Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

Bundesarchiv Bild 146 1985 013 07 Erwin Rommel 2

Porträt Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel mit Ritterkreuz und Orden Pour le Mérite (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Introduction

One of the enduring images of the desert war is that of the rapidly advancing Afrikakorps sweeping all before it. This is certainly what happened in April 1941, and it led to considerable gains of terrain for the Axis, and substantial losses in men and equipment for the Empire forces, and the siege of Tobruk. This advance was against clear orders given to Rommel, namely to await the arrival of 15. Panzerdivision in May 1941 before commencing any major operations.

Raids however (the Wehrmacht used the same term) were allowed. These were presumably considered useful in that they would keep the Empire forces off balance, and would deny them peace and quiet during which to prepare for their planned advance on Tripoli. Rommel commenced his raid on Agedabia, and when testing the Empire defense found it weak, and unleashed his forces for a deep penetration and with the aim to completely defeat the enemy in the western desert. This was of course of major propaganda value, and it has shaped the image we have of Rommel today, with a victorious German force (the Italians are normally overlooked) advancing rapidly, encircling and defeating all before them.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0109 11 Nordafrika Panzer III in FahrtNordafrika.- Panzer III in Fahrt durch die Wüste (Panzer III on the march in the desert); PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia) 

A Counterfactual Approach

Modern historiography however has not been kind about this rash advance in defiance of orders from Berlin, and the general view today is that Rommel was out of his depth and never really got to grips with the logistical challenges his theatre forced him to confront.

The official German history Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg considers this advance the original sin, which put the Axis forces into a logistically impossible situation from which they never recovered, while not achieving a decisive outcome, when the assaults on Tobruk in Apri and May failed. It is hard to disagree with this view, once one reads the Panzergruppe war diary appendices, which are a long story of supply concerns through all of 1941.

My view is that modern historiography is correct, and that the move towards the east and the conquest of Cyrenaica and Marmarica did fatally damage the ability of the Axis to sustain its campaign in North Africa. The terrain gained was worthless without Tobruk and while the losses inflicted were heavy, they were far from fatal, and both tanks and men could be replaced on the Empire side.

A counterfactual consideration

Of interest here is the counterfactual – what could have happened, had the advance not taken place? This post will provide some thoughts on the matter, based on the following assumptions:

1) The campaigns in Greece, Syria, Iraq, and Abyssinia proceed unchanged.

2) There is no change to the speed of the build-up or the force allocations on both sides.

3) The strength of the tank force on both sides is the decisive factor in the timing of any major operation.

4) Light tanks such as the Italian L3 series, the German Panzer I, and the British Vickers Mk. VI are ignored on both sides.

5) Only raids are undertaken on both sides, neither is trying to advance in strength with the intent to hold territory, and any tank losses from these are temporary or replaced.

6) The exact numbers of the tanks don’t matter as much as long as the ball park is correct. In particular for the Empire side, getting to the right numbers is very difficult, as they did not know themselves for much of the first half of 1941.

The tank balance to autumn 1941

First, without the advance, the forces facing each other in Cyrenaica are reasonably well balanced at the end of March. Including some replacements for ten tanks lost in the fire on the Leverkusen, by mid-April the Axis can field 75 Panzer III, 20 Panzer IV, 45 Panzer II, and 32 Panzerjaeger I, and two battalions of Italian M13/41 medium tanks, with about 100 M13/40 tanks between them. This is a total of 272 combat capable vehicles, facing 112 British cruisers[1], 60 captured Italian M tanks, and 40 I tanks, for a total of 212 tanks, of varying reliability. It is clear that this force balance does not allow the Empire forces to consider a successful offensive, and that they need to await a substantial force build-up.

4081861

TOBRUK – AN ITALIAN CARRO ARMATO M13/40 MEDIUM TANK FROM BARDIA IS TAKEN OVER BY THE AIF AND SUITABLY MARKED WITH A KANGAROO SYMBOL. TROOPER H. R. ARCHER IS THE ARTIST. (NEGATIVE BY F. HURLEY). (AWM 005047)

By the end of May, the Axis will receive the full force of Panzerregiment 8 as well as the other divisional units of 15. Panzerdivision, with the last of the tanks reaching Tripoli in the first days of May. The Axis tank force now numbers 91 Panzer II, 153 Panzer III, and 40 Panzer IV, as well as 32 Panzerjaeger I and the 100 Italian Mediums, for a total of 416 vehicles. 

At the same time, the Empire forces also receive reinforcements by tanks being returned from workshops, and the Tiger convoy arriving in mid-May shortly after, which then enabled operation BATTLEAXE to proceed. On 7 May, prior to the arrival of the Tiger convoy, the Empire tank force, assuming the April battles did not take place, numbers 115 cruisers, 59 I-tanks, and 60 captured Italian M tanks, for a total of 234 vehicles, meaning that the Axis now has a substantial superiority in tanks fielded in North Africa. Furthermore, the Empire tank force relies still on tanks with high mileage, and captured tanks of dubious combat value for its advantage.

By the end of June the picture does change. The Italian tanks are reinforced by another battalion, bringing the total to 138 M13/40 tanks and the Axis total to 454. On the Empire side, further returns from workshops as well as convoy arrivals, especially Tiger convoy, add large numbers of cruisers, bringing the total to 303 available[2], and the number of I-tanks rises to 201, to bring the total to 563 tanks including the 60 captured Italian tanks. Still, over half of the Empire margin of around 100 tanks is accounted for by the captured Italian tanks, and as noted it is unlikely these would have had much value in battle, given the situation with spares and ammunition. Again, in my view this makes any major Empire offensive before the end of June unlikely, and a successful one practically impossible. This is before considering the pressures of having to deal with the desaster in Greece, the campaigns in Syria and Iraq, and the remaining resistance in East Africa.

The tank balance only shifts later in the summer, with the arrival of the WS9a and b convoys, and most importantly the arrival of the first M3 Stuart tanks directly from the US (detailed at this link). By September, there are 100 operational M3s in theatre, and 298 British cruisers[3], together with 298 I-tanks[4], and most importantly crews and support units had time to familiarise themselves with the new vehicle. Assuming the captured Italian tanks are now retired, the Empire tank force now numbers almost 700 vehicles, giving the Middle East Command a substantial tank margin, with which to plan and execute a substantial attack would be possible, for the first time.

Athlone

The SS ATHLONE CASTLE transporting troops. Convoy WS19 (IWM A10610)[5]

Other considerations

Both sides benefit and suffer from the Axis not advancing to the Egyptian border. The Empire holds Benghazi and the airfields of northern Cyrenaica, forcing Italian convoys to take the westerly route via Tunisia, where they can more easily be intercepted. They do not need to supply a besieged Tobruk, and they do not suffer the substantial distraction of an Axis force on the border during the rout in Greece and Crete. It is in my view unlikely that the RAF could have done much to protect the forward area and the port of Benghazi during this period, given its commitment to and losses in Greece.

On the downside therefore, Benghazi is exposed to air attack, making it an unsatisfactory port for building up an army level offensive. It needs to be kept in mind that the supply of Tobruk worked because it was for an overstrength division that was not expected to be mobile. So while the pressure on naval assets is reduced, the Empire coastal convoys are now taking a more exposed and longer route to Benghazi, and need to deliver substantially more supplies. This adds to the pressure on the RAF, which is at the same time heavily committed in Greece.

Given the above, it is likely that overland supply would have been key to building up for an offensive and keeping the force in western Cyrenaica supplied. The overland route from Tobruk, which would have been the safest harbour, to Mechili and west of it is hundreds of miles. Apart from the lack of tanks, the need for trucks to cover this adds substantially to the supply difficulties for a further advance. Even to support a Brigade-size forces that far west of the railhead was estimated to have taken 2,000 trucks shuttling back and forth (see this earlier entry on the planning for the BENCOL advance during CRUSADER, at this link). I consider it likely that the Egyptian railway would have been extended to Tobruk in this scenario, at least easing the supply concerns.

On the Axis side, conversely, the supply situation is substantially eased. The distances over which supplies are carried are much shorter, coastal convoying is possible to Sirt, and a very good main road is available. It is thus likely that the building up of supplies can be accelerated considerably.

In terms of operational opportunities, the relatively open terrain south of Agedabia allows deep raids into the Empire rear that are hard to defend against. Vehicles and men can be trained thus, while not using them up too much. The Sommernachtstraum raid of 14/15 September is an example of what would have been possible. An outflanking move into the desert, a quick hit on the Empire rear, chaos, confusion, and then retreat behind the Marada – Agheila line.

In terms of defense, the position from Marada north is relatively strong, and harder to flank due to the presence of salt marshes. An attack in the centre is possible, but would channel the attacking force considerably and expose it to hits from the north and south, similar to what happened to 22 Armoured Brigade at the end of December 1941 at Wadi el Faregh. A defense in depth, with infantry in the line, and tank forces to the rear to back them up, would have the potential to savage any attacker.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 783 0150 28 Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Panzer III bei Fahrt durch die Wüste, im Hintergrund brennender Lastkraftwagen (LKW); (Panzer III on march through desert, in the back burning truck) PK “Afrika” April 1941 (BAMA via Wikipedia)

Conclusion

The Empire forces were in no position to attack at Agheila or Marada prior to September, simply based on tank numbers, before even getting into considerations of supply, where the need to build up substantial supplies to support not just the initial attack but an advance on Tripoli, several hundred kilometers to the west, would have taken time. From early May to the end of June the Axis tank forces and supply position would have been far superior to that of the Empire forces, inviting an attack by the Axis. 

If Rommel had waited and stuck to his orders, he would have kept the initiative until the beginning of summer at least, and would have been able to choose where an how to attack. The Axis force build-up was considerably faster than that of the Empire forces, and shortening the supply lines by hundreds of kilometers, and not wasting precious fuel and ammunition as well as spares on the initial advance in April and the failed attempts at Tobruk would have given the Axis ample reserves to work with.

An Axis attack out of the Agheila – Marada position before the end of May, with the full force of three armored divisions and substantial logistical preparation, and a substantial superiority in tanks would have promised much greater success than the lightweight attack at the end of March, and could easily have carried the Axis forces through well into Egypt. This could have been planned to co-incide with the invasion of Crete, thus forcing the Empire to look into two vastly different directions at once.

This was in my view a missed opportunity due to the impatience of Rommel.

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I 782 0009 01A Nordafrika Panzer III

Nordafrika.- Kolonne von Panzer III passieren großes Tor, (Column of Panzer III pass large gate) März-Mai 1941; PK Prop.Zg. Afrika (BAMA via Wikimedia)

Featured Image: Nordafrika.- Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel im leichten Schützenpanzer Sd.Kfz. 250/3 “Greif” (Field Marshal Rommel in the light armoured personnel carrier ‘Griffon’); PK “Afrika” (BAMA via Wikimedia).

Footnotes

[1] This is assuming the 72 tanks lost by 2 Armoured Brigade during Rommel’s advance, together with the 60 captured Italian tanks which were also lost, remain present.
[2] Assuming the five tanks lost during BREVITY remain on strength as well.
[3] Assuming the 30 cruisers lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.
[4] Assuming the 98 I-tanks lost in BATTLEAXE remain on strength.
[5] SS Athlone Castle was a regular on the WS route and participated also in WS9b.

Sources

Bechthold, M. Flying to Victory

Munro, A. The Winston Specials.

Parri, M. Storia dei Carristi 

Rommel’s Riposte: NARA Loading lists for German convoys to North Africa. See this post.

Rommel’s Riposte: Equipping a New Army

Schreiber & Stegmann Das deutsche Reich und der zweite Weltkrieg Bd. 3

UK TNA CAB120/253 for Empire tank numbers.

One thought on “Was Rommel right to advance on the Egyptian frontier in April 1941?

  1. Into Crusader Operations, Rommel lost opportunity where didn’t find to Empire supply deposits. He passed near and the Crusader Operation was very near the canceled. He was in the possession of land and he will be able to receive the reinforce for take Tobruk….

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