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German North African Campaign 1940-43


 

German North African Campaign 1940-43

 

Prior to, and throughout the beginning of World War II, Italy was given full sway over the invasions, occupations, and control over the Mediterranean and North Africa. With the British Navy playing an active role in both the Mediterranean and Africa putting pressure on the Axis forces, Italy was unable to manage the situation and prevent the Allies forces from gaining ground. In the summer of 1940, German leader Adolf Hitler met with Italian leader Benito Mussolini and stressed the point that the Italians needed to pick up the British who were moving more troops into the theater. However, with the continual influx of allied troops and the inability of Italy to stop allied convoys in the Mediterranean Sea, Hitler made the decision to take a more active position in southern Europe and in Africa.

This decision by Hitler marks the beginning of major German involvement on the African continent. On 12 Feb 1941, Hitler names Field Marshall Erwin Rommel as commander of the Afrikakorps, a blocking force being sent to Africa to support the ailing Italians. Italy, since before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, had been in control of Libya along the North African coast. The Afrikakorps was sent to Libya and on 14 Feb 1941 Rommel arrives on the continent with them. Made up of several Panzer divisions, the Afrikakorps was destined to go up against the increasing British presence in Egypt, which had begun encroaching into Libya against the unimposing Italians.

            Along with Hitler, Field Marshall Rommel’s view of the Italians was very poor. Their inability to hold back the British 8th Army from moving into Libya from Egypt was scarcely more than an organized retreat in his view.  Rommel stated that “they are certainly no good at war.”[1] His job, given to him by the Fuhrer, was to turn things around and remove the allied presence in North Africa. Rommel’s exploits in France commanding Panzers was unparalleled and the German command had high hopes for his success in Africa. Winston Churchill would go on to say about Rommel that "we have a very daring and skillful opponent against us. And may I say across the havoc of war, a great general."

Though the Afrikakorps possessed some of the best armor in the theater, the North African theater also presented some distinct challenges for the German forces. "It is an actual fact that early in 1941, the German troops reached the African theater of operations almost entirely unprepared for their new missions,"[2] wrote German commanders after the war. After speaking with and from the suggestion of the current Italian commander, one of Rommel’s first acts in Africa was to personally scout the terrain in reconnaissance aircraft.  The intelligence branch of the German army had not gone to the trouble of creating, and was unable to obtain from the Italians, accurate maps for the campaign. This immediately made command decisions challenging for Rommel. The few maps they did have were based more on literary descriptions instead of geographical facts making them near useless for the soldiers. The British maps were considered a particularly valuable prize when captured.[3] They contained much more detail than those of either the German or Italian forces.

Desert warfare was also something the German army was relatively unprepared for. Desert combat presents distinct challenges to both men and equipment. Water is difficult to come by and must be supplied to the troops in the field. Special water supply units were created to meet the water demands. Unlike the British units, the Germans had no tanker vehicles. Their water deliveries were made in twenty gallon cans which was extremely tiresome to manage on such a large scale. The temperature also affected the soldiers significantly. The temperatures in the armor could reach up to 150 degrees during the day causing heatstroke for many soldiers and very uncomfortable fighting conditions, literally making many of the vehicles into ovens.

            Despite the unique challenges the desert operations presented, Rommel succeeded in using his Afrikakorps as a blocking force which halted the British advance into Libya and turned the tide for the Axis. Using cunning tactics and lightning moves Rommel gained the nickname “Desert Fox” from both his troops and the allies. General Archibald Wavell, commander in chief of all British forces in the Middle East, was facing Rommel. Prior to Germany’s involvement in Libya, the British had faced the greater Italian forces and pushed them back deep into Libya taking a large number of prisoners along the way (close to 130,000).[4] After taking the province of Cyrenaica the British halted their advance, not pushing on to the capital of Tripoli. After the arrival of the Afrikakorps in Tripoli, Rommel used the capital as a staging base for his powerful German forces. He proceeded to quickly overwhelm the reduced British forces in Cyrenaica and within two months had retaken almost all the land the British had captured from the Italians. The only holdout being Tobruk, which the British made into a strongly defended position.

 

            After initially going around Tobruk and pushing into Egypt, Rommel returns and lays siege to the city. After two failed British assaults to try and break the hold on Tobruk, Churchill replaces Wavell with General Claude Auchinleck who launches a third assault on Rommel’s forces around Tobruk. This assault was finally successful and pushed Rommel back to El Agheila, Libya. In January 1942 Rommel launches another strike against the British after being resupplied by his shorter supply lines, taking Benghazi.  In a great showing of military tactics, Rommel then overran several British strongholds and captured Tobruk which housed a great store of British supplies.

After the loss of Tobruk, Churchill again changes commanders in the African theater, this time to General Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery reinforced the British 8th Army and made changed to improve its operations. In August 1942, Rommel attacks the British southern line, but is repelled by strong resistance, his target having been guessed correctly by Montgomery. This was the beginning of the end for the German-Italian Army in Africa.  Rommel continued to push against El Alamein, but suffered serious losses, especially to his supply lines, by Royal Air Force bombers and fighters. The British on the other hand were receiving copious supplies from the United Stated including Sherman tanks and artillery units. Shortly after Rommel’s failed push against El Alamein, the British began a strong counter offensive which resulted in over 30,000 Germans becoming prisoners of war.[5]

Beginning on November 8, 1942, US and British forces were landed in French North Africa, specifically Morocco and Algeria. The British forces on the Egyptian side of Libya continued the push against Rommel forcing him back through Libya and eventually taking Tripoli in January 1943. The two Allied forces eventually combined and set their sights on Tunisia where Rommel had managed to unite two main Panzer groups into a strong force which he moves toward the Allied army. In Rommel’s favor was the new tanks he obtained. These tanks were armed with 88mm anti tank guns[6] which would result in the loss of many Allied armor units. This time Rommel, with his new weapons, goes up against the Americans at Kasserine Pass, splitting their lines and finally overwhelming them. He continued the drive to near the border of Algeria. Here Rommel was stung by the Allied air power who had taken control of the skies over the battlefield. This Allied airpower would turn the tide against Rommel forcing him into a retreat.

Rommel retreated to the French built Mareth line, a series of fortifications spanning 22 miles, where he consolidated his forces preparing to meet the ever strengthening Allied armies. With his forces being battered for over a month, between February and March 1943 along the Mareth line, the Axis forces had little chance to withstand the onslaught that would be coming. In another stroke to the German campaign, Rommel became ill and was forced to be flown out of Africa and back to Germany to recover.

With the loss of their intrepid leader, the Germans finally capitulated on 13 May 1943. This complete surrender of Axis forces in North Africa totaled more than 240,000 men.[7]  On 15th May the last of the Axis soldiers laid down their arms. British General Alexander signaled the Prime Minister: "Sir it is my duty to report that the Tunisian Campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores." [8]

The loss of North Africa marked one of several important fronts that were taken on by Hitler and were defeated by the Allies (Western, Eastern, and African fronts). It would come down to the inability of Germany to supply the forces sufficiently. With so many fronts being fought at the same time, the German war machine was stretched too thin to support the increasing needs of the German armed forces. Italy took the first steps by expanding their sphere of influence into Africa and their weakness in being able to hold the expansion against the Allied forces forced Hitler to step in and thin his own military by spreading them out amongst many fronts.  With the might of the United States resources behind them, the Allies were able to overwhelm the German limited resources and push back even the most experienced units of the German army and one of the greatest generals of the Reich, Erwin Rommel.

 

Bibliography

Afrikakorps.org. Panzer-Armee "AFRIKA" Kommandeurs. 2008. http://www.afrikakorps.org/dakkommandeurs.htm (accessed April 15, 2009).

Jackson, Derrick. Days Before Victory in Africa. 2000. http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/WW2/Derrick_Jackson/html/body_days_before_victory_in_africa.htm (accessed April 16, 2009).

Toppe, Alfred. Desert warfare: German experiences in World War II. June 18, 1979. http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/Toppe/toppe.asp (accessed April 15, 2009).

Tucker-Jones, Anthony. Hitler's Great Panzer Heist. Stackpole Books, 2008.

US Army. A Brief History of the U.S. Army in World War II. U.S. Army Center for Military History, 2003.

Vaughan, Donald. The Everything World War II Book. Avon: Adams Meedia Corporation, 2002.

 



[1]  (Afrikakorps.org 2008)

[2]  (Toppe 1979)

[3]  (Toppe 1979)

[4]  (Vaughan 2002)

[5]  (Vaughan 2002)

[6]  (Tucker-Jones 2008)

[7]  (Vaughan 2002)

[8]  (Jackson 2000)

Last Updated ( Friday, 29 May 2009 11:59 )

 

German North African Campaign 1940-43
Written by Steven Terjeson   
19 April 2009

 

 


Date Added: 2010-06-16


 

 

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