Hitler's Mediterranean Strategy 1941:
There was another man who was passing east, with comparatively almost puny force but by no means negligible results —Rommel. As if demonstration of blitzkrieg in the Balkans, with Stukas calling an uninterrupted tune of success, were not enough, it now came about that in the one place where Britain had seemed to have the upper hand, the Western Desert, Rommel and his panzers brought a new set of rules to desert fighting and between March and April 1941 bundled the British right out of Cyrenaica back into Egypt, leaving of all O’Connor’s conquests only the fortress of Tobruk in British hands. Rommel’s own letters are as eloquent as any report of this unwelcome reverse to British arms:
“We’ve been attacking since the 31st with dazzling success. There’ll be consternation amongst our masters in Tripoli and Rome, perhaps in Berlin too. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because the opportunity seemed favourable. No doubt it will all be pronounced good later and they’ll all say they’d have done exactly the same in my place. We’ve already [his letter is dated April 1941] reached our first objective [Benghazi] which we weren’t supposed to get to until the end of May. The British are falling over each other to get away...”.
In subsequent letters he notes the Führer’s congratulations and a directive which is in accord with his own ideas. Success gives him more room for manoeuvre. He cannot remember the date as they had been attacking for days in endless desert. All idea of space and time have gone. He is as always in the vanguard. His main force is behind him. ‘I flew back from the front yesterday to look for them and found them in the desert. You can hardly imagine how pleased I was. It’s going to be a “Cannae” modern style.’ On 10 April he writes that he has reached the sea after a long desert march. ‘It’s wonderful to have pulled this off against the British.’
When later Rommel recorded what he thought were the lessons of his first African campaign, he had some telling things to say about misdirection and strategy. Germany should have kept her hands off Greece and concentrated on North Africa to drive the British right out of the Mediterranean area. Malta should have been taken, not Crete. Capture of the whole British-held coastline would have isolated SE Europe. It could all have been done for no more than the cost of the Balkan campaign. The prize would have been not just the Balkans but oil and bases for attacking Russia. Rommel and Raeder thought alike.
On 30 May 1941 Raeder renewed his proposal for a ‘decisive Egypt-Suez offensive for the autumn of 1941 which would be more deadly to the British Empire than the capture of London’. Raeder and his staff accepted Hitler’s priorities but insisted that whilst the attack on Russia ‘naturally stands in the foreground of the OKW leadership, it must under no circumstances lead to the abandonment of, or to delay in, the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean’.
Churchill was in no doubt about the grave consequences of losing Egypt and the Middle East. In a telegram to Roosevelt earlier that month he did not endorse the President’s view that such a loss would be ‘a mere preliminary to the successful maintenance of a prolonged oceanic war’. Even if the United States entered the war, exclusion of the Allies from Europe and much of Africa and Asia would mean that a war against ‘this mighty agglomeration would be a hard, long, and bleak proposition’. Therefore the British would fight ‘to the last inch and ounce for Egypt’.
The desert flank was in Churchill’s view ‘the peg on which all else hung’ and he was soon to urge Wavell once more to return to the attack there. But Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief were harder pressed and more stretched in their resources at this time than perhaps at any other. The East African campaign was not quite finished; Greece and Crete had taken their toll of men and material; Malta must be maintained, Tobruk turned into a fortress and supplied; Rashid Ali’s pro-German revolt in Iraq had to be suppressed; Syria to be invaded and occupied; Rommel to be attacked. What might not have been achieved by the Wehrmacht if they had been allowed to concentrate their might against the British at this moment?
Yet Hitler refused to see it. Never one to forgo an advantage, he missed here an opportunity that was never to recur. For him tides were not to be taken at the flood; they were to be arranged by himself.
Although he gave support, which was insufficient to turn the scales, to Rashid Ali’s revolt, anything bigger would have to wait. ‘Whether, and if so how,’ read Directive No 30, ‘it may be possible, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, finally to break the British position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf is a question which will be decided only after Barbarossa.’ This decision, like so many others of Hitler’s, was unalterable.
If failure to destroy the British Army at Dunkirk had been Blunder No I, was failure to destroy the British position in the Middle East in mid-1941, just a year later, Blunder No 2? Today it looks very much as if it was. It is true that Britain had been turned out of Egypt and the Mediterranean before—by Napoleon—and had even lost Malta, until Nelson began to rush up and down to restore the supremacy of British sea-power, but that was before the age of air-power.
‘Had the Eastern Mediterranean arena not been successfully held during the lean years,’ wrote Major-General Playfair, ‘in which case, for want of bases, no British fleet or air forces could have even disputed the control of the Mediterranean sea communications, the task of the Allies in gaining a foothold in Europe would have been rendered immensely more difficult; indeed it might well have proved to be beyond their powers.’
In other words, Hitler’s confident prediction that the British could not hope to defeat Germany on the Continent might have had more substance. But if you brush aside the master rule of strategy, you cannot expect to win.
Afrika Korps -Tactical principles:
Some of the tactical principles the Germans embraced, but which the British usually did not, were as follows:
> A mechanized striking force should always operate with all arms in a close grouping.
> Wide dispersion was not an ideal to be encouraged, especially at times when the Luftwaffe enjoyed
a superiority over the RAF.
> In an all-arms grouping, the speed of the whole was necessarily that of the slowest vehicle.
Thus the tanks were forbidden from racing off over the horizon and leaving everyone else behind;
nor should they venture into ground that was impassable to all the other vehicles, except very locally.
In any case, high speed was not a particularly desirable quality in a tank, although mechanical
reliability was definitely a high priority for all vehicles.
> If vehicles broke down, it was essential to recover them and get them repaired without delay.
Mechanical repairs were an essential element in mobility, especially when (as was usually the case
in the desert war) the German tanks were rather heavily outnumbered by Allied tanks. Equally there
was a great dividend to be won by holding the battlefield at the end of a day's fighting, so that damaged
vehicles could be recovered. Repairing vehicles in darkness is ridiculously difficult unless you use
floodlights. This may well give away your position to the enemy; but at least you will have more
vehicles running in the morning, when the enemy is ready to attack you.
> The cohesion of an all-arms force relies heavily upon good radio communication.
No resources spent to that end will ever be wasted (and by the same token, it is noticeable
that all the way up to the first battle of Alamein, the DAK enjoyed a marked superiority
over Eighth Army in intercepting and interpreting enemy transmissions).
> Perhaps most important of all - firepower was the key to any battle, as Rommel had already
clearly laid down in the 1940 campaign in France. Before you did anything else, you had to flail
the enemy positions, and especially his AT weapons, with a heavy bombardment of HE shells.
Only after that could you decide whether or not he had been weakened enough for you to launch
an assault. The HE should be fired by PzKw IV tanks at a range of around 2,000 metres, and by
field artillery from a little further back.
> At every stage there must be a high level of reconnaissance: first to identify enemy strength
and dispositions, and later to determine exactly how well he has been suppressed by firepower.
The initial attack by firepower would be converted into a full-blooded advance to close range
only if the commander was convinced that the defending AT guns had been suppressed.
If this did not happen, the Germans would usually pull back and call off the whole operation.
Only on a very f ew exceptional occasions would higher operational orders overrule the purely
tactical decisions of the commander on the spot.
> It is not very clear whether or not this stress on reconnaissance included the idea of infantry
patrolling on foot, which certainly played an important part in traditional British - and even
more so, Australian - doctrine. To the present author it seems that it did not, and that the
German concept of reconnaissance was all about motor vehicles.
> Beyond these basic and fundamental principles, the Germans also exhibited a number of lesser
tactical 'tricks'. An important one was to use AT guns in an offensive as well as a purely defensive
role, so that wherever there was a tank, there would also be a towed AT gun ready to come into
action at a moment's notice. This often caught the British by surprise; in effect, it doubled the AT
firepower of any given column of vehicles - and often without the low-slung towed guns being visible
from a distance, since they would be concealed in the huge plumes of dust raised by the tanks and by
the trucks that were towing them. Another tactical habit was to attack out of a low sun in order to
blind the enemy gunners, which against Eighth Army normally meant driving eastwards towards
the end of the day.
> Yet another was a habit of leading from the front, especially by Rommel himself. He was liable
to turn up wherever the fighting was hottest, to direct the local battle in person. This often had a
beneficial effect on the outcome within his own field of vision; but equally it drove his staff to distraction,
since it meant he was often absent from his central HQ when important operational decisions had to
be taken. He has sometimes been criticized for being the best battalion commander in the army,
but perhaps not the finest staff officer.
Source for this page: content posted by Mitch Williamson, historian, on facebook.com