The strategic impact of the counteroffensive

In “Decisive Battles of World War II – The German View”, the former head of Operations in OKW, General Walter Warlimont wrote about the North African campaign in 1942 as one of these decisive battles under the title “Decision in the Mediterranean”. He traces the revival of the strategic consideration of a move into Egypt back to the successful counter-offensive by the Axis forces at the end of the winter battle. This offensive, prepared in total secrecy and successfully carried out started on 21 January 1942 swiped away the inexperienced and understrength British 1st Armoured Division in the desert, and almost trapped and annihilated the 4th Indian Infantry Division in the Djebel on the northern coast of Cyrenaica, around Benghazi and Barce.  In the view of Warlimont:

[…]this tremendous offensive drive […] encouraged German leaders to revert to their ambitious project of the previous year, linking it this time with plans for a further offensive in the Caucasus.

The inherent weakness of this development, in which strategic considerations limped along in the rear of tactical success, was glossed over by Rommel’s brilliant victory in the desert, and it was optimistically assumed that Rommel’s tremendous reputation and his undoubted skill as a leader in the field would more than compensate for the steady increase of enemy strengths which was to be expected.

A few comments on this:

  • There are shades of the June 1942 attack into Egypt after the fall of Tobruk here, where strategic considerations (this time the capture of Malta) again ‘limped’ along in the wake of the capture of Tobruk.
  • Warlimont completely ignores in this analysis the fact that the Axis forces, which not three months before, on 21 November 1941 were supposed to seize the Tobruk fortress and then prepare to break across the frontier into Egypt had barely escaped with the hides on their back from Auchinleck’s offensive.  Rommel was in my opinion outgeneralled in November and December 1941, and quite badly and soundly beaten outside Tobruk, the obvious successes, such as the destruction of 5th South African Brigade and the near destruction of the New Zealand Division notwithstanding. But somehow this near desaster was forgotten by a fast drive across a mostly empty desert and the pushing back of the enemy halfway to Tobruk.
  • So while I agree that the counter-offensive was a tactical (and in fact a strategic success), I hesitate to subscribe to the view that either it or indeed the whole winter battle was a ‘brilliant victory’, despite the fact that the Axis side did not hesitate to slap itself on the back over just escaping total ruin in North Africa.

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