By the beginning of 1941 the Wehrmacht was undefeated on the Continent of Europe and had swept away all opposition. OKW were doing their utmost to force Britain and her Empire to surrender. In fact the Fuhrer HQ couldn't understand why the British continued to fight considering the defeats the Army had faced. With Britain's capitol under air attack, the island under Naval blockade it became necessary to start looking at British colonies.
This was further added to the Italian's absolute failure in Libya. General O'conner's advances in 1940 with its superior Matilda tank nucleus pushed the Italian army all the way back to Bengazhi obliterating 10 whole Divisions. There was concern that the loss of North Africa would leave the British open to a springboard back into Southern Europe through Greece or even Italy. Intervention would be needed and a small German force was sent to assist the beleaguered Italians.
The man chosen to lead the German forces was Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, a former Infantry officer from the Great War who had written the military handbook "Infantrie Angriff" and had led a Panzer division during the successful campaigns in Poland and France.
Rommel was a gambler and risk taker, loved by his men for his habit of leading from amidst his men and the enemy. He regularly toured the front and suffered the same privations as his men and ate at their field kitchens rather than well behind the lines in a Chateau and safe from enemy fire.
Hitler was in awe of his young Panzer commander as he turned seeming defeat into victory turning the tide in Libya, capturing General O'Connor and pushing the British back and besieging Torbruk with only a small force.
Despite watching German tactics in action in Europe and Russia the British commanders were unable to counter Rommel and Frohlich's small force of Ju 87s covered by BF 109 E's and even BF 110's were able to provide temporary air superiority over Rommel's spearheads striking a Schwerpunkt into the British wide front. The RAF, although numerically superior and more experienced with the peculiarities of desert aircraft maintenance were using inferior aircraft, mostly American surplus like Kittyhawks and Aircobras and only the Hurricane really provided anything similar to the 109s but even still they fell far short.
However, Rommel's strength was also his greatest weakness. He was somewhat arrogant over confident in his own abilities and refused to believe that his plan would not fail. He planned the taking of Torbruk refusing to believe Intelligence reports and Luftwaffe reconnaissance pictures that showed a build up of British armour and infantry preparing Operation Crusader. He was so confident that he was right that he went on leave to Rome to see his wife.
The British struck hard and the Germans under Cruwell fought back but soon found that the weight of British armour and the counter attack by the Torbruk garrison was enough to push them from their prepared positions. Rommel was furious on his hurried return and began to mobilise the counter attack. His consolidated tank groups quickly cut of one British advance and then under Rommel's direction charged 60 miles due East to the Egyptian border before sending von Ravenstein over the border into Egypt.
This was a striking move that threw the British forces into chaos and General Cunningham was forced to make a speedy withdrawal from his command HQ in a Blenheim bomber as the Panzers rolled forward. The question on everybody's lips was;
Where is Rommel?
Unfortunately some of those lips belonged to Cruwell and Westphal Rommel's adjutant back at the Torbruk front. The British army had reformed after the shock and had retaken the vital airfield Sidi Rezegh as well as making further in roads into the Axis lines. Frohlich's meagre forces were unable to do more than try and keep the Allies at bey and could do nothing to find Rommel who lay deep in British territory with no radio contact. After three days Westphal sent out a general withdrawal notice and a very angry Rommel returned with a handful of his original tanks that were left after British attacks. The aerial superiority of Hurricane IID fighters had mauled the lines or tanks and their supply trucks. On his return Rommel looked at the overall strategic map of the situation and ordered the full withdrawal towards Bengazi.
During the withdrawal the Luftwaffe harassed the Allied advance and Rommel, ever the hunter led surprise counter attacks on the slow approaching Allies and kept them on their toes - no one, not even his superiors or Air support, knew where Rommel would strike next. His move on the captured Benghazi caught everyone out and the British lost their forward stores to a jubilant Rommel and OKW. There was enough munitions and petrol for Rommel to launch a counter attack forcing the British back to Torbruk again.
Supplies were vitally important to all efforts in Africa, be it Italian or German. Britain had its own problems too but had a back door. As Axis aerial superiority grew in the Mediterranean and with the fall of Crete bringing routes from Malta to Alexandria Britain was forced to divert its vulnerable troop ships the long way around. This was very fortunate for Private Peter Sams of the 3rd East Kent Regiment who saw Cape town and the cloud tablecloth flowing from Table mountain and arrived late to the battle of El Alamein rather than sailing under the guns of the Luftwaffe and Italian Navy (it would be another year before he saw the devastating aerial bombardment of a Stuka dive bomber). It also meant that as the British withdrew they were getting closer to their supplies and depots and the Germans further away from theirs.
There was no back door for the Germans however, all supplies had to come via ship from Italy to Libya and later from Crete to Torbruk.
|The supply route (marked in red)|
On arriving in Italy as the new C-in-C South Generalfeldmarschall Albrecht Kesselring looked at the overall strategic situation and found the major sticking point that would be the key to the whole African Campaign.
Supplies and the convoy system.On his arrival, Kesselring began working with the Chief of staff Count Cavallero was willing to take suggestions and they formed a daily conference to discuss Convoys and supply transfer to Libya and specialists were gathered by the Italian Naval high command, Supermarina, and a permanent Supply board.
Before the war the Italians had set up supply depots on both sides of the sea but they'd never been able to fill them to capacity and air raids had taken a heavy toll. Added to this was the nature of the Italian Colony. There was no Railway from the ports to the front and all supplies had to be driven up by trucks which drank a lot of the petrol delivered and provided a great target from the air!
There was also the problem of equipment. Where as the Allies used the same kit the German and Italian equipment varied wildly and they could not share or pass around surpluses. All German equipment must come from Germany first.
There was also the problem of the shipping. Italian production was still in peace time mode and spare parts were spread around wharves across the whole country as were the ships and merchant fleets. The Italian Navy failed to take control of the merchant marine which left Italian captains thinking of "Their" ships and "Their" crews rather than the Nation's and were thus hesitant to put themselves in any danger. Tankers particularly drew a lot of fire from enemy air and sea units especially when the enigma codes had announced that tankers were sailing. Indeed by November 1942 it was acknowledged that with the losses that had already been incurred, any further resupply by sea would ultimately fail.
The supply situation would get so bad in Africa that the Panzer units would steal Aviation fuel to power their tanks leaving their airmen stranded on the ground.
For victory to be attained in North Africa the Allied island of Malta would have to fall to take the pressure off the shipping supply line.