By J C Kotze.
Rommel Recaptures Cyrenaica, January 1942
” The Foreign Press Opinion of me is improving again” – Rommel in a letter to his wife on 25 January.
Once Rommel had determined that Cyrenaica had to be sacrificed in order to save his army, events moved quickly. The Panzergruppe slipped away by night, Crüwell leading DAK and Piazzoni’s Mobile Corps along the southern periphery of the Jebel Akhdar. In the meantime, using the coast road, Navarinni’s unmotorised infantry divisions trudged slowly westwards to Mechili and Derna.
Bastico and Cavallero tried to halt the retreat on this line on the 17th, but Rommel refused to be swayed and the retreat continued almost without pause.
Ritchie had not expected Rommel to quit the Gazala position so quickly and when the pursuit finally got under way, the main body of the Panzergruppe was long gone. (1)
Rommel had little choice in the matter. The Panzergruppe had burned up much of its human and material resources in the exhausting struggle to contain “Crusader”. What Rommel needed now was reinforcements on a massive scale to fill out his depleted ranks. More importantly, he needed them right away. But as the Comando Supremo’s colonel Montezemolo had warned him on the 5th of December, the Panzergruppe could expect nothing more than bare essentials until the end of December when Luftflotte 2 would arrive in Sicily. By mid December, however, the pitiless combination of combat losses and attrition had worn down the Panzergruppe to a mere shadow of its former self.
The Luftwaffe’s Transportverband was also losing heavily. An entry for 20 December 1941 in the diary of Fliegerführer Afrika , Von Waldau, reveals that 20 Junkers transport aircraft were lost on the previous day. Of this number, 14 machines were lost due to contaminated fuel. To cap it all, the Luftwaffe had now lost the airstrip at Derna, where South African armoured cars shot up 9 Ju-52’s on the ground on the 19th. (2)
By the 20th Rommel had already announced his intentions to take his army even further west – to Agedabia. Von Waldau confided to his private diary that it was not possible to judge the wisdom of Rommel’s decision. “It is all a question of supplies. We are losing a lot of equipment…” (3)
The Panzergruppe’s supply situation only began to recover with the arrival of a German ship – the Ankara – in Benghazi on 19 December. Some 90 panzers of various marks had been carefully distributed between the merchantmen of Convoy 52. As a further precaution the convoy was split and the Ankara diverted to Benghazi. (4) There was a massive breech in the small port’s sea wall and the harbour canal was blocked by wrecks. Benghazi was, however, much closer to the fighting. Forewarned by Ultra Intelligence, the British knew beforehand that the Ankara was headed for Benghazi. But since devastated Benghazi lacked the necessary dockside cranes to off-load heavy tanks, British Military Intelligence in Cairo felt confident that the port was unsuitable for the landing of tanks. (5)
It was also a matter of opinion whether a ship of the Ankara’s tonnage would be able to dock at Benghazi at all. Aided by a strong tide, the Ankara succeeded in penetrating the blockaded harbour canal. The 4,700 ton merchantmen had originally been built to ferry railway locomotives to South America and came equipped with derricks strong enough to handle very heavy loads. It had little difficulty putting its precious cargo of 22 panzers, several artillery batteries and other supplies ashore. (6) On the same day another 23 tanks arrived in Tripoli. Two Panzer companies’ worth of tanks (45 panzers) however failed to arrive due the sinking of their transports on the 13th. (7) Meagre though these reinforcements were, the Panzergruppe had nevertheless been reinforced to the tune of 45 tanks.
It soon turned out that a repeat of the Ankara’s daring feat would be impossible. The pursuing Eight Army was closing in on the Panzergruppe. By 21 December a small British column was already nearing Benina, a mere 30 km from Benghazi. By the 22nd, the remainder of the Support Group advanced southward from Charuba towards Msus and Antelat. To the south the 22nd Guards Brigade were nearing Sceleidima, Antelat and Msus. (8)
For the Panzergruppe in Benghazi, the writing was clearly on the wall. But by the time British finally arrived, the Panzergruppe had stripped Benghazi’s supply dumps clean. The Afrika Korps’ trucks were sent south to Agedabia jam-packed with such rare delicacies as butter and preserves. Not surprisingly, morale among the men began to rise again. While it was easy to boost the morale of the Afrika Korps with cigarettes, chocolates, fruit and preserves, there was no easy way to do the same with the Italians. Their Generals were resentful of Rommel; some Italian units were on the verge of mutiny. (9)
These were indeed trying times for the Panzergruppe. Fifteen Panzer’s Neumann-Silkow and 90th Light’s Summermann had been killed. The entire staff of the 21st Panzer Division, who’s commander maj-genl Von Ravenstein had been captured, had suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be evacuated. In addition to these losses the Panzergruppe had been forced to abandon 14,000 men along the Sollum front and Bardia fortress to an uncertain fate. The besieged garrisons were wholly dependent on what could be brought in by sea and air. As the commander of the so-called Kampfgruppe Ost, Maj.-Gen. Arthur Schmitt, reported to General Gause in a letter on 18 December 1941, there was little planning evident in the Axis supply effort. Some of the useless items delivered to Bardia included 4 tons of motor oil (brought in by a Marinefährprahm barge) and 60 tons of Diesel oil landed by an Italian submarine. Schmitt assured the Panzergruppe’s Chief of Staff that he was prepared for a long siege, but asked Gause for more arms, especially mortars.
Gause received Scmitt’s letter on 20 December, but the Panzergruppe was in such bad shape that Gause could offer Schmitt little more than moral support. The Panzergruppe itself had no mortars available, Gause explained.
Rommel had no illusions about the frontier garrisons chances of survival. Accordingly, he wrote to Genls. Schmitt and. de Giorgis and told them that he was unable to come to their rescue by land. Evacuation by the Regia Navale was also impossible. All the same, Rommel was convinced that his troops would continue with their heroic resistance. He promised to do everything in his power to maintain the frontier garrisons – a U-boat would ferry supplies each day. Rome had promised weapons, but Rommel felt obligated to grant his generals on the frontier freedom of action. He authorized Schmidt and de Giorgis to surrender with honour once all their ammunition and provisions had been exhausted. (10)
Rommel’s letter to his wife on 20 December must have made for grim reading: “Some supplies have arrived – the first since October,” he wrote. ” My commanding officers are ill – all those who aren’t dead or wounded.” (11)
Disease, however, was not Rommel’s greatest worry. In a letter dated 22 December, Rommel complained that he had “Little ammunition and petrol, no air support.” Morosely he added, “Quite the opposite with the enemy.” (12}
The situation on the ground indeed favoured the British. To the pursuers a repeat of General O’Connor’s wholesale annihilation of the retreating Italian forces a year earlier did not seem too far fetched. For a while even key members of the Panzergruppe became panicky. On 20 December Suemmermann’s successor at the helm of 90 Light confessed to his staff: “Nobody can see any escape. The British outnumber us enormously. The puzzle is, why are they following so slowly? Time and again they enabled us to dodge encirclement. There is only one explanation: their awe of General Rommel, and his capacity to surprise – that’s why they’re following so hesitantly.” (13)
But the 8th Army’s sluggishness had more to do with overburdened supply lines than their awe of Rommel. The aggressive Axis garrisons on the frontier made it impossible to use the coast road and the 8th Army’s supply columns were forced to make an exhausting detour far to the south along desert tracks via Conference Cairn.(14) The Panzergruppe’s abandoned supply dumps, meanwhile, yielded large stacks of the detested tinned pork, but not the chianti, vermouth and canned delicacies Wavell’s veterans remembered from their previous Libyan offensive. SAPA’s Correspondent reported enthusiastically on the “… fuel, armaments and ammunition… which are falling into our hands – abandoned by the Germans and Italians in the haste of their retreat.” (15) Much of the Axis supplies captured were however of little use to the British, and there was no question of 8th Army racing forward on the crumbs left behind by the Panzergruppe. By 23 December Jagdgeschwader 27 had been chased off its base at Magrun and 36 Axis aircraft lay smouldering at the airstrip at Agedabia, victims of a SAS demolition raid. But by the end of the day on the 23rd, the Panzergruppe had struck back. Reinvigorated by the consignment of tanks brought in by the Ankara, 15 Panzer had turned on its pursuers and badly mauled 3rd Royal Tanks near Antelat. This sudden counter – attack came as a complete surprise to the British. Not only did they fail to detect any signs of the impending attack, but their intelligence had placed the bulk of the Axis armour further to the north, near Benghazi. (16) On the same day the 22nd Armoured Brigade set out from Mechili with 80 cruisers and 30 “honeys”. They got as far as Saunnu where lack of petrol forced them to halt for 24 hours. Acting on the faulty assumption that the Axis armour was further to the north, it was hoped that the Brigade would be able to intercept the fugitive Panzergruppe in the Beda Fomm area by Christmas Eve. (17) No interception materialized.
Crüwell’s Afrika Korps had concentrated further to the south near Agedabia. Since Agedabia was difficult to defend, waiting for the revitalized might of the 22nd Armoured Brigade with its 110 tanks to reach the place was out of the question. The Italian formations were in a bad way – and so the task of launching a counter-attack fell on the much-depleted Afrika Korps.
On 27 December 1941 Crüwell attacked Brigadier Scott Cockburn’s 22nd Armoured Brigade. Crüwell had few tanks – only 60 – and of these 16 were lightly armed reconnaissance tanks. As before, however, it would be the howitzers and anti-tank guns of the Afrika Korps that would decide the matter. For the 8th Army Crüwell’s sudden counterstroke came at the worst possible time. Gen. Godwin Austen had dispatched 22nd Guards Brigade to take on DAK in the Antelat area, while 22nd Armoured Brigade manoevred to outflank the enemy from the south. This move left a dangerous gap between the British forces. Crüwell was quick to take advantage, and in the sharp action that followed Scott-Cockburn lost 37 tanks. Scott-Cockburn was unable to repay the compliment and the Afrika Korps’ losses amounted to a mere 7 panzers.
Three days later, on the 30th, Rommel ordered Crüwell to have another go at the bruised 22nd Armoured Brigade at Belandah, to the south of Agedabia. The Brigade lost another 23 of its surviving tanks, while Crüwell again lost only 7 tanks. As far as the 22nd Armoured Brigade was concerned, the hunt was over.
The Afrika Korps’ success against the 22nd Armoured Brigade meant that Rommel could now continue to evacuate his slow-moving Italian infantry to the safety of Mersa Brega without further interference from 8th Army. (18)
“It is evident there is still plenty of fight left in the enemy – at least in the German contingent. In spite of their heavy defeat, long retreat and serious losses, they appear pretty formidable still,” read one account published in the South African newspaper The Star on 30 December 1941.
On the same day Rommel wrote to his wife: “Their attempt to encircle us and force us back against the sea has failed.” (19) On New Year’s Eve, the men of the Afrika Korps celebrated their success by singing the German National Anthem and firing tracer rounds into the sky. It was an ominous portent of what was to come. “Make no mistake, this force is by no means beaten.,” a respectful 22nd Armoured Brigade reported to Cairo. (20) General Auchinleck’s view on the subject was no less glum. In a letter dated 1 January, he told Ritchie that he feared the Germans were outsmarting, outgunning and outmanoevring 8th Army.
By the end of December 1941 Panzergruppe Afrika had returned to its old stomping grounds in the Mersa Brega position on the Big Sirte, to the West of El Agheila. Virtually all the ground won during Rommel’s original Blitz offensive had been lost in the course of the Panzer Gruppe’s retreat. The 8th Army now controlled Derna, Barce and Benghazi, together with the strategic airstrips of the Cyrenaican “bulge.” (21) Nevertheless the Panzergruppe’s situation was less grim than it seemed at first glance. The retreat had taken place more or less at the Panzer Gruppe Gruppe’s own pace – Rommel’s firm grip had ensured that the it never became a rout – and slowly enough for the Gruppe to take 9000 prisoners along. But that was all in the past. Of more immediate significance was the arrival from the USSR of Luftflotte 2 in Sicily by year’s end. The Luftwaffe would now be strong enough over the Western Mediterranean to allow safe passage to the Axis convoys and be able to deal with the British on Malta.
Nevertheless the New Year opened disastrously for the Panzergruppe. On 30 December the 2nd South African Division launched what was to become a decisive assault on Bardia. Earlier attempts against Bardia had not gone well. This time, however, the attackers had massive artillery support – the largest concentration of field and medium guns yet achieved in the Middle East. Bardia was now on the receiving end of an artillery barrage that would not be surpassed in sheer volume of fire until the Battle of Alamein ten months later. (22) On 2 January at 1 O’clock a.m., having already learned that the airborne battalion on which he had pinned his last hopes would never arrive,Gen. Schmitt sent Rommel a final signal from his H.Q. in Wadi Gerfan and informed his C-in-C that further resistance was futile. “We are lost; greetings to all,” went the final radio signal transmitted by Bardia’s Italian garrison to their HQ at Sirte. An hour later came the cold reply: “Courage, we will conquer. We will not forget to send your greetings.”
With the surrender of Bardia’s garrison of 7775 German and Italian troops, the Sollum-Halfaya sector’s position was fatally weakened. The South African troops in Bardia now had a commanding view of Sollum. If Sollum fell the Halfaya garrison would be cut off from its water supply. It remained only to be seen how the 8th Army would press its advantage.
But only 3 days after the disaster at Bardia, the Panzergruppe’s luck changed for the better. “On 5 January 1942,” General Bayerlein remembered later,” a convoy of ships carrying fifty five tanks and twenty armoured cars, as well as anti-tank guns and supplies of all kinds, arrived safely in Tripoli. This was as good as victory in battle, and Rommel immediately began to think of the offensive again.” (23) “If today’s convoy succeeds in getting through,” Hitler confidently told General Gause over lunch at the Führer’s headquarters, “then the British are going to have to look out!” (24) Rommel himself was less confidant, and his letter to his wife on 5 January gives no hints of any plans for an offensive. The Panzergruppe , Rommel wrote, was “…gradually getting more stuff across.” Kesselring, he noted, was “…doing very good work over Malta.” (25)
While to the west Rommel’s army was growing stronger, his remaining frontier garrisons were starving. On 5 January the Savona Division sent via the Commando Superiore a pitiful plea from Maj. Bach at Halfaya to Panzergruppe HQ. Provisions were running out and his troops desperately needed more supplies, the signal went on. Again the answer came that apart from supplying the Halfaya garrison with a daily airdropped ration of 8-10 tons of foodstuffs and 6 tons of water, nothing could be done. By 10 January the daily ration in Sollum had fallen to 20 grams of bread, a small quantity of rice and a spoonful of currants per man. Amongst the outpost’s 70 able-bodied defenders morale sank to zero. The next morning, at 6.35 a.m. the outpost was attacked by South African troops and after vicious fighting the garrison succumbed to the inevitable, surrendering at 8.45 a.m. on 12 January 1942. The battle cost the Axis 334 men taken prisoner, of whom 43 were wounded. Axis fatalities amounted to 31 men killed. On the attacker’s side the South Africans had suffered 110 casualties, of whom 30 were dead.
Now only the Halfaya garrison remained. Bach’s men still had large quantities of ammunition, but malnurishment and thirst had gotten the better of the German troops at Halfaya. The much respected Ritterkreutz holder believed that he could hold out until the Panzergruppe’s next offensive pushed the 8th Army back across the frontier. But this was too much too much to expect from his emancipated soldaten and their Italian comrades. By the middle of January Halfaya was surrounded by the Free French Brigade Group and 5 South African battalions plus further reserves. Any determined attack by these forces could have only one outcome. That none came was partly due to a reluctance to employ the South Africans in operations where they were likely to suffer heavy casualties following the destruction of their 5th Brigade Group at Sidi Rezegh. By 16 January, however, XXX Corps had come to the conclusion that the Panzergruppe’s last outpost would not surrender on its own. Orders for an attack were issued, and D-Day set for 21 January.
On 17 January, however, at 7.30 a.m., Col. Martinelli and Capt. Voigt crossed into the South African lines in a car bearing a white flag. Halfaya, along with 3400 Italians and 2126 Germans and 150 guns, had fallen. (26)
“The South African triumph at Halfaya…,”crowed the South African Press Association’s War Correspondent ,”…pricked the bubble of the ‘supermen’ reputations built up around the Germans…” (27)
To the Panzergruppe’s rank and file the surrender of Halfaya came as a great disappointment: “Great commiserations over those magnificent fellows who have fought there,” Wolfgang Evert, one of Rommel’s men, wrote in his diary on the 19th. “To hold for two months, completely encircled on all sides, in an area of two kilometers by one kilometre…is not in any way comparable to the fortress of Tobruk.” (28)
The Panzergruppe, however, was not alone in defeat. Due to heavy air attacks on the island of Malta and a shortage of reconnaissance planes, the RAF only spotted the Italian convoy of 5 January and its battleship escorts within a short distance of its destination. To compound the disaster, British intelligence were unable to learn much about the convoy’s cargo. Through SIGINT the British learned that the convoy had brought not only great quantities of fuel for the air forces and ground troops, but also equipment “…of the greatest importance to the Panzergruppe Afrika.” (29)
This was a guarded reference to the tanks and anti-tank guns delivered, but it proved simply to nebulous for British intelligence to decipher. The net result of all this was that since 19 December, close to 100 tanks had reached Panzergruppe Afrika, none of which appeared in British estimates of the Panzergruppe’s order of battle. To Rommel, this force of phantom panzers would soon turn out to be a battle-winning asset.
In early January 1942 British estimates of the Panzergruppe’s battleworthy tank strength ran as low as 20 runners, a figure confirmed by the L.R.D.G.’s patrols.
“The Germans were, however, fully aware of the activities of this group [the L.R.D.G.] and moved their tank reinforcements up the coastal road under ‘sunshields’ of plywood. As these shields were made in the shape of lorries, they were often reported as such…”, a British eyewitness later recalled. The Panzergruppe’s deception was not entirely successful, however. Lt.-Gen. Godwin-Austen’s scouts brought back news that Rommel had received “…at least forty newest Mark IV panzers…” When he warned 8th Army HQ that Rommel had been powerfully reinforced, they “…literally laughed…” in his face. (30)
This was bizarre behavior indeed. On 27 December the 22nd Armoured Brigade had reported to Cairo that it had encountered a new type of Panzer III tank in the Agedabia area. A captured example revealed curious features such as a fresh coat of paint, none of the usual DAK emblems and an odometer that showed a mere 400km. In its report MI6 mentioned that the 8th Army was surprised by the strength of the German tank. (31)
“G.HQ.” according to general Messervy, just would not believe that there had been large German tank reinforcements.” (32)
The activities of Kesselring’s aircrews were causing a considerable amount of distress to Churchill, who made his own grim conclusions from the intelligence supplied to him through Ultra. The news that an entire convoy had reached Tripoli unmolested did little to lift his spirit: “I note also that 9 merchant ships of 10 000 tons are reported to have reached Tripoli safely… I am sure you and your armies did all in human power, but we must face facts as they are…” (33) And these, as Churchill saw it, were unpalatable. Rommel, up till now constantly on the brink of logistical bankruptcy, had received – and probably would again soon – a considerable quantity of supplies. Since 13 November 1941, when U-81 scored a fatal hit on the British fleet carrier Ark Royal some thirty miles east of Gibraltar, the Royal Navy had suffered a string of setbacks in the Mediterranean (34) Less than two weeks later it was the turn of the battleship HMS Barham, caught off Sollum by the U-331 on 25 November. Struck by three torpedoes, the big Queen Elizabeth Class battleship blew up with the loss of 862 officers and men. (35) Shortly afterwards, on 19 December, the Italian Navy had its revenge for Taranto with an ingenious new weapon. It was a tiny two-man submarine, 6.7m long and driven by a nearly silent 1.6h.p. electric motor. The crew sat astride the slender body of the craft and could guide the little submarine by means of a control column. The business end of the little submarine comprised of a detachable warhead containing 300kg of high explosive. (36) Officially the Italians referred to these “Human Torpedoes” as the SLC or siluro a lenta corsa (Slow Running Torpedo), but the crews preferred the name Maiale (Pig).(37)
In a daring feat of seamanship, the Italian submarine Sciré, commanded by Prince Borghese, slipped through a minefield to launch three “Pigs” for an attack on the British battleships Queen Elizabeth and Valiant at their moorings in Alexandria harbour.
Both battleships were severely damaged. The Valiant’s hull suffered a gash of 60 feet, the Queen Elizabeth one of 80 feet. The holed British Battleships suffered heavy flooding and settled on the bottom of the shallow harbour – a mere 6 feet beneath their keels. Although the Queen Elizabeth’s boilers had almost been blown through the funnels, the British carried on as if the big ships were still seaworthy and even hosted a ball aboard the stricken Queen Elizabeth on Christmas Eve! (38)
This quartet of losses however left the Royal Navy without a single serviceable capital ship in the Eastern Mediterranean. Even worse was to follow. Shortly after midnight on the night of 18-19 December 1941 “Force K” blundered into an uncharted minefield. The destroyer Kandahar and the light cruiser Neptune sank, while the cruisers Penelope and Aurora suffered heavy damage. (39)
On 24 December the Admiralty informed Admiral Cunningham that he could expect no replacements, al replacements would be sent to the Far East. (40)
Suddenly, and for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities, Mussolini’s talk of a “Mare Nostrum” in the Mediterranean was no longer a hollow boast.
At the time, however, everyone from Churchill onwards believed that the 8th Army had the advantage over the Panzergruppe. It was confidently believed that the advance would continue into Tripolitania early in the New Year. The British plan (known as Gymnast) called for troop landings in Tunisia or Algeria, preferably at the invitation of the French authorities there, to coincide with a further advance (called Acrobat) by 8th Army to Tripoli. (41) In Washington Churchill negotiated to introduce American troops to the North American theatre of war by extending Gymnast to include American landings, probably in Morocco and Algeria. This operation was provisionally named Super-Gymnast. (42) By early 1942 the strategic situation in the Mediterranean had again shifted in favour of the Axis. In the Far East, the British Empire was in danger of being overrun by Japan’s irresistible advance. “The Japanese victories are quite tremendous,” Rommel wrote to his wife on Wednesday 14 January. Rommel predicted that the British would be “out of eastern Asia in a few weeks.” (43) The alternative, Rommel would soon discover, was even better. The British withdrew or diverted as many men and equipment as possible from the Mediterranean and dispatched them to the Orient. The battered but experienced 7th Armoured Brigade was pulled back to the Delta (ultimate destination Burma) while 18 British Division already en route to Suez, was switched to Singapore. Seventeen Indian Division, earmarked for service in the desert, was instead sent to Rangoon. In addition, the Australian Government withdrew 6 and 7 Australian Divisions and re-deployed them to New Guinea. (44)
Auchinleck, however, remained optimistic. The fighting part of his army was still intact. While he felt rich and secure enough to donate men and equipment for the battle against the Japanese, Rommel appeared a pauper, down to his last tank battalion.
On 12 January 1942 Auchinleck responded to Churchill’s earlier melancholy signal with the news that the Axis forces “…were very disorganized and lacking in both experienced officers and material. They do not seem to be as strong in reality as their total strength makes one suspect.” (45) “I am convinced,” Auchinleck went on, the enemy is hard pressed more than we dared think perhaps. ” (46) Rommel’s supply situation, Auchinleck told the JIC on 15 January, was “obviously acute”. “We have Rommel in the can,” gushed his Deputy Director of Military Intelligence. (47)
But as Kenneth Macksey puts it in his book Military Errors of World War Two, “… ‘I’ at GHQ and HQ enthusiastically preferred to believe only that evidence that suited their wishes…”
And particularly suitable evidence was emanating from the Combined Services Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) in Cairo. Thanks to the efforts of MI6 Gen. A Schmitt of Bardia and generalmajor Johann von Ravenstein were lulled into a false sense of security. The two Germans’ rooms were bugged and their lengthy conversations promptly recorded by the British. It was Von Ravenstein, in British hands since 29 November 1941, who interested the British the most. The ex-commander of the 21st Panzer Division revealed that the Panzergruppe’s panzer regiments had suffered devastating losses. Von Ravenstein also noted the Panzergruppe’s lack of experienced officers and “dissatisfaction” with Rommel’s command. As far it concerned the latter, both Gen. Schmitt and Gen. Von Ravenstein were united in their contempt for Rommel’s generalship. (48) Auchinleck seized on this comforting word picture of the Panzergruppe and it filtered through to the reply he sent Churchill on 12 January 1942. Although Von Ravenstein and Schmitt had been separated from the main body of the Panzergruppe for quite some time, Auchinleck unwisely believed that “…very thorough and interesting pictures…” could be gained from their gloomy prison talk. He even said so in a signal to Churchill on 12 January 1942.
Unfortunately for Auchinleck, Rommel’s Intelligence Staff had gained some “…very thorough and interesting pictures….” Of their own. By 12 January Maj. FW Von Mellenthin had enough information to brief Rommel on XIII Corps’ positions. Von Mellenthin told his C-in-C that the replacement of the 7th Armoured Division by 1st Armoured Division presented “…an opportunity of delivering an effective counter-strike.” However, the projected counter-attack would have to be launched before 25 January. By then, Von Mellenthin claimed, “the balance would be restored and swing in favour of the British.” (49)
At first apprehensive over his army’s supply situation, Rommel was nevertheless a quick convert to the idea of a lightning attack once he had been convinced of the weakness of the 8th Army’s foremost positions. Lt.-Col. Siegfried Westphal played a significant role in Rommel’s conversion. He had gone on a low-level reconnaissance flight over enemy held territory and could ally his C-in-C’s fears with an eyewitness account on the frailty of the British line. The latter, it seemed, had learned nothing.
By the 14th, with arms still arriving from Tripoli, Rommel announced to his staff that he proposed to strike at the British. (50)
The next day Rommel twice flew up and down the vulnerable Axis line. He did not like what he saw. Already the British seemed strong enough to roll-up part of the Axis positions. Rommel knew of only one way to remedy the situation. He told the Afrika Korps to prepare to “make forays in every possible direction.” (51)
Rommel knew the 8th Army was stockpiling materiel for an offensive, but thanks to the work of his radio intercept company, he also knew that the British had difficulties keeping their troops on the frontier adequately supplied with necessities such as fuel. The chatty radio operators of 2nd Armoured Brigade further sweetened the pot with news that the Brigade had suffered many breakdowns on the 450-mile drive from the railhead at Mersa Matruh. Even more encouraging news came from the daily situation reports that the American Attaché in Cairo cabled to Washington: the RAF was re-deploying aircraft from the Desert to the Far East. (52)
On 14 January Gen. Auchinleck received a letter from Ritchie which – had it fallen into enemy hands – would simply have confirmed the Panzergruppe’s suspicions. The Commander of the 8th Army admitted to the C-in-C Middle East that the British lines of supply – now stretching some 1,000 miles – was hampering offensive operations. “It would not be safe to bank on being able to start an offensive against the enemy’s present positions until about February 15,” Ritchie reported dutifully to Auchinleck. For this delay he blamed the ‘maintenance situation’ and the unfavourable conditions at Benghazi, ” a rotten port,” which had fallen to 8th Army on 24 December. But Ritchie’s greatest concern was the Panzergruppe would use this undeserved pause to escape further westwards: “Worst of all of course,” he wrote,” is that the enemy may go again…” (53) But Rommel had no intention of going west. The DAF was in the best position to detect any signs of a German riposte, but the widely held belief that the Panzergruppe was down and out bedeviled any hopes of early warning from the air. Air Marshall Tedder, who on 20 January visited the squadrons in the forward areas, later wrote that at the time he had “no reason to anticipate an immediate riposte by Rommel”. (54) Accordingly, the DAF continued to fly photo- reconnaissance missions of far-off El Agheila as late as 24 January, three days after the start of Rommel’s counter-offensive!
Rommel was determined that the strictest secrecy should accompany the preparations for the coming offensive. He listed by name the only officers who could be trusted with the secret. The German units were ordered to observe complete radio silence. No further reconnaissance over the border area was allowed.
Realizing that neither his nominal Italian superiors nor OKW would sanction his counter-attack, Rommel decided to bypass this obstacle by simply ignoring them.
In Russia over thirty generals, including Guderian, had recently been sacked by Hitler for far less. Rommel, however, had good reason to believe that the same fate would not befall him. From Rome, where he was recovering from his wounds, General Gause had sent Rommel a letter, telling him that the Führer ‘approved’ of all he had done (during Crusader) and that he was “full of praise and admiration.” That admiration would not now be exhausted, Rommel felt, by one indiscretion. (55)
Rommel had little qualms about shutting out the Italian Supreme Command. “We knew from experience,” he noted in his diary,”that Italian headquarters cannot keep things to themselves and that everything they wireless to Rome gets round to British ears.” (56) But Rommel needed the Italians – especially Italian troops and fuel – so the Italian Chief of Staff, General Gaston Gambara, had to be let in on the geheim from the start. So obsessive was Rommel’s desire to catch the British off-guard that he kept Crüwell, confined to his bed by jaundice, in the dark about his new scheme until the 16th. “The Panzer Group will tackle the enemy build-up south-west of Agedabia,” Rommel told the Afrika Korps commander. “At this moment they are fewer in number than we are. We will surprise them – and annihilate them.” (57)
Rommel needed the co-operation of the Luftwaffe, so Kesselring also had to be let in on the secret. He could easily have raised the alarm in Rome and Berlin, but chose not to. On 17 January, however, the seemingly airtight German security sprang a leak. In an Enigma message intercepted by the British, Fliegerführer Afrika contacted Kesselring’s Headquarters and informed the Generalfeldmarschall of a dire shortage of 50kg bombs. Kesselring was urged to do everything in his power to ensure the delivery of no less than fifty bombs at the at the forward airfields “…in view of the operations of the next few days.” (58)
The very next day, 18 January 1942, German prisoners of war told MI6 that the entire Panzer Regiment 8 was massing in the Wadi Faregh area. To set off the alarm bells in Cairo, “I” needed a lot more. Rommel denied them of more by only moving troops and equipment at night. Convoys of trucks were sent westwards during the day only to return under the cover of darkness. The trucks and tanks that had already arrived were expertly camouflaged. The Panzergruppe’s artillery batteries were ordered to reply only meekly to British shelling. No orders went out by radio, little was committed to paper. Rommel himself signed the operation order. It contained twenty-one paragraphs with an average length of only seven lines of typescript! (59)
Officers found their orders posted in the cantoniera ( roadganger’s cottages) along the Via Balbia all the way up the front. (60) The attack was set for 8.30 am, on 21 January 1942.
At Auchinleck’s HQ the 8th Army’s evaluation the Axis position was disastrously inaccurate. On 14 January, for example, Auchinleck announced that he felt the JIC’s estimate of the previous day – which put the Panzergruppe’s total losses for Crusader at some 59,000 men – was “much too low.” (61) A month later, on 15 February 1942, the true Axis casualty figure since 18 November 1941 stood at 38, 300 men. (62)
The following day, 15 January 1942, Auchinleck stated – correctly – that the Panzergruppe would not receive any infantry reinforcements for the immediate future. Auchinleck knew that an entire Italian division with up to 140 tanks might arrive in North Africa within a month. But Italian tanks were not the same as panzers, and of these Auchinleck knew Rommel had received none, because there was no Ultra information available to support the many eyewitness claims to the contrary. In reality Rommel by now possessed well over a hundred panzers, backed up by 89 Italian tanks.
The 8th Army’s Intelligence Summary of 16 January seemed to provide further proof that the enemy lacked the strength for offensive action. German troops, went the report, had been observed digging themselves in. In short, they were behaving like garrison troops.
In sizing up the fighting potential of Rommel’s troops, Auchinleck’s assistants did not fare much better than their C-in-C. They doubted whether the German troops who had been involved in the heavy fighting in the El Agheila area would soon be in fighting trim again. (63) Only the previous day, however, Rommel had written to his Wife: “My troops are back in good fettle again.” (64)
Rommel was not exaggerating. Only a few days later a German soldier wrote in his diary: ” We hope he [the British] will attack the Korps – we can now deal with him properly…” Fuel, tanks and numbers of the powerful 76.2mm FK296 ( r ) Russian anti-tank gun had reached the frontline troops. (65)
Such was the morale of some Germans at the time, that soldiers taken prisoner by 8th Army told their guards “We’ll be free next week and you’ll be inside…Rommel is coming!” “They believe it,” a South African soldier diarised on 19 January. (66)
Rommel’s plan was, as always, brutally simple. His troops would win ground and destroy the enemy. For the coming attack, two large Kampfgruppen – battle groups – were created from men drawn from the Afrika Korps and the 90th Light Division. One battle group, Gruppe Marcks, would advance along the coast road, while the main force would make for the British lines by advancing through the desert across the edge of the Wadi Faregh. Gruppe Marcks was commanded by Lt. Col Werner Marcks. He had won the German Gold Cross for Valour during World War I, and was expected to do well. The second battle group, Kampfgruppe Geissler, would be led by col. Erich Geissler. (67)
Barring the Panzergruppe’s way on a frontage of nearly 50km, stretching from Mersa Brega to the Wadi Faregh, was the 200th Guards Brigade and 7th Support Group under Jock Campbell. On 19 January, the same day Rommel’s divisional commanders received their first verbal briefing on the coming offensive, Campbell’s 7th Support Group was relieved. Believing the Germans too weak to interfere, the British made no attempt to hide the switch from the enemy. (68)
Messervy, unshaved, giving orders south-west of Gazala.
But by now the British themselves were becoming uneasy over the gaping holes in their line. The man responsible for defending the frontier was Lt. Gen. Frank Messervy, commander of the 1st Armoured Division. He was new to the Division, and was only put in charge of it because its commander, Lumsden, had been wounded. The armour and infantry units defending the frontier were scattered over a wide area. None of this boded well for a vigorous defense should the need arise. Broadcasting in the clear, Messervy spoke his mind to XIII Corps, calling the relief of 7th Support Group “a joyride which in my opinion will not help to win the war.” (69)
Messervy had every reason to be angry. To meet the initial onslaught of a panzer drive he had 24 “Honeys”. The “Stuart” – as it was officially known – had armour with a maximum thickness of 44.5mm and could outrun any panzer – but in reality it was little more than an armoured car with tracks (70) Otherwise, the 8th Army had no armour further forward than Antelat. There the very inexperienced 2nd Armoured Brigade was still attempting to forge its tank regiments and its seconded South African Artillery together into an effective force. The Brigade’s three regiments, the 9th Lancers, 10th Royal Hussars and the Queen’s Bays could each field about 26 Cruisers and 18 Stuarts despite losing some 20 tanks to various mechanical difficulties. (71)
But the number of tanks available to the 2nd Armoured Brigade meant little. Of more immediate concern was the state of the Brigade’s training, which left much to be desired.
Desert training was hampered by fuel shortages. The 2nd Armoured Brigade took part in only one.
Messervy’s “backstop” was the 4th Indian Division. Because of supply and administrative difficulties, its three brigades were deployed well to the east, the nearest one being at Barce. Another one deployed in the Benghazi area and the third was stationed in the Tobruk area. As the day of the attack neared, the British Official History states: “the only troops within a hundred miles of the enemy…were those of the incomplete 1 Armoured Division, the 22 (now renumbered 200) Guards Brigade, and part of Oasis Force, which was being broken up.” (72)
At dawn on 21 January the Panzergruppe’s could read the following Armee – Tagesbefehl signed by their Befehlshaber :
German and Italian Soldiers!
You have fought hard battles against an enemy superior in number, however, your morale is unbroken. At the moment we outnumber the enemy immediately in front of us. The Panzergruppe will therefore launch an attack today to defeat them. I expect every soldier to give his best during these decisive days. Long live Italy!
Long Live the Great German Reich! Long Live the Führer!
The Commander in Chief
General der Panzertruppe (73)
On the same day, while waiting for his panzers to start off, word reached Rommel that he had been awarded the Swords to the Oakleaves of the Knight’s Cross – the Ritterkreuz.. It would turn out to be a good omen.
Before leaving for battle, Rommel still found time to pen a letter home:
- Jan. 42
Two hours from now the army will launch its counter-attack. After thorough weighing of all the pros and cons I decided to risk it. I firmly trust that the Lord will hold his protecting hand over us and give us the victory… (74)
What Auchinleck later – somewhat unfortunately- called “the improbable” was about to take place. (75) Fortune favoured the bold, and as an added bonus, both Auchinleck and Ritchie were away from Cairo on the 21st. The day’s Intelligence Summary diligently noted large numbers of enemy vehicles on the coast road, but this did not alarm anybody in the 8th Army. Nature also took a hand in events. The night of 20-21 January saw a small-scale repeat of the opening rounds of Operation Crusader. This time round it was the British whose aircraft were grounded by sodden landing strips. At Antelat, the Mediterranean and Middle East writes, ” the worst conditions of all were at Antelat, where the airfield was turned into what an eyewitness described a ‘a chocolate blancmange.’ ” Fearful that their aircraft would be surprised on the ground, the RAF evacuated four squadrons to Msus and another to Gazala early on 21 January. (76) The Luftwaffe could scarcely have asked for more.
At Giof el Matar, meanwhile, the front was so quiet that when, on 21 January, an order for the Headquarters Group of 7th SA recc Bn. to return to Egypt was received, no objections were raised. (77)
As the Panzergruppe advanced it quickly became apparent that the terrain, described by one commentator as being in places “ridged like the waves of the sea” would be a formidable obstacle. Apart from the natural barriers, however, there was little to stop the Panzergruppe. First Support Group had no line in the traditional sense to defend; instead its artillery fought a series of individual defensive actions against hostile bands of German tanks. By nightfall 1st Support Group had lost 16 guns and corresponding quantities of equipment for no gain. The Panzergruppe, meanwhile had made only modest gains by desert standards: 16 – 18kms.
At his HQ Gen. Messervy had only fragmentary reports from which to form a coherent strategy. Despite the confusion, it was clear that the enemy was advancing over a broad front. From the information available to him, it seemed to Messervy that the schwerpunkt of the Panzergruppe’s assault would fall on that sector of the front where the Guards Brigade and the 1st Support Group’s positions met. To counter a possible breakthrough, the Guards were ordered Giof el Matar. From here they were to strike the panzers in the flank should the Panzergruppe manage a breakthrough. As dawn broke on 22 January, Rommel’s panzers lay without fuel, imposing an unwelcome delay. It did not deter Rommel for long. With the panzers refueled, Rommel and Gruppe Marcks made for Agedabia and entered the place by 11 am the same day. From there Rommel sped onwards to Antelat and Saunnu, scattering 8th Army’s transport as he went.
Marck’s mass of 400 – 500 armoured fighting vehicles and transports entered Antelat at 3.30 p.m. By 9.00 p.m. Gruppe Marcks had also made contact with “B” Echelon of 2nd Armoured Brigade near Saunnu. Although Saunnu would soon fall, the attack on “B” Echelon miscarried, due to determined resistance by the 9th Lancers (78).
Despite this minor success 8th Army still had no clear picture of what Rommel was up to. Their Y-Service’s intercepts enabled them to identify some individual German units, but this proved to be of little help. (79)
Earlier in the day Rommel had met with Crüwell at Agedabia. The product of this meeting was a hastily improvised plan to deal with the enemy forces to the north and west of the German battle groups. If successful, the bulk of the scattered forces under Messervy’s command would be cut off from main force and destroyed.
To this end Ariete and Trieste Divisions were ordered to hold Agedabia, while DAK was ordered to form a cordon in the Agedabia-Saunnu crescent on 23 January. In the meantime Gruppe Marcks would extend the line in a southwesterly manoevre beyond Saunnu, the plan being to smash 1st Armoured Division in one dramatic scythe cut.
Rommel, meanwhile, was confident of success. On 22 January he wrote to his wife: ” And what do you think of the counter-attack that we launched at 08.30hrs yesterday? Our opponents took off as if stung by a hornet. Have high hopes for the next few days…” (80)
Sensing the danger to the supply dumps at Msus and Benghazi, Godwin-Austin instructed Messervy to block the tracks leading to Msus in the south. Tuker, commanding 4th Indian Division, was to block the coast road running to Benghazi – and prepare to shield the town’s evacuation. The only forces available for Tuker’s sperverband was the infantry of 7th Indian Brigade. (81)
As Friday 23 January dawned, disorganized troops from several beaten units held Msus by default. The low drone of artillery fire could be heard from the direction of Antelat and Saunnu to the South. South African armoured cars, ordered to Msus from Bir Lefa, arrived just in time to observe Axis columns entering the hovel from the west and the south. Msus had fallen – again. Radio contact was established with the Rear HQ of 1st Armoured Division, who knew little of the disaster unfolding in the Msus area. Although more South African armoured cars had by then arrived, these vehicles were no match for tanks and the South Africans were ordered north east.
Along with the town the Germans captured the strategic water point and some handy 3-tonner trucks. Further to the north British supply dumps were being torched to prevent them falling into German hands. By sundown on the 23rd, the Sabratah Division was occupying Agedabia, while Trieste and Ariete were controlling the northward track to Antelat and facing east and south east. A battalion from 15th Panzer Division held Antelat and Gruppe Marcks occupied Saunnu. The Afrika Korps, facing east and south-east stood on a 32km wide east-west line from Eleut el Mteimrat to Saunnu. The German 3rd Armd. Recce Unit was approaching Msus, while the 33rd Recce unit was blocking the enemy’s escape route in the Agedabia area (82).
It was also the last day of the offensive, as far as the Italian High Command was concerned. At Comando Supremo (Africa) General Bastico had become uneasy about the “spoiling attack,” to which he had consented, and which now appeared to be boiling over into full scale offensive. Accordingly, he signaled his fears to Rome and suggested that something be done to impress on Rommel the difficulties facing the Axis partners in the Mediterranean (83). Cavallero was dispatched to Rommel’s headquarters, bringing with him weighty directives from Mussolini. The Panzerarmee – the new designation of Rommel’s army since 22 January – was to cool its heels in a defensive line running between Mersa Brega and Marada, went Il Duce’s orders.
The only concession Cavallero was prepared to make was to allow Rommel a very unambitious raid on the British frontier positions. “Make it no more than a sortie and then come straight back,” Cavellero told Rommel. The Italian soon discovered that he was wasting his breath, especially since he was now dealing with a Rommel emboldened by the award of the Swords to the Oakleaves of the Knights Cross. “I intend to keep up the attack as long as I can. And only the Führer can stop me, as most of the fighting will be done by German troops,” Rommel told him. (84)
Kesselring, who had personally flown Cavallero to Rommel’s HQ, and who was playing the role of the sympathetic German with his usual verve, could not argue with this and “went off growling.” (85)
Auchinleck, meanwhile, was still of the opinion that Rommel’s was only a powerful raid aimed at disrupting 8th Army’s forward positions. He was not worried, and inevitably, neither was Ritchie. The way Ritchie interpreted the situation, Rommel was merely trying to gain space in which to manoevre east of the Agheila bottleneck. The Desert Fox was merely “sticking his neck out”. Based on his knowledge of Rommel’s supply situation, the 8th Army Commander believed that Rommel would be unable to maintain his forces far beyond a line running from Aggedabia to El Haseitat. (86)
Accordingly, the reports of wide-spread disaster reaching Rithchie at his HQ at Tmini were at first treated with a measure of indifference. Both Auchinleck and Ritchie remembered the early days of Crusader, and as a consequence they now tended to doubt the in-coming reports of rout and collapse. (87)
Everything, however, was not going Rommel’s way. The hoped for destruction of a large part of the British forces came to nothing. Mistakes made by DAK’s HQ staff (Saunnu was left unoccupied after Gruppe Marcks passed through) led to a lack of co-ordination between the German and Italian formations and left a gap through which the bruised British escaped.
By early morning on Saturday, 24 January, the situation – both real and imagined had deteriorated to such an extent that Gen. Godwin Austen felt that he had little hope of halting the enemy’s advance up the coast or south of Msus while at the same time covering his open flank. He requested permission to retreat to Mechili. Ritchie, who had arrived at the front only the day before, gave Godwin-Austen permission to withdraw if necessary, but until then XIII Corps was to fight at Msus to shield Benghazi.
Rommel’s formations spent much of 24 January, in Von Mellenthin’s words “sweeping an empty battlefield” because their quarry, the Guards Brigade and the bulk of 1st Armoured Division, had already escaped to the east. The Panzerarmee had been the victim of incompetent staff work, their foes very lucky. “We had now developed a new method of attack,” Heinz Werner Schmidt remembered later. “With our 12 anti-tank guns we leapfrogged from one vantage point to another while our panzers, stationary and hull down, if possible, provided protective fire. Then we would establish ourselves to give them protective fire while they swept on again. The tactics worked well and despite the liveliness of his fire, the enemy’s tanks were unable to hold up our advance.” (88)
Six miles north of Saunnu Rommel’s panzers caught up with the 1st Armoured Division’s tanks. “These,” a German eyewitness later wrote, ” were overwhelmed by Panzer Regiment 8, closely supported by anti-tank artillery…it soon became apparent that the British tank units had no battle experience and they were completely demoralized by the onslaught of 15th Panzer. At times the pursuit attained a speed of fifteen miles an hour, and the British fled madly over the desert in one of the most extraordinary routes of the war.” (89)
Rommel halted the chase at Msus, as his fuel reserves were running low. But by now he was confident that the offensive had devoured enough British artillery and armour to derail any offensive the enemy might have planned.
And already the booty was enormous. Anything from English linen, Ceylon tea, canned pineapple, fuel to fieldguns were eagerly collected by the conquering Panzerarmee.
One German unit which had started the offensive with one 88mm dual purpose gun soon also had two “English” guns – one of which had been captured with the help of artillery fire from the other! The Afrika Korps – and the Panzerarmee’s – morale could not be better. “It is already 1700,” Wolfgang Everth wrote on 25 January,” and one is bone tired. But in an excellent mood…” (90)
Rommel too was in high spirits. And with good reason. After five days of battle the Panzerarmee had already accounted for 299 enemy tanks and AFV’s, some 147 guns and 935 prisoners. By comparison his own losses were ridiculously low:”… three officers and eleven enlisted men killed. Three tanks total losses.” (91)
“We had four days of absolute success,” Rommel boasted in a letter to Lu on the 25th. “Our blows struck the enemy between the eyes!” Then his mind wandered to his upcoming leave leave. “…Another two weeks and I’ll be able to leave here to report and receive the Swords. It’s wonderful for a general to have his capabilities recognized and have an opportunity to make a contribution for Führer, nation and idea…: (92)
Gen. Messervy’s prospects for the immediate future were less rosy. He was unable to establish wireless contact with XIII Corps HQ and in fact had no idea where they were. The same went for his Support Group, who had last been heard of the previous evening somewhere south of Msus. Whereas at first light on the 25th he could still field 96 tanks, he faced dawn on the 26th at his HQ near Charuba with a mere 23 runners. A further nine tanks were in tow, but many more had been lost due to mechanical failure. The number of tanks actually lost to enemy action were estimated at only 15. (93)
In desperation, Messervy dispatched a Messenger to find Godwin-Austin at XIII Corps HQ, which Messervy’s man found purely by chance after traveling some 100km. Godwin-Austen knew nothing of 1st Armoured Division’s fate. By the time Messervy’s messenger reached him, he had been out of radio contact with the Division for some 24 hours. (94)
On the 8th Army’s side of the hill confusion and chaos reigned. An unending stream of signals and letters flowed between Auchinleck and Ritchie. Compounding the confusion, were intelligence reports that told of a Rommel running out of fuel and preparing to break off the offensive (a lie to calm Italian nerves).
The heavy fighting on the 25th had convinced Godwin-Austen that the forces under his command were to weak to stem the Axis tide. During the evening he ordered 4th Indian Division to withdraw from Benghazi and 1 Armoured Division to move to Mechili. (95) During the night of 25-26 January his orders for retreat were countermanded by Ritchie on the premise that the Panzerarmee’s advance “did not amount to a counter-offensive.” Godwin-Austen was instructed to go on the offensive and take on “the greatest risks” to stop the enemy.” (96) Faced with a totally irrational order, Godwin-Austen offered Ritchie his resignation.
There was more to Ritchie’s order than the simple belief that Rommel’s spearheads would be yanked back at any moment through lack of supplies. Earlier on the 25th, an Admiralty intercept of a radio message sent by the Royal Navy’s liaison officer in Benghazi to his C-in-C betrayed the scope of the unfolding débácle to Churchill. It soon turned out to be another spot of luck for Rommel. Churchill was caught totally by surprise and angrily fired of a signal to Auchinleck in which he reproached and bullied the C-in-C Middle East all at once. The Prime Minister was shocked at the failure of “…our fresh armour…” and now demanded that 8th Army stand fast “…like the Huns at Halfaya.”
Rattled by Churchill’s message, Auchinleck flew to 8th Army Headquarters at Tmini on 25 January, where, as Michael Carver puts it in his book Tobruk, “…he set off a chain of order and counter order which had its traditional result.” (97)
On the same day Rommel wrote to Lucy: “One more [day] to go. Then we’ll become meek again and lie in waiting…” His quartermaster, Maj. Otto, was sent to Crüwell’s HQ and ordered to inform the Afrika Korps commander that the offensive could not be maintained with the available resources. Already the Duce had sent word that he could not guarantee supplies for February. The Afrika Korps was therefore instructed not to press its advantage, and to busy itself with the salvaging of booty.
Lax radio discipline now turned a major setback into a disaster for the British. The Fernmeldeaufklärung told Rommel that the British were considering evacuating Benghazi and that the British generals were at odds with each other as to what to do next. He also learned, from the horse’s mouth so to speak, that the British expected him to thrust northeastward from Msus to Mechili. It was too good a hand to throw away.
Rommel radioed Fritz Bayerlein, Crüwell’s chief-of-staff, to fly to the Panzerarmee’s HQ to discuss his plans. At Rommel’s HQ Bayerlein heard that his C-in-C intended a move that was the exact opposite of what the enemy expected: he would
switch the schwerpunkt of his offensive to Benghazi. As a key element of the plan, DAK was to make a fake thrust in the general direction Mechili. (98)
And for once the Italians’ lack of radio discipline was working in his favour. Not knowing the particulars of Rommel’s plan, the Regia Aeronautica reported to Rome that the Panzerarmee was continuing its advance towards Mechili as well as Benghazi. Ritchie was delighted. “The enemy,” he declared ” has divided his forces and is weaker than we are in both areas. The keyword is offensive action everywhere.” Seeing opportunity where there was none, he ordered 1st Armoured Division to attack (what he thought was the bulk of the German forces heading for Mechili) in the rear. Fourth Indian was to attack the battle group heading for Benghazi. Dust storms prevented the DAF’s reconnaissance aircraft from operating effectively and when, late on 27 January, the thrust towards Benghazi was spotted, it was dismissed as a minor one. The vehicles could not be positively identified from the air and they were thought to belong to the Italian XX Corps. (99)
Meanwhile the man Churchill called “…a great general…” in the House of Commons that same day, was leading Gruppe Marcks, reinforced by his own Kampfstaffel, 115th Panzergrenadier Regt. and 33rd Armd. Recce Unit over bad ground and in driving rain to take Benghazi from the east. (100) The Panzerarmee was by now converging on Benghazi in three columns. Ninetieth Light came up the coast road, while the Italian XX Corps advanced from Sceleidima through Soluch while Gruppe Marcks headed for Er Regima close to Benghazi. The British were too weak to fight off this three pronged assault and still had only 7th Indian Brigade with which to defend Benghazi. The 7th Indian Brigade was already fighting the enemy over a wide front to the south of Benghazi and had been bypassed in places by the fast moving Panzerarmee. Fifth Indian Brigade lay impotent at Barce, immobilized because its vehicles had previously been given to 7th Indian Brigade. Messervy’s 1st Armoured Division had not received orders to defend Benghazi, and was actually moving away from 7th Indian Brigade. Tuker saw no alternative but to evacuate Benghazi. Ritchie, however, was loath to give the order as he did not wish to give up the town before the harbour installations – and some 6000 tons of Axis ammunition there – had been destroyed. (101)
No power at Ritchie’s command could now retrieve the situation. El Regima fell on the afternoon of the 27th. By 28 January Benghazi was sealed off by the Panzerarmee and it fell next day. Benghazi’s airport at Benina fell to forward elements of Gruppe Marcks by 4 p.m. (102) Rommel and his battle group entered the town at 10 a.m. on 29 January. By the evening Ariete had also arrived. The offensive had gone, in Rommel’s words, ” like greased lightning.” Now, however, it spluttered to a halt because the Panzerarmee had once again run out of fuel.
Although its harbour was near useless at the time, Benghazi provided Rommel with a vast hoard of supplies and hundreds of vehicles with which to keep his army mobile.
As always there were lost opportunities. The Italian Motorized Corps and DAK were kept back at Agedabia and Mais, allowing the battered British the opportunity to withdraw to the relative safety of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line. (103)
The fighting did not stop at Benghazi. All the small coastal towns along the Via Balbia up to Derna succumbed to the Panzerarmee’s inevitable advance and the Royal Engineers were forced to demolished the passes at Derna in a hurry. (104)
The vacuum left by the retreating British were quickly filled by the German reconnaissance units, who were deployed well forward to man the new frontline. With the security of his southern flank in mind, Rommel ordered the Gialo Oasis to be occupied. (105) The Italian XXI Corps was ordered to plug the gap between Agedabia and Benghazi. Despite the lack of any natural defensive line west of the Gazala-Bir Hacheim line, Rommel confidently believed that he would be safe from counter-attack for six to eight weeks.
To the disgust of the Italian generals, Rommel’s success in January earned him high marks from Mussolini, and I’ll Duce openly criticized his generals for not leading from the front as the German general did. (106)
From a pleasantly surprised Hitler came yet another promotion for Rommel. On 30 January 1942 Rommel became the youngest Generaloberst ( Colonel-General ) in the German Army – ever. In Germany, Rommel’s status as a military genius was now taken for granted. The mere mention of his name in a speech by Hitler was enough to draw “storms of applause” from the Führer’s massive audience. “Today,” Lucy wrote him shortly afterwards, “they paid special tribute to your name in the evening music broadcast – they played bits of music and the composers’ initials spelled out a name backwards, ‘the name of our popular hero Colonel-General Rommel…” (107)
And not only German radio announcers were impressed. An American radio commentator did his bit to fuel the legend by saying: “Rommel, the wayward boy of the generals, has again pulled a rabbit out of the hat.” (108)
In Britain, Churchill had to fight off horrified – and very angry – members of the House of Commons. They had been told that Rommel’s army had been all but destroyed, and Churchill had boasted that the 8th army would soon take Tripoli. Yet now it was Rommel’s army that had advanced nearly 500km and British troops who were marching to prisoner of war cages.
Since the truth was an unattractive option for Churchill, he resorted to vagueness anchored by myth. “I cannot tell you what the position at the present moment is on the western front in Cyrenaica,” Churchill told his audience. “We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and may I say across the havoc of war, a great general…” (109) It was not a clever thing to say. Rommel was already a hero to many British soldiers – officers and enlisted men alike. And now the Prime Minister was blowing kisses at the man responsible for humiliating the 8th Army and Auchinleck!
By now many in the 8th Army had developed the habit of saying “Rommel” when they meant to say “the enemy”. In a vain attempt to squash his army’s hero worship of Rommel, Auchinleck drafted a circular in which he warned that if the troops’ admiration for Rommel was left unchecked, they would soon subscribe supernatural powers to him. “I am therefore begging you,” he wrote, “to dispel the idea in every way you can that Rommel is anything but an ordinary German general, and a pretty unpleasant one at that, as we know from the mouths of his own officers.” The C-in-C Middle East’s circular concluded with the following postscript: “I am not jealous of Rommel-Auchinleck.” (110)
To the 8th Army, the humiliating events of January 1942 was a savage blow. All the supplies that had been amassed at the cost of millions of man hours west of the Gazala line had been lost and with them any hope of a British counter-offensive in February. Apart from munitions and foodstuffs, the Panzerarmee also captured some 1600 vehicles of various types. (111)
Overall the Panzerarmee’s raid cost the 8th army some 1,390 officers and men killed, wounded and missing. (112). The 1st Armoured Division had suffered particularly heavy losses, losing all but 40 of their original complement of 150 tanks as well as 85 guns of all types. (113) By 30 January Gen. Messervy reported that his division could not be expected to take on more than 25 panzers with any hope of success. (114)
Although the 8th Army’s losses were heavy, the Panzerarmee in victory appeared not much better off. Since 18 November 1941, 32% of the 119,000 German and Italian soldiers in North Africa had become casualties. (115) The German element of the Panzerarmee was now so small – 12, 500 men in three divisions – that the situation was approaching the ridiculous. The Italian contribution to the Panzerarmee amounted to 25 000 men, distributed between no less than seven divisions. Rommel pressed for massive reinforcements, but he had a hard time convincing the Italians, already struggling to furnish the supplies to maintain the immense parcel of land he had recaptured.. “Rome is putting on the brakes. That being so, I think I’m going to have to fly quite soon to the Führer’s headquarters,” went one of Rommel’s letters. Mussolini’s latest directive was blunt. It was very difficult to send the Panzerarmee supplies by ship for the simple reason that the stocks of oil fuel were nearly exhausted. The Axis forces must defend Tripolitania and this would dictate their dispositions. “Rome,” Rommel fumed in a letter of 10 February,”would like nothing better than to abandon all Cyrenaica again.” (116)
On 16 January 1942 Rommel left North Africa for the first time since the start of Crusader. He flew to Rome, and from there to Rome where he received the Swords at Hitler’s Headquarters. The newly decorated Generaloberst Rommel then went on some sorely needed leave, and did not return to the fray until 19 March. (117)
The 90th Light Division cheekily commented in its diary: “C-in-C has left on furlough, three to four weeks. Everybody breathes a huge sigh of relief, and looks forward to the coming days of calm.” (118)
Auchinleck, meanwhile, had the unpleasant task of explaining to an unsympathetic audience why British arms had been unable to defeat Rommel and his rag bag army. The C-in-C Middle East blamed the 2-pounder anti-tank gun and the unreliability of the British Cruiser tank. He also criticized the tactical leadership of the British armoured units and admitted that they were not good enough to offset the enemy’s qualitative advantage. Auchinleck also reported that there were signs “that personnel of the Royal armoured Corps are in some instances losing confidence in their equipment.” (119) Nobody cared very much for Auchinleck’s excuses. On Friday, 7 February he sent a communiqué to London. He refrained from giving any estimates as to when the 8th Army would again be able to return to the offensive, but told London that only a superiority in tanks of three to two could guarantee success against Rommel’s army. (120)
Less than 2 weeks later, a large German convoy, the fourth since December, arrived in Tripoli. (121)
1 Carver, Michael.Tobruk.Batsford, London, 1964, p. 147
2 Orpen, Neil.War in the Desert. South African Forces in World War II, Vol 3. Purnell, Cape Town, n.d, p. 66
3 Irving, David. The Trail of the Fox – The Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1977, p. 139
4 Playfair, I.S.O. The Mediterranean and Middle East, Vol 3. H.M. Stationarty Office, London, 1960, p. 87
5 Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. Rommel and the Secret War in Africa: Secret Intelligence in the North African Campaign 1941 – 1943. Schiffer Publishing, West Chester, 1992, p. 103
6 Deighton, Len. Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War Two. Pimlico. London, 1995, p. 109-110
7 Playfair, p. 87
8 Orpen, p. 67-68
9 Irving, p. 140
10 Orpen, p. 95-96
11 Liddell-Hart, B.H. E.D. The Rommel Papers, wm. Collins, Sons and Co, Ltd 1953, p.175
12 Ibid, p. 175
13 Irving, p.140
14 Orpen, p. 76
15 Pitts, John et al. The Star. World War II 1939-1945. The Drama of the Times Recaptured From the Pages of a Daily South African Newspaper. Struik, Cape Twon, 1989, p. 95
16 Carver, p. 148
17 Ibid, p. 148
18 Liddell Hart, p. 177
19 Ibid, p. 178
20 Heckmann, Wolf. Rommel’s War in Africa. Double Day & Company, Garden City Inc and Granada Publishing, New York, 1981, p. 221
21 Carver, p. 149
22 Orpen, p. 105-8
23 Cooper, Mathew: The German Army. Macdonald and Jane’s, London, 1978, p.375
24 Irving, p. 179
25 Liddell Hart, p. 179
26 Orpen, p. 150-151
27 Pitts, p. 103
28 Forty, George. Afrika Korps at War. I Allen, London, 1978, p. 8
29 Piekalkiewicz, p. 110
30 Maule, Henry. Spearhead General. Corgi, London, 1963, p. 155
31 Piekalkiewicz, p. 106
32 Maule, p. 155
33 Lewin, p. 120
34 Keegan, p. 17
35 Ibid, p. 123
36 Mulvihill, M. Mussolini and Itallian Fascism. Aladin Books, London, 1990, p. 44
- Keegan et al, p. 123
38 Deighton, p. 314
39 Piekalkiewicz, p. 103
40 Playfair, p. 124
41 Carver, p. 150
42 Ibid, p. 150-151
43 Liddell-Hart, p. 179
44 Lewin, Ronald. The Life and Death of the Afrika Korps. A Biography. Batsford, London, 1977, p. 119
45 Piekalkiewicz, p. 111
46 Lewin,p. 120
47 Macksey, Kenneth. The Millitary Errors of World War Two. Cassel, London, 1998, p.88.
48 Piekalkiewicz, p.111
49 Von Mellenthin, F.W. Panzer Battles, 1939-1945. Cassel, Lodon, 1955, p.85
- Piekalkiewicz, p.112.
- Irving, p.143
- Ibid, p.143
53 Carver, p.152
54 Ambrose-Brown, J. Eagles Strike. The Campaigns of the South African Air Force In Egypt, Cyrenaica, Libya, Tunisia, Tripolitania and Madagascar 1941- 1943. South African Forces In World War II, Vol. 4. Purnell, Johannesburg, 1974, p.125
55 Macksey, Kenneth. Rommel Battles and Campaigns. Arms and Armour Press, London, 1979, p.87
- Liddell-Hart, p.181
57 Irving, p.144
58 Piekalkiewicz, p.113
59 Fraser, David. Knight’s Cross. A life of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Harper Collins, London, 1993, p.300
60 Von Mellenthin, p.86
61 Piekalkiewicz, p.111
62 Agar-Hamilton, J.A.I. The Sidi Rezegh Battles 1941. Oxford Universitry Press, Cape Town, 1957,p. 481
63 Piekalkiewicz, p.112
64 Liddell-Hart, p. 179
65 Forty, p. 8
66 Abrose-Brown, J. One Man’s War. A Soldier’s Diary. Timmins, Cape Town, 1980, p.12
67 Orpen, p.167
68 Maule, p.154
69 Fraser, p. 301
- Foss, Christopher, F. The Encyclopaedia of Tanks and Fighting Vehicles, Salamander, London, 1977, p.214
- Orpen, p.155
- Lewin, Ronald. Rommel As Military Commander, Batsford, London, 1968, p.72
- Forty, p.78
74 Pimlott, John. Rommel In his Own Words. Greenhill Books, London, 1994, p. 87
75 Douglas-Home, Charles. Rommel. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1973, p.135
76 Playfair, p.140
77 Orpen, p.157
78 Orpen, p.159-160
79 Piekalkiewicz, p.114
80 Pimlott, p.87
81 Carver, p.153
82 Orpen, p.163
83 Playfair, p.145
84 Irving, p.145
85 Lewin 2, p.104
86 Orpen, p.163
87 Barnett, Corelli. The Desert Generals. Pan, London, 1960, p.133
88 Schmidt, p.144
89 Barnett, p.133
90 Forty, p.15
91 Irving, p.145
92 Pimlott, p.87
93 Maule, p.159
94 Ibid, p.159
95 Playfair, p.147
96 Carver, p.155
97 Ibid, p.155
98 Playfair, p.144
99 Carver, p. 159
100 Orpen, p.167
101 Carver, p.150-160
102 Orpen, p.170
103 Liddell-Hart, p.183
104 Orpen, p.170
105 Lucas, James Sydney. Panzerarmee Africa. Macdonald and Jane’s. London, 1977, p. 91-92
106 Douglas-home, p.136
107 Irving, p.147
108 Heckmann, p.228
109 Cooper, p.352
110 Heckmann, p.229
111 Pimlott, John et al. Images of War. The Real Story of World War II. Vol 14. Marshall Cavendish, London, 1914., p.372.
112 Playfair, p.152
113 Liddel-Hart, p.181
114 Lewin 2, p.106
115 Agar-Hamilton, p.481
116 Irving, p.147
117 Frasier, p.303
118 Irving, p.148
119 Playfair, p.153
120 Carver, p.161
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