Mediterranean
and that the Via Balbia follows this coastline. Rommel reasoned that the
British retreat would be by road and, if this were so, then a swift advance
along native tracks and via Msus and Mechili to Derna, that is across the chord
of the bulge, would bring his forces to the eastern border of Cyrenaica behind
the British and thus cut them off from their bases. He expressed this intention
to his allies and to his staff; most of them were horrified for he was
suggesting that a major military grouping of limited desert experience should
cross a 400-mile expanse of waterless desert. The Italians said that such an
operation was out of the question.

It required months of preparation; the danger that columns
might become separated and lost in the almost trackless expanse was too great
and, in any case, the sand seas and the mountainous djebel were both
impassable. Rommel who had personally reconnoitred the routes from the air
declared them to be passable. In any case the British had traversed the desert
and what they could do the Axis troops could also accomplish. His own
quartermaster’s department pointed out that there would be problems with both
water and fuel and that tyres would be cut to shreds in the rough,
cross-country going. Rommel proposed the most draconian measures to overcome
the fuel and water crises. The forward movement of all German and Italian
fighting units was halted. Every available truck which could be taken,
commandeered, or requisitioned was assembled and soon there was a lorried force
of more than 800 vehicles.

Each lorry was to ferry fuel and water to the front-line
troops and when sufficient had been brought forward the trucks would be
prepared for the trans-desert trip. With the fighting column’s lorries would be
6 days fuel, 5 days water ration, 5 days food including two days hard tack, and
only sufficient ammunition for one day’s battle, for it was not considered that
there would be any fighting during the approach march to Derna. In the supply
columns whatever was the lorry’s normal load would be halved and the balance
made up of petrol. Rommel’s intention was that his whole force would be a
self-contained combat group. Within two days the whole scheme had been worked
out and the fuel supplies had been brought forward. The great desert trek could
begin. The battle plan was straightforward. There were to be several columns.
Those of the left flank – a German reconnaissance battalion and Brescia
Division — who were to hold the British and slow down the pace of their
withdrawal, were to advance along the Via Balbia and go on to capture Benghasi.
This column would then divide and the main body would thrust towards the
strategically important cross-roads at Mechili, while the second and weaker
column from Brescia Division would continue up the road exerting pressure upon
the British before going on to capture Derna.

All the trans-desert columns were to head, by various
tracks, towards Mechili. One of the major columns would be divided to form a
pincer movement aimed at the objective. One main group would form the outer
left wing and 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, forming the inner wing of these two
columns, was to advance to Solluch at which point a column of empty oil drums
pointed due east marking the desert track to the objective and along which the
machine gunners were to advance. The main, southern pincer led by the commander
of 5th Light Division, was to move towards Mechili along the Trigh el Abd. This
column was headed by 8th Machine Gun Battalion and followed by an anti-tank
company, a panzer company, the Italian Santa Maria detachment, a motor cycle
company, and a motorised artillery battalion from Ariete Division. Rommel’s
intention was two-fold: he was trying to create the impression that the Axis
forces were stronger than in fact they were and, that the German objective was
a tactical one — Benghasi — and not a strategic one, the destruction of 8th
Army’s field force.

A report written after the operation and dealing with the
column of soft-skinned vehicles which followed the machine gun battalion is
revealing for the details it gives of the difficulties of desert driving. As
the convoys of trucks headed across the desert in pursuit of the tank columns,
pillars of dust rose high into the air and obscured the column. Shrouded by the
thick blanket of hot dust and with the vision impaired even more by the khamsin
which was blowing, drivers moved their trucks out of line to avoid the dust of
the main in front. Thus the convoy extended in width as the drivers moved
almost in line abreast and the dust cloud which hung above it stretched for
miles, giving the appearance of a whole armoured division on the move. Daylight
navigation was by compass for no reliance could be placed on the Italian maps
which had inaccuracies up to 20 miles. The most prized possession was a set of
British maps which were not only accurately marked but also showed such vital
information as whether the going was good or bad.

Radiators boiled as the trucks struggled up the steep slopes of the djebel, a high stony escarpment, and during the following day the going worsened as the column struggled forwards through seas of loose sand which bogged down the vehicles. That day, 4 April, was a day of despair at the slow going but three broken down tanks, abandoned en route were put into running order and taken on strength. The column commander drove through a fierce sandstorm which had halted his group and reached Mechili where he reported the arrival of his convoy. By evening the trucks had rolled in and a petrol point had been set up. There was sufficient food, water, and ammunition; only lack of petrol, the life blood of panzer operations, had caused some worry.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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