Saturday, April 23, 2011

Erwin Rommel's First Offensive In North Africa

BMW R75 with a MG-34 mounted on the sidecar belonging to the 21st Panzer Division

This is one of a series of posts on the 70th Anniversary of World War II. April 1941 is remembered as a time of Nazi conquest. Yugoslavia and Greece were both conquered as a prelude to Operation Barbarossa which was to begin in 22 June. While the Spring of 1940 had been a time of defeat for France with the expulsion of the British form the continent, the Autumn brought the Battle of Britian and something of a respite.

North Africa and the Middle East however were something of showcases of British success during this period. The Italians had attacked Egypt from their colony of Libya in September and Marshall Graziani's offensive had bogged down after advancing barely 40 miles into Egypt. The commander of the British Forces in the Middle East was a very competent by unlucky professional soldier by the name of Archibald Wavell. He unleashed his Western Desert Force (commanded by General O'Connor) in December 1940 against the Italians and the Western Desert Force (WDF) was able to smash nine Italian divisions, capture 130,000 troops and drive the rest 500 miles back across Libya by February 1941. In January 1941, Wavell also launched attacks against Italian Somaliland and occupied Ethiopia, both of which surrendered the following Spring.

So in March 1941 things were looking pretty good for the British WDF in North Africa. Enter Erwin Rommel and the Deutsche Afrika Korps. In January the Luftwaffe's X Flieger Korps had been transfered from Norway to provide air support for the Italian Army and had also denied the WDF the use of the port of Bengazi requiring their supplies to continue to be moved all the way from Alexandria along the coast road. The BBC has an interesting animated map of the entire campaign.

Rommel started his unauthorized counteroffensive on 24 March with the newly arrived 5th Light Division "Afrika", later the 21st Panzer Divison, as well as the “Ariete” and “Trento” Italian motorized Divisions along with what remained of the original Italian Army. He smashed the British 2nd Armored Division, advanced across the desert with most of "Afrika" while the Italians advanced along the coast road. He was able to chase the WDF all the way back to the Egyptian border, investing Tobruk along the way, but failed to capture it, which was not surprising since he didn't even have a full Panzer division at the time and the Italians were still strung out along the coast road.

What made Rommel's task easier was that Wavell had been forced against his better judgment to send four divisions to Greece at the beginning of March.

The Die Deutsche Wochenschau from April 1941 describes the landing of the German troops, this advance, as well as their reception in Bengazi with some interesting footage.

While the withdrawal of most of the WDF was the obvious reason for the British defeat, was it the only one, or even the most important?

Let's not limit this discussion to this one operation, but include the entire campaign. This campaign in North Africa while warfare, was unique to World War II in that there were few if any documented atrocities committed by either side.

I have my own view on why Rommel was successful in this instance, which I will share in good time, but I would like to hear what ya'll think. Especially given that these very sands are being fought over yet once again in our own time . . .


  1. 1. North Africa really was a pretty pointless sideshow for Germany. It had no real strategic business to do there; if I recall, the only reason German troops were even sent was because Hitler didn't want his boy Mussolini to get publicly bitchslapped. The only real reason to be there was to close off the British access through Suez, and Rommel never had the troops, even at his apogee, to to that.

    2. I've always felt that the Italians got a bad rap. They had terrible commanders but with good leadership they could fight. But the image of the Italians as spaghetti-eating surrender monkeys remains; in the 1942 movie "Five Graves to Cairo" the command and staff of the DAK are meeting and Erich von Stroheim as Rommel observes that the force now has over 30,000 men. "60,000, if you count in the Italians!" pipes up one of the Italian officers.

    Von Stroheim turns slowly and surveys the poor guy and snarls "I never count in...or ON...the Italians."

  2. FDChief-

    WWII has plenty of "pointless sideshows", but for the participants of those events they were anything but pointless. Also being warfare they are the raw material for strategic theory and provide interesting case studies.

    Strategically speaking it all starts to unravel for Germany with Barbarossa . . . The defeat of France in June 1940 and its aftermath had provided Germany with everything she would have wanted provided the goal was national interests as we traditionally understand them, that was not the case.

    Agree that the Italians get a bad rep from all this. The Gratziani and the DAK links above provide some balance in this regard, the latter unfortunately only in German.

    Happy Easter to all.

  3. I never understood why the Germans got involved in Africa either, entering into it with a barely thought through strategy (not at all like today?). They only started to take it seriously when it was far too late, even then the strategy never really considered how they were going to fight a successful overseas campaign when they didn't control the sea.

  4. I'd argue that it really starts to unravel for the Herrnvolk back during the winter of 39-40 when Hitler and his crew at OKW, flushed with their success over both the Poles and the OKH, proceed with Fall Gelb without a contingency plan to carry forward against Britain. So Germany spends the entire summer of 1940 sitting on their asses watching another pointless sideshow (the "Battle of Britain" - pointless for Germany, since even assuming that the bombing campaign flattens the entire British air defense system in southern England, without an invasion the gains don't stand up) instead of concluding a conqueror's peace.

    And the British remain in the war, providing a constant drain on German resources in the West as well as other pointless sideshows like Greece and North Africa - possibly enough to prevent victory in the East.

    So North Africa is really a symptom of OKW's inability to come up with a genuine global geopolitical strategy, confirming the conventional wisdom that the German military talent was primarily tactical. Like the French in the Napoleonic Wars, they won lots of the battles...but lost the wars.

  5. DF: One thing that the WW2 U.S. military doesn't get enough credit for (in my opinion) is their skill in coordinating littoral operations. In everything from building hulls that can operate near-shore and over the shore (such as specialized landing craft) to developing tactics to integrate air, ground, and naval forces, to strategies that combine the strengths of land forces, air forces, and naval forces to seize and hold territory...the ability to conduct a successful joint operation is a pretty high-level military skill.

    The U.S., for all that its Army never managed the tactical skills of the Heer, showed that it had figured out that skill by 1944. The Germans, for all their other tactical mastery, never did.

    One critical factor (I think) is that for the most part the U.S. services were generally forced to cooperate at the highest politico-military level. The German services never did. So you don't get bizarre diversions of resources like the Luftwaffe feldivisions, or a navy that can't support across-the-shore invasions, or does it quite poorly, as the Kriegsmarine in 1940.

    No argument that the German Army was the Master of the Battlefield. But as we're relearning in central Asia, you can win every battle and still lose. Sun Tzu still rules.

  6. One caveat; the Allies DID do "bizarre diversions of resources" only in the form of worthless campaigns like Pelilieu in the Pacific and the entire Italian Campaign in Europe (and, I'd argue, much of the "strategic bombing" campaign in Europe, as well, tho their attacks on the petroleum supply chain was pretty critical).

    But their resource base was so much larger than the Axis that they could afford to waste the men and material. The Axis couldn't, and yet were unable to resist expending precious resources, both human and physical, on stuff like North Africa that got them nowhere.

  7. DF-

    I think the Germans felt obligated to go in to pull Mussolini's chips out of the fire. Had Libya fallen it would have made the Rome-Berlin Axis look like something of a papertiger, this with Barbarossa looming. There is also the added threat of British operations against Italy proper in 1941, that is the "Second Front". Hitler's argument for going into Russia was that he had essentially driven the British off the continent and was only operating of one front - in the East - after all. The Italians asked for help in Libya, denying them that would have indicated weakness and that was not what the Germans were wanting to show going into Barbarossa.

    Agree as to the reinforcing failure after El Alamein.

    Rommel didn't even have all the "Afrika" division available when he started his first offensive and his orders were to hold rather than attack . . .

  8. FDChief-

    I don't see the Battle of Britain as a turning point. With the fall of France Germany's coherent strategic goals are attained. Is it actually necessary to invade Britain? Is it in Germany's best interest that the Empire be destroyed? Britain alone can play something of a spoiler but cannot hope to defeat Germany on the continent.

    Once again we have fantasy intruding upon strategy and the massive move against the USSR which is anticipated to being completed by October.

    But let's run a different scenario. Instead of Barbarossa in June we have the Luftwaffe concentrating on clearing the Royal Navy from the Med and two Panzer Corps moved into Lybia. Most of the British Army is lost in Greece. U-boats active in the Med as well. As it was the Royal Navy was almost defeated by December, but with the added strength this would have been almost a certainty. German-Italian forces take Suez as the oil continues to flow from Hitler's defacto ally Stalin . . .

    Peace feelers to the British: "you can have Suez back for peace" (in spite of Italian protests) . . . Would Churchill's government have survived?

  9. I'd agree with you about US capability in littoral operations, Chief, all the more impressive that they became adept it at it so quickly, particularly in the Pacific. I'd also refelct that it's easy to forget that D-Day was well planned and resourced in large part due to learned lessons made in landings in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno & Anzio.

    I'd always had a similar view of the Italian campaign, I think the British (who were driving the strategy at the time) just took it as the next logical step without dwelling too much on how it was going to help them win the war. To my mind that's the only way you could come the conclusion that Sicily was worth invading rather than say bypassing completely.

    The strength of the Allies laid in their ability to strike anywhere they wanted in the Med and for that matter the Atlantic & North Sea.

  10. Hi Seydlitz,

    After pulling the Italian chips out of the fires in Yugoslavia & Greece, running hastily arranged shoestring campaigns, the wermacht could be forgiven for feeling pretty invincible.

    I'm certain had instead of invading the USSR had Germany focused on taking the med from the British to bring favourable terms they could have. The focus for Hitler was always the USSR, with the British as a nuetral or even a friend, the Germans never seemed to be a coherent, committed strategy to combat them.

    Looking forward to reading your coming posts!

  11. Don Francisco-

    As to Hitler's "focus", everything could have been as before, but with the kickoff in the East in June 1942 instead of 1941 . . . Counterfactual German Policy: Make peace with Britain before moving East.

    We're "lucky" in that regard . . .

  12. Good video. I wonder if those ladies throwing flowers in Benghazi were Arab or Italian? Here are my thoughts on why Rommel was so successful in that first offensive.

    #1] Suprise. Rommel jumped the gun kicking off his offensive earlier than Hitler and the General Staff had ordered him to. Thereby he probably counteracted any ULTRA advantage of the Allies.

    #2] German 88-mm and their crews.

    #3] Rommel's study of Wavell's thoughts. He carried a dogeared and annotated copy of Wavell's book on 'Generalship' during that campaign.

    #4] Churchill. He was his own worst enemy by interfering with his Commanders. And if Churchill would have stopped having brainfarts then Admiral Cunningham never would have let Rommel's forces ashore.

    #5] Capture of Generals O'Connor and Neame, and Brigadier Combe. O'Connor was Wavell's greatest asset in North Africa. Without him much of the Brit resistance fell apart.

    #6] (but probably most important) Wavell was greatly overextended, and not just in Greece and East Africa, but also in Iraq and Syria. But then that was Churchill's fault, not Wavell's. But Wavell acquiesced and thought the risk acceptable to send those four divisions to Greece. And weren't those four divisions some of Wavell's best units? Talk about a "bizarre diversion of resources". But then many would argue that Brit reinforcement of the Greeks caused a major delay in Barbarossa and helped the Russkie General Winter to stop the Wehrmacht cold. Not sure myself, but the argument has some merit.

    Another "bizarre diversion" was when Wavell was assigned as ABDACOM and he diverted the Brit Navy to escorting thousands of troops to reinforce Singapore. They ended up of course as POWs building a railroad for the enemy.

    Wavell was the one who behind the scenes engineered the relief of Admiral Thomas Hart, who was outspoken in his opposition to defend Singapore instead of Java and western Australia. After getting run out of Singapore and Java, Wavell made some disastrous decisions in Burma and the Arakan. And for all of the above he was made a Viscount and a Viceroy - whatever happened to the Brit Articles of War during the Seven Years War that led to the execution of Admiral Byng??? Probably Wavell got his accolades for being the scapegoat and not dropping the dime on Churchill.

    In 'The Stilwell Papers' old Vinegar Joe described Wavell: "He's a tired, depressed man, pretty well beaten down."

  13. Regarding the Italian Campaign, I disagree. But I am biased as my father fought there. To his dying day he cursed Mark Clark.

    Anyway, who can say that without the lessons learned from landings at Sicily, Salerno and Anzio that Overlord would have succeeded? Without the experience gained in Sicily and Italy by the 1st Inf Div, the Brit XXX Corps and 50th Inf Div and by Monty, Bradley, Patton and their staffs would Overlord have succeeded? What about the Italian airfields in Foggia, Bari and others that allowed the 15th Air Force to fly those critical attacks on the Axis petroleum supply chain?

    Nobody, I think, could say that was worthless and contributed zilch to the overall allied victory. You might as well write one of those alternate history fictions such as "If Lee had Beaten Grant" or "If the Moors Still Ruled in Andalus".

  14. mike-

    Excellent comments!

    I wasn't aware of Wavell's actions in the Far East, but did know that he had attempted to alleviate the famine in Bengal in 1943 however unsuccessfully.

    As to "surprise", very much agree, which introduces the point I wish to make. So with this in mind, let's first consider Rommel's military background:

    Adolf von Schell in his famous "Battle Leadership" which he wrote while assigned as a Reichswehr exchange officer at the US Infantry school in the early 1930s indicated:

    "The company officers and men knew neither the location of the enemy nor his strength. They had not been told whether or not they would be supported by artillery. They did not know who was on their right or left. They only knew that they had to attack and that they would meet the French beyond the swamp. This was always our experience in open warfare whether on the Western Front, or the Eastern Front, in Rumania or in the Caucasus; when an attack started we never had more than poor information on the enemy." page 33.

    Notice "open warfare" especially meeting engagements. Rommel of course served in the opening moves against France in 1914 and commanding mountain infantry in the Rumanian and Italian campaigns. He was experienced in conducting meeting engagements in mountainous terrain, essentially operating in three dimensions. He was well versed with active reconnaissance/movement to contact but also emphasizing deception and infiltration.

    During the Rumanian campaign he was able to infiltrate through a Rumanian defensive line and digin on the crest overlooking this series of positions. The Rumanians were unable to dislodge him and had to vacate their prepared positions and the main German forces were able to advance with slight losses.

    Compare this type of military experience with an officer - from either side - who had seen only static trench warfare/some patrolling and the massive battles of material during 1914-18 . . .

  15. I don't have much to add except for this interesting article I ran across today:

  16. The second point which is related to the first is actually statistical. The British Defence Operational Analysis Centre conducted a study of 158 land campaigns since 1914 (Jim Storr describes this in his "The Human Face of War" which I recommend) and came up with the following:

    According to their study there are four battlefield factors which dominated the probability of success. These were surprise, possession of air superiority, aggressive ground reconnaissance and shock. All individually were force multipliers in terms of impact of campaign outcome. Now consider that aggressive ground recon can lead to surprise and surprise to shock and you get an idea of the potential advantages involved. But there is more to it than that. Aggressive ground recon also leads to better information about the enemy and more opportunities for exploitation. The Germans in WWII were experts at this and found it to be natural. This inclination and their ability to pull it off repeatedly might explain their tactical success . . .

  17. Andy-

    I've heard of this book which has created quite a stir in Germany. I wonder though about some of their conclusions. I have a Wehrmacht pamphlet that I bought in a German fleamarket from 1943 that was issued to all troops to be engaged against British or US forces. In it it provides the usual instructions as to escaping as soon as possible after capture but also how one should behave in Allied captivity. The soldiers are encouraged to "show them you're a Nazi" with any faintheartedness or complacency discouraged. There's also the implication that it might be a bad idea for the folks back home if somehow it got back that one wasn't convinced enough of the Endsieg. We are afterall dealing with a particularly nasty police state/dictatorship.

    Would that simple fact have influenced what they said to each other in prison camps or how they reacted to what they were told?

  18. mike: Everything I've read (at least written with full access to the German and Russian archives, that is, since about the late Eighties) concludes:

    1. The German force sent to Greece was only about 700K out of the 3.9M slated for Barbarossa; large, but not crippling. And

    2. The spring of 1941 was wet, and the high river levels and soggy ground meant that it was unlikely that the attack could have been moved up more than a couple of weeks at best.

    Germany lost the 1941 campaign as much because of their overall unpreparedness - lack of a single objective, underestimation of the size of their task, poor logistical and operational planning - as the time it took to reach Moscow. Much like their attack through France in 1914, the 1941 plan just wasn't do-able with the METT-T considerations available...

  19. Seydlitz,

    It does sound like an interesting book, but all I have to go on is that one article. Just based on that, I'm not sure about the source - covert recordings of POW's. My initial reaction is that the fact that it's based on prisoners probably biases the results and so I'm skeptical that conclusions can be extrapolated to a national population. For one thing that group is too homogenous - all male of military age, etc.

    Regarding Barbarossa and North Africa, the difference in scale is pretty significant - Germany had 145 divisions on the LOD in June 1941 and Rommel had what in Libya? 2, 3?

    As a student of Russian history I'm probably biased here, but it seems we in the west overstate the importance of campaigns like North Africa and our own contributions generally. Even after the allied invasion in 1944 the German eastern front always had at least twice as many divisions as the west.

  20. Seydlitz -

    In Desmond Young's bio of Rommel, he claims that someone on Wavell's Staff (back in Palestine by the way) made a basic arithmetic error in their calculation of time/distance equation. Therefore completely misjudging Rommel's speed of approach. Don't know if that is true. Could be, or it could be an after-the-fact alibi, who knows???

    Also I understand that many Brit North African vets and also some Germans from the General Staff espoused that Rommel was a super tactician but not much of a strategist. Not sure what I think. He did teach at the War Academy in Potsdam and also one in Austria, but I am not familiar with those institutions. Was he teaching aspiring field grade officers or just instructing cadets in basic tactics??? His plans to take Suez and then on to Basra was certainly a bold strategy. Taking Basra would have cut off a major portion of war material to the Soviets. But the plan seems far-fetched without the support he needed. It seems IMHO he was not a logistician. I know that his supply of fuel, bullets, beans and bandages was out of his hands and he was dependent on the Italian Navy. But for awhile there the Med was an Axis lake.

  21. Chief:

    You may be right re Greece. My source if I remember correctly was the memoirs of Lord Ismay who was Churchill's liaison with the Chiefs of the Imperial Army, the Admiralty, and RAF. He of course could be prejudiced or if not could just be spouting one of Winston's whoppers.

    On the other hand, 700K is almost 18% of 3.9M. Losing one in five before a major offensive seems a big loss to my feeble mind. And I think Ismay was speaking of Stuka Divisions diverted to Greece and Yugoslavia, not Infantry Divisions. And perhaps the Axis should have left the 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies behind to fight in Greece instead of sending them with Army Group South to Russia. Ditto for the Slovak Expeditionary Army Group and for the Italian and Hungarian Corps. Why send the supposedly best Italian units to Russia when it was their war in Greece and Yugoslavia? The troops from those four countries certainly came close to 700K and were better suited to the mountains in the Balkans than they were to the steppes. And then von Rundstedt could have gone in with an all-German Army. But here I go trying to write 'what-if' history after I just chided you for doing that in a post or two ago. Sorry about that, not very consistent on my part.

  22. Chief -

    Although I do agree with your statement about the Axis "...unpreparedness - lack of a single objective, underestimation of the size of their task, poor logistical and operational planning" during Barbarossa.

  23. Gentlemen-

    Barbarossa is a separate topic and given that next month is the 70th anniversary of the war in the East . . . Chief's already done a great post on the subject on his blog and I hope to do something in regards to the Battle of Kiev, but the subject at hand is North Africa . . . once we get off into the steppes there's probably no coming back.

    My point is that Rommel was successful due to particular traits that he had along with a very functional if limited instrument of the Afrika Korps, this in addition to mistakes made on the British side. Also force being a relationship, a relatively small force in Libya (two Panzer Korps as I mentioned) could have had a big difference in the strategic situation, a real achievement of strategic effect in relation to the forces committed. That Rommel was unable to achieve this strategic effect was no fault of his own, but rather the political leadership of the Reich.

    Churchill and the world were lucky that Hitler was even a bigger dreamer than he was . . .

    I think ya'll will find this interesting . . .

  24. Chief,
    My cmt is chicken shit but here goes- the pic you attribute to the 21st AD is not bearing the correct unit id on the vehicle. Or so i believe.
    I can't say what div the vehicle belongs to b/c i do not have reference books, but i feel comfortable in saying what unit it ain't. See wikipedia for the unit symbol.
    This small observation does not in any way denigrate what your discussions cover.
    BTW i think this was a posed photo.

  25. Seydlitz,
    Sorry, i just assumed that Chief wrote this piece.

  26. jim-

    21st Panzer's insignia was a "D" with a horizontal bar through it same as on the sidecar imo. The R75 seems to belong to the Artillery Regiment of that unit.

  27. mike-

    The ladies in the newsreel are Italian. The Libyans would not have come out into the street, would have remained indoors. Makes you wonder what they had experienced under the Brits . . .

  28. "...a relatively small force in Libya (two Panzer Korps as I mentioned) could have had a big difference in the strategic situation, a real achievement of strategic effect in relation to the forces committed. That Rommel was unable to achieve this strategic effect was no fault of his own, but rather the political leadership of the Reich."


    Assuming that 1) Rommel does, in fact, get the troops and supplies he needs, and 2) the British don't reinforce Egypt, and 3) everything goes right for the DAK...then the Germans take and hold Suez and the British have a difficult 1942.


    North Africa was always a sideshow, especially after June of '41. Rommel was never going to get his two panzerkorps, not with OKW needing to feed the beast in the East.

    So with the Allied preponderance in material, Rommel was never going to get the 3:1 he needed to blow through the Alamein defenses. Give Monty credit - the man could fight a set-piece battle (only thing he COULD do, IMO).

    So Rommel ends up sitting there in the desert sucking up air and maritime assets better used elsewhere. Again, the Allies have troops and supplies to waste; Rommel isn't doing any good diverting stuff to 8th Army. He's wasting more goods from his end (relative to Germany's economic strength) than he's making the Allies burn through to fight him.

    I mean, the guy WAS a decent enough tactician (tho it helped that he succeeded against the French in 1940, who were a shambles, and the British, who were better but not much. He had a gift for improvisation and a hunter's nose for the prey's weaknesses. But I think van Creveld pegs him pretty accurately: "Given that the Wehrmacht was only partly motorized and unsupported by a really strong motor industry; that the political situation necessitated the carrying of much useless Italian ballast; that the capacity of the Libyan ports was so small, the distances to be mastered so vast; it seems clear that, for all of Rommel's tactical brilliance, the problem of supplying an Axis force for an advance into the Middle East was insoluble. Rommel's repeated defiance of his orders and attempts to advance beyond a reasonable distance from his bases, however, was mistaken and should never have been tolerated."

  29. FDChief-

    We are talking counterfactuals now afterall. Barbarossa planned for 1942. But first, knock Britain out in 1941. Deploying the Luftwaffe to knock out the Royal Navy in the Med is hardly an impossible task. With the Italian Navy (and Vichy French Navy) intact and the Royal Navy effectively swept from the Med? Would Churchill have survived politically the loss of Suez in 1941? After a whole string of defeats? With Russia still Germany's defacto ally?

    Monty doesn't even come into the cards until it's too late . . . This scenario puts much less pressure on the German economy than the invasion of Russia in 1941 does and even with that we have Germany historically hanging on for four years . . .

    This is North Africa, it either has to happen quickly or not at all . . . ?

  30. Chief - van Creveld had the ist part right. But I do not give him a vote for his last sentence. Rommel probably knew that he was toast staying in place, so took his best chance with his unauthorized offensive.

    Seydlitz/Ranger - Your eyes are better than mine. Where is the R75? I can see the Beamer insignia bright and clear though. Perhaps that was enhanced with photoshop.

  31. Chief - I do agree with Field Marshall Alexander though that Rommel sometimes tended to over-exploit his initial successes and end up the worse for it. Alexander claimed that Rommel did that both in his advance to El Alamein and later he did the same after Kasserine when he went for the brass ring at Thala. He did some gambling.

  32. Seydlitz - You said in the initial post that: "This campaign in North Africa while warfare, was unique to World War II in that there were few if any documented atrocities committed by either side."

    Rommel himself complained to a captured New Zealander, Brigadier Clifton aka the 'flying Kiwi', of the 'gangster methods' of the the New Zealand troops who had bayoneted German wounded Germans during a night battle near Matruh. Rommel also harangued Clifton regarding an incident in which a wounded German officer was thrown into a burning truck. And also bent his ear about an Axis hospital ship leaving Tobruk that had been bombed by an RAF flying fortress. And Clifton's interrogator, a major claimed that Maori's had collected German ears during the Battle of Crete.

    Later in Tunisia there were rumors that surrendering American troops were bayoneted by German . There were also widespread rumors that Panzers at Kasserine deliberately turned from their route in order to grind wounded GIs under their tracks. The Americans themselves were no saints, shooting Arabs just for the hell of it after Kasserine and gang-raping native women.

    Rommel and his CofS General Westphal deserve credit for not following Hitler's infamous order to kill all captured Commandos even if they had surrendered. They never issued that order to subordinate commanders and according to Westphal Rommel and he burned it within ten minutes of receipt.

  33. And let's not forget that the Jews of Tunisia were dealt with in general accordance with the Fuhrerbefehl regarding "subhuman peoples". Some 20% of them died in labor camps; they were onlt spared the full meal deal because the German logistical chain was so fucked that they didn't have the hulls to spare to bring the death camp wherewithal there or ship the Jews back to the camps in Europe

  34. Libya also Chief. Although the pogroms after the Germans and Italians were kicked out were much worse. Some say that Gaddafi is Jewish on his mother's mother's side. I wonder if that is true or Israeli agitprop?? He was born in 42, while the battle of Bir Hakeim was going on in his country. Sucker must be getting tired like me. I was also born that year, wonder whether he dreams of retirement and raising date palms?

  35. mike-

    As to the R75, compare the photo on this thread with this one . . .

    As to atrocities during the North African campaign, I did come across the Kiwi incident with an Afrika Korps field hospital, but the New Zealanders dispute it, so is it "documented"? I've given the Kiwis the benefit of the doubt.


    Your claim of "20% of Tunisian Jews dying" in German-run labor camps is the first time I've come across anything like this claim. I think that would come to about 20,000 based on the Jewish population at the time . . . Do you have a source?


    I notice that no one disputes my counterfactual scenario . . .

  36. Hi Seydlitz,

    I'll pick up your counterfactual scenario and run with for a bit, might need some help forward with it it though as it's been a while since I studied the war of the Med.

    It's feasable that the Axis could have pushed the British to terms in the way you describe, concentrating on reducing British presence in the Med by combining the Luftwaffe & Regia Marina. The Italian navy, to my memory was of reasonable size/modernity/competence but lacked a fleet air arm. If I remember correctly it was also short of oil & fuel for much of the war. The Luftwaffe would also have to commit itself to the theatre, bear in mind the British didn't completely end the threat of the Regia Marina until Italy itself surrendered in 1943.

    It would also have to rely to a certain extent on the British prosecuting the battle of the Med with less competence than they did - Admiral Cunningham was one of their most effective commanders of the war, and took the initiative against the Axis forces very early on. Sending in the RN without air support to the battle of Crete was the only significant error he made - it's arguable Cunningham was perfectly aware of the risks, considering it a duty to help.

    Port facilities at Tripoli would also have to be increased considerably in size to effectively supply the Afrika Corps & Italian land forces.

  37. seydlitz: I stand corrected on two points.

    First, my reading of the secondary sources was wrong; the actual arrest and deportation/incarceration of Jews was done by the Italians.

    Second, the 20% extermination statement should read "20% of the Jews of Benghazi" were murdered in the forced labor camp.

    Anyway, there's a pdf account here: and another article from Ha'aretz here:

    So whilst Rommel and his guys didn't take an active part in extermination campaigns, it looks like they acted like most other German Heer organizations; minded their own business whilst the civil powers, "special units", and secret police did the dirty work. Certainly it does NOT appear that Rommel took a stand to keep the extermination/detention/forced labor organizations out of his AO.

    Like Bobby Lee, then; upright guy personally, perhaps, but not the parfit gentile knight.

  38. And assuming that;

    1) Hitler give up his eastward expansion dreams (and therein lies the most improbable counterfactual - I can't see a possibility of that happening. The guy hated Reds too much)

    2) He appoints a competent guy with the authority to run the ENTIRE Med campaign (instead of small pieces of it - which, again, is hard to believe; the Nazi's besetting sin was the entropic nature of their system), who

    3) makes the Axis logistical system work, which never happened IRL,

    4) the Brits have someone less competent than Cunningham in charge, and most critically

    5) the Japanese either don't attack Pearl Harbor OR Hitler doesn't declare war on the U.S.

    All that happens, I'd give the Axis a 50-50 chance of at least closing Suez.

    But we're getting kinda out in wolkenkuckucksheim, nicht wahr?

  39. Gentlemen-

    The counterfactual regards taking Britain out of the war in 1941 prior to going into Russia, having Hitler give up permanently on attacking the USSR is not part of the scenario.

    Cunningham was a competent naval commander, but as it was with even limited Luftwaffe commitment, he had but three cruisers and a handful of destroyers still in action by December 1941. Certain units of the Italian Navy did operate effectively. Increase the Luftwaffe commitment by three times and place it under an aggressive commander like Wolfram von Richthofen.

    As it was Rommel was almost able to repulse the British offensive in November. With added strength (four Panzer divisions instead of two along with the the two light divisons and the Italians) Rommel would have done even better. Using Benghazi as the supply port hub would have decreased distances considerably and with Crete in German hands would have allowed Luftwaffe and Italian navy escorts.

  40. it sounds all a bit of a cliché, but I think this scenario all comes down to logistics, or rather the capacity of specific port facilities . . .

    There is also Syria . . .,9171,765709-1,00.html

  41. In regards to Axis logistics . . . it was able to get them to Stalingrad and the Caucasus in the summer of 1942 . . . In regards to this scenario, do not the Brits actually have the tougher job since Alexandria - which is their main port - isn't going to be of much use in terms of resupply . . . ?

  42. Another major factor to consider that didn't come to me until turning in last night - Ultra. The counterfactual can only work if the British did not crack enigma. Though it was of value to them in their land campaigns (and the Battle of Britain for that matter), it was absolutely critical in their conduct of naval operations, allowing them to fight when & where they wanted, this allowed them to defeat the u-boat wolf packs. Another, very large 'If' there.

    In all honesty though if the German leadership wanted Britain to come to peaceful terms there would be far simpler ways to go about it, ignore them. Germany can't really pose a credible threat the Britain because of the RN control of the seas & logistics, but equally the British can't threaten the Germans (beyond threatening the Italians in North Africa). I'm not even convinced there would be great in value if the Germans upping the tempo of the u-boat campaign given the UK's advantage in ultra - like playing chess against an opponent who may have less pieces but can see several moves ahead of you.

    First, don't declare war on the US, the UK on its own cannot invade Europe.

    Second, consider just leaving the UK alone. If it poses no credible threat to Germany's domination of Europe then why bother?

    The UK is a democracy led by a particularly anti-nazi leader, so long as the country actually is under attack from Germany (Battle of Britain, proposed Sealion invasion, u-boat campaign, bombing) it makes it all the easier for Churchill to keep the country mobilised for total war. Whereas if the threat isn't so acute, well, the public can easily tire of war, can be fickle. A genuine offer of peace by the Germans and promise to leave well alone might seem tempting after 2-3 years of doom and gloom. Churchill's appointment as leader was far from inevitable, it was more likely that Lord Halifax would be PM, and he likely would have considered terms with Hitler.

  43. Seydlitz -

    I went back and checked the memoirs of Ismay (Winnie's dogbody during the War). He claims that there was concern in Feb 41 in London at the reports that considerable enemy reinforcements, including German armoured units, were arriving in Tripoli. But that: "Wavell was reassuring. On 2 March he (Wavell) reported in a telegram that owing to 'shipping risks, difficulty of communications, and the approach of hot weather,' no large-scale attack was likely to develop against him before the end of the summer."

    Imagine their shock when, on the last day of March, Rommel fell upon Agheila! Was Rommel's intention just a limited advance which he then exploited to the utmost after finding the Brits poorly organized and limited in armor? Or was it his intention all along to push on to Suez? I think the former. But am not so sure. Towards the end of March 41 there were German inspired uprisings in Iraq. 10K Iraqi troops and several generals staged a coup inspired by Rashid Ali. If successful this would have cut off a major supply of oil to Wavell's forces and cut him off from reinforcements from India.

  44. Don Fransico's comment reminds me of Aleksandr Svechin's comment that one of the big German mistakes in the First World War was failing to realize who their determined enemies were. Czarist Russia could have been dealt in terms of negotiation, whereas the British were single minded in their intention of destroying Germany as a commercial rival. Underestimating the British happened again in 1941, but could have gone the other way.

    Mike's comment indicates how limited British understanding of what German intentions were, in that Rommel was something of a wildcard, even with "Ultra". Still access to information is not the same as being able to act on it. By postponing Barbarossa and going for the "knockout blow" against Britain, Germany has overwhelming power which it potentially can bring to bear.

    Another question comes to mind, what exactly would it have taken in 1941 for Turkey to join the Axis? The Germans could have requested permission to move troops from Greece though Turkey to reinforce Vichy in Syria and make it a tough for the Brits, not to mention support of the coup in Iraq.

    As it was they took a month to defeat the French in Syria with the French putting up a fight. Most the captured French refusing to join De Gaulle and requesting instead to be repatriated to France.

    All in all I find this a fascinating counterfactual scenario. 1941 seems to have been the pivot year of WWII.

  45. Howdy this is somewhat of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG
    editors or if you have to manually code with HTML.
    I'm starting a blog soon but have no coding expertise so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help would be enormously appreciated!
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