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Bardia to Enfidaville

Rommel and the Enemy

Rommel and the Enemy

There had been a period in 1941 and 1942 when Rommel was almost as well regarded by the Eighth Army as by the Africa Corps, for the British soldier admires a sterling foe who fights cleanly. By December 1942 Eighth Army probably thought less about him, its emotions being directed more towards the enjoyment of victory and the need for further offensive action. But Rommel remained a respected figure who needed watching, as he was quite capable of retaliating with vigour.

page 17

Two points emerge from contemporary German documents. The first is that Rommel operated under the control of higher echelons of command which frequently irked his independent and aggressive spirit. In Germany there was OKW,1 the German Supreme Headquarters, which meant Hitler; and in Rome there was the Italian Comando Supremo, under Mussolini, which in theory was responsible for all operations in North Africa, where the forces, again in theory, were Italian, campaigning with German assistance. Then followed the Italian Command in North Africa, known as ‘Super-libia’, the senior officer being the Governor of Libya, an appointment held in December 1942 by Marshal Bastico.

Running across—or perhaps parallel to—this hierarchy came Field Marshal Kesselring, senior officer of all the German troops in the Mediterranean, with no direct operational command at this time, but responsible for the assembly in Italy of all German supplies for the forces in North Africa. Rommel often quarrelled with Kesselring, and up to the time he left Africa did not think very highly of him; but later reflection caused a change in his opinion, and his final summing up of Kesselring is a high one.

In his days of success Rommel could behave with scant respect for his Italian superiors; but now that things were going badly they were treading on his heels all the time, and he had repeated visits from representatives of the Comando Supremo or Superlibia. The Italian authorities held the whip hand in one vital respect. The movement of supplies of all kinds from Italy was, with Hitler's agreement, under Italian control, and Rommel was dependent upon what they sent him, always a doubtful matter in view of the successful interference of the Royal Navy and the Allied Air Forces. Even when spurred on by Kesselring, Comando Supremo was inefficient, and Rommel's correspondence about this time is one long appeal—and complaint—about deficiencies in supplies.

While tactically he remained much his own master, any strategical action he intended was often opposed; and owing to the decline in Axis fortunes, there was a tendency for rearward authorities to trespass more and more into details. Rommel had difficulties in getting freedom of action in his El Agheila operations, and elsewhere throughout the period covered in this volume. He was harried by sometimes absurd orders from higher authorities, and cramped in his endeavours to make the best use of what troops and supplies he had.

1 Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW)—Armed Forces High Command—was supreme and responsible for the co-ordination of the active war effort by the three subordinate branches: Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH)—Army High Command; Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (OKM)—Navy High Command, and Oberkommando des Luftwaffe (OKL)—Air Force High Command.

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The second point that emerges from German documents is that after Alamein—the ‘battle without hope’ in Rommel's words—Rommel was firmly of the opinion that the campaign in North Africa was lost, and that the correct thing to do was to evacuate all the troops from Africa for use in Europe. He says succinctly, ‘If the army remained in North Africa, it would be destroyed’.1 He was deeply impressed by the Allies' superiority in material, and now in numbers too, and he realised that their superiority in both these factors would increase; whereas on the Axis side they were poorly supplied, inferior in the air, and in no position to remedy any weakness. Alamein was the decisive battle of the African campaign, and the Germans had lost it. He resisted most strongly the accusation made against him, by Bastico among others, that he was defeatist; but claimed that he was truly realistic and that there were people who ‘simply did not have the courage to look facts in the face and draw the proper conclusion’. His one aim became to save his troops and prevent annihilation. But in the end some 250,000 troops went into Allied prison camps.

Rommel's forces were known as the German-Italian Panzer Army, constituted as:

  • German

    • Africa Corps—15 and 21 Panzer Divisions

    • 90 Light Africa Division2

    • 164 Light Africa Division

    • Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • German Air Force Brigade

  • Italian

As it happened, the troops opposing 2 NZ Division were German almost throughout. The main German strength, however, lay in the two panzer divisions, with 90 Light Division as a strong supporter.

The panzer divisions normally were composed of a reconnaissance unit (a combination of scout cars, armoured cars, and armoured troop-carriers), a tank regiment of two battalions (each of 84 tanks at full strength), a lorried infantry regiment of three battalions, a field artillery regiment of three battalions, an anti-tank battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and service units;

2 The correct title; but, in accordance with contemporary usage, Africa is hereafter omitted.

3 These were corps only in name, and comprised only a few thousand troops each. They had under command a varying number of so-called divisions, the allocation being changed from time to time. Divisions were Trieste, Pistoia, Spezia, Young Fascist, and Ariete, the last-named being armoured and later renamed Centauro.

page break page 19 and the light divisions usually comprised a reconnaissance unit, three lorried infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, an anti-tank battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and service units. In November 1942 the strength of each division was only that of about a regiment (equivalent to a brigade) or less. The reconnaissance units often operated separately as a reconnaissance group. The lorried infantry regiments were known as Panzer Grenadiers, a title accorded them by Hitler. It is unnecessary to give the numbers of all the units in the German divisions, but their formations were:
  • 15 Panzer Division

    • 8 Panzer Regiment

    • 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 33 Panzer Artillery Regiment

  • 21 Panzer Division

    • 5 Panzer Regiment

    • 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 155 Panzer Artillery Regiment

  • 90 Light Division

    • 155 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 361 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 190 Artillery Regiment

  • 164 Light Division

    • 125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 382 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

    • 220 Artillery Regiment.

Rommel had realised that he could not hope to stop Eighth Army's advance until the El Agheila position was reached; and from the middle of November the first steps were taken to withdraw all non-motorised units behind that line, and to organise the defence of the area. Most of the Italians were among the non-motorised troops. The Italian authorities had directed that there must be an orderly withdrawal of the Italian troops—doubtless there were still bitter memories of the aftermath of Alamein—and for once Rommel was prepared to comply. Progressively the non-motorised forces, both German and Italian, were withdrawn first into the El Agheila defences, where they carried out some work, and then later back to Nofilia and Buerat. Remaining in the El Agheila position were the German motorised troops, with the addition of a tank battle group from Ariete Division.

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There was a brief moment when Rommel toyed with the idea of a limited counter-attack, and of repeating his performance of previous years by destroying the advanced British forces; but he answered this himself when he said that it was a purely academic discussion, as they had neither the petrol nor sufficient tank destruction units for any such scheme.1 The German official narrative says briefly that the petrol and ammunition shortage and the low strength of the motorised and armoured formations made it impossible to carry out any offensive action.

At this point in the war in North Africa—late November—the German High Command was concentrating on the defence of Tunisia, and the ‘eastern front’ in Libya became secondary. Troops and supplies were being poured into Tunis; but there was nothing for Rommel. It is easy to understand his bitterness when it is realised that only a small part of the effort now being made to build up forces in Tunisia, if made in the summer of 1942 and directed towards Egypt, might have carried him to the Suez Canal.

But all the same the Fuehrer's well-known dislike of giving up any ground prescribed that the El Agheila position was to be held at all costs; and the Duce was a loud-voiced echo of the Fuehrer. It took much effort on Rommel's part, including hurried visits by air to both Fuehrer and Duce, to get this rigid ruling modified—for hard facts soon dictated another course of action.

As early as 20 November Rommel was advocating most forcibly that no stand should be made at El Agheila, that there should be a steady withdrawal to an intermediate position on the line HomsTarhuna (some 60 miles east of Tripoli), and that thereafter Tripolitania should be evacuated completely, and the main stand made at the Gabes Gap, 120 miles west of the Tunisian frontier. He was always in favour of this last position, even in comparison with the more famous Mareth Line, for it could not be outflanked.

However, the most he could achieve, and this only after a four-day conference at the Fuehrer's headquarters in East Prussia and after being told initially that every man must be put into the El Agheila line to hold it to the last, was that he was given a free hand to withdraw to the Buerat position only, which again was to be held to the last. The outcome of these discussions was that as early as 2 December Rommel had decided to retire from El Agheila, and had even decided that the first day of withdrawal was to be 5 December, on which day a detached garrison at Marada (75 miles south of El Agheila) was to start moving out.

1 Rommel Papers, p. 357.

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The Germans' shortage of petrol was very nearly vital in the true meaning of the word. The shortage was a persistent theme in the German narrative of these weeks, for there is not a day when it is not alluded to in one way or another. The position was ‘very critical’, ‘catastrophic’, ‘at the moment the Afrika Korps has no petrol’, ‘the German motorised formations are now completely immobilised’, ‘supplies brought forward amounted to only about one fifth of the quantity necessary’, ‘extremely critical’, ‘by the evening of 5 December the army would have no petrol at all’—and so on day after day. Every two or three days there is a reference to sinkings, either by submarine or aircraft, sometimes as many as three vessels in one day. In November for instance, while 4879 tons of petrol reached the Axis forces, 8110 tons were lost. The shortage had its effect on the Luftwaffe also, which often did not have enough petrol to take the air operationally. Small wonder that the Germans make rueful comments on our apparently limitless supplies.