How General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps Earned Its Infamy

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-554-0872-35 / Pirath, Helmuth / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
August 18, 2020 Topic: History Region: Africa Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: Erwin RommelAfrika KorpsNorth AfricaItalyWorld War IIDesert Fox

How General Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps Earned Its Infamy

They had to come to Italy's rescue.

Key Point: Rommel was a very good commander and his opponents feared him. Here is how he was able to hold his own in desert warfare.

On April 15, 1942, Generaloberst (Colonel General) Erwin Rommel summoned his subordinate commanders of the Panzerarmee Afrika to a conference to outline his plans for the coming offensive against the British Eighth Army. The stakes were high, his proposals not without risk, but as usual Rommel exuded confidence. He was a familiar figure to his assembled officers, with his close-cropped hair, penetrating eyes, long nose, and narrow lips; a handsome, military face that was a perfect mirror of a personality that could be serious but also had a large dose of good humor. He was dressed in his Afrika Korps uniform, tan jacket with red general’s tabs on the collar, Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross at his throat.

Rommel Called In To Assist The Italians

In this spring of 1942 the Germans and their Italian allies had been locked in a seesaw battle for North Africa, a struggle that had started in 1940 when the forces of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini attacked British-held Egypt from their bases in Libya. The Italian offensive was a fiasco, and the British soon gained the upper hand. The Italians had bitten off more than they could chew, and in an effort to get his fellow dictator’s chestnuts out of the fire Adolf Hitler dispatched Rommel and several German units, collectively known as the Afrika Korps, to North Africa in February 1941.

Rommel began an offensive that pushed the British back to the borders of Egypt, and although his successes proved temporary his brilliant maneuvers were the start of his legend as the “Desert Fox.” Late in 1941 the Germans were pushed back by a British counteroffensive, but in the spring of 1942 Rommel was ready once again to make a bid for victory.

Germans Faced Formidable Gazala Line

Indeed, the Panzerarmee Afrika was facing a formidable challenge. The British Eighth Army was deployed in a massive series of defenses known as the Gazala line, named for a town on the Mediterranean coast. Stretching some 40 miles from Gazala to Bir Hacheim to the south, the Gazala line featured an “archipelago” of strong points known as boxes, self-contained islands of resistance set in a sea of land mines and further protected by tangles of barbed wire. Each box had infantry supported by artillery and tanks, altogether hard nuts to crack.

Assault Plan Seeks To Trick British

But that was not all the Germans had to face. General Neil Ritchie, the British Eighth Army commander, placed armored and motorized units just behind the Gazala line, in theory a fast-moving, mobile defense that could counter any German thrust. Rommel had two options: He could launch a frontal assault in north of the center of the Gazala line, or he could try and outflank it to the south. A southern flanking move was more to the Colonel General’s personal tastes and inclinations; he could pivot on Bir Hacheim (in the process taking that strongpoint) then sweep north behind the Gazala line.

As the conference proceeded Rommel explained that he would make a frontal attack on the Gazala line—but that the attack would merely be a feint. Just behind the Gazala line was Tobruck, a fortress/port that had been a thorn in Rommel’s side in the previous year’s campaign. A frontal assault in the north would be the shortest route to Tobruck, a much-sought-after prize. Rommel hoped he could deceive the British into thinking his main effort would be in the north, while in reality the major offensive would be a surprise envelopment of the British southern flank.

While it was true Rommel’s failure to take Tobruck in 1941 was a bitter pill, he was not so obsessed with its capture that he lost sight of the overall strategic picture. In fact, he wanted to make it clear that Tobruck was not the only objective. “Die Englischer Feldarmee,” Rommel declared, gazing intently into the faces of his officers, “muss vernichtet werden, und Tobruck muss fallen!” (The English field army must be totally destroyed, and Tobruck must fall!) Rommel knew he was probably outnumbered by the British in tanks, but trusted that superior German tactics—and, hopefully, poorly coordinated enemy attacks—would redress the balance. The conference concluded and preparations were made for the coming offensive in spite of the ovenlike desert heat.

Rommel Admired By His Men

Rommel was already famous in the spring of 1942, and well on his way to becoming a legend. His men idolized him, because although he was a hard taskmaster he had a genuine affection for his troops and cared for their well-being. Certainly, if he was tough on them he was equally tough on himself. He shared their hardships and never asked them to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself. Of solid middle-class origin, Rommel had little connection with the snobbish upper-class aristocrats one associates with the German officer corps. Although he naively thought Hitler was the savior of Germany, he was apolitical and certainly no Nazi.

As a general Rommel had an excellent grasp of strategy and tactics. A master of maneuver, he knew how to propel an army in rapid strokes. He was an inspiration to his men, often galvanizing them by personal example. Rommel was also flexible, one of the characteristics of a great general. If events proved his original plans faulty, he was capable of changing them with alacrity to meet changing conditions. On a personal level Rommel possessed a high degree of integrity. He bore the British no personal animosity, and stories of his fair treatment of prisoners are legion. Rommel’s fame was just as great among the “Tommies” as among the Germans, and it was his British enemies who gave him the sobriquet “Desert Fox.”

Beyond Tobruck, Rommel Eyes The Mid East Oil

In the spring of 1942 Rommel was looking beyond Tobruck, and even beyond the possible seizure of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The German general was a fierce partisan of the so-called “Plan Orient,” a geopolitical strategy bold in concept and intercontinental in scope. In early 1942 Hitler’s armies were in the Soviet Union, about to conduct a drive into the Caucasus to seize vital Russian oilfields. Plan Orient was an even bolder concept, calling for the Panzerarmee Afrika to seize not only Alexandria and the Suez Canal, but to continue on and roll through Palestine and the rest of the Middle East. Oil-rich Persia (Iran) and Iraq might fall, and the Panzerarmee would link up with German armies fighting in Russia.

In essence, then, Panzerarmee Afrika would be the southern arm of a great pincers movement, the German army in Russia comprising the northern arm. Once Germany was in control of Middle Eastern oil reserves, the war would be more than half won. It was a good plan on paper, but it presupposed continued German success in Russia and Axis control of the Mediterranean—two very tall orders indeed. In any case Plan Orient didn’t seem a pipe dream in the spring of 1942; even the British feared such a scenario.

Rommel’s Panzerarmee was a mixed force of both German and Italian units. Probably the most famous was the Deutsches Afrika Korps, or DAK, a formation whose name is indelibly linked to Rommel’s. In early 1942 the DAK was commanded by General Walter Nehring and consisted of two major formations, the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Another German unit was the 90th Light Division. Sources seldom agree on specific numbers, but probably some 90,000 Axis troops faced 100,000 British. Rommel’s equipment was as multinational as his troops. Besides German and Italian weapons, he incorporated captured British guns and vehicles into the Panzerarmee Afrika. Rommel was even sent Soviet 50-mm and 76.5-mm artillery captured on the Russian front.

Tanks and armored vehicles were going to play an important role in the upcoming Gazala operations. The backbone of the German Panzer divisions was the Mark III tank, boasting thick armor but armed with a short 50-mm gun. Rommel also had 19 Mark III Specials with face-hardened armor and a hard-hitting long-barrel 50-mm gun more powerful than the short-barrel version. Italian tanks were obsolescent nightmares more lethal to their crews than to the enemy. With a delicious sense of irony Italian tank crews called their machines “self-propelled coffins.”

The British had several different kinds of tanks, including Matildas, Valentines, and Crusaders. The Crusader was armed with a two-pounder gun (named after the weight of the shell) but was plagued by mechanical troubles. The Valentine was an infantry support tank, but the queen of British armor was the Matilda Mark II. It was a strongly protected tank, with armor up to three inches thick, and was armed with a two-pounder gun.

In the desert war both sides had to battle the climate as well as the enemy. Even in May the heat was terrible, with temperatures soaring to 120°F. Water was scarce, and fierce dust storms scoured the desert floor with choking clouds of reddish grit. On May 5, while deep into the preparations for the coming offensive, Rommel took the time to note in a letter to his wife, “Hardly a day without a sandstorm.”