Why is the African World War bad

February 1941 When Rommel's Africa Corps intervenes in the war in Libya

The people of Tripoli are amazed at the long line of German tanks that paraded past the palace of the Governor General of the Italian colony "Libia Italiana" on the afternoon of February 15, 1941. But the scenery is deceptive. The number of chariots is much less than it appears. Because instead of just driving past the Governor's Palace once, the drivers steer their tanks around the building complex three times.

"Sperrverband" is supposed to stop the advance of the British

Lieutenant General Erwin Rommel came up with the deception designed to make the first German troops in North Africa appear stronger than they are. The tank general landed in Tripoli on February 12, one day after the first Wehrmacht soldiers disembarked in the port of the Libyan colonial capital. With a "Sperrverband", Rommel is supposed to stop the advance of the British in Italian Libya. Adolf Hitler personally commissioned him to do this. The "F├╝hrer" and commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht fears that if Libya is lost, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini will be overthrown and the most important German ally will leave the war.

Mussolini's failed campaign in Egypt

Mussolini got himself into the mess in North Africa. In September 1940 the "Duce" lets the Italian-Libyan colonial troops march into neighboring Egypt. But what is planned as the conquest of the kingdom on the Nile ends in a catastrophe for the Italians. The British forces stationed in Egypt strike back in December, destroy the 92,000-strong 10th Italian Army and conquer eastern Libyan Cyrenaica within a few weeks. On February 6, 1941, British tanks reached El Agheila in the far south of the Great Syrte (Map at the end of the article). From there it is only 700 kilometers to Tripoli.

40 shiploads for one division

Rommel, who was sent to Libya with the "Sunflower Company", is supposed to prevent the British from advancing further west. His job is purely defensive, he is prohibited from major offensive acts. At first, Rommel does not have the means for that. It is true that the 5th light division, which is the first of two units of the "German Africa Corps" to be relocated to Libya, is reinforced by a tank regiment. However, the 40 shiploads required to transport the division cannot be completed before the beginning of April at the earliest. The second unit planned for North Africa, the 15th Panzer Division, is to be shipped to Libya by mid-May.

Rapid advance takes its toll

Regardless of this, Rommel wastes no time. The first German tank detachments, which landed in the port of Tripoli on February 14th, are already moving eastward one day later - immediately after their "Bluff" parade. All troops arriving afterwards are also immediately transferred to the front. On February 29, the Germans are on the verge of the British-occupied El Agheila. Although the German tanks hadn't fired a single shot by then, the advance was taking its toll. The air filters are not designed for the fine desert sand, which significantly reduces the mileage of the tank engines. Food for the soldiers also does not meet the requirements of the desert climate. The result is a high level of sick leave.

Problems with supplies

In general, replenishment is one of the central problems on the North African theater of war. The supply of the German-Italian troops across the Mediterranean is threatened by the British based in Malta, who among other things sink a transport ship with 13 tanks. The second problem is the on-site replenishment. There is no railroad in Libya. Everything the fighting force needs has to be trucked to the front. However, the main reason why Hitler and the High Command of the Army (OKH) do not want a major offensive in Libya is the long-decided attack on the Soviet Union. Because of "Operation Barbarossa" no further divisions are to be transferred to other theaters of war.

"Strolled into" in a major offensive

Nevertheless, at the end of March, Rommel started a large offensive on his own initiative, at the end of which the majority of the British troops would be driven out of Libya. Later he will say that he literally "sauntered into" this wild ride. Everything begins with the fact that the 5th light division succeeds on March 24th in taking El Agheila against little resistance. According to Rommels, he feared that the British would fortify Mersa el Brega, some 50 kilometers further east, which he considered the more favorable "deployment and deployment position", in such a way that it could hardly be taken later Memories published posthumously in 1950.

Rommel ignores Hitler's instructions

On March 31st the attack on Mersa el Brega begins, which is captured after a short and fierce battle. The British are completely surprised by the advance. On April 2nd, Rommel's troops take the important Agedabia. Here Rommel received a radio message from the High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW), which warned against further action with reference to an instruction from Hitler. But Rommel, who had already earned the reputation of a "stormy fellow" as the commander of a tank division in the French campaign in 1940, ignored the instruction. Yes, the commanding general of the Africa Corps is even taking command of the Italian troops. The result is a heated argument with Governor General Italo Gariboldi, who is - at least formally - the commander of all Italian and German troops in North Africa.

In express marches through the desert

But Rommel doesn't care about Gariboldi's objections and insists on his freedom of action. And the success proves him right. His German-Italian units advance in forced marches along the coastal road and through the desert to the east. Your goal is the complete recapture of Cyrenaica. Rommel had quick advance divisions formed, the constant pressure of which forced the British to withdraw permanently. The plan is working. Already on April 4th advance detachments of the 5th light division took the important port city of Benghazi undamaged.

Rapid advances create confusion

The news of the rapid German-Italian advances caused confusion among the British everywhere. When a huge cloud of dust rises in front of the British supply depot in Msus on the morning of April 4th, the soldiers there think it's the Germans and are blowing up the fuel depot. Unfortunately, it is tanks from the 2nd British Armored Division who have stirred up all the dust and want to fill up their empty tanks in Msus. Nothing will come of it now. The tanks stay where they are. In Tmimi, however, Rommel's soldiers fell into their hands five days later, completely undamaged. On April 11th, the German-Italian troops enclose the Tobruk fortress. A day later, units of the 5th Light Division reached the border with Egypt. They later advance to the important Halfaya Pass via Sollum.

Cyrenaica recaptured in two weeks

In less than two weeks, Rommel's soldiers have retaken all of Cyrenaica and driven almost all British troops out of Libya. Nearly! Because the Tobruk fortress, which was once well developed by the Italians, is claimed by the British against all loss-making attacks by their opponents. Rommel's soldiers are now also increasingly having problems with supplies. The British in Egypt, on the other hand, are being supplied with numerous new troops, weapons and equipment via the Suez Canal and a railway line that leads almost to the Libyan border.

The "Empire" strikes back

In November 1941 the newly formed British 8th Army was strong enough for another major offensive in Libya. The company "Crusader" is leading the British units back to El Agheila in weeks of loss-making battles, from where they were driven out in March. In the place at the southern end of the Great Syrte, the fighting came to a halt on January 6, 1942. Now the British themselves have problems getting enough supplies to the front. Nevertheless, the German-Italian troops lost all of Cyrenaica again. But the war in North Africa is far from over. And the myth of the "desert fox" Rommel is yet to be born.

Lieb, Peter: War in North Africa 1940-1943. Published by the Bundeswehr Center for Military History and Social Sciences, Ditzingen 2018.

Stegemann, Bernd: The Italian-German warfare in the Mediterranean and in Africa. In: The German Reich and the Second World War, Volume 3. Ed. By the Military History Research Office, Stuttgart 1984, pp. 591-682.