The Allies achieved victory in North Africa by choking off the German supply lines.
By Michael D. Hull
By August 1942, luck was running out for Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s vaunted Afrika Korps, and the tables were turning in favor of the hard-pressed British Eighth Army. That month, a third of Rommel’s supplies and almost half his fuel were lost in the Mediterranean, thanks to convoy attacks by Royal Air Force (RAF) medium bombers and Royal Navy submarines. Nevertheless, against the advice of his staff, the “Desert Fox” decided to gamble on an attack.
Although he had already been stopped in July at the first Battle of El Alamein, 60 miles west of Alexandria, Egypt, Rommel knew that he had to try again. He planned to strike in the desert’s southern sector, break through the lightly held area north of the Qattara Depression, and then wheel northeast to the coast, cutting off the British forces from their Egyptian bases.
The British were ready for him. They were well informed about his plan, which their staff had predicted even before Ultra intelligence disclosed it. Rommel had about 510 tanks, including 27 Mark IV specials, which were superior to any of the Allied tanks, but his other supplies–particularly fuel–were short. He faced 700 British tanks, including 164 American-built M-3 General Grants, and the British controlled the air.
Rommel told his doctor: “The decision to attack today is the hardest I have ever taken. Either the army in Russia succeeds in getting through to Grozny and we in Africa manage to reach the Suez Canal, or….” He made a gesture of defeat. His only chance was that the British would make a blunder and give him an opening. But the new Eighth Army commander, Lt. Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, was unlikely to oblige.
The German attack began on the night of August 30, 1942. The British fought a skillful delaying action that threw the Afrika Korps off balance. Panzer attacks were defeated, and the Germans finally fell back on September 2. Insufficient gasoline and repeated air attacks, however, made it hard for Rommel to retreat. His losses were not great, but the last chance for Axis victory in the Mediterranean was gone.
That September and October, the RAF, now joined by American medium- and heavy-bomber units, continued to chip away at the enemy supply effort. No fuel reached Libya in the first week of October because of a British air-submarine victory off Greece. By the time a thousand British guns signaled the start of the climactic second Battle of El Alamein on the night of October 23, 1942, Ultra intercepts confirmed Rommel’s desperate need for fuel. He had lost 20 percent of his supplies in September and at least 44 percent in October. As he retreated through Libya, his losses mounted.
The relentless efforts of the Royal Navy and the Allied air forces to cut off the supplies to the Axis forces in northwest Africa during 1942 and 1943 are recounted fully in The War Against Rommel’s Supply Lines, 1942-1943 (Praeger Publishers, Westport, Conn., 1999, $59.95), a scholarly, compelling and definitive study by Alan J. Levine. A historian specializing in World War II, Russian history and international relations, Levine fills an important gap in the history of the war with his latest book.
Levine explains how the success of the Allies’ interdiction campaign led to a relatively cheap triumph over a large enemy force. That success would have a major impact on subsequent campaigns in Europe.
The naval phase of the Allied effort was one of only two successful submarine campaigns ever fought, and its aerial aspects included the first major success of American air forces over the Axis. As an interdiction campaign, Levine points out, it was one of the most spectacularly successful in history. The campaign involved attacks on ships at sea that were, in many respects, comparable to tactics used in the Pacific theater.
By March 1943, says Levine, Allied efforts had caused the already critical Axis supply situation to collapse. In response, the Germans increased air transport efforts, flying 12,000 men and 8,000 tons of supplies into Tunisia, but that did not compensate for the shipping losses. That month, 41.5 percent of all Axis tonnage leaving Italy was sunk.
During the Tunisian campaign, the Germans and Italians lost 506 ships, 170 of which were more than 500 tons. Levine highlights the success of massive Operation Flax in April 1943, when British, American, South African and Polish-manned Consolidated B-24 bombers, Bristol Beaufighters, Curtiss P-40 fighters and Supermarine Spitfire fighters destroyed at least 157 German transport planes, plus many bombers and fighters. The German air transport fleet was crippled for the rest of the war.
The success in interdiction was critical to the Allied victory in the Mediterranean, says Levine, but it was no walkover. Nor was the opposition feeble. He reminds us that, contrary to popular belief, the Italians were not all dispirited buffoons. Some army and air units were very effective, while the Italian navy’s escort craft had capable and determined commanders and crews.
Nevertheless, Levine concludes, the efforts of their planes and submarines enabled the Allies to exploit the enemy’s fatal decision to fight at the end of a tenuous supply line on the wrong side of the Mediterranean. Rommel suffered enormous, one-sided losses that could not be replaced. Those losses led to the Allied victory in Tunisia, which began the unraveling of the defense of Fortress Europe.
Levine portrays this important and overlooked campaign in a succinct, comprehensive and authoritative fashion. His book is well worth reading.