Meanwhile the divisional commander’s column was still struggling towards Mechili. It had been delayed by adverse conditions – bad going, sand storms, and seas of shifting sand – and did not reach the objective until the morning of the 5 April.
Mechili was a trigh cross-roads settlement in which 8th Army had set up a dump and a strong point into which had been brought 3rd Indian Lorried Brigade. This unit had orders to halt the German advance upon Msus and presently added to its strength was the headquarters of 2nd Armoured Division, ‘M’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery, 3rd Australian Anti-tank Regiment, and a small number of miscellaneous units. These had fled into the box for the protection of the major units. On the German side there was anxiety in the columns pressing towards the place for they were running low on fuel. Rommel had to seize Mechili before he could swing his Corps northwards to Derna and ordered that the objective be seized without delay. He had flown over his columns following their progress through the desert and landing where necessary to give them detailed orders. Other Fieseler Storch aeroplanes from the command went out to locate and to direct the widespread columns on to their target. During the night, guided by Verey pistol flares, by searchlights shone into the air, and by a number of similar devices the Panzer company was brought up to Mechili.
The most northerly column of the trans-desert group was made up of the panzer regiment (minus the company with the southern column), a motorised artillery battalion, the anti-tank companies, and parts of Ariete Division. At Bir e! Gerrari the column turned on to the Benghasi-Mechili track but as a result of map error found that it was confronted by an impassable salt lake. Confusion piled upon confusion as the original error was compounded by poor navigation and, as a result of this, the whole column drove round in wide circles for some time and then ran out of fuel leaving the panzer regiment stranded in the desert.
On the Via Balbia the reconnaissance battalion fighting against Australian infantry and artillery rearguards captured Benghasi in the bright moonlit pre-dawn of 4 April. The town and its airfield were handed over to the advanced guard of Brescia Division and the battalion then swung towards Mechili to add strength to the panzer ring which was beginning to surround the ‘box’ there. Other small units which had been separated from the columns came in and Rommel led in 8th Machine Gun Battalion and then directed it to advance upon Derna and to cut the Via Balbia. Parts of the British force encircled at Mechili were ordered to break out towards Derna and by unlucky fate they encountered the machine gun battalion also heading for that town who flung them back into the Mechili box. But there were other delays to the machine gun battalion advance particularly around the Derna airfield and not until the reconnaissance battalion arrived during 7 April, to reinforce the attack and to bring it forward again, was it possible to cut the road. The town and the aerodrome fell quickly and more than 1000 prisoners were taken including two generals, Neame and O’Connor, and much equipment including several tanks.
The 8th Army reacted and established a series of blocking points. At nightfall on 7 April the 9th Australian Division supported % tanks had taken up position astride and thus blocking the Via Balbia. The Australian left flank was at Acroma, a town 15 miles west of Tobruk, and there was a small British force garrisoning the important box at El Adem to the south of the town.
The fighting around Mechili rose to a climax. Even though the Panzer regiment from the northern column was still stranded for lack of fuel other units of other columns had arrived to strengthen the encircling forces. During the night of 7/8 April the main attack went in. The Santa Maria detachment stormed from the east, the machine gun battalion from the north, and a group of 10 tanks of the southern column drove up to strike at the southern side of the box. Part of the British garrison thrust along the western track mounted on vehicles and armoured cars, but this escape attempt was brought under fire and was turned back by anti-tank guns and the machine guns of an Italian motor cycle company. Isolated small groups of British soldiers, which then struck to the south-east, broke through the ring but the main garrison stood fast and fought it out. The British and the Imperial troops battled on until the panzer company broke into the box and beat down all resistance. Five generals were among the prisoners but of more use to the Germans were the supplies and fuel which they seized, for these enabled their drive to continue. The 2000 prisoners brought problems for the northern column had still not arrived in force and the remaining German troops were thin on the ground. Not until the evening of the 8th had sufficient forces been gathered to renew the advance northwards to reach the coastal road and by the time that the Axis troops arrived at Tmimi the British had already evacuated it. The advanced guard of Brescia Division, whose task it had been to hold the British while the outflanking movement was carried out, had failed in this and did not arrive at the objective until 8 April.
With the seizure of Tmimi the province of Cyrenaica had been recaptured, the British had been thrown back, some of their principal commanders captured, and their armour beaten in battle. But the Australian Division had withdrawn in good order towards Tobruk and thus, although the Axis forces had gained a tactical victory, they had not defeated the British in the field.
There were other gains both in strategy and morale. Strategically the British Army fighting in Greece was now aware that its rear communications were threatened by the German victory in the desert. In the matter of morale Axis prestige rose, not only in the Arab countries but also among the people of Italy and in the Italian Army, for that force began to regain much of the confidence which it had lost as a result of earlier defeats.
All this had been accomplished with only a small loss of men and, although the fall-out of armoured vehicles was quite considerable, due to the long and exhausting march through the desert, the German recovery service was able to return most tanks to their units. Losses in soft-skinned trucks were made good from stocks captured from the British.
The greatest praise must go to Rommel for his incredible ability, energy, and resource. He seemed to be at every part of the front, leading an attack here, guiding a column there, and it was due to his fierce drive that the offensive succeeded. He was now supremely confident. He had grasped the secrets and the tactics of desert warfare. Not only did he have the measure of the terrain but also that of his enemies. Now with adequate supplies he could advance and he made no secret of the fact that he planned the final objective to be the Suez canal.
On 9 April orders were issued to continue the pursuit of the British towards Tobruk with all possible speed, and 5th Light Division, with the reconnaissance battalion in the van, stormed eastwards leaving the Italians to carry out security duties around Mechili.
Tactics are defined as the art of handling troops in the field to gain a desired end easily and smoothly. Weapons determine tactics and to a very great degree it is the ability to recognise the potential of a new weapon which shapes the course and the outcome of battles. It was Rommel’s flair for combining the new weapons of blitzkrieg, the tank and the dive-bomber with the classic foot and guns, which brought him tactical victories on so many occasions and, although his ability had been demonstrated as early as the French campaign of 1940, it was in North Africa that this military genius truly flowered.
He had come to Africa with tactical doctrines based on European experiences and then found that some of these had little or no relevance to the new theatre of operations. Faced by new problems the Germans applied themselves with their customary vigour and in the lulls between the summer and autumn fighting of 1941 produced tactics in which at first only the men of 15th Panzer Division were trained and these innovations having proved themselves in the winter campaign of 1941 and the spring campaign of 1942, they were developed as a battle drill and introduced into other panzer units.
Rommel’s doctrine was that all arms — infantry, guns, and tanks — should fight as fully integrated parts of a whole and that thereby they would be able to bring down a maximum concentration of effort upon any chosen target within the shortest possible time. In the desert this chosen target was the British armour whose destruction was the key to tactical success. One of the first discoveries made by panzer men in the desert was that the force did not need to move in column, which had been the practice in Europe, for given firm going the advance could be made in line abreast. Out of this knowledge evolved the tactic of a panzer unit advancing to contact already formed for battle and not having to waste time in deployment manoeuvring. A whole panzer division could move forward as a series of ‘boxes’ or ‘handkerchiefs’, each box forming an individual battle group and echeloned with a depth four times that of its front. The various components of the division were usually located within the box in the same position. The armoured brow made up of a tank battalion with artillery support. Then followed the second panzer battalion with heavier artillery and engineers, all forming another box. On the ‘enemy’ side of the divisional ‘box’ ranged the reconnaissance detachments and the anti-tank guns while located in the centre of the box were the soft-skinned vehicles and divisional headquarters. Behind this mass of trucks there were the heaviest guns of the divisional artillery and at the rear the infantry component, the remainder of the artillery, and the tank recovery details.
The course of the desert war was marked by short but intense bursts of furious activity followed by longer periods during which the winning side consolidated its gains and built up its strength for a further advance while the losing army constructed defence lines and brought up fresh supplies of men and materials to replace the losses which had been suffered. Thus the fighting, when it took place, was of a fluid nature and it was the cut and thrust of armoured conflict which characterised it; actions in which the fortunes of war changed almost hourly. Nevertheless, the idea of tank versus tank battles was considered by the Germans to be a wrong application of armoured power. Rommel chose to use instead the ‘bait’ tactic which he had applied with such success during the fighting in France. In this the panzer force would advance to contact and then retire ‘baiting’ the British whose standard reaction was always to mount a charge. When this happened the tank men of 8th Army, their vision obscured by clouds of dust and sand thrown up by the withdrawing panzers, would thrust towards and then be impaled upon the fire of a screen of guns. This simple tactic seldom failed until Montgomery arrived in the desert and halted these heroic but futile assaults.
This gun-line tactic was effective only given certain conditions; and in North Africa these conditions obtained for many years. The first of these was that the British ‘attacking front’ did not exceed the ‘gun density’. It must be appreciated that the most effective German tank destroyer was the 8.8cm gun and that this weapon could outrange every British tank gun. Thus one single gun could fight a battle with a squadron of tanks engaging the first tank at distances greater than a mile and would have had time to smash the other vehicles of an attacking wave before they could bring fire to bear. The British tank commanders unwittingly aided the German gunners by committing their forces piecemeal. Most tank attacks went as single regiments and it was rare that the ‘attacking front’ covered a two-regimental width. Thus the 8.8s could select their targets at leisure in the certain knowledge that their shot could penetrate 8.3cm of armour plate at a range of 2000 yards.
The second condition which made the gun line effective was that the British tank gun had a shorter range than the German gun which it was fighting. Until this situation changed the gun line remained the standard and most successful tactic used by the Panzer Army, for theirs was a concept of guns versus tanks.
The inclusion of the 8.8cm in their armoury ensured that the outcome of such a battle was nearly always victory for the artillery and so effective was that gun that it may be claimed with some accuracy that the German success at Gazala was built upon the forty-eight 8.8cm pieces which Rommel had under command. There were two other first-class anti-tank guns on the German establishment, the 5cm and the Russian 7.6cm, the latter considered to be the best anti-tank gun in the world.
Another of the advantages enjoyed by the Germans was that their anti-tank guns and their tank guns could fire high explosive as well as solid shot. Thus their guns could bring fire to bear upon the British anti-tank gun line and by high explosive shells destroy it or at least neutralise it. It was not until the summer of 1942 with the introduction of the 6-pounder anti-tank gun and the Grant tank gun, both of which pieces fired high explosive in addition to armour piercing shot, that 8th Army was able to deal effectively with the Axis anti-tank gun lines.
Against the three first-class German anti-tank guns the British could oppose at first only with the 2-pounder, a weapon of such poor performance that it could only be fired with hope of penetration against the thinner side plates of enemy armour at ranges below 200 yards. Being thus almost totally ineffective this weapon could neither support a British tank assault nor could it defend infantry against panzer attack. To act as an anti-tank gun the 25-pounder was pressed into service and weapons were taken from their main task, that of supplying protection for the foot soldiers. Being therefore without proper artillery support the British infantry relied for protection upon the armour and this restriction bred among the tank units the feeling that they were being prevented from achieving their prime purpose — manoeuvre — by being tied down to the foot troops. The infantry, on the other hand, was convinced that the armour deserted it in time of need.
The German armour depended upon the two main types Panzer III and IV and during the years of campaigning these were up-gunned and up-armoured so that their already great capabilities were enhanced and their effectiveness increased. Both of these types were capable of subduing any tank which the British could put into the field. On the British side the Matilda was a slow vehicle with a maximum speed of 16mph and a main armament of the 2-pounder gun; the Matilda was to all intents and purposes defenceless. The Grant tank which came into the battle at Gazala, during the summer of 1942, helped in part to restore the imbalance through its 7.5cm gun, but this weapon had only a limited traverse and was set too low in the hull. Thus the Grant could not take a ‘hull down’ position but had to expose itself almost completely in order to fire its main armament.
German attacks against British positions followed a battle drill. A preliminary reconnaissance would determine the sector to be attacked and an armoured thrust would be made to divert attention from the main thrust. This main effort would be made by several ‘boxes’ of tanks which would advance at a given speed with carefully regulated intervals between the individual tanks and the individual ‘boxes’. The assault would roll forward and by a combination of fire and movement the position would be taken. Once this had happened a gun line would be formed to protect the flank while the panzers pressed the attack forward.
Reconnaissance was of the pattern common on European battlefields and in the early months Panzer II vehicles were used to screen the front and flanks of a battle formation. These lightly armoured and undergunned, obsolete vehicles were pushed forward of the main body about 8 miles, that is to the extreme range of their wireless sets. Up with the forward reconnaissance detachments was also a small but highly specialised group whose task it was to listen to wireless messages which passed between the British armour and its commanders, and to lay this intelligence before the divisional commander so that the direction and size of British thrusts could be countered.
The movement of Axis supply columns was made difficult by British patrols; one German report warned that not even the tracks behind their own lines could be considered as absolutely safe from enemy attack, and for a short time a convoy system was introduced. A continual problem had been the delay which occurred while the fighting group waited for its supplies of fuel and ammunition to catch up, and to overcome this a number of soft-skinned vehicles loaded with these essential supplies travelled with the battle group and were protected from attack by being held in the middle of the divisional box. An officer of the quartermaster’s department was attached to tactical headquarters, forward with the battle group, and was linked by radio to the main quartermaster’s department back at Corps.
In the fast-moving fighting on the desert battlefields the problems which usually confronted a military commander were increased and the difficulties of fighting a modern battle from the rear, which had been encountered even in the slow-moving days of the early campaigns in Europe, proved impossible to resolve in Africa. Situations arose which demanded immediate solutions. It was, therefore, essential that not only the divisional commander but the whole of his tactical headquarters, the forward observation officer for the artillery, and the panzer regiment’s commander be well forward to control and to direct operations. The whole command echelon was carried in special armoured vehicles. It was also essential that the elaborate communications procedures which had obtained in Europe be simplified and for this purpose the divisional commander’s vehicle was fitted with an ultra short-wave radio so that he could both listen in to the orders being given to the panzer regiment and give his own instructions direct, without going through the standard but time-wasting practices. The remainder of the leading group as well as all the other boxes listened in on the medium-wave band and were directly linked with the divisional commander. Thus he could deploy his forward units and coordinate the panzer assault with that of the supporting arms in the rear boxes. Between the divisional reconnaissance groups and headquarters there was a signals link mounted in an armoured vehicle. A simple system of set pattern orders made the transmission and execution of battlefield manoeuvres a speedier process than had been the case in Europe and constant practice of the manoeuvres as well as of other battle drills reduced time-wasting and in the artillery units enabled these to go into action with surprising speed.
The presence of generals, even of the Corps commander himself, upon the battlefield not only speeded up decision making but improved the morale of the fighting soldier for he could see for himself that the commanders were undergoing the same privations and sharing the dangers of battle with him. To the German front line soldier in Africa the generals were not shadowy figures in a headquarters miles removed from the fighting but were physically present upon the field of battle. This personal presence helped to produce a good esprit de corps. By contrast the Italian and British High Commands were remote and their decisions arrived at usually after staff conferences had often been overtaken by events leaving new crises to be resolved. It was not uncommon for Rommel or indeed any senior commander to take over the direction of a battalion in battle, a situation which may not have been very comfortable for regimental officers but did produce results. It is recorded that once, at Mechili, while flying over his advancing columns Rommel saw a unit halted for no apparent reason and radioed to the officer commanding that unless the advance was renewed he would land his Fieseler Storch and take over command. The unit moved on.
The personality of Erwin Rommel dominated not only the Axis armies but, indeed, the whole African campaign. As a young officer during the First World War he had been awarded the highest German decoration for bravery, the Pour le Merite, for an action on the Italian Front and in the inter-war years he had produced a number of textbooks on infantry tactics. After serving as commander of Hitler’s Escort Battalion in Poland Rommel had taken over command of 7th Panzer Division and in a most determined way had converted the minor role of his division into the spearhead of the panzer force which defeated the western Allies during 1940. Hitler had personally chosen Rommel to command the Africa Corps and was to have his faith justified.
If only Rommel’s faith in Hitler had met with the same loyalty then, there is no doubt that the Axis powers would have been strategically successful in the fighting in Africa but Rommel was the victim of his superiors. The supplies which they promised him either never arrived at all or were reduced in number before they reached Africa. He was to see artillery pieces of new and startling power, which had been promised to him, sent to the 5th Panzer Army in Tunisia. His armies were halted when the flow of petrol stopped, the artillery ceased firing for lack of ammunition, the tanks he asked for were diverted to other fronts, and against all these breaches of faith he could make no protest for he was entangled in an extraordinary hierarchy of command.
Africa was an Italian theatre of operations and Rommel as commander of only the mobile forces of the desert army was subordinate to an Italian general. Then the person of Kesselring, the German Supreme Commander South was interposed and the Commando Supremo in Rome was often in accord with Kesselring’s points of view. Between Rommel and Hitler there also stood the OKH and the OKW, not to mention Benito Mussolini who was not only the de facto Head of the Italian State but also a personal friend of Hitler.
Each and all of these layers of obstruction prevented Rommel from achieving the objectives which he had set himself and his men. He was a tireless soldier and demanded of his troops the same indifference to hard conditions and to privations that he himself had. He drove his men hard and his vehicles to the limits of their endurance, allowing his soldiers little tune for rest and his panzers less than adequate time for maintenance. His whole attention was concentrated upon the objectives of righting and winning the desert war. Not for him the problems of logistics and the difficulties of supply. His attitude to his desert quartermasters can be best summed up in the plea which Churchill made on another occasion, ‘Give us the tools and we shall finish the job’. But for the greater part of his service in Africa Rommel was bedevilled by two factors which negated the victories which he won and prevented him exploiting the successes which had been achieved. The first of these was a lack of supplies and the second was the over elaborate command structure which allowed him no freedom of action or of manoeuvre.
Rommel led his men from the front and the charge that he neglected staff duties to direct operations personally is a valid one but the peculiar conditions of desert warfare demanded the presence of a taskmaster on the battlefield.
He was a poor subordinate and like Nelson preferred not to see — or in his case hear – the orders, warnings, and injunctions which his superiors at every level of command gave him on the conduct of operations. With the ebb of the Axis tide at El Alamein in October 1942 the Commando Supremo had its revenge upon the man who had come to the desert and had made it an area which bore the imprint of his military genius. Demands for his resignation were made each time his understrength armies were forced from one untenable position to another. And always he had to face the lack of supplies, the unkept promises, the demands to carry out some other task above the capabilities of his armies until at last he returned to Hitler to make one more desperate plea for supplies that would enable a bridgehead in Tunisia to be held. Flamboyantly, Hitler promised Rommel that he would lead an Axis army against Casablanca — so little knowledge of the true situation did the German leader have — and with that Rommel had to be content. He never returned to Africa and thus avoided seeing the Army which he had so often led into victories pass into the bitterness of final defeat.