Blitzkrieg in the Desert Part I

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The first place where this particularly German form of mobile warfare ground to a halt occurred roughly fifty miles west of Cairo, among the ridges and gulleys that stretched directly southward from El Alamein, until one came to the treacherous dunes of the Quattara Depression. In contrast to the massive flat wheat fields of the Ukraine, there was instead a restricted corridor, only 50 miles wide, between the Mediterranean and the Quattara. Apart from the specially equipped units of the British Long Range Desert Group, nothing could operate across the fine shifting sands in the south; Rommel’s tanks, trucks, and artillery would be swallowed up as certainly as were the chariots and heavy infantry of the Persian monarch who had tried to march through those same sands six centuries before the birth of Christ. Thus, if the Afrika Korps, urged on by Hitler, was to take Alexandria and then Cairo, it could do so only by bludgeoning its way through that relatively narrow bottleneck south of El Alamein. No one was more aware of that than Rommel himself—and the new commander of the British Eighth Army, General Bernard Montgomery, who had taken up his post in mid-August 1942. Aggression and mobility were pitted against caution and stolidity. But here was a case where geography played heavily to the latter’s advantage, provided the British defenses were strong enough.

Over the preceding two years of conflict along the lengthy North African littoral, which had begun in September 1940, the British did not have that strength. Mussolini’s large armies in Cyrenaica had made an early but slow advance into Egypt—blitzkrieg this was not. By contrast, the Eighth Army’s counterstroke in December, using its faster-moving armored units against a far larger, slower Italian army, seemed to validate the Fuller–Liddell Hart doctrines but then petered out disappointingly the farther it moved from its starting point. There were many later military advances and retreats in this particular theater of war—some coastal towns such as Sidi Barrani changed hands on half a dozen occasions—which suggests that neither side had at this stage the capacity to sustain a prolonged offensive. Thus nothing decisive occurred until the arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps early in 1941 to bolster the Italian position. Rommel’s presence brought a new pace to the advances and retreats. That promising young and aggressive officer at Caporetto in 1917, the brilliant leader of the 7th Panzer Division in the 1940 defeat of France, was not interested in having his troops stay still. Of course, he and his Luftwaffe corps commander needed time to develop bases and receive their tanks, trucks, and aircraft, but they would soon be ready.

In the meantime, the conflict continued, affected by many considerations such as Churchill’s diversion of much of the Eighth Army to the fighting in Greece and Crete during 1941, and then their painful recall. It was also affected always by which side received further reinforcements of infantry, tanks, the critically important trucks, artillery, and aircraft. The fighting was determined overall by the value the two great war leaders placed upon this campaign. To Hitler it was certainly important as a means of keeping Italy in the war and pinning the British down in the Middle East, but it did not compare with the titanic struggle against the Soviet Union; to Churchill at this stage in the war, it was the only theater of land/air warfare in which the battered British Commonwealth forces could pick themselves up, carry the fight forward, and regain their pride.

By the summer of 1942, following these considerations, each side had placed more and more chips on the North African table. Given the global picture of the war at this time, it is surprising that the German high command could continue to furnish Rommel with any additional troops and armored units, and impressive, too, that by now certain of the better Italian divisions and regiments, including the Ariete, Bersaglieri, and Folgore, were training and fighting up to Wehrmacht standards. But by this stage Churchill was betting almost everything on a North African victory, even if that implied sending only limited reinforcements to Southeast Asia and leaving the Burma theater essentially dormant. When Allied convoys swung around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean, the troopships and merchant vessels laden with tanks, boxed fighter aircraft, trucks, jeeps, and the rest were much more likely to head toward the Red Sea than to the Bay of Bengal.

The climactic battle for Egypt did not begin on the clear moonlit night of October 23, 1942, when the Eighth Army’s artillery opened fire across the whole line of German and Italian divisions that stood only a few miles to their west. The much-lauded fight that made its way into British legend and collective memory was really the third stage of a protracted encounter that commenced when Rommel, urged on by Hitler, thrust forward in midsummer to crack the British hold upon Cairo and, potentially, much of the rest of the Middle East. Napoleon had tried the same a century and a half earlier, but his venture was far too vulnerable at sea, and thus to Nelson’s battle fleet. This time the invaders of Egypt were coming by land. But they, too, were vulnerable.

The preliminary tussle, the First Battle of El Alamein, lasted throughout July 1942 and was remarkable on various counts. German panzers and infantry retained supremacy in the field, even when the odds against them multiplied. A little earlier the Afrika Korps had badly bruised a far larger British force around Tobruk, wheeled back westward to seize the city (to Churchill’s immense anger and frustration), pushed the counterassaulting Eighth Army into the desert, then continued its relentless drive to the east, with very small numbers of tanks. This was blitzkrieg warfare at its best, perhaps as impressive as Guderian’s breakthroughs in France in May 1940, and it is noticeable that German aircraft were still playing a disruptive role, helping to paralyze the enemy’s nervous system and throw his defenses into confusion. Rommel’s advance troops actually reached some British defensive positions west of Cairo before many of the exhausted South African, New Zealand, and British battalions themselves crept back to rejoin the Eighth Army. But the German forces were also exhausted, and the cautious British general Claude Auchinleck was content to hold the line and get new forces into position. By July 3–4, 1942, when their dynamic (though temporarily very sick) leader urged them forward again, Rommel’s Afrika Korps had only twenty-six tanks fit for operation. That evening (July 4), in one of his most telling letters home to his wife, the field marshal wrote: “Things are, unfortunately, not going as we should like. The resistance is too great, and our strength is exhausted.” As ever, fuel was terribly short, cramping his panzers’ mobility again and again. To make things worse, the Luftwaffe squadrons were being pulled away to the Eastern Front, a nice example of the folly of trying to fight enemies in three theaters at once.

“The resistance is too great, and our strength is exhausted.” Here is the key to this tale. All lightning wars rush out to the skies and seas and the great wastelands beyond, and then they begin to lose their concentration, their density, their power; it is purely a matter of physics. The fact was that the desperately strung-out units of the Afrika Korps were beginning to bump into far too much opposition: ever greater numbers of brigades from Britain itself, from Australia and New Zealand, from the Indian division, from South Africa and the rest; ever more Allied tactical aircraft; ever more of the vital medium and heavy guns and howitzers of the Royal Artillery, which was at last fulfilling its proper capabilities. Very few, if any, of these newer Allied armored infantry units were of the highly mobile and explosively effective character of even a reduced German battalion, but there were simply too many of them, and they were too well equipped, to be blown away. The British Commonwealth divisions would take their nasty defeats and losses, at odds that to this day look deeply embarrassing. But they would not break—which is why the second battle in this trilogy is even more interesting, and more suggestive.

It took place around a long desert ridge called Alam Halfa, to the south and east of El Alamein. The coastal region was so thickly covered by mines, tank traps, and reinforced, well dug-in troops that Rommel felt he could strike only through the southern section of the Allied defenses. Strike he did, but his attacking units were blunted by deep and comprehensive minefields—it often took an attacking commander a while to discover that what looked like open territory was heavily sown with mines—and then by the sheer size of the resistance. The newly appointed Montgomery had the satisfaction of pushing more brigades into the Alam Halfa lines while Rommel watched his much smaller forces come close to running out of fuel, a fate common to so many German and Japanese armies (ironically, their prewar frustration that they lacked enough oil to be truly independent great powers was repeatedly confirmed in their campaigning).e Eventually, in early September, he pulled back west. The British, rather to the surprise of some of the German generals, deliberately did not follow. As Liddell Hart observes, this was a battle that “was not only won by the defending side, but decided by pure defence, without any counteroffensive—or even any serious attempt to develop a counteroffensive.” That time would come.

There is an important military-technical point to reflect upon here, especially when one considers the fate of German offensive armored warfare for the rest of the war. All the evidence suggests that the slashing tank attacks by Rommel’s Afrika Korps were blunted not so much by British tanks (Matildas, Grants, Shermans) or regular infantry as by two far less romantic means of war: acres and acres of minefields, and specialist antitank battalions that deployed large numbers of artillery and bazookas. The land mine—regarded by many nowadays as one of the most evil weapons of war—had for its small size an extraordinary capacity to bring an enemy’s fast armored assault to a halt, or at least to force a rethink. Either the attacker undertook to clear a minefield that could be as much as 5 miles deep or he was funneled into routes without mines but full of deeply entrenched antitank battalions, not only in front of the advancing panzers but, more viciously, on each side, that smashed the caterpillar tracks and penetrated the slimmer sidewalls.

The unglamorous and very cheaply produced land mine became, therefore, a significant determinant of the contours and fate of mobile armored warfare in the Second Battle of Alamein. Not only did the extensively laid minefields further restrict both armies’ freedom of maneuver, but by having their specialist sapper units bury hundreds of thousands of mines ahead of their own defensive positions, for example, Auchinleck and Montgomery could even further shorten the operational gap between the Quattara Depression and the Mediterranean shore. As the German forces sought to claw a way through the mines—actually, had to claw a way through the mines—the defenders had ample warning to strengthen the threatened section of the front. However, this same problem would confront the Eighth Army when it went on the offense as it had the Afrika Korps, for Rommel had a keen appreciation of the value of mines (as we shall see again in his supervision of the Atlantic Wall in 1944), and also had vast numbers laid under the North African sands.

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