21 January 1942 – And they are off!

Today is the 76th anniversary of the Axis forces’ riposte, which led to the reconquest of Cyrenaica up to the Gazala line, where both sides stopped, exhausted, by 6 February. The lightning campaign undid much of the Allied forces conquest, destroyed for a time the fighting capabilities of 1 Armoured Division and 7 Indian Brigade, and exposed a severe rift in British high command, which already foreshadowed the confusion that would lead to desaster in May, and showed the inability of Lt. Gen. Richie to function at the level of an army commander.

The attack is often held to be an example of the risk-taking and dash of Rommel as a commander. It is equally often overlooked that, thanks to the combination of two critical factors. First, there were two convoys with together over 160 German and Italian tanks coming through the gauntlet of Malta. The first to Tripoli and Benghazi at Christmas 1941, and the second to Tripoli on 5 January 1942. Secondly the Halfaya Pass garrison continued blocking the road for Allied supplies until their surrender on 17 January. This meant that on 21 January the Axis forces in the Marada – Mersa-el-Brega position were momentarily superior to the Allied forces opposite them. This was known to Rommel, and it was also known that this situation was not going to last for very long. Where full credit is due to him is in taking the risk to move to the attack without being backed by his own commanders, who he did not inform of his intentions. This preserved secrecy, and led to a complete surprise on the Allied side.

It is also often held that the success of the attack was due to the diversion of British assets to the Far East, including tanks, an infantry division, and planes. This is unlikely to actually have played a role. The constraining factor for the Allies was not force availability, but supply constraints west of the Libyan border. Benghazi had not been opened as a port, and until 17 January the coastal road was blocked at the Halfaya Pass, necessitating a substantial detour for wheeled vehicles. The mathematics of this supply problem are brutal, and they were no less brutal to the Allies than they had been to the Axis until their defeat in front of Tobruk.

The day started with two announcements from Panzergruppe H.Q., translated and reproduced below:

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

Army Order of the Day

German and Italian Soldiers!

Heavy fighting against a vastly superior enemy lies behind you.  Nevertheless your fighting spirit remains unbroken.

At this time we are numerically superior to the enemy to the enemy in our front.  Today the army goes on the attack to destroy this enemy.

I expect that every soldier will give his last in these decisive days.

Long live Italy! Long live the Greater German Reich! Long live our leaders!

The Commander in Chief

Signed: Rommel

General of Armoured Troops

 

From: Panzergruppe 21 January 42

-Commander in Chief –

To: All German and Italian Troops 09.30 hours

The Führer decorated me with the Oak Leaves and Swords to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross in recognition of the defensive victory wrested from a far superior enemy by the heroic fight of the German-Italian troops. I am proud of this decoration which is meant for us all.  It must be an incentive to now finally beat the enemy in the attack.

Signed: Rommel

img_3918

Italian tank crew on an M13 or M14 medium tank during the winter months 1941/42

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