THERE IS NO MORE EVOCATIVE PHRASE to emerge from World War II than “Afrika Korps.” The name conjures up a unique theater of war, a hauntingly beautiful empty quarter where armies could roam free, liberated from towns and hills, chokepoints and blocking positions, and especially those pesky civilians. It calls forth a war of near-absolute mobility, where tanks could operate like ships at sea, “sailing” where they wished, setting out on bold voyages hundreds of miles into the deep desert, then looping around the enemy flank and emerging like pirates of old to deal devastating blows to an unsuspecting foe. Finally, it implies a dauntless hero, in this case Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, a noble commander who fought the good fight, who hated Adolf Hitler and everything he stood for, and who couldn’t have been further from our stereotype of the Nazi fanatic. Everything about the Desert Fox attracts us—the manly poses, the out-of-central-casting good looks, even the goggles perched just so. Placing Rommel and his elite Afrika Korps at the fore allows us to view the desert war as a clean fight against a morally worthy opponent. It was war, yes, but almost uniquely in World War II, it was a “war without hate,” as Rommel famously called it in his memoirs.
It’s an attractive image all around. Unfortunately, practically all of it is a fabrication. The desert was hardly a haven of beauty or romance. The fighting was a nightmare for both sides. Far from letting the respective tank fleets roam free, the desert chained them irresistibly to their supply lines, and a single failed convoy or a lost column of trucks could stop a whole offensive dead in its tracks. Contrary to the dreamed mobility of desert warfare, both sides would spend far more time in static defensive positions, often quite elaborate, than they would launching tank charges.
That leaves us with Rommel. Here, too, we should challenge the mythology. He was not apolitical. His career had been based solely on Hitler’s favor, and we might reasonably describe his attitude toward the führer as worshipful. He was Hitler’s fair-haired boy, a young officer repeatedly promoted over more senior candidates. He was also a media creation. Nazi propaganda painted him as a battlefield hero and a model National Socialist and Aryan, a man who could overcome stronger enemies through sheer force of will. And he was not a passive bystander to the hype; he was an active accomplice. (See “Rommel’s Better Side,” below.) He loved nothing more than having a camera crew along with him on campaign, and he would regularly order scenes to be re-shot if his posture was insufficiently heroic or the lighting had not shown him to best advantage. As is often the case with public figures, his relationship with the media was both self-serving and self-destructive. During the years of victory, the German propaganda machine used him as an example to the nation. When things went sour, he became a diversion from the increasingly bad news on other fronts. When he was no longer useful, the regime put him on the back burner for much of 1943 and then, after he was tenuously linked to the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler, forced him to kill himself.
Yes, the reader might respond, but surely we are on firmer ground with regard to his military skill. After all, no less a figure than British prime minister Winston Churchill called him “a great general” on the floor of the House of Commons. Rommel’s daring exploits at the head of the Afrika Korps (later enlarged and renamed Panzerarmee Afrika) were exciting, to be sure, but many officers in his own army reckoned them an ultimately valueless sideshow. His disinterest in the dreary science of logistics, his love of action, his tendency to fly off to wherever the fighting was hottest—all of these qualities make for an exciting movie. Yet they are problems in a commander under modern conditions, and they all contributed materially to the disaster that ultimately befell him and his army in the desert.
With these thoughts in mind, let us take a short operational tour of the Afrika Korps at war. The point is not to smash any particular idols but rather to restore some balance to a discussion sorely in need of it.
WHEN ROMMEL ARRIVED in Africa, he brought with him a fully realized art of war. He’d won a Pour le Mérite (the famed Blue Max) for a series of nail-biting mountain exploits in the 1917 Caporetto campaign, among them the demolition of Italian forces many times the size of his own at the battle of Mt. Matajur; he had been a very popular tactical instructor at the Dresden Infantry School between the wars; he had commanded one of the army’s precious panzer divisions (the 7th) during the 1940 invasion of France and the Low Countries. In France, Rommel had behaved more like an 18th-century hussar cut loose on a raiding mission than a divisional commander. He led from the front, braved enemy fire, and turned off his radio from time to time rather than risk receiving orders to halt. He drove forward so rapidly that the 7th Panzer became known as the “ghost division” for its tendency to drop off situation maps and reappear where least expected.
There were many in the German high command, including the chief of the General Staff, Franz Halder, who didn’t much appreciate Rommel running amok, but as one historian concluded, it was impossible to court-martial such a successful general. Rommel instead got the Iron Cross, and it would be the same in Africa.
Rommel arrived in mid-February 1941 with fairly mundane orders to act as a sperrband, or “blocker,” to bolster the Italians after they had been mauled a week earlier by the British at Beda Fomm in Libya. His force was appropriately tiny: the reconnaissance battalion and an antitank detachment of the 5th Light Division (soon renamed the 21st Panzer Division). The rest of the division was still en route to Africa, and a second division, the 15th Panzer, would not arrive in full until the end of May.
Rommel had his orders, but he had ignored orders in the past and been decorated for it. With British forces stripped away from Africa to fight an exceedingly ill-advised campaign in Greece, he carried out a quick personal reconnaissance in his trusty Fieseler Fi 156C Storch airplane, then launched an offensive with his Italian partners. The Ariete Armored Division and the infantry divisions of X Corps (Bologna and Pavia) lunged east from central Libya through Cyrenaica (the eastern coastal region of Libya), attempting to reach the Egyptian border in one bound. He penetrated British defenses at El Agheila on March 24, then drove on to Mersa el Brega on March 31, pausing only to take (and ignore) a number of radio messages from Berlin and Rome warning him not to do anything rash. Finally, at Agedabia he smashed the British defenders (elements of the green 2nd Armoured Division, equipped partially with captured Italian M13/40 tanks), pinning them in front with the infantry of 5th Light Division while dispatching his panzers on a ride around the open desert flank to the south, the first use of a tactic that would become his signature.
These three tiny encounters, none exceeding regimental strength, were enough to unhinge the entire British defensive position in Cyrenaica. Rommel now expanded his reconnaissance in force into a general offensive, although the forces involved were still minuscule. One column headed up the coast road toward Benghazi, while two more sliced across the Cyrenaican bulge, scooping up a mountain of British supplies at Msus and Mechili. The British rear was in chaos. On April 6, a German motorcycle patrol captured the British commander in Cyrenaica, Lieutenant General Philip Neame, as well as Lieutenant General Richard O’Connor, the victor of Beda Fomm. By April 11, the Germans had surrounded the Libyan coastal fortress of Tobruk while smaller formations pressed on to the east, taking Bardia and reaching the Egyptian border at Sollum and Ft. Capuzzo.
This was top-speed maneuver, and the distances were vast, with the Afrika Korps covering more than 600 miles in less than two weeks. An amazing feat, to be sure, but may we not legitimately ask, 600 miles to where? For now Rommel had an unconquered fortress sitting in his rear, a serious threat to his lines of communication and supply. Two hastily marshaled attempts to storm Tobruk went badly wrong. In the Easter Battle (April 10–14) and the Battle of the Salient (April 30–May 4), the defenders of the 9th Australian Division hung tough. Minefields channeled the German attacks, while direct fire from artillery, antitank guns, and supporting tanks thoroughly shot up the assault forces and killed Major General Heinrich von Prittwitz, commander of 15th Panzer Division.
The very presence of an unconquered Tobruk rendered the drive across the desert pointless. Indeed, for all the fame it had brought Rommel in the world press, this first campaign won him few friends among command echelons in Berlin. General Halder was especially unimpressed. Rommel, he wrote, “storms around all day long with formations strewn all over the place.” The man had apparently “gone insane.” And there was some justice to the complaint. A German division-plus had overrun territory—a vast wasteland, to be precise—but it hadn’t really won anything. There had been no battle of annihilation, no kesselschlacht (battle of encirclement), nor could there have been. The Afrika Korps had come a long way, but now sat precariously on the edge of nowhere. Although Rommel and his command had shown a satisfying level of aggression, something everyone in the officer corps understood, most of them saw his drive to the Egyptian border as a misfire.
SUBSEQUENT OPERATIONS deserve the same cold eye. Both sides spent the summer rebuilding, replacing, and reinforcing, but by and large, the British did it more rapidly. In November 1941, the British Eighth Army, led by General Sir Alan Cunningham, launched Operation Crusader, an attempt to relieve Tobruk (although to say that the tiny port was “under siege” is yet another example of myth making in the desert war). Crusader led to hard fighting with heavy losses on both sides. Rommel’s brash decision to break contact and launch a “drive to the wire” on the Egyptian border was the signal moment of the campaign. On November 24, he scrounged up every tank he could find and ordered a raid deep into the British rear. In the course of this wild ride, his panzers overran, in quick succession, the headquarters of the XXX Corps, 7th Armoured Division, 1st South African Division, and the 7th Armoured Brigade, unleashing panic as he went. Ultimately, however, the drive to the wire was yet another drive to nowhere, and had little impact on the operational situation. The British didn’t collapse as Rommel expected them to. With his tank strength near zero and his (largely Italian) infantry decimated, he had no choice but to retreat to where he had started, El Agheila.
By now, the dynamic of the desert war was well established. An iron logic was at work, and neither side could escape its grip. Long advances did not simply take you away from your railhead; they took you entire time zones from it. Supply became not just a problem but the problem. Rommel was far more dangerous at El Agheila, relatively close to his main base at Tripoli, than he was on the Egyptian wire, 600 miles to the east. Likewise, the Allied forces were never more dangerous than when they were fighting with the resources of their bases in Egypt at their backs, and never more helpless than when they had just overrun Cyrenaica far to the west.
It should not be surprising, then, that Rommel soon turned the tables on the Allies once again. In January 1942, having spent a few short weeks regrouping his forces after their long retreat, Rommel was back on the offensive, this time in the Gazala-Tobruk operational sequence. Before Rommel’s romp through their forces earlier in 1941, the British had shortsightedly stripped that front of many more experienced units and dispatched them to the Balkans quagmire—which ended with the disastrous loss of Greece and Crete to the Germans. Now, in a logic-defying repeat late in 1941, the British had again shipped out of Africa more veteran troops to shore up Britain’s collapsing position in the Far East, which was reeling from a series of Japanese hammer blows. For both sides, it seemed, there was always somewhere more important than Africa.
Rommel’s second offensive bore quick fruit. Once again, a green unit, the 1st Armoured Division, was in his path. Rommel’s opening blow tied it in knots. A regiment-size task force, Group Marcks, got around its right flank near the coast, while the mass of Afrika Korps looped around the left. Having German panzers prowling around in the rear was enough to send 1st Armoured staggering back. In the next two weeks Rommel reconquered Cyrenaica. It was even easier than the first time, perhaps the greatest hussar raid of all time. This was low-intensity fighting of the kampfgruppe variety, without a fully formed division in sight. It included few battles and generated minimal casualties, and by February 6, Rommel stood on the Gazala line, just east of the Cyrenaican bulge and 35 miles west of Tobruk.
Here, the hypermovement of the desert war ground to a halt. Both sides had wasted themselves racing back and forth and were, for the moment, incapable of further action. For nearly four months, the opponents sat, dug in, and glowered at one another. The Gazala position came to bear all the hallmarks of stellungskrieg, or static warfare: trenches and rifle pits, barbed wire and machine gun nests. For the British, fortified “boxes,” dense, 360-degree concentrations of tank obstacles and mines, came to dominate the front, with the gaps between them protected by great “mine marshes.”
On the Gazala line, however, Rommel would finally win a real victory, not the meaningless to and fro of the “Benghazi sweepstakes.” On May 26, 1942, Panzerarmee Afrika went over to the offensive, a frontal assault by the Italian infantry divisions to pin the British in place. With that, Rommel carried out the most audacious move of his career, launching his entire mechanized force—five divisions, thousands of vehicles, and virtually every Axis tank in the order of battle, comprising a solid block of armor nearly 15 miles on a side—on a deep end run around the British flank. The “armored phalanx” is a cliché of military history, but this was the real thing: Italian XX Motorized Corps, the Afrika Korps, and the 90th Light Division.
BY THE END of their approach march, the massive force was perched on the British left flank, and the opening of the attack came as near to the Platonic ideal of “surprise” as any operation in the war. At 7 a.m. Rommel’s phalanx crashed into the fortified box at Retma, about 40 miles south of Gazala and Tobruk. It was an amazing scene. Sitting out in the sunshine of a lovely May morning, the defenders looked on with curiosity as a dust cloud appeared on the horizon. By now, they’d all seen strange weather patterns and storms blow up out of nowhere. This one, however, suddenly clarified into something worse: tanks, tanks, and more tanks, vehicles of every description, sailing out of the dust. It was, one British soldier said, “the whole of Rommel’s command in full cry straight for us.” The same thing happened on both flanks of Retma. To the east, near Bir Gubi, lay the 7th Motorised Brigade. Half the unit had been given some well-earned rest and recreation and the men were swimming in Tobruk harbor that fateful morning. West of Retma, 3rd Indian Brigade was caught equally unprepared. Its commander, Brigadier A. A. E. Filose, radioed that “a whole bloody German armored division” was bearing down on him. He was actually seeing Italian tanks of the Ariete Division, but it was early in the morning, so we can forgive Filose his imprecision. Both brigades, along with the Retma box, were overwhelmed in the opening minutes with very little fighting. The final entry in 3rd Indian’s war diary was chilling: “Positions completely overrun with enemy tanks in the box.” Next came the turn of 4th Armoured Brigade. Strewn all over the battle area, it rushed to the aid of 7th Motorised Brigade, and was engulfed by the onrushing 15th Panzer Division. Then, 22nd Armoured Brigade, attempting to ride to the relief of 4th Armoured, also went down in flames. By noon, the British left wing was in shreds.
Once past the initial shock, however, Eighth Army dug in its heels and took advantage of an underappreciated piece of equipment. The M3 Grant tank (courtesy of U.S. Lend-Lease), often treated cavalierly by World War II historians, was far superior to anything Eighth Army had yet fielded. Sure, it was ungainly and clumsy, and yes, it really did present a monstrous 10-foot-3-inch-tall target to German fire. On the plus side, however, its thick armor made it impervious to just about anything but a direct hit from an 88mm antiaircraft gun. It was also one of the most heavily armed tanks of the day, packing two forms of main armament: a short-barreled 75mm gun in a fixed mounting (called a sponson) in the hull and a 37mm gun in the turret. Within minutes of the German eruption onto the British flanks, one panzer after another was being drilled at seemingly impossible ranges, and soon Rommel’s attack ground to a halt.
By the end of the first day, the panzers had formed up into a laager behind the British lines, and over the next few days, Rommel had them launching an attack backward, that is, toward their own starting positions, in order to open up a supply line. It was a marvelous improvisation, and enough to flummox the British, who far preferred to fight on one front at a time rather than three. Soon the panzers broke out, fighting a swirling action around the nondescript terrain feature known as Knightsbridge and driving on Tobruk. A few days earlier, 2nd South African had been holding a position in the rear area, but suddenly it was defending the front. Last year’s “fortress” was now virtually undefended, and the panzers overran it in a single day, slicing the unfortunate 2nd South African Division to ribbons. The young divisional commander, Major General Hendrik B. Klopper, radioed back the understatement of the century: “Situation not in hand.”
It certainly wasn’t. The Gazala-Tobruk sequence was the greatest victory of Rommel’s career, not merely a triumph on the tactical level but an operational-level win, a victory that even General Halder could love. Call it Rommel’s Rule #1, which is still a recipe for success: “Be sure to erupt into your opponent’s rear with an entire panzer army in the opening moments of the battle.” The campaign had been a severe shock to the Allies. Winston Churchill heard the bad news while conferring with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Washington, a humiliation that shook the prime minister to the core. Coming on the heels of the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the loss of Tobruk seemed to herald the collapse of the British Empire.
EVEN HERE, however, let us be honest. Smashing Eighth Army at Gazala and taking tens of thousands of prisoners at Tobruk did little to solve Rommel’s strategic problem. Unless the British were destroyed altogether, they would always be able to reinforce to a level the Axis could not match. Many later analysts argue that the Panzerarmee should have paused at this point, waited until some sort of combined airborne-naval operation had been launched against Malta to improve the logistics, and only then acted. Such arguments ignore the dynamic of the desert battle, however, the imperative of maintaining morale by keeping a victorious army in motion, and above all, Rommel’s personality.
Pause? Halt? Wait? Anyone who expected Rommel to ease up on the throttle clearly hadn’t been paying attention. Instead, the Panzerarmee vaulted across the border into Egypt with virtually no preparation. To Rommel, to his men, and even to Hitler and Mussolini, it must have looked as though a great victory lay just over the next horizon: Cairo, Alexandria, the Suez Canal, the British Empire itself.
In reality, it is possible today to see what the great Prussian philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz once called the “culmination point”—that moment in every campaign when the offensive begins to lose steam, run down, and eventually stop. The Panzerarmee was exhausted; its equipment was worn out and in desperate need of repair. Captured British stores and vehicles had become its lifeblood, Canadian Ford trucks in particular, but the Afrika Korps was no longer regularly seizing such vehicles. Manpower was breaking down. A chronic shortage of potable water had put thousands of soldiers on the sick rolls. Colonel Siegfried Westphal, the Panzerarmee’s operations chief, was yellow with jaundice. The army’s intelligence chief, Colonel Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin, was wasting away with amoebic dysentery. Rommel had a touch of both diseases, as well as a serious blood-pressure problem (no doubt stress induced) and chronic, bothersome sinusitis.
While it would be easy to view all these illnesses as simple bad luck, they were, in fact, the price Rommel and all the rest of them were paying for fighting an overseas expeditionary campaign with inadequate resources.
The same might be said for the rest of the venture. The Panzerarmee made an ad hoc attempt to break through the British bottleneck at El Alamein in July. It failed, coming to grief against British defenses on the Ruweisat Ridge, but made a second, more deliberate, attempt in August. After an initial breakthrough, it crashed into strong British defenses at Alam Halfa Ridge and it, too, failed. After yet another long pause, a third battle of El Alamein began in late October.
This time, however, it was the well-supplied British on the attack, and they managed to smash through the Panzerarmee and drive Rommel and company back, not hundreds of miles, but more than a thousand, out of the desert completely and into Tunisia. There was still fighting to be done in Africa, but the “desert war” was over.
IT WON’T BE EASY, but we must strip this operational sequence of the romance and legend in which it is wrapped. In North Africa, a hard-driving commander and a handful of German divisions who were second to none in terms of fighting strength (kampfkraft) became enmeshed in a campaign for which they were singularly unsuited: one that was far flung, logistics heavy, and reliant on naval supply (an unreliable foreign navy, at that). That they had their successes at first should surprise no one; the Wehrmacht was still undefeated against the British Army at this point in the war. That they would eventually succumb in the long run to two world empires—the British waning, the American just beginning to wax—should also surprise no one.
At Gazala, those American Grant tanks had been the margin of survival for the British Eighth Army, even after the awful shock of the opening. At “Third Alamein,” General Bernard Law Montgomery spearheaded his offensive with another technological marvel, at least by desert standards, the U.S. M4 Sherman.
Later analysts have maligned the Sherman for its performance in the European theater, where it was outmatched by heavier German tanks like the Panther and Tiger I and II, but that assessment would have surprised those frantic German and Italian tankers facing the Sherman at El Alamein. The Wehrmacht would boast of its kampfkraft until the end of the war, but it would look increasingly hapless in the face of the materiel and logistical superiority of its combined enemies.
During the war, Rommel and the Afrika Korps acquired a reputation for invincibility. Article after article in the German press equated Rommel with the great Prussian-German captains of the past. Nearly 70 years after the crushing German defeat at El Alamein, however, it is time to free ourselves from the grip of German propaganda. We all love our legends, but we should admit that Rommel and the Afrika Korps came much closer to a decisive victory in fantasy than they did in fact.
Robert M. Citino, a history professor at the University of North Texas, has written extensively on the German army. His most recent book is The Wehrmacht Retreats (University of Kansas).
WE ARE NOW savvy enough in the ways of public relations to know that media sensations arise through collaboration. People want fame, and the media needs interesting people. That connivance lies at the heart of the Rommel legend. Nazi propagandist Dr. Josef Goebbels knew by 1940 that he had something special here: Rommel was more than a good general. He was a rebel who refused to play by the rules. He was personally brave, he always led from the front, and he drove himself as hard as his men. He was real—not just sizzle but steak. As a result, no other German general received as much media coverage. News reports—vetted by the little doctor himself—marveled over Rommel’s good looks, his “high, smooth forehead, a strong energetic nose, prominent cheekbones.” During the 1940 campaign through France and the Low Countries, the media coined a new verb for overrunning your opponent, Rommeln (“to Rommel”), and when the action shifted to the desert, they claimed that rommel was actually an old Arabic word for “sand.” (Untrue.) Indeed, the Nazis even made a movie about those 1940 exploits, Victory in the West. But Rommel’s role in all this hype is often overlooked. He craved fame, enjoyed success, and liked it when the media called him a hero. Indeed, his fame was a major theme in his letters to his wife, Lu, as in April 1941 when he bragged that “the press of the whole world” was talking about his exploits in Africa. No other German general posed so willingly for so many photographs, always in a position of command, standing in the “unbuttoned” turret of a tank, or pointing to the far horizon. Rommel had an official of the German propaganda ministry on his own staff in Africa, Lieutenant Alfred Berndt, who directed photographers, suggested poses for Rommel, and fed heroic prose to magazines and the ministry. No other German general ever held his own press conference, as Rommel agreed to do in early October 1942. Striding into the room in front of the international press, he placed his hand on the door handle and declared, “Today we stand 100 kilometers from Alexandria and Cairo and have the gates of Egypt in hand.” And that 1941 movie, Victory in the West? It wasn’t just about Rommel. He starred in it and actually helped direct it. He is the center of attention, driving forward relentlessly, slashing through French defenses, and taking hordes of prisoners. (If you ever see it, note the realism of those scenes: You’re looking at actual prisoners of war, Senegalese units from West Africa.) Just after he was summoned by Hitler and assigned to Africa in 1941, Rommel told some associates that soon they’d all be watching a film called Victory in Africa. It was not to be. But in his relationship with the media, his “almost American sense of public relations,” as one biographer put it, he was exactly what Goebbels once called him: a truly modern general. R.C