The Buzz

Hitler's Ultimate Weapon Wasn't Super Tanks or Submarines (But a General Like No Other)

On August 2, 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded the oil-rich country of Kuwait. President George H. W. Bush immediately ordered U.S. troops to Saudi Arabia to defend its ally, and demanded Saddam withdraw or risk U.S. invasion. About 2,500 miles to the northwest, I was a cavalry trooper in the tank-heavy Second Squadron, Second Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) preparing for the likely deployment to the Iraqi desert. To prepare for this future battle, we turned to the past for help: German General Erwin Rommel.

The Second ACR had trained in armored warfare for decades, but for combat against Soviet forces in European terrain. To prepare us for desert warfare, the squadron’s operations officer taught us the fundamentals of the most successful armored commander in a desert environment, General Rommel, focusing on his victories in North Africa.

The “Desert Fox” commanded the Afrika Korps against Allied troops, mainly the British. In May 1943 Germany’s troops were eventually defeated in North Africa by the combined weight of U.S. General George S. Patton and Commander of the British Expeditionary Forces, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. But his victories in late 1941 through the spring of 1942, stands as textbook examples of how decisive leadership at the point of attack and the use of creative, unconventional tactics can defeat a larger force.

As has been proven in battles as far back as ancient Greece and Sparta, leadership in combat is usually the decisive factor between victory and defeat. Rommel’s performance in North Africa bear this out. He arrived in Africa when the Axis forces were in disarray and in danger of being driven completely off the continent. The Italian Army had been virtually wiped off the map by the British by February 1941, losing nearly 15,000 killed and wounded, and over 130,000 captured. British losses had been 500 killed, 1,300 wounded and 55 missing.

The British had both superior technology and superior training and won with ease. But the victory was deceptive. The UK troops believed the victory was primarily due to their superiority and not so much to the weakness of their opponents. That would have fatal consequences for the “Tommies” in 1942.

With their Italian allies at risk of being driven entirely out of North Africa, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler ordered Erwin Rommel and armored reinforcements to relieve them. Rommel was fresh off his spectacular performance of leading the Seventh Panzer Division in playing a key role in the defeat of France in 1940. He landed in Africa on February 12, 1941, ahead of his armored divisions, soon to be designated the Afrika Korps. Knowing how bold he had been in the attack in France, Rommel’s boss, Field Marshal Walter von Brauchtisch, ordered him not to launch an offensive until both his armored divisions had arrived.

After assessing the strategic situation for Axis forces in the theater, however, he concluded that British forces were weak because they had dissipated their forces following the rout of the Italians, believing no hard fighting would come for months. Rommel, therefore, decided to attack anyway, choosing not to even inform his superiors. His gamble paid off, however, as the Allied forces were taken completely off guard. Within days he had captured Benghazi and crushed the British Second Armored Division in the process.

By November of that year Rommel had won a number of other victories, though not as convincing as his initial successes. Finally recovering from the initial shock, the British Eighth Army under General Sir Alan Cunningham had prepared a major counteroffensive by November of that year to try and push Rommel back. They had every reason to expect success.

The Afrika Korps’ Achilles’ Heel was centered in the Mediterranean Sea. If the Allies could prevent supplies of men, materiel, and ammunition from resupplying the Germans, it wouldn’t matter how brilliant Rommel was, the Afrika Korps would starve to death for lack of food, fuel and war stocks. In the book Rommel’s Greatest Victory, Samuel Mitcham explained that prior to launching their offensive, “more than two-thirds of the supplies sent to Libya were sunk en route… During November 1941, Allied ships, submarines, and aircraft sank 77 percent of the supplies bound for Panzer Group Afrika.” Rommel faced the British offensive, called Operation Crusader, with “15 percent of the supplies he needed to fight it.”

Mitcham records that after initially blunting the assault, Rommel began to feel the weight of the lack of supplies and the relentless attack of the British troops. He retreated in early December after suffering the loss of 386 of the 412 tanks he began the battle with, lost all three of his division commanders and 38,300 of his men. British leadership sent cables to London saying they believed the Germans were spent in Africa and that one more offensive would push them off the continent entirely. Underestimating Rommel’s leadership was to prove almost fatal for the Allies.