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


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

The Rommel Myth

You sometimes come across the claim that the so-called Rommel myth is a post-war creation, such as the statement:

Like Young, whose ‘Rommel the Desert Fox’ created the Rommel myth, authors can appear biased because they echo sources that reflect the prejudices and assumptions of the period.[1]

Nothing could be further from the truth. Rommel’s myth was, for a range of reasons, well in the making from an early time of the desert war. See for example T. Kubetzky’s thesis (in German, available as a Google E-Book) called ‘The Mask of Command’, which presents ample evidence that German wartime propaganda was very busy indeed in myth creation.

Today I went through interrogation reports of German and Italian prisoners from February 1942, kindly sent to me by Tom. They are in WO208/5518 in Kew. The reports are probably based on wiretaps on prisoner of war accommodations, or maybe reports from ‘stool pigeons’, fake prisoners inserted to record conversations.

One particular item stood out that demonstrates clearly that the myth was at least beginning to take shape as early as the turning of the year 1941/42. The report is dated 1.2.42. What is interesting is that the prisoner in question had probably never been to Africa and/or served under Rommel. He was a Sergeant-Major of the German air force’s Coastal Air Wing 806, 2nd Squadron (2./Kuestenfliegergruppe 806), and taken prisoner after his plane, a Junkers 88, was shot down over or around Malta on 3 January 1942. Probably either Feldwebel Freese, or Feldwebel Arnold, air gunner and observer respectively of a 2./KflGr806 Ju 88 shot down by Hurricanes or AA between 0933 and 1015 hours of 3 January 1942 after an attack on Safi landing strip.[2] The whole crew of four survived the loss of the plane, abandoning it in the air and parachuting safely to the ground. The other prisoner numbers are: 421372, Corporal Hoppe, wireless operator, 421370, First Lieutenant Schnez, Pilot, and 421371 – the other Sergeant.[3]

A 421359 in conversation with A321571:


He [Rommel] went to the FUEHRER too, and said: “I can’t go on fighting with such shells as these.” He wanted to take over [or give up?] the command, in AFRICA (?).


That rumor that ROMMEL had some Italian officers shot was quite true.


(Eulogy of ROMMEL)

ROMMEL’s a marvelous chap. He’s had seven drivers already and he hasn’t even been wounded. His battle position is an old car, heavily armored of course. It’s got a few sandbags on top, and there he sits inside.

The light tanks couldn’t get back, they had to stay where they were. They were to be fetched during the night. Suddenly a sort of lorry came racing along, ROMMEL was inside. “Now, boys” he said, “go along and fetch that stuff. Even if you’re taken prisoner, it won’t be so bad, I’ll get you back to-morrow.”

Several mythology elements of Rommel are apparent here – going over the head of the Army command to Hitler to make his case; showing the Italians who’s the boss; oblivious to danger; leading a charmed life; motivating his men to give all through personal appeals.

[1]World War II in Europe, Africa, & the Americas, with General Sources: A Handbook of Literature and Research, Loyd E. Lee, Robin D. S. Higham pp. 142-143, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997



What’s in a Name? The change from Panzergruppe to Panzerarmee

This is just a small housekeeping issue, but when googling I noted that there is a lot of false information on the internet about the date of the change in designation from Panzergruppe to Panzerarmee. This was communicated to Panzergruppe on 22 January 1942, effective immediately. This did not co-incide with Rommel’s promotion to Generaloberst which followed on 30 January. I am not sure why there was this divergence, it is possible that Rommel’s promotion was a snap decision based on the re-occupation of Benghazi, but to be honest I have no information on this. What is certain however is that the redesignation of Panzergruppe had nothing to do with the successful counteroffensive, it was probably just an administrative move, since the other four Panzergruppen on the eastern front had by then all been redesignated too.

Holding a Tiger by the Tail

Thanks to Jan I now have a copy of the Afrikakorps (D.A.K.) war diary from 6 February 1941. I wanted to have a look at it to see how Rommel ended up in the mess in front of Tobruk. It is quite interesting reading. Of particular interest is the analysis of the situation by Rommel at the end of April 1941.

Transcript of radio message D.A.K. to O.K.H. (High Command of the Army – Berlin):

Situation in front of Bardia, Tobruk, more difficult day-by-day due to additional English forces being brought up… If Bardia-Sollum were lost or encircled, the battle for Tobruk would have to be abandoned because of a lack of forces for a defense [sic!] in two directions. A change of this strongly crisis-like shape of the situation is only possible by accelerated arrival of German forces by air, incl. bringing up to strength of 5.lei.Div. and the immediate reinforcement of the air force, especially ground attack planes, as well as by tasking submarines along the coastal strip of Sollum – Tobruk … Italian troops cannot be relied on.

To which O.K.H. felt compelled to reply:

Addition of forces by air transport not possible at the moment, since transport space is not being available to Army by O.K.W. (High Command of the Armed Forces). Afrikakorps can, until early May, only expect the forces arriving as planned by sea, from May amelioration of arrival by sea and restricted air transport potentially possible …

Reading this you can someone see their head shaking in Berlin. It is no wonder that General Paulus was despatched to have a look into the goings-on in North Africa.

Also of interest is what had happened to individual units in the rapid advance and initial attack on Tobruk on 11/12 April. The heavily used 8th Machine Gun Battalion (M.G.Batl.8) had been reduced to 300 men combat strength, compared to 1,400 men ration strength (note that this does not mean 1,100 men had been lost, the two strengths cannot be compared, for example temporarily detached units would still be on the ration strength, but not on the combat strength).

What is more instructive is what was left in terms of combat strength. On 14 April it could field the following:

Sub-Unit Strength
1st Company 2 heavy MG (s.M.G.) platoons
2nd Company 1 platoon with 4 s.M.G. and one AT rifle (ATR)
3rd Company 1 s.M.G. section, 1 ATR
4th Company 2 AT guns, 2 heavy mortars (81mm)
5th Company Only trucks and supply vehicles/installations
6th Company Not used yet, remains in the rear in training

This would amount to 14 s.M.G., 2 each ATR, AT guns, and heavy mortars, and no light mortars, roughly equivalent to a MG company, all told, with about 1.5 times the manpower of a normal MG company. By comparison, a full company is described at this link. It would field:

12 heavy machine guns

3 light mortars

3 anti-tank rifles

While the heavy company would field:

6x 3.7cm AT gun

6x heavy mortar 81mm

Adding the 8 s.M.G. in the staff company (see this link) gives you 44 s.M.G., 9 each light mortars and ATRs, and at least 6 each AT guns and heavy mortars, as strength for the battalion. While M.G.8 had additional reinforcements assigned to it, it is not clear to me where these were at this point in time.

There’s a hadn-written note next to the entry on the battalion’s strength, which I cannot decipher – any help much appreciated:

Nevertheless, on the day the battalion managed to break into the fortifications, but then couldn’t expand the breakthrough. The men of the battlion were noted in 1 Royal Horse Artillery’s B/O Battery’s war diary as passing through ‘D’ Company positions (presumably of 2/17 Australian Infantry Battalion) at 0500, and occupying the house which was the observation post of the Rocket Troop. At 0800 the diarist notes with some satisfaction ‘The results of the battle was 300 prisoners and an equal number or more killed’ and ‘The enemy were completely ROUTED and withdrew showing complete lack of fight when faced with the bayonet.’

I must say I can’t blame them, after what must have been a harrowing dawn, constantly under fire, with many killed already with headwounds due to constant MG fire traversing their foxholes, and a lack of steel helmets.

The specific remark about the bayonet charge probably refers to the charge of a small number of Australians from B Company 2/17 Battalion, described thus in its war diary (available for download at this link):

0630 15 enemy located in ruined house NORTH of post 32 [i.e. further towards Tobruk]. B Coy [Company] was then about to counter-attack. B Comd [Company Commander] left post 32 and rejoined his Coy which had already been in action, Lieut. Owen having been wounded, in clearing the ruined house behind post 32. Rejoined (less 1 pl[atoon]) and found enemy about 0730 on hill below house and arty [artillery] OP [observation post]. They were then engaged, and a charge made by two sections [about 20 men] with Coy Comd. Enemy 100-150 strong. All were either killed or captured. […]

70 Years Ago Today – 21 Jan 42

21 Jan 42 was the start of the Axis counter offensive, which took advantage of the temporary superiority that Axis forces had attained in the forward area, following the arrival of two successful convoys in December and January. It swiped Commonwealth forces from their positions, and undid most of the key gains of Operation CRUSADER, and in fact left the Commonwealth in a strategically weakened position.

It came as an almost total surprise to the Commonwealth command (even though this possibility had been considered for about ten days beforehand), and showed up a pattern within Commonwealth command of reaction and behaviour that would be repeated in the Gazala battles. Confusion, disorder, penny-packeting, and a total disregard of reality in favour of pre-conceived notions. In the end, all of western Cyrenaica was lost again, just four weeks after it had been conquered, Benghazi was again in Axis hands, and the stage was set for the dramatic events that would eventually lead the opposing armies to the El Alamein position.

Notable events of the day were few, other than the rapid melting away of the very weak Commonwealth columns (of 200 Guards Motor Brigade in the north, and 1 Support Group in the South) in front of the Axis positions, and a devastating attack by a single Ju 88 from Greece on a hotel in Cirene, which the Axis intelligence suspected of harbouring a high Commonwealth command staff. Insteat, the 2x250kg bombs hit the rest home of 149 AT Regiment Royal Artillery, causing 50 casualties in that single strike.

The day also showed the resurgence of the Luftwaffe in Africa, which managed to put 175 sorties into the air, 84 attack, 75 fighter, and 16 reconnaissance. This went largely unopposed because (in a reversal of fortune), the Commonwealth fighters in the forward area were operating from water-logged landing grounds.

Rommel’s order to his troops was allegedly posted on every telegraph post on the Via Balbia in the forward area:

German and Italian Soldiers

You have already endured tough battles with an enemy with shocking superiority. But your aggressive spirit remains intact.

At this moment we are stronger than the enemy in front of our positions. And it is to annihilate this enemy that today the army moves over to the attack.

We expect every soldie to do his utmost in these decisive days.

Long live Italy! Long live the Great German Reich!

Long live our leaders!

(translated from the Italian version of the order cited in Montanari Vol. III)

The first book in the series to be published will focus on this battle.

How not to preserve secrecy – the German way

I work a lot with ULTRA intercepts at the moment, and every so often they provide some light relief.

Two facts ahead:

1) Rommel’s 50th birthday was on 15 November 1941. Being an important member of the Wehrmacht general’s group, and an erstwhile member of Hitler’s inner circle, when he commanded his body guard, he did get telegrams of congratulations from the Nazi leaders, at least Goebbels.

2) The Germans used a system of code-names for places, formations, ships, and offices throughout the Mediterranean.  So for example, ATLAS was the command of the German Afrika Korps, while AMTSGERICHT (county court) was Benghazi. Overall they are mildly amusing in some cases (a personnel office called UNGEHORSAM (disobedience) for example), or highly transparent in others (OTTO LUCHS (Lynx) is the Intelligence Department of Panzergruppe staff – and Germans think of the Lynx as a very sharp and perceptive animal). It’s relatively easy to figure out a lot of them, or at least to get a good idea.  Sometimes the ULTRA type-outs also provide the explanation. I’ll provide a list in the future.

Now, 1) and 2) together.

So on 16/11 ‘Source’ (i.e. ULTRA) intercepted the birthday wishes from Goebbels to Rommel. The signals soldier transmitting them had been a good boy, and followed the instructions to the hilt (there’s something about German stereotyping here), so it starts:

To the Commander in Chief of OTTO ELEFANT, General Rommel…

I am sure it took the best of Britain’s brains to figure out what that code meant…