Key Point: General Rommel demonstrated how superior leadership can sometimes overcome even material disadvantage.
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.
In early January 1942 a convoy of transport ships made it through the British Navy and Air Force, supplying Rommel with an additional seventy five tanks and armored cars. Together with the remnants of the previous fight and other tanks that had been repaired, he had rebuilt a strike force of over three hundred tanks. Moreover, the German Luftwaffe and Axis Navy had temporarily blunted the British stranglehold in the Mediterranean and Rommel’s forces could achieve tactical air parity and could therefore count on receiving critically needed supplies and most importantly, air support in key tank battles.
The British were likely aware that some ships of supplies had gotten through, but never imagined that their enemy could recover so quickly and launch an effective counterstrike. Rommel’s forces completed a tactical retreat on January 6, 1942. Less than two weeks later, he shocked the Allied forces by launching a surprise attack.
In his diary entry for January 22, Rommel wrote, “I had made up my mind to keep at the enemy just as long as my troops and supplies would allow. The Panzer Army was at last getting under way again and its first blows had struck home. I could always fall back to the Mersa el Brega line if things went wrong, but that was not what I was after; my aims were set much higher.” After a complaint by an Italian general that the attack was unwise, Rommel added that “I told him that nobody but the Fuehrer could change my decision.”
By January 26 the assault had succeeded brilliantly. Mitcham recorded that the British “had lost 299 tanks and armored vehicles, 147 guns, and 935 prisoners. Rommel reported a total loss of only 3 officers, 11 enlisted men, and 3 tanks.” The Desert Fox stopped his assault on February 6 because he had insufficient supplies of gasoline and ammunition to continue the fight. The reeling Allied force withdrew to Gazala and began building defensive works.
The two sides began preparing for the next phase of the war in North Africa, called the Gazala Battles. Rommel would shatter the British in the spring of 1942 in a series of brilliant victories. It would not be enough, however, as the temporary protection provided in the air over the battlefield and in the Mediterranean Sea was permanently lost to Allied actions and Rommel’s Afrika troops were eventually defeated by the Eighth Army.
British Historian B. H. Liddell Hart wrote after the war that in North Africa “if either side is inferior in (tank quality), the quality of their troops and command must make up for the disadvantage. But there is no compensating for the lack of an air force or for shortage of supplies.” Rommel demonstrated how superior leadership can sometimes overcome even material disadvantage. All other things being equal, leadership will trump opponents who might have some advantage in numbers and technology.
Daniel L. Davis is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a senior fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DanielLDavis1. This article first appeared in 2017 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.
Image: Wikimedia Commons