The Relief of Tobruk
CHAPTER 5 — Eighth Army and Panzer Group Africa
Eighth Army and Panzer Group Africa
THE Axis leaders were also guilty of dividing their forces in the Mediterranean and it was this, allied with the huge demands of the war against Russia, that was at the root of their failure to get adequate supplies and reinforcements to North Africa, the abiding weakness of their desert army. Air power was in this respect critical and the air strength at hand was enough had it been used in direct support of supply lanes. Instead it was frittered away in raids on Alexandria, the Canal area, Haifa and elsewhere, and from this point of view the move of German air units from Sicily to Crete was a mistake. Thus by a world-wide effort in factory, field and workshop, on the high seas and in the air, supplying the Middle East, slipping small ships through to Tobruk and occasional convoys to Malta, and blocking the short Axis sea routes to Libya by all possible means—and by waging with relentless vigour the Battle of the Atlantic—the British built up a slight and precarious superiority in men and material for the coming offensive. A tiny fraction of this effort concentrated by the Germans and Italians on the vital sea lanes could have reversed this situation; but their advantage of interior lines, never more clear-cut than this, was thrown away.
The tale of sinkings between Italy and Libya was told by Germans and Italians throughout summer and autumn in the bare terms of official signals and reports or in sorrow, anger or despair according to the teller's viewpoint. Ships of all shapes and sizes sailed from Naples, Brindisi and Taranto, in guarded convoys or alone, to be awaited at Tripoli, Benghazi or Derna with fateful uncertainty. In August Nita went down, then Maddalena Odero, Esperia on the 20th and Egadi a few days later. Aquitania was badly damaged on the 27th, and on the 29th-30th Cilicia was sunk, Riv damaged by bombing at Tripoli, and the tanker Pozzarika set on fire (though its 585 tons of oil were miraculously saved). And so the tale continued in September (with two 19,500-ton liners, Oceania and Neptunia, going down), a brief respite in the second half of October, then a chapter of calamity in November when surface attack by the lightpage 52
cruisers Penelope and Aurora with attendant destroyers from Malta was added to air attacks and the lurking danger from submarines. Seven strongly escorted merchant ships from Naples were all sunk on 9 November together with two Italian destroyers, a disaster which the Italian Foreign Minister, Ciano, found ‘inexplicable’ and which left Mussolini ‘depressed and indignant’.1
Though the opening days of crusader saw a further deterioration in the Axis supply situation, the long pause in the fighting had nevertheless allowed the Germans to build up reserves of ammunition, petrol and rations which seemed adequate for the operations Rommel contemplated, and his quartermaster reported accordingly on 11 November. The enormous strain to which his organisation was shortly to be subjected was unforeseen; but it proved that despite the almost incessant barrage of German complaints about Italian shortcomings on their L of C, the Germans had managed to acquire a considerable amount of ‘fat’ and were able to live off it in an emergency.
The long-term outlook for Axis supplies in North Africa had come under Hitler's scrutiny and he had taken the first steps to improve it some months earlier. The thorough overhaul of the whole supply system which was long overdue, however, was not easy to carry out. This was an Italian province and Hitler was well aware how deeply Italian self-esteem was committed. Though the Germans had already achieved effective control of operations in the desert they maintained (with occasional lapses) the somewhat implausible fiction that Rommel owed allegiance to the Italian commander-in-chief, General Bastico. The difficulty in the central Mediterranean was that the naval and air operations to supply Libya were conducted not from the fringes of the distant Sahara but from Comando Supremo in Rome. It was there, on the Duce's doorstep, that Hitler had to assert his claim for a controlling interest in central Mediterranean operations, a matter of some delicacy.
1 Ciano's Diary, p. 395.
Hitler's bid to win the battle for supplies came too late to forestall crusader and he was too attentive to Italian sensibilities to achieve his main purpose of a unified Italo-German command under Kesselring. Nor was he able to make his way to good effect through the political maze of relations with Vichy France and Spain. The French North African authorities provided a trickle of equipment and supplies but refused use of the short sea route by way of Bizerta, the Spanish government hedged on the question of Gibraltar, and an attack on Malta was as far off as ever. By attacking rather than waiting, therefore, the British were calling the tune, a situation to which Hitler was quite unaccustomed.
1 Commander-in-Chief South.
2 Ciano's Diary, p. 399.
Preparations of the magnitude required for crusader were impossible to hide satisfactorily and the steady advance westwards of the desert railway told its own story. OKH Intelligence reported on 8 October an ominous British build-up evidently intended for a desert offensive, but a month later on the flimsiest evidence it changed its mind. Rommel's mind, however, had long since been closed to everything but the Tobruk project. He had carefully be down in July five conditions to be met before the attack could be mounted. The first was that there should be no signs of impending attack on the Sollum front and no great change in British grouping there. Another condition—that there should be adequate air support—had been stipulated also by Hitler himself, and Rommel well knew that it could not be met. None of the conditions were in fact met and at the last moment, with overwhelming evidence of an imminent invasion from Egypt on the largest scale, Bastico was near to panic. He wrote to Cavallero on 11 November (with a copy to Rommel) listing the unfavourable omens and begging him to reconsider ‘in the minutest detail’ the date for starting the attack, a matter which was supposed to be for Bastico alone to decide. By November, however, the priestess of the Delphic Oracle could not have dissuaded Rommel, though he continued to go through the motions of consulting the Italians. He had flown to Rome on 1 November and there, when Bastico's letter arrived, he was soon able to win Cavallero's support and extract from him a stern order that the operation must start as soon as possible. The tentative date was the 20th but a final decision on that rested as before with Bastico, a situation more in keeping with comic opera than with the heavy drama of war. Rommel returned to his headquarters at Gambut (halfway between Bardia and Tobruk) on the 18th to be greeted with a telegram from Berlin reiterating the Fuehrer's insistence that air support should be adequate. At that stage he hoped to attack on the 21st and the necessary regrouping of his forces was already far advanced; but crusader had already started.page 55
Rommel's confidence in his ability to ward off an attack from Egypt rested on an almost fatal misconception that his own L of C were inherently more secure than those of the British. He had lived for too many months too close to his own situation to see its essential weakness and he assigned the line of frontier forts built during the summer under his watchful eyes a greater tactical influence on British operations than the facts warranted. This line would indeed force the British to move deep into the desert to outflank it, and he thought that in so doing they would inevitably expose their L of C to a counter-thrust. His categories of thought on this subject were naturally restricted by the material shortages which were his daily burden and the keynote of his very existence, and he could not conceive of the vast dumping plan for crusader utilising great fleets of lorries and techniques altogether beyond his resources. Thus he could not see that the farther south within reason the British swung the less vulnerable would be their L of C and the better placed they would be to cut off his own supplies at the El Adem bottleneck.
One detail of the Panzer Group Africa order for the attack on Tobruk, issued on 26 October, gave rise to an odd touch of drama. Both sides had selected the same sector, the Axis troops to break in and the garrison to break out, and both went to great trouble to hide their intentions and achieve surprise. Each counted on striking the other where he was comparatively weak, an illusion which was soon to be shattered at a cost of many lives, providing a harsh introduction to desert fighting for newly-arrived units, both British and German.
The Tobruk garrison, as things turned out, was the chief loser from the successive postponements of crusader. The plan required it to be ready to start its sally by dawn on the second day and operation orders were therefore issued on 12 November, to be followed by a pause of uncertain duration. As the uncertainty was prolonged the pause grew into an uncomfortable hiatus during which Africa Division relieved 25 Bologna Division in the eastern sector, guns of all calibres were moved into battle positions on this front, and 15 Panzer Division, Bologna and 17 Pavia Division began to assemble for their roles in the assault.
Prejudice combined with deliberate deception to keep each side very much in the dark as to the other's activities and intentions. General Headquarters, Middle East, was almost as reluctant to accept that an attack on Tobruk was imminent as Panzer Group was to admit of the possibility of being forestalled by a British offensive.page 56
|In number of tanks||In light guns||In heavy guns||In infantry battalion|
|Estimated||3½ times||Twice||10 times||2½ times|
|Actual||Roughly equal||Twice||8 times||Twice|
Thus what was estimated to be a comfortable margin of superiority for the assault on which Rommel was prepared to stake his whole reputation was in reality rather different. Even his great predominance in artillery was worth less than its face value in view of organisational and doctrinal obstacles to its use in proper concentration at the point of assault. Moreover, the garrison disposed of heavy anti-aircraft and coast guns, many of which could be used landwards. In numbers of British tanks the final estimate was nearly 90 short, and 69 of these were Matilda tanks, the kind which had inflicted heavy losses on 15 Panzer Division in battleaxe. In infantry he had to rely on ill-equipped and under-strength Italian units for 13 of his 20 attacking battalions. A surprise was surely in store for him if only Eighth Army held its hand.
But this was not to be. The earliest Rommel could attack was the 21st;2 and the longest respite Cunningham dare grant the South Africans was until the 18th. By this narrow margin crusader prevailed and the assault on Tobruk became a desert mirage, flickering and fading in Rommel's eyes until seven months later, in very different circumstances, it suddenly materialised.
1 Estimates by Panzer Group to OKW, 1 Nov 1941, compared with actual strength.
As late as the end of September, when Eighth Army was born, British strength in the desert was little greater than it had been before battleaxe; in some respects it was less. By mid-November cruiser-tank units and mobile infantry were trebled and the number of I tanks doubled and administrative backing allowed considerable freedom of manoeuvre, while the level of training, though still in many ways disappointing, was much higher. The main German striking force, on the other hand, had changed very little. A division of ‘positional infantry’ had come into being and an army artillery command, and there were now five Oasis Companies to help garrison the frontier strongpoints. With the creation of Panzer Group Africa these German troops had strengthened Rommel's claims to a decisive influence on Axis land operations in North Africa. At the last minute, too, much-needed German medium and heavy artillery (up to 210-millimetre) reached the Tobruk front. But German contributions to mobile operations depended as before on the normal two divisions of Africa Corps, which had undergone what might be called a partial face-lift. A reshuffle of existing resources with the addition of one or two sub-units of artillery enabled 5 Light Division to be redesignated 21 Panzer; but one of its two motorised infantry battalions was tied to the Sollum defences and its tank strength was still below the pre-battleaxe figures. By November 15 Panzer Division, with a full complement of tanks and an enlarged infantry component, was much the stronger of the two.
The increments to Axis strength in a battle of manoeuvre were chiefly Italian: 20 Mobile Corps, consisting of Ariete Armoured Division backed by Trieste Motorised, arrived at the last minute in the forward area. Both of these divisions, however, were woefully deficient in guns, transport and essential services and the tanks of Ariete (Italian M13s) inspired no confidence either among their users or their German associates. The arrival of the Italian Savona Division in the autumn, however, enabled the frontier positions to be held in strength with less call on German resources.
1 Named after Italians and a German who had died in the desert fighting.
The Germans nevertheless possessed one advantage which, in the event, almost outweighed all their disabilities: their anti-tank guns and tactics outclassed those of the British. In the long stalemate which followed brevity and battleaxe (when these German weapons were introduced) the British neglected to find a way of overcoming this handicap.
One solution, the introduction of a more powerful tank and anti-tank gun, the 6-pounder, was denied them; for it was only just going into production after much delay.1 The 2-pounder on which the desert forces had to continue to rely had only armour-piercing ammunition (solid shot) and as a tank gun was therefore ‘reserved for penetrating armour’,2 which restricted its role and narrowed the tactics of the British armour. With the larger gun and HE ammunition tank crews could have retaliated against the guns which plagued them, including the ‘88s’. As an anti-tank gun, moreover, the 6-pounder would greatly have increased the value of the infantry of Eighth Army, particularly in the eyes of those who believed that ‘tank units were capable of winning an action without the assistance of other arms’.3 As a makeshift a few 75-millimetre guns with ‘platforms’ like those of the 25-pounder were commissioned as anti-tank guns (one four-gun troop per battery in the anti-tank batteries of the New Zealand and South African Divisions), slightly narrowing the gap in performance between the British and German equipments. To complicate the picture, a few Pzkw IIIs were fitted with reinforcing plates which made them almost invulnerable to the 2-pounder except on the sides and these encouraged the myth that the British tanks were outgunned. Such were the tactical consequences of a decision, taken when France fell, to carry on making 2-pounders rather than to slow up production drastically by changing over to 6-pounders. Because of this decision, correct though it might then have been, Eighth Army had to face German formations which were much superior in anti-tank strength.
1 See Postan, British War Production, p. 194.
2 As Brig Davy instructed 7 Armd Bde on 17 Nov.
Two partial remedies of even this deficiency were already at hand: in the 25-pounder the British had a gun well-adapted to the task of neutralising the German ‘88’, a clumsy and vulnerable weapon in its current form, and to a lesser extent the 50-millimetre anti-tank gun;2 and in anti-tank mines the infantry had one means of holding tanks off their positions, as the Tobruk garrison had long since demonstrated. The first, however, entailed careful tactics for locating anti-tank guns and combining field guns and tanks in counter-measures, and no such tactics had been developed. As a poor alternative it was laid down that field guns should, whenever possible, take up positions from which they could engage tanks over open sights in an anti-tank role, a task which conflicted with the primary field role and for which in any case the 25-pounder was not well suited. As to the second, it ran contrary to the doctrine that ground had no tactical significance, and the fact that anti-tank mines could be lifted as quickly as they could be laid made no impression, leaving infantry formations with the desperate alternatives of a do-or-die action with field guns blazing away over open sights or ignominious flight.
1 Letter of 1 Jan 1942, quoted by Connell, p. 421.
2 Not to be confused, as all too often it was, with the short-barrelled 50-millimetre then mounted in the Pzkw III. The tank gun had less power of penetration than the 2-pounder or the US 37-millimetre (mounted in the Stuart tanks).