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The Myth of the Desert Fox: Tobruk 1942

Mark has a BA from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Mussolini's Dream Evaporates

Benito Mussolini was determined not to be overshadowed by his rival's conquests, in 1940 he had visions of turning the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea into a Second Roman Empire tripling the size of his empire.

It now seemed to be a perfect time for Italy to take control of the British interests in the Mediterranean. On June 28,1940, Mussolini gave his generals the order to prepare a plan for the invasion of Egypt. After dragging their feet for two and a half months they finally launched their invasion on September 13,1940. Expecting to easily sweep aside British forces Italian troops marched more as if they were on parade rather than advancing into battle. Over 80,000 Italian troops flooded into the Egypt from Libya.

The attack consisted of five infantry divisions and seven tank battalions which appeared to be a formidable fighting force. But the reality was otherwise. Nevertheless, at the start of the campaign everything went well. After advancing sixty miles in just four days the Italians stopped and occupied Sidi Barrani a small town on the Egyptian frontier.

As the Italians continued their advance into Egypt their supply lines became over extended and exposed to attack. The British waited for the appropriate time to launch their counterattack against the Italians. Camping in Mersa Matruh near its rail hub British forces held the key advantage of re-supply.

Mersa Matruh was once known as Paraetonium a place where Anthony and Cleopatra had once swum in its crystal blue waters. The town had once been an important harbor for trade, shipping goods and grain to Rome. Now over two thousand years later Mersa Matruh would be the scene of a major battle between the British and Italian armies.

When the smoke and dust from the invasion cleared, British soldiers were shocked to see a large part of Mussolini's force exposed and arrayed before them in neat columns. The outnumber British fell back on well prepared positions and at once began to shell the targets presented to them taking a deadly toll on the Italians. Italian soldiers would soon discover they were ill prepared for war in the desert. "This is an evil that must pass quickly," one Italian soldier in the battle would write home to his family.

On December 9,1940, British forces launched a major counterattack soon afterward the Italian invasion force melted away before them as they advanced. British Matilda tanks sped forward, as one British soldier would remark, "like iron rods probing a wasp's nest." The Matilda, weighing some 30 tons outmatched the lightly armored Italian tanks. Its three-inch amour was impenetrable to Italian guns, while its own gun, a two pounder, could penetrate the best tank the Italians had on the field of battle from a distance.

In less than a month after the British counter-offensive had begun, some 80,000 Italians, the entire invasion force had surrendered or had been taken prisoner.

The Western Desert

The Western Desert, where much of the fighting would occur, formed a rectangle 500 miles long and 150 miles wide. Although fringed by a fertile coastline along the Mediterranean Sea, its inner reaches were a wasteland void of any life except for drought-adapted species such as poisonous scorpions and vipers, and prickly camel's thorn. Water could only be obtained from scattered cisterns built by the Romans soon after the death of Christ, or by drilling deep into the ground.

The desert torments were many. Temperatures fluctuated as much as 60 degrees in a single day. Sand as fine as talcum powder routinely clogged rifle breeches and inflamed eyes and when driven by the hot southerly wind it filled nostrils, permeated cracks in vehicles and tents buried food and equipment, and reduced visibility to a few yards.

But yet the desert was uniquely suited to waging war. The open spaces and the lack of natural obstacles made it ideal for tanks. So did the absence of any permanent human settlements. As a historian of the British Eight Army's exploits, put it: "There was absolutely no one and nothing to damage except the men and equipment of the opposing army."

From a military standpoint, the worst aspect of the Western Desert was its lack of distinctive landmarks. Crossing it, except along the one coastal road was like sailing an uncharted sea, navigation was only possible by sun, stars and compass.

Rommel Lands in Tripoli

Late on the evening of February 7, 1942, Rommel wrote his wife Lucie from his room at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin. The day before he had quickly left their bungalow at Wiener Neustadt after a phone call from the Fuhrer's headquarters after only one day home from leave. For security reasons he was unable to tell Lucie much about the new command Hitler had given him, but he found a coded way to explain his sudden departure: "Went to sleep last night thinking about my new job. It means that I can begin my rheumatism treatment next week." He suffered from rheumatism for some time and a doctor had recommended he should take a holiday in North Africa.

His days of battle in the North African desert would become legendary as he pushed the British Empire to the limit of near defeat. Hitler had personally selected Rommel to command the Africa Korps telling Mussolini he was the boldest commanding general in the German Army.

Just hours after his arrival in Libya Rommel took off in a Heinkel-111, camera in hand, to get to know the country he was about to defend. Among the many talents Erwin Rommel employed in North Africa was his skill of photography, carefully using it to locate enemy positions. Rommel's photos ranged from aerial panoramas to destroyed British tanks. Over his months in the African desert Rommel took thousands of photographs. He planned to use them to illustrate a postwar book.

Rommel "Desert Fox"

After the capture of the British base at Mechili, from among a fleet of vehicles left behind by the British, Rommel took the Perspex dust goggles that were to become his trademark look, fixed from that day onward to the peak of his cap. Even a general, Rommel would say to his aid Lieutenant Schmidt as he tried out the goggles, was allowed a little victory booty.

By now the German Enigma code had been broken and the British were reading transcripts of the radio signals passed between Rommel and Berlin. The only problem was Rommel didn't follow orders leaving the British scratching he heads as to when and where he would strike next.

Even his generals were urging him to stop his advance for essential maintenance, but Rommel ordered them to continue to their attack. Within three weeks of his arrival in North Africa he had recaptured all the territory the British had taken from the Italians.

It was during this advance the British began referring to Rommel as the "Desert Fox". The small fox who had a habit of burrowing quickly into the sand to escape predators, only seen by desert nomads who occasionally only got a fleeting glance of the reclusive animal. Its speed and ability to fade quickly into the landscape appeared to be a characteristic of Rommel.

For example, Rommel employed a tactic to confuse his enemy which involved sending out his "Cardboard Division". These German dummy tanks, made up of Volkswagen-mounted dummies without guns, were sent out to stir up as much dust as possible to disguise his true point of attack, and to create the illusion of armored strength.

In some instances, the enemy were so intimidated by the massive cloud of dust in their horizon they would withdraw without a shot fired. Rommel's true talent as a commander was to be where the enemy forces weren't and to attack at their weakest point with the full strength of his army. In most cases he achieved this goal even though his enemy in most cases always held the numerical advantage on the battlefield.

Russian 76mm Anti-Tank Gun

The deadly Russian 76 mm divisional gun M1942 (ZiS-3).

The deadly Russian 76 mm divisional gun M1942 (ZiS-3).

Russian 76mm anti-tank gun in action supported by Red Army troops. It fired a deadly fifteen-pound shell. So well liked by the German army it distributed these captured these Russian anti-tank guns to their troops in Africa.

Russian 76mm anti-tank gun in action supported by Red Army troops. It fired a deadly fifteen-pound shell. So well liked by the German army it distributed these captured these Russian anti-tank guns to their troops in Africa.

Push Toward Egypt

In December 1941, events thousands of miles away quickly exerted a tremendous influence on the war in North Africa. Japan's attack on Singapore and other territories in the Far East forced the British to divert men and material earmarked for the war in the desert of North Africa. The sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse which were sent to Singapore to destroy the Japanese fleet near the island weakened the British presence in the Mediterranean as she battled for control of the island fortress of Malta.

At that same time Hitler attacked Crete and transferred one of his air fleets to the Mediterranean and with the arrival of German submarines Rommel's supply problems eased considerably. On January 5,1942, Rommel received a large supply convoy which brought him fifty-four new tanks and a large supply of fuel to reinforce his new Africa Korps.

Rommel also secretly had the advantage of detailed intelligence about the British military by an unwitting breach of communications from Bonner Fellers, a military attaché at the United States embassy in Cairo.

Secret data about the British military's strengthens, positions, losses, reinforcements, supply situation, plans and moral were now in the Desert Fox's hands within eight hours of their transmission to Washington D.C. This calamitous situation would continue until June 29, 1942, when the Americans changed their code.

Soon after January 5, 1942, Rommel would re-new his push toward Egypt along the coast road capturing Benghazi on January 29,1942. In Benghazi Rommel helped himself to large stores of booty, which included 1,300 trucks. Through the rest of the winter there was a lull in the fighting.

As spring approached, the Axis and British forces were lined up against the Gaza line, a 60-mile-long chain of defenses built by the British. From Gazala on the coast the line ran a jagged course southeast for about 40 miles, and then elbowed back to the northeast another 20 miles. British engineers built up the Gazala Line to a point where it became one of the technical marvels of the war.

They constructed a huge series of thick minefields that extended 40 miles, from the Mediterranean Sea to Bir Hacheim. More than 1,000,000 mines were laid on a scale never yet seen in the war in North Africa. The line included several fortified strongpoints, called "boxes," which were designed to cover the minefields and prevent the Germans and Italians from breaching them.

Each box had most every modern defensive device at its disposal, including mines, barbed-wire entanglements, bunkers, listening posts, and tanks. Every position was supplied with an abundance of food, water, ammunition, and supplies of every description, and each box had the potential to survive, isolated and completely on its own for several days.

There were also patrols assigned the task of covering the gaps between the boxes. The British hoped to draw Rommel into a slugfest, but he had no intention of being led into a First World War type battle, which he knew he had little chance of winning. Instead, he prepared for another fast-paced armored battle of maneuver.

Tank Hunters

Rommel's anti-tank gunners were the true heroes of the desert war and were vital to his victories. These men were skilled, mobile, exceptionally well trained, and of the highest morale, like most all of the Africa Korps, which had the comrade-in-arms attitude of the underdog. They were fearless, and their tactics were vastly superior to the British. The Germans pushed their anti-tank guns right up to the front, often in advance of their own tanks (panzers). In fact, these men frequently called themselves panzer Jager (tank hunters).

They took advantage of a desert anomaly to shield themselves from their enemy. Due a hot-air layer immediately above the desert floor, even large guns could not be seen clearly, even at a short distance of just fifty yards. Everything was distorted and apparently reduced in size, as if you were looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars.

This gave German anti-tank gunners opportunities to move close enough destroy enemy tank after tank. On the other hand, the British left their guns well behind the front using the exclusively as defensive weapons, mainly to support their infantry. The British tactical doctrine was similar to what they had used during the First World War using tanks alone to exploit their breakthroughs like cavalry. Rommel was well trained in combined-arms tactics.

Even though his tanks were in no way superior to British tanks, Rommel used his tanks, anti-tank guns, artillery, and infantry as one force, so that none was without the protection of the others.

Rommel especially liked to use his armor against the infantry and soft-skinned vehicles of his enemies, and his anti-tanks against British tanks. One reason British tanks at this time couldn't adopt Rommel's tactics, was because they only carried armor-piercing shells. Rommel's panzers had both armor-piercing and high-explosive ammunition, which they used to destroy British trucks and infantry.

German anti-tank weapons were far superior to British ant-tank guns. The standard German anti-tank gun, the Pak 38, for example, was a long-barreled 50mm gun with a greater range and almost twice the penetration power of the standard British two-pounder, and its armor-piercing shell weighed more than four-and-a half pounds, twice that of the standard British anti-tank shell.

Rommel was also reinforced that spring with several captured Russian 76mm anti-tank guns, which fired a fifteen-pound shell that completely out-classed anything the British could put on the battlefield.

If the German 50mm and 76mm guns were not formidable enough, the German 88mm anti-aircraft gun would spread fear through the British ranks. Originally designed by Krupp in the First World War as an anti-balloon gun, the 88m gun could fire a lethal twenty-one-pound armor-piercing shell almost two miles with complete accuracy.

At the battle of Sidi Omar in November 1941, a British tank regiment lost forty-eight of its fifty-two tanks, all to the deadly 88mm gun. A British historian would describe the effect the 88mm gun had on its enemy, by comparing it to a gigantic sledgehammer hitting his tank.

The shell made a neat, round hole about four inches in diameter, and then filled the turret with red-hot chunks of flying metal. A direct hit by an 88mm gun usually meant death, right up to the end of the Second World war the 88mm gun remained their most bitter enemy.

The Destruction of the Gazala Line

Erwin Rommel and Fritz Bayerlein near Bir Hakeim May 1942 the southwest flank of the Gaza Line. Once around Bir Hakeim Rommel would have flanked the Gazala Line and strike the British forces from the rear.

Erwin Rommel and Fritz Bayerlein near Bir Hakeim May 1942 the southwest flank of the Gaza Line. Once around Bir Hakeim Rommel would have flanked the Gazala Line and strike the British forces from the rear.

The Cauldron

On May 27,1942, Rommel would lead a force of over 10,000 vehicles south around Bir Hacheim an old Ottoman fortress the southern anchor of the Gazala line. After capturing Bir Hacheim, Rommel moved north along the Gazala line toward the Mediterranean Coast and the British fortress of Tobruk.

Early into the attack the ability of these minefields to stop the Germans and Italians was grossly over-rated by the British commanders. The major flaw of Rommel's plan was he badly underestimated British strength. So confident was Rommel of success, that he only gave his armored units food, water and fuel for only four days assuming that the battle would be over by the end of May 1942. Rommel’s initial success nearly overwhelmed the British forces behind the Gazala Line.

By May 28th, Rommel’s success was almost his downfall. His armored units had moved too far from his fuel supplies. On the night of May 28th, Rommel himself searched for his supply convoy. After he found it, he personally guided it to where his Panzer divisions were located opening a gap through British minefields. After a series of inconclusive battles on the 29th, Rommel decided to go on the defensive. He placed his armored divisions within a formidable defensive barrier surrounded by feared 88-artillery.

Rommel placed his forces near a huge British minefield and near the 150th Brigade Box. By any standards, Rommel’s tactics were unconventional. The area in which he had placed his troops and vehicles was to be called the "Cauldron," where his forces would be protected by Sidra and Dahar el Aslag Ridges, as well as by a British minefield. At this point Rommel had destroyed 50% of the Gazala line.

One by one he knocked out the remaining British strongholds (Boxes). By his quick maneuvering he nullified the British advantage in tanks and destroyed so many of their tanks by the third week in June he held an advantage of 2-to-1 in armor. Attacking out of the Cauldron Rommel executed the classic double envelopment. British troops were now being smashed, decimated and split, overrun and captured, pursed and harried, shelled and dive-bombed, encircled and crushed by his armored forces.

Rommel's Greatest Victory

Rommel was up at the front with his troops, personally leading the way. He was described by his British adversaries as bold imaginative, and brave, with a tactical sense at times approaching genius. Rommel's method of command was forceful, direct, and personal. There was no better commander of armored troops in a fluid battle on either side in this theater of war and no one more willingly followed by his troops.